Sometimes he fears the prince will hear his heart hammer against his chest, reverberate through his breastplate, and laugh. The prince has a laugh like the ocean he loves to stare at so much. It comes in waves, and Lovino wants to feel the patterns of it on his tongue.
The prince loves cats, therefore cats must be provided. Many a nobleman, trying to court his goodwill, has presented Prince Antonio with cats: plush, well-bred ones with plumes of white fur and icy eyes. Others offer collars, ruby encrusted toys, velvet cushions. Prince Antonio’s four cats curl up on these gifts and sleep through the day. Antonio keeps one of the kittens on his lap while he works. Says she cheers him up when the affairs of state get too tiring.
Lovino, he just stands guard, watching the prince with a gaze he hopes is as soft as the things Antonio surrounds himself with. He just wants to be the person the prince associates with warmth, is that so bad?
The prince’s older brother will one day be king, but Antonio doesn’t mind this. “It frees me up to travel the world,” he says wistfully, staring out of his bedroom window and towards the glittering sea. Lovino sees another cargo-heavy ship disappear into the horizon, and imagines the prince sailing away on one of those. Lovino understands the need to be free. As long as prince Antonio returns one day.
“Sir Lovino,” says the prince one day, smiling up at him from the garden bench. It is a gentle evening. Lovino has never liked it when the sun set and the world turned from green to blue, but Antonio’s eyes illuminate his face like a summer afternoon. “What do you think about love poems?”
“Pardon me, your majesty?” Lovino asks, not daring to hope for anything more. He is a knight, just the prince’s personal guard. It is his sworn duty to protect. Hope was never part of the job description.
“I’ve been reading the works of some famous poets lately,” says the prince. “And love poems are so gentle. What is your opinion on them?”
“To be honest, your majesty, poetry is not my strong suit.”
The prince leans forward, staring up at Lovino curiously. “But you’ve been in love, surely?”
Lovino swallows. “My brother has.”
“Ah, yes.” Feliciano, the palace’s best cook. “Feliciano is an old romantic. I can tell from the way his food tastes.” The prince smiles shrewdly now. “How about you?”
There are sunsets on his cheeks.
“Does me asking you make you uncomfortable?” the prince presses, and Lovino only looks away, too embarrassed to say a word. He hears Antonio sigh. “You are too shy, Sir Lovino,” he observes simply. “But we can talk about something else, if you like.”
Lovino exhales softly.
“What are you passionate about?” asks the prince. “If not poetry?”
That, at least, is easy.
“Oh?” The prince lifts the arch of his eyebrow, and it acts like a poker in a furnace, setting something ablaze in Lovino’s chest.
“I think art is the truest and most fluid form of expression there is.”
“Do you have a favourite?” asks Antonio. “Raphael, perhaps?”
Lovino grimaces without thinking. “Damn Raphael to hell.”
The prince’s eyes go wide, and he starts to laugh. Lovino turns a darker shade of scarlet, secretly delighted he could give the prince this moment of joy.
When Prince Henrique becomes King Henrique, Antonio is at his right hand. In private, the brothers embrace, silently seeking comfort for their departed father. Antonio gets on one knee and pledges his allegiance.
“Stop that, Toni,” his brother laughs, pulling him up by the shoulders. “You don’t have to prove your loyalty to me. I’ve always known.”
Antonio’s smile is gentle then, grateful, for he knows that family can be fraught between royals, but at least that pain has no home here. “Would the king appreciate his brother’s counsel?” asks Antonio after a moment.
Henrique narrows his eyes curiously. “Go on?”
A brotherly, humorous nudge. “The king needs a queen.”
On Henrique’s wedding night, there is a huge ball, and Prince Antonio gets too drunk. He wanders out to a balcony several hundreds of feet above ground, and Lovino worries he’s going to fall. The man ambles, head lolling, glazed eyes penetrating into the gardens below.
“Come on now, Prince Antonio, let’s head back inside.” Lovino dares to put a hand on his elbow.
“In a minute,” Antonio slurs, drooping on the balcony wall.
“Come on,” Lovino says more forcefully. He wonders if he ought to pry the bottle out of Antonio’s hand.
“I wish I was in love with someone who’d have me.” Antonio says it like a passing thought, and it perhaps is; one of those floating little daydreams that spew out when drunk.
Lovino inhales sharply. Forces himself to focus on the task. His primary job, really his only job, is to ensure Prince Antonio’s safety. So he takes the bottle out of the prince’s hand and tries to urge him by the shoulder. “Come on now, Your Majesty, get away from the balcony.”
“Henrique’s happy, so I’m happy,” says Antonio, ignoring his guard’s wishes. “But there’s something to just…being in love yourself. Having that to yourself. All my wealth and power, but he still leaves me breathless.”
“He?” Lovino pauses, dropping his hand to his side.
The prince’s eyes drift over to Lovino’s, and for once, they are vulnerable. “I mean you,” he says vaguely, and tries to reach for the bottle in Lovino’s hand. He misses badly, and stumbles forward, falling into the knight’s arms.
Antonio groans, pressing his head into Lovino’s metal-guarded shoulder. “M’dizzy and you’re so cold.” He means the reinforced steel that makes for an uncomfortable place to rest a spinning skull.
For the first time, Lovino feel a sense of warm, confident control. For so long had Prince Antonio stolen his breath away, left him embarrassed and speechless, feeling shy and defensive. Tonight there is only affection, and the desire to hold.
“I would have you,” Lovino says in barely above a whisper. Antonio slowly raises his head. Scrunches his eyes open and shut as the world spins around him. His eyes are the sunniest parts of this chilly night. There is love poetry written in the stars.