There was a forest, and in it a lake. The lake was small -- you could stand on the shore of one side and catch a glimpse of the other shore without squinting -- but the forest was very, very large. It occupied a fair portion of the kingdom of Haduwig. Haduwig was a small country compared to its neighbours and endlessly paranoid about takeover. It prized itself on two achievements: the stink of its cheese and the beauty of its princess, Anneliese. Her mother, long deceased, was said to be an angel. This rumour was perpetuated by those who had never met the king; once you did, you could not help but be skeptical that an angel, of all the men of Christendom to marry, would choose this rather lacklustre specimen.
The king was incessantly proud of his ethereal daughter. When she turned sixteen and promptly transformed into a swan that then flew out of the window and into the wild, he was, to put it mildly, upset.
"You must find her, Prince Ludwig!" he exclaimed, clutching the hem of Ludwig's shirt to Ludwig's great distaste. "I promise you, she is very beautiful and will be completely obedient to you once you release the curse! She is fertile and will give you many male heirs! I swear it!"
Ludwig removed the king's grip from his fabulous chiffon top. "I don't care about any of that," he drawled. "I care only about one thing. How large are her breasts?"
"...what?" said the king.
Wilhelm smacked his forehead. "Prince, you can't just go around asking that so rudely!"
"Shut up, you," Ludwig said.
"Breasts?" the king muttered. "I-I don't know. They're decent-sized, I guess. I've never really looked. Should I have?"
"Not at all!" Wilhelm interjected. "You're nothing like that awful donkeyskin king!" He flapped his hands to make his point, and Ludwig kicked him with his hard-bottomed shoes. "Ow! That hurt!"
Ludwig, as usual, ignored him. The prince turned to the tearful king and said, in a tone of infinite boredom, "I suppose because I have nothing better to do, I'll give it a try. But don't expect results. And if your princess is my type, don't expect me to return her either!"
That had been a week ago. The palace cartographer drew them a map of the forest and the lake where girls turned into swans tended to congregate. Apparently it wasn't all that unusual in Haduwig; they even had a parental support group for it. The map was simple enough to follow, even for Wilhelm, but it was their great luck in the middle of the forest to have both their horses lose their shoes. "It must be some kind of magic," Ludwig said, while Wilhelm thought oops, shouldn't have gone to the cheap blacksmith, but we were almost running out of money!
There wasn't anywhere in the forest where they could get new horseshoes, but there was a hunter who lived alone in a cottage and agreed to watch their horses until they returned. They had to make the rest of the journey to the lake on foot though. Ludwig and his designer boots were decidedly unhappy about that.
"Where the hell is Dorothea when we need her?" he said for the millionth time as Wilhelm trailed after him, trying not to make any sudden noises that would incur his wrath. The prince apparently felt that the snap of broken branches was a personal affront today.
Wilhelm didn't like walking either. He didn't care about his shoes, but his problem was that he was constantly getting lost. Ludwig walked fast, wanting to arrive at their destination as quickly as possible. He was hard to keep up with. Every now and then, the brush would grow so thick that all Wilhelm could see of his liege was a swash of red hair, which sometimes turned out to be not hair at all but a bird or a bright plant.
"Prince! Prince! Where are you?" became his favourite refrain.
"You nitwit!" was Ludwig's.
It just wasn't fair, Wilhelm thought, that the prince could be blessed with money, looks, and a good sense of direction, while people like Wilhelm got nothing. It was true that village girls sometimes started blushing when they saw Wilhelm pass by, and when he was a child everybody praised him for his cuteness, but he was rather suspicious about all of that. Lisette seemed to be attracted to him, but Lisette was...well, Lisette. Wilhelm tried to believe the exact opposite of everything that she said. Why anybody would prefer him when there was Prince Lui around...
Oops. Where was Prince Lui?
Wilhelm started shouting and stumbling blindly. It was getting dark! There were so many trees! And maybe wolves too! The prince had the weapons with him; he wouldn't let Wilhelm anywhere near them after that time Wilhelm accidentally stabbed him. "Prince!" he cried out, and his insides twisted when he couldn't hear Ludwig's insulting response. He batted a bug from his face and went "gugh!" when he realized that it wasn't a bug but was, in fact, a furry bat.
Oh my god, I'm going to die here! he thought.
But then Ludwig was grabbing him by the collar and pulling him upright. "What is wrong with you?" Ludwig demanded. "Can't you use two of your brain cells at least and follow me like any decent ass?"
"I'm...I'm sorry!" Wilhelm said, trying not to grab the prince too joyfully. "It won't happen again!"
But it did. Many, many times.
When he was much younger, Wilhelm used to believe that there was a look he could use to get Ludwig to treat him more kindly. The look worked on mothers and milkmaids everywhere, so why not the prince? Wasn't it natural to feel sorry for a pitiful being? But Ludwig was cold at heart and Wilhelm had long given up trying to appeal to his mercy. Ludwig had mercy. He didn't doubt that. He saw how kind the prince had been to Idike. But Ludwig had loved Idike whereas he seemed to barely tolerate Wilhelm. All he could do was say "I'm sorry, Prince" over and over again, and try to make up for it by brewing Ludwig's favourite coffee when they made camp at night.
On the fifth day, Ludwig found Wilhelm thrashing about with a tangle of weeds, shouting, "It's a monster! Kill it! Kill it!"
Ludwig cut the weeds from Wilhelm -- a bit too closely, Wilhelm thought -- and then he said, "I didn't think I would have to go this far, but you've really tested my patience..."
"W-what do you mean?" Wilhelm said. "What are you going to do to me?" They were in the woods alone, Ludwig had the sword, and there was no Lisette to swoop in and save him. He backed away and into a thick tree trunk. "I promise I'll be good!" he added, somewhat desperately.
"You idiot, I'm not going to kill you. Who would wait on me hand and foot then?" Ludwig rolled his eyes. He reached into his bags and pulled out a long black rope with something...funny dangling at the end. Wilhelm peered at it, not understanding. Then Ludwig snapped open the something, and Wilhelm's mind went white.
It's a leash!
"Come here," Ludwig said, and Wilhelm obeyed reflexively. He let Ludwig's hand wrap around his hair, holding it up and out of the way as he snapped the collar around Wilhelm's throat. His long, slender fingers brushed the skin there, and Wilhelm gulped. It was too quiet in the woods suddenly. All the birds had stopped chirping. He could hear the rush in his ears, the mixture of fear and confusion and relief as Ludwig fiddled with the collar to his liking. Then Ludwig smiled.
Wilhelm's knees went a little melty. He knew that smile. That was the smile Prince Ludwig had after good sex. Why was he using it now? It must be my imagination, Wilhelm thought, and tried to control the sudden increase in his breathing.
"Is this really a good idea?" he asked hoarsely.
"It's a fantastic idea. I should have done it sooner," Ludwig said. Then he turned around and started walking, holding his end of the leash loosely. There was enough in length that Wilhelm felt only the barest of tugs before he started following.
Wilhelm didn't share any of the prince's more exotic proclivities. Or at least, he never thought he did. He was, still somewhat embarrassedly, a virgin. But if he did ever find someone to do it with, he doubted he would imitate any of Ludwig's tastes. Except he didn't find the leash as humiliating he thought he would. Ludwig had done worse to him, after all, and they were alone. No, what he felt -- the flush in his body, the tightness in his muscles -- wasn't embarrassment at all.
Did the prince know? Had he planned this?
Wilhelm bit his hip. He wished he could see Ludwig's face, but Ludwig was walking at a leisurely pace ahead of him, still holding onto the leash with his typical careless arrogance. He had slowed down, probably for Wilhelm's sake, but he didn't glance behind him. Wilhelm sort of wished he would. Prince Lui was hard to read but they'd known each other for many years and Wilhelm knew a thing or two about his expressions. On the other hand, if he did glance behind, he would see how red Wilhelm was, and that couldn't be good. Wilhelm wasn't sure he could stand the prince's mocking about this of all things.
It was, Wilhelm thought, the leather. So smooth and black. Often, when Wilhelm saw Ludwig wear black leather, he wanted to reach out and touch it. Or to watch Ludwig touch it. The sight of the prince's white skin against the black leather was striking each time, and Ludwig was always tender with his leather, using only the most admiring of touches.
Or maybe, Wilhelm thought with a hard swallow, it was that the leash made explicit the truth that went unsaid. That Wilhelm was Ludwig's to command. He would do anything for him. Even if all he got was a somewhat exasperated curl of the lip and an admonition to be smarter next time. For Ludwig, for his safety and continued happiness, Wilhelm would try. Ludwig was his prince and his --
Lisette had once asked him, Are you that loyal to your country?
And Wilhelm had looked down at his feet and said, No, it's not that.
"I can hear you thinking," Ludwig remarked from ahead, giving a quick, sharp tug to the leash that made Wilhelm flush even more deeply. "Don't. It'll wear you out."
"Y-yes, Prince," Wilhelm stammered. God, I bet he does know! he thought.
"Are you sick?" Ludwig asked when they stopped for the night.
"P-pardon?" Wilhelm said. He'd expected Ludwig to take off the leash once they stopped traveling, but that wasn't the case. Ludwig kept the leash on. However, they were sitting around the fire now and Wilhelm could see his face as desired. Ludwig looked calm and amused. Also, the fire threw stripes of shadows on his cheekbones that made him seem positively unholy.
"You're flushed," Ludwig said. "It can't just be the heat. I've never seen you this red before and we've been around plenty of campfires. Even that village where they tried to burn you for a witch."
Wilhelm scowled. "That was all your fault."
"I couldn't let them know that, could I?" Ludwig put his end of the leash on his lap and picked up an apple and a knife from their bags. He started peeling the apple. Wilhelm watched him and wondered what it'd be like to have Ludwig put that knife to his throat. To rip apart the leather slowly, until there was nothing underneath but bare skin. He's really turning me into a pervert! he thought.
"Here, eat this," Ludwig said and held out the apple.
"It's not poisoned. This time."
Wilhelm took the apple tentatively. "What about you?"
"I hate apples," Ludwig said, which Wilhelm knew was not true. He'd seen Ludwig eat an apple many a time without complaint, and if Ludwig disliked something, he was spoiled enough to complain about it. Loudly. Wilhelm devoted a considerable part of his mental resources into remembering what Ludwig liked and didn't like, just so he could be sure to never mix it up. But he said nothing and bit into his apple, wondering if Ludwig was the ill one after all.
"Don't chew so obnoxiously," Ludwig ordered. That was more like it.
They reached the magical lake on the eighth day. There was a bevy of white swans enjoying the afternoon sun, and Wilhelm asked, "How are we supposed to catch the attention of the princess? We can't just--"
"Oi, you royal brat, come over here!"
"--or maybe we can," Wilhelm finished weakly. "You know, Prince, swans are very vicious creatures."
"My mother gave me a bazooka," Ludwig said. Wilhelm stared at the prince's skin-tight outfit du jour, wondering where in the world Ludwig could be hiding a bazooka underneath all that leopard print. But then one of the swans took flight and headed their way. Wilhelm ducked, but Ludwig yanked on the leash and said, "Don't be a coward."
"You don't understand! I was bitten by a swan when I was young and--"
"Which one of you dares summon me?" the swan said with the voice of an angry woman.
Ludwig pointed to Wilhelm.
"What!" Wilhelm said.
The swan fixed a black eye on him. "I could take you on," said the princess Annaliese. "No problem. I could break one of your bones and send you crying for daddy. You seem like the milquetoast sort."
"Please don't," whimpered Wilhelm.
"What the hell is that you're wearing around your neck anyway?"
"It's none of your business," Ludwig said lazily. "Your father the king sends his greetings. He says he would much prefer it if you returned home and became a girl rather than a swan."
"Hmph," said Annaliese. "I'll go back eventually. He can wait his damn turn. The whole kingdom can. They had me as their beloved princess for sixteen years. They can muddle without me for a few more."
"So you will return?" Ludwig asked.
"I hardly want to. But if there's one lesson my sainted mother beat into my head, it's that I have my duty. I am the only heir, after all, and I seem to lack the pack of annoying inheriting cousins other royals are always whining about. It's just me." She sounded sad, but then she added, more directly, "But, you know, my father is in perfect health, so he doesn't need me at the capital any time soon. He certainly doesn't need me to marry an asshole like you."
Wilhelm felt the need to defend his master. "Prince Ludwig is a catch for any woman!"
"This is Prince Ludwig?" Annaliese asked. "Ugh. That explains so much." She looked back at Wilhelm. "And you must be his hopelessly brainwashed servant that everyone is laughing about."
"All my swan sisters love to hear Prince Ludwig stories," Annaliese said. "But if you ask me, I wish you two would just go off into a corner and fuck out your obvious sexual tension. Leave the poor maidens of this continent alone."
"The prince is not like that," Wilhelm insisted, but Annaliese was already looking as bored as a swan with minimal facial expressions can look.
"Whatever. See you later, boys," she said and fanned out her wings. "Come back and I'll crush your fucking penises under a rock, you hear?"
"The king wanted me to marry her?" Ludwig asked when Annaliese was back on the lake, out of hearing distance. "We need to have words when we return to that dreadful capital with all the pigs."
"Definitely!" Wilhelm said. "She actually thought that...you and I..."
Ludwig looked at him thoughtfully. "To her credit, I am holding you by a leather leash."
"But that doesn't mean--" Wilhelm closed his eyes. "Never mind. Can we...can we just go back now?"
They were three leagues away from the lake when Ludwig said, "Why didn't you say anything about yourself?"
"Guh, what?" Wilhelm asked, trying very hard not to trip over a rock.
"You said that I wasn't...well, you weren't especially articulate about it but I'll assume you mean attracted to men. You didn't deny anything about yourself." Ludwig stopped and turned around, uncurling his fingers from the leash. Wilhelm's blush returned with extra vengeance.
"Um, um, I..."
Ludwig smiled evilly. "If you felt that way, my dear Wilhelm, why didn't you just say so?"
This was officially the most embarrassing moment of Wilhelm's life. The best response was probably to shut up, but his tongue obeyed his prince and said, "Julius said that you didn't kiss men!"
"Why would you believe anything I'd tell Julius?" Ludwig said dismissively. "If I recall correctly, he was trying to kill me at the time." He folded a piece of the leash into his palm, shortening it. He did it again, shortening it even more. Slowly he erased the distance between him and Wilhelm, and Wilhelm should have been overjoyed -- this was his prince showing him the kind of attention he had always wanted! -- but instead he felt miserable.
"No, Lui," he said.
"Don't tell me that you're not interested. You've been nothing but interested these past few days. I'm actually surprised by how kinky you are." Ludwig was so close now that Wilhelm could count his eyelashes. He was beautiful, but then again, everybody in seven kingdoms knew that to their despair.
"It'll ruin everything," Wilhelm said gently. "We won't be able to have these kinds of adventures anymore. You'll be mean and I'll be jealous, and one day I'll leave. Or you will. I don't want that. I'm happy enough to be your servant."
"Happy? Are you really?"
"I am," Wilhelm said. He took a deep breath and smiled. "I really, really am."
Ludwig grabbed him and kissed him. Wilhelm's mouth went slack with surprise, and Ludwig's sudden lunge made him lose his balance. He fell backwards into a tree -- there were trees everywhere, and for the first time he was thankful -- but Ludwig didn't let go. He pressed his mouth to Wilhelm's, hard, and he kept on pushing. His right hand was at the base of Wilhelm's collar, and his left hand was pressed against Wilhelm's hip.
"Prince," Wilhelm said when their mouths parted. He didn't know why Ludwig shuddered. But he did know why Ludwig's gaze slid down to his collar. When Ludwig used both hands to touch it, to slide his thumbs over and under it, toying with the leather, Wilhelm groaned.
"Would you beg for me?" Ludwig asked, almost conversationally. But his breath was short and his eyes were fever bright. And to think just a few moments ago they had been talking about swans!
"If...if you wanted," Wilhelm said.
"Would you get on your knees for me?"
"Would you scream my name until your throat is hoarse?"
Wilhelm looked away. "Yes," he said.
"I don't want any of that," Ludwig said and pressed him into the tree again.
Wilhelm never thought his first time would be on a leafy, mossy ground, and that a bug would crawl over his hand in the meanwhile. He also never thought they would go all the way at once, but Prince Ludwig was not renowned for his patience. I am probably not a very good lover, Wilhelm thought, but he kissed his prince back as best as he was able and tried not to think too much about the soreness in his heart when they let go.
Ludwig naked was a glorious thing, this side of unbearable. His hair got everywhere; in Wilhelm's face, in his mouth, grasped in his palm, over his stomach.
When they had both come and were sweating and unlikely to budge any time soon -- Wilhelm had his arm flung over his face, out of embarrassment at his wantonness -- Ludwig sealed a kiss over the bruised skin around Wilhelm's neck. The leash was gone, lying unbuckled at their side. Ludwig's mouth was warm and soft. Wilhelm almost couldn't believe that such harsh words ever came out of it.
He was reminded when Ludwig lifted his head from Wilhelm's throat and said, "I'm hungry. Go find us some food."
"Prince, why now?" Wilhelm said. "Can't we just enjoy this moment?"
"What's there to enjoy? I think I have a leaf up my ass."
Wilhelm sighed. "All right. Let me put my clothes on."
"I refuse to let you," Ludwig said.
"Why so prudish? It's just you and me in this godforsaken wilderness. I know you don't think your body is as gorgeous or delectable as mine, but whose is?"
"For now we're alone," Wilhelm argued. "But soon we'll return to the capital and it won't be just you and me anymore. Um. Plus there might be poison ivy." He fixed his gaze on the ground where there was a fascinating patch of dirt.
Ludwig stretched languidly. "You worry too much, idiot. Live life day by day, like I do. That's what I tell all the uptight princesses we meet."
"But I'm not a princess," Wilhelm said.
"I know," said Ludwig, and Wilhelm thought, Are we having a moment? What should I do? What should I say? But then Ludwig aimed a kick at his ankle and said, "Get going with the food. Don't make me put the leash back on." Regal eyebrows went up. "Not if you haven't earned it anyway."
Wilhelm stared. Ludwig stared back.
Nothing changes, Wilhelm thought, and joy filled his chest and lit him up from inside.
The king of Haduwig wasn't exactly happy to hear that his only child would be returning to her rightful place at the time of oh, whenever. He had his guards toss Ludwig and Wilhelm out of the palace, even though Ludwig pointed out that as a fellow royal this was the kind of treatment that could start wars. Wilhelm banged his elbow in the process and accidentally bit one of the guards on the nose. Dorothea was waiting for them outside, bouncing with energy, and she told them about another kingdom where there were twelve dancing princesses, to which Ludwig asked, "Have you gone up a cup size?" Somewhere along the way Lisette showed up with a real bazooka, and they were followed by one of the younger swan maidens who decided that Ludwig was too beautiful to let go, and oh, there may have been one or two assassins from the king of Haduwig when one of his advisors, plotting to take over the throne, spun some stories about what Ludwig had done to seduce his daughter to the dark side. Ludwig, oblivious to the new attempt on his life, kissed Wilhelm in the next village, groped him lewdly in the third one, and went down on him after a state dinner in Eloy, during which Wilhelm saw stars.
And this happened, and that happened, and anyway they lived happily ever after.
(Barring the incident with the three goats and the bridge. But that wasn't Wilhelm's fault, honest).