Chapter 18: Looking Forward
Asita looked elegant as always as she faced Edouard in his office with her hands clasped in front of her.
"You don't often request an audience with me, Lady Asita," Edouard remarked.
"That's true, your majesty, but I wished to speak to you on behalf of Caren Woolden. She's been staying at our manor since her mother's death and the loss of her home. The situation has left her in a state of shock and unable to speak for herself."
"I see," Edouard folded his arms on his desk. "And what would you like to say in her behalf?"
"Caren is in a difficult situation now. She and her mother always made a show of being well-off, but in fact, their tenant farms, of which I think there are only two, were just enough to sustain their manor and keep them in new clothes. I am convinced she was unaware of her mother's connection to Imbario, so I was hoping I might convince you to allow her to retain her remaining holdings. It will be difficult enough for her to find a husband with the taint of treason hanging over her; it will be even more so if she is penniless on top of it."
"You needn't have worried," Edouard said. "I had no intention of fining Miss Woolden. She has already lost her manor, whose value exceeded what I would likely have demanded from her anyway. Keep in mind, Lady Asita; I do not fine nobles to enrich the crown. I fine them to make them feel the pain of their crimes. I think Miss Woolden has suffered enough for her mother's treachery."
Asita bowed. "Thank you, your majesty."
Edouard regarded her thoughtfully. "Will Miss Woolden continue to reside at your estate?"
"For the time being," Asita replied.
"Won't it be awkward to have another young lady living with you?"
Asita shifted slightly. "If it becomes inconvenient, I can always move to Bright Isle."
"True." Edouard smiled slightly. "But there is also somewhere else you could move."
"Lord Colwyn inherited the Issimaya estate when his father was first imprisoned. The holdings are quite extensive and could use proper management."
Asita flushed. "I doubt Lord Colwyn has any interest in allowing me to manage his estate."
"Mere management was not what I had in mind."
Asita's flush deepened. "I understand what you're suggesting, but I don't think Colwyn is interested."
"I think you should approach him again," Edouard replied. "He seemed quite affected by his father's execution. Perhaps he is finally ready to stop running away from who he is."
Asita blinked, her hands washing over each other. "I will consider it, your majesty." Then she smiled slightly. "And if you will take some advice from me, I suggest that you not allow them to bully you into marrying too soon. There is less urgency for a man to marry than a woman, and you are still quite young."
Edouard smiled. "I'll keep that in mind."
"Thank you for your time, your majesty." Asita inclined her head briefly before turning to leave.
When she was gone, Edouard sat back with a sigh. After the trial, he had instructed Lady Hasemill, the Royal Treasurer, to audit the estates of the convicted nobles and determine the fines to be paid by each family. In the three days since, he had held twelve audiences, most of them with the families of the convicted, who were desperately trying to convince him that Hasemill's audit was too high, even though she had not even finished. But his answer was always the same: Hasemill was an accountant; he was not. He would defer to her expertise and they would all just have to accept it.
There was a knock at the door and Edouard sighed. "Come in."
Kieran stepped in with a smile. "Graelin said I should tell you there are no more audiences scheduled for today."
"That's a relief." Edouard ran his fingers through his hair. "I'm getting tired of repeating myself."
"They're still complaining about the fines?"
"Of course. They're nobles." Edouard scowled. "They'll send a family member to prison without a word, and then complain endlessly about the loss of a single gold bar. It's irritating."
"They're not all like that."
"I have my doubts."
Kieran sank into a chair in front of the desk and began playing with a ball of gold light, rolling it back and forth between his hands.
When he didn't speak, Edouard frowned at him. "What's the matter?"
"I was just thinking that now that Imbario is gone, you don't really need a personal bodyguard anymore."
"Ah." Edouard studied Kieran's face. They had been friends for only six years, but he felt like he had known Kieran forever. "Perhaps not, but it still doesn't hurt to have one. And anyway, you promised to take me on a holiday."
Kieran blinked at him in surprise. "You want to go?"
"Yes." Edouard smiled back. "I think it would do me good to get away for a little while. I'm still carrying too much bitterness."
Kieran's answering smile lit up his face. "Alright! I'll warn Moretz that he's going to be left in charge again. How long can we be gone?"
"Probably not more than a month. I doubt I could convince Moretz to do paperwork for longer than that." Edouard sat back suddenly. "You know, it just occurred to me. If you were my Royal Wizard, we couldn't do this. We both could not leave White Shores at the same time in that case." He grinned. "Perhaps it's just as well I appointed Moretz. He's worked out pretty well."
"He's a good man and a great wizard."
Edouard nodded in agreement. Then he looked down at his desk and groaned. "But I still have all this work to get through. Maybe we should sneak out and go horseback-riding instead."
Kieran chuckled. "I am at your service, sire. I'll do whatever you say."
Edouard scrubbed his face with both hands. "No, I'll get this done first. Then we'll have dinner together and read that new book Petia gave me."
"Petia gave you a book?"
"Yes. It's her book, actually, about Geffen Tokmarrow. His biography."
"That sounds interesting." Kieran stood up. "So I'll meet you in your room at dinnertime."
Edouard watched him leave and heaved a long sigh. It seemed like the mounds of paperwork on his desk never got any smaller. He probably should just leave it every once in a while and take time for himself. "That's right," he muttered. "Tomorrow, we're definitely going horseback-riding."
"A holiday?" Moretz frowned. "Edouard wants to leave White Shores?"
"Just for a few weeks," Kieran replied. "Maybe a month."
"A month?!" Moretz's brows shut up. "And who is going to manage things for all that time?"
"Me?!" Moretz's mouth worked silently for several seconds. "I'm the Royal Wizard! I don't think that's really my responsibility."
"The kingdom is your responsibility, Moretz." Kieran chuckled. "Who better to look after it in Edouard's absence?"
"I think I should have read more of the fine print in the job description," Moretz grumbled. He slumped down on his desk with a scowl.
Doctor Sefrin, seated in front of Moretz's desk with a book in his hands, matched Kieran's amused chuckle. "It seems we must all make adjustments in this new age. Where were you planning to go, Lord Kieran?"
"To the southern fjords, I think. It's supposed to be beautiful."
"It is," Sefrin's gaze softened. "I went there once in my youth." Then his focus sharpened and he fixed his eyes on Kieran. "But before you depart, there is the matter of his majesty's, ah, condition." He flushed slightly. "I think it might cause less concern during his absence if there was some confidence in the kingdom's ongoing stability."
Kieran scratched the back of his head. "Well, Ma Bricker told me once that there's a difference between virility and potency in men."
Moretz raised his head. "Just how long were you studying with this Ma Bricker?" he demanded. "I swear she taught you more than I learned in all my years at the Wizards Hall."
Kieran laughed. "Just a year! But she was a talkative old woman. Anyway, she taught me a formula that can be used to determine if a virile man is potent or not. She used to sell it to childless couples so they could figure out if the wife or the husband was the cause. It's fairly simple to make. You probably have everything that I need, Doctor."
"How does it work?" Sefrin asked curiously.
"When a small amount of a man's seed is mixed with the formula, it will turn bright red if his seed is potent."
Moretz leaned forward intently. "But that assumes the subject is, well, capable."
"Virility is not Edouard's problem," Kieran said quickly. "His concern is that he might be sterile."
Moretz and Sefrin exchanged a look. "How do you know that, Kieran?" Moretz asked carefully. "You said you and Edouard were not intimate."
Kieran looked away. "We're not," he said, "but I sleep with him. I've… seen things." He swallowed. "I'll make the formula for you, Doctor, but you'll need to test him. I shouldn't be there when he gives you the sample."
Sefrin drew a breath. "Very well. When can you have it ready?"
"Tonight. I'll need to use your lab."
Kieran inclined his head. "I'll go now."
When he was gone, Moretz sighed. "Sefrin, he and Edouard are too close."
"Kieran's devotion to Edouard saved this kingdom."
"I know that!" Moretz ran his fingers through his hair, grimacing in annoyance. "But Edouard is bound so tightly to Kieran I'm not sure it will matter if he's sterile or not. Do you think we will be able to convince him to let anyone else into his life?"
"That is not my concern," Sefrin said, a little stiffly. "At least, not at this time. Let us answer the immediate question first. Edouard is still quite young. In the future, I think he will be more receptive to the idea of marriage."
"Very well, I'll take your advice for now. But I will nevertheless speak to Kieran about it privately. I suspect, in the long run, he's the only person who will be able to talk Edouard into it."
Moretz pushed back in his chair and put his feet up on the desk. It was probably not a good idea to allow Kieran and Edouard to be completely alone together. While they both insisted that they were not lovers, and in the strictest sense that was most likely true, Moretz doubted it would continue to remain true now that Kieran was free to spend all his time in Edouard's company, and Edouard had nothing more stressful on his mind than the success of the next harvest. But on the other hand, Edouard needed to relax more. Moretz was not blind to the difficulties Edouard faced as a child king. He might be a man now, but he had grown up bearing that responsibility. The only time Edouard relaxed was in Kieran's company.
"Lord Moretz," Sefrin continued quietly. "Although I am primarily a physician of the body, it is also part of our training to study the human mind. I have known Edouard all his life. He was not yet ten years old when he came to terms with dying without ever reaching adulthood. Although his life was saved, I don't know that he's ever really accepted what that means. He was too accustomed to living in the present and never planning for the future. When we talk to him about marriage, I think all he really understands is that it will change his present, and he is not ready for that. It might be better if we simply let his relationship with Kieran run its course. Edouard is a good king. In time, he will come to understand that he needs to produce an heir, but I think it would be a kindness not to force the issue now." Sefrin stood up. "I think I will go watch Kieran make this formula. I've been fascinated for years by the medications and remedies created by herbalists, and after what I have seen recently, I am rather excited by the idea of a hedge wizard's skills combined with those of a lay apothecary. Please excuse me."
Moretz watched Sefrin leave with a frown on his face. Allow Kieran and Edouard to simply fall in love? They were already in love, in his opinion. Letting them act on that passion would undoubtedly cause turmoil among the nobility. On the other hand, most nobles were keeping a low profile these days to avoid getting fined for offending Edouard. Moretz suddenly laughed aloud. "You know, right now might just be the best time for Edouard to indulge himself on a personal level. It would do these fools good to remember he's not just a king, but a human being."
A light knock on his door made Moretz think of Petia. "Come in!" When Petia stepped in, he grinned. "I thought it was you," he said fondly. "You're my third visitor today."
"Yes, I saw Sefrin leaving. Who else was here?"
"Ah." Petia settled into one of the chairs in front of his desk, her hands folded neatly in her lap. "I suppose I should be thinking about returning home. Now that the crisis is past, I'm just another wizard taking up space at the Hall."
"You mean much more than that. You're help has been invaluable."
"But in fact," Petia said with a chuckle, "Divwall only summoned me to test Kieran's power. I've just been sticking my nose into everyone else's business since then."
"Well, I still think you've been more than helpful."
"Perhaps." Petia gazed down at her hands. "But I wonder what Kieran will do now. Edouard doesn't really need him as a personal bodyguard anymore."
"That's not necessarily true," Moretz replied seriously. "There's no proof that we captured all of Imbario's sympathizers. And there is still the old-fashioned political assassination to worry about. I would prefer to have Kieran continue in that role, and so would Edouard."
Petia nodded slowly. "You realize, of course, that there's a good chance they will end up as lovers if they spend any more time together."
Moretz sighed. "Yes, that does seem pretty likely."
"I'll be glad if it happens."
"What?!" Moretz stared at her in surprise. "Why?"
"It would be good for Edouard. And for Kieran, too."
Moretz shook his head. "Doctor Sefrin said pretty much the same thing, and I have to confess, I was thinking it myself."
"Good!" Petia hopped to her feet. "I'll go tell Kieran."
"What?! You can't just tell him he has our permission to bed the king!"
"Why not? He might not do it, otherwise. Not unless Edouard asks and I'm not sure Edouard would. They have both confused Edouard's purity with his honor. I'll just point out that it's perfectly alright for Edouard to be both his lover and his king." Petia skipped to the door. "It will be your job to make sure everyone understands that they don't get to pass judgment on how Edouard chooses to live his life, as long as he's meeting his obligations to the kingdom."
"Great!" Moretz grumbled. "That sounds like even more fun than doing Edouard's paperwork for a month. One pays a high price for the rank and prestige of being the Royal Wizard."
Petia laughed brightly and slipped out the door.
In the early evening, Petia found Kieran in the hallway outside Edouard's door, leaning against the wall. "Kieran! I was looking for you."
Kieran straightened up. "I was in Doctor Sefrin's lab making a formula for him."
"Oh? For what?"
Kieran flushed. "To test Edouard's potency. Sefrin's administering it right now."
"And you're waiting outside?" Petia eyed him curiously. The flush on Kieran's face was most enlightening. "Let's go in your room. I'd like to speak to you privately for a moment." She opened the door herself and led the way inside. "Let's sit." She parked herself comfortably on the couch and waited for Kieran to sit too before continuing. "If you made the formula Sefrin is using, doesn't that mean you could have tested Edouard anytime?" she asked casually.
Kieran dipped his head. "Yes, but I could never ask Edouard to…" he paused and his flush deepened, "provide me with the test sample. It seemed better to have Sefrin do it."
"But if you're not intimate with him, why should it matter?" Petia watched his face closely as she asked the question. "I daresay you've already seen him unclothed."
Kieran flinched and pulled away slightly. "That's different."
Petia leaned forward. "Kieran, why are you resisting your feelings? It's obvious to everyone who knows you how deeply you love Edouard. Why won't you share that with him? Edouard is the loneliest person I've even met. You have your friends from the Wizard's Hall, but he only has you. You shouldn't hold back from him."
Kieran would not meet her eyes. "I won't damage Edouard's reputation."
"Why don't you let Edouard decide that?"
"Because he'll just say it doesn't matter!" Kieran exclaimed.
"Then it doesn't matter," Petia answered. "You've been protecting Edouard from the moment you met him, but he's all grown up now. It's time you let him decide for himself how much protection he needs." Kieran blinked at her in silence. Petia reached out and patted his knee. "Sooner or later, Edouard will have to learn the joys of intimacy. Wouldn't it be better if he discovered it with someone who truly loves him?"
Kieran bit his lip. "He's not completely innocent, Petia." He looked away. "And neither am I. A long time ago, on the first anniversary of his father's death, he was so heartbroken I could only think of one way to ease his mind and distract him from the hurt he was feeling. Since then, I haven't kissed him and I have been careful about how I touch him because it would be too easy to want more. So it was a little disingenuous when I said we've never been intimate, but he is still pure."
"I see." Petia studied Kieran thoughtfully. His expression was resigned and a little sad. She suspected he had never told anyone about this before. "Then promise me one thing. If Edouard ever indicates that he wants more than just friendship from you that you will give it to him. For his sake."
Kieran met her eyes and, after a slight hesitation, nodded once. "I promise."
The ship slipped through the waves with very little noise, dipping into the swells and climbing the crests gracefully. Edouard wondered if it seemed quiet simply because it was dark. Standing close to the bow, he leaned on the rail and stared ahead. The night sky was awash with stars, and the white foam that formed on the wave crests glistened in the starlight. "It's so peaceful," he said. "I feel like we're the only people in the world tonight."
Beside him, Kieran leaned on his elbows, his gaze also fixed on the horizon. "I know what you mean. I've sailed on the lake at night before, but close to White Shores, you can never see this many stars."
"I never realized how much light the streetlamps made," Edouard replied. "I'm glad we decided to do this."
"So am I."
The stars were so bright it made it easy to see the shoreline gliding past on their left. The ship's captain had said they would stay within sight of the shore for safety, although no storms were anticipated this time of year. Edouard wondered what it was like to be caught in the middle of the lake during a storm. He had read stories about waves as high as a ship's mast swamping vessels under and the captain's caution made him wonder if it was true. He glanced at Kieran's profile. There were times when Edouard could not read him at all, and tonight Kieran's expression gave nothing away.
"Do you ever wonder what your life would be like if you hadn't met the baby madrin that night?" Edouard asked quietly.
"I used to," Kieran responded. "But I haven't for a long time."
"Did you ever think before then that you might become a wizard one day?"
Kieran slowly shook his head. "When I was growing up, there were a few of us who could perform simple spells, like making witch light or purifying water. Useful magic like that is overlooked by most people, including wizards, if that's all you can do. So I never let anyone see me perform any spells other than that. I was afraid I would be conditioned if anyone found out. But magic fascinated me and Ma Bricker was happy to teach me in exchange for doing chores around her house. I went there nearly every day after my regular chores were done for a little over a year." He turned to face Edouard, leaning on one elbow on the railing. "But right up until that day when I was nearly killed and Colwyn said he was taking me to Bright Isle, I never imagined that I would end up a wizard."
"It's funny," Edouard said. "I was destined to become king the day I was born, but until I met you, I never imagined it would actually happen. That baby madrin changed both our lives."
"For which I am exceedingly grateful," Kieran murmured, his eyes fixed on Edouard's face.
Edouard returned his gaze, captivated by the way Kieran's eyes looked in the starlight. His face had changed little in the past six years, but maturity had given his eyes immeasurable depth. In the faint light, they looked bottomless. "Kieran," Edouard said softly, "why do you stay with me? Is it just to protect me?"
Kieran shook his head. "No. Being your servant and bodyguard gives me an excuse to stay by your side." He looked out at the water and the wind pushed his hair across his face. He brushed it back with one hand. "You are the king, Edouard, and I have always believed that serving you was the only way I could express my affection for you. After all, I am common-born, and a man besides."
Edouard went still. Kieran's words reverberated inside him as the implication of his statement sank in. "Do you love me?" he whispered.
"Yes." Kieran did not look at him, but he answered without hesitation.
Edouard shivered and a feeling of relief swept over him. "Why have you never said anything?"
"I told you," Kieran said softly. "You are my king and I am only a servant. I can love you, but it is not my place to ask for anything more."
"You're wrong!" Edouard exclaimed. He gripped Kieran's shoulders, turning the young man toward him. "You are my dearest friend! If you cannot speak of your affection for me, no one can!" Edouard slipped his arms around Kieran's shoulders and embraced him. "You kissed me once, but I thought it was only out of kindness for my grief. If it meant more than that, show me now!" He almost sobbed when Kieran's lips touched his. Kieran's arms encircled his waist, holding him close.
For an eternity, the wind slipped over them and the ship rocked them back and forth, but still they held each other, aware only of each other and the passionate sweetness of that kiss. When Kieran finally pulled his mouth away, Edouard leaned against his shoulder and wept. "This is what I need, Kieran," he whispered through his tears. "I need you!"
Kieran stroked his hair. "I have always said I will do anything you ask. Even in this I cannot deny you. My heart and soul have been yours from the beginning. What is left is yours to take as well."
Edouard almost laughed. "Now I know why Landon was so angry when I told him he could not accompany us on this trip. He must have suspected something would happen."
Kieran sighed. "It was inevitable, I suppose."
Edouard lifted his head and gazed into Kieran's eyes again. "You don't mind, do you? I won't order you to do something you don't want to do."
Kieran laughed softly. "Edouard, there is truly nothing I want more than to share your bed and do more than just sleep. Landon has suspected me of this desire all along, which is why he has tried so hard to keep us apart. But there is nothing between us now." He kissed Edouard very gently. "So you have to decide if this is what you want."
Edouard smiled. "There's just one problem."
"I am completely inexperienced."
"I don't know much more than you," Kieran chuckled. "We'll just have to learn together." He stepped away from Edouard and took his hand. "Of course, there's no way we'll be able to keep this a secret. The sailors have already seen us kissing." He tipped his head slightly, indicating the sailors standing on watch at various locations on the ship.
"Ah, well." Edouard heaved a sigh and shrugged his shoulders. "Then there's no point in sneaking to my cabin." He tugged on Kieran's hand and started walking.
Kieran fell into step with him. "Edouard?"
"Do you love me, too?"
"Of course I do." Edouard squeezed his hand. "And I insist that you stop referring to yourself as my servant from now on. You are my bodyguard and my friend; and after tonight, you'll be my lover as well."
"You'll still be my king."
"Not right now. I'm on holiday, remember?"
"That doesn't change who you are!" Kieran laughed.
"Maybe not," Edouard replied, also laughing. "But we can pretend. Just like we did when we snuck out of the palace all those years ago and I made you call me by name. I felt so free then." He stopped and looked up at the sky. "Just like I do now. Thank you, Kieran."
"For setting me free."
Kieran slipped an arm around his waist and pulled him close. "You're welcome," he whispered, and kissed the side of Edouard's head.
Edouard put his arm around Kieran's waist as well and together they entered the main cabin at the rear of the ship.
"So, is everything all right?" Colwyn demanded.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of him, Bodie's eyes were closed as he focused his far-sight on the royal yacht sailing far to the south. Suddenly, his face flushed beet-red and his eyes flew open. "They're fine!" he squeaked. "Everything's fine!" He scrambled to his feet.
Colwyn eyed him suspiciously. "What did you see?"
"Nothing! They're asleep!"
"Together?" Colwyn scowled.
"Ah… um…" Bodie scrubbed his hands over each other. "You could, uh, say that."
"You're hiding something."
"No!" Bodie scurried to his desk and sat down. "If there's nothing else, Lord Colwyn, I promised to write my mother a letter." He grabbed his pen from its holder and yanked a piece of paper toward him.
"Very well," Colwyn grumbled. "Perhaps we can look in on them again in a few days."
"Of course. I'd be glad to. In the daytime."
Colwyn glared at him for a moment, still convinced Bodie was hiding something, and then it hit him. He smacked his forehead. "I'll strangle him! He lied to me about bedding the king!"
"Please, Lord Colwyn!" Bodie exclaimed weakly. "Not so loud!"
"Hmph!" Colwyn grumped. He planted his hands on his hips. "I expect you to keep this to yourself, Bodie. There will be rumors enough when they get back."
"I would never speak of something private like that!" Bodie declared rather huffily. "Besides," he lowered his head, "they seemed really happy."
Colwyn's stance softened and he sighed. "Did they? Well, I suppose it's not my place to judge." He turned to the door. "I guess we don't need to keep an eye on them after all." As he walked back to his own room, Colwyn sighed again. Kieran was a different person from the quiet youth he had brought back to Bright Isle so many years ago. That boy would not have dared to express his feelings so openly. "But they do seem to need each other," he murmured. "Perhaps it's all right, for a few years, anyway."
He continued down the hall, thinking as he went that perhaps it was time he gave up wandering and finally returned home.
-o- The End -o-
Well, it seems like it took forever to get here, and now it feels like it finished so quickly. Thank you very much for reading; I hope you enjoyed this story. I am so fond of Edouard and Kieran; I think it likely that I will revisit their story again. I'll be sure to mention it in my profile if I decide to do a sequel. Happy reading!