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the road to Ponthieu

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It is a chill winter’s day, and Edward walks briskly through the castle. If his speed is half anger, half humiliation, none need know it but himself; he only wishes to reach his chambers with as much haste as he can summon. On today of all days, he may be left to rage in peace.

“Edward!”

His hopes were aimed too high, it seems. The hail is a jovial one, and too loud to pretend a deaf ear. “Alphonso. I wonder to see you from the side of your lady wife.”

It is too flat, too churlish. On such a day as this, even an enemy might expect to be greeted with charity. His brother is a good man, and does not deserve reflected spleen. He attempts again. “How fares my nephew?”

Breathless from his pursuit, Alphonso claps Edward on the shoulder, all teeth and grin. He does not seem to have noticed the storm on Edward’s face. “A hearty babe, and so much hair! We think to name him Henry. I was for Edward, but Kate says there are far too many Edwards to burden the family with another.”

“I agree with Kate,” Edward says.

His name has left him forever in his father’s shadow, the little thought-of younger son, with his brother the heir and rising star. Now he is not even the youngest, with his father’s second wife presenting him with a pair of sons in as many years. Neither heir nor pet of his father’s old age, he is caught between, invisible.

Alphonso shrugs. “Mayhap next time I will persuade her.”

(And there will be a next time, for Alphonso is proving as prolific as their father. Nineteen children has their father sired, though only nine live today. Alphonso and Kate have already delivered five in eight years of marriage, with only one loss.)

“I think,” Edward says, “that she is the one who fights the battle, and she the one who should chuse the names.”

Alphonso looks at him then, his handsome brow clouding. “You seem unhappy.” He hesitates. “Is it… I know you do not …”

“I cannot answer the question if you do not ask it,” Edward says, with some asperity, when Alphonso continues to struggle for words.

“Do you wish it be otherwise, and that you were nearer the Crown?” Alphonso finally sputters, all in a rush.

Edward nearly laughs, and settles for rubbing his face with a weary hand. “Were I melancholy about that, I would have thrashed it out when John was born. And I swear to you, I have never looked to the Crown. You and your sons are welcome to it; I shall be the loyal brother and uncle.”

Alphonso seems only partly calmed. “Then what ails you? For truthfully, now that I look at you, I have not seen you this ill-favored in many months.” He looks struck again. “Is it that you wish for a son of your own? I promise, Father is considering your marriage. Perhaps France –”

“I do not look to marry,” Edward says, his words nearly hissing through his teeth. “Leave it be, brother. This is a glad day for us all, and that I have been mauled by the lion once again is of scarce consequence. I would forget it by drinking the health of your bonny young Harry.”

For a man who is sometimes a little slow to grasp things, Alphonso is damnedly fast today. “You fought with Father again.”

“It is of little consequence,” Edward repeats. “I assure you Father thinks it so.”

If he were the heir – if he stood before their father as the next King of England, and not a mere younger son, an afterthought – perhaps his father would have listened. Perhaps he would have acceded to his son’s request; surely to endow his closest friend with land in his gift was not such an outlandish request, that his father should have laughed him out of the room with words that bore no repeating. If Edward were his father’s heir, perhaps his father would have bent, if only to maintain peace between them.

Or perhaps he would have shouted and bellowed, would have torn out handfuls of Edward’s hair in one of his famous rages, would have banished Piers from the kingdom and thrown his son bodily out of his chambers. Perhaps he would have imprisoned Piers, as he imprisoned Ralph these nine years since, when as a young squire Ralph was so bold and rash as to secretly marry and impregnate their sister Joan. It is impossible to know now, for their father is sometimes beyond knowing.

But Edward met neither appeasement nor apoplexy, for he is not his father’s heir. He is only Edward the younger, and what he met from his father was, as ever, mockery and dismissal.

“It is of consequence to me,” Alphonso says. “Was it over that damned Gaveston again?”

Alphonso has always been Edward’s friend and ally. He is eleven years the elder, and Edward was his first brother, after a bevy of sisters. Alphonso, big-hearted and lonely, taught Edward everything he knew, and Edward grew up idolising him. Now Edward counts him a friend, if a somewhat more distant one than in times of old; Kate and the children take a good deal of his time, and being his father’s heir takes much of the rest.

Yet now Edward finds the anger surging inside him again, the anger that he bit back in the face of his father’s laughter. “Keep his name out of your mouth,” he says, his words sharp enough to cut.

Alphonso sighs.

“Go to your babe,” Edward says, angry and weary in the same breath. “I am an impossible problem to solve, even for you.”

He turns on his heel, ready to resume his progress towards his chambers. Piers will be there. He did not tell Piers of his plan, the plan that had seemed so hopeful this morning. His father would be in charity with the world with the birth of another royal grandson, another prop to the dynasty. It was Edward’s best chance to win a boon, to give the man he loves name, status, and land. He will never be King, never have the patronage and the power to ennoble, but he has lands of his own through his late mother; if he chooses to bestow some part of them on his sworn man, why should the Crown demur?

He has not yet decided if he will tell Piers of his gamble and its failure, or if he will simply fall into Piers’ arms, and let their shared joy chase away the bitter memory.

His flight to Piers is arrested, however, by Alphonso’s heavy arm falling squarely across his shoulders. “Be not so hasty, baby brother.”

“I hate that name,” Edward says. It reminds him of his childhood: his mother dead when he was six, his father lost in grief for years upon end, his only supports Alphonso and Joan. They had been kind to him, and his childhood was not only dark. But he is a child no longer, and he has made his own light in the darkness.

“Edward then,” Alphonso says. “May I speak truth with you, Edward?”

Edward nods, a jerk of his head. It would be useless to dissuade him. Alphonso has ever said what he thought.

“Do you love your Gaveston?”

It is the first time it has been put thus.

His father, who can be quite crude when women are not present, has certainly broached the subject, but in an entirely different manner. Edward will not repeat, even to himself, the names and aspersions his father has hurled at him, on this and many other occasions. Another man would have given up Piers long since, or at least become much more circumspect; but Edward inherited tenacity and a certain sheer bloody-mindedness from his sire along with his name.

For everything his father has flung at him, however, he has never asked about love. How could he? It is not in him to even imagine it. He, who loved Alphonso and Edward’s mother with a love beyond compare, who has come to love his second wife with a lesser but real affection – how could he see that his son’s ill-advised and ill-befitting entanglement was something more?

But now Alphonso has seen true, and Edward’s throat is tight.

“Father would say you profane by the suggestion,” Edward chokes out.

Alphonso’s arm is still heavy across his shoulders. “I am not Father,” he says. “I am your older brother and your friend, who sees a desperately unhappy man before him. Do you love him?”

“If I own it, I condemn myself.”

Alphonso just waits, damn him.

And perhaps – if Edward cannot own it to anyone else in the world, perhaps he can own it to one man, and in some small measure lessen the weight on his shoulders.

“Yes,” he says, the word exhausted and small and rich with the emotion he has been choking back since stalking from his father’s presence. “Yes, I love him.”

“Then why the fuck are you still here?”

Whatever Edward was expecting, it was not that. He turns and looks Alphonso full in the face, his confusion no doubt evident.

Alphonso shrugs, one-shouldered. “You love each other. If you stay here, you will keep fighting with Father, and eventually he will punish either Gaveston or you in a way you will find intolerable. It will almost certainly fall on Gaveston, and when I think how I would feel if someone punished Kate – well. You will be unhappy as long as you stay. So why stay?”

“Where would we go?” Edward asks. It is not that he has never thought of leaving, but –

“Wherever you pleased,” Alphonso says. “You have lands from our mother. Why not journey there, and be a continental lord for a space? They may look on these things differently, and if they do not, well, you will be the ruler there, as you are not here. Much is forgiven a ruler.”

It is not an entirely unwelcome picture. And yet – “This is my home,” he says. “Why should I flee it like a thief in the night?”

“I am not suggesting that you do,” Alphonso says, reasonably. “Announce it and go with as much ceremony as you desire. I will speak to Father if you wish, but I doubt he will quarrel with the idea. Our family should be strong on the Continent as well as in England.”

“Ponthieu,” Edward says, the irony giving him a vicious joy. “I could take him to Ponthieu.”

(Ponthieu, their father had said, and laughed in disbelief. You want to give your whore Ponthieu. After that Edward chooses not to remember any more.)

“And our father is not young,” Alphonso says, his voice dropping to a near whisper. “May the Lord preserve him, but he is near seventy. When I am King, you may bring your Gaveston back to England, and be as happy as you please.”

“You swear this to me.”

It matters, it abruptly matters in an urgent way that surprises Edward with the strength of it. Perhaps he has simply been denied true hope for so long, that its scent fires his blood, like a hound that catches the trail. Perhaps he sees a future unfolding before him, a future he never even dared dream of.

Alphonso’s face is intent, his voice still hushed. “On my honor, Edward,” he swears. “You are my brother. If God has made you different than me, then so be it – He knows His own reasons. And I have enough heirs for England, between my boys and Father’s. Take your freedom as my gift to you. Go and love him.”

It is an unlooked-for blessing, but none the less precious. Edward pulls his brother to him in a fierce embrace, a more eloquent expression of gratitude than any he could have voiced. “Thank you,” he says, hearing the rawness in it.

“And you – swear to me you will try to be happy,” Alphonso says.

“I will try,” Edward swears.

That is all one can ever do, try.

And yet he has more hope now than he has had for many months.

He breathes the crisp February air that steals the wind from his lungs, and listens to the cathedral bells ring out their joy for another royal babe, and drinks in the broad smile on his brother’s face.

And then he goes to find his Piers.

~