This whole journey back from exile – stealing into England, riding the winter roads in secret, making his way across the frozen countryside to see his wife and newborn babe – Piers has known this be a fool’s errand indeed. The barons hate him, they despise him with a cold fury that is personal, and his very presence weakens the man he loves.
And yet when Edward says his name with that desperate warmth, how can he be other than glad?
“Sire,” he says, dipping his head with mock respect, and then, “Ned,” and Edward is across the room and in his arms, pulling him up into a kiss with frozen, insistent hands.
“Only two months,” he says, aiming for a playful tone, when Edward releases him at last. “Have I been so missed already?”
“Always,” Edward says, his voice rough, and buries his face in Piers’s shoulder, his arms tight around Piers’s back. Piers holds him close, bestowing kisses on Edward’s temples at random.
Two months since the latest exile, two months since Parliament forced Edward to send Piers away again, away from his heavily pregnant wife, his home, and the king he loves. He has spent those months holed up in Flanders, surviving on Edward’s heavily-blotted letters (Edward’s hand has always been atrocious) and his own reckless hopes for the future. Eventually the barons will simmer down. They’ll forget how much they hate me, and Edward will try to be better about not angering them, and maybe Edward and Isabella will have a child and reassure the barons about the succession. In a year or two, he can negotiate my return, and I’ll see him again.
But then Edward had written to him of Margaret, cajoling him to make this secret, illicit journey to see his newborn babe. Piers had intended to travel like the wind, to see the child and return to Flanders before the barons even knew he had left it, but Edward could not bear to have him so near and not see him. Their parting will be hard – it always is – but Piers cannot bring himself to regret it, not with Edward in his arms.
“I am away to York,” he says, sliding his hand into Edward’s, where he can caress it with his thumb. “Is the babe hale?”
“A beautiful little girl,” Edward says, against his neck, pressing kisses under his jaw. “And looks your image entire! Margaret has named her Joan after her grandmother.”
“A good name. And you say she is mine!” Piers marvels at the caprice of the universe. He has always intended to give his name to the babe, for it is his wife’s, and if she had sought another man’s arms he would not have faulted her for it. God’s teeth, he has been in her bed seldom enough, and only out of duty.
“And mine,” Edward says, half-laughing, “for if you have sired her, you did so only with my help. I claim a godfather’s right at least.”
Piers flushes with the warmth of the remembrance, even here in the biting January air. The few times he did venture to Margaret’s bed, Edward had generally to help him aforetime, to give him the wherewithal. Edward is fond of his niece Margaret, the daughter of his beloved elder sister Joan – he did not only marry her to Piers so that Piers would gain her fortune and status, but to ensure that she had a considerate husband – and has often told Piers that if they try hard enough, they will manage to give her at least one babe.
“Even with your aid, I thought it impossible,” Piers confesses. “Until now, I thought another man had made me a father, and been glad of it. I bring only fumbling incompetence to her bed, and she is worthy of joy. But truly! If you say it is so, it is so. I a true father!” A gift unlooked for, but none the less precious.
“You must help me next,” Edward says, still held tight in his embrace, “for Isabella is still very French and very beautiful and very imperious. My cock has begun to wilt at her approach, and it has been three years without a babe.”
Piers’s blood runs the faster for the admission. He has loved Ned for so long, and it has been two months for him as well. Were it not for the cold, and the babe that waits for him sixteen miles hence at York, he would strip the clothes from Edward’s back with more speed than finesse, or drop to his knees and show Edward the reverence an Earl owes his sovereign.
“I must ride,” he says, reluctantly letting go the vision. “But if you linger here for me, I will return and make my goodbyes, before I fly again.”
Edward shakes his head, burrowing deeper into Piers’s cloak. “I am coming with you to York.”
“It cannot be safe,” Piers protests. “I alone am one man, scarcely remarked. I can ride and be away with no man seeing the truth. If you and your party ride with me, I can scarce but be marked. Your barons have not yet forgotten their ire, I know that.”
“You think of your babe, and let me think of the barons,” Edward says, rebelliously. “I have only just had you back again, and I shall not give you up after no more than a few kisses. If you must go hence, let us have a week first. They cannot overturn the country in a week.”
Piers knows that he has two besetting sins in life. One, an arrogance and love of position that angers the nobility of the realm, for they were born to their lands and he gifted them by a lover. It galls them to see a nobody raised high. No doubt if he had been a mistress raised above her station, guaranteed the royal ear, and promptly given everything she desired, the she-Piers would have been equally despised. But mistresses are women, and thus inherently less powerful; one deals with a mistress by introducing the king to another beautiful woman, and trusting to the power of novelty to work its magic. One cannot deal with a male favorite the same way, and if they tried, Piers would laugh in their face.
The second, that he loves his Ned both too much and too little. - Too little, because he cannot seem to find the power to change his nature, to become complaisant and inoffensive and quiet, to fade into the background and be Edward’s loyal but silent lover. If Piers could do that, and Edward could sire an heir with Isabella, the barons would be upset but quiescent. He has tried, oh he has tried, but though he thinks his love inexhaustible, it has proved no match for his nature; always after a span of time, that nature reappears, and soon he has angered them again. Next time they agree to his return from exile, he will attempt it anew, but has no great hope of success. He is made after the manner he is.
- Too much, because Piers cannot find the strength to break both their hearts and leave the country forever. If he loved Edward less, perhaps he could do what he half-feels he ought: could take Margaret and the babe and sail to the Continent, far from Edward’s loving arms. Most of the troubles that beset Edward are because of Piers - not all, but most. If Piers could be the strong one, could remove himself from Edward's realm, Edward’s crown would be much the safer. Perhaps that would be the truest measure of love.
But he cannot, because he loves this man with every sinew and every heartstring.
“Edward,” he says, still trying to resist this mad plan (but knowing he will yield, as he always yields to Edward). “Are you certain, my love? If you but wait for me, I swear that I will visit here again, on my return from York.”
“We will both visit here again on our return from York,” Edward says, insistent and imperious, and so all Piers can do is kiss him, and yield with as good grace as he can muster.
“Then let us ride,” he says, stealing Edward’s warm breath from his lungs, “and meet my Joan, and praise my lady wife for her feat of arms. And when we have rested, I will be your loving husband in truth as well as word.”
For so have they been these six years hence; ever since Piers returned from his first exile, the old king punishing his son for a quarrel by banishing his best-loved companions from his side. They had already been lovers by that time, rash young men who knew only joy, and the separation had been especial hard for Edward. When Piers returned, Edward had knelt before him and asked him to pledge his troth, not before witnesses but before God.
(“For,” Edward had said, lifting his face to the heavens, “I am to be God’s Anointed, when He calls my father to Him. If I am struck down for the sin of loving you, so be it. Elsewise I will pledge myself to you, your loving husband, and as David had his Jonathan, I will have you.”
Piers had had no great faith that the Almighty would be forbearing towards the son of a minor knight, even if He chose to spare a future king. But it was Ned who asked, Ned who wanted to be husband to him; and it is the defining arc of Piers’s life, that he loves with his heart entire.
So he had knelt with Edward before God, both knights new-made, and pledged his troth, his heart, and his life to Edward, the man who holds them all. And so he may call Edward husband, for the Almighty did not strike them dead; and so Margaret may be entitled to all his respect and honor, but not his heart.)
Piers thinks it will nigh break Edward to be left again, to have only a snatched breath of happiness. They are always being parted, never left to live in joy together.
But even a snatched breath of happiness is more than many have. Piers will take every breath he is given on this green earth: a babe who wears his likeness, a wife he honors, a husband he loves. He and Edward are twenty-seven this year – perhaps as they grow older, they will grow in wisdom and forbearance, and learn to love and live together without angering the barons. Perhaps their children will shout and laugh and play, never suspecting that they are not only cousins, but joined by dearer ties; perhaps they will each be devoted godfathers to the other’s children, and raise them all together like puppies. Perhaps in fifty years time, they will be wizened old men who doddle their grandchildren on their knees and tell stories by the fireside, and the barons will pretend not to see the way they smile.
And if that half-glimpsed future be only a dream – if this breath of happiness be his last – if Piers returns to Flanders exile and the next he hears from England is that Edward was carried away by a summer sickness – he will be no sadder for having loved now.
“Come,” he says, and draws Edward’s arm through his own. “Come, my love. To York.”
“Kiss me once more,” Edward commands, because he is never surfeit.
Piers laughs, his heart full to bursting. “Once more, then,” he says, and holds Edward’s face between his hands, warming them under the collar of Edward’s cloak. He will kiss him breathless, but no more, for they must ride; and tomorrow morn he will greet the sunrise in his husband’s arms, and make him shout for the joy of it.
“Piers,” Edward says, like a prayer, and Piers closes his eyes, and kisses his name out of Edward's mouth.