Shielded in Broken Armours
by Alice Montrose
Part Two - Dance of the Dragons
The massive doors opened, allowing him to step into the dark room. He was used to the lack of light, and knew no creature hid in the darkness. He had nothing to fear, except maybe himself.
The woman beckoned him closer, thinned hands of a spectre and long polished nails unnaturally visible. Motley wings shifted as did the colour of her eyes, constantly alternating between blue, teal and green. It had always unnerved him as a child – now it was just another detail in a picture.
He was shaken awake from his stare by the cold, unemotional sound of her voice, and felt his body react the same way it always had in the past, as a frightened, diminutive creature trying its best to pass unnoticed by the sight of a ravenous predator. Even when he thought he was fully prepared for this moment, he couldn't help the tremors that run throughout his body upon hearing that voice, so plain, so unnaturally devoid of sentiments, and yet so extremely powerful.
"It has been long since the last time you were summoned, child. The master is very contented with your actions so far."
He bowed to her; a content god was always a good omen.
"Are you pleased with the general, young prince? Or do you find him too flawed for your liking?"
"He is not more flawed than the rest of us. And I've never thought myself to be any better than he is. As a matter of fact, I can honestly say he's much more than I have ever hoped for," he declared; presented with the choice of a direct answer was a very rare opportunity.
She nodded. "The time for him to make his choice in front of the Gods nears. Meanwhile, you are not to influence him in his decision. If he comes back to you, he is the one you have been expecting. If not, then your efforts will not be all in vain, young prince – but you cannot force things to go the way you want them to go. Understood?"
"Very well then. Do not despair; if it is meant to be then you shall see each other again."
The delegation sent to negotiate the peace treaty reached Aquiline on the twentieth day of Kheus, although the news of their arrival had come from the city of Celios two weeks prior. The dreaded prospect of being separated from Ignis only registered with Marzio in the week before to their arrival, when the preparations for his and the Lords of the War Council's departure began to be made. Ignis also started to show signs of uneasiness, although never around his lover.
Marzio had been curious to see if King Teh-Kai had at least found the common sense to send someone who could do the job properly, and was pleased to see that the man in charge of the delegation was Lord Roland Bela-Fer. A good diplomat and an even better negotiator, the elderly lord was friends with Marzio's uncle and a distant relative of Marzio's brother-in-law, Gareth. He also brought the general news from his family, which were greatly appreciated. Kelan did not like his presence as much as Marzio did, but then again it was to be expected. Ignis also asked the his Angelian lover what kind of man Lord Roland was, and the general was very pleased to inform his lover that he could be trusted to keep his word, unlike an "old acquaintance" of theirs that was not directly named in the conversation. Lord Gettik was also to remain with the delegation in Aquiline and the general was more than glad to inform his lover about it; Kelan on the other hand seemed delighted at the prospect, for an obscure reason Marzio swore he would find out sooner or later, certain of the fact the king's advisor was planning something.
They were to leave on Kheus 25th, and during that last week Marzio's meetings with Ignis had become something to look forward to. The prince had certain business to take care of but tried his best to limit his working hours to mornings, and spend his afternoons with Marzio. It was a good arrangement, but one that required the general to go drag Ignis out of his work-induced daze every day. He didn't mind, relieving Ignis' stress was something he always looked forward to.
That was why, early in the afternoon on the last day of his stay, Marzio knocked at the door of Ignis' suite and then let himself in. Usually, the prince was either in his study or the bedroom and thus it took him some time to answer the door, so he had told Marzio to get in and wait in the living-room. Which was exactly what he did this time… only Ignis did not show up.
But, unlike those other times, the door to Ignis' private study was open.
Now, the only place in Ignis' rooms that Marzio had not seen during his stay was precisely this study. He had been in all the other rooms, on the balcony – his lover had even taken him to see the Consort's suite once. But the study… it had just never come about. And the open door provided an irresistible pull for the general. So, one step at the time, he approached and peeked in calling softly, "Ignis, are you in here?"
He received no answer; but that didn't stop an adventurous spirit like the general's. Fighting down the feeling of anxiety at knowing he was invading a strange and unknown space, Marzio took the final step into the room.
It was another world, in a way that made it certain it belonged to Ignis and him alone. The room was actually smaller than Marzio had expected, and an ordered chaos ruled there. Books governed the left side, on two rows of triple shelves, with large trunks lined on the floor against the walls. There was also Ignis' mahogany desk, just as Marzio remembered it from the prince's tent, except perhaps for the maps which had been replaced by bound volumes and piles of papers.
A closer study of the book spines revealed they were most codices of laws, as well as others on economy and religion and probably other things of interest to the Demon sovereign. Ignis must have done much of his work in that study, and who could know how much valuable information his desk contained? Not wanting to anger his gracious host on his last day there, Marzio managed to control the strong temptation of taking a look and he kept his hands away from the desk.
The wall opposite to the door held the fireplace, a log burning slowly in it; hanging above it was a magnificent painting of a Demon couple. Marzio stepped closer, examining it in the afternoon light. Both wore rich clothing and jewellery; the Angelian recognized the man's white robes and golden coronet as being very similar to the ones Ignis wore occasionally. There was no doubt to Marzio they were Ignis' parents.
There was little likeness between father and son; safe for the colour of his eyes, hair and skin, the young Prince of Demonis was a masculine version of his mother.
Morgana LeDomme, Marzio knew, had not been highborn; she had been the daughter of a very rich merchant who had acquired strong ties with the Demon nobility, a very smart and strong spirited woman who had managed to gain Prince Nicolas Sagni-Dor's attention and love. Ignis got most of his looks, intelligence and strength of will from his mother, although he had inherited his father's stubbornness and scepticism as well. Morgana had deemed it necessary to educate her son not only in the ways of the ruling class, but also in those of the common people, and Ignis had been a keen learner. The prince had confessed he did not shun physical work, and that fact had proved very useful during his training as a Dreak. Apparently the trainers at the Monastery cared little for difference of status, for all the Dreak were considered equal and therefore it mattered little where one had come from. So aside from a warrior's training Ignis had learned how to do menial labour, and thanks to his mother's teachings he had not complained about it as the other highborn cadets had.
At any rate, it was thanks to his mother's education that Ignis had not turned out to be an arrogant nobleman and that he had learned to love and respect the common people. And even though she had died when Ignis had been merely eleven, she was always present in the prince's mind. He spoke little of his father, however, although he had confessed he had loved him just as much. Marzio did not know if it was because rumour had it Nicolas Sagni-Dor had been murdered and his assassin never caught, or because Ignis thought his father had been too weak. It was common knowledge even in Angelia that his wife, and later Lord Lucifer, had truly ruled Demonis in his stead. He had been a good man, but not too skilled in politics; Ignis was both a good man and a good politician, somewhat of a paradox in a world of lying and scheming. And he was also a good leader, a thing which weighted a lot in a country with a strong military tradition. Marzio had found himself wishing sometimes that Ignis had been born in the Angelian royal family – he would have made Angelia a great nation, just as he had done with Demonis. However, in the end all that Ignis wanted was peace for his country and its people, and he would soon achieve it.
Having finished examining the painting, as well as the large and detailed map of Demonis and the smaller one of all the Eastern Lands that flanked it on each side, Marzio turned his attention to the rest of the small room. He noticed another painting, half-hidden by the open door, so he hurried to study it as well. This one was a portrait of a Demon maiden wearing a sky-blue velvet dress, sitting outside on a summer day. She had short-cropped hair and was not a spectacular beauty, but her lovely eyes and open smile reflected a beautiful soul and a caring heart.
Marzio knew who she was even before his fingers followed the fine script on the gilded frame. Rasya Talien-Kay, Ignis' former lover. And yes, he could imagine her playing that part… something inside couldn't stop telling the general he had practically replaced her. But only for two months, while Ignis and she had had almost two years together.
'Too little, much too little… even a lifetime with him wouldn't be long enough.' He tore his gaze away and stepped toward the right wall, the one with two windows and little else – just a small table containing painting supplies for the easel supporting a sheet-covered canvas.
"What are you doing in here, my nosy friend?"
Marzio turned to find Ignis standing in the doorway, arms crossed and a little frown creasing the smooth forehead. It was not a good sign.
The Angelian did his best to make his shrug look spontaneous and innocent. "The door was open; I called before entering, but you didn't seem to hear me".
Ignis' raised eyebrow looked indulgent, and that little gesture did plenty to help Marzio relax. "I needed something from the library. You on the other hand should not be in here at all." He sighed. "Oh well. I should have told you not to enter this room…"
Marzio was about to leave hurriedly but Ignis' hand caught him by the wrist and his face softened. "No, stay. What is done is done, and you've probably seen most of what's important by now anyway. You know, besides you and me only Rasya and Tempesta have ever been in here since I moved in." He nodded toward Rasya's portrait. "Not quite what you would have expected her to be, is she?"
Marzio had indeed envisioned her different. "She seems… fragile. I had imagined her somewhat more imposing. But then again, I had imagined you different, also. What is that?" he pointed toward the covered canvas, causing the prince to actually smile.
"Your curiosity will probably be the end of you, my dear general. But not today." He took his lover's hand in his and guided him to stand before the easel. "I find painting a good method of relaxation. This is just my latest work. Go ahead, uncover it." Seeing the general's hesitation, he couldn't help half a grin. "Go on now. I think you'll like this one."
Marzio pulled away the sheet, revealing a rendered battle scene between Angelians and Demons. And right in the middle of it, mounting his warhorse and holding a blood-sullied sword, was a blond-haired and green-eyed general that looked very familiar.
Seeing himself through Ignis' eyes for the first time was quite a shock for the Angelian. The painting made him look… very much in control. "This is not me," he whispered.
"Of course it is. You as I saw you that day, as your enemies saw you. Perhaps even as your soldiers saw you. You had a very thoroughly developed – not to mention twisted – way of underestimating yourself when we first met. I hope you got past it, at least partially. Now, beloved… I have this as a physical reminder of you. But I wish to offer you something to remind you of me as well."
Marzio looked up to find Ignis smiling, all signs of disapproval gone from his face. So he merely put his hands around Ignis' body and smiled back. "A gift, for me? Haven't you given me enough already, my lovely prince?"
"It's just a trinket, actually. Something not easily linked to me. I don't want to get you in any trouble with King Teh-Kai." He produced a pendant on a gold chain from a pocket and placed it in Marzio's palm, kissing his cheek lightly. "I've hidden some books you might find interesting in your luggage, but this you can wear if you so choose. Actually, I'd feel honoured if you did," he added quietly.
Marzio inspected the small gold pendant; it had an oval shape and embedded in it was a ruby cut in the image of burning flames, so carefully carved one could see the overlapping tongues of fire. Elegant and exquisite – something he could easily associate with his Demon lover.
He hung it around his neck and let it fall over his tunic. "Then I will always wear this in your honour," he promised.
"I don't need you to honour me Marzio. Just to remember me. Always..." he said with a slight hitch in his voice.
Those weren't the words Marzio wanted to hear from his lover. They were loaded with an alarming sense of… finality. And he couldn't understand why. So it was with that uncertainty and sudden fear in his voice that he asked, "Why do I need to remember you, Ignis? I don't need to remember what I have no intention to forget, ever."
The almost sad look he received from the prince did nothing to calm his worries, but the solid body suddenly pressed against his did soothed the rapid pulse of his heartbeats.
"In the game of life, nobody deals the 'forever' cards, my love. Only time will be the maker of our future. And I just pray to the gods that future will find us together. Now, whatever shall we do today?" he added, quickly changing the course of their conversation.
"Don't you have work to do? You said you had to get something from the library, and you always work after coming back from there."
Ignis shook his head leniently. "Marzio, it's your last day here, and most likely to be for a long time. I already got all that I needed, and I'm quite sure nothing life-threatening is going to happen if I solve this matter tomorrow. Come." He pulled Marzio back into the living-room. Telling the general to make himself comfortable, he recovered a pile of documents that had been lying carelessly on a shelf and took them into the study. He returned to find his lover lounging in one of the armchairs, and with many interesting ideas on how the afternoon could progress.
Twilight found them in the same place, with Marzio sitting in the very same armchair. The only difference was a sated Ignis sitting across his knees, lean legs swinging over one armrest and wings stretched over the other, an arm around Marzio's shoulders and the other curled in his own lap. His head was resting on a broad shoulder, and he smiled as his lover played with his long hair.
The prince had been restless and eager to please that afternoon, and Marzio had somehow managed to keep up the pace, still not having figured out where Ignis got that much energy and creativity from. And he had also been lenient enough to make love in front of the bedroom fireplace, a silly fantasy Marzio had always wished to fulfil. The general was certain he'd never had a lover like Ignis, nor was he likely to get one. In fact, he wasn't sure he wanted anyone else…
"You've spoiled me for others, you know," he murmured, running his hand through the sinful red hair again. Oh, what he would have given to do that every time he wanted! He'd never seen anyone, man or woman, Angelian or Demon, with a hair quite like that, blood-red in the evening shadows and shining like liquid copper in the sunlight.
In his arms, Ignis purred. "Mmm… thinking again, beloved?" he asked in that low, sexy voice that made Marzio's blood boil every time he heard it.
"I was pondering what I would give in exchange for handful of your hair at my daily disposal. A strand would work too… can I have one?" he asked, getting Ignis to laugh and pull away, only to straddle his legs and look him in the eyes.
"Your damsel, am I now? Last time I checked, only fairytale maidens gave strands of their hair to their departing knights in shining armour."
"Well, you're absolutely not a damsel, and I most certainly wouldn't want to see you wearing a dress, no matter how appealing the thought may be. Besides, no maiden I ever met had hair quite like yours, so long and just begging to be touched. Not even Princess Selena – and I happen to know she's taking really good care of hers while you just have it. Can I cut a strand, please?"
Elegant, reddish eyebrows rose and Ignis offered him a mysterious smile. "You can, if you have the patience to braid it first and promise not to tug. I've never met anyone with an obsession for my hair, you know," he continued, while Marzio quickly parted a thin strand and started braiding it. "And it's an obsession I'll reciprocate for these golden locks of yours… hmm so soft…"
It was an easy job, the fine strands seemingly alive between the Angelian's fingers, until Ignis decided to start nibbling at his neck. And he was hard to ignore when he asked for attention, even harder when he was claiming it, but finally Marzio managed to complete his task and curl the thin, oh so thin braid around a finger.
"Do you have a dagger?" he asked, not risking pulling out his own hidden dagger. He wasn't supposed to carry any weapons until his departure, and its presence on Marzio's person in the prince's private rooms could have been easily seen as a threat.
Ignis murmured something about not underestimating him and before Marzio could say anything the prince reached out for the Angelian's left boot, pulling out Marzio's hidden dagger and giving it to him like it was the most natural thing to do.
'Well you didn't expect him not to notice did you? He's a warrior, after all, and a damned good one at that.' He used the blade to cut away the red braid – a pity actually, but he'd chosen it so that the place would be hidden underneath a good portion of hair, and cut it a few good inches away from the roots. He returned the dagger to its initial place and was about to put the braid in his pocket when his wrist was caught in Ignis' grip once more.
"Not in there, you'll ruin it. Look at this." Under the general's puzzled eyes he picked the gold medallion in his other hand and run a finger on one side. A small click resounded in the silent room and the medallion opened in half, revealing a secret compartment. Ignis carefully detangled Marzio's handiwork from around his finger and placed it into the revealed slot, then closed it again and grinned up at his startled lover.
"A locket? Why you… you… nasty daimon!" Marzio accused when recovering from his little shock. "Were you even planning on telling me about it?"
"No, my sweet, because I expected you to figure it out on your own one day." He shrugged, placing a chaste kiss on his lover's lips and settling against Marzio's body once more. "Now, before you say it, yes we are both incurable romantics and at times nauseatingly sweet to each other – to put it in Owen's words. And yes, I am fully aware that you would never admit it in public, just as you will probably deny there ever was anything going on between us during these past two moths. But it doesn't matter; it's enough that we both know it. I also want to add that, the next time we'll see each other again, you can expect me to jump on you as soon as we are alone."
"Why Ignis, that is a most un-princely way to put things," Marzio sniggered, circling his beloved's waist and at the same time nervously eyeing Kheerah, who had just delivered their dinner and heard Ignis' every word. But the young attendant seemed to have grown deaf when it came to this type of conversation, and Marzio suspected the boy had heard enough of them in the past few months to last him for a long time.
"Now, oh mighty Demon Sovereign, would you mind telling this humble servant exactly how do you know when we will meet again, if it isn't too much to ask? I'd like to prepare myself in advance for when the hurricane hits."
Ignis gave in to the laughter he'd been trying to muffle and at the same time caressed Marzio's face. "Humble you are not, no matter what you say. And I hope we shall meet again whenever the treaty will be signed, provided of course you will still want to see me. Look, I know I have no right to claim you as mine, with hundreds of miles separating us. But no matter what, I'd very much like to be your friend if nothing else."
"I would like that, my prince; and you will always be so much more than a friend to me. I don't think I can ever repay your kindness and attention. You've helped me solve so many problems I was struggling with, and I didn't even have to ask. And I think… I think I feel something for you I have never experienced before." Finally Marzio, driven by an all-powerful desire to reassure himself his feelings were true, brought himself to ask, "Ignis, you have a little more experience than myself in this field. How do you know if you are truly in love?"
It was the first time since Marzio had met Ignis that the prince stared at him as if speech had left him. His eyes were sad, so very sad, and he reached out a trembling hand to capture Marzio's. "It is difficult to explain. You… simply know it. You feel like you would spend eternity in your lover's embrace, and do anything to ensure his or her safety, going so far as to sacrificing your life and happiness for the one you love. And you would not do this because your sense of duty requires it, but because you could not live with the knowledge that your lover is in danger, hurt and suffering – or even worse, dead."
For the first time in his life Marzio felt all those things, and more. He felt them and grasped their meaning and all he could utter was an indiscernible sound between a moan and a sob. Now he began to understand everything…
Ignis kept holding his hand, but squeezed his eyes and lowered his head. His voice was a whisper when he managed to get it out. "I'm sorry; I did not mean to sadden you. You see, I too have taken a great liking on you, Marzio. It hurts my soul to see you leave, knowing what might expect you when you get home. But if you were to stay here they would believe you a traitor, and your family would have to suffer some of the consequences. I have barely known you for a few months; but they have known you for a lifetime. Don't be mistaken, I will miss you greatly. But I know we shall see each other again. And I want you to know that I… I feel for you… what you feel for me… and I…"
The prince's resolve cracked and his eyes filled with tears. His body shook as he visibly fought to keep them from falling. Marzio had never thought he would see his lover cry, and he resolved that they would not part like this – not like this! So he grabbed the slender body and held it to him, allowing Ignis to burry his face into his chest and stroking his hair for one last time.
And then the Demon looked up, and taking Marzio's head in a strong grip he allowed his emotions to mingle with the ones in his lover's emerald eyes. His voice was strange, carrying an undercurrent that had had always been there, but muted and barely noticed before. "You ask me how you know when you love somebody. You just do, Marzio, you just do. Now, please hold me for a while."
So Marzio kept silent and held him, not knowing what else to say, and kept his eyes on the flames consummating the lug in the fireplace. A light touch brought him out of it and his eyes met Ignis' gaze. The pads of the prince's fingers ran over the general's face, swift and tender, as the Prince of Demonis brought himself to smile a little. "I will remember you, my brave Angelian. Should you ever need sanctuary, or a place to spend a few quiet weeks, my door will always be open. And no matter how far you are, or where you go, I will always be with you in spirit."
The following morning, there was a formal farewell ceremony in the throne hall. Not many people were there, just the Angelian delegation, Marzio and the four Lords, and on the other side Ignis, Tempesta, Lord Lucifer, Owen, a few other Demons with important positions at Court and of course Ignis' ever-present guards. Waiting outside was their escort, led by Marzio's acquaintance Commander Beren. Just so that Marzio wouldn't get bored, Ignis had said with a smug smile on his face.
It was not a very elaborate affair, merely the prince wishing them a good journey and handling Kelan some official papers for King Teh-Kai, "in the hope they will help smooth things between you and him". Of course he'd been referring to their failure to win the battle between the two lands, but he was wise enough not to mention it. Kelan was also wise enough to accept, although it was not very sure the king would actually get those documents. Marzio carried their copies, just in case.
Then Ignis formally took farewell from each of the four Angelians that would return home. Marzio was the last, and expected the same cool and controlled handshake the others had received. But no; his sweet, tormenting, daimon of a lover offered him a wide smile and a hug that nearly crushed his bones, and that in front of all those people, and actually thanked him for being his friend.
And honestly, Marzio didn't mind one bit, not even when he received looks that varied from surprised to envious to Kelan's disgusted snort. He even went so far to return the embrace – a bit less enthusiastic, for everybody's benefit – and refrained from kissing the Prince of Demonis one final time. Their farewells had been said in private the previous night. And then, letting go of Ignis with an air as detached from the world as it could be managed, bowed respectfully one last time before turning and leaving the hall, trying his best not to look back. He managed to get into the courtyard before turning and giving one last look at the palace that had been his home for nearly two months, and to the familiar tall figure he could see looking out from a window on the third floor. He sighed and mounted his horse, trying his best not to show his inner turmoil as the small party set on its way for the city port of Quiris.
End Part 2
To Be Continued in Part 3 - Rise of the Phoenix