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Once upon a time…

A knock on the door woke Char. He opened one eye, noticed it was dark in the room, and decided the knock had been only a part of his dream.

Then, the knock repeated. The deep sound of knocking against the wood was louder this time and whoever was on the other side seemed determined.

Char opened both eyes, groaned, and disentangled from the bedsheets. He approached the door but before he opened it, he glanced in the mirror to see if he appeared decent. Once he made sure it was safe for him to welcome any intruder, he opened the door and noticed a servant whose face was white as a sheet as he was trembling against the wall.

“What is it?” Char asked, convinced there was a problem too big for the servant to solve but not big enough to wake him – the prince.

“Your Highness…,” the servant cleared his throat but continued whispering, which was unacceptable towards a member of the royalty. “There seems to be a… a dysfunction among the staff…”

“A dysfunction?” Char frowned. He had hoped to sound more indignant but found himself unable to produce a sound louder than a whisper. He cleared his throat as he watched the servant grow even paler.

“What’s happening?” Char asked, trying to force his throat to let out a yell or at least something more than that vulnerable string of sighs.

“The staff woke up today all feeling well but when we wanted to greet each other, we found we couldn’t.”

“Is no one able to speak properly?”

The servant only shook his head, then hung it down in despair. Char wondered what could be the cause of this peculiar disposition but then realised that it would be better to turn to someone more knowledgeable.

“Go back to work as if nothing’s wrong. I’ll take care of it,” Char assured, then added, “Don’t speak if you don’t have to.”

Who knew what caused this inconvenience, if it was curable or if it could get worse.

The servant nodded, bowed and left Char alone in the dark corridor.

The first person that came to Char’s mind was his uncle. After all, shouldn’t the king have all the answers? But lately, Char had found it difficult to trust his uncle and began keeping things from him – things he knew would disappoint his uncle and could cause Char to lose the throne.

Things like the fact that Char didn’t want to lead an army. Things like the fact that Char didn’t intend to pick a bride anytime soon or, if possible, at all. Things like the fact that Char had begun observing the gardeners from the window in his tower and dreaming of their strong dirty hands…

Char shook his head to dispel the distracting thoughts and headed for the royal physician’s chamber.

Before he knocked, Char thought about all the treatments doctor Frederick had him go through only to get no improvement whatsoever. Suddenly, asking doctor Frederick for advice in a matter seemingly more serious than the flu appeared pointless if not potentially dangerous.

After taking a deep breath, Char stepped away from the door. He couldn’t imagine a single helpful piece of advice from his physician.

With the two men being Char’s first choice in the face of incoming crisis but turning out useless, Char realised he had no one else to turn to. He could only hope it would pass before sunrise, that it was just temporary.

He returned to his chamber and sat by the window to look at the gardens just before dawn. As the sun started appearing on the horizon, Char thought of an idea.

He drank some water from the cup by his bed and cleared his throat again and again. Then, he attempted to sing. He’d always loved singing, just not necessarily in front of the whole court. But in private, in the cosy space of his chambers, he would indulge in creating and recreating melodies with his own voice.

Now, however, he found himself unable to utter any note. The air seemed to fail to engage Char’s vocal cord and left his throat in a form of an ugly murmur.

Char closed his eyes, defeated.

*****

Two weeks later…

Johann was standing outside a brothel as his lady friends kept throwing his stuff at him – jars with herbs, drugs, pills, underwear and other personal belongings that he could fit in a bag and carry. He laughed as he picked the things from the ground, which met with even more annoyed grunts of the girls.

“Get lost! You won’t meet a girl sympathetic to you for miles!”

Johann bowed and gave a salute to the women. Then, he headed west, in the direction of Lamia.

Even before he passed the gates of the kingdom, Johann knew something was wrong. Instead of chatting, quarrelling or simple shouting, Johann heard no more than the murmur of people on the streets. As he went through the market, he was amazed at how disciplined everyone seemed. Hardly anyone opened their mouths – people just exchanged products or money from hands to hands with barely a whisper.

Johann started regretting he’d come there but more than that, he became afraid that what he observed was the result of an autocratic ruler who sowed fear among his subjects. A man of his reputation, known for dubious behaviour, was probably not a welcome guest to the kingdom of Lamia, Johann realised.

He moved forward and, as he left the market, he spotted a notice fixed to a post.

He read the official document and frowned. Then, a shy smile appeared on his face.

The situation in the kingdom presented a perfect opportunity for him to solve a problem, gain the king’s trust and settle down. Or, if he wanted to, he could just con the king over and over, until there was no kingdom to save. He had to consider his options.

*****

Char knelt by one of the gardeners and cut a few flowers which he put inside a vase with water held by a servant who stood by. The weather was still nice – the sun was shyly shining from behind thin clouds – but there was no denying that the rays were not brightening up the kingdom until there continued to be something rotten in people that disabled them to speak loud and clear.

As he stood up, Char grabbed the vase from the servant’s hands and carried it to the castle himself. On his way there, he saw a man in dark, not quite fitted clothes, heading towards the castle as well. Could it be that he was going to join a queue of doctors formed before the throne? Char decided the man certainly didn’t look like a physician. But perhaps that was the appearance of a doctor from some exotic place.

*****

The sun’s heat warmed Johann’s face as he walked towards the gates of the castle. To his right, a handsome young man was cutting fresh flowers and placing them inside a vase. The gardens looked impressive given the state of the kingdom.

Johann’s eyes widened at the scene inside the castle. There was a line of men, most of them in wigs, ending just before the throne. It seemed as if all the men of science came to Lamia to help the king resolve the unusual disposition.

Johann stood at the end of the line and witnessed the doctors give terrible advice one after another. Someone suggested applying leeches, which turned out to have already been done, sadly, to no avail. With each idea, the king seemed to be less and less convinced that those men could actually help, which didn’t surprise Johann. He only prayed that he could be heard before the king lost all hope in remedying the situation.

The handsome young man from the gardens put the vase next to the throne and left the hall. Johann wondered if the man was worth pursuing but decided to get to it after the audience with the king.

There were ten men left before Johann when the king shook his head, yawned and dismissed the group.

It was at that moment when Johann felt his throat was incredibly dry. It wasn’t exactly sore but something in the air made it feel like there was a layer of dust blocking the windpipe, disabling the voice to come out.

Johann followed the other doctors out of the castle, trying to overhear their conversations. Not one of them seemed to have any idea of what was going on, which made Johann smile as he believed he had the upper hand now. The only question remaining was – what to do with the knowledge (and how to get inside that handsome boy’s pants)?

*****

“I’m tired of listening to these fools,” Char heard his uncle say. The words were a mere whisper but they carried a note of anger and disappointment. The king was rarely ever satisfied, truly.

“Perhaps we need an unconventional approach,” Char suggested.

“Meaning what?”

“I don’t know. But seeing as none of the real doctors know what the problem is, maybe we should focus on a less… scientific approach.”

“Do you mean…magic?”

The frown and disgust on the king’s face were enough to make Char stop talking. There. There was another reason for him not to trust his uncle and never try to suggest anything. It was pointless.

“Forgive me. I don’t know what came over me. I’m tired as well. I should go to bed.” Char bowed and left the room, knowing his uncle would take that as a sign of weakness. Facing problems was never Char’s strong suit but facing his uncle seemed impossible. And it was silly because in less than a month it was Char who would be the king. In less than a month he should be given the crown and the people would expect him to solve every problem.

How was he supposed to do that if he couldn’t even face his uncle?

And what if in a month the peculiar disposition would not be stopped and cured?

Char put on a coat and a hat to hide his curls which made him stand out. He decided to go out to check the people’s mood and opinions about the royal family. An inn seemed the best place for it, although with people not being able to sing and yell, the experience was sure to be less than genuine.

*****

Johann pointed at his empty glass as a sign for the bartender. He decided it would be wise to pretend to be one of the people of Lamia – unable to speak. He kept whispering and gesturing whenever possible to limit the words and to avoid being found out.

As he was downing another beer, Johann saw a man enter the inn. It caught his attention because that evening the inn was not filled with people so everyone who entered appeared conspicuous. However, Johann quickly returned to his drink and focused his eyes on a couple of men playing cards in the corner.

It was only when Johann needed to ask for another beer that he turned to look around the place and saw again the man who stepped in last. Suddenly, despite his sense being dulled by the alcohol, Johann spotted a handful of chestnut curls escaping the man’s hat. He blinked a few times, grabbed the glass of beer, and moved to sit closer to the young man, whose face twisted every time he had a sip of beer but who kept drinking it anyway.

To get the boy’s attention, Johann clinked their glasses and smiled. The boy narrowed his eyes, then looked Johann up and down with a frown.

“I know you,” the boy whispered. “I mean, I’ve seen you. At the castle.”

Glad he was recognised, Johann grinned and nodded.

“What were you doing there?”

“Looking for an occupation,” Johann explained, opening his bag and revealing jars of herbs and pills.

“Are you a doctor?”

Johann moved his head from side to side, adding, “I can cure some diseases.”

The boy sighed and reached for the beer, which, Johann believed, was caused by sheer desperation.

“Do you think someone will find a cure to this one?” the boy asked, reaching for his throat.

Johann looked deep into the boy’s eyes, forgetting for a split second what the question was, then leant closer and whispered, “Would you like to forget about that for a night?”

The boy frowned at the question. Then, as Johann raised his eyebrows suggestively, he saw the boy blush and quickly reach for the beer. No slap or punch followed, which only confirmed his suspicions that the boy could be seduced.

*****

Char downed the drink, enduring its awful taste for the greater good. What was he supposed to do? How was he supposed to respond to such a blunt proposition? It wasn’t that the man wasn’t attractive, no. Obviously, Char found the stranger appealing, physically at least. Given time and perhaps in other circumstances, Char would like to get to know him better. But with things as they were – the terrible condition that spread among people and Char being the heir to the throne – he could not afford that.

One thing was painfully obvious – Char would continue to dream about the stranger for some time. And would most probably regret his decision, whichever he’d make.

“I can’t. I shouldn’t. I can’t.” Char placed the money for the drink on the bar and stood up from his seat when a strong hand on his arm stopped him.

“Forgive me if I was too straightforward. I didn’t mean to be rude. I am simply overwhelmed by your charm,” the stranger explained. “My name is Johann Struensee.”

Johann then released Char from his grip, letting him go if he wished. But Char stayed.

“I’m…” Char wondered if Johann was even aware of whom he was trying to woo. “Call me Char.”

“Char,” Johann repeated in the gentlest whisper Char had ever heard. “I would buy you another drink but I saw the disgust on your face as you tried to finish the previous one.”

Char smiled shyly at the remark. True, he wasn’t used to drinking at inns. And that evening’s experience only confirmed his prejudice. With one small exception.

“I’m not surprised. This must be piss compared to the beer you drink at the castle,” Johann sipped his own drink with mostly feigned delight.

Meanwhile, Char noticed that his hair was sticking out of his hat on the sides. It was high time for him to leave.

“I wish we had met before all that,” Char gestured around his throat and mouth, making Johann pay attention to his jaw. “Or maybe after it was cured…”

“Why does it matter so much to you?”

Char looked at his feet, regretting his fate forbade him doing what he craved to do. In other life, perhaps…

“I’m sorry. I need to go now. Goodbye, Johann.”

*****

That kid… Against his better judgement, Johann began imagining who Char might actually be. A servant of the king, perhaps? A personal advisor? A…lover?

Swiftly, Johann grabbed his bag and sneaked out of the inn to follow Char. He kept his distance, half-hoping the boy would notice and half-hoping he wouldn’t.

As Char entered the castle from the gardens, Johann stopped and watched him disappear inside the gates. There was nothing he could do about that, no way for him to get past the guards.

Johann groaned, disgusted by his own perseverance. Why was he so obsessed with that boy when he could have every woman (and man) in every brothel in Lamia? It was ridiculous!

Then, as he was about to leave, Johann heard the balcony door being opened a few meters above and someone stepping outside.

Char.

Johann hid behind some bushes – a place perfectly safe form the guards’ sight. He stared at Char, trying to pinpoint precisely the thing or things which made the boy so desirable. Why couldn’t he look away?

And then, suddenly, a stick broke under his heel.

*****

Mortified, Char found the source of the sound. He spotted Johann behind his favourite bush and smiled. There was something magical about that man being able to find the one most perfect spot in the royal gardens for a nightly rendezvous.

Then, Char realised, the guards started heading towards the direction of the sound. In a spur of the moment, he thought he had to do something to not let Johann be found out. So he cleared his throat. Loudly. As loud as he could. And he stomped his foot on the ground.

As the guards looked up, he smiled and waved.

“Sorry, it’s just me. Don’t be bothered.”

Seeing the guards return to their posts by the gates, Char decided to act. That was his only chance at…something. So he grabbed a pair of scissors, put on a robe and went downstairs.

“I feel like the flowers and the plants bring some relief, don’t you?” Char turned to the guards on his way out, then walked in the direction of the bush where Johann was hiding. He stopped by it and started trimming it.

They were standing on both sides of the bush, divided by the wall of leaves. Suddenly, Char felt long slim fingers slide over his. In a moment of surprise, Char dropped the scissors.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Char whispered as quietly as he could as he picked up the scissors.

“Should you?” came the reply from the other side of the bush.

“Look…”

This time, when the fingers caressed his, he allowed it. He was prepared for it. He craved it.

“Char…”

He stifled a moan at hearing his name uttered so softly, with so much affection and desire.

“I can’t let you in. I can’t… Ouch!” Paying more attention to the caress than to the scissors, Char cut himself. The guards, hearing the prince’s call of distress, moved towards him but he stopped them halfway, gesturing that there was no need to be alarmed.

Skilled, gentle hands on the other side of the bush were already working magic. At one point Char felt something rougher and wet on his finger and it wasn’t difficult to guess what it was. Then, there were some herbs applied and Char’s finger was returned to him good as new.

“Thank you,” Char whispered.

“I’m not asking you to let me inside the castle, disrobe and let me mount you. I just want to see you again.”

Char blushed at the words and the image behind them. “Come tomorrow, then. You’re looking for an occupation, correct? We need a qualified physician.”

They remained in silence for the next few minutes, with only the scissors making any noise. Then, a reply came from behind the bush, “I’ll cure you. Tomorrow.”

*****

That night, Johann found it extremely difficult to fall asleep. He was plotting how to offer the cure for the kingdom that would earn him an eternal gratitude from the king and a full access to Char’s chamber. He’d already promised the boy to cure him. And he believed he knew a way to give Char a taste of that promise. But should he already reveal the reason for the peculiar problem in the kingdom?

*****

Char put on his favourite black leather trousers and a loose white shirt with opened cuffs. He considered wearing a waistcoat but decided just a navy blue jacket on top would do. As a final touch, Char put a silver chain around his neck. Once fully dressed, he was ready to go down to the main hall and watch a line of medicine-men try their best to convince his uncle they had the cure.

*****

This time Johann came by the castle early, eager to be one of the first to be heard before the king. He had a slick plan that would grant him exactly what he wanted. And what he wanted was the boy who entered the hall impeccably dressed and stood by a pillar near the door as if scared to take any step further.

Johan was fifth in line when a man spoke loudly, “There must be something in the water.”

The king’s eyebrow rose in interest. Hearing the man’s voice must have had an additional impact and been a factor in his argument.

“I came here two days ago and have not yet drunk your water, and can you hear me?” The man looked around with his arms outstretched for a dramatic effect.

“So what do you propose we do?” the king asked, visibly convinced he was close to solving the problem.

“You need to filter the water. Use sieves. Wait a few days and everything should return to normal.”

For a second, Johann wondered if he’d just been outmanoeuvred. But then he remembered that yes, the air affected the water as well. So dealing only with water wasn’t going to help.

With a sigh of relief, Johann straightened his pose in line. But his turn wasn’t going to come that day. After hearing a pretty convincing argument, the king dismissed the rest of the men in line.

It was at that moment when Johann realised what his hesitation cost him. He looked at Char, who seemed just as taken aback as he was – with his eyes wide open and mouth slightly parted in shock. But then a smile appeared on the boy’s face. Evidently, he was happy that the problem was en route to being solved.

Johann realised that his plan had failed and that he was, in the best case scenario, held up for a few days. With Char’s mouth hanging open and then his elated expression Johann had nothing to do It was not thanks to him that the boy was finally seeing hope.

So should he break that spell? If he truly cared about Char, which, he started to believe he did, he should let it go. At least for the few days, it would take to filter the water and realise the problem remained.

But how could he let Char’s heart be broken once he found out?

Something, whatever it was, call it pride, affection or desire; something wouldn’t let Johann just step away and leave.

*****

The king had ordered the water in the whole kingdom to be filtered from now on and the results were promised to be seen in the next few days.

Char couldn’t explain why he felt so conflicted. For the first time since the whispering disease inflicted the kingdom, there arose a real possibility to get rid of it. He should have been elated about the outcome. And he was, partly.

But as the night fell, he was standing on the balcony, staring in the distance, thinking of how disappointed he felt. What was the reason of that stain on his happiness?

Suddenly, he heard a noise under the balcony. It was getting old.

Char was tempted to make Johann wait a bit longer, maybe let him make some more noise (so that Char could determine how much the man really wanted him to meet him), but he didn’t wish Johann to be caught. So Char put on a robe and went down, realising it was the second night in a row that he left his chamber to wander in the gardens. He couldn’t pretend he was trimming the same bush again and again. Who knew how many more nights Johann was going to wake him, which led Char to wonder if he was too pliant, if maybe he should resist a bit more.

He nodded politely when he passed the guards, then headed for the wall of leaves.

“Why are you here?” Char whispered into the bush.

“He was wrong. He was partly right but it won’t help. Not in the long run.”

Char sighed. He was being deceived. By someone. Most probably by that man on the other side of the bush who was acting all sweet but Char could imagine all the bad intentions behind the act.

“You’re late, Johann. You promised to cure me.”

“I still can. Please, Char. Come with me. I’ll give you your voice back. You cannot imagine how badly I want to hear it.”

The blush on Char’s face was inevitable. It spread all over his cheeks and neck, spilling like paint staining the marble skin.

“I can’t.”

“We’ll be back before sunrise. Please.”

“It’s not as simple as you think.”

“Yes, it is. Haven’t you ever snuck out of the castle for a rendezvous?”

This time Char’s cheeks reddened due to anger and shame. No, he’d never left the castle in the middle of the night for a secret encounter. But recently, after the outing to the inn, he began wanting to.

“Give me a quarter. Leave the gardens and wait for me by the market. If you’re not there, I swear, I will have you flogged.”

There was a chuckle on the other side.

“I’ll be there. Give me your hand.”

Hesitantly, Char moved his palm over the leaves, then through the thickness, into the dark unknown. This time he was expecting the touch so he didn’t withdraw when he felt it, but it wasn’t exactly what he’d been prepared for. He felt something soft pressing against the back of his hand. It was brief and gentle, like a butterfly’s weight placed and removed from the skin on his hand. A kiss. A promise.

*****

Johann was standing by an empty stall, shaking his head at his own silly infatuation. He was petting a horse he’d stolen a mere hour before when he spotted a maiden walk towards him. He bowed his head in a polite gesture, wondering what the woman was doing there so late at night. Perhaps she was also heading for a rendezvous.

He was stupefied when the maiden stopped by before him and started petting the horse.

“It’s beautiful,” came a whisper. Only when Johann heard it and saw a flash of soft curls beneath a bonnet did he almost choke on a laughter of surprise.

“Char…”

“I had to improvise. The maids at the castle are known for sneaking out.”

Johann helped Char onto the horse, then mounted himself.

“Where are we going?” the boy asked.

“Not very far but outside the kingdom’s gates.”

The ride took them less than an hour. The stars were still high on the sky, twinkling. Every once in a while Johann heard Char sigh with his head thrown back, his hair loosely caught in the wind. It was a boy’s simple pleasure. Johann had long forgotten how to take joy in such uneventful, ordinary things. Sure, sex was still a pleasant experience. Theft also remained thrilling. But other than that – other than extreme activities involving dire consequences – everything else was dull.

Johann stopped the horse when they reached a small hill just outside the kingdom. It was a good place strategically. One had a view of whole Lamia from there.

“It’s wonderful up here,” Char whispered as he dismounted.

Johann was glad to see the sky was clearer there. He inhaled deeply the fresh air of the forest and was certain his new plan would be a success. He only needed to buy some time.

He looked at Char, who was silently contemplating the view, and smiled.

“You distract me, dressed like that.”

Char turned to him, his cheeks all pink and lips curved in a smug.

“Would you rather I undressed?”

“I wouldn’t dare to ask.”

“So what about that cure you promised me? Again.”

Johann took a few steps towards Char and reached out, pointing at the boy’s hand. “May I?”

Char nodded and hesitantly offered his hand which Johann gently accepted. He then moved to stand behind Char and put their conjoined hands on Char’s belly.

“Breathe,” Johann instructed. “Breathe deeply. As if you were about to be drowned and needed to enjoy the air while you still have it. Breathe as if you wanted to inhale all the air in the world and become one with it. Breathe as if you were just strangled and forgot how the air tastes.”

With every sentence, Johann felt Char’s chest rise and fall with each deep breath. Soon, he stopped talking and enjoyed listening to Char inhale and exhale. As they stood silently, both only breathing, the only sounds came from the wilderness of the forest. The owls were hooting in the distance, the wind rustled the leaves above them. Johann believed he could even hear the stars as they twinkled.

*****

“The air here–” Char almost choke on his own words. His voice was breaking, something between a whisper and a screech, but he was speaking. He put a hand over his mouth as if he’d been caught swearing and proclaiming heresy. Then, he saw the smile on Johann’s face.

“Easy. Clear your throat and keep breathing,” the man advised.

So he did. And as he cleared his throat, Char heard his own voice stuck somewhere deep within his chest. He inhaled slowly and spoke, “So this isn’t about the water?”

In response, Johann pointed at the night sky over Lamia. “Do you see that thin layer of something that looks like dust?”

Char nodded, realising there really was something like a cloud over his kingdom. “How do we get rid of it?”

“I might have an idea.”

With a grin, Char looked into Johann’s eyes. There truly was a cause and cure for all that’d been happening for the last two weeks. And Johann really had the answer.

“We have to tell my uncle about that. You will be rewarded.”

“Your uncle? What does your uncle have to do with anything?”

“Oh, I– oh… I guess when I told you to call me Char, I didn’t…think…”

As he stuttered, Char noticed a change in Johann’s expression. The frown gradually disappeared, giving way to the signs of shock – the parted lips and widened eyes. It was sinking down, the realisation of it all – of everything that had been between them: the words and gestures and promises.

“Are you…Who are you?” Johann asked.

“I am Prince Charmont of Lamia,” Char admitted with his head hanging down, ashamed of who he was and what he’d done. For all that time he doubted Johann’s true intentions, it turned out it was Char who was the deceitful one.

Johann turned away and placed his hands on his neck. Then, quickly, he turned again to face Char. “I’ve kidnapped the Prince.”

“You didn’t kidnap me. I went willingly.”

“In a maid’s dress.”

“I–”

“Stop. Your Highness. Please, let me take you back to the castle.”

“Johann…” Char’s voice broke again. This time it was not the dust but a great lump in his throat. He was on the verge of crying. This one terrible omission was the reason he’d just lost a potential friend. Not even a lie. Just a simple fact that he hadn’t bothered to mention he was the heir to the throne. Would Johann come to him at night had he known who Char was? Was all he felt a lie?

There was no point in making Johann’s night more miserable by arguing. It, whatever it was, was over. Char took Johann’s hand and mounted the horse. He felt terribly ridiculous now in the tight dress and the bonnet.

The question of what was to follow waited formed on Char’s tongue. Instead of asking it, though, Char just let the wind ruffle his hair and hoped to make his every remaining second with Johann count.

*****

Johann asked for another drink despite the fact that he was already wobbling in his seat. His eyes were heavy and his throat felt dry. He kept drinking just to keep himself occupied. He didn’t want to think about Char or Char’s soft skin or Char’s sparkling eyes or Char’s dreamy voice…

Johann shook his head and gulped some beer.

The best solution he could think of was to leave Lamia. Then again, he did know how to solve the problem of the whispering kingdom. But so did Char now. Johann wasn’t necessary in the equation anymore. He was free to leave. Without the reward. Without satisfaction. Without honour, it would almost seem.

He had snuck into the castle at night, well, two nights.

He had tried to seduce the Prince, and apparently succeeded.

He had taken the Prince from the castle.

And as he brought him back, Char told him to return in the morning. That the kingdom could still be saved and that Johann could still get his reward. And that…Char would wait for him. That from then on, Char would always stand on the balcony and stare at his favourite bush.

Johann had been cruel. He hadn’t replied, hadn’t bothered to as much as look at Char as he had ridden away.

Now, as he sipped another beer (who knew how many he’d had already), he believed he understood what that stinging in his chest meant – it was a pang of regret.

He’d had a magnificent boy in his arms and he let him go. Never in his life had he given up so easily, so quickly.

Sure, there was really no way he could be with Char – the boy was a Prince. He was a man. There was no official happy ending for them. But maybe, just maybe, they could come up with a sly plan to sneak out every once in a while and deceive everyone. Perhaps…

Johann supported his head on his arms and imagined how wonderful it could be – holding Char again, grabbing a fistful of the boy’s soft hair, listening to his sweet voice…

*****

Although potentially too early, Char was ordered to help with organising a ball. As soon as people regained their voice, a celebration was supposed to follow.

But Char was convinced that there was disappointment on the way.

He needed to talk to his uncle. He had to find Johann and explain everything. Or he could do it without Johann. He would show his uncle the cloud over Lamia, just like Johann had showed it to him. The kingdom was more important than some boyish infatuation.

As Char entered the main hall, though, he spotted a familiar figure bowing before his uncle.

Johann.

He needed to know what was being said but he wasn’t sure if he should make his presence known. A fear of discovery grew in him. Would Johann risk exposure just to expose Char? Would his uncle believe him?

Suddenly, a servant passed by, causing Char to lose his balance and stagger right into the hall.

“Char, it’s good you’re here. Come and look at this man. He’s either a madman or a true thinker.”

“Oh. Why is that?” Char feigned surprise.

“He claims it’s not the water that’s causing this.” Char’s uncle pointed at his throat.

“Really?”

“It’s more complicated than that. There is a layer of polluted air hanging over Lamia. And it gets into the water.”

“You’re saying we get rid of the cloud, we get rid of the problem?”

“Essentially, yes.”

Char nodded and approached his uncle. “So what do we do now?”

“It will be your kingdom in less than a month. What would you do if you were the king today?”

Char looked at Johann with feigned indifference while his heart started bleeding deep within his chest. Then he straightened up and took a few steps towards Johann.

“I’ll go at the border to check if there really is a cloud over Lamia. As soon as I’m back I’ll report to you, uncle, and we’ll think of a solution.”

“The solution is more windmills,” Johann announced.

That was something new. Char nodded again, kissed the signet on his uncle’s finger, and beckoned Johann to follow him.

*****

Against better judgement, Johann decided to offer his hand for support as Char was about to enter the carriage. He was glad to see the smile on the boy’s face as he accepted the hand. Apparently, it must have seemed like something more than a simple polite gesture.

As soon as they were both inside the carriage, Char tapped against the roof in order to let the coachman know that they were ready to go.

They drove in silence driving Johann crazy. He was curious what Char was thinking as they passed the gates of the kingdom. He wanted to know where he stood or if he had any footing underneath at all. But it seemed inappropriate to speak to the Prince without permission.

However, when the carriage stopped, Johann plucked up the courage to lean in and reach out for Char’s hand.

“What will you tell your uncle once we’re back at the castle?”

“What should I tell him?”

Johann swallowed and withdrew. He watched Char open the door and get out of the carriage. There was nothing he could do but to follow. So he did. And in the prolonged silence they both stood on the same hill they had been standing that night. Char stared at the layer of dust and smoke over his kingdom but Johann knew the boy was really reliving their time together. So was he. He remembered the way Char’s chest rose and fell under his palm. And then the boy’s sweet voice. He wished he could hear it again saying that everything was forgiven and that everything would be alright from now on.

Instead, he heard Char take deep breaths. But the experienced physician he was, Johann recognised Char was trembling, his breathing was not steady. Nor was his voice when he spoke.

“Should we take a walk?”

Johann watched the guards and the coachman open their mouths in shock. Their Prince was speaking, loud and clear, though his voice was breaking.

Johann nodded and followed Char on the path leading higher up the hill.

“I will tell him that there’s a cloud of dust over Lamia and that we need to build more windmills and fans,” Char said once they were far enough from the guards.

“You trust that I’m right.”

“Was it something you told me to woo me?”

“You know it wasn’t.”

“No. It wasn’t. Or even if it was, it was true.”

Johann nodded and took a clumsy step forward without realising Char had stopped walking so he almost bumped into him. Avoiding Char’s eyes, Johann withdrew.

“You also said you were looking for an occupation,” Char continued.

Suddenly, it dawned on Johann that he was hearing Char’s voice, undisturbed and unlimited. The meaning of the words faded behind the sole melody. It wasn’t the first time he heard it but for the first time he believed he’d genuinely miss that voice. He’d miss Char.

He’d thought he’d discovered the person behind that voice, which was only partly true, but now he believed he had the whole image. Or as whole as was possible at that point.

“Would you?” Johann heard Char ask and only then realised he hadn’t been listening to a thing but just daydreaming in a most magical accompaniment.

“Pardon?”

Char frowned, then said, “It would really mean a lot to me.”

“Forgive me, Char, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Oh.”

“I was lost in thought. Could you, please, repeat what you said?”

“Johann…” Char seemed to be lost, too. Evidently, he’d been spilling his heart out and Johann wasn’t even listening.

“Please.”

“I was wondering if you’d like to be my personal physician. The current one doesn’t seem up to the task.”

Johann blinked. He’d hoped to hear that question. Being a royal physician, being Char’s physician granted him a fulfilling life. He’d have food, drink, clothes… He’d travel. He’d be close to Char constantly.

“It would be an honour.” Johann bowed, and added, “…and a pleasure.”

With a smile, Char offered his hand for Johann to kiss as a gesture of reciprocity and agreement. Johann remembered the softness of Char’s skin and the surprise on Char’s face as he placed a kiss on his hand the other night.

*****

This time the silence wasn’t uncomfortable. As soon as they returned to the castle, they went to talk to Char’s uncle.

“He’s right,” Char said without hesitation. “There is a cloud of dust over Lamia. The air is different outside the kingdom. After taking a few deep breaths you can speak.”

Char’s uncle closed his eyes and exhaled loudly. It was definitely the loudest sigh of relief Char had ever heard.

“We need to implement his plan as quickly as we can. More windmills! More fans! Fans everywhere. We need to get rid of that cloud over our heads.”

Char nodded. Then, the grin on his face faded as he approached his uncle hesitantly.

“There is one more thing…”

“What is it?”

Char turned to look at Johann, then back to his uncle.

“I’d like doctor Struensee to stay at court. I want him to be my physician.”

“What? Why? What about Frederick?”

“I can’t remember the last time he actually cured any illness of mine.”

“What makes you think–”

“Allow me this, uncle.”

“Granted.”

With that question out of the way, Char bowed and beckoned Johann to leave the room.

*****

Johann’s eyes wandered curiously from door to door, from one painting to the next, from one sculpture to another. It was the first time he was in a castle so obviously, everything was a marvel to him. Still, in between glances, he managed to look at Char, who was leading him to his chamber.

It turned out Johann was supposed to stay in a room next to Char. He was going to have his own balcony and there was a door between their chambers in cases of emergency. Johann wondered if Char saw his grin at the mention of a passage between them. It made a lot of things so much easier. He wouldn’t have to sneak out and hide behind bushes anymore.

In one corner of the room, there was an empty wardrobe.

“It’ll be filled as soon as you’re measured. All your clothes will be fitted especially for you,” Char explained.

“Thank you.”

“I’ll let you get settled, then.” But just as Char reached for the knob, he suddenly halted and turned to Johann one more time. “I know this doesn’t belong to your duties but I’d love for you to help me organise a ball.”

“A ball? Your Highness…”

Char’s eyebrows rose at the title.

“I’d be honoured to help you.”

“Good. I’ll see you at dinner.”

Before Johann managed to make a fool of himself, Char left the room, leaving him to his own devices.

That night, he couldn’t fall asleep. He was lying in bed, thinking about Char. There was only one wall between them – a wall with a door in it. It couldn’t have been simpler. It couldn’t have been made more possible. But Johann wasn’t about to barge, not when he got so far. He’d wait for Char to make that move. He’d wait for an invitation.

*****

In the next few days, the windmills were built and installed. People were informed about the problem and told to wear cloths over their mouths and noses to protect them from inhaling more dust and filthy air. The chimneys were inspected and cleared. Everything according to Johann’s instructions. Soon, Char hoped, everything was going to return to normal.

Everything apart from one small detail.

He was lusting after Johann.

He was craving his physician’s strong hands on him, imagining himself writhing on the sheets as he was being held down to it.

He wasn’t exactly sure how to go about courting someone, especially someone like Johann, but he believed he’d find a way to approach the man and make his desire known.

Perhaps at the ball…

*****

People were cheering the king like crazy. On the day of the ball, the majority was able to speak loud and clear, proclaiming the king their saviour. It was heart-warming to see the joy and relief on everyone’s faces.

To Johann’s surprise, the king addressed both him and Char as the ones deserving all the praise. It was Johann who noticed and solved the problem; it was Char who believed him and who implemented his plan.

Johann was also officially announced as the royal physician and promised a title once he proved his worth at court.

People danced and sang and drank and ate. Lamia had never seen a celebration so great.

Only Char seemed reluctant to give in. Johann watched as the Prince was sitting in his seat, mustering a fake smile or yawning behind his palm. When Johann finished the dance with another lady, he looked at Char’s empty seat and frowned.

“Where’s His Majesty the Prince?” he asked the king as he bowed before the throne.

“He said he wasn’t feeling very well. He retired to his chambers. He seemed tired, didn’t he?”

“Yes, Your Majesty. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go and check on the Prince.”

The king nodded, granting permission to leave, so Johann headed for Char’s chamber. He knocked twice before Char peaked from behind the door.

“May I come in?”

Char opened the door for Johann to enter, then closed it.

“Your uncle said you weren’t feeling well,” Johann explained and watched Char rub his neck.

“I’m just tired…”

“But you haven’t even danced with anyone.”

“I’m not interested in dancing with anyone there.”

Johann nodded. He was standing across the room from Char and was desperate to shorten the distance.

With his first step, he watched Char lift his head. There was awareness growing between them.

Seeing as Char wasn’t going to shy away from him, Johann took another step forward. This time Char mimicked him with eyes on Johann’s feet.

The next two steps were quicker, allowing Char to take only one before he managed to realise what was happening.

They were standing toe to toe, faces mere inches away. Johann felt Char’s shallow breath on his neck.

“Will you do me the honour?” Johann asked, offering a hand that created a bridge between them. Char placed his own palm on top, accepting the offer.

Johann manoeuvred Char’s hand to lie on his shoulder while his own armed snaked around Char’s waist to rest on the boy’s back. With his left hand Johann grabbed Char’s right one. Once in position, Johann took a step to the side, nudging Char to move as well. They swayed in tune with the music that reached them through the walls from the main hall.

It seemed tense at first – Johann was putting his feet carefully on the ground, avoiding stepping on Char, who was watching Johann’s every step as if trying to figure out the following move.

After a few embarrassing moments, Johann shook his head in frustration. He didn’t want to dance if it was making things only more difficult. He wished for Char to relax and feel free rather than follow an absurd etiquette in the quiet of his own chambers.

Johann halted and looked at Char, who returned the gaze.

“I don’t think either of us is enjoying this.”

“I’m sorry. I’m not used to–”

“I meant that perhaps we shouldn’t conform.”

“Oh.”

Johann took Char’s hands in his own, lifted them to his mouth, and placed soft kisses on both of them.

“Embrace me the way you want to,” Johann whispered, opening his arms, offering his whole body. To which Char responded by closing the distance between them. Johann felt Char’s arms around his waist. Then a head rested in the crook of his neck. Their chests were pressed together, forcing one to inhale when the other exhaled. For that brief moment they were conjoined, their bodies working like two pieces of one organism.

As they were standing there – intertwined – Johann shifted his weight from one leg to the other, pulling Char with him. Then Char took a tiny step sideways. Just like that, they kept swinging, like a pendulum.

Until Johann couldn’t handle it anymore and buried his hands in Char’s hair.

“Do you remember that night at the inn?” Johann asked and when he felt Char press harder against his chest, he continued, “Do you remember how you wished we’d met before you lost your voice?”

This time Char whined.

“I’m a man of science but I believe we were destined to meet when we did,” Johann whispered straight into Char’s ear. Surprised, he heard a chuckle in response.

“Yes. I can’t imagine it happening any other way.”

Having heard that, Johann reached out and caught Char by the chin to make the boy look at him. But before he managed to ask a burning question, Char beat him to it, saying, “Kiss me.”

With a smile, Johann caressed Char’s cheek. Then, without hesitation, he pressed his lips against Char’s.

The music continued several rooms away. The world didn’t stop spinning. Everything went on as if nothing unusual was happening between those two men.

Johann broke the kiss, inhaled, and upon closing his eyes he kissed Char again.

*****

The world didn’t collapse. Char didn’t lose the ground under his feet. If anything, he felt heavy, firmly hitched to the ground. Steady.

The kisses were in no way tentative. Johann made it easy. Almost too easy. Char remembered the ways every women Johann had danced with had looked. They had all smiled, with blushed cheeks and sparking eyes. Char wondered if he looked the same.

When Johann broke the second kiss, Char pulled away slightly. He cradled Johann’s face in his palms, thinking how it was the most beautiful man he had ever seen and wishing he could have him forever by his side. If only…

“Don’t stop,” Char whispered and leant in for another kiss. But soon, he ceased the frenzy by taking a step back and steadying his breathing. “Go back to the hall. Tell my uncle I retired and no one is to disturb me. Then come back here.”

Johann nodded and after one more kiss disappeared behind the door.

Char loosened the buttons and ribbons in his shirt. He took off the jacket and the waistcoat. Then, the shoes followed. When he was comfortable enough, he lay down on his bed, waiting for Johann to return.

He wasn’t about to let the man make love to him but he wished to spend the night together and prove that it wasn’t going to destroy anything. Char wanted to kiss Johann and watch the world around him remain undisturbed.

*****

As soon as he returned, Johann knocked on the door, just in case. There was no answer but he entered the room anyway. The sight that greeted him was surprising: Char was lying on his bedcovers, lacking some garments, relaxed. Johann thought he’d seen a painting like that somewhere. He wished he could draw to have that picture and hold onto it forever.

In a lazy motion, Char moved his head to the side and, as he looked straight at Johann, he tapped the bedsheets beside him. It was a signal for Johann to join the Prince. So he did.

He considered taking off the jacket, too, but he didn’t want to appear too eager to undress and didn’t wish to scare Char off. So he lay down as he was.

As soon as his head hit the pillows, he felt a hand on his chest and a head near his own. They weren’t as close as they were when they’d been kissing but somehow, it felt more intimate. Being allowed a kiss while standing was one thing. Being offered the space on Char’s bed and approached with so much comfort was a different matter. There was trust between them as well as desire and hope.

“Am I a fool?” Char whispered close to Johann’s ear.

There were so many answers to that. Johann had wondered about that himself. Was he a fool? Could he really stay at court and act as the royal physician? Could that be his safe place? And could he include in that vision an affair with the Prince?

“Can I have you?” Char persisted.

“I’m already yours.”

Johann heard a sigh and felt the body next to him press even closer, then go limp. He’d fall asleep holding a lovely creature in his arms. And the world kept spinning.

*****

Two weeks later…

Char pounded his fist against the desk. He looked around the room, feeling completely abandoned. With the comfort of Johann’s presence gone, Char found himself lost.

The reality had caught up with them rather fast.

Right after the celebration ball, Char had had to begin preparations for the coronation. He’d been told what to do and say. He’d been measured and new clothes had been sewn for him. Then, his uncle had started nagging him to keep his eyes open for a potential bride.

At first, he’d dismissed it. He’d kept repeating that he was still young and only starting the reign. Marriage could wait.

Then, as his uncle wouldn’t stop, Char had promised to be open to possibilities.

But the worst blow had come from the person he’d least expected.

Barely a week after their first kiss, Johann had agreed that a married king, especially if the marriage was a form of a union, would raise the status of Lamia.

“So is that it? Are you done with me?” Char had asked angrily. And when Johann tried to calm him and embrace him, he added, “You know I don’t want a bride. I don’t want a woman. I don’t want anyone.”

“I know. But we’re…impossible. You know that, too.”

“So am I just supposed to give up on us? On you? Is that what you want?”

“You know it’s not.”

“I was a fool. Still am,” Char had concluded.

He’d watched Johann struggle to do the right thing until finally the man had simply left the room.

And there Char was, a day later, sitting by his desk, alone, hoping to find a solution to all things. He wished he’d had Johann by his side. The man was better at coming up with ideas. That is until he’d decided to just leave without a word. But perhaps that had been the best idea at the time.

“No!” Char’s scream resonated within the four walls of his chamber as he took a piece of paper and started writing.

*****

Johann walked through the pouring rain. His coat was wet and sticky and so was his hair. The ribbon in his hair got loose and disappeared into the mud as he was dashing towards the castle. He almost stumbled and fell as he pushed the front door and trotted inside. After a quick look around, he made his way to Char’s chamber.

“Your Highness…” he uttered the second he crossed the threshold. After a courtly bow, he looked up, all hopeful and with a ghosting smile on his face. “Char…”

The name was barely a whisper, a forbidden fruit in his mouth. Fortunately, there was no one around to witness his familiarity.

Char looked up at Johann from his desk and frowned. Then, his features softened and Johann could swear he saw pity in the blue eyes. He must have looked really terrible – soaking wet and seeking Char’s attention, desperate. That was what he was.

“If Your Highness is still… if… you still care for me…”

Whatever composure he’d usually had abandoned him completely. He was lost for words and could only hope Char understood what he was trying to say.

“I’m in the middle of something, doctor Struensee,” Char announced seriously, and pointed to the papers on his desk.

“Naturally. Forgive me…Your Highness. I did not mean to interrupt your work,” Johann uttered humbly, convinced everything was lost.

“Highly important work,” Char amended with a half-smile.

Johann kept nodding frantically and started withdrawing from the room.

“Johann! Do you not want to have a look?”

Slightly confused, Johann nodded once, slowly, and approached the desk. His lips parted when he spotted the title of the decree. Marital agreement. And at the very bottom of the document there was a signature. It was done, whatever it was. As soon as it was in a herald’s hands, it was law.

Then, Johann started reading the first line. And the second. And the third. And as the words started coming together, he smiled. Suddenly, everything clicked.

“Do you believe everything will change now?” Johann asked, hopeful but not without fear or hesitation.

Char stood up from his seat with a wide smile. “Not everything, no. Some things remain exactly the same.”

Char took Johann’s hand and placed it on his heart. That one thing, the unmistakable pounding in Char’s chest (as well as Johann’s) would never change.

Then, Char cradled Johann’s head in his palms and closed his eyes. “I’ve got you. You’re mine.”

“Yes. I’m all yours. As I have always been.”

“More so now.”

Johann leant in to place the gentlest peck on Char’s temple. He couldn’t believe this was happening. It all seemed to be a dream. Too beautiful to be true.

“There is still the issue of your birth and your title,” Char said, staining the blissful moment.

“Let’s get back to it after–”

Once more, he was cut off by Char’s lips pressing against his. He could imagine being interrupted like that even when he’d propose. And he wouldn’t mind a bit.