“This feels nostalgic,” he said after the silence had dragged on too long.
“I’m glad you think so,” the king said. “I feel nauseated, myself.”
Ares smiled. Thinly. “Shall I contact your staff, sir? Do you require medical attention?”
The king moved to his personal bar, and Ares watched with a certain sense of resignation as his father poured himself a drink from yet another crystal decanter that Ares imagined would soon be in broken shards all over the stone floor. He did not offer Ares a drink, because he was still as petty as ever.
“Do you want to explain to me why your pregnant little piece is all over every paper?” the king demanded.
Ares wasn’t sure what, precisely, it was that surged in him then. But he knew it was violent. Dark and furious, and aimed at his father.
Which he knew was treason.
But he didn’t care.
“I beg your pardon, Your Majesty,” he said icily. “You must surely be referring to yourself. I have no ‘piece,’ as you put it.”
“You told me this would never happen,” his father snarled at him. “You promised me, or I would have married you off years ago.”
“Nature will do what it will do, father,” Ares said, with a great flippancy he in no way felt about Pia or the babies she carried. “I don’t understand your concern. I am not married. There is no actual scandal, there are only tabloids making noise.”
“Was it noise that knocked you flat?”
Ares made himself stay where he was, seated and unthreatening. “That was a misunderstanding, nothing more.”
“Do not expect my permission to marry her,” his father said, and though he grew smaller and more wizened every time Ares saw him, that glare of his was as baleful as ever. “Do not think that the fact she is a San Giacomo in any way makes up for all that peasant blood in her.”
“I will remind you, sire,” Ares said, acidly, “that I do not require your permission to marry. You struck down that law yourself, the better to make way for your own mistress.”
“You mean your queen,” his father growled. “Her Majesty Queen Caprice to the likes of you, and I warn you, I will tolerate no disrespect.”
Ares forced himself to lounge back in his chair, though he wanted to be the one to start breaking things, this time. “And what of our great and glorious Queen Caprice? My understanding was that her chief attraction was her supposed fertility. Yet I’ve seen no sign that she is expecting your heirs.”
“Watch yourself, boy.”
“One is tempted to conclude that the reason you sired but one disappointing child was your fault. Not my mother’s, as has been commonly agreed.”
He meant: by you and your doctors.
“Is that your goal? You think that if you start having illegitimate children it will make you the better man?” His father laughed, but in that angry way of his that allowed for no actual humor. “On the contrary, Ares, all it does is remind the kingdom what a waste of space you are. A profligate playboy, governed by his base appetites. I should thank you for doing me a favor.”
Ares stared back at this man that he had feared and hated for most of his life. Here in this room, where he had been threatened, belittled, and shouted at more times than he could count. Here where he had made decisions based entirely on how not to be the man facing him.
And he could cite chapter and verse about the things he didn’t want. The man he didn’t wish to become. The blood in him he hated, that had run hot just now, so desperately did he want to respond to the sneering violence in his father’s voice in kind.
But he had other weapons.
You are always in a war, Pia had said.
And Ares supposed that was true. He had always been in this war. He had been dropped in it at birth.
But all that meant was that he knew how best to aim, then take fire, at the man who had taught him how to fight—never realizing, apparently, that in so doing he betrayed his own weaknesses.
“Did I not tell you the good news?” he asked his father mildly. Almost kindly. “Pia has made me the happiest man alive. She has agreed to be my wife. I know you—and the kingdom—will extend us your deepest congratulations.”
And the first wedding gift he received was the splintering sound of his father’s decanter against the castle wall. It was such a touch of nostalgia he very nearly came over all emotional as he took his leave.
And it was not until he was on his plane, heading back toward the Southern Palace, that it dawned on Ares that he would have to figure out how best to share these glad tidings with the woman he had yet to ask to be the wife he’d never wanted.