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Chapter 34: Seeds of Distrust
...whichever version of history you accept, most historians agree on the essential details of the attack on Orbonne Monastery. The mercenaries hired to kill the Princess' guards left no record as to how contracted them, but Goltanna would hardly have handed them Nanten cloaks and added their names to Nanten rosters in an attempt to discredit himself. Unbeknownst to these poor mercenaries, their sole purpose was to serve as set dressing so the Crown could plausibly execute Goltanna as a traitor for the assassination of Ovelia. Two Hokuten assassins would do the deed, slipping in through the plumbing and waterworks beneath the Monastery while the Princess' guard was distracted. Thus would Goltanna be disgraced before both Lionsguard and Glabados Church, and the unchallenged ascendancy of Larg and his sister guaranteed. Were it not for one man, until that moment lost to history, the White Lion would have reigned victorious before the war had even begun.
-Alazlam Durai, "The War of the Lions"
Something was wrong. No, scratch that: many things were wrong. Ramza could sense that even through the dispassionate clarity that came to him in the thick of battle, the razor calm that let him focus and fight, slice his sword and barely wince to see the pain and fear on his enemy's face.
But of course, this battle was part of the problem. It was too easy.
The soldiers were shoddy, uncoordinated, their plans and forms easily broken. No sooner had those two Nanten knights fallen in a gout of white flame then arrows had sprayed from the dark, each aimed for random targets. Shoddy again. Even in the confusion they should have focused on targets of value—Lavia, Alicia, and Agrias, all of whom they had in their sights, all of whom had shown dangerous magical abilities. Ramza had known that much when he'd been a cadet traveling with Argus.
And the other soldiers that came from the dark, with axes and swords and spears? The woman who rose screaming to charge at Agrias, her hair still aflame? They, too, were scattered and wild, as though they didn't know how to work together.
Ramza had grown up around the Hokuten, and even before the escalating tensions of the past few years there had always been a fierce rivalry between the two great knightly orders. He'd always heard the Nanten were inferior—limp-wristed sissies who couldn't take a punch or bivouac in the open field, always hiding behind walls and mountains and their mother's skirts, whose lovers longed to see a Hokuten man so they could finally know a night's real pleasure.
But even if Ramza had believed these boasts and jests when he was a cadet—and naive as he he had been, even he hadn't been that naive—he had fought beside Nanten units in the preceding years. He had seen first-hand that they did prefer rigid formations and dense fortification, that they preferred their armor and shields heavy...and that that it made them no less terrifying on the field. They were strong, and rigorous, and determined, and above all else they were well-organized, trusting each other to hold the line and watch each others' backs.
This disorganized mess of an attack? This motley assortment of weapons? These were not the fierce, unyielding Nanten he'd met. These were some of the shoddiest soldiers Ramza had seen.
Ramza kept rolling and firing, following the paths of the arrows from the night, zig-zagging so none could get a bead on him. Alicia raised her scepter and shot a bright light into the sky, shedding radiance across the field: Ramza spied one archer, and loosed an arrow at him. The man cried out as the arrow found his shoulder, and then his cries went silent as the second arrow found his throat.
Ramza turned away, eyeing the chaos of the fight beneath Alicia's light. The grounds around the temple were thick with Nanten, half of whom seemed dead or dying: Agrias was dueling with the woman, and Radia and Gaffgarion seemed to have cut down one foes apiece already and were moving towards others. Surrounded, outnumbered, and hemmed in, and their assailants had been broken already.
Two more archers stood on the hills, but one was moving in an awkward slouch as though he'd already been injured, and the other fired again and again at Lavia. Each arrow that drew near her slowed, then clattered to the ground. Lavian seemed a little more slumped with each arrow, until she was clinging to her staff as though it were the only thing keeping her upright.
Ramza loosed an arrow at her assailant, who rolled to one side. Ramza darted forwards and started snatching up the fallen arrows, feathering the hillside with the archer's own shafts. This one archer seemed a mite craftier than his fellows, always moving, answering Ramza's assault with arrows of his own, so the two men were rolling and firing as their arrows hissed their way through the rain.
Radia appeared around at the archer's back, and sank her sword into his side. He tumbled down the hill.
Too easy to thwart these Nanten, too easy by far, but perhaps these men were fresh soldiers, new recruits easily riled by the escalating tensions of the rivalry betweeen Goltanna and Larg, except why would fresh recruits forego main roads and taking this winding, well-kept path to a forlorn monastery home only to a powerless Princess? Too much by far for any drunken escapade or act of youthful impetuousness. But what did that leave? Official orders? Who would give them, and why?
Another man lunged out of the dark, spear in hand, thrusting at Ramza. Ramza dropped his bow and rolled away. When Ramza rose to his feet, his sword was in his hand, parrying and slashing as the rain cascaded down upon them. Ramza lunged forwards, jerked and shifted, pinning the spear beneath his armpit at the point where the head met the shaft. Another quick twist, and the man clutching the spear splayed onto the marble walkway.
"Yield!" Ramza shouted, pointing his sword at the man's throat. In the same motion, he dropped the spear to one side and kicked it backwards, so it clattered away behind him.
The disarmed man stared up at Ramza, his face cast in shadow by the light burning above. Then Gaffgarion appeared as though by magic, and shoved his sword into the man's stomach. The man gasped, twisted, clutched at the blade so his fingers bled, and then went still.
"What are you doing?" Ramza demanded, glaring at Gaffgarion.
"There are six of us, boy!" Gaffgarion shouted. "Do you intend to take captives?"
"He could have told us-"
The clanging of blades rang through their argument. Scowling, Ramza grabbed for his bow and turned away from Gaffgarion, turning to look for any new enemy. But the battle had gone even more in their favor—Ramza saw no sign of any movement. Radia and Agrias stood over different bodies: Lavian was bent low, clinging to her staff, with Alicia moving towards her.
"SOMEONE ANYONE AGRIAS LAVIAN SOMEONE HELP HE'S COMING-"
Ovelia's frantic scream cut through the rain, the pounding of blood in Ramza's ears, drowned the sound of his exhausted gasps.
"Ovelia!" Agrias cried, and turned on her heel with the blood still sluicing off her sword, dashing through the chapel doors. Ramza almost followed, but some instinct stopped him, pulled him away from the doors and set him off at a run around the far side of the chapel, plunging along its round exterior, racing as fast as his pumping legs could carry him, and his mind was working too, those little wrongs he'd noticed even in the thick of the fighting slowly adding up to a greater whole. Because what if these other things had been a distraction? What if-
He rounded the side of the building as a flash of lightning illuminated the scene. In that moment, it felt as though the lightning had struck his brain: he reeled, absorbing everything, understanding nothing.
Across the way, he saw the somber profile of a young man. He had just tossed the Princess Ovelia's slumped, unconscious body onto the back of chocobo whose bright gold feathers seemed iridescent even through the rain. His face was in profile, his nose more crooked than it had been when Ramza had last seen him, and his hair longer and stringier. His body seemed broader and more powerful, too. But perhaps most markedly of all—even at this distance, even in profile, Ramza could see the dispassionate focus in those dark eyes.
In Delita's eyes.
"Delita!" he howled, and his words were swallowed up by an almighty crack of thunder that made it sound as though something in the sky had shattered. The force of it shook Ramza's bones as he started to run, hurtling towards the dim and distant figure as it slipped atop the chocobo and set the bird in motion. First at a slow trot then at a brisk run, and Ramza was sprinting for all he was worth and feeling the most peculiar deja vu. He'd done this before, hadn't he? Chasing a chocobo that held a Heiral, with no hope of catching up.
"Delita!" he shouted again. But if Delita heard, he didn't slow.
"No!" Agrias cried, bursting out of the door as Ramza drew near. She stared after her Princess in horror, then began to run once more, her scaled armor clinking with every pounding step. Ramza raced besides her.
Gaffgarion appeared along the far side of the monastery with Radia at his side. "What's happening?" he demanded.
Ramza didn't answer. Neither did Agrias. They kept racing, chasing after the lone figure in the distance. Gaffgarion turned his head to follow, then gasped audibly. "Who the hell-?"
Ramza and Agrias sprinted past him as the chocobo disappeared over the hills, following the winding of the creek. Ramza felt a stitch in his side, but refused to slow. Delita was alive. Delita was-
"Oy!" Gaffgarion barked, grabbing for Ramza's arm. From the corner of Ramza's gaze, he saw that Gaffgarion had also reached out for Agrias. She whirled about, chopping with her blade, roaring, "Unhand me!"
Gaffgarion fell back with a cry, releasing both Ramza and Agrias. They turned as one, but now Radia was in front of him. "You can't catch him!" she shouted. "Not like this."
Ramza started to move again, with Agrias doing the same. Radia hotfooted back. "He's mounted!" she shouted. "You can't-"
"She has been taken!" Agrias bellowed, advancing on the red-headed woman with her sword in hand. "It is my charge to guard her, and I will not-"
"These are Nanten, right?" Radia said. "They're not going to-RAMZA!" She grappled with him as Ramza moved to step past her again, shoved him back. "What are you doing?"
"Delita!" Ramza cried without thinking thinking. "It was Delita!"
Radia's eyes widened. Besides the hissing of rain, there was silence in their midst. Agrias turned slowly to face him, her eyes narrowed into a suspicious glare. "You know him?" she said.
Ramza nodded dumbly. "But he's...I thought he was dead. Why would he..."
The shock of seeing Delita alive was slowly wearing off. Ramza was slowly becoming conscious again—conscious of the fire in his calves, ankles, chest, shoulders, the slow burning of desperate strain. He was conscious again of spots where armor had chafed against wet skin, conscious of the little scrapes and bruises from all his rolling and dodging. Conscious of\f what he was saying, and how it sounded. Some unknown mercenary knew the Princess' kidnapper, and admitted as much to the Captain of her Guard.
So he looked at Agrias, and said at once, "I don't know what he's doing," Ramza said. "But I have to find him. So do you."
Agrias' nostrils flared, and she nodded slowly. "A fair point," she said. "How?"
"That's easy," Radia said, turning to look at Agrias. "He's not going to run headlong into Gallione or Lesalia, and he's got to move fast. Hokuten can catch him anywhere else he goes. If he's with Goltanna, he'll head for Bethla Garrison."
Agrias stiffened. "We will never rescue her, if-"
"I know," Radia said. "But that's no easy road. He can't run over the mountains fast enough by himself, and he can't cut around Araguay . His chocobo won't help him much there. If we take our time and prepare, we can catch him before he crosses the Falls."
"Hold on!" Gaffgarion exclaimed. "This is madness."
Agrias turned her glaring eyes back to him. "You dare-"
"I dare, you wretched woman!" he spat. "You want to pursue a mounted man on foot while all we've got is a pack bird?"
"And what would you propose, coward?" Agrias sneered.
"Simple," Gaffgarion said. "If we leave tonight, we can be in Dorter by afternoon tomorrow. There's a Hokuten garrison there—probably with birds of their own."
"And the Hokuten have always been such friends to Ovelia," growled Agrias.
"I was hired by the Hokuten," Gaffgarion snapped. "And I'm not going to let your pride stop us from getting the help we need. We should head for the garrison."
"Do what you want," Ramza said. "I'm going after Delita."
Gaffgarion glared at Ramza. "I thought you'd learned by now, boy-"
"Learned what?" Ramza demanded. "He's alive, Gaffgarion."
"If it's your friend!" Gaffgarion exclaimed. "How could you even tell-"
"He could tell," Radia said. "And I'm going, too."
Gaffgarion opened his mouth, then closed it. He glared between them, and shook his head. "Madness," he said again. "You can't catch him."
"I have to try," Ramza said. "With or without you." He looked at Agrias. "Either of you."
Agrias and Gaffgarion stared at him. After a moment, Agrias nodded slowly "The Princess has been taken. You believe he makes for the road north to Bethla from the Falls?" She looked at Radia.
"I do not know where else he could go," Radia said.
Agrias nodded, and looked back to Gaffgarion. "You honestly believe the Hokuten will aid us in our pursuit?"
Gaffgarion glanced at her. "I do."
"Then please take your pack chocobo and ride north," she said. "We will pursue on foot."
Gaffgarion considered, then nodded. "A wise plan, Captain," he said.
She turned at last to Ramza. "I can trust you to put the Princess above your friend?" she asked.
Ramza hesitated, uncertain what to say. "You can trust me to protect her, Captain," he said.
Agrias nodded curtly. "I cannot afford to turn away help. Gather your things and be ready to leave as soon as possible." She turned back to the Monastery, then stopped, and looked at Ramza over her shoulder. "If you betray the Princess, I will see you dead."
She entered the monastery. Ramza moved to follow, and Gaffgarion grabbed him and whirled him around, glaring between him and Radia.
"Again you waste yourself on fool quests!" Gaffgarion cried. "Such risk, and for what? For the chance to see a friend who might now be murdering scum? I thought I had at least broken that bad habit-"
By way of answer, Ramza slammed his shoulder into Gaffgarion's chest, knocking the older man back a step. Gaffgarion sputtered in rage as Ramza glowered at him. This was by no means the first fight they'd had—indeed, they'd had so many fights over so many issues, over captives and matters of pay, over what contracts to take and how to execute their duties. But the fact was that Ramza had no confidence in all those other fights. He didn't trust Gaffgarion, but he understood that this world-weary mercenary knew more of such matters than he did. So they made their compromises and concessions, and Ramza acquiesced or made his small rebellions, but all moved as Gaffgarion willed because Ramza didn't trust his own judgment, not after Zeakden.
But Delita Heiral was alive in the world, and Ramza would find him again or die trying, no matter who tried to stop him.
Gaffgarion glared back at him. After a moment, his green eyes softened. "Ramza," the other man said softly. "Are you proud of the things you've done?"
Ramza did not answer. He kept his eyes hard, so as not to betray the twist of guilt he felt against his ribs.
"Your friend has taken the Princess," Gaffgarion said. "We don't know who he's working for or what he intends to do with her. You're riding off with a woman who will kill him if she gets the chance. And your friend...Delita, right?" Gaffgarion's eyes were unbearably soft. "Think of all you've done, these past two years. Think of who you were, and who you are. What do you think he's done? Who do you think he is?"
Gaffgarion stared at Ramza. Ramza stared steadily back, hoping no sign of his new doubts showed in his eyes. Then Gaffgarion turned on his heel, and was off without a second look.
Ramza waited until he was out of sight, then turned to Radia. "Radia-" he started.
"Please," she scoffed, moving towards the door. "Like you wouldn't do the same for me."
Ramza didn't have time to say anything before she'd entered the Monastery again. Ramza hesitated, as the rain dripped down around him. Then he followed after.
Stairs led down into the dark—presumably to the forbidden library. Ramza went up instead, and found himself back in the chapel, entering from a well-concealed door behind the pulpit. Agrias and Alica were hastily sorting through the piled bags they'd assembled in preparation for their journey to Lesalia: Radia had moved to help them, speaking with Agrias in a low, anxious murmur. From down the hall, Simon came, propped up on Lavian's shoulder. A bloody bruise had formed upon the crown of his bald head, which Lavian was tending to with waves of light undulating from the tip of her shepherd's crook.
"The Princess...?" the priest croaked.
"We'll get her back, Simon," Agrias said, turning to face him.
The priest's glazed eyes couldn't seem to focus on her. "Have to," he muttered. "Have to."
Lavian looked away from the priest, down to Katherine's wet and bloody body. Agrias, Alicia, and Radia followed her gaze.
"They deserved better," Agrias whispered.
"We can't leave them like this," Lavian said.
Agrias hesitated, then nodded and looked to Simon. "Father, can you give them rites?"
The priest said nothing for a time. His vague eyes were fixed on the windows. Then he nodded very slowly. "What were...there signs?"
Agrias closed her eyes. "Aries and Scorpio," she whispered.
The priest nodded again. "Need...my room..."
"I'll take him," Ramza said, moving to the priest's side. He was glad for the chance at such simple work, to distract him from the restless irritation that mounted with every moment he wasn't off in pursuit of Delita. He draped the priest's arm around his shoulders and helped him back the way they'd come.
His mind was already itching terribly, puzzling over how Delita had survived, what he was doing here, what sins he might have committed and what evil he might intend for the Princess. He didn't want to believe his friend could be capable of anything too terrible, but Ramza had seen too much of the world these last two years, and he still remembered the fearsome violence that had possessed Delita as they'd ridden for Zeakden.
Best to keep moving, so he did not have time to think.
Ramza helped Simon limp to the little door which led to the priest's sparse stone-walled room—just a narrow cot, a low dresser, and a desk piled high with books. Ramza settled the priest upon his bed, though he did not allow him to lay down. His head was injured—Ramza had no intention of letting him slip into an unconsciousness from which he would not awaken.
"What do you need, Father?" Ramza asked.
The priest regarded him for a moment. His eyes were still glazed, but they seemed a little brighter than they had before, a little more alert.
"Ramza," the priest said.
Ramza froze as a cold shock thundered out from his heart and rolled through his veins. Simon nodded slowly. "You look like...your sister. Like...your father."
Ramza swallowed against the dryness of his throat and found the presence of mind to ask, "You knew my father?"
"The Heavenly Knight," Simon said. "Earned that name. Helped. Always helping." Simon chuckled, then winced and raised a tentative finger to the bruised goose-egg atop his head.
"Are you alright?"
"Alright," huffed Simon. "No. Attacked by those..." He panted and shook his head. "Ramza," he said. "You must..."
Simon gestured vaguely around them. "The Ydorans...built to last. The stream...flows through. Those men...swam."
Ramza shook his head. "I don't understand."
Simon was quiet for a time. His breathing was a little slow, a little uneven, and he was still tenderly probing the lump upon his head.
"Someone...told them," Simon said. "How to...get in. Gave them...keys. Gave them...plans. Someone...royal."
Ramza blinked, opened his mouth, closed it. He didn't know what to say. Royal? What did the mean? A member of the royal family? Someone close to them? A member of the Lionsguard?
A member of the Lionesses?
Simon nodded at the fear and confusion in Ramza's eyes. "Who...can be trusted?" he asked. "I...don't know. But she...she needs..." The priest winced, his eyelids fluttering. Ramza moved to help him, and the priest weakly waved him away.
"She needs...justice. She needs...service." Simon's eyes were a little brighter now, though he swayed unsteadily where he sat. "You are...a Beoulve. Help her."
Ramza hesitated. He was filled with questions, filled with doubts and uncertainties. The attack outside, part of some royal plot? Where did Delita fit in? How had Delita survived? It was the same sick, weak feeling that had hung over him when Teta was taken, except now Delita was the kidnapper, and nothing made sense.
Ramza had never been much of a Beoulve. These days, he wasn't sure anyone had ever been, besides men like his father. Perhaps Simon could sense his hesitation. He steadied himself upon his bed, focused on Ramza once again. Ramza's skin prickled before the priest's steady gaze.
"If not for the sake of your name," Simon said, speaking slowly but firmly. "If not for the sake of your Princess. Then for the sake of your sister's friend."
The knife in Ramza's guts twisted. Echoes of Zeakden again: another of his sister's friends, taken far away, and Ramza knew where this road led, he knew the failure and the grief that waited at the end, and he felt his knees go weak at the thought of it, saw Teta tumbling down except this time it was Ovelia, and Delita stood above her with a bloodstained sword.
"I will try," Ramza said, and he could hear the fear in his voice.
Simon watched him for a time, then nodded. He instructed Ramza on where to look in his wardrobe, and after moving aside an ancient leather tome (with Simon's ringing, alarmed squeak of "careful, careful!" still echoing in his ears), found wooden markers stacked throughout neatly in one drawer, each a different Zodiac insignia. He helped the priest to his feet, and they made their way upstairs again. Radia and the Lionesses were standing outside in the pouring rain, each with a heavy bag upon their shoulders. Ysabel and Katherine's bloody corpses had place of honor amongst the myriad dead, all laid upon a heap of sodden wood.
"Can't we bury them?" Lavian was asking, staring at the dead girls with a pained look in her wide eyes.
"No time," Agrias said. "But we will get word to their families."
"Ysabel didn't have one," mumbled Lavian. "Dead in the War. And now..."
She trailed off as Ramza helped Simon outside. "There is a small plot not far from here" Simon said. "They will have markers. I promise you."
Lavian nodded, but said nothing. Alicia placed a comforting hand upon her shoulder.
"We have to leave," Agrias said. "Simon, can you-"
"If Alicia will be so good as to start the flame."
Alicia nodded, lowered her scepter to the sodden wood. The gem flared, sparked, and crackled: flames fought their way out onto the wood, warred against the rain, brighter, brighter, brighter, until the pyre was ablaze in earnest. They stood together in the rain, watching the fire consume the Nanten assailants and the valiant Lionesses alike.
"You deserved better," Agrias said. "You will be avenged."
She turned and marched off, following the winding path of the stream. Alicia gently pulled Lavian away from the fire, and Radia tossed Ramza his bag and then followed after. Ramza hesitated, watching the fire consume the dead, watching Simon as he mumbled to himself, lifting his wooden markers.
"I'll try," Ramza whispered, and trudged off into the storm.