The first time Ivan was really, truly in trouble, not kid trouble, but actual grown up trouble, he was eight. He and cousin Miles had been enjoying the lake, and Miles had been well enough to swim, much to his delight. Miles was not the sort of fun to play with in the lake that some of the other children around were though, and Ivan knew well enough not to show that frustration, it wasn’t cousin Miles’ fault after all.
Ivan had played gently until Miles had had to go indoors for an appointment. Ivan had stayed outside, since there were plenty of adults, and his mother had allowed it. He was bored though, and he’d seen Gregor watching them all afternoon.
Ivan wasn’t entirely sure where Gregor started and The Emperor began. He knew that they were the same person, but he was fairly certain that his mother meant entirely different things when she talked about “poor darling Gregor” and “The Emperor.” Ivan sometimes wondered if she realized the difference herself, but from what he could tell, the person sitting on the docks watching first the pair of younger boys playing in the water, and now Ivan alone, was just Gregor, his older cousin and nearly foster brother.
Ivan liked Gregor, though he knew that his two cousins were closer to each other than they were to him. Gregor would play quiet games with Miles that Ivan couldn’t really wrap his mind around, and Gregor was more held back from playing, and sometimes he was The Emperor. He spent a lot of time with Uncle Aral, and that was another separation between them. Other than a few awkward conversations, Uncle Aral was a fairly distant, somewhat frightening, figure in Ivan’s eight year old life, not that he wouldn’t defend his Uncle to any of his friends at school, but he quietly was a little bit frightened of him.
Ivan was not normally the one to have bright ideas, but Gregor looked sad, and he strongly suspected that Gregor would be less sad if he got to play in the water. He was even in his swimming clothes, but he’d not come to join Ivan and Miles in the water earlier, and now that Miles had gone inside, he was still just sitting there. Ivan knew that Gregor knew how to swim, so it wasn’t like some of the other children at his school who liked to splash their feet in the shallows but wouldn’t go much beyond ankle deep.
Ivan swam around the dock and watched Gregor from a different angle for a bit, treading water and enjoying the feel of being out in the pleasantly cool lake. He got a little bit closer and splashed the water towards Gregor a little bit, saying, “Come out and swim!”
Gregor smiled at him for a second and then his face twisted up, teenage concerns that Ivan really didn’t get clouding his face. Gregor told him gently, “I’m not sure I should.”
Ivan clung to the edge of the dock, paddling his feet lightly, and asked, “Why not? You want to, right?”
Gregor hunched his shoulders, shifting from the position he’d been sitting in for the first time in at least an hour. Ivan watched Gregor’s face and said, “You’re the Emperor. It’s not like there are people who can tell you not to go for a swim if you want to.”
Gregor’s eyebrows shot up, and his shoulders tensed, and he whined, “It doesn’t really work like that, but I guess, yeah, I kind of want to.”
Ivan was pretty sure that Gregor had been reluctant to admit that to him, even though they were cousins. He pulled himself up onto the dock and sat, water dripping all around him, next to his cousin. He said, voice a childish imitation of a whisper, “You could come swim with me. I won’t tell whoever it is you think wouldn’t like you going swimming.”
Gregor sighed and stood up, shifting from foot to foot, and offered Ivan a hand up. He looked wistfully out at the lake and said, “I’m not really sure Ivan.”
Ivan was fairly sure that Gregor really wanted to take an undignified flying leap into the lake like Ivan had earlier that same day and swim about, basking in the summer sun in the cool water. He’d gotten a bit of a smile from his cousin earlier, but there was something still holding Gregor back.
Playfully, Ivan gave his cousin a little push into the water, and Gregor didn’t resist it, half jumping in, flailing a bit as he started to swim, but laughing, and Ivan jumped in after him. For a bit, they swam around, but then Gregor looked back at the dock, and his eyes went round. He tread water next to Ivan for a moment and said, “We’d better head back.”
Ivan turned and looked, and there were more imperial guards on the shore watching them than he was pretty sure he’d ever actually seen at once. There were always guards around Gregor, but most of them faded back into the background, or spent their times away from where curious eight year olds might run into them. Ivan didn’t really go looking for them, even if he occasionally wondered where they hid.
Right then though, he would have much rather they were hiding like usual because they looked angry.
Gregor swam back to the dock, and Ivan trailed him dutifully. His mother had always told him to listen when Gregor told him to do something. Listen to Gregor, take care of Miles, those were the two ways he was supposed to interact with his cousins. Normally, it was Miles who got him into trouble though.
When they climbed out of the water, half the imperial guards immediately surrounded Gregor, asking him questions too rapidly for Ivan to quite follow, and the other half surrounded Ivan, their leader saying, “We need to take young Ivan for a few questions. We will be back shortly your Majesty.”
Gregor said shortly, “My cousin did nothing wrong. He was only playing. It’s a nice summer day.”
One of the other imperial guards let out a long, frustrated sigh, and told Gregor, “It’s regulations your Majesty. No harm will come to him as long as you’re right.”
Gregor choked back a sound that seemed somewhere between a frustrated shout and a very small sob to Ivan, and suddenly, Ivan was concerned. He hoped that his mother wouldn’t be too disappointed in him.
The imperial guards that had surrounded him marched him back to the manor, and he dragged his feet just a bit, wishing that they’d never get there and this would be all finished all at the same time. As they neared the manor, he could see his mother up on one of the higher balconies, watching the guards bring him back, and he knew right then that he was probably worrying her.
They brought him into one of the sitting rooms on the ground floor and had him sit and wait. He heard his mother ask one of the guards outside to be let in, but the guard said, “I’m sorry Lady Alys, we can’t let you in until we’ve asked the boy a few questions without you. It’s policy you see.”
One of the younger of the guards who was more often at Gregor’s side sat down across from where Ivan was swinging his legs uncomfortably, sitting on the too high seat, and he said, “I’ve got a few questions that I’ve got to ask you Lord Ivan.”
Ivan nodded, not sure what to think of the whole situation, but knowing that he must be in serious trouble if his mother wasn’t allowed to even be there. The guard was usually pretty nice, but he didn’t seem nice then, and Ivan couldn’t remember his name, which made it seem all the scarier.
The guard asked, “Did you push the Emperor into the Lake earlier?”
Ivan hunched his shoulders and said, “Only kind of. He half jumped in himself. I was just encouraging him.”
The imperial guard nodded and asked, “What was your intention in pushing him?”
Ivan pouted at the guard and said, “He wanted to play, but he wasn’t sure he should, and the weather’s so nice that he I thought he really should, so I was encouraging him.”
The imperial guard’s face softened momentarily, and Ivan felt a touch relieved, before the stern face returned. The guard asked him, “Has anyone approached you away from home about the legitimacy of the Emperor’s position?”
Ivan scowled and said loudly, “No! And if anyone at school said something mean about Gregor, I’d have to punch them. He’s my cousin!”
The corner of the guard’s mouth twitched, and Ivan wondered if he was annoyed or about to laugh. He turned towards the door before Ivan could tell though, and stuck his head out the door saying, “His Majesty was correct, it was a false alarm.”
He waved to someone outside the door, and Ivan’s mother walked in. The imperial guard said, “I’m sorry for the worry Lady Alys. It was a bit of an incident, but we’re fairly certain that your son meant no harm.”
His mother stared down at him, considering what she thought while standing tall and seemingly serene in front of him. Ivan looked down, feeling far guiltier in front of his mother than in front of the imperial guards.
Ivan said softly, “I’m sorry I made you worry mother, and I’m sorry that I pushed Gregor in the lake even though he really wanted to go swimming.”
His mother still looked stern, and she said, “I won’t punish you Ivan. I feel like perhaps you’ve learned your lesson from all this already, and I won’t ask Aral to talk to you about it unless you can’t tell me what you’ve learned from this.”
Ivan looked up at her and said thoughtfully, “I shouldn’t push the Emperor in the lake, even if we’re just playing because someone might think that I’m not just playing. And there are a lot of people who want to hurt Gregor because they’re mean and bad, so the guards have to be very very sure.”
He paused for a second while his mother nodded in approval, and he sighed a bit in relief. His mother wasn’t too angry with him at least. He blurted out, “But Mama, why would someone think that I might be a person who’d want to hurt Cousin Gregor? He’s my cousin!”
A tired look was on his mother’s face all of a sudden, and she offered her hand. Ivan slid off the too tall chair and took her hand obediently. His mother asked, “Are we all done here?”
Several of the guards nodded, and she led him from the room to her more private sitting room. She sat him down on the ottoman and sat facing him from the little chaise that was across from it. She looked very serious so Ivan watched her carefully and waited. His mother said, “You know that there was a lot of fighting over who would be emperor when Gregor was a very young child and you and Miles weren’t quite born yet, and some after the two of you were born as well, right?”
Ivan nodded. He’d heard the stories often enough, of Aunt Cordelia’s shopping trip talked of in hushed tones by the servants, of his own mother’s daring escape, and other things as well. His mother sighed and continued, “There are people who thought that you should be Emperor instead, Ivan dearest. There probably will be for a long time because you were one of the closer branches to the Emperor’s line, and Aral gave up the option, and they didn’t want Miles. You’re young and healthy, and they imagine easy to impress upon, though I would wonder at anyone who had ever met you believing that considering how stubborn you are.”
Ivan was uncertain whether that was a good thing or not, but he nodded along. She sounded strained when she said, “There will be times in your life where people might approach you trying to hurt Gregor. It’s important that you always let one of us know who and when and where, alright?”
He nodded, feeling small and worried for his cousin, and said, “I promise Mama. I’ll tell you or Aunt Cordelia or Uncle Aral if anything like that happens.”
She ruffled his hair and said, “That’s my good boy. Miles is done with his appointment now, so why don’t you go play with him in his rooms. I think that he could use the distraction.”
Ivan nodded and dutifully trotted from the room, knowing that he would probably lose at games again, but he could help keep Miles safe from himself. Now he had a few more rules for himself to follow. Don’t push the Emperor in the lake , and Help protect your cousin Gregor . He hadn’t known until then that Gregor needed protecting really, though he had always known that there were guards. It would have worried him if he didn’t know that Uncle Aral, who was scary enough to scare off all sorts of bad things, was watching over Gregor very carefully.