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High Sparks of Honour

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The king cannot sleep, and so there are lights in his chambers at odd hours, demands for such-and-such a book, or for a decree signed three months ago, or for the Lord Chancellor to attend him immediately, as if he has forgotten that it is three in the morning and that other men do, in fact, sleep.

At other times he paces his chamber, picking his way from bed to door and back again, like a bear in a cage, pacing himself by corners into a sort of sleepless madness, step by step.

Occasionally the sounds of a lute may be heard, played very quietly with some skill.

Henry has suffered from sleeplessness all of his life; before the walls of Vilnius, he had slept one night in three, and that night woke gasping as if hands had already closed around his neck and tomorrow’s battle were already joined. It had passed directly after the siege, as if all it had been was a little want of space and solitude, a moment without the messy vagaries of life on campaign. And again, in Venice, before he passed on to Jerusalem, and before that, the night in the Tower he had spent sleepless on his knees, praying in a bone-shaking fear at the thought of the seas of men loose in the streets of London.

His wife had attributed it to a nervous temperament, to fretting and the times when he felt worried or trapped, whether by walls or his father or his own thoughts; secretly, he had credited the time in Venice to some angel or saint urging him on to the Holy Land.

He had slept the best nights of his life in Jerusalem, separated by miles and miles from England, and English cares, and the English king.

All his life, all his life – and why should it be the worse now? Sleep is the refuge of the troubled, of those wishing to escape the endless travails of the every-day world, but now, to Henry (untroubled, please God, untroubled by any thought or deed, but by which lengths he has attained this state –) an unknown country, to be found only after long and harsh sojourn, and worse, he finds himself unable (unwilling) to find a cause for it. In France he slept soundly enough, and on the ship back to England. Less well as he marched through England, but that was to be expected. But the night after his coronation, he had tossed and turned in his bed, and since the crown touched his head, each night is a private torment, to be fought until the dawn, as if the crown’s touch had struck him down, left him cursed and withered.

Henry is not, he tells himself fiercely, a superstitious man; it is not rational to suppose that the two are in any way related, to even think that. But his skin has burst forth again, red marks on his face and hands, and though it is only a mild complaint, something he has suffered from before now, men say leprosy, and, more quietly, accursed.

It is not guilt. It is not guilt, only a need for ease, some air, some time – and how can he have any of that, when he has a kingdom to set to rights, the North grumbling, the Welsh coming close to rebellion? Even the court is uneasy, treading carefully around the events of the past few months, trying too hard to forget the old king, now safely ensconced in the ground.

Things would feel more settled, Henry knows, if only he could sleep. He lies on his bed for hour after hour, gazing into the gloom, even sleeps for a little while, but then he wakes in the small hours, when there is nothing to put between him and his thoughts, no shield, no wall, no sword to hold off the darkest side of the night.

*

It is safer, to think of his childhood, to remember climbing trees and his first suit of armour, but there Richard creeps in, at four or five, the new-met cousin, standing out amongst the general herd of small cousins who were forever being packed off and told to stay out of the way by virtue of the French turn to his vowels.

Henry can’t remember that first meeting, only wanting a boy of his own age instead of endless sisters, and the disappointment when that boy turned out to be Richard, already casually imperious, looking loftily down at Henry from a height incongruous with the slightness of his frame. They were friends, and rivals, and then friends again, in the lapse of a day, yet for all that, his memories of Richard as a child were hazy. He should remember Richard better before, as he does after. Before; after – as if the span of years in which he had been king were no more than a particularly vivid fever dream. But then Richard had often been closeted in lessons with Simon Burley, or being hauled off to stand silently next to his mother at his father’s sickbed.

The constant whispered awareness behind all of that: Uncle Edward dying gracelessly somewhere in the background, not that the adults ever mentioned it in front of them. They knew though. Be kinder to your cousin Richard, his father had said to him, though kinder was not a word that came frequently to his lips. He’s your grandfather’s heir, after his father – and had broken off, and bit his lip in an unfamiliar gesture of uncertainty. The child’s casual uncaring had forgotten, of course, that Uncle Edward was his father’s elder brother, and it must have gone hard with him too, if anything could ever be said to go hard with John of Gaunt.

There was still time for small joys, small mischiefs committed together, stealing apples and bread from the kitchens and eating them, laughing, in a hidden corner of the courtyard.

Richard was sharp, even then, fast with words and leaving Henry stumbling behind, always aware of having failed to say the right thing, but for a long while, there was always a way of getting over the pause in the conversation.

*

“My mother’s dead,” he’d blurted a month after the funeral.

Richard had turned to him and slowly raised one eyebrow, which really shouldn’t have been intimidating on a nine year old boy, but somehow was on Richard.

“And?” he’d said, at his most haughty.

“I meant that – I meant that I understand – ”

Richard’s face had gone very still, and Henry shifted back, regretting ever opening his mouth.

“You don’t,” said Edward’s heir, “Understand anything at all.”

*

On the day of his coronation, Richard had been all but swallowed by the crowd even later when Simon Burley had set him on his shoulders. He’d had an otherworldly look about him, though, as if the anointing had set him physically apart from other men, and the gleam of his hair had reminded Henry of the gilded pictures of angels, of saints with their halos.

He’d looked the same the day he rode out from the Tower to meet with the rebels, very small and splendid amidst the mass of men accompanying him. Henry had spent the day, as with the night, trying very hard to pray, so as not to think about what might be happening outside, and what would be certain to happen if the rebels got into the Tower. Later, he’d briefly resented Richard for it, for having had the chance to be heroic and kingly, while all Henry had had was a knife held to his neck and men baying for his blood, for being his father’s son.

*

Richard’s court had been golden, all wit and poetry and art, and next to the cohort of Richard’s personal friends, Henry had felt himself a block, well enough for jousting but never able to match the back-and-forth, the fight with words instead of swords. Dull and stolid honour, for a dull and stolid man, always coming in at the wrong moment with the wrong word.

Even jealousy was too bright an emotion, too sharp, but he had never liked Richard’s friends. Anne he had known too little, Robert too well, and on and on and on – youthful rivalries and concerns, that at thirty-three should be dismissed, not kept to be poured over furiously in the depths of the night.

By then they had both been married, and the gap between them seemed a chasm, ever growing; one could not call the king a fool, or clasp him by the arm and tell him he was making mistakes. Well, one could, but only if the king liked one, and any early liking for one another seemed vanished into smoke.

Richard had never quite forgiven him for joining with the Appellants, anyway.

So Henry had watched and seethed with something that he refused to call jealousy, at the succession of young men who could touch the king with impunity, whom Richard laughed with now.

 

*

Another funeral, and he stood with his cousin and could not breach the silence.

Richard seemed to have exhausted himself on the incident with Arundel, all emotion quenched in the blood soiling the abbey floor, and so now Henry stood staring at his back, trying to decide if he was expected to say anything.

He wanted to reach out across to Richard, as they had done as children, wanted to say again, “she’s dead too,” but God forbid Richard be outdone in grief, he though savagely, God forbid –

Richard turned round, and there was nothing in his face. Nothing at all.

*

Mowbray was something he had thought could be righted, a small piece of honour, but he should have known, he thought, he should have known Richard wouldn’t even let him have that, would still, after all these years, be exacting some unquantifiable price on his head.

Before, as he’d knelt to kiss Richard’s hand, he had noticed a thoughtfulness in his cousin’s face, but had dismissed it in the details of taking his leave.

Richard had kissed him in return, before he’d gone to the field, ostentatiously a kinsman’s kiss, a sharp and unkind gesture that shifted slightly towards the end, into something more ambiguous. Henry had kissed back, and hated himself for it a little.

 

*

Richard had always been able to make him feel the fool. The little scene days and weeks later, the farce of uncrowning was only an assertion of that, and God, it wasn’t fair, for Richard to martyr himself now. The whole thing was final, unconvertible proof of Richard being wrong, and then Richard had spoilt his righteous anger by humiliating him.

He remembered the mocking kiss Richard had given him, before the aborted combat, the short heat of it, thought back further to the endless years of distance and irritation, of saying the wrong thing and being rebuffed by someone he’d grown up with, jealously and exasperation and anger at being dealt with unfairly, the seizure of his inheritance, greedy and pointless and unnecessary, all twined together, and his anger returned.

The words – have I no friend will rid me of this living fear – were the mark of frustration only, he had meant nothing more, he told himself, no subtler meaning behind them, but they were the wrong words again, and the silence that answered them final.

A neat if bloody ending, Richard’s body on the floor, Exton’s confusion, the court whispering behind him, himself in a parody of horror, hands caught over the coffin. The only ending possible, if he admitted it to himself, but all the while a small voice had been going, but I never meant to kill him.

*

There are no amends to be made for this. Jerusalem is out of his reach, even as he promises pilgrimage and penance, and Richard haunts his every movement, his every action, the court measuring and comparing him to his predecessor, this seen as a continuation, that seen as a pointed refutation of everything Richard had done and been.

Once, and only once, when a light sleep has crept over him and surprised him, he dreams of Richard. Not of the king, carelessly cruel and kind, not of the bitter, shattered fragments left behind the king, but of the boy, tilting his head back in the sun to laugh over stolen apples.

*

The king lies waiting for dawn. The little ghosts of night wind themselves around his neck and keep him, choking, from sleep.