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Chapter 87: Alone

I did not stay to see him die. I did not see my country die with him. I was haunted, heartsick, and wandered all alone, far from the so-called Saint who had betrayed so many, far from the sins I had committed to put an end to him.

-The Gospel According to Germonique, ISV (Inquisitor Simon Version)

With a squishing thhhhk, Ramza pulled his knife free as he kicked his gurgling attacker down onto the snowy ground. He crouched low, the handle of the knife braced against the palm of one hand, the blade parallel to the ground as steaming blood drizzled onto the snow. The three remaining deserters fanned out around him, desperate eyes fixed on his face. The archer he'd already killed lay sprawled behind them, staining the snow in steaming scarlet.

"How many of you do I have to kill?" Ramza asked, his voice as numb as he felt.

"Yer a heretic," spat one of the men, bare fingers white around the hatchets in either hand. "Ye got to die."

"We'll be rich men with the reward for ya, Beoulve," growled the woman with the sword and shield, a gluttonous gleam in her eye.

"We'll go home," murmured a younger man, the point of his spear trembling.

"You can't go home if you're dead," Ramza answered, driving his free hand into the ground, one finger of his knife-holding hand on the rune for wind. A cyclone flurry burst up around him: at the same moment, Ramza hurled his knife at the hatchet-bearing soldier, and lunged for the woman with the sword and shield, unsheathing the sword at his side. He crashed against her, pulling at her ambient magic, wearying her with every strike. The first blow sent her staggering: the second made her fall to her knees: the third cleaved her head from her shoulders The hatchet-wielding soldier staggered out of the dying snow, the hilt of Ramza' knife waggling comically on his shoulder, roaring in rage. Ramza circled left, let the man exhaust himself with two lunging blows, and then drove his sword through his stomach. The man gasped, slumped to his knees as Ramza jerked the sword from his belly.

Only the spear-bearer remained, his eyes wide. Ramza stepped towards him.

"Mercy!" shrieked the young man, throwing his spear down, falling to his knees in the snow and raising his hands above his head. "Mercy, ser, please, please-!"

Ramza stared down at him. Maybe it was his imagination, but the man really did look an awful lot like Ivan Mansel.

"Mercy?" he repeated. He supposed he had intended to sound menacing, but it came out as merely curious. "Why should I show you mercy?"

"I...I didn't want..." The young man's voice was trembling. "Please, ser, we're deserters, we couldn't fight anymore, we couldn't, we're tired-"

"So you attack me," Ramza said.

"Linos...Linos said bringing in a heretic could...you'd be worth..." The young man closed his eyes. "Reward. Reward and a pardon and we just wanted to go home, ser."

Ramza stared down at the man who had tried to kill him. From the corner of his eyes, he could see the blood spattering the scattered the snow, the steam rising from the corpses. The winter wind was sharp and stiff in his nose and throat.

"What's your name?" he asked.

The young man's eyes were wild. "Warin, ser. Please..."

"Go home, Warin."

The young man stared at him. "What?"

"Go home."

There had already been tears on Warin's face. They sparkled anew. "Thank you, m-my lord, I am not worthy-"

"I'm no one's lord," Ramza said, remembering the hate in Wiegraf's eyes. "Go home, Warin."

Warin did not need further prompting: he staggered off into the snow, casting furtive glances back at Ramza. Ramza watched him until he was out of sight, then returned to his little camp, shaking the snow off his heavy cloak, setting his weapons back in place, pulling everything together.

He took a moment before he left, however. He opened his pack, and examined a carefully-wrapped bundle of books and journals near the bottom. He hesitated even to touch them.

But even with this pause, it took him only a few minutes to pull his gear together and stagger on into the winter afternoon, his legs and arms leaden with exhaustion, his head heavy with sleep. Step after plodding step, he trudged on through the snow.

Not all his days were so violent, but almost every one was so exhausting. He could risk no main roads, so his route took him through bitter riverlands and across rocky mountainsides. He had no companions to keep watch, so he dared sleep only in the most secluded, inhospitable places he could find, and even then his sleep was fraught with terrified bursts of wakefulness as he raked his surroundings for any sign of attack. Where he did not cross snowy slopes in the teeth of winter wind, his boots sank into thick mud, or his calves were soaked by cold river water. He did not want to risk returning to a town before Yardrow, so he ate and drank only sparingly from his supplies. He was always cold. He was always hungry. He was always thirsty. He was always tired.

The men and women he'd failed haunted his steps. Simon, seeing the ghost of his father in him. Gaffgarion, wry and mocking. Argus, with hate and blood upon his lips. Miluda, with hate and rage upon hers. rage. Wiegraf, his hate incandescent with the fire he wore like a wreath.

Those were only the ones he might have called friends. There were enemies whose names he'd never know. And enemies he did, like Linos and the others. And enemies he might never even see, before their arrows found his flesh.

The last seemed terribly real when, late one afternoon, he rounded a rocky outcropping on the northern slopes of the Lesalia Mountains and found a soldier standing at its crest, an arrow nocked to his bow and trained on Ramza. Idly, Ramza wondered if he could fire off a spell in time, or catch the arrow as he had beneath Orbonne Monastery. Idly, he wondered why he should bother.

"Your presence is requested, ser."

Ramza blinked. The archer stood ramrod straight, the hands that held the taut bowstring unshaking. But his voice had been oddly polite.

"I'm sorry?" Ramza asked.

"My commander has requested your presence at our camp," the archer repeated.

Ramza arched his eyebrows. "That's a funny way of asking me to surrender."

"I am not asking you to surrender," the archer said. "I am extending an invitation."

"At arrowpoint."

"My commander informed me that it would be best to extend our invitation from a position of strength."

Ramza snorted. "So I'm free to go?"

At once, the archer lowered his bow. "Yes, ser."

Well. That was unexpected. And in spite of his leaden exhaustion and despair, Ramza's curiosity was piqued.

"Who's your commander?" Ramza asked.

The soldier bowed his head. "I am not allowed to say, ser."

"So why should I follow you?"

The archer looked up briefly. "I was asked to tell you that he is a fellow soldier of peace."

Ramza blinked. "What?"

"I said-"

"No, no, I..." Ramza's throat felt dry. "I heard you." Could it really be...?

Nothing for it. Ramza nodded. "Take me to your commander."

At once, the archer kicked down a coil of rope near his feet. Grimacing with the effort, the straps of his pack diggng into his shoulders, Ramza pulled himself hand by creaking hand up to the top of the outcropping. Behind the archer, concealed by the rocky terrain, was a thin and winding path. The archer picked his way carefully up the narrow rut, with Ramza stumbling along behind him. The rut led down into a dry creekbed, which in turn led to a narrow crevasse between two cliffs just wide enough for Ramza and the archer to walk through single-file.

When they reach the end of the crevasse, Ramza stopped in disbelief. The archer had used the word "commander", so he had been expecting a party. He hadn't been expecting what looked like a proper war camp. Tents in good condition were spread out around gentle dirt slopes, with a half-full pool near the rear. Scraggly grass grew near around this pool, and two chocobos were grazing there even now. Their gear—steel chestplates and metal-on-leather for their wings and legs—lay nearby, being carefully scrubbed and oiled by their riders. A few other men and women dozed in their tents, while others sparred, cleaned, and cooked around a little runestove. None of them looked up at Ramza and the arhcer entered. The only thing missing from the camp was any insignia to show who these soldiers were.

"Pardon, ser," came a voice from behind him. Ramza turned, surprised, to find a thin woman with daggers on each hip coming down the crevasse.

"When did you-" Ramza started.

She shrugged. "Wasn't gonna let you hurt ol' Nirius here."

"I was perfectly safe, Myrine," the archer replied.

Myrine shrugged again, and sauntered towards one of the tents, waving to one of her companions. Nirius sighed and gestured for Ramza to follow. Aside from the little tents scattered about the small valley, there was a larger central tent. Nirius pulled the flap open and gestured for Ramza to enter.

Ramza did so, then came to a stop. He was unsurprised to find dark-haired Olan sitting on a collapsible chair inside, frowning over a sheaf of papers on his lap. He was likewise unsurprised that a burly man stood over Olan's right shoulder, a naked sword in his hand. But the young man pacing back and forth inside the tent was a surprise, and he seemed just as surprised to see Ramza: he froze like a rabbit caught in the open, his eyes flickering between Ramza's face and the hard ground.

"This is the heretic?" Olan asked, looking up and gesturing towards Ramza.

The trembling jerk of Warin's head might have been mistaken for a nod. "Good," Olan said, and gestured with the same hand. The soldier with the naked sword moved: with a meaty shnk, his blade speared through the young man's back, its bloody tip protruding into the cool air. Warin stared down at the sword in his chest. He opened his mouth to speak, as a trickle of blood dribbled down the side of his mouth. He closed his eyes, shook his head in disbelief, and then collapsed into a fleshy heap. The soldier withdrew his sword and began to clean it. Ramza stayed where he was. The despair felt twice as heavy as before.

"Thank you, Cameron," Olan said. "Would you take care of him?"

Cameron nodded, grabbed Warren by the legs, and started to drag Warin's corpse from the tent. He stopped briefly in front of Ramza. "Excuse me, ser."

Ramza stared down at Cameron. He stared down at Warin's corpse Numbly, he stepped aside, and Cameron dragged the body out of sight. Olan still studied his papers.

"You didn't have to do that," Ramza said.

Olan sighed and looked up, his red-brown eyes narrowed in that familiar, irritating expression. "I didn't have to, no," Olan agreed. "But my understanding is that you offered him mercy, yes?"

"Yes," Ramza said, his voice betraying every inch of his numbness.

"I didn't torture him, Ramza," Olan said. "I found him, and asked him what he was doing out here alone, and he sold you out. So you will forgive me if I don't give him a chance to betray me and my men."

"Your Nanten?" Ramza asked.

Olan smiled thinly. "The hiding place gave it away?"

"You lied to me," Ramza said.

Olan scoffed and gave him a shriveling look. "Oh, and I suppose you and yours were really hired by a Hokuten commander looking for peace?" He pursed his lips. "Is that the lie you're going to sell me on today, Ramza Beoulve?"

Ramza blinked in surprise. "When did you-"

"Well before I saw you," Olan answered.

Ramza felt bizarrely embarrassed. "We were trying to meet with Zalbaag and get him to end the war," he said. "It...it wasn't all a lie."

"And my beneficiary seeks peace, in spite of his high rank among the Nanten," Olan retorted. "I wasn't lying either."

"Your beneficiary," Ramza repeated.

"Count Cidolfas Orlandeau," Olan said. "Knight-Commander of the Nanten."

A strange feeling seized Ramza then: his body froze, while his mind burst into furious motion, like a flock of startled birds flapping their wings all at once. "The Thundergod," Ramza said dully.

"That's right."

Ramza laughed, though it felt more like a cough. "A veteran of the 50 Years' War."

"Just like Balbanes."

Ramza laughed again. Olan offered a small smile, and continued, "I don't ask you to condone what I've done. Just to understand it."

The birds still fluttered in Ramza's mind. Puzzle pieces filled in a picture Ramza hadn't even known he was cognizant of. He remembered Zalbaag's terror and alarm as he heard the news of the fallen Pass (he remembered, too, Zalbaag's scorn and accusations, but he buried the hurt as best he could).

"Your soldiers," Ramza said. "You met them when the Thundergod took Degeura Pass?"

He was gratified to see surprise in Olan's gaze. "How do you-" Olan started, then shook his head ruefully. "Quite right. Father never meant to hold the Pass, just to draw off Hokuten reinforcements. In the meantime, the Marquis brought up the counterstroke to the south..." Olan trailed off, closing his eyes. "Much good that it did."

Ramza did not need to be reminded of Elmdor's death. Just another entry on the long litany of his failures.

"How have you not been caught yet?" Ramza asked.

Olan opened his eyes and shrugged. "Why would the Hokuten look for us behind their lines?Particularly when we're not causing them any trouble."

"So what did you need soldiers for?" Ramza asked.

"Extra hands," Olan answered. "To seek our true enemies."

"What do you mean?" Ramza asked.

Olan smiled slightly. "Why am I here, Ramza?"

"You tell me," Ramza replied.

"I already did. Back in Goland, remember?" Olan paused contemplatively. "Funny. Now that I think of it...aren't you on the road to Yardrow? That's Barinten's territory."

Ramza tried his best not to react. "I'm not on any road."

"Yes, I noticed that. Avoiding attention, I take it. From who, I wonder?" Olan gave that sardonic, infuriating smile.

"Like you said," Ramza replied. "Many vultures to be wary of."

"Especially for a heretic."

Ramza felt neither anger nor fear. He simply felt tired. "Do you intend to turn me in?"

"You think I would have killed Warin if I had?"

"To hide yourself? Yes."

Olan and Ramza locked eyes for a moment. Olan's smile was gone. "My father asked for my help," Olan said. "I do not want to bloody my hands with a scared boy, but I'm not going to let him sell us out, either. If he told me about you, he'll tell the Hokuten about me."

"We'll never know for sure," Ramza said.

"Give me a break, Ramza!" Olan snapped. "How many men have you killed?"

Ramza closed his eyes. "More than I care to think of."

Silence for a moment.

"Sorry," Olan said. Ramza opened his eyes, and found Olan staring down at the sheaf of papers in his lap. "It's not...easy. Being a..."

"Soldier of peace?" Ramza suggested.

Olan's thin lips tugged upwards. "No." His smile faded. "Are you headed for Yardrow?"

Ramza didn't answer. Olan tapped the sheaf of papers. "I ask," he said. "Because Barinten is dangerous, Ramza. Barinten, and his Khamja, and especially his Hand." Olan waved the sheaf of papers. "You can look over these, if you like. They're the best records I can dig up, given the damage Barinten did."

"What damage?" Ramza asked.

"The Hand may be his most loyal soldiers," Olan said. "But they're also his victims."

Ramza stared at Olan. "What?"

Olan closed his eyes, braced his hand across the bridge of his nose and tapped the exact center of his forehead with his index finger. "There's no official proof," he said. "The Khamja were careful." He opened one red-brown eye. "How familiar are you with the Haruten?"

Ramza grimaced, thinking of Gaffgarion. "More familiar than I'd like."

"So you know they were disbanded as part of the treaty with Ordallia," Olan asked. "Every crime that the Ordallians claimed Ivalice was guilty of led back to the Haruten. Very mysterious stuff, given how patchwork the Haruten were at the best of times..."

Ramza said nothing. He'd heard this before.

"It's common knowledge in certain circles that the Haurten were scapegoats at war's end," Olan continued, lowering his hand. "But it gets stranger the deeper you look. There really are crimes you can lay at the Haruten's feet. Like the burning of Galthena."

Ramza thought he'd heard that name before, in Daravon's calm, soporific voice, but he couldn't remember the context. "Galthena?" he repeated.

"A peculiar remnant of Ydoran times," Olan said. "You're familiar with the Ydoran's bloodline arts? Refining specific magical talents through selective breeding?" Again, a vague echo of Daravon's voice. Ramza nodded cautiously, and Olan continued, "The village of Galthena was a repository for many of these talents. The records say that the village was wiped out in a clash between the Ordallians and the Haruten." Olan paused for a moment. "It's strange...Galthena had not joined in the Zelmonian Succession, and there's no record of casualties from the day's fighting. No record of an Ordallian ambush, or a Haruten offensive. Only mention I could find was in the letters of an Ordallian commander, one Count Phlegrai. He wrote to his superior officer, reporting that he had pulled his men back when he saw the infamous Khamja soldiers marching towards the village."

"Khamja," Ramza repeated. "Why?"

Olan shook his head. "You'd have to ask the Duke. Although, I suppose I could speculate..." Again, Olan braced his hand across his face and tapped his forehead. "You traveled with a Dragoner?"

Ramza blinked. "What?"

"During the campaign against the Corps. I was told you fought alongside a Templar Dragoner."

Ramza stared at him, his head full of Reis (and remembering, with a pang, Beowulf bold and confident in Goug, cutting through their enemies). "How..."

Olan smiled slightly. "I do my research. Is it true?" Ramza nodded dumbly, and Olan continued, "I cannot tell you to what gives a Dragoner their unique powers, but to the best of my knowledge, the only Dragoners of any real skill exist under the auspices of the Church. There are rumors of a few in mercenary bands or remote villages, but the Templars are the only ones who have maintained the knowledge necessary to properly train a Dragoner to their full potential. As in many things, this knowledge gives the Church outsized power. The Hokuten and Nanten may outnumber the Templars, but man for man there is no force more dangerous in all Ivalice. And perhaps, in all the world."

Ramza did not trust himself to speak. After a moment, Olan continued, "If Grand Duke Barinten nurses any ambition, it is to rival the Templars. The bloodline arts of Galthena would have been a powerful weapon in his hands...and, if they refused to bend the knee, they would be a most dangerous threat."

"So he...killed them all?" Ramza whispered.

Olan shook his head. "You underestimate him." He paused for a moment. "You had dealings with the Baerd Company?"

Ramza stared again. "How..."

"Are you really going to waste time asking questions instead of answering mine?"

"Since you won't answer any of mine..."

A flicker at the corners of Olan's lips. "Yes or no, Ramza?"

Ramza shook his head. "You...you know I have."

"Baerd dealt with Barinten," Olan said. "Among many others. Used his ill-gotten gil to build orphanages, and used those orphanages to peddle flesh. Some simple servants, some..." Olan grimaced. "More despicable trade. But it's well-known Barinten had agents among the Baerd company with standing orders to recruit anyone of talent. Hundreds of fresh recruits. Thousands. And instead of being a conquering slaver who burned down your village, Barinten is the man who rescued you from one of Baerd's hellholes." Olan chuckled grimly.

Ramza's mind was still racing. His eyes flickered to the papers in Olan's hand. "The Galthena bloodlines," Ramza whispered.

"And with Galthena gone, there was only one man with the knowledge and resources to teach these children what they needed to learn." Olan offered an icy smile. "There's a reason the Church keeps such careful control over their Dragoners, Ramza. It offers them opportunity...and it punishes them for stepping out of line. Greens and lash, just like a chocobo."

"And Barinten?" Ramza asked.

Olan shook his head. "I can only speculate," he said. "But I imagine he would reward success...and punish failure."

For the first time in several weeks, Ramza remembered the desperate fight on the snowy hill. He had been frantic in his confusion, struggling to hold the attackers back. But he still recalled how hesitant he'd felt, when he'd seen how young they looked.

"I wasn't lying to you, Ramza," Olan said. "When we spoke before. I've spent a lot of time dealing with Barinten and his Khamja the last few months. Larg and Goltanna are both very curious to see which way his loyalties lie. S'why I've got such discretion about how to execute my little...reconnaissance mission." He paused, and gave Ramza a frank look. "And why I'm trying to find the real culprits."

A flash of terror. "What do you mean?" Ramza asked, a little too quickly

Olan sighed and leaned back in his chair. "We talked about this, too. About the commanders who never thought this war was necessary. About the ones who think it was necessary,, but don't understand why it has lasted so long. Hokuten and Nanten alike are thick with the ambitious and avaricious, and Ivalice is thick with scavengers like Baerd and Barinten. But none has the reach, the power, and the presence to prolong this war. Save for one."

"Who?" Ramza asked, as earnestly as he could.

Olan offered a crooked smile. "Didn't you once ask me if I was an agent of the Church?"

Ramza said nothing. His throat was thick with cold fear.

"No answer?" Olan asked. "Come now, Ramza. The Church plays a deep game, but they're neither omniscient nor omnipotent. The Bishop of Canne-Beurich takes a warlike tone as he rises in the ranks of Duke Goltanna's advisors. The Templars appear in sensitive areas and months later rebellion, banditry, and violence follow in their wake. Queen Ovelia disappears from Orbonne Monastery, and reappears only after the Cardinal's castle is brought to ruin." Olan shrugged. "The signs are there, if you can afford to look closely enough. Fortunately for them, few can."

"So you think they're...what?" Ramza asked, trying to play at disbelief. "Behind the war?"

"Behind?" Olan asked. "I'm not sure anyone's behind the war, Ramza. Wars are rarely so simple. But feeding upon it? Profiting by it? Exacerbating it?" He nodded. "That is always the nature of these vultures. Barinten grew his Khamja by feeding on atrocities and profiting from massacres. Louveria seized power by assassination, duplicity, and outright tyranny, and now her brother hopes to turn her illegitimate seizure into a legitimate dynasty. Goltanna defends his position against would-be usurpers, and must resort to crueller and crueller means to keep his place. Each bears the fault for their own actions."

Ramza arched an eyebrow. "You're willing to speak that way about your liege lord?"

"It is a slave who obeys a master without question," Olan snapped. "A good servant knows their lord's nature, for good and ill, and endeavors to enhance their lord's virtues while fighting against their vices." He paused for a moment. "And a good servant also protects his lord from false counselours who might flatter his worst qualities."

"Like this...Bishop." Ramza's lies and misdirection felt clumsy and obvious, but he did not know what else he was supposed to do.

Olan shrugged. "As I said, I suspect other hands at play. Building tension, moving the pieces just so, so the ambitious and avaricious see their chance, so the decent and reluctant are forced into conflict."

"And you blame the Church."

Olan shrugged. "It fits the evidence I have. But even if am I wrong about where culpability lies, it would be helpful to remove a vulture from the board." He grimaced. "Not that I can do much—against the Church, or Barinten."

"They seem like powerful enemies," Ramza said, as noncommittally as he could manage.

Olan nodded. "Quite so. Hokuten and Nanten alike would have some difficulty waging open warn against either. What hope does my little band have?" Olan shook his head. "What I need, more than anything, is leverage."

"Leverage?" Ramza repeated.

Olan nodded again, and repeated the gesture of the hand braced across his nose, the index finger on his forehead. "They are ambitious, greedy, and powerful, but none of them are stupid. The right threats would bring either party to the table. But if they've conspirators abroad, they're damn hard to track down." His grip on his head tightened. "What I need is hard proof. A direct threat to their power and prestige that doesn't amount to violent provocation. Private correspondence detailing the conspiracy, or scholarship destroying the credibility of the Church..." He trailed off and shook his head. "Foolish, I know. If such things existed, they would surely have come to light by now."

Was he toying with Ramza? Did he already know about the books packed away in Ramza's bag? Did he know that Ramza carried the Gospel according to Germonique?

But forget whether Olan was toying with Ramza. The more important question was; was Olan right? With Olan's support—with the Thundergod's support—was it possible that they could bargain with the Church? Trade the Gospel and their silence for an actual peace agreement? End this conspiracy? Even (Ramza was surprised at how much he wanted this) absolve Ramza of heresy?

But the Gospel that could end this war would not buy Alma her freedom. The men and women who had taken her were not of the Church. And as badly as he wanted to be the kind of hero Balbanes had been, Ramza could not sacrifice his sister for the sake of peace.

"If I could give you anything like that," Ramza said. "I would."

Olan lowered his hand and smiled bleakly. "Of course," he said. "I would expect nothing less from a fellow soldier of peace."

Ramza could read neither the other man's face, nor his tone.

"Enough of this grim talk," Olan continued "We've worries enough to keep us fretting from dawn to dusk. Make camp with us tonight."

Ramza laughed. "Why would I do that?

"You'll be safe, and you'll be fed."

Ramza didn't believe the safety, but he had smelled the meat cooking over the fires. "Fed what?" he asked.

Olan never answered the question to Ramza's satisfaction, but Ramza didn't question the roast bird offered to him on a tin plate, or the thin vegetable stew Cameron brought him, and by the time he'd eaten he was so at ease that he accepted the wine bottle Olan drew from his pack.

As night drew a dark curtain over their camp, Olan clapped his hands together, and the dark of his tent was illuminated by glittering stars spreading in three dimensional constellations around them.

"He didn't!" Ramza said, sitting cross-legged on his unfolded bedroll.

"My father swears he did," Olan answered, cross-legged on his.

"You're telling me that Balbanes Beoulve was riding a chocobo bare-ass naked-"

"He'd lost his clothes in the game!" Olan insisted. "Didn't have time to get them back on when the Ordallian attack came."

Ramza chuckled, shaking his head. "I'm...trying my best not to picture it," he admitted. "But I think it would be hard to imagine, either way."

"Like you've never done anything that crazy," Olan scoffed.

Ramza shrugged. "I promise you, I've never fought anyone naked."

"Too bad," Olan sighed.

Ramza arched his eyebrows. "Oh?"

Olan offered that sardonic, infuriating smile. Ramza rolled his eyes, looking at the stars around the room. "How does this even work?" he asked

"Magic," Olan answered.

Ramza glared at him. "Thanks, Olan. That's helpful."

"I always am."

Ramza flopped down onto his bedroll. He had meant it only as a dramatic gesture, but found his weariness getting the better of him, the soothing starlit dark weighing down his eyelids.

"Ramza?"

"What?" Ramza asked, blinked tired eyes up at the canvas ceiling.

"If your father were still alive...what do you think he would be doing right now?"

The question only made Ramza feel more tired. It brought to mind what Simon had said, as he lay dying. It brought to mind what Simon had written, in the journals still in Ramza's bag. It brought to mind all the old doubts and uncertainties that had plagued him since long before his father had died. The doubts that had only been magnified by his brothers' failings. By his own failings.

"I don't know," he answered, because it was true. And with a stab of pain, he remembered Alma, and her quiet reprimand of their father. Of his failure to teach her as she should have been taught. Maybe if she'd been trained properly, she wouldn't have been taken. Maybe even Teta would have been saved.

"It's killing my dad, Ramza."

Ramza cocked his head. Olan was on his own bedroll, staring at nothing. "Killing him," Olan repeated. "From the beginning. He hated letting Louveria run roughshod over Goltanna. He hated having to fight the Hokuten. He hates...this." He gestured around him. "If he'd seen what I...like with Warin, I...I know he'd understand, but I don't know if he could ever..."

There were tears in Olan's voice. Without thinking, Ramza rolled to him, and sat directly in front of him, and put his hands over Olan's.

"I can't make it okay," Ramza said. "But I've...I've done a lot of things that aren't okay."

Olan closed his eyes. "Me too."

The stars faded quietly. Olan's trembling fingers clasped at Ramza's for a moment. Then he released him, and Ramza rolled back to his own bedroll and looked up at the ceiling, his head filled with all the men he'd killed, all the ways he'd failed as Beoulve.

He should have been haunted by terrible doubts until morning. Instead, he was asleep within moments, only to awaken groggily with the first hint of morning light daubing the walls of the tent.

"Saint Above, already?" groaned Olan.

"Afraid so," Ramza answered.

"Never gets any easier," grunted Olan, sitting up. "Lucavi take me, I want to sleep in."

Ramza couldn't quite smile—the phrase "Lucavi take me" was not easy for him to hear these days—but tried to make an affirmative grunt. Sleep had never been too troublesome for him, and his years at Gaffgarion's side had cured him of ever expecting to get a full night's rest, much less a comfortable place to lay his head.

He rose from his place, gathering his gear together. "Hold on, hold on," Olan grumbled, stumbling out of bed with his dark hair a wild cloud about his head. He poked his head out of the tent and called for Cameron. There was the sound of rustling footsteps: a moment later, Olan turned with a tightly-wrapped bundle in his hands.

"Supplies," Olan said, offering him the bundle. "It's not much."

Ramza shook his head and did not reach for the bundle. "I'm not the one behind enemy lines, Olan."

"You sure about that?" Olan asked, with that infuriating smile.

This time, Ramza laughed. "No. I guess I'm not."

"You really think I'd give you anything I wasn't sure I didn't need?" Olan asked.

Ramza smiled, and took the bundle. He packed it carefully along with the rest of his gear, made sure everything was securely in place. He turned to face Olan, who had tied his hair back and pulled his own gear together, looking less the bedraggled young man and more like the commander of this small camp.

"What's next for you?" Ramza asked.

"Keep gathering information about the Hoktuen battlelines," Olan said. "And about who exactly is visiting who among the high mucky-mucks. Try to find something I can give my father. Something we can use to end..." His eyes flickered to the place where Warin had died. "This."

Ramza followed Olan's gaze. "Yeah."

"What about you?"

Ramza shook his head, eyes still closed. "I can't tell you, Olan."

"I know," Olan said. Ramza opened his eyes. Olan was smiling at him sadly. "You remind me of my father, you know?"

The back of Ramza's neck prickled uncomfortably. "Oh?"

Olan nodded. "He's always trying to take on the world. You wouldn't believe what I had to do to get him to let me help a little." The smile had changed a little. It seemed far more knowing now.

"I doubt I can compare to the Thundergod," Ramza said, because he didn't know what else to say.

"And I wonder who he thought that of, when he was our age?" Olan asked. He held out a hand. "Stay safe, Ramza."

"You as well," Ramza said, taking the offered hand. When he made to pull back, he found that Olan's grip had tightened. The smile was gone from his face, and his gaze was solemn.

"If you change your mind," Olan said. "If you need help...you've only to ask."

Ramza almost smiled. "One soldier of peace to another?"

"One friend to another."

Ramza actually did smile this time. "Olan..." Perhaps it was the night's sleep, or the wine, or the warmth of the tent after weeks of cold. But for the first time since he'd left Daravon's estate, he felt a little less alone.

"I'll keep it in mind," Ramza said, and squeezed Olan's wrist in turn. He turned to go a second later, and Olan released him in the same moment.

He was alone, but by choice. He had set out alone, conscious of the danger, because he didn't want to risk anyone's life. Not Radia's, not Agrias', not Mustadio's, not Alicia's, not Lavian's. And not Olan's.

He would save Alma. And if he had to be haunted by ghosts when he closed his eyes, then at least no more of those ghosts would be his friends.

Ramza walked from the tent and down the ravine, without once looking back.