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Henric and Alex Interlude II (v1.3)

Dec 6th, 2014
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  1. Tags: Exposition
  2. This could be alternatively titled, "Growing up sucks."
  3.  
  4.  
  5. Alex and Ellis maintained their relationship for months before it morphed gradually. It was no one’s fault that they grew older and the novelty of their hormones wore off. Neither of them was cruel, rude, or fundamentally different. It was their situation that changed things and made a few things apparent. Without Henric’s destructive presence, tension lifted and they were able to actually relax together. Their bond remained strong and grew stronger as they worked together with Sir Isaac, but the sexual tension faded.
  6.  
  7. Alex asked herself if her attraction to Ellis had come to her as an attempt to escape or distract herself from her nightmare. Ellis wondered if his attraction to Alex had been fueled by a desire to protect someone who desperately needed human affection. There was no lack of love between them, and there never would be. But kisses became less frequent, sex became less frequent, and by the time they were nineteen they were much more enthusiastic about cuddles and laughter than anything else.
  8.  
  9. This relieved Sir Isaac, who had long feared that their relationship was a crutch for both of them that might prevent their growth as individuals. He’d avoided expressing that fear to them, though, in case it caused them undue strife.
  10.  
  11. Subsequently, when the time of their graduations neared and Sir Cyrus got a letter that indicated that Alex and Ellis would be working very far apart as knights, the news was not absolutely soul crushing. Indeed, they knew that most fresh knights were placed separately the same way that pages becoming squires were shuffled. The boys had been prepared to hear that they would be split up, and while it was sad they knew they would be able to send letters and visit.
  12.  
  13. The letters arrived on Heroes’ Day of their nineteenth years.
  14.  
  15. Ellis was sick. Slime kept coming out of his nose and he coughed up yet more of it. Mostly, he slept and ate soup and bread that Alex kept bringing him. Alex tended to him dutifully and let him rest his head in her lap while she stroked his hair.
  16.  
  17. Sir Isaac returned to the bedroom, holding a paper. “Cyrus got word of your placements, boys.”
  18.  
  19. He always addressed them as such--boys--Alex had initially taken it as a reminder that she should be careful to be in-character, but now saw it as a show of affection. She asked, “Where?”
  20.  
  21. “Ellis to East Grinske,” Isaac said. It was a small post in a rough and rocky county that the kingdom maintained mostly for its marble quarries. Alex had an inkling that it was an important station and barracks for money reasons, but that it wasn’t often talked about because it was a source of raw resources rather than finished product.
  22.  
  23. Ellis grunted from Alex’ lap. “Where’s Alex going?”
  24.  
  25. Isaac sat down in his comfy reading chair opposite Alex and Ellis’ bed. “Alex is going to the capital.”
  26.  
  27. Initially this pleased Alex immensely. Important work! Work in the capital! Concerning the entire nation! Just like her father! But after a moment she put a few things together and hesitated. “I don’t think I deserve it,” she said honestly.
  28.  
  29. “Meaning you no disrespect Alexander, I don’t think you do either,” Sir Isaac said gently. It didn’t hurt Alex’ feelings at all, and in fact it reassured her. “You’re a good lad but you lack experience and perspective for matters as big as a whole kingdom.”
  30.  
  31. She smoothed Ellis’ brown hair. “I think my father pulled strings to get me that job,” she confessed. “I didn’t ask him to, I wouldn’t want him to… but I think he did.”
  32.  
  33. “I think so too,” Isaac said in a voice that tip-toed. “I’m sure he means the best for you, Alex.”
  34.  
  35. The girl sighed and pulled her hand from Ellis’ head to scratch herself behind her ear now. Her eyes started to sting with sudden painful memories and echoing words. “Henric used to say he’d bet me my first year’s salary that I’d end up with some job at a desk that paid me a lot of money and kept me from fighting because I was born into it.”
  36.  
  37. “Please do not concern yourself too much with the rants of a mad man,” Isaac replied. Although Isaac had avoided bringing Henric up, his squire had occasionally volunteered information, seeking therapy and reassurance bit by bit. Isaac rested an elbow on the arm of his chair and his chin in his hand. Talk of Henric made him tired and sad and reminded him of a time when he had been powerless without even knowing it. “The truth is that nepotism is real in all levels of government, and it’s not fair. I got a post in Skalton when I was younger because I knew a knight there. But I didn’t turn it down because at the end of the day, I would have been more damned if I hadn’t taken it.”
  38.  
  39. “It doesn’t feel right if I accept it,” she said.
  40.  
  41. “Well, unfortunately for you, you are going to be a fresh knight and you do not have the option to say no,” Isaac told her. “But I do agree with you, Alex. It’s a very difficult problem to fix. The only way to prevent it is to not be the one in the upper position.”
  42.  
  43. “Believe me, I won’t,” Alex said. "When I get there, I won't give jobs to people who haven't earned them."
  44.  
  45. “You’re like the perfect knight,” Ellis said, and rolled over, careful to keep his head in Alex’ lap. “You’re gonna go to so many heavens, Alex.”
  46.  
  47. Isaac smiled. “I know you wouldn’t abuse your power, Alex.”
  48.  
  49.  
  50. Henric and Kerran were somewhere, standing upside down (but here that was all relative--they certainly didn’t feel upside down standing on their floating chunk of rock). There were shimmering birdlike shapes orbiting them, but neither man payed them much attention, being far more interested in the glowing blue circle that Kerran had drawn on what was, to them, the ground.
  51.  
  52. “Why didn’t you tell me this was an option earlier?” Henric asked angrily, watching the blue circle fold in on itself and burst into a murky disk with blurry images.
  53.  
  54. Kerran gave the human a frustrated, sideways look. Initially it had been for Henric’s sake that Kerran held onto a human appearance when they were together, but he’d learned that it was versatile as a disguise, and had been wearing it all through their trips to strange lands. “You know I’ve always been able to keep track of people from a distance, you have known that I had this option for most of your life,” Kerran explained.
  55.  
  56. Henric sighed and shifted and rubbed his sore shoulder. “I don’t think I ever saw you do this.”
  57.  
  58. “Perhaps I wasn’t keen on doing it because I knew that the moment you got it into your head that I could do this, you would be asking me to show you what you wanted to see every time we sat down somewhere.”
  59.  
  60. Well, that was true enough. Henric liked control and he liked knowing what was going on. Kerran had correctly surmised that if Henric had the power to watch anyone it would have been Alex. The former knight missed his old squire terribly. The pain of her absence had grown with time rather than faded out. He hoped every day that he had been able to impart enough of his wisdom and skill upon her that she would finish growing up the way that he wanted her to. “Have you looked at her?”
  61.  
  62. “My business with Roxanne is concluded,” Kerran said bitterly, remembering that the girl had stabbed both him and his companion. “I don’t care about her if I’m not able to use her for research… but I looked into it once, for your sake, to see if there was anything interesting to relay to you. There wasn’t. It was blurry and boring. She reads, trains, and travels with the other knights and squires.”
  63.  
  64. “Could you teach me that spell?” Henric asked. He’d always known a bit of magic, but in the last year he’d been getting much better at it by going everywhere with Kerran.
  65.  
  66. “Oh, probably,” Kerran said. His dark pool of visions was starting to clear up and brighten from within. “It’s pretty basic and you know more than most humans.”
  67.  
  68. “I need to get a good look at her,” Henric confessed. “To make sure that she’s doing what she should be doing.”
  69.  
  70. “No, you’re going to take one look at her and be distracted from our real work for months,” Kerran said. He sometimes regretted giving Henric his entire soul back. While Henric was still emotionally crippled by the twenty-six years he’d lived without it, it bothered Kerran to see slivers of illogical human compassion creeping through where before there had been cold and brutal determination.
  71.  
  72. Henric himself was unaware of any change. But he accepted Kerran’s words as true. “I miss her.”
  73.  
  74. “She won’t miss you,” Kerran said.
  75.  
  76. “She must,” Henric said. Kerran rolled his eyes and considered correcting him, but the image in his spell abruptly clarified and he lifted a hand to quiet Henric so he could speak with the demon on the material plane.
  77.  
  78.  
  79. Alex worried about being a knight for the first time in a long time. Sleeping next to Ellis she normally felt safe and reassured. Comfortable. But with Ellis sick and lying on his side facing away from her, snoring a storm, she didn’t feel the companionship she was used to even though she was spooning him.
  80.  
  81. She considered that when she went to the capital that she’d be living near her betrothed, the princess, Roanna, who had been partially named for Roxanne, Alex’ dead name that was buried with her dead brother, and partially named for Alex' deceased mother, Shoshanna. Having to marry a woman who didn’t know that Alex was a woman also would be another can of worms.
  82.  
  83. She didn’t sleep, and first thing in the morning sent a letter to her father. It was about time to visit him.
  84.  
  85.  
  86. Alex rode Ian home. She had considered selling him, but his ill temper meant that no one but butchers would think of taking him, and Alex could handle him well enough that he was still worth something to her, more than what a butcher would pay. She hoped that if she ever had to ride him in a fight he'd be able to channel his viciousness out that way.
  87.  
  88. She got misty eyed in her home county. Henric hadn’t let her visit, and had himself refused to go. Even though she’d had the opportunity to return home for almost a year, the squire had been unable to. She was pretty sure she’d just start crying the moment she saw her father, and she didn’t want to do that to him. The old man would never have known what to do with a crying daughter.
  89.  
  90. The gatesmen at her father’s estate didn’t recognize her except for her clothes with the Smyth dragon on them. She remembered their names, both were older men who had known her since her birth, and she would have stayed to talk with them longer except that they rushed her in towards the manor to see her father.
  91.  
  92. A new stableboy she didn’t know took Ian and Alex felt sorry for the kid, but she went inside to find her father with a sense of dread coiling in her stomach. What to say exactly? She had been unable to decide that on her way home.
  93.  
  94. She found him in his office at his desk. There were too many books and records here, even more than Alex remembered seeing when she had last visited him three years ago.
  95.  
  96. “Are you busy, father?” she asked, putting a hand outside the doorframe. The man immediately turned and looked at her with surprise and pleasure, and got up to walk to her with arms spread wide.
  97.  
  98. “How are you, my boy?” Lord Edgar asked. Even when they were alone, Alex never reverted to Roxanne in her father's eyes.
  99.  
  100. “I’m well, father,” she said, and hugged him. Her eyes started to sting immediately, so she stepped back from the hug and changed the topic immediately to get down to business. “I got my assignment to the capital.”
  101.  
  102. “Good, I’m glad those have been passed around already,” he said. “I’ve been sorting the fresh knights carefully as always. Let me guess, you have a friend you wanted to come with you?”
  103.  
  104. He never really had gotten to know her very well. “No, I was actually hoping you could move me somewhere else.”
  105.  
  106. Lord Edgar squinted his hazel eyes at his son to try to understand. “Were you hoping to follow someone somewhere?”
  107.  
  108. “I just wanted you to sort me like any other fresh knight,” she said. Alex scratched her head and followed her father deeper into his office, back towards the desk. "I don't want the favoritism."
  109.  
  110. “Alexander, you aren’t any other fresh knight,” he said plaintively. He loved his son, his only son. “You’re my boy, you’re a Smyth. And years from now you’re going to marry Roanna. That is why you’re going to the capital.”
  111.  
  112. The squire couldn’t force a smile, though she did understand that her father did what he was doing out of love. Her stomach turned ice cold and flipped a moment later and she almost felt the need to puke when she imagined Henric standing behind her, scolding her for her father’s unfair treatment of his child. Alex covered her mouth briefly to hide the way her lips twisted in discomfort.
  113.  
  114. “I don’t want to come in there and have men who worked for their jobs getting upset at me,” she said.
  115.  
  116. “Oh, nonsense. They know to expect you, and to be honest Kenneth and I have told most of them about your engagement,” Edgar said. He moved a few books out of a chair for Alex to sit down.
  117.  
  118. Nothing about the Smyth estate had really changed while Alex had been away as a squire. Alex sat and heard Henric’s angry footsteps pacing behind her while a wall of his rants blew over her from behind like wind. Disrespect to hard-working people. Another link in the chain of inequality in the nation.
  119.  
  120. “About Roanna,” Alex said. “How am I supposed to tell her?”
  121.  
  122. “Tell her what?” her father asked. His child wasn’t sure if he was being intentionally obtuse or not.
  123.  
  124. “That she and I… are not going to be able to have any kids,” Alex said. One of many inconveniences for them. Alex couldn't say out loud to him that she was a woman, the words wouldn't come.
  125.  
  126. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” her father said.
  127.  
  128. “That isn’t fair to her,” Alex protested. “She should know. And father, I… I’m not interested in women. I really don't think that she is either.”
  129.  
  130. “You’ll learn, you’ve just spent too much time around other men,” came the dismissive reply. “I have confidence in you, Alex, and I know Roanna is a clever girl too. When she’s queen she can have all the consorts she likes, she’ll be fine. You could too, if you wanted.”
  131.  
  132. The squire held in a number of heavy sighs. This conversation exhausted her, her father’s blind optimism and lack of perspective made her feel weak. This trip had not been helpful, but at least she wasn’t crying. She changed the subject. “How have things been here?”
  133.  
  134.  
  135. She left early the next day, hugging her father good-bye. It wasn’t necessary to leave so early, but she told him that she had plenty of work back at her barracks and he believed her. He was proud of his son.
  136.  
  137. A lot of the way home, she held her head in her hands and steered Ian with her knees. She supposed that every young adult had to deal with being misunderstood by their parents, but at the same time felt like she’d been given the absolute short end of the stick. But telling her father the way she felt would be too difficult. And at worst, it would hurt him.
  138.  
  139. She just wanted to be a knight.
  140.  
  141.  
  142. Henric watched Alex leave the gates. His heart thrummed in his chest with his mouth open. Kerran scratched the side of his jaw and sneered.
  143.  
  144. “There you see. Visiting her father,” the demon said.
  145.  
  146. “Leaving,” Henric said. One of his hands reached into the pool as if he could touch his old squire, but his fingers only left ripples in the liquid. “She’s going home.”
  147.  
  148. “Home?” Kerran asked pointedly.
  149.  
  150. “The Barracks,” Henric said, and lifted his head to look from Alex to his mentor. “Where we lived.”
  151.  
  152. “Where you used to live,” Kerran said emphatically. "Was it a home?"
  153.  
  154. “I enjoyed that loft more than I like floating on this rock,” Henric said, and looked up into the impossible distance. There were lights out there, but they could not be stars.
  155.  
  156. “You hated it there,” the demon said, and plunged his hand into the liquid. It leapt at his touch, congealed like jam, and crawled up his arm. “Now is a bad time to get sentimental, Henric. I told you looking at that girl was going to fuck things up. Do you want to be king or not?”
  157.  
  158. “You know I do,” Henric said. “But not if I can’t have my queen.”
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