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Chapter 31: The Lionesses

...letters, council minutes, and the private notes of prominent figures across Medieval Ivalice agree that Ovelia's intrusion onto the national stage was unexpected. Ovelia was a historical inconvenience for the royal family, whose nebulous position in the line of royal succession created a headache in matters of politics, diplomacy, and ceremony. King Ondoria III adopted her at behest of the Lords' Senate, fearing that they would be left without a clear line of succession in wartime after the death of Ondoria's young son. She already had some small claim on the throne as the youngest of Denamda's children: by adopting her, Ondoria guaranteed a successor. Queen Louveria never spoke publicly in support of this adoption: whatever her feelings towards it, it is hard to argue that Orinus' birth moved her privately but firmly against this problematic princess, as shortly thereafter Ovelia left the Lion's Den and never returned, moving from one monastery to the next as a sign of goodwill between the Glabados Church and the royal family. Her portion of the royal stipend was systematically redirected, depriving her of monetary, political, or military capital. Even her security resources were hamstrung, so that soon only the most stubborn and loyal guards remained...

-Alazlam Durai, "The War of the Lions"

"It's beautiful," Ramza whispered.

Orbonne Monastery was nestled between the rolling green hills that made up so much of this part of southern Gallione. It must have been important to the Ydorans, because one of their immaculate roads led right to it, a winding white-paved trail snaking its way between the hills. Its white dome gleamed as they rounded one last hill, set back before a broad pavilion of white brick spreading out around it. The gleaming ribbon of a stream wove its way through the scene, babbling under a bridge and condensing into a pool, swirling around a turning waterwheel and drifting beneath the Monastery before it bubbled on its merry way out into the hills. Tall conifer trees planted at regular intervals rustled in the rising wind, and the gathering stormclouds above contrasted nicely with the dingy glamor of the Monaster, giving it a peculiarly lovely aspect of fragile order beneath weighty grey skies.

"And defensible," Gaffgarion muttered, looking around the little valley formed by the hills around them. "Little exposed, though..."

"Dad," Radia said under her breath, rolling her head on her shoulders in a way that seemed to somehow indicate the hilltops in front of them.

"I see them," Gaffgarion whipsered back.

"See what?" Ramza asked.

Gaffgarion and Radia exchanged glances. "You think he can?" Gaffgarion asked.

"He knows a little," Radia said. "He's not bad."

Gaffgarion nodded. "Straight ahead, boy," the mercenary said, pointing towards the dome of the monastery, and Ramza followed his pointing finger. Out off the corner of his mouth, Gaffgarion added, "Keep your eyes straight ahead, but focus on the corner of your gaze."

Ramza blinked, cocked his head, tried to make sense of the instruction. Focus on something without looking at it? How did that work? He kept wanting to look around, but Gaffgarion and Radia were clearly trying to hide their ability to see something, so he couldn't really ask any follow-up questions.

But he saw nothing.

"Like when you're fighting me, Ramza," Radia said, her voice low but good-humored, as though she were remiscing about something. "You can kinda sense the field changing, right?"

That was true: a pressure in his mind and in his heart, something not quite physical and not quite mental, an awareness of the way she was using her own magical field to-

Wait! There! He could almost see it, like a flash of sunlight on metal or the mirage shimmer of heat against stone. Something rippled in the corner of his gaze, a distortion in the light set squarely atop one of the nearby hills.

"Oh," Ramza said, nodding.

"Magic trick," Gaffgarion said, his voice low but cheerful, as though he were cracking a joke. He kept gesturing the Monastery, as though the building was the subject of his conversation "There's an instructor at the Magic Academy in Gariland who dug it up. Apparently the Ydorans used it for stealth units...anyways, some of the recent Academy graduates know how to do it."

"But you can spot it?" Ramza said.

"It's basic field manipulation," Gaffgarion said. "That's the kinda stuff Vampire Knights excel at. Besides, you could see it too, couldn't you?"

True. But Ramza wasn't aware of doing anything special: all he'd really done was try

"So what do we do?" Ramza asked.

"Odds are they're the Princess' guards," Gaffgarion said. "They'll either stop us or let us pass."

Gaffgarion's eyes were glittering. Ramza swallowed. "And if they attack?"

Gaffgarion did not answer, but his mouth tugged up into a feral smile. He started walking: Ramza moved to follow, pulling their pack chocobo along behind them.

"Halt!" shouted a high woman's voice.

Ramza stopped at once. Gaffgarion whirled about with an overexaggerated expression of confusion. If you didn't know the man, you might not be able to see the way his lips were twitching and his mustache bristling as he tried not to smile. "Who goes there?" Gaffgarion demanded, with an edge of comical panic.

"We're asking the questions," said a different voice, a little softer, a little deeper and Radia bent low, covering her mouth and trying not to laugh.

"Of course, of course," Gaffgarion said, wiping a hand across his brow. "My apologies. I'm Geoffrey Gaffgarion. My associates and I are here to reinforce the Lionsguard."

"And who says the Lionesses need reinforcing?" demanded the first voice.

Gaffgarion shook his head frantically. "Not I!" he cried. "But I do the work I'm paid to do." His voice assumed a plaintive cantor. "May I be permitted to see the faces of my interrogators?"

There was a moment's silence, and then the faint shimmers flashed and shifted, resolving themselves into the shape of two women. One had brown hair so light as to verge on blonde: the other's was of a deep mahogany brown. The lighter-haired woman was wire-thin, more angular even than Radia, and wore loose leather armor. She held a silver rod in one hand, crested by a round green stone that flashed with the suggestion of letters and runes at its heart. The darker-haired woman wore a tunic and trousers, which clung tight to wide hips and a prodigious bust. She held a shepherd's crook in one hand which had glowing runes etched into almost every inch of its pale brown wood, and wore the red-and-white triangles of a Healer on her shoulders.

Gaffgarion whirled about in wild confusion. "Where did you come from!" he demanded.

"Don't move!" said the high voice of the light-haired woman, gesturing with her rod. The stone at the tip glowed, and left a line of light in the air behind it. Gaffgarion froze again.

"Present your papers," the dark-haired woman said, with a deeper, more cautious voice, and she started to descend the hill.

Gaffgarion reached a hand out towards Ramza: Ramza obediently rustled through one of the pack chocobo's saddlebags, until he found the orders carrying the seal of the Hokuten. He passed it to Gaffgarion, who held it up for the inspection of the woman carrying the shepherd's crook. She snatched it from Gaffgarion's hand and examined it closely.

"These appear to be legitimate!" she called up the hill.

The light-haired woman snorted. "Hokuten think we need help."

The dark-haired woman shrugged and handed the papers back to Gaffgarion. This close, Ramza could see she had a pleasant heart-shaped face, with expressive blue eyes and full lips. "I'll take them inside, Alicia!" she called to her counterpart up the hill. "I think it's high time Katherine and Ysabel relieved us, don't you?"

"Please!" Alicia scoffed. "The two of them together aren't worth one of me, let alone one of you." The light-haired woman pressed the tip of her rod against her chest. A moment later, and she had shimmered out of view again.

"What was that?" Gaffgarion asked, in a tone of sardonic awe.

"Magic," the dark-haired woman said stiffly. "You'll have to get use to it. The Lionesses aren't your ordinary soldiers."

"Oh, I can see that," Gaffgarion agreed with fawning admiration. As the woman with the shepherd's crook led them away from the little pass and towards the Monastery proper, Gaffgarion flashed a mocking grin only Radia and Ramza could see.

The polished stone doors to the Monastery opened on approach, and a man and a woman stepped through them and onto the tree-lined pavilion The man was old and bald, with a thick white beard hanging halfway down his yellow robe. He moved at an awkward shuffle. Besides him was a blonde woman whose hair fell in a curtain down her back, save for two ringlets draped around her ears. She wore blue armor in the classical Ydoran style—the segmented scales that allowed for light weight, flexibility, and maximum protection, along with charms built into them to amplify the wearer's natural abilities. Her hand rested on the sword at her side, and dismissive blue eyes flickered over each of them in turn.

"Lavian," grunted the woman. "What have you brought me?"

"Hokuten reinforcements, Captain," said the dark-haired woman

The blonde woman's lip curled. "Mercenaries," she spat.

Gaffgarion sketched a little bow. "Such as we are, my lady."

"Times were the Lionsguard would never stoop so low," she grunted.

"It is not my place to speculate on such matters," Gaffgarion said. "Shall I assume you are Captain Agrias Oaks?"

"If you haven't figured that much out, what good are you?" asked Agrias.

Gaffgarion's eyes flashed with rage, just for a moment. Then they were deferrent again, and he answered her in a civil tone. "Not much, perhaps," Gaffgarion said. "But your commanders seemed to think the princess wasn't safe as she was."

Agrias' eyes boiled with rage. Gaffgarion stared steadily back.

At Agrias' side, the bald man coughed, setting the silver Virgo symbol on his neck clattering against his thin chest. He turned rheumy eyes upon Gaffgarion. "It is good that the Princess will have additional protection," the old man said, in a deep, creaking voice. "In such difficult times, all helping hands are welcome."

The old man placed a gentle hand on Agrias' shoulder. Agrias gave him a quick look, then closed her eyes as her nostrils flared.

"You are Geoffrey Gaffgarion," Agrias said, eyes still firmly closed. "The two with you?"

"My daughter, Radia Gaffgarion," Gaffgarion said quickly, before either Radia or Ramza could speak. "And my apprentice, Ramza Lugria."

At Ramza's name, the bald man at Agrias' side blinked. For a moment, the weary age parted like clouds slipping past the sun, revealing bright dark eyes beneath the folds of wrinkles. "Ramza and Radia," muttered the man. "Fine names."

Agrias nodded stiffly, and her eyes flashed open. "Welcome to Orbonne. Not that we'll be staying long."

"Indeed?" Gaffgarion said. "And where are we going?"

Agrias gave Gaffgarion a suspicious glare. "Surely you know."

"I do not," Gaffgarion said. "I believe I was given as little information as possible, for the security of the princess."

"Hmmph," grunted Agrias. "At least the Hokuten command aren't all fools...we're escorting the Princess back to Lesalia."

"Of course," Gaffgarion said. "With the unrest across Ivalice, it would be best to protect the royal family with the full force of the army."

"Quite," Agrias said. She gestured towards the sky. "We were set to leave tomorrow at dawn, but we may be delayed by the storm."

Gaffgarion shrugged. "Our contract specified that we are at your disposal until the Princess has been made safe," he said. "If that means Lesalia, so be it."

"You're quite cavalier about all this," Agrias snapped.

"I am a professional, my lady," Gaffgarion said. "I do as I am told."

"You're a dishonored sellsword," Agrias hissed. "And the fact that the Crown has resorted to doing business with the likes of you-"

"Agrias!" reprimanded the priest at her side. "Whatever their pasts or motivations, they are here to see the Princess to safety!"

"We don't need them" Agrias barked, and turned away, striding back through the doors.

Lavian sighed and tapped the tip of her shepherd's crook against her forehead. She looked at the priest and said, "I apologize, Father Simon."

"Nothing to apologize for," the priest said. "Your Captain is a proud woman. Just see that she tempers her pride with grace and humility."

"I will try," Lavian said. "Katherine and Ysabel?"

"Asleep in their quarters," the priest replied.

"I'd best go and wake them," Lavian said, starting to walk away.

Before she'd taken more than a step, Simon snapped out a forestalling hand. "A moment, Lavian," he said. "We should show our guests their quarters. We've no idea how long this storm may strand us, and they should be situated before they begin their guard duties."

"I suppose," Lavian said, though she sounded anything but certain.

"Good." The priest turned to Ramza, Gaffgarion, and Radia. "Welcome to Orbonne Monastery," Simon said. "I am Father Simon, the overseer and caretaker of all who dwell within these walls. Which," he chuckled. "Is a rather small handful at the moment."

"A pleasure, Father," Gaffgarion said, sketching the Virgo symbol upon his chest. Radia followed suit, and after a moment's hesitation, so did Ramza. It had been so long since he'd stepped inside a Church without having a funeral to attend, so he did not often have to make the symbol. Even when he'd attended Church, he'd never really felt comfortable with the trappings and the fervor, the zealous belief he didn't share.

"The pleasure is mine," Simon said, sketching the symbol in the air. "Whatever your birth or profession, all are welcome in the arms of the Church. Come."

He turned and began to shuffle inside. Lavian sighed, and followed. Gaffgarion and Radia exchanging exchanged amused glances and walked after her. Ramza hastily tied up their pack chocobo on a nearby post, then trailed along behind.

"How many entrances?" Gaffgarion asked.

"Two," the priest replied. "These main doors-" he indicated the wide stone doors around them. "And a rear door guarded by high-level Ydoran magic kept private to members of the Church. There are also extensive libraries below the Monastery proper, but these are kept locked, and I must ask you to refrain from entering if you should happen to find an open door. None but members of the Church and approved guests-"

"Of course," Gaffgarion said.

The front door opened directly onto a gorgeous chapel, rows of pews stretching forwards to the altar, the grey storm light filtered through the stained glass windows on all sides. 12 in total, spaced evenly around the room, and directly above these grand windows were smaller circular ones, each bearing a different mark of the zodiac, with Virgo at its customary 12 o'clock position, directly visible from the door.

And there, in front of the altar, directly beneath the stained glass window depicting Ajora's body hanging from the walls of Mullonde with the fires of the Fall burning at his feet, knelt the Princess Ovelia.

Her hair was a luxurious, silken gold, tied together in an elaborate braid that fell well past her shoulders. She wore a red cloak across her shoulders, and her hands were folded in front of her as she prayed. Agrias stood just behind her, hand resting on her sword, silent and stone-faced. She turned accusing eyes upon them the moment they entered the room. Simon beckoned to her, and Agrias glanced between the priest and the Princess and moved quietly towards them.

"Captain Oaks," Simon said in a low voice. "I believe it would be wise for the Princess to meet her new protectors."

Agrias' eyes narrowed. "There's no need for her to sully herself with the likes of them." She turned a dismissive glare on Gaffgarion.

"Quite right," Gaffgarion whispered. "We'll do our part-"

"And if there should be a crisis?" Simon whispered, his dark eyes suddenly blazing. "If you or your Lionnesses should fall, Captain Oaks?"

"That will not happen," Agrias said at once.

"Are you God, that you can ordain what can and cannot be?" asked Simon. Agrias grimaced, but did not answer. Simon continued, "If you were to fall, and these three were to be the last ones left to take her to Lesalia, how could you ask her to trust them when she does not even know their names?"

Agrias hesitated, looked between Simon, Gaffgarion, Ramza, Radia, and the Princess. At last she nodded. "Quietly," she said. "We'll wait until she's finished."

She led them down the aisle, and as quietly as they tried to move their footsteps echoed through the tall domed room, the soles of shoes and boots on stone ringing across the dusty pews and bouncing off the stained glass. On closer examination, there was a slight feeling of decay to Orbonne: immaculate though the windows were, lovely as the stonework was, it did not feel as if it were regularly cleaned.

Agrias came to a stop several feet from Ovelia's back. The Princess continued her prayers as though she had not heard them approach. After several seconds, Gaffgarion noisily cleared his throat. Agrias turned a disbelieving glare upon on him.

"-and help us, your sinful children of Ivalice, regardless of station. For even the high may be impure, and the lowest pure: for even the evil are capable of good, and the good of evil, and by the grace of your Saint we may all yet be redeemed." Ovelia's voice was low but clear, speaking with confidence. She signed the Virgo symbol, then rose to her feet and turned to face them, brushing the dust from her knees.

She looked exactly like Alma's drawing, but a charcoal sketch could not capture the deep brown of her eyes, or the mild tan of her face. The eyes were large in contrast to her slender nose, and and her pink lips were pressed into a thin, nervous line. Since her hair was pulled back, it made her forehead look especially broad, a contrast heightened by her thin cheeks and pointed chin. Ramza couldn't help but notice that both cloak and dress seemed of poor quality for a member of the royal family—he was pretty sure that even Teta had worn better clothes on some occasions when she was clad only in Alma's hand-me-downs.

"Are you dogs, to be so ill-mannered?" Agrias snapped. "You dare to stay standing in the presence of the Princess?"

Idiot Ramza! It had been so long since he'd worked with anyone of true standing, he'd forgotten! Worse still, he'd been gaping at her like a lusting child! He fell to one knee at once, his head bowed low. After a moment's reluctant hesitation, Gaffgarion and Radia followed suit.

"I apologize, your Highness," Ramza rattled off quickly, his cheeks flushed. "We have spent much time in the field, and have forgotten the respect due your station."

"No excuses!" Agrias exclaimed.

"It's alright, Agrias," Ovelia said. Her voice was softer now, much less certain that it had been during her prayers. "Stand, please. These floors can be terribly uncomfortable. Who are you?"

"Reinforcements, your Highness," Gaffgarion said, rising at once. "The Hokuten command thought your guard could do with soldiers of our caliber-"

"Of your caliber?" Agrias demanded incredulously.

"Of proven worth and merit, on and off the battlefield," Gaffgarion said. "We are at your disposal, your Highness."

"Well, that's nice," Ovelia said. "But who exactly are you?"

"I am Geoffrey Gaffgarion," he said. "With me are my daughter, Radia, and my apprentice, Ramza."

Ovelia nodded at each name, looking at them in turn. Her eyes lingered for a moment on Ramza, then turned back to Gaffgarion. "I see," she said. "You're to join my escort?"

"We are, your Highness," Gaffgarion said.

"Thank you for your help."

"No thanks are necessary, your Highness. We are merely doing the job we were paid to do." Gaffgarion inclined his head. "By your leave, your Highness. We have been on the road for some time, and would like to rest before beginning our duties."

"Of course," Ovelia said. "Lavian, will you show them to their rooms?"

"Yes, your Highness," Lavian said, and led them away from the princess. As they left the chapel behind, the priest, the princess, and Agrias began to talk quickly in hushed voices.

"A mite tense around here, hm?" Gaffgarion said as they left the chapel.

"I do not know what you are referring to," Lavian said stiffly.

"I see." Gaffgarion said nothing else as Lavia led them down a short set of stone stairs and into a rough-hewn stone hallway, with four doors set in the walls between the glowing runes that illuminated the hall. She stopped in front of the door first door on the left and knocked upon it.

"Simon?" called a girl's voice.

"Who else would knock?" asked a different voice.

"It's Lavian," Lavian said. "But I've got the reinforcements with me."

"Oh, Saint!" hissed the second voice, and there was the hissing and rustling of fabrics pulled against each other—the sound of someone hastily getting dressed, if Ramza was any judge of such things.

Lavian sighed. "You were supposed to be ready to relieve me and Alicia-"

"You always come and get us!" grumbled the second voice.

"Sorry we're not always holding your hands," retorted Lavian. "Are you soldiers or schoolgirls?"

The door creaked open. A very young-looking woman with her auburn hair cropped short stood at stiff attention on the other side. Just behind her, a woman whose head was haloed by a mass of blonde ringlets finished adjusting a chestplate.

"Soldiers, ma'am," said the blonde girl.

"You might be, Ysabel," admitted Lavian. "Katherine, on the other hand..."

Katherine scowled and brushed past Lavian without a word, heading towards the stairs. Ysabel mumbled an apology and followed. Lavian watched them go, then jerked her head back down the hall without looking at them. "Far right corner," Lavian said. "Left corner's the lavatory. No locks on the doors. Captain'll come talk to you soon."

"Thank-" Gaffgarion started, and Lavian stepped through the door and closed it behind her. "You," Gaffgarion finished. He paused for a moment, then shrugged and moved to the door she'd indicated. The door inside was smaller than the room they'd had at the inn, with four narrow cots in each corner and a single rune set in the ceiling.

Gaffgarion closed the door behind them and looked around the little room, his head cocked slightly so he could hear if anyone had stepped into the hallway. When he was sure no one was listening, he said, "What a cunt."

"Dad!" Radia exclaimed.

"Oh, you disagree?" Gaffgarion said. "All cunts, all led by the biggest fucking cunt I've ever-"

"Dad!" Radia shouted, louder. "You know I don't like that word."

"Well that, oh daughter mine," Gaffgarion grunted. "Is too fucking bad. I've earned the right to call a cunt a cunt."

Radia scowled at her father.

"The Princess seemed nice enough," Ramza said.

Gaffgarion gave him a measuring look. "I suppose she did," Gaffgarion admitted. "Black sheep that she is."

"Not that much of a black sheep, given how much we're getting paid to guard her," Ramza said.

"You think not?" Gaffgarion asked. "Consider how much they're willing to pay for men and women of a proven reputation. Consider the cost of our contract and the quality of her clothes. No, I think someone in the Hokuten command is very wary of what may befall the Princess."

"Someone?" Ramza prompted, his head full of Zalbaag and Gaffgarion.

"Relax, boy," Gaffgarion snorted. "Not your brothers. Zalbaag doesn't play these games, and Dyce wouldn't waste time hiring me through a proxy. He'd probably use you, eh?"

Was that true? Ramza wasn't sure anymore. Not if what Wiegraf had said was true. Not after seeing how Zalbaag broke his word.

Footsteps in the hallway. Gaffgarion turned to the door as it burst open without so much as a knock. Agrias glared between them.

"We need to discuss our plans," she said.

"I quite agree," Gaffgarion said. "And am at your disposal. But you will knock before entering our quarters in all future dealings." For the first time, Gaffgarion's annoyance and frustration were in the open, expressed in the sardonic fire of his voice.

Agrias glared at him. Gaffgarion folded his arms across his chest. Slowly, Agrias nodded. "I apologize," she said. "Please. If this storm hits, we'll have to make new arrangements."

"I understand," Gaffgarion said, and stepped into the hall.

Almost as soon as Gaffgarion left the room, Radia moved to Ramza. She was still scowling after her father. "It looked just like the drawing," Radia said.

"I know," Ramza said, fishing the loose-bound leather book out of his satchel. It was part of Alma's gift to him—besides pen and paper (with a cheerful admonishment that she didn't know if he was too lazy to buy his own), she'd given him a book of her sketches. He flipped past the first few charcoal drawings, a little pang in his heart as he saw the aqueduct-laden landscape of the Beoulve estate. He hurriedly turned past the sketches of Dycedarg bent low over a desk and Zalbaag sparring with some faceless knight, and came to a stop on Alma's drawing of Ovelia, with a book in her lap and a little halo of sunshine behind her.

"Your sister's got talent," Radia said.

"I didn't know," Ramza said.

"Want to help me unpack the bird?" Radia asked.

"Give me a moment?"

"Sure thing." She patted him reassuringly on the back, and left the room. Ramza flipped past the picture, to the end of the book—past women in dresses he didn't recognize, past what he thought was a sketch of one of the stained-glass windows from the chapel, until he got to near the end of the book. He stopped there, as he had the last few nights when he looked at the sketchbook. He studied the details of the woman—the high cheekbones and the wary eyes, the tousled hair, darker and longer than Alma's. Clay-red, though of course Alma's sketch didn't show that. That was Ramza's memory, filling in the details of the woman he'd failed to save.

And just past her, Delita's profile looked off into the distance, dark eyes somehow alive and intelligent as they had been in life, his squire's bowl a little messy, a practice sword in one hand.

Ramza sighed, put the sketchbook away, and went to help Radia.