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Where the Real Beasts Are

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The Crown Prince of Stellaris’ eighteenth birthday dawns blue-skied and sunny, the warmest day of the year so far. The capital is abuzz, fit to burst with those who have flocked from all corners to catch a glimpse of their Prince's procession through the city, to say they were there the day their Prince became a man.

The crowd has been forming for hours, the most avid among them staking claim to the best spots to stand before night even began to fall the previous day. Guards patrolled the streets through the night, settling squabbles of who was where first before anyone could resort to fists. Now, they line the route of the procession to hold back the eager crowd, no loss of enthusiasm despite the sleepless night.

Children sit on their parents’ shoulders or squeeze between legs to the front of the crowds, all carrying sticks tied with lengths of ribbon in the royal colours of blue and gold which they swish through the air.

At some point during the night, daffodils were passed through the crowd, ready to throw to the ground when Prince Stiles passes, a well-loved tradition. They clutch them eagerly as the procession advances amidst swelling cheers, the path behind already carpeted with the flowers.

Prince Stiles rides at the centre of a formation of knights, cutting a regal figure with his fur-lined cape draped from one shoulder and silver circlet sitting upon his head. It’s set with a yellow sapphire cut to the shape of a four-pointed star, symbolic of the four tribes that merged to create the country long ago. In the mid-morning light, it flashes like the sun.

The same symbol reflects back at Stiles wherever he looks, on the pennants fluttering in the breeze from every building and sketched in yellow chalk on every door for the occasion. It even features on the caparison worn by his palfrey, Roscoe, the floral carpet muffling the clop of his hooves as he keeps steady pace beneath him.

On his back, Stiles may make a princely figure to the eye, but he feels anything but. His cheeks ache from smiling and his arm is ready to drop under the weight of two hours of waving. Sweat drips down his back, heat locked in beneath the fur-lined cape, an extra weight he yearns to be free of. But his enthusiasm never falters.

A girl not much younger than he throws her daffodil a little too hard and it lands in Stiles’ saddle.

While the star is a sign of the Stilinski rule, daffodils are a symbol specific to Stiles, and not only because of his spring birthday. He was too young to remember, but he'd apparently become attached to the flower around the time he turned three, insisting on carrying one wherever he went. When he'd dropped it during the procession and seen it trampled by the horses, his three-year-old self had been inconsolable.

The next year, the people responded by each bringing a daffodil ready to calm the little Prince's tears, and so the tradition was born.

Stiles had been embarrassed about it once, a result of much scowling during the processions of his teenage years, but now he sees the joy his people take in it and wouldn't dream of denying them.

Grinning, he picks up the flower in his lap and tucks the thick stem behind one ear as the girl who threw it blushes and hides her face amidst raucous laughter from the crowd. He keeps it there for the rest of the procession.

The route they follow, the same one every year, leads them in a great loop through the city and back up to the castle where they’d started at its pinnacle. His father awaits him there, at the top of the castle steps beyond the open gates.

For all birthdays leading up to this one, the King had accompanied him in joining their citizens in celebration, and when he was too young to ride alone, he’d sat in front of him in the saddle. It was strange, leaving him behind after so many years of that tradition, but with his coming of age, it’s customary to make the procession alone.

With one last wave, the castle gates close behind him, though it still takes a while for the cheering to die down. He knows it will ring in his ears for hours to come.

Stiles grins up at his father and for a moment, the King looks like he might have tears in his eyes. It passes by the time Stiles dismounts Roscoe, but his voice is gruff when he wishes Stiles a happy birthday - for the third time that day.

Stiles can tell those aren’t the words he really wants to say, is sure they have something to do with the absence of the woman who should have been standing beside them. He forces a laugh and plucks the daffodil from behind his ear to hook over his father’s. The King frowns at it from the corner of his eye, but humours him all the same. The moment passes, though the sadness doesn't fade.

“Our guests of honour will be arriving shortly,” his father informs him, though the way his mouth twists over the word honour is a sign he views them as anything but.

Stiles can't help but smile at his father's overt distaste.

“I'll be ready,” he promises, already waving forward Virgil, his manservant, to assist in untying his cape. He finally shrugs it off with a sigh of relief, balance returned, and holds still as Virgil dabs at the sweat on his brow with a handkerchief.

The old man’s lips are pursed, but Stiles knows it isn’t a sign of displeasure. He’s always taken the utmost pride in his duties and it’s often said his stoicism is a counterweight to his charge’s energy. Stiles almost sees him as a second father with his perpetual fussing and nagging. It’s no surprise that even on his birthday it’s no different.

As Roscoe is led back to the stables, Stiles follows, intent on treating him to an apple for his good behaviour - though he doesn’t really need an excuse to spoil him. He pats the horse’s flank as he munches, soothing his hand over his chestnut coat. The quiet moment doesn’t last for long.

It’s barely any time at all until he’s summoned, and he rejoins his father at the head of the castle steps, the knights who had accompanied his procession standing behind. He holds still for Virgil to retie his cape, the manservant wrinkling his nose and producing a vial of sandalwood oil to dab at Stiles’ wrist and neck to mask the smell of the stables. When Virgil deems him presentable, his father signals for the gates to be opened.

A groan of wood resounds throughout the courtyard, sending up a swell of renewed cheering as Stiles stands to attention to watch the royal procession from Venatia trundle through the city.

A delicately gilded carriage is drawn by two horses at its centre, surrounded by men on horseback in their livery of red and gold. It's just a small force as the rest will have been left to make camp outside the city, no space in the Stellaran barracks to house them all. Stiles knows his father will see to them all being fed generously despite not being able to attend the feast.

Progress of the carriage is slow and Stiles’ mind begins to wander, though years of feigning decorum means his posture doesn't waver.

Their guests were meant to arrive two days ago but lamented ‘troubles on the road’ as the cause for their delay. Stiles is under no illusion that the whole thing was orchestrated to put their arrival after his procession and whip up greater fanfare. There had been a lot of eyerolling when a herald had delivered the news. It wouldn’t surprise him to learn the Argents had been camping beyond the nearest hill for the past two days in preparation for their grand entrance.

At long last, the carriage rolls between the castle gates and draws to a stop at the foot of the steps. A footman jumps down from beside the driver to open the door and the first of their guests of honour steps out.

King Gerard I was always a severe man, and the passing of time has done nothing to soften him. When Stiles was a child, Gerard had always scared him, with his quick, scheming eyes, and voice always on the verge of rising to a shout. It would be unbecoming to say he still feared him now, but he will at least admit the man makes him uneasy.

Stiles’ father too has spoken of his dislike for the Venatian king and it’s common knowledge that Gerard returns the opinion. It's no secret he still holds his grudge from when Stellaris remained neutral in the ongoing East-West War - only taking up arms when a family of their own nobles had been slaughtered and they could stand by no longer.

As King Gerard ascends the steps, his yellowed teeth flash at Stiles in an attempt at a smile that never reaches his eyes. He favours Stiles more than his father, a fact the Prince has always stayed wary of; he can guess Gerard would much prefer him to be on the throne, young blood he can mold to his own ends.

Stiles forces himself to smile back. He may loathe Gerard’s attention but it could one day be used to his own advantage.

“Forgive us our delay,” Gerard says, disturbingly unctuous. He directs another smile at Stiles, attempting the air of a doting grandfather.

“Of course,” Stiles’ father answers, achieving a much more successful smile as he lies through his teeth. He’d been more indignant about the manufactured setback than Stiles. “We are honoured to have you here to celebrate with us.”

Gerard moves aside in time for his daughter, Princess Katherine, to emerge from the carriage.

Unlike her father, Katherine - or Kate as she insists on being called - is fair and charming, and Stiles has long-wondered how she can bear such close relation to the unpleasant King. Her smile is a thing of beauty and the sweet fragrance of roses swirls in the air when Stiles takes her hand to greet the back of it with a kiss. His eyes are drawn to her wedding ring.

The last time he'd seen her had been not long after her husband's passing, a cruelly short marriage of only two months. Her late husband, Lord Harris, had been an unfriendly man, but he clearly adored her. Most had said it was because no other woman had looked at him twice, and Kate’s interest had served as fuel for the rumour mill for months. Now, her mourning is long since over but her wedding band remains faithfully on her finger.

“Princess. You are as radiant as ever.”

Kate throws back her head in a peal of laughter, gold ornaments glinting in her hair. “And you are still in possession of that silver tongue!”

“One day it will get him into trouble,” his father interjects, as eager to engage the Princess over Gerard as Stiles was.

Princess Allison is last to ascend the steps, genuine dimpled smile lighting up her eyes.

It had been thought that they would marry once, especially when it was widely known they’d grown closer after Allison’s mother had passed and Stiles had offered support drawn from his own experience. But it was clear to Stiles she and Scott were the ones who were meant to be. Perhaps he should have fought a bit harder for the strength that alliance would have brought Stellaris, but the decision to bow out of the race hadn’t been a difficult one.

“Ally,” he greets, kissing the back of her hand. “Scott’s a lucky man.”

“He knows,” she says, grinning, but it soon softens. “He’s sorry he can’t attend.”

Stiles nods.

As he thinks of Scott, his mood sobers for the first time that day. He’d been ignoring the absence of his best friend, but the ache has come back strong. He really does understand, though. It’s not been long since Scott’s coronation after turning eighteen himself and assuming the throne from his mother who had been acting as Queen regent since the death of Scott’s father a decade ago.

That was two months ago but he'll see him soon at Allison’s eighteenth birthday and then again at their wedding.

Gone are the days of spending summers in each others kingdoms, of causing mischief for the guards and sneaking into the kitchens. They’re men now and have their duties to their people to consider before their friendship.

“I received word from him yesterday. He said to tell you you look as beautiful today as you do all others and he’ll see you soon,” Stiles recites. He has the sneaking suspicion the note was more for Allison’s benefit than his own, but he’s glad of the sentiment all the same.

Allison blushes and ducks her head, swiftly changing the subject. “My father said to send you his regards and to have a drink for him.”

“Or three,” Stiles laughs. He's not surprised the Crown Prince has remained in Venatia to govern in his father’s absence.

With welcomes made, the Argent’s luggage is unloaded from the carriage and they’re shown to the guest quarters to settle in before the feast that evening. Stiles takes the chance to slip away to his own rooms, eager to strip out of his stuffy clothes and not move for a few hours.

 

*

 

Stiles arrives at the feasting hall to thunderous cheers. Fists and tankards thump on tables and boots stamp against stone, booming in the cavernous space already rich with the smell of roasted hogs and pipe smoke and mead. The din feels enough to shake loose the banners from their hooks overhead, but though the fabric sways, the fastenings hold firm.

Stiles waves to the room as he makes his way down the centre aisle between the tables spanning its length, to knights and nobles and the lucky citizens who won entry to the feast in the raffle held whenever there’s an event in the castle. The servants holding trays bow and curtsy as he passes, the women with mini daffodils braided in their hair and the men threaded through their top buttonholes. More decorate the tables alongside candles amongst the platters of food, loaves and meats and fruits and cheeses to name a few.

Their guests of honour are already seated at the great oak table set on a dais at the head of the room. It would be customary for King Gerard to sit at his father's right, but he’s insisted on leaving the spot to Stiles considering the occasion and has moved a seat along. Stiles would much rather Allison’s company beside him, but the Princesses sit on the other side of his father. He’d reminded Stiles it wouldn't be proper for her to be seen so close to him in light of her imminent marriage to Scott, despite widespread knowledge of his and Scott’s friendship.

With Stiles seated, the feasting begins. Between one blink and the next, his plate is piled with pork, chicken, pheasant and fish, and a platter of every cheese under the sun is set closer to him along with crusty bread, fresh from the oven. His cup is never empty and he’s soon pleasantly buzzed with a full, warm belly.

The hall is filled with chatter and spikes of laughter and by the time everyone has taken their initial fill of the food, the room is bubbling with excitement over a rumour that the Argents have brought Stiles an impressive gift. When King Gerard finally climbs to his feet and calls for it to be brought forth, a hush falls over those in attendance like a blanket of fresh snow.

The doors to the hall open and when the gift enters, flanked by two Argent men, those nearest scramble back, scraping the benches across the floor and scattering cutlery amidst yells of shock. Even Stiles at the back of the room quivers with a frisson of fear, hand twitching at his hip with the desire to reach for his blade. Even if it were present, he’s not sure it would protect him from the beast padding down the centre aisle.

They’ve brought him a direwolf.

It’s a magnificent creature, black fur like the glossy spill of an ink pot across a sheet of parchment, and its size is even bigger than that of the mastiffs who help guard the castle. Its pace remains unfazed by the tumult around it, paws as big as Stiles’ spread hands almost seeming to make the ground tremble. It draws to a halt in front of the dais, close enough to reveal the glint of a thick iron collar peeking out from the ruff of fur about its neck.

They were thought to have gone extinct years ago, until the Argents happened upon some parentless pups and became the only known breeders. Until now, Stiles has never heard of the Argents even allowing one beyond the boundary of their kingdom. To be offering one as a gift? He would never have thought it possible.

Stiles stands frozen, sure it will pounce, and after the initial outburst, the rest of the hall is silent too.

“Don't be alarmed. It’s quite tame!” Gerard declares, lifting an untouched chicken leg from his plate and tossing it forward. The wolf raises up to snatch it out of the air then sinks to its belly, deftly tearing off the meat and cracking the bone in two with one snap of its powerful jaws.

“Prince Stiles, if I could get you to step forward,” Gerard continues. “It would do well to get it acquainted with the scent of its new master.”

Stiles’ first instinct is to gape or snort or squeak, but with the rapt audience watching with bated breath, he reminds himself he is a man, a prince, and he will not show fear.

The wolf doesn't react to his approach, just keeps gnawing at the bone, though Stiles is expecting its lips to curl back in warning at any moment. But its eyes, green and gold, don't show any apprehension. They don't show much of anything at all.

At Gerard’s direction, Stiles holds out his hand and the wolf lifts its head to press its nose to it, cold and wet. Its nostrils flare as it breathes him in, a rush of hot, damp breath swelling over his skin with every puffing exhale.

Carefully, Stiles sinks to one knee and moves his hand until he’s stroking through the fur at the side of the creature’s neck. Perhaps it's not wise to bring his throat so close so soon, but the wolf doesn’t react to his touch in the slightest. His hand brushes the collar, surprisingly warm to the touch and etched with vertical grooves at even intervals around as much of the band as he can see. At the front is embedded some sort of gleaming yellow gem, carved into the shape of the Stellaris four-pointed star.

“It will answer to whatever name you give it,” Kate informs him and her voice makes him jump. He’d been so mesmerised he’d forgotten he isn’t alone.

Stiles stares into the animal's eyes, filled with wonder. He's struggling to fathom that this wolf is his and will be a companion in his life for years to come. The wolf stares back, seeming to look less pleased than Stiles of his new situation, but perhaps that's just his temperament. Perhaps he's proud and standoffish and doesn't want to admit that he secretly likes ear scratches and belly rubs. Perhaps he'll like going for runs alongside Roscoe, or maybe he's lazy and would rather lounge in the sun.

No matter what, Stiles looks forward to getting to know him. That is, once he's gotten past the fangs and the claws and is sure the wolf doesn't plan for him to become the target of either.

“Thank you, King Gerard. He is a generous gift.”

“Generous indeed,” his father agrees, but he’s smiling at Stiles instead of regarding Gerard with distrust.

Gerard lifts his goblet. “To the Prince!” he calls, and it's echoed by the entire hall amongst more stomping and banging.

As the feasting continues, the wolf is coaxed up onto the dais to lay at Stiles’ feet in front of the table with a leg of beef which seems to keep him occupied for most of the evening. Stiles can’t help peering over the edge of the table at him in wonder.

“One thing you need to know with these beasts,” Gerard leans over to tell him. “You never remove the collar.”

Stiles nods and Gerard pats his hand with what might be his version of an ingratiating smile. Stiles busies himself with buttering a new bread roll to move his hand out of Gerard’s reach.

He’s only taken a single bite when the table is approached by Sir Vernon Boyd. Lady Erica, his wife and Stiles’ childhood friend, hovers close behind, head bowed and a hand on her stomach.

“Happy Birthday, Your Highness,” Boyd says after bowing.

“Thank you. I’m glad you could both make it.”

“I’m afraid we have to cut our visit short,” he replies, stepping back to place a supporting arm around Erica’s waist.

Stiles sits straighter in his seat. “So soon?”

“Erica has been feeling under the weather for the past few days and it seems the excitement of the feast has been too much for her.”

“I apologise, Your Highness,” Erica begins, her gaze lowered. “I was sure I would be well enough.”

As jarring as her use of his title is, more jarring still is her demeanour. She’s usually bright-eyed and mischievous, but now she’s ashen-faced and her hands look to be trembling. Wide, fearful eyes flicker to the wolf at Stiles’ feet. The wolf stares back, eyes unreadable. By the hand on her stomach, Stiles wonders if she's with child once more and prays the shocking arrival of the direwolf has done no permanent harm.

“I understand. Please go and rest. If you feel you cannot make the journey, you know you are welcome to spend the night here in the castle. I can have a room set up for you in no time at all.”

“We thank you for the offer, Your Highness,” Boyd says with a bow of his head, “but we’d prefer to get back to our son.”

“Of course. Travel safely.”

Stiles watches them go with concern but doesn’t worry long. Boyd will look after her. They had been lucky enough to marry for love as well as status, an arrangement Stiles isn’t likely to share.

Turning eighteen himself with Allison and Scott the same age and already set to marry, it will only be a matter of time before the pressure to find a match of his own really starts to build. Scott has always looked forward to the prospect of marriage but the thought has never filled Stiles with much excitement. Perhaps if he’d found someone he could be so sure of as Scott and Allison had he wouldn’t be dragging his heels so much. Still, his birthday feast isn’t the time to think about these worries.

The evening passes in the blink of an eye and the moon is past its zenith by the time Stiles leaves the hall, now only sparsely dotted with lingering revellers. The Argents retreated to their rooms for the night over an hour ago, his father not much later.

Stiles is worried to be in control of the wolf alone but he follows obediently as soon as Stiles stands, coming up as high as his hip. With nowhere else to keep him, Stiles supposes he should stay with him in his rooms and he leads the way from the hall after bidding goodnight to those still left.

He pauses before heading deeper into the castle and looks back at the wolf.

“Do you need to go outside to… do your business?” he asks, feeling like a bit of a fool. Though Kate had said it would answer to any name Stiles bestowed, he’s still unsure of the beast’s intelligence.

Without a sound, the wolf heads for the main doors to the courtyard and Stiles trails behind, amazed that that even worked. He waits on the top step, between the guards standing watch either side of the main door, and doesn’t look as the wolf pads into the shadows.

He gazes up at the night sky and crosses his arms over his chest instead. Despite the warmth of the day, the night is still chilly and he’s looking forward to curling up in his bed and getting up long after the sun has risen.

When the wolf returns, Stiles pats his thigh. “This way,” he says and leads him inside.

As they make their way up flights of stairs and along corridors, the wolf’s shadow flickers in the light from the torches, growing and shrinking as the high sconces pass like something looming and inescapable in a nightmare. Whenever he looks back, he expects to see a flash of fangs descending on him, but the wolf just stares. Stiles wishes he could know what he’s thinking.

When they reach Stiles’ quarters, the wolf stands just inside the door, and Stiles marvels at how well-behaved he is. Still, he’s glad he gave Virgil the night off. There’s no saying how the wolf might have reacted to a new stranger appearing in Stiles’ rooms.

After casting about, he gathers some cushions from the little nook he usually curls up in to read and lays them on the floor beside the window to serve as a makeshift bed for the wolf until something more suitable can be found.

The wolf situates himself on the pillows as soon as Stiles steps back, resting his head on his paws. Stiles watches him for a few moments, feeling out of place in his own home. It’s like the floor is littered with needles as he moves to get dressed, scared of angering the wolf with too much noise. He tries to reason with himself that the Argents wouldn’t have gifted him if he was considered dangerous, but the reminder of fangs and claws outweigh his attempts to calm himself.

When he finally crawls into bed, it takes a long time to fall asleep despite the late hour, and even then he sleeps fitfully, sure he’ll jolt awake to the wolf’s fangs sinking into his throat.

Every time he lifts his head to check, the wolf is still awake, gazing longingly up at the night sky. The jewel in its collar gleams in the moonlight.