Fandom: Blaze Union
Specifics: Nessiah/Gulcasa, Siskier, Baretreenu, Jenon; wc 22,907
Notes: My entry for fantasybigbang, which has been in the works for several months now. The original concept came from my desire to play around with the dynamics of Gulcasa and Nessiah's relationship a little.
Se l'Aura Spira is AU, and while there are some differences in the backstory of the 'verse, it diverts from the canon timeline proper in the year 1476 MD.
The pub was a well-kept place—warm, handsomely lit, and built to be secure from drafts. The woman working the bar (she owned the place, he believed, as her husband ran the inn above it), a solid and portly woman with a no-nonsense air about her, had smiled upon him kindly when he placed enough coin on the table for a cider and given him a bowl of thick and hearty vegetable soup and a loaf of freshly-baked bread along with his order. She had waved off his thanks and bid him to go eat the food already with a dazzling smile, and he did as he was told, selecting an empty table close enough to the bar that he could hear what people were speaking about, but far enough away that he wouldn’t attract any attention.
The soup and the bread were both good, and he ate slowly—it had been a while since he had been able to have a full meal and he didn’t want to make himself sick. He probably wouldn’t be able to finish the bread all in one sitting, but then he could wrap it up and take it with him. It would last him for a few days without becoming too stale to eat, and he was sure he could finish it before then.
All the while, he kept the hood of his cloak up and the dark fabric close around his body. It covered his hair and cast a safe degree of hazy shadows over his face—enough to obscure his features without making it seem too obvious that he was concealing them. The occasional tremors of his body probably helped; to passersby, he would only seem to be a haggard traveler trying to protect himself from the early-autumn chill.
He ate in silence, listening and keeping his gaze down.
Unaware of their audience, the men and women at the bar laughed and ordered drinks and exchanged gossip. They spoke with pride of the local lord’s rising standing at the capital, and those fine troops of his that even managed to keep riffraff out of the slums. There was much sympathetic clucking over Samantha’s boy, who had run off to join said troops, with great indulgence for both Samantha and the boy. The topic of conversation led in its meandering fashion to when, exactly, would the Emperor settle down and marry that nice soldier girl he seemed to have an eye on—for he had apparently turned down all the available women of age among the nobility already. Some of the men joked that they would be satisfied with any heir by now, even one born out of wedlock; the women rolled their eyes but didn’t protest the vulgarity of such a statement.
He relaxed a bit when the townspeople exhausted all recent topics of interest without lingering over recent fugitives and began to rehash old happenings of note around the general area. Still, he kept listening. It might be useful; you never knew where you would next learn something of interest.
But the talk spiraled onward, reaching further and further back through the years, and he was starting to tune them out and considering whether he should risk staying the night here or not when something one of them said caught his attention again.
“…that fire. It was right bad for business, wound up destroying most of the farmer’s markets down in Nether. We had to import from Albelt for weeks while they fixed it all back up. Terrible, ‘twas.”
“Could have been worse, hey? No one died.”
“Not many people died,” someone corrected that speaker, rather coldly. There was a hush.
“I’d forgotten. Not many ‘round these parts care too much ‘bout all the bilge clinging to the corners of buildings in Nether.”
“Well, three people dead is still three people dead, bilge or blue-bloods. No one misses the old ‘un at the end of the lane, but that’s acos he married the bottle when his woman left him, and he was far the worse off for it. Shame about those kids, though.”
Another pause. Despite himself, he propped his elbows on the table and his face in his hands and glanced over at the speakers—not that he could glean much from the view; their backs were to him.
“The boy, though—they never found ‘is body, did they? He coulda just run for it.”
“In that hell? More like he was burned up so bad there weren’t naught left to find.”
“’Sides, the old folk say his ghost still haunts the old tower to the north. You can’t haunt nothin’ if you ain’t dead first, hey?”
“Why ‘aunt the tower instead of where ‘e died?”
“Dunno. The tower’s much more ghostly though. And it’s definitely haunted, you can’t get anyone to stay there for love or money. Place is downright creepy, it is.”
And after that, the topic of conversation drifted away to other things. He returned his attention to his food, but made a mental note of the tower; if worse came to worst and he had to run for some reason, he could hide there if its reputation was so fearsome. He didn’t discount the people’s talk of ghosts, but it didn’t worry him; he had nothing to fear from the spirits of the dead.
There was no running away from the memories. Not even in dreams.
He was four years old again, four and small for his age, wearing uncomfortable and heavily-patched clothes he’d scavenged that were too big for him. His hair was a few days away from being a complete rat’s nest no comb could get through, and his skin was mottled in blue, purple, and green.
The old man wasn’t around, and he was outside that morning, sitting curled into a ball against the outer wall of the rickety shack of a house after a long night of being made to sleep outside. He was cold and tired and hungry and did not want to see anyone, talk to anyone, or be around people at all.
But she showed up anyway.
She looked nearly as careworn as he did, but she was as cheerful as ever and her only cuts and bruises were on her hands and knees, signs that she’d been playing around roughly as usual.
“Let’s play!” she called to him, and when he didn’t answer, she reached down and grabbed his hand, apparently not wanting to take no for an answer today.
Her fingers brushed his bruises, and he flinched.
She let go of his hand, but gripped his shirtsleeve instead, digging her heels into the ground as she pulled (for he was putting all of his weight into staying seated) and puffing out her cheeks sulkily.
When he wouldn’t budge despite all of her pulling and the fact that she was bigger than him, she pouted at him and then ran off.
He thought he’d seen the last of her for the day, but she was back five minutes later with something like a bun in her hand, and she held it out to him stubbornly.
Suspicion and hunger fought a brief and intense battle inside him; hunger won. Hesitantly, he took the bun from her, then bit into it, not taking his eyes off hers. It was filled with a kind of sweet jelly; he didn’t recognize the flavor. It was good, though, and he finished it off quickly, a little worried that someone might try to take the rest away from him.
“There’s lots more,” she said, “c’mon!” And he resisted far less when she grabbed his sleeve this time, so that she was actually able to pull him to his feet and along with her now.
She had been telling the truth, he found; there was a wide table of cheap pastries laid out and many children in varying states of shabbiness (along with a few so well-dressed that they had to come from the nobles’ district) were also there, eating what they liked and already playing games. There was a woman with a rosary speaking to a few other adults. This might be organized by the church.
Most of what he cared about was that there was food, and he wouldn’t go hungry today even if the old man didn’t let him back in the house, even if he found nothing thrown out that was in good enough condition to scavenge. He ate until he started feeling like he couldn’t move anymore, found a shady spot to sit down, and watched the other children at play.
His rest went mostly unmolested for the next ten or fifteen minutes, but after that, she had returned with some other girls and a few of the boys, positively glowing. The little dapples of light that fell upon her messy golden hair made her look like she was wearing a crown of delicate yellow leaves.
“C’mon, let’s play now!”
There was no way that he could really resist her now, and so he was dragged along with the rest of the group on what she said was the first expedition of their team of phantom thieves, who fought for justice against the evil rich people (some of the noblemen’s children looked put out until she said that there were a couple of rich people that were probably not so bad). She was the captain of the band, and she would be leading them on their first expedition into Nievel.
One hour, a pair of scraped knees, an accidental dunking into the river, and an oath of vengeance against the noble district’s high gates later, Siskier had become his very first friend.
He ducked behind the cover of a tree, tried to still his breathing, and listened.
—There, in the brush—he could still hear the far-off tramping of soldiers.
Clutching his side, he ran over his options. At this range, as long as he could pinpoint the soldiers’ locations, then he would be able to attack them magically. The problem with that was that all the spells that would stretch the distance and be able to hit those soldiers were extremely flashy, and it would give away the fact that he was nearby. Thus far he’d done a good enough job of baffling the trail that they only knew the general direction he’d run in, but depending on how close the ranks of soldiers were to each other, giving up his vicinity would be dangerous. The wound on his side ached, and the blood kept escaping through the gaps in his fingers, the hot stain spreading through his clothes and trickling down his side. He had to decide before he started leaving a blood trail.
The problem was that these soldiers knew that they were chasing down a skilled mage. Their commander had good battle sense, and he would have told them what to expect. No, if he tried to fight his way out of this, he was dead unless he had a huge territory advantage—somewhere the soldiers couldn’t reach him.
This was a foxhunt. And he had to find someplace to hole up safely or he would be caught for certain.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, listening, checking his position on the map in his head. The haunted tower that the people in the pub had talked about couldn’t be far now—he just had to keep heading straight and he would break into the clearing. Ever since he’d been spotted and identified in town, he’d been heading here—but he’d had to zigzag and double back on himself in places to keep it from being obvious that this was his destination. He was counting on superstition and fear of spirits to keep the soldiers from chasing him inside, but that might not work—these men might not have the same terror of the dead as the townspeople. They seemed strong-minded, so he couldn’t underestimate them.
Drawing in a deep breath, he forced himself into a standing position, hoping desperately that blood loss wouldn’t keep his legs from holding him. And trying to keep from making noise, he ran.
Every step hurt. His body wasn’t too far from giving out on him, but when the strength threatened to go out of his limbs, he channeled magical energy into them impatiently. It ached slightly, as though embers were steadily hitting his muscles, but power returned to them, and he lengthened his stride. His breath was coming in sharp gasps, but he could see the clearing through the trees, and he drew himself to a halt at their edge—
It was a tall, thick tower, perhaps three or four stories tall, although there were no windows except on the very top floor. It looked rather like a rook made of large stone bricks, one that had been weathered and perhaps sat upon, as the crenels at the top looked slightly crushed on the eastern side.
Which was all well and good, except that it seemed to have no entrance. There was no door anywhere that he could see, and he skirted the circumference of the clearing in an attempt to make sure there wasn’t something somewhere that would allow him passage.
But there wasn’t. He bit his lip and clamped his hand more tightly against the wound in his right side. By extending his senses, he could just barely make out the traces of human habitation inside the tower; there had to be some way in and out. He might have the power to carry himself to the top of the battlements and hide there, but he didn’t know if he could get down again in his condition. No, he had to get inside by more conventional means.
After a few minutes of frustrated pacing, a pale light appeared around the curve of the tower; he ran for a better vantage point, and arrived just in time to see the faint outline of a door appearing. It opened, swinging outwards, and a woman dressed all in white walked out, heading straight into the forest. She seemed to be a bit taller than him, and even her hair was white; it was too dark to tell whether it was natural or from old age, and her features remained indistinct. He felt as though he’d caught a whiff of holy oils in her wake; she might have been some kind of priestess.
When the door swung closed, there was another flash of pale light, and its outline vanished.
The woman had been gone for a while, and he thought he caught the sound of tramping footsteps in the distance, so he dashed across the open ground, coming to a stop pressed against where the door had been. The stone didn’t feel any different from the walls surrounding it, except for the faintest haze of magic.
Swallowing hard, he stepped back and laid his hand to the door, closing his eyes and feeling blindly for those traces. In his senses, the places where the magic had touched left glistening marks like a moonlit slug’s trail, and he blindly moved his fingers backwards over the patterns of runes, fashioning his magic to fit into the keyholes completely by feel, too nervous to fail. After what felt like forever but couldn’t have been more than a minute, the light reappeared, searing against the backs of his eyelids, and the door opened slightly. He wrenched it open with his free hand; there was an elegant metal handle on the inside, which he used to pull it shut after him. It sealed again; he was safe.
There were lanterns on the inside of the tower, bathing the circular room in warm and gentle light; waiting for his eyes to adjust first, he glanced around as his breath started to huff slightly.
There was something like a stove and a pantry, and a staircase down into what seemed to be a storage cellar—he thought he caught the outline of a simple well there. But the area was dominated by a large staircase that spiraled up towards what had to be the next floor.
Somewhere here, there had to be a place where he could comfortably sit down and rest.
But stubbornly, almost as if laughing at him, the stairs just refused to end. It was getting difficult to move his legs; after the fight and the flight and forcing his way through the door, his magic was starting to run dry, and the sparking bursts of energy in his muscles were dying down. His side was getting slippery, and the faint dripping sound said that he was starting to trail blood now. His clothes were probably black with it, he realized, smiling ruefully. It twisted on his lips like a grimace.
And still the stairs would not end. He had to have climbed three floors’ worth by now; if this was another enchantment, then he didn’t have enough power left to sense it, let alone break it, and he would bleed out trying to reach the top—
But at last his feet reached a landing, and the moonlight and lamps illuminated a not-quite-circular bedroom.
It was quaintly but comfortably furnished, with a bed large enough for two, a carved wooden dresser and closet, a bookshelf and desk and several other odds and ends scattered here and there. It felt warm and lived in, and there was no dust anywhere.
On top of which, there was someone curled up in the corner.
I thought there was supposed to be a ghost here? he thought dimly, slightly confused. That person was living and breathing, not a spirit at all.
He couldn’t tell very much about the owner of the room simply because they were in the corner, loosely hugging their knees in something of a lifeless sprawl. Yet he could sense life, and hear the sounds of breathing.
Blinking, he cleared his vision enough to take a look. It was a man, well-built, with very long red hair. They were probably around the same age; the man’s features were a bit on the harsh side, but his face was youthful and his skin unlined. The gaze of the man’s gold-colored eyes was fixed on him rather uncomfortably, but not warily at all. He wasn’t moving, just staring, as if he were only paying attention to the intrusion because it was something other than the rest of the room; his expression was quite blank.
For a long time, the two men stared at each other; then his legs started to waver and he leaned against the wall of the landing, slowly sinking to his knees. He couldn’t push himself upright again.
His breath was coming short and harshly now, but he smiled at the tower’s resident warmly and apologetically as he could.
“Hello,” he said softly. “I think I’ve bled quite a bit on your stairs, unfortunately. I apologize for the mess, and for breaking in. I hope you don’t mind my hiding in here for a while—I had the misfortune to run afoul of the lord of Balin, and I can’t fight off all the soldiers after me on my own.” His injury was obvious, and probably spoke for itself, so he just kept smiling. “My name is Nessiah. I’m afraid I’ll be at your mercy for a bit, I don’t think I can move…”
His voice trailed off and lost all its power, and his vision was dimming. All his body could do was slump against the wall; breathing was becoming harder and harder, and he thought vaguely that he could taste blood. It should have been painful, but everything was subsumed by the need to sleep and restore energy. His hand couldn’t keep its grip on his side, and it felt like the rush of blood was overwhelming his numb fingers.
It would be very annoying if he died here, but he couldn’t keep himself awake any longer. There was nothing he could do about anything anymore; the heavy soporific warmth of the tower enveloped his body like a blanket, and then consciousness was a rug pulled out from under his unsteady feet. He fell, and was unable to surface.
And after that, the man who’d called himself Nessiah didn’t move.
The smell of blood was so strong. It scared him a little, but more frightening was the thought that this intruder might die. Beyond what he would do with the body and what his mother would say the next time she came back, he didn’t think he could take watching anyone else die.
That was what eventually got him crossing the room to give Nessiah a closer look.
It surprised him a little to realize that he was taller, but then it tended to surprise him that he was taller than his mother every time she arrived. It was that aura of certainty, of authority; at first glance, Nessiah had seemed older and taller and surer of himself, despite the spreading bloodstain along his side.
He thought back over the vague lessons he’d had, flitted over the old memories, and undid the dark gray cloak and leather pack first to give himself a better look.
Beneath them, Nessiah was wearing a white sleeveless robe, cinched tightly at the waist with a sash—probably for ease of movement. It was torn at the side, but the sash had been hitched up over the actual wound to create pressure. He shouldn’t remove it now, then.
Indecision and nervousness wanted to resurface, but he pushed them away harshly and started down the stairs. The medical supplies were in the cellar. He knew that well enough; there had been times he’d hurt himself accidentally or purposefully and they had come in handy then. But the blood trailing over the stairs made him anxious, and he nearly tripped several times on the way down.
The first aid kit was just where he remembered it would be, and he grabbed it, along with an armful of bandages and a packet of herbs. He did trip on the way back up, but not badly enough to spill his supplies—he was grateful; who knew if there would be time enough to run back down and get fresh bandages if he got these dirty.
When he arrived back at the top of the tower, he set the supplies on the floor and knelt at Nessiah’s side, only hesitating to gather up his long hair, twist it into a tail, and shove it under his shirt—he couldn’t have it falling into his face now. Quickly but carefully, he undid the sash—and as he thought, that brought a fresh rush of blood from the wound. The smell made him feel slightly ill, and his body was starting to heat up, his own blood painfully hot and alien in his veins. Still, he bit his lip to steady himself and hiked up the skirts of the robes to give himself a clearer view of the wound.
It was a clean slash and not particularly deep, but it must have severed an important artery going by how much blood kept flowing out of the cut. He pressed down over the injury with one hand, and tore open one of the spelled packages to pull out the wet cloth within. The stench of the herbs it had been soaked in made him want to reel, but he diligently wiped Nessiah’s skin clean over and around the wound.
Next came cleaning out the wound itself, packing it carefully, and stitching it up. Blood was still trickling from between the closed flaps of skin, and so he covered the cut first with soft cloth that had been drenched in healing potion, and then with a few layers of thick padding. Carefully, he wound bandages around the compress to keep it on tight—without exerting pressure, all this hard work would be undone quickly.
But that was all that he could do. He was no mage, and certainly not a healer. He just knew the same kinds of tricks that ordinary doctors did, and who knew how much use those would be.
Hands still bloody, he rested back slightly and stared at Nessiah a bit more.
His body was thin and small, but fit. It wouldn’t be wrong to call him frail, but there was more to him than that—or at least that was what it looked like to him. But Nessiah’s skin was ashen and covered in sweat, and he was breathing heavily. A cursory touch revealed that his forehead was heated.
The injury in Nessiah’s side wasn’t warmer than the rest of his body, though; at least it wasn’t an infection. He would probably still recover this way.
It was something to do. It was something to do other than brood in the corner; it was someone to take care of, and a rope cast down to save him from the memories, give him some respite at least.
He stood, glancing around the room. The first step would be to wash the sweat off of Nessiah’s body. They could move on from there.
Nessiah woke to the feeling of something soft against his back and warmth surrounding his body. After a brief moment of confusion as to where he could be and what had just happened, he recognized the sensation of warm bedsheets, along with a slight pain in his right side and the tight binding of bandages around his middle.
And as he remembered being discovered and the chase to the haunted tower, he carefully pushed himself to sit upright, unable to suppress a wince as that slight pain flared angrily to life.
“Please don’t move too much…”
He looked up at the sound of the voice, and was bemused to see the redheaded resident of the tower sitting anxiously at the side of the bed.
“You might hurt yourself. So please just lie still for now.”
His voice was remarkably soft and his tone well-mannered for a man of his size. He might be younger than Nessiah had initially thought—and he was certainly well-dressed enough. For all that he’d been in the corner hugging his knees when Nessiah had arrived, he looked healthy, and his long hair appeared to be smooth and shone as though it had been washed recently. His facial features were carved, with the bridge of his nose, the line of his brow, and his cheekbones all a bit too harsh and prominent for traditional good looks; his skin had a slightly sallow cast to it that might just have been from lack of sun.
But his softspokenness and the earnest look in his eyes (which were indeed quite gold, Nessiah noted again with some interest) said that he was still very young. Nessiah’s impression was that this man was quite sheltered; the victimized air he’d seemed to hold at their first meeting might just have been loneliness. He was in this place alone, after all.
Before attempting to reply, Nessiah touched his own side, feeling at the bandages through his clothes. They held well, and seemed to have been wrapped with some skill.
“You were the one who applied first aid, right?” he asked, smiling at the redheaded man. “Thank you for saving me.”
And to his surprise, the man bowed his head and shook it, sending his long red hair fluttering. “There’s no need, you’re welcome—the fact that you’re all right is most important.”
He couldn’t not smile, so he didn’t bother trying to suppress it. On a whim, he reached out and patted the other man’s head, lightly stroking his hair—it was very soft to the touch, so he kept doing it for a few moments longer, even as he jolted under the touch. “My, you’re well-behaved. What a good kid.”
“Wha—” The redhead ducked out from under his hand at the words; he was blushing badly. “D-don’t treat me like a child…!”
But reacting like that just proves you’re still one, doesn’t it? Smiling broadly and trying not to break out laughing, Nessiah just tilted his head to the side. “Oh? How old are you?”
The blush gave way to a sulk. “I’m twenty years old…”
Nessiah raised his eyebrows and sat up straight again, not wincing this time even though his side protested the movement. “That’s unexpected… you’re actually older than me. I’m nineteen.”
“I-is that so.” The blank expression on the other man’s face and the way he looked at his hands made Nessiah sure that they’d both been laboring under that misconception.
“Well, you seem so sheltered, so I was sure you were younger than that.” Nessiah couldn’t help but smile again.
His conversation partner made a slightly wounded sound and wilted.
“You’re pretty cute, aren’t you? Hey, you don’t have to be so reserved—you are older and all.”
This time, he couldn’t hold back the giggle that kept trying to escape. “You turned red again…”
“……” He lowered his chin and stared sulkily. What a face. “…Are you making fun of me?”
“Sorry. You really are cute, so I couldn’t help it…”
That was met with an even more pointed stare.
“Oh, are you angry?”
Nessiah couldn’t help it; there was no way he could hold it in anymore. Still, he clutched at his diaphragm, turning away as the soft laughter fought its way out.
“But seriously, you’re just too cute…!”
This time no retort came, so Nessiah was left just holding his stomach and trying to get himself under control as his companion’s blush deepened and he looked away sharply.
“Anyway—really, thank you. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t helped me. I might have actually bled out without you.”
The redhead looked up slightly, warily, regarding Nessiah from the corner of his eye as if he wanted to make sure that he wasn’t going to get teased again before he committed to continuing the conversation.
“And you haven’t even told me your name yet. What should I call you?” Nessiah smiled, putting as much warmth as he could into the words. He was being sincere, after all, and he wanted the redhead to understand that.
The response he got was another blush; Redhead didn’t seem to know where to look, and settled upon his hands after a few minutes of flustered glancing around. Line of sight intent on his lap, he interwove his fingers; the gesture was strange for a physically imposing young man. Nessiah would have expected it from a small child instead.
“…My name is Gulcasa.”
“That’s a strong name,” Nessiah mused aloud. It fitted his fierce features, his size, his apparent strength, and his skill—essentially, everything but his personality. “How long was I asleep, Gulcasa?”
“…About three days. You had a fever, but your wound wasn’t infected. It just meant that it took longer for you to recover…”
Nessiah smiled bitterly. “I wouldn’t have gotten in so much trouble if I hadn’t been sick. I only got this injury in the first place because I was a little slower on my feet than I should have been.” And reflexes were a damned important thing to have when you were trying to fight off an entire platoon of soldiers that had been warned about your magic.
Then he frowned. Come to think of it, he didn’t feel particularly cold, and the bedsheets were comfortable against his skin…
He rested the back of his left hand against his forehead and reached out his right to brush the backs of his fingers against Gulcasa’s (Gulcasa twitched again, but didn’t try to duck away once he saw what Nessiah was doing).
“Mm, you’re actually warmer than I am. It looks like the fever is gone, then. So you took care of my injury and my illness?” He pulled his hands away and rested them on the sheets, smiling again. “Apparently I have a lot of things to be grateful to you for.”
Gulcasa was silent; from the flush on his cheeks and the way he was staring in the opposite direction, he was too embarrassed to say anything. No matter his actual age, he definitely seemed to be mentally younger than Nessiah—and that really was cute.
“If—I can ask a question—”
“Go ahead. I’m the one who’s intruding, after all.”
“Why did you hide here…? No one ever comes here.” Gulcasa’s voice was faint, barely a murmur.
“I heard rumors in town that this place was haunted. Ghosts don’t frighten me, but I thought that they might be enough to scare the soldiers chasing me away.” Ruefully, he shook his head, scratching lightly at his cheek. “I almost couldn’t figure out how to get in, though.”
Gulcasa stared at him blankly.
Nessiah considered him for a moment. “The entrance to this tower is magically concealed. I saw a woman leaving this place—a woman dressed like a priestess. If not for that, I would never have made it in.”
Brief surprise crossed Gulcasa’s face, and he looked down at his hands again as if unsure. “…That’s… that must have been my mother that you saw, then. No one else ever comes to this place…”
Now, what was that sudden subdued attitude for? Gulcasa obviously lived here, and he apparently lived here alone, so ordinarily one would think that occasional visits from a parent would be a good thing. Unless their relationship was strained—and Gulcasa’s polite, reserved demeanor, his shyness, and his relative childishness might be signs of extremely strict parenting.
It probably wouldn’t be good to pry right now, though, so Nessiah chose not to ask.
“Does she visit you often?”
Gulcasa twisted a bit in his seat as if he wanted to start fidgeting. “…About… once every two weeks. You’ve been unconscious for three days, so… she should be back here in another week and a half.”
Nessiah folded his arms and stared at Gulcasa levelly. “Would she be displeased to find me here? I don’t think that priestesses are the type to go outing fugitives to angry dukes, but then I might be stereotyping. And she might do just that if I’m still here and she’s the overprotective sort. If she were to fear for your safety, then I don’t think that just explaining my side of the circumstances would help me very much.”
Gulcasa’s head lowered and his eyes dimmed. His back curled inward; it looked as though he would be collapsing into fetal position soon if he weren’t on a chair.
“…She probably would. After all… I’m not supposed to talk to people from outside.”
That sounded like overprotective, all right. But the way Gulcasa was acting said that it was a lot more than that, and Nessiah looked at him with concern.
“Gulcasa…” He drew in a breath, then asked. “How long have you been living in this place without contact from the outside, aside from your mother?”
For a while it looked like Gulcasa wasn’t going to answer, but then—
“…I was six years old at the time. So I’m sure it’s been fourteen years… give or take a few months.”
Fourteen years. Nessiah felt a slight chill across his shoulders and along his upper back. That was…
If he asked too harshly, it might wind up making things worse. So carefully, Nessiah folded his legs and pulled the covers back, sliding to sit on the side of the mattress, next to Gulcasa.
“You haven’t been outside at all since then?” he asked softly. There wasn’t any answer, nor did Gulcasa look up at him.
That was more than good enough of an answer, though. For whatever reason—whether it was just his mother being overly worried, or some outside circumstance—Gulcasa was imprisoned here, as surely as if he were physically chained to the wall.
Gently, he reached out, brushing the fingertips of his left hand against Gulcasa’s right cheek to coax him to look up.
Gulcasa looked at him briefly, but then broke eye contact again. “I can’t—I can’t tell you. I… you would hate me.”
“You already know that I’m a fugitive, and I’m many other things besides—an exile and what could be considered a heretic, to name a few. It would take a lot to impress me enough to make me hate you.” He controlled his tone carefully, keeping his words warm, his voice light.
“—I’m a monster.” Gulcasa would not look at him, and brushed off Nessiah’s touch as he said the words, his voice hushed and choked with revulsion.
“Gulcasa.” He stood, and drew Gulcasa’s chin back up with a little more force than before so that they were looking at each other again. This was important. He didn’t know why it was so important—aside from the days he’d spent unconscious in this man’s care, their acquaintance was comprised only of this short and rather awkward conversation—it just was important, vitally so. “I don’t know what cause you have to say that, but from what I’ve seen of you thus far, you are absolutely nothing of the sort. Humanity, in the sense that it means being merciful and good… that’s measured more by who you are than what you are and what you’re capable of. The Gulcasa I know spent the past three days nursing a complete stranger back to health, even after that complete stranger broke into his home. And just talking with you is enough to tell me that you’re kind and polite. So you shouldn’t talk about yourself like that.”
“But I—” Even as he began to protest, Gulcasa cut himself off, and turned away again—either he didn’t want to keep arguing, or the argument he wanted to make was hard for him to give voice to.
Nessiah sat back down. He was beginning to feel rather shaky; he had been bedbound for three days, after all, and the pain of his injury was getting to levels that he couldn’t quite ignore any longer.
Gulcasa brushed his forearm against his face hastily, then stood. “I’ll—I’ll get a change of bandages, and something for you to drink…”
“Thank you. I’d appreciate that.”
Gulcasa pushed his chair back and stood. He was doing his best not to face Nessiah, but there was the slightest flash of glassy eyes and a bitten lower lip before Gulcasa positively fled in the direction of the stairs.
Even as half of his heart cried out that it couldn’t bear the weight of the memories, the rest of it clung to them. In the isolation that he knew he deserved, that was all he had.
The town was large, but not so large that he couldn’t cross the slums at night, especially since he knew their meeting place so well; she was already there when he arrived.
Siskier just shrugged. “He said he can’t stay ‘cause his dad’ll get mad at him.”
This was as valid an excuse as anything. Siskier had no parents, and his father was dangerous, but from what they could tell, Jenon did have a pair, and they were strict. He didn’t want Jenon to get hit or get his dinner taken away, so sometimes things like this couldn’t be helped.
They spread the old futon out under the stars and got under its covers. Even on this barren ground, bugs might crawl around, but he didn’t mind so much. They didn’t like him, so they wouldn’t even bother Siskier if he was there. It made him feel good that he could help, since she didn’t like bugs.
The sky was dark and the stars were more points of light than he could count. It felt like they were the only people in the world, like everything else was far away. And that was fine with him. If Siskier was with him—if the adults were all gone—then he was safe.
He closed his eyes and listened to her breathing. If he had bad dreams, she would be here to tell him they were only dreams and nothing to be scared of. If she had bad dreams, then he’d do the same for her. And then they could just go back to sleep holding hands, so that even in their dreams they would know that they weren’t alone.
The next few days passed very quietly. Gulcasa didn’t speak much other than to offer things to Nessiah and ask how he was feeling, and Nessiah didn’t attempt to draw him into conversation. He just watched and thought.
Gulcasa had trouble keeping eye contact, and even asking Nessiah to pull up his robes so that he might inspect the bandages while Nessiah was in bed with the covers drawn up to his lap seemed to be a terrible ordeal of embarrassment to him. Still, he was competent, his hands gentle but firm, the movements of his fingers sure. Whoever he had learned first aid from—likely his mother—had taught him well.
He could also cook quite well. Apparently part of the reason his mother came back every two weeks was to keep the food in the cellar stocked; the well provided water to drink and bathe with. The tower was quite the self-contained home, and as long as food supplies kept arriving, there really wouldn’t be any need to leave it.
Nessiah still couldn’t help but feel claustrophobic at the thought of staying here for fourteen years on end, though. It was probably Gulcasa’s contact with his mother that had been keeping him sane all this time; the solitary confinement wasn’t strictly solitary.
“The only inconvenience in this place is having to go all the way downstairs to get to the privy,” Gulcasa said apologetically once while having to help Nessiah get there.
There was a bookshelf in Gulcasa’s room, and it was fairly full. Approving, Nessiah asked about its contents once.
“They’re mostly storybooks. My mother brought them for me… so that I don’t get too bored when I’m alone here, I suppose. I think my old textbooks from when she was teaching me to read and write are here too.”
From the few things that Gulcasa said, Nessiah gathered that he had been poor and uneducated before he had come to live in the tower, and that all his education had been provided by his mother afterward, of course. He could read, write, and figure, but knew very little of history; he knew the name of the country and its capital, but had no idea who the Emperor was and could not name the neighboring country at all.
“I suppose I don’t need to know things like that in a place like this, after all,” Gulcasa said, but the only discomfort in his voice seemed to be worry that he might be disappointing Nessiah somehow. After fourteen years, he had accepted that this was where he would spend the rest of his life. “All I really know of the world is this place and the town where I was born, Tiera.”
“That was where I heard about this place from,” Nessiah mentioned, but he didn’t give Gulcasa the full context of the conversation.
Gulcasa never spoke of his father. It would have led Nessiah to believe that he was illegitimate and raised by his mother, except that his mother had provided his education—such that it was—and yet had not been there to do any educating during her son’s early life. Had he spent those first six years with his father, or had he been an abandoned child? And why had his mother only come back into his life to seal him away in a tower?
There were far too many questions, and Nessiah knew better than to just ask Gulcasa outright. Instead, he just paid attention to the possible meanings behind the things that Gulcasa talked about, and kept his silence. It would take his wound some time to heal; he wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon. And while he was here—it wasn’t much in the way of repayment, but he wanted to do what he could for Gulcasa. The few facts he knew for certain, along with his own dim theories, disturbed him on levels that he couldn’t properly articulate.
As it transpired, he’d managed to transport his belongings with him safely without getting them bled upon overmuch. He let Gulcasa have the bread he’d brought from the inn, which they ate before it could become stale; on the fifth day, he was able to get up and dig out his spellbook on his own before his legs became too weak to support him fully and he had to sit back down on the bed. He still felt better with its familiar weight in his arms.
He asked for a quill and ink, which Gulcasa readily supplied, and worked out a few spell diagrams and wrote about the events since his flight from Balin to pass the time.
Once, Gulcasa apparently found the temptation to peek over Nessiah’s shoulder too much to bear; Nessiah continued writing steadily for a few minutes and then looked up, smiling, at the curiosity and confusion on Gulcasa’s face.
“…I can’t read it. What language is that?”
“It certainly isn’t one in use in this part of the world.” Nessiah smiled and passed his fingers over the ink that had already dried, half-closing his eyes against the shimmer of the ancient letters. “I come from a land that’s very far away from here; I’ve been traveling for a long time now. I was exiled from the country where I was born, and I have no desire to return to it. There’s nothing there for me anymore.”
He looked up again; Gulcasa’s expression suggested that he wasn’t sure quite what to say.
“It’s all right.” Nessiah smiled at him to reassure him. “If I were ashamed of that fact, or if it were still painful, then I wouldn’t have told you.”
“…Still.” Gulcasa glanced away again, then briefly back toward Nessiah, then shook his head. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t…”
“On the contrary, I’m a stranger in your home; you have every right to be curious about where I’m from and what my past is like. Come sit down,” he said quietly, and patted the mattress.
Gulcasa would not be coaxed to sit on the bed, but he did pull his chair across the room and sit down at arm’s length away.
“Why… keep all of your notes in your old language?” he asked after a brief silence.
“Because I’m a snob about my handwriting, and I have more training in my native calligraphy than yours. I like the curls and the shapes of the letters, and it’s soothing to look at. Besides,” he said with a laugh, “this way it’s harder for people I don’t like to figure out what I’m writing in here. Most of the things I’ve been putting down over the past few days are just diary-type things. See?”
As Gulcasa obviously couldn’t make heads or tails of the letters, Nessiah showed him how both their names would be written in the margin space of one of the filled pages. Gulcasa obediently looked over the writing and was able to point out places where he saw his own name, smiling with a childlike pride of accomplishment on his face.
And then his expression became anxious once again.
“But… why would you even want to write about me? I…”
“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—you’re cute. You’re also kind, and you’ve revealed yourself to be an ideal house-husband. Writing about you is much more enjoyable than writing about how my wound still hurts or how frustrating it is not to be able to stand up for very long.” He reached out and lightly brushed his fingers through Gulcasa’s hair. “So I think I’ll keep writing about you.”
Gulcasa blushed brilliantly and said nothing. Nessiah smiled and tried to keep his voice down as the giggles broke out.
Later, once night had fallen and Gulcasa was turning the lamps down, Nessiah beckoned him over.
“I know you’ve been sleeping wherever you can find a comfortable corner or patch of floor all this time, but really, that’s not good for you. I’m sure I can’t persuade you to actually share the bed, even though it seems like it would fit both of us” Gulcasa was already shaking his head frantically, making his long hair flutter like wildfire “so at least sleep near here. Get a chair and lean on the mattress. I’m sure that will be more comfortable than what you’ve been doing.”
Gulcasa protested for a while, but eventually he did give in. He also fell asleep rather quickly, leaving Nessiah free to stare down at him and carefully brush fingertips through his long hair.
It was a bad idea, and he knew it, but not even the things he’d experienced throughout his life were enough to beat his sense of justice out of him entirely. His common sense was tiredly protesting that he was just asking for trouble, considering bringing someone who was in a very real sense still a child along on his travels, especially when he was still wanted by the duke—but it would pipe down soon.
Even if he’s a child, he’s a good child; I’m sure it’ll be all right. Nessiah looked down at Gulcasa and smiled. And right now what’s most important is to get him out of here. A beast in a cage too small for it never has long to live, after all.
Maybe—if only just a little bit—this was for his own sake, too.
After all, they’d only been together for about a week—and Nessiah had been asleep for the first three days of it—but he didn’t like the thought of leaving Gulcasa and never seeing him again.
Attachment—it was such an arbitrary thing, but it couldn’t be undone so easily. And Nessiah was wise enough to know when to yield to it.
It had been just an ordinary day in the slums. No one was around causing trouble today, and so he and Siskier had been out playing around idly in the marketplace; once again, Jenon was absent, for his parents needed him for something at home. That was all right; they were more than capable of amusing themselves with one of their number gone.
“C’mon, I think there’s a vendor that’s got stuff they’re giving out, they made too many buns or something—”
He let her take his hand, and they slipped through a back alley and toward the old lane of houses that would take them to the other side of the market fastest—
Everything from that point on was the oddest combination of muddled and perfectly clear. He couldn’t remember the exact words said, but the sound of those old familiar footsteps still chilled his heart. He had frozen, and stopped dead, and Siskier had felt him stop and turned around and—
The hand gripping the back of his shirt, and pulling them apart—the thick fingers that wrapped into his hair and threw him harshly to the ground, the rough gravel opening bloody cuts all along his side.
The first thing he saw when he forced his body to uncurl was her running at the old man, yelling for him to stop. And then, as if in slow motion, the slice of the back of his hand connecting with her face.
It was as if there was a wall around his heart. In the time that it took for Siskier to sprawl along the ground, it shattered as if all that time, it had been made of poorly-crafted glass.
“Don’t touch her! Don’t you touch her! DON’T YOU FUCKING TOUCH HER!!”
And as the words ripped their way out of his throat, heat flashed over his body—like and unlike a fever; it felt like the blood in his veins had turned to molten metal, and as it ate away at his body, power flowed in its wake. He was all of six years old, and his father was a towering nightmare, but the idea that even such a man as that could be a threat to him now was laughable.
He launched himself forward, with no real concept of what he was doing—it was just that he wouldn’t let this happen, he didn’t care what happened to him, but he couldn’t stand the thought that Siskier might be hurt—that he would far rather kill his own father than see a single bruise on her face—
And then everything was on fire, and there was blood all over his body, and there was no way out and Siskier was crying for him, but he couldn’t see where she was, and everything was cracking and falling down and the sky was getting choked with smoke and all he knew was that his body was hot and the fire had inexplicably come from him, and Siskier was screaming now, and he kept looking frantically over the tops of the flames to try to find flashes of blond hair, but everything was on fire, even his own body—but it didn’t hurt him, and so maybe she was just scared, not hurt, not—
But she kept screaming and screaming and the sound was getting worse and worse and he couldn’t find her and then finally she went silent and the only sound was the snapping of the fire, and his own voice, calling her name over and over until it cracked and dried and disappeared, even though he still tried to force it to work until he felt like his throat would bleed—
A pair of arms was wrapped around him tightly, holding him to someone’s warm chest. He struggled, then began to realize that he was in the tower, and was awake.
And it hit him all over again, the way that it always did, that she was gone, that she was dead and it was his fault, as much his fault as if he’d choked the life out of her with his own hands.
“It isn’t your fault,” a soft voice said to him, and the arms holding him tightened. He’d been speaking out loud, he realized, and burned with shame even as the tears continued to fall. “Gulcasa, it was an accident. And we call things accidents because no one means for them to happen.”
“But I—” All that intent to kill, all that pent-up rage—if he’d been a better son, then he wouldn’t have had to bear any of it in the first place, and it wouldn’t have exploded out of him and entangled Siskier in the results along with his father. And even if he hadn’t willed it to happen—that was just his nature. He was a monster, after all, a demon in human’s skin. His power existed to create misery and cause destruction; that was what his mother had told him when she’d arrived to pull him out of the smoldering wreckage, and he had to live with the proof of that every day.
“You were six years old,” Nessiah said, his voice unbearably gentle, “which is too young to control your power even if you had known about it—and your blood ran rampant in self-defense against what you saw as a life-threatening situation for you and someone you loved. It was a terrible accident, one which you could not have known would happen, and one you cannot be blamed for.”
“…But I—wanted him to die.”
Nessiah did not try to tell him that the wishes of his six-year-old self should be dismissed; instead, those patient hands traced the length of his spine, his body swaying very slightly. “He hurt you, didn’t he? He abused you even more obviously than your mother is now; I’m not a moral judge, but I can’t blame you. I think that if I were in your shoes, I would have felt exactly the same.”
He couldn’t say anything in response; gently, Nessiah pulled back, then leaned in. Gulcasa felt a soft touch at his forehead that he realized belatedly was a kiss, and then Nessiah’s fingers were brushing over his cheeks, interrupting the tear tracks.
The moonlight fell upon Nessiah from the window, and looking up at him, Gulcasa thought that he seemed unearthly, almost inhuman—his white clothes and pale skin were given a blue cast in the darkness, and his deep green eyes held the light of the stars like a cat’s.
Lightly, Nessiah’s hand came to rest over Gulcasa’s heart, and stayed there.
“I don’t think that my words will make much difference yet, after what you’ve spent your entire life being told. But you are not a monster; you are an extraordinarily gifted young man—not least because of your ability to feel remorse for something that you didn’t intend to set in motion.”
He didn’t know what to say. No one had ever spoken to him like this, not since he’d lost Siskier. But once Nessiah seemed to realize that he couldn’t speak, he framed Gulcasa’s face with careful hands.
“So I’ll keep telling you this—over and over, until you hear me say so more times than your mother has called you inhuman. I’ll keep telling you these words until you’re able to realize that there might be some truth to them.”