Weapon of Choice

by Tenshi

Maison had high hopes for Machiganator, gleaming with all its lusty historical glory in spite of being found jumbled in a box along with a cache of other weapons in the Yggdrasil's cargo hold.

"The young master, to my regret, is a prince of war," Maison said, lifting the gun out of the box and holding it up like it was a newborn. "Would it not be magnificent if he struck down our oppressors with the same weapon Fatima the First used?"

"Magnificent, but unlikely. Guns are useless if you don't have bullets." Sigurd poked around in one of the other crates. "And there hasn't been ammo made for that behemoth in three hundred years, at least. Prince he may be, but we're renegades now. He'll need something more practical than history."

Maison looked down at the heavy rifle, sighing at its vacant shell-chambers. "It is a pity," he said, brow wrinkling, "that such heritage be passed over for base revolution."

"Hang it on a wall somewhere, then," Sigurd said, opening up a dusty metal container and coughing at the cloud of neglect. "You can teach the young master history without making him use an antique to defend himself... Look at these."

Maison stepped over the detritus of Edbart Fatima's aborted rule, and tilted up his spectacles to peer at the crumbling parchments Sigurd held out in his brown fingers. "Merciful desert sun," he breathed, carefully lifting the fragile documents. "I thought the Ethos had confiscated these twenty years ago."

"Then they are what I think they are," Sigurd said, with a note of grim satisfaction. "He was wise to hide these things here, with junk Shakhan would never think to go through."

"Mural parchments from the reign of Fatima the First," Maison said, reverently. "Look, here. He makes the pact with the red giant-god of Aveh." He took a shaky breath. "How many times did I hear his late majesty tell that story? It brings him back to me as surely as if he was standing beside me again." He looked up at Sigurd, a brightness in his eyes. "Indeed, I suppose in some ways he--"

"Do not say it," Sigurd said, making an abrupt gesture with his hand. "Not now, and not ever, Maison. We agreed to this in the beginning."

Maison tilted his head down in something that tried very hard not to be the bow of a retainer to his liege, and could not manage. "As you wish," he relented. "But it pains me no less to see you so ruthlessly deny yourself your heritage."

"In different times, it would be a lesser matter," Sigurd said. "But for now, Aveh only needs one heir to focus on. I am not so vain as to confuse the issue."

Maison's mouth twitched. "Though you have your father's gift for unfortunate puns."

Sigurd opened his mouth, then closed it, running over again what he had just said. Groaning, he put his face in his hand. "Do me the favor of not bringing that up in front of anyone else, would you?"

"Yes, Your Maj--"

"First Officer," Sigurd corrected.

"First Officer," Maison relented, and followed Sigurd's motions with sad eyes, his brows drawn up. During the rescue, in the dark beneath Bledavik, he had half-convinced himself he was twenty himself and out on adventures with Edbart once again. Only when they crossed through beams of moonlight was the illusion dispelled.

Sigurd's coloration was his first, best disguise. Anyone looking at him would at once dismiss him as a child of the desert tribes, with no more relation to the royal line than a sand-shark. Few men yet living had known the late king as well as Maison had. Indeed, it was probable that he was the last who would recognize the similarity of gesture and stance, the inimitable smile, and look beyond amber skin and silver hair to see the face of the last king of Aveh.

Only now, with Bartholomei safe with them once more, Maison wondered how long it would be before the physical resemblance was obvious. Not between Sigurd and the memory of Edbart, but between Sigurd and the Prince.

His brother.

"We should store this safely with my uncle," Sigurd said, looking around at the crates, bits of gear parts hiding relics of history. "Once we have a final location for the hideout and can begin excavation, we can store them there. I'll make some digital copies for security also." He sidestepped empty fuel canisters and ration tins to get to the door. "We'll be at Nisan by this afternoon, I should go and wake the young master. How is Margie, by the way?"

"Lively as a magpie," Maison said, with a happy smile. "It seems her ordeal has only troubled her resilient spirit a little bit."

Sigurd glanced back at the mural parchments in Maison's hands. "I wish that were true for both of them."

At the door to Bart's room Sigurd paused, keyed the door open a fraction, and called out to him once before quickly switching the door closed again. There was a strangled, animal noise and the sound of violent motion, and the metal door made a dull clang as a small, high-velocity body struck it from the other side. A pause, and then the door was opened and the prince of Aveh yawned up at Sigurd as though it was normal for a seven-year-old's first waking instinct to be attack.

"G'morning, Sig."

"Good morning, young master. I trust you slept well?" Sigurd had learned the first time that touching Bart to wake him up was not a good idea. As someone who himself was once a captive invaded in body and mind, Sigurd more than understood.

"Okay I guess," Bart said, scrubbing at his face with one hand. "Are we there yet?"

"Almost. But first you need to have your wounds seen to, and a bath. Though you are not to be known as the prince of Aveh, it will do you no harm in Nisan to look like one."

"You said I could go help out in the gear hangar today," Bart said, small hands on hips.

Sigurd schooled his smile, but could not manage to be completely stern. "Duty first. You want to see Margie safely home, don't you?"

Bart stared hard at the cold steel floor beneath his toes, unkempt hair like an abandoned nest. "I wish I could go home."

Sigurd wondered if that pang of guilt, of hope, would ever go away. He went down on one knee, taking Bart's shoulders in his hands. "Bart, do you trust me?"

Bart considered him a long moment before he nodded.

"Good. Then I promise you that every day, I will do everything in my power to take you there. It will take time, but I promise. Can you believe me?"

Bart's mouth went a little surly. "I dunno, you lied about the gear hangar today."

Sigurd lost control of his smile, then. "Once Margie is safe back in Nisan Cathedral and we're docked, you can spend as much time as you like in the gear hangar." He countered Bart's calculating look with one of his own. "But I thought you'd rather spend the afternoon in the lake."

Bart's head came up, attention snared. "Lake?"

"There's a clear, cool lake surrounding the Cathedral. Do you remember? Once I was there with you and your mother, when you were a baby splashing in the shallows. But you could swim now."

Bart looked torn. "I don't know how to swim," he admitted.

Sigurd grinned. "Then I'll teach you. But first, bath."

Bart's face went foxy. "I could go swimming first and then I wouldn't need a--"

"Bath," Sigurd said, pointing down the hall to the showers. "Now, Bartholomei."

"All right all right," Bart grumbled, and feet dragging, went to get his towel.

Poor little prince, Sigurd thought, to the white gauze wound around Bart's narrow shoulders. It won't get any easier.

Bart's wounds were healing nicely. Only one or two places still had scabs, and all the other whip marks were a tangle of fresh pink scars, laid like fine lace over older wounds that had not healed with as much care. Under a coating of sudsy foam, Sigurd could almost pretend that they weren't there at all, but his own back still smarted with guilt.

"Hey, Sig?" Bart said, twisting his lathered hair up into elaborate horns, "is it true I'm gonna hafta marry Margie?"

"That is traditional, young master." Sigurd was sorting through the clothes that Maison had scavenged for the Prince's use. Sadly, little of it was likely to fit, and none of it was as fine or as clean as it ought to have been. Though Sigurd's red Fire Element jacket was hopelessly large on Bart's shoulders, it was still the nicest garment he had, even with the dull brown stains on the lining. Sigurd put his old jacket aside and went digging through the clothes for a suitable shirt.

Bart splashed in his bath, scooping an ethereal Bledavik out of the bubbles. "But she's a baby."

"Remarkably enough, young master, little girls have a habit of turning into lovely young women. If her mother was any indication, in about fifteen years Margie will be quite interesting to you, just in time for you to notice."

"But I'll be old by then."

Sigurd tucked his hair behind his ear, trying not to lose his patience. "You'll be twenty-two, Bart."

"That's what I meant."

"That's how old I am."

"Exactly." Bart said, squashing his bubbly city with one hand and an impressive sound effect. "Old."

"What, pray tell, is Maison, then?"

Bart considered this. "Older," he said at last. "Probably at least thirty."

"At least," Sigurd concurred, dryly.

After this monumental shared conclusion, there were a few moments of silence and happy splashing.

"Hey, Sig?"

Sigurd had already learned to dread that question. "Yes?"

Bart had cleared away bubbles to look at his own reflection, superimposed on the bathwater above his knees. "Do people always look like their parents?"

"Usually." Sigurd inspected a black t-shirt for holes and then folded it, satisfied.

"Do you?"

Sigurd let a little note of impatience slip into his voice. "Yes, young master."

"Your dad was all dark and stuff?"

"My mother was." Sigurd found he had examined the same pair of jeans three times.

"What about your dad?"

Sigurd put the jeans into the pile for Bart to wear. "Are you going to rinse off, young master, or are you planning to meet the people of Nisan with a foamy beard and antlers?"

"Could I?"



Sigurd did his best with a comb and the wet golden mess of Bart's hair, trying to whip the strands into a respectable braid. Not two days after he had been rescued, Maison had caught Bart with a pair of wire clippers, trying to hack off the smooth, honey-colored glory.

It had been a first hard lesson for a young prince, that heirs to the kingdom of Aveh were not free citizens, and could not wear their hair any way they wanted. Kings of the desert wore long hair as part of their status, Maison had explained, and Bart would have to hold to that. In the end they simply had to keep any sort of scissors away from Bart's fingers. As it was, his first attempt had left his head oddly tufty around the braid.

"It makes me look like a little girl," he said, suddenly. "I hate it."

"It does nothing of the sort," Sigurd said, trying to get a section of uneven hair smoothed into the braid. "Where did you hear that?"

"Shakhan's guards," Bart said, in a low voice. "They said it made me look like a pretty--"

The braid was yanked unfinished from Sigurd's fingers, raveling loose as Bart tore away and crouched down in the shadow of the bathtub, sobbing into his knees. "Stop it," Bart said, even though Sigurd was four feet away. "Leave me alone!"

"Bart--" Sigurd began, but had no apology to follow it, nothing that could salve the wounds dealt to this small child, robbed of family and childhood and innocence, all at once. Bart began rocking back and forth, shivering like a cornered animal.

"Sorry," Bart choked, not lifting his head. "Sorry, Sig."

Sigurd went down on one knee, not so close as to be a threat, near enough to offer comfort. "I'm sorry," he said. "Though it means nothing to you. I'm sorry I could not come sooner, Bart. Please forgive me."

Bart looked up at him, his face blotchy with tears. "S'not your fault."

"I would have taken it all on myself to spare you," Sigurd said. "As you did for Margie." Sigurd felt his outrage softening into pride. "Already, you are a worthy king of Aveh, Bart. Brave and honorable, sacrificing for those not as strong as you are."

"I'm just a kid," Bart said, thickly. His nose was running.

"But that doesn't mean you can't be strong, right?"

Bart shook his head. "I guess not."

Something glinted on the sink counter, jumbled among the combs, catching Sigurd's eye. He reached up for the scissors and held them out like a peace offering. "Maison wants a braid, so a braid it will be. But can you trust me if I say I promise I won't make you look like a girl?" He winked, and got the faintest hint of a smile for his effort.

"You can't make me look any stupider than I already do." Bart tugged at his own maimed efforts, hanging loose from the braid.

Sigurd patted the edge of the tub. "Hop up here, then. We'll see what kind of damage we can do."

He unraveled the unfinished braid, made a deft part with the point of the scissors. The shining blades clicked around Bart's ears, releasing a gold rain of fine hairs, and Sigurd thought the prince's scarred shoulders looked a little less burdened.

"I intended to ask you, young master, what sort of weapon you think you would like to use. It would be best to start training you now."

"Maison probably wants me to have that dumb junky gun," Bart said, brushing hair clippings off his towel. "What do you think?"

Sigurd shrugged, busy with his handiwork. "I think any weapon will serve the hand it is in. But you are a symbol of freedom, Bart. Your own as well of all of Aveh's. The weapon you use against Shakhan will have to have some meaning for you, if it is to be strong enough."

Bart fingered a severed clump of hair, scattering the strands. "You used whips when you came to save me."

Sigurd put the scissors down, and began braiding a much thinner length of hair. "I did, though I have used other weapons before. They suited the mission."

"Do you like them?" Bart asked, as the wet braid thudded against his back with the motion of Sigurd's hands, twisting an elastic around the braid.

"They're lightweight and quiet when they need to be, and do not have to kill to be effective. Though I can understand if you would rather not--"

"No," Bart said, Fatima-blue eyes gleaming up from under newly-cut, shaggy bangs. "I know how they feel." Small fingers crept up to his shoulder and touched the tendril of pink scar creeping over it. "I want to pay that back. For Mom and Dad, and for me. Will you teach me to use whips, like you do?"

Sigurd looked at the boy reflected in the mirror, a scruffy thing with wild hair and a braided afterthought, and the eyes of a king. He put his hand to his heart, and bowed to his brother. "Everything I know, young master," he said. "Everything I know."


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