Francis want to practice fighting with real swords instead of wooden ones. Bash thinks it's a bad idea. One of the castle's former inhabitants agrees with him.
Francis and Bash saluted one another with their practice swords, Francis’s imagination giving the polished wood the glint of steel his father would not let him handle until he turned thirteen. His brother, who had taught him how to track, avoid detection in the castle, and find the fastest route to the kitchens, had also refused to let him anywhere near real steel. Francis hoped this duel would show his brother that he was a man, a man capable of hunting and building shelter and fighting. And then maybe Bash would let him have a sword of his own. A short sword, at least. One he could keep hidden from his mother.
After their bout, Francis regaled Bash with stories of his prowess while sprawled victoriously on the floor.
“ And then that glissade, Bash—you looked completely shocked!”
Bash raised a brow and prodded his sweaty, boasting little brother with the wooden point of his sword. “Yes, Francis. I was there, you know.”
At that, Francis’s grin faded. “You were hardly there, actually. I’ve seen you spar with Father. This was just… playing toy swords with your annoying little brother.”
“Francis. You are annoying. And you are my little brother. You are also the Dauphin. Crossing naked blades with you at this point in your training could be fatal to both of us.”
Francis refused to give up. “I was the Dauphin when we snuck out and ended up tracking that creature through the Blood Wood, wasn’t I?”
Bash shook his head and bit down on his first impulse, which was to tell Francis he couldn't be manipulated with threats of exposing just how much potential danger he had already placed his brother in. This wasn’t blackmail. Francis wasn't like his mother. “That was different, Francis. What if you run out of food on a long campaign one day? You’ll need to know how to—“
Francis stood. “I’ll need to know how to properly use a blade, Bash. Might be more important during a battle than hunting. And besides, what if a creature comes for me while we’re out tonight? It is All Hallows' Eve, you know."
Bash rose too and, giving Francis a long, considering look, crossed over to where the practice swords—the real ones—were stored.
“I do know. And you win, brother. But guard yourself. Don’t get lost in imagining that this is a real battle and all of France is behind you, pennants waving and—don’t look at me like that, you know and I know that you daydream. With one of these swords, I could cut you before I could stop myself. And if that happens because you were daydreaming or otherwise inattentive, Francis….”
Francis was torn between mortification at this rare lecture from Bash and a desire to know what consequences Bash could impose, other than....
“You mean…you won’t take me to the churchyard to watch for the danse macabre?”
“For a start,” Bash promised, and held out a sword.
The salute this time was much more solemn.
Francis was true to his word and much more focused. In addition to wanting to impress Bash and go to the churchyard, a long promised adventure, the weight of the sword and the sound of steel on steel kept him focused and his adrenaline pumping even though he was only facing his over-protective older brother.
Francis was so focused on defending himself from the attacks that Bash was finally unleashing on him, telegraphed though they were, that it took him some time to notice the glimmer of movement near the door behind Bash.
At first it seemed like nothing, a trick of light caused by the afternoon turning to dusk. Francis refused to give his imagination free reign.
Unfortunately, his imagination had nothing to do with it.
While on the offensive for the first time since Bash had condescended to attack, Francis saw an oddly familiar looking man holding a tennis racquet directly behind Bash. With his eyes on the man, who was now holding his gaze and mouthing some sort of warning, Francis failed to get his sword up in time.
Francis didn’t scream. Bash did, though. Quite a bit. First Francis’s name, and then, after he’d torn cloth from his own tunic to bind what turned out to be little more than a graze on Francis's arm, he'd screamed the list of things he was afraid he could have done to his brother.
It wasn’t until Bash had finished describing the ways he could have severed all of Francis’s limbs and moved from worried anger to just plain anger that Francis defended himself.
“It wasn’t my fault, Bash, I--“
Bash reached for Francis, anger momentarily clouding his better judgment. And then the man with the racquet stepped between them. Through Bash’s outstretched hand.
This time, Bash reached for Francis protectively, spinning around and arranging himself in front of his brother. The spirit stepped back. Then he gestured toward where they had dropped their swords, Bash’s red with Francis’s blood, and shook his head in warning.
“You came to prevent us from fighting?" Bash asked in disbelief, retaining his position in front of Francis. If Bash ever came back as a spirit, he certainly wouldn't use his evening on earth to prevent two brothers from engaging in what was essentially a harmless training duel. Well, a harmless training duel that had injured Francis.
The ghost nodded and then faded before Bash could ask him any of the questions that had arisen. Was the ghost concerned because he thought Bash would do something to Francis in the future? Was it about the succession?
Before Bash could lose himself in worrying about why else the ghost might have come, Francis pulled him toward a corner where several older paintings awaited removal, saying that he had seen a portrait of the ghost somewhere before.
After sorting through a dozen or so portraits of Queen Catherine, some in….poorer taste than others, they found the man, sans racquet, standing next to their father in an old Valois family portrait.
“He was our uncle….the one who died playing tennis. His name was also Francis,” Francis said, remembering one of the few family stories told that didn't involve bravery in battle. “He would have been king.”
Francis and Bash looked at one another, wondering at the spirt's unrest and remembering the tales of “accidents at court” that they had been told when they had still been deemed too young to know that politics and greed had been responsible for many of those "accidents."
“It doesn’t make sense, though,” Francis said. “He really did die playing tennis—he came back with the racquet and everything. It wasn’t a dueling accident—a real one or one of the other kinds—that killed him, so why would he be bothered by our practicing?”
Bash bit his lip. Much as he loved their father, he had his suspicions. Francis was too young to know of them. “I don’t know, Francis. But don’t…promise me you won’t tell our father you saw him.”
Francis nodded, still lost in thought.
Bash needed to change the subject before Francis, too, started to suspect. And what better way than with the promise of more ghosts? “Let’s clean you up properly and then prepare for the churchyard. It’s nearly time.”
“You’re still taking me? Even after…”
Bash, who was incapable of being the stern older brother for long unless there was immediate danger to life and limb, nodded. After all, grown men would have been distracted by a ghost. It wasn’t entirely Francis’s fault. But still. “I am, if you want to go after everything's that happened. But if you’re ever distracted by anything other than the ghost of our uncle again….”
Francis groaned, ghost apparently forgotten, and started plotting how to hide the wounded arm from his parents. Maybe he'd claim a ghost had done it. Though not a ghost with a racquet.