I N M E M O R I A M M E I : I V
Completed January 26, 2021 (♒)
The Hokuten were pushing north like madmen now, and Zalbag did not want to think about poor Tietra Hyral. He had not wanted to think about her before they had set out north, and he had almost succeeded. He had almost escaped thinking about what the men holding her might do to her, about how easily Alma might be in her place, and about the sort of man he must be to consider neither of those factors in his plans. He had almost been able to section off his brain and reduce her to a great nothing by the time they’d reached Zeakden—by the time he had given that idiot boy the order to shoot and had hoped he’d have the decency to hit the bandit and not the girl.
His bird reeled under him as he hit a full gallop. One of the knights on his back gave a shout. He tried to tell himself that innocents always died in any war—that maids as young as that were not exempt from any ugliness, and that Ivalice had long found herself buoyed up by her children’s blood. He told himself that he could not reckon out the force behind their actions any more than he could measure the motives of the arrow itself. He had been given his orders and his priorities, and he had carried them out.
Pressing onward, he tried to turn his brain to other things: to the steam coming off their birds’ bodies, to the smell of damp earth and grass underlying the snow, to all those crimes upon which he had fixed his thought prior. This is how he had dealt with sin when it had first truly come for him; he had tried to counteract its hold by running to embrace it. He had let himself fall entirely once he had faltered.
He did not think of Tietra Hyral when he recalled how he had conducted himself back at Riovanes; how he had offered almost no protest as Wiegraf had first taken hold of him; how it had fallen from there that he should make his body quite the same oblation to Wiegraf’s lusts as it must be to Romanda’s arrows. He did not think of her when he recalled his wild rationalizations as to how each coupling would be a spur towards staying alive—how he had feared to die in sin. He did not think of anything as they descended into the big pit of a valley that marked the edge of Gallione’s borders. It was only in the sink of the charge that he recalled—clear as daylight—how he had first crawled to where Wiegraf was quartered and confronted him after a sleepless night.
The sky turned dull red around him. The sharpness his recollections was in no way blunted by the panicked shout of a lieutenant telling him that Zeakden was burning.
He rode even harder even as the man slowed in the expectation they might stop.
“Zeakden is behind us, you fool—the road ahead’s not burnt!”
Nobody had responded, and in the little space before their rush to follow, Zalbag imagined himself alone, cutting like a comet across the vale, unencumbered by anything that could hinder its descent.
Zalbag had not prayed about his decision before making it. He had feared to raise a voice towards heaven then, uneasy at the thought of attracting its notice. He had feared to even let his thoughts drift towards God. During the fatal surge, during Barrington’s haranguing, during his vain, silly watch for some messenger’s bird to alight from the dimming sky, Zalbag had carried with him a morbid terror of divinity. He had stopped himself short at every hope for the Saint’s intervention.
Perhaps, had he prayed, it might have gone differently. Perhaps he would not have fallen farther. Perhaps he would have died in his repentance and never have had to live through ten years of unease.
None of that had happened. He had taken off the icon he wore beneath his shirt, and he had lain on his bed without undressing. He had tried to direct the course of his breath and ignore the phantom impression of a body at his back. He had tried to dream.
And then, after pretending for many hours that he might sleep, he had gotten up, thrown a cloak around his shoulders, and walked through the city to where he had been told the leader of the Dead Men slept.
When Wiegraf answered his knocking, it had been clear he was apprehensive. When Zalbag wordlessly draped his arms around him, both boys went ashen as ghosts.
Wiegraf had stared at him. He said nothing when Zalbag asked if there was anything unfinished between them.
It moved very quickly after their lips met. Zalbag might have gasped out another “stop” at some point, but he had known it would not be heeded. He had been embraced. He had been led upstairs. His skin had burnt hot as Wiegraf pushed him onto a thin canvas mattress stuffed with straw. He remembered being asked if he couldn’t find any proper knights to fuck him.
Zalbag had helped Wiegraf to undress him. He remembered pulling off his shirt over his head and unlacing the top of his trousers as Wiegraf tugged them off of him. When he lay there, stark and eager in the morning twilight, he was very still. Wiegraf stripped off his tunic and climbed atop him, kissing him savagely as the straw crunched beneath the weight of their two bodies. Perhaps there had been the shriek of some mouse caught within the palette; he remembered it happening one time or another.
Zalbag ached as he felt Wiegraf grab for his prick again and bring it together with his own, stroking them both for a while as they rocked themselves together. He kept thinking that if maybe he were to bolt from the room there could still be some space for penitence—he could find some cleric or another and disburden himself of this. He could say some foolish thing to get Wiegraf hanged and relieve himself of temptation.
They carried on like that for a while—wordlessly, hungrily. Zalbag had bit into his lip to keep from moaning. Eventually Wiegraf pulled away and headed to a little cabinet across the room,
“You want something to drink?” he asked quietly. “It’s gone sour, but it gets the job done.” He’d poured him a glass of something—wine he thought.
Zalbag had quaffed it all in one go. Wiegraf had laughed at him again.
“Ajora’s tits, maybe we should leave off if you need all that to stomach me!”
He hadn’t been. He’d nodded, but he had felt at each instant that he was doing something terrible and irrevocable. As he laid back again and Wiegraf climbed back onto him, he felt the whole time as if he were the one who was forcing matters, as though it were his hands pushed against someone’s wrists and his mouth buried in another man’s neck. His erection burned as it dragged across Wiegraf’s sweat-slicked belly, and he’d thought of how he had still had no word from the east: not even when they were nearly a month into the siege. Perhaps one of the Duke’s doves had been taken; the man seemed to ask after messages each day as though Zalbag could bid his father’s words fly back to him. Perhaps the fighting was thick elsewhere...
He’d looped his arms over Wiegraf’s neck and pulled him hard against him, kissing him stupidly in what might have been an attempt to keep him from speaking. Zalbag hadn’t actually understood quite what was expected of him, being only aware prior to that day of the passions between men in the abstract: as something he had been told was deeply abhorrent when it first put a name to his desires. He hadn’t wanted Wiegraf to tell him things though—to acknowledge what they were doing. Some part of him must have imagined the sin incomplete until named.
Wiegraf was happy to keep kissing him, the stubble of his face grating against his skin as he ran a hand over Zalbag’s naked flank—as he continued to rut and writhe against him. When their lips next parted, it was much to Zalbag’s relief that Wiegraf said nothing as he trailed so many kisses down his naked frame, coming at last to his prick which he took in his mouth for a few shallow strokes as he fondled it.
It was a lot for him. Zalbag had nearly come right then, and he must have looked it. Wiegraf laughed at him when their eyes next met. His face, his stomach, the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet: they all felt like fire as Wiegraf continued to lay his hands on him, stroking him in firm slow movements as he began to push back his legs.
He remembered that Wiegraf looked as though he would ask him something but had stopped short. Zalbag had turned his gaze thereafter to the ceiling. He remembered that dizzying sense of apprehension and anticipation as he felt fingers, greasy with tallow or with oil, pushed into him—as he told himself that it would be impossible to back down. He thought the first few words of a prayer then, and let the rest of it fall away as Wiegraf began to fuck him—as he bit his cheek through the initial intensity of it and let himself be filled.
Zalbag lay there without doing much of anything as he observed that everything in the room about him was very ugly. When Wiegraf told him in so many desperate, gasping pronouncements what a whore he was, he did not feel stung. He was achingly aware of his own body with every thrust, and it filled him with the sort of empty, animal nothingness that kept him from thinking about where he was to be tomorrow or whether anyone was to die. He rocked frantically to meet Wiegraf’s motions, giving out a stifled shout when he came abruptly in the midst of them. Wiegraf seemed barely to notice, and kept fucking him without pause, not taking the slightest interest in how pale his partner looked.
When Wiegraf was finally done, Zalbag had not said anything that might give indication of his present mortification or of his prior inexperience. He had parted wordlessly to spend the day mismanaging more troops and choking on more prayers, and he did not speak to Wiegraf again until one of them found their way to the other to begin the whole cycle again.
Had Wiegraf been a wise man, he would have headed over the last crest into Fovoham and muddied who exactly had jurisdiction to hunt him down and hang him. He might have even had some small joy in imagining Zalbag spending another afternoon with Gerrith Barrington condescending to him as he tried to protest the necessity of his military decisions. Barring this, if he had merely been a good man, Wiegraf might have at least spent his time making some gesture—in prayer, in thought, or in action—as regarded his murdered sister.
Wiegraf had not done either of these things. Grief had been stupefying, he thought; it had made him too foolish to be solemn or sensible. They had circled the rim of the valley when the Northern Sky approached and then they had waited. His shoulder had swollen, and Tansa fretted that infection had set in, even if he weren’t yet feverish. He had propositioned her slightly after that, and she’d accepted. He was now reflecting on having spent the past half an hour fucking one of his subordinates. His sister dead, his men scattered, his body injured, and he had decided that the best use of his time would be to have an awkward throw with the girl who should have best known what a terrible idea it would be for him to fuck anybody.
It had—if nothing else—been an experience far-removed from fucking Zalbag Beoulve. Tansa knew what she was doing and was of a generally agreeable character. She had also never punched him. If he were to care about the particulars of sin, it was apparently a far lesser one to wantonly risk exposing her to the perils of childbirth and the vulnerabilities of motherhood than to find his pleasure in a body too like his own.
Wiegraf thought of Miluda almost forcibly, trying to recall if she had ever commented on this particular hypocrisy. He tried to recall her at all points really: in the thick of the battlefield, in those dimly recalled apparitions of their childhood home, in the few weeks prior when they’d come together again to plan out the strike. She had been very animated then, full of that hungry mania of somebody who could ill afford to rest. She had said she’d meet him again after her unit made it through the lowlands; it had all been very matter-of-fact.
The snow had been dissolving into slush and solidifying into ice all week, and Wiegraf wondered if the cold might have kept her body from decay these past few days—if there might be a chance he could recognize her if he managed to get back to where she’d fallen. He wondered if the Hokuten bothered to bury the dead these days—if the latest naïve youth to join House Beoulve’s ranks had the same unrelenting sense of religious terror his brother had and feared to keep a body from Faram’s soil.
He must be feverish. His thoughts kept stumbling back to times and circumstances he knew he ought not dwell on. He wished he had the youthful stamina to find Tansa again and see if she would kindly seduce him out of reminiscences. He remembered when it had gone south far enough that Zalbag had first given the briefest word in acknowledgement of his fears.
“Please burn me if I die. I don’t know how to ask anybody else.”
Wiegraf, who was very much used to enjoying their arrangement in silence, had asked why, and immediately afterwards he recalled to himself the rumors that hungry men thought it unfitting that the dead should only feed the earth. He’d thought of telling Zalbag not to listen to hearsay. If anybody was godless and desperate enough to resort to cannibalism, the Dead Men would be the first, and he hadn’t come across any report that seemed genuine.
He’d also thought about telling him that he wouldn’t care about being eaten once he were dead; he’d thought of telling him that if Ajora hadn’t loved him enough to save him for his prayers and hadn’t hated him enough to smite him for his sodomy, the Saint probably couldn’t be bothered to bungle things more on account of some poor bastard descerating his remains by passing them through his guts.
He thought about telling him to shut up and not ruin the mood with his morbid sense of piety again.
Wiegraf became suddenly awake again to the present as he realized that there was smoke on the horizon. It did not quite register when Ariadna gave a shout. Somewhere in the distance, there was the crunching sound of talon falls. Somewhere beyond that, it was reported to him that Zeakden was burning.
He thought of Miluda, come back from the keep, a tiny portion of salt pork hidden in the sleeve of her shirt. He had interrogated her hard for it—warned her that the Grand Duke would not be kind to some peasant child filching his provisions. She had persisted in the flagrant lie that he’d let her have it, that the Weapon King had taken a passing fancy to her. When all had been dark, they had eaten the evidence together.
He thought of Miluda, drinking watered beer out in Dorter, telling him that Gustav was too lean to be trusted—telling him that they should go to ground and find means to weather the winter, that revolutions were best saved for spring. He thought of Miluda playing backgammon with Levine. He thought of Miluda caught up in the arms of one of a ragged boy, of a drunken man, of one of her girl priests. He thought of Miluda telling him to flee and be wise that he might not meet with a useless death.
Wiegraf ordered everyone to head to the cliffs overshadowing the encampment and get ready for a final stand. He touched the injury Ramza had gifted him and tried not to wince when it burned. He looked towards the horizon, tracing the funnel of smoke blooming into the sky, and waited to see if he could make out the shape of riders coming up the hill.