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Chapter 88: Lying in Wait
The trap was laid. The Hand was ready. Now there was only the endless waiting, after a hurried rush down the narrow pontoon roads that were the only reliable path through Fovoham's northern marches, to the back alley room where they were billeted as traveling performers waiting for their big break at a local merchant's fete.
Berkeley was terse, often muttering to themselves as they practiced the cadence of their speech, adjusting aspects of their appearance and studying Alma's stolen clothes. Clarice kept finding excuses to take off from their basement room and roam the rooftops of cramped, stinking Yardrow. Clara made a pretense of reading from a small sack of books, but often left pages unturned for several minutes, staring unblinking as her private thoughts overwhelmed her. Even Rafa seemed antsy, often pacing their little room or taking quick circles of the surrounding streets.
Malak could not blame them. He felt that restlessness in himself, barely tethered. He had checked his supplies, he had sharpened his swords, he ran quick drills with both blades to make sure they responded to his will (though he could not expand their range for all his efforts), and still he felt it, an intching beneath his skin, an electricity in his bones.
But he was their leader. He had to be the example they followed. He had to be like Barinten.
"What are you so worried about, Berk?" Malak asked, when Clara and Rafa had gone to buy soup from the tavernkeeper two blocks away, and Clarice was on another of her endless patrols. "No one's ever caught you."
Berkeley shook their head. "It is an easy thing to invent a face from scratch," Berkeley said. "But this is his sister. Her appearance, her cadence, her personality, little gestures...there's so much I could get wrong, and then he'll know."
"It only has to work for a moment," Malak said. "And that's if we can't convince him to join us of his own free will."
"And if it doesn't?" Berkeley shook their head again. "I keep failing you, Mal. I keep failing...everyone."
Malak shook his head in turn. "You can't seize an opportunity that isn't there, Berk. They were wary of strangers and close to their allies and..."
Malak kept talking, but it was obvious Berkeley wasn't listening to him, and after awhile Malak gave up, patted him on the shoulder, and walked outside. It was dusk, and the city murmured around him, and Malak poked his head out of the alley and watched the people bustling by. A young girl with a red cart full of flowers was pushing it slowly home, pausing now and again to offer her wares to passersby.
Malak pulled back into the alley, shaking his head. The city always seemed agonizingly slow, agonizingly mundane. How did these people live like this, dawdling through their humdrum lives? Malak couldn't imagine any life besides the one he was living right now, vital to his liege lord's plans and the kingdom's future.
But then, these people probably didn't have the specter of failure hanging over their every action. What did the flower girl have to fear of failure? If she came home with too few gil, perhaps she'd go hungry for a night. She probably didn't feel this constant, itching fear.
A whisper of wind in the alley behind him. Malak turned just in time to see Clarice drifting slowly down to earth, kicking off the walls when she floated too close to them. "Everything alright?" he asked, before she'd quite touched down.
She alighted in the cobblestoned alleyway, shrugging. "Still no sign of him," she said.
"And no one's seen you?"
"Far as I can tell," Clarice replied.
Malak nodded. "Clara and Rafa should be back with the soup soon."
Clarice nodded. "I'll do another round then."
"You need rest."
Clarice uttered a short, humorless bark of laughter. "All the training we've done, and you think this is tiring me out?"
"One round?" Malak said. "No. But this is your tenth today."
Clarice shrugged and looked off to one side. "So?"
"So we need you ready when they come."
Another strange bark of laughter. "And I'll be more ready if I sit around?"
Malak watched her for a moment. Clarice studiously refused to meet his gaze. "Am I missing something?" Malak asked.
Clarice gave a jerking sort of shrug. "No."
Clarice's eyes flickered to his face, then away again. "I'm not like you, Mal," Clarice not. "Not like you, or Clara, or Berk. I'm a blunt instrument. I'm a soldier."
"You're more than that," Malak said.
Clarice shook her head. "I'm not, Mal. My skills are just...they just make me a little stronger than most. I'm supposed to scout, and I'm supposed to fight, and...and Rafa's better than me at both, and I'm not doing either right now, how can I..." She shook her head once more, a jerking motion. "I'm gonna keep scouting," she said. "He won't catch us off-guard."
She burst into the air. Malak watched her go, and his skin felt taut. Because for all his kind words, and for all his pretense of leadership, Clarice and Berkely's doubts echoed endlessly inside of him.
The Hand was strong. The Hand was sharp. The Hand was ready. He told himself these things, over and over again. But still, that nervousness persisted. Because for all their skill, they had never faced a test like this. That brief encounter with Ramza and his allies had shown Malak exactly how skilled they were, and for all his faith in himself and his friends, he knew their opponents were strong, talented, and dangerous. More importantly, they had never had stakes like these. One way or another, they had to bring Ramza Beoulve back to Riovanes. Duke Barinten's plans depended on them. Barinten himself depended on them.
Malak was proud of what he'd done thus far (proud of how he'd tailed Ramza, proud of how he'd acted on his own agency to seize a valuable hostage and deliver valuable intelligence, proud of how he'd set this trap for Ramza and his allies), but he could not afford to let his pride blind him. He could still fail his liege lord, if he was not smart enough, strong enough, sharp enough. If he was not, quite simply, enough.
How could he blame the Hand for their doubts, when he shared them?
He was still full of doubt near dusk the next day, as Clarice ducked inside their cellar room to steal a ladle of soup from the pot. Malak made idle talk with the others, fighting his anxiety.
"What are you reading?" Rafa asked Clara, while Malak brooded over his cup of water.
"Studying," grunted Clara. Her eyes were underlined by dark circles.
"Thought there weren't many books on Time Magic?"
"Time Magic is not enough," grunted Clara, turning a page with unnecessary violence.
"But Time Magic is something only you can do," Rafa replied.
"It is a poor soldier who can wield only one weapon," Clara snapped.
"And a jack of all trades is a master of none."
Clara glared at her. Malak set his cup down and sidled over to them. "Everything alright?" he asked, his heart fluttering like a frightened bird.
"Fine," Clara grumbled, not looking at him.
Malak was silent for a long time. He studied Clara, her eyes glazed as she flipped through the pages of her book. He studied Berkeley, mumbling to themselves in the corner, practicing gestures and intonation. He studied Clarice, staring into space as she mechanically spooned soup into her mouth. He started to study Rafa, and was surprised to find her studying him, with an earnest, uncertain expression on her face. His sister, looking at him like she had no idea in the world what to do.
He saw his sister's gaze, and he made his decision. The anxiety still rustled inside him like a fierce wind through autumn leaves. His skin still prickled with doubt and uncertainty. But he was Malak of Galthena, leader of Barinten's Hand, and he had to be the example he wanted them to follow.
"What are you afraid of, Clara?" Malak asked, turning his gaze back to the Time Mage.
"I'm not afraid of anything!" Clara growled.
"Then you're a fool," Malak said, raising his voice a little. "I'm scared all the time."
Clara's eyes snapped up to him: from the corner of his eye, Malak saw Clarice and Berkeley do the same. "You?" Clara said. "Scared?"
"Of course!" Malak exclaimed. "Barinten himself taught me that."
Clara shook her head. "The Grand Duke's never afraid."
From the corner of his eye, he saw a strange look cross Rafa's face. When he glanced over, her face was neutral again, so Malak turned back to Clara. "Of course he is. He's weaker than we are."
Clara looked scandalized. "Mal!"
Malak held up his hands in mock surrender. "Listen, Clara," he said. "Is there anyone in this room who doesn't think they could beat Barinten in a fight?"
"I wold never-" Clarice began hotly.
"Mal!" Clara exclaimed, more scandalized than before.
"I mean, I could-" mused Berkeley, sounding more like themselves than they had in a long time.
"But power's not that easy, is it?" Malak continued. "The reason we follow him...the reason we love him...it's not because he's strong like that. It's not because he could beat us in a fight. It's because of who he is. How he leads us, teaches us, loves us. How he makes Fovoham so strong, just by his example. But that's not a one-way street!" He slapped one hand into the other. "Khamja is only as strong as it is because he leads us. But he's only as strong as he is because we love him. We work together."
He laughed, and found the laughter echoing across his doubts, soothing his anxiety. "Every person in this room keeps thinking of how weak they are," Malak said. "Of how we've failed before. Of how we could fail again. Do you know what the Duke would say, if you told him of your fears?" Malak lowered his voice and tried to do his best impression of Barinten. "Good."
His impression startled a laugh out of Clara and Clarice, and even Rafa managed a half-smile.
"Fear keeps you sharp," Malak said. "If we're blades, fear's our whetstone. We think of our weaknesses, and how to managed them. We think of our strengths, and how they could be turned against us. We think of how we could fail, and so we're ready for any challenge that lies before us."
"So of course the Duke's afraid. Of course I'm afraid. Of course we're afraid. We're trying to fix Ivalice. We're trying to stop the plots of evil men, and contending with powers that even the old Ydorans spoke of in hushed voices, and we can't be sure we're going to win."
Malak looked around the room again, locking eyes with every one of the Hand. "There's no one in this room who isn't worth ten men," Malak said. "Put us together, and we're worth an army. Being scared doesn't change that. Being scared makes us better at that. The magic we wield, that no one else can wield." He looked at Clara. "The strength we have, that no one else can rival." He looked at Clarice. "The skill we have, that no one else can match." He looked at Berkeley. Then he paused for a moment, and took a little bow. "And of course, your humble leader."
There were actual laughs in the room—the first real laughter since they'd arrived in Yardrow. Malak smiled back at them. "There's no shame in being scared. Our fear doesn't change who we are. We are the Hand of Barinten. Whether we face Ramza Beoulve and his allies, whether we face Hokuten or Nanten or the Templars, whether we face even the Lucavi of legend, there's nothing that can stand against us. As long as use our fear, rather than letting it use us." He paused for a moment, arched his eyebrows, looked from face to face around the room. "Are you with me?"
"Corny-ass speech like that, how can we not be?" snorted Berkeley.
Clara said nothing, but there was a light in her eyes that hadn't been there before, and when she turned to her book she was focused, studying diligently. There was a similar light in Clarice's eyes, and when she started to eat her soup again her gaze was more thoughtful.
Malak felt his own restlessness ease away, watching the others. He had helped them. He had done Barinten proud today, as he had done him proud before. He would do him proud again.
When Clarice set out on another patrol (less frantically before, with an air of confidence she'd lacked the last few days) Malak stepped out to watch her go. Dusk was gathering across the city: outside the alleyway, he heard the now-familiar hustle and bustle of people heading home. A few stars peeked through the twilight sky above.
Movement in the alley behind him. Malak kept his eyes on the sky until Rafa spoke: "You're a good leader, Mal."
Malak shook his head without looking back at her. "I'm not."
"I'm not," Malak said again, turning to face her with a small smile. "But I'm trying to be."
His smile faded when he saw Rafa's face again. Still earnest, still solemn, studying his face as though looking for answers she didn't have. Malak held himself still before her gaze, trying to look the leader he wanted to be. Trying to look like a brother she could trust.
"Mal?" Rafa said at last.
"Is he...do you really think we can get Ramza to join us?"
Malak gave his sister an appraising look. "Alma Beoulve made an impression on you."
Rafa nodded. "I don't think he's a bad person."
Malak nodded grimly. "Neither do I." Ramza Beoulve had acted honorably on almost every occasion they had seen him, whether it was setting free the Inquisitor who threatened his life or sheltering Olan Durai from unknown assailants. Some of his choices made no sense (it had taken a long time for Malak to understand that the obviously kind or honorable thing could sometimes do more harm than good, and it was still a weakness he struggle with), but that did not make them any less admirable.
"I keep thinking about...about what he said," Rafa added. "About the Lucavi."
"Me, too," Malak admitted. He knew that their was no proof of their existence, but then again, there was little enough proof of the abilities the Hands wielded, and separating the reality from the myth had been part of the hard work of mastering his own powers. Barinten had shown him a few such accounts: the powers of past Devil's Blood wielders had been mistaken for leading an "army of ghosts." The Lucavi might not be exactly what the legends spoke of, but Malak couldn't deny the possibility of their existence, as terrifying as that was. A part of him kept wondering if he had the strength to fell one.
"If they're real, we don't know how they work," Rafa said. "Whether they augment an individual, or possess them, or..."
Malak nodded. "Perhaps Ramza Beoulve can answer some of our questions."
"Perhaps." Rafa was silent for a moment. "If he joins us."
If if if. That word kept coming up, for all the Hand. It haunted them. They were no unsure whether they could do what their lord had asked of him. Malak still felt that uncertainty, for all his confident words.
"He..." Rafa began. "He said the Cardinal's Lucavi came from his Stone."
Malak waited, but Rafa didn't say anything else. "What of it?" he asked.
"We...gave the Duke a Stone."
A bolt of cold terror, electrifying Malak's stone, itching down his spine and crawling along his heels. Trust Rafa to see farther than he did.
He took a deep breath to quell his shock. "Whatever their powers, I doubt a demon could take Duke Barinten so easily."
Rafa nodded slowly. "Perhaps you're right." She still seemed hesitant. "But how would we know he had been...taken?"
Malak shook his head. "It won't come to that."
"It might, Mal," Rafa said. "You...you just said, part of your service to the Duke meant being able to admit his weaknesses, to listen to our fears. He is not omnipotent. Faced with a foe of legend..."
Malak clenched his fists at his side, and took a deep breath.. What was Rafa even talking about? "We would know if he was...overcome."
"How?" Rafa insisted.
Malak took another breath, closing his eyes. Rafa was right. He had to be willing to consider the most horrible possibilities. Even Barinten's death..
"He would not be the man we knew," Malak answered. "He would be driven by base urges. He would destroy everything he touched. He would be cruel, and terrible, and would use his power to-"
Malak broke off. Had he imagined it, or had Rafa's face changed? Had she, just for a moment, worn the same mad look that had possessed her when she had smashed her way through Riovanes, seeking vengeance on the Duke for her nightmares?
Then Malak understood, and he felt himself a fool. Trust Rafa to see farther than he did, true, trust her to see the danger posed by legendary demons that Malak hadn't even considered, but just because she saw farther didn't mean she was immune to fear. Trust her to see the threat, and then to imagine her worse nightmares realized: to believe that the Duke could be the monster that had driven her to madness in her youth.
But he the leader of the Hand, and if he could quiet the others' fears, he could certainly quiet his sister's.
"Rafa," Malak said, striding forwards and putting his hands on her shoulders. She did not meet his gaze: her eyes were glazed, fixed upon the ground. "It's okay to be afraid."
Rafa managed a trembling nod. "I know."
"And I'm...grateful," Malak said. "So grateful you're here. So grateful you see things I don't, think of things I don't. I..." He closed his eyes. "If you think I'm a good leader, it's only because you help me to be one."
"Mal..." When he opened his eyes, she was looking at him. "No, that's not true-"
"It is," Malak insisted. "And we have to be careful. Armies, Templars, heretics, Ramza Beoulve...there's a lot to be scared of." He squeezed her shoulders. "But you don't have to be scared of something that's not real. The Duke's not a monster."
That old darkness on her face. Malak sighed, and wondered if they would ever be rid of it. "I thought he was still giving you your lessons?" Malak asked.
There was no mistaking the way her face changed this time. The nightmare darkness crashed across her face like a wildfire devouring a forest. Malak had to fight the urge to flinch back from her.
"Mal-" she began, with that darkness still heavy in her face..
"Mal!" called another voice from above.
Malak looked up, as Clarice landed on the rooftop overlooking the alley. "He's here!"
Mal stared up at Clarice, then back down to Rafa. The darkness in her face was just as heavy as before, and Mal gave her shoulders a reassuring squeeze before looking back up to Clarice. "Bring him!" Mal shouted.
Clarice nodded, but did not depart immediately. Malak gave her a long, measured look. "What's wrong?"
"He's..." Mal trailed off. "What?"
"No sign of his allies. I'm not seeing anyone shadowing him, I'm not seeing a camp in the mountains...nothing."
"But that's...that can't be..." Malak felt a flutter of panic in his stomach. Were they already in the city? Did Ramza have more allies than they'd anticipated? What was he missing?
Had to seize him while they had a chance. Once he was in their power, they rest would fall into place.
"Bring him here, then do a quick recon sweep!" he called to her, with all the authority and confidence he could muster. "They have to be somewhere!"
Clarice nodded again, and launched herself into the air. Malak looked back at his sister, at eyes as wild as a scared animal's, at a face filled with pain and doubt and uncertainty. "You can sit this one out, Raf," he said. "You've done more than enough."
Slowly, Rafa shook her head. Her eyes focused, though her jaw was clenched. "No," she said. "We...we have a job to do." She took a deep, shuddering breath. "We...we can't fail him."
Malak managed a weak smile. "No," he agreed. "We can't."
He released her, and without a word she turned and entered their cellar room, to fetch Clara and Berkeley for the night's work ahead. Malak watched her go, his heart aching, his thoughts racing. What if she went mad again, trying to hurt their lord? Or (even worse) what if her madness allowed her to see the Lucavi claim Barinten, and Malak was blind to see it? And putting aside all of that: what if her madness cost them Ramza Beoulve now?
Malak took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. He reached out for his swords, felt his blood within their metal,and with a thought lifted both of them from their sheathes, so they hovered beside him. Taking slow, even breaths, he followed Rafa down the stairs, seeing in that murky, shadowy way he saw through his swords, not through eyes but through his mind.
Yes, he was afraid—afraid of Rafa's madness, afraid of the threat of the Lucavi, afraid of Ramza's hidden allies. But he hadn't lied to the Hand. Fear was a tool to be used, to sharpen his senses, to sharpen his mind. He was afraid, and he would use that fear to protect his friends, his sister, and Grand Duke Barinten.