by Oishi Maki
illustrated by Uehara Kazushi
When Wolfram says his prayers in the dark, he thinks of Magdalena. She haunts him. She sits on the shoulders of his every intention, of everything he tries to do.
He finds Isengrin sitting outside her locked doors, chin in his hand. Though not as vast as Isengrin’s, Queen Magdalena’s quarters are sumptuous, and many doors, in fact, stand between Isengrin and Magdalena just now. But these are the ones that divide their space and bar his entry. They are clean and white and friendly: patterned with bluebells, in fact, evocative of a honeymoon. It’s she who’s had them fitted with a lock.
“You’re looking preoccupied today.” Wolfram puts his hand on the back of Isengrin’s chair and leans over to kiss him on the top of the head. “Are you hungry?”
“She won’t see me,” says Isengrin von Radach, first of his name, without looking up.
Wolfram studies the king. Isengrin hasn’t reacted to the question or the greeting, so he’s in an awful temper; the gods only know that Isengrin is a charmless, faithless, heartless bastard, but he’s rarely rude. Wolfram’s instinct is to stay clear of Isengrin in an awful temper, honestly–well, Wolfram’s instinct is to stay clear of anyone in an awful temper. It’s not like he loves to endure their sulks.
However, enduring the king’s sulks is his job, and putting an end to the king’s sulks his foremost duty, so he sits down in the opposite chair–crossing his legs, mindful of his crisp liturgical tunic.
“You’ll like supper today,” he says encouragingly. “They have pheasants with the apricot glaze. You like the apricot glaze.”
“I know I like the apricot glaze,” snaps Isengrin.
Wolfram looks away. Isengrin always feels bad and attends to him soon enough. It doesn’t change the sting of his anger and his disregard. The disregard is worse, Wolfram thinks. There was a time (not so long ago, he sometimes feels–yes, so long ago, his rational mind retorts, thinking of the lines on his face) when Isengrin waited on his every word with a passion.
He still thinks of Wolfram’s opinion often, Wolfram knows. Maybe Isengrin thinks of him more than he thinks of anyone else. But even so, he’s aware he’s become a grey specter that shadows Isengrin’s life. He’s a quiet figure always lurking around corners with an unspoken opinion, an unoffered piece of advice, a matter-of-fact judgment that Isengrin doesn’t want to hear.
Worse: Isengrin doesn’t want to know it exists. Isengrin resents Wolfram’s inescapable presence. He resents his doubt. And he resents that telling him to be quiet doesn’t make the doubt go away–whatever ego Isengrin privately cultivates, it never can survive an encounter with his own knowledge of Wolfram’s opinion. Isengrin resents Wolfram. Wolfram does not tell him enough of what he wants to hear.
He used to tell him more. He put it into Isengrin’s head that he should court the princess, once.
They were young. Wolfram was fresh out of his novitiate, newly a priest; Isengrin’s father was newly dead. He’d inherited. And Magdalena–well, Magdalena was surpassing lovely and terrifying, at least as Wolfram considered her. Isengrin never did have eyes for a woman. A great number of their problems, Wolfram mused, would be solved if Isengrin did.
They were sitting on the fountain in the square. Isengrin had his arm around him like a reinforced buttress. He was so strapping back then. Wolfram had his head on Isengrin’s shoulder, eyes half-closed, content.
The princess crossed the tiles in a red bliaut that billowed out behind her and Wolfram’s eyes flickered up to follow her. A thought crossed his mind.
“You should talk to her,” he murmured.
Isengrin ruffled his hair. “She has suitors enough.”
“She doesn’t have you,” Wolfram teased–half-teased. “You have the money now. She’d have to take you seriously.”
“Liar,” Isengrin accused and put his chin on Wolfram’s head.
Wolfram reached up to tweak his nose. “Fool.” He kicked at the dust at the base of the fountain, and the shadows licked his foot.
Wolfram taps his fingers and tries not to look at Isengrin for too long.
Isengrin is handsome even when he’s unhappy. A rare gift. He lights up with happiness too; he fires with anger. Every angle suits him. Wolfram realizes he’s staring at Isengrin anyway, who is still looking at the queen’s doors, and feels a spasm of loathing. He looks away.
He sits and thinks about the economy, his household, the newest missives from Gautland, the pheasant he’d rather be eating right now, the pretty young shieldmaiden new to this spring’s tournaments with the shining hair (he doesn’t know her name), until Isengrin comes around to talking about the queen.
Which he will.
Isengrin glances back at Wolfram and, finally, gives him a tired and abbreviated smile. “We should send for the pheasant,” he says.
Wolfram takes Isengrin’s hand: rough as it is from use, battle, sacred burns. Wolfram’s, to the contrary, have only softened in years of wealth and power and peaceful living. He wears gloves to maintain the effect. He likes it. He moves to summon a servant for food, but Isengrin says wearily: “It’s not going well, Wolfram. I think she’s going to divorce me.”
Something in his voice gives Wolfram pause. He looks at the king for a moment and ascertains that he’s genuinely anxious–which means that the queen must be genuinely threatening him. The prospect’s a grim one. He says, “Well, she can’t actually do that.”
“No,” says Isengrin, “but if she made a public appeal… We’ve already quarreled. She’s already locked her door to me. We’re not living as man and wife. Everyone knows. It isn’t good.”
No, it isn’t. Wolfram makes a contemplative face, as if this is all new to him, as if he hasn’t been considering his courses of action for months now. “Magdalena’s unreasonable,” he says.
“You thought she would come around.” There’s a plea in Isengrin’s voice. Fix it. Make it better.
“Give her time–” He makes the mistake of trying to clasp Isengrin’s hand in both of his.
“You said it would work,” Isengrin says with wild eyes and pushes his arm away. “Gods damn it, Wolfram. You said it was going to work. You said she was going to come around.”
Isengrin is being wretched, of course. Wretched and juvenile and self-indulgent. One of the worst revelations of manhood, Wolfram thinks, is learning that all the kings and queens of the world are people exactly like this. So what he ought to be feeling right now is contempt, in the cold outskirts of his mind, while the rest of his mind looks to alternatives out of their situation.
Instead he feels another flash of hatred, coupled with humiliation. He wants to snatch his arm away, except that Isengrin’s already rejected him first. Of course. He never gets to these kinds of gestures first. He wants to say something snide to Isengrin about which of them has ever made inroads to the queen’s favor, ever even gotten the queen to speak to them willingly, and which of them most assuredly hasn’t. He wants to say something witty and storm out.
Instead he digs his fingernails into the arms of his chair. He’d like to say that common sense stays his hand, but in fact more compelling is having to imagine having to storm back into his own chambers to the raised eyebrows of his servants. He doesn’t like to lose his dignity in front of Isengrin, but he really doesn’t like to lose it in front of them.
“I know you’re not happy, love, but it isn’t me you’re unhappy with,” he says in a low voice. Isengrin starts to mumble something acrid, but Wolfram can tell the fire has gone out of him. He continues instead: “None of this is actually new. It’s disappointing, but… it isn’t new. Magdalena’s always been bullheaded beyond sense or civility. If she could be trusted to make the best decision for her own land,” he points out, “we wouldn’t be here.”
That rallies Isengrin a little bit. He pinches the bridge of his nose with two fingers but glances at Wolfram askance, listening.
“You need an heir,” Wolfram says. “You need to have an heir with her.”
“I’m aware of one of those things,” says Isengrin with a quirk of his lips, “and I don’t know what you propose I do about the other.”
“I’m not suggesting you do anything drastic, Isengrin.” Wolfram sighs. “But you and she both have to know this state of affairs is ludicrous. You’ve been married for two years, my love. You’ve other ways of forcing her hand. The fact remains–”
“What,” says Isengrin, “do you suggest I do?”
Isengrin never sounds so desolate. That is something he can be counted on for between the two of them, usually: resilience. Hope. Even now Wolfram knows the hearthflame still burns in him; it only needs someone to tend it.
He gets up then and kneels down in front of Isengrin’s chair, on both knees, and takes Isengrin’s warm hands in his own. He looks up at Isengrin like a supplicant. So often he’s taken this position of inferiority. As a counselor. As a lover. And–he’s weary and aware–he doesn’t mind it. He prefers it, in fact. This is not the thing that makes him miserable.
“You must force her hand,” says Wolfram, looking up through his king’s brown eyelashes into his king’s pale eyes. “She has people, some of them left. She has family. Nieces and nephews. Get them into the palm of your hand. She refuses because of the pride of her house. She looks down upon you, Isengrin. She looks down upon me. You see,” he caresses Isengrin’s face, “you think it’s hopeless because if you were a woman, you’d never submit. Isn’t that true?”
Isengrin makes a quizzical face. Wolfram doubts Isengrin was thinking about anything of the kind, but this all needs some flattery for seasoning. “Well, she isn’t like you,” he insists. “She’s strong and proud and virtuous. I don’t mean to insult her.” Wolfram has had quite enough of Magdalena, in fact, and cares little for her personal honor. But this is Isengrin he’s talking to. “But there are things,” he says, “that matter more to her than her misguided notion of the gods. It’s just a matter of finding what they are. She’ll come to her senses. You’ll take her to wife.”
For a moment, he can tell he almost has Isengrin. But he shouldn’t have mentioned the gods at all.
“I can’t,” says Isengrin with his head bowed. “She’s my queen.”
Wolfram decides not to point out that contradiction, rocks back on his heels a little, bites his lower lip, and thinks about what to do.
“The gods wouldn’t have it,” says Isengrin, tired. “Her person is holy. You know that as well as I. If I could reason with her I would. But she’s shut her door to me and I–dishonoring the will of a royal queen. I may as well build my own fire and lay down in the flames.”
Say this of Isengrin, Wolfram supposes: he’s sincere. Always has been. Wolfram thinks about throttling him.
But the kinds of problems to which throttling is a solution are what, in fact, he engages other services for, and Isengrin is not one of them. Wolfram leans up to kiss him instead, but Isengrin turns his face away and says irritably, as if to an importunate courtier, “I can’t do it.”
Wolfram looks away, stung–something he doesn’t have to invent. But Isengrin continues to ignore him, so he gathers up all his immediate, unhappy little feelings and stands up and bites his lip again and resists the urge to say something flip; where will the king go for balm now? he wonders. A sycophant? Lord Vindarna?
He stands and folds his arms. “Well, if you change your mind,” he says without concealing his irritation. “And Isengrin? You should.”
“You’ve made your opinion clear,” says Isengrin.
Wolfram leaves the king’s chambers without a bow and without looking back. That, he supposes, is a sole privilege that he has always retained for himself. At least he has that. But already, as he leaves in a mild huff, he has more on his mind; already he is thinking.
Wolfram von Hagen is the king’s hierophant. What this title means is that he prays for King Isengrin. What this title really encompasses is nothing: nothing whatsoever of everything he does, of everything he has to be.
He didn’t fall upon this title by chance. He inscribed it for himself. His brother used to call him passive–well, no passivity gained him this. His father named him a witch–no witchcraft took him to the height of the priesthood. And no witchcraft gave Isengrin his coup. That was all Wolfram’s doing.
He presides over services every evening as the sun edges under the horizon and the shades stretch to cover the altar. He preaches the perils of the Deceiver, the Skinchanger. When he chances to go to bed by himself, he still prays: all the time thinking of Magdalena and of the way the darkness scatters over the light from the door.
Kings take their share of lovers. It’s a constant, along with the commandments of the gods and the transit of the sun. Only one, of late, has stuck.
“Go and find Lord Vindarna,” says Wolfram to his manservant. “Tell him I’d like to speak with him. I’ll have dinner brought.”
Lord Vindarna is a well-favored enough boy with a sizable inheritance. No, in saying that much Wolfram is dismissing him and he knows it. Lord Vindarna is beautiful and rich. Some used to count him pious, too, before Isengrin took an interest in him. The truth was he was only exceptionally quiet before. The king’s attention has brought him to flower. Unfortunately.
He always used to see Vindarna around the queen, Wolfram remembers: one of her ceaseless hangers-on, vying passively for her favor. He still favors her, Wolfram notes. One would imagine jealousy from his corner, but it’s not there. Lords and ladies like Vindarna are a ring around Magdalena when Isengrin is at the end of his patience with her–he doesn’t care to admit it, but Isengrin cares for the opinion of his court. While Magdalena still has friends in it, he’ll be loath to force her. More so when one of the friends is Vindarna.
Privately Wolfram wonders if it’s not the king whose attention Vindarna was hoping for. Well, Isengrin will never see it.
Isengrin is likely to send for him if he’s in a sulk over Wolfram. Vindarna will tell him that he’s handsome, that he’s powerful. More to the point: Vindarna will tell him that he’s right.
“Sir?” Wolfram’s manservant is expectant.
“It’s pheasant with apricot glaze today.” Wolfram studies the fingernails of his left hand. “If he says yes, go tell the kitchens to bring dinner too.”
Magdalena was a princess before she was a queen. Isengrin was never a prince–he wed Magdalena at swordspoint, not long after her accession. Wolfram remembers the rite, ringed by Isengrin’s soldiers and the men who had supported his coup: and Wolfram, who presided over it.
She had worn radiant gold braid that day. He doesn’t know why he always remembers what she wore. And she’d looked up into Wolfram’s eyes when Isengrin said his vows.
He’ll always remember her expression.
He dreams of it at night. The wedding in the sunlight, but ringed by an encroaching, spilling black shadow. It creeps in around the three of them. Wolfram opens his mouth to cry out to warn them, but his own shadow raises its finger to his lips.
The boy says yes. Wolfram was counting on that; he’s never known the boy to say no to anything he didn’t have a direct conflicting excuse for, or that he wasn’t able to invent a direct conflicting excuse for, at any rate. That’s one thing Wolfram appreciates about him. He lies, like a reasonable, sane human being. You’d be surprised how many people don’t.
The kitchen has something like a half-feast brought up for them: enough upon which Wolfram and Vindarna could make a meal each. The boy presents himself in beautiful black silk, gold worked into the powder on his eyelids and the jewelry on his ears and throat. His dark eyes dart anxiously between Wolfram and the door, although his posture and expression are in perfect composure. Even putting aside his fashion, which Wolfram does genuinely admire, Lord Vindarna is beautiful. From his handsome jaw to the tips of his long fingers. Even Wolfram likes to look at him, and Wolfram shouldn’t like to remember he exists.
The lights are low in the room: just the hearth and one brazier and a pair of candles on the table. Wolfram’s left them that way.
He bows deeply to Vindarna. “Good evening, milord,” he says. “I’m sorry to impose upon you. I do have food here, if I’m keeping you from–”
“No, that won’t be necessary,” says Vindarna in his cool, androgynous voice. His accent is almost nonexistent. “But I thank you for the courtesy, Sir Wolfram. Is something the matter? I apologize for my forthrightness–this is an unusual circumstance.”
Forthrightness is hardly one of Vindarna’s sins. I can see you, Wolfram thinks, looking at Vindarna’s averted gaze, downcast through his long black eyelashes: you terrified creature.
(Don’t be afraid of me. We could be friends. We were made to be one another’s friends, people like you and me. No one else is going to be.)
But that would be counterproductive.
Wolfram clears his throat. “No,” he says with a smile. “Sit, sit. Have a seat.” He gestures to a chair. “Just a private question I wanted to ask. His Majesty the King, is he well? I wish to inquire after his health, if you know at all.”
Vindarna’s lips twitch. But for years of fine training he’d be contorting, Wolfram suspects, like a bug on a board. He sits, carefully. “I-I don’t know,” he says. “I-I’m not sure what you mean, Sir Wolfram… I mean–The King is my friend” –he sounds pained to say it to Wolfram, and imploring too– “but I’m not in his confidences: is there something to be concerned about? With his health?”
“I’m not sure,” says Wolfram with a solicitous frown; he takes his own seat. He reaches for the bottle of wine and the two goblets, but he just rests his hand on the bottle for the time being, his thumb on the neck. “He’s a very proud man. I too am lucky enough to count myself among his friends–” Gods’ blood. This is becoming a black farce. “But I think I’ve seen him wearier of late. I know that the ill health of his lady the Queen has worried him greatly–and he sustained a wound from this last campaign–”
“Oh!” says Lord Vindarna in alarm, as if he hasn’t already seen this wound in all stages of dress.
He’s so shameless. He’s so rehearsed. Wolfram has to restrain a laugh and continues on, “So–begging your pardon, my lord, my friend–I must ask you a favor. I think the King means to invite you to eat with him tonight. But I’m endeavoring to get him to go to bed early, with the collusion of his physician. You see, I really don’t think he has the energy for guests tonight.”
“Oh, I see.” Vindarna is nodding, concerned fingers over his mouth.
“I thought you might. I’m so sorry. This is the sort of talk I never wanted to inflict upon your noble personage.”
“No, no. Of course.”
Wolfram expects Vindarna to say something excusing himself now. It’s the sort of thing a demure creature like Vindarna would do–precisely what Wolfram has been counting on from him. But Vindarna tilts his chin down and looks half at Wolfram, half down at his hands.
“In that case,” says Lord Vindarna with well-fashioned regret, “if His Majesty wishes me to accompany him at a time like this, I cannot see how I could refuse him. If he is truly feeling unwell and desires my company” –he gestures and Wolfram follows the movement of his hand with his eyes– “then as his friend, surely–” He pauses, as if struggling for the words: and maybe he is. He looks up at Wolfram, beseeching. This really is the show of a great deal of nerve. “Surely I owe it to him to attend him. Would you ignore Her Majesty the Queen in such a state?”
So Vindarna isn’t going to make this easy. Wolfram listens with a care to look contemplative, and nods, and pours the wine while thinking: you stubborn child. I’m offering you a way out. But what he says is, “Of course. Of course I understand your concern, and your loyalty–it’s admirable. All the same, the King can be–I hesitate to use these words, but you must understand–the King can be” –he grips the bottle at the base, makes as if to pour– “obstinate?”
Lord Vindarna straightens up. There’s a frosty aspect to his expression now: Wolfram suspects it was always there, waiting for the proper time to be unveiled. The boy must feel terribly proud of himself. “I would hesitate to use such words to describe His Majesty the King as well,” he says. “I am certain that he is well enough capable of knowing the soundness of his own mind and body. If he and his lady wife see nothing wrong, then I,” he says, “am in no position to judge.”
Well, Wolfram supposes: if that’s how it’s going to be.
He goes to pour the wine, but he knocks over the candles as he does: sending them into muddier, more uncertain light. He exclaims and rights both of them before they can set anything afire, but not without dousing them; they are illuminated now by the fireplace and brazier behind him, barely, and he cannot much see Vindarna’s face. He knows Vindarna can see less of his.
“I’m terribly clumsy,” he remarks. “I’m very sorry. Here–” And he goes to finish pouring the wine.
One of the shadows creeps up his arm while he does.
Vindarna watches him with darkened curiosity. But Wolfram pours for them both from the same wine, and he has no reason for suspicion. They both toast the king’s health and drink deeply.
He is the king’s hierophant. He knows well the ways of the Deceiver.
After some time Wolfram steps outside and summons a servant with a clap of his hands. “Escort Lord Vindarna back to his rooms,” he bids him. “He’s feeling ill.”
The man looks alarmed. “Sir?”
“I think he’s had a little bit too much to drink,” Wolfram confides. “Nothing that some sleep won’t cure. The morning should see him well.”
On some autumn evenings, Magdalena comes to the western gardens to watch the sun set. Rumor has it that she misses her dead father the king, who’s buried not far from there. Wolfram thinks differently: the gardens to the west of the palace are the only ones not ringed by a low wall. He imagines that she comes there to pretend at freedom for the few minutes a day that she can.
He finds her there as the sky reddens. She’s garbed in white tonight–belted in silver, embroidered in pale blue–and she startles and turns at his approach. There’s a part of him that’s still struck hard by the way that she looks at him, the way that she’s looked at him ever since the wedding.
When the light passes her the right way, he can see thin filaments of silver along her auburn temples. Her childbearing years will soon be coming to an end. She’ll be content to live and die a virgin queen.
Wolfram bows low when he comes up to greet her. She doesn’t return it with so much as an incline of her head. A part of him admires that, too.
“My lady Queen,” he says.
She doesn’t answer him. Her handmaidens are lurking on the other side of the garden, he sees, affording their lady some privacy, but he can tell that they’re poised to interpose themselves if she looks distressed. Loyal. The king ought to have retainers like that, he thinks vaguely: difficult and loyal.
Magdalena regards him with all the scrutiny given to a fly on a blade of grass. Wolfram clears his throat.
“The King was hoping you would join him for dinner tonight,” he says with his hands folded behind his back.
“Then the King,” she answers in a low voice, turning away again, “continues to entertain foolish hopes.”
“They needn’t be.” Wolfram ventures a half-smile.
“I thought you of all people were not in the practice of encouraging hope where there is none.” Magdalena reaches out, and Wolfram thinks she might pick a flower–but instead she tweaks a leaf on a bush with an idle, appreciative hand. One can never forget that all of this used to belong to her. “I have no intention of seeing him. I will not see him. Tell him that again, if you must, the next time he sets his mind on receiving me as a guest for supper in my own palace.”
“Tell him so.”
“Magdalena.” They are two people who have known each other for a very long time. He cannot call himself her friend any more, but he addresses her like he is: stopping in front of her, with his head bowed and his eyes on hers. “Look at me.”
What choice does she have? Looking away would signal submission; looking at him, compliance. She looks at him. He almost flinches–but he carries on as he must, devoid now of pretense.
“You must understand. The King’s patience is not without limit. Nor is mine. You will regret it if you push us to forcing your hand. He will regret it. I’ll regret it. It doesn’t have to be this way,” he says, meaning it, “but the king will have an heir, one way or another. I don’t want it to have a mother who holds it in loathing.”
“Wolfram,” Magdalena begins, wondering, “tell me–why do you think this will be any more use than anything else you’ve said to me?”
“I don’t. I don’t.” It comes out with more force than he intends. “I don’t know what to say to you. All I can tell you is that this can’t last forever.”
She looks up at him. She has never been a tall woman, the queen, though she’s left that impression on many memories; she always stands erect.
“It will last until I’m dead,” she says, “and you bless me and burn me. Isengrin is free to take my ashes to wife. If you understood who I am and where I have come from,” Magdalena looks at him, “perhaps you would understand why it is never going to be any other way.” She draws a breath. “You continue to waste your time with me. I pray that you will understand that, Hierophant.”
When he arrives back at his rooms, he thinks he can still smell her perfume. It disturbs him. He has a bath drawn to wash it away.
During his bath an invitation to dinner arrives from Isengrin, courtesy of a nervous page whom Wolfram sends off with a coin for his troubles. He smiles when he receives it, and sinks into the water and considers what he’s going to wear.
He presents himself to the King for dinner wearing the emblazoned surcoat of his father’s house, which he takes off and hangs up when Isengrin invites him to sit down. Underneath it he is wearing a long embroidered tunic trimmed with rich sable–a gift from Isengrin–and belted with a cord of braided gold around his waist, also from Isengrin. The rest of his jewels are green, set in gold and looped in two necklaces around his collarbone and shoulders: these he knows Isengrin hasn’t seen before. Underneath all of that he has a fresh chemise and the oils and musk from the bath.
He never attends a dinner like this with Isengrin without this kind of attention to detail, because when he has time to put himself together, no one pays attention to detail in his appearance like Isengrin. He’s chosen white traced with silver and trimmed with ermine today, which–bordered by the white fur mantle around his shoulders–frames his strong features in the appearance of youth, almost, along with his fair hair. If looks alone could make a king, then Isengrin would have no need of Wolfram. Wolfram can see what a boy might be taken with in someone like Isengrin; he wishes it made him want to throttle Isengrin too, but the truth is it just makes him want to sit down and put his head in his hands.
Wolfram likes Isengrin better fresh off the field, anyway, or even just the training yard. Sweat becomes him. He doesn’t like to sit in one place. This frigid, passive, petulant face of his only comes out here. If only he could woo Magdalena the way he wed her.
Wolfram must be making some face that betrays him, because he sees Isengrin’s polite smile soften across from him. “I missed you these hours,” Isengrin says.
“I miss you all the time,” says Wolfram, raising his goblet to his lips. “But your hours are in higher demand than my own, my love.”
Lies and damned lies, of course, the day that Wolfram is less busy than Isengrin in the palace is the day he is rotting in the catacombs. Even Isengrin raises an eyebrow; “In all our years together, Wolfram,” he says, “I can’t remember a time I refused to see you.”
Is that true? Wolfram tries to remember. So many years and disappointments to wade through for one particular fact, something that’s never occurred to him before.
“I wonder,” says Isengrin, tilting his head. “What goes through that head of yours? When you’re thinking? I’ll never know, will I?”
Despite all their time together, they try to keep civilized manners at the table. But they’re both very hungry. Too busy refusing dinner invitations, Wolfram thinks with a measure of sardonicism. When the pheasant’s put down in front of them, they both set about it with unabashed hunger, though Wolfram eats less, distracted. His appetite’s not as great as Isengrin’s, anyway–underneath all that trim white is a powerful body, which requires powerful sustenance. They’re not so different in size clothed, but their tailors could tell a different story. Wolfram likes the power in Isengrin’s body, his hungry appetite. He’s proud of it, sort of. Like a horse-owner.
But Wolfram can put away more wine. He takes some and dries his mouth and beard with his napkin, which he sets down again. “You are so handsome,” Isengrin remarks across the table.
“You’re a confounded liar,” says Wolfram with a smile. “Finish your food.”
He doesn’t think Isengrin is a liar. Just a fool–a confounded fool, maybe in danger of learning better. Maybe not. Maybe he’ll be a damned, mad fool forever.
Wolfram chides Isengrin to eat faster one more time, but in fact it’s he who takes his time with the last of his meat and bread. This is because Isengrin is staring at him over the table, and only stares more the more they eat and drink; this is because Wolfram knows that by drawing out how long it takes him to finish the last of his wine, he can deny Isengrin for as long or as little as he pleases.
Which is ultimately not for very long. But he likes to have the power.
The servants clear the dishes. Before they’re out of the room, Wolfram stands, brazen and abrupt. Isengrin blinks at him; Wolfram thinks he can see him color a little.
He walks to the bedroom doorway; when Isengrin rises as well and follows him, he turns.
They stand facing one another. Before Isengrin can do anything, initiate anything, Wolfram reaches up to unfasten the ties on Isengrin’s mantle.
He slips it off Isengrin’s shoulders for him and folds it over his arm, feeling the softness of the costly white fur; Isengrin leans in to take him in his arms but Wolfram shrugs him off to lay the mantle aside first. Then he closes the space and kisses Isengrin first, full on the mouth with his lips parted and his tongue ready.
He likes to kiss. It’s an important step. It tells a lover what to expect. Wolfram can feel Isengrin’s arm around his waist and Isengrin’s other hand in his hair already as he draws Wolfram in close–the king is a forceful, possessive kisser himself. That never took any urging. Wolfram could pretend he doesn’t like this, but to what end, and to whom? He opens his mouth to it, presses his body to Isengrin’s, wraps his arms around him. He likes the dominance in Isengrin’s foreplay. It gives him his first blush of arousal.
Isengrin breaks away from him, a little breathless, and looks at him. “No games,” he says in a low voice.
Wolfram studies him half-lidded. “No games,” he agrees and lays his hands flat on Isengrin’s chest.
He means it, sort of. He has no intention of leading Isengrin a dance for no reason. But he always wants something, even if he didn’t have the Queen on his mind today. Attention, reassurance. Love. Love is, by name, the supposed endpoint of lovemaking–but Wolfram thinks it is very much its own kind of ulterior motive. Much purer would be if the two of them were just consumed with some sort of animal lust for one another; now that would be straightforward. But he doesn’t know what that feels like. With Isengrin, it’s never been pure. He doubts it ever has been for Isengrin either–whatever it is that he wants on a given day. (The study of what Isengrin wants has been Wolfram’s occupation of three decades.)
Wolfram moves his hands up to Isengrin’s shoulders, and then Isengrin’s face. Isengrin responds by kissing him again in that self-assured, proprietary way that makes him shiver. This time it’s Wolfram who breaks away, though, to look at him.
What do I want from you? He traces Isengrin’s jawline with his thumb. What don’t I want?
“I’m cold,” he says, staring at Isengrin.
Isengrin regards him with shining, disquieting eyes. He takes Wolfram’s hand with painstaking gentleness, laces their fingers together, holds them up. “The hearthfire’s warm,” he says.
Yes. Yes, it is. Wolfram lets Isengrin lead him into the bedroom, where he’s buffeted with heat from the impressive fireplace, and sit him down on the edge of the bed. Then he watches as Isengrin goes out into the hall again, returns, shuts the door behind him to trap the warmth in the bedroom, and then–readily, with the grace that comes naturally to him–lays the white mantle over Wolfram’s shoulders.
Wolfram’s boots are still on. He peers at them in the low light of the fire, kicks out one of his feet a little to look at it. He doesn’t have to look at Isengrin; he only has to wait a moment or two, and Isengrin comes to his knees in front of Wolfram, glances up at him, and then–like a gentleman–sets about taking off Wolfram’s boots for him.
Wolfram watches with interest. He undoes the fastenings on his own clothes while Isengrin does this, as best he can while sitting down–which is rather well, in fact, he’s become something of a virtuoso at undressing himself–until all he has left is to tug his own chemise over his head and it leaves him naked under Isengrin’s mantle, sitting on the bed. Isengrin stands again, still fully clothed: and starkly aroused, Wolfram can tell, stiff as a board.
He traces his fingers up the length of Isengrin’s erection. When they were young and furtive they used to do dirty little things like this: in corners and other hiding places, he’d shove his hands into Isengrin’s clothes or push him to climax through all the layers of fabric with a scouring, vicious urgency. He always had his other hand in Isengrin’s hair and his mouth by his ear. Isengrin. We have to be quiet. Wolfram misses that a little.
But then again, he doesn’t. He likes freedom. Freedom and the hottest fireplace and an enormous bed. And this mantle, too, so terribly soft: he wraps it around himself with both hands. He can tell Isengrin’s on the verge of shoving him down with amused frustration and climbing over him, so he takes him by the hips instead and pulls him closer. Wolfram glances up at him–Isengrin’s eyes have already half-closed, and Wolfram can tell his hand is ready to settle in Wolfram’s hair–and then starts undoing Isengrin’s clothing too.
Not much of it, though. Just enough to grant Wolfram access to his penis, which is hard all the way through and already beaded with drips of arousal. Isengrin is like that. His unflagging physical virility at his age makes Wolfram want to claw out his own eyes. It also makes him want to swallow Isengrin’s whole cock down until he gags.
He does neither, and instead takes Isengrin’s shaft in his hand and licks the salty liquid off the head and the creases in the skin, eliciting a groan. Carefully he takes the head in his mouth and sucks, moving his tongue with the ease of decades of experience: Isengrin only comes quickly with rough sensation, Wolfram knows, either from a mouth or hand or his own urgent, brutal rutting. He can be teased to climax otherwise, but it’s a slow process.
Wolfram just teases him, while Isengrin sucks in his breath and pulls Wolfram’s hair, until he yanks his hair particularly hard and says, thickly, “Wolfram, please.”
He slides Isengrin’s cock out of his mouth to answer, but lets it bob obscenely next to his face while he does. “I’m not bringing you off this way,” he says. “I have other uses for this.” He touches the underside with his thumb.
As he imagined, Isengrin grunts in frustration–maybe rolls his eyes in the dark–and pulls his own tunic over his head unceremoniously. Wolfram smiles and takes the time to arrange the soft mantle where he can lie down on it, then settles himself back on his elbows and waits.
He’s hard too, he’s aware, and tender. It happened fully when he had Isengrin in his mouth. He likes that. He likes it with women, too–the way they smell, the slippery little spaces–but, though he once was loath to admit it, he really does like to have a cock down his throat.
Isengrin finishes undressing and puts his clothing aside. Not with any special care, but Isengrin likes clothes. Wolfram has not yet managed to drive Isengrin to tear off his own clothes in desperation. His body really is a masterwork, though, and Wolfram admires it without rancor this time; Isengrin has worked for this. His powerful arms are distracting in and of themselves.
But then Isengrin climbs on top of him and cool little epigrams are a thing of the past–the hot, heavy weight of his body is undeniable, the smell of him, and the rough hand he immediately pushes between them to palm Wolfram between his legs; Wolfram, sensitive, cries out by reflex and turns his head to one side, baring his throat.
Isengrin’s mouth is immediately on his neck. His kisses are hot and hungry, but without teeth–it’s been a long time since he’s left an unwanted lovebite.
He wraps his arms and legs around Isengrin and kisses him deeply, settles his hand in the small of Isengrin’s back. He arches his back up into Isengrin’s touch. Above him, Isengrin moves his hand to Wolfram’s leg, angles it a little further up, rests on his thigh; Wolfram decides he wants Isengrin’s fingers inside of him now, but this position isn’t what he wants and he has some more getting-ready to do.
Wolfram kisses Isengrin one more time and then shakes off his touch so he can turn over, onto his stomach. Isengrin takes the cue and kisses him on the back of the neck this time, and then goes to get the oil.
He brings himself up a little on his knees when Isengrin returns. This goes easily–he likes the feeling, sometimes more than he likes being fucked. And he’s had it so many times now. He pushes his hips back onto Isengrin’s fingers partly for this reason, and partly so he can hear Isengrin’s breath hitch and become labored–you strange man, Wolfram thinks, you strange worthless inconceivable man. He doesn’t know why he thinks that now.
Isengrin’s fingertips touch at sensitivity inside of him and Wolfram ducks his head down, forehead to the mantle. “I’m ready,” he says under his breath.
Waiting, obediently, on his knees as Isengrin gets himself ready behind him: this part, the still anticipation, the patience, Wolfram likes this. He’s had years enough to accept that he doesn’t want it the other way around, and years more to come to peace with that. He rests his head on his arms.
Then Isengrin takes him by the waist and turns him over, abruptly, so he’s face-up on his back. Startled, Wolfram makes a noise of surprise and half-rises onto his elbows: but Isengrin climbs over him again, his hands on Wolfram’s arms, pinning him carelessly, and regards him from above through his long eyelashes.
“Tell me, Wolfram,” he says, and hitches Wolfram’s knees up with his hands, “what is it that goes through that head of yours?”
The mantle is jarringly soft under his shoulders and back. Wolfram didn’t want this position. It’s exposed, it puts him face to face when he doesn’t want to show or have to labor to hide what he’s feeling. Isengrin lifts his hips and spreads him further and takes him, rough and deep, uncomfortably all at one time–Wolfram cries out. Isengrin leans down over him and rests his forehead on Wolfram’s; he doesn’t move, Wolfram supposes he must have heard the note of pain, he gives Wolfram time to adjust to the piercingness of this angle. He’s big. He feels big. Inside, yes, but also–just his body, warm, musky, holding Wolfram down. Wolfram feels pinioned between Isengrin’s muscle and bone and the insubstantial softness of the royal mantle under him; he struggles to find a more comfortable position, but Isengrin just takes him by the waist and eases in deeper yet.
It’s too deep for all at once. It makes Wolfram feel like he’s being pinched or twisted somewhere inside, in his stomach or the small of his back. Isengrin slides his free hand between them; when he settles his rough fingers on Wolfram’s cock, Wolfram lets out an audible and involuntary whimper.
But Isengrin just leaves his hand there. He looks down at Wolfram again like he’s searching for something. “You know,” he says, “doing this with you, there really is nothing like it for me. It’s holy, I truly think so.”
Even as he squirms, which is real–and bites back another real whimper–Wolfram narrows his eyes at him in puzzlement.
Isengrin’s breathing is, Wolfram realizes, labored indeed. He’s not unaffected. He’s still hard as a rock, Wolfram can feel it.
“Have you ever been underneath another man like this, Wolfram?” he says. “You can tell me the truth.”
For a moment Wolfram’s bemused: is this what this is about? But–no, he doesn’t think so. He closes his eyes and tries to think about what to say. He can’t. He can’t defend himself against a charge of adultery while pinned beneath his accuser; but in this case, of this specific offense, he’s innocent enough. Lacking anything eloquent to say on the matter, though, he just manages: “No,” he says. “Never.” He sounds breathless. “Isengrin?”
“Have you ever wanted to?”
He has no lie at hand for this situation; he never expected it to come up. What is the answer to that question? The true one?
The discomfort has begun to ease; now most of what Wolfram can feel is heat and weight, Isengrin bearing down inexorably upon him. He realizes Isengrin has shifted Wolfram’s body underneath him and is starting to move his hips forward, in a slow, considered motion. (The first time they really managed this, without pain or failures–at age sixteen–Isengrin said in hushed tones, It’s working. Look. Wolfram, it’s working. We fit. Not It fits, or You fit me. For some reason Wolfram remembers that with a wrenching, bewildering kind of emotional pain.)
He bites his lip and thinks about the question. He really doesn’t pay that much attention to men, in aggregate. But he’s thought about it. Lord Vindarna’s father comes to mind first, to his own shame: a man whose stature and presence engulf the room in a way that almost makes you want to believe in kings. He’s considered that frame before, the tall build of an aging warrior. And his son looks so much like him. Then there’s the Emperor far away. A pair of handsome bare feet at the foot of a marble throne. Who hasn’t thought about the prospect of becoming one of his conquests–but he likes boys, and besides, Wolfram knows why he’s considered whether he finds the Emperor attractive. It’s because he knows that Isengrin does.
(Of course Isengrin does. Something in him yearns to be mastered. It’s why he’s so naturally religious. This is the quality that is going to undo the both of them as well as their stupid country, if anything is.)
Jealousy is not an aphrodisiac. Should not be. But Wolfram finds himself arching his back and gives his answer, which he discovers to be true: “No.”
“No,” says Wolfram again. “I don’t really fantasize. I do what I like.” He reaches up and draws Isengrin, for the moment silent and taken aback, down further by his shoulders. “You said no games,” he reminds him.
Isengrin stares down–not at him, but at the mattress or the white mantle–breathing heavily. He doesn’t move.
Wolfram wraps his legs around Isengrin’s waist. He has a nice, trim waist for this, always has. He rests his head on Isengrin’s shoulder.
“This thing you’re doing right now,” he muses aloud in a low voice, giving Isengrin’s hair a gentle, paternal ruffle. He indicates what he means with a motion of his own hips. “Is it supposed to be doing something?”
He digs the blunt fingernails of his free hand into Isengrin’s shoulder.
With a wordless, defeated snarl Isengrin drives him down hard into the mattress. Wolfram likes it the best when Isengrin fucks him like a dog on all fours; sometimes he even has the filthy desire while it’s happening for someone to have to watch, witness the hot spectacle. Being on his back is good enough, but strangely that particular craving only intensifies–he gasps when Isengrin pounds into him and thinks vividly of being violated in front of a crowd of people like a prize. Would Isengrin ever do something like that? Is it possible to make him so angry?
Wolfram pretends he wants to see Isengrin tear his own clothes. But he wants Isengrin to tear his own gods away from himself. He wants Isengrin’s jealousy to make him a hypocrite. He wants to make him crumble.
(–A white, silent memory, insulated from all the feeling of the moment. Magdalena’s dispassionate face as she holds a book up to the light: What do you want? she echoes the words of a question put to her seconds before.
She smiles without regard or pity.
I think I’m looking at this the wrong way. What don’t you want?)
Isengrin digs his teeth into the juncture of his shoulder and neck and Wolfram screws up his eyes and cries out. He scores his fingernails deep and hard down Isengrin’s back and shoulders until he can tell he draws blood. “Shh,” he murmurs when he hears Isengrin make a noise of pained surprise, “you’re strong.” Isengrin is strong. He can take all manner of pain. Wolfram can’t. He wants it anyway. He holds on to Isengrin by the shoulders and hips until he can’t take it any more, and then he has to keep holding on anyway because Isengrin’s in abominably good health, as always, and he’s not done.
Isengrin yanks Wolfram’s hair so many times he thinks his scalp bruises. When he finishes inside of him, it feels like it burns.
The heat from the fire has gotten to be too much: they’re both covered in sweat. The royal mantle underneath them is soiled. Isengrin breathes hard, winded, as he recollects his composure; Wolfram lies underneath him and thinks about his father, for some reason.
“I love you,” says Isengrin under his breath. “I love you so fucking much. You don’t ever get to forget that, Wolfram. You’re never going to forget that.”
No, Wolfram supposes, he isn’t.
He rests his chin on Isengrin’s shoulder again. “You need a son,” he says softly. “I would do anything for you, my love. I’ve done anything for you. Remember that.”
Isengrin doesn’t answer him.
“If I could think of another way,” he says, “I would. But I cannot. There’s no way out of this, my love.”
Isengrin’s heavy on top of him. He’s too much weight to carry. He always, always is. He slumps: “What do you want me to do?” he says.
Wolfram stares at the ceiling. He puts his hand in Isengrin’s sweaty hair.
“Nothing,” he says. “Go to sleep and remember all I’ve said to you, my love.”
Isengrin’s voice sounds uncertain. Young again, almost. Wolfram remembers when Isengrin was open and humble, nineteen and twenty. But he cannot remember the person he was alongside him anymore.
“You’re tired,” says Wolfram, meaning it. “Go to sleep.”
The hearth blazes with uncomfortable heat. In the middle of the night, he slides out from under Isengrin’s arm and puts it out.
He shrugs the mantle onto his shoulders and fastens it at his collarbone. He’s filthy underneath it–marked and bruised, clammy with sweat, seed leaking down his legs–but he makes no effort to clean himself other than to comb and pat down his hair to a presentable level and to wash his face once in the basin. Both of these things he manages in the dark, with a mirror and no candle or other light.
He sits down next to Isengrin on the bed and strokes his hair. Isengrin stirs a little in his sleep, then settles down again.
He puts out another light with his fingers as he steps into the hallway, and proceeds in absolute darkness. He does not stumble. He does not lose his way. As he goes, he speaks a word to the dark. The dark shivers and answers him. It pours into his hands, into his head. The spell settles into his heart.
He comes to the white bluebell-patterned doors. There is a candle remaining in its holder, illuminating them slightly. Without looking, with a singularity of purpose, he reaches to extinguish this as well. As it does, the light shrinks rapidly and the shadows converge. They all converge on him. Without the light to mark his edges there are no shadows, no boundaries: he is vast and empty and formless.
He reaches for the door. It swings open unlocked under his hand. Then he steps into the Queen’s chambers and closes the door behind him, while the King slumbers on.