M U Z Z L E F L A S H
Written on December 11, 2020 (♐)
Content Warning: This is tagged as a / pairing, but it's very much at pre-slash levels of shippiness: think meaningful cuddling rather than meaningful makeouts. This fic also features one instance of sexual menacing, one major character possibly murdering somebody (doubtful), and one doublet worth much more than 500 gil meeting with violence.
Author's Notes: Written for atramento; uses War of the Lions names.
There are number of references to things that crop up in FFT's side quests. Estore and Banvell are shady trading companies with operations in Goug, and the Celsettia flower is a rare plant growing in the Tchigolith Fenlands. Goldentite is a make believe FFT mineral that is apparently what the Tobacco Pipe artefact is made from.
St. Eloinin is absolutely just a thinly veiled St. Eligius (patron saint of goldsmiths). The reference to a "goose in September" was intended to be an allusion to the fact that St. Ajora was born in September, so the crappy Glabadosian equivalent to Christmas (and its associated goose-eating) would happen then.
The Marquis had diverted their company to Lionel, apparently more interested in paying homage to the high cathedrals of the southlands than in meeting Larg’s sense of urgency. It did not fall to his men to question his priorities, and it especially did not fall to boys yet not knighted. Argath, however, could not help but feel irritated that he should be traipsing about a city beyond the king’s rule, wandering streets filled with so many puffed up merchants and sailors.
The province was a strange and composite creature—much like the manticore on its flag—and Argath hadn’t the courage to ask as to how you ran anything where the ruler was forbidden to marry and beget heirs. He assumed that there was some protocol by which Mullonde determined which of their men was saddled with a whole sixth part of the mainland, but everything about the region seemed a slow-moving pandemonium. Between the mercantile companies of Warjilis and the guilds of Goug, Argath reckoned half of Lionel was governed by commoners with enough gold to buy themselves titles, and rank and its obligations had withered as a result. It was bad enough in Limberry where they’d all but forgotten themselves with the Ordallians at their doorstep. Lionel seemed to him barely above anarchy: knights wedding clockmaker’s daughters and ship’s captains trying to buy their way to a baronetcy.
It was a Saint’s festival of some sort, and he had been given leave with the other squires to wander about the capital. Commander Fawkes had told them all to make merry as they saw fit so long as they were ready to depart on the morrow. Argath thought at first that he could follow silent alongside the other boys—stay quiet and perhaps escape the brunt of their disdain in the milling crowds. He was disappointed—but not surprised—when his companions quickly found the means to desert him.
He supposed he did not blame them. It was, in some ways, a bittersweet joy to know that somebody here still understood the weight blood ought to carry—that even if the Lionelese couldn’t tell the difference between a count and a cordwainer, somebody understood where House Thadalfus stood on the scale of being. Having to entertain himself in solitude was one of the smallest penances he paid on his grandfather’s behalf. Other boys did as was prudent, and he would make do.
Argath wandered the wild streets of the cardinal's city alone then. He watched some jugglers. He bought himself a pasty. He picked out some ribbon for his mother. When he looked to the sky and saw a high sun telling him he still had most of an afternoon to waste, he found a place to sit and did nothing. It was not so bad a thing, he told himself, to be able to content oneself only with thoughts. He let his eyes trace the tumble of dancers and watch the constellations of light that were cast off the ornaments and pans at a nearby tinker’s stall.
Argath wondered what Gariland would look like, and if he should see the Duke of Gallione there.
Argath was a boy used to taking orders, so it was with some shame that when he heard a hard-whispered “Walk with me” he stood up in readiness to walk without seeing who bade him do so. It took him a moment to register precisely what was happening as a soot-stained hand grabbed his own and pulled him along towards the exit of the plaza.
“ Please. Walk with me. I’m being followed, and they’re eyeing you like a goose in September anyways.”
The slender, fair-haired boy could scarcely be older than him, although it was evident that however many years he’d spent in a trade had left their mark on him. Even in the rush of being thrown back into the crowd, Argath could feel the upraised callouses of a hand well used to some trade or another. They were already halfway into the street before he had the presence of mind to jerk his arm out of his grip.
“Get away from me, you damnedable upstart,” he said in a low hiss. “Do you know who I am?”
“Not the foggiest.” The youth looked him over as if to make sure. “—but I know that you’re from out of town and you’re sitting around like you’re waiting for trouble to introduce himself.”
“Trouble? Would that be you then?”
The boy blinked. He smiled awkwardly. Somewhere behind them, a dove-seller made a shout after one of her birds, and both boys jumped a little.
“Look. I’m not—” He gestured for Argath to keep following him. “I’m not trying to do anything but get back to the inn my father and I are set up at. Estore company men are everywhere nowadays—making big foolish gambles every which way to try to keep their influence in the capital before Baert takes over. I’ve good reason to think that they think I have something valuable, and you’re out here looking into space like a scarecrow wearing a 500 gil doublet.”
Argath stifled the urge to protest that his doublet was—in fact—worth much more than that. He didn’t know what half the words the boy spoke meant or had to do with anything, but the notion he was in some sort of danger was clear enough. He paused, wondering why he’d been such a fool to follow the boy as far as he had.
“How do I know this isn’t some ruse on your part?” He looked around him nervously. “You’re the only man who’s accosted me thus far.”
“I—uh—suppose that’s a fair point.” The boy shot him another awkward grin, walking backwards as he tried to keep them moving. “I really should have thought this out a little more.”
“So you confess that there’s absolutely no good reason I should trust some grubby vagabond dragging me to god-knows-where?”
“I’m not dragging you anymore.”
“You were . I should have the cardinal's men pop you in the stocks for it!”
The boy turned pale at the remark. As he did so, Argath felt the sudden grip of a hand on his body, clutching him about the waist as what must surely be a poignard pressed itself firm against his back.
“I’ve been looking for you boys.” A voice rasped from somewhere behind him. “Why don’t we all step over some place a little more private where we can all catch up.”
The youth’s eyes were wide as saucers, and Argath could tell he was probably about to bolt. He swallowed hard. Men of that station were closer to the brutes they tended some ways—ready to spook if nobody tended them . He fumed about how thoroughly stupid it should be if he were stabbed in an open marketplace because some rabbity tinker’s boy decided to involve him in affairs he had no part of.
When the boy didn’t bolt, he was relieved, although it did little to improve his opinion of him.
The three of them—he hoped it was only three—walked slowly towards a narrow side street, and Argath realized that the sky was just beginning to take on that golden hue that portends evening while still being a long way off from it. He thought to how he should have been headed back to where they'd been stationed at the castle by now—how if this grimy, bumbling commoner hadn’t decided on him of all people, he should be walking back alone to await the return of all those boys with the good sense to ignore him.
“Your friend here will deeply appreciate it if you tell us where it is, Bunansa,” the man with a knife at his back said when they were well clear of the plaza. “It’s Estore property, anyways.”
“You can’t buy a mine where something used to be and then claim everything that was ever there. It was excavated before you took ownership!”
“Your father left a great deal of blanks in what scarce paperwork he could be bothered to fill out. The date of the find is in question.”
“Can you please just give this rogue—whoever he is—what he wants?” Argath said tersely, trying to hide his fear underneath his indignation. “I haven’t the time to—”
He was cut off as the man behind him moved suddenly to grip him by the chin, pushing both his body and his blade even closer against Argath. He could make out the foremost outlines of his captor’s face now, as his stubbled cheek pressed close against his neck, breath burning against his skin.
“It’s a shame you’re going to make me stick’im—you know that. A smooth-skinned brat like this would mean a lot of gil to a man or two of taste out in Warjilis.”
Argath didn’t quite take his meaning at first, but he felt his face go hot as a thick gloved set of fingers caressed the edge of his jaw. The boy—Bunansa, Argath supposed—gave a panicked grimace as he began to rifle through the workman’s coveralls he wore, hopefully digging about for whatever the it was at the heart of this miserable dispute. Argath very much hated him for the time he took. However, as he already hated him for having forcibly made his acquaintance, for having involved him in his affairs, and for generally being the sort of over important Lionelese craftsman who seemed to think himself fit company for his betters, this new fault of his could do little to lower Argath’s opinion of the boy further.
He tried to be stoical. He told himself that he was a man now, and he should try to meet the threat of death or even worse with the gravitas of a soldier. In the interests of remaining calm and uncrying, Argath allowed himself the indulgence of thinking through how it would fall if he were found stabbed and robbed in this wretched alley—how all those boys who left him behind might feel sorry they did so and how the Marquis might have both of these poor fools hanged for their affront to the March.
As Bunansa pulled some strange apparatus out and held it at arm’s length, he wondered what the boy might look like at the gallows, his blond hair loose like a woman’s, his thin frame shaken with the same terror of death that Argath refused to show. He felt the man’s grip on him tighten even further as the blade at his back tore through the fabric of his doublet until it lay cold against the thin smock that separated it from his skin.
He closed his eyes, thinking this was the end of things, and felt a hot tear run down his cheek despite all his best efforts to stay it.
And then... there was an explosion.
Everything was suddenly noise and smoke, and a hot stinging line of something grazed Argath’s shoulder. He fell forward as the body clutching his suddenly fell away, and he might have toppled to the earth had Bunsana not grabbed his wrist to drag him along again. The boy said something then, perhaps by way of explanation or instruction, but Argath couldn’t make it out. Whatever in the name of the Saint had just happened had deafened him in the aftermath, and as much as he loathed the man tugging him about now, he knew it was a fair upgrade from the one who had had his hands on him prior. He looked behind him but once as they cut towards the back of the alley and saw a collapsed lump of clothing that he assumed had been his assailant.
When he saw the shadow of some other person step into the far end of the street to look over it, he picked up his pace. He did not know if Bunansa had told him the facts of the situation or if he was some conman or liar trying to plunge him into further peril. He did know—however—that he wasn’t sticking a dagger to his back. Argath followed his lead as he pulled him over a low wall, through some minor chapel’s gardens, atop a series of flat-roofed shops and towards the far western edge of the city. All the while not he did not know if the footsteps fading into audibility were those of pursuers or celebrants or their own boots knocking about on roof tile and paving stones. He soldiered through the injury to his shoulder as best he could.
“—foolish of me to think they’d be less likely to go after two than one—if you can hear me, I’m sorry about that.”
Bunansa’s voice came back to him on that apology, and he was glad enough at having his senses back that he nearly accepted it.
The sky had clouded over and dimmed to a dark grey by the time they reached the inn to which the boy had been bound. It was a small, red-tiled building near to the edge of the city’s western wall with a white flower on its shingle. It was called “The Celsettia,” which Argath thought was probably pretentious, even if he didn’t get the reference. As he was dragged over to the oaken door, Argath protested that he was liable to be missed and that his treatment amounted to a near kidnapping.
Mustadio Bunsana—the whole name having been clarified at some point—apologized again as they entered. He explained very firmly, however, that letting Argath on the loose in the night with a dinged shoulder and god-knows-who after him would be negligent to the point that it would probably amount to manslaughter, which would put him in for worse charges than the kidnapping.
Argath was about to tell him that Fawkes would do worse than manslaughter should he catch him where he ought not be, but he imagined the boy would not understand. He also considered—as he had throughout through the long series of wynds and side paths that he had taken to run so far from the castle—that they were not set to depart until terce hour at least. The Marquis had prayers to pay for, and rumors lay heavy that the Cardinal was fond of long conversations. Besides that, he imagined that some of the older knights had doubtlessly caught themselves up in the revelry of the fete. He told himself that he did not want to stay here—at this miserable little inn with this miserable little man—but he did little to protest now as he was ushered in and led to the snug, well lit room where the elder Bunansa was apparently staying.
Argath’s immediate impression upon entering into the space was that it was like looking at a reliquary up close: the floor was a mess of gold and wire and spiraling arrangements of jewel-like glass globes. A man well into his middle years was poring over it all from where he sat on a low stool, and Argath realized after a few seconds that the mess of brass and filaments mapping over the floor was some piece of disassembled machinery: one of those outlandish Gougish automata that played chess or set metal birds singing. He knew little about that sort of work save that it was the kind of thing his family had never been able to afford even before its fall. As he walked over to try to get a better look at it, he realized that the man fidgeting about with the apparatus hadn’t noticed his presence and that he seemed to barely register that of his son’s.
“Pa—It was like I figured: company men,” Mustadio said after a moment of being unacknowledged. “You should really be more careful now that we have that thing.”
“I am careful, Mustadio,” the man replied. “I stayed inside.” He didn’t look up as he adjusted a spring of some sort. Argath wondered if it might be a good point for him to leave.
“I mean that perhaps we shouldn’t have brought it— If we’d left it back in Goug.”
“If we’d left it back in Goug, Banvell could well have his grubby little hands all over it, and there wouldn’t be a chance at us stopping them. They’re at least out of their element here.”
“It wasn’t Banvell this time.” Mustadio sighed. “It was Estore. I suspect it will be Baert come autumn.”
“Well whomever it is…” The man finally stood up. He wiped the metal dust from his hands as he turned to his son. “...they’d best find time to kill me for it when I’m not out of goldentite. I wouldn’t have come here if they’d just kept importing the damn stuff to the west instead of having to wait for peddlers out of Mullonde hawking it in St. Eloinin’s name. Did you at least pick up my pre-order before Estore or whomever it was ran into you?”
Mustadio looked awkwardly to Argath, as if he should have any clue as to what a bloody goldentite was or whether or not they had any. Shrugging, he threw an arm around him and walked him over a few paces as if to push him better into his father’s sight. Argath said nothing, but he shot Mustadio a very pointed glare.
“Father,” Mustadio began, “to walk things back a few paces, I suppose the first thing I should have brought up was that I shot one of them, which makes it hard going to show my face out in the open market.” He coughed as he patted Argath on his uninjured shoulder. “The other is that I ended up bringing this fellow into the whole business, and I guess I shot him a little too.”
The old man looked to where Argath stood, glowering and bloodied, and finally gave him a little nod to indicate that his presence had registered. He turned back to Mustadio.
“So no goldentite then?”
“Was there a point to dragging me up here?” Argath barked suddenly. “As you said, you damn well injured me, and I assumed that your insistence I keep on with you implied you were going to damn well do something about it.”
“We can patch him up, right, father?” Mustadio interjected. “He’s apparently part of some noble’s entourage and I really would like to not be hanged for that on top of the shooting. Not that… it really would make a difference if they hung you more than once, but I figure the less cause anybody has to hang me the better.”
“You just killed a man, didn’t you?” Argath asked.
“Knowing Mustadio’s aim, I sincerely doubt it.” The older Bunansa said coolly before turning back to his son. “If his wounds are light enough that he’s able to stand about and sulk over it, we should be able to set it more or less right. Flesh is a lot more finicky than most of this rot, however. It would probably be better to call in a professional.”
“Can we afford a professional?”
Argath felt himself sighing in exasperation even before the man shrugged in what was presumably the negative.
Argath fumed all throughout the operation, wherein he was prodded, swabbed, smeared with something probably not to be used on human flesh, and given an awkward lecture by Mustadio on the physics of the projectile he’d blown into him. Argath profoundly did not care, and he felt degraded to spend the whole time as though he were just another one of the spidering bits of clockwork that lay cluttered about the room. His only real satisfaction in the whole matter was that he managed to refrain from seeming as though any of it hurt him particularly. He already felt humiliated that somebody should see him nearly go to his grave weeping; and he felt some small pride in managing to handle the dressing of a wound with a soldier’s stoicism.
When it was all done, the sun was setting. Argath imagined that if he had made his way back to the castle, it would now be about the time when the first boy who wasn’t him drifted back in—that the noblemen’s sons who could keep company together would just then be breaking off between who was to head back and who was to conspire to stay out. He wondered, being where he was and not where he ought be, if any of those squires now returning would notice his absence: if Neale or Gerad—who had never been unkind in their distantness—might ask if somebody should go looking for him, or if Tensberger—who had pushed him into a uribo wallow less than a week prior—should wonder why he wasn’t about to be pushed into anything else.
Besrudio Bunansa—the whole name having been clarified at some point—eventually finished doing his shoulder up in lint and gauze and told Argath that he was free to go his way. Mustadio cautioned him, however, that it was dusk, that he didn’t know the city, and that after the upset he was involved in, it might be best that he stay with them.
“I’d hate for you to suffer any more hurts than you already have, and I can’t imagine your employer would enjoy the hassle of being held up if something did happen to you.”
Argath, for all the protests on his lips that he wasn’t in need of some clockworkers’ charity, thought long and hard about how he might be greeted slinking back towards the keep. He realized that whether it was in the black of night or in the early morning hours of dawn, nobody would care particularly one way or the other.
Argath thought that perhaps it was not too great a debasement to accept the offer of a warm bed. He decided that—as these men were bound for Goug and he for Gallione—he would have the luxury of soon forgetting about both of them before the week was out. Besides, even if it got out, the shame of relying on a commoner’s mercy wouldn’t cling to him any more heavily than the shame already soaked into his family name.
He allowed himself, then, to be subject to more conversations he did not follow, to more informative lectures that did not take, and to a plate of largely untouched mutton sandwiches that had apparently been meant to feed Besrudio throughout the day. Mustadio and his father did their utmost to be warm and engaging, but pragmatically left off once it became clear that their guest would not be engaged. Argath did his best not to remark as he watched them turn their attentions to the whatever it was on the floor, delicately prodding, combining, and winding various parts and circuits until some of the globes were set glowing.
Argath eventually laid down on the bed where he’d been sitting most of the evening, deciding that he wouldn’t wait on the Bunansas to see himself to sleep. He was still awake, and the daylight was not quite spent, when he was jostled by the solid thump of Mustadio flopping onto the bed alongside him.
He suddenly recognized that there was little sense in two men travelling together paying for a third bed.
“Did you mean for me to only learn now that we’d be sharing the bed you offered?” he whispered harshly, turning around to where his companion lay crumpled atop the counterpane.
“If it please your lordship, you do know that I ran across half the city too you know, and the floor is already occupied besides. I’m pretty thin though. I think you can manage.”
“You think I can manage. Who are you to—”
“I’m very tired is who,” Mustadio interrupted, his voice betraying—for the first time—the slightest hint of irritation before it softened again. “Aren’t you?”
Argath turned away from him to stare at the ceiling, his thoughts drifting unwillingly back to the man who had held a dagger to his back and a hand to his face earlier that day. He then considered how close Mustadio was to him now, the nimbus of his body’s heat warming his skin.
He tried to close his eyes, tried to hold still, tried to just focus on his thoughts without giving into the temptation to exchange any more words than they already had. As he felt the soft stirring of Mustadio’s breath against him, Argath repeated to himself that their acquaintanceship would be at an end tomorrow. He told himself that he would awaken to a world where there was no need to consider that any member of the Bunansa family ever existed, let alone have met with him, dragged him about, nursed his wounds, and shared his bed.
Argath must have begun to dream then—one of those half-waking sort of dreams in which one believes themselves awake. He thought he was in bed, but in a bed at Limberry, where one of the long summer rain storms was battering at the windows. Somebody was singing something; he thought it might be his mother. She had sung to herself often when he was a boy, and he’d taken comfort in all those songs never intended for him: revelling in that absent-minded, directionless warmth that he thought suffused her.
He could not stir to see who the singer was, however, and when at last he moved, it was out of his body and through the window, where he was carried down into the muddy, endless marshes without the city. Argath thought himself suddenly transmuted to a will-o-the-wisp: one of those distant lights he had been told were the spirits of children stolen off by Ordallian patrols—the boys abandoned when their captors found the harsh Limberrian landscape too difficult to traverse with prisoners in tow.
Prisoners. Singing. Lights. Softness. Argath was chilled through a body he didn’t have, some husk left behind to drift and drown there in the endless mire. He did not know what transformations befell him then, or how that bubble of emptiness suddenly collapsed back into the thrum of material life. However, whatever he was—wherever he was—he found himself caught in the soft nest of something's ribs, pressing himself snug and close to its beating heart.
Argath awoke then, eyes fluttering open as all the incongruities of the past hour betrayed it as a dream. It was still night. He was still in Lionel. As he came to a better awareness of his surroundings, he found that he had shifted such that his arms were now around the sleeping body adjacent to his.
Mustadio Bunansa was clearly no longer awake, and in the silver square of moonlight that fell upon his features he looked very pale. Argath, still caught in the fuzzy-headedness of dreaming, thought to himself that perhaps he was like a piece of glasswork: something that took its color from the world around it and only seemed glowing and alive in the sun. As Mustadio breathed hot against his skin, he realized it was a very foolish piece of fancy.
Argath sighed a little at his predicament, knowing that he should disentangle himself from his companion lest he awaken and mistake the situation for something it was not. It had been a very great wrong on the part of his sleeping self to betray him so, when his waking self surely did not mean to embrace some baseborn boy whose kindness he had never welcomed. He thought it almost another fault on Mustadio’s part that he should have engineered to get himself into his arms.
He also thought, now that he was there, that Mustadio was very warm.
Despite his better conscience, Argath kept holding the lanky boy next to him, thinking of all those points where their bodies met and how the heat from one seemed to pour into the other like a circuit. He wondered then, if Mustadio was given to appetites like those men of taste out in Warjilis—if he would take advantage of this awkward happenstance should he awaken then and see Argath clutching him fast.
He wondered in that moment, seeing the rise and fall of his companion’s moonlit throat, what appetites he had himself.
He closed his eyes and tried not to think of his predicament or its potentialities. He tried to fall asleep. As he drifted though—painfully awake to himself and his surroundings this time—he was aware of the subtle shift by which the body next to his turned to flop its arm around him.
Argath, knowing there were no means for him to protest, lay there in the quiet rush of their mingled breath and heartbeats. He lay there still as a statue, and he allowed himself to be held.
When he awoke the next morning, the embrace was broken, and Argath did his best to tell himself that like so many other instants of the past day, it was best considered a dream. There was a cock crowing in somebody’s yard, although it did not seem to have an effect on either Bunansa. He hoped that it meant that he hadn’t slept in all that much past the sunrise.
He did his utmost to grab his singed and stabbed doublet and to check his purse without making much by the way of noise. He smoothed over his hair. He thought better of nicking one of the remaining sandwiches, remembering how little he had thought of them the night before.
He did not say goodbye.
On the long, half-jog half-walk it took for him to get back to the area of the castle, he looked over his shoulder more than once, apprehensive lest some rogue be on the watch for a boy unaccompanied. The empty frames of vendors' stalls remained on some of the streets, remnants of yesterday’s banners still flapping from them. He thought to himself that this whole humiliating mess might have been avoided if he’d had the presence of mind to wear a sword.
When Argath got to where he ought to be, none of the other squires were up—nor was there any sign that Fawkes or one of the lieutenants was on the ready to have him thrashed and made example of. He stumbled into the barracks where they’d been quartered with a sense of overwhelming relief, tainted only a bit by the complete lack of care anyone had had for his departure or return.
Argath figured he’d still be on his way to a punishment for some of it: for having come back late or for turning up in a torn shirt or for something entirely made up for the sake of punishing him. He thought a little bitterly, as he sank into the thin mattress of one of the vacant beds, that something of the oily scent of machineworks still clung to him. Perhaps that would be what they got him for: perhaps that faint atmosphere of Mustadio Bunansa that hung about his clothes would call out his transgressions.
He rubbed the bandage over his abraded shoulder a bit, as if to incite it to more pain and thereby confirm the wound was still there. As Argath tried to fall asleep for the second time that morning, he felt very ill-put together, as though some part of him would come apart and fly away with nothing to hold him down.
The cold daylight that shone over Lionel castle fell bright on his face, and as he finally sank out of consciousness, he knew he would not dream.