Where Angels Fear to Tread

IV Swords and Frustrations

During the days following his arrival, Aridan found he was settling well into the Neärean court lifestyle. Suddenly having a large and somewhat demanding new family was rather overwhelming, but as Ran assured him, and as he realised himself, he would get used to that.

He was surprised, at first, at how different Neär's court was from what he was used to. The palace near permanently housed dozens of noble families as well as their servants and other folk of all sorts of professions that a large community would need. It was a city in itself.

Whereas back at home, the only people living in the actual palace were his father, himself, and his father's concubines – and even they lived in a separate section. The servants and officials all came from the village that spread before the palace, and when he was really young, he'd believed that the servants lived nowhere at all, and just materialised out of thin air when needed. And when he grew up, he realised that most ordinary people would never set foot in the palace, let alone catch a glimpse of him or his father, in their lives.

But in Nehreb's court, people lived much closer to each other. The great hall was always open and there were always people, of all different ranks and stations, just sitting and talking or reading. There was little of the palace that was forbidden to anyone.

As far as him being a member of the royal family was concerned, Aridan found he liked it. The two families lived closely, yet loosely together. Soon he discovered that the Emperor – Nehreb, he reminded himself – and Corian shared a suite, and that Tyanaïs and Seheliris both had chambers of their own. Ran, Giulian and Anàth all had spacious chambers on the other side of the main living room. Mornings, he found, were rather unstructured and, at times, slightly chaotic occasions, with everyone rising at different times. When he woke up on the morning after his arrival, he found Tyanaïs, Anàth and Ran at breakfast in the living room; Nehreb, Corian and Giulian already had left. Seheliris came out after about a half hour, accompanied by her young maid, Rose.

His first impression of Seheliris had been correct, he realised that morning. The Empress was indeed ill, and most days did not have the strength to attend daily court life or any nightly festivities or parties organised by the palace's various residing nobility. As Ran explained to him later that morning, Seheliris suffered from a cancer in her lungs that hindered her ability to breathe freely, and at times caused her to cough up blood. None of the healers Nehreb had consulted from all over the world knew of a way to cure her, only how to treat her symptoms for the time being. Ran didn't say as much, but from the look on his face, Aridan gathered that the Empress was dying, and that her family feared every day would be her last.

As she sat down at the table, Rose laid out her breakfast for her. Tyanaïs gently took her hand and asked, 'How are you feeling, dear?' Seheliris smiled feebly at her.

'Last night tired me, I admit,' she said, and then turned to Aridan with a smile, 'not that I would have missed your arrival for the world, or a quiet night's rest.' Aridan smiled back, now realising, and fully appreciating, the effort it had cost her to attend his arrival, and feeling somewhat guilty.

'She's been coughin' up blood again, ma'am,' Rose added to Tyanaïs, then blushed and looked apologetically to Seheliris. 'Forgive me, M'Lady, but His Majesty specifically asked…'

'I know, I know,' Seheliris said, interrupting the girl with a hand on her arm. 'There's no keeping secrets from Nehreb.' At this, Ran and Anàth grinned and shared a look.

'Something he learned from father, no doubt,' Ran said. Seheliris raised an eyebrow at him, a smile playing around her lips.

'Of course,' she said. 'They would have learned one or two things from each other in all these years, wouldn't they?' Then, she suddenly grew a little paler, and started coughing. She fumbled for a kerchief, which Rose quickly handed her. Aridan tried not to stare, feeling quite uncomfortable. Tyanaïs rested a comforting hand on Seheliris' shoulder.

'There, I'm much better now,' Seheliris said once she had stopped coughing. Aridan thought he could see blood on the kerchief before Rose quickly tucked it away.

'Please, eat your breakfast, M'Lady,' she said. 'You need it.' Seheliris nodded, and picked up a loaf of bread.

'Well, son, what are you going to do today?' she asked Anàth. He and Ran exchanged glances again.

'We thought we'd show Aridan around the place for a bit,' Ran said and turned to Aridan. 'And maybe you'd like to see my father in action in the courtroom. Though we don't have to do all that today.' Aridan nodded, eager to find out more about the Neärean way of life, but at the same time both wanting and dreading to spend as much time with Ran as he could.

'I'd love to,' he said with a smile.

The palace was huge, and during the following hours, Ran and Anàth showed him quite a large part of it. They took him to the stables, the exercise grounds, and the library.

After the tour it was time for weapons practice. Anàth explained that until a few months ago, they both had had lessons in history, languages and politics, but that those lessons now had stopped.

'We're seventeen now, we're supposed to have learned most of what we need to know by now,' Anàth said with a grin. 'At least, the things you can learn from books. Soon, I'll have to start helping my father to prepare myself for my future career as Emperor.' Aridan shook his head in wonder; back on the Isles, history was a matter for the historians, and learning foreign languages was the job of officials and experts. The Lord, or indeed his children, should not have to be bothered with it.

Weapons practice was a bit of a different story. He'd had some training at home, but knowing how little that taught him, he'd gone and found someone to teach him more. Nonetheless, he was embarrassingly clumsy with the heavier continental weapons until the weapons master, Kendrick, realised he wasn't used to them. The broad, muscular man stood thinking for a second, then said, 'wait here,' and disappeared into the armoury.

Aridan stood panting, his hands leaning on his knees. Vaguely, he was aware of Ran, Anàth and the other students watching and waiting with him. He became very acutely aware of the fact that Ran was taking off his shirt, though, once he had caught his breath and had turned around. He tried not to stare at Ran's slim, lightly muscled torso, and then tried not to blush while staring, because there was no helping the staring.

Luckily, Kendrick returned before Ran noticed him. The weapons master was carrying two semi-long, curved blades that reminded Aridan of the weapons he had used at home.

'These are scimitars,' Kendrick said, handing them to him. 'We don't often use this kind of weapon, but I remembered I had a pair lying about. Are you any good with them?'

Aridan took one in each hand and tried some moves to get a feel for them. They felt perfect; balanced and light but strong. He felt confident he could take on any of the other students, and win.

Kendrick appeared to be thinking the same thing.

'Ran, pair up with him,' he said. 'This will be a good exercise for both of you.'

Ran nodded, lifting his own weapon and standing ready.

It was harder than Aridan had thought, and a little confusing as well. Back home, he'd only trained against weapons similar to his own. And although he knew how to fight someone with only one sword, Ran's longer and heavier sword turned out to be harder to predict than he had first thought. He could see, though, that it was the same for Ran.

And so they circled and struggled, both trying to end it but never quite succeeding, until the weapons master stopped them.

'Good, good,' he said, as they lowered their weapons, panting. 'We'll continue like that in our next lesson. Class dismissed.'

As they went back to the royal wing to freshen up, Anàth remarked, 'That was pretty impressive fighting, back there.'

'I didn't know how hard it could be, fighting against an opponent with only one sword,' Aridan said. 'I thought it would be easier.'

'Don't think it was easy for me, though,' Ran said, stretching his arms above his head and pulling a face as his muscles protested. 'I had a world of trouble just trying to keep up with you.' Aridan grinned.

'Well, tomorrow we'll have a rematch. I'll have that sword out of your hands and on the ground within two minutes.' Ran laughed with a snort, putting his shirt back on, for which Aridan felt both relieved and disappointed.

'Not before I've knocked those knives out of your hands,' Ran said. Anàth grinned widely.

'Do you guys mind if I organise a bet on that?' he said, and Ran groaned.

'We'll have the entire palace watching, if you do that,' he said. 'I don't think father and Nehreb would like to have the entire court see me thrash our esteemed guest.'

'But they won't,' Aridan pointed out, 'because you will be the one getting thrashed.' Ran cast him a little confident, knowing smile that made him feel as if something heavy had just sat on his chest. He averted his face so Ran wouldn't see the blush that yet again threatened to creep up.

'We'll see,' Ran said. 'We'll see.' And Aridan, at a loss for words out of confusion and sudden emotion, decided to leave it at that.

He managed to keep his composure until they reached the royal living quarters and he could flee into the safety of his own chambers. He dropped into the first chair he saw and took a ragged breath.

Did Ran even know just how gorgeous he was? he wondered. It didn't look like it, but how could he not know, if he could read people's emotions? Read his emotions? Surely Ran must have realised the effect he had on him. But there was no way of knowing, was there, unless Ran confronted him about it, either in protest, or admitting he returned those feelings. And he thought he could guess which one of those it would be.

He heaved himself out of his chair, and in his bedroom found a basin with fresh water, some soap and a towel. He quickly stripped down and washed himself.

It was all going to go wrong, he realised. As much as he liked this place, liked Ran, he was doing entirely the wrong thing by falling in love like this. This was exactly why he had been sent away. Never mind that his father had, without knowing, sent him to the one place where he'd only be encouraged in his 'abnormal' feelings, to the one place where he would truly feel at home. At one point, he would have to go back, and his father would expect him to have changed. He had no idea whether the Emperor, Lord Corian, or even Ran, were onto him, or whether they would approve or not, but that didn't matter anyway. What mattered was that he couldn't go back home having spent his entire stay doing exactly the one thing that had gotten him into trouble in the first place.

The cool water helped, though. He threw open the windows to let in some of the breeze, but unfortunately it was a nice, warm, late summer day. What he could have used right now was a winter storm.

He dressed slowly, trying to steel his resolve. He'd have to avoid getting into awkward situations with Ran, and already he dreaded the next practice. The sight of a half-naked Ran with a sword seemed too much for him to bear. Already it was doing terrible things to his imagination.

A knock on the door startled him.

'Are you ready?' Ran's voice reached him. 'Lunch is waiting.'

'I'm coming!' he called back, finished putting on a new shirt and went to face whatever fate might throw his way.