Amarant Coral searches for redemption. Iron-Tail Fratley searches for peace. Both men are ten years and one woman too late. Prologue/chapter one; in which Amarant is extremely tardy, and Fratley is...
I've never thought of this before, but I never should have become a
Dragon Knight. Oh, a fighter, yes, every vein in my body sang for the
fighting, but although I was elite I never should have joined the ranks
of the Dragon. You have to be more than a soldier; you have to have
love, and faith - faith beyond faith. And the cold years roaming Gaia
bled any love or faith I might have had out of me, the bitter cynic that
- from the diary of Freya Crescent
I sometimes wonder when life became so goddamn tired.
Amarant Coral looked disconsolately at a spot directly in front of him, eyes glazing over slightly as he not-listened to the tiny ruler of Alexandria babble on happily about Lindblum or Eiko or something or other, her hands resting peacefully on her lap. She was currently very roundly pregnant, and her first child was playing in the background with what was obviously a pretend sword; every so often she looked at Amarant in frightened awe, childblue eyes wide with fascinated curiosity, so he bared his teeth at her obediently to send her into a wave of terrified happiness. Maybe he was going soft, but any kid who Zidane had had the gall to call Cornelia needed some damn encouragement anyway.
Hah. 'Prince Consort' Zidane. What a title. Well, with Garnet's sprog and one on the way he was obviously doing well in the consorting business.
"... well, that's Eiko for you, I suppose; barely seventeen and already her first airship being built. Cid's so proud, I think he practically exploded. Have you dropped in to see her?"
His brain wasted a few seconds before he realized that there was a question with a response wanting, so he shook his head. "Didn't bother. Only got here couple of days ago."
"What's the world like?" Garnet asked gently.
"Same as the first time 'round I saw it."
The girl - woman now, he realized - laughed at that, high and sweet. "You haven't changed."
"You haven't either."
"Really?" Garnet reached up to touch her dark hair teasingly, shining in the spring sunlight. "No grey hairs or wrinkles?"
He grunted. "You're only twenty-six. Not yet."
"Was it just me or was that a compliment?" She smiled at him easily and made him huff once more in annoyance, leaning back in his chair. "But really, Eiko would be so pleased to see you. We missed you very much. We were beginning to think you were, well, dead."
Hah. Now that was a laugh.
"Zidane'll be glad to see you when he gets back. If you wait 'till tomorrow night, he can - "
The queen blinked at being interrupted so abruptly and looked at the man before her. Amarant was timeless, even his clothes changing little from the last time she had seen the bountyhunter a little under ten years ago; she had almost forgotten how his head worked beneath the fall of crimson hair. Unless he had changed a great deal, he would not have come here for a pleasant social visit.
"You've been nattering on for the past hour 'bout absolutely nothing. And I mean nothing."
She blinked again, wide-eyed with innocence. This had been one of the most uncomfortable hours of her life, but one could not rule over a city without being an excellent diplomat. Garnet wondered idly if she was just making things worse. "I'm sorry."
"I'll visit Eiko later." Like when I have a masochist death wish and want to die of annoyance.
"She'll like that. I'm glad you dropped in on me." She took a quiet breath and rested her head back on the chair, looking at him pointedly, the gaiety in her eyes dropping as her mouth grew tense. "Amarant, I want to ask you something."
The big man stared at her, arms folding across his chest. "What?"
"Why did you go away?"
His body language tensed, and she winced inwardly. She was always too direct. If only Zidane was here; he would have wormed it out of him in a less tactless way than she had always been accustomed to. Garnet had always had trouble dealing with Amarant.
"Why d'you want to know?"
"Because of what happened afterwards," she said honestly.
Fingers gripped the edge of his chair, tightening surrepticiously. He would not show weakness in front of her. "What happened afterwards?"
Head dropping, she stared down at her lap, eyes closing as the grief washed over her all over again. "... I knew you didn't know."
"Damnit, Garnet, what the fuck happened afterwards?" Amarant stiffened as if remembering something, and shook his head to clear it. "Freya - what'd Freya say? If you don't tell me, I'll damn well go to her, whether she wants to tell me or not. Don't beat around the bloody bush with me - "
"You won't, Amarant." Her tone was infinitely gentle. "Freya's dead."
There was a horrific sort of everything in that single sound, written on his face, burnt in his eyes - if she had taken the time out to separate them all it would have taken years. This was the hardest thing she'd ever had to do and the grief she felt had suddenly been broke open once more, losing the incredibly dear Burmecian dragoon. It had been so unbearably pointless. "She died a year or so after you left."
"Somebody killed her." His voice was numb. Apathetic.
"No." Garnet shook her head. "Childbirth. We knew you - didn't know - because you didn't show up to her wedding and we thought well, maybe, that's just your way... but then, when you didn't show up to her funeral, that's when Steiner thought you must have died somewhere..."
He hadn't realized that he'd spat the word aloud until the little queen answered him. "Her first. Something went wrong - she... bled to death. I tried to save her, but..."
Freya died in a bed/, Amarant thought. /She died knowing for hours and hours and hours she was slowly wasting away and so that this girl can tell me very gently that she is gone.
"The child lived, though," Garnet managed, and faltered when Amarant gave her a look of supreme disgust, that Freya's tiny killer should live when she did not. "She lives a - normal life - with her father."
Her father. Only one man would be her father. "Why are you telling me this?"
She stood with certain difficulty, moving over by his chair to pat his arm. Amarant flinched away, but she continued on unpeturbed. "We all knew how close you and she were."
"Not /close/," he muttered, "just..."
"I know, Amarant," she said gently and he turned his face away because she /didn't/.
"Where's she buried?"
"In the royal graveyard. I'm sure that Puck would let you go and see it, if you wanted."
"Don't want to go see it."
"But you'll go see it anyway?"
He only grunted, standing, brushing himself off. Amarant never liked talking in-depth to Garnet all that much; she had a subtle way of getting inside his brain and was far too clever for her own good. Zidane hadn't married dumb. "... suppose."
"She would like that."
No, she wouldn't. In fact, if she was in my bloody shoes ten gil says she would've been happy to piss on my grave.
"G'bye, Dagger." He moved past and, because he hated kids, ruffled Cornelia's hair. "Bye, sprog. Tell Zidane two kids ain't a bad score."
And he left, and Garnet quietly watched him go and wondered what she had done.
chapter one - the normal life
(I wish I could remember my name)
Iron-Tail Fratley began his day the same way he began all his days.
He woke up at daybreak, to birds singing; he washed his bleary face at the washstand. The water was ice cold, except for in winter, when it was just ice.
He pulled on his breeches; he buttoned up his crisp, fresh-ironed linen shirt from the batch of washing that had been done the night before. Whether he had known how to wash and iron or not before his mind was blown to smithereens by - he could not remember - was irrelevant; now he could starch and wring with the best of them, and often horrified housewives by eagerly asking them what they used in their washing-water to get mud out of clothes.
The Dragoon had, at first, had no idea how to do his own washing and dirty clothes had piled up about him and he never had the correct amount of buttons on his shirts before he decided that it would simply not do. Then, with the same amount of bloody-mindedness that had steeled him into the fighting machine that would challenge rose-general Beatrix, he taught himself darning. His clothes went around resembling Tantalus' Blank for a good long while, but he had eventually got the hang of it.
He combed his fawn-coloured hair, which had turned completely grey at the temples prematurely. When all his buttons were done up and the cords pulled tight and he was neat and tidy, Fratley went downstairs to make breakfast.
His cooking had improved as much as his laundering. It had, hopelessly, taken him six years to learn how to boil an egg. Three years onward, they still were of disappointing texture; the outside of the yolk was runny and the inside too hard, or else he would hardboil the entire thing into oblivion and end up with greenish yolks. Porridge, at least, he could do; he would set up a big pot of it simmering on his oven, along with some ever-optimistic eggs in a pan of bubbling water, and coffee. He needed his coffee. He hadn't drank tea for ten years.
King Puck had always tried to get his most treasured dragonknight general a maid, or a wife, or a wife who could double as a maid as Nature intended. Fratley always refused. He was getting along just fine. Except for the hardest part of his morning, which he always needed his cup of coffee for.
"Wake up, Gudrun," he said cheerfully, marching into his daughter's room and pulling open the curtains. "It's a beautiful day today."
His daughter, who was inevitably a hidden lump underneath the blankets at her father's usual declaration of a beautiful day, would pretend that she was asleep to the point of catatonia and might never arise again. Her father would putter out of the room, leaving her with the rising hope that his tender heart had decided she was far too sleepy to face the day and would leave her alone for at least six more hours. Alas, he always came back after exactly three minutes.
"Breakfast is ready," her father said gently, turning down the covers over the excessively tousled hair on her head. "Come down before it gets cold."
Gudrun Crescent knew the way her father's mind worked. Hurry, hurry/, he was saying mentally. /I want to see if my yolks are any good this time.
In her mind, he should have been turned out of the Dragon Knight caste on account of being a sissy with too much emphasis on the nutritive value of Alexandrian spinach. She hadn't seen him even wield his ceremonial pike in months; he was using it to hang washing on when he thought she wasn't looking.
The Burmecian girl would roll out of bed, landing with an un-sylphlike bump on the floor that rattled the windowsill. Her heavy, clumsy feet dragged on the rug-covered floorboards.
"Do you need help coming downstairs?" Her father's voice, gentle, drifted up to her.
No, Gudrun did not need help coming downstairs. Her heavy, deformed legs were stiff but not sore; they were elephantine, huge and hideous and swollen, making her look as if she was a moogle on big fat stilts. An ugly moogle, that ate other moogles.
She clumped downstairs to the breakfast table, flinging herself into the specially reinforced chair that Fratley had made after she had hit a growth spurt last year and splintered every chair that she flung herself down on, or even tried to sit in demurely.
Gudrun was what her father defensively called /heavyboned/. Gudrun was what the rest of Burmecia called /hideously crippled/, which was inarguable.
"Cream and treacle, just the way you like it." Fratley set a bowl down in front of her, which she immediately stuck her fingers in to lick the treacle off them. "I'll open your egg for you, shall I?"
Unconcerned by his daughter's ungrateful monosyllables, her father cut off the top of the boiled egg and sighed at the contents. Unable to decide whether to be runny or solid, the egg wibbled at him in runny-solid indecision. At least his Gunny could dip her toast soldiers in it, if the porridge lasted long enough for him to put toast soldiers in front of her.
"I'll just cut up your toast."
Gudrun, face securely in her porridge as she ate with a too-fragile spoon, wondered if her father would be happy if she was secured to her chair by straps with a bib across her chest. He didn't notice her look of withering despair, her face almost-hidden by her unbrushed hair; he was too busy on his third cup of coffee, fortifying himself for his next statement.
"I've talked to Captain Edda," he said tenatively, and knew he had done it all wrong; the false cheeriness in his voice made his heart sink and her mouth pause at the last vestiges of treacly oats. "She says she's ready to take you back into training any time you like."
Gudrun set the bowl down, breaking into sentences. "I don't want to go back into those classes."
"But - "
"They put me in the baby classes with the baby dragoons who /wet themselves/."
"Gudrun." Her father took a seat next to her, looking distressed. "Gudrun, they're not baby classes. You have to understand, my daughter, that you're not ready for the classes your age groups usually take - we've seen that - and you need to take things at a slower pace."
They were both slowly dying under the weight of the euphemisms. Fratley knew keenly that were she the child of any other man and woman, Gudrun would not have even been allowed to hold a pike, much less participate in the training of the Burmecian children to become the next generation of soldiers and dragoon-hopefuls. Things would have been fine, if only she did not know just as keenly, if only she had been born normally, if only she was not a bundle of nervous energy - if only she weren't a /Crescent/.
He could not educate her, either, as much as he'd tried; he could not teach her, his own facts bubbling up in his brain from a recess in his mind he could not access when he consciously attempted to. Nobody else would teach her, because her personality was as pretty as she, because it was only a few years ago that he had convinced other people that his nine-year-old was actually fully sentient.
"Don't either," she snapped. "Better than all of 'em. Can take all of them in a fight."
That's because you drop them over your shoulder and, when you were younger, you used to sit on them until they squealed for help. "Please, my love. Please compromise."
She ate her egg, rebelliously ignoring the toast soldiers her naff father had cut up. Gudrun hated compromises, because they inevitably were horrible, because she had to take them as there was no bargaining chip in her court. "Well, what?"
"We will put you into a week or so's worth of classes with Edda," Fratley said decidedly. "And, after that, we will see about moving you higher."
Gudrun finally chewed on a toast soldier. If she did not take the compromise, she would be sitting inside doing nothing, reading a storybook and stuck inside the house as her father went off for long periods being with King Puck. No fighting, no even pretense-fighting with little-limbed six-year-olds who spent more time poking each other with their blunt practice spears. Her father would mother-hen over it all, sitting on the sidelines and watching, ears oblivious to the population of Burmecia and their rechristening of his daughter from Gudrun to Isn't It A Shame.
"Aah, there's the Fratley child - isn't it a shame."
"You'd think that with two young lovelies like they were, they would have produced something different, wouldn't you? Not... oh, isn't it a shame."
"It was a tragedy. Isn't it a shame."
The six-year-olds merely called her Ole Hidjus, which was much nicer in comparison. Ole Hidjus sounded like something that lived in the woods and lured children away to eat them, which she could sympathize with.
"Hnng," she grunted, which her father could translate. /Yes, under duress/.
"There's my good girl." He looked so pleased and relieved she could have wrenched his head from his shoulders. "You just finish up your breakfast; I'll need to go and see his Majesty, but I'll be back by ten. You can go and have your morning bath, if you promise to be very safe and don't burn yourself on the hot water."
Gudrun was interrupted from saying something barbed and acidic by the door being knocked at. Immediately, she slithered under the table and hid there, a trait her father hadn't been able to break her out of.
"Who could it be at this time of morning?" Fratley asked absentmindedly. "Oh, Gudrun, you don't have to hide."
"Want my helmet!"
Gudrun clung to the (thankfully sturdy) table leg, even as her father trotted off to the door; she heard it open, heard her father's polite greeting die on his lips as a deep, growly, guttural voice interrupted his own.
Witnesses would later say that Iron-Tail Fratley disappeared into his house.
Witnesses would also comment that, then, Fratley appeared with his wicked, slightly dusty, seven-foot pike. Gudrun saw him get it, still under the table, peeking out underneath the tablecloth; he dropped the washing surrepticiously hanging on it on the floor, and marched out again.
Witnesses would be shocked when the gentle and mild-mannered hero of the realm took his weapon and stabbed his visitor deeply in the belly, apparently by way of good morning.
"Should've known you were going to do that," Amarant Coral said unsteadily, and keeled over.