by Reddoraion no ōjo (レッドライオンの王女)
It is a cooling, chilling time of year, a time of falling leaves. People listen to stories told around crackling orange fires and believe curious things. Strange things still sometimes happen.
The travelers have roasted a rabbit, eaten the sizzling meat until they are full and finished with raisin pies. Together they share a flask of hippocras that eases some of the chill in their bones.
The Crowned Woods are cold this time of year, and the harvest presentation is the last holiday of the year to bring all men to the capital. After that, it’s winter and no men travel till the snows melt. They all bring tithes: grain, fur, silks, fish, jewels and spices. For some of them, it’s the last time to enjoy a cool, clear night or two under the stars till spring.
The hairs on Sir Alistair’s neck prickle. Twigs snap; there are strange noises, and the rustle of wind in leaves makes him think of footsteps. He pinches the space between his thumb and forefinger on his gloved hand to give himself something else to think about. Sir Alistair finds himself thinking with regret of how much he used to love nights under the open sky, free of the stifling air of hired rooms or palace chambers, free of walls. He understands walls better now. Walls keep some things out.
But Sir Julian loves it so. Alistair didn’t even wait for him to ask before he said they’d camp along the road on their travels this year. The brightness of Julian’s smile was worth any of Alistair’s discomfort. Alistair wishes he had finer gifts to give for all Julian does, but if camping is what makes Julian smile, Alistair will suffer his painful knee and strange sounds for it.
Alistair looks around, but not for thieves or brigands since they’re practically where the royal families hunt, that close to the city, that safe. Instead he looks through the branches at the night sky, the stars caught between them, bright as new-minted coins.
The pearlescent moonlight ripples in Alistair’s hair, shining on the white forelock he’s had since he was a boy. Some say the gods touched him in his mother’s belly; others say he fell and hit his head on the kitchen steps toddling after a puppy while swinging a wooden sword – and when he woke, his golden hair grew with one starlit streak. It’s always been there; he took it as his token, the Knight of the Silver Blaze, star-kissed and sun-kissed they called him in the days when he unhorsed men and roses fell like rain.
Before the war, before his estate, before now when he’s sitting in the woods with a bedroll and a brave companion when an inn–a whole inn–could be his for the asking. His knee aches painfully, and he tries not to think of it.
The moonlight shines upon the silvery places at his temples, too.
Beside Sir Alistair, his fellow traveler cracks a bone to suck out the last bit of rich marrow. The marrow-eater’s brows furrow with intent as he sates his hunger, not caring at all about the foolish faces he makes trying to get every last bit.
Despite himself, Alistair’s solemn lips quirk around the edges into a smile. It happens to him when Julian’s there.
A broken bone flies into the fire and few would recognize the handsome man licking his fingers by the flames as Sir Julian, the Knight of the Ruby Blaze: knighted by the legendary Sir Alistair, that Sir Julian, winner of tourney after tourney, clever and kind, crowned by the gods with hair rich as wine and roses. No one’s ever seen hair like his.
When he came to train with Sir Alistair, Julian’s hair shone copper like the statue of a holy lady: bright, gleaming, unearthly. Alistair remembers how Julian’s hair deepened to the rich, dark ruby of the hippocras that stains their lips tonight. Julian learned to move and whirl, silver and garnet with a sword, as his lord showed him, over and over. Alistair had to bring Julian in from the fields with a blanket over his shivering shoulders and bandage each of his blistered fingers so Julian could leap out of bed at dawn to do it all again.
(Alistair had not been one for greeting the dawn so boisterously; but if it’s a good night, he sees golden fields, the rose and honey of the dawn, a flash of red around each of the straw men before he sleeps.)
Julian laughed in joy and victory at every strike, every melee, every purse fat or small, every cuff on the shoulder from Sir Alistair.
The one that mattered was the only time Sir Alistair ever cuffed Julian on the cheek. (Alistair loves tradition; before any celebrating, there must be the blow to the cheek to remind a new-made knight that his or her life is not an easy one.) After the slap, as his own lord had done, the joyous Sir Alistair opened his arms for an embrace, held Julian close.
Alistair’s sword on the young man’s body; hand, loins, hand, heart, head, heart. Then the blow.
It’s never been the same since that moment, the red mark on Julian’s cheek like a blooming rose, the scent of Julian – Sir Julian’s – hair, his skin. It smelled like nutmeg, sweat and buckwheat honey. The thought makes Alistair reel.
Sir Alistair had sat awake that night, waved away all women, gone to his room to write, the clatter of the feast ongoing below him. That was the first time his world changed utterly; the second was the war.
Sir Alistair has been staring off into the woods, eyes huge like an owl’s, his skin grown cold. He feels a hand touch his.
“Come back, Alec. It’s all right.”
It’s safe. Alistair can return, he’s heard the name that only Julian has for him.
Sir Alistair reminds himself he is here, feels cool pine loam beneath his boots, not icy mud, unclenches one fist slowly, gently. Julian is patient, keeps a firm hand on his shoulder, does nothing to frighten or startle. Alistair’s voice tries not to crack.
He and Julian are companions, traveling to stand company with sacks of grain and dried lavender from Alistair’s lands, their region’s tribute to the capital, to give thanks. I am here. thinks Alistair. There is no war. Only me, roast rabbit and a full belly, warm gloves and Julian. Always Julian. Alistair wiggles each large toe in his boots, breathes slowly. He holds the pommel of his sword and counts to eleven. Then he can open his eyes and look out at the dark of the woods and the sweet olive darkness of Julian’s eyes.
Alistair breathes a ragged breath. Julian’s here. Julian’s here, pressing his hand, smiling warmly, speaking lowly, “Hello, Alec.” Alistair presses back, not ready to speak yet, but letting Julian know with the grip that he will soon.
(Sometimes Alistair wonders why Julian stays; there could be more for a man like him, titles and lands of his own, anything. Care for one’s lord is a knightly virtue, but Alistair knows the same way he knows every pain in his knee that it’s not an easy lot. Alistair has tried to think of ways to tell Julian that his knee works well, the injuries are long since gone, everything’s healed–but he also knows that Julian would never believe it, knows in his own heart that it isn’t true.
The last time he tried over a glass of honey wine on the terrace, Julian graciously declined. “You knighted me. You’re my lord. Promised I’d be here for you.” Julian said, smiling a smile bright with sweetness (and as Alistair knows, firm with stubbornness; from squiring to melees to cleaning every speck of marrow from a rabbit’s bones, Julian doesn’t budge.) Julian had drained his glass, gestured to the fields of lavender, the field of straw men, the gleam of the sun sinking into shining seas of grain, turned back to look at Sir Alistair. “And why would I want to leave?”, the last rays of the sun weaving gold into the ruby of Julian’s hair as he looked at Alistair, his voice lowering. “Everything’s beautiful here.”)
Now, the firelight shines in the port-wine curls of Julian’s hair as if he is a salamander, warm as living flame himself. “My Julian.” Sir Alistair thinks. “My Julian.” before reminding himself that Julian belongs to no one, and neither does he. He laughs softly, part of it catching in his throat.
“Thank you,” Alistair whispers. “How about a story? You always did love those.” Alistair pokes at the fire with a twig, to quell the shaking in his hand.
Julian looks on, his lord outlined against the night in amber and russet, the shower of sparks from the twig fanning up and burning out against the night sky. Julian already knows; he’s felt Alistair’s hands shake. Each night he stands guard at Alistair’s chamber door so his liege can sleep. Julian’s looked into the grey-green of Alistair’s eyes, with their blue flash. They’ve seen things darker than tears.
Julian thinks, And you’ve wanted to wipe all them away. His mind curls back to the screams in Alistair’s room at night, Julian’s gloved hand tapping at the door three times to remind Alistair he’s safe and that there’s no one there. Each night, Julian turns back to his vigil, his heart sewn up with an iron needle, because all Julian can think is to hold him, wrap Alistair round with his own arms to shield him safe in the dark. Julian wants warmth instead of the cold flagstones of the hall and the bare steel of his drawn sword.
Nothing ever comes but chambermaids and dawn, but at least Julian hears the soft sigh of Alistair sleeping – and curses himself for thinking of his liege’s silver-and-gold cornsilk hair along his fingers. Julian would never do that to a lady who was ill, and especially not his lord, but what if?
Besides, if Alistair is sleeping, it’s only another night Julian’s been awake thinking of him. These nights are always better. These nights Julian knows Alistair’s alive, will wake after dawn in his own home. When he wakes, Julian can bring him smoked salmon and warm bread, burned on the edges, the way Alistair likes it. Julian does this every morning before he goes off to close his own eyes, his last thought before sleep that at least he can serve his lord, at least Julian knows Alec’s safe and he’ll keep him that way. Always.
Julian sighs softly, letting it wing along the cool night breeze. He’ll play the happy lad with hair like coins. Anything to see Alistair smile.
“Yes. Tell me the one of the vanishing castle by the Iron Teeth.”
“Always was your favorite.” Alistair smiles, and his hair does flash silver and gold in the firelight, his smile suddenly feeling strong, not brittle. Julian moves closer to listen, one chestnut leathered leg against Alistair’s.
It’s night. It’s cold. It’s a time for stories.
Alistair takes a breath, begins as every teller does. It’s the way this story always starts. Everyone knows the storyteller’s never been near the Iron Teeth.
“Once, when I travelled in the Iron Teeth, where cliffs drop to the sea and the air smells of salt and rust, I travelled out late, past all inns, all homes, all tiny cottages, until there was naught but me and the wind and the rain, I saw a strange and glorious thing.”
Alistair moves his knee closer, one black clad knee against the chestnut one, feels Julian – gods! – rest his head against his shoulder like a sleepy child’s –
Julian’s breath is soft. Of course it’s warm. Like any man, Julian’s warm and it’s a cold night.
Alistair speaks over the crackle of the fire:
“Appearing before me, like light on the sea-foam was a gleaming castle. I’d never seen the like before; the air smelled of cinnamon and sage, the women garlanded me with bays, and I sat with a merry company. You never saw such a table; boar and chestnuts, roast apples, candied lemon slices, chicken and peppers so hot it made my eyes water. The music was like nothing from this world or any other. The lords taught me reels and wheels and the ladies laughed like springs of fresh water among all the salt. Lovely, too.”
Julian smiles, his hand on his lord’s arm, gentle and strong. Alistair starts to feel warm inside, too, better than wine or flame.
“When the feast was over, they took me to rest; you could have fit six men in that bed, but there was only me. All silk and ermine and warm as any lover’s heart.”
Alistair’s veins suddenly fill with ice.
Unlike the last time he told this to Julian, Alistair’s been to the Iron Teeth.
Alistair’s mouth grows dry and silent. His mind wanders.
. . . So cold in the Iron Teeth, after the war, when all was in ruins. Alistair was making his way home, past wreckage, past middens, past cold hearths now open to the sky. It was there, that castle of phosphor. He’d thought it madness, fancy, another daydream bred in his mind, a happiness from tales long ago–and there were lavender cakes like his mother’s and reels where they spun like tops and the laughter of the lords and ladies was lovelier than that of all the silver bells in the world. There was too little laughter in those days.
The bed. The bed.
The woodwork around the bed curtains as in each tale, grapevines twining in the ebony, the words A mon seul désir.
Alistair had heard the story since he was a boy, Alistair knew it wasn’t real, knew he’d wake damp and cold on a cliffside. He knew the roast boar would turn in the morning and his mouth would taste of ashes, the bay leaves of victory would only be spiderwebs, but here was the bed, truly ermine and silk and warm as. . .
Julian. Julian lying on the rosy silk sheets, luminous, smiling, reaching up for Alistair, Julian’s slender fingers running through to the roots of Alistair’s unbraided hair, both of them mingling in a frenzy of wine and gold and silver.
“I love you Julian, oh, I love you,” Alistair moaned. Julian – his Julian’s – mouth sweeter than any spiced wine as they rolled over and over, laughing in joy. Alistair’s knee didn’t hurt, and Julian’s hair was softer than any cloud could be. Alistair felt everything, too. Present. He was there for the feel of silk on bare flesh, the taste of Julian’s salty skin, the heat of his lips like ginger and sugar. Alistair never wanted sweets, but there it was all right. . .
Alistair moved down, his lips leaving a trail of burning kisses along Julian’s belly because nothing about his beloved’s body could ever be ugly or silly, breathing in the dark musky scent of the russet hair at Julian’s groin, as he slipped his lover’s cock between his lips. Alistair fully returned to himself for the first time that night, Alistair’s hands on the hips of the man he knighted, the man he loves, pulling him closer to take every bit of Julian’s cock inside his mouth, heal him too. . .
(all those times pulling aside coverings from other cold men’s faces, hating himself that each time he thanked the gods it wasn’t Julian, it never was)
(all those times that Alistair had wished in the dark and mud, blood leaching from his leg that he’d said something, damned propriety and everything, that he’d. . .)
but Julian. Julian in the bed spun of dreams and silk, Julian caressing Alistair’s cheek as Alistair sucked, licked, Julian wiping away both their tears, whispering “I love you, my lord, my Alistair, my Alec, always my Alec. . .”
and a sound like a thousand bronze bells, the soft heat and pulse of his lover’s heartbeat under his cheek. . .
and just like every other time, like the end of every other tale, Alistair awoke by the Teeth, cold and wet with a mouthful of ashes–but all Alistair could think of was that dreams did come true, true and painful as a heavy blow.
He never told Julian it had happened. Never told him the legend was true. Told him just enough about the terrible dreams, let him keep vigil, but that was all.
Tonight, Alistair is here in the woods with an aching knee and a body riddled by ghosts. He cries out at night. He’s brought death and sorrows with him, and he’s never told Julian.
His knee hurts, and they should have gone to an inn, Alistair’s sure of it.
He closes his eyes, tries to think of what to say next in the story, is painfully aware of the silence. Then Alistair hears a whisper as if from far away.
“A mon seul désir”
Fingertips brush his cheek, and Alistair doesn’t have to open his eyes to know they are from Julian’s green leather glove. He turns toward them like a rose towards the morning sun, still afraid to look, listening instead.
“Come back. Come back to me, Alec. ” he hears Julian whisper, feels an arm around him. Alistair grips the pommel of his sword, counts slowly to eleven before he opens his eyes and when he does. . .
The fire blazes bright in the darkened woods. He’s there, wrapped in Julian’s cloak, feeling the edge against his cheek, the worn red leather trim worked with scarlet metal thread, the one worn by the Knight of the Ruby Blaze. “Here. You’ve done so much.” Julian’s voice is soft now, tender. “I’ll tell the rest. It’s my favorite part.” Julian inhales and Alistair lets himself close to Julian, warm.
“. . .The bed was all silk and ermine, warm as a lover’s heart. I woke there not knowing where I was or how I had gotten there. It was the war and things were strange in those days, but I was well fed and could breathe safely. I looked to my side, and what do you think I saw there?”
Alistair looks up, afraid, but there’s only a slight shimmer of saltwater in Julian’s dark, sweet eyes.
“My heart’s desire. . .” whispers Julian, running his leathered fingertips over Alistair’s lips. Alistair’s heart beats like a bird’s, so fast he can barely speak, his lips forming tiny kisses against those fingers.
“. . . lying against me in that bed I’d heard about since I was small, in the room that smelled of cinnamon, the music from the dances still floating up through the air . But nothing was as beautiful as my lord, his silver-and-golden hair, his wise eyes, his strong body, his arms around my hips.”
Julian whispers, reverently, like a blessing.
“In that bed, all I could feel was my lord’s – my Alec’s – strong and beautiful heart. I had loved it – loved him – from the moment I saw him.” Julian’s voice trembles for a moment, but he breathes in, breathes out strong and firm.
Alistair is weeping now, unashamed, feeling the poison drain out, all the filth and dirt of war becoming gold inside his veins, his skin, his body suffusing with light. Julian’s arm is around his shoulder, Julian whispering the end of the tale into his ear:
“And so we lay with each other. I woke on a cold hillside far away in the Cities of Reeds and promised I’d come back. I knew I was his always. Even if I could never tell him. But I waited. I sat by the bedroom door, swore to protect my lord with my life, and promised I’d tell him when the time was right.”
Julian looks deep into the sea of Alistair’s eyes, sees the flash of blue return at last.
“And now I have. And that’s the story.”
Alistair leans forward, and Julian does, too.
Like the best of all stories it ends with a kiss, a kiss of fire, beauty and joy, one to drive away the darkness of the nights to come. They will stand with their gifts in the capital: they will ride back to the keep through falling golden leaves, whirl with their swords like fires of garnet, silver and gold around straw men.
At night, Julian will hold Alistair close and kiss him. If he wakes, Julian will tell him that the war is over, he’s safe now, and Julian will always say it. Always. They will raise a red and silver banner and on it will be the words A mon seul désir, and that will be the beginning of their story.
For now, the fire burns. The lovers lie wrapped together, warm with kisses and hippocras. They are safe from malevolent spirits and brigands, all the shadows of the world at bay. On the cold ground, their bed of cloaks and furs is sweeter than a bed of mysterious silks, a miracle.
It is that time of year after all, when strange things still sometimes happen.