Author Notes: Another filler chapter of sorts; a new update for Hilda, I would say. Behind the curtains, Queen Brahne has reluctantly exited the stage, and now it's time for Zorn and Thorn to make their appearance… This part starts in a rather uneventful manner, but things get better towards the end, I promise. :) You'll catch another glimpse of Kuja's darker side, which will be stressed even more in the thirteenth chapter. :)

I offer my sincere thanks to everyone who read and reviewed the last installment, especially my unanimous reviewers, whom I haven't been able contact until now. Thank you so much for your support and your wonderful comments! Now that I know that people are still interested in reading this story, I'm even more motivated to keep going! (Though I think I would've continued writing even without a single review in return, because I love Kuja way too much. :D)

Sable, thanks a lot for proofreading this chapter, too!

I hope FFNet isn't going to screw my formatting today. Please, enjoy!

Chapter Twelve

Nearly two weeks after her failed escape attempt, Hilda went back to sweeping the vast palace corridors with the train of her dress. The previous few days she had spent mostly in bed, sulking in a rather unladylike fashion and eating very little, torn between weeping in anger and cursing her own helplessness. The thing that upset her the most was not the fact that she had so easily wasted her opportunity to break free, but the aching certainty that she had never had a reasonable chance in the first place. She didn't have to rely on Kuja's spiteful remarks to realize that. She had already seen the desert from the dragoness' back, on the day the man had come to her rescue. The whole area around the palace was specked with the Antlions' sand pits. Even if she had managed to defeat the creature that had ambushed her at the beginning, its peers would have torn her to shreds—because avoiding one trap would have meant falling straight into another.

Hilda had eventually come to terms with her defeat, resigning herself to the usual routine in her captor's company. What else could she do? She found her prolonging imprisonment even more unbearable than before, now that the outside world was in turmoil, and she had been so roughly reminded of her weakness… yet there was still a spark of hope burning inside her heart. She had been lucky, after all. Kuja had managed to catch up with her not a second too soon, just before the Antlion's pincers had shot forward. She was alive and unscathed today, if only a bit shaken and somewhat humbled before her unlikely savior. Her situation hadn't improved, but it also hadn't become worse. Perhaps a new, better chance to escape would arise in the next few weeks. For now, however, she had accepted the fact that she wouldn't stop the war, or help Cid in any way—definitely not by gambling with her life in yet another risky endeavor.

After two months' worth of cruising between her bedroom and the ground floor library, Hilda found herself more than just accustomed to a few deserted hallways in this section of the palace. She probably would have been able to move around even with her eyes closed, and as such, there was really no need to pay attention to her surroundings on this particular afternoon, as she was walking down the corridor with a thin book in her hands, already running her eyes over some rather absorbing passage. The worst thing that could happen to her right now would be to trip and get a bruise or two, but the marble tiles under her feet were perfectly even, and she was not a clumsy person by nature.

She had just cleared a corner without bothering to look up from the small print under her gaze, when she marched into something completely unexpected, a soft yet solid obstacle in her path. She managed to keep her balance and avoid tumbling down to the floor, but judging from a pained 'ooof' and a dull thud that followed it, the other person—or whatever it was—had not been so lucky. Hilda immediately looked down, expecting to discover some absent-minded Black Mage, perhaps, no matter how unlikely it would be for any of them to actually bump into her, but when she saw the victim of her carelessness, her shock grew. The little creature sprawled at her feet was surely not one of the mages, even if it had an equally large hat. It wasn't alone, either—there was its almost mirror-image standing to the right, frowning at the fallen twin in concern, and finally helping it stand up.

The term 'twin' seemed quite appropriate, for the two bizarre individuals were extremely similar in appearance. Hilda could distinguish one from another mostly by the black marks painted on their sallow faces, and of course thanks to their clothing, which was identical in style, yet different in color. The creature to the left was clad in a blue jester's outfit, its counterpart—in red. Both barely reached the woman's waist, although the silly hats they wore made them look much taller.

Hilda stared at them in disbelief. As far as she was concerned, she and Kuja were the only sentient inhabitants of this place… unless she counted the mages, of course, but she still had her doubts about their intelligence. Who were these two weird people, then? Yet another 'artificially created beings'? The sorcerer's guests or his prisoners? Enemies or potential allies?

"Watch where you are going, you blind woman!" a masculine, somewhat screechy voice startled her out of her reverie. It belonged to the jester in blue, the one who was currently rubbing his bruised backside.

"Where you are going, you should watch!" his companion echoed instantly. They both sounded more offended than threatening, and distinctly unpleasant, too.

"I apologize, but I did not expect to run across anyone in this place, let alone in such a startling manner," she offered quickly. It was true enough. The Black Mages she occasionally passed in the hallways always gave her a wide, respectful berth. She couldn't imagine trampling on any of them by accident, not even with her nose buried in a book. "Who are you, and what are you doing here?"

"It's rude to ask such personal questions without introducing yourself first," the blue one scoffed.

"Without introducing yourself, to ask such personal questions, rude it is," his mirror image in red added.

She sighed and shook her head. "Perhaps you are right. My name is–"

"We already know your name."

"Your name, we already know."

If anyone was being rude here, it was these two, Hilda decided, narrowing her eyes at the creatures. She was the regent's wife, after all; the First Lady of Lindblum. Assuming that the jesters already knew that, they could as well show her some respect, or at least stop treating her like a fool.

"Demanding an introduction when it is not necessary, and then interrupting a lady is even less polite," she pointed out matter-of-factly, noticing that her words had little effect on the two small men. She could swear that there was something familiar about their faces and their outfits. Their awkward speech mannerisms also stirred a distant memory within her. She must have met them before, but where?

"We were merely pointing out the obvious," came the defensive reply.

"Pointing out the obvious, we were."

"I see," Hilda huffed in irritation. "Well, now that at least one part of the formalities is over, are you not going to answer my question at last?"

The jesters looked at each other, and then spoke at once, in perfect unison, "I am Zorn, and this is my brother, Thorn."

"Thorn I am, and my brother, Zorn, this is."

Zorn and Thorn—of course. Lady Brahne's servants. Hilda could suddenly remember where she had seen their silly hats for the first time. It had been nearly a year ago at the Alexandrian castle, at the masquerade the queen had organized for the princess' fifteenth birthday. Hilda had attended the ball together with her husband. She had noticed the two clowns back then, and even expressed her surprise, to Cid, at the fact that they would keep to the shadows during the whole event, instead of mixing with the crowd and trying to entertain the guests.

"You two are Queen Brahne's servants, are you not?" she asked calmly, though at the same time her mind was whirling around the possible implications behind the jesters' presence. Could it mean that the Alexandrian ruler knew about Kuja's palace on the Outer Continent, about the fact that he held Hilda captive?

The two men looked at each other uneasily.

"We used to serve Her Majesty once, but we serve her no longer," Zorn finally said.

"No longer we serve her, that we do not."

"Why?" she asked. "Did you betray your queen for Kuja?"

"We have always served Master Kuja first and foremost."

Thorn nodded to confirm this. "First and foremost, Master Kuja we have always served."

"Yet he gave us to Queen Brahne and told us to obey her orders," his comrade supplied.

"To obey her orders, he told us."

"Oh?" Hilda tilted her head to the side, brushing a few loose strands of blond hair from her narrowed eyes. "Then what are you doing here, so far away from the Alexandrian court? Does 'Master Kuja' no longer want you to obey them?" It was the first—and the last time—she would call him that, mockingly or not.

Once again, the clowns exchanged awkward glances.

"No, of course not. Queen Brahne is dead."

"Dead Queen Brahne is. Miss her we will."

"Yes, we will miss her."

Hilda stared at the jesters in shock. Nothing, not even the most disturbing news she had heard from Kuja during the past few months, concerning the Gaian war and Terra's existence, could have prepared her for that sort of revelation.

"I… I cannot believe my own ears," she managed at last, her fingers clutching at the book she still held in her grasp, all color drained from her face. "You are not lying about this, are you? When and how did this happen?"

"Has the Master not told you about it?" Zorn asked slowly.

"Told you about it, he has not?"

"He has not told me anything," Hilda managed through clenched teeth. "Answer me! Did the queen die in battle?"

"In battle… yes. You can certainly say that."

"Say that you certainly can. Yes, in battle she died."

The jesters' refusal to share any substantial piece of information with her, as well as their inability to communicate properly, was already starting to grate on her nerves. She took a deep breath to calm herself down, before continuing, "A battle against which forces? Lindblum, perhaps?"

There was a long pause filled with more wordless consultations.

"Well, it was like this–" Zorn began at last, but he never got the chance to finish, because it was exactly at that moment that a new speaker chose to cut in.

"You two morons definitely talk too much."

Hilda didn't jump at the sound of Kuja's voice, and yet she couldn't suppress a small shudder: the man's words were like a set of poisonous needles cutting into her back, even if the scorn they contained wasn't directed at her, but at the twin jesters who cringed and instantly drew back. The scared duo obviously hadn't seen or heard the sorcerer approach until now, either, not that it was any surprise, given the man's eerie ability to move as silently as a wraith, even in his favorite pair of steel-fitted boots.

Hilda turned around. She wanted to skip straight to the point, repeat her earlier question about the battle, but it took a single glance at her captor to make her hesitate. Kuja stood with his left hand propped against his hip, cold and unsmiling, staring down at the twins as if they were a couple of ugly insects, or worse. She could see clear contempt written on his face, and the customary, mocking smirk was absent, which only served to emphasize the true level of his malice. This pose, combined with the tone the man had used a moment ago, was an unpleasant reminder of what he could be like towards other people, as long as he didn't bother to keep up his charming façade. It actually made Hilda wonder how nice he had always been to her—when he could have as well been this spiteful all the time, instead.

"Master, forgive us," Zorn moaned behind her back, the bells on his hat ringing as he shook his head frantically. "You did not forbid us to talk to your prisoner" –Hilda winced at the form of address– "so we thought it was alright to tell her about Her Majesty's death!"

"To talk to your prisoner, forbid us, you did not," Thorn echoed in an equally quavering voice. "To tell her about Her Majesty's death, therefore, alright we thought!"

Kuja's expression could convince even Hilda to take a step back, yet she only pressed her lips together and stood her ground, refusing to become so easily intimidated by a mere pair of cornflower eyes.

"That's enough," he said softly, but it was the kind of softness associated with a panther ready to strike. "I remember giving you both some tasks earlier this morning. Are you finished with them already?"

"N-no, Master Kuja."

"Not yet, no."

Kuja tilted his head to the side. "Then what are you still doing here?"

His question was not a question at all, and the two smaller men would have been true fools not to realize that. They scrambled to escape the sorcerer's wrath, nearly tripping over their own legs as they fled down the corridor, back in the direction where they had come from, if only to avoid passing their master. The jesters' speed was remarkable; a few moments later even the sound of their bells died down, leaving behind two quiet people standing alone in the middle of an empty hallway.

Hilda was the first one to speak. "Why did you keep such an important piece of information from me?" she demanded coolly.

Kuja's gaze remained fixed on the spot his servants had just vacated. He made no effort to either lash out at the woman with his nonchalant mockery, or defend himself against her accusation. Hilda figured it wasn't for the reason that he had suddenly lost his wits, or felt uncharacteristically remorseful. No, instead of trying to form an appropriate apology, the sorcerer was probably waiting for his anger to pass, because when he finally looked up to address her, his voice sounded genuinely calm, free of the dangerous edge it held before.

"It's never been my intention to keep anything from you, my lady," he said with a smile. "I merely didn't have enough time to share the news with you."

"You had plenty of time, I believe," she contradicted at once.

Kuja arched an eyebrow in mock concern. "Pardon me for pointing it out," he explained, "but you spent nearly two weeks locked in your room, recovering from your little adventure in the desert. I thought it would be unwise to trouble you further, as you still seemed a bit too flustered to handle yet another potentially shocking conversation with me."

Hilda tensed at the man's words, unable to conceal the traitorous blush of embarrassment that had crept into her pale cheeks. "During the past week we have been seeing each other almost everyday, though," she retorted. "Upset or not, you realize I would have wanted to know of something equally important straight away?"

"But of course, Lady Hilda," the sorcerer said smoothly, lowering his head in feigned shame. "I shall remember that from now on." Hilda frowned, not in the slightest degree entertained by the display.

"For how long have I been kept in the dark?"

"Brahne died but a few days ago, just before I returned to the palace."

"I see," she said. Kuja's cheerful expression, so unfitted for the grave matter they were discussing, was making her stomach churn, yet she forced herself to continue, "Well then, since you are always so well-informed about everything, I take it that you are familiar with all sort of details concerning the queen's death. Are you going to enlighten me quickly, I wonder, or will I have to pry every single answer from your mouth?"

She knew that using such bold words around her captor could be risky, but at least her sarcasm hit the right note, reaching the desired effect where dozens of other remarks might have failed. As soon as the man's ringing laughter had faded, he regarded her with a new gleam in his eye—she caught a barely visible glimpse of something akin to respect, maybe even admiration, sparkling underneath the ever-present amusement.

"You really got me there, Lady Hilda," he admitted merrily, folding his arms across his chest. "It would be quite unfair to tease you any longer, wouldn't it?" He paused. "Still, I must warn you—asking me for the truth is not always a good idea. You may not like the details of our poor queen's fate."

She stared at him in suspicion, surprised to see him act so serious all of a sudden, despite the mocking emphasis he had put on the woman's title. "What do you mean?"

"I know what answers you would like to hear the most," he replied calmly, "but I'm afraid I can't give them to you. Brahne wasn't defeated by your husband, nor was her army obliterated by his soldiers."

"The jesters told me that there had been a battle."

The corners of Kuja's lips twitched once again, but his new smile was an entirely cold one. Not even trying to maintain the usual air of playful innocence, he said, "Calling it a battle was quite an overstatement on their part. I'd say it was more of a swift massacre."

A chilly shiver ran down her spine. "Please, explain."

"As you wish," the man spoke after a brief pause. "I won't lie to you. I was there when the greedy fool met her ugly end. I saw it happen. I made it happen." Hilda froze, once again refusing to believe her ears. The man must have noticed the drastic change in her expression, and yet his tone didn't even waver. "Yes, you've heard me correctly. I'm the one responsible for the queen's not quite premature demise, although she didn't die exactly by my hand. This I might have regretted under different circumstances, I guess, but fortunately the spectacle turned out sufficiently entertaining in the end."

Hilda stared at the young sorcerer in utter shock—the book she had intended to take to her room pressed against her abdomen in a white-knuckled grip. She felt as if she were dreaming, a bit dizzy and disconnected, ready to wake up from her nightmare any time now. This couldn't be real! Kuja couldn't have just casually informed her that he had killed Lady Brahne, and somehow managed to wipe out a significant portion of an allied army, too, if she were to trust his earlier words about the massacre.

She found all of this insanely difficult to believe, and yet… hadn't she already spent enough time in this man's company to realize that he was capable of nearly everything? That when it came to him, even such an outrageous, appalling deed seemed possible?

"Well then, my lady?" Kuja's low voice startled Hilda out of her reverie. "Have you already decided whether to believe me or not?"

It took her a considerably long moment to form a fitting reply, "If what you say is indeed true, then you are the most rotten man I have ever met."

She couldn't have kept herself from uttering these words out loud, even if it meant becoming the next target of Kuja's wrath. He deserved to hear them, no matter what.

The man didn't appear to be angry or offended, though. "A rotten man I may be," he said, shaking his head with a barely pronounced smirk, "and I honestly don't care about your opinion either way. Still, I find it rather… disappointing that you would try to pass the condemning verdict before you have heard the entire story."

Hilda clenched her teeth. Listening to Kuja made her sick, but of course she wanted to know what exactly had happened to the Alexandrian queen, so she had to allow him to continue. "How am I supposed not to judge you on the basis of that you've just told me?" she asked coldly. "A murder remains a murder, regardless of the situation. Your absolute lack of remorse doesn't seem very comforting, either."

"At this moment, you're not the most appropriate person to preach at me about remorse, Lady Hilda," came the man's soft reply. "Please, spare me your righteous indignation or the crocodile tears you're willing to shed for Brahne. Would you bewail her so if she had been killed by one of your husband's soldiers, perhaps by the regent himself, in defense of your lovely country?"

Hilda narrowed her eyes at the sorcerer. He did have a point, of course—and a good one, too. It wasn't as if she had any particularly warm feelings towards Lady Brahne, especially in the light of recent events. The queen had become a ruthless aggressor; she had played a willing part in Kuja's machinations, the war he deemed necessary for Terra's sake. Nevertheless, her death was still a blow. Hilda couldn't help but view it as the collapse of some long-established order—the order ruined by no one else than the person who was currently standing in front of her.

"Don't you dare judge me by your own standards," she said harshly. "I once used to count Lady Brahne among my friends—but this is beside the point right now, is it not? You did not kill her in self-defense."

"Didn't I?" The white-haired man tilted his head forward, unfolding one of his arms and raising it to his mouth, with his thumb absently brushing the bottom of his chin. A small smile was playing at the corners of his lips, partially hidden from view by his curled fingers. "As a matter of fact, I was defending myself against her assault."

Hilda didn't find the sorcerer's smug expression very amusing, but the certainty in his voice made her think twice before dismissing his declaration as a silly joke. "I beg your pardon?"

He stifled a sigh. "A few minutes ago, if I remember correctly, you demanded that I tell you the whole story without any extra delays on my part—and I was willing to do just that, yet you keep interrupting me all the time." His scolding was of course dripping with mockery.

"Fine," she retorted dryly. "Go ahead and finish your tale, I will try not to interrupt you anymore. I doubt anything you might say at this point could manage to surprise me." A risky assumption, perhaps, but honestly, hadn't she already heard enough macabre details from him, today and during the past few months, to warrant her at least some sort of immunity against further shock?

"Thank you," he chuckled in reply. "A couple of days ago, you see, our dear Brahne decided that I had outlived my usefulness as her advisor. Her notice came in the form of an Eidolon she sent to attack me."

"The queen can… could command one of the Eidolons? Since when did she possess such a force?" Hilda breathed, breaking the silence despite herself. She shook her head a moment later, trying to imagine just how on Gaia had this fragile-looking man managed to survive an encounter with one of these infamous beasts. Not a long time ago she had seen him defeat an Antlion in less than half a minute, yet an Eidolon was surely a very different sort of opponent…

"Thanks to my help, she could control a few of them, yes," confirmed Kuja. "Or so she thought." A bemused smirk crossed his face as he continued, "I dispelled her illusions of power rather quickly. Bahamut, the Eidolon she had tried to use, turned against her and ended up annihilating the majority of her fleet with his fiery breath. As you can see, then, I was acting mostly in my self-defense, though I'm sure it doesn't make any difference to either of us, let alone to the poor, deceased fool."

"How dare you talk about the queen like that?" Hilda spoke reflexively, still struggling to digest the things she had just heard. Her resentment only made Kuja shrug.

"I'll talk about her as I please." He paused, and then laughed; it was a startling, cruel sound that caused the older woman to shudder. "Some queen she was, indeed! So wrapped up in her self-indulgence that she lost all sense of rationality!" He lowered his hand from his mouth, still smiling in the same—half-malicious, half-amused—manner. "She was convinced she had been using me till the very end. Why, I almost regret not being by her side when she gave her final breath, just to see her expression the moment she realized her mistake."

"Your cruelty is simply disgusting," Hilda spat.

"Ah, but what would you have me do, my lady?" the murderer asked innocently. "Stand with my arms folded and allow Bahamut to blow me into oblivion? Remember, I was the one who helped Brahne satisfy her ambitions. I made her conquest possible in the first place—and that was how she repaid me? By siccing one of her new pets on me, when she thought me completely defenseless, too?" He smiled coldly. "As it turned out, she betrayed me first, regardless of what the charming General Beatrix had predicted."

Hilda clenched her teeth in exasperation, so hard that it actually hurt. "You act so amused by this, yet expect me to believe in your sincerity?" she hissed. "Do not presume that you can fool me with your smooth words alone, Kuja. You are not telling me the whole truth, are you? You had somehow manipulated the queen into her mad world-conquest, and then discarded her when she had outlived her usefulness?"

"It's you who is presuming too much, Lady Hilda," the young man said with a fake sigh. "In my lifetime, I had indeed manipulated many people into all sort of situations, but that foolish creature didn't quite count among them. She wanted that war for herself, I'm afraid. In the end, her primitive instincts won against her common sense." He paused and shook his head then; shameless mockery fading from his blue eyes, replaced by something close to seriousness. "Brahne brought that sad end upon herself, yes… But since we're so wonderfully honest with each other today, I'll have you know that I would've probably killed her anyway. She was but a horrible actress in my play."

So he had admitted it, at last—something that Hilda had suspected all along, though it wasn't as if having her earlier guess confirmed made her feel any better now. Kuja really viewed the events on Gaia—the events he had helped shape and set into motion—as an entertaining theatre show. The people he met were just more or less skilled actors, or worse still, his marionettes. From his perspective, death must have been nothing but a dramatic way to exit the stage. His lack of empathy was simply overwhelming. Did he regard human emotions in the same manner he regarded their owners? Did he think people's grief, happiness, love, and hatred to be pretended?

A long silence fell after the sorcerer's final statement. Hilda stood with her shoulders slumped and a downcast expression, practically at a loss for words. A moralizing speech or an angry outburst on her part wouldn't do, she knew. There was no sense in reasoning with a madman, a person who had no conscience whatsoever, no point in trying to make him see something he couldn't—or refused to—comprehend.

"This world is not a play written for your pleasure," she said at last, in a quiet voice, raising her gaze to meet his face. The corners of the sorcerer's mouth curled upwards.

"Oh? Isn't it?"

"No." Hilda's tone grew more forceful. "Whatever happens, happens for real. People suffer and die for real. You just don't understand it, do you?" It was a rhetorical question, of course, but the reply came almost at once.

"I understand it well enough, I think." The charming smile Kuja was wearing didn't quite reach his blue eyes. "The problem is, most people make a total farce out of their lives, anyway. I chose to treat seriously only those who deserve it. It's not my fault only a few meet such criteria."

"Forget it," Hilda said after another pause, much longer than the previous one. "A farce is what I would call our current conversation. I must be a fool myself, trying to lecture you on morals." She paused. "Just tell me about the aftermath of Lady Brahne's death. Does the war still rage on the Mist Continent?"

"The Alexandrian forces have permanently withdrawn from Lindblum, Cleyra and Burmecia," the man answered in a calm voice. "Your husband has his hands busy rebuilding your country and reorganizing the military." He hesitated. "Hands? Or should I call them pincers?"

"Who rules Alexandria now? You?" Hilda shot back in an equally sarcastic manner, letting the remark about Cid's condition slide. At least she had learnt that her darling husband was still alive and in power, capable of taking care of various matters at home.

"No, not me," Kuja laughed, perhaps even sincerely this time, though most of his next words carried the usual, cutting edge. "Princess Garnet has survived the turmoil of war, and she's to be crowned queen towards the end of the month. Too bad I'm not invited to the ceremony. My, my, it would seem that helping the previous queen part with this plane of existence has, ah… thrown me into disgrace."

Again, Hilda chose to disregard the cynical comment. She was relieved to hear other good news, at last. The princess was safe and well, a true blessing in itself. The war must have ruined the diplomatic relations between all countries, and caused terrible destruction to people and property, yet it was finally over now. If the young Garnet became the new ruler of Alexandria, she would surely manage to work out a reasonable compromise with Cid. Hilda trusted the girl to bury all of her mother's sick ambitions and concentrate on maintaining the peace, instead.

"I am glad that the princess is safe," she said, knowing well that Kuja wouldn't care about the girl, let alone about her own opinion. To her surprise, though, the man's initial reply sounded close to a cheerful agreement.

"Yes, the little canary proved to be tougher than I expected. I admit it would've been a pity to see her perish along with Brahne." He smirked. "She can now breathe a well-deserved sigh of relief and try to get used to the weight of the crown upon her head. Alexandria will remain at peace for a while longer."

Hilda tensed in alarm, an ugly suspicion sinking its claws into her mind. "What do you mean, a while longer?"

"Surely you don't expect the peace to last forever?" Kuja didn't even bother to hide his amusement. "People of Gaia are such warlike creatures; always stimulated by the Mist, ready to settle their conflicts in the most ruthless manner…"

"What are you talking about?" She shook her head, ignoring the cryptic remark about the Mist for the time being. "No one in their right mind would think to reignite the conflict right now!"

"Perhaps not," he admitted calmly. "Perhaps these puny creatures have their limits, after all, and will need yet another spur to send them running in the correct direction."

Hilda all but staggered as the true meaning behind the man's words finally hit her. She stared at him in wide-eyed horror, and yet he met her gaze without flinching. It would be impossible to find any traces of remorse, let alone hesitation, etched in his porcelain features.

"You cannot possibly intend to start a new war!" she exclaimed, taking a step forward, even though her heart crumpled at the same time. He probably intended to do just that—and she was completely powerless to stop him, unable to persuade him to abandon his insane plans. If he had succeeded in wreaking so much havoc in the past few months, then she could only guess what he will be capable of doing right now. She raised a hand to her trembling lips; the mere thought of it was making her ill. "Are you not satisfied with all the destruction you have caused for your planet's sake?"

"The amount of the necessary destruction is not for me to decide," he replied with a small shrug, as some unspecified emotion flickered in his eyes. It no longer looked like amusement to her—but then again, where did this anger come from? Hadn't he seemed perfectly happy about his progress on Gaia only a moment ago?

"Who makes this sort of decisions, then?" she demanded, seething with her own fury, while he remained outwardly composed. "The other Terrans, the people you do not even want to associate with, at least according to my earlier impression?" She could see him tense further, and yet the stiff mask he wore didn't slide off his face.

"Not quite… but in a way, yes."

"Ah, but what does it matter? Nothing gives you—them, whoever they are—the right to interfere with our lives, with–"

"Stop," the young man interrupted at once, before Hilda could start to babble. They stared at each other for a few seconds, and then he said, "I believe we've already discussed this. The only legitimization one needs is strength. If you have enough power within your grasp, the others will crawl at your feet, and it applies to both whole nations as well as single men." He clenched his teeth. "The weak don't deserve any mercy, nor the privilege to live."

"This—this isn't right!"

"No." She was shocked to have him instantly agree with her. "No, more often than not, it isn't. But this is the truth, and there's no running away from it. You either dictate the rules, or have them dictated for you. There is no other way."

Hilda had a strange feeling that Kuja wasn't even talking about the war anymore, but it hardly mattered to her at the moment. The war was the most important one of her concerns, after all; not the hidden meaning behind this man's words.

"So you are telling me that the bloodshed must continue?" she said, still struggling to regulate her breathing. "Simply because the world works that way?"

"You're right, and yes, it must continue. Not only for Terra's sake."

Contrary to Hilda's expectations, the sorcerer didn't smile, and so she smiled for him, her lips stretching slowly into a tight, humorless grimace. "Yours, too?" she said… and suddenly felt as if their roles had somehow become reversed. She was the porcelain doll with a fake, crooked smile now, whereas he seemed so startlingly real—human—like she had never seen him before.

"Yes, Lady Hilda. Mine, too. Mine, in the first place." There was no uncertainty in his voice. "You accuse me of treating the world as a play, and I suppose you're partially right. I have fun doing most things I choose to do these days… because why shouldn't I? Watching fools die is as good entertainment as any. Make no mistake, though." She remained silent as he first closed, and then reopened his eyes. "Not all of this is a game to me. I can be deadly serious when it comes to serious matters."

End of Chapter Twelve

Author's Notes: Many thanks to all of you who have reached the end of this chapter and are still looking forward to reading more! I'll try to update as soon as possible, not in another year or so. I want to complete this story very badly (but not before it reaches the length of at least 100,000 words :)), especially now, when I have this startlingly clear view of what I'd like to write next.

"Hilda had a strange feeling that Kuja wasn't even talking about the war anymore" – and rightly so, because the man's of course reflecting upon his relationship with Garland when he says these things. He really believes in 'the strong feed on the weak' philosophy; he voices that explicitly in the game, though I no longer remember the exact words he uses.

The thirteenth part is going to focus on some self-aware Black Mages. Hilda will finally learn that the creepy servants are more than just mindless puppets, and Kuja will be less than pleased with their actions. I need to erase the memory of his so-called heroic deed from the previous chapter with some particularly malicious, cruel behavior. It'd be best not to forget he's still a villain… albeit an extremely alluring one. :)

Okay, I'm off to do some writing, so keep your thumbs crossed from me. :)