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Chapter 32: The Storm

...how is young Orinus? My nephew looks stronger by the day (and fortunately seems to take after his mother, rather than his late father). I have no doubt he will make a fine king. Indeed, I would not be surprised if he can be properly crowned in the near future: it seems to me his reign cannot possibly be contested and, God-willing, any would-be challengers will surely meet with unpleasant ends...

-Excerpt from a letter to Queen-Mother Louveria from Bestrald Larg

By the time Radia and Ramza's watch had come, and they had replaced Katherine and Ysabel upon the hilltops, the grey clouds had begun a low, miserable drizzle. As the night wore on, the drizzle gradually intensified into a steady downpour and then into a full-on thunderstorm, complete with wild winds and the cracking of lightning across the sodden skies. Ramza and Radia wore cloaks over their armor and gear, but the water fell with such force and fury that it found every crack, soaked through every layer, so Ramza's whole body was one damp misery.

"I can't see anything!" he shouted to Radia, just in time for thunder to drown out his words.

"What!" she bellowed back.

He repeated himself, louder, and she nodded and shouted something back.

"What!" Ramza called.

She tried again, and he caught only a few words: "...a good thing...hired to..."

He assumed it was an attempt at a joke and simply nodded back, trying to smile. He didn't feel like shouting himself hoarse against the raging storm.

The thick darkness of a stormy night gradually gave way to the gloomy grey of a rain-soaked dawn, and Lavian and Alicia came out to relieve them. Ramza and Radia trudged inside (Ramza stopped to pat their damp chocobo soothingly where it shuddered beneath the monastery eaves) only to find that Gaffgarion and Agrias were awake and feuding.

"-you know leaving would be rank idiocy!" fumed Gaffgarion, his calm composure lost.

"What I know or do not know does not concern you, knave!" barked Agrias. "I am in command here!"

"Ah, so when an idiot asks us to rush to our deaths, I'm to gleefully obey?" scoffed Gaffgarion.

"Idiot!" hissed Agrias, outraged.

Ramza trudged on without stopping. He was too tired and to damp to try and quiet the argument. But when he rounded the corner, he found Ovelia standing on the other side, her eyes lost in though. She wore a different dress today, white instead of blue, though she still wore the traveling cloak around her shoulders. Even in his surprise, Ramza couldn't help but notice that her clothes still seemed oddly shabby for her station.

A moment's shocked stillness. Then Ramza fell to his knee, which squished and squeaked against the stone. He heard Radia do the same behind him, a little slower.

"Please rise," Ovelia said in a low voice. "Please."

Ramza rose unsteadily, blinking the sleep from his eyes. "Apologies, your Highness," he said. "I-"

"Really, Ramza," she said. "We're to be traveling together for many days to come. If you fall to your knees every time you see me-"

"You'll look a lot like some girls I used to know," mumbled Radia.

There was a moment of stunned silence. Ovelia's eyes were wide: Ramza felt a flush of embarrassment rising in his own cheeks, and looking over his shoulder, he could see Radia looking similarly horrified.

Ovelia snorted.

It was an awkward, muffled, undignified sound, and she put both hands against her mouth and tried her damndest not to laugh, and the sight was somehow funny enough on its own that Ramza felt a laugh rising unbidden in his own throat and struggled not to let it loose through pressed lips, and Radia gave a sort of choked gasping giggle, and then the three of them were running down the hall, Radia and Ramza squeaking and dripping as they went, and Ovelia shoved open her door and waved them inside, snickering as she did so, and as the door closed behind them she lost it entirely, cackling with laughter, and the sound was undeniably infectious. It turned this sober, serious-faced woman into something else entirely, someone young and bold as Alma, and the music of her voice was just as prevalent in her laugh, so Ramza was guffawing and Radia was howling.

"Oh, Saint," Ovelia sighed, wiping tears from her eyes and settling back the larger of the room's two beds. "They might have heard us!"

"I'm sorry," Radia mumbled. "I don't know-"

"Please," Ovelia scoffed, waving one hand dismissively. "It was funny." The way she said it, it sounded like an explanation unto itself. "I didn't think I would laugh like that again, after the others..."

She trailed off, and the mask slipped into place again—the composed, reserved, resigned princess. But it was a mask, and Ramza could see the woman beneath it now, trying not to show any sign of pain.

"Forgive me if I assume too much, your Highness," Ramza said. "But what were you doing in the hall?"

Ovelia considered for a moment. "Trying to figure out if I should announce my own wishes," Ovelia said.

"Why?" Radia asked. "You're the Princess. What you say, goes."

Ovelia smiled a little. "You don't know much about the way of court, do you?" she said. Radia shrugged, and Ovelia laughed. "You're funny," she said.

"Are you making fun of me?" Radia asked.

"And what if I was?" Ovelia countered. "I'm the Princess. What I say, goes." She giggled.

"I still don't understand," Radia said.

Ovelia inclined her head slightly, and was silent for a moment. "Agrias has been a faithful companion in trying times," she said. "And she deserves my trust and respect. If she feels it is wiser to brave the storm, I trust her judgment."

"But do you agree with it, your Highness?" Ramza asked.

Ovelia hesitated, then shook her head. "It would be best to wait until the storm has passed," she said. "So we all may reach our destination-"

Footsteps in the hall, coming towards their door, and Ovelia's eyes flashed wide and Ramza felt an answering kind of panic, because no matter who it was coming to the room they would certainly have something to say if they found the Princess alone with two mercenaries.

"Kneel!" Ovelia hissed, and Ramza knelt at once and after a long moment Radia followed suit, and Ovelia raised her voice, "Are you daft?" she shrieked. "This Monastery predates the Fall! It was said to have religious signifcance to the Ydorans themselves, and you would dare sully it with mud and rainwater? You inconsiderate-"

"Your Highness?" came Agrias' voice through the door, with a comical note of confusion souring her usual stern authority.

"A moment, captain!" Ovelia exclaimed, with a theatrical gesture. "I am reprimanding these inconsiderate knaves-"

"Reprimanding...your Highness!" The door swung open and Agrias burst inside, her hand on the hilt of her sword. She glared at Radia and Ramza, then raised concerned eyes to Ovelia. "You should not be alone with these mercenaries, your Highness."

"They are of my guard!" Ovelia said. "I shall reprimand them as I please!"

"I..." Again, that baffled note in Agrias' voice. "Of course, your Highness."

"Good," Ovelia said. "When do we leave?" As though to punctuate her words, a crack of thunder filled the echoing corridors of the monastery.

Agrias looked up at the ceiling of the small room, then back down to the Princess. "I believe it would be safest to wait until the storm has settled."

Ovelia nodded. "I trust your judgment absolutely, captain." She turned her imperious gaze upon Ramza and Radia. "You are dismissed," she said, and so cold was her voice that it was almost difficult to notice the smile tugging at her lips.

Ramza and Radia nodded, rose with their heads still bowed, and left the room, marching back to their own. They stripped off wet armor and clothes. By this point, there was little need for modesty between them—the necessities of the field had ensured they spent plenty of time together in various states of undress—but Ramza made a point to keep his gaze as the wall while she changed. He vaguely wondered if she extended him the same courtesy, and as always wasn't sure if he would be grateful, disappointed, or both if she did.

"She's different," Radia said.

"She is," Ramza said. "A little like Alma."

Radia snorted. "Nothing like Alma."

Ramza glanced over his shoulder and caught the hint of pale skin and the slight swell of her breasts. He looked away again at once. "What do you mean?"

"All that business about..." Radia sighed. "What was that?"

Ramza pulled on a fair of comfortable trousers and sat on the bed, still looking at the wall. "The rules of court," Ramza said.

"Right," Radia said. "But what's that mean?"

"It's complicated," Ramza said.

"Too complicated for a lowborn mercenary like me?" Radia assumed a mocking highborn accent.

"You know that's not what I-"

"Oh, Saint's sake, turn around!" Radia exploded.

Ramza risked a quick look and saw that Radia tightening the cord on a loose red tunic. He turned to face her. "That's not what I meant," he said.

"So what did you mean?" she asked

"I don't know," Ramza said. "I...I never really understood it myself. I didn't have to. I'm..." He looked at his bare feet, wiggling his toes as they tingled with relief at being freed from the damp boots. "My brothers didn't feel the need to teach me much. I don't think they planned for me to...to do much, at court."

Radia nodded. "What's that mean, though?"

"The...politics of it, I guess," Ramza said. "The games and the etiquette. The little ways you can...can put someone down, or honor them, or both."

"How's that work?" Radia asked.

"I'm not sure," Ramza said, and tried to think of some example, remembering back to Alma's fervent complaints on one holiday or another (and trying not to remember the other faces that had been in the room, Reis and Beowulf and Teta and Del-)

"Let's say you're throwing a dinner," Ramza said, a hair too quickly. "And...a duchess is visiting, so she...she should be seated at the head of the table. Place of honor. But you're...feuding with the duchess, and...and your best friend, who's a baroness, is there, and you...you put her in front of the duchess?" Even as Ramza said it, it sounded boring and pointless. What would any of that accomplish? He had to stifle a yawn just to get through the sentence.

"That sounds stupid," Radia said, and she made no effort to stifle her yawn, her eyes fluttering as she raised a hand to her mouth.

"It...is stupid," Ramza agreed, yawning in turn, and laid back against his bed. "But it...matters, I guess."

"Stupid," Radia mumbled, and Ramza felt the weight of darkness crushing down his eyelids, his dreams rising up to meet him.

"You said she was different from Alma," Ramza croaked, fighting against the wave of exhaustion.

"Huh?" Radia groaned, her voice thick with sleep.

"You...you said..." Ramza trailed off in a yawn, and felt himself drifting off into the dark.

He almost didn't hear Radia's drowsy mumble: "...Alma..doesn't care...but Ovelia..."

But Ovelia cared. Enough to hold her tongue, and let Agrias choose for them.

It seemed no time at all had passed when the door banged open, jerking Ramza from sleep. Across from him, Radia rose groggily from her bed, wiping at her eyes. Gaffgarion stood in the doorway, one hand on the handle, the other on his hilt. He was in his full strange mesh of plate, mail, and leather, and his mustache bristled above his lip. The steady reverberation of rain against the stone ceiling could still be heard.

"Up, you louts!" he barked.

Ramza and Radia exchanged glances, then rolled away from him without a word.

"I said up!" Gaffgarion repeated.

"We'll listen when you've done a watch," grunted Radia.

"How do you know I haven't?" Gaffgarion asked.

"My hair's still damp," Radia said.

"My hair's still damp," Ramza added, grabbing for a pillow and wrapping it around his head.

There was the sound of heavy footsteps in the hallway, walking away. At once Gaffgarion relaxed and allowed a look of exasperation to cross his face. He sighed. "We're preparing to move."

Ramza dropped the pillow and raised his head. "You mean-"

"I mean," Gaffgarion affirmed, nodding. "We're heading to Lesalia."

Ramza sat up. Radia did the same across from him. "It can't still be morning," Radia said.

"Evening, actually," Gaffgarion said. "You slept late."

It didn't feel like it. Ramza still felt exhausted, and parts of him were chafed from the mingling of leather, cloth, and rain.

"You want to travel at night?" Ramza asked.

"A command from Captain Cunt," growled Gaffgarion, rolling his eyes.

"Dad," Radia said warningly.

Gaffgarion raised his hands in mock surrender and continued, "She insists we've lost too much time, and is laboring under the delusion that moving under cover of night will somehow be safer." He shook his head. "I tried to convince her otherwise, but the woman is deaf to reason."

"Reason being whatever you think is best," Radia said.

"Haven't been wrong so far," Gaffgarion said, shrugging. "Dawdle as long as you like. I'd rather look a fool than have to walk through this."

Gaffgarion left the room. Radia and Ramza exchanged glances. "Is he wrong?" Ramza asked.

"Probably not," admitted Radia. "She's a Princess. Moving under cover of darkness doesn't really keep her safe. I figure the more official we are, the better."

Ramza nodded. He and Radia gathered their gear, packed their bags, and moved slowly towards into the hall. There was no sight of anyone else, and no noise from any of the neighboring rooms, so the two of them made their way up to the chapel. There they found Agrias, Lavian, Alicia, Simon, and Gaffgarion waiting by the door, each shouldering a large bag with a few more piled by the door. Ovelia was bowed in prayer by the altar at the front of the room.

"Soldiers!" Agrias scowled as they walked into the room, though she kept her voice low. "Insolent, unrepentant, and slothful besides! What are the Hokuten coming to?"

Before Ramza could start to apologize, Gaffgarion spoke. "Begging your pardon, milady, but we are not knights of the Hokuten-"

"Nor a knight of any description, Geoffrey Gaffgarion!" Agrias spat.

Gaffgarion chortled. "Quite right," he said. "I would not want to sully my name with such a meaningless title."

"You dare-!"

"You are in a House of God," Simon breathed, in his reedy, creaking voice. "Assembled to protect the Princess of Ivalice. Please be civil."

"I..." Agrias inclined her head guiltily. "Yes, Father."

"I do not believe I ever spoke an uncivil word," Gaffgarion said mildly.

Again, the priest's eyes glinted from their wrinkled folds. "Civil words in a civil tone can hold a most uncivil intent."

Gaffgarion hesitated, then nodded slightly, not quite meeting the priest's eyes.

Ovelia rose from her place at the front of the room, and turned back to them, still wearing that oddly second-hand dress. She moved to thew, slow but purposeful.

"You have finished your prayers?" the priest asked.

"I have," she said. "Father, thank you for-" Her voice caught. She took a steadying breath. "Thank you." She said.

The priest smiled sadly. "Go with God, your Highness," Simon said, bowing his bald head before the princess.

"You too, Simon," she said, taking him by the hands and beaming up into his bearded face.

The doors to the chapel burst open. Katherine stumbled in, leaving pinkish puddles in her wake. Behind her, wind howled and rain pattered, and Ramza thought he could make out the dim metallic clangs of sword against sword.

"My lady!" Katherine gasped. "The Nanten-"

An arrow flew out of the dark, and buried itself in the back of her neck in a spurt of blood. Katherine took one faltering step, fell to her knees clawing at the arrow, then pitched down against the stone.

At that, the scene burst into a frenzied chaos, as everyone unsheathed weapons and moved in different directions. Agrias grabbed Ovelia and whirled about, shielding the princess with her armored back. Lavian cried out and fell to Katherine's side, but Alicia grabbed her by the shoulder and jerked her to her feet, jabbing out with her scepter as she did so. Its jeweled tip flickered, and then a gout of fire rolled out into the dark, hissing with steam as raindrops met the cloud of flame. She rushed outside, dragging Lavian after her. Ramza and Radia stepped away from the door, eyes searching the darkness without for any sign of their enemies, hunching low in case of fresh arrows. A moment later, and there was a terrific whoosh of rushing air, like the beating of wings. The sounds of fighting and even the steady pattering of rain seemed suddenly muffled.

"Nanten!?" croaked Gaffgarion. "What kind of fools..." He shook his head, his calm restored at once. His sword was out, and Ramza hadn't even seen him draw it. He turned back to Agrias. "Captain, we can't let them inside."

Agrias gave him a wary glance over one shoulder. "Father!" she called. "Is this the only door?"

"The only one they can use," Simon said. "The rear is locked, and sealed by magic."

"Then take her to her room," Agrias said, drawing her own sword. It shone in a way that Ramza remembered—that heavy mirage shimmer, like the blades of Wiegraf and Zalbaag. "We will clear the way."

"Agrias-" Ovelia began.

"Do not worry, my lady," Agrias said. "These rabble are no match for a Lioness." She gestured to Simon, who nodded and led the princess gently down the hall by her shoulders. Agrias looked to Gaffgarion, Ramza, and Radia. "With me!"

Gaffgarion inclined his head, and followed after her. Radia and Ramza hesitated. "Dad," Radia called. "Shouldn't we leave a guard, or-"

"There's just the one door," Gaffgarion said, not breaking stride or looking back. "And we have our orders."

Radia gave a weak sort of shrug and stepped quickly after him. Ramza took a deep breath to calm the beating of the heart and the pounding of the blood in his veins, then brought up the rear. He looked down at the fallen woman as he passed her, the blood staining her blonde ringlets as it dribbled from the wound in her neck. Then he was past her, and out into the rain.

The sky was almost black, but from the dim glow that remained on the horizon and the faded pool of light that spilled out from the doors behind them, Ramza could make out the shape of several knights. Some were lean, some burly, some scarred, some bearded. But every man and woman in their ranks wore the red cloak on their shoulders. Ramza did not have to see their backs to know the black lion that fluttered there. The sign of Goltanna's Nanten.

A man and a woman stood close to the door, each with blades drawn. At their feet was Ysabel's auburn-haired corpse. Alicia and Lavian stood opposite them, Alicia's scepter extended like a fencing foil, Lavian standing ramrod straight with her thumb tracing some of the glowing runes of her shepherd's crook. A dome of flickering force seemed to extend out from the shepherd's crook and up around them, so the rain slid down and pooled at its fringes. Several arrows hung within the dome, bound their by lines of white force.

Agrias, Radia, Ramza, and Gaffgarion fanned out to cover any other approaches to the door as the rain pattered down upon the dome. Ramza followed the paths of the arrows, searching for the archers. The dome hummed with a deep vibration Ramza could feel in the stones beneath his feet. High-level magic, this: in all his travels, Ramza wasn't sure he'd ever worked with mages of this caliber.

No time to worry about the dead knights. No time to worry about anything but the battle in front of him. He sheathed his sword and pulled the bow from his shoulder, nocking an arrow.

"There's no need for this," said the woman in the Nanten cloak. "We're here for the Princess. You all can live."

"As if Goltanna would suffer witnesses to his crime," sneered Agrias.

"Crime?" said the man. "What crime can the rightful king of Ivalice commit in securing his realm against plots of treason and assassination?"

"I think the Queen might take umbrage," Gaffgarion said dryly.

"We're not here to talk politics," said the woman. "Whatever magic tricks you have, you're outnumbered. Stand aside."

Agrias studied the woman, then shot a sidelong glance at Agrias and Lavian. She turned back to the man and woman in front of her and nodded slowly. "Alright," she said. "The shield is coming down."

Ramza felt the magic gathering in Lavian, flickering along her staff. A wave of shimmering force flowed out from the crook and into the dome, which burst outwards in one thunderous boom, flinging the arrows back the way they'd come, knocking the man and woman closest to them off their feet, and nearly deafening Ramza. Agrias lunged forwards, and slammed her blade into the earth between the man and the woman: white fire exploded upwards into the sky.

Ramza rolled to one side as an arrow flew from the dark and skidded off the stone where he'd been standing. He loosed his own arrow into the night.

Another battle, fought in service to some distant Hokuten master. Nothing had really changed, except the faces.