Bitva readjusted her sprawl on the chaise lounge, inhaling and taking an instant to appreciate the warmth that danced across her lips and tongue. The climate was far more moderate here; in the Stahl Realm, the breath froze on the tip of her tongue and spiralled down her throat, chilling her to her core. She’d only been in the Ether citadel for a week or so, but the warmth was gradually growing on her. She’d even taken to pinning her swathes of thick mahogany hair up off her neck to avoid sweltering.
“Come in,” she instructed, setting on the table the documents emblazoned with the seal of the United Forces.
The man pushed the door open just enough to slip through, shutting it with care and consideration behind him. Bitva couldn’t help but relax in his presence, appreciative of company that wasn’t officials or scribes pestering her for her signature. She rose from the couch to take her into her arms, pressing lips to his and inhaling his scent.
“I’ve missed you,” she admitted, whispering the words into his throat, just above where his neatly pressed collar cut into the skin. He always dressed in impeccable military attire, as was expected of a former-commander. His hands rested gently on her hips, ever-polite, his gaze tracing her like she was a revelation.
Bitva pried herself away from him, lowering herself to the lounge. “How have you been?”
Kolben shrugged his jacket off, folding it over his arm and then over the lounge with methodical precision and dedication. “Occupied,” he responded, in his soft, patient tone. “I’ve been appointed as a lieutenant. It has been good to see my subordinates again; I was worried about them, while I was in holding.”
“How was prison?” Bitva asked offhandedly, flicking back through her unattended documents.
Kolben gave his little, airy laugh, taking the space beside her. “Longer than I expected, but I can respect the process. The acquitted me for my crimes under Heike.” There was a disapproval to his tone, a regret.
“You didn’t commit any crimes,” Bitva reminded him, meeting his silver gaze. “You were following orders; you were doing your duty.”
“Thousands of people died because of our actions,” Kolben responded gently, remorse lining his tone like a new layer of dust. She could tell his mind was lingering on his defence of the Luft Gate, when under Heike’s orders he had intercepted all highguard desperate to flee from the lethal swords the Stahl Army bore down upon them.
Bitva turned to face him, pulling her knee across the lounge, so that her toes brushed against his knee. “Kolben, you spared the lives of hundreds of highguard soldiers by permitting them surrender.”
“A lesser evil isn’t any less of an evil,” he preached, gaze downcast.
Bitva sighed, squaring her shoulders as she took his face in both hands and waited until his eyes met hers. “We both know the intricacies and realities of war. We’re both Stahlborn; we were raised in bloodshed. What you did for those soldiers was honourable, and merciful. Don’t disregard that as a crime; it was a service you upheld to the Realms.”
“I’m sorry for arguing with you,” Kolben replied, but Bitva shook her head, her hair bathing her shoulders.
“Don’t apologise,” she implored, and a silence lingered between them before she murmured, “How’s Klauen?”
Kolben was silent for a moment, pensive. “I didn’t seem him much while I was imprisoned. He seems… he’s coping, at least.” At her pained expression, Kolben added, “Bitva, he’s fine. He’ll be fine.”
“No, he won’t. He’ll be prosecuted. At least he has a chance at a fair trial, without being crucified for Heike’s crimes.”
They were interrupted by a rap at the door. She pushed to her bare feet, crossing the tiles to pull open the wooden monolith. A man leaned against the doorframe, a coy smile on his lips and his blue eyes swallowing up the sight of her. He extended the letter he held in his hand towards her, stepping over the threshold, catching sight of Kolben.
“Your messenger has arrived. I see you started without me,” he chastised, grinning as he leaned down to peck her on the lips. “He finally got off duty, huh? It’s taken long enough.”
“You’re awfully impatient,” Bitva remarked with a grin, tossing her curls over her shoulder as she resumed her perch on the lounge, tugging open the seal of the letter. Parchment spilled out over her lap, white and pristine. Her gaze scanned the handwritten text as Becken leaned down to press a kiss to Kolben’s temple. “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” she breathed, her smile dropping into blatant dread, and Kolben took the paper from her hands.
“What is it?”
“They’re demanding a recitation of Klauen’s kills,” she hissed, bracing her forehead in her hands.
Becken glanced at Kolben, considering. If they were going to trial him for his executions, then the deaths would have to be listed and recorded.
Bitva noticed the look they exchanged. “Not just his executions under Heike,” she snarled, somewhat irritably. “They want to know everyone he’s killed, period. All the men he killed in our father’s name, all the people he killed as a soldier, all those he killed out of necessity. And the animals he’s killed,” she added bitterly, rage streaking through her tone. The words tore from her throat in a snarl, incredulous. “They want to paint him as a fucking psychopath, and they’re going to succeed.”
She leapt to her feet, pacing to work out her anger as she ran jerking fingers through her hair.
“They don’t understand what it’s like growing up in Stahl, what’s required of you. We killed our first at thirteen for god’s sake. Our father bred Klauen to be a killer, and Heike developed him into a sophisticated executioner. She just gave him platform for his killings.”
“We can explain our customs to them,” Kolben said calmly, trying to placate her as she began to tug her unruly hair into a braid. It was an old habit she defaulted to when stressed. “They will be barred from charging him on those grounds.”
“Even if we do manage to write off most of the kills, they’ll pin him for the animals,” she hissed. At Becken’s frown, she half-yelled, exasperated, “He kills animals so he doesn’t have to kill people. He told me it’s a compulsion. But he limits himself to animals instead of tearing into people.”
Becken tried not to cringe with the mental image, but Bitva didn’t seem to notice.
“What else do they want him to do?” she demanded. “He’s done the best he can with his condition. He’s not a fucking saint, but he’s not a merciless killer either.”
“Bitva,” Kolben assured her, “it’ll be fine. All they want is your testimony. You don’t know that they want anything more than a record.”
“If they wanted a record, they wouldn’t be after his animal kills,” Bitva said coldly. “They want to crucify him, and I won’t betray Klauen like that.”
“Why not?” Becken asked, and both of their gazes snapped to him; Kolben’s cautionary and Bitva’s a growing smoulder. “He murdered hundreds of people, and hundreds more under Heike’s rule. He deserves to stand for his crimes; if he’s innocent, he’ll be acquitted. But if he executed and tortured people – on Heike’s orders or not – he needs to accept responsibility for that.”
Bitva was practically fuming, and Kolben hurried to defuse the situation.
“Becken, he’s her family. You’d do the same for your–”
“Heike’s her family too,” Becken pointed out. “As are Konnen and Korol. I don’t see you rushing to their defence. Your father, Konnen, Korol, Heike, Klauen – practically half of your family are psychopaths. Why are you so attached to him? Why are you so intent on defending Klauen’s actions. Of the lot of them, he has the most unjustified case.”
“I swear to Æthera, Becken,” Bitva snarled a warning, her tone high and strung.
Becken glared. “Don’t be like that.” She turned on her heel, and he leapt after her. “You know it’s true.”
Her clawed hands tore at her braid, releasing the hair in yanks and jerks. “I will punch you in your fucking mouth if you don’t back away from me.”
Becken’s hands were open as he followed behind her, halfway turned around her as he tried to meet her gaze. “What did I say?” he demanded. “I didn’t lie, did I? All I mentioned was that your brother was a crazed psychopath. It’s the truth, isn’t–?”
His nose spurted blood, and Kolben would have thought it spontaneous, if he didn’t catch the flicker of Bitva’s fist retracting. She was sheer as ice, and faster than anyone he’d ever seen move. He leapt to his feet as Becken doubled over with a curse, trying to catch the blood in his palm before it hit the tile. Bitva stormed past him, not a step broken, and slammed the washroom door shut behind her.
Becken was glaring at his fingers, where the crimson liquid was beginning to seep through. Kolben approached him as he withdrew his hand, spitting a curse that sent droplets flying. “Fucking Stahldrittens,” he muttered angrily. “I have never seen anyone as violent as–”
The rest of his words were swallowed up in a screech that floored two octaves and had Becken cringing around the fingers that twisted his ear. His blood-slicked hands came up to take Kolben’s wrist as he rambled a plea past the pain.
Kolben didn’t hesitate, dragging him over to the washroom door, his pleas rising and falling in volume with the movement. He raised knuckles to the coarse wood, rapping twice. He could hear the hiss of water hitting the sink within.
Kolben gave the Wasserborn’s ear a sharp pinch, unblinking as he yelped, nails biting into Kolben’s wrist. The lowlord levelled him with a glare. “Call her.”
Becken gave him a half-irritated, half-pleading glower, but his voice rose above the sounds within. “Bitva?”
The hiss stopped, the water fading away to leave silence. Kolben glanced over at Becken. “Get on your knees,” he ordered evenly.
Becken shot him an incredulous stare. “I’m not getting on my knees.”
The ridge of Kolben’s boot bit into the soft flesh behind Becken’s knee, and he collapsed to the ground with a sharp cry as the door opened. Bitva stood framed within, her hip stuck out, perching a hand on it. Her dark hair tumbled down her shoulders, the locks framing her face dripping with water. Her other hand clutched the towel about her collarbone, and her expression promised darkness.
Kolben could have sworn he saw Becken gulp.
“What do you want?” Bitva snapped when the silence persisted.
“He wants to apologise,” Kolben said pointedly, glancing down at the cowering lowlord.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, cowed.
Becken looked exasperated. “Do I have to spell it ou-OW!” Kolben’s fingers twisted ruthlessly, but the act was undermined by the door juddering in its frame when Bitva slammed it closed behind her. The two men were left staring at the panes of wood, until Kolben gave a final twist of the lowlord’s ear and released him, moving back to the sofa.
Becken scrambled to his feet, coming to accompany him on the opposite sofa. His hand scrubbed the sore ear, and when he brought it down to his lap, Kolben could see it was flushed with blood.
“I can’t tell if you’re too proud or too ignorant,” Kolben mused aloud, his hands moving automatically, his gaze down as he worked, organising the stack of papers scattered in his rush to his feet.
Becken must have cast him a look of betrayal. “How was that my fault? What did I do wrong?”
“Both,” Kolben decided, and Becken growled under his breath.
“I can’t believe you’re taking her side!”
“I’m not taking her side,” the lowlord responded calmly. “If anything I’m taking yours; I’m trying to help you, aren’t I?”
“Stahlborns have a fucked-up way of looking at people.”
“We just have a very expansive understanding of the psyche. Command and obedience cannot be controlled without an understanding and management of the human mind.” Kolben shrugged. “Stahlborns learn to read people and situations out of necessity; our lifestyle is built on it.”
Becken stared at the closed door to the washroom. “I don’t get why she’s so attached to that psychopath though.”
Kolben cast him a deprecating look. “Becken, he’s her brother. Klauen and Bitva were close before Heike made him her personal executioner.”
“You served her too,” Becken pointed out, nodding at the lowlord.
“I was a commander,” Kolben responded without glancing up. “I took the orders the Great Mage gave me and distributed them throughout my legion. I was a glorified messenger.”
“Not many people would look at it that way.”
Kolben sighed. “We all did things we weren’t proud of. Heike had us all under her thumb; Klauen especially. And when he challenged her authority, she had his friend executed.” He glanced up, noting that Becken’s expression was shocked. “Bitva said they were very close. Klauen closed down after that. Without – his friend to keep him in check, his violence escalated.”
“Why do you call him that?”
The two men turned with startled expressions to meet Bitva standing in the doorway. She was leaning one shoulder on the frame. Her blouse hug open at the collar, a speckle of water darkening one corner, but her skirt was straight and narrow as she fixed her gaze on Kolben, awaiting an answer.
The lowlord turned back to his stack of papers.
“Who?” Becken queried.
“Klauen’s friend,” Bitva responded without wavering. “Tell him who he was.”
“His name was Blair,” Kolben murmured softly, and Becken frowned, linking two together.
His eyes blew wide. “She killed your brother?”
Bitva scoffed, but it was devoid of humour. “You’re not very delicate, are you?” she said, and her tone was raw with scorn. She crossed the room, perching on the arm of the chaise lounge. “She manipulated my elder brother, but she threatened Kolben’s whole family.”
Kolben gave her a weak smile, explaining for Becken. “Finte and I were commanders; Macht was Finte’s lieutenant. Blair was Klauen’s partner, and she used Bitva’s older brothers to threaten Klauen through Blair. When that didn’t suffice, she made sure Klauen would fall into line.” He glanced down at his work, but his hands were still. “Klauen is as much a victim of this as the rest of us; perhaps more. He’s not faultless, or blameless, but he still suffered all the same.”
“He deserves compassion,” Bitva added gently. “After all he’s suffered, he deserves it. None of us could deny him that, not after what he – what we’ve all – lost.”
Becken was silent for a long while, and it hung around them like freshly fallen snow, reluctant to be disturbed. Bitva traced slow fingers across Becken’s scalp, curling them in strands of his hair until he spoke. “Are you going to testify?”
“I have to,” she responded, her tone tainted with a hint of harsh disapproval, but it was resigned. “They’re holding the hearing this afternoon, and the trial will begin tomorrow morning, once they can officially charge him with what I’ll testify to.”
Kolben took her hand in his, offering support and security in his touch. Becken wound an arm around her waist; an apology and a comfort.
“After four months, I think he’d just want to get this over with.”