The Marriage Blade
Set pre-game. Spoilers for Archadia, for the Judges, for House Solidor.
Bhujerba gave Gabranth hay fever the first week. He had never been to the Floating Lands before, and the pollen count of the higher air currents was apparently much different than the ground; that, or the spices of the local cuisine had irritated his sinuses enough to cause them to spasm at the drop of a hat. He could not walk twenty paces on the road without becoming thick-spoken, irritable at his own bleariness.
Polite guest in the Marquis's estate, Gabranth was given no end of spare handkerchiefs and interesting herbal drinks to soothe his aching nose. By the time the second week rolled around, he had become accustomed enough to the climate that his eyes did not water profusely inside his helmet -- but by then it was too late, and he was already wrapping up business.
He spent more time than was necessary on his errand anyway, admiring the Floating Lands and dodging the customs of Archadia. Bhujerba was a fair city, once the initial unfamiliarity had worn off; the food was rich and flavorful, and the accents of its inhabitants sang like copper bells. There was much in the way of laughter. It lingered in the walls of his room, in the halls of the estate, and Gabranth could hear it even late at night as the lantern-vendors prowled the alleyways, selling matches for a gil and lamps for five.
He thought briefly -- and automatically -- about making a purchase from one of the numerous stalls, perhaps a colorful wall tapestry or a decorative bowl to bring back home as a gift.
Then he reminded himself of who he was, and that no one would be waiting.
Upon his return to Archades, Gabranth spent his first hour in the armory, methodically filing papers and requisition slips. Several of his lesser Judges had approval notes to be added to their records of service; one of the Atomos-class ships had been reporting engine troubles, and despite his numerous requests, the Senate had not approved a complete replacement with Shiva models.
Armory was a misleading term for a room better suited for debriefings. Each Judge kept their personal gear in their own quarters. Still, a few token rifles had been stored in racks along one wall, partnered with spare longswords and hammers. Reference books were arranged on the three worktables that sat in regimented order in the center of the room, complete with stacks of various legal forms. The small table near the door bore only six miniature ships positioned on a circular map of the world, each precisely constructed from delicately painted metal.
After finishing off the first bundle of report papers, Gabranth stood up to stretch his muscles. Padding back over to the models, he picked out Ifrit, docking it idly back into its spot on the Archades circle of the map.
Of the six Judges, only the Alexander and the Leviathan were still out, their accompanying Judges on errands to Bancour and the Nabradian border, respectively. Drace's ship had been partially replaced back into its home position; he could not tell if it was leaving or returning, or if it had been simply dislodged from its place.
A scrape of wood and metal sounded behind him, and Gabranth turned in time to see Ghis passing through the door. Unlike him, Ghis headed directly for the table, stabling the model of the Leviathan with weary efficiency. He offered a basic nod. "Gabranth."
Formalities exchanged, Gabranth turned away, sliding a hand along his neck to scratch at an itch just past the lip of his armor. A tiny bone in his wrist gave a pop when he rotated his hand. The sound was painless; his joints were all gently warning him to sit down and relax before they started to complain through muscle tension. "Was your trip profitable?"
"Surveying treelines is always a joy." Ghis ran a finger over the docile model of the Leviathan, as possessive of the miniature as he was of the ship itself. "Was yours of any use?"
Hunting down the last of the itch, Gabranth tried to roll his shoulders, feeling the tendons protest. "There were no difficulties. Marquis Ondore expressed possible agreement in expanding the magicite trade agreements." With forced nonchalance, he added, "Have you see Judge Drace? She wished for news on the conditions of the Paramina Rift."
For a moment, it looked as if Ghis would inquire on the oddity -- there was not much reason for any Judge to care about a barren wasteland of ice, snow, and inhospitable beasts. Then he shrugged. Gauntleted hands lifted, prying the man's helm off; he took in a deep breath of air once his face was exposed, which Gabranth could sympathize with. "Drace wishes to tempt a Jagd? Well, I will not delay that disaster. I saw her fleet unloading for repairs at the docks. She arrived before I did -- I am surprised you did not meet one another on the road." The older Judge brushed past towards one of the worktables, setting down his helmet with a thump. Armor rattled as he slid into a chair. "Was it important?"
"Of that, I am not certain. Only," Gabranth hesitated, debating the use of patience, "only that she requested I speak to her when we had both returned to the city."
Paused in reaching for a brass-capped pen, Ghis let his fingers rest on the inkwell he had selected. "No. If she bid you tell her upon arrival, then she would not wait even upon her own injuries." Uncorking the glass vial, he pulled the top sheet off a stack of disciplinary forms. "Drace and I have known one another for years. If she wishes a report, then a report she shall have. Knowing her, if she's not here filing papers after a trip, she'll be in the Magister's bath. Do you remember where that is?" Lifting the pen, Ghis dotted the air with a jerk of his wrist. "'Tis the second door on the left, this side of the hall, right across from our refectory."
"The bath?" Frowning, Gabranth shook his head. "Surely it would be best if I were to speak with her when she came out."
"There are some things," Ghis warned, "that even I know not to war with Drace upon. Go."
- - - - -
The dressing room was filled with neatly stacked towels and one somewhat weary-looking servant, who gave him a matron's sharp glare when he stepped inside, fearless of his rank. Wicker baskets held discarded clothes in one corner. Fresh robes hung in another. A disassembled suit of armor filled out the rest of the room's contents; each piece had been laid out upon a white cotton cloth, borne on small collapsible tables. An ornate helmet sat at the near end of the row, with a neat pair boots at the far: two bookend parallels for the anatomy of a metal corpse.
"Judge Drace?" he asked, almost fearing the answer.
He found no escape; the serving woman simply jerked back the screen dividing the dressing chamber from its inner partner. Clouds of steam escaped, enveloping her fingers. "Judge Gabranth is inquiring, Your Honor," she called out briskly.
"Send him in, then," came the retort: faint but waspish, enough for Gabranth to verify Drace's presence along with his certainty that she would not wish an intrusion, despite Ghis's reassurance. "If he's come from the field, he'll be in need of a wash as badly as I."
Wasting no time, the serving woman began to withdraw several folded tables from one of the cabinets, arranging them in a parallel line to Drace's armor. Each one of these received a dropcloth of its own; only when she matched up bench to bench did she then shift her attention upon him. "Your Honor." She made an impatient circle of her finger, indicating that he turn around. When he did not move, the woman clarified. "Your Honor's armaments will not benefit from the humidity of the bath. If you're joining her inside, you'll want it off."
He tolerated her aid with the more obtuse buckles in the small of his back, but refused her assistance to undress any further once the metal of his defenses was removed. Being left with a slightly grimed undershirt and his stitched-leather pants seemed concession enough; he could not imagine Drace seriously tolerating a visitor who assumed they could stride in on her completely nude. Similarly, when the serving woman tried to press a towel into his hands, he frowned with as much authority as he could muster. "I will not be bathing yet."
The serving woman stepped back with a shrug. "As Your Honor wishes." Her tone kept its skepticism reined discreetly in check, but he could not help the impression that she was smirking on the inside. "Towels are on the bench within if you change your mind. Call if you need anything."
He stepped inside, not knowing what to expect. Several facilities had been reserved for the use of the Magisters alone, but -- save for the armory and a few study rooms -- he had rarely used any of them, not wanting to become complacent with luxuries that might vanish the next day. Being relatively new to his position left little room for mistakes, and he had little desire to return to the lower ranks again.
The partition door slid closed behind him with a click.
He had hoped that Drace might be already soaking in the bathtub, obscured safely by water and stone, so that neither of them would have to negotiate potential embarrassment.
Instead, she was kneeling in the center of the room, not bothering to shield herself from his eyes.
The bathing area had been separated into two major functions, following an older Archadian style: a pre-wash to remove external grime, and the soaking tub. Several braziers trickled steady billows of steam to heat the room, tinged with the fragrance of various spices. A flat, sunken rectangle defined the first half of the chamber, with a walkway leading around it from the door. A smaller basin had been moored in the center of the depression, with a fountain bubbling up from the middle; beside it sat Drace, directly exposed.
She had her left breast cupped in one hand and was examining it carefully, pinching the nipple between two fingers as she scrutinized it. Apparently satisfied, Drace gave a sweep of her thumb across the flat scar which bridged the skin from her breast to her sternum, following it down to her navel. The tight curves of her stomach had softened around the edges; an inevitable fact of the years creeping in, held at bay by strength of her muscles.
She had disrobed, but not disarmed. A leather thong dangled from around her neck, leading down to a flat sheath in her left hand. He recognized the shape of the diamond-wedge scabbard, along with the slender, guardless hilt -- a similar weapon had been included along with his first set of custom-finished armor as a Judge Magister.
At the time, he had expected a functional weapon. The dagger he found was anything but. It was a full-tang construction whose blade led directly to the formation of the hilt, lacking any extraneous parts or even a wrapped grip. The dimensions were more suited to a dirk classification -- but the material looked barely suitable for regular use, being constructed from a light, brittle stone. The scabbard had not been fresh; the leather was hard and stained, and there was a small nick in the blade that had been sanded down to innocent smoothness.
He had put the knife aside at the time, assuming it to be a ceremonial gift, and nothing more.
But now, as he watched Drace pass the sheath from hand to hand, he wondered at his decision. The other Judge had an easy familiarity with handling her weapon, as if possessing it was second-nature now, requiring little thought to keep it elevated and away from the water dripping down her arms. Unlike his scabbard, Drace's had been fashioned out of some sort of white hide, turned yellow from sweat and age. Not once did she set it aside.
"I apologize for the interruption, Your Honor," he began, uncertain if he should be concerned for his modesty or hers, but Drace interrupted with a snort.
"Decorum be damned. The law has no gender, and neither do we." Twisting in place to dump her washcloth in the fountain basin, Drace watched the fabric soak through. "I assume that you've come with successful news?"
The heat was already building a layer of perspiration along his waistband; the leather of his pants felt tight on his legs. He shifted uncomfortably. "The shrine at Bur-Omisace remains peaceable to Archadia. Lord Larsa will be allowed to visit freely when he is older, for limited study. The Gran Kiltias sends his regards."
"Ah, and so the 9th Bureau does its job sufficiently after all. I take advantage of you while I can, Gabranth," she informed him, her voice not changing inflection, matter-of-fact as she squeezed the wet cloth against her neck. "Soon, you will have confidence in your rank, and will deny me such requests."
"If doing so is also part of my duties," he replied with equal calm, "should I work on perfecting refusals immediately?"
She laughed, briefly, just enough that the wicked humor met his challenge and passed it by. Squatting deftly, she braced her thighs exactly center upon each shin, so that her weight was balanced on the balls of her feet. No sign of wavering took her, no impressions of imbalance as she stretched out her arms and rubbed them briskly down with the washcloth; Drace was as steady as the Ifrit on a spring day.
"Is that all?" Her smile was fey as she scrubbed. "You cannot have joined the Empire to serve as a glorified messenger boy, and as you can see," she added mischievously, gesturing down at her exposed flesh, "I've no chop on my person to gift you with for thanks."
"No." He hesitated, but -- keenly aware of the servant standing in proximity in the next room over -- carefully walked towards the washing portion of the room. The floor had been scored with shallow cross-hatchings, and the soles of his feet negotiated poorly with the strange texture, giving him an unnerving impression that he was about to slip at any given moment. Wide bands of hot air were lying like fattened serpents in the room; as he moved forward, he felt them running across his arms and face, urging the start of a sweat from the back of his neck.
She watched his approach with a faint curiosity, draping her washcloth on the edge of the fountain basin. The flowing water tugged and nibbled at its edges. A never-ending burble of liquid rose up from the various pipes in the room, and he deemed they would serve more than sufficient as camouflage for his needs.
He knelt beside the edge of the inset, pitching his words so that they were barely audible over the sizzle of water and steam. "Why were the Emperor's two eldest allowed to meet their deaths?"
Drace was strangely quiet for a moment; then, when she picked the sponge back up again, it was with indifferent briskness. Her breasts hung like ripened pears. "You've read the reports by now, I'd assume. You cannot be dull-witted." She shifted position, stretching out a leg to full extension while she lathered it down. "Treason was the verdict. Treason, says the law."
"That is all the more reason I should learn fast the details of such treachery," he pressed. "Emperor Gramis has spoken only once of them to me, and that with regretful affection."
Froth dripped off her thighs. The smell of orange peel soap touched the air, barely strong enough to manifest over the warring scents of cinnamon and clove from the brazier steam. Drace's eyes remained turned away. "Does the turmoil of brothers concern you so, Gabranth?"
"The turmoil of this country would," he replied quietly. "Forgive me, but I must know why Archades has fostered this."
She considered him again, appraisingly; her eyes roved across his body, sparing no quarter of his flesh from inquiry, but her lips were pressed together in a flat line devoid of any allure. "You are not armed," she observed softly through the steam. "The Marriage Blade does not suit your tastes?"
Taken off-guard by the oddity of the question, Gabranth blinked. "The Marriage Blade?"
"Did you think it was merely for show?" Twisting the white scabbard in her hand back around, Drace unlooped the thong from around her neck. She presented it between their bodies, careful to keep her arm bent so that the soap suds wicked off her elbow. "You don't wear yours."
Uncertain of what protocols he might have broken, Gabranth shook his head. It had been a while since he had seen the token weapon; it was too late to remember what corner of his room he had shoved it to last. "I don't."
She withdrew the knife again. Her voice seemed subdued at his answer. "Not a wise decision for one in the upper echelons of the government. An assassin could take you unawares."
He glanced away, wishing to spare her some privacy from his gaze. "I believe I would be able to defend myself properly."
It wasn't until he caught a flicker of motion in the corner of his vision that Gabranth realized his mistake: a whiff of steam brushed against his nose, and then Drace had closed the gap between them. The soft flesh of her breasts pressed against his arm. The knife pricked his collarbone. He leapt back automatically, but the floor was slick, and he was unused to the terrain; his heel slipped on an unexpected puddle, and gravity caught at him with merciless force. Visions of cracking his skull open on the stone flashed through his thoughts, screaming for him to catch himself first and deal with his assailant after. He yielded to them first, accepting a temporary defeat compared to an ignoble death by accident.
Drace's weight landed on his chest, knocking the air out of his lungs and replacing it with the taste of fog.
She did not plunge the knife through his throat, though, only laying its edge against his pulse. Even though he had remained clothed, he felt suddenly as if she were the one still in armor, wrapped in invisible steel.
She smiled again, and this time, it was humorless. "A Magister who leaves himself unguarded is no judge at all of character."
He gave a cough. "The full import of your meaning has been heard, Your Honor."
Drace pulled away from him without apology or acknowledgement, sheathing the blade in a single, sleek motion of her fingers; her hand caressed the sheath once before letting it hang once more from her neck. Facing away from him, she reached up to the tiny, tight braids that were coiled against the back of her skull, and began to meticulously undo them.
"You were elevated by Emperor Gramis's support, but also by Lord Vayne's good word. That alone makes me wonder." Unbinding the plaits, Drace shook her head in a loose, careless toss. The hairs were crinkled from being bound for so long, and when she attempted to fluff them out, they expanded in unruly ripples. "Lord Vayne said that you had great capacity for service. But you have done nothing to prove yourself to the rest of us yet. In time, I expect I will learn to fear and respect your authority as well -- but as I said, for now, I shall enjoy my own audacity."
He rolled slowly back to a crouch, touching a hand automatically to the tiny slice on his throat where the dagger had pricked. "And you do not fear reprimand, if I should become merciless with a grudge?"
"I am a native of Archades," was her brutal retort. "Surprise me."
With that, Drace finished wetting the handcloth in the fountain, swirling the fabric around until it was thoroughly soaked. She scrubbed at her scalp with practical dignity, as if cleaning off a dog's pelt; the moisture dampened the hairs to a deep brown. With one final swipe of the cloth across her face, she tossed it to the side of the room, and rose to her feet in a long stretch.
"Well?" Cocking her head, Drace gave narrowed appraisal to his direction. "Are you a green stripling who still blushes at the mere thought of a woman's undergarments, or will you join me?"
"I have passed all credibility for innocence years ago," he told her. "But I am not clean enough to soak, nor would I delay this conversation while I wash. Please, go ahead."
The refusal, couched under politeness, sufficed; Drace shrugged and stepped out of the inset, wading through the steam. The rim of the large bathing tub sat only a few inches above the floor, but the entire width of it was large enough to take up the remainder of the room, forming a circle that could easily fit several field-weary veterans come back from a long campaign to soak. A flat wooden bench was positioned along one side of the tub, so that bathers did not have to sit with their backs exposed.
The bathing tub had a sloping incline on one half, leading into steps; it spread into a flat niche along the walls for weary visitors to sit upon, if they desired. Drace did not bother wading in through the shallow end, picking instead a spot halfway along the edge. She slid into the bathtub like a fish, sloshing excess water over the edges, splashing Gabranth's toes.
As he stepped over a drain grate and came closer to the tub, Drace braced her weight on her arms, keeping them folded on the rim while she pillowed her chin on the crook of an elbow. Her knife stayed snugly in one palm.
"The Marriage Blade," Drace volunteered suddenly, "is a tradition that comes from the union of two houses many generations ago, here in Archades." Her legs stretched out, toes flexing. The water was milky with heat. "'Twas a wedding intended to merge the resources of both lines, but the decision was born of necessity, not love, and each feared betrayal from the other. For this reason, the marriage blades were born."
In the corner, a brazier began to sizzle as the scented water inside bubbled over the edge; liquid hissed as it struck the coals, sending up a fresh wave of steam.
"The first pair was made from magicite-infused glass, or so the story goes. Sharp, but brittle -- intended for only one thrust. One was all they thought they needed." Pausing long enough to grip the side of the tub with both hands, she shoved hard against the rim, submerging herself fully.
He wondered how long she would remain underwater -- her eyes were clenched shut, but the rest of her face was serene, held at peace despite the risk of drowning. Her hair swirled in a thick cloud. He found himself holding his own breath, counting out the seconds: one heartbeat, two heartbeats, three.
When she resurfaced after forty, she gave no signs of duress, simply opening her eyes and leaning her forehead against her arms. "The next set was forged from a slightly different material -- a type of obsidian, harvested from old volcanic flows near the Ozmone Plains." Her voice was a low hum, crisp edges muted by the water around her. "Now marriage blades are made from all manner of sources, but are always tempered to keep from the damp, from rust and from rot. They remain ready for their hour of need. Anyone in a position of power, wed or unwed, is granted one. In some Houses," she added suddenly, her lips barely visible above the water level, "they still include them as part of the formal exchanging of vows. Very practical business."
"Treachery birthed those daggers, Drace, not nobility," he found himself saying, some last lingering remnant of honor coming out bitter through his teeth. "If they go hand-in-hand with Archadian practicality, then that bodes ill for us all."
She made no answer. Steam swelled in waves around him, beating like the thrum of overcharged glossair rings. The heat made his head light, dizzy. His blood felt like tiny moths fluttering in his veins. He regretted, suddenly, not pausing to eat before seeking out Drace -- his plummeting blood pressure was encouraging nausea, weakness trembling along his limbs. Pride kept him from stripping off the remainder of his clothes; pride kept him there, hoping for a clear answer to his initial question, of traitors and blood-ties and kin.
"Was yours given to you upon gaining your station?" he managed, not wanting to lose the avenue of inquiry.
Drace rearranged her arms, folding the left atop the right. "Mine came from my mother."
"Your mother -- "
"Is not with us," she answered, hard and final.
He digested that response, sensing the weight of her personal history and weighing it against the familiar lump of his own. "Tell me something about these knives, Judge Drace." His tongue felt cloying in his mouth; the shape of conspiracy was taking weight in his throat, becoming something tangible and unclean. "Who is to say that one spouse will not kill the other, and call it defense after?"
"And that should tell you something about the nature of Archades already." Pushing away from the wall of the bath, Drace caught her weight on her toes, arms spread. of the floor. She drew herself out of the bath slowly, pacing up the incline towards the wooden bench. Water streamed off her muscles. Translucent drops collected in beads on the tips of her hair. Without wasting any time, she scooped a towel from top of the folded stack, wrapping it about her waist and tucking it closed.
He did not know if he had given her some untold offense; for a bath, it seemed as if she had spent less time in the water than in preparation for it. "Judge Drace?"
"Here," she announced suddenly, turning and pitching the scabbard suddenly towards him; he had to fumble to catch it without letting it drop into the water. The hilt was warm against his palm. "You can have mine for now. Best not go unarmed, Your Honor. One never knows when the next threat will come."
- - - - -
On his next trip to Bhujerba, Gabranth spent an afternoon on his own personal business. He browsed through the stalls at whim, hearing the background whispers that inevitably came upon sight of his armor. Eventually, he selected a frightened-looking merchant who specialized in stained glass. The man cringed long enough to realize that Gabranth was not assaulting him; when the matter came around to commission, he straightened up with a snap that was nearly audible.
The final cost was higher than Gabranth expected, but he agreed to the amount with little fuss. He chose abstracts in the composition: a sliver of yellow, a curl of blue, a sword without a blade.