Prize so Dear

by llamajoy

the blood he spilled, jerusalem, jerusalem
so many killed, gone all of them, gone all of them
who then? antiochus, antiochus
arise our hero, judah save us, judah save us
prize so dear, the vict'ry gave us, freedom gave us
who then?

--peter, paul & mary

Culgan was very tall, Jowy thought, watching him escort Jilia to the dance floor. Among the couples already dancing the Christmas galliard, the pair stood out as a poinsettia against a pale snowfield, as spiced wine spilled on white linen. The General of the Fourth Army was always quite striking, in court or on the battlefield, for the unexpected silver of his hair and the imposing angle of his stance. But the Queen--

Of whispering nobility and servants alike, none had ever seen her so happily flushed, so crimson and vibrant. Her gown was red as the hollyboy's berries, the colored scarves at the nobles' throats all dyed to match as they dipped their heads in deference to her, their dance steps crossing hers.

Culgan dipped his head to murmur something in Jilia's ear, and Jowy thought that he had not seen his wife smile in such a way, not since he was a small boy peeking over the wall at her summer garden, and she smiled unguarded at her needlework, or her afghan puppy, or the sunlight through the trees.

He wondered what Culgan might have said to prompt such a smile. He wondered why he hadn't thought to say such a thing earlier.

Seed, sitting beside Jowy at the royal table, lifted his wine in an unrequited toast. "To the Queen," he said, without irony, and took a long pull.

It made the young King blink and recompose himself in his seat, to realize that he had been staring unconsciously. He was unaccustomed to being caught off his guard; he made a habit of never lowering his defenses.

The first time he found himself thus taken aback was not so very long ago, but he could not rue the memory for the trust he had found with his generals. After the many battles, after Luca's final defeat, the army began the tiring march back to Highland. One late night, he sought out Culgan's tent; and it was Seed who stumbled from the bed, wearing only his pants-- one hand combing his hair from his eyes, and the other in a near-perfect salute, for all that it was three in the morning.

For all Jowy's discomfiture, he did not let it show (and then after a tiny moment he felt his cheeks warming, that he might have even found it surprising).

"What is it you require of me, liege?" Seed's voice was not slurred with sleep, and his eyes not unfocused, though Jowy could see he might have been trying not to yawn.

Jowy stood with pursed lips, weighing what to say and what to keep to himself. "I could not sleep," he said simply, and with an honesty that he had not anticipated, he confided, "I dare not."

Seed nodded shortly, not sitting down. "Surely my lord's tent is guarded?"

"It is," Jowy said, meeting his eyes. "And still I dare not. Our Prince believed all men more stupid than he. ...I have the opposite difficulty."

Seed's mouth might have twitched in the beginnings of a smile, but it was tricky to tell, in the unsteady torch-thrown light in Culgan's tent. "Is it sleep you want, then? Or is it Culgan's company?"

"I seek only the company of someone I knew would understand. And you are certainly that."

"Culgan is on watch," Seed said. "But only till the hour before dawn." He didn't quite manage to look sheepish, a rakish angle to his brows as he added, "I'm warming his bed."

Jowy only nodded. "What you do on the battlefield does you honor. I am not concerned with your activities on your own time."

This time Seed did smile, sitting at the edge of Culgan's furs, still at attention. "My lord must get his rest. When we arrive, you will be crowned--"

"We are not there, yet," Jowy cut him off hastily, and Seed laughed aloud.

And so for all that long march home he did not sleep but in that other tent, catching his rest between Seed and Culgan, the only people he allowed himself to trust. The season was turning to autumn, the pitched tents and caravans buffeted with rain. Silver Highland rain that continued as they processed homeward, striking the battlements of L'Renouille with the chilling cadence of snare drums calling the soldiers to war.

It was not rain this festival day, but snow. With the nightfall, the world grew colder still, the daylong snow showing no signs of withdrawing. Somewhere behind the descending curtain of darkling frost and starlight, the moon was rising, surely as the world was changing.

Not a year ago, Jowy had been a pawn on the chessboard, moving against his will-- and now he had crossed that board entirely. By the book, that rightly meant his piece had earned its rank, and it was just and fitting that his little black pawn be knighted.

No, not knighted; the rules of L'Renouille defied the logic and convention of the game. He was King.

And who in the great hall might have guessed that his match, the White King opposite him on the board, was the son of Genkaku? Departing from Kyaro to lead the City-State army, the bright brother rune burned into his hand.

Reflexively, Jowy's right hand curled on itself, hiding always the shape of the sword on his palm. The point of the rune was nearly sharp, in the hollow beneath his middle finger; he clenched his fist as though the pain had answers to give him, as though it could connect in thought to its other half, so far away.

"Nice of Cul to dance with her," Seed was saying.

"What?" Again, Jowy found that he had been watching, unseeing, the fall of Jilia's dark hair, and her slim waist in the curve of Culgan's elbow. Again he shook himself, grateful for the heaviness of his ceremonial robes for keeping him properly upright in his seat. They were beautiful and foreign, the two of them, as they moved blithe and bonny through the steps of the dance. And, for all that he knew he was staring, he could not look away.

"It has been tradition," Seed said judiciously, "for the princess to share a dance with her father the King, on such festival occasions."

"Oh," was all Jowy could think to say. As if he could, for even a moment, forget the prices paid and the blood spilled, or the ashen look on King Agares' face as he first stumbled. Beyond the high windows and the carousing and the Yuletide music, the silver and blue Highland standard snapped in the winter wind, its flagstaff dusted with snow. Jowy searched for strength inside himself, but all he could find was a vast and frozen longing, like a broad Highland plain hidden by the snowfall; little remaining but a fierce and wintry love for this country. His country.

Wandering in remembrance of his own, Seed spoke. "Luca used to dance all night long." A smile seemed to haunt his lips, a ghostly figure dancing in a long-abandoned festival hall.

Jowy shivered under his stole. "All the reason for me not to," was what he said aloud. "The people need as many reasons as possible to believe that I am not their former prince."

Seed shrugged, agreeing but still with a tinge of melancholy, or of wistfulness, to his remembering. "Not a man could outdrink him, and not a woman could refuse his offer. He was as light on his feet as he was terrible in the battlefield."

Jowy's hand tightened on the stem of his wine goblet; the dark liquid inside, untouched, shivered slightly. "I can't imagine that," he murmured, looking out over the faces of the people. His people. "Do they remember?"

He did not ask aloud: Did the kingdom suspect that he had betrayed his brother-in-law to become King? Did the kingdom care? He did not think to wonder, was the kingdom was merely grateful? The fingers on his left hand traced, by heart, the pattern of the Black Sword. By now, knowing it was not unnoticed, it was slightly warm to the touch. And behind it, always, was the echo of the Beast, the terrible gnawing thing within him. He could not imagine, Luca without the Black Sword rune to keep it at bay, Luca keeping his mind his own.

Perhaps the young prince of Highland hadn't always been a man mad.

The Vice-General of the Fourth Army shook himself visibly, candlelight catching his red hair and turning it to minted copper. The dream faded from his eyes, and Jowy saw a memory of blood, or of fire, happening behind his wry smile. They had shared battlefields and furs enough for there to be an accord between them. "Not a soul misses him now, my liege."

"Not a soul," Jowy said, so low his voice was lost beneath the swell of festival music, "save his sister." Seed, who did not hear him, still caught the way his gaze lingered on the youngest Blight, and drew his own conclusions.

The young soldier nodded meaningfully at his younger king, lifting his tankard again and draining it dry. "To the King," he said. Several counselors sitting close by caught the gesture and mirrored it, until the toast passed lightly, hand to hand, through the whole hall.

It was not a surprise, their gazes turning toward him and the little hush that fell, only the pipers and the fiddlers carrying on their tune. Jowy Atreides had known from that first moment in Luca's tent that all attention would be on him, for as long as he walked this path; Jowy Blight was not unprepared for the expectation and the naked hope in the celebrating eyes before him.

But the King of Highland was unready to see his wife returning to their table, on the arm of his trusted General, her face aglow as a fir tree full of candles.

He knew it would not do to give the appearance of hesitation. Rising from his chair, he offered her his hand, pulling her chair back for her to sit and rest from her dancing.

Jilia didn't even glance at it, catching his proffered hand with both her own, and pretending she didn't see him wince. "Please," she said, her smile determined, her head tilted back to the open dance floor. "I... I do so love this song."

For the first time Jowy heard the music for what it was, not as merely a pleasant buzz in the back of his consciousness, the tapestried arras hung behind the ballroom activity, attracting little more than conversation. This melody was familiar, almost painfully so; arranged as a pavane, a slow and stately one, played on the Highland pipes.

He thought he heard a murmur around them, of approval or curiosity or dismay, he could not discern. There was a rushing in his ears, a tingling in his blood like the heat of the rune on his hand, pulsing beneath Jilia's slender fingers.

Jowy cast a tiny, helpless look at his generals, but they were only shaking their heads.

"The King ought to dance to such a tune." Seed was grinning.

"There is policy to be discussed," Jowy insisted. "I cannot dance."

Culgan, his hands on the back of Seed's chair to keep him steady, was only barely winded from his own enthusiastic turn on the floor. "We will watch over you, my lord. No one will disturb your revelry." Then, before Jowy could voice another protest, he lifted his wine with a flourish, and said loudly, "To Your Majesties' health and long lives."

And so he had no choice.

The King and Queen together walked out to the dancing floor, hand in hand, not looking at each other. As fitting for the dance, Jowy put his left hand on her waist, careful not to breathe as he touched her. The crimson velvet of her bodice was warm, her shoulders lifting elegantly as she caught her breath. With a shy look that was almost a smile, she took his hand.

She did not flinch, fingertip to fingertip and palm to palm, when the Black Sword fully touched her ungloved skin. With quiet wonder in her eyes she looked at him, and Jowy felt the shape of the rune twofold; once marred into his own hand, once again in the expression in her eyes. He did not think she had ever felt it before; even in sleeping he kept his hand carefully folded that he might never accidentally touch her, and burn her as he burned himself.

But she did not let him go, and to his surprise he found himself dancing.

Dizzied with the spin of Jilia's Yule-red dress across the ballroom floor, the spill of faces around them, some smiling and some prayerful, for a moment Jowy savored a traitorous joy. He knew what no one else knew: that the blood of Agares would end here. There was only this moment, of movement, of gaiety, and then the long-deserved end. There was nothing of Agares' cowardice in Jilia, and nothing of the Blight in Jowy. Small blessing that her mother the queen had been laid by ruffians, that her blood might beat hot and red like fire, and not the thinning blue royal blood of the Blights.

But here she was, on his arm, the flower of L'Renouille, the very Queen of Highland. Her hand, resting there on his shoulder, was warm in a way that his own hand was not, nothing of a rune to stain the sweet gentle heat of her. Never in his dreams had he imagined such a touch, her slim hand offering encouragement-- or more amazingly, trust. His heart twisted inside him.

To make matters worse, Jilia leaned close to him, admitting, "This song was one of Father's favorites."

Jowy swallowed, and the decision came to him unbidden. He would not keep the truth hidden from her, that silence could not be a comfort. "My lady," he began, not even knowing how to speak the words. Their steps did not falter, but his pulse was pounding. "I doubt you could ever forgive me, if you--"

"I know," she interrupted him softly, and with the skirl of the pipe behind it, her voice had all the intensity of flame. "Luca-- Luca never lied; it never occurred to him. It was his pride." Her voice should not have broken, Jowy thought, there should not have been that dark shadow of uncertainty on her brow. She has done nothing wrong. "I-- I already know."

"Then I am at your mercy, my lady," Jowy said fiercely, finding for the first time that here was understanding more than he expected, more than he deserved.

"I was afraid," she said. "But when you look into my eyes I am ashamed of not believing. It must have been very... hard for you."

Her compassion made his eyes sting, made his throat feel tight. As he met her gaze, her eyes were luminous brown and full of promise, like the tilled Highland soil beneath the blanket of snow. With awe, he lifted his hand to touch her hair, to brush his fingertips across her cheek; under his hand she closed her eyes.

"Please," Jowy whispered, his voice not making a sound. He bit his lip, and the words he found were not the words he had thought to say: "Please make me feel something other than this poison in my veins."

Jilia lifted her head and kissed him.

The fiddlers played on, the music a wordless and potent reminder of the turning of the year, the deepest dark of winter and the promise of the light to come. It was bittersweet satisfaction, scalding and bright on his tongue like the first snowflakes of a childhood winter.

Seed, his head resting on his hand and his fourth wine tankard long since empty, sighed. Half the room sighed with him, the sound of unspoken newborn hopes, or dreams.

Culgan only smiled, looking outside, up into the dark. The snow had ceased to fall; the Highland flag seemed to shine, unbowed, and the moon was a crescent rune scarred into the palm of the Highland sky.


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