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Honour, That Slippery Quality

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They’ve escaped the castle, and ridden out into the pastures surrounding it. They dismount their horses, and Becket ties them to a solitary tree as Henry ambles towards the stream running through the grasslands. Copses of trees dot the landscape. The shore on their side of the stream is sandy, and Becket discovers the sand is pleasantly warm, when he lies down next to Henry.

They’re silent for a while.

‘I feel like hunting,’ Henry says, and he gropes around the sand until his fingers close around a rock.

‘Then you should, my prince,’ Becket replies. He’s lying half on his side, half on his back, resting his head on one hand. He closes his eyes in the hot afternoon sun, tracing its lazy but interminable path around the earth. Not a quartet of yoked horses nor the promise of a feast could uproot him from this spot. Only the order of a king could move him.

‘Shouldn’t I… oh, what was that… that metaphor of yours.’

Becket hears a splash and opens his eyes. Henry’s hand is empty and there are circles on the water, slowly growing larger until the ripples fade. ‘My prince?’

‘England is a ship, and…’

‘… the king should steer it?’

‘Yes. That one. I can’t steer the ship when I’m out hunting, can I?’

‘Indeed, but if the seas are calm the captain might choose to relinquish the steering wheel to a trusted coxswain’s capable hands.’

‘Are you nominating yourself, my little Saxon?’ Henry is looking at Becket’s hands, and Becket realises he has subconsciously been rubbing the Chancellor’s Seal on his index finger with his thumb. There’s a smile on Henry’s face but his eyes are narrowed.

‘Only if the captain thinks I’m fit to guide the ship.’

‘Oh, enough already with the metaphors, Thomas. You’re too intelligent. I would take it as an insult, were it not that I love you.’ Henry glances at Thomas, then – when no immediate reply is forthcoming – stares back at the river, a frown drawing his fine eyebrows downwards.

‘Will my lord permit me to speak frankly?’

With a short snort Henry half turns towards Becket. ‘I’d be delighted to hear you speak frankly for a change, Thomas.’

Becket permits himself a small smile and tries not to squint against the sunlight that is blinding him. ‘I’d be… honoured if my prince would allow me – as his Chancellor – to take some trifling matters off his mind.’

‘Ah, I see,’ Henry says, letting his chin drop onto his chest. ‘You’re still looking for your honour, that slippery quality which, I might add, so few Normans possess.’ Another glance at Becket. ‘Have you found a way to fill that void yet?’

That turn of phrase trips Becket’s memory – it was among the last words he said to Gwendolyn before their parting and her untimely demise. Surely Henry had not stooped to eavesdropping on that moment’s grace? And if he had, would the amount of drink he’d had imbibed even have allowed him to remember it? But when Becket studies Henry’s face he finds no malice or guile in it. His expressions hold no secrets for Becket – Henry is easier to read than all the laboured handwriting in the manuscripts that Becket pores over occasionally. ‘Being the protector of the Seal of England is an honourable appointment,’ Becket says.

‘But not sufficient?’

‘My lord?’

‘Don’t pretend you don’t understand me, Thomas,’ Henry says, and he brushes a few grains of sand off his pants with a brusque movement. ‘I asked you before how you combine collaboration and honour.’

‘And I gave you an answer.’ Becket sits up – the languor which ruled his limbs has withdrawn quite suddenly.

‘Yes, but something in it was not quite right,’ Henry says as he mirrors Becket. He scoots closer – and fine grains of sand cling to his pants again. ‘Where is your honour when you abandon your Saxon roots?’

Becket attempts a smile. ‘Do you regret your decision to make me noble?’

Henry’s not having it – it seems he is determined to have his curiosity satisfied. ‘Don’t flirt around the issue, Thomas.’

Becket looks away. There are a few tadpoles swimming along the edge of the river, where the water is shallow enough to see through. ‘I cannot… adequately answer you, my prince.’

‘You’ve never disappointed me before. Don’t start now.’

‘I do not intend to do so, my lord, but I… Earlier I said that the Saxons’ birth right is to be slaughtered. Maybe it is also to serve. Because my lord has been so gracious to take me into his service I can serve you – serve England – thereby retaining my honour, as well as live the life I am fond of, by collaborating with the Normans.’

‘Flattering.’ Then Henry shakes his head. ‘But no… That’s not it either.’

Becket raises his eyebrows, feeling the corners of his mouth pulling upwards.

Henry works his jaw, then looks at Becket from under his brow. ‘Alright, I give up – for now. But one day—’ he places a hand on Becket’s arm ‘—I will solve the riddle of Thomas Becket. Now…’ and he motions towards the horses.

Becket stands up and holds out his hands, on which Henry pulls himself up.

Henry’s hands linger as he asks, ‘will you dine with me tonight?’

‘I would be most delighted to.’

‘We can eat off silver – that should be a sobering experience for you,’ Henry says. There’s a gleam in his eyes which Becket knows to be mischief. ‘And then into town tonight?’

‘Of course,’ Becket replies.

‘Good. Time to see if the Chancellorship has robbed you of your vitality yet, or if it has only increased your proclivity for drinking and whoring.’

Becket laughs, and they stroll towards the horses, arm in arm.

~ ~ ~ 

They make their way to one of the houses in the town in the dark of night; it belongs to the family of Margery, a girl they know quite intimately. They have some fun flirting with her, enjoying it when she blushes prettily. When Henry starts pawing at the poor thing, Becket turns away. It’s a well-established routine by now, and he does not mind.

Tonight, though, Henry breaks that routine. As he and Margery are frolicking around, while Becket sits on the edge of the mattress, contemplating how much money Henry can reasonably stand to extort from the clergy, Henry’s hands come to rest on Becket’s shoulders.

‘Won’t you join?’ Henry asks.

Becket goes rigid, but he recognises the implied order in the question. So he stands up slowly and undresses himself, and slides under the rough covers.

When he closes his eyes it is not so bad. The flesh is weak and it will respond to touch – that, at least, is something in common between Saxon and Norman bodies. So when two soft hands come to frame his jaw and a pair of warm lips kiss his, Becket responds, and blinks back to consciousness, unsurprised to meet Henry’s blue eyes.

‘Do you love me, Thomas?’

It would have been difficult for any man to tell him ‘no,’ at that moment – one does not deny a King. But Becket is not any man; he strives for honour, and lying is not honourable. Resisting Henry, furthermore, though not his pleasure, is not entirely foreign to him.

Yet at this moment, Becket loves how Henry makes him feel. The blood pumps hot through his veins, and he feels himself thrumming with life – there were, up until this moment, no difficult questions, only actions and easy solutions to everything, and a mode of being that was luxuriously un-Saxon and very Norman – pleasure having the highest priority.

Thus as Becket lies there, his chest heaving against the fragile body of his King, his King whose eyes shine and who wears his most attractive smile, it does not feel like a lie to answer Henry that, yes, he loves him.