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CHAPTER 71 ~ A SIGNAL HONOUR
~ THREE YEARS LATER ~
It is time, I think, for us to move forward a certain number of years. The hour grows late, and I am impatient to see my boy again after all these years. I will stretch time just a little more for you to listen to the remainder of my story, but I must push forward to reach its end. Or, at least, to reach this moment we stand in now. No longer am I willing to dwell on the minutiae of smaller moments, not now that I know my aeternus is still out there.
While I could indulge you with further tales of domestic bliss, there is really nothing much of substance within those years to entertain you with. Life progressed, as life has a habit of doing. Mortimer and Esther grew closer, as did Gunther and I, and... well, now we move forward perhaps three years?
"I've been thinking," Gunther mused as he laid the table for dinner. The scent of baked salmon was nosing its way around the kitchen and making his belly rumble as he set down plates, knives, forks, and glasses.
"Hm?" Valois pecked a kiss to Gunther's cheek as he handed over a couple of napkins and went back to stirring the glaze he was concocting for the fish. "About what, mon cœur?"
"The manor." Having placed down the napkins, Gunther paused with his fingertips stroking thoughtfully over one of them. "I mean, I never go there anymore, other than to check on the cemetery and weed around Lolita's grave. And, while I pay Mrs Grayson to clean and air the place twice a week, well... it's going to waste up there, really."
Valois bent down to take the fish out of the oven. Unwrapping the foil, he uttered a sigh of contentment and a soft murmur of, "Dieu this smells good, if I say so myself."
Gunther laughed, walking over to him and wrapping his arms around him from behind, nuzzling a brief kiss across the nape of his neck. "It does," he said, letting Valois go. "But so does everything you take out of that oven."
"Thank you, my darling." Valois decanted the glaze into a delicate porcelain cup. "So... what were your thoughts about the manor? My apologies; I did rather interrupt your train of thought there."
"Well... I want to give it to Mort. To him and Esther, more specifically." Gunther watched as Valois dished up their dinner. "They'll need somewhere to live after they get married, whenever they get around to that. And I really want the place to stay in the family."
"I think that is a wonderful idea." Valois kissed him and handed over a plate. "Here," he murmured. "We'll worry about the washing up afterwards. Tell me more about your idea."
Gunther put down his plate on the table and moved to the side of Valois, who was waiting patiently. Carefully, he pulled out Valois's chair to seat him, smiling at the caress of his hand and the soft, wordless murmur of thanks that greeted this daily action. Then, seating himself, he cast his gaze briefly up toward the ceiling.
"Hm," he mused. "Well, I had thought to give it to them now, so they could settle in and set up home together when they get back from Paris. But then there's the surprise they'd get if I gave them the keys at their wedding reception, like you surprised them with the scholarships at our wedding."
Valois smiled, picking up his knife and fork and beginning to eat. After he'd swallowed his first mouthful—and Gunther had finally begun to eat as well—he asked, "Which do you think they would prefer, then?"
"A place of their own, as soon as possible." Gunther said, with feeling. "I remember sneaking around with girlfriends behind my parents' backs, and I remember how freeing it was when I was at uni and could do what I wanted, when I wanted to. I mean, sure they're both living together in Paris at the moment, but it's in student digs and those can't compare to having a house to call your own." He sighed, then smiled ruefully. "I guess the other option is just me wanting to give them a big surprise."
"Speaking of student digs and suchlike," Valois said, "have you heard from either of them lately?"
"Mort posted some more photos on Simbook this morning. He sent me a message, too, to say that he'd found a great little restaurant to take Esther to on her 21st birthday. Which—" Gunther hesitated. "Crap, isn't it today? I'll send her a message after dinner."
"Send her my love also," Valois murmured. "And tell them both I'll make sure they have a couple of bottles of my vineyard's best waiting back at home for them tonight."
Gunther smiled. "Will do. I'm so proud of how he is with her. He can't do enough for her, and from the occasional status update I see from her, she's loving every minute of it. They're perfect for each other."
Putting down his knife and fork briefly, Valois reached across the table to caress Gunther's face. "He has had a wonderful example before him, though," he said softly. "You expected anything else, my darling boy, when you are who he learns from?"
Gunther felt his face grow hot, and he gave Valois a shy smile. "He learns from you, too, y'know," he deflected, then hesitated at the look Valois gave him. "All right," he added, laughing. "I really need to work a bit more on accepting compliments, don't I?"
"You do indeed. And— Was that your phone or mine?"
Gunther's lips quirked in a grin. "Well it was my arse that vibrated, so I'm guessing it was mine. It can wait. I'm not checking my phone at the dinner table."
Valois tilted his head, then smiled. "No, I think you should see what it is."
Gunther's fork hesitated halfway to his mouth. "You're sure?"
"Absolutely sure." Valois resumed eating. "Let us just say that I have a good feeling about that message, whatever it is."
Gunther put down his knife and fork, leaning forward a little so he could pull his phone out from his jeans back pocket. "All right then," he murmured, thumbing the screen on and swiping to view the message.
"Was I right?" Valois murmured, as a broad smile curved Gunther's lips and he stared at the photo on the screen. Silently, Gunther turned the phone so that he could see, watching as Valois's smile mirrored his own.
"Well I think that has settled your conundrum." Valois said softly. "I shall make sure those two bottles are of champagne instead of red wine."
Gunther's thumbs flew across the screen to reply, pausing as he wiped away a tear.
"We will have grandchildren before you know it," Valois murmured, a mischievous glint in his eye. Startled, Gunther fumbled the phone, then picked it up again, grinning as he gave Valois a Look that Natalie would have been proud of.
A couple of hours later, they were both curled up in front of the fire with the TV on. The news was about halfway through and Gunther yawned as he snuggled closer to Valois. His eyes began to drowse, but then something caught his attention through almost-closed lids: a soft reddish glow from across the room.
He cracked open one eye and turned his head a little. And then he really opened his eyes.
"Uh, Valois..." he mumbled.
"Hm?" Distracted from the television, Valois followed Gunther's gaze to where the crystal ball that sat in a golden cradle in the corner of the room was softly glowing.
"Ah. I have mail." He raised a hand, beckoning with one finger. Slowly, the crystal ball rose from its stand and drifted across the room towards him, as if it weighed nothing at all. It came to a halt in front of him, floating in mid-air as Gunther stared at it.
"What's this: the Witch Post or something?" he whispered, only half-joking.
"I suppose that is one way of putting it, yes." Valois ghosted his fingertips across the ball's surface, and the red mist cleared to reveal the image of a beautiful man with pale skin and green hair, clad in a green tunic. At sight of him, Valois inclined his head, touching his fingertips first to his heart and then to his forehead.
"Maiestatem Tuam," he murmured.
"Princeps Omnium Magica," came the reply, as the figure in green also inclined his head. "Et tua aeternus," he added, turning his gentle gaze onto Gunther.
Mutely, Gunther nodded. If Valois treated this man with respect, then so should he.
"Since your aeternus speaks English more easily than Latin—though I understand he is also quite learned in that arcane tongue—we shall dispense with the formalities for this communication, as it involves him," the man said, a smile curving his lips. "Well-met, Gunther. I am Caelwyn, King of the Fae, which is why Valois referred to me as 'Your Majesty'. However, you probably do not know that we refer to him as 'Prince of All Magic', so I will leave him to explain that to you after I am done."
Gunther's jaw dropped and he looked up at Valois, who had palmed a hand to his face and was laughing.
"I am quite sure," he chuckled, "that you did not contact me purely to make mischief, Caelwyn. To what do I owe the honour of this communication?"
Caelwyn smiled. "We Fae are known for our mischief, and do not try to convince your aeternus otherwise. However, no, that is not the reason for this communication. You are aware that the Return is soon to happen?"
"I am indeed."
"The Return, Gunther," Caelwyn explained, "is that of all Supernaturals to the Veil after the banishment. Resting Fade will be upon us in a few days—the equivalent of your mortal autumn—and we shall welcome all Supernaturals once more into the Veil."
"I see," Gunther said, turning a curious gaze onto the crystal ball. "But... you said this involves me? How?"
"Each Return begins with a ceremony wherein a representative of the Fae or Witch kin welcomes a representative chosen from all Returning Supernaturals. The representatives are chosen by a simple lottery, and for this Return the name of Valois Athanase Fulcanelli was picked to represent us."
"Les saints me protègent!" Valois murmured. "For the first time in all my long years! I wondered when—or indeed if—it would ever happen."
"Indeed, well now it has. And this throws up a new possibility." Caelwyn nodded at Gunther. "The Veil has graciously permitted your aeternus to be present at the ceremony. In fact, it has insisted upon it."
Gunther looked up at Valois again. To his surprise, Valois seemed absolutely stunned.
"I take it... that's unusual?" Gunther murmured, looking back at the crystal ball.
"It is unprecedented," Caelwyn said softly. "No mortal has ever witnessed the event before. And, while you are technically not quite mortal anymore, you are still a human and not a Supernatural. This is a signal honour for you from the Veil, Gunther. And it is an even greater honour for Valois, which is probably why he is rendered speechless at this moment."
"I am," Valois whispered. "Please convey my deepest, humble gratitude. I shall enter the blessed place tonight and offer my own thanks in person, but for now, please..." His voice tailed off, and Gunther snuggled closer to him, sensing his continued shock.
"Of course. It shall be done." Caelwyn inclined his head again. "Gunther, you need to be aware of the fact that you will be a curiosity to all present. Do not be alarmed if you sense many eyes upon you during the ceremony. Everyone will be informed of the reason for your presence—that the Veil insisted upon it—and who you are. Valois is one of the most high-ranking Supernaturals in the Veil, and your presence will be wholly accepted. But you will still be a curiosity. Understood?"
"Understood," Gunther said. "Will I need to do anything?"
"Nothing at all," Caelwyn reassured him. "Your presence is a gift to you both from the Veil. And, so that you will not feel isolated or alone during the ceremony—for Valois will be busy and not with you at that time—I have arranged for Elsanine to accompany you and stand with you to explain what is happening."
"Thank you," Gunther said. The anxious thought of being alone and stared-at while Valois was busy with the ceremony had only just entered his head, but Caelwyn had anticipated it and calmed it with those words.
"Oh." Another thought came to him. "I assume the, er, dress code is formal attire?"
Caelwyn smiled. "We shall all be in our own variants of formal attire, so yes. Whatever is most comfortable to you."
He paused. "There is one other thing that you should be aware of, Gunther. The performing of the ceremony creates a bond of friendship between the two representatives. No matter their kin, and regardless of old kinship enmity, those two Supernaturals will always have that bond. It is nothing to cause you any concern or worry; just be aware that Valois will have a new member of his personal social circle in the Veil from thenceforth, in the same way that he has personal friends in his earthly social circle."
"You mean... he has no choice? Neither of them do? That seems a bit"—Gunther bit his lip, knowing he had to have a care with his phrasing so as not to appear rude—"unusual."
"Viewed from a mortal standpoint, it would seem so, yes. However, the Veil uses this as a means of bridging all kin together with a fine web of closeness. In the past there have been wars, terrible battles fought between Supernatural kin, and thus the Veil brings us all closer with these singular friendships."
"Wars," Gunther murmured. "Valois mentioned those a while ago. The fae and the vampires were at war, weren't they?"
"Indeed. If you speak with Elsanine he will tell you of battles he has fought in, many centuries ago. It is a hard thing for a healer, to cause injury and death by his own hands, but... needs must, as I believe you humans say. We Fae detest such things, but we will fight when necessary." Caelwyn smiled, and it was a little colder than his other smiles thus far. "When the Fae rise, Gunther, nothing stops them."
Gunther shuddered. "I believe it. So, um, who is going to be the representative of the other Supernaturals? I mean, who will be bonded to Valois in this friendship thing?"
"I am not permitted to give their name." Caelwyn's expression softened once more. "All I can tell you is that this Return's representative is of the Vampire kin. And now I must go. Fare thee both well."
"May the light always bless thy paths," Valois murmured, again gesturing to his heart and forehead.
Gunther had no such flowery farewell to hand. All he could do was smile and say "Goodbye" as he watched the beautiful vision fade. When the crystal ball was once again clear, it floated across the room to settle back into its rest, and Gunther turned his face up to Valois.
"Caelwyn mentioned wars. In the plural." he whispered. "There was more than one war? Did you have to fight?"
"No, mon cœur." Valois's fingertips threaded into Gunther's hair in a reassuring caress. "Those wars were centuries before my time. The biggest was that between the fae and the vampire kin. Elsanine and Arcturus have both fought, but I was spared that ordeal."
Gunther nodded, feeling relieved. He didn't want to think about Valois having to fight in a battle, although—given the extent of his power—he suspected that nobody would have been able to defeat him anyway.
"So..." he said, and now a hint of teasing bled into his tone. "You're a prince, huh?"
"Oh, Dieu!" Valois rolled his eyes. "Nothing of the sort. I have told you that I was born into poverty. The title is simply one that the fae have bestowed upon me, as a mark of respect for my rank within the Veil."
"But I really like the idea." Gunther nuzzled closer, his smile broadening into a grin. "If we were both into roleplay, or anything like that, it'd be kind of hot. The aloof prince on his throne, looking down at the submissive courtier making his obeisance on bended knee."
He felt Valois shift almost imperceptibly beside him, and although the reply of "Oh?" was casual enough, Gunther knew he'd hit a mark with those words.
"Yeah," he murmured, kissing Valois's throat. "The courtier would have to kneel, of course. Maybe press his forehead to the floor and arch his back as he bowed before his prince..."
Valois chuckled: a low, soft sound of amusement and arousal. "Tease."
"I think I'm getting quite good at it. Don't you?"
"Indeed. And, were I into roleplay, I may take you up on the suggestion."
"Well, y'know..." Gunther nuzzled and kissed again, arching closer still. "With your skill at illusion, you could really make it good. Throne room, and all that. A crown and rich clothes for you, me kneeling at your feet as I beg and plead for—"
He gave a small internal fistpump of triumph as Valois made a faint "Gah!" sound and rose to his feet, swooping to pick Gunther up and carry him into the bedroom. Yeah, he was getting really good at this!