“My gold is on Tarvish.”
“Bollocks. Everyone knows Tarvish, right down to the roots of his bloody family tree. He ain’t the secret prince.”
“Maybe it’s disguise, a cover story, you know—
“Come off it, and hand me your bread if you can’t be bothered—ow!”
“Lay off, then.”
“Do the two of you ever behave? For even five minutes?” Civet asked as he sat down, carefully stacking his pile of books at the edge of the table, well out of harm’s way. “Don’t bother to answer that, the answer is no. It’s a wonder to me your parents haven’t married you each off to give you something more productive to do with your time since obviously school is no chore for you.”
Vyan grinned. “Somebody was up late writing Bell’s history paper.”
“Papers, plural,” Civet replied, but didn’t sound particularly upset. He yawned and looked at them. “So what are you quarreling about this time?”
“Trying to decide who here is the prince in disguise.”
Civet rolled his eyes. “The king would never have sent his only son to a faraway, in the middle of nowhere school to study magic when he had the best mages in the world at his fingertips to serve as tutors. Especially when the king is ill more often than not these days, and the crown prince has duties aplenty. Stop listening to the gossip of giggling girls and do your work.”
“Cranky,” Vyan said wisely.
“I do hope he gets something out of Bell for all this trouble he is put through,” Minn said.
“What was that?” Bell demanded, making them both jump.
“Nothing! Good day, Bell!”
“Always good to see you, Bell.”
Bell rolled his eyes and sat down, depositing the two trays of food he had been carrying. He smiled brightly at Civet, and pushed one of the trays closer to him. “I cadged some of that tea you like, with plenty of milk and sugar.”
“Oh, god, they’re being soppy,” Minn complained. “Come, brother in arms, let us flee this place of long looks and dopey smiles. I hear there are frosh in the garden square.”
Vyan rose, throwing down his napkin and scooping up his school bag. “Lead on, then.”
They vanished, leaving Civet and Bell alone at their remote corner table in the senior dining hall. “You look tired,” Bell said softly, sipping his own dark tea.
Civet smiled, setting his own tea down, pushing back a loose strand of pale blonde hair. “I went to bed before you, so do not try to say that I am the more tired.”
“You shouldn’t be stuck doing my homework, Civet.”
“You’re too busy with matters of state, and I am not having this argument again. How is your father?”
“Well as he can be,” Bell said, mouth tightening briefly with tension. “The council says that he probably will not live past the end of the year, and that is the absolute best he can hope for—more than likely he will die before the summer is out. I wish he would let me return home!”
Civet shook his head, and said firmly, “Your father did not take the throne until he was forty, Bell. You will not even be twenty-one. He wants you to enjoy being you for as long as you can, and you should do so. It brings him joy in his final days to know you are living this way, for a time. It’s all he has left to give you, so enjoy it. Soon enough, you’ll never have the freedom again.”
“But you could,” Bell said softly. “There’s no reason for you to marry me, Civet. All I do is make you listen to me whine and do my homework.”
Laughing, Civet took another sip of his tea, then licked traces of it from his lips. “You do good a deal more than that, and you know it. Anyway, if I broke our engagement after fifteen years, my mother would murder us both. I fear that if I am to live, it must be as Royal Consort.”
“Speaking of that, I was wondering if you would be willing to go home at end of term, to conduct a private ceremony before my father and a few select persons. It would make him happy to see us properly wed, before…” He shrugged, and looked down, struggling to hold back the unhappiness that he could not afford to show.
“Whatever you want, you know that,” Civet said, and placed his hand over Bell’s. Bell turned his hand, curled his fingers around Civet’s, and lifted it to kiss the back. Civet smiled. “So what do you suppose our friends will do, when they realize who we are?”
Bell snorted. “Be quite put out, and then completely thrilled. I can’t wait to see their faces when they find out that their parents are going to engage them to each other, with the blessing of the crown prince, who thinks it long past times those houses united.”
Civet laughed, and went easily as Bell drew him in for a kiss.