"Where may I find the Lord Marshal?" was the first question out of Alternis’ mouth when he stepped off the airship. He itched to return to the airship for at least a few minutes longer if its crew would allow him, investigate its workings—such a marvelous machine it was, and he hoped to someday prove himself worthy of commanding one—but there were more urgent matters first. "Swordmaster Kamiizumi ordered me to deliver a new report of the Eisen region."
The two knights stationed as the docks’ watchmen exchanged looks the teenager didn’t understand, and he was glad the helmet hid his scowl. “You’ve arrived at a late hour, and your flight must have been wearying,” the elder said. “Surely the message can be delivered after a night’s rest?”
It was true, at least his patience had been frayed by traveling from Starkfort. But what had also been wearying was the many weeks and months spent away from the man who had rescued him in Florem. Alternis wanted to see Braev now, and more importantly, the swordmaster had strong concerns about the situation in Eisenberg, and having served under him these past months, Alternis knew something of his character. The man was patient, observant, keenly intelligent and reserved. Unlike some of his subordinates, Kamiizumi would not rush to trouble his superior with a matter unless it was truly something the Grand Marshal needed to be aware of. Alternis would not put off delivering such an important message to simply sleep for a few hours. “The Lord Marshal does not retire to bed so early, and I require little rest,” he answered, and so help him, so help him but he wanted to punch the skepticism off the younger guard’s face from where he slouched. Alternis directed the glaring face of his helmet to that man and was satisfied to see him at least pull up a bit. The child was no longer, but a proper warrior and dark knight. He wished to be treated as such. “Tell me where I might find him. If you do not know, just say it already.”
“No, ah, he is awake,” the second guard said, idly rubbing at his nose. “But he’s in his chambers with Lady Mahzer.”
“She’s not in hospital?” Alternis exclaimed, the practiced deep pitch of his voice breaking in a moment of happy surprise. “I had thought—” He caught himself, and lowered his voice again. “At our last communication, she’d been readmitted.”
“It was a short spell,” the older guard said, and Alternis’ face heated as he realized the man was now smiling. What was so funny about his concern for the Lady Marshal’s health? She was a spirit too noble for the frail vessel she had been born into. Should anything happen to her, it would devastate not only Braev, but every person who knew her. It would devastate him. “She was released this morning, in fact, and both she and the Grand Marshal are in high spirits.”
“Very high spirits,” his junior said, adding, “So maybe it would be wiser not to interrupt them.”
He might trouble the family he loved and respected at a moment when they were happy. He didn’t want to do that—but the trouble would not lessen by being delayed. Was promptness not essential in a messenger? And he would see Lady Mahzer, and could reassure the both of them that Kamiizumi’s Black Blades were hard at work to see victory for the Lord Marshal’s goals in the region, his distrust of the repulsive salve-maker aside. “I will take that into consideration,” he decided after a scarce two seconds, heading for the stairwell and forcing himself to ignore when the guards exchanged yet another strange look. He was not a child anymore; he would not lose his temper over asinine fools.
Nor would he lose his nerve over them, but he found he was second-guessing himself in the long walk through the hall approaching their chambers. He knew—he knew he was poor at understanding other people sometimes. It followed rather naturally from having been a discarded brat more comfortable with the darkness and demons than people. He had known the Lees and their goodness so long, he felt safe with them. But perhaps he was taking advantage of that, overreaching his place? Perhaps the guards had been right in warning him. The news was important, but Braev might be angered to have a moment with his wife interrupted. And Alternis would have been the cause. But he wanted to see them, if he could.
…He would just…pass by their chambers, at least. If it seemed like a bad time, he would retire for the evening and try again in the morning. With that in mind, he strode forward again, removing his helmet as he did. It made him feel a bit vulnerable, but he owed that much if he was going to be interrupting them. Mahzer disliked the severity of his helm, though she claimed it was because it obscured his fair features, an obvious flattery.
It was strange, though: while he knew Braev to stay up late into the night poring over reports and would have expected the Grand Marshal to be awake at least a couple hours longer, the chamber seemed darkened compared to the hall. Not completely dark, but whatever light was within might be only a single candle. Perhaps he had turned out the other lights to let Lady Mahzer rest as he worked alone? In which case, Alternis would have to be quiet, but—
The sound that came from the chambers at that moment was not quiet at all, and Alternis stiffened before quickening his pace. That had been a moan. A man’s. Had something befallen Braev? Was he in pain?
He was only ten feet away from the door when Braev—grunted? It was a sound of effort, and Alternis slowed in confusion even as a part of his mind railed against himself. Naturally one could be struggling while in pain, and he should hurry to his lord’s side, but the sounds weren’t… quite right. He had heard noises like this before, and it wasn’t in battle.
A second later, Mahzer chuckled, the voice recognizably hers but huskier than normal, and Alternis’ hands clenched knuckle-white around the missive and his helmet as he realized what was happening. A wave of revulsion surged through him as he remembered nights in the slums of Florem when he’d seen supposedly devout women lead traveling merchants away to secluded spots, and the rare occasions he had been close enough to overhear their lewdness—admittedly, once, because he had taken the opportunity to follow far enough to snatch the merchant’s carelessly discarded wallet. The feeling of disgust shocked him in its intensity, and he quickly tamped it down. This was the Lord and Lady Marshal, they were married and well within their rights to be intimate with each other! It was just. It wasn’t something he’d ever thought of them doing.
Obviously they had done it at least once before, to have had Edea, he thought thickly; at this very moment, he could hear Mahzer joking in that alien-seeming tone about if Braev wanted another child, a notion Alternis was glad that Braev denied, saying they seemed to already have enough. Yes. One perfect angel was enough.
…Hell take him, he was listening to the Lord and Lady Marshal coupling. That was—he was disgusting, he was invading their privacy, he needed to leave. His thoughts stuttered as he thought of the swordmaster’s missive. But no. It could wait until morning. It could burn, for all he cared at the moment. But if he bolted, they would hear his armor; he could not even fathom how furious Braev would be. He had to be careful, quiet in leaving.
He was so focused on that need to be quiet that he didn’t make the slightest sound when his ear was suddenly grasped between the thumb and forefinger of a woman with long nails. She tutted quietly, wryly, and he swallowed when he looked to the side and saw Holly Whyte’s scheming blue eyes, Barras Lehr looming behind her with a huge grin.
“Why, Alternis Dim, I’m shocked,” she murmured, leaning in so her breath hit hot against his ear. “What a naughty boy you’re being.”
“I-I didn’t mean—” His voice was breathless and cracking; he felt like a small child again, helpless in this pinch. He had been caught, he hadn’t meant to intrude on them, but he had and now he was going to punished. Was Whyte going to tell the Lord Marshal what he had stupidly done? If he was lucky, she’d blackmail him instead.
“Of course not,” Whyte said in a falsely pleasant tone. “You’re a healthy young man, with healthy urges. But you do need to learn to respect people’s privacy. Now, come along and let’s talk about this, mm?”
Alternis’ shoulders relaxed by just a fraction. Blackmail. They were going the blackmail route.
Unfortunately, that was when Holly chuckled, and Barras joined in, and anyone who knew Barras knew he had no idea of volume control.
Alternis stopped breathing completely; Holly turned on her partner with a hiss. “Quiet, you oaf!” But it was too late. His silence only made it even more obvious that the couple in the bedroom had stopped their actions, aware of witnesses—and then Braev spoke.
“Whoever is out there had better not move so much as an inch,” he growled.
Alternis did not move, well aware that his life was over. The Grand Marshal was serious, serious enough that even Holly did not move except to take her fingers from the teenager’s ear. Barras Lehr, normally incapable of standing still, was doing so, only muttering a “Sorry, Holly,” before the door opened.
Braev Lee did not cut the same figure when he was interrupted from making love to his wife as he did during the day, partly because he had to keep a hand down at waist level to keep a blanket clenched shut around his hips. It managed to cover only the essentials, exposing strong thigh muscles and ensuring that Alternis developed a laser-sharp focus on his idol’s face so that his eyes would not stray lower. Still, even naked, with his mane of hair pulled back into a less intimidating, significantly tousled braid, Braev’s angry stance managed to be imposing enough on its own.
“Barras Lehr, control yourself for once,” he snapped. “What business do you all have here? Are a man and his wife not allowed privacy?” Braev frowned at Alternis first—but it soon slid to Holly, still so very close to the dark knight. “Holly… what are you doing with the boy?”
“I simply noticed little Dim approaching the door and thought I would warn him,” she said innocently. “You and Lady Mahzer wouldn’t have been interrupted at all if this dumb lug here could keep his voice down.” She elbowed Barras, who pouted.
“Oh, is Alternis home?” Mahzer’s voice called from within the room, and the teenager colored further. Perhaps it was a good sign that Mahzer didn’t sound upset, but that strange huskiness was still lingering in her voice. It didn’t sound right to him at all.
Braev was still focused on the white mage. “You came over to warn Alternis. So you somehow knew—?”
“Lady Mahzer is home, and you not only trimmed your beard quite handsomely this morning, but you’re wearing that musk you only wear on certain occasions.” Holly brushed her hair back off her shoulder before meeting Braev’s questioning look. “With all respect, sir, I’m far from the only one on base who knew you and the lady weren’t to be disturbed. I suppose our little Dim just hadn’t caught on yet. Barras and I will leave you two love-doves alone now.”
“Please,” Braev said tiredly, his shoulders sagging. “Go. Alternis, give me the letter, I’ll look at it in the morning.”
A bit confused that Braev wasn’t angry at him, and stupefied by the revelation that Braev and Mahzer apparently were intimate frequently enough for others to recognize when they would be together, Alternis raised both his hands at once, offering both letter and helmet to his lord. With only one free hand, a quirked eyebrow, but a surprising amount of patience, Braev pushed the hand holding the helmet back toward Alternis before taking the letter. Alternis opened his mouth, searching for words to explain his ignorance or at least apologize, and nothing would come except for a croak.
“I’m sorry I can’t greet you now, Alternis,” Mahzer said. “Will I see you in the morning?”
Alternis’ throat clenched, and he didn’t even try to answer this time. He simply nodded to Braev, hoping he would convey the answer, jammed his helmet back on, and fled.
There was silence in the Drunken Pig as Ringabel took a very, very long swig of his ale.
“…You probably should have told yours last,” Tiz said, his eyes wide. “There’s no way I can follow that up.”
Ringabel paused, setting down his drink for the moment. He couldn’t possibly be the only one to have a traumatic tale like that! More importantly, he couldn’t be the only person to confess it. “Come on, Tiz. Surely you’ve had a moment so embarrassing—”
“That bad? Not… not that I can think of. I mean, I heard my parents once or twice myself, but I just took Til out to watch the sheep those times, it wasn’t such a…thing.”
“Well you’re going to have to be next,” Edea told the shepherd. “I’m going to need a moment to remind myself my parents stopped having sex after me.”
Agnès had nothing to say. Agnès had pleaded an excuse and left the table as soon as she realized where Ringabel’s story was going.
Perhaps he had chosen the entirely wrong embarrassing moment to tell, but it was the most vivid memory of such he had. Ringabel frowned, both at his irksome memory and his angel’s state of denial. “Edea, sex within a loving marriage is normal. And I doubt your parents would be so different from—”
“—La la la la every world has its differences, now be quiet~!”
Ringabel huffed as he slumped back in his seat, reddening slightly. He should have just made up another story.