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measures of tenderness

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"I think Legna is having difficulty getting to sleep," you say.

You know enough, at least, not to add: It's troublesome. It distracts me from my work at night. I've told him to go to sleep, but it doesn't work; he just pretends to do so.

The king has that usual exasperated look on his face, though it seems tempered by something softer. Not that it shows in his voice when he replies: "At least you noticed. He's probably been finding it hard for weeks -- he's a kid in a new place, you know."

You don't see the relevance. "Is there something that can be done?"

He sighs; an increasingly familiar sound. But then he straightens up, eyes alight, and you brace yourself for whatever ridiculous command he has for you this time.

"Kian. Tell him bedtime stories."

You stare at him. "Your Majesty?"

"Folk tales, legends. There are books you can read from," he says, with a dismissive wave. Then a pause: "Though some mightn't be suitable for kids. Change the endings, if you must."

"One can't just do that," you reply blankly, latching onto that last instruction so you don't have to think about the larger one. "Change them... to what?"

"Something happier," he says, and smiles.

 


 

Legna likes the stories about quests and loyal retainers. The folktale with the helpful animals goes down well; the one about the dark beast backfires. He takes even longer to fall asleep, that night.

You tell the king as much.

"I should have known," he says wearily. "You thought a kid would like that one?"

"I changed the ending," you say, affronted. "The traveller escapes the beast, in the end. Despite how that goes entirely against the scholarly interpretation of the moral of the story--"

"Kian." He's smiling, wry though it is. "Thank you for trying."

"I have kept track of which stories work," you say stiffly.

"Artian loves the folktale of the lion and the raven," he replies, as if letting you in on a secret. "I think he fancies himself the lion, in that one."

Ah.

You've never asked. You've never really thought about it. He is your King; Artian is the future king; the fact that he is Artian's father is merely a logical corollary.

Legna's happiness shows so clearly on his face, but I never know what he'll like until he does, you think. Legna still doesn't say if he's unhappy, if he can't do something, if he wants to do something.

Legna looks at me as if he needs me to be something more. Something that--

You could say all of this. You have said some of this, before. Not that it makes any difference to your stubborn, meddling, infuriating king.

I can't, you think, for what is certainly not the first time.

But he's looking at you with those bright, laughing eyes, already knowing what you're thinking. The way he's always known you. That old look that says You can. You will.

 


 

One evening, when you and Legna are meant to head home together as usual, he hesitates to take your hand.

"What is it? Come on."

He reaches out, obedient, but winces at your touch. Hm.

Legna's too short -- you always forget -- so you crouch down, robes pooling inelegantly on the ground. You take his tiny hands in your own, turn them palm-up.

"I'm sorry--" he begins, but a look from you is enough to silence him. (You are vaguely aware that this is not ideal. But one thing at a time.)

"You should clean a wound as soon as possible," you say. It isn't so bad; the skin is red but unbroken on one palm, just barely bleeding on the other. Belatedly: "You don't have to apologise. What happened?"

"I fell down," he mumbles.

"By yourself? No one did this to you, did they? Tell me."

"N-no."

You glance up. His downcast eyes are swimming with barely-held-back tears; another way in which children are troublesome, you think, perplexed. "What? Does it hurt that much?"

He shakes his head. A conversation from last week suddenly surfaces in your mind -- You don't take that tone with him, do you, Kian? Kids can't tell if you're angry at them or not, you know -- and you sigh to yourself.

"I'm not angry," you say.

He looks up at that, finally. You meet his eyes -- at the same level, for once -- and a far older memory pierces through you, an arrow from your past. An autumn afternoon, years and years ago, when a boy who wasn't yet king took your hands in his, worried for a reason you couldn't understand. It was a minor wound, but more than that: you were his future Oracle. The Oracle is the one who should worry about the King. The Oracle needs no one's concern.

Legna... is the future Oracle.

You think about the way things were. The way things should be. The way things could be.

"U-um..."

Legna's staring at you.

"Let's go," you say, straightening up. You take his fingertips in yours. "This is okay, right? Your fingers aren't hurt?"

His fingers curl tighter. "I'm okay."

The King is meant to be the Oracle's whole world, the only thing worth protecting. Nothing should be as important as he is. Yet that evening, you wash Legna's small hands under the tap, watch the brave way he bites his lip and refuses to cry, and you wonder.

 


 

"Kian. Notice anything about next week?"

You look up from a sheaf of documents. "Your Majesty's schedule is fairly empty next week, apart from that one meeting--"

He makes an impatient noise. "Not work! Something more important."

"More important than work?"

"I knew you'd say that. Look--"

You blink, refocusing on the sheet of parchment suddenly pressed too close to your face. It turns out to be a calendar page, which you scan until you reach a circled date, half-obscured by exclamation marks. "Legna's... birthday."

The parchment mercifully disappears. Across the table, your king looks disconcertingly smug. You don't think it's worth asking how he knew the date. What he means by it, however... "Is there some significance to this, Your Majesty? I didn't think there were any rituals attached to this particular anniversary--"

The smugness wavers but remains. "It means celebrations, Kian."

"Does it?" You honestly don't recall this tradition.

"It does. And you're in charge."

You carefully place a handful of papers down, to avoid crumpling them in your grip. "Your Majesty, with all due respect, I do not believe it is the Oracle's duty to organise--"

"Not as the Oracle. As Legna's father."

You attempt to process this. "So... not a formal event, then."

The king seems torn between laughter and despair. "No. A birthday celebration for your son, Kian. A cake, perhaps? A party."

It sounds tiring already. And besides: "I don't think Legna would be comfortable receiving too much attention."

The king looks pleased at that, for some reason. "If you say so. Something small, then. I'm sure Artian will want to bring a present too."

The rest of the afternoon is spent planning the celebrations, which is to say that the king comes up with ridiculous ideas and reminds you at least fifteen times to think of an appropriate present for the boy. You leave exhausted, after accomplishing significantly less reading than planned, and with a scribbled sheet of celebration-related notes.

On the walk home, you're still wondering. What would he want? You still think books would be best -- a practical furthering of his education -- but the king had looked decidedly unimpressed by the idea. Only if it's a book about something useless. Like fish, he'd said, and laughed to himself.

Legna already spends an unseemly amount of time mesmerised by the fishbowl at home. But there's a possible route, you suppose. A bird? Not a parrot, nothing that noisy; something small and bright, perhaps. But then, would Legna be able to cope? And don't birds bite and scratch?

You glance down, absently. You don't expect him to look up. For a moment there's a shadow of something in Legna's eyes, an expression that used to be familiar but which you see less and less now -- and then he smiles, bright for absolutely no reason, and looks back at the path.

Illogical. Impossible to understand, like so many things that have entered your life since that incense-filled day when something else disappeared. And yet, in the face of everything stacked against this, against the centuries of rules and rigour, here he is, and here you are: a shared road home, a small hand in your own, natural and right in a way you've never felt before. Something deeper even than duty.