Author's Note: Set afterBlind Spot, this is my poor attempt to continue to explain just why the Crimson Spheres are 1. Used to open the Den of Woe, 2. In the Via Infinito.
POV Baralai, following his experiences after the Crimson Squad. Spoilers for Baralai, the Via Infinito, and Trema. In fact, spoilers for the entire games of FFX and FFX-2.
Red as Snow
In my dream, she is smiling. That is how I know it is not real.
Her hair is long. Much longer than it should be because it is let down, long as a swordfighter would never allow it lest it become entangled in one's blade and one's eyes and that be the difference between a wound mortal and a wound slight. Her hair starts that way when I am looking at her shoulder, but by the time my gaze moves up to her face, it has transformed itself into doves that rise into the sky.
"I'm dreaming," I tell her, feathers surrounding us both. And she smiles.
That is how I know it is not real.
Which makes it so much easier to be able to look at her, straight in the face. Past those crimson eyes of hers that have always been her strongest color. I can say the truth to her, gentle, such as the reality of "You're not here." Then later, "You were never here," and eventually, "Goodbye."
She is a creature of russet when she fades away from me. Brown collapses into red like mud-water reversed when a suicide opens their veins in the river; night swells the corners of my vision while my sight is obscured. I am drowning in warm blood. Everything smells like her, right until I feel like vomiting.
When I wake, my hair is always spread out on my pillow tangled. My face is buried in its mess. The world looks grey when I first open my eyes, grey strands from my scalp and grey fibers of my pillowcase, and then I lift my head dizzily and remind myself that both are white. It takes an effort.
They say that there are teas you can drink to help you sleep better, mixtures that the shoreline healers use that taste of berries and a few from the mountains that are thickened by dust. Other charms exist that the fisherfolk use so that they will not be kept awake in terrified conviction that the thump of a barrel against the hold is actually Sin's fin come calling. Tie coins in your hair, or beads. Drink elixirs that leave you groggy the next morning. Do anything it takes, so long as you can keep your thoughts bottled up until the next day comes and you can properly distract yourself until night returns to haunt you like the smell of a lover's sweat in your clothes. Then do it again. And again. And again.
If the tossing and turning I do at night is any indication, I will need all these methods and more.
The covers are thick in Bevelle. While the climate itself has never been half as balmy as that of the more temperate ports, nor as strict as Mount Gagazet, winter does not show mercy here. Sheets get bunched up at the bottom of the bed when I kick them at night; every morning I have had to excavate them from the heavy quilts, yanking them back up to the proper corners so I pretend I sleep undisturbed. Were it not that my breath mists in the air from the chill, I might think to go without any blankets whatsoever.
Breakfasts are delivered in the main halls unless you are fortunate enough to have a maid on call. This is from necessity. Coffee that is left steaming in thick mugs before your door will turn tepid before you have the time to drink more than the upper third of the liquid, so the priests take advantage of those of us who enjoy hot food to hand out daily assignments to those who make it to the dining tables. Orders are given out right alongside the bread. Whoever has the seat closest to the fire is naturally assumed to have arrived first. They are rewarded for their willingness to sacrifice sleep for a display of duty by being granted the easiest chores, so it has become a scramble to bolt down the stairs before you are even fully awake just so you can be blessed for false devotion.
I could be one of them. Being exemplary will only net you unwanted attention, however, so instead I wait until the thumps pounding down stonework stairs tallies three or four sets of feet. Then I depart for breakfast. It is a formality only; even though I do not plan to follow the typical path to power inside of Yevon's practices, starting off with appropriate humility will win me support with the younger acolytes.
New Yevon, some say, is just a different word for the same beast. They are right. There are ancients to unseat who have entrenched themselves deeply into Bevelle's politics, and if I wish to confront them here on their home turf and survive, I must be cautious about it.
My greatest stroke of luck so far is that everyone I would need dead already is.
It was easier than I had hoped to return to Bevelle; Seymour had, unaccountably, kept true to his word of erasing me from the Crimson Squad. I saw the records once and found a stranger's name written where my life had been. By the sound of the letters, they had imitated a man from Djose in my stead, given him better marks in hand-to-hand combat and worse grades in tactical planning.
I should not have been irritated. My simulacrum stand-in failed anyway in the end. This is my security, when the other three are still considered alive. No one remembers the Crimson Squad directly; they have all been killed by now, the primary instructors in charge of our terminations, but I do not like to take chances at this point in time. Not anymore. I did so once when I turned my back for only an instant, and then woke up with Highroad dust gumming my eyes and the bodies of my comrades laid out in beds beside me.
Paine was right about that much. I might just be too conservative. Right now, I am labeling it as caution.
Being well acquainted with the habits of the maesters means that even in death, I do not trust Seymour. Paper trails are one thing. Machina records are another, and long hours spent accessing Bevelle's databanks has shown me that the half-Guado was honorable in the letter of his word. I do not exist as anything more than a hired hand taken on by the maester shortly before his unfortunate demise.
However, there must have been some lever that the half-Guado was planning to extort my future loyalty with, and that I have not yet found. It is too much to hope that Seymour has not kept backup records of the ones he had destroyed. Somewhere unseen there lurks a beast composed of all the files of my past activities, and whoever has that in their hands will have all they desire to remind Bevelle I have reason to dislike it. I will be destroyed unless I can find it first. That or I will be owned, with knowledge as my leash; of the two, I am not yet sure which option will bring me the truth.
I do not have allies. Nooj taught me that lesson. You cannot keep friends close to you no matter how sincere they are because they will only distract you, blind you to the snake that is coiling around the rosebush.
It is better by far to travel the hard road without them. Gippal would never be able to master infiltration to Yevon's ranks. Nor would he want to; it simply isn't his methodology. The Al Bhed is too direct, too honest. At any other time I would say that was a virtue, but we all have our lives on the line with this gamble.
Paine is equally unsuitable. I tell myself this even though I cannot think of a good reason why.
The best excuse I can come up with is one I repeat every morning when I clatter down the cold stone stairs. Paine should not be involved any further because she had not seen the cave as the three of us had. Paine's hair is short as a fencer's and I do things around her that I am not ready for, such as look at her face and start to smile and forget that Bevelle is my task to manage.
Love is Paine, and if intend to keep it that way, I should not seek her out ever again.
Only Nooj and I have the experience of lies to be able to hunt out the truth of the Den of Woe. I have a head start on him by searching amidst the priests directly. It was there that I learned that our Team was being blamed for the deaths of all the others; we were the only ones who made it out alive, and without reasonable explanation for the insanity within the cave, our Team was the natural scapegoat.
Prices were assigned to our heads for a short time. I believe that Nooj's was the highest as he had been blamed as the ringleader for our collective acts. The cost on my replacement's was average, surprisingly, but as he never existed, the reward has gone unclaimed. Now only Gippal's remains. I could not cancel the Al Bhed out as neatly as I had Paine's listing when I had access to the records, but at least she is safe from hunters.
The Deathseeker has certain advantages of his own. He has a reputation already established and did not have to sell himself for a brief time to any maester in order to win a way back into Bevelle's heart. Nooj's sins in the Squad were overlooked in favor of his achievements in the Crusaders, but also largely because Maester Kinoc was dead by that time and could not argue otherwise.
This was good. I cannot mourn Kinoc during prayer hours because I am glad to have him gone, though I bow my head in fortified respect just in case it will keep him that way.
We have chosen very different fields to embark on our war against one another. Mine is secretive by default. I do not have the preplanned alliances that Nooj has mastered with his time in the Crusaders, but that means I have a relatively clean slate to work with. I must use this to my advantage if I wish to survive my search for answers, and arrive there before the Deathseeker triumphs.
For all my work, there is a great weakness at its heart. The records that Seymour must have kept are evidence enough to turn the priests upon me if they believe it will bind me to loyalty. Experience has proven that Bevelle enjoys addition of blame if even one drop of weakness is tasted on the air; it is not my involvement with the Squad that worries me so much as the knowledge that I will join the ranks of those conveniently disappeared if it suits the dominant priests to do so.
Not only are the documents troublesome. There remain numerous spheres from the Crimson Squad itself out there in the world, and each can be plucked and played at any viewer's whim.
I know this because I still own one.