Note: Birthday Gift is a short story set before the events of the Turner Series.
Eton. March 3, 1824.
Richard Dalrymple, the Marquess of Winchester and supposed heir to the duchy of Parford, held his breath as he tiptoed along the shelves. The sun shone outside, a rarity at this time of year, and the bookseller’s back room was mostly empty. The bitter-ink smell of freshly printed books was giving him a headache. Not for the first time, he wished he’d joined his friends on the cricket field.
Normally, he would be with them. But then, this was not a normal day. Richard hadn’t had a normal day in weeks.
His quarry sat at a small table, a book in front of him. The other boy was alone in the makeshift library, reading indoors in defiance of the fine weather.
A tight knot coalesced in Richard’s stomach. Still, he swallowed his pride and stopped at the side of the table.
The other boy didn’t even look up. Instead, he turned a leaf and continued reading, his eyes swiftly sliding down the text. His left hand rubbed his ear absently, and then, before any proper boy could have taken in the material before him, he turned the page yet again.
Richard glanced down to see what could be so engrossing.
No use; Turner was reading in Greek, and while Richard was proficient, he couldn’t manage it upside down.
Richard sighed. “Happy Birthday.”
Turner looked up, took in the sight of Richard in one blazing sweep of his eyes. “Oh,” he said without enthusiasm. His gaze cut quickly back to his book. “It’s you.”
Richard counted to three before he spoke again. “Aren’t you going to say it back?”
A longer pause. Turner flipped another page, and Richard tapped his foot impatiently.
“No,” Turner finally said, without looking up. “I can’t stop you from pretending that we are still on friendly terms. But I have no desire to participate in your delusion.”
Richard clenched his hand into a fist at his side. “If I had known you were going to be a jackass about it, I would have played cricket.”
Turner finally reached for a blue ribbon and set it between the leaves of the book, precisely marking his place. Then he raised his head. “You’re twice delusional, then. Being a petulant jackass is your particular prerogative, not mine.”
When Turner regarded him with those steady, unblinking blue eyes, it made him feel odd. Hot and cold all at the same time. It always made him think that Turner was silently appraising him. In recent weeks, he’d been made all too aware of the ways in which his friend—his former friend—found him wanting. That feeling of inadequacy wasn’t helped by the fact that Turner used words like delusional and prerogative, when all Richard could think of was jackass.
“You hit me,” he said. “Jackass.”
“You deserved to be hit.”
“I was doing my duty. I had to, after—”
“You tried to get my brother thrown out of school. Not just sent down for the term; publicly expelled. Did you think I wouldn’t care?”
Richard banged his fist against the table, hard enough that that the shock traveled through his arm. But his words were quiet. “I’m supposed to be your brother, damn you.”
Their eyes met, finally. He’d not meant to say that. It sounded too angry, too furious. Too hurt.
But then he was hurt. They had the same tutor. Richard had taken Turner under his wing when the fellow first arrived, and...they were friends. Best friends. Turner knew things that Richard had never told anyone else. Richard had thought the bonds that held them together were thicker even than blood. Apparently he’d been the only one participating in that delusion, too.
“That’s laughable.” Turner drummed his fingers against the tabletop. “If you had really been my brother, you wouldn’t have told the entire third form that I escaped into Home Park to have a cry about my sister.”
“Well, you hit me. And it’s true.”
Turner let out a little breath. “Yes,” he finally said, his eyes getting harder. “It is true. Congratulations. You’re not a liar. Just a petty little snitch.”
“But it is true. I should think that you would believe the truth was a defense against…against….”
Turner shook his head. They had been born on precisely the same day; Richard should not have felt so young next to the other boy. But there was something about the look in his eyes that made Turner seem almost ageless. At times like this, Richard was reminded that his friend’s Christian name was Smite. It fit him.
“You can’t really believe that,” Turner said quietly. “What would happen if I spoke the truth about you?”
It took one moment to contemplate the possibility. Another for a flutter of fear to pulse through him.
“Hadn’t considered that, had you?” Turner leaned back, stretching his arms in front of him. “You humiliated me, and never asked yourself how I might retaliate?”
“Shut up.” Richard looked around the private library. He thought they were alone, but what if someone lurked amongst the shelves? “Shut up. Don’t speak of it.”
“Shall we start with the obvious? I could get you thrown out of Eton—both you and your beast of a younger brother. There would be some delicious symmetry there. And your father couldn’t save you, because that’s precisely the problem, isn’t it?”
“Shut up. Shut up.”
“You can’t unsay it just because you wished you’d kept your mouth shut. I know the truth about you: you’re a bastard. If I spoke, you wouldn’t inherit a dukedom. You wouldn’t inherit anything. And you have to be legitimate to attend Eton, so…” Turner shrugged.
“Shut up!” He slammed his fist against the other boy’s shoulder, but Turner didn’t even seem to feel the blow.
Turner looked down, where Richard’s fingers still rested on the lapels of his jacket. “Maybe you’d prefer I divulged your other secret, then.” He lifted his hand and casually brushed Richard’s hand away.
Richard let his hand fall. There were worse secrets than the one his father, the Duke of Parford, had divulged last summer. He’d said that Richard was old enough now that, as the heir, he ought to know. But he was not tell anyone—not his brother, not his sister, and especially not his mother. His marriage was invalid. Richard was a bastard, not truly the heir.
So long as nobody ever found out, it wouldn’t matter.
Richard should have been angry with his father. He should have been furious with fate. He should have been afraid for his future.
But what he’d thought instead was: Oh. That explains why I came out so wrong, then.
It was the truth of that other secret that hung between the two boys now.
“You wouldn’t,” he said. “Would you? Tell that?”
“You don’t think it a fitting punishment? One betrayal deserves another, after all. Eye for an eye. Truth for a truth.”
Richard reached out a hand beseechingly. “Please. They’ll hang me.”
Turner didn't even flinch. “Yes,” he said softly, “they would.” He looked up, as if calculating the depth of Richard’s sins. Finally, his gaze returned to his friend. “Very well, then. I’ll keep my mouth shut.” One corner of his mouth curled. “Happy birthday. Now get out.”
He could breathe again. Relief flooded him. But as he turned away, something occurred to him.
“Wait. What about tomorrow?”
“If you’re keeping silent because today is our birthday, then what about tomorrow?”
He’d thought Turner cold before. But now the other boy drew himself up as if his spine were made of ice. “So that’s how it is. Every day, you’ll remember that I hold your secrets while you spilled mine. With every passing year, you’ll wait for the axe to fall. Every time I open my mouth to speak, you’ll anticipate your betrayal. Won’t you?”
His throat felt thick.
“I know you.” Turner said. “You could torture yourself for years wondering when I will break your confidences. When you will lose everything.”
“I couldn’t have crafted a more fitting punishment if I’d tried. Congratulations, Winnie.”
“I can’t believe you’re doing this to me.”
Turner sat down and smoothed out the pages before him. “I wonder why that is.”
“You ass,” he said. “If you think I’ll take this lying down, you’re wrong. I’ll discredit you before you even start. Nobody will ever believe you. Ever. Not about any of it.”
Turner removed the blue ribbon he’d used to mark his page and started reading again. “Once you figure out what I intend, come let me know. Until then, I’m busy.”