"I did promise you that drink," said Ignarius. Most improbably, he produced a bottle from beneath his raiments. He handed it to her.
Jodariel raised an eyebrow. "Moonshine?" she asked.
Ignarius laughed. "Hell do you take me for? I ain't that cheap of a date, Curly-Horns. Check the label."
Jodariel checked it. To her surprise, she recognized it.
"Bull Brandy," she said, turning the bottle over in her hands. "I haven’t had this in years. Where did you find it?"
Tramping down the brush in the clearing under his hooves, Ignarius grinned.
"Slugmarket's got a few under the table luxury items if you got the spare Sol,” he said. "Which the Tempers do, from time to time. Turns out the imps like it if you put in a few trick shots here and there. We’re not complete slouches. At least we’re not when you Nightwings aren’t stomping all over us. You in?"
Jodariel popped the cork and took a swig.
"... despite my better judgment." Jodariel handed the bottle back to him.
"What good's 'better judgment' done any of us down here, eh?" Ignarius hefted a downed tree into the clearing. He set it on its side, sat down, and patted the empty end. Jodariel crouched across from him instead. Ignarius shrugged.
“You should know I do not make a habit of this,” she explained.
“Getting the impression,” said Ignarius, taking a swig of bottle and passing it back. “I do, though.”
Jodariel glanced up. “With anyone who catches your eye?”
“With anyone who’d like the company,” said Ignarius. “And why not? Kind of a lonely place down here. Spend so much time trying to survive, you forget to do anything else. I’m hard to kill and I like to show someone a good time. That a problem?”
“Not especially,” admitted Jodariel. “It’s more thought than I expected from you.”
Ignarius spread his hand across his chest. “Owch. Yanno Curly-Horns, that’s what I like about you. No bullshit.”
“It’s the one thing you know about me.”
“Don’t think I’d mind knowing more.” Ignarius had the gall to wink. Alcohol put him in a good mood. “But if you need an icebreaker, fine. I’ve been down here 14 years for punching a minister and I’ve been with the Tempers for 9. How long you been in?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” said Jodariel, tapping the neck of the bottle against the tip of her horn. Ignarius waited. She sighed. “16.”
“Yes. How well we know each other now.”
“I served on the border,” volunteered Ignarius.
“Everyone serves.” But Jodariel played along. “....myself included.”
“Two years. You?”
“Longer,” said Jodariel, but her lips twitched. “I am surprised made it two.”
“I was good at beating people up.”
“And you did not stay?”
“I was bad at marching in formation.”
“I believe that,” said Jodariel. And, because she’d been wondering, she added: “I thought you were here for sex.”
Ignarius meets her gaze with a low chuckle that thrummed in his chest. “Sure,” he said. “But doesn’t mean I don’t treat somebody first. Drinks. Dinner. Maybe a show. Well, we don’t got much around here by way of dinner or the show but if you wanna go kill something to put on a spit, I’d be down. You?”
“Hm,” said Jodariel. Stomping around after some howler’s wasn’t the worst way to spend an evening.
“Also, I think you’re hot and I like to be told what’s what,” said Ignarius. “So those are my motives. Why you here?”
“I don’t know,” said Jodariel.
“Why you here?” asked Ignarius, more pointedly.
“As though I would tell you that ,” said Jodariel.
“You don’t gotta,” said Ignarius. “Just seems strange. Tough gal like you seems like she’d be the sort who knows what’s what enough to stay out of a craphole like this, is all.”
Jodariel managed a laugh. “You would think so,” she said, “But it seems I grow more and more foolish by the day.”
“Aye I feel you there,” said Ignarius, “You ought to tell your teammates where to stick it. Don’t mind the company, if they were going to free anyone, it should’ve been your turn.”
“It was the Reader’s choice.”
“So tell the Reader to shove it.”
“A choice I supported,” said Jodariel, “Hedwyn was too soft-hearted for this place. I have always been ready to let him go. It is better that I lose him to his freedom, rather than his overconfidence.”
“…so that’s how it is,” said Ignarius, swishing the low remnants of the bottle. He eyed her sideways through the golden glass. “Pretty guy. Your sweetheart or something?”
She stared at him. “ Fosterling ,” she said, after a stunned moment.
Ignarius whistled. “My next guess would’ve been younger brother.”
Jodariel snorted. “Now you are being ridiculous.”
“Little bit.” And Ignarius winked, damn his eyes. “… I got one too, you know. Back home, anyway.”
Jodariel inclined her head. She cracked her knuckles, quite willing to pretend she hadn’t heard it, but Ignarius, to her surprise, continued:
“Lil’ Moira. Her mum was an actress. Vaudeville. Did the circuit up and down the coast. Left her on my doorstep when a rich patron actually decided to propose. And more power to her, yanno? He’d treat her right. But she couldn’t take the kid with her. So the kid stayed with me. Cutest little hellion you’d ever see. No offense to your Hedwyn.”
“Why are you telling me this.”
“Someone ought to know.” Ignarius shrugged. “She was only about seven when they tossed me down here. Doubt she even remembers me. Heh. Probably for the best.”
Jodariel reached out a hand and stopped. Why did she do that? She rested it on her knee instead. “You are rambling.”
“Last thing I’d want is to meet her down here,” he said, eyes brighter than they ought to be. “I’d probably do the same as you. Let her back up, and tell her to kick a few more constables on the way back. She’s probably real big now. She’s probably…. Aw, shit. Yeah, I’m rambling.”
He swallowed, pinched the bridge of his nose, and went quiet.
“You brought it on yourself,” said Jodariel.
“Sure did,” muttered Ignarius, in a clipped voice.
“Are you usually a sad drunk?”
“Hell no.” Ignarius’ chuckle was dragged from his chest like a sob. “Think I’d ask you out just to watch me go all misty-eyed? … do me a favor will you?”
“Another one,” said Ignarius, looking at her under his hand. “Pop me one, will you?
“In the jaw,” he said, “Clears my head. Believe me. I can take it.”
Jodariel drew herself up.
“So. You asked me here to be a part of your performance.”
“No, I asked you out ‘cause I think your eyes look like moon on the water.”
Jodariel punched him. It was principle of the thing, really. Ignarius landed on his back, hooves in the air. He lay with the empty bottle in one hand. Jodariel leaned over to check on him. He looked up at her, wild-eyed and grinning like a lunatic. His eyes weren’t quite as wet. His chest heaved. It took a second for Jodariel to register it as laughter.
“Ah, Curly-Horns,” he said, rubbing his jaw. “Thanks. Needed it.”
“So you are that type,” said Jodariel.
“Little bit,” sighed Ignarius. He shoved himself up onto his elbows. “Not my best showing, huh?”
“Pathetic.” Jodariel crossed her arms. “I ought to leave you here.”
“Wouldn’t blame you”
“In fact, I will,” promised Jodariel. She turned to go.
Ignarius’ head fell back. Jodariel uncrossed or re-crossed her arms. She looked up. The stars were dark, and had been that way for some time now.
“Still there, Curly-Horns?” He asked. He could see well enough she was.
“….stand,” said Jodariel, turning back with a sigh. Ignarius obeyed, taking what seemed like half the forest bed with him. He shook his head like a cur and sent leaves and twigs spraying. Jodariel watched him, waited for him to get even footing with his hooves. Then, as he turned to look at her, she squared her shoulders and took another swing at him.
He caught her fist a half inch from his face.
“Damn!” cried Ignarius. “What was that for?”
“You need sense knocked into you,” said Jodariel. “And it has been some time since I’ve trained with a man who can take a blow.”
The other demon smirked.
It was a more even match than Jodariel expected or wanted to admit. She had one over on him in most ways. Jodariel had years of military prowess behind her. She had form, discipline, and patience, but Ignarius fought like a bar brawler and bar brawlers didn’t have any concept of rules. He kicked up twigs. He tried to trip her in a turn. Jodariel for her part wrenched his arm behind his back and slammed him into the ground. He stayed down long enough for her to check on him before he surged at her in a low charge. She caught him by his hands, locking her arms over his shoulders. Their horns scraped as she grappled with him. The contact felt better than she’d ever admit. She’d grown used to the Rites, the phantom burning and fleeting winds, unable to land even a claw on an opponent.
“A filthy move,” she muttered, nearly forehead to forehead with him. “Who taught you that?”
“Like hell anyone would,” he wheezed. “If my drill sergeants could throw down like this I’d have never left the Border.”
She twisted her head. Her horn caught his broken one, wrenching his head down. He stumbled into her arms. She hefted him over her shoulders and threw him into the nearest tree.
“Hm.” Jodariel scrubbed her forehead with a wrist. She was sweating. It’d been years since anyone had managed to make her sweat in a basic sparring match. “Adequate. The rumors of your strength were not exaggerated. You still have not told me why you held back in the Rite.”
“Eeeh.” Ignarius pulled himself up against the trunk. “Maybe I’m sick of the whole fucking thing.”
The heat faded from Jodariel’s cheeks as quickly as it had come.
“You are without hope, then,” she said. “…a pity.”
“Not quite. More like,” wheezed Ignarius. He interrupted himself to spit out a twig. “Ah, damn you’re good at this! --more like, just wonder. If this was really supposed to be the point. You think the Scribes ever really wanted us to war for scraps like this? Hell would I wanna screw over someone like you?”
Jodariel jerked back like he’d burned her. She didn’t really have much of an answer to that. He started to push himself the rest of the way to his feet. Jodariel put a hand on his shoulder. She leaned her weight into it, and he froze.
“Stay there,” she said.
“What, wanna another go?” he asked, as though he hadn’t lost the first two and half rounds.
“I want something,” said Jodariel. Her hand tightened on his shoulder. Her claws bit into the fabric of his raiments, but he hardly seemed to notice. Demon hands. Demon arms. Demon everything. She stepped back and let him fall across the forest floor. She put her hoof on his chest, and stared down at him. He looked up her leg with wide, shaking eyes. He’s not entirely without hope after all.
“Pick a word,” she said.
“Pick a word,” said Jodariel, again. “Because you should know I am not inclined to be gentle, and I may take you within an inch of your life.”
“Marigold,” answered Ignarius, without a second thought. As though it had been on the tip of his tongue for ages. As though this all might be something more than a colossally bad idea.