(Sorry for the delay, everyone! Internet's been real spotty in my area, so my update schedule might be a little weird, but I'll try to make up for it. If you're hungry for content in the meantime, please check out if quickascanbe dot com and follow me on Facebook and Twitter)
Chapter 67: Soldiers of Peace
...Astrologians are in truth misnamed: their power has little to do with the stars, and its only connection to the Zodiac Stones is in the runes required to activate the art. At its most basic, Astrologian magic functions as a form of spatial manipulation, which is especially useful for the creation of barriers: attacks lose momentum and inertia, and magic disperses and drains away as it enters the warped time that the Astrologian creates. Sadly, the art was exceedingly rare even in the days of the Ydorans, given the cost of the materials involved, and without a civilization on their scale I fear we will see few practitioners of this useful art. As a result, Astrologians from the time of the Ydorans into our own time tend to people both of exceptional talent and exceptionally great means...
-Alazlam Durai, "Notes on Lost Ydoran Magic"
At the dark-haired man's brusque insistence, they moved with weapons visible and eyes steely, seeming to search the cobbled streets of Goland for trouble. Anyone who met their gaze hurried quickly by. A few soldiers standing on street corners would eye them for a moment, then nod slowly: one of them would return the nod, and move on at the same slow, deliberate pace.
"Been a couple riots," the dark-haired man muttered out of the side of his mouth. "And with most troops at the front, not much is left to quell'em. Easy to find mercs and militias filling the holes."
"Won't they be looking for us?" Radia asked, in a growling, uneasy undertone.
"Nah," the dark-haired man replied. "You saw how those guys ran, too. They ain't working with the Hokuten."
"Hm." There was a grim note in Radia's voice. Ramza glanced back at her, and found her glaring at the dark-haired young man's back.
Ramza understood the feeling. This felt nothing like Mustadio. There was nothing desperate or lost about this man who had intruded on them out of the night. He moved with confidence, level-headed even as a sword flew out of the darkness seeking his head. He was self-assured to the point of arrogance, certain in his assessment of the Hokuten around him. He...
Ramza's stomach squirmed. This man reminded him of Delita.
But they were committed now, in the thick of a city the Hokuten and their allies controlled. What choice did they have but to follow?
The young man led them past the simmering refineries and smithies, down through narrow residential quarters where the buildings loomed overhead, and finally towards a raucous tavern near the west edge of the city, where men covered in dirt and soot roared and clapped each other on the backs, with only an occasional tavermaid spotted in the crowd. One miner shoved back a begging child, who stumbled back and landed heavily in front of them, covered in soot with a crust of blood upon their head. Mustadio bent over at once and helped the child to his feet, putting a coin into the child's hand. The child, wide-eyed and filthy, smiled gratefully and dashed off into the crowd.
"You want to draw attention to us?" the dark-haired man asked.
"I help people," Mustadio said. "You should be grateful. That's the only reason none of these folks have beaten answers out of you yet."
The dark-haired man laughed. "Not the only reason."
He walked a little ways past the tavern, then ducked around and cut through an alley between a warehouse and a blockhouse before darting into a little courtyard of stinking outhouses. Ramza wrinkled his nose against the cloying stench, but followed as the dark-haired man led them down another alley, to the back of the tavern they'd passed. A cook and a tavernmaid sat on the stone steps outside the kitchen, sharing a pipe: the cook rose quickly to his feet, his eyes flickering nervously between the armed band, while the tavernmaid kept her seat, puffing on the pipe.
"Here for Hamon?" the tavernmaid asked.
"That's right," the dark-haired man answered.
The tavernmaid sighed and smacked the cook on the side of the knee. "Go grab him. Tell him these mercs are looking for their cut."
The cook scrambled inside, nearly falling over in his haste to get away from him. The tavernmaid kept puffing on her pipe, eyeing the dark-haired man warily. "You bringin' us trouble, Olan?"
The dark-haired man flinched. Ramza guessed he hadn't intended to tell them his name. But when he spoke, his voice was calm. "Trying to get away from it, Lauda."
The blonde tavernmaid sighed. "I'm sure it's all going as planned."
Stomping footsteps cracked out towards them like pistol shots. "Which of you miserable bastards-" growled a deep, sonorous voice, but then the owner of the voice—a giant of a man, bearded and big-bellied—rounded the corner and froze. "Olan?" said the bearded man, staring at the dark-haired man in disbelief. "What in the Saint's name are you doing here?"
"Time for that later, Hamon," Olan said. "We need to lay low for awhile."
Hamon glowered down at Olan, then looked past him, eyeing Ramza and the others before searching the night beyond them. "Lucavi take me," he hissed. "If I hadn't served with your father..." He glanced down at Lauda. "Go make a fuss in the kitchen, will ya?"
Lauda shrugged, rose to her feet, and strode purposefully inside. Hamon waited a few seconds, giving a grimacing look to Ramza and the others, then waved for them to follow. From off to one side, there came a loud scream, and a clatter of breaking dishware.
"Ah, hell," grumbled Hamon. "When I said to make a fuss, I didn't mean..." He trailed off, muttering curses to himself, but led them quickly down the dingy hall to a door. He shoved it open, and waved down the stairs just visible within. "I'll bring you food and news later," he said.
"Thank you, Hamon," Olan said, and hurried down the stairs. Ramza and the others followed him down into the darkness: as the door closed behind them, Lavian raised her staff and called up light from its tip, illuminating a low-ceilinged, clammy cellar with dusty bottles in racks upon the wall and barrels stacked in the corners.
No sooner had they reached the bottom of the stairs then Radia whirled about with her blade drawn and slammed into Olan, knocking him back against a stone wall, her sword against his throat. "Don't even think about moving."
Olan had his hands raised, but an annoyed look on his face. "This is the thanks I get for finding us a safe place?"
"A safe place we only needed because you drew enemies down upon our heads!" Radia snarled.
"Radia," Mustadio said, his voice anxious. "He didn't attack us."
"No, he didn't," Radia agreed. "He just knew exactly where to run."
Olan shook his head fractionally. "I didn't. I was just-"
"You just happened to run to the one camp with weapons and magic that could help you?" Radia asked. "I don't think so."
Olan pursed his lips and regarded Radia thoughtfully. "And what about you?" he asked. "An armed band pretending to be refugees?"
"We're mercenaries," Agrias said.
"And I'm a chef!" Olan snapped. "We all have our secrets, and I see no reason to go blabbing mine-"
"Except that if you don't," Radia said, leaning forward to the edge of her sword pressed harder against his throat. "You'll die."
Olan's eyes flickered away from her, to the other faces around the room. They settled at last on Ramza. "You're going to let her kill me?"
"I don't have much say in what she does or doesn't do," Ramza replied. "And even if I did, you're not giving me much reason to stop her."
Olan grimaced. He was young—as young as Ramza, if Ramza was any judge—and his yellow leathers stank in these close quarters. His eyes were a reddish brown, and he seemed to be constantly squinting, at those around him. His dark hair, pulled back in a ponytail, exposed a broad forehead atop his oval face.
"Exactly what am I being accused of?" he asked. "If I were with the Hokuten, you'd be in their hands now. If I was with the people who attacked me...well, they wouldn't have been attacking me, would they?"
"So you're with the Nanten," Radia said.
Olan hesitated. "Not exactly."
"The Church?" Mustadio said, his voice quiet but tense, like a bowstring with the arrow nocked.
For the first time, Olan's calm expression changed. His eyes widened, and his eyes twitched towards Mustadio. "The Church?" he repeated. "Why would I be working for the Church?"
Mustadio flinched, looking helplessly around the group for support. Alicia recovered first: "You're an Astrologian. Who else but the Church has the means to train you?"
Olan's mouth twisted. "As far as I know, there aren't any Church Astrologians."
Silence again. Ramza felt his skin prickling with it. Who was this man? He seemed to mean them no harm, but then, Delita had seemed the same.
At length, Olan sighed."Let's be frank. I've secrets I don't wish to share, the same as you. I'll tell you what I can, if you do me the same courtesy."
"You're in no position to bargain," Radia said.
"I'm not sure that's true," Olan said. "After all, I'm the reason you have your current safe haven. If Hamon finds me with a slit throat, how welcome do you think you'll be here?"
"In fairness," Ramza observed. "He didn't exactly seem happy to see you."
Olan glanced at him, his lips quirking into a smile. It relaxed his features, made him look a good deal less arrogant and self-assured. "No, I suppose he didn't."
Ramza looked at Radia. "It's your call."
Radia remained where she was for a few moments, her blade still pressed close to Olan's neck. Then she stepped away, sheathing her sword. "How did you find us?" she asked.
Olan, massaging his neck, took a seat upon a nearby barrel and shrugged. "I was looking at the refugees as they came in. Your group stood out."
"Why?" Radia demanded.
"Weapons, mostly," Olan said. "Plus signs of magic. The runes on his gloves. The gun on his hip." He shrugged again. "Even for mercs, you seem well-armed and well-trained."
"So you brought your enemies to us?" Agrias growled.
"Not just my enemies," Olan said. "Ivalice's enemies."
Ramza laughed. He felt the sound echoing inside him, the bitter doubts he still carried with him as chilly as the winter wind outside. "So many fine people fighting for the sake of Ivalice," he said. "Pity all they do is kill each other."
Olan shook his head. "So many people saying they're fighting for the good of Ivalice. So few actually doing the fighting. Or rather, not fighting the right people, or for the right causes."
"And you don't think they feel the same?" Ramza asked. He was surprised at the quickness of his thoughts, and how easily they translated into words. He felt almost as though he were fighting, sparring with words rather than swords.
"Some might," Olan said. "But I think more are simply lied to, or are lying to themselves. Take those soldiers who attacked us-"
"Soldiers?" Lavian said softly. "Those were children."
Olan snorted. "Were any of us that much older when we took the field?" But he held up a forestalling hand. "I agree, they're too young to fight. But they're doing the fighting, nevertheless. Because they've been lied to, by another man hoping to profit off this damn fool war."
Ramza felt the mood in the cellar change. Olan was arrogant and presumptuous, but he apparently shared their opinion of the Lion War.
"Who?" Radia asked.
Olan leaned forwards. "You've heard of Grand Duke Barinten?"
Agrias snorted. "That hermit?"
Olan nodded. "The same. But he's no hermit, though he plays the part well. Why do you think he earned the title 'Grand Duke'?"
"Why?" Mustadio asked.
"Fovoham's damn near impossible to invade," Olan said. "So its Dukes have always had a fair bit of power. But Barinten's the first to translate that power abroad. He's gathered mercenaries, soldiers, scholars, and mages from within Ivalice and beyond. His Khamja had the lowest casualty rate of any force that served during the 50 Years' War. In fact, by most estimations, they ended the war stronger than when they started. They count more Ydoran arts and artifacts in their possession than any power besides the Templars. They are, in short, formidable. And it seems they are moving covertly across the country during wartime, in spite of Fovoham's ostensible neutrality."
"But why were they chasing you?" Radia asked.
"Because I found them spying on you," Olan answered.
Silence in the room. Ramza felt as though his thoughts had skipped a beat.
The door to the cellar creaked open, and Hamon stumbled downstairs with a stewpot cradled in one arm and a stack of bowls in the other. He set it down heavily at Olan's feet and swept an imposing glare around the room. "None of you touch my drink!" he growled, before stomping back up the stairs.
"Well now I want to do it just to spite him!" muttered Alicia, moving for the pot. When she popped off the lid, a cloud of savory warmth drifted up in a hiss of steam, and Ramza was suddenly conscious of the rumbling in his stomach. He moved towards the stewpot without thinking. He was not alone: Olan hopped off his chair, and the others crowded around, Alicia hastily started serving the bowls of stew, and everyone gradually retreated to their original places as they grabbed their bowls.
Ramza took a bite, and found the meat tender, the broth thick and warm, and the potatoes and carrots soft enough that they seemed to melt in his mouth. The taste of the food stabilized him, and got his thoughts moving ahead: he lowered the bowl and looked back to Olan.
"They were spying on us?" he asked.
Olan nodded, spooning his own bowl of stew into his mouth. "My compatriots and I had seen some troubling moves from Barinten's agents, so I came to investigate. I found them watching you. Then they found me watching them, and..." He shrugged. "I figured if they were observing without engaging they wouldn't hurt any of you."
"And you think that justifies what you did?" Agrias demanded.
"I'm not looking for justification," Olan said. "I had to make a call."
"Your compatriots," Radia said.
Olan and Ramza both looked towards Radia. She was sitting cross-legged on the ground, her bowl of stew in her lap, watching Olan intently.
"Yes?" Olan prompted.
"You still haven't told us who you're working for."
"I'm not working for anybody," Olan replied. "I'm working with people, for a common cause."
"And that cause is?" Radia asked.
"Peace. We hope."
Radia's mouth twisted to one side. "And peace requires bringing Barinten's soldiers to us?"
"Barinten's soldiers were already near you," Olan said. "I just made you aware of them. And I confess, I've questions of my own. What is it about you that Barinten's elite soldiers find so fascinating?"
A dangerous question, especially given what Ramza and the others had already revealed about themselves. But Ramza's mind was still moving quickly.
"Easy enough," Ramza said. "We're a mercenary troupe hired by a high-ranking Hokuten commander."
"Oh?" Olan's eyes arched doubtfully. "Is that why you ran from Hokuten soldiers?"
"The mission we're on would not be sanctioned by the Hokuten," Ramza said.
"And what mission is that?"
"Peace. We hope."
The corners of Olan's mouth twitched. "How fortuitous, that we soldiers of peace should cross paths."
"Nothing fortuitous about it," Radia snapped. "You're the one who came to us looking for help."
Olan considered her. His face softened a little. "You're right," he said. "If the soldiers of a profiteer were interested in you, your mission could hardly be otherwise." He bowed his head, setting his bowl down on the barrel next to him. "I'm sorry. I didn't want to trouble you. All I can say is you were troubled already, even if you didn't yet know it."
It was the first time Olan had seemed even remotely contrite. Ramza felt himself relaxing in turn, but it was Mustadio who spoke: "You're not the first person to trouble these fine people with your own problems."
Agrias snorted. "No, I suppose not." She gave Mustadio an amused glance. "And I suppose he was more helpful than you were."
Mustadio flushed. "I'm sorry I use a gun and not magic!" he grumbled. "Next time you can..." He trailed off, looking towards Olan. Olan was grinning, his elbows propped on his knees, his head braced upon his interlaced fingers. "No wonder Barinten's soldiers are after you," he said. "You guys are fascinating."
"And what about you?" Ramza asked. "With your clear-eyed friends all looking for peace?"
Olan shrugged. "You say you're working for a Hokuten commander," he said, with a note of cynical amusement in his voice. "Who, of course, can't voice his anti-war opinions in the current climate. You think this commander of yours is alone?" He gestured around them, beyond them. "People in the Hokuten and Nanten alike know this war shouldn't have happened. Others who thought the war was inevitable don't know why it's still going. Others wanted no part of the war and are feeling its costs all the same. Gallione, Lesalia, Zeltennia, Fovohoam, Lionel, Limberry...no shortage of tired people. I'm just trying to see what we can do."
"Careful," Radia said sardonically. "They might take you for the Death Corps."
Olan shook his head. "Not looking for violence. Violence is what we're trying to stop. We just need to create pressure. To let people know they're not alone. To find the people who want war, and get them away from the reins of power."
"Doesn't matter if you're looking for violence," Radia scoffed. "It'll find you, anyways."
Olan laughed. "Believe me, I know."
"We're missing the bigger picture," Agrias said shortly. "These child-soldiers...will they keep tracking us?"
Olan shook his head. "I don't know. I don't know why Barinten had them after you in the first place." He paused, and then added quietly, "Could it have something to do with the Church?"
Another wave of silence, as Ramza and his friends looked at each other. Quick as Ramza's mind might be moving, he had no answer for Olan. What he said sounded appealing—of a network of contacts all across Ivalice, each hungry for peace. But convincing as Olan was, Ramza was too wary after Lionel. He expected his friends shared his hesitation.
"You haven't told us anything about your comrades," Radia said. "You expect us to tell you about our own?"
Olan's eyebrows arched again. "So you're allies of the Church?"
Radia stayed silent, as did Ramza and the others. This time, he felt it was intentional. Even if they could believe what Olan said, it was better to keep this conflict to themselves. The Cardinal's killers could count on little support across Ivalice.
Olan sighed, visibly deflating. "I'm sorry," he said. "You're quite right, I've imposed too much upon you as it is." He waved one hand and hopped off his barrel. "I'm going to get some shut-eye, if you don't mind."
He retreated past the barrels to a far corner of the cellar, and huddled down upon himself, resting his head against the wall. Ramza and the others watched him warily, but as soon as he laid down he seemed to be asleep.
Ramza would have liked to talk about the young man, to try and figure out what had happened, but things were already risky enough with what they'd said and done. They had managed to keep Olan from learning their names, and had kept most of their mission opaque. That would have to be enough.
So the group settled in across the cellar in silence. Ramza had already slept earlier in the night, and so felt rather restless, shifting constantly as the dark wore on. He did not know how much time had passed before he heard the door to the cellar creak open above them.
Olan was on his feet so quickly Ramza wondered if he had slept at all, moving to the foot of the stairs to meet Hamon as the big man came into view. He had a pack in his hand, which he offered to Olan.
"You're clear," Hamon said.
"You're sure?" Olan asked.
Hamon nodded. "No bulletins out. No one looking for information. Just a general order to watch out for public disorder and danger." Hamon looked around the room to Ramza and the others, all of whom had taken their feet and had their weapons near at hand. "Tavern's empty," he said. "Staff's gone home. Take either door. I'll lock up behind you."
"Thank you," Ramza said, and his words were echoed around the room.
Hamon waved a hand dismissively. "No need for that. Any friend of Olan's is welcome here."
"I appreciate it, Hamon," Olan said, clasping the other man's meaty hand.
"You better, whelp!" Hamon grumbled. "Next time you come through, bring some damn custom. And say hello to your father for me."
Hamon headed back upstairs. Olan turned back to them, his face solemn. "Assuming you're satisfied with my answers, I'd suggest we part ways. We all have such important missions of peace to get back to."
Radia snorted. "Anyone ever tell you you're kind of an ass?"
"Almost constantly," Olan replied, grinning.
Everyone gathered their unopened packs and headed upstairs. The wood-floored, stone-walled tavern was empty, its big windows barely outlined in pre-dawn light. Olan was looking between the big doors at the front at the kitchen hallway they'd taken to the cellar, back to the alleys and outhouses. Ramza watched him for a moment—this man who reminded him of Delia, and claimed to serve the cause of peace. "Olan."
"Hm?" Olan glanced at him.
"Who's your father?"
Olan smiled. "A veteran of the 50 Years' War. Made more than a few friends."
Ramza smiled back. "My father was the same."
Olan snorted. "They cast an awful long shadow, don't they?"
Ramza laughed in turn. "They do, at that." He thought for a moment, then asked, "Who does your father fight for now?"
Olan's face grew more serious. "For the good of Ivalice."
"And he's not being lied to?"
Olan hesitated. "I'm not sure," he answered at last. "That's one of the things I'm trying to find out." He paused for a moment, his eyes locked on Ramza's. "You know, I never learned your name."
Ramza hesitated. He thought of Baron Grimms, who had recognized his name and hinted he knew who Ramza truly was. Grimms, who was dead now—killed investigating the trouble in Zeltennia he'd suspected held some larger import. And ostensibly, the only survivor of the Black Sheep was Delita Heiral.
So many reasons not to trust. And so many reminders that if he didn't, the people he wanted to talk to might disappear or die.
"Ramza," he said.
If Olan recognized the name, he didn't show it. "Ramza. It's a good name."
"You'll pardon us if we're not so trusting as Ramza here," Radia said dryly.
Olan smiled. "I suppose I can find it in my heart to forgive you."
Ramza extended a hand. "Good luck, Olan. Whatever you're trying to do."
Olan's smile softened into youth again, and he took Ramza's hand. At the same time, he looked around the group, and said, "There are few indeed who'd risk their lives when a man like me brings trouble to their doorstep. I know how lucky I am that you are such a few."
He looked at Ramza, then, and added, "Good luck Ramza. Whatever you're trying to do."
Out into the wide streets of Goland, with few souls in sight at this early hour, the sky still heavy with darkness and only a faint line of light upon the horizon. Under her breath, Radia said, "Move fast, sudden turns. I don't want his friends following us."
"I don't think it's his friends we have to fear," Ramza answered, though he stepped up his own pace.
She gave him a wry look. "You really trust him?"
Ramza thought for a moment, and looked back at Mustadio, who looked curiously thoughtful beneath the pre-dawn light. "Yeah," he said. "I think I do."