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Gentlemen of the Shade

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Of all my ghosts, I did not expect yours to be the one to come to me, in these hours before my death. Whose ghost did I expect? Why, our wife's of course. My lady, and yours. Or maybe the ghost of him who was not father in blood but body, and what a body, a glorious barrel of it, but then Sir John sleeps in Arthur's bosom, as the hostess said, and is not likely to wake on my account. Did he come to you, in the hour of your death? I thought he might, you know. For you. And here you are. I am honoured, my lord. If soon the head lies on the stock that was wont to lie on Queen Cathérine's lap, at least I'll have spent my last hours in noble company to equal hers.

I talked to your son of Agincourt, your grace, the way you wished us to. I talked of valiant deeds, and how we were a band of brothers, and how you led us all to everlasting glory. I did not talk of Bardolph, white livered and red faced, or Nym, who never broke any man's head but his own against a post when he was drunk, and how you had them hanged, though they caroused with you in taverns not that long ago before that war. I did not talk of Pistol with his killing tongue and quiet sword who needed me to take a Frenchman prisoner, and I a boy that almost shat himself when the French came for the luggage wagons. I did not die that day because I hid, as my old master would have done, Sir John, who died in his bed. No, I did not tell your son about these rogues, for he is a King, poor lad, and was when but a babe from the day you breathed your last. But I told his brothers, my own sons, for I wish them to live, and that is hard to do so near a crown, and yet so far. Now God, stand up for bastards!

When I first met Sir John, that was what I said I was, too. The bastard son of an alehouse keeper. Why yes, I met him in an alehouse. Where else, my lord?

"Now that is not a good tale, lad," said Sir John. "Say rather that you are the long lost scion of the princes of Wales. If it will not get your tab paid, it might bedazzle a wench, and you'll taste sweetness one way or the other."

So that is who I became: Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudor, godson of Owain Glendower himself, though only after he was dead. I never told Captain Fluellen this when you were leading us to glory in France; he might have spared some time from his feuding with Pistol to give me a solid whipping. As it was, he did ask me once what a Welsh lad did following English braggarts about, and why I was not in service to a good Welshman instead.
"Why, I am only doing what you do, too, Captain," said I, and he looked at me in disbelief, for had I just called our most noble lord and king an English braggart?

"Serving my country by serving the King," I added in haste. "Who was born in Wales, was he not? And was prince of Wales. If I have to render service to a swasher or three in order to come to France and serve the king, that is but a trifle."

"Gan bwyll," he said, and let it go. But he did not need to tell me to be careful. I knew I had to be. If you had heard me that day, you would have laughed, I think, but you would have marked me, and it was never a good thing to be marked by you, or any King.

Yes, you are right. I was glad to be marked by a queen. But I will not think of her now, or I would weep.

I'd rather think of my youth again, when I left Wales behind and its sweet, bitter poison of longing to be free once more, which led a great many of my kin, be they descended from Welsh princes or Welsh shepherds, to their deaths. I left it all behind for England, and service to an English knight.

He never paid me well, did Sir John, if he paid me at all, which was so rare that I am still not sure I only dreamed he did. But he always found a roof under which to stay, and thus I with him; a feast to take part in, even if he was never the host; and women to please any man's eye, and hand, and every part of him, even if not all of Sir John's parts could appreciate it anymore. But he found ways around this, too, round and round, and that was good to know, that there were more ways to please a wench than one, if you were a boy eager for such knowledge. He loved words, too, almost as much as he loved food, and thus I came to see there is song in your language, too, and took it for my own. No, I was not born with it. If nothing else I ever said about myself is true, believe this, my lord: that I am Welsh, and your words were as foreign for me to learn once upon a time as your wife's tongue was. As sweet to learn, too.

Why yes, I speak of French, and French I speak. She told me once that you claimed not to speak it when you two first met, though all English nobles did; I learned my first French from Sir John. I did not tell her that I was not surprised, for you have always loved your games of pretense. She never knew I knew you before you were King, or rather: that I had seen you often in those days. Did anyone truly know you? I think not.

Sir John thought he did, of course, and that was his undoing.

When he told me that you were the King's son, I did not believe him, that first time I saw you, or rather: I thought it to be true in the same way I was the descendant of Welsh princes. "That snoring, no good youth," he said, that winter night when it was so cold even in a tavern that everyone shared beds, tables and haystacks that could, and a bed fellow like Sir John, who took much space but gave ample warmth, was a boon, "that skinny maypole next to me is the King's son, our future lord and master, boy, so make your bow."

You had not snored, you were awake, if drowsing next to him, which was why he had said what he did, and the way he did it. "The Prince and Sir John enjoy a merry war of words," was how Nym later put it in his ponderous manner; I would have called it something else. A jousting, perhaps, because jousts always carry the danger of actual hurt, and all who joust know that, but they do not mean to kill. And yet perhaps Nym had the right of it after all, given how it all ended. That day, though, I simply thought you another idle fellow who followed Sir John, and maybe even a threat, supplanting me as his page, though you looked a bit too old for this office. Besides, it truly was very cold, and I had looked forward to letting the ample, warm flesh of Sir John Falstaff warm me.

"I'll not, for Tudor shall supplant Plantagenet," I therefore said, and kicked you out of his bed. Sir John laughed so hard he lost his breath, turned red, and for a moment I was afraid he'd die. You blinked, then stared, and then laughed, too.

"If you cannot do more than take my place between the sheets, boy, such ambition will cost you your head. Have you no further goal than that? Pray aim a dagger at my breast at least!"

That was when I knew Sir John had been telling the truth about who you were. Not because of what you said, but because of how you said it; I heard your English words with my Welsh ears, and they were spoken as nobility speaks, the very accent setting you apart. The winter's chill around me doubled as I thought of all you could do to punish my insolence, one ghastly spectacle tumbling another in my mind.

Later, much later, when I had time to think without my heart's blood pounding in my ears, and was alone, I thought: he is the son of one that took the throne by having, it is said, his cousin killed that sat on it before, and jests of daggers? And I could not tell whether this made you brave, or cruel towards the past. But here, between red-faced Sir John and you, I simply thought: Please do not have me killed, nor take my hand or ear or tongue for my poor choice of words! Please let me live! Yet this is not what I said out loud. I thought to make you laugh again, for men who laugh, so Sir John once said, such men do not find time to kill.

(He erred about this, too.)

"My lord," I said, leaving that bed and belatedly making my bow, "I would not take any office that is yours, only your burdens. For I fear Sir John would have squashed you in his sleep. I'll gladly die for my prince, and save my master from such grave a sin!"

"See if I'll let you share my ale tomorrow, young knave," Sir John huffed when he could finally speak again. You laughed once more; I was relieved. Then you added: "I shall not forget such a generous offer, boy," entirely without a smile, and I found that my teeth chattered as I left the room while you climbed back to warmth.

Years later, when I met your brothers, who told Cathérine they would rule your kingdom and hers for your son and that she, being woman, was not to have a voice in this, and was not to raise her son beyond his earliest years, I thought I understood at last why you fell in with Sir John in the first place. They were able, responsible men, your brothers; they did not wish our lady harm, and certainly not her son, and yours; they wished to do what was best for him and the realm. But there was no kindness in them, either. There was duty, there was gravity, there was strength. They were like the statues I saw in many a church, to be admired, and cold to the core. There was no warmth there, in any of them. I am not sure there was in you. But I think you craved it. For a while.

It's cold now, too. But I've grown old without growing in mass, unlike Sir John, and my flesh and bones cannot provide warmth. And you are spirit, if you are here at all, and my poor brain has not grown soft from the knowledge that I shall die soon. Sir John saw all manner of things when he knew he was dying. Why, he saw a fly on Bardolph's nose, and pronounced it burning in hellfire.

I shall tell you a secret: I felt relief when he died. I was glad, even. I was young, and had grown weary of his stories, his lies, his sighs, his smell of beer and piss and sweat in those last months after your coronation. I wanted to be free of him, I wanted to go to France with you and be a hero, not spend the rest of my life at the whim of an old drunkard and his cronies. And yet I knew I could not leave before he died; there was too much guilt in me for that, knowing what it had done to him when you told him you knew him not. I envied you for what you'd done, the perfect cruelty of it, the indescribable freedom it had brought. No, I did not blame you, feeling as I did. I also thought that you were right in another way: Sir John would not have changed. If you had called him to court, kept him with you, he'd have abused any office you'd given him, taken the money while letting others do the work, he'd have jested where seriousness was warranted and would never have treated you as anyone but the boy who'd shared his bed that winter night, and who'd have respected you then? So you were right, my lord, and perfectly justified. But you did not need me to tell you this.

And yet, and yet: there is no man I've missed more as I grew into manhood, and then into age. When we returned from France, the victors of Agincourt, I wanted Sir John to jest me out of my thoughts of all the other dead boys of the luggage train. To feel his solid warmth melt away the chill that came with the memory of Bardolph and his glowing nose swinging from a tree at your command. I wanted him to tell me that no one can eat honour, and hiding as I did had not marked me as Cain, living at my dead brothers' expense. Living, but in eternal coldness.

You had been kind enough to make me a squire in your household after Agincourt, I know not why, and the rarified air at court reminded me of that winter chill long ago, stretched into eternity. Of course I was glad to have such a place, such an enviable office. I was no Falstaff, no; I did what I was asked to do, and only jested in mellow harmlessness that would not have upset a nun. And I always, always, kept out of your sight as far as I could. Until one night, when finally something in me broke, and whispered in my ear: why live at all, when you behave as if you'd died in France? I grew drunk, and danced on the table, stumbled, and fell into your wife's lap. It was the unseemliest thing I'd ever done since dragging the heir to the crown out of Sir John Falstaff's bed. The Queen looked at me, and smiled. She smiled differently from you, our Cathérine; with her eyes as well as with her mouth, and all of her body growing soft, not coiled like yours, whose mind was always searching for the next phrase to shape into a weapon. And thus the cold around me started to thaw at last, and I felt warm again.
When you died, I was sorry. Do you believe me, your grace? I would not, were I in your shoes, which I was, in a way, a short time later. You died of dysentery, in France, the way so many of your soldiers had died before you. I was not there to see it, but I'd seen it often enough. I could imagine every sordid, agonizing detail. This I would not have wished on my worst enemy, and you were never that, my lord. You were, at that point, a lode star, shining in remote glory; the most able soldier to sit on the English throne since that Edward who started the French wars almost a century ago. All Christendom envied us our king, and our power. I felt privileged to have been part of it, and still somewhat ashamed that I survived, and how I did it, though the far greater part of me was glad. For such a king to die so young was a cruel stroke of fate, surely.

Yet there was also that traitorous thought: with all of that, had you been happier than the young man I'd met in the tavern? Your subjects loved and revered you as their king, something that dazzled from a distance, like a crown. Your Queen respected you and never quite lost her awe, she later told me, and her gratitude for your kindness in pretending she had a choice instead of forcing her. You took her for France, she took you for England, and that was worthy and royal and good, but, speaking as someone who held her in his arms for fifteen years after because she wished him to, love it was not. Sir John, though, my master who had not been a good man and did not respect you at all, had loved you. You made each other bleed, one way or the other. And if you've broken his heart, he, I sometimes think, took with him what was breakable in yours.

Yes, you're right. No one knows what is in anyone else's heart, and we all have but one way to love, our own. And mine has now led me to my death as surely as Sir John's did to his, and your love of glory led you to France, and thus eventually to yours. When Cathérine died, they put me in a cell for having loved a queen; you'll understand why I still don't think too kindly of your brother Gloucester, the prime mover in this. Your son, though, your son let me go, and made my sons, his brothers, earls. He's a mild man, your son, without hate or cruelty in his heart; his mother's son. So what else could I do, when his wits started to leave him as much as the loyalty of his subjects did? When his cousin of York pronounced his claim to the throne?

I know what your family does with deposed kings. I could not let this happen to your boy, and hers. So I took to the field, and I fought, as I had not at Agincourt, and I lost. Is that why you have come to me? Because I finally fulfilled my debt to you, my sovereign, and fought in your cause? Or because I did not fulfill it, as I could not defeat your son's foe?

I could not protect him. That is why I am most afraid to die, truly: because she is waiting for me, my queen, my beloved, and I shall have to face her and tell her that I could not save her son. They will kill him now, the way your father killed his cousin Richard. How could she forgive me for failing her like this?

You told me I would lose my head, once. You always told your prophecies in jest.

What's that? Truly? My son's son? You swear?

Oh, how Sir John would have laughed.