"They say they've been dancing themselves to death in Aachen," Wat says between mouthfuls of capon. His fingers shine with grease in the firelight. Geoff had won the capon in a wager—betting on Will, of course, as ever. They're eating well this tournament; it feels as though they'll never lose. Dangerous, this feeling. It comes before a fall.
"Dancing? Who dies of dancing?" Roland asks, adds "'cept when Wat treads on your toes," grinning when Wat aims a bone at him across the campfire.
"You dance until you can't move, and your heart bursts in your chest. Spreads from town to town, taking young and old, priest and sinner alike. Only hope is if you go to a church of John the Baptist, or St Vitus, and if they are of a mood to be merciful, they will take the itching from your feet and you will be at peace once more," he says, absently tracing circles in the firewarmed dirt . "It's a plague, of sorts."
They all fall silent, staring into the flames. The plague—the land and people bear its scars. It spreads like wildfire, takes without mercy. Comes without warning, a thief in the night. Geoff can hear laughter, the rhythmic tapping of one of the smiths. Someone plays a psaltery a little way off, slightly out of tune—although who can wonder, with the rutted tracks they must ride down? It would shake any string from its true note. The rest of the camp is merry, oblivious to this small pocket of quiet. It has been a good tournament. Geoff takes out his dice, amuses himself with some trick throws, plays hazard against himself, loses each time.
Next to him, Kate sketches out lines on a wax tablet. A lock of her hair falls loose from her plait and over her eyes, and she brushes it away impatiently, leaving a smudge of soot on her forehead. Roland is stitching a tear in one of the blankets, a spare needle held in his teeth—he loses one every time he sews anything. Wat has finished eating, and leans back on his elbows, eyes shut as he smiles in utter contentment. The simplest of them all, perhaps. Or one who finds happiness the easiest.
He had thought Will simple, once. Before the glory and riches, before Adhemar and Coleville, before pillories and desperate speeches, royal pardons and tipped lances. Just a boy with a stick and a dream to share, if only for a little while. Their eyes meet across the fire, and Will raises his eyebrows, looking down at the dice Geoffrey still throws. "I think you lost three throws ago," he says with a grin. "Though you play against yourself, so does money pass from the right to the left hand and then back again?"
"If you could joust against yourself, just once, would you?" Geoffrey asks, passing the dice over his knuckles, an old trick his father taught him.
Will laughs softly, the fire casting a glow over his face, those dark eyes oddly bright. He is reckless and alive, more alive than anyone Geoffrey knows. "Of course—we would unhorse each other, and equal glory would go to both. Sir Thomas is the closest to being my equal, and he no longer jousts in that guise." Every tourney, Will looks for Edward. Looks in the lists for Sir Thomas, looks at every strange knight for some sign of Edward's seat, for the style of his jousting. He looks more for Edward than Adhemar. Sometimes, Geoffrey feels as though he will never understand him.
"You'll meet him again, stop fretting, lad," Roland says around his needle. "Just make sure you don't swoon like a maiden when you see his handsome face again."
Will keeps his peace as Wat sniggers. Geoffrey makes a few more passes of the dice, then disappears one of them into his sleeve, throws the other up and blows on it. It lands on one. He's lost track of the rules, now. He stands up, nodding to the rest of them, winks at Kate. "I'll be back before sunrise," he says, then wanders away, not mindful of the direction he takes. His feet itch with that old devil restlessness. Perhaps he'll dance himself to death, one of these days.
Will finds him after the third win, against a man who claims to have been to the Holy Land a thousand times. Thus far, the blessings of his faith have not protected him, and Geoffrey leaves the game with a considerably heavier purse than when he entered it, and the mutterings of a pilgrim sending him on his way. "You should be abed," Geoff says, his words blurred together a little from wine. He stumbles slightly; Will steadies him, and keeps his arm slung around Geoffrey's shoulders. He's a little shorter than Geoffrey, but it's an odd, comforting weight, and Geoffrey leans into it.
"So I should," Will agrees peaceably. "And so should you. What are you doing still up?"
"Ah, the siren lure of the dice," Geoffrey begins, but Will cuts him off, pushing both of them off course so he stumbles once more.
"The truth, please, Geoff," he says, iron in his tone. "You haven't fallen foul of the dice for months—you go for the company, perhaps, but not the thrill. So what is it you do, every night?" One day, Will will lead a company of men, will have lands of his own and care for them well. Easy to forget, sometimes, that he was not born to it. Geoffrey never forgets that he is, at heart, the son of a vintner. Page he was once, writer and sometime spy he remains, but he has no claim to nobility. One day people will forget that Will was ever baseborn.
"I was ever an observer of men," Geoffrey says lightly. "I'm just...watching people. Grist to my literary mill."
"And sending these observations in sealed scrolls every time we reach a city?"
"Would you believe me if I said I was writing a book by increments?"
How easy it is, when you spend so much time watching people, to forget that you yourself may be watched, and worse, known. And how uncomfortable, when someone sees behind the dazzling gestures, the steady flow of talk sans meaning.
"I...report such things as my Lord of Gaunt may find interesting," he says, feeling in the dark for words. He bitterly regrets the wine, now. It is not that he fears betrayal, but something worse, the destruction of Will's trust, his faith in him.
"You spy," Will says flatly.
"I prefer to call it 'watching for money'," he says. They're walking away from the main camp, away from the fires, the lamps strung on trees. Will kicks at a stone, and it scuds away into the darkness. "It's—it isn't state secrets, or battle plans, more what it is in the hearts of the people. How the harvest has been, and what the taxes are like. What they fear. They say we're due another plague, and that a bad harvest will surely follow. I think--" he feels again for words, for something elusive, that he has often felt but never spoken. "I think my lord collects information like gold; he believes that the smallest thing may be useful in a year, or ten, so he hoards it, jealous as a dragon. So...I serve two masters, and it has been so since the start."
Will is quiet. Geoff would almost prefer shouting. "I'm not your master," he says at last, and oh, that stings, though Geoff knows not why it should. "I'm your friend."
And sometimes, friendship is more tyrannical than the yoke of any master.
"This is dangerous," Will says at last. "Surely, if you were caught by the French, if they thought you were a spy--"
"-- I won't be caught. I'm too clever," he says with a smile, tries a simple coin pass across his knuckles, just to give his restless hands something to do. Will watches him, his face shadowed as the lamplight flickers across his skin. He looks like he does just before he aims his lance, in the stillness before the charge. Geoffrey feels pinned, weighed, measured.
"This isn't about the gold," Will says at last, weighing his words carefully. Geoff inclines his head in acknowledgement. Somewhere, a girl shrieks with laughter. A drum starts to play, a hollow, thudding beat that reverberates through the whole camp. Geoff could stay here until the end of days, just drinking in every last bit of human life, human experience, that he was able to grasp, putting it into words he can shape to create whole worlds. Perhaps that is what he does with Gaunt. He gives him a world, written in a cypher.
"I do what I must," Geoff says. "It is grubby, perhaps, but I would no more stop than you would put up your lance. I have to." Will looks steadily at him for another long moment. This shouldn't matter.
Will smiles, something very old in his eyes. "You have your own honour, I think. A strange honour, perhaps, but it is still straight and true. Even for a spy."
Something in Geoff eases, an old wound he had no idea he was still guarding.
"Be safe. That is all I ask. Be safe, and keep your clothes on," he adds with a grin. Geoff smiles back, light as thistledown suddenly.
"I'm always safe," he says. "I can make no promises about the clothes."
Will grins, shoves him on the shoulder. They turn back on the road, start to walk side by side, hands brushing each other as they go. Geoff feels light as air, feet itching to dance. He hears it's catching.