It had been a long time. The usual desert storms had stalled his company's progress back to Corus. Raoul would have used the usual circuit to leave before the winter storms except for that pesky ogre problem. Raoul and his company had not been dispatched solely for that particular routing, but a knight of the Realm does his duty unasked. Jon had known him too long to think Raoul would act otherwise, in any case.
He rather wanted to stop collecting titles, though. "The Giant Killer" was embarrassing enough. He could already feel Gary's smirk if Jon decided to grant him more land in the dukedom he barely visited.
It had been a long time. Knight Gareth, the current Royal Chancellor, was sure his jaw would pop with suppressed yawns if the Royal Moneychanger didn't stop yammering soon. Knight Gareth did his best to look interested as Lord Windhurst extolled the importance of exchanges in the one thousandth percentile or else Tortall would surely lose one thousandth of its wealth.
Knight Jonathon, sitting opposite of Knight Gareth, was not duped. Jon knew Gary too well from their etiquette lessons as pages. Somehow he always managed a better face of rapt attention than Gary. Fortunately for the Royal Moneychanger, Knight Jon also knew how to keep Knight Gary's famously sharp tongue under control. Most of the time.
"That is an excellent observation, Lord Windhurst," Jon interrupted, "I'm sure Chancellor Gareth will take this proposal into serious account with the Royal Treasurer and Bookkeeper." The Lord bowed away spouting thanks. Gary covered a smile in his hands.
"Lord Windbag is deeply concerned with your treasury, Jon! You shouldn't disregard such a devoted and concerned proposal,” Gary admonished and shook his finger. “As your Chancellor, I advise you to attend many more meeting with Lord Moneybags."
Jon sat back and grinned. "What makes you think I'd disregard Windhurst's advise? As the King, I am concerned with all aspects of governance. Especially the delegation of certain duties to the Royal Chancellor and the Royal Treasurer,” Jon stretched and groaned. “We’ve been in meetings all day. I say we call for dinner.”
“Wonderful. By the way, how’s Thayet feeling?” Gary asked. He stretched and walked to the door. Jon followed and laughed, beaming as always at the mention of his wife.
“She’s as fit as an ox,” Jon replied. Gary sputtered. Queen Thayet was the most beautiful woman on this side of the Eastern Sea. Jon went on, “That fall from the horse hurt little but her pride. It’s a good thing too. Otherwise, she’d have been ordered to rest and gone with us at the meetings to bicker with Lord Windhurst.” Passing by an open window, they skirted the icy stone nearby and Jon passed closely to a torch. He was lit up, coal-black hair, renowned blue eyes, and handsome like a stalwart. For a change, Gary did not wonder at one of Raoul’s choices.
Through a courtyard and into an antechamber, the snowy wind blasted them. Gary felt it slick up his sandy hair and turn his ears red. Cold weather was not especially flattering to the Naxen lineage. Jon simply looked ruffled and charming. Even for a king, Jon was impressively charismatic. Jon nodded at the serving maid in the antechamber. She blushed and curtsied out of the room. Jon laughed again.
It was still a little early for the royals’ meal. No one else had come down yet, but some would undoubtedly order meals in their rooms instead. There were no lackadaisical Tortall nobles in the castle. Gary liked the work, as long as it was historical agricultural yields and inventory counting and economic forecasts, not the jumble of councils that went along with a Chancellor position. He barely sparred anymore as a knight in the capital. Traveling knights had all the fun.
Suddenly, Jon looked smug and folded his arms. “Had your ear to the ground lately?” he asked. Gary wondered what in the realm he was talking about.
“Not a bit,” he replied. “Not even because some practiced knight has unseated me while tilting. Why?” Gary missed tilting, actually. He should schedule in some weekly sessions, just to keep sharp.
When did he even start to think of scheduling time for swordwork? Gary despaired for his doomed muscles. He would be flabby in a year, no doubt. Raoul would knock him over like a bale of hay when they next met.
Gary tapped his fingers against a panel and asked, “What have I missed? Alanna done something heroic and terrifying again? Did she beat the Scanran army with one hand tied behind her back?”
Jon wrinkled his brow and chose to sit on a bench. Carefully, he stretched out his leg muscles,“Hopefully not. We’re renewing negotiations with them in the spring, remember? For an extension of emergency aid. The new emperor can’t patch up everything Ozorne and Daine did, and now they have all those flesh-eating unicorns to worry about.”
Gary winced and backtracked, “I’m sorry, I did forget. Can’t seem to like them, still, what with all the Scanran pirates. You’re sure the new emperor won’t start raiding again?”
Jon finished stretching and his expression darkened. “Positive. Daine wouldn’t lie about his character. We still have the Jewel, so we’d know if the emperor was planning anything.” A serious Jon was a newer side to him, one Gary never saw when they were pages. Kingship and war had changed him. Gary knew it and liked it, but he was glad Raoul knew it too.
Gary smiled, honest and admiring. “We would know, your highness?”
Jon’s mouth twitched upwards. “Well, I would know. I am king, after all. There should be some benefits to the title,” he said, but a little glum, a little bit of something else tinged his voice. Soft. Sad. Heavy. The door to the antechamber opened, and a bevy of nobles entered.
“Speaking of the Jewel,” he said, only half-failing a smile this time, “it likes to show me other things. Raoul’s coming back sooner than we thought.”
Jon accompanied the other nobles into the dining hall, and Gary stayed, fingers frozen to the wooden panel.
It was entirely normal, Raoul reminded himself, to be whipped by cold wind and snow and ice in northern Tortall during the winter. It was entirely normal to clod through northern Tortall mud and frost in the winter. It was entirely normal that some people liked this kind of weather, but clearly it was also normal for some people to be insane. Raoul could not believe how unused to the cold he’d gotten. His men, as accustomed to the southern desert as Raoul, had been overjoyed to be back. They lobbed snowballs at each other. They sang winter songs. On horseback, Raoul had told his company’s captain to take his singing somewhere else or he’d be dumped in the next snow dam.
“Yes, Sir Knight, but then we’ll both be wet and cold!” the captain had yelled. Raoul, broader and taller than the man by head and shoulders, had flipped the captain off his mount and trotted away none the worse. Even the captain’s mare hadn’t minded a wet rider.
It was possible Raoul was a bit uncomfortable, perhaps ungracious. He bought the captain a drink at the next inn. He’d almost gotten a drink himself, just to warm up, but had turned down the drink and the serving girl. It was better not to start again at all.
Now inside Corus, they were met with the occasional wave and cheer. These squadrons of roaming units were more common after the war to help reconstruction, maintain law, and protect against brigands, and they were generally welcomed by the people. In the capital of Tortall, only a parade of exotics could impress the citizens, not a band of weary south posters.
Ah, home. He’d missed it more than he thought. He’d like it even more when summer came.
He’d feel best when he got his bulky hide off a damn horse for more than a few hours. True, the life of a traveling knight was exciting when it wasn’t boring, difficult when it wasn’t tedious, and hard on the body all around. Riding up to the castle with his company, Raoul thought of a hot bath and a cold bed, and shuddered.
After dispatching the company, Raol remained in the stable checking out the horses and talking to the new stable boy. He was one of Stefan’s boys, so the mounts were in good hands. Abruptly the straw-scratched boy swept off his hat and bobbed to someone behind him. Raoul turned as the boy scampered to the loft.
“It’s been a long time,” Raoul began.
“Not that long.”
“You know, I usually am!”
They grinned at each other for a bit. “Come on Raoul, tell us a story over dinner,” Gary shone, all gleeful eyes, and clapped him on the arm.
“You’ve already had dinner. It’s nearly eight o’clock,” Raoul teased. It was strange, Gary seemed thinner. What had he been doing except lazing about the castle?
Gary was indignant when he mentioned it. “Lazing! Hardly. Do you know the amount of work it takes to catalogue the harvest quotas? I only have two assistants for the whole blasted kingdom, and that’s not even considering all the haggling with landlords. In meetings. Always more meetings,” Gary moaned. Raoul wasn’t fooled; Gary was shining, alight, and the man shoved another loaf at him. Raoul had half a pheasant at his elbow and a plate of victuals on the kitchen table. He did not look at the wine. The cook shook her head at the two huge men in her kitchen and shooed them to the far end of it.
“Such a welcome home,” Raoul muttered, and Gary slapped his shoulder.
“Not even! We haven’t started welcoming you yet,” Gary threw back his drink and sighed, rubbing his fingers along the tabletop. “Jon will see you as early as possible tomorrow morning and assign you something right off. Your proper welcome will be meetings, of course, to council the barons near the south on how not to insult the Bahzir or something similar.”
Raoul snorted in his face. Gary grinned some more. “I didn’t say the work was pretty, but now you have warning. Welcome back, Raoul of Goldenlake.”
“I’m glad to have it, Gareth of Naxen,” he replied. Gary was still himself, after all. Raoul had worried. There was no oddness, though, only that fine comfort settling in his chest.
Once the plates were cleared (“You knights eat like your horses!” exclaimed the cook) the cook kicked them out into the castle halls. That bedeviled cold would be the end of him. Raoul buttoned up his jacket and shoved his hands in the pockets. Here it comes. He braced himself.
Gary let loose. “Now the heroic Giant Killer shows his true self. He’s fine fighting a ten-foot creature, but give him a little frost and his courage shrivels. Did you request the desert circuit out of bravery or cowardice?” Gary bumped shoulders with him and made a show of his unbuttoned vest.
Raoul felt a little wickedness curl in. “I don’t know, but I do not keep myself tied in a castle day and night like some knights. Do you think you’ve gone soft, Gary?”
“Nothing of me is soft, Raoul,” Gary finished with bared teeth. Raoul leaned in to grin and their chests brushed. The moment turned, and they were standing very close in the echoing hall. They’d stopped outside Gary’s suite. He was struck again by how tall Gary was, barely shorter then him, a rare thing. Long memory resounded; he’d grown up with Gary. He knew this man. He’d thought he knew this man.
The irregular light pulled on Gary’s face, but Raoul could recognize the familiar features: coarse hair to the ears, sharp eyes, wind-scalded skin and firm mouth. He looked up at Raoul with barely a lift of the chin, a little sad, a little concerned. “You haven’t told me your story yet,” Gary said.
“Should I?” Raoul asked, quietly. Gary looked good, but still thinner than he remembered. He was still worried. If anyone knew Gary’s body, it was him. Carefully, Raoul lifted a hand and slid his palm over Gary’s, a rough handclasp, and moved to under his forearm to his elbow. Gary breathed out, leaned, and searched for his room key one-handed. Next to his jaw, Raoul felt him smile.
“If you want to know, I haven’t been holding any unofficial meetings.”
“Not that I used to meet anyone before.”
“It’s not like I do this every day.”
“Gary. Be. Quiet.” A huff on Raoul’s neck and he shivered. The door clicked open.
“…yessir. Have you learned a taste for authority on the road? I never knew. I’m shutting up now.”
“How were the meetings? I haven’t seen you all day. You’d think we’d have one or two of the same duties, being knights in the castle and all.” Gary peered over his stack of magistrate documents at him, ink smudged along his nose. Raoul decided not to mention it.
Taking off his boots, he winced. “I have been discussing Bahzir land ordinances with the barons near the desert. They were very polite and asked me tell them about killing giants in the north,” Raoul responded and peeled off his shirt. They had also sat in rapt attention concerning desert taxes and bristled at the reminder to maintain the upkeep of the desert wells. Pinchpenny barons gave him a headache.
“Well what did you expect? Administrative knighthood is full of split words. It’s a different kind of parrying. Sorry to disappoint.” Gary huddled back under the pile on the desk. Raoul crouched up in bed. The fireplace light flickered over the desk and revealed one of Gary’s splayed legs.
“I’m not disappointed,” Raoul said. He could hear paper crinkling, but he couldn’t see Gary’s face at all.
“Gary? Come to bed.”
“Alright, in a minute.”
“I’m here, I’m here.”
Years ago, Gary had stopped drinking the moment he needed to knock Raoul unconscious in front of a tavern. The owner hadn’t liked something about Raoul, and a year later Raoul decided he didn’t like it either. Raoul was a good knight, and a good knight does his duty.
“Gary, I’m coming back.” Raoul was across from Gary, candle wax spilling on his sleeve. “The circuit is coming back in midwinter. I’ll be back for the festival this time.”
Raoul reached out and grasped Gary’s fingers in hand. His skin was leathery from the desert sun and burned from the northern cold. Raoul hadn't unseated Gary nearly as many times while tilting as he’d anticipated. Gary’d had too many years of practice to fall off easily, or maybe just too many years tilting with Raoul. Raoul was good, one of the best practical knights, and famous for it. He was The Giant Killer. He was a knight.
Gary was a knight, too.
“I know. You’re coming back.” Gary pulled in Raoul’s fingers, slid across the palm, and held his wrist. There was nothing more to say. It had been a long time.