I N M E M O R I A M M E I : V
Completed January 26, 2021 (♒)
It was in the little space between the hill and the valley that Zalbag finally could think to what had just happened. Even with the urgency of the battle to come, he thought there might be some penance in dwelling on those things that should discomfit him most. Everything discomfited him, though. Everything was wrong. He turned within his thoughts like a leper driven to claw open his sores, like the flagellants who hoped to spare their flesh through ruining it.
He tried not to rationalize, but it became an inevitability. He had done as he had done as he had done before, and he would have to live on justifications going forward. He repeated to himself that Ivalice had never spared the innocent—that it had never spared anyone. He recalled all those times he prayed he should have the gift of martyrdom, as though dying in battle would efface his transgressions—as though his father might love him best as a corpse.
His bird must be tired. He was not. As the dohms passed quickly under them, Zalbag imagined how he would kill Wiegraf and be done with all of this. If he could push past guilt and become a man who ordered youth to their deaths, he could push past sentiment and kill a former lover. He envisioned the fight, the disarm, that solid feeling of a blade meeting flesh. Perhaps he would even have the good fortune for one of the gunners to take him out before their approach. Perhaps Wiegraf Folles should die without any sense of drama or momentousness. Perhaps he had died already, given over to injuries from a prior skirmish. There had been word of Ramza’s company sweeping north, and unlike Dycedarg, Zalbag felt their youngest brother capable of handling himself with a blade.
As another snow shower began to fall upon them—as it began to collect and turn the brown earth grey—Zalbag remembered unbidden how little anything at Riovanes had given evidence of human kindness, how quick fathers were to rob their children, how the call of every animal went quiet. He remembered how he had thought it fitting that Wiegraf should have bedded him in hatred and brought him into and out of each tryst with every mockery he could heap on him and on the divine. “ God doesn’t care if you let yourself be buggered, Zalbag—God wouldn’t care for you if you burnt all of Fovoham to the ground on a lark.”
When the ragged creatures finally descended from the hills to meet them, his mind was a near blank again. When he saw one figure rush out from amongst them all, his arm stiff and bent back as the other waved a sword out in front of him, Zalbag could not even bring himself to imagine his name.
His bird shrieked as something hit it. It fell, and Zalbag tumbled into the mud and slush, frantic as he charged recklessly forward and into the fray.
There had always been one encounter that Wiegraf remembered in particular.
Everyone had been packed into the keep by then. There was no inn to meet at. They had stolen away to the munitions tower, and it had gone as it had always gone. Zalbag had said nothing to acknowledge what was about to happen. Even once he was pushed up against the stone, Wiegraf hungrilly telling him every abasement he intended to put him through, he still didn’t meet his gaze. He only seemed to come alive under his hands when there was no possibility left that he should not fall: when he descended into that ecstasy of thinking himself damned.
Wiegraf had tried that time to make him confess to it, to make him say out loud the sins they were about to commit. Zalbag had deflected—as he often did—by kissing him.
It had been somehow less clumsy than it should have been. Wiegraf pushed the weight of his body against Zalbag’s, cupping his hands around his jaw to keep them locked together. He remembered thinking at that moment about all the little minutiae that still marked Zalbag as being set in the world above him, even so many days into the siege when he was as filthy and starving as anyone. He was still somebody used to having some man about to trim his beard and cut his hair. He was still somebody who was used to eating something better than coarse bread and pottage all his life.
He realized later that he had always seen Zalbag as something like a figure out of a book. He was not quite like a painting or a statue—which are designed to be beautiful—but he was beautiful in the way that plain pictures are, having no flaws that aren’t put there by way of example. It all seemed a very philosophical distinction, and it was not one he had the head to make as a foolish boy of twenty. His thoughts then were that he’d come on something rarer than he’d get his hands on otherwise, and that he ought to enjoy it as best he could.
They finally parted, and Zalbag looked up at him, wide-eyed and panting. Wiegraf feared for a moment that he was about to make some sort of insufferable objection that he ought repent his sins and never see him more. He kissed him again to preempt this. He closed his eyes and felt something slacken in them both when he did so.
It was different than he had anticipated. He was used to having a visceral enjoyment at every point as to how he was putting General Beoulve’s son in his goddamn place. This time, Zalbag did not object when he paused—this time, Zalbag fell into place himself. He thought now and again, that it was even he who was being moved and Zalbag the mover. Zalbag was the one this time to pull him close, to strip the shirt from him. He clung to him as a dying man does to whatever is nearest him.
“I know you know too. I know you know nobody’s coming for us,” Zalbag said breathlessly as he pulled off his own tunic. “There’s another week or two at most.”
Wiegraf didn’t say anything. He hadn’t known. When Zalbag embraced him again, he suddenly thought through the ethics of despoiling some pious idiot who thought it a great sin to die despoiled.
It didn’t stop him; by the time that Zalbag Beoulve was naked and underneath him again, he doubted anything short of the Romandan army battering down the tower walls would. He held him fast against the floorboards, thinking of how this moment would be wholly lost soon—buried with them while the rest of Fovoham fled inland. The wavering shadows of the candlelight, the rapid fluttering of Zalbag’s pulse, the scent of yesterday’s rain still embedded in their skin: these would all be gone. Neither of them would be anything, and nobody would remember this.
He took more time getting started than he usually did. For all he had fucked Zalbag Beoulve many times before this and intended to fuck him as often as was possible in the week or two they had left, Wiegraf found he knew very little about him. He prolonged things now, watching him react, watching him writhe as he pushed his legs apart and started trying to work him open. He wondered if they'd be in want of oil soon. He thought of all the improvisations he'd rather not turn to, recalling that long first winter after he'd enlisted when companionship had been a commodity very dear to the older soldiers.
Zalbag seemed to look somewhere past the ceiling as Wiegraf slid the first finger into him, and Wiegraf wondered if it had always been so: if he had always cast his eyes to heaven in their couplings. As he felt him tense, he thought as to whether he had cast his there when somebody had first done him—back before he’d gotten over all the anxieties of law and religion. He brought his other hand over to stoke Zalbag in long, slow motions, paying attention as to when it was when his breath hitched in reaction, when his skin started to redden.
When he started to push into him this time, it was very slow, as if he meant to savor the gradual degrees of change that came on from the act. Zalbag gasped very audibly as though he anticipated a violent start to things. It made sense—they had always been in some way violent with one another.
Wiegraf kissed him a lot that time. In their next tryst, he would notice the skin of his neck and collarbone had bruised from it. He had wanted to say things he knew he oughtn’t say, and it was a means to stop his tongue before he said them. Zalbag had been full of a giddy eagerness that felt out of step with all their other couplings. He recalled how thin he felt—how much of him seemed now to be the jutting points of his ribs and hipbones. He recalled how he had called out his name more than once, how he had dug the tips of his fingers deep into the skin of his back.
They came very close together this time, and for a few awkward moments afterwards, Zalbag still held him fast against him despite his attempts to get up. When the two of them finally came apart, neither said anything. They dressed quickly, as they always did, and Wiegraf prepared himself to head toward the strip of the great hall where his men lay huddled together for want of anywhere else to be.
Looking behind him, however, he saw Zalbag, head in his hands as he leaned in partial collapse against the wall. He was clearly distraught, and Wiegraf thought for the most slender of moments to say something cruel. He did not. Instead, he moved to where he sat, and threw his arms around him—holding him while he shuddered. He felt a great lump in his throat that he knew must not turn to tears.
Neither of them had uttered a word in the silence of that dying summer night, limbs wrapped around one another until they dissolved into sleep.