they think he’s lost on some horizon
Characters: Alexander MacRionnag, Vissenta Senadz
Warnings: discussion of child abuse, suicidal thoughts, swearing, and alcohol consumption
Summary: Set directly after ‘I Want To Look Away, I Must Not Look Away‘, Alexander resolves to tell Vissenta things he hasn’t spoken of in some time
(title is from The Man With The Child in His Eyes by Kate Bush)
Alexander watched as Vissenta poured the dark red liquid from the fresh bottle evenly into their two glasses, and when she pushed the drink into his hands he spent a minute or two swirling the wine, watching the purple-red residue splash and coat the sides of the glass, and trying desperately to find the right words that wouldn’t stick in his throat the moment he tried to say them. It had been a long time since he’d even talked about his childhood, even to his parents, and even though he trusted her, he knew he was still afraid of Vissenta’s reaction.
A small, deeply unpleasant voice in the back of his mind told him that he should ask for his shirt back after all, otherwise he’d have to walk home half naked when she inevitably kicked him out and told him never to come back. He quashed it as best he could; “You at least deserve to know where I come from,” she had said, not half an hour ago. Vissenta had been deeply honest with him, the very least he could do was be honest with her as well.
Logically he knew that voice in his head was stupid, preying on his fears. That didn’t make fighting it any easier.
The sun had sunk down below the horizon now, and moonlight had begun to filter through the slats in the window shutter, casting a silvery glow in the room.
“So… this wine would shut Valerius up, hey,” he attempted weakly, “I’d have loved to have seen his face. He was always an insufferable snob.”
Inwardly, he cursed. He hadn’t even started yet and he was already deflecting.
Vissenta raised an eyebrow as she took a sip,
“How’d you know him? You’ve never mentioned him before.”
“We...uh…had a thing.”
“About ten years ago, nothing recent. I had to stay at the palace for a few weeks and...well. Um. Things happened, the summer ended, and we both decided to pretend it didn’t happen” he felt his cheeks get a bit hot, “he was a surprisingly good kisser, actually.”
To her credit, Vissenta chuckled,
“Now there’s something I’d never have guessed.”
“Aye, who’d have thought…” he trailed off, swirling the wine again before lifting the glass to his lips and taking a slow drink.
He let himself focus on the flavour, rich and fruity, in the hope it would drown out the bitter taste of the words he was going to say next,
“I was...I was at the palace that summer for a reason. I...um…” he bit his lip hard and steeled himself, forcing himself to breathe deeply to soothe his rocketing pulse, “you, uh, you might have noticed that I have a slightly different accent to Mam and Da.”
Vissenta nodded. Her free hand had come to rest on Alexander’s arm, a comforting and encouraging touch.
“And,” he went on, “you know that Mam is my stepmother. She… she wasn’t always Mam, to me. Until I was about fourteen, she was Aunt Morgaine. A-anyway… Da and Mam, well, they’re both Nalban. I was born in Cumbric, a kingdom-”
“-to the west,” Vissenta finished, her eyes going a little wider, “I remember learning about it I think, as a kid. The…” she pressed her lips together, brow furrowing in thought, “the Pendragon family has ruled for something like fifty generations.”
“Aye,” Alexander replied quietly, “that they have. A family as old as Cumbric itself, and each queen has been a master of the magical arts, beloved by her people. It’s said that the red dragon on the Cumbri flag comes from the family’s name, though it’s more likely it’s the other way around...”
His voice had flattened out to a monotone, speaking the facts like a stranger who’d never set foot in the country reading from a book. It was something he’d noted he did whenever Cumbric had come up in conversation; it was easier that way to pretend that he had nothing to do with the place.
“So your mother is a Cumbri?” Vissenta prompted lightly, “That’s why you were born there?”
“Aye. She is…” Alexander trailed off slightly, though his pulse began to rise again.
He could lie. Say that his mother was a Cumbri peasant and leave it at that. Would it make much difference? He’d still be a bastard.
Yes. It would make a lot of difference. Not only did Vissenta deserve to know the truth, he wanted to tell her.
Her voice pulled him out of his reverie, and he glanced at her, seeing the concern written on her face,
“You’ve gone pale,” she murmured, taking the glass out of his slightly shaking hands and placing it on the bedside table before reaching to take his hands in her own and squeezing,
“I-I’m sorry I just… I was...The seat of House Pendragon is Neuadd y Frenhines,” Alexander went on, “a castle that’s stood as long as the family’s been in power. It’s the primary centre of learning, art, and magic in the whole kingdom, and scholars and magicians from all over are frequent guests. And…” he let out a long breath, “it’s where I was born.”
Alexander released Vissenta’s hands, and carded one of his own through his loose hair. Again, he was tempted to leave it at that and let Vissenta draw her own conclusions, but reluctantly resolved against it. Maybe it wasn’t just that he was wary of what her reaction would be, maybe it was the fact that he himself scarcely actually spent time to think on his childhood, let alone talk about it. Remembering it hurt in ways that Alexander couldn’t really put his finger on, like a dull ache at the back of his heart. That dull ache was there now, making his climbing pulse twinge. Still, he pressed on.
“Queen Nimue III came to the throne thirty six years ago, when she was fourteen. She was a young queen, true, but it’s said that from the day of her coronation onwards that the entire kingdom knew she would be a strong leader. And, it has to be said, she was. Within a few years people were already calling her Good Queen Nim. She was clever, level headed, and an incredibly capable sorceress and scholar.”
Vissenta was listening intently, though Alexander could tell from the slight quirk of her brow that she thought he was rambling around the point again. It made sense, he supposed. Why would he, a commoner, be talking about the queen so much? What did that have to do with him? She didn’t say anything in protest though, giving him the room to continue as he wanted, and Alexander was glad for it.
“Six years into her reign, she welcomed a young Nalban cartographer and explorer to court. He was around her age but had already travelled as far as Firent and Nopal, making maps of land, sky and sea.”
Vissenta’s eyebrows raised at that.
“I’m not sure why he was there in particular,” Alexander said, willing his voice to stay level even as he felt it catch in his throat, “maybe to help plan trade routes or something like that. I’d never asked. But he was there. And… the queen took a… liking to him, and he to her. And that’s how Good Queen Nim’s Mistake came into being.”
The words still tasted foul in his mouth and he spat them out bitterly, his hands clenched into fists so tight his knuckles were stark white. Vissenta’s shoulders had stiffened and her eyes had widened in… what looked like recognition. Alexander flinched, clearly she’d heard that phrase before.
That phrase was the first name he’d ever had, really. From the moment Nimue’s stomach had begun to swell, the child inside was named the Mistake in the whispers of gossip that spread through the ranks of courtiers, nobles, and smallfolk alike.
Alexander opened his mouth to continue, then closed it again, his throat painfully dry. The silence hung heavy in the air until Vissenta said,
“Sacha, you don’t have to say anything more, if you don’t want to.”
She uncurled one of his fisted hands and threaded their fingers together.
Alexander shook his head, swallowing hard,
“No...no...I will, it’s just... forgive me. As...as you can probably tell I’m not very adept at talking about this.”
Vissenta gave him a knowing look, squeezing his hand again. Alexander felt some of the constriction in his throat dissipate a bit. His and her childhoods were different, true, but they were also… actually somewhat similar, from what Vissenta had told him. There were things that she’d be able to understand, perhaps.
“So yes. The ‘mistake’ was a child, and the child was… well. Me.”
He trained his eyes firmly on a crack in the wall opposite, and grimaced,
“Considering some of the other things I was called in my childhood, ‘Mistake’ was one of the nicer names.”
“Whoever came up with that is a dick,” Vissenta said flatly, and much to his surprise Alexander barked a laugh,
“Oh aye, I’d be inclined to agree.”
He reached for the wineglass again and took a large sip from it, savouring the taste as he swallowed.
“Needless to say, my birth was hardly welcomed. Cumbric… by the gods, Cumbric is so forthcoming in some respects and absolutely backward in others... the nobles in the queen’s court did not take kindly to a commoner’s bastard taking the space of a trueborn heir. Apparently my mo… the queen’s siblings urged her to leave me as a foundling, or hand me over to my father and be done with it. I was never going to be a prince or anything, I was just a nuisance. Out of sight, out of mind. But...but she...she didn’t.”
A sudden stab of emotion pierced Alexander’s chest and his breath hitched as he spoke,
“Maybe she... maybe she should have done,” Alexander muttered thickly, “things would have been better for both of us if she had. But no. There I stayed. Even when I grew and spent months at a time with my father, she would insist, nay, demand that I return to her again. ”
He fell silent again, trying to suppress the way his stomach had lurched. If he’d have been a foundling, and not a walking scandal, so much would have changed for him. He still could have studied, still gone to Vesuvia, still met Asra, and Caspian, and Vissenta, but all of the hurt, all of his anxieties as he knew them, that dull ache that throbbed even now right in his core, would be gone. The same man, but a different story. A different name. A different life. A life that, even for all the hardships he may have faced, seemed preferable if it meant not growing up in Neuadd y Frenhines. Not being a ‘bastard princeling’.
He resumed staring at that crack in the wall (there was a chip in the paint and a thin black line that ran up to the curtain rail), licked his lips and went on,
“When I was four years old, she married. His name is Uthyr. Unlike my father, he was everything that was expected. The queen’s match in intelligence, skill, and most importantly, status. He was noble, from a family as old and respected as the Pendragons. Naive boy that I was, I thought I’d have a father in Cumbric because my own was far away. Naive, stupid fool of a child.”
He took a drink again, a longer swig of the wine this time, nearly draining the glass,
“I was barred from the wedding itself. No place for children, let alone ones of my type, but I was permitted to kiss my mother when she and the man that was meant to be my step father presented themselves as a married couple before the court and kingdom for the first time. And when I turned to Uthyr, he looked down at me and said,
“I will not be responsible for another man’s stain,” looked away, and never laid eyes on me again. My mother saw it, heard what he said. She said nothing. She never said anything.”
His voice had gotten very thick, and the dull ache had magnified itself to a pang that tore through him. He set his jaw firmly, biting the inside of his cheek so hard he was surprised he didn’t draw blood. More words formed in his brain but caught sharply in his throat when he tried to give them sound, so he forced them down with the last of the wine.
It was only when he felt Vissenta shift forward and press her hand, so warm against his cold skin, to his cheek to brush away a stray tear that he’d realised any tears were even falling.
“I-I’m sorry,” he stuttered, “I… this was years ago, I haven’t even spoken to the queen in years… I’m overreacting, aren’t I. Gods strike me, how I must sound. Here I am, complaining about my mother when you-”
“You don’t need to apologise,” she replied, running her thumb over his cheekbone, “really.”
She leant up, and pressed her lips to his forehead in a lingering kiss, her other hand coming up to cup his face. Alexander melted into the contact, wrapping his arms around Vissenta’s waist and breathing in deeply. She pressed light kisses to his cheeks, and a brief one to his lips before leaning their foreheads together,
“Fuck him. Fuck them both.”
Her voice was soft, but with an edge to it. Alexander let his eyes fall shut and he sighed,
“Neither of them are bad people, Vis.”
“They aren’t. They were both good rulers, and wonderful parents to their daughters. And-and I hardly had it rough. I was fed, clothed, taught to fence, to read and write… some of my memories are happy ones… from when...when the queen deigned to spend time with me. She’d read to me, tell me stories of wyverns and dragons, of the ceffyl dŵr, of knights and sorcerers. And she taught me to bake. The...these moments were...were few but...they were there and they were precious. When my mother was with me then, I felt like the most important child in all of Cumbric, hell, in all the world.”
His lips weakly curved into a half-smile then crumpled into a frown, tears stinging at his eyes anew, even worse than before.
“But...they were few. I was either the most important child for those handful of shining hours, or I was an invisible one.”
He didn’t matter. He wasn’t wanted. Memories of sleepless nights waking up in his empty room far away in the guest’s wing calling for his mother were drudged to the forefront of his mind. Those calls never got answered. Maybe she would have come if he were ill, or dying, but then… maybe she wouldn’t. Morbidly, he wondered what it would have been like to find out.
Vissenta sat back down beside him,
“You aren’t making a very convincing case for your mother being a decent person. You said she kept calling you back, why would she do that if she’d just ignore you most of the time you were there?”
Alexander huffed through his nostrils,
“That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for twenty years, Vis. Why does anyone do anything? I tried asking her once, and got mere tuppence in return. Something about ...knowing I was there. At the time that was enough for me. At least… well, I didn’t have to live in Cumbric all year round, and I still had Da. He was with me for around six months each year at least. And then there was Mam, and Pavel and Ilona Devorak, and Ilya. I had… I had people. People that I knew cared for me. So… well, it wasn’t all bad.”
Just bad enough for it still to be difficult to talk about. What was worse was when the two worlds, and they were two very separate worlds, would begin to bleed into each other. He remembered one night when he was nine or so, a night before he was due to be returned to his mother, and he had begged Morgaine to take him with her back to Nalba instead of returning to Cumbric. Then later, when he was meant to be in bed, he had crept downstairs only to hear his father and Morgaine fighting about it, the only time he had ever heard them fight. Morgaine had been adamant that it would have been better for him to stay with them, and his father… had agreed. But then he had said,
“Nimue will not give us a choice. If we do not return him, she will use force.”
Twenty years later, the words were still seared into his mind.
His hands were shaking again. Vissenta quickly took them in hers, running her thumbs over his. As her fingers stroked over the swirling blue of the tattoo on his wrist, he thought of something that would hopefully lighten the sombre mood,
“Would you like me to tell the story of how I figured out I could do magic?” he asked.
Vissenta cracked a smile, and nodded,
“Of course! But...I thought Morgaine taught you magic?.
"She did, once we moved to Vesuvia. But I found out I had magic when I was five. My sister Gwenhwyfar had just been born and everything was focused solely on her and my m- the queen," he cleared his throat awkwardly, “so I was being paid less attention than usual. Lots of time to myself, you see. In my room at Neuadd y Frenhines, there was a large tapestry of a ship at sea. One day I was alone in there, daydreaming I was having an adventure, far from Cumbric, on that ship. If I focused enough, I could smell the salt, feel the warmth of the sun and the rocking waves, hear the gulls cry... I wanted it so badly. Until when I reached out to touch the waves, they began to move. And whatever I’d done, I kept doing it. Funnelling this juvenile, raw energy into the tapestry until there was water spilling out onto the floor and the seagulls could be heard up and down the whole southern wing. And I was hooting and yelling, having the time of my life. My governess came running and she was," he broke off to chuckle, "she was absolutely horrified. She thought something was wrong and instead she found me absolutely drenched with a seagull making circles around the room."
Vissenta snickered, then burst out laughing,
“A real life seagull!” he replied, beaming, “And a bloody big one at that! Looking back on it, I must have turned it into a portal to the actual sea or something. Needless to say it made one hell of a mess, gods strike me! They had to call the court magicians to fix it and it took hours, but by the gods, I was so proud of myself.”
“Bringing the sea to your bedroom, I’d be proud of myself too!” Vissenta grinned, kissing Alexander’s cheek and laying her head on his shoulder, “surely they all must have been proud too? Knowing you were going to be such a strong magician at what, five?”
Alexander’s smile slid off his face, his shoulders immediately rounding. Vissenta’s own face fell,
More silence. Alexander had gone very still and very pale, his eyes staring blankly at the wall. He opened his mouth, closed it, his lip trembled, then he crumbled. A dry sob heaved its way out of him, his shoulders shaking. Vissenta, alarmed, dived forward to catch him before he completely pitched off the side of the bed.
“Alexander, hey, hey, Sacha, look at me-“ she said quickly, lightly turning his head to face her.
Tears coursed down his cheeks, breath coming in short gasps,
“I’m s-sorry,” he mumbled, the words garbled together, “I’m sorry I shouldn’t...you should have to… I just… I…”
She hushed him, pulling him in close and stroking her hand through his hair,
“Don’t apologise, Sacha. Don’t. Hey? You’ve nothing to be sorry for.”
It took a few minutes for him to calm down, but eventually his breathing evened out,
“I’m sorry,” he said again, his voice cracking, “I’m overreacting, I-I know I am…”
“I don’t think you’re overreacting at all.”
“I am, I am… I just… it’s just magic... I… there’s… there’s a reason it was Morgaine who taught me. Not- Not my mother. It’s…” he swallowed hard,
“Sacha,” Vissenta said gently but firmly, “if this hurts too much you don’t have to tell me.”
“I told you, I’m just… I’m just overreacting,” he breathed deeply, angrily swiping the remnants of tears off his cheeks, “I’m a fool. Stupid selfish fool, spending so much time ruminating on my own misery.”
He sat up straight, and grit his teeth,
“It is not favourable in Cumbric for children of my position to learn magic. My magic was inherited from my mother, from the ancient Pendragon line. I wasn’t meant to have it. I was a bastard, not a true born son. That fact alone was bad enough, but a bastard with the powerful magic of the royal family? That made me a threat. To my baby half sister, to the queen, to the whole country. Who knows what a bastard would do with such power. It wasn’t worth the risk.”
He stared firmly forward,
“I was forbidden from it. All of it. From learning magic, from practising it. I was told I didn’t deserve it, that I was somehow stealing from my sisters. The flame had to be snuffed out, or I would be dangerous. If I was caught, which was often because I was a kid and couldn’t control it, I was punished.”
He laughed mirthlessly,
“Ironic, isn’t it. Cumbric is famed for its scholarship and magic, and yet… I felt like a freak. Even when Morgaine started teaching me, it took me a while to even let myself feel anything… hm. Maybe I was a freak after all. Can’t control it one minute, can’t command it the next,”
“Alexander, I want you to look at me,” Vissenta said, and her voice was clipped and tinged with anger.
Flinching slightly, Alexander did so. Was this it? Would she cast him out? Maybe he shouldn’t have told her anything…
“Everyone in that godsforsaken castle sounds incredibly fucking cruel,” she said firmly, “and you know what? I’m glad I’ll never meet them because I’d make them eat my steel.”
“I mean it,” some of the anger had ebbed from her voice now, but she was still firm, “they made a decision to try and force you to hide what you could do, who you were. That not only makes them stupid, it makes them cruel, and I’m glad - so glad - that you got out of there to be with people who deserve you.”
She brought his hands to her lips, and brushed them across his knuckles,
“Your magic is… it’s wonderful, Sacha. It’s beautiful. And I’m so happy you did get to learn from someone who knows that too.”
Alexander felt his lip begin to tremble anew,
“I’d never really… thought about my childhood. Like that, I mean. Like they were ever cruel. I knew things weren’t ideal, but…”
He let out a long breath,
“I’m sorry, Vis. I was just supposed to tell you the truth not…” a vague gesture with his hands, “all this.”
Vissenta cocked her head,
“Come here, mon chevalier,”
He scooted over, and Vissenta coaxed his head into her lap and started stroking his hair again, before freezing,
“Sacha, are you… alright with me calling you that? Because of what it means… if it makes you feel…”
As much as he could, he shook his head,
“No, no… quite the opposite. I remember what you said to me, when you told me what it means. How I… earned it. That makes all the difference. In… it sounds ridiculous,”
“It won’t,” she replied gently,
“In the books I read… like Castell Gwynn, for example… the knights in that. And the knights and dames from the old stories from Cumbric and Nalba… the way they were. That was something to be admired. That’s something I’d be proud to be.”
“And that’s something you are,” she said, “believe me Sacha, I wouldn’t call you that if you weren’t.”
“You think so?” he looked up at her, his eyes gone wide,
She leant down and kissed him lightly, which he leant up into, weaving his hands into her hair.
They flopped over into the bed proper, Vissenta rolling on top of Alexander and kissing him breathless. Each press and slide of their lips made Alexander’s heart feel lighter and lighter, each tangle of hands in hair set his mind at ease. Eventually Vissenta broke the kiss, their breathing both heavy,
“I love you,” Alexander whispered against her lips,
“I love you too,” she replied, leaning up and pressing another kiss to his forehead that filled Alexander with that blissful, familiar sparkling warmth from top to toe.
More kisses were exchanged, and eventually they opened a third bottle of wine. With glasses filled to the brim, Vissenta raised hers in a toast,
“To us, and how far we’ve come.”
“To us,” Alexander nodded, “and, as you rightly put it, fuck them.”
Vissenta grinned, “Fuck them.”
They clinked the glasses together and drank deeply, and the moon was high and bright in the sky.
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