Ballister Blackheart has run out of eggs.
He scouts around the refrigerator — in between soda cans and soggy egg casserole, behind the half-dozen rats that Nimona had been keeping in the crisper like popsicles, but the only new thing that his search reveals is a single lettuce leaf.
He heaves a sigh and hoists himself upright again on the countertop. It’s not that there aren’t other alternatives to meatloaf, but it’s one of the few portable meals he can make that both he and Goldenloin will enjoy.
(“I won’t die if you leave,” said Goldenloin, ignoring the bandages and beeping machines that surrounded him. “I promise.”
Ballister had looked to the nurse. "It's unlikely," she said, almost apologetically. “The biggest question had been whether or not he would wake up.”
"Sir Blackheart hasn't eaten," Goldenloin added. Ballister glowered at him. "You look," — Goldenloin broke off and swallowed whatever he had been about to say. “Go home,” he said instead.
In the end, it had been a choice between leaving, or explaining — in gruesome, emotional detail — why he would have preferred to stay, at the expense of food and personal hygiene. Under such circumstances, leaving was more appealing. He disguised himself in order to leave the hospital without attracting the attention of the startling number of reporters loitering outside of the hospital entrance, waiting to hear about either the man who took down the Institution from the outside, or his man on the inside who helped him. He finally convinced a nurse to lend him his spare scrubs until they were a few streets away, and Ballister had worn a hideous brown cloak over his head the entire bumpy, painful cart ride back to his lair. All of the lights were off, dashing hopes he didn’t know that he had that Nimona might return.)
And now he has to turn straight back around again, to go buy eggs because Goldenloin never liked just plain rice or pot pie. Ingrate.
There are a few good markets within walking distance of Ballister’s lair, even taking into account his current injury-induced stiffness. The market on Alchemists’ Street has never been crowded enough for pickpockets to bother lurking, but still attracts enough different walks of life that Ballister doesn’t stand out too much.
The first change he notices on his arrival is the pair of sturdy, staff-wielding individuals framing the entrance. They eye him suspiciously. “What’re you here for?” asks the guard on the left.
Ballister scowls. “Eggs.”
“What you want eggs for?” asks the guard on the right.
“Juggling practice,” he says. “I’m making meatloaf. Have you heard of it? Leftover meats, bread in water, oranges and rosewater…”
“He’s for real,” says the guard on the left to their partner. “Dad made that all the time when I was little.”
“I don’t believe you were ever little,” laughs the guard on the right.
“I’ve never seen you two here before,” Ballister cuts in, seeing the guard on the left opening their mouth again. “What does a local market need security for?”
The guard on the right sobers. “Not too much. Some folks were in here trying to rabble-rouse yesterday, and there’s people passing out information inside. As long as it's just passing things out, they're fine. We're here to make sure no one gets too excited about interrupting folk who just need some clover for their ma’s old soup.”
“I see.” Ballister nods, frowning to himself as he walks past them.
A young woman just inside the market entrance tries to pass him fliers. Ballister takes one and glances at it only long enough to register the woodcut of Nimona as a black fanged dragon that dominates the top half of the paper. He folds it into his pocket to look at later, when he can afford to feel the heavy lump in the pit of his stomach, but as he walks around, he can see other patrons carrying them in their hands. The autumn air hums with their unease and quieter-than-normal conversations, and Ballister is on the receiving end of backwards glances more often than he would like. No one approaches him — no one except for Old Wodeman, hands cupped to receive alms as he rattles off a horoscope he made up on the spot. Ballister thanks him as he always does, places a penny in his knotted hands, and hurries away.
Ballister buys eggs from the wizened old woman whose hen sits in a portable nest at her feet. She gives his metal arm a very long look as she places the eggs into his small wicker basket. When he pays her, she gives him back too much in change, lips parting in a small smile. “It’s buy one, get one free for national heroes and slayers of monsters.”
Ballister’s metal hand clenches around the basket tightly enough that he can hear the wickers begin to splinter. “The only monster I ever fought was the Institution,” he says through gritted teeth. Placing another two coins on the table of her stall, he stalks away so that he doesn’t have to look her in the eye.
“Po-tay-to, po-tah-to,” the egg seller calls after him.
The walk back to his lair is quiet in comparison, although he still takes a few shortcuts through barely-navigable streets in a rougher part of the city to deter anyone who might think he is worth seeking out. He passes by a small square in which a man is standing in front of the blackened wreck of Institution barracks with a microphone in hand, declaiming to a camera which has been balanced on a homemade tripod. Ballister quickens his pace as much as his side will allow, and he doesn’t slow down until he is back in his own home.
The missive from the marketplace sits on the counter, catching at the corner of his eye the entire time that he measures ingredients and prepares the ingredients. Once he’s sprinkled the pot with sugar and placed it in the oven, he finally stops trying to avoid seeing it. The contents are mostly factual, but written in incendiary fashion: the “Great Black Beast” was an escaped Institution experiment, a monstrous perversion of nature that couldn’t help what it was but still needed to be put down for the public good. Ballister is an unsung hero of the common man, and the surviving board of the Institution should answer for their crimes. These are difficult days ahead, etc, etc.
Ballister crumples the paper in his metal hand and sticks it in the garbage chute, where it is met with a bright puff of flame. He crosses his arms and scowls at the stove and the pot therein.
When they were younger, he and Ambrosius (not yet Goldenloin; that would come later) sat in one of the wide stone windowsills of the orphanage, a kerchief with crumbling meatloaf between them and a pile of books to pass the time: introduction to chemistry for Ballister, and a collection of sonnets for Ambrosius. After the sun set, and the air grew colder, Ballister had edged over until he was pressed against the window glass, cold seeping through his clothing there while Ambrosius curled against his other side.
It isn’t a particularly exciting memory. The leftovers used in the meatloaf were on the verge of turning, and Ballister still isn’t sure that it wasn’t responsible for the nausea that had plagued him the next day.
He makes sure to leave the platter in the oven a little longer than he had been planning, just in case. Nimona would have complained about the lack of red (“My favorite color!”), but she isn’t here. And that’s okay.
Ballister’s plans to go straight back to the hospital after the meatloaf finishes cooking are delayed once more by the aftereffects of the battle. This time, it comes in the form of a woman standing on the high stone platform in the middle of the central plaza, through whose crowd Ballister had intended to pass unnoticed. She is surrounded by a thick knot of reporters and journalists, and backed by a number of figures wearing the uniform of the Royal Guards. Around this central formation, a looser crowd of pedestrians stand by, waiting.
The platform in the central plaza has been used in about equal measure for executions, celebrations, and proclamations. It’s obvious at a glance which of the three is responsible for the commotion: the woman is oversized and stout, and her movements are suspiciously stiff. Her head is round, her mouth just a little too wide. Ballister draws his hood down further over his face and joins the crowd as the clock tower strikes for mid-afternoon. When the echo of the bells fades, the town crier begins to bellow.
“The King is dead! Long live the king! The old king perished, but the new king will take up his mantle, passed down to the next generation as it has ever been. Long live King Isabel!”
Ballister frowns. The King’s daughter is only … six, seven on the outside. Young enough to still believe in Santa Claus.
The crowd begins to murmur, microphones and vellum notepads raised towards the platform. It doesn’t take long for someone’s voice to rise above the general swell of sound. “A child? Now?”
The town crier clears her throat with a noise like wire scraping over a metal fence. The voices of the crowd only grow louder. Ballister tucks his bundle of meatloaf and notes under his arm and covers his ears as she opens her mouth again and emits the piercing scream of an anguished fox.
The voices of the crowd rise for a moment, then fall away. When they are silent, the town crier ceases, and Ballister uncovers his ears. She speaks again in a more human voice. “She will not rule alone. Her Highness Isabel will be guided in her new post by a regent, selected from those members of the customary pool who are currently not under investigation.”
The “customary pool” …the careful phrasing leaves Ballister with little doubt that she means members of the Institution. At one point in the kingdom’s history, it had referred to the aristocratic lords and ladies, but they had been relegated to judicial positions and local government by the time that Ballister was old enough to go to the library on his own.
The crowd starts to talk again, louder and more chaotic and beginning to shout at the crier. She looks as uneasy as someone of her kind can. Ballister can see the faces of the Royal Guards grow grimmer behind her. He wonders whether he should stay, to stay abreast of what’s happening.
A man shoves by him, jostling the arm in its sling, and Ballister cries out involuntarily. He becomes aware, again, of the healing wound in his side, the cast on his arm, the bruises on his body, the tenuous grip that he has on his bag.
A reporter from the crowd holds up her microphone to the town crier as Ballister pushes through the crowd towards the edges of the plaza. He doesn’t hear the question, but whatever it is, the town crier’s answer is an ambiguous “That will be decided in the coming days”. Then the discontent of the people around him overwhelms the voice of the town crier enough that he can’t make out her voice anymore, and he turns his attention away, to the hospital.
The hospital secretary recognizes him when he arrives. “He’s doing fine, sir,” she says before he can ask. “He’s been dozing since you left.”
The door to Goldenloin’s room is closed. Ballister looks in through the narrow window, metal hand to the glass. Goldenloin is awake, sort of: he is still and pale and propped up against a pile of pillows, gazing at the opposite wall, but the eye that isn’t covered by bandages is open. His hands are folded over a large book lying open in his lap. Ballister opens the door, resolutely ignoring the nervous fluttering in his stomach. The clatter of the hallway outside drops away as the door closes; the room is stifling, the still and silence interrupted only by a regular beeping to indicate pulse on the monitor, and the hum of background machinery at work.
Goldenloin turns his head at the click of the door, and his face shifts enough that Ballister would consider calling it a pleased expression. “I didn’t die,” he says.
He sounds better than he looks. Ballister smiles. Goldenloin's hands are atop the blanket, too far away to reach easily, and so Ballister holds more tightly to the dish of food in his hand instead. "Good. Where did the nurse put your chart?"
Goldenloin raises a limp hand to indicate the countertop of medical supplies across the room. The room is too dark, Ballister thinks, as he crosses to retrieve the chart (shark-free this time). He's grateful that his own injuries weren’t enough to keep him here for more than a few nights. Not that his headquarters are much better, but they’re his. There's comfort in that.
He wonders where Goldenloin will go, once he is healed enough to be moved. He doesn't have anywhere like that, as far as Ballister knows: he's never left the Institution and their standard-issue barracks.
He wonders what Goldenloin would think of Ballister's own headquarters.
He can only make out a few specifics of the chart. The nurses' notes are neatly written, but Ballister's a villain, not a doctor, and the terminology is quite different. The line graph that the nurse has filled out is trending upwards, though, so he hopes that that's a good sign.
The longer that he attempts to study the chart, the more persistent the feeling is that he's just stalling. The longer that he stands and examines the chart, the longer he can put off turning around and attempting to have a conversation with the man. It had been easier yesterday: life or death panic, and the resultant relief, have a way of smoothing conversation.
He flips to the next page of his chart as he turns around. Goldenloin is looking at him, hands clasped. Ballister's mouth goes dry. "Yes?"
"Did you bring meatloaf with you?"
Oh. Ballister sets down the clipboard. "I was planning to make it a few days ago. It seemed easiest, and ... I remembered that you liked it."
Goldenloin is making a peculiar expression. Once upon a time, Ballister would have known what it meant, but between the bandages and the stitches and the years he can’t quite tell. "What?"
"The monster clawed my stomach," says Goldenloin. He pats his side gingerly. "She didn't actually rupture anything, but I can't eat right now."
Ballister opens his mouth, and closes it. “I … didn’t think of that. Perhaps you can still smell it. It’s not quite the same as eating …”
“…Maybe not.” He crosses the room and hides the plate underneath the chair next to the bed. Then he sits.
Goldenloin follows his movements with his good eye, gaze traveling from Ballister’s metal arm to the hand in a sling to the care that he takes when lowering himself into the chair. “Are you all right?” he asks. “She injured you, too.”
“I’m fine. I’ll be fine in a few days,” Ballister says. “It’s just my arm. And you?”
“Dr. Fayadse is going to move me to a recovery room at the end of the week. I can’t go home even if I wanted to — your friend made sure of that.” Goldenloin’s frown is made more pronounced by the line of stitches dragging at the skin down his cheek.
“Did you ever really think of the barracks as home?” Ballister asks, honestly curious.
Goldenloin sticks a slip of paper into his book and closes it. “It wasn’t terrible. I had my own things, and a bunk bed.”
Ballister raises an eyebrow. “For one person?”
“I had a desk underneath with a fishbowl.” Goldenloin looks away. His fingers twist into the sheets of his bed.
Ballister nods. “I don’t have bunk beds,” he says. “I do have a guest bedroom, if you would prefer that.”
“Do you have many guests?”
Goldenloin is quiet for longer than Ballister would have expected. He finally gives a slow, stiff nod, although Ballister thinks that the stiffness is due more to physical injury than any attempt at dignity. “Thank you. I’d like that,” he says.
Ballister places a hand very, very gently on his shoulder.
They don’t speak for a while. Ballister pulls out his notebook and opens it up to the next clean page. Most of his previous plans are now outdated — which is for the best, he reminds himself — and he casts about for his next big project.
He ends up spending a lot of time trying not to look at Goldenloin instead. The page stays blank, save for a few random scribbles and a reminder to himself to maybe call Dr. Blitzmeyer to see if she has any ideas. It isn’t that he can’t stay focused on one thought; he’s having a hard time thinking about anything at all. Everything is a blank.
He wonders where Nimona is now.
Ballister visits the hospital for at least a few hours for the next four days. Sometimes, he brings food, although he’s careful to make sure that it doesn’t smell, and that it falls at a reasonable medium on the spectrum between foods that Goldenloin can’t stand, and foods that he will stuff himself sick with if he gets the chance (peppermint and salsa are on the first list, and ice cream and soda pop are on the second).
Talking becomes a little easier as the week goes on. Ballister tries to walk the line between grumpy and teasing, with moderate success: one doesn’t feel quite right anymore, and the other is too comfortable and easy. Goldenloin tells him that the goldfish who lived in the fish tank under his bed was named Butterball, and they have a moment of silence for Butterball’s fiery demise. They find out that they both read the latest Gwalchmai novel and thought that the writing style was far inferior to the original series. The next day, Ballister brings his copy of the book to the hospital. When one of the nurses comes to change Goldenloin’s bandages, he is trying hard not to re-injure his side laughing at Goldenloin’s dramatic reading of the prose.
One morning, he opens the door to Goldenloin's room and discovers that someone has placed a small television on the medicine cart. Goldenloin points at it. "They're going to announce the regent to the new king soon," he explains. "I asked a nurse to bring it in."
Ballister nods, and settles into the chair next to the bed to watch. They sit in silence through a few commercials, and the weather report, up to the flashing Breaking News headline. The announcement is broadcast from a small park in an unfamiliar part of the city, relayed by reporters standing in front of an orange-tinted town crier. The name that the reporter gives is unfamiliar, but when a photograph appears on one side of the screen, Goldenloin's face darkens. For a moment, he looks like a stranger.
“I remember her. One of the Director’s secret lieutenants,” he says.
“Secret lieutenants?” Ballister asks. He thought that he had a fairly good idea of what sort of organization the Director had run, but this is new.
Goldenloin gives him a sidelong glance. “I thought she was just a technician in the explosives division until I saw her in the wing where we tried to keep your sidekick.”
Oh. Now it makes sense. “Nimona,” he says. “Although she felt more like a hurricane than a sidekick.”
“I’m… I’m sorry,” says Goldenloin quietly. He reaches out and tries to take Ballister’s hand. With only one eye now, his depth perception is off, and his fingers fall short of their mark.
During the parts of the day when he isn’t at the hospital, Ballister takes walks through the city — usually in disguise, after the incident with the old woman. The autumn is carrying on, which means that it’s cold enough for him to wear gloves and long sleeves without getting too many strange looks. The gloves are fine black leather. He stole them from a jeweler-turned-evil-wizard a few years ago, and they’ve been his favorites ever since. With them on, and his arm in a more discreet sling, there’s nothing to stop him from taking long detours on the way back from his lair to the hospital, and back again.
He first notices the posters while he is on one of these walks, midday on the ninth day after Nimona attacked the Institution. They are done in a neat blackletter script that went out of fashion years ago. They’re everywhere — the blank walls of public buildings, telephone poles, and the blackened ruins of Institution buildings — often accompanied by a group of curious bystanders. He even finds a small crowd surrounding one at the front of a tavern; quietly, when everyone knows that the only reason for a crowd to gather in front of a tavern is because someone has been or is just about to be thrown out through the door. Ballister edges his way around the crowd towards the doors of the bar, where the barkeep stands with her hands on her hips to face the crowd.
“What’s all this about down here, the regulations’ n’ such?” asks one man, as Ballister tries to lean over him to see what exactly the poster is. He manages to catch a glimpse of a few words — “offensive weaponry must be carefully evaluated” — before he is jostled and loses his place.
“It’s not to do with alcohol,” explains the barkeep, running a hand through her frizzy blue hair. “I’ve already told you. It’s not to do with this tavern, it’s about the Institution.”
“You mean to say the regulation’s for them as is doing the regulating?” asks the large man in the crowd, a frown of concentration appearing on his face.
“Yes,” says the barkeep.
The large man turns to the crowd. “It’s all right,” he announces. A collective murmur of relief goes through the dozen or so people gathered around the doors. Most of them amble back in through the doors. A few stick around, eyes running back and forth over the text of the poster; but there is now enough room for Ballister to get a closer look and read it properly.
Disputation on the Power and Purpose of the Institution,
the heading reads. Below it, in smaller writing:
Out of love for the truth and from a desire to actually talk about what happened, we intend to defend the following statements in the kingdom once ruled by the Institution. Therefore we ask those who cannot be present and dispute in person because they are cowards to do so in their absence by letter. Those who cannot dispute in person because they are dead need not attend.
Ballister raises his eyebrows as he continues down the paper. The contents of the paper read less like the academic essay promised by the title than an angry screed such as might have been penned by … well, by himself. Maybe not himself right now, but himself from a year ago, certainly. The paper starts off with recent events, though it avoids mentioning either himself or Goldenloin directly. And it works backwards from there: from the Institution’s practice of “tax collection” on behalf of the King to experimental weapons, biological experiments, fearmongering, hiring out the Institutional army to defend the kingdom, and, of course, assassinations of both life and character. The list is exhaustive, and includes some grievances (number sixty-seven, The powers which the Institution claims are the greatest deterrent to threats to the kingdom are actually only deterrents when other kingdoms know about them, rather than being hidden even from the King himself, as confirmed by his closest associates) that even Ballister didn’t know about.
He reaches the bottom of the paper, where there is a flourish and a well-practiced signature:
With intention to defend the above statements,