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The Banner of St. George

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He has his moment of regret, like anyone else would, when the world has turned dark red and his lungs are swollen with wine and his mouth is open and screaming but his words are drowned. He regrets not asking for the axe – or better, the sword. Quick and clean, one downwards slice, not this messy, protracted affair. He would be hooded, no, blindfolded, hands tied behind his back as they were now, his knees cold on hard stone. They might even have done it before he expected it, if Edward was already feeling the guilt, tried to distract him so they could get it done quickly. One cut. But then again, the king is not merciful to the traitor.

He had been told before that his pride would be his downfall.

Warwick, in careless dismissal: “You could never be king. You were useful to me, nothing more.”

Edward, in hot, splintering rage, a hand slammed down on wood: “I could have you imprisoned for what you’ve done, George, I don’t care if you’re my brother or not!”

His father, his brow heavy with endless battle, strong hands resting on his shoulders, warm through his shirt: “You have to be careful, son. Talk like that is dangerous where you’re going.”

Stupid. How stupid. The woman wouldn’t even care how he died, just as long as he was out of the way. A moment of cockiness, self-assuredness, in the darkness of his cell with the torches burning in the corridor outside and the sound of human movement close by, when he could feel the blood jumping in his throat and his own bounding heart, feel the air in his lungs, the air in his lungs, could take a shaky breath to steady his hands –

He remembers his rage.

It seems impossible, now, that he could ever have felt anything like the rage that festered in his heart in the months before. As though it was another man who donned his helmet and armour, plunged into chaos with wild enjoyment pumping through his veins, let his hatred and fury gush out and mingle with the blood soaked so deep into his skin he thought he would never be able to wash out the stains. Perhaps it was another Duke of Clarence who slumped in exhaustion against his sword in fields of corpses, each of them seeming vaster than the last, as though the broken bodies stretched forever into the line of the sky. In all the paintings he had seen of Saint George smiting the dragon, he stood tall and victorious, sword held aloft as though it were made of silk rather than bloody metal, limbs and body and beautiful face delicately arrayed. Perhaps it is weakness, then, that keeps this George on his knees.

He won’t say that he wasn’t afraid. Isn’t. Edward used to call him a terrible liar, before he left for Calais in Warwick’s ship and returned with a wife and an army and a red rose pinned to his chest. Men, said his father, who wear their hearts on their sleeves won’t survive in the world God gave us. If George’s heart was on his sleeve then it must have changed its colour as many times as the flowers on his tunic. Richard once told him that a heart entirely drained of its blood would be white, chalk white, and limp as a dead fish. He didn’t believe him, then.

The day his father and brother have their heads hacked from their necks is the day the fear begins to bleed its poison into his brain. He doesn’t call it fear, at the time. Even now he lies to himself, calls it anger, righteous fury, natural he should feel a desire for revenge so great it crushes his lungs like chiffon and makes his hands tremble so much he has to grip the hilt of his sword so it doesn’t show. He’s afraid for them, Edward and Richard, and his mother too, and the siblings he hasn’t seen in years. For his daughter. His son. Children that will grow up parentless, alone in a world too complex for his grown mind, let alone their infant ones. It will tear them apart as it tore apart King Henry. There were so many things he needed to tell them. So many things he didn’t have the chance to say.

He hopes he’ll put the bitch off her wine, at least. He wants her to look at a cup of it and feel the same sick horror in her stomach that he felt every time the memory surfaced, the false memory pieced together from rumour and account, his father’s head beside Edmund’s staring from white eyes above the roofs of York, slack faces with the wine-dark spray drying on their necks, the wooden stakes slick and shining red –

But it would have been old blood. They would have been dead for hours, bodies tossed somewhere in a shallow grave scraped in the hard earth. He’s making things up again.

He used to tell Edward and Richard he wanted to die in battle, with a sword in another man’s chest, fall to his knees in a blaze of tragic glory, the final sacrifice that wins his side the victory.

“They’ll make me a saint,” he said, wooden sword buoyed aloft by his pride. “They’ll make me Saint George.”

“There’s already a Saint George, idiot,” Edward said. “He’s our patron saint. You’re such an idiot.”

“I’ll be the second Saint George, then!” The flush of anger and embarrassment was familiar with Edward. Nothing changed when he became king. At least he always had Richard, small and dark and crooked, to feel superior to. He was never sure if Richard noticed.

He feels safe to admit it, now. The heroic death, the glory, the second Saint George – it was all someone else’s dream. Edward’s, perhaps, but not George’s. He would imagine, lying in bed hours after he had been cut down by Edward in one of their games, that he might die in his sleep. Something peaceful. Quiet. He never imagines getting old, but feels faintly resigned to it, as though it’s a distant hurdle he knows he has to cross but hasn’t fully accepted the existence of yet. He never imagines children, either, but he imagines a wife – when he’s older – a beautiful woman, with dark hair and dark eyes – and the thought frightens and excites him in equal measure. It’s the death, though, the peaceful one, that he holds tight in his mind as the years go on, not the dark woman. He only tells Edward and Richard about one of them.

He’s very cold. It’s strange, to feel as though all the heat has been leached from his body, when his whole life he has been ablaze. Tempestuous Clarence.

He wants very much to sleep. He can’t remember the last sleep he had that wasn’t sodden in wine, heavy and thick and the colour of old blood, filling up his skull until his brain is soaked like a sponge and the world pulses dully when he eventually drags himself back to consciousness. Isabel always said that wine would be the death of him. The thought makes him laugh.

He’s never seen a painting of Saint George the night after he fought the dragon. Perhaps he returned home and fell into his bed and lay spread out in the darkness, with the exhaustion deep in his bones, black sleep stealing his senses before the image of the dragon returns. Perhaps he lies awake for hours, tired to the marrow but with his eyes blown wide, staring into the dark with his bloody armour still encasing him like a carapace and the dragon’s jaws closing around his throat every time he shuts his eyes.

Quicker and easier than falling asleep, they said. No dragon to see when he opens his eyes.

It’s not peaceful, perhaps. But it’s enough.