Title: Symmetric Key
Written for Yuletide. Thanks to Resolute, Inlovewithnight, and Erinpoetchica for beta.
Stock has been dead for three weeks before Justin is forced to accept the fact – and this only, in the end, because the dead man had such terrible handwriting. Up until this moment, Justin has found it easy to believe that his second-in-command is simply, temporarily, elsewhere: he is resting in his tent; he is away on a raid; he has gone to Eschbach to take a message to Rina or, perhaps, as far as general headquarters and Florian. Stock's return is indefinite; others have taken over his duties, they will carry on in his absence, but one day soon, when the war is over and won, Justin will look over the heads of a crowd and he will see the bulk of the man worn a little thinner by wartime deprivation, but with the same smiling eyes, the same sheepish grin, and they will embrace each other as free men.
(Justin knows that Stock is dead. Justin was in the party that found Stock's body. He bent down to face the stripped, beaten, and mutilated corpse; he thrust his hands into the wounds because the dead are less dead if you are only allowed to touch them, and he had to dig in his fingers beneath the coagulation of day-old blood to find a substance red and liquid and still a little warm. Before they put Stock in the ground, Justin smeared his friend's blood along the jagged line of scar that cuts across his own face, the war wound he sought and earned long before he had a war to fight).
Justin knows that Stock is dead, but he has not really believed it until this moment. But now, kneeling alone on the floor of his tent, the pages of Stock's great epic poem scattered in front of him, Justin is forced to accept that his friend is dead, because try as he might, he cannot fit the stanzas together in a logical order and, quite often, he cannot read the last few words at the end of each line. Stock had a habit of assuming that, because he knew what word he intended to write, he need do no more than set down the first few letters. Zara used to excoriate him for his sloppiness; Florian used to tease him more gently. It never occurred to Justin that he should care, because Stock would always be there to read his own lines, with great theatricality, and the others would applaud and all would be forgiven.
But Stock is not here; Stock will not return; Justin is convinced that he is staring at the great epic poem of the Westmark-Regian war, that this is the work that will go down in history and be read by schoolchildren when every footsoldier and captain and general is dead and their children's children are dead. Stock's words would live forever, if only Stock could be here to sort them out.
But Stock is dead and Justin cannot do it himself and so he only stares, the great tactician for once at a loss, until he remembers.
His second-in-command, Stock's replacement. Long before this, in another life, Theo used to be a printer.
"Boy!" Justin calls to the young sentry standing guard just outside the tent. "Get me Captain Kestrel."
Theo paces, raking fingers through his week's growth of beard. He stares down at the maps he has laid out on the dirt floor of his tent. He knows they are good maps because he drew them himself. He knows the positions of the Regian troops to be accurate, insofar as is reasonably possible, because he has word of their movements from the best advance scouts, supported by the intelligence reports of their increasingly numerous spies. And he knows that, just before dawn, a small company will approach the ford on the Caroline River, and that he – Theo, Captain Kestrel – will lead a raiding party against them. He knows that they will take no prisoners.
He doesn't know if he will be able to wash the blood from his hands.
He should not think about that now. There will be time when the war is over.
Or, if there is not, there will not.
He turns back to his maps.
"Captain Kestrel, sir! Permission to enter, sir!"
Theo turns slowly to see a young man in an oversized coat, with the red scarf of the irregulars tied around one arm. "You must be new here," he tells the boy, "because we don't stand on that kind of ceremony." Because of that, Theo thinks, and because the scarf looks fresh – ripped from a captured Regian banner, perhaps – but the coat is three sizes too large for him. It must have come off of one of their casualties; if Theo looked closer, he might be able to tell which one.
Theo does not look closer. Instead, he offers a hand, and the boy stumbles cautiously forward. "Colonel Shrike sent me for you, sir."
At the name 'Shrike,' Theo gathers his maps and folds them into his coat pocket. Informality is one thing; keeping Justin waiting is another. The boy follows closely, as though to give Theo a subtle push. "What's your name, young man?"
"Balthasar, sir. Member of the irregulars since Thursday last, sir."
"I wasn't aware that we had taken on new people since Thursday." Or, he thinks, examining the boy's face, that they had taken on anyone so young. Theo doubts he is a day more than fourteen. Clearly, he has rubbed dirt into his face in order to counterfeit the beginnings of a beard. But then – last Theo noticed, so had Justin.
"The Regians came to our farm, sir – they wanted to take our horses but my mum and dad --" He swallows and holds his chin out bravely. "Father told me to run – not away -- run to Shrike, he said. Tell Shrike – the man they call Monkey found me, brought me back here. I told everything – "
Theo remembers now. He has heard the story from Monkey. "That was very brave of you," he says, sorry that he asked. He is sorry because he is an orphan himself, because he has known too many orphans, and because he knows that if Monkey had found the homestead first, the boy might be telling his same story in a Regian camp. He has never hated the war more than he does at this moment. At the same time, he finds himself thinking of the small places a boy could sneak in and out of. This boy could be an asset –
"You're not to go on any raids," Theo says firmly.
"No, sir," answers Balthasar. "I've only been keeping watch for Colonel Shrike –" They have now arrived at Justin's tent, and the boy gestures at the spot. "And," he says, standing on his toes to lean close to Theo, as though telling a guarded secret, "I've polished his boots."
"His --?" Theo says blankly, wondering what could possibly be worth shining of the old clothes they have been wearing for months, which were hardly decorative in the first place. Balthasar points to the ground, his face shining with pride, and by the light of the campfire, Theo sees a pair of black marching boots, which must have been scrubbed meticulously to free them of all that Domitian mud. The insignia have been ripped off, but he recognizes the standard issue of a Regian officer.
He has taken them off of dead men himself.
"Permission to enter," Theo calls through the tent flap.
"What's taken you so damned long?" comes Justin's sharp, peevish voice.
"See?" Theo nods at the boy. "No ceremony."
Theo steps inside where Justin sits, cross-legged. An oil lamp backlights him against the wall of the tent. When he turns toward Theo, he moves into shadow and for a moment it seems that the long sharp scar bisects his face into light and dark segments. His pale hair, whiter than ever in this ghostly light, stands almost on end from where his nervous hands have touched it. Theo thinks, for a fanciful moment, that Colonel Shrike looks like a homicidal dandelion.
(Months later, in Marianstat, when he spends a week sequestered in a garret, trying to remember every moment of that war and capture it on his sketchpad, this will be the one image he starts, again and again, to draw; the one, again and again, that ends up on the fire. He will never be able to get this picture right).
"You wanted to see me?" Theo asks.
"I did," says Justin. His violet eyes flash at Theo, but then he looks down. He's doing something with his hands that Theo can't make out. "What were you dawdling for? Who were you talking to?"
Theo folds his weary legs together, taking a seat across from Justin. "Balthasar."
"Balthasar. The orphan boy." Theo leans forward, and now he can see that Justin is arranging scraps of paper. "The one who cleans your boots. The one who would die for you."
"I didn't ask him to clean my boots," Justin says evenly. Then, as though that closes the subject, he picks up the papers, folds them over, and hands the sheaf to Theo. "Read this to me."
Theo opens to the first page, expecting to see one of his own maps, perhaps with a symbol that Justin hasn't been able to decipher. Instead, he finds himself staring at the familiar scratch of Stock's handwriting. It takes Theo a moment to recognize the manuscript Stock gave him the day before he died, the one that Theo later handed over to Justin. "Read it to you?" Theo says. "Is that an order?"
"Does it have to be?"
"In point of fact, yes. If Colonel Shrike is giving an order to Captain Kestrel, then Kestrel will obey. If Justin is asking a favor of his friend Theo – well, then, I prefer not to."
"You prefer. . ." Justin repeats. He grabs the pages back from Theo's hand. "Are you really that much of an unbearable snob? Because you worked for a printer a few months and set all the great books of Westmark's high minded - "
"Try tawdry romances and the local agricultural reports. It's nothing to do with my being a snob. I prefer not to read Stock's poem, because I promised him that I wouldn't. It isn't a finished work. He thought it was mediocre."
"It isn't mediocre," Justin answers sullenly. "It's genius."
Theo can't help laughing, even though it draws an aggrieved look from the other man. "Justin. How do you know it is genius if you haven't read it?"
"I never said I hadn't -- " He pulls off the top sheet and waves it in Theo's face. "Stock is a genius. His work is genius, whether this word says –" He points to the end of one line. " 'Hearth' or 'heart.' Maybe it's 'health.' That doesn't destroy the brilliance of the piece. It simply occurred to me that if we were going to have copies made – to distribute, to gather support and inspiration for the cause -- " He waves the papers over his head. "I thought you might help me to put some finishing touches – but never mind. I can wait."
"Wait for what?"
"Wait until Stock comes back!"
Theo freezes in his tracks; the words hang in the air. Then, he walks over to Justin's table and douses the oil lamp.
Justin can feel the silence hanging between them in the dark tent. Theo has just put out the light.
"What did you do that for?" Justin asks. "Now I'll have to light it again."
"If the lamp was on," says Theo, "everyone would see –" He lunges and, in an instant, he has Justin by the throat. Justin tries to twist away, cursing himself for being slow. He wasn't prepared; he still has the pages of the poem in his hand. And after all, this is only Theo. Only the printer's boy, grabbing his neck, and leaning down to hiss in his ear, "Are you out of your bloody mind?"
"Am I --?" And then – caught in Theo's grip, half-choking on the collar of his own shirt – Justin hears a high-pitched wheezing animal noise, and realizes he is laughing.
"God," Theo steps backward and releases Justin, half-pushing him toward the floor. "God, you really are mad."
Justin stumbles to his knees, and now the laughter rises up in him. He can feel it, shaking through his lungs and his limbs and his head. "Bloody," he says. "I thought it was funny you said 'bloody.'" He lets the pages drop, then flails out and grabs Theo's hand. The element of surprise works for Justin this time; he gets a solid grasp on the other man's fingers, squeezes tight around the bones, then turns them over to look at the nails. "I thought so."
Theo speaks between clenched teeth. "There is nothing on my hands."
"I know." Justin lets go, then sits back on the ground. "Monkey told me. After the first raid. You came back. You scrubbed and you scrubbed and you scrubbed. Monkey told me you were a bloody animal. I Monkey /I said that he had never seen a man as wild as I Kestrel /i --" and Justin spits out the name, "But you come back here and you think you can get clean. Like what's her name. In the old play."
Justin doesn't expect an answer, although is sure that Theo knows. Theo knows these things from books; Justin only knows them from Stock, pacing and elocuting in front of the fire at Jellinek's tavern. For years, he believed that everything Stock recited he had written himself. To this day, Justin has trouble sorting out which phrases are Stock's and which are parts of a famous and familiar culture. Often, he has discovered that the lines from the world's great poets are the ones he liked the least.
Theo knows the answer but admitting that he knows would open him up to Justin's accusations of snobbery, and so he stands, glaring down from that lofty height of moral superiority. Justin looks away. "I wish I had never asked you here tonight."
"Who should you have asked?" Theo spits back. "Stock?"
"Stock is dead," Justin answers, evenly. "You don't need me to tell you that. You helped me to bury him."
"But you just said –"
"I know what I said."
(It does Justin good to maintain his memories in matching sets; Justin knows that his father was hanged before his eyes by troops loyal to the former king, and yet he believes that the man escaped and has retired peacefully to a modest home in the country, a home that Justin will be able to visit once the struggle they both believed in has come to a final and successful conclusion. He needs both memories, because he must have the knowledge to give him the anger, and the belief to keep anger from destroying him. Justin is very practiced in the management of truth, never forcing himself to accept more than he can handle.)
Theo shifts from one foot to the other. "I don't understand."
"Don't worry." Justin rises. He walks toward the oil lamp and relights it, then turns and looks at Theo. In the dancing light, under the unkempt beard and the layer of filth and grime, Justin can just make out the face of the earnest young apprentice he met in Freyborg. Theo, who has read too many books to be any good as a soldier, hides somewhere inside of Kestrel, who has killed too many men ever again to be a scholar. Yet Theo stands there, and still he thinks that one day this will end, and he will wash off the blood and shed Kestrel the way a snake sloughs off its extra skin.
Theo still thinks he is going to marry a princess.
"Don't worry about understanding," Justin repeats. "One day, you will."
And with that, he lifts the pages of Stock's masterpiece and sets them to the flame. Because Theo is right.
Stock is dead, and his poem should die, too. No one will ever be able to read it.
A/N: A "symmetric key" is a device used in cryptography, where the reader and the sender need input from each other in order to understand the message.