In the wake of Karthik's heart-break, breakfast with Lord Owen . . . and with Bleddyn.
|I got up and got dressed in a slow daze, not even bothering to wipe my eyes after the first few minutes of crying.
I felt like I could barely breathe. Like I couldn’t get enough oxygen and my heart wouldn’t stop pounding, like it wanted to burst out of my chest in search of the air it wasn’t getting. I was colder than even springtime in Wales could account for, and it felt as if I’d never be warm again.
Bleddyn had—understandably, I suppose—chosen to go after his father and . . . explain? Apologize? Lie, somehow? Whatever he chose to do, it was obvious that the weight of his upbringing and his own shame and fear would always be a barrier between us. That he could never be as comfortable in his own skin, and with his own needs and desires as I wanted him to be. At this very moment, he was trying to walk back what his father had witnessed. Right now, his father was no doubt convincing him that he was Hell-bound for being with me. And right now . . . Bleddyn was believing him. Listening and believing and regretting and maybe even blaming me for “ensnaring” him.
It would be the easiest explanation his father would accept. Maybe the easiest explanation Bleddyn would accept, too. In the cold light of day, the word and deeds we’d shared likely meant less than nothing to him. I wasn’t his ngoleuni fy nghalon . . . I wasn’t the light of his heart. I was the shameful secret he hadn’t been able to properly keep. It was time I recognized that and accepted it. Ours was no great romance. I wasn’t the balm for his bruised and battered heart and he wasn’t the person I could at last trust mine with. It’d just felt that way because our desires for each other were so intense.
Who knew, better than me, how intense desire could overwhelm one, dragooning common sense and practicality—reason—and leave one clamoring for the society of the least suitable person?
I’d said I’d never let it happen to me twice, and here I was, much sooner than expected, washed up on the shores of disillusionment and heartbreak.
I was a fool. Worse, because even in those awful minutes, all I wanted was Bleddyn’s arms around me again, and his low voice telling me I was the light of his heart, and that everything would be alright. That he’d meant all the things he said—which’d been mostly in Welsh, but which had, I knew meant something . . . something powerful and good—and didn’t regret having been with me. That he would still be with me, no matter what. . . .
Like I said: Worse than a fool.
Once dressed, I stepped out of the guest room and looked back once, hoping to catch a memory of Bleddyn and I rolling around like puppies or simply talking while we held and touched each other. But all I could see was the look of disgust and regret I’d imagined on his face as he’d left minutes earlier.
More tears spilled out of my already sore eyes and I closed the door to the guest room behind me.
Lord Owen was waiting.
It wasn’t till I’d been wandering about the castle aimlessly for nearly ten minutes that I realized I didn’t know where Lord Owen took his breakfasts.
Finally, I stopped a serving woman and asked. She was in a rush, but directed me to Lord Owen’s rooms patiently, with deference for my still aching ankle and slow, pzinstaking hobble.
Once there, I knocked on Lord Owen’s door.
“Enter!” came from inside, and I thanked the serving woman and let myself in.
The main chamber of Lord Owen’s rooms was neat, well-lit, and neither large nor small. There was a large desk that seemed to take up most of the windowless room, covered in maps and papers and books. Lord Owen sat behind this desk, studying a book intently. It was nearly a minute before he looked up at me and smiled. I tried to smile back and must not have done too kosher a job, for his smile faltered and he stood, skirting his desk to approach me.
“Is there some trouble, Karthik? You look as if you’ve been weeping,” he said, all interest and, I sensed, genuine concern. That concern—better than I’d got from Bleddyn this morning—made my smile a little less of a grimace, and I waved away his worry.
“No, just . . . missing my friends,” I lied, looking away from his eyes. I’ve never been much of a liar. “It all just—hit me suddenly, this morning, that I may never see them or my family again.”
Lord Owen’s face fell and he reached out to me, taking my hand the way Bleddyn had last night, holding it with one of his and covering it with the other.
“I sympathize with your plight,” he said softly, squeezing my hand. “In part, that’s why I’ve brought you here, this morning, not merely to share a break-fast with you.”
I frowned. “I don’t understand.”
Lord Owen opened his mouth to explain, then laughed a little. “But what sort of host would I be to keep you standing here, famished, while I prattle on?” He drew me toward a narrow entryway at the other end of the main chamber.
It was his bedchamber.
For a moment I was stunned. And a bit panicked, thinking I’d have to put up or shut up, with regards to my flirting with the lord’s son.
But then Owen was leading me to a corner of the bedchamber with a small table set up, three chairs, and what appeared to be breakfast.
Breathing a sigh of relief—not that it would’ve been a chore to fuck Lord Owen . . . but I’d just courted enough disaster by sleeping with a man of this time. No use courting more by sleeping with two. And a lord’s son, nonetheless—I watched as Lord Owen pulled out a chair and gestured for me to sit. Which I did, after bowing.
When Lord Owen was seated he immediately began buttering a piece of bread liberally. Following his cue, I did the same.
We ate in comfortable silence for a few minutes, before he inquired as to how I had passed the night. I told the truth, this time, that my night had been wonderful. I kept mum about the morning, however.
At any rate, he didn’t make small talk for long, choosing, instead, to come to his reason for inviting me to breakfast.
“Since you are at loose ends,” he began solemnly, but still smiling a little, “and in want of money, lodging, and employment, I have spoken with my father and he has agreed that there is more than enough to occupy your time here, at Gwydir Castle, were you of a mind to stay on.”
I gaped and stammered. “That’s—very generous of you, your lordship, but—”
“In private, to you, I am simply Owen, remember?”
“Owen,” I corrected myself, blushing under his frank regard. Then I shook my head. “But I’m foreign to your ways—more foreign than you know. I can’t do the things that most of the men of this time—I mean this place can do. I can’t chop wood, or ride a horse properly, or fight, or farm. I can’t even find my way about the castle, let alone anywhere else, here. I can’t cook, I’d probably mess up at any real cleaning, I can’t—”
Owen laughed. “You’ll forgive me for saying so, Karthik, but that much is obvious about you, to anyone with eyes.” When I blushed again, Owen’s smile turned apologetic. “It is obvious that you are or were a scholar, where you came from, and unused to harsh and manual labors. I’m right, am I not?”
“Well, yes,” I said, still red and getting redder. I looked down at my plate. “I guess it would be pretty obvious that I’ve never seen a day of hard, physical labor in my life.”
Owen sighed and reached across the table to take my left hand in both of his again. He examined it, first the top then the palm, and finally folded it in his and smiled at me. “These hands have not seen labors that would mar or roughen them. They are . . . gentle, genteel hands.
“I would not see that change,” Owen said, letting go of my hand almost as if he hesitated to do so, his fingers brushing it as they withdrew. I shivered and felt all the excess blood that gravity had been kind enough to drain from my face, return there in a rush.
“You . . . would not?” I asked breathlessly, unable to look away from his eyes.
“No,” he whispered softly. “I would not. I would not change anything about you . . . least of all your hands.”
Then he was clearing his throat and standing up to pace to his fireplace. “My father’s accountant, Islwyn, has handled father’s money for many years, but he is growing older and . . . somewhat infirm. Often, of late, he has asked that we seek out a suitable lad to be his ‘prentice. Now, you are, of course, a man grown, not a lad, however, you are already learned, and no doubt know much about figuring and sums that he would not have to teach you. In essence, however, he would be training you to fill the role of castle accountant when he is no longer up to that task.”
Owen paced toward me, resplendent in his dark-blue wool tunic and black breeches. Not as built as Bleddyn, but not a chore to look at, either. “Obviously, this is a duty with heavy responsibilities attached. It would require of you specificity, exactitude, a certain tirelessness, integrity, honesty, and a keen mind . . . all of which I would wager my life you have in spades.”
I blinked. I didn’t know what to say. Owen was smiling at me, waiting for me to say something, and I was utterly speechless. For on the one hand, this was a marvelous chance to get a place to stay and something to do to support myself in one fell swoop. And I could be close to Bleddyn, and—
—and I suddenly remembered that that was probably not something Bleddyn wanted, anymore. If he had his way, I’d probably be as far from him in time and space as humanly possible. . . .
Looking away from Owen’s happy face, I closed my eyes as they began to blur with tears. Tears which I tried to blink away, but which fell nonetheless.
“Karthik?” Owen came up to me and knelt, trying to see my face, but I turned it away. “Karthik—speak, and tell me what troubles you?”
And hearing such unintentional mimicry of Bleddyn at his most solicitousness undid me. I buried my face in my hands and wept silently, unable to stop the flow of tears or the way I shook. I was unable to hide my mortification at Owen seeing me like this.
After what felt like an eternity, but may have only been a minute or two, Owen’s hands settled on my arms and he pulled me up to my feet and into his arms. He was taller than me by just enough that he could rest his chin on the top of my bowed head. His hand swept up and down my back soothingly.
“You will see your home again, Karthik of Nayar, this I promise,” he murmured gently. “Your home, your kin, and your companions.”
I laughed mirthlessly, removing my hands from my face so I could hide it against his shoulder. He smelled of wool and old books. “It’s not that!”
“Then what causes such tears from you? What other loss prompts you to shake and shiver so? Tell me.”
“I . . . I can’t,” I exhaled, looking up at him pleadingly. He was looking down at me, his brow furrowed in concern once more. “You wouldn’t understand, and . . . it’s not entirely my tale to tell.”
“I see,” Owen said, biting his lip and searching my face. Finally he sighed and reached up to brush my hair out of my face. “Then tell me what I may do to bring back the smile you wore just this past evening? For a day without such a smile to start it, is a day when the sun does not rise in the sky.”
And of course, I smiled. Just a little—probably not the smile he was hoping for, but more than anyone except Bleddyn could’ve wrung out of me, at that point.
“There it is,” Owen murmured, returning my smile with a gentle one of his own. And I don’t know what I was thinking, what made me do it, but I bobbed up on my toes and kissed him. On the mouth. Even as I was doing it, I was screaming at myself that I just got myself hanged or put in front of a firing squad, or however guys like me were put to death in 1626.
But after a few seconds, when I started to pull away, Owen didn’t. In fact he held me close and leaned into the kiss with a soft sigh, his tongue flicking out to taste my lips, then part them.
Well, I guess that answers thatquestion, I thought cavalierly, placing my hands on his chest and kissing him in earnest. It was . . . nice. Better than nice, actually . . . but it was nothing like kissing Bleddyn, and for that reason it felt subtly—then less subtly, as the seconds wore on—wrong.
Finally, I pulled away again, breaking the kiss with several smaller, tender kisses, before leaning back to look at Owen and gauge his reaction.
His eyes were wide-open—not surprised, merely open—and his lips were still parted. Still kiss-swollen and inviting, and despite the urge to taste them again, I felt that pang of wrong and stepped back out of his arms. He let me go reluctantly.
“I—I apologize for my behavior, your lordship,” I said quickly, bowing, trying to think of a way to explain what had just happened. Perhaps I could pass it off as a custom between men in America to swallow each other’s faces as a sign of friendship. . . . “Please, forgive me.”
“Karthik, I—there’s nothing to forgive,” Owen said, laughing a little, then covering his mouth with one hand as if to stifle that laughter. Confused, I warily met his eyes. They were almost all pupil, yet narrowed, too, as if he was receiving confirmation for something he’d long suspected. Then he shook his head and smiled. “There’s absolutely nothing to forgive. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
“But—but the law—”
“Bugger the law, and I do mean that quite literally,” Owen said sharply, disgustedly. “That law is ridiculous. A waste of ink and paper, not to mention the untimely deaths of innocent men and women in counties that aren’t as . . . willing to turn a blind eye as father’s.”
I was gaping again. “So . . . you’re not going to . . . hang me?”
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, no!” Owen snorted. “What sort of hypocrite would that make me?”
I shook my head. Surely this was all a dream, right? All of it? Right now, I was laying in Gwydir Forest, having tripped and fallen, and hit my head, as well as sprained my ankle? There'd been no time travel, no castle, and no Bleddyn or Owen. “Um . . . does that mean that you are . . . um. . . .”
“I have lain with men before, yes. As I don’t doubt you have.” Owen’s eyebrows quirked in challenge and I blushed again.
“I might have lain with a few men in my time,” I said, then covered my mouth when I realized that could be taken more than one way. “I mean—”
“I know what you mean, Karthik.” Owen stepped closer to me and reached out to brush my hair out of my face again. He sighed, a melancholy thing, but kind of wry, too. “And know that if your affections weren’t so clearly spoken for by another, I would dally with you here all morning.”
And from the emphasis he put on dally, I knew he didn’t mean we’d be playing chess and reading scripture if we stayed here. I turned all kinds of red. Then blanched as I processed the rest of what he’d said. “Spoken for? My affections aren’t, um, spoken for. How could they be? I’ve only been here two days.” I laughed nervously, and Owen’s eyebrows stayed quirked up in that challenging way.
“I see more passion and affection in one glance exchanged by you and Bleddyn than I’ve seen in entire marriages, Karthik. The two of you are deceiving no one—at least not anyone who isn’t blind.”
At his words, my eyes filled with tears and I looked away, not even bothering to deny what he'd said. “Well, maybe yesterday. But today? That’s all over and done. There is no the two of us, anymore.”
Owen frowned. “I do not understand? Are you claiming that Bleddyn no longer returns your affections?” he asked doubtfully. I nodded, dully and listlessly.
“This morning—well, last night, we slept together in the guest room, and this morning, his father found us there, together.”
Owen’s frown turned into a scowl. “Rhys ap Thomas is . . . a bitter and ugly man who has never had a kind word for either Bleddyn, or poor, dearest William,” he gritted out, his eyes flickering with something I couldn’t read. “And when he caught William and Bleddyn together . . . he had to be restrained from beating them both to within an inch of their lives. I was one of the men who held him back. I was horrified, and heavily did my conscience weigh, for it was my fault that William even took it into his head to—” and here Owen felt silent, closing his eyes and covering his mouth.
I put my hand on Owen’s arm. I had a bad feeling about this. I didn’t want to ask or know, but I felt like I had to. “Why was it your fault, Owen?”
Owen opened his eyes and looked down at my hand on his arm, then into my eyes.
“Bleddyn does not, as far as I am aware, know this,” he said flatly, and I shook my head.
“Nor will he ever know it from me.”
Owen searched my face again and sighed, taking my hand. He led me to his bed and sat on the foot, leaving room for me to join him, so I did. He did not let go of my hand and I didn’t move to free it.
“Back in aught-eight, I was sent to be apprenticed with a merchant of the Staple for several years. When I returned to Wales, it was to many changes, but the one that struck me most was how . . . William ap Warren had grown into a fine young man whilst I’d been away. . . .”
Owen paused and hung his head, shaking it. I thought I knew where this was going, but I let Owen tell it in his own way, and in his own time. After a minute, he went on:
“He was easy to charm with tales of the world and its ways. He had stars in his eyes, that one, and had he been born to a different family, might have gone to Cambridge, just as I had, for he was quick and intelligent and personable.
“Before the month had gone ‘ere I was home, I’d tumbled the lad repeatedly. I deflowered him and, when my fickle interest turned to a pretty young maid, I abandoned him—left him with his newly-discovered desires and to his own ends. Only to find out, months later, from Rhys’ own mouth that he’d been buggering Bleddyn!”
I nodded. It was pretty much what I’d thought. Except for one thing. “Rhys told you what happened?”
Owen snorted again. “He told the entire castle. He was shouting at the top of his lungs about what the two boys had been getting up to. And he beat them in front of everyone. None dared lift a hand against him until Richard and I came running outside to find out what all the yelling was. Rhys barely stopped beating them to explain. It took both Richard and me to hold him back.”
I sighed, myself, putting an arm around Owen’s shoulders, hugging him close. “How old were you? How old were William and Bleddyn?”
“I was nineteen,” Owen said quietly. “William was sixteen, I believe, and Bleddyn would have been fifteen.”
“You . . . were all so young,” I breathed, and Owen looked at me guiltily.
“My youth does not excuse my culpability in this matter. William was an innocent. ‘Twas I that introduced him to buggery, and the pleasures of the flesh. ‘Twas my careless, thoughtless neglect of him that drove him to seek out Bleddyn.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think it was. I think William and Bleddyn always loved each other. That William turned to you because he was attracted to you, and because he liked the things you taught him. But that his . . . affections were always oriented toward Bleddyn.”
Owen frowned as if he wanted to believe, but didn’t quite dare. “Think you so, Karthik of Nayar?”
“Yes, I do. Speaking as someone who’s falling in love with Bleddyn . . . once that happens, there’s really no turning back . . . no matter how much better it’d be if one could turn back.” I smiled sadly and Owen, squeezed my hand.
“Rest assured on one thing, Karthik: Bleddyn ap Rhys does not give his heart away easily, or at all. Not since William passed on. That he has given it to you so plainly and without reservation speaks volumes to the esteem in which he holds you. Whatever setback you face now, ‘twill be overcome in a matter of time,” Owen said kindly. “In the meantime, will you think about my offer to be ‘prenticed to Islwyn?”
I found myself smiling just a bit. “I studied Liberal Arts in college . . . that’s nothing like accounting, you know?”
“Whatever you need to know that you don’t already know, Islwyn will teach you.”
I rolled my eyes, but kept on smiling. “I’ll think about it,” I promised, thinking, with a mental sigh, that whether or not I stayed on depended entirely on how Bleddyn felt about me. But I knew that he likely despised me, now, thanks to Rhys.
Tears sprang to my eyes again, but this time I blinked them away determinedly. I decided right then and there that seeing as I had no other prospects in 1626, that I would take Owen up on his offer, and grin and bear it if I had to see Bleddyn every day and deal with his contempt and hatred. So be it. Avoidance was all well and good, but one couldn’t fill a stomach with it, or keep off the rain.
Owen suddenly stood up, offering me his arm. I stood and took it and let him lead me back to the breakfast table. He saw me seated, then sat himself.
“So,” he said only slightly awkwardly, after everything we’d shared. But he met my eyes squarely. “What is on your agenda for today?”
I shrugged haplessly. “Not a single thing, I—wait—there was somewhere I actually wanted to go today. Someone I wanted to speak with.”
Owen’s brows drew together slightly. “You have but to tell me, and I shall have you brought whither you will.”
I let my own eyebrows rise in challenge. “Is that so?”
“That is so, Karthik of Nayar.” Owen gave me a quick, but flirty once-over.
“I need to see Gwenllian Robert of Llyn, uh . . . I wanna say Llyn Ten-a-minute. . . ?”
Owen smiled fondly. “It’s Llyn Tynymynydd,. And might I inquire as to why you wish to see her?”
“To, um . . . have her look over my ankle. It, uh . . . still hurts really bad,” I lied again. My ankle wasn’t great, but it definitely felt better than it had two days ago.
Owen hmmed and buttered another piece of bread. “Then, as you say, it shall be done. I’ll have someone take you there by mid-morning.”
Relief. The tension flowed out of me so fast it left me almost limp. I reached for Owen’s hand and took it, squeezing it gratefully. “Thank you, Owen—thank you so much!”
“Think nothing of it—in fact, Bleddyn can take you,” Owen said, his eyes flicking up and over my shoulder. My heart rose at the same time that it sank. I didn’t even have to look around to know who was there. “Ah, Bleddyn, old man, we’ve almost finished breaking our fast without you! Come, sit, eat!”
“I apologize for my lateness, Lord Owen,” Bleddyn murmured respectfully, stepping past me to bow to Owen before sitting in the third chair. He did not look at me, and that hurt more than I could’ve said. “But my father had something . . . important to discuss with me and we lost track of time, I fear.”
I blushed so brightly, I could’ve guided Santa’s sleigh on a foggy Christmas Eve.
“Perfectly understandable, my good man,” Owen said magnanimously. Bleddyn inclined his head respectfully then paled—even for him—when his eyes landed on my hand, where it covered Owen’s. Frozen, I didn’t know whether I wanted Bleddyn to think the worst or not. I was torn between holding on to Owen’s hand and letting go. All the while I could see Bleddyn’s jaw working, and a vein at his temple throbbing . . . when his face started to turn an angry red, I decided it might be best if I let go, after all.
As I did, Bleddyn finally looked me in the eyes. I don’t know what he saw there, but I couldn’t read his eyes to save my life, in that moment. So I looked down at my breakfast and started eating again, even though it was tasteless, now.
“You’ve actually arrived at a providential moment,” Owen went on to say, taking a bite of his bread. “I was just telling Master Karthik that you could take him to Llyn Tynymynydd to see Gwenllian Robert.”
Bleddyn froze in the act of selecting a slice of bread and looked at me, surprised and unhappy. Grim-faced, like his father. I glanced away, sighing.
“I need to do this, Bleddyn,” I whispered, and after a moment, from the corner of my eye I could see him take the piece of bread and start buttering it with angry, choppy strokes.
“Of course. It shall be as Master Karthik commands,” he said completely without inflection, and I winced.
“Yes, his ankle still pains him quite a bit, poor fellow. But that should fall well under the Widow Robert’s purview,” Owen said, as if utterly oblivious to the tension between Bleddyn and me. Knowing how intelligent he was—a Cambridge boy—I knew that it was, in fact, pretense. “She’ll have you feeling better in no time, ‘t’all.”
“Yes, she will.” Bleddyn said stiffly, and I seriously thought of asking for a different guide, even with Bleddyn sitting right there.
But in the end, I held my peace and finished my breakfast, while Bleddyn ignored me and Owen chattered on with what I could only imagine was false enthusiasm about anything and everything.
It was going to be a long day, and it hadn’t even really begun, yet.