There were no women in Yasha's army. They told her so when she arrived, and they laughed when she offered her sword-arm. Fay had been cooking when the scouting party found them, and Kurogane had quickly suggested foisting the idiot mage off on their quartermaster. "Go with your sister," the captain told her. "We can use more cooks." The notion that anyone could mistake the idiot mage for her sister so startled her at first that it took her a second to work it out - secondly that 'sister' must be the acceptd euphemism for lovers here, and given how Fay had clung to her they had made assumptions, and first that she was being insulted.
Slowly and deliberately, she pulled out Souhi, and the captain took a hurried step backwards. Kurogane tilted her head. "If I can beat you in a duel, will you let me join your army as a swordsman?"
The captain kept staring. It was one of the ring of soliers who answered, but with a quaver in his voice. "If you can beat him in a duel, you can take over his squadon. It's always been a rule."
"Well," Kurogane said, and grinned. Somewhere behind her Fay made an inarticulate terrified noise.
Fifteen minutes later she got to the end of the line of soldiers presenting their weapons for a blessing, and Fay was there, beaming and holding up a bow. It was no good arguing with the mage in this state (not, Kurogane thought with a trace of bitterness, that it did any good even under normal circumstances) so she put her hands on it and murmured the ritual words, accepting allegiance. She didn't ask how Fay had gotten the bow.
The king seemed pleased enough; he just nodded when the company returned, and ignored the mutterings. Kurogane knelt and presented her sword for his blessing with only a twinge of bitterness. The oath, she told herself, had no words like 'forever'. It only said what she was, not what she would be, and for now, she was a captain of Yasha's army.
Until they found the kids again.
It was a week before their company returned to the moon-castle. Fay seemed continually on edge, laughing at everything and brandishing her bow. They were given a room together, and she kept her dagger in her hand when she slept. Kurogane tried to reassure her on this point - idiot or not, Fay was hers, and she would let no harm come to her own. Without words it didn't seem to get through.
The liuetenant who had been the captain approached her quietly, the day after their first battle, in the afternoon. "I'm sorry," he told her. "I have come to realize that my words were . . . without cause or merit."
She shrugged; what else could she do? "You're forgiven. I've surprised a lot of people."
"Ah. Where do you come from, anyway?"
"Someplace far away." She didn't like the way he was looking at her; it was far too hungry. "Does it matter? I'm here now, and we're on the same side."
Two weeks later the mage was wounded. The stroke had been meant for Kurogane. Archers had little place in a melee, but they rode with the rest on the strange reptilian mounts, took up their places with their swordsman-partners and dove in for the best shots. Except for Fay, who would take no other partner, who would not leave Kurogane's side. It was unexpected enough that most people forgot to swing at her.
Kurogane didn't know why she put up with it.
The mage hissed when they returned and then sat quiet while the healers tended to her shoulder. Kurogane dragged her off afterwards, although she was careful to grab the uninjured arm. The mage was laughing - silently, but laughng just the same. When Kurogane slammed the door behind them she curled up against it and licked her lips.
"Don't look at me like that, you idiot," Kurogane hissed. "You could have been killed. Why can't you let it go? They'd have you in the kitchens. I know you like to cook."
Fay just smiled. It looked a little sad.
"Why do I bother," Kurogane muttered, and threw her hands theatrically in the air. Maybe that would get through. Fay turned away, then, and wriggled under the blankets while Kurogane began throwing her sweat-stained clothes in the corner. The laundry would take care of them, later.
There was an appreciative whistle and Kurogane spun around to see the idiot mage sitting up in bed, sheet barely draped over her tiny breasts, looking like it would fall off if she breathed funny. She'd lost her shirt at some point. The stark red line of the stitched-up gash was hidden under a mess of bandages. It could have been attractive, if it had been someone else. The mage tilted her head and then gave a sweet come-hither smile, lifting her hand to emphasize it with the little hand gesture Kurogane had seen before, from women who wanted something to the men who they thought would give it to them, no questions asked. She realized that her own breasts were bare and that her cheeks were flushed with embarassment. Fay was never embarassed. She made other people do it for her. Kurogane gritted her teeth and turned away; whatever assumptions people had made, she saw no reason to render the assumptions correct.
They did not look at each other again; Fay pulled the blankets over her head, and if Kurogane thought she could see the mage's shoulders shaking with secretive laughter, she did not want to think what the mage could be laughing at.
The lieutenant who had been a captain approached her a few days later. He made the habitual courtesies, then launched into his main theme. "Your sister," he started, and his hands tightened on his belt. "Your sister uses a style of archery I've never seen before. Your swordplay is that of a land to the east, but she - where did she come from? She acts so strangely."
Kurogane leaned against the wall and sighed. In the courtyard before them soldiers were wandering in ones and twos, talking or laughing or playing at a duel with sticks. "Your guess is as good as mine. We met on the journey."
His eyes narrowed. "Some of the men say you're a witch, you know. That she is your demon servant, conjured up from the deeps. They say there is no other way two women could be so skilled."
Kurogane just smiled.
The lietenant narrowed his eyes and stalked away. She wasn't really suprised when he challenged her to a duel the next day, nor when he lost. Narrowly. He was competent, but not brilliant. Fay watched, and hid a smile behind her hand.
There were no more remarks. Kurogane tried to teach her a few words, but the mage remained obstinately silent and at last she gave up in disgust. Silence lent Fay an odd otherworldy quality. It was a more difficult mask to penetrate than that of the feckless charlatan, and Kurogane found herself wondering if the mage really had used supernatural powers to gain those unexpected archery skills.
Archery; that didn't suprise her at all. Fay had shown an affinity for wind.
Someone's daughter approached her after a battle one morning with a clean towel; her, of all the warriors standing about the courtyard, stretching and dropping their armor and clutching at wounds that even now the doctors rushed forward to examine. She took it and gave the girl another look. She looked familiar, but not like the camp-followers did. Scrwany, pale-haired, very well-balanced. The girl noticed her scrutiny and hastily bowed.
"You want something, kid?"
The girl's eyes were bright. "My father tell me you're the best swordfighter in the company," she declared. "Will you teach me how? I want to join the army. I want to be a great warrior like you, lady." She striaghtened, and there was something familiar in the stern tilt of her shoulders and the clean smile in her eyes. Kurogane herself had looked like that, for a while. In Japan, no one had thought it unfitting. Grown men - soldiers - had clapped her on the back and said she would be great someday, and grown women too, with swords of their own to back up their opinion. Here, there was nothing of the sort.
She could see it very easily; she could start something.
Her eyes flicked around the ground. There was the idiot mage, leading their beast back to the stables, back straight and hair hanging in her eyes. None of the men met her eyes.
"Ask your father," she said quietly. "I won't be around much longer."
The mage was wounded again, a deep gash in the stoumach. Kurogane had seen enough men die of those sorts of wounds. She found herself sitting outside the infirmary, wishing that she knew more, that there was more she could do. The doctors here were no butchers, but they were no miracle-workers either. By that evening, she knew with a sickening sort of dull pain in her heart, she could be alone again. More alone.
It was a dull and unfamiliar pain. Kurogane was used to loss, but loss tended to come sharpy and unexpected; the hesitant suspense eroded her much faster. Occasionally she heard voices inside. The idiot mage hadn't been the only person who got themselves cut up, she told herself, although certainly it was one of the most spectacular of the night. Those noises could be for someone else. Those gentle footpads, the smell of something medicinal and dusty - no guarantees.
She was only a little surpised when she opened her eyes and it was dusky again. The physician was standing in front of her, tapping her foot. "You sister will be fine," she said, without preamble. "If she doesn't get herself cut up like that again."
"She won't," Kurogane mumbled. "I won't let her."
"Good. She doesn't belong on a battlefeild, you know." The physician sighed and ran a hand through her hair. "She hasn't got the stamina."
Kurogane forebore to mention just how much stamina she suspected the idiot mage had. She followed the healer back inside.
Fay was stretched out on the bed, fast asleep. Her skin was absurdly, unnaturally pale. Kurogane wanted to yell at her, but it wouldn't do any good. She rubbed her eyes and felt Fay's forehead instead; it was slightly too warm, but for all Kurogane knew that was normal for people who showed up from wherever they came from wearing two fur coats and who thought foot-deep snow was nothing to worry about, certainly nothing to stay inside for.
She said some things to herself, but they were very quiet, and mostly very rude.
It was only when they had been there for five months she noticed the lack of seasons.
The mage had taken to hiding in their room whenever they had no obligations elsewhere. Kurogane didn't argue. Very few things seemed worth arguing about, when there was no hope of a response. It was warm enough in the castle that there were no blankets on their beds. Sometims Kurpogane would come back and the mage sprawled out, face pressed against the pillow, sheet pulled over her head. They should have seen cold by now, and needed blankets. There was nothing but heat, long days all the same length, and the occasional bout of rain.
Somehow it seemed more disturbing than the dead king, that the seasons so helplessly failed to turn. Things were very wrong here, and she wanted to be gone. As soon as possible.
The king awarded her a medal for valor. The next day, she was jumped on her way to the practise yard by three soldiers with scarves wrapped over their faces. She wasn't suprised, down in her gut. She drew her sword and knocked one down wih the flat of the blade, and then parried he second, who'd ventured a dramatic, foolish swing from above that would have given her a lovely opportunty to stab him in the stoumach if she hadn't been busy. If he had been on horseback it might have been sensible.
The third man had backed against the nearest wall, looking as though he regretted agreeing to this business. She spun and aimed a eat kick at is groin, then hastily parried another stroke. The third man doubled over, wincing. The second seemed to recall his situation; his next few moves were much more useful, and better-executed.
Not good enough, though; not against her.
The first man had recovered some of his wits, but not all of them. Otherwise he wouldn't have screamed as he charged her from behind, and she couldn't have stuck a foot out and tripped him. He landed hard and idn't get up again. After that it was just a matter of waiting for the second man to make a mistake. Kurogane was a little surpised to find herself laughing as she slid her blade neatly into the opening he offered, right along his collarbone. It wasn't a fatal wound, or ven a crippling one, but it was enough to make him drop the sword, eyes wide in a soundless scream.
Kurogane cleaned the blood off on the first man's shirt. Then she went over to the third and stepped on his wrist before he could grab his sword. "I'm not even going to ask who sent you," she growled. "I don't expect anyone did. This has all the marks of a bunch of stupid amatuers."
His answering whimper was gratifyingly terrified.
Kurogane looked around. This was a wide passage between two storage buildings, an excellent shortcut to the armory; someone would be along sooner or later. And what would they have done if she'd wandered through with a friend? Almost as she thought it there were three loud sets of footsteps rounding the corner. She tensed into a guard position, but of course it turned out to be the idiot mage, and her liuetenant, and the girl who hd asked her for sword lessons. "See," declared the girl. "I told you something was wrong!"
"Fine timing," Kurogane muttered, too on edge still from the fight to be sarcastic. "You can help me carry them to the commander."
The little girl gave her lieutnant a stern look. "Father, see, if the worst I have to deal with on my own side are these kinds of men I just have to be better than them, right? I wouldn't be that hard."
This had the air of the latest round of a long argument. She pressd an arm over her breasts; the fight had made them ache and the armor here wasn't designed for women.
The damn mage - the damn flat-cheasted mage - came over and pressed a hand to Kurogane's chest like it belonged there, and gave her a sweetly sympathetic look. Then she went on tiptoe to kiss her. Kurogane was too startled to fight.
"And her sister never gets any trouble at all! And she's the one who told me about this, so they must have planned it in front of her and not cared she was there -"
There were implications to this remark, but she was willing to bet the damn mage had warned the girl via sign language.
The first words - the first noises, even - to emerge from Fay's lips in six months were, "The childen are over there somewhere."
Kurogane wasn't sure she had heard right at first, and then they were vanishing back to the castle, as they did every morning. She wanted to scream with rage when they reached it and the mage went infuriatingly silent again, and even when they went back to their room would not respond to words, nor blows. Kurogane had not intended the blows, and she cuaght herself almost at once. "I'm sorry," she whispered, even though it hurt, and turned away. It was one thing to come to blows with a friend over some trivial matter, but the mage was not her friend - nor sister, whatever they might mutter - and had shown no signs of hitting back. Instead she stood there, looking utterly astonished, making no noise at all.
Then she whimpered softly, a noise like a wounded rabbit.
Kurogane spun around and stalked out the door, slamming it behind her. She needed to go hit something. Possibly her head against the wall.
By the time she reached the training yard she had calmed a bit. It was almost deserted, but she saw two people. as she came closer, she realized they were her liutenent and the little girl. "Now, Gigei," he said softly, and she stepped back, holding her wooden sword. "Think of the sword as an extension of your arm. You have to balance with it. Like you were dancing. Never keep all your weight on one foot - " His glancing eyes caught Kurogane leaning against the pillar, and he blushed and faltered.
She smiled. "Don't mind me. You've got goot footwork," she added, with a nod to the girl. "But I needed to tell you something, when you're done."
The rest of the lesson was rather rushed, and the liutenant sent his duaghter over to the other side of the hall to practice stances on her own for a while. Kurogane looked around to be sure no one was listening. Even so, she lenaed close when she told him, "I'm leaving soon. Maybe tonight, maybe in a few days. But soon, and so is my sister."
He swallowed. "Tonight? You mean - during the battle?"
"Yes. We were looking for two children we were travelling with. We got separated. It appears they ended up in the enemy camp. So, we plan to grab them and leave."
"You're joining their side?" His face went pale.
She shook her head. "Leaving this world. Didn't you ever work out that my sister was a mage?"
She wouldn't have thought it possible for his face to grow paler. She hastily added, "That has nothing to do with our skills. She only knows a few travelling spells, and she doesn't like to use them. But I thought you should know. I took your company from you. You'll be wanting it back, and I wish you the best of it. You're a good warrior, lieutenant. Your daughter could be too. See to it." She laid a hand on his shoulder and closed her eyes to block off the tears.
They never spoke of it afterwards. The children didn't ask, and like a good father, she didn't burden them. And if from time to time Fay's smiles in her direction were a little sharper, neither of them would speak of it aloud.
And if, from time to time, they kissed, somewhere they couldn't be seen, it didn't mean anything. Nothing at all.