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Chapter 74: Roads Not Taken

...Count Orlandeau's breakthrough at Duguera Pass is largely considered a diversionary measure. The Thundergod led an elite force in a breakthrough mission that cut the Hokuten to pieces and harassed the soldiers sent to drive him back, drawing reinforcements from the southern lines to weaken them for Marquis' Elmdor fatal charge.

The long battle at Duguera is already a master-class in guerrilla tactics. But rumors persist that more was achieved in the Duguera battle than is a matter of record—that small units of soldiers loyal to the Nanten took root behind the Hokuten lines, and Nanten spies were retrieved so their information could inform future campaigns. A good reminder, this: the official story, or the popular consensus, cannot always be trusted. Things are not always what they appear.

-Alazlam Durai, "Guest Lecture to the Lesalian Royal College"

The blizzard had faded into chance flurries by the end of their first night camped in the cave, but the air was bitterly cold when they soldiered out into the teeth of winter, trying to reach Orbonne Monastery across the rocky mountainside.

The distant sounds of battle still reached them from time to time as they marched across the frostbitten Leslian landscape. They stayed well-off the main roads, fearful of the Inquisition, or Barinten's assassins, or the dozen other enemies that might assail them. So they trekked carefully across the slopes, up and down the rolling hills that ensconced the towns and roads of Lesalia as they struggled to reach Gallione again.

They were not always alone upon their harder track: lone travelers, desperate families, and even small packs of roving bandits would sometimes appear on distant hilltops. Ramza and his friends always held their weapons close when they encountered these strangers, and those that were armed clutched their own weapons close in turn. But anyone traveling these treacherous hills had their own grim reasons for doing so, and they would give each other a wide berth as they passed on their separate ways.

So cold, fear, and exhaustion were their constant companions on the way to Orbonne again. Yet in spite of these things, it was one of the happiest journeys Ramza could remember taking. And the reason for this happiness was unmistakably Alma.

Ramza could not fully understand the effect his sister was having upon them. He wanted to deny it every time he saw her. She did not belong here: like Teta and Ovelia before her, she was caught up in something bigger than she was, and the shadow of a blade hung over her head. He wanted her gone, safe in Lesalia or Igros.

But for all his fears, he saw how she buoyed Mustadio's spirits. On their trudging walks or around the fire at night, she asked probing questions about the most minuscule matters of Ydoran forging and industry, surprising Mustadio with her insight. Soon enough she was helping him tinker with his gun, contributing what she knew of Ydoran magic and lore.

And she knew more than Ramza would have credited, enough that soon she and Lavian were working together on new spell designs, trying to incorporate Inquisitor and Templars incantations into Lavian's defensive wards. And of course, if Lavian was involved, so was Alicia, studying the wards, testing them with her own spells, suggesting improvements and teaching Alma the basics of her own offensive arts.

At every turn, Ramza wanted to protest. At every turn, he wanted to snap at his sister for insinuating herself into his group, for not keeping to herself. And at every turn, Ramza stopped himself. The main reason was that he knew he couldn't trust that feeling. He knew that part of what was driving him was fear. Not even fear of what would happen to Alma: he remembered. the last time his traveling companions had been this happy. He remembered those days before Lionel—and, farther back, those days fighting the Death Corps, before there had been blood on his hands. Ramza couldn't trust that happiness. He knew what always followed.

But even if he couldn't trust the happiness, he was happy. As happy as the others, because Alma was just as kind to him as she was to everyone else.

On the road, she'd ask him questions—not just about where they were going, but about where he'd been before. About his time as a mercenary, or his conversations with Ovelia and Delita. About what Argus had done, before and after they had parted ways at the Beoulve Manor. About Ramza's time at the Academy, and a hundred other things. And as he had before, Ramza found her empathetic, attentive, and insightful. As before, Ramza found she opened his world.

That alone would have made her worth traveling with, but Ramza had also forgotten the great pleasure of helping his sister solve the world. They talked about Zalbaag's campaigns and Dycedarg's maneuvers, and for all her brilliance Alma had too little knowledge and every time Ramza could enlighten her about this bit of strategy or this diplomatic tidbit he found it gratifying. They talked about her time at Orbonne, and her time at the Preparatory Academy. They talked about their childhood in their mother's house. They talked about the Manor, and Balbanes, and Teta.

The days were cold, and hard, and filled with fear, and Razma felt happy. He couldn't help himself.

The hills were gentler when they camped for the evening several days after departing the cave. As usual, Agrias was forcing them to run combat drills while Mustadio prepared dinner, making sure there skills didn't rust as they marched. Lavian, Alicia, Ramza, and Alma were working together on an experimental piece of magic near the fire.

"-but we know it's possible!" Alma was arguing. "The Ydorans had whole divisions-"

"Thanks to special bloodlines!" Lavian countered. "Magic is constantly at work beneath you;r skin. Hardening it like armor, it's a great idea, but it requires very specific conditions to be realized!

"But Mage Knights do it with their swords," Ramza pointed out. "And Vampire Knights can manipulate their auras. Surely you could do both."

"You can also learn to loose an arrow while swinging a sword," grunted Alicia. "But doing so is absurdly difficult and mostly impractical, unless you're performing tricks."

They were interrupted by a suddeny flurry of metallic clangs. They all looked towards the source of the noise—Agrias and Radia, blades locked together, flickers of light and force swirling around their swords.

"Has either of them won yet?" Lavian asked.

"Oh, leave them alone," Alma said. Her eyes were fixed upon them, a wide smile on her face. "They're beautiful."

Agrias swung a heavy sword that cracked like thunder: Radia swept to one side, drove Agrias back with one, two, three quick jabs. All the while, the air around her flickered, and Agrias seemed a little slower.

"Captain Agrias will win," Alicia said, though her voice was taut.

"I wouldn't be so sure," Ramza answered.

Agrias was so slow now, her parries sluggish, her steps stumbling. Radia closed the gap between them-

Suddenly Agrias' sword slashed with redoubled force. A thumping impact shook the ground beneath Ramza and the others: Radia was flung backwards, skidding upon the ground and collapsing back so she stared up at the sky.

"Told you," Alicia said.

"Are you alright?" Agrias asked, striding towards Radia

"Saint Above!" Radia gasped, sitting up and glaring at Agrias. "How could you possibly have that much strength left in you!"

"Training," Agrias answered, pulling Radia to her feet. "Besides, your control over your field is no better than mine."

Radia grimaced. "Been training since I was ten. I think I'm pretty good."

"And I have been training since I was six," Agrias said. "Besides which, you and your father both used your tricks on me. You thought I wouldn't learn how to get around them?"

Radia grunted, but said nothing. It was Alma who spoke: "Can I try?"

Ramza looked back at his sister. Between the women in the party, they'd managed to cobble together some clothing for her—an old pair of Radia's leather jerkins', one of Lavian's shirts that hung too big on until they'd tied it off with a bit of cord. Alma's hair was pulled back in a severe ponytail, and her eyes were fixed on Radia.

"Sure, spar after I already got my ass kicked." Radia shot a questioning glance at Ramza.

"Don't look at him!" Alma snapped. "I'm the one asking!"

But Radia kept her eyes on Ramza. Was this the longest she'd looked at him since the night at Daravon's estate? He didn't know how to feel about that. He didn't know how to read her expression.

"If you feel like getting your ass kicked, I'm not going to stop you," Ramza said.

Alma nodded, a little smile on her face. "Agrias, let me borrow your sword."

"Absolutely not.""

Alma's head snapped towards the other woman. "Agrias!"

"I remember what happened to Simon's wand," Agrias replied.

"How could I break a sword?"

"I'm sure you would find a way."

"Here," Ramza said, grabbing his long sword from its place by the fire and handing it to Alma. Her hands closed on the hilt, dropped a little beneath the unexpected weight, then grew firm in their grip. She unsheathed the sword and gave it a few experimental slashes. Ramza was surprised to see that she handled it rather well. She was a little clumsy and a little ungainly, but no more so than some of the other Cadets at the Academy had been.

She stepped towards Radia. They moved away from the camp, circled each other once, then met in a flurry of blows. Alma was slower than Radia, her footing uncertain, her position a little tenuous, but nevertheless she was able to deflect almost every one of Radia's strikes. There was the telltale flicker of the Draining Blade: a moment later, the ring on Alma's finger flared, and a wall of light hammered out near Radia's legs. Radia staggered backwards, cutting through the light before it could knock her off her feet. They faced each other again.

"This is not your first time with a sword," Radia observed, circling Alma warily.

Alma shrugged, a secret smile playing with her lips. "I've spent a long time out of Dyce and Zal's supervision. I picked up a few things from friendly teachers."

"Things you are supposed to keep quiet," Agrias grunted, her arms folded across her broad chest.

Ramza turned in astonishment. "You?"

Agrias' cheeks were slightly flushed. "She is a Beoulve. Fighting is in her blood. It seemed a waste-"

"Not to mention," Alicia noted wryly. "Me and Lav ain't much at swordplay."

"Perhaps with practice-" Agrias began.

"We'll never know!" Alicia said cheerfully.

Agrias huffed and looked away.

"Hang on," Radia said, her brow furrowed as she looked at Agrias. "I thought you wouldn't teach Ovelia?"

Agria's cheeks reddened further. "Ovelia is..." A fleeting look of pain crossed her face. She took a deep breath. "Was," she continued. "A royal Princess."

"And an unpopular one," Alma added. She and Radia had stopped circling each other, and were looking back at the group.

Agrias nodded. "They were always on the lookout for reasons to scorn her further. A woman of my station might be fit to bear a sword-" There was a wry, sardonic twist to her voice that Ramza hadn't known she was capable of. "-but they could never allow their Princess to disgrace the royal line that way. Never mind that her father was one of the finest soldiers the kingdom had ever known..." Agrias trailed off, glowering at no one in particular.

"A perfectly sensible policy," sighed Alma, rolling her eyes in turn. "After all, you spend so much time training these noble girls in magic, why would you ever need them on the battlefield? Magic never made much difference."

Lav frowned. "What's she-?"

"Sarcasm, Lav," Alicia interjected.

"Oh," Lavian said, in a small, embarrassed voice.

"But you do have a knack for it, Alma," Agrias said. She glanced at Ramza. "I only gave her a few lessons."

"And her stance is that good?" Ramza asked in surprised.

Agrias nodded, looking back to Alma. "I never understood why you hadn't been trained."

Alma rolled her eyes again. "Where was I supposed to go? You know better than I do that the Military Academy doesn't accept female cadets."

Agrias grimaced. "Fools that they are."

Alma nodded. "So Father would have had to hire me a tutor. And that wasn't part of the plan. I was supposed to go the Preparatory Academy, and be a proper noble lady." She made her voice sound as snooty as possible for this last bit.

Ramza felt an odd, defensive tension clenching somewhere in his chest. "Well," he started, and hated that he could hear that tension in his voice. "I'm sure Father meant well-"

"I'm sure he did too," Alma said. "Doesn't make him right."

The tension in his chest thrummed painfully, a spasming ache like a cramping muscle. Alma glanced at him, then back to Radia. "Come on, I still want to try!"

Alma and Radia set to sparring again: Ramza walked away, trying to sort out his muddled thoughts. He found a hillside a little ways from their camp, and took a seat against the cold ground.

Happy. He was happy. He hadn't wanted Alma here, but he was glad she'd come. He felt better than he had since he'd found out Delita still lived. He felt alive. Even Radia was talking to him again.

But his father couldn't have been wrong. He simply couldn't. Ramza carried his father's last words with him wherever he went. Justice and Service. The words were his. His to live by. He had failed so often, but he never wanted to stop trying. He owed his father that.

His father couldn't be wrong. But neither could Alma. Look at how she'd handled that sword! And that little flair of magic with which she'd tripped Radia? Ramza had only seen Dyce fight on a few occasions, and it was just like that—the savvy interplay of magic and metal in equal parts. Alma had gotten that good without the devoted training given to Dyce.

And Alma wasn't just a talented amateur at fighting. In Igros and Lesalia, she'd been able to track Ramza down within hours. Her magical skills were sharp enough to break an Inquisitor's spell. On every front, she demonstrated talent and political savvy. She could have been as prominent as Dycedarg, if only...

If only Father had allowed her.

It was a mistake. Alma was right, it was as clear as day. Look at how powerful Agrias and Radia were. Look at the battles fought in Ovelia's name. Who knew what Alma could be, given her name and brains and skills? But father had seen her to the Preparatory School. It was a school that taught noblewomen the finer points of social graces and managing a household. It was not meant for warriors and leaders.

Alma wasn't either. But she could have been. She still could be. And Balbanes Beoulve, of all men, could have set her on this path earlier. Why hadn't he?

"Hey."

Ramza looked up. Alma was walking towards him, her hair sticking to the sweat on her forehead.

"Hey," Ramza answered.

Alma took a seat next to him. "Your girlfriend kicked my ass."

"She's not my..." Ramza trailed off, shook his head. "You handled yourself well."

"Not well enough."

Ramza snorted. "No, of course not," he grunted. "Learn Inquisitorial magic, learn swordplay from a Mage Knight, learn how to draw the way you draw, and you're still not satisfied."

Alma flushed. "Shut up," she mumbled, nudging him with her shoulder.

"I don't understand how you had time for it all."

Alma laughed. "What was I supposed to focus on? Manners and the good book?" Her smile darkened. "I used to, you know. Do what I was told."

Ramza managed to smile. "Hey," he said. "Me too."

Alma laughed again, though it was shorter and sharper than her last laugh. "I'm still mad at you."

Ramza nodded. "I know."

"You should have taken me with you."

Ramza sighed. "Alma, I-"

"Maybe not right away," Alma amended. "But you didn't...why didn't you tell me at Igros? Why didn't you tell me when I found you?"

Ramza closed his eyes. "I didn't...I didn't want it to..." He opened his eyes and looked at it his sister. "I didn't want it to end like Teta."

Silence then. The wind whistled around them, stirring the blades of hardy grass clinging to life in the face of winter. Alma plucked at these blades absently, trailing her hand back and forth along their tips.

"I didn't know what else I was supposed to do," Alma said quietly. "After...after they took Teta..." Alma drew a shaky breath. "I was helpless. I couldn't save Dycedarg. I couldn't save Teta. I couldn't even...if Zal hadn't, it would've been me, and..."

Ramza remembered. He remembered the fear and the guilt, the day he and Delita had left the Beoulve Manor. He had still not been able to return.

"I always...talked about it," Alma murmured. "With her. After she...after all of you..." She trailed off again. She plucked a blade of grass and toyed with it idly. "I had to."

"I know," Ramza said. "I'm sorry."

She looked over at him. "What for?"

"For..." Ramza shook his head, trying to sort out his muddled feelings, to resolve them into words he could say aloud. He wanted to convey something of his uncertainty, his doubt, his grief. He wanted to explain how reluctant he was, to see Balbanes Beoulve as anything but the paragon whose shadow Ramza had always known he'd never escape.

But he had once felt the same way about his brothers. He could see their flaws now. Why couldn't he see his father's? Why not admit to his sister that he had been wrong?

"I don't know what I was supposed to do," Ramza said at last. "But whatever it was, I...I don't think I did it." He shrugged. "I'm sorry."

Alma shrugged in turn, smiling. "I'm here now."

"Yeah." Ramza studied his sister. "Thanks. For talking me into it."

"Thanks for listening."

Alma pushed a blade of grass into Ramza's hand. Ramza took it, looked at it for a long time. "You taught Ovelia," Ramza said.

Alma lit up. "You did it with her?"

"After I finished undoing the harm you'd wrought," Ramza said.

"Hey!" Alma smacked his bicep with her arm. "I'm a great teacher!"

"If you say so."

Ramza kept staring at the blade of grass. He thought of Ovelia, sitting with him by the old house. He thought of the first time he'd learned how to use a grass flute, beneath Balbanes' patient tutelage, with Dycedarg and Zalbaag laughing nearby. He thought of the day he'd left the Beoulve Manor.

And he thought of right now, sitting with his sister, hunted as a heretic, and dreadfully happy.

He brought the blade of grass to his lips. Beside him, his sister did the same.