Amarant Coral searches for redemption. Iron-Tail Fratley searches for peace. Both men are ten years and one woman too late. Chapter five; rewind the clock ten years, with Freya in the Burmecian hig...
Thirteen Ways To Say Goodnight
chapter five - the dragon
(eating what's broken)
I have given, I have given, and got none:
Still I'm driven by something I can't explain -
It's not a cross, it is a choice
I cannot help but hear his voice
I only wish that I could listen without shame
amanda marshall, "let it rain"
Ten Years Ago
"This place is a shit hole," Amarant Coral said.
'Shit hole' was not quite the right description for it; Freya could think of a number of maybe better ones, like lopsided, and broken, and threadbare, and if she wanted to think of more words, she could think of scorched earth and /not enough money/. Too many of the farms had been razed in Brahne's attack on Burmecia, burnt stone and boggy fields, the walls all broken on the tea-fields and the coffee-vines that had once steadily filled the coffers of the kingdom. It was still better than it was inside the city; but the people were poor and proud, the Burmecian ex-diaspora from Alexandria and Treno and Lindblum to come and reclaim the land of their forefathers. All of them had been given parcels of territory; and now engineers came with their families to break the sod, jobless actors to tend the vine, Cleyran priests to try and put things back together. The harvest that year would not be good. Everything looked worse in the aftermath of the nightly storms, the wet winds from the East, scenery that was meant to be dewy looking just bloody drowned. The houses looked sad and the fields were tiny, brackish, stagnant lakes.
Actually, 'shit hole' was probably appropriate.
They stopped seldom, slept less, and Freya quietly purchased food from the farmsteaders while Amarant hung around in the soggy yards like an incurable disease; she shook a number of hands, and talked about the weather, and the red-haired bounty-hunter growled in turn at the slinking dogs near the verandah who looked disgruntled at the thought of biting him. Many of the families would not accept payment; she slipped gil into the canvas and frieze pockets of the children, and doffed her hat, and went on her merry way.
"I hate it," she said, out of earshot, more to the blue sky and the dusty road and the looming mountains as she and Amarant walked. He was something close to surprised at her acquiesce; Freya was a dyed-in-the-wool Burmecian patriot, and he had expected her to at least try to break his kneecaps. "I hate the poverty. I saved the world for, what, a quarter of my people suffering Qu fever every winter and not two gil to rub together?"
"There's no fuckin' money anywhere," her companion grunted, both of them unwrapping the greaseproof paper of one of their packets of sandwiches as they walked. "I look at the bounties going nowadays, I take three shits and die laughing. The highest one wouldn't give me /yan cack/. Lani used to make more gil on the goddamn street corner. - Damn it, this one's cheese again."
"You think I eat cheese just because I'm a Burmecian? Here, I'll swap you a ham-and-egg for that watercress and mustardseed. - So what on earth did you do? Didn't Zidane offer you a job?"
"Like I'm gonna hang around Alexandria while he moons over Queenie? Fuck that noise, Crescent. Went into bodyguarding, but nobody'd take me because I'm me - "
"Because they don't like you? I don't blame them - "
"Because they're scared! Hmph. Anyway, Lani got this goddamn gig putting on a big frilly dress and protecting this stupid scientist all day long, no idea who, she gets to keep her axe in her handbag while she goes to Treno parties. Me, I walked city to city bumming drinks for that saving the world thing."
"You couldn't sit still, could you." There was more than a little wistfulness.
"Who'd want to? Everywhere you go it's just rebuilding and all the bitching you could eat. People can't shut up about the goddamn dwarves."
"Ah," she murmured. "Yes. That, just because Condie Petie isn't in rubble. Blame the other species. The Burmecians do it too, of course. Ever since we attained norm-status we can't shut up for emulating humans. We don't even like others settling here any more, after the war, protecting our little rainblasted heath. Burmecia for the Burmecians. Can you imagine that? A Burmecian calling someone else subber, or a demi? The sheer and brutal hypocrisy of it?"
The red-headed man hulking next to her grunted through a mouthful of ham-and-egg. "There's nowhere good here any more, rat."
"I don't know if there ever was in the first place. It's all shite."
"Hmph. Bet you're too depressed to eat your bacon and tomato?"
"You lose. I'm not quite that maudlin yet, Coral."
They ate away the distance on stoic feet; on the second night, when they were sitting at a stile high on a hill eating yet more of their impregnable supply of sandwiches (all beginning to taste the same) they saw the dragon in the red of the evening. It was too late to try to pursue, or even stop eating; it was carrying three limp sheep, fire-blasted and not at all sheep-like any more, and it was already a disappearing glitter of a silhouette in the sky in the direction of Gizamaluke's Grotto and the Burmecian highlands. It was slow, enormous, vaguely malevolent in the curl of the horn and the twist of the tail. It was at the top of the food chain, the most feared predator, and it knew it very well.
"Fuck me," said Amarant eloquently, after a while, through lettuce-and-pickle.
"I'd rather not, if it's all the same to you." Freya brushed the crumbs off her coat, eyes still to the sky. "That one had a litter, if it was bringing home food; it had already gorged itself beforehand. Bloody hell, I hate killing hatchlings. They have huge limpid eyes."
There was a noise deep in the bountyhunter's throat that was a tch of distaste. "You should be paying me more for this."
"I'm not paying you at all."
The sun had dipped into the west, tomorrow's destination; Freya shaded her eyes to it, hand cupped over to the brilliant gold, the farmlands of Burmecia spread out in all directions like a rolling quilt. To the west was the grain, the small few dots of cattle and tame yankin, to the east the bruising of dark clouds and the haze of rain on Burmecia's capital.
"We've outrun the storm, at least." She scooped at the soft earth with her foot, burying their discarded wax-paper, pack weighing her slim figure down like the strangest sort of snail. Amarant looked at the broken fences and the dying sun and the countryside all around him, and wondered what he was doing there with his stomach full of sandwich, and wanted a beer. "For now. It'll probably be on us tomorrow. We'll find shelter in one of the less infested caves. Are you sure you still want to do this?"
She was looking at Amarant keenly, and he scowled. Sometimes the rat was too damn psychic and he hated that, because all his life he had lead with one and a half expressions and there she was reading him like a stupid book. "Gizamaluke's Grotto is half a day's walk away. You could always, well, sod off."
"Yeah, well." The sunset lit his hair on fire, a halo of rough crimson, hidden eyes moodily looking somewhere to the south. "I haven't got anything better to do."
"Stop it with the flattery, Coral. I may swoon."
"Fuck you." It was said without rancour; Freya was struck by the dissatisfaction on his face more than anything. "If I knew where a bar was other than Treno or Lindblum or Alexandria I'd be there like a goddamn shot. It's just all the, the... same."
"The same people, the same values - "
" - the same damn miseries, the same drinks - "
" - the same destinies, the same streets, the same weather."
There was an almost embarrassed silence. It is never nice to share the same depression.
"Hunting dragons is something new," she continued, steel-bright, deliberate. Freya straightened, tail whipping about her ankles, groping about blindly for her helmet before swinging it with practiced ease upon her head. She wanted to go without it; the night was going to be balmy, but the dragon-helm was part of her skin and bone and to be without was a nakedness her mental state could ill afford. "We've been eating too many sandwiches. We're getting whingey. Do let's go to the mountain where we can eat some actual meat."
There was a far-off thunderclap as, over the city, the storm started.
They kipped in a barn again, near the last farmstead, Amarant collapsing in the prickly yellow hay and listening to the cows lowing as Freya continued on some kind of polite conversation about the wilting turnips in the fields; then an odd sort of dinner - which going without would have meant murder on his part, maybe eating the Burmecian dragoon's leg - of little fried mushrooms and porridge with fresh farm cream and bacon and hot tomato and toast. There was even a mug of weak beer; more like the kind of acidic thing a yeti might urinate, they both agreed, but better than /nothing/.
And then there was nothing to do but rest on the least irritating parts of the bales and listen to the pitter-patter on the half-repaired tiles. The rain let up when it was deep into the dark Burmecian night and they squelched their way off with a lantern, feeling pleasantly full. The dragoon took off her steaming waterproofs; he held the gutting glass and candle as they picked their way up the hills, and the dark and the wet and the flickering tallow sent them back about a hundred years. They picked up faggots of wet wood, in halfhearted promise of a fire later on just in case through some miracle it dried out, and trudged on.
The mountains loomed over them like a sentry, until they were in the teeth of them and rapidly ascending goatlike with their packs slung over their shoulders and the clouds threatening to burst once more. The rolling quagmire that had meant to be Burmecian grass turned to mix with scoria; the plateau of the kingdom spread out beneath them, blanketed in fog, and Freya finally said fuck it and they set up camp in a cave. It was too low for dragons. There were probably, at worst, a couple of Imps who hadn't made a quick buck in months: not particularly frightening. There turned out to be not even Imps.
"All the Burmecian mountains are like this, even just a little off the highlands," she said, more for want of exercising her vocal chords than giving her friend a lesson in geography; he was hanging the lantern on a sort of natural shelf so that the candle danced around the high dimness. They'd reached the cathedral of the hole; the stalactites of the ceiling were far-off tacks, wreathed in darkness, barely pierced by the single candle. "Thick forests and caves in such a cluster they're like holed cheese. Dragon country. Some of us came out of the mountains, you know, used to live like this, it's quite nice really - "
"I suffered this rare disease as a kid which means I couldn't give a fuck," he grunted, experimentally flopping to sit on the dusty cave floor. It needed a sweep. There were probably bats. 'Quite nice really' was like making do with one toe for each foot and sticks for arms. "Can we get a fire started before we die?"
The fire was dreadful and smoky; the wood hadn't quite dried out. But it was warm, and they were tired, shedding wet clothes to put on poles near the warmth while they sat on a blanket in their underthings. It was all right for Amarant to just be in a wrap around his waist; his only problem was that there was a lot of him to be unclothed, and he took up almost the whole blanket by himself in a lump of wetly-shining greenblue flesh. Freya primly kept on her undershirt and breeches, so the most racily exposed thing were her boneslim ankles. Her hair stuck out like a dandelion clock; she was far too thin, all skinny arms and legs and not even the Burmecian hips that usually sunk the Mist Continent - but his eyes followed the way that the thin cotton stuck to her ribs without him knowing it. She went entirely peachfuzz after a wetting, the eyelash-width dusting of grey fur all over her body sticking up like a human's goosebumps.
God, he hadn't been laid in a while if he was admiring the way her neat, slim little waist turned in. He could at least be staring at her breasts.
Freya fell back to her elbows, thin blanket over hard stone, and let herself relax to the flat of her tired back before she caught his gaze; she stared, half-accusatory, feeling suddenly naked and exposed in the sheer wake of his gaze. She gave him the two-middle-claws up gesture that meant nothing genteel in any culture anywhere; he at least grunted.
"Freija," he said, and his accent thickened curiously, the slight slurring and slickening on the y emphasised in his voice in a way he'd never done before. "Freija-go-bri."
"What's that mean?" To which Amarant just glared, as if answering something he'd said out loud to a potential audience of thousands of bats and one Burmecian was sheer bitchiness. "I don't know the language."
"It just means - " He waved one hefty hand vaguely, irritable. " - it doesn't translate well, it's sort of - messy like a spider."
"You make no sense in your old age."
"You have no tits in your old age."
They had a five-minute war wherein she won by poking him in the eye with a blunt claw; backs to the fire, little by little, they fell asleep.
Which was no good at all, because when the sun rose she somehow managed to find herself snuggled halfway into his armpit with him flat on his back - there was a lot of back - and one of his hands splayed over her hip. There wasn't much hip but there was a lot of hand, and too much finger on what constituted anatomically as backside and base of tail, and they both woke up at once to stare at each other.
His heavy-browed eyes were dark, chocolate-brown and gold-flecked. She'd never noticed that before. He smelled like rain and wet; like old canvas, like smoke from the fire, like something alarmingly like wet dog, and there was a sharp stab of - something she didn't dare contemplate - in the pit of her stomach. It was wholly and utterly uninvited.
"Amarant Coral," she said, in a voice that managed to be sleepy-conversational, "you have your hand on my arse."
His heavy fingers drummed tattoo on her breeches, but there was something furtive in the shadows of his eyes until he braced himself and his shock of red hair fell over his face. "Please don't say you call this an arse, rat."
Moment thankfully broken, she raised one slim and powerful clawed foot to jab him in the stomach. He rolled off the blanket with a pathetic oof; she started rifling through her coat for what was the most important start to the day, ie, tea. "Water, water, I forgot all about the bloody water - Amarant, go and see if you can find a spring or stream or something, outside or in the cave, I'm not staying here and hefting a bucket for a mile for my tea. Don't even think about saying 'no', you will not like me in the mornings when I'm cross."
Zidane or Steiner had always been the ones sent off in high dudgeon to find water. Amarant did not enjoy his sudden promotion to wet-diviner, and muttered curses at the cave walls as he lumbered off to see what he could see. The cave went back a long way; he was pretty damn sure he hadn't even reached the cathedral of it, too many steps in, dank walls and his fire smoking on a piece of slow-burning wood as he squinted. He had to hit a couple bats with the bucket, but eventually he found something that resembled a freshwater well half-dripping off the limestone walls that satisfied his laziness to fill the bucket full of cold cave-water. When he came back, drips sloshing out with every step, Freya was sitting beside the rebuilt fire eating one of the slightly squashy oranges that the farmer's wife had packed. Her hair still looked like a frightened gnoll's.
"I found it," he volunteered, setting the bucket down beside her. She eyed it. "Rock spring."
"My goodness. So you're good for something after all."
"What, no 'thank you'? I forgot about you being such a fuckin' bitch in the mornings."
"So you found water! What do you want, the Queen's Award For Industry?"
He gave her the finger, but otherwise found discretion to be the better part of valour as Freya filled her kettle. She set it on the iron spider over the fire; she poked at the coals a bit with a stick, and did things with tin mugs as he sat on a rock like a glaring gargoyle, and she broke a record for how fast a single Burmecian could down a cup of bitter black tea without breathing. Afterwards, she took a deep sigh. "All right. All right, all better now."
"Fuck, I hope so."
She burst out laughing, and judiciously poured herself another cupful from the teapot. "I know I'm dreadful. Look, I'm sorry, thank you for finding the water. You bring out something argumentative in me. Do you have any idea how much I've longed for a fight lately?"
Well, that sounded familiar. Pity that the bounty-hunting market was falling apart, or he'd recommend she join up. "What, did that goddamn boyfriend 'forget' to get you laid?"
An orange was thrown with bitter precision at his head. Amarant eliminated the middle man, and proceeded to peel and eat it. "All right. Let's make a rule. This little jaunt of ours is going to have topics that are not going to come up on pain of death. Here's mine. Fratley and my sex life regarding thus, my kingdom's political escapades and the regrowth of the Burmecian conservative right in the wake of the war - "
"Was that last sentence meant to make any goddamn sense?"
" - Puck, Cleyra, anything of that nature, you know - do you have anything?"
He thought a moment, and popped a piece of orange in his mouth. "Lani."
"Girl stuff. Anybody who's pregnant. Knitting. That shit."
"Who on earth do you think you're with? No pregnancy. No girl stuff. What on earth is 'girl stuff', anyway? Oh, oh, I've thought of another. Any parts of my anatomy that do not make your personal spec."
"That's all of 'em."
"Here: you giving me lectures on the history of everything."
"It's not my fault. It just sort of comes out of my /mouth/. No history. No diseases."
"Men are boring when they're ill. Don't catch anything, you big blue lump."
"I don't think I ever have, rat. Ever."
"Then we shan't have a problem. Anything else?"
"Eggs." Amarant made as if he was thinking very deeply on the subject as she ran her claws through her hair, drinking another cup of tea as if it was lifeblood and air, standing so that her tail beat a tattoo on the cave floor. It was less dusty than it had been when he'd left it; she'd obviously swept it in a fit of womanliness. Her tail was too naked without the usual twist of crimson. She was too naked without her coat and helmet. It was almost a relief when she washed her face in the remnants of the cave-water and put them on, as if it hurt to look at her otherwise. "Naked sunbathing."
"Go to hell." The dragoon was laughing even as she thrust a tin mug of something brewed sin-black in his hands, which turned out to be coffee. They were out in camp together - sharing a half-assed breakfast before the fight - and suddenly it all came flooding back, every single damn moment, every breath and every cup she used to pass full of Dagger's awful herbal tea. The world briefly locked into place, into something that made sense again, simple and clear. You can't go home again: except when you can, and he had been granted reprieve.
"Knock that back, Coral." She spoke his bolt of self-realisation, as if she had felt it in kind, giving it breath as their spirits rose. It was terminally embarrassing intimacy for both of them, and there were twitches in their mouths like violent lopsided smiles. "It's been far too long since we killed something together."
He was strapping his claws on with one hand, even as he gulped, searing the tip of his tongue and not caring. "So what the hell are we waiting for?"
(The morning sunshine was as good and sweet as it ever was, and ever would be.)