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Chapter 68: The Burden of Command

As the dark-haired man slipped out of the kitchen door, the brown rat was just a step behind, darting from shadow to shadow, its skin itching, its eyes blurry. But though Olan never looked back, he nevertheless seemed aware of his pursuer: he ducked into crowds, wove beneath tents, stepped into alleys and buildings and quickly out through doors and flaps. The rat followed as best it could, ignoring the prickling fire beneath in its chest, but time was running short.

And when it had given up hope of following the spy, it turned around and sprinted back towards the fringes of the city, where the refugees were thickest. A slender, wide-eyed child in threadbare clothes was shuddering against a building, with a begging plate in front of them. A few passerby threw coins into the plate: one or two actually tried to help the child up, but the child would shake their head in silent protest and eventually the weary souls would relent and be on their way.

The rat scurried up to the child. Without even looking down, the child grabbed it and cradled it between their hands.

"I'm sorry, Malak," Berkeley muttered. "They ducked inside-"

"Not your fault," Malak said, his voice vibrating up through the rat's skin. "Last thing we need is to draw attention to ourselves. At least, anymore than we did. Besides, I was able to eavesdrop."

"Yeah?" Berkeley's voice was weak with relief. "What'd you hear?"

"They're not working together."

"You're sure?"

"Absolutely. It was an interrogation, and they didn't reveal anything about themselves That's the good news."

"What's the bad?"

"Olan told him who we're working for."

Berkeley cursed to himself. "That's not good. Our cover's blown."

"Not yours. They're heading north, to Lesalia."

"You want me to follow?"

"That's the plan. You've still got your vial?"

Berkeley tapped the glass vial of Malak's blood hidden in his clothes. "Half left."

"Good. Only a drop. Any more might be dangerous." Malak paused. He could feel the heat beneath the rat's skin, growing and growing as though a flame were burning in its belly. He had to be quick. "There's more. They mentioned the Church. Thought Olan might be one of their agents."

Berkeley's voice was excited. "So they must know something."

"That's the hope." The rat began to squirm in Berkeley's grip: the child set it down, and it took off at a sprint, hurrying into a nearby gutter and dropping down into the stinking sewers. Its joints ached, and its eyes could barely see. Its squeaking climbed to a frenzied, whimpering pitch as blood vessels burst and bones and flesh melted, and pain suffused Malak's being before he was hammered back into his body, his head spinning.

"That's it," he said grimly, his hands over his eyes, his breathing harsh in his throat.

"I'm sorry, Malak," Clara said. "I couldn't-"

"It's not your fault," Malak answered. "We could barely make the spell work when were on our asses at the castle. Enchanting living things is hard enough. We're lucky we even had a rat to try it with."

"Not lucky," Clarice grunted. "I'm just that good."

Malak tried to smile, though it was hard with the phantom flames licking at his skin. He hated staying in his animals until the Blood burned through them: echoes of their pain would stay with him for hours, sometimes days. He felt faintly nauseated and weak, but controlled those feelings and turned to face the others. Clara still looked guilty: Clarice looked murderous. Rafa seemed quite calm in her flowing white garb, which infuriated him.

"How were you so useless?" he demanded.

Rafa gave him a withering look. "Vampire Knights can drain my magic," she said. "And the way Mage Knights supercharge their blades...you know it's almost the same way my skin works. Either one's a problem. Both?" She shook her head.

Malak bit back his rage and nodded slowly. He had felt the Vampire Knight—Gaffgarion's daughter—draining the magic from his sword, so it felt as though all his strength were pouring out through a wound in his heart. None of this was Rafa's fault, but he had lashed out in his leftover pain from the bird, and from the frustration of having allowed a spy to slip away from them.

But that wasn't his fault, either. He'd had no reason to expect a spy: they had traveled well away from the main roads, supplied by Clarice's hunting. They'd seen no one nearby until Malak had spotted Olan by chance when he'd sent a bird flying north and seen the odd patch of fabric in the green. And the moment he'd know the spy was there, he had tried his best to eliminate him. He couldn't have known he would run straight into the thick of the men and women he needed alive.

"An Astrologian," Clara said, shaking her head. "I didn't know his powers could block mine."

"That's the whole benefit of the art," Malak replied. "For defensive purposes, there's no magic stronger." He rested a hand on Clara's shoulder. "There's, what, half a dozen Astrologians left in the whole world? You couldn't have expected it."

"No," Clarice said grimly. "But it does raise some questions."

Malak nodded. "Olan Durai."

Clara winced. "You're sure?"

"An Astrologian whose father fought in the 50 Years' War?" Rafa said, rolling her eyes. "Of course he's sure."

"Lucavi take me, that's bad," Clarice muttered.

"Not necessarily," Malak said. "It's not exactly unexpected that someone might be suspicious of us: we're the only neutral country in this war besides Lionel and Mullonde, and if we're right about the Church they've probably given both sides reason to turn their attention elsewhere."

"But he knows we're after Ramza!" Clara said. "He warned him about us!"

"But they don't know the extent of our powers," Malak said. "No one does. Between Berkeley and me, we'll follow him. There's got to be a reason he's going to Lesalia."

"Didn't he say he was going to see a high-ranking Hokuten commander?" Rafa asked. "Could be his brother."

Malak frowned and nodded. "It could. I thought they weren't on good terms?"

"I know the feeling," Rafa said, with a slight smile.

Malak fought his answering smile. "But you're not wrong, Clara. It's a different situation now. I don't think this is a mission sanctioned by Goltanna, but we can't afford to draw Hokuten or Nanten eyes. We'll have to be cautious." He sighed. "It's a good thing we're not too far from Riovanes."

Rafa stiffened. "Why?"

"The Duke needs to know about this. And I need more birds." He tapped the cage they had with them: only a single pigeon remained within. It was possible he could capture more, but the captures wouldn't equal the birds they'd trained, even with Malak's blood in them. Besides, the trained birds carried the enchantments he and Clara had crafted together. When he fed them blood, he needed less, and they could travel farther and responded to commands more accurately. Losing three of them thus far was already a problem; only seven remained in existence, including the one in the cage.

"How do you want to do this?" Clarice asked.

Malak thought for a moment. He needed Clara's magic to counter the Lionesses, and if the bird died before help came, he would need Clarice to provide an aerial view of the situation. He'd only need Rafa if it came to a fight, and at this moment it was too dangerous to consider engaging Ramza until he had more intelligence.

"Rafa," Malak said. "You'll head back."

"No," Rafa said at once.

Clara and Clarice stared at her. Malak's insides felt very cold. "What did you say?"

"You need me here-" Rafa started.

"I need," he interrupted, letting the flames of anger he felt in his belly tinge his voice. "Soldiers who follow orders."

"I'm not obliged to follow your orders if they're wrong!" Rafa snapped.

"The Duke gave me command of this mission, soldier!" Malak growled. "Are you questioning him?"

Rafa's whole body flinched. Her eyes closed. "No."

"Good," Malak said. "You'll leave as soon as you're ready."

Rafa inclined her head, but did not speak. She busied herself with her pack.

"You didn't have to be-" Clarice started, but fell silent when Malak glared at her. The anger was still heavy in his stomach, cloying as smoke. Clarice grabbed Clara's shoulder and pulled her away.

Malak busied himself with his own gear, examining vials of his blood, experimenting with the sword Gaffgarion's daughter had drained. How strange, to feel his connection to the Blood used against him like that! But interesting, too: somehow his magic must stay connected to his body. He wondered what that might mean?

"Malak." Rafa's voice was quiet.

"Rafa." Malak tried to make his own voice stern. "You have your orders."

"You're in charge, brother," Rafa said. "If that's your decision, I'll abide by it. I'm sorry if I made you feel like I wouldn't."

Malak's skin prickled, torn between relief and paranoid concern. Was she trying to flatter him, or had she realized he was right? Aloud, he said, "You think that'll make me more inclined to listen to you?"

"I think you need to listen to me," Rafa said. "If you're going to make this call, it has to be with all the relevant facts."

Malak considered for a moment. He felt a faint ache of annoyance, but he couldn't deny Rafa her point. She'd already agreed to follow his orders, whatever they might be. It was only fair to listen to what she had to say. A good commander always listened to the troops, to make sure he had all the intelligence he needed. No commander was omniscient. "Alright. Talk to me."

"The only way I get to Riovanes fast enough to make a difference is with Clara," Rafa said at once. "Sending me without her is just as good as not sending me at all, and sending me with her means it's just and Clarice backing Berkeley up."

Malak considered this. The powers of a Heaven's Fist were many, but it didn't make her that much faster than the rest of them. "Go on."

"Without me, you're screwed."

Malak laughed. "Excuse me?"

"Look," Rafa said. "Far as we know, you're the first person to put the Devil's Blood into a sword. Or rather, the first person to make it work."

"Two swords," Malak said, tapping the hilts at his hips. He knew how childish he sounded, but couldn't stop himself.

Rafa smiled. "Two swords," she said, and the slight undercurrent of laughter in her voice brought a smile to Malak's face as well. "But you can't see through those swords the way you can see through animals, right?"

Malak didn't bother to answer: Rafa knew the limitations of his powers as well as he knew the limitations of hers. The Hand didn't keep secrets from one another.

"But their Vampire Knight just showed how she can mess you up," Rafa said. "I know your plan's just to observe, but what if we have to subdue? If I'm not here, it's just you, Clarice, and Berkeley."

"That's enough," Malak said, though the words sounded unconfident even to his ears.

"Most of the time? Sure." Rafa's face was steely with resolve. "But Clarice almost got shot, Malak. I know you couldn't see it, but it was close. Berkeley's got moves, but no more than any other soldier, and his illusions only extend to his own body. He fucks up once, and he's gone. You'd be safe, but you also wouldn't be able to help."

Malak sighed heavily. "But you would." It wasn't a question. Clarice, Clara, and even Malak were all exhausted after the encounter with Ramza and his friends: only Rafa was more-or-less untouched. She had a bruised rib, but nothing worse than she'd had in training, and using the Heaven's Fist didn't exhaust her that much unless she did something truly spectacular. "That's a fair point, Raf."

Rafa's voice was softer now. "Mal, I know it's hard. You're trying to take command, and you're doing a good job. I'm not trying to push you around. But you need me here. I...I can't go to Rivoanes."

Rafa was right. And once he saw that he, he also saw that Clarice needed to go. He needed Clara here more than he needed Clarice: without Clara's time spells, he'd soon exhaust any animals they had handy, and that was assuming they could catch more. If it was just the one they had left, that time would come much sooner. Clarice was a great warrior—probably better than Malak in a straight fight, and perhaps as good as Rafa, though his sister would disagree. But she wasn't invincible. One slash from a sword or bullet from a gun would take her out.

He could do without Clarice. He couldn't do without Rafa and Clara.

"You're right," he said, because Rafa deserved to hear it. "I'll have Clarice spend the night hunting animals, then send her on her way."

"That's a good call, Mal," Rafa said.

Malak felt shame slime his insides. She had been right the whole time, and still behaved with such grace. Maybe she deserved command more than he did. "I'm sorry, Raf. I know I've been an ass."

Rafa smiled. "No more than any other CO we've had," she said. "Better than most. You're doing good, Mal."

He hadn't known how badly he needed to hear those words. He was tense with responsibility, terrified of failing the Duke. He still remembered the orphanage on the Zelmonia border—never enough food to go around, packed to the gills with orphans from Ivalice and Ordallia alike, the big and strong helping themselves to food, blankets, and beds, and the priests too exhausted and afraid to fight for the younger kids in such an uncertain world.

And he remembered his first glimpse of the Duke, walking through the crowds of orphans and caretakers like Ajora himself. They parted for him, in awe and terror of the man who commanded such power. And that man—that balding, confident man—had laid eyes on Rafa and Malak, and known they were special from the first glance. He had pulled them from the chaos, and given them training, and purpose, and meaning in this mad world.

He wanted to earn what the Duke had given him. He wanted to exceed the other COs they'd had. He wanted to be the very best, to repay the man who'd saved them.

"I just...I just want to make the Duke proud," Malak said.

Rafa's smile faded. "Right."She stared at him for a moment. "You don't have anything to prove, Malak. Not to anyone."

"After what he did for us?" Malak said. "We owe him."

Rafa shrugged. "I guess."

Malak observed his sister carefully, remembering the first few months of their time at Riovanes. "You're not having those nightmares anymore, are you?"

Rafa shook her head solemnly. "No, Mal. No nightmares. I know where I am."

Malak studied his sister for a time. When they had first been taken into the Duke's care and begun their training, Rafa had been plagued by nightmares of the Duke made monstrous, visiting tortures upon her in the night. Once the Duke had come in during their training, and Rafa had flown into a rage, breaking equipment and the bones of Khamja soldiers, smashing her way towards the Duke. But two mages had overwhelmed and sedated her, and she had been taken away.

Malak remembered pacing his little room in the Riovanes basement, terrified of what would happen next. The orphanage had been a rotten place, children beaten and starved and cast out onto the streets for the smallest violation of the rules. Malak had been so afraid he would lose this secure place, that the Duke would realize he'd made a mistake and throw them out into a cold and hungry world.

But the Duke himself had come later that night, sat Malak down and comforted him. He understood exactly what Rafa had done: her powers were strong, and she could finally strike back against a world that had wronged her. No wonder she had nightmares—the things she had seen, and the things that had been done to her. She wasn't as strong as Malak was. She needed special training.

Malak hadn't felt particularly strong—at night he could still see the fires that had consumed Galthena, could feel the heat on his skin and hear the screams of people on the fringes of the village smell that sizzling pork smell, undergirded by a stench like burning copper. He remembered how it felt to have a soldier's boot in his belly, or feel the stinging slap of the orphanmarm's hand. He remembered how his stomach had rumbled and ached when there had been no food to go around.

But the Duke thought he was strong. The Duke thought he was worthy. In spite of his and Rafa's failures, he gave them food, and attention, and training. He took Rafa aside for the private lessons that helped quiet her nightmares, and gave Malak the tools he needed so no one would ever hurt them again. He gave them worth and meaning in a hard, empty world.

"Good," Malak said, his head full of all these memories and more. He reached out and took his sister's hand—his sister, who had been with him through it all, and borne her share of the costs. "I need you here, Raf."

Rafa squeezed his hand. "Then here I'll stay."