Believe in Peace
Evelion's training instilled in her this belief: her death would come on the day she proved the lesser being. She took for granted that her skills insured her against this death for a limited time only. Her end might come in battle by chance, or in humiliation, a crushing defeat, but her death would come as inevitably as the years would pass, the former all the quicker for the latter.
In the years before the civil war, it had been her custom to rise some hours before dawn and train naked, the hall of the Queensguard, women all, lined with mirrors. Her every form and pose, her every move confronted her with her own vulnerable image, hollow breasts and hard thighs formed of light and shadow and seemingly no stronger or more permanent substance as that, transient, her very flesh was as fleeting as a hundred yesterdays for all the muscle hinging her bones.
Foreign by birth, Evelion nevertheless called the Font of Dawn home, a child lifting her fallen brother's sword in those years of the invasion, an adolescent sworn to the salvator Queen, an adult who took generalship over an army, the only word she heeded that of the madwoman who wore the crown. Only through the civil war itself, when Evelion held the Queensguard against the rebellious Heir's bid for the throne, had her training ceased: every day in itself a battle to survive.
The newly foreign nature of Dawn's Font at peace was not what stopped Evelion from resuming her old habits. She had learned young that all countries were as foreign as the next, all situations to be mistrusted, no thing assumed true. Her strength, she knew, could not be dependent upon her setting.
Yet the matter of this new peace could not be ignored.
For the first time in many years, Evelion knew no need for her own perfection.
No war, nor cause or idol struck her as worthy of her dedication. She betrayed herself once in lending her arm to the wrong cause, the wrong Queen. She was wary to fall into the same trap again, even with something as simple as a hobby. She could not commit herself, could not trust her commitment.
She served this current Queen, but not as she had the last with life and soul. Evelion accepted her title as Chief of Staff, and left the blades for those who could trust where they turned the edge.
'Are you happy, Evelion?' the new Queen had asked. Anxious, and too concerned: two years prior it had been this trait which led Evelion to assume the Princess weak, to be proven so wrong. 'Would you leave my service? It would not be in disgrace. You served my mother with honour; all disgrace was in her actions, not yours.'
But what answer to that? 'Marm,' as always, polite. Evelion had contemplated departure even before the prompting, yet she lingered in the Font without admitting sentiment as a motivation. 'I would not leave for so long as my service is required.'
If it was, or it was not, Evelion did not care to pursue. Likewise her happiness, Evelion hoped, was a matter which the Queen would leave chastely unchased.
For Evelion's predicament was one few could grasp. Fearful of failure, she tried to exorcise the threat of her own incompetence by immersing herself in it thoroughly: lesser than she once had been, she must have learned mercy from somewhere or someone, for she still lived despite her growing inability. No one sought to put an end to her, to defeat her, and peace — flourished, will she or nil she.
An unconscionably indulgent terror blossomed with each passing year: that the bed she slept in now might become her deathbed, herself decrepit, destroyed by her own mortal weakness where all wars and madness had failed.
Peace was not her reward, but a cruel penance born of her past proficiency.
Evelion paced through the palace halls. She was passed by those who smiled or did not, both actions born of familiarity. She, used to her supremacy, ignored them all without malice. Her single focus had never permitted her general association for the time it took away from reaching her goals.
Nevertheless, she did permit the rising sounds of lazy soldiers at training to lure her away from her beat.
Evelion knew them for lazy without seeing them, for peace indulged weakness even as the whipcrack shout of their sergeant-at-arms named them for it, slack fucking sods, pick it up, pick it up! She emerged from the shadowed halls, the brightness of the parade court blinding her momentarily, strained physiology unable to match her pace.
A moment of searching found Janith exactly where Evelion knew the soldier would be, in the shadow of a palace wall, watching the new cohort train.
Prejudgment turned the veteran's honest, homely expression to a disdain that did not suit her. Three of Janith's peers arrayed themselves in various states of relaxation about her, taking full advantage of the palace ornamentation to relieve their limbs of the strain of standing.
As if to spite her own height, Janith's habit had ever been to stand as straight as if she had been the recipient of the sergeant-at-arm's vile imprecations. Therefore, when she saw her ex-general's approach, Janith merely nodded, grave, while her companions startled to a belated like attention.
Gravely, Evelion returned their greetings not because she valued their acknowledgment, but because Janith, ever wary to give of herself, had found something of worth in their companionship.
'Welcome, ma'am, to the sport of combat reenactment,' Janith denounced with customary earnestness, the faltering performance of the soldiers currently disappointing their sergeant. It had taken Evelion years to read the irony beneath the seriousness: Janith so rarely laughed, or even smiled.
'Whimsical in your old age, Jane?'
'Whimsy? Me?' What humour did ever show in Janith's eyes always looked like gratitude for Evelion's presence, yet even this faded as the brow furrowed. Jane took her arms seriously. 'Tis not I who performs this pantomime.'
Evelion did not care to waste her sight on the shambling display. 'Are you jealous? The motley performance far outstrips any of your past ventures into humour.'
Janith stood tall, and taller, parsimonious lips straighter than her tone would suggest.
'Your compliments fall with as much delicacy as your blows.'
'Tis well then that I offer both with infrequency.'
A hand to her heart, Janith bowed slightly. 'I shall treasure this one all the more for rarity.'
The conversation came to a unnatural terminus.
Their awkwardness was not because of the Queensguard who yet observed their performance, but more so for the nature of their beings. For how else should we be together, Evelion thought, bitterly: she had once commanded Janith never knowing the woman's name, only then to fight against her when Janith took the Princess's colours. The mad Queen's indefatigable champion against the Princess's traitor knight. To this, both adrift in their newly wrought hegemony, neither enmity or honesty on their side.
'The day is exceptionally fine,' Evelion suggested, and winced.
Janith agreed wholeheartedly.
'Would you care to accompany me,' Evelion balked from her intention to overlay sentiment, or even to imply Janith's continued company could improve the day, and inadvertently betrayed herself. 'To somewhere more peaceful?'
Evelion gestured at the training cohort, which obliged with a particular percussion, of numerous fully armored knights collapsing under weighty incompetence. Her hand motion was a trifle frantic, as though fishing to recover herself, and she stared at her own wrist, astonished.
Janith bowed again. 'A wise choice. These days, we shall have the whole width of the continent in which to roam.'
As always, Evelion wondered on whom her lover's joke fell.
Peace put demands on them both endangering with compliance: even when they sought to relax, all their responses tended to natural violence. In the lazy heat of an afternoon that could have been one of a thousand days past, they sought to protect each other from the nature of their being with the dubious softness of kisses seeming more appropriate shared by children, continuous caresses better gifted to a beloved pet.
So hesitant. But the violence always won through, palms kneading the rougher, fingers turned to the pinching, with the terror that this motion, this tweak, this pressure would be that which pushed the other past those carefully formed barriers of nicety and politeness, back to the ravening battlefield.
Janith was the younger by several years for all her veteran nature, yet of a musculature to daunt Evelion at her best, had Janith's speed ever matched her girth. When they had fought on those opposing sides, Evelion had been careful never to close with Janith. Proximity would thwart Evelion's speed, granting the advantage to the other.
Yet the length and weight of Jane now was an intimate force, against breast, stomach, shoulderblades given no relief from the pressure of the mattress; this force which Evelion felt some claim to own.
Her feet scribed aimless circles through the air, curling toes clutching in want of a brace. Evelion could not quite span the wrestler's girth of Janith ribs, yet the very act of straining to bring her soles together above the other's spine proved innately satisfying. On occasion, her heels would brush the leather straps so tightly crossed about the other's hips, a reminder of the carefully contrived nature of that which cleaved them both, a tool, an enhancement, as familiar and loved as their armour and swords.
Evelion whined and wept, fingers touching yet wanting to claw. The emotion forced out of her, aching and needy, Janith responded with a puppyish eagerness Evelion did not know whether to despise or admire; Janith ploughing into her with that accidental exuberance such that her head, and presumably Janith's, struck the headboard. The collision was hard enough she went momentarily blind.
An old terror, of helplessness, of threat.
Evelion beat against solid shoulders with her fists, fleshy smacks matching the sound of the sweating belly cupping over hers; she percussed across high, clenched buttocks with her heels, even as Janith's breath flickered, the faster, near desperate, into her ear. Friction of hair, sweat, motion and weight conspired to undo her knots, all across the sheets Evelion unfurled, one limb cast away to each compass point.
Still, Janith moved, and Evelion could only come together again after Janith ended herself, with a great moan muffled in the briny wetness of her hair.
Evelion moved limbs she did not want to move, clasped Janith atop her. She longed to rise, to open a window, but if she moved, Janith would shift, would allow her to rise to retreat. She wanted Janith to fight, to reach her from behind, with her strong, long-fingered hands, permitting her only a taste of a fresh breath of freedom before forcing her back to the sweat of what had passed, wringing, forcing from her again, this pleasure, the bed, Evelion thought dazed, that would become her deathbed and she an old woman; if this affair continued, no doubt she would wallow with Janith in indolence for eternity, softly petting each other's withered skin.
But Janith would not command her, would not force her, would not even approach without Evelion's so-say. She suspected Jane was too decent at heart, had been decent enough to defect to the Princess when the Queen went mad, decent enough to forgive Evelion every scar, every comrade killed in the battle for the Font's next dawn.
In lieu of her longing Evelion submitted herself instead to Janith's full weight for as long as she could bear: she, who as with most of the Queensguard's women-all knights, had never been able to bear the weight of the traditional full plate garb, who had forged her own armor instead of speed and competence.
Janith sought her freedom first. Evelion clenched all her limbs tight, to hold that bulk, yet Janith evaded it with ease, laughing so softly. Fingers plucked at the harness at her hips, the metal buckles having pressed red marks into the stretchmarks, the uneven tan.
Evelion could not hold her. She heard Jane's laughter as a response to her inability, and was annoyed.
'Why do you laugh?'
So quickly, the sobriety reinstated. 'Not at you.'
'But you laugh.'
Janith's hair was awry, shot with grey at the temples and made the worse for her attempt to smooth it with her fingers. She was bare, harness fallen, huge and heavy breasts free and shining. She lay back, arms relaxed, shoulders sinking, her belly still slick with their coming. At moments like this Evelion wanted to call her Janey (for the knight she knew and had fought with and against lived in her armour, never so comfortable in her skin): Jayjay, she could call her, or Jay, or anything to suggest her right to do so was impervious to Janith's right to respond and call her Evy, or Vellya, as she had been in her long-ago birthplace, or even my love.
'Shall I sing instead?'
Janith had never asked Evelion why she set aside her sword. In return, Evelion did not ask Jane if she loved her, for either way the answer would be frightful. A love unconditional of perfection, of performance, daunted her. Janith would languish perpetually in wait of a response, the weight of her making of the mattress a slope that Evelion could not help but inch towards her soldier with each breath.
Eventually she was within range for Janith to enfold her in willing arms; Evelion preempted and nestled her head where she could hear the other's heartbeat slowing.
'Please don't,' Evelion said, 'I rather value the quiet, and your barracks ditties are surely not fit for a lady's ears.'
Janith hummed contently in return, 'Tell me when a lady enters the room then, General.'
Stillness grew between them at Janith's use of the forbidden word.
Evelion, stricken, had not known she had forbidden it until this moment.
In a youth not quite halcyon, but certainly long ago, Evelion remembered the formality of her childhood as full of a constraint she had despised enough to run away from it all. Seemingly, everyone around her had demanded more of her than they expected of themselves: immaculate dress, the precision of a fragile curve of wrist, perfection in hair and manner. One day she would become better than all of that in any case, for with marriage, she would make a man her superior, her purpose at last completed: this was the way things had been in the homeland, and well she had done to leave.
After a shared supper more of silence than sustenance, she followed Janith without question, to the training hall lit for dusk with numerous gas lamps that yet did not fill the room: illumination turned mirrors into smoky fields of grey. Evelion missed the clarity of her mornings here. After dismissing the cohort within, Janith set herself to lay out a suit of plate armor with a precision Evelion recognized from her childhood. In this manner had young Vellya's nurses and maids laid out her daily garb, each item of frill and lace set for a specific purpose, of seduction with chaste virtue.
It struck Evelion suddenly: lace to armour, she had merely replaced one lot of conventions with another. Her lip curled with an involuntary despite, and terror.
Her cruelest critic had ever been herself.
'Are you ready?'
Where poetry always escaped Janith, she waxed rhetorical instead on her favorite topic. 'Maintaining armor is not servitude, but a labor of love. For function, regular maintenance is required. All rivets and safety features must be in good order; there must be no stress fractures in the metal's surface. For brightness, a light sheen of wax keeps rust at bay without spoiling the finish - for the leather attached, a light coat of oil daily will extend its life. Following these simple steps can add years to the life of the metal.'
She spoke, Evelion suspected, out of confusion as to why Evelion had demanded this this particular scenario between them. Evelion had never been fond of armor, such a small division of women within the Queensguard with the capacity to wear it, preferring to trust her arm and swift heel. She watched as Janith lifted first the breastplate, wondering if she felt dread or desire - the metallic stink was as familiar as air. She already wore the generic white suit of padding; her old calluses, from her vambrace, guard and gauntlet, had long since softened.
Evelion's voice resounded momentarily in the hollow chest as Janith dressed her, so efficient here where the soldier fumbled at the Queen's table with a knife and fork of far lesser weight. 'I would say in this day and age extending the life of armor is but wasted effort.'
'A time of peace.' Janith paused in her buckling, and shook her head. 'Who would have thought it, that we would live to see this day? Not I. Someone wished a hundred years of bad luck on us both, preeminent knights, that instead of a glorious death in glorious service, we must instead grow old and die together.'
Evelion could not determine if her companion's despair was feigned, or ironic, or simply true; at precisely the moment when a conclusion could be made, Janith released her hold of the plate and all its drape of mail. With an undignified squawk, Evelion staggered under the sudden returned weight of steel to her shoulders.
Jane's unfortunate snicker provoked Evelion's ire this time, well beyond her cage of restraint: she drew the borrowed sword.
It only occurred to Evelion far later, when sweat and strain wrote her in ropes of effort, that she had never sparred with Janith like this, not ever. They had fought for life and death, their lives and others' deaths, not fought with intent to learn from each other. Janith did indeed have the advantage in full plate, and such an advantage. Evelion's loss of speed movement crippled her worse than lack of practice.
Yet Janith still held back her blows, wary. The wariness could have been earned, Evelion thought, (she had felled Janith, had she not, thrice, in serious combat?) or it could have been derisive, a taunt towards Evelion that she could not take the strength and potency of the younger soldier, nor the weight of the armor which Janith wore as a matter of fact, the threat of what the other's bared blade could mean, if they did not reach truce, or accommodation. Evelion lowered her own point to cry:
'If you would love me at all, it must be in a manner acceptable to us both!'
Janith was too old to appear confused; instead, a taut hurt drew her lips as a line. She pressed palm to forehead, beads of sweat left flattened to a shine. 'By striking you, and hard?'
'By hurting you?'
'What have you done that you think you deserve such punishment?' The parsimonious lips curled, and Evelion wondered when she had ever been able to think of Janith without sentiment: her eyes swam with it, overfull, curling across cheeks, gems caught at the corners of her lips, which trembled as she spoke. 'Or do you think it a reward, if I should hit you?'
Janith struck, with a backhanded blow that came yet with the flat of her sword, or Evelion would have lost an arm. She reeled more from her own incompetence than Janith's success, her guard had dropped! Imperfect, flawed, false: it was all she was, now, and she was sick of her fear of it.
'Again,' Evelion danced wild about the mat, as if steel were cobwebs, 'strike me again, and again, until I can rise to stop that blade and grab it and turn it back against you; until you present such a threat I can honor you and strive to subdue you, until you respect me sufficiently that you do not hold back; that who I am cannot be reduced by this situation we find ourselves in—'
Janith struck, as her General commanded her, a wild array of blows that matched Evelion's words, and Evelion was glad her Janey did not speak. Too often, without realising, Jane spoke exactly what Evelion did not want to hear, her own name whispered too tenderly into her own ear.
At the last, Evelion's sword twisted out of a hand grown raw with its touch; Janith took full advantage to press in close. Her presence was looming, an impending storm on the horizon, yet trapped in shared breath. Evelion knelt as though felled by what she thought she would hear.
Triumph of a kind that she had provoked her soldier so, yet a triumph that revealed her every weakness. She was bleeding at the knees and shoulders, not from Janith's blows but from the armor itself, which did not fit her well enough for motion.
'Is that all you want?' Janith asked, calmly. 'Truly, Eve, is that all? I can give you that, without heartache. I have never wanted anything except for you to live as yourself, and the numbness you've worn of late has grieved me so. If freedom does not suit you, well, it has never suited me either, and we shall write our own code of conduct if necessary.'
'Yet without an enemy to stand again who am I? I cannot abide this peace. It is a thief worse than a thief himself, so sly in what it does. It robs me of everything that is my right.'
'It is a curse,' Janith replied agreeably, 'this peace, and you and I not born for it and nor do we live for it. Yet if you and I stand in a hundred years time as the only two competent soldiers left alive, relics or no, we will have lived our lives well.'
With some consideration, Evelion formed a hoarse whisper: 'Competent, Janith? I could have ridden six ranks through the gaps in your guard. Had I been able to move to address the lack—'
Janith offered her hand and her smile. Studying the familiar, yet unreadable, yet captivating features, Evelion found all Jane's sentiment already shed.
'Then rise, Evelion, and tell me how I may strike you better that you cannot avoid me.'
There was no sarcasm evident, yet Jane was skilled at wearing that mask, and only limpid longing seemed apparent when Evelion chanced to meet her lover's gaze. Jane was not simple, Evelion knew, nor did Janith abide blindly by those laws she could quote so readily, or she would not have left the broken Queen's throne for the promise the Princess had offered. Yet somewhere in Janith's history she had learned to respect conventions that supposedly consoled others.
It was awkward to rise in armor, and Evelion, tired, did not turn her face aside as Janith bent to kiss her, deep and long.
'Jane,' she moaned, startled, and licked her stinging lip.
The salt of Janith's sweat and sentiment both clung to her for the tasting, if not distastefully, even as something bloody and unreserved blossomed between them.
Surprised beyond her usual bounds, Evelion smiled. She more than any living being should know, the extent of mortal possibility could not be defined by the day that had passed before: complacency would not be permitted.
Evelion lifted her sword, said, 'Again.'
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