6. "Why is it called the Ice Blade?" Ross asks.
Joshua never thought he'd be explaining this to a bunch of kids. Also, he never thought he'd been explaining it, period, since he'd been in self-exile for so long he'd been convinced they would never make him king. But here he is, holding Audhulma while Ross, Amelia, and Ewan look on. Joshua sighs. "You put ice in a desert, kid--what do you get?"
Ewan pipes up, "Couldn't they just call it the Water Blade, then?"
"No, because if you put water in a desert you just get moist air."
"Oh." Tethys tiptoes up behind her little brother and winks at Joshua before clamping her hands over his eyes. "Ack! Tethys, don't do that!" Ewan flails, the other kids laugh a lot, and Joshua... feels strangely unable to laugh. He does give a sort of courtesy chuckle before the little Jehannan mage storms off in a huff and his friends trail him. Tethys finishes laughing and sighs.
"You've got an answer for everything, don't you?"
"Well, I was kind of like Ewan when I was younger, and... yeah. Hey, Tethys?"
"What's that feeling you get when you--not that feeling! I've sorted it out already--when someone does something you used to think was funny and everyone else laughs, but you don't think it's really funny anymore?" Tethys frowns.
"You're the one they did it to?"
"...Close, but no."
The dancer shrugs. "If it were anyone else, Josh..." Then Tethys laughs and smacks him on the shoulder hard enough to put Gerik to shame. "Ha! I guess I'd say you've grown up!"
7. Jehannan songs are not popular with troubadours, due to the bare-bones melodies and ever-present, ever-unpleasant themes of war and fighting stances as opposed to freedom, beauty, truth, and love. Not to mention the climate often forces troubadours to go on foot through the sands, which is taxing enough even on natives without adequate water.
As a result, most of the Jehannan nobility knows the songs and can sing well enough to entertain each other. Joshua, after having his first taste of the Real World, the one outside Jehanna Hall, had fully expected that form of high-culture unwinding to remain deep in his memories until his triumphant return as King.
But after he'd gotten into a proper troupe and they'd made the trek to a nearby oasis, everyone had seated themselves in a cluster on the shore instead of twos and threes, and started telling stories or singing songs or just talking to each other. In fact, no matter where he went, if there was a group of mercenaries who didn't mind existing in the same general area there would always be a few hours of general socializing during the evenings after or before a job. In taverns, around a fire… but around water was a distinct Jehannan scene.
Joshua remembers the nobility of Jehanna, as relaxed as their court attire would allow them to be on the shores of the only real lake in the country. That isn't too far removed from what he does now.
"'I am no king and I am no lord,'" he half-hums, half-sings to anyone who's listening. This song always makes him smile; everyone else just likes the song. It's a charming Rausten ballad, short and to the point with mostly talking. "'And I am no soldier at arms,' said he. 'I'm none but a harper, and a very poor harper, that am come hither to wed with ye.'"
L'Arachel hears the favorite melody of her treasured homeland and sits up straight to carol, "'If you were a lord, you should be—'"
"Man, why don't you do us all a favor?" Gerik's deep voice--while it easily overpowers L'Arachel's cultured but somewhat tinny soprano--does not hide her very miffed expression as she flounces back into a less dignified position. "Go to Rausten and be a troubadour. You've got the pipes for it."
"Want to get rid of the competition, do you? Ha!" Joshua grins; Gerik shrugs with his usual good nature. "A male troubadour--that's rich!"
"For your information," L'Arachel shoves in unrepentantly. "Male troubadours are easily equal in number to that of the women. More of the famous ones happen to be ladies—and the same thing happened with clerics. No offense, Father Moulder."
8. Joshua gives Gerik the biggest, most disarming grin he can muster while slowly edging away from the mug of beer offered to him. "See, Gerik, drinking is fun and all but I kind of don't do it as often as I'd like. I mean, after you end up hogtied under a sack of week-old fish with several angry pegasus knights hounding you, it kind of ruins the fun, so… yeah."
Gerik, who is already somewhat sloshed, gives a hearty laugh that would receive about seven billion manliness points from Dozla, if Dozla was aware of his surroundings right now. Then the brawnier mercenary pushes the beer further across the table. "Aww, Josh—why're you so uptight about this? Marisa I can understand, but you? That's just weird."
"You don't understand, man." Nobody is coming to his aid—in fact, everyone's just watching and sniggering to themselves. Joshua, being mature and refusing to drink himself under the table? Must be Tethys or something, setting a good example for Ewan! Whatever I just downed is good stuff. "I don't drink. It's hard enough winning when I'm sober."
"Hmm…" Gerik stares at him bleary-eyed for a moment, then straightens up and declares, "Bet you a hundred gold you can't hold your liquor, and that's why you're being such a pansy."
"I…" Joshua's fingers twitch. He stares at the mug, then at Gerik, then back at the mug and realizes his hands are slowly reaching for the mug of their own volition. After a futile attempt to stop himself, he folds. "Gimme that!"
The next thing he remembers is waking up in his tent with a noticeable lack of hangover. When he opens his eyes, both Father Moulder and Natasha staring over him with their faces in those half-concerned, half-professional expressions before he blinks and they're back to completely professional. Joshua sits up and rubs his head out of habit. "Um. So, what did I do and why are you both here instead of teaching me a lesson and letting me ride out the hangover myself?"
"Once you got drunk," Natasha responds, in the perfect healer's voice that holds both compassion and a certain detachment, "You were being much more irritable than usual and assaulted the first person who spoke to you. We assumed that the best course of action was restraint."
"Then you broke free of the restraints several hours ago," Moulder continues. "After climbing into a tree, you were mistaken for an intruder by Prince Innes. He shot you down before he recognized you, and the impact from the fall not only concussed you but broke at least four bones. We'd just finished healing you, and didn't think to leave the hangover as we usually do."
Joshua doesn't know where Innes shot him but feels around his chest for the tell-tale slightly bloody rip in his clothes. He finds it around his stomach and winces (though he can't remember anything from the night before, honestly). As he is still dressed and mostly awake, he doesn't feel like going back to sleep and stands up, seeing morning light through the opening in the tent flap. "Well, thanks to both of you. I know I wouldn't have forgotten to leave the hangover if I was on your end."
Life is going on normally when he reaches the campfire. Almost too normally. There are a few lingering glances from the people who remembered, but none of the open grins he would have expected to see after a night like that. So Joshua sits next to the children and greets them, "Hey, you three."
"Hi, Josh," Ewan pipes up. "So you know they didn't say everything, whatever they told you?"
"Of course not. Men and women of the cloth… Spill it, kiddo."
"You started yelling at… I dunno, Seth or Gerik. Tethys found my hiding spot and hauled me out before I could see much." Joshua ruffles the mage's hair fondly, with disdainful preening in response before Ewan goes on, "After they tied you up, you broke out and got into a tree, and Prince Innes thought you were a bandit and shot you down. Then you started crying and singing at the same time. Master Saleh said it was an old song from Jehanna, about forty days and nights and thieves being slaughtered and the sun over bones. I didn't recognize it, though. Anyway, the Prince realized who you were from your voice and called the healers over. He even dragged you to your tent. I think he's coming over here to apologize to you right now—"
"Okay, seriously--that's enough, Ewan. Thanks." The trio gets up and moves away while the perpetually-frowning Frelian prince arrives. "Hello there, Prince! You seem happy today."
A biting glare. "I don't know how you managed to do everything you did last night at all, much less without being heard… but to be fair, I probably should have yelled 'Who goes there?' or the like before shooting you." Innes gives a split-second glance to some other area of the camp. Joshua spies two Pegasus knights and a princess on the other end before the prince's attention returns to the matter at hand. "I beg your forgiveness for my horrendous mistake. Having just rolled out of bed is no excuse for shooting a comrade--especially not for a prince whose preferred weapon relies on keen vision."
"Um. Apology accepted." What else can Joshua say? …Oh, wait. "So, do you want me to go there and vouch for you, or will they give you a hard time anyway?"
"It's no longer any of your business."
Saleh approaches him later on, when they are both unlikely to be heard. He has a piercing look in his eye that gives Joshua the creeps. "You are a fighter, Joshua, but it seems to me that there is something else hidden in the depths of your being. No mere fighter would know of that song, and no troubadour would care to sing it. I know it is a dirge only sung by the members of Jehanna's nobility."
And Joshua knows that the Song of the Blade is not a dirge. However, he lets Saleh slide. The Song is a lengthy one, with the last verse only appropriate to sing at someone's funeral most of the time. Not to mention Saleh lives up in the mountains, far from the nobility, and information does get mixed up over long distances and periods of time.
9. Joshua wanders around the armory a bit, feeling distinctly uncomfortable looking at regular swords when he has Audhulma at his hip. Even when it's disguised with a plain leather sheath something about it twangs underneath the chatter of everyone else, and he feels that asking someone if they can hear it would be a bad idea. He gets a regular steel sword so he won't be pulling his family heirloom out for the next mook who comes along, and feels better until the old woman in charge of the armory squints at him.
"Say, my boy--don't I know you?"
Joshua's first instinct is to say 'no', and then to say 'That depends, how do you think you know me?' and then 'no' again. One can never be too careful about little old ladies, especially (especially!) in Jehanna. So he shrugs and glances at Eirika, who is too dignified to shrug back but her expression clearly says it's his call. Joshua settles for the polite but vague, "Probably someone else you were thinking of, gran."
Gerik grins and shoves Joshua back when he attempts to swan out. "You came here years ago, I think! A right little stick you were..."
"Ha... Well. Thanks for the sword and all, but I should get back to my--"
"You came here with Carlyle." As the senility drops out of her voice, she looks at Joshua with admirable steel in her gaze. He looks around to see if anyone else is here, and no one is--though they're probably waiting for him outside, ready to rib him until they forget about it. After a moment she sighs and begins polishing her wares. "Or did you forget where he took you for your first taste of live steel?"
One thing Joshua has learned from his years of mayhem and meandering is to think on his feet when people are on the edge of discovering who he is. But the time is long past for that and he approaches the counter wearily. "I bet you think I'm a coward, Rebekah."
"Oh, please." The retired swordmistress hefts an axe to gauge the balance before storing it safely on the wall. "Ismaire had the roaming blood from your grandmother Hagar. It may be thrice removed, but the blood will out--and you are a man, after all. What better leader for our people than one who spent years learning what it meant to be a mercenary and a citizen of Jehanna? The second ruler, after all..."
"...Slew down the thieves who stole Audhulma from its shrine, and it did choose Hoshea as its new master?" Joshua finishes. He'd liked that part.
Rebekah shakes her head. "Iskrima in her old age had no children, and went in search of a new king for her realm. She came across a wanderer and a fool by name of Hoshea idling in front of the shrine, and taught him the way of the sword, so Hoshea would shame himself not before the Blade of Ice." Joshua had not really paid attention when Carlyle first began teaching him the history of Jehanna, so he nods.
Natasha finally pokes her head back into the armory, pulling her cowl up over her hair. "Joshua?" While the cleric is focused on Joshua, Rebekah discreetly reassumes her innocent old lady mask. "Are you all right?"
"Sure! Fine. Nothing could be better--help me."
"And such nice red hair you've got under that hat! My youngest, Jacob--bless his soul--he'd had a right mane of fire on him..."
Natasha smiles, pulls her cowl back down to shade her face, and removes herself from the armory without another word. Rebekah turns to Joshua with interest, asking, "Now was that cleric just giving you a sliver of hope, or did she want an excuse to talk to you?"
"Probably the first. Although the second would be really nice if I could convince her to... you know. Cleric and all."
"They say Hoshea's wife was a daughter of the saintly Latona," the swordmistress remarks mildly.
"And the followers of Latona say she was a virtuous peasant girl, of course."
"Of course." They grin at each other from across the counter. Joshua feels a twinge of regret when she clears her throat and looks down at her work. "Bless your heart, my boy."
"The sword is more than a weapon, and you seem to understand that." He lifts Audhulma with a tilt of his head. "No, not just Audhulma. Even these common blades on my wall are symbols of Jehanna. To be without a sword amongst the white dunes--"
"Is to be without life," Joshua finishes.
"Ah, go before you make an old woman cry--such faith!" Rebekah sniffs dramatically, and then brandishes a sword at him. "If I hear you've been to another armory for so much as a glass of water, I shall slit your throat myself."
"Would this be before or after my first child?"
"After, naturally. I expect at least one here within the next decade. What will you name the child? Ever since I've heard that Carlyle died, I thought that he'd--"
"No, not... Carlyle was the one who--" Joshua blinks hard, trying to forget the difference between the crazed swordmaster he'd met so recently and the stern, unyielding, yet ultimately loyal man he'd looked up to as a child. "Maybe Elijah."
10. "Burning down a house in the desert. That's such a cheap shot."
Joshua kicks at something sooty and small, left behind from the hasty cleaning the Hall had received just a few days before; then he remembers he shouldn't do that in his brand-new white funeral attire. Natasha gives him a worried look and follows closely, almost at his side instead of a little behind him like how they end up arranging themselves in a battle. Joshua doesn't mind, though. He barely registers the difference between the glittering, vague golden Hall of ten years ago and this burnt-up crisp of a palace they're walking through, with the royalty and Natasha coughing in the politest way possible.
He's heading towards the lake—which, if he remembers correctly, is in this general direction. One of the nobles has taken care of Ismaire's burial, but the funeral itself is his business. And now that he's back, he can take care of it whether they like it or not.
"The heir to the throne has to sing, you know," Joshua comments almost blithely. "Well, closest relative anyways. That's how it goes in the higher circles. I think Rebekah will be here to like, mouth the words when I forget during the middle, but nobody remembers the middle anyway so I should be good even if she isn't here. Not to mention I am the closest relative, s-so maybe they'll cut me some slack. I don't know… I did run off for a little while. Am I talking too much? I think I'm talking too much!"
So he takes his first breath in too long, a humungous burst of still-sooty air, and ends up coughing it out so hard he wracks a couple tears out of his eyes. Natasha takes his arm, but he doesn't dare to look back and check the progress of the royalty behind him. They are aware of the rituals—mostly he's just talking for the benefit of Natasha and Gerik, his new right-hand man.
"Anyway, Gerik! As my new right-hand man you will... just have to stand to the right of me for a moment and look sad. Why was I talking to you again? Oh. The flask. Do you have the flask and do you know when to give it to me?"
"Right here," Gerik says, tapping the ceremonial flask that hangs at his hip. He is dressed in the secondary mourning color of blue, along with Natasha. Neither of them looks comfortable in their stiff new clothes, and Joshua hardly blames them. "Right before you give the eulogy."
"Ugggh." Joshua allows the whine to slide though his mouth, then gives up and starts acting like a brat in order to disguise the quick scrub at his eyes. He's been doing that far too many times since he got back here. "Too many things I have to remember!"
"Now that's a comforting first impression of our king." A blue-clad shadow steps out from around a corner. Before Joshua can stop himself Audhulma is out and glittering in the murky lantern light. "You're going to talk yourself sick, the way you're going on like that."
"Rebekah!" A quick glance reveals no recognition in anyone else's face—just the appearance of Joshua's old nurse who he'd been talking about so much. Joshua starts to sheath Audhulma, then corrects himself and holds it out to her in the meeting gesture, just to try and feel a little more ceremonial. "I… I think I've already managed to talk myself nauseous and panicky."
Rebekah shakes her head and adjusts her dark blue veil. "I've no right to take hold of that sword, my king. Here." She draws her own silver weapon and bows to him. When he doesn't move, she tilts her head up just enough for her scowl to be visible. "You do recall you're a king now." Innes gives a sound of approval, which Joshua ignores as he carefully sheathes Rebekah's sword.
It's odd, being on the other end of this gesture--especially since the old swordmistress starts leading him through the corridors at a brisk, authoritative pace immediately after he's finished. "This is too hard, Rebekah. I don't remember if I should wait for them to stand up on their own or tell them to stop bowing. I don't even remember their names! By the Stones, what if they don't think I'm—"
"I've already told them my opinion on your worthiness as a king, Joshua. I won't lie: it's a sixty-forty split in your favor. But then again, there are only twelve of the major lords and ladies in attendance and most of them are younger hotheads like you. They weren't in court when you were here, so make sure to listen when they introduce themselves, and say their names three times in your head."
"Only twelve?" Joshua asks, before he remembers. "No, don't answer! I remember there was an attack. And also a fire."
"Well, thank the Stones you remembered what happened a few months ago, at least." Rebekah pats him on the shoulder, then adds, "By the way, count three Jehannas before you tell them to stop."
Flushes of purple in the skyline are beginning to dim the sun's rays as they arrive at the lakeshore where Jehannan royalty is traditionally buried. The already-present high nobility wait a moment as everyone besides Gerik and Natasha join them in facing Joshua; then everyone bows. Joshua counts one, two, three Jehannas before giving a nod. "You may sit."
Gerik hands him the flask, then bows and takes Natasha by the arm to the front of the congregation, next to Rebekah. This is where the eulogy goes in, between that silent step of the funeral rites and the singing. Joshua has always known that he'd be the one to do this, ever since his father died; but something painful sticks in his throat as he realizes that moment is here, and far too soon than he'd wanted it to…
"Royal allies, and those remaining of the Royal Court of the Hall, we are gathered here today to mourn the passing of my celebrated mother, Queen Ismaire. Ever since my father, the noble King Elijah was buried here before his rightful time, I have always known that I would be the one to perform these rites for her. Upon the maturing of my sensibilities, I had hoped this day would come years from now… but such is often the fate of those who live in the harsh land we call home." He thinks for a moment, and clears his throat. "I call attention also to those who died in defense of the Hall that same day."
Joshua sees a few sharp, fleeting glances across the faces of several major nobles. If it were a bigger gathering, he wouldn't have worried; but as it is the thought of having to talk to these people one on one after the formalities make him feel even more nauseous and panicky than before. Rebekah gives him a tiny nod of approval, though. "They served our country with their last breaths, as did my mother, to the best of their abilities; and though their burial grounds are not here, these rites are held in their honor as well."
Feeling this is an appropriate place to stop--no one would let him hear the end of it if the eulogy was longer than the Song--Joshua looks at the rest of his friends for some encouragement. He has to blink hard after seeing Rebekah as she has a solemn, shimmer-eyed expression that don't really make him feel any better. Though, when he looks at Natasha's firm yet serious face it relieves the shaky sensation in his stomach a little. So Joshua takes a deep breath and starts to sing. The words drop like rocks out of his mouth at first, but by the end of it no one seems to be paying quite their full attention to him.
Drat. He'd practiced so hard on the ending, too.
And Hoshea, there, did spy the blade
After forty days and forty nights.
Thieves' blood was spilt till his hair shone red
And their bones were bleached to white.
"Iskrima's sword of old, would you forgive my careless hand?"
He bowed before the Blade of Ice, and took it from the sand.
When Iskrima beheld him, she drew at least her final breath:
"My sword and land are yours, my child." And she went forth to Death.