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Chapter 73: Risk and Reward

Sipping from a glass of brandy, Barinten considered what Rafa had told him. His green silk robe, loosely tied, was heavy with sweat, clinging uncomfortably to his back. He tried his best to ignore it.

"An Inquisitor," he said. "And a Lucavi."

"Yes...yes, my lord." Rafa's voice was taut behind him.

Barinten nodded, taking another sip of brandy, staring out at the encroaching woods that demarcated the boundary between the grounds of Riovanes and the surrounding countryside. There were fields and villages beyond those forests, but far from his borders. Riovanes was meant to be a fortress, and Barinten had no intention of compromising his security. The thick woods served such a purpose. If an army wanted to march on Riovanes, they would have to take the narrow Ydoran road that led through the marshlands.

But that security was not at stake now. It could not help him find the time he needed, to think of a way to exploit this.

Clarice had already fed him some fascinating morsels—Olan Durai intruding upon his Hand, and Ramza's suspicions of the Church. The fact that it was Olan Durai himself left Barinten in an uncomfortable position. He doubted this was an espionage operation fully sanctioned by the Nanten, or there would have been more spies in play. But the fact that the son of the Thundergod was watching his hand was gravely concerning. Still, Ramza had knowledge they needed, so Barinten had passed along instructions to his Hand, to continue tailing Ramza.

But Rafa's information changed things. An Inquisitor hunting Ramza Beoulve? An Inquisitor Ramza tried to allay by informing him the Cardinal had turned into a Lucavi?

The latter story was unbelievable...and yet, something had happened in Lionel, which had ended with the Cardinal and Geoffrey Gaffagrion dead and much of the castle devastated. But then, if Zodiac Stones were involved, who new what other high-level magic might be in play? Auracite was no myth: anyone who researched the Ydorans closely enough would find allusions to the powerful substance at the heart of many Ydoran designs. It had fueled the foundries where the Workers had been built: it had powered the aerial dreadnoughts with which the Ydorans had devastated their enemies; it had been the critical ingredient in a dozen magics now impossible, since the Fall.

But intriguing as the question of the Stones was, Barinten needed to focus on the Inquisitor. Ramza Beoulve might be a minor son, but his family was one of the most prominent in Ivalice, and any accusation of heresy would impugn Dycedarg, Zalbaag, and the Hokuten as a whole. A dangerous move, that: the Knight-Commander of the Hokuten and Larg's closest adivsor were not men it was wise to provoke.

And Inquisitor Zalmour was no fool—he was one of the highest-ranking Inquisitors, with decades of training and experience. He had come up in the same generation as old Simon himself. For him to pursue a Beoulve implied either tremendous confidence or tremendous desperation. Barinten wasn't certain which was in play here. Perhaps both?

"I am glad you brought me this information, Rafa," Barinten mused. "Malak was right to send you."

"Thank you, my lord." Rafa was breathing a little easier. Hm. Should he tend to that? A low flicker of warmth stirred in his groin, tossing embers up into his belly.

But he had not maintained his power by putting pleasure before business, and there was still business at hand. Because the Inquisitor had moved on Ramza, and would be tracking him. The Inquisitor might not know where Ramza was going, but he didn't have to. With his connections, someone would see something, and bring authority down on Ramza's head. It was only a matter of time.

He had to act quickly. But how to act? His Khamja were sought-after, but sending them to pursue a heretic when Goltanna and Larg alike called for support in war would not be viewed kindly by either side. Perhaps he could send out a few squads to either force? No, no, too risky if he was discovered, he would be an enemy to both. Ally with the Hokuten and join their forces while moving freely behind the lines? Tempting, but then he would be committed, for better or for worse, and what if Ramza managed to cross the battle lines?

The Hand remained his best hope, but while they were capable, they not invincible. He was glad Malak had gotten him word of this latest development, glad he had not plunged heedlessly into danger. But Barinten did not know what order to give here. He did not know what course the Hand should take.

"Well, let's see," hummed Barinten, turning to face Rafa with brandy in hand. "What would you do, dear Rafa?"

Rafa lay where she was upon the table, hands and feet bound in rune-laden chains to a post at each corner so she was spread-eagled before him. Almost too tall for it, now; her naked body had hints of a woman's curves, no longer the deceptive slip of a girl he'd salvaged her from the Orphanage. A few of his tools, all magical in nature, lay on a smaller table near her right foot.

"My lord," Rafa said, her voice still taut, her mouth a thin line beneath her blindfolded eyes. "I am not the leader of the Hand, and Malak was more lost than I."

"You're not being coy with me, are you, Rafa?"

Rafa flinched: the chains around her wrists and ankles shuddered with white sparks, and Rafa gave a hiss of pain and held herself very still.

"I'm waiting, Rafa."

"N-no, my lord," Rafa said in a rush. "I suggested that we rendezvous with Clarice and press on with the full strength of the Hand since we know where they're headed and could beat them there maybe secure the Stone at Orbonne leverage it to get more information-"

"That's quite enough."

Rafa fell silent. Barinten pursed his lips. "A direct plan," admitted Barinten. "Quite to your strengths, eh, Rafa?"

"Yes, my lord.

"And it has its advantages," Barinten continued. "This is what the Hand is for, after all. Perhaps they can secure some information before the Inquisitor realizes we chase the same target."

Ah, but something about it still didn't sit right with him. Far too much risk. Ramza's company counted capable, unusual warriors among them, and an Inquisitor would have allies of similar merit. A fight between them could see his soldiers wounded, maimed, or dead. Barinten had spent too much time training the Hand: he could not afford to commit them if it was not worth it. But then, what remained?

Barinten turned back to his window, and set his glass of brandy down. With the other hand, he fingered the fresh vial of Devil's Blood that Rafa had brought back for him. She was, of course, forbidden to use it—besides the fact that her body's natural resilience could have peculiar effects upon Malak, Barinten had also assured them that it might poison one or both of them. Malak would trust him implicitly: Rafa knew better than to defy him. And Barinten had spent some time training his mind after researching the Blood. He knew he could control his thoughts.

He popped open the cap and took half a swig, grimacing at the thick salt oozing down his throat. He swallowed and closed his eyes, popping the cap back on. Calming his mind, envisioning nothing, waiting...

A tingling across his scalp, behind his eyes.

My liege.

Malak. Thank you for sending me word. You have enlightened me.

No, my liege, I should not have needed to consult you, I should have-

It was wise that you did so, Malak, and I need you to trust those instincts. We require a more cautious tack now.

What is your will, my lord?

Continue to shadow the Beoulve, but do not engage unless you have a decisive advantage. And do not assume the Beoulve is your only target.

My lord?

Perhaps one of the Inquisitor's men will make a move. Perhaps you may beat the Beoulve to the Monastery and interrogate Simon. Perhaps a Templar shall stray too far from the pack, or a Hokuten dignitary wander far afield, or Olan Durai intrude upon you again and not escape so easily. If you see a chance worth taking, take it. I trust your judgment, Malak. I know you will not fail me.

Never, my lord!

Barinten nodded, conveying his approval and a need for haste. He waited for the tingling to fade away. But the connection remained steady.

Was there something else, Malak?

Yes, my lord. I wanted to ask after Rafa. She seemed quite weary-

Barinten smiled, and conjured up a memory: Rafa, robed and asleep in a plush bed, curled beneath a comforter with her head resting upon plump pillows. She is being cared for as she deserves, Malak. As soon as she is rested, I will have her meet you in Gariland.

Thank you, my lord. We will not fail you.

This time the connection faded away. Barinten waited for it to pass, then turned and started walking towards Rafa, untying his robe as he went and letting it drop to the floor behind him He stopped by her feet, his fingers trailing across the tools upon the table, until they came to rest on a long metal rod etched with runes that ended in two forked tines. A clever piece, this: once it had been an artifact of healing, used to numb nerves during surgery. But the same magic that numbed nerves could make them flare with pain, all while leaving no marks in their wake. Best of all, Rafa's invulnerability could not protect her from sensation.

"Your brother wished me to finish caring for you, dear Rafa," he said, and relished the pain on her face, the stiffness in her shoulders as she held herself still against her chains. She must always remember what he could do to her. She must always remember that all her strength and skill were nothing before him. She must never, even once, think to turn her fists against him.

He took such care with her, as he had taken with the Hand, and as he would take with all Ivalice, once he had the tools he needed.

"Let's finish your lesson."