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The Wake.

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The ceremony's elaborate, Jon doing his best to stand still, be attentive, hold on his younger brother's hand as they watch the priests go through the ritual of sending their father off to his just rewards. When the old king's entombed with his ancestors, and the child deposited back with nurse, Jon's duty-bound to be sociable, attending the wake, listening to the war stories told by his father's allies. For the most part, he avoids his brother and, even more important, the general.

"Yes," he murmurs when an old friend of the family reminds him of when he was a child, "I remember. My mother was still alive and father treated us to summers in the country."

Jude comes up from behind him. "I remember those," he says. "You were always so excited to go."

Jon doesn't flinch, much to his pleasant surprise. "I like the country, brother," he says, half-turning to look at Jude, "and it was a time when we had no worries." When you still thought of me as brother and not something to conquer.

"Father liked it as well." Jude takes on a mourning tone. "He relished the freedom he could have out there."

"I suppose you'll be using the country estate now, getting away from court." Jon picks up his goblet, takes a long sip of the meady concoction. "You could feasibly rule from there for months at a time."

"I could." Jude watches Jon's throat as he swallows. "But I won't. I don't plan on leaving the capital for frivolous vacations until I have children of my own."

Jon still doesn't like the way Jude's watching him. It doesn't bode well. "Will that be soon? You have a bride in mind?"

"Perhaps. I'm still deciding." It's down to two girls. Neither of them put any sexual thoughts in his mind, but there's time. His youngest brother can be his heir for now.

"There's no rush, I imagine, and there is the mourning period. The country won't want a wedding during that."

"No rush at all," Jude agrees. "We need time to mourn. I don't think William quite understands what's going on and I have a responsibility towards him."

"No, he doesn't. He knows father's gone and all he has left are us." Jon acknowledges another offering of condolence with a smile and a nod. "We have to look after him."

"Yes." But you won't have a hand in it. "He's not old enough to understand forever. It may be a few years before I can marry."

"A few years isn't long to wait. I suppose I should think about it at some point," Jon says, shrugging, "not that I'm eager to marry. I like my life."

Jude smiles. It may be best to ease him into it. "That's my decision, you understand. Political marriages for all of us."

"Of course, brother," Jon says. "Father spoke of that. He mentioned some girl from Maleagra. I think their ambassador's here. Somewhere."

"He's talking with the minister of the treasury in the back." Jude takes a sip of his drink. "Don't worry about it, Jon. I'll have it all arranged for you. All you'll need to do is say yes."

"Do I get to meet her at least?"

"You've already met your intended." Jude pats Jon on the shoulder. "I need to keep mingling. Do try to stay out of the way."

"I haven't met," Jon starts, but Jude's not listening anymore. His brother's walked off already. "Stay out of the way, he says. It's not like I plan to do anything else."

Jude doesn't expect Jon to make trouble, but there's a first time for everything. He moves through the crowd, greeting people, and commiserating over the death of his father. The general catches his eye from across the room and smiles. Jude returns it. Almost there. He's so close to the crown that he can taste it.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Jon sits for another minute, listening to a story from his father's oldest ally. It's best to keep friends among the elders, and he really doesn't mind hearing the tale again. But then it's over and he's excusing himself, with a smile and a promise. "Yes, I'll visit in the spring. Of course." Jon makes his way across the room, the crowd still heavy, everyone enjoying the feast and libations, intent on quietly slipping out to the turret's walk for some air.

Gerry's been watching Jon all night. The prince had ordered him to stay away from Jon under after the coronation, but Gerry had never intended to listen to him about that. Jon will be his and Gerry wants to start grooming him as soon as possible. So he goes after Jon, coming up from behind him. "A nice night," he says.

The voice startles, shivers more than the subtle chill in the night air as Jon steps outside. He pauses, takes a deep breath, settles himself before turning. "General," he says, making only the slightest nod in respect of the title. Be polite. Even the most distasteful ally is better than enemy. "It's passable. Autumn will be here soon."

"Yes." Gerry moves to stand next to Jon. He smiles in the dark. "I love the bite of the cold in the air, don't you? It's refreshing."

"Yes, it is." Jon minds his manners and doesn't move away, but he does straighten, shift his weight. "I've always liked winter. Strange, some say."

"I wouldn't. There's something clean about winter." Gerry likes the way Jon looks, standing straight. If only Jon had been available to him during his time in the regiment. "In the cold, you know there's nothing being hidden."

"To the contrary, sir," Jon says, the courtesy added without thinking, too many years of that military training, "in winter, everything can be hidden, layers of snow obscuring the horizon."

"But snow melts and there isn't a man who cannot be seen while walking through snow." Gerry smiles down at Jon. "Winter strips the trees bare and as you'll soon learn, there's nothing quite as vulnerable as being naked."

"True, but a man can disappear under the blizzard's cover, never be found." Jon's puzzled by the rest of the comment. How would he learn?

Gerry nods. "That's certainly true." He turns around and faces the wake. "Have you been keeping out of sight?"

"Not really." Jon glances over his shoulder, then turns his attention back to the expanse of the courtyard below. "Spent time talking with my brother, listening to father's old friends share stories."

So he's been staying out of the way. Good. "It's getting late. I'll be taking my leave soon."

"You're not staying for the coronation?" Jon would be surprised if he weren't. The general's one of Jude's strongest allies.

Idiot boy. Gerry gives Jon a harsh look. "I'll be here tomorrow morning," he says slowly. "But I need to go home. To sleep."

"Oh." Jon shakes his head. "Yes. I forgot." Or was I hoping you'd just leave? "The night's been weary. I should retire myself."

"Yes." Gerry nods. "It's been a long day. I'll accompany you to your rooms."

"That's not necessary." Jon says it quickly, almost harshly. The last thing he wants is the general around him and near his rooms. "I can manage. Thank you, though."

"I insist." Boy's got some bite in him, but he needs to be reminded of his place. "There are more people here than usual. I would be remiss if I didn't see to your safety."

Jon could protest. He wants to. But there's something in the general's tone that puts him off. "An escort to the south tower's sufficient, sir."

"We'll see." Gerry smiles coldly. The boy doesn't dictate matters, but it won't hurt for now to let him think he has some say. "Shall we?"

Nodding, Jon moves back inside, a step in front of Gerry. He's uneasy having the general so close, but it's been several years since their last encounter and Jon suspects he can manage for one night. Tomorrow, after the coronation, the man will be gone.

Gerry follows Jon through the corridors. When he's sure they're beyond the stares of any of the guests, he moves a step up and wraps his arm around Jon's waist.

"What?" Jon pulls away, turns, glares at Gerry. "I don't think I need your help anymore," he says, biting off the "sir" at the end.

"Yes, you do." Gerry's voice has all the power of a general used to being obeyed. "Stop acting the child."

"I'm not acting a child. And don't try to intimidate me." Jon's backed against the wall, but he's not backed down. "I may not taking the throne tomorrow, but I am a prince and you do well to remember that."

"It would be hard to forget it, your highness." Gerry moves closer to Jon, pushing him back far against the wall, forcing him to look up. "But as it stands, your brother trusts me to protect you, and so that's what I plan on doing, no matter what that takes."

"Protect me. Fine." Jon straightens against the cold stone, nearly meeting Gerry's gaze. "But you don't touch me when I don't want it."

"Very well. And when the arrow comes out from nowhere and sticks you in the throat, I'll hope you'll be glad that I wasn't able to pull you out of the way."

"I think I'd rather be dead, thank you."

"And your brother will have my head," Gerry goes on. "Would you like my death on your hands, highness? Would you die happily, knowing that you've deprived your country of its greatest protector?"

"I'd like your head on a platter," Jon says, cocking his head, smiling. "And I think my brother could find another protector."

Ruthless. Excellent, boy. I can use that. "And I don't think he can." Gerry reaches down and grabs Jon's dagger. In one smooth motion, he has the flat of it pressed against Jon's neck. "And you obviously can't protect yourself."

Jon's much calmer than he should be, given there's a dagger at his throat. Perhaps it's the grief. Or just a cavalier attitude he doesn't know he shouldn't have. "The king has no need of allies who threaten his brother."

"He is not the king yet." Gerry presses it in, forcing Jon's neck up. "And this is not a threat. It's an object lesson." He steps back and flips the dagger around.

"Fine. Lesson learned." Jon wraps his fingers around the dagger's hilt. "I should come at you with weapon drawn."

"No." Gerry lets Jon take the dagger. "You should not. You should, however, never let anyone take it from you."

Jon sheaths the dagger, keeping his fingers loosely on its edge. "I think you should leave now. My room is around the corner, and I think I'm safe."

"Very well." Gerry bows. "Good night, your highness." I'll have you soon enough.