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Chapter 35: The Inconvenient Princess

It took nearly three days hard riding before they reached Araguay. Ovelia was a dirty mess of aches, bruises, and scrapes: her dress was torn and ragged, and her pits and thighs were chafed where wet fabric had rubbed her skin raw. But in spite of her various miseries, she took a little pleasure in the frustration on Delita's face.

When they'd first fled from the Monastery, fighting back was the furthest thing from Ovelia's find. It had taken her some time to swim out of the painful darkness into which she had been plunged: when she awoke, slumped across the chocobo's back, she found her world was dazed agony. Her neck throbbed where her captor had struck her: something inside her hurt from where her magic had been pressured and broken; she was tired, and hurt, and afraid.

So she lay like a sack of grain draped across the bird's back, as her captor took them plunging over hills and across wide, rough plains, and the chocobo's steps never faltered as it plunged along besides the burbling stream, riding ever north and west, free of any road or path. The rain poured down upon her, soaking her so she was cold and shivering, and the only light to guide their path was crackling of lighting and the nebulous glow of the half-moon hidden in the clouds.

With dawn came the slackening of the rain and the brightening of the skies, and after hours long riding her red-haired captor bade his mount halt. He helped Ovelia down from the bird, and lay her, shuddering and aching, upon a blanket he stretched upon the ground. Then he efficiently built a fire, which sputtered and smoked in the low drizzle still raining down upon them.

"I'm sorry, your Highness," her captor said. "I certainly didn't-"

He kept talking, but Ovelia didn't hear him. She was dazed and uncertain, floating dreamlike through this cold, wet, awkward reality, but she hadn't slept and she hadn't really rested and now the tiredness was closing in on her, because even the paltry warmth of the fire and the blanket beneath her was enough to lull her into rest at last.

Highness, he called her. As though he respected her. As though he hadn't hit her and dragged her away from her guard.

A flare of rage cleaved straight through her tiredness, and her eyes fluttered open. She wasn't sure how long she'd been out: her captor was now tending to the fire, and filling his canteen in the stream. The chocobo ate from a little pile of greens at its feet. She noticed that her ring was no longer on her finger. He had taken it from her. He wanted to keep her powerless.

She shot to her feet, charged forwards and kicked him square in his rump, so he fell with a yell and a splash into the stream. She turned and ran at once, following the stream back the way she'd come. As she passed the chocobo, she slapped the creature's side with all her might. It gave an indignant squawk, but did not run.

Well, so be it. Hopefully the stream would carry her kidnapper away before he could give chase

She had made her way up and over a hill before she heard his footfalls upon the grass behind her. She looked frantically for someplace to hide, then simply hiked up her skirt and ran as fast as her legs would carry her, cursing all the while the hours she'd wasted on reading and moping when she could have been exercising. It wasn't like the thought had never occurred to her: she'd broached the subject once or twice to Agrias, but her guard captain had always acted so scandalized at the notion her Princess would ever need such protection, and why had Ovelia not pushed the issue when she knew what an absolute pushover-

Something heavy hit her across the knees and dragged her to the ground. They rolled down the grassy hillside together, and then hands were grasping for wrists and no matter how she kicked and scratched and screamed she could not free herself. He cursed and gasped but wrestled her to the ground, and then began to strike in turn—her head, her stomach, until she was spinning and dizzy and gasping, and as she gasped her blows grew weaker and he was fast, so fast, fast enough she almost didn't notice as the gag was pulled between her teeth and the cords he knotted around her ankles and wrists.

She twisted and writhed, bound as she was. He had trouble lifting her at all, and twice she managed to slip free of his grasp and roll back down the hill as he tried to carry her back to their makeshift campsite. But after that second roll her head was spinning and her body aching and there was simply no fight left in her. He slumped her across his shoulders like a lame sheep.

"I was going to let you have a drink and relieve yourself," her kidnapper said conversationally. "But I suppose you'll simply have to suffer."

And suffer she did, for he wasted no more time on rest. He tossed her over the chocobo's back (the bird had remained where it had been left, watching them with curious eyes), pissed into the stream, then mounted up and rode on once more. Ovelia shouted through her gag even as it choked her, but her throat was so dry and hoarse with her screaming, and it had been a little while since she'd had any water but soon her bladder and bowels for burning and it was all she could do to hold it in as they bounced along atop the trotting chocobo.

She knew what he wanted her to do. To beg for the simple human courtesy of being able to relieve herself free of embarrassment. And again that spike of rage drove any thought of surrender from her mind, drove back even the heavy waves of sleep so she kept her eyes open though they stang with tears.

When the chocobo's winding path took it a little into the stream she saw her chance. She rolled on the chocobo's back and plunged into the cold water. The shock of it sloughed off any trace of tiredness that remained, and she held her breath and twisted and twitched as she felt him fighting to pull her from the water, twisted enough that she felt him fall from his bird as he overextended himself, and though he jerked her gargling from the water still she writhed in his grasp, until he flung her against the rocky shore.

The stones dug into her back, but Ovelia ignored the pain and kept rolling, back towards the water, until she found her captor's boot against her neck, his sword in hand. He glared down at her, at pressed the swordpoint gently against her belly.

"You want to die, Princess?"

Ovelia tried to speak against the gag, and growled in frustration. Her kidnapper pursed his lips, then in one quick move hooked a finger against the gag and pulled it free.

She took in a great breath to start screaming, and the boot pushed against her throat again. "Really, Princess?"

No, in this case it was pragmatism instead of defiance. Screaming when no one was around to hear would earn her nothing but pain.

"Kill me, if you're going to," she spat.

"You think I won't?" he asked.

"I think if you were going to, you could have let them do it at the Monastery."

Her captor shrugged. "I won't bother trying to convince you otherwise," he said. "But just because I'm not going to kill you doesn't meant I'm not going to hurt you."

Ovelia laughed as her bruises ached. "You've hurt me already."

"You have no idea what hurt is."

There was terrible ice in his voice, and Ovelia felt it cut right through her fury and her fear. She looked up at the man who had taken her hostage, the man with the red hair and the fearsome eyes and the burn scars upon his cheek.

"If you could really hurt me," Ovelia said, though she could not hide the tremble in her voice. "I think you would have done it by now."

The man's mouth twisted to one side. He moved his boot away from her throat, and sheathed his sword. There was no more rain upon them, though they both still dripped from their plunge into the stream. Ovelia's bladder and bowels burned, her stomach ached, her throat was dry, and pangs and pains reached her from her dozens of bruises and scrapes—both the ones her kidnapper had inflicted on her, and the ones she'd inflicted on herself..

"Your Highness-" he began.

"Stop it!" she shrieked, and their was more terror and hysteria in her voice than she cared to admit but something in the way he said it drove her mad. "Stop it," she repeated, more quietly, as he blinked in confusion. "You don't...I don't know why you're using my rank, but it's fake. I can hear it."

The man shrugged. "So what should I call you?"

"Ovelia."

A flicker of a smile appeared and then vanished from his face. "Nearly too bold for me, your-"

She managed to hook her feet around to kick him in the shin. He cursed and hopped backwards, rubbing at the injured shin.

"You're persistent," he grunted. "I'll give you that."

"I won't stop fighting," she said.

"You'd rather I let you get killed?"

"I'd rather you give me back to my guard."

"The same guard who failed to stop your assassins?"

She had to admit, he had a point. Mingled doubt and irritation gave her the energy to retort, "The same guard who doesn't kidnap and beat me when I don't do what they say."

He shrugged. "If a quick punch gets you to stop squirming-"

"So gallant."

"You're the one fighting, Prin-" he caught the fire in his eyes, and hastily corrected himself. "-Ovelia."

"And that makes it okay?"

"The world does not play fair, Ovelia," he said. "I will not eschew a useful tool because I'm not supposed to use it."

And Ovelia was surprised to find a new emotion, mingling with the weight of her exhaustion, the heat of her anger, the withering discomfort of her pain. She was surprised to find that she was envious. She had spent so long on rules of courtly behavior, on civility, that the idea that she could set these things aside and act as she willed...

She envied anyone who had such freedom.

"Who are you?" she asked.

The man cocked his head to one side. He hesitated, his mouth open a little, his eyes considering. "Delita," he said at last.

An uncommon name, wasn't it? But Ovelia was certain that she'd heard it somewhere before. When? Where? And what did it matter, for surely she would know if it were some nobleman or mercenary, some assassin to be feared or power to be treated cautiously. He was just what he seemed to be—an uncivil ruffian with an unknown agenda.

She glared at him. He stared steadily back. After awhile, Delita said, "Ovelia. I will not promise you safety—anyone who claims they can is lying to you. But I will say that, if you do not fight me, I will do everything in my power to keep you from harm."

"But you won't return me to my guard," Ovelia said.

Delita shrugged. "Do you honestly believe you'd be safer in their care?" he asked. "With the royal family after you?"

And of course Ovelia wasn't sure, nothing was certain, and she could admit to herself that she'd been fighting Delita so fiercely in part because he was a complete unknown, a question that did not rankle and ache, that did not make her distrust everything and everyone she'd known these past few years, because if the royal family was after her who knew who she might count as an enemy? Agrias? Alicia? Lavian?

Alma?

No surely not. Alma had been her friend, honest and true, but why was there a Beoulve among her guards when the assassins came calling? What did it mean?

"I need to..." Ovelia began, because she was uncertain and tired and afraid and in desperate need to relieve this burning pressure against her belly and still she could not shake off the cursed courtly rules of delicacy. "To attend to my needs."

Delita nodded, and unbound the cords on her arms and legs. He helped her to her feet, then turned his back upon her, hands on his hips. She considered shoving him again, but a particularly nasty ache in the pit of her stomach quieted that thought. And Delita was right: she did not know nearly enough, and there were other enemies out there, enemies who wanted her dead. She could but hope she had slowed him enough for her guards to catch up. Besides, she thought, as she hiked up her skirt and squatted, she could always start fighting again if she changed her mind.

When she was finished, Delita helped her on to the chocobo again, and they were off and riding, stopping only for the shortest rests. Delita insisted on binding and gagging her anytime he needed sleep. Ovelia tried to protest but without much conviction: she supposed it was what she would have done, if their roles were reversed.

Still, if she could recognize that he was being a decent captor, she could still enjoy his discomfort and annoyance when they reached the forest so much slower than he'd clearly wanted to, still following the stream. He'd bound her hands and gagged her when they'd reached the edge of the woods, so there was not much more joy to be had. Gradually the trees became too thick to remain mounted, and Delita dismounted, helped her down, and led chocobo and princess behind him through the forest and alongside the narrow, muddy stream, until they reached a winding trail that led beneath a low, tree-cluttered rise.

"You're late, Heiral!" growled a deep voice. Ovelia and Delita looked up the hill to find a blonde man standing on a slight rise, leaning back against a white-barked tree. He wore rough clothes and a sword upon his hip.

"Our Princess is quite a handful," Delita said. "Sorry to keep you waiting, Folles."

"You know I don't mind," the man—Folles, apparently?—grunted. "But Vor-"

"I believe I told you," said an impassive voice that rumbled with its every word. "That I don't want my name repeated in company."

Folles shrugged. "Who's she going to tell?"

"We have not yet secured her," said the voice, and as it spoke the man came into view. Ovelia felt a chill race up her spine. He was a little shorter than Folles, and wore a sword upon his hip and a roughspun tunic pulled tight against a broad chest. A mane of greying hair hung just above his thick eyebrows, which stretched like grim forests across the craggy expanse of his face. His eyes were the worst—grey as flint and twice as hard, so she thought she might cut herself upon his gaze. Even if Ovelia hadn't been gagged, she thought she might have stayed silent, rather than incur that man's ire.

"But we will, yes?" Delita said.

"Nothing is certain," grunted the hard-eyed man. "Not in Ivalice."

Delita eyed the narrow trail and then glanced back at the bird. "I don't think even Boco could handle the trail."

"Not with two riders," agreed Folles.

"But with one?" Delita said in surprise.

"He's a fine bird," Folles said.

"That he is." Delita patted the bird's neck, which warbled gratefully.

Ovelia stayed very still, trying to listen closely to their words. Collaborators, that much was obvious, and traveling incognito based on their rough clothes. Delita and Folles obviously didn't mind if she knew their names, but the hard-eyed man was more cautious. Did he have more to lose? Why? Did he have some rank, some title?

"So we're going on foot?" Delita said.

"That would seem the wisest course," the hard-eyed man said. "I don't think we're like to pass through any trouble, are we?" He glanced to Folles.

"Not much between here and Bethla," Folles said. "But I can't promise anything. As you said, nothing is certain in Ivalice thse days."

The hard-eyed man grunted, but said nothing. Delita finished patting the bird and looked back up at the hill. "Val's got everything ready?"

"She should," the hard-eyed man answered. "But they're only to smooth the way. We can't have the Duke-" He broke up, frowning down at her.

Now this was interesting. Who was Val, and what did she have to do with this group? They mentioned the Duke, and she had to assume they meant Goltanna, but it seemed as though he were not aware of the full extent of this plot? Yet Folles indicated they intended to take her to Bethla Garrison. What were their intentions.

"So what are we waiting for?" Delita asked.

"You're late," grunted the hard-eyed man.

"Not much I can do about that."

"No?" The grey-haired man turned his flint eyes upon her. She stared back steadily, afraid to meet his gaze, afraid to look away. "You should count yourself lucky, your Highness," he said. "Were you in my care, I would not have tolerated any such delays."

Ovelia tried to express no emotion in her eyes, no fear or anger or doubt. The man regarded her for awhile, then shrugged and looked back to Delita. "You're late. Word may have spread. Our friends are making sure you weren't followed."

Delita frowned. "So why not keep moving if-"

"And if others had reached the Woods ahead of you?" the hard-eyed man asked. "If a trap waits to spring ahead, and keep us from Bethla?" The man shook his head. "No, I think we will wait. I have no interest in seeing our plans delayed."

Delita rolled his eyes. "The assassins had no birds," he said. "Nor the mercenaries. Even her guard had but the single pack bird."

"But you. Are. Late." The hard-eyed man said the last word with evident finality.

Delita shrugged and led Boco and Ovelia forwards a little. "How have you been, Wiegraf?"

Wiegraf? Was that the name of the grey-haired man? But it was Folles who answered: "Busy, same as you. Though not as comfortable, mind."

"Yes, comfortable," Delita said sarcastically. "Always comfortable to be instigating treason right under the Crown's nose."

"It's not technically treason," the blonde man—Wiegraf, or Folles?—answered.

"It seems a real thin line."

Folles grinned. "I'm well-acquainted with it."

"I know."

"How's the new sword treating you?"

"Good. It's so much easier to-"

Rustling in the trees. Instantly every man present seemed to have a sword in hand, and their swords all glowed and gleamed in ways that made Ovelia's eyes water. More questions, because these were swords of power, the kind nobleman might envy, but they did not seem part of a royal plot so where had they gotten such weapons?

A moment later, and a tall swordsman with cold blue eyes darted out of the woods, blood dripping down the naked sword he held in his hands.

"Hokuten," he said.

The hard-eyed man cursed. "How many?"

"Too many."

For just a moment, stunned silence in the clearing.

"How?" Delita exclaimed.

"Doesn't matter how," the hard-eyed man growled. "They're here now. Make for the Falls."

"But-"

"Our names are too well-known. It has to be you. Go!"

The hard-eyed man and his cold-eyed companion darted into the white trunks and were lost from sight. Wiegraf moved down the hill, and Delita pulled bird and princess in his wake.

And Ovelia pulled away from him.

A Hokuten garrison in the trees meant safety. Agrias had probably rallied them with word of her kidnapping—Dorter was such a short ride from Orbonne, after all, that was where the Monastery got so much of its supplies—and now rescue was at hand and she had listened closely and heard enough. She had reason to fear some plot against her, but it could be with the men around her just as easily as it could be with the men chasing her and she would rather find her guard again, find safety again.

Delita stumbled, then twisted around with wide and wild eyes to stare at her. She pulled against her bindings, watched him warily for any fresh blow. She saw furious fire flow across his face, and something else too, a peculiar desperation she didn't quite understand, because it wasn't terror so what was it?

"Delita?" Folles said, somewhere behind him.

Delita held up a forestalling hand. He took a deep breath, and stopped pulling on her bindings. "Ovelia," he said. "If the Hokuten find you, you will be dead before the night is out."

Ovelia mumbled through her gag, cursed the thick cloying binding smothering her tongue. Delita hesitated, then pulled down the gag. She considered screaming, but the fact was that Delita had saved her from men who meant to kill her, men who must have been royal agents of one sort or another. She needed answers.

"Why?" she asked.

"Who wants you dead?" Delita asked.

She didn't know. How could she know? Unless...unless it was the Queen, of course. Unless it was Louveria Larg. He seemed to see the dawning understanding in her eyes, for his next question was, "And who is the Queen's brother?"

Bestrald Larg, who commanded the Hokuten.

"Oh," she said.

He nodded. "I know you have questions," he said. "I can give you answers. But not here. Not now. Please, your High..." He took another deep breath. "Ovelia. Please."

Behind her, Ovelia heard distant shouts, the rustling of branches, a long shrill scream and the sound of shattering metal ringing and clinking like bells and instruments. Behind her she heard the sound of the Hokuten closing in. Her saviors, or her killers? And the man in front of her—savior, or kidnapper?

But that decided her. Behind her lay a chance of dying. Ahead, just further captivity.

She lifted her hands, pulling at the bindings. Wordlessly, Delita sliced his sword up through the rope, which parted like butter. He pulled her ring from his pocket, and tossed it to her: she caught it and slipped it onto her finger.

"Come on!" he shouted, and together the three of them ran along the bank of the narrow stream, with the clangor of battle ringing out behind them.