Chapter Thirty-Eight

“...Kinsael was really a ruse. If we'd just launched an attack, we could have had them all.”

Cole had begun merely telling the story, for lack of another idea. It seemed strange to be telling it, even to Cole, for whom it was, at this point, well-rehearsed. It had been so long since he had told anything of his life to his father; even before Academy, it was as if he had forgotten how.

“Because... he didn't really mean to fight?” Cole's father shuffled in with the re-filled teapot. Cole tried not to sigh heavily, and instead lay against the table, hand covering his eyes. His hangover had returned with a vengeance, and played nice accompaniment to his father's plodding questions.

That wasn't really fair. He watched as his father set the pot carefully on the reed trivet, inches from Cole's eyes thanks to his sprawl on the table. That teapot was his mother's. The swirls of colored lacquer mimicking the rising steam that would issue from it, as well as the potter's wheel on which it had been formed – his mother had liked those sorts of things. Disinherited by her choice of husbands, she owned few things, but that had only made them markedly more hers. Most were hidden away around the house. Cole hadn't seen this teapot for years. His father scooted the cups into a suitable serving position, tongue pressed between his lips as he slowly went about the task.

Calling his father plodding was the headache talking. He was deliberate, not slow. It was part of what made him such a good tailor, and a good teacher – the proof of which was that Cole, who had been a distractible child if anything, remembered any tailoring at all. He had the deliberation to set out cloth and measure it as close to perfectly as he could, and then repeat the process as if the first time had never happened. Cole had never known his father, in his life, to measure something wrong the first time, and yet – measure twice, if not a half-dozen times, was the rule. Each step performed as if it were the only step.

Cole could recall him showing a child-size version of himself a simple seam, flipping the cloth over in his hands to show the one side as the mirror of the other, the 'in' as the same as the 'out', just like the teapot issuing steam and being issued from the clay. The feel of the cloth and the tautness of the stitch all individual parts of the same single piece, the result of which was not the garment, but the seam. A collection of seams was a dress.

His father had to be living very comfortably off the most recent fashion trends. They fit his style perfectly.

So Cole did not sigh, headache whispering what grumpiness it would. “It's true that he could have fought hard enough to win, even setting up such a vulnerable position, but when an army sees its leaders attacked...”

“Ah,” Cole's father nodded. He lifted the pot, pouring two cups of evenly matched tea and filling the room with its head-clearing steam and heavy scent. Only when each cup was full and he had put the teapot down did he elaborate on his understanding. One thing at a time. “It is an uncomfortable variable.”

“So he gave us a chance, and a much better chance, than we otherwise might have had. And maybe he knew, maybe he thought that I would be just daring and just stupid enough to run straight after them in an attempt to end the war rather than win the battle. I suspect I would've...”

His father nodded, but then held up a finger, as if needing to interrupt the silence, and reached into his vest pocket. He took from it a small flask, a stalk of celery and a stalk of green onion, and from a handkerchief bundled like a bag and stuffed in his belt, a lump of bread and cheese that must've been causing a bulge of some magnitude, which Cole had entirely failed to notice. Since looking up made the roots of his eyeballs sting vengefully, he blamed his lack of attention on the hangover.

His father pushed these towards Cole. “Drink the flask first – all of it. Eat the rest.”

Taking the lid off the flask greeted Cole with a spicy, pungent smell, with generous helpings of the sorts of odors that stung rather than 'smelled'.

“What is this?”

“For your hangover,” he said, knowingly. Then, “Don't ask,” he amended, in something of a rush.

The first swig nearly had Cole's stomach leaping out of his mouth, but his father raised a hand to encourage him and with stubborn resolve, Cole up-ended and drained the rest. When he got it down again, his throat burned, his lips felt like they were bleeding, and his brain seemed to have lost contact with stomach through a wall of greasy, coating fire. He coughed for a good two minutes.

But losing contact with his stomach wasn't such a bad thing. And his head didn't seem to have the will to hurt more than everything else.

His father nodded once. “Now tea. And eat.”

Cole ate. The celery cooled his lips, and the strength of the onion seemed to compliment rather than exacerbate the burning of his mouth, and covered the taste of the bread and cheese, which felt better in his stomach than on his tongue. It was brilliant.

“Why didn't you teach me this before Academy?” Cole said, but regretted the ambiguousness of his tone as soon as it was out of his mouth. He was still uneasy about this strange peace.

But with typical obtuseness, his father seemed to fail to notice both any ambiguity and Cole's tension. “Better to learn not to drink in the first place.”

Cole ate through an uneasy silence – uneasy for him, at least.

“So, it sounds as if you have what you wanted.” His father folded his hands, and after reviewing the statement, shrugged.

Cole swallowed down a hunk of cheese before he could think about the taste of it. “It isn't that simple, though it should be.”

His father looked at him over the teapot, eyes focused with gentle concern.

Cole had been about to launch into an explanation of Durante's actions, and felt a silencing stab of guilt and pain at thinking the old man's name. From where it had come was still too hurtful to contemplate, though his eyes strayed from his father's face without his bidding. He took a sip of tea, which buoyed his body if not his mind.

“We could get around his confession but the Council has been set against us. They're to vote against Nika, no matter what our proof, if I do not accept a deal...” Cole paused, wary of where his words would go, what his father might say...

“They want me to agree to be Consort to the King. They'll keep Nika safe, somewhere – I may even get to see him now and again, but they will use him to control me and if I do not agree, they'll kill him. All I would be doing would be trading him from one jailer to another, but the longer I delay, the more he'll be tortured, and even now...”

Cole glanced at the sunlight rising through the window and all pretense of calm was gone from his mind. Even now they were hurting him, breaking him, making him 'confess' to what he already admitted freely, punishing him for the sake of vengeance, and Cole was hungover, taking delicate sips of tea safe away from it all...and how could he be doing this? He was almost on his feet again...

“Esras, be calm,” his father said. The evenness of his voice was soothing, the calm of it ringing through Cole's impatience as if he were nine and ripping stitches in a glory of frustration.

They sat in silence, the gentle rising of the steam like a delicate clock, marking parcels of time not meant to be divided and subdivided – like three years of silence versus five minutes’ worth, five years separation versus a single day, loneliness that would last for the rest of a life versus a limited set of happy years.

Unsurprisingly, Cole broke the silence first. “Father, I can't do that; I can't accept him being tortured because I am too proud, or too stubborn, but it hurts so much to think I would not fight harder to keep us together, that I could choose to pretend to love someone else because it is the easiest way. I would rather him jailed than dead, I would rather him hate me than be tortured. The easiest way may be the best way...”

His father remained silent, frowning gently over the mess, both of words and of circumstances, like they were crumbs spread over the table. Again Cole felt the rising frustration at the closed closeness of his face, that he seemed to listen but gave no sign of hearing, that his quietness did not rise to meet Cole's anger.

“I remember him,” his father said, looking up and looking away almost in the same gesture. “Maybe more than you would think. He loves you...”

Cole felt a cold shiver, but unlike with Durante it was not fear. It was... he didn't know what it was. He set his hands carefully flat on the table. “Yes, he does.”

“Let me tell you a story,” his father said, his voice quiet and, Cole realized, its quietness supplicating. “I think...I think it will help, and you ought to know – to have known before now – anyway.”

Cole nodded.

“You know, that when I went to see your mother at her father's house, I went...”

“...not expecting to come back with a wife,” Cole said. The weariness in his voice was grief; he did not like to dig in these memories. A teapot was one thing – and that one a thing they could not often tolerate – but, his mother's own words.... “I remember. Mother liked to tell the story like that. And I know that it was the last time you ever visited. Her father never forgave you.”

His father glanced up to meet his eyes, a small flash of pride lighting across his face. “Yes. He was a good man.”

Taking a deep breath, he went on. “You also know how your mother and I met.”

“She came with her family after Aunt Grainne ran away. They spent time in the city convincing her to come back, and you met her then.”

His father nodded deeply. “Yes. You do remember. You remember well. Good...”

Heavy as the air was with mixed feelings of grief and sorrow, Cole couldn't help but feel his father's avoidance. He was delaying.

A crooked grimace confirmed Cole's suspicion, but also confirmed his father's resolve to continue. “Well, you don't know a few things. You were too young, and then your mother died and I...”

He sighed, turning his teacup in his hand, “I didn't want to confuse you... make you part of the mistakes I made... I didn't want to change your opinion of me. I wanted to be your father, exactly as if your mother were still alive, but I was not the same person when she was not there. I was afraid that without her, I could not do it well enough. She was my life, and I... was not fully alive when she was gone.”

His father caught his eyes again, and again they turned away, still unable quite to hold. “I did not want you to be raised with a father as dead as your mother had become, but you were all I had left.”

Cole knew his mother had been the bridge between them. Without her, there was merely the widening gap.

“Didn't do very well at that,” his father gave a wet chuckle, wiping under his eyes again, though no tears had shown. He gripped the warm teacup for reassurance and took a sip. “I met your mother through you Aunt; they loved each other so, that your grandfather knew he hadn't the slightest chance of convincing Grainne to return without her there, so, reluctant as he was to do it, he brought her along.

“Grainne was a hellion,” his father laughed again. “I was a young man. We got along. Liked each other. She spent a few days outraging her family as she took them around the city, and I got to meet your mother. While Grainne was busy having fights with your grandfather, we often got to sit aside and talk...”

The idea of Aunt Grainne and his father getting along was foreign enough to Cole's mind to be worth the attentive silence he paid for the story of it.

His father's mirth was short lived. He struggled with how to continue. “I... I loved your mother. I knew then. I played with other notions, tried to convince myself it was... something... anything else, but I knew. I didn't want it to be so, but I just as assuredly knew it could not be changed.”

Cole resisted the urge to let rise a swell of sympathy, though he couldn't be sure why. That his father might have felt the same way about his mother as he felt about Nika... was it too close for comfort? Or was it that he might lose Nika the way his father had lost his mother, with only a few years of peaceful memory and an empty heart left over?

“I... I let them leave. I think, to test myself. To see, if maybe things would change.” Now his father's demeanor changed; he sipped his tea, and Cole couldn't help but think he was hiding behind the cup.

“I should have mentioned, I suppose, at the start. You grandfather would only have come to town in the face of an emergency, and even he knew Grainne was too stubborn–” he amended himself, “–too capable to be in need of assistance. The whole reason they came to get her was because I had proposed.”

“To mother?” Cole was confused.

“To Grainne.”

Cole spat his celery across the table. “What?!”

His father put the celery back in front of Cole and put his cup on the table, staring at his tea as if it had challenged his seriousness. “I was young. When I was young I was bit more... passionate.”

It seemed to Cole he had been about to say 'foolish', but had a moment of pride.

“I got along with Grainne. She was fiery, and very beautiful, and it was a good match for me. How many other landed heiresses would I encounter that wanted something other than ball gowns from me? Still, I think I was surprised as you are that she accepted.”

“WHAT?!” Cole sat forward over the table and nearly knocked his own breath out.

“In retrospect, I think she did it more than a little to anger her family. She's always been... contentious.”

Cole could not think of a more impossible event, unless it was to think that Diarmaid would suddenly become a merciful, celibate, pacifist and pardon Nika, give his blessing to Cole, and pass the country on to his sister. To become a humble beekeeper. Like a single actor playing two roles, he had hardly ever seen them in the same room together. His father quite literally left town when Grainne announced a visit – when Cole was younger, if the Relay road between her estate and the Capitol were impassable, Cole could find himself alone in the house indefinitely. Grainne refused so much as to speak his father's name unless she absolutely had to, and would even go so far as to abuse grammar to avoid it.

Well, he supposed now he knew why.

“Your grandfather arrived to break up the engagement. He threatened me, but even he knew it was Grainne he really had to contend with. More often than not I sat on the balcony with your mother eating the hors d'oeuvre Grainne had set out to annoy her father.” He gestured vaguely over his throat. “Certain cheeses made him break out in a rash.”

His father took another sip of the tea, fortifying himself. “I let them leave, promising to visit in a certain amount of time. I told Grainne it was wisest to take her father's threats seriously, and to spend time at home. It was foolish to think so, but at the time I thought she'd realize how much she was giving up to be a tailor's wife, and change her mind.

“In the meantime, I would try to forget your mother. I failed.”

His voice grew somber. “It was true, what your mother said, that I did not go to your grandfather's estate expecting to come back with a wife. I had been a coward not to tell Grainne immediately, and a fool to think I would find my emotion lessened by your mother's departure. I went to her house knowing that I would act as a cruel and despicable man. Grainne did not deserve what I did to her. I went to break off our engagement. I could not marry her while I loved her sister. Coward though I was, I would not be so cowardly and cruel as that.”

His father choked, and Cole could not tell whether it was because of happiness or pain. “It was luck, really. It was your mother who came down first. I was more honest then than I'd ever been in my life. It was also the bravest moment of my life.

“You've done many brave things, but your father is just a tailor. Telling her what I was doing, why I was doing it, would lose me any chance I may have one day had with her. She loved her sister. How could she forgive me, for making her the point over which I would so embarrass Grainne? But I thought... I couldn't...” he paused to find the right word, perhaps to this day not even sure what was right about it himself.

“It is the only moment in my life I knew most assuredly what I should do... the only point at which I have been brave. And she....” he had to stop, to swallow back the memory that apparently rose too close to the surface, too strong to be subdued. “She was always brave. And kind. And... right. I was so... lucky.”

Gratitude shone on his face more than sadness, though there was no lack of that. “She loved me back. Those moments, when we spoke, she had felt as alive as I had, as drawn close. She had only restrained herself, thinking I loved her sister, but finding that I felt as she did, finding I felt it strongly enough I would throw away my chance for her – more than that, I would throw away the chance to have her father's land, her family's fortune, because I loved her and would not be a liar... She said she loved me, then. She turned around, in that moment – with me waiting in the doorway with a rented wagon behind me because I could not ride a horse and couldn’t find a donkey – and left her family, her land, her whole world behind. She loved me more than all of that. If I would throw away my future for her sake, then she would throw away her past for me. It broke her sister's heart, her father's, but she was not a coward, as I had been. She didn't pretend she could feel another way.”

He smiled bitterly, “And, of course, she knew her sister better than I ever could. Grainne was angry with her for only a moment, but has hated me for the rest of my life. Perhaps not even because of any love we might have had, but because I embarrassed her more than anyone ever has. I was never very good with women.”

He smiled, and it tumbled forth memories of such a true paternal smile out of Cole's mind that he had thought forgotten forever. His father had not smiled, not at him, not at all, as he did now, since before his mother's death.

“You were born, and all was forgiven. She was worried you would be a daughter – your grandfather had worried constantly over having only daughters left – but I didn't care. She wanted you so much, and you came perfectly, and the first thing she did after she calmed you down as hand you to me. She gave you to me as if you were her personal pride, her gift, in return for all the difficulties her family had presented – as if they were the problem. She always thought it was funny, how tormented I'd been standing her door and how serious we all were. She used to hold you up and make you laugh, and ask what we all thought we were tormenting ourselves for. Love would will out, over all.”

He shrugged, as if it were the easiest belief in the world, and Cole saw something of his mother's easiness in his shrug, “And when she died that's exactly what happened. I know you don't remember, I am sometimes afraid you don't remember her death at all, but Grainne came and stayed with us while I was mourning, when it... it was too painful to look at you and not see her behind you. Grainne loved her sister more than she could ever hate a man, even one who so insulted her.”

Tears ran freely down his father's face, dripping off his chin, and sometimes splashing ripples into his lukewarm tea. “I was never as brave as your mother was, or as able to... able to act. I haven't been what I could be, because it is difficult to act without her at my side. Once she died, it was easy to imagine her voice, but hard to hear anything but the silence behind it. I was not… I was not who I should have been to you – for you, because I kept listening to the silence.”

He took a deep breath, letting the silence of his house speak for itself. “What I would do now... what I would advise you to do, would be to ask your mother, were it possible. It isn't possible, and I am a sorry substitute, but... You love this man. I don't know him as well as I should, but I know he turned away from his family, from his people, to follow you. He lost his brother to the war, and he lost his father that he might love you – do not also have him lose you. I know it is difficult, but you must not let his voice fall silent because all you can hear is that he is no longer there to speak to you. It is a mistake. So listen to your love.”

The tears had stopped, and his father looked at him with clear and patient eyes.

“If you trust him as much as you say you do, if you believe him, then he said he doesn't want you to free him. He couldn't know of this deal with the King, but he said it has to happen this way. He told you of Kinsael so that you would believe his innocence, but he doesn't want you to use it to save him. You said that he surrendered to you by name, that he came to you for a reason, that he said it was the only way – you are his only way, Esras. What would he have you do?”

He would have me not try, Cole wanted to shout; isn't that what Nika had said? Do not try, there is nothing that can be done. He deserves what he gets, and he knew it was coming. He truly fought and Cole had to believe it. He needs to be blamed and suffer punishment. Despair struck again, like the waves always battering back to shore; Nika asked of him what he could not do.

Why seek out Cole only to profess absolute guilt, ask Cole to do things he could not do, believe things he could not believe? Ask Cole to do nothing for him, say he could not be rescued...

Cole looked up at his father, staring patiently, waiting silently, and wondered if he had been doing that all along, the whole time Cole had considered them lost to each other, and Cole simply hadn't noticed. Nika would be so happy to hear Cole and his father had finally come together again. Maybe that was another way in which Faer, who had given up Nika, had been right to send him here – maybe he foresaw that Nika, having given up his family, would be happy to see Cole reconciling with his own, just as he was being forced to give Nika up – to death, or betrayal.

‘Listen to your love.’

Cole’s father had said, 'He lost his brother to the war.'

'He lost his father that he might love you.'

Nika had not put it that way – giving up, losing, betraying. Nika had been very careful in how he said these things.

“I swore the oath, too,” Nika had said. At leaving Academy, he had sworn to protect the nation. And he had sworn to Cole that he would go – go to be safe.

“I did it. I did all the things that hurt you. I did it, and I knew I did it.”

“I betrayed a lot of things. I betrayed my word.”

And Cole had known then, and said then, “I have faith in you, Nika. You have not betrayed me.” And Nika had not answered.

What had changed? Did Cole not still have faith, now that they had proven the innocence he sought? Why had Nika encouraged them to look into Kinsael, when he said no defense would help him? Why did he want his plans known if he didn’t want to be acquitted of his betrayal?

It mattered to him that Cole knew, but that he knew what?

“I gave up nothing,” Nika had said, when Cole had compared the precious things they lost, denied the limits to what they would give to one another, “I only lost.”

He lost, he had said to Guy, and he was a very good General.

“I have done all I can for them,” Nika said, of his family. “They’re safe.”

"They had you trapped, Nika? How?” Cole had asked. “Who could possibly have outmaneuvered you?"

"Fools," Nika had said. "Fools and cowards."

Cole himself had told Guy, only a fool would try to use Nika’s family against him. “I can’t begin to tell you how thoroughly he would punish whoever was foolish enough to attempt to make him fight against his will.”

Nika said that he, himself, was beyond rescuing; he did not need to be saved.

And what could more fantastic, and reckless, and Cole-like than rushing off into enemy territory alone on a half-cocked rescue mission?

“They have his family,” Cole said. “Those incredible idiots tried to use his family to secure his loyalty. What he broke was not his oath to the nation, it was his promise to stay out of the war – his word to me. And he betrayed the Comids. He let them think they controlled him. By Kinsael had almost succeeded in losing the war when… something happened. They found out. Abban got killed. Something. And it changed, but the only way to get out of it, and save his family, was to die loyal. So he came to me, because he knew I would never believe it. He’s been expecting me to spoil his plan, not by saving him, but by finding out where his family is and rescuing them.”

Cole could hardly breathe. The hard beating of his pulse dissolved the clouds in his mind, bringing to the surface the creature of action, whose awe and instinct did not allow for despair and doubt, who followed only the most burning of passions. That was the part of him that Nika loved, after all. No matter how he tolerated the foolish romantic and doting lover, that was the part that Nika relied upon, the part which he called 'Ras, unstoppable and passionate. Cole had been a fool to listen to any part but that.

Then again, there was always the chance that Nika had planned it that way. He was that sort of devious, and those varieties of strong.

Cole loved him, and spared no effort in trying to defeat him.

He needn't be the only one with a plan,” Cole said.

His father smiled, and began to take in the teacups.
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Artist's comment:
[icon by the incomparable StGibbs [icon=???]]

Warning! This story eventually includes these elements:
Violence (battles and rough sex, a twofer); Homophobia (internalized and familial, but no slurs or violence, the world is too gay for that); Religious Intolerance (mostly language and for fantasy religions); Explicit Sex (obvs); Female characters in non-sexual, plot-central roles (just minding the TOS here)

Individual chapters will be tagged with relevant filters but be forewarned and consume at your own discretion.

Start at the Beginning: Chapter One

AN:The peak of the roller coaster. We pause, we discover family secrets, we fall.
Content details:
• Category – Literature
• Critique – Optional
• Filter – N/A
• Series – Original
• Theme – Rivalry
• Theme – Romance
• Theme – Supernatural/Fantasy
• Time Taken – Who knows?
• Tools – Literary Work – Prose/Stories
Posted on 2021-02-22 @ 7:02 PM
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