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Chapter 52: A Happy Man

In all things, the Ydorans had built well. From their fortresses, to their libraries, to their monasteries, to their execution grounds.

Gaffgarion might not believe that Ajora had returned from death as an angel of judgment, burning the sinners of Ivalice in a righteous fire, but something had happened to reduce the empire to such a ruin. Yet in spite of that mysterious cataclysm, and the grinding centuries that had passed since then, Golgollada Gallows still stood.

Gaffgarion had toured the grounds many times already—not that there was much to see. The Gallows conisted of a subterranean gaol whose stairs ascended straight up to the wood gallows (which also held a chopping block, so they were prepared for all manner of executions). This gaol was a wide circle of dirt protected a high stone wall with only a single wrought-iron dropgate by way of entry. The whole thing was built upon a cliff's edge, overlooking the sea. There was a small custodial staff that was supposed to care for this holy site, but they had been dismissed—the Church did not intend to spread news of its captives too far.

Gaffgarion stood at the very precipice of the cliff, staring down at the crashing surf that had shaped the jagged rocks below. In spite of the summer warmth, a clammy wind billowed off the sea and made Gaffgarion shiver. Perhaps if he was totally honest with himself it was not just the wind—it was from this place that the Saint's broken body had been hurled, to smash into oblivion down below.

And wasn't that the Church in a nutshell? The Ydorans had used these Gallows as a place to break and execute the criminals they did not want to martyr. They had cast the Saint into this sea, hoping the waves would wash away his name. And instead, the Saint had risen in Judgment, and obliterated the heartland of the Ydoran Empire.

So the Church made sacred the Gallows, and named Ajora as the object of their worship. A man whose last act was the annihilation of an entire nation for the sins of its government. Who had made no distinction between his killers and the other innocents who suffered just as he did, and instead smote all alike.

Grim thoughts to keep Gaffgarion company, but still less grim than the other wheels turning in his head—the ones studying the patrols he'd established, the lookouts he'd left here and there. Trying to decide if he would follow Delita's advice, and disappear into the night with his sword slick with the blood of the men he led.

No outside observer could know this occupied him—Gaffgarion had reassured himself of this many times now. He'd brought some twenty soldiers with him (he'd picked the number; the Cardinal had picked the men and women), and arranged them throughout the Gallows. Four to serve as lookouts, with staggered schedules that he would change daily and orders to report to him directly at shift's end, , so that he would be aware of even the smallest changes immediately. These were some of the better soldiers, from what Gaffgarion had gleaned. These were the ones he intended for Ramza and Mustadio to kill, as they drew close.

And when they came—and they would come, Gaffgarion was sure of that, sure that Ramza's fool idealism would lead him here—would they find the gate open, or closed? Would they come to face Gaffgarion, or would they come to find the battle already begun?

Gaffgarion had given the orders carefully. One of the two mages in his little party guarded the gaol down below (with Alicia's scepter in hand), in case all the magic users they had locked away should find a way to free themselves. This mage, in turn, was guarded by one of the burlier soldiers. Several other soldiers manned the walls, while two patrolled the grounds. At any moment, fifteen troops would be in different positions across the Gallows, with the other five at rest.

But two soldiers were no match for Gaffgarion. He could drain the mage, cut down the soldier, and restore the scepter to Alicia. From there he could steal across the grounds, fighting until his treason was discovered, and then lead the Gryphons into a trap of magic down below. By the time he was done, it would be an even fight.

And then?

The part of his brain that had spent 30 years soldiering—the part of his brain that had fought and clawed its way up from a trusted scout in the frontlines of the 50 Years' War to an apprenticeship with one of the few kingdom's Vampire Knights, the part that had leveraged his talents into contracts and bargains and brutal missions, keeping the secrets of the powerful—could not stop figuring out how it might be done. How he might kill twenty men and women who looked to him to set a trap.

But killer instinct alone had not guided him through the thick of the 50 Years' War and countless battlefields. There was that other part—the one that had studied his commanders' habits and vices, learned when to ask, plead, flatter, intimidate. The part that was always aware of his surroundings, and the larger context of his battlefield. If he betrayed the Church, there would be no safety. There would be no clifftop cottage, no easy solace as the waves sighed beyond the hills, no safety. There would just be desperate flight, and the nagging fear of the blade that would find him one day.

Gaffgarion turned his back on the ocean, strode across the bare dirt grounds of the Gallows and then down the worn stone steps into the gaol. The mage—a sheepish looking man with big spectacles—was sketching patterns of light with Alicia's scepter. The soldier—a brawny woman with an Ydoran spear—glared at him from her place against the far wall.

"How are our prisoners?" Gaffgarion asked, in a casual voice that betrayed none of his anxiety.

"Quiet," grunted the woman—was Nesta her name? He couldn't remember.

"Hmph. We'll see." He strolled past them, and saw them exchange glances from the corner of his gaze. That was one hitch in the plan—the Gryphons did not like being commanded by a foreign mercenary. He had earned their grudging respect along the way here, with his steady rotation of guard shifts and his instant ease with the defensive situation of the Gallows, but there was little trust and still less love. If he decided to fight...

The soldiers did not care for him. The prisoners did not care for him. Gaffgarion was alone.

He moved silently through the dark, with the rolling step that took such a toll on his ankles but made so little noise. He had kept the cells dark and his men at the door, so that there would be no chance for the captives to hatch plans beetween them. But as he stole into the room, he heard whispers.

"-sorry, Alicia, I'm so sorry."

"It's not your fault Lav, I was supposed to keep you safe, I was-"

"I can't do anything I'm so weak you're always having to look after me-"

"How many times have you saved me? How many times-"

"You could have gotten away. You didn't."

Silence then. Gaffgarion had frozen in spite of himself, listening to the mages whisper, tears of anguish in their voices.

"There were too many of them," Alicia said.

"Don't lie to me, Al."

"They have mages too, they knew where we were, and that bastard-"

"Hit me first, Al, you had time-"

"I couldn't."

Silence again.

"Al..."

"I couldn't, Lav. Leave you? Not on your fucking life. I don't care what they do to me, I couldn't, and I'm not sorry and I'll never be sorry, you hear me!" Her voice had risen into a frenzy.

"KEEP IT DOWN IN THERE!" bellowed the guard with the spear (he couldn't remember her name for the life of him). "Boss don't want us to take your hands, but we can take your tongues."

Silence followed. Gaffgarion remained where he was, his heart aching. He heard the women, and he remembered Radia's mother.

"Never, Lav," Alicia said. "You're the best thing that ever...at the Academy, and...and you think I could ever...you think..." Her voice was choked by muffled sobs.

"Al..." Lavian wheezed. "Al, I love you."

"I love you so fucking much, Lav, I don't regret a thing, you hear me-"

Gaffgarion could not bear to linger here. He hurried on, careless if his steps should be heard, almost hoping they would be, that the women would have their private moment, their anguished confession. A confession they only had to make because he had taken them prisoner.

And for what, Geoffrey? For money? Was that worth all this? Worth your daughter in chains, along with her friends? Worth the attentions of the powerful, and the vulnerability that came with it?

He'd had this fight before—with Radia's mother, years ago. Gaffgarion had been overseeing garrisons in Limberry when he had taken up with Ava Ladislas, a tavernkeeper's daughter in the small town where the Haruten recruits had been quartered. Her hair had been the same lovely red as Radia's, and she had been wide of hip and breast, besides. Gaffgarion nursed many fond memories of the way the silken hair had felt knotted between his fingers, how that warm body had felt heaving up against him in the dark.

But there was little glory in seducing tavernmaids and training recruits. Gaffgarion wanted to be on the frontlines, where a man could prove himself and rise through the ranks. Where a man could show his skill, and earn his place in the world.

"So you're just leaving?" Ava had demanded, in that haughty, imperious voice. Her arms were folded across her bare breasts, her blue eyes glaring.

"There's nothing for me here," Gaffgarion had answered, shrugging on his shirt.

She scowled at him. "You're cruel."

"Nothing cruel about it," he replied. "Not gonna rise through the ranks out here."

"Ain't gonna do much rising if you die, neither," she grunted.

Gaffgarion sat back on the bed, pulling up his pants. "Everyone dies eventually," he said. "Might as well make it worth your while."

"And what's worth it?" she asked. "Money? Fame?" She laughed. "You'll never be happy, Geoff. You'll just keep running and running until you die."

That had stung more than Gaffgarion cared to admit. He had left in a huff, ignorant of the child growing in her belly, and on the frontlines of the battlefield ignorant of the plague that had taken her until the elder Ladislas sent word asking him to come and care for the daughter he hadn't known he had.

The daughter in the cell in front of him, with chains tethering her arms to either wall. Just like the mages—all too adroit with dangerous magic to be trusted with free hands. There was little enough light—just what leaked in from the moon and the torches outside—but he could still see her eyes fixed upon him, blazing with indignation.

Those green eyes...he hadn't been able to deny he was her daughter. Disgraced, but with his pockets lined with gil, he had returned to Limberry, and taken her under his wing.

"So you're here," she grunted, loud enough so that silence fell over the whispers of Alicia and Lavian towards the front of the gaol.

"I am," Gaffgarion said.

"Leave."

Gaffgarion snorted. "Or what, dear daughter mine?"

"Don't you fucking dare," she snarled.

He stood outside her cell, hands on his hips, watching his daughter. She glared up at him, her chains rattling in her rage. And Gaffgarion felt an answering rage ignited somewhere in his chest. After all his work, all his effort, all his careful lessons, it had come to this.

"You kill royal soldiers and follow a renegade princess," Gaffgarion said. "And you wonder how you ended up here."

Radia laughed, though the sound was brittle and bitter. "I followed my conscience," she said. "If there were more like me-"

"But there aren't, and thank God for that!" he snapped. "Can you imagine a kingdom filled with fools like you?"

"That's not true," she whispered, though he could hear the desperation in her voice.

"No?" Gaffgarion asked. "And who do you offer as retort? Your beloved Corps were thieves, murders, and kidnappers;

"We weren't-" she started, but Gaffgarion's fury would brook no interruption..

"And your Princess and her company of fools walked headlong into a trap!" he growled, raising his voice. "And look what happens when your beloved Braves walk upon the earth. Men kill and die to take that power for themselves."

"That's not...that doesn't..." There were tears in Radia's voice, a stutter that would soon be a sob, and Gaffgarion wanted to hear her cry. He wanted to break her, for what she had done to him, for what she had done to herself.

"Everywhere we went," Gaffgarion pressed. "Every batch of bandits, every rebellion or mercenary band or pirate scum...did you learn nothing?" He shook his head. "I tell you the tale of the Braves, and you forget how it began. That it was a man who unleashed the Lucavi, and set them rampaging across Ivalice. A and his ambition." He stretched his arms wide to encompass the building that surrounded them and the surrounding grounds. "You stand in the place where the only Saint mankind has ever known was killed because he threatened the powerful. Why do you insist-!"

But now it was his voice that was desperate, and he was not alone in this place—there were the Lionesses down the way, and the foreign knights standing guard outside the door. He swallowed down his words, felt something hot and fierce and shameful in his chest, making his eyes water.

They were silent for awhile, not quite looking at one another. After a time, Radia said, "What becomes of Ovelia?"

Gaffgarion shook his head despondently. He could not give Radia any information before he'd decided on his own course. "What becomes of those who disrupt the plans of the powerful?"

"And Ramza?" Radia asked.

Gaffgarion sighed, and thought of the boy who'd been his charge for the past two years. A boy who was quick of mind, learning whatever art he needed, who had taken to killing with surprising brutality given his one-time resolve to stay his hand. He represented many things to Gaffgarion—an investment in the future, a useful protege both on and off the battlefield, and a student who had to be made to understand his errors, just like Radia. A boy with an irritating habit of choosing non-lethal paths when they were available, and who even now troubled the powerful he should be courting.

And should Gaffgarion follow his example? Should he abandon all the rules and principles that had kept him alive and led him this far? Should he abandon safety and security, stir up the hornet's nest of the Church, for a chance to pry daughter and apprentice from their grasp? Put to ruin all the safety and security he'd spent decades laboring to build?

"What does it matter?" Gaffgarion asked.

"Is he alive?" Radia asked, and Gaffgarion feared what he heard in her voice. He feared that pain, and that aching want. He feared what it implied.

And part of him wondered if he had ever felt that way about anyone.

Ava? No, sweet as his hours had been with her, they had both known it was nothing real—a man trapped in a garrison he wanted no part of, and a woman aching for some taste beyond the town she'd known. But there had been others, in his youth—lovers, yes, and friends besides, the lesser sons of noble houses and their sisters, the captains and commanders, and how easily, how dispassionately they spilled the blood of the men and women under their command. They didn't see it—they had been born to it—but Geoffrey Gaffgarion, the bastard of a bastard whose mother had won him a place as a Haurten squire, knew it too will.

How carelessly, how casually they spent their gil, or gave their orders, or reclined at ease among the most precarious battlefields! They knew their positions gave them power, and they took to that power with unashamed ease. They ordered the executions of deserters who had faced such horrors, they sent squads of soldiers to their deaths just to test their enemy's defenses, they dropped gil enough to feed a family to combat a few hours' idleness. And Gaffgarion stood, and watched, and learned his best how to navigate these strange waters.

And Ramza Beoulve, born to power and privilege, cast both away. For ideals he would never realize. That could never be realized.

"If he is wise," Gaffgarion said at last. "He will abandon this quest, and take advantage of his name to make a difference."

"You mean hide behind his fucking brother," Radia spat.

"Yes," Gaffgarion agreed. "His fucking brother." Dycedarg Beoulve, a man who schemed and played with lives and armies and nations, played at a scale that Geoffrey Gaffgarion knew he'd never reach. The scale of men like Vormav and the Cardinal. Look at Queen Louveria—her most foolish whims brought men of means to their knees. What hope was there of victory against such forces?

"And you?" Radia asked.

"I'll walk away," Gaffgarion said. "Richer for it."

"You won't walk," Radia said. "You'll run."

The skin on Gaffgarion's neck crawled. He saw Ava's shadow in Radia's face—the same high cheeks, the pointed chin. As though her ghost was in the room with them. "What?" he said softly.

"You'll never have enough money," Radia said. "It'll never be enough. All you do is run. You'll keep running until you're dead. You'll never be happy."

There it was again—the same bitter accusation Ava had hurled against him. That all his ambitions and all his desires would amount to nothing. That he would die, alone and unfulfilled.

And Gaffgarion was surprised to find he didn't disagree.

Back then—as a man ignorant of the safety and security his position afforded him, a man who did not yet know that he would one day long for the boredom of his garrison days when he faced the full fire and fury of the 50 Years' War—he had hoped to rise in the world. To make a name for himself, to gain the power and prestige he thought his due. He had not known how jealously they powerful guarded their power, how they begrudged sharing even the barest ounce of their prestige. A man who, like Radia (and like Ramza, though he suspected the boy would deny it), believed that honor, valor, and talent were enough to prove your worth and win your place.

War taught you better. When your friends died around you, sacrificed to hold the line so your commander could "deliver valuable intelligence" (what a fancy term for "retreat and leave his men to die"). When you found your commanders deep in their cups while a third of their men fought and died in the field. When they ruled from on high, and cared nothing for your death.

And Gaffgarion had learned better. He had become as efficient, effective, and indispensable as possible. He had learned when to speak, and when to hold his tongue. He had learned how to hint at secrets he only suspected, how to wield mind and tongue like scalpel or hammer as the circumstances warranted. When the Haruten had been made to bear the brunt of the war crimes reparations on the Eastern Front, Gaffgarion had helped arrange to see a few men killed, a few men censured, a few men disgraced. And in exchange, he would be given the path he'd concocted for himself—a path that might lead him away from the toil and danger that was his lowborn lot.

Happy. They both accused him that way—trying to tell him he would never be happy. When Ava had said it, it had stung, because he had been young enough to nurse the hope of happiness. He was older now. Happiness was for children's tales—the kind Radia loved. It was fleeting where you found it. It did not buy food, or build a roof above your head. How many fools chased happiness, and found themselves empty-handed?

Gaffgarion did not give a damn if he was happy. He wanted only to put an end to his running. He wanted to leverage the secrets he knew and the wealth he'd accumulated to build a safe space, where he and his daughter would be free from the depredations of the powerful, free from the clawing hands of Larg, Goltanna, the Church, or any other powers.

And there was his answer. To turn upon the Gryphon knights here—to free Radia and the Lionesses, and to side with the fool Ramza—would be to set a torch to all his hard-won gains, and spend the rest of his life in flight. How many more battlefields would Gaffgarion have to stalk? How long before his luck ran out? How long before his daughter's?

"Are you happy, dear daughter mine?" Gaffgarion asked.

Radia glared at him, though there were tears glistening in her eyes. Gaffgarion turned away from her, and strode down the hall. He did not like the way his daughter looked at him. He did not like the idea of having to put Ramza to the sword. He did not like the strings of the powerful pulled tight around his limbs, and he did not like what was required of him to keep all he had worked for. But it was a child who refused to dirty their hands. It was a child who refused to act when necessity demanded compromise from them.

Gaffgarion did not like the work he had to do, but he would do it all the same. He had spent his lifetime running. He could run on a little farther, when the end was so close.