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Chapter 71: Siblings
She had faced an Inquisitor. She had broken his spell.
The thought played over and over again through Alma's head. A giddy grin kept flitting across her features like a bird darting quickly across a clear sky. Her heart was still racing, her skin still tingling: it was as though a fire had been ignited somewhere in her belly, and the warmth trickling through her veins fought off the chill of the gathering night effortlessly.
Hours later, and the feeling was still with her. Hurrying after Ramza's motley collection of friends (including dear, serious Agrias, who looked even more dour than she had when she'd been at Ovelia's side), quietly helping them gather their things from the Estate and then hurrying after them as Agrias led them northeast, into the mountains proper. She had been up here for training exercises in her days as a Lionsguard cadet, and remembered an old cave they should be able to shelter in.
Fleeing from Lesalia. Fleeing from Zalbaag and Dycedarg's thrall. Fleeing from the pursuit of an Inquisitor she'd fought. No more lying in wait, paying off adjutants and lieutenants and barkeeps for the dregs of information she needed, trying to piece together the larger puzzle. Dycedarg and Zalbaag had never even mentioned the fact that Ovelia had been proclaimed queen, with Delita at her side. Even Ramza had lied to her about how Teta had died. But now she had all the facts. Now she was moving towards something, even if she didn't know what. She held the reins of her own destiny.
She had faced an Inquisitor. She had broken his spell.
"Of course," Agrias sighed.
Alma looked up: Agrias was watching her with an amused smile. "Of course what?" Alma asked.
"You're the only one here who doesn't look miserable."
Alma blinked, and looked around the little cave. Alicia was standing guard outside, shrouded by magic (Alma could just make her out, a vague humanoid blur rimmed in starlight against the gathering night beyond the cave entrance). Lavian was at Agrias' side, her eyes wide and hollow. Mustadio was staring at his hands, while Ramza and Radia sat quietly on opposite sides of the cave, looking at no one in particular.
"You don't sound surprised," Alma said, looking back to Agrias.
Agrias shrugged. "I've known you for a little while now, Lady Beoulve."
"Don't call me-!" Alma started hotly, but broke off when she saw the amused smile flitting across Agrias' face. "You're making fun of me?"
"Me?" Agrias said, in mock outrage. "Never. I am a model of solemnity and duty."
Alma folded her arms across her chest. "You seem to be a in pretty good mood too, Agrias."
Agias shook her head, her smile fading. "I'm...taking comfort in the ridiculousness of our position." She gestured around their chilly cave, with the cold wind moaning just outside. "I never expected to return to this cave. Much less to escape an Inquisitor."
An Inquisitor Alma had faced. An Inquisitor whose spell Alma had broken.
"There you go again," Agrias sighed.
"Hm?" Alma looked back at Agrias.
"Still looking happy."
Alma shrugged, studying Agrias more closely. Her smile was gone, her face pale and drawn, but her eyes were still on Alma. Patient and attentive, as ever.
"Are you alright, Agrias?" Alma asked.
Agrias shook her head. "Would it not be alarming if I said I was?" Her lips twitched again. "Or would that comfort you, knowing someone felt the same way you did?"
Alma didn't know how to answer Agrias. She couldn't deny this steady current of relief and strength flowering through her, buoying her against the cold and the fear. She had been raised among the Church all her life, kept far from decisions of consequence. What little she'd managed to achieve—convincing Simon to let her join him and Ovelia on his lessons, convincing Agrias to accept her as a sparring partner—had never been enough to get her out into the world.
Here she was, in the company of men and women wanted for heresy by the Church. In the company of warriors who had faced down a Lucavi of legend.
She believed Ramza without question. Ramza may have lied to her, but that lie stood out against the record of painstaking truthfulness he'd maintained as long as she could remember. Even a child, he had been serious and responsible, always admitting to their mother (and, after she had died, their father and brothers) the moment he committed some error. She remembered how he had broken an antique flower vase in their mother's little house outside of Igros: he had gone at once to find her, and tell her what she had done.
If he said he had faced a Lucavi—a Lucavi who had sprouted from the Cardinal's body, fueled by the magic of Zodiac Stone—then she believed him. She had questions aplenty, but she believed the story, just as easily as she'd believed Ramza when he'd told her of their brothers.
She suspected she'd always seen their brothers a little more clearly than Ramza had. Ramza, ever feeling the outsider trying to shoulder burdens he was scared of carrying, had always looked upon their brothers with awe for the ease with which they handled their responsibilities. But Alma, prevented from ever touching the reins of power for all her eagerness, had had to study them more closely if she wanted to accomplish anything. She had seen the way Dycedarg would intercept problems with a quiet word, dismiss teachers who might actually advocate on Alma's behalf or keep luminaries waiting outside his office while he destroyed their projects and programs without ever giving them a chance to oppose him. It was jarring to think of Dycedarg as a murderous manipulator, but it did not really contradict what Alma knew about him.
Zalbaag was a little harder. If anything might mar Alma's excitement, it was the thought of Zalbaag giving the order that killed Teta. Neither she nor Ramza had ever been especially close to their older brothers, but she had always admired Zalbaag, who moved with martial prowess, who always seemed so confident and clear-headed and righteous. She well-remembered how he had looked cutting a path through the Death Corps soldiers in the Manor, as swift and deadly and powerful as any hero of any story.
But she had spent time with Zalbaag, here in Lesalia and at various church services across Ivalice. Zalbaag was ponderous in matters of religion but decisive in matters of action. Too decisive, in some ways. She had heard complaints among the support staff, and even an irate general blaming Zalbaag for increasing their casualties by refusing to adjust their supply lines. Once Zalbaag had decided on a course of action, it was almost impossible to convince him otherwise. So if he had been convinced that killing Teta was necessary...
Her breathing stopped, and her chest felt tight. She remembered the Manor again, the last time she'd seen Teta. She remembered the helpless look in her friend's eyes, as the man had pushed the knife against her back. She remembered how hoarse her voice was from screaming Teta's name, as Zalbaag had held her back. Zalbaag, who had given the order that killed Teta.
"Alma?" Agrias' voice was gentle but firm: Alma jerked out of her bleak memory.
"Sorry," Alma said. "Just...thinking." She tried to smile. She couldn't quite manage it.
"God help us all," Agrias replied.
The smile came this time, thought it didn't stay for long. "What do we do now?" Alma asked, looking around the cave.
"I don't know," Agrias answered. Her face had settled into solemn contemplation. "I haven't known since...well. Since Lionel."
Alma nodded slowly. Poor Agrias, faithful Lioness to an unloved Princess. Alma had always found her rather lovely. Here was a soldier, dignified as any noble knight, fierce and talented as Zalbaag, completely lacking in ambition. She had found her place, and the honor that did her was more than enough to satisfy her. She could be prickly, overly-formal, and woefully naive, but she was also one of the most fundamentally decent people Alma had ever known.
And now the one thing she wanted in life—to stand by Ovelia's side, and keep her safe—was taken from her by the plans of the Church, and Dycedarg, and Delita, and these Lucavi.
Alma nodded again, more firmly. "That's alright, Agrias," Alma said. "We'll get her back."
Agrias gave a startled laugh. "You haven't changed, Alma," she said. "But we just fled the capital city in fear of an Inquisitor. How do you intend to prove our innocence and get back a...a Queen?" There was bitter pain in Agrias' voice on these last few words, mirrored by the desperation in her eyes.
But Alma had spent a long time wearing the trappings of power and never allowed near the reins. If she wanted to take action, she had to be careful. She had to hone in on the details, find the little things she could do to make a big difference. A kind word to this guard, who might pass along helpful information in idle gossip; a bottle of wine smuggled in for this monk, so he might leave this door unlocked; the magic she might learn to arm and disarm old enchantments, or the books she might read so she might impress a teacher whose approval she needed. She suspected this was an advantage she had over Ramza and Agrias—both were warriors, people who believed taking action required taking to the field with sword in hand. Alma Beoulve knew better. Alma Beoulve knew that sometimes the best action you could take was to find just the right key for just the right lock.
"I'll let you know," Alma said, rising to her feet and looking around the cave. Lavian was asleep now, her eyes closed: Ramza and Radia were still in their strange reveries. But Mustadio appeared to have come out of his: he was now busily cleaning his gun with a studious eye. Mustadio, who according to her brother had found a Stone, and escaped the grasping hands of the Church. He had done this all on his own, ignorant of the scale of the powers arrayed against him. Her brother had saved him, but only because Mustadio had made it so far on his own.
"Hi," Alma said, sitting in front of Mustadio.
Mustadio started, fumbled with his gun, almost dropped it and then caught it once more. "Uh," he started. "I...hi."
"I...yeah." Mustadio's eyes flickered to Ramza.
"Don't worry about him," Alma said, quashing the candle flame of anger in her stomach (why did people always have to look to her brothers for permission to talk to her?). "I just want to talk."
"Yeah?" Mustadio said. "About what?"
"You and your dad found a Stone?"
"Oh," Mustadio looked relieved. "Yeah. You know about Goug?"
"Ydoran factory city," Ovelia said. "Devastated by the Fall, but all the old machinery's still there."
"Exactly," Mustadio said, nodding. "We found it buried in this old workshop. Helluva thing, too: think they used it to make Workers."
"Workers? The metal men?"
"That's...not quite right," Mustadio said. "I mean, yeah, they're man-shaped, but they're more like...like armor, y'know?"
"But they could fight like soldiers," Alma said.
"Sure, but..." Mustadio's mouth was twisted to one side. "Okay, you ever seen a clock with, like, figurines in it? They move in certain ways?"
"Oh!" Alma exclaimed. "So it's like that? Like clockwork?"
"Right, but way more complex than anything we could do. They used this magitek blend that basically let you change what the clockword did just by giving orders. They called it "reprogramming." They couldn't think for themselves, but they could follow almost any order you could think of."
"Oh," Alma said, and then shook her head. "Ew."
"So they called them Workers because...because they followed orders." She felt disgust crawling in her throat. That was so god damn condescending.
"Oh." Mustadio frowned. "I...actually never thought of that."
"Alma." Alma looked over her shoulder at her brother, who was staring at her from his place on the wall. "What are you doing?"
"Asking questions," Alma said.
"Trying to figure out what we're doing next."
"We are not doing anything," Ramza grunted, standing up. "Come dawn tomorrow, you are going back into the city-"
"Where I can get burned as heretic!" Alma said cheerfully. "At least it'll be a toasty way to go."
Ramza shook his head. "You'll testify against me-"
"Like hell I will!" Alma snapped.
"-and in return-"
"You're not listening!" Alma rose to her own feet. "I told you, I'm not going back."
"I think she's made up her mind," Radia said, with a slight smile.
"You're not involved in this," Ramza said, not even looking at the red-headed woman.
Radia's smile vanished, replaced with a peculiar mixture of pain and rage that made Alma flinch inwardly. "No, I get it. Don't want anyone else deciding what happens to your family, right?"
Ramza's face whitened, but he still did not look at Radia. "I want to get her somewhere safe. I don't want her getting hurt for our troubles."
Radia said nothing, but nodded a fraction of an inch. Alma looked between them in confusion. She was missing something. What?
No, focus. That didn't matter right now. She was looking for the lever that would take them somewhere they could make a difference, and force them to keep her around while they did it. She wasn't going to sit around anymore, knowing what she knew.
"Listen," Alma said. "Whether I'm with you or not, you need a plan. Way better than this idea of talking to Zalbaag."
Ramza stiffened. "It was the best plan I could think of," he said, his voice brittle.
"Then you're a lot stupider than I thought," Alma retorted. "Zal almost never changes his mind, but let's say you were right, and he could, and he did. He's still just one man."
"He is the commander of the Hokuten," Agrias objected.
"In name, sure," Alma replied. "And yeah, he gets the last word on a lot of military ops. But there's still other generals and other colonels and other majors who have their own influence, and that's not even getting into the fact that Dycedarg and Larg call all the political shit, or that technically the royal troops are under their own jurisdiction, and the other nobles who are in charge of their own levies..." Ovelia shook her head. "Even if he is was on your side, that's not enough. And what if it was? That doesn't mean Goltanna's gonna stop. And even if he's willing to talk, the Church might find a way to keep the fight going!"
She could see the effect her words were having: she could see Ramza tensing, getting defensive as the shortsightedness of his plan. But then she saw one of the things she loved most about Ramza—the way he forced himself to relax, to let go of his ego and ask, in a voice more curious than sarcastic, "So what do you suggest?"
"I don't know!" Alma exclaimed. "But I just know there has to be a better way! Maybe expose what the Church is doing to the right people! Convince Larg and Goltanna that this war's not good for either of'em! Make their ambition work for you. But to do that, we need information!"
Ramza stared at her for a long time. Alma kept her eyes fixed on her brother's face, though she was hopeful expressions on the faces in her peripheral vision. They liked what she was saying. Did Ramza?
"Alright," Ramza sighed, and sat back against a wall. "Alright." He gestured vaguely around the room. "We could probably use your perspective."
Alma fought the triumphant smile trying to spread across her face. She nodded with all the solemnity she could muster. "Alright," she said. "Let's start with the basics. What does a Stone look like?"
Ramza and the others exchanged glances. "Beautiful," Radia said first, with a note of pain her her voice.
"Heavy," Mustadio said. Alma glanced at the man—a little older than her, a little younger than Ramza. His fervent gaze was fixed on some far-off point. "Like crystal, or..." He laughed. "Like stone. And there's this...this glow. It's like nothing I've ever seen. Like you're holding a star in your hand."
Alma stared at him. "What?"
Mustadio looked at her. "No, it's-"
"Is it round?" she asked, as the memories came flooding back. "Round and...and smooth?"
It wasn't just Mustadio: everyone else around the little fire was staring at her now. "You've seen one," Mustadio said. It wasn't a question.
Alma nodded. The memory had stayed with her, though years had past since she'd spied Father Simon holding that strange object in the ancient basement archives of Orbonne Monastery. She had caught only a glimpse of it—of a scarlet as lurid as any royal robe, as bright and vivid as the horizon at dusk. Then he had returned it to its resting place, concealed behind a clever stone wall that Alma was never able to figure out how to open, try as she might.
"Where?" Agrias asked, in an urgent whisper.
Alma opened her mouth to answer, and found the words caught in her throat. She glanced at Ramza, found him watching her as avidly as the others. But in his eyes there was something else, something she recognized. In his eyes was fear.
Pieces clicked together quickly: of what the fear in Ramza's eyes meant for her. She'd been able to persuade him she was better off here, for the moment—his urge to get her to safety was warring with his fear of what Dycedarg would do for the sake of power. But she remembered the fear and pain in his voice as he'd recounted his confrontation with Cuchulainn. He wouldn't want her anywhere near such monsters.
And wasn't that the smart thing? Shouldn't she fear to face a Lucavi that could spring from the body of a man as pious as the Cardinal? But she wasn't. Her heart was racing, but not with fear. Like Agrias had said, she was excited. After years spent asking questions that no one could answer, she was free and in motion. Ovelia, Delita, and Ramza all worked in the world, looking for answers, taking risks to try and fix it. Alma was tired of being left out.
"I'm not telling you," Alma said. "I'm showing you."
Ramza's face whitened. "Absolutely not."
"Good luck, then." Alma folded her arms across her chest.
The little cave was silent, all eyes flickering between Ramza and Alma. When Ramza spoke next, there was a coldness in his voice that Alma had never heard before. It made her throat thick with guilt. "You have no idea what you're asking. You have no idea what we're facing, or what we're trying to do. You have no idea how dangerous it is. The only reason you're asking this is ignorance. And if you refuse to tell us out of some childish belief that you deserve to be here, you're not just hurting us. You're not just hurting yourself. You're hurting everyone we might help."
Alma hadn't known her brother could sound like that. But she kept her cool: her arms stayed folded across her chest, and she met her Ramza's gaze (not a glare, just a persistent stare, full of judgment and disappointment) steadily. "By refusing me," Alma asked. "Aren't you just as guilty?"
Silence again. Ramza stared unblinking into her eyes. She stared unblinking back.
"We need the lead, Ramza," Mustadio said.
"We already have two Stones," Ramza retorted. "We don't need a third."
"And for the Stones we have, they declared us heretics," Radia said. "What might they do if we lay hands on a third?"
"Delita said as much, did he not?" Agrias asked. "Even discounting the...the demon." Her voice trembled slightly. "The Stones matter. If we take a third, who knows what the Church might offer to keep our silence?"
"Who knows what they might bring against us, to make sure we don't talk?" Ramza snapped.
"I think we can handle it," Lavian said softly, looking towards the entrance of the cave and then back to Ramza. "But if we can't, I still think it's worth trying."
Ramza's jaw clenched. His eyes closed, and he shook his head. "I...I don't..."
"It's my choice," Alma said, with all the conviction and fury and regret she felt having had to sit on her hands all these years. "And I want to fight."
Ramza was silent for a long time, his eyes still closed, his mouth pressed shut and working as though he were whispering to himself. Alma watched him unblinking, not sure what he might say.
"Alright," he said at last. "Alright."
Alma's heart leapt in her chest. "I can come?"
Ramza nodded, his eyes still closed. "But you do exactlywhat we tell you too." He opened his eyes at last, and Alma felt a bolt of cold hit her heart. There was terrible pain in her brother's eyes, and terrible fear. She had seen him crying just a few short hours ago, but she had not imagined Ramza could look so old, or so forlorn. "I won't have you be another Teta."
Hot words burned on the tip of Alma's tongue. She had not slipped Dycedarg's leash just to wear Ramza's. She had the knowledge they needed. She would call the shots.
Almost, she spoke these words, before she remembered. How Teta had looked, hopeless and horrified as the chocobo had sprinted away into the gathering dusk. Alma's stomach and face had ached where she'd been struck, but nothing compared to the sharp, sundering pain in her heart. How much worse would it feel, to lose Ramza? Would Ramza not feel the same, if Alma herself were lost."
"Alright," Alma said. "It's at Orbonne."
There was a long, strange silence in the room. Ramza, Radia, Agrias, and Lavian stared at her.
"What the hell are you guys yelling about?" Alicia asked, stumbling inside and shaking the snow from her cloaked shoulders. There was a curious fluttering noise as the snow hit the ground, almost like birds' wings.
"There's a Zodiac Stone at Orbonne," Lavian said, in a flat, broken voice.
Alicia stared at Lavian. She looked around the room, searching for a hint of a joke. "You've got to be fucking kidding me."