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Chapter 48: The Jaws of Lionel

Though it made her feel quite the ingrate, Ovelia was beginning to dread her meetings with the Cardinal.

She was well aware of the delicate position her host was in. Old laws ostensibly restricted the Church's immediate influence to Mullonde, with Lionel having slowly become an extension of the Church through tradition, convenience, and delicate negotiations with the Crown. Ivalice might be the home of the Glabados Church, but challenging royal will for the sake of a Princess with no allies was a difficult prospect. And the Cardinal, gracious as he was, wanted to make sure that Ovelia had input on what was to come. He wanted to make sure her thought and needs were taken into account.

Ovelia appreciated all this, but it didn't make her feel any less annoyed.

Since the first day she'd come here, she'd had regular meetings with the Cardinal. They would meet in the same sitting room where the Cardinal and first hosted her and her retinue, and together would pore over correspondence with nobles and maps of Ivalice and the surrounding kingdoms and try to puzzle out a path to survival. But by the third stay there was nothing new to discuss, so with every meeting they simply retread the same tired paths, the same discussions, until Ovelia felt her head pounding and her vision going vague with exhaustion.

"It is possible the Ordallians would offer you safe haven," the Cardinal mused. "But I can imagine any number of scenarios where they would trade you for some concession from the Queen."

"Of course," Ovelia said dully, in part because it seemed to her they'd had this discussion three or four times before.

"Given the Queen's erratic behavior, we cannot count on a declaration from the Church to permanently protect you," continued the Cardinal, as he'd said some half dozen times. "And-"

On and on. Discussing if it might be possibly to play Zalbaag Beoulve against Dycedarg Beoulve and thereby weaken Larg, or perhaps to appeal to Count Orlandeau and thereby convince his liege lord Goltanna to withdraw his threats against Ovelia, speculating on whether Duke Barinten might be willing to abandon his long neutrality, discussing chancellors and counts and viscounts and dukes and barons and more, noble families she'd half-forgotten, painting a picture of Ivalice as a place where you could not trust the ground you walked upon as she again reckoned with the sheer stunning weight of her enemies and grappled with the notion that there might be no path that really guaranteed her life, on and on and on.

Lionel Castle felt like a prison, as surely as Orbonne had when she was young.

"I am sorry, your Excellency," Ovelia said, when she could take no more. "Might we stop for a moment? I'm rather tired."

"Of course, your Highness!" the Cardinal exclaimed. "I apologize, I..." He trailed off and looked away. There was an odd look in his eyes. "Politics has never been my forte."

"No?" Ovelia said, reaching for her wine. "You're good at it."

"Crueller words were never spoken," the Cardinal said, putting a hand to his breast in mock offense. Ovelia chuckled, and the Cardinal's momentary good humor died. "I'm really not, you know. I have learned something of the game out of necessity, but I have ever been a man of action. Perhaps you may not understand, but sometimes..." He sighed again. "Sometimes I long for the War."

At first, Ovelia felt a twinge of disgust. Longing for war? What kind of madman did such a thing, especially given all the devastation the 50 Years' War had brought to their kingdom? But then a thought occurred to her—the same thought had warmed her when she and Ramza had sat together outside the farmhouse in north Lionel.

"For the certainty of it?" Ovelia asked. "The feeling that...that what you're doing matters. That you're deciding your fate."

The Cardinal's eyes widened in astonishment. "I must confess, your Highness," he said. "I would not expect someone of your station to understand."

Ovelia shrugged. "I wouldn't have, before..."

Before the assassins at Orbonne, and Delita's kidnapping. Before the thrill of life beyond stone walls, where by her own will and the will of her friends they eluded capture and decided for themselves what the future held. Be that fighting her own father, like Radia, or turning her back on her friend, like Ramza, or even rescuing a man to help him save his father.

"Have we had any word of them?" Ovelia asked.

The Cardinal blinked. "Hm?"

"Ramza and Mus."

"Ah." The Cardinal shook his head. "Not yet, but that is to be expected. I merely sent my orders, along with instructions to limit correspondence. The less widespread my orders are, the less chance Baerd will have to avoid capture."

Ovelia supposed that was true, but she still hated to wait like this. She felt the same tension among her guards. She'd seen fairly little of them over the past several days—at the Cardinal's request, they had joined the Castle's guard rotation, in the hopes that if there were traitors among the guards they might catch them out—but whenever Ovelia saw them she sensed their impatience and dread. Agrias seemed more dour than ever, and Alicia and Lavian seemed always to be talking in hushed whispers. Even Radia, who had been a bit of a bitch since Ramza had declared his intentions to leave, seemed at every idle moment to be staring into the distance, as though searching for some glimpse of what had become of them.

"I know I have already thanked you, Your Excellency-" Ovelia began.

The Cardinal waved one hand dismissively. "Please, your Highness. I have done only what my conscience tells me—at least, as much as political necessity permits." The old darkness hung heavy across his face, and he glowered off to one side. "It is irksome to be so bound when I should be free to strike in righteous retribution, but as I said, I have had to learn diplomacy."

Ovelia nodded. "I understand," she said. All this repetitive reviewing of their political circumstances left her feeling just as frustrated, as she saw how limited her options were.

"It maddens you, does it not?" the Cardinal asked. Ovelia looked back up, found that his eyes had grown darker, his face heavier. "It seems almost the product of divine will, that you should be rendered so powerless. That for all your resources, you cannot make restitution. That you cannot have retribution."

There was something powerful about the Cardinal now, like a shadow that radiated out from his eyes, and made his human form seem fragile, like a shell about to crack. Ovelia felt a pang of fear she couldn't quite explain.

"You'll forgive me, your Excellency," she said, in a voice that was too high and thin, like fragile glass on the edge of shattering beneath a careless hand. "Those hardly sound like godly words."

The Cardinal smiled, and the impression of inhuman power was amplified. That smile seemed to pull something from the contours and lines in his face, darken them so he seemed less a man of flesh and more a thing of carved obsidian. "Ah, but I believe in the Saint, your Highness," he said. "I am simply frustrated to see his vision gone so awry...and frustrated, too, to be so powerless to fix it."

For a moment, Ovelia was huddling in her chair, because she did not like what she saw on the Cardinal's face (or was it the Cardinal's face? It seemed so different now, a stranger's face, nothing like the man she'd met, the man she'd hoped could save her). Then the moment passed, and it was just a man in front of her, blinking sheepishly.

"I apologize, your Highness," he murmured. "As I said, this is all rather frustrating."

Ovelia nodded, though her heart was still beating so fast in her chest that her hands felt weak. The Cardinal poured himself a glass of wine, and Ovelia remembered the one she still held, and lifted it in shaking hands to her lips.

The Cardinal set his own drink down, and stared at it for a moment. "It occurs to me," he mused. "That there is an option we haven't discussed."

"I doubt that, your Excellency," she said, trying for the same dry voice she used with Radia.

The Cardinal offered her a flickering smile. "I concede that we have been quite exhaustive looking for support to guarantee your survival. But I do not believe we have been so exhaustive in..." The Cardinal trailed off, and stared down into his cup.

In spite of herself, Ovelia was curious. "In what, your Excellency?" she asked.

The Cardinal hesitated a moment longer, then lifted his eyes to her. "Why should you not sit upon the Throne?"

It felt as though Ovelia's mind had missed a step, and was caught in that lurching panic that separates a quick recovery upon the stairs from a sudden, painful fall. "I'm sorry?" she said, barely aware she was speaking.

"Well, consider!" the Cardinal exclaimed. "Your claim to the throne, by blood and law, is strong. You are the sister of our last king, and his adopted daughter. You are more senior than your nephew."

"But he's the Crown Prince," Ovelia said automatically, though her mind was still stuttering along.

"Well, perhaps that's so," the Cardinal admitted. "But he is a child yet. It will be nearly a decade before he is ready to claim the throne, and in the meantime who vies for the regency? The Queen? Prince Larg? Duke Goltanna? None has a claim so strong as yours."

The ideas were jagged, scraping against Ovelia's find. What in the Saint's name was the Cardinal talking about? Ovelia was a pawn at best, an inconvenience at worst. She had been a bargaining chip for royal power, until the Queen had seen her as a threat. Her only hope was to keep herself alive, to find a way of putting herself permanently beyond the Queen's grasp. None of those plans involved challenging Louveria, in all her frosty malevolence. How could she? Would she do as Louveria had done, and seek her rival's death? Would she stand indifferent and watch as Louveria pleaded for her life, before the headman's axe fell? Would she stare into Louveria's dead eyes, and know herself free?

Disgust and longing mingled in a nauseous mixture in her stomach. Ovelia swallowed against the thickening saliva in her mouth. "I cannot claim the throne," she whispered.

"It tempts, does it not?" the Cardinal asked. "To restore your rightful place, and lay low your enemies."

"They have armies," Ovelia said, and realized she was no longer questioning the 'why', but instead considering the 'how.'

"So they do," the Cardinal conceded. "But perhaps you may find your own?"

"I...I don't..." Ovelia shook her head.

"If the Church speaks on your behalf?" the Cardinal asked, and there was a fervent note in his voice. "If we call upon the faithful, and our allies? If we follow God's will, and see him restored at last to-"

"I think that's enough," said a deep, cold voice, and ice stole up Ovelia's spine. She whirled towards the door to the study, and with a little scream threw herself from the chair, scurrying to the Cardinal's side of the desk. She remembered too well the craggy face, the mane of greying hair and those terrible flint eyes. She remembered his threats and unshakable confidence, as he had commanded the men who had kidnapped her.

"That's him!" she shouted. "One of my kidnappers! Cardinal, he...he..."

She stared in disbelief at the Cardinal, calm as could be, barely looking at her. In fact, he was staring directly at the man across the room.

"We do not need her willing," the hard-eyed man said.

"But a willing ally is more useful than an unwilling one," the Cardinal answered.

"You waste time."

"I had time to waste."

"What are you...what are you saying?" Ovelia asked.

From outside, she heard an explosion. She looked up in terror, fearing some new attack. The hard-eyed man cursed quietly. "I though we could take her guards without a fight."

"I am surprised you could not manage," the Cardinal said.

Ovelia's mind had been stuttering along, trying to keep up with the Cardinal's strange offer. Now knowledge flashed into her mind with terribly clarity, lightning illuminating a nightmare.

Three different groups had made for Orbonne, the night she had been kidnapped. The first had been the men in their Nanten cloaks, trying to storm the Monastery's front doors. The second had been the assassins who had come in through the sewers with their murderous blades in hand. The third had been Delita, whisking her away from friend and foe alike. But how had Delita entered? Unlike the assassins, he had not been wet from the rain, and her guards had held the front door.

Dimly, she recalled the dizzy whirl of agonized memories, as Delita had dragged her half-conscious through the rear door of the Monastery. Dimly, she recalled that door was bound by ancient magic, which only a member of the Church might have known. Dimly, she realized that from the first, their hand had been obvious, and she had been too much a fool to see it.

"Delita works for the Church," she said, in a small, weak voice. "You work for the Church."

The hard-eyed man arched his bushy eyebrows, and glanced at the Cardinal. The Cardinal chuckled. "She is quite intelligent," the Cardinal said.

"That may be more hindrance than help," the hard-eyed man replied.

Ovelia stared between them, her head spinning. The hard-eyed man stood in the only door to this place, and wore a sword upon his hip. The Cardinal held no weapon, but Ovelia had no way to threaten him—there were no weapons near at hand, and even if there had been she had no faith that she could wield them well enough to free herself.

"Ah," said a familiar, cheerful voice, with its hint of a Limberry brogue. "How nice to see you again, your Highness."

Geoffrey Gaffgarion ambled into view, his patchwork mesh of armor rattling a little with every step. Ovelia gaped at him. It felt as though a hole had opened up in her stomach, and all her feelings were being drained down into it, leaving her empty.

"Her guards?" the hard-eyed man asked, glaring at Gaffgarion.

"Cannot help her," Gaffgarion answered.

The Cardinal rose, and turned to face her. He was smiling pleasantly. "You already know Geoffrey Gaffgarion, your Highness. May I present as well Vormav Tengille, Knight-Captain of the Templars?"

Knight-Captain of the Templars. Sole true military authority in the Glabados Chruch. A man who owed allegiance directly to Marcel Funeral.

She had walked into the hands of the men who had sought her all along. She had chosen the walls that now closed in around her.