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Chapter 33: Blades in the Dark

"The rear door," Ovelia said, as she and Simon moved as quickly down the narrow hall as the old man could hobble. "You're sure it's no danger?"

Simon shook his head. "Locked and sealed with magic," Simon said. "It cannot be opened, save from the inside."

"A high-level mage-" Ovelia began.

"Perhaps," Simon admitted. "But I imagine we would know if there were a high-level mage in their midst."

"Unless..." Ovelia trailed off, frowning. There were so many unlesses. Unless they had a mage and had scouted the place, intending for this mage to act as an assassin. Unless they had kept the mage at the front door, in the hopes of blasting away what remained of her guard and entering by that ordinary entrance. Unless unless unless.

That was what was bothering her, that was what kept her mind turning. That, and guilt.

It wasn't right. Nothing was right. Not if the Nanten were here.

They pushed open the door to Ovelia's room. Ovelia helped the priest to sit at the edge of the bed, even as he protested. She leaned back against the wall and again heard the whistling of the arrow as it flew, the meaty thnnk of it piercing Katherine's flesh.

"She's dead," Ovelia said.

Simon gave a shaky nod. "She is."

Katherine and Ysabel were young woman from common stock, barely more than Lionsguard cadets, but they had been sweet and friendly and so much less formal than Agrias. They had allowed her to relax a little. Katherine had even reminded her of Alma—both a little fiery and irreverent.

And now...

That was the first time Ovelia had seen someone die. Katherine, bleeding onto the stones of the chapel. The smell of it was still with her. The wet stink of her blood mingling with the crisp rain. The sodden sound her body had made as it hit the stones.

"Do you think...do you think Ysabel..." Ovelia couldn't bring herself to speak the word.

Simon hesitated. "It...seems likely, your Highness."

Both women dead. More loss she didn't understand. Why were the Nanten here?

Ovelia was no fool. There was no great love anywhere across Ivalice. She had learned that lesson shortly after Ondoria had adopted her to make her his heir. She had learned that by listening to Louveria, golden and gorgeous and imperious, as she'd filled the halls of the Lion's Den with her courtiers and soldiers and kept Ovelia isolated to one wing of the Den. Sole heir to the throne, and still Louveria had held such power over her, and no one—not even her uncle and adoptive father, Ondoria—had been willing to stand at her side.

And that had been before Orinus was born. Before there'd been no need for a princess complicating the line of succession. Before Ovelia had been banished from the Den, and consigned to one meek monastery after another as a way of currying favor with the Church and keeping her away from even the slightest semblance of power. She was suffered to live only as a bargaining chip for the interests of Louveria and her weak-willed husband.

No one complained. Why would they? None took Ovelia's side, and besides, she was more useful to them this way. Louveria made sure that little news from the capital or the courts made its way to her, but Ovelia was smart enough to realize that the prospect of marriage into the royal family through Ovelia pacified some nobles who might be more aggressive. She didn't like the idea of being married off against her will, but she had always taken some comfort in the notion that her very existence helped keep the peace in Ivalice. It made the lonely hours easier to bear—the ever-changing faces of her guards, and the coldness of the women around her (and how cold they were, each too adept at politics to think befriending her could lead to anything but trouble with their powerful queen). She could bear it, if it kept the peace. If it kept people from dying.

But it hadn't. Katherine was dead. Ysabel might die too, if she wasn't dead already. Even Agrias-

No. Agrias would survive. Alicia would survive. Lavian would survive. It would take an army to fell them, right? They were strong. They were...they...

Ovelia felt tears stinging in her eyes. She started pacing, trying to shake her fears and restless anxieties off with movement.

This didn't make sense. Why would Goltanna attack like this? Why kill her guards?

So many questions. Like Ramza.

She tried to shake that thought, but it remained stubbornly lodged in her head. She was reasonably confident she had a picture of him—one of Alma's sketches, the one that showed some picnic memory, her dead friends Teta and Delita in the center, her brothers and her father off to one side, and Ramza Beoulve standing opposite. He was in profile, so it was hard to tell, but the resemblance between the boy in the picture and the ever-bowing mercenary was hard to mistake. Even if she hadn't had the picture, however, she imagined she might have spotted the resemblance: Alma had mentioned her brother, and meeting a man with the name Ramza and with hair and eyes almost precisely the same color as Alma's was hardly going to go unnoticed.

So why was a Beoulve traveling under a fake name? Why was he serving as a mercenary? Alma said her brother was alive, but she didn't know where. Was he working for the Hokuten? Not just hired by them, but one of their agents? It wasn't impossible, was it? And even Alma could be ignorant, but what would be the point?

Like the Nanten. Was this a kidnapping attempt, or an assassination? Why would Goltanna try either? What did he stand to gain?

Questions chasing round and round, and no answers in sight. Trying to think of answers was better than thinking of Katherine, though. Better than-

Footsteps in the hallways, squishing and sodden, squelching with dampness. Simon looked at the door, frowning. They seemed to be moving too quickly, didn't they? And there was an odd whisking clattering, like doors being thrown open and-

Her door rattled in its frame. A strange voice shouted, "She's in here!"

Lightning thrilled up Ovelia's spine. Simon rose with a start from her bed. "Behind me, your Highness!" he shouted, stepping in front of her and raising his fists. His robe hung limp upon his skeletal frame.

Something clicked in the lock. A key? But how-

The door burst open, and two men stepped inside. They were soaked through, drizzling and dripping from the corners of their sleek, slimy clothes. Perhaps Ovelia might have made out more of their features, but she was rather distracted by the short blades they clutched in their wet hands.

"Stay back, you cretins!" wheezed Simon. "You stand in the presence-"

"Of the so-called princess," grunted the man standing a little farther back. "We know."

"Out of the way, old man," said the man in front. His blue eyes glittered beneath his damp blonde hair.

Simon straightened himself out a little. When he spoke, the hoarseness of his years had faded a little from his voice: she could almost here the Inquisitor he'd been, before he'd ever come to the Monastery with its daunting library. "You stand on holy ground," he hissed. "A place considered sacred by the Glabados Church, and the Ydorans before them. You stand before the Princess Ovelia Atkascha, who carries the blood of your king. I do not know-"

Whatever else he was going to say was lost as the blonde man lunged forwards, with his looming dark-haired companion just a step behind. Simon dodged backwards, out of the reach of the smaller blonde man, but the dark-haired man stepped around and hammered the hilt of his short sword into the back of Simon's bald head. Simon crumbled at once.

"No!" Ovelia roared, and found herself lunging in turn. The two men turned with blades in hands, and Ovelia remembered the lessons she'd learned from Simon and from Alma, and flung out her hands. The ring on right hand gleamed as she drew magic from it, and a moment later a column of pearly translucent light exploded up around her. She gasped, feeling a hollow pit of exhaustion opening somewhere in her stomach, then gritted her teeth and force the light wider, so it surrounded both her and Simon.

"The hell?" growled the dark-haired man. "Thought she didn't know magic."

"She's not supposed to," hissed the blonde man.

It was true: Ovelia had never had the tutors or teachers that trained other noble girls in the arts of defensive magic, protection against betrayal, kidnapping, and assassination. But she had spent her time among monasteries, and the Glabados Church had inherited many of the Ydorans' greatest arts. The ring on her finger had been a gift from Simon on her sixteenth birthday—an old tool designed for idle conjurations and little else, something he'd used to train Templar cadets and Inquisitorial candidates.

The blonde man prodded at her field with the tip of his sword, and the pearly light bubbled inwards. It felt like something was pressing hard on Ovelia's chest, making it hard to breathe.

"We can break it," the blonde man said confidently, and the dark-haired man nodded and added his own sword, and the light was bubbling, warping, tearing, and tears of pain and effort were stinging in Ovelia's eyes and she fel to her knees, her ears filled with the sound of Simon's broken gasps, staring at the two men in their strange, slimy clothes. This close, she could see the clothes were not so much slimy as rubbery, cut all in one piece, sleek and gleaming with the water that sluiced off of them, and their hair was still wet, and the rear door was sealed and she didn't think the front had been lost so how had they gotten in?

Whether it was lack of air or adrenaline or simply the fact that she had been gnawing at the problem since these Nanten soldiers had come calling and killing, the answer came to her in a lightning flash of clarity.

Both doors still stood, but these men had not entered through the doors. They had come from beneath, because this marvelous Monastery relied on the flow of the creek for its plumbing systems, and these men had come in through the creek, swimming beneath the Monastery proper, and why would Nanten soldiers know the structure of the building well enough to see that obvious flaw? Why would Nanten soldiers have a key to her room? Why would Nanten soldiers be surprised to see a Princess with magical training?

They wouldn't, of course. But royal soldiers would. Royal soldiers had scouted the Monastery to guarantee the security of their Princess. Royal policy had kept Ovelia from any academy or magical training.

These men weren't Nanten. They were royals.

Blood spattered against her field. The blonde man collapsed in front of her, the weight of his body too much for her magic to bear: the field gave way with a snapping Ovelia could feel in her mind, and the blonde corpse slumped at her feet, gurgling as birght spots flashed across Ovelia's vision and her bowels trembled.

"Who the hell-" started the dark-haired man, and then the sword flashed again and cut across his throat, and the dark-haired man slunk to the ground, clutching at the bloody gash in his throat, gasping until the sword slashed once more and severed his head from his shoulders.

The headless body hit the ground chest-first. The blonde man stopped gurgling as the dark-haired head bounced away across the loom, leaving bloody puddles in its wake.

Ovelia, breathless and dizzy, looked to the man holding the sword. In the dim light of the wall runes, she saw a man with clay-red hair and a tan complexion. He had had high cheekbones, though the left cheek was mottled by burn scars. Then the dark eyes speared her.

"Who-" she started weakly.

"A friend," said the man with the burned cheek.

But that didn't make sense. These were royal assassins, and assassins of a different stripe lurked outside, wearing Nanten cloaks. This man was not of her guard, and not of the assassins, and not of the men pretending to be Nanten. Who the hell was he?

A friend, he said, and he had killed her assassins. She could smell the salty tang and stomach-punching shitty reek of the man at her feet, as the blood beneath him pooled and pushed out towards Simon. A friend, but there were only two doors into this sanctum, so had he gotten in?

"A friend," she repeated.

He nodded. He held up one hand to forestall her, and with the other sheathed his gold-washed blade. Then he held up his sword hand, too.

"Circumstances conspire to bring you harm, Princess," he said. "I have no intention of doing so. But we must move quickly."

Ovelia nodded, and fell to one knee, trying not to look at the broken body lying next to the priest, studying the bruised lump on Simon's head. "Let us tend to Simon and gather my guard-"

"There is no time, your Highness."

Ovelia stared down at the old man, his mouth working, his eyelids fluttering. She nodded, without looking at the man above her. She glanced at the ring on her finger.

In one swift moved she lifted her hands and willed. A wall of pearly light formed, then pushed outwards, slamming towards the man with the burnt-cheek. He was quick: his sword flew free of its sheathe in one lightning-quick motion, tore through her makeshift wall like tissue paper, and she felt something in her tear as well, wrenching a gasp from her as her heart lurched. But it knocked him off-balance, and as he tumbled backwards Ovelia hiked up her skirt and ran, her lungs aching, her head spinning. She was already wearing her traveling boots, and she leapt over his flailing legs and out into the hall, racing through the stonework hallway to the chapel again.

A friend? A friend who entered a guarded Monastery and planned to pluck her from her protectors? Ovelia might not fully understand her situation, but she knew she could not trust this man.

"No you don't!" shouted a voice behind her, too close already (how? She'd felled him, she was sure of it!) and instead of answering Ovelia slipped her traveling cloak from her shoulders and tossed it backwards. She heard it hit him, the cloth thmphing across his face and muffling his curses, and Ovelia raised her voice and screamed, "AGRIAS! SOMEONE! HELP!"

Over and over as she ran, racing for the main doors, and she burst into the chapel and heard the steady drizzle of rain and still she was screaming-

Something hit her in between the shoulder blades, and when she tumbled, something else hammered into the back of her knees. She hit the ground hard, crying out at the jarring reverberating pain reaching out from palms, knees, and elbows, and scrambled to her feet. A moment later, and a hand knotted itself in her hair, pulled her upright as her scalp burned. She had one glimpse of dark eyes, bright with anger and something else, something like amusement, something like admiration.

"Clever," he said, and then his fist jammed into her throat and Ovelia's dizzy find faded into gasping darkness.