(Thanks for reading, everyone! Internet's still not great, but that should be resolved in time for the next update. If you're hungry for content in the meantime, please check out if quickascanbe dot com and follow me on Facebook and Twitter)

Chapter 69: The Gallant Knight

I need not lecture to you fine, pious souls on the monstrous nature of Germonique. He who was the closest disciple of Ajora, his right hand in battle against the Lucavi and the potentates of the Ydoran Empire whom the demons served. But out of greed and jealousy Germonique betrayed our savior to the enemy they fought, and so brought Judgment upon our world.

It is often said of Germonique that his crimes were humanity's writ large, and for that was the Ydoran Empire made to Fall. But I think it is more than his crimes. I think it is his very nature. For Germonique did not look upon himself, and see a sinner betraying a savior. He saw himself as a righteous man doing a righteous deed. He looked upon himself and saw a hero. So it is with all men: the Germoniques of the world do not believe themselves traitors, sinners, or monsters. They think themselves the heroes of their own Brave Story, and you the godless monster that they must best.

-Marcel Funeral, "On Following God in a Godless World"

"But the orders-" Mustadio started.

"I know what the orders say, Mus," Ramza said, as gently as he could manage. "What I don't know is how Zal's going to react."

They were seated in the library of the old Beoulve Estate just beyond Lesalia's tall walls. The place was not quite a ruin—its walls still stood, even if there were holes in many parts of the roof and the floors were thick with dust and detritus—but it had no been an especially comfortable place when Ramza had visited in his youth, and the years had emptied it further. They were meeting in the library (recognizable only because of the sheer number of bare shelves inside) because it had a large, simple table and enough chairs to accommodate them all, as well as a window that admitted the cold morning light.

"But he's your brother," Mustadio protested. "Do you really think-"

"He does," Radia said. "And he has reason to."

Ramza shot her a grateful glance: Radia did not look at him. Ramza looked away, with a flicker of old pain. "She's right, Mus. It's better if it's just me. Less questions, less risk."

"I find it hard to believe that the Gallant Knight could do anything to tarnish his name," Agrias mused. Ramza winced: he'd half-forgotten the moniker Zalbaag had earned during the 50 Years' War, for the honor of his deeds in the field. He heard Gaffgarion's voice whispering in his head, wondering what the so-called honor was truly code for. Wondering what crime his brother had committed that had earned him his reward.

"But I think I have learned better than to trust in reputations," Agrias said. She nodded at Ramza. "If you think it best you go alone, I agree."

"There's also the risk of running into Lionsguard," Alicia pointed out.

Agrias grimaced. "Yes, thank you, I thought that went unsaid."

"What risk?" Ramza asked.

Agrias' grimace deepened. Lavian spoke instead. "We were never the most...popular members of the Lionsguard. Being the guard to a Princess who's now declared herself queen..."

Ramza laughed. "Oh, Saint protect us, is there anyone we can trust?"

The corners of Agrias' mouth twitched. "I have been asking myself that same question for quite some time."

There was some grumbling, but no one else brought up any meaningful objections, and soon enough Ramza left the old manse, cut through the overgrown orchards and headed towards the city gate. He moved with martial ease, approached the frustrated gate guards with a swagger the emphasized the sword at his hip.

"Hold!" said a young blonde guard, his eyes narrowed into a glare. "Permits required for all weapons!"

Ramza arched his eyebrows. "Really. You really need to see my permit."

"I don't like your tone, whelp," growled the young guard's grizzled, bearded companion.

Ramza rolled his eyes. "Did my brother put you up to this?"

The blonde guard blinked in confusion. "Your brother?"

"You're not serious." Ramza put as much condescension into his voice as he could, and searched the guard's confused faces as though in disbelief. "You are serious. Lucavi take me, what's Zal playing at?"

"Zal?" The blonde guard's grow was furrowed. "I don't know a Zal."

"Yeah you do," mumbled the grizzled guard. "He means Zalbaag Beoulve."

The young guard gaped, staring between his grey-beared comrade and Ramza. "I...I, uh..."

"Right," said the bearded guard. "I think you should fetch the captain."

One after another, from the guard captain at the gate to the garrison commander summoned from a nearby barracks. Then to a baffled Lionsguard cadet attached to the Hokuten command center near the Lion's Den, and then to the begrudging adjutant to a high-ranking general. Every time, Ramza was the same: polite but firm, confident but not afraid to pretend at irritation and annoyance, until at last he had wandered through the polished halls of the Hokuten headquarters and reached the office just outside the situation room, where a frightened assistant attempted to delay him.

"Oh, Saint's sake, let him in!" grunted that familiar voice. It was clearly annoyed, but Ramza thought he detected just the faintest trace of amusement. Ramza nodded with as much dismissive authority as he could muster, and shouldered his way through the doors.

Zalbaag was studying the maps upon his table. Two years had not changed him—not his fine sable armor, or the lean muscles of his arms, or the focus of his features. His dirty blonde hair was still cropped short, his beard still trim, and Justice still hung at his side. The same sword he had held in his hands when they had faced each other at Zeakden.

"Going by Beoulve again, are we?" Zal asked, not looking at Ramza as he entered. "Decided not to be ashamed of our name?"

Ramza knew that he was supposed to be calm—that he should be pleading his case to Zalbaag, trying to make him understand. Instead, Ramza said, "I was never ashamed of our name. I was ashamed of what the men who held it had done."

Zalbaag's eyes flashed up at him, then back down to the table. "Is that what brings you here? Come to finish off what you started at Zeakden?"

"What I started?" Ramza whispered, flames of anger leaping high from his stomach to his throat even as a chill wind seemed to be blowing in his mind. "I'm not the one who killed Teta."

Zalbaag's head jerked up as though Ramza had struck him. His glare as sharp enough to cut. "I did not touch her."

"Argus was many kinds of monstrous, but he was never disobedient," Ramza retorted. "Who gave the order, Zal? Who made that arrow fly?"

Zalbaag's fist slammed into the table. "I killed the man who tried to kill my brother!"

"And in so doing, killed your sister!"

"She was no more my sister than you are my brother," Zalbaag sneered.

"Yes, let's talk about our brother!" Ramza shouted. "Let's talk about the man who sent the Corps home with no pay so they had no choice but to-"

"Oh, of course!" Zalbaag bellowed. "Siding with the Corps, just like you did then! Left your own brother to die in the snow at the he man who-"

"The man who tried to save Teta?" Ramza growled. "The man who was a better Beoulve than you'll ever be?"

He saw the shock of hurt in Zalbaag's eyes, and relished it. "You miserable bastard," Zalbaag whispered. "Father must have been mad, to think you deserved to bear our name."

Ramza laughed. The time was long since past when his brother's judgments could wound him. "Ah, so seeing the point of the people we wronged makes me unworthy, but Dycedarg starts a god damned war and is still our shining example."

"More accusations!" Zalbaag yelled. "You think you can through mud upon him, but-"

"You know exactly what he is!" Ramza shouted. "Why else did you send us after the spy? Why else did you try and save the Marquis?"

Zalbaag stiffened. "I am a soldier, not a traitor," he said. "Dyce made a mistake. I tried to correct it."

"Tried to correct it by having us break the rules!" Ramza exclaimed.

"Tried to correct it by making sure no rules had to be broken!" Zalbaag retorted. "Saint above, is that what you thought all this time? You thought I agreed with you? You thought I didn't trust Dyce?"

That was exactly what Ramza had thought. No, thought was too weak a word: that was exactly what he'd hoped. That some part of Zalbaag knew, and all Ramza had to do was help him see it. Now Ramza felt as though he were slipping on a tightrope of ice, about to plummet down into an abyss.

"He..." Ramza started, feeling the hope pulled out of his grasp like a rope slipping away beneath his hands. "He wanted the Marquis to-"

"Damn it, Ramza!" Zalbaag said, slamming a fist into the table. "Is this how you see the world now? Even your brothers are suspects?" His eyes hardened. "Or is this how you always saw the world?"

Razma still felt unsteady. "What do you mean?"

"Delita sits upon Goltanna's council," Zalbaag answered. "In service to an assassin-"

"Ovelia is no assassin!" Ramza objected.

Zalbaag's eyes narrowed. "Ovelia? Are you so familiar with the false queen?"

"I was on her guard, Delita!" Ramza said.

"You were..." Zalbaag seemed taken aback. "What?"

Ramza saw his chance, and pressed. "I'd been working with Gaffgarion-"

"You worked with that-!" Zalbaag exploded and then stiffened. "Oh, I see. That's why Dyce hired him."

Ramza stared at his brother. "You know?"

Zalbaag snorted. "Of course I know. He hired Gaffgarion to investigate the Lionesses. I believe Gaffgarion helped discover your precious Ovelia's plot."

"It's not her plot!" Ramza snapped. "Dyce arranged for her to be killed-"

"Oh, I see," Zalbaag grunted, rolling his eyes. "Our brother is the assassin, not the false queen who leads our country to civil war-"

"She didn't lead anything!" Ramza shouted. "She's being used, we all are, the Church-"

"The Church?" hissed Zalbaag. "By the Saint, Ramza, is there no limit to this? You betray our order, our name, our King, and now are church?" He shook his head. "A murderer, a traitor, and a heretic."

"You're not listening!" Ramza cried, feeling the ice slipping again, feeling the abyss yawning beneath him.

"Why should I listen to you?" Zalbaag demanded. "How far did you crimes extend? Did you hate Dycedarg even then?"

"Even...what?"

"Your friend tried to kill Hokuten men, and now fights for a traitor. You left me for dead at Zeakden. And the Corps you so admired tried to kill Dyce, too. Did you tell Gregory where our patrols were? Was it all for power, bastard?"

Ramza stared at his brother. His anger was gone. "You...you don't mean it."

Zalbaag stared steadily back.

The doors burst open. An exhausted, dirt-covered messenger staggered in. "My lord!" he gasped. "The pass..."

Zalbaag's head swiveled. "What?"

"They've broken through. An army marches on Lesalia."

Zalbaag's eyes widened. "Impossible. There were four thousand men-"

"The Thundergod led the Nanten force."

Zalbaag cursed quietly, moving to the door. "Send word to Commander Semele and Colonel Pulmia! Semele needs to pull back his troops and move along the mountains. I want Pulmia to head as far north as she can and wait for my signal." He paused at the door, and gave Ramza one swift, dismissive glance. "I can trust them not to leave me for dead."

The ice shattered beneath Ramza's feet, and the darkness came flooding in to drown his feelings, as Ramza watched his only hope for peace storm out of the room.