GRASS STILL DID not grow on the central plain of the southern continent. Months of spring had come and gone, and the land flowered everywhere else from coast to coast, but still there remained a bare spiral of waste in the place where Kefka's tower had once stood. There, the sandy soil was as hard and nonporous as concrete. It didn't absorb water; rain would bead up, then run off in thin rivulets. Sometimes, after snowstorms, travelers would report that the moment a flake touched the ground there, it melted -- sometimes in a hiss of steam.
There was probably some exaggeration to the stories, as there was probably some truth behind them. But the place was indeed barren, and therefore avoided, as one avoids burial ground, or the site of some bloody battle. No one dared cross through if it could be avoided. No one set up camp nearby. And so no one was there to see when, one winter's midnight, the ground there turned to metal.
The Grace of God
nistelle (at) gmail (dot) com
THE INVITATION ARRIVED just before sunset, on a cold and cloudy afternoon in midwinter. Though it was several weeks early, Celes knew who had sent it the moment she saw the carrier: an immaculate, smooth-feathered dove, the curve of its wings defined by a thin edging of gold leaf around the tips.
The bird was a patient visitor. It had probably been there for some time before Celes noticed it, settled into the cold earth of her windowsill flower-box; and when she lifted the sash and coaxed the bird gently inside, it fluttered delicately for a few moments, then lighted with regal grace on her mantle. It stayed still as she lifted away its soft under-down to reveal a strip of cream-colored paper wrapped around one leg and tied in three places with thin gold cord.
Celes unraveled carefully, steadying the dove with the side of her thumb. Then, the moment the paper was freed, the bird fluffed its wings and took off, soaring across the room and through the open window like some bric-a-brac figurine come to life.
"Polite," Celes murmured, and smiled faintly. She watched the bird ascend past the rooftops and chimneys of Albrook, then suddenly glide down and turn west, a clear white break in the darkening sky.
It was a few minutes before a damp, chilly breeze reminded Celes the window was still open, and she crossed the room and shut it. After a moment she drew the heavy green wool curtains as well; and she stood there, in the dim dusk light.
She already knew what the paper in her hand said. She had received three such messages in the past three years, each sent on a winter morning, each brought by a distinctive gold-and-white dove. She had forgotten that another was due. Or perhaps she had not wanted to think of it; it would lead, inevitably, to thoughts of the past.
Regardless, Celes was not one for trying to evade the inevitable-- and besides, she could not very well stand about the dark all night. Briskly, the curling letter held between two fingers, she lit the lamps above the fireplace and on the end tables, then sat on the couch and opened the letter, which had been folded into thirds. She recognized the thin, refined handwriting at once.
"To her Esteemed Ladyship, MISS CELES CHERE,
In the company of HIS MAJESTY the KING.
As usual, you'll have to forgive that header. No matter how many times I tell the stewards that it looks ridiculously pompous, they still insist on adding it each time before mailing. Old traditions die hard, it seems; perhaps because no one has the bollocks to kill them.
Etiquette rantings notwithstanding. Yes, much to my great disbelief, it's time for another grand dinner. This one will be particularly spectacular, I hope, with several dozen more guests than last year. (Yes, before you ask, many of them are women, but I assure you it is merely a matter of coincidence.)
I have sent carriers to the other guests of honor (or rather those with definite addresses; again Gogo has proven especially difficult to track down) and I fully expect it to be a grand reunion. The progress we have made this year is wonderfully encouraging and I'm sure we would all like to share in it.
Respond whenever it is convenient. I truly hope you can attend, Celes. Many of us have missed you.
HIS MAJESTY KING EDGAR RONI the FIRST,
Sovereign to the COMMONWEALTH of FIGARO."
And then, a quick looping scrawl at the bottom.
"Hey Celes, we haven't seen you in a while! You have to come to the dinner, I need someone to put this brother of mine in his place. Oh yeah, have you talked with Locke lately? Last time he visited he mentioned you guys falling out of touch or something. Oh well, don't worry, he'll be here this year and you guys can play catch-up to your heart's content. Well I guess I better end this before it becomes a novel. Hope to see you soon!
So. Celes closed the letter back on its folds. It was time again for the feast at Figaro castle.
Four years had passed, then, since Kefka's death. To Celes it seemed both merely weeks and eons ago, a time somehow separate from chronology and memory. But then, that was how it had seemed from the start, wasn't it -- from the morning of the tower's collapse. Exactly, to all the world's people, as though they had awoken from a long, troubled sleep and were unsure how to live in this familiar but nearly forgotten world.
That first morning had been the hardest: dazed and aching, and town after town in near-ruins, without government or leaders. It had seemed overwhelming, then, and there was some question as to whether the wounds Kefka had inflicted could be mended without at least a grace period of anarchy.
But then, things seemed to settle themselves. They had each chosen a town or province to oversee and assist, for at least the time being, and the days went by in a sequence of rebuilding, planting, surveying, flying from town to town to check progress and take notes. All those concerned, including Celes, been very brisk and ordered in their duties, precise, as if to be less systematic were to slip back into the nightmare. Perhaps they had simply lived so long with a grand objective that, without one, they were lost.
The months passed quickly, in either case. Soon, it became clear that a punctuation of some sort was needed, a way to mark the progress made. It was Edgar, of course, who first came up with the idea: a feast. A celebration of Kefka's fall, and of the revival of the world, held each year on the vernal equinox for obvious symbolic reasons. Friends from before the ruin were invited -- surviving Returners, old allies. New visitors were welcome, too: every mayor, and many shopkeepers, workers, lucky children and families from every town. And of course, the most important guests, the ones who had been there. Including Celes.
Of all of them, she had been the most reclusive. She rarely visited anyone, and when she did, it was those nearby -- Cyan, sometimes, in Tzen, once or twice Setzer in Maranda. Nor did she maintain any real line of communication. Edgar, who was sort of the base of operations, was the only one who ever received her carriers, and even then only every other month or so. Besides that one spring night each year, she was nonexistent.
It was, Celes told herself, because she had the most work to do. After all, Albrook had been next to decimated after the fall, being closest to Kefka's tower; the people there needed her to be a reliable leader, a constant presence. Thus justified, she committed herself to rebuilding everything -- the houses, the economy, the government, the morale -- with such total and consuming devotion that it bordered on obsession.
She did not ask herself why, only knew that it went beyond duty, or responsibility. Defining it more deeply than that did not interest her. That would involve entering dangerous territory, disturbing places she had carefully avoided for years.
Still. Celes smoothed out the invitation and placed it under a glass-globe paperweight on the coffee table. The feast did come just once a year. And it would be nice, wouldn't it -- to see everyone again? And just for a little while.
She reached to the end table, hand hovering near the drawer -- the briarwood fountain pen would probably be most appropriate. She took it out, along with two sheets of pale blue paper, and began.
To His Majesty King Edgar Roni Figaro.
Dear Edgar and Sabin,
I am delighted to hear from you both, and of course accept your kind invitation. I expect to arrive by ship on the nineteenth or twentieth and should reach the castle by the following morning.
It will be good to share memories again. Sometimes it is far too easy to simply forget.
With best regards,
Figaro Castle had perhaps needed a full six weeks to prepare. The party's size had seemed to multiply every year since its conception: the first had seen maybe one hundred guests, all fitting comfortably at the two massive banquet tables in the Great Hall. The next had close to five hundred; the next, twelve hundred; and on this evening, Figaro Castle held nearly three thousand guests, servants, and entertainers.
Of course, it would be impossible to accommodate them all in the Great Hall, and as the company swelled, so did the boundaries of the party. The Hall was still the center of it -- perhaps because it was where the hors d'oeuvres could be found -- but now the celebration overflowed into the throne room, the ball room, and outside to the moonlit peristyle. Less crowded, but still filled with music and drink-sipping, chattering guests were the galleries and terraces of both wings and, further back, the great glass-enclosed conservatory and arboretum.
The Great Hall itself had never looked more beautiful: every crystal chandelier lit, every sconce glowing with an exquisite gold-dipped tea light. The huge arched windows were clear and luminous, the oak-and-ash parquet floor waxed to shining -- and flowers, radiant yellow and red, were everywhere. Probably Edgar would have to be frugal for the next six months to compensate, Celes thought.
She was standing against the east wall, drinking champagne and letting the activity pass in and out of her line of vision -- people talking and laughing, reaching to take appetizers from platters, hugging old friends. It was most comfortable for her, this: watching. Although the party was, as always, perfectly lovely, she somehow felt detached from it, from the relaxed and easy familiarity that everyone here seemed to share.
Perhaps she ought to go looking for Edgar, to exchange a few pleasantries before dinner. She had just lifted her glass up, preparing for the trip through the throng, when something warm and coarse brushed against her leg.
Startled, she steadied her drink and looked down to meet two dark, sober eyes. It took her a moment, through the confusion of passing legs and shifting skirts, to make out the rest: a lean-muscled Doberman, muzzle frosted with gray, seated at her feet.
"What --" Then recognition hit. "Interceptor?"
As answer, perhaps, he placed a heavy paw on the toe of one silk ankle-boot.
Celes was at a bit of a loss. Fortunately, just then she heard a voice, clear over the clamor of conversation and clattering of dishes.
"Hey! Hey, get back here, you nutty --"
It was Relm, navigating her way sideways through the crowd. Her eyes were on Interceptor, but then she looked up, saw Celes, and immediately broke into a grin.
"Ay! Celes, I thought maybe it was you!" She laughed a little breathlessly. "I'm sorry, hold on a second -- this guy's a bit keyed up --"
Relm leant down to Interceptor. "Where did you go? I had your beef pâté all ready, and you disappeared." She rolled her eyes at Celes. "He has a little caviar and boom, instantly starts running amok."
"Don't we all?" Celes said, smiling. Relm, at fifteen, was beginning to show hints of the woman she would become: a defining of her features, a darkening to her honey-blonde hair. Her enthusiasm, however, had remained unchanged.
"Yeah, well, he should be on his best behavior. Edgar made a special exception for him to be here tonight." Relm looked down sternly at Interceptor, who huffed through his nose in reply.
"That's right, go ahead and play innocent. Still, I guess I should be thankful -- he's so much better with people now, isn't he? He sure seemed to recognize you, anyway."
"Yes," said Celes, and shifted her foot a little, awkwardly. Interceptor still hadn't lifted his paw.
"Oh! Lord, I'm sorry." Relm pulled Interceptor back by one shoulder. "Get off her, huh? Act your age. She doesn't have any food for you. Greedy thing, I don't know why I put up with him sometimes. But God, Celes. How are you? How has everything been?"
"Great," said Celes. "And you?"
"Oh, just wonderful. This party's insane, isn't it? I love it. Have you seen the Ferruti?"
"I have." Edgar had hired out the world-famous Tzen Ferruti, acrobats extraordinaire, and Celes had seen a few glimpses of their trapezing and crab-walking when she passed by Chesme Hall. "How's your grandfather?"
"Oh." Relm snorted. "Exactly the same. He's sitting back there --" she pointed a thumb at the crowd -- "being incredibly boring. And getting sloshed, on rum of all things. I don't know why; have you tasted it? It's awful."
Celes raised her eyebrows.
Relm waved a hand carelessly. "Oh, I just had a sip." Her grin was inexhaustible. "God damn, but it's great to see you again, Celes. I can't believe it's been a year already."
"It is pretty unbelievable."
"Have you kept in touch with everyone? What about Locke?"
Heat prickled at Celes's nape.
"Ah," she said. "Well, I'm afraid I really haven't. I've been a bit of a hermit, I think. I keep telling myself I'll start sending carriers, but things have been so hectic --"
"You haven't kept up with Locke?" Relm was dismayed. "Oh, no. Why ever not? That's awful, Celes, I'm sorry."
"Oh, well --" Celes felt her hands tense up as she stalled for time. Relm's frankness, her candid concern, had startled her; although, after four years, it really shouldn't have.
"It's not that awful, Relm," she said finally. "We've all been busy."
"Have you at least seen him here tonight?"
"Not yet --" and time to steer the conversation back to normalcy -- "but then I haven't seen anyone, besides you. I was just about to go people-hunting."
Relm, eyes bright -- perhaps she had had more than just a sip of the rum, after all -- still didn't look convinced. "Well, all right." She looked at Interceptor. "I guess we'd better get going, too. I hear the cooks are trying to get rid of all their leftover bones."
The dog's ears perked immediately. He stared not at Relm, but straight ahead, as though struck with a vision.
Before she had even finished speaking, he was off and sprinting, winding around legs and tables. A series of startled cries tracked his progress to the door.
"Of course that's not true," Relm whispered to Celes, leaning in conspiratorially. "But talking to his stomach seems to be the only way to get him to do anything nowadays." She began to weave her way back. "Listen, Celes, I'll see you at dinner, okay?"
"Okay," said Celes. She waved lightly.
"And you needn't worry about him," Relm called, nearly swallowed up now. "I just know he wants to talk to you. Bye!"
Celes opened her mouth to answer, but somehow couldn't think of a single thing to say. At last, she raised her head and called back a final "Thanks, good-bye." Too late, for by that time Relm was out of sight, and Celes was alone.
Feeling unsettled, she finished her champagne, then decided, suddenly, to leave. It was too warm here, for one thing. Stifling, really, and noisy besides. Chattering guests hovered about, countless and relentless, and she no longer had the desire nor the strength to engage in pleasant small talk with any of them, should the need have arisen.
She raised her glass and began to maneuver briskly through the crowd -- "pardon me, excuse me, pardon me, pardon" -- to a little-used side door, draped with a garland of red and gold roses, which she lifted out of the way as she passed.
The corridor was quiet and cool after the thrumming human noise of the party. With echoing footsteps, she began to walk without any clear idea where she was going. Faint sounds of talk and laughter from the Hall followed her. It seemed comforting -- peaceful, like distant music to one half-asleep. Perhaps to be aware of the party, while still being apart from it, was best.
Soon Celes realized she had wandered into the Figaro Family Hall. The walls on either side were hung with huge, ceiling-to-floor portraits of the line of desert kings, in successive chronological order.
Academic interest stirred, Celes walked closer to study what looked to be the first, and certainly oldest, painting. It showed the founders of Figaro: dour Rene of Letia, his graying blond hair pulled severely back from a face that had unfortunately experienced one battle too many, and next to him his ruddy-cheeked brother Roni, who sat straight-backed in a golden throne, a cutlass at his side. The next portrait was Rene's son Ferdinand standing triumphantly before the castle doors, with a crystal water-glass in one hand: the heraldic representation, Celes knew, of the taming of the vast Figaro desert.
On the paintings went. Celes followed them, recognizing monarchs like the buxom, freckled Aventene, much-loved queen and first female ruler in any of the free territories; the grandly mustachioed Maracamus II, who was, as Celes understood it, remarkable only for his facial hair; and the famously intellectual Princepi, who nevertheless looked ridiculous wearing a stiff, elaborate neck ruff and an equally stiff expression. Finally, at the very end of the hall, was Edgar.
Only it wasn't just Edgar. Very unusually for a royal portrait, Sabin also appeared in the painting. The two brothers were posed on the castle's lookout tower against a brilliant red sunset, their arms around each other's shoulders. Both, though Edgar looked like Sabin was squeezing him a bit too hard, were smiling broadly.
There was something unusual, however, about the whole painting. It appeared less professional than the others. Apart from the twins' informal poses, other traditional elements were missing: the symbolic scepter and cutlass, or the red book stamped with the gold seal of Figaro. Leaning closer, Celes saw why. At the bottom, where she had expected to see the elaborate black signature of Owzer's School of Portraiture, there were only the handwritten initials "S.F."
Celes straightened and raised her glass to her lips, thinking. Was she remembering incorrectly, or hadn't Sabin and Edgar's father been named Stuart?
Then someone behind her spoke.
"A rather drab family, don't you think?"
The voice could not have been more familiar. Nevertheless, Celes was taken by surprise. She half-gulped her mouthful of champagne, then managed to swallow the rest before she turned around.
He was leaning against the opposite wall, arms crossed, easily relaxed -- taking no notice of her, it seemed. His entire attention was focused on the painting in front of them both, which he studied with faint dislike.
"Thoroughly unremarkable in appearance," he continued, "uninspired in wardrobe, and lacking in intelligence, if Edgar is any indication. In short, a family quite unworthy of the royal line. If they had any brains at all, they'd let me take over."
His eyes lowered to meet hers. Candlelight danced. Then there it was at last, that slow, dazzling grin.
Celes had learned long ago that it was impossible to resist returning that smile. "Hello, Locke."
"I see you too decided to escape the madhouse," he said. "As usual, we're the only ones here with any sense."
It was true that he was dressed in monochrome -- black tuxedo, white shirt, silver waistcoat and cravat -- but somehow he seemed to glow with his own well of color. She had the disorienting feeling that she was still looking at a painting.
"So it would appear," she answered.
They had begun to moving toward each other, with slow steps that neither seemed fully aware of.
"How long have you been here?" Locke asked.
"Since early afternoon."
"Ah, I've only just arrived. I found out chocobos take longer, but they certainly beat the hell out of boats."
That made her laugh. When she looked up again, she saw his attention was now solely on her.
"It's great to see you," he said.
"Likewise," she replied, more softly than she had intended.
"So how have you been? What have you been doing in -- Albrook, still? I haven't heard from you in ages, it seems like."
"Oh, I know." Best to agree. "It's been so hectic. We've been having some trouble with the soil -- shriveled seedlings, that sort of thing -- and the assembly quarreled over whether to replant for, oh, it seemed like months. I've tried to keep in touch, but -- well, the time just seems to fly by so quickly."
"Tell me about it," said Locke. "I just ended this six-month stint in Zozo I stupidly agreed to. I guess Edgar thought I'd feel at home or something -- which offends me greatly," he added. "Now it feels like I was there for hardly a week, but at the time, it was just as much fun as you can imagine."
"What, sleeping with your shoes on so no one would steal them? That does sound fun."
"You know it. And keeping my wallet in my underwear."
"It's good for the leather," he said. "Anyway, I'm done with that now. Back in Nikeah till the end of the year at least."
"Yes. And, as such," he began, puffing himself up importantly, "I shall be nary three days from Albrook by ferry."
Celes felt a tiny tickling sensation in her stomach. "Oh, really?"
"And I am willing to partake of that gruesome journey if you would, perhaps, like a visitor sometime."
"Well," she began. "Well, I wouldn't want to subject you to such an ordeal."
"Don't worry, I've been building up my endurance," he said. "Or, you know, if you prefer, you could come to Nikeah. Get that gambling stumblebum to fly you over, maybe. I'd make us tea and crumpets, it'd be grand."
"Tea and crumpets? I believe you once told me you couldn't even boil water."
"Well, strictly speaking that may be true, but everyone deserves a first try. And maybe it'll be a nice night for a bonfire.
"But you would like to?" he added.
"Well..." Celes chanced to look at him. His expression was open, earnest.
"Yes, maybe, if it will all work out," she said finally. "Yes, sure."
"Great." He flashed that same grin. "I'll send you a carrier about it after you get back."
"Actually I think it would be a good idea for us all to meet periodically," Celes went on. "I've been thinking we should discuss in person the different methods we've been using. What works, what doesn't, in terms of administration, especially. The reactions we've been getting, the variables…"
She trailed off then. Locke was listening attentively, but still she could see in the wry tilt of his mouth, the slight sadness now to his eyes, that it was the same as always. He saw right through her.
Perhaps it was time to leave again.
"Well, in any case," she said. "It was great to see you, Locke, but I have to go back to my room."
"Now?" He raised his eyebrows. "Before dinner?"
"I'm afraid I've got a bit of a headache," she said ruefully. "My ship leaves at dawn tomorrow, and I'm sure I'll sleep right through till noon if I don't get some rest now. But maybe I'll see you again at dessert," she added. "After I lie down for a while."
"Oh." He seemed startled into movement, placing his drink on a nearby end table. "Of course, feel better. And if I don't see you, have a good journey, and we'll get together soon?"
"Sure," Celes replied, and, unsure of what courtesy dictated she do next, touched the side of his arm lightly. "Tell Edgar and Terra and everyone hello for me."
"I will. I'll say it in your voice, too, which will be sure to entertain them." Locke covered her hand with his own. "It was great seeing you, Celes."
"You too," she said, and gently drew back. "Good night."
Down the corridor she walked then, briskly, swirling her drink and staring into it as though that occupied all of her attention. It wasn't until she had turned the corner that Celes slowed, then stopped, to exhale deeply and lean against the wall, her eyes closed.
It nagged at her; at last she had to admit it. Why should this be so difficult? They both had, after all, been at the very least comrades-in-arms for nearly two years. Shouldn't that have been long enough to alleviate this ridiculous anxiety, this elusive and groundless fear she felt? Was it simply that she was still trying to get used to herself in times of calm, instead of in the urgent rush of war? Or was it something else?
Suddenly lying down for a while began to seem like a truly appealing prospect. Celes finished the last of her champagne and, seeing nowhere else, placed the flute on a mahogany display case nearby. A moment later, she thought better of it and folded her lace handkerchief underneath. She had a feeling the castle servants would appreciate the use of coasters.
Her room was in the East Wing, on the other side of the castle. Even as she began the long walk back, through the empty corridors, she heard the voices from the party as clearly as ever. The guests must have been the most rambunctious they'd ever been, if they could be heard from this distance. She didn't want to think of the cleanup job Edgar would face in the morning.
In the hallway crossing hers, Celes was surprised to see, in this empty part of the castle, a guest pause, then start off in the other direction. Though he was dressed in light colors, she had to squint to make him out, a fault of the shadows. Probably he was looking for the bathroom.
The party was certainly rowdy. Celes was sure that she was moving farther away from it, but with every passing minute it seemed that the murmurs were growing louder. She was beginning to wonder if she'd be able to sleep at all through the noise when someone passed briskly by her.
"Oh, excuse me," she said softly, a reflex, but the person simply marched ahead without heeding her. Whoever it was was dressed in what appeared to be a light gray guard's uniform, with helmet and shoulder epaulets. The ensemble was somehow familiar, but she couldn't be sure why -- it was too hard to make him out in this strange dim light.
It was the same guest as before. Celes wondered why he would be wandering around this part of the castle, which Edgar had essentially closed off except to close friends. She walked faster to catch up a little.
"Pardon me," she called to him.
It was like the man hadn't even heard her. He simply kept walking, then turned the corner sharply and entered a darkened ballroom.
A bit annoyed now, and suspicious, Celes quickened her pace and followed him. "Excuse me, sir," she called, more loudly this time, in case the guest had poor hearing. "I was simply wondering if --"
What she saw then took her voice away.
Here was the source of the murmurs. The ballroom was teeming, swarming, with palely-dressed soldiers, talking to each other indistinctly, crossing from one side of the room to the next, sharing papers and studying maps as though preparing for military action.
But that wasn't what struck Celes speechless. The room was illuminated only by the moonlight streaming in through the latticed windows, and now Celes realized that the guest she'd followed wasn't indistinct because of the dim corridor; it was because he was, as the figures all were, made not of flesh but of some flickering, ghostly, translucent substance. By their eerie white-gray glow, Celes finally recognized where she'd seen their uniforms before. They were the standard fatigues of third-class Imperial troops.
"What," she whispered. "What is --?"
The murmurs had grown louder, more confused and frenetic. Involuntarily Celes took a step back. Words like joke, trick, treachery flitted through her mind, but none were adequate to explain this feeling she had, the fearful sense that something was very wrong.
"What is this?" Celes demanded of the closest soldier, raising her voice to be heard over the din. He didn't answer.
"What is going on here?" she said, almost shouting now in anger and fear, but then the soldier turned to face her. Though his ghostly eyes were without pupils, they seemed focused on some point beyond her head. The shifting, crackling mist of his skin flashed momentarily, like lightning, and for a second Celes thought he was about to speak -- until he strode forward and straight through her.
It was though the world had cracked. The instant the soldier's wraithlike body touched her skin, all of Celes's muscles seized up violently; it felt like every cell in her body had been isolated and turned inside out, fused together, torn to nothingness. And beyond the pain was something worse: the sensation of dropping into an abyss, freefall into terrible eternity.
Celes wanted to cry out, but all that escaped her lips was a weak gasp. When the soldier finally passed through her to the other side, she dropped to her knees, fell forward onto one hand, and breathed raggedly, trembling, feeling faint. White footsteps swarmed around her; the voices had grown deafening. Her vision swam. She couldn't think. She wanted to cover her ears, but before she could try, another soldier walked carelessly through her, then another, and another.
Convulsing, she collapsed to the floor. This time she could do nothing, could not even try to call for help, only shudder and lock up from the pain. Voices shouted nonsense at her, atoms flashed and crackled, and the universe churned and raged until at last it broke into blackness.