One Man in His Time
Spoiler warning for what you find out about Jimba in chapter three. Alternate title for this fic: ohmygod joy should never be allowed to write a story with more than three characters in it, much less an ensemble cast. This fic has about twenty characters, at last count. And that's just the speaking roles. XD but really, it's about one man in his time. Honest. I'm dreaming of a Wyatt christmas.
all the world's a stage,
and all the men and women merely players:
they have their exits and their entrances;
and one man in his time plays many parts
- jacques, as you like it, act II sc. vii (shakespeare)
It was much too late in the year for Romeo and Juliet, Nadir insisted. That was a play for the last falling petals of spring, young love plucked unripe from the vine. This, why this was the first snowfall, lengthening nights: a bittersweet cold more suited to The Little Matchgirl, her little light lost to the cruelty of midwinter.
Of course, the theatrical troupe of Budehuc Castle (such as it was) paid little heed to Nadir's advice, and he resigned himself to directing whatever play struck their fancy-- the price to pay, when one's troupe is also one's audience. So Romeo and Juliet it was, though no one really remembered who'd dared Lucia to play the female lead, and no one stood to be counted when Nadir tried to cast a Romeo, though Beecham twitched a little in his chair at the suggestion.
Going it alone had never seemed to bother the Karayan chief, however, and she was more than good-natured after a cup or two of her favorite Highland wine. Sitting on the balcony set, Lucia ran lines mostly to herself, with a prompting here and there from the master of ceremonies.
"Hey, Chief Lucia's on a roll," Aila giggled, but quietly, so only those sitting closest to her could hear. Budehuc's tavern was crowded most nights; especially as the days were growing shorter, the communal firelight gathered more folk around it. Still, a whispered word could travel quickly even in a busy dining hall, and Aila was yet cautious of living inside stone walls. "Better be glad Hugo's not awake for this."
"You ought not be awake for it either," Joker said, waggling a finger, but his words were too sloshy to be convincing. Aila stuck out her tongue at him. Jacques snickered softly into his soda.
"Hey, who do you think she's seeing?" Ace was not to be left out of the conversation, though the looks his companions shot him were less than encouraging. "Behind that mask, I mean? Not just anybody gets to play Romeo opposite--"
"Shut up," Queen said evenly, not looking at Ace, but up at the stage. Lucia's whip was, as ever, coiled latent at her side; Queen smiled. "Unless you want some nice new scars."
Ace scooted his chair away, as though Queen were the one brandishing the whips; he didn't notice Joker making a face and maneuvering his own seat out of Ace's path. "She sure is hot stuff, though, isn't she?"
Aila wrinkled her nose in distaste, but quicky forgot to be disgusted when she noticed Jacques had slid his own soda in front of her, only halfway finished.
"Better watch it, buddy," Joker grinned, wolfishly. "Too hot for you to handle."
Learning the knack of when to keep quiet had never been Ace's forte. "But you've got to wonder, don't you--"
"No, you don't." Geddoe spoke for the first time that evening, and the Twelfth Mercenary Unit of the Harmonian Southern Frontier Defense Force all looked at him, with varying degrees of guilt. Geddoe's eye was elsewhere, however, lingering on the tavern door leading into the castle; he alone had seen a quiet entrance into the cheerful hubbub. No one else seemed to notice the figure now moving silently towards the stage, each too occupied with talk and drink, or with watching the woman on stage.
One leg drawn up to her chest, and the other dangling off the edge of the balcony, Lucia sounded quietly pensive as she recited her lines. "A hundred, nay, a thousand times good night..."
"--A thousand times the worse to want thy light."
The tavern did take note of him then, standing at the foot of the stage, chuckling up at at a wide-eyed Lucia. With a broad gesture he encompassed the Capulet garden. "...What, no Romeo?"
"Hush, you." Lucia frowned, but only with her mouth; her eyes were bright. Any other man might have gotten decked for that statement, and everyone knew it. "We didn't think to see you back so soon."
He raised a pale eyebrow. "Wouldn't this a better time of year for The Little Match--"
Laughing now, she hopped lithely down from Juliet's balcony, making the plywood set rock back and forth a bit. Nadir was wringing his hands, though that might have been as much sheer joy at finding a kindred soul appreciative of the arts, as it was dismay as to the stability of the properties; anyone's guess. "What news, Jimba?"
"Not much," he said, offering her a hand down from the stage. His voice carried through the sudden stillness. He cocked his head at Nadir and for a moment they looked at one another: pale, impassive mask and dark, expressionless face.
Then Nadir seemed to sigh, or maybe smile, and he called out, "And who else among us wishes to take on the role of Juliet, this fine, wintry evening?"
With an embarrassed jostling noise, everyone remembered to be engrossed in their beer, and the bustle resumed its normal pitch.
Jimba lowered his head to Lucia's ear. "Trouble this spring, I'm afraid. Just a few more months."
Lucia pursed her lips, her hand still on his arm where he had steadied her coming down from the stage, though they both knew she needed no such support. "I feared as much. Do you have any plans?" They had known each other for long enough that he knew she was asking, "...Will you stay?"
Slowly he shrugged, unwilling to give voice to his thoughts just yet. "I don't know," he said. "But I do know I could use a drink."
She shook her head, her laughter dark and rich like the smile in her eyes. "Far be it from me to stop you," she said easily, responding to both his spoken and unspoken intentions, and he was reminded all over again just why he was grateful for the sanctuary she and her people had offered him.
"Hello, Jimba," Jacques said, as the tall Karayan moved by their table.
Jimba tipped his head to each of them, flashing Geddoe an extra smile though he knew the other man wouldn't return it. Or maybe because of that fact. "Evening," he said. "Am I interrupting?"
Queen, in greeting, drained the rest of her tankard in one gulp. "Here," she said, her chair scraping back as she stood. "I'm all done for tonight; take my seat. No, no, I'm sure. No protesting, now."
"You are too kind," he said gently, and she looked from him to Geddoe and started a laugh that turned into a yawn.
"I know. Be good, boys--" here she glared at Ace, who was arranging his pretzels to spell lewd phrases-- "I'm going to bed. Otherwise I might wind up playing Juliet."
"Think you'd make a better Romeo--" Ace started, but Queen tossed her mug at him and he was too busy catching it to get much further than that.
"And for this scene we need two guards," Nadir intoned, looking out over the faces with his strange white eyes, picking someone at seeming random. "Misters Joker and Ace, would you be so kind?"
Ace turned pink around the ears, but Joker was drunk enough to agree and sober enough to wrestle Ace up to the stage with him. Queen was still chuckling on her way out the door.
"Hey, what's that spell?" Aila squinted sleepily at the abandoned table.
Jimba, glancing at Ace's handiwork, lifted an eyebrow. "Er, hasn't Queen been keeping you up on your studies? Or is reading still too hard?"
"Jacques," Jimba interrupted him, hastily sweeping the pretzels into an innocuous pile. "Why don't you and Aila get two new sodas?"
The blond young man blinked, slowly. "Soda?"
Aila rolled her eyes, tired, but not without a grasp of the general situation. "C'mon," she took Jacques' arm and headed for the bar. Anne, seeing them coming, lined two frosted glasses on the counter with an indulgent smile.
They had barely gotten seated on two tall barstools when five of the Six Knights of Zexen entered the tavern, far less quietly than Jimba had done before them. Bustling in from outside, with a blast of winter hard on his heels, Leo slammed the door with gusto. "Had it up to here with the bloody Council," he was saying, obviously in the middle of a tirade.
"Please," Roland looked pained. "You needn't remind me." Quietly he detached himself from his fellows, snowflakes scattering from his footsteps as though he himself were not warm enough to melt them. The other knights pretended not to notice that he slipped directly to the far corner of the tavern; politely averting their eyes when Nei's face lit up with that distinctly elfish sort of smile.
"Remind me why we bothered?" Percival stomped snow from his boots, bickering unquietly about their Council in particular, the lousy winter weather in general, and the unsavory state of his armor more than anything. "In the snow and in the dark--"
Borus, of all of them, looked the least displeased, cradling a package in the hollow of his arm. "Remember the 462 I picked up from the family cellars," he said, gesturing fondly to the bottle-shaped bundle he carried. "So it isn't a total loss."
"--and I may never get the mud from my greaves," Percival, unphased, finished his diatribe. He brightened visibly. "Sixty-two, you say?"
Borus unwrapped the treasured vintage. "Your glass is a given, Percival, don't fret. Salome? Leo?"
"No thank you," Salome said, easing into a chair with a long sigh. "When I feel quite capable of standing again, think I'll indulge in some tea."
"And none for me, thanks," Leo grinned, shrugging out of his cloak and draping it artlessly on the back of a chair. "Ah, thank the Goddess for a decent bar."
As Leo strode up to the bar, Jimba was quite surprised to see Anne-- blush?-- as the Zexen knight graciously ordered his tankard of ale.
Geddoe caught Jimba's look. "Never seen her sweet on a customer before?"
Jimba shook his head, pleasantly bemused. "Never seen her smile at an ironhead before," he corrected.
Geddoe's lips twitched in what might have been considered a smile, if one were feeling generous. "And you would know."
"Watch it," the current Karayan grinned. He raised his cup towards his friend, leaning closer, as if conspiratorial. "To us."
"What's left of us, you mean." Geddoe didn't move, swirling the dregs of the beer at the bottom of his tankard.
"I mean what I say, Geddoe; you know you won't change my mind." Jimba caught his eye over the rim of his proffered cup; for a moment they measured one another, times changed and feelings unchanged. "To us."
With a noncommital sound, Geddoe touched the side of his mug to Jimba's, and they drank in companionable silence.
Soon the outside door opened again, and a shivering Louis shut it behind him quickly as he could, shedding his cloak and its load of snow, stomping slush from his boots. Percival slid a warm mug across their table, which the squire caught and downed thirstily.
Borus, pale eyebrows raised, protested mildly. "I say! That's a sixty-two-- meant for sipping, not guzzling, my boy."
"Don't pay any attention to him, Louis." Leo grinned widely, elbowing Percival. "No matter the vintage, it'll still drive off the chill."
Louis set the empty mug on the table with a decisive thump, and if his cheeks were pink more from the wine than from the cold, no one could tell.
"Good show!" Percival winked, though Borus rolled his eyes.
Salome intervened judiciously, looking up from the tea cupped in his ungloved hands. "You ought to be in bed, at this hour, Louis, or at least with the other young people." He was not critical, only concerned.
"Lady Chris and I were stabling the horses," Louis explained, tilting his head and feeling the room spinning slightly. He caught himself smiling inexplicably, and tried to resume a proper knightly expression, without complete success. "Strong, isn't it? But now all the horses are bedded and fed and warm, and Lady Chris said she'd be right here."
Salome leaned forward and plucked the cup from Louis' hands. "Quite enough for you, young man," he said, eyes twinkling. With a languid stretch, he stood, and motioned to his chair. "Here, have a seat, before you fall over."
Gratefully, Louis sat, with rather less coordination than he'd intended. "More tired than I thought, I guess."
"Well, you did walk all the way from Vinay del Zexay," Leo mentioned.
"Unlike some people," Percival murmured, giving Leo a grin.
"Shut it," Leo said evenly. "You've no room to talk, lad."
"Mmhmm," Louis said, face laid against the table. "Sorry, Sir Salome, for taking your chair. What will you--?"
"If I'm correct," Salome said, finishing his tea and setting the cup gently back on its saucer, "the play needs another actor or two. Thought I might keep my hand in."
Leo made a face. "Check out the balcony, Salome; that's Estelle. Looks like it's Romeo & Thing again tonight. Sure you're up to that?"
Salome chuckled. "I'm hardly leading man material." And as he moved away, Percival-- exchanging glances with Borus-- discreetly poured Louis' cup full again.
When Lady Chris Lightfellow made her entrance, halfway through the troupe's attempt at a coherent first act, she was quieter than her fellow knights had been, but no less remarkable. In her armor and with her pale hair, she brought a chill silver light into the cheery warmth of the tavern, edged like steel, and shining. Wearing a layer of cold air like a second cloak, she shivered lightly, crystals of snow turning to water in her hair, making her seem to glitter in the tavern light. All eyes flicked to her, that slender silhouette against the wintry windows, though more than a few averted again just as quickly, in bashfulness or gossip. A knot of folk from Vinay del Zexay lifted their glasses to her, clinking them in a noisy impromptu toast, though she paid them no heed.
Jimba's own fingers tightened around his tankard, knowing he was staring, feeling like a fool.
There was such poise in the lift of her shoulders, even bearing the weight of her armor; such simple pride in the tilt of her chin. Surely she hadn't gotten such graces from him? He tried to recall her mother's face, and failed; remembering only the hair at the nape of Anna's neck as she turned her head, and the grief inside him, losing her even now.
But there in front of him she lived again, in the strong, slim hands of the White Maiden of Zexen; and though Jimba knew that Geddoe was glaring at him, he could not bring himself to look away.
It was long past dinnertime but someone produced steaming bowls of Mamie's best Scarlet Moon stew, and Chris breathed a visible sigh of relief as she tucked into one of them. The introduction of food brought a contented sort of hush to the tavern, to Karayans and Zexens and Harmonian mercenaries alike. Aila and Jacques found a deserted table in the far corner of the room, head to head over two sodas and hoping no one would notice they were there and send them to bed. Percival settled his travel cloak-- dry by now, and fire-warm-- around Louis' shoulders. The squire, cheek pressed to the tabletop, didn't stir, but he smiled softly in his sleep.
After about the fourth personality crisis onstage, an interminable monologue by Hallec (who refused to act) and an unbearable soliloquy by Estelle (who refused not to), the theatre master was yet again casting about for a suitable couple to perform his play. Finding a new face among the crowd, Nadir seemed to decide that unlikely was one step better than improbable, and zeroed in on his target.
"Me?!" Thomas squeaked a little, Ace and Joker hauling him up to the front. "Honestly I was only coming in to see if Sebastien was here-- I'm really not sure that--"
"You'll be fine," Salome soothed, once Thomas had been hoisted up on stage, handing the castle master a well-thumbed script. "I'm sure you've heard all the rest of us up here, doing no better. You'll soon get the hang of it."
"This from the man dressed up like a nurse," Ace sniggered, not quite sotto voce.
Salome smiled mildly. "Your shoe is untied, Guard Number One," he said, and had the grace not to laugh aloud as an inebriated Ace fell flat on his nose in trying to rectify the problem.
"Why you," Ace muttered, from the floor, but without any real heat.
"Still untied, actually." Joker had no such decorum, chortling openly.
"Um, are you sure about this?" Thomas looked skeptically up at the balcony while the rest of the cast ignored him.
"Hey," Ace snickered, still not quite on his own two feet. "Cecile oughtta be Juliet."
"Cecile's been outside on guard all evening," Salome said, pausing thoughtfully. With delivery that should have made Nadir proud, he addressed the whole crowd, "Someone want to go relieve her?"
There was a ripple of laughter, a shuffling of feet, a generally noncommital silence.
Chris's head came up then, unsmiling. Her voice was like the harbor bells in Vinay del Zexay, not loud, but carrying; commanding silence over the docked ships or the restless tavern crowd. "Well, if none of the rest of you--"
Jimba was on his feet without really being conscious of it, rolling his shoulders in a casual stretch. For a moment the words came hard, his hard-earned Karayan accent warring with the blood that ached to respond to the call of Zexen duty. Clearing his throat, he said, "Think it's my turn for some fresh air."
"Jimba." Lucia was alert at once, impossible to fool. "You--"
Jimba cocked his head, giving her a smile. "I'd better go spell Cecile," he said quietly, asking her to acquiesce with his eyes and not with his voice. "She's been out there all night, after all, showing the rest of us up."
She frowned, the tiniest of lines appearing between her eyebrows. "I hope you know what you're doing."
When she didn't protest further, Jimba knew he'd won. "Of course I do," he winked, gesturing to the boards behind them with an outstretched hand. "Here, we all play our part."
Geddoe, who had his back to the stage, tossed him a long-suffering look, which only broadened Jimba's smile. So like him.
"Never let it be said that the Karayans don't pull their weight!" This from Beecham, two tables over, into his third carafe of the evening and already more more sociable than usual.
Jimba gave him a mock-salute that he realized too late was more Zexen than Grasslander. "Naturally. There is more than enough work to go around."
Though he knew that she would be watching, as he turned, he found himself unprepared for the weight of Chris' gaze on him, cold and unmerciful, sharp like melting icicles.
(On stage, Thomas was halting through Romeo's lines, Juliet-less, accompanied only by the sound of Salome's quiet encouragement. "My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself... because it is an enemy to thee.")
Jimba's lips twisting in a wry sort of smile, he acknowledged her glance. "Isn't that right, noble Chris?"
She stiffened, as he thought she might have, but as he moved closer to her there was curiosity now, on her face. In all of the tavern, they were the only two standing-- Anne had long since found a stool behind her bar; Toppo was cross-legged on the floor between Roland and Nei.
She was her mother's height, he tried not to think, without success; her slight build must have been to her advantage on horseback, or in hand-to-hand combat. Slowly she opened her mouth, tilting her head up at him inquisitively. "This weather," she began, her voice pitched so that he alone could hear her as he passed. "Surely the hard winters are difficult. For Karayans."
His eye caught a glimpse of her hands, pale skin, half-moon fingernails. When had she taken off her gauntlets? For a second he wondered what he was doing, what he ought to say and what secrets he had the right to keep-- and in soundless answer, the Water Rune on his palm began to ache. Sending a crest of familiar hurt through his veins, something deeper than words thrummed against his heartbeat: She is of you. You are of me. I am for her. With ice-crystal clarity, he felt transparent, ancient, chilled from the inside out.
"What, the cold?" he said, lightly. "We're used to it."
She narrowed her eyes meaningfully, and he thought maybe something in her face might remind him of Anna's, after all. "...They decided not to play The Little Matchgirl, you know."
Delighted, he bowed slightly to her, stealing words from Thomas' fumbling speech. "Day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops. I must be gone and live, or stay and die."
There was a mystified cant to the smile that touched her lips, as if she wasn't quite sure what to say. Self-conscious of meeting his eyes for too long, she nodded curtly, settling on a simple, "Thank you."
He wondered if she knew the lie, as he did, feeling another little part of himself coming unmoored and drifting inexorably towards her. Though he headed through the door to spend a night at watch, it was already too late. The Rune pulled at the two of them, like a relentless tide, and though to stay meant death, he could not leave her, not again.
Cecile hustled in not long after, her cheeks rosy and her breath still fogging. Barely had she been able to shake the snow from her helmet when Thomas was down from the stage at her side.
"You've got to help me talk them out of this," Thomas said. "They've cast us both in the play--"
"Me?" The tip of her pike stood a bit taller with her eagerness. "What's my role?"
This was clearly not the reaction Thomas had been anticipating. "Well, er, Juliet."
"Wine for the happy couple?" Percival intervened, generous with the offer though Borus spluttered. "You look cold, kid."
Thomas glanced at the bottle, and then at the knights, his eyes widening. "Are you sure? That looks like a sixty-two--"
Borus grabbed Thomas' hand, clasping it happily. "Two glasses right away," he said, with the sort of seriousness that can only come of having a few glasses of wine oneself, his smile radiant. "For the castle master and his lady friend."
Blushing, Thomas still accepted the drink, even if Percival had filled it terribly full. "I'm really most grateful." He sipped like a connoisseur; Borus sighed happily. "It's like today is a special occassion, drinking a wine like this."
"Thank you, Sir Borus, sir!" Cecile giggled, cupping the tall wineglass between two hands as if it were a mug. "And oh, I almost forgot-- Lady Chris?"
Chris, startled, caught herself staring out the window, imagining the vortices of snow blowing beyond the closed tavern door. "Yes?"
"But it is a special occasion," Borus was saying, "in Zexen this is a holiday, you know."
"Not in the grasslands, it's not." Martha, overhearing, was slightly testy on this point, though she too was intoxicated enough to be mellow. "The winter solstice is the true midwinter holy day, not some fabricated Lights Festival."
"But this is neither Grasslands nor Zexen," Thomas piped up helpfully.
"Ah, they're both drunk, don't mind them," Leo winked at Thomas. "Besides, the more holidays the more excuses to celebrate, right? Drink up, good people."
Cecile blinked, meeting Chris' eyes and thinking of blue ice, or of deep still water, for no reason she could name. They reminded her of eyes she'd just seen, though she couldn't quite put her finger on why. At Chris' quizzical look she shook herself. "Sorry. Sir Jimba just asked me to wish you a happy Festival, that's all." And she lifted her glass in a toast to them all.
in an old city bar
that is never too far
from the places that gather
the dreams that have been
and here was the danger
that even with strangers
inside of this night
it's easier to believe
- trans-siberian orchestra