What's Past is Prologue

For Lelek in Yuletide 2009. (Many thanks to Bexless for beta!)

World and characters borrowed from Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint.

Last night, all of this had seemed much grander. The narrow passages between tall stone walls, the green parkway in the midst of the lecture halls and libraries, the winding stair that led to the room and the mattress surrounded by heaps of books where last night Richard had lain with a stranger. Everything seemed grander when it was dark outside, Richard supposed. You couldn't see the places where the small things went wrong. And he had been drinking, too.

Today the University was much less impressive. Richard had blood on the cuff of his trousers and a twinge in his left calf that was making him wish the parkway was a little less spacious. His head throbbed. He wanted to go home. He squinted against the watery winter sunlight and trudged a little faster. On the other side of the parkway, young men were rushing about, trying to get to their lectures on time, talking to one another with an exuberance that belied their sober robes. They took notice of him but none spoke to him. He supposed he probably looked a sight by their standards. This wasn't Riverside, after all.

He ignored the staring and pressed through the crowds to the building he remembered. Some boys were coming out of the door when he arrived so he caught it while it was ajar and held it for them, meeting their startled looks with a cool one of his own. They hurried away without argument. He took the stairs a few at a time and found the room he wanted at the top of them. Its door was locked. He knocked at it, then knocked again, a little louder. Behind him, a different door creaked open. The head that emerged did not belong to the haughty stranger Richard had bedded last night, though; it was curly-haired and pale and had on a pair of spectacles which were smudged and a little lopsided. "He's gone," the head said. "The provost's men came and tossed him out this morning."

Richard blinked at him. The head blinked back, its owner shifting uncomfortably. "You're looking for Alec," it said. "Aren't you? The boy who used to live in that room?"

Richard nodded, though he hadn't actually known his stranger's name. "Yes," he said. "Do you know where he might have gone, then?"

The boy shrugged, trying to look as though he didn't care to know the answer, which was clearly a lie. "Back to the Hill, I expect," he said. "That's where he came from." The pale face went through several expressions in a row: sad and then angry and then carefully neutral again. "You might as well forget about him. I don't doubt he'll be doing the same about you." And the door closed in Richard's face with a thump and a puff of parchment-scented air.

Richard sighed. He thought regretfully of the gloves he had come back to retrieve. They weren't particularly expensive, but they had been a gift from someone now dead, and they had fit his grip perfectly, like a second skin. He spared a glance at the locked door on the other side of the hall and then turned on his heel and started back down the winding stair.

*

The narrow walkways were deserted by the time he got to them again. It had started to snow, fat, wet flakes drifting down from the grey sky. Richard tugged his collar up and shrugged his hands into his coat sleeves. He missed his gloves.

He found his way back across the parkway and through the ornate, wrought iron gate that marked the entrance to the University grounds and was so glad to be back out amongst the normal residents of the city again that he nearly stumbled over the hunched figure on the kerb.

"Your pardon," he said, righting himself.

"Go and bugger yourself," the figure said back, morosely. It was last night's stranger, huddled into his University robes, his hair a sodden tail down the middle of his back. When Richard didn't move away immediately, the stranger looked up, snowflakes catching on his long lashes, glittering a little in the weak, overcast light. They looked at each other for a while. "You sneaked out," the stranger said finally, accusingly.

Richard shifted. "I had an early duel," he said. "I'm sorry." He thought that he had never apologized so much in the space of a few breaths, and he thought that the boy Alec, unlike his surroundings, looked even lovelier in the daylight.

Alec straightened a little. "You left your gloves," he said, and lifted his own hands, on which he was wearing the gloves in question. They were much too large for him, the leather cuffs gaping about the bony wrists.

Richard cleared his throat. He didn't reach down to retrieve his property, which for some reason made Alec scowl. "Have you got somewhere to go?" Richard asked him.

Alec lowered his arms and turned his gaze forward again, to the carriage passing by and the trail its wheels were leaving in the grey slurry in the street. "Of course I have," he said.

Richard nodded. He didn't think Alec was telling the truth, but that was none of Richard's business. He should go home and get out of his trousers and let Marie have a look at them before the stain set too badly to remove. He should toast some bread and cheese and warm up next to the fire for a while, and then he should run through some drills for his left side, which was weaker than it ought to be and had made him stumble a little during the most heated seconds of today's duel, costing him some ground and forcing him to make his killing stroke a good deal sooner than he had intended.

Instead, he found himself bending down to tug at Alec's sleeve. "Come on," he said. "It's cold."

Alec gave him a long, considering look, then got to his feet abruptly, forcing Richard to step back or be knocked off balance. "Are you going to keep me in your dingy pleasure cave?" Alec asked, brightly. "And force me to do unspeakable things?" He didn't sound at all frightened by the idea.

Richard's mouth twitched. "I had planned to feed you some breakfast and maybe lend you a dry shirt, but we could do what you said instead, if you like."

Alec beamed at him. "All right, then," he said. "To the pleasure cave."