(And we're back! Sorry for the long delay, all. Things have settled down a little, so I think I should be able to stick to a more regular publishing schedule at least until we've finished Part 2. Hope you're enjoying the story, and remember, there's more to read at quickascanbe dot com)
Chapter 54: Pointless
Trapped behind stone walls once more, but this time her chains were real.
Ovelia sat in the darkness, her head bowed, her wrists sore from the weight of her manacles. How long had she been in the black? Hard to know, in this lightless place, with only irregular meals brought to her by hooded silhouettes outlined by the dim light filtering in through the dungeon halls. All she knew was that six plates of fine food had been brought to her, since Gaffgarion and Vormav Tengille had appeared before her, and revealed to her how trapped she was.
She had thought herself free. But she had simply walked from one cage to another.
And what of her poor Lionesses? Of Agrias, Alicia, and Lavian? Of Radia, whose father had managed to capture her after all? And what of Ramza and Mustadio, sent into Goug for purposes unknown? How badly had she fucked up? How many of the people she loved were wounded or dead?
She slept, from time to time; she nibbled a little at the food they brought her, when the hunger grew too much to bear; mostly, she sat in the darkness, and hated herself for her weakness.
Her door swung open without warning, but this time it was not the guards bringing her her food. It was Delita, with a plate of fine china in one hand and a torch in the other.
She jolted upright where she sat, her chains rattling. Intellectually she knew that the man who'd taken the arrow for her and wished her well must be part of this plot. She'd seen him speaking with Vormav, after all; she knew where his allegiances lay. But for all her knowing, she hadn't really understood until he entered the cell.
A kidnapper and captor, out to use her more surely even than Louveria. Rage fogged her mind, hot and heavy.
She moved without thinking, lunged for the nearest plate and hurled it at him as best as she could with the weight of the chains tethering her. It was a slow, clumsy throw, and Delita sidestepped it easily. He looked over his shoulder at the smeared food against the stone wall, his lips pursed.
"What a waste," Delita sighed, turning back to face her.
Ovelia glared up at him, shaking with rage and helplessness in equal parts. The feeling was so intense that it felt as though it were choking her. She could barely breathe, much less speak.
Delita seemed unperturbed. He looked around her, at the plates still laden with cold food. His lips pulled tighter, as though he'd tasted something sour. "And what food you're not throwing at the wall you're leaving to spoil," he sighed. "Do you intend to starve yourself?"
Still she could not speak. What did it matter what she said? What did any of it matter? She was so weary of being betrayed—by her Queen, by her country, by her guard, and by her Church. Every time she thought she stood on solid ground, it crumbled away, and send it plunging down once more.
She knew it was idiotic to think of Delita's as a betrayal. He had told her from the outset that he was her captor and kidnapper, he had beaten her when she protested, so what matter if he fought for her and bled for her? She had never been someone he cared to protect. She had always been a valuable prize to be preserved.
Delita's dark eyes were on her face now. The burn scars on his cheek gleamed in the torchlight.
"You bastard," she whispered.
Delita's eyebrows arched. "My parents were married. Unlike Ramza's."
"How could you-"
"What, Ovelia?" Delita asked. "Save you from assassins? Try and get you somewhere safe?" He gestured down at her. "None of this is necessary. You could have been comfortable."
"You tried to take me from your guards!" Ovelia said hotly.
"From the guards who couldn't keep you safe!" snapped Delita. "Led you blundering from one trap to the next! If it weren't for me and mine, you'd be long dead."
"And this is better?" Ovelia hissed, rattling her chains.
"You're alive, aren't you," Delita said shortly.
"And Agrias?" Ovelia retorted, and she shouldn't say their names because that brought tears to her eyes but now that she'd started she found she couldn't stop. "Alicia? Lavian? Radia? Mustadio Ramza? What happens to them?"
Delita stared at her. The flickering light of the torch darkened the lines of his face.
"If they die, it's as much on your head as mine," he whispered.
She knew that. She wished she didn't know it quite so well. She wished she couldn't feel it in her gut, a tumorous weight pressing against her bowels, making her blood feel as heavy and as cold as lead. She wished she didn't know that her anger was so much hollow pretense, masking her desperate sorrow and fear.
"Now now," came the Cardinal's deep, cheery voice, and Ovelia jerked out of her reverie as he entered the room, his dark robe pulled tight against his barrel chest, his bald head gleaming in the torch light. Just behind him was the flint-eyed man—was Vormav Tengille, reminder of just how far her enemies' reach extended. "Let us watch our tempers, hm?" He stopped in front of Ovelia, frowning sadly. "This is really no state for someone of your station," he murmured.
"Says the man who put me here," Ovelia spat.
"Really, your Highness," the Cardinal sighed. "Have we not had this discussion? I am bound by necessity as much as you. Well," he added, gesturing at her chains and chuckling. "In a manner of speaking."
"You're telling jokes?" she whispered, in what was supposed to be quiet rage but sounded even to her ears like a desperate attempt not to cry.
"Why not?" the Cardinal replied. "This is a joyous occasion! We stand before our future queen!"
Ovelia stared at him. "What?"
"Did you think I was joking when last we spoke?" the Cardinal asked. "Your claim, by blood and law, is better than Louveria's or Larg's—perhaps better even then Orinus'! And with the support of the Church-"
"Your support?!" Ovelia exclaimed, disbelief giving her flickering anger a second wind, and she stood and glared at them, mindful of the way the chains pulled at her wrists. "You have kidnapped me, beaten me, and chained me, and you think-"
"We think you will sit the throne," Vormav said, his voice quiet and disinterested. He wasn't even looking at her. "What other choice do you have?"
Trapped, even without these chains upon her wrists! Trapped with nowhere to go and enemies all around and how panicked and claustrophobic she felt, how tight her breath seemed in her chest.
"What my comrade means to say," the Cardinal added smoothly. "Is the same thing I tried to explain to you. Your Highness, I did not want to waste your time with our discussions. I wanted to show you that Ivalice is dangerous. That a simple life where you live free from the Queen is just a delayed death sentence. Your best hope of safety is to take the throne yourself. We can help you, your Highness. With the support of the Church, you will punish those who have wronged you, and help to enshrine a new and better order for our world."
Ovelia stared between them. Delita still held the torch, staring at his feet. Vormav was watching the wall off to his right, looking rather bored. Only the Cardinal faced her, his arms open and inviting.
Anger cooled, and anxious flutters quieted. The sick helpless feeling seemed to dissipate a little, and she stood a little straighter.
"Where are my guards?" Ovelia asked.
The Cardinal's eyebrows arched. "Your Highness?"
"You captured them, yes?" Ovelia asked. "Do they live?"
Vormav's eyes briefly returned to her, then looked away again. The Cardinal considered her impassively for a moment. His face seemed much less warm and open than it had a moment before.
"They do," the Cardinal said at last.
"And where are they?" Ovelia asked.
Silence again. Ovelia's arms ached and her wrists chafed, but she stood ramrod straight and kept her eyes on the Cardinal's face.
"What does that matter now?" the Cardinal said at length.
Ovelia managed a shaky laugh. "It matters," she said. "It matters, not least because you felt you had to kidnap me."
"One of your chief guards had been hired to assure your death," the Cardinal said genially. "Surely you do not blame us for protecting you?"
"Protecting me?" scoffed Ovelia. "That's a funny word for it. Your man beats me every time I try and run, and every one of your refuses to let me see my guards."
"We do not know if we can trust-" the Cardinal began.
"If you can trust!" she hissed. "I know I can trust them! They've all fought and bled for me. They risked their lives for me!" They lived—the Cardinal said so, and Delita had implied as much earlier. But odds were they in the Church's power, one way or anotherShould she not give in now, and bargain for their lives?
But that was folly. She had been in the Cardinal's care. If he had wanted her cooperation, he might have asked. Instead, he had kidnapped her guards, and locked her in a cell. Instead, he had made it clear that whatever benefit she might derive was tangential to their true aims.
"I have lived in monasteries for most of my life, Cardinal Delacroix," Ovelia began, letting fear and grief and rage shape her words. "Scorned by the house of my fathers and given as a sign of goodwill to the care of the Church. And in all that time, never was I offered your support. Never, until assassins came calling, and you tried to pry me from the care of those who serve me. Why is that?"
The Cardinal looked as though he meant to speak, so Ovelia pressed on. "I'll tell you why. You keep me from my friends because you know they have my interests at heart, and the people who serve me might not serve you. You do not want a Queen with allies of her own, free to decide as she chooses. You want a figurehead, to use as you please." She drew herself up, even as the chains pulled at her wrists. "I am the Princess Ovelia Atkascha," she finished. "And I will not be your puppet."
Silence in the cell. The Cardinal's smile was gone entirely. Delita was still staring at his feet. Slowly, Vormav craned his head to look at her, his head cocked at a quizzical angle. "Curious," the flint-eyed man said at last. "I did not imagine anyone could be so wrong."
"Vormav," the Cardinal said warningly.
"We tried it your way, Alphonse," Vormav said. "But she seems adamant she will not be a willing ally, so-"
"You don't want an ally!" Ovelia sneered. "You want a puppet!"
"You would think you'd be used to it," Vormav observed. "It's the role you've been playing since you were made the Princess."
Ovelia's lips tightened. She glared at Vormav. "I will not be Louveria's bargain for peace," she whispered. "I will not be your path to power."
"You have to be someone's," Vormav said. "It's the only reason you're here, right now. It's the only reason you bear a dead girl's name."
Ovelia kept glaring at him, trying to mask the strange streak of confusion tarring her thoughts. "What's that supposed to mean?" she demanded.
"It means that the real Ovelia Atkascha's been dead nearly fifteen years," Vormav said.
Ovelia tried stubbornly to maintain her glare as that streak of cold confusion spread out like ink unfurling in water. This strange vertigo sensation—the heat of her anger mixed with fear and confusion—felt oddly familiar. It took her a moment to realize that it was almost exactly the way she'd felt when she and Delit had faced off with the Hokuten at the bridge by the Falls. The same sense of a danger unknown and unexpected, as she clung desperately to what little remained of her authority.
"What are you talking about?" Ovelia asked, and could hear the weakness in her voice.
"The real Ovelia died a few months after she was born," Vormav said, with a careless shrug. "Perhaps the Choking Plague, or perhaps a poison that looked the same. Either way, Ondoria's only true heir to the throne was lost—save for what heirs Louveria might bear. The Council of Lords did not want Louveria dictating the future of Ivalice, so they covered up the death and found a child to play the part of the dead Princess. That would be you."
His words were calm, conversational, relentless. Ovelia felt her anger wilting, her thoughts spasming. Ignorant or indifferent to the effect he was having, Vormav continued, "Of course, then Louveria bore a son, and all the Council's careful plans were thrown into disarray. A woman can guarantee the continuation of a line, but her claim is always weaker than the male—particularly not where the throne is concerned. So the Council entreated us to shelter their decoy princess, while they tried to decide what to do."
He smiled slightly. There was something both predatory and disinterested in that smile, like a lion evaluating prey from afar, uncertain whether it was hungry enough to hunt. "You see the joke now, yes?" he asked. "You were never a princess, but you were always a puppet."
"You're lying," Ovelia whispered, so quietly even she was barely aware she'd spoken.
"Agents of the Church were involved in the initial cover-up," Vormav answered. "We have their signed confessions, and the signed confession of the Healer who presided over Ovelia's death, and copies of the letters the Council exchanged...we have enough."
Of course he did. Ovelia hadn't really had much hope he was lying. She could feel the pieces clicking together. Had Ondoria known? Was that why he'd refused to offer her any support, as she was a dagger aimed at his cruel wife's heart? And the Church had profited from the secret. Hence had she been locked away behind the stone walls of convents, monasteries, churches and libraries, kept far from the reins of power, given into the fold of the very people who had enabled the deception.
Vormav suddenly seemed much taller, and so much farther away. Dimly, distantly, Ovelia realized she'd fallen to her knees, and the world was even darker than the torch should have allowed, her vision rimmed by black. Delita moved towards her, his face wild with alarm, but the Cardinal caught him by the arm and pulled him back.
"Who..." she started, unsure what she even meant to ask.
Vormav knelt in front of her. His predator's smile was gone, but his eyes remained as stony and cold as ever. When he spoke, however, there was a note of softness in his voice. "What does it matter who you were before?" he asked. "Now you are a pretend Princess, a puppet whose strings may be cut whenever your grow too bold for your puppeteer's liking."
His tone was almost kind, but that only made his words hit her harder still. She felt like she was drowning in understanding, seeing how clearly she'd been kept from the reins of power, a tool that had been stored away as her owners decided what use to make of her. So what had she suffered for, all these years? Why had she born the scorn of the Queen and the nobles, if not for the sake of peace? Why had Katherine and Ysabel died?
"It's a cruel joke," Vormav said. "Turning a child into a tool that will better serve your needs. That is the kind of mad place Ivalice has become, as it has gone astray from our Saint." Now something else entered his face—an earnest fire that seemed to make his hard eyes glow. "I intend to use you, one way or another," he told her. "But if it's any consolation, I hope to use you so no other children must grow up to be like you."
Consolation? There was no consolation left. Men and women died for her sake, fighting to save her, fighting to kill her, fighting for a puppet. She didn't even know her real name name.
"Your Grace!" came a voice from the infinite distance, and Vormav craned his head. A soldier stood in the doorway. "The mercenary has returned!"
"Alone?" the Cardinal said, in a tone of mute rage.
The soldier nodded. The Cardinal turned away from the Princess. "Vormav," he said.
Vormav nodded, and stood up. "If you'll excuse me," he said, and moved towards the door to the cell. She stared after, registering what they did without quite understanding it, so lost in her own bleak fall that she could barely think.
Movement from the corner of her eye. Delita took a slow step towards her, watching her with his dark eyes, the torch still flickering in his hand.
"Did you know?" Ovelia asked, and was shocked at how her voice sounded—tinny and hollow, empty of emotion.
Delita searched her face, and seemed about to speak.
"Delita!" came Vormav's short, sharp voice, and Delita winced.
"I'm sorry, Ovelia," he whispered, and hurried from the room. The cell door closed behind him, taking the torchlight with it, and Ovelia was left alone in the darkness, with only her thoughts.
Ovelia. Still calling her Ovelia. As though she were a Princess. As though everything—her life, and the deaths of her guards, and the deaths of the men and women who'd tried to kill her—had not been in vain.
Pointless. It was all pointless.
She buried her face in her chained hands and wept.