The snows come early, even for midwinter.
Acolytes shuffle themselves dutifully together to clear the stairwells. Their formal coats are faded dots of color in the repeating blizzards, stumbling sleepy, ant-trundling on their daily chores. Breakfast will be a welcome relief when they are done, but I know from experience that they will be occupied for at least another hour to come.
I watch as a pair of them meet on a balcony far below. One drops their shovel with a clang that rattles all the way up through the temple; they retrieve it with a guilty yank, giving a bird's wary glance around before they jerk their head up to see if any of the guards have noticed.
Upon seeing me motionless upon the Highbridge, they drop into a hasty ritual bow so quickly that their shovel almost strikes their companion.
Coffee freezes in my hands. I grip the earthen mug and feel the waning heat seep into my palms. Gloveless, the blood circulates sluggishly, leaving my fingers pale on their pads. The color is dusty, sullen, and disliking of the temperatures despite my skin color. I lift one stiff hand up to greet the acolytes back and promptly am forced to cover a yawn with it instead.
They scurry away, taking advantage of my distraction to vanish.
No matter how many times I may coax myself out of bed, I will never enjoy these early Yevon mornings.
Dawn watch is a prolonged task of punishment. I rise earlier than the priests who form the council of New Yevon; this is by choice, despite the numerous rationalizations that erupt each morning when I drag myself out of bed. When my feet hit the chilled stone of the floor, I think not of politics, but of diving right back underneath my blankets and remaining there.
The advantage in waking comes entirely in allocation of the younger members of the faction. Receiving reports from and delivering orders to various acolytes keeps them busy earlier in the day, rendering them unavailable to other priests. Each morning when the older priests finally rouse themselves, they discover that I have already been up for hours. My own machinations have had head starts.
My true business might be as minor as ordering another report on Kilika's import rates, but the message is clear.
The younger acolytes are mine. I claim them by right of my own business and my willingness to manage them, and find numerous means to keep them occupied whenever a priest might have need. They take diction from me. That is all the message I need, and more.
Unfortunately, I have begun to lose so much sleep that I have thought about training myself to nap while standing upright on the ramparts.
This morning births itself in frail light. The winter storm that swept down from the north of Bevelle has hung over the city since yesterday's noon, and the only cloud-breaks have been fleeting as a trader's discounts. Travel has been choked off near the pass leading to the Macalania Woods. Effectively, the temple is enclosed in a cave of white ice. All we can do is wait it out.
A squeak of snow is initial warning of a visitor.
"Lord Baralai." The voice is unfamiliar at first; I recollect it between the moments it takes for the priest to troddle his steps across the Highbridge. He makes a muttered curse when an icy patch causes him to waver. I refrain from turning until I hear the man's recovery.
Marked by name, the elder halts. His hawk-wisped hair is weighed by the snow which feathers down the strands into a cold-spoked crown. Past his prime with middle-age but a memory, Shollain is one of those rare finds in Bevelle --a priest who believes in the absolute justice of authority once it has been placed, that the structure of an establishment is a requisite for all civilization. While he does not trust me entirely, nor I him, he is willing to yield to the tides.
It helps, naturally, when the oceans speak in a tongue he finds sweet to his ears.
"You should not have stirred yourself at this hour, lord Yhollain." Switching my cup to the balcony rail, I snap my hand out to halt his traditional bow. Even as his eyes crease, I am claiming the manuever for myself. Palm over palm; head lowered and then I am straightening, my chin the last thing to rise. Deference.
The movement reminds him of tradition. So long as I am dressed in it, I am a part of Yevon. I am what he has lived to serve.
"What news brings you out here so early?"
"Lord Baralai." Unable to recover his bow to me now that I have [subsumed] the move, Yhollain simply repeats my name and title. "I'm afraid there have been no spheres found after the theft. It... may be that Lord Trema truly was the one..."
Faltering, Yhollain ends there.
My cup is heavy in my hand when I pick it back up. I ignore it as best I can as I shift its weight in my fingers, unwilling to expose my palms when they are empty lest a stray act of body language say too much. "Please keep at it." Even to my own ears, my voice sounds callous against Yhollain's crumbling hopes. "There are a few... personal spheres."
"Ah--yes, my lord." Doubt wars in the priest's mind. The nature of my demand wrests him out of it. "The ones you marked red?'
I nod. Reply comes mechanical from my mouth, carefully bland. "Yes. You have no need to look at them."
The taste of my own indifference is sour as leftover cream against my tongue.
"Perhaps it was the Youth League insolents that have stolen them," the elder mutters. His hands squirrel into his sleeves; gnarled fingers bunch like tree roots in moss-cloth. "That would be just like those meddlesome heathens, what with all the trouble they have been stirring. I wouldn't be surprised if..."
I will not let him win.
"Find the crimson spheres for me," I order softly, breaking through the mumbled rhythm of the priest's condemnations. "I want them back."
When Yhollain finally departs, hissing a personal litany of rancor against all forms of rebellion, I lean heavily upon the rail and stare down at the changing of the guard.
It has been six months since Trema's autumn disappearance. I played as much the ignorant as the rest of New Yevon, reacting with indifference at first when the Founder was absent from his meals, and then with mounting surprise as each scrap of news trickled in. No, Trema had not been seen at the libraries. Nor leaving the temple either. Did anyone imagine him to have been summoned elsewhere?
The guards knew I had gone to see him during the week, but my affairs with relocating the spheres to the Via had been performed in back corridors, with none to incriminate me. Bevelle's secret passageways opened themselves like a stonework flower.
I use them more often than I should now, slipping through the gaps between buildings, suffusing myself in the thrum of the generators while I walk.
When the search was performed upon Trema's study, I attended under the pretense of incompetent helpfulness. There had been spheres, I pointed out helpfully, but now they were strangely absent from Trema's quarters. Perhaps they had been related to his disappearance?
Rooted by the fireplace mantle with my feet firmly upon the edge of the carpet, I nodded to every question while the guards went over every inch of the room save where I stood. I fidgeted my hands at least once, and made sure to stammer when asking if the Founder would be safe.
It worked. Determining me outside the range of Trema's more intimate plans, the priests left me aside in their private quarrels for who would lead New Yevon next. No one imagined that I might have power without the Founder to back me. Certainly not knowledge that might unseat them. When I first began to call on the younger acolytes for my own tasks, they expected only that I was engaged in mundane work around the temple.
Rather than leave the Founder's study to be claimed by the next priest or councilman greedy enough to hope for such a role, I moved my own possessions there overnight. More than one secret waits within these chambers. I do not wish for others to find them before I can either seal them up, or determine them harmless.
Just as readily as that, Trema is gone.
To the rest of the world, the official reasoning is that he has retired for meditations on Spira's future. I wonder how long that lie will hold.
As for the reality, I do not know when the Founder might return. The spheres which power the access glyph to the Via Infinito have been removed by my own hand, secured within a cubbyhole in a storage passageway where no priest would think to look. I myself was barely able to fit. At first I feared that Trema would be able to return from the Via through a secret way, to reverse the lock from within, but there has been only silence.
For all I know, he could escape at any time, and simply has chosen not to.
The winter draws itself around me as I wait upon the Highbridge. Ice has packed hard upon the banners which are laced from balcony to gate, until not even the wind can move them.
In my mind's eye, all I can see is reddening snow.
There are books in Trema's study about the Mi'ihen Crusaders, logs of what looks to be personal accounts over the years from numerous officers. Again and again I find in the margins angry annotations--Trema's script declaring that the Crusaders were only so strong as their enemy, and that he should have planned better. Bile dents the pages deep with the force of Trema's quill strokes. I understand little, wading through the sporadic thoughts left behind in shorthand, but none of it serves to reassure me.
What was Trema? Exactly how old was the man? An elderly priest near the end of his natural lifespan should not have been driven by the desire to change the future. Records show that the Founder was already old when he was involved with Bevelle, but never before Sin's final Sending did he appear upon the books as a figure of import.
What past was Trema seeking so desperately to escape, that he wanted to drag all of Spira with him?
I cannot be sure. I don't even known that the threat, if any, Trema might have presented to Spira is gone. Like Vegnagun, he is another secret harbored by Bevelle--and, like Vegnagun, the lack of knowledge can become deadly.
Or hidden. With the Den of Woe sealed by the Crimson Lock, and most of the spheres that would unkey it lost to Trema's destructive ideals, I do not think there are enough left to possibly reopen the portal again.
The stories of the Teams will be forgotten. Team Four's goodwilling camaraderie. Team Three's wariness. Team Six's rebellion, and our own squad's moonlit laughter. The deaths of all the Squad in the end at the Den of Woe, all save the four of us who escaped to share the truth with no one.
With that knowledge, I find my conscience easing in regards to the Via Infinito. The spheres the Founder had claimed had been the distraction that allowed me to seal up the chamber, and they have exacted their own revenge upon the man who wished to erase them.
In time, Trema will also be forgotten.
He would have wanted it that way.
And now it is up to the younger members of New Yevon to stretch our wings, and see what it is we might reap.
Nooj broke away from New Yevon when word got out that Trema disappeared. Knowing him, he may have suspected a coup on my part--or hoped for one, fulfilling the criteria spelt out by his own private game. Nearly half of the Seekers went with him upon the discovery that their hard-won spheres had been stolen by the Founder. The rest are being lured away by the prospect of freelance, selling their finds to either New Yevon or Nooj's mob now that there is a choice of buyers.
Sphere Hunters, they're calling it now. A glamorous title for thieves.
Gippal's keeping his word, and remaining out of the whole deal. Yevon has left him control of Djose, in accordance to my orders, and I claim justification based upon the developments in machina that Gippal's Al Bhed are advancing. New Yevon thinks we're using him; let the priests believe so, as long as they leave Djose in peace.
Bevelle spreads out below me. Even covered in heavy drifts of snow that bulk the rooftops as a beast with its winter coat, I can identify the buildings from here that network tunnels back and forth between them. The western half of the temple is occupied by three of the younger acolytes today, stationed with the purpose of clearing out Bevelle's natural canals from the ice that builds up around their drainage slots. Their visibility is high; marked by their Lustrum coats, they will see and be seen by all the guards.
That's what I'm planning on.
Gella is assigned to the eastern half today, having taken over training of the acolytes in staff practice. All of them look up to her; they admire her talent, and she no longer bothers to speak in any accent other than her native village. Her hair is short-trimmed all the time now. Her wardrobe, she took great delight in telling the rest of us, consists entirely of pants and jerkins.
With the outcry upon the disappearance of the spheres and subsequent vilification of Trema, very few priests have focused upon the Lustrum. They are assumed to be pawns in waiting, patiently discarded until the council determines what to do with them.
I was the only one of them who might have proven dangerous, with my history working for the Founder. My initiative with the acolytes betrays ambition. By now, a number of the higher council have begun to realize that I may very well be in a position to desire power for my own, but they are weighed in their stalls by tradition. They believe their roles invincible, that their only enemies would come from their own ranks, and not from the young. The past makes them heavy. They cannot abandon it, even if doing so would open their eyes to the growing shape of the future.
I have met the newest praetor. He is not that much older than I am, already a puppet of his father; that priest, I have met as well, during a recitation of the state of Kilika to Bevelle's councilmen. The praetor and his father both dismissed me when I averted my eyes in deference to their station.
They do not expect me to be a threat to their power either.
The hour has crept past morning rise by the time that Dopha comes to find me. He is always late when he checks in, ever since the winter began. Once the delay was so long that I went looking and found him still huddled by the fires, screwing up his expression into tight-lipped reluctance when I asked him about his absence.
Dopha likes the cold even less than I do. He compensates by dressing in heavier clothes now that the Lustrum uniform code has been almost completely discarded by the senior acolytes. I have returned to my green jackets, Gella to her practice outfits. For his own part, Dopha purchased an overlarge jacket with inner wools that, he complained to me later, smelled as if it was used to warm the man's chocobos.
The jacket makes it easy to distinguish Dopha from any of the guards or other priests who might travel the Highbridge in poor weather. I see him well by the time he turns the second curve of the walkway, navigating over the main temple gates and closer to where I wait. Rather than call out, I only wait for his approach, and say his name when he is on the final stretch.
"Dopha. Taking your time again?"
The Lustrum doesn't wait to greet me in turn before he lifts his voice. "I heard Yhollain muttering this morning while he was coming down the stairs, but he took the long way around. That's why I thought you were on the opposite side of the temple." Irked with the novice-level deception, Dopha works his way across the snow towards me. His balance, never completely steady, wavers upon explosion of a sneeze. "Nnn--not that you could be bothered to come inside. Would it kill you to do this watch from underneath a covered walkway instead?"
Hiding my smile as Dopha reaches me, I watch as he lumps himself against the balcony, a perfect picture of sinus-stuffed misery.
My reward is another long snort. Dopha wrinkles his nose, squints eyes that are certainly much less swollen than he pretends. "I've got good news." His affront at the cold is coin collected, swept aside once business has replaced table gambling. "No one's noticed Somasil's return yet, or the change in records. He's taken up quarters near the sculleries. Guessing from how healthy he looks, I think he's glad to be back."
"That's a relief." One glance is all it takes to my long-chilled mug upon the thick stone railing, before I leave it to the mercy of the snow. Several flakes drop directly into the liquid and float upon the surface before gradually yielding to the substance, melting away as bodies might drown, soundless. "Then we've chosen well in our timing. What about Shelinda? Has she been kept out of trouble?"
"I think Gella has her reorganizing all the equipment in the training hall." Wiping a drop off his nose, Dopha halts to frown in my direction. "Baralai... she told me the other day that she was thinking about leaving Bevelle, that she feels too pushed around by everyone here. Is that really what you want?"
Colors drown in the monochrome of the snow, but I recall clearly the play of red firelight, the war of blue lamp-streaks. A conversation born a year ago. Shelinda, and her questions. Helplessness.
For once, Dopha does not force the issue. He jams his fingers into his hair to rake clumps of half-melted ice out, spreading woolen gloves against his scalp. One drop of mucus clings to the tip of his nose. I watch him in silence, and then remember to speak.
"Did you hear anything from the council meeting?"
"More than I wanted to." Disgruntled, Dopha creases his face in a grimace, promptly puffing away a snowflake that meshes with his errant bangs. No one suspects Dopha of cunning past his own calculations and gawkishness; this is precisely why I ask him to watch Bevelle's more intricate business. "The new praetor's thinking about sending an emissary to Besaid. It looks like they're planning to try and contact the High Summoner. Probably as an ally, to keep her from running loose."
Thought of the Lady Yuna overcasts my thoughts. Her sudden retirement to Besaid after Sin's destruction had brought on waves of gossip. This is not the first time her name has appeared on the council's business, but no serious gestures had been made before now.
I would be a fool at my own game to think that a woman who once reversed the fate of Spira could not do the same twice.
Judgment evicts itself slowly from my mouth. "They're looking for a way to cement the new praetor's power. A political setup. Nothing more," I add, seeking to convince myself as well as the Lustrum. Even as I say the words, I can think of a thousand ways to disaster. "They won't be able to befriend her, either. Her experiences at Yevon's hands will leave her wary of their initial overtures. But if we wait until she comes to us... we'll look much better than if we tried knocking on her door."
Dopha is silent, and I continue patient declamation of the ruse as the snow tumbles down. "The council won't last for long. They come from before New Yevon's time, and still expect that tradition will favor them solely on age alone." When I shake my head, ice flakes tumble free. "No. I don't think the Lady Yuna would surrender herself to Bevelle so easily, not after her last marriage."
Ironic, how Seymour's presence helps us from the grave. The suspicions that he raised hover upon Bevelle like a black-winged shadow, looming in proof of the merits of distrust.
Blowing a sigh through his cheeks, Dopha presses forward, leaning upon the balcony with little regard to the snow that sticks in clumps to his heavy jacket. "I'm not looking forward to whatever the praetor's planning, Baralai. I like working the way we are now. Where we're in charge of ourselves," he notes, turning his head towards me, the slouch of his shoulders matching the scholar's wheedle in his voice. "Just us."
I understand his sentiment. Complete haste will only ruin us, but in comparison to Yevon, we are already soaring fast as a machina through the sky.
"Take it one step at a time, Dopha. We'll have our chance."
"I suppose." Placated, the Lustrum relinquishes his displeasure, blinking eyes heavy with a squint. Then he straightens. "Look." One finger rises, pointing at the sky. "The storm's lightening."
Startled out of thoughts that layer like the dust of Bevelle's stairwells, I turn my eyes upwards. At first the monochrome pallor of the storm blends into a single watercolor wash. Then, as I squint, I think I can pick out variance in that eggshell-smooth blur. Ridges of cloud puffs sail forth in slow motion. The worst of their fury spent, they begin to disperse at their own, patient pace.
Dopha is speaking, and there is a laugh of nostalgia deep against his tongue. "Remember last year when we had to hang up the garlands? Because of Larsolia? I can't believe everything that's gone on since then. But look at us. Everything's changed so fast, even though it can be hard to tell. I don't even know why I'm reminded about Larsolia right now." Dopha, careless with his own thoughts as they run out of his mouth in a stream's babble, gives a shrug. "I guess... I could blame it on the weather."
Time doubles itself upon the Highbridge now that Dopha has spoken, comparing the present to what is now only history. The past unfurls in a rush. There were guards last year, that I remember, but I had been wary of them and saw them only as a faceless mass to avoid. The Lustrum had been strangers. Bevelle was a faction that concerned me only because of Vegnagun, with nothing of the politics that have encompassed me since then.
A year ago, and I thought it truly was for the best if I kept Paine from becoming involved, no matter what the cost.
Larsolia. I realize it has been months since I last thought back on that fateful day, and my accidental encounter with Trema in the meeting hall.
Silent now, arms folded upon the railing beside my cup, Dopha leans forward to watch the temple below. I have gone quiet beside him, my head tilted up to see the sky. No flakes fall into my eyes. There is only cold, clear air, surrounding us both with the promise of winter's eternity. White blankets Bevelle, unstained for now, but with crimson secrets sleeping beneath the drifts.
"Yes," I find myself saying, whispering into the sussure of clouds parting overhead. "Snow can remind us of so many things."
This concludes Red as Snow. I'd like to thank everyone who's read this and Blind Spot, and who have left their comments on the way. Both stories have been slow, with numerous delays in their chapters, and the plot hasn't been as action-packed as other tales. Because of this, I appreciate everyone who's been willing to stick it out with this fic. Thank you.
In particular, I'd like to thank anyone who's left feedback, especially the repeat readers; I'd never have finished Blind Spot otherwise, and I definitely would not have ever started Red as Snow. Your encouragement has been invaluable. When all's said and done, I hope this fic was worth your time.
There will be a third installment in the Blind Spot/Red as Snow series later, in a fic request titled Him in Her that focuses entirely on Baralai and Paine post-game. The style will be completely different, so consider it a side story.