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Nobody's Good Son

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Geoffrey rode through the night, over rocky hills slippery with frost, and John followed. Sometimes Geoffrey thought that he heard his brother calling to him, but the wind was high, and his horse's hooves rang loudly against the hard earth, so he was never sure.

It was bitterly cold. Geoffrey hadn't had time to change after Henry had ordered him from Chinon, and wore only a cloak he'd stolen, and the chausses and tunic he'd been sleeping in before Henry threw him into the dungeon with his brothers earlier that night. He barely felt the reins his fingers clutched, and the skin across his knuckles was cracked and flecked with dried blood. He would almost have bartered his soul and all hope of the crown for a warm bed and a flagon of hot wine.

Almost.

When the sky began to lighten, he reined in his horse at the crest of a hill, dismounted stiffly, and waited for John. There were no clouds. Leaning against his horse's saddle, Geoffrey was certain that he could see every star in the sky. But they were fading quickly. In a few minutes only the brightest remained. Then they flickered out and John was clattering up beside him, breathing heavily.

"You might have waited," he wheezed petulantly. "Or slowed up. I almost lost you twice."

"You should have followed Richard," said Geoffrey.

"Richard? He'd've killed me!"

"As I said, you should have followed Richard."

"You're a bastard, you are. That's not funny. I'm freezing."

That was clear, even in the half-light; John's lips were blue and his shoulders hunched miserably. He looked about to drop. Geoffrey felt a small pang, wondered briefly if it was pity, dismissed it as scorn. What had Richard called John when they'd met the other day in Chinon's outer bailey? This walking pustule. Henry's favorite son. Geoffrey snorted.

"I said it wasn't funny," John said through chattering teeth. "I'm starved. Have you got anything to eat? We should find an inn. God, it's cold enough to freeze piss! Father will take me back, won't he?"

"Turn back and find out," said Geoffrey. He folded his arms across his chest, shoved his fists into his armpits, but that only helped a little.

John looked over his shoulder and Geoffrey followed his gaze. In the distance, he could see a low line of mist rising from the river Loire, but nothing beyond that. He did not know how far they'd ridden. It occurred to him that he had better get his bearings at some point; Philip was waiting for him and would probably not linger more than a day or two.

"I can't go back. Not right now," John was saying. "You saw how angry he was." His hand went to his throat, as though to shield it once more from Henry's sword.

"I saw," said Geoffrey. His feet were like blocks of ice. He stamped them impatiently.

"But he'll take me back. He has to, hasn't he? You'll tell me what to say to make him stop being angry. Of course," John went on with a trace of the boyish smugness he'd shown at Chinon, "he hasn't got a choice, has he? He can't make Richard king now, not after finding out about him and Philip." He made a face. "God, that was funny. I could have died laughing."

"No doubt you would have," said Geoffrey evenly, "if Richard had caught you."

John chuckled. "I'm as good as king now, even if Father is angry. I can get an heir. I'm really all he's got. What do you think I should do with Alais when I'm king? Maybe I'll lock her up with Mother. That would be funny."

Later, Geoffrey would wonder just when it was that something inside him snapped. He didn't feel it. He couldn't feel anything; the dawn had brought no warmth. As John prattled, their father seemed to appear behind him, pale as the mist over the Loire.

I'm it, I'm all that's left. Here, Father; here I am.

But Henry's eyes were like the stones beneath Geoffrey's feet, and they never saw him.

"You, king?" said Geoffrey. "That's funny."

John's mouth stayed open, but the flow of words stopped abruptly. The specter of their father vanished.

"John, by the Grace of God," Geoffrey mocked. "If you think Henry would make you king now, you're as cretinous as you look."

John struggled visibly, found his voice. "He has to! Who else is there?"

"Who else?" demanded Geoffrey. "I begin to suspect I'm invisible. Or perhaps blindness is a Plantagenet trait, along with grey eyes and the tendency to babble witlessly, as exhibited here by you."

John flushed. "You want to be king! Why?"

"Why?" said Geoffrey. "Why not?"

"Father loves me, not you! Anyway, you're Duke of Brittany. Isn't that enough?"

"Would it be enough for you, for Richard?" Geoffrey replied. It was hardly an answer and he could see that John realized that much, but he didn't care. "Turn around and ride back, John. You've nothing to gain by following me. I urge you not to try."

"You sound like Richard." John's voice was thin and raw.

"I'm nothing like Richard. I believe in knives in the dark and broken promises. Christ, there's little else I believe in. Don't you know that by now?"

"I can't go back to Father now. Not yet. Geoff, please."

"John. There is a dagger in my boot. It's one of the ones Mother so thoughtfully brought us. I can't feel anything, but I'm sure I could have it out before you came three paces forward. I'm quite sure I'd continue to feel nothing while stopping you from coming any closer."

"Bastard," John snuffled. "Bloody bastard."

Geoffrey shook his head. "I'm a legitimate son of Henry, King of England, and Eleanor of Aquitaine. It's eleven eighty-three, and I am a barbarian. And I shall be king. Now, turn around and go home to Daddy. Or Mother. I don't care. I'm done with you."

But it was Geoffrey who turned away. Except for his dripping nose, John appeared to have frozen. He sat in his saddle, jaw slack, reins limp in his hands. He looked very young, Geoffrey thought as he remounted and started to ride away, and lost.

*

He half-killed his horse, but shortly after sundown he made it to the inn he and Philip had agreed upon as a rendezvous point should things go very badly at Chinon.

"You took your time," Philip said after ordering more wine, bread, and cheese.

Leaning as close to the fire as he could without singeing himself, Geoffrey said, "I had to shake off John. He insisted on following me."

"Given up on pretense, have you?"

Geoffrey shrugged and tore a hunk from the loaf of bread the innkeeper had set between him and Philip. He was very hungry, but he only plucked at it, his gaze on the flickering flames. "I've turned honest. It's a Christmas miracle."

"Praise the Lord," said Philip dryly. "I still don't entirely trust you."

Geoffrey's lips quirked. "Who would?"

"Have some wine. You're practically blue. I'm getting cold watching you. So, John is officially an enemy?"

Geoffrey dropped the bread to the floor, took the flagon Philip pushed at him and drank deeply. "I don't know. I could get him back, I suppose. If we find we need him, I'll think of something. He wants to trust me. As do you, I would imagine."

"Here is my problem," said Philip. "When we spoke before, you were certain you'd have Henry's favor by now. You don't, do you? If you did, you'd be in your bed at Chinon."

"Probably not this early, but no, I don't have Henry's favor yet."

"And you're not likely to get it anytime soon."

Here, Father; here I am.

You're not mine, Henry had said, looking through him. We're not connected. I deny you.

"Not very likely," Geoffrey replied.

"Well, Geoff, I'd rather see you king than Richard or John, if for no other reason than I can carry on an intelligent conversation with you. But I don't like battles I'm not sure I can win."

"No one's on my side," Geoffrey petulantly.

"You sound like John."

Geoffrey looked about for more wine. When his flagon was full again, he turned back to Philip. "Maybe I'll write to John. Tell him I was out of my mind when I all but suggested he throw himself on Richard's sword. Christ. I'm not sure which is worse, sounding like John or sounding like I need him. It's true, though. I have no one. No one would weep if I fell."

Philip clasped his wrist. "That's not true," he chided. "You have me. Not my soldiers, but I'm not no one. And there's someone else."

"What are you talking about?"

"I can think of one poor soul who'll weep if you fall. Not John."

"Mother," said Geoffrey. "Dear, dear Mother. She's secretly loved me all this while."

"Touching," Philip said, "but not very interesting."

"Henry, then, upon realizing he's left with Richard or John. The sodomite and the oaf. Is that why you're smiling? Imagining Henry bowed with grief over my effigy? I hate the thought of him outliving me."

"But you don't mind if Eleanor does?" said Philip.

"Eleanor of Aquitaine," Geoffrey said with a slight smile, "will live to be one hundred and thirty-seven. By sheer will. Or spite. I'm not sure she knows the difference. But maybe you're right. I don't believe Mother is capable of tears. Oh, she might sniffle if Richard fell. Stones crumble, after all."

Philip's eyes were merry with wine and firelight. "They do, but she's not the one. Your wife, man. The Duchess of Brittany." He raised his eyebrows. "Don't tell me you've forgotten little Constance. You're always whining about the things your father never gave you, but he did procure for you an heiress. You only married her two years ago, and you were betrothed almost as long as I've been alive."

"I remember," said Geoffrey. "I haven't given her much thought. I haven't seen her since our wedding."

"Why not?"

"Because," said Geoffrey, turning his flagon and watching the wine slosh, "for one thing, I've had other things on my mind. Mother and Father were fighting. Father was fighting brother Henry. Brother Henry was fighting brother Richard. For another thing, Brittany is mine. There's not much else Constance can give me that I can't get elsewhere. And I've learned to be wary of the brides Henry chooses for his sons."

He glanced up, but if Philip was offended by the insult to his sister, he gave no indication.

"I never courted her," Geoffrey went on, disappointed. "I never saw the point. I'd known since I was nine that I'd marry her someday. She knew it too. She belonged to the Plantagenets since my father deposed the old duke. You might say that we were children together. She was at the Christmas courts, and went with my mother and sisters to Poitiers after Henry took up with the Clifford slut. I saw her there from time to time."

"And was smitten, clearly."

"Strange," said Geoffrey, "the things I remember and the things I don't. She wrote to me, sometimes, when we were apart. Nothing sentimental. She wrote about her day. 'The meat was not to my liking tonight. My dog vomited on the rushes. I have a new dress. It is green. The queen said something witty. I think it will rain tomorrow.'"

He was talking more than usual. He blamed the wine and the fact that he hadn't slept in days. But what harm was there in discussing Constance with Philip? "I remember her letters," he said thoughtfully, "but not the color of her eyes."

"They're blue," Philip said.

"Are they? I suppose it's as good a color as any."

"I guessed the color. For all I know, they're yellow with purple spots. You know what you ought to do, Geoffrey?" Elbows on the table, Philip leaned toward him. "Go to Brittany. Give little Constance a late Christmas surprise. She can't mourn you if she doesn't know you, and if your wife won't weep for you, who will?"

The conversation's morbid tenor seemed to snatch the warmth from the fire and from Geoffrey's body. He began to shiver.

"Get your wife with child," Philip went on, either ignoring or oblivious to Geoffrey's discomfort. "You could be a doting daddy by this time next year. I can see you. Geoffrey and Geoffrey in miniature. Call him Philip."

"I have better things to do," retorted Geoffrey, "than ride to Nantes. Not for Constance. She is not," he added, unconsciously echoing his father's words to Alais, "among the things I love."

"Is anything?"

"That's a rather personal question," said Geoffrey, "don't you think?"

"No," Philip said. "You're relatively frank about what you hate. Why not love? What moves you, Geoff? I ask out of intellectual curiosity, nothing more. I've sensed for some time that we were kindred spirits, but I've never understood it."

Geoffrey remembered his confrontation with John. You want to be king, his brother had accused. Why?

Why? Why not?

Which was no answer.

"Eleanor," he said slowly, "told me that I have a gift for hating. She was wrong. In this world, there are things I want and things I have. Constance falls under the latter heading, England the former. I don't hate." He groped for something more to give Philip, who was watching him intently. In the firelight, his eyes were almost the color of wine. "My parents fail constantly because they care too much one way or the other. For each other, for Alais, for Richard, for John. For my eldest brother, before he died. I see it and I wonder that they don't." He stopped then, because he did not know how to continue.

Philip's laugh sent shivers marching up the back of his neck. "Is that why you won't go see your wife? Because you're afraid you might come to care for something that's already yours?"

"Mine," mused Geoffrey. Constance, he thought, spreading his hands on the table and staring at his fingertips. She'd gone to his bed a virgin; of that much he was certain. But that didn't mean Henry had never touched her. Geoffrey had a vague recollection of cool, slim thighs parting hesitantly, of even teeth biting a lower lip, dark hair unbound against a white pillow. But he had no memory of her face, or of any words they had exchanged in person, apart from their wedding vows. "To have," he said, "is not to own."

"Own her, then," said Philip. "You might as well take some delight in what you have, because I can't help you with England just now. Do it for me."

"For you?" Geoffrey snorted. "Why?"

"Because I think it would amuse me," Philip replied. "As well as answer a question I've had since we first met: in your chest, Geoffrey Plantagenet, is there a human heart, or a stone?"

Geoffrey downed the last of his wine. "You should have asked. I'd have answered and spared you some vexation. A stone, of course."

 

*

Geoffrey spent several more days in Philip's company. They marked the New Year in Paris with Philip's queen. Thirteen years old and clearly smitten with her handsome if less than affectionate husband, Isabelle Hainault innocently did all she was told, including broach the subject of the lonely, neglected Duchess of Brittany at every opportunity. When she insisted that Constance come for a visit – "A splendid idea," Philip told her, smiling benignly – Geoffrey decided that he'd had enough of the French royal court.

And so he found himself, in snowy January, riding southwest along the banks of the Loire. The river brought him close to Chinon again, and he paused when what he took to be the castle appeared like a smudge of coal against the ashen sky. He wondered if Henry was still there, or if he'd already moved his court northward. A channel crossing was dangerous at this time of year, but Henry had done it before and would doubtless do it again.

Imagining that his father had remained at Chinon despite all the bad associations it must now have, Geoffrey lingered on the riverbank and the words came to him again, raw and bitter:

Here, Father; here I am.

But all he heard in response was the wind, and the chunks of ice in the river, grinding against one another and cracking.

He thought of the bed waiting for him at Nantes, and the woman keeping it warm. She remained faceless, but other recollections had met him on the road from Paris. She was Alais's age, or slightly younger, and the girls had been friendly at Eleanor's court in Poitiers. He remembered coming upon them in a courtyard once. Eleven or twelve years old, they'd been giggling, Alais's bright gold head nearly touching Constance's dark one.

She and Alais had been taken prisoner when Henry quashed Eleanor's rebellion; they'd been dragged to England, along with the queen, and locked away for safekeeping. Sometime after that, Alais had become Henry's mistress. Had Constance known? Had Henry ever…?

She'd worn a deep blue surcote at their wedding. Geoffrey could see her hands smoothing the fabric, and topazes flashing at her ears and throat. He could see the brown hair falling thickly down her back. But he could not see her eyes. It annoyed him that he could not see her eyes.

He wondered what had happened to John.

 

*

 

Geoffrey reached Nantes in the late afternoon. The snow had stopped some hours before, and the clouds had thinned but not parted. There were few at work in the castle bailey, but Geoffrey found someone to look after his horse, and someone else to fetch him a dry cloak and something hot to drink.

He asked about the Duchess, he was told that she was in her room.

"I'll go to her," he said. He was stiff, sore, and cold despite the drink. Every pore felt stuffed with the dust of the road. But if he stopped now, he was afraid he would not be able to start again. No wonder, he thought as he entered the great hall, his father seemed perpetually to be in motion; he couldn't not be, and keep the things that were dear to him.

Geoffrey found the door to his wife's room unlocked. He didn't knock.

If Constance was surprised by his appearance, it was impossible to tell. She was seated by the window, and against the brightness, her features were dark. As he approached, she did not move except to drop her embroidery lightly to her lap. She didn't speak, only made a small sound that was neither a gasp nor a sigh when Geoffrey caught her chin between his thumb and forefinger and tilted her face up to his.

Her eyes were brown. Her lips, stained berry red, were full and well shaped. Thick eyebrows and a longish nose somewhat marred her beauty, but Geoffrey was by no means repulsed. A few strands of chestnut hair had escaped her wimple. Smiling, Geoffrey tucked them away.

"Well," Constance said at length, "am I the future Queen of England?"

"Such a loving greeting for your husband." Geoffrey was amused. "News travels quickly from Chinon. Or maybe you heard Henry bellowing. He did a lot of it."

"Actually, Philip wrote to say that you were coming. He told me some of what happened at Christmas. He seemed to think you had need of me."

"Did he now?"

"Yes, though he was hardly forthright about it."

"He would not be Philip if he were."

"No." Her brown eyes were calmly expectant. Geoffrey stroked her chin in thoughtful silence for a moment.

What had she imagined in the days since Philip's letter arrived? She'd spent part of her childhood in Poitiers, had attended Eleanor's courts of love, or had at least been aware of them. Ten years since Henry disbanded those courts, was her head still full of the nonsense of troubadours, of cavaliers and their ladies? Was it possible she'd cast him as a Tristram or a Lancelot?

No, he thought. He read curiosity in her face, but no silly hope. She wasn't stupid. Still, he wondered what she'd do if he played the romantic.

"I missed you, darling," he said.

Her eyebrows lifted.

"Surprised? It's true I've been less than attentive."

"You've been less than present," said Constance.

"Here I am," Geoffrey said.

"When you've nowhere else to go."

Geoffrey traced her lower lip with the pad of his thumb, enjoying the way she stiffened and lowered her lashes. "Some men," he said pleasantly, "dungeon up their wives when they get too saucy. Salisbury Tower is popular, I understand."

"I trust your mother is well," said Constance flatly.

Geoffrey released her. "She is."

"I'm glad. She was kind to me when I was a girl. And your father?

"He's well," said Geoffrey irritably. "Everyone is well." He should have waited, he thought. Bathed. Ate. Slept. Thought this through more thoroughly. He silently cursed Philip for alerting her, cursed himself for letting his temper slip so quickly. It wasn't like him. He wondered if she knew that.

"I'm glad," Constance said again.

Geoffrey decided to switch tactics. "Do you wish I'd taken you to Chinon with me?"

"No," said Constance.

"Why not?"

"Because," she said, her gaze on her hands as they folded the embroidery neatly, "from what Philip wrote, I gather the Christmas court was not much fun."

"That depends," Geoffrey said, "on your definition of fun. Henry and Eleanor going at each other was entertaining. Alais attempting to show her claws was worth a chuckle. I learned some interesting things about my brothers. Well, interesting might be too strong a word to use in reference to John. Philip played Richard for a fool in front of Henry. That was almost worth being thrown into the dungeon."

He'd added that last in an attempt to win a sympathetic word or look. When he received neither, it occurred to him suddenly that he did not much like this woman, and he knew why. It wasn't her charmless personality. It wasn't the fact that she had once been close to his father's mistress; he was sure now that Henry had never touched her. It wasn't the fact that, upon learning he was coming, she hadn't even bothered to pluck her eyebrows. It wasn't anything about her particularly.

In giving her to him, Henry had essentially consigned him to Brittany. Which was no small thing, but it wasn't a crown or even a step toward one. He'd been betrothed to her at seven; as long ago as that, Henry had dismissed him as heir to the throne.

He realized something else: he did not care if his wife wept for him or not. He desired recognition, consideration – not love.

"Here's a new idea," Geoffrey said, lowering himself to window seat. "Let's be frank with each other."

Constance put her embroidery aside and raised her head. "All right."

"I'm not," said Geoffrey, "and never will be a doting husband. As far as I know, there are none in Christendom, whatever nonsense you might have been fed in Poitiers."

"I was fed a great deal," Constance replied, her pretty mouth curving in a smile, "and swallowed very little. I saw what Henry did to Poitiers when he thought the queen was raising a rebellion against him."

"Good," said Geoffrey. "Very good. Knowing that, I feel no need at all to dress this up chivalrously: I need an heir. I want to be king, and a healthy child would strengthen my bid."

"I know that both your brothers want to be king too. Why? I don't mean about Richard and John. Why you? I don't really know you, so I'm forced to ask – isn't Brittany enough? We Bretons like it here."

"John asked the same question when I left Chinon," Geoffrey said. "So did Philip, when I met him on the road to Paris. I didn't really answer either of them, and I'm not really going to answer you. Only this: Eleanor wants Richard, Henry wants John."

"Who wants Geoffrey?" said Constance.

He was quiet.

"I would not mind seeing a son of mine crowned King of England," Constance went on, either missing or choosing to ignore the shift in his mood. "Or a husband of mine. I'm no Eleanor of Aquitaine, but I'll support you. I only want one thing in return. As long as we're being frank with each other."

"So we are. Well, what do you want?"

"To be more," Constance said, "than a pawn. I've been one all my life, and I'm tired of it. I don't mean for you to take me with you wherever you go. But talk to me sometimes. Try to trust me."

For the past few minutes, her hands had rested calmly in her lap. Now Geoffrey took them in his and lifted them, first the left, then the right, to his lips. They were cold, the knuckles dry. He turned them over and kissed the palms.

Nothing had changed. He felt no stirring of warmth for this woman – and was glad. It would have been too strange. But he could appreciate her candor, her boldness. He could, he thought, drawing her against him, come to appreciate more of her.

She looked away from him then, out the window. The burnished sunlight turned her lashes copper. "Right now?" she stammered.

"Why not?" said Geoffrey. "We live in barbarous times and we're not getting younger. Were you planning on doing something else this afternoon?"

"No," Constance said, turning back to him. The blush that played across her cheeks made him think of the giggling girl from Poitiers. He remembered the way her hair had tumbled down her back. He wanted to see it that way now, dark against her bare skin, tangled around his fingers. He let go of her hands and cupped her warm face between his palms.

"But it's day," she whispered.

"So?" said Geoffrey. "On the list of things I'll be called upon to answer for in the next life, this will be so far down that it won't even matter."

"What about me?"

"What about you? If you're with me, you're with me. If not—"

She covered his hands with her own.

"Good," Geoffrey said. "Anyway, it will be dark soon enough."

12/15/2007