The King and the Consort

By Dash

For Nanowrimo 2012

 

 

 

The ground shifted, the earth cracked and the fabric that binds the universe split at a previously hidden seam.  In less than twelve hours, an entire continent and its culture, knowledge and people slipped through and began life anew in a mirror image universe.  They slipped out of the history of the old world just as easily, lost in the pages of time and reduced to myth.  It was not the first time such a crack had occurred and it would not be the last.  It was simply the largest and most dramatic.  Over the millennia, other cracks would appear. Some seams split and resealed, while others remained open and served as doors to go through.  Individuals would slip through, groups, tribes, ships and planes. All struggled to find their place and make new homes on the other side of the universe.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Part One:  Max

 

Stretching himself up, Anthony Borges kissed the other man's bare back slowly, trailing his tongue along the small bumps of his spine.  Leo was completely naked and on his knees, head resting on the pillow in front of him, butt up, spread legs taut with tension and desire as he waited to be entered.  "Do you like this?" Tony asked, leaning up and kissing the back of the man's neck.  He shifted and pressed his cock against the opening. "Do you want me here?"  Teasing the opening slightly with the tip of his cock, he laughed softly as Leo moaned.  "Is that a yes?"

 

"By the Gods, yes," Leo said, shifting and thrusting back, impaling himself slightly.  He shivered as he felt the hard cock enter him again, teasing the opening as his friend began small thrusts.  "Harder, Tony … please …"

 

"Patience, patience," he tsked before sinking all the way and grinding against the other man, enjoying the sensation of his balls against the other man's body.  He laughed and resumed thrusting as the other man moaned again and arched up to increase contact.  "We have all night, Leo," he said softly, sinking fully inside again and holding still.  "You said you wanted a fucking to remember."

 

"A fucking, yes, but not this unholy cock tease that you're insisting on," Leo growled out.  "This is it for weeks, by Gods.  And the last time for a long time I'll probably ever be on the receiving end …"

 

Tony laughed, shifted a bit and began to thrust hard.  "You'll never be on the receiving end of a cock or fucking like this again, my friend."

 

Bowing his head, Leo rested it on the pillow in front of him and allowed himself to sink into the divine mixture of pain and pleasure that submission to his old friend caused to course through him. 

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Leo's whole body ached as he shifted on the not quite soft mattress underneath him and sighed.  He could still feel the slick combination of oil and cum that stuck to the inside of his legs and stomach and the partially dried areas on the cotton coverings beneath them.  They had fucked hard multiple times during the night, all pretense of being quiet or discreet forgotten and really not cared about to begin with.  They were certainly not the only people pushing aside boredom in such a time-honored way and during one of the breaks from their own action during the night, he had been sure he heard similar sounds from the tent next door, occupied by three lower ranked guards.  The small air hole on the side of the tent was turning a lighter shade of gray and he judged they had another hour before dawn.  "Are you awake?" he whispered into the quiet, not wanting to wake the other man, but not wanting to be alone with his growing thoughts if he could help it, either.

 

"Yes," Tony answered just as quietly.

 

"Good …" He fell quiet, unsure what else to say.

 

Tony stroked his friend's back absently for a minute before asking, "Worried?"

 

Leo shifted again beneath the touch he knew so well.  They had been on and off lovers, first mentor and pupil and then constant friends for over ten years now, and the irony of the fact that probably the last man to fuck him was also the first man to penetrate him wasn't lost in the moment.  "A bit," he conceded. 

 

"I'd be worried if you weren't worried," the other man confirmed.  "It's a big job, but if the Oracles are to be believed, the one that you were born for."

 

"But we know how that turned out for the last one."

 

"But that was the first time in hundreds of years," Tony countered.  "One bad apple doesn't ruin the entire tree."

 

"One insane Queen almost ruined the entire country, though," Leo said softly as he shifted again.  He spread his legs and allowed the stroking fingers to curve toward his sore opening.  His breath caught in his throat as a finger slipped inside and began to massage the sore tissue.

 

"Yes," Tony said, his voice distant.  "But she's defeated and gone … we won …"

 

"Eventually," Leo interjected.

 

"We won," the older man repeated firmly.  "Things are once again being put to rights, the trade routes are reopening, schools … farms … And now the new King is being readied to take his place on the Throne of Atlas and you are ready to take your rightful place just behind him as the King's Consort."

 

Spreading his legs wider, Leo rolled over.  "I'd rather stay here with you, I think," he said softly. 

 

Tony laughed, rolling on top of him and spreading his legs wider with his knees.  Kissing the back of his neck, he lined up his cock and slid inside, pushing past the muscles with little resistance.  "No you wouldn't," he said firmly, as he began to thrust gently.  "You're just saying that now because we've bonded slightly and I'm safe.  It's comfortable in my bed and at my service, but you'd be bored within the week.  King Maximus is unknown and your responsibilities are looming."  He kissed Leo again and swatted his bare hip lightly before resuming the slow thrusts that were making the other man squirm and moan beneath him.  "Once you're bonded with him, listening to him moan and squirm as you take him, you'll forget all about me."

 

"You were my first," Leo said quietly, making no move to touch himself and instead relaxing into the sensation of simply being used and taken and fucked thoroughly, like so many times before when he was younger.

 

"And I'm your last," Tony said, pushing in deeply and coming for the last time deep inside his friend.  Pulling free a moment late, he swatted the bare butt. "It's time to face the world and all our responsibilities.  We have a new country waiting for us and much rebuilding ahead."

 

Leo moaned softly as he stretched.  "And a two hour ride in the saddle to get to the portal and ceremony area."

 

He chuckled, giving the bare butt a loving but firm pat.  "Well, boy, I'm sure by the time we're finished with that ride, all romantic notions of being mine and being well and continuously used will have been driven out of your head."

 

Leo laughed and slipped out of bed, preparing to once again assume his public face and shoulder the new responsibilities that would be official in a few weeks.  Slowly getting dressed enough to make the short trek to his own tent, he felt himself already looking ahead and planning the next hours and weeks that lay before them.

 

"Siegel?"

 

"Yes, General?" Leo Siegel responded with a smile. The use of his last name didn't surprise him anymore; the shift from lover or friend to public persona was one he was long used to.

 

"I'm proud of you," the older man said with an honest smile.  "And I would trust no one else with the responsibility that you are taking on."

 

He bowed, feeling himself color with pride.  "I had a very good mentor and owe it all to him."

 

The other man bowed his head back in acknowledgement.  "I enjoyed every minute of it, boy, and it has been a great pleasure to watch you grow from the headstrong idiot of 18," he said with a smile to take any sting out of the words, "to a headstrong leader of men and soon – if the Gods are willing – Consort to our King."

 

He shook his head. "That's not official yet and won't be for weeks."

 

"We both know it will be though," the General said and bowed his head in the other man's direction. "It has been an honor to be your mentor and lover and I will always be your friend."

 

Siegel felt tears well up in his eyes as the reality of what was coming and what he was leaving behind suddenly hit home.  He bowed deeply. "I'm depending on it, sir."

 

"Go on then - I'll see you at the horses in an hour," the older man said roughly.  "I haven't had the pleasure of warming your butt with a paddle in almost eight years, but I will if you delay us."

 

Smiling at the words, Leo Siegel walked out into the pale sunshine, his mind flashing back to the numerous other times he had left Borges's side, the feel of the other man still inside of him, muscles aching slightly from being well used or butt hurting from being bent over a table or the man's knee and disciplined.  As was the custom with many officers, he had joined the General's household as a pupil at 18, to be guided by and create a lasting bond with his mentor and learn from him until he was 21 and ready to strike out on his own and lead his own men.  The bonds formed during this period often lasted a lifetime and helped create a unified force that shared a deep connection, love and trust. 

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

 

Part 1:  16 Years Earlier

 

Max

 

 

She paced around the chamber, twitching slightly and throwing glares from time to time at the Council sitting around the table.  "Well?" she asked, as one by one the assembled councilors looked up from the papers in front of them. 

 

Twelve men and two women looked at each other uneasily before shifting their attention to their leader, the middle- aged man sitting in the center.

 

Councilor Chivas recognized his cue and smiled warmly at her.  "Your Majesty," he began, holding out his hands, "your proposal …"

 

"No," she said, cutting him off sharply.  "This is not a proposal, Chivas.  That would imply that it is an idea, something I wish to discuss with you and your peers.  That is not the case and a fatal mistake for you to make. This should come as no surprise as I made these wishes known several weeks ago.  If you and your peers decided they were not to be taken seriously, or that I would, for some reason, change my mind, then you have no one to blame but yourselves."  Her voice was clipped and as brittle as her posture.  Her shoulders were tense and her hands fisted as she visibly struggled to remain calm.  "These are my wishes and they are to be carried out.  The complete control of the government is to be completely in my hands and this Council will be disbanded.  I no longer seek nor am I interested in advice from any of you or my Consort." Her last word came out with a sneer and she spared the tall man standing calmly against the near wall a withering glance.  "You have all proven wholly incompetent and in many cases to actually be acting against both my wishes and my best interest.  You have served your country with neither honor nor distinction."

 

"Queen Beatriz, this clearly needs to be discussed." Chivas said, his voice rising slightly in the dead calm of the large room.  The guards posted on the perimeter shifted nervously as tensions mounted.  "I suggest …" he began and then caught himself as he saw her rear back slightly.  "Excuse me," he said, bowing his head in her direction.  "I ask," he began again, still looking at the floor for a long moment, "that we be allowed additional time to more closely review your wishes.  With additional study, we may be better prepared to understand your wisdom and give you our full support that we can then carry back to our areas."  He looked at the lower members of the Council, "Members?  Do you agree that there may be wisdom in the Queen's ideas and that it is our duty as her councilors and the representatives of the provinces to closely examine them?"

 

The members around the table nodded and several chimed in their assent to the idea.

 

Chivas smiled at her and bowed again. "Your Majesty, may we please have the rest of the afternoon to study your ideas?"  Motioning to the papers, he added, "You have clearly put much work and thought into this and I worry that in our haste, we have overlooked your crucial points on the validity of such a radical change in our historical policy."

 

The Queen studied him for a moment before saying, "Given your inept handling of the recent negotiations with the Croatoan Empire, I should not be surprised that you and your august peers need additional time to ponder five straightforward paragraphs."  The sarcasm and anger were clear in her voice.

 

"Your majesty, that is not a fair statement of the state of affairs--" Councilor Fishton started, but fell quiet at a glare from Chivas. 

 

"You are excused, Fishton," she said coolly.  Turning to one of the guards, she nodded in the Councilor's direction.  "Please show the former Councilor to comfortable accommodations in one of the inner courtyard rooms.  Your failures last month have clearly taught you nothing, so maybe this solitary time will allow you to contemplate your mistakes so they will not be repeated if, by some miracle of the Gods, you are allowed to be of service again."

 

Chivas held up his hand as Fishton and several others began to protest.  "Quiet," he ordered sharply.  "Our Queen and Sovereign has excused your from your duties, Councilor.  You should go with the guards and I will visit you shortly."  He turned to the tense Queen before bowing. "With your Majesty's permission, of course."  Watching as the other man was led out of the chamber, he turned back to the Queen.  "Clearly time in which to study these changes, your Majesty, is in order."  He spared the Consort a glance. "Perhaps while you retire for a brief lunch?"

 

The Queen looked at him for a long moment before sweeping her gaze across the entire table.  "Make no mistake, Councilors, as I said, this is not a proposal.  This is not up for discussion.  I am granting you two hours in which you may study the document in front of you and make your decision either to obey your ruler as is your sworn oath or join Fishton in quiet solitude and contemplation of your failures."  She paused, meeting their eyes. "It is clear from your actions over the last year that you are incapable of handling this country and your actions have forced these changes.  Ponder that morsel for lunch."  Giving Chivas a nod, she said, "Two hours." 

 

Moving slightly, as if to follow her, the Consort's eyes darted after her retreating back and then settled on the chief Councilor as he changed his mind and decided to stay in the room.  "Chivas," he said in a quiet but firm voice, starting forward.

 

"In a moment, Archer," the other man said, turning his attention back to a younger man he was whispering with.  "Kent, have Marie and Luc join us by the old well – the one that's abandoned, behind the kitchen, off …"

 

"I know where it is, Marc," Kent Woollcott said with a smile.  "We'll join you there as soon as possible."  Giving the older man a small wink, he added, "Don't forget to breathe, love.  We'll get through this."

 

Chivas smiled at his lover and obediently took a deep breath. "For the sake of the Gods, I hope so."  

 

Woollcott laughed softly, standing up and allowing his hand to brush the other man's for a moment. "Fuck the Gods, I'm more worried about our sakes."

 

The older man watched as Woollcott casually walked toward a dark-haired woman and a young man about his own age, who were quietly talking together.  As he saw them begin to nod, he turned – satisfied that his lover had the situation under control – to the Queen's Consort. "You wished to speak with me, Consort Archer?" he said formally, bowing slightly.

 

Archer bowed slightly back and then relaxed, motioning toward a far spot in the room, away from the small clusters of councilors.  "If we may speak openly together, Chivas?"

 

"Of course."

 

Consort Archer held out his hands once they had a small bit of privacy. "I wish it to be known that you and the Council have my full support in whatever actions you take."  He met the Councilor's eyes for a long moment, before speaking. "Clearly, the Queen and I are not of one mind concerning this … these wishes," he said, correcting himself.   "She no longer accepts my personal advice, is not interested in any guidance whatsoever …"

 

"When was the last time you bonded?" Chivas asked bluntly.

 

Archer glanced down for a moment before looking up and meeting the other man's eyes. "It's been over four months and I know that is part of the problem."  He shook his head. "I've tried numerous times and to no avail.  Last month, when I knew the situation was coming to a head, I forced myself into her room, intending to take her as I've done in the past and to which she always responded well.  Instead, she called for Aliseo to arrest me as soon as I entered her chamber."

 

Chivas pulled back slightly, shocked.  "Aliseo?  Arrest you for doing your duty to bond with her?"

 

He nodded.  "It was very tense and extremely awkward for the guards involved.  Beatriz was ordering them to arrest me, Aliseo had his hands on me as I was protesting and trying to talk to her.  His men were simply staring at the scene, as if watching a play."

 

"I can't believe that …"

 

"By the Gods, I'm telling the truth!" Archer protested, his voice rising.

 

"No," Chivas said firmly, touching the other man's shoulder.  "I'm sorry; I fully believe your story.  I'm just in shock that Aliseo would side with the Queen in this folly, against our history … against relationships that have allowed this country to thrive for centuries."  His eyes drifted to a large mural painting that showed a typical court scene from almost two hundred years prior of King Leonas receiving newly arrived transplants and the blond man standing just off to the right of the throne, his attention fully on his King, the crowned staff – the symbol of his power and status – held loosely in his hand.

 

"I fear the situation is worse than that, Chivas."  When the other man looked at him, he gave a discreet nod in the direction of a guard outside the window of the chamber.  "I believe that Aliseo is actively recruiting troops who are loyal to him and the Queen and not the government as a whole.  Over the last few weeks, since the incident in her chambers, I've seen fewer and fewer guards that I know and trust.  Her personal guards are all new, some of them I've seen around, but …"  He paused, searching for the words. 

 

"They're not the trusted squads that are typically surrounding the areas," Chivas finished with a nod.  "I have noticed several reports concerning troop movements, some being recalled from other areas, and shuffling of commanders.  I had not thought much about it – the end of the growing season is approaching, trade is slowing down for the cold season, fewer travelers, fewer pilgrims – it's natural for troops to be brought closer to home as the holidays approach … but now …"  His voice trailed off as he was unwilling to complete the thought.

 

Archer nodded.  "I believe Beatriz and Aliseo may be gathering loyal forces in order to seize power."  The reality of the situation had become clearer to him over the last week and he was not struggling to come to terms as Chivas was now.  "I have failed in my role of Consort," he admitted.  "And because of that, the country and you are now left to deal with this problem.  But please know that you have my complete and total support.  My lands and men are at your disposal, I will of course continue to try to influence and guide the Queen, but I hold out little hope of a resolution being reached that way."

 

Chivas looked at the other man, unwilling to agree, but also unable to disagree with the statement.  He bowed formally. "Thank you, Consort, you have served honorably and by helping the Council, you do your office proud.  The role of the Consort is a complicated one that involves many hard decisions."

 

"This is, by far, the hardest."

 

 "Yes.  Now, if I may suggest …."

 

Archer smiled. "I am open to all suggestions, Councilor."

 

Chivas smiled back and held his hands out wide. "Please, if we are to get into bed together, metaphorically speaking, I would be honored if you would call me by my familiar name of Marc."

 

"And I am Joel." They embraced and exchanged quick kisses on the cheeks.

 

The Councilor took a deep breath.  "Then my friend, I suggest you try once more to bond or guide the Queen.  Don't force the issue if she resists, but I feel that we must make one last attempt.  I will meet with several other trusted peers, telling them of your information and offer of help.  We will speak again after the Council meeting."  He looked into the distance for a moment before adding, "It may be time for Princess Maxine to join the court again with her son."

 

Archer shook his head slowly. "Beatriz hates her sister and both of the children.  The boy especially enrages her, I believe because he is the heir.  At this stage, it would be pure folly."

 

"I didn't realize the blood between them had grown so bad," Chivas said.  "Then, no – we must not enflame the situation.  But for right now, we must part.  If the situation goes as I – we – fear, then it may not be safe to meet again in the castle.  We can gather at the Princess's manor since she will need to be brought up to date on the situation."

 

Archer nodded. "Let us say in five days.  This will allow us to disperse as needed before gathering again in secret. I will tell the Queen that I am retiring to my own family home to contemplate the situation and how I can best serve her.  I believe she intends to petition the Oracles for a separation.  Once I'm away, I will gather my commanders, have them began to prepare their men and join you and the other councilors at the Princess's manor."

 

Chivas nodded. "Agreed.  If the situation goes as planned, pass the information along to those who can be absolutely trusted and we will take stock then."  "Go with the Gods' blessings, Joel," Chivas said formally, hugging the other man again.

 

"With you as well, Marc."

 

Giving him a quick smile and bow, Chivas hurried out of the room toward the well.  He had heard from palace rumors that the Queen and her Consort's relationship was faltering. Servants rarely saw them together and they were clearly sleeping in separate rooms.  It was a shock though to discover that it had completely failed, leaving her without the support of either bonding or personal guidance.  Trying not to place the blame for the relationship's failure wholly on Archer, he nevertheless did blame the other man for failing at his task to guide and discipline her before the situation reached this point and, if that did not work, for his failure to notify the Council as was his duty.  To serve as the monarch's Consort was an honor and something a person was born to do, according to the Oracles and the country's tradition.  To fail to bond for so long destroyed the level of trust that the Consort needed to offer personal guidance and that allowed the ruler to accept such guidance.   Hurrying through the deserted back passageway, he wondered if the failure of the bond had caused her irrational behavior, or if her irrationality had prevented her from accepting the bond and the relationship. 

 

Looking up at the sound of someone approaching, Woollcott slid away from the two other Councilors and pretended to be in quiet contemplation.  He looked up as the person came around the corner and smiled when he saw his lover.  "I was getting worried," he confessed quietly, stepping closer.

 

Chivas reached out and squeezed his hand and not letting it go said, "I'm sorry, love, it couldn't be helped."  He met his lover's worried eyes for a long moment and wished he could whisk them both away, throw aside their duties to the Council and the country and retire to one of their estates.  The idea of a simple life, far away from court with just Kent -- no longer Councilor Woollcott -- at his side suddenly seemed very enticing.

 

Marie Oceana pulled her cloak tighter around her, her face drawn and asked, "What did Consort Archer have to say? Why is he not in control of this situation?"

 

The other council member, Luc Deet, nodded.  "The Consort's job is to guide the Queen.  Clearly, that is not being done here and I have to wonder why not.  Is he incapable of bonding with her?"  Turning to Woollcott, he wiggled an eyebrow. "Send him to my bed then, I don't care if he's able to come while I plow him.  I've never had a Consort before."

 

Grateful for the small break in tension and despite the situation, Woollcott laughed. "That's about the only thing you haven't had, Luc and I think you would care --"

 

Luc shrugged, interrupting. "Maybe, or maybe I'd see it as just less mess since when I come over and over and over again, it'll be in him and not on the sheets."

 

Marie rolled her eyes. "Boys, I believe we have more important things to discuss."  Turning back to the older man, she nodded in his direction. "Chivas?"  Ten minutes later, she sank down onto a cold stone bench at the edge of the well, stunned by the implications.  "I can't believe we're looking at a …"  Her voice faltered, unable to complete the thought.

 

"Civil war," Luc completed the thought, swallowing as he glanced at Woollcott, still standing next to his lover.

 

"Revolution," the other man responded, meeting his gaze.

 

"Or treason," Chivas said quietly.  He met their gazes. "Or if we win, restoring order to the country and preserving a system that has been in place for thousands of years and is the backbone of our culture."

 

"We are not looking to overthrown the crown," Marie said firmly. 

 

Luc shook his head. "No, not at all.  Our country is ruled by a monarchy and I will not support any movement that will change that."  He glanced at Chivas.  "Queen Beatriz has a sister who has children."

 

Chivas nodded. "Yes, two: a boy and a girl.  The girl was not blessed to rule by the Oracles, but the boy, Maximus, was.  Since the Princess decided to marry and forfeit her claim to the throne, her son is currently the heir."

 

"So,"  Woollcott said, looking around the small group, "I believe we are all in agreement that something must be done and the Queen's proposal must be rejected.  The Princess and Council can appoint a Guardian for her son until he's of age."

 

"This will not be a simple 'nay' vote," Luc said, taking a deep breath.  "I believe Archer's assessment of Aliseo's motives.  I am on the military sub council and have noticed as well an unusual amount of movement. Long-time commanders are being moved to the scarcely populated border regions, while new commanders are being brought into the towns."  He sighed. "It was in my notes to question next week." 

 

"We must be cautious," Chivas noted.  "She must not suspect anything or it will tip our hand too soon."  Turning to Marie, he said, "You have been friends with her since childhood."

 

She nodded.  "Almost since the cradle. I was part of her crowning procession and carried her train at her coronation ... she trusts me.  I knew she and Archer were having problems, but nothing this serious.  I figured typical lovers' ups and downs, especially since they've been together seven or eight years now.  It never dawned on me that they were no longer bonding or that she had completely rejected his advice and discipline."

 

Understanding where his lover Chivas was going, Woollcott jumped into the conversation. "You must convince her that you are on her side.  That your resources – men, land, money – support her new regime."

 

Chivas nodded, pleased the other man had caught on already. "Exactly.  You can go to her now if you wish and tell her privately of your support.  You can offer to send for your own men to help smooth over any transitional problems."

 

Luc laughed. "Good way to put it.  But make sure that a trusted messenger knows the truth.  You may be able to convince her further, if she doubts you, by allowing her to send the message herself – with her own messenger – under both of your signatures." 

 

"Tell her that you are prepared to stand up in front of the Council and publicly support her.  Make a bold statement, cite your years of friendship, your trust in her wisdom, whatever it takes," Chivas continued.  "This will ensure that our group stays in the loop and hopefully gains some advantage by knowing her plans."

 

"I can do that," Marie said with a firm nod.  "We are agreed on Princess Maxine's castle in five days then?"  When they nodded, she took a deep breath.  "Then please excuse me, peers, I need to send one of my own trusted messengers to ensure that my Major Domo knows to delay and ignore all messages that follow this one and that he understands he is to continue to do so until I return home."  She paused, looking at Chivas. "Actually, I will amend that to be either you or me, if that's all right with you."

 

He nodded. "Smart.  You may not be able to slip away immediately."

 

"Don't use one of your primary servants," Luc cautioned. 

 

"Why not?"

 

He laughed. "You're not out roaming the dark corners of the castle at night as often as I am.  Most of the guards are intimately familiar with your immediate staff and their presence will be missed."

 

She made a face. "I swear morals sink a notch lower each Council session."  Giving them each a nod, she quietly departed.

 

Watching her walk away, Luc laughed and winked at Woollcott.  "Want to bet that if we lived in her province, our virtues would have remained unmolested well into our twenties?"

 

The other man laughed. "Or at least various orifices."  He grinned at Chivas, "Would you have been able to wait until my 21st birthday, Marc?"

 

"I waited until your 23rd birthday," he said dryly.

 

"Oh yes, that's right. The previous two were just in my dreams."

 

Despite himself, Chivas laughed, remembering the night a very forward 22 year old had approached him and boldly announced that the Oracles had told him they would be lovers and suggested they consummate their relationship that night.  He had insisted on actually learning the younger man's name and didn't act on the fictional Oracle prediction for over three months, not taking the younger man to his bed until the day after his 23rd birthday.

 

"Yes, yes, we all know you're two sweet honey rolls risen in the same pan, while some of us are forced to find comfort with other random souls," Luc said in mock disgust. 

 

"Often multiple souls at the same time," Woollcott interjected.

 

Ignoring him, Luc continued, "I don't think I'm a good enough actor to pull off a role similar to Marie's."

 

"No and the Queen would never believe it, at least not in her current mental state," Chivas agreed.  "I think the best strategy for you, if your conscience will allow it, is to simply not vote.  When your vote is called for by me, stand, bow to her and say that you do not oppose her, but that you cannot agree to such a radical change in the government. Then resign your seat and leave."

 

Luc nodded, "That might work and I agree, it's our best chance."  He glanced at Chivas, "What about you?  Do you think she'll allow you to leave?"

 

Woollcott shot his lover a worried look and said firmly, "She won't allow you to leave."

 

Chivas shrugged. "That is a chance I must take."  Smiling at the two men, he said quietly, "I am just one peer on the Council.  It can – will – continue after I retire or am no longer able to serve.  If that is today or in twenty years, it is the Gods' will.  As many of you as can be trusted need to gather your forces and meet at the Princess's home. We must work toward either convincing the Queen to abandon her ideas or placing a new ruler on the throne."

 

"It's Atlantis's only hope," Luc confirmed.  "I'll leave here after my non-vote and go straight to the Princess to ensure her safety and to make certain that she's aware of what is going on.  It's only a few days ride from my home seat, so going in that direction will not raise too much suspicion."

 

"Or at least no more than can be helped," Woollcott agreed.

 

Luc shrugged and then bowed to Chivas. "I am off to begin preparing my staff and ensuring that our plan is passed to those who can be trusted. You have my full support, Councilor.  May the Gods bless your actions."

 

"Our actions," Chivas corrected, quickly kissing the man's cheek.  "Until we are able to speak freely again, my friend." Waiting until the other Councilor had slipped away, he turned to his lover.  "You are not going back to the Council chambers, Kent," he said firmly.  "I will make your excuses.  There is a more important mission for you."

 

He stared at the older man before saying slowly, "I'm sorry, Marc.  Did you just tell me that I am not to do my duty and represent my people in the Council, as my family has done for the last seven generations?"  He shook his head. "Surely I heard wrongly, because we agreed that our relationship would never interfere with our duties."

 

Chivas bit back a sharp bark and an even sharper urge to swat his lover's butt for rudeness.  "As I said, there is a more important mission that the Council needs your help with.  One that is more important than casting a non-vote, which I will do as soon as I open the Council."

 

"And what is that?" Kent asked, his voice guarded.

 

Chivas took a deep breath and gave voice to his worst fear for the situation, trusting no one else as deeply as his lover.  "I don't trust the Queen not to be sending guards right now to the Princess's castle to ensure that there are no other living claimants to the Throne of Atlas.  Luc may not be able to leave immediately, despite his wishes, which would leave the Princess unaware of the threat."

 

 Woollcott stared at him for a long moment. "You think she would have her own sister and the children murdered?"

 

"It has happened before in our long ago history and certainly in the histories of other cultures," Chivas said quietly.  "My heart goes cold at the idea, but I feel that I must consider it and must plan for it.  If it is simply my imagination then so be it, you are simply where you were going to be a few days early.  If I'm right, you can help get the Princess and the boy to safety."

 

"And where is safe?  The Poseidon Monastery?" Kent asked, naming the country's oldest and most heavily guarded temple.  "That's a good week's ride away, maybe longer with a child."

 

Chivas shook his head. "No.  There is some place safer for them."  His unspoken "and you" hung between them before the younger man closed the gap and hugged his lover tight, pushing aside foolish dreams of peaceful country living.  They had been together for eight years; the idea that they would not grow old together weighed heavily as his wants for his relationship warred with his duty to his country.

 

"You will come to me," Kent said firmly.

 

"I will," Chivas replied, hoping fervently that it was true.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Chivas stood and looked around the Council for a brief moment, catching eyes and seeing small smiles and minute nods of support and encouragement. He turned to the Queen and bowed.  "Your Majesty, thank you for allowing us time to review your wishes."

 

She glared at him before turning her gaze toward three empty seats.  "I see that some of your peers have decided not to return to my service."

 

He nodded. "Councilor Woollcott spoke with me privately. He asked that I pass along a message of personal support for your Majesty and the throne, but he felt unable to vote on such an important and historical change in the country's structure without consulting his provincial advisors about their wishes.  Unfortunately, I do not have an explanation for Councilors Bane or Alexander's absence, but offer that they may simply be delayed."

 

The Queen laughed. "Oh yes, I'm sure they'll be trotting in shortly, full of excuses and support."

 

Councilor Annulus spoke up. "If I may, your Majesty … I fully support the vast majority of your wishes, but am bothered by the single wish that eliminates the position of Consort and the Queen's refusal of that position's personal guidance."  He glanced at Archer, who had resumed his traditional position against the wall near the throne, before turning back to the Queen."

 

"Councilor …" Chivas began, but was cut off by a wave of the Queen's hand.

 

"No, let him speak.  I am curious what reservations such a learned peer can have concerning my wishes, considering I already have the pledged support of some of your peers," she said as she motioned toward Marie, "and that three others were too cowardly to appear before me."

 

Marie took her cue and smiled, standing up and bowing.  "You are correct, Queen Beatriz.  Those that are not here obviously are cowards and have no respect for the throne. You have the full and unreserved support of my people, my resources and me personally.  We have known each other since cradlehood and I trust your judgment and am honored to stand beside you as you enact this important and much needed change to our country's structure."

 

Inwardly Chivas cheered as he saw the Queen's expression and knew Marie had played her part in private as perfectly as she had just done in the Council chamber.

 

Annulus glanced around the room, seeking support and finding none, before turning back to the Queen.  "I am simply confused over your Majesty's refusal of a Consort and the personal guidance the position brings.  Consort Archer has served in the position for over seven years and seems like a good, able gentleman, but if he is the problem, the Oracle can certainly be consulted again …"  His voice trailed off as her expression grew icy, but then taking a deep breath, he plunged in.  "If I could be assured that you, in fact, bonded often and that these wishes and rejection of our traditions and culture are not the result of a lack of bonding, I could support these wishes."  He swallowed.  "Maybe retire together for two to three weeks, as you did during your initial bonding period, and then we might discus these wishes again."

 

"Your Majesty," Chivas began.

 

"Quiet!" she barked sharply, easing herself off the throne where she had been perched.  Gliding several steps toward Annulus, she held his gaze.  "So that I'm clear, Councilor … you feel that because I have a perfectly adequate Consort now, you would like to see me make a concerted effort to be bonded to him for the next several weeks?  And after I submit to his constant pawing and allow myself to be repeatedly fucked by him in every available orifice, I may have your support?"  She smiled and motioned to the table.  "Should I just bend over now, raise my skirts and allow you to witness the initial act?  You all quote custom and I believe that was the custom at one time."

 

"That will not be necessary, Queen Bea--"  Chivas tried again, but was once again cut off.

 

"I said quiet!" she screamed to the room in general.  Leveling her gaze at Annulus, she said, "Well Councilor?  What say you? Would you like to see me fucked right now?  Taken from the front so I can see his vile expression as he grunts and thrusts, or taken from the back like some common whore?  Which orifice would you suggest we begin with, since they will all be well used and filled with his essence eventually?"

 

"It just seems that since you have a well-respected Consort," Annulus mumbled, unable to look at her. "I thought it might help and .."  His voice trailed off as she laughed.

 

"Oh, so that's the real issue," she said.  "It's not that you want to see me fucked or to use our little euphemism, bonded, it's just that because I have a Consort, he might as well be earning his keep."  She smiled at the group.

 

Chivas exchanged worried glances with several of the Council members.  "Your Majesty--"

 

She whirled around. "If you say another word, Chivas, I'll have your tongue cut out."  Her smile returned. "Luckily, Councilor Annulus, your problem can be easily solved."  Striding toward Archer, she gave a small shrug before reaching into her pocket and pulling out a long, thin dagger.  "I thought this might come in handy," she said, quickly side stepping and plunging the knife deep into his throat. 

 

He staggered, hands instinctively going to his throat, eyes locked on hers for a brief moment before closing as he shuddered, blood spilling out of his mouth.

 

"There," she said turning back to the stunned group, "that takes care of that problem.  What other objections do I hear?"

 

Chivas sat down heavily in his chair, his eyes locked on the growing pool of blood spreading across the tile, his mind blank except for a single prayer of thanks that Woollcott was not a witness.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Riding hard and stopping only to change horses, Woollcott reached the castle of Princess Maxine in just over two days.  He knew he was a mess, muddy and unshaven, but was unwilling to waste any more time. 

 

"My Lord," the Major Domo of the castle said as he hurried into the inner bailey, alerted to the Councilor's arrival by the outer wall guards. 

 

Woollcott tossed his reins to a waiting servant and shook his head. "I'm sorry, but there's no time.  I must speak with Princess Maxine immediately.  Have you had any word about the Queen or from court?"

 

The Major Domo shook his head. "No, but what is the matter? Is the Queen ill?"

 

"I must speak to the Princess immediately," Woollcott repeated.  "She and her son may be in danger.  You should also raise the gates and put your guards on alert."  He smiled wanly. "I hate to tell you how to do your job, but we may only have a few hours, if Councilor Chivas's fears are correct."

 

At the mention of the head of the Council and the urgent tone, the man nodded before turning to a servant.  "Please have the guards put on high alert immediately, close the gates and have the head of the Guard come to the Princess's audience chamber.  Also, alert her Highness that her presence is requested post haste and I will come to her private chamber in just a moment to explain." 

 

"Thank you," Woollcott said, feeling a sudden wave of tiredness wash over him.  "Can you please escort me to her chambers?"

 

The Major Domo smiled at him and motioned for a third servant. "You can take ten minutes, my Lord, and not risk damaging the carpets or offending the Princess with your…"  He motioned in the general direction of Woollcott's face and clothes.  Turning toward the servant, he said, "Do the best you can with him in such a short period of time and then bring him to the audience chamber."  Long used to his orders being carried out without question or delay, he strode inside.

 

Clothes brushed free of most of the mud and dust, face and hands well-scrubbed, and hair brushed and free of tangles, Woollcott paced nervously around the large audience chamber.  The dιcor was simple compared to the palace, but it was still grander than his or Chivas's own audience chambers at their manor homes.  It gave the clear impression of power and demanded respect.  Mentally rehearsing his message, he started as a door to the right of the dais opened and the Major Domo appeared.

 

"Due to the nature of your message, her Highness prefers to see you in her private chambers," he said.

 

"Thank you."  Woollcott followed the other man through the door and down a well-lit hall into a slightly smaller, much more cozy room with a fire burning in the grate.  He bowed as he spied the Princess sitting in one of the chairs clustered around the fireplace.  A tall man stood off to one side, his arms folded, and there were several guards stationed against the wall.

 

Princess Maxine smiled and motioned him forward.  "Please, Lord Woollcott, join my husband and me.  I understand that you have ridden hard to bring most distressing news."

 

He nodded and bowed again. "Yes, Princess Maxine, I am afraid that is the case.  I--"

 

Holding up a hand, she said, "Wait, please.  I've sent for the head of my guards and I would prefer for you to tell your news only once.  It will save time, which I feel is of the essence right now."  When he nodded,  she smiled again at him and motioned toward a chair. "Please, sit and rest."

 

A servant brought a glass of warmed cider to him as he reluctantly sank down in the offered chair.  "Thank you," he said and then nodded as the man standing next to the Princess sat down opposite him, "Lord Wolk, it is a pleasure to see you again as well."

 

The other man smiled. "And you, even if it seems to be under bad circumstances.  Do you still have that amazing stallion of yours?  I remember --"  He stopped, standing again slightly in front of his wife, on guard despite the level of security in the room, as someone else knocked on the door and then quickly opened it.  Seeing the head of the guard, he relaxed and sat back down.

 

"Major Gaston," the Princess said, motioning toward the fourth chair, "please."

 

"Your Majesty, my lord," Major Gaston said, sinking down without reservation and waving off the offered cider.  "The gates have been closed and the bridges on both the inner and outer walls have been raised.  I've sent a small group of riders out to man the observation towers and they will report back."  He turned to Woollcott. "I do hope my men's actions are not being wasted."

 

The Councilor smiled. "Actually, Major, I pray they are."  Taking a deep breath, he quickly ran through the various ways to break the news and decided on direct and to the point.  "The Council fears the Queen has gone mad. She is forcing through a proposal that will radically change the government to give her unlimited power, dissolve the Council, and eliminate the Consort position.  She and the head of her palace guards seem to be gathering their loyal troops to deal with any opposition from the Council.  At the same time they are sending other troops and more seasoned commanders out to distant posts, which we feel is a sign that these commanders do not support the change in policies.  Because of the Queen's irrational mood swings and this grab at power, Chivas is worried that your life and the life of your son may be in danger."

 

The Princess gasped and looked at her husband, who grasped her hand.  "My sister and I have our differences," she said slowly in a stunned voice, "but … murder?  Max? He's just a baby … who could she even find that would be willing to slaughter a five year old child?"

 

"There are people who will do anything, sweet," Wolk told his wife quietly.

 

She looked at him. "But he's just a baby!"

 

"He's the heir," Major Gaston said evenly before turning his attention to Woollcott, allowing the couple a moment of privacy to be distraught parents instead of calm rulers.  "Does Chivas feel this is a legitimate threat?"

 

Woollcott nodded slowly. "Yes, but he has no proof.  His feeling is that he would rather warn and be wrong than not warn and be right."

 

"I agree and can see why our prayers should be that my men are wasting their time."

 

"Chivas and the Council must have a plan," the Princess said in a firm voice.  "Should I go to the palace and try to reason with my sister?"

 

Woollcott shook his head. "The plan, your Highness, is for the Council to meet here in three days.  Together we can map out a plan.  The Council was reconvening when I left to begin my journey here, so I am unaware of what took place, but hopefully I will be receiving word soon."

 

"Is the idea for my son to displace the Queen and ascend to his place on the throne?" Lord Wolk asked.

 

The Princess sighed and squeezed her husband's hand.  "He's so young …"

 

"Unless you are expecting another child for the Oracles to examine?  Your daughter, I know, was bypassed."

 

She shook her head. "No, not yet."

 

Woollcott smiled at her. "Then he is still the heir and has had the Oracles' blessings since he was two years old.  It's what he was born to do.  The idea is for you and the Council to appoint a guardian for him and together, they will rule until his majority."

 

"And when he is given a Consort," his father said.

 

Woollcott nodded again, unsure what Lord Wolk's feelings were.  "Yes," he said quietly, "according to our laws and customs, a ruler cannot rule unless they are actively bonding with and acting with the personal guidance of their chosen Consort. No ruler can have absolute power, answering to no one but those they rule.  That typically does not happen until at least 21."   

 

"That doesn't seem to have worked so well with Beatriz," Wolk said, with a small laugh.

 

Woollcott nodded. "From what we understand, their relationship broke down over four months ago and she has been without bonding or guidance for that long."

 

"I feel sorry for her," the Princess said quietly. 

 

"She wants to murder our son.  I feel nothing but hatred for her," her husband said firmly.  "She can rot in Hades for all I care."

 

Privately, Woollcott was surprised at the pity – his thoughts were similar to the other Lord's, with no sympathy spared for the woman actively throwing her country into chaos.

 

"No," Princess Maxine said, shaking her head.  "I understand that, but I feel she must be in tremendous emotional pain.  Beatriz and Joel were so much in love when they initially were joined and for years afterward.  To have bonded so intensely and then for that bond to disappear, even if she is the one who caused it to break," she added quickly, cutting off her husband's comments.  "It would make anyone insane with grief and loneliness."

 

Lord Wolk snorted.

 

"Think about us," the Princess said sharply.  "Think about how you can feel me, how you know I am a part of you, and how I can feel you and know you are a part of me.  You can sense my emotions, as I can sense yours.  We are bonded and that bond makes the world a bit brighter and the hours at night a bit less lonely."  She sighed. "When I was young, I thought the bond was just sexual, but now, after experiencing it for these past eight years, I know it's much more.  I'm glad my son was picked by the Oracles to be heir and I'm relieved to know that he will be able to experience an even deeper bond and connection with a Consort who is perfect for him, even if that bond brings consequences at times."

 

The Major cleared his throat slightly.  "I'll meet with my commanders, with your permission, your Highness, and update them on the situation.  We'll increase the guards and I'll let you know as soon as we see anyone approach."

 

"They are to be stopped at the village entrance," Wolk said.  "There is no reason to let them any closer until we know their business."

 

"Agreed," Major Gaston said, standing up.  "Until there is more news then. I'll begin preparations."

 

"Do you think we should send for Joanna?" the Princess asked her husband,  then, turning to the Councilor, added, "Our daughter has just begun her first year of schooling and is currently at the Academy in Arcadia."

 

Lord Wolk thought for a moment before nodding. "Yes, it might not be the wisest move, but I would feel more secure if she is with us."

 

She smiled. "My thoughts exactly."

 

He glanced between his wife and the Councilor.  "I'll leave you to discuss state business then while I ask that a small unit of men be sent to fetch her.  It's only a day's ride away so they will be back quickly."

 

Woollcott watched him stride out of the room before turning and smiling at the Princess.  "Do you have any questions for me, your Highness?"

 

Looking at him for a moment, she smiled softly at him and gave a low chuckle.  "My only questions, Councilor, are ones I fear that you cannot answer."  Then, afraid that she had offended him, added, "Not that those fears should be seen as a lack of faith in your abilities, you have my word."

 

He smiled at her and shook his head. "That is fine, Princess.  I have only been on the Council for five years; Chivas is much better suited to answer your questions and, if the Gods are with us, he will be here in the next day or so."

 

Leaning back in her chair, she gazed at the fire for a long moment.  "No, even he cannot answer my questions.  They are the ones that any mother has about a child for whom she must make hard decisions. Will he hate me for pushing this fate on him?  Should Peter and I have continued to have children so that there would be numerous direct heirs?  We didn't, even though it was discussed.  Bea and I have numerous cousins, all with children who have been blessed by the Oracles, so there was no fear in our minds.  She would rule until Max was well into adulthood and then it would be his choice and his decision.  If he wished to marry and have a normal life like I did, so be it.  If he wished for the glories and also the burdens of being King, also … so be it." 

 

Woollcott opened his mouth, to say something, to offer some bit of wisdom, but was interrupted by a knock.

 

"Come," she called, sitting up straight as the mother retreated into the distance and the ruler once again took over.

 

A young guard stepped into the room and bowed.  "Highness, a messenger bird has just arrived and Major Gaston is asking for your presence at the rookery."

 

Standing up, she gave the Councilor a tight smile.  "Good news, I pray.  Come with me and we shall see."

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Picking up the sleepy boy a week later, his father kissed him and held him tight against his chest.  "You are so loved," he whispered, bending slightly so his mother could also kiss him and stroke his hair.

 

"Papa," the boy mumbled, turning into the warm neck.  "Bed."

 

"In a bit, Max," his mother whispered, kissing him again as they made their way out of the boy's bedroom into the hallway.  "I love you so much," she whispered, stroking his hair.  "Never, ever doubt that."

 

"We must go," Chivas said a moment later when they had made no movement to continue further, hating to break into the small family unit. 

 

Lord Wolk nodded. "I'll carry him to the horse."

 

Chivas led the small group quietly through the darkened halls.  Even at this hour, guards were about, preparing and fortifying the walls, and servants packed for the possible evacuation, all preparing for the siege from the Queen's troops less than a day away.   Half of the Council members had been able to meet, but with the approaching siege forces, most had left for their own lands, to gather their supporters and prepare for war.

 

"I swear, on my life, that I'll defend him and keep him safe," Woollcott said, bowing formally, as the Princess and her husband approached his horse, saddled and ready to ride in the courtyard.  "He will be returned to you as safe as he is now."

 

Lord Wolk glanced at the fortified walls. "Well, hopefully with less threat outside the walls."  With a deep breath, he handed over his son, all humor lost. "Keep him safe." 

 

"With my life," he said, accepting the boy.  "He will know who he is, who his parents are and what he was born to do."

 

Kissing her son again, the Princess stepped back, brushing away a stray tear.  "I care more that he is safe and happy than about him holding on to dreams of what may be forever lost.  Don't worry about raising a King, Councilor Woollcott.  Simply raise him as your son, to be happy and satisfied with whatever life the Gods see fit to grant him, and to be a good man, the best man he can be."

 

Woollcott smiled. "He will always be your son, your Highness, but I will be his beloved uncle and he will be happy, never fear."

 

"We must go," Chivas repeated, motioning toward the horses.  "The portal is at least 12 hours from here."  Taking the boy, he allowed his lover to mount the horse before settling the boy in a small seat in front of him.  He turned to the couple. "I'll be back as soon as I can," he promised.

 

Princess Maxine smiled, stepping forward and grasping his hands. "Councilor, if you decide at the last minute to leave with our son and your lover, that would be fine.  We will hold our ground here as long as possible to give the Council as much time to raise its own troops and your own men have already been sent for. You have done your duty well and that is all we can ask."

 

Chivas bowed in her direction. "Thank you, but I will return."  Turning to Woollcott, he asked, "Set?"

 

Woollcott nodded in the direction of the couple and then turned his horse, trotting it toward the closed gate.  He glanced over as Chivas joined him a second later, just as the gate was being raised.  "She's right, you know."

 

Chivas didn't have to ask what the younger man meant, he knew full well and had no wish to continue the conversation that had been going on in fits and starts for the last four days, since word had reached them that a warrant of detention had been made for the Princess, her husband and two children and the Queen was on the march, thousands of troops at her disposal.  Any hope that she was still sane or at least that her troops would act with mercy had  been eliminated with the discovery of the body of the Princess's daughter, Joanna, half hidden under the slain bodies of the guard sent to fetch her.  

 

"Did you hear me?" Woollcott hissed sharply as they trotted out of the gate and immediately left the defined road, cutting cross country.

 

"I heard you," Chivas replied.  "And you've heard me say I cannot leave."

 

"But you can make me run away instead of standing with my men to defend our country!" 

 

Chivas looked at Woollcot. "Everyone who matters will know that you did not run, that you have been charged with keeping our future safe."

 

He snorted and then looked down at the boy sleeping slumped sideways in the small seat in front of him.  "You barely escaped after the vote, Marc," he said softly.  "She would have locked you up and you would have had the same sort of 'accident' as Councilor Fishton." 

 

"But I did escape," Chivas reminded him firmly.  "And I kept my promise to you that I would come and I will keep this promise just as surely."

 

Woollcott glanced at his lover. "Swear it."

 

"I will come for you, Kent.  I will come every other week or send word if I can't make it so that you will know that I am safe and well."  His voice was low and steady.  "I will not get hurt, I will not take stupid chances and I will be with you again."

 

Woollcott knew his lover could not make such a promise, no one could keep such an oath unless the Gods willed it, but the words still made him feel calmer and he smiled slightly.  "I will hold you to every one of those words."

 

"I hope so."

 

They stopped three brief times during the 12 hour ride to rest the horses, exchanging them during one of the stops for fresh mounts at a temple loyal to the Council.  By mid-afternoon, they were there.  The doorway that marked the portal was, as Woollcott remembered, well hidden in a half-collapsed temple.  Pushing aside some of the branches that had been strategically placed by his most trusted servant two days earlier when word of their impending escape had reached him, Woollcott nodded.  "It looks good.  Gregor said he would meet us here if things on the other side were not safe or in order."

 

Peering into the dark hole, Chives could just make out the heavy wooden door that marked the portal, barely visible in the gloom.  "How often did your family use this?"

 

"My father, almost never," he said with a shrug, "but my grandfather used it often and for long periods of time.  Family gossip said that he had a companion on the other side that he would visit.  Plus, I think he liked the idea of an escape hole.  He never fully trusted the monarchy, even though he was part of the system.  He always said that history repeats itself and there are too many cases in our history and others of revolts and power struggles, for it not to happen again."

 

"I'm hungry," a small voice said from near the horses.  "May I have an apple?"

 

Chivas glanced over at the boy and smiled. "In a bit, Max.  First, you and Uncle Kent … Uncle Woollcott?"  He glanced at his lover questioningly.  "What do you want to be called?"

 

The other man shrugged. "I don't know, I haven't thought about it, but we'll figure it out."  He glanced at the sun and frowned and turned to his lover and said for the final time, "Please come with us."  His voice broke slightly and he hated himself for his weakness.

 

"I can't, but, by the Gods, know that I wish I could with all my heart," Chivas said softly, leaning in and kissing his lover gently.  "You need to go."

 

"Before you change your mind?"  The question was asked jokingly, but they both knew the truth behind the words.

 

"Before young Max resorts to eating horse feed out of hunger," Chivas said with a smile.  Kissing Kent again, he smiled.  "Go."

 

Woollcott nodded. "All right, Max.  We're going on a quick journey and then my man Gregor will have a wonderful dinner for us."

 

"It's lunch time," the boy corrected, slowly walking toward the two men.

 

 "Then he shall have a wonderful lunch for us."  Bending down, Woollcott picked up the boy, "Come on, it'll be quicker if I carry you."  Turning, he smiled. "Say bye to Councilor Chivas."

 

"Bye," he said obediently.

 

"Bye," the older man said, meeting the boy's eyes for a moment before fixing on Woollcott's.  "Love you," he said softly.

 

"See you in two weeks, if not sooner," Woollcott said firmly. "You swore,  And I, you."  Then, before he could lose his nerve, he turned and headed into the darkness. 

 

Chivas watched for a long moment, hoping to see some flash or hear something that would let him know that they were gone, but knowing he wouldn't.  The portals were silent, hidden and secret, which made them both excellent escape routes and deadly to any unsuspecting traveler who stumbled across an unmarked one.  Hundreds of travelers a year still appeared in their world, brought from their own times and place into this unfamiliar one.  Some adapted fine and were incorporated into one of the many civilizations that dotted the land. Some went crazy from the shock, unable to adapt to their new location.  Only when he knew they were safely gone and settled did he take a deep breath and remount his horse, blindly turning back to the impending battle as sobs wracked his body.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Woollcott blinked in the dimness of the closet as he pushed aside empty hangers with one hand while the other hand held the child close.  "Are you all right?" he whispered.

 

The boy nodded, eyes wide in the gloom.  "Was that a portal?"

 

Not bothering to ask how he knew, the man simple nodded as he opened the closet door and peered into the bedroom.  Walking quietly through the room, he paused, listening for any sound.  He put the boy on the bed and whispered, "Stay here, do you understand?  Do not move until I come for you."

 

Max nodded, eyes still round.

 

Opening the bedroom door, he walked across the wooden floor of a hall, toward stairs leading down where he could see light and hear faint voices.  Trying to move  as quietly as possible, he made his way downstairs, stopping half way when he heard footsteps.

 

"Oh my Lord," a man's voice said in shock and then added, "Thank the Gods that you've arrived safely."

 

Woollcott smiled at his servant who had just appeared in the lower hall, carrying a dish towel.  "Gregor, excellent.  I trust everything is well?"

 

"Well, as well as things can be in a hundred year old house that's stood empty with only monthly cleaning for the last ten years, Lord Woollcott," Gregor replied.

 

 "I see a house, I see solid walls and no standing water.  I consider this a full success."

 

"And there is food," the servant said.  He peered up the stairs. "Is the boy not with you?"

 

"No, he is – I had him wait until I was sure it was safe."  Taking two steps back up, he called, "Max, it's all right, come and we will have the wonderful lunch I promised you."  He smiled as he heard a loud thump and then running feet, the boy appearing a moment later.  Despite himself and despite the fact that this child was the reason he could not stay with Chivas and help fight, he found himself actually liking the small boy.  He shook his head. "I see that the promise of food is a good motivator."

 

Max grinned at him. "My mama says that I eat more than a horse."

 

Gregor laughed from the bottom of the steps. "Well, young sir, there is no hay on the menu, but plenty of potatoes.  Will that do?"

 

The boy nodded shyly, stepping a bit closer to Woollcott.

 

"All right then," he said, picking the boy up in his arms, "let's see if my promise is true and if Gregor has a feast for us."

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Pacing nervously by the closet door, Woollcott had to stop himself from looking at the clock.  It was almost midnight, exactly two weeks since he and Max had stepped into the portal and Chivas had still not appeared.  He forced himself to take a deep breath and sit down to continue reviewing the paperwork in front of him.  New identities had been delivered two days earlier and he was still familiarizing himself with his new background and that of his 'nephew' and ensuring that finances were in order.  His grandfather had laid strong groundwork and it was serving his grandson well.  Thirty minutes later, the closet door opened and his head jerked at the sound, spinning toward it.  He cried out and instantly felt tears spring to his eyes as his lover, dirty and tired but unhurt, quietly slipped into the room.

 

"I never break my vows," Chivas said evenly as he held out his arms and quickly engulfed Woollcott in them.  He sniffled back his own tears as he held his lover tight.  "Never," he repeated.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

"Uncle Wooly."

 

"Uncle Wooly."

 

Woollcott blinked, the voice slowly penetrating his brain at the same time that it registered that he wasn't in his own bed and he wasn't alone.

 

"Uncle Wooly."

 

"By the Gods--"  Woollcott woke to see Max standing there, looking at him.  "Go back to bed, Max," he groaned.  "It's too early."

 

"Who is that?" the boy asked, pointing at the large shape hidden under the blankets.

 

The shape moved and Chivas peered over his lover's bare shoulder.  "Good morning, Max.  Remember me?"

 

Max nodded slowly.

 

"I've come to visit your Uncle and we fell asleep together because I got in so late," he explained.

 

"Go back to bed," Woollcott repeated.  "We were both up late last night and it's still early."

 

"Are you naked?"

 

Chivas laughed and lay back down.  "I'll let you handle that one, Uncle Wooly."

 

Woollcott mouthed a silent obscenity in his lover's direction.  "Max, go back to bed and we'll talk when it's light out.  And shut the door again behind you."

 

The boy nodded and walked out of the room, turning just before he was gone to say, "It's OK.  I've seen naked people before."

 

"Good for you," Woollcott said.  "Don't forget to shut the door."

 

Chivas laughed quietly as the door shut.  "Good for you?"  He chuckled again, pulling his lover closer and adding, "Uncle Wooly?"

 

Spreading his legs, Woollcott straddled the other man so that their cocks rubbed against each other.  He smiled, "Personally, I prefer Uncle Woody."  He yelped and laughed as Chivas swatted his butt and rolled them over so he was again on top. 

 

"That's Mr. Woody to you."

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Gregor poured a cup of hot cider and glanced between the two men.  He sighed and put the kettle back on the burner.  "Fine, since neither one of you will tell me, I'll ask, even though it goes against all my training and my own nature."

 

Woollcott smiled. "I'm sorry, Gregor."

 

Chivas bowed his head. "Pour yourself a cup, Gregor, and sit down.  There's no sense standing with old traditions here."  While the servant was doing so, he added, "I'll be happy to fill you both in.  Kent and I didn't have much of a chance to talk last night."

 

Gregor chuckled as he sat down. "Knowing Lord Woollcott as long as I have, I'm not surprised by that at all.  He barely left that room all day."

 

"Things are not going well," Chivas said bluntly.  "We are still rallying troops, but the country is fracturing.  I believe this was in the works far longer than any of us suspected, given the amount of weaponry our forces are coming into contact with in numerous villages."

 

Woollcott looked at him. "The workers are siding with the Queen?"

 

"Of course," Gregor interrupted with a jerk of his head.  "She's always been popular with them and most are going to be loath to throw their lot in with what may be seen as a bunch of rebels."

 

"And loath to be labeled as traitors as surely as we are," the older Councilor agreed.

 

"And the Princess?" Woollcott asked, lowering his voice.  Max was still asleep, but he was taking no chances.

 

Chivas glanced toward the closed kitchen door and leaned in.  "She is leading the troops in the boy's name, but Lord Wolk has been killed."

 

Woollcott reared back. "By the Gods, I am sorry to hear that."

 

"He led a unit to hold them off after their castle fell four days after you left," Chivas said.  "He was slaughtered in the fields, along with most of his men."  He shook his head and swallowed. "Her troops gave no quarter, no mercy, not even to the wounded."

 

Reaching out, Woollcott covered his lover's hand with his own and squeezed it.  "I am sorry, love."

 

He squeezed it back and took a deep breath to compose himself before taking another sip of cider.  "I must go back tonight.  We are going to take a stand in Rondaia and try to prevent this from spreading into the plains."  He ignored the small noise the other man made and gave a half shrug. "If we can do that, then this may be over by winter.  If not …"

 

"Breakfast?" a small voice said from the doorway. "I want bacon and waffles and syrup and …." Max froze, the list of demands dying on his lips when he saw Chivas.

 

Woollcott smiled and motioned for Max to come in. "Good morning to you, too.  I slept well, thank you for asking.  Did you sleep well?"

 

The boy grinned back. "Good morning Uncle Wooly, good morning Gregor.  I slept well, thank you for asking. Did you sleep well last night?" He hurried through the words, knowing what to say but no real meaning behind them.  Cautiously, he stared at Chivas before sliding closer to Woollcott.

 

Bowing his head, Chivas smiled, "Good morning Max.  It's good to see you again.  It's been a couple of weeks since I rode with you and your uncle."

 

"You're not naked now. I've seen naked people before. Once in the stables when I went looking for the kitchen cat, I saw Bobby the groom and Nan who works in the kitchen lying on top of each other, and once in the field behind the little house I saw--"

 

"That's enough, Max," Woollcott said.  "We don't need a list and being naked is private – that's why you're to knock on closed doors."

 

The boy opened his mouth again, glancing at Chivas before closing it, nodding solemnly.

 

Gregor snorted and stood up. "Why don't I fetch some food for everyone.  It's much harder to ask questions and make lists when mouths are full."  He smiled at Max.  "Did I hear you ask politely for waffles or did you demand them?"

 

"May I please have some waffles?" Max asked, smiling back at him.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Nine months later, Woollcott buried his head in the pillow as he heard the closet door open and then shut softly as Chivas went away yet again.  If he didn't move, he could still feel the other man in him, hands holding him tight as they came together for the last time for another several weeks.  Despite promises and the best intentions, visits were becoming further apart and shorter as the war raged on and the situation grew tenser.  So far, neighboring empires had stayed out of the fight, but everyone worried that their neutrality would not last.  Both sides had been sending ambassadors to the various players, hoping to sway a decision when action was finally taken.  "Come," he called twenty minutes later when a knock pulled him out of his thoughts.

 

Gregor stepped inside the room and smiled. "Max is due home from that horrid Edward's birthday party soon.  Do you want to have dinner with us or should I prepare a tray?"

 

Sitting up and letting out a small groan as abused muscles protested at the movement, he slipped out of bed and padded naked to the chair for his robe.  "I'll shower and get dressed.  I don't want him worrying."

 

"Is there much to be worried about?" Gregor asked quietly.

 

Woollcott nodded. "Yes and no end in sight." Stepping out into the hallway, he headed toward his own bedroom. 

 

"Then let us focus on undoing any bad habits young Max has picked up in a few hours with the horrid Edward," Gregor said.  Following his master into his bedroom, he helped him off with the robe.  "I'll pull out fresh clothes for you."

 

Woollcott nodded and patted Gregor on the shoulder before heading, reluctantly, to the shower.  "He's not that bad, he's just an American."

 

"You've heard the joke, right?"

 

"What joke?" he called out over the water.

 

Gregor chuckled, sticking his head into the bathroom.  "They revolted 200 years ago and they're still revolting now."

 

Woollcott gave an honest laugh, feeling himself slip back into the role of favorite uncle, running a quiet house on a quiet street in a quiet suburb of Chicago and doing his best to raise a boy to be – if the Gods were willing – a King. A quiet life, far away from their homeland, far away from the clashing steel and blood and death that his lover had just gone back to.

 

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Holding Chivas close, Woollcott kissed his lover gently and rocked back and forth with him.  "I am so sorry, Marc," he whispered. 

"I don't know what we'll do without her," Chivas said quietly.  "She could always rally the troops in the boy's name.  They flocked to her.  Now… I don't know."

 

"Do you think the cause is lost?" Woollcott asked quietly.  "Maybe after four years of fighting, the Queen might be willing to call a truce.  She has to be as sick of this as you are."

 

"No," sighed Chivas, "her sister's death has simply spurred her on.  She and Aliseo are actively trying for a child, an heir. Our spies tell us that she comes into the court every morning raving about how closely bonded she and Aliseo are now, that it is better and more pure and more complete than it ever was with poor Archer.  She says the Oracles made a mistake and Aliseo is her true companion and that's why her bond with Archer was never complete."

 

"But that's a lie!" Woollcott said hotly, "She and Archer were very happy together for years!  I remember her coming into Council meetings every morning crowing the same tale and they had been joined for at least two years by that point.  They would leave laughing and kissing before disappearing into her chambers to take their breaks together."

 

Chivas chuckled, kissing his lover and feeling himself stirring for the first time in weeks.  "I know.  I took advantage of her absence to extend those breaks."

 

Woollcott colored as he kissed him back. He could feel his own cock starting to strain against his pants.  "I remember those breaks.  By the well and in the stable and of course, on your desk in your office,  being  quiet so as to make sure no one could hear anything ..." His cock twitched as the other man's hand brushed against it and he groaned.  "By the Gods …"

 

Chivas laughed.  "It has been awhile, hasn't it, love?"  He glanced at the clock, "What time does the boy get home?"

 

Woollcott thought for a minute. "It's Tuesday, so he has swimming until 4:30.  Gregor will pick him up, so we have two hours at least, even assuming they don't stop anywhere on the way home."

 

"I can fuck you at least three times then," Chivas said, leaning close and kissing his neck.  "Make you scream and moan and beg …"

 

"We haven't bonded in so long," Woollcott sighed, allowing himself to be drawn toward the bed.  "I've felt a part of me missing."  Breaking off from their kisses, he grinned as he raised an eyebrow and began to strip off his jeans. "And, good sir, I will gladly you take you up on your challenge and raise you one good fucking."

 

Chivas laughed again, quickly jerking off his own clothes and pulling them both down on the bed together, rolling so he was on top.  Forcing his knees between his lover's legs, he spread them even as he began to kiss the other man again.  "So … it's a challenge, is it, Kent?"

 

Bringing his legs up, Kent laughed as he felt the hard cock begin to brush against his opening.  "You may be hard and dripping already, Marc, but if you take me without lube, it will be a one-off."

 

"We'll see about that," Chivas said as he began to gently slide in and out, breeching just the smallest amount inside, his pre cum providing just enough lubricant. 

 

Woollcott shivered at the unexpected teasing sensation of being opened just slightly, the rough pressure of the unlubed cock rubbing against him and opening him just a bit different than the slick fullness that usually brought him over the edge.  He moaned, spreading his legs wider and arching up, trying to coax the hard cock deeper inside him, but his lover held him firmly.

 

"No, no," he said, bending down and kissing him again.  "This is all you're going to get until I hear some begging cross these lips."  His voice was low but firm as he resumed the teasing thrusts. "Remind me who you belong to, Kent.  Who are you bonded to?  Who is the only person you want, who is the only person that you will trust to see you and touch you and take you this way?"

 

Sinking into the strange and unfamiliar sensation, Kent closed his eyes and held on tight as he shook with excitement and desire.  Twisting away from the demanding kisses and the tongue claiming his mouth, he gasped, thrusting up one last time, trying to impale himself on the teasing cock before coming hard against his lover's stomach.  "You!" he cried, arching as he spurted again, shaking slightly.  "Please Marc, only you."

 

Chivas grinned and kissed him again before releasing him and reaching for the bottle of lube they kept tucked in the nightstand.  Quickly coating his cock, he began to thrust gently but deeply inside his lover, sinking all the way in so they were completely joined.  "As responsive as when we had those long breaks during lunch," he teased between kisses. 

 

"Which is good because I'm still as much as in love with you now as I was then," Kent confirmed, closing his eyes and focusing on the feelings of joining and belonging that coursed through him as they began to bond again, pushing aside all the bad news, the tiredness and the worries that they both carried.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

"I had to spank Max last week," Woollcott reported as he sipped at his tea, glancing at his lover.  They had been together for two days this time, the longest reunion in almost eight months, made possible by a truce of sorts, forced by a series of horrible winter storms, which kept both sides hunkered down in various castles.

 

Chivas sighed, biting into a large turkey sandwich.  He had lost weight over the years and both Woollcott and Gregor considered it their duty to feed him up every time he was there.  "For what?"

 

Woollcott shrugged. "For being rude; he got into trouble at school and then when I questioned him about it, he mouthed off, pointing out that I wasn't his father so really, my opinion of his behavior and conduct and how much he had to listen to it was up for discussion."

 

Despite himself, Chivas laughed.  "And I'm sure the spanking you gave him pretty much put that theory to rest."

 

"And him to bed early with a very sore butt," Woollcott said with a nod.  "He apologized later when I went to check on him and we talked.  I reminded him that even kings who mouth off and are rude get their butts warmed."

 

"He's thirteen," Chivas said with a shrug.  "He's going to push back.  He's been pushed hard, he's a year ahead in school and is a very good kid."

 

"He's an excellent kid," Woollcott replied with a proud smile. "He's smart, funny, kind, usually has good manners, but …"

 

Chivas laughed again, taking another bite of sandwich.  "He's also 13 and mouthy and a know-it-all and deserves to get his butt warmed once in a while to remind him of his place and his manners."

 

"It'll be warmed often enough by his Consort if he doesn't remember."

 

"Does he know?"

 

Woollcott shrugged. "A bit.  We've read about Atlantis ever since we got here.  He knows our culture and I've told him stories and his books talk about the Kings and Queens and their Consorts.  He knows that some people decide to live in a relationship where discipline is used.  He knows what sex is, of course; kids here seem to learn about that much earlier then I remember learning about it. So we've talked about sex and bonding with someone special and what that means to us, that it's more than just casual sex."  Stealing a chip from his lover's plate, he smiled, adding, "He's sort of curious about sex and discipline, but I think a bit scared about it, too, and I think a bit embarrassed about how curious he is."

 

"I'll bring more teenage books next time I come," Chivas said, stretching.  "That way he can learn how we do things and begin to view these relationships, hopefully, as better than what he's learning about here."

 

"Hey! I'm doing the best I can, Marc!"

 

Chivas leaned over and kissed him, "No, Kent, I'm sorry I wasn't clear, I'm not implying that you're not.  Just that things are different in Atlantis than they are here and he should learn as much as possible about our culture.  I think this truce may mark the beginning of the end, love."

 

"Really?" he asked, breaking off the kiss.  "You didn't say anything!"

 

Chivas sighed, sitting back down.  "I was trying not to get your hopes up.  I think we have a long way to go, but it's been over seven years, the Queen hasn't produced an heir and she's growing crueler every month, which just alienates more and more allies. Trade has broken down, the economy is crashing, and the outer areas are looking at a hard winter with little extra food."

 

"Do people ask about Max?"

 

He nodded. "Yes, but we've put the word out that he's safely hidden and being cared for.  People presume you were killed during the siege that killed Lord Wolk and I've never disputed that."

 

Woollcott nodded, hating to think of friends mourning him for these past years, but knowing the wisdom of it as well. Unwilling to sit separately along longer, he got up and moved to his lover's side. "How much longer, Marc?" he asked quietly, leaning close so they were touching. "It's been so long that I worry I can't do it much longer."

 

Chivas sighed again, pulling the younger man closer and settling him on his lap so they were hugging tightly.  He kissed him and whispered, "Too long still, love.  Too long, I fear."

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

"OK, you probably don't want me to ask this," Woollcott said, leaning on the door frame and watching Max tie his dress shoes.

 

"And yet you're going to do it anyway," the younger man said, glancing up and smiling.  "What, Uncle Wooly?"

 

"I know you have cash, I know you have a credit card, but I want to make sure you have condoms with you, too."  He had mentally rehearsed this conversation for the last week and was secretly pleased with how coolly his statement came out.  No judgment, just a simple, matter-of-fact statement, since sex after all was a normal part of adult life and now that he was 17, rapidly becoming a normal part of Max's life.

 

Max colored slightly but nodded. "Yes."

 

"Good, because you getting a girl pregnant the night of your Senior Prom is not something I want to be forced to explain to Uncle Marc or the Council."

 

Max laughed, standing up. "Especially Uncle Marc."

 

Woollcott nodded. "By the Gods, that's right."  He winked at the boy. "You don't want to explain it to him either, trust me.  You're 17, but …"

 

"He would have no problem at all expressing his extreme displeasure with the business end of a paddle," Max completed with a laugh.  He glanced down for a moment before standing up and walking to his desk.  He touched a small painting of his parents, lost in thought for a moment.  "Do kids go to Prom in Atlantis?"

 

Woollcott thought immediately of the fall party at which he had first seen Marc Chivas. "They do, sort of, but it's not called Prom.  There are big celebrations every spring at the start of the planting cycle and then again every fall after the harvest is in.  Kids – young adults – start attending when they're 16 or 17.  Schools sponsor them along with villages and towns. It's a big week-plus celebration and vacation that's celebrated country wide, not just in the rural areas that actually farm."

 

"Sounds like fun," Max said wistfully.

 

"It is," Woollcott confirmed, moving in closer.  Standing behind the boy, he realized with a start that they were almost the same height.  He smiled, brushing a bit of hair off Max's tux.  "Your parents met at one of those parties."

 

"Really?" Max asked, turning around.  Even at 17, he sometimes loved to hear stories of his parents who he barely remembered.

 

"Yeah, I didn't know either one of them well, but ask Uncle Marc and I bet he can tell you the story.  I know it was a bit of a scandal though when she got married."

 

"Because she was next in line," Max confirmed with a nod.  "And the King or Queen can't be married.  They are married to the country."

 

Woollcott nodded. "That's right."  He let the silence settle over the room, waiting to see if the boy would say anything else.

 

Max glanced down before slipping past the older man and walking to his dresser.  Picking up his watch, he put it on and then put his wallet in his jacket pocket.  "I know I'm going with Petra, but I don't think you have to worry about any babies coming from this date, condoms or not."  He glanced up quickly to judge the reaction and then back down. "She's friendly and didn't have a date and we're really going more as a group anyway, there's really nothing special there between us."  The words came out in a rush as his eyes remained firmly fixed on the floor.

 

Woollcott nodded and walked over, patting Max on the back. "It may be for the best. You can't bring them home with you."

 

Max jerked his head up. "But this is home a lot more than there is!"

 

"I'm sorry," Woollcott said quickly.  "I know and I misspoke.  But, regardless, whatever you want – whoever you want – is fine by me and Uncle Marc.  You're too young for anything serious now anyway, when … if … you're able to go back and claim what's yours, then you can make a decision."

 

Max shrugged, suddenly angry for some reason. "And if not, then everything has been a waste."

 

"No, what?  Why?  What's been a waste?"  Woollcott struggled to follow him.

 

Max shrugged again.  "Everything.  Pushing and working hard to learn everything, swords, archery, learning to ride …  hell, you know my riding coach wants me to try out for the Olympics, I'm that good.  I'm going to graduate a year earlier than I should and I'm already taking college classes."  He shook his head. "I've got this crown hanging over my head, but I don't know sometimes if it's a golden ring or a sword. I read and I study and I think about how I will do things but then … I don’t know if I want to but I know that’s wrong and who knows, I may never have a chance and all of this will have been for nothing." 

 

Woollcott pulled him close and hugged him tightly.  "Talk to me, kid.  I had no idea. When did you start feeling this way?"  He was honestly shocked.  Max had always been driven and pushed himself hard.  He willingly took extra classes in the summer and had begun college classes at the start of his senior year, driving himself from his high school to a local college twice a week.  He played baseball and swam and rode, but did it so effortlessly that Woollcott had never questioned whether it was too much.  But now, he wondered if he should have.  His eyes fell on the large bookcases in the bedroom and the internal war the boy dealt with was evident.  Harry Potter sat next to a history of war in the ancient world, several books by Neil Gaiman were bookended by a study of how to be an outstanding CEO and how to motivate employees during tough economic times.  “Talk to me, boy,” he repeated softly.  

 

Max shook his head, pulling away and taking a deep breath.  "No, it's fine.  Never mind."  He smiled and gave a half shrug. "Just nerves talking, I guess.  Lots of changes coming in the next few months and tonight sort of seems like the end of high school and of being a kid."  He smiled again and laughed. "So I think it was just nerves or something.  I'm proud of what you and Uncle Marc and everyone have done on my behalf for years and as soon as I'm old enough, I plan on joining the fight."

 

Woollcott's head was spinning from the rapid shifts in mood, but he just nodded. Perhaps now was not the time.  "OK, but let's talk about this later.  Tomorrow night?  I'll grill some steaks and we can talk."

 

Max nodded. "OK.  I have questions, I think and … I don't know."

 

"We'll talk tomorrow; don't worry about it tonight," Woollcott said, hugging the boy again.  "Go, have fun, even if you're not going with your dream date." 

 

"I don't think I'll ever have a dream date," Max said, his mood shifting again before he shook his head.  "Sorry, I didn't mean that.  Nerves."  Glancing at the clock, he took a deep breath, "Got to go, Uncle Wooly. Don't wait up for me."

 

"Be careful," Woollcott said firmly, following the younger man out into the hall and down the stairs.  "Seriously, I know a lot of stupid stuff can happen without meaning to …"

 

Max smiled. "I won't do anything you wouldn't do."

 

"That does not instill confidence!"

 

Max laughed and winked, calling out as he shut the door, "Night, Uncle Wooly."

 

"Our boy is growing up."

 

Woollcott turned around and smiled at Gregor, "He is."

 

"Dinner?  I made pasta."

 

"That sounds good," he said, following Gregor into the kitchen. He began to set the table for the two of them.  Over time, the division between them had relaxed and even though there was still an air of respect from the servant, they had molded themselves into a family unit, with Chivas rounding out the foursome as often as possible.  "Do you remember your first harvest dance?" he asked after several minutes of silence.

 

Gregor laughed. "Oh yes, I was 16 and Laura Senge and I had a very enjoyable time …" His voice trailed off as he remembered.  "Very enjoyable for both of us…"

 

"What happened to her, do you know?"

 

"She went into service at the same house her father was in – her mother had died several years before – and I went to your house, following in my father's footsteps," he said with a shrug. "I haven't thought about her for years now.  Last I heard, she was married with several children and still working for the same family.  A nice, stable life."

 

Woollcott chuckled. "Not like yours."

 

Gregor smiled as he began to dish out the pasta.  "No, but not as interesting either.  I never would have guessed, growing up, that I would know exactly how my King likes his hamburger or that he'll eat only purple jelly."

 

Woollcott smiled. "The Gods willing, our future King."

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOO

 

"It's over, we've won."

 

Woollcott stared at his lover who had just come through the portal.  He was frozen in his seat, the household bills in front of them and the computer cursor blinking merrily, waiting for his input of the next bill.  "We've won," he said softly, unable to move.  He had dreamed of this day, of those words and had always pictured something grand, some sort of sign that would have clued him in that finally, after almost 15 years, what he had dreamed about had come true.

 

Chivas grinned, walking into the room slowly, unable to take his eyes off his lover.  "It's over, we won," he repeated. 

 

Woollcott slowly stood up and felt his legs shake as Chivas sank to the bed.  "We won?"

 

Unable to speak, Chivas nodded and held out a hand.

 

Sinking down next to him, Woollcott pulled him close into a tight hug as he felt him begin to cry and his own tears mix in.  "We won," he repeated, first aloud and then silently, over and over in his head like a mantra, ensuring that it was true.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Gregor poured them each a mug of strong tea before pouring one for himself and sitting down.  Looking between the two men, he smiled and gave a small laugh.  "I can't stop smiling," he admitted with a grin.

 

Chivas laughed. "I've been on an emotional bucking horse for the last 48 hours.  First, wild celebration and then, when I told Kent an hour ago, sobbing like a baby. Now, finally, I think it's hit me that it's real and I'm just happy and feel like a huge weight has been lifted from me."  He held out his hand and squeezed his lover's hand and then, reached out and took Gregor's hand and squeezed it hard.  "Lifted from all of us.  We made a commitment to our country almost 15 years ago that we have now seen come true.  We have kept a boy safe, helped him grow into a man and a King who will serve his country well.  We have done that together. We couldn't have done it without each other."  His voice was rough as he swallowed, looking down at the table before releasing their hands and taking a sip of tea.

 

The three men were silent for a long moment, each lost in his own thoughts before Woollcott finally spoke. "So what now?  Should we close up the house and the three of us go back with you in the next week?"

 

Chivas shook his head. "I wish, but no.  Queen Beatriz has only been dead a week.  Even though her main forces have laid down their swords and have surrendered, there are still pockets of resistance.  Luc thinks he and his men have tracked down where Aliseo and his core group are hiding.  We're hoping to capture him alive so he can be tried for treason, but if not …"

 

"He doesn't deserve to be tried," Woollcott said evenly.  "He murdered countless of our allies, why does he deserve something better?"

 

"Because we have rules and even though he and the Queen felt that it was their right to ignore those, the Council does not," Chivas said sharply.  The hurt expression on his lover's face made him instantly regret his tone.  "I'm sorry," he said softly, "I'm tired and it's an argument that the Council has been having for a week, since she was killed making a stand in one of her castles and he ran, like the coward he is."

 

Woollcott squeezed his hand. "It's all right and you and the Council are right.  There are rules and those must be put above any desire for vengeance."

 

"When are you planning on telling the boy?" Gregor asked after a moment.  He took a sip of his tea and added, "Finals are coming up in three weeks and he'll be home for the holidays after that."

 

"Can we keep something like this from him for almost a month?" Chivas asked the room.  "He has a right to know."

 

Woollcott shook his head. "We can and we should.  He has a right to know, but he also has a right to finish the semester.  He's barely 20 and is over half way done.  He can't rule until he's 21 anyway; three weeks won't hurt anything."

 

"I agree," Gregor said.  "He's been working hard, even if nothing changes the news will throw him, and I would hate for him to have trouble with finals."

 

Chivas chuckled. "The kingdom was delayed for want of finals."

 

His lover laughed. "At least it wasn't lost."  He raised his mug. "To the kingdom and the good friends – both gone and still with us – who saved it."

 

"Come back with me," Chivas said later as they lay together in bed.  "The Council knows you're alive, they will be talking about Max and you know him better than I do."

 

Rolling over so he was facing the other man, Woollcott smiled, "I'm glad you asked, because I was trying to decide how to tell you that I wasn't willing to let you go again anytime soon."

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOooo

 

"Councilor," Annulus said with a small bow in Woollcott's direction, "I fully appreciate what you are saying, but King Maximus must return to Atlantis as soon as possible.  He needs to be seen by the people. He needs to assure them that he is strong and capable and willing to take up the throne."

 

Woollcott touched Chivas's arm for a second as he felt the other man stir next to him.  "Councilor Annulus," he said with a smile, "I too fully appreciate the Council's opinion, but I must remind my peers that King Maximus is barely 20.  According to our laws, he cannot rule until he is 21, another nine months.  With his parents both dead and the country reeling, I believe it is in Atlantis's best interest for the Council to resume its leadership role and begin the rebuilding process." He held up his hand when another member started to interrupt, "Wait, please.  In addition, these few months will give Maximus time to finish his schooling and receive regular updates from Councilor Chivas and the whole Council, if you wish, on the problems the country is facing, as well as further his education on our customs and culture."

 

"Councilor Woollcott is correct," Luc said sharply, looking around the room.  "While Maximus may be heir to the Throne of Atlas, he is currently unprepared for the role.  He is too young, too uneducated both on how to rule and on our country and his return now would be disastrous.  The people would not see a strong leader who instills confidence; they would see a boy who is a stranger to them as much as they are strangers to him."

 

"And why has he not been educated in our ways?" Councilor Gonick asked.

 

Woollcott sighed; he did not know Gonick, the man having come on when his cousin was killed without an heir, but the little they had dealt with each other over the last three days had not elevated his opinion of the man.  He bowed in Gonick's direction. "I have done my best, Councilor, but Maximus came with me through the portal when he was five.  He has very few memories of his parents and none of Atlantis.  I have told him our history through stories and  fairy tales, the way all children are educated, and I have taught him about our culture.  He knows the continents and the seas and the neighboring empires.  Unfortunately, there is only so much that one can absorb through stories and books.  He is smart though and will adjust quickly.  He has studied hard on how to be a good king, a good leaders and there is no doubt that if given a chance to find his footing, will succeed beyond all your expectations."

 

Marie spoke up quietly, her voice still rough from overuse on the battle ground during the last turbulent months.  "He is aware though of the conditions that come with being King?"

 

He nodded and smiled in her direction, grateful again to see her alive and well.  He knew that many had felt betrayed by her siding with the Queen in the early days and still only half-accepted Chivas's explanation of the vital role she had played for years as messenger and spy for their cause when she switched sides two years earlier, providing much needed reinforcements and funds.   "He is well aware that any ruler is married to the country and as a result may not marry in the traditional sense.  He is also aware that he will have a personal councilor called a Consort and they will regularly have sex, which we call bonding because of the great emotional connection it creates."  He paused, taking a sip of water.  "Maximus has also been told through stories that even kings are subjected to discipline and that guidance and discipline are another responsibility of the Consort.  Whether or not he fully understands that, I am unsure."  He glanced at Chivas with a half-smile before turning back to the group.  "I tried to find a good balance between raising a strong, independent man and one who understands that when he does wrong, even as an adult, even as a King, he is subjected to discipline at the hand of his lover and that that is a normal part of our culture and a lifestyle that some live."

 

Luc spoke up again. "I think that is a very hard balance to find, Councilor and I applaud your efforts." He glanced around the room. "To be truthful, I don't know how I would find the balance in a culture so different from ours, which does not celebrate the idea of relationship discipline for those who desire to live that way without it being seen as a sign of weakness."

 

Chivas was glad to see most of the other Councilors nodding in agreement.  He stood up and bowed to Woollcott. "Councilor, our thanks to you for an outstanding job."  He began to applaud and was grateful to see Luc and Marie lead the standing ovation that was soon unanimous.  When the applause died down, he said, "So, I believe we are in agreement that Maximus will remain where is he until he is 21 and will begin to receive regular Council updates and increase his education on our culture and customs as best as possible over the next nine months."  He glanced around the room, "If we can make it a formal vote, Councilors?"

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

"Just so we're clear …"

 

Max grinned broadly at Chivas.  "I know, I got it, Uncle Marc."  Then, with a dramatic rolling of eyes, crossed his heart and said, "Promise, cross my heart, hope to die …"

 

Chivas glanced at his lover standing next to the younger man. "What?"

 

"Ignore him," Woollcott said, bumping against Max.  "Stop.  Your uncle has been through enough and giving him a hard time is not the way to convince either one of us that you're mature enough for this."

 

Max swallowed. "Sorry.  But I am and I do promise I understand.  I'm not going to leave either one of your sides, I will not speak to anyone, and I will not call attention to myself."  He bounced slightly on his toes. "I'm just excited to see it!"

 

"This is a short trip, just a few days," Chivas said firmly.  "We're going to Uncle Wooly's home, which is nearby." He glanced at his lover and tilted his head questioningly.  When Woollcott nodded, he said, "And we will look around that area, to give you a feel for the land."

 

Max looked between them and grinned. "I can't wait.  Thank you so much."

 

Woollcott smiled. "You're going to love it."  It had been just over three months since the Queen had been killed and, true to their word, the Council was sending a different member bi-weekly to meet with Max to give him an update on the state of affairs and to bring him gradually into the decision-making process.  It had also given the different Council members a chance to meet with him, get to know him and him them, making – everyone hoped – the transition easier and smoother.  Now, with Max's 21st birthday six months away, they had decided it was time to introduce the young man to his new country, quietly and carefully, and his college spring break served as the perfect time.  Aliseo had been captured a month earlier and was sitting in prison awaiting trial in the capital, but there were still occasional bursts of rebel activity as the country tried to recover from 15 years of civil war.  The Courts were reconvening and past judgments were being taken up for review. Grants of lands and titles that the Queen and her people had used as gifts and bribes were being called into question, with both sides calling for justice.  The Council was handling as many decisions as possible, but some were awaiting the new King's judgment.

 

Pulling Max's cloak tighter, Chivas patted his shoulder.  "It's going to be chilly.  Keep this around you and the hood up, especially if we're near people." 

 

Woollcott pulled his own cloak on and nodded toward the closet. "Shall we?"

 

Max took a deep breath as Chivas opened the door, then pushed through the hangers and followed him.  He could feel Woollcott close behind him before it all went dark and deadly quiet for a long moment.   A minute later, the darkness grew lighter and in another few steps he could make out stone walls.  He laughed, glancing behind him to confirm Woollcott’s presence.  "Cool," he said. 

 

Chivas smiled. "Come on.  This is just an old temple that Uncle Wooly's family has used for generations."  He stepped into the weak sunlight of the late winter day and took a breath of fresh air, waving to Gregor and one of his own personal servants to bring the waiting horses.  He had taken the other servant into his confidence several weeks before, selecting the man because of his family's loyalty to his own.  He was only a couple of years older than Max.

 

Max blinked in the sunlight, mouth slightly open as he looked around him.  He took a cautious breath of air and then a deeper one through his noise.  "It smells different," he whispered to Woollcott.

 

Woollcott sniffed and smiled. "I think you just smell the air and the earth.  There's very little industrialization, no cars, no planes and we use clean burning coal, so the air is cleaner."  He sniffed again. "Plus, it's still winter so nothing is blooming and there's not a lot of growth.  In the summer you smell hay and grass a lot."

 

"And cows," Gregor said with a smile, leading two horses to them.  "Don't forget the cows."

 

Max laughed. "I know what those smell like."  Straightening his shoulders, he took a deep breath and swung up onto the horse being held for him.  "OK," he said with a smile, "I can't wait."

 

They rode slowly, pausing at various buildings and allowing Max to look around as much as he wanted at the views as they made their way across the countryside, one of the large canals that connected inland towns and the sea shining in the distance.  From time to time, one of the other men would explain what they were seeing or tell a story about something that crossed his mind.  They saw three black birds sitting on a fence and Gregor entertained them for ten minutes retelling the tale his Grandmother had told him about the three black birds.  The other servant chimed in with his own slightly different version, each helping to fill in Max's knowledge base bit by bit.

 

Taking advantage of the distraction, Woollcott allowed himself to drop back and ride quietly next to Chivas, who also slowed and allowed the other three riders to drift several paces ahead of them.  He grinned at his lover. "Can you believe it?"

 

Chivas glanced at him and slowly shook his head. "No.  I honestly can't."  He swallowed hard. "There were many winters when it was cold and we were hungry and fighting for our lives in order not to lose some bit of land or a stronghold that we had been fighting over for a month and I thought it would never end and we would never win.  I kept waiting to hear that she was pregnant or that the Croatoans or the Fifs or the Mayan Empires who were aligned with us had defected to her instead."

 

"But they didn't," Woollcott said firmly and smiled.  "And you won."

 

Chivas grinned at him. "No, they didn't and yes, we won."  He laughed and then, caught up in the moment, leaned his head back slightly and laughed harder.

 

The three riders in front glanced back and then, glancing at each other, began to laugh at the sheer joy of the situation.  Woollcott caught Max's eye and smiled and bowed in the young man's direction before joining in.

 

The night before their return, they made camp in the shelter of a once grand but now completely ruined palace.

 

"This was it?" Max asked quietly, walking around the half pulled down stone walls and blackened timbers.

 

"Yes," Woollcott said, glancing around.  In his mind's eye, he could still see the tasteful decorations that bespoke power and wealth, but were also homey.  Stepping out into what was once the inner courtyard and allowing the younger man to explore on his own, he blinked back a sudden rush of tears as the fear and adrenaline of the night ride here to deliver a warning hit him again.  And then, a short week later, the crushing sadness of witnessing two parents saying goodbye to their remaining child, knowing it was probably the last time they would see him again, had warred that night with his own fears for his lover and his anger at the man's stubbornness. 

 

Looking around the ruins, he could almost picture the final stand that had taken place.  He knew that the Princess, disguised as a solider, had slipped out through a hidden tunnel with a small group, Meanwhile her husband, Lord Wolk, with a solider dressed in the Princess's cloak at his side, led his own troops in what looked like a surprise flight out the front and down one side of the siege troops readying for battle.  In the middle, they turned to ensure that all attention was on them, knowing it would mean certain death, and charged in his son's name. The palace had been looted of everything of value and then burned in retaliation.  Now, nature was reclaiming it and finishing the destruction.  

 

"I don't remember it at all," Max said in a quiet voice as he joined his uncle.  "I wish I did … I thought that maybe seeing it, even in this state, would bring back some memories."

 

"Sometimes, Max, it's best not to dwell on the past," Woollcott replied gently.

 

Max nodded his understanding. "I'm glad your house didn't suffer as badly."

 

"Thank the Gods," Woollcott sighed.  Seeing his own partially destroyed home had been a shock, even though the greater part of the building had been saved and servants were already beginning the clean-up for repairs to start in the summer.  "So many people have suffered; so many homes were destroyed."

 

"And I will do my best to make sure that it was not in vain." Max looked around one last time before heading in the direction of the outer walls and their makeshift camp.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

They were back in the house Max had grown up in, in the room with the closet, Atlantis just beyond its hidden door.

 

"So you're going to go through a minute after me," Woollcott said with a smile, adjusting Max's belt slightly.  "Uncle Marc is there already, with the full Council, and I'll be standing with them.  You'll walk through the temple and then pause at the top.  He said they've created a bit of a platform for you." He looked at the younger man for a moment. "And you know what you're going to say?"

 

Max nodded and gave the other man a small smile.  "Yes." He bounced nervously on his toes. "I shouldn't have eaten the pop tarts this morning.  I knew lunch wasn't a great idea, but never thought about breakfast ..."

 

Woollcott laughed. "You're going to be fine and it's your birthday, you deserved pop tarts."

 

Max grinned. "I remember, they were special occasion treat, you thought they were horrible for me."

 

"They are horrible for you," Woollcott corrected with a laugh, "but at 21, I think you're entitled to eat whatever you want.  The Gods only know what you ate in college."

 

"Whatever I ate was good enough to get me out early," Max said.  He had graduated in May, third in his class, and had been fending off questions about his future plans ever since.  His last three months had been filled with preparations for this day and his new duties, and a long, last vacation spent with just Woollcott, Gregor and Chivas.

 

"So you're claiming pop tarts are brain food."  Woollcott took a deep breath and forced himself to step back from Max.  He felt his eyes tear up as the reality of the situation truly hit home.  The boy he had carried out of a war zone and raised as a beloved nephew, as beloved as any son, in a few short moments would become a Would-Be-King with new responsibilities and new burdens that he would have to face on his own.  He and Chivas had spoken quietly about the situation for several months, in fits and starts and had a plan of action that they were ready to carry out in a few weeks.  It was hard, but necessary and they both knew it, and trusted Max to know it as well.  "Your parents would be so proud," he said softly.  "Do you know what your mother said to me before I took you away?"

 

Max shook his head mutely, unwilling to risk speaking.

 

"She told me that what she wanted was for you to be safe and happy and that I was not to worry about raising a King, but to raise a good man, which you are.  They just wanted you to be safe and happy and good and as long as you are that, you'll make them proud."

 

"But have I made you proud?" he asked quietly.

 

Woollcott laughed.  "With all my heart I swear, Max, you make me very proud."  He hugged the young man again and felt him shudder against him.  Knowing it was time, he kissed him and said, "I need to go or Uncle Marc will be upset with both of us for messing up his time schedule."  He winked as they broke apart. "Don't tell him I told you, but I understand there's a big birthday celebration for you tonight. He's not sure it's a good idea, but the Council outvoted him and pushed it through."

 

Max laughed and took a deep breath, dashing away the tears that threatened to fall.  "So you'll go first and I'll count to 100 and then come through."

 

"Perfect," Woollcott said, wiping his own eyes and then, giving the young man another smile, adjusted his own cloak and sword belt and stepped through the closet.

 

Watching him go, Max sat down heavily on the bed, the reality of the situation crashing down on him.  He bowed his head as scenes from his life flashed through his mind: school field trips, family vacations, sleep overs and movies, learning to drive and just hanging out at friends' homes.  It was the normal, boring childhood experiences of most middle class American children, with the exception of a massive secret that was never far from his mind.  He had put the word out that he was going to backpack around Europe this fall, taking it easy and exploring his options before deciding between grad schools or joining the work force in January.  After that, he figured, like most of his old high school friendships, these college friendships would drift apart.  A few unanswered emails, a few ignored friend requests and a disconnected cell phone and they would forget about him soon enough.  Standing up, he smiled ruefully at the idea of the occasional question at reunions about whatever happened to Max and wondered what the speculations would be.  Certainly nothing as exciting, or as terrifying, as the truth he was about to step through to.

 

 

Part Two:  Maximus                                                   

 

 

 

Looking around the room, Max smiled and felt himself struggling not to be overwhelmed.  The party, ostensibly held in his honor, was going full force, with small groups of people clustered together, laughing and talking and playing games. Many of them glanced in his direction, but few had approached him since he sat down at the small table and he wondered if they were afraid or already disappointed.  He thought his speech at the ceremony when he arrived had gone well and people had chatted with him during the initial reception and then during the slow, two hour ride to this base camp, but now he wasn't sure.  Briefly considering looking for a Council member he knew, he dismissed it as the coward's way out of the situation.  He should be better than that – had to be better than that.  Luckily, most of the games being played he at least recognized, so with a deep breath, he stood up and walked over to a small group of three men and a woman playing what looked to be darts.  He watched for a moment as the girl throwing with mixed results finished and then smiled.  "Can I give it a try?" he asked.

 

One of the men, a young guardsman who was assigned to him, but off duty for the evening smiled back, "Of course!"  Then, glancing at the woman, he added, "You certainly can't do any worse than Katie here."

 

"Hey!" she protested, shooting him a dirty look.   She turned to Max. "Ignore him, your Highness.  My brother can be an idiot at times."

 

"At times?" another guardsman in the group said with a laugh.

 

Max laughed with them and took the offered darts.  "So I'm aiming for the bull's-eye?" he asked.

 

"Not at first," another man, older and dressed better than the rest, said, stepping up.  "You get the most points if you work your way in from the outside.  So the white area, then the blue, then the red, and then the yellow, if you can."

 

Max nodded. "OK.  Promise not to laugh if I'm horrible at this?  I haven't done it in about five years."

 

"Like I said," the first guard replied, "you can't do any worse than my sister."

 

Taking a deep breath, Max aimed and managed not to completely humiliate himself with the four throws, even if none of them got remotely close to the yellow bull's-eye.  He shrugged as the group applauded, bowing slightly in the woman's direction.  "I think, despite your brother's prediction, you did better than I did."

 

She laughed. "Well, a broken clock is still right twice a day."  Then, bowing back to him, she added, "We met during the initial ceremony, but I'm sure all the names are a total blur. I'm Kate Shim, your Highness.  We are all very grateful that you're home!"  Turning to her brother and the second man, she said, "My brother, Jay and his friend, Peter Basel, both part of the camp's guard detail.  And one of their commanders, Major Siegel."

 

The older man stepped forward and bowed. "Welcome home, your Highness."

 

Max smiled at them and bowed back. "Thank you so much and for reintroducing yourselves.  There are a lot of new names."

 

The group laughed again and nodded before Jay said, "Our parents are longtime supporters of the Council. They've been Councilists since the beginning and have always supported you and your cause.  It cost them a lot, but they hung on because they knew it was the right side, the right cause."

 

"Thank you," Max said again with another smile.  "Your support and the support of your family mean so much to me.  It's because of it that I'm here today and I'm so grateful for your sacrifice."

 

"Your Highness," Major Siegel said after an awkward silence, "I was going to get some more food.  Would you like to walk with me and I'll be happy to reintroduce you to some of the people?"

 

Max nodded, grateful for the escape. "Thank you."  As they walked away, he saw Kate hit her brother on the arm and say something that caused him to give an embarrassed shrug. 

 

"It's a strange time for everyone," Siegel said, breaking the silence.  "Even though it's been almost a year of somewhat peace, people are still getting used to the idea."

 

"Of me, too?"

 

He nodded.  "Yes and that a monarch can be trusted."  Looking around the room, he added, "Plus, there is almost a generation that has grown up with war.  The idea of lasting peace and not just a brief snatch of time between battles can take some getting used to."

 

"Is that how you feel?" Max asked, looking at the other man.

 

Siegel nodded, "To a degree.  I'm 30, so while I certainly remember the peaceful times, all my adult life I've known war.  I've fought with the Councilists since I was 18."  He smiled. "I was actually always planning on being part of the Guards and was in military school when the war broke out."

 

Max stopped walking.  They were in a relatively quiet area and he was curious to hear this story and didn't want to be interrupted or overheard.  "What happened?"

 

Siegel glanced off into the distance for a moment, remembering.  "Queen Beatriz and her lover, Aliseo, came to visit us in school.  They gathered all of us together – probably 300 students – and told us that the Council was trying to take over the country and that she needed our help to keep what the Gods had given her.  The Councilors were revolting, she said, unwilling to acknowledge her rights to govern and trying to force her into accepting their ultimate control."  He paused and gave Max a small smile. "She was a very good speaker, very passionate, and knew how to rally her troops.  I think almost the entire senior class joined her that day."

 

"What about you and your class?"

 

"I was in my first year – 15 – and too young to join.  But I wanted to, so badly," he admitted.  "I remember holiday break came a few weeks later and I went home and begged my parents to let me join her, told them I wanted to drop out of school, that I could learn everything I needed to in her army and that I'd go back to school as soon as the war was over in a few months."  He laughed. "It was my only chance, I thought, to see a real battle and prove what a man I was."

 

Max chuckled. "I bet that went over well.  I know my uncles would have killed me for that wonderful idea."

 

Siegel shook his head ruefully. "Yes, I ended up sleeping on my stomach for two nights after the thrashing my father gave me a week later when I refused to let the subject drop and continued to fight him about it after he said no. I was upsetting my mother, he said, and being a disrespectful fool to boot."

 

Max ducked his head slightly at the easy reference to discipline.  Woollcott had spanked him multiple times growing up for various misdeeds, but it was certainly not something that was normal among his friends, at least not to his knowledge.  "But you joined the Council's side?" he asked a second later.

 

"I did," he nodded.  "My parents were both strong Councilists, like the Shims, and they advised me to keep my head down at school, focus on my studies and see what I thought when I was older.  The Queen had installed some of her people in the school by my third year and my interactions with them and what I heard from my parents and their friends convinced me of the true way."  He shook his head. "I left a week before graduation, along with several other friends.  We had all heard rumors that her troops were planning on rounding students up at graduation and shipping them off to her troops.  It was clear that there would be no way to turn down that dubious honor and remain free."  He laughed, shaking off the memory. "But that's neither here nor there, and it was a long time ago.  We won and by the grace of the Gods, it will be another 500 years before the next civil war." 

 

Max knew his cue and responded, "The Gods willing."

 

Siegel smiled. "Excellent.  Now, shall it be food or introductions?"

 

Max thought for a moment. "Maybe we can make our way toward the food and you can introduce me to anyone we meet on the way?  I skipped lunch and I'm hungry."

 

"Then yes, let's focus on the food," Siegel said with a smile and motioned the younger man forward.  "Trust me, the people will be around for a while."

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

"I see that Major Siegel is walking his Highness around and they seem to be getting on well," Luc said quietly to Woollcott as the two men stood on a small balcony a floor above the party and looked down on it.  "I'm glad the Council decided to go along with his suggestion and allow him to gradually get to know Max over the course of the next three weeks."

 

Woollcott nodded. "I'm glad, too. I think it'll make things smoother and be less of a shock to Max if their relationship evolves somewhat more naturally."  He sipped at his cider.  "I met Siegel on several different trips over the past six months and agree with the Oracle's choice, even if it's not official yet.  He's even tempered and calm. I think he will be able to give Max the steadying hand he'll need to gain confidence in his own abilities.  He can hold him tight and keep him safely on course."

 

"Like any good lover should," Luc agreed.

 

Woollcott took another sip of cider.  "Like Marie does for you?"  Luc jerked sharply and Woollcott grinned and gave him a rueful shrug.

 

"How did you know?  We've been keeping it very quiet," Luc asked, blushing slightly.

 

"I knew during the first Council meeting." Woollcott grinned, bumping against his friend and raising his glass. "And a toast to you both.  I think it's wonderful."

 

Luc laughed, ducking his head. "I'm too old to feel this way, but I swear to you, Kent, she looks at me and I feel my stomach twist in anticipation.  She just has to whisper how much she's looking forward to bonding with me, or to fucking me hard bent over her desk, or allowing me to bond with her on the sofa in my office, and I almost come."  He laughed again, his blush deepening. "I'm perpetually half hard even after two years together and she knows it. I always thought I wanted to be the one pursuing,  the Gods know I spent enough time at it, but now I love being the one caught and held firmly."

 

Bumping Luc again, Woollcott grinned. "Like I said, it's wonderful and I'm thrilled for you both."

 

"I tell you, I'm looking forward to this winter when we can retire to her manor. I know there will still be Council business, but it's slower and quieter and we will be able to relax together. Hopefully." He took a sip of his drink, shaking his head. "It's so different there. Her province is more formal than mine. We scarcely ever use last names; there, everyone stands on ceremony. It takes some getting used to."

 

Woollcott chuckled. "Does she want you to become Councilor Deet-Oceana?"

 

Luc laughed. "Don't give her ideas.  I'm just looking forward to settling in as hers, figuring out how we're going to be together, this winter when things are quiet and we have a chance to actually breathe."

 

"The Gods willing, Max will be safely tucked away with Siegel, too, as they spend their days--"

 

"And nights," Luc interrupted with a laugh.

 

"Oh, I'm sure," he agreed. "They'll be getting to know each other and the country will have a chance to catch its breath.  Last winter there was still too much going on, but this year winter will be good.  Spring will certainly be a time for rebirth."

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

"So you're clear on your actions, your Highness?" Gonick asked, pacing around the tent in the early dawn.

 

Max smiled at him. "Very, Councilor.  Can you please sit down while I finish my breakfast?  Your pacing is making me nervous."

 

Chivas glanced up and then motioned toward an empty chair. "Sit, please, Councilor Gonick.  His Highness is well aware of what he's doing today.  Councilor Woollcott and I have explained it to him."

 

"I know, but this is very important," Gonick interrupted with a frown.  "If he fails …"

 

"I won't fail."

 

"But if you do …" the Councilor persisted with a frown.

 

"I won't fail," Max repeated sharply.  His appetite ruined, he put down his fork and pushed away from the table.  "Please excuse me, Councilors." Standing up and giving a quick bow in their general direction, he stalked outside.

 

Gonick watched him leave before turning to Chivas, "If he fails …"

 

"He won't," Chivas said firmly.  "Now drop it, or you can make your own way to Maderia.  King Maximus has enough real worries. I will not have you undermining his confidence for no reason."

 

Max walked quickly away from the tent, frowning as two guards followed him at several paces.  They didn't speak, but their mere presence bothered him.  He turned and forced himself to smile at them. "Thank you so much, but I don't need protection.  I'm in the middle of the camp and am just walking over to see my horse.  You're both excused."

 

The two guards glanced nervously at each other and Peter, who he had met three nights before, spoke first.  "I'm very sorry, your Highness, but we were told--"

 

Max waved off his apology. "It's fine, Peter, never mind. I'm sorry for putting you in a difficult position.  Follow me all you want."  He smiled at both men before turning around and continuing to the small area roped off for the horses. The large, dappled stallion he routinely rode approached him eagerly. Picking an apple from the basket sitting by the hay bales, he ducked under the rope and fed it to his mount, stroking the animal's nose while it ate the fruit.  He tried hard not to think of the two men standing a discreet distance away, but still watching him closely.  In reality, he thought, they were not watching him as much as watching the area and for anyone to approach him. 

 

Max was neither an idiot nor naοve.  He had read a lot in the last few years about the culture of Atlantis and about his own family.  While his mother had had only one sister, there were also numerous cousins and their children who had been approved to rule by the Oracles  and, more importantly, been tested by the war and gathered much support as strong leaders.  While none of them, according to the Council, had put forth any claim against him, neither had any of them come to meet him yet. The Council had promised they would be there to pledge their allegiance in three weeks when he was, the Gods willing, crowned.  However, thrones had certainly changed hands before through convenient deaths.  How many Council members or guards or citizens would actually risk another war for him if a strong, proven cousin challenged his right to the throne?  He heard footsteps behind him and he jerked, startled out of his dark thoughts.

 

"Ignore Gonick," Chivas said quietly as he walked up next to Max.  "He doesn't know you like I know you."

 

Max swallowed hard. "I won't fail, Uncle Marc."

 

"I know you know you won't, Max," Chivas said, pulling him into a quick hug before releasing him.

 

Max smiled. "I should get going though and make that belief a fact.  If I wait much longer, the Gods only know what sort of trouble he'll stir up, or how much of a state he'll get himself into."

 

Chivas winked. "If you drive him crazy enough, maybe he'll resign.  He has a son who just turned 20 and can take his father's place in a year."

 

Max laughed and shook his head, looking around the camp.  "No, I think if the average age of my followers gets much lower I'll be accused of leading a tribe of children." 

 

Chivas gave a resigned shrug. "The realities of war.  The old and the young tend to remain while the middle generation is lost."

 

Max nodded, absently looking around at the half dismantled camp and at the guards, servants, and followers bustling around packing the rest.   Taking a deep breath, he swung into his saddle and smiled down at Chivas. "Will I see you at the end of the day?"

 

 "Of course, just follow the road and you'll find us."

 

"I won't fail," Max said firmly.  He touched his heels to his horse, urging him into a brisk trot.  Ten minutes after he had left camp, he spun around at the sound of horses coming up fast behind him.  Reining his horse in, he faced them, wondering what had gone wrong or changed in the carefully laid out plans.  "Major Siegel, what's wrong?  Did Councilor Chivas send for me?"

 

Siegel frowned. "Your Highness, the only problem is that you were to notify us that you were leaving so we would be able to go with you."

 

"No," Max said, shaking his head slightly, "I'm supposed to do this alone.  I was told this was something I did alone."

 

Siegel sighed quietly. "There is alone for Andros or me," he said, gesturing at himself and the rider alongside him, "and then there is alone for you, your Highness.  Those two things are not the same.  For this mission, you will be alone in the sense that there are only two of us accompanying you at a distance when you walk into the town to ask its people for their support and their endorsement. They won't think anything of our presence.  In fact, they will notice us less than they notice your horse and they will certainly not see us as a threat."

 

"But the stories all say that the monarch is alone! I'm to go in, ask for an audience with the town leaders, hear their concerns and hopefully gain their support.  How can I be alone and do that if you're there?" Max protested, looking between them for a moment.  Andros, the younger guard, glanced away, embarrassed to be caught in the middle of this discussion.  Seeing his reaction, Max felt himself blush and wondered if he sounded like a child protesting that Santa had to be real because the stories said so, while everyone around him knew the truth.  He glanced up for a moment, fighting the sudden sense of being overwhelmed and then smiled at the two guards.  "All right, so I'm alone on my mission, with company."

 

Siegel chuckled. "That's one way to look at it."  He turned to the younger guard and said in a firm voice, "Ride about 20 yards ahead and serve as scout for us.  Rondaia is about three hours ahead."

 

Max laughed ruefully as Andros quickly trotted ahead.

 

Siegel smiled back at him, inviting him to share the joke. "What is it?"    

 

Max shook his head. "Nothing, really.  Just …"  He paused, lost in thought for a moment and again feeling foolish.  "I'm just a bit envious of your being able to take such a tone, give a command and for someone else to do it without a moment's hesitation."

 

Resuming their trot, Siegel gave him a friendly grin. "You'll get there too soon enough, your Highness.  Remember, Andros has been obeying my commands for the last four years.  Between our unit commander, General Anthony Borges, and me, our men learned very quickly that delaying after an order was given meant mucking out the stalls at midnight or pulling guard duty at 3 am."

 

"In the rain?" Max grinned back at him.

 

Siegel laughed and nodded.  "See, you're learning already."

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Gathering his thoughts and pushing down his rising nerves, Max gracefully slide off his horse, thankful for the years of riding he had done.  He wasn't stiff or sore and could walk easily toward the gathered crowd and his first trial.  He bowed to the small cluster of elders surrounding a middle-aged man, the mayor of the town, seated in a large chair.  "I am Maximus, of the House of Anador, and I come to ask for your support in my claim to the Throne of Atlas.  I cannot and will not rule this country without the support and consent of its people and without understanding them. I know this country and its customs and I am eager to learn of its people and how I can serve you best as your King."  He smiled, pleased with how his slow, deliberate words carried over the hushed crowd.  He and the Council had worked hard on his speech, tweaking the historical words to fit his own situation.  "May I approach and speak with you, leaders of Rondaia, and give you a chance to speak with me, so that we might better understand each other, learn from each other and give each other mutual support?"  His stomach knotted as the elders turned to the mayor and began to whisper among themselves.

 

Breaking apart a long moment later, the mayor stood up and extended his hand. "Welcome, Maximus of the House of Anador.  We recognize the legitimacy of your claim and look forward to speaking with you so that you may better understand the people you wish to rule and so that we, your potential subjects, may better understand you."

 

Max bowed deeply. "Thank you."  He followed the group into a small tavern that sparkled from an aggressive cleaning. It was decorated with flowers and boasted a richly laid table of a hearty brunch.  Rondaia was the oldest and largest town in the area and the town's elders had known, once the general location of the portal had been revealed, that it would be the aspiring monarch's first stop on his three week long traditional pilgrimage around the country asking for support.  Rondaia had gone all out to impress their future King at his very first stop.  All looked forward to the private time they would spend with him, lightly championing their own personal and local causes and needs.

 

"We are pleased," the mayor said, motioning for Max to sit on his right while he took the head of the table, "to offer you the best food anywhere in Atlantis."

 

Max smiled. "I look forward to enjoying it.  My uncles have long boasted of your famous olive bread and lime chicken."

 

The woman sitting across from him smiled. "Once you have olive bread from Rondaia, you'll demand that it's imported weekly to the palace."

 

"Assuming we give your our support,” one of the elders said.

 

The Mayor's smile and small wink belied the seriousness of the words and allowed Max's stomach to relax enough to eat and enjoy the wonderful food offered and excellent conversation.  For the next two hours, he listened to stories of the war, how it had all but crippled the trade routes the area depended on, how the taxes had eaten into the small profits of the farms and how it had created a labor shortage that further ate reduced profits.  Thanks to his last few months of study and his earlier business education, Max was able to speak truthfully and knowledgably about the Council's short term and long term plans.  "I honestly pledge that things will get better."

 

"They can't get much worse," an older man joked, causing laughter to fill the room.

 

The mayor sipped at his chilled fruit juice, studying the younger man, and the room fell silent. "I must say I am very impressed, Maximus.  You are well versed on the problems of the country, especially considering the short time you have spent here."

 

"I've been raised with Atlantean traditions, in a house that celebrated Atlantean customs," Max said firmly.  "I look forward to continuing my education on our rich heritage."

 

The mayor nodded. "However, there is a key point that we have not yet discussed, but which we all agree is crucial."  He looked around the room and saw the other leaders nodding slowly, knowing what was coming.  His gaze returned to Max. "Even though we do not traditionally care about private matters, we must have your assurance that you will not repeat the sins of the past.  You must have a Consort and you must be willing to bond with him and accept his personal guidance."  When Max nodded, he continued, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely.  We have seen it throughout our history and these rules are in place to create a lasting peace.  When those rules were put aside for personal desires and foolish whims, we all suffered."  He paused, letting his words sink into the silence before asking in a steady voice, "Do we have your pledge, upon the honor of the House of Anador, that you will accept these conditions and submit yourself to your Consort's attentions and guidance?"

 

The directness of the question hit Max hard and made his automatic answer catch in his throat.  He took a sip of sweet wine and then looked up, briefly making eye contact with those around the table before turning his attention to the mayor.  He bowed his head in his direction and then said in a loud and clear voice, "Upon my honor and the honor of the House of Anador, you have my vow to willingly submit to the personal guidance offered by my Consort."  His stomach twisted, but he held himself steady despite his desire to squirm at the blunt words.

 

The mayor studied him for a moment and then rose. "If you would excuse us for an hour or so, Maximus, the elders of Rondaia and I must discuss this matter." 

 

Taking their cue, the assembled villagers stood and filed out behind the mayor, several of them looking at Max and offering small smiles and a few winks.

 

Max watched them go and when the door shut behind them, he laid his head down on the table and tried to breathe.  He thought it had gone well, they seemed to like him, but the reality of what he had just pledged hit him hard.  Woollcott had been forthright about the concept of discipline in relationships, the Council had explained the idea of a Consort to him and he saw the wisdom behind it, but until this moment, making that vow in those words, the reality had not sunk in.  He stood up suddenly, pacing the room as his mind rebelled at the word "submit."  He had always had a knee jerk reaction to the idea of someone he didn't respect having any authority over him and it had occasionally caused problems in school.  What if he didn't respect the Consort the Council picked?  His uncles had both assured him numerous times that if he and his chosen Consort did not mesh well, the Oracles would select someone else for him.  They assured him there was a long list of candidates and that he would be able to find someone they all agreed on.  But how would his people take the news that he had broken his vow to willingly accept a Consort?  If Rondaia was anything to judge by, they would all consider his submission to his chosen Consort essential.  But how could he submit to someone for the rest of his life?  His mind boggled at the idea.

 

"Hi," a voice said.

 

Max turned, jolted out his musings by the young woman in the doorway.  He bowed. "Hello, I'm sorry I didn't see you there.  I was just lost in thought."

 

 "And not very pleasant ones if the look on your face is any indication."

 

He shook his head and forced a smile. "I'm sorry … just a bit worried."

 

"Don't be, they all look happy or at least most of them do; I don't think Mrs. Paga has ever been happy in her life.  I'm Celah.  My father, Mayor Vita, asked that I show you around.  They're going to be a bit longer and he doesn't want you to be bored." She smiled and moved closer to Max. "I'm sure we can find something better to do than standing around here.  There's a wonderful old bridge spanning an amazing waterfall, or we can walk down and see the olive groves.  They're not quite ready to be picked yet, but it's still something to see all the trees loaded with fruit, plump and just begging to be plucked."  When he nodded, she smiled and tucked her hand into his arm. "Let's go out the back, otherwise you'll get stuck talking and I'll never get to show you anything fun or exciting."

 

The feel of her breast brushing against his hand as she leaned into him, coupled with her teasing smile, made his cock twitch as it reminded him that it had been several months since he had been with anyone.  Throughout college, sex had always been a fun, if slightly rarer than he would have liked, pastime.  The looming responsibilities of kingship had always precluded any ideas of forming a long term partnership.  Instead, his encounters were casual hookups and he never hinted at anything more, even as he watched friends begin to pair off and move in together. 

 

She smiled again as if reading his thoughts and gave a happy laugh, bumping against him as she brushed a hand down his chest, resting it briefly there.  "Lint," she said with a smile.

 

Max laughed and brushed at her shoulder, dipping onto the top swell of her breast as he repeated, "Lint."

 

"Maybe I should go put my fuzzy vest on again," she said.  "See if I can pick up more lint … elsewhere."

 

He grinned, the stress of the last week forgotten as his 21 year old hormones took over.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Thirty minutes later, Max grinned down at her, stilling his thrusts for a moment while she wrapped her legs tighter around his waist.  "You think this is what your father had in mind when he suggested finding something better to do?"

 

She grinned back at him, shifting slightly to urge him on, her hand dancing across herself.  "I don't know, but it's what I had in mind when I volunteered.  Watching you ride in, legs wide around the horse, cock half hard--"

 

"I was not!" Max protested, leaning down and kissing her deeply while she squirmed and laughed.  Resuming his rhythm, he alternated between teasingly short strokes at the sensitive areas around her opening and hard thrusts that penetrated her fully and made her gasp and moan with pleasure. By the Gods, he still wasn't sure exactly how they had gotten from looking at trees to naked underneath one on a large pile of empty bags.  She had teased and flirted, touching his arm and chest while making innuendo-filled comments.  After a few attempts to resist her, he had given up and gone with it.  Now they were here and his cock, in its protective sheaf she had so conveniently had tucked into a pocket, pulsed and throbbed before he gave one last push and came hard, shuddering against her. 

 

She laughed, throwing back her head as her hand quickly brought her to orgasm just after him.

 

Pulling free a long moment later, he lay on his back and looked up at the clouds through the trees and felt himself come down from the high.  He glanced over at her and smiled.  "My first time."

 

She rolled over on her stomach and shook her head, "No way will I believe you were a virgin until just a moment ago."

 

He laughed. "No, but it's my first time having sex here in Atlantis."  He eyed her bare butt and felt his cock stir again, briefly wondering about the condom she had boldly pulled out of her skirt pocket and put on him.  It wasn't latex or rubber and seemed to have somehow to have absorbed his semen, making him wonder if it was meant to be used several times during one session.

 

Wiggling an eyebrow at him, she laughed again. "Even that I have a hard time believing, your Highness," she teased.

 

Max turned slightly more serious. "I think everyone is too intimidated by me or something.  Most people don't really talk to me, I mean a few do, of course, but--"

 

She leaned over and kissed him deeply, her hand going to his already half hard cock.  "Well, I'm not intimidated by you, but I'm certainly impressed… do you want to impress me again?"  Laughing, she spread her legs as he lunged, rolling on top of her to thrust in from behind. 

 

"I’ll show you impressive,” he said, wrapping an arm around her waist and bringing them both to their knees as he began to fuck her again as she laughed and moan and squirmed beneath him.

 

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo 

 

Carefully walking back to the village twenty minutes later, Max glanced at her. "I hope I didn't put you in a situation that made you feel uncomfortable?"  The sudden realization that he has just had sex, twice, with a woman whose name he had just learned, despite the perceived differences in their social status and power level, made him squirm slightly as he remembered numerous lessons on ethics and respect throughout his schooling.

 

She grinned and squeezed his hand affectionately. "So all my laughing, my coming twice and smiling like an idiot weren't convincing?"  She studied him a bit longer and then turned more serious. "This was fun, that's all this was.  Sex, especially with protection like we used, is meant to be fun, casual, a great way to spend an afternoon in the sun. That's it:  no bonding, no heavy conversations, just enjoying being human and connecting with someone else."

 

Max felt a bit of weight lift off him.  He had certainly had a few one night stands in college, but it was a relief to hear her reiterate the Atlantean attitude that he had read about in books and seen around camp.  People were discreet, but the tents were fairly close together. As he had lain awake in the quiet night, thinking about what was before him; he couldn't help but hear the sounds of lovemaking all around him.

 

"You did surprise me though," Celah said as they neared the town.

 

"How so?" Max was curious.

 

"I had gotten the impression from my father that the rumor floating around was that your soon to be Consort was a man, someone with military experience. I know there are several female leaders as well, but my impression was that it was a man.  From that, I assumed you preferred men.  When I saw how handsome you were, I was disappointed, but then when you started to flirt back, I figured I'd take a chance that your preference wasn't exclusive."

 

Shrugging, he remained quiet for a long moment.  "I've always felt like going both ways." 

 

She laughed, leaning over and giving Max a quick kiss before they turned the corner and were once again on the main village road.  "Very Atlantean of you, I must say.  Sex is too much fun to exclude half the eligible population.  I know I like to keep all my options open."  She grinned as he slowly smiled at her and then nodded in the direction of the town square. "Looks like you're about to be on again."

 

Max took a deep breath and smiled as they approached the cluster of elders standing by the tavern.  Celah slipped away and he smiled at her, catching her eye one last time before turning to face the mayor and his council.  Off to the side, he saw his two guards standing, arms crossed.  Andros was casually watching the crowd, but Siegel was focused on him and looked displeased for some reason. Pushing the question aside, he focused his attention on the men who held his future in their hands.

 

"I trust you've had an enjoyable time and our delay did not bore you," Mayor Vita said with a smile.

 

"Not at all," Max assured him.  "It gave me a wonderful and very educational opportunity to see more of the countryside, visit your magnificent olive groves and better understand the local economy." 

 

The Mayor motioned toward the raised dais where they had initially gathered. "Shall we?  The town council has made its decision."

 

Max felt his stomach tighten and the confidence that had built up during their initial talk began to waiver.  Forcing himself to look calm and controlled, he followed the mayor onto the stage and looked out across the gathered crowd.  It wasn't huge, but it was certainly large and impressive and he wondered what they were all thinking as they studied him.  He hoped he wasn't a disappointment to them.

 

The crowd immediately fell silent as Mayor Vita began to speak. "Citizens of Rondaia, you have trusted me with the task of leading you and guiding our wonderful city for the past five years.  During this time, we have endured war and hardship. We are now able, by the grace of the Gods, to celebrate peace, a peace that will hopefully last for another 500 years."  He motioned to the younger man and smiled. "Your leaders and I are confident that this man – Maximus of the House of Anador - is the rightful King and will be the one to ensure that peace is a reality once again."  He smiled broadly as the crowd erupted into applause and cheers.  Raising his voice louder, he said, "The city and all the areas under the control of Rondaia are pleased to offer their full support and add their voice to the endorsement of our future King – Maximus!"

 

Max could almost feel the rush of air caused by so much applauding and cheering and clapping.  He was momentarily overwhelmed by relief.  For the most part he had been assured that his progress through the towns was almost a formality, but several of the more pessimistic Councilors had questioned the towns' willingness to accept a young, unknown and untried leader over any other potential royal candidates.  Taking a deep breath, Max smiled and waved at the crowd, causing them to cheer louder. 

 

"Maximus! King Maximus!"

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo 

 

Max rode from the town with two of Rondaia's elders on either side, casually chatting as they basked in their future King's personal attention.  He turned and saw several wagons and numerous horses following him.  The idea of an ever growing procession had seemed strange to him when it had been first explained, but now the idea of going from town to town, asking for the support of its people and picking up representatives, began to make sense.  Each town enjoyed personal time from him and had a chance to stand out and each representative who rode with him enjoyed personal attention.  The relationships formed during these personal meetings would serve as the backbone of his entire rule.

 

The small group from Rondaia would join his camp and dine and travel with him as they picked up support from other towns.  By the time they crossed into the capital city of Maderia, Max's initial camp of 45 would be swollen to five times that many, adding a sense of excitement and demonstrating his people's overwhelming support for his rule. 

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

"It's always been done," Woollcott had explained over a small private dinner after a Council meeting.  "It's tradition. Different towns in different areas vie with each other to participate.  Every town considers it an honor to be chosen for the Coronation Procession."

 

Marie had laughed out loud. "They will be fighting over who gets to ride with you, your Highness.  It's a big deal, but nothing to worry about.  It's all fun and games for everyone, material for a story to be told over the years to family and friends."  Her eyes softened slightly and then she frowned, glancing down at her hands.  She smiled as Luc reached over and lightly touched her.

 

Max waited for her to finish and when she didn't, he asked, "What?  Something I should know?" It was a private dinner with only his uncles and their two closest and oldest friends and he had little fear of looking foolish or asking questions in front of them.

 

Marie blinked back a few tears and shook her head. "No, just an old memory of the fun I had as a young woman on another Procession."  She smile at him and winked. "There's lots of fun for the young and unattached people in a Procession, especially when the Queen is young herself and a bit … adventurous."

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Marie's words at that dinner sprang suddenly to mind and Max shifted in the saddle, feeling his cock respond to the memory of the girl and the olive grove.  Forcing himself to focus on the two Rondaian men riding beside him, he nodded as they explained how new trade routes would help improve the economy in the area.

 

It was growing dark by the time they made it into the recently moved camp and Max slide tiredly from his saddle, passing the reins off to a waiting servant.  "Gentlemen," he said, smiling at the two representatives, "thank you for such an enjoyable and educational ride and, of course, for your support."  He waved at an open area, "Please, make yourself at home and I'll send some men over to help you settle in for the night."

 

"Thank you, your Highness," one of the men said with a bow.

 

Walking stiffly toward his own tent, Max sighed as he pushed inside and stretched.  "Thank you," he said as a servant handed him a glass of chilled water before sinking down and letting the man pull off his boots.  "Probably don't want to get too close to those," he muttered, wiggling his stockinged feet.

 

The servant laughed softly. "It's been a very long day, I'm sure, your Highness, but Councilor Woollcott and  Councilor Chivas asked to see you when you returned.  With your approval, I'll have them notified."

 

"Of course, of course," Max said with a nod, "Please."  Nodding his thanks as another servant brought a small plate of cheese and bread, he studied the food for a moment before deciding he was too tired to eat right then and that a bath was in order before he could think about dinner.  He leaned his head back against the chair and closed his eyes, smiling as the events of the day replayed in his mind.

 

"Let him sleep," a voice said quietly.

 

"I'm awake," he said automatically, slowly opening his eyes and blinking in the lantern light of the tent.

 

Chivas grinned at him, sitting down in a chair across from him. "Congratulations."

 

He glanced up and saw Woollcott grinning back at him as well.  "Thanks," he said with a laugh, feeling the tiredness ebb as he began to tell the story of his day to his uncles, leaving out only the girl and the olive grove.

 

"I knew you could do it," Woollcott said twenty minutes later, patting his shoulder as the story wrapped up.  "Gonick is an ass and the sooner we can get his son, the better."

 

"What makes you think his son would better, Uncle Wooly?" Max asked between bites of the food brought in earlier.

 

Chivas frowned slightly, nodding at the plate.  "The food is not going to run away, Max.  Maybe try chewing it?"

 

Woollcott laughed. "Leave the boy alone, Marc."

 

"I'm starving," Max protested and smiled at them. 

 

"Gonick's son," Woollcott said, returning to the original question, "has to be much better for two reasons:  he was raised for almost his entire life away from Gonick at a temple complex that served as a school and safe house for many other children whose parents were avowed Councilists and--"

 

"The Gods know he couldn't be any worse," Chivas interrupted with a grin.

 

Woollcott laughed. "There is that, too, but I was thinking that judging from the few times I've spoken with him, he seems to have been blessed with genes from the maternal rather than the paternal side.  His mother's family has produced some wonderful thinkers, Council members, and leaders."

 

Listening to his uncles laugh and banter back and forth with each other and him made Max relax and allowed him to momentarily forget the strangeness of the situation and the stress.  He didn't feel alone, he didn't feel out of place or that everyone was watching him out of the corner of their eyes just waiting for him to fail and prove, again, how much he didn't belong.  Allowing himself to give into tiredness, he leaned back in the chair and let the warm voices and safe feeling wash over him.

 

"Come on, boy," Woollcott whispered, tugging him slightly up.  "To bed with you."

 

"It's OK, Uncle Wooly," he mumbled.  "I've got it."

 

Woollcott chuckled. "I think that's debatable, but it's OK, we've got you."

 

Max felt himself lowered onto the bed and immediately rolled onto his side, eyes still closed.  He sighed as he felt someone's hand brush the hair away from his face and settle a blanket on him.  "Thank you," he mumbled.

 

Chivas watched Max slip back into sleep before turning to his lover. "Siegel wants to have a word with him tomorrow about this afternoon's little tryst."

 

Woollcott nodded. "I know and he should, but …" He paused, looking down at the sleeping younger man. "I'm against him or the Council making the announcement yet.  I want them to get to know each other better and we still have over two weeks."

 

Max stirred. "What's two weeks?"

 

"Nothing," Chivas said, leaning down and kissing him on the forehead.  "Go to sleep, boy."  He watched Max for a minute before turning back to Woollcott and nodding.  "I know and I do think you're right."  He took his hand and kissed it. "Come on, let's go back to our tent and we can talk about it.  He's out for the night."

 

Walking out of the tent, Woollcott squeezed Chivas's hand and bumped up against him. "I'll tell you what's bothering me, Marc."

 

"What?"

 

Woollcott gave a half shrug. "I want them to develop a relationship that's built on some degree of friendship and mutual liking first.  I'm afraid if we simply present Siegel as the Oracle's selection for Consort, they'll never have a chance …. Max will never have a chance to develop that.  There will always be this initial relationship and I don't think that's how it should be.  First, there should be friendship, and then everything else can build on that."

 

"We didn't have a friendship first," Chivas reminded him as they stepped into their own tent.  One of the servants had left the light dimly burning, but he made no move to turn it brighter.

 

Woollcott grinned, moving closer.  "No, but that's because I had been lusting after you for years at that point and knew exactly what I wanted.  I wasn't about to take any chances that you'd slip through my fingers."

 

Chivas laughed, pulling his lover closer and beginning to rub his butt through the cotton of his pants.  "I love a man who isn't afraid to go after what he wants," he whispered, leaning down and kissing him. 

 

Reaching up, Woollcott pulled him closer, opening his mouth slightly and allowing the kiss to deepen and grow more insistent.  He spread his legs slightly to give the other man's roaming hand better access and then shuddered as his butt was squeezed and then slapped lightly.

 

"Off with these," Chivas ordered, pulling back and smiling.  "I'm not afraid to go after exactly what I want either."

 

Woollcott grinned, quickly beginning to undress.  "Good, because I wouldn't be with anyone who was."

 

"No," Chivas said, catching his arm as he began to move toward the small double bed, "not there."  He pulled Woollcott closer and began to kiss him deeply again, his tongue thrusting in and dominating his lover's mouth, while his hand cupped his lover's naked balls and massaged them gently, his thumb running up and down the hardening cock. 

 

"Take what you want," Woollcott whispered, briefly wondering if the words were too cheesy, but not knowing how else to express his utter desire to simply be fucked hard.  They had made love multiple times since the peace, but each time had been slow and loving, quiet and steady, as they reconnected and began to rebuild some part of themselves that had gone dormant over the long years of stress and separation. 

 

Chivas laughed, breaking off the kiss for a long moment while he studied his lover.  "I intend to," he said, kissing him again briefly before moving them both to a bench next to the table where they typically worked and ate.  "Hands on the bench," he said quietly, putting a hand on his lover's back and bending him forward slightly.  "Spread your legs," he whispered, leaning forward as one hand stroked the bare butt. "And you're not going to come tonight, so you can push that thought out of your mind immediately."  Moving his hand to his lover's cock and giving it a firm pat, he added, "Plus, if your hands go anywhere near this, I wouldn't count on coming until we're safely tucked away at my home."

 

Woollcott moaned and shivered as he obeyed, spreading his legs wide and closing his eyes for a moment.  He could easily picture himself, bent over and waiting to be fucked, and his cock pulsed and throbbed in happy anticipation.  He shivered again as his lover stroked his back, fondling his butt and spreading his cheeks wide to expose his opening.  "Marc," he whimpered as a rough finger teasingly pushed inside, only to be pulled back a moment later.  Twisting, he tried to see what his lover was doing, but his position and the dim light of the tent prevented him.

 

"Shh…"

 

Closing his eyes again, Woollcott sank into the sensation of giving himself fully over to his lover's control as his cock hardened and his mind filled with long ago memories of similar acts over the years.  He moaned and arched as a hard cock slick with lube began to press into him, sliding and teasing, slowly opening him a fraction at a time.

 

"I want to enjoy the view," Chivas whispered, learning close and stroking his bare side, "of you opening to accept me, of my body disappearing into yours."

 

"Yes," he said, his voice thick.  Bowing his head, he shivered again and bit back a cry of pleasure as the cock slid slowly into him, stretching and filling him. 

 

"Beautiful."

 

Later, Woollcott shifted on the small bed, his cock still pleasantly hard and his butt aching from being taken twice that evening, once hard and deep as he bent over the bench and then again, slowly and gently as they kissed, curled up together in bed.  Now his lover was asleep, still half inside of him, but sated for the moment.  The shifting drove the cock into him a bit more and he felt his cock give a happy twitch in response to the pressure.  His last thought before he drifted off to sleep was a wish for Max's happiness in a similar relationship.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

"I want to tell him that if he pulls a stunt like that again, I'll bend him over the nearest table or fence and take my belt to him," Siegel said sharply, with a frown. 

 

Woollcott bit back a laugh and instead focused his attention on his morning tea.

 

"Major Siegel," Chivas said in his best diplomatic voice, "please do not take this question to be criticism or, in any way, disapproval of your desire to discipline Max."  He waited until the other man reluctantly nodded, before continuing, "Is your anger over the fact that he slipped out the back of the tavern without notifying you and the other guard, which left him alone and without protection and you unaware of the situation?"  He paused, eyeing the other man. "Or is it the fact that he decided to have sex with someone else and you already consider him yours, to some degree?"  He smiled at the younger man and then briefly in his lover's direction. "If it's a mixture of the two, I can certainly understand.  It's one thing to know on an intellectual level that the King has the right to have sex with others and another to actually be aware that your lover is dallying with someone else."

 

Siegel glanced away and gave a small nod a moment later. "I admit that there is a certain amount of truth to your assumption, Councilor Chivas.  While I am extremely frustrated that his Highness failed to notify either myself or the other guard of his movements, I understand that such an arrangement is new to him and will take some time to get used to.  I can understand how notifying us never crossed his mind.  My discipline would not be to punish him as much as to stress the importance of such notification and to deliver a small taste of the harsher consequences that would result next time."

 

Woollcott smiled. "And the second part?"

 

Siegel flushed slightly and bowed his head in Chivas's direction. "That too has a certain truth to it.  His Highness's actions with Mayor Vita's daughter do lead me to question his eventual interest in me and how he will view our pending relationship."  He smiled, coloring more and added, "Plus, as you noted, I have been aware of him and our relationship for the past six months.  Even though I agree with the Council's decision to encourage friendship and our getting to know each other first and stay with the tradition of the Oracles making the final announcement of the Consort appointment, it puts me in an awkward situation where I find myself wanting to take actions …"

 

"…such as bending him over the nearest table for various activities," Woollcott said with a smile, pouring Siegel some tea.

 

"…and finding myself unable to do so," he finished with a nod.  Taking a sip of tea, he shrugged. "I know that the Oracles have selected me as his Consort, but I also know that that appointment is not yet official and will not be for two weeks.  Yet I am already finding myself very much drawn to him and now this stunt …"  He shook his head as he thought about what could have happened.  "I'm not sure how best to deal with the situation of knowing what I know and still waiting for it to be official."

 

Chivas glanced at his lover and nodded for him to continue.

 

"If I may, Major," Woollcott said with a smile, pushing a basket of rolls in his direction, "I would encourage you to put aside any knowledge of your pending relationship and even your current role as one of his chief guards.  Talk to Borges about it, if you need to, and arrange for someone else to assume that role.  I'm sure you have several men under you who could step in now instead of waiting until your new appointment.  Instead of being worried about his safety, just worry about getting to know him and him getting to know you.  Strike up a friendship with him, tell him about growing up here and about the war and ask him questions about growing up in Chicago."

 

"I think he would enjoy that too," Chivas said.  "Max is very much a people person, he had a big circle of friends in all his schools and even though he wasn't extremely close to any of them during the last couple of years, I think that was more from knowledge of what was to come than from lack of desire."

 

Woollcott nodded in approval. "Plus, that will make things easier for him to accept when the Oracles makes their formal announcement in a couple of weeks.  He'll already know and, hopefully, like you."

 

"If he has already made that step, then the rest will go much easier," Chivas said, completing his lover's thought.

 

Siegel nodded slowly, absently sipping at his tea.  He bowed his head in their direction, "Thank you so much, my Lords.  I believe, after speaking with you, my best course of action is to speak with General Borges and ask him, as the head of the Guard, to speak with his Highness about the importance of a guard and the necessity of notifying them of his actions.  I can also speak with him about assigning someone else. I believe Lieutenant Andros would be a very good choice."

 

"That sounds like a very good plan," Woollcott said.

 

Siegel nodded, standing up. "If you will excuse me then, I should speak to the General."

 

"Oh and Siegel?" Woollcott said, just before Siegel left the tent.  When he turned around, he smiled, "About your other concern?  That Max's little roll in the olive grove means he won't be interested in you?"  He shook his head.  "Don't worry about it.  I know him and I know his tastes, at least to some degree, and I've unfortunately seen at least some of his porn.  He'll be interested, don't worry."

 

Despite his resolve to stay cool and slightly detached, Siegel grinned.  "Thank you, Councilor.  I do appreciate hearing that."

 

Chivas chuckled a minute after the other man left the tent, smiling at his lover.  "You found Max's porn collection?"

 

"When he was 16." Woollcott gave an exaggerated shudder. "Shoved into a duffle bag under his bed.  I'm not sure who was more horrified, him or me.  We talked about it: condoms, safe sex, respect, the whole nine yards."

 

Chivas laughed before leaning over and kissing him. "I'm not sure, Kent. When I was slogging through the rain fighting for my life, I occasionally thought you had the easier job, but now …"  He laughed again, picturing the conversation. "I don't know, talking to a mortified teenager about sex …"

 

Woollcott laughed, kissing him back. "It made me appreciate my father every day."

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Pushing open the flap to his tent thirty minutes later, Siegel felt better and less angry.  Borges had quickly caught on to the problem and readily agreed that Andros should take the lead in the King's town guard detail immediately.  The young Lieutenant was to be assigned to that role after the coronation anyway and his presence, supported by his mentor's continued presence, would give him needed experience and help ease the transition.

 

The tent was not large.  There was just room for a narrow bed, an all-purpose table and enough space to walk between the two to function in reasonable comfort.  A medium size trunk stood against the far wall, open to allow easy access to clothes and everyday items.  Ignoring that, Siegel bent down and pulled from under the cot a small, locked chest.  It served as his only personal space while on campaign or in camps over the years and he considered it private.   Every servant or pupil knew it was off limits.  Picking it up, he moved it to the table and unlocked it with a small smile.   

 

The paddle lay wrapped in a spare piece of wool and he could see its hard, rectangular shape tucked along the back wall of the chest.  His fingers brushed gently over two small miniatures that were nestled on top of a blanket. One showed his parents and the other his brother and sister.  His mother still lived on the family farm, now with his widowed sister and her two sons.  His brother had been missing for six years, since the Battle of Odenia, at the edge of the western river canal.  The assumption had been that his body, along with scores of others, had been lost to the waters when the Queen's forces overran their position. Pushing aside the dark thoughts that still occasionally threatened to suck him down, he reached in and, gently tugging it free, pulled out the paddle and unwrapped it.  The pale wood seemed dry and he was just reaching for oil when a knock on the center support of the tent made him turn and say, "Come."

 

Andros pushed inside and smiled, bowing slightly in the direction of his commander.  "Major."

 

Siegel smiled and bowed his head back. "Congratulations, Andros."

 

The other man grinned. "Thank you, sir, and thank you also for the recommendation.  I had hoped, but--"

 

 "Didn't want to seem as if you were too eager for my retirement?" Siegel laughed.

 

"I would not be the solider – the man – I am today if it wasn't for your guidance and everything you've taught me," Andros said firmly.  "Everything I have, this opportunity, this life, is because of you and I would never want to appear ungrateful or as if I had forgotten how much I owe you."

 

Siegel stood up and embraced the younger man, kissing him on each cheek before patting his shoulder as he withdrew.  "I simply took the excellent raw talents you already had and helped you discover them."

 

Andros smiled shyly and bowed his head again in acknowledgement.  His eyes fell on the paddle sitting on the table and he grinned.  "I hope that's not for me."

 

Siegel laughed. "No, I think my days of warming your butt are past, boy, and filling it would be inappropriate given my pending retirement."

 

The younger man grinned and walked over to the table, touching the paddle gently with a finger as he studied the wood.  "Maybe, but the lessons you taught me and the bond we've formed will stay with me forever."  He looked up and gave a curious smile. "So is this for someone else, then?"

 

Siegel laughed and shook his head. "It will certainly be put to good use, but that's for another conversation."  He motioned to one of the two chairs in the tent. "Pull that up and let's discuss your plans for guarding King Maximus on his town visits."

 

Sitting down, Andros took a deep breath and smiled. "I think King Maximus would prefer less ceremony and to take a more casual approach, so with that in mind, I thought that …."

 

Siegel listened as the younger man outlined his thoughts about the young King, responding and encouraging, asking questions to help Andros further develop his forming impressions.  Meanwhile his mind drifted toward the paddle and the image of Max bent over the table while it was applied to his butt, learning in no uncertain terms how strongly his soon to be Consort disapproved of his escape and the resulting tryst.  He focused on that aspect, refusing to allow his mind to wander further, afraid of his physical reaction if he dwelled on what it would be like to sink his cock into Max, taking him slowly and deeply while cementing their destined bond.

 

"I'm glad you still will be riding with us," Andros said as the conversation began to wrap up a half hour later.  "I believe the King will still look to you for guidance and I won't take offense at you still being in charge."

 

Siegel nodded. "Then it's decided.  I will concentrate on the King personally and help him become used to guards, while you will be in charge of his safety."

 

Andros stood up. "Thank you again, Major, for this honor and responsibility.  I know the perfect guard to join us."

 

"Jacob Smyth?"

 

Andros smiled and nodded, pleased that the older man knew his choice.  "Yes."

 

"Good choice," Siegel said.  Watching the younger man walk out of the tent, closing the flap behind him, he couldn't help but think that the "small world" aspect of his life amused him at times.  He had just begun to mentor the younger Smyth brother, Jacob, when word of the Oracle's decision reached him.  He had been sad to end their budding relationship.  He and the older Smyth brother were both pupils of Borges, which in a way made them brothers as well, and he had been deeply honored to be entrusted by his friend with his brother's education and guidance.   

 

Applying oil to a spare cloth, Siegel picked up the paddle and began to polish it, quickly becoming lost in the memory of its first use. 

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Twelve Years Earlier

 

Siegel felt a sick twist in his stomach as he slid off his horse and stared at the large manor house in front of him.  Despite the freezing rain that was rapidly changing over to ice and starting to soak through his cloak, he stood there, unable, or maybe unwilling, to enter the house and report back his shameful failure.

 

"Your horse, sir?"

 

He jerked his attention away from the house and gave the groom a small smile.  The servant was standing there already holding the reins of his companion's horse and was now waiting for his.  "Yes, please.  Thank you."  Glancing around, he asked, "Where did Collins go?"

 

The groom looked at him for a brief moment before saying, "I believe I heard him tell you, sir that he was going to the companions' barracks."

 

Siegel nodded. "Of course.  It's past dinner time, but I'm sure he can find some food and his bed."

 

The servant nodded again before quickly leading the two horses out of the weather and into the warm stables to be cared for properly.  Normally, each guard's companion would be responsible for their horses, but after this long assignment, he hadn't minded relieving the other man of his duty and letting him relax.

 

Handing his cloak to another servant, Siegel paused and wiped his boots carefully before stepping into the main hall.  The General's batman, Jae, ruled over even the butler in the running of the house and Siegel had no desire to cross him.  Light from the cozy dining room spilled into the hall and he slowly made his way inside.  The General was sitting at the head of the table, with newly-made Lieutenant Dee Smyth seated to his right.  An empty place was set at the General's left. It was for him, Siegel assumed, but the sight made his stomach twist again in shame.

 

General Borges looked up and smiled.  "Excellent, Leo.  I was getting worried," he said, gesturing toward the shuttered window.  "It sounds like the storm is getting closer and I hoped that you and Collins would be able to get home safely tonight."

 

The General's warm response and obvious concern for his newest pupil's welfare intensified Siegel's shame and he bowed his head, unable to speak.

 

Borges smiled. "Come, sit and tell how us how your mission went.  Dee and I were just discussing what an amazing coup it will be if you were able to find any trace of Bergland's whereabouts. It's a bit of a long shot, but as the Queen's main treasurer, he controls the purse strings and finding him could help fill our coffers and empty hers."

 

Taking another bite of his beef, Smyth smiled at Siegel and nodded. "Come on, Leo.  This is too excellent to waste."  He turned to the older man. "While I can no longer claim your home as mine, I do hope you continue to invite me to share your table."

 

Borges laughed, reaching out and giving the younger man's shoulder a squeeze. "Any place I call a home will be your home, Dee.  You know that."  Turning back to Siegel, he said, "Sit, Leo.  Have some dinner and tell us how your first big mission went.  Collins is an excellent Companion; I hope you listened to his advice and suggestions."

 

Walking slowly toward the General, Siegel felt his legs begin to shake and he willed himself not to cry.  Unable to look the older man in the face and see his hopeful expression, he sank to his knees by his chair and bowed his head, taking a deep breath as he blurted out the speech he had been rehearsing for the last two hours.  "I beg your forgiveness, General.  I am unworthy to sit at your table or enjoy your food.  I failed completely and I will understand if you wish to banish me to the Companions' barracks or turn me out entirely.  You have my solemn vow that I will take full responsibility for my banishment and everyone will know that it is I who failed despite your excellent instructions and patience."

 

Smyth laughed. "Leo, seriously--"

 

Snapping his fingers at Smyth, Borges glared at him. "Quiet, unless you would like to examine the floor from over my knee." He turned back to Siegel and softened his expression and tone. "Leo, no one is being banished."  Holding out his hand, he said calmly, "Come, up with you.  Sit, eat and tell me what happened. You and Collins made it home safely?"  His voice rose in question and he felt himself relax when the younger man nodded.  "All right then, it cannot be that bad."

 

The younger man shook his head, refusing the offered hand.  "I can't, General.  I completely failed you."

 

"And that is for me to judge," Borges said firmly.  "Unfortunately, until you tell me what happened, I am unable to do that.  So, stand up, sit at the table, eat and tell me what happened."

 

Siegel shook his head again. "I can't, General.  I would rather you simply dismiss me now than make me go through the shame of telling you first." Tears rolled down his face and he angrily wiped them away, keeping his eyes locked firmly on the floor in front of him.  His stomach roiled as the knot of fear and stress tightened.  Over the last five hours, when he had finally admitted defeat and turned his horse back home, the situation had built up in his mind and he saw no other course of action besides begging for forgiveness for his complete failure.  All attempts at discussion or comfort from his Companion had been pushed aside as he saw his worst fears of failure coming true.

 

"When you entered this house last month, did you not agree to listen to me? Accept my counsel and personal guidance?"

 

He nodded, "Yes, General."

 

"As your mentor, I am the only one who can judge your behavior.  Not you," Borges said firmly.

 

Siegel shook his head. "I am sorry, General but I cannot face it.  Please, just banish me to the barracks if you feel I may still serve your house in some fashion, or completely, if you feel I am too much of a disgrace. I will leave immediately."

 

Borges sighed and glanced at Smyth, who shrugged.  Turning his attention back to the kneeling man, he hardened his voice. "You have presented me with two equally interesting options, boy.  Remain in that position and contemplate your actions, while I finish the meal that you are interrupting with your drama."

 

Siegel nodded silently, shifting slightly and again bowing his head.

 

Catching the eye of a servant who was struggling not to stare at the spectacle, he quietly motioned for another plate of food.  Once his order had been silently acknowledged, he picked up his fork and nodded in the direction of Smyth.  "So tell me, Dee, how do you like your new quarters?"

 

The younger man picked up his cue and resumed eating as they discussed the small cottage he had moved to a month earlier and now shared with the two other lieutenants of the Borges household.

 

The General glanced up as the servant's door opened quietly and Jae appeared carrying in one hand a covered plate. 

 

Jae glanced at the kneeling man for a second before awkwardly placing the plate next to the General's own half-finished plate.  He moved the silverware closer.  Lifting the plate's cover, he silently laid it on the sideboard before taking up the position the other servant had just vacated. 

 

"Will your parents and younger brother be visiting soon?" the General asked Smyth, reaching for the unused cutlery and cutting a small piece of meat from the fresh plate.  Taking it up with the fork, he lowered his hand and turned his attention to the kneeling younger man, saying in a very firm voice, "Open."

 

Siegel jerked, lost in his thoughts, and saw the fork and meat there before him.  Slowly opening his mouth, he accepted the morsel and began to eat.

 

With a silent sigh and a shared smile with Smyth, Borges kept up the conversation while alternating between finishing his own meal and quietly but firmly feeding the younger man kneeling at his feet.  Twenty minutes later, he nodded.  "Excellent meal, Jae.  Please pass along my compliments to Alicea for another wonderful meal."

 

"Yes," Smyth said, "it was excellent ... the best I've had in a week."

 

Borges chuckled. "Which was the last time you graced me with your presence at dinner, if I remember correctly."

 

"Yes, yes, it was."  Then, glancing in the direction of where the kneeling figure was hidden by the table, Smyth bowed his head. "If you will excuse me though, General.  I hate to eat and run, but I would like to have a chance to speak with my men before they turn in for the night.  The weather sounds as if it will be too bad to drill outside and I think memorizing maps might be a good use of time."  Standing up, he bowed again. "Until tomorrow."

 

"Good night, Dee," Borges said with a smile.  Turning his attention to Jae, he said, "If you would clear the main plates, please.  The rest can wait for a while."

 

"Of course, General."  Putting the three mostly empty plates and used silverware onto a tray, he bowed his head.  "If there is anything you need, Sir, please simply ring.  I've dismissed the other staff and will be happy to serve you personally."

 

Appreciating Jae's discretion, Borges nodded.  "Thank you.  We should be done here in the next half hour or so."  He waited until the door closed behind the servant. The dining room was quiet except for the occasional crackle of the fire and soft tinkle of ice hitting the glass of the window.  Pushing back his chair slightly, he stared at the younger man.  "All right, enough of the theatrics.  Tell me what happened and no more excuses."

 

Not looking up, Siegel took a deep breath.  "I am so sorry, General, but I was unable to locate Bergland.  I followed rumors of his locations to multiple inns and homes in and around Munger, Fallen and Biden, but could find nothing but additional rumors.  He's from that area and has family throughout--"  Fighting back the tears that threatened to fall again, he shook his head. "I failed you." 

 

Borges sighed and took a sip of water before resting his hand on the younger man's bowed head.  "Leo," he said softly but firmly, "look at me."  When he slowly raised his gaze, the older man met his eyes. "Did you do your best looking, or did you take to some inn and the card table because the weather was cold?"

 

Siegel adamantly shook his head. "No, sir.  Collins and I rode for miles and talked to virtually everyone.  We went through inns, barns, homes, any place we thought he might be hiding.  I carefully passed out incentives to grooms and stable hands hoping that someone would see his group, promising a generous reward if they reported back here with information that was accurate."  He shook his head again. "I swear to you, General, I did my best. Whiling away my time at the tables never crossed my mind."

 

"Then," Borges said with a puzzled expression, "I am confused, Leo.  How exactly did you fail me?"

 

"I failed to complete my mission!" he cried out, his voice breaking slightly.  "I failed to find Bergland or any trace of him!"

 

"Or you eliminated multiple places that he could have been, started to beat the bushes to scare him out, and have begun the slow process of offering bribes and putting out feelers for information so that when he does bolt from his hidey-hole because of your inquires, we know about it," Borges said slowly.  He shook his head. "What was your mission, again, Leo?"

 

"To find Bergland," Siegel said, dropping his gaze again and staring at the floor.

 

"Was it?" the General asked and then said firmly, "Are you sure your mission was not to find information about Bergland, his location, his support and who is with him?"

 

Leo shrugged silently before saying, "Yes, sir, but they are one and the same."

 

The older man slapped the table angrily. "Only a fool would believe that, boy.  Are you a fool?"

 

He shook his head. "No, General."

 

"And why do I say that only a fool would believe that finding a man and finding information about a man are one and the same?" Borges barked out sharply.

 

The younger man swallowed, eyes firmly fixed on the floor.  Shifting his weight, he studied the carpet for a long moment before saying, "Because a good leader is always looking for information, for knowledge.  That is the only way that correct decisions may be made and the only way we can reliably find what we are seeking."

 

"So I ask you then, Leo: You discovered information, you began the search for more information, you laid the ground work, which is also an important task, correct?"  

 

Siegel nodded.

 

"I fail to see how you can believe you failed in your mission."

 

Siegel shrugged.

 

"Do not shrug your shoulders at me, boy," Borges said firmly.

 

"I'm sorry, General."

 

Borges studied him, letting the silence settle over the room.  "I'm still waiting for an answer, Leo.  Why do you believe you failed in your mission?" 

 

Siegel swallowed and looked up, eyes brimming.  "I don't know, General.  I'm sorry … I just feel … felt … like a failure and that I let you down."

 

The older man sighed, leaning down and resting his hand again on the younger man's head.  "You did not fail, Leo.  You did an excellent job, your best, and that is all I can ask."  He stroked his hair. "Do you believe me?"

 

Siegel nodded and leaned into the touch, relaxing slightly as Borges continued to stroke his hair.  A long moment later, he said, "I'm sorry for the drama, General.  I was so worried coming here … telling you … facing you."

 

The older man chuckled. "Drama is right."  Still stroking his head, he smiled as the younger man shifted a bit so he was leaning against his leg.  "You should never be afraid to tell me something, boy.  It is the only way this relationship works.  If I don't know what's going on in this head of yours or with you, then I can't help you through it."  He let the silence and his words settle over the younger man for another long moment.  "Do you understand?"

 

"Yes, sir."

 

He patted his head. "All right then, up with you.  We have a bit of unpleasantness to deal with."

 

Standing up quickly, Siegel swallowed and again studied the floor, shifting on his feet.

 

"Pants and underthings down," Borges ordered, "and bend over the table."  He watched Siegel freeze for a second before stepping over to the edge of the table and slowly undoing the laces on his trousers.  Walking over, Borges swatted the younger man twice. "Quickly, Leo."

 

Siegel shuddered slightly as he bent over the wooden table, bare from the waist down.

 

Pushing back Siegel's shirt to expose his butt, Borges swatted him three more times.  "You have earned yourself a sharp paddling, boy, for keeping information from me and actively disobeying me this evening.  I am the only one in this house who can tell you that you failed in a mission or what your punishment should be," he said firmly, swatting him twice more.  "You do not get to judge your behavior, that is my job, and by condemning yourself, you are usurping my role in your education and I will not allow that."

 

"I'm sorry," Siegel said, shifting.  "I know I was wrong and I should have listened to you when you tried to help.  I was just so caught up … riding here, all I could think about was failing … I couldn't bear to tell you."

 

Borges patted his butt more gently. "You failed only in your mind, boy."

 

Siegel nodded. "I'm sorry.  I see that now."

 

The older man sighed. "But that is a hard lesson to learn, I know, and our relationship is barely a month old.  You are my responsibility now and I take that very seriously.  Hopefully this warning will help remind you that you must always trust me. I am here to help guide you and teach you."  With a small smile, Borges picked up the empty breadboard and brushed off the few remaining crumbs.  The board was made of beautiful pale wood, with rounded edges and a comfortable handle, and the elongated rectangle seemed perfect to apply to an upturned butt.  Tapping the wood against the younger man's skin, he said, "This seems like the right tool, since your misbehavior interrupted a perfectly good meal."  Raising the board, he brought it down with a firm crack.

 

Siegel cried out immediately.  Bowing his head into his folded arms, he didn't bother to try to hold back his tears, understanding they would come much sooner than later under the punishing hand of his mentor.  "I am so sorry," he cried out as the paddling continued, evenly placed stroke after stroke covering his butt and upper thighs.

 

"You are my responsibility," Borges lectured as he delivered the long, hard paddling, landing multiple strokes with each word of his lecture.  "Which means I am your only judge and jury.  You lost those roles when you set foot into my home four weeks ago and accepted your role as pupil, boy. You do not tell me what consequences you deserve for your behavior.  That is for me and only me to decide."

 

Siegel gasped and squirmed against the table, sobbing.  "Yes, I'm so sorry!" His butt burned as the paddling continued until he was gasping for breath and thought it would never end. Stroke after deliberately placed stroke drove home the message.  "It won't happen again!" 

 

Landing four hard swats in the center of the younger man's butt in quick succession, Borges nodded. "I would hope not, boy."  He put the paddle down on the table and rested one hand on the burning flesh, while his other hand gently stroked the sobbing man.

 

Ten minutes later, Siegel's tears tapered off and he relaxed under the gentle stroking. 

 

Helping him stand up, Borges kissed him, patting his butt and brushing away the still falling tears.  "One more thing before you go to your bed."

 

"Yes, General?"

 

Picking up the makeshift paddle, Borges held it out.  "This is now yours, Leo.  It seems to fit your butt well and certainly made an impression."

 

Siegel blushed as he took the warm wood and nodded.

 

"Tomorrow morning, take it to the woodshop and have one of the men there help you drill a small hole in the handle.  I want you to run a cord through that hole and hang it on your bed post so that you see it every night as a reminder of this lesson," Borges said.  Kissing the still tearful young man again, he added, "And this way it will be handy when I send you to fetch it for additional lessons."

 

"Yes, General."

 

"Good boy," Borges said, patting his still bare butt. "Starting tomorrow night, when this isn't so sore, you can plan on spending the next several weeks in my bed.  It's been over a week since we bonded and it's too fragile still to endure such separation."  He gave the younger man a smile. "A failing I take full responsibility for and will correct immediately."

 

Siegel's blush intensified, remembering his pleasure during their multiple times bonding over the last month.  Borges had been distracted for several nights before he left and then his mission had kept him way for three additional nights.  He bowed his head and said softly, "I've missed that connection, sir."

 

Borges kissed him, resting his hand on his butt as he pulled Siegel closer to him.  "So have I, Leo, and I wonder if this could have been prevented to some degree if our bond were stronger."

 

Siegel shook his head. "No, General.  This was me simply forgetting to trust you and trust your judgment."

 

"We shall see, boy.  The lack of bonding and connection is not a circumstance I will allow to happen again."

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

The Present

 

Lightly fingering the hole made years before, the leather cord worn through and discarded ages ago, Siegel smiled at the memory and the memories of the years after that, safely guided into manhood under Borges's steady hand.  He sighed, put the paddle away and wondered if he was doing the right thing by allowing General Borges to step into the conversation with Maximus or if he should have made it his first unofficial act as Consort.

 

 

Borges smiled at Max as he held out his hands, cutting off the start of a protest before he was done with his lecture. "So I'm sure you can understand, your Highness, how leaving the tavern through a back door put your guards in an unfortunate situation and you yourself in a dangerous one."

 

"But she was the daughter of the mayor," Max protested, not wanting to whine, but hating to be called on the carpet for something he considered private.   The General had not gone into detail, but it was clear that he, and therefore at least his uncles and the two guards, knew exactly what had happened with the girl.  The idea of being seen having sex embarrassed him.

 

General Borges nodded slowly. "So, he introduced her to you as his daughter?"  When Max mutely shook his head, he continued, "Oh, so she introduced herself to you as his daughter in his presence?  The presence of some of the other elders?"

 

"No."

 

"Then I'm sorry, your Highness, I'm confused.  How did you know she was his daughter?"

 

Max took a deep breath and tried to control his temper, knowing where the other man was going and unable to stop them from getting there.  "Because she introduced herself to me that way."

 

"Hmm," Borges said with a frown, as if trying to puzzle out a very complex and difficult situation.  "But your Highness--"

 

"I know, I know!" Max said sharply, feeling himself color and lose control of his temper.  "I get what you're saying, I'm not an idiot."  He jerked out of his seat and began to pace restlessly around his tent.

 

"I don't think you are, your Highness."

 

"Stop calling me that!  Please," Max added in a quieter voice. "Please.  My name is Max and while you're scolding me about running off without my babysitters and having sex with some girl I don't even know, I think the least you can do is call me by my name."

 

Borges took a deep breath and smiled, long used to outbursts by embarrassed young men being called on the carpet for actions they wished no one knew about.  "I'm sorry if what I'm saying seems like I'm scolding you.  I'm not.  I am simply trying to impress upon you the importance of letting your guards know where you are and not going off alone with random strangers."  He held up his hand as Max began to speak again. "No, just a moment please.  This time, there was no harm done.  The girl is, in fact, Mayor Vita's daughter and you came to no harm.  But even if you don't care about your own safety, think about your guards and the position you put them in.  What if something had happened to you?  If you had been kidnapped, assaulted or killed?  They would feel responsible even if there were no way they could have prevented it."

 

Jerking open the tent flap, Max stared out across the bustling camp.  Since it would be moving in another day, it had a more temporary feel than the previous one, but was still impressive.  There were numerous tents and wagons and countless horses.  The fact that all these people were here in support of him and to support his rule almost overwhelmed him.  Thousands had given up their lives for him and all he could do was whine and be embarrassed about being found out.  And he had probably gotten two guards in trouble.  Instantly feeling like an ass--a royal ass, he mentally added--he shook his head slightly and let the flap drop again, stepping back into the tent.  He bowed slightly in the direction of the older man. "You have my deepest apologies, General Borges, and you are exactly right.  My actions yesterday were thoughtless and careless.  After everything that you all have done for me, what you continue to do for me, it's irresponsible and simply wrong for me to put anyone in that situation.  Please ask Major Siegel and … I'm sorry, I don't know or remember Andros's rank?"

 

"He is a lieutenant," Borges said kindly.

 

Max nodded and swallowed. "Please ask Major Siegel and Lieutenant Andros to see me when they have a moment so that I may also apologize to them."

 

Borges smiled and bowed his head.  "That will not be necessary, but I will gladly pass along your comments of understanding and hopes that you did not cause them any distress."

 

"I'd like to apologize to them personally," Max persisted.  "I put them in this situation and it was wrong.  It's important that I take responsibility for that."

 

Borges paused for a moment before saying, "It would honestly make them uncomfortable, your High--Max. Major Siegel could handle the situation, but for a King to apologize to someone of Lieutenant Andros's level … it's not how matters are handled.  I will pass along your message to Siegel, who will in turn pass it along to Andros."

 

Max started to argue, but caught himself and simply nodded.  "Thank you, General, both for bringing this to my attention and helping me understand how my actions impact others, and for handling my words to your men."  He bowed his head and added, "I appreciate your personal help and understanding as I continue to learn my country's customs."

 

The General bowed low. "Of course, your Highness."

 

Watching as Borges walked out of the tent, Max sank back down in his chair and buried his face in his hands, one hand clamped firmly over his mouth.  He rocked slightly, trying hard not to cry out as wave after wave of loneliness and frustration and embarrassment washed over him.  An internal monologue began to play, reviewing all the ways in which he had screwed up since coming to Atlantis.  What must everyone think of him? How much longer would it be until they realized what a horrible mistake he was?

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

For a long moment he stood silently, watching as the partially dismantled camp was packed up again.  Then Max swung up into his saddle and thanked the young groom holding his horse.  He glanced behind him and saw three guards this time, Siegel and Andros and a man younger than him who he thought was named Smyth.  "Shall we, gentlemen?  I understand we are on our way to Bergen this morning and hope to pick up more supporters."  He had thought his open acknowledgement of his mistake had satisfied Borges, but instead, it seemed as if the restrictions were getting tighter with the assignment of a third guard to keep an eye on him.

 

Siegel nodded and waved him forward. "After you, your Highness."

 

Max nodded and began to trot out of camp, waving occasionally as people cheered and shouted encouragement for a safe journey.  The support buoyed his mood slightly and he plastered on a smile that would have made his eleventh grade drama teacher proud.

 

With a quick flick of his hand,  Siegel positioned Andros behind the group as Smyth rode out in front.  He himself stayed quietly alongside Max.  He glanced up at the sky. "It looks to be a beautiful sunrise, your Highness."

 

Max nodded, looking around the rapidly lightening sky.  "It does look like it's to be a good day."  Then, to be polite, he asked, "Is this good weather typical for August or are there storms or something?"

 

Siegel smiled to himself and began to chat casually, telling stories of past storms he remembered from during the war and earlier as a child out camping.  Then, as the two Councilors had suggested, he asked questions about Max's own childhood.  Gradually, he could see the younger man begin to relax and perk up, coming out of the quiet walls he had surrounded himself with since the previous day's conversation with Borges.  His men had reported that the soon to be King had not left his tent the entire day and had seen no one.  He hadn't made any noise, either, and they were unsure what he was doing.  The few times they had glimpsed him as a servant entered or left, he was simply sitting in a chair reading papers or writing at the table.

 

Four hours after setting out, they came to the stone markers at the beginning of the main town area.  Max studied the crowd for a long moment before quietly sliding off his horse and handing the reins to Smyth, who had dismounted first and was waiting to take them.  He turned to Siegel. "I won't leave the tavern or meeting hall or wherever we go without telling you first, Major.  But honestly, I don't expect to leave at all until the representatives and I, assuming Bergen gives me their support, leave this afternoon."  He smiled and then added, looking specifically between Andros and Siegel, "I think I've caused enough of an awkward situation for all of us already and for that I am truly sorry.  I have no desire to repeat it."

 

Siegel started to reply, but Max turned on his heel and began his steady, confident walk toward the crowd, exactly as he had done in Rondaia.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo  

 

The pattern repeated itself for the next week and a half.  Max kept mostly to himself, but was always friendly and eager to chat whenever anyone took the initiative to speak to him first.  He spent time with the ever growing number of representatives who joined the camp as they slowly progressed through the countryside and toward the capital.  As long as Siegel took the initiative to begin conversations during each ride to a new town, Max was happy to talk.  They exchanged stories and jokes and found they had similar tastes, even though there were few commonalities.

 

"I wish I had thought to bring some of my books," Max said wistfully one day.  "Gregor will be going back to the house in Chicago once a month or so as our lives wrap up there. I should ask him to bring some back for me."

 

"I'd love to read them," Siegel said, smiling at him. It was during these rides that Siegel also began to fill in the younger man's knowledge of the smaller details of their history, how the portals worked and the culture that had developed because of them.

 

"So not every portal is two way?" Max asked, puzzled and a bit horrified at the idea of being trapped.

 

Siegel shook his head. "No, but luckily our scientists and the scientists of other empires feel that we have those in the populated areas well mapped and marked.  The other known portals are also mapped, indicating what time period they go to and if the period is friendly or hostile.  New ones form and older ones close, but we understand them to a degree now and that helps predict their behavior."  He glanced at Max and smiled. "Of course, there are also private or secret portals … tucked away on private land …"

 

Max laughed.  "And I thank the Gods for that portal."

 

Siegel bowed his head slightly. "As do I, your Highness."

 

Max smiled at him and then asked, "Would you like …"  The invitation for dinner died in his throat as he immediately second guessed himself, his internal dialogue reminding him not to screw up the only budding friendship he had managed to form and warning him that if he misstepped like he probably would, he would destroy it and be on his own and not even be able to continue learning from this man.  He shook his head at Siegel's questioning glance. "Never mind, it wasn't important.  Do you know anything about Tonville?"

 

Tonville was the next town they were visiting and Siegel knew it was still an hour away.  Glancing around, he saw the guard twenty yards behind them, out of hearing distance if they spoke quietly.  He thought for a moment and then went with his gut. "I know some, but I think you were going to ask me something else."

 

Max shifted in his saddle.  "I was, but it's not important.  Why don't you fill me in on what you know?"

 

"Probably nothing you don't already know from the briefing sheet the Council prepared for you. And I think what you were going to ask is important."  Reining in his horse, Siegel stopped in front of the younger man.  He glanced back and motioned for the guard to stay where he was, giving them a small bit of privacy.  "Tell me, your Highness."  Then, smiling, he held the younger man's gaze. "Please."

 

Turning his horse slightly, Max rode several yards in front of him before stopping and sitting still for a long moment.  He turned. "Do you honestly want to know?"

 

Siegel nodded, urging his horse forward until they were once again side by side.  "I do."

 

Max fell silent for a moment, visibly struggling as he studied the range of mountains in the distance.  "I wanted to know if you wanted to have dinner tomorrow night in my tent with me.  I can't tonight because I'll be eating with some of the representatives, but tomorrow we're just moving and there's not another town, so I've got the night off and I thought it might be nice to have a relaxing dinner instead of a working one."  He glanced at Siegel and gave a shrug. "But I know it's your night off as well and you probably have other plans and that's fine, too."  Urging his horse on, he smiled. "Now you know, so onward to Tonville."

 

Siegel smiled, urging his horse into a fast trot to catch up before once again falling in next to Max.  "I'd love to," he said, deliberately not adding "your Highness" to his answer.  "I think it sounds like a very good way to spend tomorrow night."

 

"You're under no obligation, you know that, right?" Max said, "I swear to you, I don't hold grudges and would never want anyone to feel obligated to say yes when they really want to say no, out of some--"

 

"I know," Siegel said with a smile, cutting him off and again, deliberately not adding the honorific he typically used. "I'm looking forward to spending the night, that is, the evening," he corrected, giving an embarrassed smile at the unintended double entendre, "with you."

 

Max laughed. "OK."  Then, moving his horse on, felt instantly transported back to middle school and the first time he had asked someone – a girl that time – if she wanted to go to the movies with him, unsure of how to end the conversation and instantly embarrassed over his uncertainty.  "So maybe around seven?" he asked, glancing at Siegel.  "Does that work for you?"

 

"That works for me," Siegel confirmed.

 

"Is there anything you don't like or can't eat?"

 

Siegel chuckled. "I've been a solider for so many years, I think any food preferences have long ago fled in the face of reality and simply needing to eat.  Luckily, I can also eat anything."  Max seemed to be uncomfortable, so Siegel shifted the focus of the conversation.  "What about you?  What don't you like to eat? Or maybe can't eat?"

 

Max laughed, offering the honest and open smile that had been rare lately. "Depending on how you look at it, and this is not a good thing according to my uncles who seem to follow more your philosophy on food, the list of what I will eat is much shorter and much pickier than what I can eat, which is pretty much everything."

 

"So you're picky?"

 

"Not picky," Max corrected with another grin. "I just know what I like and what I don't like and what I don't think you could pay me to put into my mouth."

 

Siegel laughed and nodded. "So not picky, just all knowing about food."

 

"That's right!"

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

The tent seemed large enough.  It was certainly one of the largest in the camp and definitely the largest occupied by one person for the sole purpose of day to day living. 

 

But it doesn't seem large when you're pacing around it, Max thought, moving restlessly from one end to the other and from chair to chair to high map table and then back to the other chair.  The table was already set for two and one of the servants had brought in a large tray of cheese, thinly sliced meat and bread for nibbling on before the main course.  Max jumped when someone carefully knocked on one of the side support beams at the front of the tent.  "Come," he called, before he could over think where to stand or sit or what exactly to do.

 

A smiling Siegel pushed his way in through the tent flap.  "Good evening."

 

"Hi."

 

Siegel's smile grew broader.  "Hi."  He held out a book. "I brought you something."

 

Max stepped forward, feeling suddenly embarrassed and awkward. "You didn't have to do that."

 

"I know, but we believe you should always bring a gift of food when you come to dinner, to symbolize your commitment to the gathering by sharing your own supplies.  But since everything here is coming out of a shared kitchen, I didn't think that was the same as having my cook prepare a wonderful bread or bringing some of my mother's jam."

 

 "I would love to try some homemade jam," Max said with a smile, then instantly regretted the words when they came out sounding like something from a porn film.

 

"I'll have some sent for you," Siegel said, stepping forward and meeting Max halfway.  "But instead, since I can't share food, I thought you might like a book."  With a moment's hesitation, he handed the slightly battered leather bound book over.

 

Taking it carefully, Max opened it and read the title.  "'Here and Now,'" he read and then grinned, looking up.  "You said this was one of your favorites."

 

Feeling absurdly pleased at the other man remembering, Siegel nodded.  "I've probably read it a dozen times, so now it's your turn.  Maybe we can talk about it when you're done?  I'm curious what you think."

 

Max held it close. "I'll start on it tonight."  He smiled and then felt his smile widen as the other man smiled back, sparks seeming to pass between them and he felt him step slightly closer.  Then, instantly worrying, Max stepped back and said, glancing away, "Let me put this on my bed so it's out of the way.  Why don't you sit down?  Someone's brought some food already, so help yourself."

 

Siegel pushed down the instant feeling of regret and moved toward the table. "It looks good."

 

Coming back to the table, the book now safely resting on his pillow, Max nodded.  "Someone brought it in a few minutes ago. I feel horrible though," he said with a shake of his head.  "There are so many people coming and going and I know they've told me their names, but I'm having the worst problem keeping everyone straight. I hate it, because I'm constantly just saying, 'Thank you,' instead of, 'Thank you, Alex,' or Mata or Alan or Mary or whoever and I'm sure they know I don't know who they are." He glanced up. "What does that say about me?  That I can't even remember people's names?" 

 

"There are a lot of new faces," Siegel started.

 

Max shook his head. "No, I'm sorry.  I shouldn't whine or complain, especially not compared to what everyone else has been through.  It's OK, you don't have to look for excuses, it's OK."  He motioned toward several jugs. "We have juice and a couple of types of what I call wine, but I think you call …"  He frowned, struggling with the name.  "Mead?"

 

Siegel nodded slowly, wanting to get back to the earlier conversation, but at the same time, understanding the younger man's embarrassment.  "Yes, it just means that unlike wine, there's no grape juice and it has honey and other stuff, depending on the variety.  And yes, I'll take a glass of that, please."

 

"I always associated mead with beer," Max said with a smile, pouring a glass of the pale liquid and sliding it over.  "I think that's from Renaissance festivals back home.  We used to go every year."  He colored slightly as what he had said registered. "I mean, back where I grew up, we used to go every year."

 

Taking a sip, Siegel thought briefly about how best to proceed and then silently took a deep breath, putting down his glass on the table.  He leaned forward and covered the other man's hand with one of his.  "Max," he said softly.

 

Max's head jerked up from his intense study of the tablecloth pattern and he stared at Siegel.

 

"If I may call you that?"  When the younger man nodded slightly, Siegel smiled.  "Only in here, of course."

 

Max smiled back.  "Decorum and all."

 

Siegel laughed, stroking his hand gently with his thumb. "That's right.  But, since we're going to set that rule, how about we set another one?"

 

"What?"

 

"When we are in here, you don't have to worry about saying the wrong thing to me, you don't have to worry about calling where you lived for 16 years 'home' and that it's some betrayal of Atlantis or its people, you don't have to worry about being perfect or not complaining 'after what everyone else has been through' or anything like that."  He continued to stroke and rub the hand in his gently. "When we are in here, just concentrate on being honest and open and letting me get to know you, because I very much want to have you know me, too."

 

"No one calls me Max anymore," he said quietly.  "My uncles do, but only when we're alone and that's not very often."  He smiled. "I think they're enjoying spending time with each other after so many years apart."  He glanced away.  "Not that I blame them at all. I know how much they sacrificed.  They've been together for almost 25 years, but only lived together for 8 before…"  He sighed.  "They have a lot of time to make up for."

 

Resisting the urge to pull him close, Siegel nodded. "But it's hard still."

 

Max nodded, blinking and looking away.  He was silent for a long moment, not moving his hand and simply relaxing into the other man's touch.  "I like your idea," he said quietly. 

 

"Good," Siegel said and then, unable to resist the impulse, lifted the hand he was caressing and kissed it gently.  "I like it too."  He smiled as Max glanced at him, grinning and fighting back a laugh. 

 

Finally giving in, Max laughed and pulled back his hand with an embarrassed grin.  "I didn't hear anything about bodily assault in your ideas …"

 

Siegel laughed and wiggled his eyebrows slightly. "Maybe that's idea number two?  If the first one works out and all …"

 

Sitting back in his chair, Max studied him and nodded formally. "Something to keep in mind for sure, Major Siegel."

 

"Leo," he corrected.

 

"Leo," Max said with a smile and then raised his glass, holding it toward the other man. "To Max and Leo!"

 

Clinking against the raised glass, Siegel said with a wink, "To friendship and …" 

 

Max laughed, taking a sip.

 

"Dinner was excellent," Siegel said quietly as he stood near the entrance to the tent almost three hours later.  The candles had burned low and while there was still plenty of light to see by, it was softer and made the room seem more intimate, with the corners of the tent now hidden.

 

"I selected the menu myself," Max said with a smile, moving slightly closer.  "Or actually, gave the cook broad instructions based on what he's made before that I liked and didn't really like, and he did the rest."

 

Siegel smiled and moved closer. "The food was good too, Max."

 

Max laughed, suddenly feeling very young and inexperienced.  "Thank you."

 

"No, thank you, Max.  It is your gift of friendship to give and I gladly accept it."

 

"Just friendship?  Maybe an 'and'?"

 

"Maybe."

 

Stepping forward, Max leaned up slightly, knowing it was his move to make, and gently kissed him on the lips.  "Hopefully."

 

Bringing his hands up, Siegel wrapped them around Max and pulled him closer, holding him tight as he kissed him back.  Gently parting the unresisting lips slightly, he darted his tongue in to lay initial claims of ownership as he felt Max squirm slightly, his cock rubbing against Siegel.  "The Gods willing," he answered, breaking off the kiss after a long moment.

 

Max was breathing hard as they broke away and gave a small, embarrassed chuckle.  "Sorry," he said, adjusting himself slightly.

 

"Nothing to be sorry about," Siegel said with a grin.  "You've ensured that I will have wonderful dreams tonight."  Then, feeling very bold, he stepped forward and pulled Max toward him again, kissing him hard as he held him tight.  His tongue darted in and out as they moved against each other, Max's hands skimming his back and sides, while his own hands were planted firmly around Max's waist as he fought the urge to move lower.

 

"Please," Max whispered.

 

Kissing him again, Siegel gave into the urge and tightly gripped his butt, giving it a gently squeeze as he kneaded the flesh through the cotton material.  He broke free with one last kiss on Max's neck and smiled. "I hope that I have given you enough to ensure sweet dreams, too."

 

"They could be sweeter …" Max laughed.

 

Siegel grinned and shook his head. "I must go, but …"  He sighed, taking a small step forward before stopping himself. "No, I must go."

 

Understanding, Max nodded and stepped back.  "I look forward to seeing you tomorrow at dawn, when we ride toward …."  He thought for a moment. "Munger, I believe."  When Siegel nodded, he smiled. "Good night, Leo."

 

Siegel smiled back. "Good night, Max."  Then, unable to resist, he winked and added, "Sweet dreams."  He heard the honest, open laugh that he was coming to love follow him as he stepped out of the tent and into the dark night.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Feeding his horse an apple the next morning, Max glanced up and saw Andros and Smyth heading toward the horses.  "Good morning," he said with a smile.  The two men, along with Siegel, had become constants on his visits to the towns along the procession and they had gradually begun to be less wary and formal with him.

 

Andros bowed. "Good morning, your Highness.  Major Siegel asked us to let you know that he is unfortunately running a few minutes late. Some problem with his belt and the leathersmith is fixing it for him.  He asked that we go ahead and he'll catch up."

 

Max nodded, swinging up onto his saddle.  "All right, let's go ahead then."  He winked at the other two men. "Anyone up for a race while the Major isn't looking?"

 

Andros grinned at him, swinging up onto his own saddle. "And the stakes, your Highness?"

 

Trotting out to the road, Max glanced between the two men.  "Well, how about I put up a piece of silver and each of you put up a piece of gossip?  I never hear anything and I miss knowing the details that run underneath the camp."  He smiled. "When I was in school, all the good stuff was passed along the grapevine, never through official channels."

 

Smyth laughed. "The same here, your Highness, and I take your bet."

 

When Andros nodded, Max said, "But only on one condition.  This is to be fair, no pulling back or letting me win out of some misplaced assumption that it's what I want.  Agreed?"

 

Andros, a bit more used to the would be King, smiled, "To be truthful, your Highness, when there's silver at stake, I don't let anyone win."

 

They had come to a relatively flat part of the road and could see a large oak a half mile or so ahead.  "OK then, to the oak?  On the count of three?" Max asked, glancing between them.  He grinned as they nodded. "One … two … three!"

 

Andros was grinning happily as he slid off his panting horse and held his hand out for the reins of Max's. "Excellent try, your Highness."

 

Max laughed. "Well done! I don't have the silver on me, but--" 

 

"Welching on the bet already!" Andros laughed and shook his head. "That's OK.  I know where you live."

 

"It will be delivered to your tent as soon as we make camp tonight," Max said.  "I promise." He grinned as the other man smiled at him.

 

Smyth joined in the laughter. "So, since I came in third, I guess that means I owe a piece of gossip?"

 

"I think that's fair," Andros said, leading the horses over to a small stream.  "Preferably something I don't already know."

 

Smyth laughed and thought for a moment as he leaned against the tree trunk, unwilling to tell any of the gossip that surrounded the young king.  "I think the biggest piece of gossip going around is speculation over what exactly Major Siegel is going to do once he retires and who will replace him."

 

"Siegel is retiring from the guards?" Max asked, surprised. 

 

Andros nodded, having heard the speculation as well.  "According to some people, he's not actually leaving and will still be at the palace, but not a guard any more.  Other people are saying he's leaving to take over his family's estate.  His sister was widowed during the war and has twin teenage sons. Maybe the boys are getting too much for her to handle on her own and he's stepping in until they're 18 and ready to be mentored by someone?"

 

 "Could he be joining the Council?" Max asked, looking between them.

 

"No," Smyth said.  "Well, not as a Lord at least.  His family's property is in Councilor Newten's area.  He could be elected to one of the four common seats, but I don't think any are coming open."  He glanced toward Andros who nodded his head in confirmation.  "But his leaving opens the door to speculation as to who will replace him."

 

Max tuned out the two men's speculation on replacements as they tossed out the names of three men and a woman, none of whom he could place even if one of the names sounded familiar.  A hazy memory of an overheard conversation of his uncles and the daughter of the Rondaian mayor's comment about her father's guess that the soon to be Consort was a military man filled his mind and he froze, turning over the idea.  "Maybe Siegel is going to be married?" he asked, interrupting their conversation.  "Does he have a partner?"

 

The two men glanced at each other before Andros shook his head. "Not that I've ever heard of.  I know he and General Borges are close, but they're too much alike, they would never commit to each other."  He shrugged. "Maybe when the Major was younger, but not now."

 

Smyth grinned. "Borges likes his lovers younger and firmly on the temporary side of the equation."

 

Walking over to his horse, Andros said, "We probably should get going.  I don't know about you, but I think I'd prefer that we were on the road when the Major joins us and not sitting around swapping stories about him."

 

Four hours later, Max finished a wonderful apple strudel in Munger, a town originally settled by four German couples who had been slipped through a portal together while on a hike.  He smiled at the town elders.  "Delicious, thank you. I am grateful for your hospitality and looking forward to helping the economy of this area improve as the seas become safer and trade routes once again open."

 

The elderly town leader looked at her peers and then focused her attention on him.  "Please excuse the directness of this question, but it is paramount and of great concern to many of us in this room."

 

He knew what was coming.  They all seemed to start off the same way, knowing they were delving into personal areas, but too concerned not to ask.  Nodding, he smiled. "Of course, ma'am, I am here to ask for your support and the support of the people of Munger.  There is no question that is too personal or that I will not answer to put your minds at ease."

 

"Do you know if the Oracles have selected a Consort for you yet?" she asked.

 

"As far as I know," Max said, glancing around at all of them, "the Oracles selected six people upon Queen Beatriz's death.  That group, through the wisdom and insight of the Oracles and with the blessing of the Council, has been narrowed down to one.  We will be stopping at the Oracles' Temple tomorrow and when we are there, they will announce their choice."  He smiled again. "The representatives from Munger, assuming they have joined the procession, will be welcome at this ceremony with me, as are all the representatives from the other 13 towns."

 

"And you are at peace with this selection process and willingly agree to honor and obey whoever they select?"

 

Max thought for a moment of Siegel's face and the feel of their bodies pressed against each other.  "I am at peace with the process and do willingly agree to listen to my Consort's advice, heed it.  I also pledge to be always open and willing to accept personal guidance from them.”  He glanced around the room. "I cannot promise to always obey that advice because, if the Gods are willing, I will be King of Atlantis, but I can promise that I will always listen to the advice and take it into consideration before any action."

 

"A wise distinction to make, ma'am," a middle aged man in the middle of the table said, with a bow in the direction of their leader.

 

She smiled at him. "I agree, Elder Altman." 

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo  

 

Lying in bed that night, Max's hand ghosted teasingly over his cock while his mind replayed the day's action.  Siegel had joined them shortly after they resumed their ride and after a few moments during which he seemed stressed and put off, sharply chiding both Andros and Smyth for dallying and glaring at Max because they were now running late, they had once again settled into the easy friendship that had been building. 

 

"Did you have sweet dreams last night?"  Siegel asked innocently as they finally dismounted at the gates of the town.

 

Max grinned. "Very much and you?"

 

"I did."

 

The exchange had sent warm jolts straight to Max's cock as did the intense mental image of the possibility of his assumption being correct. 

 

Now, stroking himself, he allowed himself to fantasize about the possibility.  He had avoided thinking too much about the topic of a Consort and submission and what exactly that would be like since the first day of questioning.  Now his answers to the towns' questions were almost rote and no longer sent a jolt through him each time.  They all simply were looking for assurance that he knew what he was getting into and fully accepted it.  Of course, he had to wonder how anyone would fully understand the arrangement and accept it without first living it, especially someone who did not grow up with Atlantean assumptions.  Then, his mind drifted to the issue of whether they had asked Beatriz the same questions and what her answers had been.  Perhaps when she had made her own procession over 20 years ago, the idea of a ruler not accepting their Consort's guidance might have been beyond the realm of possibility and therefore, no one questioned it.  But now the idea of it being Siegel's – Leo's – hand on his cock, kissing him deeply every day like they had done last night, spreading his legs and fucking him until he screamed and begged for release, coursed through him and he came quickly with a low, shuddering cry. 

 

He had had sex with men before, multiple times in college even if none of them had been serious.  All had been half-fumbling affairs, the other guys often as inexperienced and somewhat shy as he was and neither one hundred percent sure of their own roles or of the expectations of the other.  They had always gotten off and had usually had fun, but the groping and thrusting and awkwardness had never fully lived up to his fantasies.  Now, the idea of someone older, calmer and more confident, with more experience, sent him onto his stomach, legs spread while he ground against the mattress, imagining being kissed and held open for hard, confident thrusts filling and possessing him like never before.  He hadn't minded topping, but his fantasies were always filled with bottoming. He came again with a shudder and fell asleep with the image still running through his head.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

The camp moved again in the morning, the next to last move they would make, and watching them go through the motions yet again, Max was sure they were all thankful for that fact.  It was a short move this time, just five hours away to the Temple of the Oracles.  It was here that the most powerful priests of the country lived and from here they would, as they had done for centuries, proclaim the intended Consort.

 

"Any questions about tonight, Max?"  Woollcott asked, shuffling the papers on the table later that afternoon.  "It's very straightforward and the entire Council will be there, your camp followers and most of the official representatives.  Plus, I wouldn't be surprised if representatives from Maderia and Onyx  also came.  They wouldn't want to miss it just because they haven't formally been asked yet or pledged their support." 

 

Max laughed. "How big is the temple?"

 

"Oh, it can easily seat several hundred, but tonight's ceremony will be 150, 200 at most." 

 

"But I really don't have to do anything, right?" Max asked, skimming through the papers, suddenly nervous.

 

Woollcott shook his head. "No, nothing really.  This is more low key than even your town petitions.  You bow to them, they bow to you, chant, read some stories, say a prayer, like a normal church service.  Then you kneel before them, the head Oracle – Thomas – blesses you and you go back to your seat.  They do a bit more reading, chanting, maybe a song--"

 

Max laughed at this. "Hopefully 'Jesus Loves The Little Children' or 'Ave Maria' because that's all I know."

 

"Luckily, they sing and we all pretend to be enthralled and understand the words and the meaning, even though it's in ancient Atlantean." 

 

"After the singing, they do the Consort thing?"

 

"Do the Consort thing," Woollcott said, eyeing the younger man.  "Not sure that's exactly how they describe it, but yes, they proclaim the new Consort and they--"

 

"He?" Max asked.

 

Woollcott smiled. "Yes, Max, that is my assumption, he comes up to the stage, kneels, and accepts his role and they bless him.  You come up then and kneel next to him and they bless you both and that's it."

 

"No kissing, no fucking on the altar?" Max asked, only half teasing.  "You know, cement our bond and show that I am willing to bond to him?"

 

"No, no kissing and certainly no fucking." 

 

Shifting slightly, Max looked at him. "Will you please tell me who it is?  Do I know him?"

 

The other man frowned. "I wish I could, Max, but the Council discussed it again yesterday and vetoed both Uncle Marc's and my suggestion that we do so … again.  They feel that the Oracles have always made the announcement and even though we have an idea of who they have selected, we may in fact be wrong and even if we are right, we are usurping their power.  Given all that has happened, they are very worried about appearances, any hints of coercion or influence …"

 

Max frowned. "That seems stupid and something like a bunch of fools would say when it's not them who are dealing with this."

 

Woollcott sighed, pushing away from the table. "Maximus, it has been a long few weeks, please don't start."  He glanced up as a knock sounded against the support structure of the tent.  "Come," he called.

 

"It's my tent," Max commented dryly.

 

Woollcott had the good grace to look slightly apologetic as he stood and nodded in the direction of Siegel, who had just entered.  "I need to review a few things with Borges about security before this evening's ceremony, so I'll leave you two to talk."  Turning to the younger man, he added, "Be ready to go at six, please."

 

Making a face and feeling suddenly annoyed and then instantly guilty because it had indeed been a long few weeks and his uncle was dealing with most of it, Max watched him leave before turning his attention to Siegel.  "Hi," he said.  "Official business?"

 

"No,"  Siegel said, adding softly and with a smile, "I just had some free time now that the camp is settled from its move and decided to come see you, Max."

 

He grinned. "Hi, Leo."  He stood up and moved closer to Siegel, unsure of the next step.

 

"That looked like a frustrating conversation," Siegel said, moving closer as well.

 

Max frowned and nodded. "The Council is scared of overstepping their bounds and upsetting the Oracles."  He glanced up and moved a fraction closer.  "Are you scared of upsetting the Oracles?"

 

Siegel smiled and shook his head. "No."

 

"If I asked you something, would you tell me the truth?"

 

Siegel nodded.

 

"Even if it was something you weren't supposed to tell me, but was important and something that concerned me?"

 

Siegel paused. "Assuming that it wasn't something you weren't to know for your own safety, then yes."  Stepping closer so that they were next to each other, he leaned down, pausing for a moment before the younger man gave the smallest of nods, and then kissed Max gently on the lips.  "Your safety and well-being will always take precedence over your wants."

 

Wrapping his arms around the other man's neck, Max kissed him back softly as he leaned into him, debating how to ask and not look like a fool if he was wrong.  "What are you going to do when you retire?  I heard the men talking and know you won't be a Major much longer."

 

Siegel chuckled and brought his hands from Max's waist to his butt.  Giving one cheek a gentle pat, he squeezed it and kissed the other man.  "I think, if the Gods are willing and kind, then I'll be spending a good amount of time doing exactly this," he said, kissing him again.  "A decent amount of time warming this when it's called for," he said, gently swatting at Max's butt, "and the rest of the time admiring it bare and begging to be filled."

 

Max froze and pulled back, staring at him.

 

Siegel was instantly afraid that he had overstepped some invisible line or that the young man was not fully aware of the situation.

 

"Really?" Max asked cautiously, studying him as if waiting for a laugh or to be told it was a joke.  "Really?  You?"  When Siegel nodded, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath.  "Thank the Gods."

 

Siegel smiled. "How did you know?"

 

"Guess," Max corrected with a laugh.  "I was just praying I was right.  Vita's daughter said something about her father saying that the rumors going around were that the appointed Consort was a man and in the military. Then I overheard my uncles say something about telling me and getting to know me and how we were getting along well already, when it was late and I was half asleep. Finally, when I heard you were retiring, but some people said you would still be around …"  He grinned. "I read a lot of Hardy Boys growing up and watched a lot of police dramas."

 

Not bothering to ask for an explanation, Siegel kissed him again, deeper and longer than before.  Breaking away, he moved to the younger man's neck, nibbling at the sensitive skin around his ear and whispered, "You are so smart."

 

"Uncle Wooly said there would be no kissing and no fucking tonight …"  Max said, shivering as he moved closer and began to kiss Siegel's face gently, carefully moving around to taste the entire area.  "Is he wrong?"

 

Siegel sighed and stopped, capturing Max's hands in his and stilling him.  "Well, not about the kissing," he said ruefully, "but no, he's not wrong about the rest of it." 

 

Max closed his eyes, willing himself not to whine, not to complain and nodded a moment later, pulling back his hands.  "You're right.  There's a lot left to do and tonight is going to be busy and then Onyx tomorrow."  He glanced at the table and the pile of paper sitting there and took a deep breath, turning back to Siegel and kissing him quickly. "Thank you for telling me.  It will make tonight much easier."  Stepping back, he motioned to the table. "I should probably finish up my reading so I'm prepared for tomorrow's visit to Onyx. Then, on to Maderia and the big day is on Saturday."

 

Slightly surprised by the withdrawal, Siegel looked at him. "Are you upset because we had to stop?"

 

"No! Not at all!" Max said.  "You are right, there's a lot still to do and I'm too close to drop the ball now.  Saturday, I guess?" The last part came out as a question and he smiled when Siegel nodded. "There won't be so much pressure after that and I won't feel like I'm on the brink of messing this up with one badly answered question or one offended representative."

 

"You're not," Siegel said firmly.  "They love you, all of them."  He waved his hand in the direction of the camp. "The guards, the servants, the followers, the representatives: All of them are thrilled to be here and having the biggest adventure of their lives.  They'll remember this experience and tell their grandchildren about how they were there when King Maximus arrived and how he laughed and talked to them. They love you."

 

Max smiled slightly and shook his head. "No, they love the thought of me.  They love the story, the little prince who was spirited away into hiding through a magical portal, and then brought back to them as a man and the leader who is going to save them and the country and who can solve all their problems.  It's a classic fairy tale."  He smiled and shrugged. "And I let them believe it and I carry on the story and I nod when I listen to their problems with the economy and trade routes and lack of labor for the farms now that so many are dead … died for my cause … as if there's something I can do to solve things." 

 

"Max--"

 

"No," he interrupted, smiling, "it's fine.  And I can do a lot to help them and solve some of their problems.  Some will be solved naturally as trade routes improve and next spring, we'll renew relationships with some of the empires that supported Queen Beatriz and maybe begin looking at how to deal with the labor shortage though improved machinery."  He laughed. "All of that will take time, though.  Right now, I just need to get through until Saturday and I'll have a bit of breathing room once I'm crowned."

 

Siegel understood and nodded. "But Saturday night, you're mine."

 

Max smiled, coming over and kissing him. "Gladly."

 

Watching Max move away and settle back at the table, Siegel wondered what sort of child and teenager Max had been, how much of this driven edge had been brought about because of how Woollcott and, to a lesser extent, Chivas, had raised him and how much was his own personality.  He slipped out of the tent, smiling as he realized how much he was looking forward to finding the answers.  After tonight's announcement, he would have all the time in the world to figure Max out.  He couldn't wait to watch the fairy tale prince emerge to his people as a King.

 

 

BREAK

 

 

Part Three:  King Maximus

 

Standing straight three steps below the high platform from the head of the Oracles, Chief Judge of the High Court, and the Supreme Commander of the Army, Siegel fought against smiling as he saw Max make his way slowly down the aisle toward them.  He was dressed in all white and gold, which made his tan face look even more youthful and strong than normal.  He walked alone, rarely looking to either side of him even as people cheered and called his name.  Many of the women in the audience threw small bunches of flowers and herbs toward him as he carefully made his way through the throng.  Even though guards, some dressed in their richly decorated ceremonial outfits and many more in plainclothes to better blend into the audience, were keeping a careful watch on everyone and everything, Siegel found himself tense and on alert, eyes moving between his soon to be lover lover and the crowd, looking for trouble.

 

The trumpets blared and the choir began a joyful tune as Max approached the dais. The area representatives, Council members, dignitaries and other high ranking guests stood, turning to face him as he approached.

 

Siegel saw Max start just a fraction at the noise of the trumpets and then mutter a small curse at his own actions and felt himself smile.  Since the Oracle's proclamation three days earlier, he had counted down the hours until the younger man was officially crowned and their relationship sanctioned. 

 

The dignitaries were much quieter in their respect, most simply bowing as Max passed them and then slowly made his way up the seven steps to the small platform just below the three officials. 

 

He glanced at Siegel as he passed and gave him a small smile before taking a deep breath and turning solemn and serious again as he climbed higher.  Meeting each man's eyes for a brief moment, he smiled slightly at them before gracefully kneeling in front of them, head bowed.

 

"I can't believe this," Woollcott whispered to his lover as they listened to the priest drone on. "We did it."

 

Chivas smiled and gave a quiet laugh. "We did it."

 

"While the Gods alone may have the final say in a ruler's success or failure, the will of the governed is critical as well," the Oracle said.  "The Oracles proudly confirm that Maximus of the House of Anador is a good and worthy candidate for kingship."

 

The crowd cheered their approval.

 

There had been much debate about the order of the questions, some on the Council insisting on tradition, while others thought that an acknowledgement of the past 16 years must be made.  In the end, tradition had won out.  The Oracle turned to the man on his right and asked, "Does the Court, the system responsible for ensuring justice is fair across the land, support Maximus of the House of Anador?"

 

"We do!" the Chief Judge said in a loud, ringing voice and a cheer went up from the small section of High Justices in the reserved area.

 

"Does the Military, the system responsible for ensuring peace across the land, support Maximus of the House of Anador?"

 

The Supreme Commander stepped forward and looked across the crowed before saying in a booming voice, "We do!"  The cry was echoed throughout the chamber as guards voiced their approval.

 

Siegel felt himself smile as multiple guards in plainclothes forgot they were incognito and scared nearby folks with their cries of support.

 

"The systems of our government are weak and helpless without the support of the people--"  The Oracle paused as another loud cry and cheer went up from the crowd and he smiled, getting caught up in the excitement of the moment.  "We have representatives from 15 towns and areas with us today.  When I call your name, please confirm your support of Maximus of the House of Anador."

 

Siegel watched as Max swayed slightly on his knees as one by one, from each town he had visited, the representatives he had dined with and chatted with and gotten to know stood and shouted their support for him.  He saw Max quickly brush at his cheeks as the noise swelled as Onyx's name was called and the representative confirmed their support.

 

"The people of Onyx and in the entire surrounding area pledge their full and undying support of Maximus!"

 

"Maderia!" the Oracle called and the representative, who had met with Max just the day before, stood and smiled, laughing slightly, as the crowd cheered and clapped for a long moment before he could finally speak, confirming their support.  "I believe it is abundantly clear that the people of Maderia and the entire surrounding area pledge their full support to Maximus of the House of Anador."

 

The Oracle smiled. "And finally, while the towns' representatives pledge their support, that support is worthless without the support of the people."  He looked out onto the suddenly quiet crowd and the air grew still as if everyone were holding their breath. "What say you, good people of Atlantis?"

 

Siegel had been in many battles, had heard the thundering, bone chilling cries of approaching armies charging at his defenses, but they were nothing compared to the roar of support from the entire chamber, echoed a second later by the massive crowds outside who had gathered to watch the processions go to and from the temple.

 

Max knew his cue but was unable to move for a long moment as the noise washed over him.  He bowed his head and wiped at his cheeks again, struggling to control his emotions.  Taking a deep breath, he smiled and then stood up, turning slowly and causing the crowd to go wild again.  He had been told to stand there, quiet and solemn, but he couldn't help it and got caught up in the joyous mood of the crowd.  He grinned broadly, waving to them. 

 

They loved it and cheered louder.

 

He smiled and tried not to think of the thousands of ghosts that were surely cheering loudly as well and if his parents were there in the front row next to his foster uncles. 

 

The rest of the ceremony went by in a blur.   There were more solemn words as Max sat on the throne and the heavy crown was placed on his head. There was more music, drowned out by still more cheering as the entire crowd, including the dignitaries, joyously celebrated a day that had been a decade and a half in coming and that many had thought, with good reason, they would never live to see.  Max had a short speech memorized that he somehow got through.  He knew that it didn't matter, because not a single person in the would remember what he said, only that he stood and smiled and looked confident, with the crown firmly on his head.

 

The crowd cheered loudly again as Siegel stepped up, kneeling for a short blessing, before accepting a golden rod topped with a small crown and taking up his new permanent place just to the right and a step behind the throne.

 

The Oracle raised his hands, stilling the crowds for a moment. "This glorious day has long been awaited and we are here through the shed blood of our sons, daughters, parents, friends, and loved ones."  He bowed his head as the crowd grew quiet.  "Let us honor them, not by mourning what was, but by celebrating what is and what will be!  This is the dawning of a new day, a new era, and I am pleased and humbled to present to you, King Maximus!"

 

The crowd's cheers reverberated throughout the city and weeks later rumors spread that sailors at sea, ten miles away, reported that they too knew when the King was crowned because they could hear the cheers.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Stripping off his pants, Woollcott bowed his head and made his way to his lover seated on a wide, padded bench near the fire.  They had stayed just long enough after dinner not to be rude before making their escape to temporary rooms far away from the noise and crowds.

 

"Since you are probably going to be bare for a good part of this conversation," Chivas said, patting his lap before holding out his hand, "I wanted to make sure all of you was warm and not just your butt."  Taking the other man's hand, he drew him over and settled him carefully face down.  He shifted and turned, adjusting them both slightly so that Woollcott's arms and chest rested on the bench, while his legs were half supported by the other side of the bench and a footstool that had been pulled close.

 

Woollcott shivered as Chivas rested a hand on his butt and patted it affectionately before curving his hand around one cheek, slightly spreading and exposing him.  They had discussed this night for the last two weeks, if they had wanted to continue the discipline side of their relationship once they were together again full time and how exactly to do that after so long.   He squirmed as Chivas raised a hand and swatted him twice, hard, covering both cheeks with his hand.

 

"When was the last time I did this to you," Chivas asked, resting his hand again on his lover's butt.

 

"I don't really remember," Woollcott said quietly, his voice thick.  "It's been almost two years, I think."

 

Chivas swatted him three more times in quick succession.  "Well, we'll have to make sure that we do it much more often now."  Swatting him several  more times, he tightened his grip around his lover's waist when the other man squirmed as he resumed the spanking, delivering hard, evenly spaced blows at a steady pace.  "And since you seem to barely remember the last time, I'll have to make sure you remember this one clearly."

 

"Please," Woollcott said, squirming under the assault and trembling, trying hard not to cry out as the spanking continued and the burn slowly built in his butt and upper thighs.  He laid his head down on his arms, crying. "Marc, please."

 

"You have been so good, Kent," Chivas said, not stopping the spanking as he spoke.  "But we are together again and it's time for you to remember that you don't have to do everything yourself, you don't have to rely on just yourself anymore, and that you belong to me."  He paused, concentrating on delivering a rapid ten swats in a row to the center of Woollcott's butt, causing him to cry out again and squirm, trying to escape.  "I've got you, babe," he whispered.

 

Giving up on trying to get free, Woollcott cried out again as the spanking intensified, with another three dozen, hard swats scattered across his burning butt.  Burying his head back into his arms, he finally gave in and sobbed out the pain and the years of frustration, barely noticing when the spanking finally ended five minutes later.

 

"I've got you," Chivas said softly, stroking his hair while his other hand rested on his butt.  "You're OK."

 

Woollcott sniffled, his tears stopping slowly as he shifted on his lover's lap.  "I hurt so much," he said.

 

Chivas chuckled, patting his butt. "Good, then that means I did it right."

 

"I want up," Woollcott said, squirming again, trying to find some relief from the heavy weight on his butt and the feeling of being completely exposed.

 

Chivas sighed and delivered five hard swats, causing Woollcott to cry out and tear up again.  "Is that how that request should go, Kent?"  He swatted him three more times. "You belong to me and if I want you bare and turned over my lap so I can enjoy the view, then guess what, love?"  He delivered two more swats when the younger man didn't immediately answer.

 

"I'm turned over your lap, butt bare so you can enjoy the view," Woollcott choked out, fighting back tears.

 

Leaning down, Chivas kissed the back of his head and then resumed his gentle stroking of his back. "That's right, boy."

 

Despite the burn in his butt, Woollcott felt himself relax into the position and forget what he must look like to anyone but Marc.  He sighed, shifting slightly to get more comfortable, and then closed his eyes, feeling himself drift under the gentle caresses he had missed so much and craved for so long.

 

Chivas chuckled quietly as he felt his lover slowly relax. He smiled, looking forward to rest of his careful plan unfolding during the night and next morning.  They had both decided they wanted to resume their discipline relationship and Kent confessed during the dark hours as they lay in bed together talking how much he craved once again fully belonging to his lover and knowing he had no choice in what the other man did to him.  Chivas had refused to go into much detail with his lover.  Rather he simply kissed Woollcott deeply and reminded him that his first act of submission was to trust him never to hurt him.

 

Woollcott had chuckled, spreading his legs wider for Chivas to enter him more deeply as they made love again, strengthening their bond together. "There is hurt, love, and then there is hurt."

 

Leaning down, Chivas kissed him again, patting his butt gently. "Time to get up, love, and continue your lesson of ownership some place a bit more comfortable … and with easier access."

 

Woollcott stirred and slowly eased himself off his lover's lap and knelt on the floor for a long moment, blinking and coming back from the daze he had slipped into.  Staring into the fire for a long moment, he shivered as Chivas leaned down and kissed him yet again before drawing him into a standing position.

 

"I love you," Chivas whispered, pulling him close and stroking his face.

 

He smiled, leaning in and resting his head on Chivas's shoulder, "I love you, too, so much, Marc. I've missed you so much.  Never again, I refuse to spend another night outside of your bed.  Sixteen years …."  His voice caught in his throat and he shuddered, remembering the endless nights between too-short visits.

 

"I know," Chivas said, his own voice husky as he blinked back tears.  "And I'm glad you're not planning on going anywhere because I refuse to let you go."  Then, not wanting to get maudlin on a night of celebration and reunion, he swatted his lover's butt.  "To bed with you then.  I'm not fully convinced you understand your place after so long out of it."

 

Woollcott chuckled and squirmed again under the assault. "I know my place and that's going to be on the back of a horse tomorrow, Marc, heading toward home. It's five days away, so you need to be nice." 

 

In all their plans and discussions, one thing had not changed in six months and that was the knowledge that, once Max was crowned, they would leave.  They needed to finally have a chance to rebond and reconnect, reforming their own relationship in whatever form that might take.  And, as importantly, they also wanted to give the young man time to bond and connect with his own Consort without their constant presence hovering in the background for advice and support.  They had told Siegel of their plans the day before and he immediately grasped the necessity for their departure and appreciated their thoughtfulness.

 

Pulling Woollcott closer, Chivas swatted him twice and shook his head. "That is not the answer I had hoped for, love."  Kissing him deeply for a long moment, he led him to the bed and settled him down next to him.  He leaned over and kissed him again, falling back into the bed before gently rolling them over so he was on top.  "In fact, love," he said, kissing him gently on the lips, "it just earned you a long trip, well fucked tonight and tomorrow morning, before being filled with a nice plug."

 

"Marc!" he protested, squirming and trying to pull free.  "That's not fair!"

 

Rolling him over quickly, Chivas swatted him three times. "Fair?  You belong to me, love, which means if I want to spank this, fuck this or slip a nice plug into it to remind you of your place and that you don't get to dictate to me, then that's exactly what I'll do."  His voice was calm and even, with no hint of anger, as he patted Woollcott's bare butt, hand dipping between his cheeks and a finger beginning to tease at his opening.  "You don't get to top from the bottom with me."

 

Squirming against the mattress, pinned by his lover's hand, Woollcott felt himself color as he realized he had spread his legs in response to the invasion and his cock was hard.  He rocked back slightly, grinding against the mattress and urging the finger in deeper.  Not caring any more what he looked like, he sighed and shivered as he felt the bed shift as Chivas knelt beside him and spread his legs with his knees to expose him fully, replacing his fingers with his cock and pushing his way inside. 

 

Woollcott's mind immediately went back to the first time he had ridden home with Chivas.  That time too, he had been well stretched, aching and filled with a plug.  He had often joked that he had seen more of the ground and the sky during that journey than he had of the countryside.  Chivas had always kissed him and pointed out that he had taken him plenty of times standing up and it wasn't his fault if Kent had kept his eyes closed.  Now, almost 25 years later, history was repeating itself and he felt himself laugh out loud, the rightness of the situation filling him with joy.

 

Chivas stilled his kisses and smiled before sinking back into his lover and resuming his thrusts.  "I love you," he said.

 

"I love you," Woollcott echoed, grinding his cock into the mattress and hoping that he would get to come at least once that evening.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

The remains of the dinner had been mostly carried away by the servants, who were now beginning to get caught up in the party themselves.  Guests who had drunk too much pulled some of them away to dance. Others slipped away on their own to play games and catch up with friends.

 

Sitting at a long table, Max looked around the room and struggled, as he had just three weeks earlier, not to be overwhelmed.  More people smiled at him now than when he first stepped through the portal, but just as few approached him, even though he smiled back and chatted happily with those who did.  He was, despite the close quarters of the three week long camp and procession, still essentially an outsider and a stranger.  Now that he was king, the gulf between him and them was even wider in their eyes and he had no idea yet how to bridge it.  Taking a sip of chilled cider, he sighed to himself, feeling the weight of the past days settle on him as he watched the crowd and tried not to be sucked into the darkness floating around his mind.  Hopefully, things would get better and he'd get to know more guardsmen, or the sons of Council members, or even the helpers of the Council.  The helpers were usually younger children of lords or other high land owners who had been sent to Court to become educated in its ways and gain useful contacts and a way to support themselves away from the family land, which was to go to older siblings.  Leaning back in the chair, Max winced as the small gold circlet that had replaced the heavy crown bumped against the back of the chair and dug into the side of his head. He made a face and twisted slightly, trying to relieve the pressure.

 

"If you'd sit up straight and try to look regal, it wouldn't be a problem."

 

Max jerked at the voice, instinctively sitting up straight and smiling, ready to make a joke at his own expense while still looking regal.  The joke died in his throat as he saw Siegel sitting down next to him and his smile grew genuine.  "Hush," he ordered.  "It's been a really long day.  Plus, I have a crown on and I'm sitting on a throne. I'm not sure how much more regal I can look."

 

"We can go whenever you want, you know, Max," Siegel said quietly, leaning in close.  He looked over the crowd. "They look like they'll be going all night and many of the Councilors and the representatives have slipped out already, leaving behind those who will go a lot longer than I think you can last."  He smiled, standing up and holding out his hand. "Come."

 

Max smiled at him and glanced at the crowd. He felt tired just watching their energy.  "I did vow to accept the personal guidance of my Consort and always consider that advice when I took action."  As he stood up, his movement caught the attention of several people who turned and smiled at him.  He smiled back, bowing slightly in their direction.  Soon, most of the room caught on that he was leaving, as he slowly made his way through the room, stopping to personally thank those he knew or acknowledge those who spoke to him.  Throughout the room, the crowd once again began cheering for him.  Turning at the doorway, he bowed deeply. "Thank you for your support and I hope you enjoy yourselves all evening."

 

"At least until the mead and wine runs out!" someone called out, causing the room to cheer again.

 

"Make sure he enjoys himself too … all night, Consort!"

 

The room erupted into louder cheers, wolf whistles and wild clapping.

 

Siegel grinned. "I will do my duty to the Gods and Country!"

 

 "Don't forget the King!"

 

Taking  Max's hand, Siegel led the way out of the room, both of them laughing together as they heard more lewd and encouraging calls coming from the rowdy group.  Siegel shook his head.  "It was certainly not the most solemn coronation in history and the party is continuing the theme."  He paused as they crossed the path of a Captain in charge of many of the guards. "I trust that your men are keeping an eye on the group in there."

 

 "Yes, Major, of course.  We are going to let them go another hour –until midnight –and then start moving them out."

 

"I don't want there to be trouble," Max said firmly.  "No one is to be hurt or roughed up. It's not that important."

 

The Captain shook his head. "No, of course not, your Highness.  There are several after parties planned and currently starting up outside the palace, at some of the local taverns.  We'll spread the word about those and get the exit started.  It should go very smoothly and now that you're gone, I think most people will start heading out anyway.  We've already sent some men along to help the local police ensure peace in the streets."

 

Max smiled at him, "Thank you, Captain …"

 

"Scout, your Highness," he said with a bow.  "Montgomery Scout."

 

Max looked at him and then laughed.  "You have a great name and one that is very close to a fictional character I liked when I was growing up."

 

"My mother's family name, your Highness," he said with a smile. 

 

"Thank you, Captain," Siegel said, tugging slightly at Max, who was rapidly fading. "We should go, your Highness."

 

Glancing around the dark corridors, Max shook his head. "Do you know where you're going?  Because I'm lost."

 

Siegel smiled. "I do and don't trouble yourself too much about it.  Remember, tonight we're just in temporary quarters."

 

"Why?" Max asked, suddenly remembering a very flustered Major Domo meeting his party yesterday, full of apologies and looking like he expected to lose either his head or his position.

 

Siegel silently debated for a moment before saying, "During the final walk through yesterday morning, when they were preparing the wing, they found several "B"s  in the tile work and a couple in some of the carpets. They thought they had gotten them all, but they missed a few.  They had everything ripped up and put new pieces down tonight, but the fumes … it's best if everything airs out overnight."

 

"Bees?" Max wasn't sure if his confusion was due to the way Siegel had told the story or to the exhaustion that seemed to be rapidly overtaking him now that they were away from the party.  "They found a hive?"

 

"Not bees, like the bugs, but 'B's as in the initial letter for Queen Beatriz."

 

"Oh.  Of course," Max said slowly, shaking his head.  "It doesn't really matter though.  This was her palace and removing her initials doesn't change that.  Just like her living here doesn't mean anything other than that this is the main palace and she was Queen."

 

Siegel nodded to several of the guards as they slowly passed, making their way toward their chambers, debating his answer to Max, unsure if he was actually looking for an answer or just talking as he was prone to do.  "It matters to them, though," he finally said.  "It's a fresh start and everyone, I believe, wants the old completely out and gone."

 

Max nodded, not feeling like discussing the matter any longer.  "I'm tired," he said slowly.  "It's like … all of a sudden."

 

Siegel laughed and then smiled as two guards standing at attention by a chamber door bowed.  One opened the door.  "It's been a long day."

 

"It's OK though.  Thank you," Max said automatically, smiling at the guards without really seeing them and then recognized a face. "Andros! Good to see you again." He smiled in earnest.

 

The younger guard colored and bowed. "Your Highness, thank you."

 

"So after a hard month, you're stuck pulling guard duty tonight.  Why aren't you off enjoying the party?  You deserve it after the excellent job you've done." Max glanced around. "You really should get to enjoy yourself, too.  There's no need for this."

 

Andros blushed deeper and bowed again. "Thank you, King Maximus.  I did enjoy the party earlier, but with the palace having so many visitors and your usual, more secure chambers not being ready, several of us volunteered to take extra duty."

 

Max stared at him for a moment, wanting to protest, but knowing it would be almost insulting.  Instead, he bowed. "Thank you for that.  I will sleep well tonight knowing that you are outside."  He smiled at the other man, a guard new to him. "Thank you as well."

 

Siegel smiled in their direction too, before ushering the younger man inside.  The fireplace had been lit and several candles softly illuminated the room with just enough light to see by.  He pointed at a chair by the fire place.  "Sit before you fall down," he said and then pulled a cord for a servant.  Waiting for a moment, he stepped back into the corridor, pleased to see Captain Scout heading in his direction.  He met him half way. "Everything is secure?"

 

"Yes, Consort.  Captain Michelson and I are coordinating efforts tonight.  There are extra guards throughout the palace and we're keeping a close eye on everyone.  There've been no problems, no threats, and everything  seems peaceful.  These rooms are secure and anyone who tries to get in will have a fight on their hands, for sure."

 

Siegel nodded. "Good,  thank you.  The Gods willing, all of this will be for nothing."  He smiled, "I know I retired, but …"

 

Captain Scout laughed, long used to Siegel, who he had trained under for six years.  "You'll never really retire."  He bowed.  "Sleep well, sir."

 

Unable to fully relax yet, Siegel did a quick walk through around their part of the palace, stepping out on some of the balconies and looking into the gardens.  He could see several guards posted at the lookout towers along the outer wall.  He startled several other guards when he inadvertently crossed their paths.  Fifteen minutes later, feeling more at ease, he let himself back into Max's bed chamber.

 

"Ready to do your duty to God and country?" Max yawned deeply.

 

Siegel laughed, walking over and sitting on the bed where the younger man lay.  "I think it can wait until tomorrow."

 

Max closed his eyes and sighed, sinking into the pillows a bit more.  "As much as I hate to agree with you …"

 

"It sounds like a good idea?"

 

"It sounds like an activity I'd really like to be awake for and honestly, I think that's a tough call right now," Max said with a smile.  "You want to at least get comfortable with me?"

 

Blowing out all but one of the candles, Siegel sat down on the bench at the bottom of the bed.  He took off his boots and belt, untucking his shirt before sliding into bed.  "You're warm," he said, pulling the younger man closer.  He had not trusted himself or his control enough to undress completely and, as he felt his cock stir at the closeness, decided that had been a wise decision.

 

"I'm supposed to be hot," Max countered, curling up against the other man.  Running his hands under his shirt, he frowned as he felt a long, thin scar across his stomach.  "What happened?"

 

"Nothing important," Siegel said, kissing him. "Keep your hands to yourself, or you can forget about sleeping tonight."

 

Ghosting his hands over his skin again, Max grinned. "I'm starting to feel less tired."  He squirmed as Siegel ran his own hands down his back and rested them on his butt and then yelped as he delivered a firm swat.

 

"Hands to yourself, Max."  Taking any sting out of the words with another kiss, Siegel held him tightly, one hand on his back, the other cupping his butt through the material of his sleeping shirt.  "Tell you what …"

 

"What?"

 

"We're going to lie here for ten minutes, not talking, not moving.  If you're still awake, we can talk about it again."

 

Max chuckled, squirming slightly and sighing as the hands holding him snug shifted, but did not loosen.  "Deal."

 

Neither man was awake ten minutes later.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Max jerked awake three hours later, feeling disoriented and confused for a moment before the previous day's activities rushed back to him.  Glancing over, he saw Siegel fast asleep next to him, still mostly clothed in his outfit from the party.  He shivered slightly and then turned to the window as a bright streak of lightning, followed by an almost immediate crash of thunder, cut through the pouring rain. The room was chilly and he slipped out of bed, pulling on his robe.  He jabbed at the fire for a moment before tossing another small log on it, hoping that it would catch and not smother the flames.   He smiled when, after a few long moments, it began to burn brighter and immediately began to put out more heat.  Another bright flash and closer roll of thunder jerked his attention back to the storm and he frowned.  Slipping on the pair of slacks and shirt laid out for the morning, he padded over to the door and opened it.

 

The guard standing four steps away glanced up and immediately stood straighter before bowing low.  "Your Highness," he said.

 

Pulling the door shut behind him, Max smiled. "It's OK, I just was wondering who is in charge right now? I have a question and an issue I want to make sure is being taken care of."

 

The other man stuttered for a moment. "That would be Captain Michelson, your Highness."

 

"And do you know where I can find him?"

 

"Yes, sir, he is in the great hall."

 

Max smiled. "OK, since you appear to be on your own, I'll go there.  Thank you."

 

The guard looked between the closed door and the King. "My orders were to watch your chamber, your Highness."

 

"That's fine," Max said.  "Major … Consort Siegel is still there, asleep.  I just want a word with Michelson and then I'll be right back."  Giving a quick wave, he walked barefoot down the corridor.  Luckily, the great hall was lit and three turns later, he found it.   Three guards sat in quiet conversation.  The kitchen had set out plates of food and several urns of strong tea and one of the men was pouring himself a cup while listening to another describe his holiday plans.

 

"Your Highness!" the man pouring the tea said, jerking and spilling some of the liquid on his hand.  "Hells," he said, dropping the mug to the ground.

 

The other two men jumped up, both reaching for their swords. 

 

"What's wrong, your Highness?  Where is Allen or Consort Siegel?"

 

"Michelson?" Max asked, glancing between them before finally setting on the man who had spoken to him.  When he nodded, Max smiled. "Relax, gentlemen, everything's fine."

 

Michelson motioned to the man by the tea to clean up the mess before approaching the King.  "Excuse us, your Highness.  We weren't expecting to see you and were worried that something was wrong."  A loud crash of thunder echoed overhead and all four men glanced up as the room was lit by lightning.  Another roll of thunder followed.

 

Max smiled.  "No, I'm sorry.  I woke up, heard the storm and was concerned."  When he saw the two lower guards exchange looks, he colored and clarified.  "Not about the storm, specifically, but I know we had a lot of party goers and followers camping outside.  With this rain and the storm, I'm concerned they may be in danger."  He looked at them.  "You know … the high winds, lightning, flash floods, just getting wet and sick?"

 

"Yes, your Highness," Captain Michelson said slowly.

 

"I'm sure we have room under cover for them where it might be safer and hopefully drier and a bit warmer," Max said, again looking between the men. "Gentlemen, I want people to remember my coronation for the cheering crowds and the vision of me being crowned your King.  Not for three deaths caused by a fallen tree crashing through a tent or the outbreak of colds caused by a hundred people sleeping out in the rain," he added, making his point and his position clear.

 

Michelson bowed. "Certainly, your Highness.  I'll send men to the campground and open up the stables, the covered garden pavilions, and the service tunnel.  All of them will be much safer, out of the weather and still easily defensible in case there are problems."

 

Max smiled, bowing his head. "Excellent, Captain, thank you.  These are my people and I intend to support them as much as they support me."  He smiled at the two other men and turned, praying he could find his way back to his room.

 

Michelson watched him go for a second before barking, "Gray, go with the King and make sure he gets back to his room safely. And then stay there and send Allen back here so that I may have a word with him."

 

The younger man nodded and trotted after the King.

 

"Where did you go?" Siegel asked, coming awake as Max slid back into bed next to him. 

 

"It's raining," Max said. "I just needed to check on something.  Go back to sleep."

 

Siegel nodded and rolled over, tugging the younger man down with him and holding him close.  "You too," he mumbled.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

"Council members," Max said, looking around the small meeting room.  "I know it's early morning still and I know that many of you had late nights.  Actually, by the looks of you, I'm not sure how many of you have actually been to bed yet."

 

Most on the Council laughed, glancing around at each other through somewhat blurry eyes.

 

Max smiled. "Trust me, I feel the same way.  It has been a long and tiring and stressful month for all of us and I know we deserve a break.  Even though the Council typically does not break until the first part of December for the winter festivals, I am temporarily closing the Council for four weeks.  We will resume at the end of October, but this break should give all of you enough time to return to your homes, rest, assess your local situations and be prepared to help me tackle those issues when we return.  The issue of Aliseo's trial and the trial of his leaders is also on the table and I would like to have it decided before the new year."  Bowing deeply, he added, "Thank you for all your help. I know, without a doubt, that I would not be here if it were not for your support and belief in the power of this monarchy."

 

As one, they stood and applauded before carefully making their way out of the room.  Most stopped to speak with King Maximus and each other before drifting apart, eager to be on their way and on a well-deserved break.  They had known the Council would be put into recess for a time, so it would take them only a little while to change into their traveling clothes and be off. 

 

With two other Council members in tow, Gonick bowed in Max's direction.  "Congratulations, your Highness.  Everything went well yesterday and I know my wife and son were disappointed to have missed it."

 

"You should look at bringing them next time. I look forward to meeting them."  Max saw the other man flush slightly and wondered what that was about.

 

"Before I leave, though," Gonick said, "I must ask.  I know the key question that will be on the minds of my people is whether or not you and Consort Siegel have bonded and whether you have fully accepted his right to personally guide you."

 

"My sex life seems to be of high concern to everyone," Max said dryly, causing the two other Council members to chuckle.  "But, Councilor Gonick, while Siegel and I have not yet bonded, you can rest assured that by the time you are at your home, we will have.”

 

"And may I ask why you didn't last night?"

 

Fighting down a sudden flush of annoyance, Max bowed slightly.  "I may be 21, but I am still human.  It was a very long and stressful day yesterday, after a very long and stressful month.  Although I am honored that you felt I would be up to the task …"  He smiled, placing a special emphasis on the word 'up' and causing the other members to laugh again.  "Never fear though, I am fully rested now and look forward to a long break."

 

Gonick nodded. "Good.  I am glad to hear it."

 

Bowing again, Max smiled. "I look forward to meeting your family at the end of the recess when they return with you for at least a short time."  He watched Gonick bow back and then quickly leave the room. 

 

"I'm wondering if he's going to tell his mistress she needs to move out now in person, or send her a note," Councilor Bane said with a smile and a shake of his head.  He turned back to the young King. "That is why he was not thrilled with your suggestion, your Highness.  He set up a young woman, his companion on campaign, in his town home several months ago."

 

Max grinned, pleased that his guess had been right and that his deliberate goading had hit home so successfully.  "I knew it had to be something like that.  I'll make sure to send him a note in a few weeks reminding him of how much I'm looking forward to meeting his wife."  Exchanging goodbyes with the other members, he slowly made his way toward Siegel and his uncles, who were chatting together in the now empty room.

 

"So we'll see you in a few weeks," Woollcott said with a smile.  "We're heading to Uncle Marc's house for the recess."

 

Max looked between them, opened his mouth and then closed it, swallowing as he nodded.  "Of course," he said after a moment, trying to keep his voice matter of fact.  Then, crumbling slightly, he added, "Your house is closer, Uncle Wooly.  Maybe that would be better."

 

Woollcott smiled, reaching out and pulling Max into a tight hug. "Yes, but work has just started on it and the last thing we want to do right now is supervise construction."   His house had been torched during one of the last battles of the war, after the Queen was dead, but before Aliseo had been captured.  The servants had been able to put out the flames eventually, but over half of the main house had been destroyed. 

 

"We're only five days away," Chivas said softly, pulling the younger man into his own hug.  "But this is your time with Leo and you don't need us right now." 

 

Max swallowed words of protest as he nodded, before hugging and kissing them both.  "Enjoy your time as well. You both deserve it."

 

Kissing Siegel as well, his uncles linked hands and made their way out of the room and toward the stables.

 

Siegel watched them go before turning his attention to Max.  Pulling the younger man into a hug, he kissed him gently on the lips.  "Are you all right?"

 

"Fine, but I'm going to take a walk.  I need some fresh air now that the rain has stopped."

 

Siegel nodded. "OK, but take a guard with you."  Stepping out into the hall, followed by his Max, he motioned to one of the guards.  "The King is going to walk the grounds.  Please stay with him."

 

"I don't--"  Max broke off as Siegel glared at him.  "Fine."

 

"There are too many things still unresolved," Siegel explained.  "Too many people still roaming around. Aliseo may be awaiting trial, but he still has followers.  Then there is the issue of your cousins--"

 

"What about my cousins?" Max interrupted.

 

Siegel sighed. "It was disturbing that not a single one of them, or any of their children and heirs, were at your coronation."

 

"Did they maybe not know when it was?" Max asked quietly.  "Or maybe – it's not like I know them - maybe they just didn't know they were invited? If someone forgot to send them invitations?"  Even as the words left his mouth, he knew how stupid his excuses sounded and that he was only grasping at straws.

 

Siegel shook his head, pulling the younger man closer and kissing him gently. "They knew, Max, and they know full well what signal their absence sends."

 

Max closed his eyes, feeling very young, very tired and very much alone despite Siegel's arms around him.  "I don't want to deal with this right now," he said quietly.

 

"And you don't have to," Siegel said firmly.  He kissed Max again. "Go, take a few minutes and enjoy the fresh air now that it's stopped raining." He smiled. "It's all under control. You have enough on your mind already. I can handle the rest."

 

Max nodded, wanting nothing more than to slink away somewhere and come to terms with his uncles having left.  Logically, he had known that they would. There was no reason for them to stay while the Council was not in session and they surely both deserved the time alone, but it still stung.  He flashed back to being dropped off at college his freshman year.  He had been excited about the vast new adventure opening up in front of him, but also a bit scared. Some small part of him had wanted to dive back into the car and go home.  Leaning up, he quickly kissed Siegel. "I'll meet you back in my room in about an hour.  I really am all right, Leo.  I just need a bit of time."

 

Siegel nodded. "Go to your new quarters when you return.  They're being readied right now."

 

Max nodded and headed off in what he thought was the direction of one of the doors to the gardens.

 

Siegel climbed the two flights of stairs to the high balcony that ran the length of the third floor and overlooked the gardens.  The skies were clear after the night's storm.  Glancing over toward the stables, Siegel watched as Chivas and Woollcott made their way inside.  He chuckled as he saw the stable hand hurry out a moment later, shoving something into his pocket.  Chivas had bought them a bit of privacy, Siegel figured.  His own cock twitched as he pictured himself leading an apprehensive but willing Max into the dark privacy of the stables before a long ride.  Turning toward the garden area, he began to scan for his lover, spying him a moment later slowly making his way around a fish pond.  True to his word, the guard was following at a distance, close enough to intervene in case of trouble, but far enough away to give the young King plenty of privacy. 

 

 

 

Max studied the water for a long time, watching the large bright yellow and blue fish swimming in lazy circles and occasionally coming to the surface for some bug.  The gardens were quiet and still mostly in bloom.  The late September sun beat down, warming the stones.  Just had he had when his uncles had dropped him off at college, Max tried hard not to think about how his main source of support had just left and instead about how he knew he could face the challenges and upcoming adventures ahead of him.  His cock twitched as he shifted, remembering the feel of Siegel's lips pressing against his and how good Siegel's body had felt rubbing against his own.  He had no idea of how long he had been out there but it suddenly felt too long and he was anxious to begin the next phase of his life and relationship with the other man.  He stood up and motioned for the guard, “Do you know where my quarters are?”

 

"Of course, your Highness.  Would you like me to lead you there?"

 

Max smiled. "Thank you, Corporal …."

 

"Parker," the guard said with a bow.

 

"Thank you, Corporal Parker, I would very much appreciate it."

 

The guard smiled and bowed again. "This way.  We're not far off if you return a different way."  He indicated a large, ornate iron gate a minute later. "That's actually an entrance to your private garden, but there's no way to open it from this side."  Pointing toward another path, he continued, "There's another gate about 500 yards that way as well, but it's also locked.  The way I can always remember is that the royal apartment gardens have yellow roses surrounding them.  Once you find the yellow roses, you can follow the path around and you'll eventually come to one of the main garden entrances."

 

Stepping forward, Max tried to peer through the gate, but the tight grille work and angle of the path prevented him from seeing more than a foot in.  "So have you worked here awhile, Parker?"

 

"No, your Highness.  I was transferred here when they began to prepare for your arrival, about six months ago."

 

"I'm impressed that you know your way around so well, then."

 

Corporal Parker smiled and bowed his head. "Thank you, your Highness.  It's actually pretty simple once you begin to walk it.  There's a logic to the layout.  Large public areas lead to smaller public areas, then to large private areas and finally to smaller private areas.  Once winter is here and the trees are bare, it will be easier to see more and get a better sense of direction."

 

They came around a turn in the gardens and the palace entrance loomed before them, two ornately decorated iron doors open to the fresh air.  Max stepped into the cool interior and looked around admiringly. "It's gorgeous."  The corridor had high arched ceilings, with decorative mosaic tiles halfway up the walls.  The floor tiles formed a mosaic carpet. 

 

"This way, your Highness," Corporal Parker said, turning to the right and then up a short hall to another iron grilled door with guards on either side.  He nodded to them and pushed it open.  "The royal apartments are secured with doors that can be locked against visitors." 

 

Max nodded back as the two guards bowed, but didn't speak, not wanting to interrupt Parker's pleasure in playing tour guide to his new King.

 

They stepped into a smaller corridor, with large windows and multiple doors leading off it.  "The gardens you see out the windows are the private gardens," Corporal Parker said.  "The only access to them is through these apartments, or through someone inside the gardens opening the gates we saw earlier."

 

Max smiled, seeing Siegel speaking with an older guard at the far end of the hall.  "I made it," he called, lifting his hand and waving.  Turning to the younger guard, he smiled. "Thank you so much, Parker, you make an excellent guide."

 

Corporal Parker smiled, bowed low and hurried back the way they had come.

 

Siegel looked up at the sound of Max's voice and smiled as he approached.  He dismissed the guard at his side, who bowed and backed away.

 

"Who was that?" Max asked, watching the older guard walk away.

 

"Major Smyth," Siegel said with a slight frown before shaking his head and smiling.  They were now alone in the hall and he leaned down and kissed the younger man.  "He is in charge of all the divisions of palace guards.  Remember the Captain we spoke to last night?"  Max nodded.  "Smyth has four captains under him, all of whom are in charge of the various lower guards."

 

"Any relation to the Smyth at camp with us?"

 

Siegel smiled. "Yes, that's his youngest brother.  Major Smyth and I have been friends for years and he had asked me to help mentor and guide his brother.  When we saw each other earlier, it was a good opportunity to catch up."

 

Max laughed. "I feel like I need a flow chart and a good map of this place.  It's huge."

 

"I missed you," Siegel said, kissing him again. 

 

"Me too."  Glancing around at the closed doors, Max grinned.  "I'm curious to see my chambers.   I made a promise to Gonick, you know.  It's still early morning, a good excuse to head back to bed." 

 

Siegel smiled back and gave a small bow. "Of course, your Highness."  Waving his hand, he said, "This is the corridor leading to your private apartments.  There is always a guard posted at the iron door there, but unless there are serious threats, none are posted any further in.  That is the only two way door into this area.  The rest can only be opened from the inside, making this area very secure."

 

"Parker, the guard who was with me, pointed out a garden gate and said the same thing."

 

"Right, there is a good acre of private gardens connected to the apartments.  They're also secure and elevated above the rest of the garden.  Only a few windows, accessible through well-guarded towers, overlook them." Siegel smiled, kissing Max again. "I plan on taking advantage of the warm weather over the next few days."

 

Max blushed. "We'll see."

 

Pushing open one of the doors, Siegel led them inside a large living room.  It was comfortably furnished, with two sofas and several chairs clustered around a large, unlit fireplace.  Sunlight streamed in through large windows that overlooked a pond with a fountain and the gardens beyond it. 

 

Max smiled, turning to Siegel. "It's perfect.  I bet it's wonderful at night, when it's cold outside and the fireplace is lit.  It feels warm, more homey than even our chambers last night."

 

Siegel nodded. "It's private and I think Councilors Chivas and Woollcott had a lot of input in the redesign of it."

 

At the mention of his uncles' names, Max felt a small twinge, but then pushed his thoughts away, focusing all his energy on the man in front of him.  Smiling, he stepped closer. "When I left for college, I was a bit sad to be leaving home, but I focused on this wonderful adventure that I was starting and that got me through the first few weeks."  Reaching out, he kissed Siegel, pulling him close. "I can't wait to start on this adventure."

 

Siegel smiled and kissed him deeply, darting his tongue in and out of the younger man's mouth, making Max shiver.  "I missed you," he repeated.  "I had to stop myself from going into the gardens, finding you and hauling you back here."

 

Max laughed, kissing him back. "That would have made for some interesting gossip."  Sliding his hands along the front of Siegel's pants, he grinned down at the growing bulge.  "That's rather interesting, too …"  Undoing his lover's belt between kisses, he tugged open his pants.  "Is that more comfortable?  Relieve some of the pressure?"

 

"But now you're overdressed."  Between kisses, Siegel managed to undo Max's slacks, allowing them to drop to the ground and quickly kicking them away.  "That's a bit better," he said, easing Max down on the couch and settling on top of him.  "Lay back," he ordered softly.

 

Feeling like he was in a soft porn film, Max leaned back on the edge of the sofa and winked, trailing a hand down his shirt front before resting it on his cotton covered cock.  "Like?"

 

Siegel laughed and shook his head. "Did you get that from a play?"

 

"Shut up," Max said, laughing and leaning up.  "I was going for sexy!"

 

Siegel leaned over and kissed him deeply, pushing him back into the cushions.  He braced one hand along the back of the couch, while his other stroked Max's hardening cock through the thin material.  "You don't have to do anything special to be sexy," he said quietly. 

 

Max began to respond to the insistent kisses, his own tongue vying for space and domination, only to be pushed aside and gently conquered.   Bringing his arms up, he slid down, exposing more of his skin to view.  "I don't feel sexy," he admitted. "I feel young and inexperienced."

 

"You are all three," Siegel confirmed. "Sexy, young and inexperienced.  And that's OK.  We were all young and inexperienced at some point and I can't wait to teach you some of the tricks I've learned over the years." 

 

"I'm not that inexperienced," Max said, suddenly feeling the urge to defend his reputation.  "I've been with plenty of guys and girls, too, before and I think they've all been very happy.  I mean, I might not--"

 

Pulling back, Siegel interrupted him. "Is this really a conversation you want to have right now?"  Max shook his head and pulled him back down.  "I didn't think so." Siegel smiled and resumed his kissing.  He could feel his own cock straining for release and could tell from Max's soft moans and grinding motions that he was close to the edge as well.  "Come," he said, sliding down onto the carpet in front of the fireplace and bringing Max down with him.  He rolled Max over, tugging down his underwear and kissing his now bare butt. 

 

Max laughed, squirming at the new sensations of heavy wool against his cock and the sudden breeze on his bare skin.  Turning sideways, he tugged Siegel down to his level and began his own stroking and kissing, one hand holding him tight while the other teased at his cock through his underwear.  "Are you going to take these off or should I?"

 

Siegel smiled, pulling back.  "I'll do it, if you reach into the basket under the table and pull out the bottle of oil."

 

Max laughed, rolling back onto his stomach and stretching for the bottle.  He laughed when he saw it was in the shape of a penis, complete with slightly flattened balls that allowed it to stand upright.  "No mistaking what this is used for," he said. Then, his smile widened when he saw Siegel's own cock, hard and bare between his legs.  "Should I?" he asked softly, gesturing to the cock with the oil.  When the other man nodded, he grinned and sat up, pouring a small bit of oil into his cupped palm and then coating the cock with it.  It was thick and smelled faintly of herbs and nature.  "Very nice," he whispered, getting to his knees and kissing him. 

 

"My turn," Siegel said, taking the bottle and dripping several thick drops on two fingers.  He grinned and ordered, "Turn around, love.  Nothing in front needs lube for you."

 

Max blushed and turned awkwardly around, trying not to get oil on the carpet, before finally giving up and relaxing onto all fours.  He bowed his head, arching his back as he felt Siegel settle between his legs and spread him wide.  He sucked in a deep breath as a finger slipped inside him and began to slowly move back and forth.  He began to rock with the motion and then gasped slightly, arching again as a second finger slipped inside.  "Leo …" he moaned, rocking on his hands and knees.

 

"What, love?" he asked, kissing Max's back and butt gently even as he continued to slide his fingers in and out. 

 

Max laughed, sinking into the sensation and feeling his cock pulsing. "Is our first time really going to be on the floor?"

 

Siegel stilled his fingers and bit his butt gently.  "Considering I'm about ten seconds away from mounting you--"

 

"Mounting me!" Max protested.  He moaned as the fingers slipped free.  Spreading his legs, he rested his head on his folded arms.  "Mounting me …"

 

"Five … four … three …" Siegel said with a laugh, positioning his cock at his opening.

 

Max gave a low moan of satisfaction as his cock began to push inside and resisted the urge to push back to drive it in further and faster.  "Lift off," he said with a laugh that was cut off as he groaned, twisting and arching as his body adjusted to the intrusion.  A thin layer of goose bumps broke out on his arms and he felt his cock throb in time with the increasing thrusts.  "Yes,"  he said, his voice half muffled by his arms.

 

"Oh yes," Siegel said, thrusting from behind.  "Mounting you, love, your ass up high and begging to be taken, while you moan and squirm …"  He pushed all the way in and leaned over, biting at the soft skin around his neck before kissing a trail down his spine, slowly pulling out as Max squirmed against the slow torture.  "This isn't gentle, soft sex, this is our first bonding experience. I get to mark you as mine and you'll always remember it."  He sank back in and began thrusting hard, almost pulling out with each motion.  "Oh yeah, you'll remember this."

 

Max chuckled. "Both for the wonderful experience and from oil marks on the rug."  He had always had lovers who tried to be sexy in bed, struggling to talk dirty as if that was a requirement for gay sex, and it had never really worked for him.  But now, the simple pleasure of being able to laugh and be silly was much sexier than anything else had ever been.  His hand stroked his cock and he felt his balls tighten just as Siegel's thrusts took on a more frantic, more ragged motion.  He groaned. "I'm coming … this poor carpet." 

 

Siegel laughed, sinking in deep one more time before coming with hard jerks inside him.  Not pulling free as his cock softened slightly, he kissed Max's back again. "I highly recommend coming inside of someone if you care about stains."  Then pulling free, he swatted the upturned butt gently before kissing it. "Not that you have much choice in the matter, love."  Slowly standing up on shaky legs, he reached down and helped Max stand as well.  Kissing him deeply, he grinned as he felt the younger man's cock begin to respond again.  "I was going to ask how it was, but …"

 

Max grinned back, kissing him deeply as he sagged against him.  "The glazed eyes, weak knees and the fact that I'm still shaking sort of answers that, huh?"

 

Siegel laughed, kissing him back before gently tugging him toward the bedroom.  "Come …"

 

"If you give me about five minutes and another round of you inside me, I probably will." 

 

Siegel pulled Max closer and kissed him again, shaking his head.  Running a hand down his bare butt, he squeezed gently.  "It won't take me that long, love."  Reluctantly letting him go, determined not to take him again on the carpet, he led them through the living area and pushed open the door to Max's bedroom.  "Your bedroom, your Highness," he said formally.

 

Kissing him, Max tugged at his hand. "I'm sure it's wonderful and I can't wait to see it, but right now, all I'm interested in is the bed, Leo." 

 

Siegel laughed and swatted his butt gently before rubbing it with his hand.  "Bossy, bossy, bossy …"

 

"I am the King," Max said with a grin, even as he moaned, spreading his legs to encourage further exploration of the area. 

 

"That you are," Siegel said, matching his grin and leading him to bed.  The servants had already turned the bed down and he reluctantly let Max go long enough to allow him to slip under the covers.  "But you still belong to me," he said, rolling the younger man onto his stomach.

 

"Yes …" Max breathed out, spreading his legs as Siegel's hand pressed him wider to expose his well lubed opening.  "Leo," he groaned, as the hard cock slipped back inside, "I always thought getting hard again, ready to come multiple times in a row was special.  Can everyone here do it?"

 

Siegel stilled his thrusts as he kissed him. "Yes, for the most part.  It's common."

 

"I wonder why--" Max started, shivering as his lover kissed him again.

 

"Shhh," Siegel whispered, gently thrusting for the second time.  "Stop thinking.  Just feel me inside you … taking you … touching all of you …."

 

Forcing his mind to shut off, Max sank into the wealth of sensations. He felt his own cock trapped under him, yearning for release, even as he was stretched and filled again as Siegel took his pleasure.  Max wondered if anyone had ever felt so good before.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

"So does this mean we're bonded?"

 

Siegel shifted in bed slightly, pulling the younger man tighter against him and further settling his half-hard cock inside him.  "No, not really, but we're getting there."  He had been dozing on and off for the last hour, content to be still and relaxing into the simple pleasure of being together and connected.  The thought of making love once again had just begun to take form in his mind, but obviously his lover had different ideas, and no reluctance to voice them.

 

Max laughed softly, squirming. "No, four times was enough this morning.  We have to get up and do something else."  He reluctantly pulled free, causing Siegel to fall onto his back with a dramatic moan.  "Oh please, Leo."  Rolling onto his stomach, he leaned over and kissed him. "I'm starving and it's a beautiful day. We should go outside."  He kissed him again and then pulled free of the hand trying to capture him and pull him back down.  Slipping on his robe, he began opening cabinets.  "Did you see what they did with my clothes?"

 

"Just put on what you had on earlier," Siegel said, reluctantly sitting up.

 

He shook his head. "No, I want something casual, like jeans. Something easy."

 

"Your robe is easy."

 

"No, Leo, something I can go out in and have the servants see me in.  I need to be dressed, Leo."

 

Siegel laughed, sliding out of bed and padding naked to the younger man.  "Love, they don't care," he said with a smile.  "Plus they are going to be with you for years and years.  Are you going to get fully dressed every morning before someone brings you tea, or at night, if you want a midnight snack?"  He kissed Max gently. "Probably not.  They are more than likely hanging around right now, waiting to bring you something.  So, go pull the bell and ask for a light lunch to be served on the terrace, or for a pot of chocolate and cookies in here, or whatever you want."

 

Max studied him, glancing down before asking, "But you will be getting dressed, right?"

 

Siegel laughed. "Yes, I will get a robe on."  He smiled, kissing him again, before walking across the room and opening a smaller door.  "My own bedroom."

 

"You have your own bedroom?"  Forgetting food for a moment, Max followed him through the doorway and down a small corridor into another, slightly smaller bedroom.  "Why?" he asked, looking around.  "I thought …" Then he smiled and shook his head. "Never mind.  It's nice; did you decorate it?"  The room was done very simply with a plush carpet covering the tile floor, three chairs clustered around the fireplace and a large canopied bed.  Through another door, he could see what looked like a bathroom.  "It's very nice," he repeated, smiling.

 

 Opening one of the built in closet doors, Siegel pulled out a simple pair of slacks and slipped them on.  He grinned, "What do you call it in Chicago when you dress ready for action?"

 

Max laughed. "We call it going commando, but I like your phrase better, it makes more sense."  Then, glancing around the room quickly, he said, "I'm going to go get dressed and ring for food.  Do you want me to get you something too?"  When the other man nodded, he smiled back and headed back up the corridor to his own room. 

 

Shutting the door behind him, Max rested his head against the smooth wood for a minute and tried not to feel like an idiot … again.  It was a position he seemed to find himself in repeatedly in this universe and one that was wholly unfamiliar.  Instead of feeling confident and sure of himself, he found himself stumbling into potholes he hadn't even known to be aware of.  Even looking confident felt false, as if he were play acting and it was just a matter of time before he forgot his lines and was found out.  Of course the Consort would have his own bedroom, he chided himself, walking slowly back into the living room and fetching his clothes from the floor.  He blushed at the sight of the spot on the rug and wondered if there was some way to rearrange the furniture until he could figure out how to clean it.  Slipping on his slacks and pulling the shirt on over his head, he eyed the vest and jacket uncertainly before simply folding them and laying them neatly on the chair.  Taking a deep breath, Max rang the bell.

 

Not thirty seconds later, a servant knocked and then carefully opened the door.  He bowed politely.  "Yes, your Highness?  How may I help you?"

 

Max smiled. "May I please have some lunch set up on the table outside?"

 

"Of course, your Highness." The servant bowed again. "For how many?"

 

"Two, please."  Watching the man bow yet again as he left, Max swallowed, his smile quickly dropping as his feelings of loneliness and being a total fake settled deeper onto his shoulders.

 

Outside on the patio, two younger men appeared.  They quickly dusted off the table and chairs before laying a bright yellow tablecloth over the metal top and placing a bowl of yellow and orange late season roses in the middle. 

 

Max watched them as he thought longingly of times when lunch with a new lover meant running to McDonald's and picking up a bag of food, then spreading it out on the coffee table to be shared.  He wistfully recalled peeling two limp pickles off one burger and passing them over, stealing some fries as payment, laughing about the correct fries to pickles ratio, and complaining that they never put in enough coke and always too much ice.  McDonald's lunches always led to reminiscing about fried cherry pies with nuclear hot centers, childhood treats of Happy Meals and the toys that came with them, which always led to other childhood memories rooted in the normal, boring, common background he and his former friends had shared. 

 

It was a conversation that would have left Leo completely lost, Max realized, instantly ashamed of his momentary nostalgia.  He walked, smiling, out to the patio through the French doors.  "Thank you so much …"  he said to the servants, pausing and nodding slightly to encourage them to fill in their names.

 

"Newton, your Highness," one young man said with a small bow.

 

"John, your Highness," an even younger man said, mimicking the first.

 

Max smiled again. "Thank you, Newton, John, it looks lovely.  I'm not used to such fancy lunches.  Are you going to …"  He hesitated, unsure how to ask the question.  Were servants assigned?  Or did they volunteer?  Or was there some sort of hierarchy? Was this an honor?  He had no idea and felt himself stumbling into yet another pit he hadn't seen.  "Are you going to be working with me?"  He silently cursed as the younger one glanced at Newton, sensing he had guessed at the wrong terminology. 

 

Newton bowed. "Yes, your Highness.  John and I are assigned to assist Jae. Jae is your chief assistant, the head of this area, and oversees all the servants who are assigned to you personally."  He spoke slowly, helpfully emphasizing some of the words.  "It is an honor to work for you."

 

Max wanted to hug him in gratitude.  "I'm glad you're assigned to this area and I'm glad to know I can count on your assistance.  I trust that Jae will see that all is taken care of."

 

"Boys!"

 

Both younger men turned and saw an older man walking out with a tray.  They bowed quickly and hurried over to help.

 

"Your Highness," the new man said, smiling broadly.  "Do we have a feast for you!  Young man like yourself, I'm sure you could eat a horse."

 

Max felt himself give an honest smile.  "Good, because I'm starving."

 

He laughed and winked.  "Oh yes, worked up quite an appetite, I'm sure."  He turned to his assistants. "I see you've meet Newton and John.  They're good boys, they've worked with me for close to a year now, while I worked for General Borges."

 

"Oh," Max said, surprised.  "I had no idea that the General kept a staff.  I had assumed that he lived mostly at military camps or … something."

 

"He did," Jae confirmed. "I've been with him for 15 years now, first serving him as a corporal and then later, after the Queen's men did this, as his batman and general aide."  He held up his right arm, which ended in a well-healed stump in place of a hand. 

 

"I'm sorry," Max said quietly.

 

The other man shrugged. "I fared better than many. Almost my whole village, all loyal Councilists, were killed one evening by her troops.  I lost my wife and two daughters."  He swallowed, glancing up at the sky for a moment before giving himself a quick shake and smiling.  "But it's a new day and I was honored when General Borges told me that Major Siegel had requested me personally to serve in your household." 

 

"I am honored that you gave up a position you knew and loved to come here with me," Max said sincerely.

 

Jae smiled again and bowed. "It is an honor to serve you, King Maximus."  He winked, dispelling the conversation's slightly formal air. "And let me tell you, your Highness, I am thrilled to be once again serving in a real house and overseeing a real kitchen and staff who will be able to actually clean a place that will hopefully stay clean for more than a day."  He laughed, moving aside as the two men centered covered bowls on the table. "Unless you, like the fine General, insist on walking around in muddy boots and dropping them anywhere you please."  He gave the younger man a stern look that indicated that the wise answer would be 'no.'

 

Feeling ridiculously happy over the mock scolding and Jae's matter of fact tone, Max shook his head. "No, you have my word.  I'm very neat and grew up picking up after myself.  I took out the trash and dusted and did yard work, too."  He smiled. "Uncle Wooly, that is, Councilor Woollcott did not believe in too much free time and thought that children were an excellent source of free labor."

 

Jae laughed. "Good, good! Gregor said you had been brought up well."

 

"You know Gregor?" Max asked happily.  The older servant had kissed him goodbye yesterday after his coronation before heading off to Chivas's home to oversee the reestablishment of that household, as well as the slow closing of the Chicago home.

 

Jae nodded. "Oh yes, of course!  He's my …"  He thought for a minute, clearly trying to work out something in his head. "…I believe my second cousin.  His grandpapa and my grandpapa were brothers, so something like that."  He smiled. "But close enough to be family."  He laughed again. "And as long as you know who you can fuck and who you can't, it doesn't really matter, does it?"  Then, glancing toward the house, he lowered his voice and winked at Max. "Speaking of fucking, your Consort is coming, so I'll leave you in peace."  Bowing, he said, in a slightly more formal voice, "Enjoy your meal, your Highness.  If there is anything you need, simply ring the bell and one of the boys will come immediately.  I've arranged for the staff to be presented to you tomorrow morning, leaving you today to do as you please."

 

Max smiled, instantly loving the portly and happy older man.  "I look forward to it, Jae.  Thank you." Watching him disappear back through a small side door, closing it behind him, he turned around and saw Siegel still standing in the door way.  "Did you want to eat with me?" he asked, suddenly unsure of himself.

 

Siegel smiled, coming closer.  "Of course.  I was just admiring the view of the gardens, so quiet and peaceful in the sun.  And enjoying hearing you laugh and sort of shining in the sun yourself, knowing that we're settled and it's over."

 

Meeting him half way, Max pulled him into a tight hug and kissed him gently as he smoothed his hair, feeling somehow protective, as if Siegel were suddenly fragile and not the strong warrior and lover he had seen over the past weeks.  "It is over, Leo," he said quietly.  "And it will be a peaceful winter and then in the spring, we'll begin working toward putting the past firmly in the past."  He kissed him again and hugged him tightly until he felt Siegel kiss him back, squeezing him gently.  "Hungry?"

 

Siegel laughed, pulling away slightly and grinning at the younger man. "Yes, I'm hungry, and not just for food, love."

 

Max groaned, pulling away and laughing as he shook his head, "So, so corny.  And here I was thinking I was getting a poet after the wonderful pillow talk in front of the fireplace."

 

Siegel laughed, following him and sitting down at the table. "What pillow talk would that be, Max?"

 

"Oh, you know," Max said with a straight face, reaching for a covered platter.  "I want to mount you?  I mean … who doesn't love to hear that?  Then the count down before you pushed inside me?"

 

Siegel studied him for a long moment and then, seeing Max's lips twitch as he tried not to laugh, shook his head sternly. "Then next time I will simply conduct a surprise assault."  Leaning over, he quickly kissed him, tongue plunging deeply as one hand held Max firmly, not permitting any escape.  Pulling back a minute later, he grinned. "Like that."

 

Max was breathless for a moment and then burst out laughing. 

 

Siegel smiled back, reaching for the platter of spicy chicken. "Eat, love, before I embark on another sneak attack."

 

Max laughed again, settling back into his chair while Siegel served them both.  When the food was portioned out, he raised his glass. "To the And!"

 

Siegel looked puzzled for a moment and then remembered their first private meal together in the tent, when he had trusted his gut and given the young man the friendship that would bind them, and...  Smiling, he raised his glass. "To the And.  And to Max and Leo!"

 

They talked easily, chatting about the palace. Siegel supplied the bits of history he knew about the place, its design and general layout.  Max compared it to the palaces of Spain that he and Woollcott had visited during his freshman year of high school as part of his ever expanding education in history, art and other cultures.  They talked about the book Siegel had given him that first night. Max had read it over the course of three nights and loved it and hated it at the same time.  Siegel laughed, admitting that he had had the same reaction, which was what made it such a good read.

 

"So tell me," Max said, intently studying the vanilla and black pepper crθme brϋlιe he was eating, "When I asked you earlier if we were bonded, you said no, but that we were getting there."  He glanced up, giving an embarrassed half shrug. "I probably should know this, but I'm confused.  I thought once we had sex …"

 

Siegel was stumped for a moment, unsure how to explain something he had never given much thought to and silently wondering why the younger man's uncles hadn't explained things to him.  Or, he told himself, maybe they had, but the lessons were drowned out by the other culture by which Max had been surrounded.  "Well …" he began and then paused, thinking again.

 

"No," Max said abruptly, "I'm sorry.  Never mind, forget it.  I can figure it out. There's a whole wall of books in the main room, I'm sure there's one geared to ten year olds that talks about this. I can figure it out; there's no reason to put you through this."

 

Siegel looked at Max and then said firmly, "Don't be an idiot, Maximus.  You're not stupid, an idiot, yes, but not stupid.  Your lack of understanding is nothing to be embarrassed about.  It's a complicated concept and  I'm just trying to figure out the best way to explain it so that it makes sense and I don't sound like a rambling idiot."  He winked at Max. "Or like a rambling idiot who just wants to keep you naked and in bed for the next few weeks under the pretext of bonding."

 

Max took a deep breath and smiled at him, his relief clear.  "Well, hell, that was sort of  my plan.  If we're not going to do that, then why don't I get the Council back here and we can get to work?"

 

Siegel laughed heartily and then leaned over and kissed him gently. "You are so silly, Max."

 

Max blushed with pleasure at the comment, almost embarrassed at how much it pleased him.

 

"So, bonding," Siegel said, sitting back, thinking about how he had explained this to his nephews  in a clear and matter of fact manner.  "For many couples, bonding is just a normal part of the whole love, marriage, sex package and it happens and is reinforced every time that someone comes inside of someone else during oral, anal or vaginal sex.  There's an almost chemical bond between the two people.  The person receiving is literally accepting and absorbing part of the other person into their body."  He took a sip of the lemonade. "That's why if you're not seriously committed to someone, you should never swallow and always use protection. Not just to protect against pregnancy if you're with a girl, but also to prevent a bond from being formed when neither one of you is ready for it."

 

Max blushed again and chuckled.  "OK, but then why aren't we bonded?"

 

"Oh, because it typically takes weeks for a true bond to form," Siegel said.  "Think about how much you shoot when you come.  It's what, a teaspoon? Two?  It takes more than that to form a bond with someone."

 

"But then, why worry about protection?" Max asked, puzzled.

 

Siegel laughed, blushing himself. "Oh, that's just part of the speech I gave my nephews when I talked to them and I suppose I didn't really think about it entirely logically.  Scare tactics for kids … always use protection!  Especially when pregnancy's an issue." He shrugged. "Some couples do claim that they feel bonded to the other person after the first time, but I honestly don't believe them. They say that they immediately feel that connection, that awareness of the other person, and a deeper level of trust than the ordinary feeling of love."

 

Max smiled. "Wishful thinking?"

 

"Teenagers in love," Siegel said dryly and then winked.  "Teenaged hormones, fueled by the fantasies of teenage books and plays."

 

"So," Max said, glancing down again. "You said for most couples it's about love and marriage, just what naturally happens in a happy marriage, I guess."  He looked up and gave a half shrug, playing with his spoon. "What about for us?"

 

Siegel smiled, reaching over and taking Max's hand, stilling it.  "We are part of a much deeper and more important tradition of what bonding means in the truest sense."

 

Max smiled slightly, feeling he was being fed a bit of a line, but willing to go along with it for the moment.

 

"The concept of bonding is that much more than sex goes toward the creation of a bond," Siegel said with a smile and half shrug. "A deep bond between two people who want to create a relationship is based on support, guidance, friendship, and a good deal of love, even if it's not romantic love.  Of the whole eros, philia, agape triad, the bond  that is vital for us to form is rooted in the type of love we term philia."  He smiled. "Fortunately though, it seems we're also on the path to eros."

 

Max laughed. "I'd like to think so … maybe … hopefully."  He wasn't sure he totally grasped the concepts, but they seemed vaguely familiar to him.  He remembered having encountered descriptions of the three types of love in a history or philosophy class sometime in his sophomore year.  In Atlantis they were clearly still relevant and active parts of the culture.

 

Siegel paused, wondering how much his lover needed to know.  "The act of sex, of coming inside a person, sharing part of yourself and having them accept it, creates feelings of closeness and understanding.  It also creates trust and a deeper feeling …"  He paused for a moment and then decided to be honest. "I'm not sure if I completely agree with the whole chemical theory that some people wholly buy.  I'm not sure if the body really works that way, or if it's more the act of giving and receiving pleasure, of trusting someone enough to be that close with them."

 

Max laughed, secretly glad that his lover was finding the conversation as hard as he was. 

 

Siegel smiled. "I have to wonder if what creates the bond is exposing yourself literally and figuratively to someone … risking rejection and judgment when you are your most vulnerable. Perhaps coming is just a pleasurable by-product and you'd get just the same results by sitting around naked together for a while."

 

Max laughed again. "But maybe that would be a bit more awkward."

 

"True," Siegel conceded with a smile.

 

"How can it not important for us to be in love?  I'm not sure I'd want to bond with someone I'm not in love with, Leo.  I'm not sure if I could bond with someone I'm not in love with."

 

Siegel shook his head. "There are different types of love.  Philia is stronger, I think, then eros."  He raised an eyebrow. "The girl you had sex with in the olive grove--"

 

"I knew you knew about that," Max said ruefully, blushing.

 

Siegel nodded, unable to control a sudden flare of anger at the memory.  "I had the distinct pleasure of watching you hump her like a rutting dog for a moment before I turned away."

 

Max shrugged, feeling embarrassed and immediately defensive.  "She started it …"

 

Siegel took a deep breath and reined in his temper. "That was eros, lust.  Respect and friendship and trust had nothing to do with it. What a ruler and his Consort share goes much deeper, even if it never develops into sexual love."

 

Max nodded understanding what he was saying.  "It's not just about lust and getting off."

 

"It's a connection, a bond, that will allow you to accept guidance from me and also make it possible for you to submit to my discipline when I feel it's needed.  You must trust my judgment, trust that I will never do anything to hurt you, and that I will always do whatever I can to support you."  Siegel reached out and squeezed the younger man's hand again. "A ruler, a King, needs to know that even though he may feel alone at times, he always has at least one person guarding his back and making sure he's safe, even if necessary, from himself." 

 

"Is that why you have a separate room, Leo?" Max blurted out.  "In case you don't find me attractive? So you can just come in and do your duty and then leave?"

 

Siegel laughed and then leaned over and kissed him, pulling him close by the neck and shaking him slightly.  "You really are an idiot sometimes, Max.  How can you imagine that I wouldn't find you attractive, when you know I get hard just looking at you?"

 

Max laughed, moving closer.

 

Siegel let him go and then pushed back his chair, holding out his arms.  "Come here, love."

 

Reluctantly getting up, Max allowed himself to be pulled onto his lap, feeling awkward for a moment until Siegel's arms wrapped around him and settled him closer.

 

"The Consort has a room because the King may want privacy to spend time with other lovers," Siegel said, kissing Max.  "You have that right.  We are not married and will never be married."

 

"I'm not allowed to be married," Max confirmed.  "I'm married to the Country."

 

"Yes, that's correct, but you may have lovers and you may father children who will be your heirs."  He kissed Max again. "I, on the other hand, may not."

 

Twisting slightly, Max looked at him. "May not what?"

 

"May not have other lovers.  That is part of my vows, Max. You obviously weren't paying attention to the Oracles."

 

Max looked guilty. "Sorry."

 

Siegel kissed him gently. "Luckily, one of us was.  I have sworn to devote my life to guiding you and providing counsel to you.  I will never marry and I will never take other lovers.  I will bond only with you from now on, because you are my chief concern.  Like you, if I were to be married, that bond would supersede anything else – my bond to my Country or my bond to my King.  And if the Consort took another lover, the fear was that it would lead to temptation and distraction.   For a Consort, that would be treason."

 

"You gave up marriage and other lovers to be Consort? Why?" Max asked, astounded.  "We didn't even know each other!"

 

Siegel smiled. "Because it's a calling.  After the Oracles selected me, I thought about what I had done in the war and about all the sacrifices others had made.  I knew that I could provide good counsel and guidance to whoever you were.  I wanted to be involved; I wanted to be sure that the country that I fought so hard and long for was in good hands."

 

Max twisted a bit and kissed him deeply, stroking his face.  "I think for someone else, that might be an ego trip, but I believe you really mean it."

 

Siegel laughed. "Yes, Max, I really mean it."  He winked, kissing him again. "Plus…do you want to know a secret?"

 

The younger  man grinned. "Of course."

 

"Councilor Chivas came to me when I was selected, even though it was all top secret at that stage … this was just a few weeks after the Queen died … and offered to take me through your portal so I could see you."  He grinned at Max's expression.  "We actually talked for about fifteen minutes in your college bookstore.  You were buying some books, I think the new term was just about to begin, and we chatted about the football game the next day and some professor you had, but were worried about."  His grin widened and he kissed Max again. "I asked you for coffee, but you turned me down."

 

Max laughed, blushing. "I'm sorry."

 

Siegel shrugged. "That's OK, I was already smitten.  Chivas and I went through several more times so that I could become more familiar with your adopted culture.  We went to a bunch of the museums, watched TV,  read magazines and ate out.  I love deep dish pizza, by the way and am determined to get Jae to reproduce it here.  I didn't go back to your school though, because we didn't want to risk you remembering me when you came through." 

 

"You did all that for me?"  Max's voice grew quiet as he realized the amount of work his lover had put into making their eventual relationship a success and how seriously he took his responsibility for their bond.

 

"That's philia, love," Siegel said quietly, kissing him again.  "I wanted to make sure I could help you adjust, if you needed it."  He grinned. "If you want to talk about American football, I'm ready."

 

"Go Bears," Max said with a smile.

 

Siegel grinned back. "I'm more of a Patriots fan myself …"

 

Getting up for a minute, Max leaned down and kissed him before sitting back down, legs draping around Siegel's so they were fully face to face.  "I can't believe you did that for me," he said, feeling tears prick at his eyes.  "Thank you."  Leaning in, he kissed him deeply and slowly, moaning as Siegel's hands came up and wrapped around him.  "I can't wait to bond with you again."

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Reluctantly pulling free of his lover, Siegel kissed his neck as Max stirred and mumbled in his sleep.  "Shh," he whispered, stroking his bare hip.  They had made love two more times that afternoon and now the younger man was fast asleep, worn out both from their activities and the stress of the last few weeks.  When he was convinced Max was once again deeply asleep, he slipped out of bed and pulled on his robe. Tying it tightly, he opened the door that led to his own chambers and walked down the short corridor to them.  He had been awake, drifting and simply enjoying the feel Max in his arms and the pulsing of their connection through his cock, when he had heard faint sounds of movement down the hall and then a thud.

 

Jae looked up from his supervision of two workers and bowed slightly.  "I am sorry you were disturbed, Consort Siegel.  Your trunks were delivered and I wanted to get things put away while you were occupied elsewhere."  He frowned at the two workers. "Unfortunately, that process has not gone as smoothly or as quietly as one could have hoped."

 

Three large trunks were already arranged against the walls and the two workers were maneuvering the fourth and final one around to the side of the bed.  If the angle was any indication, they had run into it, causing the thud that had gotten him out of bed.  "It's fine, Jae," Siegel said.  "I appreciate it and will be happy to have things settled.  Do you know when the King's things will arrive?"

 

"They are here as well, but …"  Jae's voice trailed off as he glanced in the direction of the other bedroom.

 

Siegel laughed. "Yes … well.  I was planning a ride tomorrow, if that suits your plans."  He saw the older man frown slightly and immediately understood that was not the answer he was hoping for.  Glancing out the window, he saw it was still light outside. "Actually, why don't I go wake the King now.  We can take a walk around the gardens and the palace.  We might as well start getting familiar with the layout now."

 

Jae beamed. "That would be excellent.  His trunks and the materials that the Council sent over are taking up a good portion of the available walking space in the back corridors.  In addition, I'd like to have the room itself cleaned again, freshen the sheets, collect any used clothing … everything that keeps the place running."

 

"Of course."  Nodding in the direction of the two workers, Siegel turned and went back into the bedroom.  Max was fast asleep on his stomach.  Watching him sleep peacefully tugged at something in his chest and he wondered for a moment about the old wives' tales and teenage books that spoke in flowery terms of immediate bonding.  Getting dressed quickly, before lust once again took over and spoiled Jae's carefully timed schedule, he leaned down and kissed his lover, patting his butt.  "Max …"

 

The younger man shifted, burrowing his head into the pillow even as he spread his legs slightly.  "Hmm?"

 

Siegel laughed. "Don't tempt me, love.  You need to get up; you don't want to sleep the whole afternoon away."

 

Leaning up on his elbows, Max blinked at him and then out the window. "Did I fall asleep?"  He stretched and arched his back before sitting up, pulling the blankets over his lap with an embarrassed grin.  "Sorry, Leo.  It wasn't the company, I promise."

 

Siegel smiled. "No, I would assume it was simply the last few months catching up with you … not to mention the rather fun activities we've been up to several times today."

 

Max laughed. "Yeah, but you're right, time to get up."  He glanced around, "Is there anything to eat?"

 

"I'm sure something can be arranged," Siegel said, giving in and kissing him again.  He reached for the small bell cord. 

 

"No, stop!" Max said. "I'm not dressed yet."

 

"They're going to see you dressed and not dressed, Max," he said patiently.  "Do you think they care?"

 

"I care."  The statement was firm and direct, leaving no room for discussion. Max smiled slightly as his lover raised his hands in defeat.  Getting up, he kissed him quickly, "Thank you."

 

Finishing the last bite of cake twenty minutes later, Max stood up and smiled at John, who was standing patiently against the far wall.  "Thank you," he said, "it was delicious.  I love spice cake."

 

The younger man bowed slightly. "Thank you, your Highness, I'll inform the cook."

 

"And what is the cook's name?"

 

John blinked at him for a second. "Miss Perin, your Highness."

 

"Please thank Miss Perin for me then, John."

 

He bowed again. "I will, your Highness."

 

Max turned to Siegel, who was sitting in a chair across from him. "I thought you wanted to go?"

 

"Just waiting for you, Max" he said mildly, looking up from the book he was flipping through.

 

Max grinned at his lover's tone, his slight impatience reminding him of past lovers with whom there'd been no formality, just gentle teasing and mocking of each other's quirks.  "And now I'm waiting for you," he said, smiling broadly, motioning toward the door.  "Any time, Leo."  Then, suddenly remembering something, he walked over to the drawers in the book case and began randomly pulling them out.

 

"What are you looking for?" Siegel asked.

 

"Paper, a tablet, something I can write on and take notes."

 

Reaching over, Siegel pulled the bell cord.  John reappeared a moment later. "King Maximus needs a writing tablet."

 

"Small," Max corrected. "Just a small tablet or something that I can write in."

 

John looked between them for a moment before nodding. "Of course."

 

Jae appeared a minute later with three pads and numerous pens and held them out.  "Your Highness?"

 

Max smiled, taking a small blue one. "This is perfect.  Thank you."

 

"Shall I put the others in your office?"

 

"That would wonderful, thank you."  Max smiled at Jae.  "And now we'll get out of your way."

 

Jae glanced at Siegel with a frown before turning his attention back to the younger man. "You are not in the way, your Highness, and I'm sorry if anything I said gave you that impression."

 

Max's smile broadened. "Oh, Leo said you told him to get me out of here so you all could unpack in peace."

 

Knowing he was being teased, Jae bowed. "Well … that might have been implied …"

 

The younger man laughed out loud, thrilled with the comeback and that the older man understood the game.  "Two hours?" he asked.

 

"Two would be perfect." Jae winked. "Three might be better."

 

Max bowed.  "I'm sure we can find plenty to do to keep ourselves occupied, right, Leo?"

 

"I'm sure," Siegel said, standing up and heading to the door.

 

Stopping just outside the living room, Max opened the notebook and scribbled a few quick notes before closing it and shoving it into his pants pocket.  Two guards were waiting at the entrance to his apartments and he nodded to both of them.  "Good to see you again, Parker."

 

The guard smiled and bowed. "Your Highness."

 

"And who is your companion?"

 

Parker bowed again. "Private Sawyer, your Highness."

 

Max studied him. "Excellent."

 

"I assume you are assigned to the King, Sawyer?" Siegel asked.

 

"Yes, Consort Siegel, by Lieutenant Andros.  I was notified that you were to go out, so I came immediately to ….."  His voice trailed off helplessly.

 

"Good."

 

Max glanced between them, aware he was missing something, but not sure what.  Stepping closer to his lover, he lowered his voice. "He's not coming, is he?"

 

"Any time you're out of the secure apartment area, love, I want someone with you.  You've been told this before and it's not going to change. There's too much going on still, too much at risk."

 

"You're with me," Max said softly, bumping against him.

 

Siegel smiled and kissed him. "Yes and that's why it's just one guard and not two."  He debated about swatting his lover's butt as a reminder and to stress his seriousness, but resisted the urge.  They weren't at that level yet and he wasn't sure how Max would react.

 

Max opened his mouth and then shut it, taking a deep breath before smiling.  "OK, let's start figuring out this place."

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

"Are you taking notes?"

 

Max glanced up and gave an embarrassed grin. "Yeah."  They had been walking around for the last 90 minutes, peeking into rooms and roaming down corridors, chatting with random guards and servants they encountered.  He had wondered when his lover was going to notice or say something about the scribbling.

 

Siegel opened his mouth and then closed it again, glancing over at Sawyer, who was well back and determinedly not paying any attention to their conversation.  "I was wondering what you were doing," he said, smiling back and peering at the notebook.  "It's a map."

 

Max laughed. "Well … yeah.  This place is huge and this way I can make notes."  His grin widened. "I did it when I first got to college, too.  There was an official map, of course, but it worked better to draw my own so that I could make notes.  Like …"  He flipped back two pages. "See, Leo, like here, a reminder that there are two guards at this door because it's a main door that leads outside.  This way, I'm not shocked when I come down the stairs and see them.  Today, it was Burgess and Karr, who are two of Scout's men.  He's the guy we met last night."

 

"I know Scout," Siegel confirmed.  "And that makes sense, because his division is charged with interior perimeter security."

 

"Yes!" Max said excitedly, causing his lover to laugh.  "That's right and I just figured that out, too!"

 

Siegel resisted the urge to point out that he hadn't just figured it out, he'd known it almost a month ago, and if Max had wanted to know any of these details, all he had to do was ask, instead of working it out on his own with a pen and notebook.  Instead, he kissed him quickly. "That's great, love.  Very smart."

 

Max beamed and gave a small shrug. "I have to take notes on who and where and what.  It's still too …."  His voice trailed off as he paused for a moment.  "Still too new to me," he said softly.

 

Picking up his hand, Siegel gave it a gentle squeeze and kissed it. "And a bit foreign? Different? Is that what you were maybe thinking?"

 

Silently Max nodded and squeezed the hand back.  He took a deep breath and smiled. "OK, let's continue our tour."  Turning, he headed down a random hall. "What's down here?"

 

"Max, wait!"

 

Max turned and saw that Siegel and the guard had not followed. "What?"  Then, seeing Siegel's strained expression,  he came back. "What is it, Leo?"

 

Siegel hesitated. "The Queen's war room and the old Council room are down there.  They've been cleaned, of course, with anything sensitive taken out, but …"  He took a deep breath, silently chiding himself for his reluctance.   "They're fine, I'm sure.  I've never actually seen them in person."

 

"OK," Max said slowly, not really understanding the hesitation.  He picked up his lover's hand and squeezed it before kissing it with a gentle smile.  "My turn to lead the way," he said quietly.  Walking down the darkened hall, he pushed through a heavily carved door and stepped into a large chamber.  Through more open doors, he could see a large table and chairs.  The room was almost empty and had been cleaned, but not recently. Small bits of dust hung in the air and the room felt cold and abandoned.

 

Sawyer glanced at Siegel and gave a quick shake of his head as he determinedly took up a position just outside the doors.

 

Siegel glanced around the room, his eyes settling on a large mural that took up one wall.  He glanced at Max and saw the younger man quietly roam into the other room.  He knew he should follow him, but he was drawn to the mural and the destruction someone had inflicted on it.  It was a classic scene of a King receiving new transports to the court.  The King looked at the new people with a smile, his hand raised in greeting.  Just behind him stood the outline of a figure, but someone had shredded the paint so savagely that the stone wall behind the mural was also chipped away.  He knew who the figure represented; he was clearly identified by the faint remains of the crown topped staff.  The scene made his stomach twist and his blood run cold.

 

"I think there's blood back there," Max said softly.  "It's old, but it's soaked into the tile. There's also another destroyed mural.  Someone smashed out half the tiles."

 

Siegel jumped at his voice, then smiled.  "I didn't hear you return."

 

Max looked up at the damaged mural and then around the room again, shaking his head.  "Yeah, I can see why this would give people the heebie jeebies."

 

Not bothering to ask for an explanation, understanding well enough what the younger man was saying, Siegel nodded. "Let's go look at the gardens.  I feel the need for some sun."

 

"And warmth," Max agreed, picking up his lover's hand again and quietly walking out of the still rooms.

 

Sinking down onto a stone bench five minutes later, Siegel leaned back and tilted his head to the sun and let out a breath he didn't know he had been holding.

 

"Better?" Max asked, rubbing his arm.

 

He nodded but didn't speak for a long minute, allowing the sun to soak into his bones and chase away the chills. 

 

Max glanced around and smiled, his hand still resting on his lover's arm.  "It's so unbelievably beautiful here," he said quietly.

 

"Wait until summer is in full force," Siegel said, sitting up. Taking Max's hand, he drew him closer.  He sighed quietly as Max leaned into him, shifting slightly so he was tucked against him.  "The roses and I saw orange trees and limes and lemons … birds of paradise all summer … it's so alive."

 

"When I was about fourteen," Max said, "Uncle Wooly, Gregor and I went to Spain for vacation.  They said it was the closest thing on Earth to Atlantis … the mountains and the plains and the gardens … everything. And they were right, but Spain has nothing on this place, not even the Alhambra or Alcazar."

 

Siegel didn't say anything, but kissed his lover's hair as they fell silent, lost in their own thoughts and enjoying the sun.

 

"Oh!" Max jerked awake, opening his eyes even as Siegel tightened his arm around him to hold him in place.  He blinked and saw a young girl standing on the walkway looking at him.  "Hi," he said, smiling.

 

She stared at him, the paper in her hand shaking slightly.

 

He glanced at Siegel, who smiled and gave a small shrug.

 

Pulling free, Max leaned forward.  "Hi," he repeated.  "I'm Max.  What's your name?"

 

"Ellie," she said quietly and then looked at her hand, holding it out slightly.  "Do you want to feed the fish with me?"

 

"I'd love to feed the fish with you.  What do you have in there?"  Max stood up.

 

"Crumbs.  Here, you can have some."

 

"Thank you," Max said, touched. "OK then, where are the fish?"

 

"In the water," Ellie said sensibly.

 

Max heard Siegel laugh and shot him a dirty look.  "Hush, Leo," he ordered, before turning back to the girl. "Can you show me?"

 

Ellie nodded and walked over to the edge of a large pond and began to toss bits into the water.

 

Max looked down into the water, expecting to see the same type of fish he had seen before.  To his surprise, large catfish bumped along the edges, eagerly snatching up the crumbs Ellie tossed.  "Neat fish," he said to the girl.  "Do you like to feed them?"

 

Deciding he was friendly, she launched into a detailed account of how often she fed the fish and how exactly she got their food.

 

"Do you eat the fish?" he asked as she wound down.  His own pile of crumbs was almost gone and he turned over his hand and brushed the remaining flakes into the water, causing it to churn with heavy bodies and faint splashing.

 

The girl giggled and nodded.

 

"Me too.  In fact," Max said, studying the fish, "I think that one right over there looks like a perfect dinner."

 

She nodded, still giggling.

 

"You want to go in and get him?"  He bent down as if to pick her up and she squealed, giggles turning into laughter as she shook her head.  "No?  But you said you like to eat fish."

 

"Eat!" she corrected, "Not catch!  My papa catches them!"

 

"Oh," he said solemnly and then, hearing footsteps, glanced up and saw a middle-aged man approaching.  "And is that your papa?"

 

Her smile brightened. "Yes!"  Waving, she called out, "Me and Max were feeding the fish.  He wanted me to go catch one."

 

"I wasn't really going to let her in the water," Max said hurriedly.

 

The man laughed. "Of course not.  Thanks for watching her. I turn my back for a minute and she's gone, but luckily, I knew where."  He held out his hand. "Jack Mu."  Then, suddenly spying Siegel and the guard as they shifted into view, he took a step back, recognition hitting him full on.  "I'm so sorry, your Highness.  I … I wasn't expecting to see you." 

 

Inwardly cursing, Max stepped forward, closing the distance again and holding out his hand.  "Pleasure to meet you, Jack, and of course, the lovely Miss Ellie." He bowed in the direction of his daughter.

 

Jack glanced at the guard and then back at the King before reaching out and quickly shaking his hand.  "And you, your Highness, thank you so much."

 

"So, do you work here?"

 

Jack swallowed and took a deep breath before shaking his head.  "No, your Highness.  I make deliveries.  My company--well, the company I work for, not mine per se--supplies tile and workers and all the materials that go along with that."  He smiled a bit. "The remodeling of this place has been a nice boost to the economy for many of us."

 

Max smiled. "Excellent.  I'm glad to hear that."  He looked around and nodded. "Give it another 12 months and I expect to have the economy rolling full steam again."

 

"That will be nice.  It's been--" Jack cut himself off.   "Thank you for everything you've done.  We are grateful for everything."  He bowed again. "It was honor to meet you, your Highness."

 

Max didn't ask him to continue, understanding that the man probably didn't want to be seen as complaining or whining to his King.  Instead, he said with a smile, "You, too."  Then, to Ellie, he said, "And I hope to see you around to help keep the fish fed and make them big and fat for dinner."

 

She giggled and nodded.  "Bye," she said, as her father led her off, waving.

 

"Bye!"  Watching them walk away, Max turned back to his lover and gave a small smile and shrug. 

 

"Cute little girl," Spiegel said and then grinned.  "I thought her father might die of fright though, especially when he saw Sawyer standing there, hand on his sword."

 

Max glanced over and saw the guard's shocked expression as he rapidly shook his head.

 

"I swear to you, your Highness--"

 

Max shook his head and smiled. "It's fine.  I know you didn't do anything, don't let Leo get to you."

 

The guard glanced between the two men and smiled, bowing his head in acknowledgment.

 

"That was nice," Max said quietly as they began to walk around the gardens again. 

 

"What was, love?"

 

"You know, Leo."

 

Siegel bumped again him gently before pulling him into a sideways hug and kissing the side of his head.  "Could it possibly be talking to someone who, for the briefest moment, thought you were just some regular guy, someone else who worked here?"

 

Max smiled, bumping him back. "Could be."  Falling silent, he replayed the conversation in his mind, idly wondering what would have been said if the other man hadn't spotted Siegel or the guard and they had had a chance to talk.  Ten minutes later, they came to the edge of the planned gardens.  A low wall gave way to an upper walk and as Max made his way along, he realized he was overlooking the town.  He glanced back as Siegel joined him. "I had no idea we were a couple of stories up." 

 

Siegel nodded. "The land slopes, so it's stories high in this area, but in the front, it's ground level."  He stamped his foot. "Underneath the ground are storage areas, rooms for the guards, kitchens, water cisterns, all the inner workings of the palace."  Grinning, he asked, "Are you that curious?"

 

"I probably should be," Max said with a smile, "but, honestly, not so much, at least not right now."

 

"Good!"

 

Max laughed, leaning over and kissing him again.  "Good?"

 

Pulling him closer and holding him tight, Siegel kissed him deeply as his hand brushed his butt.  "Good," he whispered.

 

Max shivered slightly at the touch and the electric charge that coursed through him at the feel of his lover's hand touching him so intimately and tried hard not to think of any eyes on them.  "Has it been three hours yet, Leo?"

 

"Close enough."

 

 OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Max yawned and stretched in the early morning light, feeling more relaxed and content than he had in a long while.  They had gone back to the apartments and spent the rest of the evening curled up together in bed, touching, kissing, talking quietly about nothing important and making love.  He hadn't noticed the personal items set out in in the bedroom at the time, but now, in the faint light coming through the windows, he saw some of his things arranged on the tables, walls, and shelves.  He slipped out of bed and padded over to a table where the picture of his parents sat, as it always had in his bedroom since he was five. A copy had gone to college with him, tucked away in a book so that it wouldn't be seen and raise questions, but also within easy reach for quick glances.  He adjusted the frame ever so slightly and wondered what they would think if they could see him now. Shaking off the thought, he picked up his clothes from yesterday, slipped into the large bathroom, dressed quickly and went out to the main room.

 

"Your Highness!" Startled, John looked up from the books he was quietly putting on the shelves surrounding the fireplace.  He stepped off the small stool and bowed. "I'm so sorry to have disturbed you. I was just finishing yesterday's unpacking and wasn't expecting you or Consort Siegel up so early."

 

Max smiled. "Good morning and it's fine, I wasn't expecting to be up so early either, but …"  His voice trailed off as he shrugged. "I'm awake and figured I might as well get the day started." 

 

"May I bring you some tea or coffee?"

 

Looking between the servant and the three boxes of books still to be put away, Max smiled and shook his head.  "No, don't worry about it, you've got enough to do."  Then, unsure as to how to end the conversation and put the man at ease, he smiled again. "I'm just going to walk around a bit." Then, suddenly remembering, he said, "And thank you so much for putting away my personal items in the bedroom.  It was very nice to see."

 

"Newton did that, your Highness.  I would never go into your bedroom unless specifically requested."

 

"Oh…"  Max was stumped, mentally cursing himself for falling into another unseen pit.  "Well, thank you for the books, then.  Carry on."

 

John nodded and bowed again.

 

Max finally realized that the other man was waiting for him to leave and hurried from the room.   Going out into his private gardens, he took a deep breath of fresh, cool air and smiled as the sun warmed his face and his muscles as he stretched.  There was a hint of roses and other flowers in the air and he could hear birds chirping over the babble of water from a nearby fountain.  Walking straight down the main path, he made his way through several more outdoor rooms before finding the side gate Parker had pointed out earlier yesterday.  He grinned, pleased that it was where he thought it would be, and pulled it open, stepping into the main gardens.  Pulling out his notebook with his map, he flipped to a new page and began mapping out his way.

 

Major Smyth had just handed the reins of his horse to one of the waiting grooms when he heard someone call his name.  Glancing up, he inwardly cursed as he saw the young King making his way across the courtyard unaccompanied by either his Consort or a guard.  "Your Highness," he said with a bow, forcing a smile.  "Good morning."

 

Max smiled back. "Good morning.  Early morning ride or coming in for the day? Do you have a house nearby?  I would have thought you were quartered here."  He waved his small notebook. "I'm still learning my way around and I swear, I think it will take weeks just to figure out the palace and the gardens.  Then throw in the whole complex outside the walls and the town, which I have barely seen…"  He laughed, shaking his head. "It doesn't look good if the King doesn't even know how to get from Point A to Point B."

 

"I do have a house outside the grounds, just a very short ride away, your Highness," Smyth said when the younger man finally ran out of questions, finding himself smiling back.  The young King reminded him of his younger brother, chatty and friendly and not overly concerned with what was proper.  On a whim, he added, "Maybe once you and Consort Siegel are more settled, I will have the pleasure of hosting you for dinner.  Siegel and I have been friends for years, but he has not yet had a chance to see my new place."

 

"That would be great!" Max said, feeling absurdly happy over the invitation.  "I'd love to see your home.  Are you married?  Do you have kids? Pets?"

 

Out of the corner of his eye, Smyth could see the grooms and other stable servants shifting around uncomfortably, unsure of what they should be doing in the presence of their new King.  Motioning toward the palace, he slowly headed in that direction, pleased to see the King pick up the unspoken hint and begin walking with him.  "Your Highness, unfortunately my position has kept me too busy to begin a search for a proper partner. To my parents' disappointment, there are no grandchildren yet.  They don't seem satisfied with my dog."

 

Max laughed. "Well, now that there is peace, hopefully you will have more time.  What kind of dog?"

 

Smyth chatted as they slowly made their way through the palace back toward the royal apartments.  At the end of the corridor, he saw Corporal Parker straighten up, standing to attention as he spied the Major. 

 

"Have you had breakfast?" Max asked.  "I'm sure I can arrange for something to be rounded up."

 

Major Smyth shook his head. "Thank you, but I should be heading toward my office.  I hold a morning meeting every Monday with the four Captains assigned to the palace and I don't want to be late."

 

Max glanced down the corridor.  "I'd like to sit in on some of your meetings, Major, if that's all right with you."  He took a deep breath and lowered his voice, leaning in.  "To tell you the truth, I feel like I'm battling a pretty steep learning curve here and the more I can learn just by walking around and talking and listening, the more prepared I feel to even ask the right questions."

 

"Of course, your Highness," Smyth nodded.  "Why don't we plan on you joining us for next Monday's meeting?  We begin at 8:30 and will gladly come to your apartments."

 

He smiled, bowing his head slightly in the Major's direction.  "That would be wonderful, thank you and gives me time to pepper Leo with plenty of questions.  And don't go through the trouble of moving your meeting; I'll come to you.  This is your meeting and your men. I'm just an observer."

 

Smyth bowed. "In that case, if I don't see you before then, I look forward to the pleasure of your presence next Monday at 8:30 in the Map Room, which is just off the main corridor.  If you --"

 

Max laughed, tapping his pocket where his notebook lay. "I'll find it and see you there next week."

 

Smyth waited until the King was back inside his apartments and then turned and headed to his offices on the other side of the palace.  At his desk a few minutes later, he jotted a short note and sealed it before summoning a runner. "This is to be delivered to Consort Siegel.  If he is not available, give it to the King's Butler for delivery."  The boy bowed and darted away and Smyth sat back in his chair and smiled.  The hope that a new age was dawning for all of them seemed very much a reality.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo 

 

"Good morning, your Highness," Jae said, bowing slightly as he spied Max walking into the main room.

 

"Morning," he said, looking around and seeing that his bedroom door was still closed.  "Is Leo still asleep?"

 

Jae nodded. "I haven't seen him yet this morning."  He glanced outside.  "It seems a bit chilly this morning, so I've laid out the breakfast plates in the small dining room.  I hope that meets with your approval."   He gave a small bow.

 

"It sounds perfect, thank you."  Following Jae into the small, sunny dining alcove, Max smiled.  The room's three sides were dominated by large windows framed by mosaics, which blended seamlessly with a high domed ceiling painted with clouds.  ""Thank you again, Jae.  This is great. I'm just amazed all the time by this place."

 

"It is quite gorgeous," Jae agreed softly, pouring a glass of juice and setting it before Max as he sat down.  "Would you like hot food now, or would you prefer to wait for Consort Siegel?"

 

"I'll wait a few minutes," Max said, glancing at a small clock resting on the buffet table. 

 

Jae bowed. "Very good.  Just ring if you need anything."

 

Feeling rather pleased that he had managed to wear out his new lover, Max picked up a newspaper, the first he had seen since his arrival, and began to slowly read it.  Most of the towns mentioned were unfamiliar and he had only a vague notion of who most of the people highlighted were, but it was a start, and right now that was the most important thing to him.  Pulling out his pen, he began to slowly make notes in the margins of the main articles and reminders of things to ask about.  Fifteen minutes later, he suddenly glanced up and smiled, seeing his lover standing in the doorway.  "Hi."

 

Siegel smiled back and made his way into the room.  Bending over, he kissed Max gently on the lips.  "Hi."

 

"I didn't see you standing there, Leo."

 

"You were lost in thought; I didn't want to disturb you."  Pouring himself a cup of tea, Siegel studied the paper and the scribbled notes.  "What are you doing?"

 

Turning the paper so that Siegel could see it better, Max shrugged. "Just trying to get a handle on everything right now.   Like I told Smyth this morning, I feel like I don't even know enough about what I don't know to ask questions."  He shook his head. "I thought I had a handle on things. I've been preparing for this for a couple of years now. I just … I thought I was better prepared."  He frowned, glancing at the paper in disgust.

 

"There's no rush," Siegel said, reaching out and squeezing his hand.  "Make your notes and we'll talk about them; that can be our morning routine.   What I don't know, I'm sure someone else will."  He laughed. "If need be, we'll summon the editor and the writer of the article and they can answer all your questions."  Soft footsteps in the entrance way prompted him to look up. "Good morning, Newton."

 

Newton bowed. "Good morning, Consort."  Pouring him a glass of juice, he bowed again. "May I bring in the hot breakfast items?"

 

Siegel glanced at Max, clearly waiting for him to answer the servant. 

 

"Yes, please.  Thank you."  Turning back to his paper as Siegel began buttering a muffin, Max smiled, feeling his first bit of pleasure at being King.  He heard his lover chuckle, but remained focused on the paper and continued making his notes.

 

Thirty minutes later, Jae stepped quietly into the room as they were finishing.  "Excuse me, your Highness, Consort,  I wanted to remind you that your personal household staff are eager to be presented to you this morning."  He glanced at the clock. "I had planned for that to be at nine, in a half hour.  Does that still meet with your approval?"

 

Max nodded.  "I'd love that. Where?" he asked, in a more uncertain voice,

 

"The small audience chamber should work well," Siegel said.  "I believe repairs are still taking place in the formal areas."

 

Jae nodded. "Plus those areas are too large and too formal, I believe.  This is your personal staff, your Highness.  A smaller, more intimate setting is appropriate."

 

Watching as the older servant left the room, Siegel smiled, shaking his head.  "Jae is a wonder.  I knew he would keep this place running smoothly."

 

"He told me that you specifically requested him."

 

"I did," Siegel said, nodding.  "I've known him for years from General Borges's household, of course, and I wanted to make sure that whoever ran your household would do it with a firm grip on the other staff and a good idea of what needed to be done.  I've never run a house; my parents' home wasn't formal like this--"

 

"And I certainly don't have any experience," Max interjected with a smile. 

 

"Right," Siegel agreed.  "So I brought in someone who knows exactly what he is doing  and who is also unflappable, no matter what the circumstances."  He eyed Max.  "It's almost nine. You may want to …"

 

Max glanced down at his clothes. "Change?"  He stood up with a grin, laughing as his lover pulled him down again and kissed him hard.

 

"Only the clothes, love."

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

The crown felt strange on his forehead and Max forced himself to relax his stiff shoulders as he smiled at the woman who had just bowed in front of him.  "Thank you, Miss Perin," he said.  "I am enjoying your food immensely."

 

The middle-aged woman beamed at him, bowing again. "Thank you so much, your Highness.  If there are any special dishes you would like from…" She hesitated a moment.  "From your childhood, please let me know and my staff and I will be honored to try and recreate them."

 

"I will be sure to keep that in mind," Max said, smiling as she stepped to the side and motioned for her two assistants to step up and be greeted.  Shortly the introductions were complete.

 

Jae bowed low, followed quickly by the rest of the assembled servants. "On behalf of your personal staff, your Highness, you have our pledge of utmost privacy within these walls.  We do not engage in gossip or speculation or discuss your private life with others.  You may be assured of our absolute discretion."

 

Max bowed to the small group.  It wasn't as large as he had feared, only seven people, but it was still much larger than he was used to.  Spreading his hands, he smiled. "Thank you so much for that assurance. Let me also give you my pledge.  As you know, I have little experience in a household of this size, but I will also do my best to work with your needs as you try to work with mine.  If I am doing something that is making your job harder, please speak with Jae or Miss Perin so that they may speak with me about it.  I do not want my actions to cause any problems or any unnecessary difficulties as you perform your work."

 

"Thank you, your Highness," Jae said, again speaking for the entire group and bowing.

 

Watching them file out quietly, Max turned and smiled at Siegel, who was standing against the side wall of the small chamber.  "Good?"

 

He walked over and leaned down, kissing him on the lips.  "Very good."

 

"I think Uncle Wooly and Uncle Marc could have done a better job preparing me for having a household staff," Max said with a smile, standing up and walking toward the side hallway that connected their bedroom wing to the chamber.  "Had several people around and not just Gregor."

 

"Really?" Siegel glanced at him. "I'm sort of surprised to hear you say that.  I thought you were less than thrilled with how many people there are around here."

 

Max laughed. "Oh yeah, that part for sure, but it would have been nice as a kid to have gotten out of dusting and mowing the lawn and taking out the trash and all the rest of my chores."  He shook his head. "Gregor, according to my uncles, had enough on his plate without adding my messes to it."

 

Siegel laughed. "Oh yes, childhood chores.  I had to clean the stables every single Sunday afternoon, which was the stable boy's day off.  My father thought it should be done every day, so that left me."

 

Closing the door to his bedroom, Max smiled as he touched the wide gold circlet crown and then glanced at the bed. He leaned over and kissed his lover deeply, tongue sliding in to claim dominance for a brief moment before Siegel's hands came up and pulled him closer as he began to kiss him back.  "Ever fucked someone with a crown on before?" Max whispered.  Unable to maintain his serious expression, he began to laugh.

 

Siegel laughed too, kissing him again before swatting his butt.  "No, but I'd love to."

 

"Well … I have a crown … "

 

"So I see," Siegel said, kissing the younger man yet again.  "And would you like me to fuck you?"

 

Max grinned, unable to resist the fun of being crude.  "Have you ever fucked from the bottom before?"

 

"No."

 

"Would you like to try, Leo?"

 

Siegel grinned, swatting his lover's butt again.  "Yes." He sprawled on the bed and rolled on his back, oiling his cock and stroking himself hard as he watched Max.  "Undress."

 

Stripping quickly, Max walked naked over to the bed. He wasn't ashamed of his body, but lying in bed naked with someone or quickly undressing while the other person was doing the same was different than being watched.  He smiled to cover up his nerves, suddenly feeling very young and inexperienced.

 

Reaching out, Siegel pulled him closer and then down into a long kiss, his other hand grasping his butt and kneading it gently.  "You look amazing. Wonderful body, hard cock, gold crown.  I could almost come now."

 

"Well, wait for a minute." Max laughed as he kissed back.  On impulse, he bent lower and kissed the other man's hard cock, tasting the sweet tang of olive oil.  "I remember someone saying that we were going to bond multiple times a day and I don't think you want to bond with the bed sheets."

 

Siegel laughed. "You could keep your mouth there, you know."  Running his hand Max's hair, he tapped the crown gently.  "Very hot."

 

"I could," Max agreed. "But I have another idea." Max grinned, kneeling up on the bed for a minute before swinging a leg over his lover so that he was straddling him.   "Help me for a second," he said softly, not wanting to spoil the illusion of utter confidence, but knowing it would be less than impressive if he fell.

 

"I've got you," Siegel said over his words, already reaching up to help him balance.  He groaned as Max shifted slightly, aligning his body and slowly sinking down on the hard cock, impaling himself.

 

Max shuddered and tried not to tense as the hard cock penetrated him deeply as he sank down on his bent knees.  Closing his eyes for a moment, he took several shallow breaths, adjusting to the intrusion and shivering as Siegel gently stroked his legs and sides.

 

"OK?"

 

Max nodded, but kept his eyes closed as he slowly sank deeper, driving the cock further inside him until he was completely impaled. 

 

Beneath him, Siegel groaned at the sensation and rocked back and forth several times, making Max moan softly.  "Good or too much?"

 

Opening his eyes, Max smiled a bit.  "Good, but this is my show." His smiled widened as Siegel smiled back at him and nodded.

 

"You look amazing," Siegel said softly, unable to stop smiling at the sight of his lover.  "Hard cock, amazing body, just the base of my cock peeking out from you and of course, everything topped off with that crown."  He laughed. "It's an impressive look."

 

Max smiled at him, kneeling up slightly before sinking back down and causing his lover to squirm again at the sensation.  "A King always aims to be impressive."

 

"Show me what you can do, my King." 

 

Taking a deep breath, Max slowly raised himself, sank back down and began to rock slowly.  He leaned forward and began kissing his lover, cock sliding in and out as he rocked them on the mattress.

 

Siegel groaned again as his cock was squeezed tight by Max's internal muscles in a different way than simple penetration.  The tightness and the angle sent sparks coursing through him and the feel of Max's hard cock scraping against his stomach as they kissed added an extra layer of sensation.  Unable to remain completely passive, he put a hand under his lover's butt and helped lift him up, almost pulling free, and then back down for the full impact of tight muscles rubbing against him, filling the younger man completely.

 

"Leo …" Max groaned out as he shuddered again, kissing him deeply. 

 

"Good?" Siegel asked, pulling back from their kiss, as his cock sank deeply inside again. Reaching up, he tangled his fingers in the Max's hair, holding him down.  He brushed his fingertips along the golden crown, growing harder.

 

Max's eyes closed again as he lost himself in the triple sensations of hands and cocks and tongues.  He moaned, pulling himself upright and breaking off their kiss.  "Please, use your hand, make me come."

 

Reaching for Max's hard cock, Siegel began to stroke it in time with his lover's increased rocking motion, his other hand still on his butt helping steady and lift him.  "You like this?" he asked, rubbing his thumb nail gently over the shaft.

 

Max nodded and then shuddered again, sinking down one last time.  "I'm going to come!"  Bending low, he thrust his cock hard into Siegel's hand and bent down to kiss him as he came a moment later, held tight by his lover.  He moaned as he felt Siegel thrust twice more from below before coming inside him as well.

 

Siegel quivered as his cock jerked its final release.  He was still half hard inside him, but judging from his lover's little whimpers and his own panting, he didn't think they were up for round two immediately.  He stroked Max's sweaty hair gently with one hand, while his other hand lazily stroked his back and butt.

 

Max stretched, groaning as the still hard cock drove itself deeper inside.  "Oh Gods," he moaned, unsure how to dismount.  His brain felt like mush and his legs were shaking.

 

"Come back down here, love," Siegel ordered in a firm voice.  "I've got you."

 

Bending low, Max did as he was told and found himself held tightly against his lover's chest as they rolled as one, his legs pinned for a brief moment before he was down on his back and fully underneath his lover.  He moaned again as the cock slipped free and arched slightly as they untangled themselves.

 

Siegel laughed softly, kissing him deeply and stroking his cheek.  "That was amazing and a new one for me, love."  He kissed him again. "I love that you taught me something."

 

Max grinned up, feeling very proud of himself as he snuggled close, their half hard cocks bumping into each other.  "So it was good?" he asked, unable to resist.

 

"Very."  Siegel smiled and gently tapped the crown. "Is that how a King likes to fuck?"

 

Max laughed, kissing him back. "And be fucked."

 

"Often?"

 

"In every position, as often as possible."

 

Siegel laughed, kissing him again.  "You know the old wives' tale."  The words were out of his mouth before he realized that there was little chance his lover knew what he was talking about.  Before the mood could be spoiled, he kissed him again. "Every time a couple bonds during their first week together ensures a year of happiness together."

 

Max laughed. "So that was what, nine, ten times yesterday?"

 

"A long way still to go, love."  Siegel kissed him, swatted his butt gently and rolled them so that they were spooned together.  Reaching down, he spread Max's cheeks again and pushed his cock back inside the tight opening.

 

Max sighed, shuddered slightly and pulled Siegel's arm tighter around him.  "So good," he whispered.

 

Settling himself deep inside, Siegel kissed his neck.  "Close your eyes and rest. I've got you and we have all the time in the world."

 

Max laughed.  "I intend to live until I'm a hundred, love, and we only have six more days of our first week."

 

"We can do it."  Drifting off to sleep, Siegel smiled as Max gave another low chuckle, shifting and pulling him in closer.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Tuesday morning Siegel woke up and groaned, flopping over on his back and bringing his arm up to shield his eyes from the glaring sun.  The bed was empty again and he felt a momentary flush of envy at his 21 year old lover, who seemed to possess more energy than was possible or safe, if for nothing else than his personal health.  Monday had passed much like Sunday, a quiet day spent walking around the palace. Max had chatted with everyone they met and scribbled notes afterward in his rapidly filling notebook.  

 

Then they had come back to their apartments.  Siegel grinned as he sat up and spied the ottoman pushed into the center of the room.  Frowning at the slight stain on its top, he decided that they really needed to cover the upholstery with flannel from now on. He shrugged into his robe.

 

"Consort," Newton said, coming to attention and bowing as Siegel entered the living room.

 

"Good morning, Newton."  He glanced into the empty dining area.  "Where is the King?"

 

"Jae asked me to wait here and inform you that the King is currently in the kitchen area," Newton said in a straight forward manner, without inflection or additional comment.

 

Siegel looked at him. "What?"

 

Newton swallowed nervously.  "Jae asked me to inform you when you awoke that his Highness--"

 

"--is sitting in the kitchen," Siegel said with a shake of his head.  "Got it.  Any idea why? No, never mind, Newton," he said, cutting him off before he could apologize and smiling at him. "I'm sorry I asked.  How long has he been down there?"

 

"At least thirty minutes, Consort."

 

"OK," Siegel said, glancing at the partially opened servants' door before heading back into the bedroom to get dressed.  Emerging a minute later, he waved in the general direction of the kitchen. "Can you lead the way?  It probably will be quicker than me trying to find it."

 

"Of course," Newton said with a small smile.

 

He heard Max before he saw him and even without Newton's help, Siegel felt sure he could have located his lover easily just by the sound of his voice and laughter coming down a hallway.  Peeking inside the room, he spied the younger man, dressed casually in simple slacks and a pullover tunic, sitting at the large wooden table in the center of the kitchen, a plate of biscuits next to him and a bowl filled with cut-up apples in front of him. 

 

"So what did you say to that, Miss Perin?"  Max asked, glancing down as he resumed peeling the apple in his hand with a small, sharp knife.

 

The older woman rolling out a crust shook her head. "And what do you think I told him, your Highness?  I told him in no uncertain terms that there was no way I would be going with him to explore the groves at night.  I knew what he wanted and I wasn't about to give it away for free."  She glanced at a younger girl busily stirring a large pot on the stove and added, "Something that all smart young girls should keep in mind."

 

The younger girl glanced at her boss and nodded. "Yes, Miss Perin."

 

Max laughed. "But maybe a nice dinner … bottle of wine … not so free?"

 

The younger girl giggled, causing the older woman to laugh again and shake her head.  "Don't be giving Mae any ideas, your Highness.  That might be acceptable behavior in some parts, but in my home province, which is the same as Mae's, I might add, there are stricter morals.  Councilor Oceana and her family still abide by the older ways and don't approve of young people dallying around."

 

Max smiled and bowed his head in her direction. "Something to keep in mind, for sure."

 

The older woman smiled and then winked. "Not that I think you'll be in any shape for dallying while you have your Consort to keep you content."

 

Max and the older woman laughed together and Mae blushed, turning back to the pot.

 

Stepping into the warm kitchen, Siegel smiled. "Good morning."  He walked over to the younger man and bent down, kissing him quickly on the lips. "You taste like butter and apples."

 

Miss Perin bowed and then laughed. "Good morning, Consort Siegel.  He should! I swear he's been eating as many apples as have made it into the bowl."  Max opened his mouth to protest and she waved a flour-covered finger in his direction. "Now your Highness, don't go denying it. I've been running a kitchen bigger than this for close to 30 years, you don't think I know how to keep track of what all my helpers are up to?"

 

He grinned at her and then winked, popping a sliver of apple into his mouth.

 

She sighed deeply. "Off with you and I'll have a proper breakfast sent up."  Eyeing Siegel for a moment, she shook her head. "Maybe you can do something with him, Consort."

 

Siegel smiled and bowed in her direction.  "I shall do my best."  Holding out his hand, he said, "Come on.  I fear you've caused enough uproar down here already."

 

Max laughed, standing up, "I have not."  Then, slightly unsure of his true welcome, or whether he would actually be able to tell if he were a bother, he turned to the older woman.  "Have I?"

 

Dusting off her hands, Miss Perin walked over to him and took his other hand in hers.  "Not at all, your Highness," she said earnestly.  "Once I got over my surprise and figured out that you couldn't be sent on your way with a glass of juice and a warm biscuit, you were a great help."

 

He smiled at her and squeezed her hand, reassured by her admission of her initial wariness. "They are excellent biscuits."

 

She laughed. "Thank you. I'm sure you'll enjoy the pie at lunch, too."  She bowed, releasing his hand. "I look forward to your help any time you want to pay us a visit, your Highness."

 

"Thank you, Miss Perin.  Mae, it was a pleasure and I look forward to the pie."  Bowing to them both, Max headed out of the kitchen, Siegel close behind him as they started back up the hall. "I guess Newton pointed you in the right direction, huh?  This place is a rabbit warren down here. There's the kitchen, and then there are at least four storerooms that I saw, plus of course bedrooms and a dining area for the servants and they have--"

 

Siegel laughed.  "A whole other apartment complex."

 

"Exactly!  Who would have thought?"

 

Siegel smiled and resisted the urge to point out that this information was not new and that of course the palace had a massive support structure underneath for all the workers who kept it running smoothly.  "So what were you doing down there, anyway?  I have to admit, I was a bit surprised."

 

"Just looking around," Max said evenly.  "I knew there was a door in the main hall and  I saw John slip in through another door in the audience chamber right before the introductions.  I was curious where they led."

 

Siegel nodded slowly, remembering similar explorations when he was young into the nooks and crannies of his parents' home and trying to decide if he should say anything.  Clearly the cook hadn't seemed to mind the company and the area seemed secure.  He made a mental note to speak with Major Smyth about the kitchen area and ensure that it was in fact secure and if not, work out how it could best be secured if Max intended to spend more time there.  The palace was simply too large, with too many people coming and going, to be one hundred percent secure, but he would do his best to be sure it was as secure as possible.

 

"You're not listening," Max said with a smile, bumping Siegel gently as the entered the dining area.

 

Siegel laughed. "No, I'm sorry, I wasn't.  I was thinking about something I need to do this afternoon."  Leaning over, he kissed Max. "What were you saying, love?"

 

"Oh good, I'm glad you've got something to do," Max said, sitting down at the table.  "That's perfect then, because I was saying that I want to go into the town here and see what's there, look around and talk to some people."  He smiled more brightly. "I know you may have an issue with this, but I want to do it by myself, not with you or anyone else standing behind me glowering."

 

John brought in a large tray with three covered dishes on it, stopping in his tracks when he saw the expression on the Consort's face.  "Excuse me, sirs," he said quietly, putting down the dishes and fleeing.

 

"No."

 

Max laughed, picking up the cover of one of the dishes and smiling at his lover.  "No, sorry Leo, but that doesn't work with me.  Yum, pancake-looking things."

 

Despite himself, Siegel chuckled. "Don't let your new friend in the kitchen here you call them that.  They're called sofgia."

 

"That's right, I loved these.  The ricotta, the lemon – yum."

 

"And the answer is still no."

 

Max smiled, standing up slightly and leaning over to kiss his lover. "Leo, then my reply is still the same.  This is something I need to do."

 

"Well, not without me and at least a few guards," Siegel said.  "Not to mention some advance notice of where you're going so that things can be checked out and secured."

 

Max nodded slowly.  "Who comes with me is something we can certainly negotiate, especially if you're there, but that's it."  Taking a bite of his pancake, he closed his eyes briefly. "So good – we need to have these every morning."

 

Ignoring his own food, Siegel said, "Maximus."

 

Max glanced up and smiled, forking a small bite of sausage into his mouth.  "Leo…hmmm… Leon? Leonardo? Leonidas? Just Leo?"  He laughed. "I know Leo, but you know, I just realized I don't know whether it's short for something, if anything."

 

"Leonard," Siegel said with a small smile. "My grandfather's name."  Picking up his fork, he took a different tack. "So tell me why this is important to you."

 

Max looked at him for a second and then slowly smiled, struggling hard not to laugh.

 

"What?"  Siegel asked, irritated and feeling his temper rise.

 

Max laughed, leaning over and kissing him again, stroking his cheek.  "Smile, love, I'm not laughing at you.  It was just funny because it's such a 21st century thing to say, like something Dr. Drew would suggest for how to discuss sensitive topics with your partner."

 

Siegel looked at him and said sharply, "I have no idea who Dr. Drew is.  I'm trying to be nice and talk about this with you, instead of simply saying no and spanking you if you keep pushing about it."  As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew he had made a mistake.

 

Max stared at him hard for a long moment before turning his attention back to his plate.  A moment later, he picked up the newspaper sitting on the table and began to read the front page.

 

"Max …"

 

"No," Max said firmly, not looking up.  "We're not talking right now, Leo."

 

"I'm sorry."

 

"So am I," Max said slowly and deliberately, not looking up from the paper, his tone clearly discouraging further conversation.

 

"The weather looks like it's going to be warm today," Siegel said ten quiet minutes later.  He was looking out the window at the sun coming through the trees.  "It's probably one of the last warm days of the year.  We always have this burst of random heat before going cool for the season."  He paused, waiting for the younger man to say something.  When he didn't, he continued, "They call it soldier's summer.  It's the last opportunity to get training time in, or make one last maneuver, or engage in one final battle before winter slows everything down."

 

Knowing it was the right thing to do and really, the only thing to do, when his lover was offering an olive branch, Max put down the paper and responded quietly. "Really?"

 

"Yes, it's always a mixed blessing," Siegel said with a smile.  "The final battles of the season are always the worst. Everyone wants to dig in, make their stand for the winter and go out with a victory."  He gave a small shrug. "You know your men will do better sitting around the fire feeling victorious.  Victory will get you through the winter in much better shape than defeat."

 

"I learned that in school, too." Max gave a slight smile. "But wasn't Queen Beatriz was killed near the end of November?"

 

"She was, but that wasn't in a big battle.  General Dragaz, who you haven't yet met, ordered a very small, specialized force into her castle to take it.  They snuck in and attacked from inside. It could have easily turned into a suicide mission, but they succeeded and got the gates down and many of the guards incapacitated, so in the end it was an easy victory."

 

"Delta Force," Max said with a bigger smile.  "A movie," he added quickly.  "What did they do?"

 

Siegel frowned and took a deep breath. "They poisoned the food and made most of them extremely ill."

 

"Did they die?"

 

"Many of them did, but from the fighting, not the poison," he said quickly.  "It wasn't a lethal poison."

 

"Oh." Max took a sip of his juice and then glanced at it with a frown.

 

Reaching out, Siegel took his hand and gave it a small squeeze. "I'm sorry I said I would spank you, love.  I mean …" He paused, searching for the right words. "I know that probably took you by surprise, even though you know it is part of a Consort's role. I know it's not something we've discussed and we aren't at that point in our relationship yet.  You still don't fully trust me."

 

"Yeah," Max said quietly, looking down, but not pulling his hand back.  "It…it just caught me off guard to hear you say that. I know it's part of the relationship, but …"  Looking up, his eyes hardened slightly. "For you to say that you'd spank me, beat me, instead of talking, if I kept trying to discuss something with you that I felt was important? No.  That's not how this is going to work." 

 

"I would never beat you," Leo said firmly.

 

"When you said that you'd spank me if I kept trying to talk to you about something, that to me is beating.  It's what you might do to a stubborn child who won't listen to reason and still tries to touch the hot stove."  Max shook his head. "No, never."  He half-heartedly tried to tug his hand from Siegel's grasp.

 

Briefly wondering if holding on to the resisting hand was the right move, Siegel squeezed it gently and felt a surge of relief when it relaxed slightly in his.  "I'm sorry, Max," he said slowly, trying to get Max to meet his eyes.  He swallowed and gave a small, unhappy shrug.  "I can understand why you would think that, but it was just me forgetting that I am your lover and your Consort, not your mentor and certainly not your Major."  He squeezed Max's hand again gently for a moment before slowly raising it to his lips and kissing it. "This is new for me too.  I'm used to giving an order and being obeyed and to everyone around me understanding that those are the rules.  I would never hurt you, though. Never."

 

"I'm not a child," Max said softly.

 

"I don't sleep with children," Siegel said quietly, holding his lover's gaze. "My soldiers and the pupils I mentored were not children, either."

 

"I won't be treated like a child," Max stuck stubbornly to his objection. "We will discuss things and reach compromises on what's allowed and what's not allowed."

 

Siegel hesitated for a moment before kissing his lover's hand again and stroking it. "I swear to you, Max, that we will have as many discussions as are needed and I will always try to compromise between your wants and what I feel is necessary for your safety and well-being." He paused again. "I cannot promise you though that I will allow every issue to be discussed to death and that we will be able to find a compromise in every situation.  There comes a point when someone must have the final say. When it comes to the King's safety and well-being, that final responsibility lies with his Consort."

 

Max swallowed, looking down and fighting the urge to jerk back his hand even as part of him understood what Siegel was saying and the logic behind it.  "What if I don't agree?  To being disciplined, I mean?"

 

"Then," Siegel said, taking a deep breath, "you order me as my King not to lay a hand on you and say that you wish to petition the Council.  I answer to them. In those circumstances, you would present your reasons for not accepting my discipline and I would present my reasons for desiring to discipline you and they would decide which of us should prevail."  He shrugged and gave a small smile. "I've never actually seen that done, of course, but know it has happened in the past.  If you're curious, the state librarian can research all such petitions and let you know the outcome."

 

For the first time since their fight, Max gave a genuine laugh.  "Considering my two uncles are on the Council, I believe they will vote with you."

 

Feeling the tension between them soften as Max laughed, Siegel smiled with relief and squeezed his hand affectionately. "It is always an option, love, and one a child does not have.  Children are simply subject to the wishes of their parent.  Pupils do not have that right, either.  They must either accept the will and decision of their mentor, or choose to leave their service.  But you, as an adult, can petition the Council for support or, if the situation becomes unbearable, petition the Oracles for a new Consort."  His voice cracked slightly at the idea of their relationship faltering to such a degree.

 

Max smiled and squeezed Siegel's hand, too. "Never, Leo.  Never."  Sliding forward, he smiled as Siegel pushed back his chair a bit and pulled him closer.  He stood for a moment before settling in his lover's lap and kissing him.  "Never."

 

Siegel shivered slightly, relief washing over him as they kissed deeply and gently, without rushing.  "I'm sorry, Max," he whispered.

 

"I'm sorry, too," Max said, his voice low against his ear.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

An  hour later, Siegel shifted and looked down at the younger man now lying naked in bed beside him.  "You're so amazing looking, like carved marble."

 

Max laughed, touching his cock. "A lot of the great marble statues from antiquity are in Europe and many of them are missing their cocks.  The Church at one time decided they were indecent and covered them with leaves or just chipped them off totally."

 

Siegel laughed, moving down and nudging Max's hand away with his nose before kissing his hardening shaft.  "I see that you're an improved version then."  Kissing it again, he gently slid a knee between Max's legs and began to spread them as he shifted to lie on top of him.  "No, no, stay like this, love," he said, as Max pushed up and began to roll onto his stomach.  "I want to see you as you allow me into you."

 

Max smiled, spreading his legs and drawing them up to expose himself.  "As you take me."  

 

Settling on top of his lover, Siegel kissed him deeply, moving slightly to rub their already-slick cocks together. "No, not this time, love.  I've already taken you multiple times, there's no doubt in my mind or yours that I can do that.  This time, it's at your invitation and only if you allow me in."

 

Max smiled, understanding the difference, and raised his head slightly to kiss his lover, bringing his hand to Siegel's hair, drawing him closer as they kissed.  "I invite you in," he said a long minute later, spreading his legs wider and drawing them up to wrap around his lover.  He laughed as Siegel smiled and quickly stole a kiss before pulling back and adjusted his cock to line up with his opening.  "Couldn't resist pushing, could you?"

 

Siegel laughed and slowly began to push inside, holding for a moment every few seconds. "Gods, you look amazing," he breathed out, arms and legs trembling with the torment of restraint.

 

Max squirmed closer, arching up to meet the cock, sighing as it was fully seated inside him.  Wrapping his legs tighter and higher, he smiled. "Kiss me," he ordered.

 

"Gladly, my King." Siegel obliged, leaning down and rocking slightly before beginning to slowly move in and out, thrusting gently as they kissed.  He could feel Max's hard cock rubbing against his stomach and he groaned, thrusting hard several times before once again slowing back down and concentrating on their kisses.

 

Max closed his eyes and groaned, pressing up to meet the cock's thrusts and driving it deeper into him.  

 

"Open your eyes, love." Siegel kissed him again, tongue pushing in to claim dominance even as he fought the urge to thrust harder and deeper.  "I want to see your eyes when you come and when I come."

 

Fighting down embarrassment, Max slowly opened his eyes and smiled as he met his lover's eyes.  "Better?" His fingers tightened on Siegel's arm and held him close.

 

"Yes." They resumed kissing even as Siegel's thrusts grew longer and faster, skin slapping against skin.  Pulling back with one last kiss, he shuddered, locking eyes with his lover. "I will never hurt you, Max."

 

"I trust you, Leo." Max arched and came with a low groan. He shivered, his legs tightening around his lover, gripping him hard.

 

"I love you, Max." He seated himself deeply inside with one final thrust, bending to kiss Max even as he felt his cock jerking out its release into the younger man.

 

Max shifted slightly, completely relaxed. He was curled facing Siegel, his legs tucked inside his lover's, his head tucked under his chin. He had no desire to move out of the warmth of his lover's arms as he drifted easily.  He shivered as Siegel lazily ran a hand down his side, stroking his bare hip before giving it a gentle pat.  "Are we good again, Leo?" he asked quietly.

 

Siegel kissed his hair. "I love you; you love me. I swear I will never hurt you; you trust me when I say that.  I don't know what else we can be but good together."

 

"Are you going to spank me?"

 

He kissed him again. "When that time comes, Max, you'll fully agree that you deserve it.  You may not be happy about it, but you'll know you deserve it."

 

Max shifted again. "I guess."  He laughed as Siegel tickled his side, squirming.

 

"Watch the knees!" Siegel said with a laugh. "I plan to use that again sooner rather than later.

 

Rolling over and pushing him onto his back, Max lay on top of him, their cocks pressed together as his legs spread wide on either side of Siegel's.  "Do you, now?"

 

He laughed, resting his hands on his lover's butt. "Yes, I do." 

 

Max grinned and kissed him before laying his head back down.  "I feel bonded."

 

His words took Siegel by surprise and he was quiet for a long moment, absently stroking his lover's back.  "I do, too," he said quietly, realizing the truth in the words only after he said them.  "I do, too," he repeated with a smile.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Thursday afternoon was rainy, with low clouds settling over the palace and making everyone feel sleepy.  Siegel yawned and stretched, looking at the pile of papers and unopened chests that sat around his office and welcomed the slow, quiet pace of the day.  Since their fight two days before and subsequent make up, he had noticed a shift in his feelings for Max.  Instead of simple lust, something deeper seemed to have taken hold and it was harder to explain.  Sex had shifted from the desire-filled drive for possession and domination to a more love-filled desire to simply be in his lover, to be with him, to stroke him and watch him.  Shaking his head at his thoughts, he took a deep breath to still his racing blood and examined his office, trying to decide where best to start.

 

The space was comfortable, and like his bedroom, connected to the larger, more ornate office that Max had in the apartment area.  He had carefully packed up his maps, papers, and personal items just before joining the welcome party two days before Max's appearance. They had been delivered with the rest of their items earlier in the week.  Today was the first day Siegel had gotten into the room. With Max asleep in the living room, open book resting on his chest, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to organize the space.  With a deep breath, he started in on one of the larger chests of papers and maps, tucking them into the spaces provided.

 

The small chest that had been with him in his tent and contained his most personal of papers still sat unopened on the floor and he undid those latches last and smiled ruefully when he saw the shape of the wooden paddle, rewrapped in wool, sitting on top.   Pulling it out, he put it on the desk and unwrapped it.  The light, honey-colored wood still gleamed from the cleaning and oiling he had done three weeks earlier in his tent. It felt smooth and hard as he balanced it in his hand and smiled, remembering Borges handing it to him the night he had first used it on his butt. He touched the small hole he had drilled in the handle for a cord to run through.  The paddle had hung on his bed post, serving as a constant reminder.  It had been packed on top of all his possessions in his personal chest when they traveled, always at the ready.  Something that the General took frequent advantage of during the first year of his mentorship.

 

A knock on the door made him glance up and putting the paddle down on his desk, he smiled.  "Hi, Jae."

 

Jae bowed his head slightly as he moved carefully into the room, a small tray balanced on the end of his right arm and held with his left.  "Consort," he said glancing around the mess, his eyes resting briefly on the paddle. He settled the tray carefully on a side table. "I thought after all your hard work already this afternoon, you might be ready for a small break."

 

"Yes, thank you," Siegel said, standing up and reaching for the offered cup of tea.  Sitting back down he smiled at Jae. "Would you like to join me?"  He had known the other man for over ten years and always welcomed his advice and observations.

 

Jae smiled. "Thank you, sir, that would be nice."  Pouring his own cup of tea and sitting down on the other side of the desk, he took a sip.  "The household seems to be settling in nicely."

 

Siegel glanced around and nodded. "Once I get everything settled in here and help Max set up his office as well, I think it will be good.  I appreciate all the help you and your boys were with everything else."

 

"It was our pleasure. King Maximus seems to be enjoying the books we selected."

 

"Very much so, I think," Siegel said.  The bookcase had been filled not just with the classics, but also with years of popular fiction, some written as propaganda for the Queen, some as propaganda for the Council and some just as simple entertainment.  He took a sip of tea and shook his head with a smile. "He is amazing.  And I sound like a besotted lover."

 

Jae laughed. "If you'll excuse me for saying so, sir …"

 

"Jae, we have known each other for years.  You've seen me at my lowest and at my highest as a member of the General's household, there is nothing I need to excuse, and I value your opinion and counsel."

 

Jae tilted his head in acknowledgement. "Thank you.  There is no reason to be embarrassed about sounding like a besotted lover, since you are exactly that."  He smiled. "The young man seems to be rapidly gathering fans around the palace."

 

"I know.  Our daily walks initially caught some of the staff more than a little off guard, but now I think many of them actually look forward to seeing him."

 

"He is different, for sure," Jae agreed.  "And, after so long, I believe that is a good thing.  Like the country, he is reinventing what the King is…how the King rules.  It's a breath of fresh air."

 

Siegel nodded.  Switching topics,  he asked, "Anything going on behind the walls that I should know about?"

 

Jae shook his head. "No, not really.  I put some memos and notes on your desk that have come in this week, but nothing was marked High Importance. Everyone is settling into their roles nicely.  I'm not sure that Sally – one of Miss Perin's assistants – will work out.  She seems quite homesick and it may not be worth it to her or us.  Miss Perin recommended her and she and Mae come from the same hometown and know each other, but it may not be enough."

 

Siegel nodded, shifting through the small pile of notes.  Holding up the note from Major Smyth, he asked, "When did this arrive?"

 

Jae leaned forward slightly to see the sender. "I believe it arrived mid-morning Monday.  One of the Guards' runners brought it up, but it was not marked important and was better left for later, I'm sure.  This is supposed to be your personal time with his Highness." He swallowed and shifted slightly in his chair.

 

His movement caught Siegel's attention. "Do you know what this is about?" he asked, suddenly alert as he slit open the envelope and unfolded the paper.  Skimming the short note, he cursed and glanced up.  "Did you know about this?"

 

"He is young, Consort," Jae said, slipping out of the easy familiarly and into more solid, formal tones.  "And when I found about it on Tuesday, I took action. John has been with him since yesterday, under the guise of keeping him company and showing him some of the more hidden areas. They are getting along well and from what John tells me, the King enjoys the company and conversation."

 

"And what good is John if one Aliseo's supporters  tries something? Or a guard who supports one of King Maximus's cousins?" Siegel shot back.

 

Jae steadied his gaze and spoke slowly, as if still addressing the headstrong 18 year old he had first met twelve years ago. "As you know, John is highly trained and served with distinction for three years.  If he had not lost the hearing in his right ear two winters ago, he would still be in the army now.  As were my instructions, I selected him because of his skills and the fact that he still trains almost daily with the palace guard.  He might not be able to hold off a group of attackers, but there is no doubt that he would be able to defend the King if the need arose."  He met Siegel's eyes. "Obviously, I understand that it is your primary duty to protect the King, but all of us in his service consider ourselves to have the same responsibility."

 

Siegel bowed his head in apology. "You are right, Jae.  I'm sorry that I overreacted.  I am simply surprised.  I thought I had made it clear to Max that he was not to be out roaming around alone.  And to get this note now?  He hasn't listened since Day One!"

 

Jae studied him for a moment, taking a sip of his now cool tea before saying slowly, "If I may, Leo …"

 

"Of course. I always welcome your advice."

 

"Two things to keep in mind, maybe three," Jae said.   "First, King Maximus is young.  He's barely 21 and we all know that the young are often headstrong and rarely listen the first time--"

 

"Or the first ten times," Siegel interrupted.

 

"Exactly.  The young rarely listen the first time they are told something.  You and most of the men you are used to dealing with were brought up under much stricter rules than I believe he was.  You learned quickly to listen, obey and trust what your mentor was telling you.  King Maximus has not yet had that training."  When Siegel nodded, Jae smiled. "And second, have you told him why your rule is important?  Does he know the threat to him or have you simply given him a rule, without explanation, and expected him to follow it blindly?"

 

"I have explained …some," Siegel admitted, feeling as if he were repeating the conversation he and Max had had two days before.  "But I rarely received explanations from the General, especially at first.  I was simply expected to do as I was instructed."  He smiled, bowing his head slightly. "I know, I know.  Maximus is not my pupil  nor is he a soldier who must learn to obey orders without question.  He is my lover and deserves to be treated as such."

 

Jae smiled. "Exactly, Leo, and that is the third thing to keep in mind."  Standing up at the sound of Max's unmistakable laugh from the hall, he smiled and tapped the paddle sitting on the desk. "I'm sure that a discussion and a brief, gentle introduction to this will get your point across very well."  Turning at the sound of footsteps, he bowed as Max appeared in the doorway. "Your Highness."

 

"Hi Jae," Max said. "Keeping Leo company while I read with my eyes closed?"

 

Siegel laughed. "Is that what you call it?"

 

Jae bowed again. "Yes, I was keeping your Consort company and delaying him from his organizational tasks. I also brought him tea and cookies; may I bring you a fresh pot?"

 

"No, thank you, but I will steal a couple of cookies."

 

"I will leave them for you to enjoy at your leisure," Jae said with a smile.  "Is there anything I else I can do for you, your Highness?  Consort?"

 

"No, thank you," Siegel said, standing up.  "I appreciate your wisdom, as always, and please keep me informed. about Sally.  If need be, she will be excused with a reference and pay."

 

"Of course."  Jae bowed.  Backing out of the room, he closed the door behind him.

 

Walking over, Max leaned into his lover for a second before kissing him gently on the lips.  "Did you have a good afternoon?"

 

Siegel smiled, wrapping his arms around him and allowing one hand to drift to his butt and stroke it.  "Yes, even if it was alone."

 

Max laughed, pulling away as he turned  and surveyed the room.  "It sort of looks like you have enough to keep you occupied for a while in here."

 

"Unfortunately, yes," Siegel said.  "But there's time.  The Council won't be back for just over three weeks and this should be organized in the next few days."  He grinned. "Especially if I can convince you to enjoy a few more afternoon naps alone."

 

Max's gaze fell on the paddle and he glanced up, meeting his lover's eyes.  Picking it up gently, he ran a hand over the smooth blade and studied it for a moment.  "This is interesting," he said evenly.  "Is it new?"

 

Siegel smiled. "No, love, it's not new, but I did clean and polish it recently.  It was in my private chest, which was being stored in here."

 

"So you unpacked it because you were unpacking your chest?" Max asked, putting the paddle back on the desk.

 

Sieel ignored the question and moved closer to him.  "During my organizing, I found a note from Major Smyth."

 

"I met him again Monday morning. Remember, I told you?  He was heading to a staff meeting, well, something like a staff meeting, a meeting with all his captains. He invited me to join him next Monday."  Max laughed. "I'm not sure he really had a choice, since I pretty much invited myself, but he seemed OK with it."

 

Siegel chuckled, imagining Smyth's reaction to being cornered by his smiling, joking, but determined new King.  "Is it still at 8:30?  I'd like to attend too, if it's all right with you."

 

Max nodded. "Please. This way we can talk about it afterward.  I told Smyth that I don't even know right now what I don't know…"  He went silent for a moment, thinking about the vast blanks in his knowledge, before taking a deep breath.  "And he also invited us to dinner.  I would have assumed he'd live here in the palace, but he's got a place in town. Another piece of a puzzle that I don't even have the box from to give me a hint." He shook his head. "Never mind.  Did you know about his house?"

 

"I did know that," Siegel confirmed, "but I haven't been there and I don't know exactly where it is."  Then, turning more serious, he stepped back so that he could look squarely at his lover. "The note I received from Smyth talked about meeting you on Monday as well."

 

Max grinned and laughed. "Yeah, I'm not surprised.  He seemed a bit taken aback, but I think he warmed up quickly enough.  We had a nice chat."

 

"Max," Siegel said firmly, "he was surprised and more than a little distressed to see you out and about without guards or me."

 

Max shrugged. "It was early and you were still asleep.  I went out the garden gate and was just walking around.  Nothing happened."

 

"Thank the Gods for that," Siegel said firmly.  "And while that is certainly a blessing, that is not the point here."

 

"Fine," Max said dismissively.  "I get it.  No roaming, as you put it."

 

Siegel leveled his gaze at him. "Max, have you given a moment's thought to why this is so important?"  When the younger man stubbornly tightened his mouth, he shook his head, wishing he had been able to follow to his instincts the first time Max had wandered off.  If only he had been able to have this discussion with Max then, emphasizing his point with a hard but quick paddling, instead of allowing Borges to handle the issue his way, this would already be behind them.  "Remember our conversation less than a week ago? On Sunday?"

 

Max sighed. "Yes, I remember, Leo."

 

"And I told you then that Aliseo still has followers, didn't I?"

 

Max glared at him and gave a quick nod.

 

"I also reminded you that not a single cousin or a single one of their children attended your coronation and not a single one of them has yet stepped forward to pledge support."

 

Max shrugged, crossing his arms and stared at his lover. "That sounds like their problem, not mine."

 

Losing his patience, Siegel took his stubborn young lover by the arm and turning him slightly, swatted him three times in quick succession.  "Do not take that tone with me, Max.  You know full well what I'm saying and why this is important."

 

"Fine," Max said, pulling back slightly, discreetly rubbing at his hip.

 

"No, it's not fine." Siegel drew Max closer and kissed him, then took a deep breath and gestured to the paddle. "We've talked about this already and I don't think you're taking it seriously enough, so now we're going to discuss it again.  This time, there will be no mistaking how serious I consider this."

 

"That's not fair," Max shot back, pulling away slightly so he could look at him.  "When we talked about it, you never said anything about punishing me."

 

"The danger of your wandering off alone has been discussed with you three times," Siegel said firmly.  "First, General Borges talked to you about it and I also discussed it with you.  Then I reminded you on Sunday.  Then, barely twelve hours later, you did exactly what you were asked not to."

 

Max glared at him and shook his head. "No, that's not fair.  You never said if I do it again, you'd …"  He swallowed before continuing, "You never said you'd punish me."

 

Siegel shook his head. "No, I didn't, and we're not going to set that sort of precedent.  There are certain matters that are up for discussion and part of that discussion will include a discussion of consequences.  Then there are certain matters that are simply rules and the consequences for breaking them will be swift."

 

"And how am I supposed to know which is which?"

 

"That is a very good questions and why this going to be a light punishment.  Plus, you're smart.  I have complete faith that you'll figure it out," Siegel said evenly, kissing Max gently. "When was the last time you were spanked? Paddled?"

 

Max shrugged. "Years ago … summer between high school and college, so … four years? I came home drunk and Uncle Wooly was not happy, especially since you're not legally allowed to drink until you're 21 and I was 17."

 

Siegel chuckled and kissed him again, patting his butt as he drew him in close against him. "Yes, a small reminder of what it feels like is in order for sure. It will be a good incentive to listen to me from now on."  Kissing him again, he said, "You know what I'm saying, love. You knew exactly what you were doing and how I'd feel about it when you walked out the gate, otherwise you would have told me about it, or gone out the front door instead of sneaking out the back."  His voice was calm and straightforward.  Falling silent, he simply held his lover tight as his words sank in.

 

Max too fell silent for a long moment, holding Siegel equally tightly.  He shifted and sighed as the hands holding him brushed against his butt. "Everyone is going to know."

 

Siegel was quiet for a moment, unsure how to answer or how to address the issue.  Clearly, any servant in the area would hear the paddling and hear Max crying or see his face afterward.  Kissing him gently, he said, "It is a fact of life, love.  No different than someone overhearing us having sex, or knowing that you're using the bathroom."

 

A long moment later, Max nodded.  "Where?"

 

Kissing him again, Siegel said, "Come with me.  There's a small, private room between our bedrooms."  He bumped Max's hip gently. "If you'd spent more time exploring your own apartments instead of the whole palace, you would have found it already."

 

Max laughed and took a deep breath, stilling as Siegel picked up the paddle.  He glanced at the closed door uneasily.

 

Siegel took his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.  "Trust me, love.  Come." 

 

Max shivered slightly as Siegel closed the door to the small room behind them.  It was a simple room with cream walls, one of which was hung with a large landscape tapestry that kept that kept the space from feeling too stark.  A large sofa sat against the opposite wall and two straight-backed chairs flanked the rain streaked window.  "You said I'd agree that it was right before you paddled me and I don't know that I do."

 

Putting the paddle on the sofa, Siegel motioned for Max.  "Come here."  He tugged the younger man closer to him.  Kissing him, he stroked his cheek and smiled. "You may not want to, but you know you agree. You're just scared."

 

"I'm not scared," Max protested.  "I just don't want to be hurt."

 

"And I don't want you to get hurt, either, Max," Siegel shot back.  "And by asking you to do me the simple favor of not roaming by yourself, I am trying to prevent just that."  When Max remained silent, he patted his butt. "Take off your shoes and pants and we'll get this over with.  Drawing it out won't change the outcome and it's just making you tense."  He held his breath, waiting to see if Max would agree or continue to resist.

 

"I feel like an idiot," Max muttered, toeing off his shoes and pausing for a second before quickly undoing his slacks and letting them drop.  "And a child." 

 

Sitting down on the sofa and holding out his hand, Siegel said, "You have a choice in this, Max, a child does not.  If you truly feel this is wrong or unjust, tell me and we'll take it up with the Council upon their return.  If you truly feel as if you didn't know my expectations, or that this is coming as a surprise to you, tell me now."

 

Max looked at him for a long moment before taking two steps forward and grasping his hand with a small shake of his head.

 

"Come here, love," Siegel said quietly and gently pulled him down and over, settling him across his knees.  First allowing Max to shift a bit and adjust himself, he patted his butt through the thin layer of cotton underwear.  Not wanting to delay and build the tension further, he pushed it down and exposed the skin.  "I've got you," he said, resting one hand on the now bare skin, while his other hand stroked Max's head for a second.  Raising his hand, he brought it down with two sharp swats before resting it again. "Why are you about to get punished, Max?"

 

"Because you said not to leave the apartment without you or an escort," Max said sharply, squirming as if to escape the hand resting on his butt.

 

Raising it again, Siegel quickly swatted him three more times, causing the younger man to cry out.  "No, this is about your behavior, Max.  This isn't about my behavior."  Swatting him again, he asked, "What did you do that is causing this punishment?"

 

"Fine – I went out of the apartment without an escort, even though you've told me not to," Max shot back.

 

Briefly debating addressing his tone, Siegel decided to ignore it.  It would be an issue for another time.  He swatted him three more times.  "And why did I tell you not to do this?"

 

Max cried out again, squirming a bit, and then cried out in frustration as his lover's arm tightened around him.  "You said it wasn't safe."

 

"And yet you did it anyway," Siegel said, landing four more swats in quick succession, not wanting to draw this out any longer than absolutely necessary to make his point.

 

"Yes!"

 

Picking up the paddle, he ignored Max's moan as he tapped the bare bottom with the wood. "OK, so you're clear on why you're going to be punished."  Giving his lover's back a gentle pat, he felt the younger man take a deep breath and still himself.  Raising the paddle, he brought it down in a sharp, stinging crack five times in rapid order, carefully moving the placement of the strokes over his butt until they reached his upper thighs.

 

Max cried out, gasping, as the pain hit his brain. "Leo! Please!"

 

Ignoring him, Siegel continued the paddling, landing carefully aimed strokes up and down the rapidly reddening butt in another two sets of five strokes each, pausing a long beat between the two sets.  Over his lap Max sobbed and gasped for air, one hand digging into the sofa cushion, while his other gripped his lover's ankle.  It was over in a minute.

 

"I can't breathe," Max gasped between sobs.

 

Putting the paddle on the floor, Siegel stroked his back for a moment before sliding him off onto his knees on the floor. In one smooth motion, he lifted him up and cradled him against his chest.  "I've got you," he whispered as Max shook and sobbed in his arms.

 

"I can't breathe," Max repeated between sobs.

 

"Yes you can," Siegel said firmly, putting one hand on Max's chest while the other held his back.  "Close your mouth for a moment and look at me."

 

Max's frantic eyes met his as he closed his mouth, tears streaming down his face.

 

"Now, take a deep breath through your nose and let it out of your mouth," Siegel said, following his own instructions.

 

Max mirrored the action and his shaking lessened immediately.  He sobbed again, shifting in his lover's arms. 

 

"Again," Siegel said firmly, breathing deeply and letting it out, pleased to see Max once again copy him.  "OK, you're fine," he said softly, reaching behind him for a blanket and draping it over them.  Kissing him gently, he pushed back the damp hair from his face. "Just relax for a moment, love.  I've got you. It was just a quick, simple paddling to get my point across.  You're fine."

 

Max shivered as a fresh round of lesser sobs tapered off to gentle crying.  Resting his head on his lover's shoulder, he curled up slightly, giving another loud sob as his butt made contact with his lover's lap.

 

"Shh… just let it out, I've got you."  Holding him tight, Siegel stroked his back as he listened to the younger man cry much longer and more deeply than the paddling warranted.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Max shifted in the darkness of his bedroom and shivered.

 

"Shh..."

 

He shivered again as Siegel stroked his bare back before giving his butt a gentle pat.  They had come back into the bedroom after Max had calmed down. Siegel had stripped him completely before tucking him into bed and lying down next to him.  "Still sore, love?"

 

Max shrugged slightly and shivered again and then sighed as Siegel pulled him closer and tucked the thick blanket up around his head.  A moment later, he laughed as the blanket slipped too high and completely covered his head. 

 

Siegel laughed too, pushing it back slightly and kissing the top of his head.  "Better?"

 

"Breathing is always a good thing," Max said, stretching up so that he could kiss his lover back.  "This …" he started and then fell silent for a moment before continuing, "This feels so strange, Leo.  The feel of you fully dressed, while I'm completely naked on top of you.  The feel of your clothes against me, your hand on my butt that's aching, but at the same time …"

 

When he didn't continue, Siegel patted his butt again. "What, love?"

 

"I'm half-hard at the thought of you fucking me," Max blurted out.  "I want to feel you, still dressed, but in me,  fucking me."  He laughed, feeling his face grow warm. "This is totally new for me.  I promise you, the idea of sex during my last spanking – furthest thing from my head."

 

Siegel laughed again. "Considering that was your uncle warming your butt that time, I'm glad to hear it."

 

"Eww! Leo!"  Max rolled off Siegel and sat up.  He shifted as his butt made contact with the mattress, but was pleased that the sharp ache of an hour earlier had faded to a slight tenderness.  He looked down, once again feeling very young and unsure of himself.

 

"Talk to me, love."

 

"Is this normal, Leo?"

 

"Is what normal?"

 

Max shrugged. "I don't know,  this … everything.  I feel like I should hate you or at least resent you for paddling me when I'm still not a hundred percent convinced that it was justified."

 

Siegel smiled and sat up, reaching over and taking his lover's hand.  He kissed it gently. "It was more than justified, boy."

 

Max laughed and gave another shrug, but didn't protest.  "I'm sore, but I'm hard, and I feel myself getting harder at the thought of being filled and stretched wide by your cock.  Thoughts of you fill my head all the time and I think I would be perfectly content to stay in these rooms for months just being together, doing whatever, because I feel so safe and loved and protected.  But another part of me knows there's so much more out there for me to do and I can't wait to do it. I think part of the reason I can't wait to do it is because I know you'll be right next to me and won't let me make a fool out of myself."

 

"You've never made a fool out of yourself, Max," Siegel said firmly.  "But yes, I will always be just a step behind you to watch your back."

 

Max laughed, leaning up on his knees and kissing his lover.  "I love you."

 

"I love you."

 

"Fuck me, Leo?  Let's get rid of this maudlin, way-too-serious air.  This is basically our honeymoon, even if there are more paddles than beaches with drinks in pineapples.  Fuck me."

 

Not bothering to ask for an explanation, Siegel grinned and pulled Max closer, kissing him deeply.  "Beaches. Sand in unfortunate places," he said between kisses, groaning slightly as Max's hand began to work at his cock through his pants.

 

"Hollowed-out pineapples and frothy, cool drinks with straws and stupid names," Max countered with a grin, spreading his legs as he pushed him back onto the pillows and straddled him, his cock rubbing against his leg.

 

"Sunburn."

 

Max laughed as he was rolled over onto his back so that Siegel was on top. "Sun-kissed skin."

 

Bending low, Siegel kissed him deeply, his tongue pushing its way inside his mouth while his other hand began to undo his pants.  "I'd hate to challenge the sun to a duel," he said with a grin, as Max's hand joined his to help free his cock.  "But I'd have to if it so much as tried to steal a kiss.  No one is allowed to kiss you but me."

 

"But what if I gave him permission?"   Max yelped as Siegel nipped at his neck.

 

"Then I will simply have to remind you that you belong to me," Siegel said firmly, but with a wink.  He kissed Max again before pulling back, tapping his lover's knee.  "These spread only for me."  Reaching down, he fisted his cock and began to tease his opening, making Max squirm.

 

Twisting slightly, Max snagged the bottle of oil. Quickly coating his hand, he slid it over his lover's cock, knowing the oil was getting on Siegel's pants and the bed clothes and not caring.  "Yes," he said, wrapping his legs up around Siegel's waist with a grimace as sore muscles protested.  "Only for you."

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

"Who was your first lover?" Max asked the next morning, buttering a piece of toast.

 

Siegel glanced up. "What?"

 

Max grinned at him, biting into the toast. "Who was your first lover?  I woke up this morning too early to get out of bed--"

 

Three?"  Siegel interrupted with a laugh, knowing that the younger man had consistently been out of bed by six since their second morning together and that it was approaching a routine. 

 

Mat laughed and shrugged. "Closer to five, but still too early I knew, and so I was lying there thinking about all the things I knew about past boyfriends and how many of those things I don't know yet about you." He smiled again and took another bite of toast. "So, before the Council resumes in three weeks, I'm going to learn everything I can about you, and you can ask whatever you want about me."

 

"And so you decided to start with my lovers?"

 

"Well, I already know you really don't have any major food preferences, your favorite books, that you like gray better than black and I think hate green."

 

"Green was the main color of Queen Beatriz's supporters," Siegel said with a shake of his head. 

 

"OK then, so no green."  Putting down the toast, he ate a bite of egg. "So?"

 

Realizing his lover was serious, Siegel smiled. "By lover, what do you mean?"

 

Max shrugged. "Whatever, Leo.  It's not a trick question, the idea isn't to play 20 Questions with you, it's just to try to get to know each other better.  When you think of your first, who do you think of?"

 

"General Borges," Siegel said with a small smile.  "I had slept with a couple of girls before him, but I consider him my first official lover."

 

"Really?" Max asked with a smile. "I never would have guessed."

 

Siegel shrugged. "My father sent me to him just after my 18th birthday.  He was my mentor and I had never been with a man before." He smiled. "It was terrifying and fantastic."

 

"So tell me how that works," Max asked, taking another bite of egg. 

 

"Well, when two people love each other--"  Siegel laughed and dodged a flicked piece of toast crust.  "Sorry, love," he said, picking up the crumb from the floor and putting it on his plate.  "The mentor and pupil relationship dates to our oldest history and still forms the backbone of a military officer's training today.  Most of our trades follow the same training model as well."

 

They talked on, sitting at the table for hours before moving to walk in the sunshine holding hands.  Bits and pieces of information began to fill the gaps in their knowledge of one another.  Some details were already known, some were as yet unknown, but all were important to both of them.  Saturday followed the same pattern, but with Siegel posing the questions, picking out pieces of Max's life to explore to begin to complete his own picture of the younger man. They could feel their bond tightening, solidifying and drawing them closer together.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

"I've given it a lot of thought, love," Siegel said Sunday afternoon.  They were standing at the edge of the public gardens, overlooking the edge of the city and the bustle below.

 

Turning, Max smiled at him. "Given what a lot of thought?"

 

"You're sitting in on Smyth and his men's meeting tomorrow, right?"

 

"Yes, he confirmed this morning." Max grinned. "I sent him a note yesterday, asking him if their meeting was still scheduled for 8:30 Monday morning, because I was planning on attending."

 

Siegel laughed and shook his head.  "I've known Dee Smyth since I was 18.  He was leaving Borges's house just at the time I moved in. I would have paid good money to see the expression on his face when he received that note."

 

Max grinned wider. "Oh well.  I'm not trying to tell him how to do his job, but I have to know what's going on, plus his men have to get to know me."  He turned more serious, glancing out over the town. "I'm not an idiot, Leo.  I'm sure there are plenty of people out there, probably even some people in here, who wish things had gone differently. The military is and always will be a crucial player in shifts of power."

 

Siegel was stunned. "Max, no, there was never any question--"

 

"No, no," Max interrupted, shaking his head. "I'm not hinting at anything, or implying that anyone is actively disloyal to me, but I'm not naοve.  I believe that a King – a leader – must be informed and must know those around him."  He glanced at Siegel and gave a small smile.  "Not that your friend would ever do anything, but as deep as your alliances and Borges's alliances run, they don't include everyone."

 

Siegel was silent for a moment before giving a small nod. "I cannot fault your logic, love."

 

"The reality here may be new to me, but I've read a lot and seen a lot in the world I came from. I know what history has taught us, both history here and history there."  Turning back to the town, Max smiled slightly, looking out at the shops and people.  The river at the town's edge had several boats on it and he watched them make their way inland, transporting goods near and far as the country's economy slowly began to revive after the long war.

 

Siegel was silent for a moment too, marveling at the younger man's calm understanding of the reality facing them.  "Max," he said, "I've given a lot of thought to your wish to go into the town and begin exploring it on your own."

 

Max turned and looked at him warily. "I hadn't forgotten that either.  I still want to do it, Leo.  It's extremely important and the only way I'll be able to rule effectively."

 

"I know, Max, and I'm sorry for how I reacted earlier."

 

"I've already forgiven you multiple times." Max leaned over and kissed him.  He glanced at the guard, Corporal Allen this morning, and grinned as he saw him determinedly looking away from them, eyes fixed on the empty gardens.

 

"I've given it a lot of thought," Siegel repeated with a smile, "and will consent to you walking around with just me and Andros, with a few rules.  Tomorrow seems like a good idea to inform Smyth and his men of your plans. He can help fill in any gaps in your … our… awareness of the word on the street, highlight any areas to avoid, and go over the realistic threats that you are facing."

 

Max grinned again. "Good, that's perfect.  What sort of rules?"

 

"Fairly straight forward," Siegel said, "but I'm also very serious about them.  If I agree to this and you don't follow my rules, Thursday's paddling will look like love taps, is that clear?  You won't sit easily for several days after I wear out my arm, Max."

 

The younger man laughed. "Yes, yes, beaten within an inch of my life, I get it."

 

Siegel laughed, pulling him closer and kissing him deeply before swatting him hard on the butt and then rubbing it to take away the sting, "Try millimeter, love."

 

Max grinned and kissed him back.  "So what are these horrible rules?"

 

"You are never to be more than an arm's length away from me or Andros," Siegel said firmly.  "I want to be able to grab you if need be."

 

Max swallowed slightly and nodded.

 

"You are not to eat anything that is specially prepared for you.  If you want to try something and it's coming out of a big pot that we can see the whole time, we'll get a half dozen plates and pick a random one for you, but if someone hands you something just for you,  then it's a no."

 

"But what if I want to eat in a restaurant or cafι?" Max protested.

 

"Then we'll have Smyth arrange it and have some of his men in the kitchen, but right now, that's not an option. This first trip is going to be short and casual and we'll see how it goes."

 

Max glanced out over at the town again, deliberately ignoring his lover's gaze as he felt himself internally bristle at the rules.

 

"In addition," Siegel said firmly, but in a quiet voice, "I expect full obedience.  If I tell you to stop, you stop; wait, you wait; go, you go.  No questions, no discussion, no dallying."  He kissed him. "Or Max, I promise you, you will not be happy or sitting comfortably."

 

"I get it," Max snapped and then frowned, regretting his tone.  Turning, he kissed him back. "Sorry, Leo.  I do understand both your rules and … promises.  I don't like it, but …"  He swallowed and smiled, kissing him again and leaning in for a hug. "I really appreciate you thinking about my visit and not making it an issue between us."

 

Siegel chuckled, hugging him back before kissing his forehead.  "You were the one who was going to make it an issue; I had already said no."

 

Max laughed and shook his head. "Yes, I wasn't going to accept that for a minute."  He turned more serious, shifting slightly again to look out over the town. "These people have to know me.  Remember when we were in the middle of the procession and you said that they loved me?"

 

"And they do," Siegel countered.

 

"No, they didn't and they still don't. They know nothing but the fairy tale and that fantasy is going to come crashing down sooner or later.  If I don't give them a real person, a real leader – a real King – to follow and love and believe in, then I've failed them.  They won't have anything to turn to when the fairy tale prince disappears in the cold reality of labor shortages or higher taxes or lessened trade routes that hamper the economy."  He nodded at the town again. "But in walking around without all the trappings of royalty, even if most people figure out who I am quickly,  I'll become real to them and they will feel their problems are real to me."  He grinned.  "I remember from my history lessons how a president of the US was mocked because he didn't know what a loaf of bread cost, or gallon of milk.  Right now, that's me; I have no idea, and that's completely unacceptable."

 

Siegel nodded his understanding, again amazed that his young lover could so easily and quickly grasp a concept that had seemed to elude some of the commanders he knew.

 

Max smiled, reading his amazement easily.  "I knew this day was coming, Leo.  I knew in the back of my mind for years and I knew front and center nine months ago.  I've had a lot of time to think about this, to plan, to learn, and to decide what sort of leader I was going to be."  He laughed. "I'm going to know what a gallon of milk costs and what a loaf of bread costs and what people are most worried about.  And they're going to know that I know."

 

"You are exactly right, only we don't use gallons, love," Siegel said, leaning over and kissing him with a smile.  He laughed, jerking back as Max whacked him on the arm.

 

"Ass," Max said affectionately.

 

"We use jugs."

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Max stared at himself in the mirror, studying the reflection for a moment before slowly putting the small circlet crown on and looking at himself.  The crown fit perfectly – one of the first official tasks he had done the day after stepping through the portal was having it customized – but he wasn't sure what the protocol was.  He had worn it when he was introduced to the household staff and then, considering they saw him constantly in just cotton slacks and shirts and at times much less, wondered if it wasn't a bit of overkill.  He sighed and took it off again, shaking his head to fix his hair.  In the mirror's reflection, his eyes caught Siegel's eyes watching him from the doorway and he smiled.  "What?"

 

Walking into the room, Siegel took the crown from him, kissed him gently on the lips and settled it on his head.  "Let me help you, your Highness," he said solemnly, but with a smile.  "You are the King and it's not too much, it's not pretentious, it's not silly or anything else that's going on in that head of yours.  It's right and appropriate and a look you were born to wear."  He kissed him again. "Perfect."

 

Touching Siegel's dark gray jacket, Max smiled back. "You look rather perfect yourself, Consort."

 

Siegel bowed low. "Thank you, your Highness."

 

"Shall we?"

 

Siegel nodded and bowed again. "After you."  Following the younger man out of the apartments, he smiled and nodded to the guards they passed. 

 

"Good morning, Gray," Max said with a smile as they passed one of the guards.  "Hi, Sawyer," he said as they made their way down the stairs.  To those he had seen before, but didn't remember, he simply said hello or good morning, causing most of them to bow deeply, repeating his greeting.  Stopping as they neared the military offices, he saw an older man standing by the area entrance, clearly waiting for them.

 

"Your Highness," the man said, bowing deeply.  "It is a pleasure to finally have a chance to meet you.  I am Captain Givens and am in charge of the exterior security." Motioning with his hand, he added, "Major Smyth asked that I meet you and show you where we're meeting this morning."

 

Max held out his hand. "Captain, it is a pleasure.  Thank you so much for meeting us.  Since your men are in charge of the exterior security, I'm not sure how many I have had the pleasure of meeting."

 

The Captain bowed. "I believe Corporal Jay Shim and Corporal Peter Basel have both mentioned having the pleasure of meeting you, your Highness."  He nodded in Siegel's direction, adding, "Both men were assigned to the perimeter protection detail of your procession and previously served under Major … Consort Siegel before this assignment."

 

Siegel nodded. "They did – two fine soldiers."

 

Max nodded slowly. "Yes, I remember them, we played darts my first night in Atlantis. I'm pleased to know that they are here as well. They seemed very capable and were very nice to me.  If the rest of your men are as capable as Shim and Basel, then I know my perimeter is secure."

 

The Captain smiled, pleased that his men had made such a positive impression.  Glancing at the clock, he motioned toward the hall. "If I may, your Highness.  Major Smyth has requested breakfast as well and I would hate for your food to be cold."

 

"And I would hate to keep the Major waiting after he so generously offered me this opportunity," Max said with a laugh.  He smiled broadly at the Captain as they walked down the hall. "I hope the inconvenience of my presence will be made up for by breakfast, Givens."

 

"There is no inconvenience at all, your Highness," Smyth said stepping out into the hall and overhearing the last comment.  "I was thrilled with your suggestion and pleased you could join us."  He bowed and motioned the small party into the large dining room.

 

Max smiled as every person in the room except the two servants stationed by the food stood as one and bowed low.  "Please, be seated.  There is no reason to stand on ceremony in the privacy of your dining room, when you've been so kind as to invite me to join you."

 

Smyth directed him to the head of the table. "Your Highness."  Pointing Siegel toward a chair at Max's left, he stood behind the chair to the right. 

 

Taking up his position, Max bowed at the assembled group. "Again, thank you so much and I look forward to your meeting and to getting to know you."  He recognized Michelson and Scout, but the fourth Captain, a middle-aged woman, was new.  Sitting down, as it was clear they were all waiting for him, he smiled at her.  "I'm sorry, Captain, I should know your name, but I don't."

 

She smiled at him and bowed her head.  "Julia Cox, your Highness."

 

"Captain Cox," Smyth said, as he motioned for the servants to begin the food service, "is in charge of all the secondary guard forces: the guards who assist in the town, are prepared for natural disasters, serve as escorts for royal shipments to or from the palace or as guards for visitors."

 

She nodded. "It's very diverse."

 

"And the largest division, by far," Scout said, breaking into the conversation.  "Cox's division is about the size of mine plus Michelson's." He nodded at the man across from him. "Don't you think?"

 

Michelson looked up from the plate of sausages a servant was holding out to him. "Yes. I'm the smallest division while you and Givens are about the same size."

 

Max grinned, thrilled at the easy flow of conversation.  "So are all of you from military families?  From what I've heard, that seems to be the tradition."

 

Eating slowly, Siegel allowed the conversation to flow around him as the Captains basked in the attention their King was giving them.  It was a pleasure to watch.  Max had an easy, conversational way of keeping topics moving, not ignoring anyone and seeming to remember what everyone had said previously and mentioning it when it was relevant.  He wondered if it was a skill Woollcott had taught him or if it was in his genes, an inheritance from generations of rulers.

 

"So are all of you from different areas of Atlantis?" Max asked as the table was cleared.

 

Michelson spoke first, after exchanging glances with the three other Captains.  "I believe so, your Highness.  I'm from Councilor Chivas's region."

 

"And I'm from Councilor Gonick's area," Scout said.

 

"It's not a requirement," Smyth said, "but it tends to work out that each area is more or less equally represented."

 

"Except for the late Councilor Fishton's area," Cox interjected.  Turning to Max she said, "Councilor Fishton was killed just as the war began.  The Mad Queen removed his entire staff and then put in her own Councilor.  Any of the staff who protested were imprisoned and most died within the first year.  That entire region and the border areas around it were extremely loyal to her."

 

Max glanced at Siegel. "I didn't know that.  Who is representing that area now?"

 

"No one," he said calmly.  "The Councilor she appointed, Hill, was removed and is currently in the same prison as Aliseo."

 

"They will be holding elections this December, your Highness," Smyth said.  "The area is currently under military rule.  A General named Marcus Dragaz--"

 

"The same General whose forces led the group that was responsible for Queen Beatriz's death?" Max asked, surprised.

 

Despite himself, Major Smyth smiled, pleased with the King's knowledge.  "Yes, it was a bit of a reward. Beautiful country, goes right to the water, so it's warm in the winter, nice breeze in the summer, welcoming town, good land … I wouldn't be surprised if many of his single men settle in the area. It is directly across the water from the island that Councilor Luc is from."

 

Max nodded. "That will also help settle the area down as well, hopefully, and ensure there are no lingering issues."

 

Captains Michelson and Givens exchanged small smiles at the King's insight and quick grasp of the situation.

 

"What is being done with the rest of the soldiers who are retiring?" Max asked.  "One common concern I heard throughout my three week procession was concern for safety because of the empty farms and worry over the lack of laborers, especially in the more rural areas."

 

Cox said, "Many soldiers who were interested in remaining in the military have been absorbed into new divisions, such as the palace guards and my own division.  Others have gone back to their home areas to pick up civilian life again and try to rebuild.  Each area has its own volunteer units and I would assume many former soldiers will, at least initially, become associated with them."

 

Max nodded. "Something to look into if it becomes a problem."  He smiled at them. "So what is on the agenda for this morning, now that we've enjoyed a wonderful breakfast?"

 

Smyth smiled at him. "We typically begin each meeting with a status report from each Captain, review threats, any items that need to be added to the palace's schedule, which because the Council is not in session and you are …"  He paused, unsure exactly how to characterize the King's time with his Consort.

 

"We're on our honeymoon," Max supplied with a laugh.  "Even though we're not going any place overly exotic."  He smiled and winked at Siegel. "But considering where I was living less than two months ago, maybe I am someplace exotic."

 

Scout smiled. "Honeymoon – I like that …"

 

"Why don't you start then," Smyth said, nodding to him.  "What's the status of the perimeter guards, Scout?  Threats, needs …"

 

Scout nodded. "For the most part, everything is fine.  We're still having a few problems with new servants letting other servants in through one-way doors instead of the main check-points, but I have a meeting scheduled– again – with all the department heads about it."  He glanced at the Major. "I had thought about telling them that we would be forced to recommend dismissal if the problem continues, on the grounds that it is a serious security threat to his Highness."  He glanced at the King and gave a small smile. "There are five main checkpoints and servants and workers who do not live in the palace are supposed to enter through one of those so that they can be cleared.  The problem is that there are also multiple one-way exits that people are letting others enter through, because they are closer to their work stations, running late, or just to make things easier."

 

"And that means if, say, John was fired yesterday, but his buddy Frank in another department doesn't know that yet and lets him in today, John could cause problems," Max said.

 

"Exactly, he could be carrying anything and he would have access to most of the palace," Smyth said.  "He could steal, he could hurt someone, or just cause problems."  He made a note on the writing pad in front of him. "Go ahead and tell the department heads that we are investigating the possibility of immediate dismissal if someone is caught entering or allowing someone to enter through the one-way exits.  I'll check with General Borges who can talk to the Council--"  He broke off suddenly, glancing at Max, "Who can talk to the King about his thoughts."

 

Max grinned, but nodded silently.

 

"In the meantime, maybe you and Givens can increase patrols around the exit-only gates to try to stop the problem before anything happens," Smyth said.

 

"Already being done, sir," Givens said.  "What about random checks of workers in attendance to determine who has not gone through the official check points?"

 

"We could help with that, Major," Cox said.

 

Max listened to them iron out the complex details of various issues over the course of the next hour and was impressed as the conversation easily switched from division to division, each one cooperating with the others with a seeming lack of infighting and without concern over who took credit.   Cox wondered how best to educate her new soldiers on the identities of the Council members, who would not take kindly to not being recognized; Michelson offered the flashcards his division had prepared to help learn who was allowed where and how close to allow them to the King.  Sometimes they forgot Max was in the room, talking about him in the third person and other times, he would catch someone's eye mid-conversation and they would smile at him, half-embarrassed.

 

"The flashcards bring up a very good point," Smyth said in a cautious tone, glancing first at Siegel and then quickly toward Max.  "I know it is a delicate situation, Captains, but please stress to your men that his Highness's cousins should be considered Gray.  This is very important.   At this point, we are unaware of any individual threats that would push them into Black, but you should all know that none of them are considered White."  He took a deep breath, glancing again at Siegel. "It's been just over a week since the coronation and, as far as I'm aware, there has been no contact.  Consort, is that correct?"

 

Siegel nodded. "To the best of my knowledge, yes.  No letters, no gifts, no proclamations in support … that's worrisome. Not attending last week was a warning sign, but one that could mean many things.  This utter silence though is hard to read positively."  Under the table, he gently bumped his foot against Max's leg and gave him a small smile.

 

"With that in mind, please review the backgrounds of your men: where they served, who their mentors were, if they had one.  Make a list of who might be sympathetic to those families," Smyth said quietly. 

 

The four Captains nodded and the serious expressions on their faces made Max shiver slightly.  He had known there were problems with his cousins, but the extent of the concern among those in the room made him suspect they were more serious than he had anticipated.

 

Smyth smiled. "On a more cheerful note, Consort Siegel has informed me that the King wants to begin exploring Maderia."

 

Michelson groaned and shook his head in Max's direction.  "Trust me, your Highness.  There's nothing to see – nothing of interest – it's a cesspool."  He grinned. "Except for this one particular establishment … very fine… very popular …"

 

Siegel glared at him and his lover's expression clued Max in to exactly what sort of establishment it was.  "I would appreciate directions then, Captain," he said solemnly and then laughed when his lover turned his glare on him.  "I know it's a bit of inconvenience, Captains," he said, looking at them.  "But as the priest said last week, I rule with the consent of the people.  If they don't know me, if they know me only as a distant presence that occasionally trots by on horseback or safely cocooned in a carriage, they will have no faith that I am ruling with their needs and problems in mind."

 

The Major nodded. "You have our full support, your Highness."

 

"I have already spoken with Andros," Michelson said, "and explained your request that he accompany you and Consort Siegel beginning tomorrow morning.  I've also given him permission to accompany you whenever you request his presence."

 

Max smiled and bowed his head slightly in Michelson's direction. "Thank you, Captain.  Andros is a credit to your division and a wonderful soldier."

 

"Thank you, your Highness," Michelson replied, smiling.

 

Glancing at the clock, Smyth turned to his Captains. "Anything else that needs to be discussed with the group?"  When they shook their heads, he turned to Max and bowed his head. "Thank you so much for joining us, your Highness.  It was wonderful to share a meal with you and you are welcome any time."

 

Max stood up, causing the rest of them to stand as well, and bowed. "Thank you so much, everyone.  It was my pleasure and I do hope to join you again soon."  As the group slowly broke up, he extended a hand to Cox. "Thank you again.  It was a pleasure meeting you."

 

She smiled, bowing. "Your Highness, if there's anything you need …."

 

Siegel made his way around the table to Smyth and walked with him to the windows overlooking the open courtyard and stables beyond.  "That went well, I think," he said with a smile.

 

Smyth smiled back and clapped him hard on the back. "You were right, Leo.  He's smart, he knows when to keep his mouth shut and when he does speak, even his questions are intelligent."

 

Siegel laughed. "He's trying hard and really appreciates your help."

 

Smyth looked at the young King, still easily chatting with Cox and Scout, before nodding.  "I admit – I'm not too proud to say it – that I had my doubts.  He's young, he's had an unusual, undisciplined upbringing …"  He shook his head.  "He's not what I was expecting at all."

 

Siegel smiled. "I think he's all that too, still, but he's also smart, eager to learn, and very anxious to be a good leader and an outstanding King."  Seeing Max bow to the two Captains and slowly make his away toward them, he asked Smyth, "Dinner invite still open?"

 

"After this morning, without a doubt, with open arms for both of you," Smyth said, hitting his friend on the shoulder again.  "Of course, I wouldn't have been so worried if you had been more insistent with your praise."

 

"I told you!" Siegel protested, suddenly feeling very much like an 18 year old who was arguing with his older brother.  "I told you he was smart and you'd like him, but no, the Gods forbid you to actually believe me …"

 

Smyth laughed. "I believe you now – does that count?"

 

"I want a bottle of Borges's best mead at dinner Saturday night and then I'll accept your apology," Siegel said with a smile.  "I finished my last bottle two weeks ago."  He smiled as Max joined them. "What time on Saturday?"

 

"Why don't we say seven, if that is agreeable to you, your Highness," Smyth said to Max with a small bow.

 

"Perfect," Max said and then held out his hand.  "Thank you again, Major.  It was very educational and I very much appreciate it."

 

Smyth bowed lower.  "You are welcome at any time, your Highness."

 

"Do you think he means it?" Max asked, as they made their way through the halls in the general direction of the royal apartments.

 

Siegel glanced at him, surprised to hear the note of hesitation in his lover's voice.  "Very much so, Max.  He told me himself how impressed he was with.  I think …"  His voice trailed off as he thought about the correct phrase to use.  "I think you surprised him.  He has never known a King before, or a true leader who wasn't military. Many in the military tend to disparage non-military leaders and believe their Councilors or local leaders are more interested in their own personal well-being than the well-being of the entire area or the country."  He laughed as Max nodded. "Problems are more often similar than different.  Plus the unknown aspects of your education, discipline, upbringing – you're a bundle of unknowns and most men in the military don't like unknowns."

 

Max laughed, nodding as one of the guards bowed and opened the door to the apartments for them. "I'm an enigma … an international man of mystery."

 

Siegel laughed, giving in to the desire to kiss his lover. "You are so silly."

 

Max grinned, leaning into him. "And I'm sure you told him that you'll make sure I'm well educated."

 

Siegel kissed him again and swatted his butt. "Or at least well disciplined."

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

Sitting on the bench at the end of the large bed, Siegel cocked his finger in his lover's direction as the younger man came out of the bathroom the next morning, fresh from the shower.  "Come here, love."

 

Max slowly came over, fingering the towel wrapped around his waist.  "Again?" he asked with a laugh. 

 

"No," Siegel said firmly, holding out his hand.  "I want to review the rules of this morning's little adventure with you and remind you of the consequences of not following them. Last night when we talked about it, you didn't seem to take it seriously, and I want to make sure that's not the case."

 

Max shook his head. "I remember fine and can hear you fine from right here, Leo."

 

"Max, drop the towel and come here," Siegel said firmly, gesturing again with his hand. 

 

Max reluctantly inched closer, feeling the blush rise on his cheeks as he slowly held out his hand and allowed his lover to grasp it.  "Leo …"

 

"I've got you," Siegel said firmly, tugging him closer and then gently positioning him face down over his knees and the bench.  Pushing up the towel, he exposed Max's butt and rested his hand on the bare skin. 

 

"Leo …" Max said, squirming slightly.  "Please …." 

 

"Please what, love?" Siegel asked, patting his butt gently. "Stop? Don't?"  Waiting for an answer, he gentle stroked his hair.  "I've got you," he repeated.  He had thought about this last night, feeling the weight of his lover in his arms, and knew the younger man would react with the same mixture of resistance and submission, reluctance and desire, which had marked his first punishment.  His desire to be taken in hand and forced to submit clashed with his embarrassment over that very desire and his feeling that he should, if for no other reason than that, deny his willing submission.

 

"I don't know," Max admitted a long moment later.

 

Raising his hand, Siegel delivered two sharp swats to the upturned butt.  "What is one of the rules for today?"

 

Max shuddered slightly and then cried out as another swat landed.  "I'm not to leave your side, not to go too far away from you!"

 

Swatting him again, Siegel asked, "And what's too far away from me?"

 

"Arm's length," Max said, shifting slightly and squirming as his butt was swatted lightly.

 

"What's another rule?"

 

Max yelped as the light swat was followed by two sharp swats. "I'm not to eat anything unless it's made in public and not something special for me, so no one poisons it."

 

"Exactly," Siegel said, swatting him again.  "And what's the third rule?"

 

"I have to listen to you immediately, no arguing, no complaining, no questioning," Max said, yelping as three light swats landed on his butt.  He shivered as the hand rested on his skin, rubbing it gently.  He felt his face flush as he pictured himself bare and turned over, squirming even as he spread his legs slightly, wishing the hand petting him would dip in and touch him.

 

Raising his hand again, Siegel swatted him twice more. "And what will happen if you break these rules?"

 

Max laughed and then cried out sharply as three more swats landed.  "This but with that paddle of yours and much harder."

 

Siegel patted his butt again. "You're so smart, Max.  I knew this position would get your attention and make sure you remembered."

 

"I remembered last night, too," Max countered. He yelped as Siegel delivered another three stinging swats, feeling the burn.  "Sorry," he gasped.

 

"Tone is not appreciated, Max," Siegel said firmly.  "If you hadn't been so flippant about it last night, we could have had a much more enjoyable reminder this morning."  Spreading his lover's cheeks slightly, he allowed one finger to dip into the curve and gentle stroke the opening there.  It was still slick from the early morning when he had taken the younger man from behind.  He pushed his finger inside slightly and began to gently fuck him. 

 

Max groaned, feeling his cock harden even as he blushed redder, his body knowing exactly what it was craving even as his mind rejected the idea.  "There's still time," he said with a laugh. "It's not like they won't wait for me."

 

Patting his butt, Siegel chuckled. "That is an excellent point, love."  Slipping his finger free, he bent down and kissed his lover's neck. "All right, you've convinced me.  You remembered all three rules; you certainly deserve a bit of a reward."

 

Despite himself, Max squirmed as he slid off his lover's lap, biting back a small groan as his still-stinging butt made contact with the floor.  He blushed deeply as Siegel smiled at the sound.

 

"Come on, love," Siegel said softly, bending down and holding out his hand.  "There's another Atlantean tradition that I want to share with you."

 

"What?" Max slowly stood up, shaking as his half-hard cock bumped his lover's leg.

 

Taking his hand, Siegel led the younger man to the desk.  "Feet on the floor; bend over so your chest and arms are resting flat."  He gently stroked Max's butt as he bent over obediently.  Standing behind him, he slipped his finger back inside.

 

Max shuddered, feeling his cock come to full attention as the finger stroked his prostate.  He moaned again as the finger was replaced by a hard cock pushing against his opening, slowly penetrating him.

 

"If you were a pupil under the guidance of a mentor," Siegel said, pushing slowly inside, "you would often bond with your mentor like this after a spanking or a paddling."  Thrusting slowly, he gave Max time to get used to the intrusion, smiling as Max responded with his own thrusts, impaling himself on his cock.  "This position helps strengthen the bond between mentor and pupil.  It reminds the pupil that he is forgiven and loved, but also under the control and ownership of his mentor."

 

"And it reminds a King that he is loved and under the control and ownership of his Consort," Max said, resting his head on his arms and relaxing into the feeling of submitting to his lover one more time.

 

"Exactly," Siegel said, thrusting harder and deeper with each stroke.

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

"Thank you so much," Max said with a smile.

 

The older storekeeper handed him a small bundle and a few coins in change, looking at the younger man as if trying to place him, his eyes slowly darting between Andros and Siegel, who were casually dressed but still hovering nearby.

 

Tucking the coins into his pocket, Max headed out of the store, the bundle joining the two other bags he had picked up from various shops in his ninety minute walk around the shopping district.  A moment later, he roamed into another, larger store and began to look at the food for sale.  He smiled as the clerk greeted him without emerging from behind the counter.  Standing next to a middle-aged woman peering at the fresh fruit, he said, "This looks good."

 

She shrugged, not looking at him.  "End of the season," she said with a sigh, picking up a bright yellow piece to examine it more closely.  "I'm just happy to see them again."

 

Max glanced at Andros who was standing alongside him and the younger man smiled.

 

"Excuse me, ma'am," Andros said quietly, picking up two of the fruit.  "My wife asked me to pick up a couple more maprangs, nice and fresh for breakfast tomorrow."

 

"It's nice to see them in the stores," Max said to the lady.  "I've missed them in the mornings."

 

She sighed again, studying him for a moment before glancing around the store.  "It will be good when the shelves are fully stocked again.  It will be good not having to worry whether to stock up and go without something else, or if you should save your money because there will be more coming."

 

"I'm new to Maderia," Max said.

 

"I thought so," she said, interrupting him with a smile.  "Your accent sounds more like up north, Velicio maybe.  My husband and I went there for a vacation with the boys years ago … before her … it was beautiful."

 

And with that, she lost her slightly stand-offish, harried air and was off chatting, leaving Max to nod from time to time and ask questions.  If any were silly or seemed like something he should know, she never seemed to notice, happy to chat and break up her errands.  "I was wondering," he said as she finally wound down, "if you could recommend someplace for lunch nearby, nothing fancy."  Behind him, he heard Siegel sigh.

 

She thought for a moment before nodding. "Nevver's, about two blocks down and a block over, does excellent flatbread, with all sorts of toppings and dips." She smiled.  "Best in the city, I think."

 

Without thinking about it, he bowed his head slightly. "Thank you, ma'am, that sounds perfect.  It was a pleasure talking with you."

 

She smiled at him and bowed her head. "It was a pleasure, your Majesty.  Enjoy your lunch.  I always love the garlic and sagao cheese."  Giving him another smile, she picked up her basket and headed to the counter to pay.

 

"No," Siegel said firmly to a laughing Max as they exited the store a moment later. 

 

"Yes," Max said with a smile, resisting the urge to kiss his lover.  "It's public; it won't just be for me."  He lowered his voice, glancing at Andros, who was dutifully ignoring their conversation. "It's important, Leo.  She recommended it and what are the chances… it's a restaurant …"

 

"Andros," Siegel said sharply, calling the other man's attention back to them.  "Please go to Nevver's, get a table for three and order several flat breads with different toppings."

 

"Including the garlic and sagao one," Max said with a smile.

 

"We'll join you in a few minutes," Siegel said, trying not to smile as his lover beamed at him. 

 

Andros bowed his head.  "Yes, sir."

 

Pointing to a bench tucked under a tree, Siegel shook his head. "You are so spoiled by me. I would have thrashed Andros soundly if he had pulled a stunt like that when he was my pupil.  Now sit and try not to gloat, love."

 

Max made his way to the bench and sat down.  He looked around the area and smiled again at his lover.  "Thank you, Leo," he said softly, bumping against him.  "This is perfect and exactly what I wanted."  He watched the people for a moment, taking in the midday hustle and bustle of shoppers and workers. "This is really Maderia, the people who a week ago were cheering for me, who a year ago were fighting for me."

 

Siegel looked around and knew that his young lover was probably right.  The people here were dependent, in large part, on the palace.  It was the center of their economy; they hosted its visitors and provided its food and supplies.  They were loyal to a stable government and loved the fact that the war was over and a good King once again in residence.

 

"I'm going to make sure they never regret their sacrifice," Max said quietly.  "The deaths, the destruction, the years of empty shelves … they will know who I am and be proud to call me one of their own."

 

Unable to resist, Siegel pulled him close and kissed him gently. "I know you will, love. You've already won over most of the palace and I think it's clear that I'm completely wrapped around your finger."

 

Max laughed, leaning in and kissing him back.  "You seem to be more interested in body parts other than my finger, Leo."

 

"I'm in love with all your body parts."

 

Max laughed, kissing him again. "Can we go eat now?"

 

"One more kiss before you eat garlic."  Siegel smiled as Max laughed loudly and shook his head as several people glanced in their direction and smiled, too.  Standing up, he said with a grin, "And, by the way, sagao cheese smells like feet and tastes worst." 

 

Max laughed.  "I can't wait."

 

OOooOOooOOooOOooOOoo

 

"I understand you've made quite an impression around Maderia," Smyth said, as he poured them all fruit juice and laid out appetizers Saturday evening.  "Several of my men and Cox's men have mentioned hearing people talking excitedly about the fact that you've been spotted around town this past week.

 

Siegel sighed and glanced at his lover, who was grinning.  "No, Max," he said with a shake of his head, "That's not a good thing."

 

Max laughed. "It's fine, isn't it, Dee?" He smiled at Smyth, deliberately using the man's first name.  When they had arrived twenty minutes earlier, the older man had bowed deeply, calling him by his title.  He had quickly corrected him and begged to be called Max and accepted the Major's invitation to call him by his first name as well.

 

Smyth smiled back, giving a quick shrug. "I can see both sides of the issue."

 

Siegel laughed. "Always the diplomat."

 

Dinner was a relaxed meal, Smyth having dismissed his only servant for the evening and himself grilling their food on a small open fire pit in the back courtyard of his home. 

 

"This is fantastic," Max said, spearing another piece of chicken with grilled onions and laying it on the freshly made flatbread sprinkled with coarse salt and rosemary.  "We need to get one of these grills, Leo."  He took a bite and sighed in appreciation.

 

Smyth glanced at his friend Siegel and laughed, breaking off his own piece of bread as he said cautiously, "I'm glad you like it, Max."

 

The younger man grinned. "I do."  Taking another bite, he said, "So tell me, you two were both pupils of General Borges, right?"

 

Siegel nodded. "Yes, but not exactly at the same time.  Typically a mentor only has one pupil at a time.  Dee here was slowly leaving the General's side as I was coming in."

 

"I still lived on his property as I took over a division of his men," Smyth said, taking over the story, "and of course, I was still close to the General, frequently enjoyed his dinners and often took his advice."

 

"So did Leo here get into a lot of trouble when he was younger?" Max asked slyly.

 

"Don't answer that," Siegel ordered, rolling his eyes at his friend.  "Lovers don't need to know everything."

 

Smyth laughed. "So does that mean I shouldn't tell him about the midnight raid that Borges specifically warned you was a bad idea and not to undertake? I believe you ended up having to sneak back into camp, soaking wet, minus your horse and your sword."

 

Max laughed, grinning happily at his lover. 

 

"I was 19," Siegel said, as if that explained everything.

 

Smyth shook his head. "That was a disaster and a painful lesson."

 

"What happened?" Max asked, looking between them.

 

"We both got paddled soundly," Siegel said with an embarrassed grin.

 

Smyth snorted. "You got paddled once; I got paddled twice.  Once that night and a second time the next night."  Turning his attention to Max, he explained, "The first time was for not stopping him from carrying out his harebrained idea and the second time was for not telling Borges that I hadn't stopped him."  He shook his head.  "The thrashings hurt,  but I tell you,  at 22,  wounded pride hurts just as much."  Picking up his glass, he toasted Siegel. "To you and your ideas, Leo."

 

"My ideas!" Siegel said, pretending to be shocked.  "What about your ideas, Dee? Or are you forgetting the brilliant idea of not lighting any fires during the Tonville campaign.  Half the division got sick from the cold!"

 

Sitting back against the cushions, Max smiled as he watched his lover and friend spar, each trying to outdo the other in recalling great ideas that turned out to have a few problems in the execution.  He was full of good food, relaxing into the easy, accepting company and he could feel his eyes closing.  He had a harder and harder time opening them after each blink.

 

"I think your lover is asleep," Smyth said softly, smiling at his friend as their conversation wrapped up.

 

Siegel glanced over and smiled. "I think so, too.  It's been a busy few weeks for us all."

 

Smyth smiled, tilting his glass in his direction. "Years, my friend. I feel like it's been a number of busy years for all of us."

 

Siegel chuckled softly, "This is true."  He glanced at Max and then returned his gaze to Smyth. "Are you worried that it's not really over, Dee?"

 

Taking a long sip of his drink, Smyth sighed and nodded. "We haven't heard any out-and-out threats, but I can't help but think it's only a matter of time."  He took another swallow. "It makes me think of the quiet before a storm."

 

Siegel reached over and gently tapped his glass against his friend's.  "I could not ask for a better person to help me guard him.  I'm glad to have you with me if there is a storm coming."

 

Smyth smiled back at him. "I will always have your back, Leo, and I swear to you, I will not let you down."

 

Siegel glanced at the sleeping King and smiled, too. "Max will keep on being Max, reshaping what the monarchy is to match his personal vision, doing his best to solicit support from everyone who meets him and seems to join his fan club."

 

"And we will keep doing what we do best," Smyth said with a smile. 

 

"Always." 

 

***The End***