“What do you have for us this year?” Queen Minerva asked, prodding him from his reverie.
“The same slop as always, I’d wager.” Prince Cyril sneered.
“If you don’t want his ‘slop,’ I’m sure he’d gladly return home with it,” the queen responded.
A flush of red gave Prince Cyril’s cheeks some color. He’d never spent a single summer’s day in the sun, Rye would wager. Queen Minerva was a hint darker, her skin taking on a peach hue like her daughter’s, but Prince Cyril was as stark white as a funeral lily, and about as much fun.
“Thank you for your tithe,” Queen Minerva said as he placed the basket display before her. “Oh, and your aunt does such brilliant needlework. Thank her for this lovely towel.”
Rye gave a low bow before the queen, another bow to the princess, and half-a-bow to Prince Cyril. A hand on his shoulder stopped him from turning toward his horse and cart, which a stable hand was leading back from the storerooms. The court’s servants had made quick work of his offering.
“Where do you think you’re going, young man?”
Beautiful dark eyes stared at him from a brown face. Rye had heard talk of King Azerton’s good looks, but seeing them up close was overwhelming. The king was stunning. White curls hung past his shoulders, making him seem far wiser than his wrinkle-free face appeared. He captured Rye’s hand in his bejeweled one and brought it to his lips. “You will stay for the party tonight, yes?”
Prince Cyril cleared his throat. “Already bored with us, Azerton? You prefer peasants to my sister?”
“You know what I prefer, but your sister will have to do.”
Azerton’s tone sounded like velvet, but Prince Cyril reacted as though the words had been venom-tipped.
“Enough.” Queen Minerva rose from her seat. “I need a moment inside. Come, children.”
Children? Rye had been fourteen the last time anyone dared to call him a child. He’d lost both of his parents that winter, and he’d picked up the mantle for their little plot of land. He’d helped Auntie Sofia with the sowing, weeding, and harvesting until his muscles grew hard and whip-thin and his patience with the tithe grew less and less.
They had little left for fair trade after they gave their portion to the kingdom. Still, he couldn’t fault Queen Minerva for wanting her people to eat. If only the food went more to the people and less to fill banquet tables for feasts like the one tonight.
Now, he’d been dismissed by his queen, but King Azerton still had ahold of his hand.
“What a remarkable occurrence.” Azerton studied him the way he and Prince Cyril had once watched an ant trapped under a glass tumbler. “If one thought Prince Cyril could be sweet on anyone, one would think he’s sweet on you.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Rye sputtered. Sure, Prince Cyril filled most of Rye’s nighttime fantasies when he was alone with his hand, but the prince treated him the same way he treated servants and peasants alike, as though he were an annoyance.
“You’ll stay for the party, yes?” Azerton still gripped Rye’s hand too tight for him to break free without causing a scene.
“Yes, Your Grace. I’ll stay.”
He didn’t dare punch a king. What choice did he have?
Rye said something to Azerton and pulled his hand from Azerton’s grasp. His ruddy cheeks darkened as he spun away to gather up his cart. What did the royal pain in the ass say to make Rye blush?
Cyril moved close enough to hear Rye’s next words.
“I’ll be back in a moment. I don’t want to take up too much space in the courtyard.”
Azerton turned away from Rye, flashing Cyril a wide smile that never reached his eyes. “What an interesting peasant population you have here. Well spoken. Well chiseled, too. What I’d like to do to that ass, and I don’t mean his donkey.”
“That’s a horse.” Cyril pinched the bridge of his nose. Azerton would put his own peasants to death for speaking of sodomy, but somehow, visiting another kingdom and speaking of people who weren’t under his rule made it all right.
Cyril was going to be sick.
Rye caught his attention again as he slipped back through the main gates, his shapely calves flexing as he danced around a herd of sheep making their way inside with another tither. Mother returned with Catalina by her side, and they resumed their seats at the table. Cyril begged off with a wave, and Mother nodded.
He couldn’t wait another moment to speak to Rye, to find out what Azerton had said to him.
“Rye, may I have a word?” he practically shouted as Azerton closed in on Rye from the opposite direction.
“It seems you already have, Your Highness.”
Cyril blinked at Rye’s wit. “Yes. I suppose I have. I would like to have more words, please.”
“Only because you said please.”
Cyril supposed he deserved that. He hadn’t been very amenable the last time they spoke. He’d been so taken aback by Rye’s gorgeous light gray eyes and the smile he’d afforded Catalina even as he’d tripped all over her feet.
“Yes. This way, please.”
He pulled Rye into an alcove. Azerton would have to be more brazen a predator than Cyril thought if he wanted to eavesdrop. There was no cover nearby. Cyril kept his back to the courtyard and glanced along both walls. Over his shoulder, he saw Azerton watching them, but not close enough to overhear.
“Watch yourself around him,” he said.
“I should say the same to you.” The alcove framed Rye’s tall and muscular shoulders in a way that looked uncomfortable. They both stooped so they didn’t bang their heads, Rye on the peaked roof and Cyril on the arched doorway.
“You seem to be more his caliber.” Rye smirked, but the humor never reached his eyes.
“I mean it, Rye. He will spit you up and chew you out … er.”
Rye snorted. “You seem a little flustered by the attractive king, Your Highness. If you want me to go home so the two of you can be alone tonight, that’s all you have to say.”
“I’ll say no such thing.” Cyril dropped his voice to a whisper. “His first wife is still missing, presumed dead. Instead of mourning, he’s here trying to make a marriage arrangement with my sister.”
“You should have this talk with her, then.”
“I would if my words made a blessed bit of difference. Mother has already said one of us would marry him, and Catalina is older.”
“I get it now.” Rye shook his head, nearly banging it on the peak again.
“You’re jealous. You can’t stand it when King Azerton pays attention to anyone else, even your own sister. You really are a disgrace. At least you’ll never be king.”
Rye pushed his way past Cyril into the light of the courtyard.
He supposed the conversation went about as well as any other time he’d tried to speak to Rye alone. The first time they’d met again after Rye’s parents had died, Cyril had kissed him. Then, Cyril had backtracked due to Rye’s outrage over not giving consent. The kiss had been Cyril’s way of asking for consent. Now that he knew he didn’t have it, he wouldn’t press again. Unless Rye asked him, of course.
The last time they’d spoken had been at last year’s harvest festival, when Rye had tripped all over Catalina’s feet and looked far too happy to do so. Yes, Cyril had been jealous, and incensed when Rye had said, “Oh, I’m sorry. We can’t all be spoiled brat princes.”
Once, Rye had claimed being best friends with a spoiled brat had its privileges. He’d never said those exact words before: spoiled brat prince. From that day, Cyril had wished he wasn’t a prince.