“Come,” his father says, beckoning him to the fire somewhat irritably.
Irritation being his father’s near-constant state of mind with him, Edward does not bristle. He steps nearer his father, inclining his head. “Sire.”
“These men are new-come from Gascony,” his father says, nodding to a trio of men standing some distance across the hall, speaking to the husband of his sister Joan. “Arnaud is a vassal of mine, and has done me good service against Aragon and France. His sons have served in my companies as well, and do their father honour.”
As you do not, is the unspoken reference. It would cut Edward, but he has learned to bite his tongue. Why his father should not respect him, when he has done nothing to deserve the censure, he does not understand. Perhaps he reminds his father that he is a late-born son, and his father past sixty; perhaps his height, good countenance, and vigour remind his father of his own lost youth. His father is still vigorous, no decrepitude in evidence, but he is the waning moon.
However it be, Edward places a curb on his tongue. “I am glad to hear it. Will they serve us in Scotland?”
“The younger son is for your company,” his father says, his words harsh-coloured. “He is of an age with you, and is a paragon of arms. He will be a model for you.”
Seldom has his father spoken so plain, but it is a relief. The sword out of the scabbard gives clarity.
“I welcome him,” Edward says, quietly, and bows himself free.
The knot of Gascons opens for him, his sister’s husband Ralph beckoning him in with a warm arm. “Here is my brother Edward,” he says, “and here are our new arrivals.”
Edward nods to them. The father – Arnaud, if his memory serves – is a weatherbeaten man, solid with a taciturn face, just as his father respects. One of the sons is in his image. The other is a well-made youth, tall and well-favoured, with a merry glint to his eyes.
“I honour your service,” Edward says. “Have we fed you well?”
“Right well, sir,” Arnaud replies.
“Truly I think if you had fed us more well, my stomach would have ripped in twain,” the merry youth says, his voice a lilt.
Edward fights back a smile. He is aware of his tender years, and tries to project dignity to counter them. “My father tells me that one of your sons is to be my companion.”
“That’s me,” the merry youth says. “We are of an age, you see, and you would not want Arnaud-Guillaume, he is no fun at all. He is too busy being Father’s heir and worrying about our lands. But I – I am a younger son, landless, no aspirations beyond what I can buy with my sword arm and my pretty tongue. Will you have me?”
“Piers,” Arnaud says, with a paternal dampening that Edward recognises all too well.
Edward has no intention of indulging it. “I will have you,” he says, and lets his smile win out.
“Come,” Piers says, waving him towards the door. “Your father will be waiting.”
Edward sits on his bed, gazing at the fire, and cannot find the wherewithal. “You go. I am in no humour for the hunt today. Tell my father I am feeling unwell and will keep my chambers.”
“He will not be happy,” Piers says, with the bluntness Edward values. “Come, Ned, you will feel better anon. It is a fine day for it, and the sun will do you good.”
Edward turns from him. “I do not like the hunt, and I said I am in no humour for it. Make my excuses, and do you enjoy the sun yourself.”
Piers remains a moment more, and then goes out, shutting the door behind him.
If Piers were his father’s son, and not Edward himself, his father would be well pleased. His father sees Piers’s strong sword arm, prowess in battle, joy in the hunt, skill in the joust… everything his father values in a son shines out in Piers, unaffected and unalloyed. Almost Edward could hate him for it.
Everything that Edward values shines out in Piers too.
His humour, sparking as sharp as a sword in the sunlight. The laughter that dances in his eyes, when Edward ventures a jest that is perhaps too pointed for many men. His ready acceptance of Edward’s delight in the sports of the common people, learned during a childhood spent away from his father; Piers had no prior knowledge of rowing or hedging or ditching, but he has been a loyal support to Edward, and is no bad hand at the oar himself now. (Edward’s father finds such pursuits childish and coarse, and would have him ride in the hunt if he wishes for sport, but though Edward loves horses and riding, he finds the hunt simply tiresome.)
His support, unshakeable and unforced, ever constant. His smile, the light of any dark day. The strong set of his shoulders, which will take on any burden that Edward must relinquish. His long legs, which will go anywhere Edward wants or needs to go. His lips, upon which dances the playful mockery that punctures Edward’s sullen moods and self-importance. His chin, which juts out in suppressed outrage when Edward’s father is unkind to Edward. His hands, which clasp Edward’s with the warmth of true comradery. The way he sits his horse, a model for any rider. The way he runs, unselfconscious and full of laughter.
Piers is his dearest friend, the brother he has never had.
And – But there can be no and.
(If there is sometimes an and, in the hushed shadows of his dreams, Edward turns from it. There is no future in that half-formed desire, no hope for that sinner’s hunger. He will not name it, even to himself, but he will thrust it from him. Doomed as it is, naming it could yet cost him Piers’s friendship, and that he could he not bear.)
The door opens again. Piers slips inside.
“You were off to the hunt,” Edward says blankly, surprised by the sudden advent of the man in his thoughts.
Piers shrugs, half-turned away, shooting the bolt across the door. “I told the king you would not be attending the hunt. He was inclined to be wroth and send for you whether you would or no, so I allowed him to cozen out of me that you were closeted with a ripe wench.”
Edward sits up straighter in horror. “Piers!”
There is a strange half-smile on Piers’ mouth. “I told him I brought the wench from a brothel I knew. He was surprised, but pleased.”
There it is, the unspoken word between them. Why should his father be surprised and pleased, but that Edward indulging in such carnal pleasures is unlooked for? It should not be a great marvel if a young prince without a wife were to look to fallen women, only a matter of some approbation that he was not using his position to seduce chaste virgins or honest wives. Yet for Edward, the surprise would be real – and for all that he and Piers have never spoken of it, it is still there between them, a heavy silence.
“You will have him bursting in demanding to reward the wench with a fat purse,” he says bitterly, turning away.
“I told him I would do so, and see that she was safely away.”
There is a hollowness in the pit of Edward’s stomach. “You told him much.”
“Perhaps,” Piers says, his steps coming nearer. “And yet nothing at all.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Only this,” Piers says – and he is sitting next to Edward on the bed, which is not exceptional, they are close friends, they do not stand on ceremony – but then his hand is on Edward’s elbow, and his other hand is on Edward’s shoulder, pulling him gently around, and Edward’s eyes fly incredulously to Piers’s face.
Piers’s face is shining, his eyes intent, something resolute in the jut of his chin. “Only this,” he repeats, his voice scraping low – and kisses Edward.
Edward knows not what to do. He is no virgin, he has triedto be a man his father will respect, but his fumblings in brothels have been lacklustre and perfunctory, with the women hard-put to summon his interest. This – this is entirely different. His body is on fire, and his mind is on fire, and this is not possible, but oh, he has dreamt of it for so long now, shapeless formless longings in the dark, half-knowledge locked away deep in his soul –
“Ned,” Piers says against his mouth, like a boon, like a prayer, and oh! His hands tremble, but he pulls Piers closer, puts a shaking hand against his cheek, kisses him back with more desperation than skill.
“I thought,” Piers says, half-panting, when they finally draw apart, “I thought, but I did not know,” and Edward understands every word.
“I did not even dare hope,” he confesses, “and so I did not let myself dream.”
Piers cups Edward’s cheek in his callused palm. “I am no dream,” he says softly, “only the man who loves you.”
“But you – you are everything my father desires in a son,” Edward says, “and I – I have long known that I am made different, but you – you are made like other men. How came you to love me?”
Piers laughs, his eyes sparkling. “I know not how I came by it. I have loved no man before, though I have lain with two, after the heat of battle. It happens, when there are no women about, that a man who walked through death will turn to a friend. But love is another matter.”
Edward, who has not lain with any man, looks at him with new eyes, and a quickening breath. The significance of the shot bolt across the door comes home to him all at once.
“I came to love you,” Piers says, “so gradually that I scarce know how it first happened. Only that one day I looked at you, as you called your greyhounds back to you, and knew with a sudden clarity that you had not only my honour in your hands, but my heart.”
“I did not name it even to myself, so you are the braver,” Edward admits.
Piers’s thumb strokes across his jaw, feather-light, and Edward closes his eyes.
“Name it to me,” Piers says, softly.
Edward can scarce find breath. “I love you,” he says, voice ragged, and then, “I am yours.”
“And I yours,” Piers says, and pushes him back among the coverings, and proves it.
“Come,” Joan says, patting the cushioned seat next to her invitingly.
Edward joins her. It is a pleasant summer’s night, and his father has retired early. He can speak with his sister without feeling his father’s eyes on his back, always watching, and the slackened weight is blissful.
“How fares my little namesake?” he asks.
Joan smiles. “He is walking, or stumbling rather. Thomas is glad he is old enough to play with now, and they both idolise Gilbert.” Her smile fades a little. “I wish our brothers had lived, Ned. You have been so lonely, with no brothers until Margaret’s babes.”
Perhaps that is true; Joan knows his motherless childhood better than any. But Edward finds it hard to have her lay it bare so baldly. “You would wish me superseded?” he asks, with mock indignation. “Not heir, but only a safeguard?”
“Do not tell me you would be greatly unhappy,” Joan says, her hand resting on his knee, “if you were only a rich and honoured younger son, and not the object of Father’s unceasing scrutiny.”
This again strikes too close to the heart of it, and Edward shies away. “Hardly unceasing of late,” he says, forcing a smile. “Not while Wallace awaits the hangman, and Father reigns triumphant. Indeed, I think Father has looked at me only twice since they dragged Wallace here in chains.”
“Ned,” Joan says. “I would speak to you on this matter.”
“Of the Scot? His fate is terrible, to be sure, but traitors must suffer. Do not think on it if it troubles you. I cannot ask Father for a more merciful death, even if I wished to – I should have a better chance of persuading him to become a monk.”
Joan blanches, no doubt considering the strange image of their father with a tonsure. “No, not of the Scot. I would speak to you of you and Father.”
Edward looks away. If she were anyone else, anyone other than Piers, he would leave. “Must you?” he says, and hears his voice stripped of all levity and colour.
“I must,” Joan says. “I know I do not often come to court, and you think I am only meddling in matters I do not understand – but mayhap my eyes perceive more, being unused to your lives, than yours do.”
Edward studies his hands. Long fingers, capable hands, trained and sure. “There is little you could tell me about our father that I do not already know. That he finds me a disappointment, you need not enlighten me.”
Joan makes an impatient sound. “It is not – I know there has never been any great love between you, and small wonder, for Father has ever been a king for war, and you left to be raised by others. I would not speak to you of that.”
Edward was born Edward of Caernarfon, in a half-built tower during a Welsh military campaign. It was perhaps unsurprising for a babe born in a military encampment that he should have been promptly abandoned by his parents, raised a stranger to them while they warred together on all the borderlands of their realm. He is not the only man he knows to have been raised so; he has friends who have built adult friendships with previously-distant fathers, and he envies them.
“What then?” he asks, temper frayed enough now to be short, even with this beloved sister.
“He is going to see.”
“He is going to see what?” Edward snaps.
In childhood, he never knew his father, who came in and out of his life in a forbidding, distant whirl. Absorbed by his campaigns, and mourning his wife after her untimely death, his father had little time for a child until he reached a military age. At sixteen, Edward joined a Scottish campaign, and for the first time his father truly saw him – and did not like what he saw.
Edward wonders sometimes what it would have been like if he had. If his father had looked at his gawky sixteen-year-old son, all eagerness and overlong limbs and raw energy, and had not seen a disappointment to be remedied.
Joan is biting her lip, her fingers twisting in her lap. “He is going to see the way you look at him.”
“I don’t understand,” Edward says, bewildered. “How do I look at Father?”
In the beginning, his father’s censure cut Edward to the quick, and wounded both his pride and his heart. Right soon did he learn to protect himself, however. Now he counts the years, his and his father’s; he places his twenty-one against his father’s sixty-six, and listens to Piers’s counselled patience. He need only wait. If he looks at his father sometimes, and imagines the day the crown will sit on his own head – surely his father cannot see behind his eyes?
“Not Father,” Joan says. “That sworn man of yours. Your shadow. Gaveston.”
A chill runs down Edward’s spine, and he is instantly on guard. For all that he is a disappointment to his martial father, he has been blooded in battle, and those instincts come roaring to the surface. “A man who has no brothers must have friends,” he says, and his voice is high in his effort to seem nonchalant. “Most of my company are Father’s handpicked men. I count myself lucky to have found in their number several friends.”
“You have several friends in your company, and I am glad,” Joan says. Her earlier hesitance has fallen away, and she lays an insistent hand on his forearm. “But Gaveston is not one of them.”
“I assure you, he is –”
“And Father is going to notice,” she carries on, overriding his protest. “When Wallace’s head is struck off and his quarters are spread about the realm, and Father has space to think again, he is going to see the way you look at him. If I, who am scarce in court, can see in two days the way the wind blows, you have no hope of escaping Father’s notice. You know how sharp he is.”
“Father put Piers in my company and thinks very highly of him,” Edward says, stiffly. “He encourages our friendship, and hopes it will spur me to model him.”
Joan is silent for a long moment, and Edward hopes she is pacified. The echo of his words rings hollow in his own ears; if he has convinced her, he has not convinced himself.
“I was sold,” she says, abruptly. “I was twelve years old when Father sold me to a powerful Marcher lord thirty years my senior. De Clare was able to marry because he had annulled his first marriage – most say because Father had seduced his wife. At least they drew out the marriage negotiations until I was eighteen, but I had stepdaughters older than me. De Clare got four children on me in five years, and left me a widow.”
Edward was six when Joan married. He still remembers her weeping the night before the wedding. De Clare was entranced by her beauty and had tried to woo her with gifts and sweet words, but she had wished for neither. Though it is the way of the world for a princess to have no say in her marriage, it seemed hard for a child watching his sister cry.
“I remember,” he says, huskily.
She pays him no heed, lost in her memory. “I knew Father would sell me again. He gave me a year to grieve, much chance that, and then began to sell me to Savoy. I would have been separated from my children forever. My little Gilbert, left to grow up an orphan in his father’s place, and my girls, left to be sold by Father even as I had been.”
Edward is fond of Gilbert, though he is inclined to be a little pompous (as are, perhaps, many fourteen-year-olds), and fonder of his three nieces.
“But Father did not know,” she continues, “that I had chosen my own husband. No powerful lord he, but a squire in de Clare’s household. But what mattered it! He loved me, and I loved him.”
It was a scandal the likes of which the court had never seen. The Savoy marriage was already arranged when their father learned of Joan’s attachment to young Ralph, new-made a knight at Joan’s request. He seized her lands to prevent her endangering the Savoy match, but she came to court and revealed that it was too late: she had married Ralph months earlier and was carrying his child. Their father, enraged, imprisoned Ralph. Only the most impassioned pleas by a heavily pregnant Joan forced him to eventually relent and release her husband.
Edward remembers that day vividly. He was thirteen, and it was the first time he had seen his father show mercy. “No one sees anything wrong if a great earl marries a poor and lowly woman,” he quotes. “Why should there be anything wrong if a countess marries a young and promising man?”
“I risked everything for love,” Joan says, and her eyes are full of unshed tears. “I knew that to anger Father was madness. I knew that the babe in my belly was no protection, if Father decided to put Ralph to death and declare it was illness. I knew that I put the man I loved in danger by loving him, and yet I could not stop myself.”
“And it all came right in the end. Four babes with Ralph, and the man worships you.”
“You are not listening to me,” Joan says, and one of the tears drops. She wipes it away impatiently. “I know what it is to love, where love is forbidden. I know what it is to put the man you love in danger. And I know what I see in your face when you look at Gaveston – and Father will see it too.”
Pulled thus rudely from his memories, Edward flinches from the warning. “Joan –”
“Send him away. Find an excuse to send him to Gascony, or Scotland, or anywhere that is not here, is not under Father’s eye. Believe me, Ned, Father will not hesitate to punish him just because he does not return your love. Neither innocence nor ignorance is protection.”
Edward cannot stay sitting by her side. He gets to his feet, pacing.
“Your heart is in your face every time you look at him,” Joan continues, relentless. “You were ever an easy boy to read, open and honest, disdaining subterfuge. And when you look at him, your love is as plain to see as when Father looked at Mother. – If you love him, send him away.”
He feels like a lion in a cage, just waiting for someone to venture near enough to maul. “I will not. I cannot. You did not.”
“Ralph loved me. He chose the danger. If you love that man, you will not put him at risk when he does not even know –”
“He knows,” Edward says, cutting her off, regretting it nearly instantly.
Joan’s mouth is round with surprise. “And he has not left your service?”
If it is half-out, better be whole. “He chooses the danger.”
Joan is silent for a long, long time, and Edward begins to know fear. Though she loves him, has always been the indulgent older sister and he the cossetted pet, he is no longer a child, and he is not asking her for a forbidden sweetmeat. He is telling her that he is an unrepentant sinner, placing himself outside the law and outside the faith, and asking her to hold her tongue. Though his father would rage, an unrequited love is not criminal; admitting that it is returned puts both of them in gravest peril, if Joan wishes. He will have to tell Piers to fly –
“Oh Ned,” she says at last. “I am afraid for you, but I am also surpassing glad.”
The relief is overwhelming. “I also.”
“Be more careful,” she begs him. “Do not look at him so – do not look at him at all when Father is near. Spend more time with your other men, make Father think that he is only one friend among many. Send him away as courier sometimes, as if his absence matters not greatly to you.”
It is wise caution, though it galls. “I will try.”
“And I must meet him,” she says, her eyes still bright. “Properly. Not as your man only. Oh Ned, who would have believed that the two of us, shackled both to Father’s will, our marriages his decree, should have found love despite him?”
“No babes for me, however,” Edward says, striving for lightness. “I shall not come before Father with a belly to pardon.”
“See that you do not,” Joan says, and then they are laughing together, falling into each other’s arms with the exhaustion of a long race run. She holds him close, and he, pressing her in his embrace, thinks that she be the nearest he has ever had to a mother, and her blessing an unlooked for grace.
“Thank you,” he whispers into her hair.
“Come,” says young Despenser, full of laughter and high spirits. He is seventeen, new-made a knight and newly affianced to Edward’s niece Eleanor; his father has served Edward’s father faithfully, and this is his reward. (Also, Despenser’s father has agreed to consider paid large debts that Edward’s father owes him. Such is the world.)
Edward has little time or desire for the young tonight, for their dancing and their laughter and their joy. “I will come anon,” he says, forcing the rictus of a smile on his face, and keeps it until young Despenser shrugs and leaves him.
“You should celebrate with your men,” Piers says, from the shadow by the window. “They will expect to see you, the glorious sun rising in the east.”
“I have no desire for it,” Edward says, biting off the words. He has been angry for weeks. Ever since his father heard of the Earl of Carrick’s foul sanctuary murder of John Comyn, and vowed vengeance. Ever since his father summoned all who are not knights but wish to be to Westminster, to knight them in a glorious spectacle the likes the realm had never seen. Ever since his father had deigned to allow Edward’s household to return to him, on Edward’s solemn promise that he would not cross his father again, and be only the most dutiful and filial of sons.
“Was it only months ago that my father ripped away my friends, sent you all into exile from court because of my quarrel with his treasurer? It seems an age.”
Piers sighs. “You are the next king, and he is an elderly man. He has few tools to turn your conduct, and in this way he found one that served.”
“Do not defend him to me,” Edward snaps. “To punish me like a wayward child, to take retribution for a quarrel over monies – I will be king before many years are spent, I need funds to establish myself! To be thus humiliated before the court –”
“None see it as humiliation,” Piers says. “All know your father and his rages. Your acceptance has done you no harm in men’s eyes, and now we are restored to you.”
“And now we are made knights,” Edward says, his voice heavy. “Along with two hundred sixty-five others. I counted, as they came to me in their pairs, and knelt to receive the sword’s kiss.”
He can feel the exhaustion in his shoulders, weighing him down. He did not sleep last night, keeping vigil in the Abbey with Piers and some few of their closest companions. Theirs was the traditional vigil, a long silent night of prayer and contemplation before today’s ceremony; he hears that in the New Temple, it was not so silent. Hundreds of high-spirited young men had kept their vigil there together, and someone had a trumpet – but it is no matter.
“You have wished to be a knight these many years since, and held your father in the wrong for the delay. Are you now angry, for being given your desire?”
Edward whirls on him. “I am angry, because you and the rest of my household are surety for my good behaviour. I am angry, because were it not for the Earl of Carrick and a new Scottish campaign, I know not how long my father would have kept you from me. I am angry, because I am a prince, a coming king, and I do not control my own life, cannot protect my own love –”
“It is not forever.”
“But we are forever,” Edward cries, and something in his voice brings Piers to his feet, brings him out of the shadows and to Edward’s side. “And I have not the power to hold you, to protect you –”
“I can protect myself,” Piers says, which is a rank falsehood, for none can protect themselves from the King. “And we have heeded Joan’s warning. The King sees me as your beloved friend, but no more; when he punishes you through me, he does so only with the others.”
“Small comfort,” Edward mumbles rebelliously. “I have still been without you these long months.”
“Well, and now you shall be with me,” Piers says, with a reasonableness that chafes. “Your father is not well enough to ride to battle, so you will lead a magnificent campaign and bring your father Carrick’s head on a pike. And I shall be at your right hand, every day and every night.”
Edward refuses to be distracted by that last, said in a low voice and with a meaning glance. Soon, perhaps, for these months have been sore long, but now – “And if my victory be not complete, if Carrick escape me, my father may wreak his vengeance upon me yet again.”
“Then we will just have to make certain Carrick does not escape us,” Piers says, and captures Edward’s head between his hands, raising up for a quick but searing kiss.
When they break apart, Edward finds his anger has gone out, spent. “I cannot even look at you in the sight of men, for fear that they will see my heart,” he says, and hears the heartsickness of the past months, hears the ache of Piers’s absence.
“What care I if you look at me in the sight of men,” Piers says, his voice rough, “when you look at me thus when we are alone?”
“You care,” Edward says, his snort a half-laugh. “Do not lie to me for the sake of love. You envy young Despenser with a fierceness nigh hatred, for he is a young stripling raised to honour for the sake of his father, and marrying my niece Eleanor. Status and power and a highborn bride in one fell swoop, and you have none. Tell me you do not envy him, and I will call you a liar.”
“He is seventeen and his bride fourteen,” Piers says. “They are children who know nothing of the world, let alone of love. I am a man who loves a man, and I would not change that, if you offered me a king’s ransom.” He smiles, a pained smile with his teeth showing, and strokes the back of his hand down Edward’s cheek. “Do I wish I could marry you, could claim you, could take up a throne next to yours? Of a surety. But that is not the world we live in –”
Edward is seized with a wild desire, and he does not let Piers finish. “Marry me.”
“Ned,” Piers says, and rests his head against Edward’s shoulder. “Do not mock me.”
“I do not mock,” Edward says. He steps back, sinks to his knees. “Marry me. It cannot be before the world, but I would vow myself to you in the sight of God, your husband for all eternity, if you will have me.”
“You will be struck down with lightning,” Piers says, his levity forced. “Get off your knees, you are the Prince of Wales, the new-made Duke of Aquitaine –”
“I am the man asking you to marry me, to vow your life to mine.”
Piers’s voice is low. “You already have it, and you know that.”
All of a sudden it has become simple, all the anger and heartache of the last months bleeding together and turning into this bone-deep certainty. His father may threaten or punish howsoever he may wish, but he cannot touch the reality of their love. No husband and wife are guaranteed a tomorrow, but they vow their lives to each other, for however long they may be - and this Edward will have. Whatever tomorrow bring.
“I am the next King of England,” Edward says, capturing Piers’s hands in his own. “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.”
“Edward,” Piers says, and his voice breaks on the name.
Edward has never felt as sure of anything in his life as he feels right now, with Piers’s hands in his, and his heart soaring in his chest. “We need no priest. We need only we two to make a marriage: our vows, our hearts, and our bodies. Will you?”
For answer, Piers kneels with him, his eyes full of tears. Their hands are clasped between them, and Edward raises them to his lips, kissing Piers’s knuckles. “Piers Gaveston,” he begins, “before God I take you as my husband. I vow to love, honour, respect, and protect you as long as there is breath in my body…”
Piers is weeping, but he is smiling through the tears, and Edward’s heart is full to bursting.
After their vows, they return to the festivities. At what becomes known as the Feast of the Swans, Edward’s father swears to avenge the murder of John Comyn by the traitor Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, now styling himself King of Scotland. Edward swears never to sleep in the same place twice until he reaches Scotland, in pursuance of his father’s vow.
And all the while, his husband is at Edward’s right hand.
That night, that Whitsunday night, they consummate their vows, and forevermore they are one.
“Come,” Ralph says, heavily. “He is to be away within the hour – I will stand guard so that you may say your goodbyes, but make haste.”
Edward claps his brother-in-law on the shoulder in speaking silence, and slips through the door into Piers’s room.
“So the hour has come at last,” Piers says, from the window. “Will you miss me?”
Edward smiles, though his heart is weary. “You know I shall. Enough that I promise even to write to you, though you know my hand is scarce legible for all the blots.”
There is nothing more to quarrel about now. It has been over long since, Piers’s sentence passed a month ago.
It began last year, when Piers and twenty-one other knights left the Scottish campaign to attend a tournament. They thought it a small transgression at the time, a diversion they would briefly indulge in and then return to their posts, but the king had not seen it so, and had issued arrest orders. Edward had begged his stepmother Margaret to intercede with the king on their behalf, as he knew his father would not listen to him, and Margaret had managed to secure a pardon. But the king had looked at Piers with new eyes after that folly.
Yet Edward cannot blame Piers alone, for it is his own folly that has brought them to this pass.
For a long time, Edward has wished for Piers to have more to his name in the eyes of the world than Edward’s goodwill alone. Although he does not have as much ready coin as he would like (and after his last quarrel with the royal treasurer brought punishment upon his household, he dares not venture too far again in that direction), he does have a large amount of land. Thus he wished to give some of it to Piers, in public recognition of his long service and stalwart support.
He had thought the request a reasonable one. Furthermore, with two of Carrick’s brothers caught and executed, and Carrick himself a fugitive, his father might have been expected to be in a conciliatory mood. Edward was, after all, the soon-to-be king, his father ailing and no longer able to command an army. He chose his moment carefully, but when he went into his father’s chambers that day in late February, just over a month ago, he had a fair confidence in his success.
“It is your fault, you know,” he says, abruptly, crossing to Piers and embracing him from behind, resting his chin on his husband’s shoulder.
“And how is it my fault?” Piers says, his voice a lazy drawl. For all that he is forbidden the castle by sundown, he seems in no hurry to quit it.
Edward kisses the spot behind Piers’s ear that always makes him go weak-kneed. “You loved me too well,” he says. “I grew so happy and so easy, like a pampered cat in front of a fire. I let my guard down, and Father has ever had an eye for the open strike.”
“You are saying that you would not have asked him to give me Ponthieu if I had not crazed your wits with love,” Piers says, sceptically.
“No,” Edward says, simple. “I should have remembered my fear of him, and waited for my ally Father Time. Instead I went to him on that fool’s errand, with my heart overflowing with love, and committed the ultimate sin: I slipped and let him see it.”
He does not wish to replay the memory. It is of no use. What his father said, when he realised the truth, is of no matter. His father cannot touch him, for all the scorn he heaps upon his head. The next heir, Margaret’s little Thomas, is only six years old, and his father is already ailing; he will not jeopardise England by killing or disinheriting the only adult heir. For all that his father despises him, he loves England more.
(Nor will the king touch Piers, for Edward swore a vow. He will protect Piers with his life.
“If he is harmed,” he told his father, voice pitched low but in dead earnest, “if you cause him to be injured in any way, I will pull our troops out of Scotland the moment you are dead. Let Carrick have it - long live King Robert the Bruce! Harm Piers, and I will sever your legacy without a moment’s qualm.”
That was when his father tore out great handfuls of Edward’s hair and threw him bodily out of his chambers, shouting terrible names at him, but Edward cares not a whit. They understand each other now, at long last.)
“Well,” Piers says, turning from the window and gathering Edward in his arms, “I will not be sorry to be out of his gaze. Only out of yours.”
“It is only for a time,” Edward says against his lips. “I will write to you, and do you remember that you are my husband, and keep you from foreign men.”
“My heart and my body are yours, my liege,” Piers says, and kisses him deep and sound.
Edward loses himself in his husband’s kisses, and only recalls the passing time when there is a discreet knock on the door. “That will be Ralph. I must go.”
“I shall see you anon,” Piers says, and kisses him again.
Edward feels almost drunk with kisses, his heart an ache within him. For all their brave faces this day, last night they lost themselves in each other, with no words spoken. His father is ailing, but no man knows the hour of his passing; it could be years yet that Piers must linger far, years in which Edward must live without half of his soul.
“I must warn you,” he says, his voice a rasp, “that I keep my vows most sacred. We are one now, and my worldly possessions are yours.”
“What have you done?” Piers says, laughing.
“The best horses, the finest clothes, everything that I was able to summon in a month,” Edward says, a smile curling his mouth. In their fight, his father cavilled at the lavishness he bestows on Piers, so in retribution he has increased it fourfold. The king will gnash his teeth and fume, but they are Edward’s own funds; he is entitled to spend them as he will. “And Ralph has a purse for you.” £260, all he could lay his hands on, enough to maintain a knight for six years. His Piers will not be a pauper, even if Edward has to pauperise himself to make it so.
“Ned,” Piers says, and embraces him.
Edward shuts his eyes and fists his hands in Piers’s cloak, holding him close until Ralph’s knocks increase in urgency and it truly is time to let his husband go.
It was April when Piers rode into the sunset, taking Edward’s heart with him.
Now it is July.
“Edward,” the younger Despenser says, hovering on the threshold, vibrating like an impatient hound. His niece’s husband is ever full of nervous energy. “Edward, there is news from the north.”
Edward sighs, putting down his pen. He has been trying to write to Piers for the last hour, but his letter is a mass of blots and crossings-out. What is there to tell him? That the old king, furious at his son and the Scots alike, is in the north trying to reach Scotland and capture or kill the Earl of Carrick, settling the Scottish question once and for all? That Edward has promised to journey north soon, to join his father and (more crucially) take over the campaign, as his father is still too weak for an active role? He hopes his fate is not to die on a Scottish sword, before ever he sees Piers again.
Piers will hear of the Scottish campaign in Flanders, and needs not his scribblings to tell of it. But to write, “I am well, and wish you are well,” is less than nothing at all. And he cannot write what he truly wishes, cannot write what would make a harlot blush and a monk pray to God.
“What news?” he says, still intent on the puzzle of his letter, reading over what he has written. “Does Father send a messenger again to urge me north? Or have they cut off the Bruce’s head, and I need not go north at all?”
Despenser’s silence at last makes him look up from his letter. “What, man, hast lost your tongue?”
It is then that Despenser kneels, and Edward knows even before the boy wets his lips and manages “Sire.”
He turns away, blindly, stares unseeing at the parchment. It is over. It is over.
“Sire,” Despenser says again, less shakily this time. “Shall I have them ready the horses to ride north?”
Edward will go north, will bury his father and proclaim himself King. He will take over his father’s armies, and put Scotland to the sword if it will not bend the knee. He will be Edward II, and he will never fear a man again.
But first –
He pulls a new sheet of parchment to him and writes something, then folds it, writes a name, and holds it out to Despenser. “Have this sent.”
Despenser nods and is off in a flash.
Edward closes his eyes and breathes the summer’s air. He is twenty-three, and he is King of England. If he lives to his father’s age, he has forty-five years on the throne yet ahead of him.
Inside, there is only one word, scrawled in letters so blotted as to be almost illegible, as if it had been folded with the ink still wet. But he can read it, and he knows what it says.