(I hope you've enjoyed the story so far! We'll be taking a three-week break so I can make sure everything fits together in the coming chapters, as well as work on some other projects. But if you're looking for more of my writing while I'm gone, you can find it at quickascanbe dot com)

Chapter 41: Realists and Idealists

Even on a day as grey and miserable as this, the Beoulve Manor fair gleamed. Its exterior was polished stonework regularly interrupted by shining windows. On the corners of its bulky rectangular frame, delicate minarets ordained with Zodiac symbols reached towards the heavens. Part manse, part fortress, and taken together a compelling portrait of the combined military strength and diplomatic skill of the family that called it home.

Geoffrey Gaffgarion had been here a number of times before, but he still found the sight impressive, even as his practiced feet navigated the peculiar network of paths and bridges that led across the Ydoran aqueducts to the Manor's proper door. Under ordinary circumstances, he was sure there would be guards near at hand—a small squad of Hokuten was stationed here day and night, to make sure no bold rebels ever repeated the Death Corps' attempt on the Manor. But Dycedarg preferred to keep his conversations with Gaffgarion as private as was possible for a man of his stature. Not that Gaffgarion could blame him for his caution: even with their cover story in place, there was plenty that could go wrong.

As Gaffgarion neared the mahogany front doors, they burst open. Zalbaag Beoulve, wearing fine blue clothes with a Hokuten cloak about his shoulders, pounded down the stairs. His glower turned to a glare when his eyes found Gaffgarion.

"You!" he sneered, his goateed lip curling.

Gaffgarion smiled, though he felt a flicker of irritation. "Commander Beoulve," he said. "A pleasure to see you."

Zalbaag's nostrils flared beneath his prominent nose. "What scum likes you finds pleasant, I can't imagine. What in God's name are you doing here?"

The flicker of irritation was stronger this time, bordering on anger, but still Gaffgarion maintained his easy smile. "I have business with your brother."

Zalbaag shook his head. "Far be it from me to question my brother's wisdom," he sighed. "But I don't see what service someone like you could possibly offer us."

Gaffgarion knew it was unprofessional, but that rankled. Gaffgarion had never made much fuss about the games of prestige and so-called honor that ruled the nobles, but he had spent a long time establishing his reputation as a man worth hiring. That this stuck-up, spoiled, ignorant cretin would call his talents into question? That offended him.

"Ah, perhaps you're right," conceded Gaffgarion, keeping his voice level. "Perhaps it's so much the kind of service as the quality?"

Zalbaag's brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"

Gaffgarion remembered the story Ramza had told him—of the fight at Zeakden, and the woman who had died. "Perhaps when there's hands that need dirtying, a man would rather have someone with the stones to do the job, and not lament the business?"

Zalbaag's face paled. "You-!" he began.

"That's enough, Zalbaag," Dycedarg said quietly, stepping out from the doorway. Zalbaag whirled to face his brother. "Please don't insult our guest."

"What would you need from such a man!" snapped Zalbaag.

Dycedarg shrugged. "You are talking to the last known witness to the abduction of Princess Ovelia."

Zalbaag seemed to stagger. "What?" he breathed.

"We have reason to believe there are traitors in the Lionsguard," Dycedarg said. "My spies reported word among the Nanten of highly-placed allies within the Lions' Den. After one of the Lionsguard was killed under suspicious circumstances in Lesalia, I hired Gaffgarion here to keep the Princess safe and to discover if any of her guards were part of the plot." He returned his gaze to Gaffgarion. "I trust you have managed to find some information?"

Gaffgarion inclined his head. "I have, Lord Beoulve."

"If there is some plot to be discussed-" Zalbaag began.

"I will inform you of the relevant details," Dycedarg said. "But the Prince needs your help now. This Nanten attack in Araguay bodes ill for us all. If they've gotten so bold as to risk open battle..."

Zalbaag hesitated, then nodded. "Of course." He turned away and strode off, not sparing so much as a sidelong glance for Gaffgarion. Dycedarg waved Gaffgarion inside, and Gaffgarion followed obediently, closing the door behind him.

"He seems in a good mood," Gaffgarion said.

"He fears the war to come," Dycedarg said. "What madman wouldn't?"

"How mad such a man would be," Gaffgarion agreed, with a wry look at Dycedarg.

Dycedarg gave him a withering glance over one shoulder. "Do you believe you've earned the right to jest?" Dycedarg said. "Given the scale of your failures?"

Gaffgarion had been ready for this. The people who hired him were always looking for reasons to renege on the contract, to rob him of credit for his successes and blame him for failures entirely of their own making. It was a fine line to walk: Gaffgarion did not want to insult their pride or vanity, but he did not want his name slandered or his contracts dishonored. The trick usually lay in blending confidence, humility, impudence, and contriteness, adjusting as the man in question warranted. And Dycedarg was bound to be a particularly prickly customer right now.

He held his tongue until they stepped into the dusky interior of Dycedarg's study, dimly illuminated by runes running the length of the walls. Dycedarg slumped into a chair behind his desk and poured himself a glass of wine. Gaffgarion remained standing, at ease in his comfortable purple tunic and black trousers.

"Well?" Dycedarg grunted, sipping at his glass. "Have you a word to say in your defense?"

"Have you?" Gaffgarion asked.

Dycedarg stared at him. He set the wineglass down upon his table. "With one word," Dycedarg said slowly. "I could have your lands, titles, and fortune taken, and see you banished to the deepest, darkest dungeon I know. I will burn your cottage to ash before dropping your chained and broken body into Midnight's Deep."

The worst thing was Dycedarg's tone—completely casual, as though placing an order with his chef. No bluster, no theatrics: just slow, careful facts. Gaffgarion felt something squirming in his guts, but he kept his eyes on Dycedarg, and his own voice level. "And that will fix your mistakes?"

Dycedarg steepled his fingers beneath his chin and studied Gaffgarion for a long time. "What are you talking about?" he asked at last.

"You recall when I came here," Gaffgarion said. "With news that I had your brother in my care."

Dycedarg nodded. "I do."

"Quite a wreck he was," Gaffgarion said. "Wracked by guilt. Didn't trust anyone. Especially you."

"And?" Dycedarg said.

"Do you remember why?"

Dycedarg's eyes narrowed. "What kind of joke-"

"Zeakden, right?" Gaffgarion continued. "What happened to his friends. Teta and Delita. Dead while the Fort burned." Gaffgarion strode forwards, took Dycedarg's bottle in hands that did not shake in spite of his cold fear, poured himself a glass, and took a sip. All the while, he felt his skin prickling beneath Dycedarg's gaze.

"Your point?" Dycedarg said.

Gaffgarion took another sip and nodded. "I was hired to make sure things went as planned," Gaffgagrion said. "I was hired to deal with the unexpected. I can understand why you might see this as a failure on my part." He set his glass down and turned his attention fully to Dycedarg. "But I think you'll agree that there was little way for me to be ready when Delita Heiral and Wiegraf Folles appear during your attack and steal the Princess out from under us."

At the names, Dycedarg's eyes went wide. It would have been rather comical, if it weren't for the compounded failures still weighing heavy on Gaffgarion's shoulders, and the memories flashing through his mind—the feeling of the arrow slipping through his armor, and of his daughter's sword crashing against his own.

"Delita and...and Wiegraf?" breathed Dycedarg.

Gaffgarion nodded. "The same."

Dycedarg slowly closed his eyes and nodded. "I see. No, I...I don't suppose anyone could have been ready for that." He gestured to one of the two chairs on the opposite side of the desk: Gaffgarion took a seat as Dycedarg downed his glass and started pouring himself another.

"Let's start from the beginning," Dycedarg said. "What exactly happened?"

So Gaffgarion told him—of all that happened since the last time he'd met with Dycedarg here in Igros,when Dycedarg had asked Gaffgarion to reinforce the Princess' guard and make sure the assassination went off without a hitch. Told him of the chaos of Orbonne Monastery, the hurried race to Dorter, the mobilizing of the members of the Dorter garrison that Dycedarg had told him could be trusted if the worst did come. Told him, at last, of the strange battle in the woods.

When he finished, Dycedarg was downing the last of his fifth glass of wine. He was slumped unsteadily in his chair. "Saint's sake," he hissed. "How..." He shook his head. "Of all the...Delita and Wiegraf?" He slapped his hand against the arm of his chair. "Again that miserable demagogue..."

"Ramza said he last saw him fighting Zalbaag?" Gaffgarion said, taking deep breaths to keep himself calm (it was for that reason he was only on his second glass of wine). He was trying to sort out the facts, trying to stay professional. A failure of this magnitude was something he hadn't experienced since the chaos of the 50 Years' War. And even then, he hadn't had to count his daughter among his enemies.

Dycedarg nodded. "Then the fort blew. Zalbaag was wounded. I thought Wiegraf might have survived, but I hadn't heard anything about him in years."

"This couldn't be the Corps, could it?" Gaffgarion asked.

Dycedarg hesitated, his fingers tapping on the rim of his empty glass. "I do not believe so," he said at last. "They didn't have the resources for this kind of operation...and if it was them, it would raise some interesting questions."

Gaffgarion cocked an eyebrow. "Such as?"

"I told Zal outside," Dycedarg said, jerking his head towards the hallway. "About the Lionsguard soldier who was found dead?" Gaffgarion nodded, and Dycedarg continued, "What I didn't tell him is it looks like she was trying to sell our information to someone. Some of our own spies in the capital reported rumors, and she was in the right place and the right time. Officially, we're trying to claim that she was being blackmailed, but..." He shook his head. "We think she found out about Ovelia, and was trying to stop us."

Gaffgarion frowned. "Why not kill her?"

"It's not all our own way," Dycedarg said. "Louveria may have disbanded the House of Lords, but she still has plenty of enemies with the means and influence to oppose her.

"That was a damn foolish decision," grunted Gaffgarion.

"You think I don't know that?" Dycedarg demanded, slamming his fist against the desk. "Public sentiment already paints her as a king-poisoning tyrant, and she disbands the House and arrests the God damned Council! Lucavi take me, you can't just bully your way to power!"

"She arrested the Council?" Gaffgarion said in some surprise. The disbanding of the House of Lords was the talk of every city in Ivalice—no ruler through the entirety of the 50 Years' War had done such a thing. But the Council arrested? That was an insult twice over—to the lands they ruled, and to the rest of the House, who had elected the Council to be their direct line between the House and the monarch. Disbanding the House was not unprecedented, but arresting the Council might just be.\

Dycedarg nodded glumly. "Two days ago," he said. "In response to calls for an investigation into...everything."

"What's that mean?" Gaffgarion asked.

"Everything," Dycedarg said again. "Annabel Iphis' movements, the state of the Princess' guard, the Nanten bodies at Orbonne..."

"The death of the King?" Gaffgarion suggested.

Dycedarg gave him a cold look. "Don't joke."

"Who's joking?" Gaffgarion said.

"You are," Dycedarg replied. "I hope."

"If I am," Gaffgarion said. "Who says they are?" He shook his head. "I don't see why you couldn't co-opt the investigation."

"I would have liked to," Dycedarg grunted. "I could have pointed the way back towards Goltanna. But by the time I heard..."

"Why aren't you Lesalia, anyways?" Gaffgarion asked.

Dycedarg shrugged. "Larg usually is," Dycedarg said. "If he's going to be back here for any amount of time, I usually head there myself. Given the delicacy of our missions, it's usually best to have at least one of us on-site at any given time. Besides, the manor in Lesalia's in a rather bad state. Have been since before my father..." He trailed off, staring out the window. Gaffgarion followed his gaze: a curtain of night was drawn across the grounds of the Beoulve Manor, with only the faint glowing of the runes atop their lampposts to paint a picture of the gentle hills that surrounded the place and the glittering Ydoran aqueducts that ran through it.

"And Prince Larg couldn't stop her?" Gaffgarion asked.

Dycedarg gave him a withering look. "I don't think you and I are on in any position to critique someone for failing to keep their family from foolishness, hm?"

Gaffgarion grimaced as he saw Radia standing by the Falls once more and gave a begrudging notd. Dycedarg turned away from the large window and considered Gaffgarion for a moment.

"You're right," Dycedarg said. "You could not have expected Delita and Wiegraf. From that moment, our plan was well and truly fucked. But I confess, I'm curious. Did it unravel because your daughter turned against you? Or because you could not bring yourself to deal with her when she did?"

Gaffgarion studied Dycedarg, unable to make sense of the mind behind those blue eyes, or see any trace of emotion in his face. For all he'd drunk, for all he'd raged, he seemed remarkably composed. Dangerous, this man. And why was he posing this question? Did he hope to assign blame to Gaffgarion?

"Why do you want to know?" Gaffgarion asked.

Dycedarg shrugged. "We have the dilemma in common, no? My brother. Your daughter."

Gaffgarion stared at Dycedarg, and felt his calm cracking. It had been so hard to keep it together as he'd returned with the broken dregs of the squads that had ventured into Araguay. Few indeed were the survivors who did not nurse some wounds or babble about the terror their enemies: of broken weapons and bursts of scorching magic. Who had been in those woods? Why were they working with Wiegraf and Delita? What did they need with the Princess? And why had his daughter gone again why every time why could she not why-

Gaffgarion took a deep breath, but could not quell the tumbling anxious panic of his thoughts. He could not answer Dycedarg. How could he, when he did not know the answer himself?

"Your brother told me something," Gaffgarion said, instead of answering Dycedarg's question. "Just after he killed an Ordallian mercenary."

Dycedarg's head tilted quizzically. "What'd he tell you?"

"About what you did before," Gaffgarion said. "During the campaign against the Corps. You tried to talk him out of it, right? Out of trying to...to fight without killin'."

Dycedarg closed his eyes. "Did I?" he whispered.

"S'what he told me," Gaffgarion said. "And that when you couldn't, you gave him the stuff that let him keep not killing."

Dycedarg's eyes were still closed. He nodded slowly. "I remember."

Dycedarg stayed silent for a while. Gaffgarion did not press him.

"I do not think I need to lecture you on the things this world requires of us if we hope to succeed," Dycedarg said at length.

"I believe I might know more of those things than you," Gaffgarion replied.

There was the ghost of a smile on Dycedarg's face. "Agree to disagree." He opened his eyes and refilled his wineglass, lifted it in front of his face and swilled it absently, as motes of light danced through its interior. "But I suppose I can see your point. Your were forced to learn the lesson by your circumstances, as was I. To do what needs doing leaves little room for sentiment."

"Very little," Gaffgarion agreed.

Dycedarg nodded. "Ramza is a bastard," Dycedarg said. "He has little chance of holding any real position. I saw no harm in letting him pursue his fantasies a little while longer."

And what harm those fantasies had wrought. He felt again the blow against his chest at Orbonne, and the cold pain of the arrow slipping through his ribs. True, he had stolen strength enough from the magics they'd hurled against him to heal the wound, but the shock of it—that after two years, Ramza could so easily turn his weapons upon him, and for what?

But then Gaffgarion thought of Radia's impassioned speech on the day she had left to join the Corps—how his every word and argument seemed to convince her further of the righteousness of her cause. He had wanted so badly for her to see how fruitless this rebellion would be—how he could not protect her from the hell that would follow, when the Crown finally crushed the insurgents. But she would not listen. She was too sure. She hate what he was too much, and saw such fanatic revolutionaries as antidote to his poison.

That wasn't the same as Ramza and his brothers. Gaffgarion and Ramza had not spoken much of his past since that day two years ago, when Ramza had told him everything, but Gaffgarion remembered well that conversation. The betrayal in his voice when he thought of the monstrous things his brother had done bespoke an admiration that had been sullied by their deeds. After all, you can't be betrayed by someone you never trusted.

Or was it the same? Had Radia felt betrayed? Had Ramza?

"So why did you hire me?" Gaffgarion said, papering over his fears as best he could.

"I didn't," Dycedarg said.

Gaffgarion cocked an eyebrow. "Is that how you remember our conversation?"

"I didn't hire you," Dycedarg insisted. "I simply asked you to take him under your wing, in exchange for some promising leads on new jobs."

"Of course," grunted Dycedarg. "The bartender didn't get me drunk, he just sold me the booze."

Dycedarg shrugged. "Much good it did."

"He kills people now!" Gaffgarion objected. "He tried to kill me!"

"He kills Hokuten soldiers," Dycedarg said. "Which could've been useful, but..."

"Useful how?" Gaffgarion asked.

Dycedarg sighed. "It was a fool's hope," he admitted. "But it informed my decision to hire you. If Ramza was present when the Princess was martyred...well, he could be a useful tool if we kept the Nanten intact after Goltanna falls. A sort of reform-minded commander, you see?"

Gaffgarion guffawed. "You don't think small, do you?"

"To do so is a waste of my time and talents," Dycedarg said. "Now, though...well, perhaps he can still be brought back into the fold."

Gaffgarion looked at Dycedarg in disbelief. "You still think he'll come back?"

Dycedarg shrugged. "Where else can he go?"

"He's on the run with a Princess you just tried to assassinate."

Another ghost of a smile on Dycedarg's face. "I think you'll fine he's on the run with a Princess implicated in a plot to overthrow our Queen."

Gaffgarion blinked. "What?"

"Oh, you didn't hear?" Dycedarg said. He took a sip of wine. "It's all very sinister. A loyal Lionsguard soldier discovered the plot, but was killed in the capital so she would not reveal it. But this brave soldier had left a letter detailing her suspicions, and when a Hokuten garrison went to question the Princess on behalf of the Queen, she and her guards killed their men and ran. Why, a certain mercenary I'd hired to protect the Princess against the royal plot even heard her plotting with her own guards."

Gaffgarion shook his head. "You're joking."

Dycedarg shrugged. "No one will harbor a rogue princess with no allies," Dycedarg said. "If this is a Nanten plot, it means war...and a war where public sentiment will be against the Nanten."

"And what about the Nanten bodies at Orbonne?" Gaffgarion asked.

"You mean the men who tried to kill you, to stop you bringing word of the plot?"

Gaffgarion pursed his lips. "How do you already-"

"The necessities of my position, Geoffrey," Dycedarg said. "I would think you of all people would understand."

Gaffgarion chuckled and shook his head. "And here I pride myself on being prepared."

Dycedarg snorted in turn. Gaffgarion pondered all he'd seen and heard these last few days, and how it jibed with the story Dycedarg was telling now.

"Do you...do you actually think Goltanna is behind this?" Gaffgarion asked.

Dycedarg set his glass back down on the table, intertwined his fingers beneath his chin, and studied Gaffgarion. "You fought for the Haruten, Geoffrey," Dycedarg said. "I'd think you would know that Goltanna's not much for politics."

"It doesn't seem to have slowed him down much," Gaffgarion replied.

"Why would it?" Dycedarg asked. "Command of the Nanten; the support of Marquis Elmdor and the Thundergod: Zeltennia and all its lands, and Bethla Garrison to boot. He never needed to be particularly inventive: he just needed to be patient enough to protect his power."

"And this is the man you want to go to war with?" Gaffgarion said incredulously.

Dycedarg shrugged. "This is the man I must go to war with," he said. "His claim-by-blood is nearly as strong as Orinus'. I had hoped to turn public opinion so far against him that he wouldn't dream of making such a claim, but the Queen has made that somewhat more difficult."

"But you don't think Goltanna has taken the Princess," Gaffgarion said.

"If he had, we'd know by now," Dycedarg said. "They were riding for Bethla, weren't they?"

Gaffgarion nodded. Dycedarg rubbed absently at his chin. "Odds are it's not Barinten," Dycedarg grunted. "Wrong play for him, and wrong direction to take her. Cid wouldn't dirty his hands with business like this, and the Marquis has even less a mind for politics than Goltanna does..."

"What about the Chancellor?" Gaffgarion asked.

Dycedarg snorted. "The day I have to worry about Chancellor Glevanne I may as well worry about Ajora's Judgment coming again."

"Why's that?" Gaffgarion said, examining Dycedarg.

Dycedarg shrugged carelessly. "The Chancellor is politically savvy. He knows the cost of challenging us."

Gaffgarion idly wondered what that meant, but declined to ask. There was an awfully thin line between 'asking for necessary context' and 'asking for secrets that would get you killed at your employers' earliest convenience.' Gaffgarion had developed a knack for straddling that line.

After the silence had stretched a little, Dycedarg continued speaking, "I can't think of a noble with ties to Bethla Garrison who has the power and influence necessary to unravel our plan and act oso effectively against us. But that's good news, in its way. It must be an awfully short list, and the Beoulves have friends in many places. In the meantime, we've got patrols watching the Woods and our garrison in Zaland patrolling the mountains. We'll find them." He took another sip from his wineglass.

"So what do you want from me?" Gaffgarion asked.

"At this moment?" Dycedarg said. "Nothing."

Gaffgarion looked at Dycedarg in disbelief. Dycedarg shrugged again. "Really," Dycedarg said. "I can think of a few places to start—I have some friends at Bethla, Zeltennia, Zaland, even with the Baerd company in Lionel—but none who could possibly be responsible for this. I have to find someone who can point me in the right direction. When I do, I will need someone I can trust to handle the work that comes next."

Gaffgarion pursed his lips. His main goal in this meeting had been to avoid getting punished for a failure he didn't believe he bore any responsibility for. He had not expected his contract to be extended.

"And of course," Gaffgarion said thoughtfully. "It probably doesn't hurt to keep a soldier on board who's useful in the field and politically disposable to boot."

"No," Dycedarg agreed. "It doesn't."

Gaffgarion nodded. "We'll consider the half you paid full payment for the last job," he said.

"You've consider that you get to keep that half a mark of my respect for you and not push your luck," Dycedarg grunted.

Gaffgarion shrugged. "Further payment?"

"All expenses here in Igros," Dycedarg said. "With additional payment pending future jobs."

Gaffgarion nodded again. "Should I find a place?"

"I can hardly have you sleep here without raising more questions, can I?" Dycedarg said.

Gaffgarion nodded, and rose from his seat. He felt much more at ease than he had when this conversation had begun. Why not? He had kept his neck intact, walked away with the money he'd been paid, and could even look forward to a few days rest and relaxation, courtesy of the Beoulve coffers. So what if Ramza had turned against him? If Radia had turned against him?

The thought caught in his mind, stung at him and would not be shaken. He saw Ramza's sword, felt his arrows, felt the phantom reverberations in his arm from where Radia had clashed her sword against his. He glowered into open air, then turned his attention back to Dycedarg. "If you find them," Gaffgarion said. "What do you intend to do about Ramza?

He locked eyes with Dycedarg. Dycedarg looked away almost at once, taking another sip from his glass. "I had really hoped..." he began, and shook his head. "I thought if he saw what the world looked like, he..."

"I thought he had," Gaffgarion said.

Dycedarg nodded. "If you see him again," Dycedarg said. "Talk to him. Tell him what we want. Make it clear he's welcome, if he steps aside."

"And if he doesn't?"

Dycedarg didn't answer for a long time. He stared at the glass in his hands, then drained it in one pull. "Then you know what you must do."

Could Gaffgarion do it? Could he kill the young man who'd come to him, in such pain and fear? Could he kill the young man who'd clung so stubbornly to the vestiges of his ideals, even through all the bloody jobs they'd worked? Could he kill the young man who'd tried to kill him?

"Your own brother," Gaffgarion mused, shaking his head to dispel his own doubts. "You're something else, Lord Beoulve."

Dycedarg's eyebrows arched. "What about you, Gaffgarion?" he asked. "What will you do if your daughter stays by the Princess' side?""

Again, Radia's face flashed through his mind, the way she'd looked standing tall and confident upon the edge of the stone rise, the way her sword had swung to catch his own. Two years since the Corps, and still she hadn't changed. Still she plunged into fool causes for the sake of fool principles. Still she-

He realized he was letting his grief and doubt show upon his face—he could see the answering surprise and doubt in Dycedarg's cold eyes—always tried to mask his emotions, and then realized it was too late. Instead, he smiled ruefully. "Would you believe any answer I gave you?"

Dycedarg chuckled. Gaffgarion felt his heart aching in his chest, and let a little of that feeling show upon his face. Then his eyes hardened, as did his heart. "They have both had their ideals broken before," Gaffgarion said. "I see no reason why we can't do it again."

Dycedarg nodded. Gaffgarion nodded back. Then he turned, and headed for the door.