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The Sword Master

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Raleigh had not slept well in many years. Kaiju attack, drink, guilt, pain... all of it competing for his attention, gnawing at that sense of safety he had since come to understand was so integral to sleep’s arrival. She was a fickle mistress, and had forsaken him completely, he had once thought.

However, in the handful of days since his brother had embraced him for the last time and left him in Hercules’ service, Raleigh felt her presence once again. With the boys only just recalled from the mountain garrison, still on their way back to the capitol, and his duties mostly confined to planning the upcoming training, it seemed a good time to indulge her.

Raleigh had barely made it through supper with the king the night before - a quiet affair in Hercules’ personal chambers, just the two of them, although far more business-like than Raleigh would have preferred - before stumbling back to his own bed.

Perhaps he had begun to forget what sleeping on a camp bed, on the edge of the front, was like. Started to let go the stresses of battle. Hercules had even allowed him his own space as well, the comfortable little apartment built atop the armory. Not nearly as fine as the guest room he had been occupying, but well-appointed.

Even better, it was far from Charles and Jazmine and their distressing insistence on consummating their recent nuptials in damn near every room in the keep. Raleigh could happily live the rest of his life without walking in on that again.

(Thank the gods Charles was too impatient to divest his new bride of her corset before going about his business. Ladies had so may undergarments to fend off; Raleigh honestly wasn’t sure why any man would wish to deal with it. But he had no desire to have Charles give him an education in the subject.)

But as it was, he had a quiet bed in a quiet room, removed from all the things that had so plagued him the past few years, and Raleigh could have quiet happily slept there forever.

Except, of course, for the bucket of ice-cold water that was unceremoniously dumped over his head that morning.

“What the fuck?!” Raleigh groaned, rolling over on his side, startled almost immediately from sleep.

Hercules was standing there. The king himself. Bucket in hand, and lightly dressed for a day spent outside, those peculiar leather grieves he always wore for sparring wrapped to his knees and a bundle tucks under his arm. He did not look amused.

“Did we forget this is the boys’ first morning back at court, prince?”

Raleigh winced, but pulled himself to sitting. There was no help for it; his shift was soaked and clinging to his body. He wasn’t yet sure what he was to the king, nor the king to him, so he had no idea if he should be embarrassed by this situation or not. “My apologies, milord, but...”

“But you’ve spent too many months recuperating under your brother’s lagress. Need I remind you he has given your service to me?”

“No, milord.”

“And shall I describe the terms of your service here? Go over again your duties to my court, which include seeing to the young pages’ training?”

“No, milord.”

“Good. I am sure the boys are looking forward to learning they’ve been standing out in the dark of the stable yard for the past hour, alone, without the sword-master, is really part of a very clever character building exercise the sword-master has planned,” Hercules replied in an almost bored voice, and tossed Raleigh the bundle. “Right now, after the shit you pulled at my tourny, you’re either a war hero or a worthless drunkard. You’d best decide which version of yourself you’re going to play for them.”

Raleigh rubbed sleep from his eyes and forced himself fully vertical.

His body ached, but whether that was due to old injuries or recent, he couldn’t be sure.

Hercules didn’t stay as he pulled on his clothes - disappointing, but perhaps from the best - and his fingers felt numb, dancing over the buttons and laces of his clothing. No servant out here, but he had lived long enough without one of those. Felt freeing, in a way, to not have to deal with such formalities any longer.

Still, it took him a few moments longer to dress himself than it otherwise would have, especially when trying to negotiate his shirt over his left shoulder. He had taken several bad blows to it during the Kaiju fight, and he could not yet get his left arm more than a few inches off his ribs without the entire region screaming in agony.

Honestly, Raleigh still felt as if he’d been run over by a horse.

Charles was waiting for him outside the door to his rooms, when he’d finally pulled on his clothes and his armor. There was something about the grieves and breastplate - simple leather training gear they might have been - that made him feel more grounded than he had in a long time.

“Bout time,” Charles commented. “Father’s outside already.”

Raleigh didn’t bother responding.

Raleigh did not want to think of himself as weakened, but the king was right; the months spent under Yancy’s roof, injured as he was, had taken his vitality. Something else, he feared, had taken his confidence. Because as often as he had led men in the field, he felt far more nervous stepping into the stable yard in front of a gaggle of boys.

Some were the very young pages with only a handful of winters to their names, left here after the tourny for a fine summer of climbing trees, riding horses, and perhaps a bit of soldiership to top off the fun. But others were older, fourteen or fifteen, from here in Sydney or from distant manor-houses, the ones who might soon be expected to defend their family’s holdings from Kaiju or bandits, and they needed every scrap of skill their bodies could hold.

Dawn was old.

Hercules was right. Wouldn’t do to be wasting their time.

“Boys, as you have no doubt heard, Master Sergio laid his life down for this kingdom in the Kaiju horde’s latest sacrilege. We buried him with all proper honors and the Valkyries, no doubt, have carried him to the afterlife. You, however, remain and as your parents have entrusted me with your education, our lessons will continue,” Hercules announced without any preamble at all. “I expect you to treat your new instructor with the same respect as your treated your old.” His eyes scanned the small assembly, and then flicked back to Raleigh. Whatever was there was too dark too see. “Enjoy your morning.”

Taking a deep breath, recalling every sword master he had ever learned anything of value from, Raleigh nodded and stepped forward.

“The military is vast stretches of boredom marked by brief moments of terror. The King of Sydney has requested that I teach his nobles’ sons how to triumph over those few moments of terror,” he said. “I trust you will studi-“

“Who’s afraid?” one of the older boys interrupted.

In front of the king? To a prince? “What’s your name?”

“Marco, of Brisbane.”

“Well, Marco of Brisbane, have you ever seen a Kaiju up close?” Raleigh asked, circling over to the weapons rack. “Smelt their foul breath, seen the blood of your kingdom’s children on their swords?”

And of course, that didn’t phase the little bastard at all. “Men in my family must be stronger than yours.”

Raleigh resisted the urge to sigh, and started undoing his cravat, the buttons of his shirt. No respect in children these days, no respect at all. “The Kaiju do not care who your ancestors are. To them, we are all just meat under the sword. There is no diplomacy, no language we speak together nor goals we can work towards. They are here to kill us. We know nothing else of them.”

He slid his arms out and his shirt up, letting it hang loose around his neck and turned his back to them.

In the new day’s gray light, his scars would practically glow blue. A queer phenomenon that Doctor Geizsler was currently researching back home, Raleigh hoped it would get through to the boys.

“I want each of you to take a hard look. Their swords burn when they cut, the blades often smeared with their poisons and the wounds hard to close. Muscle damage is a given and it is not always centralized.” He turned back around to face them, pulling his shirt back on. “I survived by the grace of the gods, and the lessons of the men who trained me, including our king. I doubt our days together will be fun, but gods willing, they will be of use.”

The younger boys looked dumbstruck. The older boys looked bored. Of course.

“Questions?” he asked.

“So if you’re the sword master,” another of the older ones piped up immediately, “why is Prince Charles here?”

“Prince Charles is here because I no longer possess full use of my left hand,” he told them.

“So...”

“The broadsword is a necessary weapon in our current war. You need to have an intimate knowledge of it, but it does require both hands to wield properly. Prince Charles shall be training you on its use where I cannot.” And Raleigh threw Charles a small smile. “And even princes must keep up with their training regimen.”

“So when do we stop training, sir?” one of the younger boys asked, voice still too new to have even dropped yet. It took Raleigh aback for a moment, and then he remembered his own youth spent spitting blood onto courtyard stones, digging dirt from his skin and splinters from his hands, the smell of leather gone soft from hours of sweat and muscles too tired to move, forcing his body upright again.

“Never,” Hercules replied. “For the war never stops.”

Raleigh had quite forgotten the king was still there with them, and he tucked his shirt back into his trousers with not a small amount of embarrassment. “Now that we’ve had our little introduction,” he said, hoping it wasn’t showing, “I should like to see where we all are in our swordcraft. If you’ve held a weapon before, fetch a rudius from the rack and pair off.”

He went over to where Hercules was standing, but the king’s back was already turned to him. “Anything else I should know?”

“Have them done in time for the noon day meal, and do not injure any of them more than can be helped,” Hercules said in a short voice, and cast a look at him. “I am entrusting them to you.”

“I know, sire,” Raleigh replied, and then had to step in, as Marco swung before his opponent was ready, and his opponent hit back with his fists

By the time he broke up the little brawl that ensued, Hercules was already gone.

+++++

When the sun was at its peak, one of the scullery women brought out a basic midday meal of fruit, bread, beer, and a small plate of meat. Raleigh had to hide his smile when he saw the resigned expressions on the younger boys’ faces; he well remembered this part of his own days as a foster here. Hercules insisted on light fare and nothing better than could be got in the field for any of the boys entrusted to his care. There was nothing luxurious in the castle for any boy engaged in combat training.

It had shocked Raleigh himself at first, accustomed as he was to Hercules’ indulgent manner during holiday visits, to see spartan barracks and no comfort anywhere. But fostering was an important tradition between the Pacific region’s royal families, and so both Beckets had alternated one year at home, one year in Sydney, for a significant amount of their boyhood. Their own father’s approach to education had been far less severe than Hercules, but Hercules’ training had been more fun.

It had also been far more intense, and apparently, not much had changed in the fifteen years since Raleigh had first come here himself.

Hercules had explained it in greater detail last night. Most of my nobles lack the means to hire the proper tutors for their children, as many of the academics will not journey so deep into the interior, no matter how rich the stipend. My family has always considered it our duty to grant the boys at least a year or two’s education under our guidance, to ensure they will be competent in their future duties. Unspoken, Raleigh knew, was Hercules’ desire to ensure he had a ready supply of qualified young officers. Especially in these failing days, with the Kaiju at their throats, defense of Syndey’s territory was of upmost importance.

Raleigh remembered it all very well. However, as royals Raleigh and Yancy had been given a bit more leeway than the sons of Sydney’s lesser lords. Their lessons were also less tactical and far more extensive, taken with Charles in the king’s private library. A prince required a wider knowledge of civics, politics, history, religion, literature, and natural philosophy than did a baron’s son.

Regardless of that, they had shared the same accommodations and eaten most of the same meals as the other boys, and Raleigh remembered it fondly. There was bonding in collective struggle, and that, no doubt, was part of things.

Mornings for fighting, riding, running. Afternoons for quiet study. Evenings for whatever trouble one felt like getting up to, that one could get away with.

He could almost envy his new pupils that freedom.

He had nobody now.

The boys, impatient as they were, waited for Raleigh to select his food first from the lunch basket. Raleigh took the beer, but left the boys the meat.

“You are not a noble?” one of the boys - Peter, Raleigh believed, no more than thirteen - asked as they all tucked into their food.

Raleigh frowned, and flicked out his pocket knife to cut a spot off his apple. Bizarre question. “Why would you ask me that?”

Peter - certainly Peter - sighed. “Our last sword master was a noble.”

“That is hardly an answer.”

“He did not hold a sword as well as you, even with the injury to your arm. And you seem to have many years at the front, sword master, and so young, while Prince Charles has still not gone himself,” another boy, Colum, added. He seemed older, perhaps fifteen or sixteen summers to his name, and Raleigh had already marked him a serious student. “That is why they’re wondering.”

“Prince Charles is the king’s only son, all his siblings killed by the Kaiju hordes. That is why our king chooses to keep him close. My father had no such quandaries with me,” Raleigh replied. “But the prince is a strong fighter nonetheless.”

“I was not questioning his fighting skills.”

“Good. I would not let him hear such talk, or he might take offense.”

“Besides, he’s got his bride to amuse himself with now,” Marco chuckled. “The stable hands say she’s making it quite impossible to fetch hay from the hay loft.”

Raleigh resisted the urge to slap the little bastard for saying anything, anything at all, about his sister. “Take care how you talk about Princess Jazmine. She’s a highborn lady and your future queen. Have Australians no respect for such a prime flower of womanhood?”

If Raleigh was expecting an apology for speaking so of his sister, none came. At least, not in that vein. “I meant no insult to the princess,” the boy mumbled.

“Your words suggest otherwise. Choose your speech more carefully next time. If I ever hear any of you imply anything of this sort again, I shall have you flogged,” Raleigh replied, acid on his tongue, and intentionally shifted back to the subject at hand. “And yes, young Lord Peter, talent may run in blood but skill is an individual accomplishment. Nobles may wield a sword as well as any fencing champion.”

“Is that what you are?” one of the little boys asked.

“No,” Raleigh replied, confused now. “My education was far more bloody than casual sport at gymnasium.”

“So why is an Alaskan here in our king’s court?”

They knew him by his accent, no doubt. “King Yancy offered our king my services.”

“Isn’t King Yancy your king?”

“King Hercules is my liege now. King Yancy of Anchorage offered him my services.”

“You know King Yancy?”

Marco cuffed him and took another bite of a makeshift sandwich. “Of course he knows them. If the king of Anchorage left him here, it would imply a personal relationship, would it not?”

“Well that’s what I’m saying,” the younger boy whined. It was difficult keeping them all straight so soon in things. Raleigh made a note to learn all their names from one of the tutors.

“Did Prince Raleigh really take on a Kaiju commander all by himself?” one of the others, the one who hadn’t spoken yet, asked quietly. “Some of the guards said he cut the Kaiju in half with a magic sword from Hong Kong.”

“There are no such things as magic swords,” Marco sneered.

“Maybe there are in Alaska? Or Hong Kong?” Colum asked Raleigh, eyes on the younger boys.

Raleigh recognized that look, and that tone. It was the look of an older brother wanting to make everything alright for his younger siblings; hope that their innocent silliness might go on unimpeded. The heir then, and one who no doubt felt keenly the weight of those encroaching responsibilities. It was a look Yancy had worn often in their shared childhood, intervening in those moments when Father was in particular moods.

The last thing Raleigh wanted was to be a man the elder boys felt they must protect the younger from.

“The sword was a gift for Prince Charles, upon occasion of his wedding,” Raleigh replied. “But it is not magic. Steel and ivory, that is all. As with all things, its strengths are balanced against its weaknesses.”

“Swords are swords, though,” one of the younger boys said.

That statement led almost immediately into a spirited conversation about the curve and weight balancing and blade length of a dozen different commonly used sword types, and Raleigh let them have it., going back to his lunch instead.

And had they referred to him in the third person? As if he wasn’t there at all?

What a strange group of boys. Hercules would have to do something about the atrocious lack of manners.

+++++

The best thing, Raleigh believed, about the Castle Sydney was the hot springs that fed the royal baths; a balm for aching muscles still healing from a Kaiju drubbing.

(The second best thing was that the baths were sex-segregated. No possible chance of running into Jazmine and Charles together.)

Raleigh hadn’t even bothered with the evening meal. Hercules was not a man to stand on ceremony, but certain things were required, and it was tradition that the king took his supper with family and whatever other high-born folk or guests might be in the castle that night. That would have meant the boys, and Raleigh had not had the energy for that. He’d taken a long ride that afternoon and come straight down here.

He wasn’t even sure how long he’d been in the baths, when company finally joined him.

“The boys were quite enthusiastic about their new sword master tonight,” Hercules said without any preamble, padding naked and barefoot into the steam of the rock-hewn chamber.

Raleigh looked the other way as his old lover stepped down into the baths. On the other side of the pool, at least, which was a mercy. How he desired to close the distance between them, straddle his king’s lap and welcome him home. He was sure he could make the motions, but the rest of it... he did not want a tumble. His affection for Hercules had always been more than the actual act of sodomy itself, but his heart itself was scarred. How could he trust himself?

The worst thing Raleigh could imagine was having his king’s cock inside him once more, and feeling nothing.

“I am glad I made an impression on them.”

“An impression? I should say so. They would not stop pestering me as to your service history. The scars were a bit dramatic for my taste, but if it communicates the message clearly to the boys...”

“What did you tell them?”

“Raleigh, if you do not wish to be a prince for your year here...”

“What are you talking about?”

Hercules looked at him askance. “I understand you did not tell them your name.”

Raleigh frowned. “Did I need to?”

“Raleigh, these are boys from the deep deserts and far mountains of my lands, not yours. They have no idea who you are.”

“But the tourny...”

“You know I always send the pages off to the mountain garrisons for tourny month.”

And that was true - the only reason Yancy and Raleigh had been allowed to attend in the years when they were in Sydney was due to Father. He’d viewed it as a vital education in diplomatic relations. Hercules thought the entire thing a distraction. And of course. The boys had only returned to the castle yesterday.

“I suppose...”

“... you have never been anywhere where people did not know your name?” Hercules finished for him, interrupting with a wave of his hand.

Was that it? Had he just assumed the boys knew who he was? Perhaps that was part of it, but after that strange discussion at lunch... “Oh, I have. Father was concerned for my safety out in the field.”

“A nom de guerre?”

“Yes. He was quite insistent on it.” Raleigh laid a hand on the surface on the warm water, bubbles sliding up between his spread digits. “A number of people still knew who I was, but they knew to respect my incognito status.”

Hercules was quiet for a moment and then, running a hand through his wet hair, asked, “is there any reason why you chose not to bring it up with them? I do not believe you so arrogant as to assume all peoples of the Earth know you on sight.”

“I am not sure if they would be entirely comfortable with it,” Raleigh said, but it did not quite feel like the admission it should have been. “They seemed to be quite pleased that they were not dealing with a man they had to defer to. And how are they to learn from a prince, bowing and scraping while they’re supposed to be practicing forms? They need rigor, not fear.”

“Rank does complicate things,” Hercules agreed. “But I would think your status as a warrior should override those concerns.”

“Yancy left me here to distance myself from the warrior,” Raleigh replied.

“Well, he certainly did not leave you here to distance yourself from your family title...”

“I do not see what good I do my family title,” Raleigh interrupted. “Some day soon, Mako will bear Yancy a son and my last duty as Prince will be extinguished. You, however, seem to have need of me in the yard as sword master. I would rather be something of use.”

Hercules flicked at the water, but nodded. “If that is how you wish it, I will not tell them different.” Hercules ran a wet hand through his hair. “They won’t know you if you do not wish it.”

“I think it will be better for them.”

“Indeed,” Hercules said drily. “Know that this does mean I treat you as my enlisted man, with everything that entails. Meals, clothing, a stipend without additional luxuries...”

As if he needed much. He’d spent years in rough garrisons, in tents, in a dozen other, less pleasant places. And not dealing with the niceties of court would be a welcome relief. He could just focus on... whatever it was Yancy wanted him to focus on here. “I am satisfied with my current lodgings. I need nothing else.”

“Raleigh...”

“Yancy was right. I need a change.”

“Neither you nor I can unmake what you are, dear boy.”

“But you can define it, my king,” Raleigh said hopefully. It did seem like a rather good idea. Court was no doubt the source of the weakness he’d been feeling in himself of late. Maybe refocusing on who he was, the man he’d made for himself, was the best way of healing this ache in his heart. “And isn’t this the service you wished for me to render to you?”

Hercules flicked the water. He was irritated, but at what, Raleigh had no idea. Hadn’t he given the position freely? “I would think that my grievously injured sword master could still avail himself of the king’s own bath house. Privacy, away from his students.”

“Thank you, sire.”

“I’ll have my orders to my tailors adjusted. Wouldn’t do to have you traipsing about in brocade, now would it?”

Raleigh was fairly certain Hercules was joking, but the newest styles out of California had become far more ornate in the past few years, so who knew? “Thank you, my king.”

“And there was one more matter I shall have to discuss with you.”

“Yes, milord?”

“A small question of fealty,” Hercules replied. “I was not intending for a public ceremony, but if you wish to abdicate your position for a lesser one, I am afraid I must insist upon something.”

Raleigh felt his heart speed up. Swearing fealty to Hercules was tantamount to surrendering his status as an Alaskan. “Milord...”

“I am not asking you to betray your brother, Raleigh. But if you are my man, you must be mine.”

He grasped for Hercules’ hand underwater and, finding it, lifted it to his lips. “I love your country as I love my own, milord. Whatever you ask of me, I give without hesitation. I would die for your House.”

“And me?”

“Yes sire,” he murmured, clinging tight to his king’s hand, “I would die for you.”

A smile quirked at the corners of Hercules’ mouth, but he said nothing more about it, just tugged a little at Raleigh’s hand.

Urging him closer, Raleigh knew, but he couldn’t go. Not with his heart wrapped in fog as it was. He slid back into his place against the smooth marble tub, and shifted until his entire left side was underwater.

“Ah,” Hercules said. “If I have made you uncomfortable, I shall g-“

“Please do not, milord. My shoulder... it is only my shoulder bothering me tonight. I would be no good for you right now.”

“My dear boy, of all the things I might demand of you, that, I promise, will be the last.”

Raleigh desperately hoped Yancy was right; that this was his chance to set things to right in his head, and perhaps find a way to be his king’s boy once again. As it was, merely being in the same space with him was soothing, and they stayed there together in comfortable silence until Raleigh started yawning and Hercules ordered him to bed.