High above the castle battlements golden sun glinted off the bony skulls of flying skeletons, while below in the courtyard spit-shined footmen stood at attention and housemaids in lacy aprons waved merrily at a departing carriage. It was bright and cool, and the flowers were in full bloom – a typically lovely day in Shin Makoku.
In a window overlooking the courtyard, the young man with long black hair pushed back the curtain and glared at the activity below. The royal carriage was just disappearing through the castle's main gate, the clop-clop-clop of hooves already starting to fade.
Frowning suddenly, Gwendal shoved the curtain aside and turned his back on the window. Let her go, he thought fiercely. I don't care what she does any more.
He crossed the study and threw himself into the chair, forcibly thrusting aside useless thoughts about his mother's inaccessibility, her latest interfering husband (a foppish dandy, this one, the opposite of the crude human she'd wedded last time) and yet another brother he'd been saddled with as a result. Mostly he fought to squash the admission that he'd looked forward to spending time with Mother now that he'd returned from military training, and once again he'd set himself up only to be let down. His mouth twisted into a bitter grimace. Get used to disappointment.
To distract himself from useless sentiment (and really, wasn't it better to absorb oneself in work than wallow in emotion?) he grabbed the first scroll he saw and unrolled it violently, frowning as his too-swift action left a corner hanging by a shred. It hardly mattered; he doubted if anyone but he and the Maou's aging chancellor cared what the scroll contained. Well, if he couldn't get his mother's attention, he might as well turn his own to the nuts and bolts of running her kingdom, since she herself couldn't be bothered to do so. The words came into focus, as did an extraordinarily detailed drawing for "Proposed Changes to the Castle's Drainage System." As if Her Majesty the Maou would care a toss about that!
It was a generally accepted truth among the Mazoku that never had anyone been less suited to being Maou than Cherie von Spitzburg. It was also common knowledge that her chancellor, Wilfrid von Kleist, was sick of the fruitless task of trying to make her sit down and deal with political affairs. He was all too eager to cede such work to a successor…which was why Gwendal von Walde was being trained to deal with such things, as well as learning the skills required to become a military commander. It was irritating to him, but somebody in the royal family had to know these things. Truly, why the flighty, silly, overly-romantic Cherie had been chosen as Maou in the first place defied understanding.
Gwendal ran a hand through his hair, which as usual had come loose from its tie. Annoying. He should cut it, but Mother liked it long. The last time she'd hugged him – when was that? …ah, yes, the night he'd left for maneuvers – she'd run her gloved fingers through it, pushing it off his forehead. Unconsciously Gwendal's fingers carded through his dark hair in imitation of her actions, and for a moment he remembered how he'd been reflected in her dancing green eyes. "Ah, my Gwen," she'd purred, "such lovely hair – you'll be so handsome when you're grown!" His protests that he was grown already had evaporated in the glow of her attention. But then her vapidly handsome husband had called her name, and she'd pecked Gwendal on the cheek and turned away, her eldest son once again forgotten.
Gwendal held tenaciously to such memories, even as he loathed himself for doing so. He frowned again. How utterly ridiculous. How pathetic.
He forced himself back to the pile of paperwork, but his attention refused to cooperate. It wasn't as if he wanted the throne for himself – certainly not! No; if pressed, he would have admitted his skills were as a military tactician, not a figurehead. Unlike his mother he lacked charm and charisma – this he knew, and accepted. His "people skills" were almost nonexistent; when he wasn't being monosyllabic he had a tendency to shout. He was good with his hands, true – swordplay and majutsu came easily (as did knitting, but only two other people in the world were privy to that little fact) but attending diplomatic functions left him in a cold sweat. No, he was not cut out to be a diplomat…nor, he thought with bitter acceptance, was he fated to be beloved.
Now, Conrad Weller, his middle-half-brother, or perhaps older-younger-brother (and curse Mother for making their family so inconveniently confusing!) – Conrad was another thing altogether. Though still quite young, he already was possessed of intelligence, dedication, and a desire for knowledge, and also the charisma that made a great leader, one destined to be beloved by all. Even Gwendal, who had hated Conrad's human father with a white-hot fury, could not but admit he loved Conrad himself. For that reason he often sought Conrad's company, under the guise of fencing or riding lessons. Conrad welcomed his gruff brother's presence; sometimes it seemed he was the only person to do so. Conrad was just that sort of person. Sadly, though, Conrad, not a pure Mazoku, would never, could never become Maou. Which, in Gwendal's opinion, was a great pity.
He sighed and rubbed his forehead. These were the self-indulgent meanderings of an undisciplined mind. He frowned at the plumbing schematics, refocused his attention, and signed his name where required before moving to the next documents in the tremendous pile: "Proposal to Increase Goose-Farming Facilities in Western Provinces." "Drawbridge Reconstruction: An Overview." "Schematics for Development of Shin Makoku Water Park." Gah. His head throbbed, and he'd barely gotten started. Idly he rubbed the back of his hand over his left eye and massaged his temple. "Removal of Pigeon Droppings from Castle Battlements." Dear. God.
There was a sound behind him from the corridor, a sound so soft he didn't note it until it was repeated, something between a soft shuffle and a loud breath. Gwendal stilled, his senses on alert. In these days of conflict between the Mazoku and the humans it was necessary to be vigilant at the merest suspicion of danger. Threats to the royal family might lurk even within the walls of the fortified castle, even here in the living quarters. For a moment he debated what to do – what if it were Anissina with some dire invention with which to torture him? That girl was crazy, and dangerous enough, though probably not lethally so. But on the other hand, Anissina never stood on ceremony, and would likely barge right in. Closed doors meant nothing to her.
The sound came again, that quiet shuffle outside the door that bespoke someone lurking there. Not Anissina, then. Quietly Gwendal slid back his chair and stood, hand on his sword, waiting.
The old door hinges began to creak open and Gwendal leapt into action, crossing the marble floor in two steps, yanking the door open, his sword thrust out before him. "Who's there?"
"Oh!" For a moment Gwendal thought he faced a ghost, so luminous was the pale man in his doorway. He wavered there, white of face and garments, his long, unbound hair light enough to almost seem translucent in the gloom of the corridor. The man's eyes were wide, his voice breathy and nearly swallowed by his palpable terror. "I – I! I do beg your lordship's pardon! I am most sorry for the, um… Please forgive my…my…"
"What?" Gwendal's heart still thundered damnably. He heard his voice edge to a shout. "Identify yourself!"
The pale man turned absolutely white at that. "I–oh. Dear. I'm. I... Sorry. I–" His mouth gaped but no further words issued forth.
Gwendal hefted his sword in a threatening manner; his mood had been black all day, and now it was frankly dangerous. "I'll give you three seconds to tell me who you are! Three– two– "
The interloper's eyes rolled up until they were white as his garments, and with a soft sigh he slid to the floor in an untidy heap.
Gwendal stared in stunned panic.
"Hey?" No answer. Forcing himself out of his frozen pose, he poked the body with the flat of his sword, but there was still no response. "You there! Hello?"
Well, this certainly was unexpected and distressing. Assailants, spies, even Anissina, those he could have dispatched, but this? Certainly his glowering often put people off, but strangers fainting at the mere sight of him was something new. Perhaps Mother had been right when she told him to smile more, that his scowl could sour milk.
He stepped into the corridor, searching in vain for a guard or at the very least a servant. But as usual he'd been left alone, forgotten again in the flurry of activity surrounding the Maou's departure. He returned to his chambers, contemplated the bell rope, thought about tugging it. That would certainly bring someone, and probably that would be a good idea, and the man might still be dangerous, but…
He turned again to the corridor. The man lay as before, crumpled on the wine-colored carpet. He didn't appear to be much of a threat.
Gwendal sheathed his sword and knelt, cursing under his breath.
Gwendal's gaze jerked upwards.
The interloper was awake, examining his surroundings from where he lay sprawled across the bed. Seemingly unaware of Gwendal's presence, he craned his neck, his eyes falling on the elaborate carving on the mahogany headboard. "Ah. Shinou-esque Revival," he noted conversationally. Long, nearly-colorless locks slid across the man's shoulders as he turned to scan the high windows, the furnishings and festive murals and finally Gwendal himself. "Oh!" The man blinked at him, or more specifically at the pink yarn entwined in Gwendal's fingers. "Crochet?"
"Knitting," Gwendal's corrected automatically. "It relaxes me." Almost immediately he regretted the impulse – it was demeaning to explain himself to a mere intruder. He tossed the half-finished kitten under his desk.
"Ah," said the man, nodding. His gaze tilted upwards. "Shepherdesses?"
"The décor. Shepherdesses. Sheep. Cherubs…oh, wait, they're satyrs, aren’t they?" He flashed a smile. "Charming!"
"I didn't choose the decorations," Gwendal growled. Damn Mother and her taste!
"No, no, of course not," the man said quickly. "Um, where am I?"
The utter gall of the man! "You're in my chambers, of course."
"Am I? Intriguing!" The man lifted the coverlet Gwendal had hastily thrown over him when he'd dumped him, unconscious, on the bed. "I'm dressed…I don't suppose we…you and I…?" He made a gesture, the meaning of which was all too clear.
What impertinence! "You attacked me!"
"I did?" The man's lashes fluttered in confusion. "It sounds terribly unlike me."
"Well…" Uncertainty niggled at him. "I thought you were here to attack me."
"I see." A palpable pause. "And…I'm in your bed because…?"
"Ah." The fellow nodded. "I'm sorry, but who are you exactly?"
"Who am I?" His voice rose to a bellow and the strange man flinched. "I'm Gwendal von Walde, eldest son of the 26th Maou! Who the hell are you?"
"Aha!" Very obviously relieved, the man threw back the covers and staggered upright, apparently still dizzy from his faint. "I'm Günter. I was sent."
Gwendal peered at him with suspicion. "Günter who?"
"Von Kleist." Tugging his clothing into alignment, Günter bowed deeply.
"You're…von Kleist's, the chancellor's–"
"Nephew. I've been sent to serve you, my lord."
"It was thought I might be of assistance." Günter straightened and wobbled again. "Oh, dear, all the blood is rushing to my…Where was I? Sent to. S-serve you. As in…assist…you. In, in…any way…you…requi…oh dear, I hear a waterfa–"
Gwendal's suspicions that the entire thing was a sham were quelled by von Kleist's sudden gray pallor. Another wobble and the fellow began to fold up again, and without thinking Gwendal stepped forward, his arms coming around the slender body to brace him upright. "Von Kleist!" he shouted, fighting both anger and panic. What if there was something seriously wrong with the man? What if he carried a deadly disease? What if he'd been sent to destroy the Mazoku by spreading the plague? What if–
"–what?" Günter sighed and opened his eyes, and suddenly the two were eyeball to eyeball, piercing blue and deep lavender separated by the merest of inches. "Oh, hello," Günter murmured flirtatiously, dropping his eyelids to half-mast. "Have we met?"
Gwendal debated dropping him headfirst on the marble floor. "What's the matter with you?"
The man in his arms surprised him by blushing like a temple maiden. "Goodness, you've terribly powerful arms. Very manly…" Apparently Gwendal's expression snapped him out of whatever reverie enthralled him, because the blush disappeared, though Günter made no effort to extricate himself. "Oh. Oh dear. Forgive me. I'm so sorry for all the trouble, my lord. I'm afraid I didn't have time to eat today, and with the excitement of the appointment–"
"Appointment?" Günter shivered, and Gwendal instinctively tightened his grip. "What appointment?"
"My appointment as your assistant."
"My assistant? What do I need an assistant for?" He pursed his lips in annoyance.
Günter seemed to be staring at his lips now. How very peculiar! And unless he was mistaken, the man was sniffing him! "With your paperwork, or your research," Günter said, and – what was this? Now long pale fingers were picking at a lock of Gwendal's hair! "You know, my lord," Günter said, sounding a bit breathless, "a crimson jerkin would really suit your coloring much more than this green. One with epaulets to emphasize your broad shoulders. Your very broad… Perhaps I can help you pick out–"
"No!" The man was a lunatic! "I don't need any …hey!" Shockingly, blood was now spurting from Günter's nose. Gwendal stepped back sharply. "Stop! You're–"
"Oh dear," Günter said, groping for a handkerchief. "Idsoledt thoughts." Gwendal whipped out his own clean linen square and shoved it at him, watching in horrified fascination as Günter pressed it hurriedly to his streaming nose. "Thaag you, by lord. It's just a liddle dosebleed. I get dem all the tibe. Id'll pass. Just igdore it add id'll stop." He moved shakily over to the bed and sat, tilting his head back.
Gwendal waited impatiently until the flow was staunched. Really – could the man be any more troublesome? Clearly he needed to get him out of his chambers post-haste. "Look," he said, cutting off whatever Günter might be about to say. "I really don't need an assistant. I don't want an assistant. So you needn't stay. Just go back to…wherever you came from."
"But I was told you have an enormous amount of paperwork." Well, that was true enough; Gwendal couldn't prevent his eyes from flicking to the desk and back again. Unfortunately, this seemed to offer encouragement. "I'd be very useful," Günter continued. "I have degrees in arts, sciences, history, architecture and finance. And political-geographical-Mazokuan science."
"You know, my uncle the Chancellor's getting old and doesn’t relish the job any longer."
"He's made that clear."
"And you're likely to be appointed to the position very shortly, my lord–"
Gwendal bristled. "That's really not your concern. I despise gossip."
Günter's cheeks grew red again, but this time with a flush of temper. "I'm not gossiping! I never gossip! I was told by reputable sources!"
"Well, it's untrue. I'm not going to be Chancellor. I'm going to the war, to command our forces against the rebellious human population." He'd said the same thing so many times it sounded studied, even to his own ears.
"Oh dear. Please be careful out there," said Günter in a worried voice. "And pack warmly. I hear it's rather cold at the front." He sat up straighter. "Perhaps I can assist in your training. I'm very good at majutsu."
Günter von Kleist was evidently a determined sort. Better to cut him off quickly, or he'd never leave. "So am I," Gwendal replied with more than a hint of superciliousness. "I'm better at it than anyone else in the castle."
Günter stood up, rubbing at his sinuses as if they throbbed. "Swordsmanship, then. I excel at fencing."
Gwendal blinked. "You fence?"
"Really?" There was no masking the incredulity of his tone.
"Certainly!" Günter huffed, clearly offended.
"Well, with the fainting and all, I imagined–"
"I told you, I didn't eat anything today." It was almost amusing how indignant the fellow became when disbelieved. "I'll have you know I took top honors in swordsmanship!"
"So did I!"
"Well, then," Günter said, drawing himself up to his full height, which was barely an inch shorter than Gwendal himself. "I can be of help as your training partner."
"No," Gwendal protested. "Look. I appreciate what your uncle had in mind when he sent you, but I'm telling you, I don't need anybody–"
"It was Her Majesty the Maou's idea."
"The…" The information caught him like a blow to the stomach. "Mother?"
"So I was informed." Günter took a step closer. "Please?" There was a desperate note in the soft voice. "Milord, if you send me away, they'll just return me to that dreadful school, and I'll have to resume teaching young children their letters. Children, mind you, and not even very clever ones! I just…can't bear to do that again. I'd much rather serve a man of your accomplishments. Please let me assist you, my lord. I promise I have a great deal to offer."
Gwendal pushed the hair from his eyes, and turned once more to stare at the overburdened desk. His shoulders lifted and fell as he took in and released an enormous breath that sounded far too much like a sigh for his own comfort. Well, perhaps since it had been Mother's idea… When he turned back he fixed Günter with a piercing stare. "Very well. We'll try it."
"Thank you, thank you, my lord! You have no idea–"
"–we'll try it, I said. As a trial. Just…" Gwendal looked heavenward. "Just…do your best to be quiet and don't annoy me."
"Oh, certainly, my lord," Günter said, not doing a very good job of containing his relief. "I won't be annoying at all! I'll do my very best! I'll be helpful! Very helpful! Let's see…shall I start by rearranging the papers on the desk? I find that a disordered desk obstructs an ordered mind. And of course we'll have to open those curtains and let a bit more light in here. You are a gloomy gus, aren't you?" Günter turned and smiled brightly at his new employer.
Gwendal gritted his teeth, frowned and rubbed his temple.
"If I may say so, my lord, you really should try not to frown quite so much. You'll get early wrinkles if you keep doing that, and as there's enough ugliness in the world–"
It was hardly what one might call an auspicious beginning.
For the first few days it was all Gwendal could do to tolerate Günter's presence, as Günter clearly was not a person comfortable with silence. He flitted and nattered and chatted until Gwendal was forced to silence him, and would sigh piteously thereafter until Gwendal could no longer bear it and allowed him to speak again…at which point the cycle would repeat. It made for a torturous working environment. Gwendal could not even retreat to the calming balm of handiwork, as Günter found it necessary to coo delightedly over the odd objects Gwendal created with his knitting needles. To avoid using the implements to disembowel his assistant, he found relief only by removing himself from Günter's presence.
But he'd return from working out his frustrations at the expense of his exhausted horse or a terrified fencing partner to discover Günter had made short work of the mountains of documents that had faced them at the day's beginning. And when Günter could be forced to get to the point, it turned out he did, in fact, have a sharp mind and a great deal of knowledge and some very clever new ideas that proved extraordinarily helpful for the management of the realm, particularly in matters of protocol and diplomacy, the very subjects in which Gwendal was lacking. So he bit his tongue and tried to suppress the urge to throttle the man.
Günter, for his part, eventually grasped the concept that the angry throbbing in Gwendal's left temple was a signal it was time for silence, lest Lord von Walde abandon his work and bolt from the room. And if he too frequently murmured in his mellifluous voice how pleasant it was to be in the company of someone with far more focus and a longer attention span than the hateful children he'd so recently left, or if he stood a little too close and had a tendency to sniff his lordship and suffer a subsequent nosebleed, well, it was possible to ignore Günter's strange little habits as long as the work was getting done. And so, by the end of their second week together, Gwendal and Günter had arrived at a working relationship that was not entirely uncomfortable.
Perhaps it had been the lessening of tensions between them that prompted Günter one afternoon to pause in his labors and ponder the lusty pink cherub-satyrs frolicking across the ceiling. "My lord, why do you keep the décor?"
"Mmm?" Gwendal murmured, not really listening. He'd developed the ability over the past few weeks to block out Günter's more inconsequential remarks.
"The sheep. The shepherdesses. The…er, naughty cherubs. If you don't care for it, why not have it changed? If I may be permitted to say so, milord, it doesn't really suit you at all. Not very masculine. I'd suggest dogs and horses, with leather furnishings, and the occasional decorative shield and halberd–"
"It stays." Gwendal's piercing eyes shot up from the page. "My mother chose it."
"Ah, I see." Günter nodded vigorously. "The will of the Maou must be respected."
"Not the Maou." Gwendal shook his head. "Mother."
"I see," Günter said again, though his tone said he did not. Then, tentatively, "When is Her Majesty returning?"
"I've no idea." Unbidden, bitterness welled up and overflowed. "And why should I know? I'm only her son."
Günter peered at him, but Gwendal kept his head down so his hair fell over his eyes. He could do nothing, however, to prevent Günter from staring at his pursed lips and clenched jaw. "Ah," Günter said. "Ah-hah."
"What are you 'ah-hah'-ing about?"
"Nothing," Gwendal looked up to find the deep lavender eyes regarding him warmly. "I understand, my lord."
"No. You don't."
"I do understand. Honestly I do."
"I doubt that," Gwendal muttered. How could anyone understand how it felt to be–
"It's a terrible thing, being overlooked." Günter said quietly.
Gwendal snorted. "And what would you know about it?"
"Ah. That's how I happened to end up teaching at that school. I went as a student, and just…stayed."
"Whatever for? If you didn't like it, why didn't you leave?"
"And go where?" Günter shrugged. "No one at home seemed to require my return."
The painful statement lay between them. Gwendal found he had no reply. They lapsed into silence.
"If it's of any consequence," Günter said at length, "I don't think Her Majesty has forgotten you."
"No? A fat lot you know, then."
"She hasn't. After all, she sent me to you, didn't she?"
"Am I supposed to thank her for that?" Gwendal replied grumpily, but Günter just smiled, as if he knew Gwendal didn't quite mean it the way it sounded.
It wasn't until much later, as he lay in bed, that Gwendal thought, Perhaps Günter does understand. At least a little.
What Gwendal had intended to be a working relationship of man and secretary (or man and servant, if he were honest about how he'd viewed Günter at the start), as time progressed became something akin to "friendship," if one squinted and didn't examine it too closely. Of course, Gwendal shared no intimacies about his family, but Günter was quite voluble about his own. The last of many children, born when his parents were quite old, he'd been raised carelessly, considered only as an afterthought to be shuttled between schools and housekeepers. No one expected much from him. But Günter did not wish to be the first failure the noble von Kleist family had ever known, and his tenacity and determination were very much in evidence. Gwendal could not help but respect him for it.
As Günter's chatter gradually was replaced by useful conversation, Gwendal was forced to admit his assistant possessed more substance than he'd originally perceived. Perhaps Günter's endless nattering had been borne of nerves; he was obviously highly strung, with emotions that skittered perilously close to the surface.
As for Gwendal's own emotions, if he frowned a little less frequently these days, or his temple throbbed on fewer occasions, he was not aware of any difference to his usual demeanor. Still, work was getting done quickly, which put him in a better temperament, and he was willing to acknowledge that Günter von Kleist was responsible for the change.
After a month there was an ease between them, and even the occasional jest, though Gwendal never responded with more than an upward quirk to his mouth when Günter uttered a clever remark. But it was a perceptible thaw in his icy countenance; in any other person, that tiny almost-smile would have been a guffaw of epic proportion. Gwendal could not, perhaps, have understood that after Conrad, Günter von Kleist had become the person closest to him in the world. But certainly since Günter's arrival the young von Walde spent less time brooding, and required fewer blistering gallops in the countryside or punishing sessions of swordplay to relieve his tension. He scarcely noticed when his mother returned to the castle.
As for the knitting, it lay untouched on a shelf behind his desk. These days Gwendal didn't need it. He was…not hating his life. In fact, it was almost enjoyable.
Spending time with Günter was enjoyable.
Though not remotely devout, Gwendal found himself wondering: had it been the hand of Shinou that brought Günter to him?
But Shinou, as usual, held no respect for the Maou's eldest son or those associated with him. A scant six weeks after that strange first meeting, Shinou – or some other troublesome force – thrust them apart. A violent rebellion erupted and Gwendal was dispatched to the front to help quash the enemy forces, leaving Günter to contend with matters of state.
Gwendal von Walde arrived at the Mazoku camp to find scores of wounded soldiers, officers arguing bitterly and the troops in disarray, all badly led by his current step-father, Lord von Bielefeld. The enemy, in a surprise move, had joined forces with the neighboring province of Great Shimaron, and together they held the upper hand. Things were in such a sorry state that for a moment Gwendal found himself missing Dan Hiri Weller. Conrad's father had been an irritant, but he had not been a fool. Even Gwendal had to admit he'd been a damn fine commander.
Gwendal's arrival was taken as a reprieve for the Maou's husband; in a matter of hours von Bielefeld had saddled his horse and with his personal bodyguards galloped back to the safety of Cherie's arms. The common soldiers were not reassured by the sudden gap in leadership, but Gwendal did not let them wallow in despair. He swiftly rounded up the surviving officers and reviewed the situation. Despite his youth, his determination and skills impressed all; they nodded in agreement as he sketched out a plan by which the ragged army could counterattack.
The officers departed in the wee hours of the morning. Gwendal lay unsleeping on his cot and stared at the moon through the tent flap. He was uneasy; not about the battle – it was after all what he'd prepared for, for years – and he wasn't concerned about the management of the kingdom – he'd left it in safe hands. But there was an emptiness within, and though he'd been away from home before, and often felt alone even when among his family, this was a more profound loneliness than he'd ever experienced before.
The problem was, despite the distant whispers of the men and the whinnying of their horses, the camp was quiet. Far too quiet.
– missed –
Gwendal tossed the blanket off and turned onto his stomach.
I don't miss him! Certainly not his incessant chatter. It's pleasant here without all that constant talk.
He turned onto his side.
But that's absurd! How can a battlefield be pleasant?
He turned onto his back and pulled the blanket up again.
Ridiculous. It's just nerves keeping me awake.
Gwendal turned on his side again, and pulled the covers over his head.
I'll get used to the quiet in time. It's about time I had some silence around me!
An hour later he was still awake.
Too damn quiet.
Dear Sir, – the letter read –
I trust all is well with you and the Army. Please remember to wear the Gloves I put in your pack, as they are made of Finest Lambskin and are Quite Warm.
I fear I have unpleasant news to relate regarding the Management of the Kingdom. No, no, do not fear, your Mother the Maou is well, as are both of your brothers. No, the unpleasantness to which I refer concerns my own position. Unfortunately, though it was your intention I continue to manage the Affairs of Shin Makoku, my Uncle the Chancellor is not in agreement.
The Chancellor, who has been content to let you, as the Maou's son, handle these affairs, apparently does not have the same faith in a former schoolmaster, even if this former schoolmaster is his own flesh and blood. Possibly because I am his own flesh and blood. Clearly he is unwilling to let me handle things without your presence. Uncle von Kleist, it seems, is a man who believes in the rule "We've Always Done It This Way Before," whereas I possess Scientific Facts and New Ideas and Ways Things May Be Improved (and Made More Attractive While Doing So), and before long we came to verbal blows. If I may so bold as to say so, I believe I am cleverer than Uncle, and certainly stronger and younger, but alas, I was no match for him. After a particularly savage argument over whether or not Shinou did, in fact, establish the right of Eminent Domain (I say it is still open to debate), he had me expelled from the Chancellor's office in a bright purple rage (his, not mine).
As I was now effectively removed from my Previous Duties, I sent him a Petition forthwith, in which I requested permission to leave the Castle and attend you at the Mazoku camp. So far my Petition has been ignored. What will follow I do not know. But please do not worry about my Situation, as yours is so much more precarious.
Please do be careful. And if you find a moment, it would ease our Hearts and Minds to hear a word or two from you.
Günter v. K.
Gwendal received the letter, but could not reply. The enemy had broken through Mazoku lines, and his military career had begun in earnest.
The rebellion seemed endless; every day brought a new skirmish or battle against an enemy who had proven more tenacious than expected. And each night, when Gwendal dragged himself back into the tent in an exhausted state, he'd find a letter sitting on his cot, the white paper as pristine as Günter himself in his white cloak.
Often Gwendal wouldn't bother to pull off his boots, or even strip off his muddied, bloodied tunic. He'd sink onto the cot, pull apart the sealing wax, and begin to read.
My dear Lord von Walde,
Apparently I have been handed over to Her Majesty the Maou – as if I were a tame dog! – for Reassignment.
Dear Sir, your mother, Her Majesty – as I need not tell you, is a person of Great Worthiness and Power. I am distressed to report I embarrassed myself Thoroughly when she received me in her chambers and immediately clutched me to her ample bosom, cooing, "Oh, Günter! Dear old Wilfred has such a beautiful nephew!Shall I make you my 'personal assistant?'"
Stammering and near to fainting (and imagining myself relegated to arranging the Maou's hair and fetching her chocolates in Perpetuity) I fortunately managed to extricate my face from between her breasts before nearly suffering a fatal nosebleed. She was quite kind, especially as I ruined several pillowcases and an exceptionally pretty lace handkerchief. I tried awfully hard to explain to her that, despite the Maou's beauty, charm and extraordinary womanliness, & etc., I am, alas, more interested in the Manlier Pursuits of life, and would prefer to be occupied thusly. But I hadn't even arrived at the point of mentioning Fencing and Swordsmanship and preferring to be sent to the front to do battle alongside Your Lordship (something I am quite ready to do, and would welcome) when she made a little moue of surprise and said, "Oh! I understand. You prefer the company of…well, never mind. Such preferences make you all the more attractive to women, you know." (I'm afraid I have no idea what she meant.) Then she asked if I knew how to dance, but without waiting for an answer, swept out of the hall on the arm of Lord von Bielefeld.
Once again I have submitted formal petitions to both the Chancellor and Her Majesty, requesting leave to go to the Front to offer what help I may. But as yet, no answer in the Affirmative is forthcoming. And so I linger here.
Much time has elapsed, and yet we have not heard if you are well. Reports reach us that the War does not go to our advantage; such news fills me with Apprehension and Concern for your well-being. Will you not assuage
my our fears by responding?
Ah. I am being called to assist with…oh dear. Your brother Wolfram.
Apparently I have fallen out of favor.
Yrs, Most sincerely,
Günter v. K.
I was informed yesterday by Her Majesty that my Duties as her "Personal" assistant also include teaching Swordsmanship to young Sir Conrad. I confess I was apprehensive; my Loathing of children is, as you know, rather profound. However, this feeling disappeared the moment Sir Conrad picked up a weapon and saluted me in perfect form. It was a Pleasant Surprise. He is a serious and engaging lad, and in my opinion, shows great Promise. But I hardly need tell you that; I know you love your brother dearly, no matter what his Heritage. It is but a reflection of your Great Love for the boy that you have such Feelings and allow them to be expressed, when it is not your nature to reveal much of what is in your Heart.
Other than my duties with Sir Conrad, my days are spent in dance lessons with Her Majesty and in tutoring your youngest brother in Court Etiquette. I hope you will forgive me if I merely state that Sir Wolfram is
an Appalling a willful and Demanding child, very unlike Sir Conrad. Very VERY unlike him. Very VERY VERY…Well. Perhaps the less said about those etiquette lessons the better.
As for Her Majesty, she's never once had me arrange her hair, though I do fetch her chocolates on a regular basis. But mine is not, after all, an unpleasant life here at court. It would be immeasurably improved, however, by your Safe Return, or at the very least a letter in your own hand assuring
us me you are alive and well. I chafe at the bonds that keep me from attending you, but I have been told in No Uncertain Terms that I am to remain here.
And so all I can do is wish you all Speed and Haste in your victory.
P.S. Do not take any unnecessary risks.
Gwendal read each letter again, as he had every morning since the arrival of the very first letter. After many weeks of being carried in battle they were torn and filthy, and the corners bore a dark brown stain, though whether it was his blood or someone else's he did not know. The letters, and the ritual reading of them each day, had become Gwendal's talisman for luck. Günter's letters felt…important, more so than the trinkets his mother sent, more than any artifact blessed by the Maiden and sent from Shinou's temple. The letters sounded exactly like Günter: too many words, too much emotion, and an appalling tendency toward hyperbole. He could hear each emphasis and inflection in Günter's voice, and imagine the undercurrents of indignation and concern that colored his thoughts. The letters reminded him of home, of prosaic things like paperwork and conversation, of his family – and of course of Günter himself. Things Gwendal missed.
Gwendal smiled slightly, smoothing the wrinkles from the packet of letters before folding it neatly and tucking it into his tunic. Poor Günter. He'd have a word – or several! – with the Chancellor when he returned.
His smile faded. If he returned. He turned to look out over the battlefield. Today. Today would see the ending, one way or the other.
Do not take any unnecessary risks.
"Sorry, Günter." Gwendal turned and reached for his horse.
The passage of time during a battle is particularly subjective. A veteran soldier knows that nothing is slower than the time spent waiting for the commencement of combat, and nothing as swift and sudden as its ending. Never does time seem real in war, and there is a disjunction between the perceived and the real that can seduce a warrior into precipitous action, especially if he believes the enemy has no fight left in him.
The battle, and the war, had turned in their favor. The rebellious army had surrendered, and only a few hard-headed stragglers remained to worry the victorious Mazoku. Possibly Gwendal misjudged his timing, or the enemy soldier moved more swiftly than he. Perhaps it was merely that the man was older and more tried in war, whereas Gwendal's actual experience was but a few weeks old. Whatever the case, he struck down the last of several assailants, shook the hair out of his eyes and wheeled his horse in triumph into the now empty field…only to find it no longer empty. His vision was suddenly filled with the battle-scarred visage of an enemy, a grizzled soldier with the countenance of a death's-head. Startled, he raised his sword to parry but his opponent feinted and thrust underneath his guard.
He went down hard from his horse, his head crashing into the earth. Blood dripped into his eyes from a gash to the forehead and ran freely from a cut to his shoulder – not a fatal wound, but one that temporarily rendered his sword arm numb. There was hard clay under his left hand, and with what remained of his senses Gwendal thought he should be doing something with the earth, something with his demon skills, but he couldn't form a coherent thought about what exactly was to be done.
"You Mazoku piece of shit!"
A heavy boot kicked the air out of his lungs. When he could again focus he saw the soldier standing above him and felt the weight of the boot on his chest. The man showed his teeth. "Fucking murderers! Who's the master now, eh?" The soldier raised his sword to spit Gwendal like a piece of meat; dazed, he attempted to roll away, but the boot pressed harder, holding him in place. "Hold still, now – don't want to cut that pretty face when I take your head!" The boot slammed into his injured shoulder. Reeling from the sharp shock of it he was too stunned to move as the man prepared to strike.
Through the red haze of pain and blood Gwendal saw something white sail through the air above him, and heard a battle cry and then the ring of sword against sword. Dimly he watched two fighters whirl in deadly combat, but it was clear from the start the figure in the impossibly white garments had the upper hand. Leaping high through the dusty air, wielding his weapon with power and grace, the fighter drove the enemy soldier down into the dirt.
A dry wind whipped across the field and Gwendal closed his eyes against the stirring dust. Close by someone screamed. The chilling sound crested and cut off as sharply as it had begun.
A shadow fell across his face. He forced open gritty lids and peered disbelievingly at the figure crouching above him.
"I asked you not to take unnecessary risks," Günter said, anger flashing in his eyes. "What were you thinking?"
"I wasn't thinking," Gwendal protested. "I was fighting–"
"Exactly my point!" Günter put a hand under Gwendal's uninjured arm and pulled him to his feet as if he weighed no more than a child. Head buzzing, shoulder throbbing, Gwendal wavered but remained upright, braced in a surprisingly powerful grip. He had a sudden flash of déjà vu: their first meeting. His chambers. Günter weak in his arms… And now their positions were reversed, which was more than disconcerting – it was frankly embarrassing.
Still, his mind kept returning to the strength and skill with which Günter had vanquished the enemy soldier– How was it possible? Where had he hidden these talents? He examined his rescuer with new interest. "Günter, you – you can fight."
"I believe I informed you of that fact some time ago, my lord," Günter sniffed. "Come now, back to camp."
"Let me go." Gwendal struggled fruitlessly against the iron grip. "I'm warning you!"
"My, my. You're really quite grouchy when you're wounded, aren't you?" Günter grabbed the reins of the grazing horse and helped Gwendal to mount, then swung up effortlessly after him. "Of course, one might observe you're grouchy nearly all the time."
"You– You–!" The vein was throbbing in his temple again, intensifying his headache. "You're being impertinent! I can have you punished for that, you know!"
"If that is your wish, my lord," Günter's mellifluous voice said in his ear. "But you'll have to wait for the Maou and my uncle to have their turn first. Now, sir, come quickly before you lose all your remaining blood."
He turned the horse and spurred it toward camp before Gwendal could sputter a rejoinder.
The Mazoku camp was loud with celebration. Even the wounded managed to lift themselves up from their pallets to share a word or two about the glory of the day. The exhausting weeks were forgotten as victorious soldiers drank, sang, reminisced and reveled in each other's company.
Many of the soldiers called to Lord von Walde as he passed, offering praise and the occasional flagon, inviting him to join their revels, but Günter urged him forward and would not let him pause even for a moment. Gwendal was grateful; he neither desired nor expected their camaraderie, and frankly was too tired to trust he would be civil.
A medical officer approached, alarmed at his bloodied countenance, but Günter waved her away. Again, Gwendal was relieved; feeling was already returning to his arm, and the headache was no more than a nuisance. In truth, he felt more tired than injured.
In his tent he sank onto the cot with relief. Günter knelt before him and began to pull off his boots. Noisy as always, he clucked and tsked at Gwendal's state.
Gwendal's head still ached, but there was something that needed clarification. "Günter."
"What did you mean, about the Chancellor and my mother punishing you?"
"Oh." Color tinged the pale cheeks, and Günter studied the boots in his hand as if they were the most fascinating objects in the universe. "It seems I, ah, left the castle without permission."
"Well, to be entirely candid, against their express orders. In fact, I was warned not to come here." He ventured a look upwards and caught Gwendal's frown. "Apparently my uncle thought I would be in the way."
"And my mother?"
"Felt I had important work to do at the Castle." The boots gone, Günter tackled the buttons of Gwendal's tunic, easing him out of it gingerly. "Important! As if teaching Sir Wolfram when not to pick up a spoon could be as important as–"
"Interfering in a battle?"
Günter's gaze shifted upwards. "Interfering? My lord! I only wanted to–"
"–Save my life?"
The flush deepened. "I wouldn't presume to say so."
"No? Then you disobeyed the Maou on a whim?"
Günter did not reply, but his eyes glittered, and his mouth tightened with the effort of holding his tongue.
"You should not have left the castle as you did," Gwendal scolded. "My brothers' lives might have depended on your presence. But–" (and oh, Shinou, but this was difficult! Words of apology or thanks had never come easily) "–but I…I thank you for doing so. When we return, I'll speak to my mother. Your indiscretion will be forgiven."
Günter's eyes flicked up and as quickly away. "Thank you, my lord."
Nothing more was said. The tunic, and then the ruined shirt, followed the boots to the floor. Günter made quick work of patching Gwendal's injuries, remaining uncharacteristically silent throughout.
Gwendal noted his silence and watched the deft hands at work. He'd never noticed before, but Günter's hands really were quite graceful and artistic. And yet these same hands had power and strength in them, and the skill to defeat a dangerous enemy. What a contradiction the man was! The foolishness, the incessant chatter – it camouflaged a core of steel. That look on Günter's face as he'd vanquished the soldier had been one of cold, deadly intent.
Günter, Gwendal reflected, fights like a soldier, even if he has the face of a saint. Günter is both strong and–
Gwendal's gaze drifted slowly upwards, from the busy fingers to the wide, expressive mouth. Günter is…
His heart was quite suddenly beating alarmingly. Surely at any moment Günter would hear the rapid pounding and comment on his state. How undignified! How mortifying!
But the lavender eyes did not look up and Günter remained focused on the bandages in his hands. He focuses so intently on his task, Gwendal thought. All his attention is on me. Always on me. As it has been from that very first day.
He didn't plan to do it, but suddenly his hands were tangling in Günter's hair. He felt a twinge in his shoulder but scarcely noted it, so intent was he on the silky strands pulling through his fingers. "Beautiful," he murmured, noting the catch of breath that came in startled response. One hand slid slowly behind Günter's neck to draw him closer.
There was a sort of inevitability to the moment. It seemed entirely correct that their lips be pressed together, that Günter's mouth would part in a little "O" of surprise, and then part again in pleasure. There was a curious rightness about how it felt when Günter's long torso leaned in to press against his bare chest. The buzzing in Gwendal's head that had begun on the battlefield faded slowly, replaced by a pleasant urgency coursing through his body.
The kiss ended. He pulled back to find Günter clutching the ends of the bandages in white-knuckled fists. "Aren't you done with that yet?" Gwendal demanded. "Because I want to–"
"–Yes, yes, I'm done," Günter panted, tossing the bandages carelessly aside. "And I want to, too –Oh, I do! Oh, but your wound–"
"Is not important right now."
"Not important," Günter agreed, nodding vigorously. "Not right now."
A muscle twitched at the corner of Gwendal's mouth.
Günter narrowed his eyes. "Are you smiling?"
"Certainly not," Gwendal said gruffly, leaning forward to capture another kiss. The kiss escalated, and he pressed Günter backwards until he sprawled on the floor atop the pile of discarded clothing.
"This…" Günter panted, "is not a comfortable arrangement. There's a boot in my back."
Gwendal kicked over the cot, inadvertently spilling the lamp onto the floor as well. In the ensuing darkness he rolled Günter over onto the messy pile of blankets and pillows. "Better?" He ducked his head to nip Günter gently below the ear. Günter moaned softly. Gwendal took that for a positive answer.
It seemed terribly unfair that Günter be clothed while he was shirtless, so he set about remedying the inequity, and shortly Günter's flawless skin lay open to his exploring hands. In haste he reached for the ties of his own trousers. Günter's eyes followed, squinting a little in the dim light, widening as the ties came undone. "Oh, my. I trust, my lord, you know how to wield your sword properly."
Gwendal hoped the dimness would hide his shaking hands, and that Günter would not realize his lack of experience. "It's all a matter of finding a good fencing partner," he said, mustering bravado.
"So it is." In the dim light, he could just make out the amusement in Günter's expression. "Should you need the occasional pointer, I'm happy to oblige."
So much for his show of confidence. "We'll see who teaches whom," Gwendal muttered. He bent down, his hair, darker than the shadows, covering Günter's pale skin, and received a shiver in response. He dropped his mouth to bite softly at a pink nipple.
Günter yelped and his legs came up to wind about Gwendal's back. "Careful…sir, ah…You'll tear your wound open." Gwendal licked a trail from his chest to his stomach and continued downward. "Never mind," Günter gasped. "I brought lots and lots of bandages."
Gwendal slid lower, and attempted to adjust his position to more advantage. But he wrenched his injured shoulder inadvertently, and for a moment desire fled in the face of pain. When the sharp edge of discomfort abated, he found Günter sitting up, looking him in the eye. "Perhaps we should stop."
"No!" He didn't mean to bellow, but he was physically at his limit, pulled between pain and pleasure. "I – I want to continue. I want you."
A flush of pleasure washed Günter's face. "Then lie back," Günter said, pushing him gently. "Let me do the work."
And so he did.
It was, as Gwendal discovered, not unlike riding his horse. But infinitely more pleasurable.
There was a fly buzzing in Gwendal's ear. It was a steady, constant buzz, quite annoying, loud enough that it interrupted his sleep. He raised a hand to swat it away, and felt a distinct twinge as his stiff shoulder protested.
The fly didn't budge, but his hand encountered something solid and warm. And though the buzzing continued, it began to form into words, words uttered in a very familiar voice:
"–Maou, of course. Oh, dear. I suppose I should have sent word immediately, but I hardly thought I'd have to tell her you acted irresponsibly, and with one thing after another, I simply forgot. And I suppose I'll have to watch my words so as not to upset her womanly sensibilities, because I wouldn't wish to–"
"My mother isn't an ordinary woman," Gwendal yawned, still half-asleep. He passed a hand over his eyes. "And I doubt you're even capable of watching your words."
An indignant huff answered him. "Grouchy when you wake as well?"
"Merely stating the obvious."
"Don't be rude, Gwendal!"
"'Gwendal,' now, is it? About that impertinence–"
"I fear, my lord," Günter said, his eyes very close and very impudent, "there's nothing to be done for it." He planted a very sweet kiss upon Gwendal's lips. "You'll just have to endure."
"Yes," Gwendal sighed, 'I suppose I shall." He was filled with an extraordinary sense of well-being that could not entirely be due to vanquishing a rebellion. He felt almost…playful. A wave of giddiness came over him. He shifted to cover Günter's body with his own, and stole a kiss, and then another. And then a third, just because he could.
"Goodness," Günter purred contentedly.
Gwendal sighed and pulled him close, his eyes growing heavy. Ah, what a pleasant sensation, to rest quietly, tangled in Günter 's arms…his lover's arms…
"The decorations will have to go, of course," Günter chirped suddenly, rousing him abruptly from his doze. "They just won't do. All those shepherdesses – Tsk! We must redecorate in leather and–"
"Fine, Günter! Leather, dogs, horses, pink elephants or what you will."
"Oh, Gwendal! It's not for me, it's for you."
Gwendal slitted open his eyes and considered the expression of innocence on the face before him. "I have a very devious person for an assistant."
Amused eyes twinkled back at him. "I certainly don't mean to be devious," said Günter with a complete lack of sincerity. "Is it a terrible problem?"
Gwendal had the unfamiliar urge to laugh out loud. "Yes," he replied, controlling himself with some effort. "It's a terrible problem. And you're entirely too noisy, to boot." He licked Günter inside the curve of an ear and received a giggling yelp in return. "Noisy."
"Too bad," Günter said, pushing a lock of hair out of Gwendal's eyes. "Because I have a great many things to say to you. So you'll just have to get used to that as well."
"I doubt I ever shall."
"Do your best."
"Hmph." He leaned down and bestowed another kiss, a rather devastating one that left both of them breathless. He quite liked kissing, as luck would have it; it certainly trounced yelling and frowning as a pleasant thing to do. The kiss over, he regarded Günter with the best frown he could muster. "One thing more. I can't have you disobeying the Maou and riding out to rescue me every time I go to battle. It makes me feel quite foolish."
"Oh dear. We don't want that."
"No. Indeed we don't."
"Well then," Günter said. "I suppose you'll just have to endure me fighting alongside you."
"Hmm," Gwendal pondered. "I wonder what Mother will say about that?"
"Personally," said Günter, looking lustfully at him through half-parted lids, "I couldn't care less about the Maou's opinion."
"Nor could I," Gwendal agreed. "Nor could I. And now, Assistant to the Acting Chancellor," he whispered in Günter's ear, "…would you care to 'assist' me again?"