(Thanks for waiting, everyone! I'm busy as all hell in the weeks to come, but I think I can handle once-a-week for awhile yet. If you're feeling starved for content, there's plenty more at quickascanbe dot com)

Chapter 42: Righteous Again

…I think no part of Ivalice has so fascinating a history as Lionel. Nominally free but historically controlled by prominent officials of the Glabados Church: home to some of the earliest movements for objective, rational thinking, and some of the most vicious and militant reprisals on those who dared to voice their unorthodox views. Such paradox is emphasized by the presence of Fort Zaland on its far northern border. In theory, the mighty walls of one of the largest Ydoran fort cities belong to Lionel: in practice, it is practically a city-state unto itself, its vicious ruling class of ascendant merchants, ancient nobles, and church officials feuding amongst themselves and courting support among the Hokuten, Nanten, and Gryphon Knights, among others. The rich and powerful hide behind its walls and play their political games, growing fat off the taxes they take from the trade caravans heading north and south: the poor shelter in the messy slums that abut the walls, and hope for scraps. As always, the conflict punishes most the people who have the least to gain.

-Alazlam Durai, "A Sociological, Economic, and Political Encyclopedia of the Cities of Ivalice"

The outskirts of Fort Zaland made Ramza's skin crawl.

It had been impressive enough from far away—when they'd wound their way around a mountain path and seen the city splayed out in front of them, lights gleaming within the walls, upon them, and throughout the sprawl of buildings that surrounded the tall walls. It had looked rather splendid that way, its walls and slums both built right up against the steep mountains around them.

But the closer they got, the worse it looked, and the worse it smelled. The ripe shit-and-piss stink Ramza had come to know so well in Dorter. And here, sheltering in a broken wooden chapel on the far outskirts of the slums, the smell was even stronger.

"This is no place for a Princess," huffed Agrias.

"It's fine, Captain," Ovelia said, running a hand through her greasy hair. "I think any place above the ground is good for me."

"Your Highness!" Agrias squawked in outrage, and Ovelia gave her a wry grin.

Ramza smiled from his place in the corner of the room. The sunken, dusty, grungy chapel admitted pale shafts of wan sunlight through its shattered windows and broken ceiling, so everyone seemed a little dampened and dour. On Agrias, dour already, it made her look almost comically severe.

"What are you smiling about?" scowled Alicia. "Focus!"

Ramza jerked back to attention. He was hunched upon the ground with a stick in his hand, tracing runes in the dirt. Alicia stood over him, critiquing his technique with every rune he sketched ("Sloppy! Too straight! Too wobbly! You try and cast with that and it'll blow your hand off!"). There was little else he could do: he'd lost all his weapons during the battle at the bridge, so he could not scout, as Lavian and Radia were doing right now.

He kept sketching: Alicia kept yelling. At last Ovelia said, "Oh, leave off, Alicia. You're making my ears ache."

Alicia looked stricken. "I am sorry, your Highness."

"You don't need to be sorry," Ovelia said. "Just scold him more quietly."

Ramza gave her a wry look. "Truly your benediction knows no bounds, your Highness."

"I am the very model of royal charity," Ovelia agreed, with a slight smile.

There was a knock upon the door—three knocks in quick succession, a short pause, then two knocks more widely spaced. Razma rose to his feet and took his place in the corner beside the door, in case it should be someone else who had wrested the secret of the knock from Radia or Lavian: Agrias opened the door with sword in hand.

"What news?" Agrias asked, and Ramza relaxed and stepped into the open as Radia and Lavian hurried through, their faces and figured obscured by heavy brown raincloaks. Healers were always needed in major cities, so Lavian had been able to find work and get them information. Radia traveled as her bodyguard, and made quiet inquiries while she worked.

"Soldiers everywhere," Radia said. "Especially Hokuten." She shot Ramza a look, and Ramza looked away guiltily. He hadn't know what to say to Radia since the night in the clearing.

"Damn," whispered Agrias. "Still claiming the Princess plotted against the Queen?"

"That's the notion," Radia said.

"They don't hold the gate," Lavian continued. "But they're everywhere in the city, stopping travelers at random. Nanten, too. Goltanna's trying to clear his name, I guess."

"They're not the only ones," Radia added. "Mercenaries, bounty hunters, some guys I don't know..."

"All looking for me?" Ovelia asked.

"I'm not sure," Radia said. "But even the ones that aren't probably wouldn't mind the payday that comes with bringing you in."

"We could double back," Alicia suggested. "Find a route through the mountains."

"You think they won't have patrols guarding those, too?" grunted Agrias.

"What if we hijack a cart?" Radia suggested. "We could hide her-"

The planning went on. Radia's idea seemed best to Ramza, but it carried its own risks—after all, the soldiers were stopping travelers at random. Eventually they tired of arguing and ate the fruit and dried meat Lavian had brought back from the market. They talked a little, but all were clearly lost in their own thoughts. How to get past Zaland, when it swarmed with danger?

"Why not keep patrols in the slums?" Ramza asked.

"Too many places for us to hide," Radia said. "Easier to watch the roads through Zaland. We might've blown the bridge, but that doesn't give us anywhere to go."

"Except to Bethla," Lavian said.

"If we go to the Garrison," Ovelia said coldly. "Goltanna will give my head to Louveria as a gift to assure her of his good intentions. I would rather keep my head right where it is."

"Just gotta make things hard for the rest of us," Radia sighed.

"I know," Ovelia said. "My continued survival is a great inconvenience."

"Well, as long as you're sorry," Radia said.

Ovelia giggled. Radia grinned.

The afternoon droned on, and their tired company began to drift off. They kept a semi-regular watch—at least one of the group had to stay awake, whatever the hour— so Ramza sat outside with his back propped against the ruined wall as the warm summer sun baked down on him from on high. No idea what they were doing, but they had food and a safe place to lay their heads, and he felt more righteous than he had since before Teta...

The thought hurt, as it always did, but it wasn't quite as painful. Teta might be dead, but Delita was alive, and that made a difference. But thoughts of Teta led to thoughts of the orchard at Lesalia, and then to another kiss just a few tights ago. His skin tingled with the memory of it.

crack

Ramza jolted upright, head swiveling from side to side. The sound had not been loud—in point of fact it had been tinny with distance, echoing off the decrepit walls around him—but it had carried an abrupt, walloping force. It sounded a little like the bursting of gunpowder at Zeakden, but smaller, more focused. He frowned.

crack

There it was again! Louder, and closer to. Unlike anything he'd ever heard. And was it his imagination, or were there voices, too? Shouts of anger and pain?

Ramza ducked inside, and found only Agrias awake. Still she wore her stinking blue armor, as though battle might break out at any moment. Maybe she was right.

"Something's happening," Ramza said.

Agrias tensed. "What?"

"I don't know," Ramza answered. "Lotta noise. I'm going to check it out."

Agrias shook her head. "You have no weapon."

"I'll be fine," Ramza said.

Agrias frowned, but nodded reluctantly. "Be careful."

Ramza nodded and ducked back out. The shouts were louder now, and as Ramza crouched low and hurried as quickly as he dared he heard another of those strange cracks. This one was followed by a scream of pain. Some kind of magic, then?

There were a few other shapes visible in ruined buildings, but they kept their distance. They were on the very outskirts of the slums that surrounded Fort Zaland. As far as Ramza could do, everyone here had something to fear—otherwise they'd be closer to the walls of the city proper, where money and opportunities were. They gave him a wide berth.

The closer Ramza got to the source of the commotion, the easier it was to make out what was being said.

"Flambard? Flambard!"

"He's gone, Ilos."

"I'm gonna kill him!"

"No you ain't. Boss needs him alive."

Ramza slowed his steps to make sure he made no noise, and drew closer. He hugged the wall of an squat stone building. Based on the scuffling and shouts on the other side, he'd found who he was looking for.

"Nowhere to go, Mustadio," growled a deep, rumbling voice, with a faint trace of a lilting Lionel accent. "Put down the gun."

"How about I put a bullet in you first?" asked a young, shaking voice, high and cracking with anxiety, its own Lionel accent so thick it took Ramza a moment to understand the words.

"You're welcome to," grunted the deep voice. "Not sure what good it'll do ya. Won't have time to reload before we catch ya."

Ramza crept along the corner and down an alley between the squat stone building and a taller, rickety wooden structure. Part of the stone building had crumbled, leaving a convenient swell of fallen stones for Ramza to crouch behind. He risked a quick peek, and found that the alley led into something of an impromptu courtyard between other buildings. Within that courtyard, several men were fanned out, surrounding a young man standing with his back pressed again a stone wall that cut across the middle of the courtyard.

The young man was filthy—his grimy orange overalls were thick with mud and offal, as were the heavy leather gloves he wore on his hands. His round tan face was smeared with dirt, as was his thick, unruly blonde hair, tied back in a clumsy ponytail. In one gloved hand he clutched an odd angular metal crescent, with the part in his hand thicker than the long cylinder he aimed at the men around him. His other hand fingered at his belt, which held several small cylindrical pouches. But his blue eyes were bright with fury, and he seemed utterly unafraid of the men surrounding him.

"We'll see," the young man said—Mustadio, if Ramza guessed right.

The man standing directly in front of him—tall and broad of chest, with his hair tied back under a green scarf—sighed. One hand rubbed his chin, while the other fingered the hilt of one of the two daggers on his felt. He looked down the line. Including the man with the green scarf, there were five in total, all with daggers and swords on their belts. A sixth man lay face-down in the dirt just behind them, a bow just out of reach of his outstretched fingers, a quiver on his back.

"Be reasonable, Mustadio," grunted the man with the green scarf and the rumbling voice. "We have your father. Ludvich is a reasonable man. You give us the stone, and you can both walk away."

"I'm sure he'll be happy to let us go, knowing what we know," Mustadio sneered. "So let me make this clear. If anyone touches my father, I'll drop the stone in the fucking ocean."

The man with the green scarf tutted and shook his head. The men around him inched closer. Mustadio kept sweeping his gun left and right, but did not deter them. Soon, they'd be in a position to jump him.

And the way the young man spoke—the steadiness of the strange object in his hand, the fire in his blue eyes, and the rage in his voice when he spoke of his father—touched something in Ramza, and stirred up an answering fire. Whoever these men were, whatever there conflict with Mustadio, they threatened his father. This was a man in need of help.

But hadn't Argus been the same, when Ramza, Delita, and Beowulf had saved him upon the Plains?

The pang of guilt steadied Ramza: without thinking, he stood at once and stepped out of concecalment. He hated what Argus had done, but he would not stay his hand just because of the risks it entailed. That was Gaffgarion's way, and for the first time in two years, Ramza was free of that man's poison.

"I think this is my cue, Mustadio!" Ramza called.

Every man save the one in the green scarf whirled around to face Ramza, weapons raised. The back of the man in the green scarf tensed, and Mustadio's blue eyes were wide with confusion. No, that wasn't good: this would only work if the men believed them.

"Did they hurt you, friend?" Ramza asked.

Mustadio blinked, and his face settled back into a look of recognition. "They tried."

Ramza shook his head. "More the fools they."

"Keep eyes on him," growled the man in the green scarf, and as two of the men jerked their gazes back to Mustadio, the man in the green scarf turned to face Ramza. He had a narrow face with darting, angry eyes. "Who the fuck are you?"

"One of his friends," Ramza said, nodding to Mustadio.

"Boy doesn't have friends," grunted the man in the green scarf.

"Then I guess I'm a figment of your imagination." Ramza smiled, though his heart was pounding in his chest. He didn't know where he was getting these lies. They came at the speed of thought, without him trying to imagine them. He sounded good, didn't he?

"Some friend," chuckled the man, as each hand found the hilt of a dagger at his belt. "Not even a knife on your belt."

Yes, Ramza felt naked—no sword at his hip, no quiver on his back. But he smiled as though his guts weren't coated in ice, and said, "Strange, isn't it? An unarmed man walking into an ambush. Who would be so foolish? After all, here you gentlemen sit, surrounding my friend, leaving him nowhere to run. No one outside this courtyard can see what you're going to do." Ramza paused thoughtfully, looking around the buildings, and added, "Of course, you can't see if anyone's waiting for you, either."

The man with the green scarf hesitated. His eyes flickered around the courtyard. For the first time he seemed to realize that he was just as boxed in as Mustadio was, if there were any forces beyond the buildings that surrounded them. Ramza managed a slight smile, though he felt his bowels shaking themselves loose with nervousness.

"So here's the deal," Ramza said. "You walk away, right now. I'll call off my friends, and you can go back to your boss and tell him you ran into trouble."

The man with the green scarf searched the buildings around him. There were murmurs and nervous glances from the other men. Mustadio kept his gun level, but his eyes were feverish with relief.

Finally, the man with the green scarf looked back to Ramza. His face had settled into a stony expression. "What's he paying you?"

Ramza's eyebrows arched. "Wouldn't be much of a friend if he had to pay me, would he?"

The man in the green scarf nodded. "S'pose not. Awfully brave, takin' on our boss just 'cause your friend pissed him off."

Ramza shook his head. "Nothing brave about it. Strength in numbers."

"Must be quite a friendship," said the man. "Friendship like that, you probably know everything he does."

"What I need to know," Ramza said coolly, though his neck prickled at the sense of a danger he couldn't name.

"Like the name of our boss?" the man asked.

"Ludvich," Ramza said at once.

"Ludvich who?" asked the man in the green scarf.

Ramza felt a bolt of lightning hit his heart and crackled out to his limbs. Behind the man in the green scarf, Mustadio's eyes widened.

Everyone moved at once. The man in the green scarf had his daggers out and drawn in an instant, while Ramza leapt towards the fallen man and his discarded bow. Mustadio's strange object snapped towards the man with the green scarf, and with a thunderous crack and a harsh smell that reminded Ramza far too much of Zeakden, the man bowled over as though struck from behind.

Ramza rolled next to the bow, rose in a crouch with the bow in hand. He grabbed for the quiver, then heard the pounding of feet in the dirt behind him. He twisted, just in time: a sword sliced down into the ground where he'd been, cutting through the quiver and the corpse. Arrows spilled across the ground as blood squirted out of the fresh wound. Ramza stumbled to his feet, weaving between his attacker's slashes. He twisted, somersaulted, came up with an arrow in hand, loosed it from inches away. The swordsman ducked, and the arrow soared high overhead.

Behind Ramza were further shouts and curses, scuffling and the exchange of blows. Ramza circled away, his eyes flickering between the swordsman stalking him and Mustadio, who had clambered halfway up the wall he'd been pinned against. One man clung stubbornly to his leg, while another lay on the ground, clutching at his broken noise as blood oozed between his fingers.

"Sons of bitches," growled the deep voice of the man with the green scarf. Ramza glanced over his shoulder and found the man wobbling unsteadily at his feet, sweat standing out against his pale face. Blood dripped down his back and down into the dirt. He had one dagger in his hand. The other lay at his feet.

Ramza lunged towards him, swung the bow and cracked it against the man's head. As he crumpled, Ramza dropped the bow and grabbed for the daggers. He snatched up the one by his feet, but dazed as he was the man with the green scarf fought him for the other. Ramza plunged the stolen dagger into his chest, and the man in the green scarf gave a rattling curse.

Again, footsteps behind him: Ramza jumped away, tried to pull the dagger with him but found it stuck fast in the man's chest. The swordsman lunged towards him, then stopped, standing defensively over his fallen comrade. Another man with a bastard sword was advancing steadily on Ramza, while the man with the broken nose had retaken his feet and rejoined the struggle to drag Mustadio off the wall.

Hadn't Ramza pushed his luck far enough? Wouldn't it be better to run?

But even unarmed and facing two dangerous swordsman, Rama felt like he was crackling with energy, more confident than he'd been since those days when he had sworn he would not kill, and won battle after battle against the Death Corps with his promise intact. He felt young, strong, and confident. He felt sure of himself. He did not want to run. He wanted to win.

He shifted into a defensive position, hands raised to guard his face and chest, one leg in front of the other. The man with the bastard sword drew closer, as the other man stooped to try and treat the wounds of the man with the green scarf. Barely any room to maneuver.

Ramza lunged towards the man with the bastard sword. The swordsman's eyes flashed wide, and he raised his sword for a killing blow. Ramza threw up his hands, complete with his leather greaves—those same greaves he'd worn since his Academy days, that he'd crafted himself, with the extra weight of the metal concealed beneath—and caught the blade just beneath the crossguard. Before the swordsman had time to react, Ramza cracked his forehead against the man's face, felt little fissures of pain radiating out from impact as something snapped and squished against his skin.

The man screamed, and his grip slackened, and Ramza wrested the bastard sword away from the man, kicked him in the chest so he staggered backwards, and then slashed the tip of the blade across his chest. The man slumped to his knees.

With a roar of rage, the swordsman guarding the man in the green scarf lunged towards Ramza, who tightened his grip on his sword and swung in turn. A frenzy of clashing parries and repartees, Ramza's hands numb with the exertion, and the fury of his opponent was such that Ramza was driven back before him, barely able to interpose his too-large blade to protect himself from the attack. Foreign blood was dripping down his face—the blood of the man he'd headbutted, the blood of the man who was curled in a fetal position just behind his attacker.

A flicker of blue from the corner of Ramza's eye. Both he and his attacker whirled to face the source of the movement, and then with a concussive whoomph of air his attacker was blasted off his feet, flew through the air and smashed back against the wall, falling in a broken heap next to Mustadio and his attackers.

Ramza stared at the blonde woman in the stinking blue armor. Agrias' eyes flickered around the courtyard.

"What's happening?" Agrias hissed.

"Drop your weapons!" someone shouted.

Ramza and Agrias looked back, found Mustadio in a headlock with a sword pressed against his throat. The man with the broken nose was holding him hostage: the other man stood in front of them, blade pointed towards Agrias and Ramza.

"Never mind," Agrias grunted, and took a threatening step towards Mustadio and his captors.

"No closer!" hissed the man with the broken nose.

"You're not gonna kill him," Ramza said—they'd made that damn clear while he was eavesdropping.

"Just because I can't kill him doesn't mean I can't hurt him," growled the man with the broken nose. He moved the sword away from Mustadio's neck, and placed it against Mustadio's wrist. The young man's blue eyes flashed wide with terror, and he squirmed in his captor's grasp.

Ramza didn't move. His eyes flickered around them—to the bodies at his feet, the green-scarfed man to the left and the man who had held the bastard sword just ahead. Agrias was here, but he didn't know what range her sword techniques had, and even if she could reach Mustadio and his captor, she might well hurt the young man as much as his assailant.

Ramza swallowed, and nodded. "Alright."

Agrias' head swiveled to glare at him. Ramza gave her a pleading stare. "Look around," he said. "What can we do?"

He gave a sweeping gesture that indicated the men holding Mustadio, and ended with a slight flourish towards the body of the man in the green scarf. Agrias' eyes flickered around them, and she nodded grimly.

"I see," she said.

Together both knelt, and laid their blades upon the ground. Then a moment later Ramza lunged towards the green-scarfed man, grabbed at the dagger in his dead hand and sent it flying towards Mustadio's captor. The handle bounced hard against the center of his head, and he fell away from Mustadio with a little scream. The man guarding him twisted to follow the path of the knife, and realized his mistake too late: by the time he turned, Agrias was already upon him, her sword cleaving through his chest.

Mustadio was yelling and struggling in the grasp of the man with the broken nose, and Ramza grabbed at the dagger still buried in the chest of the green-scarfed man, pulled it out as he broke into a sprint. Mustadio's hands were wrapped around the man's swordhand, struggling to keep the blade away, and then Ramza drove the dagger into the throat of the man with the broken nose. He gagged, gasped, gargled, and went still.

Ramza remained where he was for a moment, barely able to think or move. His chest was tight with exertion, and his arms heavy with the fighting of the last few minutes. His head felt it was tilting from side to side, a boat about to capsize, and the smell of everything—the blood, dirt, sweat, and shit—almost overwhelmed him. He stared around at all the men he'd fought and killed, listened to the last few wheezes and groans.

Mustadio rose from where he had fallen, gasping and massaging his neck. "You...you saved me!" he exclaimed.

"Apparently," Agrias said, with an accusing glance at Ramza.

"They were after him," Ramza said.

"Play hero on your own time," Agrias said. "We need to get moving."

"Wait!" Mustadio exclaimed. "Please, take me with you!"

"Absolutely not," Agrias said.

"These men are everywhere," Mustadio said. "They'll catch me eventually, and if they do-"

"We have already risked our lives to save yours," Agrias said. "It is the height of arrogance to ask more of us."

Mustadio's face fell, and he looked at the ground. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "But I have nowhere else to go."

"You said they had your father?" Ramza asked.

Mustadio nodded. "And they...I don't know what they'll do, if..."

"Agrias, please," Ramza said, turning his own beseeching eyes on Agrias.

Agrias regarded Mustadio and Ramza grimly. "As if we don't have enough trouble..." She closed her eyes, then nodded once. "Gather their weapons. We need to rearm."

"Thank you, my lady!" Mustadio shouted, falling to his knees, but Agrias hauled him to his feet at once.

"I am not your lady," she said. "And we do not have time for theatrics."

Mustadio nodded, and started scrabbling in the dirt, hefting the peculiar metal object with which he'd felled the green-scarfed man. Ramza followed suit, grabbing at daggers and swords and packs. Agrias stood over them, glowering.

"Thank you, Agrias," Ramza said softly. It might have been his imagination, but he thought he spied the faintest ghost of a smile on her face.