Burmecia had once been a proud city, with millions of rat-people walking its rain-slick streets and soldiers training for wars that they hoped would never come. But those days were gone. Most of the townspeople had been slaughtered, either by the devil-mages that sacked Burmecia or the Eidolon that had burnt Cleyra to the ground. A few had escaped, jumping from limb to limb outside of the great tree, but most had died in the backlash of energy, having been only halfway down when it had struck. Those few, along with the ones who had traveled away from the cities, where the only ones who had survived.
And now they were coming back, even the ones who'd left out of dissatisfaction. There was rebuilding to do, both of a city and of a people, and it seemed that all of them would have a say in the new code of Burmecia. They had been working long and hard to restore the city, all the while hoping that what they had was worth saving.
Sir Fratley smiled from his perch atop one of the old noble houses that had recently been cleaned out and was soon to be rebuilt. It was amazing, how far they'd come in such a short time. He still didn't remember all of what the city had once been like - he didn't remember much of anything, even then - but he knew that when he'd seen it after he'd returned, it had brought tears to his eyes. It was as if something deep inside of him had recognized that something was lost, and despaired of ever regaining it.
But now he felt... vindicated, in a way. It may turn into the same that it was before, or it may be something entirely different, but it was theirs. Both Cleyra and Burmecia had belonged to them, and soon this new city that would rise from the ashes would as well.
Most of the others were still working; they could see quite well in the dark. But Sir Fratley had left early, as he'd been the first to begin his work in the morning and usually the last to leave. He had a special reason for wanting to leave tonight, and no one had begrudged him of it. He wished to stand the Vigil.
The new year was coming. In less than two hours by Fratley's reckoning, the rain would stop. And by the time the sun rose the next morning, they would be able to see it rise in a clear blue sky. They would see a day and half a night of no rain, and then the clouds would return, drawn to their country by some strange magic that their ancestors had conceived to test their fortitude.
Jariaj Kolr, they called it - the day of the sun, or sometimes the day of rebirth. In the past, all of the Burmecians would have stood with him, watching the sky and waiting for the sunrise. But a massive effort to rebuild a nearly-leveled city justified a break with tradition, at least in most of their opinions.
For Fratley's part, he had felt a particular need to carry out that tradition, from the moment that Lady Freya had told him what the significance of that night would be. He wanted to follow all of the old traditions, all of the rites that a Dragon Knight was supposed to follow, in the hopes that he would regain the memories he had lost.
Be true to what you once were... He sighed, almost imperceptibly. Not long ago, Freya had told him that the important thing was to be true to what he was now, at this moment in time, and not to force himself to be something that he didn't think he should be anymore. But he wanted to be that person again. He wanted to regain what he'd lost.
That included Freya, of course.
I told her that I loved her, in the past. I almost feel like I'm... bound to that, even though she tries to tell me that I'm not. He shook his head. A soggy lock of hair fell into his eyes; he brushed it aside without thinking. But... I know that she's noble, brave, strong... everything that I would have wanted in a woman. Or everything that the Sir Fratley that she knew would have wanted... I know that I should love her. And yet....
There was the problem: how could he love a stranger? Not silly, short-lived children's love; that was barely better than nothing, some deeply-rooted belief told him. That made him believe that what he'd had with her had been much more than that, or else he would not feel it was worth recapturing. But... lovely as she might be, he could not deny that he really knew very little about her. Not nearly as much as a lover should have known, at any rate.
There were many traditions that were upheld on Jariaj Kolr; he'd learned about them from the few old books that had remained in the palace. He'd gone there in a mad search for knowledge about the day as soon as he'd heard about it. One of them involved him, involved something that he should do, and he didn't know how to do it.
The day of rebirth was also the day of second chances. And one of the age-old customs that they'd followed for centuries involved the kind of forgiveness that he felt he needed. When Burmecians wished to heal a rift that had formed between themselves and some close friend - or a member of their family, or yes, even a lover - they would show their willingness to forgive and be forgiven with a gift. The gift itself was a very personal matter - it was something that would hopefully be dear to the recipient's heart, that would show that the one who gave it truly cared and truly wished to mend what had been broken. If the recipient accepted the gift, all was forgiven; if it was refused, however, it was said that the bonds would remain severed until the sun shone again on Burmecia. That was not, as many foreigners believed, another way of saying "never." However, it could seem like a very long time.
And Fratley had no idea what Freya wanted. He'd... well, he'd never had the chance to ask. And now it was too late to ask her; she would surely know why, and it would seem profane to do so. If I truly loved her once, he thought with some frustration, I should know. Something should come to me. But there's nothing... nothing at all. No memories to guide me, no intuition... just an empty space, left in my mind. And perhaps my heart, as well.
He would have turned back towards the sky, hoping to divine some kind of answer from the roiling, barely-visible outlines of the stormclouds. That was the point of the Vigil, anyway - to watch the clouds slowly fade, to see the stars appear. That was what he probably should have done.
He didn't. He saw something else first, a flash of fiery red that seemed to move just outside of his vision - and it took him a second to realize that what he was seeing wasn't just a figment of his imagination. It was someone who was trying very hard not to be seen. The Dragon Knight readied his halberd and shouted out a warning cry.
"Damn. Been getting a bit out of practice, I guess." He didn't seem particularly upset at being seen, anyway, although his voice did give Fratley a touch of caution. It was some undertone in it, a kind of deep hiss that made him think of wingless dragons with fire roaring deep within their bellies. And the fact that he couldn't tell where it was coming from did nothing to allay the caution; he had apparently hidden himself well that time.
Fratley, of course, held his spear at the ready, preparing to spring into the air at the slightest threat. He had learned not to be a trusting soul. "You would be wise to show yourself at once."
"Ya think so? I think it might be smarter of me to stay hidden," the voice laughed. Nonetheless, the stranger stepped out from behind a nondescript pile of rubble that he'd somehow managed to use as a hiding place.
"Ah..." Isn't that... shouldn't I know this man? He was somehow strikingly familiar - of course, it was difficult for an enormously tall, bluish-skinned creature with flame-red hair and a great number of tattoos to not seem striking in some sense. But there was no name to place beside that face. "What is your name, stranger?" he asked, never daring to lower his spear.
"Heh. Relax, I'm not gonna kill ya tonight. So you're Sir Fratley, eh? I've heard all about ya." One second he'd been standing on the ground; the next, he'd somehow managed to leap up to the other side of the roof. Fratley could see that one hand was covered by a massive, nasty-looking claw; it dangled next to his legs, and he hardly seemed inclined to use it. "Name's Salamander. Maybe you've heard about me too, I wouldn't know."
Fratley reluctantly relaxed. "...yes, she mentioned you. You were one of her... her companions."
"The same." The man bowed his head briefly, almost mockingly.
A mercenary, a ninja of sorts. That was what Freya had called him. And she had claimed him as her friend, something that Fratley suspected that she did not do lightly. If she trusted this man, Fratley felt obligated to trust him as well. It sounded foolish, perhaps, but he did not care; he wanted to believe very badly that he knew Freya, that he knew her judgement was good. That was why he lowered his halberd, why he relaxed into a more casual stance, although he was still alert and ready if the man chose to use that claw that he wore. "She thought you'd gone off and left for good. What are you doing back here?"
"It was the way she kept talkin' about Burmecia, about restorin' it and all that junk. I hadn't seen it before, so I wanted to take a look." He glanced around, as if seeing it for the first time. "Heh. I can't say I'm all that fond of it. Nothing personal, of course," he added, chuckling as Fratley tensed at the insult. "I just don't like all this rain."
The Burmecian squinted at the man - was he really seeing wisps of steam rising from his arms as the rain fell against his skin? Or was that just a trick of the clouds? "Oh," he finally replied. "Well. I'm sure you're not alone in that."
Salamander shrugged. "Probably not. But... hell, it ain't like home. I doubt you'd care much for Gulgur, either."
"No, I didn't-" the knight answered automatically, then blinked. He didn't remember even hearing about a place of that name... he started to say so, but something had started to throb, right behind his eyes and just painful enough that he couldn't quite reach back to find the words.
"Thought so." Flippant as the words were, they still had a hint of that tone that invariably came from someone who'd just raised an eyebrow or two.
There was a long moment of silence - Salamander thinking who-knows-what, Fratley rubbing his head and trying to figure out where he'd heard that name before. Some legend or another, probably, but that didn't explain why it seemed so important. He'd gotten used to that - odd half-remembered flashes, but flashes that extinguished themselves almost at once, and that seemed to ignite after the oddest things.
It was the mercenary that spoke first. "So what's a rat doin' just standing in the rain?"
"Thinking." Fratley sighed. "Trying to do something important to me."
"Hmph." Salamander sat down on the wet, slick tiles - quite an impressive feat, really. "Almost hate to ask, but what?"
I don't have to tell him this. There's no reason to tell him, Fratley told himself... but he found himself preparing to do just that regardless. There really was no reason that he could claim. Maybe it was just that this strange man had once been a comrade of the woman that should have been his lover. Or maybe it was because Fratley wasn't sure what he was doing, and needed to hear the story he'd been using to convince himself that it was true again.
"I'm waiting for the rain to stop."
"It stops?" He sounded surprised, and more than a little pleased about it.
Fratley couldn't keep himself from smiling. "Yes. Not for long, though. Just for a day, at the very start of the year." He stared up at the clouds once again, wondering if maybe they didn't seem a little bit thinner that time. Not that he could tell, there in the dark. "There's a vigil... we all used to stand it, just before the sky cleared. We're supposed to think about things... things like renewal. And forgiveness."
"Why?" The mercernary looked up at him. "You've done something wrong?"
I forgot that the one I loved once even existed... I think I can call that wrong, he thought bitterly. But all he said out loud was, "I may have, yes."
"Ah. Seems like an awful lot of trouble."
"There's something else, too," Fratley continued, mindfully ignoring the other's opinion. He didn't care to get into an argument. "I... part of the tradition.... There's a gift that I need to get for someone."
"Yes... it's supposed to symbolize the need for forgiveness. And I... I don't know if I have anything to give."
"Then don't." The mercenary snorted as he pushed himself up again. "If someone wants to forgive you, they'll do it. You don't need to bribe 'em for it."
Fratley shook his head. "That isn't the point. It's tradition." How could he explain it? He'd found so many old traditions in the library. A Dragon Knight practically lived by traditions; there was hardly a time when one ritual or another didn't govern the knight's actions. But this creature wouldn't understand that. He didn't act like he'd ever had anything sacred in his entire life. "I've got to think of something."
There was another long pause. For a second Fratley was ready to tell the man to go, to let him stand his Vigil. But Salamander surprised him by speaking first yet again. "You know, Freya and I fought once."
The Burmecian knight was a bit taken aback by that apparent non sequitor, for various reasons. "Fought? But I thought you were allies?"
"Yeah." The man chuckled. "It was one of those weird things. Happened right when we first met face-to-face, right outside of Alexandria. She was upset about something, and looking for a fight. And I've always been happy to oblige." He absently brushed a sodden hank of hair out of his eyes - only for a second, but long enough for Fratley to catch a glimpse of dark green irises and slit-like pupils. "Damn good fight, too. For a while I'd thought I was just losin' it, but then I saw how good she was. She was jumping around like she was tryin' to fly, and I was trying to hit her with anything I could toss at her and not doin' all that well. Just went like that, for a long time - we couldn't hit each other at all.
"Then she came down. Damn near impaled me, but I lived. And I finally got her - scratched her arm. Nothing serious, but it was something." He smiled ruefully as he stretched his own left arm out. "She got me too, though." One fingernail, vaguely claw-like and stained the kind of red that defies enamel, traced over a thin, pale scar, almost directly at the elbow.
"So we looked at each other, and she asked me who'd gotten first blood. Took me a while to figure out what she meant, but I eventually told her we both did. Then..." Another grin. "Well, then we just started laughing. Can't explain why... I guess it's one of those things you had to be there for.
"We were friends after that. Kind of friends, anyway. Hell, I could put up with being near her, she didn't seem too upset about being stuck with me... guess that's the closest I'll ever get to havin' a friend."
Fratley nodded, still a bit confused; it seemed odd to tell him about fighting with Lady Freya, especially since he would've avenged her then and there if he'd really hurt her. He wondered what he was trying to tell him. "If you want to see her again, I think I can summon her. She's in the castle, with the rest of the workers."
"Nah." He shook his head. "I wasn't supposed to be here at all. Just wanted to see the place. Besides, I doubt seein' me again's gonna brighten her night all that much."
Fratley shrugged. "If that's what you want."
"Not really," Salamander murmured, "but that's how it ought to be." The Knight pretended not to hear him; that didn't sound like the sort of thing that was meant to be heard. "Well," he continued, a little bit louder, "I guess I'll let you wait for whatever it is you're waiting for. Just wanted ta talk for a while, I guess."
"Of course." Fratley nodded, a kind of informal bow. "I suppose I'll see you again, then."
"Doubt it," he chuckled. "But maybe. Guess ya never know." He waved back at him and jumped off of the roof, and Fratley never heard him land. It was as if he'd simply disappeared.
The Knight shook his head. A strange man, he thought to himself.
"Hey, Fratley! One more thing!"
The dragon-knight looked up sharply at the voice. "What?"
A small cylindrical object seemed to fly out of the night, directly towards his chest. He caught it without thinking, held it up to look at it. It was polished silver that glittered in the few dim flickers of the light-stones that remained. A long, wingless dragon-wyrm wound around it, with jets of fire bursting from its skin in smooth, curved patterns. "A bracelet," he said softly.
A silver bracelet. Something felt very familiar about that design, though....
"She likes silver." Salamander's voice seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. "Doesn't care all that much for jewelry, but I think she might make an exception for that one."
"How did you..." But Fratley gave up. The stranger seemed to have slipped away, and it hardly mattered; however he'd known, he seemed to have known a good deal more than Fratley himself.
Why does this look familiar? I should remember this, I know it...
He was lost in thought for quite a while, about any number of things - Freya, Salamander, the bracelet... the Vigil itself, perhaps. It was as though his mind was making up for lost time.
Freya's voice brought him out of his reverie. He looked up at her, smiling. "Yes, Lady?"
Freya was still dressed in her red Knight uniform, streaked with dirt and dust from old masonry. She had called him from the street, and now she leaped up to the roof to join him. "Just wondering why you were still out here. I thought you'd come back after the rain stopped."
"...stopped?" Fratley blinked and looked up. Sure enough, the clouds were gone; he'd been so distracted by Salamander and the bracelet that he'd failed to notice the moment when the rains had stopped, and the stars were just starting to appear. "Yes," he murmured. "So it is."
Freya frowned. "Are you all right? You seem..."
"No, it's nothing. I'm fine," he replied hastily. "Just thinking about... about things," he finished lamely. He supposed that the more honest answer would have been that he was thinking about her.
She did not seem convinced; he hardly blamed her for that. But she did relax a bit. "Are you going to come back now? Do you feel better, now?"
"Yes, much better." He had to ask her now. If he waited, he might lose his nerve, and then he didn't know what he would think of himself. "Lady... before we leave... I have a request for you."
"What?" she asked impatiently. She still wasn't sure what was going on, it was obvious in her manner. Has she forgotten the tradition? he thought nervously.
But he pressed on regardless. "I have a gift," he said, unable to remember if there was a ritualized question for this and really too nervous to care. "I wish to... beg your forgiveness, Lady Freya. I wish to regain the bonds that we once had..." He stretched out his hand, holding out the silver bracelet. "Will... will you accept it?"
Her breath caught in her throat. "Fratley...! Where did you get that?"
"I... ah... from a friend," he answered honestly. He didn't know what else to say. "What's wrong? Is it-"
But his fears were allayed somewhat when she reached out and took the bracelet. She turned it around and around in her hands, tracing the dragon with one long, calloused finger. "This bracelet..." she whispered. "...it's exactly like the one that father..."
Suddenly, sudden flashes of memory overcame Fratley, for the second or perhaps third time that night -
"-that's a lovely bracelet, my lady-"
"-thank you, my father gave -"
- but they were gone nearly as fast as they had appeared, and he came back to reality to find her staring at him, and to see the bracelet around her slender wrist, a perfect fit.
"It's perfect," she said softly. Without the rain, he could see the tears in her eyes. "Perfect."
"Does this mean that you accept it?" he whispered.
She didn't answer, not in words. A few short steps closed the distance between them, and she hugged him as tightly as she could... and he hugged her back, closing his eyes and breathing in the sweetness of her long, slivery hair.
Perhaps... perhaps the memories will wait, Fratley thought to himself. Perhaps there are other, more important things... like the present.
Neither of them stopped to look up, but if they had, they would have seen the stars shining down on them both, along with a moon that almost seemed to smile.
Salamander watched the two from his hiding place - one thing about near-ruined cities, they were full of great hiding places - and almost managed to smile.
Heh, just 'cuz I can't be happy with anybody doesn't mean she oughta be miserable, he told himself. Still, it sounded like a pretty hollow excuse. Wasn't he the guy who hadn't cared about love and that sort of bull before?
Great. I'm turnin' into a goddamned sap.
He was glad the rain had stopped; it'd really been getting on his nerves. The steam had stopped rising off of his skin, and his red hair was finally dry for the first time since he'd arrived, although it'd take forever to get the tangles out. Not that he really gave a damn about his appearance, but it didn't exactly make him love the rain all that much.
He suddenly found that he was homesick. Maybe it was seeing her at home, with that guy she'd been so nearly obsessed with, that was doing it.
Yeah. Goin' home... that wouldn't be such a bad idea right about now.
END (for now)