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Chapter 63: Casualties

Ivalice bled, and Count Cidolfas Orlandeau grieved for it.

He grieved as he fought, cleaving a path through the companies that struggled to oppose him—companies of Ivalican soldiers from Gallione and Lesalia, the soldiers who had been the indispensable reserve on which Zeltennia and Limberry had once depended when foreign invaders had threatened them. He grieved as he reviewed troop dispositions and casualty reports, outlining all the souls who fought for their rightful queen, and had suffered pain and death in her defense. He grieved when he saw the herds of battered refugees, drifting like ghosts from the burnt ruins of their homes, trudging across scorched and trampled fields.

He was still grieving when he returned to Bethla Garrison, his hood pulled up against the cold, pounding rain, the hem of his cloak and the soles of his boots heavy with mud. He patted his chocobo's damp neck and allowed it be led away by a soldier. For a moment, he allowed the rain to scour him, and lifted his head to stare at the great bulk of Bethla Garrison. The Ydorans had carved it from a mountain, so it towered high above him, slanting slowly to the top. Behind it, a fertile plateau fed by a dammed lake offered a dependable source of food and water, so none could ever stave out the Nanten.

There was a time when the sight of Bethla Garrison had reassured him. The only dependable way for an army to reach the fortress was a winding canyon path that any half-awake defender could turn unassailable. And this deadly road did not even run straight to the fort: first it encountered the tall southern gate, solid stone half as tall as the fort itself. And what army could try for the northern road? The only paths that weren't winding mountain ruts lay across the inhospitable Bethla Wastes. The fort radiated solidity; its heavy mountain strength fell eternal and untouchable.

But now those same qualities made Cid sick with guilt. The fort's impregnability isolated it from the hell outside its walls. What did the suffering of faraway souls matter, when the seat of the Nanten would go untouched? Never mind that these were the citizens of Ivalice, who suffered over and over again in riots, rebellions, and war.

Cid wandered inside, intentionally refusing to clean his boots. He wanted the mud to be slathered across the fort's floors. And when much of the mud on his boots had been left behind, he deliberately shook out his cloak, splattering the walls. He wanted something of the muck that Ivalice was deluded with to be felt here, in the halls of power.

How was this war allowed to continue? They had captured the Usurper Queen in the first bold strike of the war. Cid had been proud of his Nanten then, cutting their way with speed and discipline, plowing through the sparse lines and patrols that opposed them. When they reached Lesalia's strong walls, his mages blew a hole in their side, and the swarmed towards the Lion's Den, cutting down all who stood in their way.

Even now, the Queen languished in dungeons far below his feet, and the true Queen sat enthroned in Zeltennia. So how could this war still consume so many lives?

He knew the official answer: that the Hokuten were puppets manipulated by Bestrald Larg, fighting in the name of a toddler King to free the Usurper Queen so she could continue her reign of tyranny. He wondered what the Hokuten said of them: were they Nanten puppets in service to a treacherous princess, opposed by the rightful King and his noble uncle, as they strove to rescue the Queen-Mother who had been so unlawfully taken from her seat of power?

Why did no one see the absurdity of it all? Orinus was barely six years of age, and followed the "advice" of his regent, Prince Larg, in everything. And though Goltanna fought in the name of Queen Ovelia, she had "retreated" to the safety of Zeltennia Castle—where, conveniently, she could not contravene the orders and aims of her cousin and general.

Half-treason, these thoughts, but Cid was too weary to care. Weary of war against friends, weary of the ambitions of the powerful, and weary with grief for the suffering across Ivalice.

"Count Orlandeau."

Cid looked up as Delita Heiral rounded a corner, a sheaf of papers under one arm. Like Cid, he wore armor and a sword upon his hip, though all his gear was considerably cleaner than what Cid wore. Each piece of dark red and dull gold had been polished to a brilliant shine, gleaming in the runelights on the walls. He had trimmed his clay-red hair, and his dark eyes were respectful. Yet in spite of the fine figure he cut, Cid felt a stab of anger. This boy and the Princess he brought with them had started all this trouble. Without them...

Without them, a Queen who imprisoned on a whim and deployed assassins against her rivals would still sit the throne. The war had always been coming. It was not Delita's fault that his small spark had finally set all the gathered tinder ablaze.

"Ser Heiral," Cid answered. "How fare the Black Sheep?"

Delita offered a small smile. "They care for themselves." He inclined his head towards the near hallway intersection, and they headed down together. Cid did admire what young Heiral had done with the coffers and contacts of the Sheep when he was made their head in honor of his service. Instead of trying to rebuild their order into the semi-mercenary army Grimms had built, Delita had organized them into loose cells that acted as something like a network of sponsored bandits. Cid had feared that such groups would commit their share of atrocities, but Olan's reports painted them as a rather disciplined force that could be very effective at disrupting their enemies and provoked little outrage among the populace.

"I remain impressed," Cid said. "I know you attended Gariland, but your skill at command outstrips men several times your senior."

Delita shook his head. "Only good fortune, Count," Delita said. "I depend upon the patriotism of men who would protect Ivalice from the abuses of the powerful."

Cid smiled a little. "You sound like Balbanes."

Delita inclined his head slightly. "You could pay me no higher compliment."

"Is that young Ser Heiral I hear?" called the light, musical voice of Marquis Elmdor. He rounded the corner, his silver hair braided back behind his blue tunic. Unlike Delita and Cid, he had foregone his armor. A pity, too: during the war, Elmdor had specially ordered a set of red-and-black armor designed to make him look as fearsome and terrible as possible, a jibe at the enemies who called him the Silver Demon.

"It is, Marquis," Delita said, bowing a little.

"I thought I once told you to call me Messam?" the Marquis asked.

"You did, my lord," Delita said. "But I must maintain a sense of propriety."

"False modesty ill becomes you, Ser Heiral," the Marquis said.

Delita's eyebrows arched. "The Silver Demon speaks to me about a pretense of humility?"

The Marquis chuckled, but Cid felt something faintly nauseous stirring in his chest. He had been a soldier all his life—he well understood the need for humor in dark times. But this seemed altogether too light and breezy. These men were both commanders of armed forces, who took the field as often as he did. How could they be so casual now, when pointless violence stalked their days?

"Is something the matter, Count Orlandeau?" Delita asked.

Cid shook his head. "No," he said, and marched towards the Council Chambers. Elmdor fell into step behind him; Delita trailed a step behind.

Unlike the throne room several floors above, the Council Chambers were a much more intimate setting, dominated by a dark wooden table that almost touched the polished stone walls. Goltanna sat at his customary place in a high-backed chair at one end of the table, with the Bishop and Viscount Blanche hunched over him, all talking in hushed voices. Precisely in the middle of the table, the dark-skinned Baron Bolminas fumbled with his papers, trying to look busy, unable to hide his irritation at being excluded from the secrets of the Bishop, the Duke, and the Viscount.

"Ah, my commanders return!" Goltanna exclaimed, his red/brown eyes flickering up to them. "Sit, sit!"

"My lord-" the Viscount began, unable to hide his irritation.

"We will discuss everything, Blanche," Goltanna said, with iron in his voice. "Sit."

Blanche bowed stiffly, and retreated down the table. Cid and the Bishop sat closest to Goltanna, at his left and right hands, respectively; Viscount Blanche and Marquis Elmdor took the far end of the table, while Delita sat directly across from the Baron.

"How goes the war?" Goltanna asked.

"Yes, tell us, Count," Blanche growled, his mouth curled into an ugly sneer so his silver goatee almost touched his chest. "How do your troops manages to fail, time and time again?"

"Blanche," Goltanna said warningly.

"If I may, my lord," Cid said, turning to face the Viscount. "We achieved our principle strategic objective within the first days of this war. Now we have settled into a war of attrition-"

"The cost was not so high when we faced Ordallia!" Blanche snapped.

"The cost was high for some of us, Viscount," Cid replied, and saw from the corner of his eye both Goltanna and Elmdor nodding.

Blanche visibly deflated, his eyes flickering to the others. "I...I meant no offense. I only meant that we...we must seek a resolution to this conflict."

"Yes, Blanche, we are all agreed on that," grunted Goltanna. "Count Orlandeau, how do our troops fare?"

Cid straightened his chair. "They are the same Nanten that held back Ordallia, my lord. The Hokuten are spread too thin to punch through anywhere."

Goltanna slapped the table. "Good man, good man."

"But it has been costly, my lord," Cid continued, remembering the sight of the young men and women bleeding in the medical tents, crying softly in the dark. Remembering the bloody, slack bodies piled high upon the carts. "The Hokuten outnumber us. We have lost nearly thirty thousand men since the Hokuten attempt on Bethla Garrison, and have seen twice as many wounded."

"But the Hokuten cannot hold forever," the Bishop put in, smiling thinly. "My friends to the east report that the flooding in Gallione thanks to the fall rains, combined with an early frost in some regions, has wreaked havoc on the harvest. The Hokuten will starve."

"And we will not?" Elmdor asked dryly.

Goltanna looked at Elmdor in surprise. "The drought is that bad?"

Elmdor nodded grimly. "We've noticed definite expansion along the borders of the Wastes, and our harvests were poor already due to poor rainfall. I am sorry, my lord, but if you wish for me to continue to supply my own troops, I cannot spare any part of my stores. Even then, people are going to go hungry."

"Your people will not riot, will they?" asked Bolminas, in a faintly bored tone of voice. "We cannot afford it."

Elmdor's eyes flickered dismissively towards the Baron. "My people understand the need for this war."

"And what of yours, Viscount?" the Baron asked.

Blanche went white with fury. "You dare-"

"You come to us with complaints about having the battle lines drawn through your lands," the Baron replied ploddingly. "I assume there is unrest among your people, the same as there is unrest in Limberry. I simply wish to ascertain whether our situation may be as grim as the Hokuten's."

"How bad is the Hokuten situation?" Cid asked, fighting to quell a wriggling anxiety in the pit of his stomach.

It was Delita who answered him. "Reports are sketchy, but along the battlelines, many towns and villages have been occupied or burnt. They flee in many directions, but most make for Igros and Lesalia."

"How many?" Cid asked.

"I'm not sure," Delita said. "Thousands."

"Good!" Blanche declared. "Let Larg drown under the weight of their outrage! Let them revolt at his treatment, and call for their rightful Queen!"

Goltanna's lips pursed beneath his drooping mustache. "Count Orlandeau."

"My lord?" Cid said.

"Order your men to rebuff any refugees who approach. By force, if necessary."

A shock of cold surged across Cid's guts. "Are you sure, my lord?"

Goltanna nodded. "I did not realize the drought had so badly effected Limberry. Even if the Gallione harvests are worse than they seem, their stores of grain are probably twice ours." He massaged his broad forehead. "We will need to try and buy food elsewhere. Bishop, make arrangements to levy a new tax-"

Goltanna kept talking, but Cid barely heard him. Supplies running low, tens of thousands of refugees across the countryside displaced by needless war, a drought that exhausted the people of Limberry, and now Goltanna wanted to levy a new tax? Almost Cid could endure this, almost he could swallow his doubts and follow his orders, except Goltanna had also ordered him to rebuff these refugees—perhaps even execute them, if they pressed their luck.

"In the meantime, we will seek out allies and reinforcements," said Goltanna, as the gears in Cid's head ground painfully against one another. "Men and women who can be trusted to see they must follow the rightful Queen, rather than allow the tyranny of the Largs to continue through their puppet prince. Baron, where do we stand?"

The Baron started as Goltanna addressed him. His mouth worked for a few seconds before it managed to produce words. "Almost all who have forces have been committed to one side or another, my lord. Only the Khamja have yet to declare either way."

"Barinten, that slippery snake," sighed Goltanna. "Well, we'll have to prepare an envoy to him. If we offer him a portion of Leslia, he may be inclined to deal. Baron, you will-

But painful as it was, Cid's mind had followed its course, and over his years Cid had learned to eschew hesitation. Once you know what to do you, you act to do it, consequences be damned. "My lord," Cid said. "May I speak?"

Goltanna looked towards him, frowning. "What is it, Count?"

"Our military position is strong, but our logistical position is weak," Cid said. "The Hokuten stand in the same precarious place, especially if we are to turn back refugees. Would it not be wise to seek peace?"

Silence at the table. All eyes were fixed on Cid. Goltanna's face had set: it barely moved. His eyes searched Cid's face.

"Peace?" Blanche whispered. Cid barely looked at the Viscount—he mattered little enough here—but from the corner of his eye he could see fury contorting his pale face. "These criminals lay waste to my lands, and their proxies kill my son, and you speak of peace?"

The pain in Blanche's voice when he spoke of Baron Grimms drew Cid's eyes back to him. Blanche glared at him, and Cid stared steadily back. "I am sorry for you loss, Viscount," Cid said. "But people die in war. More fathers will lose more sons, and more sons fathers, and brothers sisters and sisters brothers and all of us people we love, if we continue an unnecessary war."

"Unnecessary?" Goltanna said mildly.

Cid's head swiveled back to face Goltanna. The Duke's face was still calm, but his eyes were feverishly bright. "You think the war is unnecessary, Count Orlandeau?"

Cid shook his head. "An assassin and a tyrant had seized power unlawfully. You did your duty, my lord, and rose to challenge her. But we hold her in the dungeons beneath this fortress. She is no danger to anyone"

"Her brother is," the Bishop pointed out.

"But his position, as you have said, is increasingly untenable!" Cid exclaimed. "His soldiers, likes ours, will not go unfed, and even before that the people of Ivalice will starve as their homes and fields are burned, and how long can they suffer this way before they turn against him? Before they turn against us?" He faced Goltanna again. "This war was necessary, my lord. But prolonging it might not be. Why not bring him to the table, and see if he will bargain?"

"Bargain with a man who shares his sister's crimes?" Elmdor asked, his tone acidic. "Who propped her up, and smoothed the way, and rebelled against the rightful Queen when Louveria saw justice?"

"If I may speak, my lords?" Delita asked.

Cid stared at Delita, who was looking at Goltanna. Goltanna inclined his head a fraction of an inch, and the young knight rose and faced Cid squarely. "I am of common stock, Count Orlandeau," he said. "Though I do not doubt your sympathy for the people, I assure you, your sympathy does not compare with my experience of their plight. I faced such hardship myself during the 50 Years' War."

"But you underestimate the treachery of the Largs," Delita continued, his eyes and voice hardening. "I fought against the Death Corps. I have already told the Marquis that the attempt on his life was made at their behest, frustrated only by the greed of their assassin and the disobedience of myself and my friends. And when they had taken the Death Corps, they used their expertise to foment the revolts we've seen spreading across the country—including the one that killed the Baron Grimms, who had begun to suspect their plot."

"The Largs cannot be trusted," Delita said, and his eyes were burning. "They will gladly come to the table, for a chance to survive. And if they survive, they will continue to spread their poison. You think the people suffer now?" He gestured wildly with one hand. "Let them continue to manipulate Ivalice to its own ends, and their suffering will be increased tenfold. We cannot bargain with traitors."

But at the bargaining table, the men on the other side of the table were almost always monsters and traitors—or had such people in their employ. No war was ever fought with noble means by men with clean hands. The Largs might indeed be worse than most, but it mattered little how bad they were. Goltanna's good intentions could hurt Ivalice just as much as Larg's treachery.

Cid said none of this aloud. He could see in the eyes of the men who sat at the table that Delita had reassured them of the righteousness of the cause—or, at the very least, given them a plausible reason to continue the conflict that stood to elevate them still further.

Goltanna rapped his knuckles on the table approvingly. "Well said, young Heiral!" He looked at Cid. "I understand your worries, Count Orlandeau. But as Ser Heiral says, an Ivalice where Bestrald Larg holds any power is an Ivalice that will suffer far worse than anything this war may bring them. If you wish to protect them, you had best focus on achieving a speedy end to the war."

Count Orlandeau nodded, conveying both his resignation and his determination. "As you command, my lord. I hope my words did not upset you."

Goltanna was gracious: his smile softened, and he said, "I share your worries, old friend. But we must see with clear eyes, as we did when we faced Ordallia."

Cid nodded, and took his seat. Goltanna turned his attention to Bolminas. "Baron, I am certain Larg has already made Barinten some offer. We will have to show him we are more serious. I would like you to head to Fovoham directly-"

But Cid was no longer paying attention to the Council. He was thinking of what Goltanna had said, comparing this conflict with the 50 Years' War. And that war had been brutal, true, exhausting the coffers of Ivalice, burdening the people with taxes and levies on their food, but back then they had stood together as one Ivalice, resisting an outside foe whose victory might spell an end to their nation. And for all the sins of the Ordallia and Ivalice alike—for all the monstrous things Ordallian soldiers had done to Ivalician citizens, and for all the crimes the Haruten had committed—they had still been able to find enough common ground to forge a peace.

Larg and his sister might be monsters, but every knight of the Hokuten? If every rumor about Dycedarg Beoulve was true, did that condemn his brother, Zalbaag? Why did tens of thousands of young men and women have to die in battle, to kill a handful of monsters? Why did the people of Ivalice have to suffer war's burdens again, to see their gil taken, their houses and fields burned?

Delita claimed their suffering was justified by their cause. Cid could not believe that.

Only one hope remained to Cid—that Olan, far afield on his own, might uncover some secret, some intelligence, some fact that he could lay upon the table as proof of the need for peace. More than that, he worried for his son, wandering a wartorn country all by himself. Crafty as he was, talented he was...

But no. He had to trust in Olan. And in the meantime, for all his doubts and fears, he would plan a new offensive as per his liege lord's order, and with his own sword would cut down more young lives, and add to the tide of blood that threatened to drown Ivalice. He could not spare the country its burden. He could only prove he was as willing to shoulder it as anyone else.