It’s Often Difficult to Account for the Behaviour of Others
Owen didn’t have an official title in the fortress, but he’d all but been appointed the master-at-arms since it seemed like he was the only one who was consistently willing to stand out here and help people train.
“Lower your shield arm,” he told tall, pale Archie as he walked by. “You’re blocking with that, not hiding behind it.”
“Everyone else tells me I hold it too low,” Archie protested, stepping back from Warren and frowning at his shield.
“Everyone else is wrong. You’re tall, and holding it up makes it too easy for someone shorter than you to get at your belly,” Owen said. “Watch, give me that,” he added, stealing Warren’s practice sword. He stood ready to fight. “Come on.”
Wary, Archie raised his sword and shield. Owen engaged him, waiting as Archie’s shield inched a little higher, and then he jabbed low, poking Archie in the belly hard. “Lower.”
Owen kept going, waiting until habit brought Archie’s shield up again, then he hooked his sword under it, poked Archie in the ribs. “Lower.”
Training for knights was regimented, standard. Fighting was neither of those things, and it seemed like the order just hoped that their squires would learn that on their own someday. Owen planned to teach them, and break the bad habits they’d been taught.
By the time he handed the dulled sword back to Warren, Archie was holding his shield right, at least for now. “Poke him in the gut every time he raises it higher than that,” he told Warren.
“Yes, sir,” Warren grinned. He was more experienced than Archie by a good year or so, and he was more used to Owen kicking his ass.
“And stop doing that with your elbow. You’re asking to have your forearm cut off.”
Warren blinked, grin fading a bit. But he shrugged, keeping a cheerful expression. “I need my forearm, so I guess I’ll give it a try.”
“I guess you will,” Owen said, patting both him and Archie on the shoulder as he moved past them, surveying the rest of the training yard.
Sometimes it was hard for him to remember that most of them weren’t much younger than he was.
He corrected Leo’s stance—too narrow, asking to be knocked over—and Rudy’s grip, pausing to watch Edwin and wiry Holly spar. They seemed to be mostly talking quietly, but even doing that, they were moving better than most people. “He’s improving a lot,” Owen said to Sir Erik, who was also watching, face sweaty from his own practice.
Erik nodded. “His biggest problem is that he’s insecure, honestly. Holly’s good, so he’s distracted enough that he’s forgotten that for now.”
“Ah,” Owen crossed his arms. Holly fought more like a real person than most of them. He liked her. “I guess the trick will be to keep distracting him, then.”
“Doing my best,” Erik said, glancing over at the fortress gates. “Speaking of which.”
Owen looked over there, saw Gavin coming in, peering around as if only slightly interested in what he was seeing.
“Guess I’d better go see what he wants,” Owen said, breaking away from Erik and approaching Gavin, who smiled on seeing him. He stopped in front of Gavin and gave a firm salute. “Your Highness,” he said.
Gavin chuckled, pulled Owen down for a kiss. “Watching you salute me is oddly arousing, you know. I’d like if you were wearing a lot less armour. In fact, I insist. I need to be sure you’re at full attention, after all.”
Owen grinned. “It sounds like you have different expectations of me than the other knights. That’s hardly fair.”
Gavin’s smile turned mischievous. “No. Same expectations. I don’t mind all of you stripping down to stand at attention. Actually, that’s an image I could get behind. Maybe I’ll mandate that of my new retinue when you put them together.”
“How’d I get stuck with such a pervert?” Owen asked, relaxing out of his salute.
“You going to claim you didn’t know? I was pretty willing to fuck a stranger in a cave, if you remember.”
Owen nodded. “I do remember that, vaguely. You were kind of easy, actually.”
“Careful, I’m about to have a lot of knights I can replace you with,” Gavin threatened, tapping Owen on the chest. “Speaking of which, I’m here to meet these people you want to hire as my babysitters in shining armour.”
Owen raised an eyebrow. “That’s happening tomorrow.”
“Not anymore.” Gavin cocked his head. “They’re going to have to get used to me not giving much of a damn about their schedules if this is going to work.”
Of course. “Or you could stop being an entitled brat.”
It was said with affection.
“I could, but that seems unlikely, doesn’t it? Go get the first ones you want me to meet.”
“Yes, your Highness.”
“Tell them to leave their armour outside; I’m assessing them entirely based on what they look like naked.”
“Careful,” Owen said, pulling Gavin towards Sir Erik. “I’ll get jealous.”
“Maybe that’s the idea, Sir Owen.”
Owen rolled his eyes as he crossed the yard. He knew Gavin was joking…mostly. He also knew that Gavin was interested in the idea of inviting an extra person into their bed sometime. Owen wasn’t sold, but he wasn’t totally opposed. “Lower the damn shield, Archie,” he said as he went by.
Warren poked Archie in the belly to punctuate that.
“Look at you being all in-charge,” Gavin muttered.
“Only for another half-hour until they’re off the hook and go inside,” Owen told him, smiling over his shoulder. “A few of the zealous ones will stay out here and practice longer, but most will fuck off.”
“And then what do you do?”
“Whatever they tell me to,” Owen smiled. “Sir Owen the Probationary is a knight of all trades.”
Gavin quirked a little smile. “That doesn’t have quite the same ring as Sir Owen the Dauntless.”
“Not really, no. Sir Erik,” Owen said, drawing Gavin over. “You’ve met the prince?”
“At the banquet,” Erik said, saluting Gavin. “A pleasure to see you again, your Highness.”
“And you as well, Sir Erik,” Gavin said, nodding. “And I see Edwin is hard at work.”
“Always,” Erik promised, though Owen had caught him slacking more than his share of times and chosen not to say anything. At Owen’s nod, Erik called over for Edwin to come join them.
Wiping sweat from his brow and smiling at Holly, Edwin came over to join them. Holly started to move away, but Owen called out. “Holly, go get Sir Elaine and come back here, will you?”
“Yes, sir,” she said, giving him a bit of a look before doing as she was told.
Owen wanted her and Elaine for Gavin’s retinue, but Devin wanted them for Gabrielle’s and Devin outranked Owen. So Owen was going to resort to sneakiness instead.
Edwin saluted Gavin, giving a toothy smile. “Good to see you, your Highness. Sorry I’m such a mess.”
Owen blinked. That was…oddly cheerful for Edwin, actually. He was a nice enough guy, but he wasn’t normally that chipper.
Gavin smiled, nodded at him. “I don’t mind a little dirt and sweat. I don’t think I ever thanked you for what you did at the banquet, Edwin. I appreciate you saving my sister’s life.”
“Oh,” Edwin looked embarrassed, scratched at his ear with his free hand, not quite making eye contact with Gavin as he sheathed his weapon. “Just doing my duty, your Highness. Sir Owen did all the real work. He’s an amazing knight.”
“I know,” Gavin said, patting Owen’s hand.
“Don’t let Edwin sell himself short,” Owen said, glancing from Edwin to Erik to Gavin. “He was very level-headed the whole time. And he went with me to check out a possible threat even when he thought I was full of shit.”
Gavin nodded. “I assume you two know that you’re being considered for positions on my formal bodyguard?”
“Yes, your Highness,” Edwin said, grinning widely before Erik could talk. “And can I just say, I’m really honoured that you’d even consider me. I know you probably mostly want Sir Erik, but even the possibility that I might get to, um, protect you is really exciting for me. I’ve always really admired you, and working with Sir Owen would be such a…good opportunity.” Was the shy smile he gave Owen at that just his imagination? Owen wasn’t sure.
Owen wasn’t sure what to say. Erik looked amused. Gavin raised an eyebrow. “Well, thank you. I’m glad you’re excited. I haven’t made my decision yet.”
“I understand, sir,” Edwin said, nodding eagerly. “I hope you decide to choose Sir Erik and I. I’m ready to do…whatever you need me to. Whatever you want me to.”
Gavin smirked a bit. “That’s nice to hear.”
It wasn’t nice to hear. Owen was pretty sure Edwin was hitting on Gavin. Which was a good way for him to get hit.
Edwin blushed, looked at his feet. “Sorry. I just…think you’re really something, and Sir Owen is such an inspiration, he’s so strong and good with his sword and he’s handsome and…” Edwin’s eyes went a bit wide, and he cleared his throat. “Anyway! You probably don’t want to hear me blab, I’m sure you have questions for Sir Erik!”
Gavin was still smiling at Edwin. “I guess I do. How long have you two worked together?”
“Just about a year, your Highness,” Erik reported.
“Tell me the truth,” Gavin said, attention on Erik now so he didn’t notice the distracted looks he was getting from Edwin, all over. “Do you think that babysitting me is a waste of your time?”
Erik went just a bit stiff and that, but it was Edwin who blinked and turned a bit red. “Of course not, sir,” Erik said dutifully. “Guarding the prince is a great honour, and an important task. Your safety is of the utmost importance to the kingdom.”
“Secondary importance to Gabrielle’s,” Gavin muttered, waving a hand. “But I take your point. I think it’s a waste of your time.”
“You’re wrong,” Owen told him, arms crossed. “And you know it.”
“Sir Owen the Probationary, however, tells me I’m wrong.”
It was just a second, but Owen saw it. In Edwin’s eyes, when he heard the name. Surprise, then…glee. He really wished Gavin hadn’t said that out loud. Now Edwin was practically grinning at him. “If you’re selected for the guard, Gavin’s protection would be of the utmost importance to you,” Owen made clear. “The kingdom can catch fire.”
“I’d rather it didn’t,” Erik said, nodding. “But of course, protecting the prince would be our highest priority.”
“Our only priority,” Edwin added, still looking at Owen kind of funny.
Gavin nodded, sighing. “Tell me about this magic sword you’ve got, Edwin.”
“The one I fight with, or the one in my pants?”
Owen snorted a laugh at that, he couldn’t help it. Edwin grinned at him. Erik smacked Edwin on the head. “Sorry, sir,” Edwin muttered, clearing his throat. “Previous partners have all reported satisfaction with it, your Highness.”
“Edwin,” Erik growled.
Edwin was nervous, Owen realized, that was all it was. And being nervous was making him stupid. He could sympathize. Gavin brought that out in people.
“Sorry,” Edwin repeated. “There’s not much to tell you, your Highness. I got it from a lion that could fly. It kills shadows.”
“The lion, or the sword?”
“Both,” Edwin said, shrugging.
“That’s good to know,” Gavin said. “I understand you haven’t had the mages weigh in on the sword yet.”
“They’ve been a bit busy,” Erik said.
Owen rolled his eyes. “We’ll give them a push. Just in case the sword is dangerous.” He didn’t want Edwin anywhere near Gavin if that thing was going to sprout teeth unexpectedly or some shit.
“Swords are all dangerous, sir,” Edwin reminded him with a sly smile. “But I understand what you mean. I have a friend who’s a mage, I can take the sword to her.”
Owen nodded. “Do that.”
“You two understand that if you’re given this job, you’ll answer to Owen,” Gavin told them.
“Yes, sir,” Erik said, nodding.
Edwin nodded as well. “Not a problem. Sir Owen pounds on me in the training yard almost every day, no reason he can’t do that elsewhere too.”
Lips curling upwards, Gavin nodded. “And you’ll mostly be staying at arm’s length,” he said. “I don’t need you cutting my meat and wiping my ass.”
Erik nodded. “We’ve been briefed, your Highness. Minimal interference.”
“Not that we mind doing those things,” Edwin supplied. “If you need help getting dressed and Sir Owen isn’t cutting it.”
Gavin chuckled. “Appreciated. If Owen’s ever not up to the task, I’ll be sure to call on you.”
Gavin shrugged, turned his smile on Owen. “No offence.”
“He’s got a magic sword,” Gavin said, and Owen saw in his eyes that he looked extremely amused. He’d clearly made up his mind already. Edwin being an idiot had appealed to him, Owen figured. He did have a kind of hapless charm.
“I have a sword made of a dragon,” he reminded Gavin. A dragon he’d killed with a decorative weapon.
“Mine’s bigger,” Edwin muttered, seemingly to himself.
Gavin full-on grinned at Edwin now. “We’ll get you to prove that, don’t worry.”
Edwin blinked, and Gavin nodded to himself. “I’m satisfied. Thank you both for your time—sorry for disturbing your training.”
“Not at all, your Highness,” Erik said, saluting again and elbowing Edwin until he did the same. “Thank you for your consideration.”
Gavin nodded, pulling Owen away. “I’ll speak with you both once the final decision’s been made,” he told them, letting his gaze linger on Edwin for a second. He wasn’t sure what to make of all that.
“I liked them,” Gavin muttered as they left earshot of the two knights.
“Told you,” Owen reminded him, guiding him over to the fortress doors, where Holly was coming out with Sir Elaine. “Edwin’s not usually that weird.”
“Oh, that’s disappointing,” Gavin mused. “He was very charming.”
“I think he was just nervous.”
Gavin nodded slowly. “I do have that effect on people. You like him, though.”
“Yeah,” Owen said, nodding. “He’s a solid knight, or he will be once he’s anointed. He’s good.”
“Okay,” Gavin said, sounding like he’d expected something more. “Who’s next?”
“These two,” Owen said, nodding at Elaine, a tall woman with a long braid. “Don’t make that face.”
“I’m not making a face,” Gavin muttered, making a face.
“I know, you have your whole fantasy of a retinue of oiled-up men. But I like these two.”
“That’s nice,” Gavin muttered, a little red in the face.
“And Gabrielle and Devin don’t want them on your retinue.” Which was a technically true way of putting that, and one more likely to get the reaction he wanted from Gavin.
Who, predictably, perked up. “Oh, don’t they?” He started towards the two, but stopped and looked up at Owen. “I never said anything about them being oiled-up.”
Now Owen smiled a little, a tiny bit of colour in his cheeks. “I added the oil for you.”
“Aw, thanks.” Gavin patted Owen on one cheek, kissed the other. “Maybe this whole thing won’t be so bad after all.”
“Told you,” Owen repeated, bending over to pick up a loose stone from the ground.
“Yeah, yeah. We’re going to the tailor’s after this, don’t forget. You have a fitting.”
Owen sighed. “Yeah.” Gavin’s friend Olivia was getting married in a few days. Gavin thought he needed an outfit. Owen was choosing to just go along with it and not bother telling Gavin he’d already chosen a perfectly acceptable one. “I remember.” He whipped the stone over at Archie, hitting him in the belly and turning away before he could hear his shout of indignation.
“I’m sure you do. Not let’s go meet the forbidden lady knights.”