The View from Byzantium
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‘Did you even realize what he was trying to do?'
Henry strode at Montjoy's side through the palace hallways to their quarters. One hand hovered near his herald's elbow; the other clearly itched to draw the dagger that was the only weapon he was allowed to carry, here in the Emperor's palace at Byzantium. Montjoy could only be thankful that the King's sword was safely under lock and key in the English party's lodging.
‘Certainly I realized. He expressed a mild interest,' explained Montjoy patiently. ‘I indicated that it wasn't returned, and he bowed out gracefully like a gentleman. I've had to deal with much worse in my time.'
‘What?' Henry stopped dead. ‘On my embassies?' Now the hand was no longer hovering at his elbow but locked tight around his upper arm. Henry looked really concerned, scanning Montjoy's face from, well, too close a distance for comfort. ‘Why have you never told me? I would have sent more men with you if I'd known. Wanted to, in fact, but you always refused. Stubborn. Always.'
Montjoy, realizing that they were close to the door of their lodging, suggested with a sign they continue this conversation in more private surroundings. When had he become accustomed to directing kings? Or, specifically, one king? After the battle, probably; there was something about being practically picked up bodily and hurled to the ground that tended to make or break a friendship, and a cautious, formal, almost-friendship was what they had had ever since Henry had apologized (as far as dignity allowed) moments later.
Or so the Herald had thought. Now, though, Henry was giving him what Montjoy thought of as his Plantagenet look, the one that had been directed at him briefly in London, briefly after Agincourt, and almost never otherwise; a look with longbows in it.
As they went in to the ante-chamber of the English quarters, a sleepy page started up from his chair, but Henry dismissed him with a gesture and strode through the hall to his own quarters, motioning Montjoy inside with another, angrier, gesture. ‘Well?'
‘Occasionally it's happened on your missions. And on King Charles', and the Dauphin's. Occasionally. Hardly ever, now that you're more secure in both England and France. No-one in the west would risk a quarrel with you for the sake of making a pass at your herald. I shouldn't think anyone in Byzantium would now, either.' He sighed as he realized he was rambling, and reached for formality. ‘My lord. Far worse things happen in war, or to prisoners of war. That's why I do what I do, going alone to talk to the enemy. Less of a threat. Fewer hotheads to start fights. For the most part, I'm trying to stop wars. Few things are worse than war.' He was too tired to be tactful, or was it that Henry was standing altogether too close now and he was trying to push him away?
And indeed the King was watching him closely, those eyes, sometimes frighteningly intelligent, sometimes regrettably dense, searching his face. ‘There's something you're not telling me, isn't there? Has somebody hurt you? You must tell me, Herald.'
‘Nothing like that. Please, my lord. Let it go.' For the hurt - an arrow through the heart - had been administered unwittingly by Henry himself, years ago before Queen Katherine had died, even before the battle, and the Herald had grown used to the small, constant pain.
Henry swung away with an impatient noise. ‘I'll have it out of you yet. Don't think that I won't, I need to know. Do you think it doesn't matter to me if you're in danger on my missions? And there are the other heralds to think about, as well as you.'
Well, that was reasonable. Fair-haired Thierry, for instance, could well be at risk in some of the locations they were sent to; or young Ranulf.
‘Then I'll tell you, my lord, but perhaps not tonight? I'm certainly not in any danger from Alexius.'
‘No, you're not, and nor will you be if I have anything to do with it,' said Henry. The hand was on his elbow now as the King steered him towards his own small room, only stopping at the door and glaring at him again (in lieu of doing the same to the harmless Alexius, Montjoy realized) before returning to his own quarters.
Of course Montjoy was unable to sleep after a conversation like that. Years of diplomatic missions had left him able to assess danger well enough, and he had anticipated none tonight. The Emperor's cousin (handsome, charming and urbane) had flirted with him, a little; before meeting Henry, Montjoy might have been tempted to flirt back, but all that had stopped abruptly after his first visit to London. But Henry had spotted the little interaction between him and Alexius from further down the banqueting hall and had taken one step forward, looking enquiringly at his herald. And Montjoy had shaken his head slightly and made a small flattening, calming gesture with his hand. Henry had stepped back instantly and resumed his conversation with a dark-haired Byzantine princess. So perhaps fortunately he hadn't seen Alexius' amused expression as he followed the interchange or heard his murmured ‘There's someone with a prior claim, I see. My loss,' and then he had indeed bowed out gracefully.
And the Herald had continued his way round the high, echoing chamber until Henry had appeared suddenly at his side and quietly, but more or less inexorably, removed him from the room.
What exactly had Alexius seen? The whole thing had been over in a few minutes. The Herald thought he had perfected his diplomat's ability to mask his own thoughts and to read others', but he had only rarely seen cause for hope in the King's face. (Though the rumours concerning him and the lord of Masham had been persistent and explicit, and had done duty for hope for a while). And, come to think of it, after one glance across at Montjoy and another back at Henry, Princess Sophia had seemed as amused as Alexius.
It was probably halfway round the court by now: hands off the French Herald, and don't waste your time with Henry, either! They would continue with their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the faint possibility of a marriage alliance with Byzantium, which was the real reason for their voyage here, was snuffed out.
Montjoy, who had limits to his capacity for noble self-sacrifice, would have felt a lot happier about all this if he had been sure that the Byzantines were reading Henry's reactions as clearly as his own.
Two hours later he finally gave up on any idea of sleep and dressed quietly, then left the lodgings by the outer door and crossed the terrace to the stairs down into the steep little garden, picking his way easily enough by the brilliant moonlight. Halfway down was a stone balcony where he stopped, looking out over the Bosporus. Here they were in Europe. Over there was Asia; another continent.
He leaned on the balustrade and breathed in the scents of roses, jasmine and the sea. It was so quiet that he could hear water lapping below the walls, and even at this hour there were still lights showing across the city. A fallen constellation.
Sooner or later he would have to leave the King. Maybe the marriage with Princess Sophia could have been the excuse. With one more alliance in place, Henry would have less need of his senior diplomat to secure his admittedly rather weak claims to the thrones of both England and France. Montjoy had seen enough civil wars to know that Henry as King was a good deal better than the alternative, and there were always greedy men on the borders. So he had stayed, and done the king's work, and hidden his feelings for the man, but it was costing him dear.
If not Princess Sophia, then who? He had begun wearily reviewing suitable princesses - of Portugal, Sicily, Russia, and a list of others - when a noise on the terrace above made him look up. Moonlight ghosted on fair hair, but he'd known who it was anyway. He would always know.
‘My lord?' he called softly. ‘Is something wrong?'
‘I woke up and found you gone,' replied Henry in a furious whisper. He'd spent most of this evening angry, thought Montjoy inconsequentially. The King descended the stairs in a silent rush and pulled up short on the balcony. He was dressed in his surcoat with the royal arms of England and France, wearing his sword, and glaring again, this time with real justification.
‘I was getting ready to search the palace for you, with the help of this if necessary,' Henry's hand fell heavily onto the hilt of the sword, ‘and it was your good luck that I checked the garden before waking anyone! Don't ever just disappear like that again!'
Shocked out of his introspective mood and appalled at his own stupidity, Montjoy jerked upright. ‘My lord, I'm truly sorry. My judgment's been off all tonight' - ‘I'll say!' spat Henry - ‘You have my word it won't happen ever again.'
‘Herald's tricks!' snarled Henry. ‘Do you think I don't know them when they're used on me? I should send you back to the ship now, but I'd rather have you under my eye where I can be sure of you.'
Montjoy had rarely seen him so angry, and this fury seemed an extreme reaction to an admittedly stupid mistake. No actual harm had been done, after all.
‘You must do what you think is best, my lord,' he said, taking refuge in formality.
Henry sighed and turned to lean on the balustrade, staring out over the water. ‘I thought that Alexius had got to you after all. And how could I tell the Emperor, when I'd finished raising hell in his palace, that I thought his cousin had abducted my herald?'
Shaken by the picture this conjured up, Montjoy said ‘Well, my lord. Maybe this is the time to tell you. I've been wondering about leaving your service for a while now, and perhaps this is as good a time as any, if I've come close to causing a quarrel. There must be ships for France in the harbour; I can be gone tomorrow - ‘
Henry went completely still beside him. ‘What? No, wait, wait.' There was a stone bench in the turn of the stair, and he sank down on it, motioning Montjoy to sit beside him. ‘We'd best have this out now.' But for a while he didn't speak, staring out over the sea, at the gleams of light or the ships in the harbour, in fact anywhere but at his herald. Montjoy felt the familiar diplomat's mask settle back over him; he'd been kept waiting by kings often enough that he could sit out silences with the best of them.
It appeared, though, that Henry had only been organizing his thoughts, not trying to intimidate him or goad him into rushed speech. ‘Now. You've been thinking about leaving me for some time. But you've never seemed discontented or unhappy. Most Frenchmen have made it plain that they consider me an invader but you've done your duty to the letter: so why do you want to go now?'
‘Things weren't good in France before you came. The King was sick' - poor fragile king - ‘and since you've been his regent you have at least kept the wolves from his back and the nobles from their private wars...' He was prevaricating and Henry knew it, frowning at him now.
‘Out with it, Herald.'
The reversion to soldier-king startled a smile out of him, but he replied, ‘I'm truly sorry, my lord. No. I'll go now.' He made to get to his feet, but Henry's hand locked round his arm again and the touch paralyzed him, even his mind.
‘Is it Alexius? Did you want him, after all? He's better-looking than - if you want to go to him tonight, I won't stand in your way. You're entitled to some amusement, I know that well enough. Just - ‘ he grimaced - ‘don't leave me for good.'
‘I do not want...' Montjoy's mind began working again, ‘why are you asking me this?'
‘Because if you go, to him, or back to France, I'll miss you.' He glanced at him, then away again; Montjoy, finally thinking clearly, kept quiet. Henry swallowed, and continued, ‘Most people around me are trying to use me, or flatter me, or simply to kill me. Not you. You're not even afraid of me. Or anyone else, as far as I can see. I've seen you ride through the thick of battle, unarmed and alone. You've delivered the most appalling insults,' and he began to smile, ‘with no loss of personal dignity and you've come to sue for terms in exactly the same way.' He laughed softly. ‘I always liked you, Herald. I should have told you before. Well, if you must go, you must. But that means I've got nothing to lose by doing this.'
The hand gentled on his arm, slid up to his shoulder and behind his neck. Montjoy was already turning towards him and bending his head a little (even seated, he was slightly taller than the King) so their mouths met sweetly first time; he opened to the kiss as he shifted on the bench to get his arms round the strong, stocky body, but gently, for he'd seen nervousness in Henry's eyes for the first time ever. Then he closed his own eyes as Henry, nervousness apparently gone, deepened the kiss, the hand behind his neck moving up into his hair and the other one tucking itself close around his waist.
After a while, one of them said ‘Oh, God,' and the other, ‘Don't stop,' and they jostled to get closer. More kisses, and then Montjoy pulled back a little and said dazedly, ‘Was that all I had to do? Say I was leaving?'
Henry leaned back too, as an aid to clearer thinking, but kept his hands firmly on his herald. ‘That, or pull an Emperor's cousin...I've never been one to give in without a fight. You weren't repelled by the idea of Alexius. So I thought maybe I had a chance. And sometimes when I've looked at you I've thought you were looking back at me' another kiss' but as your king it was always going to be tricky...and then you smiled at me just now...Do you know how damn' difficult you are to read most of the time?'
‘Spent years perfecting the art,' admitted the diplomat, then seized one of Henry's hands and moved it decisively. ‘But that...is that difficult to read?'
‘No,' groaned Henry, and panted a few times against his shoulder. ‘Bed.'
They only got as far as Montjoy's room, the extra ten paces to Henry's being far too great a distance to cover, and the bed was narrow, but it sufficed.
Some time later, and after Montjoy had found that even a Plantagenet could be made to whimper, Henry hauled himself upright and began to straighten his clothes, pulling the surcoat and swordbelt from the stool where they had been dropped. In the moonlight from the open shutters he looked almost shyly at Montjoy, who had also struggled to a sitting position.
‘It won't be easy,' Henry said quietly, one hand clasping the other man's for a moment. ‘I'm always being watched, and people will know very soon. Can you stand that? If we're well-mannered about it, and don't actually force people to notice, I think they'll let us alone.'
‘Short of sneaking down to the harbour in disguise right now and taking ship for who-knows-where, it's the best we can hope for.' Henry was stifling laughter: ‘Don't tempt me!'
‘But it won't help your prospects of a marriage alliance if word gets out and there's the succession to consider.' Why could he never stop thinking?
‘Ever the diplomat. No, there won't be any more marriage alliances, not now. My son's growing, and there are my brothers too. The kingdom has heirs enough. This one thing I'll have for myself. If you'll have me.' The nervous look was back in his eyes again, and no wonder. The man was offering his heart.
‘You had me a long time ago.'
‘Princess Sophia's going to be annoyed, though, losing a couple of thrones.'
‘I shouldn't think so. She intends to become a scholar.' Now Henry sounded embarrassed. ‘And anyway, she said I should go after you, or I'd lose you.'
A/N In another story, it's Henry who dies first, allowing Queen Katharine and Owen Tudor to have their time together: