A/N: So despite my lack of internet presence lately, I have been writing and writing. But I felt bad that I wasn't putting anything on FP, and I ended up writing two FP-only stories. This is one of them.
Title: The Sailor's General Superior
Summary: Calentine is having a bad day. His head's bashed in, his ship is sunk, and the most important man in the kingdom just fell in love with him in the worst way.
Updates: This story updates every Tuesday and Friday, unless otherwise noted.
The monk's spotted hands, delicate as butterflies, trace over the pages of parchment. It is all I can do not to scream. My blood is dripping onto the floor through the cloth on my head, and he just mutters about invisibility and speech enhancers and snake antidotes. Why the blasted people put in charge of healing the wounded can't keep their tome open to the right page, I have no idea.
Though his worry-faced acolyte keeps tugging at my arm to get me to sit, I keep elbowing him right back, determined to keep standing. A steersman's got to stand; you can't watch out for deadheads and reefs laying on the deck of your ship.
I realize, somewhere, that this is just the blood loss talking and I should give in, but I think the part that listens to good advice has dripped onto the floor too.
A red-faced dzalin soldier runs into the room, her brown curls half-bound and tumbling about her shoulders, sweat-plastered to her face. "Sir," she gasps, and "sirs, he's wounded, he's here, the General Superior-"
The monk swears, which I find distantly amusing, and shoves the book blindly towards the pale-faced acolyte. "What's wrong with him?" he demands.
Past the broken bones and haze of blood, I am curious. Say what you will about curiousity; I have the scars to prove it, but the trophies, too. As the acolyte starts thumbing through the pages, I hobble in place until I can see the doorway, and try to pretend I like the way the world spins.
And damn it all if she isn't right. I'd never seen the man in person but there's no mistaking him. Everyone's heard of General Superior Asotegi: hero of the Gray Marshes, the dzalin who found the crown when all hope seemed lost, and placed it on the princess's head when he could have claimed it for his own. Leader of leaders, and richer than the crown itself. Rumor has it the queen's money is all his, and who knows what to take from that.
It's not the trademark black hair, chopped oddly close around his ears, or the green eyes, frog-bright against his copper skin, that give him away. The man's bearing is the living symbol of command, and just because I jump at the sound of a lieutenitza's voice doesn't mean I can't judge a general. The air itself seems to jump to attention for him.
It doesn't matter a single bit that he's clutching his arm, his pale skin grayed with pain. Broad at the shoulders as a farrier and only a half-head shorter than me, the dzali still looks like he could take out an army with a wave of his hand.
He's got an aide at his arm, gesturing wildly so that his hair, red as fire, floats like St. Elmo's about his head. The scowling general looks like he'd give up all custom just to have a damned drink, but he stands there stiffly and lets his man scream at the monk.
The rest of us crouch and make our respects. My head doesn't mind me kneeling, though that brings me closer to all the blood and makes my stomach swim uneasy-like. I took a dip in the water earlier, not of my own doing, and my uniform still stinks of salt and rotting fish. I'd seen the bastard that put me there go down, though. Ha.
The shouting goes on above the acolyte and me—full monks apparently don't need to bow to dukes—and the boy, bless him, is trying to turn the books pages as subtly as he can, still searching for a cure. "Hey, lad," I whisper, and he glances at me out of the corners of his eyes, looking petrified and outraged at the same time, like a matron when you've just spit on her floor. "What's your name?"
He presses his lips together, glancing frantically between me, the book, and the general's boots. "Theo," he whispers.
"Well, Theo, if you find that cure, I'll name my next ship after you."
This doesn't seem to inspire him; he just starts to look affronted. I grin dizzily and go back to staring at the floor.
"Aren't you pale for fisherfolk?" he hisses as the shouting grows louder.
"Adopted," I reply. The blood might turn my hair dark, make the honey curls into wine. "Why's it matter?"
"This spell requires a father's true-name." He leaves a tasteful silence, then fills it with, "How about I just look for another spell?"
"How about you do that."
"It is merely a scratch," the General says, in voice cold as ice and twice as stiff. "If you could but provide me with a wrap and a tuppe of alcohol, I will be on my way."
"Oh, no, no!" The monk's hands fly urgently in the air. "Let it never be said that the Oaken Brothers turned away the General Superior. No, we will have you healed right away!"
"I-I think I've g-got it," Theo whispers, tilting the book towards me, but the monk snatches it out of his hands. I can't help but make a sad sound as it flies out of reach, like watching a fish on the line that has gone awry and you just know will land in the captain's lap.
The fiery aide spins and takes in a big breath like he's going to scream at me too—same green eyes and broad shoulders, I see—but the general merely flicks his good hand and his man deflates.
I am truly envious. If I could just do that to the lieutenitza then we wouldn't have run into those pirates at all. Then the Bluefish would still be ready for its next real engagement. Even dazed with blood loss, I saw it taking on more water than it should've been.
"I'm sure I am well enough that you can see to this man," the General continues in that icy voice. "The doctor can heal me when he is recovered. Sailor, if you would be so good-"
He looks at me, and something very strange happens.
He stops speaking; he is staring like he is a devout penitent and I a messenger of his gods. I start to worry, fast—maybe my wound really is that bad, or I'm going to be disfigured for life, or maybe the General has simply never seen a human look so pathetic.
And then the crystal at the base of his neck starts glowing purple and all hell breaks loose.
The monk is yelling and throws up his hands—aw fuck, the damn book closes when it drops to the ground—and the aide is yelling and looks like he might kill me and the acolyte is shrieking and covering his head with his hands while trying to simultaneously bow and crouch on the floor and the messenger soldier in the hall is, what, singing?
My head feels like it might explode with noise and color. But the General is staring and I don't know why, and his eyes are so intense I can't even blink. Like trying to look away from a gator about to spring at you. No matter how much everything hurts, if I look away I will die.
Except he goes bizarrely fuzzy and maybe has more than one head. The general raises an arm—or at least one arm, it's hard to tell—and the room goes quiet again. "Heal him," I hear, and I'm conscious enough to think, well, that's awfully nice of him before everything goes a bit green.
When I'm lucid enough to stop dreaming of the sea and start looking at the world, I seem to be in a bed with rather-more pillows than ordinary—rather-more than I've ever seen in my life, more like—and the General is sitting on a stool just to my right. The light coming into the room from the small hatch windows is red with sunset, and everything smells like wood and blood and sickness. He is staring at his hands and doesn't notice my wake.
I am more frightened than I have ever been.
Don't get me wrong—I'm not a coward. I've never run from battle, or bullies, or anything of the like. But I was a fisherman's boy, then a captain of a transport boat, then a steersman of eight seasons below the cloth of the Bluefish, one of the kingdom's lousiest galleys. Nothing in my life has even slightly prepared me to wake up and see General Asotegi sitting beside my bed. I should be laying face-down on the ground in his honor, but as I can't seem to feel my legs, that sure as hellfire isn't happening.
"My lord duke?" I say, for better lack of all else.
His head jerks up faster than I've seen anything move, and once again I am pinned by that intense green glare. No longer fogged and woozy, I am cast adrift; I feel like the flesh is flayed from my bones. I have to clench my good hand in the blankets to keep from shaking—and when did a wounded sailor warrant such fine cloth?—or shrieking like a babe.
Then something starts to go wrong, or more wrong. The General, staring at me, begins to turn red, a movement from his nose that spreads outward across his cheeks and down his neck. A cold fear begins to stir in my gut as it grows worse. I've seen men look like that before they died, falling down with their left arm clenched to their chest; does he have some affliction? And if he does suddenly drop over, will I get blamed for losing the war?
But he just turns that bewitching gaze away and covers his mouth with a scarred, fine-boned hand. If I don't know better, I might say he is embarrassed. Blushing. Since that doesn't make a lick of sense, I figure it might be some sort of dzali skin condition.
I open my mouth and shut it again. I don't have a damned word to say.
Neither does he, it seems. The silence between us is as uncomfortable as waking up wet in a pig sty.
"My lord duke," I repeat again when I realize someone has to take charge, and don't generals usually sit on a hillside and direct from afar? "Forgive me for not rising."
"No, no apologies," he says. His gaze snaps back to me, but this time to dance across my face, never stopping for longer than a moment. I wince inside. The saints only know what swamp muck I look like. In addition to the blood, I still smell like seawater, even if someone seems to have replaced my uniform with shapeless gray robes and bathed the muck off of my skin. They usually shave for head-wounds, and none too carefully at that, so I probably look like a half-naked woodchuck at best. My right arm is in a sling, and my ankle in a wrap; no way for me to tell if it's broken or just sprained.
I feel an overwhelming urge to yawn, and count clouds until it passes, mostly because I don't know the proper way to tell a duke to excuse me. Damned head wounds. I have gotten knocked about before, but never so seriously. Already I can feel my eyelids drooping, though I struggle to keep them open. I think, I can't disappoint the brass like this. I have to show him that I'm a man to be reckoned with, not the smooth-faced youth he no doubt thinks he sees.
But I'm so tired.
"They... the monks," I think I hear him say. "They didn't know your name."
"Mm," I reply, and this time I can't help but yawn, can't remember why I didn't before. He'd wanted—my name, right. "Cale."
"Cale," I hear echoed, "sleep," and I dream of my aunt, standing at the prow of the deck drenched in sunlight, shouting us all to the oars, and as I run for them, my cousins at my sides, I am bizarrely happy.
When I wake again, the room is darker, but lit round with rushes. Dread tumbles in my belly—will they take the cost of those out of my pay? Then sleep leaves me and I remember I'm at the monks' priory. Surely they don't charge for the rushes they light themselves.
There is gentle murmuring, and I pry my eyes open a little more.
The general is standing by the wall, talking to his red-haired companion as they hold a parchment up to the light. I pretend for a drowsy moment that I might still be asleep, because that makes more sense.
A beautiful people, the dzali. Whenever our lord and lady would come down to the village to collect their tithe of fish, all of us brats would run out to wave at them, or just stare and dream. Their faces look like nothing humans ever see, with those too-wide eyes and such generous smiles. You can always tell a dzalin in the distance by the bright hair—blue and green and red, any sort of wild color—unless they're in the army, where they dye such obvious targets away. The black the General Superior chose is more dour than most. The redheaded aide, I figure, must not be a soldier.
After a few heartbeats of my staring, the General's head jerks up. He casts a quick, watchful glance around the room, like a mongoose searching the wind for cobras nearby. When he looks at me, takes in my surprise and utter perplexity, he smiles like this smelly sailor is the best thing he's seen all day.
The aide looks thoroughly disgusted, and then carefully blank.
"How do you feel?" the General asks in this soft voice that makes me wonder if he has mistaken me for an especially cute kitten. I stare up at him for a moment, resisting the wrenching urge to look beneath the covers or behind the bed or anything for this other person he must surely be addressing. But his eyes are undeniably on mine.
"My lord duke," I say weakly, the only thing I am pretty sure of. The stone at his neck is glowing again, a pale purple that I've only ever seen in marsh flowers. "Fine? Sir."
"Asotegi," the aide sing-songs in dangerously insubordinate tones, "he has no idea what is going on. Perhaps now is not the best time to bother him, don't you think?"
For a moment the General's gaze shifts and I see that ice again, the steel the soldiers whisper about to the sailors in the inns, the force that makes him so formidable on the field. Then he glances at me again and it is all gone, his eyes soft, his mouth curled as if he is trying desperately to keep from smiling again.
I'm starting to think his reputation may be, at best, exaggerated.
The bits of me that snap salutes off to the shiphead and lieutenitza want to obey the aide, the only person in the room who doesn't seem to be losing his mind. On the other hand, if I don't learn what is going on, I may go insane, and all the monks' work patching up my head will be for naught.
"My lord duke, begging your pardon," I begin, then find my voice is too groggy to continue. I cough a few times, which makes the General's brow crease, and that makes my stomach twist in nerves again. "Begging your pardon, I'd really like to know what's happening. Sir. Er. Is there something I should do?"
The general can't seem to answer, only goes that red again and sets his hand over his mouth. Trapped in apparent insanity, he gestures to the aide, who looks like he might kill one or both of us.
In a clipped voice, the red-haired dzalin says, "Surely you've heard of bjezfretzing."
I haven't, although I can tell it is something high-dzalian, because nothing else would have quite so many z's in it. But the monks must have, and even that messenger girl, because they had all gone off like a stampede when that crystal lit up. So maybe I do—I shut my eyes and think. Something about dzali going crazy; something about crystals.
Yes, there is something itching, but nothing enough to bang together and spark knowledge.
"Then you'll know how serious this wildly inappropriate situation is," the aide growls before I can shake my head. "The monks have been threatened to silence, and you've been moved to the keep until we figure out how to—manage this. Your new duties as a focus take priority."
The keep? I am in the fucking castle? The only keep I know of is a day's walk from the docks, too far even for an especially thirsty sailor, but it's where the queen has been staying.
Shit. I take in the room around me properly for the first time. Wood floors, stone walls, and windows with glass clear as stillwater. The aide says there is something wrong with me, something dzalish, serious enough to move a common sailor a stone's throw away from the kingdom's most important person.
I chance another glance at the General, in case he might enlighten me. He is staring at me with that possessed focus, and I have to quickly look at the aide instead, struggling against my own flush of embarrassment by proxy.
But—focus. That strikes a chord in my mind in a way that 'bjezfretzing' didn't. Dzali with magic—the serious kind, the kind that causes every plant in the kingdom to choke invaders or the sun to rise twice in a day—all have some kind of focus. I hadn't been listening too hard when Maria had mentioned that, being too busy trying to come up with ways to tell her she was pretty without fumbling it. But she had said the word focus, and I remember because that's what I had been trying to do at the time and I thought it was destiny.
"A focus takes priority over what?" I ask suspiciously, focusing on the important unspoken bits of his speech. This draws a predictably dark look from the aide. Most dzali are not so outrageously superior acting, but I've served under others like him in the past and I can handle it. That type is emotional as all the others, in some kind of devoted-to-annoying-everyone way. It's easier to look at him than meet the General's befuddling gaze. "Sir," I add hurriedly.
"A dog does not need to know his master's reasons before he bites," he spits, and I am honestly taken aback by his vitriol. No one has ever spoken to me with such hate, and not just because I'm taller and have longer reach than most. I may have been a fisherman, but that is a respected profession where I come from, and the dzali who traded with us never suggested otherwise. I'm not pale enough to be mistaken for a Carnard, the sea-people that deal with the dead and are shunned by some. I've never broken the law. Hell, I've never even gotten a citation for being drunk, and almost every sailor has a chestful of those.
There is a sharp crack, and then the aide is on the ground, spitting out blood. The General's whole face is dark with rage as he towers over the man, but his hands are at his sides as if he never lifted them, and I hadn't seen him move.
An appreciative noise is wrenched out of my throat without my mind even noticing it, because I can't do much but stare. Forget the voice. If I could do that, no bar in the kingdom would charge me for a drink. I could hire out as a peacekeeper and live rich off the proceeds.
I expect the aide to continue his snide attitude, maybe mutter an apology before storming out, but instead he rolls on his back like a defeated dog, his eyes wide with terror. "My lord," he babbles, "if you must kill me, please—"
"Leave," the General barks out, and the aide scrambles to his feet and is gone.
It hurts every muscle in my body to do so, but I push myself up to a sitting position, feeling suddenly foolish to be laying down while observing such physical prowess. The dzalin is at my side in an instant, his hand outstretched, and without thinking about it I clasp it like I would for one of my men. "Excellent, sir!" I enthuse. "Er, my lord duke."
He looks dazed, as if he was the one who had just gotten smacked. "I'm very sorry," he says. "I did not mean to let my emotions get the better of me."
Well, if he wants to be modest, that's his business. I let go of his hand and reach up to crack the kink out of my neck, but my fingers brush the bandage and I decide that's not the best idea.
"Though it's not my place to say, my lord duke, " I say anyway, "your friend might not have appreciated that as much as me."
Finally dramatic as the dzali I know, the General all but collapses in the bedside chair, his shoulders slumped and his head dangling as if he has just received the world's dearest condemnation. "Likely not," he murmurs. He looks so upset that I'm almost tempted to clasp a comforting hand on his shoulder, noble or no, until he says, "But I do not regret my actions. I could not let him speak to you so."
I've always found that some people have a floodgate built inside them and some don't, so that some blurt out all their feelings right away and others can think a moment to say something better. Mine's been cast out to sea in the wake of his befuddling words. "Could you please explain what the behj—bez—what is going on? My lord duke."
I'm sweating in my robes and wondering if he might just have me throw myself out the window for my impertinence, but he seems only to have interest in the floorboards. "It appears that you are my focus," he tells them. "I know this may come as a shock. There are resources in place for my people when this happens, but our mages are still working to find information in regards to a human."
It looks like he's too affected by whatever is going on to take offense. I relax a little, leaning back against the pillows again. "Begging your pardon, but I don't know what a focus is," I admit.
"You are my new world," he whispers, so quietly that I'm not sure I can trust my ears. "You are everything to me, and your every desire is my dearest wish."
He could smack me with a trout just now and I would welcome the return to sanity. I thought I was confused before, but I have reached new, unpleasant levels where none are meant to go. I reach over with my good hand and pinch my wounded one, hard. Pain ricochets up and down my body, lancing a stomach that suddenly desires to exit through my mouth. I keep my teeth clenched and carefully control my breathing, as I've learned to do through many a past injury.
When I am confident that I am awake and this is real—and I quash the urge to pinch the General too, in case that helps—I swallow and manage, "Could you repeat that?"
He stares at me with those big green eyes, and my breath catches naught but tongue. "I am yours to do with as you will. I—love you."
Call me a coward if you like, but I who have leaped first onto enemy ships, sword waving, find my shoulders digging out holes in those pillows. Even if he were a woman—and human—and not peerage—and not my realm's highest commander—I'd still be shaking on my sick bed. People you've just met can't say that and mean it, not so dearly. I could listen to the echo of his words for a thousand years and still be just as perplexed.
What do I say to that, to the General Superior, when his eyes make it seem like his next heartbeat rests on my words?
I am a curious man, and one sorely in need of answers, and that and the broken leg is all that keeps me from fleeing. "May I ask why, my lord?" I ask carefully.
His head goes down again, red spreading across the back of his neck and ears. "No one has found an explanation." His voice is pitched just soft enough to be maddening. "Everyone knows I am far too old for magic, and none in my bloodline have had such powers, so there was no reason to think that I would have a focus in this world. I have asked the queen's advisers, but they do not know how this came to be."
I had wanted to know what in the blazes a duke finds lovable in a poor sailor like me, but if I correct him it will sound like I am fishing for compliments. I crack my neck this time, my nervous habit, and regret it as much I thought I would. "Begging your pardon, my lord duke, but—that doesn't make any sense."
He nods stiffly, almost a rock of his shoulders. "Sensible or not, it is the situation. Please believe that I have not been idle while you've rested. I have asked questions, and been told patience is my only recourse."
I whistle under my breath; if someone's denying answers to the General Superior, then they had better have a damned good reason. So, the General is in love with me. I prod that thought with a mental oar, decide there is no way I can believe it, and I'd best just cast off again. I clear my throat and ask, "What does a focus do?"
This time he straightens up, almost to attention. He reaches out as if to touch my hand, then obviously rethinks this, lacing his together in his lap. I can't say if I would have punched him or let him, if he had gone on ahead; depended on whether or not the part of my brain that salutes peerage or the part that was drowning in confusion won out. "Nothing," he says. "It is the qualities you have already cultivated that dictate whatever magic might come."
That means a whole pile of nothing to me. Perhaps he should expect magical navigation and directional abilities to spring upon him at any moment, or develop an enhanced ability to name types of fish; either way, he's not going to be choking people with flowers any time soon, to be sure. It could be why his possibly-former friend was so upset at my appointment. In this time of war, my abilities are only suited to the sea, which the dzali loathe to a man.
"But enough of this—are you tired? In pain?" His brow is creased, the concern in his gaze so large that it is embarrassing to be in the same room as him, let alone the object of that concern. The General is known for his unusual stoicism, but maybe that is just compared to the others around him. Either that, or—well, I didn't want to think about any "or."
"I'm fine, my lord duke," I say automatically, straightening my posture. Whatever strange spell he is under, I do not want to show any weakness before the army's greatest general. "I've had worse. And your arm, my lord?"
He looks startled, and then so pleased I asked that I wish I hadn't. "Healed entirely," he says, ducking his head to the side and smiling. "The Queen keeps the finest mages on staff, which is why I had you brought here."
"Ah," I manage to reply.
This is all too strange to take in. I can feel a thousand questions bobbing in my mind, and yet I can hardly put the war on hold while I ask them all. I'm feeling that itch I do when I need to take a lope along the shore, or a good, long swim. I need space to think. A lot of space, for this one.
"Please, say whatever is on your mind," he says in that too-gentle kitten-voice. "Do not hold back."
I squint up at the stone ceiling like the answers might be up there. "No offense meant, my lord duke, but I need some time alone to digest all of this. And seeing how I've got this busted leg, I can't just walk out of here."
Thank all gods that my lord duke is a subtle man. "Of course," he says, rising to his feet immediately. "There is much I have to see to, and I suppose an apology to Alim would not be out of the order. I will return when—I will return. Shall I have something sent to you? Food, or a drink?"
My head aches too much for me to be able to keep down food or to make a General wait on me. "I'm fine, sir," I say, then add hastily, "Thank you. Er, my lord duke. Um."
His dark lips curve into a slow half-smile. "Paraz, if you please."
I refuse to be on first names with the General Superior. Auntie will kill me, along with anyone else in the world. "Sir," I compromise.
He nods slowly, his smile fading. "If you do take a walk, you will not be stopped, nor detained in any way save those that would detain me. I have made sure that you have free reign of the keep and grounds. Only—I ask you to say on your word that you will not go past the walls yet. The mages have not yet determined if it is safe for you to do so."
"I so swear," I reply quickly. It's easy enough to do, when I don't even know when I'm going to be able to stand. "Thank you, sir."
He nods again and is gone, the door thudding softly shut behind him. I drop down amidst the pillows and let out a long, long breath.