(If you're enjoying the story and want to hear my musings on the chapters (or just want more content), please check out my website, quickascanbe dot com)
Chapter 39: Pawns in Revolt
There was a moment's confusion—wary eyes and hands on weapons, everyone regarding everyone else with suspicion—but then Ovelia raised her voice and shouted hoarsely, "They can see us! They may find another way to cross!"
That provoked stunned looks among the others, and then they were off and moving again, the Lionesses sticking close to their princess, Agrias moving at a fast limp. Ovelia ached to tend to her wounds—those wounds she had suffered in pursuit of her, her, you did this Ovelia, you—but they could not tarry. Not while their enemies were so close.
But of course, they might yet have enemies in their midst.
Ovelia's head ached from the questions that were yet unanswered. The way Ramza and Delita had looked upon seeing each other...it was difficult to imagine they would feign such surprise, especially when they had been just as surprised when she had known their names and relations. But who were these men who surrounded her? Who had been the men in the forest, who had fought to buy Delita time to escape?
Questions pounded against her mind insistently. Doubt and guilt were mixed in there, too—was there another way? Should she have accepted Gaffgarion's offer, and spared her Lionesses pain and death?
But above all else she felt relief. For three days, she had been bound and hunted. For three days, she had not know what had become of her guards, or what would become of her. But now she was free, and had her Lionesses at her side once more. Now everything seemed possible.
The group came to a stumbling halt at a crossroads. One path meandered up the slope and into the mountains. The other led down the slopes into a little copse of trees. If Ovelia remembered her geography, the lower road eventually joined up with the Ydoran path through the Zirekile Mountains and down to Fort Zaland, which guarded the pass into Lionel. The upper road towards Lake Zirekile, from which Bethla Garrison, nestled safely between the Bethla Wastes and the Zirekile mountains, drew most of its water. This road was little-used by travelers—it was a long, winding, and difficult rut across inhospitable terrain, but it was much more isolated than the Ydoran thoroughfare that ran between through the mountain pass that guarded the Garrison all the way to Lesalia.
She stared at this upper path for a long time. Was that the road Delita had intended to take her down? To what end? Why was he taking her to Bethla Garrison, when Nanten knights had attacked her guard?
She looked around her, then—to the Lionesses close at hand, all plainly wounded and exhausted but standing tightly-bunched around her, watching the other four. Radia, Ramza, Wiegraf, and Delita were a little farther back, near the path they'd taken from the bridge down to this crossroads. Ramza and Radia stood on one side, Wiegraf and Delita on the other. They stared at each other blankly.
Ovelia sighed and ignored them, turning back to her Lionesses. Over their objections, she helped them each to sit. Lavian alone refuse: "You need me," she said. "If we're going to heal them."
And of course she was right. Ovelia knew some of the very basics of healing, but who knew what had happened to her guards as they'd chased her. Ajora above, the way Agrias' face looked...yes, she needed Lavian's expertise, even if Lavian was hurt.
"Fine," grunted Ovelia. "But after we've taken care of them, I'm taking care of you."
As Ovelia tended to Alicia's scrapes and bruises and Lavian began to treat Agrias, Ramza broke the silent standoff. "You're alive," he said weakly.
Ovelia looked up to see Delita nodding dumbly. "I...yeah. So, uh...so are you."
"You didn't know?" Ramza asked.
"I..." Delita looked away. "I hadn't heard, but I...I hoped."
"I'm more curious at to how the two of you started traveling together," grunted Wiegraf, looking between Gaffgarion and Radia.
"I could ask you the same," Radia said, shrugging. "Weren't they trying to kill you at one point?"
"Weren't they trying to kill you at one point?" Wiegraf countered.
"Wait," Alicia rasped. "You...what?"
Radia sighed and gestured vaguely between herself and Wiegraf. "We were in the Corps," she said. "They were..." She frowned. "Hokuten sounds wrong."
"There was an incident," Delita said. "In the course of...of trying to rescue someone, we fought."
"We fought before that, Del," Wiegraf said.
Delita shrugged. "Wasn't much of a fight."
"Who the hell are you people?" Alicia demanded.
Wiegraf, Ramza, Radia, and Delita exchanged nervous, uncertain glances. "We were hired to protect the Princess-" Radia began.
"No," Agrias said. Her voice was slow and sluggish, but clear. She lifted her head from her place lying on the ground, brushed off Lavian's feeble objections and sat up. Her face was still puffy with bruises and blood, but her eyes were clear. "You were hired to make sure she died."
Radia shook her head. Her face was heavy. "We didn't know."
"I know," Agrias said. "You saved her." She looked to Delita and Wiegraf. "You all...when we couldn't...when..." There were tears in his eyes, and Ovelia felt cold lightning spasming across her heart. She already hurt to see what had been done to her Lionesses as they'd tried to save her: she hurt far worse to see tears in Agrias' eyes.
"Thank you," Agrias whispered, and closed her eyes and slumped back against the ground.
No one spoke. Ovelia looked at her her guard captain, and did not know whether to speak or not. Instead she sidled over, and rested a hand on Agrias' shoulder.
"It's what we're here to do," Delita said at last.
"Funny," Radia said. "You version of guarding looks a lot like kidnapping."
"Should I have left her for the assassins?" Delita asked. "Or the Nanten?"
"Should you have taken her from the Monastery?" Radia retorted.
"You have an alternative?" Delita demanded. "The Nanten sent soldiers to hunt you down. Louveria sent assassins beneath the Monastery, and her brother had an entire garrison ready in case something went wrong. Do you think they're going to stop now?"
"So you intend to take me to Bethla Garrison?" Ovelia asked.
Her voice seemed to take the others by surprise—all turned as one to look at her. Delita seemed a little less confident than he had during their desperate ride from Orbonne to the Araguay Woods, and there was something she didn't recognize in his eyes. Guilt?
"I do," he said.
"But not to Goltanna," Ovelia said.
Delita and Wiegraf exchanged glances. Wiegraf nodded almost imperceptibly, and Delita turned back to her. "No."
"So who are you working for?" she asked.
"I can't say," Delita said.
Ramza blinked in consternation. "What?"
"Our allies have some power," Delita said. "Not enough to oppose the Lions openly, but enough to protect you. I cannot say much, but our cause is noble. We and we alone can guarantee your safety, your High..." He took a deep breath. "Ovelia."
"And why is that?" Lavian said.
"Where else can she go?" Delita asked. "Caught between the Lions, as she is? We had our reasons for wanting to take the Princess into our care. The situation hasn't changed."
"It hasn't changed?" Ramza repeated, with the pain evident in his voice and eyes.
Delita flinched, but did not look at Ramza. "No," he said.
Silence again. Ramza, staring at Delita: Delita, staring at Ovelia: Ovelia, looking past him to the path that climbed into the mountains. Bethla Garrison, and the unknown powers that had moved to rescue her from royal plots...and had employed violence to do so. She still remembered the quiet threats of the nameless hard-eyed man. She still remembered Delita's fist upon her face and in her stomach.
"Your shoulder," she said.
Delita looked towards her. She regarded him impassively, felt the courtly mask within as well as without. The fear and fury and fright of the last few days had melded into something very placid inside her, cold and grey as the sky before the storm.
"What about it?" he asked.
"Let me see it," she said.
Delita hesitated, looking guiltily between Ramza, Wiegraf, and the Lionesses. Then he shuffled sheepishly towards Ovelia, and sat in front of her. Ovelia knelt at his side and examined the wound—saw the split flesh, the oozing of muscle and blood, and the red slime coating the leather-armored shoulder. She felt the faintest flicker of nausea, and swallowed it down. Then she raised her hands to the wound, and focused power through her ring as Simon had taught her—imagining the wound healing rapidly, scabbing and closing. Pearly light unfolded from the tips of her fingers, and she felt her head swim with the effort.
"Delita," she said. "I wanted to thank you."
He did not answer her. She did not look at his face, but stayed focused on his wound. "I know it must have been very difficult," she said. "And while I am not exactly pleased with how you saved me, I am still grateful to be alive."
From the corner of her eye, she saw his head bob in a faint nod. Her chest felt tight with effort, so she let the pearly light slip away. Her hands were hot, and her head felt a little heavy, but Delita's wound looked like it had already healed a little. She brushed the sweat from her forehead.
"I'm not going with you," she said.
Delita's eyes flickered towards her. She met his gaze steadily.
"And where do you think you can go?" he asked. "Where Louveria can't reach you?"
"Lionel Castle," she said at once.
Delita blinked. "What?"
"I met the Cardinal many years ago," Ovelia said. "And I know his reputation. I do not think he will send me away, and I do not think anyone will risk war with Lionel—or the Church."
Delita shot Wiegraf a quizzical look. Wiegraf shrugged, and Delita swiveled back to face her. "Your Highness-" he began.
"We've been over this, haven't we?" Ovelia asked drily.
Delita nodded slowly. "Ovelia," he said. "What makes you think the Church will risk itself for you?"
"I'm not asking the Church," Ovelia said. "I'm asking the Cardinal. Not to back my claim to the throne, but to protect me from those who would see me killed. Do you really think he'll reject me?"
In truth, Ovelia didn't know either. It had been years since she'd met the Cardinal in passing as a Lionel Monastery near Goug—she'd been little more than a child—but he had a reputation for honor. He was one of the most popular members of the Church: only Bishop Bremondt rivaled him. She'd found him warm, genial, and kind when she'd met him, and he head a fearsome reputation: before he'd been a Cardinal, he had led the Gryphon Knights during the 50 Years' War.
But of course, she'd met him before the attack on Lionel Castle, and the death of his wife and child. What if the years had soured him? What if he simply did not feel like risking his neck for the sake of a powerless princess?
She kept her fears and doubts to herself, and stared levelly back at Delita. Delita shook his head slowly. "Let us imagine you are right," he said. "Let us imagine the Cardinal will grant you asylum. You haven't solved your problem. You've just delayed the inevitable."
Ovelia cocked an eyebrow. "Now you sound like Gaffgarion."
Delita winced. "You've a sharp tongue, princess."
"And you've blunt fists, Delita."
Delita winced again. Agrias' eyes flashed. "What does that mean?" Agrias growled.
Ovelia did not answer. She leaned away from her guards and from her former captor. She searched the faces around her—Delita, guilty and uncertain; Agrias, livid and suspicious; Alicia and Lavian, slumped against each other, their bruises and scrapes faded; Wiegraf, his arms folded across his chest; Radia watching Wiegraf nervously; Ramza, staring at Delita's back with naked pain upon his face.
"Maybe you're right," she said. "Maybe it's inevitable. Maybe I'm better off with you and your allies." She stood up, felt her knees trembling with tiredness but would not let herself waver or wobble. She forced her inner calm upon her face, her body; she wanted to regal, a Princess worth following.
"But I have been treated as a pawn for far too long," she said. "So long they think I can be disposed of as they please. If I ally with you, it will be my choice."
Agrias rose from her place upon the ground: after a moment, Alicia and Lavian did the same. They moved to Ovelia's side, and she felt stronger at having them near.
"I am going to the Cardinal," Ovelia said. "Do you intend to stop me?"
Delita was looking up at her from his place upon the ground. His eyes were wide, his jaw a little slack. Did he look, just a little, like he admired her?
"Of course not," he said. He stood up slowly, rolling his head upon his neck, shifting his injured arm a little and wincing at its reluctant movements. "Our first and foremost goal was to see you safe. What matter where where you go, so long as you are alive?"
Behind him, a strange look spasmed across Ramza's face. Delita's eyes flickered towards Ramza, then back to Ovelia. "We will meet again, Ovelia." Ovelia nodded, unsure what to say. Delita turned away . "Wiegraf. I think it's time for us to go."
Wiegraf pursed his lips and nodded. "Returning empty-handed," he grunted, patting the side of Boco's neck. "That'll go over well."
"I don't think anyone expected so many Hokuten," Delita said. "Or...well." He gestured vaguely. "Any of it."
Wiegraf snorted. "Suppose you're right." He shot Radia and Ramza a measuring look. "You're welcome to join us. Both of you."
Ramza's head jerked towards Radia. Her eyes widened for a moment, then slowly returned to their normal size. She studied Wiegraf for a long time.
"I can't," she said. "I'm..." She gestured. "It's the job we were hired to do."
Wiegraf's eyebrows arched. "It's not," he said.
"It is," Radia said. "Whatever my father thought. And it's not done."
Wiegraf snorted again and shook his head. "We fought the Crown," he murmured. "And now we fight to keep her safe."
"We never fought the Crown," Radia said. "We fought for Ivalice."
Wiegraf smiled, but his eyes looked terribly sad. "For Ivalice," he repeated wistfully.
"I haven't been," Radia said. "Not the last few years. I'd like to get back to it."
Wiegraf nodded slowly. "I believe my cause serves Ivalice," he said. "But I would be remiss if asked you to betray your conscience."
His smiled reached his eyes, then. Radia smiled in turn.
"What about you, Beoulve?" Wiegraf asked.
Ramza hesitated. He shook his head. "I...I don't think so."
Ramza couldn't see it, since he was looking at Wiegraf, but for a moment there was naked pain on Delita's face. Then it was gone, and he looked calm and sure once more. "Be safe, your Higness," he said. "I hope we can work together, the next time we meet."
He sketched an awkward bow to Ovelia, than twisted his hips so the bow somehow encompassed her guards, as well. Then he stood up and shuffled towards Wiegraf, who had Boco's reins firmly in his hands. They started on the northern path—the one that wound its way into the mountains.
"Delita!" Ramza cried, stepping forwards. Delita and Wiegraf stopped: Delita cocked his head back across his wounded shoulder. "How did you..." Ramza shook his head. "Both of you, I..." He took a deep breath. "It's good to see you. I...I'm glad you're alive."
Wiegraf chuckled. Delita looked away from Ramza, back up the mountain road. Or...no, that wasn't right, was it? Ovelia followed his gaze and found he was looking up into the sky, where an osprey was turning in lazy circles far above, a winged shadow outlined in sunlight. From the corner of her eye, she saw Ramza lift his head as well, and trace the bird's path through the sky.
"I didn't know," Delita said.
Ovelia and Ramza both looked back towards him. He was still staring pointedly at the sky. "I thought...after Zeakden...after Teta..." He turned around to face Ramza head-on. "I didn't know. I'm...I'm glad you're..."
He trailed off. Delita stared at Ramza; Ramza stared at Delita.
Silence then. Ramza studied Delita's face, and Delita could not quite meet his gaze.
"No more Tetas?" Ramza said. "No more Miludas?"
Radia started, staring between Ramza, Delita, and Wiegraf: Wiegraf turned as well, with that same sad-eyed smile.
"What better Ivalice could there be?" Delita asked.
"So...so why not with us?" Ramza asked.
Delita's mouth opened and his eyes widened. He looked towards Wiegraf, whose face was just as nakedly conflicted as his. Then he turned back to Ramza, and searched his face for a long time.
"I can't," Delita said at last.
"Then..." Ramza's eyes flickered around the, as though looking for the right words. He seemed crestfallen. "Then good luck, Delita."
Delita's face softened. It made him look awfully young. "You too, Ramza."
Wiegraf and Delita turned, and started their way up the mountain. Ramza and Radia remained at the foot of the trail, watching them until they were out of sight. Ovelia followed their gaze, her legs trembling, her bruises and scrapes aching, her exhausted magic a heavy weight upon her shoulders. Her eyes flickered the Lionesses around her—to Agrias, her face still puffy with bruises, and Alicia and Lavian, leaning heavily upon each other. All these people had fought for her sake, killed for her sake, been hurt for her sake. Because all those years playing the peaceful princess had still not been enough to buy her life meaning in Louveria's eyes.
And for a moment it was all too much: for a moment she felt knees shaking, her soul aching, tears burning in her eyes. Nanten after her head, Hokuten backing Louveria's assassins, kidnapped by a man who had taken an arrow for her sake, Alma's brother on her side, one of her hired guards gunning for her head while the others fought against him, what had been done to her guards (the way Katherine had stumbled with blood dripping to the ground, the way Alicia and Lavian and Agrias looked now), it was all so much, it was all too much, and what if the Cardinal would not grant her asylum, what if she was marching into a trap and bringing her guards with her, what if all she was doing was delaying the inevitable and now...
She took a deep breath, and stood ramrod straight. She locked her knees, and gritted her teeth, and refused to let her tears fall. "Agrias," she said, and could hear the strain in her voice.
She looked towards her guard captain, found the older woman with a strange expression of her beaten face. It faded at once to its familiar attentive stare. "Your Highness?" she inquired.
"Simon...he's alright, isn't he?" She felt her skin crawling, felt a terrible dread roiling in the pit of her stomach, but she had to know.
Agrias nodded. "Injured, but alive. Moving on his own. He was...he was performing a service for the dead."
For Katherine and Ysabel. For women who'd already fallen because of her. But Simon lived.
Ovelia nodded, and raised her voice. "We've a long way to travel!" she shouted. "And enemies' upon our heels!" She turned on her heel and strode off at once. She heard the footsteps of her guards falling in behind her—the ones who'd survived, and the ones who'd betrayed their own master for her cause.
She had to be worthy of them. She had to lead them to safety. She had to prove to Delita that she'd meant what she said—that she would not be a pawn. Not anymore.