Alseides was a smoking ruin, which was hardly an unusual state of affairs. The overheated melef fluid had crystallized in a brittle sheen all over the exterior, and down in the hangar bay the mechanics were earning their pay in the painstaking process of chipping it off and restoring Dilandau's melef to fighting shape.
The process of restoring Dilandau himself to fighting shape, however, fell on the shoulders of those much less eager.
"Thank the gods for that," Gatti said, selecting a stick from the jar and finding that its end was not tipped in black. "I've been punched more than enough for one day."
"Looks like it's up to you, Chesta," Guimel said, with a twinge of sympathy as Chesta drew out the one marked stick in the jar. "Bad luck."
"Maybe he'll be drunk already." Chesta sighed, putting his token back in the jar and handing it around for the other Dragonslayers to replace their lots. "It'll make him easier to handle."
"Nothing makes Lord Dilandau easy to handle," Miguel said, from the confines of his bunk. "He's worse than a wounded dragon when he's injured."
"Even a wounded dragon deserves some sympathy," Chesta said, quietly gathering ointments and bandages from the supply cabinet. "It would have been incredible, if he had succeeded today. It was a brilliant, daring move, attacking Van from the anchorage like that."
"Just make sure you don't try and tell him that," Miguel answered. "You know he can't stand to be reminded of failure."
"He has a reminder now every time he looks in the mirror," Chesta replied. "No wonder he's been in a worse mood than usual."
"Just be careful how you reach out a hand to soothe him." Dallet's smile was not entirely nice. "You might pull back a bloody stump."
"Your confidence in my diplomacy is overwhelming," Chesta retorted, acidly, and left his more fortunate fellows to their leisure while he went, alone, to brave the fiery wrath of their commander.
Chesta's knock met with no response; the sliding door to Dilandau's chamber was unlocked. "Lord Dilandau?" Chesta called out, cautiously putting his head around the doorway and bracing for attack. Should their commander not wish to be disturbed, he had been known to throw everything from pillows to wine bottles to punches at an intruder.
The room, spacious for a chamber on the Vionne, was dark and seemingly empty, the lamps unlit. The windows along the wall revealed the dull purple sky of evening and the silver and black mass of Palas' buildings and canals far below. Dilandau's armor had been discarded on the floor, pauldrons and boots lying in a lumpy, twisted trail to the bed like dead soldiers abandoned by the roadside after a desperate retreat.
"Lord Dilandau?" Chesta asked again, easing into the room and letting the door slide closed behind him. Something stirred from the direction of the bed, making the curtains shiver, but there was no other response. Chesta picked his way over to his commander's bedside and breathed a tiny sigh of relief.
Dilandau was unconscious, sprawled across the pillows in his undershirt and pants, his coronet dangling from his fingertips. The bottle of vino by his bedside was empty, the goblet overturned on the tray. Chesta righted it and put down the medical supplies, then gently freed Dilandau's cornet from his hand. Dilandau's pale arms were marred by vivid red burns, all around his wrists and in a thin line up to his armpit, where the seams in his dragon-leather armor had allowed searing-hot melef fluid to seep inside. Normally, the Alesidies model's cockpit fluid was only pleasantly warm, cradling the pilot inside like a babe in the womb. Should the machine be pushed beyond its limits, however, it became a scalding bath. Dilandau got fluid burns on a regular basis.
Dilandau muttered something unintelligible but did not wake as Chesta slathered the burns with numbing ointment, binding Dilandau's surprisingly slim wrists in white linen. Against his pillows, his hair loose around his sleeping face, he looked misleadingly vulnerable. Leaning over his commander, Chesta found he was compelled to draw the blankets over him, overwhelmed by a strange sense of protectiveness that had nothing to do with duty or oaths. Dilandau needed his men, in a way that Chesta could not quite define, and he doubted that Dilandau himself was even aware of it. For all his tantrums and abuses of them, there was pride and confidence in his command as well. When he told his Dragonslayers to do something, it was done. There was no other option.
Elsewhere in the Zaibach army, commissions were awarded for bribes, or bloodlines, or for political jockeying. Dilandau had chosen his Dragonslayers by merit of their skills alone, and nothing else. Before Dilandau, Chesta's future in the Zaibach Army had been a bleak outline of servitude and ignominious death in poverty. Dilandau had pulled him from the ranks of the youth service, given him rank and armor and a sleek metal giant to fight in. For that alone, Chesta was willing to die for him.
So when Dilandau rolled over in his sleep, curled his bandaged wrists to his chest, and choked out the word "brother" in a broken sob, Chesta pretended he had heard nothing. He gathered Dilandau's armor and hung it carefully from the chair, took the bandages and ointment and crept quietly from his commander's room.
Outside, Miguel and Gatti were just coming to stand the first evening watch.
"How is he?" Miguel asked, raking Chesta over with his eyes and finding no signs of a cut lip or bloodied nose. "Asleep?"
Chesta nodded. "Not easily, though. He'll have nightmares tonight. And a hangover in the morning."
"We'll look after him," Gatti said, and smiled gingerly around the bruise on his cheekbone. "Maybe he can get the other side of my face, and I'll be even."
"Get some sleep, Chesta," Miguel said, settling his shoulders against the doorframe in preparation for a long watch. "We'll make sure Lord Dilandau gets his."
Chesta walked down to their bunk room, rolling over Dilandau's helpless plea in his mind, and wondering what brother he had lost in his hidden past. Somewhere in the shadows behind him was a figure that not all of his Dragonslayers could replace, no matter how they might try.
Chesta palmed the lock on the door to the bunk room, suddenly exhausted. He put away the burn ointment in the cabinet and himself into his bed, to rest for the few hours before Dilandau needed them both again.