“You ever kill anybody?” asked Valorous as they crested the hill, and Cecil glanced at him. He’d just reslung his bag on his other shoulder, which was his own fault, because he wasn’t carrying it properly in the first place, and his posture was fucking shit.
Valorous knew damn well how to carry a bag, and Cecil couldn’t tell whether he was carrying it like that to spite him or to make a point or just because he thought rules of weight distribution didn’t apply for real hikes.
“Sure,” said Cecil, pausing for a moment as Ruby lowered her snout to the ground and followed a scent for a few feet, but then stopped, glancing back toward Cecil, and coming back onto the path. “When I was in the army. I don’t have a list of confirmed kills or anything, though – I was fucking infantry.”
“Everyone you killed was fae.”
“That’s right,” said Cecil in an even voice. “Marched past Victim’s Peak, so that was against King Ritten’s forces, that was broadly a dispute over prisoners of war. Just a show of force more than anything else – and we didn’t have many casualties, either. And the expansion into Crystal.”
“Attempted expansion,” Valorous corrected him immediately, and Cecil glanced at him. Valorous wasn’t looking at him, was jogging after Ruby and stopping whenever she looked back at him – it was play, and she knew it was play, but she didn’t know how to play back, and she was wagging her tail shyly and uncertainly even as, occasionally, she leaned forward on her front paws in the barest ghost of a play bow.
“We expanded,” said Cecil, not that he was particularly insecure about it, not that he really cared. He wasn’t like some people – he didn’t have anything invested in it, didn’t set his identity on the battles won or lost. He’d drilled far more than he’d ever actually thought, and was always better at training other people for battles than he was at fighting in them himself.
“What was that, ’84, ’85? Whatever land you thought you took, two and a half fucking mushroom fields, the mushrooms took it back pretty quick.”
Valorous King could probably draw the borders of Crystal from memory, Cecil realised as he watched him now, pretending not to care, focusing on Ruby but with a tension in his shoulders that said he was aware of Cecil’s gaze on him. He could probably draw the changes in that border over the decades, up until Crystal died a death in, what, 2014?
The king had been killed, and all the significant members of his court, blood drenching the crystal pathways and dripping down the outer walls of the palace towers. Camelot hadn’t gained any territory from it – what was once Crystal had mostly been absorbed into the Queen’s Realm – but economically it had made a pretty significant difference, and Cecil didn’t particularly care about the political ramifications, but he knew there’d been a lot of them.
King Capulet had been the core of quite a lot of movements, had funnelled and controlled huge amounts of information and intelligence, and overnight, a great many of the power axes had shifted.
Valorous still wasn’t looking at him, was looking down at the dog.
“How old were you?” asked Cecil.
“Nineteen,” said Valorous.
“How many people did you kill in Capulet’s palace?”
“Seventeen,” said Valorous. “Capulet himself, his personal attendants, the head of his guard, several contacts of his within the marketplaces, two informants, and the rest were members of his court.”
“That the first time you’d killed somebody?”
“Other than the guy who killed my dad, you mean?”
“Fuck,” Cecil muttered, and Valorous smiled thinly at him. “You always have to use that as a fucking winning hand?”
“Until it stops winning.” Valorous turned back to the dog, and they kept moving, kept walking. Ruby was showing absolutely no sign of slowing, and nor was Valorous, actually. It was a good sign. “Yeah, I’d killed people before. I was dispatched on my first assassination when I was seventeen, that was in Keelung.”
His pronunciation was interesting. “You speak Mandarin?”
“Nope,” said Valorous, too quickly.
“How do you know so much about the languages spoken in Taiwan?”
“How do you?” asked Cecil, hands in his pockets, and Valorous looked back at him, stumped, then turned away again. “You gonna get in trouble for telling me that?”
“The death of King Capulet is an open secret,” said Valorous. “My, um… What’s it called, when debutantes…?”
“A cotillion,” said Cecil, although he knew that Valorous knew the word completely fucking well, that he’d probably gone to a hundred of the fucking things, whereas Cecil never had, and never would. It always made him curious, the things Valorous pretended to be ignorant about and the things he owned up to knowing.
“I was under firm instructions to kill everyone in his court, but not the agent from Camelot, and not the agent from the Queen’s Realm, either. Like I said, it’s an open secret that it was me, and it was on purpose, it was, um… He wanted them to know. A statement.”
“Everybody,” repeated Cecil, and laughed. “Everybody doesn’t mean me, though, does it? Everybody doesn’t actually mean everybody.”
Valorous didn’t look back at him right away. Cecil wished he didn’t have the backpack over his shoulder, that he could see the actual lines of his back, any potential stiffness in his shoulders or relaxation in them.
“You mean the chess-players, and the pieces on the board,” said Cecil. “Not anybody else.”
“Mm,” Valorous hummed decisively, giving a neat nod of his head. He slowed down because Ruby was sniffing at something, and once Cecil caught up with him he could see Valorous’ expression, the distant expression on his face, no frown, no anger. His brow was slightly furrowed, but his lips were unpursed, his expression focused not on Ruby or Cecil but on something on the inside of his own head. “I know I do that.”
“It’s good that you realise it,” said Cecil. “Do you feel guilty?”
“I liked him,” said Valorous, and Cecil tilted his head, watching him. “King Capulet.”
“Oh,” said Cecil, surprised at that particular admission, but he didn’t poke at it, didn’t want to shut him down. He was interested despite himself, curious – King Capulet had been a fucking enigma, never had his portrait painted or his image shown anywhere, and he’d built Crystal City pretty much from scratch, had planted the crystals himself and let them grow. “You met him before you assassinated him?”
“He held me hostage for several months,” said Valorous. “In his dungeon – tortured me, interrogated me.”
“Of course,” said Cecil. “Stupid of me to think you’d met him at a party or something.”
Valorous laughed, looking down at his feet, and then he shook his head. “No,” he said quietly. “King Capulet liked to break down assassins. Anyone who went into his territory with the intention of killing him was taken in – he’d profile his prisoners, tear them apart, and then start building them up again. Many of his most significant servants, and several of the commanders in his army, had previously been hired to arrange his death. Very rarely, he’d kill one of them, but he was actually pretty good at manufacturing loyalty, and once he had it, it was unshakable. So I went in, I let myself get caught, and I let him start the process of breaking me down.”
Cecil felt sick, something bubbling in his chest, his belly. He remembered what Valorous had looked like at that age – he would only have been out of school for a bit, if he was yet out of school at all. Young, with heavy bags under his eyes, always looking older than he was, but certainly looking younger than he did now. He’d looked like the child soldier he was, and Cecil had always ended up thinking about how in school, he looked less polished and perfect that he did in paintings or photos – he wasn’t so handsomely lit, didn’t have make-up, didn’t have polished armour or fancy weaponry to distract from the lines on his face.
“Right,” said Cecil. “And that made you like him, did it?”
“He was a very good judge of character,” said Valorous quietly. “He didn’t actually really make a crack in me, but I could see where he’d have been able to, if I’d gone in without knowing that was his strategy, or even if I was just there for longer. He taught me a lot about, um… about myself. About my relationships.”
“You won, though,” said Cecil.
“He needed my name to bind me,” said Valorous. “My real name. And he needed for me to give it to him – I don’t think he ever actually tried to look into who I was, even, didn’t put out many feelers even within his court, to try to pressure me by showing me he knew it already. He tortured me a fair bit, and it did hurt, it was hard, but it, um… Because he didn’t know who I was, he didn’t know what I could take.”
“Just light torture, then,” said Cecil, not even trying to keep the irony out of his tone, but if Valorous heard it, he didn’t show a sign.
“He kept me in the cold, so that ice formed on my skin. Whipped me a few times, suspended me by my wrists, it was, you know. Weak stuff. The hardest stuff they did to me was stuff I’d do at the weekend for fun. He’d have realised that if he’d had me for longer, but he liked to fuck his prisoners, he liked using sex and intimacy to get in people’s heads. I knew that, and I knew I was his type.”
“What, he tried to fuck you and once he was close enough, you were able to kill him?”
“He kissed me,” said Valorous. “The cell I was in was enchanted with a magical dampening charm, and when I came in, obviously they searched me, took everything off me. I have a tattoo on the inside of my lip, here, and I can activate the poison in it with a kiss, use someone else’s store of magic if I can’t channel it myself. That’s how I killed him.”
“Bet he never saw that coming.”
“I didn’t know you had tattoos,” said Cecil, and Valorous turned to look at him, leaning forward and peeling his lower lip away from his teeth. It didn’t even look much like a tattoo, exactly – it was almost like white scarring, several symbols inscribed into place. “You got more?”
Valorous nodded, looking forward again. “On the inside of my ear, um, you can see…” He couldn’t, not really, not enough to actually try to read any of the symbols, but he could see that there was ink there, right on the inside of the shell of it, the ink pink or red, so much so that it wasn’t easy to make out. “And here.” He touched the side of his head, his fingers touching through his hair.
“The fuck have you got a tattoo under there for?”
“Um,” said Valorous. “It’s not a self-destruct charm, exactly.”
Cecil’s nausea came back full-force.
“But it’s a last stand kind of thing. I activate it and I send a blast off about seventy-five feet in all directions.”
“That what your ear is for, too? A last stand?”
“Um,” said Valorous, and for the first time he really looked uncomfortable, looking away from him for a second. “Cecil, you know, I’m, uh. I’m deaf in this ear, almost completely. It’s kind of like a hearing aid? I couldn’t really fix the damage in that ear, but what this does is spread the capacity of my left ear between…”
Cecil was staring at him, he realised, and his mouth must have been open, or his face must have looked particularly shocked, because with every second that passed, Valorous looked more nervous, more insecure.
“It’s not serious,” said Valorous.
“It’s not serious?” Cecil repeated. “No, it is— Sorry. I can see you’re nervous about it. Just…” He inhaled, crossing his arms over his chest and stopping for a moment.
He didn’t much want to think about what it was that made Valorous look that fucking nervous, if people had used to get at him at school about it, but surely if they had, Cecil would have heard. No one would ever have dared bully Valorous King, barely risked insulting him except rarely, but if it had been about lost hearing, Cecil was sure he would have heard it.
“When?” he asked, even though he knew the answer, but he had to hear it, hear it exactly.
“Well,” said Valorous, trying to big himself up a bit now, trying not to look quite so fucking small, “you know a second ago when I mentioned shooting—”
“Fuck,” muttered Cecil, walking ahead, and Ruby flinched at the tone he was using even though it wasn’t loud, so he stopped and leaned toward her, dragging his hands through the thick ruff of her coat and petting the side of her cheek when she looked up at him.
“Sorry,” said Valorous.
“Don’t, don’t, lad,” Cecil murmured, reaching out and touching him, sliding his palm from Valorous’ cheek down to curl around his neck, squeezing gently and feeling the tension he was holding there. “I’m not angry, I’m not… When’d you get that tattoo? The hearing aid?”
“When I was about fifteen. It was the first one Myrddin gave me.”
“How many times did I ask if you were fucking deaf at school?”
Valorous didn’t say anything, just leaned in and dropped his head to Cecil’s chest, wrapping one arm loosely around his waist and letting his other hand rest on top of Ruby’s head, scratching behind her ears.
“It’s not much of a problem anymore,” he said in a low voice, muffled against Cecil’s neck. “Only sometimes, if I’m trying to pinpoint a particular sound, or if something’s really quiet. People started to notice it in bouts and competitions, that I wouldn’t hear them coming if they came at me from the right, and the damage from the gunshot was a perforated eardrum, and they couldn’t fix it at the time. Even if I’d gone to a fleshturner right after, before anything scarred, it’s fucking delicate work, especially on a kid’s ear.”
“You never said.”
“Nah, I never said,” muttered Valorous. “Why the fuck am I gonna go about telling people that? People can’t tell anymore, not unless I tell them first.”
“Why the fuck would you go about telling people? I’ll tell you why – because sometimes you couldn’t fucking understand what I was saying to you, and in your actual classes, I bet that fucking mattered.”
“Well, it’s too late for that now,” Valorous retorted, but he still looked nervous, uncertain, and Cecil clutched at his cheeks for a second, squeezing gently. He leaned in, pressing their noses together, then their foreheads, and Valorous gripped loosely at the front of his shirt. “It’s fine.”
“How often do you have to get that re-inked?”
“Every few years.”
“What happens when it’s starting to fade?”
“My hearing becomes… unreliable. I get confused about what side I’m hearing stuff from, or it drops in and out. If I leave it too long when it needs re-touching it makes me dizzy, more disoriented. Can we keep walking?”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” said Cecil solidly. “To be nervous about. You know that, right?”
“Mm,” hummed Valorous. It was noncommittal to say the least.
“The fuck did he say to you about it?”
“He’s a thousand years old,” muttered Valorous, and pulled away to keep walking. “He’s not exactly PC.”
Cecil patted Ruby on the arse, encouraging her to keep walking, and then he started on again, following after Valorous. They’d walked down into the valley, and they were beginning to ascend out of it again now, up the incline as they climbed the valley wall. Another hour or so and they’d stop for lunch in Bryn.
“Would you look after me even if I was dying?” asked Valorous, and Cecil took this in.
“Would you be less energetic if you were dying?”
“Yeah,” said Valorous. “I’d just lie in bed all day and I wouldn’t be able to get up. Probably wouldn’t even talk to you, I’d just lie there.”
Cecil thought of King Arthur in his magical coma, never moving from his bed. He’d never actually gone into the room where he laid comatose, but he’d seen him from the corridor, and as a young man, the king to him had seemed impossibly small and fragile, a thin lump under a pile of blankets.
Myrddin had looked after him for centuries, and probably would for centuries more.
“Of course I would,” said Cecil, and Valorous nodded his head, seeming satisfied. For a while, they didn’t talk at all, and Cecil wondered if he should feel bad for being grateful for it.
* * *
They rested in Bryn for a little over an hour before they kept walking again, but when they arrived in Harken a few hours later, they’d put in enough exercise that Cecil was ready to eat again, and neither Valorous nor Ruby protested when he led the way into a pub.
“Alright, Clint?” he said as he stepped inside, and Clint gave them a small smile, nodding in their direction. He was pouring a pint of stout for Cecil before he’d even asked.
“Water for the dog,” he said mildly. “What about you, lad? You look like a cocktail man.”
“Alright,” said Valorous, smiling slightly, and he led Ruby over to sit down in a booth next to the fire. They’d put in an electric thing, so it was lit and looked like there were flames, but there was no heat from it. He didn’t take up a chair, but sat immediately down on the floor, letting Ruby lie down in front of him with her head in his lap, her nose pressed between his side and his elbow.
“That mean he doesn’t have a preference?”
“You can be as artistic about this one as you like,” said Cecil as he handed over a note, and Clint smiled at him as he rang it up.
“Haven’t seen you up here in a long while,” said Clint. “Not since before you went inside.”
“Heard about that, did you?”
“Me, I hear everything,” said Clint, winking at him, and Cecil grinned as he took over the pint and the water for Ruby, two menus under his arm. The cocktail Clint was making for Valorous seemed very… pink.
“We’re going to eat before we get the bus back, right?”
“Right,” said Cecil.
“This is nice,” said Valorous, his hands working through the fur of Ruby’s shoulders, his gaze far away. He was relaxed now, a slight smile on his face, his eyes half-lidded and his body leaned forward so that he was as leaned into Ruby as she was into him. “This was, I liked… I liked it.”
Valorous nodded his head, and Cecil reached out, carefully carding his fingers through his hair. There was something special about this particular feeling, sitting in an armchair with a lad at his feet, especially with the dog in his lap, too. Something particular about it, a certain depth of luxury that Cecil knew he’d never earned in his life, never would, but that he’d be damned if he didn’t enjoy it now he had it.
“Everything you expected out of a hike?”
“My shoulders hurt,” said Valorous. “And my back.”
“That’s because you weren’t fucking carrying your bag right.”
“My feet hurt.”
“Should have had better form.”
“Too tired for me to fuck you when we get home?”
Valorous dropped the pout and shook his head, and Cecil grinned to himself, trying to pass him one of the menus, but the lad shook his head, pushing it back to him.
“You order for me,” he said, leaning forward and laying his head on Ruby’s back.
Cecil looked down at him for a minute or two, not picking from the menu right away. He just sat for a little while, observing Valorous King in his hiking clothes that were just a bit tighter than they needed to be, Valorous King with the tattoos under his hair and on the inside of his lip, Valorous King who was cradling a big old rescue dog in his arms like she was a tiny puppy, and using her as a fucking pillow.
“You’re gorgeous, and you have a great cunt.”
Valorous looked up at him, eyes soft as shit, his lips parted. “And you love me?” he asked.
“Don’t push it.”
Valorous laughed, leaning back against Cecil’s legs, and he hugged Ruby to his chest when she squirrelled close again.