Notes: This was written for tenshi no ai's "Yeah, I'm in the game too!" fanfic competition (hey, I didn't come up with the name :p), in which you have to write a one-shot about heat featuring a character that is neglected in the game or in fanfiction. Let me put it this way: there's a very good reason why this character is usually neglected. Ugh.
This is the redux version: now with grammar and format corrections, some rewritten descriptions and dialog ("Narrow passages that passed"? Walnuts? What was I on that day?), better characterization, and not as whiny author's notes.
I stole the idea and many of the literary devices from "My Last Duchess", a fantastic poem by Robert Browning that you should all read this second.
Warnings: This fic has possibly the most annoying, boring, and longwinded narrator of all time. I hope you can get through this without stabbing yourself midway.
You saw the word count in the summary. Yes, this is much, MUCH too long.
Disclaimer: I don't own anything.
Well, you drive a hard bargain there, sir, but many have told me I'm a tough negotiator. Heh heh, you want me to keep my mouth shut, don't you? How about five tonnes of mythril? There's been a shortage as of late in Ivalice, and they don't call me the Weapon King for nothing. I would love to weld a few good Mythril Guns – for the children, of course.
Are we a bit cheap? Fine, then, two tonnes of mythril and two tonnes of iron, for the services of my Kamyuja, good for only this one mission. We'll discuss the method of shipment in my office. But first, why don't I show you around? Riovanes Castle has been part of the Barinten estate for over five hundred years, and it may be a bit plain, but as I always like to say, it's a castle built for war, and it certainly serves its purpose. Every stone was placed for strength and durability.
Over here on the wall is a sword that once belonged to my great-great-grandfather, the seventh Grand Duke of Fovoham. See over here, how the handle is engraved with the Barinten family crest – not quite as showy as the fancy heirlooms some of those old knight families have, mind you, but then again, I like things simple.
Here is another weapon, dating from the time of the Limberry-Lesalia War of 215 – I collect these sorts of things; call it a hobby of mine. The finest blacksmith forged the – ha ha, you're not listening, are you?
Ah, while we're here, let me introduce you to the ones who'll do the job for you. I've never had any of my own children – my first wife, may she rest in peace, died before she could give me any heirs. But my orphans, my assassins, they're the next best thing. Every single one of them is my pet, my treasure. If you knew how much trouble I went through to train them, to clothe them, and to feed them…
Over there is Judith. Quite the powerful summoner, though her faith is a tad low. Kind of cute, isn't she? Only thirteen years old, and I found her selling her body on the streets of Zelamonia. It's just awful. The Fifty Year War has forced so many children to resort to desperate means to survive. Girls like Judith are one of the reasons that the Gelkanis Barinten Home for Orphans of the War was built. I'm a philanthropist at heart.
These young men are Kenji and Yamato. Two of my ninjas. You do know what ninjas are, don't you? Elite warriors from the eastern lands. I myself was the one who first introduced them to Ivalice.
Yes, I cull many of my assassins from the exotic lands. You'd never guess the power you can find in the most unlikely places. Some of them come from faraway villages where Ajora's word has never reached; why, a few of them couldn't even speak the language when I found them. Others were born and bred in Ivalice, and trained by yours truly in the secret arts I've learned from a few foreign village chiefs – the things you can learn if you're willing to grease a few palms here and there. But they all come to me as children. I prefer to train children, the younger the better. They come to me soft and malleable, ready to be molded into whatever I want them to be.
Children have such potential, don't they?
In that corner over there are the Galthana siblings. Now those two hold a special place in my heart. They came from the north of Jefaria, but I've raised them as my own children. They've mastered an interesting magic – well, if you can call it magic.
This handsome gentleman over here is Malak, the elder one, and the younger one is Rafa. Come and say hello to the nice man, Rafa.
Don't mind her; she's a bit skittish around strangers. Such a beautiful young woman, isn't she? A pleasure to call a daughter.
Let's continue this discussion in my office. I'll get the papers ready for you to sign...Heh heh, just between you and me, doesn't that girl have quite a body?
Why, the girl is a Heaven Knight, and the boy is a Hell Knight. Those two are the only ones left in the world who possess those rare skills – and I must say, they're such fine additions to my collection of warriors. Have a seat. Yes, you could say I was very eager to control the ancient magic arts of the Galthana family…I'm quite proud of how I discovered them. There are no secrets between business partners, eh?
Where should I start? I suppose eight years ago. I'm certain you remember what it was like back then...the Fifty Year War was in full gear, and Ivalice was in quite the time of turmoil. That was a couple of years after King Denamunda II had died of "the Plague" – he was found with seven stab wounds in the back; must have been a rare strain of the Plague – and they'd had that rush marriage with Omdolia and that sister of Larg. The royal family was a bunch of incompetent fools even then, none of them with any idea of how to lead a nation. But ha ha, why am I boring you with politics? Anyways, the Ivalician Army was desperate for men. And so they turned to me.
I'm the expert when it comes to finding new manpower. They had all laughed, even King Denamunda himself, at my plans five years earlier, when I had suggested searching around the world for a power that could withstand the Ordalian Army. The laughter had died when I had brought back soldiers from the Far East who could bear two swords at once and who could dodge almost any attack. Soon, I began assembling an elite force of warriors, skilled in foreign arts of fighting and killing. I named them the Kamyuja.
Ha ha, I sure showed Denamunda when my ninja and samurai wiped out battlefields at a time. Of course, now the Kamyuja are into…different lines of work. But even without pledging loyalty to Larg or Goltana, they've managed to hold their own, haven't they?
But enough about my accomplishments. You knew about my history when you hired me. You wanted to hear about how I met the Galthanas? Very well.
So I have contacts all over the world, including Jefaria. It was one of these contacts who told me an interesting tidbit about a place called Fezana. You've never heard of Fezana, I suppose; it is – or should I say was – an insignificant little Jefarian village hidden at the bottom of a valley, in the middle of nowhere, east of Fabul. It used to support itself from a meager olive trade. You know, I wonder if the olive grove is still there.
He had been on vacation in Jefaria, Harrell told me, and he had been taking a nice chocobo ride through the north countryside, when he had gotten lost halfway between Fabul and Damcyan. He had stumbled upon an olive grove not too far from the mountains, where men were working. After a long day of travel, he'd been hungry, and this Harrell never felt too bad about taking what wasn't his, if you know what I mean. So when one of the olive pickers had had his back turned, Harrell had tried to make off with his barrel of olives.
But another laborer had seen him, and next thing Harrell knew, out of nowhere, he had been greeted with four blasts of magical energy. This would have been the end of the poor olive thief, but all four of them had missed. Still, that had been enough to send the fool running like hell away from the furious olive picker.
Ha ha, for a bit of gold, he spoke easily. Too easily for my liking. Such a pity he went and disappeared mere days after our conversation. No one's heard from him since.
After a bit of prying around, I discovered that there had been rumors from travelers about Fezana, some of those rumors centuries old. There was a family there, a family of mages who could tap into the power of the spirits of the sky and the earth and control the essence of nature. They were called the Galthanas.
It's like I told you, if you want to discover a new power, it's those little isolated villages, the ones you can't find on a map, where you go looking. Those are the places where the villagers intermarry and rare abilities are passed down from generation to generation. The Galthana magic was well suited for the rocky terrain that surrounded Fezana; as Rafa and Malak would tell me years later, their powers were much more accurate against invaders who weren't on level ground. All those centuries so much power slept at the bottom of the valley…
Those foreign villages all hold their secrets. Koga had its ninjas. Koutetsu had its samurai. Fezana had the Galthanas.
So I took my chocobo, and fifty men from one of the reserve guards I commanded at the time – no, not from the Kamyuja – off on a wild goose chase to Jefaria to find my legendary fighters. We set up our camp at the base of the mountains.
Most people think that Jefaria is just a desert wasteland, but the northern part of the country boasts some of the world's most beautiful beaches. The capital city, Fabul, also has some magnificent palaces, if architecture's your cup of tea. But ha ha, I'm boring you with all this, aren't I? Sir, you should visit Jefaria some time. You don't smile enough; you look like you could use a vacation. Just not in summer. You've never experienced how cruel a master the sun can be unless you've been in the exotic lands in the middle of the day at the end of June.
The heat was brutal. As I struggled, out of breath, up, up the hill that shields Fezana from the prying eyes of outsiders, I thought that my lungs were going to burst. Ha ha, you may have noticed I could stand to lose a few pounds, and I wasn't in shape for such exertion even back then. Nowadays I usually have the luxury of sitting safe in my castle in Riovanes as I send my battle plans around the world. My humble philosophy has always been that the true nobleman exercises his mind, and leaves menial physical labor to the brute masses, whose bodies were created for such toil.
But I digress. You can imagine how degrading that day was, when I found myself hiking up a mountain in my expensive garments, sweating like a filthy pig in the heat, miles from home. It was beneath the eleventh Grand Duke of Fovoham.
I scanned the surrounding area, shielding my weak eyes from the glare of the sun, searching furiously for a face, a figure, for anyone who could direct me to the house of the Galthana elder…
Well, I was almost at the top of that hill, when about fifty yards to the left of me, I saw a small girl, clad in torn white rags that barely concealed her nakedness, coming from the direction of the well. She struggled under the weight of a heavy clay jug.
My first thought was that they would never let a nice little girl wear something so revealing in Ivalice. This country was truly mad.
She hummed an upbeat song to herself, an odd foreign melody I had never heard before, as she climbed up the hill. Would you believe that she was barefoot? Her poor tender feet were so small, and the rocky ground she walked on must have been scorching hot. And yet they sent her over that dangerous mountain to fetch them water. God only knows who looks after those heathen children. There's something about children that cries out to me, that just tugs at my heart…
Was she the one?
There was a catch in her step. She tripped over a rock that jutted out from the ground and tumbled over, landing face forward. The jug shattered, spilling the water over the dry rocks. The small girl let out a wail.
There was only one way to find out.
"Oh, don't you worry there," I called out to the crying girl as I rushed over to her, holding up the long edges of my forest-green robes in a desperate attempt not to stumble.
The girl pulled herself up onto her knees. Her black tangled hair fell over her shoulders and covered her face as she sobbed. She did not look up as I approached and bent down next to her. I remember that she was close to me, close enough so that I could make out her individual eyelashes.
Oh, you'd be impressed at how well I won her trust that day. Was I ever so compassionate…you know, I can be very compassionate when I want to be. I comforted her, and I gave her my best fatherly smile, the warm kindly one that I'm sure could melt the heart of a tiamat. Why, every inch of me screamed 'trust me'.
"Don't you cry," I told her in my most soothing voice.
"I'm not crying," she sobbed.
She was such a pretty child. So soft, and yet so spirited. Too spirited, perhaps. Good thing she's gotten that out of her system.
"Now, now, don't be shy," I said. "Where does it hurt?"
She looked up, and it was as if for the first time she had fully realized that I was there. I could not help but notice that she reflexively shrunk away from me.
It was such a charming scene, almost magical. Did your mother ever tell you that fairy tale about the knight who'd caught a silf off-guard in Yuguo Woods and forced it to grant him three wishes? Well, that day, I understood how that man felt, next to such a frail and frightened creature quivering before him. It warmed my blood with a feeling I could not explain.
I gave the girl a reassuring smile. She pointed to her left leg and sniffled.
I shook my head and clucked my tongue.
"Poor thing. What's your name, young lady?"
The dark girl's red-rimmed eyes met mine. For the most fleeting of moments, I was reminded of the eyes of a young deer facing a hunter.
"It's Rafa," she whispered, her voice barely above a whisper.
I tried to conceal my annoyance. Women…
"And your last name, dear?" I coaxed her.
"Yes?" I hissed through gritted teeth.
She opened her mouth for a bit as if she were about to say something, before she closed it and smiled.
"Ah, I'm not sure," she said. "What's yours?"
Oh, forgive me, sir, pardon my language. You can be sure that the smile that had been plastered on my face faltered a bit. But I chided myself right after for that nasty thought. That wasn't very nice, Gelkanis. The poor thing's just an itty-bitty little child. It's not her fault.
"Rafa, is it? Such a pretty name." I forced my lips back into my kindly smile again.
And isn't 'Rafa' such a pretty name? A nice and soft name, like water flowing, like a trembling doe…
"As for my name...let's keep that a little secret, won't we?"
The girl said nothing, but looked away and shyly nodded.
"Now," I said, "let's have a look at that leg of yours."
She brought her hand to the frayed cuff of her left pant leg, and left it frozen there for a moment, as if she were uncertain of what to do next, before she pulled up the leg of her pants to reveal her skinned knee, bloody and scuffed from the fall.
I leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, "You want me to show you a magic trick?"
She paused for quite a long time before responding.
I didn't like that note of hesitation when she spoke. This'll sound ridiculous to you, but it made me feel…hurt, as if she didn't trust me. But heh heh, I didn't show it. No, I wouldn't trouble a child with my silly feelings. I grinned.
"Now watch, Miss Rafa, I lean in, and place my hands above your knee, like this, and-" I put on a mock theatrical voice that made her giggle, "Life's refreshing breeze, blow in all energy! Cure!"
You'd never guess, but I'm quite the mage. I've picked up all sorts of tricks; I train my recruits personally, and I make it my business to master the art of war in all its forms. I consider myself to be a jack-of-all-trades.
A soft blue glow emanated from the base of my palm. Within moments, the gashes closed up, and the skin on her bony knee healed. She smiled. Her eyes were dry now.
"That felt tingly," said Rafa. "Thank you, sir."
"Oh, you're very welcome, Miss Rafa." I placed my hand ever so gently on her bare shoulder.
The girl gave the mildest of starts, but she did not draw her shoulder back.
Sir, I'll tell you a bit of a secret about children. They're always defensive at the outset, but once you find a way to crack open their shell, their hearts are yours for the taking.
"Not too bad, eh? So, Miss Rafa," I asked oh-so-casually, careful not to sound too eager to hear the answer to my question, "is this the first time you've ever seen someone do a magic trick? Or am I the only one who's skilled enough?"
"Show-off," she giggled.
I feigned a look of shock.
"What, me," I gasped, "a show-off? Why, you've broken my heart, Miss Rafa." I staggered around, clutching my chest in mock agony and fell down on my knees, remembering too late that I'd gotten my expensive robes covered in sand and dirt. The girl covered her mouth and tried to stifle her soft laughter.
I've always been good with children. They're such darlings, aren't they? Pity Madeline, bless her soul, died when she did. I think I would have made a fine father.
"Silly, you're not the first person I've seen do magic – well, maybe not that kind of magic."
In a flash, my head whipped around, and the foolish little girl became a good deal more interesting to me. I had hit the jackpot.
"Heh heh, really," I said, my voice becoming silky. "That's fascinating. Who are these people?"
She gasped. It was clear that Rafa had realized that she had said too much.
"I don't know," she whispered, and averted her eyes.
"But Rafa, why is it so bad if you tell me?"
She was all alone. Her heart was racing, I could sense it, and her breath quickened.
"There's no need to be afraid. I'm your friend, Rafa."
"What the hell are you doing?"
I turned around in the direction of the voice and saw a lanky boy run towards us from the other side of the hill. He surveyed the scene, noticing the fragments of the clay jug scattered on the ground nearby, and glared at me, every muscle in his face hardened with suspicion.
Now that was quite an impudent greeting, wasn't it? Had he been my son, I would have taught that brat a lesson. Back in my day, we weren't whiners. If we stepped out of line, our professor would give us the strap, just as we deserved. Not like that nonsense at Riovanes Academy with all those spoiled students protesting against corporal punishment. I would never harm the orphans under my wing, sir, and I care about them with all my heart, but they know to speak when spoken to and to respect their elders, or else they…
…Well, there's no need to be rude. Ha ha, impatient, are we? I'll get to that part when I'm good and ready.
At the sight of the boy, the spell was broken, and Rafa's face broke into a mischievous grin. Instantly, Rafa became much bolder. Even her posture seemed to have straightened. I've never seen a more instant transformation. You never would have guessed that the girl had been bawling her eyes out minutes before.
"Malak," she said in a singsong voice, "You know what Papa said about swearing. I'm going to tell…" She ran to the boy called Malak and tugged at his cotton shirt, laughing – not that shy little giggle I had heard before, but a loud exuberant laugh.
I could not help but raise an eyebrow. Where was the sweet timid doe I had seen barely two minutes ago?
"Mind your own business," he snapped, still glaring at me, "or I'll tell him that you've broken another jug."
"He's not going to care," she laughed, and stuck out her tongue.
Something I noticed with my orphans is that children – heh heh, come to think of it, people in general – all have different faces that they show to different people. The same kid that'll blush and fidget in front of a stranger can be a real brat around someone he's close to. Don't you find it odd? I was surprised, and somewhat dismayed, to see such an outgoing side to her personality. Too spirited, too cheerful. She looked so – how do I put this – so ordinary. It didn't suit her. She was so much prettier when her mouth was shut, her pinkish lips just barely parted, when her soft doe eyes were cast demurely downward, her eyelashes lined with tears, when her warm body trembled at the touch of your hand. Her brother brought out the worst in her.
The boy called Malak did not break eye contact with me as he spoke to his sister.
"You also know what Father said about strangers. They only cause trouble."
"Enough. You know as well as I do that he could be after our…" But he stopped himself before finishing his sentence.
'After our' what? Something was obviously going on, and it wasn't too hard for me to guess what it was. Heh heh, you know, I can be pretty crafty sometimes. I knew exactly what I had to do. I put on a kindly smile, and gave the boy a humble bow.
"I'm sorry, young man," I said. "Your sister fell down and hurt herself. I'm just a traveler passing through the area. I didn't mean to bother you folks."
"Do you know that he can cast magic?" Rafa blurted out. "He did a spell on my leg, and now it's better."
"Why, I thought you said that it was nothing special," I taunted.
She said nothing, only smiling and playing with a strand of her tangled hair. That girl smiled often back then, too often for my liking.
The expression on Malak's face softened ever so slightly.
"Uh…thank you for helping my sister," he mumbled. There was an awkward pause. Malak shuffled his feet and looked away. Even back then, that boy was a bit aloof around strangers.
It took me a while to come up with a way to endear myself to that brother. But I know children. Ah, I spend so much time around them that I know how they think.
"Don't mention it," I said, flashing my widest grin. "Now, Malak – was that what she called you – have you ever wielded a sword?"
Malak gave me a puzzled look before answering.
"Uh…well, we don't have many of those in Fezana. The villagers are farmers, not fighters, and we're far enough from the frontline so that we don't have to worry about getting invaded or anything."
I motioned him towards me and whispered in his ear, "There's a first time for everything."
I unsheathed my sword, a tarnished rune blade with a chipped handle. Like I said, I like simplicity, especially in a weapon. Swords are made to kill, not to look pretty in a glass case.
"You want to try?"
Like I told you, I know how children think.
"Really? You're shitting me."
"Malak! I'm telling Papa."
In the end, Malak was just a child. It was easy to buy his trust. Still is, in fact. Ever since that day when I found the two of them in Fabul, scavenging through a heap of garbage for scraps of rotten vegetables, he's been so overcome with gratitude…I didn't tell you about that yet? Hold your horses, I'm getting there! What's a story without a bit of mystery?
Now, it's always Grand Duke this, Grand Duke that. I saved the boy from starvation, so he almost reveres the ground I walk on. When I send the Kamyuja out on missions, he's always the first to volunteer, the first at the front lines. Still a bit too attached to his sister, but I spoke to him about it. Now he won't be so lenient with her. She knows to be more demure and submissive even around her brother. Some things…must be crushed, before they can grow to be a threat.
But…you're waiting for me to unravel the next mystery, I suppose. Ha ha, all in good time.
I restrained myself from laughing at the ridiculous sight of Malak struggling under the weight of the heavy weapon as he desperately tried to raise it above his head. Boys will be boys, won't they?
"You look like your arms will break in half," giggled Rafa.
I decided to put the boy out of his misery.
"Let me show you," I said to him.
And so, I spent the next half hour demonstrating to Malak the proper posture and technique behind the execution of a Limberrian Backhanded Counter-Strike, as Rafa went back down on the ground and gathered all the broken pieces of her clay jug – for she was still too small, and her arms were too skinny to carry a sword. In the Kamyuja, boys start broadsword training at eight, and girls start at ten.
This kept up until the stifling heat grew to be too much for me to bear. With a laugh, I sheathed my sword again, and I sat down on the dusty ground, fanning myself in a futile attempt to cool myself down.
"That's enough," I gasped. "I'm not in shape for this. Malak, you'd make quite a fine knight. Ha ha, would you ever want to be a soldier?"
Malak beamed in pride as he wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand.
"I get into fights all the time," he boasted, "and I'm the best of all the boys in Fezana. Well, Amir can beat me sometimes, because he's bigger than me, but I'm faster. And if I didn't want to be sporting, one Heaven Thunder Back from me could…"
The two Galthanas – and they were Galthanas, I knew it then – both stood there frozen, their mouths open in horror at Malak's blunder. Their little secret was out now.
Now you know how much I hate to be distrusted, and I could not bear the fact that they had treated me like a fool. And this after I had made a jackass of myself, going down on my knees and playing children's games in the blistering heat! Oh, a lesser man would have lashed out at them. He would have broken a jaw or two.
But I'm a duke, not a drunken peasant. I don't ever lose my temper. My passions are kept reined in, and I only indulge them at the most opportune moments. Ha ha, when I get angry, it is an exercise of my power. I maintained my composure. And had you seen me there – oh, you'd have known you've picked the right man for the job. No one would have ever suspected that I was remotely interested in whatever in Ajora's name Heaven Thunder Back could mean.
I smiled. "What is the matter? So you get into fights sometimes? All boys do."
Malak let out a conspicuous sigh of relief. Children are so gullible, bless their hearts.
"Maybe someday, you two will make fine warriors," I continued. "But first, why don't we go somewhere a bit cooler? I'm so thirsty, and this heat is killing me."
Ah, I've been talking a long time. My throat is getting dry – would you like a drink? There's water, and I have a nice selection of wines...very well, then.
I had naïvely hoped that it would be cooler down in Fezana, but it was a very different kind of heat in the valley. The air was dry and arid, and the mountains trapped the heat within. It wasn't humid and sticky like it had been on the other side. Well, I don't know any way to describe it other than…other than it was as if we were being slowly baked alive in an oven.
I struggled to keep up with my guides. The narrow unpaved streets were abandoned, for the villagers had all fled the midday heat for the cool basements of their homes. Fezana was a ghost town at noon. As we approached the center of village, I noticed that the small huts were all painted white to reflect the sun. There couldn't have been more than fifty of those wooden huts, most of them in poor shape, and with roofs that desperately needed to be thatched.
All this time, the heat grew more savage. Sir, you have never traveled further than Romanda, so you can't realize how lucky we are to live in a civilized land. That afternoon, I forgot all about the beaches and the oases and the brothels with the finest beauties of the Jefarian peninsula. I longed for Ivalice, good old Ivalice, safe, comfortable, familiar, cool Ivalice, and my roomy castle, where there was always too much of a draft.
By the end of it, my parched lips were chapped and bleeding from the dry air. I almost began to regret my decision to come.The moment we stepped through the door of the Galthanas' home, I collapsed.
"Water…" I gasped. "Need…thirsty."
"Mama," said Malak, "Guess what? I saw a real sword! And I learned how to do a Limberrian Backhanded Counter-Strike!"
Once you penetrated that wall of surliness, that boy was so eager, so naïve. Yes, something died him that night…But I digress.
At first, the parents did not see me. The mother spoke first. She had a very pretty voice, low-pitched and melodic – I remember that the woman was kind of heavyset, but those hips were just divine. Heh heh, they don't make them like that in Ivalice – I remember how plain that Madeline was in comparison, though mind you, she had a nice complexion, but if her father hadn't been who he was, I swear, I would have insisted to Father that...
For the last time, I'll get to that part when I'm good and ready, and I'll be ready when I say I'm ready! Really, sir, didn't they train you to have patience?
"Malak," said the mother, "did you find…Rafa, thank the Sky! I've been looking all over for you." Then she noticed me, and her warm smile turned to ice. "And who is this?"
When those Galthanas saw me there, well, as unthreatening as I looked at that moment, clutching my chest and gasping for breath, they certainly turned a shade paler.
"You two," growled the father, clearly furious – to this day, I wonder if he was Harrell's olive picker – "what did I say to you about strangers?"
The children looked very ashamed of themselves, but did not say a word.
"Well," the father continued. "Where did you find him?"
Like all good brothers, Malak could never resist getting his sister in trouble.
"Don't ask me," he said smugly. "When I went to get her, I heard laughter from the other side of the hill. He was with her when I found her. He seemed to be pressuring her about something."
And the boy smirked, clearly anticipating the subsequent explosion that would come from his father.
"What?" The man turned toward his daughter. His eyes held a mixture of horror and fear. "Tell me he's joking."
"I'm sorry," said Rafa. "I didn't mean…"
"You didn't mean it, you didn't mean it! Didn't you hear what Grandfather said yesterday, about the men he saw at the base of the mountain? Obviously they're here for something. You have to be careful!"
The girl looked down. There were tears in her eyes. I noticed Malak look a bit uneasy, and shift his position.
"He was nice to me," she whispered. "He said that…that he was a friend."
The father looked very sheepish at the sight of his daughter's tears – tsk, the way he babied her.
"Come now, there's no need to cry over it."
Then the mother spoke, ignoring her husband.
"And you believed him? When there's a camp of soldiers outside the town? Did you even ask what he was doing here…"
Only then did she remember that the person they were discussing was lying in a heap on the floor of their entrance. She turned to me, fixing me with a withering gaze.
"Well," asked the mother, "what are you doing here?"
The father rubbed his black mustache and furrowed his brow. He seemed to be contemplating something.
"Malak, get the village elder. In the meantime, we'll find some way to get him to talk."
He walked up to me and raised his arm as if to strike. I let out a whimper.
"Father, wait," said Malak. "This man helped Rafa when she fell. He might not be that type of stranger…"
He did not elaborate on what he meant by "that type of stranger".
The father sighed, and lowered his arm.
"Perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt. Still, it's better to be safe. You know what happened with those men last time."
He turned to his daughter.
"Rafa," he said, his voice anxious. "What happened, and how did you meet him?"
"I was walking up the hill, when I tripped and fell on the rocks…"
"Are you okay?" her father interrupted, looking for all the world as if she'd announced that she had six months to live. "Did you hurt yourself?"
"No, Papa, I just skinned my knee, but this man helped me…"
She motioned toward me. At that point, I had just then gathered enough energy to sit up, and I was leaning with my back against the left wall, as I huffed and puffed in a fit of exhaustion, terrified that the flimsy beams that supported the wall would give way any second.
The father did not seem satisfied.
"What do you mean by 'helped you'?"
"He…well, he cast magic on my leg, to make it better."
At those words, the parents exchanged looks of worry. Their worst fears had been confirmed.
"Magic…" the mother whispered. "You mean Western magic?"
There was a moment of silence as they contemplated in horror what this news meant. Then the man slapped his forehead.
"Of course!" he shouted. "If he knows magic, then obviously he must want…"
He said no more, but looked at me, appearing to size me up.
"Papa," said Rafa sweetly. "I'm sure he's not after our…I mean, after that, like the others. Why, he didn't even raise an eyebrow when Malak mentioned that he could cast Heaven Thunder Back…"
It took the father a good few moments for what she had said to hit him. When it did, he was overcome by such a severe coughing fit that for a moment I thought he was about to choke. Much to my disappointment, he recovered.
"What did you just say?" he hissed. His face turned red. He spun towards the unfortunate Malak, who was trying to make himself appear as insignificant as possible in the back corner of the hut.
"Oops," said Rafa.
The little devil! Judging by the triumphant smile on her face, Rafa had gotten her revenge. Heh heh, siblings are the same all over the world. I remember Bertha squealing on me when I'd stolen the biscuits from the kitchen years ago, and the maid had...what's wrong? Very well, then, I'll get on with my story. Ha ha, oh no, Gelkanis Barinten never gets too carried away. I always say just as much as I want to say, and no more and no less. Conversation is an art that I've mastered fully. Ha ha, not to boast, but I've been told that I'm very eloquent.
Anyways, as I was saying, poor Malak was squirming under his father's penetrating gaze, and looking as if he desperately wanted to be somewhere else.
"Now Father, before you get upset…"
"You said what? Were you completely out of your mind?"
"Father, I-I'm sorry, but it just slipped out…"
"Do you remember what we taught you about strangers? Do you realize that you…why, do you realize what you might have done to the village?"
Malak said nothing. He looked at the floor and flushed a bright scarlet.
The father frowned. He rubbed his mustache again, and turned to his wife.
"Well, I guess the damage has been done. I'll go get my father. He'll speak to our guest."
"Karim, you're right," said the woman. "The elder will know what to do."
I laughed. Well, ha ha, I tried to laugh, but my throat was so dry that it came out like a rasping cough.
"Yes," I croaked. "Wonderful…ha ha- hack…elder…see…water."
To my surprise, she addressed me next.
"And sir, I don't know who you are, and what you're doing here, but it was kind of you to help my daughter."
"So what are you doing in the village?"
The mother sighed.
"Rafa, give him some of the water that you brought back…Rafa? Oh, don't tell me you've dropped the jug again. That's the fourth one you've broken. You know how expensive they are."
She turned to her son.
"Malak, go with your sister this time to get the water."
"I said watch her!"
The boy pouted, and crossed his arms in a show of childish petulance."But I'm sick of watching over her all the time. I'm tired."
The father spoke. "Nadia, if the boy doesn't want to look after his sister, why force him?"
They all looked surprised, Malak not least of all. As the boy would confide to me one night many months later, it was rare for his father to take his side. The woman turned to her husband.
"Are you mad, Karim? She…"
"Rafa is a big girl." He gave his daughter a warm smile. "She can look after herself. Besides, I have other plans for him."
The father turned to Malak, whose elation at his father's first words was rapidly fading.
"Come, Malak," said the father sternly. "You'll go with me to get the elder."
"And while we're on our way, let's have a talk about that 'Heaven Thunder Back' comment you said in front of him earlier. Perhaps it's time I taught you a lesson."
He gave his son a darkly significant look. I saw Malak gulp. The father pulled him by the hand. With an air of resignation, the boy followed him out the door.
While I waited, I spoke with the Galthana woman. She told me a bit about the village. Been around for hundreds of years, she said. A few old families from the south of Jefaria had come there to escape the drought, among other things – she wouldn't tell me what else in the south they had been escaping, no matter how hard I pressed, though she spoke of it as if it had been some grave sort of persecution. But they had come to the valley, and founded the village. About two hundred people lived there. Most of it was stuff I'd already heard from Harrell, of course, but she told me some interesting information about the Galthanas.
Turns out they had quite an extended family. The elder had had four sons and a daughter, and there were at least two-dozen Galthanas in the village. That was a good and a bad thing. Good, because it meant that there was a greater chance that, if only those of Galthana blood could perform their ancient Heaven and Hell Skills, I could persuade one of them to join me. Bad, because…well, isn't it so much better to possess a skill that is truly unique?
When Malak came back with the village elder, I noticed that he was clutching his backside. He walked out the door in silence, wincing slightly, but not before he gave me a sour look, as if to say, "Thank you for getting me in trouble."
So I was left alone with the elder, a short man in his late sixties with thin white hair and leathery skin that was withered from years of exposure to the sun's harsh rays. I stood up, and walked back and forth across the room to stretch my legs. Now I was feeling much more confident. Heh heh, I've had to deal with my share of chiefs of some little hick town or other. I know the type. You have to flaunt your power; they understand power. But first you have to ease them into a conversation, and get them to let their guard down.
I pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed my forehead with it in silence. The elder stared at me, not saying a word or betraying an emotion. After a few moments I put my sweat-stained handkerchief back in my pocket, and grinned. I was the first to speak.
"Ha ha, it's a nice little town you've got here. Very quaint. I like it, Galthana – may I call you Galthana?"
The old man said nothing, but his hazel eyes narrowed in suspicion – suspiciousness of strangers seemed to be a family trait.
"Bet you've heard of me. I'm Gelkanis Barinten, eleventh Grand Duke of Fovoham, graduated with distinction from Riovanes Military Academy, class of 462, honorary commander of the Ivalician Army. Heh heh, but please, call me Gelkanis."
I extended my hand. The old man gave me a puzzled look. It was a few moments before I remembered they didn't shake hands in that part of the world. I blushed, and pulled my hand away.
He told me his name – was his name Mewaz or Melaz, I can never remember these Jefarian names. Honestly, I think the whole world outside of Ivalice is mad. Some of the places I've gone to…you wouldn't believe what those parents call their heathen brats. "Kenji"? Now Gelkanis, or Mesdoram, or Omdolia, or – what did you say your Glabados name was, again? Those are nice normal names…oh, but I'm sorry. I know your lordship has a short attention span. I'll save this conversation for another time.
Now, ha ha, I could have chatted with the man for longer about the weather or the olive harvest that season, but I'm a direct man. No pointless beating around the bush for me. Oh no, I get right to the point when I speak. I say what I mean. Why, sometimes I'm too blunt for my own good. Ha ha, they always told me that I'm economical with my words. No, never a word too many…
Excuse me, did you say something, or...ah, must be imagining things.
"Whatever-your-name-is," I began, "I may have graduated with top marks from military academy, and I may do more than my part for Ivalice in the war, but at heart, I'm not a warrior. I'm a businessman. Now, as a businessman, I'd like to have an open talk with you, man to man…"
"What do you want?" he said, cutting me off. His voice was gravelly, hoarse.
"Oh, nothing much at all. I'm just visiting." The old man scowled. He was not buying a word of it.
I walked up to him, strutting all the way – he and I both knew where the balance of power lay. I leaned in and whispered in his ear.
"But while we're at it…I'd like to know a bit about that 'Heaven Thunder Back' thing everyone's been talking about."
"Oh, God," he whispered, as his face drained of all color.
"Yes, I know all about you Galthanas," I said. I was grinning from ear to ear.
I assured him that I was a reasonable man. There was no need to worry; I wouldn't exploit his power. Oh no, I told him, I was nothing like the 'others'. It was just a teeny little favor I was asking for, for him to share his knowledge with a collector of rare spells.
And I spoke to him politely, respectfully. I was the epitome of good manners. I had quite a bit of power, I informed him. I was used to getting my way. But there was no need to see me as anything but an equal, a friend, coming to him in good faith. So would it be so difficult for him to cooperate?
"Never," he said. "I don't know how you heard about our skills, but they're ancient family secrets."
"But Elder," I pressed on, "you know as well as I do about the shocking crimes of the Ordalians and how they've raided some of the northern towns along the border. You wouldn't want to hurt the war effort, would you? Help me, and you'll be doing your part to defend Ivalice – and maybe even Jefaria."
"I don't care about your war. It's a meaningless struggle between two foreign nations. Fezana has nothing to do with it. Find some other soldiers to fight your battles for you."
"But come on, sir!" I couldn't help it; my voice raised an octave in spite of myself. I tried to stay calm, but I was becoming frustrated with that fool's stubbornness. "You're saying you can't take the trouble to teach a gentleman a silly little magic trick or two?"
For a moment, there was a faraway look in his eyes. He lowered his head, and covered his eyes with his hands, as if he were weighed down by some heavy thought or memory.
"You think you're the first one to beg to learn our skills? My parents taught me what I know, and their parents before them. For hundreds of years, we Galthanas have guarded Fezana from monsters and intruders with our magic. It would betray my ancestors if I broke the promise I made when I became the elder of the Galthana family. I'm sorry, Grand Duke Barinten, but I can't help you."
I could not believe what I was hearing.
"I see," I said. My face fell.
But oh no, I didn't give up. You think I'd take no for an answer? I told you I'm a tough negotiator. I always have a back-up plan. I leaned in, as if I were confiding a secret to the elder, and whispered:
"I noticed the village is looking a little run down."
Oh, if looks could kill…ha ha, I wouldn't be standing before you today.
"I understand," I continued, "it's hard to admit you're facing tough times. I know there hasn't been much rain lately. Olives just aren't selling the way they used to." I pulled out a small brown sack that had been attached to my belt. I gave it a shake. The jingle of change could be heard.
"Five thousand gil in here, in gold pieces," I said. I flashed my toothiest smile. "Come on, sir, you want to be able to buy your grandchildren shoes, don't you? And that Rafa, walking around in rags. Ha ha, I think it'd be in your best interests to reconsider."
The elder's withered face turned a violent shade of red.
"You dare…" he whispered, his voice shaking in fury. "You think I would sell my family for money!"
"I'm sorry, do you want more? I can give you ten thousand, fifteen, fifty, why, as much as you want! I'm the eleventh Grand Duke of Fovoham. Why, my main estate alone costs many times more than your entire village! Just teach me a spell or two, or better yet, give me one of your grandchildren to train. They'll be in better hands with me, and besides, you've got so many that I'm sure that one or two of them are expendable…"
He smacked the bag away from him, knocking it out of my hand. The gold pieces spilled out onto the floor.
"Get out of my house!"
Have you ever seen such ingratitude? I was just horrified at his manners. I shook my head sadly.
"You won't reconsider?"
Judging by the expression on his face, I could tell the answer was no.
No. Just like that, no. After all the effort I'd put into trying to find them, the old man had refused me. I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach. I tried to restrain my dismay.
"Very well, then," I said, my voice strained. "Keep the change."
I turned around and made my way towards the door. But before I left, I turned around, and gave him a sly smile.
"It's strange. Ha ha, I've been to many Jefarian villages. Most of the houses are made of clay. It keeps it cooler inside. But these shacks in Fezana, I noticed, why, they're all made of wood. Heh heh, it's a real fire hazard, you know. Not a safe place for children to live."
He snarled, and began chanting in a terrible voice:
"Cut open the water-filled sky and…"
I decided I didn't want to find out what would happen when he finished the incantation, and hurried out the door, slamming it in my wake.
I was full of righteous indignation as I marched away from that shack in a huff. The nerve of him! I was the Grand Duke of Fovoham! My ancestors once united thirteen bickering feudal lords and brought my nation to greatness. Why, I was practically a king. I deserved more respect than he had shown me. I hated that family, those arrogant Galthanas, and wished the lot of them would just…well, it's not polite, but I was furious. And now, the afternoon heat was driving me mad, and my mouth felt as if it were lined with sandpaper. I was still thirsty, I was hot, I was drenched in sticky sweat and I was burning up…
"Sir, would you like some water?"
I turned around and saw Rafa. She had returned with a fresh jug of water.
Her…did she think that I would take her charity, after how she had humiliated me? Did she think I was so desperate?
I grinned madly, and before she could so much as blink, I snatched the jug away from her and brought it to my chapped lips.
I slurped the water greedily, the cool liquid soothing my parched throat and trickling down my mouth. Now, I'm not a deeply religious man – ha ha, no offence meant to you people – but I was moments away from thanking everyone in Heaven and Hell and in between, from God to Ajora to Lucavi to Bahamut for bestowing such a divine blessing upon my humble self. Water! Sweet, cool refreshing water! It was the best tasting water I've ever drunk in my life.
And I turned to my angel of mercy, that sweet little doe, divine Rafa Galthana, of the perfect mocha skin and big brown eyes and skinny arms...
"You're not used to the heat, are you?" she laughed.
Oh, she dared. She taunted me.
And in that moment, oh, you wouldn't believe how angry…I know, it may astonish you that a man of my rank could stoop to losing control, but I confess, she annoyed me. I wanted to crush her, to make her bleed, to silence her, to…
I gently handed the jug of water, now half-empty, back to Rafa.
"Thank you," I said, all smiles and manners.
She did the one thing that infuriated me the most of all things, the one little action that made my blood boil.
"You're welcome," she answered.
I hated that smile. It didn't suit her. Her teeth were too big, and her grin was wide and slightly crooked. It made her look like a gawky, awkward child, not a beautiful girl. I've always liked her better when she cried, when she screamed, when she showed fear. Such a shame, she had the potential to be a real beauty. Here she was, ripe for the taking, her slender wisp of a body so soft and fragile, like a flower waiting to be opened, and that rich mocha skin just asking me to drink it in…
How old? Oh, she was eight, and the boy was eleven. Why do you ask?
"Good bye, dear," I whispered, in a voice that overflowed with honey. "Best wishes to your family."
And I straightened my robe, and with one last attempt at dignity, held my head up high and turned around, heading for the mountains.I hate to admit it, but I was fuming, and I mean fuming that evening, when I arrived at the camp, my muscles aching and my skin red and inflamed. Here I had come halfway around the world, hiked all this way and gone to so much trouble, and I had nothing more to show for it than a bad case of sunburn.
It was time to cut my losses. I would leave this dump of a town and find my secret weapon to fight the Ordalian menace elsewhere. And why did I need those Galthanas anyways? Their skills were quite useless outside of the natural landscape that was peculiar to Fezana. There was plenty else to do in Jefaria. My orphanage in Fabul needed some renovations, and I could explore the capital city. Maybe I would find more legendary fighters in Fabul – yes, in nice, crowded, bustling Fabul! But first, I would go back to my tent, get some rest, and treat my poor suffering body. And I would try one of those legendary salves they had in Jefaria for my sunburn; I'd heard wonders about those Jefarian remedies.
And for most people, I suppose that would have been the end of it.
But they don't call me the Weapon King for nothing. I have a sort of "tenacious temerity", as one of my professors wrote on my old report card in military school. Ha ha, I was a real fighter in my youth, top of my class at Riovanes, like my father and grandfather before me. It's in the Barinten blood.
After the kindness I had shown their children, those dirty infidels had refused to share their knowledge, when I had demanded it of them, begged them, humiliated myself before them like a common…
Well, just the very thought of it now makes me furious.
But heh heh, you know what I said. I don't lose my temper.
You're right, it's a bit cold in my office. Come, I'll get a servant to fetch a log for the fire – Donovan! Did you hear someone respond? I thought I heard a noise…ah, forget it, he's not there. Servants are incompetent these days. But ha ha, it's always a little chilly here. Such a big castle, a few small fireplaces can't keep it warm. I don't mind a bit of cold. It's the heat that kills me.
That night, as I sat in my tent rubbing ointment on my peeling arms, I could hear faint noises from the distance. I could not help but smile.
There wasn't much of a breeze that night. So it was long after midnight when I first smelled smoke.
I stood up, the muscles in my sore thighs giving a twinge of protest, and after placing the container of ointment on my night table, I went outside to investigate.
Night can get pretty cold in the north of Jefaria. Now that the sun had set, the air had a harsh chill to it, one that made me shiver in my thin bedclothes but that also invigorated me. There was something crisp and sweet to the atmosphere, as if it were living, pulsing with adrenaline. Even from outside my tent, if I craned my neck to see between the tops of the mountains, I could make out a glowing amber light coming from the heart of the valley.
Now, isn't fire a beautiful thing? I don't have much of a sense of romance, but there's something about watching a real blazing inferno that just takes my breath away. Have you ever seen something burn, I mean really burn? I didn't do much fighting during the war. But this one time, I watched my Kamyuja burn down a village in Zelamonia that was harboring some enemy troops…and oh, it was glorious! The cottages would slowly sway as the fire consumed them, and you could hear the wood creak. Then whenever you least expected it, one of the buildings would just erupt into flames and topple over like a house of cards.
And it was warm. Not like the thick oppressive heat in Fezana that makes it difficult to breathe, but a healthy warm glow, like curling up by the fireplace in winter, like being alive. I felt an odd rush from it all, from watching Kenji aim his shuriken at an Ordalian soldier's head and Kyoko's Ifrit raze through enemies. Women were crying, of course, and they screamed as they saw my soldiers decimate their men…don't you find there's something oddly intoxicating about the sound of screams? That's true power, isn't it, to bring someone to their knees, to make them frightened and frail. It's always been like that for…
Ha ha, but why am I telling you this? I suppose I'm the only one who…
You have felt that way before? Ha ha, so I'm not strange. I like to think that I could hear faint screams that night in Fezana as well. Screams of that arrogant elder, of the woman, of the father with the black mustache, but most of all, of that little girl, that temptress, that devil. You know, terror is a tangible thing. It infected the air that night, made it electric, and as I breathed in, I could drink in their collective fear, feel their pounding heartbeats, smell the freshly spilt blood. Oh, I would have wanted to watch, to admire my handiwork, to see the dying gasps of the village, to watch two hundred people's worlds become nothing…
But ha ha, do you think I'd be mad enough to brave those mountains again, just to see a silly bonfire? No, I'm a practical man. Heh heh, I've got some common sense in this little head of mine! So I went back to my tent, and lay on my cot until I fell into a long, peaceful, dreamless sleep.
The next day, just after dawn, I left with my men, all of them tired out from a long night's work, and set out for Fabul, never looking back.Would you believe it, I heard the news about what happened to Fezana a couple of weeks later. A messenger came to visit me at my office at my orphanage in Fabul. After hundreds of years, the village was dead. As far as anyone knew, there were no survivors. Heh heh, I was just horrified. He had been there, and seen the ruins of Fezana, seen the carnage. He told me that nothing remained of the chalk-white houses but charred wooden skeletons. And the streets...oh, the children. The dusty roads were stained red…oh, it's just too terrible to speak of.
Now they say that those Ordalians committed those heinous acts. You remember how they were looting and pillaging the towns to the east on the way to the frontlines. But to think they came all the way to a place like Fezana! And I had just been there right before it had happened. Well, I was shocked, to say the least. Just shocked!
Heh heh, wouldn't you like to know?
Well…it was pretty clever, I'll own up to that. The soldiers would scream, "For Ordalia!" as they ran through the streets bearing torches and running their rapiers through anyone stupid enough to step outside the house. It was under cover of night, when the villagers slept in their beds, and the town was defenseless. They were careful to burn every last home, and guarded the entrances to the huts so that no one could escape. Quick, effective, and systematic. It was a clean sweep of the village – at least, it should have been.
No, it's never a good idea…to go against my wishes. I'm the eleventh Grand Duke of Fovoham, after all.
I would own quite a collection, I vowed long ago, of every existing spell and battle technique known to mankind. Well, you've seen it for yourself. It would be quite…unsightly, for me to be missing a piece, when some Jefarian had holed it up for himself. But no, don't take me for a bad man, or a selfish man. I share whatever I find with my children, my precious assassins, my creations.
Sweet young Rafa…cute little Malak…in a sense, I did it for them. What life would it have been for them, in that backward town in the middle of nowhere? What good would their magic have done, wasting away in a sleepy valley, far from the heat of battle? No, they were better off dead. So you see, I'm always a philanthropist.
They were forged that night in the fires of their dying village, forged into cold hard steel. When I found them by chance five months later, in a Fabul alley barely two blocks from the orphanage, there was a dullness in their eyes. They were almost unrecognizable. Their faces had grown thin from starvation, and they had a hungry savage look to them, like two stray dogs desperate for a bone. Oh, no more foolish giggling and bravado now. They were ready for training. And they didn't waver when they killed. His first time, perhaps, his hand shook quite a bit as he held the dagger, and that girl totally lost her head the night after that one mission in Dorter…but after a bit of discipline, no, they didn't waver. They were perfect. And such skill, such stealth! This one time, I sent the two of them on a mission to assassinate Count…
But that's another story. And ha ha, do you think I'm going to tell you everything about my business? No, only an idiot reveals his secrets to a total stranger! Ha ha, like I told you, I'm the master of discretion. My lips are sealed.
So…why don't we get back to business? I'll draw up a contract for the deal. Remember to inform your employers, I'm expecting the material to arrive by Monday. I'll send one of my best men to bear the message to that heretic as soon as he returns from Orbonne. Well, I won't press about what is so interesting about those…Germonik Scriptures, did you say? And don't worry, Wodring; you can assure Vormav Tingel that not a word of this deal will get out. Ha ha, I'm a direct man, and I'll be direct with you; what interest would I have in a few old scraps of paper? You can be sure that my loyalty lies with Murond.
Sir – may I call you Rofel? Rofel, if you don't mind me asking, do you have any children? There's something so charming about little boys and girls bending down on their knees and thanking you so solemnly for your charity and magnanimity. It's all I can do to keep myself from bursting with pride when I see the fruits of my labor. You Shrine Knights should be more active in philanthropy. You'll never understand what it means to see their tiny hands clasped around the handle of a sword twice their size, with their innocent eyes wide open, eager to learn what I have to teach them. I make them. Now that's what I call power.
Children. They're blank slates, fresh starts, open books…ha ha, I'm using up my whole arsenal of clichés! It's a shame I've never had any of my own. It always takes a bit of work to break them in a bit and undo the damage that age and lax parenting has done to them. Sometimes they need…a shock to melt them down a bit; it makes them easier to influence. But oh, when the fire cools down, and they become hard, they become cold, they become a thing of beauty, constructed for a purpose – isn't that the wonder of fatherhood? Such power over the softest materials, to bend them and mold them in your hand. Only then can I turn them into a perfect tool, into a weapon.
But enough chitchat. I've bored you with all this, haven't I? Come with me, sir, let's go downstairs to the library. I have to show you this gun I've crafted myself from spare parts that you would just love – and here is my precious Rafa again. Hello, my daughter, what are you doing outside my office, and why aren't you back with the others…
Well, what's the matter with her, and where did she head off to in such a hurry? Ah, don't mind her. Women can be so temperamental.