Peter von Daecher had a secret.
Born under the elemental influence of stone, expectation bound Peter to performance. He was the stable earth with which he had an affinity, and a good affinity for the Citadel's defender. Born under the kinder influence of water, the elder brother Earnest made the better ruler; impervious, giving, forgiving, where stone instead bore the mark of every sword's blow. Born to fickle flame, the younger brother Conrad made the better warlord; far-ranging, wild, a cleansing destruction against the disordered wilderness of the frontier. To Peter fell the Citadel's defence, and all associated, unglamorous, domestic duties.
Peter never failed his duty. Nor was there precedent to suggest that he would, yet, the fear grew unbidden: the longer his dependability proved unchallenged, the more Peter feared the inevitability of his decline. He reviewed his potential actions carefully before proceeding, examining risk and shortfall with the meticulous nature of his affinity. For hours, Peter would weigh the meaning of deeds and phrases, his own and others, discovering which route would offer him the opportunity to avoid his own embarrassment.
Overthinking, as slow as geography's tide, Peter would choose to take offence only days after the insult's delivery. His hurt may well have been instantaneous, but his truant Lady Mother's example had taught him nothing but to distrust the impulses bred into his flesh. Pain, boredom, loneliness, satisfaction, joy; all were buried.
Thus, when Peter von Daecher had a secret, he held it so secret it took days to extract the information from his uneasy self, requiring stealthy action to discover the source of his unease.
But he was, by original make, not a man who lent himself to stealth.
The swordsman Hilliard, of the one name only, arrived at the Citadel in Peter's twenty fifth year. He came in a cloud of perfume, shocking reputation, and — as Peter's Lady Mother had left the Citadel before pursuing her lack of restraint — a decidedly unrestrained manner the staid Citadel inhabitants had never seen.
Ostensibly Hilliard had come at the request of that errant Lady. Peter imagined she had encountered Hilliard in the Capital in some disreputable setting, and been taken by an odd fit of acknowledgment, requesting the retired swordsman come to the Citadel and tutor her sons in the sword.
Having since determined he knew enough to survive to his own old age, Peter declined Hilliard's offer politely enough. As did the elder brother Lord Earnest, who believed himself a better servant of peace without a sword in his hand. Conrad, however, young and burning on the return from his latest foreign success, took the swordsman's tutelage, at Conrad's side the ever-present bondsman Janus, who Conrad had befriended on foreign killing fields.
For all his airs, Hilliard took no offence from the rejections, and surprisingly so also took none from the irreverence of Conrad's classless companion.
From Conrad, superficial and quick to judge, Peter learned Hilliard was an especially trivial man. From Janus, the better fighter and likely the better wit, Peter heard of Hilliard's dangerous skill. The swordsman's grey, waist-length tail of hair told it's own tale: Hilliard had lived as long as he had even flaunting his effeminacy.
Glad enough to have Conrad out of his own hair, Peter therefore made no move to dislodge Hilliard from the citadel.
After six months, Hilliard arrived at Peter's study for the first time. Surprised, Peter considered his actions and offered hospitality; therein they exchanged a pointless chat for some twenty minutes regarding the intimate lives of the north watchtower guard. Increasingly bemused, Peter's temper was almost ready to erupt when Hilliard rose suddenly, delivered his vapid and airy farewells, then swept from the room, long sleeves trailing the polished stone floor.
Peter returned to his work, then paused. He realized, with some rue, that Hilliard's impromptu gossip of bedhopping and tower-climbing had warned him discreetly of a potential lapse in the watch of the citadel's most vulnerable approach. And, Peter thought, the old man had contrived to do so with no appearance of instruction, advice or incursion into the realm of Peter's domestic duty.
Of course Peter could not thank the vagrant swordsman, but he did invite him in for tea the following fortnight.
To the amusement of the guard and the gossiping maids, Hilliard and Peter developed their conversations into a ritual, Peter listening, stoic, Hilliard entertaining and breezy, inconsequentials which made the eavesdroppers titter and from which Peter wrung such meaning he marvelled. Peter expected Hilliard's presence daily; the swordsman assumed the unofficial role of the citadel's advisor, and Peter von Daecher's unacknowledged friend.
Seven years since first he saw Hilliard, Peter realised his current unease was centered, in fact, around that wandering warrior. Was it a change in the man's behaviour? A shift in their conversations, imparting a meaning which Peter did not detect yet which stirred in his subconscious? The days were increasingly dissatisfactory, and in such quantity Peter could not forever repress the emotion.
In uneasy pursuit of what secret disturbance plagued him, Peter trailed Hilliard to the Citadel's associated township, still unsure what prompted the subterfuge. Yet Peter discovered nothing in Hilliard's movements beyond what the swordsman's habitual melancholy impelled. Born to the element of wind, Hilliard had ever traveled with the wandering vagrancy of spore, lost and hopeful while clinging to the tail of a breeze.
Was that it? The thought of Hilliard's native vagrancy had always disturbed Peter. After a life of travel and such tales, had Hilliard stayed too long in this one backwater citadel, when who knew what wonders were beyond the next corner? Hilliard must be restless, and wanting to leave.
Peter clenched his jaw on the thought, and followed it further.
Yet tailing such random intent proved a sweat-inducing challenge. Peter had to linger at each corner Hilliard turned before following, because Hilliard often turned on his own heel and walked the path once walked, again. Peter hid himself in the town's shadows, always with his palms pressed flat against the familiar stone; as his element, he drew dependability in his own motivation from the stone's strength. Peter's misfortune that much of the town was querkluftertz, a cross-veined stone with compressive strength limited to one direction, and the unfortunate inclination to shatter if correctly struck.
The cross-grained song vibrated through Peter's elemental core, and set his teeth grating.
And cursed Hilliard had stopped again, this time to—
Hilliard was kissing a woman.
—address the young woman in front of him as 'Dearest Calliope,' after which unnecessary and unexpected warmth Hilliard then bent with his swordsman's sly grace, and kissed her.
Hilliard was kissing a woman.
The girl at least had the sense to look around, as though to assure herself nobody was near.
Behind his wall as Hilliard and the girl walked past, standing only by the merit of his stubborn knees, Peter wondered if he had any reason to move again.
Then he turned. Forehead hammered against cross-grained ore, Peter vowed to leave the fickle wind-tossed old man and his woman to their game and turn to stone himself.
Hilliard. Talkative Hilliard, flirtatious Hilliard, was the only one who had ever thought Peter von Daecher had an opinion about anything outside the defense of the Citadel. Hilliard, who asked Peter for his opinion of colours to wear when the sky was mist-grey with winter's kiss, the fog marrying the sky to the sea to the earth—
Certainly, Peter thought the conversational topic of as much worth as horse tripe to a homeowner, but Hilliard cared enough to ask.
—Hilliard, who always waited for and listened to Peter's long considered responses with a benign and intent focus Peter had stupidly thought was concern, care, equality, longing.
Hilliard, who would only ever be as a stranger to Peter from this day forward.
At last Peter had unearthed full proof, and he despaired.
He loved Hilliard like no one else he had ever risked loving before.
Peter von Daecher had another secret.
When his father died, Peter's life had been forged, reshaped into a shield for the Citadel. Peter had little of himself left over, and his family took what remained. His Lady Mother, how much of him she took with every cursed kiss she made him bend to plant on her fickle cheek. His brothers, who chipped away at his dependability by relying on him so, mined him bare and barren to lay the foundation of their own lives. But what about him? What about him! Surrounded by servants, underlings, trusted commanders, family, Peter had no one who thought of him. His family betrayed him by being what they were, and expecting him to be what he was not. His mother, with her array of lovers and her freedom to leave and love where she would. Conrad and Earnest, who did exactly what they pleased with their riding, fighting, debates, with never a question of whether Peter had found his comforts yet. Peter did not resent their freedoms, but rather their endless parade of it, where he had none.
Peter liked the idea of friendship. Compelled to protect the Citadel's nameless multitude falling into the scope of his care, he imagined what it would feel like to care for someone voluntarily. Someone who could take care of themselves, but who chose otherwise. Someone, who chose him. Duty came heavy as a mountain, where Peter dreamed of a love light and undemanding as air.
At night, alone, Peter rarely thought about Hilliard. He thought about Conrad. Bright-burning Conrad, born to fire, had always had an easy life, many moths flying to his flame. Conrad's bondsman, too, and Peter wondered what bonds were forged on a foreign battlefield which could hold against the chasm of class and freedom between them. Peter thought about his Lady Mother: she who had it all, with a loving husband, only to have it all again with her second husband, then to throw it all away and leave, telling him she hadn't ever cared about love to begin with—
Peter was afraid the end of his life would hold only a friendless solitude.
The walk back to the citadel, Peter meandered in a way unlike himself.
He felt unlike himself altogether: strangely lightened by his instantaneous decision to surrender a want he had barely known he held.
True, he was still uneasy, yet instead of impulse control Peter adopted a rigid common sense his mother thought worthy of amusement: Peter allowed himself to feel the unease, but he displaced the emotion, sharply.
Why, so narrowly had Peter avoided a passion which might have compromised his defence of well-secured boundaries! No wonder he had been concerned. Better, far better to have discovered this now, when actions to sever could still be taken.
Duty was his mountain, love a feather, and Peter's affinity for the earth. Alone, he determined, he would return to stone.
One thing about Peter that wasn't a well-kept secret: he arranged flowers.
No one asked him why he liked the art. Not his Lady Mother, who treated the eccentricity of others as a challenge to do better or worse with her own. Not Conrad, who never drew attention to another's obsessions lest they draw attention to Conrad's own unhealthy battlelust. Not Earnest, who was so self-obsessed it would not have surprised either of his brothers had he forgotten their names.
Peter liked the poise and delicacy of placement. Thick-fingered and more suited to plate mail and command, his voice either a low, monotonous rumble or a battle-sergeant's shout, it gave Peter great pleasure to witness the effect of delicate modulation. A bare half-inch to the left changed a top-heavy establishment to a well-balanced arrangement of life and perfume. The silent calm, repetitive precision, the near meditative trance freed his mind to consider heavier loads.
There was the creativity, too, evidence of his worth in more than paperwork and defensible palisades.
Peter loved the feel of fibre in his hands. Plant matter gave him a link into the core of the earth, and out, to the sun, life. The art came easier with fine bone as stiffener for the plant spines, but Peter had no need for anyone's backbone but his own. Bone did not speak to the son of stone; the earth itself gave him life.
As he passed stem and leaf through his fingers, Peter felt the sun on plant leaves, the pull of nutrient, earth's true blood and bone, upwards through soil; time itself unravelling as the demands of continued existence shaped the plant. Peter breathed the millennia of mountain ranges ground into sand grains and base elements by wind and by water; drawn by the wind, Peter rose with the water and thickened plant stems, hungered for the sun, awakened to life's web. Peter arranged his plucked blossoms back into art.
To his brothers' eyes, Peter's creations were lopsided, asymmetrical, never there. But Peter did not share the aesthetic sensibility of others. A lick of scorched twig, of dew on a petal, of pollen dusted across a leaf: he saw earth, fire, water, air, come together in perfection that had very little to do with the form.
He lost himself quite comfortably.
'—never seen you look like that before, it's really quite amusing, whatever are you doing?'
At Hilliard's voice, Peter dropped the twigs to his lap. He placed his hands flat on his desk, and resisted the urge to inch his chair closer to the table. The motion would have drawn attention to the fact Peter did not wish Hilliard to look at his lap.
'What do you want?'
Hilliard seemed taken aback by a manner to which he should have been accustomed; Peter was surely no more abrupt than his usual. 'I thought you might like to come for a walk, but if you're busy well, no matter, I can see you're busy, so perhaps another time.'
Hilliard beamed, skin by his eyes seaming cheerfully.
Suspicious, Peter narrowed his eyes. Unpleasantly intimate conversations besides, Hilliard had been specific in ensuring his relations with Peter bounded by Peter's study walls. A walk was unusual.
'Yes,' Peter said.
'Do you mean, yes to another time, or yes to now, or yes, you are busy?'
Peter took care to stand swiftly, the twigs sliding below the desk. He could do little enough about the half-built display before him. 'Where are we going? Is it something important?'
Hilliard was looking at Peter's ankle. Peter shook off the twig which had caught at his hem.
Hilliard shook his head. 'Nothing of the sort; I thought I saw you when I was out for my walk yesterday afternoon and wondered if you might prefer for the same scenic route I do, and if you wished for companionship on your meanderings.'
'The scenery is trite,' Peter announced, and scowled at his own illogic, first for admitting his presence if only by lack of denial, and second for the statement which gave him little pretext for his presence on Hilliard's path the day prior.
Hilliard gave an appraising glance as Peter drew alongside him. 'Our opinion of worthwhile scenery does differ, I must say. May I assume it's the companionship you prefer, if not the outlook?'
Irritated at himself, and at Hilliard for causing his irrationality, Peter locked his study room door behind him. Hilliard led through the hall, awash in a sea of loose silk and satin-smooth hair.
'I've chosen that road latterly,' Peter said, deflecting, 'with no great reason for it.' He thought of nothing but Hilliard kissing the woman; he scowled fit to make his forehead give up in despair and line itself. 'It's no secret I make my rounds of the town regularly. What's your reason for preferring that route?'
Hilliard smiled, his eyes sparkling, and missed the accusatory tone Peter delivered with his question.
'I wish to get a glimpse of the sea every day; eautiful even if only ever seen from a distance, but the beauty is always in contrast, don't you think? The ocean's unstoppable motion, crashing endlessly against the rocky shore resisting so stubbornly, again and again, oh! So invigorating, don't you think? And when the waves recede, how it curls and caresses each boulder that held firm against the thrashing, white foam lingering like a lover's tongue at one's throat. A throat? Nay, a column of faultless pale marble, the life within brought out by the liquid presence, the ocean's wave frothed white as a shimmering necklace of pearls...'
While speaking, Hilliard leaned in close. Again, a usual action, yet nothing of the sort now Peter knew his own secret. Peter reddened.
Throatily, Hilliard said, 'I admit, though only to you alone, Lord von Daecher, to having a secret motivation.'
Peter grunted. They were at the gates, where the sentries stood back to back, at firm attention, to guard against attack from within as well as without. That had been his idea; Peter was always wary of betrayal.
'My daughter has only recently found herself accommodation by the market—'
The guards, tense in the presence of their commanding officer, stiffened further, while Hilliard recoiled.
Peter surprised himself into a full-fledged flush with his shout. He did not know if he was angry or embarrassed, or even if the two were distinct, with him. Peter's anger heeled his embarrassment; all his embarrassment sourced in the results of his unwary, too-strong emotion.
'My daughter,' Hilliard said, stammering, an affectation. 'Peter—'
'Hilliard!' Peter shouted, and had no reason.
'Lord von Daecher!' Hilliard rallied. 'I fail to see why revealing my adopted daughter should so cause your obvious distress, and ask you clarify your emotional state!'
Peter sputtered, undecided to whether he should object to the 'distress' or to the 'adopted' first, when unexpectedly, his equilibrium returned with the implacable force of continental drift.
Wary, Hilliard took a small step backwards.
Peter struggled to smooth his expression.
'I apologise,' Peter said, stiffly, 'for being startled. I chanced to note you greeting your daughter yesterday with a kiss, and assumed you were keeping a lover in the town proper. I could only think on how this would compromise your performance in our current hierarchy. This distressed me, as your dedication to our citadel's continuity thus far has pleased me, and your advice had been impeccable. I did not wish to lose your aid. I have spent a sleepless night trying to decide how to broach the topic, to ensure no unwary attachments could compromise one's safety or performance. Of course, your daughter must move her accommodation to the citadel's protection, and not become a target of those who would wish to blackmail you in your current role within my circle. You and I must schedule a time for further conversation on the topic; family presents for us—both of us—the greatest vulnerability.' Peter coughed. 'Again, I do apologise for my assumption.'
Slowly, Hilliard smiled, until he was positively grinning.
'Lord von Daecher,' Hilliard said, and clapped his hands together as though gifted with the acclaim he had sought. 'I can only assume you have an unfortunate lack of experience with kissing, if it was that small action leading you to assume Calliope was my lover. There is a difference in how one kisses one's child to how one might kiss one's lover.'
Peter thought briefly about his Lady Mother, whose kisses had always been passionate and painful, and had not the lack of experience to excuse her mistake.
Then he could think of nothing much at all, as Hilliard leaned in close. His breath was a whisper on Peter's cheek, his lips the chaste brush of a butterfly's wings across an upturned flower.
'That is how one kisses one's child,' Hilliard said.
Peter closed his eyes just as Hilliard claimed his lips, and ended the universe with the pressure of his tongue.
'This,' Hilliard said—
The pressure of healthy teeth raking against Peter's lower lip, a hand curled under his hair and kneaded lava into the stiff muscles of Peter's neck; the spice, the heat of a body against his own, the butter-suede of Hilliard's skin, the gossamer-grey veil of Hilliard's hair making of their connection a new universe.
'—is how one kisses—'
This time Peter opened his lips first, and fought back; his own hand at the small of Hilliard's back, noting the wiry, knotted fighter's muscle a moment before he pulled Hilliard violently close, where bulk and youth could surely overcome the skill and lean defence; Hilliard was all hipbones, belts, paraphernalia hanging from; collision, and collusion, of groins. Peter groaned. The dry earth was parched; this was a dust storm and wind-born Hilliard, hard beneath his layers and as thin, edged, unbreakable as the sword of his life's vocation, was breathless.
'—a—' Hilliard shook his hair out of his eyes, chest heaving, '—a - goodness. Goodness. That, Lord von Daecher, is exactly how one kisses one's lover. Well done.'
As though ready to step away, Hilliard relinquished his hold on Peter's neck with an expression of wistful reluctance. For him, fickle thing, Peter supposed this was already a memory.
Peter did not like the idea.
He did not remove his hand from Hilliard's spine. In his periphery, the sentries recover their dropped spears, and resisted the urge to both glare at their incompetence and wipe his lips.
For the latter, Peter licked them instead, and had the undeniable satisfaction of seeing Hilliard colour an unfavourable shade of pink.
'I thank you for the demonstration,' Peter said. 'I'll be certain not to make that mistake again.'
'I daresay you won't,' Hilliard said, enthusiastic. 'And to think I'd thought Lord Conrad was a fast learner! I find my heart suddenly overfull, yes, veritably throbbing with the urge to indulge myself in multistanza'd poetry. Peter von Daecher. My Lord Peter von Daechar!'
Hilliard's eyes were guilelessly wide. Startled into being, the expression seemed uncontrived.
In the face of that expression, Peter was of a mood to forgive Hilliard even that comment about his brother, as it appeared Peter had managed to make Hilliard as speechless as Hilliard would ever pretend to be.
Peter softened, as his nature allowed in the right circumstances, and smiled.
'Come on,' Peter said, 'I think I should like to meet your daughter.'
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