Author notes: Take this as the first chapter of the sprawling epic I would have written had I not been moving house. There will be more. In fact, some of it is already written.

Vocab: 'Franion' is the only English word to mean a man who sleeps around, and is a word of negative connotations. A cathouse or a bordel is a brothel, although here I have used cathouse as a stable for male prostitutes, and a bordel for female. A broodmare is a woman who will not be married, but used for childbearing for a noble family. An hostler or ostler is someone who works with horses, generally at an inn, and it comes from a variation on 'hospitality', as they were sometimes the innkeeper too. I think that's all.

You have to walk carefully in the beginning of love; the running across fields into your lover's arms can only come later when you're sure they won't laugh if you trip. ~Jonathan Carroll, "Outside the Dog Museum"

The room was of an opulence that was unmatched by any other around the Torsain Sea, so it was told; the golden silks draping from the window-hangings, the tapestries in the colours of House Frei, gold and blue, the marble on the floor brought in from Corsia, reflecting the light around the large bedchamber. The bed itself was of a pale golden wood, carved like tall tree branches, reaching for a sun that they could never touch; the sheets a royal blue satin, flashing in the sunlight as the maids made the bed. The vaulted ceiling above belied the location, in one of the towers, because there was always a want for privacy, and the window had glass, real glass in it, made by master glass-smiths in the city, threaded with lead to make it stand the test of time. House Frei sat on the cliff tops, overlooking the waters which lapped at the shore, and the golden red of the sunset poured off the water and into the room, fractured by the glass and painting everything in a kaleidoscope of molten colours. In the centre of this, framed by the decadence too much money and respect could buy you, like a little prince, was a boy, around sixteen, arms folded across his chest and mouth twisted into something which made what was, otherwise, a rather attractive face, ugly. His displeasure writ large like this would give the casual observer no time to follow the curve of his cheekbones, the unruly nature of his hair, as blond as the gold surrounding him, or the sharp blue of his eyes, a colour which echoed the cold of the sheets and the gust of coastal wind. This was Roxas de Frei, his mother's only child and his father's only oversight, spoiled beyond measure for all of his years. He was short of stature, no warrior, for all the gleam in his eye said he could be, if given the training. But he was the only son and heir, and was too precious to waste in a blaze of glory and gore on a battlefield.

His mother had been buried two winters ago, and since then, his father's hold had been tighter. He looked so much like her, his hair golden, his eyes blue, and whilst he lacked his mother's sharp tongue, her easy hand in punishing servants, he had her stare, her bearing, and the servants ducked their heads and averted their eyes, just in case. Not that they had not loved their lady, just as their lord did, but Roxas had inherited none of her blessings, did not know every servant by name or remember their family situation, did not understand the complex politics of running a castle, especially one so exposed on the coast. Your people loved you, or they opened the cliff doors and let the fleets of your enemies in. Lord Frei learned this the hard way, when he became lord at twelve, his parents murdered in their bed by raiders, let in by the servants they had so abused. Already promised to Larxene, he married her swiftly, and when she was fifteen and he seventeen, began trying for an heir. After three long years, they conceived at last. But when she lost that babe and the one after, Lord Frei begged her to stop, for them to take precautions, but she would not listen. Her third babe was born dead, strangled in the cord, and she mourned him heavily, denying her husband entry to her chambers, where she would scream and rage, her ladies-in-waiting holding her back from the window. Something in her had died with the babe, and when, in a night of sobbing her in husband's arms, crying became caressing, it was with trepidation and fear that she found herself with child again. This time, there was no announcement, no celebration, no shouting the news from the ramparts, just the silence from the bedchamber instead of the terrible screaming. Some of the servants said the noise had been better, at least then she had been feeling something.

Roxas had never known his mother as anything but cold, quiet and removed, for all that the servants smiled at her and showed her respect, for all that his father loved her fiercely and gripped her hand for strength against the growing armies across the sea, for all that his father kissed her before he went into battle, and she kissed back. Towards Roxas, she had always been disinterested, aloof, detached in the way she had been when he was growing inside her. She had never believed he would live, never dared to hope that he would live, and so to hold a breathing, crying child had broken something inside her, fractured something irreparable, and left her bereft of emotion to give to him. His earliest memories of her had been a beautiful figure in a blue dress, always just out of reach as his wet nurse corralled him again, keeping him away from his mother's skirts. His father had been his joy, the one to lift and throw him into the air, but he, too, was distant, chasing his mother more than the son he had never expected to have. They spoiled him to make up for this, acceding to his every demand, so long as that demand was never to have his parents by his side, or to be held after a nightmare, to feel warm, secure, loved and safe as part of a family. So Roxas de Frei grew up cold and believing that was the correct way to behave, that he never needed to reach out to anyone. His mother, when she considered him at all, considered him her biggest failure, and his father thought of him as useful for the continuation of the line, to be treated like royalty, but as very little else.

It had been a shock, thanks to this, to be told that he was to be married within the next month, and it was this which led to the displeased look on his face as the servants fluttered around redressing the room, ready for his new bride. She would, no doubt, have her own chambers eventually, he thought, resentfully, but for the moment, until his father could bear to clear out his mother's room, he was stuck with the woman in his rooms, the room he had never before shared with any woman, never mind one he was supposed to bed and, worse, speak to. He had been spoiled by his only child status for too long, and the idea of sharing a bed with a stranger, no matter that she was supposed to be his bride, was abhorrent. She was coming from a country estate, too, a hick who would eat with her fingers and have no idea how to drink wine, no doubt. His nose wrinkled in scorn before he flattened his features out again, as his nanny had taught him, to avoid wrinkles. She'd always said he was as pretty as a girl, and that he should take care to remain that way, for the sake of the earldom – as if she'd known he would be married off to someone as an asset, a bonding of the lands rather than a bonding of hands and hearts, like everyone kept saying. Some of the girls, who had never taken any notice of him before, had begun swooning when they saw him, and after catching the first two, he let the third fall onto the stable floor. He had no doubt she'd regret that when she tried to get horse dung out of her silks, and gave a wicked grin, a flash of colour and life across that dead face at the remembrance of her shriek, before the expression dropped again, eyes falling flat and bare on the opulence around him.

"My lord," a servant said, carefully, nervously dropping his eyes, "It is your father's wish that you join him at the long table for dinner tonight."

"Of course it is," Roxas drawled, rolling his eyes, "Just like it's-" He cut himself off before he could complain about his father's choice of partner for him to a mere servant. He was his father's son, and he would do what he was told. He didn't have to like it, though.

The long table was in the main dining room, and normally sitting at it meant shouting to each other from the heads of the table, but that night, Roxas saw he was to sit by Lord Frei's right hand, the position of responsibility. He was not blind to the implications of this, and knew that his marriage would net his father a new land, another title, and that this would later be passed onto him. This meant no more skirting the borders of the lands to the west, too, so their scouting parties could rest easy on that side, the baron promising to guard his borders, thus halving the work each fief had to do.

"I hear your rooms are being made ready." Lord Frei said, softly, and there was a gentleness to that which Roxas had never heard before, "A wedding is an exciting time for a young man, though you are not as young as I was for mine." He was smiling, which worried Roxas, unused to this sort of behaviour.

"So I understand." He said, tightly, hoping his father would hear the displeasure in his voice, but the old man was lost in recollection.

"I still remember the first time I saw your mother, beads in her hair and all dressed up in blue, matching her eyes. She was so very beautiful, smiling at me, taking my hand and asking if I wanted to be her friend. And I did, so very much, Roxas. So very much."

Roxas bit his lip. He had never heard this sort of talk from his father before, and wished he was not hearing it now. He did not want to think of feeling affection for this woman who would be coming into his space, his lands, and demanding that he treat her as if he wanted her there. He was certain that he would never feel such things for this child bride he was being forced to wed.

"I know, father." He said, slowly, dragging the words out to make the old man realise that he was bored of this topic, to move on to something else.

"And you will find that your partner becomes the very best friend you have." Lord Frei said, sternly, eyeing his only child warily.

"It is hardly like I have any others." Roxas snapped, then blushed, "Sorry, my lord, I-"

Lord Frei waved a hand.

"No, no, by all means, speak your mind. I know we kept you from the other children, but you must understand how much we worried for your safety, and how we knew we were raising you for something else, something different. Perhaps we did not always think about what was best for you, and rather what was best for the fiefdom as a whole."

The colour stayed high in Roxas' cheeks, embarrassment flaring. He knew how to behave in his father's presence, but he was on edge with all the upheaval. Still, he should not have spoken out of turn, as if he was the one with no manners, rather than this bride.

"You have raised me properly." He said, quietly, and no more, did not look up to his father's face, could not meet the old man's eyes and say that honestly. His father didn't ask him to, perhaps, too, knowing it for the lie that it was. He had been raised for a purpose, for a task, and not for any other reason that you should raise a child. They did not speak of it, but they both knew, inherently, that what had been done was wrong. There was no correcting it now, Roxas was aware, but that did not stop his father, on occasion, from trying.

"A toast, then," Lord Frei said, rallying his voice, "To new beginnings, and the end of old mistakes."

"To new beginnings." Roxas echoed, draining his cup of wine. He was going to need as much of it as possible to deal with the coming month.

The day of his bride's arrival, Roxas was sat in one of the archer's nooks on the coastal wall, the sea breeze ruffling his hair, eyes shut against the sting of it, carrying salt in the air into the fief, bleaching hair blond and turning skin dark with the sun on salty skin. He knew she would be with them in a matter of hours, her caravan coming west, and could not help but wish that she would be attacked by bandits or raiders, that she would never meet him, never grow disappointed, that he would never have to sneer at her habits and moods, that he would never have to admit that he was a failure as an heir. He'd been at the cathouse again last night, his last week of freedom spent with long, slender legs wrapped around him, thick red hair between his fingers and a cock up his arse. Please, he prayed silently to any god who might be listening, let her not come today, let me have another chance to see him, let me have another night of freedom, another night with whomever I please, another night of sin and strong hands, of wet mouths and slick fingers, another night of pleasure before I have to give myself to a woman and spend the rest of my nights in wedded misery, doing my duty until I have two strong children to carry on the name. Please. But no answer came, and he opened his eyes to stare at the ceaseless motion of the sea, dancing before him. He wondered if his new bride would like the sea, coming from further inland, not being used to it like he was. Perhaps she would not even know how to swim, and he would have to teach her about tides and currants, sharks and jellyfish, and where you could swim to avoid the sharp rocks near the cliff faces. It would be like having a child to tutor, and Roxas wrinkled his nose; he had never got on with children, even his own cousins when they had been small, and he knew brides were traditionally younger than their husbands, too. So he would receive this country child and have to deal with her questions and inexperience, would have to pretend he enjoyed bedding women – something with which he had no notion of how to even begin, having never done so before. He knew all the ways in which a man could be pleased, and which of those he most enjoyed, but he had no clue what a woman would desire in bed, but then, he supposed, nor would she, so his comparative inexperience could go unnoticed. He sighed heavily into the cold wind and wrapped his arms tighter around himself. There were marks from last night on his throat, on his hips, scratches down his back, he was marked and worn and used, and he had loved every second of it, and would go back any chance he got… but could not, with a wife, with a wife he was supposed to give babies to, so he could die peacefully, leaving the fief protected by children who would love it. He swore, and spat off the parapet. There would be time for this hatred later, once he had met her and completely made up his mind that the next thirty years of his life were to be utterly miserable. Until then, he had to find a smile to wear, as the guards shouted from the gate that the caravan was arriving. Time to face the woman who was putting an end to his life of careless freedom.

The redheaded whore was clearly surprised to see him back, but smiled easily, drawing back the sheets and displaying himself for his lord, who grinned like a feral animal and began to disrobe.

"Tired of the wife already?" the whore asked, smirking, like he knew no woman could ever live up to his charms, green eyes glinting greedily in the dimly lit room, "Or did you just miss me so much you had to come back?"

"Not my wife for another week." Roxas said, coldly, striding naked to the bed and leaning in to cover that slim body with his own, so warm, despite the temperature of the room and the thinness of the sheet, always so warm against his own skin, and always so pale against his own tan. He supposed that if you spent most of your days on your back, in a room where the shutters were nailed closed, you probably didn't get much of a chance to feel the sting of sunshine.

"Ah, so my lord has a little time to indulge in his pleasures." The whore said, eyes half-lidded already in lazy pleasure at the feel of Roxas' cock pressing into his hip, hard and ready, and Roxas groaned, stretching up to kiss the redhead to silence any more lines of enquiry, before urging his head downwards into something else which would keep his mouth busy. He was good at that; he was paid for it, so he was good at everything, but Roxas especially appreciated a mouth on him, sucking, tasting, savouring him as if he were a fine wine. There were no others who had done this before, no lovers previous who had offered to suckle at his most intimate flesh, and perhaps that was why he so loved this man's lack of hesitancy to wrap his lips around his hardness and swallow the bitter fluid at the end. But there was something else, too, an eagerness in the redhead, the kind of pleasure for Roxas which came from enthusiasm, not feigned, paid-for noises which left lying mouths that only opened for coin. That was why he came back, time after time, to this particular place, to this particular man, who drained him of stress and tension and filled him with rejuvenation.

"Not tonight." The redhead said, pulling away as Roxas slid his fingers down to explore between pale cheeks, "Taken too much damage, my lord. You'll have to make do with my mouth for this time."

Roxas could live with that, he thought, as he threaded his fingers into soft red hair, so red, the true red of the Hebredien people, not the cheap red the alley tarts dyed theirs. If this was all his man could give him, then he would take it and be grateful. After all, he did not know when he might be given opportunity to come back again, and he certainly could not imagine being here once he was married to his new bride. He closed his eyes, stroking gently at silky strands, and gave himself over to the skills he was paying for, gratefully. For now, he did not have to think, did not have to care, did not have to be the lord – he was just any paying customer in any cathouse in any fief. As he came with the hot rush of blood in his ears, the redhead swallowing around him, he could have almost believed it himself.

Returning from the cathouse sore, tired and sated, Roxas collapsed between cool blue sheets and turned his face to the empty pillow next to his. There are four more days of this, stretching out across the satin and letting it slide along his body without meeting any other limb. Four more days of solitary breathing in a darkened room, hearing the birds outside and knowing he had a little while, only a little, before the servants came to wake him. Once he had his marriage, he would not be woken, would wake himself and his wife, as would befit his more rigorous duties as a man, rather than a boy. He thought back to the caravan entering the fief gates, the train of women on horseback to care for his new wife, and the carriage with her inside, the reason it had taken so long for them to travel so long. He had not been permitted to see her, not whilst she was travel-stained from the road and a long journey, had been taken aside to speak to her father, a brusque man with little warmth to him, who had growled at Roxas to take his bags and then turn his back as his bride left the carriage. He had been tempted to look, to steal a peek before she vanished into the women's quarters, but all he had caught was a black veil, the colour of mourning, before her father had coughed and Roxas had turned his head so quickly that he'd had to have the physician look at it for the pain. Clearly she was supposed to stay a mystery; perhaps she had been told that it would make her more attractive. It was a tactic which rarely worked, which was why the beautiful young women wore veils and gauzes to cover themselves, making themselves mysterious, and somehow failed to attract husbands, men not liking mystery in the bedroom, and not finding anything attractive about two eyes in a swathe of lace, particularly if the girl in question could barely hold a conversation without giggling or saying something silly. Roxas didn't hate women, but he was wary around them, as they always seemed to want something that he wasn't prepared to give, at least, not to them. But this girl hadn't made a sound, not a giggle or a word spoken, and she had not entered the hall for dinner, either, leaving an empty space next to Roxas. He had pretended to get to know it for half an hour, until he caught his father's eye and straightened up, behaving himself. There were strangers here, after all, and none stranger than the person who was supposed to be occupying the seat to his left. He felt strangely alone, that his bride would refuse to see him on their first night in the same fief, in a way that he had not expected to. He was used to being alone, used to his solitude, and yet the idea that she had already rejected him, seen him through her veils and decided that he was not good enough, that he was not going to be her husband, or that, if she were forced into it, that he was going to be a bad one. She was probably right, he thought, and pulled the pillow over his head, trying to block out the dawn light sliding through his windows. He was supposed to be the lord of the fief, eventually, and here he was, lying in bed afraid of a woman he barely knew, who he was going to have to share his life with. His father had got on well with his mother, had loved her, even, loved her beyond reason, beyond how much he could love his son, now that she was gone. His father had loved his mother, so who was to say that Roxas would not love his new wife? Somehow, though, the dull ache where the whore had fucked him settling in, a new set of bruises and bite marks on his skin, he didn't feel it was very likely.

Roxas woke with an aim to do something good for a change, to go and extend the olive branch to his wife and found himself up several hours earlier than was his preference, smartly dressed and holding a bunch of wildflowers he had sent a serving girl to gather for him, knocking at the chambers of his new wife. There was a muffled shout from within, what sounded like a maid, perhaps, low and frustrated, maybe aimed at her serving women, to make them hurry up, and he knocked again, determined to stay until there was an answer. The door remained resolutely shut in his face, however, and after an hour, he gave up, heading to the stables. He would not ride that day, not with the soreness from his visit to the cathouse, but the horses were always good company, and he was never questioned there. He rummaged in his pockets for sugar lumps, and went straight to his charger, Durant – who wasn't there. Roxas took a deep breath before he panicked, looking around. His tack was gone, too, meaning that whoever had taken the horse was most likely riding, and in the fresh rains they had barely a week ago, that meant heavy prints in the dirt, horse and rider pressing in deeper than simply the horse would do so. Roxas wasn't a good tracker, but he forgot that in the rage that someone might have taken his horse out, even the stable hands knew better than to move Durant without asking first, without letting their lord know, and if he needed to be ridden for any reason, Roxas would do so, ache in his arse be damned. He stepped out into the yard and heard a whinny from the far meadow, which ran along the side of the grounds. He rushed back inside and saddled Moxie, his patient, placid grey mare, boosting into the saddle and driving her hard towards the meadow. She seemed to sense his urgency and pushed herself hard, flanks damp with sweat, feet dashing beneath her, and as they broke into the meadow and Roxas spotted Durant, at the far end, she almost reared up, and broke into a canter. Roxas reined her in, slowing her down as they approached, because Durant was known to trample if he was stressed, and he couldn't imagine that a stolen horse would be anything but. Much to his surprise, as he drew near, he saw that the thief was taking the bay charger through the jumping course, and doing it easily, when Durant always refused the jumps for Roxas. Why would a thief waste their time doing this when they could be making a fast escape, he wondered, and caught the flash of a black veil on the rider. A woman. He snarled and kicked Moxie into a fast trot to catch up, and drew level with Durant and his rider, taking Moxie over the jumps at a punishing pace to match that of the charger.

"What do you think you're doing on my horse?" he shouted, and Durant made a snort at his master's voice, slowing his pace despite the intruder's attempt to dig her heels into his ribs, "You're on de Frei land, here!"

"I'm aware." The thief shouted back, against the roar of the horses' feet, and pulled Durant back, slowing the pace down until the bay was standing still, stamping his feet slightly, "But I didn't think anyone would notice."

"That's my horse." Roxas said, coldly, noticing the voice was lower than he expected it to be, "Roxas de Frei, son of Lord de Frei. He was the wrong horse to try and steal."

"You think me a thief?" the figure said, unwinding the veil and revealing a shock of red hair, a pale face with deep-set green eyes glittering back at him, and it was the first time Roxas looked and saw breeches instead of skirts, tight shirt instead of billows of lace, and realised the rider was not sat sidesaddle.

"I will take you before my father." Roxas said, starkly, reaching over to tug at Durant's reins.

"Now that," the redheaded man said, grinning, "Is something I doubt he would expect you to suggest."

The ride back was slow and arduous, the soreness which Roxas had easily forgotten in his rage at seeing Durant gone was settling in, making him wince as he drove Moxie in a fast trot. She would need a good rubbing down when they got back to the stables, which he would have preferred to do himself, being at one with his horses – but his duty to his lands came first, his duty to his people and, if he admitted it, to his own pride. He gripped his own reins in one hand, Durant tethered to Moxie and clearly hating every minute of it, although he was normally on good terms with the mare. He was snapping, but the redheaded rider did not seem worried at all that Durant would rear, although as his usual rider, Roxas knew it was a real possibility. Whilst it would not be too worrying if the horse thief was thrown and died for his crimes, the horse who trampled and killed outside of the battlegrounds was shot, in case he got the taste of human blood. Durant was too fine for that, too well trained – Roxas was not going to lose him to this thin streak of piss, eyes dancing with wicked fire, almost daring Roxas to do something he should not. Moxie caught a stone and he hissed as he came into contact with the saddle faster and harder than he had expected.

"Ah, so the little lord likes playing the woman, does he?" the redhead said, lazily, patting Durant's flank, looking for all the world as if he was simply out for a jaunt on the charger, "How does it feel when a real man makes you scream?"

Roxas did not answer, feeling his face flush hot and biting his lip, hating his body for betraying him like that. It did not help that this man was long, lean, hair wild and loose, tattoo marks under his eyes, and reminded Roxas so much of the whore he would not be seeing again. He had hoped that the horses could distract him from his upcoming nuptials, but this thief was nothing but a constant taunt of all he could not have, all he wanted.

"You will regret those words." He bit out, finally, finding the strength.

"I doubt it." The stranger murmured, his voice taking on a low burr of lust, "I could have you, you know. I could take you like he does, press myself into you. I bet you're still open, still slick and ready for me, aren't you, my little lord? I wonder if he knows all the tricks that I do."

"Silence, knave." Roxas snarled, his temper rising. Now that the redhead had brought it up, he could not help but imagine what it would feel like if he made good on all of those promises, if the man threw himself onto Moxie and bore Roxas to the ground, rutting with him like an animal. It was a strangely compelling image, and he had to shift in his seat, wincing once more, to push it from his mind. He wanted to see justice for the attempted theft of his horse, that was all. If he was determined to go to the cathouse again tonight, then that was no business of anyone else. He spurred Moxie on faster, and if the redhead wanted to speak again, he held his tongue.

When he entered the great hall, dragging the thief by the arm, eyes blazing furiously, the first thing he heard was his father's gasp, before the man stepped carefully down from the dais on which his chair sat, and hurried over to his son as fast as his frame would carry him.

"I found this miscreant on de Frei land, on my horse, and I want him punished."

"Are you mad? This is utterly inappropriate." Lord de Frei hissed, and it took Roxas a second to realise that his father was not talking to him, "You are not even wearing a veil, for Niva's sake!"

It was Roxas' turn to draw in a harsh breath at hearing his father invoke the goddess of his mother's people, not an oath he made lightly, and he turned to the man whose arm he still held.

"What is he talking about?" he said, as calmly as he could manage.

"Roxas, this is – we can not do this here, and not now. The two of you were not supposed to meet, and you – " this last was directed towards the redhead again, "Rest assured that the correct people will hear of this. I am most disappointed."

"Axel ei Nearm, I am fair vexed with you." This voice was new, snide and rich with tones of aristocracy, a true blue blood, and Roxas fought the urge to spin around to see the newcomer. The redhead – Axel ei Nearm, he supposed – twisted out of his grip and swivelled on one foot, grinning.

"Ah, the full name. I must be in trouble. Hello, Isa."

Roxas did turn then, to see the blue-haired figure of Isa fa Touren, arms folded across his chest and mouth fixed in a decidedly pointed frown.

"Don't you hello me, you reckless fool. You are lucky that it is I your father sent, or you would be across the back of someone's horse on your way back to his lands this instant. Out without a veil, horseback, in breeches, where anyone could see you? Borrowing a de Frei horse without asking? Were you not too big for it now, I would take you across my knee."

As the redhead grinned at his companion, Roxas took a moment to study Isa fa Touran. He, unlike other children born in the wake of Court Mage Xemnas' betrayal, did not have the symbolic 'x' in his name, to signify that the child was warded against his touch. Roxas had heard rumours, he remembered, that Isa's mother had been one of the Cadre, a revolutionary group who believed that Xemnas had been acting for the kingdom, instead of against it, and so would welcome his magic upon their children, but looking at the tall, slim figure, he could not believe it. This man looked like the epitome of lordliness, his robes a deep black and neatly pressed – he wore the clothes of a mage, perhaps held magic, which wasn't unusual in one raised by the Cadre. Their magic was what led them to believe that Xemnas would help, rather than harm them, and Roxas took a moment to enjoy his eyes roaming Isa's body, before he looked to his father for confirmation.

"Roxas, meet your husband, Axel ei Nearm."

Roxas paused, certain that he could not have heard correctly as Isa led the redhead – Axel – aside and began berating him in a low voice so the sound would not carry. He questioned his father with a glance, and the old man sighed before clapping twice, the signal to the servants that all of them but the essential and trusted few were to leave. Then he turned once more to Roxas and led him to the dais, letting him seat himself on the arm of the chair as he had not done since he was a boy. The blond's eyes danced over the redhead, this time with a new interest. The man was tall and willowy, clearly spirited, green eyes sparkling in a face shaped by high, prominent cheekbones and a soft mouth set in a determined line as Isa lectured. He caught Roxas' eye and grinned, causing the blond to look away quickly. He was not going to be seduced by this ruffian.

"Your… proclivities are well known in the town, my son." Lord de Frei said, softly, not wanting to upset his only child, "It was said that there was a franion you visited often, that he was your favourite, and I got a good look at him."

Roxas flushed at the idea of his father in a cathouse, although he knew he had been in plenty of bordels in his youth, despite his mother. Knights were always wandering into them, and his father, like most of the men who commanded knights, had to follow, often simply to ensure that they were no trouble to the madams. But to enter a cathouse, well… it was a different story. It was not that there was anything wrong with tending to your needs in a way which was different from others, so long as the other consented, but the idea that a man would lie on his belly for a paying customer sickened some of the knights, who had certain ideals about chivalry. Larxene had certain ideals about it, as well, and it was thanks to her that the cathouse even existed, as his father's knights would have torn it down without her intervention.

"A man can die like a dog, but only a woman can lie like a bitch?" she had been famously quoted as saying, and it gave a quirk to Roxas' mouth as he wondered what she would make of this situation. Whilst she had never seemed loving towards him, her sharp tongue always made him smile.

Axel glared at his oldest friend as Isa produced a filmy veil from a chest a servant bore.

"You know the law here, the wife must always have her face covered before men of an unknown quantity."

"It's a stupid law," Axel muttered, taking the hated headgear and pulling it on as haphazardly as he dared, "Bet the Lady Larxene never wore her veil. And anyway, we're not married yet, and I don't want to be, and what makes you think I'll be the wife?"

He only realised his voice had risen when he heard a snigger from the dais and looked up to see his future husband hiding his mouth behind a hand. Lord de Frei made to move forward, a face like thunder, but Roxas put his hand on his father's arm, and stepped down instead, Isa moving aside easily for the little lord to stand close enough that his lips brushed Axel's ear.

"You'll be the wife," he hissed, "Because I am a de Frei, and my family have ruled these lands for hundreds of years. You are ei Nearm, merchant spawn, and if I tell you to lie on your belly and spread for me like my cock is the greatest thing in your pathetic little shop boy life, then you will, franion. And you will like it." He stepped away and met Isa's eyes, a look passing between them too fast for Axel to decipher, and then a cold smile fixed on the blond's face as he turned to address the few in the room:

"Let it be heard that I, Roxas Laurelant Antoine de Frei, am taking for my wife Axel Dansidhe ei Nearm, and hope that our family will – " He paused, realising that he was about to say something which would not make sense.

"Naminé de Dawtry will be your broodmare." Lord de Frei said, then saw the look on his son's face, which was stricken, "In name only – she will have her title, and although she gains no lands, her people will be known as the blood of our liege lord. She will give you each a child, although the de Frei must be a son before she may retire. She will bear healthy children."

"She already has." Axel said, smirking, and took a step back when Roxas levelled a glare at him.

"You know nothing of her." The blond spat out, clearly furious, "You will not speak of her until you have learned some manners, cur."

"It is true," Lord de Frei said, calmly, "That she has already brought some shame upon herself in birthing outside of wedlock, but this is a chance to redeem herself. The young boy will live with her here, with you, and you will treat him as a guest, although not as your child."

"Obviously not," Axel sneered, "Why would we? I may be only merchant's get, but she brought shame on her family's name. At least my family has money – and standards."

Axel did not know what was happening as he went over backwards and felt tight pressure on his throat. He found himself staring into cold, blue eyes.

"You will not talk that way about her." The blond said, before Isa's hands pulled him away. Axel's oldest friend, sticking him in a veil and siding with a little lord over his childhood friend; the redhead felt his blood run cold and he turned away, tugging at the hated veil until it covered his face completely. He would not let these strangers see how much they were hurting him, and if Isa was throwing his lot in with them, then so be it. They could have him – he clearly wasn't as loyal as Axel had believed.

The preparations for the wedding were not going well. Axel had shut himself in his rooms, not even allowing Isa entry, just his servants, and Roxas' reaction was along the lines of 'good riddance'; but at the same time, wondered how he would feel in a strange land, a strange house, and with very little of home to comfort him. He was not stupid, nor was he cruel, but he was prideful, and loathe to ever admit that he was wrong, which sometimes translated itself as the same thing to those who did not know him.

"Would you like him more if he were a woman, my lord?" Isa asked one day, as they took their tea in Roxas' tower.

"Truly, no." Roxas said, allowing himself at least that honesty, "I am no lover of the female form, nor of the habits of women." He sipped at his tea, letting the tart sting of the lemon within it run over his tongue, sweetened with the soft glide of honey across his palate.

"Then, if I may, what is it about Axel which displeases you so much?" Isa asked, carefully, and Roxas set down his cup a little harder than he intended, sloshing pale golden liquid over the sides and onto the fine linens beneath.

"Perhaps it is not so much that I object to him, but that I dislike this whole farce of a marriage – shipping titled children off to make good matches with each other for land and titles, as if we were horses put out to stud! We get no say in whom we marry, whom we bed – yes, perhaps life as a peasant is hard, but at least they may rut and breed as they choose."

"Did you ever think that maybe Axel dislikes it as much as you?"

Damn him.

Once Isa had said it, Roxas could not shake it from his mind, could not shut it back out and turn Axel back into a supporter of this farcical ceremony, could not forget that Axel, too, was a person, a worthy opponent in wits, and who rode his horse better than he himself did.

It was coming to high summer, the fields golden and crisp, spreading out as far as the eye could see. Roxas knocked on Axel's door early in the morning, and was surprised by the door creaking open and a suspicious face peering out. The blond wedged his riding boot between the door and the frame just in time as Axel made to slam it shut.

"What do you want?" the redhead muttered, sullenly.

Roxas fidgeted under that bright green gaze, but stood firm – he was determined to do not just what was right, but what he would want were he in Axel's place.

"I wondered if you might wish to ride with me." He managed to say, "Durant seemed to get on with you."

Green eyes narrowed at this, clearly suspicious of Roxas' motive for asking him.

"His mouth is hard, he does not feel the reins if you give him a light touch." The redhead said, slowly, "You would… let me ride your horse?"

No, Roxas thought, not usually, not normally, but it is the only thing I can think of which might get you out of this room.

"Of course," he said, aloud, "Moxie rides well in summer, and behaves better for me. Perhaps we can even find a horse like Durant for a wedding gift."

Axel opened the door wider, and looked at him properly.

"Do I have the wear the veil?" he asked, plaintively.

"Not if no one sees us." Roxas replied.

As it happened, no one was about to see them, Roxas' stableboys much used to their master's curious habit of wanting to saddle his own horses, as if he were no more than a hostler. The servants were all bustling around making preparations for the wedding, and so no one was there to see two figures, who by all measures of propriety should not even be allowed to speak without a chaperone for fear of indecency, as they slipped into the stables, laughing together like schoolboys. Dressed in their summer silks, they resembled nothing so much as a pair of brightly coloured songbirds, trilling their joy to the sky at the dawn of the hot summer months and the golden wheat fields filled with possibility and released from the burden of waiting to grow. Axel whooped as he swung into Durant's saddle, the charger taking the slender redhead's weight as if it was nothing, and Roxas, for a moment, saw him as a firebird, a spark against the sky, red on blue, and then Moxie snorted her want to move, and when the blond turned back, the spark was gone and there was only the man he'd once taken for a thief, and was to take for a husband in a few short days. He climbed slowly onto Moxie and kicked her into a trot, following Axel's gallop more sedately. He caught up with the redhead entering the woods on the castle grounds, and they both slowed to a walk, Durant nickering in delight at having had a good run, lipping Moxie gently.

"So, how did a rich little lord like you end up with merchant spawn?" Axel asked, a little nastily. The blond might have let him ride his horse, but Axel wasn't at all convinced that meant anything. Could be the kid was just not very good at riding the charger, like he'd admitted before.

"My… my father made the decision. Your lands border ours, so it was advantageous to make a match. I'm also making the assumption that he found someone else who would prefer a man to a woman."

Axel shrugged. He wasn't about to give anything away, not the men he'd lain with, nor the women he had tried and failed to love. He knew what was best kept a secret and what was best said aloud, more so than this little lordling seemed to understand.

"And what of it?" he said, at last.

"I would prefer to know that the person I am to be bedding would welcome my physical state, at least," Roxas said, dryly, nudging Moxie against Durant's flank in a playful shove to Axel, "I am not in the habit of bedding the unwilling."

"Unlike so many other lords, then." Axel said, sourly. He knew the tales, the serving girls with the marks on their wrists, the lords with fingernail scratches down their faces, the healers who kept their silence for gold.

"I would never." Roxas said, earnestly, and for a second, Axel almost believed that he could be different, that he wouldn't be like all the other boys born to high status and the privilege it brought. Then he remembered the look on Roxas' face when he'd said that Axel should spread and take it like a bitch in heat, and stopped those thoughts before they could begin. It wasn't that he was so opposed to the idea of being under the little blond – he's spread for many a man before, and what was one more, especially a softy, pretty one – but he was damned if he would give the brat the satisfaction of letting him know that. For the first time, he wished for the veil which would give his face cover to hold any expression he pleased, without having to hide his thoughts behind a mask of calm politeness. Roxas, however, seemed to sense his feelings without needing to see the movement of his mouth.

"You do not believe me." He said, and a shadow passed over his face, anger and shame, and Axel gazed at him in wonder. This was no petulant child, no spoiled little lord used to getting his own way; this was a man full of bitterness and rage, knowledge that he was being called a liar and that there was little he could do about it. He had never looked more beautiful to Axel than in that second, where he became a man instead of the boy-child he was supposed to wed. And then the blond wheeled his horse around and set off at a gallop towards the woodland path, vanishing into the dense greenery, leaving Axel alone.

Roxas slowed almost as soon as he knew he would be out of sight, for the sake of Moxie, rather than because he was feeling any calmer. He did not want her to catch a hoof in a root and break a leg, after all – she was a good horse, and it was not her fault that Axel was a fool. She whickered softly as he patted her, and happily followed the forest path. He often took her this way, Durant being too big, really, and the little mare seemed to enjoy it, the new smells and sounds which enveloped her, the relative quiet after the noise of the stable. He wondered if she knew that he only brought her through here when he was upset, when he needed space to himself. Shortly before his mother had died, he had spent a good few months mostly off the path, just a little way, with Moxie or one of the stable-hounds. It was in those years, fourteen summers old, that he had discovered that he could attract the young men of the surrounding village and lead them a merry dance through the woods he knew like the back of his hand. If they chased him and could find him, then they were worthy of laying with him; and these were hard-working lads, strong and used to strenuous work, so it was rare that they did not catch their lord and bed him on the forest floor, pillowed in pine needles and soft leaves, pressing him into the mud and kissing him with the fervour only the young have, the desperation simply to be close, to be near, to climb within and know each other perfectly, if only for that second. After, he did not want to be close to anyone, and withdrew, locking himself in his tower room and refusing his servants entry as he screamed and threw objects at the door.

"Not very good at hiding, are you?" a rich voice said, and Roxas looked down into Axel's eyes, "Your boy's too big to get through here, but he's happily tethered. You did not even try to cover your tracks."

"I was not expecting you to follow." Roxas said, honesty escaping from him in surprise, "I did not think you cared for me."

"Perhaps I do not, but it is rather bad form to let one's husband-to-be freeze to death in the woods."

"It is summer." Roxas said, shortly, wondering if he could get Moxie to bash the fool's skull in with her hooves. Probably not, she had never been one for violence.

"Then perhaps I came to find you because I am without a veil and without an escort, and I prefer to be inappropriate with company." The redhead said, easily, shrugging.

"I had heard that about you." Roxas muttered, although he had heard nothing of the sort. He realised that he knew nothing of this man who was to be his husband, to be his bedfellow – nothing of his past, or of his family, other than that they were in good monetary standing, owned a large amount of land, and wanted the security of their lord's approval. Perhaps, too, Axel's father had looked for a man who would take another man into his castle, into his arms, into his bed, and had found Roxas, whose steadiest relationship was built on currency and agreed on by appointment.

Axel smiled at that, all teeth, and stepped forward, quick as a whip, pressing the little blond against a tree and leaning in close. He pressed a chaste kiss to soft lips, and then drew back gently. The boy looked shocked, eyes wide.

"Let me guess," Axel said, "Whores don't kiss."

"Not like that." Roxas said, and he hated that he sounded breathless. He hid it by diving forwards into another kiss, letting Axel push him back hard against the tree, careless of the hard bark against him. Perhaps this wedding would not be a disaster after all.

The wedding was going to be a shambles. Weddings were supposed to be big days, days for romance and warmth, sweet kisses and good wines, rich silks and satins. You were supposed to hold hands, taking a step into a new life and dive into your future together. Your betrothed's father was not supposed to die suddenly, three days before, and leave a hole in the ceremony which could not be filled, no matter how much weeping and wringing of hands the servants and the nobles did. Your husband-to-be was not supposed to withdraw, refusing all visitors, and stop being the lick of dawning sweetness you could see yourself coming to love, and become glacial, impossible and vicious. The only one he would allow through his door was that broodmare tart of his, who dressed all in white as if purity could be bought so easily. Axel was not fooled, not at all, nor was he bewitched by the shy smiles of greeting she gave when their paths crossed. She was good for one purpose, the only purpose he could not match, the only thing he could not give Roxas. And with the way things stood, Axel did not think that the little lord was planning on being a father. Not any time soon.

"He will come round, Axel." Isa tried to soothe, as Axel kicked over yet another side table in disgust at being shut out of Roxas' room once more, "He needs time to grieve, he had only his father left, and now he believes he has nothing."

"He has me." Axel snarled, "Am I not good enough? I am his family now!"

"Ah, so that is why he gave you that black eye you are trying to hide from me." Isa said, with a hint of smugness – he loved to be the first to notice things, and simply adored to be in the right as often as possible, "Did you say that to his face?"

"I got this from brawling with a stable boy." Axel hissed, but he knew better than to lash out at his best, his only friend in the castle. He sank down on the bed, listless, his usually wild hair limp, his bright tunic wrinkled and stained, "What happened to the boy I chased all over the woods and kissed silly?"

Isa sighed. He would usually ignore such a blatant need for pity, but Axel really did look like something the cat had dragged in.

"His father died. Within months, maybe weeks, he will be able to stand to look you in the eye and perhaps kiss you, perhaps find joy again. But for now, he feels guilt and pain every time he smiles, and any good feeling you may spark in him is quickly drowned by grief. He will come around."

Axel harrumphed, and let Isa leave without another word. It had been going so well, the little lord had been sparkling with heat, desire, want – all the things a man wanted in a partner, and Axel had certainly been far from unwilling to participate in a little foolery. The boy was attractive, and not a bad conversationalist when he stopped pouting for a spell and enthused instead. And then Lord de Frei had grown ill, a passing peddler bringing something into town, perhaps, and within days, he was gone. Roxas had sat by his bedside all along, no matter what the physician said, no matter what Axel tried to lead him away with. The last words he had said to Axel, as he closed the door in his face, had been:

"It is important."

And that was Axel told, was it not? This was important. He was not.

They all wore mourning clothes for the ceremony. Lord de Frei – that is, the elder Lord de Frei – was to be laid to rest in the afternoon. It was poor fortune to have a wedding and a funeral on the same day, but the lord had insisted. Roxas stalked along the corridors like a dark, foreboding shadow of what was to come, pretending he did not hear the whispers which followed him. Holed up with the broodmare, they say, will not see his beloved, they say. It made him wish to turn around and scream at them, do anything, say anything which would make them stop, make them realise. His father was dead, this husband was not beloved of anyone, and he had been squirreled away because it did not do a land good to see its lord cry. And he was the lord now, had to be, Roxas Laurelant Antoine, the fourth Lord de Frei. He had people to care for, lands to cover, deeds to look over, papers to view; he could not cry, he could not be the child he still was and weep that his father was gone, the only person who had ever shown him kindness and love, and that all he had left for family was a redhead likened to a franion he used to have a penchant for, a girl he considered more a sister than as someone to grow large with his child, and his horses. At least the horses did not look at him with pity.

"Lord de Frei…. Roxas?"

Roxas opened his eyes and wished he had not bothered. Mistress Charity was looking at him with gentle eyes, and he could hear the moving congregation behind him whispering.

"I take him as my husband." He said, shortly, and closed his eyes again. He would not be party to this, he would not. He was not going to marry merchant spawn whilst his father lay in a box not twelve feet away. If he just closed his eyes, he could make it all disappear, he could make it all vanish, if he just tried hard enough. If he just tried hard enough, his father would still be alive.

The next time he opened his eyes, or so it seemed, he was back in his rooms, the sounds of another person in the dressing room, disrobing. When Axel walked back in, naked and yet, somehow not what he had been expecting, the blond turned his back and began to undress, carelessly tossing clothes to the floor. He had been expecting Axel to be showy, naked – to make a production out of it, but the redhead slid beneath the coverlet and curled up, curving his spine as he faced away from Roxas. The message could not have been more clear. Neither of them wanted any part in this farce of a marriage.