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All Our Yesterdays

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November, 2120

York, England

 

No. Not a cave. He hated caves.

Dark, slimy crap lurked inside them. Crap that’d frazz you and then kill you.

Yuuri didn’t need to think too hard about the last time he’d done this to remember that being killed was a pain in the arse.

Was he actually supposed to go in?

He tethered his mount, Lady, to a tree and sidled across the grassy swath of ground in front of the dark yawning maw that led down into the bowels of the earth, longsword poised in readiness in his right hand. To top everything off, it was dusk and it was raining, the heavy drops pinging off his helm. He would have difficulty seeing in the gloom, but even if he had a torch, it would be too damp to light. For a moment he thought about fetching his shield, though that would restrict his movement. The plate mail should protect him well enough. He hoped.

Through the constant shushing of rain came clicking noises from the darkness ahead – and a series of inhuman squeaks that set his heart racing. He lowered his visor and held his sword in front of him with both hands, dreading what was coming; knowing it inevitably would.

The shadows in the aperture shifted, black within black. Then a pinprick of sickly yellow light, like a candle flame choked by soot. And another. And another. Until a whole cluster shone. They shifted forward. More clicks. Another squeak. Yuuri tightened his grip on the hilt, telling himself to be grounded; to keep his muscles loose and ready.

With a deafening screech, the creature leapt out of its lair. Yuuri cried out and instinctively thrust his sword up at its belly. It went in deep, evoking another ululation from the black horror. It must have a hundred eyes, all focused on him. Giant fangs nipped, while its hairy segmented body and spindly legs twisted. It flailed until it was free, and lunged forward for another strike.

Yuuri was ready. He parried the busy fangs, managing to spear a couple of the eyes as well, eliciting high-pitched shrieks. Clenching his jaw, he swung his sword in an arc and chopped off a leg – but then it was upon him again, attempting to smother him with its soft, loathsome weight.

He vaguely recalled what he was supposed to do to finish the thing off for good, once he was this close to it. Gasping for breath, he managed to reach a hand into a pouch on his belt and pulled out a glass vial, whose contents he splashed onto the putrid flesh pressing down upon him.

How did it go…? Jesus, he could barely think. “Lux in tenebris,” he forced out against the disgusting mass. A white flash was quickly followed by a sound like a large glass bowl being struck; it rang through the air, lingering. A final terrible shriek rent the air; a shudder…and finally a death-rattle before the thing lay inert, like a lump of clay.

Yuuri gave an almighty heave, and the creature rolled limply onto its side, its eyes shut and remaining legs drooping, black claws on the ends slick with rain. As he raised himself to a kneeling position on the sodden ground, fighting off an enduring wave of disgust, he looked up at the sky to see the clouds suddenly pulling away and a bright yellow evening sun dispelling the grey shadows. The rays glowed on his armour, though his white and red tabard dripped.

A smooth, commanding male voice called down, “Arise, Sir Yuuri, champion swordsman of England.”

Standing, his blood calming, Yuuri huffed at the ridiculousness of it all. He wasn’t one of those thrill-seekers who got special permission to have the settings changed to hyper-real, but he’d still been frightened – annoyingly so, because he thought he’d remembered to ban creeping monsters like this. At least he’d set the gore to zero; there was no yellow ooze on his blade.

For a boss battle, he guessed he hadn’t done too badly. It was supposed to have been hard. He hadn’t lost his touch, then. But shit, he might end up with nightmares about this for the next several nights now, pain and death jerking him awake in a cold sweat. It had been years since he’d played this game, and he’d always taken care in the past to make doubly sure that anything triggering for him wouldn’t turn up. Well, too late now.

Sheathing his sword, he raised his visor to get a better look at what he’d just killed. Giant spider, obviously. Looking at it now, all he could think was, How unoriginal. Then, as he watched, the carcase began to fade until it disappeared altogether, leaving a glittering blue gem the size of an apricot on the grass. Yuuri picked it up, admired its pretty inner fire for a moment, then tucked it into the pouch on his belt and returned to untether Lady. She was a camelard mount, which didn’t fly, unfortunately; but he’d have to be at Level 40 before he could get something with wings. And that wasn’t going to happen. This was purely a nostalgia trip.

“Let’s get this to its rightful owner, huh?” he said to her. But a glint from behind the nearby tree caught his eye, and he wondered how he could have forgotten to scout the area before leaving; it used to be second nature. Venturing away from Lady once more, he discovered a Potion of Full Healing glowing white in a crystal vial and took it. Within the cave mouth, in the dying light of the day, he found an unlocked wooden chest with a hundred gold coins in a small leather sack and an Amulet of Strength. He placed them in a bag on Lady’s back, then swung himself up and headed off toward the nearby village of Winterborough.

As a teenager, he used to love exploring the seemingly endless vistas here; different landscapes, seasons, villages and cities, monsters and treasures. At twenty-four, it wasn’t that many years in his past, but somehow it seemed a lifetime ago. Immersion had moved on to more realistic scenarios. You could kill within it more realistically, too, if you wanted to. Yuuri didn’t. He’d always made sure he fixed the settings so that he wouldn’t be given humans as targets, even though he was laughed at when people found out. It’s just a game, they’d say. What’s fun about killing a person, even in a game? he’d counter, and they usually struggled to articulate an answer.      

There’s enough death in actual life without that added to it. Real heroes don’t kill people and mix it up with honour.

But they killed giant spiders, apparently. And as primitive as the tech was, it gave Yuuri a decent workout. Having watched a holo-film with elves and wizards the previous evening, he’d been wondering what it would feel like to revisit Swords and Sorcery, after the struggle it’d been to actually let it go. He thought he was pretty good with a blade. The skills and fitness he’d developed from all his time in this place were real, even if the rest of it wasn’t. Like being comfortable on his mount when in real life he’d probably get a foot caught in the stirrup or fall out of the saddle.

As Lady took him down the forest path through the deepening evening, he decided the sensory illusion still worked well, considering the vintage of the game. Immersion had been cutting-edge tech when it was first released. Like many other things, it operated at a low hypnotic level, making it seem to the player that what they were experiencing was real, even to the point of picking up objects and using them. Yuuri knew he wasn’t riding a horse/camel hybrid anywhere. He wasn’t wearing armour, hadn’t been stabbing a monster with a sword, hadn’t collected any treasure to take away. Wasn’t any kind of champion. What he was doing was moving around in a large gaming room at the gym in his ward, because if he tried this in his little flat, he was sure to bump into a piece of furniture or a wall. But if he thought too hard, it would begin to spoil the illusion; and since he’d decided to play, he might as well make the best of it.

The trees thinned out, revealing gold-lit fields of wheat and barley. Rosy-cheeked peasants clad in bright clothes, with white aprons and caps, were finishing their work for the day, waving at him as he passed. There were never any old people or children to be seen, but well, you couldn’t expect this to be too sophisticated. The buildings, as he entered the village, were remarkably like each other as well, wattle-and-daub with thatched roofs, the main difference being that some were longer or had an extra storey, and lights were burning inside a few, mainly taverns. All the shops had prettily painted wooden signs swinging outside. He found Ye Olde Traveller’s Rest, where he knew he was supposed to go, tethered Lady outside, and pulled at the iron-latched wooden door, which swung open with a creak.

Though crowded and stuffy, the inside of the tavern was clean and brightly lit with torches bracketed on the walls and a merrily dancing fire. More rosy-cheeked peasants sat at wooden tables, drinking ale from pewter tankards, laughing and singing and smoking pipes. Buxom young women bustled about with trays of drinks, their bosoms bulging out of low-cut white blouses reined in by tight corsets. Yuuri’s eyes lingered on a serving – was there a word for a male wench? – in tight tan trousers and a nicely fitted jerkin, or whatever those tops were called. It was all just a bit of eye candy, though; this wasn’t the type of game where you could sneak away with a character for a tryst. Not that Yuuri would have been interested in trying. Immersion games were too close to reality, which meant he got just as tongue-tied and awkward with people he knew didn’t even exist, and that took the embarrassment up a notch that was dangerously close to pathetic.

He scanned the room until he spotted a man concealed by a dark brown cloak sitting on a chair in a corner, peering out warily at the revellers. Yuuri approached him, attracting his attention as he drew near. “Are you Deckard Coyne?” he asked the man, who gave a start at Yuuri’s words.

“Who art thou, that wishes to know?” he said a voice similar to the one from the sky that had announced Yuuri as the champion swordsman of England.

“I thought you might want this,” Yuuri replied, taking the blue gem out and placing it in the palm of his hand for the man to observe.

He stared in shock at the gem, then slowly stood, throwing his cloak off in dramatic fashion. And lo! (Yuuri added by way of silent narration), underneath was the raiment of a king, plate armour shining in the firelight, a gilded crown resting on his brow. He took the gem from Yuuri’s palm and drew a glittering silver sword. The room fell silent, its occupants gazing at him in wonder.

“Behold!” the man exclaimed. Yuuri took a step back so that he wasn’t blocking anyone’s view, and folded his arms across the metal plate and wet tabard covering his chest. “No longer am I Deckard Coyne, the wanderer. You look upon Anwyl, rightful King of Ethnaria. This gem – ” He took hold of it and held it up for all to see. “ – hath restored my strength and vigour. Therefore, along with this worthy knight – ” He gestured to Yuuri. “ – and other stouthearted followers, I shall commence preparations to march on Elgar the Unwieldy, usurper of the Sceptre of Ethnaria, and regain the throne!”

The room erupted in cheers.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Yuuri muttered, mentally flicking a switch.

Anwyl and the tavern disappeared. Yuuri was standing in an empty black room with flat, even white lighting from above. No longer the rain-drenched hero of Ethnaria, he took a moment to regroup, becoming aware of the soft material of his own athletic clothing – black long-sleeved top, tracksuit trousers and white trainers. Then he trotted over to the metal door, which slid open in front of him. No matter how many times he played these games, coming out of them always felt somehow like waking from a dream.

He passed a series of doors that led to private workout rooms – little enclaves of Immersion that offered environments for running, cross-country skiing, rowing, and even swimming, which had been the latest innovation thanks to quantum superconductor tech. Phichit understood how such things worked. Yuuri could fix them when they went wrong, though the actual theory behind them eluded him. Anyway, he’d always preferred something that gave the illusion of going on an adventure, rather than exercising in a specialised program. Something that took him out of himself for a while; that could make him believe he had a real purpose and was achieving it.

Swords and Sorcery didn’t do that for him anymore, though that was probably for the best. Strange how the same thing could look so different when viewed from the eyes of an older person. All right, he’d always credited the game with being a little naff. He’d just been mistaken about the true scale of its naffness.

He stopped at his locker to take out his black coat; it hung down to his calves, and he did up the middle buttons to keep it fastened. Should still be protection enough in the cool weather. Climate control had announced a dry week with steady temperatures ten degrees or so above freezing, and occasional rain overnight. They weren’t in total control of the weather, of course, or even anywhere near it; but they could usually be pretty accurate about the upcoming mix of their efforts at doing so, combined with the might of nature that would invariably break through. As he exited the gym, a yellow sun lingered on the western horizon and a gentle breeze blew, and he got the feeling that the climatologists were winning the battle today.

Stuffing his hands in his pockets, Yuuri made his way down the path, passing other pedestrians and houses of various vintages, from red-brick Victorian terraces to individual prefab units stacked on top of each other like cells in a honeycomb. Space in cities like this was at a premium, despite the fact that streets which had been wide enough to accommodate ground-based motorised traffic were now largely given over to pedestrians and cyclists. The skies were enough of a menace now, Yuuri had decided, that he preferred to get a little extra exercise by walking when he could; because despite the existence of air traffic control, people tended to treat it as unwanted and unneeded advice, like the safety warnings on new tech that no one ever read. There was something comforting about being anchored to the ground while a panoply of cars, buses and hoverboards buzzed and zigzagged and beeped at each other overhead. As long as none of them dropped anything that landed on you.

Eventually he arrived at the complex that contained his flat, a square three-storey edifice with a large courtyard in the middle, which residents referred to as the quad. As he approached, the pale, smooth travertine stone of the long walls gleamed underneath street lamps that warded off the gathering dark. The main door slid open to admit him, and at the other end of the short entry corridor lay the grass and trees in the courtyard, illuminated by artfully placed lighting that almost but not quite mimicked natural sunlight.

Yuuri carried on ahead, hands still in his pockets, paying little attention to the enclaves of activity around him. Children running around a small playground, jumping on a trampoline and spinning on a merry-go-round; they could delight themselves for hours in a zero-G room at the gym, but somehow seemed to have as much fun on old standbys like these. Someone sitting on a stone bench with a cushion, staring blankly ahead at the trees in front of them, no doubt reading or watching something on the Cloud. A group of three middle-aged women in tunics and baggy trousers performing tai chi. They’d asked Yuuri once if he’d be willing to join them; he wondered if it had been because he was Japanese, and many people in this country seemed to assume that meant he was somehow learned in the mysterious Ways of the East that in their minds were an agglomeration of the different cultures which existed in that general area of the world. Never mind that he’d been living in York since he was five. He’d politely declined.

“Hey, Yuuri,” said a young man in a tan coat who crossed in front of him.

“Hey, Gaz,” Yuuri replied, not missing a beat as he arrived at the far end of the quad and entered a stone hall identical to the one through which he’d passed minutes before. His feet instinctively guided him to Number Four, the door slid open, and he went inside.

When Mari called, he was grilling miso-glazed chicken thighs for dinner, having decided to take the trouble to cook in order to treat himself to food that he could chew and taste. He almost hadn’t heard the beep over the clattering of the pans in the kitchenette, and resolved to take his wristband off and open up the box containing the qubit processor when he was at work the next day; as irritating and dull a task as it was, it was about time he looked into what was wrong with the volume control. The BCI, or brain-computer interface, ought to respond to any command he gave it, but it seemed to have been developing a stubborn will of its own lately. And that wasn’t good, because it was his main connection to the Cloud.

“Hey, little bro.”

“Hey,” he said as he stirred the contents of a small pan that were filling the flat with the aroma of stewing apples, cinnamon, cloves and vanilla. Enjoying the scent was almost better than eating the food.    

“What’s playing?”

“I’m cooking dinner.”

She laughed. “You like making things complicated, don’t you?”

“You never complained when I made meals for us both,” he replied distractedly, pulling a bunch of asparagus spears from the fridge and chopping them while the steamer boiled. “And besides, you can cook up a storm yourself when you want to; don’t deny it.”

“But it’s like making your own clothes. It takes a lot of time, and it’s more expensive than just buying your meals in. Or taking a nutri-pill.”

“Time isn’t usually something I’m short on. And I don’t care if it’s more expensive. Anyway, you always said that cooking for someone else is a sign of love, so call it self-care. Taste buds need a workout sometimes.” He tipped the asparagus into a container and placed it on top of the steamer, then grabbed the tongs to turn the chicken over.

There was a pause, then Mari said, “Haven’t heard from you in a while. What’ve you been doing besides working and cooking?”

“Well, I went and had a game of Swords and Sorcery today.” But as soon as he said it, he wished he hadn’t.

“You what?” came the predictable response. “Yuuri, you promised – ”

“That was a long time ago,” he said, stirring the apples again. “I hadn’t played it in years. It was just for old times’ sake.”

“Yuuri…”

His blood pressure spiked. That motherly tone she took on; it still could do that to him. “I quit before it finished, anyway. It’s silly. I don’t know what I ever saw in it in the first place.” Though that wasn’t entirely true, of course, and they were both aware of it.

She sighed, and Yuuri felt like doing the same, in relief, knowing it signalled a change of topic. “Anyway, I just wanted to say the spa isn’t very busy right now. You should come visit. When was the last time you had a holiday?”

The spa she ran in the countryside with Sharon. It was nice there. Relaxing. But…“What would I do with a holiday? I don’t need them. You can imagine you’re visiting anywhere in the world with Immersion, you know? Someplace that’s full of tourists. The Louvre in front of the Mona Lisa or something; you can have it all to yourself. And the Egyptian pyramids, if you want. Climb them, go inside. I don’t see any point in the expense of going to see the real thing, just to get stuck in crowds and bad weather, do you?”

“That’s still what you think, huh?”

“Sure, why not?” He pulled the grill pan out and sat it on top of the cutting board, the chicken thighs sizzling.  

“I think it’s different if you’ve got someone with you.” There was a pause while Yuuri put the thighs on a plate, then spooned some apples and asparagus next to them. “I hope – ”

“Look – someone’s at the door,” he lied, “and my food’s ready. Gotta go. But speak soon.”

“Yeah, OK. Bye, bro.”

Yuuri picked up the plate, sat down at the two-person wooden table next to the window that looked out onto the quad through its net curtain, and stared at the food. Mari meant well, and he knew she cared, but he could do without the lectures and the probing. When would he find something worthwhile to do? Get a boyfriend? Get a life?

He was ticking along just fine, thank you very much.

He might not feel like visiting Mari’s spa at the moment, but going for a dip appealed. After dinner, he swam a couple of miles in the pool at the gym, then returned to his flat and watched a few shows on the Cloud. Maybe he could call Phichit and find out what he was up to, he thought afterward. But he’d probably be disturbing him in the middle of something. The possibility of venturing into the courtyard to see if there was anyone to talk to flashed through his mind, but he immediately dismissed it. He wasn’t in the mood for that, either.

Yuuri watched another show, then pulled his pyjamas on and brushed his teeth, having showered at the pool. Then was disconcerted to discover he’d left some highly personal things on his bedside table – a bottle of lube and the sex toy he’d bought on the Cloud the other day that sounded intriguing at the time, but hadn’t done much for him and had kind of hurt. Maybe there was a knack to it. He’d gone back and read the instructions carefully, then browsed forums until he felt he’d seen more than enough information about what other people were doing with it, or claiming to do. At least the cleaning robot hadn’t come today.

But then, as he swept the items up and placed them inside the table drawer, he wondered why he was feeling embarrassed by the hypothetical reaction of a machine. At worst, it wouldn’t have known what to do with the stuff and would’ve disposed of it. Which, Yuuri thought, was probably what he was going to end up doing himself anyway, to the useless toy, at least. The lube was different, even if he’d become more accepting of the inevitability that it was going to be for the pleasure of one instead of two. For someone like himself who often didn’t know what to say to people, it would probably be a hell of a long time before anyone wanted to get into bed with him, if indeed it ever happened at all.

Once under the sheets, he read the news, then stared at the ceiling. It was hard to fall asleep this early. Well, early for him. His natural inclination was to be a night owl. In his quest to find things to do earlier, maybe he should’ve gone next door and asked Mrs. Wells if she’d needed any help. She was ninety-four and could barely walk, and had fallen in her flat a week ago; he’d found out when he’d seen young members of a care team coming and going. But she could order everything she needed from the Cloud, and the robots still came to service her flat. Yuuri had brought home-cooked food over to share with her on occasion, though he often second-guessed himself these days before he went, having quickly learned that elderly English people didn’t always appreciate spicy foreign foods. He hadn’t thought she’d much care for miso-glazed chicken, either.

His brain wanted to keep ruminating rather than sleep, it seemed. His wristband could entrain his brainwaves to the perfect pattern for dozing off, but the problem with that was you had to let yourself fall asleep with it on, which went against all the rules of Cloud safety, with good reason. You never knew who might try to hack into your device. Removing malware at the university was a regular part of his job. He took the wristband off and put it in the drawer, then lay back to stare at the ceiling again.

It was silly, he knew, but his thoughts drifted to Mick and Yan, the couple from his favourite show which had ended last month, Double Trouble, about a couple of mismatched roommates who ended up falling for each other. He’d never been that fond of sitcoms, but the supportive love they’d developed seemed unusually deep for a Cloud show, all the more so because of the circumstances in which they were embroiled week after week. Yuuri imagined now that he was Mick, with Yan lying next to him, holding him – blond, ripped, almost intimidating in his looks, though surprisingly sensitive inside. He wondered if he’d ever actually meet someone like that, then gave a silent laugh and decided imagination would have to be second-best. Yan was crazy about Mick and didn’t judge him, even if he got angry with him on plenty of occasions. Such people surely didn’t even exist.

Yuuri could practically feel the arms around him, the other man nuzzling into his neck, sending tingles down his body. The warmth on his cheek of a pair of lips, brushing…

…and then he was opening his eyes to watery light filtering through the white curtain across his window.

Fuck. He hadn’t set his alarm.

Chapter Text

November, 1392

Crowood Castle, Yorkshire, England

 

Her eyes opened upon the still, dim shadows of the bedroom. Dying coals glowed faintly orange out of grey ash in the grate; their warmth fell short of the corners of the room. Almost invariably, it would be about one a.m., though she would check out of curiosity.

She slipped from underneath the covers and padded softly, barefoot, fetched a bronze key from a leather purse hanging on the side of a chair, and unlocked a dark wooden cabinet. From an interior drawer she pulled out a long Tang-style tunic, a pair of baggy trousers, and comfortable leather shoes. These she quietly donned while trying not to shiver, along with a pair of socks, and then added a heavy fur-trimmed cape. At least now she would be warm and comfortable. And as unobtrusive as a shadow, clad all in black.

Removing an bronze disc from a hook near the window, she pulled open a wooden shutter just enough to view the silvered castle grounds in the moonlight, made some simple calculations, and decided that it was indeed about an hour after midnight. Perhaps she ought to have brought a wristwatch with her. But hardly anyone used them where she came from, and she’d correctly guessed that there would be little need of one here, as time itself seemed to flow at a different pace; a slower, more contemplative one in tune with the sun and the moon and the seasons. That was something she knew a fair bit about.

It was irksome waking up in the middle of the night like this, though. They went to bed early here, especially at this time of year, and slept until dawn. Once she’d fallen into step, her body had begun to come awake for an hour or two in the middle of most nights. At first she’d taken to wandering the castle to pass the time, but well, a new-ish stone castle at night wasn’t all that different from the old ones she was familiar with, and there were plenty of ghost stories about those. Not that she believed in such things. Fortunately, the man who lay next to her usually slept like a stone, so this time was her own, to use as she wished.

The disc glinted in the moonlight. They called it an astrolabe. It had its uses, though the chief one in her opinion was that it looked like a juke piece of steampunk. She could imagine versions of this gizz adorning tophats, corsets, capes, the lot. Maybe, if she remained here long enough, she could start a collection, like a magpie. They would be her beautiful shiny things to keep.

There was no movement outside. A cold, clear night under the ancient stars of the high Middle Ages. This place was primitive and ridiculous, but beautiful too, at times like this. And she could have done far worse for herself here, given the uncertain parameters into which she’d entered. When she’d left the lab, she’d never intended to stay at her destination; it had taken some time to swallow the bitter pill of being stranded here. But for a woman who had grown up a virtual slave – she’d spent much of her life denying that had been the case, but she’d accepted the fact now – and had little education at first; had been desperate enough to marry a man twice her age just to get away, and had ended up facing the worst humanity had to offer as he dragged her around the disease-ridden filth of that region…yes, this even rivalled the hallowed halls of Cambridge at times. Not a bad place to be, all in all.

She’d been wondering how she could take advantage of her superior knowledge and skills and tech here, though there had been no reason to hurry. She could be the most patient person when necessary. And then finally yesterday there’d been an announcement that had dropped into her lap everything she could possibly have wanted, and more. Or would, if she planned and prepared well. 

Maybe she could start now, by doing some of that relocation work which would be so difficult in the daytime; the moon was bright enough to see by, and most people who awoke in the middle of the night would stay in their rooms and keep the shutters closed against the cold, so she was more or less guaranteed secrecy. But just in case she was spotted, she would need to be wearing a hat, or there would be questions. Before who she even was, they would want to know why an “older” (because thirty-two was well into old-maid territory here) woman was out and about with her hair revealed. And short hair at that. She wouldn’t be hiding behind her projection, of course, which would be recognised; she would be going out as herself. Her modern clothes, though strange to this time, would just about blend in.

But her lab equipment was a different story. And she’d been nervous about keeping it locked in her bedroom. A determined person could break into the cabinet even without the key; these locks wouldn’t be difficult to pick. She needed somewhere safer to put her tech. And she could do with a place where she could work unobserved. It seemed tonight would be her moving-in opportunity; she was ready.

She donned a black hat with cloth hanging down the back and sides tapering to two ties, which she draped across the front of her neck in the popular chaperon style, and eyed the contents of the cabinet. Her other modern clothes could stay here, concealed. But she’d packed the rest of her things in two large canvas sacks tied up with rope. With the help of a small pen-light from the little toolkit she kept stashed in a pocket of her tunic, she removed the sacks, locked the cabinet, then slung one sack over each shoulder. It was a makeshift way of going about things, but it would do. She slunk out of the room and down the hall.

The shadows closed in as she walked, and moonlight shone through glazed windows, pooling on the wooden floors. She hadn’t got in touch with Ian on her com for a while, she realised, but now was hardly the time to do so if she wanted to stay in his good books. His timeline was running parallel to her own, that was the beauty of it – and the genius, too, she didn’t mind adding – so it was one-something a.m. where he was, as well. That meant he wouldn’t take kindly to being awakened just now unless it was an emergency.

And maybe not even then. Especially since she’d arrived here, she’d begun to wonder what she’d ever seen in him. To her surprise, she thought she rather preferred the men here. They weren’t all savages. In fact, they were the same in this time period as in any other, according to one cardinal rule – they all had their brains between their legs. It was a weakness that could be exploited.

Eventually she arrived at the room which was her destination, shifted the mat concealing the trapdoor, and opened it, peering down at a flight of roughly hewn stone stairs that led into darkness. It was inconvenient having to do this, and in the middle of the night, but there was no better way into or out of the castle when the portcullis was closed. With her pen-light held between her teeth, she carefully felt her way down each step until she was at the earthen bottom; then she put her sacks down, went back up to close the trapdoor, and returned to resume her trek. She’d known of the existence of this passage for a while, but this was her first foray into it.

She hoped that whoever had dug this out had been good enough engineers that the walls weren’t in danger of collapsing, with the castle coming down on her head. Weird spiderwebby growths were brushing the top of her hat; she could feel them, and shuddered.

Honestly, Ailis. You courageously become the first human being to jump into the timestream, as your own test subject – and you’re cringing because a spiderweb brushed you?

Woman up.

She trudged onward, eventually reaching a barred wooden door. Upon opening it, she discovered she was concealed behind clumps of bushes against a hill. The stables were bathed in the moonlight further down and not far away. Soon she would be there, furtively packing up her horse, nobody the wiser. She’d had her eye on an old cottage in the woods for a while, and no one seemed to be using it.

That was going to change as of tonight.   


December, 2120

York, England

 

Yuuri forced himself out of bed. Monday morning. It took a cold shower and a cup of strong coffee to jerk his eyes the rest of the way open. He’d meant to get up earlier and cook himself something nice for breakfast, but now it was too late, and he’d have to take the usual capsules. Opening a cupboard, he found a couple of nutri-pills rattling around in a mostly empty glass jar, which he swallowed with some water; he made a mental note to put more on order with the NHS later. 

He supposed he ought to make some kind of effort with his appearance. The mirror that spanned the vanity in the bathroom reflected back at him a young man with somewhat unruly dark brown hair and brown eyes, wearing a mid-thigh-length ivory tunic, baggy navy-blue trousers, and a black waistcoat with swirls of maroon embroidery; all pretty standard office fare. He tried doing some of the buttons up on the waistcoat, then decided it was probably better to leave it hanging open. If he went to the university without his face on – that was how they phrased it – they’d probably think he was hungover or something. He pulled open a drawer of rolling, clattering glass tubes of face paint and chose a single one, electric blue. With a few delicate swirls and spirals at the corners of his eyes, he decided he was done; then he hurried out of the bathroom, shrugged on his coat, and left the flat.

“Oh, there you are,” said Mrs. Wells. She was standing in her doorway in a thick blue robe and fluffy white slippers, and gave him a smile.

“I was, um, just…” Urgency warred with feelings of duty and guilt. He needed to get to work, but there was no excuse for being rude.

“I don’t suppose you could pop in for a moment, duck, and do one or two things for me? They wouldn’t take long. Only, Vera won’t be coming round til gone nine, and – ”

“Yeah, OK. Sure. What do you need?”

It turned out that she needed the bag of sugar fetching down from the top shelf in the cabinet, where the delivery robot had put it when it should have been programmed to avoid placing anything above a certain height; and she’d spilled a mug of tea on the floor and her knees were too sore for her to bend down and clean it up. It took Yuuri three minutes to do these things, and thirteen to brew a new pot of tea and share a cup with her.

“I do appreciate the help, and I’m sorry to be a bother,” Mrs. Wells said between sips.

“You’re not – ”

“It’s not often I can’t do these things for myself. Just a bad day today, is all.”

Yuuri nodded. “I’m sure – ”

“You know,” she continued, eyeing him, “it was just the women wearing make-up when I was young. Now it’s the lads too. That’s some fancy stuff you’ve got on.”

“Glad you like it.” He gulped down the rest of his tea and put the cup in the sink.

“Really, Yuuri. Thanks for your help. I guess I’ve made you late for work.”

“No,” he said, deciding the warm smile she was giving him made it worthwhile, “I’m going to take the hoverboard today.”

Never mind that he had to dash back into his flat to find the BCI earpiece to operate it, and he couldn’t remember where he’d put it since the last time he’d used it. Trying to fly a hoverboard during the rush hour often felt like standing downhill from an oncoming boulder, expecting to be able to bring it to a halt with a touch of your hands; it was going to have its way with you and leave you broken. There were two sides to the argument: one that said air traffic control should simply be given automatic override of all vehicles for their own safety, and one that said people had the right to pilot their own vehicles where and how they wanted, with the understanding that there would be punishments for breaking the rules. What was needed, apparently, was more incentive to abide by them, rather than the nanny state taking over.

However, all Yuuri wanted was to not have to risk getting killed when he went up in the air. For years when he was younger, he’d avoided going on flying vehicles completely, gradually getting over his own fear of them with the help of Mari, who had not been that keen herself but knew what a handicap it was not to be able to use them. Yuuri found himself agreeing, because without his hoverboard he was going to be late for work.

Eventually he’d found the earpiece, hooked it around his ear, pulled his meter-wide hoverboard out of dusty storage in the closet, shoved his feet into the magnetised metal clamps that held them in place on the silver disc, and rose up into the air.

Actually…he had to admit, it was ting. The wind whipped at his hair and blew his coat so that it flapped behind him. It also bit his fingers, and he pulled on a pair of black gloves that had been stashed in a pocket.

And suddenly a whoosh of silver metal flew past him, close enough to touch, rising into the air, horn blaring. “Wha’ the bleedin’ ’ell’s playin’, tha daft get?” a voice shouted, and a hand shot out of the window with its middle finger raised.

You’re the daft git,” Yuuri muttered, scanning his immediate surroundings to make sure he was clear of any other vehicles. Mari said people were really nice in the countryside where she lived. This was what you got in the city. Not that it was even a very big one. From being of national importance in Roman, Viking and medieval times, it was now…a tourist attraction, he supposed. A scenic one, though. And the University of York, to which he was now drawing close, was one of the best in the country in many fields of research.

Managing to avoid any more near misses, Yuuri landed on the roof of the engineering building, his heart doing a happy little swoop in the process. Maybe he ought to have a taxi drop him somewhere in the Dales, and he’d be able to fly through the air to his heart’s content without too much fear of accidents. Though plain old-fashioned hiking with his own two feet, being that close to the land and catching the scents of bracken and heather and moist earth, feeling his way across slippery rocks and soft peat…maybe even a hoverboard couldn’t beat that.

He tucked the disc under his arm and approached the door to the stairs, which opened for him. Soon he was inside his little office, only five minutes late, with another cup of coffee as consolation for a hectic morning. Sunlight glittered against metal cases and chips and boards and tools. Yuuri leaned back in his chair, calling up the tasks for the day in his visual field. Nothing hugely exciting. In fact, he was picked that the president of the university was requesting again that he make repairs to her car. She kept forgetting that vehicles weren’t part of his remit; other people specialised in those, while he kept everything in the buildings running smoothly. It also appeared that the projector was on the blink in one of the lecture halls – though at a glance, he could see that nothing was scheduled to take place in there til after lunch break. There’d been complaints about a vending machine in the canteen getting stuck. And Professor Crispino’s connection to the Cloud was dropping at random times, which meant he was kicking up a fuss because he couldn’t send, post, or access any data. Yuuri had fixed that before, and reckoned that if he took better care of his tech, rather than spilling his yerba mate all over it, it might help.

But none of this was urgent. He put some Yu Wu tracks on in the background for atmosphere and removed his wristband, holding a quantum screwdriver over the back until it popped off. Then he switched to a laser pen and began to probe the workings inside, pulling over a cherry-red diagnostic machine that he thought looked a little like an espresso maker. It showed schematics of the tiny components, and he began checking through them for faults.

The door com beeped, and Phichit’s voice came through, slightly tinny: “Hey Yuuri, it’s me. Can I come in?”

“Yeah, sure,” Yuuri replied, not looking up from his work as he heard the door hiss open and shut. He didn’t have a spare chair; it wasn’t often he got visitors in here who did anything other than drop off tech to be repaired, and Phichit knew he was always welcome to clear a space on the desk and hoist his butt up. But Yuuri sensed he was hovering behind him, and finally put the laser pen down to turn around and gaze at his friend. He was wearing tan trousers, a long white cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a pine-green waistcoat, and had green and gold swirls painted around the corners of his eyes, spilling down to his cheekbones, which complemented his brown skin and eyes. Three years younger than Yuuri, and originally from Thailand, Phichit was a brilliant grad student who assisted a physics professor at the university. He was usually in an upbeat mood when Yuuri saw him in the morning, but today his eyes were lowered, and he didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands.

“Phichit?”

“Sorry, um…” He reached into the pocket of his waistcoat and fished out a wristband, then held it out to Yuuri, who took it and examined it. He tried to switch it on manually via a button on the side, but nothing happened. “It belongs to Celestino. You know, Professor Cialdini.”

“And it’s knackered,” Yuuri observed.

“Yeah. He was hoping you could fix it.”

“I’ll try.” He laid the piece of tech on his desk and looked back at Phichit. “Sit down first,” he invited him. “I’ll make us some tea.”

“No…it’s OK. But thanks. I’ve just…been spending a lot of time with Celestino over at the lab lately. It can get kind of demanding.”

“What’ve you been up to, then? A project?”

“Oh, nothing very exciting.” Phichit toed the carpet with his trainer.

“Must be more exciting than fixing BCIs and replacing burned-out semiconductors,” Yuuri said, aiming for lightness in his tone. They’d known each other for…it must be three years now; and he couldn’t recall having ever seen him so glum. But before he could say anything else, Phichit spoke again.

“Maybe. But being able to fix that stuff is pretty handy. Me, I have a lot of ideas, but they’re stuck in my head.”

“You impressed Professor Cialdini enough for him to ask you to come here and work with him. At your age, too.”

“Well, I was happy about it. London isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.”

Yuuri picked up the professor’s wristband from the desk and turned it over in his hand, then popped the back off. Whatever was bothering Phichit, he was being cagey about it. Yuuri hoped he’d be willing to talk, but he didn’t think it would be wise to try to pry it out of him. He couldn’t begin to guess, either. Phichit didn’t currently have a boyfriend or girlfriend that he was aware of, and he got along well with his family, he’d said, going home to visit them a few times a year and talking with them via holo-link. He seemed to love the work he did with Celestino, too.

“I wish I was as good as you are with tech,” Phichit commented, watching as Yuuri moved his own wristband out of the way and began a diagnostic of the professor’s with the laser pen. “Maybe I’d invent something amazing.”

Yuuri huffed a laugh. “You’re a quantum physicist, Phichit. People like you invent the stuff I fix.” He looked up. “In fact, wasn’t it that qubit processor whose design you improved which got Celestino’s attention?”

Phichit shrugged, and then a smile crept across his face. “Yeah, well, I guess so.”

“There you go, then.” The diagnostic flagged up a problem with a component he happened to have a spare for, and he took a little box out of a drawer and unpackaged it. “And maybe I should’ve invented something by now, anyway.” He used the screwdriver to levitate the tiny piece of metal out of its packaging and into place in the wristband. “Maybe I’d feel like I finally achieved something.”

Phichit came to stand next to him and watched. “What you do is already important. People know you’re there to put things right when they cock up.”

Yuuri smiled as he gently pressed the back on and examined the readout on the little screen, which looked healthy. Then he handed the wristband to Phichit, who pocketed it. “Or they complain to me when they go wrong, as if it’s my fault all the time.” But if he wanted to find out what was eating at Phichit, this wasn’t the way to go about it. Suddenly he had an idea. It wasn’t his scene exactly, but maybe it would cheer up his friend and draw him out a little more. He’d put up with it for that. “You know, I can’t remember the last time we went out somewhere for the evening. If you’re not busy later, there’s usually a folk-rock band playing at The Eagle in town on a Monday night. Fancy going? Their beer’s pretty good, from what I remember.”

Phichit’s eyes widened. “You, go to a pub?”

Yuuri smirked. “It’s been known to happen.”

“Well, how can I say no to that?”

“Meet you there at seven?”

This was more like the Phichit Yuuri was used to. “You’re on,” he said.

Chapter Text

It had been a while since Yuuri had had a good reason to visit the middle of York. The ancient city was enclosed by medieval grey stone walls with Roman foundations that were still largely intact and could be walked upon. They formed an imposing dark edifice against the night sky as Yuuri approached Walmgate Bar from the southeast, passing through the tall Gothic archway and into a grey stone passageway illuminated by white street lamps. Of all the gates through the walls, this was the most fairytale-like, Yuuri supposed: a crenellated rectangle with an almost twee double-turreted tower at the end in which the original portcullis still remained, though he’d never seen it closed. It was easy to imagine armoured guards lurking above with spears, or possibly bows and arrows, shouting, “Hark, who goes there?”

Once inside the walls, his breath puffing out in a mist through the chill of the evening, he was on more modern-looking roads, though dotted around were reminders of the city’s long, rich history. Illuminated on a hill to the west was Clifford’s Tower, the largest remaining part of the great castle that once stood there; and immediately to its north, a holographic-cum-living history museum about the Viking era which he and Phichit had enjoyed visiting together one afternoon.

The pub Yuuri sought was at the other end of The Shambles, where they were soon walking. Like most of the heart of the city, this street had been here since the Middle Ages and probably long before, its geography unchanged, ancient wattle-and-daub and wooden buildings leaning toward each other across the narrow shadowed way. Nearby, above the clustered rooftops, rose the tall towers of the minster fringed with Gothic stone tracery that looked like delicate lace under its night-time illumination; the grand medieval cathedral had been the seat of the Archbishop of York, the only other high ecclesiastical authority in the country outside of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s jurisdiction.

Not that it mattered anymore; long gone were the days when the church could tell people what to do and expect to be listened to. It was a bit of a misnomer to call the minster medieval as well, because Yuuri knew there was a museum underneath that displayed the original Roman foundations of the building in which the coronation of the Emperor Constantine had taken place. He remembered that much from school history lessons and trips. What he couldn’t remember was what daily life along these streets had been like, though it was easy enough to imagine peasants and merchants bustling along. Especially religious, too, he assumed, since at one point there had been forty-something parish churches here. The ones that remained, barring a handful, had been converted into flats and offices, though you wouldn’t know it from the original facades.

It was unusual to be able to walk along The Shambles without bumping elbows with throngs of tourists, but all the shops were shut now and it was fairly quiet. He briefly wondered what kinds of shops had been here six hundred or so years ago, before the artisanal bakeries and chocolatiers, fudge and ice-cream makers, knickknack nooks and upmarket restaurants. Maybe it hadn’t been so different; there could still have been people baking and selling bread. Places where travellers could go for a meal. They didn’t have chocolate yet, did they? That had to have come after the Middle Ages. Was sugar rotting their teeth back then? His head full of a hodgepodge of history lessons, Swords and Sorcery and pure imagination, Yuuri decided to give up the speculation for now and look forward to a pint of bitter with Phichit. And a merry old tune, if the band was any good.

He took a turn onto Low Petergate. The Eagle was there, with a corresponding painted wooden sign hanging from a pole outside depicting the eponymous ravening bird of prey with claws extended. Across the street was a closed shop selling Viking-style amour, and next to that a red-brick building proclaiming itself the York Victorian Museum of Costume. Yuuri was again struck by the idea that his moment of “now” was a tiny speck in the great sweep of time. Even the Roman remains here were recent, compared to the relics in other places not far away of people who had lived thousands of years ago – hill forts and round towers, barrows and chambered tombs, stone circles and rock carvings. 

He wondered if he’d ever possess such knowledge of the history of his own people. Or, rather, his family’s people. He spoke Japanese, but if he ever went there, he’d be as much a tourist as anyone inside this pub.

Pulling open the old door, he was greeted by light and warmth. A wood fire blazed in a large arched brick hearth. Perhaps half of the dark wooden tables were occupied, and the low hum of conversation was occasionally punctuated by a laugh or a chair scraping across the stone-flagged floor. There weren’t many pubs around these days, most having been converted into restaurants or cannabis bars, though there was a good choice of them in the area, all trying to be “authentic” in their own way, whatever that meant. This one sold traditionally brewed ales and booked a lot of musicians who played folksy types of songs or instruments. There was no sign of those yet, but Yuuri spotted Phichit at a table near the fireplace and went over to join him.

“Hey,” Yuuri said, draping his coat across the back of his chair. In front of Phichit sat a mostly full glass pint of chestnut-coloured beer on a soggy cardboard mat, its sides glazed with condensation. “Nice and toasty over here.” He checked the time in his visual field; he’d finished repairing his own wristband shortly after he’d seen to Professor Cialdini’s. It wasn’t quite seven. “Have you been waiting long?”

“I got here early and had a pasty. You know, it’s been ages since I’ve been to a pub. I forgot how atmospheric it is in the winter.”

“Well this one, maybe. Want me to get you anything at the bar?”

Phichit grabbed the handle of his pint and took a sip, ivory foam forming a little moustache above his lip before he licked it off. Yuuri smiled and went over to choose for himself, decided on something labelled Baz’s Bonce Blower, and soon returned with his own glass pint. Phichit was sloshing his beer around and eyeing it.

“This English stuff is heavy. You couldn’t drink it on a hot summer’s day.”

“I guess you’d want lager, then. They’ve got that too, if you’d like some.”

“Nah, it’s OK. You gonna try your drink?”

Yuuri’s gaze dropped to his pint, whose contents were dark brown and heavy-looking, as Phichit had said. Its name didn’t suggest anything other than a quirky marketing ploy, the same one that many of these artisanal ales used. He took a mouthful and swallowed.

“Bloody hell,” he muttered with a cough, his eyes widening, and Phichit laughed. Yuuri joined in. “This stuff’s fucking strong. It’s like wine or something. Shit. I’ve got a whole pint of it.”

I should’ve chosen that one. Oh well. It’ll help you relax. Cheers, Yuuri.”

It did help him relax. The room felt very warm indeed after a while. He unbuttoned his tunic halfway down and leaned back in his chair, a pleasant buzz circulating around his system. His mind was unusually quiet, as if it were gently wrapped in cotton. Pint glass now empty, he watched a musical quartet assemble across the room with a violin, guitar, flute and bodhrán. It was good listening to real instruments played by real people. AI could just about get the sound, but not the style.

Then he reeled his brain back in. He’d brought Phichit here for a reason. So far they hadn’t done much other than talk shop, and about Double Trouble, which Phichit liked too, and about Phichit’s pet hamsters. You’d hardly think they were friends of several years’ standing. Yuuri decided to take a stab again at something a little deeper.

“So this project you’re working on with Professor Cialdini…Celestino. Want to tell me a little more about it? Sounds like hard work.”

“Uh…why don’t I get us some more drinks? What would you like?”

Yuuri blinked. “Um, OK. How about a shandy?”

“You’re going from super-strong ale to that?” Phichit laughed.

“Well, yeah.” Yuuri pinged his empty pint glass. “Tomorrow’s a work day. I don’t want to turn up in the morning feeling like shit. I already do in the morning anyway, when I haven’t even been drinking.”

“OK.” Phichit disappeared to the bar. Yuuri watched the musicians move some tables out of the way and start tuning their instruments. He couldn’t work out what kind of look they were aiming for, if any. The men were dressed in bluejeans, tweed coats and shirts, though one had a cream-coloured waitcoat, and another wore a broad-brimmed cloth hat that looked like something Oliver Cromwell might fancy. The woman had waist-length blond hair and a bright kaftan down to her ankles, with a pair of sandals. She was the one with the flute.

Phichit returned with the drinks; it looked like he’d got them both the same thing. Yuuri sat up straighter, took a sip of the lager-and-lemonade mixture, and thanked him. It was more refreshing than the ale had been and went down easy.

“I know you keep asking, and I appreciate it,” Phichit said, picking up the thread of their conversation. “But I couldn’t tell you what was going on if I wanted to. I’m not allowed to tell anyone about it. I’m really sorry, Yuuri.”

“Is it confidential, or classified or something?” Yuuri had no idea of the scale of research that went on in the physics department. For all he knew, they might be developing things for the government or MI8.

“No, no, nothing like that,” Phichit said with a little laugh. Then he sipped his drink.

Yuuri hazarded another guess. “You’re not worried about losing your job or anything – ?”

“Nah. Though…” He looked back at the bar. “…for the next round, maybe I ought to have a shot of something. Or some of that Baz’s whatsit you tried. It might help me put it out of my mind. For a while. Nothing catastrophic. Yesterday was just a really bad day. Anyway, Celestino knows. We’re working on it.”

Yuuri wrinkled his brow. Jesus, Phichit. What’s going on? he wanted to ask, but he was still sober enough to hold his tongue.

The notes of the violin suddenly flowed through the room, and the ambient chatter quietened. The woman sang, her voice soft like the wind through grass.

Within the fire and out upon the sea
Crazy Man Michael was walking
He met with a raven with eyes black as coals
And shortly they were a-talking
Your future, your future I would tell to you
Your future you often have asked me
Your true love will die by your own right hand
And crazy man Michael will cursèd be

They hadn’t introduced themselves, but Yuuri could see from an old-fashioned paper poster tacked to a wooden post nearby that they were called the Gypsy Davies. And from the sound of the lyrics, it was typical folksy stuff, a song either plucked from the misty past or written in that style. They were good, though. And the woman’s voice…it got into your bones somehow. He sat silently, his arms resting on the table, and sipped his drink and listened, while Phichit did the same.

Michael he ranted and Michael he raved
And beat at the four winds with his fists-o
He laughed and he cried, he shouted and he swore
For his mad mind had trapped him with a kiss-o
You speak with an evil, you speak with a hate
You speak for the devil that haunts me
For is she not the fairest in all the broad land
Your sorcerer’s words are to taunt me 

It was getting a little too “hey nonny nonny” for Yuuri’s liking, but it had a melancholy sound that moved his heart nevertheless. The strumming guitar wove with the woman’s, voice low with the gravity of the words.

He took out his dagger of fire and of steel
And struck down the raven through the heart-o
The bird fluttered long and the sky it did spin
And the cold earth did wonder and startle
O where is the raven that I struck down dead
And here did lie on the ground-o
I see but my true love with a wound so red
Where her lover’s heart it did pound-o

The music swelled and then died, and the room erupted into claps, Yuuri and Phichit joining in. The next song, a bouncy instrumental, didn’t have the same poignant feel to it. “I wonder how authentic they really are,” Yuuri mused. “I think the auth…authen…” That was the drink getting to him, he reckoned. “Whether the bodhrán is a real ancient instrument is dis…argued about.”

Phichit shrugged. “Does it matter? I kinda like it.”

“I guess not. Just, you know, it makes me think of things like Swords and Sorcery. That was supposed to feel auth…entic too. When it came out. But I don’t know how much – ”

“What’s Swords and Sorcery?”

“You know, that game.” Yuuri took a sip of his shandy.

“What game? I don’t think you’ve ever mentioned it.”

“Did I not?” Yuuri tried to remember. That was right; he hadn’t wanted to admit he’d played it. “Fantasy Immersion game.” He chuckled and drank more shandy. “You wouldn’t believe how naff it is, Phichit. What did I ever see in it?”

Phichit smiled at him and sipped his own drink. “That kind of thing used to be pretty popular before the space-travel scenarios got trendy.”

“I spent a lot of time faffing about in it, though. A lot. Mari finally banned me from it. We had…some rows. Though I always knew she meant well. But seriously, it was like going through withdrawal, not visiting it anymore.” He huffed a laugh and shook his head. “King of Ethnaria…Elgar the Unwieldy…champion swordsman of England…bloody hell.” More shandy. “Well, I grew up, I like to think.”

“Those games can be really compelling,” Phichit said, looking at him thoughtfully. “A lot of people are like that with them. You have to admit, they can be more fun than real life.”

Yuuri rested his head in a hand and looked silently at Phichit. Too close to the mark. And speaking of marks. “I wanted to be an archer at first,” he said, deciding to carry on now he’d started. “’Cause you can do stuff like stand on a hill a safe distance away and fire endless arrows. When you trap the monster in a cell or something first, it’s ting. But there was a problem with that.”

“There was?”

“Yeah. I’m rubbish with a bow and arrow, and Swords and Sorcery doesn’t help you along with that like other games I’ve played. So I had to do something else.” He took another sip. “I ended up being a fighter. Boring, I know. But when you’re a magic-user, nine times out of ten you get killed before you can get your level up because you’re just a jack wandering around in a robe.”

“Wow, Yuuri. Sounds like you really were into this.”

“It’s pretty standard stuff. Haven’t you ever played fantasy Immersion?”

“Never thought about it.” Phichit glanced at his drink, then guzzled the rest of it down. “I like games where you race cars and things. But after the past several weeks…you couldn’t pay me to set foot in a fantasy game.” When Yuuri opened his mouth to question him about this, he quickly added, “So what was it like being a fighter?”

Yuuri lowered his eyes and huffed again. His elbows rested on the table while he clasped his hands together, and he leaned his head against them. With his lips being pushed out of place in the process, on top of the alcohol, most of his words were slurred. “I was trying to be the opposite of what I am. Brave, strong. A hero. Not some jack who sits in the corner ’cause he’s too afraid to talk to people. Or doesn’t know what to say. Or something. Anxious.” He unclasped his hands and slid a finger idly across his beer mat. “You can’t be anxious when a dragon’s coming at you. You’ll just get twatted.”

Phichit laughed. “Yeah, I guess so. You’re being too hard on yourself, though, I think – ”

“No, I’m not.” Yuuri ran his finger up the cool frosty side of his glass, wondering why he was doing it. And how he’d got immersed in this entire conversation. Ha-ha. “Anyway, I toned the realism down even more, because I never wanted to fight people. Just monsters. Not even the scariest kind, because those give me nightmares. Zombies and spiders and shit. But I’ll tell you what.” He held a finger up to make his point. “I always got a good workout from it. And I got pretty good with a sword. For what it’s worth.”

“You did?” Phichit said, sitting up straight and suddenly looking keenly interested.

“Well, yeah. I used it enough. In the game. But there was a re-enactment group near the university one weekend and a jack there let me try his sword. And you know what? I wasn’t half bad. We did some sparring. So…” He sighed and finished his drink, bemused by the excitement on Phichit’s face. His blathering couldn’t be that fascinating, surely. He’d gone into this hoping to get Phichit to talk, but instead was spilling his guts out about things he was sure he’d never meant to. At least an appropriate violin was playing in the background. “It was all pretty childish, I guess.” He wrinkled his brow as Phichit continued to stare. “What?”     

“But, Yuuri – why didn’t you ever mention this before?”

“I wasn’t exactly proud of it. For a while there, it was all I ever wanted to do. I didn’t even want to go to school. You feel like you’re accomplishing something, with all that stuff you’re doing in the game, but it’s just a game, at the end of the day. Real life is out there, you know?”

“Yeah, I know.” Phichit’s eyes were wide and sparkling. “You’ve given me an idea. Though…” He settled back down in his chair, suddenly seeming to reconsider. Yuuri wished he’d stop staring. “Well, it’s a lot to ask. I don’t know if – ”

“What is?”

Phichit’s gaze was intent now. “Gimme a little time and I’ll get back to you on it. I need to talk to Celestino.”

“About what?”

“Look, um, this project I’m working on with him – it’s pretty urgent. Can I…if I give you some information, will you read it tonight?”

“I thought this was secret or something?”

“Just…I can’t promise what Celestino will say, but I think I can get permission to tell you more tomorrow. For now, all I can do is ask you to read a file on a certain person. If you’re willing.”

Yuuri shrugged. “Yeah, sure.” A moment later, his wristband told him the file had been received.

“Go home and have a look, Yuuri.” Phichit leaned forward. “This woman…she could end up being the most important person in history, for all the wrong reasons.”

Chapter Text

Yuuri wasn’t been able to get more out of Phichit than that, though he tried, perhaps losing a bit of tact in the hope of understanding his portentous comment. Phichit just repeated that he had to talk to Celestino first, and Yuuri should read the file. They remained at the pub a while longer, listening to the band, both having decided they’d drunk enough for the night. The flickering yellow flames and the warmth of the fire were soothing, as was the music, the notes of the violin flowing in a slow treacle that blended with the wood and the hearth, the alcohol and the good-natured crowd, almost lulling Yuuri off to sleep. The applause for the final song jarred him back to consciousness, and he and Phichit parted ways, the latter taking a flying taxi to the opposite side of York, where he shared a flat with two students from the university.

Yuuri walked back the way he’d come, tempted briefly as he passed the dark ancient buildings along The Shambles to think there might be something here to justify the ghost walks that came through every night. The cold air went a long way toward sobering him up, and the strong cup of coffee he brewed when he got to his flat helped too. He soon felt in a mindset to have a look at the information Phichit had sent him, and sat down on the sofa in the living room to do so, cradling the warm mug.

The file was holographic, so he turned out the lights and instructed his wristband to project it above the coffee table. A long white screen with black text appeared; there were several pleasant-sounding voices that would read it to him if he chose, but he wanted to do it himself, silently, at his own pace. And next to the text screen, doll-sized and brightly illuminated as if in a film, was a three-dimensional woman called, apparently, Dr. Ailis Marr.

Yuuri examined the hologram carefully. While the figure itself was immobile, he rotated it with mental commands in order to get a full view. Late 20s or early 30s, he reckoned. Average height and build. Cropped black hair, pale complexion. Striking green eyes that seemed to reflect an incisive mind, shining out of deep sockets. Sharp cheekbones and a slightly jutting chin, giving the impression of stubbornness, or that she had something she wanted to prove. She was dressed in black, in the long plain tunic and baggy trousers that were popular, along with open-toed black sandals. There was no paint on her face – it was usually discouraged in these ID-type pictures, so that the features were more readily identifiable – but she wore bright red lipstick and had matching painted fingernails. Yuuri didn’t think he was seeing anything much out of the ordinary, apart from someone who had a bit of a chip on her shoulder, maybe; she didn’t look like she’d be open to a friendly conversation.

Curious to discover what was so important about her, he began to read the file. The text was synced with his eye movements, and the hologram altered to three-dimensional moving picture clips of whichever section he was reading.

The first sentence seemed to go with the initial hologram he’d examined. Dr. Ailis Marr, late of Cambridge University, it said. Electronics and physics expert, and eccentric genius.

Eccentric genius? Yuuri wondered what the unknown author’s definition of  “eccentric” was, exactly. She didn’t look like a stereotypical mad scientist. Come to think of it, maybe nobody actually did outside of books and films.

Known to have lived most of her life on Surga with her mother, it continued, in the house of a wealthy British expat family; her father, Dr. Anthony Marr, an Irish botanist, died when she was young. Matched with this was a low-resolution still photograph, perhaps taken by a simple old-fashioned aircam, showing Ailis as a young child posing outdoors next to a man with features similar to her own. Then a wedding photograph of an adult Ailis, though apparently only seventeen, with a man who looked twice her age. Dr. Brian Sanderson, a British epidemiologist. They’d travelled throughout Surga on his studies, but four years later he died of an unknown disease.

Yuuri paused and sipped at his coffee. He felt he could relate to her in some respects. But there was nothing that hinted yet about the importance Phichit attached to her. And what was this about her husband dying from an unknown disease? How was that possible? He did a quick Cloud search for Surga, which he thought he ought to recognise but couldn’t quite place, and discovered it was an archipelago named after its main island, located 1200 kilometers southwest of Sumatra in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Scanning the info page, Yuuri soon recalled the context in which he’d heard of it before: it was one of the few remote outposts in the world where a scattering of super-wealthy individuals, most of them with finances that had survived intact through the Water Wars of the 2070s and been passed down through their families, had fled to escape international law that would demand they pay taxes and possibly answer for crimes. Working for them, and populating Surga and the surrounding islands, were the poor from places where people still lived in such circumstances, having risked whatever they had left to go there in the hope of a few crumbs from the table. It made Yuuri’s stomach turn, and he wondered what kind of life Ailis had lived and what she’d seen, or if she’d been sheltered from it all in the expats’ house.

The islands were tropical and extremely isolated, with nanobot coverage of less than eighty percent, which made them prone to fostering diseases new to science; that would explain the epidemiologist husband. Dr. Sanderson, being British, would have had nanobots injected into his blood shortly after birth, programmed with the DNA profiles of all known diseases, and regularly updated with information on new pathogens; the boost the microscopic robots gave to the immune system had been one of the great discoveries of the century. But if the doctor made a living from studying diseases, it was plausible that he’d come across a deadly new one before more nanobots could be programmed for it and injected into his system. Had Ailis caught the same disease, then? And if so, had she survived?

Yes to both questions, according to the file. She’d received a life-saving injection of updated nanobots just in time. At which point she moved to the UK, where she studied electronics and physics at Cambridge University, achieving a doctorate degree in four years and proving to be “one of the most promising scientists of her generation”.

Why haven’t I ever heard of her, then? Yuuri mused, watching a silent moving hologram of her lecturing at what was probably Cambridge, though little of the room and nothing of the audience was in view. He finished his coffee, put the empty mug on the table, and began to read the final paragraph of text. It said she’d disappeared from public life three years ago. Yuuri felt surprised at first that no one seemed to know where she’d gone; but then if she were a genius gizwiz, as Phichit liked to call techies, then she would probably know how to avoid surveillance and leave a clean trail so she couldn’t be traced. No known friends or relatives. She hadn’t confided in any colleagues at the university, either.

Yuuri brushed his lips with his fingers in thought as he read on. Now this was interesting. Before she’d disappeared, she claimed she’d been pioneering a field she called temporal physics, based on a new force of nature that existed beyond the ordinary dimensions of time and space. She’d written a paper that had outlined her ideas but had not contained any actual research. It was theoretically possible, she said, to build devices which tapped into the energy of that new force and could achieve things – in the areas of communications and travel, for example – that went beyond the boundaries of what had heretofore been believed possible.

If what she said were true, however, it would’ve been worldwide news. Yuuri thought it sounded more like the ravings of an unbalanced mind. Was that what had happened – had she had some kind of breakdown? And was that why she’d disappeared?

The remaining text confirmed that there appeared to be no evidence for her claims. To further obscure the issue, on the rare occasions she’d shown notes and equations to her colleagues, they hadn’t been able to make any sense of them. In the last article she was known to have written, a short piece for a Cloud quantum physics journal, she’d said she was determined to develop her ideas further, and would stun the world with them one day.

“Yeah, right,” Yuuri muttered with a little shake of his head.

She hadn’t left anything behind at Cambridge, at the university or in her flat. She’d simply resigned her post and vanished.

“Three years ago. So why is this suddenly so relevant now?”

She could end up being the most important person in history, for all the wrong reasons, Phichit had told him. A genius scientist and a bit of loose cannon, from the look of things.

Could there be any truth in the claims she’d made? Had she gone somewhere to do exactly what she’d promised – develop her ideas until she was ready to reveal them to the world? Or was she mentally ill? Both, or something else entirely? Why couldn’t Phichit tell him more?

Dr. Ailis Marr, who are you? Yuuri wondered he stared at her luminous holographic form, her expression solemn, eyes keen, as if she were the keeper of important secrets. Where did you go, and what have you been doing? And why is Phichit, of all people, interested in you? Though the quantum physics angle suggested a reason, however nebulous.

The hologram, oblivious to his scrutiny, continued to speak silently to the unseen audience in front of her.


“Thanks for bringing Yuuri here, Phichit,” Professor Celestino Cialdini said as the door to his office slid open. He was leaning back in a large leather chair behind a polished dark wooden desk, hands folded with fingers interlinked, a posture Yuuri had often seen teachers take with students when they wanted to look calm and in charge. The grave expression on his face, though, was a little at odds with it. At odds, as well, with an appearance that seemed more fitting for a stage performer: long, thick dark brown hair gathered in a ponytail down his back, bushy eyebrows, billowing white shirt, maroon waistcoat with gold buttons. Red, yellow and orange face paint around his eyes, suggesting tiny curling flames. A pair of sideburns crept down his face, and watery light green eyes regarded him steadily. Yuuri knew he was in his 40s, though he looked younger. There was a faint trace of an Italian accent in his voice.

As Yuuri stepped inside with Phichit, his eyes strayed to the office wall to his left; he couldn’t help it. It was made entirely of glass, separating the ordinary wood-panelled room from a tropical greenhouse that must belong to the botany department. Sunlight glowed on huge green banana-tree leaves, trumpet-like vanilla orchids, bright bird of paradise flowers that he suspected might have been the inspiration for the flame design of Celestino’s face paint, spiky cycads, and myriad other kinds of plants he didn’t recognise. Droplets of water trailed slowly down the leaves and plopped lazily onto the moist wood-chip paths.

“Please, have a seat, both of you,” the professor invited them with an outstretched hand, and Yuuri and Phichit sat down next to each other in black-cushioned chairs. As Celestino regarded him, Yuuri decided that the “calm professor” and “stage performer” personas he’d ascribed to him didn’t quite fit, after all. He seemed more like a minister comforting the family of the dead. Yuuri wondered what Phichit knew, and what he hadn’t been telling him; what secrets these two shared.

“Phichit told you why I asked to see you?” the professor said.

“He, ah, gave me a file about someone called Dr. Ailis Marr and asked me to read it.” Yuuri paused and glanced at Phichit, who was quietly gazing back at him. “Which I did. He told me earlier this morning that he’d spoken to you, and you had a…a proposition for me? I can’t say I understand – ”

“Allow me to explain, then. So you’re familiar with Dr. Marr’s background.”

“In a basic way, I suppose so, yes.”

“We don’t have a great deal of information about her. But it’s felt that the death of her husband and her own near-miss might have left her with undiagnosed mental health issues, if they weren’t already present.”

“I’m no psychologist, but I’d say that sounds like a possibility.” Tell me why I’m here, Yuuri added silently.

“All right. Well, no one knew where she’d gone or what she’d been doing since her disappearance from Cambridge three years ago, as you’ll be aware. But I can pick up the story now.” He took a deep breath. “At the beginning of last month, I was approached by Caroline Rhys, one of our lab assistants. She told me her son had been kicking a football with a friend in an old alleyway in Crowood, and it went through a window that was partially sunk under the street level – ”

“Professor,” Phichit interrupted; Yuuri had seen him fidgeting in his chair since they’d sat down. “I don’t mean to be rude, but does that matter right now? I can tell Yuuri about it later. We need to get to the time-travel stuff – ”

Yuuri hardly had a chance to react before Celestino interrupted Phichit in turn. “What else do you think I’m going to talk about? The weather?”

“Time travel,” Yuuri echoed. He’d be tempted to think this was an elaborate joke or prank, apart from the fact that he knew Phichit was in earnest. “There…there’s no such thing.” He gave an incredulous little laugh.

“All right,” the professor said with a sigh. “Phichit, you can explain in detail at a more appropriate time, then.” He turned back to Yuuri. “Let’s just say that the two boys accidentally discovered something very interesting – a seemingly abandoned basement lab. And Phichit and I went to investigate. Whoever had been using it had left some curious items there. A very modern portable generator. Tool kits. Several tablets containing encrypted information. Computers that we’re familiar enough with, though again none of the information in them was comprehensible. And other things that were more…unusual.”

“Someone just left it all lying around in there? But this was…” Yuuri thought for a moment. “…the beginning of last month, you said. Do you know if anyone came back – ”

“You’re getting ahead of me there, Yuuri,” the professor answered. “In fact, we believe only two people are involved, and I can tell you something about them both, if you’re willing to listen.”

Yuuri reminded himself to be patient, and nodded.

“I think it could take a great deal of time before any of the information contained in the tech can be decrypted,” the professor continued. “If the encryption was done by Ailis herself, who knows what a mind of that calibre might have come up with – the layers, the varieties of permutations…”

“What made you think it was her?” Yuuri couldn’t help asking.

“Oh, we know it was,” Phichit jumped in to add. “Because – ”

“Why don’t we take this step by step,” Celestino said to him with the ghost of a smile and a nod. “Maybe Yuuri should see what we brought back from this lab.” He opened a drawer next to him and took out a shining gold-coloured sphere the size of an orange. As he placed it in his palm and handed it across the desk, Yuuri saw that the only marking on it was a rectangular screen, about four by two centimeters. He took it in his own hand and glanced enquiringly at Phichit, who nodded. Then he gently touched the screen with his index finger and it lit up, revealing a simple display of zeroes, with a single black icon to the side in the shape of an hourglass.

“Don’t touch the hourglass,” the professor said quickly. “That’s how you program it. Though it also works via BCI.”

Yuuri examined the sphere. Hard, cold metal. It was pretty, apparently made of solid unblemished gold, though that was clearly not the case because it was as light as a cork. He’d never seen anything like it. No seams were visible anywhere.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Just put it on the table for a moment,” Celestino said with a gesture. “There’s more to show you.”

The bottom was slightly flat, Yuuri noticed, so that it could sit upright, though it would also be easy to send it rolling with a flick. He did as he’d been asked, deciding that despite the sombre mood in the room, the professor was something of a showman and had no intention of revealing his hand all at once. This time he extracted a tiny black cylinder, again placing it in his hand and holding it out to Yuuri. When he picked it up and held it to the light, he could feel its smooth softness between his fingers, and thought he could hazard a guess as to what it was.

“Translator?” he said, and the professor nodded. But there was nothing unusual about that. It was cutting-edge tech, and the only thing preventing people from buying it, apart from a steep price tag, was the fact that it was separate from the wristband because it operated in a way that wasn’t yet compatible with it, and so people were still mostly using the Cloud translator which dubbed or subtitled whatever you were hearing.

This new device was light years ahead of it, though. Once in your ear, quantum levitation prevented it from moving any further inward; it didn’t even touch the skin, so sounds were not noticeably muffled. The miniature components inside the foamy shell, operating via BCI, would be programmed with whatever languages the user required, though they came as standard with the most frequently spoken ones in the world. It worked by using constant low-level hypnosis to make you think you were hearing the other person’s voice and seeing their mouth speak your own language, while you believed you were speaking it to them, even though you were actually speaking theirs. Yuuri found it disconcerting just how deeply it must sync with the brain to be able to achieve this, but the device was easily inserted and removed with no ill effects; he’d used one himself a few times at the university.

“My guess is you’re thinking there’s nothing unusual about it,” the professor said, and Yuuri’s gaze flicked up to meet his. “That’s what I thought at first. Several of these were in a box at the lab. But when I put one in my ear and brought up the menu of what it contained…well, let’s just say I was surprised.”

“Oh?”

Phichit said, “Ancient languages. Besides the usual modern ones. Middle English, Anglo-Norman, medieval Russian, Latin and Parisian French.”

Yuuri huffed a laugh and stared at the translator, then looked back at the professor. “Who would you speak these with?”

“Good question,” Celestino replied, taking the device back and placing it on the desk next to the sphere. “I tried it out with some of the professors in the history and languages departments, and they said the translations were accurate. Though no one here speaks medieval Parisian French with a great deal of confidence, and we have no medieval Russian speakers at all.”

“What a surprise,” Yuuri said with a small smile. “Anyway, I can’t agree to anything until you’ve made it clear to me what it is you’re asking me to do. A disappearing Cambridge professor, a mysterious tech lab, these gadgets on your desk – it doesn’t make sense.”

“You can see how we felt at first,” Celestino said, taking one more item out of the drawer and giving it to him. It was a black wristband, similar to what most people wore to access the Cloud. The small box in which the tech was enclosed was of a slightly different shape, and had buttons on the side, as well as a cluster of tiny holes that Yuuri guessed might be for audio input and output. It didn’t seem logical or practical, though, because the Cloud connection worked by digitising brainwaves; it must have been a hundred years since people had regularly used tech that had depended on soundwaves.

“Is this some kind of antique?” he asked.

“Far from it,” the professor answered. “And don’t press any of those buttons,” he added urgently when he saw Yuuri’s fingers lingering over them.

He handed the wristband back, no longer able to contain his annoyance. “Dr. Cialdini – ”

“Celestino.”

“Celestino. If you wanted to make me curious, I am. I’d really like to know what you think all this tech is for, how it’s connected to the lab you found and Dr. Marr, and…” He added dubiously, “And time travel, supposedly, as you said. And what exactly you want me to do for you.”

“I’m getting to that. But these three pieces of tech were important for you to see, because Ailis took identical versions with her where she went, so far as we can gather.”

Yuuri wrinkled his brow. “Where she went?” You’re not going to tell me she went travelling in time…are you?

“Please, Yuuri, just listen and it’ll start adding up soon,” Phichit said. When Yuuri looked at him, he saw earnestness in his wide brown eyes. And concern. More than anything else, he wanted to know what had been troubling his friend so deeply, regardless of whatever it was Celestino wanted from him. He glanced over again at the serene tropical leaves on the other side of the wall, some of them as big as umbrellas, and took a calming breath.

“This particular device had been left in clear view on one of the tables,” Celestino told him. “And like you were doing just now, I picked it up and examined the buttons.”

Buttons were meant for pressing, Yuuri thought wryly. Even a quantum physicist with an unidentified piece of tech isn’t immune to the temptation, it seems. In fact, maybe it’d have a pretty strong appeal.

“I wanted to try to find out what it was and how it worked,” Celestino continued. “I tapped the black box and was able to call up a BCI interface, like you would with an ordinary wristband. It said something about projections. But I also had my finger over the buttons, and must’ve pressed one. Ailis seems to be fond of providing manual overrides in case the BCI goes wrong, like any good techie…”

“You pressed a button, and – ?” Yuuri urged him.

Celestino raised an eyebrow, seeming to enjoy Yuuri’s anticipation. “I made voice contact through the device. A woman answered, thinking at first that I was someone called Ian. She asked me where I’d been. When I spoke, she knew right away that I was someone else, and we took a moment to establish who was who.” He leaned back in his chair and flexed his fingers. “She told me she was Dr. Ailis Marr, and was angry that I was in her lab. Ian should’ve set the alarms, she said, and she went so far as to accuse Phichit and me of breaking and entering. I said the place had been discovered by accident, and put it to her that she wasn’t the rightful owner, so she had no grounds for accusing us of criminal activity. She didn’t have an immediate answer to that…Actually, perhaps it would be better just to play the conversation back to you. I discovered later that the device records them.”

He pressed a button, and Yuuri leaned forward to listen. The sound quality was about what you’d expect from a small piece of tech like this, but the voices were sharp and clear enough to be easily understood. The beginning of the conversation ran as Celestino had described it. Yuuri tried to form an idea of what Ailis was like, but it was difficult, as she was brusque and suspicious.

The voices in the recording conferred. A red and white butterfly flapped past the vanilla orchid as Yuuri listened. Ailis was muttering to herself about Ian, who seemed to have done a runner and left the tech in the lab without turning the alarms on. It was his com, as she called it, that Celestino was using, and she wasn’t happy about it.

“Leave my inventions alone,” she told him. “They don’t belong to you. You wouldn’t understand them.”

Celestino had settled into a conversational tone in the recording, similar to the way he’d been talking to Yuuri. There was a touch of arrogance in it that was grating. “The Cloud doesn’t appear to contain any information about you,” he said to her. “How is that? Who are you?”

“I already said,” came the clipped response. “Dr. Ailis Marr. I was working at Cambridge University but left to pursue my private line of work.” She huffed. “They didn’t believe a word. I thought I’d go away and prove what a bunch of ignorant pillocks they are. One of the most learned institutions in the world, and they’re struggling to add one and one, and laugh me out of the room when I try to tell them it’s two.”

Yuuri gave Phichit an incredulous glance. He shrugged as if to say, Tell me about it. This is what we’re dealing with here.

“Have you been in York all this time, then?” Celestino asked on the recording. The village of Crowood wasn’t technically part of York, of course, but it was as near as made no odds.

“A friend of a friend of a friend – don’t bother trying to trace who, because you never will – told me about that old basement hidden away, and I managed to get a key. It was far enough away from Cambridge that I figured no one would bother me there. But things have a way of going pear-shaped, it seems,” she muttered. “First Ian, now you. I’m getting a female assistant next time.”

The strange, unpredictable things she uttered, Yuuri thought. He could see why there’d been speculation about the state of her mental health. But where was she while they’d been talking to her? He was about to ask Celestino when she offered an answer of a kind.

“How would you describe your line of work?” Celestino enquired.

“Temporal physics.”

There was a pause. “I’ve…heard that term in science fiction – ”

“Good. Then you’ll know what it means.”

Another pause. “I thought I understood it to mean time travel, but – ”

“Yes.”

Celestino coughed. “Are you saying you’ve been researching…time travel?”

“Yes. Your intelligence astounds me, Doctor – who did you say you were? And what are you a doctor of, exactly?”

“My name’s Celestino. My assistant Phichit and I are quantum physicists.”

“Oh,” came the quiet response. “Well. It’s not every day a quantum physicist bumbles by accident into my lab, I have to say.”

“It wasn’t like that.”

“You won’t mind if I get you to prove to my satisfaction that you are indeed a quantum physicist?”

There was a pause before Celestino replied, “I don’t understand why it’s necessary.”

“Careful, Doctor. I’m starting to feel suspicious.”

Celestino agreed to her request, and the next couple of minutes were taken up with him, and on occasion Phichit, responding to technical-sounding questions that Yuuri struggled to understand, involving such concepts as wave function collapse, the Plank constant, and the helicity of photons. They confidently answered them all, and Yuuri flashed an admiring smile at his friend. Phichit gave him a quick, proud smile back.

 The change in Ailis’s tone was surprisingly abrupt. “It looks like my luck is in today, then. For the first time, the first time in my life, I’m talking to people who might have some comprehension of what I’ve done, and take me seriously. If you think you feel up to trying.”

“What you’ve done?” came Phichit’s voice on the com.

“What do you think the tech’s for that you’re looking at – without permission, though I’m willing to overlook that for now – in my lab? The device you’re using to talk with me this very minute?”

“It’s a communicator,” Celestino replied.

“What a burden, to be such a misunderstood pioneer of science. Unfortunately I can’t be there in person to demonstrate to you how everything works. Believe me, I’d love to. I’d have an educated and receptive audience for once, even if it’d only be you two.”

“Where are you, exactly?”

Ailis laughed. “Celestino – I like your name; you sound like a football player, or some Renaissance painter – you’re speaking to the world’s first time traveller, on her very first journey.”

A long pause; then, “I see.”

“My tech works. And do you know how I know? Because I’m talking to you from November, 1392. It’s the Middle Ages here, Celestino, and the weather’s fine.”

Here and now, in the office, Celestino pushed a button and paused the playback. Yuuri stared at him.

“I know what you must be thinking,” Phichit said. “That she’s a headcase.”

Yuuri said in bafflement, “You can’t honestly believe she was talking to you from, what is it…728 years in the past? That’s cracked.” He looked at Celestino. “You don’t believe it, do you?” Glancing again at the tech on the desk, he said, “Is that what she claims this stuff does – sends you travelling through time?”

“Bear with me, Yuuri.” Celestino pressed the button on the com.

In the recording, he had clearly decided to humour Ailis, commenting that she’d done something truly extraordinary and inviting her to tell him about it. Obviously keen on the idea of talking to an interested fellow scientist from her own time, she enthusiastically acceded.

She’d gone into the past as her own experimental subject, she said. There was an element of randomness, it seemed, to where she’d physically arrived, though it wasn’t far from where she’d started. That part needed some refining, she admitted.

“You should see it here, Celestino,” she said with a sigh. “Ye oldie England. It’s like the world’s biggest living history museum, complete with the world’s most convincing actors. They work so hard – in the fields, over hot fires, fetching buckets of water from icy rivers. They’ll even die of plague in front of you, complete with authentic symptoms.”

She seemed to be aiming for a coolly ironic tone with the last sentence, Yuuri thought, but the pitch of her voice went up a notch, too.

Before Celestino could reply, she went on, “How did I accomplish this marvel, you ask? Did you see my time-travel spheres? They contain a component I call a temporal stabiliser. It enables travel through the timestream. I was developing it while I was still at Cambridge, but wanted to devote all my time to it. That’s why I left, with a healthy savings account to see me through until I was ready to announce my discovery to the world.

“Now.” Her tone shifted to that of a professor giving a lecture. “Time travel. Or, should I say, time swapping. Because what happens, in order to balance the timestreams, is you trade places in time with someone else. I wrote a program that chooses someone you’re compatible with, and they’re pulled from your destination and deposited, if that’s the correct term, where you originally were.”

“You aren’t able to get their permission first?” Celestino asked her, obviously playing along.

“No.”

“So who have you swapped places with, and where are they?”

A pause. “I could easily give you the answer to that. But I think I’d have to trust you a little more first. We’re only just getting to know each other, don’t you think?”

“Are they safe?”

“I believe I’m the one leading this conversation. To get back to what I was saying, that com of mine you’re using, Celestino…I think I might be prouder of that than the time-travel sphere itself. I don’t believe you’re aware of the true genius in it.”

Yuuri scratched at his temple, watching water drip from a banana leaf while he listened to her claims about what the com could do, and marvelling at her ability to both brag and come up with believable-sounding nonsense. But then he thought about her background, and her complaints about how no one had taken her seriously. It seemed to be an accepted fact that she had a fine mind, or once did, and he felt sorry for her.  

Not only did the com link with a second one at the point of origin so that two people could communicate, as they were doing now, she said, but it also locked onto the person the traveller was swapping with during the brief moment they were both in the timestream, and captured a kind of temporal snapshot of them. The com would then be able to use low-level hypnosis to “project” the image of that person onto you, so that anyone who saw or spoke to you would believe you were them. It would mean that not only did you bump some unsuspecting innocent person out of their own place in time, but you could take on their identity as well.

Yuuri forced himself to listen as Ailis went into the specifics of this. You could make small alterations to the projection via BCI, she said. Change the appearance of the clothes while you wore anything you liked, or nothing at all. Give your projection a shave and a haircut. But it also allowed whatever aspects of reality through that you wanted. The actual clothes you were wearing. The fact that you were wet or dry, shivering or sweating. And she’d discovered it was a resounding success. She had short hair, she said, but everyone there believed it was long, and felt it as long. Unless they attempted something a little more complicated, like running a comb through it; the illusion wouldn’t quite stretch to that. It wasn’t exactly a worry, she conceded.

“Yuuri,” Phichit said quietly, “are you listening?”

He looked over at his friend. “Yeah, sure. But is this important to know?”

“Yes, it is,” Celestino said, having paused the recording again. More loudly, he added, “Because everything she’s saying is absolutely true.”

Yuuri goggled at him.

“Right down to the last detail, as far as we can tell.”

“You – you’re serious?”

Maledizione – of course I am.”

“Travelling in time, swapping places…really?” Yuuri’s throat hitched. But the answer was plain to see on their faces. “Who did she swap with? Where – ”

“You did hear me ask her that, didn’t you?”

Yuuri ran a hand through his hair. “Doct – Celestino, how do you know it’s true? Everything she said could’ve been made up.”

“We’ll get to that shortly. Is this going to have your full attention now?”

Yuuri glanced at Phichit, who was looking down, then swallowed and nodded, wanting solid proof that his whole world hadn’t suddenly gone mad, with Celestino and Phichit being part of it.

“Good,” Celestino said firmly, lifting his finger to play the recording again. Before he touched the button, however, Phichit spoke up.

“Should you tell him, or should I?”

“Tell me what?” Yuuri asked.

“I…” Celestino frowned. “This is where…I have to admit I didn’t choose my words very well.” He sighed. “How do you deal with someone like her? I said what I thought was best. We needed to try to find out what she was up to.”

“You’d better let him hear it,” Phichit said.

Celestino pressed the button. On the recording, Ailis started to ask some difficult questions. The pleased and proud sound in her voice began to fade, and the suspicion it had initially possessed returned. The tech they’d found there in her lab – had they done anything with it? What were they planning to do? She’d prefer it very much if they left it alone. Once she returned, she would happily show them and the rest of the world how it worked.

“Surely if all of this is true,” he said to her, “one of these spheres would enable a person to travel in time. It’s a very tempting idea.”

“That’s mine, Celestino. Not yours to play with.”

“I wouldn’t mind being a time tourist. Nor would many people I know. But surely I’d have to be careful what I did, so that I didn’t accidentally change the course of history. Can I ask if you’ve taken such precautions yourself? Or if any of your tech works as a guarantee that it won’t happen?”

Ailis laughed. “I didn’t come here just to throw a spanner in the works, but these people are simpletons in a barbaric age. I have power and knowledge. Why should I worry about changing history? Maybe I could even make it better.”

“What if you did something to prevent yourself from being born? Or – ”

“Maybe I could do it deliberately, just to find out what happened. Or maybe I could do it to you, to shut you up.”

There was a silence, and the growing tension between the two of them was almost palpable. “What if I tried to pay you a visit, to see that everything you’re saying is true?” Celestino asked quietly. “Would it be possible – ”

“I thought you believed me,” Ailis said angrily. “And no, you can’t come here. No one comes here to bother me, you understand? This is my private journey, for me and me alone, and I call the shots.”

The volatility in her words caused Yuuri to shift uncomfortably in his chair. And had she been serious about her willingness to meddle with events in the past?

“But you’re a scientist,” Celestino said in a placating tone. “Surely you don’t accept claims without proof yourself. For all I know, you could be communicating with us from anywhere here in the present. How can I believe you’ve travelled back in time unless someone else is able to replicate your experiment?”

After a pause, she answered, “You really are just like all the rest of them, aren’t you? I let myself be blinded by hope for a minute, and it was foolish of me.” There was a huff followed by a quick bitter laugh. “So my tech isn’t enough to convince you? I’m tempted to end this conversation now, Celestino. You might not be aware I have more important things to do here. I’m not concerned about proving what I’m saying to yet another closed-minded scientist – one I’ve never even met or heard of. If you don’t believe me, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.” Another pause. “However…if you did get your proof that my tech worked, would it be enough to keep you from using or dismantling it in case you got your fingers burned? We wouldn’t want anyone suddenly disappearing and being eaten by a dinosaur or shot by an alien.” She chuckled. “Though that might be a better way for you to learn to take it seriously, come to think of it.”

“Convince me,” Celestino said simply.

“Fine,” she replied, the relish of a challenge in her voice. Then another pause as she seemed to be thinking. “I’ll leave something at Crowood Castle for you to find; I’ll make sure I put it somewhere in the ruins that are still standing in your time. Keep Ian’s com for now – I’m sure you will anyway, no matter what I say – and I’ll tell you tomorrow where to go look.”

Celestino paused the com again. “So what happened?” Yuuri asked him, still struggling to make himself believe all of this was real.

“She got back to us in the morning, as she promised. Phichit and I went with an archaeologist, who brought some tools. She would’ve asked to see documentation of how we suddenly knew about the location of an artefact, so I told her it was a secret project I was working on, and fortunately being an old colleague, she was willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. Don’t ask me why I went through with it myself, Yuuri, because like you, I was inclined to think Ailis’s story was pure nonsense. But there was no denying the existence of that strange tech, and that the woman is a genius. I needed to go see this hiding place for myself, though she didn’t say what she’d left there.

“The instructions we were given took us to a particular stone in the kitchen wall. Eve, the archaeologist, knows the castle well, and said it was one of the oldest areas. When she inspected the mortar around the stone, she said she’d stake her reputation on it being original and untouched for hundreds of years. We had to wait a bit while she contacted the Historical Preservation Society and got permission to pry the stone out as we’d been told to do.” He stopped and stared at Yuuri.

Talking to this man was an exercise in patience, Yuuri decided. “And?”

Another desk drawer was opened, and Celestino removed an old-looking grey metal box about the size of a casserole dish. It was a little warped and weathered, but remained in a rectangular shape with its lid intact. He took a pair of white cloth gloves from the same drawer and pulled them on.

“This lead container was what we found,” he said. “Eve insisted we should wait to open it until we were under controlled conditions here at the university. But I got her to agree to do it in my office; I didn’t want anyone else in the archaeology department to find out and start asking awkward questions.”

Yuuri leaned forward and watched with keen interest as Celestino gently prised the lid off the box and set it aside. And he couldn’t resist gasping at what he saw. Nestled inside was a yellow-paged tome with a crumbling leather cover…and a skull missing its jawbone.

“Holy shit,” he breathed.

“I must admit to feeling rather shocked myself,” Celestino said as he carefully lifted the book up and placed it on the desk. Yuuri was eyeing the dark-socketed skull, but Celestino seemed to want him to examine the book first, and opened it to a random page.

Yuuri knew of the existence of illuminated manuscripts, but had never seen a real one. It emitted an odour of decaying leather but looked to be in good condition, despite the years it had ostensibly been sitting behind the kitchen stone. The text was in Latin, he guessed, and every stroke of every letter had been painted by hand. The first one at the top took up almost a third of the whole page, and was embellished with an amazing palette of colours and mesmerising geometric designs. Roses of different hues on winding green vines circled around the margins. This page alone was a work of art.

“Pretty, isn’t it?” Celestino said, taking in the expression on his face. “Eve was delighted, I can tell you. She keeps asking me when she can have it back to preserve and show her colleagues, but I’m not ready for this information to get out yet. You haven’t seen the most interesting part, though – look here.” He shut the book, then opened the cover to the first two pages. There was Latin text on the right, and an illustration of Mary and baby Jesus on the left. Underneath the picture, on the vellum or parchment or whatever material it was, yellowed with age, was written in black ink in a style that looked modern but seemed to be trying to achieve a historical feel – possibly even a darkly humorous one:

This Holy Worke Is Hereby Dedicated to Celestino and Phichit. Two Worthy Men of York. With a Reminder that Death never Loseth its Sting. Ailis Marr, Yeare of Our Lord 1392.

“Eve was able to perform some tests,” Celestino said as Yuuri stared at the words, feeling his skin creep. “She said the ink in the, er, dedication dates to the 1390s and the book itself to the 1370s. But this…” He lifted up the skull briefly, and Yuuri flinched. “…is about fifty years older than the ink, you’ll be happy to hear. Eve pointed out traces of beeswax on top of it,” he added, indicating with a gloved finger. “She said it’s likely a candle sat there. Gruesome, eh?” He carefully replaced the skull and book in the box, put the lid on, and returned it to the drawer along with the gloves. “As for how Ailis got her hands on such a treasure, I looked around the castle ruins while I was there and saw it’d had a library. I can imagine her sitting and laughing while the aristocrats who owned the place scrambled to try to discover where their book had gone.”

Yuuri held a hand against his mouth, the vacant stare of the skull lingering in his mind. He could understand now, especially with Eve the archaeologist’s help, why Celestino had decided to believe that Ailis’s claims to have travelled back in time were genuine. He knew it would take a while for his gut feelings to synchronise with what his mind had just learned…but he couldn’t see any other explanation for the evidence, either. And yet all he seemed able to do was sit in stunned silence.

“I know it’s a lot to take in,” Phichit said.

Yuuri gave a mirthless laugh and shook his head. “Jesus.”  

“There’s more,” Celestino said eventually, and Yuuri braced himself inwardly.

What followed was another series of explanations from the professor along with clips of a new conversation with Ailis. He and Phichit were here in the office when they contacted her the second time. She didn’t answer straight away, but eventually greeted them and said she was willing to talk, especially once they told her they’d found the box she’d left and enquired about the skull.

“I didn’t kill anyone, if that’s what you were wondering,” she said with a touch of amusement. “I took it from one of the rooms in the castle. They’re morbid that way here. But I thought it might get a certain idea across. That I’d rather you didn’t try to interfere with what I’m doing. I can always find a fresh one to leave for you somewhere else.”

Yuuri shuddered. It sounded like she might well be capable of it.

In the recording, Celestino asked her how long she’d been in the year 1392. When had she left the lab? Not long ago, she answered. Relatively speaking. Since October. They lit bonfires and did all kinds of strange things on All Hallows’ Eve; he should’ve seen. She added that she was pleased to hear he finally believed her. He tried to persuade her to return to her own time by using flattery, which Yuuri had to agree might work on many people with an inflated sense of self-importance; but his own instinct was that she was intelligent enough to see through such simple tactics and even feel patronised by them. This could indeed be the greatest invention the world had ever seen, Celestino said. He asked her to come back and show everyone how it worked. She laughed and said she couldn’t if she wanted to; the temporal stabiliser had been damaged beyond repair. She’d brought a spare along, but it had been damaged too; it must have been the interaction with the timestream. So she was stuck unless she could find another way back.

“It would of course be possible for me to be yanked back to 2120, like a rebounding elastic band, if the woman I swapped places with was killed,” she said. “I’ve been wondering if it’d have to come to that.”

“Jesus,” Yuuri said again.

When Celestino expressed a similar sentiment in the recording, Ailis said these things were sadly necessary sometimes. Seemingly in more of a garrulous mood after the finding of the metal box and its contents, she claimed Ian had treated the woman well and even given her a translator programmed with languages used the Middle Ages so she could speak with them, Ian in person and Ailis over the com. But Ian, who was supposed to be keeping an eye on her, had got careless one day, and she’d escaped. Ailis refused to reveal the identity of the missing woman to Celestino and confessed she didn’t know where Ian was either, because they’d had an argument shortly afterward and that was when he’d gone off in a snit. She hadn’t heard from him since.

“Pear-shaped, like I said,” was her clipped comment. “He obviously left all my tech behind for you to find. Just because I said I liked it here and thought I might stay, when I might not have much choice about that anyway. ‘All this time I’ve been helping you,’ he moaned at me, ‘and for what?’ Honestly, there’s no pleasing some people. You would’ve thought he’d realise he was in a privileged position, helping the world’s first time traveller.”

She challenged Celestino to find him, claiming it would be impossible because she and her assistant were experts at avoiding detection. Then she speculated about what she might be able to achieve where she was. “I brought some interesting things with me, Celestino,” she said almost playfully. “The laser guns are the best. I haven’t harmed anyone yet, and I don’t intend to…well, not for a while. I could, though, if I wanted to. Imagine what a person could do with just one of those in the Middle Ages. Imagine having the power to change history. I could assassinate the king and fry his knights in their armour before they could raise a sword or shoot an arrow. It’d be like an Immersion game, only better.”

Yuuri barely registered Celestino pausing the recording again. His heart was racing, and he’d slumped back in his chair, his hand over his mouth again, eyes wide. This wasn’t happening. Couldn’t be happening. Had happened 728 years ago, or was going to happen in the past – how could you even think about it without tying your brain in knots? What had she done? What might she do? Could she have already made some change that none of them were aware of, because they thought it was part of the natural course of events? What would it feel like if such a change occurred right this second?     

“Oh my God,” he whispered as a shiver passed through him.

“I know,” Phichit murmured. “That’s what we thought, too.”

“Tell me that your archaeologist friend could’ve made a mistake,” he said, his eyes on Celestino. “The age of the writing in that book is the only solid piece of evidence we have that Ailis Marr really travelled back in time, isn’t it?”

Phichit stared at the floor, and Celestino frowned. “Eve said she had no doubt the ink was genuine. The tests they have nowadays can be accurate almost to the year and the very place the ink was made, she said. But no, that’s not the only piece of evidence.”

“What’s the rest?”

“I’ll get to that.”

Yuuri bit back a retort. “So what have you been doing since this happened? Have you found more information about Dr. Marr and this Ian person? Does anyone know who he is? What about the woman she swapped places with? Has anyone been in the news claiming to be from the Middle Ages, speaking whatever version of the language they used back then? Saying she’d been held prisoner here and got away? Those would be big clues, I would’ve thought.”

Celestino sighed, but his eyes glinted with what might have been annoyance. “You’d know if anyone like that had been in the news, wouldn’t you?”

Still groping for possibilities, Yuuri’s mind went to a darker place. “Maybe she’s been through the mental healthcare system. She was claiming to be from the year 1392 and they thought she was mad.”

“Don’t think that possibility didn’t occur to us either,” Celestino replied. “I’m afraid the answers are no, all round. Government intelligence has been looking, and I don’t suppose Phichit and I are likely to do better than them. No mysterious woman from the past, no Ian. And Ailis was right – she does seem to be a master at hiding her trail. The only information that appears to exist on her is gathered in the file you read, which was compiled from interviews with people at Cambridge who knew her, and photos and holograms they possessed. Aside from that, the only evidence she ever existed is the papers she’s published. Even Cambridge’s own databanks have been scrubbed. No one’s been able to trace her mother, if she’s even still alive. She has no other known relatives. And as for Ian, all we know about him is what Ailis has told us.”

“If the woman she swapped with could be found,” Yuuri mused, “you’d at least know whose identity she’s taken in 1392. If that’s really where she went. I’m still finding that hard to completely believe. But if so, then how else would you track her down, especially if she’s so good at evading detection?”

“You don’t have to tell me, Yuuri. The problem is, we’d have no record of her, would we? She basically would’ve appeared here a couple of months ago with no tech on her, and the cleanest data trail any adult has probably ever had. Ailis said they’d given her a translator, so I doubt she’d be attempting to speak in Middle English to anyone. It’s likely they gave her modern clothes as well.” He sighed again. “All we can do is keep searching. We’re not exactly prepared to release a general press statement asking the public to keep an eye out for an escaped time traveller.”

“She must be frightened out of her mind, whoever she is.”

“Very likely.”

Yuuri glanced at the com the professor still held. “Let’s hear the rest, then.”

“That was the end, more or less. Ailis was very uncooperative. Her final comments were along the lines of it not mattering whether we found Ian or the woman she’d swapped with, because the only way she’d be able to return to the present was for that woman to die. She told me I was welcome to try to make it happen, then said this was the last conversation she wanted to have with me or anyone else connected with me. The rest, as they say, was silence.” He sat and looked at Yuuri, seemingly waiting for a reaction.

I don’t know what you want from me. What you’re expecting me to agree to do. “If this is all true, it’s a big problem,” he said.

“I thought the English were good at understatements. Seems perhaps the Japanese are even better.”

Yuuri felt a stab of irritation. “How else would you describe it? ‘Imagine having the power to change the course of history,’ she said. And she does. So how can she be stopped? You’ve already spoken to her, and she doesn’t want to listen. Short of sending someone after her…” His voice trailed off as he realised the import of his words. His heart skipped a beat, and he stared at Celestino, who raised an eyebrow. “You…those…” He swallowed and looked at the tech on the desk. The translator. The com, which Celestino had laid back down. The shiny gold sphere. “You haven’t tried to use those, have you? Do they…” And again his voice trailed off.

“Can we even begin to understand how these devices work?” Celestino said quietly. “No. Ailis has made them impervious, somehow, to scanning tech. We can’t see what’s inside without taking them apart. And we wouldn’t even be able to do that without lasering into them and potentially ruining them. Do you see any way of opening that sphere, for example? Apart from prising the screen off and most likely damaging it in the process? This isn’t someone who’s a bit cleverer than other people, Yuuri. She might well be the most innovative scientific mind the human race has ever produced. We can’t even decode her notes, let alone her tech. And while we’re flailing like this, she could wreak havoc at any moment.”

He fell silent as Yuuri stood and walked over to the glass wall, feeling a strange desire to stroke the leaves on the other side. With the barrier between them, how could he be certain they were even real? With his arms folded across his chest, he watched drops of condensation form trails through the patches of mist; strange to watch, while he stood here cool and dry.

“You said you had more evidence that she’d travelled back in time,” he said, continuing to stare ahead into the little slice of tropical jungle that seemed so out of place in this cold, dark northern land. “I’m going to ask again – what is it?”

“I told you we don’t understand how the devices work,” came Celestino’s voice from behind him, still quiet; and again Yuuri was reminded of the minister comforting the family of the dead. “We wouldn’t know how to take them apart or build new ones. But they’re easy to use, Yuuri. And we have.”

Yuuri spun around to face him and was met with sombre expressions as both Celestino and Phichit gazed back. “You can’t mean…” he whispered.

Celestino nodded. “We found three spheres in the lab. This – ” He indicated the one sitting on the desk. “ – is the last of the three. We’ve sent two scientists into the past after her.”

“And – ?” Yuuri asked, the word forcing itself through a dry throat.

“They’re both dead.”

Chapter Text

“Yuuri…”

“No. I’m not hungry.”

The two of them were in Yuuri’s office at the university, having taken a lunch-time break. Yuuri had offered Phichit the chair, but his friend insisted he was fine to sit on the desk. Yuuri looked like he needed something more comfortable, he’d said. He himself had known these things for a while, and Yuuri was having to take them all in and process them in one great heap.

“Actually, I’m not hungry either,” Phichit sighed. “Have you got any nutri-pills?”

“Uh…” Yuuri searched distractedly through a drawer and pulled out a bottle that was about a third full. “We could wash them down with some tea.”

“Yeah, OK.”

“I don’t have a drinks-maker or anything flash in here. Just teabags.”

“I know. It doesn’t matter.”

Yuuri went through the tea-making ritual with hardly a thought, dropping the bags in empty mugs, filling them with hot water from the tap, then adding sugar and milk from a small fridge. His mind felt strangely blank. Even more so than after the Baz’s Bonce Blower of the night before. It was having difficulty getting past two things Celestino had said: They’re both dead; and earlier, via Phichit: He has a proposition for you.

They swallowed the pills. Yuuri looked out the first-storey window at ordinary people going about their ordinary lives on the paths below and in the air, in vehicles and on hoverboards. With no idea that a woman had travelled back in time with a laser gun and a mind to use it. And that two people had gone after her and would never return. It couldn’t be possible. It couldn’t. But it had happened anyway.

The office was silent for a minute, apart from gentle sipping noises and the faint chirp of birds outside. It was unusual for Phichit to sit pensively like this, though Yuuri now felt he understood the reason why. He decided it might be a good conversation starter if he asked him more about how the lab had been found; it was something he’d been curious about when Celestino had mentioned it, though at the time he’d been glad that Phichit had prompted the professor to get to the heart of the matter. And fortunately, Phichit seemed keen to explain.

Caroline, the lab assistant, had known Celestino for some time, he said; and given the strange tech that her son and his friend had glimpsed inside, she seemed to think he would know what to do, so had gone to him before the police. He, in turn, did some research on the Cloud, discovering that it had been vacant for years and was in the custody of the county council, though they didn’t seem to have any immediate plans for it.

“So we decided to go have a look,” Phichit stated.

“You…what?” Yuuri said, sitting up straight and putting his empty mug down on his desk. “But didn’t you think it could be dangerous? What if criminals were using it, or someone with a gun?”

“It’s OK, Yuuri,” Phichit said reassuringly. “It was in the middle of the day and there wasn’t anyone around, we checked. I wanted to go, when I heard Caroline telling Celestino about it. It was just for a quick reccy. We couldn’t get through the old-fashioned locked door, so we pulled the rest of the glass out of the broken window and let ourselves in that way. We had electric lights with us. Funny thing was, even though you could tell it was once the basement for the building up above it, there was only one internal door, and it was bricked off. When we went back out into the alley, we found a loose board on one of the ground-floor windows and moved it aside to peek in, but the place was empty and full of dust from what we could tell. Maybe someone was coming in to use the lab, we thought, but they weren’t actually living there.”

“Probably a good thing,” Yuuri mused as he watched Phichit finish his tea and put his own mug down on the desk. “From what we know now, if Ailis and this Ian person had been there, they might not have wanted to let you leave.”

“You don’t know the half of it yet,” Phichit muttered.

“I guess not. So how did it happen – the two scientists…?”

Phichit blinked. “I think Celestino wants to tell you himself.”

There was a pause. Then Yuuri asked him, “Their deaths – is that what’s been upsetting you?”

After heaving a shaky sigh, Phichit nodded. “The second one died yesterday.”

Yesterday?” Yuuri repeated. “Then it must’ve been in the night or the early morning, because when you came to my office – ”

“Yeah. Though do you even call it yesterday when it really happened all those years ago? It’s so confusing. And I’m a quantum physicist. We’re supposed to eat ‘confusing’ for breakfast.” He managed a weak smile.

“And you still came in to work?”

“I wanted to. I wanted to see Celestino. Who else was there to talk about this?”

“Maybe the government who ought to be sorting this out somehow, instead of you two on your own?”

“I know Celestino’s talked to some important people. I’ve seen some in the office. But Ailis is, like, the only authority in this field, you know? Nobody else understands any of this stuff. I think MI8, or whoever it is, reckon that quantum physicists have about the best chance of putting everything right.” He lowered his voice. “I’m not positive about this, but I think they’re hoping someone can go back in time and help her fix her tech or build something new that’ll bring her back. Then they want her to join them. Or something. Like…” His voice broke and he took another sip of tea. “Like that’d really work. All you have to do is listen to her and you’ll know it’s a stupid idea. I think she’d shoot you as soon as she found out who you were.”

“Is that what happened to the two scientists Celestino sent?”

Phichit’s eyes darted around the room. “He told me – ”

“Yeah, I know. He told you not to tell me anything else.”

“I didn’t even have much to do with them,” Phichit said in a lowered voice. “Dr. Quincey and Dr. Croft. Celestino was their main contact over the com; I just covered for him a few times. They kept it really official, even with him, I think. You know, just reporting in, usually to say they were OK but hadn’t found anything yet.” He shifted on the desk. “But you know, Yuuri, it was enough. I tried to help them both, and now…” He sniffed.

“I had no idea,” Yuuri said quietly. “It must’ve been horrible. But are you really asking me to become dead ‘scientist’ number three?” He’s going to tell me I’ve got it wrong, he found himself wildly hoping. That they just want me to assist them because I’ve got tech skills; to study these strange devices of Dr. Marr’s and try to understand them…which is why they’re willing to use all three spheres they found in the lab in desperate attempts to send people into the past to stop her. Yeah, sure.

Phichit didn’t answer right away, appearing to think about what he ought to say. The fact that he didn’t deny it outright was all the information Yuuri needed.

I can say no. No one can force me to do this. How can they possibly think I’d want to…that I’d actually be able to…Jesus. He took a deep breath. “Phichit…”

“Yuuri – let me just ask. Why, when you said the word ‘scientist’ just now, did you make it sound like you were being sarcastic or something?”

“Because I’m not a scientist,” Yuuri said simply.

I think of you as one. You’re brilliant with tech.”

“That makes me a techie.” He wondered why they were debating something so inconsequential.

“You’re always doing yourself down.” Phichit gazed at him intently from his perch on the desk. “The last thing I want is for you to get hurt. You’re my friend. A good friend. But I told Celestino about you because I really think you could succeed where the other two scientists, um, didn’t.”

Yuuri stared back in surprise. “How? I shouldn’t have to give you a list; you know me. I get anxious. I’m rubbish in social situations. I’m nothing but a dime-a-dozen techie.”

“Is that really how you see yourself? You’re the…the nicest person I’ve ever met.” Before Yuuri could respond, he went on, “You care about people. I think you have a lot to offer, if you could just…I don’t know, find your way.” He seemed to be hitting his stride now. “I know you’ve got problems, but well, everybody does. Did I mention you’re clever, too? You can figure things out.” He paused and lowered his voice. “We need somebody like you. Me and Celestino. Don’t get me wrong, Celestino’s brilliant, but I think even he feels out of his depth with this, though he won’t say so.”

Yuuri didn’t tell him he was stating the obvious, but he was also touched by the unexpected compliments. He briefly considered whether Phichit was trying to butter him up so that he’d agree to do what Celestino wanted, but was annoyed with himself for thinking such a thing. His friend might be young and not exactly tactful at times, but Yuuri knew he was absolutely honest. If he said something, he meant it.

And yet…was it enough to persuade him to risk his life? Then he remembered the damage to the temporal stabilisers, and realised that if he did agree to travel back in time, and it actually worked, it could very well be a one-way trip.

Am I willing to live the rest of my life in the Middle Ages? Oh my God.

What did he even know about 1392? Who had been king? Didn’t most everyone live in dirt and grime, wear roughly spun drab clothes, and never bathe unless they were nobles – and maybe not even then? Gruel for breakfast, turnips for dinner, fighting off famine and disease day after day, while they were meant to piously thank God for it? The opposite, basically, of how that era was presented in Immersion games like Swords and Sorcery. He supposed it couldn’t have been as extreme as that. After all, those beautiful old buildings in the middle of the city must’ve been inhabited by someone. But still…

That might be the life that awaited him. If he lived at all. If Ailis, or the attempted journey itself, didn’t kill him first.

He realised Phichit was waiting for a response, giving him time to consider his words. “I’m flattered,” he said, “but I can’t understand how you, never mind Celestino, could ask me to do this. Since when does one good friend ask another to go on a potential suicide mission?”

Phichit’s eyes opened wide. “No way, Yuuri. Don’t think of it like that. I told you, I…I believe in you. We’ve only got one more person left to send, and then Ailis…well, she’ll know she can do whatever she wants, and then what? We wake up with King Edward the Twentieth ruling over us, or – or some fascist dictator, and think it’s just normal? God, Yuuri, what are we going to do?” There was a panicked note in his voice. “Maybe you could see yourself as – I don’t know, a time cop. The first one.”

Yuuri’s breath caught in his throat. This really was ludicrous. “A time cop? Phichit, I’ve had zero training. Would you just pick some random jack off the street to do a cop’s job?” He hadn’t raised his voice – he wasn’t angry – but it needed to be said. “Besides, technically I’d be the third, not the first. And look at how well it worked out for the other two.”

Phichit was chewing his lip while he listened, then he sighed, staring down at his fingers in his lap. “It’s totally up to you, Yuuri,” he said in a small voice. “I already feel bad for asking you. Like I s-said…” He gave a quick sniff. “I don’t want you to get hurt.” And then he burst into tears.  


Twenty-one. He was only twenty-one. And to have had this burden placed on his shoulders for even a short amount of time…Yuuri knew it wasn’t logical, but that struck him more deeply than all the esoteric talk about time travel. His young friend who had recently experienced the deaths of two people and felt desperate enough, and had enough faith, to ask him to take the next and last chance.

That counted for something. But Yuuri wasn’t finished with his questions for Celestino yet; and after another cup of tea, some emergency chocolate-chip Hobnob biscuits and a bit of time for Phichit to reapply his smeared face paint, they were ready to return to his office.

The professor appeared not to have moved when they arrived, though the aroma of hamburger lingered in the air. The greenery on the other side of the glass still dripped and glowed, but the sun had swung further overhead and the shadow of the building was beginning to creep into the bright, foggy jungle. Phichit sat down, but Yuuri crossed the room to the greenhouse wall and folded his arms across his chest as he had before, solemnly meeting Celestino’s gaze. The thought crossed his mind that perhaps his feelings of annoyance and shows of cool composure were just those – shows – because they were forming a barrier to keep his growing horror at bay: at what he’d discovered throughout the course of the morning, and at what he was seriously considering doing with his life. That eyeless skull still flickered in his brain like an after-image, and he willed it away by staring at the bright bird of paradise flowers. When he felt more grounded, he turned back to Celestino.

“Phichit told me the second scientist only died yesterday.”

“That’s right. In a manner of speaking, depending on which timescale you use – ”

“I’m not bothered about that right now. I’m concerned about two deaths. And you want me to follow in their footsteps.”

“That’s what I’ve been hoping you’d be willing to do, Yuuri, yes.”

You’ve got a nerve. You don’t even know me. At least Phichit apologised for asking me to risk my life.

Before Yuuri could reply, Celestino continued, “Phichit thinks very highly of you. He says you’re sensible, clever, trustworthy, discreet. I was tempted to think he might be over-egging the pudding, as they say, with such a glowing list of praises. But now that I’ve met you, I’m inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt.”

Yuuri managed to stop himself from letting out a laugh. No doubt it had been meant as a compliment. Instead of discussing his own supposed merits any further, however, he wanted to get down to business with some questions that had presented themselves to him over the lunch break, while he’d been thinking about the logistics – whatever they might be – of time travel. “Did you think of sending anyone into the recent past, to prevent Ailis from travelling through time in the first place?” he asked.

Phichit and Celestino exchanged a glance, and the latter answered, “We did think of that, yes. But we knew we’d risk creating a paradox, and we had no idea what the consequences would be. Two versions of one person alive at the same time.”

Yuuri considered this with a frisson of apprehension, decided he had a point, and moved on to his next question. “You can program these spheres, presumably? Why didn’t you program one of them to take the person to, say, a moment before Ailis arrived in the past herself, so they’d be there waiting for her?”

Celestino’s mouth twitched in what might have been frustration. “Don’t think it didn’t occur to me. But all these spheres seem to be in some kind of…harmony, synchrony, whatever you want to call it. We couldn’t program any of them for a time and date earlier than another sphere had been programmed for. If you understood the tech, my guess is you might be able to find a way around it, unless it’d be breaking some kind of temporal law. We know almost nothing about this, Yuuri, and believe me, it pains me to say it.” After a pause, he added, “I suspect these unknown temporal laws might have more influence than what’s immediately apparent. For example, once we sent people into the past ourselves, we always found the times of day were synchronised when we talked over the com. I also suspect that if you’ve spent a week in the past, you’d return a week after the moment you left. Like I said, maybe it’s possible to override all of these things – but if so, does Ailis even know how? Who can say?”

Yuuri felt his head begin to spin and decided he’d had enough of trying to understand temporal physics for now. There were other, simpler, things he also needed to know. “What happened to the people who presumably arrived here from the past when you sent the scientists? Are they still here?”

“I believe it works the way Ailis said, like the snap of an elastic band,” Celestino replied. “When each scientist died, their counterpart disappeared. I can’t speak personally for the second one, but we know the first unfortunately met with a grim fate soon after he arrived back in his own time. I’ll explain in a moment.” The expression on his face softened, and Yuuri thought he saw a capacity for kindness there that had been elusive up to now.

“While they were here, though,” Phichit jumped in to say, “we tried hard to look after them. We gave them some of the translators from Ailis’s lab. Celestino arranged for them to talk to some historians and linguists here at the university. But they needed a place to stay, and we knew they must feel really put out and confused, so we sent them to the living history museum. It’s one of those where they try to live like the people did back then, twenty-four hours a day. So our visitors kind of fit right in.”

Yuuri smiled and then chuckled, imagining it. “Really?”

“Really.” Phichit seemed to brighten as he recalled. “Though actually, it was Dr. Morgan Fay’s idea; she’s the university’s senior medievalist. I think it was a good one, too.” He seemed lost in thought for a moment. “They both had hard lives where they came from, from what they told us, and said they liked it here, even if it was kind of strange. I mean, obviously the people who run the museum weren’t getting everything spot on, though I think our lot enjoyed helping to put some things right. One of them was a fourteen-year-old boy. We were…” He glanced darkly at Celestino. “We’d actually been making plans to send him to school, before…you know.” He looked down at the floor.

Before he met with a grim fate, Yuuri finished for him silently. The poor hapless lad. How much had he actually understood of what had occurred? And how many more innocent people were in line to be killed because of Ailis’s tinkering with things that should have been left alone?

Careful, Yuuri Katsuki. You’re forming some definite opinions. They might just guide your actions.

“Yuuri…” Celestino leaned forward, his arms on the desk. “…I can tell you more about what happened to the two scientists – if you think this is something you’d consider doing. Travelling to the past, like they did. But I also need to know if you’re planning to rule it out entirely. I’ve already spent a great deal of time passing information on to you – time that will have been wasted if – ”

“I understand,” Yuuri said. “I…well, I can’t deny it’s confusing, and disturbing, and…and a lot of other things.” He added more quietly, “But I’m not ready to say no yet.”

Celestino nodded and invited him to sit down. As he did, he thought he saw relief in Phichit’s eyes.

Fortunately, the professor explained, Ailis had left spares of every device in her lab. He could only guess why – to conduct experiments with, to have at hand because something was lost or malfunctioned, to be used on future travels perhaps by a companion. At any rate, as Yuuri was aware, two of the three spheres they’d found had now been used. The scientists had been kitted out with Ailis’s translators and coms, and all of the tech had worked – apart from the continuing problem of the spheres providing only a one-way journey due to the component failure after travelling in time.

“I asked them to go because of their intelligence and skills, and because I knew and trusted them,” Celestino explained.

And because they were willing to give up what they had here, and risk getting killed. Yuuri wasn’t sure whether to read into that a noble sense of purpose in an attempt to keep the world as they knew it safe, or a willingness to leave a painful or empty life…or possibly both. He didn’t want to speculate at the moment what might apply to him.

Celestino brought up a hologram similar to the doll-like one of Ailis Marr Yuuri had examined the night before, which slowly rotated a few centimeters above the desk. It was a slightly built black man of middle age with dark brown hair and a bald spot, wearing a white lab coat and black trousers and shoes. There was something familiar about him; Yuuri was sure he’d seen him at the university.

“Dr. Walter Quincey,” Celestino said. “He was a physics professor here.”

“That’s it,” Yuuri muttered, gazing at the hologram. “I’ve fixed tech for him a couple of times. But he went on sabbatical, according to the newsletter, I think. This was what he was doing instead?”

“Yes. We weren’t sure where it was best to send him from, so we tried here at the university, and equipped him with the most cutting-edge tools we knew of, and a laser gun, should he need it.”

“And…what happened?”

Celestino stared at the hologram and was silent for a moment, as if remembering. Yuuri wondered if it was a shadow of grief he saw momentarily pass across his face. “He swapped with the fourteen-year-old boy I mentioned. Arthur Farmer, the son of a peasant on the Crowood Castle estate. He was very disorientated at first, as you might imagine. But we gave him a translator and they looked after him at the museum. I visited a few times; he was a nice lad. And before you ask, yes I questioned him about anything unusual he might have seen before he arrived here, but he was out in the fields most days and rarely visited the castle, so if he ever came across Ailis in whatever identity she was projecting with her com, I doubt he would’ve realised.

“Walt also settled in where he was,” Celestino continued. “In order to take on Arthur’s identity, he had to work long hours in the fields.” Something like fondness shone in his eyes. “But he never complained. He checked in regularly with me and gave me reports that were, unfortunately, negative; though if he’d had more time…”

“How long was he there?” Yuuri asked.

“About three weeks. He was able to tell me that the castle was owned by a Russian noble family called the Nikiforovs; the lord was a friend of the king’s father, from what Walt could gather. It was easier for him to ask questions around the local towns and estates, because not being an actual inhabitant of the castle, he said he had to ask the porter to admit him, and he needed to have a good reason for being there. He succeeded on a few occasions, though I’m sorry to say he never found any clues – until the last time, because…well, that was the encounter with Ailis.”

“Where he was killed.”

“Yes,” Celestino replied curtly, his eyes not leaving the hologram. His voice quietened as he went on, “He was only supposed to be taking farm produce to the kitchen, but he managed to sneak away to look around the castle. I don’t think there was any rhyme or reason to what he was doing; perhaps he thought he might come across something that caught his eye. He mentioned seeing the great hall for the first time, and he was looking for a way to go upstairs, when…in a corridor…a few whispered words, that’s all it took.”

It was the first time Yuuri had seen him lose a bit of his composure, though it was quickly back in place. “A whisper?”

Celestino shook his head. “What possessed him to contact me over the com at that moment, I’ll never know. His check-ins were usually very official, almost military-style. I think he might simply have been in awe of the beauty he’d just seen in the hall and wanting to tell me about it. His last words were…” He cut himself off. “Well, the com recorded that conversation too. I don’t think it’s essential for you to listen to it, since I told you what happened, but if you want to borrow this – keeping it absolutely safe at all times, mind you – you can do it in your own time. I’d rather not hear it again.” He held the com over the desk. “The last moments of the life of Dr. Walter Quincey, deceased; and shortly after he reappeared in the past, Arthur Farmer…deceased.”

Yuuri stared at Celestino’s solemn face, and his heart lurched. Eventually he reached out a tentative hand that shook slightly and took the com, then glanced at Phichit, who’d been quietly following the conversation. “Have you listened to this?” Phichit simply nodded, his Adam’s apple bobbing. Yuuri put the com in his waistcoat pocket, wondering if he’d be able to find the courage to do so himself.

“Call up the BCI in that and it’s self-explanatory,” Celestino said. “The menu for the projection won’t do anything, though, until – ”

“The com takes a snapshot in the timestream while you’re travelling,” Yuuri finished for him. “I remember.” He paused. “I’m sorry about Dr. Quincey. And Arthur.” He noted with a glance that the shadows in the greenhouse were deepening as the sun dipped and faded. “And the second scientist…”

“Dr. Helen Croft. I doubt you’ll have heard of her. Another physics professor; I worked with her years back at Queen Mary University in London.”

The hologram of Dr. Quincey disappeared, and a woman took his place who seemed to be in her 50s, with red hair in a bun, a lot of freckles, and clear blue eyes. Average height and build, typical office clothes. Neither of these people, Yuuri realised, looked like they’d be comfortable doing anything strenuous outdoors, let alone wielding a sword or shooting a gun. Though he could easily imagine them studying tech in a lab.

“She was trustworthy and bright, like Walt,” Celestino told him. “She had the expertise to fix things if they went wrong. And she also had a touch of ESP. I thought maybe it would give her an edge. Enable her to catch people’s thoughts, maybe. She could also short out electrical equipment with it. That seemed a definite advantage if Ailis pulled a gun on her.”

“Oh,” Yuuri said, taken aback. “I’ve never met anyone who had it.” It had been decades since the ability had been scientifically verified and studied, yet little information was available; some said the government had decided the general public wasn’t ready for it, and kept it under wraps. There were special communities that claimed to welcome people with ESP talents, but what went on there wasn’t common knowledge. It was more usual for someone to possess a modest ability to sense thoughts, feelings, or moods, and it tended to run in families. Not Yuuri’s own. “Did…did it help her?” he asked. Though the obvious answer was no.

“We never got a proper chance to find out. She was only there for a week before she fell ill. In another week she was dead.”

“What? How?” Yuuri asked in sudden alarm. But then he remembered what he’d been thinking about just last night. Who had it been…? Ailis’s husband, that was it. He’d died of an unknown disease – something the nanobots in his blood hadn’t recognised and therefore couldn’t help his immune system to fight off. It appeared that there were unknown pathogens in medieval York as well.

When he shared these thoughts with Celestino, the professor said they’d been trying to learn from every venture into the past. Dr. Croft had been sent with items Dr. Quincey hadn’t brought with him, such as toothpaste and painkillers. He intended to do better still with Yuuri, if he agreed to go, by giving him new nanobots and the tech to use them if he needed to.

“Whose place in the past did Dr. Croft take?” Yuuri asked, raking a hand back through his hair distractedly.

“We decided to send her from the basement lab this time, which was presumably the point of origin for Ailis; and as we hoped, she ended up in the castle. She traded places with a laundress there; a young woman called Ethelfrith. If she has…had…a surname, we never worked out what it was. Long blonde hair, nice girl, if a little scatty. They said she was quite a chatterbox at the living history museum. Though again, when I spoke to her, she didn’t seem to think there’d been anything amiss at the castle; no indication she’d come across Ailis or anything belonging to her.”

“And she disappeared as soon as Dr. Croft died – yesterday?”

“Helen told me over her com that she knew she wouldn’t be able to hold out much longer. That’s not a conversation I’d even suggest listening to, as Ailis wasn’t there, and there’s nothing else for us to learn. Though I promised I’d share it with her family.”

Yuuri’s throat hitched. He was beginning to feel a part of the grieving himself, even though he hadn’t known these people.

“Ethelfrith vanished right in front of the lady she was talking to at the museum,” Phichit said. “That’s what they told us. She had about a second to react to the shock and reach a hand out like she was trying to hold on to something before she was pulled away, and then…” He shrugged. “Gone.”

“Oh,” Yuuri said quietly. “I’m sorry.” Though perhaps there was a hope that Ethelfrith the laundress had arrived back in the past unharmed. Unsure of what else he could say, he turned back to Celestino. “I guess Dr. Croft didn’t have much of a chance to uncover any clues.”

“It’s clear Ailis doesn’t want to be found,” he replied flatly. “We know she’s good at covering her tracks, with tech or in more conventional ways. But when she tried to use her ESP to focus on Ailis’s mind – they were only stabs in the dark, she said – she got the impression that she was content, as far as someone can be who’s mentally unbalanced.”

Yuuri considered this. “Meaning, if what she was picking up was accurate, that Ailis probably hasn’t been working in the fields all day like Arthur, or doing anything else you’d call drudgery.”

“That isn’t to say she’s not a servant,” Celestino was quick to add. “We need to be careful about making assumptions. Women who were well off in times past had other women to look after them, didn’t they? Perhaps she spends a lot of her time doing hair or choosing dresses. Or she could be part of a merchant’s family. Maybe she’s designing clothes, or maybe she likes cooking; who knows?”

Yuuri nodded. “Or maybe hard work doesn’t bother her, if she had troubles here she felt she was escaping from. Yeah…it’s not much to go on.”

“Helen was a talented woman. It was a waste.”

Celestino said nothing further, and Yuuri stood once more and walked over to the glass wall. All of the plants were now in grey shadow. A flying car passed high over the roof of the greenhouse. “Why me?” he said eventually, turning to face the professor again. “Out of everyone else you could ask, to take the last sphere? Why don’t you get an MI8 operative or something?”

“Because you have tech knowledge, Yuuri; you’re someone who stands a chance of being able to deal with Ailis’s intelligence and inventions. Not only that, but when Phichit told me about you last night, he said you were able to fight with a sword. You could defend yourself if you needed to, if you didn’t have your gun or you didn’t want anyone to see you using it.”    

Of all the absurd reasons. “He told you that was in Immersion, right?” he said with a small laugh. “I don’t know where to begin. The monsters I fought weren’t real. The skills I learned weren’t with a real sword. My muscles aren’t as developed as they were, either. And a sword’s gonna be a hell of a lot of help if someone’s pointing a laser gun at me.”

“It still gives you more of an advantage than Walt and Helen had.” He went on to tell Yuuri about an incident that had involved Walt in a pub, or whatever they’d been called back then, when he’d been attempting to gather information and had been attacked by a drunk who’d drawn a sword on him. “If the man hadn’t been removed from the building for disorderly behaviour, Walt would’ve been in serious trouble. But if he’d had your skill…”

Yuuri sighed and folded his arms across his chest. “I don’t know. Maybe. I’ve never been in that situation, not in real life. It’s not one you’re likely to come across.”

A long silence settled on the room while each of them fell into their own thoughts. Yuuri got the impression that Celestino and Phichit were preparing to hear him announce his refusal, after all the questions he’d asked and the scepticism he’d made no effort to conceal. Phichit’s expression showed anxious worry, he thought, while Celestino’s was neutral; though in the middle of the fiery face paint, his eyes seemed to have paled even further, as if they were losing hope along with their tinge of colour.   

He turned them to Yuuri now. “I won’t delude you about your chances of returning here, to your own time,” he said. “But if you succeeded, and you did come back, the university would ensure you were well provided for in all your years to come.”

It sounded like a spectacular bribe, but it didn’t speak to him. Not like Phichit in tears. Or a young teen taken from his home and robbed of his simple life. Two scientists who had taken great risks and paid the ultimate price. A woman from the distant past, perhaps wandering the streets of York in fear and confusion, lost and alone…and a world being held at the gunpoint of a madwoman.

And they thought he, Yuuri Katsuki, had any chance of putting these things right?

He swallowed and then returned Celestino’s gaze. “I…I think you ought to know that I get…anxious sometimes,” he confessed, not wanting to share something so personal with this man but feeling it was necessary. “Knowing that I’d be carrying so much responsibility…it doesn’t help. Whatever faith you have in me, I don’t think I can say I have it in myself.”

“Yuuri, we’ll give you as much support as you want,” Phichit added fervently.

“That – that’s good of you,” Yuuri replied. “But I’m not sure how much it’d help. I mean, you won’t be there with me; just here, talking to me.”

“Is that so bad?” his friend insisted. “The other two scientists, they never said much. It doesn’t have to be like that, though. We’d make sure you never felt alone. You could talk into your com anytime. We could look up information for you. Try to advise you. We’d be right here, whenever you needed us.” He looked at Celestino, who was regarding him silently. “Wouldn’t we?”

“Of course,” he replied; though Yuuri suspected he didn’t relish being on twenty-four-hour standby and was hoping Phichit’s offer wouldn’t be taken too literally. And while he appreciated it, he wondered how much assistance they would in actual fact be able to give him. He imagined contacting them to check in once in a while or to pass information on, nothing more. Ailis herself seemed to be getting on fine without the one contact she seemed to have in the present, Ian.

“I know this is a difficult decision,” Celestino said. “And it’s been landed on you very suddenly. But I believe you have all the information you need now. I’m not asking this of you lightly, Yuuri, and I don’t expect you to answer without having had time to consider. Though if we parted ways now, I hope you’d be prepared to give me an answer by the morning.”

A dart of trepidation shot through Yuuri’s chest, but he pressed his lips together and nodded. “I know it’s urgent. I…yeah, I’ll do that. I’ll go think.”

He took in a variety of expressions on Phichit’s face in quick succession. Relief. Concern. Fear. And, in the end, resignation, for the time being at least.

They said their goodbyes, and as Yuuri left the room, the image of the late Dr. Helen Croft, still shining just over Celestino’s desk, lingered in his mind’s eye.

Chapter Text

Yuuri attempted to go about his normal tasks for the remainder of the day, to steady his shaken nerves and allow everything he’d been told to sink in. But he knew it was no use.

His conversations with Celestino and Phichit kept plaguing him. While he was replacing the copper self-sustaining energy coil in a cleaning robot. Removing the dust from a holographic projector. Installing a new qubit processor for someone whose department had bought them an upgrade. Such mundane jobs had suddenly gained an appeal they’d never previously had. They were certainly preferable to dodging laser-gun fire, or trying to take on someone else’s identity from another time.

He was up to his elbows in metal components on someone’s desk in the music department, listening to the distant echo down the hall of some kind of old-fashioned stringed instrument being played, when he realised what a risk – what a very big risk – the identity swap could really be.

I wrote a program that chooses someone you’re compatible with, Ailis had said on the recording. But what did that mean? Seemingly someone of your own gender. Was that all? Dr. Quincey had swapped with a fourteen-year-old boy. If he himself went back in time, might he swap with someone even younger? Or a frail old man?

Or someone who makes a living by working on the roofs of cathedrals, with no safety equipment. A…a criminal, even. Someone in a prison, or a dungeon. I could be here one minute, and chained to the wall in some dark, dank place the next.

A wave of nausea swept through him. The lilting melody from the hall almost seemed like it was taunting him.

What if I swapped with someone who had a wife? I’d have to…

Could he do that? Even if he preferred women over men, which was not the case. And would the image projector…no, he didn’t want to finish the thought. 

“Fuck this for a game of soldiers,” he said aloud, grabbing up his toolkit and striding out of the room.

But when he was alone in his flat, sitting on the sofa with the com in his hands, he made himself search again for his resolve. While he dithered, who knew what Ailis was up to? An hour of his time here was an hour of hers there, if he’d understood Celestino correctly. An hour that was lost forever, because the time-travel sphere wouldn’t take anyone back to it. An hour in which she could carry out any of her threats.

Was listening to the deaths of Dr. Quincey and Arthur going to help him find the courage he needed? He doubted it. In fact, this was likely to be worse than staring at the skull Ailis had left for Celestino and Phichit to find in the castle’s ancient kitchen.

Yuuri sighed and stared at the com. He ought to find out what the recording contained. Either that, or accept that this…mission was beyond him, and tell Celestino in no uncertain terms.

And let him, and Phichit, down when they seem to believe I can do this. God only knows why they think so.

He mentally brought up the device’s BCI menu, ignored what it said about projections, and chose a recording labelled “Deaths of Dr. Walter Quincey and Arthur Farmer”. The conversation began with the type of formal-sounding check-in Phichit had described. Dr. Quincey went on to explain how he’d gained entry to the castle and passed through the great hall, which he said had been like the most beautiful exhibit in a museum, or Immersion brought to life in astounding detail. For someone who’d reportedly been curt in his communications, this seemed like quite a departure. No wonder Celestino had said the doctor seemed to be swept up in awe of it. Maybe it had been the first proper look he’d even had of the main rooms in the castle.

“I’m just making my way down a corridor right now,” Dr. Quincey told Celestino in hushed tones. “Perhaps if I can find some stairs, I might be able to access some of the private rooms and have a look round. I hope I’ll have a chance to visit the great hall again, to be honest with you. It isn’t anything like what I’d been led to expect in history classes at school. You should see it, Celestino…”

Yuuri wasn’t sure how sensitive the microphone in the com was, but it was good enough to pick up the subtle creaks as the doctor walked across a wood-planked floor. Wait – that was odd. Surely one person didn’t make that much noise on their own.

There was a gasp and a woman’s voice from further away. Yuuri recognised it from the recordings in Celestino’s office, and a shiver passed through him.

“That was you talking to someone in the future, wasn’t it? Did he send you to spy on me? Make me go back? Kill me?”

“You,” Dr. Quincey gasped.

“I thought so. You came here with my tech. Using my com.” She sounded furious.

“S-She’s here, Celestino! Ailis is – ”

Yuuri heard the unmistakable high whine of a laser gun firing. The recording cut off and a moment later Ailis returned; Yuuri assumed the sound was now coming over her own com.

“Celestino,” she hissed. “La kampret woy asu. That’s what they’d say in that hellhole where I grew up. You’ve forced me to kill two people, this man and this boy he obviously swapped places with. The kid appeared here after I fried your agent. I’ve never killed anyone until this very moment. Do you hear me?” The outrage in her voice was plain. “They saw who I was. I couldn’t let them tell. If you dare send anyone else after me with my own tech, then after I deal with them and get back to the future, I will find you, rip off your testicles, and stuff them down your throat. Before I fry you and your little assistant. Now, I’m going to have to clean up this mess. There’s not much left of either of these two, and I’d rather they weren’t found like this.” She practically spat out her parting words: “I don’t expect to hear from you again – bajingan.” And with a click, the recording ended.  

Yuuri mechanically looked on the Cloud to find the meaning of what she’d said to Celestino after the gunfire. It was Indonesian for Damn it, fuck you. He didn’t bother to look up the other word; there was no need. As his heart hammered and his throat hitched, his gaze fell blankly on the com in his hands.

She did that to them.

She could do it to me.

Celestino wanted me to know what I was getting into.

The room was quiet, the curtains across the window drawn and still. Yuuri considered calling Phichit, but what would they talk about that hadn’t already been said? His only companion was the decision hanging over his head. He wondered if Dr. Croft, the second scientist, had listened to the recording, too. If so, what had influenced her to agree to travel to the past anyway? Whatever internal reserves she’d drawn upon, Yuuri was doubtful he had them, especially after listening to…to that.

But I saw desperation in their eyes. Phichit’s – and Celestino’s, though he tried the whole time to hide it. I’m their last hope. Not just them. If Ailis does something terrible, the world as we all know it might cease to exist.

I could do some good, for once. For a lot of people.

What am I thinking? I’m not made for such important tasks. I’d fuck them up. At the first sign of trouble, I’d panic and run away.

Wouldn’t I?

He let out a shaky sigh, and a tear slipped down a cheek. How could he possibly choose?

Eventually placing the com on the coffee table, he approached the little wooden butsudan that sat on a shelf. Its doors were open, and a white tea candle burned steadily inside. He stared quietly at the framed photograph propped behind it. If he agreed to this mad suicidal task, he would no longer be here to tend this. And he’d have to let Mari know.

“You’d tell me I was the world’s biggest idiot if I said I was thinking of saying yes to Celestino, wouldn’t you?” He ran a slow, gentle finger over the glass enclosed by the frame. A frozen moment of himself, age nine; Mari, age fourteen; and his parents, Hiroko and Toshiya…gone these last eleven years.  

It was the photo – or, rather, what it made him remember – that in the end guided him to make up his mind.  


Red-tiled roofs and Victorian terrace houses in winding rows. Fields enclosed by skeletal hedgerows, their leaves long shed, populated by herds of sheep that looked from above like scattered grains of rice. The River Ouse, grey in the flat light from an overcast sky, meandering around clusters of trees as it streamed away from the city. Eco-houses with round earth-coloured domes, built into hills or fashioned from mud or cob, many with thatched roofs, like residences here would have been hundreds of years ago.

Maybe it won’t look so different in 1392, Yuuri mused, looking down through the window at the serene view below, a conurbation mixed with countrified areas. He supposed the main difference would be that there had been a much smaller population at that time, and instead of suburban sprawl interspersed with greenery, there would have been a sprinkling of isolated villages separated by wilder land. The flying driverless taxi was zooming high above it now, taking him to Crowood. He never felt comfortable in these things, but they were practical. A quick nip into the sky and he’d be there.

Too soon. But then, a journey of an hour or even a day would feel the same, he was sure. Though he knew it was absurd to want to put off what he’d agreed to do.

He’d spent a grand total of one day preparing, part of it with Dr. Morgan Fay, iron-haired professor of medieval studies. She’d escorted him to a gym on the campus that had apparently been reserved just for them, as no one else came in while they were there. While it was full of manual apparatus such as mats, pommel horses, balance beams, nets and racquets, and balls of myriad kinds, he’d quickly discovered that it contained mod cons as well.

“Phichit Chulanont says you’re good with a sword.” There was a challenge in her voice. “I thought you might want a chance to practise. Want to try me, or would you rather have an Immersion opponent?”

“I’ve played Immersion enough times,” he answered. “It’s useful, but it isn’t real. You want to…spar with me?”

Her blue eyes twinkled. She looked to be in her fifties, fit and spry. Her hair was twisted and clipped at the back of her head, and like Yuuri, she wore black athletic wear with no face paint, since she’d informed him they would be doing some exercising. “I told you, I’m a member of a re-enactment group. I can put on a good show for tourists, and tell you the difference between a falchion and a scimitar, but I can also wield a blade.” She smiled. “Maybe I’m not as strong as you, but I have some good moves.”

Yuuri knew he couldn’t attack this person in any earnest way, even in sparring fashion; he figured he’d be able to knock her down with one well-aimed blow. But he had no desire to face another imaginary opponent in Immersion, either, so he nodded.

“Let’s get ready, then,” Dr. Fay said. There were a couple of cardboard boxes on the floor next to her; they’d been here when Yuuri had entered, and he had no idea what they contained. But he found out now. Leather armour, for a start. She picked up a breastplate and handed it to him. He’d never closely examined armour even in Immersion; it simply appeared on him, or he’d find it in a chest or on a deceased opponent and it would magically be added to his inventory. Dr. Fay’s seemed almost new, and had a distinctive smell mixed with whatever oil had been rubbed into it.

“I don’t think I’ll need to wear this for sparring,” he said.

“Just in case of accidents,” the professor explained, taking out another breastplate and pulling it over her head, then fastening ties on either side. “It also gets you used to wearing it while using a weapon. It can feel quite different from not having any armour on at all.” She took a leather belt with a scabbard and handed it to him. “You can adjust the straps and so forth on these. Make sure they fit you well, because they’ll be yours to wear when you go back in time.”

Celestino had told him that Dr. Fay had been fully briefed on Ailis and her inventions, and as the only other person at the university besides himself and Phichit with that knowledge, had helped Dr. Quincey and Dr. Croft to prepare before they’d departed. She’d been doing the same for Yuuri while they’d walked to the gym, though he didn’t think she’d told him anything he hadn’t already read in history books or learned at school. He wasn’t sure how much he’d actually needed to know anyway about the Blackfriars, the Guild of Merchant Taylors, or so-called sumptuary laws that dictated which clothes people from different socioeconomic classes were allowed to wear, but he filed the information away nevertheless.

Before they’d left her office, however, she’d given him something that would no doubt prove very useful: a bag of genuine coins from the time, worn-looking but clean and shining. They belonged to the university, she’d said, and the archaeology department thought they were only on loan to her, but Yuuri had her leave to use them as he saw fit; the idea had only occurred to her after the other two scientists had gone, and she hoped it would give his mission a better chance of success. He hoped so, too, even if they would be no guard against laser guns or mysterious diseases.

“I’m meant to wear all this when I go?” he said, now strapping on a pair of arm guards the way he’d watched her attach her own.

“I thought you might want to. But it’s up to you. It obviously won’t stop gunfire, but it’s protection in case someone attacks you.”

“Does this mean the storybook knights in shining armour didn’t appear until later?”

“No, plate mail had been around for a while, though it was expensive. It’s just heavy when you’re not used to it. From what I understand, if you need to look like you’re wearing plate, you can have your com project it into your image.”

“As long as no one tries to test it by running me through with a sword.”

“Well, let’s see what you can do now.” She opened a second cardboard box and lifted up a glittering silver sword, which she handed to him. “En garde, Yuuri.”

They’d sparred until both of them were sweating. Yuuri had held back, allowing her to win a few times, though he respected her speed and determination. He knew she was right about the show they were putting on for a hypothetical audience. How effective it would be against a real fighter from 1392, however…well, he hoped he’d never have to find out.

“You’re good,” he breathed when they were finished. “I’m surprised Celestino didn’t ask you to go instead of me or one of the other scientists.”

Scientist being the operative word,” she said as she began removing her armour and replacing it in the box. She’d set one aside solely for Yuuri, to contain his armour and belt and sword. “I don’t have any more knowledge about tech than the average person.” Then she stood up straight and met his eyes. “Besides, as much as I want to see the Middle Ages for real…I’d also want to come back home.”

The day hadn’t ended with Dr. Fay. Phichit had asked Yuuri if he’d wanted to visit the Yorkshire Museum in the heart of the city, and he’d agreed, more to spend some time with his friend than because he had any desire to view old coins, armour, swords, or gold and jewels. He knew he might not be seeing most of those things where he was headed anyway, if the livelihoods of his predecessors were anything to go by. Maybe his bag of coins would prevent him from falling on times that were too hard, though he didn’t know how far their purchasing power would go, and he’d got the impression that Dr. Fay hadn’t been sure either.

“I can’t believe you’re gonna be seeing these things for real,” Phichit said quietly as they sat on a bench, their eyes lingering over the medieval exhibits in glass cases, and a glowing stained-glass window with rainbow-coloured panes and intricate paintings of what appeared to be saints. They had haloes, at any rate.

“We are seeing them for real,” he said, unable to hide a touch of amusement.

Phichit turned to look at him. “You know what I mean. Like, when they were first made. Brand new.”

“Right now, I’d settle for just looking at them in a museum.” After a pause, he continued, “Phichit, I…I don’t know if the faith you and Celestino have in me is justified. And if I survive somehow, I still might never come back.” The words, spoken aloud, wrenched him inside, and tears momentarily sprang to his eyes, but he blinked them back. “I’ll do my best, though.”

“I’ll help you as much as I can,” Phichit said earnestly.

“I know.”

“I’ll miss you, Yuuri. But we can talk over the com. If Celestino lets me. He’d better, though, or…or he can find another assistant.” He sniffed.

This time a tear escaped down Yuuri’s cheek, and he leaned over and hugged his friend. “Thank you.” He couldn’t help thinking it was the last time they’d see each other, barring Yuuri’s exodus from the basement lab the following day.

And now that the day had come. As the taxi neared its destination, Yuuri discovered he felt curiously numb inside, as if the difficulty of processing it all, when everything around him seemed so normal, was too much for his brain to deal with.

Maybe he could hope there’d be something interesting waiting for him in 1392, if the sphere worked and he actually made it there.


The windows to Ailis’s lab were boarded over, including the broken one that must have served as the initial entry point. Celestino explained that he’d obtained a key from the council as he unlocked the door and led Yuuri and Phichit down small flight of concrete stairs to a room with a stone-flagged floor, brick walls and cobwebbed rafters. A portable lamp threw a yellow circle of light in the middle when he switched it on. Two wooden tables were the only furniture, on which Celestino put the boxes of kit Yuuri would be taking with him.

He said he thought this would be the best time of day to depart, since everyone in 1392 ought to be concentrating on their daily tasks. Yuuri had taken his word for it, though the wait throughout the morning had been difficult; he hadn’t even been able to make himself swallow a handful of nutri-pills. And now that he was here, where Ailis had been working, his heart started to race as he considered what he was about to do.

Celestino had advised him to dress comfortably, so he’d put on his black athletic wear and white trainers, along with his calf-length black coat; he’d wanted to bring his warmer blue parka, but wasn’t sure the leather armour would fit over it. He’d already fastened a leather belt around his waist to which a matching leather purse was attached, containing the coins Dr. Fay had given him. The idea was to wear whatever he needed to take with him, and when he found a safe place to store it, he could do so; in the meantime, if the com projection worked as it should when he arrived, he wouldn’t look like the bizarre packhorse he was shaping up to be. He hadn’t even donned the large backpack Celestino had brought for him yet.

“The other scientists didn’t have armour,” Phichit mused as he opened a box on the table and held a shining piece of leather up in the light.

“No,” Celestino said, “and we’re putting that right with Yuuri. We’re going to make sure he has the best chance yet of success.”

Phichit took the arm guard out of the box, laid it on the table, and removed the sword belt next. “Yuuri, this stuff is so juke,” he enthused. “I can’t believe you’ll be wearing it.”

“Don’t tell me you didn’t send either of the scientists with swords,” Yuuri said as Celestino began unpacking the backpack.

“The laser guns are superior weapons; I didn’t think at the time that they’d need anything else.”

“This is the Middle Ages we’re talking about. Didn’t everyone walk around with a sword? Like cowboys with guns?”

“Maybe.” Yuuri recognised Ailis’s tech as Celestino pulled the items out. “My mistake was not realising that if other people are around, then shooting a laser gun, even if it’s only on stun, might give away the fact that you’re not from round these parts, I suppose you could say.” He turned to Yuuri, his gaze intense. “Whatever you do, you mustn’t let her know you’re there. Not as Yuuri, not as anyone. She might not even know we sent Dr. Croft, since she died of illness…though there would’ve been the problem of the body, of course.”

Jesus. “I know,” he said. “The last thing I want is for her to be on her guard, or go looking for me.” I guess she’d be trying to find out who I ripped out of their own life and swapped places with…just like I’ll be doing when I look for her. He wondered if he might be able to apologise to his counterpart over the com, or if that would make matters worse. Better, perhaps, to just accept the fact that he was about to do something very unexpected to someone, whether they liked it or not. A wave of nausea swept through him, and he was glad he hadn’t eaten anything all day.

“Well,” Celestino said, “if you’ll remove the items from the bag you brought here yourself, we can take stock of your inventory and have a last-minute think about anything else you might need. There are shops outside on the main road that one of us could visit if necessary.”

Yuuri unsnapped the fastenings on his satchel and began unpacking. Ordinarily he’d use the BCI in his Cloud wristband to make all the compartments open instantly, but he’d left it at home. Where he was going, there’d be no Cloud to connect to.

Celestino had told him to bring plenty of toothpaste and painkillers. Yuuri hoped neither of his predecessors had had some kind of awful dental crisis that had caused the two items to be recommended together, but he hadn’t wanted to ask. Naturally he’d also brought with him a toothbrush, comb, razor, shaving foam, soap, deodorant, and other personal grooming products he felt sure medieval people never would have come across. Maybe he would be giving himself difficulties by having to find a place to store these things out of sight, but he didn’t want to imagine being without them.

“Yuuri,” Phichit said, “have you got your toolkit?”

He smiled and patted the pocket of his coat. “All set.” If – when, he corrected himself – he found Ailis’s tech, it was likely he would have no more clue how it worked than the items of hers he was already bringing with him, but that wouldn’t stop him from examining it and trying to prise out whatever secrets it would give up.

“You look ting, like a secret policeman or something.”

“These are just my normal clothes,” Yuuri said with a small smile. As if white trainers could ever be described as ting. Maybe on a professional athlete. “Wait til I’m wearing leather armour over it all. I’ll look like someone out of one of those dystopian films. Or just a pillock in a lot of mismatched gear.”

Celestino handed him a translator, and he inserted it in his ear. “Is it working? Can you understand me?”

“I don’t know,” Yuuri replied. “You’re speaking English.”

“No, I’m speaking Italian. And to me it looks and sounds like you’re speaking Italian. I’ll take that as a yes, then.”

Next he picked up a com and handed it over. Yuuri had returned the one he had borrowed that had recorded the deaths of Dr. Quincey and Arthur, which was currently the only direct contact Celestino and Phichit had with Ailis. He assumed it would be possible to reprogram the way the coms connected to each other, but the technique wasn’t obvious, and they hadn’t wanted to risk making mistakes.

“These two seem to be linked; I checked last night, but let’s make sure,” Celestino said as Yuuri fastened the strap around his wrist. “You call up the BCI menu to contact the other com, and if there’s a call coming over yours, the menu will pop up for you.”

Yuuri followed his instructions. “Um, testing,” he said, holding his wrist near his mouth to ensure the little microphone caught his voice. A tinny version of it came through another com on the table next to Celestino. “I hope you have all these gadgets labelled so you don’t forget what’s linked with what.”

“Let me worry about that. Now – ”

“There was something I wanted to say before we went any further. A request.”

Celestino and Phichit both looked at him.

“I want Phichit to be my main contact over the com. If…” He turned to his friend. “If he’s OK with that.”

“Yuuri – ” Phichit began brightly, but Celestino cut him off.

“That wasn’t the plan,” he said, his brow knitted. “I’ve always been the main contact.”

Yuuri had expected an argument, but Phichit’s enthusiasm was enough of an incentive to keep pushing. “You aren’t any more of an authority in this situation than he is. No one actually understands this stuff apart from Ailis, and we don’t know how much of it she even understands herself.” When Celestino began to reply, he added, “I’m the one who’s going to be risking my life, or getting stuck in the Middle Ages for however long.” Assuming I go to the right time and place. Well, I have to assume, or I’m going to jump in a taxi and go straight to work and pretend none of this ever happened. He swallowed and forced himself to sound calm. “I think that gives me the right to ask this one simple thing, don’t you?”

Phichit had been smiling all the while. Celestino continued to stare at Yuuri, apparently deliberating; then he nodded. “All right, we can do that.”

Yuuri touched the tiny end of the translator lodged in his ear, then examined the com strapped to his wrist. “Won’t people see I’m wearing these?”

“It wasn’t a problem for Walt or Helen,” Celestino replied. “They’re not part of the projected image you take on. Yuuri, about the com – be especially careful when and where you speak into it. Remember – ”

“Dr. Quincey. I know. I could hardly forget.”

“Exactly.” He turned to the items on the table. “Looks to me like you thought hard about what to take with you. It goes without saying that you’ll have to hide it all, because any of them could give away – ”

“I know.”

Celestino paused and nodded. “Let’s go over some of these other items, then. Two laser guns. A spare, just in case.”

They were flattish ovals about twice the size of an egg, with simple buttons and an opening in the front where the beam would shoot out. Yuuri felt his throat constrict as he wondered whether he’d be able to bring himself to kill with one.  

“Two settings, stun and kill. Self-explanatory.”

Yuuri was about to say that Dr. Fay should’ve used these for sparring – or perhaps more appropriately, target practice – instead of swords, but held his tongue. He hoped it wouldn’t be necessary to use one, and firing it would’ve felt too much like a warm-up for that eventuality. Then his gaze was drawn to a small black fabric case, which Celestino opened to reveal something that looked like a medical kit.

“All the basic things you need are here if you get a minor injury,” he explained. “Cauterising lasers for open wounds, alcohol, sterile dressing and so on. But the most important things are these.” He lowered his voice. “This is cutting-edge science, Yuuri. But I looked into it once Helen…once she got ill. If only I’d known it existed, I could’ve sent this kit with her.” His finger hovered over each item he identified. The first was a small red cube. “DNA analyser. You put samples in from these.” He indicated a small transparent box of needle-like objects. “Self-sterilising injectors. Either use them to take a blood sample – there are several tubes here that they’ll attach to – or to inject nanobots. This – ” Next he indicated a larger tube that contained a clear liquid. “ – is your nanobots in solution. A few go a long way. This is enough to treat hundreds of people.”

Yuuri bent over to take a closer look. “I thought these didn’t exist outside of medical facilities,” he said in wonder.

“They’re designing them to be portable now. In order to prevent the deaths of people like Ailis’s father, or Helen. What you do if you get ill from something the nanobots in your blood don’t recognise is this. Take a blood sample and feed it into the DNA analyser. It should be able to decode the DNA of the pathogen. Transfer the information to the nanobots in the solution via BCI. Then inject a tiny amount of the solution into your blood.”

“These nanobots – they’re already programmed with all the diseases known to science?” Celestino nodded. “Then they’d be able to cure people, wouldn’t they? In the Middle Ages.”

“Ah. Don’t start making yourself out to be a miracle doctor, Yuuri, however much you might like to. If people start getting better from diseases that no cure existed for – which I suppose was almost all of them, back then – Ailis will be on to you. You can’t do it. At the very least, you’re tinkering with time, keeping people alive who would otherwise have died.”

Yuuri folded his arms. “We’re tinkering with time now when we help people who would otherwise die. If I didn’t help, what would that make me? If I stood back and watched them suffer?”

Celestino sighed. “Someone who’s focused on the greater good. You’re the last person with a chance of stopping Ailis, who could cause even more trouble than a bacterium or virus. That has to be your top priority. And I don’t believe that curing people now is the same as curing people in the past. We don’t understand the rules behind all this, Yuuri. It’s why we’re going after Ailis in the first place.”

The sick feeling returned to Yuuri’s stomach. And he wasn’t certain yet that the ethical debate about these nanobots was over, not to his satisfaction.

“Yuuri,” Phichit said, “I know it’s gonna be hard. But you can depend on me. Day or night. I’ll be here for you, I promise.”

“Thank you,” Yuuri said quietly.

“Does Mari know?”

He nodded. “I told her I was going on a trip for work. But…” He turned to look at Celestino. “…if I’m gone a long time, or stuck there, I think she ought to be told the truth. She wouldn’t tell anyone else.”

“Let’s take that as it comes, shall we,” Celestino said, picking up the time-travel sphere from the table and staring at the screen on top, then handing it to him. “See if you can call up the BCI.”

“Is that better than tapping the screen?” He was dimly aware of faint noises in the alleyway outside, but reminded himself that he’d seen Celestino lock the door after they’d come in.

“You can do either. When you go, though, it would be best to put it in the purse with the coins on your belt, so it’s not in plain sight.”

Yuuri paused to think. “I’ve got the menu up now.”

“Right. Helen…Dr. Croft…died fifty-four hours ago. So it should be fifty-four hours after her death when you arrive. It wouldn’t let me program it for an earlier time, but that was only to be expected after what we’ve learned about this tech.”

Yuuri read aloud what he saw in his visual field. “Point of origin: 9.12.2120. Destination: 9.12.1392. Simple.”

“Let’s hope so.”

“How do I actually go?”

“When you’re ready, you mentally activate the hourglass symbol.”

“Wha…oh yeah, in the corner.”

“Good. Any final questions before we get your armour and backpack on?”

Yuuri thought for a moment. “What are you planning to do when my, um, counterpart turns up?”

“We have more translators. Phichit and I will talk with him and take him to the university or the living history museum, whichever seems suitable, depending on what state he’s in when he arrives.”

What state he’s in? Yuuri felt a wave of guilt for what he was about to do, but batted it aside and tried frantically to think of anything else he might have forgotten. “Will you tell Mrs. Wells where I’ve gone, too?” he said to Phichit. “My neighbour at Number Three. Well, just that I’ve gone. I don’t want her calling the police or anything when she hasn’t seen me in a while.”

“Sure, Yuuri. But don’t forget, we’ll be talking as soon as you get to the past. It’ll hardly feel like you’ve gone anywhere.”

I doubt that. A quiet click came from the door at the top of the stairs. Yuuri glanced in its direction, but saw nothing untoward. Perhaps he would put the armour on next and adjust the straps and ties so that they were looser, since he was wearing a coat.

“Right, Yuuri, let’s – ”

Celestino never finished the sentence.

There was another click at the door, and this time it swung open. Silhouetted against a white sky was a dark-haired man in a long coat.

“What the hell – ?” he called out. “Who the ruddy hell are you, and what’re you doing here?”

He turned his head and looked at the sphere Yuuri was holding, then whipped a laser gun from his pocket and aimed it at the three of them.

“I came here to get Ailis’s com, and what do I find?” He brandished the gun at Yuuri. “Put that sphere down now. You’re not going anywhere with it.”

“Are you Ian?” Yuuri asked, trying to sound unfazed, though his shaking voice gave him away.

“That’s right. Put the bloody thing down on that table now, before I – ”

“Before you what? Fire at me, and you destroy the sphere.” Maybe, he added silently. I wouldn’t know.

I’ll show you what, ya bleedin’ cocky prat.” He switched his aim to the table between Celestino and Yuuri and fired, the backpack and items near it instantly vapourising.

Yuuri – go!” Phichit shouted as he grabbed the remaining laser gun. With desperation in his eyes, he aimed it at Ian, who aimed back. “Go!

Before he realised what he was doing, Yuuri touched the hourglass icon, then remembered to shove the sphere into his purse…

…as the room spun and blurred, like a sponge dragging across a wet oil painting. Shouts and clatters stretched out, long and low, until they faded entirely.

A flash, and a wrench, as if a hand was reaching inside him and yanking every sinew. Then a roar, while Yuuri was suspended in some bright, diffuse glowing medium. He tried to open his mouth to cry out, but his body had gone numb; the only sound that ceaseless, penetrating roar like an oncoming train. Everywhere, in everything. The bloodstream of the cosmos.

Another wrench – as if he’d been tossed into the air…

…to land with a jarring thud on the grassy earth.

Shouts. The clang of metal. Realising he’d been squeezing his eyes shut, he opened them.

An angel of wrath towered over him as he lay on his back – bright blue eyes blazing cold fury, white-blond hair flying, dazzling silver surrounding him like an aura.

With a yell, he stabbed a longsword straight at Yuuri’s neck.

Chapter Text

Instinct seized Yuuri just as surely as the timestream had, and he jerked to the side, rolling away while he tried to cry out, though nothing but a whimper escaped his throat. Twisting back around, he saw the tip of the sword lodged in the ground where he’d lain seconds before. 

Was he still in the timestream? This couldn’t be real; it was impossibly beautiful and terrible all at once. Sunlight glittered on the man’s sword – it had to be a man; it couldn’t be an angel, could it? – as he yanked it free of the ground, hair and metal casing aglow. He was bright and light and –

deadly. Yuuri sprung to his feet to dodge another cut from the sword.

Fuck. Fuck. What do I do?

His eyes alit on a second sword lying on the ground nearby as if it had been dropped there. He dived to his knees and grabbed it, spinning back around to find that relentless shining man coming at him with murder glinting in his eyes.

Yuuri seized the naked blade, holding the sword upside down like a hammer and parrying the attacking weapon with a loud clang that shook through his body. Undeterred, the man swung his sword around in a silver flash. His metal-clad body was like a curtain of rain in a shaft of sunlight, dazzling and never still for a moment.

Run.

Yuuri dashed forward – then realised there was nowhere to go.

He was in an arena encircled by white walls draped with blue banners depicting a gold lion standing on its hind legs. Men and women wearing costumes from the Middle Ages sat in the stands, watching.

Not costumes.

Yuuri ran anyway. Those spectators were the source of the shouts he’d heard. But laughs and jeers were carrying to him now, as if the performance had suddenly soured.

“Coward!” Yuuri heard from behind him; the clear, ringing voice of his attacker. “Turn and fight! You wanted this – come here and take it!”  

Now that he’d put some distance between them, Yuuri noticed his threading heart, the sweat on his brow despite the winter breeze, his quivering legs. Turning to face the man, who was stalking toward him with his sword raised, he knew he couldn’t hurt him even to save his own life. Who was he? Why were they in this arena? What right did either of them have to harm each other? Maybe he should say something. But what? Was Ailis here, watching? Would she realise he had no idea who he was supposed to be?

He turned and made another sprint toward the wall, intending to vault over it if he could; but a burly bald man in a white shirt and hose hustled toward him from the stands, reached over, and gave him a push. “Eh, not so savage now, are you?” he called in a broad Scottish accent. “Cunt-bit shit-arsed mongrel. Get back out there.” There was a chorus of laughs as Yuuri fell rear-first onto the ground, the sword flying out of his hand.

His attacker was instantly upon him. Gauntleted hands shoved him to the ground with a clatter, and he was lying on his back again, staring up at those ice-clear eyes. A sword was raised above him – the angel of wrath poised to deal a death blow.

“Don’t kill me,” Yuuri choked out. “Please…”

“You’ve changed your tune,” the man said scornfully. “You wanted to kill me. You didn’t care if I killed you, or so it seemed. You don’t like it when death is staring you in the face, though, do you?” He raised his sword higher.

Jesus Christ, I’m going to die. “Please…good sir knight,” Yuuri croaked. “I regret what I said earlier. I didn’t think.” He swallowed. “Spare me, I’m begging you.”

The hard look in the man’s eyes melted somewhat, but his sword remained steady. He set his lips firmly, then shouted, “Do you yield?”

“Yes,” Yuuri said immediately, raising a hand as if to ward off a blow.

The man looked toward the audience in the stands, and Yuuri did the same. A regal older man with layers of dark furs and an ermine-trimmed conical hat held out a fist, knuckles facing upward. All eyes were upon him as he seemed to consider, then turned his hand and gave a thumb-up gesture, which was greeted with a mixture of cheers and groans.

The sword over Yuuri’s head was lowered, and the cloud of anger on the man’s face lifted as his shoulders slumped. His armour, now that Yuuri had the opportunity to take a more careful look, was a beautiful silver shell clinging to his frame, which was tall and muscular but also athletic, built more for grace and speed than strength. And his face…Yuuri couldn’t look away. Lovely and sad. His pale hair was long in front, parted on the right so that his fringe permanently hung over his left eye; but it tapered on the sides, where the short, fine strands hugged his neck.

I’m staring. This man almost killed me. He might change his mind and do it anyway.

“I’m…thank you,” he said on a shaky breath.

The man glared at him as if he were a recalcitrant child. “You’ve dishonoured yourself and your family. I hope that’s punishment enough. Though I doubt you’ll learn from it.” Then he stood with a clattering noise, sheathed his sword, and walked toward the wooden barrier, where a gate was opened for him to pass through; and he was gone.

Yuuri slowly sat up, staring after him. He focused on his breathing as his heart slowed to a more sedate, though hardly normal, pace. The ground under him wasn’t as hard as it had felt when all of his weight had landed on it. As was usual in the winter, it was somewhat springy with moisture; a sparse covering of green grass plus his coat seemed to have stopped his rear from getting wet.

My coat. That wasn’t what he saw when he looked down. He saw…plate armour, though it was worn and a bit dented. Gauntlets over his hands. A leather belt with an empty scabbard strapped around his waist. The oddest thing of all was that when he moved, there was a similar clatter to what he’d heard from the other knight, but there was no corresponding weight on his body. He felt…God yes – when he thought about it, when he concentrated, he could feel his athletic wear, his trainers, his coat; and when he focused his gaze, he could see a shadow of them there, his armour becoming transparent. The hypnotic effect of the projector; it had to be. If he could catch a glimpse of the reality, he thought with a jolt, could others do the same? But Celestino and Phichit had never mentioned Dr. Quincey or Dr. Croft having a problem with it. Maybe it was because he was the one looking, at himself.

I wonder what my face is like. I wonder who I am.

A…A knight, he realised belatedly, resting his eyes from their intense stare and seeing the plate armour return to solidity. Holy fucking shit, I’m a knight.

“Here, master, give me your hand and I’ll help you up. I’m a squire, and they’ve asked me to attend to you.”

Yuuri saw he’d been joined by a man who looked about eighteen, with placid deep blue eyes and short sandy brown hair mostly hidden by a close-fitting maroon cloth cap with dangling straps that looked like they were meant to be tied under the chin; a sparse beard with a little goatee and a ghost of a moustache peeked out. He was clad in tan hose, leather boots, and a thigh-length sky-blue tunic cinched at the waist by a sword belt. A cape of what looked like thick coarse wool, held in place below his throat with a gold clasp, hung to his knees.

“I…” Yuuri looked around. The stands were almost completely empty now, apart from a few people in little groups, laughing and chatting to each other. Apparently the entertainment was over, and he guessed that he’d lost. Not that it had exactly been a fair fight. He stood, ignoring the squire’s proffered hand, and walked to where his sword lay. As he picked it up, however, he realised he had nowhere to put it; there was no sheath attached to his belt. When he looked down at his waist, he saw one, but it wasn’t actually there, and a real sword was not going to hover in the air at his side. He decided he’d simply have to carry it for now.

There were so many things to think about, to make sure he got right, so that none of these people would know him for who he was. How would he ever manage it?

“Are you all right?” the squire asked, looking puzzled. “Are you injured?”

“No,” Yuuri replied quickly. “No, I’m fine.”

Whoever I swapped places with in time – this knight – must still be alive in 2120, or I would’ve been pulled straight back there myself, wouldn’t I?

He desperately hoped so, because maybe it meant Phichit and Celestino were still alive, too. Though no BCI menu from his com had popped up to inform him of a call from either of them. He had to find out what had happened. But he couldn’t safely use his com until he was alone. He’d be taking no risks, not after what had happened to Dr. Quincey.

Oh my God, all those things I was going to bring with me. Everything Celestino packed. The nanobots, in case I got sick. The armour. The laser guns, for fuck’s sake.

His stomach and heart lurched at the same time.

I’m defenceless. Apart from this ridiculous sword I’m going to be carrying around with me. As if I’d be perfectly capable of using it against a real-life knight. As if I’d have to kill people with it, like presumably the jack I swapped with was trying to do. Jesus…

An image of the tall, shining blond man flashed into his mind, and Yuuri was even more certain now that he never wanted to hurt him. He didn’t want to hurt anyone, of course, but…

But what? He didn’t have an answer to that. He didn’t even know the man from Adam.

Ailis has laser guns. A sword’s no good against those, either. But then, the other two scientists had them and they died anyway.

“Would you like me to fetch the physician, master?” the squire asked with a bewildered little grin. “Forgive my saying so, but you look like you’re away with the fairies. Perhaps he could examine you and determine whether – ”

A medieval physician? Holy hell, no. “That won’t be necessary,” he cut him off. “I didn’t catch your name…?”

“Emil Nekola,” he said with a quick little bow. “At your service.” He lowered his voice. “I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re to stay here. Your servants are being sent back to your father’s castle.”

My father’s castle?

“You’ll be given all the comforts you’re used to here, as far as they can be arranged. I know it isn’t ideal, but…well, if you come with me, I’ll take you to the castle and show you to your room.” He paused. “I’m also meant to tell you that you’re not a prisoner, but if you make any threats or try to harm anyone, your life will be forfeit.” He nodded toward the wooden gate through the wall of the arena. “Shall we go, then?”

Trying and failing to make sense of what was going on and Emil’s part in it, not to mention his own, Yuuri remained by his side as they passed through the gate. “Why are you calling me ‘master’ if you’re a squire here at this castle?” he asked.

“Ah, well. Seeing as how you survived the duel, I’m officially your new squire.” Emil smiled. He had a friendly look about him, but Yuuri sensed a continuing undercurrent of confusion and possibly trepidation. He didn’t think it was any great leap in logic to assume it was because Emil might not want to be his squire. That hadn’t been any great display of skill he’d put on just now. The blond knight had told him he was in dishonour. It only made sense. He’d tried to run away. He was sure Emil hadn’t been impressed, either.

Put yourself in my situation and see what it’s like, Emil. I’m lucky I’m still alive.

He reminded himself to behave as much like a medieval knight as he could, whatever that entailed, since it was obviously the identity of his projection; he’d have to learn quickly. Ailis would in all probability be a woman here, which meant he had no good reason to suspect she was posing as Emil, but that didn’t mean rumours couldn’t be spread. If he drew attention to himself by not knowing things that people here would consider simple and basic…

Why the hell didn’t Dr. Fay better prepare me for this? But maybe she didn’t know a whole lot herself. 728 years is a long time ago.

I might have to trust Emil, starting now, if I’m going to survive here.

None of these thoughts were comforting. He had to find a chance to talk to Phichit over his com.

“I’ve had experience,” Emil said, and Yuuri wondered at first what he meant. That was it; he’d told him he was going to be his new squire, but he’d been been lost in thought again. Emil must have taken it as disapproval.  

They had walked around to the back of the stands, and there, towering on a hill behind a small wood, was a grey stone castle. Crowood Castle, no longer a crumbling ruin but new and whole, with blue and gold banners flying on tops of crenellated turrets. The ribbon of the River Ouse sparkled in the distance. Around the fortification were patchwork fields dotted with sheep, and the spire of a Norman church dominated clusters of thatched roofs. Yuuri realised his mouth was hanging open.

“I thought for sure you’d been here before,” Emil said, looking at him curiously.

“Um…” Talk to him, before he starts to think there’s something wrong with you. Well, he already thought that a while back. “Do I need a squire?” he said, deciding too late that it was a stupid question.

However, as they began to walk toward the castle, Emil seemed unperturbed. Yuuri wondered how far the easygoing attitude actually went. He understood enough to know that he was now tied to this castle rather than his father’s, whatever that signified. Because he’d lost the fight; the duel. And if he misbehaved – which he assumed meant trying to escape – he could be killed. Would Emil do that? Maybe; this was a bloodthirsty age, after all. He shuddered inside, then reassured himself that Crowood Castle was where he wanted to be anyway, because that was where Ailis most probably was.

“Every knight needs a squire,” Emil answered with a little laugh, as if it should be obvious. “And I’m a squire without a knight. So…” He shrugged as his voice trailed off.

Yuuri realised his hands were cold. He had modern gloves in his pocket, but didn’t want Emil to see him putting them on. He wasn’t sure what the projector would or wouldn’t show, but at a guess it would be an odd-looking display. As they walked, he continued to grip the hilt of his sword, his hand going increasingly numb as the breeze chilled it.

“That, uh…that makes sense,” he said.

“I did serve a knight, about a year ago. Sir Duncan Fitzwarren of Haltwhistle. He got drunk and fell from the turret of the garrison and died.”

Yuuri’s eyes went wide. Emil didn’t miss a stride, and he wasn’t sure if his companion was trying to hide whatever feelings he had about it, or whether he genuinely didn’t care. “That’s, um…that’s…”

“It was sad. Not really the honourable end he was hoping for.”

“I guess not…”

“I’ve been training and serving here ever since, hoping I’d get the chance to be squire to another knight.” He glanced at Yuuri, who thought he saw an expression of disappointed resignation on his face for a moment as they began to skirt around the woods.

“Um…that’s fine,” Yuuri replied, hoping to put Emil at his ease but feeling that everything coming out of his mouth was an awkward tangle. “Look, do you mind if I ask you some questions?”

“Ask away.”

They strode through months-old damp leaves at the edge of the trees, following a path that was little more than a cutting through grass, bracken and other things Yuuri couldn’t identify. Perhaps to avoid the main one, which his eyes now picked out to the right. It was rutted and muddy.

“Why was that knight trying to kill me?”

Emil’s eyes widened, and he appeared to be trying to think what to say.

Yuuri added quickly, “I – I wasn’t being completely honest when I told you I hadn’t been hurt. Because it was embarrassing. I was hit on the head, and it seems to have given me amnesia.” Then he caught himself; amnesia was surely not a word that existed in the Middle Ages. Would the translator be able to handle it? How else could he explain?

But Emil appeared to understand without any difficulty. “Really? They should’ve allowed you to wear a helm. I didn’t see it happen, I have to confess, but I wasn’t watching the entire time.”

“Emil,” Yuuri said more insistently, “please. I don’t know who that knight was, or what was happening. I don’t even know who I am.”

The squire let out a breath. “Indeed? Well, you’re aware that this is his family’s castle, are you not? Up ahead, where we’re going.” When Yuuri looked at him blankly, he added, “Baron and Lady Nikiforov. Good King Edward – ” He kicked more leaves nonchalantly as they went along. “ – God rest his soul, gave the baron lands here for his deeds in battle alongside his son, Edward the Black Prince, in France some years back. I think they’d already been living in England for a while, run out of the eastern country where they lived for assisting with some rebellion or other that went wrong, and they were taken in by friends here. So the stories say. I don’t know much about it myself; I don’t have dealings with the lord and lady, and Sir Victor doesn’t talk much about his family. Not since two years ago, anyway, when his – ”

“That’s his name? That’s who I was fighting?”

“Yes. Sir Victor Nikiforov. He’s one of the best knights in the kingdom.” He huffed an amused laugh. “I never realised taking on squire’s duties would involve explaining all this, but it’s interesting.” He laughed again, and Yuuri didn’t know whether to be comforted or disconcerted.

“So why was I, um, fighting him? ”

“To try to prevent your family’s lands from being taken by the Nikiforovs.” Emil shrugged. “Which wasn’t going to happen, however optimistic you might’ve been, because Sir Victor has to be having a very bad day for anyone to beat him.” He opened a pouch on his belt, took out a handful of what looked like nuts, and popped them in his mouth as he walked, the bare branches of trees falling away behind him, replaced by rolling green hills with a blue sky and puffy white clouds. He glanced over at Yuuri, then took out another handful of nuts, which he offered to him. Yuuri accepted them; they looked like hazelnuts and walnuts. Tasted like it, too, he discovered. A surprisingly rich flavour that made the same thing he’d eaten in his own time seem bland.

“I thought it was more common for people to send armies to seize lands,” he said as he ate.

“Instead of armies or sieges, the noble families in this area send their champions to fight each other. Fewer lives lost that way. You didn’t remember that either?”

Yuuri just looked at him blankly again. Then he caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye – something lingering in the woods behind them.

“It’s all right,” Emil said, following his gaze. “I should’ve said. But it seemed like the fight was taken out of you after…everything, so I didn’t see any reason to alarm you.”

“Alarm me?”

“You can ignore them. They’ve been following at a distance. In case…” He shrugged. “…well, you do have a reputation, you know. Or maybe you don’t, if you’ve forgotten. But if you decided you wanted to escape, or fight me, they’re prepared to stop you.”

“Oh,” Yuuri said in a small voice. “So there are guards behind us?”

“You don’t need to worry about them. Anyway, like I was saying. you’d lost the fight, but refused to yield. You said you’d rather die first. If you don’t mind my saying, sir, it’s a miracle you weren’t killed. Though trying to run away like that…it’s not a commonly used tactic. It took some guts.”

Yuuri’s eyes narrowed as he tried to decide whether Emil was being genuine or sarcastic.

“Actually,” Emil said as they approached a sizeable stream, its pleasant trickle carrying through the cold air, “are you sure you don’t want a physician for this amnesia? It appears to be serious.”

“It won’t help,” Yuuri answered, in no doubt about that fact, even if he were genuinely ill. “I…I think I just need to give it time, and it’ll heal. But I’m going to insist – order, even – do you, erm, take orders?”

“From you, master? Well, yes.”

Loath as he was to treat anyone like a servant or inferior, this was too important to do otherwise, Yuuri decided. “All right, then. I order you not to tell anyone that I’ve lost my memory. It could be catastrophic if certain people found out.”

Emil nodded. “I understand. They won’t go easy on you as it is, I’m afraid, after you tried to kill the baron’s son, and I’m sure you wouldn’t want to make it any harder on yourself. You can count on my discretion, sir.”

“Thank you.” Though the rest of his words sent a shiver of apprehension through him. “So the nobleman who gave the thumb-up – that was Sir Victor’s father, the baron, deciding whether or not to let me live?”

Emil wrinkled his brow. “Do you not know? I suppose not. You do seem to have forgotten a great deal, I have to say, sir. Yes, the person officiating the duel can do that. They usually allow the defeated party to live. After the way your own fight ended, though…” He shot another dubious glance at Yuuri. “If you don’t mind my saying, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the lord had made a different decision. I suppose he’d rather have the extra knight in the garrison.”    

How practical of him. Yuuri thought back to the scene in the arena. The man sitting at the front of the audience in all those furs had seemed formidable. The woman next to him, also in furs, with white headgear that made her look like a nun, had appeared…bored, maybe. Certainly disinterested. The two of them had been surrounded by a dozen or so richly dressed men and women of similar appearance, most of them with head coverings of some kind. The rest of the audience had been – merchants? Peasants? He wasn’t sure, but he remembered getting the impression that they were, on the whole, disappointed that the baron had ordered Sir Victor to spare his life. Hardly better than gladiatorial combat in a colosseum, then. He felt sick.

Snapping out of his thoughts, he noticed they were now on the edge of the stream. It was wide but not deep. In the summer it would probably be pleasant to wade in. But why were they standing here? There was no way across. Then Emil begin to pick out a route using naturally outcropping rocks as stepping stones.

“Isn’t there a bridge somewhere?” Yuuri asked.

“Further away along the main path. This way is more direct. You’re not averse to getting your sabatons a little wet, are you, sir?” Emil laughed. “Just do as I do, and follow me. You don’t want to give the men behind us the impression that – ”

Sabatons? What were those? “I’m coming,” Yuuri said quickly, splashing in behind him. To his pleasant surprise, Emil had chosen a good route, and the water had not gone far enough up his trainers to get inside them. It occurred to him that the clothes of this time, like the tall thick leather boots Emil was wearing, might be useful for tasks like this. He didn’t fancy wading through mud in his white trainers, and he’d already decided his coat wouldn’t be ideal protection from the icy wind that blew here. There wasn’t any snow that he could see, but the temperature felt like it was hovering around freezing. He was still waving his cold metal sword as he hopped across slick stones, his hand almost completely numb now.

Soon he joined Emil on the other side, and they followed the path as it began to climb a hill. There was a scattering of what looked like outbuildings here; long, low wooden structures, some with men and women in simple woollen clothes going back and forth like bees around a hive, carrying sacks and buckets, or leading cows or horses. It reminded Yuuri of the living history museum, and his mind wandered to his counterpart in the future, the knight who had declared he would die before he yielded the fight.

“Emil, I’ve got some more questions, and I need them answering before we get to the castle,” he said.

“I understand, master.”

Now that Emil believed he had amnesia, hopefully his first question wouldn’t sound so strange. Who was he? The answer he was given was Sir Justin le Savage of Stanebeck, the only son of Baron Courtenay, lord of a minor fiefdom. Le Savage? he thought dazedly. But then he remembered what the swearing Scotsman had said to him: Not so savage now, are you?

He learned, as he and Emil walked up the hill, that the fiefdom had been absorbed into the Nikiforovs’ estate, now that he’d lost the duel. His “family” would not be well pleased with him, despite the fact that no one had realistically expected him to be able to best Sir Victor on the field. Emil tried to console him by telling him the Courtenays would be allowed to maintain their former estate and stay in their castle, as long as they acknowledged Baron Nikiforov as their lord and paid whatever taxes he dictated. As for him, Crowood Castle was his home now, and he would be expected to serve the noble family as one of their knights.

He could see why the real Justin would be upset by this, but it could be worse, he thought. No battles, no armies, no deaths. A quick, clean takeover. If Sir Victor was their tool for acquiring land and riches, it was understandable that they were the dominant family here. Perhaps the other families had complied in order to avoid bloodshed themselves, and possibly having to face an attacking force that could wipe them out, hoping instead that Sir Victor might have one of those rare bad days and lose to their own champion. He felt a stab of outrage at the greed and cruelty that must drive this family to seize all these possessions from others, because it was no different to thievery. The rich exploiting the less rich, from time immemorial. At least the worst of such things lay in the past, in his time. Apart from places like Surga.

“Sounds like this Sir Victor must be the terror of the land,” he commented. Which was ironic, because the first time he’d heard the name, he’d been reminded of his beloved Vicchan, the poodle that had been in his family for years. 

“Oh, no, sir. A more fair and courteous knight would be hard to find.” When Emil saw the surprise on Yuuri’s face, he added with a little laugh, “He wasn’t like that with you just now, but then he had good reason, wouldn’t you say?”

Yuuri was about to reply when he realised he’d need to watch his step, as he’d narrowly avoided sinking his foot into a huge pile of horse manure. There were other piles around, plus muddy ruts dug into the soft grassy earth, and places where many feet had churned the whole mess up. Evidently he and Emil weren’t the only ones in the habit of approaching the castle from this direction.

“By the way, sir, if you desire more training here,” Emil said, glancing at him, “there’s no shortage of that. Abelard will put you right, I’m sure.”

“Abelard,” Yuuri echoed.

“They also want you to have new armour befitting your status as a knight of the Nikiforovs. Though you’ll have to pay for it yourself, I’m afraid. Anyway, I’ll help you see to that tomorrow, don’t you worry, sir.”

Well that would take care of the problem that he didn’t actually have any armour in the first place, Yuuri thought, which was something his story about amnesia wouldn’t be able to explain away. But – pay for it? Would the coins in his purse cover the cost? Would he have any left afterward? How would he get more money here? They didn’t pay knights a monthly salary, did they? And this flipping sword he was still carrying…his hand felt like ice. He shifted it to his left hand.

“Why don’t you leave that with me, sir,” Emil suggested, pulling on a thick pair of what looked like lamb’s-wool gloves from a pocket of his cape and then holding a hand out. “It’s perhaps better that way. We don’t want anyone to think you mean them any harm.”

“Um, sure.” He gave the weapon over, then asked, “I suppose it should be obvious where I got this nickname of ‘le Savage’?”

“Do you not remember anything at all, sir?” He shook his head. “I apologise – you must think me impudent – but truly, I’m amazed. Well, to be honest, you have a reputation for being…quick-tempered. I don’t have firsthand experience of it as such, but I have to say, you don’t strike me as being that kind of fellow. Perhaps you need enough drink in you first, eh?” He gave Yuuri another quick glance, with a brief smile.

Between picking his way through the muck and reflecting angrily on how the loss of a duel could mean the loss of a family’s son and lands, Yuuri didn’t immediately notice when they’d crested the hill. They were on a flat expanse of higher land, and when he turned to look, he could see they’d traversed a dip between this and another hill where the arena was, the white-painted stands clearly visible through the trees, with the stream and the muddy main road ribboning below.

But it was the grey stone edifice in front of him to which his attention quickly returned. The gatehouse seemed to have been designed to impress and intimidate; it might be equal to the height of seven or eight people from its foundations to the topmost battlement, and was flanked by two tall protruding towers that, like the turrets, contained intermittent dark, narrow windows that were little more than slits. Between the towers stretched a wall with a decorative stone arch and two more of the narrow windows, and below this, at the height of perhaps two people, was a pointed arch with a raised portcullis.

Yuuri picked out a couple of men with metal helmets and bows walking along the battlement above, while standing next to the entrance was, Yuuri guessed, a guard on one side and a porter on the other. The guard stood still and quiet, watching them approach with a hand resting on the hilt of his sheathed sword; there was a lion on the front of his tabard that matched the banners at the arena, presumably the Nikiforovs’ coat of arms. The porter was an older man in a yellow tunic and grey hose, and from his belt, along with the seemingly ubiquitous sword, hung large sets of thick iron keys.     

“Hail, Harry,” Emil greeted the guard, who nodded back.

“Who’s this you’ve got with you, eh, Emil?” Harry asked, looking Yuuri up and down. “Ah yes, I remember now. Last time you were here, you came in like a peacock and went out like a rum, saucy sort of fellow. Effing and blinding about something or other. I think you’d had a fair bit to drink. Our Julius was spoiling for a fight with you, and it took several men to pull you both away from each other, and him being but a lad…” He snickered. Yuuri simply stared.

“You ought to remember some courtesy, Alfric,” Emil said. “He’s with us now. Sir Justin, meet Alfric our porter. He’ll know to let you back and forth through the gate from now on.”

“Sir,” Alfric said with a slight nod, though his keen grey eyes still seemed to offer a kind of challenge. Yuuri realised he’d have some work to do to earn respect here, after the way his counterpart seemed to have been behaving.

And how exactly am I supposed to do that? I’m no knight. The other men appeared to be waiting for a response from him, however, so he returned Alfric’s gaze and said, “Pleased to meet you.”

“I need to get him to the garrison,” Emil explained, gesturing for Yuuri to follow him. “See you later.”

“Shave a bollock, cock,” Alfric said as they passed by. It seemed to be a friendly comment aimed at Emil, who gave a little wave.

As they walked through the short dark stone passageway, Emil said, “You’re very polite, sir. ‘Pleased to meet you’, indeed.”

“What should I have said?”

“I just thought someone like yourself might be a little less deferential with the servants.”

“He’s a servant?”

“He’s a porter,” Emil replied, as if this ought to be explanation enough. “Porters and guards aren’t, shall we say, of an equal status to knights. That blow to your head appears to have addled your brains, sir. I do hope you’ll feel more like yourself soon. Though perhaps not,” he added with a chuckle. “You seem a decent fellow, if I may make so bold, and it would be a shame for you to go back to…well, never mind. Ah, here we are.”

As they exited the passage, Yuuri’s eyes readjusted to the bright blue sky, though shadows were lengthening as the sun dipped behind the castle. And what he saw caused him to stop and stare, something he thought he could easily fall into a regular habit of doing here. They were facing a spacious courtyard with two wide cobblestone paths that crossed in the middle, cutting the expanse into four neat grassy squares. Yuuri had been to many castle ruins with his parents and Mari when he was young, but the quiet crumbling moss-covered stone hadn’t prepared him for this vision of a huge intact fortress with several storeys, pitched roofs with wooden shingles, smoke curling out of numerous large stone chimneys…

And the people. Men in tunics and trousers – or were they hose? It was hard to tell – all colours of the rainbow. Most of them wearing those cloth caps with strings, or hats of various kinds, and leather shoes with exaggerated points at the toes. Women in heavy dresses that flowed almost to the ground, cloaks fastened around their throats. Many had those head coverings that reminded Yuuri of nuns – wimples, was that what they were called? – wrapped around their head so that only their face showed. Others wore thick twisted cloths that reminded him of turbans. A few young women had long hair streaming freely behind them as they bustled about, but they seemed to be the exceptions.

Bustling was the right word, because almost nothing here was still. At a guess, most of these people were servants rather than members of the noble family, judging from their lack of ostentation, and the activities in which they were engaged. Horses with carts stood near archways while goods went to and fro – barrels, armfuls of folded clothing and sheets, piles of straw, stacks of chopped wood, large buckets of water that required two people to carry them, full sacks of goodness knew what carried on shoulders, baskets of food – loaves of bread, bunches of what might have been herbs, stacks of pasties and pies, and many more things Yuuri didn’t recognise from a distance. He thought he could guess where the main kitchen might be, because that was where the majority of the people seemed to be congregating, and it was also the source of the most smoke roiling up into the sky. Other more subtle scents underpinned it: the damp earth of the grassy courtyard, manure, something slight and lingering reminiscent of body odour mixed with a delicate flowery fragrance. Yuuri looked around and noticed a neat bunch of dried lavender tied with string tucked unobtrusively into a stone crevice.

Someone nudged him from behind while exiting the gatehouse passage, a man about his own age with a strange yellow hood from which a tail-like piece of cloth hung at the back, lightly draped over his shoulders to dangle onto his chest. Yuuri had thought only jesters wore such things, but this was no jester, not unless they also wore sword belts and carried dead fish on strings. The man paused to glance at Yuuri and Emil as he strode over to the presumed kitchen and went inside.

“You seem amazed,” Emil observed. “Is it so different from the Courtenays’ castle? Ah, perhaps you don’t remember that, either?”

“No,” Yuuri said under his breath, continuing to watch the activity in front of him.

“Dear me. Well, the garrison where you’ll be staying is this way. There are two other knights besides yourself and Sir Victor. Each is attended by a squire, of course. We all share the garrison with the men-at-arms and guards who are stationed around the castle and accompany the lord and the household staff when they travel. Well, all of us apart from Sir Victor, who, being the lord’s son, has quite an elegant room of his own elsewhere.” He paused and smiled. “I hope I’m not insulting your intelligence with information like this, sir, but just in case you don’t remember…”

“No, I appreciate it,” Yuuri replied as Emil turned and led the way to a large door in the turret to the left of the gatehouse. Like most of the other doors in the courtyard, it was a single piece of heavy dark brown wood, curving to a pointed arch at the top, with ironwork hasps fashioned into delicate curls. Emil depressed the latch with his thumb and pushed the door open, then shut it once they were inside.

Yuuri found himself in a white-plastered room with a grey stone-flagged floor and large fireplace. He took in the shuttered window, tables and chairs, and corridors branching off to the left and right, as well as an iron candelabra in the corner that looked like something out of a vampire film. None of the candles were lit, and the only light in the room came from the dying fire and thin cracks around the shutters.

“You don’t keep it this dark in here all the time, do you?” he asked.

“Most of us are away in the daytime, unless we want to eat a meal here,” Emil replied. “If a group of us are going to stay for a while, we’d stoke the fire, light the candles, and maybe open the shutters, though the windows do lose a lot of heat.” He added, “You room is just over here, sir, round the corner. You have your own, as befits your rank, though I don’t suppose it’s as good as what you’re used to. I apologise for that, but under the circumstances it seems a mercy you’re still alive, so…”

Footsteps echoed from an archway which opened onto a spiral stairway, and a teenaged boy emerged. He wore a bushy brown fur cape and matching hat that gave his body bulk it otherwise lacked, and his blond hair looked like it had been trimmed around an overturned bowl. Green eyes flitted over Emil and came to rest on Yuuri, sparking.

You.” He drew his sword from underneath his cape. Yuuri’s eyes widened.

“There now,” Emil said, waving Yuuri’s sword as if to emphasise his words. “He’s not even armed, look. And you must learn how to get on with him, because he’ll be living here from now on.”

“Whoever decided that was an idiot.” He jabbed his sword. “You saw how he tried to fight the master and refused to yield.” Another jab. “He should’ve killed you, you cankered pig.”

Yuuri’s jaw dropped, though he quickly closed it while Emil said more firmly, “Remember yourself, Julius. Would your master approve of such behaviour? We have to get on with each other.”

“Tell that to Abelard and Sir Charles.” He sheathed his sword, whirled around, and made a show of storming out the door.

The only noise was the quiet clink of the embers in the grate; then Yuuri coughed. “I guess that was one of the other squires.”

Emil’s look was almost pitying this time. “Julius, Sir Victor’s squire. The one you had a scrap with last time you were here. Nothing to worry yourself about, but you traded insults, and he has a long memory. Ah, unlike – ”

“I know. Unlike me.”

“If you’ve forgotten, you should probably also know he’s more formidable than he looks. He’s the most skilled squire, for his age, that any of us have ever seen.”

Yuuri found this difficult to believe, but was willing to take Emil’s word for it. Great. Sir Victor and his squire both hate me, and want to cut me to ribbons.  

Emil showed him into a short hallway to the left with more white-plastered walls and high unshuttered windows that admitted the fading daylight, then opened the door to a modest room that was similar to the others: white walls, a shuttered window, a fire burning in the grate. The floor, however, was covered in wooden boards.

“I’ll take your armour off for you,” Emil said, as if this were routine.

“No,” Yuuri said abruptly. At the look of confusion on Emil’s face, he added, “Uh, thanks, I’ll manage on my own.”

“It’s a normal task for a squire, sir. Though, well, I can understand – you’ve had to dismiss your own staff from your service here. This will take some getting used to.”

“It will,” Yuuri quickly said, “but not because of that. I don’t mean to offend you – ”  

Emil huffed a laugh. “Your politeness with servants is unusual, I have to say. Have your sword back, sir.” He handed it over.

“There’s nothing wrong with being civil to people,” Yuuri remarked, disliking the implication in his words. Aristocrats in this country had lorded it over people for hundreds of years; although feudalism was dead in modern times, antiquated titles such as prince and duke and “sir” had limped on, having only been officially abolished fairly recently, though some old families still insisted on making it known that “noble blood” ran in their veins.

“I’d heartily agree to that,” Emil said with a smile. “I need to go see to a few things, sir, and will have to leave you for a while, but I’ll return before long. You can get settled in, have a wash or a rest, just as you please. The garderobe is further down the hall, through a door on the right.”

Garderobe. Castle toilet. Yuuri had no immediate desire to experience that particular adventure yet, but he thanked Emil, who made a little bow and left the room, closing the door behind him. Yuuri saw an iron key protruding from the lock. He turned it and put it in a coat pocket, then immediately attempted to bring up the BCI menu on his com.

Nothing happened.

With a racing heart, he tapped at the little black box fastened to his wrist. Still no response. He kept trying to mentally or manually connect for another minute, without success. His projection was clearly working, and he could bring a menu up for that, but not for the communicator.

“Phichit,” he said into the tiny holes where the speaker was. “Phichit, can you hear me? Are you there?”

But it was like trying to talk to the wall. Leaning back against the door, he took this in, his heart still hammering at his ribcage.

I have no help here. I’m on my own.

He swallowed, and tears momentarily sprang to his eyes, but he blinked them back.

OK. I can do this anyway, without them.

Why the hell didn’t I test the com before I took it with me?

Because I assumed Celestino had.

Is he even still alive? Is Phichit?

He felt sick. Some small, frightened part of him wanted to go home. But home was 728 years away…and he was unlikely to ever see it again.

“Fuck,” he whispered, squeezing his eyes shut.

Chapter Text

I think you ought to know that I get…anxious sometimes.

Yuuri recalled his words in Celestino’s office. A proffered warning. I told you about it. You listened; you heard. I can’t believe you still wanted me to go through with this mission, or whatever you want to call it.

He continued to focus on his breathing. Deep and even, in and out. Finally slowing.

The wooden floor was hard underneath his rear, and his coat was rucked up between his back and the door from when he’d slid down. It had been the easiest thing at the time. Going further into the room and lying down on the bed in the corner was too much like acknowledging the reality of it all. He would just…stay here while the panic washed over him.

The wave had crested and receded, leaving him limp but aware, especially of the fact that there was nothing to do apart from stand up and face the situation. Whether or not Phichit or Celestino could contact him – whether or not they were even alive – was, he told himself, beside the point, no matter how he felt about it. He was their last chance to find Ailis and prevent her from doing something terrible. Added, of course, to what he knew she’d already done. Taking the lives of two people. That might be nothing compared to whatever she was planning.

Had he already seen her in the time he’d been here? Had she seen him?

Breathe.

He fingered the iron key in his pocket. Heavy, solid. There was something both earthy and romantic about it, he thought. The craftsmanship that had gone into the spirals at its tip, as well as the hinges on the door; inspiration and effort and beauty that bore no resemblance to the electric sliding metal doors of his own time.

Not everything about this place is bad.

Get the fuck up, Yuuri Katsuki, and do what you came here to do. People are depending on you. You’re not going to let them down.

He stood slowly, smoothing his coat. Fine. This was going to be the new normal for him, then; these surroundings. It could be a lot worse. He wasn’t a peasant who had to spend hours working the land every day. Or a cook spending a similar amount of time sweating over a hot fire. It seemed he didn’t have a wife or children. He wasn’t a prisoner in a dungeon like he’d feared, or someone ill in a medieval hospital, or a rat-catcher.

He was a knight. And that meant he might have to –

No. I’m not thinking of that right now. One step at a time. Get settled in. Find out everything I need to know from Emil.

He looked more closely at the room. It reminded him of a mock-up behind a rope at a museum. “Knight’s bedroom, garrison.” Again, like the ironmongery, not so bad. Clean, at first glance; on the spartan side, but that was fine. Someone who lived in this time period probably had no reason or opportunity to gather a lot of clutter.

The fireplace was comprised of light-coloured dressed stone blocks, with a wooden mantelpiece on which stood a couple of thick candles in different stages of having been burned and melted. Walking over, Yuuri examined the cast-iron fire guard on the small stone hearth: two posts with scrollwork between them like a decoration from a large gate, and hot to the touch. Wrapping his coat around his hands, he picked it up and moved it aside, then took two split logs from a neat stack in a tall wicker basket and tossed them onto the fire, appreciating the light and heat from the leap of flames.

Light. These dim rooms could do with it. Crossing to the window and kneeling on the seat fashioned into the depth of the wall there, he unfastened the hasp and pulled the shutters open to reveal a spacious rectangular window with stone mullions and small leaded panes. The glass was clear, but thick and a little warped. He could see the courtyard well enough, however, and catch the sound of conversations, the jangle of horses in harness, the rumble of wooden wheels across cobblestones. A cold draught drifted down, and Yuuri could understand now why they kept the windows shuttered at this time of year; but the fuel he’d just added to the fire ensured that the chill in the room was not too bitter. It was significantly brighter now too, but the sun was quickly sinking, and the shadows deepening.

He walked to the bed in the corner, stood on a mat made of rushes or something similar woven together, and pressed down on the mattress. It felt like it was stuffed with straw, and there were a couple of pillows that might have feathers in them. They and the mattress had clean white coverings, and a thick brown woollen blanket had been folded at the corner. At the foot of the bed was a wooden table with a drawer on top of which were a large white ceramic pitcher and basin decorated with pink motifs showing peasants stacking grain into bundles, and a burnished silver cup. There was also a white cloth that might have been intended as a flannel.

Maybe this was what Emil had meant when he’d said he was welcome to have a wash; the pitcher was full of water. But Yuuri had never seen someone use one of these. Was this what would have to pass instead of a bath?

He knew that no one would describe him as vain, but one thing he valued was being clean. The strong hot jets of a shower after a long day were one of life’s pleasures. It was tempting to promise himself that he’d jump into the River Ouse, no matter how cold it was, if he had to. Or the stream they’d crossed on the way here. But a bath in icy water…he shivered thinking about it.

The only other items of furniture were a tall cabinet and a chest with another iron key stuck in the lock. When Yuuri opened it, he discovered it was empty. Either of these would be good for storing clothes, if he had anything other than what he was wearing. And next to the door, hung on a piece of string from a large nail in the wall, was another bunch of lavender and other herbs similar to the one he’d spotted near the gatehouse. Moving closer, he detected a sweet flowery scent. Perhaps these were the medieval version of air fresheners.

Taking in the remainder of the room, he noticed simple wooden shelves and odd little empty niches; maybe lit candles were supposed to go in them. And something more useful than everything else at the moment: a long rectangular mirror with a shining golden gilt frame hanging on the wall. Yuuri moved to stand in front of it, and gasped.

He couldn’t help it. This was what everyone had been seeing since he’d arrived: Sir Justin le Savage Courtenay. A man of about Yuuri’s age, but vastly different in appearance, with shimmering shoulder-length strawberry-blond hair, eyes of a deep ultramarine hue, pink cheeks dusted with light brown freckles, and a generous goatee that had the appearance of having been waxed. Underneath the pomposity of the hair, he might be handsome, though it was difficult to tell. Yuuri ran his hand along his chin; the mirror showed his fingers moving across the little beard. He initially felt the prickle of whiskers, but then it disappeared. The same happened with the tresses of hair. And when he peered intensely at the vision at the mirror, it seemed to fade, like fog clearing, to give him a glimpse of his real self underneath. Yet when he glanced away and then brought his gaze back, there was Justin again.

The armour he’d already seen on his own body, or the illusion of it. And here was the first real test of the projector. He couldn’t go around with plate mail on all the time; Emil had expected him to want to take it off when they’d entered the room. Ailis had said that minor alterations could be made; presumably, whoever and wherever she was, she regularly made them herself. He brought up the BCI menu and discovered there was an option for adjustments. The com seemed to pick up on his thoughts from there, and the armour disappeared, revealing the clothing Justin must have been wearing underneath.

A parti-coloured button-down mid-thigh-length red and green tunic – honestly? The top was split into two squares of different colours which were reversed below his belt, and the long sleeves sported both colours as well. Underneath he saw what he thought at first were thick tan trousers, but when he shifted in front of the mirror, he caught a glimpse of…underwear? Looking more carefully, it seemed he had baggy white drawers on, or appeared to, with the trousers being in actuality a pair of separate woollen tubes, each of which was tied somewhere underneath the tunic to hold it up. Was this normal? He’d have to make sure he didn’t bend over and flash somebody.

Topping it all off were brown leather shoes with exaggerated long points at the toes. He’d seen men in the courtyard wearing similar things. And when he thought about it, he recalled viewing numerous marble effigies of medieval knights in cathedrals with pointy metal toes; the fashion had obviously even been transferred to armour. It was a ridiculous getup, he thought, folding his arms and shaking his head, his image copying him. But it would have to do for now. 

What would Phichit think, I wonder.

I wish I knew if he was OK.

He still had his toolkit in a pocket. But did he have any business trying to use it on the com? The projector seemed to be working as it should. If he tinkered, it was possible he would make matters worse; and then without his identity as Justin, and his own Japanese features…had anyone in medieval England ever seen a Japanese person? He thought it unlikely. For all he knew, they would decide he was a sorcerer and burn him at the stake. So no; as much as he wanted to make contact with people in his own time and discover what had happened when he’d gone, he judged that attempting to repair this piece of tech he knew almost nothing about was too risky. And then he felt a surge of grief again at having lost his link with home, and people who might have been able to help him.

I’m not going to have another anxiety attack. One is too many.

His hand brushed against the leather purse attached to his real belt. After staring at Justin in the mirror, he’d almost forgotten he was wearing it. Presumably it wouldn’t be a good idea to carry it around with him everywhere, especially as it contained the time-travel sphere.

The sphere – maybe there’s a chance it isn’t broken like Ailis’s was. Maybe it’ll be able to take me back to 2120 when I’m ready.

He opened the purse and withdrew it. But it was immediately obvious that something was wrong. The screen was blank, and he was unable to bring up a BCI menu. It seemed there was a general problem with the tech, then. It had been worth investigating, though, and he figured it would be best to keep it here in his room – but where? If Ailis ever suspected another person had been sent to find her, she might come looking for him. The chest, even though it could be locked with a key, seemed too obvious.

He went to the corner where Emil had stood his sword, picked it up, and used the sharp point to prise at the floorboards. There was one near the bed that was a little loose, and between his sword and his toolkit, he soon had it pulled up to reveal a small recess between the top layer of boards and another underneath. He removed the purse containing the coins and the time-travel sphere and put them inside, then replaced the floorboard.

With no sign yet of Emil, he returned to the window seat and watched the courtyard while there was still enough light to see by. Major deliveries seemed to have ended for the day, but there was steady activity still. Occasionally he picked up snatches of conversations. Most were about provisions, though others were the type of gossip that tended to interest people from time immemorial. Someone’s son had been apprenticed to a fletcher. A friend had returned on St. Osmund’s Day from a long journey. Yuuri squinted into the gathering darkness outside the window, almost able to imagine he was back in modern times, a tourist on holiday in a twee old-style inn. How long was Emil likely to be? Should he light a candle?

A knock on the door made him jump. His initial instinct was to say “come in”, but for all he knew, it was some enemy Justin had made wanting to take care of unfinished business; he had clearly not been well liked. “Who is it?” he asked, ready to grab the sword, which he’d put back in the corner.

“It’s Emil, master.”

“Oh. Come in.”

“If you don’t mind opening the door for me, I’m a bit encumbered.”

Yuuri got up to do so, and there was Emil with a metal lantern containing a lit candle, a blue ceramic carafe tucked under the opposite arm, and two metal cups that matched the one next to the pitcher and basin. “Oh, you already have a cup, I see. That’s good. Is your room to your liking?” he asked as he placed the lantern on the mantel.

“Um, it’s fine.” Yuuri watched him put the cups on the table next to the bed and fill them with liquid from the carafe.

“I wangled a bit of Mistress Shaw’s special brew,” Emil said, handing Yuuri a cup while he himself took the other. “You’re in luck. To your health, sir.” He raised the vessel, then swigged from it and sighed in contentment.

Having been given little choice, Yuuri brought the cold metal to his lips and took a sip. It tasted like watery, malty bread. Not bad, actually, for weak beer. “Thank you,” he said, drinking more, and suddenly realising he was hungry and thirsty. He polished off the rest of the cupful.

“It’s good, isn’t it?” Emil said. “More?”

They each had another cup, which emptied the carafe. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to bring you this again for a while, sir, but I’ll make sure I find you a good fruity wine at supper.” Emil went over to close and fasten the shutters to the window, then took the empty cups.

“You’ll be fetching drinks at supper?”

“Naturally. Ah, you’ve forgotten?”

“Emil, I hardly remember anything,” Yuuri said quietly.

“Squires serve their knights at supper. It’s considered an honour.”

“When do you get to eat, if you’re serving me the whole time?”

“I eat with the others who serve the meal. We go to the kitchen and either eat there or bring something back here to the garrison.” He gave a small laugh. “We do quite well out of it, really. Now, if you’d care to accompany me to the great hall, I’ll point a few things out as we go. As well as I can, anyway, with it being dark. Oh – do you not have a hat or a cloak, sir? No, I suppose you don’t; you didn’t bring anything like that with you. I meant to tell you earlier that before your servants were dismissed, one of them was asked to forward your possessions here. I told him they were urgently needed, and he said he could possibly have them here for you tonight. It seems they started packing as soon as you left the castle, in anticipation of the result of the duel.”

“Right, well…can I not skip the hat and cloak just for now?”

“You’ll want the cloak for warmth, sir. And you’ll be underdressed without a hat. It would be an insult to the lord.”

Because I don’t have a hat on? “Emil, why am I meeting with the lord?”

Another confused smile. “You’re not. Not really. We’re going to supper.”

“Oh.”

“You’ll be keeping me on my toes with this amnesia business,” Emil laughed. “Let’s be on our way, shall we?”

Yuuri was fairly sure he could make the projector give the illusion that he had a hat and cloak, but not while Emil was watching him. The squire asked him to carry the lantern while he took the carafe and empty cups, and they were soon back in the ground-floor turret room. Crossing to the far wall, Emil opened the door of what turned out to be a large closet containing lanterns, candles, pitchers, cups, plates, brooms, mops, buckets, and plenty of firewood.

“A useful room for when you need something,” Emil said, stepping inside and rooting around in a corner. “Ah yes, I thought so. You can borrow these.” He took out a brown fur cloak and a cylindrical brown felt hat. Yuuri’s nose told him they hadn’t been washed since they’d last been worn and sweated in, and he wanted to recoil.

“I’ll, um…I’ll just have the hat for now,” he said, taking it from Emil.

“Won’t you be cold?”

I’m already wearing a coat. “I’ll be fine.”

Emil looked at him, then chuckled as he replaced the cloak. “You’re like Sir Victor, then. Impervious to the cold, it seems.”

That certainly wasn’t true. “I guess he’s used to it, if he’s from the east.”

“Oh, no, sir, that’s only the lord and lady. Sir Victor was born here. But their blood runs in his veins, of course.” He tilted his head toward the main door. “Shall we go?”

Yuuri followed him outside, wincing as he pulled the objectionable hat over his head. There was nothing wrong with how it looked, as such. But putting it on felt like donning a footballer’s kit after they’d played a long game. A week ago. If going bare-headed hadn’t meant offending the lord of the castle, he wouldn’t have touched it.

“You’ll be able to see better in daylight,” Emil said as they entered the courtyard, surrounded by the yellow glow from the lantern Yuuri carried. “But I might as well point a few things out as we go. On the other side of the gatehouse, there, is the chapel.”

Yuuri could just make it out in the twilight. A dark archway there opened onto a set of stone steps that disappeared down into darkness.

“Will you want to join the noble family and the household staff for mass in the mornings, sir? Some of the knights and guards go, some don’t. Well, when I say the noble family, Sir Victor doesn’t go, but…”

“Do you?”

“It depends on how much praying I need to do. If I’ve got a duel coming up, I’ll be praying five times a day,” he laughed.

“Well, you don’t need to worry about me. I won’t be getting up at the crack of dawn to go to mass.” He suddenly recalled what he’d been doing that very morning. Drinking coffee in his flat. Distractedly playing holograms of the daily news. Showering, shaving; he’d even gone for a jog around the city to try to get his mind off things.

“The solar, where the lord and lady’s rooms are, is upstairs a little further along,” Emil continued. “Sir Victor, being a knight, visits the garrison quite often, so it’s more convenient for him to have his chambers near us; they’re between our turret and the gatehouse. If we can cut across the courtyard, I need to leave our drinking things in the kitchen, and then we’ll go to the great hall for supper.”

Emil led the way to the main archway on the opposite side of the courtyard from the gatehouse, where Yuuri had observed supplies being taken earlier. To the left was the largest window in the castle, mullioned in rows and columns with many panes of leaded glass, some tinged with colour at the top. Candle flames danced inside.

“If you’ll wait a moment, sir,” Emil said, “I won’t be long.” With that, he strode to the turret to their right and went inside, and soon Yuuri saw him through the windows in the kitchen. There seemed to be a distinction between servants, pink-cheeked and sweaty in simple lightweight clothes, and those like Emil who were more richly dressed, coming in to collect food and drink to serve. Yuuri observed more than one shirtless man, and was no longer in any doubt that these strange leg-tubes were normal attire. They didn’t seem to have a scrap of self-consciousness about the voluminous drawers they were wearing, which were clearly on display between the separate trouser parts, attached to some kind of rope belt. Surprisingly, he could imagine the getup being alluring in the right context.

A warm aromatic draught floated out of the windows, laden with onions and garlic, rosemary and thyme, cinnamon and cumin. Vinegar. Frying fish. Yuuri was inhaling deeply when Emil emerged and joined him. “I had no idea people ate all these things here,” he said, almost forgetting himself in the moment. He just thinks I have amnesia. I have to be careful what I say.

“Really? What do they eat at the Courtenays’ castle, then?”

“Um…well, not this kind of variety. With all the spices.”

“Really?” Emil repeated. “No wonder you have such a reputation for being distempered. Begging your pardon, sir. But spices are said to contribute a great deal to balance in body and mind.” He smiled and titled his head toward the entrance to the great hall. “Come see for yourself.” As they walked, he added, “Though I have to say, it’s a long month. I already miss meat. I don’t know about you, but we’re all tired of fish come Christmas Day.”

“Why’s that? Are they that fond of fish here?”

“Rather, I should say, or we’d be dining on vegetable pottage for over three weeks.”

“Why don’t they serve meat?”

Emil gave him an incredulous look. “Are you sure you don’t want to see a physician? You’ve forgotten about the fasting rules?”

“I…guess I have,” Yuuri muttered as they neared the archway next to the huge window.

Emil let out a breath. “You amaze me, sir, since you must have been used to it from when you were a babe. We fast throughout the whole of Advent. Well, they call it fasting, though what it amounts to is the cooks being creative with the foods we’re allowed to eat.”

“Fish but no meat.”

“No animal products. Dairy or eggs. But we do all right. I think the noble families hereabouts miss hunting the most, though they still do a little, because the meat can be smoked, salted, brined and so on. It gives us good provision for the rest of the winter. Ah, here we are. You’ll need to go in front of me, sir, as you’re the master. Just blow the candle out in the lantern and leave it on the table there with the others as we go in.”

Yuuri did so, then walked through the arch with him – and gaped as the solemn grey stone of the chill hallway opened onto a grand room bursting with colour, conversation, the clink and clang of plates and cups and armour, and a profusion of interweaving aromas – freshly baked bread and body odour, woodsmoke and fried fish. A real medieval meal.

He blinked, taking it all in. The room itself was a marvel – long and high, with massive beams overhead and white walls covered in weapons, shields, and tapestries depicting scenes of hunting, battles and feasts; a sky-blue horizontal stripe with a gold fleur-de-lis pattern ran their length near the ceiling. The floor was covered in a black and white chequerboard pattern featuring larger red, blue and yellow tiles with designs such as flowers, fish, crossed keys, and trefoils. To the left, overlooking the courtyard, was the enormous window, its panes dark with night; while on the opposite side of the room was a gigantic fireplace with a triangular hood fashioned of light grey stone carved with geometric designs and decorated at the corners with statues of noblemen and women. A massive fire within threw warmth into the room, though most of the soft illumination came from the dancing flames of candles in a huge iron chandelier on a black chain, and candelabras in the corners.

But it was the people here who interested Yuuri the most. The tables, covered with floor-length white linen cloths, stretched the length of the hall on both sides, the diners sitting on benches with their backs facing the wall, grouped in pairs. A pattern could quickly be discerned, with more humbly dressed diners near the entrance, and people in richly embroidered clothing and elegant hats at the opposite end. There, forming the end of the horseshoe of tables, was a shorter one on a raised dais. A huge banner with what Yuuri now identified as the Nikiforov coat of arms, a sky-blue shield with a roaring gold lion on its hind legs, hung on the wall behind. The baron sat in an ornately carved throne-like chair, with his lady on one side and Sir Victor on the other.

Yuuri had only seen the knight through panic-filled eyes before, and was caught by this different vision of him, relaxing at a meal without his gleaming armour. A soft black cloth cap similar to a beret was perched on his head, standing higher on one side to display a gold ornament, and tilted jauntily to one ear. The flowing fringe Yuuri remembered must be tucked underneath, as those clear blue eyes gazed out unimpeded. He wore a form-fitting green tunic with a row of gold buttons down the front and a high black collar, over which was an elaborate gold livery collar with black and red oval jewels. But while his father sat stiffly, issuing orders to servants, dark eyes forbidding, Sir Victor was…princely, without having to try; someone to be approached rather than feared. His long white fingers encircled an elegant goblet while he spoke with a man in a blue confection of a garment next to him, who, although strikingly handsome, was nothing like his ethereal neighbour.

Emil tugged at Yuuri’s sleeve. “If we linger here, all eyes will be upon us,” he said in a low voice, “and that’s perhaps not a good idea at the moment, after…” He paused. “Well, it’s perhaps better for you not to be too obvious at the moment.”

Yuuri simply nodded and allowed himself to be escorted to the table with the fireplace behind it, where he was shown a place about two thirds down the length of the hall. Maybe that meant his rank was higher than that of two thirds of the castle personnel. It was beginning to appear as if social status was of great importance to these people. Yet he knew he would have to come to terms with it if he were going to give the impression of being a genuine knight.

As if that’s likely to happen.

But it has to…or everything will be lost.

The thought made him shudder inwardly as he sat down on the bench. He was at the end of it, with a small gap between this table and the next. A blond man perhaps a few years older than himself was on his left. Like the young squire Julius, he had a bowl-style haircut, but his tresses were ruffled rakishly. Or maybe it was just the effect of the flat cloth cap he wore, which pushed the hairs down so they poked out to the side a little. He had olive eyes and a ghost of a goatee, and wore a tan tunic under a regal flowing navy-blue cape; the red and green patches that comprised Yuuri’s own tunic seemed clownish by comparison.

“Is everything all right, sir?” Emil asked him, and he nodded, though the true answer to that question was more complicated. “You’ll remember Sir Christophe Giacometti, I’m sure. I’ll just go get your drink, and your first course will be brought out soon.” With a quick little bow, he disappeared into the queue of servants moving down the hall.

Yuuri felt the eyes of the other man upon him, and turned.

“Justin,” the man said in polite acknowledgement.

“Uh…Sir Christophe.”

“It’s Chris, unless I’m back home in Normandy. Even to you.”

Yuuri nodded. Unsure of what to say, and knowing it was important not to give Chris the impression he had amnesia as well, he fell silent as he looked around the room again. A boy in a red tunic and yellow conical hat with a large basket hooked over an arm was moving down the tables, placing a thick piece of bread in front of each pair of diners. Yuuri eyed his and Chris’s when it came: a hollowed-out oval loaf. He touched it and discovered it was hard, obviously stale. Were they meant to eat this? he wondered nervously; but no one else appeared to be doing anything with theirs, so he sat and waited.

“We don’t stand much on ceremony here. We fighting men.”

“Sorry?” Yuuri said, turning to look at Chris.

“None of the ‘sir’. Which means the other knights won’t call you ‘sir’, either. I hope you’re all right with that.” He paused. “Because if you’re not, there’s no shortage of people here who’d be willing to take you down a peg. Another one, that is.”

“If they don’t want to call me ‘sir’, that’s fine by me,” Yuuri said evenly, staring at the stale hollow bread.

“You might do well to call Victor ‘sir’ for a while, though, if you want my advice. Combine it with some grovelling, and maybe you’ll eventually get on his good side. Luckily, he’s not the type to hold a grudge.”

“That’s him over there, isn’t it?” Yuuri said, looking toward the table on the dais.

“Yes, the same man you wanted to kill earlier. Not that you stood a chance. But if you did, you would’ve had me to answer to next, and Sir Charles, and a host of other people. I wonder what thoughts were in your head.”

His words were blunt, but his tone seemed more curious than harsh, which was perhaps as much as Yuuri had any right to expect just now. Before he could answer, however, two more servants came to the table, as colourfully garbed and hatted as everyone else. One of them carried a large pitcher and the other a bowl sloshing with water, both made of a silver metal. Chris held his hands out, and Yuuri watched as water was poured over them from the pitcher; he rubbed them together underneath the stream, which splashed into the bowl, held below to catch it. The pitcher-bearer gave him a white towel to dry himself with, and the pair shifted to perform the same ritual with Yuuri, who copied what Chris had done. When the servants moved on to the next table, he sniffed his hands; they smelled faintly of lemon.

It was beginning to look as though people in his own time were wrong about the lack of hygiene in the Middle Ages. There was no denying the repulsiveness of the hat Yuuri was wearing, which he intended to remove at the earliest opportunity and replace with an illusory one via his projector; but Emil had not been objectionable in close quarters, and there was nothing offensive about Chris, either. If they hadn’t washed themselves or their clothes in weeks, the olfactory evidence surely would have been obvious.

He took in the place setting in front of himself and Chris. These strange pieces of bread. The people at the table on the dais each had a shining plate instead. His goblet, pewter perhaps, stood empty with a metal spoon next to it. No fork or knife.

A servant brought a round loaf of bread and placed it on the table, and another brought a small metal bowl filled with water and rose petals. Yuuri wondered if he was supposed to pull pieces off the loaf, since there were no knives. Then another bowl was brought to them, full of an aromatic liquid with chunks of something white in it. Yuuri recognised the scents of ginger, cinnamon and fish.

“Where are those squires of ours, eh?” Chris said, pulling a knife from his belt and using it to hew at the loaf. “Shall I cut a bit for you?”

Yuuri eyed the bread. It looked fresher than the hollow thing in front of him. “I prefer brown – do they have that here? But sure, thank you.”

Chris looked at him as if he’d just made a joke, then picked the loaf up and cut a hunk for him, which he handed over. “You’re welcome to go dine with the scullery maids, they’ll give you some rye I’m sure,” he chuckled.

Of course. The upper classes had white bread; he’d forgotten. He watched Chris take several spoonfuls of the fish and drop them into the hollow of the stale loaf.

“Not keen, then?” he said.

“Uh…what is it?”

“At a guess, I’d say lampreys baked in vinegar and spices. One of the favourites here. I think it’s quite good, myself. Though I could do with something to wash it down with. I wish Philip would get his arse over here with the wine.” He picked up a chunk of fish with his fingers, then looked at Yuuri again before putting it in his mouth. “That’s my squire. And also, my hands are clean. Are you going to try some or not?”

Lampreys were eels, weren’t they? Yuuri had never eaten eel in his life. And he was pretty sure a medieval castle kitchen was never going to receive a five-star hygiene rating. But if it was a choice between this and starving, he’d have to get used to it.

Overcoming the instinct to look for a fork, he picked up a chunk of lamprey, put it in his mouth and chewed. Just then, Emil and another young man arrived, each carrying an earthenware jug, and proceeded to fill the goblets with wine.

“How goes it with you, then, master?” Emil asked as he stood next to Yuuri at the end of the table.

Yuuri had taken a moment to consider the taste of what he was eating. It was rich and tender, reminiscent of beef or pork but not very flavoursome on its own. The vinegar had a sweet tang to it, and the spices were warm and delicate. Realising he was thinking like a restaurant critic, he nevertheless had to concede it was quite good.

While Chris was questioning his squire about where he’d been, Yuuri leaned over and whispered to Emil, “I need some help. Are we supposed to eat this stale bread that Chris has put the food in?”

Emil began to laugh, then seemed to recall Yuuri’s predicament and whispered back, “It’s a trencher. It’s like your plate. Don’t try to eat it; a servant will take it away at the end of the meal and give it to the poor. You should have some of the wine I brought, sir. It’s hypocras.” When Yuuri’s brow clouded, he added, “Spiced red wine. It’s good that you remember how to eat and drink, sir.”

Yuuri pressed his lips together and didn’t answer. Emil was poking fun, and perhaps squires weren’t supposed to do that. Or maybe they were; maybe their masters expected them to say things to amuse them.

We are not amused, Yuuri thought wryly.

Emil poured some wine into his goblet. “Anything else you’d like to ask me, sir?” he whispered near his ear.

Yuuri thought, then replied, “Am I supposed to have a knife? Chris used one to cut the bread.”

“You don’t have a knife?” Emil asked incredulously. “But everyone carries a knife, even women and children.”

“I’m sure it’s very handy,” Yuuri said, trying not to betray his growing frustration. “But no, I don’t.”

“I’ll go find you one.” Emil put the wine jug down on the table and hurried off.

“What did you say to make him do that?” Chris asked. He’d finished speaking with his squire, who was standing back against the wall, holding a wine jug and a white cloth like a Victorian butler, though his bright clothing and conical hat made him look anything but.

“I forgot something back in my room,” Yuuri said. He wondered how he should start a conversation with this man, and felt the sickly weight of inadequacy that usually pressed down on him in social situations. It was hard enough in his own time. What did people make small talk about in 1392? The grain harvest? But this was a knight, not a farmer. How many men he’d butchered in battle, then? Yuuri realised he was losing his appetite.

“You don’t have a lot to say,” Chris observed, eating more lamprey. “Different from the last time you were here. No one could silence you before you’d driven Julius to distraction. And a few other men, if I recall correctly. Maybe you just need enough drink in you first.” He laughed and sipped his wine.

Hearing Emil’s previous words repeated by Chris evoked a spike of annoyance in Yuuri at his counterpart, Justin. Did he have any friends, or had he just agitated people wherever he went?

“Is that Julius there?” he asked, looking at the table on the dais. “How old is he?”

“Yes, he’ll be serving Victor. And he’s fifteen. A bit young for the likes of you to pick a fight with, I’d say, but I’d bet a roll of the dice on him chopping a limb off you before you got close. He’s very good.”

“So I’ve heard,” Yuuri murmured as a group of men in hose and women in gowns set up wooden chairs in the middle of the room and started to tune musical instruments. There were some stringed varieties, and a drum and harp that fit on the players’ laps. Yuuri’s eyes strayed over to Julius, assiduously filling Sir Victor’s cup and saying something that evoked a grin, before stepping back out of the way.

If no one had told him otherwise, Yuuri might have assumed at first glance that Julius was a girl; though with the severe bowl-style haircut and men’s clothing, along with the possibility that he was only beginning puberty, it would have been hard to be sure either way. Yuuri tried to imagine him as a sombre knight in armour and struggled to do so; he appeared to wear a permanently disgruntled look unless he was serving his master, when his admiration was obvious.

If Sir Justin’s reputation was in the mud, Sir Victor’s seemed to soar to the heights of the clouds. Yuuri found it difficult to reconcile with the wrathful warrior who’d tried to stab him in the throat, scion of a family that had subdued all its neighbours and stolen their most prized possessions. On top of that, there was no sign of smugness or arrogance in his expression; no anger. Just that strange veil of quiet sadness Yuuri seemed to sense when the duel had ended, though he wondered if it was his imagination.

“Do you want to have a sop of this, sir, before I take it away?”

Realising he must have been staring, Yuuri came back to himself and looked blankly at the red-haired serving girl standing on the other side of the table. What’s a sop? A sop of what?

Chris picked up his piece of bread, about half of which remained, dipped it in the lamprey bowl so that it soaked up a good amount of liquid, and then bit into it contentedly while the girl picked up the bowl, bowed, and went on her way. Yuuri’s brow wrinkled for a moment; he’d eaten a grand total of one piece of fish. He wondered if that was the end of the meal, apart from the rest of the loaf of bread. Would they have butter here to spread on it? But then, he didn’t have a knife. And Emil had said they didn’t eat animal products during Advent.

“Maybe you’ll like the next course better,” Chris said, drinking more wine. Yuuri realised he hadn’t tasted his own yet, and took a sip. It had been mulled with spices; he could taste cloves, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg. And it was sweetened. The wine itself was weak, but the concoction felt like an ideal accompaniment to a meal on a winter’s night, along with the hauntingly evocative music that was now softly lilting through the air, obviously meant as a background to eating and conversation rather than a centrepiece.

The roaring fire nearby might even have lulled him to sleep; he was warm in his modern coat but didn’t dare take it off while eyes were upon him. In fact, if he were on holiday, he’d be enjoying himself. But one of a dozen thoughts about his current situation could easily shatter that illusion. He drank his wine and tried to push them aside, though they kept circling around his consciousness, looking for a way in.

Was Ailis here? His eyes alit briefly on every woman in the room, including those helping to serve the meal. There would be others working in the kitchen and probably elsewhere. She could be any one of them…or none at all. While Celestino had thought it likely she lived in the castle, there was no guarantee the assumption was correct.

“A knife for you, sir.” Emil was back at the side of the table, and laid the implement next to the trencher.

“Lost it, did you?” Chris said with an amused little grin.

“Mid-course refreshment?” Emil said to them both, holding out a small ceramic bowl. He looked at Yuuri. “Candied ginger. A digestive.”

Yuuri and Chris both took a few pieces. It was pungent, hot and sweet. Chris gestured to Philip for more wine, and Yuuri leaned over to whisper to Emil again.

“Thanks for the knife.”

“I’m happy to be of service, sir.”

Yuuri wished Emil didn’t have to speak to him like that; it was going to take some getting used to. When Chris gestured for Philip to attend him, Yuuri leaned over once more and whispered, “Is there anything else you can tell me about dining here? I don’t want anyone to think I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Emil stroked his goatee in thought, then said, “You may know these things already, but well, it’s bad manners to eat everything in a dish. People will think you’re a glutton. Make use of the bowls to wash your fingers.” He indicated the one filled with water and rose petals. “Be courteous in sharing with your neighbour. Um…” He thought some more. “Don’t talk with your mouth full. Don’t fart or belch, don’t – ”

“All right,” Yuuri cut him off. “It sounds like manners haven’t changed much. Um, I mean they’re no different from what they are at my father’s castle.”

Emil’s face brightened. “I’m pleased you remember, sir.”

Yuuri dipped his fingers into the rosewater just as a group of servants entered the hall bearing platters which they brought to the diners near the far end, while others carried bowls and baskets. This must be the main course, then. A boy set a platter in front of him and Chris, then bowed and scurried off.

“What the f – ” Yuuri stopped himself before he offended anyone’s ears. Some animal had been skinned and roasted and put on the platter. Along with a tail that had been replaced behind it, to give the illusion it hadn’t been cut off. Long and flat. Yuuri had never seen a real beaver, but he thought that might be what he was looking at. It was surrounded by baked apples stuffed with dried fruits and nuts. Another servant placed a dish containing a thick green porridge or paste next to it.

“Ah, splendid,” Chris said, cutting a small piece from the beaver and eating it off the tip of his knife. “Philip, will you go see if they have some jance or cameline sauce for dipping?”

“I’ve asked them to fetch it for you, sir,” the young man replied.

“You know me too well.” He began to prise apart an apple, then picked up his spoon, pausing to look at Yuuri. “Are you feeling well? Don’t you want some?”

“I thought, um, that animal products weren’t allowed during Lent – but this is beaver, right?”

“It is, sir,” Emil replied, “but as it begins its life in the water, and it has a fish-like tail, the Church classifies it as fish.”

Yuuri forced himself to contain a snort; he was still trying not to goggle at the tail. “Do you always have…fancy dishes like this with a meal?”

“Have you not had beaver before?” Chris chuckled. “Is Castle Courtenay not well provided for? Though actually, it’s unusual for Fernand, the head cook, to go to this degree of ostentation with the tail – don’t you think, Philip?”

“The Nikiforovs have never usually gone in for it, I have to say,” his squire replied.

Chris scooped up a spoonful of crumbling, steaming apple and dried fruit running with honey, savoured it for a moment, and then said, “There’ll be a reason for it. Word has it that Fernand is trying out different dishes for the king’s visit.”

Yuuri gave a start, almost knocking his goblet over. “The king of England? He’s coming here?”

Chris raised an eyebrow. “You hadn’t heard?”

“When?”

“June of next year,” Emil said. “We’re all looking forward to it, of course, but it will mean a lot of work – and expense for the noble family – to prepare for.”

The vestiges of Yuuri’s appetite evaporated, though he’d barely eaten all day. He swallowed, suddenly feeling very alone in the midst of all these people and their epicurean pleasures.

The king was coming. In six months’ time.

Ailis wouldn’t have to travel anywhere if she wanted to wreak havoc. She’d be able to do it right here.

Phichit, I really need to tell you this. Are you there? Are you even alive?

He blinked back a tear and told Emil to pour him more wine.   

Chapter Text

He looks like he’s had a bucket of cold water thrown over him to douse his fire. Maybe he’ll learn a lesson. I won’t get my hopes up, though.

Victor absently took a small piece of lemon tart and brought it to his mouth, surreptitiously keeping an eye on their newest addition to the castle while pretending to be interested in the leaf motifs engraved on his silver plate. He wasn’t fond of a dessert pastry made with lard instead of butter, and he wasn’t sure what the bulk of the fruit mixture consisted of without eggs or cream, but it was passable; there was a pleasant bite and sweetness to it. He took a sip of wine, filtering out Tyler’s commentary on the previous day’s hunt. After all this time, it appeared he hadn’t realised that Victor didn’t care for the sort of affair he was describing, which was more of an entertaining pageant for the participants than anything requiring true skill. But then, Victor thought, maybe it was his own fault for never having told him so. Wasn’t that the case? It was difficult to remember.

He decided it was the silly waxed beard that bothered him the most about the man he’d been slanting glances at. His father had insisted the garrison needed another knight, because no one had replaced Duncan. The men Victor defeated in duels, who had been compelled to serve here at the castle, often wanted to return to their family estates when it was allowed. Perhaps the same would happen with Justin; they would tolerate him for a while and then he would go.

Good riddance, too. Victor had encountered him before on several occasions, though only in passing; it had been enough, however, to give the impression of someone who was arrogant, impulsive, and irritating. And Victor considered himself to be a tolerant person. Occasionally his own squire could display those same qualities, but Justin was twenty-four, just four years younger than himself, and ought to have learned better by now. He was clearly the type of man who picked a fight for its own sake, and nowhere had that been more obvious than in the arena today, when he’d insisted on being slaughtered rather than yielding. If anything angered Victor, it was pointless death – especially when he was the one expected to deliver it. Everyone ended up having to yield to him; there was no dishonour in that. If Victor had been forced to kill the foolish fellow, his family’s estate would still have been ceded to the Nikiforovs. It was Andrei’s way, and no matter how many times Victor debated the matter with him, his father was not to be swayed.

He took another bite of lemon tart. The lilting notes of the harp seemed a fitting comical-sounding accompaniment to the mildly bewildered look on Justin’s face. It was strange and perplexing, as was the way he had tried to run away from the arena during the duel, like the Devil himself had licked a flame of terror through his frame. If Justin le Savage was anything, he was no coward; or so Victor had thought.

They’d seated him next to Christophe tonight. Victor knew the expression on the Norman knight’s face, as if he’d eaten something distasteful and was suppressing his full reaction for the sake of propriety. He chuckled quietly; he didn’t envy him.

“Your head cook surpasses himself with every meal lately, Victor,” Tyler said as he drank more wine. Victor couldn’t decide if the voluminous folds of blue material on his head and body were foppish or fetching, or both. “It’s delightful to come here.” He sought to hold Victor’s gaze with his dark eyes.

Victor ate more tart and glanced back over to the curiosity that was Justin. “Indeed,” he muttered. He found it difficult to read the face underneath the pompous whiskers, and then wondered why he was bothering to try. Perhaps because there was something of a mystery here. Victor often passed moments during these long meals by studying people in the hall, as the diversion it provided was frequently of more interest than the conversation of his neighbour, whoever that happened to be. Most of them dripped honeyed words, hoping to gain his favour. He could do it too, when he wanted. It meant little.

Sir Justin le Savage. After what had happened in the arena, such a one as this might be expected to put on a display of belligerence or bravado, insisting no one had the right to hold him here or tell him what to do. The fact that numerous knights and guards would quickly prove him wrong would be immaterial to him; it was the show of defiance that was important. Or if he felt sufficiently cowed after nearly receiving Victor’s sword in his neck, he would predictably be sitting at the table in quiet distemper, eyes burning with shame and frustration.

Instead, however, his whole manner was subdued, and he was looking around the room as if he’d never seen a great hall before. He – Oh, Victor thought with a quirk at the side of his mouth as Justin’s eyes met his. Only for a moment, before they were quickly lowered…demurely, almost. That was interesting. He continued to look down as he sipped from his goblet. There was a stillness, a deliberation to Justin’s movements. A degree of humility unusual to see in any knight, let alone this one.  

Something didn’t fit. But perhaps he was reading too much into the situation. It was possible the man had been so deeply embarrassed that he had finally learned the error of his ways – though the ludicrousness of the idea almost made Victor guffaw. Leopards did not change their spots.

Then he reminded himself that Justin had nearly forced him to take his life today, and the tiny smile on his lips faded, replaced with a renewed surge of outrage.

“Have I said something to offend you?”

Victor turned to Tyler, who was sitting with his elbows on the table, his sleeves falling into pools around them to reveal two shapely arms loosely grasping his golden goblet. It was an artful pose, though the questioning tone of his voice was genuine enough.

Tyler had been visiting for a week with his father, the Duke of Halbrook, along with their considerable retinue of staff and servants. Victor had known him since they were teens, though they usually hadn’t seen each other more than once or twice a year since they’d grown older and become more involved with their families’ estates. With the obvious exception of Alex, Tyler was the only person in the north who had been known to rival Victor’s skills as a knight; he was a good sparring partner who kept Victor on his toes.

Occasionally they shared a bed during their visits as well; they were attracted to each other, and it was diverting of an evening. Victor was increasingly glad, however, that they were never together for more than a few days at a time, because Tyler’s conversation had begun to feel dry and tiresome of late. And while he’d been struggling to work out for himself over the past week what this meant and what he himself really wanted, he’d watched Tyler’s manner change from familiar and friendly to something more distant and pointed. Victor suspected it was because they hadn’t shared a bed yet during this visit, and Tyler and his family were leaving in the morning.

“Offend?” Victor echoed, toying with his goblet, the rubies in it glinting in the candlelight. “No, of course not.”

“Perhaps you’d feel more a part of the hunt if you got a hawk or a falcon, like other men of your station. Why do you refuse to have one, Victor?” He sighed, and Victor felt his gaze upon him. “How regal it would make you look.”

“That’s not a concern of mine,” Victor replied, running an idle finger around the lip of his goblet. “I have no desire to watch one creature tear another to shreds.”

“But you do hunt, don’t you? I know you do.”

Victor looked at him. “Cleanly and fairly, yes.”

After a pause, Tyler said, “We’ve both been so busy since I arrived. But…it’s been a week.” He huffed a quiet laugh. “I’d almost think my longtime friend was avoiding me.” As he drank from his goblet, he watched Victor, who saw a spark of heat in his grey eyes. “I’ve missed you.” He took a small piece of lemon tart and slowly brought it to his lips, then pushed it into his mouth, hooding his eyes.

Victor stared, feeling his body begin to respond. It had been a while since he’d shared a bed with anyone, and Tyler was good at this. They both had needs, and there was surely no harm in it, after all.

He drew out a silence between them, then finally slipped his neighbour a coy smile, and knew his message had been received.


Flames crackled low in the grate. There were no chairs in here; Yuuri was sitting on the straw mattress of his bed, tucked into the corner, a pillow at his back, the brown woollen blanket draped over himself up to his chin. It was coarse but warm. He’d lit one of the thick cream-coloured candles from the mantel and stood it in a niche in the wall next to him. It would have been more suitable for a church or a romantic dinner, however, than illuminating a room. The shadows of night continued to lie thick in the rafters and corners.

His stomach rumbled. It had been difficult to shove any crumbs of food into his mouth after receiving the news that the king would be coming to Crowood Castle. He felt certain Ailis would be waiting in anticipation. Simply shooting him with a laser gun didn’t seem her style; she would no doubt be planning something more sophisticated. He had to find out what it was. Would she be lying low while she waited, or did she fully intend to get up to other kinds of mischief in the meantime?

How do I even start? How do I find her?

He would have to think carefully before he acted. If he tried to search any rooms for evidence – of what, he wasn’t certain, and which might or might not exist – he could be caught, and there would be questions. He didn’t dare confide his secret to anyone; telling Emil he had amnesia had been bad enough, though necessary. And when he did speak to people, whether it was to get information from them or just to pass the time of day, he would have to make sure he did not arouse any suspicion. He knew his performance as Justin since he’d arrived had been less than masterful, and hoped that any mistakes he’d made could be put down to his disorientation at being forced to stay and live at this castle, when they all thought he’d come here from his father’s.

Baron Stanebeck. Not a happy man – with good reason, Yuuri supposed, having lost ownership of his castle and lands today, because of him. A message from the baron had been delivered earlier, along with Justin’s clothes and personal effects, or some of them. Emil had read it out to him here in the bedroom after the Courtenays’ servant had gone. Apparently, Justin was not to show his face at his father’s castle again until he redeemed himself. Paradoxically, it was good news, because Yuuri was trying to get settled into this castle, and felt no desire to visit another where he was supposedly known and would surely be discovered as an imposter, with or without the excuse of amnesia. He would, no doubt, also receive a bollocking there for his less than honourable deeds today; and the enmity he’d been experiencing here was bad enough as it was.

“Justin le Savage, you’re a real tosser, you know that?” he muttered into the quiet room.

The knight’s clothing was now in his chest and wardrobe. It had fortunately been washed. Yuuri had decided he would have to wear it until he could get some of his own. Unsure what else to do with his modern clothing and shoes, he’d wrapped it all in one of Justin’s cloaks and stuffed it at the bottom of the chest, with the key hidden in his coin purse. He’d also returned the repugnant hat to the closet and experimented with the image projector for a while in front of the mirror to see what he could get it to do. It was able to reproduce what was in his mind, it seemed, turning thought into illusion; there was an acceptable copy of the hat, and items of Justin’s clothing in the trunk.

Out of curiosity, Yuuri next tried some of his own clothes that he’d left behind in his flat, and he would’ve believed he was actually wearing them if he didn’t look too carefully and disrupt the hypnotic effect. People would enjoy playing with this device, he thought; they could make it look like they were wearing any kind of costume they could imagine. The spirit of fun and games eluded him at the moment, however.   

He shivered, moving the pillow further up his back so that he was not directly touching the cold wall; it felt more comforting huddling like this than sitting on the bare wooden floor in front of dying flames. Clutching the blanket against his throat, he tucked his knees in further. He’d decided to put on a thick pair of socks, a soft long-sleeved linen shirt, and those voluminous pants they wore here. Fortunately, it seemed that he and Justin were about the same size, though if the fit of the shirt was any indication, Yuuri was a little stouter around the chest.

He also now had a razor that looked like a miniature axe. Justin’s, of course, though God knew what he did with it; there must be an art to styling a goatee. He’d asked an amused Emil to show him how to shave, and he’d gone and fetched a small terracotta bottle with a cork stopper that he said contained olive oil. This he rubbed over the areas he intended to denude, while Yuuri held up a candle so he could see what Emil was doing; then he tilted his head back in front of the mirror while carefully moving the semi-circular blade back and forth. He rinsed the blade from time to time in water he’d splashed into the basin from the pitcher.

“There’s a bit of rosewater added to the oil, I think,” he said, putting the razor down on the bedside table. “Do you want me to shave you as well, sir, or – ”

“No, that’s all right,” Yuuri said quickly, adding a “thank you” so as not to seem rude.

Yuuri had had to verify with Emil that the hard, waxy bars he now possessed, thanks to Justin, were indeed soap. He didn’t know when it had been invented, but it was a relief to discover it was in existence here after all. Less of a pleasant surprise had been the ceramic jar full of ground-up charred herbs and spices loosely bound together with some kind of gum that Emil said was meant to be rubbed over the teeth with a cloth. He’d even enthused about what a luxurious mixture it was.

Yuuri couldn’t help asking whether people in the castle took baths. Emil had looked at him with pity. “I suppose you must be used to it at the Courtenays’ castle,” he said. “I’m sorry, sir, but here they’re reserved for the noble family and their officials. Though sometimes on special occasions, we’ll have some full buckets in the main room of the garrison. Most of the time, though, well, there’s the river when the weather’s warmer, and the pitcher and basin. Speaking of which…” He took a candle and the basin, sloshing with water, olive oil and tiny whiskers, left the room with Yuuri following in his wake, went down the hall a way, and stopped at an area where a copper pipe descended from the ceiling. It ended at about knee height from the floor, in which there was a small copper grille, and Emil emptied the water into this.

“What’s the pipe for?” Yuuri asked. “Not water, is it?”

“Well, yes. It comes from the cistern on the roof. Here’s the tap.” He turned it briefly, and a small volume of liquid splashed out. “You can refill your pitcher with this if you need to. The servants use it often, as their accommodation is a little further down the hall, but we all share in this wing of the castle. The main well is inside the southwest tower near the kitchen, but you won’t have any need to go there.”

This was the second pleasant surprise, after the soap, though there was no telling how clean the water was. It would do for washing, at least. Hopefully.

“Will you join us in the garrison before you retire, sir?” Emil invited him as they returned to the bedroom. “Several of us like to gather there on these long winter nights. It passes the time.”

“I…um, not tonight, thanks, Emil. Maybe another time.”

Emil nodded. “Just as you like, sir. It’s probably wise to let things die down after today anyway, especially if Sir Victor comes in. He won’t be best pleased to see you, I daresay.”

He took his his leave for the night after Yuuri thanked him for his help. Silence and shadows spilled out from the corners once he’d gone. And then Yuuri realised he had no choice but to visit the garderobe.

He’d gone by the light of a candle and found it unoccupied, though down the hall from the direction of the main room echoed the sounds of men talking, laughing and singing. Yuuri guessed they’d been imbibing something stronger than the watery beer Emil had brought for them to drink earlier. There were also the plinks and thrums of lutes, or something similar.

Since when did guards and men-at-arms and knights sing and play musical instruments?

At any rate, there was no getting out of it; he depressed the iron latch of the small wooden door in front of him and pulled it open.

He was immediately assailed by the smell, though he’d expected it. And actually, maybe it wasn’t as bad as he’d feared. There was a slit of a window in here that was propped open, letting in the cold but also fresh air. A niche in the wall to place a candle in. A long wooden board with a woven rush mat on top of the hole. To one side of the board was a bucket full of straw, while on the other was a basin full of water and rose petals; Yuuri wondered where the rose garden was that so generously provided for the castle. More bunches of lavender and other herbs were stuffed around the rafters.

This room would certainly do, as would the copper water pipe in the hall. Before he’d travelled here, in the moments when he’d found the courage to allow his thoughts to stray in that direction, he’d expected to be using buckets to fetch water from wells, and chamber pots for other bodily functions, if there was any indoor sanitation at all. He ought to consider himself lucky, he told himself as he finished and returned to his bedroom.

I don’t feel lucky, he thought now, gathering the blanket more tightly around himself. I have a mission to carry out. Somehow. One that killed my predecessors within weeks. I’m without most of the possessions I intended to bring, and I have no way of contacting anyone in the future.

Briefly his thoughts strayed to what tomorrow might bring, and he saw Emil’s bemused smile again as he was called upon to explain to Yuuri the most basic things that everyone here should know. And…what did knights do at a castle? What would they expect him to do?

Emil had said something about training. In that case, he wouldn’t be able to avoid displaying his need for a great deal of it. He didn’t think he was going to earn the respect of the other fighting men in that way any time soon.

Fighting men.

Celestino and Phichit had been hoping he could defend himself with a sword, or at least brandish one in a convincingly threatening way, if needed. But Yuuri doubted anyone had expected him to end up an actual knight. The idea had never crossed his own mind.

Images formed in his mind as he stared into the flames. Of himself being ordered with a band of men to besiege another castle.

But they said families seized each other’s castles and lands by having their champions fight. So maybe they don’t do that here.

Might he be called upon to fight for a different reason, however? He saw Sir Victor’s face again, pale with blazing eyes, attempting to strike a death blow. Then he imagined himself being forced to do the same to others. To slaughter men in battle. Cut their throats, hack off limbs. The screams as their blood flowed. Another shiver passed through him, and tears pricked at his eyes.

No, he thought, as if the mere word could ward off the reality. No. I could never do that. Never. I’d rather die first.

But then his mission would fail.

He wasn’t religious, but in a sudden fit of desperation, he muttered, his voice low in the stillness of the night, “Please, God, no. Don’t let them make me do those things. I can’t. I can’t.

Maybe it could even happen here at the castle. He’d be put in a duel again, perhaps as some chance to “redeem” himself, as Baron Courtenay had phrased it. Or…or they’d make him joust. On a horse. He couldn’t remember having been on one in his life. But knights were meant to ride them, weren’t they? He had a vision of someone stabbing him with a lance. Of falling off and shattering his skull. While onlookers booed and jeered. A sob escaped his throat.

Now in his imagination he’d found Ailis – but before he could do anything about it, she whipped out a laser gun. The final thing he saw before his body was flayed alive by the blue beam was her hate-filled face as she aimed the weapon at him. It would be the work of a second, and he would end up just like Dr. Quincey.

Or if not him, like Dr. Croft, his body ravaged by some disease it had never acquired an immunity to. Were there rats here in the castle? Would they enter his room in the night?

It seemed as if the very shadows harboured malignant secrets that were waiting to spring out of the woodwork the moment his eyes were closed. Tears leaked from their corners now, and his throat tightened.

Loud laughs from the main garrison room rolled down the hall, feeling through the cracks in the door. Men who would just as soon break your bones as share a drink and a chat with you, once they’d had a skinful.

Yuuri rode out the inevitable anxiety attack, his second of the day in this room. When his heart began to slow and his breaths to steady, he wiped at his damp cheeks with the sleeve of his shirt, then sniffled and attempted to discover whether the com told the time. If it did, he couldn’t figure out how to make it tell him. Darkness ruled in the winter here between four p.m. and eight a.m. All he knew was that this had been the longest day of his life, and he was ready for it to end.

But sleep was elusive, and his thoughts continued to prey on him. The flames had died into clinking orange embers before he finally found release in blessed nothingness.

Chapter Text

The first light of dawn was creeping around the shutters when Victor awoke; as was his habit, the first thing he did was slip out from under the warm sheets and open them. The white sheepskin rug was thick and soft as his toes sank into it, but the floor tiles were cold and sent a jolt through him, which was what he wanted, as was the wintry air on his bare body. It quickly pushed him the rest of the way to alertness.

He went next to the gold pitcher and basin. He wasn’t overly fond of collecting luxuries, but this set had been given to him by Geoffrey, the eldest son of Baron Stafford, as a gift years back from his travels in Persia, and it was a pretty thing. It glimmered, the rising sun chasing the intricate swirls carved deep into the metal, tiny pearls and inlaid jewels scattering it like stardust. Victor poured water into the basin, then proceeded to splash it over himself, using his linen towel and a bar of soap for cleaning. That was a slap awake, too. He wondered sometimes if it was the Russian blood in him longing for the bite of its ancestral land, or if he had a need to prove to himself time and again that he was impervious to that very bite. Perhaps a little of both.

Tyler was still dozing in the wooden bed. The cream and gold embroidered curtains that hung from its canopy were permanently roped to the side; Victor disliked having servants sleep in his room or being disturbed by them unless he had a specific need, and so there was ample privacy with the door shut. He blew out the little terracotta oil lamp on the marble-topped table next to the bed, which he liked to keep aflame overnight in case he woke up, then paused to look again at Tyler.

He was handsome in the pink-tinged rays of dawn, which gave a faint sheen to his thick ash-brown hair and unblemished skin. But Victor suddenly wondered now how much he’d ever truly been moved by it. He’d heard some people tell of the joy of waking in the morning next to a loved one, but joy was something he was certain he’d never felt with any of the men who had slept by his side. Friendship, certainly. The pique of novelty. A remedy for loneliness, for a while. On occasion, renewed desire. He was discerning enough in his choice of partners that he’d never felt shame, or an urgent need for parting and forgetting. Not that he could remember, at any rate; a handful of drink-addled nights that had bled into mornings in his youth would perhaps always remain a mystery to him.

Tyler had never complained of their arrangements, however, and the two of them had enjoyed each other intermittently for years. Victor supposed he ought to be thankful for the blessings he had, rather than search for yet more. He would never have to worry about getting with child, or putting someone else in the condition. There were no complications of an arranged marriage, a dowry, producing an heir. His father and eventually his mother – albeit reluctantly – had accepted long ago that this was how it would be with him. And men, moreso than women, seemed to have an affinity for viewing the ways of the flesh as harmless dalliance.

However, he’d felt his heart and mind turning – gradually, like the procession of the stars across the seasons – to something else of late, though he was still at a loss to define it. He was tempted to think it was something to do with Alex, but not every problem’s root could be traced there. This went further back: a dissatisfaction with what had always been a perfectly acceptable state of affairs. It had been strong enough for him to avoid bedding with Tyler during his visit, until now. And last night, he realised, had only been out of habit. If Tyler had been someone new attempting to seduce him at supper, he felt sure he would not have given in so easily. And again, the reason why was elusive to grasp.  

Deciding he’d had enough of such frustrating and fruitless thoughts for now, Victor combed his hair, rubbed his teeth with paste and rinsed, took a pinch of fennel seeds to chew, and was pulling his braies on in front of the full-length mirror when he heard shifting in the bed.

“Victor, are you there?” called a sleepy voice.

“Yes; I’m getting dressed.”

“Why don’t you have Percy or Julius bring your clothes? It’s cold. Come back to bed.” There was a tinge of a whine to the words that niggled.

“Because I’d have to shout across half the castle for them to come and do something I can do for myself,” Victor replied simply, going to the chest of drawers and choosing a pair of brown hose. He began to pull the first one up his leg, bending over and staring at the swirls of maroon and cream, yellow and delicate blue patterns in the floor made by the small tiles, like tesserae. His mind conjured an image of Percy Steggles, the keeper of the wardrobe, coming in to dress him, and he almost laughed. It wasn’t that Percy would be hesitant to do so if asked, he was sure. Quite the opposite, in fact; he’d probably be flustered, and perhaps take the request the wrong way, gentle dandy that he was. No, Victor thought, he was capable of pulling linen over his own body and tying a few strings, which he did at the top of his left leg before pulling on the right-hand leg piece.

“Come back to bed,” Tyler said again, half-sleepily, but with a coaxing note.

“Weren’t you satisfied with our sport last night?” Victor said with a little laugh, taking his boots from the corner in which he’d placed them the night before.

“Indeed.” As Victor turned, he saw Tyler prop himself up on an elbow with a coy smile. “I was hoping you might like more, before I leave today.”

Victor returned the smile, but then, finishing with his boots, went to the door and pulled it open, picking up the large silver tray left outside on the floor and putting it down on the walnut table; he settled into a plush blue velvet chair and went over the breakfast selection. Julius had put as much care into it as always. Dried apples, apricots and figs, strips of dried salted herring, fine manchet bread, and oil and vinegar for dipping. A silver pitcher of thin beer and his favourite mazer, the little footed redwood handle-less cup with the silver lip. One for Tyler as well. Julius was discreet as well as reliable. Not that Victor’s activities in his room were such a well-kept secret, and not that it mattered anyway. It was one of the advantages of being who he was.

“Get dressed and come join me,” he called over to Tyler as he took a piece of fish. He would only have a nibble at the items here, as would be expected, the leftovers being passed around to others and possibly given to the poor at the castle gates. If that were so, they would believe their luck had come in, to be favoured with a piece of manchet. The main meal was only a few hours away, though when a full day of training and other arduous pursuits lay ahead, it was sensible to give the body the fuel it needed.  

A shadow passed across Tyler’s face, and he got out of bed without a word, donning his clothes of the day before and quickly making his morning ablutions before doing as Victor had requested. He helped himself to several mazers of beer before picking figs out of the bowl with a precise, delicate grasp between forefinger and thumb. There was an undeniable power and grace about him which had always held Victor’s interest, even if it didn’t quite pierce his heart the way he longed for it to do.

Oh. That was what he wanted, then. A Cupid’s arrow.

But…no. Not just some silly romantic affair.

He looked at Tyler. What was lacking?

“I was thinking again about that duel yesterday,” the man said, taking his knife from his belt and cutting himself a slice of bread. “How insulting, to give you such an ill-matched opponent. You could’ve beaten him blindfolded.”

“He put up a fight at first,” Victor replied, sipping at his mazer. “I have no idea why he suddenly decided to run from me.”

Tyler snorted. “Maybe you stabbing at him with your sword had something to do with it.”

“It was an odd change of tactics. He’s changed, since the duel. Didn’t you see him at supper?”

“You put the fear of God into him, my friend.” He dipped his bread into the oil and vinegar and took a bite. “Long may it last.” After a pause, he added, “Now if I had been on the field with you…”

Victor chuckled. “Indeed. A worthy opponent.” He eyed Tyler as he sipped. “Can you not stay a while yet today and spar with me? I intend to train.”

“Unfortunately, no. My father’s fixed on leaving before the terce bell. But…” He put his bread down on the tray and gave Victor a searching look. “…I can come back soon. My own business isn’t as pressing. We could spar, and…have other sport.”

Victor felt a pulse of heat through his body, but his heart was like a stone. I don’t love you. Then he wondered why he thought it, because it wasn’t a revelation. I…I don’t want to do this anymore. Be with someone I don’t love, in this intimate way.

Staring at Tyler as he was doing now, he realised it had stopped being sport at some unnameable point. The physical contact had no meaning. That wasn’t a revelation either, however. The surprise was that it had grown to bother him.

He felt the cool metal rim of the mazer against his bottom lip as he rested it there for a moment. I’m grateful for your company on this visit. But not for the reason you may think. Thanks to you, I believe I’ve worked out what I want, even if it may not be achievable. Because it means I know, also, what I don’t want.

“Tyler…” he began, “…I’ve valued our friendship. You’re a skilful knight, and good company. But I don’t wish for things to continue as they are between us.” Surprise darted into in Tyler’s eyes, and his mouth fell open. There was no pleasant way of skirting around the issue, Victor decided. “We’re not suited for a long-term relationship, wouldn’t you agree?”

Tyler stared at him. Then he said, “What’s this? I ask you again, have I angered you in some way? Because, Victor, I thought maybe we were very suited to such a relationship. I thought, in fact, that was what we had.” There was a growing hard edge to his voice.

Victor’s brow wrinkled. “When did we ever agree on that? We each have had other people in our beds. We rarely see each other. What – ”

Tyler slammed a fist on the table, making the tray and its contents rattle. “That’s exactly what I was hoping to remedy. I thought you knew how I felt.”

“It seems not.” And how could he? We should’ve discussed this a long time ago.

“Well it seems clear how you feel,” Tyler snapped. “Why did you take me to your bed last night if it meant so little?”

“It wasn’t the first time,” Victor replied, lowering his voice just as Tyler was raising his. “What made it any different from the others?”

Tyler got stiffly to his feet with an affronted glare, then began to search the room for his possessions, collecting them. “Very well. My mistake. I should’ve known better.”

Victor swallowed, his blood beginning to race. This was not how he would have predicted the events of the morning to transpire, and his mind was picking at their past, trying to find any signs from Tyler that he’d missed. It wasn’t succeeding. “If it’s a deeper relationship you desire,” he said gently, “you should find someone who wants to be with you through the days and nights, not just as a diversion when you happen to be staying under the same roof.”

It came out all wrong, he realised too late. His words were cold, regardless of being well-meant. Perhaps he had better clarify them. “It’s not that – ”

“Diversion.” Tyler stopped in the middle of the room and stared again. Victor was horrified to see a tear course down his cheek.

“Tyler, we’ve been friends a long time. I don’t want to lose that. But how could I have known you wanted something more? You never – ”

“I made too many assumptions,” Tyler replied, his tone clipped. “My apologies. My head is too easily turned by a pretty face.”

If this was supposed to be a dagger aimed at him in turn, it hadn’t hit home, Victor thought, still trying to make sense of what was happening. Tyler strode to the door.

“Goodbye, Victor,” he said flatly. “Enjoy your breakfast.” Then he was gone, the door slamming behind him.

It opened again a moment later, hesitantly, and Julius’s face peered around the edge. “I was just checking whether you needed anything, master. Shall I come back later?”

Victor briefly rested his forehand in his hand, then sat back in his chair and looked at his young squire. “It’s all right,” he said quietly.

Julius entered the room, then stared back at the door as if Tyler were still there to be viewed. “He was in a bad humour. Mind you, it doesn’t take much with him.”

“I think he had good reason this time.”

“Are you finished with these?” Julius asked, arranging the items on the tray.

“I…yes, thank you. I don’t want any more.”

“Then may the Devil bite his arse for upsetting you, sir.”

“I…I’m not upset. But I could do with a little time to myself.”

His squire nodded, picking up the tray. “I’ll see you at the stable, then. But might I also suggest you put a shirt on – it’s freezing in here. Do you want me to stoke the fire for you?”

“No, thank you. I’ll do it myself.”

Julius nodded, bowed and exited, rather more quietly than the previous visitor.

Silence stretched through the room. Victor gradually became aware of the usual morning sounds in the courtyard outside: horses’ hoofs and wooden wheels on cobblestones, businesslike conversations, laughter, the clink of harness. He stood and stirred the ashes in the grate, placed some kindling and a couple of logs on top to keep the fire burning throughout the morning, then pulled on a white linen shirt with a green jerkin over the top, buckled on his belt, and crossed the room to the window. The seat there, fashioned from the wall, was generously padded with white cushions displaying colourful flowers of all kinds, and stitched with proverbs such as “A time to every purpose under Heaven” and “After the feast comes the reckoning”. He sat in the corner as he looked down from the first-storey height and idly watched the goings-on outside.

I’ve just lost a friend.

How did I misread the situation so badly?

He should’ve said something before. So should I. We needed to know where we stood.

He ran a hand through his fringe, which flopped straight back down over his left eye. Perhaps he was a fool for leading this kind of life. But how much choice did he have? He was the baron’s son, and a knight. That placed a certain path before him. He would also never marry, never have children. His father could have tried to force him to do so, of course, and produce an heir, but mercifully he’d decided to allow Victor that little amount of freedom.

Freedom to do what, though? To change lovers like he changed his clothes, each one no more meaningful to him? Or so he’d thought. Tyler had put him right on that score. Not that he’d suddenly discovered heretofore unknown feelings for him after their argument. But it was obviously different for Tyler. That was an error Victor didn’t want to make again. Did that mean he was destined to spend the rest of his life staring out of his window, wondering what it would be like to be able to open his heart to someone and have them do so in turn? A real communion, rather than a one-sided misunderstanding.

It wouldn’t have been this difficult before Alex.

But he had to stop his thoughts straying in that direction so often. And yes, it would still have been difficult. There weren’t many noblemen of his age and sexual persuasion to choose from; not openly so. He suspected a fair few welcomed dalliances outside of their marriages, but that didn’t interest him.

Maybe I would make a good monk.

He grinned and shook his head at the notion. Mind you, quite a few of them probably got up to that sort of activity as well, with such opportunities as they had access to. But it helped if you were religious. And he had a castle to take over when his father finished his days. Besides, even surrounded by other men in such an environment, Victor had little confidence he’d be able to cultivate anything other than further brief encounters.

How did you get someone to fall in love with you? Get a potion from the herbalist. Find a witch. Summon Mephistopheles. Because maybe…maybe no one would love him otherwise. They could love his body. His deeds in the arena. His social position. But none of those things were him.

At any rate, he decided as his eyes followed a man carrying a sack over his shoulder from the gatehouse to the great hall, he could master his physical needs enough to abstain. There were ways of taking care of those that required no other person. It wasn’t as if he was used to sharing his bed every night, anyway. It had in fact been a rare occasion these past several years. Life could carry on as usual.

I’m made for duty. Running a castle. Fighting – and killing, whether I would or no. These are but idle fancies that could, and should, evaporate in the clear light of day.

He ought to indeed be thankful for everything he had. It was bounteous, compared to the vast majority of the population. The fact of the matter wasn’t lost on him. But did that mean it was selfish of him to want more?

A tear ran down his cheek. He brushed it away and went to get his cloak.        


There was knocking at the door. But that made no sense. It was made of metal and had speaker for a visitor to talk into.

Yuuri was lying on his stomach. No light reached his eyes when he opened them. He rolled onto his back, but it wasn’t much better. The room was dark, save for some slivers of light seeping underneath the window shutters.

Then it hit him.

I’m at Crowood Castle. I’m Sir Justin le Savage. They hate me here. I might be expected to kill people. They might want me to ride a horse, too.

Fuck.

“Sir, it’s Emil,” came a muffled voice. “You’ve locked the door.”

He pulled off the blanket, seized by an immediate shiver; the fire had gone out in the night. Wrapping the blanket around himself, he opened the shutters to let in the light, then turned the key in the door to admit Emil.

“There’s usually no need to lock your door overnight,” Emil said as he stepped in. “Keeping it unlocked means you can escape faster if there’s an attack. On the other hand, locking it means enemies can’t get through as easily – though if they’re trying to do that, it’s likely they’ll already be outside your window, so…”

Yuuri swallowed in a dry throat. “Does that kind of thing tend to happen here? The castle getting attacked?”

“Well, no, I don’t believe it’s happened yet. The castle’s quite new; the lord had it built when he was granted the land.” He huffed a laugh. “Pray God things stay this way. Anyway, I hope you had a good night’s sleep, sir. I’ve come to help you put your armour on. If Abelard says you don’t need it today, we can take it back off at the stable.”   

Yuuri pulled the blanket tighter around himself. “I thought you said I was going to get new armour.”

“It will take some time for them to make, sir. We’ll visit the blacksmith first thing. But until then…” He looked around the room. “Where did you put the armour you were wearing yesterday?”

Yuuri had to think fast, though this was the worst time of day for it, especially while he was shivering and barefoot and God, when had he last had a proper meal? But his mission depended on getting this right; it wouldn’t be the first web of necessary lies he wove, and it wouldn’t be the last, he was sure. So he told Emil he’d left his door unlocked in the night while he’d visited the garderobe and had a wander around the castle because he couldn’t sleep, and perhaps that had given someone an opportunity to sneak into his room and take his armour.

Amazement quickly chased across Emil’s face. Surely it had made a noise, he said, and how would a thief have carried it all away? But whatever had happened, such villainy would not be tolerated, and enquiries and searches would be made until his armour was found.

Yuuri realised he was fast digging a hole for himself, and insisted it didn’t matter; that the armour hadn’t fitted him well to begin with, and was old and dented, and he was looking forward to getting new plate mail from the blacksmith. Emil, Yuuri discovered, seemed to be conscientious to a fault, and couldn’t believe he wanted to drop the matter about the theft. He would also need something to wear for the next few weeks. They would have to see what could be found for him to use.

That seemed to settle things for the time being. However, Emil also offered to help him dress, and Yuuri began to wonder in exasperation if people here ever did anything for themselves when they had flunkies they could order around. He dismissed Emil, giving him an “It’s not you, it’s me” explanation for why he’d been rejecting his offers of help, and then tried to come to terms with what he had to do before he left his room.

He managed to have a wash, after having asked Emil the basics of how. Although he tried to be careful about it, he splashed water everywhere; it helped having access to the pipe and drain in the hall. He tried smearing the strange toothpaste across his teeth with the cloth, and it did seem to have a gentle abrasive effect that he reckoned would do the job; but it tasted of ashes, and was gritty and foul, and he rinsed his mouth well afterward.

A young woman in a heavy tan-coloured dress and white turban came by with a wicker basket and asked if he had any laundry; Yuuri gave her the cloth he’d washed with, and she provided him with a fresh one from the stack draped over her arm. He realised he wouldn’t be able to give his modern clothes to her, however, and wondered if he’d eventually have to beat them with a stick in the river. If it were summertime, he wouldn’t mind trying, but in December…? There had to be a better way.  

With Emil gone, he stared at Justin’s image in the mirror. Maybe he’d feel a little better if he weren’t so embarrassed by his appearance. Via trial and error with the projector, he eventually succeeded in altering it so that he had a bowl haircut similar to Julius’s, but not as severe; there was now a soft strawberry-blond fringe across his forehead, the area around his ears and neck short but not shaven. It was a definite improvement, neater and cleaner. Next he attacked the awful goatee. None of this was as easy as changing the appearance of his clothes, and took some concentration, but he managed in the end, and all of the whiskers disappeared. That was the biggest and best alteration, he decided. He’d gone from looking like a vain cavalier to someone who might stand more chance of being taken seriously as a knight.

Until they make me do something I can’t. That could be one of a lot of things.

He kicked the thought away and locked the door while he turned the projector off, momentarily startled by his own face staring back at him from the mirror. With the olive oil and the axe-like razor, he attempted to shave off his own whiskers. Emil had made it look easy, but there was obviously a knack to it. He swore several times as he nicked himself, and splashed water on the cuts, then dabbed at them with the cloth. It was a good thing no one would see him emerging from his room looking as if he’d already been in battle.

Clothes next. He’d decided he would have to wear Justin’s. His own would still be relatively clean, but if he was going to be measured for armour, best to wear whatever was most likely to go underneath. He doubted he’d have much use for the athletic clothes in the middle of winter, not when he could wear these warmer garments of wool. It took a while, but eventually he fitted himself with baggy underwear and a rope belt to which he’d tied the tops of brown hose, wondering how this was in any way practical; there’d be a proper draught right through to his nadgers.

You can’t tell me they were able to build castles in this time but they didn’t know how to make a pair of joined-together trousers.

He found a tunic that looked less like a jester’s outfit than yesterday’s, of a solid vibrant blue; he didn’t care for bright clothes like this, but it was better than walking around like a Christmas tree. Justin had a pair of calf-length leather boots that had been broken in and which were maybe half a size too small, but Yuuri reckoned they’d do for now. The projector reproduced his brown flat circular hat of the previous night, and to his gratification he now had a sturdy leather belt. He took his coin purse out from under the loose floorboard, making sure the time-travel sphere remained well-ensconced in its nook. The knife Emil had fetched for him last night fit snugly into a small sheath obviously meant for the purpose. Best of all, however, was the scabbard. Fetching the sword and sliding it into its rightful home, he felt more protected, though he had no intention of drawing it on anyone unless he was desperate.

There was even, thankfully, a heavy mustard-coloured cloak with a simple circular golden brooch attached to it, which he used to fasten the material at his neck. When he was finished, he turned the projector back on and gazed again at the mirror. Justin wasn’t bad-looking, Yuuri thought. The warm tint in his hair brought out a glow in his cheeks, and the deep blue eyes were… arresting. Especially with the toned-down clothes, he reckoned it would do.

Emil had said he would meet him in the main garrison room. That would mean facing the other fighting men, and he wondered if he’d have need of his sword sooner rather than later. But he couldn’t hide in here forever. Taking a deep breath, he shut and locked the door, dropped the key into his coin purse, and headed down the hall.

Voices echoed from up ahead, then abruptly died as Yuuri entered the room. The only men he recognised were Emil and Chris. Continuing to return the gazes he received with a defiant one he hoped was convincing, Yuuri found an empty wooden chair at a small table near Emil, who came straight to his side as conversation in the room gradually resumed.

“I hardly recognised you, sir,” he said, pouring liquid from a grey metal pitcher into a matching mug and handing it to him. “Your appearance is much changed, I have to say. But it suits you.”

“Thank you. I’m making a new start,” Yuuri answered, sipping the liquid. It was similar to the mulled wine from the previous night, but watery and cold. Maybe it was what had been left over.

“Indeed?” Emil put a metal plate the size of a saucer with a piece of dried fish and bread in front of Yuuri, along with a small wooden bowl containing a thick liquid that looked and smelled like thin vegetable soup. “There’s a sop for you, if you’re hungry. If Abelard works you hard today, you may be glad of it.”

“What’s a sop?” Yuuri whispered.

Emil looked at him in confusion, then chuckled. “Now I’m the one forgetting that you’ve forgotten. It’s a piece of bread soaked in liquid.”

Yuuri was too hungry to care about the quality of the food – which actually tasted quite good, though the fish was salty – or the fact that his stomach was still tied in knots. He ate everything he was given and drank the watery wine, thankful that no one else seemed to want to pay him much mind, absorbed as they were either in their own meals or in conversation.

“Where are Sir Victor and his squire?” Yuuri asked as he mopped up the last of the soup with the final piece of bread.

“Sir Victor has a room of his own, as I told you, sir,” Emil answered. “It’s unusual to see him here in the morning. He takes his breakfast and gets dressed upstairs, and we might see him in the stables or on the training grounds later.”

Yuuri had seen Sir Victor twice, during the duel and at supper, and both times it had been hard to look away. There was a certain presence about him. But then he caught himself.

He’s not some handsome fucking prince come to life from a fairytale. He tried to kill me yesterday. God, I can be such an idiot.

“If you’re ready, sir,” Emil broke into his thoughts, “I’ll take you to the blacksmith.”  


Yuuri discovered a whole world of craftspeople behind the castle, in workshops made of wood. There was a brewery, a fletcher who made arrows, a cooper who made barrels, a tanner from whom Yuuri ordered a new pair of boots, a carpenter, a stonemason, and the blacksmith who they sought. It was far busier and noisier than the courtyard, full of the smoke of many fires, malt-scented steam from the brewery, and surprisingly foul odours from the tannery that made Yuuri wonder what on earth went on inside. When he saw two men who looked like servants walk casually over to the side of the building where there was a large wooden bucket and piss into it, never breaking their conversation, Yuuri felt his curiosity was satisfied and decided to have someone send him his boots when they were done so he wouldn’t have to return in person.

Yuuri was greeted with a blast of hot air as he and Emil entered the blacksmith’s workshop, which rang with the sounds of metal hammering metal. He was measured for new plate mail, told it would take a couple of weeks to make, and relieved of more of his coins than he felt comfortable with; though at least they were accepted, after a dubious look and a displeased mutter about how beat-up they were. He didn’t want armour in the first place, however; the thought of being told to kill someone was permanently lodged in his brain. He was also struggling to learn what the pieces were called, since his translator wasn’t helping. What was wrong with calling gauntlets gloves, sabatons metal shoes, or a gambeson a padded jacket?

To tide him over until his things were ready, Emil borrowed used armour for him. They had some difficulty finding anything in the shop that fit, however, and Yuuri was once again conscious of looking strange. He’d been given a heavy chainmail shirt reaching almost to his knees, with wide-cuffed sleeves that were too long; it was obviously a couple of sizes too big for him. Yuuri wasn’t exactly small himself, and he wondered what giant it had been made for. He’d strapped his belt back around his waist and fastened his cloak over the top, but he couldn’t help but think he must look like a boy dressing up to play knights and castles. Or Swords and Sorcery.

Emil led him to the stable a short distance away; a long building made of the same grey stone as the castle. It had a steeply sloped slate roof, small square unglazed windows, and a couple of wooden doors that were propped open. Yuuri’s feet didn’t want to follow Emil into the dim interior of the building, but he forced them to continue to move.

Before his eyes adjusted to the low light, his nose told him he was in a stable; the smells of manure, hay, wood and leather were unmistakable. Whinnies from horses filled the air, and voices, and the same clank of plate armour that brought to mind yesterday’s duel.

Now that he was inside, Yuuri saw a large set of double doors at the end of the aisle which opened onto the leaden morning light and a vast grassy field containing wooden apparatus. Emerging from a stall near the doors was Sir Victor in full plate mail again, leading a beautiful white horse with Julius at his side. Before Yuuri could avert his gaze, he saw Sir Victor turn his head, note him, and widen his eyes in surprise, his mouth slightly open. Julius registered his master’s distraction and turned to its source, his face clouding immediately upon seeing Yuuri. He tilted his head up and whispered something to Victor.

“Sir, do you remember your horses? Here’s the one you rode yesterday. Thunder, your palfrey.”

Yuuri peered into the stall a few paces to his right, where Emil stood with a questioning look. Inside was a gold-coated horse with a white mane and tail. He knew little about these animals, but thought one of this type might be called a palomino. “Thunder,” he echoed. “Why, am I…am I supposed to…charge opponents with him?” he said in a small voice.

“Not with a palfrey, sir. Though it’s a her, not a him. She’s meant for travel, not for the arena or battle. You have a destrier for that; your servant brought him last night along with your possessions.”

“A what?” Before he moved to have a closer look, Yuuri couldn’t resist a glance at the far end of the stable again, but there was no longer any sign of Sir Victor. Feeling an odd twinge of disappointment, he approached Thunder’s stall. The horse seemed to sense his presence, even though its rump was facing him; it stomped a hoof while it swished its tail, puffing air out of its nostrils.

“She’s in an odd sort of mood today,” Emil said, shrugging his shoulders. “Anyway, Blaze, your destrier, is in the next bay, here.”

Yuuri came to stand next to him, and found himself looking at a magnificent muscular black horse, its coat gleaming faintly in the light of a small window. But it, too, reacted to his approach by snorting and shuffling nervously.

“Even his horses don’t want to know him,” called a voice from the other end of the stable that Yuuri thought he recognised; and when he turned, he spotted Julius. There were other men with him now, though not Sir Victor; Yuuri recognised the swearing Scotsman in yellow hose and a gambeson today, and his heart sank. Childish taunts from a teenager were one thing, but dealing with an unpleasant musclebound man like him was something else entirely.

“We’d better find out what Abelard wants to do with you,” Emil said, turning and walking toward the end of the stable where the others stood, as laughter at Julius’s comment died away. Again, Yuuri had to force his feet to follow. Julius was standing in the stall that had been vacated by Sir Victor’s white horse. The youth turned and watched him approach, opening his mouth to speak.

“Shouldn’t you be with your master?” Emil pre-empted him.

“Sometimes he wants to be alone,” Julius replied petulantly.

“I’m sure there are many tasks that could be occupying your attention, then, don’t you think?”

“Ah, it’s our new fierce fighter,” said the Scotsman, crossing his meaty arms and turning to look at Yuuri with a disapproving glare. Yuuri noticed several other men, some dressed as servants and some wearing armour, in the stalls tending to horses; they gave the appearance of not paying any attention, but Yuuri caught glances slanted his way.

“Abelard,” Emil began, “this is – ”

“Yes, I know. Justin ‘le Savage’.” He stared at Yuuri, who met his gaze with as much coolness as he could muster. “Trimmed your wee whiskers a bit, did you? I can’t say it’s gonna help your fighting skills, but then maybe it’s worth trying anything.”

“Sir.” Yuuri took a breath and narrowed his eyes. “Just tell me what’s required of me here, please.”

Abelard guffawed. “Required? I’ll tell you what’s required, ya feckless bampot. Not running away in the middle of a duel after you refuse to yield, like some fuckin’ bawheaded roaster.”

Yuuri delved into his memory for suitable Yorkshire put-downs to use as a response, only to decide it would not be wise. What was he supposed to do? And who did this man think he was?

He heard Julius snicker nearby as Emil said, “Ah, Sir Justin, I didn’t finish the introductions. This is Abelard, the head trainer. He’ll help you brush up on any skills you might need – ”

“Bloody well right I will, though it’ll be the job of a lifetime with this fanny of a knight before he grows a pair, if the shite he pulled yesterday is any indication.” 

Yuuri stared.

“Come on, then, ya wee prick, and show me you can fight better than a girl.”

Chapter Text

Who taught him how to ride a horse – the nursemaid?

His own mounts don’t even want to know him!

This would be some choice after-dinner entertainment.

Get up and be a man, ya milk-livered weasel!

Yuuri was sitting on the edge of his bed, staring at cold grey ashes. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to let the fire go out; he didn’t know, and didn’t have any way to relight it. It didn’t matter, anyway.

He’d forced himself not to cry while it was happening; not to disintegrate into another anxiety attack. And he’d succeeded. But when they’d broken for the late-morning meal they called dinner, Yuuri had sought the refuge of his room. He’d managed to slip away from Emil too, though it wouldn’t be difficult for the squire to work out where he’d gone.

Abelard had made him ride Thunder, who knew, as animals had a way of doing, that Yuuri was not Justin, which clearly made her nervous. One of the servants who worked in the stable had pulled him aside to enquire how the horse had been looked after at its previous stable, because he reckoned it was undernourished and had a flighty temperament. Then he’d pointedly stared at Yuuri, who of course had been at a loss for an answer. He’d asked the man to saddle her and do whatever else was required for him to ride her, and fortunately he’d obliged. Yuuri had watched everything he did, trying to take note, though after a while he knew he wouldn’t remember it all.

Unfortunately, it was Abelard who intended to help him with his horse as well as his fighting skills. For someone who had barely been able to tell the back end from the front, Yuuri thought he’d been making good progress, but of course everyone had expected him to be able to ride her at a gallop straight away. During his own struggles, he caught glimpses of what the other men were doing. There were some guards training out in the field, sparring with swords and staffs. The knight who Yuuri had not yet properly met, Sir Charles, had been on his own horse, tilting with a lance at something Emil said was called a quintain, a wooden post with a pivoting horizontal bar attached to the top which displayed a shield on one end and a heavy sack on the other. It didn’t take a genius to see that the challenge was to smack the shield with the end of the lance as the horse charged by, and gallop away quickly enough that the sack didn’t swing around and clout you. Sir Charles did well, while Yuuri had to ask the most basic things about what to do with his horse. When she wasn’t stomping at the ground in agitation, she was ripping out pieces of grass with busy teeth.

It had come to a point where Yuuri knew he would have to give some sort of explanation for his poor performance to Abelard, but he didn’t trust him not to tell anyone else if he used the amnesia excuse again. Images came to his mind of his entire mission unravelling. Word getting to Ailis about the new knight who was not a knight, who didn’t know what the hell he was doing and barely knew his own name. She’d work out that Celestino had sent him, and hunt him down, then finish him off…

But just then, to his eternal gratitude, Emil had approached and suggested to Abelard that he work with Yuuri for a while. The vituperative man had been quick to agree, insisting his expertise was being wasted and he had better things to do, like go take a dump. Yuuri had been tempted to tell him to jump through the hole into the pit below while he was at it, but his relief made it easy to hold his tongue. He suspected Emil had been watching the debacle of his master on the horse, had surmised he’d forgotten how to ride, and had swiftly decided to save his skin. In that moment, Yuuri made himself ignore the usual concerns about how disappointed and frustrated Emil must be with him, and simply wanted to hug him and kiss the pointy leather toes of his boots.

Away from the sight of the stables, near a wood, Emil gave him his first horse-riding lesson. He seemed to genuinely feel sorry for him, and was patient, though he continued to display the air of bemusement which resulted in huffed laughs of disbelief. That was all right with Yuuri. He’d even put up with Emil calling him every foul name under the sun like Abelard did, as long as he was willing to discreetly instruct him. But despite only having known him for a day, Yuuri didn’t think he was the kind of person who would do that. He couldn’t remember hearing him swear at all yet, which was more than he could say for himself.

His legs were already sore, and he was meant to return to training, whatever that entailed, after dinner. Which he had no appetite for. Certainly not in the great hall, though he doubted he could have forced anything past his lips here in the garrison either. He couldn’t even lie down properly on his bed without getting the whole thing muddy, because he’d fallen off his horse so many times that his clothes were caked in it. Come morning, he reckoned he’d be surprised if his skin wasn’t more black and blue than flesh-toned.

I can’t go back there and face them. And Abelard’s a stupid bully. But if I fight back, I could get myself in trouble.

I can’t make a prat out of myself and watch all those men laugh at me, either.

Thank God Sir Victor wasn’t there to see. Though why that thought entered his head, he wasn’t sure. Perhaps because the last person he wanted to view the spectacle he’d been making of himself was a man like that. It would be like being burned by the sun.

What he wouldn’t give to simply be sitting at his kitchen table with a cup of coffee and the Cloud…but even if he had the means to go back, he had a mission to accomplish.

He rested his head in his hands and told himself again he wouldn’t cry.

Just because I don’t know how to do these things doesn’t mean I can’t, once I’ve learned how. They already think I’m rubbish, so for now maybe I’m not surprising them too much. I’ll learn; I’ll practice.

But it took some time before he’d built up enough courage to return to the stables for the afternoon’s training.

Yuuri ignored the amused glances he received from the denizens of the building as he mounted his horse and Emil led it outside into a light drizzle. He asked if waterproof clothing was available here, and Emil expressed surprise that he didn’t own any such garment, promising he would find him a beeswax-treated woollen cape, though they usually paid scant attention to the weather while they were training. Beginning to feel the damp chill seeping into his bones, Yuuri took little heart from this; and while he appreciated the impromptu crash course Emil was giving him, he couldn’t help but wish he were huddled in front of a fire somewhere, preferably in a quiet room by himself, wrapped in a warm, dry blanket.

He’d been able to bring Thunder to a gallop and stay reasonably balanced without falling off, though it was a far cry from being able to deftly manoeuvre the animal. Emil had proposed he get spurs fitted to his boots, but Yuuri couldn’t stand the idea of poking spikes into his mount just to get it to move; he knew such devices had been popular for centuries, but they were no longer used in his time.

When Emil suggested they take a short break – even he looked cold and unhappy – Yuuri wondered aloud why someone would give such a gentle creature the name “Thunder”. He was getting a feel for her temperament, at the same time as she was losing her jitteriness with him; she was placid and responsive when handled the right way. She even gave his neck a nuzzle when he dismounted, this time without Emil’s help.

“I don’t suppose you remember why you chose the name,” Emil replied. “Or perhaps someone else did. But I agree, ‘Thunder’ doesn’t seem to suit.”

A clatter of metal from a distance away caught Yuuri’s attention, and he turned and gasped as he witnessed the sight of two knights in plate mail sparring with swords. Sir Victor and Chris. Even in the dull drizzly light, their metal-clad bodies gleamed as they moved.

“Watch a moment, if you like,” Emil said. “Sir Chris always gives his best when sparring with Sir Victor. We all do. But he’s in a class of his own.” After a pause, he added quietly, “I suppose he made you aware of that yesterday.”

Yuuri glanced at him, deciding he was being sincere rather than sarcastic, and then turned his eyes back to the two metal-clad men. He’d had no idea that people wearing heavy armour could move like that, as if they weren’t even wearing it. Bouncing on their feet, swinging their swords with never a still moment, tumbling onto the ground – that was Chris, mostly – and springing back up. It was a sparkling blur, seemingly vicious, though there were smiles from Victor. Chris mostly gave rueful grins in return. He was taking a battering. But they didn’t seem to be hurting each other directly.

“Why don’t they wear helmets?” Yuuri asked as they watched.

Emil gave him one of his usual surprised looks, then shrugged and said, “They would, if they were in battle. But they often train for the eventuality of being in a duel. It’s rare to wear anything that covers the head – people like seeing the fighters’ faces.”

Especially when they’re bleeding, I bet, Yuuri thought. He watched silently, forgetting after a while that Emil was next to him. He also had to force down the initial horror he’d felt when he realised this was surely how he himself was going to be expected to fight. The two knights seemed to be taking it in rounds, each of which didn’t last long before they either ended in Victor having Chris at a disadvantage, or occasionally what appeared to be a draw. Their swords flashed at speed. At times they were wielded like clubs, at others like spears. There was none of the showy brandishing that Yuuri had encountered in Immersion games or witnessed at re-enactments. No stately slow-motion moves for display. These were men bent on brutal assault with a deadly weapon.

“Good, isn’t it?” Emil commented. “I’m just going to take your horse back to the stable and make sure she has food and water, though I expect she’ll be turned out to pasture in a bit. You can stay a while yet if you want. Maybe it will be instructive.”

Yuuri watched him lead Thunder away, then turned back to the sparring. Perhaps they wouldn’t notice him over here. Or maybe they were used to people watching anyway. He tried to work out, between the silver blurs, what techniques and tactics they were using, and was comforted as he began to recognise things he already knew how to do, though it would take a great deal of effort to put them all together and react so swiftly. And once he’d been able to take it in with a more discerning eye, he could fully appreciate the skill he was witnessing.

Chris was highly competent, that was in no doubt. But Victor moved with a fluidity that made it look as if he were playing a game. His opponent’s face was set in concentration and determination, while his own expression was one of…if not enjoyment as such, perhaps indulgence. He didn’t see Chris as a challenge, but he was taking pleasure in his mastery over his own body, and the wonderful – terrible – things he could make it do. Yuuri didn’t know what made him so certain of this, but it seemed plain to see; to feel, as if in silent understanding.

He realised he would’ve been deeply moved by what he was witnessing, if it hadn’t been a reminder of the violence in which this place and time were steeped; of the duel yesterday, in particular. But then it looked as if the two of them had decided to finish for the day; Victor gave Chris a hand up from the ground, and they clapped each other on the shoulders before Chris sheathed his sword and strode back to the stable. Victor, however, took a few deep breaths, gripped the hilt of his sword with both hands, and…

Danced. There was no better word to describe it. He waved his sword, tracing out moves that seemed to be well rehearsed. Twisting and spinning, his free hand describing an arc, landing and then whirling again, he seemed to be sparring with the air itself, every limb moving with ease and grace. 

Oh my God. Am I dreaming?

I don’t care if you hate me. I don’t care if you want to come over here and kill me. At least…you’ve shown me this.

Seeming to decide he’d done enough for now, breaths coming fast, Victor sheathed his sword with a small grin. Then he noticed Yuuri and the grin vanished, but he held his gaze. Yuuri tried to read his expression. Confusion perhaps, like he thought he’d seen in the stable. And then Victor made a move to join him. But a voice from behind – one Yuuri already knew too well, and would be happy never to hear again – brought him slamming back down to earth.

“Why are you standing here getting watered on, ya dozy cunt? You’re in worse shape than my grandma’s windflaps. Get to runnin’ round this field, and you can stop when I tell you to.”

A flame leapt into Yuuri’s chest. “While I appreciate your…help,” he bit out, “I’ll thank you to stop insulting me in the process.”

Abelard gave a loud fruity laugh. “That’s a right good bit o’ coldswallop, ya little gobshite. You’ll get respect from me when you’ve bloody well earned it. Which is like to be never. Away wi’ ya now and get those legs moving, ya hairy minge.”


Yuuri’s limbs ached from riding a horse for hours, and then running around a field for hours, wearing a heavy chain-mail shirt, which was now lying in a corner of his bedroom. The rain had faded to a mist, but he was still damp when he’d entered the room; and because he’d locked his door, Emil explained, no one had been able to light a fire for him. He suggested Yuuri leave it unlocked from now on if he wanted servants to be able to come and go rather than having to be present to admit them himself, though it would be up to him, if he was concerned about his armour being thieved again. In the meantime, Emil made a fire, provided Yuuri with a towel to dry himself off with after the dreary day spent outside, and fetched a wicker basket in which he could put his dirty clothes for the washerwoman’s collection. Yuuri wasn’t sure Emil was the type he’d ever naturally approach with a desire to be friends if they’d met in modern times, but he was more grateful than the squire would ever know for his kind attentiveness now.

It eased, a little, the other constant worries. As did the vision of Sir Victor with his sword glimmering in the field. In whatever days were left to him, here or in his own time if he ever got back, Yuuri knew it would live on in his mind as something truly special. He wondered if he’d be lucky enough to get the chance to watch more.

As long as I don’t have to fight him again. He’d get his sword into my throat before I could beg for mercy.

Discarding his muddy clothes after Emil had gone, he had a wash – he’d never missed warm showers and baths so much in his life – put on new tan-coloured hose and an off-white tunic, and sat down on the floor next to the fire. His fingers having warmed up from their former numbness, he took his little toolkit out of his modern coat and removed the com from his wrist. The door had been locked again so that no one would enter and discover a strange Japanese man occupying the room.

Would you even be there to hear me if I fixed it and tried to talk to you?

He selected a laser screwdriver and carefully removed the back of the com, giving a small gasp when he saw the intricate workings inside. A faint blue glow surrounded what he assumed was a qubit processor, though it was much smaller than anything he’d ever encountered. And he really needed a diagnostic scanner to put this into, because there would be many parts invisible to the naked eye. If he accidentally damaged anything – the projector especially –

This is my job. I fix things like this.

No, he corrected himself. This tech was beyond anything he’d ever seen before. It wasn’t like watching the swordfighting earlier, when closer scrutiny had led to understanding. A closer inspection of this was only leading him to see that the wisest decision would be to leave it alone.

He replaced the back of the com and resumed the guise of Justin, stashing the toolkit under the loose floorboard next to the time-travel sphere.

That was it, then. If his com was broken, he’d lost contact with Phichit and Celestino for good, assuming they were still…well, he was tired of attaching that proviso every time he thought of them. Justin must be alive. And if he was, there was a chance they were, too.

Yuuri wondered briefly what his counterpart was making of the modern world. Since he seemed to be something of a git, maybe it was teaching him a little patience and humility. But no, he told himself, it was unkind to think such things. Though if Justin had been a nicer person in this place and time, it would’ve made his own job easier.

Pausing to consider whether or not he wanted to face another meal sitting in full view in the great hall, he attached his mud-splashed mustard cloak with the golden brooch, deciding that eating was an unfortunate necessity when there were no nutri-pills, and left the room.


Yuuri found himself sitting next to Sir Charles de Roos during supper, a taciturn fellow of about his own age with short, thick golden hair parted to the side underneath a brown cloth cap, teal eyes, and a long prominent scar down his left cheek. Unsure whether his silence was a natural inclination or an expression of his opinion of Justin, Yuuri got through most of the meal with simple polite requests while they shared dishes and a trencher.

As he cast the odd glance at Victor, whose blue-clad neighbour of the evening before had vanished, he also continued to take an interest in the food, which consisted of several fish courses interspersed with small servings of fruit and nuts. With Emil’s interpretative help, he knew that they’d been given cod in verjuice broth; fish pie; pike in galantine sauce which tasted of cinnamon, ginger and vinegar; stewed quinces; and almond milk flan. Taking cues from the diners around him, Yuuri either cut his food with his knife, sipped from his spoon, or ate with his fingers, though he was expected to wash his hands regularly in fragrant dishes of water and flowers and herbs. His appetite wasn’t doing well in the wake of all his worries, but the almond milk flan was a pleasant surprise. It seemed to be a milk-and-egg-less substitute for custard, and he didn’t want to guess what they thickened it with, but he liked it.

“I saw Abelard giving you an earful today,” Sir Charles commented, wine cup in hand as he turned to look at Yuuri.

Taken aback for a moment, Yuuri replied, “He…has a way with words.”

“He’s a bellend. A right fucking knobhead.”

I guess you have a way with them too, then. At least they’re not directed at me this time. Yuuri sipped his own wine.

Before he could answer, Charles went on, “I don’t know why they keep him here. Bloody thistle-arsed slap-headed manky Scots tosspot. And that’s being generous.” He pointed at the scar on his cheek. “Know how I got this? Anyone told you yet, eh?”

Yuuri had begun to wonder if the man had got one knock on the head too many. A trio of musicians was playing in the middle of the room, providing a background to Charles’s tirade that might have been surreal or slightly amusing; Yuuri couldn’t decide which. From the previous night, he’d learned that everyone was expected to leave the hall in a certain order; the noble family would depart first, followed by the senior household staff, with the knights soon afterward. But no one seemed in any hurry to do so.

“Fighting the fucking Scots.”

“I’m sorry?” Yuuri said, blinking.

“That’s how I got this scar.” Charles pointed at it again, perhaps in case Yuuri hadn’t seen it the first time. “Battle of Otterburn, August, 1388.”

“Oh. Um…”

“I was a squire. They killed my knight. They almost killed me, but I got away. Took a few of the bastards down before I did, though.” He gave a hoarse laugh. “I dunno what it’s like at your castle, but most people around here have no love of the Scots, let me tell you. I dunno why they don’t just send our esteemed trainer back to the minging wasteland he came from and get someone else. I’d be the first to kick him on his way out the door.” He held up his cup without turning round. “Roland! More wine.”

Roland, who was presumably his squire, quickly came forward from his place at the wall where he’d been standing with Emil, and poured him some more from a ceramic jug, then backed away again. Yuuri didn’t blame him. He thought maybe Charles was making some kind of attempt to show sympathy for his troubles with Abelard, but the more he talked, the less Yuuri wanted to listen.                  

At least the man seemed satisfied with nothing more than a hum of acknowledgement as he went on about battle campaigns and his hatred of the Scots. Yuuri filtered it out as best he could; it had already plucked at a raw nerve. If he himself were sent out to battle…he didn’t want to think any further than that.

And then the meal finally ended – but instead of leaving the room, most of the diners got up to gather in the middle, in a ring around the musicians. The female of the trio put her harp down and picked up something that looked like a tambourine, then asked the gathering for song requests. There were various titles shouted out, then someone called to Sir Victor – who was sitting by himself at the high table, the baron and lady having joined the ring – and asked him to name a song. He gave a small smile and thought for a moment, then called back “The Outlandish Knight”, and sat pensively while the musicians struck up a sprightly tune, the woman commencing to sing a ballad.

There was a knight, a baron-knight,
A knight of high degree;
This knight he came from the North land,
He came a-courting me…

It reminded Yuuri of a musical in which, on cue, everyone would suddenly burst into song and dance. Not that he was averse to such things. Swords and Sorcery hadn’t been the only Immersion game he’d played, just the one he’d found most addictive. He’d also participated in a few seriously in-depth simulations in which he’d been one of the leads in just such a musical. It hadn’t mattered whether or not he’d been any good at singing or dancing; he didn’t feel he could be an honest judge, and he’d never performed for a real person. But in that world, he could put a part of himself on show that he doubted he’d ever have courage – or reason – to display in actual life. Immersion was good for that.

What was going on in the great hall, however, wasn’t Immersion. Yuuri had no idea how to participate in the dancing he was witnessing, which entailed skipping as a group in a circle, breaking into pairs to perform certain steps, rejoining the circle, rinse and repeat. At least Sir Charles had gone to join them. Yuuri wondered why Sir Victor hadn’t. He seemed preoccupied. Yuuri didn’t allow his eyes to linger, however, lest Victor caught their glance one time too many and thought him rude, or was angered by the attention.

“Sir…” came Emil’s voice from just behind him; and then the young man was at his side. “…I thought I ought to tell you that it’s usually expected of guests at the meal to participate in a dance, especially when the lord and lady are doing so. Sitting here as you are could be seen as a slight.”

Yuuri’s stomach gave a lurch. “I don’t know how,” he whispered.

“Would that be because you didn’t learn, or because you forgot?”

“Take a wild guess,” Yuuri muttered.

“I’m sorry, sir, what was that?”

“Nothing,” Yuuri said more calmly. “But why should a knight have to dance? I don’t understand.”

There was the bemused smile Yuuri had seen so many times now. “It’s part of the chivalrous training of a knight, which…well, I’m sure you would’ve received yourself. As a young page, you’d be taught how to dance by the ladies of the castle.”

“A page,” Yuuri said, thinking. “That’s…”

“Part of a knight’s training, yes. You’d be a page until age fourteen or so, and then a squire, until at age twenty-one or thereabouts, you’re eligible to be knighted. If you have the money and connections,” he added with a little laugh. “Sir Victor’s been a knight since he was sixteen. I myself was hoping I’d be knighted in three years; that is…well.” He shrugged.

If you serve a knight who’s good enough to help you to it, I suppose, Yuuri added, sensing once more Emil’s disappointment. But who could blame him? He’d had to teach Yuuri just that morning how to handle his own horse. “Emil, I don’t think it’d be good for anyone else to find out I don’t know how to dance. What do I do?”

The squire rubbed at his little beard thoughtfully. “That’s a tricky one, sir. Perhaps, if you’re willing, you could pay a visit to the women who teach the pages. I daresay they’d find it a delightful surprise. You could tell them that the conditions at your father’s castle are primitive and you never learned.”

Yuuri saw a grin quirk at his mouth. Fair enough, he supposed, though it would be taking a risk, if Ailis turned out to be one of the ladies teaching him to dance. Yet it might be riskier still to stand out like he was doing now, possibly giving insult to his hosts. He would have to tread very carefully.

“You know, that’s not a bad idea,” he said. “Can you take me there?”

Chapter Text

Emil discreetly escorted him from the hall, and told him he would have to wait a while until the dancing had finished and everyone had returned to the areas of the castle they inhabited. Just before his squire left him in his room, Yuuri asked him what people actually did in the evenings here. He replied that some went to sleep, as it was dark; some had drink and conversation; some wrote or read; and the staff and servants often had tasks, though even these were brief, because working by candlelight put a strain on the eyes. He reminded Yuuri that there were usually men in the main garrison room of a night, sharing drink and telling stories, singing or playing instruments, gaming or whatever caught their fancy, and he was welcome to join them. Yuuri wasn’t sure when he would feel like doing so, but it certainly wasn’t tonight. Dance lessons with children and ladies, however, had a certain appeal.

He passed an hour in front of the fire, deciding that while he’d always valued solitude, it was likely to get on his nerves here after a while, with no access to Immersion or holograms or the Cloud. No information, no music. No one to call or message or visit the pub with. No Mari…no Phichit. Yuuri thought about this and realised he felt as if he were in mourning for him, and even for Celestino in a way, though that was more impersonal, like his horror when he’d learned of the fates of Doctors Quincey and Croft. And it also reminded him that he was on his own.

Though maybe not quite. Emil had already made himself indispensable. When he returned to collect Yuuri, he said he’d had a word with Mistress Monica, the head seamstress, who was also renowned for her skill as a dancer, and she said she’d be happy to speak with him. Apparently he’d told her that Justin had never learned to dance, and she’d had a few words to say about a place that would give a highborn man such an appalling education.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said as he led the way down the hall, holding up a lantern, “but as the subject of your amnesia is one you don’t wish to be discussed…”

“Thanks, I appreciate it,” Yuuri replied as he looked around. Emil had said this was the servants’ wing of the castle. The windows were fewer and smaller here, the wooden doors unadorned with the fancy ironwork Yuuri was now used to seeing. Some of them opened onto spartan communal single-sex rooms with rows of beds and small fireplaces, where some people slept while others worked by candlelight. Yuuri didn’t want to appear to stare, but curiosity compelled him to look. There was a room in which several of the men who were still awake were mending shoes or belts or other personal items. One was paring his fingernails into a bowl with a small knife; another had a little battered-looking leather book and was silently moving his lips while guiding a finger across a page.  

“You don’t sleep here, do you?” Yuuri asked Emil as they passed a room whose door was closed, and from which issued the enigmatic sounds of splashing and women singing loudly.

“I share a room in the garrison with the other squires.”

“Share?”

“The only fighting men who have their own bedrooms are the knights.”

“Oh.”

“This way, sir. The women are at the top of the southwest tower.”

They’d arrived at the turret at the end of the long wing; through an opening in the hall to the left was the vast kitchen, dimly aglow in orange firelight. It was quieter now than it had been when Yuuri had stood outside it the night before, though the clank of pans and low voices revealed that people were still working within.

“This is the main castle well,” Emil said, pointing to a large round stone column in the middle of the room, about chest height, with an iron arch curving across the top and a wooden board over the entrance. Yuuri noticed stacks of buckets in varying sizes against the wall. “I said you wouldn’t have cause to come here, but…” He shrugged. “I must say you haven’t ceased to surprise me since you arrived, sir.” Before Yuuri could respond to this, he added, gesturing with the lantern, “Follow me up the stairs, if you will.”

As they climbed, they passed more slitted unglazed windows admitting draughts that sank down to the stone steps. The narrow stairs wound steeply and tightly around a central upright column, and Yuuri was reminded of his astonishment, when visiting castle ruins in his own time, that anyone could regularly navigate these contraptions without tripping and tumbling down several storeys.

“The head cook has his lodgings here, along with other important servants,” Emil explained as they went. “Mistress Monica being one of them. She’s usually to be found with other maids up here of an evening.”

At the top of the stairs, Yuuri stepped onto the wooden floor of the highest room in the turret, lit by a generous fire, a chandelier and a candelabra. The occupants turned to look at their visitors. Several women in colourful dresses and headgear appeared to have been instructing a handful of boys dressed like miniature versions of adult males, in bright tunics and hose. Sitting across from them was another cluster of women with needles and cloth; one woman appeared to be darning a hose leg piece, while another was stitching a sleeve of royal blue onto a gown.

“Ah! You must be Justin,” called the woman in the largest chair. “Bring him, Emil; let’s have a look at him.”

Yuuri felt the stares of everyone in the room as he and his squire went to join her. Despite the warmth from the fire, he couldn’t suppress a shudder as he wondered if Ailis was in here with him. Maybe he was even about to speak to her.    

“Sir Justin, this is Mistress Monica, the head seamstress,” Emil said.

She appeared to be in her thirties, in a sleeveless wine-coloured gown with a white linen long-sleeved shirt underneath. Her brown hair had been swept into a white cylindrical cap; a wide strap of cloth ran tightly from above one ear, under her chin, and back up to the other ear. Hazel eyes blinked at him. There was a grace to her posture as she sat up straight and regarded him with a small smile. Then she looked over at the women who were working with the boys.

“Please, don’t mind us,” she called over; and her voice had an edge that indicated it was meant to be an order. They quickly turned back to their business, one of the ladies playing a lively tune on an instrument that looked like a long, thin horn and sounded a little like an oboe, while her companions nearby took the boys by the hands and led them in dance steps.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it, sir, if you don’t mind,” Emil said. “I trust you can find your way back with the lantern when you’re done here?”

“Don’t you need it?” Yuuri asked; but Emil had already taken a candle from the mantel and lit it in the fireplace.

“If I don’t see you when you return, I’ll see you in the morning. Good night, sir.”

“Good night,” Yuuri said, watching him disappear down the stairs with the glowing, spluttering candle, around which he’d cupped a hand.

Five women, Mistress Monica in the middle, looked at Yuuri. He felt pink stain his cheeks and wondered if it would show in the projection.

“Your squire says you’re in need of some training,” Monica said. “Usually it’s the other way round.” She looked at him questioningly.

“He…well.” I’m Justin le Savage, he told himself firmly. I’d better start convincing myself of it, or I won’t convince anyone else. “We’re not accustomed to dancing at my castle they way you did after supper tonight. At least, I’m not. I…” His thoughts raced. “I used to think such things were beneath me. But since this is my new home, I want to make the most of it, and I’d be most grateful if you could give me some help.”

The women looked at each other in amusement. “What kind of backwater is that castle you come from, then?” Monica said with a laugh.

“I’ll thank you not to call it a backwater. Especially since it belongs to the Nikiforovs now. They wanted it. But I’m not here to argue, ma’am. I really would be grateful if you could teach me – ”

“What do I get for my part?” she asked, though her voice had been gentle throughout the conversation.

Yuuri hadn’t thought of that. “I’ve got money, I can pay – ”

“No…no. It’s all right.” She took the brown tunic she’d been embroidering, folded it, placed it on the floor, and stood. “The novelty of this should be payment enough, I think. As long as you don’t mind practising in a room full of women and boys.” She smiled again.

“That won’t bother me.”

“Good. Come over here, then, away from the fire a bit, where there’s more room.”

Yuuri followed her, aware again of eyes upon him, though when he looked, the seamstresses were back at work, the horn began to play, and the boys returned to dancing. The younger ones turned their heads to stare at him in unabashed curiosity, while one of the older ones snickered before he was chastised and made to concentrate on what he was doing.

“Have you danced at all before?” Monica asked him, folding her arms across her chest and considering him thoughtfully.

“Not really, no,” he hedged.

“They don’t dance much where you come from?”

He blinked.

“Well, then, let’s see. Dancing – you can almost see it as a science.”

“A science?” Had they heard of that word in 1392?

“Of dancing. Yes. A branch of learning. A skill.”

Yuuri’s throat went dry. He scanned her gown; the bodice was tight, while the material opened into voluminous folds at her hips. He couldn’t be sure whether it contained pockets. Pockets that might conceal a laser gun. But if this was Ailis, and she had one, surely she wouldn’t use it here in front of everyone.

Easy, Yuuri. Maybe you’re jumping to conclusions. It’s only a word.

“I thought a learned man such as you might like to look at it in that sense.”

“Why?” he whispered.

“Young sons of noblemen, trained for battle, and for the hunt…I’ve met many who seem to think dancing is nothing but a silly flouncing waste of time. If they applied themselves to it, however, they’d soon see how much skill it takes, and perhaps give it the respect it deserves. Maybe you’d do better to think of it as more of an art? Though art and science are two sides of the same coin, in my opinion.”

Yuuri agreed, relaxing a little but remaining wary. As she began teaching him the basics of a group dance she called a carol, which was nothing like what people sang at Christmas but was easy once you knew the steps, he forced himself to overcome his dislike of small talk to question her and observe how she responded.

She was a widow who’d been living at the castle for many years, she said. She told him about how she’d met her husband on the feast day of St. Barnabas and they’d danced the night away in the great hall, and how she’d won a contest several years ago on All Saints Day at York Castle, and didn’t hesitate to reel off a list of her favourite music and songs. People liked being asked to talk about themselves, and she was no exception. If she were Ailis, then she’d researched a very convincing backstory for herself that she’d carefully memorised to the point where she could give minute details in front of others in the room who could presumably vouch for their veracity, at least partially. She didn’t seem interested in asking many personal questions in turn; certainly nothing that seemed designed to catch him out or trip him up. But then, maybe the talk about science had been meant as a taunt, and then she had gone back to playing her role.

Or maybe I’m overthinking everything.

Why on earth had Celestino chosen him for this? He was no detective, and had told him as much.

Soon, however, he was focusing on his first lesson. He picked up the steps to the carol quickly, and danced it with the other women and boys to the tune of the wooden horn they called a shawm. Two teenaged lads seemed embarrassed to have been joined by a beginner of Yuuri’s age, and he heard one of them hiss to a middle-aged stern-looking woman that he couldn’t understand why he was being asked to do these infantile exercises, to which she responded that adults of all ages performed this dance, and he had better mind his manners while they had a visitor. Yuuri had been partnered with the youngest lads, one to either side, their hands small and warm; and their enthusiasm brought an unexpected smile to his face as the mellow notes of the shawm wove around the room. He began to ask them, rather than Mistress Monica, how he was supposed to perform certain moves, which delighted them, until they were regularly pointing out his errors in an effort to be helpful – or perhaps because they enjoyed telling an adult what he was doing wrong.

“Sir! Not that way. You go in this direction.”

“You’re supposed to jump and clap at the same time.”

“Not like that.” A sigh of exasperation. “Honestly, sir. Watch me.”

A couple of the other women beamed at him. He smiled back, savouring how different this felt from his earlier visit to the stable and training field.

Eventually the musician stopped, announcing she was tired, and so the boys must be too, though none of them acknowledged it. Yuuri wondered if this was the only way they knew that it was time for bed, since watches hadn’t been invented yet; he hadn’t seen a clock anywhere, either. At different times of the day he’d heard what sounded like church bells chiming in the distance, though he wasn’t sure what they signified.

Once the boys were herded down the steps to bed, only the seamstresses remained, their fingers deftly moving across the material on their laps. They chatted quietly among themselves with occasional curious glances at Yuuri and Monica, who worked on a few more dance steps. These, Yuuri discovered, involved an intricate series of moves that took some effort to memorise and required suppleness that stretched his muscles a bit; he hadn’t practised this kind of thing since his last Immersion musical several years ago. Monica mostly told him what to do and watched, being unable in her long gown to demonstrate.

“Are you sure you’ve never done this before?” she said after she declared them finished for the night.

Yuuri shrugged, hoping she’d allow him to leave it at that.

“It’s just that you’re…how do I put it?” She crossed her arms again, looking at him. “You’re a natural. Very graceful. I’m surprised you thought you needed lessons. Even so, you learn quickly.” She smiled.

Yuuri couldn’t help but smile back. He didn’t think he’d ever received such high praise, and wasn’t sure it was deserved, especially for what they’d been doing. “Thank you. I wouldn’t mind seeing you a few more times, if you’re willing to teach me.”

“I’d be pleased to do so.” She walked over to the cluster of chairs, where the other seamstresses were packing their materials in wicker baskets and extinguishing the candles. “I’m not used to working with older students. I daresay you’ll listen better than the lads who were in here earlier. And if I can be any judge after so a short time, I would add that your nickname doesn’t seem to be deserved. Unless your character changes completely when you’re on the battlefield.”

“I, um, thank you,” he said again as she picked up her own basket, holding it under her arm. “But before we go, ma’am, I need to ask you not to tell anyone about these lessons. It’s embarrassing that I haven’t been taught these things before.”

She chuckled. “Your squire already asked when he saw me earlier. Everyone here promised me they wouldn’t gossip. Though as I said, my good knight, I don’t believe you have anything to be embarrassed about. Your body was born to dance.”

Born to…Yuuri stared.

“Come, Sir le Savage,” she said, taking a candle for herself and handing him the lantern Emil had left. “The hour’s late. Return here after supper the day after tomorrow, if you’re free. It’s a long time since I’ve had aught to do of an evening other than stitch another pair of braies.”

After ascertaining with a blush that she was referring to the baggy underwear men wore here, he followed her carefully down the stairs a short way, as her room was on the storey below. She bade him good night, and he continued onward by the light of the lamp.

Reaching the foot of the stairs and passing through the servants’ quarters, he soon arrived at the door to his room. He’d forced himself, against his protective instinct, to leave it unlocked, and was rewarded with glowing embers in the grate that he stoked into dancing flames. Having removed his cloak and boots, he placed the lantern on the mantel after blowing out the candle, sat down on the floor, and stared into the yellow and orange light.

I don’t know how to think like a detective. I don’t know how a detective thinks. Could any of those women be Ailis? How far should I trust gut feeling and instinct?

What they were telling him was that everyone in that room had genuinely been who they said they were. No replies had hit a false note when he’d asked Mistress Monica about herself. He’d got the impression that the women working with the boys had been just that – teachers, minders. The seamstresses, then? He hadn’t had the chance to say much to them, and he wanted to be careful not to give the impression that he was flirting with anyone by showing too much interest. If Ailis had been in the room, they were the likeliest candidates; but they had seemed so…normal, so at home.

What constitutes abnormal, then? What am I expecting to see with Ailis? She’s going to be trying to blend in with everyone else, just like I am. I could probably be looking at her and talking with her and never know.

He held his hands up in front of the fire to warm them, and bit his lip. This was going to be about as easy as steering a ship through fog without a navigation system. And in the meantime, he was going to have to spend hours in training every day as a knight.

Somehow Swords and Sorcery appealed right now…especially the part about casting a spell to send yourself straight home.   

Chapter Text

The best thing that could be said about the following day in the stable and training field was that it was no longer raining. The sky was as dismal as the day before, however. Yuuri had heard about what the weather had been like in his time before tech had been invented to gain a degree of control over it; elderly people remembered weeks with no glimpse of the sun, or day after day of drizzle. He’d discovered it to be every bit as dour as it sounded, and he’d only endured two days of it. But he could at least be thankful that he was still dry after he’d finished running lap after countless lap of the field again, even if his legs were threatening to give way underneath him. He tried not to see it as a punishment, whether Abelard had meant it to be one or not. He did need to get into better shape, he knew, if he stood any chance of being an equal to the other knights.

Who am I kidding? They’ve been training for years. I can’t just walk in and expect to be able to fight them. I don’t want to fight them anyway. Though there was no getting round the sobering fact that he might not have much choice.

Abelard had also made him carry heavy sacks and boxes between the stable and castle, which involved hauling them up and down the hill, and his arm and back muscles were burning by the time he was finished. He managed, also, to get another horse-riding lesson in with Emil, though it was at the expense of his opportunity to eat dinner. By the time the sun had begun to set, he was feeling lightheaded, which wasn’t helped by the beer, albeit watery, that everyone drank instead of water. Not knowing what kinds of impurities the water here carried, whether it was from the well or the pipes or the river, he didn’t want to take any risks, especially without the nanobots he’d expected to bring with him.

It would’ve brightened the day to catch a glimpse of Sir Victor doing his routine in the field with his sword again, but there had been no sign of him, or of his squire. Presumably, as the son of the baron, he had more to keep him occupied than training for something he was already good at.

Emil had spent less time with him today, seemingly glad to get back to his own training now that his knight was settling in. Hoping to make good use of the time between the last of the tasks Abelard gave him and supper, Yuuri walked up the hill to the castle, through the gatehouse and into the courtyard. Then he realised he ought to think of a strategy for what he was going to do.

Was it acceptable for someone like him to simply wander around chatting to the womenfolk here? The more he saw of castle life, the more it struck him how important social status was to these people. He wasn’t entirely clear about what his own entailed, but he’d gathered that his “station” was far above that of the servants. If he tried to start a conversation with one, how would they react?

There’s one way to quickly find out. We’re all human beings. One can talk to another.

But I’m so bad at this. I’m just supposed to walk up to someone, ask a few questions, and decide whether she’s likely to be Ailis? What’s that going to accomplish?

I have to start somewhere.

He spotted a young woman with long blond hair in a gold-coloured sleeveless dress with a white shirt and brown woollen cape, carrying two heavy-looking buckets sloshing water over the grass.

“Here, ma’am, let me help you,” he offered, trotting over.

She stopped instantly and gave him a frightened look. “Sir,” she breathed, bowing a curtsey, “I…there’s no need. And it’s Edith, sir, not ma’am. That’s for ladies.”

“You aren’t a lady?” Yuuri said, gently taking one of the buckets from her.

“Well, no, sir. I’m a chambermaid.”

That didn’t make any logical sense, but never mind. He looked into the bucket and saw it was full of dead silvery fish. “Where were you taking these, to the kitchen?”

“I’m helping with a delivery at the castle gates, sir. And yes, the kitchen, but really, sir, there’s no need; I can get by on my own. I’m sure you have more important things to do.”

“I was just headed to the kitchen myself. Why don’t we go together?”

“I…very well, sir, if that’s what you wish.” She looked uncertain.

I’m a charming detective who gets people to reveal their secrets. That’s what I am. If I tell myself a hundred times, maybe I’ll start to believe it. Maybe. “So, Edith,” he said lightly while they headed across the courtyard, attracting stares, “have you been at the castle long? I’m new myself. What does a person have to do to get a chambermaid’s job here?”

He felt like an utter pillock, but Edith seemed to warm to the conversation a bit. This was her third year here, she said. She came from a family that farmed on the estate, and they’d seen it as an honour for her to enter the service of the Nikiforovs at the castle. The lord was regarded as firm but fair, while the lady was kindly, though she tended to keep to herself, not mixing much with anyone other than her ladies-in-waiting or other visiting noblewomen. Sir Victor, she added, was the flower of the county, and everyone believed he would make a fine baron after his father. She herself tended to the solar first thing every morning, before moving on to other rooms in the castle.

“The solar,” Yuuri said as they approached the door to the kitchen. “That’s where the lord and lady have their chambers?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You haven’t noticed anything unusual there or anywhere else in the past few weeks, have you?” She looked at him curiously, and he realised that if Edith were Ailis, he might have just made a mistake by asking such a question. “Since it was announced that the king will be coming to visit next year,” he added hastily. “I imagine that must be changing things a little.”

Edith laughed. “Why bless you, sir, of course. What ain’t it changed? They’ll be building practically a whole village out of wood at the foot of the hill to house the royal retinue. Cook’s been trying a new dish almost every day. The lord and lady are all aflutter, planning it. He don’t look best pleased much of the time, but word has it that she’s delighted, and has ordered new dresses for herself and all the ladies of the castle.” She shrugged. “That don’t include the likes of me, of course, but it means I might get some hand-me-downs that are pretty to wear, from the ones as does get new clothes.” Then she gasped as they went through the doorway. “Oh sir, begging your pardon. I’m sure you’re not interested in such doings as what a chambermaid can tell you of. Why, you can talk to the noble family yourself, I don’t wonder.”

“I don’t think I’m in their best books, exactly,” Yuuri muttered under his breath. “Where do you want me to put these…” His voice trailed off as the people in the kitchen turned startled expressions in his direction. A man hastened over to Edith and ushered her across the room and out of sight without another word. Another man mumbled that he would take the bucket Yuuri was carrying, and hurried away with it. A woman with her hair covered by a white cloth cap like Emil’s came up to him, carrying a silver plate with bread rolls, nuts and dried fruit.

She bowed, her eyes downward. “Are you seeking some refreshment, sir? Supper will be served soon, but take your fill from this if it please you.”

“No, um, that’s all right,” he said. It seemed he’d caused quite a commotion by entering the room. “I don’t need anything to eat.” She bowed and scurried away with the plate. “Please, don’t let me stop you from what you were doing,” he said loudly enough for everyone to hear. And, fortunately, it seemed that they were so bent on getting supper ready that after some dubious glances they followed his instructions, while he went further into the room, looking around, wondering what to try next.

Maybe this wasn’t the ideal time to be here, just before a meal was due to be served. Pots and pans clattered, orders were barked out, people bustled about carrying large bowls and sacks. The room was hot, steamy and smoky, despite enormous stone hoods channelling emanations up the chimneys. There was yet another fireplace, Yuuri noticed, in which the flames had died down to bright glowing embers, on top of which huge black pots sat. Some of the male cooks near the fires were wearing nothing but braies and leather shoes, sweat beading on their pink faces as they fried fish on large skillets or stirred soups and sauces.

“What can we do for you, master knight?” a plump woman at the end of a long nearby counter asked, not taking her eyes off the saucepot she was stirring. There was a dazzling variety of chopped herbs and flowers in front of her, and bowls full of colourful powders; she dipped a spoon into the sauce, tasted it, paused for thought, reached for pinches from the stacks with a practised hand, and again briskly stirred. A stained apron covered her front, and a white cloth was wrapped around her head in the turban-like style the female servants here seemed to favour, wisps of salt-and-pepper hair poking out from underneath.      

“I…I’m new to the castle,” Yuuri told her, “and I was curious. Sometimes I do a bit of my own cooking. You know, when I’m travelling. I wanted to see how it was done here.”

She looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “Well, good for you, sir. Though I don’t know as this is something you’re like to be trying to make in the field. It’s a gamelyne sauce to go with the sea bream. Though it’s for the high table only, this is.” She dipped her spoon in and tasted it again. “More galangal,” she said, smacking her lips and grabbing a knobbly-looking chunk of a pinkish root, then grating some into the sauce.

Galangal? I thought that went into Thai food. “Are you one of the head cooks?” he asked.

“I am the sauce chef,” she said proudly. “Bridget, that’s me. I trained under Montazin de Galard in Rouen. It takes years to learn how to produce a perfect blend of herbs and spices for every dish, sir. Though I also turn my hand at making pastry and pies from time to time as they need here, since that was what I did before I went to France. If you’d care to come back sometime when I’m not as busy, I daresay I could teach you a thing or two if you were still willing.”

You’re not Ailis. That much is obvious. “Maybe. Thank you. Do you mind if watch for a while now?”

“Be my guest, sir.” She turned and took the sauce pot to one of the mammoth fireplaces, hanging the handle over a hook on a hinged iron arm that she could move so that it held the pot where she desired over the heat.

Yuuri stood with his back against the bare stone wall, suddenly recalling that it was here in the kitchen where Ailis had hidden the box that she’d given Celestino instructions for finding. He wondered where. Did she work in here, and therefore have special knowledge of the best place to stash something that had to lie undisturbed for centuries? Or had she simply scouted the place out when no one else was around?

“There you are, master.” Yuuri turned to see Emil striding toward him. When he was close, he whispered near his ear, “Why are you here, sir, if I may ask? It’s rather unusual for people of your position to be in the kitchen. If you’re hungry – ”

“No, I’m not. I, um, just wanted to see. That’s not a crime, is it?”

“No.”

“Mistress Bridget said she’d teach me some things if I came back.”

Emil’s eyes widened. “She did?”

“Anyway…” Yuuri folded his arms across his chest. “…did you want something?”

“Well, we’re rather in the way. We ought to go to the hall for the meal.”

“Is there any chance I could sit by myself this time?” Yuuri had been put at the end of the table for meals, but there always seemed to be a neighbour to share a trencher with; that appeared to be the custom here. Though not everyone had someone next to them at every meal, he’d noticed.

“Matthew Everard, the steward, chooses the place settings, sir. I don’t have a say in it unless there’s a problem with the neighbour you’ve been allocated.” He paused. “Has there been?”

“No. Um, though Sir Charles is a little, well, interesting.”

Emil laughed. “They have you next to Sir Chris tonight, sir. It’s customary for the fighting men to sit together, so it may be worth getting accustomed to each other’s eccentricities. I daresay we all have them.”

Point taken. They briefly went back outside before entering the archway that led from the courtyard to the great hall.

“Might you be interested in visiting the main garrison room this evening?” Emil asked as Yuuri sat down on the bench at the table. Chris hadn’t arrived yet.

Yuuri scratched his forehead. “I don’t know, Emil. I’m not exactly popular here. I don’t want to start a fight or anything.”

“At the same time, it might be wise to show yourself sooner rather than later, if I may say so. Otherwise, the men might think you’re slighting them. They wouldn’t take kindly to that, sir.”

“I know,” Yuuri sighed. “You’re right, I don’t want things to get worse than they already are. Will you be there?”

“Yes, sir. I’m there most evenings.”

“All right, then.” He swallowed. Facing a room full of men who’d watched him try to kill the lord’s son, who’d seen that he needed lessons on how to ride a horse and had been made to run laps around the training field like a naughty child, while wearing a chain-mail shirt that hung on him like a metal sack…Oh, and he already had a reputation for being a twat.

How hard could it be?


I’m not sure what’s worse, being insulted or being ignored.

Who am I kidding? Do I want someone’s sword stuck through me? At least they’re leaving me alone.

Yuuri sat in the closest equivalent to a corner in the main garrison room, a stone bench cut into the wall across from the fireplace. The shadows fell around him, and he huddled into them while he sipped at a metal cup of beer. He’d instructed the projector to show the usual flat cylindrical brown hat, along with clothes that seemed to fit the fashion. No one was sitting near to him or had acknowledged he was there, apart from Emil, who had greeted him and said he was glad he’d come, then gone off to talk with Chris’s and Charles’s squires. The two knights themselves were engaged in a game of chess.

There were other men in the room who Yuuri had seen in the training field but not spoken to; several were clustered around a table near a candelabra, throwing dice made of bone, making bets, and growing louder and more enthusiastic as time passed. He’d begun to wonder if coming here tonight had been so essential after all. Celestino had said the castle had had a library; maybe he could ask Emil if he knew where it was, and if anyone apart from the noble family was allowed to borrow books from it.

Yuuri watched him leave the other squires and approach. “Won’t you come closer to the fire, sir? It’s dark over here, and there’s a draught. Are you feeling all right?”

“Uh, I’m fine, thanks,” Yuuri said, taking a sip of beer. It had a nice malty flavour, even if it wasn’t much stronger than water. “I wouldn’t know what to say. I don’t think I want to play dice, and I doubt your squire friends want me raining on their parade.”

“Rain on their parade?” Emil echoed, huffing a little laugh.

Yuuri leaned his head against the cold wall. “It’s an expression where I come from. It means spoiling someone’s good time.”

“Where you come from?” Emil knitted his brow.

“We have all kinds of funny customs and sayings at my father’s castle,” Yuuri muttered. “I’m sure you’ll hear more from me.”

“It sounds fascinating.” Someone called to Emil from across the room, and he excused himself, leaving Yuuri alone again.

I’d better be careful what I say, even to him. He’d got a smidgen of alcohol in him and was already relaxing too much. Castles just a few hours’ journey apart would not have developed their own customs and sayings, as if they’d spawned completely separate cultures.

He sat up straighter, however, when Sir Victor entered the room with Julius, both returning the greetings they received. Victor paused to say something to Chris and Charles, then sat down on a stone bench near the fire, Julius nipping to the table on which flagons and cups had been placed and fussing with those. Several men immediately engaged Victor in conversation, though they remained standing, rather than taking seats on the bench next to him.

He was wearing one of those strange parti-coloured tunics similar to what Justin had, only the patches of colour on this were subtler and suited him well: olive green and creamy white. He had a matching hood with a wide collar, olive on the right and cream on the left, though he’d pushed it back from his head when he’d entered the room. The tunic hugged his muscles while the hood softened the angles around the tops of his shoulders, and the firelight set his fair hair aglow. With no hat on, his fringe was free to flop over his left eye.

Yuuri eased back into the shadows again, watching the men in the room once more, though his gaze mostly strayed to Victor. A baron’s son; an aristocrat. But also a knight. Maybe that was what drew him here, to associate with people he must consider to be below his station. There was no haughtiness or disdain evident on his face as he attempted to field several conversations at once, while Julius plied him with beer, seeming to hover on his every word.    

“Now there’s a fellow with an eye for a pretty skirt.”

Yuuri scanned the room and spotted a man in a voluminous fur cape at a crowded table across the room who was staring at him with a smirk.

“Not here more than a few days and you’re eyeing up the serving wenches,” he laughed, and his companions did the same. “I can introduce you to some local ladies who are a right good fuck at a decent price, if that’s what you want – you can avoid fouling your own nest that way. People here, they talk and gossip, but there’s no end of willing whores to be had outside the castle gates. Believe me,” he added loudly, “I know.”

I bet you do. Yuuri watched the men next to him laugh again, elbow him playfully, and guzzle more beer. People were…raw here, he decided. Their actions and their speech. Could he bring himself to be like that too?

No.

“Sir Victor,” another man at the same table called out above other voices – the beer had been flowing freely there, Yuuri thought, or perhaps something stronger – “what pageantry can we expect when his highness the king comes? A tournament?” There were cheers in response to this. “An exhibition of skill?”

A man next to him quickly shushed him, however, and Yuuri made out: “He doesn’t do that anymore, not since – ”

“Will there be plenty of drink?” came another laughing voice, and Yuuri missed the end of the first man’s speech as more cheers erupted.

“As much as you want,” Victor said with a smile. “Though I’ll trust you not to be indisposed enough to make an arse of yourself.”

“Ah, you know me.”

“That’s the problem – he does,” someone else broke in.

“Are you looking forward to it, sir?” came another voice.

Victor paused to think. “Well, my mother, certainly. The lord, not so much. And I might be tempted to ride out on Alyona more than usual. The hunt’s quite good at that time of year.” He smiled again. It didn’t appear to touch his eyes.

He fell to talking again with the men standing near him, and as Yuuri had drunk the last of his beer, he rose to get more from the flagon on the drinks table. Julius had decided to do the same thing at the same time, his cape seeming to bristle at the sight of him.

“Well, look who’s here,” he announced in his boyish voice, loudly enough for everyone in the room to hear. When Yuuri continued to pour his own drink without comment, the squire added, “What an honour that we’re joined tonight by the craven coward of a knight who ran away.” This was met by a chorus of laughter, which seemed to embolden him to continue. “The shit without a wit whose own horses can’t bear the sight of him.”

Yuuri felt all eyes on him, waiting for a response. But he was as speechless as he’d been with Abelard. It wasn’t that he couldn’t stand up for himself; he really would’ve liked to tell both of them where to get off to. But Abelard was his trainer, and Julius was an annoying bratty teenager who also happened to be Sir Victor’s squire, and both of them were people he’d be expected to try to get on with, he was sure. If anything, he wanted to rid himself of his counterpart’s less than stellar reputation when it came to human relations.

“Julius,” Victor called sternly into the quiet room, “you know that isn’t how a chivalrous knight should speak to someone. If Sir Justin took offence at your rudeness, he’d be within his rights to challenge you to a duel.”

 Julius gave a hearty laugh and looked at Yuuri. “Is that supposed to frighten me?”

“Go dunk your head in a pitcher, squire, until it’s cooled off. Go on. Leave us for a moment.”

The teen’s eyes sparked, and after one last glare at Yuuri, he skulked off down the hall. Yuuri put down the pitcher and cup he was holding, wondering if he should thank Sir Victor. But those ice-blue eyes had now turned their stern gaze toward him.

“Approach, sir knight,” he said.

Yuuri complied quietly, feeling the attention of everyone in the room on him. Don’t do this is front of them. Please. Just…go ride your horse and swing your sword and let me watch you. I think I already know how you feel about this situation; there’s no need to spell it out to me. But he could see in Sir Victor’s eyes that there was plenty he wanted to say, and was going to say, and so he inwardly braced himself.

Victor took a small breath and then spoke in a low, firm voice. Yuuri expected him to use a lecturing tone, but what he said sounded more genuine, even heartfelt, though there was anger clearly underlying his words. “It must have been difficult for you to have to come here and face me in a duel, knowing you were defending your family’s lands and freedom and were therefore going to lose them. If I’d had a choice in the matter, I would never have fought you. But I’m not the master of my own destiny where my father the baron is concerned, and the Courtenay lands were there for the taking. For my part, I apologise.”

Yuuri simply stared, as stunned as he was when he’d first laid eyes on him in the arena. But then Sir Victor pressed his lips into a line, and he wondered if the lecture was coming now. He also noticed out of the corner of his eye that Julius had crept back into the room and was lingering in the shadows with a smug look on his face.

“But for your part…” Victor raised his voice. “You presumably know it’s customary to yield when your opponent’s won the duel. Yet you would’ve had me cut you down.” A flame leapt into his gaze. “Or perhaps you had some misplaced notion that you still had a prayer of overcoming me. You’re an idiotic hothead.”

The sentence was loud enough to sound around the room, and Yuuri swallowed, his cheeks burning. But then Victor seemed to master himself, settled further back on the bench, blinked, and continued.

“You were ready to die. Ready to force me to kill you. Why? You’re a seasoned knight. I resent the fact that I almost had your blood on my hands due to your poor judgement. Perhaps you see such things as sport, Justin le Savage. I don’t.”

Yuuri was struck again by his extraordinary words. Swords and Sorcery was not the most realistic guide to the Middle Ages, but his interactions there had led him to believe that if both participants survived a duel, they might be expected to either decide it was a “jolly good show, old chap” and share a drink, or remain enemies. It would never have occurred to him that the victor would be angry at the vanquished because he’d almost been made to kill; because he hadn’t wanted to kill. That it would’ve bothered him.

But why wouldn’t it? Isn’t that the very same thing that’s been worrying me since I showed up in this place?

And yet, such an attitude from a knight who’d been born and bred here, and the son of a nobleman on top of it? Yes, it was surprising. And very interesting.

But what should he do? Sir Victor was now awaiting a response, as was everyone else. Yuuri felt a stab of anger, certainly not the first, that Justin had landed him in such a situation. None of this was his own fault. But hadn’t he decided he was going to try to pull his reputation out of the mud? He had an opportunity to start now. Justin was going to be the noble, courteous knight he ought to have been in the first place, and this extraordinary man in front of him would no longer be angry and disappointed in him. Maybe.

“Sir,” Yuuri said, hoping it was the correct term of address. He was aware of the quiet gazes upon him. The crackle of the flames in the grate. The blue eyes steadily looking into his own. He wanted to touch whatever was there underneath. “I’ve had time to think about my rash, senseless actions, which were…unbecoming of a…chivalrous knight. Now that I’m here serving your family, I give you my word that I’m going to mend my ways, and…and do you honour. But more than that, I want you to know that I’ve repented of my uncouth behaviour. And I’m grateful for your mercy.”

Sir Victor stared. Yuuri hadn’t seen anyone do what he was about to do, not yet; but then he hadn’t set eyes upon the baron and his lady outside of meals in the great hall, and could only make a guess. Maybe it would be laying it on too thick, but maybe not, considering how angry Sir Victor had been.

He bent down on one knee before the knight, dipping his head low in what he hoped was a posture of humble submission. “I beg your forgiveness, sir,” he said, looking at the stone floor, “and I hope you’ll give me the chance to show you that I’m no longer the person I was.”

If there had been any women in the room, anyone who might be Ailis, he wouldn’t have phrased it that way. And he might have just made a faux pas as it was; he had no idea what passed for manners here, or how someone in his position and situation was supposed to behave toward someone in Victor’s. He should’ve asked Emil…but it was too late now.

The silence stretched out. Someone coughed. Then Yuuri caught a glimpse of Victor’s legs straightening; he was standing up. A hand with a thick gold signet ring on the pinky came into view in front of him. Yuuri looked up in confusion and saw that it was Victor’s left hand, held out for to him to take. His expression was unreadable. Yuuri clasped his hand and stood; it was warm, and the touch of it sent a tingle up his arm. But that was surely a frown on Victor’s face.

“Knights don’t kneel to each other in this castle. Nor do we call each other ‘sir’. We…we’re a brotherhood.” He seemed momentarily lost for words as he dropped Yuuri’s hand. Then he looked toward Julius and nodded, and his squire joined him at his side. “I hope you intend to be true to your flowery speech and oaths.” And again he paused with a look of uncertainty, then pressed his lips together and left the room, Julius following in his wake after a quick clouded glance back.

Yuuri walked purposefully to the drinks table and poured himself the cup of beer he’d originally intended to have, aiming for an outward appearance of nonchalance, while inwardly he discovered he was hoping for more chances like this to show Victor who he really was – in a manner of speaking, of course. Though why him in particular, when he was hoping to earn more respect from everyone –

Emil had joined him before he could finish the thought. “Were you practising that speech beforehand, sir? I must say it was impressive.”

Yuuri took a mouthful of beer, looking at him. The others in the room had gone back to their previous activities, though not without a few glances his way. “I just told him how I honestly felt.” He smiled. “I did all right, did I?”

“I should say so. Earning Sir Victor’s regard would be a high achievement after the way your duel ended.”

“Sounds like a worthwhile goal.”

Feeling like he’d somehow achieved a small victory, Yuuri slept a little easier that night. But not before deciding, upon reflection, that Victor’s squire Julius was not all he appeared. Especially since it seemed almost certain that he was a she. Yuuri couldn’t guess the story behind that, but perhaps he was trying to make up for what he lacked in physical presence by being bolshy.

But that was Julius’s business, and none of his, he decided as his thoughts drifted away.

Chapter Text

Yuuri was getting used to his new routines, the regular breaths of the castle as day followed night followed day. Most people went to bed early and had a long sleep, rising with the dawn. Now that he did this himself, he discovered that waking up in the morning wasn’t so painful anymore, though he figured it would never be a very pleasurable experience. If his ears didn’t pick up the chimes of the church bells in the morning, Emil would come knocking at his door. They rang at the hour called prime, Yuuri had been informed. He’d just about given up on understanding how people told the time here. The length of an hour varied, Emil said, because every day was divided into twelve hours from dawn to dusk, and so they were half as long in winter as in summer. It made about as much sense as a beaver being called a fish.

However, with a bone comb, his shaving kit, a pitcher he could fill at a nearby waterpipe, the garderobe just down the hall, and a fire that was lit for him every day if he left his door unlocked, he at least had some creature comforts. Not that he was in his room often, though, and not that he had much to do in there when he was. Emil had confirmed that the library was for the exclusive use of the Nikiforovs and their senior household staff, which didn’t surprise Yuuri, since the printing press hadn’t been invented yet and hand-written books would therefore be rare luxuries. With no particular desire to visit the main garrison room only to sit on his own, he watched the fire in his room, wandered around the dark and draughty corridors of the castle, or visited Mistress Monica for dancing lessons. More often, however, he simply went to sleep, when his worries allowed it.

Emil continued to give him riding lessons away from the prying eyes of others at the stable and training field, for which he would be forever grateful. He was still learning how to use the reins and his legs to guide, but fortunately being able to balance well was one of his strong points, and he was getting better at not feeling like he might fall off at any moment. Though it was a far cry from donning armour and wielding a lance, which he was in no hurry to do. Blaze, the stout muscular horse they called a destrier, was there waiting for such a time, but for now Yuuri simply took him around the field, amazed at the difference in the feel of riding both of his horses, and their temperaments. Destriers, he’d been told, were trained to charge in battle, while palfreys were for journeys. Working with them was almost but not quite like having a pet; and while there was no shortage of stable hands, he’d asked to be shown how to care for the horses himself, and sometime went there just to do that.

Abelard still rained verbal abuse down, but Yuuri tried to ignore it, and carried out all the strength- and stamina-building tasks he was given, hour after hour. He was pleased to find his body was taking to them well, and he had already noticed that he was getting fitter, though he was often aching and exhausted at the day’s end. No one had been impressed with how slow he was with a sword, but they’d at least acknowledged that he seemed to know what he was doing with one. Abelard put him with the squires to train, and while Yuuri assumed it was intended to be an insult, he took in every bit of instruction that was given. After the years of training they’d already had, the squires were all formidable opponents – even Julius, though Yuuri had already been told as much. He had little opportunity to spar with any of them himself, however, as Abelard had him running around the field, up and down the hill between the castle and the stable, carrying heavy loads – for which the servants who’d been relieved of them expressed their gratitude.

Victor did not visit the stable or the training field often, and the fact that this was a relief to Yuuri was both reassuring and frustrating. He decided to put all his effort into his training in the hope that one day he’d be able to wield a sword in Victor’s sight without feeling ashamed.

Other issues arose, such as the fact that he would give just about anything by now to have a bath, because he never felt properly clean, and was beginning to wonder if jumping into a river in the middle of December would really be so bad. He was also no longer having caffeine, which had triggered some headaches, though mostly he missed the jolt in the morning.

By now he was used to two main meals a day, dinner late in the morning and supper in the early evening, which were often accompanied by entertainment such as the musicians who seemed to be resident at the castle, as well as jesters, jugglers, and people who recited poems. Once a troupe of men visited who performed more sophisticated dancing that seemed to be a predecessor of ballet, though Emil called it acrobatics. The entertainers and the food – which, if rather strange at times compared to what Yuuri was used to, was on the whole tasty and well-cooked – commanded most of his attention during meals, so that he didn’t feel pressed into too much awkward small talk with Chris or Charles.

Well, those things and Victor. Yuuri worked out that if he had a neighbour at the high table, it was usually some visiting dignitary or noble; they seemed to come and go from the castle frequently. His parents were always to his left, and it didn’t take a genius to work out that sitting to the right of one of the nobles was considered a place of honour. Yuuri wondered if Victor had any friends around the castle, and if so, if they were ever allowed to join him. He appeared to have no other family here. There was an ease to his actions at meals that Yuuri supposed was natural for someone brought up in this lifestyle. But smiles were rare, and Yuuri wasn’t sure how many were heartfelt. Something invisible seemed to weigh constantly on his shoulders, and Yuuri often thought back to what Victor had said to him in the main garrison room that night he’d knelt before him.

But he would eventually snap himself out of it. Who was Victor to him, anyway? They hardly knew each other. The duel was behind him. He had a mission to accomplish.

He therefore turned his focus to interviewing the women of the castle on the pretext of getting to know his fellow residents. Monica assisted him in finding contemporary clothes that suited his personality, since he didn’t want to spend more time in front of his mirror trying to get his projection to mimic them. He’d had to part with more coins, but the expense had been worth it, and he now owned tunics and hose, a hat that looked like the repulsive one from the closet but without the odour, a water-resistant cape, boots, and warm knitted socks, in colours that were less garish. He was a little self-conscious about how tight the tunics and hose were, but Monica insisted they were stylish, and other men at the castle wore similar things.

Attempting to carry on with his mission, he’d already questioned a cleaner, a gardener, a herbalist, a cook, and one of the seamstresses who was often present during his visits to Monica. They’d given him a posy to pin to his tunic, a bundle of herbs to place in his room to freshen it, a small loaf of freshly baked bread, and even a pair of black gloves that were more decorative than insulating. But no useful information. To his growing frustration, he could not imagine any of these women being Ailis in disguise. It was possible, he thought once more, that she was simply a good actress. Or she was projecting herself as someone who didn’t work or live at the castle, though he hoped the reality wasn’t as complicated as that.

He was pondering what to try next one afternoon when he passed through the courtyard on his way to the pantry to collect sacks full of dried beans and peas, which would be used to make something called horse bread for the animals in the stable, as one of Abelard’s strength-building tasks. The congestion around the kitchen door was thicker than usual, however, so he entered the archway that led to the vestibule outside the great hall, intending to go through the passage between the pantry and the buttery to get to the storage room, when he heard a voice he recognised as Victor’s.

Yuuri peered around the doorway and spotted him in conversation just inside the hall with his father. While the baron was clad in rich dark layers that hung heavily on his imposing frame, Victor’s clothes were simple and down to earth, the only giveaways of his status the expensive-looking material and a maroon cap with intricately embroidered green and orange vines along the sides, tapering to a point in front, which reminded Yuuri of Robin Hood.

Not wanting to be caught listening in, he ducked back into the vestibule but decided to stay where he was, wondering what these two important people would say to each other.

“…when we’ll see you in the chapel again.” Baron Nikiforov’s deep voice. “Your avoidance of it is unseemly, Victor. Don’t think I’m unsympathetic, but – ”

“We’ve had this conversation many times before.” Victor’s, on a weary note. “Now isn’t a good time to revive it, and my response would be the same as always.”

“Father Maynard is most displeased.”

“Father Maynard is no concern of mine.”

The baron made a grumbling sound and muttered something Yuuri couldn’t make out. The conversation shifted to the castle estate, taxes and tithes and so on, and he decided he’d heard enough, when the next statement caused him to raise his head and strain to listen.

“I’ve also heard back from Matthew Jenkins,” the baron said quietly. “I thought you should know it’s been confirmed that he’s lost a fifth of his sheep herd to the plague.”

“He’s certain that’s the nature of the affliction?”

“Yes. I know it troubles you to hear it; it troubles me also. But his farm is a good way out in the countryside, and no one has fallen ill apart from the animals. We believe the problem to be contained, though his family and their neighbours have promised to remain vigilant.”

There was a long pause. Then Victor said, “It seems we’ll never be free of the scourge.”

“I’m going to send John tomorrow to ensure the remainder of the herd is destroyed.”

“The Jenkins family will need to be reimbursed.”

“John will see to it that they are.”

Yuuri shuddered. Local sheep catching the plague? He hadn’t known it was possible. The nanobots in his own system were programmed against yersinia pestis and other common varieties, but he was ever mindful of what had happened to Dr. Croft. And if the plague spread to the castle…He suddenly had a vision of these people and their carefully constructed hierarchy, from Edith the chambermaid to the baron himself, and Emil and Julius, Monica and Victor, dying horribly. He and Ailis could be the only ones left standing.

But the baron sounded less worried than Victor. A few sheep in some distant field wasn’t an epidemic. That thought, however, was unlikely to lull him to sleep at night.

“…a sorry excuse for a knight,” the baron was saying. “It was a mistake to insist he stay here with us. As soon as I saw the duel between the two of you go from bad to worse, may God forgive me, I hoped you’d cut his throat.”

Yuuri’s breath caught.

“It was your decision,” came the hard-edged reply. “I did as you commanded.”

The baron sighed. “So you did. I thought perhaps the fellow would shape up to be a better knight than he at first appeared to be, after some time with Abelard. The reports I’ve had from him, however, aren’t promising. His reputation as an intemperate rash man preceded him, and I think we can add ‘coward’ to it as well. It seems to me that he could put all our men’s lives at risk on a battlefield, though God willing, there won’t be any such fights to break the peace here. In fact, I sent a message to Courtenay asking him if he’d like his son back, but even he doesn’t want him. A pretty position to be in, isn’t it? Rumour has it that he’s been making sport with the women here at the castle as well.”

“I’m not sure it’s as bad as that. He’s apologised to me, very courteously. Surprisingly so. I wouldn’t have expected it of him, but he seemed sincere.”

Victor’s voice was higher and softer than his father’s. He was…defending him?

“I admit I shared your concerns at first,” Victor continued. “But I’ve seen him in training, and I’d say he possesses unusual strengths as well as weaknesses. With Abelard’s assistance, perhaps…” He fell silent.

Unusual strengths? When had Victor been around to watch? Surely not while he’d been lugging sacks up and down the hill.

“Well if things don’t work out with him, we can always compel him to join the clergy and look after our interests that way. There must be some use for him.”

Join the clergy? Could they make him do that?

Of course they can. I’m a possession of theirs now, just like the Courtenay lands and castle.

Yuuri realised he’d gasped loudly upon hearing the Baron’s words, and the two men had fallen silent. Beads of sweat leapt out on his brow as he stepped into the doorway to find them staring at him in surprise.

Shit.

He considered walking off in an offended huff or saying something sarcastic. Neither of which, he was sure, would be looked upon favourably. Then it occurred to him that this moment offered an opportunity, just like the one he’d grabbed with Victor in the garrison when his apology seemed to have hit home. Maybe, if he played his cards right, Yuuri could even have an ally in him.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing.” Their eyes widened, and he wondered what he’d said to make them gape like that. He stepped into the room and gave a low bow, the way he’d seen other people do when addressing the baron. “I…regret that I’ve given you cause to be disappointed in me, my lords,” he said hurriedly. “I’ve lost some of my memory since the duel; I think it might’ve been caused by a head injury. The only other person I’ve told is Emil, my squire, because I didn’t want to bring more embarrassment on myself than I already have. But that’s why I’ve needed some extra help. I’d rather no one else knew, and…and I beg you to keep this a secret. Please.”

He hadn’t planned to tell the amnesia story to anyone else; hadn’t wanted word to spread and possibly get to Ailis. At the same time, however, if his incompetence, as they saw it, seemed bad enough for the baron to be thinking about sticking him in a monastery, he had to do something about that. Aside from the fact that it was the last thing he wanted, it would make it difficult for him to complete his mission.

They still seemed bewildered as he continued, “I’m also not…making sport with the women. I’m trying to learn things from them that I never learned at my father’s castle, or that the amnesia caused me to forget. How things are run here; how to…how to be chivalrous. More than I was. As for my fighting prowess – you’re underestimating me, my lord.”

Where had that come from? But it was too late to turn back now, though the prolonged stares were burning into him. “Train me hard,” he said heatedly. “Give me a chance to develop the strength I should’ve come here with. I’ll prove my worth to you.”

The baron broke the silence with a cynical laugh. “It’s easy to say such things. You’ll forgive me if I’m not convinced.”

But Victor gazed at Yuuri keenly. “I’d like to see that. I hope you mean it.”

“I do,” Yuuri affirmed. “I want you to…think well of me. I’ll give you a good reason – all I need is a chance.”

“Indeed.” He paused. “So tell me, Justin – where did you learn to speak Russian?”

Yuuri’s throat tightened; then he forced through it, “We’re…speaking Russian.” He made sure it ended as a statement rather than a question.

“Yes,” Victor laughed. “You speak it quite well. Wouldn’t you say, Father?”

The baron simply eyed Yuuri. “I was wondering the same thing, in truth.”

“Um.” Fuck. The translator. I forgot. “I’m a master of languages,” he blurted, and was again met with surprised expressions. “I can speak just about any language that’s spoken here.”

“I could understand that for English, Latin, French, and so on,” Victor said. “But Russian? It’s not exactly common. Most people here have never even heard of my family’s homeland.”

Yuuri attempted a nonchalant shrug. “But you’re an important, powerful family. And I have a talent for learning languages, so it wasn’t difficult.”

Victor quirked his mouth in a smile that seemed half bemused and half pleasantly intrigued. “You’re full of surprises, it seems. The new look, too – it suits you.”

Yuuri’s cheeks pinked. The more approval he gained from this man, the more he seemed to want it. He told himself to stop being so silly.

“I think we’ve had enough of this for now,” grumbled the baron, looking at Yuuri and then Victor. “There are more pressing matters to attend to.” As he made to leave, he turned to glared at Yuuri again, dark eyes flashing. “You’ve given me your word, young Courtenay. I trust you’ll honour it. If not, you won’t want to experience my displeasure.” After a pause, he added, “And what’s more, if I discover you’ve been listening again to conversations that are not meant for your ears, I’ll have them chopped off, and you can consider yourself lucky.”

A violent shiver passed through Yuuri, though the more noncommittal look on Victor’s face was a bit of comfort. “Yes, my lord,” he replied hoarsely before father and son exited into the courtyard.

Yuuri breathed deeply, willing his limbs to stop trembling. Some display of courage that was. He remained still, taking a moment to collect himself and allow the baron and Victor to put more distance between them before he emerged from the hall.

What were they saying before the baron threatened to…well, before that?

Sheep with plague. Then, once he’d been discovered, a spur-of-the-moment promise that he’d prove himself to these people, whatever that had meant. Now the baron would hold him to it. And – he’d been fucking speaking Russian without knowing it. There appeared to be no way of making the translator tell him what language he was supposed to be using, the illusion being that it was always English.

Victor seemed to think he had potential, anyway. Yuuri was burning to know what he thought he was so good at. And…he’d actually complimented him.

He focused his thoughts on that as he made his way to the stable, and there was a spring in his step by the time he arrived.

Chapter Text

The spring didn’t stay there, however, over the next couple of days, as the heavens opened and the rains hardly ceased their deluge. Life carried on as usual throughout, and Yuuri was soaked on numerous occasions until he was shivering, his beeswax-treated cape proof against the onslaught for only so long before it, too, became sodden. Abelard took him into the stable one afternoon to train him in the use of a sword, but Yuuri was so cold and wet that he found it difficult to concentrate, and eventually he was ordered to go back to his room and sort himself out.

He pulled his wet and muddy clothes off, hung them from the mantel to dry, put on a new pair of hose and a long-sleeved shirt, and decided he would sit in front of the fire with his com and toolkit again.

Maybe he’d been too pessimistic about what had happened to Phichit and Celestino. If they’d immobilised Ailis’s assistant Ian somehow, they might have got him to talk – and it was conceivable he might even have told them who Ailis was projecting herself as. In which case, they’d been waiting to relay the information to him. It would simplify things immensely. All he would have to do was take her unawares, and…

…and what? He’d never worked that part out.

It’s about time I did, isn’t it?

Could I…kill her if I had to? But how? I’m no assassin.

No, I’m a knight. Jesus.

He removed the back of the com, then decided he’d be able to see what he was doing better near the window than in front of the fire. The panes of thick glass were sufficiently warped that anyone outside would have trouble making out who was sitting on the inside, let alone what they were doing; he’d checked.

This is stupid, he told himself as he examined the components in the eerie blue glow of the qubit processor. If all I achieve is damage to the projector, I’m fucked. But what kind of a techie am I if I can’t even repair a piece of broken tech? I have to try.

He laid his tools on the stone bench next to him like a surgeon preparing for an operation, then studied the inner workings of the com and attempted to diagnose the problem until the sun was dipping low in the sky, but made little progress. If a part needed replacing, there was nothing he could replace it with. Some of his tools gave a magnified view of whatever he targeted them at, but it wasn’t the same as using a diagnostic machine, which would do a more thorough and reliable job. Though the biggest problem of all, of course, was that he didn’t even understand how the bloody device worked in the first place.

That wasn’t entirely true, however. While the image projector was more of a mystery, the com was something he could wrap his head around – if he ignored that fact that it communicated across time, anyway. He decided to focus on the components he did understand, or could at least make some guesses about. There were a couple of possible loose connections; those were easily addressed. It looked like there might have been a tiny burn inside near the casing seam, perhaps where energy in the timestream had leaked in. He cleaned off the resultant micro-layer of soot and ash, and soldered a couple of nearby junctions that appeared to have been damaged. It wasn’t much more than tinkering around the edges, but he had to start somewhere.

Replacing the back of the com, he strapped it around his wrist – and Justin’s projection returned. Thank God for that. The BCI menu for it still worked, too. Now, did the one for the com? Yuuri told himself not to get his hopes up as he walked over to stand in the warmth of the fire.

He waited a moment, holding his breath…and there it was, flashing up in his field of view. It was working! His heart leapt.

OK, OK, that’s great. But could he get it to do any more than this? Gripping the edge of the mantel, he gave a mental command for it to call Phichit.

Please God please God please let someone be there –

“Yuuri? Yuuri, is that you?” Phichit’s voice, tinny but unmistakable through the speaker holes in the com.

“Phichit!” Yuuri breathed. “Oh my God, Phichit, it’s you! I thought I’d never talk to you again!”

“Same! You’re alive!”

You’re alive! How? When I left – ”

“Yeah, I know. For a minute there, I thought Celestino and I were gonna get ghosted. Anyway, where’ve you been? Why haven’t you called until now?”

“Please, just fill me in on what happened in the lab first? I’ve been so fucking worried.”

After a pause, Phichit replied, “Well, as soon as you disappeared, the jack you swapped places with turned up. Not in the exact same spot, which was a good thing, because that Ian bloke was trying to blow a hole through you with his gun. But it distracted him enough that I was able to take a shot at him – just to stun him, you know.”

“You did?”

“Yeah,” Phichit said, suddenly sounding proud. “But, um, it didn’t work as well as I hoped. I missed, because I’ve never fired a gun before and I guess it takes some getting used to. Ian got all panicked and fired some wild shots into the room, then ran back out the door.”

He fell silent; this seemed to be the extent of the story. Yuuri’s brow wrinkled as he stared at the com. “Did either of you go after him?”

“He had a gun!”

“So did you.”

“He could’ve killed us! Do you know what it’s like to have that almost happen to you?”

“Yes.”

“You – you do? Since when? Yuuri, what’s been happening to you there? Where – ”

“I’ll get to that in a minute. Are you and Celestino both OK?”

He said they were, and Yuuri listened to the rest of the details as he watched the flames flicker low in the grate. As neither Phichit nor Celestino were confident with using a gun, much less chasing after someone else who’d threatened them with one, they’d focused their attention on the new person in the room, who had begun to demand in his peculiar version of English that they tell him where he was and what had happened.

“At least you don’t have to meet him, Yuuri,” Phichit said. “His name’s Justin, knight of the…Corder…Court…something like that.”

“Justin Courtenay, otherwise known as Justin le Savage. I assume he’s been showing you why he was given the nickname.”

“We had to stun him before we could even get him out of the lab, if that tells you anything. He had a dagger on his belt and he tried to attack Celestino with it.” He added in a confidential tone, “I don’t think he’s quite right in the head, Yuuri. It’s like he’s angry all the time.”

“From what I’ve heard about him, that sounds normal,” Yuuri conceded. “Though the fact that he was uprooted from his life here and plonked down with you two in the future might have something to do with it, too.” His eyes flitted around his room, his surroundings seemingly incongruous now that he was talking with Phichit again. It felt like he ought to be able to switch this off as an Immersion simulation and find himself at the gym, or his flat, or the university. “So what have you done with him? Where is he now?”

Phichit said they’d given him a translator and were keeping him under lockdown in a secure wing of the university as a virtual prisoner. As often as Yuuri had muttered things to himself about Justin in frustration since he’d arrived, he felt bad – guilty, even – about the circumstances the hapless jack now found himself in; Phichit said he kept demanding that they send him home, promising that his father would pay them a kingly ransom. Apparently Dr. Fay was attempting to smooth things over, setting up sparring sessions with weapons experts and re-enactors under close supervision; she’d also shown him the living history museum, though they couldn’t trust him to stay there without trying to run away or harm someone.

“Phichit, if anything happens to him – ” Yuuri began.

“I know. If he got killed, you’d turn up back here. As much as I’d like to see you again, I know that wouldn’t be good. None of us want him to get hurt, either. I promise we’ll take good care of him; try not to worry.”

That’s easy for you to say. If Justin had been content at the living history museum like his predecessors, it would’ve helped a great deal.

Yuuri’s hopes that Ian might have revealed something were dashed too, though he’d figured as much when Phichit had explained what had happened in the lab. The police were looking for him, he said, but they hadn’t learned anything new about him, and he’d already proved that he was good at evading attempts to track him down. Yuuri could hardly blame Phichit or Celestino for how events had played out. He was glad they hadn’t risked their lives by trying to chase after him, and he said as much to his friend.

He began to pace the room slowly while the daylight faded. His drying clothes slung over the mantel had filled it with the smell of damp wool and earth, which mingled with the ever-present woodsmoke. “It was such a surprise to hear your voice,” he said. “The com wasn’t working when I got here. The projector was, but I couldn’t contact you. It took me a while to find the courage to try to fix it. I mean, I don’t understand the tech, so it seemed like a stupid idea, you know? But whatever I did, it worked. Where are you, anyway?”

“In my office.”

“Holy shit,” Yuuri laughed. “That sounds so…so fucking normal.”

“I guess it would. Where are you?” Phichit’s words tumbled out in a rush. “If you changed places with Justin, does that mean you’re a knight? Have…have you had to fight someone already? You said – ”

“I’m OK for now,” Yuuri replied with a reassurance he did not feel. Then he explained what had happened since the moment he’d arrived in the middle of the duel. The sun had set by the time he finished, with Phichit silent for the most part, adding occasional interjections, which became more emphatic and frequent as Yuuri went on, especially when he mentioned the sheep that had caught the plague.

“Shit, Yuuri. But at least if you catch it, the nanobots in your system should be able to take care of it.”

“The only other person here with nanobots is Ailis.”

“I know. But well, it was a fact of life back then, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess so. But there are nice people here. Emil. Monica. Victor, I think. And all the rest of them, just trying to get on with their lives. You’re not here, you don’t see them. It’d be like…” He paused to consider. “I don’t know, everyone at the university catching some disease and dying horribly. You don’t know most of them very well, but even so – ”

“That wouldn’t happen. Anyway, have you – ”

There was a knock at the door, and Emil called through. Yuuri opened it, leaving the com link open after hurriedly telling Phichit not to make a noise.

“I didn’t know if you were aware of the time, sir. Are you ready to come to supper?”

“I, uh…not yet.”

Emil gazed at him. “Is something wrong?”

“No, um, I’m still warming up and drying my clothes. Would…would they let you bring some food here to my room later instead?”

“I could fetch you some when I go to get my own,” Emil said with a shrug, “though I can’t promise any of the choice dishes will be left.”

“That’s not a problem.”

“All right. I’ll see you in a while, then, sir.” With that, Emil left, and Yuuri relocked the door. “He’s gone,” he said into his com.

“Yuuri, that was amazing. You were speaking real Middle English with that jack.”

“That’s what it sounded like to you?”

“Yeah! I didn’t understand much of it. It’s like another language. Who was he? What’s it like there? Do you get special clothes and food and things because you’re a knight?”

“That was Emil, my squire. And fuck the ‘special’ stuff,” Yuuri added. “This isn’t some fairytale kingdom. The second I arrived here, I almost got a sword through my throat. That could happen again. Or I might be expected to try to do the same thing to someone else. I don’t mind using a sword to defend myself – but to kill?” He huffed. “Jesus Christ. This isn’t the kind of cartoon violence you see in movies; this is real life.”

“I know,” came the quiet response.

“On top of that, everyone thinks I’m the most incompetent knight who ever existed.” As soon as he said it, he remembered it wasn’t quite true; that Victor had seemed to see something in him. But he couldn’t stop the words spilling out. “I’ve had to get my own squire – who’s supposed to look up to me and try to follow in my footsteps or something – to give me lessons on how to ride a horse. He’s had to tell me so many simple things that I made up a story about amnesia to explain why. I’m even having to take dance lessons from the head seamstress along with seven-year-old boys, so that I can do this stuff that’s expected of me. The trainer here is a Scottish pillock who constantly insults me. I haven’t tried using a lance yet. I don’t want to. If they force me into some duel to the death, Phichit, it’s a no-brainer who’s going to get killed. I…” He took several breaths, his throat constricting. If he carried on like this, he was going to plunge into an anxiety attack.

“Yuuri, calm down,” came Phichit’s soothing voice. “OK, I guess I got a little carried away there, imagining you turning into a knight in shining armour.”

“That’s Victor,” Yuuri said, counting his breaths and trying to take them in deep. “Me, I haven’t even got my own armour yet. Phichit, this is a nightmare…I’ve been so alone with it all.”

“Well you can talk to me now. I’ll have to tell Celestino you’re still alive; I think he’s giving a lecture. We weren’t sure what to do when we didn’t hear from you…”

Yuuri was silent, continuing to count his breaths as he stared into the fire, now the only light in the room apart from weak purple-grey outside the window.

Phichit eventually continued, “But you’re good with a sword, you said so yourself. You’re in good shape, too.”

“You should see these jacks here,” Yuuri said, raking a hand through his hair. “That’s nothing compared to what they can do. What they’re like. I bet even Victor’s fifteen-year-old squire could beat me.”

“Give yourself some credit, Yuuri. It can’t be as bad as that.”

Yes it is. “Some help Dr. Fay was. Why didn’t she tell me any of this stuff? The most useful thing she did was give me the bag of coins. Though that’s something. People here have been accepting them.”

“OK, well maybe I can help. Just tell me how.”

Three more breaths. In, out. The hissing, crackling flames, the only sound in the room, were comforting somehow. “You help just by being there. A voice of sanity in the middle of all this. It feels good to know you’re there and you’re OK.”

“Wow, thanks.”

Yuuri thought a moment. “You’ve got access to information, don’t you? The Cloud, books, whatever. Maybe it’d help if I knew more about this time and place. Specifically here – this castle and the people in it.”

“I’ll double-check, though I’m pretty sure Celestino and Dr. Fay told you everything they knew. A lot of information’s been lost over the centuries. There might be some old books in libraries or churches or something that haven’t been digitised, but I’d have to see what I could find; it might take a while.”

“Thanks.”

“And, um, Yuuri – I know it’s been hard for you there and everything, but have you had a chance to do anything about…well, about your mission? It’s just that I know Celestino will ask.”

“Yeah, and I’ve been trying.” Yuuri decided to start with the most important thing he’d learned in that regard. Well, the only thing. “I found out that the king’s coming here to visit next June.”

“What?” Phichit gasped. “The king? Of England?”

“That’s right. I’d been thinking that Ailis might be planning something for when he’s here, though I don’t have any evidence of that yet.”

“You should keep looking, Yuuri. Shit, this is serious – can you imagine what Ailis could get up to with someone that important there?”

“I know. And I’m trying, but it’s going to take time. I’ve also been interviewing women around the castle, but none of the ones I’ve talked to have seemed suspicious. A few of them have got specialist knowledge about the jobs they do that would probably be hard for Ailis to fake, though with her being as intelligent as she is, I don’t think I can say anything for sure. Maybe she learns fast.”

“You ought to keep interviewing people, then.”

“I will. And this is a long shot, but what if she swapped places with a woman who didn’t have any regular business at the castle, found out the king was coming, and decided to try to get a job here so she could be in the perfect place at the perfect time? The last time I spoke to Monica, I asked her if any women started working here at the time Ailis must’ve arrived.”

“And?”

Yuuri explained that she’d given him three names, and he’d found each of the women and talked with them. The cleaner was young, but had calloused hands and a sallow face. The gardener, a middle-aged woman, clearly enjoyed her job and was very knowledgeable about it. And the herbalist appeared to come from a higher social class than the other two; she seemed to want people to know about it as well, by dressing in richer clothing and cultivating a bit of a haughty manner. Yuuri admitted that he could simply be mistaking that for pride in her work and an unwillingness to let any of her trade secrets slip out; though as he’d spoken to her in the courtyard and not in the room where she worked, he couldn’t see how it would be likely. None of these women, however, had given any indication that they were anything other than who they appeared to be.  

“I don’t know what else to do,” he concluded. “I can’t exactly go around picking up DNA. I can’t dust for fingerprints. I don’t even have a flipping magnifying glass like Sherlock Holmes, though I can’t see what I’d do with one anyway. Ailis is going to be careful, and she might want to just get on with whatever life she’s living until the king comes. How do I find her?”

After a pause, Phichit said, “Could she have tampered with time, do you think?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, maybe she’s already killed someone important. Someone who’d show up in the history books.”

“Even if she had,” Yuuri said, shaking his head, “wouldn’t the history books all change, and we’d just believe that what they said was the original natural course of events? How would we know any differently?”

“Jeez, you’re right. We don’t know anything about the rules of time travel.”

“This is going to be practically impossible,” Yuuri sighed, looking at the floor.

“You’ve got to keep trying, Yuuri. I’m probably not a good judge of this, because Celestino was the one who mainly talked to Dr. Quincey and Dr. Croft, but I think maybe you’re already doing better than them. And you’re our last hope.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Yuuri breathed. “I think about that every day. I know I need to find her. But I need to be able to survive here, too. That means being able to play the part of this knight. Somehow. I’ve been training for hours every day. I exercise until my entire body aches. I’ve still got a sore arse from riding my horse, though I suppose I’m getting more used to it now.”

“Sorry, Yuuri.”

He bit his lip. “Yeah, I am, too. Really. This is the first time I’ve been able to tell these things to anyone, and they get me so worked up sometimes. And it’s…well, it’s frightening here. And weird. I don’t know how Ailis manages to fit in so well, if she is here at the castle. I’m constantly worried that I’ll do something to give myself away to her, and I’ll end up like…like Dr. Quincey. Or for that matter, in pieces on a battlefield, or in an arena.”

“Just hang in there, OK? Now that the com’s working, you know you can call me whenever you need to, day or night. I’ll see what info I can look up for you. If you want, sometimes maybe you can leave the link open, like you did when that Emil jack came in? I can’t tell you how incredible it was to hear what was going on, and you two talking like that.”

“Yeah, OK, as long as you’re someplace quiet, where you won’t make any noise yourself. They can’t see the com as part of the projection, but they might be able to hear it.”

“Brilliant. I’m looking forward to this. I really am glad you’re OK.”

“Cheers, Phichit,” Yuuri said as he stared into the flames. “You know, though, there’s one more thing you could do for me right now.”

“Sure, just name it.”

“Play me a Nasha Bolaji song.”

A surprised laugh. “Why that?”

“Because I haven’t heard any normal music since I left,” Yuuri replied quietly. “I like her voice. Show me…” He shook his head and huffed. “I know this sounds silly, but show me I’m not going mad. That the world I know is still out there, and I’m not just Justin le Savage dreaming he’s this jack called Yuuri Katsuki.”

There was a pause as Phichit took this in. “Wow. Um, OK. Any particular song of hers?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“I’m on it. Just give me a minute.”

Phichit managed to locate a digital music player. There was nothing technologically sophisticated about placing it on a table next to the com, or the slightly muffled tune that sounded like it was being broadcast from a long way away through a dense medium. Yuuri could make it out well enough; and as Nasha sang the first lines of “Never Gonna Leave You,” it almost felt like a physical touch from the ether, as if what she was really saying was, Yes you remember me, yes I’m real, yes you’ll come home one day. And when tears pricked at his eyes, he let them fall.   

Chapter Text

Over the next several days, Yuuri often called Phichit for short conversations over the com while he was in his bedroom. It was rare that he was able to accept calls when the BCI popped up in his visual field, however, because he was working with Emil or Abelard, or having a meal at the great hall, or doing something else where there were other people. But he’d call back when he was able, thankful that he could. Phichit told him that Celestino was delighted he was still alive – which was rather gratifying, Yuuri had decided with a smirk – and that he was sourcing ancient book archives with the help of Dr. Fay. He was struggling to find information on the Cloud about the castle and its residents from that particular time, he said, and accessing the books would take a while.

Yuuri verbally took Phichit through the beginning of his day a couple of times, to share with him what it was like. In fact, he ended up feeling like a tour guide, and thought what he was saying wouldn’t be out of place at the living history museum.

“It’s pigging cold this morning. The fire goes out in the middle of the night and you just don’t want to get out from under the blanket, I can tell you.

“You wouldn’t believe the weird bright clothes they wear here. This chest I’ve got is like something you’d find in an actor’s dressing room. I could do a good Hamlet. Or, well, Yorick the jester more like.

“I only cut myself twice when I shaved just now. I think that’s a record. The stupid thing is, though, I ought to just let it bloody grow because I can’t let anyone here see the real me anyway.

“Jesus, Phichit, don’t ever try to wash yourself with just a pitcher and basin, and cold water on top of it. What I wouldn’t give for a fucking bucket big enough to sit in and have a proper wash.

“They gave me salt fish again with breakfast. That’s supposed to be a treat. They’re on a no-animal-products fast here for an entire month. If I ever see a fish again after this, I’ll chuck it back in the pond.

“You don’t even want to know what goes on at the tannery here. It’s bloody revolting.

“They gave me dolphin for dinner.”

That was the biggest talking point for a while. Yes, Yuuri had tried it, and found it quite tasty. But he’d refused to eat any more on principle, because how could he eat a dolphin? Phichit got Yuuri’s permission to relay the historical information to Dr. Fay, who made notes, he said, and in turn he kept him informed of what was happening at the university. Apparently Celestino and government experts were examining Ailis’s tech and notes and not getting far, and in the meantime they were relying on Yuuri to do what he’d gone back in time to do.

He was aware of that, and of the fact that he was making little progress. But the training he was receiving in knighthood was taking up much of his time. He’d meant what he said in the great hall to the baron and Victor about proving himself, and frankly he was tired of being laughed at and insulted. Perhaps part of Abelard’s problem with him was that he was a better trainer than Yuuri gave him credit for, and therefore saw him as a relative beginner who was beneath him. Yuuri thought he could understand that, but it didn’t stop him from burning in anger at the humiliation the man dished out. There was never any praise. When Yuuri felt confident enough to move from jumping onto the pommel horse while wearing armour to jumping onto his destrier, Abelard said the leper outside the castle gates could move faster. When he scored a win against Sir Chris while sparring with him – his very first win against anyone – Abelard said he was a jammy dodger, and even his five-year-old nephew got lucky sometimes. While he was learning sword moves, he was told it might wake him up a bit if he gave it a good swing between his legs and whacked his own bollocks. Yuuri rather felt he’d like to do that to the infuriating bastard.

He didn’t think he’d ever felt that way toward anyone. People had tried to pick fights with him at school sometimes, but he would find a way to defuse the situation, or just ignore them. Granted, Abelard didn’t tend to be very pleasant with anyone, though he seemed to save his most venomous comments for Yuuri. He’d noticed Victor watching occasionally, without being able to read anything into his expression, though it was easy to start writing disappointment into those fair features.

“You should insult him back, Yuuri,” Phichit said one evening after he’d been training in the cold rain and mud, and was feeling his tether stretched thin. “Call him, I dunno, a – ”

“I’m not going to call him anything, Phichit. I don’t want a sword stuck through me.”

I guess you know best.”

I doubt I do.

He asked Phichit to play more of his favourite music before going to sleep that night.

The next morning, Emil told him his new armour was now ready, and strode with him through the misty grey morning light to the blacksmith’s workshop, where he had it fitted along with a gambeson.

I have a helmet, he thought in wonder as he held it in his hands. Complete with a visor and slits for eyes. Next he was given a pair of gauntlets, which he pulled on and then stared at in awe, as if his hands were not his own. The metal plates tied to his body gleamed like silver mirrors.

They briefly returned to his room in the garrison – the metal making those clanking noises he’d so often heard when the other knights moved – where he saw that a second wooden chest had been delivered. “Ah, good, they’ve brought it,” Emil said, pulling the lid open. “This is for your armour, sir. The plate needs to be dry before it’s put away so that it doesn’t rust. I’m always happy to help you with taking it off and looking after it.” He added, “It’s part of a squire’s job.”

“I think I really may need your help, at least at first,” Yuuri replied. “There are so many different pieces to this, and I don’t know how they’re all tied on.” He walked to the mirror and gasped when he looked.

Phichit, I wish you could see this.

I look like Victor now, and the other knights. I still don’t feel like a knight, though. Well, maybe a little more than before.

“It looks grand on you, sir. What do you think?”

“Not as heavy as I expected.” Yuuri raised and lowered his arms. “It’ll take some getting used to, but it doesn’t seem to weigh any more than the chainmail shirt I was wearing.”

“It’s quite like the armour you had on when you arrived here. How does it feel to draw and use your sword?”

Yuuri had momentarily forgotten that Emil believed he’d been wearing real armour in the duel, and would therefore probably expect him to be used to it. He drew his sword from its leather scabbard and made some jabs and arcs with the blade. Sir Lancelot, eat your heart out, he thought with a silent laugh. Then he remembered why a knight wore armour in the first place, and what he was expected to do with a weapon. I’m being stupid. Anyone can strap metal plates to themselves and wave a sword around.

“I’ll leave your helmet in the chest, sir, since the knights generally train without them.” Emil was smiling as Yuuri sheathed his sword. “You do look the part again, sir. Let’s walk down to the training field, and you can tell me if any of your fastenings are too loose or tight, or if anything else doesn’t fit quite right. I daresay Abelard will want to work you hard and get you used to your new plate as quickly as possible.”

That flattened any remaining effervescence about his appearance as they walked through the empty garrison, into the courtyard, and out the castle gates. Yuuri was certain Abelard would think of some appropriate insults for his new armour, and gruelling exercises as well. At least the rain had stopped today, and there were patches of blue sky as the clouds began to part and the mist clinging to the low ground at the bottom of the hill slowly evaporated. The air was chill, but Yuuri was wearing his ordinary tunic and hose underneath the padding and armour, and for once the cold was unable to eat into his bones.

When they entered the stable, he saw to his consternation that the knights and squires were there already, as well as the usual mixed cohort of guards and men-at-arms. Many pairs of eyes were upon him as the room quietened. Ignoring them while his cheeks burned, Yuuri greeted his palfrey with a stroke down her face. Her ears flicked and she whickered.

“No, not the wee lady today,” he heard the familiar Scottish accent instruct from behind. “I want you to practise jumping up onto your destrier. Get the spring back into those sticks you call legs, now you’ve got some plate on ’em. Then I’ll wanna see you building some more strength; I’ll see what I can find you to lift. Don’t be getting ideas above your station because you’re all shiny and new, laddie; I’ve seen dungheaps that made better knights than you.”

As Yuuri led Blaze through the stable, he looked straight ahead, trying to ignore the stares. Emil had gone to spar with the squires, with his permission, so he would be working alone. At the end of the building near the door to the training field, Victor was standing outside his horse’s stall while Julius strapped his armour on him. Yuuri looked down at the ground as he passed.

“He’s wrong,” came Victor’s quiet voice.

Yuuri’s eyes met his, calm and blue; Victor had been speaking to him. “I’m sorry?”

“Show him what you can do. Like you said you would for me.”

“I…” Realising he was staring, Yuuri managed a “thank you” before heading out the door, hearing Julius’s words fading behind him: “Why are you encouraging him? We’d be better off without him here, do you not think, master?” He could not hear Victor’s reply.

Yuuri followed Abelard’s instructions, practising vaulting onto his horse at the far end of the field. He thought it was quite an accomplishment even without armour, and would have felt proud of himself if all the other knights and squires hadn’t already been able to do it routinely. Now that he was wearing plate mail, however, his weight distribution was different, and he fell more often than he succeeded, the impact on the ground seemingly magnified by the clanks his armour made. Blaze was not well pleased at his scrabbling efforts either, snorting and stomping at the clumsy handling.

Eventually, feeling bruised all over, Yuuri decided to ride around the field. His mobility was significantly enhanced, he discovered, with properly fitted plates tied to him as opposed to an oversized chainmail shirt hanging off his shoulders. Even sitting on the leather saddle was more comfortable, because there was no armour over his nether regions, front or back; just a short metal skirt Emil had called a fauld, comprised of horizontal loops that could fold together like an accordion to enable him to move and bend. A lot of engineering had gone into these metal suits, he realised.

“Oi there, did I say you could have yourself a merry wee trot?” shouted Abelard, who was standing with the squires near the stable as Yuuri approached. “Get the fuck off the horse and put your back into taking those sacks of manure to the rose gardens. They’re not gonna get up and walk there themselves.”

Sacks of manure? You must be joking. Yuuri reined up and jumped off Blaze. “Can’t someone else do that?” But he regretted it as soon as he’d said it.

“Too high and mighty, are we? Since when? You can hardly aim to piss up a tree, and you call yourself a knight. You can bloody well do what I tell you to.”

Yuuri’s heart began to race. Emil’s eyes were wide but he remained silent. Philip and Roland gave quiet snorts, while Julius guffawed. Yuuri sized the Scotsman up. Muscular, but also stocky; it wouldn’t be hard to outrun him, not that he had any intention of doing so. Something about him reminded Yuuri of a bulldog – his shape and the ferocity of his bark, perhaps.

How long could he reasonably be expected to put up with this? Not only was the man ceaselessly having a go at him, but now he wanted him to haul shit around the castle grounds.

Well, he wouldn’t do it.

“I’m stabling my horse,” he announced firmly, looking into Abelard’s flinty eyes. “Then I’m going to practise being a knight. If you want to help, you can suggest some suitable things for me to – ”

“I told you what I wanted you to do, ya jumped-up walloper.”

This time all of the squires apart from Emil laughed, and out of the corner of his eye Yuuri could see several of the fighting men gathering at the wooden fence that ran the length of the field, having heard Abelard’s shouts. Somehow he didn’t think anyone was about to tell Abelard that his behaviour had been inappropriate.

They’re not going to have grievance procedures you can file, Yuuri. This is a different world.    

You can’t run away again, either.

He swallowed. “Leave me alone,” he bit out, beginning to lead Blaze forward.

“You don’t give orders to me, laddie – you take ’em,” Abelard said, drawing his sword.

“Are you threatening me?”

Yes, he is. And a proper knight wouldn’t stand here saying so – he’d attack.

I’m not attacking anyone.

“Do you feel threatened, ya weak-kneed milksop? I’ll give you a ‘suitable thing to do’.” He leaned forward and said very deliberately, with a smile, “Go kiss the cunt of a cow.”

The three squires were doubling over with laughter now, and there were similar sounds floating across the field from the fence.

“Do you need instructions?” Abelard asked, breaking into laughter himself.

Yuuri set his mouth in a firm line, narrowed his eyes, took a step back, and drew his sword, the cloud of laughter that surrounded him suddenly vapourising. “You’re a foul-mouthed lout. I don’t care who the fuck you are; go haul your sacks of shit around yourself.” He made tiny jabs in the air with his sword while he spoke. He’ll cut you to ribbons, a voice told him, but he ignored it.

It seemed to be exactly what Abelard was waiting for. He brandished his sword as the squires backed away and made room; the force of it when it met Yuuri’s sent vibrations up his arm. As metal clanged against cold metal, silver flashing, he was horrified to discover that his first instinct was still to move the way he used to when fighting in Swords and Sorcery, which worked in Immersion but was sadly inefficient in real life. He’d been watching and learning, however, and managed to stay on his toes, thrusting and parrying, and searching for an opening where his opponent was weak. But that opponent was Abelard, who trained knights.

What the hell am I doing, trying to fight him?

Saving face, for the first time since I got here.

He anticipated a kick and dodged out of the way, Abelard quickly regaining his balance, though not before Yuuri got in a blow that would have sent his opponent’s sword flying out of his hands if he hadn’t been gripping it so tightly. Whistles and shouts came from the direction of the fence, though astoundingly, they sounded appreciative this time. The squires were standing and watching quietly with surprise on their faces.

“Got some fight in you after all, I see,” Abelard said as they circled each other. “I was beginning to think you were nothing but a pus-faced chicken-brained yellow coward.”

Yuuri darted forward. The sudden support from parts of the audience was a spark that ignited something within him. The clash of steel, the glitter of silver plate, pushing forward and retreating…it was like some kind of dance. Yuuri whirled and struck, limbs fluid, anticipating his opponent’s moves well. When they broke away again and circled, he glanced at the fence. A sizeable audience had gathered, maybe a dozen men – and Victor. Chris was leaning against the fence next to him, and looked at his neighbour with a raised eyebrow. But Victor’s eyes were on Yuuri.

With a renewed ferocity, Yuuri shouted and thrust his sword at Abelard, who parried with a heavy clang that resonated across the field. Shoving Yuuri back, he reversed his blade and swung the pommel in an arc; Yuuri jumped away, but not quickly enough, and a flower of pain erupted in his left shoulder. Eyes watering, he noted his gloating opponent’s distraction with the audience and lunged forward, knocking him to the ground to the sound of loud cheers. Each quickly scrambled to his knees, gripping his sword. Yuuri’s breaths came fast as he locked his gaze with Abelard’s, eyes sparking.

Just try it, you bastard. I’ll get you.

But Abelard’s expression was curiously relaxed. “That’s how it’s supposed to work, laddie. I give you a bollocking, you give me one back.” He lowered his sword, then stood and sheathed his weapon. “Next time I won’t go so easy on you.”

Easy? Yuuri frowned as he got to his feet. Of course – there was no way he’d do so well against Abelard otherwise. As he looked at the faces of the squires and the men at the fence, however, some still appeared surprised, while he hoped he detected a glimmer of respect in others. And what was Victor thinking? Yuuri watched his mouth quirk into a small smile; his heart gave a little leap and he grinned back. Then Victor turned to Chris and the two of them entered the stable.

“Why are you standing there with your sword like a wazzock?” Abelard asked, and Yuuri’s attention snapped back to him. “Put it away, man. We’re done sparring. Consider that your first real lesson from me. You didn’t do too badly either, all in all. Took a while to stir those ashes in you to find a bit of courage burning under there, though. What’s it they call you – the Savage?” He laughed and shook his head. “What nutter gave you that name? I was beginning to think I’d have to poke my sword into your nadgers or something just to get a reaction.”

As Yuuri slowly sheathed his weapon, he stared, taking this in. Abelard had been goading him to try to get him to fight? It had been some kind of training strategy? Fucking hell. He wiped the sweat from his brow with the fabric palm of his gauntleted hand.

“Now, let’s see how fast you can run with a bunch of metal plates all over you. Ten laps of the field. Away with you.”  

Chapter Text

“You got into a fight? With real swords and everything?” came Phichit’s awed voice over the com.

Yuuri was sitting on the floor by the fire, in his hose and braies and long-sleeved nightshirt. The events of earlier in the day had continued to run through his mind, and eventually he thought it might help if he shared them with Phichit. The dying flames glowed soft and orange, the only light in the room.

“I didn’t mean to. Abelard didn’t give me much choice. That seems to be his training strategy – wind me up and humiliate me until I react.”

“But you weren’t actually trying to kill each other or anything, were you?”

“Of course not.” Yuuri rubbed his shoulder and winced. He was sporting a black and purple bruise the size of an orange, he’d noticed earlier when he changed his shirt. “We’re all supposed to be on the same side.”

“Could’ve fooled me, the way people have been going at you.”

“Yeah, well.”

“They’re not planning on putting you in another duel anytime soon, are they?”

“No. At least, I hope not.”

“I wish I could’ve seen it. It sounds like you were brilliant.”

“I don’t think so. You should see how the real knights here fight. I’ve still got a lot to learn. Maybe I’m finally starting to, though. Emil had good things to say afterward, and for once I didn’t get the impression that he was just being obsequious, you know that way servants have, even if they’re insulting you behind your back.”

“Do you think that’s what he does?”

A little grin touched Yuuri’s face. “At first I bet he complained about me to his friends, whoever they are; the other squires, maybe. Some of the other fighting men. Now, though…no,” he decided. “He’s a nice jack. I hope I can show him that I’m going to keep getting better at all this. Victor, too; I promised him.”

Phichit paused, then said, “You know, Yuuri, I’m really pleased for you. At the same time, though, do you think you could keep talking to the women at the castle?”

“I am, but I don’t have any leads yet. You know as much as I do so far.”

“Are you keeping an eye out?”

“Yes, I am. I can’t hang around them all the time, though. I’m a knight. You should see how they react just when I walk into the kitchen. Besides, I’ve already been seen with several of them, and people think I’m trying to get laid or something.”

Phichit laughed. “Maybe you should. It might help you relax.”

Yuuri huffed in response. “One, I’m not attracted to women – though if I was and I followed your advice, I daren’t think what the repercussions would be if she got…well anyway, it’s not going to happen. And two, I’m not exactly in the mood anyway. You don’t relax in a place like this. I have to make sure I don’t give myself away with something I say or do, and I’m still trying to figure out the mad ways everything works. That’s when I’m not fighting in a muddy field.”

“I get that, Yuuri. Look, you know what you’re doing better than anyone, and you’re trying your best.”

They finished the call, Yuuri feeling catapulted back across time. Rain had begun to patter against the shutters, and the wind gusted now too, occasionally blowing down the stone chimney, making a noise like a breath across the top of an empty glass bottle and fanning the coals into little flames.

He reflected on Phichit’s words as he stared at the flickering light. Trying my best? Yes, for what it’s worth. But – know what I’m doing? I’m not so sure.

The lack of progress on his mission frustrated and worried him. Several times he’d considered trying to sneak into different rooms, but he always returned to the reason why he’d decided not to in the first place. Privacy was rare to come by here; many people shared rooms, and they were coming and going all the time. There was no guarantee that if he had the luck to find Ailis’s room, he’d find anything incriminating there, and it was entirely possible he’d be caught. It wasn’t worth the risk – not yet. If there was someone he finally found reason to suspect, that would be a different matter.

Training today, however, had felt like more of a success at last. Abelard still swore at him, but he swore at many other people too; and after Yuuri had returned to the stable from the gruelling run in his plate mail, he received a lesson from the Scotsman on how his sparring performance could be improved. There was still no praise to be had, but he’d found the information useful.

Strange, he thought, how natural the moves had felt to him. He realised now that Victor had been at the back of his mind – a vision of him whirling and dancing in a sparkle of silver, limbs and sword in harmony. Yuuri had wanted to try to capture some of that beauty and find out how it felt. And it had been…

Rapture.

He wrinkled his brow, then laughed aloud at himself. “Just a slight exaggeration,” he said into the empty room, his grin fading to a smirk before dying completely.

But it had been special. The satisfaction of being able to channel artistry into something he was doing. He wasn’t sure he’d ever felt anything quite like it before.

“Artistry?” he said, shaking his head. “Get real, Katsuki. All of those men could still beat you in seconds flat.”

Though maybe he could give them a challenge now. Maybe he would even be able to beat them sometimes; he’d done it twice, after all. One day, perhaps he’d do well enough that Victor and the other knights would come to respect him.

Not Julius, though. He huffed a little laugh again. Thanks to Justin’s past behaviour, he would have a chip on his shoulder for a long time to come. If he ever managed to win the squire over, he’d consider himself a knight of the fucking Round Table.


Over the next several days, Yuuri wouldn’t have claimed he was relaxed, but it felt like he’d reached a new equilibrium. He was getting used to the myriad rituals involved in meals in the great hall, from making polite conversation with his fellow fighting men to joining in with the group dances that occasionally occurred after supper, which thanks to Monica were no longer a mystery to him, even if they still seemed rather strange and twee. His shaving and washing skills improved, and he no longer felt desperate enough to plunge himself into a river with a bar of soap. Even dealing with the quirks of his clothes was becoming second nature, from tying the tops of his hose to his braies, to fastening and unfastening the long dense chain of little buttons down his tunic. He was even slowly learning how to put his armour on and remove it, and what every piece was called, with Emil’s help; though despite his squire’s insistence, he was determined to do it all himself as soon as he could, having no wish to be reliant on anyone else for something so basic and personal.

With a change in the weather to brighter and drier days came the realisation that Christmas was fast approaching, and even though Yuuri knew it was bound to be celebrated differently here, there was a familiarity to the holiday that was reassuring somehow. He’d seen cloth bags hanging from hooks in the kitchen that he’d been informed were plum puddings, and occasionally he’d swear he smelled the aroma of mince pies baking while he was in the courtyard. He continued to ply Emil with questions, and though he expressed dismay that Yuuri’s memory was not returning, he was as willing as ever to help.

Emil explained that the Christmas festival was spread over twelve days, and it would be a time of relaxation and feasting, though he mustn’t get his hopes up that the knights would stop their training. That, and other essential activities in the castle, would carry on largely as normal, he said. One day Yuuri stepped outside the garrison just in time to witness a whole section from the thick trunk of a tree being pulled over the ground by long ropes tied around it. It was taken into the great hall, and he wondered how it would fit into the fireplace. It was the Yule log, Emil told him, and would burn until Twelfth Night, which Yuuri was familiar with from the title of the Shakespeare play.

With the wet grey days gone for now, the palette that painted the world seemed to have brightened. Emerald-green grassy fields, aqua streams glinting in the sun as they flowed in ribbons between the hills, the blue and yellow pennants atop the turrets, the colourful clothes worn by just about everyone. Unlike Yuuri’s own time, where people were more inclined to stay indoors during the short cold days, activity never seemed to cease here. Farmers tended to their animals, travellers passed on the roads, and traders visited the castle with laden wagons, selling everything from cloth to spices to kitchenware. The ground glazed over with ice in the chill air, and while it made for rougher falls during training, it was pleasant not to be caked in mud at the end of every day, even if an occasional dusting of snow made it easier to slip and fall.

This happened mainly when Yuuri began to tire on his runs. Abelard seemed fond now of making him sprint up and down the great hill between the stable and the castle, and timed him with an hourglass. He was relentless in his expectations that Yuuri cover specific distances in certain times, always in full armour; but he was steadily improving. Between that and working with a variety of weapons, he was sure his muscles were larger and harder when he felt them.

That wasn’t to say he was having as much success with the weapons as he would have wished for. He’d tried using a lance a few times, initially on foot aiming for Abelard’s wooden shield, which he thought hadn’t gone badly; but atop his destrier, aiming at the quintain, he only evoked more laughs as it swung round every time and smacked him. His lance would be knocked out of his hands, and he’d be knocked off his horse. It didn’t take him long to develop a natural aversion to the activity.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t any better with a bow and arrow. This was something he’d been aware of from Swords & Sorcery, and no amount of training from Abelard or even Emil seemed to be able to help. He knew he had good hand-eye co-ordination, but he never could seem to get a feel for the way both of his hands needed to work in conjunction with the bow, especially when there was an arrow nocked on it. Julius expressed a mixture of amusement and scorn when he was around to see, and Yuuri had to concede that the squire had a point, because his own aim was incredible. He didn’t want to lower himself even further in Julius’s regard by asking for his help, but he surreptitiously watched whenever he could, hoping to learn. Maybe with practice, he thought, he might be able to improve.

But it was the sword that continued to be his best weapon. Abelard taught him stances, grips and tactics; and between the insulting names, Yuuri listened and took mental notes, often sparring with him or Chris or Charles, and occasionally scoring a win, though these were still rare.

Victor never took a direct hand in his training; it appeared that he was only interested in working with his own squire or the other two knights, none of whom posed a real challenge to him. Yuuri assumed he would have to be at least at their level before Victor thought it worth his while to spar with him; he made this an incentive to continue to train as hard as he could, sometimes ending up so sore from his efforts that it was difficult to sleep at night.      

Having been dismissed from training at the end of one day, Yuuri saw Victor emerge from the stable astride his chestnut destrier, guiding it in a trot to the middle of the field. He was in full plate armour minus a helmet, as he usually was when he came to the field, and a long blue lance was couched on his arm.

I wish I could talk to him. But there was an invisible barrier between them, it seemed. Yuuri knew Victor saw him watching sometimes, like now; there had been a momentary glance his way. Then again, everyone watched Victor and tried to follow his example; it was the sensible thing to do if you wanted to improve.

And anyway, what would we talk about? I didn’t come here to make friends. Not that someone like him would be interested in me. For a start, he tried to kill me in a duel. Then there’s the fact that I’m still not as good at most things as the other knights and even the squires. If I really wanted his attention, I’m sure I’d have to earn it.

In which case, it would probably never happen. For a moment, Yuuri was tempted to talk to Phichit about Victor during their next call. But he didn’t think words could convey the beauty of what his eyes took in when Victor…danced. It was all dancing, everything he did.

Yuuri’s eyes followed the horse streaking across the field. Victor tilted his lance at the quintain; the impact on the wood sent a loud crack echoing through the air, and he was well past the apparatus before the sack pivoted round. He did this a few more times, making it look easy. Maybe it was his way of winding down after training. What did challenge him? Was there a knight anywhere who was capable of beating him in a duel?

I don’t want to see him or anyone else in a real duel, ever again. That includes me.

Victor rode his horse in a wide circle around the field at speed, then slowed and headed back toward the stable, passing Yuuri at a distance. The blue eyes glanced his way again, a little longer this time, and there was a mild expression of acknowledgement before he disappeared into the building.

Show’s over for today, I guess. Yuuri huffed and shook his head.

Approaching the most direct path up the hill to the castle, he came across a cavalcade of horses and carts hauling sacks. There had been more traffic to and from the castle recently because of the upcoming holiday, and Yuuri had got used to seeing the extra supplies being delivered to the kitchen and great hall.

Wanting to avoid getting caught up in it all, he decided to take an alternate route, and halfway up the hill he caught sight of something sitting at the top of a smaller hill opposite him that he’d never noticed before, probably because he’d never looked from this angle. It was difficult to make out what it was, with dusk fast approaching and the sun silhouetting it from behind.

Aware that he’d probably only find some clunky medieval contraption whose purpose he couldn’t begin to guess, Yuuri nevertheless decided to go have a look, sprinting down the hill and up the next one. When he arrived at the flat grassy top, he saw that he’d been correct; whatever this was, it had been fashioned from wood, stained a rich russet colour, and varnished. But the elements had been eating away at it up here, with nothing to shelter it from the wind and the rain, and it was beginning to look mottled and bleached in places.

“What the hell?” he mused. It appeared to be a sturdy horizontal wheel about three meters in diameter, attached at chest height to a metal post in the middle which secured it to the ground. Smooth, thick spokes divided it into six equal segments. Yuuri grabbed the rim with both gauntleted hands and pulled. It took some effort, but with a gentle squeak it turned.

Surely not a wheel for a vehicle like a coach; it was too big. There weren’t any others to be seen, either. What use was one wheel? If there had been a building nearby, or a waterway, Yuuri might have suspected it had a part in pumping or powering something; he knew little about fourteenth-century technology. But up here on its own like this? The wind whipped at him, its icy fingers reaching into his hair and blowing his cloak out behind him. It seemed an isolated setting for something that clearly once had a purpose, which had either been forgotten or perhaps become obsolete.

Giving it one last spin and watching the spokes turn in a stately motion, he told himself he’d be constantly distracted if he investigated every strange primitive device he came across here. Pulling his cloak around himself, he set off back down the hill, wondering what kind of fish, or pseudo-fish, there’d be for supper.


“Come, sir!” A red-painted wooden club with little golden bells was shaken in front of Victor’s face. “Will you not join the lord in serving your guests?”

Victor placed his elbows on the table and interlaced his fingers, leaning his lips and chin against them while he sought a little patience.

This year the Lord of Misrule was a balding blacksmith from the village, John Bartholomew, with a paunch that bulged over his belt and a red nose, likely due to a fondness for ale. He wore the usual motley: a bright green tunic fringed with leaf shapes, a red leg and a yellow leg, a yellow fabric collar, and a gold-coloured paper crown. And, of course, he carried the traditional “sceptre”.

Andrei took the custom seriously, even though it wasn’t one that was practised in the Russian courts, from Victor’s understanding; and that meant allowing this festive lord to take the prominent place at the high table and order people about. Most seemed to find it amusing, especially when they’d imbibed enough wine. Victor knew his father didn’t, but he did what was requested of him within reason. Natalia sometimes joined in, but had chosen to ignore John and his bells this year; she had eaten and drunk her fill today and appeared a picture of lassitude until John approached the table to remind her and Victor that he had been given the power to tell them what to do. Victor wished someone had been sharing his plate tonight, because he or she might have given the man a distraction; but their usual Christmas guests had had other plans their year, and it was a quiet holiday by the castle’s standards.

“Kindly find someone who’s more amenable to your requests,” Victor said, his gaze dropping downward to his hands.

“But your father the lord is fetching dishes from the kitchens with the other servants, so if it isn’t beneath him, how is it beneath you?” He gave his club another shake.

“I don’t see it as beneath me. I’m just not in the right the humour.” He looked back up at John and raised an eyebrow. “I won’t be moving from this seat, my good man, so you may as well give it up.”

Making an elaborate pretence of being affronted, John looked at Natalia, but before he could speak, she pre-empted him. “Go where you’re wanted. We’re not playing tonight.” And with a shrug, he crossed the hall and sneaked up on Andrei from behind, shouting “boo” and causing him to slosh the tureen of soup he was holding. The diners erupted in laughter. Andrei made a low bow, took a towel from a boy carrying them on his arm for people to dry their clean hands with, and mopped the soup from the floor. Victor gave a small smile and idly played with the stem of his goblet.

“I take it you’re not interested in his antics,” Natalia said. Two blue eyes, as pale as his own, regarded him.

“I take it you aren’t either, madam.”

She ran a finger along the rim of her goblet. “No. And it’s unseemly for Andrei to be. They’re laughing at him.”

“It’s a time-honoured tradition in this country. I don’t think there’s any harm in it.”

A young maid dashed up to the table, breathless from either exertion or merriment. “Ma’am,” she said, dipping a low curtsey, “please will you come help us light the Yule log?”

Natalia sighed, then smiled. “Very well. As long as Lord Nikiforov can join me. I think he’s had enough of playing the servant boy tonight.”

She arose and accompanied the girl to the fireplace, where the Yule log had been placed on the massive grate along with smaller pieces of firewood and kindling; it had been adorned with wreaths of holly. Victor knew he ought to go and help with the lighting ceremony. Or take the place of his father, serving the last delicacies to the diners and good-naturedly accepting the Lord of Misrule’s commands, which were often just ridiculous or lewd enough to entertain without being considered obscene.

Two Christmases ago, he had Victor dancing barefoot on a table, minus his hat and tunic as well. It had taken a little extra wine for him to get into the spirit, but he remembered enjoying it. The following Christmas had been very different, however; and this…well, maybe it was the vacant place next to him on the bench, but he couldn’t help but think of Alex, and that made silly antics impossible. He longed to remove himself to the garrison to spend the evening as he preferred, with a small group of men who knew him, and with whom there was no need to be on show; but contented himself for now to sip his wine and let his gaze rove over the guests.

It eventually came to rest on Justin, sitting next to Chris. The latter, true to form, was singing songs with Philip his squire, and trying to get Justin to join in; but the fellow appeared to want none of it, returning a rather bemused smile. Victor continued to wonder at his newfound quiet, polite manner. Perhaps the duel and the move to the castle had had a more profound effect on him than Victor had at first thought.

He was a riddle in other ways as well. His fitness level and knowledge of weapons and horseback riding had been improving rapidly, though in some areas he’d been building himself up from the beginning, it seemed. Was that what he’d been referring to when he’d said that he’d lost some of his memory since the duel and had needed extra help? It was conceivable, but somehow there had to be more to it than that. Victor couldn’t remember having seen Justin fight before their duel of several weeks back, but his style had changed since then. In his confrontation with Abelard, there had been a deliberation and a grace, a maturity even, that had previously been absent. Those were fundamental qualities that tended to come from within rather than from training, even with someone as capable as Abelard. Whence, then, had they suddenly arisen?

Curious about this, Victor had kept an eye on him on occasion when they were at the training field together. Justin’s struggles with a bow and arrow, and the lessons he’d required in order to ride his horse, had been perplexing; but mixed with the lack of skill, and a certain awkwardness at times, were determination and talent. He was a rough gem waiting to be polished into a shining jewel. It seemed utterly absurd to say so, but Victor was certain it would be possible if circumstances favoured. He was not fond of the rather brutal training methods Abelard sometimes employed, and the man lacked the inspiration and creativity that were the hallmarks of the very best; but Justin might still learn a great deal from him…or even from himself perhaps, when the time seemed right. It wouldn’t do to overwhelm him just when he was trying to find his footing.

Victor remembered watching him like this, here in the great hall, during the supper after the duel. The disquietude in his demeanour seemed to have mellowed into guardedness that observed, took in and deliberated, without giving much away. Chris and Charles had both made offhand remarks about how little he tended to say when he sat next to them in the great hall. For Charles, that was a definite plus, because he loved nothing more than a receptive audience for his tales about himself, which was why Victor tended to avoid him when he could. Chris, on the other hand, could be uncomfortable with a taciturn person, and was not particularly good at drawing people out of their armour so that they felt more at ease.

Victor wondered what Justin would say to him if they ate together. Though that wasn’t going to happen during a formal meal. Ordinary knights did not sit at the high table unless they were receiving special favour from the noble family. 

The hall rang with laughter as John Bartholomew announced that any man brave enough to arrive at dinner the following day in a dress could sit as his consort at the high table, and was enthusiastically answered by Abelard, who said it would be no problem for him as he would wear his kilt. Justin’s eyes – a deep blue hue, though they sometimes seemed to have a dark flash to them that Victor was sure he must be imagining; perhaps a trick of the light – flicked over the scene, but instead of laughing he drank from his cup.

What would make you laugh, I wonder. I’m sure I recall that it once used to be the humiliation of others, especially when you’d brought it about. Somehow I can’t see that happening now.

Perhaps Justin had been so profoundly affected by the recent events in his life that he’d reinvented himself. The change in his appearance was probably symbolic of that. He looked younger now, yet at the same time there was a gravity to him; and even those flamboyant clothes he’d been wont to wear had disappeared. The preening and frippery that were now missing meant that you were drawn to his face, his expression, his eyes. In fact, it was all rather fetching.

Remember, this is the same man who was thirsting to fight you to the death, and would rather have forced you to kill him than lose. He did that. It’s a fact.

Which made the change in him all the more remarkable. Victor could still see him in his mind’s eye, on bent knee, his head bowed. I beg your forgiveness, sir, and hope you’ll give me the chance to show you that I’m no longer the person I was.

Victor felt a flutter in his chest as he recalled the moment. It was…interesting, he thought as he took another sip of wine, watching Justin dubiously accept a cuskynole from the bowl Chris proffered to him – had he never tasted the fruit-filled pasta parcels before? Perhaps they were a specialty of Fernand’s, Victor thought with a smile. Justin took a nibble, then his eyes lit up, and he ate the rest of the sweet with some gusto.

Yes, Victor decided, he must be sure to continue to temper his thoughts with what had happened in the duel…because he was rather keen to discover more about this intriguing man.

Chapter Text

Adam, Luke, Ralph, Simon. Godfrey, Alan, Urien. And the others. They wanted to ply Victor with food and drink, as if he hadn’t had enough already today. Urien, a tall lanky tow-headed guard, was singing an alehouse song while a few of his friends did something resembling a jig, despite their crowded surroundings. Snow was falling lightly in the quiet darkness outside the garrison, though inside the fire leapt merrily in the grate, the flames in the candelabras danced, and the press of bodies warmed the room to a little beyond optimal comfort, while giving it a somewhat ripe smell that mixed with the herbs and spices from mince pies, gingerbread, sugared fruits and flower petals, mulled wine, and other delicacies scattered around the tables. In want of a breath of fresh air, Victor threaded his way to the other side of the room, flashing smiles at those who clapped him heartily on the back as he went, opened a shutter, and propped a window open. Chill air crept down the wall from the dark aperture, along with a few powdery white flurries.

As he turned back to the room, he spotted Justin sitting in a dark corner and nursing a pewter tankard; from his vacant look, his mind seemed to be elsewhere. Emil said he was a private person who spent a deal of time in his room. He didn’t appear to be in a social mood now, either. Nothing in his posture or expression suggested standoffishness or cold unapproachability, however. He was wearing a dark brown tunic that fitted his form well, and tan hose, though the flat round brown hat he usually wore was absent; and his short golden locks fell softly onto his forehead, their red tint heightened by the glow of the fire. It was a curiously bland ensemble for a festive day. Victor, hatless as well in the warm room, was wearing a baggy scarlet long-sleeved shirt open at the neck and cinched around his waist by his belt, billowing back out underneath until it reached his knees. The embroidered gold patterns glinted as he moved. It was more Russian in style than English, though his father wasn’t the only one who occasionally enjoyed the customs of their family’s homeland.

But what was Justin pondering there in the shadows? Victor’s eyes alighted on a side table with vessels containing festive drinks. Struck by an idea, he grabbed two empty tankards and went to join Justin in his quiet corner. The knight looked up at him from his stone bench, surprise in his eyes.

“Good evening,” Victor said with a small grin. “You’re by yourself here, I see.”

Justin considered for a moment, then replied, “I, um…well, Emil said he thought I’d enjoy being here tonight.” He added, “With it being Christmas.”

“And you’ve decided you don’t agree,” Victor offered as a statement of fact rather than a criticism.

A flicker of alarm passed through Justin’s eyes. “No, it’s not that. It’s just…”

Such a change from the bold, impassioned speech this man had given to him and his father in the great hall. Do I make him uncomfortable with my presence? Odd. Surely I can’t be that off-putting. Perhaps he’s still thinking about the duel. “My good man, now that we’re both knights of the castle, I hope we can put unpleasant memories behind us and start over. What do you say – will you drink with me?” He held the tankards up.

Again the surprised look. “I…well, yes. But I’ve already got a drink.”

“What, the thin beer?” Victor laughed. “They’ve just brought in the wassail bowl. Wouldn’t you rather have some of that?”

Justin looked blank for a moment. Then he said, “Thanks, I…I’ll try it.”

“Leave your beer on the bench; someone will come round to collect it.” He tilted his head toward the drinks table. “Follow me.”

When they got to the large silver bowl – which had been properly warmed, Victor was pleased to find when he touched the back of a finger to the metal – he handed one of the tankards to Justin, who stood and waited, reminding Victor of a small uncertain bird. “Help yourself,” he said, dipping his tankard into the bowl while avoiding catching any floating slices of apple, cinnamon sticks, or chunks of toast, which were a bit awkward to eat once sodden.

“What’s in it?” Justin asked, looking at the bowl as if it had sprouted limbs.

“Wassail. You have that at your father’s castle, don’t you?” He added, as Chris came over to scoop his own tankard through the mixture, “Mulled cider with a sop of toast, if you want it.”

Justin leaned over to have a closer look; the bowl had been filling the room with the heady seasonal aromas of apple, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves. Then he inhaled, his eyes closing in pleasure, and the thoughts tumbled out of Victor’s head.

Justin filled his tankard and tried a sip, deliberated, and took a longer draught. “It’s delicious,” he said with a sudden smile. “Thank you, um, sir…Victor.”

“Just Victor,” he reminded him between sips of his own drink.

“But you’re the son of the baron. Don’t you want people to use a title when they talk to you?”

“We’re knights. So no, it’s not necessary. And anyway,” he added, “you’re the son of a baron yourself. We’re equals.”

Justin’s eyes widened. “I wouldn’t say that, no.”

“Why not?”

“Your abilities as a knight,” he said quietly, looking down with pinking cheeks. “I can’t imagine many people would be equal to those.”

Though Victor knew the truth of the words, no one had ever spoken to him quite like this before. If they were from a lower social station, they would be bowing and ensuring their speech was properly deferential. His peers, on the other hand – especially if they were knights – would be informal, certainly; while more than a few had a petty, sardonic attitude born of a privileged upbringing in which their every need had been catered to. His reputation being what it was, Victor had had to deal with some who were hot to challenge his prowess in the arena, or hot for other things besides, thinking to take the whole of him as a trophy. Tyler had perhaps been the best of the bunch, which wasn’t any great feat.

But Justin was either very gifted at flattery – or he was simply sincere. Victor doubted the light blush could be easily faked. “Abelard’s reported to me on your progress,” he said, stepping aside to allow others access to the wassail bowl, with Justin following. “I’ve seen you out in the field myself. You seem to be doing well in some areas, while you’ve been catching up with other things you’ve forgotten. Would you agree?”

After a pause, Justin replied, “I guess that’s fair enough.”

“I don’t recall giving you such a hard blow to the head that it should’ve caused you to lose your memory, though. In fact, I didn’t hit you over the head at all.”

Another flash of alarm. “I hit a rock when I fell.”

“Oh.” As the silence stretched, he added, “I’m sorry.”

“Tell me you’re sorry for almost putting your sword through my throat,” Justin muttered; then he caught himself and gave Victor that wide-eyed look. “I didn’t mean – ” he began to add hastily.

“You gave me little choice.” Victor raised an eyebrow. “Though talking to you like this, it’s hard to believe I’m with the same person. I daresay it must be likewise for you. You saw me at my worst. Unlike some knights, Justin, I don’t enjoy killing people. I’d prefer never to have to do so again.”

“You’ve killed people?” Justin whispered, lowering his tankard as if he’d forgotten he was holding it.

Victor wrinkled his brow. “Well, yes. Unfortunately. So have you.” He sipped his drink, eyeing him.

“I…of course I have. But I don’t want to either. Again.”

“You know,” Victor said softly after a moment, “against my better judgement, I think I believe you. Strange as it is. There doesn’t seem to be much of the savage about you,” he added contemplatively. “Did someone give you your nickname in jest, I wonder?” Justin seemed to be struggling for an answer, but the pleased look on his face was plain, and it was becoming to him, Victor thought. “Well, then. In time, maybe we can find something more suitable.” He raised his tankard. “To your good health.”


Yuuri leaned back into the corner, the stone walls behind him offering some relief from the warmth and stuffiness of the room. Two official-looking men in luxurious clothing had approached Victor, who’d made his apologies and gone to a quieter area near a hallway to talk with them. Yuuri had seen them many times before; he guessed they were involved with the day-to-day running of the castle. Having lost his partner in conversation, though feeling glad in a way that he’d been saved the continuing embarrassment of struggling to think of the right things to say, he’d refilled his tankard with wassail and returned to the stone bench where he’d originally been sitting, preferring it here where he was seen to be present yet was under no obligation to talk to anyone.

This drink really was tasty, he’d decided, sipping at the heavily spiced autumnal blend of flavours. The addition of the toast struck him as odd, though they seemed to enjoy dipping bread into just about everything here. His cheeks were warm, and the sounds in the room were beginning to blur together into an undulating background hum – talk, laughter, shouts, pieces of song, the clink of plates and cups, notes weaving up from a lute, the crackle and hiss of logs on the fire.

Emil had briefly joined him, holding a tankard, his cap slightly askew, saying he was pleased to see his master getting on well with Sir Victor after a “difficult” start, and did he require any food or drink?

“I’ve had enough today to last me for a week, thanks just the same,” Yuuri had replied, thinking back to the feast in the great hall that had gone on for hours, course after course; though as always, the diners seemed to be expected to have small tastes from a variety of dishes, so he’d never felt obliged to gorge himself. The entertainment had included larger-than-usual groups of musicians and singers, the strange Lord of Misrule who made people laugh even while Yuuri quailed at the thought of being made by him to do something publicly humiliating, and a troupe of mummers in masks performing pantomimes whose Punch-and-Judy style of violent physical humour had seemed macabre at times.

Not especially sorry when it was over with, Yuuri had found a maid to interview with the usual fruitless result, before – incredibly – there had still been a supper to attend. If the beer and wine hadn’t been watered down, he was sure that he and the rest of the castle would be flat-out drunk. Not that some people hadn’t reached that state anyway.

And the food…Yuuri had never seen so much in one place before. The servants had brought in a boar’s head with an apple in its mouth on a huge platter, surrounded by fruit and roasted vegetables, and Emil had taken some pride in carving a few pieces off of it for him and bringing them on a plate to his table. He was getting used to the sometimes savage-seeming culinary customs here, but had heard of this one before, and simply told himself he was eating pork. With apple sauce. And as many mince pies as he could want. Though “mincemeat”, he’d discovered, was just that – minced beef with honey and fruit and spices, pine kernels and rosewater. Yuuri wished he could have sent one to Phichit. Along with a tankard of wassail.

Apparently satisfied that his master had no need of him for the time being, Emil had held his tankard out. “Cheers, then, sir. If there’s anything you require, just let me know.”

“Emil, wait.”

“Yes?” he said, hovering.

“I, um…you know, I was wondering if you’re ever off duty. When do you get time for yourself, when you don’t have to worry about waiting on me like a butler?”

Emil sat down next to him with a confused look. “A butler? You mean like Mistress Shaw? I don’t understand.”

“What?”

“I don’t have much to do with the drinks of the castle, sir. I attend to you.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“You said I was waiting on you like a butler.” Emil paused. “The person in charge of the buttery, where the kegs of beer and wine are stored. Naturally, I’m not sure why you – ”

“Ah. Um, I think we’re at cross purposes,” Yuuri said hastily. “I just meant that you seem to spend a lot of time looking after me. And I was wondering when you do things for yourself. Do people here travel to see family and friends on holidays like this?”

Emil seemed momentarily stunned. “You know, sir, it’s odd, but these questions you ask me, it’s almost as if you’ve never been here before. To have forgotten so many things about daily life that you must’ve known since you were a babe…”

Yuuri bit his lip, then huffed a small laugh and drank his wassail.

“It must be distressing for you. Do you think your memory will return?”

“If it hasn’t by now?” Yuuri shrugged. “Maybe not. But you’ve helped me a lot. I, um, don’t know what I would’ve done without you.”

Emil gave him a bright-eyed smile. “I’m pleased to be of service. And to answer your question, over the twelve feast days, most of us are given leave to go on visits if we so desire. My father’s a trader in fish, wine and cloth in York, and my older brother works with him in the business, along with my mother. I have three sisters, two of whom are married, and one is a nun. We do all try to get together at this time of year, though it’s difficult, as I’m sure you can understand. I’ll give you notice before I go. It would only be for a few days.”

“And you decided to be a squire?” Yuuri knew the wassail was loosening his tongue, the cider in it being alcoholic, but he’d been wanting to ask Emil these things for some time. “Wouldn’t you have preferred to stay in a merchant’s house, rather than running around after someone like me?”

Emil laughed. “Well, Jan – that’s my brother – he was already in the business, which meant I needed to do something else. I was fortunate that my family could afford to buy me the accoutrements I needed to become a knight in training, so that’s what I did.”

“Have you killed anyone yet?” Yuuri asked quietly.

Emil stared. “Well, sir…no, I haven’t. We seem to be blessed with peace at the moment. Relatively speaking. There are border skirmishes with the Scots hereabouts sometimes, but unlike Sir Charles, I haven’t been present at any of those.”

“Could you? Kill someone?” Yuuri continued to look at him over the rim of his tankard.

“I…” Emil seemed nonplussed. “I would if I had to, yes. That’s what I’ve been training for all these years.” He took a drink from his own tankard. “Though it has to be said, like many others, I’d be glad if the peace lasted.”

The conversation drifted on to more mundane topics, and Emil eventually went to join Philip, chatting with him while they watched a chess game between Chris and one of the guards.

Before he departed, however, Yuuri had asked him if mass in the castle chapel was always as grand as it had been today, as this had been his first time inside, to which Emil replied no. Not being religious, Yuuri had still been impressed. The room was packed with just about every resident, from the lord and lady – minus Victor – to the servants; and as often seemed the case here, the olfactory experience was heightened enough to call attention to itself: intense smoky fumes of burning frankincense from an elaborate gold censer that the priest and his helpers swung, with an underlying bass note of body odour from people in various states of cleanliness. That particular smell was usually never as bad as Yuuri had originally feared, however, and he even suspected with a touch of horror that he might be getting used to it.

He’d hardly been able to pay attention to the actual service, as intent as he was on taking in the entire experience. For one thing, he’d turned his translator off for the first time; he hadn’t previously dared, because if someone were talking to him, he’d be expected to understand. And for that matter, he wanted to understand any speech he heard, on the off chance that it had something to do with himself or Ailis. It was strange hearing the voice that had made sense a moment ago suddenly chanting incomprehensible things in what he was sure must be Latin, the people in the chapel murmuring responses in the same language. He didn’t bother turning the translator off when he spoke to Phichit because with both of them speaking modern English, it seemed to sense there was nothing it needed to do.

After everyone else had filed out of the chapel, Yuuri had briefly lingered, mentally contrasting the bright paintings on the plastered walls and the luminous marble sarcophagi with similar things he’d seen in his own time – paint faded by the centuries in the few places where it still existed; plaster crumbling or absent to reveal bare walls; stone monuments and their inscriptions worn and weathered, scratched and chipped. There were a couple of effigies of knights in here, frozen forever in white marble, lying stiffly on their backs with their swords gripped in their dead hands, depicted in full armour right down to their pointy toes. This entire room was a work of art, Yuuri decided. He wondered what the other sumptuous rooms in the castle looked like. Did the lord have a giant bed with ornately carved wooden posters and a canopy, and cherubs painted all over the ceiling? Did Victor?

Yuuri was aware again of his glowing cheeks. Don’t start thinking about what his bedroom looks like. He knew he’d already been clumsy with what he’d said when Victor had surprised him by coming over to talk and then drink with him. Having initially felt the usual sense of awe, Victor’s friendlier tone had tempted him into feeling more relaxed, and he knew he hadn’t been as careful with his words and actions as he ought.

I shouldn’t have looked surprised by the wassail; I’ve heard of it before anyway, even if I didn’t know what was in it. And it was stupid of me to ask if Victor had killed anyone. He’s a knight. I’m a knight. I mustn’t give myself away.

Though he had to admit, that particular line of thought had been pressing on him. Even though you could program Immersion games so that there was no gore when you killed things, Yuuri couldn’t bring himself to even pretend to kill people. Until they had been replaced by tech, he reckoned real-life human soldiers must have had a variety of feelings about it, depending perhaps on how deep they were able to bury their empathy, and their perception of the morality of the act. What about these knights, then? Yuuri was sure there was something not quite right with the battle-scarred Charles. What had it done to Victor? And then, when he imagined the young squires taking up arms against an opponent, especially Emil and Julius, it sickened his heart.

These were brutal ages. And now I’m a part of it all.

Could I kill if I had to? Another knight? Ailis?

Then he told himself these weren’t appropriate thoughts for Christmas, especially when most of the men around him were drinking and making merry. He heard more notes plucked on the lute, and someone joined in with a shawm. Fighting men making music, dancing and singing wasn’t something he’d expected to encounter here, but Emil had told him that they constituted part of a chivalrous education, along with reading and writing in different languages. Something Justin would certainly have received, he’d said, if only he hadn’t forgotten. 

Yuuri was considering calling it a night, before any of the men got especially drunk and picked him to cause trouble with, when he noticed Julius bringing an instrument to Victor, who was seated on a wooden bench. He nodded to his squire in thanks and began to tune the four pegs at the end. It looked like a cross between a small guitar and a violin, made of a light-coloured wood, perhaps beech. Although it was smooth and plain, the sound hole was covered with filigree carvings that reminded Yuuri of the tracery in a cathedral window.

Several men in the room shouted out requests for songs – “How Can I Keep my Maidenhead”, “She Lay All Naked in Her Bed”, “The Wanton Seed”. Victor gave a little laugh and didn’t look up from his tuning.

“It’s Christmas,” he said. “How about something a little more appropriate.” Then he brushed his fingers over the strings, a mellow reverberating sound that reminded Yuuri of a banjo. The room quietened, though this didn’t seem to be a performance as such; many of the men carried on talking in low voices, and eating and drinking, some turning their heads to watch, others more involved with what they were doing.

It was a simple song of fluttering individual notes mixed with chords. But then, to Yuuri’s surprise, Victor began to sing – something religious, a Christmas carol maybe, with a sweet but haunting melody. Victor might have been doing this for no reason other than his own pleasure, the instrument cradled on his lap and his eyes thoughtfully downward; but although his voice was soft and quiet, it was confident as well, with a gentle vibrato that rippled through Yuuri’s chest. He realised he was staring again, filled with that same nameless emotion that had welled up when he watched Victor in the training field. But how could anyone look away? His pale hair and skin catching the glow from the candles…he was an angel of light and music.

Yuuri gave a small snort and put his empty tankard down on the bench. He’d had too much to drink and was getting comically poetic, he told himself. But…no. No, he wasn’t, he decided as he continued to listen. This man was beautiful, in so many ways.     

Unfortunately, the spell was quickly shattered when Charles barged into the garrison, snow blowing through the doorway in his wake, falling more heavily now. The knight, wrapped in a black woollen cloak, was being supported by Roland, his squire, and appeared to be rather the worse for drink.

“Blow me, what in the name of sweet Jesus is that reek?” someone said loudly. Followed by another, who declared, “God’s teeth, man.”

Victor put his instrument down and went to Charles and Roland, frowning. He said something Yuuri couldn’t hear, and the trio crossed the room to stand near the bright fire, Julius hurrying to join them. Yuuri remained where he was, not interfering, though they were now close enough that he could easily make out their conversation. And he also fancied he knew what the men had been complaining of, because a pungent odour of garlic followed in Charles’s wake.

“Would someone please explain – ” Victor began, but Roland jumped in as he pulled off his fur hat, his red hair glinting.

“My lord, Sir Charles was…ah – ”

“That bloody Scots git thought he’d get the better of me,” the knight growled, removing his own fur hat. “I showed him.” Victor’s brow furrowed.

“They were just sparring, sir,” Roland explained. “He and Abelard had been at the drink.”

“What happened, exactly?”

“I gave him something to remember me by,” Charles slurred proudly.

“He scratched Abelard on the cheek with the tip of his sword, sir. And, ah – ”

“What, outside in the dark and the snow?”

“Near window of the great hall, sir. The candles are lit inside because the servants and the poor from the village are having their Christmas meal. That made it bright enough for…well, for – ”

“For two people to make arses of themselves.”

“He’ll think twice before trying that again, the villain,” Charles declared.

“Enough of that language,” Victor said sternly. “I seem to have to regularly remind you both that we’re all on the same side. You can each give me your version of things in the morning when you’ve slept it off. Now, why the garlic? The whole room smells of it.”

“I took him to see Mistress Ramsay, the herbalist,” Roland explained, helping to steady Charles as he swayed. “He accidentally fell on his own sword.”

Victor’s expression was suddenly one of alarm, and he pulled Charles’s cloak aside to reveal a gold tunic with a bloody slit to the left of his chest.

“’Tis but a scratch,” Charles insisted. “The lady put a poultice on it. I’ll be right as rain in the morning.”

“She put garlic on it as well?” Victor queried.

Roland nodded. “Indeed, sir. I’ve seen her myself a few times. People are saying it’s a good thing we have her here now. She cleans a wound diligently; takes her time about it, like it’s the most important thing in the world that she sees you right. And she uses these strange edible balms that seem to work a charm. I’ve had her put honey on my own scratch, and I saw her tend to my master; she – ”

“She smeared garlic on it,” Charles said. “I know it’s on the powerful side, but she swore by it, my dear fellow. Though it didn’t half burn at first.”

“You smell like a French butcher’s shop,” Victor commented. “I don’t know what’s worse right now, you and Abelard having another go at each other, or everything and everyone in here being overpowered by this…aroma. Roland, please escort him to his room – and make sure he has a bucket in case his wine decides to repeat itself.”

Roland made a silent bow and took Charles’s arm, leading him down the hall. The serene reflective look that had been on Victor’s face not long before had vanished, Yuuri observed, and his heart sank to see the heaviness with which it had been replaced. If it was Victor’s job to referee the men like this, however, he wasn’t surprised.

“My lord, do you mind if we open more windows?” someone called. “Holy Mary, what a stench.”

“Come now,” Victor said in somewhat clipped tones, opening a nearby window himself, “there are worse things. Go trade places with the gongfermour and I daresay you’ll decide you’d rather have a whole wreath of garlic around your shoulders.” Several men laughed. “Julius, my cloak please.”

Yuuri watched the young squire dash up to him and place the brown fur coat on his shoulders, and Victor tied it at the neck. “Where’s my citole? Ah.” Julius grabbed the instrument, and Yuuri expected Victor to leave without further ado, but to his surprise he turned and faced him.

“It seems there are a few others here who could do with some lessons in chivalry,” he said. “Perhaps you can instruct them tomorrow.” Before Yuuri could think of what to say, he bade him good night, then disappeared out into the dark with Julius.

Yuuri had been looking forward to telling Phichit about everything when he got back to his room, though he’d agreed to wait to call him until later because he’d gone to a party. He dozed for a while in front of the fire before giving it a try, and Phichit answered straight away, having just returned to his flat.

“You know I’d never get drunk or anything and leave you in the lurch if you needed me,” he explained once they’d exchanged season’s greetings. “If I couldn’t man the com, I’d give it to Celestino – but I’d let you know first.”

“Thanks.” Yuuri considered asking Phichit could find a way for him to speak to Mari. But he’d told her he wouldn’t be able to stay in touch because he’d be working at a top-secret facility that was in communications blackout from the rest of the world. It had been a stupid excuse, he thought, even if Celestino had suggested it because he knew such places existed. Now his sister thought he was on some ting secret mission, though nothing about his job had ever indicated that anything of the kind was likely to occur. And he missed her. She was the only family he had, and he’d seen her every Christmas, even if it was just a brief visit. He wondered what she’d make of all this. Himself dressed like an extra from a Shakespeare play. Learning how to use deadly weapons. Mince pies with beef. Smearing…

“Phichit,” he said after they’d brought each other up to speed on their respective Christmases, “do you know why someone in the Middle Ages might smear garlic or honey on a wound? Sometimes I tell myself I’m going to stop questioning everything odd about this place, but…”

“Hang on, I’ll look it up.” There was a pause. “And don’t stop questioning anything. Questions are what you should be asking. Whatever helps you find Ailis.”

“Tell me about it.”

“OK. According to the Cloud, garlic and honey have antiseptic properties. They’re nothing like nanobots, antibiotic medicines, or even washing a wound with alcohol, but they’re actually some of the best natural cures that were available at the time. Why?”

“The herbalist here uses them.” Yuuri told him about Charles. “I’m not sure I’d want that done to me unless I was desperate. I hope I won’t be,” he added. “And poor Victor; he seemed to be enjoying himself until that stirred everything up.”

“That’s the jack who almost killed you, right?”

“Yeah, though…I think we’re coming to terms with that.”

“You are?”

“You should see him, Phichit. He’s amazing.”

“He is?”

“He said I should get a new nickname, because ‘le Savage’ doesn’t suit me.”

“I guess that’s no surprise. But, Yuuri – you’re still trying to make everyone think you’re a knight, right? I mean, if Ailis starts to suspect – ”

“Why do you think I’m doing all this training?” Yuuri interrupted. Though he knew the answer had become more complex. “Anyway, that doesn’t stop just because it’s this days-long feast. Servants still have to cook and clean and so on, and Abelard’s told me that knights keep training. I’ll need it anyway, after all that food today.” He huffed a laugh. “I’ll make sure I keep out of the way of the Lord of Misrule, though.”

“That sounds like a real nightmare, Yuuri. They did some proper weird stuff back then.”

“You don’t know the half of it. Chris – that’s one of the knights, you remember – was telling me at supper about a few years back, when he got Victor to dance on the tables. I bet that was something to see, as graceful as he is.” He paused. “Somehow I can’t imagine him doing it now, though. I think he’d just say no if he was asked. Or told. Whatever the custom is.”

“You seem to think a lot about him, for someone who tried to slice you up.”

“Do I? Maybe. I wish I could do those things he does with a sword. And – what’s a gongfermour?”

Phichit looked that up for him too, and when he said it was someone who mucked out privies and cesspits, Victor’s comment suddenly made sense. They made more small talk for a while, even though it felt a little awkward even with a friend; Yuuri knew he wasn’t very good at it. Then, eventually, they both seemed to have run out of things to say.

As the silence stretched, Yuuri realised he didn’t want to end the call. Because it would mean going back to being alone in this room at night. Like most nights. With nothing to do but stare into the fire. He should’ve arranged to visit with Monica, but he had no idea what she’d planned for the holiday.

“Yuuri? Look, next year you’ll be back here, safe and sound, and we’ll go to The Eagle and have some Baz’s Bonce Blower, and Mari can come too, and – ”

“All right, I get the idea,” Yuuri said with a small smile. “Yeah, that sounds nice.” He stared at his com as if he could look beyond it, to a time long in the future. They kept up a pretence that he’d be able to return one day, and even if it was unlikely, it felt good. “Merry Christmas, Phichit,” he finally said.

“Merry Christmas, Yuuri.”

Chapter Text

The snowfall was more than a dusting; not deep, but enough to present a slipping hazard again, Yuuri discovered. While the leather shoes and boots here would be prized in his time for their handmade craftsmanship, they didn’t seem to have discovered the usefulness of treads or cleats yet; the soles were all smooth, and treacherous on the frozen ground.

That didn’t stop Abelard from giving him exercises to do. The trainer was soon back to his loud bristling self, while sporting a long red scratch across his left cheek. Yuuri wondered what Victor had said to him and Charles about their scuffle, and whether they’d been sanctioned somehow, but he supposed it was none of his business.

He had seen Victor in the training field as usual; the ongoing Yule celebrations didn’t seem to be demanding too much time away from his own fitness regime. Occasionally he went through his swordsmanship routines without armour or even a shirt, his pale corded muscles flexing. It sent a shiver down Yuuri’s back to even think of going half-naked outside in the cold like that. When he mentioned it to Emil, the squire had laughed and said it was a quirk of his that was often remarked upon; he claimed it toughened you up, and had sometimes asked the other men to try it with him, but so far as anyone knew, only Abelard had risen to the challenge so far. The Nikiforov family must have cold blood in their veins, being from northern climes, he’d said. Yuuri would have preferred to ask these questions directly, but he reckoned he would simply make a tongue-tied fool of himself. He suspected, however, that Emil was wrong about Victor being cold-blooded. If you stripped away the layers of feudal privilege and responsibility, knighthood and whatever else that bound him…quite the opposite might be the case.

But Yuuri also knew that he mustn’t neglect the reason why he was here, though the lack of any kind of hint or clue, however slender, continued to frustrate him. As supportive as Phichit was, he asked about the mission every time they talked, which was most nights, and it was starting to prickle. Eventually Yuuri decided to seek out Ethelfrith, the laundress who Dr. Croft had swapped places with in time. He hadn’t thought it likely that she’d be able to tell him anything, and the last thing he wanted was for her to spread word around the castle that someone was asking questions; but if he were careful with what he said? Maybe it was worth a try.

At first, Yuuri was inclined to visit her as himself, without the projector on; that way she wouldn’t be able to link his persona of Justin with the man who came to see her. But he couldn’t think of any way of conveniently hiding his Japanese features, which meant she’d be more inclined to gossip about her strange visitor. He therefore kept the door to his room locked for a few days, which caused him the inconvenience of having to light his own fire, the materials for which he had to get from Emil; but it also meant he had a good excuse to find Ethelfrith, as no one had been able to fetch his laundry.

Between training and supper one day, therefore, with a few centimeters of snow still icing the ground and the grey walls of the castle, he picked up the wicker basket and took it to the servants’ wing, asking around until he found a bare room full of metal and wooden basins of various sizes, all of them containing water, some with clothes as well, and some sending steam up to the wooden ceiling, where it curled and travelled horizontally before eventually dissipating. The humid air smelled of lavender, wet wool, and some acerbic substance Yuuri couldn’t place. A huge iron cauldron was suspended on a hook over the fire in the grate, from which steam was also issuing.

Yuuri asked if Ethelfrith was there, and a woman of perhaps twenty with blond hair in a long plait down her back approached him and curtseyed. She had greyish-blue eyes, a scattering of brown freckles, and a heavy plain green dress with the sleeves rolled up. The other women paused to watch with curious expressions as Yuuri spoke to her.

“I’m afraid I forgot to put my laundry out in the hall while my door was locked, so I thought I’d bring it here,” he said. Putting the basket down, he added, “I was told you were quick and reliable. I need my blue tunic for tomorrow, if that’s possible.”

“Me, sir?” Ethelfrith said, smiling uncertainly. “That’s uncommon flattery from whoever said so, but I’ll do my best.”

“Thank you very much. I…oh.” He widened his eyes. “Damn, I forgot my cloak. I need that doing, too. I’m sorry about this, but I don’t suppose you could come with me to fetch it, could you?” He gave her what he hoped was an encouraging smile.

“Certainly, sir. Or I could just go fetch it myself, if you tell me where it is.”

“You’d have a hard time getting in. The door’s locked.”

“Oh. Well then, sir, I’d be pleased to accompany you.”

Yuuri went out into the hallway, hearing whispers and giggles in the room behind them. “I’m sorry about the short notice,” he said. “You must be busy.”

“Oh sir, please don’t worry yourself. But if it’s all right with you, could we stop at my room on the way? It would only take a moment.”

“Sure,” Yuuri said, following her down the hall to one of the rooms where the female servants collectively slept. He hovered in the doorway as she went inside. How did they ever get any privacy? If he’d swapped places with someone who lived in a room like this, then apart from struggling to find moments when he’d safely be able to contact Phichit, he knew he’d quickly be frustrated with not getting much peace from prying eyes.

To his surprise, Ethelfrith gestured for him to enter. “There’s no one else here, sir; they’re all out on their duties. You’re welcome to stand by the fire while you’re waiting.”

He did so, more out of courtesy than because he was cold in the doorway. She had taken the lid off a ceramic pitcher and was pouring liquid from it into a dented metal tumbler. “Do you have to come back here just to get a drink of water?” he asked her.

Ethelfrith laughed; a high girlish sound. “This isn’t plain water, sir. It’s mixed with many different herbs and spices. My nose often gets blocked while I’m working in the washroom, and this seems to help clear it.”

Intrigued, Yuuri crossed the room to join her. Six beds, three against each wall, a table between each, and not much else. The narrow windows allowed little light into the room; there were candles in nooks, though none were currently lit. “Is this something you got from the herbalist?” he asked, leaning over the pitcher and inhaling. He was hit by a complex fragrant aroma: peppermint, ginger, thyme, cloves, fennel, lemon, and other things he didn’t recognise.         

“Yes, sir,” she replied between sips of the mixture. He noticed the raw-looking thin red fingers that clutched the tumbler, and wondered what kinds of chemicals were used here to clean the clothes. They clearly weren’t conducive to good health.

“The herbalist – Mistress Ramsay, isn’t it? – seems to have a lot of knowledge,” he said quietly.

“Oh, she’s been a godsend, sir.” She put the empty tumbler down on the table next to the pitcher. “Now, shall we get your cloak?”

When they arrived at his room, Yuuri took it out of the wardrobe and gave it to her; she draped it across her arm and gave a curtsey, promising him she’d wash it straight away. Now was the time to see if he could get any information out of her, he decided.

“Ethelfrith, I hope you don’t mind my asking, but I’d heard you had an…unusual experience a few months back?” He’d tried to make it sound both gentle and nonchalant, but alarm instantly leapt into her eyes.

“Oh sir, I didn’t know you’d heard about that. I’m fit as a fiddle now, I promise you.”

“I’m sure you are,” he said hastily. “I wasn’t trying to imply anything else. I was just wondering if you wanted to tell me about it? It…sounded interesting.” Way to go, Yuuri. Classic foot-in-mouth technique.

“W-What have you heard, sir?”

“I, um, passed a couple of laundry maids in the hall who’d been discussing it,” he hazarded a guess. “I didn’t catch much, just that you’d travelled somewhere?”

“Only in my own head, sir. That’s what they would’ve been saying to each other if you’d caught more of their conversation.” She began to play nervously with her fingers, looking down at the floor. “I was touched in the head for a while. I was ill.” Then she looked up at him imploringly. “Oh please don’t tell anyone, sir. I could lose my position.”

“For having been ill?” Yuuri said, wrinkling his brow.

“Not as such.” She sighed. “Well, I was at death’s door, sir. So they say. I can’t remember it myself. I had lunatic visions, that’s all they were. I imagined I’d been to other times and places, and when I suddenly got well, I was raving about them. Perhaps it was an effect of the medicine Mistress Ramsay had given me, I don’t know. I…I got better in a few days, and I stopped, I swear I stopped, and I’ve been fine ever since – you can ask any of the ladies you saw in the washroom.”

“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” Yuuri said soothingly, while mentally kicking himself for making a mess of things. “I don’t have anything to do with hiring or firing people either, so please don’t think I’m going to cause you to lose your position. I’m curious, though – what times and places did you imagine you’d visited?”

But her look was guarded now, and it still contained enough alarm that Yuuri knew he would only be upsetting her if he pressed further. He wondered if there was anything more she could reveal anyway, if she was even willing to credit her experience as anything more than a disturbing fevered dream.

“I didn’t, sir,” she said in almost a whisper. “Like I said, it was part of my illness, and thanks be to God I’ve been perfectly well and normal ever since.” Another curtsey. “I really must be getting your cloak back to the washroom if you want it to be both clean and dry for tomorrow. If…if that’s all?” she added on a quivering note.

“Of course,” he said with a nod. “And thank you.”

She ducked quickly around the door and into the hall with a quick “Sir,” and Yuuri let out a sigh and leaned his forehead against the wall.

“Some detective,” he muttered.


Emil and Abelard both chose to leave the castle on visits over the same days, along with several other fighting men; so while it had been claimed that training wouldn’t cease over the holiday, that hadn’t been strictly true. Yuuri had got so used to spending hours at the field that he missed it; missed, too, Emil’s pleasant company. At a bit of a loss for how to spend his time, considering that the encounter with Ethelfrith hadn’t turned out the way he’d hoped, he decided he could afford to ease up on the interviews and try to relax somehow.

Monica was happy to see him for more lessons, though he’d memorised all the dance steps he needed to know for public occasions in the castle. They worked on more complicated, physically challenging moves as well, which resembled ballet more than anything else; but it was obviously never going to amount to more than a bit of fun, because who would he dance for here? He wasn’t about to start prancing in front of the musicians during a meal.

He recalled one day that Bridget the sauce and pastry chef had given him an invitation to return to the kitchen and learn something with her. It might also be a way to pick up on the kinds of things that people tended to discuss there. Surely they’d gossip to pass the time, and maybe they’d mention anything unusual that had happened recently.

On the plus side, once he found Bridget and she told him she’d be delighted to spend some time with him, he had more fun than he’d expected to, mixing up crust recipes for sweet and savoury pies and tarts, rolling out the dough, and pressing it into wooden moulds with beautiful carvings that made the food look almost too nice to eat. They also made spiced almond biscuits and something Bridget called bryndons, which were small cakes served in a rich sauce of fruit, nuts and wine. She was glad of the help, not bothering to conceal her surprise that he had some culinary skills. Yuuri learned that most knights could cook basic provisions for themselves in the field, but as they almost invariably had someone else with them to prepare and serve their food, it was rare they were interested in learning anything more.

Unfortunately, they were generally not expected to visit the kitchen, either. Yuuri remembered the stir he’d caused on his first visit, but had been hoping that if he stayed a while with Bridget, they’d get used to his presence. Instead, however, everyone else in the room remained strangely quiet, with just a few business-like conversations and some whispers. No one was going to speak freely in front of him, that was plain; and eventually he felt uncomfortable enough that he left Bridget to her work, having been given a plate with a selection of some of the items he’d been helping her make, which he took to the garrison and left out on a table. He didn’t eat anything himself because he’d been tasting in the kitchen as he’d gone along, something he’d always been fond of doing.

It was becoming an annoyance, though, that “high born” people such as himself, or Justin to be more precise, were not supposed to participate in many of the things that could make life interesting. He’d always detested the old English archetype of the toadying lackey, no matter how steadfast and true, because people were people, and no one was the “better” of another.

Well, he would do what he had to do here to fit in as a knight, but he wasn’t going to change his principles. So he visited Bridget in the kitchen, and the following afternoon he decided to pass the time riding and tending to his horses, telling a surprised stable master that he wanted to do everything himself; it had meant, however, that he’d had to ask for a fair bit of instruction. They were already used to him coming out here, so he was allowed to go about his business without too many astonished stares. He fed and watered his two horses, then rode the palfrey into the countryside and around the village of Crowood, enjoying the cold crisp air under the low winter sun. The snow had melted, but the chill had returned afterward, and Yuuri discovered that the stream near the castle had frozen, though he didn’t dare risk crossing it any way other than by bridge. Smoke curled from the roofs of huts, naked branches reached to the sky, and a deer and a hare crossed the path in front of him. There were no peasants out in the fields that he could see, and he hoped they were resting from their toils in front of a fire and a decent meal.

He jumped down from his horse before he entered the stable, his cloak briefly flying up around him as he half-expected the clank of metal that didn’t come, unused as he was to doing this without his armour. He removed his hat and stuffed it in a pocket, doing the same with his gloves, as his breath puffed out in front of him. He’d had a peaceful journey, and there was no one here now; the habitual clash of weapons, clinking plate mail, and shouts of men were absent, and the stable hands seemed to have gone elsewhere. The sound of his footsteps on the frozen ground was magnified in the stillness as he took the bridle and entered the stable.

“Oh,” he said upon entering, realising that someone had been standing on the other side of Victor’s white palfrey in its stall near the doorway, and that person was Victor himself. “I didn’t mean to disturb you; I didn’t know you were here.”

He was wearing his brown fur cloak and blue tunic underneath, and the flat black cloth cap he seemed to favour. Yuuri watched him pull a brush over his horse’s coat, while his own nickered beside him.

“You’re not disturbing me,” Victor said, giving him a glance between strokes of the brush. “Been out riding, have you?”

“It seemed a good day for it. Where’s Julius?” Yuuri asked, conscious that the young squire was usually at Victor’s side.

“He’s visiting family. Like most of the others.” He paused and looked at him. “I’m sure my father would allow you to visit yours if you asked. I don’t think anyone’s afraid you’d abscond.”

Yuuri huffed a small laugh. “You’ve got that right. He sent me a note saying he doesn’t want me to show my face at his castle again until I’ve redeemed myself.”

To his surprise, Victor put his brush down on a shelf and came to the gate of the stall, folding his arms across the top of it and giving him his full attention. “I take it that was after the duel?” Yuuri nodded. “Then it was written in distemper. You’re his only son. I daresay he might be pleased to see you. And your mother. I can have a word with my father if you’d like – ”

“Uh, no, that’s all right – but thank you.” When Victor looked at him curiously, he added, “I think I ought to give things a little more time to…to settle down. Anyway, I like it here.”

Victor smiled, and it lit his eyes. “That’s pleasing to hear. I know your accommodation must seem rather basic compared to what you’re used to…”

“No worries there,” Yuuri said with a small laugh. Silence fell for a moment while their gazes met. Then Yuuri swallowed and said, “So…you don’t visit family in Russia at this time of year? I guess it’s a long way to travel.”

“Just a bit. But no, I’ve never been. I was born here.”

“Emil told me. That explains why your father has an accent and you don’t.”

“Really? Not even a bit?”

“No,” Yuuri said with a smile. At least, nothing that had come across over the translator.

“You didn’t have an accent when you spoke to my father and me in the great hall. I hadn’t been so surprised by anything in a long time.” He paused, perhaps wondering if Yuuri might explain; but how could he, since the truth was not an option? Victor eventually added, “When you speak English, though…there’s maybe a light trace of something I can’t place. Is there a story behind that?”

Is there? Yuuri thought with a stab of panic. Was he speaking Middle English with a modern accent – did the translator let things like that slip through? Or was there even a touch of Japanese in it? But no one had ever told him he had an accent before. He’d been five years old when his family had moved to York. “I’ve travelled a lot,” he said, unable to think of any other reply. “Maybe that’s how it happened.”

“Have you been to France often? I love Rouen. I’ve been there more times than I’ve been to London.”

Yuuri’s insides squirmed. Victor was speaking to him as if he were the son of a baron, like himself. If he allowed himself to get too drawn into conversations like this, his ignorance would give him away, and he wasn’t sure the amnesia excuse would go over as easily with Victor as it had with Emil. Yuuri didn’t enjoy lying to him as it was.

“I’ve been to Paris,” he said truthfully, hoping he wouldn’t be expected to demonstrate a detailed knowledge of what the place was like in the Middle Ages. “Notre Dame is beautiful.” There – a landmark that existed in both times, though it had been rebuilt in the twenty-first century. Keep going, Yuuri. “And the Seine. I’d love to see it again sometime, especially, um, in the spring.” Fuck, he thought, ready to die of embarrassment.

“Flawless French too, I see. I suppose being a master of languages as you are, it must be handy for your travels.”

Was I speaking French? Was Victor? Jesus, this bloody translator –

Just then, his horse clopped a hoof on the ground and bobbed her head. Yuuri was still getting used to the animals, but at a guess, he thought she was getting restless. Stroking a hand down her face, he said, “There, Lady, are we boring you? You’ll be all snug in your stall in just a minute.”

“Lady?” Victor echoed.

“She’s had a name change. It used to be Thunder, but can you imagine? What a name for this beautiful girl.” Yuuri ran a gentle hand down her golden neck.

“I take it you didn’t name her originally.”

“Um, well, it just seemed all wrong for her,” Yuuri hedged. “I’ve never caught the name of your palfrey there.”

Victor straightened and patted the horse. “Ah, this is Alyona. It means ‘light’ or ‘beautiful’.”

A good name for both horse and rider. Yuuri’s throat hitched and he scrambled for something to say, but Victor beat him to it.

“I enjoy coming out here sometimes to look after her and Perun, my destrier,” he said thoughtfully, picking up the brush again and running it down Alyona’s gleaming mane. “Most people leave the stable when it’s starting to get dark. It’s quiet here. You can get away from everything for a while.”

“I guess you must be busy, being Lord Nikiforov’s only son,” Yuuri ventured, watching the smooth practised motions of Victor’s grooming routine.

There was a long pause in which Victor didn’t look up from what he was doing, and Yuuri wondered if his comment had inadvertently caused offence somehow. But then he replied, “Sometimes, very. Sometimes not so much.” More brushing. “There are certain obligations. I imagine you must’ve had them too, at your father’s castle.” Another pause. “Were you ever betrothed?”

Yuuri’s eyes widened. “Not that I’m aware of,” he said quickly, with a blush.

Victor turned to look at him, seemingly amused by his comment. “You mean you don’t know?”

“I…well…” We’ve got to stop talking about me – or Justin. “Were you?” he said. “Betrothed to anyone?”

For a moment, Yuuri wasn’t sure if he intended to answer. It was rather a personal question, after all – though Victor had started the topic. But then he gave a little laugh and put the brush down again, turning to look at him.

“I am the only son and heir,” he said, leaning back against the shelf and folding his arms across his chest, his gaze frank, voice quietly confiding. “But since I prefer the company of men, I won’t be marrying or producing children.”

Yuuri thought about the words for a moment. Then understanding struck him. Oh…

Looking down at the ground, Victor said more quietly still, almost as if he were talking to himself, “My parents aren’t happy about it, of course, but they’re reconciled to it. I’m lucky they never tried to press the issue too far.” Then his eyes lifted to meet Yuuri’s again. “I know I’ve said this before, but I’m aware we’ve taken you from your family, and you’re their only heir, too. You’d still be allowed to marry and have children yourself, though; of that I’m sure. Then you’d be able to leave the castle and return to your own, although you’d ostensibly remain in our service. If that were ever a possibility, I could speak to my father – ”

“No, I…” I what? What on earth do I say to that? Yuuri, stop being so tongue-tied for once. He’s been open and kind, which is more than can be said for you here in this place. “I appreciate everything you’ve offered to do for me. It’s more than I deserve, after…after how I acted toward you at first. You know, in the duel, and…whatever else I did before that. But, um, in this case there’s no need, because I prefer the company of men, too.”

He hadn’t meant to be so blunt about it. But it was true, so why not? His breath caught as he waited for Victor’s reaction. The blue eyes were unreadable at first. A light rosy glow crept into Victor’s cheeks, and he gave a small awkward-sounding huff, continuing to quietly hold his gaze. Then he straightened, dropped his arms to his sides, and began in a more conversational tone, “Justin – ”

A shadow darkened the doorway, and Lady Nikiforov glided in – tall, slender and pale like her son, with her hair hidden under a while veil, a claret velvet gown brushing the ground, and a thick fur coat wrapped around her. She looked at Yuuri with his horse, then at Victor.

“I didn’t think anyone would be here at this time,” she said to her son, looking uncertain.

“May I ask why you’re here yourself?” Yuuri was surprised at the formality in Victor’s voice. But it was also how he’d spoken to his father.

She glanced around, then answered, “I needed to go into the village.”

Victor’s brow wrinkled. “The sun’s setting. And – surely you weren’t planning to go on your own?”

“Sir Christophe was going to escort me, but he’s…indisposed. Please don’t ask me to explain how. I thought you were supposed to be in charge of these men?”

“I’m not their minder. It’s also the Christmas holiday, and they’re allowed a certain measure of good cheer.”

“Well they’re taking advantage of it all right.” She looked again at Yuuri. “Maybe he could escort me.”

He was about to reply when Victor said, “Madam, what’s so important that it requires you to go now?”

“I need to get some material from the tailor. Mistress Monica can’t finish my dress without it.”

“I’ll escort you.”

“It’s really not necessary.”

“I think it’s quite necessary,” Victor answered, his frustration clear. “Justin’s already been out for a ride, and he doesn’t know the area well yet. Surely you’re aware there are ruffians who’d think the heavens had blessed them with abundance if they saw a wealthy noblewoman riding on the road by herself at night.”

“It isn’t night yet. And I was going to take a lantern.” She watched his stern face and eventually sighed in resignation. “Very well. I’ll get my horse.” She turned to Yuuri and said, “He’s stubborn, this one.”

“Not to the point of being careless with my safety,” Victor returned, beginning to tack up Alyona. His mother made no reply, but walked past them, entering a stall further down the row.

“I’d better go,” Yuuri said, wondering if he should’ve done so when Lady Nikiforov had come in, but unsure how to manage it without being rude.

“I apologise,” Victor said, lifting the saddle onto his horse. “My mother knows her own mind. Though I daresay my father would be furious to discover what she was coming here to do.” He secured the saddle in place and turned to look at him, quirking a sudden smile. “I can imagine what ‘indisposed’ might mean where Chris is concerned. I’m sure it’s harmless, but you might want to avoid going to your room through the garrison unless you want to be pulled in.”

Chapter Text

Yuuri compromised by approaching his room through the servants’ quarters, then making his way surreptitiously to the end of the hallway that opened into the main garrison room, where he could peek around the corner. As indicated by numerous flagons and tankards littering the tables, drink had been flowing freely here, and from the small crowd of men came shouts, cheers, and discordant melodies from musical instruments. It reminded Yuuri oddly of a football match.

The interest appeared to be centred on the far corner of the room near the fireplace. People called out numbers. The room quietened. Yuuri heard the clicking sound of dice being thrown on the ground. The numbers were read out, and a collective roar went up. When the men shifted enough for Yuuri to catch a glimpse of what was happening, his eyes went wide as he saw a flushed Chris clumsily pull off his braies and toss them on the floor, then do a silly little dance, completely nude. One of the young guards, an Irishman named Fergus, seized up the underwear and pulled it onto his head as a hat. Everyone seemed to think it was very entertaining, though it was certainly not Yuuri’s scene, and he went into his room, wondering if the men intended to turn up for supper in that state.

The company of men. Yuuri thought it unlikely that such gatherings were what Victor had been referring to. Though maybe they were part of it…or maybe not. No, it seemed to be Victor’s duty to officiate. If anyone in that room got out of hand, Yuuri imagined they’d be answering to Victor when they were sober. Chris was probably already in line for a talking-to, for neglecting to present himself as a fit escort for Lady Nikiforov.

He said that, and then I said the same back to him.

He was just telling me about himself; making conversation.

Was that what I was doing too?

He turned his thoughts aside before they went any further in that direction.

Emil and Abelard returned to the castle a few days later, and Yuuri was glad to be able to resume training, though the hours had been cut down for the holiday. He was also surprised, touched, and horrified to discover that Emil had brought a gift for him: a new knife in a smooth leather sheath to replace the used and worn one he’d fetched for Yuuri’s first meal. This jack is just plain nice, he thought. What a lovely present. And right on the heels of that: Fuck, I don’t have a thing to give him in return. It should have been the most obvious thing about Christmas, but it had completely skipped his mind, perhaps because it was easy to think at times that he was in a foreign country with strange and different customs. He thanked Emil, told him he’d ordered a gift for him as well but it wasn’t ready yet, and pondered what he could do about that. Then it occurred to him that the expensive pile of precious metals on the sideboard in the great hall had grown recently; and when he commented on it to Emil, he was told those had been gifts to the noble family from people who could afford to give lavishly.

“They compete with each other to see who gives the most expensive gift,” Emil said with a chuckle. “I believe the Baron du Barry outdid everyone this year with a splendid gold nef.” Yuuri had asked him to clarify, and he said it was a salt container in the shape of a ship.

“Are there people who’d be offended if I didn’t give them a gift?” Yuuri asked in alarm. “Do they expect – ”

“It’s all right, sir. People are flexible here, for the most part. Apart from the noble family and the senior household officials, it’s just an agreement between friends. Being your squire – and feeling bad for you, sir, in truth, because of the amnesia – I thought it would cheer you up to receive a gift, even if we hadn’t discussed it beforehand. You honestly needn’t have worried about getting me anything in return.”

Which of course made it all the more important that he did.

So he forced himself to go to that paradoxical place of artistry and foulness, the tannery, to find out if they had anything Emil might like. After asking for advice there, he settled on a leather carrying bag embossed around the fold-over flap with patterns of leaves.

They had the pieces on hand, and it didn’t take them long to stitch them together; Yuuri rode out early one morning on Lady to collect it. There was no training scheduled at the field until after dinner, however; so instead of going straight back to the garrison, he rode Lady down the castle hill and along the frozen stream, its still waters a glossy grey that appeared and disappeared within drifting clouds of mist that the weak sun struggled to burn away.

I could get used to this, riding a horse through the countryside. He wondered how much it would cost to buy and keep one near his flat…if he ever returned. Whenever he thought about home, that was the way it ended. If.

And yet he seemed to experience different feelings about it every time. This place was beginning to grow on him in some ways, as mad as it was. He was excited – and a little disturbed, in all honesty – by how things seemed to be on the mend with Victor. Being with him wasn’t the same as being with Emil, or Chris or Charles, Abelard or Monica, or anyone else here. He wasn’t sure how to address the son of the lord of the castle, even though Justin was one himself. Wasn’t sure it was appropriate to even be speaking to him, but Victor seemed to have taken pains recently to show him he wanted it.

What does he want? Is he just curious because I’m not acting like Justin ‘le Savage’? Is he trying to help me feel more comfortable in my new home? Does he want someone of an equal social position to talk to? Or…

Or nothing, Yuuri. Or nothing. Don’t even go there.

As if his thoughts had suddenly manifested in physical form, when the mist bank ahead of him drifted away, a sleek white palfrey was revealed to be staked to the grass like some faerie vision. A tall grey tree with a thick trunk and gnarled branches stood nearby. Yuuri recognised Alyona, with Victor’s fur coat and hat slung over the saddle. The branches creaked and shook; Victor, wearing a long-sleeved dark grey tunic trimmed with silver and olive-coloured hose, was nimbly climbing his way up. Astoundingly, red apples still clung to some of the branches; they trembled and bounced on their stems when Victor moved.

“Hail, Justin,” came a call from above. Yuuri tilted his head up to look.

“Um, good morning?” he called back. “What are you doing?”

“What does it look like?” With his legs securely wrapped around a branch, Victor reached out, plucked an apple, and tossed it down. Yuuri caught it, then noticed half a dozen more apples scattered on the ground.         

“They’re all going to be bruised.”

“Can’t be helped. Alyona’s not going to catch them for me, is she? I was going to take them to the kitchen, where they’ll use them straight away, so it doesn’t matter.”

“How are there apples on a tree in December?”

“It happens sometimes when the weather’s right,” Victor said, shifting higher up. “Didn’t you ever go scrumping when you were little? Mind you…” He reached out again, plucked another apple and dropped it, Yuuri hurrying to catch it. “…many people of our class would prefer to send a servant up while they watched. You’re missing all the fun that way, though.”

“Believe me, I don’t want servants doing things I can do for myself.”

“Really?” Victor paused and looked down at him.

“Really. But I never made a habit of climbing trees when I was young, either. I guess there weren’t many around that were, um, climbable.”

A little laugh fell from the branches. “You say some curious things. Did someone chop all the trees down around your castle?”

“Who says I lived all my life at the castle?”

“Did you?”

Yuuri was silent, watching.

“All right, Justin. Be mysterious. But also be warned.” He yanked an apple hanging above his head. “I’ll pry your secrets out of you, see if I don’t.” And he tossed it down.

Feeling strangely emboldened, Yuuri drew his sword in a flash and held it out in front of him, never taking his eyes off the apple as it plummeted. With a tiny thunk, it stuck on the point. He stared in amazement, his lips curving in a grin.

“Well,” came Victor’s voice, and Yuuri looked back up to find him peering down with a smile, “I see. So that’s what we’re doing, is it? How many of the next five can you touch with your sword, I wonder? Then I’d like a turn.”

Yuuri would ordinarily have felt anxious with Victor watching, but he was surprised to discover that this was fun. He only missed one apple, laughing in delight as he sliced the final piece of fruit in half in mid-air. Victor scrambled down from the tree, and after removing his own cloak, Yuuri took his turn climbing up, though he was less sure-footed. And he watched in awe as Victor perfectly sliced each of the six apples he threw down. For the last one, he even did an exaggeratedly dramatic full spin, waving his sword in a huge arc so that when it met the apple, the halves flew violently apart. He stood, looking mildly pleased with himself, as Yuuri climbed down the tree, his tunic snagging on the bark a couple of times.

“Fucking hell,” he laughed, the words tumbling out before he could check himself in case he offended Victor’s ears; but he received a smile. “You’re good. You’re…incredible. I guess you know that, but…I’ve seen you. Not just now, or in the duel. Out on the training field. The way you move, the things you can do…” He knew he sounded like a gushing fanboy, but it felt good to express what he’d been feeling inside all this time.

Victor sheathed his sword, his smile fading into a contemplative expression as he looked at Yuuri. “I didn’t know you were watching so keenly. I’m flattered.”

Yuuri pinned his cloak back on, the damp chill air creeping through the neck of his tunic. “Where did you learn? How? If you don’t mind my asking.”

Victor took a moment to consider his answer, then replied, “I’ve always had a natural ability, but practice sharpens any skill. I’ve…had some good influences.” He blinked, falling silent again.

Yuuri couldn’t help but feel that he inadvertently kept sticking his foot in his mouth where this man was concerned. He nodded and untethered his horse.

“You’re not bad yourself,” Victor added suddenly. Yuuri stopped and turned to look at him, hardly daring to believe he’d just heard the words. “Maybe you’d find you had a natural ability too, if you worked on it.”

Heartened, Yuuri quickly replied, “I want to. I’ve been trying to. I’ve wanted to keep practising over the Christmas holiday, but it’s hard on my own.”

“There are plenty of things you can do by yourself. But I admit, it helps to have a partner to spar with, too; someone who can give you a challenge.”

“Spar with me,” Yuuri said, his eyes shining. He wondered how he could have been so bold, but it felt like a fire had been lit in him. “Just…for a little while? I know I wouldn’t be a challenge for you. But I’d love to learn.”

Victor regarded him thoughtfully. Surprise was chased away on his face by a look of consideration, which was followed by a grin and a nod. “Why not,” he said; and the smile Yuuri gave him was radiant.           


“You can’t be serious. It’s too cold.”

“No it isn’t,” Victor replied nonchalantly, draping his tunic over the gate of Alyona’s stall and refastening his belt around his waist. “Gets the circulation going.”

Yuuri tried not to stare. He’d gathered a while back that all men here wore braies. But leaving them brazenly in view without a tunic, despite the hose, still looked to Yuuri like being half dressed. And at the end of December – ?

Victor was muscular but lithe like a dancer, rather than a brute mountain like Abelard. Yuuri told himself again not to stare. But God, someone ought to carve a marble replica of him and put it on a plinth. Yuuri had seen him in the field like this, but it had been at a distance. Now they were standing here talking to each other. Or, rather, enduring an awkward silence while Yuuri dithered.

“Aren’t you going to put any armour on?” Yuuri finally asked him. “Just in case – ”

“You won’t touch me, don’t worry,” Victor said with quiet ease. “I’ll make sure I don’t hurt you either, if you still want to join me.” Then he turned and walked out the stable door and into the field, drawing his sword and waving it slowly while he rolled his shoulders, presumably as a warm-up exercise.

Join him? Shirtless in the freezing cold? Then Yuuri remembered what Emil had told him – to his knowledge, only Abelard had done this with Victor. It didn’t appeal to anyone else, apparently. And with good reason.

When am I going to start acting like the knight I’m supposed to be? I got Victor to put aside whatever he was planning to do and come here with me. I have to make it worth his while. And besides, I’m not going to let Abelard get the better of me. If he can do this, so can I.

He unpinned his cloak and laid it over the gate, already shivering as the icy air crept across his neck. “I must be completely mad,” he muttered to himself, removing his hat, gloves, leather belt, and then – after a pause to steel himself – his tunic. Another shiver went through him and his skin erupted in goosebumps. Gritting his teeth, he fastened his belt back around his waist. His hose and boots were keeping his legs warm, but he wasn’t sure he’d be able to wield a sword while shivering, and these braies were a thin barrier between the winter and his nether regions. Nevertheless, he was determined to take up the challenge. He counted his breaths as he walked out to join Victor in the field, trying to ignore the cold slicing through his bare skin.

Victor lowered his sword and simply looked at him for a moment. Then he grinned. “All right. Why don’t you try to touch me with your sword.”

“But you said – ”

“Yes. That you wouldn’t be able to.” Now there was a hint of pride in Victor’s smile. “I said ‘try’.”

So that was what Yuuri did. I’m going to show him how much I’ve improved, he thought. No longer was Swords and Sorcery his inspiration. He’d been learning from Abelard and the other men here, but most of all from Victor. His feet were rarely still, his eyes focused and sharp, his body reacting to every move. Metal clanged against metal, once, twice, a dozen times. Sweat broke out across Yuuri’s forehead and chest despite the cold.

Yet Victor’s guard was like a solid wall. Everything Yuuri did seemed like child’s play to him. All the strategies Yuuri had learned passed through his head, but it felt like his boots were mired in the mud compared to the way Victor could dodge and dart. Eventually Victor lowered his sword. There was a smooth sheen of sweat glistening on his skin as well. Yuuri wondered how he could stand it; the moisture only made the bite of the cold air that much worse. He himself was struggling to hide the shivers passing through him.

“Had enough for now?” Victor said with a polite smile, sheathing his sword. “Let’s get you out of the cold.”

Yuuri looked at him with a sinking feeling. He hadn’t made any kind of impression at all, had he? Victor didn’t have a single word of praise or encouragement. Not that he should expect any, he supposed; he didn’t get them from Abelard, either. But anything would be welcome.

Why? If I haven’t earned it, why do I have any right to expect it?

“Victor,” he said firmly as the knight began to walk back to the stable. He turned, and Yuuri trotted up to him. “Tell me what I’m doing wrong.”

“Wrong? Surely Abelard helps you. He says you’ve been making good progress. Thanks for coming here with me,” he added. “I needed the exercise.”

“I’m not finished yet,” Yuuri insisted; and at Victor’s quizzical look, he added, “I mean, if you don’t want to be, either. I know there are things you could teach me. Tell me what I can do better. Whatever you say, I can take it. I want to learn.”

Victor considered, and finally he planted his sword tip-down on the ground, resting his hands on the shining gold crossguard. “Well, there’s a harmony to your moves that’s always going to stand you in good stead, I think,” he began. “You anticipate well, and keep on your toes.”

“But?”

After a pause, Victor continued, “Your sword’s drawn blood, Justin. It’s killed people. And yet you act like you’re afraid to harm me.”

This wasn’t quite what Yuuri had expected, and he looked down at the sword in his hand as if it were something strange and terrible that he’d never seen before. Then his eyes met Victor’s again. “I don’t want to harm you.”

“That’s the biggest problem, I’d say,” Victor stated with a small laugh. “I told you I wouldn’t let you. Didn’t you believe me?”

“I…” Yuuri floundered. “…yes, of course I did.”

“But besides that, you need to put more of your body into it. You’re not just fighting with a sword in your hand; every muscle should be contributing to what you’re doing. You need to get faster on the attack, and mix it up so it’s less predictable. You’d also benefit from working on your fitness level so there’s more strength behind your blows.” He paused again. “Is that enough?”

Yuuri hated criticism; it always made him feel like a failure. But at the same time, what he’d said to Victor was the absolute truth – he wanted to improve. And here was one of the best, taking the time to tell him how. He made himself swallow the bitterness, and looked at him defiantly. “Thank you. Those things will take time, but I’ll work on them. For now, though – I’d like another go, if you’re up for it.”

Victor’s eyes glinted. “Up for it? I am indeed…if you can take it.” He quirked a smile.

Yuuri forced himself to shove aside the part of him that instantly interpreted this as innuendo, and raised his sword, Victor doing the same. He’s so good, and so confident, he knows I won’t be able to get anywhere near him. Believe him, he said. I will.

With renewed vigour, Yuuri attempted to put into practice what he’d been told. He wasn’t any more eager to hurt Victor than before, but he tried to relax into a feeling of trust that Victor wouldn’t allow it to happen no matter how determined his efforts were. It seemed as though he were making Victor work more, and there was a look of concentration in his eyes that hadn’t previously been as noticeable. Swords clicked and clashed, again and again. Yuuri ended up falling several times, bare skin colliding with cold hard ground, but he rolled with his momentum and came up fighting. And with a spark of delight, he recognised the feeling he’d had when he’d fought Abelard in front of the other men, time and movement seeming to slow down, his arms and legs, torso and neck and sword all a symphony…just for a moment, as he struck.

A high voice he recognised as Julius’s called from nearby, “What the hell are you doing?” He strode forward, his fur cape making him look like a bush on stilts.

Yuuri and Victor were staring at the ground, where a small leather purse lay nestled in the grass. It was Victor’s, and Yuuri had cut through the cord that had attached it to his belt. “I…I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I didn’t mean to…”

“It’s all right,” Victor said, bending to collect it. “Easily mended.”

“What were you doing,” Julius repeated, “waving a sword at him like that?” He put his hands on his hips and glared at Yuuri.

“He was taking some advice from me,” Victor said, looking down at him with a smile. “And hello and welcome to you, too.” He sheathed his sword, gave the purse an idle toss in the palm of his hand, and strode into the stable, the others following.

“Victor and I were just sparring,” Yuuri said.

“I wouldn’t have thought you were worth the time,” Julius replied, looking at him with narrowed eyes, then up at Victor questioningly.

He was pulling his tunic back on, and Yuuri was only too glad to mirror him. “You ought to spend some time getting to know Justin a little better. Whatever he said or did to you in the past, he’s been a flower of chivalry since he arrived here.” He grinned at Yuuri, pulling his cloak on and stuffing the cut purse in a pocket.

Julius looked stunned. “What, him? Master, are you certain he’s not just pretending to get into your good graces? And as far as skill is concerned, just watch him with a bow and arrow – that’s all you need to know.”

“My dear squire, do you know what I really need now?” Victor bent down and whispered something in his ear. Julius didn’t look pleased, but nodded and ran out of the stable. Yuuri was impressed and relieved at the speed with which he’d been dispatched.

“I apologise for that,” Victor said, standing with his back against Alyona’s stall gate.

“You seem to have a habit of apologising for other people.” Yuuri pulled his cloak on and pinned it.

Victor looked as if he were about to disagree, then huffed a sheepish laugh. “Maybe you’re right. But if Julius continues to be insolent, it is my responsibility to be firm with him about it. Though he isn’t that bad with most people. You both seem to have made an unfortunate start with each other.”

“Maybe. I’ve tried to be civil to him since I got here, but to be honest, it can take some patience.”

“That’s politely put. He’ll come round, though. I think he feels a need to be on his guard, or on the offensive, much of the time – ” He cut himself off, then continued, “His youth and his slight build, you know; they invite ridicule sometimes. Anyway, what say we put our horses out to pasture, since there doesn’t seem to be anyone else here to do it?”

They fetched both their palfreys and their destriers, leaving them to crop the grass in the training field. Yuuri had hardly ridden Blaze, his black destrier, and wasn’t in any hurry to change the fact, because he would probably be doing it to joust. Victor told him more about his chestnut destrier, Perun, who he said was named after the Russian god of thunder and lightning. While trying not to ask too many strange or confusing questions, Yuuri gathered that in peacetime, these horses were mostly seen as status symbols for noblemen, since they were expensive to buy and keep. They were ridden in tournaments as well.

“There’s one other thing Perun’s good for,” Victor said, “and that’s hunting. Maybe you’d like to join me sometime.” He smiled. “You can get in a bit of bow and arrow practice.”

Before Yuuri could reply, Julius came sprinting across the field to them with something dark and round cupped between his hands. “Master, I did as you asked,” he panted when he came up to them, drawing one of his hands away to reveal a hollow bronze-coloured ceramic filigree sphere about the size of a large orange, within which rested a small metal container.

“Thank you,” Victor said. “Justin, this is for you, if you want to use it. You might want to pull your gloves off first.”

Yuuri did so and pocketed them; they were thin and not much use in winter weather, anyway. Then he picked up the sphere and gave a start when he realised how warm it was, like holding a hand over a glowing coal. It didn’t hurt to touch it, but it radiated a welcome warmth through his arm, and he quickly cupped his other hand over the top. Julius was looking at him like he wanted to say something he knew Victor wouldn’t approve of.

“Master, Fernand wants to know if you’d like him to make a crumble with gingered almonds for dinner with the apples you gave him,” he said instead.

“Tell him to ask my mother and father. I don’t mind.”

“I also saw Master Steggles, who says he has some new outfits he wants you to try on. And Master Everard wants to know when you and Lord Nikiforov would be willing to discuss taxes; he told me to remind you that the manorial court will be held soon.”

“Did you stop and talk to the entire castle on your way?” Victor laughed. “The answer for Matthew is never, if he wants the truth. Though the one he’d probably prefer to hear is soon after Twelfth Night, when the holiday is over. Please go back and tell him that; and if you bump into Percy, let him know I’d be delighted to see what he’s got to show me. After dinner would be a suitable time.” As Julius continued to look at him, he added, “Well, what are you waiting for? Go get some exercise and run back and tell them. I’ll be in the great hall shortly.”

Julius’s mouth twitched briefly, then with a “Yes, master,” he dashed back toward the stable.

“Have you never used one of these before?” Victor asked Yuuri, nodding at the sphere. “I thought most people had them. They take them to church in the village on cold days.”

“It’s wonderful,” Yuuri murmured with a grin. “But no, I haven’t. What’s keeping it warm?”

“An ember from the fire. The metal box should be suspended in the middle so it’s not touching the sides.” He peered at it as if to make sure.

“It’s fine. Perfect, even. Not…not that I need it, of course. I could come out here again anytime and take off most of my clothes, and run around, and never feel the cold. In the snow, even. I’m a real man, I tell you.”

Victor eyed him, and they both laughed. “I do believe you’re teasing me,” he said.

“Maybe,” Yuuri replied with a quietening chuckle. “I wish they had these hand warmer things where I’m fr – um, at my father’s castle. What a brilliant idea. Thank you.”

“It seems you’ve had a few surprises to share yourself,” Victor said softly. “You proved me wrong about getting through my guard. A cutpurse indeed.”

The honey of his voice slipped through Yuuri along with the heat from the ceramic sphere, and he felt like he was floating in lassitude on a tropical sea. Next thing he knew, he felt the touch of smooth skin, and saw that Victor had placed his hands on either side of the sphere, partially overlapping his own. A thick silence stretched, during which Yuuri forgot to breathe, and it looked like Victor had as well, those crystal-blue eyes searching his with a spark of surprise, and other things that were less easy to interpret.

“My lord, there you are.” A black man in a sumptuous ankle-length grey fur coat and matching cap, and vibrant blue gloves embroidered with silver thread, strode purposefully up to them both. Yuuri recognised him as one of the officials Victor and his father often spoke to. Disappointment flashed across Victor’s face as he removed his hands from the sphere.

“I was just returning to the castle, Matt,” Victor said to him. “Julius gave me your message.”

“It’s a most pressing matter, my lord, if you don’t mind my saying. Several of our tenant families are in changed circumstances that warrant immediate intervention.”

“All right.” Victor turned to Yuuri. “Will you come back with us?”

“Um, I would, but I’ve got some things to fetch from the stable,” he answered ruefully, thinking of Emil’s bag that he’d left on a shelf in Lady’s stall.

“As you please. Thank you for an interesting morning.” Victor gave him a small smile, then walked away with the man Yuuri assumed must be Matthew Everard, the steward – whatever one of those was. Someone who helped run the castle seemed to be the obvious answer.

Pressing his palms to the warm curves of the ceramic, he stared after the two men until they disappeared around the corner of the stable.

Chapter Text

Yuuri had little appetite for either dinner or supper that day, though he trained hard in the afternoon, pushing himself to run twice as many times as usual up and down the castle hill in his plate armour.

It wasn’t that he didn’t like the food: dining in the great hall, especially during the twelve days of Christmas, had started to feel like eating at a restaurant, so good was the cooking. There was no more fish to be seen. Beef, lamb, pork, and other more esoteric meats were served during most meals. There were pies, purees, and pottages, or thick stews. Sweet mixed with savoury, tangy and salty and spicy, hot and cold. Custards, flans, buttery pastries.

And yet none of it seemed to have the usual appeal just now. Yuuri’s eyes kept straying to Victor as he wondered what was going through his mind, especially now that they’d spent some time together and shared confidences. But the windows of his eyes were usually shuttered during meals. Yuuri wished they could sit and talk while they ate, but it would never happen while these rigid feudal customs were in place.

He did, however, partake of the apple crumble at the end of supper, thinking back with a smile to the morning, when he and Victor had climbed the apple tree and tossed fruits for each other to slice with their swords. And then after that…Victor in the cold, his upper half nude. Himself, daring to copy him. Shivering. Insisting on Victor’s help. And scoring a hit, despite Victor’s solid confidence that it couldn’t be done. The hand warmer…

His breath hitched, and he couldn’t eat any more of the apple crumble, though Charles next to him offered to polish it off when he noticed Yuuri’s disinterest.

I have to pull myself together. This is all distracting me. I’m on a mission. And I’m sure Victor’s got a lot more on his mind than me. As it should be.

The heady emotions inside of him didn’t match his thoughts; he knew that, and decided they were best ignored. When he was in his room for the night, he took off his boots and changed his tunic for his linen nightshirt as he usually did, then sat down next to the fire – but before he could call Phichit, Phichit called him.

“Hey, Yuuri, how’s things?”

“Hey, Phichit. Maybe not too bad today.”

“Oh? Have you found any clues? Got a lead?”

“No, nothing like that. I just have to live here and convince everyone I’m a knight, you know? I think I’m getting better at that.”

“Oh. Well, that’s good…”

“I picked apples off a tree today, and they made them into apple crumble in the kitchen.”

“OK…”

“I’ve got this really nice hand warmer, too. You put an ember from the fire in the middle of it. How come nobody in our time uses them?”

“Because we have central heating?”

“Do you think I have an accent? I was told I have a touch of one. I didn’t think – ”

Phichit suddenly laughed. “Yuuri, what’s got into you? No, I’ve never noticed an accent, but I’m Thai, so maybe I’m not the best person to ask. Look – I hate to start by venting, but I just wanted to say. You know how I said your counterpart here, Justin, is difficult? Well…he’s difficult.”

“I can imagine. What’s he been doing?”

“Nothing new. It’s just that I tried to get some information out of him about the past – well, his present. I thought he might be a really good source. But he’s got a bit of a screw loose. What all did he say…? Lemme think. He hates the Nik – ” There was a pause. “Sorry, just accessing my notes. I can never remember their name.”

“Nikiforovs?”

“Yeah, that’s it. He hates their son Victor. I guess it was a mistake to tell him about the duel you lost – ”

“He lost it first,” Yuuri hastened to add. “He was never going to beat Victor anyway.”

“…arrogant knave and villain, deserves to die, etcetera, etcetera…needs someone to trounce him thoroughly. Well, there wasn’t much actual information to be had from him. He’s got that mad hair, too, and the beard. Looks like the Sheriff of Nottingham or something. You know, from Robin Hood. He doesn’t want to shave them off, though.”

Yuuri huffed a laugh. “I did it for him. In the projected image I’m using, anyway. It’s a big improvement. But you’re looking after him, aren’t you?”

“Of course we are,” Phichit said mildly. “I know none of this is his fault, and I feel sorry for him. That doesn’t mean I’m keen to be friends with him, though. Or even to talk to him again, for that matter.”

Muffled shouts issued down the hall outside Yuuri’s door. The drink was flowing in the garrison again tonight, and he hadn’t fancied being the one made to strip according to whatever numbers turned up on the dice. “Have you found anything else out from these books you were going to try to check?” he asked as he stared at the dancing flames in the grate.

“Well I do have a little information, though I don’t know how much it’ll help. Important historical facts aren’t hard to find on the Cloud, like who was king. Since, you know, he’s coming there in a few months. I tried to pool some stuff together about what he might be like.”

“Start with that, then.”

“Richard the Second. Everything I’ve read says he loves his queen, but he’s had affairs, some with women, at least one with a man – well, that’s pretty normal for a king, isn’t it? I suppose they’re free to roger anything that moves if they want to.”

“How’s that relevant, exactly?” Yuuri laughed.

“Well, if Ailis fancies her chances with him or something? Anyway, he’s twenty-five years old, not very popular, seems to get on the wrong side of powerful nobles – but that’s pretty normal too; name me a monarch who never has.”

One year older than me and he’s king of England. “I guess that’ll be enough to make me feel sorry for him when I see him next year. Almost this year, actually. It’s New Year’s Eve tomorrow.”

“I should say so. He’ll be deposed in 1399 by his cousin, who’ll become Henry the Fourth. He dies in captivity the following year.”

Yuuri bit his lip. “It’s creepy to hear you talking like that.”

“Don’t go trying to tell him or anything.”

“Of course not.”

“Maybe Ailis will, though. She could change history just by doing that.”

Yuuri rubbed a hand thoughtfully along his chin. “I’m not sure,” he said after a pause. “It doesn’t seem her style. Why would she go to all the trouble of coming to this time just to say to the king, ‘Hey, be careful, your cousin’s out to get you’? Maybe she didn’t even know he was coming here until she was at the castle and it was announced. If she’s even here. There’s a village nearby, and there’s York…Phichit, she could be anywhere. How am I going to find her?”

“Keep talking to the women?”

“I am,” Yuuri sighed. “It’s hard. You’d be a lot better at it than me.”

“I’m not sure about that.”

“Anyway, none of those things you told me would’ve required making trips to find old books. Did you learn anything else?”

“Well like I said, it’s not a lot, but I’ll give you what I’ve got.”

“Go on, then,” Yuuri said, adjusting his position on the floor so he was more comfortable. His stomach fluttered. Had Phichit found anything out about the people he saw here every day? If so, what? He swallowed.

“Just looking it up…there don’t seem to be any records for the Courtenay family that Justin’s from. Well, none that I could find. I did look, but it was a long time ago, and so much has been lost…”

“OK, I get it. What can you tell me?”

“That the chroniclers only seemed to want to write about important Church people and nobles? There’s a little for the Nikiforovs, anyway. Andrei Nikiforov, First Baron of Crowood, lives just into the fifteenth century. And Victor, you’ll probably be pleased to hear, won’t be trying to cut your throat any later than next year, if you’re still there, because he dies in 1393.”

Yuuri stared at the com.

“Did you hear me? Yuuri?”

“I…”

“Are you OK? Is there a problem?”

“Are you sure?” Yuuri whispered hoarsely. “H-How? How does he die?”

“The book just has a date for him, that’s all.” He paused. “Is something wrong? I thought you’d be glad to get him out of your hair. Who knows, it could be as soon as a few days, with New Year’s on the way – ”

“Phichit.” He took several shallow breaths, then said, “He…we were making up. I told you. Don’t you remember?”

“Oh. Gosh, Yuuri, I…I guess it didn’t really register. I mean, he tried to kill you.”

“I know. He thought I was Justin. I mean, he still does. But it’s different now. I…” He stood and gave a shaky sigh.

“I didn’t know you were friends.” When Yuuri forced down another breath, Phichit added in a quiet voice, “I’m really sorry.”  

“Me too. I…um, I’d better go.”

“You sure you’re going to be OK?”

“Yeah. Bye, Phichit. I’ll, uh, speak to you tomorrow, I guess.”

He cut the call, and as usual, was left with the heightened awareness of being a stranger here, Phichit’s voice receding into time. Then he clapped a hand to his mouth and stared at the blank wall. Beyond the wall.

“Oh my God. Victor,” he whispered through his fingers.

But how many conversations had they even had? Victor thought he was someone else. Phichit had said “friends”, but could they even be considered that?

It doesn’t matter. He…he’s not like anyone I’ve ever known. He’s special. Wonderful. You don’t have to know someone well to see those things in their eyes. In their…in his heart. In everything he does.

“No,” he whispered into the room, as if the word was proof against the tragedy that the approaching year was bringing, like an avalanche in the distance, gaining ground faster than anything could run.

The damned book Phichit had consulted hadn’t even bothered to say how. Combat? An illness? An accident? Not Ailis. She had no reason to harm him, surely?

What if he’s made to fight another duel, and has one of his rare bad days? Or…or all of us are sent to some battle?

He lifted the top of a chest and pulled his sword out of its scabbard. As he held it up, the silver metal gleaming in the firelight, he recalled Victor’s words from earlier.

Your sword’s drawn blood, Justin. It’s killed people. And yet you act like you’re afraid to harm me.

Yuuri wiped at his eyes with his sleeve. But what if there are others who want to, Victor? People who hold a grudge against you, or…or want to say they fought and beat the best knight in the land, or who are just out for blood? What then?

This place is fucking barbaric.

He screwed his face up and hurled his sword at the far wall, where it cut a small chunk out of the plaster and then clattered noisily to the wooden floor, quickly stilling. His hands covered his face as his shoulders shook.

After some indeterminate time, the thud and crackle of logs in the fireplace as they burned through and broke apart, resettling, made him start. Ever since I got here, I’ve felt helpless. I don’t have control over anything. And now this. Fucking hell.

He sniffed, sleeved off his face again, swallowed, hugged his arms to his chest, and thought. That’s not entirely true. I chose not to live up to Justin’s nickname, though I could’ve tried, and…done an awful job, I suppose. I’ve gone through all that training, and I’ve worked my arse off. Because I wanted to. I want to be good at this stuff. I think…maybe I could be.

Several more deep breaths. Then he crossed the room and stared at the sword before bending to pick it up. Maybe this has had human blood on it; even been used to kill. But I can change that. Use it to defend. To…to save a life. Maybe it’s the most important tool I own now.

There was no telling what fate had in store for Victor. Or himself, or anyone else, apart from kings whose lives were recorded in history books. No knowing whether a sword would be able to stop some deadly event from occurring.

But if it can, I’ll be there to use it. His voice cracked the heavy silence in the room as he said aloud: “Victor, I promise you – I’ll defend your life with my own. Anything or anyone that wants to hurt you is going to have to get past me first.”

The bold words lightened his heart. For a moment. Then his shoulders sagged and he sat down on his bed, the tip of his sword poking the floor.

It’s easy to say that. How often, apart from meals, do I even see him?

Why would he need me anyway, when he’s got his own intelligence and talent, and Julius, and other knights and fighting men surrounding him? People who actually know what they’re doing. As opposed to a time-traveller who’s play-acting.

And…why am I feeling this so deeply? What is Victor to me?

The questions lingered, seemingly with no answers; and his eyes remained open for hours after he’d gone to bed.


What do you say to someone when you know something important about them that you can never share?

Yuuri had finished training for the day, still in his armour, and was standing against the wooden fence that bordered the field, watching the stable, his gaze lingering on Victor and Julius in Alyona’s stall. They were too far away for their voices to be heard.

I can’t tell you about my real self. My life. The time I come from. My mission. You don’t even know my name.

I don’t know much about you, either. But I know this. Somehow you’re condemned to die in the new year, and I have to live with that knowledge, and make sure you never find out. While I…I don’t know. He sighed. Find some way of preventing it. But how? At least if I were Julius, I’d be in a position to…to guard you. Or something. But I can’t tell him, either. I can’t involve anyone else in this.

He’d struggled to concentrate on his training, and Abelard had been full of more invective than usual. His appetite had vanished; dinner hadn’t appealed, and he wasn’t interested in supper. Shadows were lengthening as the sun dipped over the horizon, throwing rays of gold at a steep angle across the tops of the trees.

Emil emerged from the stable, the strings of his white cloth cap bouncing. He’d seemed surprised and happy to receive his new leather bag, and had been making regular use of it; Yuuri saw it slung over the shoulder of his cloak now.

“Are you ready to return to the castle, sir? I’ll help you remove your armour, and then we can go to the great hall for supper. Rumour has it that the head chef is preparing a special subtlety to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Last year it was a huge pastry and marzipan castle in all colours of the rainbow, and when it was presented in the great hall, the juggler jumped out of it.”

Yuuri rested his arms on the fence and gave a tiny laugh. “You go enjoy it, then.”

“Don’t you like subtleties, sir? They can be delightful surprises.”

“What is a subtlety?” Yuuri asked as he watched Victor and Julius approaching.

“Ah, I suppose you’ve forgotten. It’s a dish intended for entertainment. You can’t always eat them; they’re mainly designed to amaze and impress.”

“Do you think you’d be allowed to be amazed and impressed while you were sitting in my seat at the table, if I wasn’t there?” Yuuri asked, a sudden idea striking him. He didn’t even know what Emil did on the occasions when his master wasn’t present there for a meal.

Emil’s eyes widened as Victor and Julius joined them. “Sir, it wouldn’t be appropriate.”

“Why not? You’re a knight in training. Try out my seat.” He looked at Victor. “Couldn’t he?”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Victor replied.

“Take my place at the table when I’m not there for a meal.”

Julius gave a hard laugh. “Are you insulting us?”

“I’ve never seen him have a meal with everyone else,” Yuuri continued, ignoring him. “He’s expected to hang over my shoulder with a jug or a plate or a bowl, waiting for me to ask for something. He carves meat for me.”

“That’s what he’s supposed to do,” Julius said. “He’s your squire.”

“And he does a wonderful job.” He looked at Emil, who gave him a smile before his confused expression returned; then back at Victor. “Do you remember when I said I don’t like servants doing things for me that I can do for myself? It’s New Year’s Eve. Why not give him a break and let him take my place. I won’t be having supper tonight.”

“Are you not feeling well, sir?” Emil asked quickly.

“I…I’m just not hungry.” Again his gaze met Victor’s. “Is it so much to ask?”

“It’s impertinent,” Julius said, glaring.

“And not a bad idea,” Victor decided. “For tonight. That is, Emil, if you’d like to take Justin up on his offer?”

Emil considered for a moment. “It’s most unusual, my lord, but…” He smiled at Yuuri again. “…certainly, if my master wishes it.”

“Good,” Victor said. “That’s settled, then.”

Julius huffed. “Wait. Does that mean I get a turn in your place sometime, master?”

“At the high table, my lad? Do something to earn your place there and I’ll say yes.” He turned to leave, then looked at Yuuri. “Since you’re not having a meal, will you go as far as the castle with us?”

Yuuri nodded and walked at his side, their squires behind them.

“Won’t you reconsider coming to the great hall?” Victor asked him as they strode toward the hill. “There’ll be food and drink and dancing through the night, to see in the dawn of the new year.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.” When Victor looked at him quizzically, he hastily added, “Maybe not afraid. I just…I’m not keen on parties. I’d rather be someplace quiet with a few friends. Usually.” He gave a little laugh. “I do drink. Once in a while. Just…I’d rather not, tonight.”

Victor was quiet for a moment. The sinking sun glowed in his hair. Yuuri was seized with the ridiculous urge to ask him to take his cap off so that all of him could catch the light.

“I don’t like admitting it, but drinking until dawn isn’t usually my idea of fun, either,” Victor said quietly. “I was thinking about retiring early myself. I don’t know what the common practice at your father’s castle is on the first of January, but with it being the Feast of Fools, our tenants like to celebrate it in style. So perhaps I’ll rest up for that.” He gave Yuuri a wry smile. “The noble family visits some of the villages, where the people put on costumes that poke fun at aristocrats and the clergy. The only time of year when a villein can wear long sleeves and rich cloth, if he can get them, and not be fined for dressing above his station. They hold mock courts, and drink and behave like jesters.” He looked at Yuuri. “Have you ever presided over such affairs?”

“I, uh…no. But I can’t say I envy you.”

Victor nodded and smiled. “At least I can watch them enjoy themselves. The time will pass. But anyway, in the spirit of turning things on their heads, your suggestion that Emil take your place in the great hall is a good one. If you’re sure you can’t be persuaded to come and have a drink at least, to toast the coming of the new year.”

The coming of the new year was not something Yuuri felt like toasting, however. When they arrived at the castle, he said his goodbyes to Victor and Julius, then allowed Emil to help him remove his armour, though he’d worked out how to put it on and take it off himself by now, and only pretended to struggle with it once in a while because Emil seemed to think it such an important part of his job. Soon he was left on his own, wondering how to pass another evening in here with little to do. He couldn’t face trying to socialise, not tonight, when everyone was likely to be in an even more festive mood than usual.    

And how does that fit with my promise to defend Victor’s life with mine? Staying here in my room while he’s somewhere else is really going to help.

No one’s going to attack him in the great hall. Or while he’s out visiting the villages tomorrow. Are they?

What if an arrow goes astray? What if his horse stumbles and throws him? What if he catches some illness?

But he knew that accidents happened, no matter how vigilant anyone was in trying to prevent them. He also knew it was impossible for him to act as Victor’s bodyguard. Victor was a capable person, and he himself had other things to be getting on with. And yet. And yet.

I’m avoiding the biggest issue of all, if I’m honest. How does defending Victor’s life with my own fit in with needing to stay alive so that I can do what I came here for, what Phichit and Celestino are depending on me for? If Ailis really intends to try to change the course of history, do individuals like Victor and me even matter in the grand scheme of things?

Yes we do. Each person matters.

All the more reason to find Ailis before she does something to interfere with a lot of lives, then.

Yuuri ran a hand over his face and walked to the window. Leaving the shutters open allowed the cold to drift into the room, since the apertures were poorly insulated, but he didn’t want to be blanketed in darkness until there was no choice. A purple flame of sunset was visible in the sky, brightening to a yellow and pink glow on the horizon.

Whenever I’m not with Victor, I’m going to feel like I ought to be. Watching over him. But I can’t do it. I can’t tell him. I can’t tell anyone. 

This is going to tear me apart.

He exhaled and sat down on the window seat, wishing he could expunge the incessant thoughts and worries from his mind. They might be stealing his appetite away, but he would need to eat. To live. How would hiding here in his room help anything?

He would have to carry on as usual. There was no other choice. He couldn’t risk endangering his mission. Tomorrow, he would wake up and do everything he always did…and hope that Victor was OK.

Watching over him…I can still do that when it’s possible, he thought, listening to the light laughter of people walking through the courtyard to the great hall for supper. He wondered when he’d be able to laugh like that again, as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

I might even turn into a praying man before I’m done.

Chapter Text

In Yuuri’s own time, the twelve days of Christmas seemed to live on in spirit as well as song. Businesses would be closed, bank holidays came and went, people took time off work, and everything was disrupted for two weeks after Christmas Day. When ordinary life emerged in the new year from underneath a stale pile of turkey, Christmas pud, mince pies, unwanted presents and perhaps a hangover – due to the drinks it had taken to survive the obligatory party for university employees and forget about the embarrassment – Yuuri usually considered it a relief.

The real twelve-day holiday was both better and worse, he decided, and more of the latter than the former. The best part was the food. Whoever this Fernand jack was who’d been placed in charge of the kitchen, Yuuri felt sure he’d have several Michelin stars to his name in the modern world. He was thankful no one was ever offended if he didn’t eat much, because taking small amounts of food from a wide variety of dishes was considered the norm, and he knew that someone less fortunate would be given any leftovers remaining on his trencher, however disturbing Yuuri found the thought. What he did taste was usually delicious, as long as he didn’t ask Emil what it was. He’d been put off more than once by discovering he’d just swallowed hedgehog, dormouse, or a soup they literally called “garbage”, made from chicken heads, feet, liver and gizzards, with the usual sop-and-spice mix added.   

What he didn’t like was…most everything else. The Lord of Misrule, who he’d come to dread and actively avoid, lest he be commanded to do something mortifying in front of everyone. People in various stages of sobriety, especially in the garrison, whose behaviour was therefore difficult to predict. And the unreliable training schedule, though Yuuri decided to do something about that himself by exercising more and finding fighting men to spar with, even if it was still producing mixed results. Victor hadn’t been out to the training field or stable very often, and Yuuri was beginning to think he’d simply been lucky to have had the one session with him. Though it was something he knew he would never forget.

That was what he told himself. But as usual where Victor was concerned, it wasn’t a very good match for what he actually felt. He wanted more. To be able to get to know him better, and think of him as a…a friend. To learn from him. And to protect him, or at least try to. None of those things were possible if they barely saw each other, and it was a constant frustration simmering away at the bottom of everything else.

There was one Christmas tradition Yuuri changed his mind about, however. And he almost didn’t get the chance, because it didn’t happen until the fifth of January, Twelfth Night.

He’d been tempted not to go to supper again. How did so much feasting continue to appeal, and didn’t people gain weight? Not that he’d seen anyone stuffing themselves with food, but twelve days…More cake. More drink. More strange entertainers singing about maidens, or capering around in masks, or slipping and falling and pushing each other and calling it comedy. But he’d allowed Emil to twist his arm. He said it wasn’t seemly, or even healthy, for a knight to miss as many meals as he had, and he knew for a fact they’d be serving the custard pie with cinnamon, saffron and rosewater that Yuuri had enthused about when he’d first tried it on Christmas Day.

So he went with Emil to the great hall. When they entered, he glanced up at the large spherical shrub-like decoration hanging from one of the central beams above; he’d noticed it before, but tonight it seemed to be catching the candlelight in a way that made it sparkle. What it was, exactly, Yuuri hadn’t asked, but he assumed it was a prototype of a Christmas tree. It was hollow, maybe twice the size of a disco ball, and covered in trimmings from evergreen trees; he recognised the pointy dark green leaves and red berries of holly. In the centre hung several shiny red apples on matching ribbons, while the boughs were decorated with strings of nuts, more ribbons, and pieces of what looked like brightly coloured glass that glinted as they slowly revolved in the draught.

He didn’t linger underneath it, however, because he’d also seen people kissing here, and he guessed the decoration must also perform the same function that mistletoe did in his own time. Glancing across the room at his usual table, he saw that Chris was going to be his neighbour tonight. That meant he would probably hear stories about life at his family’s castle in Vernon, in northern France. He could think of worse things, he decided as he strode forward.

“Sir, I command you – halt!”

Yuuri stopped and turned around, wondering who was addressing him like this, certain it could mean nothing good. And sure enough, there was the Lord of Misrule, the sinister jester he thought he’d successfully avoided for the past twelve days. With his bizarre paper hat that looked like it had come out of a Christmas cracker, and the red club with bells; God only knew what that was for. But then he realised it was Victor the man been speaking to. Yuuri could read the annoyance in his eyes, though he gave a politely indulgent grin. 

“This is my last day, sir,” the Lord of Misrule announced loudly enough for half the hall to hear; a small crowd was gathering to stare, while those already seated turned their heads to watch, many of them smiling. “You’ve eluded me up ’til now – don’t deny it!” he declared, dramatically pointing an accusing finger. “But no one escapes the Lord of Misrule. I have one command for the son of the baron, who has yet to take the lesson in humility that his family and peers have done many times over, in good cheer.”

Victor folded his arms across his chest and gave him a good-natured pointed look, then said somewhat grudgingly, “All right…my lord. What do you want me to do?”

A murmur went around the room, and a few laughs and claps, as the reply was awaited. Yuuri’s stomach was doing nervous flips on Victor’s behalf.

“I see you’re standing under the kissing bush,” said the man; and he waited to carry on until the eruption of whistles and cheers died down. Yuuri imagined Victor being told to kiss a cook or a maid, and figured it could have been a lot worse, though he admired his composure. A touch of pink across the top of each cheek hinted that it might not be entirely genuine, however.

“My command to you, then, is this.” He paused while the hall quieted completely, then announced – spinning round to point at Yuuri – “Kiss the man you tried to kill.”

Yuuri’s eyes shot open wide, and he wondered if he was in some drunken dream. The jester-like man, cap and bells jingling, bowed and backed away as if giving the two of them centre stage. His odd club waved in his hand, and there was a broad grin on his face. Hoots, whistles, cheers and shouts filled the room, then quietened once more as Victor stepped forward.

All thought chased from Yuuri’s mind. He watched as Victor drew nearer, until he was standing in front of him. There was a sombre expression on his face; but as their eyes met, Yuuri’s still wide and uncertain, he saw Victor’s blue ones dance, and then there was a little grin – part apologetic, part mischievous, it seemed. He gently placed a hand on Yuuri’s left shoulder, then leaned forward, and Yuuri briefly closed his eyes and took in a little gasp as he felt Victor’s lips on his cheek. They lingered for perhaps two seconds before the heat and touch were gone…but he still hovered close as he whispered, his breath fanning Yuuri’s cheek, “Good fortune go with you in the new year.” A small smile brightened his face as he drew back.

The cheers and whistles came once more, but they were subdued, perhaps because the dramatic scene of embarrassment they’d expected had not occurred. No longer were the two of them deadly enemies. They were…

Yuuri couldn’t figure out how to end that sentence, even when Victor had gone to take his place at the high table; he himself was faced with more food for which he had no appetite, not even the custard tart.

“The mad fellow got you in the end, then,” Chris chuckled. “A dull challenge, if you ask me. You must be disappointed.” His gaze rested on Yuuri after he’d said it, as if to assess his reaction.

“Hm? Oh. Yes…I suppose so.”

“Better luck next year, then. Are you going to finish that?” He gestured toward Yuuri’s piece of custard tart.

“Um, no.”

Chris picked it up and took a bite, chewing thoughtfully. “I don’t think you were here when he had the squires pour beer all over me, and I had to sit and eat like that. This chap is uninspired.”

“Sounds like it.” But a tingling sensation seemed yet to linger on Yuuri’s cheek, and he was silently inclined to disagree.      


He had several days to return to his senses, however, because Victor as good as vanished, apart from at mealtimes. There was no sign of him in the training field, and his horses were in their stalls whenever Yuuri was in the stable and looked.

Keep your feet on the ground and face facts, he told himself sternly while he was taking Blaze back after practice with the quintain that was pathetic by a knight’s standards, but definite progress compared to his past efforts; though he would be nursing more bruises from being knocked out of his saddle and slamming to the hard frozen earth too many times to count, the deepest one emerging across his abdomen where his breastplate had wedged into his skin on impact. How much do I know about Victor and the life he lives here? He’s not just a knight; he’s the baron’s only son. I’ve got to stop flattering myself into thinking that he’d have any interest in someone like me. I’m sure I’ve only been a diversion from other things he’s been busy with.

Is that why he put his hands on that ceramic sphere with mine? Is that why he smiled at me after he kissed me under that Christmas shrubbery? The memories sent a frisson through him.

Yes, and yes. Maybe I should fill the pitcher in my room full of cold water from the well and dump it over myself. I’m being such a plonker. Phichit and Celestino sent me here to do an important job.

He secured Blaze in his stall, deciding that the remainder of the afternoon would be best spent in some non-contact form of training such as running, when a man standing outside the gate of a nearby stall suddenly let out a cry of alarm. Yuuri jerked his head up and looked. No one was attacking him and he didn’t seem to be hurt; a stable boy was putting a saddle on the placid-looking black and grey mottled palfrey behind him.

The man himself was a bit of a puzzle, though. Standing with his hands raised to chest height and obviously flustered, he looked like some strange tropical bird with his cascade of brown hair, bright parti-coloured clothes, and hose that tapered to pointy toes which doubled the length of his feet.

“Are you all right?” he asked the man, going over to him.

“Oh, my good knight,” he said, sleeves flapping gently as he waved his hands. “Just the person. I need your help.”

“I’m sorry, but you are…?”

“Percy Steggles, keeper of the wardrobe.”

They need a special person to look after their wardrobe here? Well, why not? Each member of the noble family probably had a whole room full of clothes.

“I’m in a hurry,” Percy continued, “and I forgot to give something to Sir Victor. I wonder if you’d run it up to him in the great hall, there’s a good fellow.”

Telling himself to disregard the feeling that he was being patronised, Yuuri said, “Why is he in the great hall? It isn’t supper time for a few hours yet.”

Percy gave an amused little laugh. “It is used for more than meals, you know. It’s the manorial court today.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

The hands waved again, and Percy huffed. “I’m in a hurry, sir; I’m late for a meeting in the village.” Yuuri stood waiting, however, and the man soon added in a tone that betrayed his annoyance, “Very well. Lord Nikiforov is in Pontefract, so Sir Victor and Master Everard are in charge of the castle while he’s away. Sir Victor is presiding in his father’s place over the court. I made a list of all the Christmas gifts the family received, and their estimated worth, and it must go to him so that it can all be figured into the holdings of the estate. Master de Lacey will need the list as soon as possible, if not Sir Victor himself. I said I’d leave it with them.” He huffed again. “Please, sir, it’s most urgent. Will you take the scroll to them? I must be on my way.”

What do you think I am, a pageboy? Then Yuuri caught himself. Was he already subsumed into this ridiculous feudal hierarchy to the extent that he expected people to give him deferential treatment? He’d promised himself he’d remain outside of it all, in spirit at least, as far as he safely could. Emil would volunteer to go, he knew, if he hadn’t been sparring with the other squires in the field. Maybe this could be a good opportunity to find out more about what Victor did here, and he had to admit he was curious about this court.

“All right, I’ll go,” he said.

More hand waving, this time in gratitude. “Oh God bless you, sir. Let me fetch it.” Percy opened the stable gate and removed a scroll bound with a red ribbon from a leather satchel attached to the saddle, then handed it over. “As quickly as you can, my good man. I’m in your debt.”

Yuuri nodded and dashed out of the stable, waving while he passed the training field so that he caught a surprised Emil’s attention, and was soon up the hill and giving the day’s password to Alfric the porter. Once he emerged from the gatehouse and into the courtyard, he could see that something unusual was taking place because of the clusters of people standing around, many of them dressed in the types of clothes Yuuri had seen peasants in the fields wearing, rough and plain compared to those of many of the castle denizens, though layered and dyed different colours. Whatever their reason for being here – he assumed it must be the court – they were now chatting amongst themselves while children scampered about.

Making his way through, Yuuri arrived at the archway that led into the vestibule outside the great hall. Unusually, two guards blocked the way. Yuuri recognised them from the garrison and thought for a moment. Simon and Harry.

“Do you have business, sir?” the former asked him. “Sir Victor’s holding court, so I’m afraid I can’t let you in unless – ”

Yuuri brandished Percy’s scroll and quickly explained, and they allowed him to pass. He took a few steps into the vestibule, hearing the echoes of clattering pots and pans from the kitchen down the hallway to his right, while to his left he glimpsed several rows of people lining walls in the hall as a man’s voice he didn’t recognise spoke. It had the feel of a formal gathering, and the last thing Yuuri wanted to do was march straight in, so he crept toward the doorway and peered around just enough to get a view of the entire room.

His eyes widened at what he saw. The high table had been removed, and in its place on the dais was Victor, sitting in the throne-like chair occupied by his father during meals, presiding over the gathering and looking more princely than Yuuri had ever seen him.

He hardly even recognised him at first, in fact. Victor was wearing a dark blue garment like a gown, with sleeves as long as Percy’s. It extended to below his knees, cinched with a black leather belt and hemmed with some shimmering stuff of gold, green and red; a long-sleeved shirt of the same colour could be glimpsed underneath. His livery collar gleamed. Covering his hair apart from a bit of fringe peeking out of the left side was a black confection; “hat” seemed a very ordinary word for something so elegant. And his blue hose tapered to shoeless pointy toes, though they weren’t as ridiculous as Percy’s. He rested his chin in his hand, his gaze sombre and pensive as he regarded an older woman with a young man, both of them dressed humbly.

Several official-looking people populated the dais along with Victor: Matthew Everard stood next to the chair on his right, another with salt-and-pepper hair Yuuri had seen numerous times was to his left, and two more men sat behind a wooden desk, one of them scribbling on a sheet of paper with a quill and the other with stacks of gold and silver coins arranged in front of him, along with more papers. Yuuri guessed there were perhaps fifty people in the hall, with the most important ones closest to the dais, as usual; it was easy to get an idea of social status and rank from clothing alone.

As the hearing proceeded, Yuuri learned that this was a case of theft. The woman’s son had been caught trying to take two tankards from an inn; witnesses in the hall described what they’d seen, and the innkeeper and his wife injected their outrage that a local young man should do such a thing to hard-working people trying to make an honest living. The accused man made no attempt to deny what he’d done, saying in a voice that attempted confidence but was clearly laced with fear that he thought he was taking plain wooden tankards with steel rims; he hadn’t been aware that the rims contained silver. However, the innkeeper pointed out rather obviously that he shouldn’t have been trying to take anything in the first place. The mother was soon openly sobbing and begging the most noble and just lord to spare her only son, as it was his first offence and it had put the fear of God and hell into him. Both of them weren’t exactly dressed in rags, but their clothes were worn and threadbare; the man’s tunic looked as if it had been bleached over time in the sun and maybe from many washes.

Yuuri wondered what they did to thieves in the Middle Ages, and his imagination threw out a series of horrific punishments. The innkeepers, and some people in the crowd, seemed to be after the man’s blood, but Victor’s face was impassive as he firmly kept order. Eventually the woman threw herself on the floor, crying out for mercy, while her son looked around in consternation.

Victor gestured to Matthew, whose fur-trimmed robe trailed on the floor as he stepped down from the dais and helped the woman to stand. He remained by her side as Victor addressed the hall.

“This man, Thomas Farraday, is clearly guilty of attempted theft,” he said. “However, these tankards Master Scrimshaw brought as evidence from his inn aren’t as valuable as some have claimed, I believe; and I know the Farradays have been in straitened circumstances for some time now.” He silenced the beginning of an outcry from the innkeeper with a glance. “At the same time, there’s never any excuse for criminal behaviour.” Now he looked at the woman in front of him. “Madam, you know you can come here and ask for aid if you’re in difficulties. And you, Master Farraday, know it as well, but it seems you’d rather abuse the trust of your neighbours than swallow some pride.” The room was utterly silent, all eyes upon him, as he continued, “There will be a fine of a groat to pay, in full, before Easter. Stay, both of you, and my chamberlain will have a word with you.” He glanced at the man with the salt-and-pepper hair next to him, who stepped down from the dais. One of the men at the desk rapped a wooden hammer loudly.

The crowd began to file out of the hall, and Yuuri ducked through the door and found a place near the corner to stand until they dispersed. The woman and her son were in animated conversation with the chamberlain and steward, and Victor was slumped back in his chair, no longer hiding his exhaustion. He turned his head to confer with the men at the desk, one of whom was still writing furiously, while the other had begun counting coins. There was a loud “Thank you, oh thank you, my lord!” from the woman to Victor, and a low bow from her son, before they were also led out of the hall.

If it hadn’t been for the familiar form of Victor, albeit dressed so differently, Yuuri would have thought this was the most alien-seeming gathering he’d attended here so far. He remembered the scroll in his hand, almost as an afterthought, and crossed the hall. When Victor turned his head and saw him, he appeared surprised, and possibly pleased.

“Justin,” he said in a voice gentled from the commanding one he’d been using a moment ago. He shifted in the chair, a questioning look on his face.

Yuuri stepped forward, feeling oddly like he ought to bow. He explained about meeting Percy in the stables and handed the scroll over. Victor untied the ribbon and glanced at the paper, then rolled it back up and replaced the ribbon. “Quentin, you’ve been waiting for this, I believe,” he said, standing and giving it to the man with the coins.

“The featherbrain. Why did it take him so long?” Then he fell silent, his attention fixed on his reading.

“Thanks to both of you for your services today,” Victor said to them. “I’ll leave you to finish.” He stepped down from the dais and was about to say something to Yuuri when the steward reappeared, giving Victor an urgent look. He bit back his words, though, glancing at Yuuri and then again at Victor.

“What is it, Matthew?” Victor asked him.

The steward coughed, clearly conscious of Yuuri’s presence. “I’ll go,” Yuuri said, turning to leave.

“No,” Victor said hastily. “There’s no need.” Then he turned to Matthew. “You can speak freely in front of Justin. He’s a knight of the castle, after all.”

“Yes. Well. As you please, my lord. I’ve made arrangements with the Farradays as you requested.”

“Good.”

“And I’m afraid I have news that’s less pleasant.” He dropped his voice to a more confidential tone, although the only other people in the room now were the two men at the desk. “There’s been a second herd of sheep affected by what we feel certain is the plague. This time about seventy percent have died.”

Victor’s face paled, but his voice remained steady. “Is it the Jenkins farm again?”

“No, sir. It’s the Caldwells, on the other side of the estate. John has already been to investigate, and he can’t understand how it happened. As far as we can tell, there’s been no contact between the two herds at all. Nothing has been shared by the farms. The families hardly know each other.”

Victor paused to consider, the concern in his eyes plain. “The remainder of the herd will need to be destroyed.”

“John has already given orders to that effect.”

“The Caldwells will need to be reimbursed.”

“We shall do that soon, my lord.”

“We might have to impose a quarantine if this carries on.”

“We could, but if the disease is able to jump about like this – ”

“It wouldn’t hurt,” Victor said in clipped tones, then sighed and looked back at Matthew. “Have any people complained of symptoms?”

“Not to our knowledge. But Blake and his men have been instructed to keep their eyes and ears open while they’re about their duties on the estate.”

“All right. You’d…you’d better go take your ease before supper. It’s been a long day. Inform me straight away if there are any fresh developments.”

“Of course. Thank you, my lord.” He gave Yuuri a curt nod, then departed.

Victor stood, fingering his signet ring as he stepped down from the dais. “We all wanted to think the scourge was gone after the outbreak two years ago,” he muttered. “It was worst in York, but took enough people from this castle. I daresay it was the same at yours.” Before Yuuri could think of a reply, he added, “We have the royal visit later this year, too. But if matters get any worse, it will have to be cancelled. I wouldn’t be disappointed, because it’s extra work and hassle I could do without, though I think I’m rather on my own in that sentiment.” He huffed a laugh, his expression softening. “I find it curiously easy to talk to you, Justin. You make a good audience. I hope I don’t bore you.”

“You’d never bore me,” Yuuri said.

“I’m parched. Will you have a drink with me?”

“A drink?” Yuuri echoed, wondering for an odd moment whether there was a pub nearby that he intended to visit. But he simply walked over to a table against the wall underneath the window on which jugs and ewers, basins and pewter cups were stored, Yuuri following.    

“I wonder what’s been left here,” Victor mused, briefly removing the tops from different vessels and inhaling their scents. “After Matthew’s news, I could do with something a little stronger than usual. Ah, this will do, I think.” He poured two cups full of red wine and handed one to Yuuri, then took a long sip of his own. “It’s not unheard of for animals to catch plague and other diseases,” he said. “It’s probable nothing will come of it, especially if we’re watchful. But I don’t like it, Justin. There’s nothing fouler that God put on this earth.”

Yuuri wasn’t sure how to respond. He sipped his wine, which was bitter but not as watered down as what he was used to. “You seem to have a lot of responsibilities on your shoulders,” he commented eventually.

“Maybe. Though my father normally presides over the court; I only do it when he’s absent or indisposed. Did you not do similar things yourself at your father’s castle?”

“I…you remember I said I was having some problems with my memory? It’s strange, some of the things I’ve forgotten, but…” He laughed in what he hoped was a convincingly embarrassed way. “…I can’t even remember what the court’s for. What happens there. You tried a thief, though; I saw that much.”

Victor wrinkled his brow. “Really? Oh.” He paused, looking at Yuuri with concern before continuing, “Well, this is one of the ways we deal with affairs of the estate, especially if there are difficulties.” He turned his cup in his hands, examining it as he talked. “Poaching, blocked streams, fist fights, slander…I’ve heard it all today.” He took a sip of wine. “The case I just heard was left to last because it was the most important. Anything more serious would be referred to the sheriff. I wish it all could be.” He gazed at Yuuri earnestly. “I don’t always know if my judgement is the best, Justin. I try, but I’m sure I get it wrong sometimes. I prefer to leave it in my father’s hands when I can. He’s more experienced than me.”

“The last case seemed to end well.”

“I hope so. Did you see the looks on the faces of the innkeeper and his wife when I announced a fine? They’d have protested my judgement if they’d dared. People have been hanged for lesser offences.”

“Hanged?” Yuuri breathed. “Have you – ”

“Don’t ask me what I’ve had to do in the course of my duties,” Victor interrupted, choking slightly on the last word and looking down at his cup again. “It was justified on each occasion. I know that, but…it makes me sick at heart.”

Jesus, Yuuri thought.

“I’d never do such a thing to a young man who was desperate for money and had hoped to sell those tankards to get it,” Victor continued, meeting his gaze once more. “And yet justice needed to be served somehow. The Farradays can’t even afford to pay a groat, but my steward is working on ways to help them earn that money, and more besides. I couldn’t force the man to leave the fields because then there’d be nobody left to work them; it’s been hard for them since the woman’s husband died last year, though they should’ve approached us for help before things got to this state. I may still have to impose some difficult conditions on them. It’s in my power to order her to remarry, or even decide on a husband for her. Though I’d rather not have to. No one would want to have that done to them.”

Yuuri’s eyes widened. He couldn’t imagine having to look after people on lands he owned in this way. If Victor wasn’t confident in his own actions, Yuuri suspected that he himself would be crippled by anxiety attacks before he could attempt such a thing. And yet his sympathies also went out to all these tenants who seemed to have so little power over their own lives.

“Maybe there are other ways to live,” he said eventually, “where people have more independence, and no one needs to worry about making such difficult decisions on their behalf.”

Victor had been lifting his cup to his lips, but stopped midway and raised an eyebrow. “Have you been to such a place on your travels?”

Yes. “I’m just imagining. That’s the way the best ideas start, isn’t it?” He paused. “Do you think it’s a good one?”

The heaviness on Victor’s face lifted, and he gave Yuuri a bemused grin. “You have a habit of asking bold and interesting questions, Justin. Yes, I do think it’s a good idea. But I’m just one man. It’s all very well to dream, but it doesn’t solve problems like what to do about people who try to thieve tankards from inns.” He drained the last of his wine and put his cup on the table. “Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m pent up from sitting in here all day. I need to take some exercise. Would you like to join me?”


This might not be what I had in mind when he mentioned exercise, but why not?

Victor had suggested they meet near a pile of logs that had been dumped in the courtyard near the kitchen. He was going to change into something more suitable, he said, and Yuuri was welcome to remove his own armour if he wanted. He’d done so, and had emerged from his room in a blue tunic, hat and cloak and gloves. Now he stood staring at the wood, thinking the only thing to do here was to chop it, though there were no axes to be seen. An aroma of roasting meat, onions and garlic, woven through with a dozen different herbs and spices, drifted from the kitchen windows.

Maybe he’s got something like tossing the caber in mind. But none of these logs look long enough. Yuuri could easily imagine Abelard picking up a heavy pole and throwing it in the traditional Highland manner. It certainly would be good exercise – and probably rip his back muscles apart in the process.

“You’re here,” Victor’s voice came from behind him. He turned and saw the man he was more used to, in boots, hose and fur coat, minus any head covering. The golden rays of the sinking sun played in his hair, spurring Yuuri to speak before his brain could catch up.

“It seems a shame you had to change clothes just to do this. You looked…I mean…” Too late, he realised the hole he’d dug himself into, and felt his cheeks pink.

“I didn’t think it would be very sensible to chop firewood in a houppelande, chaperon and the hose I was wearing,” Victor replied with a smile.

“I don’t know what those are, but they suited you.” What’s got into me? His mouth needed stapling shut.

“Do you not own any of them yourself?”

“No. At least, not here. My memory…” He shrugged.

“The houppelande is the gown, for want of a better word, and the chaperon is the hat. I try to be fashionable with my legwear without looking too silly.”

“You didn’t look silly.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Victor paused, while Yuuri started to wish he could sink into the ground. “You must’ve worn clothes like that yourself before. I think you’d look quite dashing in them.”

“Uh…thanks.” I’m not a tongue-tied idiot, Victor, honestly. It just seems to happen to me a lot around you. I wish we could be sparring again; I’m better at that than conversation. “You sounded surprised that I was here.”

Victor gave him a small grin. “Well, I’m aware that I did nothing but talk about myself the entire time we were in the great hall. Like I said, I hope I didn’t bore you.” Before Yuuri could contradict him, he added, “Why don’t we get what we need for chopping this wood, and you can tell me about how your training’s going, if you like.”

He led them into the room at the bottom of the tower, which Yuuri was used to passing through on his way to dance with Monica. It was always wreathed in shadows when he did, however; and now he saw that apart from the well in the middle, next to the doorway were several large hunks of wood, with axes propped against the wall. Victor invited him to take a piece of wood while he took one himself, and they rolled them on the grass in the courtyard until they were next to the logpile again. Then they each fetched an axe.

“Do you do this a lot?” Yuuri asked, securing the wood so it could presumably be used as a stump for chopping on.

“Once in a while. It’s an excellent workout, and the crew in the kitchen don’t mind it either,” Victor replied. “Being in the courtyard, I get interrupted sometimes, but usually people are happy to leave me to it.”

Yuuri rested his axe head down on the ground and examined the pile of wood to decide on what he would chop first, then noticed what Victor was doing. “You’re kidding me,” he said with an incredulous laugh. He had removed his cloak and draped it across part of the logpile, revealing a long black tunic trimmed with silver. His belt came off next. Then he began unbuttoning the tunic. His actions were business-like, and he was looking down as he worked, but Yuuri’s breath still hitched as he watched. When Victor was halfway finished with undoing the buttons, Yuuri forced himself to tear his gaze away.

He takes his tunic off in the cold, I do too. Right? That’s what I do. Because I’m a hardy man who can take it. Or something.

With trembling fingers, his eyes downward as well, he removed his gloves, hat, cloak and tunic, shivering as he placed them on the logpile. Then he picked up a thick piece of wood, positioned it on the stump, and swung the axe. He’d never done this before, but he’d seen others at it around the castle and felt confident in copying them. The axe was sharp and made a satisfying thwack as it cut cleanly through the wood, the pieces of which he then tossed aside.

“So, how’s Abelard been with you lately?” he heard Victor ask him, and he had no choice but to move so that he was facing him while they talked. He kept his eyes mostly on his work, however, while he spoke about training and exercise. To his surprise, he found himself telling Victor about the insults he’d endured from the Scotsman, though their frequency had noticeably lessened.

“I don’t know how he thinks he’s going to inspire anyone by talking to them like that,” Yuuri muttered, splitting another log in half and feeling a sudden sense of catharsis from the act, remembering how he’d been called a “pathetic wee bell-end” that morning when he’d been knocked off his horse by the quintain yet again.  

“I agree.”

“You do?” Yuuri straightened and saw Victor looking at him intently.

He nodded. “He can be a foul-mouthed lout.” Taking a steadying breath, he added, “But he’s good at what he does, and my father likes him. He seems determined enough to stay here, in an English castle, despite the prejudice he has to put up with himself, so I doubt he intends to leave anytime soon. But, Justin…you can learn from him. Just don’t put up with any of the shit he deals out.”

Yuuri thought back to the day when Abelard had quite literally expected him to do so. “What, should I draw a sword on him every time he does?”

“It worked last time, didn’t it?” Victor said with a smile.

“I guess so.”

“And don’t let him go easy on you. Tell him to do his best. Or worst. That way, when you beat him, you’ll know you really have.” He picked up a piece of wood and balanced it on the stump in front of him.

“You think I can beat him?” Yuuri said quietly, watching him.

“I do. You got under my guard enough to cut the purse off my belt, didn’t you?” Victor smirked. “I don’t pretend. That’s why I don’t spar with anyone who isn’t ready for it.”

Yuuri blinked.

“You’re good, Justin,” Victor continued, splitting the log and immediately reaching for another one. “More than good, maybe.” Another glance his way. “Keep practising, and it’ll be interesting to see where you end up.”

Really…? But isn’t that what I thought, too – or dared to hope? Yuuri shuddered and watched him reach for the handle of his axe, then let go of it as he stared at the log he was about to chop. He seemed to be coaxing something off of it and onto his hand, and then he turned his palm down over the grass, and Yuuri saw a small dark shape fall.

“Spider,” Victor said with a quick smile, reaching for his axe.

“Spider?” Yuuri echoed with a small laugh.

Victor turned to look at him again. “I don’t need to chop that along with the log, do I? It wouldn’t be very pleasant for the spider, either.” As Yuuri continued to stare, he gave him a confused smile. “What?”

“Just…a knight saving the life of a spider,” Yuuri laughed. But Victor’s expression turned solemn, and he wondered if he’d offended him.

“I’ve killed people, Justin,” he said, resting his hands on the upturned handle of his axe, his voice quiet, eyes sharp. “Once in a lifetime is too many times. I make amends where I can.” He turned away and picked up the axe. “It doesn’t always have to be a person.” And he split the log.

“I’m sorry; I wasn’t laughing at you,” Yuuri replied quickly. “I’m just…I was…I thought it was touching. Not many people would do that, I don’t think.” He paused, then laughed quietly. “I’ll be on the lookout myself, now, so I don’t chop any innocent little jacks…blokes…creatures,” he finished, his words tripping. Victor gave him a smile that lit his eyes, and then he returned to his work, eventually settling into a rhythm. Yuuri simply watched for a moment.

How does a man like you survive in a place like this?

Victor paused to ask if he was all right, because he was standing motionless. Reassuring him that he was, Yuuri put a log on the stump and split it, and soon got a rhythm of his own going. They worked for a while in silence, as the aromas from the kitchen strengthened; Yuuri could detect baking bread and apples among them now. People began to file past, a little way away, toward the great hall for their meal. When his muscles began to burn, Yuuri put his axe down for a moment, flicking sweat off his brow with the back of his hand, and then looked at Victor.

To his surprise, he was already gazing at him, his mouth slightly open. He appeared taken aback when Yuuri noticed him.

“Don’t tell me the cold’s finally got to you,” Yuuri said with a grin.

“No,” Victor replied, swallowing. “No, it hasn’t. Um…a few more minutes of this? Then I think they might be ready to serve supper.”

“Fine.” Yuuri smiled and watched Victor get back to work, though another shiver passed through him.

Was he…what was that look in his eyes?

No, Yuuri. Don’t go there. You can’t.

Oh, but I want to. I know. I’ve always known.

I want him.

Now that he’d finally admitted it to himself, he stared hungrily while Victor’s attention was elsewhere. The way his muscles moved while he swung the axe. The sun in his hair; on the sheen of sweat now covering his upper body. Those blue eyes, so incisive and deep. The hose that men wore here, their underwear in between, which were all so fucking distracting on Victor. Not to mention him in his armour. Him in that regal blue outfit he’d been wearing. Him in nothing at all…And oh God, the things Yuuri wanted to do to him. With him. Visions of them locked in each other’s tight embrace, lips pressed together, clinging and moving against each other…the sensation of fingers and tongue, skin sliding…building need, and moans and cries. So much, all in a matter of seconds, while his breath stuck in his throat and his cock twitched. That was what snapped him out of it.

I’m not going to let this go any further. What the hell would I look like, out here in the courtyard? In front of Victor, and everyone else?

All right, so he could be honest with himself about this now – but how did that change anything? It wasn’t what he’d come here for. Apart from that glaring fact, he had no experience of being in a relationship, and had never had sex with a real person. Everything he’d just envisaged might not have any equivalent in reality. He’d made it all up.

What makes me think anyone would want me anyway, especially a man like this? No one ever has before.      

He wouldn’t. He shouldn’t.

There are a dozen very sensible reasons why it can’t happen, even if both of us wanted it to…

But Yuuri did want it to. What he felt wasn’t just attraction. That was another lie he was telling himself, while he was on the subject of being real. He’d been drawn to Victor the whole time he’d been here, and not only his body. Everything about him, from his warmth and kindness to the stern responsibility he carried in the manorial court. The knight who was made to kill, but spared a spider’s life. Noble and regal, vulnerable and…haunted. Through it all, he was Victor – simply, wonderfully himself.

Yuuri wished he could properly reciprocate the confidences Victor had shared, today and other days. He’d tell him – show him – who he was. Explain his mission, and about where he’d come from. The desire to do so was suddenly compelling – but he forced himself to pinch it out. How would Victor react? And wouldn’t it put him at risk once he had that information? What if he accidentally gave something away to Ailis? What if she saw them both as a threat? What if Victor were killed, and it was Yuuri’s fault? He was destined to die this year, after all…

He gasped, his throat suddenly tight, his blood racing. His hand shot out to the handle of his axe before he fell over.

Victor rushed to his side. “Justin, are you hurt? What’s happened?”

I am not having an anxiety attack. Not here, not now. “I’ll be all right in a minute,” he said, his voice wavering a little.

There was a pause, then Victor gripped the upper part of his arm firmly, presumably to help steady him. Skin on skin. Oh God, Yuuri thought. Could there be a worse time? I’m so fucking confused already. He took several deep breaths, Victor’s hand falling away, though the blue eyes were still watching in concern.

“I think maybe I’ve skipped too many meals,” he said, knowing it was a lame excuse but hoping Victor wouldn’t question it. He didn’t.

“Why don’t we stop for now,” he said gently. “Do you need me to get your clothes for you?”

“No, really, I’m fine,” Yuuri insisted. Then realising he’d probably sounded rude, he turned and said, “But thank you.” And could he ever look at this man and not feel lost in him?

He put his tunic and outer garments back on, and Victor did the same. They left the stumps and axes for the time being while Victor led the way into the great hall with an encouraging smile that still held a touch of worry.

I have no right interfering in people’s lives here, Yuuri told himself as they walked side by side. Especially his. He’s the heir to this entire estate, for Christ’s sake.

The devil’s advocate in him argued that he’d been interfering in people’s lives here from the moment he’d arrived. He ignored it.

And anyway, Victor was beautiful; surely it was only natural to feel the way he did. Yuuri told himself he wouldn’t be stupid enough to try to act on it. And that was that.

They exchanged goodbyes as they entered the hall, Victor going to the high table and Yuuri to the one where Emil would soon be waiting on him, no doubt hoping to hear all about what his master had dashed off so suddenly to do. But as Yuuri watched Victor take his seat, a familiar warm feeling, whose existence would not be denied, spread through his chest.

Beautiful.

Chapter Text

I’m here for a reason. How often have I reminded myself of that?

It’s time I bloody accomplished something.

It was embarrassing, having to keep reporting negative results to Phichit. Yuuri continued to contact him every evening just to tell him he was all right, and sometimes to listen to what had been happening in his friend’s life. Although he’d been here about five weeks, it felt more like five months, and it was strange to imagine there was a reality out there somewhere that included Phichit and Celestino, the university, flying vehicles, nanobots and nutri-pills. And the Cloud. To fill some of the evenings in his room, Yuuri had asked Phichit to leave the digital player sitting next to the com, on BBC Radio 4 or a music station or something else. Sometimes he danced, recalling modern moves he’d learned in Immersion. It helped him to maintain a sense of himself, though he found it a difficult concept to explain to Phichit, who he thought was beginning to sound frustrated that no headway was being made with finding Ailis.

I’ve talked to most of the women here, he mused when their latest call had ended and he was staring into the fire. What am I supposed to do, reveal myself in order to draw her out so she can shoot me?

He’d also been distracted by his training, and one person in particular. Who seemed to be remaining elusive. Which was good – wasn’t it?

I promised myself I’d protect him with my life, but I don’t even know where he is most of the time.

I want to see more of him. I miss him.

I need to stop doing this to myself.

Eventually he and Phichit came up with the idea of looking into what might have happened to the three bodies Ailis must have had on her hands at different times: those of Dr. Quincey, Arthur the farmer he’d swapped with, and Dr. Croft. He thought it unlikely they would have been interred in the castle chapel, but there must a cemetery nearby for everyone else. He therefore sought out the chaplain, Father Maynard, one day and asked him, receiving directions to a site on a hill not far from the castle. He rode there on Lady, the several centimeters of snow that now covered the ground making travel difficult, especially on paths that were hard to discern from their surroundings.

Once he arrived, however, it didn’t take long to see that there was no evidence of any of the people he was looking for. Hardly surprising, he supposed. None of the graves appeared to have been freshly dug, though Father Maynard had told him as much; when he’d asked Yuuri why he suddenly had an interest, he’d replied that he thought perhaps the Courtenay family might have sent one or two people into service here in the past, and he was curious. Fortunately, no other explanation was required, though Yuuri had had to endure a lecture on the merits of attending mass once a week if not daily.

He spent a few minutes admiring the Celtic crosses and skull-and-crossbone carvings in grey stone and wood, as a stiff breeze lifted his fringe and a robin flitted on a branch, knocking some powder off. It was restful, if sombre, and he soon headed back to the castle, where he was forced to give another negative report to Phichit that night. For all he knew, Ailis had burned the bodies and left no evidence behind. It was a gruesome thought, but with the damage a laser gun could do, there probably hadn’t been much for her to dispose of anyway. He eventually asked Phichit to play an instalment of the latest Inspector Reed audiobook, and they listened together, Yuuri finding it easy to visualise the settings of his own time while sitting in his plain room, staring at a wall or gazing at the fire.

“Have you met anyone there you could call a friend?” Phichit asked afterward. “I was just thinking. Not to tell about your mission or anything, but just to hang out with? There doesn’t seem much for you to do in the evenings. It gets dark so early this time of year, too. I’ve never got used to it myself. I know you don’t exactly have electric lights, or holographic projectors if you want to sit back and watch a film.”

This brought a faint smile to Yuuri’s lips. “Well, Emil’s nice. Though I wouldn’t call him a friend. I never thought I’d have a…a servant, but I guess that’s what he is.”

“You’re the last person I know who’d ever want one,” Phichit said with a little laugh. “I can just imagine your face. ‘Will that be all, sir? Shall I trim your toenails for you, sir?’ ”

“All right, I get it,” Yuuri muttered.

“But do you? Have friends there?”

“Give me time,” he said with a sigh. “You know I’m not exactly outgoing. And besides, that’s not what I came here for.”

“I know, but I guess it helps wherever you go to have people to talk to and have fun with. What about one of the guards or knights? You must see them a lot. How about this Sir Victor you said – oh.” His voice trailed away. “Sorry, I forgot for a minute there.”

After a moment, Yuuri replied, “It’s not a taboo subject. Yeah, he’s, um, he’s nice too. But he’s the baron’s son. He’s a busy jack, you know? And he’s…well, he’s like royalty here. I’m sort of…sub-royalty?”

There was a pause. Then Phichit said, all trace of humour gone, “Yuuri, you’re not going to – you’re not going to try to change history by preventing his death, are you?”

Yuuri swallowed and stared at the com.

“Yuuri,” Phichit said more firmly. “That’s what we’re trying to prevent Ailis from doing, right? So you’re not going to do it yourself, are – ”

“How do you know?” Yuuri said more sharply than he’d intended. “I mean, what if it was my fault, or Ailis’s fault, that he dies? In that case, I’d just be putting things back in their natural order.”

“Would it show that in the book I looked at? I would’ve thought, if Ailis killed him next Monday, say, the book wouldn’t show his death as that date until it happened.”

Yuuri rested his forehead in his hands. Don’t say that. Please. “Neither of us know. Because we don’t know anything about temporal fucking theory, do we?”

“OK – no, we don’t.” Another pause. “Yuuri, is Sir Victor a friend? Or do you think of him as, like, your liege lord you’re pledged to – is that how it works? Or…something else?”

“He’s young and talented and is going to make a great baron one day,” Yuuri answered quickly. “Or – or would, if…”

“Yeah. It must be hard to look at him, knowing that – ”

“Yes,” Yuuri cut him off before he could spell it out again, “it is.” Taking a breath, he added, “At least I didn’t end up in Richard the Second’s court.” He forced a little laugh. “I’d be tempted all the time to give him hints about evil cousins. Then I really would be changing the course of history.”

“You still could be if you made sure Sir Victor survived.”

Yuuri sat quietly, his insides squirming. Victor wasn’t the only one to face difficult decisions, it seemed. Or maybe not so difficult, because there was only one answer to Phichit’s questions – and right or wrong, he was never going to change his mind.  

“Are you there? Yuuri?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m here. It’s late; I’d better get some sleep.”

“Are you all right?”

“…Yeah. We’ll talk tomorrow night, OK? Night, Phichit.”


A cold snap brought more snow, with a weak mid-January sun glittering from a blue sky on the white crystals. In Yuuri’s time, climate control could usually manage things so that if it did snow, it happened over holidays like Christmas, when people tended to want it to. Bone-chilling temperatures were mostly a thing of the past. This past. Yuuri stayed warm in front of the fire in his room, in the great hall, and when he exercised hard enough. The rest of the time, he shivered despite his heavy cloak. Getting out from under the blanket in the morning, when the fire had died to ashes, was a trial; and visiting the garderobe in the hall, especially in the middle of the night, took some resolve too.

He saw Victor at mealtimes and occasionally at the stable, but they never seemed to get the chance to do more than exchange pleasantries and brief summaries of what they’d been doing. Victor was visiting the training field more often now that his father had returned from his travels and resumed his duties at the castle, but he mostly seemed interested in working with Julius or doing sword practice on his own, dancing in that way which was so compelling to watch. No one was stopping Yuuri from walking up to him and asking him to spar; but he still felt as if the one time they’d done so together had been an indulgence on Victor’s part, and cutting the purse off his belt a fluke.

Victor had told him he might be able to beat Abelard, and so that was what he would do, or at least build himself up to doing. He found sacks of grain and beans to lift, and did chin-ups on tree branches and push-ups on the floor in his room. Ran up and down the hill, over and over, despite the snow. And even chopped more wood, though it didn’t feel the same without Victor. The first time he did it on his own, he took all of his outerwear and his tunic off as before, hoping Victor might see him from a castle window or happen through the courtyard and decide to join him, but he had no such luck.

Anyway, I’m behaving like some idiotic teenager, trying to show off to his crush.

He’s not my crush.

Pull the other one, Yuuri. You really do have to stop lying to yourself.

One bitterly cold evening, Emil accompanied him to his room after training as usual. Having thrown several logs on the fire until it was dancing and sparking, Yuuri warmed his hands in front of it while Emil began to untie the myriad plates that made up his armour. He was business-like about it, the way a doctor would be while examining a patient. And maybe masters were used to servants doing this kind of thing here; but to Yuuri it felt too intimate. Being touched like that, having those protective pieces removed bit by bit…

Unbidden, a scenario suddenly entered his mind where someone else was doing this instead. With long, gentle fingers that lightly caressed. And kisses to the back of his neck. He closed his eyes sucked in a breath at the thought, allowing it to go no further.

But it quickly returned in a different form. This time Victor was standing in front of the fire with his back to him, placid, trusting, as Yuuri slowly untied the strings and slipped the plates away. His own fingers and hands gliding across rich material and smooth skin, telling more than words could about his own feelings, how he –

God, Yuuri. Stop. You have to stop. He pulled a hand over his face, interrupting Emil’s ministrations. With a muttered “Sorry,” he rubbed at his brow. If he really cared about Victor, he’d exercise more self-control. Because it wasn’t just the potential danger from Ailis that should be putting him off limits, at least in the sense Yuuri had been envisioning. If these fantasies somehow came true, how long would their relationship last before it met some tragic end? Victor was destined to die before the year was over. Yuuri might have to return to his own time, either to escort Ailis back, or because Justin came to harm. He hated to think about any of it. But for Victor’s sake as well as his own, he had to.

I can’t do that to him.

Though I’m kidding myself if I really believe he’d be interested anyway.

More fingers picking softly at ties, this time on his shoulder.

“Emil,” he said abruptly, “can you…um, do you mind letting me do the rest?”

“Have I done something wrong, sir?” Emil enquired, stepping away with a worried expression.

“No. It’s just, well, I’ve really appreciated your help while I’ve got used to the armour. But my family, we just aren’t very physical people. I mean, we like our own space. I think I can put these things on and take them off by myself.”

“Ah, I see. You’re uncomfortable. It’s all right, sir; I understand.”

He was trying to appear stoical, but Yuuri was sure he could see a wounded look in his eyes. “It’s not your fault, Emil. You do a lot for me already, though. In fact, there’s more you could do – on the training field, maybe. We haven’t sparred yet.”       

“Squires don’t spar with knights, sir,” Emil said hastily. “You instruct the squires, then we spar with each other.”

“You taught me how to ride a horse.”

“Well yes, but that’s different.”

“Maybe you could teach me how to use a bow and arrow, then.” Yuuri gave him a little smile. “I don’t think my reputation’s ever going to be completely out of the mud until I get better at that.”

“It isn’t me you need to ask, sir; it’s Julius. Though I’m not sure he’d be disposed to grant such a request. I’m afraid he’s taken quite a dislike to you.”

“Tell me about it,” Yuuri said under his breath as he continued with his armour where Emil had left off, storing each piece in its usual place in the chest.

“I am, sir.”

Yuuri huffed a laugh and shook his head. “All right, then. Maybe you can tell me how I’m going to get warm tonight, because everywhere not immediately in front of this fire is freezing. And every morning when I wake up lately, there’s ice on the inside of my window.”

“It won’t stay like this for long. But if you’d like to spend a warm evening in good company, you could always join us in the main garrison room. We’ll have a merry blaze in the grate, and plenty to drink, and music and song.” He paused. “I wonder that you don’t seem to like it. Does it not appeal more than staying in here on your own?”

Yuuri removed the final plate, closed the chest, and turned to look at him. “I’m not popular here, Emil. And I don’t like big gatherings of people, if I’m honest. I guess I figure it wouldn’t be much fun for me. Or anyone else.”

Emil shrugged. “Suit yourself, sir. Though it’s less rowdy, now the holidays are over. Sir Victor’s been making regular appearances, too, which is unusual for him. He visits the garrison often in the daytime to oversee the fighting men, but not so much at night, until recently. You ought to come hear him play his citole; he’s quite good.”

Yuuri stared in silence.

I know he is. I heard him Christmas night. I won’t forget it soon, either.

I shouldn’t. I can’t.

It would be completely irresponsible.


Thankfully, however, the evening passed without incident, even though Yuuri had acted against his better judgement. Victor did come to the main garrison room, and a few other nights afterward; sometimes with his citole, and always with Julius. There was never any opportunity to spend time alone with him, and his appearances were unpredictable, so there were nights Yuuri spent watching the men play dice, overhearing conversations, sometimes making small talk over a drink, mostly feeling as if he were sitting in a pub on his own.

Maybe it was safer this way, however. He didn’t completely trust himself where Victor was concerned.

One evening, Yuuri was leaning back in his habitual corner with a mug of beer when Victor entered the room with Julius. His eyes went straight to where Yuuri was sitting, as if expecting – hoping? – he’d be there. Removing his cloak and handing it to his squire, who went to store it in the closet, he walked over to join him, leaning against the wall and looking down.

“Justin, how are you?” came his quiet voice. Yuuri had no trouble discerning it above the background noise of conversation, as the room was mostly empty tonight.

“Good,” he answered, cradling his mug in his hands. “You?”

“You wouldn’t believe the tedium of the past few days,” Victor sighed. “We’ve had the Baron Pomeroy and his family and retinue visiting. It’s my duty to help entertain. They have five very chatty daughters.”

Yuuri laughed, imagining Victor in the midst of them all. “I saw you eating next to some of them in the great hall.”

Victor raised his eyebrows and let out an exaggerated sigh. “Lady Adeline – enough said. She wanted me to cut up all her food for her, and sent for six different kinds of wine until she found something she liked.”

“I’m sure you charmed them all,” Yuuri said with a smile.

Victor smiled back, and opened his mouth to say something, when Julius joined them. “Were you talking about that abominable Adeline?” he said. “It took the patience of a saint to put up with the mardy cow.”

“And you’re no saint,” Victor said fondly, tipping Julius’s chin up briefly with a finger. “But you did well all the same. Better than you’re doing now.” He seemed to know just how to mollify the young man, who fell silent. “Since you’re so familiar with Mistress Shaw’s excellent selection in the buttery, will you fetch a jug of her best hypocras? I feel like treating myself.”

“But we just came in, master. It’s cold out there,” he muttered.  

“Then some sort of coat is in order, I believe?”

Julius gave a small huff, and with a “Sir,” returned to the closet to fetch it.

“The chessboard is free. Fancy a game?” Victor asked.

Yuuri glanced over at the board against the wall near the shuttered window to the courtyard, its black and white marble pieces standing in wait, gleaming in the light of a nearby candelabra. Victor hadn’t asked him if he played; it was clearly expected that a knight or the son of a nobleman did. He was no expert, but at least he could accept the invitation without fear of too much embarrassment.

They took their seats, Victor allowing him to be white. It had been years since Yuuri had played chess, and his strategy had always been a mixture of thinking ahead and unpredictable absurdity, which he hoped would baffle and confuse, though more often it just opened him to being trounced. Once they started, however, Victor seemed to be enjoying it, and Yuuri was gratified to discover that this was one thing his opponent did not appear to have any mastery over, because the match was playing out fairly evenly.

Julius reappeared with a jug of spiced and honeyed wine, and Yuuri drank a full cup, having finished his beer, before he remembered that this was stronger than what they usually had at meals. His head was beginning to buzz.

“So this is your strategy,” he laughed, looking across the board at Victor. “Get me drunk so I can’t think straight.”

“It’s not a very good one, then,” Victor answered with a smirk, picking up his cup and holding it upside-down.

Julius, hovering nearby like an anxious waiter, asked him if he wanted more wine, and Victor held his cup out for a refill, then gestured for him to do the same for Yuuri. “If you want it,” he added. “Far be it from me to addle the brains of my opponent.”

Yuuri held his cup out to Julius, who gave him a sour look while he poured. Then he stepped dutifully back.

“This is delicious,” Yuuri said, sipping. “I love it. I wish they had it where I – I mean, I wish they appreciated it more at my father’s castle.” He glanced down at the board and rested his fingers on a rook. He needed it to move diagonally. Everything you ever did in life was full of damn rules. He could move it diagonally, but he didn’t think Victor would approve. Changing his mind, he scooted a pawn forward instead, just because he could.

Victor’s brow wrinkled. He cupped his chin in his hand. Glancing quizzically at Yuuri, he switched hands. Yuuri laughed.

“You must have something up your sleeve, you rascal, and for the life of me I can’t work it out.”

The mock insult sent a pleasant shiver down Yuuri’s spine. He smiled mischievously. “Don’t expect me to give you any hints.”

Victor stared, blinking. Then he turned to Julius. “You don’t need to wait on me all evening. Leave the jug here on the table and go join the other squires if you like; you’ve been busy all day.”

Julius looked as if he wasn’t keen on the idea, but with an “Of course, master,” he did as Victor bade. Emil, Philip and Roland were sitting at a table across the room, and welcomed the young man.

Victor turned back to Yuuri. “He’s the best squire a knight could hope for, you know. But sometimes I think he’d stay at my side day and night if I let him. Now.” He considered the board again, then moved a bishop. But before Yuuri could decide on his own move, he added, “Who taught you to play chess? Your moves are…unconventional.”

Taken aback, Yuuri answered, “My father,” meaning his real one, before he engaged his wine-dulled brain. Fortunately, it was entirely believable in context. “We, um, used to play some evenings.”

“You stopped?”

“Yes,” Yuuri said in a quiet voice.

Victor paused, then took a sip of wine and said conspiratorially, “You’ll never believe who taught me.”

Since he seemed to be waiting for a response, Yuuri hazarded, “Father Maynard?” Victor shook his head. “A cook? The jester? I have no idea,” Yuuri laughed.

“My nursemaid.” Victor smiled, seeming to relish the unexpected answer.

“Oh.”

Victor nodded. “By the time my father decided he was going to teach me, I surprised him by challenging him to a game.” He laughed. “I lost.”

Yuuri wondered if he ought to make a move, and looked back down at the board, but Victor seemed to want to say more. He’d folded his arms on the table in front of him, and there was a wistful expression on his face as he stared at the signet ring on his little finger.

“Her name was Irene. My nursemaid.” Then he looked up at Yuuri, eyes bright. “She was with us for years. I don’t know how old she was, but she always seemed like the grandmother I never had, and she was so full of energy, right up to the end. She simply gave out one day.” After a pause he added, “So I was told. But she had a good long life, Justin, and I’m pleased to have been part of it. Though I have to say I miss her even now.”

Yuuri wasn’t sure how to respond; it was a such a different way of living from what he himself knew, though Victor wasn’t aware of that. He probably thought Justin had had a nursemaid, too. Well, the real one probably did. “It sounds like you were really close to her.”

Victor’s eyes flicked downward, and he had another sip of wine, then ran a finger idly over the cup, apparently lost in thought. The ghost of a fond grin played across his lips. “She had some…different ideas about chivalry and honour. Made sure that we – I – didn’t forget that people get hurt and die in battle. Friends, family, loved ones. Usually for no better reason than because someone wants money and land and power.” He huffed softly. “She said these things to a child who played with toy soldiers, who’d thought nothing of it until then.” He glanced up at Yuuri. “As you do, at that age.” And then the eyes were back down, the finger tracing over his cup again. “But I’d say she was entitled to it. Her own village was raided, and her father and brother were killed before her eyes.”

“Jesus,” Yuuri breathed as Victor briefly met his gaze.

“She was the kindest, sweetest lady I’ve ever met,” Victor said with a shaky sigh. Then he wiped at his face with his sleeve. After a moment, his eyes found Yuuri’s, and this time he did not look back down. In a steadier voice, he added, “We can be better than that, Justin. We don’t have to look for glory in killing each other.”

I’m full of wine – fuck, what do I say? “She sounds like a wonderful person. I agree, too; of course I do. But, um, I thought that was what knights do. Why did you become one?” Too late, Yuuri wondered if it was an insulting question after what Victor had just revealed.

But his expression was open and honest as he replied, with a faint smirk that soon disappeared, “I showed promise at a young age. I was learning sword skills before I could tie my boot laces.”

“Fucking hell,” Yuuri whispered, knowing the wine was loosening his tongue before he could properly consider his words. “That…that’s amazing. I can imagine it. But, um, it’s…” He wrinkled his nose briefly in distaste, knowing it hadn’t been long before his own time when it was still common to give children toy weapons to play with. “It’s kind of depressing, too. I mean, little kids ought to be chasing each other around, exploring, playing in the mud, things like that.”

“I suppose so. I did those things, too. But because I was good with a sword, it seemed to make sense that I should become a knight. Irene, lovely as she was, wasn’t the only influential person in my life. My father fought many battles, sometimes side by side with the king’s own son. It’s in my blood, Justin.” He took a long drink of his wine and continued, “But Irene, she taught me to try to be wise and gentle. I wish, sometimes, that…that I hadn’t started my training as early as I did.” He leaned forward. “I’ll tell you a secret.”

No one had ever spoken to Yuuri like this before, and he wasn’t sure what he’d done to invite it, but he was mesmerised.

“Sometimes I think I might not be cut out for this. Being a knight. Would you ever have guessed it?” Victor sat back in his chair with his cup in his hands, searching Yuuri’s face for a reaction.

“Victor, I…” This talent you have…whose purpose is to kill people. Maybe you don’t think many other people in your own time would understand, but believe me, they do in mine.

Appearing to have expected the uncertainty, Victor said to him, “So why did you become a knight?” He sipped more wine and gazed at him over the rim of his cup.

Yuuri’s throat hitched. Shit, Victor, why are you doing this to me? I don’t want to lie. I don’t think I’d do a very good job of it right now, anyway.

But hadn’t he become a knight long before now, in Immersion? That was the type of persona he’d chosen to take on. Coming from that angle, maybe he could give a partially honest answer.

“I wanted to feel like a hero. Like…like I had a purpose, and was accomplishing something.”

Victor raised an eyebrow. “And has it? Has it made you feel like a hero?”

Yuuri sighed, thinking back to those days. His recent nostalgia trip hadn’t evoked the same feelings; he was older, his life had moved on, and his experience of the game was different now. But then? “For a long time, yes.” Feeling the sudden need of more Dutch courage, he drained his cup, the buzzing in his head morphing into a warm, swimmy sensation. “But not anymore. You know, though,” he added, briefly pointing a finger in the air, “sometimes when I’m sparring, it…it feels good. Natural. I mean, don’t want to hurt the other person, but there’s something about what I’m doing, physically. It’s hard to explain.”  

“The art and grace of the movements.”

“Exactly.”

Victor smiled. “Those things can be enjoyed without anyone getting hurt, just as you say. There are ways.” He paused and regarded him curiously; then his eyes sparkled as he said, “I can’t wait to see what you’re like after you practise some more. I’m excited to find out.”

“My lord, sorry to disturb, but I require an audience with you.” It was the man with the salt-and-pepper hair, the chamberlain. Yuuri hadn’t even noticed him come in.

“Is it urgent?” Victor asked after a pause.

“I wouldn’t have sought you out at this time otherwise. I do apologise.” He gave Yuuri a stern glance.

“All right, John.” Victor stood, and Julius dashed to get his cloak from the closet. “We must talk another time,” he said, looking down at Yuuri. “It’s been…” Seemingly at a loss for words, he eventually said, “Good night, Justin,” and then disappeared down the hall with Julius and the chamberlain.

Yuuri stared after him, the chess game forgotten. He was floating on a cloud, though that was only partially due to the alcohol. And among all the other thoughts tumbling around his brain, one of the foremost was that if there had been more Irenes and Victors in this time, the world would have ended up a better place.

Chapter Text

Sometimes I think I might not be cut out for this. Being a knight. Would you ever have guessed it?

A breath of a cold breeze tickled Victor’s face and crept underneath his hood as he swayed gently in his saddle. The riding party were silent except for the clop of hooves along the road. In a sense, they could be thankful for the cold spell, because frozen ground was easier and pleasanter to traverse than mud.

His thoughts had strayed back, again, to his words to Justin the night before. The only other person he’d ever spoken to on the subject was Alex. Usually it was a truth he hid even from himself. Because at times like this, he could see it was nothing but an idle fancy; an indulgence he could not afford.

The chamberlain had received visitors the previous evening who had informed him that knights and other fighting men had been roaming the countryside together, ambushing and robbing travellers on the roads. It was an easy thing to do. The law said that trees and bushes were supposed to be cut well back from the road so there was no place for anyone with evil intent to lie in wait, but it was rarely heeded, and Victor knew it would be impossible to summon enough men to ride out and do it as a discrete task. He’d been pondering the problem last year before the cold weather had settled in. Usually a freeze like this deterred marauders, who would turn to petty indoor villainy until frostbite was no longer a risk. These men were bold, then, or desperate. Or both.

It concerned him that the knights had been reported to be wearing white tabards with a blue cross. Perhaps it meant nothing. But it was possible that these were the Duke of Halbrook’s men. Tyler’s father. Which deepened the problem. Why would they be here? The duke was a wealthy man, and his lands did not border the Crowood estate. Enquiries would have to be made, and the miscreants found.

It also concerned him that Justin had accompanied this band of people from the castle, which included Chris, their squires, and several men-at-arms. Though he knew it shouldn’t. It was Justin’s duty, as a knight of the Nikiforovs, to help protect the people who lived on the estate. Whatever the man had experienced in the past, Victor had got the impression that he’d led quite a cosseted existence; he was certainly no battle-hardened veteran. Which was one thing that appealed about him. He knew he would probably not have mentioned dear Irene and her unusual perspective on things if he’d been completely sober, because he’d learned years ago that most other men thought it weak or cowardly, or simply didn’t understand. Whereas Justin…well, the mystery around him seemed to constantly deepen; interestingly so. Which was why Victor wanted to send him straight back to the castle on his horse. To safety.

He had planned to send the other three knights, their squires, and a good company of fighting men, as was the usual practice in these situations, but instead he’d told Charles and Roland to attend to the lord and lady at the castle, and he’d gone along himself. His action would not be questioned, and it meant he could make doubly sure no one came to any harm. This could potentially turn into a days-long expedition, however, and a rather tedious one at that, which might involve a great deal of riding around the countryside, asking questions at villages, and trying to find these criminals. He’d therefore put together a retinue of wagons with tents and supplies, and a few servants who travelled at the back.

Justin was riding to his left; an air of anxiousness seemed to have clung to him since they’d left the castle. He was like a man gathering himself before a performance while having little confidence that it would turn out well. Maybe it was natural, since this was his first real task for the castle.

As they rode, Victor pointed out landmarks, and places where he’d enjoyed going as a child. He shared his thin beer too, though he knew Justin had his own. The small smiles he received in return were reward enough. Julius, however, riding to his right, was not pleased at his lack of attention and sank into a prickly mood.

Victor took the lead in asking passers-by on the road, and at villages and inns, whether they had seen or heard tell of the marauders. Some answered in the affirmative, and it sounded as if the band were active on the southern borders of the estate. There were perhaps more of them, too, than the reports to John had indicated, which made Victor glad that he’d come along after all, and that he’d brought more men than had seemed necessary at first.

As evening drew in, they set up camp for the night. There was no point in attempting concealment with such a retinue, so they had a large campfire, and music and song. After a supper of mutton and ale stew and sops – with Justin at his side, albeit very quiet, for the first time during a meal – Victor plucked at his citole and taught him a song before Julius requested his help in attending to their horses and provisions. By the time he returned to the fire, Justin had retired to his tent. Feeling a niggle of disappointment, he sat at the fire with the others who were awake, until one by one they also turned in.

This was what Victor had been waiting for: the chance to warm himself by an open fire in the still of the night, his own man for a short time, with no fear of being disturbed by advisers and other important personages. Life had too few of these moments. An occasional breeze fanned the flames; the logs clinked and crackled and collapsed into broken piles. An owl hooted. Deciding he was too warm in his cloak, he removed it – and saw Justin coming to join him, dressed in his own fur cloak and hat.

“I couldn’t sleep. Do you mind if I sit down?”

“Please,” Victor said, making space next to him on the log.

Justin settled and held his hands out to the warmth in front of him. “I like sitting by the fire in my room at night. Maybe I’ve got too used to it. It was cold in my tent.” He gave a small huff. “Here I am complaining, when I’ve been exercising with no shirt on.”

“I like being by the fire, too. It’s even better when you have someone to talk to.” Victor smiled, but was met with that anxious look.

“Victor, um…can I ask you about this mission we’re on? I haven’t been told much; Chris said this morning that we were riding out to find robbers?”

Victor nodded and explained, concluding with, “You can put aside what I told you about knighthood. If someone with a sword is terrorising people in this area, then it’s going to take someone with a sword, or a bow and arrow, to stop them.”

“I, um, thought you made some good points, actually. But I think I get what you mean.” He dropped his hands to his lap and gave Victor a troubled look. “Will they attack us, do you think? Are we likely to end up in battle?” As Victor considered a response, Justin added, “Whatever happens, I…I’ll do what I have to do. I’m with you, Victor. I just…I’m not used to this, and people might get hurt.” He looked down and muttered, “What a stupid thing to say. Of course they might get hurt.”

Victor didn’t believe he was looking at a coward. Someone who cared, rather, and had natural concerns. It didn’t fit with his nickname, but then nothing he’d done since he’d arrived at the castle had.

“I’m not seeking a battle, Justin. Obviously we can’t let these marauders carry on as they are. We still ought to outnumber them, I expect, and we’re quite a skilled group of men, wouldn’t you say? My hope is that all we’ll need to do is arrest them when we find them, then decide what to do with them. Well, that’s my job. One step at a time, though. We could be searching for days yet. We might not even find them, if they’ve left the area for good.”

Justin said in a low voice, “Police…we’re medieval police.” When Victor asked him to clarify, being unfamiliar with the word, he seemed startled for a moment, and answered, “We’re acting as lawkeepers.”

“Yes, we are.” Though the questioning expression on Justin’s face was a puzzle, as if this whole situation were unfamiliar to him. He understood that knights helped to keep the peace, surely; it was common knowledge. Perhaps he’d forgotten. Memory loss could happen to anyone; Victor knew of fighting men who had suffered a great deal more.

“If that was the only thing we were called on to do, I suppose I’d be all right with it,” Justin said, staring into the fire. Then he sighed and stood to throw more logs on the flames, sending up a shower of crackling orange sparks. As he sat down, he took off his hat and cloak and looked at Victor, seeming to consider his next words. Finally he said, “There’s something I’ve been wondering for a while. If it’s too personal a question, just tell me. These duels you fight with – um, Emil called them champions. How do you get people to agree to that, when it’s normal for armies to go and attack a castle? Why does your family risk their only son?”

“Because it’s better than risking an army.” Victor’s gaze fell, and after a silence, he said on a quiet breath, “Oh, Justin. Your words cut to the heart of the matter so often. Yes, it’s very different from sending me out to maintain order in our lands.”

“So what happens if a family refuses the terms? If they won’t send someone to fight with you?”

“Why are you asking me this now?”

“It seemed like a good time.”

Worry flashed in those brown eyes. Brown? Blue. The light could play such tricks, especially a fire’s glow. Not just his eyes. His hair, too, on the edges of his hat.

“I’m sorry,” Justin said, looking abashed. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“I was upset about it quite some time before you asked.” Victor blinked and looked back into the fire. “To answer your question,” he said, the words sticking in his throat, “if a family refused the terms, we sent a troop of knights and men-at-arms to attack their castle.”     He didn’t need to look at Justin to feel his gaze burning into him. “Did you do that?” came the predictable question, almost whispered. Predictable because it came from Justin, when most knights would be asking him to brag about his great deeds and how many men he’d slain. This man who Victor understood so little of himself, yet felt he could trust.

And would he tell him? Was there any reason not to?

Because when I put it into words, it makes it real again.

“I had to,” he answered, continuing to stare into the flames; and he heard Justin blow out a breath.

“God, Victor. I – I’m sorry.”

“I hope I’ll never have to do it again.” Victor’s voice wavered, the memory of those dark days threatening to bubble up from their well and flood him. What he’d done, what he’d had his men do, believing he’d had no choice…“If I live to inherit the castle and lands, I’ll do things differently.” Justin gave a little start at this. “It’s not so strange. Chris, Julius, Emil, many of these other men, they know my views on the subject, and they’re of a similar vein, I believe. Squires are open to what we teach them.”

As Justin continued to watch him quietly, so ready to hear his words, somehow the darkest ones of all tumbled out. “Every time I kill someone, some part of me dies inside too,” he said, his voice just audible above the crackle of the fire. “A-As the years go by, sometimes I wonder what will be left of me.”

He gazed into those wide eyes which seemed to mirror his own hurt in their shifting hues. The silence stretched. Then Justin said, “You’ve held on to your integrity all this time, then. Your humanity. Despite everything you’ve been through.”

Victor felt the warmth of the fire on his body; but Justin had kindled a warmth in his heart, too. For a moment, as they looked at one another, he had the urge to lean over and kiss him. But then Justin spoke again, and the moment passed.

“I might have to kill too, while I’m here. The thought of it is…” He broke off.

“Let’s make sure we handle it well, then, when we find these rogues. I’ll do my best to keep it peaceful.”

Justin nodded, but the worry in his eyes remained.


As Victor lay awake, he heard the changing of the watch outside, two sentries stationed on the outskirts of the camp. It must be deep into the night by now. The earlier change of watch had prompted him and Justin to return to their tents and get what sleep they could. But after what he’d confessed, what he’d almost done, those beautiful and mysterious eyes looking into his own…no, the whirl of emotions inside him was not going to succumb to slumber any time soon.

He was beginning to have…feelings for this knight. They’d been growing for a while. But Victor had struggled to find excuses to seek him out, especially when he was tied up with business of the family, castle and estate at unpredictable times. At least visiting the garrison in the evening had borne fruit on several occasions, though that didn’t exactly amount to time alone either. Of course he could just send word for Justin to meet him in a place where he knew they wouldn’t be interrupted, such as a hunting lodge or his room. But the connotations of such an assignation would be plain – and would he come? Victor wanted to be able to count Justin as a close friend. His honesty, his straightforward manner, the refreshingly bold and challenging questions he asked, his company even in companionable silence – he valued them all. But…did he want him as a lover, too?

His body said yes. Very much so. He’d known it when they’d sparred and chopped wood together; Justin had a fine physique. But did that mean he was in danger of going down the same path as he had with Tyler and the others? Victor had promised himself there would be no more of that kind of thing in his life; that he wouldn’t bed anyone else unless they were already the keeper of his heart. Could…could that be what was beginning to happen between them? How did someone know, when they’d never experienced it before?

After all the portentous subjects they’d touched on, the image that came to mind was the simple one of himself saving the spider from his axe, and Justin’s surprise and appreciation. Apart from Alex, he’d never expected anyone else to understand, if they even noticed. Occasionally he heard a derisive laugh when someone saw; someone who felt they could dare. Tyler, once, for example.

And yet, as so often happened, Victor thought back to the duel; about the man with the prickly beard and pricklier nickname, who had a reputation for seeking out fights. He’d accepted that it wasn’t who Justin really was. But there was no getting around the fact that it was how he had been, until very recently. That disconnect was as confusing as ever, and how did you confront someone about such a thing? What had happened to change him so profoundly? It had to have been more than his life being threatened in the duel, and moving to the castle. Did it have something to do with the memory loss? And oh God – did that mean “le Savage” would return along with the memories one day?

Victor prayed it wouldn’t happen. Because he liked this version of Justin. A great deal.   


I’m getting soft in my old age.

The thought brought a brief grin to Victor’s face as he rode on Alyona, the partially frozen road curving on ahead of him past fields and trees, some bare, some evergreen. The sky was as white as the light dusting of snow that had fallen in the early hours of the morning, and which lingered in shadowed hollows in the afternoon. Soft, at twenty-eight? From the perspective of the lifespan of a typical knight, perhaps. But he knew he was no typical knight.

Even so, he couldn’t deny the frisson of apprehension that passed through him from time to time here in the vanguard of the company, unarmoured save for a breastplate hidden under his cloak, deliberately flaunting his wealth and station like the piece of choice bait he was.

And indeed, he’d gone on the hunt like this for rogues several times in the past. On a couple of those occasions, it had got as far as them trying to rob him; though when he and his men had sprung into action, they’d soon realised their critical mistake and quickly been overpowered. No one had been harmed – apart from the criminals, who had lost an ear or a hand when left to his father’s tender mercies at court.

They’d been in the market town of Kirkby Hallam at midday when the keeper of The King’s Head inn had informed them of the passing through of a small party of men the previous day, two of them sporting white tabards with blue crosses. Victor and the others had stayed briefly to discuss strategy over a drink. The rogues’ method of operating seemed to be ambush, according to what they’d been told in the places they’d visited. They’d reportedly been using swords, but not bows and arrows. It had therefore seemed prudent for Victor, being the most skilled knight, to ride far enough in front of the rest of the party that the bends in the road would make it appear as if he were on his own. He’d brought a fittingly sumptuous set of clothes with him for such an eventuality: a magenta houppelande and matching hose, his black chaperon, and a fur cloak trimmed in ermine. It was an ostentatious getup to wear for travelling – not that Percy Steggles ever minded; the man rarely went anywhere without posing like a pretty peacock, even on a horse through the mud. But hopefully it would draw out their unsuspecting quarry.

Justin had insisted on riding as close behind him as was allowed. Chris, Julius and Emil had joined him, with the men-at-arms behind them, and the servants and wagons at what was hopefully a safe distance. Victor could see in Justin’s eyes the same anxious look as before, though he thought as the day had worn on that it had increasingly been mixed with a glint of determination.

There was no hint of a breeze, and Alyona’s hoofs made soft thuds on the road as she waked along. It was in appalling condition in places, and Victor suspected the locals might have been digging it for clay again, due to the number of large pits whose depths could not easily be guessed. He would have to send the reeve to look into it before someone fell in and hurt themselves.

They might ride all day like this and encounter no one at all, let alone the men they were after. Well, so be it. His thoughts began to tend toward a warm meal and campfire, and hopefully Justin’s company again, as Alyona stepped onto a wooden bridge over a river. Sometimes these contraptions could be in such poor repair that they were impassable, but Victor was relieved to find that this one had been well kept, the planks tight and sound, the rails intact. It was a restful spot, with clusters of evergreens verging either side of the dark brown span, the clear waters flowing steadily below; and if he’d been by himself, he might have been inclined to dismount and take in the view for a while. Once in the middle of the bridge, he turned his head to see if he could spot the rest of his party, but they’d dropped well back – as was necessary, if their strategy had any hope of working.

From the far side of the bridge came the cry: “Stand and deliver!”

Victor jerked his head back around. Two knights with blue crosses over white tabards were sprinting toward him, swords raised.

Had they taken leave of their senses? All he’d have to do was turn his horse and –

He looked behind him again – and saw with wide eyes that he’d been a fool. More men than he could count at a glance emerged from the trees, blocking any retreat across the other side of the bridge. They looked like villeins, with simple swords and the odd piece of leather armour; but if they rushed at him as well…

The two knights swiftly closed in. Why were they on foot? Where were their horses? They’d slay Alyona underneath him if they could. Victor threw off his cloak and hat and with a loud cry sprang off his mount, drawing his sword and dashing forward. The two men hesitated for only a moment, the odds being well in their favour. Victor didn’t recognise them, and they might not know who he was and what reputation he possessed; but taking on two plate-clad knights with only a breastplate to protect him was still going to be a hard task. That was assuming their gang didn’t get to him first.

Deciding he had to forget about that possibility, he moved with all possible speed, coming to blows with one while shoving the other out of the way. He parried and dodged, wove and spun. The men were clearly surprised at first to meet with such an able swordsman, but then redoubled their efforts. A chorus of shouts erupted from behind, but Victor couldn’t risk turning to look; a fatal wound could take but a moment to inflict.

He knew how to find an armoured knight’s weak spots. Go for the joints. The slit in the visor. The neck. But that was wishful thinking; he had to defend himself above all else. If he could get these men near the rails on either side of the bridge, he could try to throw them off; but the possibility seemed to have occurred to them, and they remained in the middle.

Don’t let either of them get behind you.

Alex’s voice, echoing in his head. He shoved with his shoulders and aimed quick jabs with elbows and knees, careful not to open himself to being grabbed by a limb.  

Was there anything he could say to them that would help? But he couldn’t spare the concentration; and they would surely have realised by now that he hadn’t been travelling alone, and would fear for their lives. They’d kill him to save their own hides if they could.

Is this the end you wanted? Alex asked him silently. Then start fighting like you mean it.

Victor used his free hand to grab the blade of his sword two thirds of the way down and rushed the man in front of him, the weapon now a bar he could use to shove and jab with as well as parry. Before he could knock him off his feet, however, he felt a sting across the top of his arm – an attack from the other knight. Ignoring it, he hooked a leg to the side and yanked him off his feet. But as soon as he dealt with one, the other took his chance, and this time Victor saw a flash of steel out of the corner of his eye that boded very ill indeed –

– and with a vicious clang and a yell, it was knocked away.

Justin. In the fray now, forcing the knight away, quick and fierce like Victor had never seen him. His feet and sword were fairly flying, the glint of weapon and armour like sunlight on water.

With a soaring heart, Victor gathered his strength to spring at the one foe remaining to trouble him, determined to make quick work of it so that he could come to Justin’s aid – only to find that the man had dropped his sword and was backing up against the rail. “Mercy,” he pleaded.

Spinning round, Victor saw that Justin’s opponent had done likewise. And then he surmised why. Just beyond the bridge, back the way they’d come, their allies had won the skirmish. Julius, bow in hand, was searching the ground for spent arrows, and Chris and the other men were clutching their swords. Of the marauding gang, one lay dead on the road with arrows stuck in his chest, two were leaking their lifeblood into the earth, and the noises off to the side were three swimming for their lives down the icy river – they posed little threat to anyone, Victor judged, though he knew Julius’s aim with the bow would be true if he gave the word. The knights and their lord were the instigators of this, without a doubt.

Two of the villeins were still standing; Chris sheathed his sword and began binding their wrists with rope provided by Philip. He wiped a bit of blood from his forehead.

“As Abelard would say,” he called over, “what should we do with these filthy wee venomous roasters, Victor?” 


While some of the men-at-arms saw to the burial of two of their number who had been slain, as well as the duke’s dead men, Victor had a camp set up, where he questioned the four prisoners in the presence of Chris and Justin. It emerged that they were indeed the Duke of Halbrook’s men, and had encountered a troop belonging to a rival lord, the Baron Dacre, claiming their opponents had attacked first. They’d lost the fight and had had their horses, money and other possessions confiscated, and so claimed to be robbing the local populace out of desperation. At times they’d been reduced to begging, they said, and what else were they to do? Victor felt a twinge of sympathy. But if everyone in such circumstances resorted to terrorising innocent people, no one would travel for fear of attack. And it was up to him to make another judgement.

He rode with the prisoners, knights and squires back to Kirkby Hallam, where he sought out the mayor, and waited at the top of the high street until a sizeable portion of the town’s population had been summoned from the buildings by knockings on doors and heralds’ trumpets. Addressing the assemblage, he briefly explained who the prisoners were, what crimes they had committed, and the events that had transpired at the bridge that afternoon. Their punishment, he said, would be served now, in front of the good people of the town.

As he spoke, the two knights were stripped of their armour, clothes and shoes, until they were shivering in nothing but their braies. They were then placed at the head of a procession, followed by their two comrades, with Chris and Philip on one side and Julius and Emil on the other to ensure they did as they were told. Victor and Justin followed behind. Knowing the townsfolk would take delight in throwing rotten fruit and vegetables and other less savoury things at the prisoners, Victor had given a specific order for them not to do so; though he’d told the men to hang their heads in shame, saying nothing, a collective picture of humility, lest he change his mind and allow them to be pelted. As it was, while they walked slowly down the street, their hands still bound in front of them, they were floridly insulted by the braying crowd.  

Victor drew closer to Justin and spoke near his ear. “A suitable punishment, wouldn’t you agree? These are the people our prisoners would’ve abused, given the chance.”

To his surprise, Justin seemed uncertain. “I…I don’t know. I agree they ought to pay for what they’ve done, but humiliating them like this seems a little…well, savage.”

A stab of annoyance shot through Victor. “Most anyone else would have them put to death. They need to learn a lesson, do they not? Or is it now permissible to attack and rob innocent people? What would you have me do?”

Justin gave him a wondering look, then fell silent. They got on with the unpleasant task, and at the edge of the village Victor gave the knights their clothes back. He confiscated their weapons but returned their other belongings, then provided them with basic provisions for which he’d paid out of his own pocket. Telling them to go home, he said he would ensure the duke was contacted and asked to provide the means for them to do so, though what he’d just given them should help them on their way. However, if they returned to thieving, there would be no mercy a second time, and their lives would be forfeit. He knew there would have to be a reckoning with Halbrook, but he and his father would deal with that once he returned to the castle and messengers could be sent.

Afterward, tired in body and mind, the wound on his arm aching, Victor rode with his men back to camp, feeling the chill of the air for once and wrapping his cloak tightly about him. Justin was again on his left, Julius on his right. They were silent for a long time, while the sun sank to the horizon and shadows lengthened.

“I don’t enjoy publicly shaming people, Justin,” Victor eventually said. “But sometimes justice has to be seen to be done. If it had been you or a member of your family they’d attacked and robbed, how would you feel?” He glanced over at Justin, who nodded. “At the same time, their lord will need to accept that he was remiss in not ensuring his men had safe passage back from their fight. Our families are friendly. I imagine he’ll agree to pay reparations, which we’ll distribute to the victims. It’ll be a big job for our officials, but I think they’ll do it gladly.” He paused. “Is it still your opinion that I’m being savage?”

Justin considered, then replied, “No. No, I…You did well, I think, considering the circumstances.”

“Praise from you is hard earned,” Victor said with a wry grin.

“I’m sorry. This whole day…I’m not used to these things. I need time to make sense of it all, maybe. But I can tell that you care – about the people on your estate, and about the prisoners, too. You’re right, I can imagine someone else doing far worse things to them.”

Victor was easier in his mind after this, though why Justin’s approval felt important to him was something he’d have to think about. After a pause, he said, “I’m sorry for my harsh words earlier. I owe you my life.” He turned his head again to gaze at him earnestly. “I’m in your debt.”

Justin breathed out, looking flustered. “The others were close behind me. If I hadn’t joined you, Chris or someone else would have.”

“But it was you who did. Thank you.”

A pleased grin flitted briefly across Justin’s face.   


He really should’ve had his wound treated before they’d ridden back to camp. It had seemed like a waste of time then; but now that he was lying on the wooden bed in his tent, with Julius attending to him while Chris sat on a chair nearby, Philip dabbing at his face with a cloth, Victor could see the folly in his decision. He’d bled more than he’d realised, and it had dried, so cloth tore and the bleeding started afresh when Julius helped him remove the houppelande and the shirt underneath.

“Lie down, master, and I’ll fetch some water and have that bandaged for you in no time.”

Victor remained propped up on an elbow, using the damaged gown to absorb the blood. “Mistress Monica will be displeased that her handiwork’s been ripped and stained,” he murmured. “Percy won’t be, though. He’ll want a proper session of enthusing over a dozen different colours and styles for a new one.”

“You’re a poor patient,” Julius said, bringing a pitcher and basin over and placing them on a stand.

“Did you and Michael pack half the castle to bring along?”

“Only what fits a man of your station, master. This tent is supposed to be your home away from home.”

The cut was longer and deeper than Victor had wanted to admit to himself, but not so deep, he judged, that it needed stitches. Julius had also brought scissors, bandages and pins, and started dabbing with a cloth. He winced but said nothing.

Soon he caught wind of an argument outside the tent, and the man-at-arms stationed there said, “He and Sir Christophe are being attended by their squires. Perhaps later – ”

“I need to see him.”

“Sir, I don’t think – ”

“I’m going inside, and if you try to stop me…” There was the sound of sliding metal as a sword was drawn.

That was Justin’s voice. But what had got him so riled? “Edwin,” Victor called out, “it’s all right. He’s one of our knights, after all.”

But Justin had already shoved past the man, who was peering into the tent in astonishment. He was dressed in a blue tunic and brown hose and boots, minus his armour and cloak.

“Do you want me to get rid of him, sir?” Julius asked, sounding eager. Chris and Philip stopped their conversation and stared.

“Why didn’t you tell me you’d been hurt?” Justin demanded in a low voice as he strode up, sheathing his sword. He looked down at the cut on Victor’s arm and his eyes widened. “I only just heard now.”

“Why should I have said?” Victor countered, nevertheless touched by his concern. “I’m in good hands. And, Justin…” He raised an eyebrow. “Drawing a sword on my own guard?”

He seemed taken aback. “I’ll apologise later. I wouldn’t have hurt him.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“I wanted to see you before someone did something to your wound.” He looked at Julius, and the accoutrements on the stand.

“What are you staring at?” Julius snapped, glaring back. “I daresay I know more about this than you. Go wait outside; you’re not wanted here.”

“You could say that if we were both holding bows. But I really do know about treating wounds.” He turned back to Victor. “You need something to disinf – to clean it out. Properly. So you don’t get sick. Have you got anything besides water?”

“What else would I need?” Victor asked.

“Jesus. I should’ve thought of this before we left. What to use? There must be something…”

Julius was looking at him as if he’d gone mad. “What in God’s name are you on about?”

“Alcohol.” A light sprang into Justin’s eyes. “Victor, have you got any strong drink here?”

“I’ll gladly fetch it for you,” Julius said, “if it means you intend to drink yourself into a stupor.”

“Julius, fetch the vodka from my bags,” Victor told him.

“But – ”

“Please.”

The squire grudgingly opened a leather bag nearby and extracted a corked blue glass bottle, then handed it to Justin.

“Can I have some next?” Chris asked from his chair, where Philip was removing his armour. “I don’t want to be left out.”

“This isn’t going to be for drinking,” Justin said, pulling the stopper. He sniffed the bottle’s contents, then his eyes shot open wide and he coughed.

“It’s proper vodka,” Victor said with a chuckle. “But I have to confess I’m at a loss to understand what this is all about.”

“As am I,” Julius put in.

“Well, strong alcohol will wash out a wound better than water. It’ll help prevent…what would you call it…it’ll help make sure you don’t get sick from your wound.”

“You know, Victor, there may be some truth to this,” Chris said between mouthfuls of a piece of bread Philip had supplied him with. “I’ve heard tell on the continent that some physicians soak their bandages in wine. I thought they did it when there was no water to be had.”

“Will you trust me?” Justin asked quietly.

Victor paused and looked at him. “Of course.”

“What in the name of the devil are you planning to do to him?” Julius blurted.

“Remember your place, squire,” Victor said. “I’ll thank you to clean my armour over there while Justin’s busy.” He added in a gentler voice when he received a hurt look, “Your wound care is second to none, but I want to find out what he has in mind.”

Julius gave a little huff, shot another glare at Justin, then made a quick bow and stalked over to the chest containing the plate.

“You seem to be bent on your purpose,” Victor said mildly as Justin examined his wound.

“I’m just going to make sure this is cleaned out first,” he replied. He eyed the pitcher and the cloth Julius had left. “That water needs to be boiled if it’s going to be any use, I think. But maybe I won’t need it.” He took his knife out of its sheath. To Victor’s surprise, he soaked the end of the cloth in vodka, then used it to clean the implement.

“This is a strange procedure.”

“I’ll try not to hurt you.” Justin prised small pieces of cloth from the wound with the tip of the knife, slowly and with care. Victor barely felt it. “There. Now, um…I think probably the next thing I’m going to do might hurt – but please believe me when I say it’ll help. I’m going to pour the vodka over the wound, and then bandage it up.”

Victor wrinkled his brow. “This is going to stop me from getting sick from the wound?”

“Yes.”

“Where did you learn such a procedure?”

“At my castle,” Justin replied. “Can you, um, hold your arm out a bit?”

Victor did as he was told. Justin picked the bottle up with that expression of worry and determination he’d been wearing during the entire trip. It wasn’t particularly reassuring now. Then the liquid decanted –

And Victor’s skin was on fire. He cried out before he was able to master himself, but he continued to moan and shed a stream of tears through gritted teeth. All eyes in the tent were upon them both. Time slowed to a crawl before Justin stopped, corked the bottle, put it down, and picked up the bandages and pins.

“Was that really necessary?” Victor said in a small voice, breathing in the fumes of vodka rising from his arm.

“I’m sorry,” Justin answered, looking like he meant it. “But yes, very. I, um, I’ve seen this work well for people. I’m sorry it had to hurt so much.”

It had felt to Victor like a swarm of bees was attacking him, but the sting was fading into a throb. Fingers lifted his arm up and skated across it, sending a tremble through him that made his breath catch. Then they wrapped the bandage round, nimble and feather-light.

“You have a gentle touch for one so fierce,” he whispered.

Justin’s eyes widened. “Fierce?”

“I almost thought ‘le Savage’ was fighting next to me today. Or someone better.”

“Oh? I – ”

“Someone who isn’t anything like what I expected when he arrived at the castle. I wouldn’t have used the word ‘fierce’ for you until today – but it seems there’s that in you too, whether you’re defending a fellow knight, or – ” His mouth twitched. “ – threatening to attack his guard.”

“I did say I was sorry,” Justin muttered as he continued to hold Victor’s arm.

“It’s been a delightful surprise. I wonder what other surprises you might have in store.”  

Chris chuckled. And two pink roses bloomed in Justin’s cheeks. Victor thought it was the most adorable thing he’d ever seen.

Chapter Text

She knew she shouldn’t. Someone would come along to tell her off and steer her back to where she was supposed to be. But until they did, she would.

There were just so many to choose from; and several of her favourites were here, naturally. All along this table, pretty jugs and bottles full of seemingly endless varieties of wine and beer. She’d learned a lot about them since she’d arrived. Some odd things could get thrown into the mix, though. Egg yolks? Well, people in her own time still drank eggnog, so why not. Cloves and rosewater. Grains of paradise and galangal. Pepper, honey, gruel, sops. And the things they thought of making cordials out of…

Not many people were sitting yet, so perhaps she could get away with lingering to select her own drink. Here by the wall, near the window, she wasn’t so obtrusive, perhaps. A light dinner would be commencing soon, while the Beaumonts – the Duke of Halbrook and his sons, Andrew and Tyler, and their retinue – were entertained on this their last day, with a banquet planned for supper. The family were a bunch of haughty aristocrats, and the castle had had to suffer their presence again here so soon because their fighting men couldn’t behave themselves. This weak-hearted baron’s son, Victor, should’ve just killed them and left it at that. But maybe he understood the politics involved better than she did herself. Dukes were powerful people, and she supposed it wouldn’t do to anger one. Besides, it was common knowledge that Victor was fond of the younger son, or at least what he had between his legs. She thought it was quite enlightened of them not to burn him at the stake or draw and quarter him for it, in this day and age. Though the people at the top of the feudal pile tended to be able to do just about anything they liked anyway.

She chose a mulled wine with cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, and was filling a cup when she heard voices behind her. One of them she recognised as Victor’s. The other – she glanced out of the corner of her eye – was the new knight, Justin.

“I was wondering how your arm was doing. I haven’t seen you since we got back. Well, I mean to talk to you properly.”

“Ah. I know, and I’m sorry. My father and I have been busy trying to straighten out this business with the Beaumonts. It’s taking some delicate handling. But to answer your question, I’m well on the mend. It was never anything serious. I fear it would’ve been, though, if you hadn’t arrived to aid me when you did. I’m grateful.”

“You told me, remember?” Justin said with a little laugh.

How boring. They’d been enemies, and now they were…whatever they were. It wouldn’t surprise her if they were already sleeping together. She’d seen them staring across the hall at each other, usually when the other wasn’t aware of it. But she was aware. She was on the lookout all the time. Carelessness could be fatal to her disguise.

“I’m telling you again,” Victor replied lightly. “And when our visitors have gone, maybe – ”

“There you are, Victor. I knew you’d come in here eventually.”

Ailis slipped another glance their way and saw that Tyler had joined them. Now this could get interesting, she thought with a tiny smirk.

“Tyler – ” Victor began, but he was cut off.

“Where have you been hiding yourself these past few days? Considering the grave offence of attacking and humiliating our men, which my father has graciously forgiven, the least you can do is pay me the courtesy of speaking with me.”

Victor let out a surprised little huff, and Ailis sipped her wine, listening to every escalating word. “Considering the offence my father has forgiven, of your men marauding through our lands and attacking our men, including myself, I’d say I owe you nothing.”

Tyler laughed mirthlessly. “That’s not like you at all, and you know it, and you know I know it.”

“Justin,” Victor said, “will you excuse us please?” Ailis heard the contact of boots on the tiles fading across the room as others filed in, chattering, to take their seats for the meal.

There was a wounded note in Tyler’s voice now that hadn’t been present in full force a moment ago. “Victor,” he hissed, “you’ve spent no time with me while I’ve been here. It’s shameful as it is, to have been replaced by my brother next to you at the high table while I’ve had to sit with your common knights. I’ve endured the insult for your sake, hoping perhaps you’d change your mind. But now I know what’s really going on. I’ve seen the looks you’ve been giving that knight you just dismissed. I saw the two of you in conversation just now.”

“Is that a crime? He’s a knight of the castle.” Victor’s voice was low, just above the background ambience. “There’s nothing but friendship between us. But even if there were, how would it concern you? I trust I made my intentions clear during your last visit.”

“Perfectly,” Tyler replied bitterly. “And they’re perfectly clear now.” He paused. “Did you know your arse-brained steward sat me next to him for this meal?”

Victor seemed to be taking a moment to digest this news. “You can be civil to him, can’t you?” He added firmly, “I trust you will. If not – ”

“Of course I can. Do you think so little of me?” A sigh. “I honestly have no idea what you see in him, though. A pathetic little weed like that. I’d crush him in the arena before you could draw a breath.”

Ailis heard a sound that she imagined to be the incensed Tyler turning on his heel and flouncing off in a snit, and couldn’t help but enjoy a secret smile. A real-life soap opera – certainly better than the usual entertainment during a meal. She turned around now, hoping her luck would hold and no man would move her from her spot; she doubted a woman would. Victor was striding purposefully across the room to where Matthew Everard stood near the high table. He glanced over at Justin and Tyler several times while in animated conversation. Good luck with that, she thought, trying hard not to laugh. Everard had enough authority to argue back, and he hated his seating plans being changed by anybody.

Her gaze shifted across the room to the two hapless knights who were being made to sit as dining companions. Which would try to poison the trencher or the drink while the other wasn’t looking? And this time she did let out a small chuckle, hidden behind the cup raised to her lips. Perhaps Justin didn’t have the guts to try anything interesting, though. He looked as if he were attempting to mind his own business while his squire waited on him. And Tyler wasn’t sure who to glower at the most, Justin or Victor.

She wondered if Victor was aware that his new flame had also been chasing ladies around the castle. But then again, maybe they really were suited to each other, if neither could keep his dick in his trousers. She didn’t think she’d ever been as interested in other people’s sordid affairs as she had while she’d been here at the castle, and was a little alarmed at how enjoyable it was. After all, she was a scientist.

But there was a good reason for it, she reminded herself as she took a moment to study Justin more closely before leaving the drinks table. She assessed and reassessed everyone here because she knew Celestino would send someone after her with the remaining sphere. He hadn’t hesitated with the first two, once they’d had their getting-to-know-you conversation over Ian’s com, along with his sidekick Phichit. It was a logical assumption that the third was here at the castle now. Possibly in this very room.

So when this knight had turned up, she’d considered him as a new possibility. He’d looked a little lost at the time, though it was a natural-seeming reaction to being forced to leave his family and live here. There was also talk about the dove that had emerged from behind the façade of a hawk; but Victor could put the fear of God into anybody in the arena, and a dose of humility after an abysmal performance could conceivably have tamed this “Savage”. On the whole, she thought he seemed more devoted to his training – and Victor – than anything else; not that she was in a position to see him often and note what he was getting up to.

There was one intriguing thing about him, however, that had given her pause. He could speak medieval Russian. It was an unusual ability in this place, but not surprising at all if he’d nicked one of the translators she’d spent so many meticulous hours researching and programming. His explanation, she’d heard, was that he’d always had an ambition to come here and serve the Nikiforovs in some capacity. Was it plausible? It was difficult to say. There were others here who also had the potential to be someone other than who they claimed, if she allowed herself to be suspicious enough.

She watched Justin cut a small chunk of meat with his knife and feed it into his mouth with the tip, looking like he was forcing himself to swallow, the little drama between himself and his unwilling neighbour continuing to silently play out.        

If you are Celestino’s stooge, I hope you’re aware of what happened to your two predecessors. Because I intend to make sure that seems like a holiday compared to what I’ll do to you. 


Finally getting a chance to speak with Victor just now had lifted Yuuri’s heart, weighed down as it had been with that fight at the bridge a few days ago – the things he’d been forced to do, or almost do; then trying to explain to a shocked Phichit, and deciding to keep it brief, because how could he be expected to understand? It had also been affecting his performance in training.

But then Tyler had turned up. Recalling that he’d seen him here before, Yuuri had gathered that he was one of the duke’s sons and was angry at Victor for some reason. He thought it best to stay out of it, and was marking time until the meal was finished, not wishing to irritate him any further. Having to share a trencher and dishes felt awkward in the frosty silence. Occasionally Tyler waved a hand for his squire to bring him more wine.

“I wasn’t aware that this castle was in need of another knight.”

Jolted out of his reverie, Yuuri glanced at him.

“Where are you from?” Tyler asked in a flat voice.

“I’m from Stanebeck. Justin Courtenay, son of the baron. I was made to fight a duel against Victor for my family’s lands, and lost.”

Tyler’s eyes narrowed. “How long did you last against him? I’d be surprised if you even had a chance to draw your sword.”

“He beat me pretty fast,” Yuuri said, hoping to close the topic down before it got any further. He stared down at the pieces of minted lamb in grape juice and honey on the trencher, then poked at one with the tip of his knife. There was an incredulous exhale next to him, and he began to wonder what he could say to defuse the situation until they could get away from each other. It was clear Tyler had taken offence to him for some reason.

“How can such a poor knight be deserving of his favour? What did you do to get it?”

“I’m sorry?” Yuuri looked at him with a wrinkled brow.

“What does he see in you?”

“What do you mean?”

Tyler glared at him. “I could cut you into mince before you even realised what had happened.”

Yuuri was saved from having to come up with a reply when a serving girl arrived with a bowl of candied ginger which Tyler took and put on the table with a thunk. If it were possible for someone to eat angrily, then that was what he did, as he took one piece after another and chewed pronouncedly, staring out the window across the hall and then eyeing Victor.

“More wine, sir?” Tyler’s squire asked him, and he nodded, the young man pouring into his cup. “If you’re finished with the gingers, perhaps the knight next to you would like some? Shall I – ”

Tyler picked up the gleaming metal bowl by the rim and plonked it down by Yuuri, several pieces pinging on the table as they bounced out.

“That’s nice of you,” Yuuri said, not quite hiding the sarcasm.

“What?” Tyler turned to him, looking affronted.

It wasn’t that sarcastic, Yuuri thought. What’s up with him? “I said that was nice of you. Giving me the – ”

Nice?” he shouted.

Yuuri’s breath stuck in his throat. This man was mad. “Well, yes.”

Now Tyler was on his feet, his houppelande falling about him in folds. The look on his face was thunderous. “And you, sir, are a base hedgeborn villain!”

Silence fell immediately as all heads turned their way. Yuuri stared, his fingers poised over the hilt of his sword, while Tyler shoved a hand into a pocket of his cloak, draped over the bench beside him. A second later he pulled out an armoured gauntlet, which he threw dramatically onto the table.

“Come, then, knave – what do you say to that?”

In a daze, Yuuri reached out and picked up the gauntlet, examining it. But as soon as he did, there was a collective gasp from the onlookers, and he heard Victor call his name. Looking to the high table, he watched as Victor vaulted over it, landing at the base of the dais and rushing across the room to him, alarm on every feature.

“What have you done?” he demanded, his eyes on Tyler. Yuuri decided he ought to stand, since the other two men were; and then feeling ridiculous that he was still holding the gauntlet, he put it back down on the table.

“He insulted me,” Tyler replied. “My patience was at an end.”

Yuuri saw that Baron Nikiforov and his wife were in conference. Their expressions could not be more different from their son’s; if anything, they appeared to be pleasantly intrigued. Then the baron stood and said, “This duel, with our honoured guest who provides such entertainment through his skill, shall take place when his majesty the king graces us with his presence here.” His eyes found Yuuri’s. “Sir Justin will therefore have time to prepare, so that he may attempt to put up a worthy fight.”

Yuuri’s heart began to hammer. Duel?

“My lord,” Tyler called across the room, “if it please you, why wait so long? Let me make a spectacle for you now with this knight.” He turned to Yuuri, dark eyes burning.

“Tyler, don’t contradict our fine host,” said the duke, who was sitting next to the baron and now got to his feet as well. “If he believes the king would be impressed with your performance, that would be a great honour indeed.”

After a pause, Tyler replied grudgingly, “Very well. But since this household has already shamed our own knights, and I’ve been treated so deplorably upon this visit, I exercise my right to decree that this duel – ” He shot another venomous look at Yuuri. “ – will be to the death.”

The blood drained from Yuuri’s face, and he grabbed the edge of the table to steady himself. Applause, cheers and hoots broke out in the room. Baron Nikiforov clapped his hands, smiling, while Lady Nikiforov and the duke mirrored his actions.

There would be no running away this time. No mercy, from his opponent or the nobles watching for their pleasure. This knight intended to slaughter him, and the audience were keen to see it happen. But they wanted him to undergo more training first, so that he’d give them a good show. Like…like some captive gladiator. He let out a quiet cry as he began to shake.

“Splendid, splendid; that’s settled, then,” the baron said, sitting down, along with everyone else apart from Victor, Tyler and Yuuri.

No, it really isn’t, Yuuri thought as a wave of nausea swept through him.

“Tyler,” Victor said in a loud voice that made it clear he was addressing the others in the room also, “I offer myself in Justin’s place. Fight me instead.”

Yuuri stared at him in horror. Tyler, too, seemed surprised. “I didn’t challenge you,” he said. “Besides, why would you dishonour your catamite with such a suggestion?” He stressed the strange word, and an angry spark leapt into Victor’s eyes.

“He’s not a catamite. And you’ve had too much to drink, clearly. I’m sure you’ll feel different in the morning.”

“I wouldn’t feel different in a year, or ten, Victor,” Tyler shot back.

“Son, kindly return to your proper place,” called the baron. “Though I’ll thank you to walk this time, instead of springing over the top of the table like a March hare.” There were a few titters at this.

Victor gazed silently at Yuuri, his consternation plain to see. He opened his mouth to speak, then shut it, then glared at Tyler, before crossing the hall to resume his seat next to his father.

The expression on Tyler’s face was a strange mixture of vindication and aggravation, Yuuri thought, before Emil hurried to his side. “I think under the circumstances, sir,” he said in a hushed voice, “no one will mind if you depart from the meal early. In fact, it may be prudent to do so.” When Yuuri didn’t shift straight away, Emil placed a hand on his arm to steer him, and he allowed his feet to move along next to his squire’s while the noises of conversation and the clanking of plates, knives and cups resumed in the great hall. Soon they emerged into the courtyard.

“How the hell did that happen?” Yuuri said, more to himself than to Emil, as they headed toward the garrison. “I don’t understand it. Jesus Christ.”

“Well, you did call him nice, sir. And Sir Tyler was already in distemper. I could see and hear that much from where I was standing.”

“What’s wrong with calling someone nice?”

“Most people would feel insulted by it. I know I would be.”

“You?” Yuuri looked at him in confusion. “Telling someone they’re being pleasant and polite is an insult?”

“Well, no,” Emil answered in equal bewilderment. “But calling someone foolish or stupid is.”

“I said ‘nice’.”

“Yes.”

“Which…which means foolish or stupid?”

“Yes, sir, it does.” Emil was looking at him worriedly as they entered the garrison and carried on to his room. “Would this be part of your memory loss, do you think?”

“I…” For a moment, Yuuri didn’t want to speak another word ever again in this place, lest his meaning be misconstrued in a similarly catastrophic way. He opened his door, walked in, and automatically moved the fire guard, then threw some logs on the embers.

“You also realised that picking up Sir Tyler’s gauntlet was a sign that you were accepting his challenge?” Emil said tentatively.

“No,” Yuuri whispered, looking down at the fire. Though if he’d had just an extra second or two to think about it, he felt sure the phrase “throwing down the gauntlet” would have come to mind, and he would have known.

“Well, not that it matters, sir. If you hadn’t accepted the challenge, you could hardly have come out of the situation with your reputation intact, especially after the insults Sir Tyler returned to you.” He paused. “I really am sorry.”

Yuuri stood quietly for a moment, then said, “How good is he? Maybe if I trained hard enough, like they want me to – ”

Emil huffed, and Yuuri saw pity in his eyes, which told him all he needed to know; but his squire spelled it out anyway.

“Sir Tyler is almost as skilled at combat as Sir Victor. It’s known far and wide. When they spar with each other, it’s a sight to see…I truly am sorry, sir.”


One…two…three. Breathe out.

Again…again.

Not working. Keep trying. Again…

Yuuri clutched at his blanket as he sat huddled on his bed. The flames of the fire in the little room were always calming. Always…but not this time. He pulled a sleeve over his damp forehead. As long as he didn’t think about what had just happened in the great hall; about the fact that he was a dead man walking, unless by some miracle he could vastly improve his skills.

And yet it didn’t matter whether he thought about it or not. The sense of impending doom, of being closed in from all sides; of needing to run, to hide, to protect himself – it was all familiar, all real, always lying in wait for a crisis to bring it to the fore. If he could have crawled into the corner, right through the wall, he would’ve done it.

It was some time before he could begin to regather his thoughts, though it would be longer still before he could give any serious consideration to leaving the room. And whenever the vindictive face of Tyler popped into his head, his pulse threaded again and his heart pounded.

He knew it wasn’t the normal kind of fearful reaction most people had to things. He’d experienced that before; experienced it in this place. The anxiety was more like a broken circuit that couldn’t be fixed, it seemed. You could avoid it for a long time, but you’d inevitably end up blundering across it and get burned.

Broken circuit. What a way to describe a stupid fucking anxiety attack. The worst he’d had in years. But no one here would understand. Coward was what they would call him.

Or maybe I’m just kidding myself. Maybe that’s what I really am.

He wiped a shuddering hand across his face. At least no one could see him here. This attack was probably going to be the first of many, with the duel looming in the not-too-distant future. He had to make sure he was in a private place like this when they struck.

As if the fear and uncertainty involved with trying to find Ailis weren’t bad enough already, there had been the battle with the Duke of Halbrook’s men. Afterwards, part of the Nikiforovs’ own contingent had dug a pit and laid the bodies to rest inside – the three slain Beaumont men, and two men-at-arms from Crowood Castle. Men Yuuri had come across almost daily in the garrison and stable, even if they usually only exchanged greetings. Blood-covered corpses, ghostly pale in the earth. He’d never seen a dead body in real life until then, not even when his own parents had died. A funeral mass had been said in the men’s honour when they’d returned to the castle, this time in the cemetery on the hill, which he and Victor and many others had attended. He knew it had only been a small fight, and that he might well find himself in others while he was here. Was that a fact of life he’d just have to accept, too?

A tremor shook through him and he concentrated on his breathing again, willing the renewed panicky feelings to subside, eyes closed, mind blank. After a while he stared at the flames, and this time it seemed to help. His thoughts, once he picked them up, returned to that day of death; it seemed they weren’t finished yet with dragging him through it again, even though they were re-stoking the anxiety he’d only just begun to quell.

It had felt like a penance, in a way, to treat the men’s injuries with the vodka. Ensuring Victor’s was safeguarded from infection had been of vital importance, and Yuuri had made sure that was taken care of as soon as Emil had mentioned the existence of the wound. But then he’d then faced the dilemma that if he treated other members of their company, word of his unusual methods would spread – possibly all the way to Ailis. In the end, he’d asked Julius and Philip to do it, making them promise not to tell anyone they’d learned from him. To his knowledge, no one had developed infections in the days since they’d returned to the castle, and he’d received Victor’s permission to take a bottle of vodka from the buttery that he could keep to hand in case of emergencies from now on.

Victor had trusted him even though he didn’t understand, and even though the pain caused by the treatment must have been terrible, judging from his reaction, despite the fact that he’d been trying to restrain himself. But now wasn’t the time to indulge in warm feelings about Victor. He himself was in very real danger of losing his life.

That was the fear he’d had the morning Chris had told him he was wanted on the expedition to track down the marauders – fear that he’d end up having to stick a sword into someone’s gut, or that they’d do it to him. Apart from a desire to save his own skin was the worry that if he failed on his mission here, there would be no one left to stop Ailis from doing as she pleased. But he knew it was important to play the part of Justin the knight. No, not play it – live it. That was the only way he could be convincing, and survive, as well as the only way he stood a chance of defending Victor from the fate that was stalking him this year.

When Yuuri had seen him trapped on that bridge, it was the moment he’d been dreading. Recalling it was like reliving a nightmare.

It’s OK to feel this way about it. It’s normal. All these fighters who surround me, they’re used to it; they’ve hardened themselves to it. Even Victor, in a way, though he…he said that it isn’t for him. What must it be like to have no choice, though? Was that why Victor seemed so weighed down sometimes?   

Yuuri’s thoughts returned to the battle, telling him he was not done with it, forcing the terrible memories back; memories he’d been kicking aside since he’d returned to the castle, though they’d been emerging in his fevered dreams. Those eight men had rushed out from the trees lining the road, preventing him from riding forward. He didn’t know how to attack people on foot from on top of a horse, so he’d jumped off and been able to reach the edge of the bridge before he’d encountered a man with a rusty blade and no armour who looked like he hadn’t eaten in a week. Yuuri had forced him to the rail and shoved him over the side into the river, and did the same again to a second attacker before the way was clear for him to join Victor.

I might literally have gone mad for a moment, when I saw what was happening to him. I would’ve killed both those knights, and even those peasants, to save his life.

He trembled and hugged his arms around his chest.

Me. I would’ve done that.

Did that make him a would-be murderer, even though he’d acted in self-defence, or defence of another? But he’d been spared the act in the end, because once the duke’s men had realised the fight had gone against them, they’d quickly surrendered.        

And now Tyler wanted a duel to the death. Almost as skilled at combat as Sir Victor, Emil had said. The little confidence Yuuri had gained from his performance in the fight, moral complications aside, evaporated when he thought about the other more experienced knights who’d been on his side, and the fact that none of the duke’s men present that day were likely to be a match for Tyler’s skills.

Face it, Yuuri – if something else doesn’t kill you in the next four and a half months, this jack will make an end of you. You’d better have your mission accomplished by then. And hope you’ve managed to save Victor’s life, even if you can’t save your own.

But – maybe he already had, by assisting him on the bridge and treating his wound?

He got up, tipped some water into the basin and washed his face with a cloth, then poured himself some weak wine. Sitting down by the fire, he called Phichit. It took him a few minutes to answer.

“Hey, Yuuri. Sorry about the delay. I was in the canteen, but I’m in my office now. How’s it going?”

The friendly voice made him want to laugh and cry at the same time. “What were you eating?” He surprised himself with the absurd question, but suddenly it seemed important.

“I was having an early lunch because I didn’t have any breakfast. I forgot I was out of nutri-pills.”

“Nutri-pills,” Yuuri echoed in a murmur, shaking his head.

“I had a bowl of Thai-style curry. They’re getting better at having international foods, but you know, there’s not much demand because a lot of people don’t want to bother with eating when they’re at work. I miss the flavours sometimes, though, so…”

Yuuri laughed. There was a rough edge to it that he didn’t recognise.

“Is something wrong?”

He let out a choked-off breath.

“Jesus, Yuuri, what is it? What’s happened?”

“Do you…do you know,” Yuuri began, wiping at his eyes, “how nice it is to be called by my real name for once?” Then he caught himself. “Fuck. I said ‘nice’.”

“Yuuri?” Phichit’s voice was full of concern now.

He briefly explained what had just happened with Tyler, accompanied by exclamations of surprise and dismay from his friend. “What use is this flipping translator if it doesn’t translate stuff like that?” Yuuri concluded. “My life depends on this piece of tech. One slip and look what happens.”

“Well, no tech is perfect; you’d be the first person to say that. I guess it must’ve recognised ‘nice’ as a word we still use, though according to the Cloud…yeah, wow. It’s, like, completely changed its meaning over time.”

“And – what’s a catamite?”

“You what?”

Yuuri spelled it out. “I think that’s what he called me. Probably some stupid medieval word for – ”

“A boy kept for homosexual practices,” Phichit said mechanically, presumably reading from the Cloud. “Yuuri, what have you been doing?”

“Nothing!” he blurted. “He was insulting me. I – I think he was hoping I’d agree to fight him then and there.”

“So what are you going to do? The king’s visit is what, in June? Do you think you can take this jack on?”

Yuuri’s broken circuit sparked, reminding him it was primed to start a new attack if he let it. He bit his lip.

“God, I’m so sorry,” Phichit continued. “But look – if it’s any consolation, you’ve already lasted longer than the other scientists we sent, so…”

“Well, now I just have to get good enough to defeat one of the best knights in the land in a little over four months. How hard can it be.”

“Maybe you’ll think of some way to get out of it.”

“Yeah,” Yuuri said, knowing it was highly unlikely unless he could vanish from the castle and Justin’s life. But his Japanese features made it impossible to go around as himself here – and then there was Victor. “Phichit, were you able to check that book with Victor’s death date?” He held his breath as he awaited the response. As soon as he’d returned to the castle from the expedition to find the duke’s men, he’d asked Phichit to find out if the date in the book had altered, daring to hope that history might have been changed that day.

But the long pause was answer enough before he replied, “Uh, I’m sorry, Yuuri, but no, nothing’s changed. I know how important this is to you, though, so I’ve got the book here in my office; I can check it any time you want me to now. Dr. Fay got permission from the minster for us to have it; it was stored away upstairs in this creepy dusty corner. Just, um, remember we don’t know how this works; whether the death date is something that ever will look to us like it’s changed, or whether we’d even be aware of it if it did…if that makes sense.”

“Sure.” He sighed. “Thanks anyway, Phichit.”

“I really am sorry, Yuuri.”

Chapter Text

Everyone’s sorry. Emil, Phichit. Me, too. I’m probably the sorriest knight this castle’s ever seen.

However, no matter how he felt, how close the anxiety still was to the surface – and might always be, from now on – he would eventually have to leave this room. Somehow he’d find a way to carry on, and maybe in time he’d adjust to the idea that he only had a few months to live. Wasn’t that what he’d essentially done anyway, by agreeing to go on this mission?

But finding Ailis isn’t the same as being killed in an arena for a crowd’s entertainment. In front of people who I’ve come to know, and…and care about. Will they feel sorry for me? Disappointed? Will they be able to make themselves watch?

His blood began to race again, and he felt a headache coming on as he poured himself two more cups of wine. The alcohol was weak, and he was only drinking to get liquid into his system, but it was still enough to give him a faint buzz. Somehow that made it easier to face the thought of going out to the field to train. Just like he always did. He’d pretend to everyone like he was taking this in his stride.  

He put on his armour and walked to the stable. There was no sign of Emil yet. Brushing and stroking Lady was a small comfort. “At least you got out of that fight in one piece,” he said to her, running a hand along her silky cream-coloured mane.

Steeling himself as he emerged from her stall, he drew his sword and stared at it in the dull light inside the building. Double-edged, the saying went. It could defend lives. It could take them.

“It’s going to be a long time before people decide carrying weapons around like this isn’t a good idea,” he said quietly.

“Justin! Thank God I’ve found you,” Victor breathed, trotting into the stable. “I was worried when you left the great hall, and I couldn’t talk to you.”

Yuuri’s heart leapt. “I hope you’ve come to tell me that Tyler’s changed his mind about the duel.” But the answer was already clear on Victor’s face.

“No. But I’ll work on that.”

“Why’s he so angry?”

After a pause, Victor answered, “He’s an old friend who…who I had a falling-out with. I expected better of him than this, though. Believe me, I’ll do everything I can to persuade him to change his mind.”

“You said I had promise,” Yuuri said quietly. “I guess we’ll never know now what I might have made of it. I would’ve liked to have seen…” His voice trailed off.

“Don’t talk like that. Maybe you could take him on, if you worked hard. One day. But so soon…well. For now, you’ll need to put everything you’ve got into your training.” He added softly, “I’m sorry.”

Yuuri wondered if this meant he was already offering condolences for his impending death, or if he was blaming himself for what had happened. But before he could think how to respond, Abelard joined them, brown fur cloak bristling, bald hatless pate gleaming.

“Ah, so this is where you’ve run off to,” he said heartily. “The condemned man. Better get some practice in, son – believe me, you’ll need it.”

“Abelard,” Victor said urgently, “don’t hold back while you’re sparring with Justin. Get him used to dealing with everything you’re capable of. And if he wins, he’ll know he’s done it truly.”

“If he wins…?” A crooked grin spread across the Scotsman’s face.


Yuuri threw himself into his training that afternoon, just as Victor had told him. Maybe, he thought, he might be able to achieve something that would boost his confidence and give him a glimmer of hope. But in the end, he felt more dejected than he’d been since he could remember.

He was covered in scratches where Abelard’s sword had got through his defences. His tunic and hose were ripped, his body bruised all over from falls and from being shoved. The only consolation he had was that the Scotsman would be sporting a few scratches and bruises of his own. But Yuuri hadn’t scored a single victory against him. The other fighting men had come and gone in the meantime, including Victor, who perhaps wanted to save himself the pain of watching him take a pummelling. Finally Abelard had declared that enough was enough, and put Yuuri on a ten-mile run around the field in his armour. The heavens had opened halfway through, just to top it all off, and Yuuri had been sodden and shivering as he slogged back to his room to sit in front of the fire, where he allowed himself to shed more tears, knowing no one would see him or judge him for it.

He had an urge to call Phichit, just to talk to him. But what could he say? Phichit already understood the situation, and there wasn’t much he could do about it from where he was.

So he tried turning his fear into anger – at the belligerent Tyler, the bloodthirsty baron, the whole feudal system. But that wasn’t any better, and it just added to his frustration.

I’m not some stupid helpless knight. I wonder what you’d make of who I really am, he thought with Tyler in mind. An outlandish idea suddenly came to him of dressing in all his modern clothes, taking his laser pen, turning his projector off, and bursting into Tyler’s room. He’d have Phichit playing loud shack music over his com while he shot the thin blue light just to the side of the man’s head – though it had not been made as a weapon, of course, and would hurt no one from that distance anyway. I am Yuuri from the future, and I order you to leave Sir Justin Courtenay alone, or you will suffer the consequences when I return. That was what he could say, while the blowhard cringed in terror.

The image made him laugh under his breath, but he had a feeling Tyler would not be completely intimidated even by that scenario. He’d probably still try to come at him with his sword. Then he’d tell everyone in the castle about it, and Ailis would be after him too.

Eventually Emil knocked on the door, and Yuuri, hoping his eyes didn’t look too red-rimmed, admitted him.

“Will you be ready to come to supper soon, sir?”

Yuuri looked into the fire. “I’m not sure I ever want to eat again. Especially in the great hall.”

Emil thought about this, then replied, “I could bring you something to eat here. And I do understand. But I’d also strongly advise that you attend this particular meal, or people will get the impression that you’re, ah…hiding from Sir Tyler.”

Yuuri sighed. He couldn’t care less himself, but his identity as Justin demanded he pay attention to things like reputation and honour.

“It might also be an idea to wear something a bit…well, something a little less plain than your usual garb,” Emil told him. “It’s a feast for the duke. Have you got anything suitable in your wardrobe?”

“I honestly don’t know.”

“Let’s see what we can sort out for you, then. We have a little time yet.”


From what he found in the wardrobe and chest in Yuuri’s room, and from wherever else he’d disappeared to for about fifteen minutes, Emil put together an interesting ensemble. Yuuri wasn’t entirely sure about it as he stared at himself in the mirror. Maybe it would look good on someone else, but these clothes still felt like costumes to him. He was wearing a figure-hugging royal-blue tunic with small round silver buttons down the front. A black felt circular collar resting on his shoulders, trimmed in a trefoil design and edged with shimmering silver. A black felt hat with a short brim that curled up at the edges. And it took some persuading from Emil, but he’d agreed to wear red hose with the feet attached; they had leather soles on the bottom, while the toes were stuffed with something stiff at the end and came to a point that jutted out a short distance.

“I daresay you look very fetching, sir,” Emil commented. “The tunic and hose flatter your shape, and you’ll forgive me for saying the hat is rather more stylish that the ordinary one you wear. The collar sets it all off very well.”

Yuuri suddenly felt like he was standing in the changing room of some upmarket boutique, with the salesperson fawning over him. “Don’t you get to dress up, too?” he asked Emil, looking at his maroon cap, white shirt and brown hose.

“I must dress according to my station, sir. I can’t upstage the knights, though I can help you look your best. Those clothes do suit you.”

Yuuri wasn’t particularly concerned about how he looked just now, but he thanked Emil for his help and accompanied him to the great hall, where he was placed next to Chris, Tyler being seated at a table across the room with some of the senior castle officials. Five musicians sat underneath the large central candelabra, quietly playing something ambient. Yuuri had come to enjoy this kind of accompaniment to a meal, but tonight he didn’t know how he would be able to eat anything. Appearances, everything was about appearances. You showed your face at the communal meal. You dressed the part. The memory came to him of ordering takeaway meals in his own time and having them delivered by drone to his flat. That was when he wasn’t doing his own cooking, or taking nutri-pills. All of it such a world away.

Victor was resplendent in his scarlet shirt with gold embroidery, but there was not a trace of a smile on his face during the meal, though his features seemed to soften when Yuuri caught him looking his way – if he wasn’t just imagining it. Tyler simply glowered.

Despite a huge selection of Fernand’s fine dishes, Yuuri was hardly able to eat a morsel. He and Chris mostly dined in silence, the knowledge of the upcoming duel and his probable demise present and unspoken between them. During the final course, however, Chris commented on the enjoyable the songs the musicians had been playing, and the wine, which was flavoursome and strong, certainly not watered down. Clearly no expense was spared when there was an important visitor at the castle.

Yuuri was keen to get back to the privacy of his room, and pulled his cloak on to leave when the nobles got up from the high table – only to realise that a dance was going to take place next, and he would therefore be expected to participate. He’d ended his sessions with Monica, deciding there was little left to be learned, and he knew the simple moves required; that wasn’t the problem.

The problem was that it was the very last thing he wanted to do after Tyler’s challenge, the anxiety attack, the disheartening conversation with Victor, and the disastrous practice with Abelard. “Emil,” he murmured when his squire came near with the wine jug, “is there any way I could leave without having to dance? I left dinner early, after all, so maybe – ”

“That’s true, sir,” Emil said, refilling his cup, “but it was more a matter of separating you and Sir Tyler so that nothing more violent occurred. However, I think your absence from the banquet would be noted, and it could be taken by the Beaumonts as a further slight. If you’re well enough, I strongly suggest you attend the dance, and leave afterward with your head held high.”

Yuuri glanced around the room, heart racing. As the musicians struck up the introduction to a carol, the urge to escape was almost overpowering. But then his eyes alit on his cup. Recalling the buzz the beer had given him earlier, he grabbed it and downed its contents.

“Put the jug on the table next to me,” Yuuri told his squire. “I’m thirsty.” And he poured himself another cupful, which he quickly polished off.

By the time he got up to join the other dancers, he was warm and tingling, his thoughts spiralling away. He welcomed the oblivion.     


“I need to speak to you,” Victor said. He’d managed to catch Tyler just as he was leaving his room down the hall. The sun was up, and the duke was going to want to be on his way soon.

Tyler turned to his squire. “Meet me at the stable shortly.” Then to Victor, as the young man departed, he said, “I’m not sure I have anything to say to you. Unless you’ve stopped me because you intend to apologise.”

Victor wrinkled his brow. “Me? You’re the one who challenged my fellow knight to a duel yesterday.”

“Richly deserved. And our parents were most pleased, didn’t you see?”

“I was hoping you weren’t serious.” Victor tried to keep any note of pleading out of his voice. “The drinks were strong all day. I thought maybe – ”

“I can handle my drink.” Tyler snorted. “Unlike some people who can’t seem to live with the knowledge that they’ll be dead in a few months’ time. What did he get up to after you dragged him off to the garrison last night? Was it messy? I hope he was as sick as a dog.”

Victor wondered if he’d ever been angrier with anyone than he was with Tyler in this moment. How could I have counted you as a friend? How misguided could I have been? He supposed jealousy might bring out the worst in people. But he’d struggled to sympathise with Tyler since he’d challenged Justin to the duel. And now this.

“He wouldn’t be a match for you,” he said, his voice low and steady. “Give it up, or – fight me. You’re not afraid, are you?”

Tyler huffed. “I love sparring with you. I always did. But no…no, I don’t want one of us to kill the other,” he said more softly. “I’d never want that.” After a pause, he added, “What did I do to make you reject me like you did?”

“I wasn’t rejecting you. I told you I didn’t want to sleep with you anymore. Or with anyone I don’t…don’t love.”

“And what, you love him?” Tyler looked at him like he’d taken leave of his senses.

Victor thought about this for a moment. “I told you, we’re not in a relationship. You’re making many assumptions. You’re also threatening to kill a good, kind person, and a talented knight, for no justifiable reason.”

Tyler’s eyebrows shot up and he let out a loud laugh. “Where do I even start with that, Victor? Justin ‘le Savage’, good and kind? And talented? Not from what I could see while he was running away from you in the arena. Your feelings for him must have addled your brains. God only knows what you see in him.”

“You wouldn’t understand,” Victor muttered.

“Well I understand this much. He insulted me. You insulted me. How fitting that I should remove your little treasure from the earth.” He took a quick shaky breath. “I do not expect you to try and stop me again.” And with a final glare, he turned and left, and Victor was staring down the empty hall.  

Not wishing to make a spectacle of himself lest his mother or father appear, he returned to his room and sank into a chair.

“Justin,” he whispered, resting his forehead in his hand. But there was still time. It was too early to lose hope; many things could yet happen.

Though all these troubles could have been prevented if he’d been more careful with Tyler. Had he really been so wrapped up in himself not to realise that the man had feelings for him – that his words would be construed as a rejection, and that they would hurt?

What an idiot I’ve been.

Victor poured himself a cup of weak beer from the silver pitcher on the table.

Justin, I’m so sorry. This is all my fault.

I’m only just learning about all the different facets of you. Each one is wonderful and exciting. To watch your light snuffed out by this jealous monster I’ve unleashed…I couldn’t bear it. He drank his beer and stared vacantly across the room.

Intending to have further conversation with Justin after Abelard had finished with him, he’d unfortunately been called away by John de Lacey, who had escorted him to a conference with his father and other senior castle officials where they hoped to ensure the Beaumont business was thoroughly dealt with. But Victor had paid little attention, because he’d seen the frustration on Justin’s face when Abelard had defeated him time and time again. Surely he couldn’t expect to beat Abelard in sparring straight away, not when Victor had instructed the Scotsman to give no quarter.

Fortunately, last night was evidence that Justin wasn’t taking the situation as badly as Victor had feared. As soon as he’d got enough drink in him, you wouldn’t have thought he was worried about Tyler at all. He’d even been able to make Victor forget, for a while. And, surprisingly, Victor couldn’t recall the last time he’d had so much fun. He’d never seen that side of Justin before; never even suspected it existed.

I was so lost in you. I wonder if you knew.

A little grin played on his lips as those fizzing emotions came back to him. Justin, so elegant in his new clothes and the way he moved, an arm around his waist, a warm smile. Sparkling eyes. Whatever colour they were; Victor was never really sure.

Justin had also made a request. Bold and yet sensible. Victor wondered why he hadn’t thought of it himself. But it just might work. Even in the sober light of day, his enthusiasm remained undiminished.

And there was no better time to start than now, even if his lovely knight was nursing a hangover; cold air and exercise would soon remedy that. He finished his beer, threw on his cloak and hurried out the door – to the garrison, and to Justin.


Bodies in a pit. Marble-cold limbs at crazy angles, blood congealed. Eyes staring up at nothing. Soldiers waiting with spades to throw earth over them. The grim victors of the battle.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” came the practised, soothing voice of a woman. It echoed despite the still outdoor air. People approached the yawning brown cavern of earth, silhouetted against the flat white sky, carrying a burden on their shoulders.

Don’t look.

“It’s always difficult when something like this happens, but at your age particularly. It’s normal for it to raise some very strong and confusing feelings.”

Another soldier’s body to throw into the pit? He’d be able to see clearly now, if he willed his eyes to move.

Don’t.

“Or, at other times, you might find you feel nothing at all. And that can be confusing and upsetting, too.”

Behind the two people carrying the body were two more with a similar burden. Was it some kind of procession? He thought they were ready to bury everyone who’d died in the battle…did they have families…why had they fought? For what? And who were these, the freshly dead being brought here?

“I’m here to help you, Yuuri. And I hope, in time, you’ll decide you want to work with me. You may be surprised at how much good it can do to talk. Your sister Mari agreed…”

Don’t look, don’t think, don’t talk. Get away, just get away.

This is not happening, it can’t be happening.

He no longer knew who was thinking what. Thirteen-year-old Yuuri. Twenty-four-year-old…Justin. But he did know he wanted to run, had to run, and that strange paralysis had hold of him, and all he could do was stand and stare and await what was coming, even as he quailed.

I can’t handle what’s approaching. It’s going to kill me.

He’d been thirteen when he’d had his first anxiety attack. Not long…not long after.

This may sound surprising, but it can help to view the deceased, even though it hurts. It can give a sense of closure; help you to realise in your heart that they are –

Don’t look.

But Yuuri had no choice.

The first pair of silent silhouettes tossed their burden into the pit. A Japanese man in a white silk shirt with a tiny gold dragon on the pocket, a gesture to fashion, though you wouldn’t be able to make out what it was from a distance. Yuuri didn’t need to, because he knew it was there; had seen it and run his fingers over it and nestled against it.

Whoever cleaned up his face didn’t get all the blood off. Careless.

He desperately needed the tears to come, but they wouldn’t. And then the second pair came, and with a soft thud a woman landed near the man, her dark hair half-plastered to her face.

That’s wrong. She’s so proud of her hair, and no one thought to tidy it for her. Give her some dignity. Give her some fucking dignity.

He needed to go down there and smooth it away from her forehead, the silky strands that always smelled vaguely of the flowery shampoo she used. To feel it, to bury his face in it. Bury…

Get rid of it, get rid of it all, Yuuri wanted to say to the soldiers gathered at the side of the pit. Start shovelling. I can’t bear to look at it. Make it so that it never happened, so that it isn’t real.

“Room for one more?” a voice called, approaching from the side.

Yuuri tried to turn, to move. Frozen tears, frozen feet, frozen heart.

“Does it upset you to see it? Don’t worry. I’ll help – I’ll send you to join them.”

The slide of metal against leather. Discovering his feet had suddenly been freed, Yuuri wheeled round and encountered the full fury of a knight – a knight who hated him for some unknown reason, who wanted to see him dead; was swinging his sword in a high arc, putting all his strength behind it, bringing it down…

Yuuri tried to step away – but somehow he’d got the direction wrong, and his foot met empty air. He was falling, falling into the pit, joining the dead – and Tyler, sword raised, was leaping in after him –

With a shout, Yuuri fell out of bed, blanket tangled around him, floor hard and cold. He was shaking, sweating, his thoughts muffled by what he’d just seen – and the sword descending upon him at the end, ready to make him into another denizen of the pit, with his parents and the soldiers; one of the dead.

Tears streaming, head pounding, aching inside and out, he realised he was going to be sick. There was no time to grope for a candle and light it against an ember. Arms outstretched, he traversed the route to the door, felt for the latch, then raced through and into the hall, shrouded in deep darkness. He’d gone between his room and the garderobe many times by now, but had never tried it without being able to see.

Oh God. If someone’s already in there – fucking hell, please let it be empty –

He made it with seconds to spare. Knees trembling, hand braced against the cold wall, an icy draught sinking from where a glimmer of pre-dawn light limned the slitted window, he took his time, wondering if it was possible to feel any more wretched.  

Eventually groping his way back to his room, he sat down on his bed. A brightening sliver shone around the shutters. But the coming of this day brought no comfort, no hope.

Pulling the blanket around him, he continued to shiver. Splinters of memory from the night before lodged in his brain. He’d needed to get out of the great hall, but instead he was expected to dance, and he’d guzzled the wine in some stupid attempt to calm himself. He couldn’t remember anything after that. But if he’d stood on the tables singing, or done some idiotic jig, the embarrassment of that was nothing compared to –  

A duel to the death.

A lmost as skilled at combat as Sir Victor. It’s known far and wide.

And then his dream had linked it to…God, he couldn’t think of it. But the images were still fresh in his mind. His head pounded as he shook.

I can’t stay here. I…I’ve got to get out. Before anyone comes looking for me, before they see me and expect me to go anywhere. Now. Away.

With trembling fingers, he pulled on a tunic and hose. Then from the bottom of the wardrobe he removed a large leather bag with a shoulder strap which had come with Lady from the Courtenays’ castle, and was obviously meant to carry things for travelling. He took the time-travel sphere and coins and toolkit from under the floorboard, and after a moment’s thought changed clothes, putting on his modern athletic wear, white mud-stained trainers and coat. His body was the safest place for them; it would be foolish to leave them behind, and accidents could happen to bags. The projector could make it look like he was wearing the medieval clothes he’d just removed.

While he was unfolding his coat, he received the most unlooked-for reminder of home when a ballpoint pen and a small pad of paper fell out of one of the deep pockets. Hardly anyone used them anymore in his time, but he remembered Celestino taking them out of his office desk and handing them over, saying they might come in useful. 

So useful that I forgot I even had them. He shoved them back into the pocket.

Then he tried to think what else he should take with him. His head was fuzzy and at the same time felt like it was splitting in two. Clothes, start with clothes – including boots, cloaks, a hat. Toiletries – a bar of soap, a cloth, the razor, the jar of toothpaste, his comb. Glancing across the mantel, he saw candles – not required for a horse journey, surely – and a lantern, which he also shouldn’t need, though it was probably best to be prepared with some kind of light source, so he picked it up anyway.

And…the hand warmer. He reached out to touch it, though of course it was cold now. Victor had said he was welcome to keep it in his room and use it when he wanted. He’d been hoping they could share it again. It didn’t seem right to take it away, somehow.

At the thought of Victor, his throat hitched and he hung his head, gripping the mantel.

How can I leave him? How?

I don’t know how long I’ll be away. I just have to get out of here. If I stay, I…I’ll keep having anxiety attacks. And if anyone can take care of themselves, it’s him.

He doesn’t know about his death date, though.

I promised I’d protect his life with my own. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.

I’m getting too close to him. We can’t have a relationship, or a future. And it might be impossible to prevent him from dying this year. There’s no way to know.

A tear dropped onto the stone hearth.

And Ailis…maybe I stand to get more news of her somewhere else; a place where people talk. She’ll be more guarded here at the castle. If she actually even is here, and I still don’t know that.

He pulled his bag over his shoulder and trotted out of the garrison into the faint leaden light of early morning, misty breaths puffing out. Alfric the porter was raising the portcullis, and Yuuri passed him wordlessly on his way down the hill to the stable. There wasn’t a soul about, thankfully, and he began preparing Lady for the journey. His fingers trembled and he glanced around frequently, fearing he’d be interrupted at any moment by someone who would demand to know what he was doing.

They wouldn’t understand. I can’t stay here.

He’d never felt the conviction so strongly in his life that if he didn’t escape, he’d smother or drown, pressed in on all sides. And yet when he thought of Victor, he felt a wrenching pull back toward the castle, and a nauseating wave of guilt.

He deserves better than me. I make a mess of everything.

Once I’ve had time to calm down and think, maybe I’ll have an idea of what to do next. For now…

He secured Lady’s saddle, then took some food for her in a canvas bag and tied it to the back, along with one of the full beer sacks hanging on the wall. Thankfully the stable boys always kept provisions ready here in case anyone had to depart in a hurry.

Leading Lady out of the stall, Yuuri suddenly realised he’d left all his armour in the chest in his room. He wondered if he ought to retrieve it.

Someone might see me; they all get up at dawn. And besides, where I’m going, I probably won’t need it.

Victor…

He swallowed, then leapt into the saddle and guided Lady on her way.

Chapter Text

Mist hugged the dales as Yuuri approached the Ouse. Patches of shifting white hung over its wide grey waters. There was no path here – presumably if anyone wanted to follow the river, they just got on a boat – but the ground was relatively flat and easy for a horse to traverse at the water’s edge. Boats with oars and sails, and even ships, occasionally passed in both directions, laden with barrels, chests, amphorae, boxes and sacks. No one paid a lone rider any mind.

With little to occupy his thoughts, Yuuri found that they continued to drift back to the nightmare. Or the sorry physical state he’d landed himself in due to his drinking the night before; he’d had to stop once and dismount so he could be sick again. For a moment he found himself missing Mari, and wanted nothing more than to be hugged by her and told that everything would be OK, even if she didn’t really know. Mari…the voice in his dream had mentioned her.

Karen’s voice, of course. The grief counsellor he’d been assigned when his parents had died. He’d never been able to think of anything she’d said to him that had been wrong, as such; but it was the way she talked, the tone of voice she used, that had always seemed off somehow. No wonder it had ended up in his dream, along with all the other horrors. It had felt like she was talking to a generic person rather than making a genuine connection with him, which he’d thought was supposed to be the whole basis of the relationship. He’d had the option of choosing someone else to see, but in the end he’d decided he didn’t want anyone at all, and he and Mari had worked things through together. That hadn’t been without its problems – his tendency to want to disappear into Immersion had been the basis for many arguments, for example – but they’d shared a loss, and the healing as well, to a degree. Eventually Yuuri felt like he was fully in touch with his emotions again, and the tears finally came; and together with Mari he’d set up a butsudan that would remind them of the people who would always remain an important part of their lives.

If I’d healed as much as I thought, I wouldn’t still be having nightmares.

Though it was the first he could remember in years. And he knew what had set it off. It was still eating at the back of his sore head now. His date with death, dealt by a man he’d never meant to offend, while most everyone else eagerly awaited the entertaining spectacle. A shiver passed through him.

Stop thinking about it. You’ll give yourself another attack. He kept his eyes on the peaceful flowing waters alongside him. A kestrel hovered over a field, and he heard the click of claws as a red squirrel scurried up a tree trunk. An idyllic landscape. That was what Sam had told him to do when he was anxious – find something calm, solid or enduring and focus his thoughts on that. Sometimes it worked. Fire was especially good, though he never quite understood why. Especially a small one to warm yourself by on a cold night. But a merry flame crackling in the grate wasn’t going to soothe him out of the problems he was facing now.

Sam. Yuuri hadn’t seen him in years. When he and Mari realised the anxiety could get bad enough to be crippling at times, he’d tried the counselling route again, this time with more success. He’d gone in with high hopes – a problem, a specialist, problem solved – which had been a mistake; there was no getting rid of those panicky feelings, though there were ways to try to manage them. However, Sam had been easy to talk to, and it felt like he cared.

In fact, the thing he’d ended up helping Yuuri the most with hadn’t been that particular problem at all, but in coming to terms with his sexuality. Yuuri had ignored that part of himself because he’d only ever wanted to explore it in the context of a romantic relationship, and he’d never had one. Eventually he’d become comfortable with it on his own, even though he’d never so much as kissed a real person. Maybe it was a strange situation, and maybe he wouldn’t be as good at those things with another person as he hoped, if his general social proficiency was anything to go by. But Sam had helped him to feel more like a normal, acceptable human being. Yuuri thought he’d probably be disappointed to see that standards had slipped in the past few years, and there were things himself he still didn’t like.

He didn’t like the fact that he was heading away from the castle now. That he didn’t know how else to cope with the feelings of claustrophobia and doom that had swept through him. That he’d made it worse by drinking himself sick; though as the morning wore on, that was gradually easing. I just need some space and I’ll work things out, he kept telling himself, but he wasn’t sure how far he believed it.

When he reckoned it was about midday, and his stomach had settled to the point where he felt hungry, he visited a village he’d spied in the near distance and tied Lady outside a whitewashed tavern there with a painted wooden sign featuring a plough. A few of his coins bought him bread, cheese, pottage and beer. The tables and stone-flagged floor were clean and tidy, and the air smelled of coal smoke, roasting meat, and something yeasty that suggested a brewery on site. Sitting at a wooden table, cutting slices of bread and dipping them in the stew, and watching the other humble-looking guests of the establishment, Yuuri got the strange feeling that he was in the middle of a Swords and Sorcery game, and when he emerged he would see dragons and elves and wizards.

The desire to share the experience with Phichit suddenly hit him as he mopped up the last of the stew, and his heart lurched. Phichit, Ailis, Tyler, Victor…training, duels, policing the countryside; it was all there, just below the surface. Now wasn’t the time to churn it up again. He knew he had to concentrate on completing the rest of his journey if he were to arrive before sunset.

He’d decided to travel to York, since he’d heard it was only a day’s ride away. A good place to lose himself, perhaps, and maybe a good one to find work for a while too, so his own supply of coins wouldn’t shrink too far. In addition, he knew the Ouse would lead him there, which meant the lack of maps and road signs wouldn’t be a problem. It would be all right, he told himself; the break he needed in order to keep a more permanent lid on the anxiety.

In reality, however, he knew it was unlikely to be so simple. He also knew that while he’d gained some confidence in negotiating this strange world of the past by living at the castle for almost two months, going to a city with the intent of working there would be something else entirely.

After resuming his journey, the first indication that he was approaching his destination was the changing nature of the breeze blowing over the river. Before York was even in sight, the uses it made of the main body of water that flowed through its heart were clear: a sewer-like odour drifted from it, which intensified as Yuuri continued north. He caught glimpses of what he assumed to be rubbish that had washed up along the banks: pieces of broken crockery, animal bones, and entrails and rotting meat; not exactly in profusion, but off-putting enough for him to move Lady further to the east of the river.

Not long after this, the grey stone city walls emerged over the horizon, and – two castles? One on either side of the river. Yuuri had only been aware of the one on the east bank, and little remained of that in his time. He guided Lady to a stop and stared. It felt for a moment like he’d been on a trip to modern York and had suddenly encountered its newly resurrected ruins, solid and imposing. Though of course this land outside the walls had been urbanised long before, as the city had grown beyond its original confines.

He spied a couple of men pulling a wooden cart toward the river; when they reached the water’s edge, they tipped it and dumped its heap of brown contents, then pulled it away. Yuuri’s stomach turned. York had maybe 12,000 people at this time, he remembered reading at the museum when he’d visited with Phichit. It didn’t seem like much compared to modern cities, but was second in size only to London; and with no sewer network or sanitary methods of waste disposal, maybe coming here hadn’t been such a good idea after all. What had he been thinking?

That I needed to get away from the castle. I couldn’t very well go live on somebody’s farm, could I?

I’m sure it won’t be that bad.

A major tributary joined the Ouse before he reached the walls: the Foss, a smaller river that also ran through the city. Though he knew he needed to leave the waterways altogether if he were going to find a way in, because there wasn’t one from here; the castles were there to keep people out. He recalled that the nearest major gate would be Walmgate Bar, the way he usually entered in his own time, and his heart fluttered as he wondered what it would be like in 1393.

With the crenellated wall perched on the mound to his left a short distance away, and the metal helmets of an occasional pair of guards crossing the sky in silhouette, Yuuri headed east, through fields and stands of trees. Soon he came to the Norman church that stood on the main road in his own time; it was little changed from now, with its tall spire and rows of many small arched windows. A pair of brown-robed tonsured monks entered through the front doors, and as Yuuri passed, the silence was shattered by bells pealing in the tower, with echoing rings from different locations inside the city. He guessed he was hearing the bells for vespers, which meant it was not quite four o’clock.

The main road to the gate was wider and busier than any other he’d seen. There were people like himself on horses, individuals and groups on foot, and many sizes of carts and wagons, both coming and going. He supposed it wasn’t so different from the modern city he knew, apart from the colourful flowing clothes and lack of motorised vehicles. However, he changed his mind when he was close enough to the gate to get a good view.

Had he really thought of it as fairytale-like the last time he’d come here? How could he have been so fucking clueless? If anything, it was the kind of fairytale in which they’d shove someone into a barrel full of spikes and roll them down a hill. Because poles were fixed to the top of the gate on which blackened heads had been stuck, jaws frozen in grimaces or dropping open in a silent scream, vacant eye sockets staring into some endless private hell. Yuuri gasped, clapping a hand to his mouth, and steered Lady to the side of the road, where he could remain still without being jostled.

Oh my god. Jesus…

Get a grip, Yuuri. You knew they did this kind of thing.

But nothing had prepared him for the reality. Worse still, hanging on ropes from the top of the tall pointed Gothic arch that formed the entryway were severed arms and legs with tattered remains of clothing still attached. And these travellers were walking underneath it all as if it were as regular a part of their surroundings as field and river, wall and house.

Maybe it is. I guess if I went through this gate or one of the others often enough, I’d just try to forget about it, too.

Keeping his eyes averted from the horrors on display in front of him, he rejoined the traffic on the road, slowly guiding Lady forward. Eventually he came to a standstill while he waited for a guard to come speak to him, as they were doing with the other travellers before admitting them through the gate.

Some things never change, even in hundreds of years. The British still love standing in a fucking queue.

And being told what to do by an official. A guard in a black cloak and helmet approached him, signalling for him to dismount. Yuuri did so, wondering what this was all about. If he’d thought about it, however, he ought to have realised he wouldn’t be allowed to simply walk through the gate without hindrance, as he was used to doing in his own time. All of these fortifications had been built for a reason, and it wasn’t to look picturesque.

“State your name and your business.”

“J – uh, John,” Yuuri said quickly, realising he should have come prepared with this kind of information. “I’m just visiting the city for a while.”

“Got kinfolk here, have you?”

“No.” Yuuri doubted he’d heard the word tourist before, and had no idea if the translator would do anything with it. “I’ve just never been here, and wanted to see it.”

The man regarded him with a pair of bored grey eyes. “I take it you’re not a freeman of the city, then.”

“What’s – um, no, I’m not.”

“Fine,” the guard said with a sigh. “Murage and pavage then, please.” He held out a hand, palm up.

“I’m sorry?”

“A penny each.”

“What – I have to pay to enter?”

The guard gave a surprised little smile. “The city’s defences and roads don’t pay for themselves. I would’ve thought a fellow like you would be used to it. Two pennies, or turn around and go back where you came from.” He gestured with his upturned hand.   

“Give me a minute.” Yuuri stuffed his gloves in a pocket and rummaged in his coin purse, finding two pennies, which he then handed over.

“Stay off your horse ’til you’re on the other side of the far gate. Have a pleasant visit, sir.” The man put the money in a purse on his belt and moved on to the traveller behind Yuuri.

This is like waiting to enter a medieval theme park, complete with gruesome props.

The people in front of him shuffled forward, and Yuuri closed his eyes as he walked under the dangling arms and legs and into the stone passage between the outer and inner gates. Looming ahead of him was the double-turreted tower he knew well, though men with bows were stationed at the crenellated tops. At least there were no more severed body parts in sight as he passed through the second gate and into the city.

It took a moment for the crowd to disperse; he led Lady to the left, out of the stream of traffic through the gate, and took stock of his surroundings. A wide cobbled street. This area had been thoroughly modernised in his time, and he wouldn’t know where he was if it hadn’t been for the gate and the castle on its hill to the west. Rows of tall houses lined either side, many of them half-timbered, of wattle and daub or brick, gabled with slate or tile roofs, in some cases sloping downward until they were almost at head height. Most windows were shuttered against the cold, though a few containing glass offered glimpses into dark wood-panelled interiors. York had always been famous for its well-preserved remaining medieval buildings, and Yuuri had seen the streets of Kirkby Hallam, of course. But this was on a different scale entirely.

“I wonder who lives in all these places,” he muttered as he gave a gentle tug on the bridle, deciding to stay on foot for now while there were so many people around. It was a bewildering assortment: Men and women in woollen cloaks and the head-covering caps with strings like Emil wore, which he’d learned were called coifs, pulled carts, or had ponies or oxen to do it, many heading toward the gate; if they’d come to sell their goods, it looked like most of them had succeeded. Clergymen passed by, crucifixes and rosaries dangling from their belts. A man in a rich fur coat and red chaperon glided past, a falcon poised on his leather-gloved hand, while a woman in similar finery walked beside him with her own bird of prey. Children of different ages ran back and forth, some playing, some accosting travellers to offer rooms or beds for the night. Their clothes and shoes were worn, their hair tousled, faces dirty. A pig and two skinny dogs sniffed at something in a corner, while shouts echoed from further down the street: “Rushes fair and green, best prices in the city!”

Struggling to take it all in, Yuuri continued on his way. The houses soon gave over to a dizzying variety of shops, tightly packed together in small street-front premises. Many had a sign with a picture of what was sold there, like a knife or a candle, while others displayed three-dimensional objects such as a wheat sheaf or a barrel. Yuuri wasn’t sure what all of them meant, but any confusion was soon cleared up when the goods could be glimpsed in the shop window, or on display on a table outside. If he had plenty of money to spare, he was sure he could spend all day shopping and only experience a little of what the city had to offer. But he hadn’t even decided on where he was going yet, apart from instinctively following roads that led to the heart of the city. There were no street signs, but the layout was familiar to him, and when he came to a bridge, he knew it spanned the River Foss.

Wide and made of wood, it supported a row of leaning buildings on each side that appeared to be dwellings. Living on a bridge – ? Well, why not? When he attempted to continue forward, however, he noticed a pair of guards who were stopping people before they could cross; a small stone gatehouse nearby appeared to be their headquarters. As Yuuri expected, he was again asked for money, this time a “pontage” toll for the upkeep of the bridge; and he wondered how many more of these types of fees there would be while he was here.

A small crowd entered and exited the jumble of houses, and also what were clearly privies, if the smell was anything to go by. Yuuri was relieved that it wasn’t too noisome, until he realised why: the structures were suspended above the river. Jesus Christ, he thought, wondering if the boatmen passing below knew enough to avoid that particular area. Maybe that was why he’d seen roof-like covers on some of the vessels.

Toward the end of the bridge, he was assailed by another potent odour, as market stalls were being shut for the day; they’d been selling fish. Heads, bones, tails and guts had fallen onto tables and the bridge itself, and gulls were flocking to devour them. Yuuri was fighting nausea down by the time he was clear of the place.

A woman in a white turban walked up to him, carrying a wicker basket fastened to her front with straps that went around her shoulders. “Pie, sir?” she offered.

“What’s in them?” Yuuri asked out of pure curiosity, since the last thing he wanted to do was eat.

“The finest eel, sir, caught fresh today.”

He politely declined and continued onward through the crowds, beginning to wish he were in his little room at the castle, sitting in front of the fire.

I made my decision. I came here for a reason. The last time I was in my room, I felt worse than I’ve felt in years. I’m not ready to go back to that.

With a start, he realised he was standing at the bottom of the Shambles; he recognised the buildings here. Wandering forward, he entered the shade between the leaning edifices. But his hopes of a pleasant predecessor to the modern artisanal shops and eateries he knew were soon dashed, for this was a butchers’ row. Wooden counters offered pink and red cuts of meat, as well as more esoteric things Yuuri had partaken of during meals at the castle: sheep’s feet, pig’s heads and trotters, calf’s brains. More cuts of meat – legs and sausages, mostly – were hanging on hooks from horizontal beams below the eaves. Some of the shopkeepers were closing for the day, having taken their goods inside, and were sweeping disgusting messes out their doors and into the street. Underlying the aroma of woodsmoke here was a sickly-sweet hint of decay.

Yuuri forced himself to carry on up the steep road, though he didn’t inspect the meats, or the messes in the street, too carefully. Wondering what kind of establishment occupied the building that was The Eagle in his own time, he walked with Lady to Low Petergate – and discovered to his surprise that it was The Eagle. A sign at the front showed as much, and he spied people with tankards at wooden tables when the door was opened.

“OK, that’s pretty juke,” he muttered to himself. “Stay here, girl. I’ll be back in a minute.” He hitched Lady to a nearby post and went inside to make enquiries, feeling almost as if he’d returned home when he noticed the large arched brick hearth with a fire blazing – the same one he’d sat next to with Phichit that night not so long ago. Or 728 years in the future, however you wanted to look at it.

The proprietor behind the bar, a middle-aged man in a white coif with a full beard and curly brown hair hanging to his neck, told him he had a room to spare for a gent such as himself, and that there were stables nearby on Goodramgate where his horse would be well looked after. Yuuri took her there, finding it similar to the stable at the castle, though not as big; and then shouldered his bag, wondering what to do before he returned to the tavern. The sun was quickly westering, the shadows cast by the tall buildings throwing the streets into deep gloom.

Maybe he had time to visit one more place, he decided. He retraced his way back to The Eagle and passed it, following the street to the northwest. Rising between the rows of shops and houses, down the road in the near distance, were the two west towers of the great Gothic minster, the stone motifs at their tops looking from a distance like filigree points on a crown. They disappeared briefly behind the nearby buildings as Yuuri walked – only to suddenly re-emerge in mammoth splendour, many times the height of a person, the edifice dwarfing its surroundings as it still did in Yuuri’s day; its golden stone glowed in the setting sun. As he circled round, he was surprised to see that the massive central tower was capped by a high wooden spire, of which it had obviously been denuded before modern times.

The crowds on the streets were finally thinning at the end of the day, and groups of people were filing out of the minster’s huge wooden doors. Pilgrims, maybe? It was hard to say. Yuuri thought it would be interesting to have a look inside, but perhaps another time when there was plenty of daylight. They probably locked it up at night, he guessed.

He remembered to clutch his bag against his body in case of thieves while he walked, gawking upwards; but what he didn’t do was mind where he was going. Something suddenly impeded his progress, and he looked down to see he’d bumped into a wooden table, one of several in a line. More people selling goods; if there weren’t shops around, then there were tables and stalls peppered everywhere, it seemed. Though Yuuri had only traversed the main roads so far, and he knew it might well be a different story if he’d taken any of the dark turns onto narrow dirt roads and alleyways that he’d glimpsed.

“Sir, God keep you!” the woman behind the table greeted him. She looked to be in her fifties, with a white cap and long grey cloak, underneath which was a dark green dress with sleeves that gapped at her wrists. She had pink cheeks, freckles, and grey eyes with fine laugh lines at the corners.

Yuuri took a closer look at the wares on the table – a scattering of stoppered glass and ceramic bottles, small wooden boxes, scrolls, and other knick-knacks. “Hi,” he said, suddenly feeling ridiculous. He was just about to tell her he wasn’t interested in buying anything when she pre-empted him.

“If you’re here for a pilgrimage, good sir, you need look no further for something special to take home with you. I have a large assortment of relics and holy items that will surely amaze you.”

Surely not. “Um – ”

“They each come with a tag of authenticity.” She picked up a small wooden box whose lid had been crudely painted in the style of a stained-glass window, featuring a haloed face. “A chip from a tooth of St. Andrew,” she leaned forward and whispered, brandishing the box. “Or…” She put it down and picked up another box, this one long and narrow, stained and varnished a mahogany colour. “A fragment of the true cross.”

“Where did you get all this?”

“On a trip to Jerusalem, sir. And on my travels in our own country. I have many connections.”

“Presumably they do, too,” he said, glancing at the people selling similar items at other tables.

“I’m not sure I can vouchsafe for the authenticity of their wares,” she said in a low conspiratorial voice. “But ask anyone here, and they’ll tell you that Mistress Audrey is trustworthy and true. That’s me, sir, and you’ll get a bargain besides – I’ll put in one of these rosaries for free with whatever relic you buy.” She picked up a string of pink beads with a silver cross dangling at the end.

“I really don’t think – ”

“Ah now, sir, you force my hand. The most miraculous item of all on this table might just catch your interest, I fancy.” She lifted a blue bottle as if it were infinitely precious and fragile. “This is from the shrine of our own beloved St. William, inside this very minster. Have you visited it yet, sir?”

“I didn’t know there was a shrine in there,” he said honestly; for all he knew, there might have been a dozen in the Middle Ages. “What did he do?”

She raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Why bless you, sir, he performed a miracle in this city two hundred and fifty years ago. So many people were crowded on the Ouse Bridge that it collapsed. He called upon our Lord God Almighty to save the drowning, and no one was harmed.”

Yuuri blinked. “He was made a saint for that?”

“Well, he also performed a series of miracles after his death, but yes. I can see this is a revelation to you, sir. And what I’m holding…” She dropped her voice again, stroking the bottle in her hand. “…is an emanation from his blessed body.”

Yuuri stared, unable to think of a way to phrase a response that didn’t sound coarse to a lady.

“This holy water is from his sarcophagus.”

“You…you want to sell me the juices someone’s been stewing in for two hundred and fifty years?”

“Your reaction is understandable, sir, but I promise you, the waters are pure and sweet-smelling. They are indeed holy.” She pulled the stopper out of the bottle and inhaled deeply, a beatific smile crossing her face. Then she held the bottle out to him. “Go on – give it a try.”

What the hell had he got into here? But, when in Rome – ? He leaned over and sniffed, bracing himself to be thoroughly repulsed. Instead, however, the liquid inside smelled faintly reminiscent of lilac and frankincense. It was actually quite nice.

“This came from a sarcophagus in the minster,” he repeated sceptically as she replaced the stopper.

“Absolutely, sir. The miracle of the holy water became so well known, far and wide, that spigots were added to the sarcophagus through which it could be easily and plentifully tapped. Nowhere else in the world will you be able to buy such a relic.”

Yuuri admired her persistence, if not her verisimilitude. Once he was able to pin her down to prices, however, he could see why she’d been trying so hard. Buying any of these relics would make his purse significantly lighter. She seemed to expect him to haggle, but he’d always hated that, and was terrible at it. In the end, he agreed to buy a non-relic bottle of perfumed water from her stash of potpourri and sweet-smelling sachets and so on, which he strongly suspected of being the base for the saintly sarcophagus-water anyway. Clearly disappointed but nevertheless making a sale, she wished him a good evening before attending to another potential customer, and he tucked the bottle in his bag and headed down the road to The Eagle. As he walked, the chimes of the minster struck what he assumed was the sunset bell, accompanied by a mellifluous chorus of other churchbells across the city.        

You’d be pleased, Sam. I could stand here for a long time and feel some sense of peace, I think.

If you forgot about the severed heads and limbs at Walmgate Bar, and the impoverished-looking children, it might not be too bad a place to visit. As long as you had money. But Yuuri was conscious that his supply of coins was dwindling.

For tonight, as least, he had a place to stay. Though the proprietor of The Eagle eyed him as he neared the door in the dusky light.

“Almost locked you out, my good fellow,” he said, letting Yuuri inside. “I was wondering where you’d got to.”

“Locked me out?” Yuuri echoed. “You lock up at sunset?”

“Course I do. Everybody does. That’s the curfew.”

“Does that mean everyone has to be indoors?”

The man laughed. “You’re not from round here, are you? I would’ve thought the same thing happened most everywhere.” He shut the door, slid a large deadbolt in place, and turned an iron key from his belt in the lock. “Come on over to the bar and have a drink, if you like.”

Yuuri followed him there and paid for beer served in a pewter tankard. The room was about two-thirds full, the clientele an assortment of people wearing colourful cloaks and hoods, and some with expensive-looking richly embroidered clothing. They were unlikely to be nobles, Yuuri reasoned, because presumably they would stay at each other’s castles or manors, though he supposed even they might be in need of an inn once in a while. A background rumble of quiet conversation was punctuated by the clang of pots and pans from what was presumably a kitchen beyond the bar; and in the air hung a mixture of woodsmoke, stewing meat, and body odour, though Yuuri was so used to the latter by now that it barely registered unless it was offensively pungent.

“What happens if you’re out past the curfew?” he asked, sipping his beer.

“Why, the nightwalkers would arrest you. Unless you were a man of good reputation. I don’t suppose they’d give you the benefit of the doubt, being a stranger in these parts, sir, so it’s best to be sure you’re indoors by dark.”

Yuuri made more small talk with the man, who introduced himself as Roger Morecambe, while he finished his beer; then he asked what they had to eat and was given something called pot pie, which turned out to be a crust filled with whatever their pottage of the day was, in this case hare and peas. It was simple but well-cooked and seasoned, and he had another tankard of beer with it; the proprietor had offered him wine, but he thought it sounded expensive. He was still trying to get a feel for costs, and what he could reasonably afford and what he couldn’t; and the worry was creeping up on him that if he stayed in this place for long as a paying guest with drinks and meals, he would find all too soon that he was broke.

Checking into his upstairs room, he discovered it was similar to his own at the castle; perhaps smaller, but also better furnished, with a desk and chair, a grey fur rug on the wood floor front of the fireplace, a comfortable bed with a soft thick blanket, and even a tapestry on the plaster wall, with a scene from a medieval feast of the type they’d had at the castle over Christmas.

Yuuri felt a sudden pang at the thought of what he’d left behind that morning and tried to ignore it, putting his bag on the bed, locking the door with the key Roger had given him and dropping it in a coat pocket, and returning to the bar area downstairs. Maybe he could try to do some of the investigative work he’d told himself he would while he was here.

Roger was a busy man, endeavouring to ensure the comfort of his guests, and Yuuri didn’t want to monopolise his time. However, after moving to different wooden benches around the room and eavesdropping on conversations while he nursed his drink, he soon gathered that the proprietor was the only local here; which made sense, Yuuri supposed. He’d already decided that idle pub conversation hadn’t changed much in hundreds of years, as he overheard gossip about friends and family, aristocrats, festivals and other gatherings anticipated for later in the year, what the roads were like in different parts of the country, and of course that old British standby, the weather; how it had been a relatively dry, cold winter, and how that was likely to affect this year’s crops.  

It was a while before most people had gone to their rooms for the night and he felt able to return to a more substantial conversation with Roger at the bar over another beer. Approaching strangers for chats like this felt as awkward as ever, but he’d got used to doing it with women at the castle, and Roger seemed to enjoy it, which Yuuri supposed came with the territory. He asked the proprietor if he’d noticed or heard about anything strange or unusual happening in the area in the past few months, but his answers were as straightforward as the question, and could probably have filled the front page of a local newspaper: thefts, an alderman in a scandal with a mistress, the price of wine shooting up due to a poor grape harvest.

“What about finding work here?” Yuuri eventually asked. “What’s the…um, what’s the employment market like?”

“Why, are you in search of work, sir?” Roger looked surprised.

“I think I’ll have to be.”

“I’m sorry to hear it. You looked to me like a man of means. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you will be able to pay for your stay, I hope?”

“Of course,” Yuuri replied, realising he’d gone and put his foot in his mouth. “I’ll show you, if you want – ”

“No need, sir, no need. But I wish I could give you a good answer. People hereabouts have been saying there’s no predicting it. Depends on what kind of work you want, I reckon. Do you have a trade?”

“Um, no.”

“Well, I was going to say there’s usually no shortage of work for tradesmen, what with…the sickness, if you get my meaning, having taken so much of the population two years ago. Probably get you a good wage, too. But if it’s unskilled jobs you’re after, I hate to say it but there’s always competition in a city like this. We don’t even have enough for our own to do, and you see ’em in the streets, begging and whatnot. But I wish you the best of luck, sir, I really do.”

Yuuri’s heart sank. He couldn’t think of any kind of trade he’d be able to transfer his skills to. There was no tech here for him to fix. He could translate, maybe – but for who? A scribe, then? Monks already did that. There seemed nothing else for him to do but –

Be a knight.

He raked a hand through his hair, deciding to try one more topic. “Do you get much news here from Crowood Castle? It’s just…I, um, heard that it’s owned by a Russian family. That’s unusual, isn’t it?”

Roger took a moment to consider. “I suppose it is, at that. But I can’t say as I hear a lot about it. They tend to keep themselves to themselves over there, is the impression I get, and most folk here are more interested in the doings of important personages in the city, as I guess you’d expect. The archbishop, the duke, the mayor, and whatnot. We’ve got two castles of our own.”

“I guess so.” Yuuri finished his beer and was about to head up to his room when Roger thought of something to add.

“The son of the baron – Victor, is it? I remember the name, because it suits him so well. He used to have some fine fighting skills to show off, if I remember rightly. Can’t say as I’ve ever seen him myself. Didn’t actually hurt anyone; just put on a kind of display for a crowd, as part of a May Day festival or owt similar. I don’t think he does it anymore, though. It’s a shame. I’d have loved to see summat like that. Anyways, sir, don’t let me hold you up if you’re after getting some shuteye.”

“Sure,” Yuuri said quietly, adding a “good night” before returning to his room, where Victor’s beautiful face gazed at him with a smile when he sat down on his bed and closed his eyes. He wondered what kinds of displays Victor used to perform, and why he no longer did. And…Oh God, what the fuck have I actually gone and done?

He’d been forcing the reality of it away all day, but there was no longer anywhere to hide it, and it ricocheted right back at him.

He’ll know by now that I’ve disappeared. They all will. And no one will be smiling about that. They’ll think I ran away because I’m afraid of Tyler.

I’ve betrayed Victor’s trust. God only knows what he’s thinking right now. And all those kindnesses from Emil…I’ve left him without a knight. He’d only lost his last one not very long ago.

He lowered his head to rest it in his hands, feeling sick.

I’m sorry, Victor…I know I didn’t make the best decision. But somehow I’m not sure you’d understand anxiety; the kind that incapacitates you. All I could think was that I had to get away, no matter how much I…I care about you. Or all the other things I’m meant to be doing; they didn’t stop me. It’s a miracle I didn’t have an anxiety attack when Tyler challenged me in the great hall.  

Some knight I am.

How would he be able to show his face at the castle again? Go away and think it out, he’d told himself. Only, he hadn’t got as far as thinking what he’d say when he got back. The baron wouldn’t be well pleased, for a start.

Well, you got away, and here you are, Yuuri. Does it feel any better? Especially when you think of everyone you’ve let down and got picked at you?

He took in a shuddering breath. It was probably late – he had no idea what the time was – but he hadn’t contacted Phichit yet, and didn’t want to compound his errors by worrying him, though he knew he at least ought to let him know he was alive.

Which was why, when he did so, he neglected to mention that he wasn’t at the castle. Or that a knight intended to slaughter him in a duel in four and a half months’ time.

Chapter Text

Yuuri woke to the sound of knocking on his door – their version of a wake-up call here, because he still didn’t trust himself to become conscious at dawn, especially when it was necessary to keep window shutters closed against the cold. It was strange to think he wouldn’t be strapping on his armour, having breakfast in the main garrison room, and going off to train. Although he hadn’t been following that routine long, it was only now that he noticed how ingrained it had become.

There was also not the convenience of the garderobe across the hall; he would need to visit the outside privies or use the chamber pot under his bed. He hadn’t used one yet, and hoped he could continue to avoid it, so he donned his modern clothes and hurried downstairs. It also seemed prudent not to bother with breakfast, since the only exercise he’d be doing today was walking around the city; and besides, it cost money. He’d already discovered, in paying Roger’s wife Helen for the previous night’s accommodation, that a comfortable room and good food came at a steep price.

When he left the tavern, intending to return that night if he were unsuccessful in his task, he visited Lady to make sure she was all right, but also because he wanted to spend a few minutes stroking and talking to her. Unfortunately, there was little he could do with her here in the city, as everything was within walking distance, and the main streets were so busy that it would be awkward to travel down them on a horse. If he got a job, would he have to sell her?

Don’t be ridiculous. You’re not going to be here that long. Right? You’re just getting your head together for a while.

Sure I am. Sure.

He spent the day looking for employment. Helen had told him to simply ask around and visit businesses that might take him on. The former was easier said than done, because he didn’t know who he’d ask, let alone where to look for someone who could help him. As for the latter, he was faced again with the difficulty that no one here would consider him to be a tradesman; and even if they did, Helen had warned him that he would have to join a guild, and they were particular about who they allowed as members. Apparently he was also too old to hope to be taken on as an apprentice, for which he would not be paid anyway.

Do I believe I’m above doing certain jobs? Have I ever believed that?

The one he’d had to ask Phichit to look up, gongfermour, came to mind, and he thought that to an extent, the answer might be yes. He decided he’d have to be utterly desperate to accept such a position.

Be careful, Yuuri. People stuck in a city with no money left have been known to do desperate things.

As he wandered the streets, he discovered that like the Shambles, businesses and shops of the same kind tended to be clustered together in one place. One street was devoted to blacksmiths, and one to weavers and tailors. But as he’d never done any metalworking or sewing, he continued on, until he came across a row of bakers. The warmth spilling out of windows and doors from the ovens made him consider taking his coat off. It was pleasant, of course, but what was it like inside for the people who worked there?

Deciding he could reason himself out of trying for every job he considered if he let it happen, he entered one of the buildings and enquired about work. They looked at him with wide eyes and said there was no position for him here, but they’d be happy to sell him whatever he desired. Feeling ridiculous, he thanked them and left, and tried the next bakery along, with the same result.

Of course. I’ve been so stupid.

He’d never dressed in the kind of finery he’d seen Victor and his father and other nobles wearing, but he knew that the material of the clothing in his projection was on the costly side and was meant to appear so; Emil had reminded him on numerous occasions that he was expected to dress according to his station. And a baron’s son did not go around asking for a job in a bakery.

Quickly, he ducked into a dark narrow alleyway between buildings, taking a moment to concentrate and mentally adjust the image he was projecting. He’d practised a few times in front of the mirror in his room at the castle, in fact, to try and discover what the limits of the tech were. It managed remarkably well with images purely from his imagination, as long as they weren’t too intricate or outlandish; he’d even recreated a version of the blue houppelande and tights and black chaperon that Victor liked to wear, deciding of course that they were more fetching on their real-life owner. And all he wanted now were plainer, rougher clothes that looked a bit worn.   

Now that he had Victor on his mind again, he wondered what he’d make of this; of the appearance he was taking on as he reprogrammed the projector, and of his search for a job here in York. But Victor didn’t understand. He couldn’t. Because he had no inkling of who Yuuri really was and why he was here, which was also a big part of the whole confusing mess.

His mind in a whirl, he prayed he wouldn’t have another anxiety attack as he tried other bakers on the street. They didn’t look at him in shock, at least, but they didn’t offer him a job either, saying they were already fully staffed.

Eventually he wandered to the Ouse, exhausted, where he stood and watched the hive of activity around him. There was a bridge to the north that was grander than the one he’d seen over the Foss, groaning with tall houses and, yes, more privies from the look of it; fortunately the area underneath was too far away to be viewed in detail. And from the number and variety of boats and ships alone, it was obvious that this was a prosperous city.

The water was brown, and it stank; and on top of that were more acrid smells from across the way when the breeze blew. Yuuri’s senses told him that he was looking at tanners’ workshops on the opposite bank; a whole community of them, in fact. They were pouring foulness into the river, as were a couple of mills, their wheels busily churning. He frowned at the thought that nature would have to endure such abuse, and sicken the people who made use of it in the process, for hundreds of years yet, before these industries were superseded by environmentally friendly ones and the messes cleaned up.

There was nothing to be done about it now, however, except for perhaps making sure he didn’t drink the water while he was here. The bank where he was standing was near large docks where men were loading and unloading ships; the place was populated with crates and barrels, ponies and carts, wagons, horses, and more dogs and pigs snuffling about. Yuuri had caught glimpses of enclosures near houses which contained farm animals, and it seemed that even in the city people undertook the task of raising their own food to an extent. As long as it didn’t get out to roam the streets, apparently. He’d come across geese and ducks and even chickens, but had assumed at first that they lived near a park or pond, until it struck him that even in his own time, no such things existed in the oldest part of the city. The only public spaces were the markets, which he hadn’t yet visited, assuming the traders would have no need of hired help.

Did he want to try to get a job here, working at the docks?

Getting that lovely water splashed on me, and inhaling the fresh air? Who would I ask, anyway? I can’t see anyone in charge.

He told himself that if he stayed this reticent, he’d never succeed in finding work. But maybe something in a pleasanter part of the city would be available if he looked.

The rest of the day, however, was spent in a fruitless search, as he picked the most appealing establishments. Stables, groceries, candlemakers, shoemakers, breweries, even an armour-maker – he knew a little about that now; but they all claimed they weren’t taking anyone on. Yuuri considered readjusting his projected appearance but wasn’t sure what changes he could make that would improve his chances. He was a fit and healthy young man in ordinary clothing, wanting to do a day’s work for a day’s pay. But there were many others here who matched that description, and they all needed work too, he supposed.

Telling himself not to feel too dejected, he visited Lady near sunset and then returned to The Eagle, and to Roger and his beer. Supper was pork sausages with sautéed onions, fennel and carrots, and bread with butter. It was just as tasty as yesterday’s meal, and he didn’t mind giving up the coins once more for decent food and a nice room. With a little luck, he’d find a job the next day.

Only…it didn’t happen. Or the day after that.

By his fourth night in the city, he entered his room at The Eagle burning with shame at having been turned away more times than he could count, though he was offering to do just about anything that was not unsanitary, dangerous or morally dubious. Maybe they thought they’d have to pay him more than someone ten years his junior; he’d seen a profusion of both boys and girls working as servants – sweeping floors, cooking, serving food, fetching provisions. But he couldn’t seem to alter his age very noticeably in his projection.

It was difficult, though, not to take his lack of success to heart and begin to wonder what it was about him that people objected to. Finding a job wasn’t like this in his own time; seekers and employers could be matched directly or through agencies or the government via the Cloud, and there was flexibility in how many hours people worked, where they were based, what they did and for who. Training and education were readily available to enable you to choose a career that suited you at any time in life, while dull and repetitive tasks had been automated. Yuuri worked long days at the university, but that was because he wanted to; because the hours he spent at home could feel slow and empty. Choosing to do that, however, was different from begging for work like this.

And whose fault is that? Mine.

He’d bought street food the past couple of days because it was cheaper than eating at the tavern, though the kidney and ale pie he’d had for supper was disagreeing with him. Either that, or it was the effects of the gloom that was increasingly weighing him down. He couldn’t continue to stay at The Eagle much longer, and didn’t want to contemplate what his alternatives would be if he ended up both unemployed and broke.

Phichit knew something was wrong. He tried to get Yuuri to tell him about it during their evening communications, but all he could think to do was hedge. The truth would have to come out at some point, of course, but he didn’t feel ready for that yet. He was wilting inside from guilt about the information he was holding back, and everything else he’d shoved aside until he could work out what the best way of handling it was…if it existed at all.

Right. I’m going to check out of this place tomorrow, he told himself while lying in bed and staring at the fire, and I’m going to have a job by the end of the day. I’m not going to stop until I find something. So help me.


“’Ey up, pet. Got a fella here says he’s looking for a job. We got owt for him to do?”

Yuuri was standing with the proprietor of the tavern he’d just entered, who’d come out from behind the bar to get a better look at him. A beefy man in his forties, he had strawlike hair, hazel eyes, a blue felt cap pulled over his head, and a voluminous light brown tunic. And a missing tooth that showed when he smiled, Yuuri noticed. A lady joined him from a back room, tying on a stained white apron over a somewhat threadbare brown dress. Her hair, a shade lighter than her clothing, was tucked under a white turban; and she studied Yuuri with small, dark, beady eyes. There was something potato-like about her, the body and the face, with those eyes set deep, and her mouth a red slash. And yet there was a spark of intelligence, too, that was lacking in the duller gaze of the man.

“John of Whitby at your service, ma’am,” he said with a bow, having received advice from Roger Morecambe about how to address a potential employer, and adding a Yorkshire town to his name to make it sound more authentic. “I’m in need of work, and was passing by your fine-looking tavern when – ”

“Tavern?” the man snorted. “We ain’t no fancy-pants place like that. This here’s a down-to-earth ale-house, and proud of it I am. I’m Jacob Maltby, owner of The Black Dog, and this is my lady wife Posy.”      

“Now just wait,” Posy said. “Honestly, you’ll be talking nineteen to the dozen before he’s had a chance to say boo to a goose.”

Yuuri wrinkled his brow at the mixed metaphors, but quickly restored his polite smile.

“Why’s a bloke like yourself looking for work in ale-houses and taverns, then?” the woman continued.

He told them a story he’d made up, based on the little he’d learned about tenants on estates, about how he and his widowed mother had been turned out of their house by their lord and left to fend for themselves. It felt like an underhanded thing to do, trying to play on people’s sympathies in that way, but he couldn’t tell them the truth. Over the past few days, he’d learned that people expected him to be a tradesman when they saw him, perhaps because of his age and his state of health, and this particular lie offered an explanation for his lack of skills as well as his toned physique; they’d believe he’d been working the land as a farmer.

“Down on your luck, then, are you,” Posy said when he’d finished. “Well, it just so happens that we had a lad leave a couple of days ago. I think you’d do as a replacement.” She stared and nodded, as if she were considering goods on display in a shop. “It ain’t easy work though, mind. I’d need you here in the main room, serving guests; supper’s in a few hours. Though I’d have other things for you to do when it ain’t so busy. If you’re willing and able, we can give you a try.”

“I’d be very grateful, ma’am,” Yuuri said deferentially.

“Bloke’s well-mannered, you can say that for sure,” Jacob commented. He smiled a lot, Yuuri noticed, despite the missing tooth; and most things about him seemed a little larger than life: his belly, his loud voice, his equally loud laughs. It would be easy to believe that he fit the image of a genial pub owner. But there was something shark-like about that smile which Yuuri found off-putting.

“Show him to his room, chuck,” Posy said. “I could do with him down here straight away, so the sooner he gets settled in, the better.” She flashed a last glance at Yuuri before disappearing to the back room.

His instincts had warned him against coming in here, especially when he’d seen the state of the main room. Jacob was right about this being a “no fancy-pants place”. While the building looked a bit twee on the outside, with its worn timbers and leaning upper storeys –obviously old in a time that to Yuuri was already so – the inside had an air of neglect. Plaster was crumbling away from damp corners, floorboards creaked, and the breeze whistled through gaps in the shutters. The room was dimly lit by what he guessed were tallow candles on the tables and at the bar, and the floor was covered in a thick mat of rushes that were perhaps best not looked at too closely; Yuuri could see they were oily, and contained small nameless things that he dreaded being able to identify. The rough wooden tables were at about half occupancy, and the guests themselves looked ordinary enough, though there was more variety among them than he’d seen at The Eagle, and no one who could be construed as particularly wealthy; in fact, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there were several men in shabby clothes that would be little proof against the cold of winter outside. A miserly coal fire burned low in a small grate within a much larger stone fireplace, filling the room with its odour while struggling to heat it.

Having made a promise to himself, however, Yuuri followed Jacob by the light of a candle up a dim, narrow wooden staircase to a landing at the very top of the building, where the roof sloped precipitously overhead. There was just one door in this little place, which seemed like more of an attic with a cupboard. But then Jacob depressed the loose iron latch with a clink, and the door opened to reveal a small room with a narrow bed, a square shuttered window with a half-melted candle on the sill, and a grey stone fireplace which contained powdery ashes. The walls were white plaster, crumbling a little like the ones below; the floor rough-fitted wooden planks; the ceiling dark timbers which sloped so low that, to his dismay, Yuuri discovered it was impossible to stand upright as he entered. The only other items of furniture were a plain wooden chest, a stool with a white ceramic pitcher and basin, and a terracotta chamber pot half-shoved under the bed.   

“You’re lucky this is free up here,” Jacob said. “You get a room all to yourself, with a bed and fireplace and everything. You’ll need to fetch your own water and coal, but I’ll show you where in a bit. Just watch your head,” he added with a laugh, giving Yuuri a sudden slap on his back. Then, ducking over, he lit the candle on the sill with his own, and it shed a modest glow as if afraid to do a thorough job.

“Are there any keys for these things, so I can lock them?” Yuuri asked, feeling numb inside. “The door; the chest?”

“Oh! Now, let me see.” Jacob rummaged in a pocket in his tunic and produced an iron key, which he handed over. “That’s for the chest. You can store any valuables you have in there. No lock on the door, I’m afraid, but hardly anyone ever comes up here, apart from Sally who empties the pisspots in the morning. If you’ve got anything especially important that you’d like the missus and me to hold on to for you – ”

“Um, no, that’s fine, thanks.” Yuuri paused. “I wouldn’t mind a minute to just, uh, get moved in, if that’s all right.”

“Well, suit yourself, but her indoors wants you to get started downstairs, so don’t be too long.” With that, Jacob exited the room, leaving the door ajar. Yuuri could hear every step he made on the stairs as he trundled down.

As silence fell afterward, Yuuri sat on his bed, putting his bag down on the floor beside him.

What the hell am I doing? I should never have come here. I just keep digging myself further into a hole.

But the coin purse on his belt wasn’t going to replenish itself. And if he returned to the castle, he would only compound his existing problems with the consequences of his latest actions.

What would Victor think of me if he saw me now?

I…I miss him. No matter how dark things seemed, he was there – a light. I was trying to reach out to him, and then I ran away.

He took a deep shuddering breath, the numbness beginning to give way to something even worse: creeping despair.

If Sam had asked him why he’d left the castle, Yuuri could have told him, and he’d have understood. But the best motives in the world could still lead to disastrous decisions. He ought to have found some way of calming down and giving himself time to think; there must have been something he could have done. Then maybe other options would’ve become clear.

This really should not have been one of them, he could see that now.

Closing his eyes, he put his face in his hands, and his shoulders shook with silent sobs.


Posy ensured Yuuri was constantly busy throughout the day and evening, once Jacob showed him what to do. He had a crash course in the types of ales, meads and ciders the place sold, and how to serve food and drink and take orders. Then he was sent to get on with it as if he’d been doing this work for years. True, the job didn’t require a university degree to understand, but it was more unfamiliar to him than anyone here realised.

It wasn’t as simple as pulling a pint behind the bar or fetching a ready plate of food from the counter, waiting to be served. Yuuri had to go to the kitchen and get everything himself, which was a further challenge when he didn’t know where anything was; there was no refrigerator, and all the barrels and boxes looked the same, both in the building and the dingy alley, where he had the experience of watching a large rat scurry across his foot. The most popular drinks could be poured from casks behind the bar, but others had to be fetched from a dark cellar that smelled of mildew. He wasn’t careful enough with his candle while he returned up the stone stairs once, and the flame blew out; navigating the rest of the way in total darkness, with a heavy tray of full tankards in one hand, had him pausing to take deep breaths until the harrowing trek was over.

Jacob and Posy chatted with guests and occasionally issued orders, though in general they didn’t appear to be doing much. A girl worked the tables with Yuuri during supper hours, and other servants were based in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning; he’d been told to help them if they needed it. Most of his concentration was engaged in trying to keep food and drink orders straight, however, because by curfew all of the tables were full, and there were people standing as well. He was still wearing his modern coat, along with his other modern clothes, and was pleasantly surprised to rediscover the pen and paper in his pocket; he surreptitiously used those a few times to help him remember large orders. It was a risk, though, so he promised himself he would only do it while he was finding his feet here.

Which would be difficult while he was treading on the rushes. At some point, perhaps, he would volunteer to remove them completely and bring in new ones, if he were given the time and means to do so. There were patches, particularly near corners, that were strongly suggestive of bodily emanations and rotting food, which he learned to avoid. And to his initial shock, the male clientele seemed to think nothing of urinating into a chamber pot against a wall in full public view. Everyone behaved as if this were as ordinary as putting on a hat, and sometimes they even spoke to each other in the process.

A group of black-robed men, obviously clergy of some kind, retired to their bedrooms early, though many other guests remained, drinking and becoming merrier with each other, and often ruder with the servants. Yuuri kept conversation curt and business-like, or tried to, though it eventually became necessary to steer around questions about where he was from, whether he was related to the Maltbys, if he was “free” later; and comments about the quality of the food and drink – as if he had anything to do with it – as well as which of his features were the most pleasing. A group of three women seemed to think they had the right to eye him, pass judgement on him, and even pinch him; and he ended up being glad that he still wore his coat, projected to look like a rough woollen cloak, because at least it protected his backside from their groping. When he made a complaint to Jacob about it, however, the man just gave a hearty laugh and said he wished he was still young and fine-fettled enough to draw such attention from the ladyfolk.

When he was told during a trip to the kitchen to go fetch water from the well, Yuuri knew he had to find somewhere quiet where he could take a break. His room was the perfect place, even though the fire was still unlit; he hadn’t had time to try to attend to it himself yet. At the bottom of the stairs, he put down the buckets he was carrying, and was glad to see that the candle he’d lit earlier was still burning steadily in the niche here where he’d left it. He picked it up and was soon on the top landing, where he opened the low door and went inside.

The fact that it had no lock had been worrying him all evening. Drawing his sword, he used the tip to pry up the floorboard underneath which he’d stashed his time-travel sphere, along with his trainers, having exchanged those for his leather boots in order to brave the rushes and their foul contents. It was all still here, thank goodness. And presumably the clothes he’d brought with him from the castle had fared equally well in the locked chest.

Which had been against the wall near the fireplace, but now wasn’t. Yuuri gave a start and looked around the room, but there wasn’t anywhere it could be hidden.

Who the fuck marched straight up here while I went downstairs to work?

Fortunately none of his modern possessions had been inside, and his coin purse was safely secured to his belt. His leather bag was also untouched on the floor, though it had been empty anyway. But who would nick a whole trunk with all his clothes? Where had they taken it?

Had the Maltbys pretended to hire him just so they could rob him like this? Or had it been a servant who’d come up and seen an opportunity? But in that case, how had they known he’d put his clothes in the chest, unless they’d had a key?

He straightened quickly, forgetting momentarily about the low ceiling and bumping his head in the process. A sharp flash of pain was followed by a throb, and his eyes watered. He took more deep breaths, then grabbed the candle and proceeded back down the stairs and into the main room, where the Maltbys were leaning with their backs against the bar, both holding wooden tankards and laughing with the men at the table in front of them, most of whom had bright eyes and pink cheeks from the amount of drink they’d imbibed.

“Can I have a word with both of you, please?” Yuuri said in a low, firm voice as he approached them.

Jacob was guffawing at something one of the guests had said, and continued to do so for a moment before giving Yuuri his attention. “What’s that, eh?” he said distractedly, lowering his tankard.

“I said I need to speak to you. Both of you.”

“Is there a problem already?” Posy said.

“Yes, and it’s not something to discuss in front of…” He tilted his head slightly at the guests, who had quieted down and were looking at him.

With a sigh and a this had better be good expression, Posy led the way to the kitchen, followed by Jacob and Yuuri. Now it was the servants’ turn to stare.

“Get back to work, the lot of you – I’m not paying you to stand around gawping,” Posy snapped. Then she turned to Yuuri expectantly.

“The chest that was in my room’s gone missing,” he stated, watching them for their reactions. Neither appeared very concerned, though Posy raised an eyebrow.

“When was this, then?”

“While I was working down here. It had all my clothes in it.”

“What, the entire chest?” Jacob said, sounding amused. “Up and carried it off, did they – is that what you’re saying? Down them steep stairs?”

“Well, yes. You saw it; you gave me the key.” Yuuri pulled it out of a pocket and held it up. “Has anyone else got a key?”

Jacob shrugged. “Not to my knowledge. Wouldn’t stop anyone from getting in it, though. It’s only wood.”

Yuuri eyed them both and said, after replacing the key in his pocket, “So what are you going to do about it?”

“Eh, I’ll go have a look round now,” Jacob answered breezily. “Must be some mistake, you’ll see.”

“Go on then, cock,” Posy told him, and he left the room, looking put out. “Now tell me,” she said, addressing Yuuri, “was there owt valuable in that chest? What was in it?”

“Clothes, like I told you. I suppose they’re fairly expensive. They’re, um, a better quality than what I’m wearing now.”

“Why didn’t you say? My Jacob offered to take any valuables you have and store them for you, didn’t he?”

“Yes, but – ”

“Don’t say you weren’t warned, then.”

Yuuri paused. “What?”

“You could see for yourself that the door up there don’t lock.”

“Are you suggesting it was my own fault that I was robbed?”

“Now that’s a strong word to put on it. Like my Jacob said, it’s probably just a misunderstanding.” Before Yuuri could reply, she added, “But being as it’s your first day here, and I’m sure it’s unsettling for you and all, I’ll make some enquiries and let you know in the morning.”

“Why don’t I just have a look round myself?” Yuuri offered. “That way – ”

“Because this place ain’t yours, and you’re here by the grace of myself and my husband,” she said with a cold smile. “We’re the proprietors, and we’ll look into it for you, like I said. I suggest you find some patience in the meantime, and get back to serving my guests, if you still want a job in the morning.”

Yuuri blinked, taking this in. He bit back the accusations he was tempted to make and decided it was best to do as she said. For now.

Chapter Text

Although he’d slept with his coat on, Yuuri shivered when he awoke. Golden sunlight was beaming through crevices around the shutters, a welcome sight even if the morning chill accompanied it. The thin blanket that had been left on his mattress hadn’t been much help. He’d have to make sure he lit the fire today; he’d done it a few times at the castle, and knew that carefully removing an ember from another fire with a pair of tongs and transporting it to his own was the easiest way to get it going.

His sleep-fogged brain only recalled the details of his current situation when he splashed icy water from the basin onto his face. It slapped him to his senses, and his stomach dropped.

Justin, Crowood Castle, knights, Ailis, Victor – they all seemed like part of another life. But he wasn’t going to dwell on that right now. He was going to get his clothes back.

He went downstairs, where servants were already busy with chores. A girl in a rough linen-coloured dress who looked about fifteen was carrying chamber pots out to the latrines, a job which Yuuri felt no one should ever have to do; and another girl who looked slightly older was running a mop over the flagstones in the hall, her lack of enthusiasm plain to see. Yuuri asked her where the Maltbys’ bedroom was and she told him, while eyeing him suspiciously. Would they be up and about at this time of day? Yes. Was there anything on offer for breakfast? She looked at him as if he were mad.

He took his time going to the bedroom, keeping a lookout for anyone who might spot him. Luck seemed to be on his side for once, however, and soon he found the wooden door that had been described to him, ajar. He peered around it to ascertain that no one was inside, and entered.

As was the case in his own room, the gloom was only pierced by stray beams of light through the shutters. He saw an unmade double bed with a patchwork quilt rucked up at the end, a few tables and cabinets, a chair. Stepping inside, he took a more careful look, including under the bed, which he gauged to be possibly high enough to store a chest. But if the Maltbys had taken it, it wasn’t here.

“Looking for something?” came Posy’s sharp voice from behind him.

Yuuri spun around. “Um, I was just trying to find you or your husband, to ask what I need to be doing. And what my working hours are.” He swallowed.

“And you thought we’d be abed, did you? Were you planning on waking us up?” Her eyes were shadowed in her face, her tone accusing.

“I was curious to find out whether you’d found my chest, too,” he said, managing to add more confidence to his voice this time, “or if you’d heard anything about it.”

“I’m afraid not. But I’ll keep an eye out,” she replied flatly. “As for your other questions, my Jacob will show you how to replace empty casks behind the bar with new ones from the cellar, for a start. I daresay there are a lot of tankards from last night to wash, too. And working hours is dawn ’til the last guest goes upstairs. You can have the odd Sunday off but you’ll have to ask first.”

Yuuri’s jaw dropped. He was expected to spend almost every waking moment working?

“There are some days we have no guests at all, and others when they’ve all cleared off or are upstairs by curfew,” she said, taking in his expression. “It ain’t often, but it happens.”

“But I can’t go out after dark here.”

She shrugged. “Some folk are just never pleased with anything, are they? I doubt you’re in much of a position to complain, seeing as how I’ve found you lurking in my bedroom doing Lord knows what. I could have you arrested for that.”

Arrested? Yuuri wondered if anyone in this city acted as police. There had to be, if they had nightwalkers. He made a mental note to look into it while he glared back at Posy.

I’ve had people try to skewer me with a sword. You don’t scare me. Apart from the fact that this might be his only viable source of revenue for now, and its loss was a threat that didn’t require a physical weapon.    

“However,” Posy continued in a friendlier tone, “let no one say I’m ungenerous.” She slipped a hand into the pocket of her dress and then reached it out, and in her palm were several silver coins. “This should go some way toward recompensing you.” Yuuri took the coins as she added, “I don’t mind paying out of my own pocket a ways, seeing as how I don’t want you working here with just one set of clothes. Might get a bit whiffy for the guests after a while.” She let out a coarse chuckle.

Yuuri wondered how that would be any different from the other unappealing smells that already clung to the main room, but he put the coins in his purse and said nothing.

“Go see Mistress Preston at the market; you can get decent clothes off her, cheap. Behind the Shambles. She’s got a sign at her stall with a pair of blue scissors painted on it; you should be able to find her right enough. Go on with you, then; I got things for you to do here when you come back.”


The market was much as Yuuri had imagined it. He supposed they never changed a great deal. In modern times, many had been replaced with shopping over the Cloud or items dispensed from vending machines, but they still did a good trade where he lived.

Although the sun hadn’t been up long, the stalls were full of merchants hawking their wares. Yuuri found Mistress Preston without difficulty, though he was dismayed to discover that the silver coins would only pay for a pair of rough tan-coloured hose, two baggy cream-coloured shirts, and a pair of braies. Still, it was better than nothing, and he didn’t want to spend any more of his own money just to buy something elegant-looking whose appearance he could already project if he wanted to.

Posy had been right about him only having one set of clothes, though they were rather different from what she believed them to be. He knew he couldn’t wear them all the time; they’d start to fall apart. They also needed to be washed, though he couldn’t imagine how he’d do it. But where could he safely store them if he wasn’t wearing them? Thank God he hadn’t put them in the chest. 

When he returned to the ale-house, he went straight to his room and pried up a few more floorboards, stashing his modern clothes under them for now and changing into the new ones. The cloth was roughly woven, and itched a little. Cinching his belt round his shirt, he thought he must look a bit like a pirate, but there was no mirror here for him to tell. He didn’t look forward to trying to shave without one.

Briefly sitting back down on his bed, his eyes wandered to the bare space on the floor where the chest had been, and it struck him then that he actually missed his clothes. They’d always felt like a costume to an extent, and took more time to put on and take off than modern ones, but he’d got used to them. They were warm and comfortable. But more importantly, they’d been part of his life as Justin at the castle. The more time he spent here, the more appealing that seemed, even though he’d wanted so much to leave it behind.

Telling himself not to think about that right now, he went downstairs with renewed determination to locate the chest and his clothes.


“Look, mate, I sympathise, I really do. But I don’t think there’s owt more you can do about it.”

Yuuri had snatched a quick conversation with a man who was delivering casks of ale; he was helping to remove them from the wagon and carry them down to the cellar. While they busied themselves with this, he’d explained about the theft of his clothes and asked if there was an official he could report it to. But it was the same set of questions he’d heard elsewhere: Was he a freeman of the town? Was he a resident? Well in that case, there probably wasn’t any help to be had, especially since he was only an ale-house servant.

“Isn’t there any justice here?” he finally blurted in exasperation.

“The mistress gave you money to buy new clothes, didn’t she? If you don’t mind my saying, I don’t get what you’re complaining about.”

He was still more pleasant to talk to than the other workers in the building, who seemed to permanently glower at Yuuri in suspicion. All apart from Jan, the cook, who was a Swede.

“They’re just on their guard because you’re an outsider,” the blond-haired blue-eyed man explained that afternoon while Yuuri was in the kitchen washing tankards and plates crusted over from the night before; he’d had to fetch water for the sink from a huge cauldron boiling over the fire in the room and add cool water from the cistern to it so that he didn’t scald his hands. “This is a walled city. They want to keep people out. Fellows like us are allowed to work here, but the pay is bad, and they tell us we’re taking jobs away from the ones who already live here.” He shrugged. “I say, if they’re better at it than me, that’s what they can do. But me, I’m not so bad.” He smiled as he rolled out dough for a large pie.

“Why did you come here?” Yuuri asked him, hoping it wasn’t too personal a question.

“My village burned down,” Jan answered matter-of-factly as he worked. “I was young and unmarried, so I thought I would make a new start someplace else. I’d heard people say this city was like my own. It used to be a big Viking settlement, you know. I think, however, it was long enough ago that it’s not so Viking anymore.”

It changes a fair bit over the next 728 years too, let me tell you.

And…shit, your village burned down? Yuuri was suddenly reminded of what Victor had told him about his nursemaid, Irene. Maybe the real surprise, in the midst of all this, was that any friendly people existed at all.    

He wasn’t sure what to make of Jan, however, apart from the fact that he was willing to be civil to him. The lack of emotion he expressed about the fate of his village could be a natural psychological defence. Or maybe people here took such things in their stride as part of life. Who knew?

Then all thoughts were driven out of Yuuri’s head as the population of the ale-house swelled for supper, and he spent a seemingly interminable amount of time dashing round serving food and drink. There was no way to tell how many hours passed. Not that it mattered, because his labour was owed until the last guest went upstairs. It felt like it would never happen. A man twice his age – and twice his width – who was sitting at a bench at a table leaned over at one point and hooked him round the waist with his arm, pulling him against him. He smelled of stale beer and onions, and seemed to want Yuuri to sit on his lap, though he was so drunk it was hard to tell. All Yuuri knew was that he needed to get away. But he’d already learned that if he complained to the Maltbys, they’d laugh, or tell him they wished they were as lucky, or suggest that if he was in the business of upsetting guests, they would no longer have a place for him here.

So he leaned down with a smile, making it look like he was sharing a good-natured joke with the man, and whispered into his ear, “If you don’t remove your fucking arm from me immediately, I will draw my sword faster than you can blink, and run it through you.” It took some time for comprehension to show in the man’s drink-dulled eyes, but eventually they went wide and he gave Yuuri a little shove away from him.

That round goes to me, he thought, exhaling. And then: Oh God, that’s the very thing I wanted to get away from – being a knight. Threatening people like that.

He tried to put it out of his head, though it wasn’t the last lewd gesture he received; and as the night wore on, the drunker and more belligerent the clientele became. When a fight broke out between two men who could barely stand to swing their fists, Yuuri kept to the shadows, while Jacob broke them up and kicked them outside for the nightwalkers to find and deal with. Though it occurred to Yuuri that the nightwalkers were presumably there to deter thieves, who might regard two drunken men reeling in the dark as easy marks. Fed up with everything he’d seen, he nevertheless found the fortitude from somewhere deep inside to remain polite while he continued to do his job.

Finally, when the last of the guests went to their rooms, Yuuri accosted Jacob, who was standing behind the bar, counting the day’s takings.

“Any sign of the chest with my clothes?” he asked, trying hard to keep the tiredness out of his voice.

“Eh?” Jacob looked up, only then seeming to notice Yuuri. “Sorry, no.”

Yuuri huffed. “Can you tell me how much I’ll be paid, and when, please? I don’t seem to have been given that information.”

The man quickly grabbed a coin off the top of a stack and plonked it down in a small pool of ale on the counter, not taking his eyes off his counting. “That’s for yesterday and today,” he said disinterestedly. “From now on, it’s weekly.”

Yuuri gingerly picked up the dripping coin with forefinger and thumb and stared at it. It wasn’t much. Even a week’s pay would only be a fraction of the cost of one piece of his plate mail.

Did I really wear that? Every day, with other knights? He’d got so used to it. But he’d only been in this time for two months, and he’d learned that familiarity could fade as quickly as it could be fostered.

I’ll be forgetting what Victor looks like next. How his voice sounds. That we were ever…friends. An empty ache inside of him suddenly made the coins, the missing clothes, the objectionable guests, and all the rest of it seem unimportant. My beautiful shining knight. I miss you, I miss you.

His throat hitching, he placed the coin in his purse and left the room without another word.   


I have to do this. I have to tell him.

Yuuri hadn’t contacted Phichit the previous night; it was the first time that had happened since they’d been communicating over the com. To his shame, it had taken him until this evening to realise the omission, while he was so busy waiting on tables that he could barely think. Phichit and Celestino would probably be worried – might even fear he was dead.

Putting it off is only going to make it worse, Yuuri.

He sat in front of the little coal fire he’d built earlier in the grate, wearing his new clothes, with the blanket wrapped round him, and brought up the menu on the com.

“Yuuri…?” came Phichit’s sleepy voice. And then, “Yuuri! Are you OK? How come you didn’t check in yesterday? What’s been happening?”

And the soaring he felt in his chest when he heard his friend speak was suddenly worth all the opprobrium that might possibly come afterward, if not from Phichit then from Celestino. Yuuri hadn’t communicated with him over the com yet, but he could imagine the professor wanting to give him a piece of his mind.

“Phichit,” Yuuri murmured into the device. “Thank God. It’s good to hear your voice.”

“Yuuri, what’s happening?” Phichit repeated. “You’re not bleeding in a field, or locked up in a dungeon, or – ”

“No,” Yuuri said, surprising himself with a quick smile. As bad as his circumstances were, at least they weren’t as bad as that. “I’m sorry I didn’t contact you yesterday. It’s been…well, it’s difficult to explain.”

“It’s two o’clock in the morning. You never call me this late. Or early. After I didn’t hear from you again tonight, I thought I’d better tell Celestino. He’s doing his nut. With you being a knight and everything, it’s easy to imagine you getting hurt. You’re not, are you?”

“No. But, um, I have a confession to make.” After a pause, he said, “I’m not at the castle.”

“You’re not?”

“I haven’t been for…” He thought a moment. “Almost a week.”

“You what? I don’t understand – why didn’t you tell me? What’s going on?”

And so Yuuri told him. About how his worries about the duel to the death had continued to eat at him. How it had been hammered home to him a dozen different ways that he’d never be able to win, and how it all had led to one of the worst anxiety attacks of his life. He explained that he’d left the castle to seek work in York, and that he’d made enquiries of people here regarding any unusual local events, and about Crowood Castle; it sounded feeble, he knew, even to his own ears as he spoke. Phichit was quiet, apart from asking him to clarify a few points. He finished by explaining how he’d found a job at The Black Dog, though he didn’t say much about it; he doubted he deserved whatever sympathy his friend might express about his predicament.

“OK,” Phichit said after a long pause, when Yuuri was finished. And then he paused again. “OK.” Another pause. “Jeez, Yuuri, I don’t know what to say.”

“Phichit, I – ”

“I mean, you getting to see medieval York is pretty juke. But do you really think that’s where you need to be? How are you going to do anything about Ailis there?”

“Well, maybe she’s not even at the castle. Maybe she came here. Or went somewhere else. How am I supposed to know?” He gave a little sigh when Phichit didn’t immediately respond. “All right. I know she’s probably at the castle. And that I probably won’t find much out by being here.” He lowered his voice. “I…I’m sorry. But you know I have problems with anxiety. I had a hangover from hell that morning, I was imagining this angry knight slaughtering me in the arena while everybody cheered, and then it made me think about that skirmish I was in. I had a nightmare about it, and other awful things. You don’t know what it’s like.”

“Yuuri – ”

“You don’t,” Yuuri carried on. “People don’t do this stuff for real in our time. They do re-enactments and play at it in Immersion. But this is nothing like that. I’ve spoken to people who saw their families die in front of them. I watched bodies being buried with limbs chopped off and arrows sticking out of them.” He ran a hand across his face and discovered moisture on his cheek. “Now I’m meant to fight this jack who challenged me, and why? Because I accidentally insulted him. It just…it felt like too much. I didn’t know what to do.”

“Yeah, I…I can get that, I think, Yuuri,” Phichit said more gently. “That’s, um, some pretty horrible stuff. You’re right, it’s hard to imagine what it must be like.” He paused. “But, you know, we really need you to be at the castle. Why are you working at a pub?”

“They call it an ale-house. And why do you think? I was running out of money. I couldn’t just put my feet up and give myself a holiday while I was here.”

“Well, that makes sense…How’s it going, then? What’s it like there?”

Yuuri bit his lip. “Let’s just say I can understand why people ended up forming unions. It’s isn’t safe, for me or any of the other servants, probably. We get abuse from drunk and lecherous guests. The only time I have off work is Sundays. But I know it’s my own stupid fault. I shouldn’t have come here in the first place.”

“So why can’t you just go back to the castle?”

Yuuri rested his forehead in his hand. “Because I wasn’t supposed to leave? Because they’ll all think I was running away from Tyler, and that I’m a coward? That’s the kiss of death for a knight, Phichit. You’re supposed to be honourable and trustworthy and all that stuff. I don’t know how picked the baron is at me, but I’m not sure I want to find out. And besides, I don’t know if I could, well, cope. I hate to say it, but it’s true. I can’t have another attack like the one I had the morning I left – and who’s to say it wouldn’t happen in front of someone next time?”

A long silence stretched. Then Phichit said, “OK. Why don’t we just try to think about the reason you’re there. What can you do to find Ailis? I don’t think it’s going to happen while you’re working at that pub, or whatever you called it. Look, I know you’re upset; I would be, too. What if you turned your projector off and, I don’t know, did something to disguise your Japanese features? Then you could go back to the castle but not look like Justin, and try to get a job there, maybe. Something that didn’t involve being a knight.”

Yuuri shook his head. “What am I supposed to do, wear a mask?” He sniffed. “I’m sorry, Phichit. Tell Celestino I’m sorry, too. I never meant for this to happen, and believe me, I don’t want to be here. I just don’t know what other choice I have right now.”

He ended the call soon afterward, neither of them any closer to an answer. The tears kept coming, slowly, as he sat and stared at the flames crackling over dark lumps of coal, and he sleeved them away.

I’ve let everyone down. Phichit knows I as good as lied to him, all those times I called him without telling him I’d left the castle. Celestino will be flaming – or worse than that, he’ll wish he’d never sent me here, and had chosen someone else instead.

I’ve let Victor down. And his father, and everyone at the castle. I promised I’d work hard and show them that I could earn my place as a knight there. I also promised myself I’d keep an eye on Victor, and try to save him somehow.

Then I get an anxiety attack, and suddenly I’m throwing it all away. I keep thinking about how bad it was, and how I’m afraid of it happening again – but have I ever let that stop me before? Do I just quit living my life because of it? I’m sure Sam would’ve had something to say about that.

He drew his knees up to his chest and hugged them.

I…I need to put this right. I want to. I just wish I knew how.

Chapter Text

Yuuri was kept busy most days from the moment he got out of bed to the moment he returned. If he’d thought it was exhausting training to be a knight, at least that had been healthy exercise designed to make him toned and fit, not back-breaking chores that kept him on his feet all day. Often he was asleep before he hit the mattress; but the night was always too short, and then it would be time to get up in the morning. As he was habitually sleeping past dawn, one of the servants came banging on the door to wake him. He would be allowed to drink ale when he got downstairs, but the only meals were dinner and supper; for the servants those usually consisted of pottage and a sop, sometimes with a piece of cheese.

As his fatigue and hunger grew, Yuuri’s thoughts were increasingly blunted, subsumed by the busy tedium of helping to keep the ale-house running. The sharp sting of guilt and loss that pierced him in brief moments of reflection was almost welcome, however painful, because it reminded him that he could feel – and that he needed to act. If he could just figure out what to do.

In the meantime, however, he continued to make sure he contacted Phichit every day, which usually meant finding a few minutes to sneak up to his room between chores, since he didn’t want to be calling at 2 a.m. again. Sometimes he ran errands for the Maltbys around shops in the town and at the market, and those were other opportunities. Phichit said he liked hearing the strange languages people were speaking, as well as the sounds of day-to-day life in the city from so far in the past: church bells ringing, the clop of hoofbeats, the town crier making announcements at the market cross, buskers playing a fiddle or a lute, and stray animals – dogs, pigs, chickens and goats, among others.

The fact that Yuuri was there at all was a difficult topic for discussion, however. Celestino had taken the com one day; Yuuri was surprised to find him answering instead of Phichit. He wasn’t as gentle or understanding either, as he reminded Yuuri of the importance of his mission – as if he’d forgotten – and told him he had to find a way to get back to the castle. Yuuri explained briefly what was preventing him from going straight there and left it at that, though he apologised sincerely for what he’d done.

The truth that complicated matters further, however, was that he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to handle trying to be a knight any better than he was handling being an ale-house servant. Nothing would have changed at the castle during his absence; Tyler would still want to kill him, and all the other dangers were waiting. He knew he had to be prepared to face those, and he wasn’t sure he was.

Victor will be there, too.

If he’s still alive. And if he still wants to know me after all this. Which I doubt.

Meeting him had felt like falling into orbit around a star, gradually pulling in closer and tighter, and loving every minute of it…which probably made it all the more prudent to stay away. Though that wasn’t working very well, either. The only thing stopping him from indulging in fantasies about being in Victor’s arms, and the brush and press of his lips, was his conviction that Victor himself wouldn’t want it.

As it should be. Though his heart refused to agree.

While he was in the city, he took his time with his errands, since those were his only opportunities to get out of The Black Dog. That meant he could visit Lady and continue to pay for her upkeep at the stable. The fees there, however, were higher than what he was being paid, and he knew the situation could not carry on much longer.

I wonder if I could make a living in the woods, hunting and gathering. Then I could sneak around the castle too. On the outside, anyway.

Jesus, Yuuri, you really are desperate.

He’d seen how people like Julius used a bow and arrow, quick and sure, and he knew he was not capable of such feats, even if he had the weapon. He wasn’t going to be able to stab any animals with his sword, either. And fishing – ? He’d never done it in his life. Besides, he suspected most if not all of the countryside belonged to nobles, who might have something to say about people poaching what they considered to be their food.

At the ale-house, he’d quickly lost any desire to make helpful changes such as clearing out the old rushes and laying new ones, and simply got on with what he was told to do. Most of the servants continued to ignore him, so occasionally he tried to speak with the guests, ostensibly to see if they could provide any information that might offer a clue to Ailis, but really because he still had a desire for pleasant human contact once in a while. It seemed, however, that there was one rule for the Maltbys in that respect, and one rule for everyone else; and when he was caught in conversation with anyone, they told him to get back to work.

Eventually he also gave up the lingering hope that he might come across the missing chest, or hear word of it. Whoever had stolen it – and he still suspected the Maltbys – had probably taken it away by now and sold it along with its contents, and the unfairness of it rankled in him.

He did, however, finally manage to get his modern clothes clean, though it required some ingenuity that he was almost too exhausted to muster. One night after he was finished working, he took a wooden bucket and poured boiling water from the kitchen cauldron into it, added some cold water from the cistern, and brought it up to his room along with a large wooden spoon. There he took his bar of soap and shaved off slivers with his knife, which mostly melted in the water. One at a time, he put in his shirt, trousers, pants and coat, swishing them with the spoon until they were as clean as he could get them. He ought to rinse it all, he supposed, but that would require hauling fresh water back up; and anyway, he quite liked the faint smell of roses from the soap.

By the time he’d gone to bed, his clothes were hanging near the fire from the mantel and slung over the table where the pitcher and basin, now on the floor, normally stood. But in the morning, Yuuri saw that the dead fire and chill air hadn’t completed the job, and he had no choice but to wear the still-damp clothes, with no intention of leaving them in his room to be nicked while they continued to dry. He tried to avoid going outside while he shivered in his wet coat; and by evening, he was sniffling and sneezing. Which was both surprising and disturbing, because he had nanobots in his system.

OK, he told himself as panic shot through his veins. It’s just a head cold. Probably. People in my time get injections of updated nanobots for this, because the germs are always mutating. This is just something my system’s never experienced before. Like…

Like Dr. Croft.

Holy fuck.

He’d dashed up to his room before a panic attack could start, and somehow managed to head it off by lying on his bed and crying. It was better than shaking and feeling like he couldn’t breathe, and soon he was able to get back up and go downstairs before he was missed. Maybe he’d discovered the one virtue of being overworked: he was too tired to be properly wound up about anything.

“You’ll put the guests off with that disgusting behaviour,” Posy said to him behind the bar an hour before supper time.

“I’ve got a cold; I can’t help it,” he replied, turning his head and sneezing as he poured ale from the spigot of a cask into a tankard. “Maybe I ought to go lie down,” he suggested, hating himself for seeming weak, though the idea was too inviting to go unmentioned. Sleep, he needed sleep. If he could get it while he was worried about being ill.

“Hardly,” she said, putting her hands on her hips. “I don’t pay my servants to skive in their rooms when there’s work to be done. Go to the kitchen and see what Jan can give you to do. If he ain’t got owt, come see me and I’ll find you plenty.”

Reflecting silently on the ignorance of sending him to spread germs in the kitchen instead of in the main room, he nevertheless complied. Once there, he found Jan hurrying to prepare food. The tall Swede wore a coif and a white apron which covered his chest and came down to his knees. The room wasn’t particularly warm despite the cooking fire, Yuuri noticed. Draughts crept into the old building from innumerable cracks formed where neat joins had eroded and warped over the years; there didn’t seem to be a cosy room in the entire place.

Should I really be working in here, despite what I’ve been told to do? What…what if I’ve got the plague?

Before his body could react with a new wave of panic, he told himself to stop being so silly. It was a head cold. A head cold. People with plague got boils and bled out of their eyeballs, didn’t they? He winced at the thought. But they didn’t cough and sneeze.

Maybe that’s how it starts. Or maybe this is what Dr. Croft had, and now I have it too.

Jesus, I’ve got to stop this. I got a cold from wearing wet clothes. That’s all it is.

“Is there something you need?” Jan asked him; and he realised he’d been standing there arguing with himself long enough for it to look strange.

“Um, no. Posy sent me in here to help you. Is there anything I can do? I know a bit about cooking. I…I cook my own meals, sometimes.”

Jan raised an eyebrow. “Oh yes? Let me think, then. I’ve already peeled and chopped the vegetables. Can you make a piecrust and roll it out?”

“Sure.” Yuuri sniffled. The stuffy kitchen had truly blocked his nose. Or maybe his cold was getting worse. “Where do you keep the butter and the – ”

Jan shook his head. “No, no butter in piecrusts. It’s too expensive.” He gave Yuuri a grin. “But I bet it tastes good. The lard is in the cupboard there.” He pointed.

Once Yuuri had the ingredients in front of him, Jan gave him instructions while he carried on with his own tasks, and Yuuri was pleased with the results, which were three large crusts that Jan filled with a thick rabbit stew. Afterward, Yuuri placed more crust on top, and Jan used a large iron spatula to put them on a shelf near the fire.   

“Those are good crusts,” Jan told him. “Maybe the guests will even want to eat them.”

“What, don’t they usually?”

Jan shrugged. “They’re like trenchers, just a container for the food. So, normally cheap and tough. I don’t spend much time making them. But you put care into it. I could use your help to make more for later.” He smiled. “And I’ll make sure we can each have a piece. You will like my rabbit pie filling, I think.”

“If I can taste it,” Yuuri mumbled with another sniffle.

He would have enjoyed the kitchen work more if he’d been well, and if he hadn’t been worrying about which germs he’d caught and what they might be doing to him, or whether he’d even be alive in the morning. But he shoved it all aside as best he could and helped Jan make more pies, as well as loaves of bread. There seemed to be a quota that the cook was aiming for, and once he was satisfied that there was enough food to last the rest of the night, he hung his apron up on the wall and declared the day’s work done. They said good night, and Yuuri decided he was going to go straight up to his room and lie down, Posy and her slave-driving work ethic be damned.

Once he’d done so, however, he found it difficult to decide whether to call Phichit. If he did, his friend would hear his rough, stuffed-up voice, and probably compound all of his own worries by drawing comparisons with Dr. Croft. Yet if he didn’t, Phichit would worry for different reasons.

Telling himself he would do nothing more to leave his friends in the lurch, he made the call, and was glad he did. Phichit seemed to take the news calmly, and so Yuuri was the one who ended up mentioning Dr. Croft.

“I’m pretty sure she knew early on that it was something bad,” Phichit said.

“But how do you know?” Yuuri pressed. “I was fine this morning, and now I’m not. I came down with this so fast – ”

“You’re not used to being ill, though, are you? Your body’s not used to fighting germs on its own, without any nanobots to help it.”

“Oh God,” Yuuri finally moaned.

“Will they let you have some time off there at that pub, to rest up and get better?”

“They wouldn’t give me time off if I was dying of plague.” Suddenly he remembered the rat that had run across his foot. He’d probably been in the vicinity of more, without knowing it. That mat of rushes downstairs…

“Yuuri, your nanobots are programmed to fight the plague. You can’t have it.”

“But what if this is some mutation they don’t recognise?”

“It sounds to me like you’ve got a head cold,” Phichit said reassuringly.

“Phichit,” Yuuri whispered, “I can’t stop worrying. I’d rather be run through with a sword than die like that. Can you…” He swallowed and looked into the flames of his fireplace. “Can you look on the Cloud and tell me what the symptoms are?”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea. What if some of them are similar? Won’t that just make you more worried?”

“Please.”

He sighed. “OK.” There was a pause, and then he said, “It looks like the main symptom is inflamed lymph nodes, which are called buboes. These horrible…um, these bumps. They’re pretty easy to see. Have you got any?”

“I don’t think so. Let me check.”

After a moment, Phichit’s voice came again. “You’re not sitting there getting undressed and giving yourself an examination, are you? I’m not sure I need to be imagining that.”

Yuuri felt like he’d been caught in the act. He’d removed everything apart from his pants, and was quickly scanning every inch of skin he could see. “Well, what do you expect? I need to find out, Phichit! How would you feel in this situation?”

“Sorry, Yuuri.”

“No, I don’t see or feel anything like that,” Yuuri finally said with a sigh before he started pulling his medieval clothes on.

“There’s also fever, muscle cramps, vomiting of blood, gangrene of the extremities – your toes, fingers, lips and nose can turn black…”

“Holy shit,” Yuuri breathed; then he had a coughing fit.

“None of that’s happening to you, is it?”

“No,” Yuuri choked out, finally clearing his throat.

“That’s it, then. You have a head cold. I know it’s a pain in the butt right now, but you’ll get better. Really, I think you should just rest up if you can.”

They ended the call shortly afterward. Three years younger than him, and Phichit was trying to sound like a wise doctor. But then of course he would; he was doing his best to be supportive. Perhaps he was worried himself – after all, Dr. Croft hadn’t caught plague either, but she’d still died from her illness.

He has a way of bringing me down to earth. Maybe that’s what I need while I’m here. I bet he thinks sometimes that this was never what he signed up for when he became a quantum physicist.

Yuuri folded his modern clothes and stashed them under the floorboards to save them for when he really needed them. Then he lay down and pulled the blanket over himself. If anyone came pounding on his door, demanding to know why he wasn’t downstairs waiting on tables, he was prepared to tell them where to get off to; but to his relief, no one did. They all must have noticed him coughing and sneezing, and perhaps didn’t fancy catching it themselves. Since he’d heard the word “quarantine” used in the castle when the topic of the sick sheep came up, it seemed clear that even if they didn’t know what bacteria and viruses were, they were aware that illnesses could be contagious.

But as he tossed around under the blanket, unable to get comfortable, with a headache from his blocked nose and a throat that was beginning to burn at the back, he couldn’t keep Dr. Croft from his mind. God only knew what passed for medicine here. Leeches and ground-up snakeskins and beetles, maybe. Had she tried any remedies? What had she been thinking and feeling as the reality of her predicament had dawned on her, alone in this place, far from help?

Was he dying, too?

It’s just a head cold, he kept telling himself. But the fear was almost as painful as the symptoms.  


In the morning, his head felt like it wanted to explode, and his throat was so sore he could barely talk. But he’d lived through the night.

Why am I so afraid all the time? he asked himself while he splashed water from the basin over his hot, throbbing face. I agreed to go on this mission in the first place. I fought those men on the bridge so I could protect Victor. I’m not a coward. So why am I acting like one?

I’m going to start taking control back. Bit by bit. The first thing he’d do was face up to the fact that he might still die from this illness he’d caught, or he might die tomorrow or in a week or a month from something else. So be it. He was no longer going to allow the possibility to cripple him and send him rushing up to his room to head off an anxiety attack. This world was dangerous; that was a fact he would learn to cope with.

The Maltbys expected him to work while he was ill, though they didn’t want him near the customers. He couldn’t do anything with food with a clear conscience either, however, so he ended up cleaning and helping with laundry over the next few days. And he chose to face another of his fears as well, one that had been creeping up on him from his first day at the ale-house almost two weeks ago: he insisted on changing the rushes in the main room. The more he’d speculated about what might lurk at the bottom, the more he wished he could avoid them altogether, though that was impossible. He’d even had nightmares on a couple of occasions about falling and being smothered by them. Well, if they bothered him, they probably bothered other people as well, even if they weren’t as conscious as he was of the health hazard they actually posed.

To his relief, the Maltbys were pleased to hear his suggestion. They left him to do the work by himself inside the main room, but he’d steeled himself for it, and was even a little proud of how well he did, despite the horrors that were revealed near the very bottom: the desiccated remains of small mammals, mummified chunks of meat and piecrusts, dung, and other stomach-churning surprises. He’d got a pair of leather gloves and a pitchfork and simply got on with it. Jacob had told him that in fact the old rushes had been on the floor when he and his wife had taken over the establishment ten years ago. Had the job not been done because it was onerous? Disgusting? Or did no one feel it was necessary?

Jacob accompanied him on a pony and wagon to both dispose of the old rushes in a ditch and fetch new ones from a large storage barn on the other side of the city wall. Upon returning to the ale-house, while making occasional use of a cloth to mop his running nose and clammy face, Yuuri filled a bucket with hot water and cleaning solution from the small room off the kitchen they called a scullery, then set about scrubbing the encrusted flagstone floor with a stiff boar-bristle brush. He ignored his ever-present fatigue, and the aches brought on by his illness, telling himself that this was one thing, at least, that he was going to put right – for himself and everybody else who used this room.

“Here, sir, you shouldn’t be doing that on your own.”

The rough voice was a girl’s, and he looked up to see Daisy, a sixteen-year-old who was employed to clean and help serve customers. Yuuri had tried to make polite conversation with her before, but he’d never received much more than a quick muttered reply before she’d left him alone. She stood now with her blond hair tucked under her coif, in a gold-coloured dress and apron, looking as if she were still in two minds about the advisability of speaking to him.

“I didn’t see any volunteers coming to help,” he replied, resuming his scrubbing.

“You ain’t even well. You should be in bed.”

He looked up again and gave a little laugh. “Not according to the Maltbys.”

“Did they tell you to do this?” she asked, looking round the room, half of which sported gleaming wet grey flagstones. “Blimey, I never knew what the floor even looked like under there.”

“No, they didn’t. I thought it might be nice – um, I thought it might be pleasanter if this room was cleaned up, that’s all.”

“I’ll get a brush and help you.”

“There’s no need.”

“I want to, sir. You been busy with this all by yourself, and it’s not right you ain’t had no help.”

Yuuri sat back on his shins, sniffling and sleeving the sweat off his forehead. “Well, I won’t complain,” he said looking up at her again. “Thank you. And, um, it’s John. I didn’t think I’d be a ‘sir’ to anybody here.”

“Everybody’s ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ to me,” Daisy replied. “But OK, John. I’ll be back in a trice.”

They finished scrubbing the floor together, then Daisy helped Yuuri bring bales of rushes in from the alleyway where they’d been shifted from the wagon. Yuuri gave her the pitchfork while he used his gloved hands, and they spread the rushes around the room, which was soon filled with the scent of straw. It was fluffy and yellow and crunched underfoot, unlike the limp greyish mass it had replaced.

“That’s a big improvement,” Yuuri said, staring at their handiwork when they were done. “I suppose it’s time to fetch the trestle tables from out back and set them up, and – ”       

“I have an idea,” Daisy broke in as she scanned the floor. “Come on, I bet I can persuade the mistress to part with a few coins for it.”

Following her down the hall, Yuuri stood silently nearby as Daisy found Posy sitting in a chair in her bedroom sewing and asked if they would be allowed to go to the market to buy bunches of sweet-smelling herbs to sprinkle round the new floor covering. Daisy seemed to have a way of getting on her good side, and soon they were joining the last of the afternoon’s shoppers behind the Shambles, each of them carrying an empty wicker basket, before the merchants began closing their stalls for the day. Daisy took Yuuri to a lady who had stacks of herbs bundled together on the counter, tacked to the wooden wall behind her, and stuffed into little doilies and sachets made of pieces of satiny material in different hues, trimmed with bits of lace.

“Ain’t they pretty?” Daisy said, picking one up and sniffing it. Yuuri wanted to do the same, but with a runny nose, knew it was not advisable. “I like the lace, too. I’m saving part of my wages to get a lace collar, just a small one that’ll go round my shoulders. Then I’ll look a right fair damsel when I’m out with my sweetheart.” Her cheeks suddenly went pink. “Though I guess I oughtn’t be talking about that kind of thing in front of a bloke.”

“It’s all right. It’d suit you,” he said, hoping she’d construe his words as polite rather than flirtatious. “So what will those coins get us here, do you reckon?”

They soon had baskets full of dried lavender, rosemary, lemon balm, myrtle leaves, pine needles, and rose petals to take back with them. It reminded Yuuri of what he sometimes found added to bowls and basins of water at the castle. And he discovered that, despite the runny nose, a portion of the aroma was detectable from his basket as they walked. It seemed he’d turned a corner and was on the mend, and therefore not destined to die just yet.

He was glad to tell Phichit when he stole a quiet moment up in his room that evening.

“See? I told you. Head cold.”

“Did you tell Celestino about it?”

After a pause, Phichit replied, “I thought I’d better. I don’t tell him about personal stuff, you know. But this seemed…well, important.”

“As in ‘Yuuri might be dying from some disease’ important.”

“That’s not was I was thinking. Not exactly. Anyway, I’m glad you’re starting to feel better.”

Yuuri waited to hear something along the lines of, “But don’t you think you ought to be working on a way to get back to the castle?” The fact that Phichit said nothing about it was almost worse, because the guilt continued to stew inside him. So he mentioned it himself, promising again that he would return. Soon. Somehow. Though every time he tried to address the problem, all he could see was the angry baron condemning him to death or a dungeon or some other horrible fate.

“It’s hard to get your thoughts together here,” he said. “I’m busy, or tired, or ill, or all three, and the ideas just don’t come. I tell myself tomorrow will be better, but it isn’t. Most days are the same. Once you get used to being here and falling into step with everyone else, there’s nothing very special about it anymore. A day’s hard work here isn’t very different from a day’s hard work in any other place where they don’t have tech.”

“Jeez, Yuuri, that’s pretty bleak. I wonder if I could help somehow.”

“But you’re there and I’m here, so – ”

“I’ve looked up information for you, haven’t I? I’m your friend on your wrist; I’m there wherever you go.”

“Yeah. I don’t know if I’ve even said thank you yet. You’ve been great, Phichit. I appreciate it.”

“Maybe I could help,” Phichit continued, sounding bolstered by this. “Next time you’re having a hard time there, call me and just keep the com on. I’ll listen to it in the background. I don’t teach classes like Celestino does, so I can’t see how it’d ever be a problem.”

“You want to hear people talking Middle English to each other in different stages of drunkenness?” Yuuri said with a smirk.

“I’ve got one of Ailis’s translators now, for when I need it. It should work just as well as yours. It’d be like when you let me listen while you were at the market. What do you say? ‘A day in the life of Yuuri the pub slave, 1393’.”

Yuuri shook his head. “You’re mad,” he said with a laugh. “But we’ll see.”  

Chapter Text

The fact that he continued to recover over the next few days was the best thing that had happened in a while, because he could be sure now that his body had successfully fought off whatever bug he’d caught. Even though he’d made a determined effort to force his worries out of his mind, the first morning he awoke with a clear nose and head was such a relief that for a moment he felt like getting on his knees and giving prayers of thanks. To who, he wasn’t sure. He’d never been a religious person, though he knew that wasn’t required in order to have spiritual beliefs. Maybe he was just getting used to seeing people go to mass, regularly swear by their lord and saviour, preach in public, and…buy sarcophagus water from hawkers outside of cathedrals.

Unfortunately, however, the boost in his mood was short-lived, because once the Maltbys saw that he was feeling better, they gave him plenty to do. He returned to waiting tables, hauling casks up and down the cellar stairs, shifting crates and sacks to and from the kitchen, and anything else that required hard physical labour, because his employers seemed to have cottoned on to the fact that he had strength and stamina. He supposed he hadn’t done himself any favours in that respect by cleaning and replacing their entire floor-covering for them while he was fighting off a cold at the same time, even though he’d had Daisy’s help. He could tell they were impressed, and they basked in the admiring comments from guests who appreciated the clean and fragrant room under the ever-present top note of coal smoke, though Yuuri noticed they never mentioned him as the reason, or gave him a word of thanks. He told himself not to expect it; that from their point of view, he should probably be grateful to them just for giving him a job.

It was only two nights after Phichit’s suggestion that he listen in over the com that Yuuri, feeling tired and struggling to find the mental wherewithal to deal with more guests, decided to take him up on the idea. He’d gone to his room shortly before the supper-time rush, added more coals to the fire so that it would be warm when he finished work, and called his friend, who still seemed keen.

“Honestly, it’s boring here, Yuuri.”

“How can quantum physics ever be boring?”

“When your boss has got you proofreading thirty-page studies for scientific journals, replacing old components in the lab equipment, and setting up experiments for his grad students? If you want to know, most of my ideas and discoveries happen when I’m at home having a cup of coffee or playing with my hamsters.”

Yuuri was suddenly struck with an overpowering desire to be with Phichit in his flat, playing with the small warm furry creatures too. It seemed like utter bliss. Until he wondered if he was just being selfish. “Phichit,” he said, “don’t cancel any plans you’ve got on my account. I…I hope you haven’t had to do that already. If you want to give the com to Celestino while you go out – ”

“It’s OK, Yuuri, really. But thanks. My social life isn’t anything the Cloud gossip mags would be interested in right now, but if it heats up, I’ll let you know. Besides, it’s interesting talking to you like this.”

“Is it?”

“Of course it is. You’re in bloody 1393. What’s it like right now? Where are you?”

Yuuri looked around. “I’m in my room. There’s a little coal fire. I think it’s raining outside, but I can’t tell for sure. None of the windows here are glazed, so if you open the shutters, you let in all the cold air. Everything’s lit by candles, even in the middle of the day. If I try to stand, I hit my head. It’s…um, well in some ways it’s still better than what other live-in servants have. Most of them share a room and don’t get any privacy. One of the girls, Daisy, sleeps on a pull-out bed in the scullery. It kind of makes my flat in our time seem like a room in some posh hotel.”

“Blimey, OK. What are you having for supper?”

Yuuri shrugged. “I don’t know, but my guess is some kind of savoury pie with bread and beer. That’s usually what it is. When I get home, Phichit, I want coffee, chocolate, chicken tikka masala, pizza – ”

Phichit laughed. “Sure. No nutri-pills?”

“Fuck those. My tastebuds want to go on a rampage,” Yuuri laughed. “I feel better about having to go downstairs and wait on tables, anyway. If you still want to listen to that.”

“Bring it on, Yuuri.”

“You asked for it.” He left the com on as he made his way back downstairs.

“What the hell are you doing?” came Phichit’s voice.

Taken aback, Yuuri froze midway down. “These are creaky old stairs,” he whispered into the com. “And you can’t say anything, Phichit. Someone might hear you. Then they’ll think – I don’t know, that I’m bewitched, or possessed, or something. Promise me you won’t say a word.”

“Sorry,” came Phichit’s penitent response. “I promise.”

At first, Yuuri felt like he was giving a performance on stage, aware all the time of Phichit’s silent presence. He felt self-conscious, but told himself just to focus on his work. Posy had him helping Jan in the kitchen until things got busier in the main room. They were a good team, with Jan preparing the pie fillings and baking the bread, and Yuuri mixing the dough and rolling out the crusts. To make conversation, and to give Phichit something to listen to, he asked Jan to tell him about his life here in York. He was married to an Englishwoman called Matilda, he said, and had a son who was a carpenter’s apprentice and a daughter who worked as a maid in a manor house near the minster. Their own house was located, from the sound of it, among the shadowed streets of dirt and mud that formed warrens between the main roads, and a high stone wall divided it from a wealthy merchant’s house on the other side.

“They say there’s a pond and beautiful rose bushes in a garden there,” Jan said as he tasted a mixture in a pot, then went to the counter and took several pinches of different herbs to add. “I’ve never seen them. But it’s not so bad where we are. Matilda bakes bread and pies every morning to give to a market trader to sell for her, and she spins and sews. Me? Right now I dream of a good sharp knife.” He smiled. “This one I have here, the metal is soft and the blade is always getting dull. I get tired of sharpening it.” He tasted the mixture again and nodded in satisfaction, then looked at Yuuri, who was placing a crust in a large pie tin. “What about you? Where does your mother live? Is it far from here? Does she like it?”

The colour drained from Yuuri’s face as he tried to remember what he’d told people about his personal details. Of course – John of Whitby with his widowed mother. “She, um – ”

“Oi, the yakking in here tonight is beyond the pale,” Posy said, appearing in the doorway. “Are you two cooking or what?”

“My work rate doesn’t slow down just because I’m talking,” Yuuri said, trimming the spare crust overhanging the sides of the tin without looking up. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a surprised little smile cross Jan’s face.

“Well that’s good to hear. Maybe you’d like to talk to the guests while you’re serving them, as long as you ain’t stopping to have a yammer. I need you in there; Daisy’s at sixes and sevens because she’s trying to wait on a full room on her own. I guess you ain’t noticed while you been mucking about in here – ”

“I’m not mucking about, and neither is Jan,” Yuuri said, eyeing her as he removed his apron and hung it up. “But if she needs help, I’ll help her.”

“Eh, don’t be so up yourself. And look sharp. There’s a big lot of pilgrims in there who all come together tonight and like their ale. We’ve got a reputation as a good place for people like that to stay, and I intend to maintain it.”

God only knows how that happened, Yuuri thought, saying goodbye to Jan and walking past the objectionable woman to the main room. Once inside, he could see what she meant about it being busy. The drink was flowing profusely, and Daisy was hardly still for a moment. Yuuri hurried over to her and asked what he could do to help, and she suggested that he fetch several tankards of mead from the cellar, then serve half the room while she served the other.

You wouldn’t have guessed from anyone’s speech or behaviour that they were supposed to be on a pilgrimage, he thought. Women were sitting on men’s laps, shouts and screeches and raucous laughter filled the room, and the attempts at humour Yuuri overheard relied on poking fun at just about anyone who wasn’t English, male, heterosexual, and able-bodied. It was going to be a long night, he concluded with a sinking feeling in his stomach.

Jan had a kind word for him every time he went to the kitchen to fill food orders, though after he went home, Yuuri and Daisy were on their own with the crowd, the Maltbys’ disinclination to assist being nothing out of the ordinary. More challenging than serving tray after tray of food and drink was remaining polite with the guests, about half of whom were so drunk by Yuuri’s estimate that they’d struggle to stand on their feet. There was also a lady who appeared to be in her forties who, every time he passed nearby, made some remark about how fairly proportioned and manly he was, and pinched his bum through his tunic. Her audience of fellow women at her table tittered but made no comment. Eventually deciding that a moor infested with biting gnats would be a pleasanter place to be, Yuuri asked Daisy if she’d be willing to switch sides of the room so that she was serving the women.

“I know it’s hard to believe, since I’m a man,” he said to her while they quickly conferred in a corner, “but I really don’t enjoy having a guest feel me up.”

Her expression was solemn as she replied, “I don’t blame you. I get it almost every day. Folks think it’s supposed to be flattering or funny. One of these days I’m gonna take one of them pewter tankards and wallop someone over the head with it, so help me.”

After an initial jolt of shock at how often Daisy had to put up with such treatment, Yuuri kept himself busy and allowed his work to dull his brain, thinking it surely couldn’t be long before these people decided it was time for bed. Either that, or he would tell the Maltbys to continue serving them, since he and Daisy had work to do in the morning.

He had brought a large wooden tray to a table and was gathering empty tankards while taking more drinks orders when a corner of his brain registered a commotion halfway across the room. Bloody drunken idiots, he thought, trying to memorise who wanted which kind of ale. But then the clamour increased, and he heard a voice he recognised – Daisy’s. She sounded distraught, and a glance soon told him why.

A tall man with blond hair down to his shoulders and a beard had grabbed her by the waist and pulled her toward him. She was attempting to free herself while he tried to kiss her, and the people at the table nearby were laughing as if entertained by it. One man was even encouraging him to give her more than a kiss to remember him by.

She’s sixteen, you twat. Though it wouldn’t matter if she were fifty, Yuuri fumed silently as he clunked the tray of empty tankards back down on the table in front of the surprised guests. No one was going to maul someone like this on his watch. He strode over to the man, who looked at him with a smile and a raised eyebrow while Daisy continued to struggle in his iron grip.

“Let her go and get back to your table,” Yuuri said to him.

“Why?” he laughed. “All I want is a kiss from this fair maiden. You’re beautiful, aren’t you, my dove?”

“Get off me,” Daisy gritted out. Then she spat in his face.

“You bitch, you dare – ?” the man grumbled, giving her a shake.

Yuuri quickly drew his sword and approached within striking distance. “I said let her go. Now.”

“Or what? Be damned, you rascal. Keep your nose out of things that don’t concern you.”

Yuuri took another step forward and raised his sword so that the point was pricking at the underside of the man’s chin, and he saw fear leap into the grey eyes gazing down at him. Daisy gave a sudden violent pull and reeled backward. Enraged at the loss of his prize, the man made a move to grapple with Yuuri, who anticipated it and shoved him firmly onto the mat of rushes, wishing for the first time that the old foul ones had been there to greet him upon impact. He continued to brandish his sword menacingly.

“When someone says no, they mean it,” Yuuri told him in a low voice. “You’d better learn to respect that and keep your bloody hands to yourself.”

“Here now, here now,” came Jacob’s hearty voice as he strode over to join them, followed by Posy. “Put the sword away, cock. There ain’t no call for that now, is there? He’s lying on the floor like a beetle on its back.”

Yuuri paused, still glaring at the man as his pulse raced, then sheathed his weapon. He glanced behind him to see Daisy standing in the corner, taking the scene in with wide eyes as she straightened her dress and cap.

“Give me your hand, my good fellow,” Jacob said, and he helped the man back to his feet. He clapped a hand on his back, offered him a pint of his finest bitter on the house, and led him over to the bar.

“What the hell you playing at?” Posy snapped, eyeing Yuuri, who became aware that the guests in the room, having fallen silent when he’d drawn his sword, were mostly continuing to listen, though a few had lost interest. “You walk around like some cock of the dales, with that big long flippin’ blade at your side all the time, and then go and attack a guest? What kind of savage are you?”

Yuuri opened his mouth to speak, then paused as the word choice registered, before saying, “Didn’t you notice that he attacked Daisy?”

“He didn’t attack her.”

“What else would you call grabbing her, refusing to let her go, and making unwanted sexual advances?”

“Unwanted what?”

“He was trying to kiss her and she didn’t want him to.”

“If I got riled every time a guest asked one of the serving girls for a kiss, I wouldn’t have a business left. It’s part of the job.”

“You’re a woman yourself – how can you say that?” Yuuri shot back, determined to hold his ground.

“Actually, last time I checked, yes.” There were some laughs from the room in response. “And I’ll tell you something else,” she added, her own voice growing firmer. “If you don’t like it, or she don’t like it, there’s ten other people in line for both your jobs. No one’s forcing you to work here. But if you do want to keep your position, I’ll thank you not to threaten to stick my guests with that sword. It’s twice now, chuck, and maybe even more that I don’t know about. But if I see it again or anyone else complains, you’ll be out the door on your arse. Got it? If you want to give me that belt of yours, I’ll make sure it’s kept in a safe place.”

Sure, same as the chest with my clothes. “It stays with me.”

“Suit yourself. But don’t say you ain’t been warned.”

Yuuri forced himself to remain silent, looking around and noticing that Daisy had vanished. “I’m going to find her and make sure she’s all right. Someone has to.”

“Then I want you back in here. These guests won’t serve themselves.”

Maybe they bloody well ought to. I’ve had enough. He choked back the words and went to seek Daisy, eventually finding her in the kitchen with a cup of beer, one arm wrapped around her chest.

“Are you – ” he began.

“I know what you’re going to say.” Her gaze rested on the floor; she glanced up at him briefly, then it returned there. “I appreciate what you did, but you heard what she said. That’s just how it is. You can’t draw a sword on every bloke that fondles a maid in a place like this. Everyone’ll think you’re barmy.”

Yuuri stood quietly, wondering what to say. It wasn’t the reaction he’d expected.

What were you trying to be? Her knight in shining armour, without the armour? No one here wanted a hero to come marching in, trying to save the day. No one but you.

“I was just trying to help,” he told her quietly. “You said – ”

“I know what I said. I know what you said, too. Do you think it matters? As long as we’re here, this is what we have to put up with. I don’t expect to stay for the rest of my life, and I don’t suppose you do, either. Bloke as strong as you, and good with a sword, there must be better jobs you can get. How did you end up here, anyway?”

“Um, it’s a long story.”

“Tell me when we’ve got some time then, eh?” She finished her drink, put her cup in the sink, and walked toward the door. “But thanks anyway,” she said, pausing as she passed him. “I know you meant well.” Then she vanished into the main room.

Yuuri rested his hands on the counter. I can’t do anything right, can I? I don’t belong here. How did this even happen? Why –

“Yuuri?” came the ghost of a whisper. He stood quickly and glanced around, seeing no one. Then he realised.

Phichit. With being so busy, and then everything that had happened, he’d forgotten that he’d left his com on and that his friend had been listening.

“You’re still there,” Yuuri said, stealing into the scullery.

“Of course I am. I said I would be. Are you OK to talk?”

“I am now.”

There was a sigh. “Jeez, Yuuri. I can’t believe what I’ve been hearing. That woman you work for – how can you stand it? And then that jack who attacked the girl – and then they told you off for it – and then she – ”

“I know, I was there.”

“Well, yeah. But, jeez.”

“I don’t know how I’ve been putting up with it, either. I don’t think I can manage much more of it, but I need a plan for how to get back to the castle. Just marching back – well, riding my horse back – would be risking my life; I daren’t think what kind of punishment the baron would decide on for me.” He ran a hand across his forehead. “I landed myself in the shit. How I could’ve fucked things up like this?”

“Did you really threaten that jack with a sword, though?”

Yuuri paused. “Well, yes.”

“Like, you were going to stab him or something if he didn’t let the girl go?”

“I don’t know about stabbing. But I would’ve thought of something to make him stop.”

“Wow. I’ve got to say, if I needed a bodyguard, you’d be my first choice.”

Yuuri shook his head. “What are you like. Look, I’ve got to get back to work. It’ll probably be late when I go to bed.”

“Sure, Yuuri. I just wish I could do more.”

“It’s OK. I…I guess listening helps.”

They ended the call, with Phichit wishing him a good end to the night, though they both knew how ridiculous that sounded.

Yuuri wondered what Victor would think of it all. His mission, the choices he’d made, how he’d ended up here.

It was some time before he felt ready to leave the scullery and go serve beer.             

Chapter Text

The following day, he woke with a shiver under his blanket, even though he’d worn his medieval clothes, as he usually did, as proof against the cold. Before he went downstairs, he put his modern coat on. Sluggish in mind and body after the previous night, he downed a tankard of thin beer and said brief good mornings to Daisy and Jan. Maybe it wasn’t so bad that thoughts weren’t coming easily to him. Sometimes they only made things worse.

It was a quiet day for once, so after he assisted Sally with some laundry, he was allowed to help Jan in the kitchen. They were almost out of barley flour, and Jan suggested to Jacob that Yuuri might fetch him a sackful from the mill, since he’d have no trouble carrying it back on his shoulder. He knew that Yuuri appreciated an opportunity to get out of the building, and that Jacob usually acceded to reasonable requests like this, while Posy was more apt to ask questions and put up an argument, her sharp little eyes glaring. Yuuri thanked him and left, though he wished he had an extra coat to wear on top of his own when the cutting breeze blew. He took a detour to visit Lady, who still looked fit and healthy, and wondered when he’d be able to ride her out of here. Selling her would be as good as admitting he was stuck here, and he was determined not to let that happen.

The mill he’d been told to visit was on the Ouse, and he got a clear view from the riverbank of the two castles to the south, further down the hill. It was no less amazing to him now than in 2121 to see grand edifices like these, and the minster, and imagine them being built with the primitive tech available at this time. There was no mystery to it, though. He’d seen people on wooden scaffolds with chisels and trowels and buckets of mortar; seen heavy stones and thick wooden beams lifted by ropes and pulleys. With little thought for the safety of the workers, Yuuri guessed such jobs must have been among the most dangerous; and builders were working around the town even today, with ice coating stone and street.

He wondered, as he watched a ship sail south between the castles, what those places were like inside. If they were similar to Crowood, with gatehouses and courtyards, great halls and kitchens filled with the scents of roasting meat or fish, herbs and spices, baking bread. If knights in plate armour and nobles in houppelandes and outrageous hats and shoes roamed their halls.

Yuuri felt a sudden wave of longing, and he realised he missed the castle, despite all the nonsense that went on there. People lived out their lives there, too – strove, and fought…and loved. And yet it seemed as much of an unreachable world from where he was standing now as it had when he toured the ruins of castles in his own time and tried to picture what they’d been like from the crumbling stones that remained.

Once he’d bought the heavy sack of flour, he slung it over a shoulder and carried it back to the pub, his breath steaming out in puffs. The main room, he noticed as he went through into the kitchen, was about a third full of guests who had come for supper, while Jan was busy preparing bread and pottage.

“Ah, John, thank you. Just leave the sack in the corner there for now. The mistress and master said they wanted you to serve the guests when you got back. But I’m sure they can spare a moment while you have your own meal first.”

“Kind of them,” Yuuri muttered, picking up a piece of flat bread. With a sudden idea, he sliced some cheese and laid it on top, then diced a strip of bacon, which he sprinkled on. Feeling in a gourmet mood now, while Jan watched curiously, he minced a clove of garlic and added that, along with a scattering of dried herbs. “Mind if I put this on an oven shelf?”

“Help yourself. I like the look of that combination. Maybe I’ll try it later.”

After five minutes on the hot stone near the fire, Yuuri’s supper was bubbling, and he removed it and talked with Jan as he ate, sharing some of his bread and paying little heed when Posy appeared briefly in the doorway to tell him to get his arse moving. But eventually he decided he’d better do as he’d been instructed, and joined Daisy to serve the guests in the main room.

“Take your time,” she told him as they filled tankards at the bar. “It ain’t busy today.”

Stepping his usual working pace down a notch, Yuuri took a good look at the guests. They were bundled in layers and hoods, though the ones sitting near the fire had removed theirs and placed them in heaps on the bench beside them. A group of clerics, probably monks. Two families with children. It was unusual for such people to choose an ale-house to stay at, but it happened.

His attention was particularly drawn to an adult man and woman, each wearing a brown wool cape, and an older man who might have been their father. His green hood was pulled over his head, but a network of wrinkles lined his face, as well as blotchy red patches that were nevertheless clean and whole-looking; scars, perhaps. They extended across his eyelids, which drooped, while he gazed blankly ahead even as he ate his bread; and Yuuri realised he was blind. A pair of wooden crutches leaned against the table next to him. Stifling a gasp, Yuuri saw only one foot on the floor, one leg extending from the bench. He couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to the man to leave him in such a state.

Telling himself not to be rude, and to mind his own business, he carried on with his work. But since the Maltbys were nowhere to be seen, and things were slow, he eventually decided to try to strike up a conversation with the group.

“Have you travelled far?” he asked once the woman had given him an order for more drinks. He held a round wooden tray, wedged against his side, on which he’d gathered empty tankards, and gave a pleasant smile.

“Four days from Huddersfield,” the woman replied as if it had been a wearisome trek. “It only ought to take half that time, but with him along…” She tilted her head briefly toward the old man across the table from her, and let her words trail off.

“Um. Is this the end of your journey, then?”

“Thank God, yes. We’re dropping him at St. Leonard’s.”

By “him”, she seemed to be referring to the old man again. “Is that a church?” Yuuri asked.

“It’s an hospital what caters for old people and idiots. Costly it is, too, but needs must.” She sniffed and took a bite of bread. “Aintcha got some proper white bread here? This stuff’s as dark as a blackamoor.”

Yuuri stared in astonishment.

“It’s very well baked,” the man next to her spoke for the first time, apparently reading Yuuri’s silence as offence at the insult to the food. “Go on, eat it, Edith,” he muttered grumpily. “It don’t taste bad.”

“That ain’t the issue. It’s how they think guests such as ourselves don’t deserve anything better.” She flashed a defiant glare at Yuuri, while the man’s cheeks pinked and he looked down at the table as if he wished he could be anywhere else.

“I’ll go see what we’ve got in the kitchen,” Yuuri forced himself to say politely, turning and disappearing there.

Idiots – I think she meant people with learning disabilities; that’s what some people used to call them. And a blackamoor. She thinks she’s being treated like she’s from a low class because I gave her brown bread. He pressed his lips together tightly. Then he recalled the silent old man travelling with them, and despite knowing almost nothing about him, Yuuri’s heart went out to him. He wondered if it might be possible to speak with him, or if his condition precluded even that.

After sourcing some bread from Jan that was slightly lighter in colour, Yuuri brought it out to Edith, who grudgingly accepted it while letting it be known that she was still not content. The man again apologised, and made a show of how delicious he thought his own bread was, which to Yuuri felt equally cringeworthy. He went to stand beside the old man and said gently, “Is there anything else I can get you?”

“Don’t fuss over him,” Edith said. “He’s had food and drink.”

“Actually, I wouldn’t mind another pint of ale,” the man said calmly, finding the handle of his tankard and holding it up for Yuuri to take.

“Now don’t you go getting inebriated before we’ve even got you to the hospital,” Edith scolded him.

“The drink’s not that strong,” the man next to her said. “Just lay off, will you?”

“Well I ain’t paying.”

“Where do you think the money comes from? I’ll pay.” He slapped a copper coin down on the table and looked up at Yuuri with a mixture of defiance and embarrassment.

Yuuri took the coin without comment. “I’ll, uh…just get that ale, then.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jacob walk in, heading for the bar. Suddenly he had an idea. “If you have any complaints, or any other feedback you’d like to give about your experience here today, that man there is the proprietor,” he said, his smile more genuine now. “He’s always happy to listen. I’m sure he’d be very interested to hear your thoughts about the bread. In fact, he loves talking with the guests. You should tell him.”

He went to the cellar to fetch a tankard of their best ale, which was not what any of them had been drinking; and upon returning to the main room, the corners of his mouth turned up when he saw Edith in heated discussion with a flustered Jacob Maltby behind the bar, her husband or brother or whoever he was having joined them, though he was quietly examining the casks next to him.

“Your ale, sir,” Yuuri said as he arrived at the table, which was now unoccupied except for the old man. “Your companions seem to be busy. Do you mind if I join you for a moment?”

“The company’s welcome.” He gestured for Yuuri to sit, and he did so on the other side of the table from him.

Oh god. I’m so bad at this. What do I say now?

“Thanks for getting them two out of my hair for a few minutes.” The man continued to stare ahead into nothing while he spoke, but his voice was warm and conversational.

“What makes you think that was what I was trying to do?”

The man simply laughed, and Yuuri eventually joined in. “You mustn’t like your master much, to send them his way.”

“The mistress is worse,” Yuuri muttered with a smile as the man picked up his tankard and took a sip of ale.

“Great God almighty, them’s good suds. This ain’t what you gave me before.”

“There was some going spare.” Yuuri glanced over at the bar. The three were still busy.

“I appreciate it.”

“So are they relatives of yours?”

“Yes, for my sins. Edith’s my daughter, and Herbert’s her husband. My wife, God rest her soul, spoilt her from when she were a bairn, and I let her. More fool me. Ain’t been a day of peace in t’house since.”

Yuuri thought about this. “And they’re taking you to a hospital here? I thought they were for sick people.”

“Well as you’ve rightly observed, I ain’t sick. But I don’t know where you’re getting this idea of sick people in an hospital from, unless you’re thinking of lepers, and that ain’t one of my troubles at least. St. Leonard’s is the biggest hospital around; it’s next to the minster. You must’ve seen it, unless you’re new here.”

“I am. Are you going there to live, then?” Yuuri caught himself. “Sorry, I guess these are personal questions.”

“Ask away, my lad. It’s good to have someone to talk to besides that family of mine. To answer your question, yes, they’re unburdening themselves of me there.” He took another sip of ale, and lowered his voice as he said, “I guess I can’t blame them. I’m not much use to anyone anymore, and they’ll look after me at the hospital, I hope. No one there to call insults at me or make the evil eye when I pass by, though I don’t have to see them do it leastways.” He seemed lost in his thoughts and added nothing further.

Emboldened by his invitation to talk, Yuuri said, “Do you mind if I ask what happened to you? Were you, um, in an accident?”

After a pause, the man replied, “Ten year ago. I were delivering grain from our farm to the tithe barn. It were an ’ot dry summer, you see, and someone left a candle burning too close to some sacks of grain. Before I know’d it, everything inside were flaming like a torch. Three men were killed, and others such as myself were injured. I lost my sight, and my leg were so bad they had to cut it off.”

“Jesus,” was all Yuuri could think to say.

“I understand the scarring’s bad, too. I don’t think about it much, but I know how people react. Still,” he said, injecting a lighter tone to his voice that didn’t quite seem to fit, “God in his wisdom must’ve saved me for something. I’m still trying to figure out what it is. I were hoping you might be able to tell me about that hospital; I never been before.”

Yuuri was resting a hand over his mouth, wondering at the life this man must lead. “I didn’t even ask your name.”

“Henry Jago at your service. I’m a cordwainer, or used to be. Well, I still am. But I can’t make shoes fast enough anymore to earn a living from it.”

“You’re a shoemaker?”

“All my life. I just need a bit of help now. And more patience. I still make ’em for family and friends. But I guess you can understand where Edith’s coming from. I ain’t earning my keep, haven’t been since the fire.” He leaned forward and added in a conspiratorial tone tinged with frustration, “I can still do things. Help prepare food and cook it, fetch water, help wash. But Edith don’t let me most of the time. Says she’s embarrassed that her father’s doing women’s work. So what if it is? It’s important.”

“Quite right.”

“It were my own idea to go to the hospital. I think the only reason they didn’t send me sooner was that they’d have to pay. Edith, says I, I’ll be out of your hair and no more trouble to you. Then you both can get on with your lives and not worry about me, and so on, and so on. Well, I finally persuaded her. Can’t say as I’ll miss that damp smoky little house where I get a tongue-lashing from my own daughter too many times a day to count.” He seemed to have fallen into a stride with his story, playing with his fingers and tilting his head slightly upwards as he thought. “I hope things’ll be better at St. Leonard’s. I tell you what – I’m dreading having to go to mass three times a day, though.”

“Three times?” Yuuri echoed, aghast.

Henry Jago chuckled. “Can’t be helped, I suppose. These establishments are all run by the Church. And who knows – a bit of soul-saving prayer might not go amiss.”

“Oi, you, I ain’t paying you to sit here and pass the time of day with the guests.” Yuuri recognised Posy’s voice, and he turned to speak to her when Henry jumped in first.

“My good lady, don’t begrudge this lad a few minutes of his time to humour an old man. Business is hardly brisk tonight, from the sound of it. And anyway, if I were you, I’d find out what my two companions are telling your husband over there; I think there was a bit of a fuss.”

“Oh? About what?”

“My daughter was displeased with something about the food.”

“Oh.” Yuuri watched her march off to join Jacob, Edith and Herbert at the bar. Daisy, who was waiting on the other tables, glanced at him and smiled.

“Anyway, here I am, blithering about myself,” Henry continued. “It ain’t an easy life, and getting around can be a business. Takes two or three times longer to do everything than it used to. But I manage. Now – how about you? You ain’t told me your name either.”

“I…” Yuuri thought for a moment, then leaned in and spoke in a quiet voice, after looking around to make sure no one else was in hearing distance. “I’ve gone by a few names here, but my real one is Yuuri. I’m from a long way away. I…I panicked and ran away from where I was before I came here, even…” He sighed. Why was he telling Henry this? Maybe because he felt he’d keep the confidence, and then someone else here would know and understand, if only just a little. “Even though there were – are – people depending on me. I wasn’t sure how to fulfil their expectations. And now I don’t know how I can go back.”

“Hmm.” Henry rubbed at his stubbled chin. “I didn’t think you sounded much like an ale-house boy. You seem an educated gent to me. Wouldn’t these people you left want to see you again? Is it a family? Children?”

“No, nothing like that.” Yuuri bit his lip. “It’s hard to explain. They’re going to think I’m a coward for running away, and I’ll probably be punished. There are other ways my life would be in danger, too. But if I don’t go back, I’ll be ignoring some important responsibilities. And, um…” He huffed a small laugh. “You’re right, I can’t see a career as an ale-house boy in my future, either.”

“Sounds a right pickle and no mistake, Yuuri. I ain’t never heard a name like that before. Where’s it from?”

“A place called Japan. I doubt you’ll have heard of that either,” he said with a smile while trying to remember what it had been called at this time in history, but it eluded him.

“Well, Yuuri from Japan, tell me this – what will the consequences be if you carry on ignoring these important responsibilities?”

He looked down and swallowed. “People could die.”

“So you could die, or they could die. What’s the worst choice between the two?”

Victor. Anyone else Ailis victimises while she’s here. For all I know, countless people in the future, if she changes it.

“When you put it like that,” Yuuri said, looking up at him, “you make it sound so simple.”

There was a pause. Then Henry said pointedly, “Well – is it?”

 


“I’m going back, Phichit.”

“Back where – to the castle?”

Yuuri was leaning against the wall at the side of his bed, staring into the fire. “Yes.”

“In disguise?”

“Yes. As Justin.”

“I wouldn’t call that a disguise, though I suppose it is, really. But didn’t you say they might kill you if you went back? And that you were afraid of having more anxiety attacks?”

Yuuri gave a small sigh. “Yes. But those are chances I’ll have to take. As far as the anxiety goes, I’ve been managing it for years. When it starts to get on top of me again, I’ll try to remind myself to…I don’t know, maybe remove myself from the situation without travelling to the next city. Or not fly into a panic, and remember that ‘this too shall pass’ – a counsellor once told me that, and it’s hard to do, but maybe it gets easier with practice.” He got the feeling he was saying these things mostly to bolster his own courage, and paused a moment. “And maybe…maybe I’ll be able to convince the baron I’m sorry for what I did and that I don’t intend to do it again. Maybe someone will put in a good word for me. They might understand about me being distraught after Tyler’s challenge; I’m not sure.”

“You never thought they would before.”

“I know.”

“Then there’s that duel to the death.”

“That’s not something I’m going to forget about any time soon.”

“Celestino and I kind of need you not to be killed.” It was said with a note of irony, but Yuuri recognised the seriousness underneath.

“Believe me, I’m not keen on that either. I know my mission is important. But that’s one reason why I have to go back. Ailis is at the castle, she’s got to be. And I have to be there with her, if I’m going to stand a chance of catching her.”

One reason why you have to go back?”

“Well…I also made promises that I’ve been breaking. I have to try to fix that.”

“Yuuri, you’re not still hoping to change Victor’s death date, are you?” When Yuuri didn’t reply, he added, “We talked about that – ”

“I know. But what if you found out something like that about someone you…you cared about? I can’t let it happen if it’s in my power to stop it, Phichit. I won’t.”

There was a long pause. Then Phichit said, “Well that’s your choice to make. You just, um, you sound very certain about what you want to do all of a sudden. Did something happen to cause that?”

Yuuri blinked and stared at the fire. “I guess you could say I met someone who helped me put my own problems into perspective.”


He went to the market first thing in the morning, buying kitchen supplies for Jan, but also hoping to find a few treats to send with Henry. Yuuri had spoken with him a while longer the previous night before Edith and Herbert had returned; they had been plied with drink by Jacob and Posy until the woman seemed to have forgotten why she’d been rankled in the first place. Out of curiosity, Yuuri had asked Henry how shoes were made, and what his job had been like in the past, and what kinds of styles people tended to want. He had names for the extremely pointy ones now: Crakows and poulaines; and they both shared a laugh about them before Posy had ordered him back to work. But not before he was informed that Henry and his family were setting out for St. Leonard’s in the morning.

They were at a table drinking beer when Yuuri returned from the market. Hardly any of the guests ever ate breakfast, unless they had the money for the extra meal and needed the energy for a long walk, but Edith seemed to like her creature comforts. With a start, Yuuri saw a ceramic hand warmer on the table next to her. It was the first he’d seen since the one he’d shared with Victor, which he’d left in his room at the castle.

“I hope you all had a good night’s sleep,” he said by way of greeting as he approached.

“Well no, now that you ask,” Edith answered. “My mattress – ”

“Ah good,” Yuuri spoke blithely over her. “I thought you might enjoy these on your journey today.” He produced the small basket he’d been carrying. “Freshly baked white bread rolls. Courtesy of the Maltbys.”

Edith and Herbert half-stood and stared at the contents, looking pleasantly surprised. That gift had come from the money Posy had given him to take to market. What he had for Henry, however, he’d bought himself, and he wanted to get him away from the other two before he gave it. Thinking of a way to do it was proving difficult, however, until Henry came to his aid.

“Well, my lad, if you intend to stay awhile here in the city, I’d like to make you a pair of shoes, if it’s all right by you. I’ve brought all my tools with me.” He lifted a leather bag on the floor next to him. “They’re coming with me to the hospital. I daresay there might be a few people there in want of a good pair.”

Yuuri’s eyes widened. “I wouldn’t want to impose.”

“Nonsense. You’re the first person I’ve had a decent conversation with in ages. I been a bit worried about going to that hospital, truth be told, but it’s kind folk such as yourself who can put a bloke at ease and remind him there’s goodness in the world. And besides, judging from the clomp of them boots you wear, you could do with a good soft, comfy pair of indoor shoes. I just need to measure you up.” He began to reach inside his bag.

“Um, why don’t we go to a table of our own, so we don’t disturb your companions here.” Yuuri turned to Edith. “Won’t be a moment.” He saw her take a bread roll and bite into it, with Herbert following suit, as Henry took his crutches and then followed him to a table across the room. There was a scattering of guests at other tables, and little danger of being overheard by Henry’s relatives here, as he sat down on the bench and the older man settled next to him.

“Have you got room for these?” Yuuri whispered, placing a small sack in his hands. “Custard tarts. I thought you could take them to the hospital with you.”

A grin lit up Henry’s face. “Oh my dear boy, I can’t remember the last time I ate one of these. You’re too kind.”

“They’re not exactly shoes,” Yuuri laughed as Henry carefully placed the sack inside his leather bag.

“Speaking of that, take them boots off and let’s get your feet measured.”

Yuuri did so, keeping half an eye out for the Maltbys in case they wanted to tell him off for shirking again. He also noted with interest that the tape measure Henry uncoiled was a thin soft leather strap with notches cut into the side at regular intervals. He counted these with his fingers while he held the strap against his feet; and when Yuuri asked him if he needed something to record the measurements with, he was impressed to hear that Henry always committed such things to memory.

“It were a bit tricky in the heyday of my career, mind you,” he said, “but not so hard now. Yours is the first order I’ve taken in a while. By the by, I’ve got some pieces of leather in my bag – fancy choosing which you want?” He drew out a stack of squares of different colours and thicknesses, and Yuuri ran his fingers along them, feeling he hardly deserved such generosity, though he had every intention of paying for the shoes when they were done.

Are you staying in the city, Yuuri?” Henry asked.

“You’d better call me John,” he said. “If certain people found out who I really am, I…well, it wouldn’t be good, though I don’t suppose there’s much risk here.”

“I like saying your name. It’s musical, almost.”

Yuuri paused and looked at him. “Thank you. And, um, I don’t intend to stay here in York, no. But I won’t be far away. The place I came from is Crowood Castle, and I’ve decided to trust to luck and go back.”

“A castle?” Henry echoed in surprise. “Don’t tell me you was serving drinks there.”

Yuuri chuckled. “No. I had them served to me. I was a knight.”

Henry sucked in a breath. “Sweet mother a’mercy. You’re fooling with me.”

“No, it’s the truth. Another knight challenged me to a duel to the death, and no one thought I could beat him. I didn’t think so, either. So, um, like I said, I panicked. But I’m going to go back and train, if they’ll let me, and hope I stand a chance.”

Henry huffed and shook his head. “It’s a funny old world. But good on you, son. I tell you what. Give ’im hell, Yuuri. Then come see me at St. Leonard’s, and get your shoes, and we’ll swap stories of our adventures.”

Yuuri stared at him; and when a smile appeared under the hood, Yuuri laughed and promised he would.       


Henry remembers all his customers’ shoe sizes. A bunch of numbers. I can’t even remember a simple shopping list.

Yuuri pulled the collar of his coat closer around his neck as he walked quickly down the streets back to the Shambles market. While he’d remembered all the food supplies that Jan needed, Posy’s skeins of wool had slipped his mind. But they weren’t exactly required for the running of the ale-house, and he couldn’t see why she didn’t just go and get them herself. He’d been tempted to tell her as much while she lit into him for his omission, but eventually he decided to simply leave the building and get it over with. Though he was regretting not having gone to his room for his hat. The tops of his ears were starting to feel numb from the cold.

Strange how saying goodbye to Henry that morning had felt like losing a friend. They’d known each other less than a day. But Yuuri had found him compelling. He wasn’t sure he’d fare as well in such a situation, and didn’t want to try to imagine it. It amazed him that the older man was still able to make shoes, though perhaps it shouldn’t. People with disabilities in modern times were given whatever support they needed. Support being the operative word. There were no restorative medical procedures here, no tech; and from what he’d seen of them, Edith and Herbert would be a nightmare to live with. No wonder Henry had decided to live somewhere else. Yuuri wondered when he’d be able to return here to visit him at the hospital. That was assuming he’d have his life and his freedom to do so.  

You’ve made your decision. What will be, will be. Don’t give yourself another anxiety attack about it.

The usual noises of the market soon reached his ears, as traders bundled in layers and hats hawked their wares. Passing the tall white stone pillar with steps circling its base and a cross at the top which marked the site of the market in traditional fashion, he spotted the haberdashery stall he was in search of and headed toward it.

Before reaching it, however, he came to a standstill as sounds of a commotion came from around the corner. The clop of hoofs, shouts, some kind of trumpet. They didn’t have parades in these days, did they? Had some kind of public event been scheduled? But as he glanced around, Yuuri saw many other bemused faces as people turned in curiosity toward the road from the north that he knew in modern times as Silver Street. The trumpet blasts grew steadily louder.

Finally, a boy dressed in the finery of a page from a castle, with fur robes and bright green hose that tapered to points at the feet, emerged with the crude-looking brass instrument at his lips, followed by a small retinue of noble-looking men on horseback and on foot. Rich cloaks and sleeves that trailed heavily, embroidered gloves, chaperons and fur-trimmed hoods, all of it exuded wealth. A horse at the back of the procession was being led by two men; Yuuri caught an initial glimpse of a shining white coat with black polka dots. He’d seen a horse like that at the castle stables; they were beautiful animals. But on closer inspection, he observed that a person was draped over the saddle face up, with ropes lashing them in place.

“What the hell?” he breathed.

“Looks like they’ve caught a criminal,” a woman next to him commented, sounding keenly interested.

With their slight build, the prisoner looked like a woman or a child. Even on such a cold day, they’d been left with nothing but rags as clothing; Yuuri couldn’t tell from this angle whether they even had shoes on their feet. Arms and legs and face were smeared with mud, the pale skin underneath like marble. Short fair hair. Were they still alive, or were these men bringing a corpse into the middle of town?

Yuuri watched in horrified fascination as the procession neared, the page once again blasting on the trumpet. The surrounding crowd gave way as the first of the horses reached the market cross.

A familiar-looking horse. This slip of a person. There’s something familiar about this. What is it? His skin began to crawl as he wracked his brain for the information that eluded him.

A hand pulled him backward by his coat so that he, too, made way. And as the dappled horse passed before him, its helpless passenger staring upside-down with terrified green eyes, Yuuri gasped as he finally recognised who it was.

Julius.  

Chapter Text

A man with curling black hair down to his shoulders and a tidy beard and moustache came to stand at the side of the page near the market cross. His luxuriant brown fur cape hung down to his calves, and he had a matching hat pulled down to his ears. Looking around as the horse Julius was roped to was led to him, he pulled off his black velvet gloves and prepared to address the swelling crowd. Yuuri rushed toward him before he began, but another man in front of him quickly drew a sword, halting his progress.

“What’s happening here?” Yuuri demanded.

“Take him off the horse and keep him trussed,” the man said to the others nearby, and they began to untie Julius, who watched their actions silently. Then the man turned back to Yuuri and asked in a voice that contained both contempt and mild amusement, “Who are you?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Yuuri replied. “Why have you got that boy tied up? Do you know who he is?” When there was no immediate answer, he added, looking around, “Tell me what’s going on.”

The man chuckled. “I doubt you have the authority to give orders to me or anyone else, churl. Go to, be off with you.”

Yuuri began to move forward again, only to have the sword brandished at him. “That’s Julius, Sir Victor Nikiforov’s squire. Where’s Sir Victor? Does he know what you’re doing?”

“I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about,” the man said dismissively as the wobbly Julius was helped to stand. He was wearing a rough sack with holes cut for arms and the bottom cut off for his legs, with a rope tied around his waist. Patches of dark mud clung to his pale skin. Yuuri was relieved to see he still had boots on his feet, but it was precious little clothing in the cold, and the boy was shivering, green eyes flitting to and fro – and then they alit on him.

“Justin!” he cried; but two men had a secure grip on him, and he was still bound by the ropes.

“You see? He knows me,” Yuuri said. “Why – ”

“I said get back and leave us in peace,” the man replied. “If you create a public disturbance, I’ll have you arrested.”

“But – ” Yuuri was silenced by the point of the sword poked at his face. He could draw his own, of course, but he would be no match for all of these men, and so he hung back in frustration even as Julius struggled, his spirit seemingly rekindled upon recognising him.

“Who is that?” Yuuri asked a woman in a wimple standing next to him, tilting his head at the one who’d ordered him away.

“That’s Master Dalrymple, the sheriff,” she replied in a low voice. “You don’t want to go bothering him or his men. They’ve caught a criminal and are taking him to be punished.”

Yuuri gasped. “What are they going to do to him? He’s just a boy! And he’s the squire of Baron Nikiforov’s son!”

“You must have him mistaken for someone else; looks like an evil little ragamuffin to me. Probably been pilfering from somebody, I wouldn’t be surprised.”

He opened his mouth to reply, but the page blew another blast on his trumpet, and then the sheriff said in the loud, smooth voice of someone who was used to public speaking, “Good people of this fair city, it is with the deepest sorrow that I present to you to this criminal who has been living in our midst.” He gestured to the men who were holding Julius, and they dragged him forward. There was a murmur throughout the crowd, and Dalrymple continued, “Do not let his humble appearance fool you. This is a cunning beggar and thief who preys upon the innocent as they travel over road and through wood. I caught him attempting to filch my coin purse while I was returning home with my men. What would you have me do with this villainous knave?”

To Yuuri’s horror, loud jeers poured from the crowd, as well as enthusiastic suggestions from men and women, young and old.

“Hang him!”

“Stretch his neck!”

“The whipping-post!”

“Chain him up in the dungeon!”

“Put him in the pillory!”

Julius blinked, and Yuuri was certain he could see tears silently slipping down his cheeks. He surged forward, though he met with the sword point again. “There’s been a mistake,” he said urgently. “I don’t know how you came across him. But he’s Sir Victor’s squire – was he travelling with his master? If not, release him into my care, and – ”

“I told you,” the sheriff growled, approaching him until they were eye to eye, “I found him in the woods trying to rob me.” His gaze travelled over Yuuri. “Who are you, who dare to be so bold?”

“I’m Sir Justin Courtenay, knight of the Nikiforovs,” Yuuri announced, a fire leaping within him. “And I demand you let this squire go. He’s not a thief.”

A chorus of laughs encircled him, from the sheriff and his men as well as the crowd. “The serving boy and the beggar, with delusions immensely beyond their stations. I ought to teach you a lesson after I’ve seen to this fellow, but you amuse me more than my lord’s jester.” More quietly, so that only Yuuri could hear, he added, “One more word out of you, jack my lad, and I’ll have your head on a spike.” Then he gestured for his men to follow him and the page, and they headed down the street.

Heart racing, Yuuri followed. Julius was prodded by his guards to move, and his black and white horse was led away. The crowd continued to bay while Yuuri was swept along with them, keeping the boy in his sights.

They hadn’t gone far before they stopped at a church Yuuri recognised as St. Crux. And with a shudder, he realised where they were: Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma Gate. That was what the short street was called in modern times. People laughed; tourists came to take photos. Because here in 1393 – as was plain to see now – stood the city’s whipping post and pillory.

Yuuri fought through the crowd to get a better view. Where was Victor? But the two of them combined would still be far outnumbered – and it was probably not advisable to attack a city’s sheriff. Yet he couldn’t just stand here and watch Julius be harmed and possibly killed. His hand remained poised over the hilt of his sword, even though he knew that drawing it would be foolhardy.

“Since you’re such a lively gathering,” the sheriff announced, “my judgement is that this criminal will be put in the pillory for three days and nights, left to your goodly judgement. Do what you will to him during that time, to teach him the error of his ways.” With a wave of his hand, his men opened the pillory and untied Julius, then forced him over to the wooden contraption, where he stood with his head resting at the bottom of the main hole, his hands on either side. The top was slammed down and fastened shut, and the sheriff said to the crowd, “My men and I will take our leave. Allow us to depart and then have at it, my good law-abiding folk.” He made a bow and then went on his way, his men following with Julius’s horse.

“Let him out – he’s innocent!” Yuuri shouted, trying to shove his way forward, but his voice was drowned out by the crowd, who had begun throwing objects at Julius: vegetables, liquids, and what looked like dung off the streets. Julius screwed his eyes shut, wrestling uselessly to free himself, his face a picture of pain and misery. A tear trickled down Yuuri’s own cheek to see it, and he redoubled his efforts, although a guard was standing nearby.

“Let me through, damn it, let me – ”

“Here, stop that!” a burly man he was trying to plough past turned and grumbled. “You ain’t supposed to touch ’em, and you can’t release ’em – only the sheriff’s allowed to do that.” He gave Yuuri a shove with his shoulder. “Clear off. He deserves what he gets.”

“He’s the baron’s – ” Yuuri began to protest, but he was interrupted again.

“I don’t care if he’s the baron’s lap dog. Though I can’t see how anyone like that could possibly be a squire, any more than you could be a knight. You’re mad, you are. Now piss off.”

Julius cried out again, and the guard menaced his sword at someone in the crowd. “No glass or ceramic, no stones, nothing hard – you know the rules. Now mind.”

I can’t stand here and let them do this. Yuuri was filled with the desire to march straight up to Julius’s wooden prison, pull it to pieces, and carry him away if he could.

Think, think, think – what can I do?

Then the spark of an idea ignited his brain, and he turned and ran.


“Who did you say you were again?” The helmeted guard outside the castle gate eyed Yuuri.

“Sir Justin Courtenay, son of Baron Courtenay. I need to speak with your master.” He assumed he ranked well above the person he was addressing in the feudal hierarchy, and had tried to look the part by projecting Victor’s blue houppelande and hose underneath a rich fur cape, complete with the black chaperon that went with it. He wished he’d thought of doing so at the market before he’d spoken with the sheriff, but everything had happened so quickly that the possibility hadn’t occurred to him. Well, he would do his best to make up for it now. Assuming that someone of authority must be here, he’d raced across the city and approached the main castle.

“’Tis a strange request, sir, if you don’t mind my saying. Are you here by yourself?” Yuuri nodded. “I hope you weren’t expecting his grace to be here. If you had an appointment, then – ”

“Who is this person?” came a voice from the gatehouse corridor behind the guard, and a man with a blond beard and wearing sumptuous furs approached, his pointy-toed hose matching Yuuri’s in style, though they were red. He spoke in a bored drawl, and when he held his hand up in what appeared to be an idle gesture of faintly annoyed curiosity, many rings glittered.

Yuuri repeated the information, and said he’d come on an urgent mission to speak to someone who was in charge of the law in the city.

“That would be Sheriff Dalrymple, since his grace the duke is presently away. I am his steward, the authority here until he returns. Pray, what is this urgent mission?”

Yuuri told him about the sheriff appearing at the marketplace with Julius, and how he was sure a grave error had been made. “Sir Victor must be looking for him, and when he discovers what’s happened – ”

The steward’s brow wrinkled. “You say this mud-besmeared slip of a lad in sacking is a squire? I don’t see how Dalrymple could possibly make such a mistake.”

“Hasn’t – hasn’t Victor ever come here?” Yuuri ventured, assuming aristocrats visited each other. “You must’ve seen him – ”

The man gave an impatient wave of his hand. “Yes, yes, the Nikiforovs have been here on a few occasions. We rarely have dealings with each other, however, and you can’t expect me to recall some squire who tagged along. I don’t know what you’re on about, sir, but I have no time to spend on contesting the sheriff’s decisions regarding a beggar, or whatever he is. Now, if you’ll excuse me – ”

“The duke – ” Yuuri jumped in. “ – where is he? When do you expect him back?”

“He’s gone hunting in the Dales to the west,” sighed the steward. “I expect he and his sons will be away for another week yet. Now I really must – ”

“The castle across the river, then,” Yuuri blurted, grabbing at any feasible possibility he could think of. “Who lives there?”

“It hasn’t been in proper use for over a hundred years, and is in the hands of the archbishop.” After a pause, the steward added, “He won’t overrule the sheriff, but you might get him to say a prayer for the soul of this ‘squire’ you’re so concerned with.” And with huff, he walked past Yuuri and was greeted not far away by a small group of official-looking people who obviously knew him well.

“I think that will be all,” the guard said to him with a steely glare.   


Yuuri returned to Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma Gate on his way back to The Black Dog, projecting his own simpler clothing so as not to stand out. The crowd had largely dispersed, though people were still hurling physical and verbal insults at Julius as they passed by. He was sickened by the way the lad was standing limply, head hanging, hardly appearing human underneath all the filth that had been pelted at him. The stones under his feet and the church wall behind him were also coated in it. The guard – a stout man with shaggy straw-coloured hair and beard, wearing a simple metal helmet – continued his vigil a short distance back, and he kept a close eye as Yuuri approached.

Maybe I could overpower this jack. But there