It was a pleasant enough afternoon – sunny and clear-skied, with just enough breeze to prevent perspiration if your clothes were light and you were out of the sun. Borus was wearing a long-sleeve cotton shirt and had chosen a table in full sun, and found the breeze agreeably ticklish at his sweat-damped temples, neck, and wrists.
The wine was pleasant, too, a smooth, earthy red. It had come from the café's cellar, and not his own, and he had to admit Mamie's sommelier knew his trade. It complimented the meal he'd ordered quite well.
There was only one problem.
"She's late," Borus said unnecessarily, and for the third time, snapping his pocketwatch closed. "Wasn't she supposed to meet us here an hour ago?"
"The Captain seemed tense today," Roland offered quietly over the last of his crudités. "Perhaps she decided a leisurely lunch was inappropriate under the circumstances."
Borus sighed and set down his wineglass. "The whole high command is tense – you can practically smell it if you step inside the castle. There's been no word from Geddoe and his crew since they went to LeBuque, and it's not exactly a situation where 'no news is good news'." He shook his head. It still felt strange to use a military term like "high command," to refer to the mixed and not-exactly-hierarchical group of Grasslanders, Zexens, and Harmonians that were leading Fire Bringer. Particularly when the head strategist was a careless-looking, drowsy youth of seventeen, and the nominal leader a Karayan boy two years his junior. "She could've at least sent Louis to let us know she wouldn't be coming."
Roland had apparently decided such a complaint wasn't worth responding to, so silence settled on the table for a moment or to. Borus sipped his wine morosely and gradually became aware of the animated discussion at the next table.
"…That's a good question, Ace. But I'm afraid I, er, never quite obtained that information on our journey to Chisha," Nash Clovis was saying, and Borus found himself grinding his teeth at the voice of that man. He glanced at Roland. The elf's face seemed blank unreadable, but there was a little line between his eyebrows that Borus had learned over the years meant disapproval.
"You know, I bet one of her knights would know." Ace, one of Geddoe's mercenaries who'd been left behind, shoved his chair abruptly out from the table, and addressed Borus. "Hey, you! I got somethin' to ask you."
"What's that?" Borus said, somewhat irritated by the other man's sudden and informal address. He took a sip of wine, trying to seem nonchalant.
"What kinda corset does your hot lady captain wear?"
Borus choked mid-swallow, coughed, sputtered and sprayed wine all over Roland. "What…What a thing to say!" he managed to exclaim through the coughing, and passed the unfortunate Roland his napkin. He knew mercenaries lacked manners, but surely even the saltiest pirate would know how inappropriate a question that was!
"No, no, y'see… I'm researching her character for a novel I'm writing," Ace said nervously, in what he probably thought was a soothing tone. He wilted under the cold glaze of the dripping Roland as the elf impassively mopped his face. "I am, really, honest…"
"How would I know something like that?" Borus sputtered, fury and embarrassment fueled by wine flushing his face.
"Ah! You're having a pretty interesting conversation over here," Joker's voice said from behind Borus's left shoulder, and the knight jumped in his seat.
"Maybe she tightlaces," Nash said into Borus's right ear, and it was only his efforts to clean up the spilled wine that kept the knight from turning to punch him. The fashion he referred to made women short of breath and limited their mobility, and all in all was highly impractical for a soldier.
"Does she go for a monobosom, or does she separate?" Ace wanted to know, holding a leaky-looking pen to a tattered notebook.
"I'm certain she laces from the bottom up, a woman like her," Joker told his companion. "I wouldn't let that 'Silver Maiden' business fool you."
"How dare you!" Borus snarled, abandoning the stained tablecloth and nearly toppling his chair as he rose. How dared that… that… hired thug suggest Lady Chris lace her corsets like a common prostitute! He reached for the man's coat, but Joker dodged.
Ace was taking notes, keeping one eye on the furious Borus. "Whalebone or wooden boning? Laced in the front or back? Does it have a busk?"
"Brocade, canvas, and steel boning, important from Toran. It's a new fashion there, dwarf-made corsets. They're all straight fronts, laced in the back. Definitely busks," Joker suggested, dodging Borus.
"No, no. Whalebone and canvas covered in linen," Nash said firmly. "Elongated hourglass – it's popular in Harmonia right now, you know - monobosom, lacing in both the back and front. No shoulder straps. And a silk chemise underneath. She's a proper lady, only the best will do. Oh, and a partial farthingale."
"Sure she doesn't go in for leather?" Ace asked, scribbling feverishly. "I mean, warrior woman and all that… it'd be like extra armor, right?"
"Leather stays? Like a…a… laundrymaid?" Nash asked, shocked. "Don't be vulgar, Ace, this is a lady we're talking about. Not a woman of common birth who wears her stays on the outside, nor a strumpet who wears a fancy corset meant to be seen by all. A proper lady's corsetry is well-made, visually appealing, and seen only by… her maids, and one very lucky man."
Borus had had enough. It was bad enough these men were discussion women's underwear in a public place (and that they seemed to know an unfathomable amount about it), but that they presumed to speculate on what Lady Chris might wear, and the smug way Nash had spoken that last part about the lucky man… "How would you know?" he screeched, grabbing the Harmonian by the collar and shaking him furiously.
"Ah, well… we traveled together…" Nash said weakly, through the whiplash. "And it was just a guess. Just a guess! I don't actually know!"
Ace and Joker remained free to speculate loudly. "Lace or embroidery? I'm saying lace."
"No, no, embroidery! Flowers or vines, maybe doves. With a painted ivory busk to match, a love-token from one of her knights."
Nash was flung to the ground as Borus rounded on Joker.
"I bet she wears crinolines, when she wears dresses," the Harmonian called weakly from the floor. "Or panniers. Very much the mode in Zexen, panniers. No bustles, though, which is a pity. I appreciate a good bustle on a woman."
"What a good thing that today is the
Zexen laundry day, and I shall be able to have this washed before the
stain sets," Roland announced loudly.
Everyone grew quiet.
"To the laundry!" Ace announced, and Borus found himself very swiftly left alone.
"What in the Goddess's name possessed you to suggest that to those… those… uncouth louts?" Borus asked the elf hotly. "Now they'll go and paw at… at…" He sought a suitable euphemism. "…at Lady Chris's underthings!"
"Brawls between Zexen Knights and Harmonian mercenaries are not conducive to good relations between the nations," Roland said simply. "And in any event, I doubt they will walk away satisfied from this."
Twenty minutes later found Borus near the laundry lines. It wasn't that he wanted to see what type of corset his captain wore, it was just that… well, someone had to guard her privacy! Hoping he wasn't too late, Borus took up a watch post by a tree, careful to keep his back to the lines hanging with bloomers, petticoats, and other mysterious and feminine items.
A few minutes later, the piping voice of Kidd, would-be detective and prepubescent snoop, broke the air.
"Right this way, gentlemen. Since you paid extra for this information, I'll even point it out for you," the boy said importantly.
"Where is it?" Ace asked, somewhere behind Borus. The knight growled and leaned back against the tree; he could do nothing about the ruffian's presence without turning to face the laundry lines…
He could hear footsteps pass by his tree, then halt not two meters away.
"Here," the boy said triumphantly.
"What are you pointing at? I don't see anything," Nash complained. "Don't try to trick us…"
There was a stamp of a foot. "I'm not trying to trick you. I asked Iku, she was on laundry duty today, and she's a reliable source. It's that one, I'm sure."
"That one? But it's so… " Joker muttered. "I don't believe this."
Kidd sighed, exasperated. "I know that my information is correct. Whether or not you believe it isn't my business. You're lucky today – I was told that Lady Chris doesn't usually have her stays washed, just aired out."
"Yes, but…" Nash whined.
Was something wrong? Borus decided to risk a look – at the men, not at the laundry, of course. He turned and carefully peered around the tree…
Visions of silk linings, satin lacing, and fine embroidery failed to meet his eye. The boy detective was pointing instead at a stiff, dark shape that hung on the nearest line.
Stained, greying, and definitely battered, the simple leather stays hung unattractively on the laundry line.
"Less style than a grocer's daughter…how disappointing," Nash moaned, and for once, Borus found himself in complete agreement.
Some background on this story: The Suikoden III manga, volume 10, has scene in which several male characters speculate on the bra size of one of the main female characters. Since brassieres have only been around in our world for the past hundred years or so, and given the approximate level of technology in the Suikoden world. this seemed anachronistic to me – stays and corsets seemed much more the thing, as I used in another 'fic. And dammit, I did not do all that research on period undergarments for "An Evening with Chris Lightfellow" just to have some lazy hack writer assume she's got modern underclothes for some juvenile gag! Thhbpt.
Mad props to Rienna for costuming details, fact checking, and for making sure I at least regionally separated different period styles.