Villain, 44

Sometimes the Things You Do Have Meaning and You Don’t Even Realize It

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“If we reduce recruitment for your guard by half, we can afford to fix most of the roads in Ech’kent without taking too much a hit.”

Sam sighed. “It’s not that easy.”

“You don’t need a military force the size of yours, Sam,” Henry insisted. “You just don’t. Especially when they don’t do anything.”

“They’re guarding the plateau, Henry,” Sam said, tapping the table. “They’re keeping peace. They’re keeping people out.”

“You know that more of your guards have died this year because of you and I than because of people trying to kill us?” Henry asked.

“Well, let’s stop killing them and then we won’t need to recruit so much.” Sam snorted. “Besides, what are people supposed to do for a living if we don’t give them weapons? Rebel against me? Seems like the only other option.”

“They could build roads for us,” Henry suggested.

“And once the roads are built? You want me to just endlessly rebuild the same roads?” Sam demanded.

“Well, it’s one way to launder money,” Henry said. “But no, once the roads are built we’re going to lower taxes.”

“Why are we lowering taxes?”

“Because they’re too high. The builders will have to find other jobs.”

“Maybe in the guard.”

“Maybe not.” Henry sighed. “There’s got to be a better way to keep Ech’kent secure without wasting all our money on it.”

“There’s dragons in the mountains,” Sam muttered, leaning back in his chair. “I could put leashes on them. Or I could make Scott do it. Henry, I don’t care about this. Why are you making me talk about this?”

Sam was free, he was himself again, and he could do whatever he wanted. But instead of doing whatever he wanted, he was sitting in some stupid room listening to Henry read reports and talking about taxes and roads.

“Because,” Henry said. “This is the sort of thing that kings talk about, and you don’t know anything about it.”

“To be clear, just because I didn’t kill you for collaring me and just because I’ve decided I like you doesn’t mean you get to dictate my life for me, and it sure as hell doesn’t mean that suddenly I’m going to be King Sam the Friendly and give a free puppy to everyone in the plateau.”

“I’m not asking you to hand out dogs, I’m asking you to build roads, lower taxes, and stop recruiting two-thirds of the plateau’s men into unnecessarily working for you. Also, hire some women, would you? It looks bad.”

“And what do I get in exchange for doing any of that?” Sam sneered.

“A kingdom that runs smoothly, people who don’t hate you and a smaller number of armed assholes who’ll support whoever comes along to unseat you at the end of the day?” Henry asked.

Oh. “Put that way, your point is…a little more compelling,” Sam admitted. The guards in the castle had for the most part supported him over Solomon, after all. He had no reason to assume they wouldn’t support the next guy—be it Henry or someone else. “Fine. Call for a temporary reduction on recruiting, just for a few months. Use the money to build roads or whatever.”

“I’ll be sure to relay how invested you are in the project to the people,” Henry muttered. “Anyway, they should be happy. Between that and the higher price we’re buying grain at, they should be happy. Oh, and the feasts.”

“Feasts?” Sam scowled. Henry had made some comment about his birthday before, hadn’t he? “I said I’d put up with a birthday thing, Henry, but I’m not having multiple of them.”

“No, just the one for your birthday next week—it’s a secret, by the way, you don’t know I’m planning it for you.”

“Then why are you telling me?” Sam hated secrets, so it was for the better that Henry did.

“Because you hate secrets. Just pretend you didn’t know if you end up giving a speech or something.”

Sam had no intention whatsoever of giving a speech of any kind. “You want me to pretend to be ignorant of what’s happening in my own castle?”

“I want you to pretend to be surprised that we spent money on having a feast for you. You’re concerned about the plateau’s finances,” Henry explained.

“I’m really not. Are the plateau’s finances that bad?”

“We could stand to start trading with the east again. Which might be easier after Hans takes over, but I could also write to Geoffrey about it.”

Sam really didn’t care about that. “I’ll think about it. Why is it feasts plural?”

“After the birthday feast I figured we’d wait maybe a few weeks, have a wedding feast,” Henry said, shuffling some papers.

Sam frowned again. “A wedding feast? Who’s getting married?”

“Uh…” Henry trailed off for a second. “Well, us?”

“Us?” Sam snorted. “Sure, Henry. That seems like something we’d do.”

“But, we…” Henry sounded confused. “Wait, what?”

“What the fuck are you talking about, Henry?” Sam demanded. He’d spent so long coming to learn how clever Henry was that Sam had forgotten how dumb he could be. “You want to get married?” Sam supposed it wouldn’t be the worst idea politically, especially if people were using the name of House Arkhewer to rebel against him. But it was stupid.

“We already did, Sam.”

“When in the world do you…” Sam just sighed, calming down. “Just tell me what the fuck you’re talking about, Henry, I’m not in the mood for games.”

“You gave me back the knife, remember?” Henry asked. “In the dungeon.” He sounded legitimately upset.

“Yes, of course I remember.”

“You said you didn’t need it anymore.”

“Yes. The point?”

“You gave it to me in the first place,” Henry said, as if this was obvious. “And then I gave it to you, and you gave it back…oh, my God. You…you don’t know.” He must have been reading something in Sam’s expression. “You didn’t know. I thought you knew.”

“Thought I knew what?” Sam demanded.

“It’s a marriage ritual. You give someone a knife to court them,” Henry said. “Then they give it back if they want to marry you, and you give it back again to say yes. You…I just thought you weren’t saying anything because you’re…you. I didn’t think you…”

Sam was quiet, thinking of the knife, how it had passed between them. And how Henry had put it on the mantle when they’d gotten back to their rooms after like it meant something. He felt his heartbeat slowing down. “Do you mean to tell me that…when I hid that knife in your clothes in the dungeon…”

“I thought you were trying to court me.”

“I was trying to torture you!” Sam said, raising his voice. The chairs shook. His power was still not entirely under control. Working with it was harder than it seemed. “I was trying to goad you into doing something dumb! Why would you have thought…”

“Because you’re fucked up?” Henry asked, sounding lost. “I thought you had some weird twisted affection for me that you couldn’t say because you were so wrapped up in your layers of emotional repression or something! I thought it was part of your messed up game. I…” He let out something between a hiss and a sigh. “It never occurred to me that you didn’t know.”

Sam made a noise in the back of his throat. “Why would I know about some stupid Ech’kent custom?”

“I don’t know.”

“So…” Sam was still trying to figure this out. Married. He was married to Henry. Stuck to him, forever. “To be clear. You thought I wanted to court you. And then you put a collar on me, beat me, raped me and terrified me, then asked me to marry you.”

“Yeah. When you say it like that it sounds stupid, doesn’t it?” Henry snorted. “Dammit. Whatever, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a silly ritual, we don’t have to…”

“Hold on,” Sam interrupted, standing up. Hand on the table, he moved around until he was close to Henry, who was also standing. His husband. His. “I don’t…hate this idea.”

“What does that mean?” Henry asked quietly.

Sam put a hand on his chest, felt Henry’s heartbeat, felt his own magic. It meant they were together forever. It meant they were united. And it was kind of a nice ritual. It was simple. “A king should have a consort, right?” Sam asked.

Henry was quiet a second. “Yeah,” he said. “Most of them do.”

Sam let out a quiet breath, just feeling Henry’s heart. It was new, weird. But once Sam got past the immediate anger that he hadn’t known, that this had come out of nowhere, his hatred of surprises…it was nice. He didn’t mind it. He got up on his toes and kissed Henry. “If I have to marry someone, I’m glad it’s you.”

Henry covered Sam’s hand with his own. “Me too. I wouldn’t want to be with anyone else.”

“Good. Saves me having to murder them in front of you. Arrange the wedding feast. And if there are any other weird rituals you have, I want to know about them.”

“It’s normal to burn some of our possessions at the feast,” Henry said.

“That sounds like fun. Let’s burn Todd.”

“Doesn’t quite work that way.”

“Hey, it’s my wedding feast, I should at least be allowed to have fun,” Sam protested.

Henry laughed, removing Sam’s hand from his chest and kissing it. “We’ll figure out a compromise. Come on, let’s keep talking about this instead of taxes.”

“Where are we going?” Sam asked, as Henry guided him out of the room.

“I don’t know. A walk.”

“Fine,” Sam muttered, letting Henry hold his hand. “I’m definitely not giving a speech for the wedding.”

“Really? I think the story of how we met is a good one.”

Sam laughed at that. He was unused to this. Enjoying himself just because he was. It was something he’d been doing a lot of the past few days. It was strange.

And like some other changes in his life lately, Sam didn’t hate it.

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