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Chapter 64: The Hand of Barinten

"As always, dear Baron, it is a pleasure," Barinten chortled, inclining his head to Bolminas so his double-chin touched his chest.

"The pleasure is all mine, my lord," the Baron said, bowing his head. "Would that my duties could keep me in Fovoham longer."

You've already wasted enough of my time, Barinten thought grimly, but aloud he said, "Oh, I understand. Why do you think I must first assess my defenses, before I can join your righteous cause? Dark times, my friend, dark times."

Baron Bolminas sighed and nodded. He offered Barinten a clumsy solute, and then he and his little coterie of soldiers rode through the outermost gate and headed east—along the winding log-guarded road that was the only sure path from Riovanes back into Ivalice. Barinten watched him go, and his smile died the moment he was out of sight. He would need to send messengers to some of the less necessary garrisons, and strengthen his guard. The Hokuten and Nanten might be pleading for his help now, but they would change their tune quickly if they suspected he would join their enemy.

But why would he? Why would he waste his precious Khamja on such a pointless, idiotic war that stood to gain him nothing?

"Clarice," he said softly, his blue eyes gentle, his bald pate gleaming in the sun.

To one side, a slender woman in her mid-teens stiffened to attention. Pale blue eyes sparked beneath her straw-colored hair. "My lord,?" she said softly.

"Follow them out a few miles."

Clarice nodded, hunched low, and leapt. She rose dozens of feet into the air, aligted on a nearby parapet, and was gone again. As he usually did when he had time to spare, Barinten watched her go. He knew from old Ydoran documents how it worked—he knew how all her magic was internal, warping her body's relationship to gravity. But that intellectual understanding did not preclude a certain base wonder, watching her float like a leaf on the breeze, like a bird on the wing.

When she was out of sight, he turned around and strode back into Riovanes, barely pausing to look at his Castle's impressive facade. The historians said that this had belonged to an exiled Ydoran luminary, whose contacts had still afforded him great wealth and means. So he had build a palace in his exile—a palace that was also intended as a fortress, for the day when he would return to take his rightful place as ruler of the greatest empire the world had ever known. His private mercenary army—the original Khamja—was feared even by the men who exiled him, and unassailable within their liege lord's stronghold.

The result was that the seat of power in Riovanes rivaled the strength of the Lion's Den or Mullonde, and was clearly outstripped only by Bethla Garrison. But a fortress, no matter how palatial, could not win a war. Nor could an army as small as his Khamja, however well-trained they might be.

Barinten's fat face folded into a frustrated scowl. Alone of the great forces of Ivalice, his Khamja had been blooded but unbroken by the 50 Years' War. They fought in almost every theater, but Barinten was careful to keep them back from hopeless engagements. He would not fritter his precious army away in brute contests of attrition.

And what else was this Lion War but such a contest? All the great armies of Ivalice, all the great lords and all their powerful allies waged bloody, brutal battle far and wide. But the lines had been drawn and fortified: what little either side gave was almost always reclaimed. Hokuten and Nanten died in service to their lords' ambitions, and the other nobles hoping for a claim on whoever sat the throne spent their soldiers eagerly to prove their loyalty.

Good to have such loyalty, Barinten supposed. But far better to be the man upon the throne.

The question was, how to do it? He had no doubt that his Khamja could decide the course of the war, but they could not face the Hokuten or Nanten in the field. Even if he could trust each of his soldiers to kill ten enemies apiece, they might still be overwhelmed.

He needed information. He needed intelligence.

He made his way down into the dungeons, wove through dark hallways until he entered the spacious quarters of his Hand. They were already assembled and waiting, staring straight ahead. Rafa and Malak, dark-skinned and dark-haired, the sister broad and powerful, the brother slight and agile. To Barinten's amusement, there were two identical women flanking them. Both versions of Clara had strawberry-blonde hair, sea-grey eyes set in a pale face, and a full-lipped mouth that desperately tried to hold back a smile.

"Two Claras?" Barinten said. "I would never be so lucky."

To their credit, neither smiled. "But which of us is the real one, my lord?" asked the one on the left.

Barinten chuckled and nodded his head towards the one on the right. That Clara scowled and their skin seemed to dissolve into grains of light, melting away until a slender, dark-haired child was left behind, tan and adrogynous, wearing simple grey-white fabric. "How did you know!" Berkeley exclaimed, in a reedy, expressive voice.

"Not your fault, Berk," Barinten said. "She called me 'my lord.' For all my training, you have never been so respectful."

Berkeley smiled sheepishly, while Clara smiled in earnest. Barinten smiled back at them, and asked, "What news from Bolminas' delegation?"

Berkeley smirked and shifted forms again—to the tall, busty, giggling woman who had ingratiated herself to so many of Bolminas' retinue. When she spoke, it was a thick, syrupy voice, endearing, tantalizing. "So many loose lips." She wrinkled her nose. "And too many wandering hands."

Barinten felt his smile stiffen into a grimace. Berkeley could be quite entertaining—from the first, they had used their innate gift with illusions to amuse and enrapture—but now they had been asked a direct question and did not answer at once. That was shoddy discipline.

Before Barinten could reprimand Berkely, however, Malak spoke. "Berkeley," he said, his voice velvet-soft, his eyes straight ahead. "Your lord asked you a question."

The buxom woman visibly deflated. Barinten felt his smile return. Ah, but Malak was a blessing. Intelligent, efficient and with a power of such tremendous versatility. Besides, this was just as it should be. Let discipline come from Malak, and kindness from Barinten. It would make them more liable to look to him for guidance and succor.

"No need to be too hard on him, Malak," Barinten said. "Though you make a fair point. We shouldn't waste time."

"Alright, alright," Berkeley sighed, suitably chastened. "Their position's a lot worse than they're letting on. Bethla's impregnable, and this kind of static warfare favors the Nanten, but they can't win the war from Bethla, and they're in danger of starving if the bad weather holds. A few of'em are hopeful, 'cause it looks like the Thundergod's cookin' up some kinda plan, but..." Berkely trailed off, the illusion dissipating to leave their regular form behind. They did not seem to be hinting at anything, so much as looking for the right words.

For the first time, Rafa spoke, her eyes still straight ahead, not quite looking at Barinten. "The Thundergod's prowess is undeniable, but even he could not turn the tide against Ordallia, and it is doubtful the years have sharpened his blade."

Barinten's smile widened, both at the intelligence she displayed in her answer and the careful way she kept her eyes averted (did she think if she did not look at him he would forget their next lesson?). But he nodded thoughtfully. "So," he mused. "The stalemate continues. And they look to us to turn the tide."

Malak looked at him. "Should we, my lord?"

Barinten pursed his lips. "I don't know," he admitted. "It's possible that if we play a decisive role, our power and prestige could increase accordingly. If we play our cards right, we may lose relatively few, while our ally loses enough to need us-" (or fear us, he added quietly to himself). "-still more. But Larg and Goltanna are both experienced commanders. I doubt they will allow themselves to be placed into such a powerless position."

"So do you wish to gamble on the Church?" Malak asked.

Ah, and there was a tantalizing puzzle. He knew the Church played some game across Ivalice, but he did not yet know what it was. For all he knew, they simply did as he did—eyed the two great powers, and hoped to play their cards well enough to emerge triumphant, or at the very least break even. But the events of the past few months told a different story.

And then he wondered: did Malak see that picture?

"You tell me," Barinten said, to test his protege. "What do you think?"

Malak's response was immediate: "No, my lord."

Barinten cocked his head, more in surprise at the speed of the answer than the answer itself. "No?" he repeated. "Why not?"

Malak straightened up; he recognized the test. "From the few field missions you've authorized, and with the help of my powers-" His eyes flickered towards the cages of small animals on a table on the far side of the room. "-we have confirmed that agents instigating rebellions in several quarters often make contact with agents who themselves make contact with Mullonde."

Yes, that had been rather clever on the Church's part: working through so many proxies that very few could find the threads connecting them. If it weren't for the Devil's Blood that pulsed through Malak's veins, Barinten imagined he would be just as in the dark as everyone else. "Yes?" he prompted.

"The Bishop of Canne-Beurich remains one of Goltanna's closest advisors," Malak continued. "And his influence has only increased with the death of Chancellor Glevanne."

"You mean 'execution'," Berkeley muttered under their breath.

Malak nodded. "Although Goltanna has not appointed a new Chancellor, the Bishop has assumed many of the Chancellor's duties. So officially and unofficially the Church exerts a great deal of influence over the Duke."

"There is also the matter of Geoffrey Gaffgarion." Most of what had come before was recitation: now Malak seemed alive, awake, aware, focused. "His contracts over the past two years pointed to a high-level contact within the Hokuten. Following the disappearance of Ovelia, he returned to Igros—and, from there, entered Lionel, just before the Cardinal's death."

Yes, and wasn't that a fascinating morsel to chew on? Barinten was familiar with Gaffgarion, whose uncommon abilities had been of great interest to him. He had even considered trying to make the man a permanent part of Khamja. The idea of an entire unit of Vampire Knights, with which he could cripple any enemy mages...!

No, put that aside. It was not the topic at hand. "You believe he was involved?" Barinten prompted.

"It's possible, my lord," Malak answered. "One way or another, he did not survive."

Barinten blinked in surprise. "What makes you say that?"

"Someone would have hired him for this war," Malak replied. "Probably the Hokuten. Or he would have finally retired. But we've seen no sign of the man. He goes into Lionel, and disappears just as the Cardinal dies."

Barinten pursed his lips, trying to recall the official story. If he remembered rightly, the Church claimed that the same heretical faction that had killed the Cardinal's wife and son had finally killed the Cardinal, to protect themselves from the righteous judgment he had brought down in pursuing the sinners and criminals who had hurt his family.

"You think he was a heretic?" Barinten asked.

"I don't know, my lord," Malak answered. "I am more focused on his apprentice."

Barinten pursed his lips again. "You mean the Beoulve."

Malak nodded. "He's been traveling with Gaffgarion since the incident with the Death Corps-"

"The same incident that sent young Delita Heiral among the Black Sheep," Barinten finished for him, as the pieces clicked into place. "And now one of them has become a close advisor to Duke Goltanna, while the other is brother to Prince Larg's most trusted confidant."

Malak nodded. Barinten considered this. He had read about the youngest Beoulve brother—there was another sibling, too, a sister of no particular repute—but had not yet drawn the connection. The more he examined this scene, the stranger it appeared. Was it a Church plot? But then, what did the young Beoulve had to do with the death of the Cardinal?

"My lord," Clara said, and Barinten looked at her. She glanced towards Malak, who nodded, before she continued. "Are you aware of Beowulf Daravon?"

Barinten frowned and shook his head. "Any relation to Bodan Daravon?"

"His only son," Clara said. "His wife died in childbirth."

"He was also one of the Beoulve's friends," Malak added. "And was present during the Death Corps campaign."

Barinten mulled over this information. "You believe he may be involved."

"It seems likely, my lord," Malak said. "Especially since the Beoulve appears to be living at the Daravon Estate."

Barinten's head jerked up in surprise. "What?"

Malak nodded, a little smile creasing his features. "I confirmed with a bird a few hours ago."

"You can make it to Gariland?" Barinten said, with fresh surprise and admiration—the animals Malak controlled usually had much more limited range.

"We worked together, my lord," Clara said. "The limitations of the Devil's Blood appear to be principally based on the proportion of the Blood to the host, which alters the degree of his control and the duration it can last before it burns the host out. By weaving an enchantment to slow its progress on a falcon..."

"I see," Barinten said, and the applications were flickering across his mind. The Blood's utility and Clara's time manipulation were useful abilities in their own right, and of course he'd built the Hand specifically for the potential inherent in using their talents together, but that was innovative and inventive. He understood, too, why they had not told him: no wish to expose a potential failure, unless they had something to show for it.

"Well done," he said, allowing his own small smile. Both of them beamed in response to praise. Then he trained his eyes on Malak, and said, "But what do we intend to do with this intelligence?"

Malak straightened up. "My lord," he said. "We know the Church plays some wider role in this war—that their agents have influence with the Hokuten and Nanten alike. But all our leads are too prominent or too well-protected to risk exposure, either by tailing them or interrogating them. All except the Beoulve."

Barinten considered him for a moment. "You intend to capture him?"

Malak shook his head. "I do not know, my lord. We have his location, but otherwise our intelligence is limited. Capturing him may not be the wisest move, but we need more information. At the very least, we need to observe him."

Barinten considered. The Hand had taken part in many operations—he kept his Khamja sharp with mercenary work, and had sent along the Hand to observe and assist on many of these missions. But there was a full-scale war going on now. If he deployed the Hand, they would operate in isolation, completely independent.

Which was exactly what he'd trained them for.

"Make your preparations," Barinten said. "Request whatever supplies you may need. You have my complete trust. I know you will not fail me."

Malak's eyes were wide, his smile broad with shocked gratitude. Matching smiles were on Clara and Berkeley's faces. Even Rafa was smiling a little, her eyes finally trained on Barinten. He smiled at each of them, then turned and headed for the door. Yes, very good. The Hand would provide him the key to this mystery, the lever by which he might move this War to serve his own ends. They would be worth the time and energy he had invested in them.

Just before he left the room, however, he paused and looked over his shoulder. They had already broken from their attentive poses, chattering excitedly amongst themselves, showing their youth. Rafa's smile was much wider now.

"Oh, Rafa?" Barinten called.

She looked up at him, her smile fading. "My lord?"

"Since it may be sometime before I see you, we'll have to have a long lesson tonight," he said, with a flicker of warmth deep in his belly. "See me in my quarters at sunset."

Rafa's face went very still. "My lord, I have preparations-"

"Rafa!" Malak snapped. "Your lord has made a request of you!"

Rafa's mouth was tight. She took a deep breath. "Yes," she said at last. "Yes, my lord."

Barinten nodded, humming to himself. A lead at last, and his Hand to follow it. He would make his preparations, send messages and envoys (perhaps he would send small gifts to both Hokuten and Nanten, to pacify their attention). And tonight, he would continue his careful conditioning of Rafa. As always, he would take pleasure in his work.