Love Is Not Four Letters
Pre-game, Bergan, minor spoilers for the Judges.
There is one holiday in Archades which Bergan does not mind seeing: the Feast of Hearts, during which couples are encouraged to show their affection towards one another. Preferably in public. The rationale is that this way, it allows the noble Houses to predict which liaisons they should nip in the bud, which ones they should tolerate, and if there are any polite scandals to plan for in advance.
Tradition holds that the Judge Magisters all groan and turn carefully blind eyes to their subordinates when the lesser Judges slip away from work early; they themselves are neither encouraged nor allowed towards holiday laxity, and romance is only a matter of the law during mornings that come after. Too, there exists the business of being politically deft enough to tell the Emperor's heirs a million different forms of no when they attempt to slip away from their guards.
Bergan feels that it is not entirely bad for him to indulge in thinking about the subject of mates. Such a habit makes him sentimental, to a degree, and this is a strategic weakness. Greater generals than he have written long testimonials about the need to accept less defensible flanks rather than ignore them; Bergan once held the ground near the Jagd Ramooda for two weeks against Rozarrian infiltrators by using this principle, thumbing through worn manuals on strategy that he'd brought along, carefully reviewing historic Gambits as his soldiers brought him lists of the dead.
So if he has enemies, then they can think to attack him through sentimentalism. If he is his own enemy, then at least he will be safely contained within his study, writing letters he will never send, like bleeding a wound to keep it from fester.
- - - - -
There is a girl he remembers from Bhujerba, the last time he was there: a maid at the estate of Marquis Ondore, with dark skin and eyes like candied almonds. She poured the wine with her right wrist arched, her left hand cupped underneath the neck of the bottle, gaze kept cast down modestly with proper respect.
He had not inquired as to her name, but he had watched as she served them dinner, and the Marquis had watched him, so that when the polite inquiry was made -- the Marquis with his mouth just hinting at a faint distaste as he asked if there was anything else the Judge Magister required -- Bergan had been prepared to refuse.
He could have said yes.
She would not know what to do with the advances of an Archadian Judge; after all, she should fear him, and rightfully so. And she would fear what Bergan's attentions meant, for to reject a soldier of Archades is to reject Archades itself, and families have been maimed for less.
He would not love her, even though she would pretend it. Pretense would be a small comfort for her to hold in a house empty and cold, where not even the servants would require her input to continue maintenance of day-to-day affairs. Surrounded by carefully preserved tapestries and rows of weapon cases, she could imagine herself a person, rather than another ornament to collect.
In lieu of honest words, he would send her fragments of copied poetry: your eyes are like the sun, your heart is like the sea, fingers stained with ink from clumsily holding open pages as he scribbled down other people's lives.
She would receive one each week. Each time, she might touch her almond eyes with the long, elegant fingers that once served a Marquis's table, and weep.
He tries to write her crabbed imitations of these now, trying to think of how they would go, since he keeps no frivolous reading material in his personal library to reference from. But Bergan cannot create poetry on his own, cannot summarize anything with the hand of an artist, so instead he retrieves the most esoteric strategists from his shelves -- the hardest ones to predict and understand, even by their own colleagues. From these pages, he assembles his letter.
The wise soldier advances when the field is at its worst; the enemy is weakest at its moment of greatest strength; the winter is coming; the winter is gone.
- - - - -
He sets poetry aside gratefully when he feels that he has accomplished all that he can, thinking about Bhujerba.
Staring at the next blank sheet of parchment, Bergan lets his thoughts detach and drift. They gradually settle on a scholar he met earlier in the previous year. She was a sensible woman, he could tell from the start. She did not appear of particularly low birth in the Archadian families -- her diction had the slight nasal burr of Trant -- and had chosen to supplement her life by enrolling in anthropological studies.
This was how they met by chance in Draklor. She had been called in as a specialist for something or the other, and he had been there to examine Dr. Cid's latest nethicite.
She had not been afraid of him. That much, he remembers.
They had spoken only briefly; her guest security clearance was just high enough to be admitted, but forbade her from visiting more than a few specific floors. His armor was pass to them all. But she had not shown herself as intimidated by his presence, and he had watched with some fascination as the elevator lights strobed and lifted them towards their destinations, and she had suddenly started talking about the burial customs of the Garif tribes 500 years ago.
Love, Bergan knows, is a tool for procreation and assassination. Its infantile stage is deadly; its mature form enables stable relationships and the continuation of its host species. Both he and the woman would have not fallen prey to its flaws. She would have been absent studying older civilizations, he would have been absent destroying current ones, and occasionally they would meet to speak in elevators, with the same comfortable detachment of passing strangers.
They would have three children, and if she was not able to bear the third for any reason -- the children would be born in intervals no shorter than two years from the other, one daughter, one son, and the third could be her decision -- then he would look into other means of supply.
He thinks they might have been content enough with each other.
When Bergan picks up the pen and wets the nib in the ink jar, he does not hesitate. I know you would not have found passion, he writes, taking care with precisely shaping each letter, but I would not have intruded on you unnecessarily, and perhaps you would have forgiven me when I was absent due to work. I am a practical man, and the military is my call; if you would know me, then you would know that best.
He thinks they would have been happy enough. He thinks they might have been content.
Hers is the only apology that he composes that year, and when he is done, he thinks he might still feel some regret.
- - - - -
Hello, he writes next, entirely without meaning to, words slashing across the third page before he can even begin to compose his thoughts. Are you still not coming back?
- - - - -
There was one woman he had had the misfortune of being introduced to over the course of the previous summer. Lord Vayne had wished to attend one of the operatic performances -- some exercise in political demonstration, appreciating the same culture as the masses, and other such tiresome business as was necessary of an Emperor's heir.
Of the Magisters, Bergan had been unlucky enough to be caught in Archades without any ongoing orders at the time.
Drace had smirked sympathetically as she'd escaped on her assignment out, twiddling her fingers in a jaunty wave farewell. Zargabaath had dawdled to retrieve her, and even he had a sympathetic tilt to his helm as he glanced back towards Bergan, who was silently fuming about the roles Judge Magisters had to occasionally endure.
"I offer my thanks for your pains," Lord Vayne had offered on the way, as the airship carriage powered itself along inevitably towards their doom. "I know you do not enjoy such tasks. Normally my guardian for such affairs would be Judge Zecht."
Bergan had not flinched at the name. He replied with the obvious, unable to stop himself: "And Judge Zecht is not here."
It might have been his imagination, but Lord Vayne continued to regard him, silent for several long moments before turning away.
At the theater, on their way up to the personal balconies reserved for guests who were attending out of duty more than pleasure -- where the curtains could be drawn and private business conducted without a fuss -- they were interrupted by a cloud of hair and fluff. Bergan was convinced they were being assaulted by a misshapen chocobo before he understood the cooing words as some form of greeting, offered by a woman in satin whites. The makeups she wore were thick and caked over flaws he was not entirely certain were there; she was plain enough with the ornamentation and without, and on her head, she wore a feathered cap that resembled some sort of plump albino quail.
A socialite, Bergan realized, and one too old for Vayne's usual tastes.
It appeared as if she was already familiar with House Solidor. "You've a new addition to your retinue," she squeaked to Lord Vayne, in a dulcet so high that Bergan desperately hoped she was faking it. "Unless Judge Zecht has been wearing another suit?"
"I fear that the domain of Judge Bergan's clothing is under his own jurisdiction," Lord Vayne had intervened gracefully, and from there the conversation had turned around the Solidor's whim.
Temporarily spared, Bergan had time to estimate the nature of the adversary now engaged; from what he could gather, the woman had been hoping to catch the eye of a Judge -- and do so without negative attention. A match to a Magister would be all she would need to engage in a wealthy lifestyle without lifting a finger.
This established, he'd regarded her as a man with a market cow, assessing her potential benefits and flaws. His estate was handled more than adequately by his servants, and he did not indulge in wasteful hobbies, so his finances remained in perfect stability. From the woman's conversation, it was clear that she knew little of warfare, and even less of weaponry. They would have nothing to speak about together, living in entirely different social spheres with thankfully different sensibilities.
Lord Vayne had been highly amused by Bergan's predicament. She had fluttered a handkerchief in his direction as they parted, each to their own separate boxes as the performance resumed session.
Later, after the last curtain fell and Bergan retreated hastily back to his own quarters, a courier brought to him a letter reeking of flowery perfume. The missive spoke of love, and how the woman's heart had gone weak in his presence. His inspiring form had nearly caused her to faint. Surely he could be convinced to meet with her again?
If he had written back to her, he would have said any number of things, and these he pens down now: I am no one to be led, I do not believe in romance. His rejection is less scathing than practical; love and fornication and duty are separate affairs, and while there might be theoretical overlap, Bergan's priorities are well in order.
I claim prizes. They do not claim me.
- - - - -
The pages are slightly smeared as he pushes them aside, out of order, a scattered list of weaknesses to be dispensed with at the end of the day. Another year gone. Another year summarized and listed and tidied up, with all the detritus of his mind examined, all weaknesses accounted for.
Still, for all his patient work, something does not feel right amidst his thoughts. Something is lingering behind.
He taps his pen against the blotter, lightly, and frowns.
If two years was not enough, he begins to scrawl, and then, feeling a bitter pain rise, turns his wrist so that the pen nib is suspended safely away from the surface of the paper. His fingers want to write hateful words, construct angry lines that would rear off the page like snakes in summer-dry grass.
I will not believe that you are deceased, forces itself out, coming fast, coming hard. None of us have performed to the usual standards of late; this is because you are not present, and we are all lessened as a result. Not even a child could deny the importance of your role in Archades. It is intolerable if you are elsewhere. I will not abide it.
Bergan crumples that missive, sweeps it aside on his desk. The words express nothing useful; he does not feel better for having made them.
Finally, reaching for a fresh sheet of parchment, Bergan lets his hand dictate the words, rather than his brain. He gets as far as, if it is fear of disgrace that keeps you a wisp in the woods, know that there is no disgrace to be found here from me, you of all were the best of us, you were the best -- and stops.