|A Cataclysm That Heals
Author: nooziewoozie PM
Cymnea did not have what one might call a poetical disposition. -Cymnea, Zara, and years. Cyril pops in, too!Rated: Fiction T - English - Family - Words: 4,181 - Reviews: 3 - Favs: 3 - Follows: 1 - Published: 02-05-13 - Status: Complete - id: 8982000
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Title: A Cataclysm That Heals
Pairings/Characters: Cymnea, Cyril, Zara. Kind of Cyril/Cymnea?
Rating: T? For mentions of Cymnea's previous occupation?
Notes: This one was a long time in coming. I wish we'd seen more of these characters in the book. Cymnea was so cool.
Cymnea did not have what one might call a poetical disposition.
Zara's father, when she chose to think of him, which was not often, had been a centurion in the Third Parcian. He had not been a nice man, and she, not having had at the time a Madame who particularly cared about her girls, caught his eye. Cymnea had been large even then, but she had not yet turned her size into a lure and weapon. He had taken her easily; nine months later, Zara had taken her first breath not long after her father had ceased to take his. Cymnea had taken a great deal of pleasure making sure of that.
It is good, generous business she does, and being only one more link in a chain of secrets that flit back and forth along enemy lines gives her power she would otherwise have. Every Aleran with even half a brain knows war is coming in one shape or another; in a land like Alera—a land of a constantly shifting mosaic of alliances—information is power, and it only matters if you knew who is buying, who is selling, and who is desperate enough to do both.
In any case, running a brothel is simple. Running a profitable, clean, well-maintained and disease-free brothel is not difficult, either. Keeping greedy sharks from taking it from her is the difficult part. She takes great pleasure in watching Bors teach them lessons in the pitfalls of greed.
Cymnea spends great time and ingenuity ensuring that all the men who enter her establishment are never altogether reminded that they are among whores—one trick among several she had picked up from a feliatrix Cymnea had known during her time in the Third Parcian. The wine is plenty and never watered; music plays at all hours of the night; her girls smile and dance and simper and make their tricks feel like the most important men in the world.
Good men, these are—simple legionares who come to find what pleasure they can in the midst of the tedium of military life, men who would fare better claiming a fresh-faced camp-follower girl who could give them lawful children and comfort that did not come from the clink of coin, and perhaps draw that comfort in return. They could, perhaps, build a family and make it a thing of beauty and one that is built to last.
That these men seek comfort with her girls is silver in her pocket. It is melancholy that this arrangement inspires in her, but Cymnea is quick to banish the emotion. Empires, even ones as small and humble as hers, are not built on sentiment.
Cymnea has gotten used to the tent yawning with westerly winds; it is a peaceful sound, and one that had often lulled her to sleep. Tonight, there is no peace to be had. She had ushered her girls behind closed walls, bought rooms for them in a rather dilapidated inn for an outrageous sum, and because sleep was proving elusive, settled down to doing her nightly accounts. That is when Gerta—or, a woman who looks a great deal like Gerta, but who is not pockmarked or blind or daft—strides into her room and says, superior as you please, that Captain Rufus Scipio has asked her assistance this night.
Cymnea closes her mouth with a snap. This girl—this woman—is not Aleran. There is a warrior's gleam in her canted eyes and a purposeful length in her stride.
"Of course," Cymnea says coolly as she can manage. An important step to remaining in control of any given situation at all times, she had learned, was the appearance of control, even if one felt as though she was standing on the deck of an alarmingly tumbling ship. She stands and settles her skirts. "Did he say what he wanted from me?"
Not-Gerta smiles a bit as though she's sensed Cymnea's bewilderment. Or she might have smelled it. "He did not. Rest assured, mistress. He is a good man. He will not use you dishonorably."
Cymnea finds it in herself to sniff while donning her cloak. "Only a fool puts his trust in a whore's honor." The saying rolls off her tongue, and after all these years, carries with it no sting. It's not true, anyway: a woman might sell her body but she had no call to sell her spirit.
"That is stupid," Not-Gerta proclaims matter-of-factly. "I do not understand why Aleran men persist in shaming women for providing the very services they crave. You are merely a merchant, and I, for one, cannot hold it against you for selling pleasure. It is quite lucrative. You are quite honorable, for a merchant."
Cymnea smiles. "Indeed."
"Where have you been?" Cymnea demands severely, half rising out of her chair. "Are you all right?"
Zara, who had always been an odd and maddening child, only blinks and dimples in a small, sheepish smile. "I was hoping you wouldn't notice," she says.
Cymnea frowns. "Of course I noticed. I was on the brink of having my subtribunes go looking for you. You've been missing for hours."
"I didn't mean to be, Mama," she says, shoving a handful of hair from her face. "I was reading."
"You're always reading." Cymnea stacks her accounts ledgers and supply reports into neat piles in her desk and locks them tight. "Where did you take yourself off to? I told you to be careful, Zara, and that does not mean leaving your poor mother at loose ends."
Zara has the good grace to look contrite. "I know. I'm sorry. I don't suppose you'll be any more forgiving if I told you I'd fallen asleep?"
Cymnea frowns more severely. "Zara. We are in a military compound. It isn't wise to be taking yourself off to parts unknown, and even more unwise to leave yourself unguarded."
"I can take care of myself, Mama. You know I can. And I have my knife."
"There's that, at least. You always seem to be misplacing it." Cymnea stands and moves towards her private chambers. "And I know you can handle yourself but I would rather you didn't have to. There's a wide, wide gulf between being good in trouble and being good at avoiding trouble. Where were you?"
Zara, who had been looking sullenly mutinous, bites her lip in sudden consternation. "I think we'll be happier if I don't say."
"Really, Mama, I think—"
"Commander Cyril's study." Zara says the words quickly, and braces herself for a tongue-lashing.
"I see," Cymnea says quietly. Zara bites her lip again. She is right to be nervous. "What were you doing there?"
"Reading, Mama," Zara says. "He's got books and books and books—and I don't think he knows I was there! He wasn't there at all!"
Cymnea merely arches an eyebrow.
"Don't do that. I know it was wrong of me to go in there but I was bored and—"
"Bored?" Cymnea asks, flabbergasted. "Zara, what can I say to you that would impress upon you how wrong your actions were? It is his private office. There are reams of private papers there—intelligence reports, letters, plans of battle! Great furies, child, are you daft? What possessed you to go there?"
Zara sets her jaw, just like Cymnea does. "I didn't touch anything private. I didn't go near his desk at all. I just picked a book and—Mama?"
Cymnea buries her face in her hands. "Tomorrow," she says, her voice muffled and strained, "you will apologize to him for your actions, and you will take care to never repeat them."
"That's not fair," Zara says mutinously. "I'm bored. I'm fourteen years old, Mama! If you won't let me go to the Academy, you could at least let me learn on my own!"
"It's not a matter of letting you go." Cymnea puts fingers to her brow. "You know the system as well as I do. Where are we supposed to get you a patron out here? In the middle of a war?" Not to mention, she thinks, that, no matter what I may be now, I've spent the majority of my life as a whore. This isn't a new regret, and she lives in dread and resignation of the day Zara would cut off all ties with her; Zara is a voraciously intelligent child, and it is viciously unfair that Cymnea's spotted history will keep her from building on her talent.
"Then talk to Captain Scipio!" Zara throws her hands up and begins pacing. "He's a genius. Obviously, he's been to the Academy. Whoever patroned him could do so for me as well."
Cymnea had guessed more than most about whom Captain Scipio's patron might be. "I don't think that's a possibility."
Because First Lords do not lend patronage to bastard daughters of whores. "I don't have the energy for this," she says, standing up. "Let's get back to our quarters."
"You could at least do me the favor of finishing the argument," Zara says testily.
"I will not," Cymnea says, and tells the furylamp to turn off. "I am the parent here. I can begin and terminate arguments as I like."
"You're being a tyrant." Zara follows her out, still pouting. "Even the First Lord cannot do that. Even he is checked by the Senate and the other High Lords, and even then his authority emanates from legitimacy the people afford him."
Cymnea holds up a hand. "Is that what you were reading about today?"
"Yes," Zara says, the thunderclouds in her face clearing. "It was a treatise on what the author called social contract political philosophy. Namely, the text said that government itself is a very tenuous thing—that the people are whence all authority stems, and that we tolerate lords and ladies because they are supposed to be lending their skills and talents in our service."
Cymnea smiles. "And what do you think of that?"
"It is a very pretty idea," Zara says, "but ultimately limited. Considering the general correlation of furycraft and nobility, and how our society is absolutely obsessed with the idea that might makes right, the idea that Citizens are so privileged because they are some sort of guardians for freemen is unrealistic. We would need to dismantle the entire social order for it to mean anything, really." She frowns. "Outside of principle, anyway. For true authority to come from the common folk there must be some way to enforce their decisions. We have no way to do that now."
"I don't know if that book told you anything you don't know."
Zara rolls her eyes. "Mother. That isn't the point. Knowledge grows from more to more only if there is cross-pollination of ideas."
"Be that as it may," Cymnea says, "you will no longer venture into Commander Cyril's personal library, and you will apologize for doing so today."
"Mother! That's not—"
"Fair?" Cymnea asks, shaking her head. "Not fair that you invaded an officer's private domain?"
Zara glares at Cymnea, her eyes bright with unshed tears, and stalks ahead to their rooms.
Cymnea watches her daughter's small, receding form, sighing.
Commander Cyril, of course, is determined to see her authority over Zara undermined.
"Naturally, she may return," he says firmly. "I have no objection to such an arrangement."
Cymnea had taught herself never to gape in astonishment. She gropes for those old habits. "I don't think that's a suitable arrangement."
"Are you afraid that I've got nefarious designs on your child?" He peers at her through, it seems, interminable folds of skin. He might have been a handsome man once, but years of wind and sun and war have worn him down to a leathery, flinty finish.
"I can't be sure you don't," Cymnea says, setting her jaw and plowing on because she has never been one to cower. "Men have all manner of strange appetites. I know that better than most." Of course she did—she knew intimately the way a man might wind a little girl around his finger, might rape her and leave her with child and completely unaware that she had been abused in the first place. "You're a good man to your men, Commander, but I am a mother before I am a Tribune. I cannot leave my child with you if I do not trust you."
She braces herself for his anger, but Cyril surprises her. "Wise of you," he says. Then he smiles oddly. "Why don't you accompany her? You'll get a break from work, Zara will get her books, and I'll have an excuse to brew some expensive tea."
"I don't know if that would be proper."
"Why not?" he asks, still smiling. "Your chaperonage would be much desired."
She ought to have been used to men disappointing her at this late stage in her life. She flattens her mouth. If she had a silver bull for every man who had believed that she would climb into his bed at the crook of a finger, she would have been able to send Zara to the Academy herself, and then to a collegia of her choice besides. "I'm no longer a mistress, Commander," she says coldly. "I am your Tribune Logistica. Had I not been a woman and not a former whore, would you ask me such things?"
"Forgive me," Cyril says immediately. "I chose my words unwisely. I only meant that it is not very often that you find a child such as Zara. I haven't got any children of my own." He smiles again. "Too damn busy soldiering for family. I thought if I could encourage her in some small way to expand her mind, it would make up for the lack."
Cymnea is not sure she believes him. Still, he is her commander. "I apologize," she says, sighing. "Life isn't the kindest teacher, and I hoped—still hope to spare her some of those lessons."
"She's very bright," Cyril says, pushing a cup of steaming tea at her over his desk, and then gesturing to a thick tome lying near his elbow. "That's what she was reading. I haven't read the blasted thing in years."
"Did she tell her opinions about power imbalances in society?"
Cyril laughs. "Oh, yes. Brilliant girl."
"I don't know what to do with her," Cymnea finds herself confessing. "It's becoming more and more apparent to me that she won't be happy living her life in the back end of nowhere on march behind a legion."
"I can imagine not."
She sips the tea. It's hot, soothing, and fragrant. "No. Zara is…a doer. She wants to do things. She's not personally ambitious." She doesn't know if that is a relief or not. "But she's driven. She wants to know things. It's almost like a physical hunger with her."
"That's not a bad complaint to have, generally speaking."
"No," she says, "I'm very lucky with her. She doesn't touch wine or aphrodin." She smiles briefly. "She even thinks men are little worth the bother."
"I told you. Brilliant." He smiles again, and that same shifting of skin happens. This time, Cymnea is a bit charmed despite herself.
"If it's not altogether unpleasant," she says, "please play the role of Zara's lending library. I would be much obliged."
She doesn't know how he does it, but Ritius Cyril nearly single-handedly restores her faith in the belief that there are, perhaps, a few good men left in the world.
That's rubbish, of course. She knows how he did it: he plied her with tea, a complete lack of (or at least very well concealed) carnal interest, and an avid interest in Zara's mind. Cymnea watches her daughter bloom under Cyril's gentle tutelage. They spend evening upon evening arguing esoteric points of philosophy, history, and sciences. She can follow along more often than not, but she stays out of it: Zara is at an age when she cannot stand to be wrong and will verbally tear strips out of others' hides for daring to disagree with her. Cymnea is of the mind that such tendencies might prove problematic later on, but Cyril thinks it's darling and positively encourages her.
She thanks the great furies that Cyril's proven himself a stalwart chaperone and mentor. If nothing else, she feels at ease leaving Zara with him at Elinarch when the First marches into the field. She might be a Tribune who would ordinarily remain well out of the press of battle, but she is terribly, terribly relieved that Zara is not witness to the final days of the campaign in the Vale. Such desperation leaves a bitter taste. That, and nightmares.
She is a bit sorry Zara misses Gaius Octavian's declaration, though—Zara would natter forever about being witness to history and how could Cymnea be too worried about poisoned wells to pay attention to it?
"I'm coming with you," Zara says. "You can't go, not without me."
"It's not forever," Cymnea says. "I've been away on campaign before."
"To Canea?" Zara spits, pacing the length of the room. "With the Canim! Mother, you and the princeps have spent the better part of two years trying to kill them all, and now you're going to skip across the crowbegotten ocean to see them off?"
"Technically," Cymnea points out, "the princeps was doing the actual killing. I just made sure he had the tools with which to do it."
"Semantics." Zara scowls. "Don't argue particulars, mother."
"What would you have me do?"
"Stay." Zara takes her hands. "Come with me to Alera Imperia, or with Cyril, if you like. He's going back to Placida. You've never been. Wouldn't you like to see it?"
"I've never been to Canea, either," Cymnea points out calmly, even though she feels laughter bubbling up in her throat.
"I don't know how you can be so calm about this madness." Zara glares. "The princeps has infected you."
This time, Cymnea does laugh. "I can't help it," she says finally. "I trust him. He'll take us there and he'll bring us back." It's irrational, she knows. Every legionare and officer in the First Aleran knew it, too. And yet they couldn't help themselves: they loved their captain and princeps with a mad ferocity.
Zara sighs. She walks the length of the room some more. "I don't how I can live with myself," she says irritably. "I'm haring off to be an Academ while you traipse across the ocean to face leviathans, sharks, and all manner of Canim ridiculousness."
"I'll tell you how," Cymnea says. She takes Zara's face in her hands and studies it. Her daughter has grown over the last year. She will never be beautiful. Cymnea's heart throbs a little, for the world had very little room for a girl who was poor, plain, and absolutely brilliant save that which she could carve herself. Zara, in typical Zara fashion, cares absolutely nothing about how she looks: she is a creature of razor-sharp intellect and insatiable, implacable curiosity. How will her little girl enjoy the Academy? It is a place more designed to foment alliances in the younger echelons of Alera's citizenry rather than learning. Will Zara thrive in such a place? She tucks her misgivings away. "You will write to Cyril regularly because he was generous enough to give you patronage and because he's an absolute dear. Then, my little spitfire, you will go to the Academy and hand all of those spoiled Citizen brats their heads."
Cymnea returns from a dead land to a dying one. Thin, shrill horror pierces through her as she reads the reports: Alera Imperia has fallen. Aleria Imperia, where Zara had been.
She swallows her dismay and waylays Maximus. "Can you get a message to Cyril?"
He blinks at her, his thoughts obviously a million miles away. It takes him a moment to focus on her. "What?"
"Cyril was in Placida, last I knew. Zara—he might have kept Zara with him." Her voice trembles with suppressed hysteria and mad hope and terrible, aching fear.
Max's gaze fills with understanding and sadness. "Of course," he says. "I'll send a letter with the next courier." He puts a hand on her shoulder. It is warm and heavy and comforting. "I'll let you know as soon as I know something."
Mama, Zara's letter says. Oh, Mama. I'm so glad you're back home, such as it is. I know you must be giving yourself an ulcer worrying about me (and about Cyril, I hope! Don't disappoint him, Mama. He's very much in love with you but too much of a gentlemanly blockhead to know what to do about it. And don't you chide me for saying anything about it—the world might end; this is no time for quibbling about propriety.), so I wanted to let you know that I'm perfectly all right. The Vord have besieged us here, but are not knocking at the door, so to speak. Cyril says we aren't in desperate straits yet; we can hold for another seven or eight months, but everything will be decided by then.
Cyril came to Alera Imperia last summer when Gaius Sextus called the summit of all the Citizenry and he took me home that very day. He would have joined the Placidan legions out in the field if it hadn't been for me, metal leg be damned. He's taken on the job of keeping me breathing personally, and I hope I'm returning the favor, for you and for me both. I'm fully ensconced in Placida and protected by legions and shieldwalls and Cyril's indomitable will. He worries himself into the ground if I so much as step outside of the house, because he's already worrying himself into an early grave over you.
In any case, I have an assignment for you, my indomitable mother: you must survive the oncoming battles. I know you well enough to know that now that you know I am well, you will never leave our rightful First Lord's side until you have seen this current mess through, or until we all die, whichever comes first. I understand that, and I'm more proud of you than I can say. I love you. I have never been ashamed of you. I've only ever been so, so proud.
So, go forth, mother of mine, and make sure that Gaius Octavian has the tools with which to go to war, and save us all.
Love, luck, and more love,
PS. Though you never said anything, you were right (as usual): the Academy did not agree with me, having been filled with idiot clotpoles whose heads were stuffed so far up their backsides that I'm sure surgery is a necessity for extraction.
PPS. Cyril sends his love. "Send her my regards," were his exact words, but that matters little. He loves you. One must listen between the lines.
Cymnea reads the letter, and cries.
She cries again when she sees Zara and Cyril in Placida after the war has been won. Octavian himself sends her off in a wind coach, and when she claps eyes on her daughter, the world rights itself again. They hold each other, both crying, both laughing, and hoping.
Cyril is there as well. They had become great friends and allies during their time at the Elinarch, two old souls in a legion comprised of heartbreakingly young men. Now, his eyes are soft as they look at her. He has gained a few more wrinkles. She can tell his leg pains him more and more as the days grind on. Mostly, though, she understands the great well-spring of love he has, for her and her daughter.
Later that night, she gives him her hand to hold. He takes it in his, infinitely gentle. Weeks of grueling tragedy have made words superfluous, unwanted and ungainly.
She holds his hand, and hopes.