De Sardet left the library with his cheeks blazing.
He wasn't entirely sure if that was from anger or from embarrassment or from a convoluted mixture of the two. It had been by far the single strangest conversation he'd ever had in all twenty of the years he'd lived to date, and he wasn't completely sure what to make of it. In fact, he'd have been quite pleased to have pushed it straight to the back of his mind and marched out to the courtyard; he could have practiced his swordplay instead and left it until later to make something of it. Much later. Days, perhaps. Certainly hours, though years would have been preferable. In years, he could have maybe forgotten about it altogether. That would have been best.
To his credit, he thought, he didn't slam the door behind him as he left the room. He closed it just as he usually would, and then he paused for a moment and leaned against the wall beside the door frame. He rested his head back against the stone with a heavy thunk, which he immediately regretted, but the curse he muttered under his breath really wasn't for the resulting ache. He closed his eyes. He tucked his hands behind the small of his back and he wondered what he was going to do. The situation clearly called for something, but he wasn't exactly sure what.
At least, he supposed, Sir de Courcillon had had the good grace to look as awkward about the whole affair as de Sardet had felt. Sir de Courcillon always had good grace, of course. He'd always had impeccable manners and the most exacting standards. He understood formal etiquette more thoroughly than anyone else that de Sardet had ever met, and that included both his mother and his uncle, though that made a kind of obtuse sense; they knew what they needed to know from the top of the Congregation hierarchy, whereas Sir de Courcillon occupied an odd midway point within it. Even if he hadn't been employed to tutor the prince's heir and nephew, he'd have been better placed to understand than they were.
De Sardet sighed. It was absurd, completely and utterly absurd, but the fact remained: that Sir de Courcillon had approached him about this, though he had obviously had no wish to, meant he believed it to be true. If he believed it to be true, the odds were better than average that others also believed it to be true. Court gossip was a fact of life that all souls living in the palace understood and generally speaking politely ignored, so this was something quite different. This was the kind of rumour that could persist, and potentially stir trouble, even though it wasn't true in the slightest.
De Sardet wished he could say his outrage came from that, from knowing how it could taint Constantin's reputation as much as his own, but it wasn't. The fact was, he was angry because it wasn't true. The fact was, he would have liked it to be, and it had felt very much as if Sir de Courcillon had laid all of his private fantasies bare while asserting they were reality. He was angry because he was ashamed.
He heard footsteps. He opened his eyes, and Constantin popped around the corner with a mischievous smile and his doublet half-unbuttoned in a not entirely proper manner of which Sir de Courcillon would not have approved. That wasn't unexpected, but de Sardet wished even more than before that he'd gone out to practice. Still, on the other hand, he hated that the conversation had made him wish his cousin away, whose company he usually enjoyed more than anybody else's.
"So, what did the old man want?" Constantin asked. He leaned against the opposite side of the corridor, his pose mirroring de Sardet's exactly, though he broke it for a moment to stretch out one leg and prod him in the shin with the toe of his boot. "It looked serious. You turned so red I thought you might actually die on the spot."
"You were watching."
"Well, of course I was. You would have, too, if you'd seen the look on de Courcillon's face when he kept you behind."
"So it wasn't just that he asked me to stay and not you?"
Constantin sighed and rolled his eyes dramatically. "Oh cousin, you wound me," he said. "I won't deny that I'm profoundly selfish but I care about your wellbeing very nearly as much as my own."
De Sardet smiled wryly. Constantin smiled back, so brightly that de Sardet shook his head and rubbed his mouth to keep from joining in. Perhaps that was part of the problem, he thought; Constantin really had no friends but him, unless you could count the gamblers and the bookmakers. Constantin himself certainly didn't. He'd never seemed to care much for anyone's company but his cousin's.
"You know, you're not avoiding the question that easily," Constantin said. He raised his brows. "Were you rude about his favourite book again?"
"No." De Sardet frowned. "And I wasn't rude about it the first time."
"You called it dull."
"I called it technically accomplished but lacking passion."
Constantin crossed his arms over his chest. He crossed his legs at the ankle. "And what would you call a lack of passion if not dull?" he said. De Sardet grimaced; Constantin beamed. "You see, I knew you'd see I'm right. So, what did he want?"
De Sardet's grimace remained firmly in place. "He wanted to talk about our conduct," he said.
"Did he mean my conduct? Because I cannot and will not promise I won't sing when I return home in the small hours of the morning. Naut shanties really are best sung at the top of one's voice."
De Sardet sighed. "It's not the singing," he said. "Though I do think he'd appreciate it if you wouldn't wake him up with yet another chorus of the Seaman and the Octopus. I know I could live without."
Constantin shrugged broadly and then pressed one hand over his own heart. "For you, cousin, anything," he said. "Now, what did he want to talk about if not tunes my father would lynch us for singing at court?"
De Sardet gestured at him. "That."
"What, precisely? My Shirt? My neckcloth?" He smoothed said neckcloth down defensively. "I tie an excellent knot and it's perfectly clean."
"Not the neckcloth, Constantin. Our behaviour."
"I don't follow."
"Neither did I, so he spelled it out. He said we should be more discreet."
"More discreet than what, exactly?" He narrowed his eyes. "More discreet about what?"
"We're cousins. Doesn't everyone know we're cousins? I do mention it rather frequently."
"Well, that's because you don't like to use my first name."
"If your mother hadn't named you after my father, I might like it more." He raised his brows pointedly. "And you're still not answering the question, cousin. What does our dear teacher think we have to be discreet about?"
De Sardet sighed exasperatedly. "He thinks we're fucking, Constantin," he said, and he crossed his arms. "He says if we're going to carry on some kind of sexual affair under your father's roof, we should be less obvious about it."
Constantin took a rather obvious pause, peering at him across the corridor as if trying to decide if he was joking, or concocting a wild tale to distract him from the real answer, or actually telling the truth.
"You know, cousin," Constantin said, carefully. "I hate to state the obvious, but that's not actually true."
"Yes, that fact hadn't slipped my mind. I do rather think I'd remember."
"But he believes we are."
"Yes, he does."
"Did you happen to ask him why?"
"Yes, I did."
"He said he'd overheard."
"Doing what?" De Sardet raised his brows significantly. Constantin's eyes widened. "Oh," he said. He frowned. He rubbed his mouth. He glanced away, rubbing the back of his neck. "Oh. I see. That..." He cleared his throat. He looked at him again. "There's a possibility that might have been my fault."
"It's rather complicated."
"Constantin, what did you do?"
"I brought someone home."
"That's not an explanation."
"It's just, I asked him to call me Constantin." He shrugged, probably aiming for nonchalant, but the expression on his face was at least as awkward as de Sardet had ever seen him be before. "There's a possibility I might have called him cousin."
"Why would you do that? A slip of the tongue?"
"Well, my tongue did slip to various places..."
He wasn't sure that Constantin was going to continue. Honestly, he thought his cousin would just make a joke and walk away and smile back at him over his shoulder, and that would be the end of it; he thought he might feel better if he did, because he felt quite a lot like he was being teased. But Constantin stood up straighter, like he did whenever his father walked into a room, almost formally, almost stiffly. He brought his hands together in front of him and laced his fingers. He clenched his jaw. That kind of seriousness really didn't come to Constantin naturally, so perhaps that was why de Sardet's chest suddenly felt tight.
"It's just something that I like to do from time to time," Constantin said. He smiled a small, not quite self-deprecating smile; de Sardet wasn't sure that Constantin had true self-deprecation in him, a fact he'd somehow made endearing. "I bring them to the stables or the armoury or somewhere else that should be out of sight and I tell them to call me Constantin and I tell them I'll call them cousin." He brought his linked hands up to chest height, almost like a shield between them when he'd never needed one before, and de Sardet hated that he felt he needed that. "I understand that you don't think of me that way, cousin, and so I make believe with someone else. But I didn't intend for it to cause you any unpleasantness. You have my word that I won't do it again."
De Sardet looked at him, standing there. His cheeks seemed almost as flushed as his own had been just a few minutes before, and his usual confident expression was just a pale imitation of its usual self. Constantin had never been a particularly convincing actor, and so he knew that was he'd said was true: the relationship that Sir de Courcillon had thought they had...Constantin wanted that. Constantin brought other men home so that he could pretend that relationship was something they had. Constantin did who knew what with them while pretending they were him. Constantin did who knew what with them while de Sardet was tucked up in bed, thinking those same things about him in turn. They wanted the same thing. They wanted the same thing.
De Sardet's cheeks turned hot again. Nervous anticipation fluttered in his chest and in his gut and made his head feel light. He pushed himself away from the wall.
"Sir de Courcillon didn't tell us to stop," he said.
Constantin frowned at him. "I don't understand. Do you want me to keep doing what I'm doing?"
"Then I really don't understand."
De Sardet moved closer. He turned and he stood back against the wall beside his cousin, his dear cousin, so close their shoulders touched.
"He didn't tell us to stop," he said. "He told us to be discreet."
De Sardet brushed the back of Constantin's hand with his. He twined their fingers together discreetly and when he turned his head to look at him, Constantin's smile could have lit up every streetlamp in Sérène.
"Cousin," Constantin said. He sounded breathless. He sounded nothing less than thoroughly amazed.
"Constantin," he replied. And, some hours later, after dark, Constantin slipped into his room instead of slipping out into the night. He took off his clothes and he slipped into de Sardet's bed. When de Sardet pushed inside him, on their knees in the lamplight that made the oil glisten on the parts of Constantin he'd never thought that he could touch, when his hands framed his cousin's waist and his heart felt fit to burst out of his chest it was so full with joy, he asked him, "Is it different with me?"
Constantin laughed breathlessly and smiled back at him over his shoulder. "They were all you, cousin," he said. "But they weren't you. Does that make sense?"
It did; none of his own fantasies compared very flatteringly, either. And, afterwards, when they were done, they still weren't done: they lay there together under the sheets in de Sardet's bed, quiet for once. De Sardet sprawled on his front and Constantin propped himself up on his side, trailing his fingers over de Sardet's back. In some places it tickled just a fraction and others it made him tingle. Constantin seemed determined to find out which was which before he fell asleep and forgot them like he forgot the things their teacher told them. But that just meant another night he'd be able to learn them all over again. De Sardet certainly wouldn't mind.
It probably wasn't the solution Sir de Courcillon had had in mind, de Sardet thought. But at least the walls were thick enough that they would never be never overheard.