E X O R N A M E N T I S : I I
Completed August 26, 2019 (♍)
Content Warning: 🍋This chapter contains explicit sex; there is also mention of a prior sexual encounter that may be read as non-consensual.🍋
Wiegraf had expected that morning that he was going to be riding for Orbonne as soon as it was feasible to do so. It was only slightly before midday that he was told that he had to spend the afternoon harassing Zalbag Beoulve. It was now, late in the afternoon, marching alongside Izlude giving father an account of the Council’s bickering, that he was coming to the full realization of how much he hated the Templarate.
He did, most assuredly, hate every member of House Beoulve a great deal more, and his prolonged conversation with Zalbag had certainly not altered his sentiments in that regard. However, being reduced to the humiliating position of dealing with him through writs and scripture instead of at sword point rankled him. He had no need to bear witness to the corrosive purity of one of the city’s few honest aristocrats. He had no need of being confronted with the stupid reality that some fool who genuinely believed his foolishness noble had massacred nearly every member of his former company. He certainly had no need to hear that for all the blighted lives dwindled away in the plague swept villages and bloody fields of Gallione, what discomfited the leader of the Northern Sky most were middling sins of the flesh never actually committed.
He remained silent as they left the palace and made their way into the streets of the capital, paying little attention to whatever it was that Izlude was relaying. The crowds around them thickened as they made their way through the commercial districts, and Wiegraf was momentarily reminded of the vast throngs of refugees they had passed as they first rode into the city. Famine and plague seemed poised to pile up bodies across the eastern duchies faster than any army could if the war dragged on much longer.
And here he was, walking through the streets with coin in his purse and food in his belly, doing his best to prolong it. He tried, as best he could, to reckon the moral arithmetic with the same confidence as his companions, but he grew increasingly resigned to the thought that the greatest good he would wrest from this conflict would be that a scant few deserving men would be among those made wretched.
He tried not to dwell on it. Tracing the twin arms of the wrought iron icon he wore over his tabard, he tossed a hundred gil piece to a beggar as they made their way back to the city’s great cathedral, not turning see how it was received. Once they’d finally made their way onto ground under Murond’s jurisdiction and away from the prying eyes of the lesser clergy, Vormav pressed him for the details of his interview.
Wiegraf explained what he thought it necessary to explain: that Zalbag Beoulve seemed to be largely ignorant regarding his younger brother, wholly ignorant regarding his elder brother, and single-mindedly eager to get to Dogoula.
He sensed very quickly that Vormav did not believe that this was all that had been discussed, and was both surprised and suspicious when he accepted his report without questioning.
“Be ready to ride tomorrow,” he said, pressing a hand on Wiegraf’s shoulder. “We shouldn’t need more than a few more days’ delay, and I think my talks with the general’s brother should get us where we need to be.”
“So, we weren’t actually taking over for the Examiners?” Wiegraf asked, arm tensing where Vormav touched it. “This was, in fact, all about wasting time?”
“Don’t think of it as time wasted, Wiegraf. To let Orlandu and Beoulve at each other’s throats at this point might bring things to a premature close—one of them falling too soon would tip the balance enough that somebody might capitulate. The Church cannot very well intervene if this war lasts less than a summer.”
“I see.” Wiegraf smiled politely, nodding as if he understood. It was the sort of thing Izlude seemed to do all the time, although it doubtlessly came from a place of greater sincerity.
Vormav returned the smile, patting his shoulder as he released it. “Only a few days, Folles. I have it on good authority that the Thundergod will find himself recalled to Bethla before the week is out.”
He turned to leave, and with a paternal condescension that only befitted one of them, advised that they make their evening prayers quick and get what rest they needed for the journey tomorrow. Izlude, who had been hovering about the room somewhat listlessly once he realized that Wiegraf had nothing particularly interesting he was going to disclose about Zalbag, assured his father that he would.
It was shortly after Vormav left that Wiegraf announced he was going to take a walk to clear his head. Izlude, who seemed to be neither on the verge of prayer or sleep, waved him off with a gesture of approving acknowledgement as he proceeded to pull out a book from his satchel.
Stepping an adjoining room, Wiegraf removed his armor and donned a slightly less impractical uniform, having no further need to make state appearances and counting it unlikely that he’d encounter anything within the church grounds that would necessitate him trudging about in partial plate. Once outside of the chambers that had been set aside for them in the cloisters, he paced about for a while before making his way to the cathedral proper. Unable to give vent to his rage anywhere else, he might as cast it before God. The bastard certainly had a right to it. He stepped into the mostly vacant nave just as the sunset began to catch the large roseate window, projecting the lead-rimmed outline of Saint Ajora’s features onto his own face.
He walked to the pews nearest the altar and knelt as if in prayer, clasping his palm around the icon he wore as if to crush it. He did not offer up any supplications for anyone in the conflict he was helping to orchestrate, but he thought on them—whomever the ragged, starving infantry were this time. He thought on their wretchedness and of the wretchedness of all who had made them thus, considering how little worthy his prayers would be on their behalf and how little worthy any God watching over it all was to receive them.
He spent more time than he cared to wallowing in such thoughts, knowing them to be as self-indulgent as they were useless. These shadows of prayers did nothing, and he had to hope—to pretend at least—that someday he would do more. It was dark when he stood up from his reverie, ready to depart for some place else. Rising, he caught sight of a cloaked figure walking towards him with obvious purpose.
“Wiegraf Folles,” said a tired and now familiar voice. “I need a word with you.”
Drawing near, he soon saw whom it was who approached him. Zalbag looked somehow both more composed and more exhausted than he had been a few hours prior. He too had changed out of the largely ceremonial half-armor he wore. Given the cloak, Wiegraf assumed that he had not wanted to broadcast his presence.
“What do you need to say, General Beoulve?”
Zalbag looked at him grimly. “It concerns your status in the Templarate.”
“I wish to contest the Church’s claim on you.”
Wiegraf looked around him, not entirely sure what he meant but fairly certain that this was not a conversation he wanted to have on Glabados property.
“The church we stand in has no claim on me, at least,” he whispered, leaning in close to Zalbag’s face for a moment. “Shall we walk? I was just about to leave.”
He began to do so, striding as confidently and quickly as he could towards the cathedral’s half-opened double doors such that Zalbag had to hasten to keep up. He had no real plan of action, and he recognized the foolishness of leading a man he very much wanted to murder on some unpremeditated jaunt through the city. However, even with Vormav absent, he recognized that whatever they were about to discuss might make his life considerably more troublesome if it were spoken of within earshot of the wrong cleric.
Zalbag didn’t say anything as they walked away from any sight of holy ground and into the maze of streets that ran through the heart of the capital. As they passed by lamp lit rows of closing shops and opening bars, he seemed to keep his eyes perpetually fixed on Wiegraf, as though he were waiting for him to continue the conversation he had begun.
“Do you want to explain what you meant about the Church?” he finally asked after they’d gone on a while and he was relatively certain nobody had followed them.
“Do you want to discuss it in the open streets?” Zalbag asked calmly.
Wiegraf considered it a moment, and turned sharply into a nearby inn—something with a boar on the shingle. Zalbag followed, and within the span of time it took to trade coin for keys, they found themselves alone in a room together for the second time that day.
“Will you explain yourself now?” Wiegraf asked brusquely, glancing through the door as he closed and bolted it.
“I don’t know who you may fear might overhear, Wiegraf, but I’m fine discussing the matter anywhere.” Zalbag said coldly, looking out the window. “The truth of the matter is that you’re not a Templar.”
He turned to face him. “You’re right about the Concordat of 1134, but I did some checking up on the order. I believe you’d remember from your vows that the Knights of the Temple accept no initiates who are presently a part of another order. Murond and the Crown have been in agreement on that for a while.”
“Pardon me if I don’t quite see how that applies.”
“When did you stop being a member of the Death Knights, Wiegraf?” Zalbag asked.
Wiegraf’s eyes narrowed. “We were disbanded.”
“Did you actually disband?”
He thought of all the hills between Zeakden and whatever hole he’d managed to hide in that night, remembering the fading shouts of his men as he’d ran, bloody and breathless, into the snow. When he made his way back east, days later, it was as though the battle had never been. A sympathetic farmer who sheltered him for a span told him that the bodies had been piled like cordwood and hauled to the blazing fortress in the name of expediency. It had been impractical to bury the dead in the frozen ground.
He looked Zalbag firmly in the eyes. “No,” he said with obvious emotion. “I suppose we did not.”
“Did you accept the articles calling for the unit’s dissolution.”
“I recall that I did not do that either.”
“There are, in fact, witnesses who will attest that you tore them to shreds and shouted that the Council could choke on them.”
Wiegraf nodded. He had him on that count.
“As such, you are still technically a member of the Knights of Death, and your first fealty is to the Crown. As Lesalia’s true heir is presently supported directly by the Hokuten…”
“Did Dycedarg write this all down for you?” Wiegraf asked, cutting him off.
Zalbag stared at him for a moment, clearly frustrated, but he did not respond. Taking that as his answer, Wiegraf continued.
“Let’s be more succinct, Beoulve. The claim is that you’re my commander.”
“That’s the claim, yes.” Zalbag replied.
“What is this leading up to?”
“It’s something I want you to consider before you...”
“Before I do what? Do you really think doing anything to me will change the Church’s position on your damn brother?”
“This isn’t about my family,” he said with an angry indignation that Wiegraf wholly believed to be sincere. “Whatever I might feel about the matter, I cede to the Church the treatment of heretics.”
“Then you accept...”
“I accept that not everyone will be saved. I have always accepted that. Unlike you, I trust that there is some order according to which the world is set, and I don’t try to upend that whenever it suits my wishes. If I did…” He took a sharp breath as he clenched his fists. “I consider the totality of lives for which I’m responsible, Wiegraf. I think about who ends up dead when I abandon the obligations of my station.”
“You do now?” Wiegraf asked mockingly, thoughts drifting his own tallies to this end. “You think on the dead? Weren’t we just talking about the romance you find in dying… amongst other things? Those poor doomed youths whose flesh only goes to crows, how do you think on them?”
Zalbag moved towards him, obviously upset.
“I’m bound for Dogoula in the morning,” he said in an icy voice that would brook no contradiction. “I will not be delayed again.”
“Are trying to give me an order?” Wiegraf hissed.
Wiegraf considered how easy it should be in this place to slit a man’s throat and not have him be found until morning, when he’d be miles away and Vormav could sort out the damage done to their plans on his own. He dropped a hand to brush what should be the pommel of his sword, and realized that he’d left it in the cloisters. Looking at Zalbag, he wondered at why it angered him that the man might thwart him over this. He had no love for this war or for the Church’s plans to extend it.
He wondered at a lot of things, at the decisions he had made that led him to this room and this conversation and this burning awareness of his own hypocrisy. He hated Zalbag more for that for anything else: for not being a hypocrite. Wiegraf could no longer afford the luxuries of moral superiority, and it galled him that some fool who had never been wretched in his powerlessness should stand here, lecturing him on duty and obligation and all the pretty things in which he could afford to believe.
“An order, commander?” He heard himself begin to speak words that seemed to come to him unbidden. He stepped nearer to him, near enough for it to be uncomfortable to both of them. He felt the cool steady rhythm of the man’s breath on his skin for a moment as he leaned in to whisper in his ear, just as he had earlier in the day when he tried to rattle him. “Do you know the sort of orders my first commander gave me?”
He did not respond to Wiegraf’s question, did not say anything to acknowledge or condemn his own unfolding confession—equally veiled and equally meaningless. For a moment, Wiegraf wondered if it had chafed him to hear a man claim the burden of sins he himself had committed in what was apparently much greater excess. He looked at him and considered that it might well be a matter of opportunity, that men were much more cautious in corrupting the sons of generals than they were the sons of blacksmiths.
He took a deep breath, thinking as to how well the slender, auburn-haired boy he imagined Zalbag must have been would have fared in the thick of a commoner’s volunteer army. Would lust grieve him as much when he couldn’t decline it? He ran his hand along the man’s arm, and noted that Zalbag didn’t stop him.
“A fresh and hale youth like myself, reared in the heathen ignorance of the countryside,” he continued, wondering what the hell he was doing. “Do you think anyone in that ragged militia of peasant boys felt a call to celibacy?”
Zalbag remained motionless, but it wasn’t lost on Wiegraf that he breathed both deeper and faster. He moved to meet his gaze, and as he brought his ungloved hand his man’s face, his brain was alight with thoughts more voluptuous and hateful than murder. Zalbag trembled, and looking to him with an obvious and expectant shame, said nothing.
He drew him into a violent kiss, and resting his other hand on his throat, tumbled them both into the infinite space of a white counterpane atop the room’s single bed.
Truth be told—Wiegraf—was very bad at kissing. His various youthful experiments in sin had not been terribly romantic: the aforementioned commander, scarcely less a boy than himself; the full-figured butcher’s daughter who dragged him from his father’s forge to her father’s barn one afternoon; the myriad one-night encounters a man enjoyed thinking he and his unit might die the next day. As the war had worn on, he had found himself largely unmoved in matters of the flesh. His eventual lack of coin and abundance of ideals had no doubt contributed. It was fortunate for him that Zalbag was one of the few men who would not notice his deficiencies. He met his kisses with equal incompetence; everything was aggressive and coarse and involved far too many teeth. They were both men far more accustomed to fighting than lovemaking.
He disentangled himself a moment, catching his breath as he stood and began to disrobe. Zalbag sat up, flustered and looking as if he might protest. He did not. He watched as Wiegraf stripped off his shirt and tabard, moved back to sit next to him, loosed the clasp of his own cloak. His eyes only moved from the other man’s body when he undid the hasp of his wrought iron icon and let it clatter to the floor.
“Look at me,” Wiegraf ordered, turning Zalbag’s face back to meet his own.
He did. Wiegraf delivered another graceless kiss, which Zalbag requited with equal ineptitude and equal enthusiasm. When next they parted, he roughly pulled the fitted tunic over Zalbag's head and off his body. It surprised him little to find that the man wore an icon of his own beneath his clothing; it surprised him more that Zalbag should remove it unbidden.
He pressed him down onto the narrow bed and climbed atop him, thinking all the time of the rank stupidity of what he was doing. In the midst of their caresses, there were so many instants of absolute nothing—the flash of his throat as he breathed, the racing pulse that beat somewhere within his pinned wrist—that left Wiegraf painfully conscious of how suddenly vibrant and vulnerable Zalbag was. He hated him anew for it; for daring to be so alive in this instant when others were not. He hated many things though: the old war, the new war, the city, the church, the state, the garish red tabard that had come to lay crumpled on the floorboards. He hated most profoundly though, that in the moment he should want something more of Zalbag than to destroy him, and in the midst of their embrace he pushed away suddenly as that realization stung him.
Zalbag looked up, and it disgusted Wiegraf to see that same intermingling of rage, shame, and desire playing across his features. Lowering his gaze, he noticed, for the first time in dim light, just how extensive the pale scars were that overspread his thin, wiry body—even more extensive than his own.
He touched one hesitantly and noticed how it had feathered at the edges. Zalbag seemed to still his breath a moment, but said nothing. The ragged lines at the edge of the old wound—they were the sort of thing that apparently developed when you'd been dragged to a professional too many times. The magic burnt into the small veins in the skin or some such thing. It was a complication Wiegraf had never had to face, having seldom had access to more magic than an improvised poultice and a stiff glass of brandy when he'd been injured.
He looked at Zalbag again and pretended that he saw a sympathy in him doubtlessly not present: that it meant something for their bodies to have the same history—decades of capitulations and failed treaties writ in flesh. He ran a finger along the lines of former injuries, tracing an aimless path across his chest.
"Any of these mine?" he asked quietly.
"I wouldn't know," Zalbag said, speaking for the first time since Wiegraf had started on this course. A sudden awkwardness made him seem much younger than he actually was. "I had a lot to manage after Zeakden and you were far from the only man I fought." He took Wiegraf's hand and moved it to the left, where it rested over the ridges of his lower ribs. "If there's anything, it would be here."
Wiegraf nodded for a moment and then, removing his hand, kissed the spot in question very suddenly and very intensely. Zalbag made only a very muted gasp as he wrenched his fingers painfully into his hair. He lingered there for a long moment, thinking that if he hadn't left a mark before, he'd damned well better leave one now. After a few moments, he trailed other kisses along other scars, noticing very pointedly that as Zalbag clung to him, his free hand grazed the side of his shoulder, where he'd only touched him before through the intermediary of a blade.
The act provoked and inflamed him. Violently, Wiegraf continued to press his lips and tongue against Zalbag’s angular frame, leaving welts he hoped might bruise to black by morning. When his face reached the edge of the man’s trousers, he wasted little time in unlacing them, tugging them roughly down until he had his prick in hand—rigid and inflamed as the rest of him. A stifled noise died on his lips as Wiegraf began to stroke him, disentangling Zalbag’s hand from his hair as he sat up and drew very close to him.
“Wiegraf,” Zalbag said, “This is...”
“This is a mortal sin,” Wiegraf whispered venomously. “Seven years penance if they don’t hang you at the end of your march through the streets in sackcloth.” He kept masturbating him, fist balled tight around his erection as he began to undo his own pants.
Zalbag said nothing, did nothing, closed his eyes and let himself be toyed with as Wiegraf brought them prick to prick, stroking them both as they sweated and rutted like animals. He kissed Zalbag again, biting his lip roughly as he thought how bittersweet an enjoyment it was to wrench a man from his ideals—to degrade him as he had been degraded.
There was the bite of Zalbag’s fingernails in his skin, the heat of his drenched body bucking against his, the scent of that last lingering kiss of the cathedral’s incense coming off their bodies. They stopped, stripped themselves stark, pressed together again. Over and over, Wiegraf told himself this was a revenge—the poorest he could afford—until he told himself nothing, his thoughts losing their way in the midst of their entangled bodies.
In the mindless progress of their lust, his hate slipped from him. He hadn’t room to think on anything but the immediate particulars of the act, and in that moment he drifted without tragedy or despair. All things moved as they ought. Each contour of his body seemed suddenly fitted to the one beneath him, and he did not desire anything more than to cling a while to what he had.
Unthinking, he reached out to touch Zalbag’s face with an unintended tenderness, and immediately felt him tense, wrapping his limbs hard around him. He wrenched Wiegraf against him, committing the most mundane of blasphemies as he breathlessly invoked God again and again.
He came abruptly, and buried his face in the crook of Wiegraf’s collarbone. In the handful of seconds where they remained still, Wiegraf could feel him take a single convulsive breath, digging the stubble of his hot face into his skin.
Wiegraf pushed him back forcefully onto the bed, his rage and resentments suddenly finding him again. He brought himself half-upright and tried in his desperate frenzy to also work himself to orgasm. It took far longer than he wished. Zalbag, spent, didn’t look at him, wincing slightly as Wiegraf spilled onto his already sweat-soaked chest. His mortification, now that the act was complete, was abundantly apparent.
Wiegraf, for his part, was not much better off. He stood up and went to gather his things, trying not to look to where Zalbag lay unmoving. He moved as though he were caught in a dream or stupor, time always a few paces out of step with where he wanted to be. His hands found his cast off garments. He felt himself dress. As soon as he was presentable enough to leave, he moved to do so, stopping a moment at the door to finally address his collapsed lover.
“Think of this next time you look to heaven.”
He hoped to have some satisfaction from that—hoped to be cruel and cutting. He only felt the sting of his own worthlessness. Zalbag neither responded or met his gaze, staring off into whatever sky lay above the ceiling, and he did not tarry longer waiting for a reaction.
He walked briskly, and out on the street again, he trembled unbidden, heart racing as he thought a great many sick and bitter things. Some blocks later, as he reached instinctively to trace the icon he was accustomed to wearing, he realized that it was not his own.
He stopped, looked at the not yet darkened sky, and leaned against the cool brick of a shop wall. Blinking upward he was grateful when he realized that it would rain.
Author's Notes: Only Jesus in heaven knows how long I suffered in trying to write my way into these two banging.