Amarant Coral searches for redemption. Iron-Tail Fratley searches for peace. Both men are ten years and one woman too late. Chapter six; in which Amarant gives meaningful talks about life, and Gudr...
chapter six - life creeping in
(the apple and the tree)
In the end, there is only one question, no matter how you slice it. Who am I?
What have I become? What was I always? And my reflection answers: I'm just a fool,
a damned fool, more fool than even in the days when I took to alcohol in the bars
of Lindblum to try and block out the pain of being the one left behind. Not a very
good first impression, was it, Zidane? Me drunk gutter-trash, and you sober
gutter-trash, the only difference between us being that I was gutter-trash with
an elite military title. Was I gullible always? Was I bloodthirsty always? Did
I always love this stupidly, all of them?
And the only answer. Yes, yes, Yes, always Yes.
- from the diary of Freya Crescent
It would be nice modesty to say that the person who was most surprised when Puck turned out to be a good king was Puck himself; however, modesty was never one of His Majesty's sins, and he never gave in to admiring self-reflection that he turned out so well. Puck had always expected to turn out well. What he lacked in handsomeness he more than made up for in brute cunning. What he missed in nobility he more than made up for in brutal canniness: faltering towards oblivion, Burmecia had risen from the proverbial grave in no small part due to King Puck The Ruthless Bastard. At thirteen, he'd bilked Treno out of so many trading deals that the Mayor had had to have a lie down, wheedled Cid into an unutterably unfair peacekeeping deal that the Regent was still befuddled and irascible over (excuse: Eiko had just fallen into her third power generator) and made a number of arrangements with the dwarves that not many people knew much about. He was regarded as a total tit, a regular smug little puddle of mu piss; but a total tit you didn't cross, because Burmecia was remobilizing so quickly it was tripping over its thickly-clustered spears and Puck was renowned for having very mean and immature ideas about payback. Even many of his own people didn't really get on with him. He was not into fair play. He wasn't really cricket.
Though it was unfair in comparison to the man who stood behind his throne. What stopped the slight-built rat from treading the line to brilliant political organizer to petty tyrant was and ever would be Fratley. Without Iron-Tail's gentle, pervasive guidance, Puck would have gotten up to rather a lot of things that would have characterised him badly in history's harsh light - constant searches for immortality, requiring more living space, making God with his own two hands, searching for Cauldrons of Doom, breeding generations of small quick-witted orphans to go down mines - and all of that ilk. Fratley was the heart. Fratley was Burmecia's morals, Burmecia's tradition, the way of the Dragoon. Puck was Burmecia's surreptitiously placed crowbar.
At nineteen, the young King of Burmecia would never be a raving beauty: he was tall, dark-haired like the Burmecian strain from the west (who had ever unfortunate connotations to do with stealing anything not nailed down), thin-muzzled and dun-furred and clever. He never washed up well. He looked like he dressed in fine clothes only because they had fallen off the back of a wagon, all gypsy black eyes, whip-thin and probably in need of another haircut. He was as charming as a puddle of grease with bits in it. At least he had outgrown the spiked helmet.
For him, Fratley was advisor, counsellor, minister, bodyguard, and father. As such, he fell into the role of being Gudrun's older brother, in a sense; Gudrun loathed him. He was the type of elder brother who would hold something over your head and laugh meanly as you reached up in vain. He was unfortunately too quick, or she would have long ago attempted to rip his arm off and beat him to death with it. Much to her sullen dismay, Puck found this unbearably charming.
Gudrun Crescent had received two days' lack of dessert for crimes against the neighbourhood and a long lecture never to touch the breadknife again. Amarant Coral and Iron-Tail Fratley's fight resulted in Fratley getting a migraine and Amarant having complications with his wound, which added days on to his bedrest and a lot more swearing to his nighttime vocabulary. It was a sullen house that His Royal Majesty King Of Burmecia settled on, slipping through the back door, generously helping himself to a slice of bread as he took off an unfetching hat put on for the purposes of concealment. He didn't really need it; dressed in slightly shabby clothes suited Puck so well that hardly anybody took notice of him when he was in them, a disguise all of its own.
(The kitchen had a gently lived-in look. It was scrubbed clean until it flushed uncomfortably, nicked and dented in places. Once upon a time the house had been Freya's, and then it had been a tip. She'd kept her weapons in the pantry and little jars of polishing oil in the spice rack, and loose-leaf tea blew around like rose petals in a romance novel.)
The lady of the household was first to notice his arrival; she was huddled in a big chair two normal Burmecians could have sat in by the window, facing the wrong way so that her huge bound feet could drum against the cloth-hung stone walls, blankets around her head in lieu of helmets so that she could look like a cloaked demon from the deep and read a picture book at the same time. When she espied the leader of her kingdom, she stuffed Freya's dinted helmet back on over her head underneath the deep shadows of the blankets, and sighed pointedly in the hopes that he would go away.
"Howdy, duckling," Puck said amiably, as she ignored him in favour of turning the page with her thick discoloured tail. (It had a pink bow on it. Her father was ever painstaking: his daughter would never be pretty, but he could at least make her look as if more time had been spent on her than anyone else. Eleven o'clock in the morning, and the pink was already looking grey.) His voice lilted, deliberately dirt-common, and the tail swished like an angry cat's. He loved his job. "And 'ow's my ickle girl this morning, then?"
She grunted. "Pig. Pig-pig. Don't eat all the apples."
The king paused mid-apple, then ate the rest of it. "I hear you put Cap'n Eddie to the doctor. You're an ornament to the nation, you."
"'Lock her up', they'd say, 'put her in the zoo', they'd say, but naw - 'bring back the biff!' sez me. You ever want a job, right, I'll make you my bodyguard. You can roll on enemies to the throne, it'd be just spiffy."
Gudrun continued reading about bears who ate small golden-haired children and were not prosecuted. (Fratley had had to change the entire ending of that story about the sweet princess who has an ill-fitting shoe, just to include more cannibalism. His daughter enjoyed things that ate other things whole and alive. She was looking into it as a sideline.) "Hnnhkkhh/nggghgh./"
"Look, how about I give you a list of people I want sat on, just between you'n me, hush-hush? Nobody would know, we'd just say a passing hippo fell on 'em. I bet it'd look like a passing hippo fell on 'em."
Before Gudrun could commit regicide, Iron-Tail Fratley wandered into the room, still smelling faintly and embarrassing like soap: it was washing-day. (Only he could maintain dignity with suds still on his claws. He looked staunch pinning sheets up. This is a rare talent.) "Your Majesty! What are you - "
"Hustle, hustle," the king answered, slightly incomprehensibly. "You'll spare me an hour or ten of your time, won't you, Frats? Something's cropped up. You and I had better take care of it, I don't trust the other useless gimpy bastards in my cabinet." ("Swearing is not clever,/" Fratley said, mainly at his daughter.) "You're with me, right? Totally? What, what? Your bleedin' /laundry? Easy solution, marry the bimbo down the street, she'll do it. There have to be half a dozen bimbos down the street who'll do it even without marrying you. If you get my /drift./"
The dragoon pointedly did not get his drift. "Well, I mean - of course, my King. I am your devoted servant. But you'll need to just let me find a babysitter."
"Haven't you got that Coral guy here? Can't he do it?"
"/His/ being here is precisely why I need a babysitter."
"Do not need a babysitter," Gudrun announced loudly. "Am not a baby/. I can do the laundry, /too, nine times."
"Shove a stake in the ground and tie her to it, will ya?" the king interrupted. "Though she'd probably just chew off 'er leg, never mind - I'd've sent a runner unless time was important/, Ironsides. We go /now, okay, or I have to go alone, and you don't even want to begin how much I'm gonna make that blow on a long-term basis."
Even on the subject of his daughter, which sat side-by-side with psychotic stubbornness, in the face of Puck's lazy authority Fratley still wavered; it didn't help that Gunny was sending him a look he knew all too well, which promised the biting of any nanny he convinced to sit with her. Emphasis on convincing, which would eat up valuable time: and she was being so dreadfully stubborn lately, with fingers pointed squarely at That Man for blame.
(It did not make him angry. It made him afraid.)
Fratley gave all assembled a stricken look; it was only momentary, before he turned tail and fled back up the stairs to fling open the door of the guest bedroom unannounced. Amarant was arranged amidst a genocide of blankets, trying very hard to sleep, and out of pure habit and the red hair on the pillows the dragon-knight primly pulled open the curtains. His guest rolled over, accompanied by a grunt of agonizing pain from the movement. It was a heartening sound, if you were Fratley.
"If you're trying to make me hate your guts even more," the monk said through a mouthful of pillow, "it's working well."
"I have to leave the house for a little while," the dragoon said briskly, because briskly worked; the less time he wasted his life talking to Amarant Coral the better. "You and Gudrun are going to be alone."
"I heard you loud and clear the last time, ratboy. 'Stay away from my misbegotten womb-dropping', yeah, whatever. It's not hard to keep me away from that little shit - "
Gritted teeth. "Please stop any of her attempts to go near the washbasket, if she makes them. If she wants lunch and asks your permission to use anything sharp or with more than four tines, say /no/. She won't answer the door, so I'm not worried about that, and you needn't either."
The rough red hair spilled off the pillows again as Amarant's head came up, too much to see his expression. It didn't matter. The other man could guess at it anyway. "Nice backpeddling there. I'd gloat if I didn't think I was going to blow my chunks any moment now. Okay, if the sproglet wants to set her damn self on fuckin' fire I'll dump some water on her. Happy? I couldn't sell her on the black market if I tried, I'd have to pay /them/. Hell, I couldn't pimp that thing in Treno on a dark night - "
"If you are trying to make me hate you even more," Fratley said levelly, "it won't work, because I already loathe you to the very depth and breadth my heart can reach. Believe me, Mr. Coral, go back to sleep with my blessing. My daughter will be best looked-after if you don't even try. Just give her permission for /nothing/."
"This is me pretending you're goddamn gone already," said Amarant, and dropped his head back on the pillow.
The Burmecian's feet sounded down the wooden steps again, light as rain as all of the rat-folk did; the same pitter-patter as the drops outside, which he was slowly coming to grips with, cool and constant and clear. It was white noise now. He waited long moments; then the pitter-patter came back, with Fratley flinging open the door, looking at the other man with a queer and nigh-on furtive expression.
"And strawberry jam gives her hives," he said. "She mustn't have strawberry jam."
"How many years did it take for her to piss without you supervising?"
"Seven," the Burmecian said, and disappeared again. This time, he did not reappear.
The house was silent. Voices called out on the street, as they always did - and in a language that Amarant could fluently understand, which was a change from the last few years of his life - carts were pulled over the cobbles, stretched taut with oilcloth so that the rain did not spoil the contents. He wondered if the running joke was still that the kingdom's main export was waterproofs, and then he remembered whose running joke that had been, and he stopped wondering.
It was a depressingly short while before his door opened again and the Helmet Monster clumped in, flinging herself down to sit on the end of the bed until the bed creaked in panicked warning. His calf was prodded judiciously by a stubby-clawed finger, no less sharp for being covered in grubby grey canvas: shit, she had hands as big as bread loaves. "Can I murderkill the milkman?"
"Why the do you want to kill the milkman?" (It was a stupid question, he reflected immediately afterwards. Who didn't.)
"Don't," she said promptly. "Want a sandwich and want a pasty. Workin' my way down."
"You were put on Gaia to torture me."
"You were put on Gaia to be a dumb face. So can I, Uncle Dumbface?"
"You can throw yourself into the goddamn waterbutt."
"You're Uncle Dumbface because you have a dumb face. Can I?"
"Least I know where you get your comebacks from."
"And your beard looks like you got a rash. Can I?"
"I said the part about the waterbutt, right?"
"Can I /please, now?/" He looked wavering. Gudrun sweetened the deal. "If you don't I'll holler'n holler until I'm sick."
The response was imminently desirable: she was walked downstairs upside-down, pressing on the steps with her hands as Amarant grabbed her ankles, still rumpled with sleep and poking her every moment with one of his crutches against her shin. (At least when both of them lumbered, they were as horrifically ungraceful as the other, the slow bent-legged shuffle.) She was dropped at the bottom squarely on her head; wearing a helmet, this did not make much of a difference, especially considering the old dragoon helmets were made to outlast the Reunion. The redheaded monk let Gudrun cut the bread; then he collapsed in a chair, stretching out his burning middle, and watched her smirk triumphantly through lunch. Neither of them said another word for a great while, which pleased both immensely, as talk was cheap and lunch so short.
He was slowly coming to terms with the fact that the lumpy thing was Freya's, though considering the layers of cloth, Freya's by Vivi Orunita. It was eerie. Freya Crescent to him was endlessly twenty-one, and the sprog placed her squarely in motherhood territory, where the Burmecian dragoon was clearly not meant to go. Her own damn fault, he thought, watching Gudrun, her own goddamn fault for everything, she should never have been a mother, look what she got.
"Why d'you wear that helmet?"
It was out before he even thought about it. Fratley's daughter paused to devour the remains of her fourth cheese and tomato and pickle and apple slices sandwich (neither she nor Amarant were born cooks: lots was the best condiment), and set down the crusts.
"All dragon knights wear helmets, rubbish-brains," she said, in her best airy don'tcarish voice.
"If I see any, I'll tell 'em so."
Gudrun pounded one fist on the table, just to show defiance, and then started on her fifth sandwich. (Amarant, who was meant to be on a diet of mainly liquids, started his sixth.) "Hmph. Goin' to be a /dragoon/."
"You." His disbelief was palpable.
"Call me when they do, kid," said the monk. "The day the rats are that desperate that they'll make Little Miss Cripple a dragon knight, I have to come watch. Everybody will probably be dead and there won't be any animals left who can hold a spear in their mouths. For one thing, you ain't big enough for a dragoon. You're big enough for /two dragoons/."
He expected another fork thrown at him, and had prudently cleared the table of them earlier: however, the girl did not even react, just shrugging her sloped shoulders in a faintly aggravated way as the sandwich disappeared underneath the shadows of the helmet. It was like watching a Black Mage eat, if the Black Mage had no manners whatsoever. "I know. I'll be one, even so. My Da's famous. So was Ma, and I'll jus' sit on anyone and squash 'em flat if they say no. People're scared of me. Dragon knights have got to be scary."
Never mind her mother. "I've shit scarier things than your dad."
This time, he did get something thrown at him, an apple in a rather skilful overarm as her muscles bunched underneath her shirt. Amarant just caught it, and took a big deliberate bite out of it as she snorted in disdain. She had an excellent snort. She sounded like a horse throwing a fit. "Da's /old/. Bit sissy," she added guardedly, as if daring him to agree. "Doesn't know /how/. Me, I can do lots of things."
"How the fuck are you gonna jump? It'd take a goddamn catapult to get you up into the air."
For some reason, that obviously charmed her, as she guffawed like the aforementioned horse finally giving up the ghost. "Who needs to jump? I can always jump down offa something high and squash 'em."
For some reason, that obviously charmed him; her donkey-strong determination was both irritating and sort of cute, in a delusional throwing-up in his mouth way. Amarant took a huge bite of ham and pickle, and ignored the urge to scratch his bandages. (They faced each other off, eye to eye over the table, two sets of heavy elbows weighing down on the wood in the gloomy rain-lit room.) "You have shit balance, kid. Your tail looks like you were growin' a third leg and forgot about it later. You and a polearm? Don't make me crap laughing."
"Thought 'bout that." Her hands waved around expressively as she reached for a drink of her fruitwater. She looked despicably smug. "So what I do is, is I take the pike an' I break it in two, and then I hit 'em with the two bits, and then I squash 'em."
It was a deceptively simple tactic. It wasn't bad, actually. Amarant just snorted; and then, before he could help himself -
"Your mother wouldn't think much of that, kid."
"Why not?" Gudrun sounded curious, or at least what curious would sound like through three mouthfuls.
"Well, how the hell would you go about squashin' /me?/"
"Wait 'till I'm bigger and go to big-people classes," she said darkly. "I go to the baby classes, but they're stupid - all you do is hit a wooden thing. I can hit forty wooden things and break 'em. Hmph. No use. When do you get hit by wooden things anyway? They never come hit you. In the older classes you hit each other. I'd like those. I could hit everyone, no troubs."
The redhatted figure pushed her crusts around her plate, rocking back in her chair a little; the rain was letting up, as much as rain ever let up in Burmecia, with the thin sunshine shining through all the dancing dustmotes on the table and hitting the dents on Freya's old helmet. Gudrun traced an old scratch in the scrubbed-clean polish of the oak table before bursting out, "Uncle Amajerk, what was Mama like?"
Amarant tossed his hair with a sort of low, angry nngh noise, mouth twisted in a grimace. "/Don't/ tell me Ratboy never told you about your mother."
"He says she was good all the time. And never did anythin' wrong. And was the goodest and the best and hit everyone down and never swore and was like an angel come to earth," she said, with the long practiced air of something oft-recited and oft-told. "Hitting's good but the other stuff is /hellboring/."
"Hmph. He's lying, kid. Your mama could swear like a sailor and ate like a goddamn horse. And she was never good."
He thought about Freya, who could out-noble the whole earth and the sea and the stars contained therein. "Maybe a little."
That contented her. It was with extra happy relish that Gudrun ate the rest of her sandwich; and Amarant didn't touch his, far away, in a place where a silver-haired Burmecian had her delicate feet up on the chair next to her as she generously stole things from his plate and ate them before he could snatch them back. The (relatively) little mutant pushed her chair away from the table with much scraping of legs; she sprang to stand up, and looked at the hulking monk furtively from the shadows.
"Help do the laundry," she demanded, and she offered him his crutches.
Amarant held her upside down all the way to the washbasket.