The preparations for the first election of Everan were going unexpectedly well. Eskil felt some pride at his own part in it, minor though it might be. Forwell had put himself in position to be elected and his not inconsiderable skill at politics was a thorn in his side, especially now that Father was truly ailing.
Long years of hard work had taken its toll, while Father was well enough to live a long life, the work of running the kingdom was now truly beyond him. Conrad fussed as much as he could and Eskil quietly took over much of the paperwork which was routine and tedious and merely required a careful eye. Despite his brave words over a year ago it seemed he was destined to be a shadow after all. But he was appreciated now, by his parents and by the committee that had to build up a system of rules and regulations for elections from nothing, so it didn’t rankle as much as it once had. Except the dull pangs when he saw the man he had once adored so much. For a year he had been free of the proximity and had believed himself recovered. Now, however, they both lived in the palace again, and despite its spaciousness, Eskil thought that he could always sense Saveroy, wherever he was.
Saveroy had won the tournament his family had given for him and stayed to become the official heir. He had then, with their permission, chosen to come back and stand in the elections. Father had said nothing, except ‘welcome back,’ but Eskil imagined both he and Conrad were glad that one of their sons, at least, wanted to take over his responsibilities in spite of the burden it clearly was.
When Saveroy had left, he wouldn’t look him in the face. Eskil had ceased to exist for him. If asked, Eskil was sure he would have said he had three brothers. It had hurt terribly and yet it was better than now. When they were in the same room, he could feel Saveroy’s gaze on him and when he met it, it was hard and cold. It was as hard as it had been the day Eskil had confessed, breathless with his own daring, certain that the love he felt must be returned.
“I must see you alone,” Eskil had said, tugging at his sleeve. Saveroy had turned to him, surprised but then indulgent. The indulgence none of the others saw because Saveroy was always stern and mindful of their positions in front of other people. When they were children, Saveroy had taught Eskil to fight separately, because he was clumsy and untalented at it. But he was also the most hardworking, which Saveroy appreciated more than any of his tutors or brothers would. Their private tuition created a bond where Saveroy occasionally let down his guard.
“Yes, or sooner,” he had said, smiling shyly up.
Saveroy would not take his hand in public but as soon as they reached Eskil’s rooms, he reached out to hold both of Eskil’s in one of his own. He raised an eyebrow and waited patiently. The hand in his, no less than the warmth in his brother’s eyes gave Eskil courage and although he tripped over his words he said, “It cannot be a surprise to you, Saveroy that I… that I admire you.”
Saveroy looked surprised then almost laughed, “What is wrong with you today, brother?”
Eskil continued determinedly although he couldn’t look up anymore, “I love you. More than a brother should yet I love you because we are brothers. I would spend the rest of my days with you, if you, if it is what you want.” The hand holding his had tightened, giving him hope.
“What nonsense is this?” Saveroy said, quietly, Eskil looked up in surprise and was frightened at the cold look he was given.
“Not nonsense, brother.”
“How dare you mock me like this?”
“I am not mocking,” Eskil attempted to protest, “I love you.”
“Oh, no doubt,” there was a sneer in Saveroy’s voice that he had only heard directed towards others before. Their other brothers even, never Eskil.
“I would do anything for you,” Eskil said, voice low now.
Saveroy dropped his hands and walked to the window on the far side from them, he hadn’t noticed that they were hurting with how tight his fingers had been but now they ached with the loss as well as the pain.
“Anything?” Saveroy’s voice was cruel now, in a way it very rarely was. He had no patience for cruelty generally.
Eskil nodded dumbly. He knew logically that he was rejected, that Saveroy did not desire him as he desired Saveroy. Nevertheless, anything he could do to remove that remote, hard look from him, he would do. Saveroy turned to him back still as straight as it always was, like a general on a battlefield, and said, “Crawl.”
Eskil stared, mouth open. It didn’t sound like a joke but it must have been.
“So much for anything,” Saveroy said, after a minute’s pause. He was clearly prepared to dismiss the whole thing, including Eskil, from his mind, “be prepared for the Festival this evening.”
“Wait,” he said, voice still low. He lowered himself to his knees, one by one. The stone floors under him made him wish he had gone in for lush rugs the way Askavian did. His legs felt weak, but he still looked straight at Saveroy.
Saveroy stood still. When Eskil made to move forward he said, “Not like that.” His voice was rougher than usual. Eskil stared, uncomprehending. After a moment, he realized, and he could feel his flush go up his face. When he put his hands to the floor, it was easier to stare at the floor than at his brother, both from the physical exertion and from the mixture of humiliation and arousal at being like this, at the feet of the brother he had worshipped for so long.
He crawled forward, his progress was slow with his clothes bunching up around his hands and feet, and it felt even slower with Saveroy’s silence filling the room. Even so, it couldn’t have taken a minute to reach where Saveroy was standing. Saveroy stood and he knelt. The thickness of expectation seemed to make the room hot. Then the phantom feeling of fingers near his hair made him jerk his head back in surprise. Saveroy’s hand was already back at his side, both hands were clenched, but Eskil was certain he hadn’t imagined it. The coldness had been replaced by anger and frustration, but as Eskil looked, his face shut down in a way that was completely uncharacteristic of Saveroy, who was always blunt and clear. Then Saveroy left and Eskil felt the bit of hope he had had left numb.
He didn’t know how he had danced with Saveroy that evening, but he had been forced to. They would have cause talk if they hadn’t, so close as they had been. He still would have stood back if Saveroy hadn’t forced the issue by bowing and holding out his hand as a song had started. If he didn’t know better he would have thought Saveroy as hard-hearted (or hard-headed) as Askavian or Talos sometimes accused him of being. Even as they danced, their eyes hadn’t met once.
Eskil had thought of that moment in his room many times. How else it could have gone, if Saveroy had loved him. He didn’t regret speaking, only because he knew afterwards how he had been drowning in his own silence. At first the pain of the rejection overcame all other considerations but once Saveroy had left, he had tried to remember the better times. All of the time they had spent sparring alone, in out-of-the-way places. Sometimes they would take a picnic lunch and spend all day in forest nooks, imagining themselves unseen. No doubt their parents had known all along where they were but had let them have their illusions.
In nights, when he was most vulnerable, he remembered the pressure of fingers skimming over his hair. He would be half-asleep when visions of a firm hand curling over his head and pulling it back to skim a callused finger over his lips came to him, a ‘please,’ almost out of his mouth when he woke up. It took him almost the whole year but he learnt to take pleasure from his phantom lover as well.
When he heard Saveroy would be back, he had thought he could face the prospect with equanimity, maybe even indifference. The first sight of the beloved face rid him of his illusions. For appearances sake, he had stood with his parents to welcome Saveroy back into the palace, but he had said nothing, murmuring nonsense for those looking on avidly. He could not afford to be distant, not if he didn’t want Forwell or those of his ilk to take advantage and make sly remarks about how little trust Saveroy had even inside his own family. Nevertheless, he had avoided any conversation with him in the fortnight that had passed.
It had been noticed. Surely Father would say something soon. Possibly arrange a family dinner so that the distance between his sons wouldn’t be so obvious. Eskil would attend. Truth be told, he would do all in his power to ensure Saveroy did well. He held him no ill will. It was impossible now for them to be close, Saveroy did not wish it and indeed Eskil could not see the prospect as being anything but painful but Eskil would be glad to see him happy.
At this point in his thoughts, a sharp knock came at his door. Eskil gaped at it, he recognised Saveroy’s knock as well, having heard it unchanged for much of his life. “Come in,” he called, shaking himself out of it when the knock was repeated.
Saveroy walked in and closed the door firmly, “Do you have a moment to spare?” Still he would not look straight at Eskil.
“The breach,” Saveroy paused and frowned, “between us has been noticed. It would be harmful to my prospects at the election.” He was weighing his words more than he usually did. “Your future prospects may also come to harm from idle chitchat.” Thus far Eskil would have done whatever he could to repair damage. Saveroy continued, “If you have now thought it over more carefully and given up your former foolishness, I believe we could come to an understanding.”
“I hope we will come to an understanding, I would dislike any of my actions damaging you,” Eskil’s voice was growing sharper with genuine anger and hurt, “but however foolish my feelings may be I will not have you suggest that I can give them up like… Like they’re no more than dessert!”
Saveroy was looking at him now, face more pale than usual, the underside of his eyes bruised. He looked unhappy. “Brother,” he paused, “you can’t think that this is real.”
“On the contrary,” Eskil said, “I am the one feeling it and I assure you it is real.” Even with how clearly he was hurting Saveroy, this was the one thing he could not do, disavow his own feelings.
“It’s impossible! Do you think just because Askavian and Lastimus think they can do anything, so can you?” Saveroy’s voice was low but getting louder, “Haven’t they brought enough shame on this family, and Father, without us adding to it.” Belatedly he must have realised what he had revealed because his mouth snapped closed and he looked away from Eskil again.
“Really?” Eskil asked, pleadingly, “Please don’t lie to me. Please, brother.”
“We can’t,” Saveroy looked miserable but determined.
“But do you? Saveroy?”
Saveroy was at his side in the next moment, holding his face tenderly. “Of course, of course. How could I not?” Eskil leaned his face into the warmth of those callused, strong hands and felt tears come to his eyes. He had ached for so long that this reprieve did not seem real.
“But it’s impossible,” Saveroy said, even as he stroked a thumb across Eskil’s cheek. To wipe away a tear, Eskil realized.
“Father knows, Conrad too,” he managed after a moment.
“This,” Eskil hastily added, “not about you, I don’t think. But certainly about Askavian’s feelings and mine.”
Saveroy stared at him. Eskil could see his struggle to ask whether he was lying or not and then obviously realized that he would hardly joke about it.
“Even so,” he said, hope creeping into his voice, “it was a scandal. I could not win the elections with such a scandal. And it would be worse the second time.” He paused. “I will have to back out of the elections now.”
It was an offer, Eskil realized. Or not even an offer, but a statement. He held one of Saveroy’s hands in his own and then kissed the palm. He could go down on his hands and knees again and kiss his feet and it would not have contained the depth of love he felt at this moment. Eskil knew, more than anyone else, how dearly Saveroy had wanted to be Chosen and how hard he’d worked to be worthy.
“No, brother,” he said, smiling up at him as well as he could, “I couldn’t ask that of you.”
“I have said,” Saveroy began, firmly.
“You will not need an heir as you would have, as king.” Eskil told him.
Saveroy understood what he was suggesting. The frown remained, “I will not treat you like a secret.”
Eskil reached out and held him around his waist. Muffled, into his chest he said, “Thank you but I would prefer to have you as head of our Republic rather than Forwell. And being a secret does not bother me.” It wasn’t as if either of them were demonstrative to start with.
Saveroy’s hands dropped to his shoulders and tightened. Eskil couldn’t hear properly but he was certain he had not mistaken the ‘my love’ he heard.