Authors: Charlotte Rahn-Lee
“May I …” Albert asked, leaning over to reach his hand out tentatively towards Manning’s scar. Manning looked up.
“Your Highness,” he said, surprised, but he leaned back to let Albert touch him.
Albert’s fingertips grazed the uneven skin of the scar. Manning’s skin trembled a little under his touch, as if only now remembering its past hurt or present cold. Albert placed the palm of his hand over the scar, covering it, trying to heal the memory of the event that caused it with good thoughts and care and love.
Manning didn’t object to any of these strange demonstrations, and Albert, impulsively, brought his lips down to that muscular stomach and kissed it. Manning’s skin was warm against Albert’s lips, and he let them linger there a moment before he made himself remember his situation: he was alone in the forest with a man he barely knew, who would not welcome his attention, but might tolerate it out of deference to his title, and might even betray him to his father. He could not let his desire show any more. But as he began to pull away, the tips of his hair brushing Manning’s abdomen, he heard a surprising noise. It was a short, soft, involuntary moan. Manning, with his head tilted back, his eyes half closed, didn’t even seem to be aware that he’d made it. Albert stared at his bodyguard. Had he imagined it?
Albert sat back down a small distance from Manning as the latter began finally to put back on his shirt.
What is going on?
Albert wondered. Was it possible that this man felt pleasure at his touch? How could he be sure? His mind filled with cautionary stories his sister had told him of young men at court who feigned interest in her because of her position. He wished he had Regina’s guidance now.
What am I going to do?
that night Manning lay on his stomach to keep his weight off his bruised back. He never liked sleeping in this position, and this discomfort was conspiring with the dull pain in his shoulders to keep him awake, despite the fact that he’d only slept a few hours in the past two nights.
Manning’s resolution of the night before had proved futile: they were hardly any closer to their destination than they had been yesterday. Albert’s slow progress in the morning and their encounter with the deer had delayed them. Manning was worried. He shouldn’t have allowed the attempt at the doe. He should have made some noise before Albert had seen her to scare her away. Why was he jumping at any opportunity to postpone what he inevitably must do? Perhaps he had thought that if Albert did manage to bring down a deer here, while they were still on the king’s land, they would have to curtail their trip and return home: Manning would have an excuse to have not carried out his orders. It was a vain hope in any case. Edward would see through such a story, and Albert himself would have grown suspicious when they had to carry their prize a good eighteen miles home, rather than the short distance from the castle he seemed to still think they were.
He was going to have to steel himself. He was going to have to go through with it. They would get there tomorrow if nothing more delayed them.
All of a sudden he heard a twig crack near him and felt something brush lightly against his back. He sat bolt upright, his heart racing, fully awake now, ready to attack. But instead of some unknown assailant he saw the prince kneeling beside him, taken aback by his inordinate response. Manning tried to calm himself. He had always been jumpy, especially when he was woken unexpectedly.
“Is everything alright?” he asked. He wondered what Albert was doing awake so late. The prince looked at him intently, hesitating somehow. Something seemed wrong.
“I …” said Albert.
“What is it?” Manning looked around. His ears were amplifying the slightest noise. He heard the fire, a distant owl, some small rodent nearby. He could detect nothing that posed any danger.
“Do you …” Albert started again, but trailed off. Manning began to grow concerned. The young man seemed spooked by something.
“Your Highness,” he said, trying to be both comforting and commanding, “tell me what it is so I can help.”
And then Albert kissed him. He threw his body against Manning’s, bringing them both down onto the ground. Albert’s arms were around Manning’s neck, pulling them close together with unexpected strength and passion. They rolled over and Manning found himself on top of the prince, Albert’s lithe body trembling against his thighs, his chest, his arms. Albert’s mouth was pressed against his, kissing, sucking, scrambling for purchase, and Manning was kissing him back. His tongue slipped inside Albert’s mouth, circling, exploring and pressing against Albert’s. He felt Albert’s lips, hot and smooth, scrape against the stubble on his face. His left thigh, between Albert’s legs, could feel the growing warmth and pressure there, and his own erection was pressing against Albert.
Albert pulled his head back, grasping the back of Manning’s neck with his hands, and looked into Manning’s eyes, a question wrinkling his forehead, his beautiful mouth half open. He was looking for affirmation, and Manning gave it to him, leaning down to take that mouth in his, putting one large hand under Albert’s head to protect it from the hard ground. Albert arched his body, pressing himself against Manning, pulling at Manning’s back, the bruises forgotten by both of them.
Manning buried his face in the crux of Albert’s neck, kissing his soft skin and smelling Albert’s courtly scents, now mixed with the musky smells of his desire and the forest.
“I’ve wanted you ever since you got my shoe out of that tree,” breathed Albert.
“Mmmm,” said Manning, his lips closing around the lobe of Albert’s ear.
“Oh!” said Albert, which he followed with a very satisfying moan. It occurred to Manning that he would never grow tired of such a sound, and with his tongue exploring Albert’s neck, he set about trying to make Albert make it again.
“I don’t care what anybody expects of me,” said Albert, breathily, “I don’t care what my father expects of me. I want you.”
Manning stopped, unable to move. Albert’s mention of his father had brought him back from this strange midnight fantasy and drove home to him the reality of his situation: his position, Albert’s rank and title, Albert’s relative youth, but most of all Manning’s orders from the king—his necessary betrayal of Albert. Even if he didn’t carry it through, even if he delivered Albert safely home and somehow ran away, or turned himself in to be killed? Tortured? Dismissed? Even then Albert would never forgive him for keeping this plot from him.
“What is it?” asked Albert, concern and alarm in his voice. Manning felt sick. His bruised back was aching; he was tired and cold. He sat up and climbed off Albert, settling himself a safe distance away. Albert sat up, too, worry written all over his face.
“What’s the matter?” asked Albert.
“I’m sorry, Your Highness,” said Manning, “I forgot my place.”
“Your place, what do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
“You mean that I am the prince,” said Albert. It was an accusation. Manning didn’t contradict him, and Albert continued.
“It’s a fine thing to be, isn’t it? I can’t go where I like, or do what I like, except in trivial matters. I can’t love whom I like. I don’t have any friends because no one will behave honestly with me for fear of my place. I have only my cousin, who hates me because I am bad at sports and hunting but good at Latin, and he is the opposite. He also probably envies me for the throne I will inherit. I also have a sister, but she is betrothed to my cousin, so it will soon be them against me. My mother is dead. I have a father who—well, you know my father, I presume. So you see I am a pretty poor prince, and if love or friendship could be given as money can, I would be begging with my bowl outside the church every Sunday.”
Albert paused in his speech and Manning couldn’t bring himself to look at him.
“I am begging you,” Albert said, his voice softer now, “to forget your place. And help me forget mine. I trust you. I have never really trusted anybody before. Please.” And the prince held out his hand to Manning in beautiful, gentle supplication. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to take that hand.
“You trust me?” Manning asked, looking up into that hopeful face.
“I do,” said Albert.
“You shouldn’t,” said Manning, and the words felt like iron in his mouth.
Albert stared back at him. Manning watched confusion, suspicion and fear pass in succession across his face. Albert’s body, so open a moment ago, pulled in on itself, making his elaborate clothes look too big for him. Manning wanted to sink into the ground.
“Do you know where we are?” he asked.
“Where are we?” asked Albert, his voice small and cold.
“About eight miles from the Moranian Forest. We have been traveling due east at a good pace ever since we left the castle.”
“Are you abducting me?”
“No,” said Manning, although he supposed, from a certain point of view, he was. He didn’t understand why Albert was so calm. He seemed defeated. Manning wished he would yell at him or scold him as he had done after Manning had first touched him.
“Did my father tell you to kill me?” asked Albert.
“No!” said Manning, “and I wouldn’t ever, even if he did give me such an order. I won’t let anybody hurt you. I will stand between you and your father, or anything else that means you harm.” Manning surprised himself with the vehemence of his response. It came from somewhere deep inside him, and he had said it without thinking. It was a silly thing to say when he had spent the past three days leading Albert into danger. Albert watched Manning’s passionate display impassively.
“Why are we almost in Morania?” he asked. The coldness in his voice was worse than the chill in the night air.
Manning watched the embers of their fire glow, casting a paltry light. The diminished circle of firelight seemed to be pulling them closer together as they shrank from the encroaching darkness.
“My instructions from your father were to bring you, unwitting, to Morania, to the forest that Edward and Charles both claim as theirs. It is there that you are meant to bring down a deer. ‘The most magnificent stag you can find,’ were your father’s words. If you aren’t able to kill it then I am to do it for you. And once it is done, when you blow your hunting horn hoping to bring your father’s servants, it will be Charles’ men who will find you, the king’s son, the crown prince, poaching on his land. At this point I am to leave you to your own devices, or, if I am captured, to be a docile prisoner and let what may happen, happen. Either Charles will imprison you, or worse, in which case your father has an excuse for the war he craves; or he will be forced to ignore this transgression, and your father may start using the land as he pleases. Either way, you see, your father wins, Charles loses, and you are like chaff in the wind, left to whatever ending fate may have for you.”
When he was finished speaking, Manning forced his eyes to look towards Albert, whose continued silence worried him. The prince sat still, hugging his knees to his chest, staring blankly ahead. Manning began to reach out a hand to touch his shoulder, the back of his head, his cheek, but he stopped.
“I…,” Manning began. But what could he say?
Suddenly Albert spoke. “My father clearly chose well for this task,” he said. “Congratulations. A prince is quite a prize for a three-day hunting trip. You’ve won. You may do whatever you like with me.”
“Your Highness,” protested Manning, not quite sure what Albert meant. Albert lay down, still curled in a tight ball, with his back to Manning. A charred log fell apart in the fire, its embers settling. Manning didn’t know what to do.
“What I would like is to take you safely home,” he tried. Albert made no response.
“I am very sorry I brought you this far,” he tried again. “I should have told you sooner.” Again, Albert showed no indication of having heard him.
“In the morning I will take you home,” he said. God knew what he was going to say to the king.
When Albert gave no answer to this declaration, Manning sat with the prince in silence. After a while Manning assumed that Albert had fallen asleep, but then he spoke.
“We’ll go to Morania tomorrow,” he said.
“I won’t take you there,” said Manning.
“Of course you will,” said Albert, “it’s your duty.”
“My duty, as I see it, is to protect people, foremost you.”
“That is not what my father thinks, and it is his uniform you are wearing.”
“Your Highness, you asked me earlier to be your bodyguard, and I will do it; I will protect you.”
“But that is not until I am king. You are being treasonous again,” said Albert, and this time there was no humor in the accusation. Manning could feel his frustration building. He couldn’t stand to see Albert so set on putting himself in danger and submitting to his father’s plans.
“Please, Your Highness,” he said, his voice sounding less calm than he had hoped, “we will figure out a way for you to return home without going through this ordeal.”
Albert sat up and turned around to face Manning. He no longer looked scared. He looked determined.
“I have seen what my father does to servants who do not follow his orders,” he said. “I will not have it done on my account.”
“I see,” said Manning. He was damned if he’d put Albert in danger on his account, either. They stared at each other for a few moments, and then Albert lay back down.
“We leave first thing tomorrow for Morania,” he commanded, his voice as princely as Manning had ever heard it.
“Yes, Your Highness,” said Manning. What could he do?
next day was a miserable one for Albert. Manning woke him up as the sky was just beginning to lighten; they hadn’t slept for more than a few hours. There was no repetition of their argument from the night before, nor any vestige of the familiarity that had grown between them. They hardly spoke as they ate the little food that they had left and set out.
Manning led the way, his face grim. Albert felt like a fool. How had he let himself believe there was someone he could trust? It was nothing but a fantasy: big, strong arms to hold him, a man capable and devoted who could keep him safe. He couldn’t expect anyone to accept the danger there would be in playing such a role for him. His mind filled with images of Manning at his father’s mercy, Manning bleeding on the floor, Manning suffocating under Albert’s hands. The idea sickened him.