Chapter Three: Forms
Another day in sweaty golden sunshine of Saná, helping people out. I did my best for the city's children, curing illnesses where I was able, healing injuries and so on. Sometimes I find myself surprised at how strong kids are; one urchin boy, no older than nine, had been walking around on a broken leg for two days before I healed him, but he was joking and laughing with his friends as though nothing was wrong. But I guess Ramza would do something like that too. Maybe all boys are like that. My brother, for his part, spent most of the day running errands for some old lady who kept pinching his cheeks and calling him "Ranza."
Now it's evening, and just as humid as the daylight hours were. The inn's common room makes things even worse; it's crowded and not everyone in here is good at bathing regularly. I try not to notice things like that - Ramza never seems to care - but the part of me who grew up in a castle and then trained in a monastery can't help but be aware. But at least there's music. The innkeeper, Yarman, has hired a trio of poor outcountry musicians for the evening, and they're not bad. I wouldn't mind dancing, if I had someone to do it with. Already there are a handful of couples and a few unpaired individuals making fools of themselves on the makeshift dance floor between pushed-aside tables.
"It's kind of loud in here, isn't it? Makes it hard to talk."
"What?" I don't actually know much about dancing, but no one else seems to either, so it should be fine.
"I said it's loud."
I blink, then glance at Mustadio, who's pursing his lips and swirling the remainder of the ale in his mug. We're seated at a table in the corner, a narrow rickety thing, but it's out of the way. "Oh. Yeah, it is, kinda."
He smiles at me, then shifts his gaze to the people dancing carelessly not ten paces away. "Do you think they're aware of how they look?"
I follow his gaze and giggle. "No. But I don't think they care."
"Yeah. I know how that is."
I snicker again, then glance around for Ramza for the twentieth time tonight before realizing he's not here. Meliadoul wanted to go for "a walk" with him, so they left maybe a half-hour ago. They've only been together for a day, but she really seems to like spending time with him. Which I guess is understandable.
"Hmm?" I turn my gaze on Mustadio, then watch in surprise as he blinks and jerks back. Only then does it occur to me that I was scowling at the people dancing, so I summon a smile from somewhere instead, hoping to reassure him. "Nothing. Sorry. I was just thinking."
The engineer nods slowly, cautiously, keeping his dark eyes on me as though he's afraid I'll leap across the table and strangle him. "It bugs you when Ramza's away, doesn't it?"
I twist my lips and poke at the wooden grain of the tabletop. "Oh, it's not that. I just..."
"You're just recovering from the surprise at having this all appear out of nowhere, right?"
I jerk my head up to stare at him, but he's just blinking back at me. "Yeah. That's right."
Mustadio grins. "I know. I'm the same way. I've accomplished almost everything I need to do in Saná so I'm just kind of waiting on Meliadoul to go back to Goug. Obviously I had no idea you guys were going to be here."
"Right." I sigh and purse my lips, then plant my chin in an open hand and stare sideways at the musicians. "How long are you going to wait, anyway? If my father needed my help and was waiting for me, I don't know how long I'd let someone else keep me from going back."
He laughs at this. "Oh, it's not like there's a rush. I do need to get back, but the things we wanted to get from here are mostly for curiosity. So I can afford to wait a bit for Meliadoul to... do whatever, I guess."
Do whatever. I conceal a grimace at this and instead just nod. "Well, I hope you don't get too bored here."
"Oh, I'm not worried about that." He lifts his mug from the table and sips from it, staring off at the dancers. "I'm hoping to find something to occupy my time while I'm here."
"Mmm. You and me both." When he doesn't answer, I let my eyes slide half-shut and wait. Wait for Ramza. I don't blame him for doing what he's doing - though a little warning would have been nice - but I also don't really have a plan for what to do when I'm bored. Maybe I should take up... knitting, or write poetry or something.
Ramza finally makes it back to the inn around midnight with a glowing Meliadoul on his arm. Apparently they spent most of the time "just talking" on "the boardwalk." When I ask what they ended up talking about, he just pinches my nose and laughs, like I'm joking. I laugh too.
The night is quiet, which is good. It's not like I expected them to want to change the sleeping arrangements after just a full day of being a couple, but I still can't help but feel relieved when Ramza settles down into our shared room without a second thought, as though to do otherwise never occurred to him.
Somehow a day turns into three, and then six. I stop worrying about when Mustadio wants to leave Saná and start worrying about when Ramza wants to leave Saná. He and his new woman spend ample time together in the evenings, after we've done our good deeds for the day, which leaves me precious little time with him. Even when the two of them aren't gone, doing things together in the city, they may as well be gone since the Shrine Knight sits too close to him. I do manage to find some time to chat with Meliadoul in private, however, to evaluate her intentions, but she seems to be in the clear. Even if I don't approve of how she's all over him even in public, touching his arms and face, ruffling his hair.
Thus one night while the two of them are snuggling in the common room, I find myself playing an angry game of chess against Mustadio in the room he shares with Meliadoul. He's controlling the black pieces and is crushing me without mercy. He doesn't strike me as someone who's good in chess, but here we are.
I sigh and slide a bishop in front of my king. This isn't really fun. He should play nice with a girl.
He pushes a rook up four ranks. "Check." From the common room downstairs rises the muted pulse of flute and fiddle music, as well as the unintelligible shouting from everyone down there.
I clear a scowl and slide my king diagonally backwards. Great.
His hand hovers over one of his knights, then drops back to his lap. "Alma, what is it?"
"What is what?" I mutter.
"You. You look like you're in a bad mood."
I scowl up at him for a moment, then relax with a sigh. It's not Mustadio's fault; he's a pretty good guy. We've spent a lot of time together by default during this last week. "Nothing."
He frowns at me, then unfolds his legs and re-folds them the other way. "Come on. You can tell me."
"Alright, fine." I roll my eyes. "It's just that I've barely talked to Ramza at all since we found you guys. And I don't mean to blame you or anything, since it's nobody's fault. It just kind of..."
He shakes his head, then leans back against his own bed. "Look at it this way. If you're this upset, it means you're dependent on him for you to be able to have fun."
I snap a glare at him. "Okay, look here. I don't-"
Mustadio grimaces, then holds up his hands in defense. "No, sorry. I didn't mean that as an accusation."
It takes a moment for my glare to fade. "Okay. Go on."
"Anyway," he murmurs, reaching back to touch his golden ponytail, "what I meant was that... there are other good people in the world besides Ramza. Right?"
"So you could spend time with people other than him and enjoy yourself, right?"
"Okay, good." Nodding, he leans forward again, over the chessboard, but then just stares down at it.
I frown down at the pieces as well, wondering how many more moves it'll take me to lose. Three? Four? The stuffy heat in the room isn't doing much for my mood either.
"You know..." He trails off, then swallows, all without looking up at me. "I think I've... kind of enjoyed the last week. Spending time with you."
"Hmm? Oh, yeah, it was fun." Can I move one of my pawns up to threaten his rook? No, he'd just move aside and it wouldn't matter anymore.
"So I..." He pauses to clear his throat. "I've started to wonder if... if you're seeing anyone. You know, currently. At the moment."
"What? No, nobody." How about using my bishop to... no, then his queen could trap me in the corner. Damn it. I'm not dumb, but I'm no good at this at all.
"Oh. Good. I mean... I mean, no, that's not good so much as it's, you know, a little surprising, since you're so pretty and everything, so I just figured some guy would... you know, snap you up or... no, I guess that was a bad way to-"
"What's with you?" I mutter, scowling at the chessboard, head in my hands. "You're rambling."
Mustadio draws a deep breath, then exhales. "Alma, I really like you."
I blink at this, then stare up at him wide-eyed. "What? You like me?"
He nods, and his dark eyes won't quite meet my gaze. "Um... yeah."
I think about this for several long moments before remembering to close my mouth. Then I open it again. "Why? I've been grumpy all week, haven't I?"
He laughs at this, waving my concern away. "Yeah, but it's kinda cute. I know you're not really like that."
Cute? Hmm. I opt to keep my silence, thinking. Mustadio's actually a pretty good-looking guy, and he's nice and funny, but... But something. What is it?
When I don't answer, he tilts his head and shoots me a questioning glance. "It looks like you haven't really thought about me that way before, which is fine, but... do you think you might... give me a chance? It's not like I'd... ask much of you, or take advantage of you or anything."
"Oh, I know." What? Take advantage of me? Mustadio thinks I'm afraid of him? I'm not afraid of anybody if Ramza's around. "I'm just..." I pause, then laugh, sliding my gaze away from his. "I guess I know how Ramza felt, when he was talking about being surprised by Meliadoul."
"Yeah. Sorry about that." Mustadio chuckles.
I shake my head and wonder if this is okay. This isn't how you're supposed to fall in love, or pair up with people. Not if you're not convinced they're the one. But... but Ramza did it, so it can't be all that bad. Right? Maybe... maybe it's okay to give someone a chance, just to see how things go. It's not like I'm promising him anything. "Okay."
He blinks. "Wait, what?"
"Okay, I'll give you a chance." I twist my lips and finger the hem of my dress. "But I... don't really know how this stuff all works."
He laughs. "Well, neither do I. I just... didn't expect you to agree, let alone so quickly."
I frown up at him. "What are you saying?"
The smile disappears. "Oh. Nothing."
I nod. "Good." After a moment of thought, I hold up a single admonishing finger. "Just don't get any ideas. I have final say over what happens and when."
Mustadio offers me a seated bow, spreading his hands to either side. "Of course."
"Oh, cut it out."
He snickers, then sits upright again. "Okay, sorry. So... what now?"
I shrug, then nod at the chessboard. "I think it's your move."
"Oh. Right." He slides the knight up and to the side. "Check."
I grit my teeth and return to examining the board. Maybe I shouldn't have reminded him of the game.
I close my eyes and rub my forehead. "Say that again?"
"I said Mustadio and I are together now."
I scowl and nod. After an evening of breeze and sea spray, the stillness of Alma's and my inn room feels almost stuffy, confining. It's humid, and my clothes are sticking to my skin in here.
"What's wrong? You look mad."
I drop my arm to my side and open my eyes to regard her. "I'm not mad."
Alma's face goes flat and doubtful. "Ramza."
I sigh. She's done nothing wrong, but she didn't even... ask me. I mean, talk to me about it. Beforehand. Not that she had to, but it would have been... nice. I did that for her. But knowing Alma, with the precedent set, she just figured she'd act, rather than wait and talk to me. She's not hasty or rash like I am, but neither does she have any patience for an outcome that is, in her mind, already decided.
"Ramza?" Her voice is softer now, and her slippers whisper on the bare wooden floor as she approaches me. "What are you thinking?"
I frown at nothing and bite my lips before thinking. "I'm... sorry."
She blinks up at me, hazel eyes puzzled. "What? Sorry for what?"
I shake my head and turn aside, for no reason other than that it's hard to look her in the eye. "I've been spending so much time with Meliadoul that I haven't really spent any with you. You're probably angry and a little hurt. I wasn't thinking about you, just about trying to make her happy, so I guess it was my mistake." I pause to laugh, but there's really nothing funny about it. "You're right: I'm not good at thinking ahead. So I... messed up, Alma. I'm sorry."
"Brother," she whispers. Her nightgown-clad arms wrap around my chest and arms. "No, I'm sorry. I've been mad at you and you haven't done anything wrong, which just means I'm being unreasonable and jealous, and that just makes me madder, only at myself, not you, but it still makes me snappy. So, I'm the one who's sorry."
I twist back to her and return the hug, holding her tightly, pressing my face into her hair. She smells clean, like the soap from her bath. "Don't worry about it. So... we're even, then?"
Her arms tighten further around me. "Yeah."
"Okay." I fall silent, letting my eyes slide mostly shut, just enjoying being close to her. Then I take a deep breath and let it out, all the while twisting my knuckles into the muscles of her back. She likes that, like a half-hearted backrub. "You gonna come to bed?"
"Good." Releasing her, I step back, strip out of my shirt and climb into the room's only bed. Alma follows after snuffing the lamp, and I have to scoot to the side, almost against the wall, and grab firmly onto the sheets; if I don't, she'll pull them all towards her as she sleeps. "Good night."
She plants a kiss on my cheek. "Good night."
After settling into place on my back, I stare at the thick shadows of the ceiling and smile to myself. There are times when I don't think about it, but there are others, like now, when this all just reminds me of when we were kids. Arguing, then making up. Trying to fit into a bed made for one person. It's nothing profound, but the similarity is warm, and makes for easy sleeping.
When morning rolls around I do my usual stretches, then cross the hall and push my way into Mustadio's and Meliadoul's room. The sun is up and so are they; Meliadoul is busy buckling on plates of golden armor over her nondescript clothes, while the engineer has some tools out and is already busy tinkering with his gun. Or one of his guns. The open shutters between their beds let amber sunlight streaming in, glowing on the faded polish of the wooden floor planks.
At my entry, they both twist to look at me, and Meliadoul breaks into a grin. She's quite the sight, with loose dark pigtails hanging just past her jawline and her armor half-on, breastplate but no legs, one shoulder but not the other. "Ramza! You should knock, you know. Unless you were trying to catch me before I was fully dressed?"
I glance to Mustadio, who looks a little uncomfortable alone with the two of us, then shrug. "If you were half-naked with him here, I'd probably have some questions for you."
"Oh, good point." Meliadoul grabs her second shoulder plate from the case at the foot of her bed, then fits it to her body, all without looking; she's done this many times before. "Anyway, what are you up to today?"
"I haven't really decided yet." I never figure this stuff out beforehand, just go out into the city and see what needs to be done. "Maybe I'll wander over by the dock-side market and keep an eye out for pickpockets."
She shakes her head, swaying the pigtails. "You're a strange one, Ramza."
"It's just... who does that?" Now bending to buckle on a leg plate, she smiles sideways at me as she speaks. The expression is fond rather than teasing. "This, and then the... what was it yesterday? Helping that amputee beggar find new clothes and some food?"
I blink. "Oh, no, that was the day before. Yesterday was the old lady." Ma Bones, she called herself. My cheeks still hurt.
She laughs at this. "Yeah. You're like a hero, Ramza."
I roll my eyes and kick at the corner of her bed. "Oh, come on. I'm just trying to... help balance out some of the world's harshness."
"Oh, right. Of course. Because there's a huge difference there." She doesn't even look me as she mutters this, and even Mustadio chuckles, seated on his bed.
"Meliadoul, I didn't come here to be complimented by you."
After tugging tight the last strap on her armor, she glances up at me. "So why exactly did you come here?"
I frown at her. "To see if you two were up."
"Well, we are." Planting hands on her knees, she rises to her feet. She's as tall as I am, and the sun gleams on her armor like it's from a children's story. "So, that's covered. What's next?"
"Breakfast." Turning, I step aside from the door and gesture towards it. "Alma's already down there."
"Right, I get it. We're slow. Not everyone leaps out of bed to sing a hearty song at the rising sun every morning." Shaking her head, she shuffles out into the hallway, clicking as she moves. Mustadio unfolds himself from the bed to follow.
I push the door shut with two fingers before he can do so, ignoring Meliadoul's surprised grunt from the hallway. Mustadio stops in mid-step and blinks at me, and I study him in return. He looks the same as yesterday, not smug or gloating in his conquest of Alma or any such thing, but... still. There are forms to be observed.
After a moment he grins and swallows. "R... Ramza? What is it?"
Crossing arms over my chest, I frown at the floor as I shuffle towards him, and for some reason he backs away. "So, I'm given to understand you've expressed interest in my sister."
"What? Oh, that's what this is...?" His back thumps into the wall and he stops there. A sudden frown crosses his face. "Yeah, we're together, but we're, ah... well, the control is basically in her hands, so..." He trails off with a weak laugh, and slides his gaze away.
I nod a question at him. "What's with you? You're acting all nervous."
Mustadio laughs again and rubs his forearms. "You just look a little... well... I don't know. It's nothing."
I consider this for a moment, then shrug. "Anyway, Alma's a sweet girl and I wouldn't like to see her hurt."
"I'm... aware." His lips thin and he reaches back to toy with his ponytail before making a visible effort to stop.
"Great." I smile, stepping forward to throw an arm around his shoulders. "Then let's get some breakfast, shall we?"
"Uh, yeah." He swallows again and forces a smile, and his steps drag as we head out into the hallway.
What a weird guy. I dismiss his odd behavior and try to think more about what I should be doing for the rest of the day. A bit of wandering, doing what I can to help when the opportunities arise, and then... what, dancing with Meliadoul? She's expressed an interest.
If Alma doesn't mind, at least.