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CW: Torture

Chapter 85: Formidable Prizes

"No one knows where you are, Ser Tengille," Grand Duke Barinten said, as the young man's grunting moans subsided into pants and gasps. "No one is coming to save you. It is only a matter of time before you talk. Why not make things easier on yourself?"

Izlude Tengille only glared at him. One eyelid was swollen shut, and three of the fingers on his manacled left hand were bent at odd angles. But still, he did not speak.

"The choice is yours, I suppose," Barinten said, with a theatrical sigh. "I'll have my healer tend to you, and we can resume our conversation in...say, half an hour's time." He paused, as though in consideration. "Of course, since the healer will be tending to you anyways..." He nodded towards the guardsmen. The one holding the heated poker approached Izlude's side, while the one holding the hammer grabbed at his other hand. Barinten turned away as Izlude loosed a guttural howl.

God, how Barinten wanted to shatter those teeth. He wanted to gouge out those defiant eyes, flay the skin away and probe the exposed muscle with hot wires, bring every tool he had to bear upon the boy until nothing was left to him but pain.

But there were limits to what he could do. He had files on Vormav Tengille: a little torture would not make him averse to an alliance of necessity. But permanent damage to his son, especially after the death of his wife and his firstborn...he would never gain the alliance he sought if Vormav was his enemy.

So many times he had been tempted to give the order: bring the boy to his private chambers, so he could be educated just as Rafa had been. But he had to fight that urge. Those tools had only been used on two souls besides Rafa herself, and each in a moment of great urgency (the first had given him contacts among the Death Corps, so he could grow fat off their plunder: the second had helped him seize control of an old supply cache belonging to an elite Ydoran military unit). Neither of his informants lived to tell the tale.

Izlude had to live. And Izlude could bring no intelligence to Vormav that Vormav did not already know.

Still, when Barinten exited the dungeon cell and found Rafa and Malak waiting for him in the narrow stone hallway, he allowed himself a moment to contemplate other alternatives. "Would you be willing to feed him your blood?" he asked Malak.

"If that is your wish, my liege," Malak said, bowing his head.

There was something hesitant in Malak's tone. Barinten studied him for a moment. "But?" he prompted.

Malak looked up. "My liege, you know the toll that using the Blood in this way will take. I am willing if you ask, but I cannot promise I will be able to meet Ramza in Yardrow-"

"No, quite right," Barinten grunted, trying to mask his annoyance as best he could. Even if Barinten could stand to be without the leader of the Hand for the ambush in Yardrow, the risk far outweighed the reward. One had only to look at the toll dominating small animals took on Malak to see how much worse it could be with a human bucking against his control. The two times they'd tried it, Malak had been laid up nearly a week, and had failed to achieve his objective (to subvert a member of the Igros guard, and to break the Death Corps soldier Barinten had later had to torture).

"Do we need more intelligence, my lord?" Malak asked, his voice apologetic, desperate to make amends for his weakness. "We know the Templars seek the Stones, and we've heard Ramza's claims of Lucavi-"

"The boy had two Stones," grunted Barinten. "And he's no Lucavi."

But he felt a little more cheerful, thinking of those rare prizes. There were twelve in all the world (perhaps thirteen, but Barinten was almost certain Serpentarius was myth), and now two of them rested under his control. More marched north with Ramza Beoulve. If Barinten's calculations were correct, he would soon hold more Stones than the Church itself.

"Any word from the others?" Barinten asked.

"Berkeley has made all the necessary arrangements," Malak said. "We are bounty hunters looking for information. And any who pursue our target will have to answer to us."

Barinten nodded. "I will need you to depart for Yardrow tonight. There is no room for error."

Malak nodded in turn. "Any word from the Templars, my liege?"

"Three envoys taking a ship to Port Zeakden," Barinten said. "I've arranged an escort for them."

Rafa's brow furrowed. "Only three?"

Barinten nodded, a faint smile playing with his lips. "I think it speaks to their desperation, no?"

"Or their confidence," Rafa said, frowning deeper.

"You mistake arrogance for confidence," Malak said. "The Templars refuse to estimate us properly. We will teach them the error of their ways."

"Now now," Barinten said, with an appraising look at Rafa. "Arrogance and confidence are never too far removed. The one is built upon the other. Your sister sees farther than you, Malak."

Malak flushed, his lips pursed. Rafa stared fixedly at Barinten's forehead. Such pliable servants, his Hand. He had wrought well. Izlude might not talk, but Malak had brought him a truly awesome set of prizes. He allowed his contentment to creep into his voice. "The Templars have earned their reputation. But so have we. We will be prepared to meet them." He paused for a moment, looking between them. "Particularly if we claim the other prizes in Ramza's care."

Rafa nodded, her eyes still fixed on his forehead. "You have not spoken with the sister."

Barinten's eyebrows arched. "No."

"May I ask why, my liege?"

Barinten pursed his lips. "I did not see the point in wasting my time, when we already have the most relevant intelligence she can give us."

"She may still be worth cultivating as a source, my liege."

Barinten considered for a moment. It was unlike Rafa to show such initiative, but he was rather pleased all the same. Perhaps the fear he'd enforced in her had resulted in a streak of caution and consideration that Malak sometimes lacked. Perhaps his assets were even more formidable than he had first realized.

"How?" Barinten asked.

"An audience with you," Rafa said. "And then a..." She paused, searched the air for the right word. "A confidence with me."

Barinten smiled. "You're not much for lying, Rafa."

"No lies, my liege," Rafa said, bowing her head. "One dutiful sister to another, trying to do the right thing."

"It's too risky-" Malak started.

"Is it?" Barinten asked, with a sardonic note in his voice.

Malak's dark eyes widened. "My liege, I did not intend to speak for you-"

"I know, I know," Barinten said, with an airy wave. "There are some risks, Malak. But Alma Beoulve is entirely in our power, and there may be some value in cultivating her trust..." He thought for a moment. "You will bring her to me. Afterwards, Rafa will have her moment of confidence. I will expect a full report."

"Of course, my liege," Rafa said, falling to one knee. A moment later, Malak was at her side.

"I will attend to some personal business first," Barinten said. "Give me...half an hour? In the mean time, you may make ready for your journey to Yardrow."

Malak and Rafa bowed their heads, then hurried down the corridor. Grand Duke Barinten turned at once, heading the opposite way through Riovanes spacious halls, his mind moving a little less frantically than it had before. Unusual of Rafa to show such initiative, but promising. He was confident in her conditioning: she would not dare oppose him. And there was potential in working another angle here. His information was still woefully incomplete. When he spoke with the Templars, he needed to speak from a position of authority.

Barinten's path took him down to his personal stables. It had been a long time since he himself had had the inclination (or, if he was honest with himself, the stature) to ride comfortably, so the stalls had been empty for some time. But he found their new, gold-feathered addition a worthy prize. As he entered the room, the stablemaster stiffened to attention. "I've not yet had much luck, my liege," said Parnella, brushing a lock of dark hair from her face. "He's a stubborn beast."

"Is he, now?" Barinten asked, eyeing the nervous chocobo Izlude had been riding before the ambush. The bird was huddled near the back of its stall, scratching anxious at the straw with the talons of one foot. "That's alright," he crooned, extending a hand. "You're safe now."

The bird's large eyes flickered between Barinten's face and his outstretched hand. It stopped its nervous clawing, and took a tentative step forwards. Then another. Then a third. The Grand Duke waited, calm and confident, as the bird leaned closer to him.

There was a blur of motion. Barinten jerked his hand pack with a hiss of pain as blood flowed from his stinging knuckles. The chocobo warbled cheerfully.

"My liege," the stablemaster gasped, with a stricken look. "Are you alright, should I fetch a Healer, I'm sorry, I-"

"Do not concern yourself, Parnella," grunted Barinten, nursing his hand and glaring at the bird. "You know I like an animal with spirit." He smiled thinly. "It will make such a fine servant, when its will is broken."