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Chapter 45: The Stone

The gate of Lionel Castle loomed ahead of them, an imposing stonework edifice elaborately carved to distinguish it from the surrounding bluffs. Two guards were visible on the rugged walls to either side of the gate; Ovelia was sure there must be more within the walls, with arrows trained on them through the dark murderholes that pitted the wall here and there a caterpillar's bitemarks on a leaf.

"Are you sure, my lady?" Agrias muttered, as they crossed the wide wooden bridge that went over the river that encircled the Castle and wound down into Lionel City.

"What choice do we have?" Ovelia asked. The last few days had been a slow nervous trek over the rolling hills and through the muddy streams that made up this section of Lionel. The terrain made for country that was generally sparsely populated, but what farmland was tended was extremely fertile, and what cities and forts there were were extremely defensible. Lionel City, some half a mile south of the Castle Proper, lay in a valley, with its watch towers on the hills that surrounded it to protect it from harm, and outlying farmland that supplied the town, the castle, the Gryphon Knights, and many parts of Ivalice proper. It traded the fruits of its harvest out of the port city Warjilis, far to the south, and with Zaland to the north.

"Halt!" shouted one off the knights upon the wall, as they crossed the bridge.

Ovelia looked up at him, feeling stringy with anxiousness. Merely approaching the Castle had heightened her nerves: it was a proper Ydoran fortification, protected first by a wide river that denied passage on all sides save here, and then again by walls of white stone built into cliffs, bluffs, and hills. Lionel Castle was practically a city unto itself, and if the Cardinal and his men had no wish to see her, she had no way to force his hand.

But her question to Agrias was still apt. What choice did they have? In their days of travel, they had seen the men of the Baerd company, always easily-dissuaded by their numbers ("Of course they are," Radia had pointed out. "They're looking for one man, not an armed band"). No Hokuten or Nanten appeared—neither the Cardinal nor the Church would have permitted them free run across Lionel—but what would happen if someone spotted her?

They had camped in little cave in an old quarry outside Lionel City, discussing what came next. But everyone agreed that simply approaching the Gryphon Knights or city officials was too risky. They had no idea whose loyalties lay where. What if the person they reached out to had ties to the Hokuten? The Nanten? The Baerd Company? Delita's conspirators?

Paranoia gnawed at Ovelia's insides until she made her decision. Until she realized that all paths were risky, and that being the case the best way forward was whatever path was the shortest and surest to the Cardinal. Such as approaching the gate to his castle, wanted as she was by the Crown.

She lowered the hood of her cloak, and raised her face to the guards. She gathered every ounce of her training, tried to force herself to stand straighter, to look like the very incarnation of royal grace.

"Prepare to be admitted!"

Ovelia stared up at the guard in disbelief. She felt her mouth opening and closing like a fish. "What?" she managed, in a strangled squeak. She almost didn't notice the gates sliding backwards, and stepped back quickly when she saw the movement from the corner of her eye.

There was no heavy squeal of metal against metal, no creaking of hinges dealing with immense weights. The gate widened with only a whisper of noise, a slight hiss. Wider and wider, wider than Ovelia could believe. A column could have marched through that gate, thirty men across with room to spare. Chocobos and their riders could have poured through that gate ten abreast.

There was a man beyond that gate. A man whose bald head gleamed in the afternoon sunlight, whose dropping mustache bristled above his full lips. His belly protruded through the fabric of his bue robe a bit more than it had been when last she'd seen him, and his dark eyes did not carry the same bright sparkle, but what else could she expect, with what he'd been through?

"Cardinal Delacroix?" she cried, stirring a ripple of surprise among her companions.

"Welcome, my lady!" the Cardinal called, gesturing for her to enter. Ovelia walked towards him as though in a dream, feeling like she was floating through the air. Somehow she missed the closing of the gate, failed to speak. She had imagined many scenarios—hostile and suspicion, guarded optimism, a lucky audience with a surprised Cardinal. She had never imagined that the man would be waiting for her at the gate.

"Cardinal," she managed, after she had found her voice again.

"Not here," he murmured, and led them on. She fell silent obediently, thoughts still whirling, as he led them towards the elegant castle behind its heavy protective walls, down halls and up staircases of the same polish stonework, ornately decorated with paintings and tapestries, until they reached a comfortable salon with chairs, couches, and settees all upholstered in the same plush fabric. A tray of fruit and wine was already on the table in the sitting area.

"Sit, please!" the Cardinal exclaimed.

His request jolted Agrias out of her reverie. "We couldn't possibly, your Grace!"

"You must," the Cardinal said. "Officially, you are a Romandan delegation discussing the expansion of the Church in the Empire. If you do not sit, we do not look proper."

The Cardinal bustled around their stunned company, got them seated over what feeble protests Agrias managed to voice, then sat himself down at the edge of a couch closest to the heavy desk on the far wall.

"I am glad you have made it safely," the Cardinal said. "I apologize for not being able to send an escort, but in some matters my hands remain tied."

Ovelia did not answer. She could not find the words to do so. The Cardinal looked around the room, then said, "Will you not eat or drink? You must be famished."

Absently, Ovelia plucked a grape and popped it into her mouth, barely noticing the taste of it or the feel of its cool juice dripping down her throat. Still she stared at the Cardinal, her mind stuttering along, trying to reconcile her fears with the man in front of her, welcoming her to safety.

"I was..." Ovelia struggled to find some formal courtesy to free her tongue. "I was sorry to hear, about...about your family."

The Cardinal's face softened, and he closed his eyes. "I appreciate it, your Highness."

It took her another few seconds to speak again. "How..." she started, and did not know how to finish her sentence. "How did you know I was..."

The Cardinal smiled. "A Princess, who is such an object of hate for the Queen that this hate is common knowledge, disappears from a Church Monastery. A few days later, the Hokuten announce that the Princess is wanted in connection with a plot against the royal family. And quiet letters warn that this Princess may be in Lionel, and that the Cardinal would do well to remember that his authority over Lionel comes only by grace of the Crown."

Ovelia shook her head. "She threatened you?"

"In so many words," the Cardinal said. "I am no fool, Ovelia. Where else could you turn, with the others powers arrayed against you?" His eyes darkened. "I am only sorry I could not-"

"You don't have to be sorry, Your Grace," Ovelia said at once.

The Cardinal waved her to silence. "Of course I do," he growled. "Political necessities force me to stay my hand where my conscience demands I act. Would God not be ashamed? Should I not be ashamed?"He was breathing heavily, his eyes bright. With an obvious effort, he calmed himself. "No more," he said. "You are in my care now. I did not seek you out: you came to me, and you will have my protection."

Another ripple among her companions. The stunned, stern, uncertain faces all softened with relief. Ovelia felt that same softening happening inside her, relaxing the parts of herself that had been coiled so tight that they had felt ready to snap. It had never occurred to her that the Cardinal might be so aware of the trouble she faced, or that he would be so welcoming when she came to him for help. She suddenly felt so light and free that she might have drifted away upon the breeze.

"Thank you," she whispered. Without thinking, she poured herself a glass of wine, and somehow glasses were in everyone's hands, and the Cardinal was smiling again.

"Now," he said. "Much as I would love to let you rest, I cannot aid you without knowing precisely what we are facing." He looked around the room. "I would like you to tell me everything you can."

They tried, as best as they were able. Ovelia found herself surprised at what she learned—the dimensions of conflict she hadn't known, the early distrust between Radia, Ramza, and her Lionesses. Ramza and Radia shared a little of what had come before, when they had traveled to Igros to receive the contract with Gaffgarion. Only Mustadio was taciturn, speaking in terse, nervous sentences and never quite meeting the Cardinal's eye.

The Cardinal was largely silent as they talked, speaking up to only ask some clarifying question. By the time they were winding down, having exhausted themselves in recounting the wild weeks, he was painted orange by the sunlight streaming through the windows as the sun began to set.

He shook his head, as he had done many times during the conversation. "I had thought you remarkable when first we met, Your Highness," the Cardinal said. "I think it safe to say you have proven my assessment accurate. Though perhaps the credit lies in part with a remarkable company. A Beoulve and a Gaffgarion standing shoulder to shoulder with the Lionesses."

He raised his smiling face to the rest of her entourage, who seemed to glow with the same pleasure that Ovelia felt radiating out from somewhere in her chest, like sunlight coursing through her veins. With all her fears banished, she had only the pleasure and determination afforded her by the last several days. She felt even better than she had at the abandoned farmhouse.

Lastly, the Cardinal's gaze fell upon Mustadio. His face softened. "Mustadio Bunansa."

Mustadio flinched, but raised his eyes. "Your Grace?" he said softly.

The Cardinal's smile had faded. There was iron in his eyes now. For the first time, Ovelia glimpsed the general who had been so feared during the 50 Years' War.

"I am sorry for what has been done to your father," he said. "I am sorry for what has been done to you. I would have exterminated Baerd and his ilk years ago, but..." He shook his head despondently. "Again, even I must bow to political realities."

Mustadio looked heartbroken. "Oh," he said, in a small voice.

The Cardinal nodded grimly. "Baerd greases the right palms," he grunted. "And wears a convincing mask. The Inquisition Office holds official jurisdiction over Goug, and I am not permitted to take action without their consent. I would need some pressing religious need. I would need to be able to prove Baerd guilty of blasphemy or heresy."

For just a moment, Mustadio's eyes were wild with vindication. Then the moment passed, and he wore a neutral face. "Oh?" he said, casual as could be.

The Cardinal considered Mustadio for a long time. "This dig they sponsored," the Cardinal said. "What did you find?"

Mustadio did not speak. A faint smile tugged at the corners of the Cardinal's lips. "Your friends tell me you sought my aid," he said. "Do you not trust me, even so?"

Mustadio bowed his head. "Forgive me, your Grace," he said. "But after what happened with Baerd, I don't trust anyone."

The Cardinal chuckled. "I can hardly blame you for that. Let me take the burden from your shoulders." He reached inside his voluminous robes, searched for a moment, and then-

Ovelia jerked back on the couch where she sat with Agrias on one side and Radia on the other, but they too were crying out and shifting—Agrias defensively towards Ovelia, Radia reaching out as thought to touch the red crystal in the Cardinal's hand, a crystal that glowed and burned with force that Ovelia could not describe, force that scared her, force that entranced her.

Mustadio's jaw had dropped. His eyes were glazed. "You have one," he whispered.

The Cardinal smiled, and set the Stone upon the table. The moment he had released his grip, the force of it quieted a little. Now it was a mirage shimmer, something you could almost dismiss as a trick of the light, if you had not see the fierce and undeniable corona when it was in the Cardinal's hand. On its front, the Scorpio symbol was traced in lines of light across the maroon surface.

"I do," the Cardinal said. "I take it you do, as well?"

Mustadio nodded. "In the guts of a broken airship," he whispered. "We saw this...this glow. And when I touched it..." He shook his head. "Pretty much all the old machines are broken now. The engines, the Workers, the little things the Ydorans used to make their lives easier. But when I touched that thing, everything came alive. But they're all broken, so it was this loud, terrible noise. Like the machines were howling." He shuddered.

"You have it with you?" the Cardinal asked.

Mustadio shook his head. "Had to hide it."

"Of course," the Cardinal said. "They would not kill you or your father, as long as one of you could lead them to the Stone." He said the words calmly, but his eyes were bright with indignation. "I am sorry that you have been forced to such extremes, Mustadio."

Mustadio nodded, but seemed to have run out of words.

"What is it?" Agrias asked.

"You don't recognize it?" Radia said, and there was such emotion in her voice that Ovelia's head snapped back to the other woman. Radia's face was pale, but her wide eyes glittered with longing and her mouth kept twitching up into a maniacal smile. "It's a Zodiac Stone."

Agrias frowned. "From the fairy tales?"

"You call the doctrine of the Church a fairy tale, Captain Oaks?" the Cardinal said mildly. Agrias flushed and sputtered, and a faint smile toyed with the Cardinal's lips. "No, I understand. There is quite a difference between believing in the Saint and his teachings and in believing in a coalition of disciples who aided their Saint in slaying demons with the help of gifts from God." He gestured towards the Stone on the table. "But when the gift sits in front of you, how can you deny it?"

All eyes turned back to that wine-dark crystal. Radia cleared her throat. "May...may I hold it, your Grace?"

The Cardinal chuckled, and gestured for her to do. With hesitant movements and wonder in her eyes, Radia reached out and took the stone in hand. She was shaking.

"It's...beautiful," she breathed, cradling it between her hands. She stared at the crystal for a long time.

"Radia," Ramza said softly. Radia jumped as though shocked and then guiltily passed the Stone to Ovelia. Ovelia almost dropped it when she took it in her hands—it was so much heavier than it looked, a solid, dense weight in her hands. Its surface was warm and pleasantly smooth.

As the Stone continued its steady migration around the room, Ovelia looked back to the Cardinal, whose eyes followed the path of the crystal. "Your Grace," Ovelia said. "I thought the Stones were lost?"

The Cardinal chuckled again. "Perhaps once," he said. "But the Church would not let the relics of the Saint lay idle, and auracite does not break. It is only a matter of time to recover them."

"Auracite?" Ovelia repeated, puzzled.

"The technical term," Mustadio said at once. "For the kind of crystal. But it's irrelevant, since we've never found auracite outside of the Stones." He paused, and added softly, "I didn't know others had been found."

The Cardinal nodded. "Political realities over pressures of conscience," he said. "Something of a running theme, no?" He sighed and took the Stone from Lavian, who along with Alicia and studied it with rapturous attention. In his hand, it glowed a little brighter; he slid it back into his robes, and Ovelia found her heart ached to see it go.

"We would love to share the miracles of Ajora's time with the world, but think how scary those things might be to some paranoid Queen!" The Cardinal shot Ovelia a searching look. "That the Church should gather such relics...surely it would imply a plot, no? A plan to use their power to overthrow the Crown. Never mind that we have no idea what powers they have, if any; never mind that we cannot use them, even if we were so inclined; never mind that they are relics of the Saint and his Disciples, and could only benefit our world."

"So we wait," the Cardinal continued. "We search for the Stones, as best we can. We hope that one day we will have the good will or the courage to reveal ourselves, and share in our bounty with all Ivalice. And when we find someone who would threaten our Saint's legacy, we take action to ensure that they feel God's justice."

Mustadio sat up straighter in his chair. "Does that mean-"

The Cardinal nodded. "I will write to the Inquisition Office in Goug tonight," he said. "And make arrangements to take Baerd into our custody. We will have to proceed carefully, however: there's no telling who is under his pay. Which reminds me." He glanced back to Ovelia. "Princess, were it in my power, I would publicly declare Lionel for you right now. But I am afraid that I cannot do so without the explicit blessing of High Priest Funeral. I will write him at once, but until such time as I can get word from him, we will need to be cautious."

Ovelia nodded. "You suspect some of your own men serve others?"

"I know it for a fact," the Cardinal answered. "I just don't know which men."

"I understand," she said, and she did; what else had the last few days taught her, if not how difficult it was to find people you could trust? "What do you need from me?"

"You will be confined to this wing of the Castle," he said. "And if anyone attempts to speak to you, I would appreciate it if you kept silent. I will spread word that the Romandan delegate does not speak Ivalician. It would be best if you kept to yourself, in any case."

Ovelia nodded once more, though she felt a pang against her ribs. Locked away behind stone walls once more, prevented by political necessity from speaking with others. She understood the necessity, but even through her relief it felt too much like the isolation of Orbonne.

"Thank you, your Highness," the Cardinal said, and turned back to Mustadio. "Our best hope is to strike at once. I will write those I trust and make arrangements to seize Baerd. I will also write my agents within Goug and have them locate your father. And.." The Cardinal suddenly looked a little guilty. "I am sorry, Mr. Bunansa, but I cannot act unless I am sure to take the Stone in hand. We will need it as proof of Baerd's intentions—and, if I am being honest, we will need it to convince the Inquisition Office to undertake such an onerous task."

Mustadio nodded. "Of course, your Grace."

"It will be dangerous," the Cardinal warned. "Our cause depends on both swiftness and secrecy, so I could not send you with an escort of knights. If Baerd gets word, he may try to kill you."

Mustadio's face was set, his eyes feverish. "If that's what it takes."

"He doesn't need to go alone," Ramza said.

Everyone looked towards Ramza, who was himself staring at Ovelia. "Highness," Ramza said. "With your permission, I would join Mustadio until his father is freed." Radia and Mustadio both gasped. Ramza glanced between them, and his eyes flinched away from Radia to settle on Mustadio. "That is, if you will have me."

Mustadio offered a wavering smile. "You didn't ask to save my life the first time," he said. "You think I'll deny you when you do?"

Ramza smiled in turn, and looked back to Ovelia. Ovelia felt a jealous heat coursing through her veins. Before she could speak, the Cardinal said, "Are you sure, young Beoulve? Two men may attract more attention than one."

Ramza shook his head. "With due respect, your Grace," he said. "I think it offers him protection without compromising your plans."

The Cardinal pursed his thick lips and inclined his head a fraction of an inch. Ramza turned his attention back to Ovelia, in whose veins the jealous heat had cooled a little.

"You don't serve me," she said, her voice calm. "You are free to do as you please."

"I am aware, your Highness," he said. "But I would feel better with your blessing."

"Would you?" Radia said, in a strained and strangled voice.

Ramza's eyes flickered towards Radia, then back to Ovelia. "I would."

For a moment, Ovelia almost denied him. The jealous heat had cooled a little more, but it was still there, sunburning her skin from the inside. Why should Ramza get to walk free, while she was trapped behind stone walls once again?

But of course, the question answered itself. He had to be free, because unlike her he could be. And because he was Alma's brother, and a good friend in his own right, and deserved better than that from her.

"You may go, Ramza," she said, and she felt another, fiercer pang, because he had shown her how to blow the grass flute and there were so few people she trusted and now he would walk out into the world, free as she could never be, and who knew when she would see him again? So she added, "But you must come back."

He smiled an earnest, relieved smile. "Of course, your Highness."

Ovelia turned to Radia to ask her if she wanted to go with him, but the question caught in her throat. There was such pain and confusion on Radia's face, such wild raw emotion in her eyes, that Ovelia didn't know what to say.

"Well, the matter is settled," the Cardinal said. "I will show you to your rooms, and we may make arrangements to deal with Baerd."

He rose from his seat, and the others followed suit. Ovelia's head was swimming with wine and relief, but as she followed the Cardinal from the sitting room, she suspected that matters weren't settled at all.