Like what was I meant to do?
No but what was I meant to do?
Sorry not sorry ‘bout what I said,
I’m just trying to have some fun
Don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t lose your head
I didn’t mean to hurt anyone
LOL, say oh well, or go to hell!
Sorry not sorry ‘bout what I said,
Don’t lose your head!
-Don’t Lose Ur Head, Six the Musical
Roman del Rey was writing a letter.
Well, not exactly. He’d only been given one small pot of ink and one paper, so he couldn’t mess this up by writing something stupid or long-winded. Instead he paced around the cell, trying to find the right words.
Dear Mom and siblings? No, should he list them all by name? Dear Mom, Remus, Jana, Edward, Ainslee—too much ink. Dear family. Simple enough.
Roman paused in his pacing and walked over to the barrel on which he’d placed the paper and his only candle. Carefully, he dipped the quill in the ink and wrote with his best cursive, Dear family.
Roman placed the quill back into the ink, getting up and pacing again. He needed to tell them what happened, but he didn’t want to worry his mom or scare the littler kids. He needed to apologize for leaving them without job opportunities, but he didn’t want to sound too down on the whole thing. He needed to be kind and caring and compassionate and show them how much he loved them, even though he had literally ruined all of their lives.
And he had to do it in one page, no redos.
Roman climbed onto the nearest crates and stared out the window. The stars were strong in the sky. It must have been midnight at least—he didn’t know, there were no clocks in the dungeons. The night air was cool and refreshing on his skin. He closed his eyes and breathed, trying to resolve the jittery mass in his stomach. The mass that told him what are you doing just standing around you’re going to die tomorrow you’re going to die you’re going to die--
Dear family, by the time you’re reading this, I will most likely be deceased.
Roman snorted, letting his chin fall on his hand. That would definitely leave an impression. And probably scar all his siblings for life.
Maybe he shouldn’t write a letter at all? But wouldn’t that be worse than a bad letter? They’d hear what happened from a town crier or a news rag. They deserved to hear it straight from him. Even though he was gay.
Roman sighed and stared into the night. He wished he could see them in person. It would be so much easier to explain in person—and he hadn’t seen them for more than a year. The King never let them visit and Roman couldn’t leave the castle. It would be nice to see them again. Just once. But they were far away and had a farm to attend to. And after all, he wasn’t in a position to make negotiations.
It seemed so simple, back in the courtroom. Save Logan or don’t.
He’d forgotten about all the other people who hung in the balance.
Virgil. He hadn’t seen Virgil. The guards had told him nothing. Maybe he was hurt—Roman had knocked him out, after all. Maybe they found out that Virgil was lying, and Virgil would be arrested too. Maybe this whole thing would just be chalked up to mistakes. But then he could get fired, or never be promoted, or get sent to guard the kitchen door or something. And—well, maybe Roman was being optimistic, but he figured Virgil would probably miss having him around. They talked every night, Roman came with him on patrols—whoever Virgil guarded next wouldn’t be so talkative. Maybe they’d be mean to him. Oh, god, what if they were mean to Virgil? Virgil didn’t have the protection of being the Queen’s personal guard anymore. Someone could be rude or pick a fight. Or he could be sent to the kingdoms and die in a brawl or—
Roman’s grip tightened on the stone windowsill. He took a deep breath and focused on the breeze playing across his face and the moon, crosshatched by tree branches.
He hadn’t seen Patton, either. Hopefully he’d been cleared, but what if they figured it out? What if Patton was arrested again? Then this whole escapade would be for nothing. Pointless and fruitless and a net loss for everyone involved. And even if Patton wasn’t arrested, he could be fired like Virgil. Patton needed this job! Where else would he go? He had so many friends in the castle and he’d be miserable without them.
Patton would have to see another Queen die tomorrow.
Roman really, really hoped Patton wouldn’t come.
But Patton probably would. He was all about supporting friends, wasn’t he? He’d see it as his duty to attend. Maybe Virgil could talk him out of it. Virgil would probably see the psychological downside to watching Roman get executed.
Roman rubbed at his eyes, fighting back tears. It didn’t matter now. It didn’t matter. He had made his choice and here he was. Mulling over regrets and wishes wouldn’t do any good. Unless he could escape—and he’d spent two hours thinking through escape plans—Roman’s fate was set in stone.
Whatever. It was fine. He’d always known it would go like this eventually. It was him or the King, and the King snapped first. Now he was going to die without reaching his twenty-second birthday. Without seeing his mom again, his siblings. Without saying goodbye to Patton, Virgil, Logan. Terrence, Camden, Valerie…all the guards he’d seen every day, the cooks in the kitchen, the librarians. Hell, even Janus, even the servants who dressed him and brought him meals, the annoying nobles—he’d never see them again, would he? He was never going to be annoyed by them or be thankful for them or feel anything for them because he wouldn’t be able to feel anything because he was going to—
It was fine.
Roman pushed himself away from the window. He still needed to write that letter, and his eyes were itching. He didn’t want to be sleep-deprived tomorrow. Or maybe he did—maybe delirious unreality would help fend off the inevitable mental breakdown he’d been suppressing for the past five hours.
Maybe he should just get all the screaming and crying over with. Get it out of his system. Pluck it like a weed from where it bit at his chest, sick and disgusting. He could feel it, bumping at his walls, an inch of glass away from bursting into being.
Letter. He needed to write that letter. He could decide whether or not to panic after he’d written that letter.
Roman determinedly stalked to the barrel and sat cross-legged on a crate near it, staring at the piece of paper. The delicate curls of ‘Dear family’ mocked him.
He needed to write something. He wanted to write something. Words clawed at his mouth, searching for an escape. But everything always sounded better in his head—and really, what could he say in this situation? How could he possibly make this better?
He needed to try.
What would Virgil do? Roman summoned a mini-Virgil, who scowled at him and brandished a sword. Probably tell him to either stop wussing out and write it, or that he shouldn’t bother anyway. Maybe the latter.
What would Patton do? Roman pictured a small Patton, who beamed and waved. Probably say to write from the heart and not worry about how it sounded.
What would Logan—no. Nope! No. Not going there. Even thinking about Logan was painful. Not in the way it used to be, heartbreak and anger in a glass-shards cocktail. Just…pain. Roman didn’t know how to identify it, didn’t want to even look closer at it. He quickly shoved the mind-Logan to the back of his head. Patton’s advice would have to do, then.
Write from the heart.
It would be a good idea, except Roman’s heart was very confused and didn’t really know what it was trying to say. Roman didn’t understand it or anything it did. Plus it was really his heart’s fault that he was here, so he wasn’t going to reward it for bad behavior by letting it dictate that letter.
Then again, what did he have but heart? Definitely not brains. Or brawn, despite his skill with the sword. All he had was a wishy-washy heart and a pretty face.
Write from the heart. Here went nothing.
Roman dipped his quill into ink and wrote. He tried not to scratch out any of his words, but it was hard. They were stilted and formal and not-good-enough and not what any of his family deserved. His handwriting got steadily worse as he lost concentration and sleep crept into the corners of his mind. It was a rushed, sloppy mess of a farewell letter. But it was something. Anything. And it was honest. This was Roman, no tricks or caveats or false pride. A bunch of ill-chosen words in scratchy handwriting on a stained piece of paper.
I apologize for the quality of this letter. It’s quite late here and I was not given the best of supplies. However, I wished to briefly inform you of some news. You may have heard by the time this letter reaches you, but I owe you an explanation in my own words.
I won’t go into details, partly because it’s extraordinarily complicated, but there has been an attempted coup. Unfortunately I was involved, thanks to some blackmail and extortion from my friend’s older brother. It’s a long story. One of my other friends was arrested during this, and in the effort to save him from execution, I myself was arrested. Since the King has long awaited an excuse to do away with me, I shall be publicly executed tomorrow afternoon. The charges are treason and adultery. I must admit both are accurate.
I want to apologize, truly and deeply. I know you were relying on me and I was foolish enough to get myself in a terrible situation. Now I have to reap the consequences of my actions. I only wish you weren’t affected by this as much as you will be. Hopefully, you can live off my past financial aid until things are better. Again, I am so, so sorry.
Jana, I have confidence that you will get a teaching job soon. I have confidence that you will. Edward, I’ve heard from a little birdy named Mom that you’re courting a girl! Congratulations and good luck. Ainslee, your last drawing was beautiful. Keep it up. Meghan, I think you should give scrambled eggs a chance. Lee, I’m glad you made a friend in your class. Jake, happy belated birthday. And Remus, I hope your chicken is still well and that you’ll consider renaming him Sir Frederick instead of Monsieur Uglybutt. You weirdo.
Mother, thank you for all you’ve done. I hope you find great happiness.
I love you all more than words can say. And I have confidence you will lead great lives. I’m sorry I won’t be able to see that.
With all my love,
Roman was lying on the cell floor, staring at a stain in the shape of a dog, when someone banged on the door. He jumped to his feet. It was still morning—surely it wasn’t time already?
“Visitors,” a guard said, opening the door.
Roman’s face split into a huge grin.
Patton raced forward and enveloped Roman in a hug.
Roman laughed and hugged him back. “Hey, Pat!”
Patton made an unintelligible noise and buried his face in Roman’s shoulder, squeezing like he never intended to let Roman go.
“Hey,” Virgil said, closing the door and giving Roman a two-fingered salute.
Roman smiled at him too. “Hey, Virge! Um…sorry for knocking you out?”
“It’s fine, I was faking it.” Virgil smirked. “If I was actually trying, I would have beat you in about three seconds.”
Roman gasped. “I take offence to that statement! You would not have.”
“Don’t test me, Princey.”
Roman rolled his eyes and gestured for Virgil to join the hug. Surprisingly, Virgil didn’t even hesitate. He wrapped his arms around Patton and Roman, his armor sort of uncomfortable but not uncomfortable enough to make Roman let go.
“You’re okay,” Roman breathed, staring at them.
“Yeah,” Virgil said. “Not even fired.”
He didn’t sound as excited as he should. Roman immediately lost his smile.
“Everything okay?” Roman asked. “Is Logan—”
“Logan’s fine.” Virgil shrugged. “Well, ‘fine’ as in no one has been able to track him down yet.”
“Oh.” Roman sunk in relief. “Oh, thank god.”
Patton mumbled something into Roman’s shirt. Roman looked down at him. “Um, Padre? You letting go any time soon?”
“Never,” Patton said.
“Oh, okay.” Roman glanced around. “We can sit on some crates?”
Patton pulled Roman down to the floor and curled up next to him, arms snug against Roman’s chest.
“Or—or that. Cool.”
Virgil sat down near them, placing a hand on Roman’s knee. Roman shot him a brief smile and stroked Patton’s hair, slowly maneuvering Patton’s head upwards.
“There you are,” Roman said as Patton finally emerged, hair ruffled and glasses crooked. “What’s up, Patton Cake? All well?”
Patton made a distressed wail and dove back into Roman’s arms.
“Hey, hey, hey.” Roman frantically glanced at Virgil. “Um, is he okay?”
“Of course not,” Virgil said like it should be the most obvious thing in the world.
“What? Why?” Roman turned to Patton. “Hey, Padre. What’s troubling you? Want to talk about it?”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Virgil give him an incredulous stare.
Patton was crying now. Roman’s shoulder grew steadily wetter. Roman levered Patton into his lap and wrapped his arms around him, letting Patton curl up by his chest. Running his fingers through Patton’s hair, Roman tried not to let his heart break from the sound of Patton’s soft sobs.
“It’s okay,” Roman whispered. “I’ve got you. I’m here.”
Patton yelled something incoherent and slammed his hand on Roman’s chest, glaring at him. His face crumpled and he broke down again, crying and grasping at Roman’s shirt.
Roman turned to Virgil again, eyes wide. “What do I do?”
“You’re doing great.” Virgil gave Patton a soft look. “You can understand why he’s upset, Princey.”
“Right.” Roman was getting the feeling he was missing something. “Okay, Patton, keep breathing. In and out. Great job.”
Patton took a few heaving breaths, his cries fading to soft whimpers.
“Good.” Roman pried Patton’s hands from his shirt and held them in his own, running his thumb over Patton’s knuckles. “Do you feel a little calmer?”
Patton nodded, looking up. His eyes still sparkled with tears, and his glasses were covered in little droplets. Roman maneuvered the glasses off Patton’s face and wiped them with his sleeve.
“There!” He placed the glasses back on Patton’s nose. “All clear.”
Patton giggled a little bit. Roman smiled back and booped Patton’s nose. That got a louder giggle and a boop in return.
“Dorks,” Virgil muttered, his smile betraying him.
“Careful there.” Roman grinned. “One might almost begin to suspect that you like us.”
“Shut up, Princey.”
“Love you too.” Roman leaned back, carefully untangling Patton from his arms. Patton refused to let go of his hand, though, so Roman let him sit right next to him. Virgil leaned forward and took Patton’s other hand.
Roman was suddenly overcome with the urge to tell them how much he cared about them. Yes, he said ‘I love you’ regularly. But that didn’t seem enough. He wanted to give them a passionate speech on how wonderful and amazing they were. He wanted to hug both of them for days on end. He wanted to make sure they knew that they were Roman’s best friends and he loved them so, so much.
But a giant declaration like that would only draw attention to the fact that Roman was going to be, well, indisposed after this. It would just bring the mood down, and anyway, Roman still hadn’t learned why Patton was so upset.
“So,” Roman said lightly, “Pat?”
“What’s up?” Roman swiped a lingering tear from under Patton’s eye. “You’re down in the dumps. Did something happen?”
Virgil made a spluttering noise. Patton just frowned, looking confused. “What?”
“What do you mean, ‘what?’” Roman asked. “You were crying, Padre. That’s not exactly standard fare for you.”
“Yeah, I’m upset,” Patton said. Again, like it was obvious.
“I know,” Roman said slowly, “but—”
Roman looked over at Virgil. He expected to see Virgil furious or snarky, cutting him down for something he’d done wrong. He didn’t expect to see Virgil clearly struggling to hold back tears.
“Virgil—” Roman quickly ran through everything he’d said. Had he upset them somehow? Maybe they were mad at him for something? Or maybe they missed Logan, maybe that was it—he felt like he should know what they were talking about, he should know because they expected him to, but how on earth was he supposed to know why they were crying?
“Roman.” Virgil’s voice cracked. “Roman, are you an idiot? We’re upset because of you, dumbass.”
“What—” Roman froze. He had done something wrong? Of course he had. He always messed everything up. “I-I’m so sorry, I—”
“No!” Patton dived into Roman’s arms again, somehow squeezing even tighter than before. “No, no, no, kiddo, no.”
Okay, Roman was now very confused.
“That’s not what I meant.” Virgil scooted closer, looking heartbroken. “Ro, we’re sad ‘cause you’re going to be executed. I thought that was obvious.”
“You’re—” Roman ran through the past conversation in his head. “You’re—”
“Worried about you,” Patton finished. “’Cause we love you.”
“Oh,” Roman said faintly.
“God, Princey.” Virgil chuckled brokenly. “If you didn’t know that, we clearly have some work to do.”
“I—” Roman’s chest burned. “Thank you. I—really appreciate that.”
“No problem.” Virgil stood up. “Next step, breaking you out of here.”
“There’s got to be some way,” Virgil argued, his brief softness replaced with determination. “I’m not just gonna sit around and let this happen. We’re busting you out.”
“You can’t.” Roman waved a hand around the cell. “I’ve tried.”
“There has to be!” Virgil paced back and forth, running his hands through his air. “Maybe through the window? No, we won’t fit. Maybe we can bribe the guards? Or fight them! There’s only like five, I could take them on—”
“This isn’t low-level security like with Patton,” Roman argued. “Even if you got me down the hallway, we’re still stuck in this castle. There’s nowhere to go, Virgil.”
“We can’t just give up!” Virgil whirled and glared at him. “We have to get you out of here!”
“Yeah, because that went so well the last time?” Roman caught himself and lowered his voice. “Sorry. I—there’s really no solution here, Virgil, as much as I hate to admit it. And I’m not having any of you risk your lives for me. That’s not happening, end of discussion.”
Virgil glared for a second longer before crumpling in defeat. He sat back down, arms around his knees.
“I hate this,” Virgil said to nobody in particular.
“How do you think I feel?” Roman joked. Virgil didn’t laugh.
“I hate it too,” Patton murmured, still pressed against Roman’s chest.
“It’s just—I feel so helpless.” Virgil threw up his hands. “I’m supposed to be the strong one, the one who protects you, and I can’t do anything! You’re just waiting in here, a lamb to the slaughter, and I want to help but I can’t and that terrifies me.” Virgil rubbed at his face. “I—I thought I had this. I thought I could do this. Yeah, your life was shit, and yeah, you weren’t letting me help you, but I thought I had things under control. That I could do right by you. And now, surprise! Everything fell apart and I couldn’t stop it.”
“Virgil.” Roman shook his head. “Virgil, this is not your fault.”
“I know.” Virgil swallowed. “I just—yeah.”
“Come here,” Roman said. Patton nodded and made grabby hands in Virgil’s direction. Virgil carefully slid closer, and Patton snatched his sleeve to keep him from leaving.
“Hey.” Roman reached out one arm and wrapped it around Virgil’s shoulders. “Look, I’m so sorry, Virge, I—”
“Stop apologizing. Please.” Virgil’s voice shook. “God, Ro, if I’m not allowed to blame myself for this, neither are you.”
Patton made an emphatic noise of agreement.
“Alright.” Roman squeezed Virgil’s shoulders and pulled him closer. Virgil obligingly leaned into Roman’s side and tucked his head on Roman’s shoulder. Patton curled up tighter, a warm mass against Roman’s chest. Virgil’s hair tickled his chin. Roman reached up and brushed through it, lingering on his bangs that covered the dark circles around his eyes. Virgil hadn’t been sleeping well. That did kind of make sense, but it still made Roman frown.
Roman opened his mouth to tease Virgil about his sleep schedule or the paleness of his face. Instead, what came out was “Thank you.”
“What?” Virgil asked, looking up.
“Oh, I—” Roman almost brushed it off and moved on. He could think of a million ways to deflect the statement, to turn it into a jab or joke. But…well. It was the last morning he’d ever have with Patton and Virgil, wasn’t it? He’d gotten everything out with Logan, cleared the air—well, kind of, that kiss ten minutes later had sort of thrown a wrench into their closed-book conversation. But they’d said goodbye. Thanked each other. Because Logan, smart as he was, knew they’d regret it if they didn’t.
So Roman said “Thank you” again.
“For what?” Patton asked, pushing away slightly and raising an eyebrow quizzically.
“For…everything.” Roman searched for the perfect words. “For being here, and for being fantastic friends, and—I don’t know, really. Just…thank you for everything. I have been the luckiest man in the world to have you by my side. I—I’ll miss you.”
His voice, already brittle, snapped on the last sentence. Would he miss them? Would he be capable of missing them? He supposed that was a lie, really. He couldn’t miss them, he was going to die, he wouldn’t remember them after he was dead—
Roman tried to focus on Virgil. “What is it?”
“Your hands are shaking.”
Yeah, that made sense. Of course his body would betray him. Of course he couldn’t have a moment of respite. Of course he’d spend his last moments with his friends freaking out and having a meltdown. That was exactly how the world worked, he shouldn’t be surprised.
“Give me a sec, Ro.” Virgil quickly pulled off his armor, revealing a purple shirt and dark pants. “Come here.”
“I didn’t know you were capable of taking that off,” Roman said, his breath hitching. His whole face burned and he probably looked like a mess.
“Come here,” Virgil repeated. Roman slid across the two inches between them and sat in front of Virgil. Virgil opened his arms, giving Roman a soft smile.
Roman fell into Virgil’s arms.
Virgil was strong. Stronger than Roman. He cupped Roman’s head and held him in place. It had been a while since Roman let Virgil hug him. Definitely not since the blackmail started. He’d forgotten how safe it felt, how warm. Nothing could hurt him right now, because Virgil was keeping him still. And Patton had crawled closer and tucked his head by Virgil’s and an arm wrapped around Roman’s shoulders and it was more, somehow not too much, a blanket of warmth and touch. It felt wonderful, Virgil’s shirt was soft and he rubbed circles in Roman’s back and let Roman curl up against his chest. Roman squeezed his eyes shut, trying to take deep breaths, because he could smell cookies and dirt, a somehow lovely smell.
On his third breath, his lungs hitched again. It hurt to breathe. He struggled to maintain a rhythm, but his breathing was ugly and snarled and the warmth was quickly turning to heat. He was shaking—was he shaking? Why? Oh, no, all the sick twisted bitter was rising to the surface now. He could feal it burning its way up. Roman felt he was going to puke. He tried frantically to push it down, to regain control, to stop the awful disgusting feeling inside of him—
“Let it out, Ro.” Virgil rubbed his head. “C’mon. I can tell you need to.”
Roman tried not to whine at the gentleness in Virgil’s voice. He took a great steadying breath but only managed to hiccup and make his eyes burn with tears. He was going to cry, wasn’t he? Oh, great, another cry session. He was surprised he hadn’t run out of tears by this point.
“Let it out,” Virgil said again, and Roman stopped trying to hug Virgil back and curled up even tighter, and Patton was there on the side and Virgil was holding him and keeping him safe—he was safe—it didn’t matter if he cried or not anyway because he was going to die so nothing mattered now—
“I don’t want to,” Roman whispered.
He was sure Virgil didn’t hear him, so it was a surprise when Virgil asked, “Don’t want to what?”
Roman swallowed. “Die.”
“Oh.” Virgil’s voice was small. “That—makes sense.”
“I don’t want to die,” Roman repeated insistently. He didn’t know why he was saying this—what could Virgil do about the situation—but he needed to. “I—I don’t want to die, Virge.”
“Yeah.” Patton sounded absolutely heartbroken. “Yeah, I know.”
“I don’t want to die!” Roman pressed his face into Virgil’s chest and clutched at his shirt. “I—I don’t—”
And he was crying, tears soaking his cheeks, shuddering and taking great whooping breaths that did nothing to calm him down. He kept his sobs as quiet as possible at first, but Virgil and Patton didn’t seem to mind him crying, and Virgil kept saying it was fine, it was okay, he needed to get this out, so Roman cried louder. He sobbed until his eyes were red. He was probably covering Virgil’s shirt with snot, but he couldn’t bring himself to move away, because the warmth around him and Virgil’s hand cradling his head were the only things giving him enough strength to keep crying. Because every sob hurt. Every tear burned. Every whimper stung. This wasn’t a weeping session into his pillow. This was a full-blown meltdown, and it felt awful. He felt worse than he ever had in his life.
But he couldn’t stop. Not now. It was all pouring out of him, completely out of his control.
And that was…okay?
Virgil said it was okay. Patton said it was okay. He couldn’t make out the exact words but that was the gist of it, the essence of what they murmured in his ear. Telling him it was okay. Telling him they were there. Telling him he could cry and they wouldn’t ever think less of him. Saying he was brave and wonderful and all sorts of things Roman usually wouldn’t believe but right here, right now, he hung onto those words for dear life.
“What did I do?” Roman asked them between gasps. “What—how did I get here? What happened?”
“You didn’t do anything,” Patton whispered. “You just had bad luck.”
“I—” Roman wiped his nose. “I-I dunno.”
“You don’t deserve this, you hear me?” Virgil glared at him, hands on Roman’s shoulders. “You have never deserved this and you never will. You deserve happiness and love and a good future and so much, and the universe didn’t give that to you because the universe is an asshole. That’s all.”
Roman allowed himself a shaky laugh. “I guess.”
“I’ll kick its ass for you,” Virgil promised, “soon as I can. Stupid world doesn’t know what it’s got.”
“Yep!” Patton beamed. “We’ll fuck it up!”
“Pat!” Virgil looked shocked.
“What? We will!”
Roman laughed again, tears still falling from his eyes. “Glad you guys have my back.”
“You always will,” Patton said. “We’re not going anywhere.”
“Actually,” someone said, and Roman looked up to see a guard standing in the doorway. “Visitation is over. You need to leave.”
“What?” Virgil’s hand went to his sword. “You can’t just kick us out, there’s still time before—”
“Rules are rules.” The guard motioned to the door. “Don’t make me ask again.”
“I-it’s fine. Go.” Roman gave Virgil a watery smile. “Wouldn’t want you getting into trouble, would we?”
Patton hugged Roman one more time. Roman hugged back and pulled Patton to his feet. Virgil took Patton’s hand and gave Roman a long look.
“I—” Virgil huffed. “You’re still an idiot, Princey.”
“You’re still a nightmare, Virgil.”
Virgil laughed. “What, finally run out of nicknames?”
Roman scrubbed the remaining tears off his face. “Hey, Virgil’s a cool name. You’re lucky to have it.”
“If you say so.” Virgil glanced to the door and his expression soured. “I—yeah. Um, good luck?”
“Thanks,” Roman said.
“Yeah.” Virgil looked back at Roman, and for a second, his face crumpled. “I hate this, Ro, I fucking hate this.”
The guard tapped the door, looking impatient. Virgil reluctantly gave Roman one last, weak smirk and walked slowly out the door. Patton followed, staring back at Roman, his eyes shining.
“Love you!” Patton called.
Roman waved. “Love you too.”
The door slammed shut and he was alone.
About half an hour before the execution, Roman was delivered a dress. About twenty-five minutes before the execution, he finished ripping the dress to shreds and dumping it out the window. Did he want to look fabulous for the occasion? Yes. Did he realize he was still wearing dirty underclothes? Also yes. Did he want to wear something the King chose for an execution ordered by said King. Hell no. What could the King do—sentence him to death? Roman had absolutely nothing left to lose.
About twenty minutes before the execution, he was taken from the cell. He debated trying to make a run for it, but the guards were tall and burly and had all sorts of nasty sharp things in their hands.
About fifteen minutes before the execution, Roman decided ‘Screw it’ and made a run for it anyway. The guards dragged him, kicking and biting, into a carriage and locked the door. The carriage ride was bumpy. They hadn’t given him a seat. Roman tucked his knees to his chest and waited.
About eight minutes before the execution, the carriage bumped to a stop. Every part of Roman felt bruised. He could hear the crowds outside. It was a sunny day. The air smelled like bread, dirt, and anticipation.
About five minutes before the execution, a tall woman came in and tied his wrists together with a piece of rope. It chafed on his skin and would probably leave marks, but that didn’t really matter now.
About three minutes before the execution, two guards hauled him to his feet. He kicked one of them in the groin and smacked the other in the face. A third guard twisted his arm behind his back until he yelled with pain. They dragged him outside.
About two minutes before the execution, Roman stopped fighting. There wasn’t really a point. And he wasn’t going to be seen dragged to his death. He would face this with dignity, honor, and grace.
Oh look, that Queen training was finally coming in handy.
So Roman drew up his head, squared his shoulders, and walked as straight as he could—which wasn’t very, because he was gay, and why couldn’t his brain stop making fun of this situation he was going to die.
About one minute to the execution, he was escorted past the statue of the previous Queen. Roman gave the statue a sympathetic nod. Maybe they’d give him a statue too. That would be kind of cool, right? Just hanging out until moss grew over his feet and his face crumbled away.
About thirty seconds to the execution, Roman climbed the stone steps to the top of the small dais. Hundreds of people faced him, whispering to themselves, eyes wide. Roman ignored them almost automatically. It was hard to focus on what people were saying when he was above them, staring at the pristine grey chunk of granite two feet away. He’d been worried there would be blood and guts on it or something, but it was clean. Somehow, that made it worse. Someone would have to clean up Roman’s—
One of the guards shoved Roman forward.
“You know I can walk, right?” Roman snapped.
The executioner stood at the other end of the dais, holding a large silver sword.
Roman took one tiny step forward.
Okay, maybe he couldn’t walk after all.
“Roman del Rey,” said the King. Roman glanced up and saw him seated on a balcony across the way. His voice echoed through the silent courtyard. Of course he’d put himself up higher than everyone else, so he could look down on Roman like Roman was a little worthless ant.
“Roman del Rey,” the King repeated slowly.
Roman rolled his eyes. “Are you going to just keep saying my name,” he called, “or can we get to the point?” He waved his bound hands. “My wrists hurt and I’d like to get this over with.”
He couldn’t see the King from here. The guy was probably mad. So what? He couldn’t hurt Roman anymore.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” the King asked.
Roman knew he wanted Roman to beg. He wanted Roman to grovel, to plead, to bargain. He wanted to make Roman a mess before he killed him.
And if that would keep Roman alive…was it worth it?
Roman didn’t even have to think about it.
“Only one thing,” he said, making sure everyone could hear him. “I have absolutely no regrets. Sorry not sorry.” He raised his middle fingers and flipped the King off. “Go to hell!”
The people around him whispered louder. A couple laughed. Someone yelled “Nice one!”
“Thank you, I will!” Roman smiled at the random ally. “Hope you have a nice day! Actually, I hope you all have great lives that are, in the future, free of tyrannical kings! Except for you, ‘Husband.’ I hate you, screw you, go to hell.”
One of the guards grabbed Roman and tossed him towards the chopping block. Alright then. They didn’t appreciate his sass. Very fair.
Roman regained his balance and slowly sunk to one knee. He didn’t really know how you were supposed to do this—he always avoided watching executions, they were abhorrent. There was a little divot where he assumed his head was supposed to go. Did he tilt his head to the side? Or did he just smash his nose into the stone? He hoped it wasn’t the latter, that would be a pretty undignified way to go.
The executioner stepped forward. Roman lay down and placed his head on the stone. The granite was rough on his cheek. He looked out over the crowd, scanning the faces, wondering if he’d recognize anyone. Oh, there was a noble from a luncheon, there was a member of the cooking staff, there was Dominic the guard—no Patton, no Virgil, and he was glad of that but still selfish enough to wish he could see them one more time.
He heard the swish of a sword.
He closed his eyes.
He clenched his fists.
He braced himself.
“Hey, sorry to interrupt.”
Roman’s eyes flew open. He threw his head off the rock and stumbled backwards. No—that couldn’t be who he thought it was. There was no way—
“I know, I know, I’m ruining the moment.” Janus clapped his hands. “Really great performance, by the way, top notch. However, I’m afraid I have business with him that can’t wait.”
“How did you get up here?” one guard demanded, stepping forward.
“I have my ways.” Janus shrugged. “Could you step away from him, please?”
One guard rushed at Janus. Janus dodged and kicked him off the dais, sending him tumbling to the cobblestones below.
“Oh dear,” Janus said, elbowing another guard in the face. “That looks like it hurt.”
Roman watched, eyes wide, as he snatched the executioner’s sword and slammed it across her abdomen. She crumpled to the ground, writhing in pain.
“There we go.” Janus stuck the sword in his belt, walked over to Roman, and reached out a hand. “Let’s go.”
“Go where?” Roman tried to wrap his head around what just happened. “Go—what? How? Why?”
“You’ve got a very persistent boyfriend,” Janus complained, “who said if I didn’t help you he’d ‘never speak to me again’ or something. I’m really starting to regret teaching him debate skills, but that’s irrelevant because guards are coming up here now and we need to go.”
Roman smiled, grabbing Janus’ hand and pulling himself up. “Thank you.”
“I’m not doing this because I care about you,” Janus reminded him, pulling Roman across the dais and jumping off the edge. They fell onto a horse nearby. Roman grabbed Janus’ shirt and Janus yanked on the reins. People jumped out of the way to avoid them as they tore across the courtyard, through several back alleyways, and down the road, leaving the King and a hundred very confused people behind them.
“Thank you,” Roman breathed again.
Janus rolled his eyes. “You’re welcome. Now let’s hurry, we need to be at the border by nightfall.”
Roman nodded and Janus spurred the horse on, headed for the horizon. It was a beautiful day. The sun was warm on Roman’s cheek and the sky was a bright blue.
Roman turned around and watched the town recede in the distance. The castle loomed above it, towers stabbing the clouds, windows glinting. He hadn’t seen it from the outside in a year. It looked…less impressive outside. Less confining. Just a big building with a bunch of gargoyles and stained-glass windows.
“Hey, Janus?” Roman wiggled his hands. “Cut me loose?”
Janus nodded, grabbing a knife and slicing through the ropes. Roman rubbed his wrists as they came free.
The horse turned off the road and they headed down a dirt path. Roman saw farms in the distance, fields of corn and soygum and wheat. Beyond them was open air. Behind them was a small town with a smaller castle.
“I’m out,” Roman whispered. “I’m actually out.”
Janus chuckled. “Feels good, doesn’t it?”
Roman del Rey smiled, tossing one hand up and feeling the breeze ruffle his hair.
“It feels fantastic.”