(Thanks for reading! If you like what you read, be sure to check out my books and follow my website, quickascanbe dot com)
Chapter 46: Uncertain Paths
...Though a nation may dedicate itself to God, still its laws may contradict His. And though no throne sits higher than God's still the powerful may think their word supersedes His. But God did not give you a heart and mind so you might be bound by mortal law. If pangs of conscience demand you follow a difficult road, follow them, whatever law you may break, whatever tyrant you may trouble, for in the whispers of your heart lie the will of God.
-Balias Gospel, "Ajora's Sermon on the Slopes in Lionel"
"Don't cast unless it's an emergency," Alicia said, as Ramza fussed with his pack.
"Yes, ma'am," Ramza said, rising to his feet. His quarters, which he shared with Mustadio, were spartan but functional—four narrow beds, one on each corner of the room, with an attendant dresser that came up to Ramza's thigh. There were a single small window, black with night; the only light came from the runelights that glowed along the ceiling. The floors and walls were made of the same grey stone. Mustadio lay back on his bed, snoring a little.
"I'm serious," Alicia said. "You don't know what you're doing. Odds are you wouldn't hurt yourself, but novices don't have a sense for just how much it costs. The Academy's got a whole set of special rooms to minimize the damage—and healers on standby to make sure no one gets hurt."
"As someone who attended a military academy," Ramza said, in the stilted Leslian accent he'd so often heard from spoiled, naive nobles like Madoc. "I am woefully unaware of what a dangerous weapon can do in clumsy hands."
Lavian grinned, but Alicia glowered at Ramza. "It's not funny," Alicia insisted.
"It's not," Ramza said. "But you are."
Alicia snorted, but handed Ramza the focus she'd retrieved from the Lionel armory—a wooden stave with some runes already etched into it. It felt so light in Ramza's hands, and he glanced over to Lavian. "Any advice?"
Lavian shrugged. "You know some basics," she said. "Won't do you much good, but you can etch some of the runes into that stave if you want."
Ramza nodded, and felt his neck prickling. He'd always felt terribly awkward during goodbyes.
"Alicia!" barked Agrias. "Lavian!"
Both women snapped to attention and pivoted on their heel. Mustadio jolted from his sleep and nearly fell out of the bed, cursing as he fought to right himself. Agrias strode inside, buckling her blue armor as she entered the room. She shot Mustadio an amused glanced. "Do you require help?"
Mustadio grimaced and righted himself, folding his arms in front of his chest. "I require you to not enter my room while shouting!"
Her eyebrows arched. "A little late now, isn't it? You're leaving tomorrow."
Mustadio grimaced again, and did not answer. Agrias turned her attention back to Alicia and Lavian. "Now that missives have been sent, the Cardinal fears for the Princess' safety, in case someone attempts something desperate. He wishes us to join with his regular guard patrols and reinforce them as best we're able."
"Yes ma'am!" Alicia and Lavian said together. They turned back to Ramza, and smiled. Their smiles were eerily similar, in spite of how different their faces were.
"Thank you, Ramza," Lavian said.
"Hurry back, okay?" Alicia said.
Ramza smiled. "I will."
The women stepped past Agrias and into the hall. Agrias remained where she was, looking at Ramza. "I have told you how grateful I am," Agrias said, her face stony.
Ramza nodded. "Thank you for trusting me."
Agrias nodded, and looked to Mustadio. "I am glad we could help you, Mustadio," she said. "I will pray for your success."
Mustadio blinked. "Yes, I...thank you, Captain Oaks. Thank you for everything."
Agrias nodded, and stepped smartly out of the room.
"Well," grunted Mustadio. "I'm awake now."
"I'm sorry," Ramza said.
"Not much to be done about it," huffed Mustadio. He pulled his gun from his pack and began cleaning it absently with an oiled cloth. "Wish I could make more bullets, but the castle smiths have been working non-stop. Think they could let me use a corner, but..." He sighed.
"You're sure you wish to take the main road?" Ramza asked.
Mustadio nodded. "Cardinal's said he upped his patrols. Baerd's men ain't gonna risk fighting the Gryphons."
Ramza wasn't so sure—a genuine Zodiac Stone was an awfully tempting prize—but he'd expressed his doubts already and saw no point in doing so again. Instead he checked his weapons—the two daggers, bow, and bastard sword he'd taken from the men he'd killed—and said, "You've taken this road before?"
Mustadio shook his head. "Not exactly, but there's only two roads out of Goug. The coastal road that leads into Lionel, and the bridge to Mullonde."
"And the coastal road leads to both Lionel and Warjilis?" Ramza asked, though he already knew the answer.
"And a lot of other places, too," Mustadio said. "I've gone to Warjilis a few times, to trade with my father—what goods we make, what we're allowed to keep, that kind of thing." As it always did, his face lit up when he spoke of his father. Ramza shared that, he supposed, and perhaps that was why he'd asked. He wanted to see Mustadio in a good mood, and to keep their atmosphere a little pleasant. He had to, when he had so many worries to trouble him.
Helping Mustadio was the right thing. He'd known it from the moment he'd seen Mustadio, fearlessly facing off with the men who intended to take him. He'd known it when the man made his cause clear—when he revealed he fought for his father. And now it was clearer still, for in spite of all they risked, father and son alike had decided that they had to keep the Stone from Baerd's hand. They had decided that to do so was worth torture, imprisonment, and death. In saving Mustadio, and in asking Ovelia for permission to travel with him, Ramza had felt the old giddy thrill of those days when he had fought without killing.
But how had those days ended? In pain, and terror, and bloodshed. In friends killing friends, in Teta tumbling madly through the air with the arrow in her throat, her blood spilling into the snow as Zeakden exploded around them. Ramza feared his elation, because he knew how it had ended before. How it could end again.
And he feared it, because Radia did not share it.
She avoided him, refused to speak with him when they were caught alone, rushed after Ovelia to serve as her escort. Ramza had barely seen Ovelia since their arrival in Lionel Castle—she was always meeting with the Cardinal, discussing what came next. There had only been time for words in passing, but at least Ovelia was still speaking with him.
Fond talk of his father, and of what they had done together, prompted Mustadio to ask Ramza questions of his own. They talked until Mustadio drifted off again, and Ramza lay in the dark room, staring at the ceiling but unable to bring himself to sleep. His thoughts were whirling, his guts dancing, his skin tingling. Too much that could go wrong. Too much that could go right.
Ramza blinked out of his reverie. He'd heard something. What had he...there it was again. The softest rapping of knuckled against his door.
He rose quietly from his bed, and crept to the door. He opened it a crack and slipped into the dimly-lit hallway, shutting it gently behind him. Then he turned, and Radia's green eyes caught him fast and would not let him go.
"You're leaving?" Radia asked.
Ramza folded his arms across his chest. He was surprised to find he was angry—a low, dull heat pulsed out of his temples and gut, making him feel warm and spiteful. He'd felt guilty before, but then Radia had avoided him for days, and only now, with his departure hours away, did she feel like he deserved her attention?
"Looks that way, doesn't it?" Ramza asked.
Radia glared at him. "You're being an ass."
"I guess you've rubbed off on me."
"Pah!" Radia scoffed. "I'm not the one who volunteered to go gallivanting off across Lionel!"
"He needs help!"
"No he doesn't!" Radia growled, cutting one hand through the air. "He's got the Cardinal backing him up."
"We both know what men like Baerd can do when they're desperate," Ramza said.
"And you're gonna stop that?" Radia asked. "All by yourself?"
"You don't think I can?" Ramza asked, and then he saw the guilty flash in Radia's eyes and felt his anger sink in upon itself in one great cold shock of hurt. "You don't think I can," he whispered.
Radia looked guiltier still. "No, I know you're...I..." Then the guilt melted into rage, as the green eyes flashed hotly. "Don't you fuckin' do that."
"Do what?" Ramza grunted.
"Make this about you!" Radia snapped. "We didn't leave my dad so you could run around playing hero! We did it to make Ovelia safe!"
"She is safe!" Ramza retorted.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Radia gestured around them. "Even if we can take the Cardinal at his word, everyone who's got a shot at the throne is gunning for her head! And the Cardinal can't give her official help until he hears from Funeral! The last few days, you know what they're talking about? Just that, over and over again. How Funeral can help, how the Church can help, but what they're really asking is what she can do, to make this worth it! She's not safe."
Ramza felt another surge of guilt, like ants crawling along inside his throat. He swallowed to try and suppress the feeling, but it persisted. He hadn't realized...but of course things were that bad. Just because the Princess had found a safe haven didn't solve the larger problems. And what was she supposed to do, hide in this castle for the rest of her life?
But she was safer than Mustadio's father, wasn't she? And he didn't intend to leave forever. He would go with Mustadio, see him and his father safe, and return. That was what he'd promised Ovelia.
"I'm coming back," Ramza said.
"Yeah?' Radia said. "That's a promise you're gonna keep?"
Ramza felt a void open inside his head, blacking out his thoughts. The echoes and memories that had already haunted him—the memories of what had happened the last time he'd felt this righteous—hammered into him with violent force. He felt himself falling, just as Teta had fallen.
He stared at Radia, but it seemed as though she towered somewhere far above him—as though he stood at the bottom of a well, and stared up at someone so far above they might as well have been a silhouette. Her mouth was moving, but the words were faint and blurred with distance.
"...after everything...you can't...you're just..."
"You're not coming with me, are you?" Ramza asked.
Radia broke off. "What?"
"You're not coming with me."
Radia's eyes blazed hotter. "You didn't even ask me, Ramza."
"I didn't think I had to."
The green eyes blazed brighter still. "Well then fuck you. I live my life the way I want to. You think I left my dad just because? I did it for her."
"Did you?" Ramza asked. He was a little more present now, a little more aware. He knew what he intended to say, and his anger and pain made it seem like the most tempting thing in the world.
Radia blinked. "You think I fought my dad just because?"
"Isn't that what you do?" Ramza asked.
The eyes flashed wide with pain. "What?" she breathed.
"Oh, that hurts?" Ramza asked. "Did you forget the last time you ran away from him? Did you forget what happened?"
She stared at him, her anger gone, replaced by naked pain. And Ramza stood inside the abyss into which she'd thrown him, by telling him that she'd never thought him capable of anything. By telling him that he couldn't do what he wanted to do. All his newfound righteousness would fail, because he was a failure. What if she was right?
So he lashed out with all his cruelty, because it was better than dwelling on such poisonous thoughts.
"Is that really what you think of me?" Radia whispered.
"Is that really what you think of me?" Ramza demanded.
Ramza rather suspected his face looked like hers at this moment—the same hollow pain, with the vague embers of anger in the eyes.
"She asked me to be a Lioness," Radia said, in a voice so flat that it sounded broken.
Ramza stared at her. "What?"
"She..." Radia took a deep breath, and straightened up. She glared into Ramza's eyes. "She said she wanted me to join them."
Ramza's throat felt very dry. "You didn't tell me?"
Radia's mouth twisted. "I didn't...I didn't know how to...I didn't know if I even wanted..." Then fresh anger sparked to life in her eyes. "You didn't ask me if I wanted to come with you."
Ramza laughed. The sound seemed to scrape against his throat. "Of course you want to," she said. "Gonna try to be a Brave again."
Radia's eyes blazed with violence. "You saw the Stone!"
Hard to forget, wasn't it? That bloody glow, and the startling Stone. It had been so heavy in his hand, so terribly real.
"I'm not talking about the Stone," Ramza growled, trying to banish the memory. "I'm talking about you."
Radia's eyes blazed brighter still. "Yeah?" she said. "Like you're not rushing off to play hero?"
"What the hell are you-"
"Gotta live up to your name, right?" Radia said. "Always gotta try to be a hero, even if it always goes wrong."
The pain again, numbing his thoughts, dampening his rage. His heart was aching.
"Could be worse," Ramza managed, his voice as tight as his chest. "Could be trying to run away from my name."
Radia's eyes flashed wide. "What?" she breathed.
"Radia Gaffgarion," he said, and made it sound like a curse.
Her eyes flashed wider, hotter; her hands curled into fists as color rose in her cheeks.
"I didn't change my name," she said. Ice washed Ramza's insides. His thoughts felt jagged and sharp. She was still speaking, "I may not like it, but it's mine. I wasn't so ashamed of what I was that I had to pretend-"
Ramza turned away from her and stormed down the hall, not sure where he was going but certain that if he stayed a moment longer he might do something he regretted.
"That's right, run away!" she cried. "Isn't that what you always do!"
Something snapped inside him: Ramza felt it go. It took every ounce of willpower not to lunge towards her. His chest hurt with the effort to restrain himself.
"When are you going to turn on her, Radia?" Ramza asked. "When are you going to abandon her, like you did the Corps? Like you do everything, because nothing's ever good enough for you?"
"Oh, I'm sorry!" Radia bellowed. "Does it offend you that someone could actually like themselves? That they could decide what they want, and not run away like a fucking coward?!"
"It offends me!" Ramza shouted. "That you can play hero after all the fucked-up shit you've done!"
"I'm not the one playing hero!"
"Running already?" Ramza snapped his fingers. "Seems about right."
"Fuck you!" Radia shrieked, and spun away from him, stomping down the hall. Ramza stayed where he was, barely able to see, barely able to think. After everything they'd been through, she had the gall to be mad at him? She confirmed the dour whispers in his head—that he was just running, that he would fail, that everyone would leave him like Delita had left him if they didn't turn on him the way Dycedarg and Argus, and now after Gaffgarion's betrayal—after finding out that he had spent the last two years beneath his brother's shadow, as surely as he had spent his whole life—he had just scared away the last person he absolutely trusted.
A failure. As he had always been.
Ramza's eyes began to burn. He staggered down the hall, the opposite way that Radia had gone. Looking for an empty room where he could lay his head down, and weep for all his-
Ramza looked back over his shoulder. Mustadio was stumbling down the hall, still rubbing sleep from his eyes. His straw-blonde hair was a long, untamed mess, freed from its habitual ponytail.
"Go back to bed, Mus," Ramza said, turning away from the other man.
Mustadio didn't answer, but neither did Ramza hear the sound of his footsteps heading back down the hall.
"You do not have to come with me, Ramza."
Ramza looked back over his shoulder. Mustadio looked barely conscious, but somehow he seemed very alert and aware all the same. He was watching Ramza with a slightly bemused smile on his face.
"You have done more for me than I have any right to ask," he said. "With or without you, I will probably see my father freed. And it, ah..." He trailed off sheepishly, shrugging. "It rather sounds like you should stay."
Ramza winced. "How much did you hear?"
"You were not exactly quiet."
Ramza shook his head. His eyes were still burning, and he felt a sob building in his throat. "I'm-" He swallowed down the hitch in his voice. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have..."
Mustadio shook his head. "It is fine, Ramza. I did not mean to cause a fight, or..." Mustadio shook his head again. "I will be safe. You should stay."
Was that the right thing to do? Trust that Mustadio could handle himself? He had made it all the way to Zaland, even with powerful enemies against him. Surely he could handle walking back into the city where he'd been born. Ramza could find Radia and apologize.
And if Mustadio was wrong? If Baerd caught wind, and killed him? Would his death not be on Ramza's head? And forgetting for a moment the potential cost of doing the wrong thing, it was what Ramza wanted to do. He had spent so long obeying the orders and plans of others. He wanted to follow the promptings of his heart. He wanted to do the right thing, whatever the doubts and fears whispering in his head.
Whatever Radia might tell him.
"No," Ramza said. "You need my help. And your father needs our help."
Mustadio's face suddenly looked heavy with fear, his mouth curving into a severe frown, his heavy eyebrows squatting down upon his eyes. "But what if...Ramza, what if it..."
There was a hitch in Mustadio's voice. Ramza crossed to him, and took him by the shoulder. "He'll be fine," Ramza said firmly, thinking of his father as he'd last seen him, wheezing and croaking with all his children helpless to save him. "We will make sure of it."
He had to. So many other times he'd failed—to fight for what he believed in, to save someone he cared about. Even now there was so little he could do to help Ovelia on the stage where she was forced to play, or help Delita with whatever shadowy enterprise he was entangled in, or stop all the uprisings and oppression that he had borne witness to these past two years.
But he could make sure Mustadio was safe. And he had to do it, since he knew he could.
By the time they returned to their room, the first hints of dawn were beginning to mar the darkness outside their window. Come sunrise, the gates to the Castle would open for the day's business. They grabbed their gear and headed down the servant's corridor that would exit out near the gate. When they reached its end, Mustadio gasped in surprise.
"Your Highness?" Ramza said, blinking in disbelief. "What are you-?"
Ovelia smiled sleepily, her eyes still puffy with sleep. "I wanted to catch you before you left," she said. "I'm glad I managed.
Mustadio beamed at her. "A send-off from a Princess," he said. "I'm honored, your Highness."
Ramza looked around the hall. Besides the three of them, there was no one in sight.
"I was honored to count you among my retinue, Mus," she said. "I'll pray for your father. I'll pray for you."
"Thank you, your Highness" Mustadio said, bowing his head.
Her blue eyes drifted away from Mustadio, and settled on Ramza. Ramza gazed back at her, his mind as sharp as a winter's cold in spite of how little he'd slept. None of her guards around, and she was wearing such casual clothes. She had slipped away from any potential escort to see them.
"You asked my permission to go," she said at last.
"I...yes, your Highness," Ramza replied.
"Why?" she asked.
Ramza blinked. Hadn't she already asked him this once before? Or...no, she hadn't. She had told him he had no need of her permission. She had not asked why he wanted it in the first place.
But there had been no crucial decision. He had just felt the need. He had traveled with her, protected her, killed Hokuten soldiers to save her
(for her or for Delita selfish or selfless).
"You are my Princess," Ramza said. "I was your guard. I cannot go if you won't let me."
Ovelia nodded. "I knew you understood."
Ramza blinked. "Realized what, your Highness?"
"That Lioness or no, you're one of my guard," Ovelia answered. "And that there will be a place for your here, when you return."
Ramza did not know how to explain what he felt then. If his anger and hurt had snapped something inside him when he'd argued with Radia, Ovelia's words, felt like a broken finger healed overnight, a marvelous sense of strength and relief. He felt almost dizzy with it.
"Your Highness..." he began, not sure what he meant to say.
"Stay alive, Ramza Beoulve," Ovelia said, and then offered a sheepish smile. "Your sister would kill me if anything happened to you."
Ramza managed a trembling smile. "She'd drag me back and kill me again."
She stepped past him, straight-backed in her sleeping robe, her hair mussed and her eyes still puffy with sleep, and Ramza felt sure that he'd never seen her look so regal.
Ramza and Mustadio watched her go, until she rounded a corner and vanished.
"I am glad I got to meet her," Mustadio said.
"Me too," Ramza answered, thinking of the Princess and her guards, thinking of the pain and rage in Radia's eyes, thinking of Alma's sketches and admonishments and the last words of his dead father, thinking of Delita and Teta and Argus and Beowulf, Wiegraf and Miluda and Ivan Mansel, thinking of all his mistakes and thinking that his time with Ovelia had not been one of them.
"Let's go save your father," Ramza said, and headed for the door.