With a heavy sigh, Jaques brought both of his hands up to rub over his face, feeling the roughness of palms that should only have ever touched paper and ink. It was impossible, simply beyond thought and comprehension and outside of all believable reason, but then when had his life last conformed to the niceties of sensible crime and consequence? Perhaps, indeed, he sought it out himself and everything since and forward would continue to be his sole fault.
Oh, how proud would the late patriarch have been of his progeny, he thought as a short humorless laugh rose up from the back of his throat. One son unnatural until near death, one son as bright as a guttering candle, and the other son master of his own undoing. It was quite the pedigree. Heaven protect the world from any more de Boys gentlemen!
He looked back over his shoulder towards the mansion's bright interior but made no move to return to the warmth and conviviality of the group he had left within the fine walls. If doom were to come for him, he supposed, it would be the most noble of courses to meet it in a solitary fashion. In that manner, no other soul could suffer for his misdeeds. That, at least, could be counted to his credit in the end, told on the tally in hopes of balancing the many ridiculous adventures of his life. He shook his head and moved his hands further back until he pushed at the unruly chestnut locks that tumbled over his forehead. He ever tended towards solitary contemplation, after all. It would only take the work of a night or two in preparation for flight. He could easily slip the bonds of this court and run headlong into the noose of another. What a pleasant thought.
"In faith, no one shall miss me any more than if I were still at school," he mused. "So long as good reports are received, neither of my brothers care aught for my presence or absence. It is all in the seeming, a world of words and opinions. Why should I concern myself with theirs when they lose no sleep over mine?"
A noise behind him straightened his spine and Jaques closed his eyes for a brief moment. He knew the tread of that soft, dainty foot far too well. In truth, the sound of it only served to strengthen his resolve in the direction of flight. He waited for her to speak in agony of trepidation but to no result. She moved into the place beside him, silent as a shadow and twice as immaterial to his mind. No words, no further motion, just the specter of something out of reach, something beyond his gaining. She was too lovely, too brave, and - more than anything else in the world - too entangled with his brother. Finally, in fear of his own galloping thoughts, Jaques heaved a sigh and leaned forward to better fix his sights on the expansive gardens beneath them. "Tarry with me now, will you?" he asked mildly. The tone was a challenge to manage but he had learned hard lessons about control with more than simply the sweat of his brow. "Your new lord will be worried for your honor."
He chose his words well for they startled a laugh from the slim woman beside him. "My honor?" she repeated with clear amusement. "Truly, there is nothing to challenge my honor either here or in your person. Jaques, you jest so strangely tonight." He sensed her shifting her weight and knew her green-eyed focus had turned from the moonlit roses below onto him. He maintained a solemn face, an expression devoid of all thought or invitation; he needed no further reason to bow under her kindnesses. “As a brother and a friend, there are few your equal. Always excepting my lord, naturally. But as you are brothers and share blood, there is small wonder in that.”
She paused and he felt something stir in the cool air between them. Refusing to turn, though, he could only contemplate the introduction of honeysuckle into his immediate sense of the world. Her. The forest of Arden already seeming a lifetime away, Rosalind still carried it with her as other women wore baubles and furs. The sunlight in her hair, the gaily tripping brook in her voice, the dappled leaves in her gaze… And the sweetness of the wildflowers in her aspect. Not for the first time since rejoining his family, he reflected on the utter impossible thickness of his brother’s perception and the flaws therein.
“Are you to stay here?” she asked in carefully guarded tones.
“Am I? Perhaps.” Oh, it was shameful how well he could dissemble. They had taught him too well and the untruths could escape like breath to air. To lie to her was the worst sin, though, a black mark that would take more than his flight to erase. He shook his head. “No, Rosalind, I think not,” he continued before he could compound his agony. “I am much out of tune with this company. I dance alone, a fool’s caper, manic and without a guide.”
He offered a sideways smile and his eyes turned just enough to witness a flicker of confused reaction move over her fair features. He killed the smile mercilessly. Then he turned further to regard her with the unsettling consideration that had more than once brought on nervous laughter and remarks from the others. “It is a veritable Noah’s Ark, this court, and I without a mate would only serve to unbalance the ship’s ballast.”
“Then we shall find you a partner for your steps. It will not be an impossible quest at all.”
“On the contrary, it would prove to be something beyond the willingness of one’s soul. Much like the legendary unicorn, some things are too clever for us poor creatures of mortal clay.”
“Now again you speak in riddles. If your brother could hear you talk such, he would object just as I do. You cut yourself too harshly, brother. Much too close to the quick.” Her fingers flexed but the rest of her thought better of any intended gesture and she held still. Her eyes, though, refused any control she could have possessed and her brows drew together.
He met her clear confusion and unsettling care as well as he could manage. “Ah, but who could be a better judge of our worth than ourselves? God Almighty perhaps but he has chosen to reserve his judgement until the final one. I suppose it could be argued that any knave with a tongue could cast sentence but that way leads to anarchy.”
“So you would rather I kept my high opinion of your nature locked up within my mind?”
He twisted his features into an exaggerated mockery of pain, earning a reluctant laugh and a lost battle. Her hesitant hand lifted again and moved to brush against his forearm. “No,” he admitted and his voice quieted, his expression softening back to the accustomed calm, false as it could be. “I would rather you never bound your tongue’s swift feet or wall up the reaching spaces of your mind. Such gardens are rare and I would not have you squander yours at the behest of mere men.”
“Then it would be good if you stayed here at court. If you truly believe that a woman’s tongue is not to be so guarded as to create doubt, then you shall be my champion. Between the likes of yourself and your brother, I shall manage quite well even without the freedom of the forest.”
Jaques shook his head slowly, a solemn negating act even before her thought finished. “Nay, I think your arguments lack a foundation, my lady, and a house built on swampy ground soon regrets itself. Deeply.” He drew himself back a bare step from her nearness and gave her face a final considering look before he turned his eyes back towards the gardens below. “My brother will serve you well. Beside all else, my duties here are ill-defined and transitory. I think it best if no one takes any serious notice of the spare brother. Our parents were excellent wits at that, don’t you think, by the by? They knew their tales well and it is always three brothers. Three of this and three of that and then you shall have the mathematical ending of a happy tale.”
He fell silent for long moments and, out of either confusion or respect, Rosalind allowed the quiet to settle between them like a heavy blanket. Only the sounds of night, a few stray gusts of amusement from the gathered company within, and the soft breathing of the woman beside him interrupted the calm and he could almost believe in peace and safety. Then something took wing in the distance - a cry, a shiver of leaves, a flash of lightness in the bright moonlight. He sighed beneath his breath. “I should have stayed at school,” he murmured.
“Why did you not? Your brothers wonder but Orlando counseled Oliver to leave it be. In hopes, I believe that you would tell them your strange story without any rough prompting.”
“Why do we ever leave?” He twisted her words easily into a knot and then released them with a faint shrug. “The hallowed halls of learning proved far less riveting than one leads oneself to believe. True, ‘tis a grand tradition and, as the spare son, becoming a proper scholar is as respectable as anything else. Even then, I knew I would not have the temperament for the other choices held to the board. So off to school I went to fill my empty skull with a bit of interest. I dare say it worked though rather less than any of my illustrious teachers wished. Did you know England still has monuments to the old Pagan spirits? That there are still songs about mischievous Puck and claiming queens? In truth, they do and wiser men pay heed.”
“... I am afraid I do not follow your wit on this point. Whatever do schools and stones have to converse over?”
“Myself and myself alone said the tower in the distance. When a silly young man finds no more solace amongst the scholars, he will go a-wandering and he will learn things not found in books.”
“Much learning drives men mad?” she offered, pairing it with one of her wry smiles, the fleeting ones that stopped his heart and brought to mind the stories his brother had told of the time in Arden and of wooing the pretty youth Ganymede. He bit off a laugh, turned it almost into a bark, and shook his head. Her smile flickered again. “Or so I’ve heard tell but that was not the case with you, was it?”
“Ah, no. The gifts of Queen Mab came later. The madness followed fast behind.” Jaques fell silent once more but she let him be this time. He had yet to share the story with another living soul and, to his mind, it seemed beyond the bounds of friendship to even consider shifting the burden to her slim shoulders. And yet she had asked and, more than anyone else in this motley court, his brother’s sweet Rosalind cared enough to notice when he slipped silently from the crowd. He heaved a sigh. “It is the honest truth, my lady,” he admitted. “I grew bored and restless and all of the wonders my teachers could show me seemed to count for nought in my mind because it was not life. Astounding what we believe life to be when we all live so fiercely. But, no, books showed only the semblance of things, mannikins and puppets dancing across the dead pages of history. Arrogance, youth, recklessness. All three are dangerous.”
“You speak as if you were old beyond words.”
“I feel that I am.” He turned just enough to offer another sideways smile that did not quite reach his eyes. “Do I not look the very supposing of a reverend gentleman?”
Her hand lifted quickly but could not quite muffle her girlish laugh. “No, by my faith,” she answered, “you are but a green youth still, head in the clouds and feet tracing the many roads.”
“Ah, then I shall be crowned the great dissembler for, I assure you, I feel more ancient than Methuselah. I creak when I stand and limp through the day and my head is stuffed full of wooly thoughts and dreamings.” She laughed again and he could not stifle his reaction to the sound, a more honest smile curving his lips. “Things change, Rosalind, and the eyes often deceive our minds. As you know, of course.”
“And you were deceived?” she prompted gently and the night nearly hid her delicate blush at the reminder of her days in doublet and hose.
“As much as any soul could be.”
She greeted his weighted words with equally quiet consideration. Finally, gently, she murmured, “You spoke of Pagan spirits…”
“I did. It all sounds like madness, like a dream gone astray into the dark places of night. Like an unripened morsel that rides merry havoc on the senses until one wakes with a groaning stomach.” He looked down at his hands, spreading his fingers wide. A decision rose in his mind and the hesitation fled from his sudden desire for one single person to know before he disappeared back into the places far away. It seemed painfully, urgently important that the person be her, his brother’s beloved intended. “I left school because I was bored,” he finished plainly, “and, because I was bored and passable of face and had all the sense of an ass, I stumbled amongst the stones and the circles and then she came to me. There. That is my ridiculous midsummer’s tale. You are looking at a moon-mad creature only briefly slipped from the leash of the Queen of Air, the Queen of Light. It is to laugh, by my faith.”
“Titania herself, beholden to none but Mab, dismissive of her own liege lord.” He snorted. “The thrice-damned Faerie Queen found me, liked me, and kept me and that, my poor dear Rosalind, is where my youth has gone.”
He turned at the soft gasping noise his words drew from her. “Yes, it is a tale most unusual and impossible to believe and I would laugh had I not lived it myself but I swear by all that I have and will hold holy. It is the honest truth. Me and my pack, off to school, before ink even dried on paper. Oliver groomed as the obvious heir. Orlando, ever the precious young jewel of our father’s eye.” He cut a shallow, almost mocking bow. “I am ever the spare and unimportant son and yet I am the one who was lured into the depths of the forest, given the forbidden fruit, and cast into the goodwife’s rambling tales. How long was I gone? Mere days, I thought. A slight inconvenience but nothing overmuch. It was an adventure and I longed for one without knowing the wisdom of a peaceful life. Though that itself is a dream of a different nature and even my dearest brothers, safe and secure in the familial bosom, faced unwilling instances of their own. I believe Orlando said it was a year. I can hardly account for that but I know him to always be truthful.”
“He is, yes.”
“Painfully full of that acidic stuff, he is, yes.” The look he offered then measured her far too keenly and Rosalind lowered her eyes, roses appearing high on her cheekbones. “In all that year, I reckoned only a handful of days. Not even a seven-night. I admit I did not spare a single thought for my duties or my brothers in that time, short as I thought it to be, so it would be callow of me to chide them for their lack of wonder or concern. I was off to school, after all, and had paid my tutors well enough to send a gilded report or two. No, of course, I shall carry the weight of ingratitude in this course.”
“I am quite certain they thought of you. My soon-to-be lord...”
“Ah, yes. See how ungrateful a cur I am? Naturally, Orlando sent a few wayward thoughts in my direction. I hear tell he chafed under his enforced boundaries and held me to the post with Oliver to show the painful inequality of our fates.” The edge of bitterness shocked even him into silence and he closed his eyes. Taking a slow breath through his nose, he released it through barely parted lips. “That was crudely done,” he murmured. “Forgive me. I should go.”
Her hand barely touched his elbow but the contact rooted him like an iron shackle and he froze in mid-turn. “You judge Orlando too harshly. Oliver, as well, since he has shaken off his jealous greenery and returned to humble sanity.”
Jaques said nothing. There was nothing to say that would not ring as pointed cruelty. He only looked at her and the pretty roses came to her cheeks again. She held his eye steadily now and offered the slightest of smiles. Her hand again reached for him and he found himself transfixed as her fingertips rested on his forearm. He bit his tongue. He could not, would not say another word in defense of himself.
“Orlando would have you settle here and stay,” she said. “It has been too long since the three of you were all at peace with each other, he says, and he imagines your studies and knowledge would be better used here than in the dusty halls.”
“Does he truly?”
“May the Almighty strike me if I lie.” She drew him closer with the barest of touches, seemingly unaware of his rising discomfort. “Would it not be pleasant to linger somewhere quiet and do as you like? From your own words, the past year has not been peaceful to you and I can see that it lingers still over you like some dreary cloud. You look over your shoulder like a stag in the midst of the season. That is, when you think no one else notices. You walk carefully through the rooms and no one has seen you in the gardens past twilight. You keep something in your pocket that brings you some measure of peace. You reach for it when something unsettles you. It is small but weighty. It changes how your clothing rests.” She flushed under his increased study but her gaze held steady against his own. “You believe no one has noticed but I have. We have,” she corrected herself with a deeper blush. “Orlando would…”
Jaques shook his head and her words seized into locked silence at the back of her throat. “You think too highly of us,” was all he offered in explanation, though.
“... Orlando notices, surely he does. But he is so busy with court matters and assisting my father that he cannot attend to your needs quite as readily as he would wish. Consider me his proxy, then, and take my assurances for honest coin. Orlando, aye, and Oliver as well would wish you to stay. No matter what haunts your steps. Orlando can…” An explosively indelicate snort interrupted her impassioned words and she regarded him with reproachful eyes. If he noticed an touch of embarrassment and a ring of too-much in her argument, he relegated it to wishful thinking. After all, every thought within his brain had become wish and fluff; why not her reactions as well? He shook his head to clear it but, this time, he lifted a hand as well to signal for her patience.
As well he needed to, given the edged and weary bitterness that touched his next words, spilling out sudden and unguarded as a strange exhausted resignation touched him. Her concern burned like a brand and soothed like cool falling waters but even she could not solve the problems of his narrowed world. Throwing his golden brother at the blockade only spoke to a farce he could bear no longer. In fact, it dug beneath his wounded skin like the greatest of affronts, the bitter wine of a man saved by a beloved enemy.
"Marry but you are worth a dozen of him but, no, it is none of my business and yet it is somehow. The world revolves around Orlando and it was ever thus. He is like the sun to our people, to you. Is it small wonder that Oliver grew to such loathing and I… Well, then. You know my tale fair enough to judge now. So, my lady, break your wit against this unforgiving rock all you please. I am done and it is no business of mine what you shall do or embrace or however many small golden children shall bear the double crown of you and he. I have plenty enough mischief of my own to keep me occupied until Judgement Day which, I admit, seems to come sooner than I would will."
"In faith, you remind me of another Jaques when you are in this mood and I cannot like it. Yours is a face and mind made for laughter." Her own face twisted with a confused sort of distaste at his words but, to his surprise, the expression lacked the outrage he had expected from his shamefully petty bolts against her intended. It almost let the heart leap until he reminded himself of the facts with brutal efficiency. He had not offered blood offense; she could hold no grudge.
"Ah, yes,” he moved to agree, to fill the sudden silence, but his obliging smile faded as soon as it curved his lips. Bone-tired, this was the meaning of the phrase, the physical reality of the words. He gave a little shrug and lifted his hands, palms up to the sky in old-fashioned supplication. The ghost of the earlier expression moved to linger in his grey eyes, a faint sparkle that hinted at the laughter she wanted but he still refused to give over the battle fully. “That would be my own curse truly. It is this mind that led me far afield and then this countenance took lead and drew a sort of madness like honey to a fly."
"... Are you mad then and not melancholy?"
"Is there much difference?"
"Truly." Against her better judgement, Rosalind allowed his playful response and reaction to ease the tension in her shoulders and she relaxed her position in order to raise her hands, resting them on the balustrade that kept the two of them at the edge of the fine marble balcony - a preventative measure that bore little thinking on given the tenuous nature of royal minds. Madness, indeed, they had joked once in lighter times. "The remedies are worlds apart depending on the illness. Come," she chided lightly. "Tell the medic and take your poison."
"If the doctor is such as you, even poison could heal."
"You speak like a witless fool now. Tell me plainly how I can help. What mischief is at your door that causes such a face? For surely, something more than your story is behind this mood and such words.”
“... I think I have imposed more than enough on your good nature,” he answered after a moment. “You have forgiven me one too many trespasses today. I have already decided that you shall be sainted. Do not make yourself into a martyr.”
“I never will so long as I have breath yet in my body.” She paused and her truthful nature won out, drawing a soft “now” from her.
He smiled sadly, took one more look at the far reaches of the garden, and then turned to face her. Taking her hands, he felt her start at the intimate gesture but he kept his will firmly in hand and showed no outward reaction. No flicker of joy at her warm skin against his or burst of surprise at the way her fingers closed almost immediately around his in tight concern. The motion was pure instinct on her part, he knew, and he silenced his hammering heart without mercy. “You have listened and humored and soothed. It is enough. Now allow me to escort you inside before one of us catches dropsy from this chill night air.”
She peered closely at him. “You will only stop so long as necessary to make your mysterious fare-thee-wells,” she announced in low, stricken tones. “Then you will leave in the night like a thief. Why?”
“Because I cannot risk anyone here. More than even that, may this count as a bright light on my soul, I cannot risk you.” He closed his eyes, lids pressed tightly shut, and bent his head over their clasped hands. “Because the Queen comes and no one can refuse her whims for long.”
“Here? Now? Dare she?”
“She dares all. She is Queen.”
“She is not my queen.” Rosalind drew her shoulders back but kept his hands entangled in hers. Her gaze held only determination now. “I will win you back. She is faerie, after all. If the stories are true, they can never resist a proper challenge. I will best her and you will stay here at court.”
Turning, she squinted across the moonlit lawn, the roses and hedges and glittering pathways. Though she released one of his hands, the other stayed firmly trapped prisoner and she took a step closer to the edge of the balcony. “A challenge! I challenge you for him. He shall not be yours again. I claim him. I claim Jaques de Boys as my own!”
He cringed as her words carried through the still night air. Not only would her words been regarded as direct and irresistible temptation to Titania but heaven have mercy on both their souls if the carousing parties within the palace overheard her all but name him as her prize. Even Orlando would be forced to peer beyond his self-constructed walls of self-involvement and take action on something so blatantly disrespectful of him.
So, he thought with growing wonder, why did he not stop her? For all her height, Rosalind was slim as a young willow and he measured a half head above her. If he so chose, he could easily overpower her and drag her back inside before an answer came.
But he stood there, dumb as a post, rooted to the spot, and watched her raise a small fist into the air and shake it. The noise behind them faded while everything around their small bubble of space sharpened until he could hear her breath, almost hear the beat of her heart. Then, slowly but building surely, laughter edged into his consciousness and his blood slowed to a languorous crawl. He knew that sound. The musical quality was beyond unmistakable. The weave of voices created a whole cloth of delirious noise that every dark corner of his subconscious recognized and responded to with a shudder.
“Do you hear, Titania? Do you dare? Jaques de Boys shall not go with you. He is mine!”
“Is he? You are most deceived, mortal.”
Unable to lift his eyes, Jaques tightened his grip on Rosalind’s hand. He knew the voice. He sometimes still heard it in the depths of his wakeful dreams. “Please,” he murmured, knowing with a growing sick dread that the hour had passed and he no longer could claim to be an active force in the drama about to spin forth. By all his sins remembered…
“Never. You, however, have been. You are not welcome here and you have no power here. Go back to the twilight lands. Go back to the tales of old wives and country folk.”
“Now you are the one daring and risking.” A whisper-cold breeze shivered across the back of his neck as he read the warning in the Faerie Queen’s voice. “If you reference the old ways so freely, then you must know what price one pays for failure. You must surely know the punishment.”
“Only if I fail and I do not plan for that eventuality.”
Jaques looked at Rosalind, the sense of surety and boldness in her words striking through even the growing lethargy brought on by the potent mixture of memory and magic surrounding them. “My lady?” he murmured. “I beg of you. Relinquish this folly before she makes a permanant example of you. I could not bear…”
“And I could not bear the loss of you.” She cut off his words impulsively and he met her flashing eyes with shock. All threads of the magic burned away under her look and he gaped at her like a poor, landed fish. “Yes,” she said, “and we shall have to talk of that later for I must admit that I have not the slightest idea how the story unravels to a new ending but, for now, you must let me do this.”
Against his better judgement, he found a smile on his lips and offered it to her freely. “Then you must not fail, sweet Rosalind. For the days are endlessly long in the twilight lands and my suffering would only be increased by the knowledge that she had you as well.”
“I shall not fail either of us.” With that, she turned all focus towards the end of the garden where a willowy woman now stood, pale and dark and terrible. A wicked twist to her mouth kept the figure from perfect beauty but the potential lingered, bittersweet, a statue without a soul. In contrast, the warm golds and greens in Rosalind shimmered and flamed and Jaques again remembered the greenwood and the first time he saw her, surrounded by the bounty of nature. She straightened, released his hand, and took a step towards the stairs meandering from the balcony to the garden below. “I have made the challenge, Titania,” she called, voice strident once more and head held high. “What say you? Will you grant a boon to this poor mortal if she should triumph?”
“If she should…”
“You must say it.”
A dark eyebrow lifted in something that bordered on surprised amusement. “You doubt my word?”
“As you said, I know the stories told by the goodwives to the little children far too well. I am quite familiar with the bylaws of the contracts cast with the likes of you.”
“Oh, little mortal, you say that as if there were many the likes of me.” The Queen stepped forward and her gossamer train slid over the soft grass behind her, a shimmering river that he dared not look to long upon. She lifted a lily-white hand and made a vague gesture with elegant fingers. “Believe me. In all of the stories and all of the tales and all of the dreams, there exists nothing like myself. I am the Queen of the Summerlands, child, and this world is my toy.”
“Then say the words. There should be nothing to fear from a simple promise.”
Titania’s eyes narrowed dangerously but she still smiled. “I swear.”
“What do you swear?” Rosalind’s words made him close his eyes and bite his lower lip to hide the growing smile. She knew the game almost as well as he had learned it.
Silence rang through the gardens at her nerve. The fey attendants stilled and silenced themselves without so much as an errant hush. Titania stood still and her hands lowered to her sides, the faint smile of superior indulgence gone from her face. He counted five beats of his heart and feared that the sixth might never come, the organ dying in his chest from the stress and suspense. Then sharp laughter rang out and Titania threw her head back and her hands lifted once more as if beckoning her challenger near. Rosalind took a half dozen more steps.
“I swear, mortal. I swear that, should you best me at our challenge, you shall have all claim to Jaques de Boys. He shall be yours until such time as you release him.” Glittering edges shone in her eyes but the words came like honey. “I shall relinquish all claims upon him, his soul, and his body. All that he is shall be yours… Should you overcome my test.”
Jaques moved to press himself harder against the balustrade and wrapped his fingers tightly around the solid stone. It had begun and his very existence was reduced down to a simple prize and point of honor to be won. When the light-dark queen looked up at him, though, he swallowed his breath. He understood the unspoken look. Bowing his head, he forced his hands to loosen their hold and paced to stand at Rosalind’s side. Then he lifted an arm in silent offering. He dared not speak - not in warning, not in gratitude. The challenge had begun and every happiness or misery rested in the hands of the willowy young woman who pressed her fingers so reassuringly against his forearm.
They descended the staircase in perfect time, step matching step. Titania lifted a hand to halt them once they had crossed halfway to her spot amongst the bowers and archways of roses and they stood in close comfort on the springy grass. He felt the tension in Rosalind’s touch and the frisson of her nerves translated into a slight tremble but she remained standing straight as a young tree, defiant despite any better judgement presenting itself in her mind. His heart wrung itself in growing panic. This was far worse than the first time, far more rattling and final.
What use, he thought. What use were his fine words and reputed humor, his books and knowledge and learning? If he could not save this one woman, then it was all for nought. But the magic tangled around him until he kept still and silent and waiting took the place of action.
“Well, then.” Titania smiled pleasantly. “If you are so very determined to have him all to your own self, then you shall have to prove it to me. Prove to me that your claim is greater and more righteous than my own. Prove that he shall not be cast aside at the first hardship.” Her lips parted and her teeth gleamed like cold ice, white pearls set amidst red cinnabar. “You mortals say we are fickle and untrue but we are the ones that understand immortality. We are the ones who commit ourselves to forever and feel the difference between words and truth. Not like you whom a breath of cold can wither, you who can dismiss a promise when a trouble rises.”
“Your challenge, Queen.” Rosalind’s voice had gone chill and the edge in her words mirrored the deadly cut of the Queen’s smile.
“I thought I had given it.” One pale hand motioned expansively towards Jaques and he felt a jolt run through his body. “I challenge you to prove your steadfast heart and your unbending will. I challenge you to hold onto what you claim without failing him or rejecting him.” She extended her hand again in a lazy sweep. “No matter what his form, what his face, what his being… Hold fast, little mortal, or he will return to my court and forget you.”
No sound escaped his throat as the pain came on sudden and blinding. Jaques doubled over, trying to tear his arm from Rosalind’s grip. He felt the change take him and knew, instinctively, that it would not be a pretty one. Sharpening teeth pricked at his lips in his mouth. His muscles ached as they bunched and expanded. Coldness slid over him, paralyzing as time and magic conspired to twist him into some new form.
She never wavered, though. Her fingers like iron, Rosalind resisted his panicked pull and drew him back towards her slim body. While Titania’s words still rang in the cooling air and chased tingles up their spines, she took a deep breath and fixed her gaze on the imperious queen. Beneath her hold, Jaques squirmed with growing desperation as the weight of the situation dawned on him. Small noises, pained and inhuman, escaped him but she recognized them for the horror they held; he might have been in agony but the fear echoed far more strongly in his almost-words. Finally, a hoarse croak resolved itself into some semblance of her name and she looked back down to the man in her arms. Glossy black eyes blinked back at her.
Jaques saw the flicker of terror in her grass-green look and his heart clenched. His resolve strengthened by her reaction, he renewed his struggles in an attempt to free himself. It mattered little that his success would also mean his doom. All he could think of was Rosalind and her fear and her safety. The Queen never forgot a slight and he well knew this but, if he could only slip through the challenge, perhaps Rosalind could continue her life with Orlando free of repercussions. Of course, he would be forever trapped beyond her sight, chained to the court of Titania for all the years left to him but… Small price to pay. With new determination, he flexed his powerful new wings and felt his feathers slide under her grip. He twisted his head to avoid allowing the vicious hook of his beak to come into any sort of proximity with her flesh. Another raucous cry tore from his throat, a wordless plea for her to release him to his fate. Internally, he grimaced at her reaction, the way her arms closed more firmly on his changed body. A beak served no purpose for speaking, for expression, but he felt the frantic disappointment through every cell of his being.
Within seconds, though, the disappointment lost itself under another tidal wave of body-aching magic and he writhed once more in her grip. Another inhuman noise tore itself from his throat and he broke his focus on her to look downwards at his body, the cold terror bubbling anew as he watched the feathers melt back into his flesh and the shimmer of scales rise. Limbs smoothed back against the rest of his torso until he existed only as one enormous column of furious muscle, desperate to escape her confining arms. Her grip tightened despite his threatening fangs.
Another knife-sharp twist of magic rent his body and the creature that was Jaques De Boys changed again. Scales rippled, muscles twitched and expanded until he had limbs once more and they were strong and powerful. Shaggy grey fur spilled over a stocky, new form. It tangled with Rosalind’s grasping fingers and he growled in instinctive annoyance at the way she pulled. A long muzzle turned to snap at her but she avoided the wolf’s bite with determination. Inside, in that small corner of himself that remained himself, relief burst forth like a flood. He still wished she would let go and give up but, knowing her as he thought he did, he knew that for an impossibility and was shamefully glad.
He did not want to go back to the twilight lands. The thought of existing in that halfway state, never changing, never ending, brought fresh waves of horror to his mind. To no longer be himself but, far worse, to grow slowly oblivious to what he had lost. A growl of frustration slipped his clamped muzzle and he arched his neck, head thrashing again. Instincts grew stronger while the Queen’s spell held sway; logic steadily sank beneath primal reactions. Rosalind’s grip tightened.
He changed again. No longer a wolf, he grew enormous, almost too much for her slim arms to ensnare. She strained, though, against every motion he made. Her fingers clutched fiercely at his shaggy brown coat and he growled at the slight pain. A bear. With another low rumble, he leaned his weight away from her and kept his oversized paws firmly on the soft grass beneath them. Focus, he thought. Control and focus and perhaps he could save his Rosalind from herself.
Jaques cringed away from the thought as if it were a burning brand, flaring hot and harsh against the truth of his soul. A rumble escaped his throat and it took every ounce of his remaining control to prevent an instinctive toss of his overlarge head, a shake of his powerful shoulders, to send her slim body away from him in a violent tumble. The potent mixture of emotions tangled in his head. He groaned, the noise emerging as a growl. Rosalind held tighter and caught her breath with a gulping noise that sounded too close to a sob for his liking.
Another ripple of magic interrupted any further actions or self-chastisement and he felt his world close and expand in the most curious of ways. A sense of vertigo shook him and there was a sudden, surprising moment of freedom and loss when he no longer felt her confining arms surround him. Before he could react, though, and heed his aching conscience, Rosalind adjusted to his diminished size. Her face buried against his short striped fur and he rumbled. No, he purred. With a start, Jaques realized that the Queen’s magic had taken a turn for the ridiculous; he had become a cat, a house cat, not even a lion or a tiger.
Then, for the first time that evening, quite suddenly, it was as if he could breathe again despite the humiliation and desperation. Rosalind’s breath sounded in his pointed ear, little noises that seemed almost ready to resolve themselves into actual words. The threat of Titania and an unending existence faded as he strained in the soft cage of her arms for a reason entirely different than previously. After what seemed like forever, one word filtered through the mist surrounding his mind.
“Please,” she whispered. “Please.”
Yes, he wanted to say. Anything. You only need ask and I will do it. I will go with her or stay beside you. I will wish you happy as you bind your soul to my brother’s and will linger in your orbit, obedient courtier to the end.
His name still lingered as a faint echo when he felt what could only be the final test, the pain so sharp and biting that human voice nearly broke through the spell to cry out his agony. His world compressed further, muscles objecting, fur rippling. A moment of terrifying free-fall seized him. He could no longer feel her arms around him or the pressure of her face against his neck. Panic sent ice through his limbs. He was lost, they were lost, and the Queen would have her way. Then warmth returned to him and broke the cycle as something surrounded him entirely. He closed his eyes after one final squirm and went limp with relief, curling his long naked tail about himself, risking the chance to feel safe.
The near-silence was almost deafening. His small heartbeat sped while another deeply rhythmic tempo, louder and slower, kept companion just behind and Jaques’ entirety of existence consisted of only those two sounds.
“Enough, then. It is ever so. Until you mortals are made without those troublesome hearts, I suppose we shall never see the end of these ridiculous challenges.”
Dimly, he wondered at the unusual quality to Titania’s words but any further thought lost itself to an abrupt chill that ran all along his back. Weight and heft returned to his sense of self until he realized that grass tickled his feet anew and the air had a brisk chill against his skin. A leaden knot of fresh dread settled in his stomach. The soft gasp only reinforced the new realization that, trial won, he once more stood a young man thick in the prime of life, himself and fully returned to the reality given to him at birth, free of all magic and enchantment.
And utterly, irrevocably, completely returned to the same state of his birth - naked as a jaybird and crouching on the soft green grass with the night stars above and casting light for all to see his state.
Feeling the warmth flood his cheeks, Jaques lowered his head and sank further to the ground until he was able to fold his limbs into a previously impossible position as a sop to his shame and poor Rosalind’s modesty. The Queen’s lilting laugh in no way helped the delicate situation. He bit back an angry growl, a lingering trace of the spell’s power in his latent ferocity. The soft fall of a cloak about his shoulders soothed him, however, and he allowed himself the risk of lifting his head to look for his savior. Rosalind, pink-cheeked herself, offered him a crooked smile but pride shone in her eyes and she stood straight and tall, queenly in her triumph. Her small hand extended into his field of vision and, after a moment of hesitation, he reached out to her in return and allowed their fingers to weave together in a way far more familiar than any touch previously. She tugged at him. He rose, obedient to her whims as he had promised to be in the depths of the fey trial.
She allowed him only a handful of moments to gather the cloak more firmly about his form and then Rosalind turned to face the Queen once more. “I have won him,” she declared but the earlier bravado from her initial challenge was nowhere to be found in her evenly measured words. Her fingers in his never loosened. The warmth of his embarrassment faded in the glow of her quiet affectionate touch and he swallowed back infant hope. “I have won Jaques de Boys free of your power. By your own rules, he is now mine.”
Shocked, Jaques risked allowing his gaze to swing from Titania to the woman at his side. Her words held too much depth for him to even hope more but, if she had learned the same lessons he had, then she would know the power lingering in any such statement. “My lady Rosalind?”
“Yes, he is yours and you are most welcome to him.” Her even acquiescence brought Jaques’ attention from Rosalind back to the Queen. Something was not right in the wind; she gave over the victory far too easily. Titania shook her head at his suspicious expression, a strange smile curving her lips. “He would have come to be happy with us,” she murmured, almost as if thinking aloud, weighing the result of the challenge. “He would have come to learn things and understand things. But, ah, you have no concepts beyond your own small worlds, do you? Do not look so shocked. Did you expect worse? We had a bargain and our word is law. Besides whatever else you think to believe, you will have no curses from me in well-earned retribution. You need none. You and yours create your own with every breath. Enjoy your victory, mortal, and the complications you have embraced.” The Queen’s smile grew and she took a gliding step backwards, a mist creeping forward on cat feet across the garden to swirl about her skirts. Her attendants chittered softly but made no argument and took their cues obediently. They faded into the night’s dimness without another sound.
Titania did not spare a moment’s glance for their retreat as her shining-dark eyes fixed first on him and then again on Rosalind. He drew the cloak more firmly about himself and tried to stand straighter. If his lady could face the Queen of the Summerlands for his sake, holding him through a series of horrors, his poor spirit could be summoned to the smaller task of upholding pride. As if reading his mind, Titania laughed, the reaction musical and dissonant all at once. “Fare thee well, Jaques de Boys. You shall never be welcome in the Fair Kingdoms again.” With another chuckle, she delivered a mocking bow, took another step, and faded into the half-lights and mist.
“Interesting times, Jaques de Boys. May they forever be yours.”
He stood beside Rosalind until the final words dissipated fully and the echo melted into the night’s stillness and the world returned to what they had so often believed reality to be. “Interesting times.” He heard her soft, thoughtful whisper and finally turned to examine his savior’s face, searching beyond her beauty and the fresh charm that had so wrongly captivated him before he had any right or claim. He saw deep thought and pensive consideration and a smile lingering at the corner of her mouth. She turned and the smile grew until her entire face radiated with a warm joy. He dropped his eyes bashfully, causing her to laugh. “Jaques… Do you believe…” She hesitated and he felt her close her fingers more tightly around his. “Was I wrong to do as I did? Should I have let you go with her?”
The sudden quiet in her question jarred him from his own tangled thoughts and he looked up to meet her eyes. While one hand remained clutching at the cloak, the other one, captured still by hers, closed more firmly with an inexpressible wordlessness. He knew, though, that she needed a proper answer. In truth, she deserved an accurate and fair answer and, at risk of his soul, he knew he would give her all she asked - just as his fevered mind had vowed during the trials. “No, Rosalind,” he finally said in tones so low that she inclined her head to catch them better. “No, you did what I could not and you did it better than I could ever hope. You have rescued me far more permanently than I ever managed and so, with all my heart, I am forever in your service. Ask of me what you will. I have traded a hated collar for a beloved one. All I beg is to have some small merciful kindness on that poor heart.”
“I claimed you.”
“Truly.” Jaques hesitated for the span of two heartbeats and then sighed, smiled for her, and brought her hand to his lips. “It is not an outrageously new situation, I am forced to admit. Unnatural brother that I am, I have coveted my brother’s good fortune since the boughs of Arden shaded my head.”
“Ever a scholar and worse a wit that ever existed,” she murmured. “Your tongue gallops like all the king’s horses. As I claim you and I command you, I require you to leave off such things until this one question be answered. Jaques de Boys… Would you claim me as I claim you?”
Her use of his name brought his attention upwards again and he froze with his lips hovering the barest of polite distances over her knuckles. “Would I?” he repeated on a whisper of breath. “And place a coxcomb on the head of my brother? I am not so base, my lady.”
“Not so base but far too basic in your thoughts.” Rosalind leaned into his sphere, honeysuckle enveloping him, her eyes becoming his entire world. “Answer me by all that you hold true and dear.”
“... Yes but you need not fear any demands. I shall always be your most humble servant and…”
Her mouth against his silenced the facile words and Jaques rocked back onto his heels before instinct caught hold of his body and his arm slid around her waist, unbidden and thoughtless, to draw her even closer. When time unstuck many endless moments later, he drew away only so far as air required and allowed a shudder to take him. “Rosalind,” he began. “My lady, my fair and sweet lady…”
“We have found your medicine, Jester.” Her smile, close quarters, filled his world with light. “And I insist upon you swallowing it promptly. Will you go to Arden with me?”
“Will I go to..? Rosalind, you know not what you ask. Arden would be too near for your injury and too far for my cure. I shall not…”
“You will not stop your galloping tongue.” Drawing back ever so slightly, she lifted a hand to touch his cheek. “I have realized something in the days since Arden and the world becomes much larger with this knowledge. That misty dream of a fey queen, the trials and all of her fluting words and laughter, have proven surprisingly useful in clarifying the mind.” Her hand left his face but he remained rooted, caught by her pleased expression. “Think but this, my sweet Jaques. It has all been nothing but slumber since leaving the green forest, until the challenge was cast and offense given. I cannot exist as a dream or a vision. But that is what Orlando took into his heart. Shall I only do the right and just thing in releasing him from a spell that is no longer true? Give me your hands, Jaques. The forest of Arden is much wider than I believed.”
“Are you asking that I, that we..?”
She took another step back but her hands came to tangle and clutch at his and her smile threatened to burn him to glorious, delighted ash. “That we be most true and fervent friends and make amends with our own souls and live as one truly interesting dream.”
There was a saying, Jaques de Boys thought as he drew his slim love back into the circle of his arms and captured her mouth with the best answer his battered heart could offer. There were many sayings, many pieces of wisdom collected in dusty tomes, accessible by the sort of scholarly men he had once planned to become. Blood was thicker than water, may you live in interesting times, the heart knows no reason.
Most truly, though, it was not in the stars to hold destiny but in oneself. If a third brother should be chosen by the princess, well, then, the story must be written anew and he would never argue such standards. He and his Rosalind had a forest the size of the world to roam, after all.