“Power tires only those who do not have it.”
– Giulio Andreotti
Extract from the public files, Number 2988, Volume 16, State Library of Britannia.
“History - Chapter Summary:
The Mediatory (Artificial Intelligence) Agent [M.A.I.A] is operating system of the Board of the UN. MAIA became operational in the year 184 A.W. for the purposes of governing international disputes. It was created from a shared belief that, in order to avoid the detriments of the Last War in this civilised age, a non-human, non-biased and intelligent mediator was necessary.
MAIA’s base code was first drafted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth Kirkland in 175 A.W. and redrafted in 178 following the Versailles Convention, which introduced key parameters limiting the extent to which MAIA could intervene in case of likely death or actions occasioning grievous bodily harm (see 3.52). Following extensive disputes, which eventually led to Germany’s expulsion from the UN, the prototype was destroyed by His Majesty Ludwig Beilschmidt the First. Therein followed what was commonly known as the War of the Glasses, the last dispute to be ever conducted beyond the borders of The Board. (For more information on the War of the Glasses, see Volume 15.) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth Kirkland eventually secured a victory, and MAIA was installed. It now operates within the original constitution, as passed by the Versailles Convention, of which Germany became a signatory retrospectively in the year 470 A.W. following coronation of His Majesty Ludwig Beilschmidt the Second.
In the last nine centuries, MAIA has undergone cosmetic revisions only, motivated by the fear that any real rewriting would introduce human bias in the Mediator (see 2.33). It operates as a failsafe system only, minimising death, needless injury and other such uncivilised occurrences that were so prevalent before the Last War. It does not govern nor influence any operating systems beyond the board. According to the Convention, regular examination by the UN is required to ensure that MAIA remains below a 5 on the Chalmerdian scale for Artificial Consciousness (see 2.34). MAIA currently rates a 2 on the Chalmerdian scale. Courtiers are connected to The Board’s neural interface only during official Games. The server is currently protected in undisclosed location near the northeast boarder of Switzerland.
(for technical specifications of MAIA, please refer to file number 2989.)
The Kirkland Estate, London, Brittannia. Year 988 A.W. (After the War)
The Court resided in a castle overlooking the ocean. It hung, suspended at the lip of a cliff, a strange architectural sigh of glass and sandstone. There were faux battlements and a ribbon of glowing water running in its moat – but neither was what protected the castle from attack. The Queen had long since abandoned most traditional means of enforcement; enveloping his family estate in magic that sank its claws and teeth into the steal and glass. It gave the place an eerie glow after sunset; and they said there was no reflection of the castle at all in the sea below.
The sound of the waves kept time; steady and relentless as the march of Germany’s pawns from the north.
Buried deep in the estate was the King’s personal chambers. Only the Highest-ranking courtiers had access to these rooms, and no pawn had ever set foot inside the silver walls. They whispered that the King’s Rooms held unimaginable secrets, the key to the floating estate and their austere Queen. Others said there was a garden there that never saw light, with leaves the colour of burgundy wine and a King who did not come out. Some said the room didn’t exist at all; the King was locked up in the West Wing and fed on summer fruits all year round. A few whispered that the Queen had killed the King long ago so that no one could ever seize Britannia, should a Game be challenged.
None of the stories were true: The King was currently no were near his rooms, nor locked up.
He was hanging off the side of the estate walls.
“Okay, okay,” Alfred muttered, lowering himself a few more feet, “Easy does it. Eaaaasy.”
He wriggled his fingers inside his bastardised gauntlets, making sure he could hear the reassuring hiss of pneumatic levers being disengaged before pressing his palm back to the smooth surface of wall. Giving his hand a quick pull, Alfred decided it was working and let go of the wall with his left hand, letting the levers disengage again before attaching it to the wall and repeating the process with his right hand.
Slowly, he inched his way down the outside of the house.
He could barely hear anything over the wind roaring from the ocean, but even at this distance, the sound was muted, as if reverberating outside a glass dome. Arthur’s magic, no doubt.
But it was quite clear that Arthur’s magic never really anticipated someone trying to climb out of their bedroom window and straight down. Not when the entire estate was some two hundred miles in the air, and Alfred’s own rooms several more miles above that.
His nose and ears were freezing off.
“Paranoid psycho,” Alfred said to himself, “Don’t go anywhere without an escort, my king, it’s too much of a risk, my king, blah blah b- AHHH – “
A strong gust of wind lifted Alfred up and outward from the smooth stone, and for one stomach lurching moment, he thought the gauntlet wasn’t going to hold his body weight…before he was slammed back up against the wall with a resounding crack. He could taste blood in his mouth, and Alfred coughed, quickly slapping his free hand the wall and grounding himself.
His chest ached from the impact, and he glanced down reflexively. The soft blue glow from his Glass seemed to be the same, stray flickers of light filtering through the thick fabric of his shirt. Nothing seemed to have broken or cracked, and Alfred told himself not to be an idiot. Glass was created to withstand more than a mere whack. He could probably fall all the way to the ground right now and the Glass would be okay. Probably.
He should definitely not test that theory, no matter how powerful James was at healing.
Alfred scanned his surroundings through the tinted sheen of his visor, letting his gaze linger from his feet to the ground and letting the AI calculate the distance. The wind picked at the corners of his trousers like fingers and whispers, and Alfred ran his tongue over his bust lip.
“Right,” he said, “You can do this. You can do this. At least you’re not bored now.”
He reached the ground roughly forty minutes later, boots hissing as it touched the soft manicured grass. When nothing screamed and leapt out at him, Alfred let out a sigh of relief and straightened, quirking his head to the left in a practiced movement. The helm drew back from his face and head until it had sheathed itself back into the nondescript form of his glasses.
Alfred fist pumped.
“Fucking succeed!” he whispered to himself, grinning at nothing in particular. He took a deep breath, savouring the sharp bite of late autumn air, the salt on his tongue and the wind in his hair. Charles had told him stories of intruders being incinerated as soon as they stepped foot on the estate – if they managed to get up here in the first place. But the magical wards must recognise him (or something) because nothing came out of the darkness to shoot, kill or maim Alfred as he made his way slowly through the east garden and towards the fruit trees that lined the low wall on the edge of the floating estate.
In the moonlight, the estate towered above Alfred, black and silver like the ocean surface. A few of the windows were lit, but there were no silhouettes there. Alfred took another deep breath and walked on, catching his hand on the smoothly polished stone and letting that guide him all the way around the perimeter.
There was something curious about the Queen’s Garden. Alfred had only been in here once before, with Arthur at his elbow and the overwhelming prospect of a new life ahead of him. Now, alone in the wee hours of the morning, Alfred thought he had underestimated the size of this place.
It seemed that the seasons had no bearing on the estate. The grass was soft and lush around his ankles, the tree branches weighed down with fruit. Absently, Alfred plucked a large orange from an overhanging branch and dug his fingernail in with relish.
He took his stolen snack to the low wall and perched there, peeling the fruit and inhaling the space that seemed to stretch on and on in all directions. To his right, he could see the sparkling lights of London, dense and bright, lining a shining wall against the inky blackness of the ocean. He traced the line of the coast with a sticky finger, drawing a line all the way up to the moon. Beyond that, was just sky and sea – so much wider than the framed slice from his bedroom window. Taking a deep breath, Alfred peered over the edge of the wall, but found that he could see very little except that dizzying sensation of space stretching for miles and miles below him. He could just make out the roots of the estate, the translucent spikes he knew held the elevators which would set you gently to earth. He had been in one, with Matthew, when they had first been brought here.
With a furtive glance around him, Alfred dropped the orange peel over the wall and watched it flutter out of sight. For a long moment, he simply squinted into the blackness. Then he pulled back down, lying in the grass so that he breathed in earth and yesterday’s rain.
Matthew catches Alfred the third time he sneaks out, descending upon him in a silent whirl of rage and indignation. Literally. He dropped, ninja like out of nowhere and slammed Alfred face first into the ground, forcing all the air out of his lungs in a painful woosh of breath.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” his bother hissed, voice inches from Alfred’s ear.
Alfred pretended not to hear because his head was still ringing from the fall and oww. Matthew was a bitch. Alfred tried to push himself upright using his elbows, but Matthew flattened him to the ground again which – he had clearly been training because in the not so distant past, there was no way Matthew could have flattened anyone, let alone Alfred.
“Ow, Mattie!” Alfred complained through a mouthful of grass.
“Seriously!” hissed Matthew. “What are you doing out here? Are you crazy?”
“I was eating strawberries,” said Alfred, peevishly, “emphasis on the past tense.”
“There are strawberries in the kitchen!”
“I wanted to get out for a bit!”
“So you are insane. Why did I even ask. You realise, when Arthur finds out, he will take your balls, take a knife and – “
Alfred flipped them over. It didn’t take much effort, not with his mutation being what it was, but Matthew had always been the quicker of the two of them and it was easier to catch him off guard than trying to force him to do anything outright. As it were, there was a blur, a displacement where Matthew was then wasn’t, before he looped his arm around Alfred’s neck, into a headlock. Alfred made a frustrated noise wrestled his brother to the ground. Then sat on him.
The night was quiet apart from Matthew’s wheezing breaths and Alfred’s own exhales, loud in the stillness. Alfred’s visor was back, the way it always appeared when his heartbeat soared. A defence mechanism, Charles had explained. A failsafe. Through the visor, Mattie’s face was tinted blue, expression pinched and annoyed.
“You are an ass,” said Matthew, finally. “Let me up.”
“Are you going to tattle?” said Alfred, suspiciously.
“Am I going to – “ spluttered Matthew, “No. No, I won’t, okay. But you are going to go back inside and promise me that you’re not going to sneak out again by yourself.”
Alfred shifted his butt and crossed his arms.
“Then I’m not moving.”
“I just wanted to get out for a bit!” exclaimed Alfred, frustration and irritation overflowing, “Jesus, is that a crime now?”
Matthew shifted on the ground, trying to get up. Alfred dug his heels into the ground and felt a wiggle of vindictive satisfaction in his stomach when his brother failed to heave him off. Good to know that they were still clear on who was the older twin in this relationship.
“Yes, when it can get you killed. Stop being so immature – “
“I don’t think wanting five minutes of fresh air to myself is immature,” said Alfred, throwing up his arms, “You can’t talk. You’re not the one locked up inside all day –“
“You’re not locked up, don’t exaggerate Al – ”
“Not being allowed outside without someone coming with me,” said Alfred, counting off on his fingers, “Not allowed to go into the city even though you guys all come and go as you please, not being able to meet foreign delegates without half the Pawns in front of me, not allowed to take a freaking piss without you popping up at my elbow - !”
“I’ve never - what do you want me to do about it?” snapped Matthew, “You know why, we know why – we’ve known since the first day here. It’s been twenty years Al. When can you calm down and accept that things are the way they are because you’re not some random now. You’re King.”
“King. I’m just a nuclear receptacle, like the rest of you. Except I take in the most trash. Lucky me.”
Matthew’s mouth thinned out into a flat line of displeasure.
“You know what would happen if you died. You know.”
“Well maybe it’s not such a bad idea, considering all I’m doing now is – “
“Al,” said Matthew, quietly.
And just like that, all the emotion drained out of Alfred like rainwater through fingers. He exhaled slowly, rubbing his face with his hands before shifting off Matthew’s back and onto the ground.
Matthew sat up with a groan.
“You’re so fucking heavy.”
Alfred gave him a narrowed eyed look.
“Serves you right.”
“I think my insides are crushed.”
“What did I just say?”
“Sorry,” Alfred muttered under his breath.
Matthew nudged him with his shoulder; acceptance of an apology. They were the same height, and sitting there in the grass side by side, it was a throwback to younger days. Alfred drew the night air closer, and they sat in the quiet for a little while, faces illuminated by the Glass embedded in their chests, reflecting off their glasses.
Finally, Matthew spoke.
“Let’s go back inside before someone comes out looking.”
Straightening to his feet, Matthew brushed the dirt off the back of his pants.
“Come on, I’ll be able to get us through the door without alerting security.”
“Arthur’s security is crap.”
“The pawns don’t need to patrol this level,” said Matthew dryly, “Charles is here.”
“Yeah, but not here,” said Alfred, as they neared one of the service entrances in the side of the estate. “Which is weird.”
“He probably knows already,” said Matthew, shrugging, “or he’s distracted.”
Matthew came him a very pitying look. It was like looking into a particularly unimpressed mirror.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I think you can’t get any more obtuse. And then you prove me wrong.”
The door opened on command, and they stepped into the cavernous hallway. Shadows peeled back from the entrance, and then returned in an inky wash as the door closed behind them noiselessly. Afraid, afraid that his voice would carry, Alfred punched his brother in the arm instead, and was satisfied to hear him wince.
They made it back to their respective rooms without a single alarm going off.
On hindsight, Alfred should have known better.
Matthew took to patrolling the gardens himself.
He did this every evening, at hours he drew randomly. He caught Alfred only twice more before his brother seemed to realise that this particular route had been well and truly blocked off. It had been more than three weeks since Al’s last attempted stroll amidst the fruit trees. But Matthew was nothing but persistent and reliable, so a four in the morning, he found himself patrolling the garden again.
To be honest, it wasn’t a particularly tiresome task. Ever since being inducted into court, Matthew had been honed, trained and worked until both his mutation and his body left the frail, unmarked years of youth and into knighthood. He could stay invisible for hours at a time without the barest flicker, even whilst unconscious. Getting up for a few extra hours was no hardship.
Perhaps if it hadn’t become such a routine, he would have been more alert.
As it were, he didn’t notice the intruder until there was a bullet striking his helm, the force knocking him to the ground with a jarring flash of pain. Matthew took the blow at a roll, pulling his power around him like a veil until his shadow and everything that was Matthew Kirkland disappeared from sight. At his wrists, gauntlet and armour folded out from their braces to envelop his hands and arms, and the ones at his ankles did the same.
“Intruder,” he said into his helm, hand already reaching for his phaser, “INTRUDER IN THE EAST GARDEN.”
Acknowledged, MAIA’s clear, unruffled voice said, The Queen has been alerted. Code three: obtain and detain, Knight.
Matthew gritted his teeth.
The intruder was nowhere to be seen – and he could see everything through the night vision of his visor; every shadow of the garden exposed in pale violet.
“C’mon,” he muttered, shifting the grip on his phaser’s trigger, “C’mon, c’mon – “
There was a flicker at the edge of his vision – and suddenly, a silhouetted figure snapped into focus by the estate walls, then snapped out again, reappearing an instant later roughly a hundred meters south. Matthew swore. A teleporter. One unable to phase through the walls, due to Arthur’s wards, but how the fuck had they gotten into the gardens in the first place?
If they could get in, then they could get out.
Grimly, Matthew stepped deliberately on a twig. Obtain and detain, he thought.
At once, summoned by the sound, the intruder materialised barely a feet away from where Matthew was standing. There was barely time for him to register the glint of metal – knives! – before he ducked. The blade struck the smooth marble wall behind him with strange, bell like sound before bouncing off. Matthew fired his own shot, but the intruder had teleported again, appearing to Matthew’s left before throwing another knife in his direction.
“We have a teleporter,” Matthew shouted into his visor, “A teleporter. Someone get Iuan down here right the now! I need back – shit!”
Matthew cursed, firing off another shot, the burst flaring bright in the darkness – but that too missed; spinning around to shoot to his right when the figure appeared and vanished and –
He realised a split second too late that the intruder was triangulating him, because the next thing he knew, Matthew had a blade to the face, only stopped by the metal of his gauntlets. It struck him on the arm with a terrible screeching sound as he tore his arm up, still invisible. And up close, he realised that the intruder was female, moon-silver hair whipping up behind her as she spun on her heels, striking fast, testing blows. She was flickering in and out of the air, too fast for Matthew to pin a shot on her, too close for his phaser to be of any real use.
He pulled out a blade of his own and flicked it through the air, managing to catch the girl on the exposed skin of her cheek. But she teleported out of harms way, reappearing a few meters further left, eyes glinting through her visor, darting every which way.
“Come out, come out,” she said, voice lilting and sing-song. It had a distinct accent to it, which Matthew tried to place, but then she was on him again, a fluid movement with her arm that he ducked too late. Blood splattered his uniform, the colour of tale-tell ink staining the material before Matthew could hide it.
And she was on him in the literal blink of an eye, knives at his throat as they both went down with the momentum. His head cracked hard against the wall, but he still managed to bring up both his arms and his own blade. The sound of metal on metal, a hard scream of blade edges. She was inches away from his own face, and at any other time, Matthew might have found her beautiful.
The girl smiled.
“King of Britannia,” she said, tilting her head to the side with something that looked like malicious curiosity, “You fight like a Knight. I wasn’t expecting that.”
“Thanks,” said Matthew, trying to find the best way to flip them around whilst simultaneously trying to keep the wash of relief from his expression. She thought he was King. She thought he was Alfred – a mistake that probably would save his brother’s life. But they were in a stalemate, blades on each-other’s throats, teeth at each-other’s weaknesses. Turning invisible now wouldn’t be much of an advantage, and neither would teleporting away. Unless –
Matthew’s eyes widened when the girl shook off one of her gloves, reaching for the exposed strip of skin at Matthew’s jaw. She was going to teleport them both off the estate, and Matthew had roughly a second to figure out exactly how to –
There was a shout behind them, and several things happened at once.
Alfred (Shit, shit not now not Alfred not – ) came tearing up the garden path, an ancient looking gun in his hands. Matthew recognised it as one of the antiques Arthur had given Alfred because Alfred liked old things, things with stories, things from Before, and if there was one thing Arthur could do was indulge in Alfred’s odd hobbies. Matthew was going to be shot with an antique rusty piece of crap.
Surprise registered on the girl’s face, a flash of confusion. It was all the distraction Matthew needed as he used his knees to flip them over, slamming the intruder against the ground and driving his blade through the pleats of her armour and through her chest, into the earth. The blade lodged itself close to the rim of her glass, reflecting the glow of it in sharp relief, cold like the icy lance of pain through Matthew’s own chest. She let out a gurgling cough, and her form flickered as she tried to teleport – her eyes were still fixed on Alfred (when had his brother gotten so close?)
“Get Iuan, you fucking idiot,” snapped Matthew – or he tried too, but all that came out was a mouthful of blood.
Alfred had fallen to his knees beside them and was trying to pry Matthew away. He was wearing those stupid gauntlets again, gauntlets Matthew was sure he had confiscated. Fuck his life, honestly, he was five hundred percent done with being his brother’s goddamn keeper.
Matthew held onto his knife, ignoring the cold numbness that was spreading outwards from somewhere near his own Glass. It was like being burned from the inside out; as if someone had stuffed a fistful of dry ice into his chest. He shuddered.
“Iuan,”said Matthew, spitting the words out with effort “Alfred, get – ”. The girl was flickering again, like the antique films, her eyes never leaving Alfred’s face.
“No need,” came a calm voice from somewhere to Matthew’s left.
Someone bent down by the girls’ head and laid a hand on her arm. Immediately, her form ceased to flicker, falling back into solidity like gas coalescing. Matthew watched her eyes widen with genuine shock, and then, fear. Iuan. Finally. Matthew let go of his blade with numb fingers.
There was a hand on his arm, and then one in his hair. His Queen saying: Nicely done. Careful now, this will hurt a little.
And even though Matthew gritted his teeth and held his breath, he’s unable to stop the scream that escapes his throat as someone lifted him off the intruder’s blade. His body made a wet, slick sound, and Matthew felt like he was going to throw up. Alfred was near tears, and Matthew realised belatedly that it was his brother who was holding him up. There were going to be bruises on his arms tomorrow.
“Oh my god, oh my god, Mattie, you’re gonna be okay, James is coming, you’re gonna be okay. Mattie?”
Matthew slapped his brother clumsily in the face.
“Shut up,” he said. He also tried to sit up, but nearly blacked out from the pain. The world tilted and Matthew was being turned over in someone’s lap. He recognises his brother’s face (his own face) and the second wave of relief that rolls through him is as hard to stomach as the first one.
“Glad you’re okay though,” he said, squeezing Alfred’s hand.
Alfred looked like he was about to start sobbing.
“Oh, I wouldn’t strain yourself,” Iuan was saying, “You’re really not going anywhere with me near by.”
“Yes,” said Arthur, and he sounds almost bored with the turn of events, “Quite right. Secure her in one of the holding rooms, will you? I’ll deal with her later. James, maybe you can fix her up a bit in the mean time. I’d hate for this one to bleed out before we get anything useful.”
“Fuck you,” said James, and when had he arrived?
“Language, love,” said Charles, and wasn’t this turning out to be a party? thought Matthew uncharitably.
The sound of struggling, and a vicious curse-word in Russian.
“Oh really,” said Arthur, sounding amused, “Poison? How old fashioned. I suppose you could try. But then I’ll just get my Rook here to bring you back, and let me assure you, reconstructing your intestines will not feel pleasant at all.”
James appears in Matthew’s line of sight, effectively pushing Alfred out of the way. Matthew could barely feel his fingers, it was that cold. Where had his gauntlets gone?
“You might want to be visible again, so I can see what I’m working with,” said James.
“What,” said Matthew. “Oh. Right.”
There’s light, coming from his Glass. Someone peeled back Matthew’s shirt and James bent forwards, concentration drawing a harsh furrow between his eyes as he examined the wound. Matthew hissed as James prods the edges it with his fingers.
“Clean,” he said at last, “Won’t be too hard. Charles, can you calm him down? I don’t need his heart pumping any faster.”
“I am calm,” Matthew protested, but his words sounded slurred, even to his own ears. He ploughed on regardless. “Stop coddling and get on with it.”
A hand, soft gentle, cups his face, thumb on the line of his jaw. If Matthew had the energy, he would probably bite the hand, just to show that he could. As it were, it was actually a little comforting. Calming, like the taste of tea in the snow. It was the sensation of deep-set contentment soaking into his very bones. Charles smiled down at him.
Charles. Walking human anaesthesia and endorphin inducing –
Then Matthew felt like his chest had been set on fire, the painful sort, and fuck if he was taking any more chest-wounds for anyone else ever again. He could never get used to this sensation, the pull of muscle and sinew, the taste of blood at the back of his throat and the burning – it felt like someone had doused his wound with salt and set that on fire.
And then, as suddenly as it came, the heat dissipated, leaving Matthew panting on the ground and Alfred clutching at his shoulders. James lifted one bloody hand away, his sleeve soaked and stained. Trying to sit up, Matthew slapped his own hand on his chest, trying to feel for the wound that was there bare moments ago.
There was nothing but a thin scar running parallel to the edge of his Glass.
He let his hand fall.
“Thanks,” he said.
“You owe me one, mate.”
He looked like he was going to say something else, but was interrupted by Alfred launching himself across the grass and giving James a bone-crushing hug. The Rook let out a wheezing protest.
“I dunno what we’d do without you,” Alfred was saying, and Matthew wondered if that wasn’t the sound of bones breaking. He sat up gingerly, Charles’s hand still at the name of his neck.
“That was a close blow,” said Charles, “Don’t rush.”
“Get off me!” James was saying. “You’re like a five year old – !”
“It’s always a close blow,” said Matthew, “I’ve lost count.”
“Alright,” said the Queen, and there was a twitch at the edge of his lips, “That’s quite enough, Alfred. James – sometime before sunrise, if you please.”
“Do excuse my Queen, miss,” said James with a little mock bow, “He has no manners. Now, deep breath.”
Then he slapped his hand down on her chest wound.
Alfred didn’t see the teleporter again after the incident in the gardens. He didn’t see Mattie much either, because Arthur sent him out for reconnaissance which meant that no one would be seeing much of Matthew, one way or the other.
It left Alfred alone in his wing, bored and hollow with guilt.
He decided to visit his Queen.
“Oh, do stop that,” said Arthur from his desk. Alfred looked up.
“Doing what?” he asked, hands hovering over the dissembled pieces of a gun that was currently laid out over the floor.
“Moping,” said Arthur.
“I’m not moping,” said Alfred, defensively.
“Mm,” said Arthur. He was surrounded by floating metal pieces, and every now and then, one of them would move or change colour. Battle pieces. Mapping. For someone who didn’t believe in war, Alfred thought his Queen spent a lot of time thinking about it.
After a long moment, Alfred spoke again.
“What if James wasn’t there? Mattie would have died.”
“No,” said Arthur, impatience dripping from his voice, “We would have put Matthew in cyro until James arrived. No one would have died – don’t be so old fashioned.”
“But what if James isn’t here?” Alfred insisted, “What if he’s gone, or if he’s dead – “
“Well,” said Arthur, finally looking up from the glowing lines of the map in front of him, “I suppose in that case it may be safer for you to not wander about unaccompanied in the dead of night. I don’t know. Just a suggestion. I do recall saying this earlier, but I may be mistaken.”
There was a strained creak, and it was a moment before Alfred realised that he had bent a piece of metal out of shape by squeezing to hard. He tried to correct his mistake, pushing at the bend with his thumb and forefinger until the metal strip smoothed out again.
“It’s not like I actually went anywhere – “ Alfred muttered.
“By all means, you should try it again,” said Arthur mildly, “Though I can’t guarantee Matthew would be so lucky next time.”
The words were hard to swallow, and they curled themselves tightly around Alfred’s chest in a constricting feeling when he couldn’t help but breathe them in. He touched a hand to his glass, the smooth hard edge of it beneath his shirt. It cast his skin in an unhealthy sheen of blue.
“I said I won’t do it again.”
Arthur looked up then, all the floating pieces stilling as in let his hand come to a rest on the table. His expression softened.
“Come here,” he said.
Alfred did, moving clumsily across the room, as if his limbs didn’t know quite how to choose for themselves. He sat in the empty chair next to Arthur, who laid one hand carefully on Alfred’s wrist; thumb over pulse. The weight of that hand was like a reassurance.
“You know how important you are,” said Arthur.
Alfred let out a sound of derision.
“Yeah, to the well being of – “
“To me,” Arthur interjected. Something flickered across his face – disgust? Worry? – Alfred couldn’t tell.
Arthur’s fingers tightened ever so slightly around his wrist, and the metal pieces on the table hummed gently as Arthur ran one finger over Alfred’s knuckles.
“I just – I thought you couldn’t be bothered,” said Alfred, after a long minute of silence, “there hasn’t been a war for so long I didn’t see why I have to stay here all the time, it’s been so long I just want to go to the city and visit mom or something – “
“But you see now, don’t you?” asked Arthur, and his eyes were very green, “why you can’t.”
For an incomprehensible moment, he wanted to wrench his hand out of Arthur’s grasp. But then the moment passed, like minutes on an unseen clock face.
“Yeah,” said Alfred.
Arthur let go of Alfred’s hand, drawing back into his own chair.
“I thought, all those stories you told me – I thought they were just to keep me inside.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow.
“Would I ever lie to you?”
The pieces moved again, shifting like ballerinas through the air. Arthur’s attention had moved on.
“No,” said Alfred.
If you’re blessed and if you’re good,
a knight will visit you like he should,
he’ll knock three times, proper and prim
until mother opens the door for him
if you’re blessed and if you’re fair
then offer the mighty knight a chair,
he shall sit and set down his sword,
to tell you a story from the board.
if your mother is blessed and knows the law
she will tell no one of what she saw
for if you’re blessed, the knight shall explain:
that you will never be seen again.
- Brittanian folk rhyme.