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Chapter 60: Promises

Bound again, upon a chocobo's back. Bound, but this time she nursed no hope of rescue. There was no safe quarter in all of Ivalice for a false Princess.

She had not protested when Vormav, Delita, and the Cardinal had returned a short time after they had left her despairing in the darkness. As they had unchained her, bound her in ropes, and led her swiftly through Lionel's halls, spiriting her through the kitchen door where Ramza and Mustadio had left days past. A brown-feathered chocobo stood waiting for them.

"You may tell the truth, if you wish," Vormav said, as he helped her up onto the bird's back. "No one will believe you—and if they do, you shall pay a higher price than us."

Of course she would. She could not look for help among the Hokuten, the Nanten, or the Church. And the Cardinal, traitor though he was, had outlined how precarious her position would be even if she looked for help beyond the borders of Ivalice.

No hope, anywhere she turned. She would wear her chains, or she would die.

Delita made no effort to talk to her, while they rode or while they rested. And they never rested for long. In the hottest part of the late summer days, Delita would find some shaded spot far from any road, untie her long enough to let her tend to her needs, then bind her once more as they dozed in their chosen hiding place.

She never fought him. She never tried to run. What few friends she had might well be dead. Even if she escaped Delita, she would never be safe.

They avoided any path, rising and falling across the rolling, unsteady hills of Lionel. Gradually the hills hardened into solid stone as the Zirekile mountains rose steadily in the distance. Sooner than she would have credited, they were among the mountains themselves, along a winding, switchback rut that climbed higher and higher, passing by old shacks and hardy, bitter saplings. Perched in front of Delita with her hands bound in front of her, she watched without interest. She had not known of this little trail up into the mountains—barely wide enough for the bird they rode, sure-footed as it was—but nothing surprised her anymore. How could it, after all she had seen, and all she had learned?

No comfort anymore. Her friends had been taken from her. Her name had been taken from her. She was just a puppet, as Vormav had said.

Now Delita switched their schedule—the precarious path he was following was too dangerous to climb in the darkest hours of the night. So whenever the moon was too dark or the night to heavy, he would find some place for them to rest. Then he would wake her at moonrise, and they traveled beneath the moon's ghostly light, making all the mountains world dusty and ethereal, as though it might blow away with a careless breath. Ovelia wished it would.

The moonlight faded as dawn's glow brightened the horizon. At last, their ascent came to an end: beneath the early twilight, they found themselves upon a wide and rocky plain, leaning granite boulders presiding over congregations of sparse grass. A wide river cleaved this plain in two, gurgling and splashing as it went; towards the end of the plain, it disappeared in a sudden roaring plummet.

"The Falls," Ovelia said softly, her voice croaking with disuse, and remembered; the desperate flight through the forest, as Hokuten hunters had come chasing. Delita, throwing his body between her and the arrows of her enemies. And her friends, cutting a bloody path through those who would see her dead.

Pointless. All of it, pointless. They had fought and died and struggled and sacrificed for a puppet.

When she spoke, she felt Delita stiffen behind her. Quietly, his voice tight with strain, he replied, "That's...that's right." The chocobo beneath them rode on a little longer, then Delita pulled sharply on the reins. "We're camping here for awhile," Delita said. "Waiting on an escort."

Ovelia did not bother replying to him.

Delita helped her down from the chocobo, then refilled their canteen and set up the tent they shared. When he offered her the canteen, she drank; when he offered her the dried meat and fruit, she ate mechanically, without tasting what she chewed.

Delita was snoring soon enough—neither of them had gotten much sleep, having had to change their schedule to manage the mountain trail. But Ovelia did not feel sleepy. She did not even feel tired. There was a strange, hollow clarity to her thoughts; she felt as though she been drained of blood, so that everything rang with crystalline sharpness.

How far below was the bridge where she and Delita had faced off with her Hokuten pursuers? Not far, surely—a matter of a few hundred feet. She'd fought so hard, and it had achieved nothing. She'd run so far, only to end up back here.

She wasn't sleepy. She wasn't tired. But she found she was afraid—more afraid than she'd been even with assassins standing in front of her. The idea that this would be her life now—this emptiness, this purposelessness, this constant, crushing knowledge of the strings around her, pulling her to dance at the will of masters she could never face...

It was early morning now, golden light leaking through the canvas of their tent. Ovelia's hands were still bound tight, her fingers naked (they'd taken her ring, of course they'd taken her ring, not even the pretense of power would be left to her). But Delita had left her legs unbound. She shifted slowly, worming her way across the floor of the tent. Delita stirred in response, but did not stop his quiet snoring.

Slowly, so slowly, she wormed her way to the tent entrance. Her skin was tight now, her pulse thundering in her ears. She was afraid of what she planned to do. She was as afraid that Delita would wake in time to stop her.

She crawled out of the tent entrance, clumsily leveraged herself upright, and walked as quietly and quickly as she could manage, cutting a diagonal path across the plateau. She met the riverbank just before it reached the sharp break that led it cascading down again, and inched along its side, until the tips of her shoes lined up with the edge of the rock, and the mist wet her face.

The curtain of white water pounded down to the stones below, churning to a frenzy before it raced along again. She could see the long gorge hundreds of feet below, and the rocky slopes on which she had fought for her life. It was a long way down.

She heard a shout behind her, muffled by roaring of the Falls. She turned slowly, deliberately, as Delita dashed towards her, his face white, his eyes wide.

"Ovelia!" he shouted, over and over again, louder as he came closer. "Ovelia, no!"

Ovelia felt the void behind her as though it had physical weight. Nevertheless, she shied back a little, teetering on the brink, and cried, "Don't come any closer!"

Delita stumbled to a halt, his hands raised in surrender. "Okay. Okay. I'm not."

Good. He could stay there, too far to reach her, to far to stop her.

She looked over her shoulder and stared down the path of the cascading water, down to where the sharp rocks glistened far below. It would be so easy—just take a single step, and rob her foes of whatever they hoped to gain from her. No more claustrophobia behind stone walls. No more chains to bind her.

"Is that what you want?" Delita asked, his voice more curious than scared.

"No one cares what I want," Ovelia answered, looking back to him.

"No," Delita agreed. "They don't."

Ah, it still hurt. Not far from here, she had pretended to be a Princess of worth and merit. She had tried to look regal, believing if she somehow acted the part she could somehow force the world to accept her. And now her Lionesses were gone, and she was alone, in the power of enemies who would use her as they pleased, confident they could destroy her if she turned against them. She wasn't even Ovelia anymore. She was just a nameless puppet.

"Why shouldn't I?" she asked, and hated the sound of tears in her voice.

"What answer could I give you, that you would take?" Delita asked.

She tried and failed to glare at him. She didn't know what she wanted from him. She didn't know why she didn't simply end it.

"I thought about it, once," Delita said, after the silence had stretched.

"You...what?" She stared at him.

Delita shrugged. His face was pale, but he did not look quite so scared. "Things were bad, and I...I thought I might feel like that forever."

Ovelia felt a little ripple of shock and fascination. "But you didn't."

Delita shook his head. He kept one hand raised; with the other, he reached into the pocket of his trousers, and pulled out a simple ring with a little stone set upon it. It was her ring—the ring that had been taken from her finger, when the Cardinal had revealed his true colors. The ring he had taken from her, when had bound her with ropes and dragged her from her guards.

She stared at the ring in his hand. He stared at her. Neither spoke.

"What do you want, Ovelia?" Delita asked, so soft she could hardly believe she could hear him.

Ovelia didn't know where to begin. Her Lionesses, who had risked life and limb to save her, were gone to parts unknown. Her friends were in danger, if they were not already dead. Her enemies sat upon thrones and commanded armies, and her saviors wanted only to use her for their unknown ends. She had nothing left. Not even her name

"I want to fix it," Ovelia said, hardly aware of what she was saying.

"Fix what?"

Ovelia shook her head. "Everything," she whispered.

Delita smiled. "A lofty goal." He took a step towards her. "May I...?"

Scarcely aware of what she was doing, Ovelia nodded, and extended her bound hands. Delita closed the distance between them, took her hands in his calloused grip and slipped the ring upon her right finger. Then he stood there, with her hands in his, and Ovelia was surprised to find she did not resent his touch. His dark eyes burned just as fiercely as they had when first she'd met him, but from this close the fire seemed softer somehow, warmer.

"I care," he said.

"What?"

"I care what you want," Delita said. "And if you'll let me, I'll help you. We'll fix everything."

Ovelia shook her head. "Why should I trust you?"

Delita almost laughed. "What choice do you have?"

Ovelia's jaw clenched, and she tugged her hand from Delita's grip. "I can still choose not to trust you."

The laughter drained away from Delita's face. "I know."

They stared at each other for a long time.

"You told me once that no one could guarantee my safety," she said.

Delita nodded. "No one can. But I intend to try."

"Why?"

Delita looked past her then—down to the roaring Falls.

"My sister died," he whispered. "Because it was easier to kill her than it was to save her. Because she was a pawn to the powerful, and they felt no guilt in discarding her when it was convenient. I am so fucking tired of the kingdom that allows such a thing to happen, over and over. To commoners and nobles and soldiers and princesses and..." He trailed off. The fire in his eyes was bare embers.

"You deserve better," he whispered. "I deserve better. We all deserve..." He looked away from the falls, back to her. "I wanted to fix everything. That's why I didn't..."

Ovelia stared into those dark eyes, took in the burn scars gleaming on his cheek, the pearls of moisture in his hair. She stared at the man who had beaten her, mocked her, fought for her, protected her. This mess of contradictions, who said he wanted what she wanted. A man who had betrayed her. A man who had saved her.

"Promise me," she said, because she didn't know what else to say.

His grip tightened on her hands. "Promise you what?"

"That we'll fix it," she said. "That...that I can trust you."

He stared at her. She stared at him.

"I won't make promises I can't keep," he said. "There are no guarantees."

She felt something break inside her, pieces of her heart falling into the dark. She glared at him, and whispered, "We don't make promises knowing we can keep them. We make promises because we have to try."

He closed his eyes. The river rushed besides them, muttering to itself.

"If I can keep you safe, I will," he whispered. "If I can earn your trust, I will. If...if we can fix everything..."

He fell silent again. She felt herself calming, the infinite bleak future fading. The far horizon no longer seemed quite so dim.

"I promise that what I can do, I will," he said at last.

It was no oath of knights and heroes. It was not the kind of pledge that Agrias had made, that Alicia and Lavian would have made, that Ramza or Radia might have sworn. But all those trusted friends had failed, manipulated and betrayed by the man they'd hoped could save her. Delita offered no such certainties in an uncertain world. He offered her only a promise that he would try. And Ovelia found she believed him, if only because she had learned that that was all anyone could ever promise her.

"Alright," she said.

"And you?" he asked.

Ovelia blinked. "Me what?"

"What do you promise?"

Ovelia blinked. "I...promise?"

Delita laughed. "You don't expect me to offer an oath without hearing one in return."

"Yours was barely a promise!"

"Barely a promise is still better than no promise."

Ovelia felt herself torn between frustration and amusement, and was surprised to find that things felt peculiarly normal. For the first time in days, she did not feel pointless, or alone.

"The same," she said, after a moment's consideration. "Whatever is in my power-"

"Be careful," Delita said, and there was no humor in his tone. Her attention focused back on him, found he was regarding her seriously. "To fix everything will be a long, strange, difficult road. I think it will take us where we want to go, but the things we will be required to do..."

There was weight in his words, weight that reminded her of something. It took her a moment to remember what it was—the grief in his tone, when she had asked about her friend at Lionel.

"My friends," she said. "What happened to them?"

Delita shrugged. "Last I heard, they lived. But that may not last, with all the powers arrayed against them."

"You underestimate them," Ovelia said sharply.

"And you overestimate the dangers they face!" retorted Delita. "The Church's influence spreads far and wide. Even if they escape Lionel alive, they will be hunted. How long before their luck runs out?"

"So why aren't we helping them?" Ovelia cried.

Delita's eyes softened. "What, by fighting at their side? Risking our lives, the same as them?"

"Why not?" Ovelia asked.

"And what will that accomplish?" Delita shook his head. "This is no world for Braves, Ovelia. A righteous few who take on the powers and win...well," he amended. "Maybe. But think for a moment. You know what's missing from those old stories? I bet most of those Braves died. If not all of them."

Ovelia scoffed. "They were heroes."

"They were stories," Delita replied. "Look at your own guards, Ovelia. Courageous and brave and true and strong, and even they could not protect you."

Ovelia felt grief, anger, and doubt choking her again. "So what would you rather do?" she demanded.

"Help them," Delita said. "Fight the same battle, on our own field. Play the game until we can break it."

Ovelia regarded him coolly. "And you think that will fix everything?"

"It's a start."

Ovelia shook her head and looked away from him. "So we follow the Cardinal's plan. I am your arrow aimed at Louveria, and when I sit the throne I will be your puppet, to be deposed at your whim."

"You are no one's puppet," Delita said fiercely. She looked back at him, and was caught by the bright fire that had returned to his eyes. "You never have been, and you never will be."

Ovelia laughed nervously. That fire seemed to radiate inside her, warming her, buzzing and blurring her thoughts like alcohol. "You told me there were no guarantees."

He smiled. "What I can do, I will."

Ovelia searched his face—the burned cheek, the warm eyes. Then she squeezed his hand. "Then so will I."

Delita nodded, and drew a knife from his belt. He sawed through the ropes binding her hands, then tugged her away from the cliff. After a moment she allowed herself to be pulled away from the plummet, only to fall against his back when he suddenly froze. "What are you-" she started, before she saw her.

Standing by the chocobo was a blonde woman, with her hair tied back in a high ponytail. She had a severe, pointed face, with a long nose and quick blue eyes that never rested in one place for long. She was stroking the chocobo's neck absently, but those quick eyes were fixed on them, flickering between their faces.

"Hand-in-hand with a Princess, Del?" she asked. Her voice was coarse with emotion, wry with humor. "Not getting too close to our charge, are we?"

Delita dropped Ovelia's hand as though it had burned him. "You're welcome to replace me if you like, Val" Delita said, his voice tight with strain. "Oh, that's right. You can't."

"Don't push your luck," Val replied. Her eyes settled on Ovelia's. "I don't think you'd be so eager to hold that hand if you knew what it had done, Princess."

Ovelia felt a flash of anger, and welcomed it. It was the first chance she'd had to feel properly angry since Vormav had told her about who she was. "If there is something you wish to tell me, you may do so," she replied. "If you wish to simply make dramatic proclamations with no evidence, you may keep your words to yourself."

Val's thin eyebrows arched. "A sharp tongue for a Princess."

"If you come closer," Ovelia said. "You may find that is not the only thing to surprise you."

Val chuckled and looked at Delita. "Why isn't she bound?"

"She's more use to us if she's on our side," Delita said.

"She's got no choice but to be on our side," Val grunted.

Delita shrugged. "A volunteer's better than a conscript."

"Depends on the job you need doing." Val's eyes flickered dismissively back to Ovelia. "So you're with us, Princess?"

"You may refer to me as your Highness," Ovelia said stiffly.

Val's coral lips quirked. "Your Highness," she repeated. "We have your support?"

"That would rather depend on what we intend to do," Ovelia answered.

So strange, to have her spine again! But walking away from the cliff, and arguing with Delita, had awakened something in her. It was rather like the ferocity and confidence which had guided her actions in the days after Orbonne, but sharper somehow, clearer, grounded in reality. She did not know if this young woman was some potentate to rival the Cardinal and Vormav. And she found she did not care. Even if all she'd believed was a lie, they needed that lie. She was not powerless. And she was not alone.

Val studied Ovelia's face for a time, then said, "Thought you knew?"

"I know we intend to challenge Louveria," Ovelia said. "But I have not yet been apprised as to the how."

Val glanced at Delita. "You wanna tell her?"

Delita chuckled. He looked at Ovelia with an odd expression on his face—a twisted, uncertain smile. "Ovelia," he said. "We are just now going to finish the journey we started when we first left Orbonne Monastery."

Ovelia folded her arms across her chest. "And where exactly are we going?"

"Bethla Garrison," Delita said, and chuckled again—a jagged, uncertain sound.

Ovelia stared at him. She looked between Delita and Val. Both had a slightly amused, slightly pained expression, but nothing that seemed to indicate they were joking. Riding right into the stronghold of the man whose soldiers had attacked her. Riding right to the fort they'd ridden past, weeks ago. All this time spent running around, arguing, scheming, fighting...all to no end.

The laughter bubbled up all at once, overwhelming her. She tried to hold it back, and that just made it worse; it bucked loose, brayed from her throat, and soon she was hunched over with tears in her eyes, laughing and unable to stop. And beside her, Delita was doing the same; clutching at his stomach, roaring with helpless laughter, and every time one of them seemed about to stop they caught the others' eye and that set them off all over again.

Val watched them, her thin eyebrows arched so high they almost touched her hairline. "Am I missing something?"

Delita, giggling a little, wiped a tear from his eye. "Just..." He looked at Ovelia, and bit back another snort of laughter, as Ovelia snickered.

"Just a long way, to...to end up back here," Ovelia managed, struggling not to laugh again. Absurd. How absurd it all was.

But absurd or not, they were walking into danger. Absurd or not, she had been thrust onto a stage where the great powers of Ivalice would all be arrayed around her, trying to use her and destroy her. And if she intended to fix everything, she would have her work cut out for her. Delita had made that clear.

But perhaps she was equal to the challenges that lay before her. She felt awake again, aware of her limitations and her abilities, her thoughts sharp, her mind clear. Above all else, she felt alive, and determined to stay that way.

"So," Ovelia said, straightening up. "What's our plan?"