Piak awoke to soft murmurs, quiet laughter and some awkwardly strummed chords on the lute.
He blinked groggily and pushed himself up from his sleeping mat. The quiet chatter abruptly stopped and he turned around to see Jussipo shifting away from Foldo. He folded his hands in his lap and arranged his face in the way he did when he was trying very hard not to give anything away. Foldo sat up straighter and adjusted the lute in his hands. They stared at him. Piak stared back.
“What?” he said. They glanced at each other.
“What?” Foldo said, holding the lute in his lap and looking much more calm than Jussipo. That was strange. Foldo had never shown any interest in learning the lute before. He hadn’t shown any interest in the lute period, unless Jussipo had been playing it. They kept staring at him. Piak started to grin.
“What?” Laughter bubbled its way up his throat and his brother just gave him his wide eye “I’ve never done anything wrong in my life” face which meant he definitely had done something wrong.
“Nothing.” Jussipo said, nonchalance surrounding him. Piak squinted at him and he was about to counter – there definitely was something wrong and it was probably at his expense, even if he thought Foldo was too nice for that – but then Arman came over the ridge, Tiuri in tow and it was the end of that conversation.
Jussipo was laying against the wall, bleeding out and acting like it didn’t matter. He just kept on chatting away to Foldo and Piak and Armand, although it was mostly to Foldo and Piak. Well, it was mostly to Foldo, who couldn’t stop touching his face and his hair and his shoulder and his hands.
“Stop fretting, Foldo, you’re messing up my hair –”
Foldo did not stop fretting, and it really didn’t seem like Jussipo minded much. He kept giving Foldo the same dopey smile he did whenever Foldo did things – Piak wasn’t really sure what the criteria was to get it. Jussipo seemed to give it out only to Foldo, but it wasn’t when he did impressive things, like throwing a knife and hitting a moving target from at least thirty-five feet away (although he had seen Jussipo watching him a training once. Piak had told him if he wanted to get better at throwing knives he should just ask Foldo, to which Jussipo had shoved him over.) He gave it whenever Foldo chose to sit next to him or whenever he told a particularly scary story or whenever he spoke in choppy sentences.
Jussipo flicked his eyes over to Piak and sent him a grin. “Can you believe this guy? Almost as bad as mum.”
Foldo didn’t really seem to register Jussipo’s words and kept running his hand through his hair. Jussipo reached out his hand and winced at the movement. Piak grabbed it.
“Still can’t believe you followed us and made me bring you along.”
“Hey!” Piak puffed out his cheeks in indignation. “I’m a valuable asset to this team!”
Jussipo kept smiling at him, but his eyes were glassy and unfocused.
Tiuri and Lavinia rounded the corner and Lavinia put her hand to her mouth. Jussipo looked over and tried to get up, Foldo’s hand on his chest keeping him down.
“Easy,” Foldo murmured. Tiuri crouched next to Jussipo. He let go of Piak’s hand and focused on Tiuri’s face. “Did we win?”
Tiuri smiled, eyes shiny. “How could we not?”
Jussipo started to open his mouth when Arman cut in.
“Lavinia, are you gonna use your freaky powers or what?” Everyone turned to look at him. Lavinia’s eyes were wide, confusion clear on her face.
Arman looked impatiently at her. “Magic, Lavinia!” His voice rose as he spoke. “Magic, magic, magic!” He waved wildly in Jussipo’s direction. His eyes were drooping and Piak felt his throat seize up.
“I – I don’t know if I can –” She floundered, obviously panicking. “He’s so close to – dying, Arman, I don’t think I could – I don’t –”
Arman’s eyes hardened and he pushed himself to his feet, hands balled into fists. “So you’re not even going to try?” Piak felt frozen in this very horrible moment. “He’s bleeding out and you’re not even going to try?” He was yelling now. “Do your stupid voodoo whatever and save him!”
“Arman.” Tiuri held out a placating hand towards Arman, who backed down a little. He un-balled his hands and turned his face to the floor. He didn’t look angry anymore, just small and scared and sad. Piak didn’t know that Arman could look like that.
Tiuri put a hand on Lavinia’s back. She took a shaky breath and looked into Tiuri’s eyes. “Just try, okay? Just do what you can. Nobody’s asking for more.” His voice was soft and serious, and Lavinia visibly calmed, shoulders dropping. She nodded slightly and moved to Jussipo, whose breathing was shallow and weak. Piak picked at the hole in his sleeve and chewed on the inside of his mouth, hovering next to his brothers’ head. Foldo leaned back slightly as Lavinia knelt beside him. He looked like he was going to be sick.
Jussipo let out a breath, a whisper across his lips.
He didn’t take another one.
Lavinia jolted, shoving her trembling hands over his chest. She tensed and Jussipo began to glow. They stayed like that for what felt like eternity. All he did was stare at Lavinia and the glowing light beneath her hand. She was biting her lip, exhaustion etched into her face. She looked almost as bad Jussipo, Piak realised. They waited, with Tiuri’s hand on her back and Arman’s eyes getting more red rimmed by the minute. Foldo’s eyes stayed trained on Jussipo the entire time, never wavering from his face.
Jussipo took in a shuddering breath and Arman gave a yell and Foldo put his forehead to Jussipo’s and Lavinia promptly turned around, threw up and fainted.
Piak tucked his knees under his chin and cried.
Piak had been exploring the castle for a while now. He wandered around the halls and jumped into the alcoves and had some rousing conversations with the armour lining the walls. King whatever had granted them chambers for as long as they needed in castle. Seeing as Jussipo had lost so much blood they’d probably be here for a bit. A few weeks, Foldo had told him. Then he’d ruffled his hair and told him that it’d go pretty quick and that he’d think up a story for him tonight, smiling at him even with the dark circles under his eyes. Foldo hadn’t really left Jussipo’s chambers for the last four days that they’d been there. (Piak hadn’t either for the first 2 days. He’d slept next to Jussipo, curled up by his side. Foldo had fallen asleep in an awkward angle in the chair next to the bed.
Piak’d gotten restless though, and after being a bit too disruptive when the healers had come to check on Jussipo Arman had grabbed him and took him out to try to teach him how to use a proper sword. It hadn’t gone very well, but he doesn’t loiter around Jussipo’s room as much anymore.)
“Piak!” The voice echoed faintly down the hall, accompanied by the thud of shoes on stone. “Piak!”
Piak popped his head out of his most recent alcove. “I’m here!” he called out, and hopped down from the ledge. It was probably a good time to go back anyway, Piak reasoned with himself. He’d been gone for at least an hour; nobody could tell him to stop getting in the way of the healers if he’d been gone for that long.
Arman slid around the corner, chest heaving. “Piak!” he greeted, and jogged up to him. “Jussipo’s woken up!” A wide smile split Arman’s face.
Piak’s eyes went very wide and he stood frozen for a second. He split into a sprint, dodging past Arman and running down all the stupidly long hallways. He could hear Arman’s yell following him down the hallways, but he didn’t care. He finally (finally) reached Jussipo’s chambers and skidded to a stop outside the door. Foldo was there, hand tangled in Jussipos. Foldo moved his head back from Jussipo’s and Piak darted in. He looked up.
“Piak,” he said, his eyes comically wide and his hair a mess. Piak threw himself on the bed and flung his arms around his shoulders.
“Careful.” Foldo said, no malice in his voice. His brother wrapped his arms around him and Piak pushed his face into his shoulder. When he finally pulled back Jussipo’s shoulder was suspiciously wet. Piak dragged his sleeve across his nose and Jussipo kept his hand on his shoulder.
“Hey pipsqueak.” An easy smile graced his face and he pushed himself up carefully, hissing slightly at the movement. Foldo tucked a piece of hair behind Jussipos’ ear and fell back into his seat, kicking one foot up onto the bed. Jussipo froze for a second and his mouth parted slightly, flicking a quick look over at Foldo before he refocused on Piak. Strange, Piak thought. Probably some after affect of whatever the magic and blood loss had done to him.
“It’s a good thing you woke up when you did you know,” Piak started, pushing his brothers’ hand away from his head. “Foldo was so worried, I don’t think he’s bathed since you got here and he definitely hasn’t gone to his room that the King gave him not even to sleep, he looked worse than you this morning! He’s just been in here the entire time, and honestly I think he could do with some sun or something, y’know and I mean he’s slept but that chair cannot be comfortable.” He took in a deep breath to continue. Foldo’s head was in his hands, although Piak couldn’t think why. “I’ve been all round the castle now – well not all round because you woke up so Arman interrupted me – but I know all about it! There’s this big hall with all these paintings and I even went into the Kings chambers which were –”
“You did what?” Jussipo interrupted at the same time the door flung open and Lavinia tumbled in, bits of hair sticking to her face and Tiuri on her toes. Jussipo looked horror stricken, too busy staring at Piak to notice their arrival.
“Mum is going to kill me.”
Tiuri’s face relaxed when his eyes hit Jussipo and he grinned broadly, Lavinia smiling just as bright. He opened his mouth to say something when Arman slammed into the door frame, chest heaving and breathing ragged.
“I had to run round this entire bloody castle,” he stopped and took a few breaths, hands on his knees. “The entire bloody castle.” He straightened up. “Only to have everyone I found run off before I could even finish speaking.” Lavinia shrugged, in a way that suggested that she really could not give a flying fig about Arman’s troubles. Tiuri looked a bit more apologetic, but not by much. Arman looked like he was gearing up start something before he caught sight of Jussipo in bed, with Piak at his side and Foldo on the other. His face lit up. Jussipo took his hand off the top of Piak’s head to give him an awkward wave.
They all crowded Jussipo’s bed before the healer came in to shoo them out. Foldo and Jussipo’s fingertips barely brushed on the covers, just next to each other as Foldo angled his body towards him.
“You too, love.” The head healer said in Piak’s direction. He panicked a little, but Foldo interrupted.
“He’s um, he’s his brother.” He nodded at Piak. “Ma’am.” He tacked on quickly. The head healer narrowed her eyes at him, and then Piak. She rolled her eyes and muttered under her breath, stepping out of the room. Piak turned to Jussipo, who was looking at Foldo. Typical.
“Can I sleep here tonight?” Jussipo turned his face to Piak and seemed to deliberate for a second. He reached up and ruffled his hair.
“Course you can, pipsqueak.” Piak nodded and looked at Foldo expectedly.
“What?” He said, looking the most relaxed he had in a while.
“Aren’t you going to tell us one of your stories now?”
The festival was quite nice. They didn’t happen very often, but the Queen had decreed that an exception was to be made after the almost-war that had occurred.
Piak whole heartedly agreed with her. He weaved his way through the jostling people up to the side of the hill. He sat down and stared out at the sky. The sun wasn’t quite setting yet, although it was close to it. It was nice. He took a bite out of the candy apple he’d bought from one of the stalls and munched on it happily for a bit, scanning the people walking between the stalls for his treacherous brother. (Their mum had let Piak come without her only if Jussipo took care of him, which Jussipo had complained about to no end, saying that he had plans or whatever stuff fifteen-year-old boys did. His mother had heard none of it.) Jussipo had disappeared, saying that he’d meet him at the gate when the bell hit Vespers, before dodging off into the crowd, no where to be seen. He chewed a little bit harder on his candy apple and stared into the mess of people.
There! Piak jumped up, toffee on his teeth and victory in his stance. There, in the crowd, stood Foldo.
He ran down the hill and ducked through the jostling people, backing behind one of the stalls. Foldo walked past, laughing at something that Jussipo had said, who looked far too pleased with himself. Foldo bumped their shoulders together and said something that Piak couldn’t hear but Jussipo smiled so brightly that it had to be something good. They were dragged off into the crowd and Piak cursed to himself, dodging and weaving through the crowd to find them again. By the time he did, they had moved out of the crowd and were sitting by the fringe of it under some trees. Their knees bumped together, shoulders brushing. Jussipo had that dopey look on his face and Foldo was looking at Jussipo. Piak crept towards them, following the chatter and laughter they produced. He hid behind a bush relatively close to them. He’d come in about half way through their conversation.
Jussipo threw his hands up. “All I’m saying is that that game was rigged –”
“Oh, sure, that’s the only reason you couldn’t hit the bottle but I could.”
Jussipo snorted and smiled at the grass for a second before looking out at the crowd. “Oh, shut up.” It was far too fond to hold any malice and Foldo smiled before glancing at Jussipo.
They leaned in a bit closer to each other, Foldo moving his hand to his neck and Jussipo turned more solidly towards him and Piak had no idea where that was going, so he popped up and said “Hey Jussipo!”.
Jussipo flinched and slammed his forehead into Foldo’s, who jolted back and raised his eyes above Jussipo to Piak. Piak waved. Jussipo whipped around.
“What,” he stood up. “Are you doing here?” he ended, eyes a little bit wild. Piak was about to explain that putting emphasis on every word in the sentence means that there isn’t really any emphasis at all, but Jussipo had already strode over. “Alright, we’re leaving now.”
“What? But mum said till half past Vespers –” he yelped.
Jussipo grabbed the back of his collar. “Piak. I really do not care.”
“– and you were the one that ditched me –!”
Jussipo started to haul him off. “Don’t care.” He looked over his shoulder at Foldo, who was still sitting down on the grass, trying hard not to smile. Jussipo stopped for a moment. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Foldo.”
“Nope.” Jussipo said, turning around and dragging Piak alongside him.
Foldo waved, amusement clear on his face. “So you’ll be at – you’ll be at training then?”
“Yep!” Jussipo called, not looking back. Piak waved as best he could, the sound of Foldo’s laughter following them through the crowd.
“How are you still not any good at this?”
Jussipo and Foldo sat across the fire, leaning against the log. The flickering light cast shadows across their faces and danced across the lute. Their bodies were turned towards each other, one of Foldo’s legs extended towards the fire and the other crossed under it. Jussipo was sitting up but more on his side.
Lavinia and Tiuri sat next to each other, actually on the log, quietly chatting to each other. Lavinia would spontaneously link their fingers together or kiss Tiuri’s cheek to get him to blush. It worked every time.
The older knight that came to supervise them was chatting with Arman and Piak. Arman was resting his head on his hand, eyes slowly closing, and every so often he would jolt up, eyes bleary. So, she was really just talking to Piak. She had her sword on her knee and was methodically running her whetstone along the edge.
“– we needed horses because we had to run down Tiuri and we couldn’t do that without horses so we had to steal some but Iona said it was okay because we needed them but she betrayed us in the end so maybe it wasn’t okay?” Piak paused, frowning slightly. Arman mumbled something and the knight tilted her head, which he took that as an invitation to keep talking. “Well we were waiting around for the guy to go to sleep so Foldo told one of his stories which was really good, it was the one about magic and the little girl in the basement. Did you know that Lavinia has magic? It’s really cool! Very magic-ky and noble. Oh! I should get Foldo to tell one of his stories, you’d probably like it he’s really good at telling them.”
He took in a breath and turned away from the knight to where Foldo and Jussipo were seated. Her arm moved quickly and grabbed his shoulder. It wasn’t rough, but it was firm. Piak turned to her, questions forming on his lips. She smiled a little.
“It’s okay, don’t disturb them.” She let go and Piak nodded. Annora turned back to her sword. “I’m sure I’ll hear one some other time.” The firelight caught on her scar, cutting through her right cheek down under her jaw.
“How’d you get that?”
Her eyes didn’t move from the sword in her hand. “The scar?” She ran the whetstone down the sword. She held it up to eye the edge, tilting it slightly to get a better angle. “Sword fight when I was just newly knighted.” Her smile was mirthless. Her eyes flicked around the campfire. “I wasn’t much older than your brother, actually. We were a gaggle of stupid teens as well.” Her smile softens into something far more genuine, if a little sad.
“I’m not a stupid teen!” Piak piped up. She gave him a wry smile and pulled his hat over his eyes.
“You might not be teen, squirt, but you’re plenty stupid. Don’t know how you all get anything done, with Tiuri being completely taken with ‘Vinia and her hot and cold routine even though she likes him just as much,” She rolled her eyes. “And don’t even get me started on your brother. Teens.” She sheathed her sword and reached down to pull her dagger out of her boot. Piak pushed his hat up and frowned.
“What d’you mean?” She glanced at him, quizzical. “About Jussipo.” He supplemented. Annora raised an eyebrow and ran the whetstone down the blade.
Piak’s eyes widened.
“You mean he likes somebody?” Piak whipped his head around to look at Jussipo. He was directing Foldo’s fingers on the lute, their heads bowed together, hair tickling each other’s face. They were laughing quietly as Foldo strummed another butchered chord.
Annora closed her eyes for a second and then looked down at the dagger in her hand like she was contemplating using it.
Arman’s elbow slipped off his knee and he jolted up, rubbing his eyes. He looked blearily around the campsite. Annora only shook her head slightly. She slid the dagger back into her boot and stood up.
“It’s getting late, squirt.”
“I’m a squire, not a squirt!” She cuffed him lightly over the head and jerked her head towards Arman.
“Get out your bedroll Arman. We’ve got a long day of riding tomorrow.” Her voice rose so that it carried to the rest of the campsite. “We’re still a day and a bit’s ride from the Lavinia’s homestead.” Arman made an unintelligible noise in response. She surveyed their group and addressed Tiuri and Lavinia, who were leaning against each other. “You two get your bed rolls.” They nodded, Tiuri’s head coming off Lavinia’s shoulder as they clumsily pulled themselves up.
“Can I take first watch?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Do you,” she paused. “Do you want to?”
Piak was practically buzzing. “Yes! I’m not tired at all and you’re very knight-ly and you’re probably going to take first watch –”
Annora closed her eyes and raised her face to the sky for a few seconds before muttering something under her breath. She dropped her face to look at him. “No.”
Piak’s jaw dropped. “But –”
“No.” She said firmly. Piak stared at her.
“Go get your bedroll. You’ll crash in about an hour anyway.” Piak opened his mouth to argue but Annora cut in again. “And you don’t get to ask for things, squirt. Not after that trick you pulled trailing us for a day through the wood.” She shook her head. “Now shoo.” He turned to go to the horses, but not before catching Jussipo’s eye, who was grinning broadly at the exchange. Piak stuck his tongue out. Jussipo made a face and turned back to Foldo before he could retaliate. Their voices grew fainter as he walked away from the fire.
“You two are on first watch. Wake me up when the fire is…”
Piak was thinking.
(“Who do you like?” Piak had said, standing behind Jussipo as he refilled his water bladder. He’d fumbled a little at that, almost dropping the bladder in the stream.
“Nobody.” He said. He lifted the bladder to take a sip.
“It is Arman?”
Jussipo choked and started coughing. “What?”
Currently Piak’s best bet was Arman.)
He needed to talk to Annora more, though. She seemed to be the expert on this sort of thing, what with her knowing who Jussipo liked. (He also did not like that his best bet was Arman.)
He slowed his horse to where she was at the back, spine straight and eyes watchful on the trees surrounding them. Lavinia was at the front, then it was Foldo and Jussipo, then Arman and Tiuri.
Annora ignored him for a few minutes, before sighing. “What is it, squirt?”
“You could call me Piak, y’know,” he started huffily.
She snorted. “Not a chance, squirt.”
“And,” he continued, very importantly. “I want to know how you know when somebody likes somebody.”
There was a pause where Annora didn’t say anything. She finally looked at him, eyes calculating. “This would have anything to do with your brother, would it?” Her tone was airy, like she was discussing something as boring as the weather and not his brothers love life.
“No.” Piak crossed his arms over his chest. She turned back to the front.
“You gonna annoy me until I tell you, pipsqueak?” Pipsqueak was worse than squirt. He nodded, jutting his chin out in hope that she would take him seriously. Annora rolled her eyes but slowed her horse a little so that they dropped back from the group.
“Alright,” she said, “Pick your poison.”
“Does Jussipo like Arman?”
That got her attention. She quickly twisted to him, looked him up and down and started laughing, although it was clear she was trying not to. “You think,” she ran her hand through her light hair, “That Jussipo likes Arman?”
“What’s wrong with Arman?” He said defensively.
“Nothing wrong with Arman, squirt. Just really not who your brother is interested in.” She shook her head, still amused.
“So who does he like then?”
“Not for me to tell, squirt.”
He frowned. Annora was still trying to curb her smile, mouthing Arman to herself and shaking her head.
“So how do you know when somebody likes somebody?”
She leaned back in her saddle a little. “If somebody is interested in somebody else, they’ll try to spend time with them, try to impress them and talk to them.” She waved her hand in the air. “Just generally try to get them to like them. To see them in a positive light.”
Piak frowned. “Is that all?”
She righted herself in the saddle. “Well, they’ll also pay lots of attention to each other. Like Tiuri and Lavinia.” She supplied. “And they’ll get nervous around them. Flustered. They’ll probably try to create,” she floundered for a second, “Physical contact.” She winced a little at her description.
“Oh.” Jussipo hadn’t really tried to do any of those things with Arman.
Annora patted his shoulder. “Think on it, squirt.” And then urged her horse forward to catch up with the group.
Annora kept them going until they found a good place to camp for the night, the sun about half an hour close to setting. He didn’t really care, though. It gave him lots of time to try to figure out who Jussipo liked. Lavinia had told him to stop thinking so loudly and said that it was giving her a headache, but Piak didn’t pay her any attention. It had to be somebody on the trip with them, or Annora wouldn’t have noticed or known who Jussipo liked. He started readying the water for the horses. It couldn’t be Arman, because Annora wouldn’t’ve reacted like it was funny if it had been. Could it be Lavinia? No. He shook his head to himself. The horse next to him huffed and shook its’ mane. Piak patted it absentmindedly. Jussipo never tried to spend extra time with Lavinia. Or Tiuri. He frowned. The only person Jussipo spent lots of time with was Foldo.
“Foldo!” He yelled. Piak turned and sprinted over to his brother at what was supposed to be the campfire. Jussipo’s back was turned to him and he was crouched on the ground.
“Foldo’s collecting wood for the fire, he’ll probably be back soon.” He said over his shoulder.
“You like Foldo!” Jussipo’s hands stopped fiddling with the firepit and he looked at him like he’d grown a second head. “You like Foldo!” Piak pointed at him, practically buzzing with excitement. “That’s why you ditched me at the festival and tried to teach him lute! You like him!” Jussipo looked like he was ready to strangle somebody or dig his own grave.
“Jussipo!” Foldo called from where he was emerging from the trees, wood stacked on his arms. He walked up the slight incline to the middle of the campsite. “I’ve got more kindling.” He ended, carefully placing them down next to where Jussipo was trying to make a fire.
“Foldo!” He said, face lit up. “Foldo, Jussipo –”
He was cut off by a hand slapping itself across his mouth.
“Piak.” Jussipo stood over him, his hand on Piak’s mouth and the other on his shoulder so he couldn’t wiggle out of it. “Stop talking.” He said conversationally. Piak struggled and licked his hand. Jussipo grimaced but didn’t move it. Foldo looked on at the one-sided wrestling match without concern.
Jussipo looked up at him. “Thanks Foldo. Could you start to – ouch!” He let go of Piak and grabbed his hand, which was remarkably slobbery and contained a perfect indent of Piak’s teeth. “Piak, what the –”
Piak stumbled forward. “Foldo! Foldo Jussipo likes you!” Foldo stared at him. Jussipo groaned and turned away. Piak continued, full of urgency. “That’s why he always sits next to you and stares at you and tries to talk to even when you’re busy! It’s because he likes you!” He turned away from Foldo and added to himself “That explains so much.”
“Well, I mean, I do know.”
Piak was torn out of his musings. He looked at Foldo. Foldo looked back.
Foldo tilted his head and pushed his eyebrows together, then glanced behind him at Jussipo.
Jussipo let a long sigh. “We’re,” he waved his hands around in vain, as if that explained it. Piak stared at him.
Foldo stood up and dusted the dirt from his knees. “We’re dating.”