I’m pressing on with my fanfic stories for friends who donate to the Philippines relief effort (more details here). My muse, in mockery of all my friends doing NaNo, has apparently decided that 500-word ficlets simply aren’t going to cut it and each story must be around 3,000 words long. But I’m loving it and hope you enjoy the results as much as I do writing it. This is for Jay of Lasgalen, who asked for an expansion of those silver ornaments Alec pockets at the end of Swordspoint.
Characters: Alec/Richard, Katherine, Rosalie
Rating: Teen, for the briefest of suggestions of the Alec/Richard variety
Words: 3,344 + Notes
Summary: After the Trial, Alec makes his way home to Riverside.
Alec sat on the edge of the footstool, holding out his arm so Katherine could inspect his injuries. “The funny thing is, I can’t feel anything.”
He’d meant those words in every sense. His arm felt numb from the elbow down; more than that, it was as if he were looking at another man’s arm altogether. He felt thoroughly bloodless himself, his grandmother’s last words still hanging heavily in the air. Richard was done with him, did not want him, and he had nowhere to go. But he could not stay here; the very room seemed stifling, so he couldn’t breathe. He was gasping, for air, for something even more necessary. In that minute he hardly knew who he was. Certainly not this pale wiry man sitting before the maid of a grand house as she fished shards of glass out of his arm.
If only the University chemists could bottle his grandmother’s cruel words. It was more potent than any poison he’d ever swallowed. They’d make a fortune.
Katherine tied a knot in the cloth strip she was fastening around his arm, but her fingers still lingered at the crook of his elbow, steadying him. Comforting him? “You will later,” she said. “When you get home, soak all the glass out.” She looked him over once more, seemingly at war with herself over whether to continue, until at last she added, “He did give the ring back, but he still wants you. I’m sorry I waited so long to tell you. It’s going to hurt plenty, believe me.”
Somehow Alec thought she meant more than just the sting of glass. They had both loved Richard, hadn’t they? And he’d – well, not won precisely, for his swordsman was hardly a prize, but they both knew he was beyond her reach. Still, he was not quite convinced that she was right either. How well did she know him, really? And what had she seen? Richard was a proud man, more thoroughly honorable than any lord of the Hill, and he’d not take well to having been deceived so thoroughly, and then used as Tremontaine’s pawn, for shame. No, returning to Riverside would likely sting worse than the glass.
But he had to at least try. Richard called to him like filings to a magnet, and Riverside (no not Riverside alone; Riverside with Richard) was the only place he’d ever felt truly himself. He hardly belonged on the Hill now, if he ever had, and where else could he make his way as anything but Lord Campion, scion of Tremontaine? Back at the University? To Arkenvelt, like Lord Ferris? No. There was but one man who had seen his odd ways, the way he thoroughly failed to fit in anywhere, and loved him anyway – still loved him, he hoped.
Riverside meant cold, and mattresses worn too thin for his tastes, and watered-down beer, and fights over dice, and the man who earned their bread at the point of the sword. Riverside meant, in a word, danger. But when had that ever been anything but a draw?
“You’re upset,” he said to Katherine at last. “It’s a good thing you left Riverside. Don’t ever go back.” Self-serving words, perhaps, but he meant them for her sake as much as his: He doubted she’d be welcomed there after all that had happened.
“I won’t,” she said, wiping a damp cloth down his arm to daub off the sticky, half-dried blood.
“And do remember to let grandmama bully you. She’s perfectly charming as long as you let her.”
Katherine nodded knowingly. She daubed at him a while longer and then dried him off. “Alec, leave now, before she comes back.”
“I will,” he replied.
But not quite yet. He looked around once more at the trappings of power that he was born to, but which he hoped he’d never see again. He would not be made a pawn in the Duchess Tremontaine’s game, would not accept what scraps his grandmother might throw his way. Still, he might take what she left lying about. Odds and ends, for the most part. A medallion of some ancient hero; a silver box of matches tucked behind an ashtray; the ducal ring she had offered Richard, left pointedly where he would see it (his by rights, if Katherine spoke truly, and a fair replacement for his own ring laying upstairs in his bureau); even the paperweight she had thought he’d break earlier: they all found their way into his trouser-pockets.
With that, he’d bowed his head to Katherine, winked, and stepped out through the broken window into the gardens beyond.
Alec walked down the well-lit side-streets of the Hill until he reached the broad sweep of a boulevard. He’d thought to walk all the way down to the Bridge, and to Riverside beyond – it was a fine night for it, and he could use the air – but as the sun slipped past the horizon he became increasingly aware of what a tempting target he must make. True, pickpockets weren’t so brash as to ply their trade on the Hill, but once he got down into the lower city, with his velvet cloak and his pockets heavy with what they would no doubt deem treasures, he’d make an easy mark indeed.
Besides, these shoes his grandmother had so generously foisted on him might serve a nobleman well at a fashionable party, but they were fit for no other purpose. Twelve blocks, and already his heels ached.
So, a carriage it was then. He had no coin on him, so he slipped the ducal ring out of his pocket and, when he reached the next cross-street, held it out so the coachman could see it. He’d put the fare on the Tremontaine accounts directly (a privilege of the Hill) and if his grandmother ever heard of it, she’d certainly not hunt him down in Riverside over a charged ride home. The ring served its purpose but the metal felt cold, foreign somehow, and he longed to get it off again. Once inside, he happily took off the ring, weighing it in his hand.
The better part of an hour passed as Alec watches the world roll by his window. The Theater, where he sometimes attended plays with Richard; the bookshops and garment-makers they had frequented together on lazy afternoons; even the neighborhoods around the University, the taverns where Alec had drowned far too many nights after his friends were chucked out and he was left there to languish. He hardly ever went there these days – too many memories, and the nights were more exciting in Riverside, even if the drink was worse – but he and Richard would have a drink there at harvest and bring back a barrel of the special beer those houses served at that time of year.
Was the whole city laid over with memories of him? Of them?
The carriage stopped at the Bridge, and Alec made his way over on foot. Halfway across, he realized the ring – Richard’s ring; Tremontaine’s ring – still sat in his palm. Opening his hand, he peered at it in the murky dusk and lamplight. How hateful. Before he could think better of it, he balanced the ring atop his thumb and flicked, watching the heirloom arc through the air until at last it landed in the water with a satisfying plunk. Foolish, he wondered? No, not truly. The ring was too distinctive to be sold for coin, and he hardly thought Richard would welcome it back.
In any event, done was done. He walked the rest of the way across the Bridge and engaged a torch-boy to lead him back to Richard’s rooms with the promise of coin when they arrived, and off they went.
He stopped at Rosalie’s, trading the matchbox for a dozen copper coins. Not his best trade, but he needed the currency, and besides, he liked her. He could go home now, Richard may well be waiting for him a few short blocks away, and yet something stopped him. He was cold, and hungry, and his feet ache from the boots not fit to walk in. He felt thoroughly rumpled from his walk and the rain misting in the air on this side of the river. He wasn’t in any fit state to return, not quite yet. (So he told himself, pushing aside worries that Richard might well bar the door.)
Alec paid the torch-boy and then ducked back into Rosalie’s. He gave her his remaining keepsakes for safe-keeping – he had no intentions of drinking so much to earn him a hangover tomorrow, but this was Riverside, and heavy pockets presented tempting targets even if their owners were entirely sober. Then he threw back his hood for the first time since entering the room and looked directly at the group of men he often diced with for the fun of it. Not the ones he would game on beyond what was good for them and trounce them properly, or lash out at them in a fight Richard would have to finish; no, these were as close as he came to friends.
When he’d worked his cloak’s clasps open to reveal the red velvet jacket hidden beneath, the men fell silent. Lucas’s mouth dropped open at once while Rodge let the dice slip from between his finger. “Alec?” Rodge asked, first in a near-whisper and then more loudly, beckoning him over to their table.
“Alec,” Rodge repeated once more, disbelief still writ plainly across his face. “How came you by such fine clothes?”
“Yes,” Lucas agreed. “Tell us. You can’t pick a pocket much less a house to save your life, and St. Vier has to save your skin when you fight even with Riverside drunks. So you must have come by them honestly, or as honestly as any nobleman can manage. What proud house have we played host to all these months? With clothes like that, and with St. Vier free from the hangman’s noose, you clearly are no low-born scholar. Is it Karleigh? Godwin? Rossillion? And why have you been slumming with us?”
Alec hung the cloak on a wall-peg behind him and took his seat on the bench. “St. Vier, if he’ll still have me. No other house is worth naming.”
Alec woke with the dawn to a bad crick in his neck. He couldn’t quite remember falling asleep, but he supposed he must have. Yes, he remembered; he slept here for fear of disturbing his swordsman. Blinking groggily, he looked around the emptied tavern.
“Good morning, Lord Sleepyhead,” Rosalie said. She finished wiping down a table and pulled herself to her full height, running a hand through her hair. “The next time you try to sleep here, I’ll throw you into the alley. But I thought you’d need a proper rest, or as much of one as I can offer with no bed.”
Alec rubbed at his neck and winced. “My thanks.” Then, noticing how empty his pockets felt, he stuck his hands in them and groaned. Empty.
“I took your coins when you fell asleep,” Rosalie told him. “For safe-keeping. Your cloak, too. You slept heavier than most do, and I didn’t want your money nicked on your first night back.” She went behind the counter and retrieved his belongings:
“My thanks again,” he said as he pocketed the coins and paperweight. The medallion he turned over in his hand, running a thumb along the embossed stars. “Did you know, Mistress, that the stars stand still in their place? It is we who sail through the sky, faster than the fastest ship. We can’t feel it because the world is so very large, but the streets and fields and all the rest is racing through the sky.”
Rosalie looked at him incredulously. “Just how much ale did you drink last night?”
He waved his hand to the side, dismissing that suggestion. “We proved it. With numbers and charts and even with our own eyes. My friends and I, at the University I mean. Did you know, if you look through a telescope, at stars moving against the sky – if you have a good enough lens and if you pick a star far enough away – the way the light warbles – ” He broke off and shook his head at his own foolishness. “That’s far too much science before chocolate, I suppose.”
“I’d sell you a cup but I’ve doused the fire. I doubt I’d understand you, in any case.” She paused and then reached out to rub her finger across the medallion, her expression softening with wonder. “I’d like to try, someday. To understand what you were saying. Little old us, sailing through the sky like on a giant ship.”
That hope did Alec good. She had no reason to believe him and yet she saw right off why it mattered. Or maybe she only understood how it mattered to him, so it mattered to her as well. That was something; a great deal, really. “We did prove it, you know, my friends and I. And the University threw them out. They’d have tossed me with them, if not for – ” His gaze fell on the cloak, folded neatly on the bar. “I don’t want it,” he said, nodding toward the offensive garment. “I shouldn’t turn my nose up at it, I know, for I’ll never be able to afford a better one, but by the heavens above, I never want to wear that cloak again. To see it, even.” Then his more practical side asserted itself. “But the cloth is well made. It might make a nice dress for your granddaughter. Will you take it?”
Rosalie unfolded it, running her fingers over the fur trim and the well-woven cloth. “You’re right on its quality. Sophie’s never had better, nor will by my hand – nor will you, by Richard’s.”
“If he’ll take me back,” Alec added.
She took a long hard look at him, trying to gauge his resolve. “He will. But if you’re sure about the cloak, I could give you twenty-five silver by month’s end.”
“I won’t take a copper,” he replied. “That cloak would have been lost last night if you hadn’t seen to it. It’s yours if you’d like it.”
“Well, Sophie thanks you, as do I.” She yawned and blushed at her rudeness, but Alec took the meaning well enough. He’d slept; she hadn’t. “You’ll come by one of these days and tell me more about the stars?” she asked.
“That I will. But now I should let you seek your bed.” He walked over to the door but found himself hesitating on the threshold. Turning around, he asked, “Do you truly think Richard will take me back again?”
Rosalie pursed her lips together. “I don’t know what happened on the Hill, Alec. I’m not even sure who you are, come to it. Lord or Revered Scholar or – whatever it may be. You’re a prince in Riverside, and always have been; and beyond my ken. But I know our Richard, and I daresay he’s not done with you yet.”
Alec smiled at that thought. “I hope you’re right. A good day’s sleep to you in any case, Rosalie.”`
Alec crossed the courtyard in large strides, took the steps two at a time. Now that he was so close to Richard’s rooms – their rooms still, he dared to hope, but most certainly Richard’s, and that was pull enough – he ached to close the final distance.
The paperweight rolled around in his pocket, pushed here and there by his thigh, so Alec had to hold the pocket shut lest it fall out. He’d decided to give it to Marie. She’d appreciate it more than he or Richard would, and it amused him, somehow, to think of a curio from the most noble house of Tremontaine on the shelves of a Riverside whore. The medallion he’d left with a metalworker who would drill a hole through it and fashion a chain. He’d give it to Richard in a few days’ time as a proper coming-home gift. Once he’d told his swordsman about the stars and his university days and why he had no friends left at University, once he’d made Richard see why it mattered, once he’d shared that part of his past and other parts beside – if Richard would but hear him – when he’d told him all those things and saw that he understood, he’d fetch the medallion from the metalworker, pay him with the last of his coins, and have Richard wear it under his clothes.
Against his skin, he realized, and flushed at the thought. First his hands, then naught but bedsheets, and finally, a relic from ages past when people still thought the stars whirled across the sky but that he and Richard both knew was mere history. If Richard would but hear him.
Tucked under his other arm he carried two large carp wrapped in butcher’s paper and tied off with string. A more practical gift than the medallion, if more common, but he hoped Richard wouldn’t fail to grasp his meaning. This was just the kind of fish he’d fried up that morning after Lord Horn’s party. Richard hated the smell, but he loved Alec so he tolerated it. He even ate it once Alec had cooked it up properly. Fish meant home, and meals shared, and it called to mind (to Alec’s mind, at least, and he hoped to Richard’s) all the things that bound them together.
He knocked lightly at the door; no answer. Perhaps Richard was sleeping, or perhaps he wasn’t in and Alec would have to wait. Boldly, he opened the door, stepping inside.
There, on the chaise lounge that for the last year had been Alec’s place by their hearth, lay Richard. Uncovered, still fully dressed, his legs stretched out so his ankles dangled over the end. The swordsman blinked lazily and tilted his head back so he could see the door. He smiled up at him, half-dazed. Like he thought this a mere dream.
Alec shut the door behind him and leaned over the chair’s back, giving Richard his hand to hold on to. How many things he had to tell Richard! Of his time in Horn’s cellars; and of the stars, how he’d watched them from his grandmother’s gardens and later how he’d worked out their secrets at University. And of the trial, and Katherine, and how he’d meant to come down, to catch him before he left but how Richard had left so soon; how he’d meant to come up to their rooms straightaway last night, but …
Before he could save a word, Richard reached out sleepily. Took Alec’s wrist in his hand, rubbed his thumb along the inside. Alec, emboldened by the gesture, stepped around the chair – thankful for the gangly arms that let him move without breaking the touch – and sat himself beside Richard’s knees. Richard ran his finger first along the lines of his palms and then, more tenderly, the sliced flesh along the inside of his forearm. So merciful, so gently – Alec barely winced, but Richard saw it anyway. His swordsman sat up, leaned closer, breathing in the heady scent of pine and ink that was Alec. “What she must have done to you, Al….” He stopped himself, apparently searching for his truer name. “David?”
Alec shook his head at that. He buried himself in Richard’s shirt, then his neck, feeling the scruff of unshaved whiskers against his cheek as he pulled the other man closer. “Alec,” he whispered against Richard’s ear. “Forever Alec. Your Alec.” Then, in a mockery of the proper decorum that had ruled their lives far too much this last week, he eased his other arm from Richard’s grasp, showing him the parcel he’d thought he’d need to get through the door. “Hello. I’ve brought us some fish.”
Richard laughed at that, his whole body shaking against Alec’s and warming him through and through.
This story was inspired by a small moment near the end of Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint. Alec is leaving his grandmother’s home to return to Riverside and just as he leaves, he “pocketed some silver ornaments.” Jay of Lasgalen asked me to expand on this reference. Was this just a moment of spite on Alec’s part? Would he want to hold on to them or try to sell them? And how would that work out?
The situation is actually more fascinating than I first imagined when receiving Jay’s request because of the timeline. Alec encounters Katherine soon enough after Richard leaves that she’s still visibly upset, and he doesn’t seem to stay at his grandmother’s house very long after that. He also returns to Richard dressed in some very fine duds, making it highly unlikely to my mind that he walked home, for the reasons I described in this story. So if he goes home straight from the Duchess Tremontaine’s house, he could easily get home before Richard. Certainly he wouldn’t be more than an hour or so behind him – yet Richard is described as pottering around their flat for a while and then going to sleep before Alec turns up. What took him so long? Why didn’t he go home straight away? This is rather more about Alec’s trying to find his place back in Riverside than the ornaments, I’m afraid, but I did try to answer the question Jay actually asked for along the way.
Since this story is a gapfiller, it’s book-ended by canonical scenes: Alec’s and Katherine’s conversation just before he leaves the Tremontaine estates at the beginning and his return to Richard in Riverside at the end. Much of the dialogue in the first part along with Alec’s final line are both from Kushner. Some of the details about Alec’s University days are also taken from Swordspoint, in this case from Alec’s conversation with his grandmother just before the scene in part one.
My thanks to Jay of Lasgalen for the request, and to just_ann_now for beta reading this story. All remaining mistakes are my own.