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Chapter 44: A Grateful Company

The water was cool against her bare skin. The sun was so bright that she could see it shining even through her closed eyelids, and she basked in its radiant warmth. The barest breeze tickled her face, her chest, and the tips of her toes. She smiled a little, and was surprised to find how easy it was to smile.

"Are you alright, my lady?" Agrias asked.

Ovelia creaked open one eye. Agrias was fully-clothed in the soft tunic and trousers she wore beneath her armor. She was busily washing said armor in the stream that wound away from the little pool in which Ovelia floated, but had turned to look at Ovelia. Her damp hair stuck against her back.

"Fine, Agrias," Ovelia said.

"If you are quite finished," Agrias continued. "You might consider-"

"Not all of us are in a hurry, Agrias!" Radia called. She was lounging near the pool's edge, sitting with her legs submerged and her head cast back to the sky. She wore a cat's satisfied smile and nothing else.

"It is not ladylike to stay unclothed longer than necessary," Agrias said stiffly.

"Then I'm glad I'm not a lady," Radia said.

Ovelia grinned lazily and leaned back into the water again, floating serenely. The first plunge into the pool had been all desperation—after the exhaustion of days spent traveling, and after the abhorrence of the Zaland Sewers, she had needed to feel clean again. First climbing through a fetid canal that led to a broken grate, then down into the stinking dark of the Zaland Sewers, with only Lavian and Alicia's magic to light their way. There, wading through water that was sometimes a viscous, odorous sludge, following a hesitant Mustadio as he picked his uncertain way through the cavernous sewers, her head was half-filled with dormitory tales of ancient monsters beneath Ydoran cities, of things forgotten that hungered for prey.

Even after they'd been freed from those horrible confines and stumbled into the misty pre-dawn light, the smell of it pervaded her, clinging to her hair, her skin, her clothes. Staggering with weariness and nausea, they had struggled to follow Mustadio as he led them along the stream that ran away from the city. The path took them well off any main road—and, in so doing, away from any of their mutual enemies. Dawn gave way to afternoon, and as the summer sun had beat down from on high, they had found the leaning ruin of an old farm just beneath a hill, where the stream forked off into a gorgeous nest of trickling creeks babbling over smooth stones and placid pools of serene water.

Who could resist that alluring sight? Even Agrias had only the energy to half-heatedly shove Mustadio and Ramza to the opposite side of the hill, with muttered admonishments and warnings that didn't quite make sense. Then they stripped stinking armor and cloth from their bodies, and plunged into the water.

"You may not be a lady," Agrias said grimly. "But our Princess is."

Ovelia turned her head and smiled at her bodyguard, who had fought so hard for her sake and who in spite of that remained so hilariously uptight.

"Agrias," Ovelia said gently. "Do you really think Ramza and Mustadio are going to try and steal a peek at me?"

Agrias flushed. "I...no, my lady."

"So what exactly are you worried about?"

"If someone..if anyone should..." Agrias fretted. "What if someone sees you?"

Ovelia and Radia stared at Agrias. Then they looked at each other, and the moment their eyes met they burst out laughing. It was a loud, ungainly sound, a wild cackle that scared a pair of birds in a bush nearby and sent them flying desperately for cover. The laughter seemed to fill her lungs and ripple beneath her skin even as it stirred other ripples in the water around her. It was the weight of her exhaustion, the draining emotional highs and lows of the past several days, the revulsion of the sewers and the sudden ease of their new surroundings, the ridiculousness of Agrias' fears coupled with the genuine terror of her enemies coming upon her naked. It all alloyed together into a delirious hysteria that left her howling.

"Oh Saint!" Ovelia cried towards the sky. "Forgive me!"

"Not just a traitor!" Radia called back, her teardrop breasts shaking as she tried to swallow her laughter. "But a harlot!"

"The shame!" Ovelia warbled.

"The shame!" Radia agreed, and fell back into the water, howling herself.

Agrias' lips were pursed and her eyes burned with an emotion somewhere between exasperation and amusement. "It's not that ridiculous," she muttered.

Radia wiped tears from her eyes. "It's pretty ridiculous."

"I'll get dressed soon, Agrias," Ovelia said. Agrias nodded reluctantly, and Ovelia lay back again, letting herself float free in the cool water. God, it had felt good to laugh that way. Radia did that to her. She was so bright and funny. She made everything seem a little easier. Even the thought of the Cardinal, and what he might do with her.

She frowned into the sky, and shifted in the water, bracing palms, butt, and heels against the slippery stones. She glanced down at her bare chest and watched droplets of water trickle away down her round, golden-skinned breasts. Suddenly she was conscious of her nakedness, and of the enemies she had in the world. Suddenly her skin prickled with the fear that one such enemy might come upon her now, when she was weak and vulnerable, exposed for all the world to see.

She swam towards the shore, keeping her body in the water so she could soak in some of it's placid cool and hide her nakedness from phantom enemies. When she drew close, Agrias gave her a sheepish look. "Your clothes are still damp, my lady. Alicia has not had time to dry them."

"I don't mind, Agrias," Ovelia said, pulling the damp clothes from a nearby rock. "Where'd they get off to, anyways?" Both Alicia and Lavian had disappeared shortly after they had all begun to dip into the pool.

Agrias looked more sheepish still. "I...believe they are resting, my lady."

Ovelia frowned. "Resting?"

"In their own fashion," Agrias said. Ovelia studied her guard captain, who looked yet more sheepish. Before Ovelia could formulate a question, Agrias continued, in a lower voice, "Did you still wish to talk to Radia, my lady?"

Ovelia glanced back to Radia, who was still lounging in the water with her shaggy red hair just touching her muscular shoulders. Thoughts of Lavian and Alicia drained away. They were welcome to their rest, after all they'd done for her. Everyone had done so much for her, but perhaps none more than Radia. And, most important of all, no one since Alma had made her feel so at ease.

"Radia!" Ovelia called. Radia glanced over, and Ovelia beckoned for her to come join them. Radia rose from the water at once, so that water rained down her pale skin. She was wiry all the way through—her abs were taut beneath her dark nipples, her arms and legs corded with muscle as she waded towards them, droplets glistening on the tips of her hair and on her red bush.

"What's up?" she asked.

Ovelia and Agrias exchanged questioning glances. Ovelia nodded slightly, and Agrias turned back to Radia. "Would you like your clothes?"

Radia shrugged. "Not if they're still wet."

Agrias frowned. "As I said, not very lady-like."

"As I said," Radia answered. "I'm not a lady."

"But a Lioness must meet very high standards of personal conduct," Agrias said. "You must demonstrate a sense of propriety if you wish to be one of us."

Radia blinked. She frowned and shook her head, as though she were having trouble hearing. "What?"

Agrias stood up. Even in her cotton clothes, damp against her body, she looked imposing. Ovelia had always thought that Agrias was one of the strongest people she'd ever known: she seemed to wear that strength like armor at all times.

"We are grateful to you and Ramza both," Agrias said. "But Ramza did not turn against his father for the sake of a righteous cause. He did not risk his life against this terrible plot for the sake of duty, in spite of the suspicion from those who shared your cause." Agrias offered Radia a shy smile. "He did not embody every virtue of the Lionesses."

Radia stared at them, her mouth slack, her eyes wide.

"It's quite an honor, I know," Ovelia added. "Who wouldn't want to be the bodyguard to a Princess the whole kingdom wants dead?"

"My lady!" Agrias squawked in outrage, but the joke broke Radia from her shock. She blinked, shaking her head as though to clear the cobwebs.

"I..." Radia shook her head again. "I don't know what to say."

"You don't have to say anything," Ovelia said gently.

"You are already doing all that a Lioness should," Agrias agreed. "Though when we disprove the charges against her Highness, we will have to teach you how to behave with decorum."

Radia nodded, but still seemed at a loss for words. She was uncharacteristically silent as she pulled on her clothes, and Ovelia was soon lost among her own thoughts, distracted only by the rubbing of damp fabric against her clammy skin as they headed back for the abandoned farm where they had silently agreed to shelter for the night.

The Cardinal was her best hope. Unlike Mustadio, she had the benefit of having met the man. In person, he had seemed every bit the equal of his weighty reputation. His broad-chested, powerful body moved with martial confidence, but his eyes were bright, and his thick-lipped mouth seemed eager to bunch up into a smile beneath his bushy mustache. His lively dark eyes sparked and danced, but when he looked at you it seemed you had his complete attention. It all gave the impression of a man at once authoritative and compassionate, who would listen patiently and then act decisively.

Of course, that had been before his wife and son were killed. That had been a nasty business, made nastier because the priests and her guards had refused to discuss it with her. All she heard were the distorted rumors: of the rogue heretic who had waylaid their coach, thinking the Cardinal within, and of the monstrous things he'd done when he discovered his mistake. Most of what she'd managed to learn had come from Alma.

A pang then, as she remembered her time at Orbonne. Back then (but it wasn't really so long ago, months not years, so why did it ache so to remember) she had loathed her confinement in the Monastery, though she had tried to bear it as best she could, believing that at least she helped to keep the peace. Now she was surprised to find she remembered those days with fondness—Simon's quiet, good-natured counsel, and Alma's stalwart cheeky flouting of the rules that surrounded them.

Radia stumbled inside the farmhouse: Ovelia remained outside, allowing the warm sun to dry her clothes. She closed her eyes and tilted her head to the sky, enjoying the brightness of it through her eyelid, the heat of it baking her skin. Agrias stood by her side. As always, she reassured Ovelia: she felt so solid and sure, as dependable as an oak tree.

"Are you well, my lady?" Agrias asked.

Ovelia smiled, and shook her head. "Not really, Agrias."

"I am sorry, your Highness."

Ovelia shook her head and cracked open one eye. Agrias was looking at her with unusual grief in her eyes. Ovelia felt a pang in her heart. "It's not your fault."

"I am aware," Agrias said. "I am but a knight. I cannot stop the machinations of your enemies. But it..." Agrias closed her eyes. "It pains me that I cannot protect you from them."

"Agrias..." Ovelia breathed. She hesitated for a moment—the old rules of courtly behavior still hung heavy on her—but then she grimaced and grabbed at Agrias' hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze. "You don't know how grateful I am."

"I am not worthy of your gratitude," Agrias replied, her eyes closing. Her hand hung limp in Ovelia's grasp. "If it were not for Radia and Ramza, you would be...my lady, we would have..."

"It's not your fault," Ovelia said again.

"But it is my duty," Agrias whispered. "To keep you safe. And I...I cannot..."

Silence, for a moment. Ovelia stared up into her bodyguard's face, and felt all her fears and doubts come swimming back.

"No," Ovelia said. "You can't."

Agrias winced and tried to pull her hand out of Ovelia's, but Ovelia held fast. "Agrias," Ovelia said. "The Queen wants me dead. Her brother wants me dead. Goltanna wants me dead. The only ones we know don't want me dead are Delita and his friends, and I don't know what they want for me. And what if..."

There was a lump in her throat, and all her nervous swallowing did nothing to dispel it. "Even if we can trust the Cardinal," Ovelia continued. "Even if he'll protect me, who's to say the High Priest will? Or that someone won't find a way to get at us? Or...or what if they have their own..." She could hear the teary weakness in her voice, and found she was helpless to hide it.

Agrias' eyes snapped open, aghast. "My lady," she whispered. "I will..." But she trailed off in turn, with that same note of weakness in her voice. Because she knew, as Ovelia knew, that no matter her loyalty or skill, she could not keep Ovelia safe from such danger.

Ovelia smiled weakly, and squeezed Agrias' hand. "No one could do more than you," Ovelia said. "Please don't punish yourself for being human."

Agrias managed a smile that looked as weak as Ovelia's felt. They remained that like that, hand-in-hand, trying and failing to smile. Agrias, her faithful guard, her faithful friend, stubbornly proper and stubbornly loyal.

"-and Barich tosses a match!" exclaimed Mustadio's voice from farther down the hill.

"No!" Ramza laughed in disbelief

"I swear!" Mustadio replied, chuckling himself. "Like it was nothing!"

They were not the only ones laughing—Ovelia recognized the voices of Alicia and Lavian.

"Well, what happened?" Lavian asked.

"Whole thing goes up!" Mustadio said. "We took off! Felt like my pants were on fire the whole way home."

"Can't believe you use matches in Goug," Alicia chortled.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Mustadio grunted. "Not everyone's got a fancy scepter."

"Thank your dad for me," Alicia said.

"You can thank him yourself when we get him free," Mustadio answered.

Ovelia and Agrias exchanged looks, and released their hold on each others' hands just as the four others crested the hill together. Mustadio and Ramza had evidently just finished bathing—their clothes were still damp, sticking awkwardly to their bodies. Alicia and Lavian seemed drier, but also sloppier somehow—their hair was messy and their clothes a little askew. All four seemed in good cheer, though Lavian's smile flickered when she spied Agrias and Ovelia.

"Captain," Lavian said in a small voice.

"I trust you and Alicia are well-rested?" Agrias asked, in voice that carried an odd mixture of amusement and disapproval.

Lavian and Alicia exchanged guilty looks. "Yes ma'am," Lavian said.

"Excellent," Agrias said. "You may alternate cleaning our gear and taking watches until moonrise."

Alicia glowered at Agrias. "Captain, come on!" she exclaimed. "We need sleep just like-"

Lavian prodded Alicia's chest with her elbow. Ovelia frowned. "Weren't you both resting?"

"A short nap," Lavian said. "Enough to see us through until moonrise. We'll grab our gear and get to work, ma'am."

She headed inside. Alicia followed behind, muttering obscenities. Mustadio rubbed sleepily at his eyes, and said, "If you do not mind, I will sleep as well. It has been a long few weeks."

Ramza nodded. "Of course, Mus. You've got to tell me more about that drinking contest, though."

"I don't want to make you an accessory to my crimes," Mustadio answered, with a lazy grin.

He stumbled inside. A moment later, Alicia and Lavian exited the building, laden with their gear.

"Let's find the best vantage points," Agrias said. She turned to go, then stopped and glanced at Ovelia. "You should rest as well, my lady."

Ovelia nodded. "Soon," she said. "And Agrias?" Her guard stopped moving up the hill and gave her a questioning look. "Thank you."

Agrias tried again to smile, then led Alicia and Lavian up the hill, leaving Ovelia and Ramza by themselves. She looked back at him and was surprised to find that he was rather handsome. Clean of the muck that had covered him, yes, but there was something else. Where before he'd worn a hangdog look that had always made him seem pitiful, now he seemed confident and bright. He looked a lot more like Alma and—wasn't this an odd thought—a lot more like Delita.

"You're looking better," Ovelia said.

Ramza blinked in surprise, then smiled. "I'm feeling better," he agreed.

"A lot like your sister."

Ramza blinked again, this time in evident consternation. "Is...that a good thing?"

"Depends on who you ask," Ovelia replied, smiling herself. Ramza laughed, and Ovelia said "You like him? Mustadio?"

Ramza nodded. "He's interesting. And he's..." Ramza looked off into the distance. "He fights so hard."

"For his father," Ovelia said. Ramza nodded. "Is that why you saved him?" Ovelia asked.

Ramza pursed his lips thoughtfully. "A little," he admitted. "Did Alma tell you about him?"

"She showed me her drawings."

Ramza shook his head. "I didn't know she could draw so well." He looked around the leaning farmhouse laden with ivy, then gestured to where Ovelia sat. "May I join you?"

Ovelia nodded, and Ramza slumped down besides her, fiddling with the grass that grew right up against the crumbling walls. "I wanted to thank you," he said. "For...for letting Mustadio travel with us. I know it's-"

"Are you joking?" Ovelia exclaimed. "You want to thank me?"

Ramza looked up in confusion. "What do you-"

"Ramza, you saved my life," Ovelia said. "And...and he was in trouble. We had to help."

Ramza smiled. "I felt the same. It's...it's good to feel that way again."

And Ovelia felt her smile broaden so that it hurt her cheeks. It did feel good, didn't it? She missed the peace of Orbonne, and she feared for her life and feared all the threats, known and unknown, that lurked in Ivalice with their hungry eyes fixed on her. But she also felt alive. The thrill of the chase, and the fight in the woods, the nervous exhilaration of hiding in Zaland's outskirts, even the miserable crawl through the Zaland sewers. It was terrifying, yes, but she had never felt more alive. She was not being told what to do anymore; she was deciding her own fate, with the help of people she could trust and rely on. And this peculiar pleasure lightened her other fears, and made her feel somehow that in spite of the hopeless odds stacked against her, she might well succeed.

Did Ramza understand? For when her smile creased her face, Ramza's smile widened, too. They remained like that, smiling like fools, for some time. Then an odd memory struck Ovelia—of a frustrating day spent on the hills around Orbonne, in the same wan afternoon light that now faded towards the horizon.

"You know," Ovelia said. "Alma could never show me how to blow a grass flute?"

Ramza sighed in exasperation. "Of course not," he said. "She's a lousy teacher."

"Are you?" Ovelia asked.

Ramza frowned. "I...I don't know. I've never tried."

Ovelia flucked a blade of grass from the ground, pressed it to her lips, and tried to blow. It fluttered impotently between her lips. "See?" she said.

"No, it's your thumbs," Ramza said. "Like this."

He plucked his own blade, put it to his lips, and blew a high, clear note. Ovelia couldn't believe the noise was coming from a blade of grass. Inspired, Ovelia tried again, to no avail. For the next few minutes, Ramza coached her as best he could, until Ovelia realized that the alignment of thumbs and mouth was crucial. She managed one weak, fluting note, and was so surprised she dropped the grass.

"Much better," he said approvingly.

"Not nearly as good as you and Alma," Ovelia huffed.

"It took us a whole day," Ramza said. "And that was with Father helping."

There he was again. Balbanes' ghost, which always hung so heavy around Alma. Ovelia didn't know what that was like. She remembered nothing of her birthfather—of Denamda II, who had led Ivalice to so many victories. She remembered dimly the mansions of the nobles who had cared for her before Ondoria had adopted her, and remembered far more bitterly the weak-willed king who had been her brother by blood and her father by adoption and had played the role of neither. She wondered what it must be like, to have someone you trusted so completely.

Perhaps rather like Simon, who had taught her in secret and protected her, even at risk to his own life. Perhaps rather like Agrias, who stood by her side unflinchingly, whatever the world threw at her.

The two of them looked out towards the sun, which was beginning to slide down towards the horizon. Ovelia thought wistfully of Simon, who had given her solace even on her loneliest days.

"I...I still have Alma's sketchbook," Ramza said. "If you wanted to look at it."

Ovelia nodded, though her eyes burned. "I'd like that."

Ramza rose and entered the building. Ovelia remained behind, watching the wind rustle through the tall glass and stirring the pool with ripples. The sun was bright and the breeze was cool she had friends on whom to count. For all the dangers that surrounded her, and all the uncertainty that lay ahead, Ovelia felt at ease for the first time in years.