A W H I T E D S E P U L C H E R
Written on July 21, 2019 (♌)
Content Warning: 💀The sex in this fic is very non-explicit, but the consent is highly dubious, and the surrounding narrative is rife with implied abuse. This is very much a borderline case with regards to what I put on the 18+ portion of the site.💀
Author's Notes: The title was taken from descriptions of the unnamed city in Heart of Darkness. If you caught it, the allusion to another fanwork of mine is intentional, as is the implied connection between characters.
When he had been a very little boy, Delita had thought Mullonde was a person. He only heard the name of the holy city pronounced when a crier came out from Gariland, and it was always with a “Mullonde decrees” or “Mullonde has ruled.” He reckoned then that Mullonde must be somebody like King Denamda: one of those singular and mysterious beings who had the power to command adults as they commanded a child like him. When he tried to envision Mullonde, it was always as an old man, like the tarnished statue of an unnamed saint that loomed in the back of the village church.
Although his years at Igros had left him better informed as to the particulars of states and sovereignties, it still seemed a marvel to him now to set foot outside of the cloisters where he’d been quartered and realize he was in the thick of Mullonde. Some turn of his brain would always invest the city of priests with a personhood it had not earned, and as he cut through its streets, he felt as though he were in the guts of some great being half-vivisected: as though its tower and plazas were so much tissue and bone.
His present predicament, of course, seemed designed to give him over to morbid thoughts. His own body might well have cardinals and penitents tramping about its veins for all the fire had done to it. He still woke each morning to a mess of hurts the healers hadn’t yet teased out, and he suffered most nights from dreams beyond a healer’s aid. He’d learned fast that in Mullonde there was somebody at prayer every hour of the day; and it did not do for some gawky peasant boy to interrupt them with bawling. The city was set aside for heaven, and those with earthly griefs would do well to commit themselves to it.
Delita therefore taught himself quickly to soothe his hurts in private—even if he never prayed over them.
By the time spring had begun to drift into a smoldering summer, he found himself grateful for the Templars’ severity. Having so little space for sentiment helped him to whittle down his sorrows to a compact and manageable size, and that meant he could figure his plans with a clear head.
It also meant, after months in their company, that he could start to size up his benefactors with a little more finesse.
He had known from the outset—when he’d crawled from the docks bandaged and shrouded like a leper—that Vormav was the one making decisions. Whatever shreds of his past naivete that clung around him weren’t thick enough to blind him to that. All that the Pope might have to do with any of it, he did from the privacy of his chambers. Vormav was the power of the Church made manifest: the “Will” in “God Wills It” given flesh. Delita knew, even before hearing the particulars of their offer, that whatever terms “they” set began and ended with the Templar’s commander. He did not hold to the illusion that anything asked of him would be binding beyond how well it conformed to Vormav’s will.
The intervening time had not changed his opinion of this, which made it all the more tempting to try to draw close to the man and sound out his motivations. He had thought better of it. Delita suspected that Vormav had little place for allies keen on his secrets. Instead, he decided to sound out the particulars of the Church’s interests by means of his children.
It was appropriate, of course, that Delita should spend his days in the company of the younger Tengilles. They were all near one another in years, and they were all very clearly in positions they did not obtain through their own initial merits. Delita did his best to not consider all the parallels to his earlier days as a foundling attached to another family beyond his rank, and to this end he vowed not to grow attached to either of them. He determined to himself that they were vapid, overpious fools whose awareness of any greater designs about them was like to be as abstracted from the truth as scripture was from God.
Meliadoul had the good sense to regard him with the same distant cordiality that he granted her, and only spoke to him at length when he showed an interest in the particulars of faith or swordplay. He got the impression that she did not trust him, which was fair. When he asked about her father, she spoke in a very perfunctory fashion of his abilities as a knight and priest. When asked about the Templarate, she directed him to the publicly known articles of the order. When asked about herself, she typically feinted and redirected—much as she did when they met on the field.
She revealed far more to him in her silences than in her answers to his prying. He recognized after a few weeks in their company that neither Tengille child mentioned ever having a mother, as though they had hatched like basilisks from a rooster’s egg. With Meliadoul, her quietness on the matter seemed beyond the reticence one might expect from a bereft or ignorant daughter. Delita had seen her grow pale and leave the room more than once when he thought to mention his parentage, even when he did not turn the topic to such morbid subjects as plague or Romandans. At other times, she would grow quiet at little things he could not place: the mention of an odd shrine outside of the city, a remark about the doves nesting in the chapter house, a strain of some song Cletienne had brought with him out of the Lesalian midlands.
The insight she lent him regarding her father was a great nothing: a shape made up entirely of absences, like the gaps in a lace veil. As far as Delita was concerned, it was a confirmation that the house he sheltered under had as many secrets as the last, and it led him to continue carefully in his progressive investigation of them.
Vormav was dangerous. His daughter was distant.
It behooved Delita to try his luck with his son.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Delita hated Izlude. He had far better people to hate, and he had grown serious about cordoning off his rage as neatly as he had his sorrow. Something about the youth certainly grated on him, however.
Izlude had a knack for an almost unconscious sort of sanctimony. He believed in every tittle and jot of scripture as though the chroniclers had writ it on the underside of his skull. He was up before lauds each day to walk his way through the sixty prayers that accompanied a jaunt through the labyrinth inscribed on the chapel floor, and Delita—when he found himself awake in the late night—could sometimes still hear him pleading for a benediction of each of the apostles.
He did all this with a completely guileless sincerity, and it rankled Delita to think that somebody in the heart of a conspiracy should persist in being the vision of untested, gullible innocence. He was certain that if Vormav were to tell his son that Ajora had blessed him with the ability to breathe the water around them, Izlude would have cheerfully hurled himself into the Burgoss full of charitable intentions to preach a sermon to the fishes.
Charity or gullibility or some admixture of the two: whatever quality of Izlude that kept him pious was the same that led him to decide that Delita was to be his friend, and Delita—now friendless—suffered him to believe it might be so.
“I know that you came to us through grief and misfortune, but think—isn’t it a sort of luck that you can heal up in a place that saves the soul before the body?”
Delita had smiled at that but had said nothing. He learned to smile a lot at Izlude.
It was not long before he found himself being tugged daily around the Holy See by a boy determined that Delita’s was the first soul he would save. He imagined this was the fate of children who grew up without players or jongleurs or real work to do: that they grew to think it a true delight to adore Barius’ ornamented left clavicle or to attend Vigil prayers on the Feast of the Well or do whatever else it was that demanded more incense and old Ikoku. In a very short time, he felt qualified to trudge back to Gariland and take the theologian’s exam. He could and did walk the chapel labyrinth himself after Izlude was done with him, reciting an endless litany of requests for things he no longer needed.
He found, however, that like Meliadoul, the boy was forever reticent about the faith insofar as it involved his father and his plans. At some point—after weeks of passive devotion and idle pageantry—Delita decided Izlude might like him well enough to ask, however vaguely, what Vormav thought of the world.
They were on one of the twelve great hills that surrounded the city and overlooked the sea—one where Izlude swore that if you looked out towards the horizon at sunset, you could just see the monstrous shape of a Yudoran temple hovering under the waves. The heat of midday had passed, and they had been done with sparring. Izlude had said a prayer to whatever saint it was that interceded for nice sunsets, and had lain in the grass a while to rest.
“Your father,” Delita began, “does he have any saints he favors?”
Izlude looked up at him, evidently a little surprised at the question.
“My father has always favored God first above all adorations,” he said quietly.
“So he doesn’t have… what would it be… a patron or something?”
Izlude shook his head.
“He always loved God—the real unvarnished, unmitigated God—above all things, even if he holds His intercessors dear.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “He says that he strives to know God directly someday.”
Delita twisted his fingers absentmindedly around a dandelion leaf, stopping abruptly when it began to crush and stain his hand.
“Don’t you need Ajora though… don’t you need the Saint to know the Father?” He tried to think carefully through what he knew of Izlude’s doctrines. “It isn’t overreaching to…”
“My father would never fall prey to heresy,” Izlude said in a matter-of-fact voice that seemed to fall short of an objection. “I think he just… he admires the proximity to God that saints have.”
“Does he want to be a saint?”
Izlude looked away for a moment; a cloud passed over the sun. Somewhere in the valley below them, the bells rang vespers, and another gaggle of penitents marched through the arches of the northern gate.
“I don’t know.”
It was a strange thing for a boy so certain of every other particular of God’s machinery to say. It was stranger that he should say it as he did—quiet, melancholy, and with a sudden tensing of his hands that left his knuckles white against the dark haft of his spear.
Delita, realizing that he had finally caught upon some point of exploitable vulnerability, took the opportunity before him. He laid his hand on Izlude’s shoulder.
“I’m sure your father means well—however it may be that he expresses it.”
He smiled, pretending not to notice as his companion flinched. He made it clear, however, that he welcomed the eventual crush of Izlude’s body drawing closer to him; that the boy was free to lean against him in the midst of whatever sorrow had seized him.
He made a point that night—when he heard the youngest Tengille’s pleas before the Lord’s twelve servants—to make loud a prayer of his own.
He implored the Saint with every seeming sincerity that he might learn to turn his thoughts to compassion.
He asked that Ajora make him a balm to those in want or in fear.
He did not ask Izlude questions again after that day. Instead, he began to take the lead in their jaunts about this wretched city of hypocrites. He showed off his schooling and bade Izlude come to adorations and feasts before the poor boy told him which skeleton was to be venerated that day; he told him of his own desires to be made humble. With a grave sense of resolution, Delita asked poor Izlude’s instruction as to how to calm his heart and free it from vengeance and all its injuries.
He gave Izlude the gift of thinking himself somebody’s benefactor, and Izlude delighted in it.
Izlude, of course, gave every credit to Ajora for opening a poor penitent’s soul, but he clearly felt quite the authority as he became Delita’s surrogate confessor. Delita told him more of his childhood in Gallione at regular intervals—as to how he had grown up in rural heathenry and little understood the Saint until he learned the bare law and letter from religion under the tutelage of noblemen. Izlude was happy not only to fill in all the lessons he might have been wanting, but to give him every comfort and kindness when he spoke of how he had suffered.
They spoke of plague; they spoke of betrayals; they spoke of Tietra. All throughout, Delita altered the fabric of the story to better fit the particulars of Izlude’s compassion. He spoke little of Balbanes’ charity and much of Dycedarg’s unkindness. He omitted Zalbag from the narrative where possible, not wanting to test the sympathies of a boy no doubt required to defer more to Knights Devout than to the sons of stablemasters.
He barely mentioned Ramza at all.
He realized after a time, that he had told the boy a complete untruth about his life without ever lying. He recalled that some cynic or another had said once that a smart man's lies are nine tenths truth anyway—that the best lies are ones you believe for the exact span they are on your own tongue. When he was with Izlude, he believed the abbreviated history he had writ for himself: that he was poor, that he was orphaned, that he was taken in by noblemen who discarded him and his sister without consideration or care.
Izlude was not so forthcoming about his own family, but as the summer stretched on, Delita saw the boy’s silences lapse into halting half-explanations. His mother had died some eight years prior, but he would not speak of the cause or the aftermath. The Church had begun on its recent course three years after that, but he obviously could not speak as to any precipitating factors. He spoke in starts, confessing just enough to hint at some underlying grievance and then backing off, stopping short. The more he spoke, the more that Delita sensed Izlude was not fully at ease with himself—that his piety seemed a desperate attempt to make peace with a life that could not be peaceful.
It was one day, when talk first came about the cloisters that a new initiate was to be considered, that Delita asked him for his own confession:
“What has you so rabbity about another Templar coming to the island? Surely there’s room enough for more guardians of the Faith?”
Izlude blushed a little.
“I don’t begrudge another member of the order at all, Delita. It’s just that we’ve always been so... close.”
“I came here less than a year back.” He laughed. “We’re all about to press on to a new and glorious future anyway come next spring; everything’s about to change. Why—”
“You’re never to be another Templar, Delita,” Izlude said glumly, cutting him off. “I don’t think you’d understand.”
Delita narrowed his eyes. When Izlude looked away, he put his hand to his face to guide his gaze back to him.
“What wouldn’t I understand?” he said in a low voice. “I thought we were friends.”
There was something in that moment that Delita would recall later in all the stranger times to come: the overcast sky, pregnant with rain, and the way that the chatter of insects seemed to slow as Izlude looked up at him.
He thought, as a silence hovered between them, that he might have liked Izlude very much in another time and place.
“We are friends, Delita.” His voice was very low—almost a whisper. “I’ve only known you a short time, but we are friends. I just can’t—”
For the first time since Delita had started on this course, Delita stopped Izlude from speaking. He took his hand then, and did not wonder when Izlude gripped it to the point of being painful.
Delita found himself remarkably nonplussed upon discovering who the new Templar was. Wiegraf did not recognize him at first, and Delita damn well didn’t seek to jog his memory. He avoided him as best he could while Vormav shepherded him about doing whatever it was they did to prepare a man for the cloth, and he braced himself daily for whatever the fallout was to be when Wiegraf recognized him as the fumbling peasant boy who’d kept company with his sister’s killer.
He tried to interrogate Izlude later as to why a condemned criminal and failed revolutionary leader was being embraced by the Church, and he was told something about concordats and pardons. It became clear as they spoke, however, that Izlude hadn’t any real idea as to the particulars. There was something a little panicked to his explanations; he seemed very eager to confirm to Delita that there was nothing amiss as regarded the most wanted man in Gallione being accepted into a priestly order that had not seen new initiates for three years prior.
Autumn was not yet come, but the dark-crested lapwings had already begun their pilgrimage southward. Delita had been told that they wanted him in the eastern duchies come midwinter. Whatever was coming together was moving more rapidly towards its inception with each passing day. His lessons turned to the particulars of viscounts and earls, and they drilled into him all the events of yet another childhood to which he did not belong.
It was during the second long week of September, when Mullonde blazed with a thousand candles set in vigil for the Saint’s nativity, that Delita found himself, very unexpectedly, stumbling into secrets he hadn’t been pursuing. He had been out on the hills again with Izlude, and they had tarried until the sky was purple and the vespers bell gone. Izlude had wanted to show him the illuminated city from a distance as it would be unlikely that he would see another Saint’s Mass in Mullonde for many years.
They sat together on the twelfth hill again, and Delita found it not strange in the slightest that Izlude should lean against him unbidden.
“So…” Delita began, “are they sending you off to the mainland as well, then?”
“Who told you?”
“Nobody. It was just a guess.”
Delita could feel Izlude flinch at his remark.
“I’m headed into Lesalia next spring.”
Delita did not ask then why his companion should be so clearly afraid of such a mundane reality still half a year away. He tried instead to look at the city below them, blazing like a harvest day oven and jangling with the sound of countless celebrants decked in pilgrim’s medallions. Without entirely thinking as to what it was he was doing, he threw his arm around the boy’s waist.
Izlude turned to him, suddenly rigid in his grip, and there was a moment where the noise of the world seemed to vanish all at once. Delita felt very hot as they tumbled down together onto the grass, and his head seemed to throb with the same tempo as the heart beating fast below him.
He kissed him wolfishly, hungrily—with all the impulsive passion befitting an act so magnificently stupid. He did not know whether he was relieved or dismayed that Izlude kissed him back.
When their lips finally broke from one another, Delita found himself over-top a panting, fair-faced youth. Looking into his eyes, he could pretend all the lanternlight and starlight he saw reflected there was from the sky over the hot fields in Gallione.
He kissed him again.
He pressed Izlude’s wrists against the warm earth below them and tried his best not to think of other youths and other hills. He kept kissing him and told himself that it was to a purpose. He drank in the tremor of his lips, the taste of his skin, the way he breathed quick like a hare caught without cover. Izlude, all the while did nothing—said nothing—save to mirror each kiss as it was required of him.
They found another pause, and Delita marveled that Izlude made no objection—not that he was waiting for one. He chuckled a little as he maneuvered an arm beneath Izlude’s back and pulled him close.
“It’s been your cue for a while to tell me this is a sin, you know?” he whispered teasingly. “This is more than a labyrinth’s worth of prayers already.”
Izlude, his pale skin pinking, breathed deep a moment.
“It is a sin,” he said in a voice almost too faint to be heard. “I know it is a sin.”
He closed his eyes. Somewhere in the sky above them, the breeze had picked up the smoke from a thousand braziers and censors to perfume the late summer air. Delita, panting and hot, moved to take Izlude in his arms and continue in the course on which his blood had set him.
As he unwrapped his thumb from where it encircled Izlude’s wrist, he saw a bruise there that he could not have left. Save for being larger, it matched the pattern of his hand exactly, showing where and how somebody else had grasped the skin before him.
He sat up abruptly, and Izlude looked away.
Somewhere in the vast city below them, the bells began to ring for compline.
By the time the final toll had left the air, nothing had been spoken, and Izlude, stripped of his tabard and tunic, lay pressed under Delita again. There was no struggle to it—there was no element that could be reckoned more criminal than the crime it had been when they’d begun. Delita, when he thought of the bruise and what it might mean, pushed past it. He clung to Izlude with a willful blindness that did not see how yielding or well-practiced the youth was. He did not wonder that the boy never once commented on the scars that ran over his body like a tangled red lichen.
He kept kissing him, kept stripping him, kept tangling with him in the dusk of late summer. The light of Mullonde cast odd shadows, Delita thought, and in some scant and fleeting moments he could imagine that the hair into which he buried his face was gold.
He tried to be gentle.
He tried to give Izlude room and opportunity to alter the course they were on. When he happened upon more bruises, he looked away, and let the boy tell him with his inaction that none of this was hurting him. Izlude did not disappoint him. Izlude never acted hurt.
It was only towards the end of it all that things took a sour turn. Izlude, come near the moment of his crisis, clung to Delita with a strange desperation, his mouth hot and gasping as it echoed all those late night pleas for benediction—as he begged again and again with breathless ecstasy that he might be forgiven and made meek.
When it was all over, Delita looked back towards the city, sweat-drenched and flustered and suddenly wishing that every mystery Mullonde held was forever withheld from him. He did not look to where Izlude lay collapsed, but he thought very vividly at that moment that he was sobbing—as though there was some tremor in the air that could convey the soundless convulsions of a creature in pain.
He did not speak to him as he gathered his things and walked back towards the cloisters.
When he arrived in his quarters, he did something he had never done since first setting foot on the accursed isle where he had come to dwell.
In absolute silence, and with genuine fervor, he prayed.
He said nothing to Izlude when they next met, and both boys cast their glances aside when they were brought together at prime bells for breakfast and a sermon. Izlude looked to the ground. Delita looked to every other man gathered to dine together. He had slept little the night before, and the world after the high holiday had taken on a ghostly cast. He felt as if Mullonde had immolated itself in the flames of the night before and he had awakened to a city of ashes.
As Vormav bade all bow in thanks for the humility cold bread and water gave a man after a feast, it was only Delita who kept his back straight and his eyes open. Vormav’s gaze met his own, and Delita knew most palpably in that instant that the man would have leapt across the table to strike him would it not set some plan out of joint. He lowered his head after that and muttered something that had nothing to do with the grace being said.
Later, as he did his best to avoid acknowledging Izlude’s presence, he noticed briefly that Wiegraf, come to the table for the first time in his novice’s surplice, seemed to rub his wrists as though out of some new acquired nervous habit.
He wondered impulsively if they were bruised.
He wondered if there wasn’t something dreadful written on the bodies of everyone present.
As the week stretched on, he still said nothing to Izlude, and it almost chafed him that Izlude said nothing to him. He found himself with little appetite, and he kept waiting to hear some bright chirping voice inquire as to whether or not he was in the midst of a fast. He turned his attention after a few days to memorizing all the particulars of all the Zeltennian knightly orders he might be soon to claim as his command. He worked to correct his fighting stance to conceal that he favored the hand untouched by the fire. He worked to correct his accent. He worked, most of all, to correct any misapprehensions Vormav might have as regarded his devotion to Mullonde and her agents.
He was remarkably unsurprised when he heard that he was to set out earlier than expected. There had apparently been an upset, and there might soon be a whole barony in want of knights to claim vassalage. As he quietly accepted that he would sail at October’s end and thereafter meet up with a witch of all things out in Bervenia, he realized that he had barely spoken to another soul in however long it was since the Saint’s Mass—that he had fallen from the society of the Templars as easily as he had drifted into it.
When Izlude approached him a few days later, he felt almost at ease around him. The degree to which they had become strangers put a distance between them that made being in his presence almost tolerable.
“I heard you’re headed east.”
Izlude stood at the threshold of his room’s doorway. Delita wondered a moment as to whether or not he should invite him in or move to push both of them back to the wide cloister hall.
He did neither. He nodded instead.
“Delita...” Izlude looked up at him and tried to smile. “I’m sor—”
“Don’t—” Delita interrupted sharply. He moved forward quickly and grabbed the boy by the shoulders. “Don’t you dare .”
“I did not mean to make you stumble,” Izlude began. “I had hoped…”
“You were never going to save my soul, Izlude,” Delita continued. He felt his face grow hot. “You don’t do yourself any favors by playing penitent over another man’s sins.”
Izlude looked at him a moment, obviously uncertain as to what it was he was supposed to say or do. When Delita tightened his grip on him, he barely winced.
“It’s my sin too, you know,” he said quietly after a time. “We all—”
“Stop making yourself such a damn martyr, Izlude.”
Delita moved a hand to his face as he spoke—gentle now. Izlude’s skin, which had lost the freckles of the summer months, seemed very pale. Breathing deep, Delita drew him suddenly close. It seemed for an instant they might kiss again, but he pushed past to whisper in his ear.
“If you can manage, don’t come back to Mullonde when it’s all over.”
He felt Izlude nod slightly against his face. The boy then grasped him suddenly in a tight embrace that seemed to acknowledge the finality of their parting.
When Delita left for Warjilis three days later, he did not tarry for further farewells.