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Chapter Text

If there are scales, the pans don’t move.
If there is justice, this is it.
To die just as required, without excess.
To grow back just what’s needed from what’s left.

Imperial Year 1182

“There you are, Hubert.”

The tread of his boots, trained for silence and now forcefully creating noise—what a world, that Ferdinand should now need to think footsteps stilted, even hesitant. Still, it is the acrid aura of so many burnt coffee beans that truly announces the man. A wonder he manages to sneak up on anyone from the shadows at all.

“Rude as always to keep me waiting so!” Ferdinand has no right to laugh about stilted footsteps, when it is his own words that tumble into each other, wrong-footed. He keeps his face turned to the window, sun framed for his basking pleasure. Soon the spring will roll into summer, and all his careful judgments of time from the light in his window will be for naught. Ah, well. A new season to learn. “Have you brought my marching orders at long last?”

“Your marching orders,” Hubert repeats dully.

The floorboards creak, but there is no matching scrape of the chair legs, so he must still be standing. Looming. A pity it no longer works on Ferdinand.

“Yes,” he smiles to the sun. “I cannot impose upon you forever. The army needs its beds. Whatever you bring me as my final command, I welcome it. A veterans’ hospital, perhaps? I shall sing to my fellows there and lift their spirits.”

“If you are truly so eager to be rid of us,” Hubert begins, and his voice rasps like sandpaper on Ferdinand’s skin, brutally carving away the scant layers of his hasty armor.

Ferdinand turns to him—he hopes—and allows anger to draw his eyes achingly wide. “I am eager not to be a burden,” he snaps with all the tension of a tightrope walker. “And you will not twist that into faithlessness.”

Not a sound for a long moment. He scarcely hears Hubert’s breathing, and he wonders what sour, prickly grimace twists the man’s face.

Hubert clears his throat. “I merely question why a man of such unimpeachable devotion should be so eager to withdraw.”

Ferdinand turns back to the window. He has prayed every day now that the raging heat may swallow him like kindling, sacrifice his husk for some greater cause. If he is eager for anything, it is that. “What would you have me do?” he asks instead of screams, hatred quaking in his breast, and forces an immovable smile. “Hurl myself into the fray like a happy fool? Ride my horse off a cliff? Have you want of a court jester for target practice? Need you another body to bleed?”

“A boost to morale would not go unappreciated after the damage your meaningless sulking has wrought.” Hubert sighs in that special way that declares everyone around him an insufferable waste of space. “For the army’s foremost optimist to commit himself to irrelevance is a damning blow.”

“Get out.”

“Ah, Ferdinand.” That smile like a blade carving into his throat. He can see it perfectly even now. “Do you truly think impotent commands will move me?”

“Do you truly think halfhearted baiting will move me?” Ferdinand parrots with a sneer. Even so, it is a lovely thought—to lash out, embrace his rage, grab for Hubert’s collar and drag his nails down that pallid cheek as he fumbles for his prize. The sickroom has not made him an invalid, has not sapped the strength from his limbs just yet.

The chair squeals beneath a sudden weight, and Ferdinand startles at the feel of a hand on his sleeve. He scowls, miserable. “I do not need your direction. If I wished to look at you, I would.”

And he does a second later, because Hubert laughs, a strange voiceless rasp.

“I have a proposition for you,” Hubert says, and he sounds so very unlike himself that Ferdinand leans nearer, stricken with concern. “We’ve discussed it thoroughly. All parties are in agreement. You are the only remaining question.”

“Wonderful. You require some manner of figurehead, and who better to play the part than—”

“What I require is someone who will stand at Her Majesty’s side when I cannot. Who will be overlooked and underestimated and have the surety of will to weather every slight directed his way, knowing that it serves a higher purpose. Someone so perfectly unsuitable—”

“A tool,” Ferdinand concludes, unsurprised. “That is scarcely better than a figurehead. I decline.”

Hubert reaches out and tips Ferdinand’s chin to the side, redirecting his empty gaze. He wonders what Hubert finds there. “Did you not always wish to be Her Majesty’s adviser? More valuable, more trusted than any other?”

“She already has that in you.”

“I am not enough.”

Ferdinand cannot be hearing him properly, and his expression must say as much, for Hubert bestows that empty chuckle upon him once more.

“This is not a sop for your pride. You would suffer. But Her Majesty and I require someone we can trust.” The reluctance in that word like molasses in Hubert’s throat.

“And in exchange?”

Hubert has only to move his fingers a few inches south, and he will feel the pulse tumbling wild at Ferdinand’s throat. He drops them instead, that remaining tether releasing Ferdinand into free fall, and Ferdinand wonders what shape such trust would take. “Is imperial favor not enough for you?”

“Of course not,” Ferdinand laughs. “Trusting you will be a particularly miserable trial. Here, give me an offer. Prove you know me well enough that this has a hope of working.”

A simple question, really: for what would Ferdinand suffer? How grand a prize must he strive for?

He expects a mile-long list of sarcastic honors to cut him back down to size for such an obstinate question. Instead, Hubert falls quiet in actual consideration.

“Nothing,” Hubert says at last. “Save the freedom for an afternoon ride now and again. I will guarantee it.”

Ferdinand tilts his head, and if he quiets his thoughts in full, he thinks he can feel the full weight of Hubert’s gaze upon him, intensity and loyalty and outright desperation in painful measure. “You need this,” he says in wonder. “It is not that you need someone you can learn to trust. You need someone you already do.”

A soldier can be wasted, a life, a future. But trust is an asset too dear.

“I know your measure.”

“Even now?” Ferdinand cannot help but ask, wincing at that shameless, desolate strain.

Hubert leans in, though Ferdinand cannot tell where, will not embarrass himself by reaching out a hand. Close enough for Ferdinand’s skin to burn, for him to smell not only the dark roast but the blood and iron beneath, the richness of a blade handled too long by sweat-slick skin. He turns his face, searching intuitively for that elusive warmth. And then Hubert’s voice low at his ear, just out of reach. “Strive to surprise me.”