Cyril Beck was not familiar with Elves. He knew of them, of course; everyone who'd ever been to a music hall or to the pictures, or who'd read a novel, knew of Elves. They were either flippant and vain or tired and dull, steeped in meaningless tradition and singers of endless ballads. As the catchphrase from the wireless went: "Does this remind you of yet another song, Tafty?"
When it came to real Elves, however, Cyril had only met two. The first, he was assured by his mother, had been called Mr Brin, and had lived in the village Cyril had grown up in for as long as his mother could remember. "Oh," she would say, "he was so good to everyone. And to see the way he used to bounce you on his knee!" Cyril had been too young to remember him, and all he had left were vague memories of golden hair, the smell of tobacco, and the feel of tuppence in his hand to go buy sweets from the local shop. That had been long ago. Mr Brin had enlisted in the army in 1916 when Cyril was only four years old; he had been killed in France a few months later and only a few weeks before Cyril's father had gone the same way.
The only other Elf that Cyril had known was Professor Duy at Oxford. Duy had never taught Cyril when Cyril had been studying there, but they had sometimes crossed paths in the quad or during common hall. Aside from a polite 'good morning' every now and again, Cyril had hardly spoken to him. Everyone in the college had known Professor Duy to be aloof and solitary, far preferring his books of Elvish theology to any company. Dressed in his academic robes or in traditional Elvish tunics, Duy, with his long hair and dour expression, had almost been a caricature of himself.
Other than those two, Cyril knew no Elves. He found that people of an older generation often spoke of Elves and reminisced about their old antics, but none of Cyril's contemporaries, as far as he was aware, had had much contact with them. It seemed almost as if, in the past decade or two, all the Elves in Britain had slowly and inexplicably moved away, until, walking the streets of London, you were more likely to see a Chinaman than you were to see an Elf.
All of this meant that when it came to Elves, Cyril was inexperienced to the point of ignorance, which made it doubly shocking that he had been called into Sir Herbert's office at ten o'clock that morning to talk about relations with the Elvish Embassy.
As a junior civil servant at the War Office, Cyril was very rarely in the presence of Sir Herbert Creedy, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for War, and so Cyril was particularly nervous to find himself in Sir Herbert's office that morning, sitting in front of Sir Herbert's large, oak desk.
Sir Herbert himself was busy scanning the contents of a letter, leaving Cyril to sit and wonder why on earth he was there.
With a sniff, Sir Herbert scratched a note at the bottom of his letter and placed it in a tray on his desk. Then he looked up and his eyes creased in a small smile. "Mr Beck, I'm sorry to call you away from your work. And, vital as it has been, I think you will agree that what I have lined up for you is of far greater importance."
Cyril nodded, feeling more at a loss than ever but desperate not to put a foot wrong and risk losing what appeared to be some sort of promotion. "You said this was about the Elvish Embassy, sir?"
"Yes." Sir Herbert straightened his cuffs. "Have you ever been to Aelfland, Mr Beck?"
Cyril shook his head. "No, sir."
"Not a problem." Sir Herbert waved a hand and settled himself back in his chair. "Not a problem." He looked at Cyril. "Do you read the papers? Watch the news reels?"
Sir Herbert hummed. "And do you believe them?"
"I..." Cyril stumbled, not sure what answer he was supposed to give. "I believe parts of them, sir."
Sir Herbert laughed at that. "Good. Good. Of course you don't believe all of them. If anybody working in this Ministry did, I'd be very shocked." He opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a sheet of newsprint. "Now," he passed it to Cyril, "what do you make of this?"
Cyril glanced over it and found that he recognised it instantly; it was a cutting from the Times that had been published the week before. The headline proudly stated: All Britain's Peoples, Working Together. Underneath, the gist of the article, as Cyril remembered it, was about the strengthening of the armed forces through pledges of assistance from the Elves, the Mountain Men and the Dragons of the North East.
A fleet of dragons had arrived in London last week, Cyril knew that much; he'd helped to arrange their transport. He looked at Sir Herbert. "Is this not true, sir?"
"Well," Sir Herbert reached across and took back the article, "it's not so much a falsehood as an embellishment, Mr Beck." He spread the article out on the desktop and looked down at it. "We have the Dragons on board, of course, and a contingent of the Mountain Men begin their training next week, but the Elves..." He looked at Cyril. "To be frank, Mr Beck," he said, "the Elves have refused to help us in any way whatsoever."
"Oh." Cyril hadn't realised that the relations between Britain and Aelfland were so bitter. "I didn't think..."
"No. Of course not." Sir Herbert straightened his cuffs again. "This has all been very hush hush. The last thing we want is for the general public to find out we don't have the Elves on our side." He sighed. "I think we both know, Mr Beck, that another war with Germany is almost inevitable at this stage and may well be upon us before the year is out. Without the Elves on our side we are going to be highly compromised; God knows, it was their help that saw us through the last war. If word got out that we didn't have them on our side this time, why, the public would think we were a lost cause."
Cyril felt his mouth going dry. "Yes, sir."
Sir Herbert leaned forwards. "To be honest with you, I believe we will be a lost cause without them. If you hear some of the rumours about the magics Hitler is mustering in Germany... Well." He sat back in his chair. "Which brings me to my point. It's imperative that we get the help of Aelfland; their refusal is not an option. And this is where you come in."
Cyril's voice came out higher than he meant for it to. "Me, sir?"
"Yes," said Sir Herbert enthusiastically. "Yes. It's bright young people such as yourself that we need to pep up the negotiations. I've had my eye on you for a while now, Mr Beck, and you're just the sort of man we need. Ambassador Gwion from the Elvish Embassy is a stubborn old fool and refuses to even take our request to the Elvish Parliament. He says they'll reject it outright anyway, so he needn't bother them with it." Sir Herbert snorted. "The man is a devil and neither ourselves nor the Foreign Office have been able to reason with him."
Goodness. Cyril had no experience with negotiations and even less with Elves. He was grateful that Sir Herbert saw promise in him, but if the Ambassador was as stubborn as he sounded, Cyril didn't trust his chances. "I will try my hardest, sir," he said, trying to muster what little confidence he had.
"You will be able to bring a fresh viewpoint and that's exactly what's needed here." Sir Herbert pulled his watch out of his pocket and checked it. "I don't need to tell you that this is of the utmost importance; if we go to war without the Elves, who knows how much damage will be done." He looked at Cyril, putting his watch away. "Your current duties will be suspended immediately; Mr Aston can take over them for now. I want you to head over to the Elvish Embassy and reinstate the negotiations as soon as possible."
"I..." Cyril nodded, taking a deep breath. "Yes, sir."
"Good." Sir Herbert's eyes creased in another smile, then he turned back to the papers on his desk. "Good morning to you, Mr Beck."
The Elvish Embassy, as Cyril found out later that morning, was situated in Belgrave Square. It wasn't too far from Whitehall, and so Cyril had decided to walk there.
A breeze pranced through the air around him but the day was warm nonetheless. By the time Cyril had felt prepared enough to set off for the Embassy it had been one o'clock in the afternoon and he found the height of the summer sun bearing down upon the streets. Cyril wished that he were able to take off his jacket, or even his waistcoat, but it was highly important that he look smart to meet the Ambassador; he may only know what he had been able to study up on in the past few hours, but he could at least look the part.
Turning into Belgrave Square, the large stucco-fronted houses were almost blinding in their whiteness. Cyril shaded his eyes with his hand and, looking about himself, found the Elvish flag flying from a building at the corner of the square. From the outside, the Embassy appeared dauntingly large. With his heart beating in his throat, Cyril steeled himself and walked over.
A few moments after pulling the doorbell, the door to the Embassy was opened by a serious-looking Elf wearing a traditional, Elvish-style livery.
"Cyril Beck from the War Office," said Cyril, taking off his hat and trying to sound like he frequented embassies daily. "I'm here to see Ambassador Gwion."
Without a word, the footman gestured for Cyril to step inside and then ushered him through a large, open entrance hall to an equally large room off to one side. There, Cyril was left alone.
With nothing else to do, Cyril sat down on one of the sofas facing an ornate fireplace. The room, with its high ceiling, plush carpet and extravagant plasterwork, looked more British than Elvish. In fact, if it weren't for the portrait of the Elvish King in his traditional robes on the wall, Cyril would have doubted that he were in the Elvish Embassy at all.
He hadn't been waiting more than two minutes when he heard the sharp clip of footsteps coming from the entrance hall. Cyril was surprised to find, however, when the door opened, that the footsteps didn't belong to the footman or to the Ambassador but instead to a young woman in a blue suit who, surprisingly, appeared to be British.
Cyril stood up to greet her.
"Mr Beckett, is it?" she asked, crossing the room and shaking Cyril's hand. "From the War Office?"
"Beck," corrected Cyril. "Cyril Beck, yes. I'm here to speak to the Ambassador."
She nodded. "Of course. I shall tell the Ambassador that you're here. Have a seat; I'll not be a moment." And with that she left the room again, her heels clipping onto the floor of the entrance hall as she passed through the door.
Cyril sat down again, trying to take everything in his stride. He looked out of the window to the green trees in the middle of Belgrave Square and rubbed his palms on his trouser legs.
A few minutes later, the clip clip of the woman's shoes returned, along with the sound of voices.
"Is that all, sir?" Cyril heard her say as she approached the door.
"One more thing, Miss Collins," replied a deep voice in a well-educated, English accent.
The door opened at that moment and the young woman entered alongside a tall gentleman in a grey, double-breasted suit. It took Cyril a moment to realise that, despite the perfect English accent and the British style of dress, this gentleman was Elvish. His pale hair was short in the British fashion and slicked back, showing ears that had a distinctive Elvish point to them. With the way he held himself, there was no doubt that this was the Ambassador.
Hastily, Cyril stood up.
"Tell Mr Spencer that I can't see him until Tuesday," the Ambassador continued, pausing with his hand on the door-handle. "I'm waiting on a reply from Breninwg."
"Yes, sir." Miss Collins jotted something down in a small notepad then turned and headed back out into the entrance hall.
The Ambassador crossed the room. "You must be Cyril Beck from the War Office." He held out his hand with a tight, forced smile. "Pleased to meet you."
"Ambassador Gwion," said Cyril. The Ambassador's grip was strong and firm and, for a moment, Cyril had to struggle to keep his thoughts together.
This was nothing like Cyril had imagined it to be. He had expected the Ambassador to look more Elvish than this; to be in an Elvish tunic, with his hair long and his face wise with years. The Ambassador, however, with his clipped accent and smart suit, looked every inch a British gentleman and hardly appeared a day over 25 years old. His Elvishness was only apparent in his features; his ears, his fine, pale hands, and such a sharp, Elvish elegance in his face that Cyril could barely look away.
The Ambassador's smile faded as quickly as it had appeared. He glanced down to Cyril's feet, then back up. "I suppose Sir Herbert has sent you," the Ambassador said.
"Ah. Yes," answered Cyril, trying to regain his composure. He thought he'd weaned himself off of these unhealthy longings towards men in the first years of university, but it appeared that his resolve was no match for a face as beautiful as this. Cyril cleared his throat. "I was..."
"Of course," said the Ambassador, sounding rather weary, his mouth turning down. He looked to the window with a sigh.
Cyril watched him, concerned that the meeting wasn't getting off to a good start. "Ambassador Gwion..."
With a small huff, the Ambassador brightened suddenly. He gave Cyril a smile that almost took Cyril's breath away. "Mr Beck, I'm terribly sorry, but I don't have the time to meet with you right now." He looked Cyril in the eye. "If you're able to wait, I will be free to speak to you this evening over dinner."
"Certainly," said Cyril, trying not to stumble over the words. "It can wait until this evening."
"Wonderful; we shall talk it over then. Dinner is served at seven." The Ambassador gave Cyril one last smile before crossing the room to the door. "Good day to you, Mr Beck. I'll have Miss Collins show you out."
Cyril spent the rest of the walk back to Whitehall feeling very confused indeed. They had only met for the briefest of moments but in that time the Ambassador had seemed to blow both hot and cold with the same breath.
Sir Herbert Creedy had called Ambassador Gwion 'a stubborn old fool' and 'a devil' and it was very likely that the Ambassador wouldn't welcome talks about procuring Aelfland's help in the upcoming war. Yet the Ambassador had changed so quickly and had seemed genuinely pleased to invite Cyril to dinner. Perhaps he hadn't known why Cyril wished to talk to him, or perhaps, as Cyril thought, he wasn't as stubborn as Sir Herbert had made him out to be; he certainly didn't look like an 'old fool' by any means.
And how different he had been to what Cyril had been expecting. The elves in the plays and the shows that Cyril had seen had never looked so well-tailored, and the actors playing them had always given them soft, lilting Elvish accents, not the clipped English accent that the Ambassador had used.
Above everything, Cyril tried not to dwell on how beautiful the Ambassador had looked. Those sorts of thoughts were far from desirable.
As Cyril was entering the War Office he ran into Sir Herbert, who was on his way out.
"Mr Beck." Sir Herbert's eyes lit up. "Back from the Elvish Embassy already?"
"Yes." Cyril removed his hat. "The Ambassador had no time to talk. He asked me to go back for dinner instead."
"Perfect." Sir Herbert brushed down one of his sleeves. "Perfect. The Ambassador likes to do business over dinner. You can often find a few dignitaries at his table." Sir Herbert looked at Cyril. "Do you have anything to wear?"
Cyril hadn't thought of that. Suddenly concerned, he realised that his old dinner jacket, passed down to him from an uncle, probably wasn't fit for dinner at an Embassy.
Sir Herbert must have read the look on Cyril's face. "Not a problem," he said. "Go out now and buy yourself a new dinner jacket. You can put it on the War Office account." He put on his hat and turned to go. "And don't worry about the expense; it's vital that you make a good impression."
"Yes, sir," called Cyril after him, bewildered at just how he had managed to get a new job and a new suit from Sir Herbert, all in the space of one day.
The sun was still shining when Cyril returned to the Embassy that evening, although a low group of clouds was gathering in the west on the far side of the square. His new suit felt rather stiff, but he had to admit that he looked possibly smarter than he had ever done before.
Cyril stepped up to the door of the Embassy and pulled the doorbell. A few moments later, the door was opened by the same footman he'd seen earlier in the day.
Just as Cyril stepped through into the entrance hall, Miss Collins, footsteps as quick as ever but carrying a handbag this time, entered from another door.
"Good evening, Mr Beck," she said as she spotted him.
"Good evening," replied Cyril, watching as she made her way to the front door. "You're not dining with us?"
Miss Collins smiled at him. "Not us office girls, no." She nodded to the footman as he held the door open for her. "Goodnight, Hova. Enjoy dinner, Mr Beck," and with that, she left.
After shutting the door behind her, the footman led Cyril up the grand staircase in the entrance hall and into a drawing room that appeared to be just as British as the rest of the building. Standing there in his Elvish-style livery and with his long Elvish hair, the footman appeared almost out of place amongst their surroundings. He took Cyril's hat and then disappeared back the way he had come.
The Ambassador, who had been sitting by the window in the drawing room, stood and walked over. He shook Cyril warmly by the hand. "Good evening, Mr Beck. Forgive me for not offering you a drink, but I believe the dinner bell is about to be rung any moment."
Cyril nodded, lost for words for a moment. The Ambassador, who had cut a smart figure in his grey, double-breasted suit earlier in the day, looked painfully elegant in evening-wear. Dressed in black, he was otherworldly, his blond hair pale enough to look almost white, and the light from the window glancing across his cheekbones. Cyril forced himself to look elsewhere and desperately tried to concentrate.
A brief survey of the room suggested that he and the Ambassador were alone. "Where are the other members of our party?" asked Cyril in an attempt at conversation.
"Hm?" said the Ambassador. "Oh, there is no-one else. I was going to dine by myself tonight. It'll make it far easier for us to have a discussion."
Cyril looked back to the Ambassador and was surprised to find him staring at the mantelpiece with a melancholy sort of expression on his face. For a moment, Cyril wasn't sure what to make of it, but then the dinner bell rang and the Ambassador brightened almost immediately. Without a word, he took Cyril by the elbow and walked him through into the dining room next door.
The oaken oval dining table would have seated about ten people. Cyril and the Ambassador sat on one side of it, leaving the rest of the table rather empty. The food itself was very good, rich, and far more elaborate than anything the landlady of Cyril's lodging house would serve.
They made only light conversation at first, with Cyril very aware of the proximity of the Ambassador but trying not to be affected by it. Finally, when the footman had just served the main course and was turning on the lights around the room, Cyril forced himself to get down to business.
"Ambassador Gwion," he said. "About my visit today. I'm certain you've..."
"No. No," the Ambassador cut him off. "There will be plenty of time to talk about this after dinner. Please, let's not talk about it now."
"Oh." Cyril looked at him, confused. "Certainly. If that's what you prefer."
"Instead, I would like to learn more about you," continued the Ambassador amiably. "I thought I knew most of the senior staff at the War Office, but I've never met you before."
Cyril flushed without meaning to, very self-conscious of just how junior he'd been at the War Office until that morning. However, the Ambassador was watching him with no hint of scorn, and it was encouraging enough that Cyril decided to tell the truth.
"I'm not a senior member of staff at the War Office," confessed Cyril. "I work mostly with transport; moving the troops to where they need to go." He attempted to smile. "At least I did until this morning."
"This morning?" asked the Ambassador.
"This morning when I was tasked with visiting the Elvish Embassy," clarified Cyril.
"Oh," replied the Ambassador, not seeming surprised at all. He took a sip of wine. "And where do you come from when you're not at the War Office?"
Cyril busied himself with his meal. "I live south of the river," he said, not wishing to give away quite how much his lodgings were at odds with his new suit.
"Mm." The Ambassador put down his wine glass. "I meant: where do you come from? Where did you grow up? You certainly didn't grow up in London."
Cyril frowned at that. He hadn't thought he had a discernible accent, so how the Ambassador had known he wasn't from London was beyond him. "I come from Oxfordshire originally," agreed Cyril. He wiped his mouth with his napkin and looked at the Ambassador. "I grew up in a small village. Not too far from Bicester if you know it."
The Ambassador's eyes crinkled. "I thought so. I could see it on you."
"You could..." Cyril stared at him. "Do you know Oxfordshire well?"
"I know most places well." The Ambassador shrugged his shoulders. "I have become acquainted with Britain over the years." Then he leaned across, held his hand above Cyril's and looked Cyril in the eye. "May I?"
Cyril tried not to become flustered. The Ambassador was close enough that Cyril could see his pale eyelashes, but he certainly couldn't be asking what Cyril suddenly found himself hoping for. Cyril cleared his throat awkwardly. "Of course."
The Ambassador smiled and clasped Cyril's hand in his own. Then he hummed a little and closed his eyes.
Cyril tried not to gasp as his hand under the Ambassador's glowed with a sudden warmth that went straight through him.
"Ah." The Ambassador's lips parted. "Yes. I know that place. I know it very well. The earth and the trees. I have old friends there."
Cyril found himself thinking back to Mr Brin of his childhood. Of tobacco smoke and golden hair. "Do you mean...?"
"Does the stone still stand at the brook to the east of the village?" asked the Ambassador, ducking his head until the bridge of his nose nearly touched their joined hands.
Cyril watched him, fascinated. "Yes."
"And the old oak with the blackened branch. Near the holloway. Does she still stand?"
Cyril nodded, the warm glow tingling up his arm. "Yes."
The Ambassador hummed happily. "I thought so. I can feel her in you."
"You can feel...?"
The warm glow stopped as quickly as it had started, leaving Cyril's hand feeling almost cold in comparison. The Ambassador opened his eyes and sat back, picking up his knife and fork again.
Cyril watched him eat, confused as to what had just happened, but his heart racing anyway. "I'm sorry," he said, "but what was...?"
The Ambassador raised his eyebrows. "You don't know? Oh, you are young as a sapling, Mr Beck. The places you live," he said, as if explaining something obvious, "leave a mark on you, just as you leave a mark on them." He pushed a piece of carrot onto his fork. "I could see your village on you, but I am able to discern more if I feel it."
"Oh," said Cyril, shocked. "I didn't realise..." He picked up his own knife and fork. "Does it normally feel that warm when you...?"
"You've not seen any Elvish magic before, have you, Mr Beck?" asked the Ambassador.
Cyril gave a rueful laugh. "Is it so obvious? If I have seen any, I don't remember it now. And I think I would have remembered it if I had. That was. Well. That felt... very pleasant."
The Ambassador stared at him for long enough that Cyril's mouth ran dry.
"Do you..." Cyril fumbled for words. "Do you do much magic, Ambassador?"
"Not on a day-to-day basis, no," said the Ambassador. "But if you're asking what magic I can do if I should choose to," he looked at Cyril and grinned, "I can do a little."
"Ah." Cyril felt himself flushing again. The food was good, certainly, but if the Ambassador were to keep staring at him like that, Cyril felt as if he could be in danger of forgetting the meal completely.
Thankfully, the Ambassador had turned back to his own plate and changed the subject. "And I see you studied at Oxford."
"Yes," said Cyril, grateful to talk about his studies. "Yes I did."
Dessert was as pleasant as the rest of the meal. Cyril found he spent it describing his early life and his route into the civil service. The Ambassador seemed interested by all of it: the places Cyril had been and the people he had met. And all the while Cyril talked, the Ambassador watched him and smiled and was so captivating that Cyril could feel himself drawing his chair closer to the Ambassador's against his best intentions.
Cyril watched as the Ambassador leaned back from the table for the footman to take away his plate.
"And what about yourself?" asked Cyril. "Where do you come from?"
The Ambassador laughed. "I have lived in many places over the years. I think it is impossible to say that I come from just one of them." He glanced at Cyril. "I assume you have never been to Aelfland, Mr Beck?"
"No," said Cyril, feeling a little guilty for it.
"There is time yet," said the Ambassador. He stood and touched Cyril on the shoulder. "Let's retire to the drawing room."
Once back in the drawing room, the Ambassador offered Cyril a glass of port and a cigar.
Leaning against the mantelpiece, the Ambassador lit his own cigar then shook out the match and threw it into the fireplace. Taking a long draw from the cigar, he then took it out of his mouth and studied the end of it as the white smoke curled out from between his lips. Everything about the action, indeed his whole demeanour, seemed so British that Cyril couldn't refrain from commenting on it any longer.
"If you don't mind me saying," said Cyril, from where he was sitting on the sofa, "for the Elvish Ambassador, you don't seem very Elvish."
The Ambassador raised his eyebrows and Cyril gestured at the room around them to emphasise his point.
"Other than your footman," said Cyril, "I feel as if I'm in the home of an English gentleman."
The Ambassador laughed heartily at that. "You have found me out, Mr Beck." He walked over and sat beside Cyril on the sofa. "I learnt long ago that if one wishes to be listened to by an Englishman, one must first look and act like an Englishman."
"Oh," said Cyril. "I see. When in Rome..."
"Precisely," the Ambassador smirked. "When in Rome, act like an Englishman."
It was Cyril's turn to laugh at that.
"Besides," continued the Ambassador, taking another draw from his cigar, "I have a certain penchant for your English culture." He looked Cyril in the eye. "I suppose you could call me an 'Anglophile'."
Cyril couldn't help himself; he found himself holding the Ambassador's gaze for entirely too long. It was only by remembering the cigar in his hands that he was able to force himself to look away.
"Ah," said Cyril, staring at the drawn curtains. He cleared his throat. "Have you lived here for very long?"
The Ambassador leaned back and crossed an ankle over his knee. "I have acted as Elvish Ambassador since you were playing along the holloway in short trousers, Mr Beck." He grinned at Cyril. "And I had lived in Britain for a time before that."
"What made you..." started Cyril, then he stopped. "Forgive me, Ambassador. I've been asking so many questions." He tapped the ash from the end of his cigar into the ashtray. "I've never had the chance of a proper conversation with an Elf before; it's made me forget all my manners."
The Ambassador waved a hand. "Never apologise for curiosity, Mr Beck." He took a sip of his port. "I happen to find it charming."
"Oh." Cyril stared at him.
"Please," said Cyril, after a moment, "call me Cyril. You seem to have already found out the details of my childhood, so I can hardly stand on formalities."
"I am only able to see the places that left a great imprint on you, Cyril." Amusement danced in the Ambassador's eyes. "Nothing more. However," he took another draw from his cigar, the smoke curling elegantly upwards, "if I am to call you Cyril, then you must call me by my given name too. Call me Gwion, please."
"Certainly. I..." Cyril paused. "Oh." He frowned at Gwion. "I had thought Gwion was your surname."
Gwion shook his head. "When you live as long as we do," he said, studying the end of his cigar, "you find that it is more fitting to be known by your own name, rather than by that of your father." He gave Cyril a sidelong glance. "If you are interested, my full name is Gwion Abithel Abhir; those being the names of my father and his father before him."
Cyril's mouth had fallen open. He'd heard Elvish names and Elvish words before, but rarely issued from an Elvish mouth. The contrasts between Gwion's clipped accent when he spoke English and the soft, musical tones he used to voice the Elvish names were stark enough to be beautiful.
"If my full name was as pleasant on the ears as yours," said Cyril without even thinking, "I would use it all the time." He looked at Gwion. "Could you say some more Elvish? I would love to hear it."
Gwion gave the ceiling a rueful smile for a moment. "Certainly." He leaned forward and rested his cigar on the ashtray. "What do you suggest I say?"
"Anything you like," said Cyril. "I imagine you could list what you ate for breakfast and it would still be beautiful."
Gwion glanced at Cyril and sat back, lips quirking. "Perhaps. But perhaps this will be more to your tastes." Then, closing his eyes, he started talking in Elvish. Or rather, Cyril had thought he was talking at first, but as Gwion continued, the words formed into a long, melodic chant, lilting up and down in a slow rhythm. To Cyril, it was one of the most beautiful things he'd ever heard, despite not being able to understand a word of it. And it was all the more powerful to see Gwion's face as he spoke, his pale eyelashes trembling against his cheeks, his lips moving and the lights catching on his pale hair.
There was no time for thought in Cyril's next actions. Gwion was more beautiful than ever, had been so charming and captivating all evening, and Cyril found himself putting down his cigar and kissing Gwion before his courage could give out.
Gwion jumped ever so slightly, tensing as the Elvish chant was kissed from his lips, but it lasted only for a second. Soon he was kissing Cyril back with a warmth that made Cyril clench his fingers against the embroidered fabric of the sofa.
After a minute or so, Gwion pulled back and gave a laugh that almost had a hint of despair to it. He leaned his head back against the sofa and looked up at the ceiling.
"I..." Cyril stared at him, suddenly concerned that he'd read everything wrong. "When I..."
Gwion laughed again, then caught Cyril's eye. "Don't worry," he said, and kissed Cyril again.
Cyril's heart stuttered so fast that his head swam. He opened up his mouth and Gwion obliged, the warm, slick intimacy of it making Cyril's breath come thick and fast.
Slim fingers slipped beneath Cyril's jacket and over the fabric of his waistcoat. Cyril hadn't done this since he was nineteen and he was shocked to find that his desire for it hadn't waned in the intervening years. Certainly, Cyril knew what he ought to do in this situation, but the thought of halting Gwion now, when Cyril was already aching, was almost unbearable.
Gwion's hands trailed around to the small of Cyril's back, and Cyril could feel Gwion lace his fingers together there in a loose embrace, but Cyril pulled away and sat back before he could be held any tighter.
Cyril rubbed at his lips and fought to catch his breath. "Might we be disturbed here?" He glanced at the door. "I do not wish for..."
Gwion laughed some more, then sat forward and removed his own jacket and waistcoat. "Oh, you are a young sapling, Cyril." Gwion undid his bowtie and placed it over the back of the sofa. "We are unlikely to be disturbed, no, but even if we were, it would not matter."
"But," Cyril thought back to his younger days, of furtive fumblings, half-desperate with the fear of discovery, "surely..."
"Cyril," Gwion undid the top buttons of his shirt, then removed his cufflinks and rolled up his shirtsleeves, "you forget that in Aelfland, we do not follow your British laws." He smiled and leaned forward to push Cyril's jacket from his shoulders. "And Aelfland has never deigned to legislate on sodomy or any of its related vices one way or another."
"But," Cyril felt his pulse jump at the mention of sodomy, aching harder and letting Gwion remove his jacket despite himself, "we are not in Aelfland. We are in London."
Gwion's expression was tinted with amusement. "It is a good job you were only sent to the Embassy this morning, Cyril, otherwise your ignorance would be alarming." He set to work on the buttons of Cyril's waistcoat. "Here in the Embassy we are currently on Elvish soil; I thought Sir Herbert would have told you that."
Cyril stared at him.
Gwion merely gave a soft sigh. "You can ignore your conscience tonight, Cyril." He reached down and pressed a hand against the aching in Cyril's trousers. "Kiss me again."
Cyril did, passionately enough that he felt Gwion shudder slightly beneath him. Oh, Cyril could hardly believe that this were true, that the beautiful Elvish Ambassador would be in his arms so soon after meeting him, that someone so old and so dignified would want a poor, junior civil servant. Cyril smoothed a hand up Gwion's thigh and he found the fabric of Gwion's trousers taut between his legs.
It had been a long time indeed since Cyril had last done this, and he found he wanted it more than ever. Gwion jumped beneath Cyril's fingers, and Gwion took a ragged breath as Cyril pulled away from the kiss to unfasten Gwion's trousers.
"Oh." Gwion gave a low moan as Cyril, encouraged, slipped a hand beneath Gwion's underpants to clasp him, sticky and hot and hard.
Cyril could hardly catch his breath. He watched as a flush ran up to Gwion's cheeks, dusting a deep pink over his elegant features, and considered that he hadn't wanted anyone so much in his life before. Gwion was invitingly hard beneath Cyril's palm, trapped in the space beneath his underwear and gasping as Cyril moved his fingers.
They didn't stay that way for long. Soon Gwion had tugged his trousers and underwear down to his thighs and in short moments had Cyril similarly unclothed. He reached forward and took Cyril in hand, pressing his lips to the base of Cyril's throat and pushing himself up against Cyril's hip.
Cyril wet his lips, watching the lights dance against Gwion's slick hair as he felt his arousal spin upwards. Gwion's fingers were as deft as they were slender, and Cyril found himself rocking his hips before he knew what he was doing. Desperately, Cyril clutched Gwion in his own hand, pressing Gwion up against his hip and feeling Gwion strain against him.
It didn't last much longer. Cyril found himself wanting lips on his lips and he leaned down, kissing Gwion until his whole mouth tingled with the force of it. Gwion's hand moved faster, Gwion's heart pounding beside Cyril's own and the smell of the both of them in the air. That was it; Gwion jumped beneath Cyril's palm again, the fingers of Gwion's free hand clenching in Cyril's shirtsleeve, and Cyril found his release between the two of them, thrusting into the hot, sticky place between Gwion's fingers and his stomach. It was not long before Gwion followed, his head falling backwards, eyes closed and hips rolling.
For a moment afterwards, they were silent, only the noise of their breathing filling the air. Cyril grinned and wiped the sweat from his brow. Sitting back, he pulled up his trousers then took out his handkerchief and cleaned them both up.
Gwion let out a long, weary sigh. He opened his eyes and his mouth pulled down.
Cyril pocketed his handkerchief and smiled at him.
Gwion didn't smile in return. He pulled up his own trousers. "You can tell Sir Herbert, no," he said, doing up his fly.
Cyril frowned at the sudden change in tone. "I'm sorry?"
Gwion looked up. "You can tell Sir Herbert, no," he repeated. "We will not send Elvish troops to help your war, no matter how much the War Office wishes to bribe me."
Cyril couldn't find his tongue. "Bribe you?"
"Certainly." Gwion wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "You can tell Sir Herbert that I know his game. First he sends me the delivery of wine, then the prize thoroughbred, and now an attractive, and clearly homosexual, young man from the War Office. Sir Herbert knows my tastes, and he's enough of a fox that he's not above using them against me. Well," Gwion leaned over to the coffee table and downed the last of his port, "you can tell him no. I have sampled you just as I sampled the wine and the horse, but it will not be enough to sway me."
Cyril could hardly speak. "A bribe?" he stuttered. "A bribe?" He stood, not caring that his trousers were still unfastened. "I didn't... That was not why I... My God."
Gwion's face fell. He looked up at Cyril. "Oh," Gwion said quietly. "So you didn't know."
But Cyril was too angry to discuss it any further. To think that he had been... Cyril tugged on his jacket and fastened his trousers as quickly as he could. "Where is your footman?" he shouted as he fled from the drawing room. "I need my hat. I wish to go."
Cyril got little sleep that night, and what rest he did find was plagued by riotous, angry dreams.
He did not know if he was more angry with the Ambassador for treating him so rudely, or with Sir Herbert for using him in his schemes like a common whore. Both left Cyril feeling sick to his stomach.
The next morning, as soon as Cyril had entered the War Office, he approached Sir Herbert's secretary and asked to speak to him.
Sir Herbert, as would be expected from a man faced with what he thought was his winning hand, admitted Cyril immediately.
"Mr Beck," Sir Herbert put down the diary he was leafing through and gestured at the chair in front of his desk. "How did it go at the Elvish Embassy? Please sit down."
"No thank you, Sir." Cyril remained standing. "I wish to be taken off of this assignment. Negotiations are not for me."
"Ah." Sir Herbert peered at him. "I take it that Ambassador Gwion didn't agree to help."
Cyril bit the inside of his lip to keep himself from shouting. He wished he could air his grievances, but that was tantamount to admitting his own criminality and, of course, Sir Herbert knew it.
"I would like to return to my old position," said Cyril.
"Please take a seat, Mr Beck," said Sir Herbert, folding his hands in front of him. "There's no need to be disheartened. Negotiations as complex as these are rarely settled in one day." He looked up at Cyril and appeared to chew the inside of his cheek. "I need not remind you how important it is that we secure Aelfland's help in the upcoming war. Who knows how we'll fare without their troops on our side." He pursed his lips. "People will die needlessly."
Cyril took a deep breath and forced himself to hold Sir Herbert's gaze. "I think you would do well to appoint someone who's more experienced at this sort of thing, Sir."
"You may not realise, Mr Beck," Sir Herbert studied his cuticles, "quite how much of an improvement this is on your previous position. Your salary will reflect this of course." He looked up. "Mr Beck..."
"I would like to leave now, Sir." Cyril clenched his hands at his sides. "I will take up my old duties immediately."
Sir Herbert sighed. He stared at the corner of his desk. "Very well. Good morning to you, Mr Beck."
Cyril didn't speak to Sir Herbert after that. He returned to his old office and resumed his old duties. The continuing disquiet on the continent meant that there was plenty to be done and Cyril immersed himself in the work. It was very likely that Cyril had ruined all hope for his future career but he forced himself to accept that fact. He wasn't going to allow himself to be prostituted to the Elvish Ambassador, no matter how many lives rested on it.
And so things continued on much as they had done before that unfortunate day. Troops and supplies had to be moved across the country and more mountain men had to be brought down from the north. Cyril saw to it that their transport was as efficient as could be and tried to get used to a life of celibacy once more.
Two weeks later, at almost midday, Cyril was making his way up Whitehall on an errand when he happened to run into the Elvish Ambassador.
Cyril hadn't seen Ambassador Gwion since that night and he certainly didn't relish the thought of talking to him again, so he doffed his hat to the Ambassador and continued on his way.
The Ambassador, however, turned to follow him. "Cyril?"
"Please don't call me Cyril," said Cyril over his shoulder. "I am Mr Beck to you."
"Mr Beck," the Ambassador followed after him, "may I speak to you?"
Cyril stopped and turned around. "I don't see that you have anything to say."
"Please let me apologise." The Ambassador closed his eyes for a moment. "I treated you very badly." He looked at Cyril. "I shouldn't have done. I apologise."
Cyril pursed his lips. "You used me for your own ends."
"I thought you knew." The ambassador gave a self-deprecating laugh and ran a hand over his mouth. "Sir Herbert has been dogging me for so long that I had grown tired of it. And when I found that he wished to bribe me even further... Do you know how insulting it is to be bribed, Mr Beck?"
"I know some things that are insulting," said Cyril.
"Forgive me, please." The Ambassador placed his hands in his pockets and stared at the tip of his shoe. "I had thought you were trying to dupe me along with Sir Herbert. I see now that I was wrong." He sighed. "If it helps, you should know that I did enjoy--"
"Is that all?" asked Cyril. "I must be going."
"Wait, Mr Beck," said the Ambassador, looking up. "Please let me make it up to you. It's almost noon. Let me take you to lunch."
"I hardly think that's appropriate." Cyril straightened his jacket, considering. "However, there is a gesture that I would appreciate."
"If I can make it up to you, Mr Beck..."
"I don't agree with Sir Herbert's methods," said Cyril, "but I do agree with his reasons." He looked at the Ambassador. "I would like to meet with you so that I can make the proposition I never got the chance to make when we last met. And I would like you to consider it seriously."
"You wish to discuss the use of Elvish troops in the upcoming war?" asked the Ambassador, his mouth turning down.
"I think it's the least you can do to let me say my piece," said Cyril.
The Ambassador sighed. "As you wish. I will be free at four o'clock this afternoon. Come to the Embassy then and I will meet with you."
Cyril wasn't happy to be in the Embassy again. He had been led into the same room, just off of the entrance hall, as he had when he had first visited. The portrait of the Elvish King stared down at him, still at odds with the British style of the rest of the room. The memories it brought with it set Cyril's teeth on edge, but he refused to back down.
As much as Cyril disliked both Sir Herbert and Ambassador Gwion, he knew that Sir Herbert's point was a valid one. Britain would have little chance against Germany without Aelfland's help, and if Cyril could help secure that help, he would try.
Miss Collins arrived, just as Cyril was taking a seat beside the fireplace.
"Mr Beck," she said, "the Ambassador has just returned from his meeting; I'll go fetch him now," and without waiting for an acknowledgement, she was off.
A few minutes later, the Ambassador arrived. "Good afternoon, Mr Beck," he said coolly. Coming up to Cyril, he held out his hand.
Cyril hesitated slightly, but shook the Ambassador's hand nevertheless and sat back down. The Ambassador sat too, on a sofa facing Cyril.
"So," said the Ambassador, folding one leg over the other. "Say your piece. I will listen." He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a cigarette case and a pack of matches. Opening the case, he held it out to Cyril. "Would you like one?"
As grateful as Cyril would have been to have a smoke at that moment, he refused.
"You don't mind if I smoke, do you?" asked the Ambassador, pulling out a cigarette and glancing at Cyril.
"No," said Cyril. "I don't mind."
The Ambassador gave a rueful smile. "Go ahead then. I'm listening," he said, placing the cigarette between his lips and lighting it.
Cyril watched the Ambassador's graceful hands as he shook out the match and placed it in the ashtray. The memory of those hands and how good they had felt was still vivid in Cyril's mind, but he ignored it. "Ambassador Gwion," he said. "Sir Herbert intimated that you refuse to take our request for Aelfland's help to the Elvish Parliament."
The Ambassador leaned an elbow against the arm of the sofa. "He is correct."
"But why?" asked Cyril. "Why be so obstinate when so many lives are at stake?"
The Ambassador pursed his lips and looked at Cyril. "Because I already know how the Elvish Parliament will answer," he said after a moment. "They will refuse to take part in this war."
Cyril took a breath. "Ambassador," he said, "I don't think you truly realise the magnitude of the situation in Europe. There is only so much information that leaves Whitehall and makes its way to the press." He leaned forward and picked up the file that he had brought with him. "If you could see some of the reports that have been coming into the War Office... Hitler's government is doing more than just playing at rearmament."
The Ambassador exhaled, smoke curling up towards the ceiling, and held out his hand for the file. "Show me."
So Cyril handed him the file and talked through the reports and information that he had gathered together that afternoon.
The Ambassador read it all with a grim expression, which did nothing to sully the fineness of his features or the way Cyril kept watching his face against his best intentions.
Eventually, the Ambassador sat back. "I see," he said. "I had not known all of it, but it seems that the situation on the continent is exactly as dire as I had imagined."
Cyril looked at him. "Then you will help?"
"No." The Ambassador stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray. "If anything, this information has made me more resolute. Aelfland will not help you in your war."
Cyril felt himself flush with anger. "How do you know?" he asked. "How can you say that when you haven't even put it to the Elvish Parliament?"
"Because," said the Ambassador, rising, "I know my government and I know how they will react."
Cyril gave a shout of frustration and stood too. "You are just as stubborn as Sir Herbert said you were. When you apologised to me this morning, I almost thought you had some decency in you. I can see now that I was wrong."
"You may not care for other people but that does not mean that your government will be the same." Cyril had to stop himself from striding around the coffee table to shake the Ambassador by the shoulders. "People will die if Aelfland doesn't help in this war. Good God, It was only with Aelfland's help that we were able to win the Great War in only four years. Do you have any idea how many lives might be lost without Aelfland's help this time? And if the Nazis make it to Britain, then God help us."
"Of course lives will be lost," said the Ambassador coolly. "It is war. If Britain were really worried about the lives of her subjects, then Britain would have thought twice before agreeing to defend Poland."
"It is not as simple as that." Cyril rubbed at his temples with his fingers. "Do you think we are looking forward to a war? Of conscripting our men and evacuating our cities and God knows what else these modern times will bring us? But it is upon us all the same and we will have to pull together to make the best of it."
The Ambassador watched him. After a moment he said. "You told me that you had never been to Aelfland, Mr Beck."
Cyril tried to unclench his jaw. "I haven't."
"Do you have a passport?" asked the Ambassador.
Cyril frowned at him. "Yes."
"Then I will arrange the necessary papers and, if you are willing to do so, you will visit Aelfland with me." The Ambassador walked over to the wall and tugged at the bell pull. "Meet me here at this time tomorrow. I would like to give you the Elvish side of the argument." He gave a tight smile. "I'm sure Sir Herbert will allow you a day away from your normal duties for a good cause."
It was with some trepidation that Cyril arrived at the Elvish Embassy the next day. Sir Herbert, as predicted, was very accommodating when he discovered that Cyril had re-entered negotiations with the Ambassador. Cyril, however, was determined not to be used as Sir Herbert's pawn; he was going to act professionally or not at all.
The Ambassador, when Cyril was shown into the Embassy, was waiting in the entrance hall with his hat in his hands.
"Mr Beck." He shook Cyril's hand. "I am glad you agreed to this trip. It will explain my position to you much more clearly." The Ambassador turned to the footman. "We would like the Elvish entrance, Hova."
The footman nodded and led them both through into a corridor on one side of the staircase. This corridor led past a series of rooms, many of which appeared to be offices, and then out into another hall that looked so similar to the entrance hall they had just left that Cyril would have thought it was the same one if it weren't for the fact that they hadn't doubled back on themselves once.
This strangely similar hall was presumably the one that led to the Embassy's garden. A large door stood in one wall; the footman stepped up to this and opened it.
On the other side, however, Cyril was shocked to see not a back garden but a bright, cobbled street.
The Ambassador placed his hat upon his head and strode through the door. Not knowing what else to do, Cyril followed him.
Outside, as the footman closed the door behind them, the sun was shining brightly. This side of the Embassy was stucco-fronted, but not quite as grand as the side that faced Belgrave Square. Cyril looked around himself and tried to fit the alignment of the street into what he knew of Belgravia.
The Ambassador was wearing a small smile. "How do you like your second experience of Elvish magic, Mr Beck?"
Cyril frowned at him. "Magic? You mean..."
"Welcome to Aelfland." The Ambassador gestured around them. "It takes an amount of work to build a door to Aelfland from England, but we have one in the Embassy for convenience's sake." He looked up into the sky. "We are currently standing in Breninwg, which is a city that you probably know by the name of Aelfburgh." He smiled at Cyril, and it was very hard for Cyril not to smile in return.
"I had thought..." Cyril surveyed the street around him once more. It certainly didn't look too different from a street in London. "I had imagined that we would take the train."
The Ambassador laughed. "Unfortunately, it is not possible to take the train to Aelfland." He turned left onto the street. "Do you mind a walk, Mr Beck?"
Cyril followed after him. "No. Not at all."
For long minutes, they walked along the street with neither of them saying anything. Cyril was too busy looking about himself, and the Ambassador appeared to be amused by Cyril's reaction.
Aelfburgh, from what Cyril could tell, was not dissimilar to London. For some reason, he had imagined that Aelfland would be more exotic, with strangely coloured plants and twisted buildings. But what Cyril saw as they walked along was all rather normal. Tall trees lined the street, interspersed with lamp-posts. Halfway along to one side was a green square, similar but less grand to those in Belgravia. Somewhere close by, a bird sung.
Indeed, the only thing that seemed unusual, besides the intricate timberwork on the buildings, were the signs written in a language that Cyril couldn't understand.
"I did not realise..." started Cyril, but stopped at the sound of an engine. Shocked, he watched as a car sped past them along the road.
"A motor-car." Cyril gaped after it. "That was a motor-car."
"Of course," said the Ambassador beside him. "You do not think we'd watch you with your convenient inventions and not use them for ourselves?"
Cyril looked at him.
"Aelfland," said the Ambassador, walking along, "has been tied to Britain, or rather to England, for a long time. You have shaped us just as we have shaped you. Although one might not know it from walking around London today."
"I almost believe I am still in London," said Cyril. "Or, at least, a quiet part of London; this street is very peaceful." He watched an Elvish woman in a very British looking suit and hat enter a building on the other side of the street. "Do most Elves wear British clothes?"
"Some do," said the Ambassador, "although many prefer the traditional tunics. We are currently in an area of Breninwg that is similar to Whitehall in London. Most Elvish civil servants prefer to wear suits to work."
Cyril looked around. In addition to himself and the Ambassador, there were only two others on the street; it certainly wasn't as busy as Whitehall. "Do most civil servants not work today?" asked Cyril. "Is today your sabbath?"
The Ambassador gave a small sigh and Cyril looked over to see the Ambassador wearing a melancholy expression. "No," said the Ambassador. "It is not the sabbath." He glanced at Cyril. "Come on. We don't have too much farther to go."
They walked down three more streets with the road widening out as they went. Two more motor-cars passed them on their way and Cyril caught a snatch of Elvish conversation as they walked by an open window, the language sounding as beautiful as ever when voiced by actual Elves.
At the end of the third street the buildings stopped suddenly and in their place spread a bright expanse of green, surrounded by the tall, wooden facades of several townhouses. From what Cyril could see, this park was easily as large as Hyde Park in London, if not larger. The Ambassador crossed the road and entered the park through a delicately-wrought iron gate. Somewhat in awe, Cyril followed him.
There, inside the park, were a few more Elves, some sitting on benches, some on blankets spread on the grass, no doubt there to enjoy the fine summer weather. Cyril couldn't help but smile at the sight and how familiar it seemed to the parks of London.
The Ambassador led Cyril down a gravel pathway underneath the shade of several trees, and then, at the end of the long path, to a wide open space containing at its centre a glistening fountain and a large granite monument.
With a mournful smile, the Ambassador looked up at the monument before them. "Here we are."
The open space had no other occupant save the tinkling of the fountain. Above them, another bird sang. Cyril wasn't sure he knew anywhere more peaceful.
"What is this place?" Cyril stepped up to the monument. It was a tall wall of speckled, grey granite that stretched along the ground for a good few feet. As Cyril drew closer, he could see that it was covered with sinuous Elvish writing. "What does it say?"
"Those," said the Ambassador from beside Cyril, "are names."
"Names...?" started Cyril, but stopped when he realised that he had seen many a similar monument in Britain. He licked his lips.
"These are the names," the Ambassador reached out and ran his fingers over the indentations of the letters, "of those Elvish soldiers that lost their lives in the Great War."
Cyril stepped back a few paces. "I see." He cleared his throat and looked up at the writing. "There are a lot of them. As, I suppose, would be expected for your capital city."
"This is not all," said the Ambassador. "There are two other monuments for Breninwg, each inscribed with their own names." He walked back to where Cyril stood, and stared up at the monument with folded arms. "Added to that, each town and village in Aelfland has its own monument, to commemorate the dead from those places."
Cyril could feel that the Ambassador was trying to make a point but he refused to let himself be swayed so easily. "It is sad," sad Cyril defensively, "but not unusual. Why, every town and village in Britain has its own memorial to those lost in the Great War too." He glanced at the Ambassador. "Don't think that we don't understand loss in Britain, Ambassador Gwion, and that we haven't been crippled by it. The memorial in my home village contains the names of my father and two of my uncles among them. And I'm sure the same would go for many of the families in the country."
The Ambassador turned to him. "I am sorry for your loss, Mr Beck."
Cyril sighed. "What I am trying to say, Ambassador, is that the Great War was terrible for all of us." He met the Ambassador's gaze. "But this next war may be even worse if we are not fully prepared for it. People will die, and if Aelfland doesn't join us then it is certain that far more people will die than need be. Imagine, Ambassador, if every memorial in Britain carried twice, three-times or four-times the number of names, and perhaps even women and children, innocent civilians, among them. Because that is what will happen if the upcoming war is allowed to drag on without Aelfland's help." He gestured at the monument in front of them. "A four-year war was devastating, certainly. But a longer war could destroy us."
"Do you see?" Cyril turned to him. "If Britain and Aelfland combine strengths, we could finish this new war before it even starts. We could lessen the number of casualties by fighting together."
The Ambassador had stuffed his hands in his pockets. "And who, tell me, would do the fighting?" He pulled out both hands and gestured at the clearing around them. "What Elvish soldiers have you seen to help you with your cause?"
"I..." started Cyril.
"You have remarked to me today, Mr Beck, how quiet Breninwg seems. Do you not think that this is strange? That you can stand in the centre of a capital city and hardly see a soul?" The Ambassador stopped abruptly and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the sad smile had crept back onto his lips. "You think we can help you but you do not realise." He looked at Cyril. "We have been decimated, Mr Beck."
Cyril watched as the Ambassador stepped up to the memorial again and scrubbed at a speck of dirt with his thumb.
"Aelfland has fought in English wars for centuries," said the Ambassador quietly, "but this modern warfare has proved too much for us." He looked over to Cyril with sad eyes. "Your country has lost fathers and uncles, but Aelfland has lost brothers, friends and peers." The Ambassador sighed. "We do not grow as fast as you do. Britain has lost a generation but still has thousands like yourself; strong, young men who hardly remember the Great War and what it did. Whereas our population does not move so quickly; few young saplings have grown up in the space where the great oaks once stood." He patted the monument and took a step back. "Ask any Elf and he will remember the Great War as if it were yesterday. That is why I say that Aelfland won't help you."
Cyril held his silence as the Ambassador walked back toward him. He had not thought of how the Elvish experience of war had have differed from the British one. Suddenly, the quiet streets they had seen that day seemed haunting rather than peaceful.
"What do you say to dinner, Mr Beck?" The Ambassador stopped by Cyril's side. "I have a house not too far from here and I think we would do well to have a break."
The Ambassador's house turned out to be one of the tall, wooden-framed townhouses that fronted the park. Inside, it was as spacious as it was tall, and the decoration had a distinctly Elvish flair, with intricate carved woodwork and twisting, patterned walls making up the interior.
Calling up the housekeeper, the Ambassador requested dinner for the both of them. While they waited, the Ambassador took Cyril on a tour of the house and the garden.
Once they were done, Cyril looked around himself as, finally, they re-entered the drawing room. "I have to say, Ambassador, that this house doesn't look as if it belongs to you at all."
The Ambassador looked amused. "I haven't stolen it, if that's what you're worried about."
Cyril chuckled. "No," he said. "I mean, from what I know of you, I would have thought that your house would be furnished in a more British style."
"Ah," said the Ambassador, appearing to take note of the decor for the first time. "You have a point." He gestured for Cyril to sit on what appeared to be a long, darkly-upholstered chaise lounge. "This was my father's house. I don't visit often, so I thought it best to leave it as he had it." The Ambassador stepped over to a gramophone in the corner of the room and set it playing. His lips quirked as the sound of an American jazz song filtered through the air. "Although I have added a few of my own touches here and there."
Moving over to sit on the other end of the chaise lounge, the Ambassador offered Cyril a cigarette and lit it, using the same match to light his own. For a few moments they said nothing, merely smoking and listening to the music.
Cyril cast his eye about the room, noting how incongruous he and the Ambassador appeared against the Elvishness of the rest of it. The Ambassador had his eyes closed, the line of his jaw and the set of his features stark in the light from the window. Still and calm as he was, he looked so beautiful that Cyril had to force himself to look elsewhere.
It was then, in his desperation for another point of focus, that Cyril noticed a series of four photographs standing on a table beside the Ambassador.
Leaning closer, Cyril could see that the photographs were of varying ages, but all appeared to show young Elves who looked very much like the Ambassador himself.
Cyril flicked the ash from his cigarette into an ashtray on a table beside him. "Is that your family?"
"Hm?" The Ambassador looked to Cyril, then to the photographs at his side. "Ah, yes." He picked up one that showed an Elf in a traditional tunic and smiled down at it. "This was my father," he looked to the others, "and those were my three brothers."
Cyril's mouth ran dry at the Ambassador's use of past tense. "I'm sorry." Cyril licked his lips. "Were they...?"
"My father died in Ypres." The Ambassador tapped his thumb on the frame in his hand and looked over to the photographs on the table. "Madin too, I imagine, although his body was never found. Arwel and Eynon were lost two years later, both to the same landmine. Thankfully, I was far enough away that I was only grazed by it." He took a drag from his cigarette and let the smoke out slowly.
"Oh." Cyril swallowed awkwardly. "You mean...?"
"We were in the same Company." The Ambassador placed the photograph of his father back on the table and tapped his cigarette out into an ashtray beside it.
"I'm sorry," said Cyril. "I didn't realise that you..."
Ambassador Gwion turned to him as the dinner gong rang. "I try not to dwell on it."
Dinner was a quiet affair, with the both of them wrapped in their own thoughts.
Cyril hadn't known that Ambassador Gwion had fought in the Great War, although, in hindsight, Cyril realised that it would have been unusual if Gwion hadn't been in the war given his age. It was with some guilt that Cyril thought back to their conversations that day and his own lack of tact when confronted with the Elvish war memorial. Of course Gwion would be reluctant to re-enter another war after losing so much of his own family. For the first time, Cyril saw Gwion's actions in a new light. No wonder he had been insulted by Sir Herbert's persistence.
After dinner, they returned to the drawing room and Gwion set to the gramophone again.
As the first bars of another jazz tune filled the air, Cyril asked him, "Do you have any Elvish songs?"
Gwion laughed lightly. "Not many." He stopped the jazz and bent down to rifle in the cupboard beneath the gramophone, pulling out a new record and setting it to play.
This time, the air was filled with the soft, wavering notes of an Elvish song set to the sound of a lone harp. Simple though it was, Cyril found it captivating.
So engrossed was he in the music, that Cyril didn't realise he had closed his eyes until Gwion sat down beside him and said, "You enjoy Elvish music, don't you, Mr Beck?"
Cyril gave him a small smile. "Your language is very beautiful. And please, do call me Cyril."
Gwion looked at him. "Very well, Cyril."
Cyril said nothing more, content to listen to the Elvish song until it had finished. In the silence that followed, he scratched his thumbnail on his trousers. "When you spoke that Elvish to me before, that night when we..." He looked up at Gwion. "What did you say?"
"Ah," said Gwion, resting an ankle on his knee. "That was an old song." He gave a smile that was almost apologetic. "It is one of mourning, for those lost to us."
Cyril looked at Gwion, at the photographs of his family sitting next to him and the quiet look upon his face. It wasn't two seconds more before Cyril leaned across and kissed him.
Gwion kissed back, hesitantly at first, but with growing confidence as Cyril let the kiss linger.
Finally, when they broke apart, Gwion ran his hands down Cyril's arms. "I thought you were supposed to be angry with me, Cyril."
"No." Cyril picked up one of Gwion's hands and smoothed his thumb over the backs of Gwion's fingers. "I have forgiven you. I realise now that you had your own reasons for your anger with Sir Herbert." He leaned down and pressed a kiss to the tips of Gwion's fingers, then looked Gwion in the eye. "Tell me, are Elvish beds as beautiful as Elvish music?"
Gwion laughed. "Well," he said, "why don't we go and see?"
Upstairs, the bedroom they found themselves in was no less Elvish than the rest of the house. The bed was a large four-poster made of a dark oak that had been ornately carved, with the shapes of leaves, fruit and small birds clustering above the dark green curtains.
Cyril had little time to inspect the room though, as Gwion was already removing his own jacket and tie. Quickly, Cyril sat down to remove his shoes, then threw off his jacket, waistcoat and tie too before stepping up to help Gwion remove his shirt.
"As much as I commend your tailor," said Cyril with a kiss to Gwion's jaw, "I would prefer to see you naked even more."
Gwion hummed, tugging off his shirt to reveal a lean, muscled chest. "You are right," he said, his long fingers now making quick work of the buttons on Cyril's shirt. "I've wanted to undress you since the moment I first set eyes on you."
Cyril pressed his lips together as the shirt was pulled from his arms. "You did?" he asked. "I don't remember your looking too pleased to see me."
Gwion chuckled. "Politics, Cyril, has a way of spoiling everything." Then he ran his hands over Cyril's bare waist and up to his chest, smoothing the heels of his palms over Cyril's nipples as he leaned forward to kiss Cyril again.
Cyril took a deep breath through his nose and let himself be lost for a while to the skill of Gwion's tongue. After a few moments, though, this wasn't enough, and Cyril pulled them both back onto the bed, throwing a leg over Gwion's hip and shuddering as he felt Gwion roll against him.
Laughing and face flushed, Gwion extricated himself from Cyril's grip. "As eager as I am," said Gwion, "I don't wish to ruin my trousers today." He sat up and took off his shoes and socks, then undid his belt and pushed his trousers and his underwear to the floor before sitting back down.
His legs were as lean and elegant as the rest of him and Cyril could hardly suppress a noise at the sight. He ran a hand over Gwion's hip, watching as the muscles of Gwion's thigh twitched in response.
"I don't think I've seen anyone as perfect as you before," said Cyril honestly.
Gwion laughed again. "You are a master of flattery, Cyril." He pressed forward and kissed Cyril again, one hand coming down to cup and squeeze Cyril through his trousers. "Now," he left a kiss behind Cyril's ear, "are you going to take the rest of your clothes off or am I going to have to do it for you?"
Cyril took a breath and pushed Gwion's hand aside. "I'll do it." He sat up to undo his fly, then wriggled out of his trousers and his underwear, bending down to tug them over his feet along with his socks.
Gwion was on him in an instant, pressing up behind Cyril's back and laying kisses along his shoulders. With a shiver, Cyril felt Gwion mouth at the back of his neck.
"What do you want to do?" asked Gwion, reaching around and smoothing a hand down Cyril's abdomen.
"Ah." Cyril gasped as, slowly, he felt that hand surge with warmth. It spread right through him, from his abdomen to the tips of his fingers, and suddenly he was aching to be touched. "Are you..." Cyril dragged in a breath. "Are you doing your Elvish magic again? I thought you had already seen where I grew up."
"I have," said Gwion, amusement in his voice. The warmth stopped as soon as it had started and Gwion's hand reached down to curl around the length of Cyril instead. "But you seemed to enjoy the magic so much last time that I thought I might try it again."
Cyril spun around in Gwion's arms and kissed him as strongly as he could. Gwion's hands lost their purchase for a moment, but that didn't matter.
"I want you," breathed Cyril against Gwion's lips, lifting a knee to straddle Gwion's thighs. "I want you so much that I can hardly bear it." He kissed Gwion again and reached down to clasp Gwion in his palm, stroking slowly and feeling Gwion's chest shudder in response.
"How though?" Gwion broke the kiss with a moist exhale and a deep chuckle. "How would you like to do this?"
Cyril thought about it for a moment, focussing on the strokes of his hand and the way he could see Gwion emerge and disappear from beneath his fingers. Funnily enough, Cyril had never had much time to choose these sorts of things before. In his past experience, everything had always been hurried, with one eye on the door and hands grasping where they could.
He looked up to see that Gwion's face had turned a fetching shade of pink. His lips were parted and he was watching the movement in Cyril's arm. Cyril found that he was aching again.
"I want you inside me." Cyril sat forward to bring their hips closer together and attempted to clutch himself and Gwion in one hand. "But I haven't done this since I was nineteen. I have a feeling that anything other than fingers would be too much for me."
"Not a problem." Gwion licked his lips then shuddered a little as Cyril rocked against him. "Fingers will be perfect."
Gently, Gwion pushed Cyril from him and stood up. Then he went to the door and pulled on a loose Elvish robe that was hanging on the back of it. "One moment," he said with a smile, and left.
Gwion was hardly gone for more than a minute. When he returned, there was a pot of something in his hand.
"Petroleum jelly," said Gwion, discarding the robe onto the floor. He climbed onto the bed and gave Cyril a long kiss.
Cyril felt the hairs on his arms stand on end as he was suddenly faced with Gwion's proximity once more. Giving in to an impulse, he reached out and ran a hand down Gwion's thigh.
Gwion hummed and then, without warning, there were slick fingers clasped around Cyril and sliding upwards.
"Oh," said Cyril, breaking the kiss without meaning to. He hadn't even realised the pot had been opened. His fingers clutched at Gwion's thigh. "Oh, I think I could fall in love with your hands, Gwion."
"That's good to hear." Gwion shifted and kneeled up. "This will be easier if you lie down. On your back, please."
Cyril did as he was told, watching as Gwion dipped two long fingers into the pot of jelly and covered them.
Reaching down, Cyril grasped ahold of himself, running his fingers through the slickness already there. "Do you mind if I touch myself?"
"Cyril," Gwion got down to lie beside Cyril's hips, "how could I say no to anything you request of me when you look like that?" Then Gwion fell silent as he concentrated on reaching his fingers between Cyril's legs and beginning to stroke.
It felt as if Gwion took an age before he finally pushed all the way inside, with the pleasure in Cyril's body winding up tighter and tighter with every minute that passed. By the end of it, Cyril was trembling, straining, and unable to touch himself any longer for fear that that would be the end of it, Gwion's fingers moving with a slow sureness that was so sweet it was almost unbearable.
"I can't..." Cyril sucked in a breath through his teeth as his heels dug into the bedsheets. "If I don't touch you soon, Gwion, I am going to go mad."
Gwion's eyes, when he looked up, were heavy-lidded, his cheekbones flushed dark beneath them. "Fair enough," he said, curling his fingers a few more times before withdrawing them.
Cyril, now free, was finding it hard to sit up. He ran a shaking hand through his hair. "Where is that pot?" he asked, patting down the bedcovers in an attempt to find it.
Gwion didn't answer. Instead, he caught Cyril's mouth in a long, deep kiss, his fingers absently smearing petroleum jelly over Cyril's hip in the process. Cyril shuddered, feeling as if he might find his release right there from the strength of that kiss alone if he wasn't careful.
Eventually Cyril pulled away, trying to find his breath in the space between them. He swallowed as he felt the pot pushed into his palm.
"Good," gasped Cyril. "Good." He attempted to unscrew the cap, annoyed to find that his hands were no longer fully under his control. Finally, he got the thing open and was able to coat the fingers of one hand. "Lie down," he said to Gwion. "On your side."
Gwion obliged, smoothing a palm over Cyril's knee has he did so. It wasn't long before Cyril followed; he lay facing Gwion and dragged one of Gwion's knees over his hip so that they were pressed together.
Laying a kiss on Gwion's brow, Cyril reached down past their stomachs and between Gwion's legs. Then, slowly, Cyril set his fingers to working their way inside the warmth of Gwion's body.
Gwion was almost silent as Cyril touched him, the flush on his fine features deepening and deepening until, finally, he was almost crimson with it, the colour swarming down to his shoulders. As the minutes passed, Gwion's breathing grew heavier, his open lips finding their way to pant against Cyril's jaw as Gwion's hips began to roll.
Cyril found his own hips rolling in return, pushing himself against his own forearm and Gwion's hip in a way that set pleasure flaring through his limbs.
"You are so beautiful like this," stuttered Cyril against Gwion's hair as he watched Gwion's back roll with the movement of his hips. "I could happily do this to you forever."
Gwion groaned, his hips shuddering for a second before speeding up. "That's very kind of you," he panted, "but I doubt that more than a few minutes will be necessary."
Cyril bit his lip at the increased pace, his fingers struggling to keep their co-ordination as his own body wound up tighter. "Are you close, then?"
"Very," gasped Gwion, and proved his point a second later by silently finding his release between the both of them.
Cyril could hardly catch his breath as the new slickness flooded between them. He inhaled through his nose, dizzy with sensation, and had to bite back an obscenity when Gwion rolled his body away slightly and took Cyril in his hand.
"How would you like it?" asked Gwion, pushing Cyril onto his back. "Fast or slow?"
"Fast," said Cyril, clenching his hands in the bedcovers and biting his lip again as Gwion took him at his word, the path of Gwion's hand slick and tight and speeding up until the room resounded with the noise of it.
Cyril strained against the touch, rocking his hips and then spreading his legs dutifully wide as Gwion probed between them with his fingers once more.
Once inside him, Gwion was too much to bear, his sure strokes magnifying Cyril's pleasure until Cyril found himself gasping, curling up and away from the mattress and ejaculating out onto his stomach.
For a moment, Cyril could do nothing more than lie there, dragging in breath after desperate breath, but when he had calmed slightly, he noticed that Gwion was watching him with a smile.
Cyril smiled in return and, struggling against a wave of weariness, sat up to give Gwion a kiss.
"It is late," said Gwion once they parted, resting a sticky hand over Cyril's and looking to the window. Then he lowered his eyes and pressed a kiss to the corner of Cyril's mouth. "Stay with me in Aelfland tonight."
Smiling, Cyril linked their fingers together. "Of course."
The next morning, they breakfasted together. It appeared as if Gwion were spending a lot of time studying Cyril across the table, but then, it wasn't as if Cyril could stop looking at Gwion either.
Eventually, Gwion said, "Would you mind if I left you to return to London by yourself? I can draw you a map to the Embassy and you need just ring the doorbell when you get there. Hova will let you in."
"Certainly." Cyril frowned at him. "I'll find my way if you can't make it."
Gwion looked at him over the top of his eggs. "I intend to remain in Aelfland today. I would like to speak to the Elvish Parliament as soon as possible. I'm going to put your request to them."
Cyril nearly choked on a piece of toast. "I'm sorry?"
Gwion smiled. "I shall recommend that Aelfland send troops to help Britain with the upcoming war in Europe."
"But. Wait..." Cyril felt himself growing red. "I didn't... That wasn't my intention when I shared your bed last night."
Gwion chuckled. "Don't worry, Cyril. I know that. It was what you said yesterday, not your actions, that persuaded me, enjoyable as those actions were." He gave Cyril a frank look. "I know what it is like to lose a loved one and it is not pleasant. What you said, I realise, makes sense to me; if I can prevent thousands of British families from feeling that same loss, I will do it." He took a sip of his coffee. "Besides, if Britain's shores were ever breached by the German forces, it is hardly likely that Aelfland will remain unsullied."
Cyril looked at him, astonished. "Thank you," he said after a moment.
Gwion gave Cyril a fond look. "None of that until I'm successful. I doubt my Parliament will like it, but I will do my best to persuade them."
Cyril found his way back to the Embassy, and to London, with little trouble. On returning, the number of people on London's streets was almost shocking after Aelfburgh. The noise and bustle was welcoming in a way, but filled Cyril with an odd longing all the same.
He spent the next week at work and headed to the Embassy every evening, but each day Miss Collins met him with an apology and a message that Gwion was still busy in Aelfland.
Finally, after five days, Gwion returned. He smiled to see Cyril, but he didn't look happy.
"The Elvish Parliament have said that they'll think Britain's request over," he said, placing a hand on Cyril's shoulder. "That's as much as I can do."
"It's enough," said Cyril. "I'm sure they'll understand."
Gwion looked doubtful. "Perhaps." His eyes rested on Cyril's lips and, leaning forward, he made as if to kiss Cyril, but he was interrupted by a knock at the door.
"Mr Spencer is here to see you," called Miss Collins from the corridor.
Gwion sighed. "Very well." He gave Cyril a wry grin. "Leave the country for a few days and suddenly an Ambassador's work is never done."
It was rare for them to get a moment together during the following few days. Gwion had been right when he had said that he was busy, but he wasn't the only one.
The situation on the continent was going more and more dire as the days went by. Business at the War Office pushed ahead with a kind of frenetic energy. It was as if they were held in the humid, electric tension that comes before the first roll of thunder in a storm. War was on its way soon, they all knew it, and they waited with baited breath for it to strike.
Cyril's own workload had doubled, at least. Sir Herbert had been as good as his word and had increased Cyril's salary after his negotiations with the Elvish Embassy. Cyril had taken the pay rise, even if he despised Sir Herbert's methods, but that didn't mean that Cyril could leave his previous job behind. The transport of troops and supplies needed to be managed competently, more so than ever before, and it was rare for Cyril to have any time left over for himself.
After two weeks of this, with Cyril grasping no more than a brief kiss here and a snatch of conversation with Gwion there, he arrived at the War Office one morning to find the place in a mad whirlwind of activity; more so than normal. On enquiring what was the matter, it wasn't difficult to find out.
"Hitler has invaded Poland," said one of the other civil servants as he rushed past Cyril in the corridor. "If we don't declare war on Germany by tonight, it can only be a matter of days before we do."
So that was it. War could well be upon them at last. Cyril hurried to his office to see if there was anything that needed doing urgently and was surprised to see a telegram from the Elvish Embassy lying on his desk.
'Elvish Parliament has made decision,' it said. 'Come to Embassy as soon as possible. Gwion.'
Cyril tried to suppress a flutter of excitement in his chest as he read it. This could be the moment they had all been waiting for. If Britain were able to secure Aelfland's help on the eve of war, it would set everyone's mind at ease. Barely stopping to put down his briefcase, Cyril stuffed the telegram into his pocket and left.
The Elvish Embassy, when Cyril arrived, was no less frantic than the War Office. Instead of being greeted by the footman, Cyril found that the front door to the building stood wide open, propped there by a chair. With his heart beating in his chest, Cyril stepped inside to find the entrance hall strewn with boxes. Several of the office workers made their way past him, handing files to one another and packing the boxes with them.
Over in one corner, Gwion appeared to be helping them, but he must have been waiting for Cyril because he stopped as soon as Cyril arrived and rushed over to his side.
"Cyril." His eyes were bright. "This way. We can talk in here," and he ushered Cyril into a small room to one side that Cyril had never been in before.
Once the door had shut behind them, Cyril removed his hat. "Have you heard the news?"
"That Germany has invaded Poland?" said Gwion, throwing up his hands. "Yes, yes." He paced to the fireplace and back. "And now Britain will go to war, yes. I always said you shouldn't have agreed to defend Poland; I knew it would only end in the worst way."
"War hasn't been declared yet," offered Cyril.
Gwion screwed up his face. "Oh, honestly. We both know it's only a matter of time." Then he sat on a chair and put his head in his hands.
Feeling dread creep through his stomach, Cyril worried that he knew just what the decision of the Elvish Parliament had been. He looked at Gwion. "You said in your telegram that your Parliament had made up their minds. Do I take it that it's not good news?"
"Cyril", Gwion looked up, his hands running down and over his mouth, "Aelfland has refused to help in your war. I have spent the past two days contesting their decision but it's no use."
"Well then." Cyril took a seat on a sofa by the fireplace. He rubbed his palms on his knees. "Perhaps they just need a little more persuasion? Once the war starts and they see how we are faring..."
"Oh, but that's not the worst of it." Gwion shook his head. "On further deliberation, the Elvish government has decided that the threat from the Nazis, should Britain's shores ever be breached, is too great. And so," he gave the window a sorrowful smile, "they are locking all the doors to Aelfland when war is declared. The Embassy is to be no more, and any Elf choosing to remain in Britain will be shut out; stranded from Aelfland for the duration of the war."
Cyril stared at him. "You mean..."
"As you saw," Gwion waved a hand towards the door with a grimace, "we are packing up to go. They want us out by the end of the day."
"Good God." Cyril stood. "And they can't be dissuaded? Does this mean that you..."
"No," said Gwion, jumping up. "No. There is another way. I have thought about it." He rushed over and took Cyril's hands in his own. "Come to Aelfland with us." He looked Cyril in the eye. "It won't be a problem; I can get you a visa and then you can stay with me until the war is over. I know how much you like our Elvish culture; you'll enjoy it."
Cyril's breath stalled in his chest. He hadn't expected this. For the Embassy to be removed and for him to go to Aelfland... Cyril sat down again and, still holding Cyril's hands, Gwion sat beside him.
"I..." Cyril felt as if his throat was closing up. He looked desperately at the fireplace and took a deep breath, but he knew he had already made his decision. "I can't, Gwion."
The fingers holding Cyril's tightened. "But I don't want to lose you, Cyril. Not for as long as the war lasts. And London will become dangerous; you know it will. If you were to..."
"I can't," repeated Cyril. He swallowed painfully and pulled his hands from Gwion's, meeting Gwion's gaze. "I can't just leave my post like that. I'm needed at the War Office, now more than ever. If I knew I'd left everything behind just to run away, I wouldn't be able to live with myself."
"You..." The corners of Gwion's mouth had turned down. "Are you sure? Someone else can take over your job, surely."
"Not so easily." Cyril shook his head. "But that's beside the point. I'm not going to run away."
"Well then," said Gwion unhappily, "the War Office is lucky to have someone so loyal."
"Wait," said Cyril. "This doesn't mean that I won't miss you. I..."
But Gwion didn't let Cyril finish his sentence. Instead, he surged forward and kissed Cyril; a frantic, shuddering, desperate kind of kiss. Cyril returned it with all the fervour he could, and when they broke apart, Cyril found himself teetering on the edge of tears.
The door opened. "Ambassador," said Miss Collins, "sorry to interrupt, but you're wanted at the Foreign Office immediately."
"Of course." Gwion hung his head. "One moment, Miss Collins. I'll be right there." He looked at Cyril and bit his lip. "I suppose, Cyril," Gwion held out his hand, "that this means goodbye, then."
"I suppose so." Cyril shook Gwion's hand and tried to keep his voice steady. "Goodbye it is."
The next few days were utterly wretched. Cyril felt himself wallowing in the thought that he wouldn't see Gwion until the war was over, or perhaps never again, but he knew it couldn't be any other way.
Almost hour by hour the work at the War Office grew more fevered as reports from the continent filtered in. Cyril experienced it all with a numb kind of interest. There was no going back. Whatever happened next, Cyril was just going to have to make the best of it.
It was with very little surprise, on the third of September, that Cyril heard that Britain had declared war on Germany. He was almost glad to hear it; at least it meant that the waiting was over.
In the afternoon after the announcement, the staff of the War Office set to their work with a grim determination and Cyril was no different; he threw himself into his tasks and didn't dare court the foolish hope that it would all be over soon.
Later that afternoon, as Cyril was making his way from his office to the post room, he happened to bump into Gwion on the stairwell.
And Cyril was so shocked that he nearly lost his letters over the side of the banister.
"Gwion," Cyril choked for a moment and had to stop to catch his breath. He clutched the letters desperately to his chest. "What are... But you should be in Aelfland."
"Ah, Cyril," Gwion's face was bright, "I was just heading up to your office to see you."
"But," stammered Cyril. He attempted to straighten himself and found Gwion's hand steadying his elbow. "Why aren't you in Aelfland?" Cyril glanced at Gwion's hand in an odd sort of daze. "Did the Elvish Parliament change their decision? Are the doors to Aelfland still unlocked?"
"Oh no," said Gwion, almost cheerfully. "They were locked as of eleven o'clock this morning. I made sure to re-enter London before then."
"Then..." Cyril couldn't make it out. "But why? You won't be able to return."
"Your powers of persuasion are greater than you realise, Cyril." Gwion stared across at the landing just above them. "Britain may not have the help of most Elvish soldiers for this war, but she at least has one." He looked at Cyril. "Not much, I know, but I'll do what I can."
"Wait. But you said London would be dangerous," protested Cyril, feeling a wave of happiness rising giddily within him regardless. "What if..."
"You were willing to stay," said Gwion frankly, "and so I shall be too." He grinned at Cyril. "What do you say?"
Cyril said nothing, instead he hugged Gwion as tight as he could, not caring that they were in the middle of the stairwell where anyone could see them.
Laughing, Gwion hugged him in return.