In Sheep's Clothing
Pre-game, Gabranth, Drace. For any Judge, a suit of armor isn't simply a collection of metal parts.
In Archadia, each suit of armor is tailored to its Judge.
Drace's is cut to exacting standards. It has to be. There are lists of registered blacksmiths and metallurgists in the city who are qualified for the masterwork that a Judge requires. To make it on the list is an honor, and once you are there, you cannot rest on your laurels. Fashions come and go. Each smith jockeys for rank, proclaiming with fierce pride which of the officials they have harbored on their customs list that year, marking up points between normal Judges and Judge Magisters.
But not all armor is ornamental. Lower-ranked Judges can go for years with little more than a nick in their breastplates, depending on where they are stationed. The Magisters endure much more. Despite being heads of their fleets, and theoretically removed from any battle, it is a rare month that goes by without one of the Magisters sending down a request to the trade district for repairs.
Drace's suit is tailored by the same smith who had dealt with Zecht's armor. Solar's Shielding, so the business has been called through its generations, with a history of over twenty years in service to the Judges. She has thought numerous times about switching to Gabranth's smith -- a solemn fellow who is rumored to soak Gabranth's pauldrons in baths of liquid silver -- but she likes not having to schedule around the other Judge's repair times, and the subtle competition of armories suits her tastes. That, and the other smiths she's visited have inevitably wound around to the question of if they'll have to make provisions should she be in the family way, which always makes her scowl.
For it matters which smith is best. After all, each suit of armor is special, custom-matched to that particular individual. They conform to every inch of their Judge's body. Repairs require painstaking attention to detail, involving hours of measuring with silken cords, as intimate as a family physician.
Because: each Judge Magister is unique, and they use their metal garb as both shield and mask, so it must be comfortable for prolonged wear.
Because: it would be too easy otherwise for one Judge to wear the armor of another, and commit numerous transgressions while dressed in false clothing.
(That law, like many others, only exists because someone had done it in the past; justice is perfect in hindsight.)
She grumbles about the necessity of it to Gabranth later. The armorsmith is late; the armorsmith is held up by some ridiculous fete that some nobleman is conducting, where he simply must have all his servants composed in silver filigree, and Drace would have thought that a Judge could have taken priority on these things, save that Judges apparently pay less than simpering wasps. She grumbles to Gabranth, and he gives her a startled, whisper-quick glance that she can't identify.
"I mean," is her clarification, half-curious if he'll make that particular expression again, "it would be too simple to allow someone else to simply take over for me, wouldn't it?" The padded undershirt refuses to settle right when she tugs it, and Drace is forced to plucking at it like a henmother, squinting down her nose at her own neckline. She feels lighter without her full suit of armor, incomplete. "As long as they never removed their helm, all of Archadia would be ignorant of the difference. I could go on holiday. Dress someone else up like me, and they could fool anyone into thinking -- "
"Enough, Drace," he orders her, and there is a weight in his voice that is worse than the command.
She does not know if she is more affronted that he gave her an order, or that he did not join in the jest, but she whirls away with a stifled huff.
With her back turned, she does not see him leave.
She is missing her helmet all that evening, and because of the particular rules that refuse Judges to retain backup suits of gear -- again, the risks of theft, of duplication, of duplicity -- she has nothing else to cover her face with. Gabranth takes on her caseload of public reports. Drace spends the evening pacing back and forth in the antechamber behind the court, listening to his patient, muffled voice filter back to her, declaring verdict upon verdict.
"A fool's pox upon the lot of them," she snorts, as Gabranth deliberates over the status of a trading violation, and eventually recites off the appropriate amount of innocence. "Why I cannot assign a lower Judge to handle these things, I should never know."
Ghis is waiting there with her, his own helm off as he peruses the reports. He's up for duty once Gabranth finishes; each time block is three hours long. "Next time, avoid fighting creatures that go for the eyes, Drace," he replies mildly, sprawled in his chair with the same kind of slouch that she recognizes, having done it herself: the plating in his greaves is pinching his skin, and making it uncomfortable to hold a decent posture. "You would not be so inconvenienced now, if you had not succumbed to your pride and chased the white coeurl."
"There are four eyes on my helm to avoid such casualties through misdirection," she retorts. "I have taken down larger marks before. How was I to know that that particular beast had uncanny aim?"
"Peace, Drace," is his curt reply. He turns over the paper list of debtors, planning out the guilty in advance. "Count yourself lucky that Gabranth takes pity on you today. I would have seen you deliver your statements in a dancer's veil."
She grabs the nearest cushion off a couch and throws it at him; he deflects the missile neatly with a laugh and his gauntlet, the brief humor cracking through his cruel facade. Outside, Gabranth's drone has begun to wind down to its ceremonial close. The nearest clock warns of evening, and Drace spares it a glance before quitting the antechamber early.
(Ghis's shift will finish off the night's duties; then they are all free for another month without public showing, retiring to their own affairs with relief. Ghis has already told her than he and Bergan will be away from Archadia for a month, and that he is hoping she will forward him news of the Senate, and also that the Emperor's coughing has been getting much, much worse.)
Without her helm, Drace is restricted to the halls of the palace. She understands the protocol: the anonymity of her false name and false face is designed to protect her, so that the judged cannot take their revenge upon her whenever she is vulnerable. The palace is expected to be safe, and the guards she passes are polite enough to look the other way, but Drace still feels confined and naked simultaneously, wearing her skin in open display. It itches her, to be regulated to a civilian for too long. She does not like being less than herself.
When there is a knock on her door that evening, she is in the middle of penning several nasty letters to her smith. The quill deliberates in her hand; the pads of one gauntlet have a miniature black river where the ink has leaked.
Finally, she sets the papers aside, and goes to answer her visitor.
It's Gabranth. At first she wonders if there is some sort of calamity on the border countries, and that is why he is calling on her at such an hour; then he shifts, angling his body so that the linen-swaddled bundle underneath one arm is revealed.
Drace knows what the object is before he even twitches the cloth aside. She has seen the shape in too many ways to ever mistake her helm. She has slept with it curled against her stomach, slept in it during uneasy hours near battle, and felt its protection wrap around her the whole while. The crumpled metal near the eye-holes has been repaired almost flawlessly. The new material is cleaner than its surroundings, but it will stain soon enough, and blend in with the whole. All violence has been wiped away from the surface, leaving the armor heavy and serene in her hands, waiting for her to put it on.
"I spoke with Solar personally." Gabranth is talking, but Drace only has eyes for the helmet, turning it over and over in her grip as she checks it for any variance. "I informed him that it would be best if his smithy completed the task sooner rather than later. He... apologizes for the delay."
"You have my thanks," she can't help but say, the relief in her voice distorted to a tinny burr as she slides on the helm. The bridge of the nosepiece is a bit tighter than she'd like, and she expects that sweat will make it inconvenient later, but every new piece of armor needs some time to break in properly.
Gabranth has not left. He watches as she tries to simultaneously adjust her armor properly and find a mirror, relief fluttering like a moth in her chest. "Well?" The horns on his own helmet leave deep shadows across the rest of his armor, wavering in the candlelight. "How does it suit you?"
"Like I have the right face again," she tells him, running her gloves over the sides of the rounded earpieces, and trying to bite down a hum of satisfaction.
He starts to turn away; she's faster than him this time, reaching out to catch his wrist between her fingers. He shifts on his feet, discomforted, but she does not let him go.
"Thank you," she says again, plainly, Judge to Judge, mask to mask. "For understanding."
This time, she thinks that he smiles.