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Chapter 91: The Gamble

"Here," Barinten said, with a single curt gesture of a finger.

The golden-feathered bird remained at the far end of the pen, shying back from him. Barinten gave a single nod to Parnela, who aimed the shock rod at the creature's rump; with a [i]crackle[/i] of lightning, the bird squawked and staggered to the center of the enclosure.

"We'll do it as many times as we have to, my friend," Barinten said, and made the same gesture with the same finger. "Here."

The chocobo was unusually stubborn; it kept its distance from him, no matter how many times it was shocked. Barinten was almost glad for its willful nature; watching it squawk and warble and shriek in pain was a welcome distraction from his uncertainties.

He and Malak had been trying something new with their blood-based communication during the Hand's mission to Yardrow; rather than taking the full vial, Barinten would take a little bit precisely at dawn, to see if any kind of communication was possible. A droplet was too little, but approximately a quarter of a vial allowed for a limited form of messaging. For the past few days, their dawn exchanges had been more-or-less the same.

What news, Malak?

None, my liege.

There was sometimes room for a little more—a question, a reassurance—but taking so little of the blood meant the effect washed away quickly. Too short a communication to do much with (though he had felt Malak's restlessness, carefully repressed, and approved of his subordinate's nervousness; better to be desperate to impress than calm to the point of apathy).

But two days past, their exchange had been somewhat different.

What news, Malak?

The Hand marches for Riovanes, my liege. Rafa will be bringing Ramza behind us.

This had been the last part of the vial, the communication just barely long enough to allow their message. But Malak's feelings were quite different now; the restlessness was outright anxiety, almost fear. And the connection was severed before Barinten could ask any other questions.

What did the message mean? If the Hand had secured Ramza, why was he coming behind them? If the Hand had not secured Ramza, why would Malak have given him such a message? And why had Rafa been left behind?

There was no chance of her having defected—none whatsoever. Barinten had been very careful with her conditioning, carefully researched from the records of old Ydorans with their dangerous subordinates and only slightly modified to suit his particular tastes; every part of it was perfectly designed to leave her unable to bring her abilities to bear against him, to enforce obedience and eradicate defiance. It was even more thorough than what he would eventually do to this stubborn bird...

But there was a reason his conditioning had been so thorough. The Hand was a tool, after all—like any sword, like any gun, like any magic. They were a useful tool, and Barinten treated them with care...because even the most useful tools can kill their users, if they are not used properly. Barinten had relatively ordinary security measures to deal with the rest of the Hand, if the unthinkable should happen and they should turn on him (special warding glyphs to break Clara's time magic and Malak's blood magic; special defensive gear to shatter Clarice; and at least twice a year since Berkeley had come into Barinten's care, Barinten had insisted they perform infiltration exercises on Riovanes itself to hone their skills...and to train his staff on how to catch someone like Berkeley).

But Rafa's magic left no such defense, save attrition. And how much damage could she cause, if no one could stand in her way? He had only one weapon prepared that could hurt her...and at 25,000 gil a bullet, even he could not afford more than a few shots.

So what if the unthinkable had happened? If the Hand had revolted? If what was returning now was not his victorious elite but a squad of rebels, determined to kill him?

Unlikely. But not impossible. And Grand Duke Gerith Barinten had secured neither his power nor his position by taking unnecessary risks.

He had already given orders to his Khamja, preparing the Castle for any tricks the Templars might try. It was easy enough to expand their orders—to bring up the special armor for specific squads, to have his mages and architects strengthen key runes in key rooms, to drill his guards again on the same exercises they'd run with Berkeley.

And he brought up the gun he'd had unearthed from the stores of the Exile himself; the so-called "revolver," carefully restored by Khamja's household machinist, with its six expensive bullets. He wore that gun on a special holster that slung across his chest, artfully concealed beneath whatever clothes he wore. He was wearing it when word came from his forward scouts that the Hand had been sighted, moving double-time across the pontoon bridge out of the marshes and dead forests to the castle's south. He gave instructions to his staff; the Hand were to be treated with the utmost care, given whatever they asked and thorough medical attention...one-on-one, separated from each other.

He was waiting in his salon when there was a gentle knock upon his door. "Enter," he called, without looking up from his book, and Malak did so at once, striding purposefully towards him. A shock of alarm; did Malak really mean to kill him?

But as Barinten started to reach for his revolver, Malak fell to one knee in front of him. "My lord," Malak said,bowing his head. "Rafa has defected."

Barinten stared at his protege. He started to speak, found his throat was too dry, swallowed and tried again. "Rafa has...defected?" he repeated. He tried to add a note of comical surprise to his voice, to hide the hot flash of fear and rage crackling from the crown of his head to the root of his groin.

Malak nodded ""Or at least, so Ramza Beoulve believes."

The Grand Duke pursed his lips. The fire of his rage dimmed a little, though that only made the dark weight of his fears press all the more heavily.

Grand Duke Gerith Barinten had secured neither his power nor his position by taking unnecessary risks, but no man who ever hopes to win or hold can do so without the occasional gamble, and Barinten was gambling now as he had never gambled before. The Throne alone was an incredible prize (either being the power behind it or sitting upon it himself, but no, put that thought aside, don't fly too close to the flame, even with Alma Beoulve in his clutches, even with his vague scheme of a marriage alliance that might let you usurp Prince Larg), but it might well pale in comparison to the secrets of the Zodiac Stones. So many legends surrounded them, from the teachings of the Ydroan Pharists to the pagan myths of three continents to the deeds of Saint Ajora himself. To learn those secrets...to command the power of a god, to reshape the world world as he willed...!

Such were the prizes he might claim...if he could best the others players in this game. But besting such potentates would not be easy; Barinten's goals ran counter to two prospective Kings, the unimaginable power of the Glabados Church, and the unknown potential of the Stones and their wielders. The would-be kings commanded well-oiled war machines with every reason to crush those they saw as traitors to their cause. If the Church truly saw Barinten as a danger, it would brand him as a heretic even faster than it had branded Ramza Beoulve. And the Templars who had hatched this Brave conspiracy were the only men in this country whose knowledge of the old Ydoran arts might rival (or even exceed!) his own. Who knew whats powers they commanded, even without the Stones?

What did Barinten have in his corner? A defensible country of thin paths over marshy land, which would forestall major offenses by all but the most determined armies, and even then only at a cost that would render any victory too costly to seek. A small but elite cadre of powerful soldiers who practiced effective fighting arts from within and without Ivalice, including secrets last known to the Ydorans. And his most essential advantage was his Hand, whose skills were the best of the best...and whose loyalty was supposed to be absolute.

So his most trusted lieutenant was taking initiative, exactly as Barinten had trained him. But even if Malak was telling the truth, he had taken a dangerous risk. And if he wasn't telling the truth...

(if he's lying Rafa is loose Rafa invincible Rafa overwhelming Rafa with fists that can shatter steel the conditioning will hold it will hold it will hold it will it will it will).

"That was not the plan," Barinten said, with a quizzical note in his voice.

"I know, my lord," Malak said. "I am sorry. If there had been time to tell you..." He trailed off, and regarded Barinten with a look that mingled both regret and certainty. "But you taught me that a field commander must trust his own judgment when circumstances have changed beyond his liege lord's predictions.

Well, Malak certainly didn't lack for confidence. Barinten felt his fear and rage dim a little further. "So what changed?"

"Ramza Beoulve came alone."

Barinten frowned. "Alone?" he repeated. "But the Lionesses? The Machinist? Gaffgarion's daughter?"

"No sign of them," Malk answered.

"But...I don't understand." Barinten did not have to fake the confusion in his voice. "Would that not make your task all the easier? With your powers-"

"We fought his allies once," Malak said. "Two royal mages, a Mage Knight, a Vampire Knight, and an engineer of prodigious talent who has already outfoxed the Church and its agents. And that is without accounting for Olan Durai and his unknown masters."

"Ahhhh." The sigh of relief was almost involuntary: Barinten saw exactly what Malak was trying to explain. "If he had brought a war party-"

"We would have had confidence that he had all his strength," Malak finished. "But without the war party-"

"We have no way of knowing what plot Ramza's allies or benefactors might have," Barinten concluded. Perhaps Ramza's capture would have been the prelude to some larger ambush, or some gambit that might have weakened both the Hand and Barinten. His rage was mere embers now. "But this still seems a great risk-"

"If I may, my liege," Malak said. "It was you and Rafa who gave me the idea."

Barinten arched his eyebrows. "Oh?"

"Rafa was the one who started me thinking," Malak said. "Her gamble with Alma...I fought her, but it was wise. The girl has told us almost all she knows, much more freely than she might have otherwise."

"Quite so," admitted Barinten.

"But the girl is ignorant, both of her brother's true aims and the nature of the Brave Conspiracy." Malak shook his head. "With Izlude Tengille, we have seen full well how difficult a stubborn prisoner can make things. I am certain the the Hand could have captured Ramza, though it may have proven difficult. But without knowing what Ramza or his allies intend...what happens then?"

Barinten almost smiled, to hear his protege repeat his exact thoughts back to him. "So you send Rafa to him as a traitor to our ranks."

"Rafa spoke with Alma," Malak said, with his own half-smile. "She knew exactly what words would gain his trust, and what lies to tell to lure him here. He will come to us twice as fast as if he had been a captive, and twice as willing than if he had been our guest. And with no risk to us, or to you."

This time, Barinten really did smile. "Ingenious, Malak. And you're sure he trusts her?"

"Certain, my lord." Malak almost preened beneath Barinten's approving gaze. "I spied upon their meeting and confirmed it for myself. And when she'd told him what he needed to hear, I announced myself and made...appropriate threats."

"Better and better!" Barinten exclaimed. "You told them when to arrive?"

Malak shook his head regretfully. "I am afraid not, my lord. I feared that having Rafa push him to meet an ultimatum might compromise his trust in her. I am hopeful that the threats I made will spur him on, but..."

"But we cannot be certain." Barinten paused. "So what would you have us do?"

"With your permission, my lord, I will arrange scouting parties to keep an eye upon them," Malak said. "With instructions to bring them both to the Castle, to negotiate his sister's release. With any luck, they will arrive shortly before the Templars."

Barinten pursed his lips again. "Cutting it awfully close..."

"I am sorry, my lord," Malak said, bowing his head still further. "This was the best I could manage in the moment. I am sure if I had had time to consult your properly...

"No, no," Barinten said, as graciously as he could manage. "But it does make things more complicated. If luck is not on our side, we may face the Templars with an empty hand..."

"I would not allow that, my lord!" Malak said, his head snapping up. "That is why I made all haste back here. Rafa will tell us all we need to know of Ramza Beoulve's plans when she arrives. I will tell you all you need to know of Izlude Tengille's."

Barinten blinked. "How do you intend to do that?"

"I have my ways."

Barinten laughed, and his rage died entirely. "Bold indeed, Malak! I had high hopes for you when I found you and your sister in that orphanage, but I never imagined you could so inventive." A spark of black humor, an echo of his anger, ghosted up inside him. "Lucky indeed," he repeated. "Why, can you imagine what I would have to do to you and your sister if you ever truly turned traitor? The...example I would have to set, to make sure no one else spat upon my goodwill?"

Malak closed his eyes and nodded somberly. "Believe me, my lord," Malak said. "These last weeks have given me a great appreciation for the burden of command. I do not understand how you handle it so gracefully. I am glad I will never have to."

The pleasure glowed brighter, and he gave Malak a sly wink. "False humility does not suit you, dear Malak."

Malak grinned. "Then at least trust I am glad I do not have to shoulder your...weighty responsibilities."

Barinten laughed with genuine pleasure. Malak chuckled with him for a moment, but his grin soon faded, and he rose to his feet. "May I be excused, my liege? If I am to break Izlude, I will need time to prepare."

"Of course." Barinten inclined his head. "Full glad I am I found you in that orphanage, Malak of Galthena. The Hand could not exist without you."

Malak flushed with pleasure, offered an especially deep bow, and left the salon. Barinten smiled after him contentedly. He had spoken no lie; Malak had repaid Barinten's investment a hundredfold. The Templars were on their way, and would be brought to see an alliance with him as the only path forward...one way or another. And Rafa would bring him Ramza Beoulve, the Germonique Gospel, and the Zodiac Stones. She knew better than to defy him. He had spent years conditioning her, teaching her how weak she was, carving his supremacy into her nerves. She would never defy him. She could not. She couldn't. She couldn't. She couldn't she couldn't she couldn't-

Barinten took a deep breath. The inside of his skin itched with a need for violence, for control. He needed to exercise his will on another body, break them to fit his needs. Clara and Clarice were here, perhaps...no, no, their gratitude and love was their bond to him, he could not alienate them. Alma Beoulve...but no, no, like Izlude she must not be hurt too badly, she must heal, he could not risk alienating the Beoulves before the game was played out...

Another deep breath. There was no time for pleasure before business. Potential enemies and allies were gathering at the heart of his strength, placing themselves in his power. He would soon know exactly who he could call friend, and who he could call foe. He would soon be closer to dominion over Ivalice than he had ever been. And when all the cards were on the table, he would decide exactly who he would break, and take great pleasure in the breaking.