Amarant Coral searches for redemption. Iron-Tail Fratley searches for peace. Both men are ten years and one woman too late. Chapter four; in which Amarant is forced to deal with small mutants, and ...
Thirteen Ways To Say Goodnight
chapter four - life on hold
(once were warriors)
Ironic, isn't it, loving somebody you can't ever have? It is an
ancient practice of my people, back in the days when the hills were
infested with roaring rain-wet dragons. The eternal tradition of courtly
love; the fervent young dragoons fell in love with women they could
never have, queens and princesses and high-up nobility, so that they
would fight and die more courageously with their names the last breath
on their lips. They thought it was beautiful. It was the stuff of dreams
and tragedy and sickeningly bad romance novels with fainting in.
Of course, they were all men back then; it isn't a wonder.
- from the diary of Freya Crescent
Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
Captain Edda nodded in benign approval at the sight that greeted her; teaching the garten-classes how to hold their blunt, nicked training spears - whittled for small claws - with giggling monotony over and over again into a stuffed dummy on a wooden prop, to build up their grip, was not the most challenging of jobs. It was blissfully relaxing, however, after rounds with exquisitely arrogant Burmecian adolescents convinced they were all budding Freya Crescents or Iron-Tail Fratleys, the elder ones who were only now beginning to grasp that they would probably never shine enough to attain the elite stages of dragoonhood - too few and too many all at the same time. She was too old and too impatient to keep on doing this; she was the only one who could.
Which meant that she really did not deserve what was happening at the end of the row.
The little students all giggled and chatted at a moderate level - she preferred a dull roar that ebbed appropriately the moment she turned her head to glance at them - with the constant clatter of spears being dropped and somebody missing their dummy entirely and falling over. Every so often now, however, the giggles would reach hysteria as there was a sickening splintering noise; tiny Sigurd, second-from-last, would sound the migraine-inducing alarm.
"CAPTWAIN, GUDWUN HAS BWOKEN HER SPWEAR AND IT IN PIECES ALL OV'AH THE GWOUND, MA'AM!"
The figure at the end, obscured in helmet with half-a-spear in one hefty hand that was about ten times the size of Sigurd's, always glowered at what was in her hand as if hoping it would burst into flames. Edda felt a pressure headache coming on. Gudrun Crescent was already using the training spears from the upper classes; she was not going to give her one made of anything but wood lest she decide to see how far Sigurd could fly if hit with it.
"Thank you, Sigurd. Back to your dummies." The titter dissolved only microscopically; their latest and most famous pupil was a source of class-wide amusement that had not yet ceased to be funny for them. "Gudrun, come and get a new spear."
This was the third spear this session. Gudrun - who was up to Edda's elbow already, and she slouched - lumbered over to the front to get a new one; it looked like a toothpick in her grasp. White-knuckled and simmering, she dragged her feet all the way back to her place.
"All right, Gudrun." Edda stood over the deformed girl and the dummy, impatience tinting her voice like red in a particularly frustrated sunset. Fratley was an old friend; she didn't want to hear the vaguely hurt disappointment in his voice at being told, for the umpteenth time, that his child could not take part in the dragoon training. It was a crying shame; the child of Iron-Tail Fratley and Freya Crescent should have been a warrior to bring Burmecia to its feet. It was Edda's private belief that young Freya had never come back quite right from challenging Death with Prince Consort Zidane; it warped her, physically and mentally, and then there had been that business with -
Gudrun was staring at her, the shaded dragon-eyes of the helmet that hid her face somehow managing to look baleful as she waited for Edda's orders in insolent silence. The elder Burmecian's eyes travelled down the cords of her shoulders to her long ropy arms, full sleeves hiding her skin up to her discoloured hands; Fratley covered her up as much as possible, as much as both he and his daughter could fervently want, taking extraordinary pains to even make her gloves with the four fingers and thumb cut out so that as little of her could be seen. She held them low on her body, as if that would suffice to hide their shape, so completely alien to the delicate wires of Burmecian hands. The only recognizable thing were the vestigial claws on the tapered ends, which were currently dug tightly into the polish of the spear. Edda sighed pointedly.
"Hold it in both hands, Gudrun," she snapped. She had long since discovered that talking in the favoured slow, enunciated syllables to the child was useless; she understood sharpness well enough - much too well enough - but simply didn't care to /listen/. It was like herding a sullen chicken. "That'll stop the spear from breaking. Wrap your left hand around the heft, a few fingers up - no, not that many fingers - "
Sigurd was inexpertly smothering his laughter through his claws as Gudrun unwillingly folded her other hand on the spear. Edda gave him a Look, which he chose to not notice. Now she really had a headache coming on, though Gudrun knowing her left from her right was always a good sign. "Don't look at Sigurd - yes, yes, look at the /dummy/. Now, I want you to hit the center of the dummy as hard as you possibly can."
Gudrun did not move.
"You can hit the dummy now, Gudrun."
There was a low, agonized rumble from the back of her student's throat, that sounded like a yan in pain; Sigurd collapsed entirely in the undue hilarity without reprimand, but the older girl did not even turn her head to look at him.
Edda's tone went from drill instructor to gummy-sweet, the kind of lolly that ripped your teeth out through your gums. (It made Gudrun want to be a dog; for the hackles to rise on her back so she could bark bark bark and go for the throat, wild and rabid and foaming in the warm moist morning.) "We'd like to hit the dummy, wouldn't we, dear? Just tap the end of the spear anywhere on the dummy, Gudrun. Just do it. Let's see how that grip works. Hit the dummy with the nice spear."
There was another low rumble, but this one contained the surprising hint of words.
"What was that?"
"You won't like it," said Gudrun.
"You won't like it, who?" If the little wretch could make proper sentences, she was going to make with the proper formality, Fratley be damned.
"Won't like it, - " The ending comment was too slurred to be called on, though it was almost definitely " - wormface."
Edda's blood went to rolling boil. It was bad enough teaching the adolescents, and they had a thin veneer of whining deference. In the olden days she had been saluted to on every street corner, a path cut by swathes of soldiers, who could not speak but for the fierce and fervent /Captain Edda, ma'am!/. "In which case, you won't like sitting on the bench waiting for your father to come and pick you up, will you?"
"HWIT THE DUMMY, HIDJUS!" Sigurd cheered her on, in an either extremely unwise show of solidarity or hoping he was on to a good thing. The other students had all stopped hitting to watch now, too, the heads of their spears trailing the grass as the wind whipped at their feet.
Gudrun looked around the courtyard with what appeared to Edda to be the slightly bemused gaze of someone lost in a strange dream, unable to see the sort of gunpowder-explosive spark in her eyes; she was as if waking from a long, boring sleep to an equally boring bedroom, staring at her teacher with practiced infuriating blankness with the training spear in her clumsy hands. From far the first time, Edda wondered what she was doing in her training group; she should be weaving baskets, or being put in a workhouse, rather than embarrassing the already-declining dragoon tradition by being there.
"All right, then, go and sit on the - "
The girl slammed the spear forward with almost no heave of build-up, simply the quick bunching of grossly-made muscles; Edda felt herself go flying back into the grass as the dummy and the post, spear stuck firmly through it, broke off and hit her full in the chest. She collapsed with a stunned oof as the air was sucked from her lungs.
There was a completely stunned silence, broken only by a little sob from one of the little garteners.
"OLE HIDJUS KILLED THE TEACH/OH/," Sigurd bellowed. "OLE HIDJUS GOIN' TO JWAIL."
Lest she really be dead, the baby dragoons scampered over to their teacher; Edda opened her eyes to a round of panicky stares, with the hunched-over figure by the broken pole only partially visible through the crowd; it was frozen in place before it turned around and promptly loped off. The Burmecian captain raised her head to call out after her before she thought better of it; Fratley would do better than her shock and temper would, and so she collapsed back on the grass and let her breath come back and swore afterwards that she would not be made to do this /again/.
"BYE, OLE HIDJUS," the smallest of her brood shouted after the swiftly disappearing child, and Edda reflected that he really did not get the point. "SEE YOU LATE/OH/."
Amarant Coral had managed to get down the stairs, and due to Iron-Tail Fratley's either despicably well hidden or complete lack thereof of alcohol, instead cut himself two thick pieces of bread from the new loaf and was eating them with honey. All he wanted was a large tankard of beer and bits of red meat, preferably not cooked too dry, in a bar in a desert where it never rained. A bar in a desert where it never rained and he wasn't in this continent; a bar in the desert where it never rained and he wasn't on this /world/. He had just settled himself to rest in an only-screamingly-uncomfortable position to chew his crusts like a cow when there was a commotion at the door. This would have been entirely worthy of feigning complete ignorance, only the item in question happened to be unlatched and two Burmecians peered in with panicky eyes.
"Where's Sir Fratley?" one asked, panting as if from running, both filled with the absolute chagrin of finding the worst possible person at the worst possible time. "Is he home?"
"Damned if I know." Amarant kept on leisurely eating his bread-and-honey. In fact, Fratley was with King Puck doing whatever Fratley did best, which was probably losing his memory every five minutes and doing whatever Puck ordered. "He's sure as shit not /here/."
"There's a commotion, it's the daughter - "
"She's throwing a fit down near by Whiteladies - "
"Hn," said the redheaded monk, completely and blissfully unmoved at their agitation.
"Look, my good sir/," said the first Burmecian, who looked like a shoemaker rather at the end of his tether ready to grit his teeth, "we have no idea what to do and she won't let anyone near her and she could /hurt herself/. Do you have /any idea where Fratley is?"
"Could be anywhere," Amarant said, even more cheerily.
The men gave exasperated, anxious noises underneath their breath, the Burmecian tch! of kick-your-arse disapproval, closing the door behind them in polite but disconnected finality which said that if they came across Amarant again they might adopt an air of mild remonstration. The ex-bountyhunter set one thickset arm down on the countertop to balance himself, taking another big bite of his halfshod meal to congratulate himself -
- until he realized that Frat-face's mutant lump of a daughter spitting her teeth out in the street was also Freya's mutant lump of a daughter spitting her teeth out in the street and that was a whole new bloody kettle of uncomfortable guilt-fish.
The bread was suddenly pap in his mouth; it was barely swallowed before he gave a loud, frustrated growl that shook his stitches and rattled the dishes by the water-pump. The Burmecians had barely gotten out of the doorway when Amarant barrelled them over, all muscles and crutches and irritation, clattering down the cobblestones out into the warm drizzle and ignoring their "Hie, wait up!" to stomp away into the rain.
It was not hard to locate the idiotic half-brained spawnlet; she had a set of lungs on her like the bellows in one of the Lindblum forges and was hollering fit to bust. Amarant had only gone down two streets before he caught sight of a small crowd of helpless and annoyed rats; he used his crutch to poke them out of the way before surveying the source of everybody's misery, who had stopped yelling and was flopping down on the ground in a particularly gruesome way. All of her limbs were jerkily splayed out, tail twitching horribly, with her heavily helmeted head banging down on the pavement as she rocked it from side to side; she looked as if she was going through the rigors of some horrible brain aneurysm for the last time. When any of the concerned onlookers tried to approach her, she gave such a violent lurch and yell that - even though adults - they jumped back from her flailing limbs. It looked like she was dying, painfully and slowly. Small children were crying.
Even Tantalus couldn't have touched that acting ability. Amarant balanced himself heavily on his crutch next to her, unperturbed by flailing limbs; Gudrun hollered and bawled like a colicky Jabberwock. Much to the dismay and private envy of the crowd, Amarant countered this with picking her up by one arm and giving her a thorough shake.
"Nothing to see here," he drawled to the crowd, turning her over jauntily in midair and shaking her instead by the ankle so that she had to hold on to her helmet to keep it on. "Go home. Get on with your lives. I'll take care of it." The shaking stopped, but she dangled charmingly in midair. "Fuck off."
The Burmecians, shocked into silence, began to melt away. Gudrun, shocked into silence, glared holes at Amarant upside down until he set her rightside-up, which was not until he had slung her over his back like a carcass and limped the entire way back to Fratley's house with her looking at the city from an entirely new angle. She did not utter one word or twitch one muscle until he closed the door behind him and set her down on the polished wood of the floor, whereupon she pummelled at his midsection with her not-inconsiderable fists. The ensuing short duel, however, would have made Freya Crescent massage her temples in deep woe.
Amarant bellowed hair-raising curses as her mark found his bandaged stomach; he held her back with his crutch as she impotently struck the air, bellowing equally in small hunched mutant-rage, though he was finding her less small and hunched as she straightened until the top of Freya's helmet brushed parallel to his ribcage. Unable to break through his defenses, Gudrun gave one final battle-cry of anger, rolled back and promptly swept his abandoned plate of bread-and-honey to the floor. Then, panting, they looked at each other.
"You're not pissed off because I shook you," Amarant said levelly. "You're pissed off because I embarrassed you. Guess what, kid. You were embarrassing. Every time you embarrass me, I'm gonna embarrass you thirty times worse until you're so embarrassed that you /die/."
"And you want to hit me? Go ahead and hit me, but until you're strong enough and ugly enough and clever enough, I'm just gonna hit you right back. And because you're too much of a little shrimp to hit yet, I'm just gonna be grabbing your leg and holding you upside down again, so you better get a shitload better than you are before you go walking into Upside Down Land, 'cause you punch like a cave imp."
The plate hadn't shattered; Amarant slowly hefted himself along, knowing with a grimace that blood was going to seep through his bandages again. Very painfully, he bent over and picked up the discarded bread, throwing it with a civic mind out the window and collapsing his weight down at the chair Fratley had modified for his daughter.
"Well?" he demanded.
"Sitting in my chair, ugly-butt," said Gudrun.
"You're gettin' ugly-butt on it."
"That's the pot calling the kettle black, kid."
"I'm not a pot!"
Amarant bared his teeth at her. Gudrun, despite the mask of her helmet, bared her teeth back; somehow the tall man seemed to understand the standoff, and both relaxed into a staunch state of Would Attack You But Am Somehow Disinterested At This Point In Time after a few long moments.
"Hnng," said the monk eventually, feet up on the table in a way that would have made Fratley weep, and Gudrun immediately scampered with as much un-chair-breaking delicacy as she could muster into another chair to adopt the same position. The table creaked dangerously, though the Burmecian's big feet were nothing on his. "You're not as freaky-mongoloid as you act. Gumble, right?"
"I'm your Uncle Flaming Amarant."
She mulled that one over. "That's the dumbest name ever. It's stupid-dumb. I don't have an uncle."
"Sure you do, you little shit. You have an Uncle Zidane and an Uncle Steiner and an Uncle Beatrix, and a bunch of crazy aunts." At Gudrun's glazed-eyed look of dumb ignorance, he raised one eyebrow beneath his mop of rough locks; "You don't mean to say that Fratboy never introduced you to your ma's friends?"
"Sometimes get birthday pressies," she volunteered unhelpfully, as if the quality of the birthday presents was nothing to qualify an aunt or an uncle (demonstrating she knew nothing about the usual quality of birthday presents from aunts and uncles).
"Stuff a chimera up my ass." He looked baffled, and not a little affronted. "What a goon. Zidane would've knocked all the stupid outta you long before I had to step in, if he'd had his frilly monkey-boy way. Your dad's a complete fuckin' jerko - "
A fork was thrown Amarant's way, very accurately and hard and destined to embedding itself in his eye if he hadn't held up a cork placemat at the last moment. Only she was allowed to think those things about her father in the black parts of her head, say the words, mime the beatings. "Don't say swears about my Da, bass'ard!"
The monk looked at the fork, skidding forlornly across the table, and the deep imprints the tines had made in the gaudy flower-prints of the soft cork. "All right, all right. Hmph - "
"Hmph. If you're gonna sit here and faff with implements, kid, at least go cut you'n your Uncle Ammy some more bread. It's hungry work watching you be butt-ugly all day."
Normally Gudrun would have point-blank refused and maybe writhed on the floor for a bit to drive home her point, but the refreshing tone of the conversation and the deeply exciting chance to use the breadknife - something Fratley had never allowed her to do - was too tantalising to miss out on. She slipped off the delicate chair (something for which it was probably grateful) and padded over to the kitchen to the half-eaten loaf. The mutilation it received once she picked up the jagged-toothed breadknife was horrible to behold.
"Saw it, you little idiot," Amarant called out, more amused than irritated, but more hungry than amused. "Don't goddamn hack at it. You never cut bread before?"
"Cut bread loads," she grunted, disintegrating most of what she was cutting into crumb-atoms, large hands enthusiastic lest Fratley burst in and stop her any moment. "Why are you my uncle, chocobo-brains? Da says you're an idiot stupid - " she improvised wildly - "and you smell."
"I don't /smell/. Bath every day 'cause it pisses down here like the gods' celestial fuckin' lavatory," he said indignantly. "I was a friend of your mama's, pipsqueak, and that's that."
That satisfied her. The bread was brought back to the table; it in no way resembled slices, or anything so much as devastated chunks of something that had once had loaf-shape, but there was also a spoon and blackberry jam and they made a passable meal out of it with glasses of milk. (Amarant couldn't remember the last time he had drunk milk. Ostensibly it had been from a nipple, pre-weaning.) To eating's end Gudrun tipped her helmet back just enough to amplify the snuffling sounds and to let Amarant see bits of something that was either a snout or a chin and very unfortunate either way.
Amarant masticated through a particularly sticky, palate-cleaving morsel of jam in tentatively companionable silence; she chose instead to lick it off the tips of her fingers. They were very much fingers; they could not even pretend to be claws on a dark night. "So why'd you spit your dummy out in public, kid?"
She sucked jam off the bread noisily, reapplied, then ate it. "Killed the teacher."
He thought over this one. "Money?"
"Crime of carnal passion?"
Gudrun made a note to ask her father what a crime of carnal passion was. "No. Was an /accident/. Mostly."
"H'n." Amarant contemplated this over his glass of the almost-yellow, fresh farm milk, so creamy you could almost stand a spoon in it and fatal to your arteries. "'Mostly accidents' get ten years in the slammer, kid, give or take time out for good behaviour."
"Won't. Da's my Da. Famous." It looked even more difficult to negotiate her own glass underneath Freya's red dragoon-helmet, but she managed it somehow, along with a good dose of ineffable smugness. "I can do anything and not get in troubs 'cause of Da."
When a desperately harried Iron-Tail Fratley came in much later, having sprinted for dear life after a note given by a callow messenger-boy from King Puck's council-chambers to an aggravated Captain Edda's practice-field to the now-abandoned corner of Whiteladies back to the unlatched door of his house expecting to find his Gunny in some heinous predicament that only begging and strawberries and a curaga would get her out of, he found her comfortably sitting at the table opposite Amarant Coral - she, who despised strangers - amongst the remnants of rather too much jam.
"'Lo, da," Gudrun piped up, just about talky-cheerful for one of the first times of her life (at the murder and at lunch and at three big glasses of milk and at bread knives and red hair and curse-words and the incessant beauty of as many helpings of blackberry preserves as one wanted). "Had lunch with Uncle Flaming Ugly-butt. What's carnal passion?"
The row went on for /hours/.