The First Five Battles of Judge Drace
Spoilers for the Judges. Pre-game.
On the evening of her indoctrination to Magister, Drace spends the hours reading. She has no need to study. All the official tests of law have already been finished up; the ink is drying on the record books, each penstroke graded and complete. The crammed-course knowledge is already seeping out of her brain, dates and places and court cases that she is all too happy to let fade away.
Instead, she lies on her stomach on the fresh linens of her new bed in her new quarters, paging through her favorite Gambit book.
She had been introduced to it first while in the Akademy during a course on strategic planning. Of the stack of literature required for their memorization, this one had found such favor with her that she had bought a personal copy to write in, furiously noting and cross-referencing in the margins. The central theories revolved around a particular Archadian General who was known for his obsession with efficiency. He broke everything down into five stages. The first four involved exploration, setup, analysis and recovery: four different means of handling wartime confrontations that sliced up a battlefield into manageable horizons. The fifth step became a transition phase, so that victory must be assured within the first four in order to translate it into the next series of movements.
For the rest of the season, Drace and the other students had spent their time applying his strategies to anything and everything: efficiency of the classroom layout, analysis of airship docking procedures, figures for troop deployment. They had scaled up and scaled down various historical battles, expanding them into telescopic proportions. The Rozarrian-Yensa Skirmish figured highly on their final; that one multiplied out to over a hundred different intricate steps, combinations of five-on-five interlinking, dazzling chains of consequence.
When that particular lesson arc had finished, their teacher had put away that general in favor of another one to memorize.
But Drace had kept the book. She pages through it now, belly-down, feet hanging off the edge of her bed like a schoolgirl.
The danger of this device, she reads, scrabbled notes in a child's hand -- a warning from herself to herself -- is to forget that the entire scope of the confrontation cannot be condensed down into a single process. It never is meant to be. Rather, you mark off the territories directly impacting your own, and then handle five steps, and then five steps again, and inevitably bear down on the very last battle that concludes it all.
She stops there, tapping her fingers on the page, unwilling to search further but uncertain what good the advice will be.
Ghis meets with her that next morning in one of the half-dozen antechambers littered around the judicial quarter. This particular room has been furnished with clumps of dried clove; Drace spends the bulk of the procedures trying not to sneeze.
The other three Judges each make a token attempt in their own way to remain alert for this meeting. Drace is not certain why. They all had shown perfect attendance throughout the laborious ceremonies announcing her addition to the rank of Magister; now, when it is only the five of them, some of their veneer has begun to slip. No one is wearing their helm. Though they are lined up in a single precise row, Judge Zecht has been stifling a yawn every few seconds and nudging Judge Bergan in some intricate form of preemptive conversation. Judge Bergan keeps casting a desperate, longing gaze towards the breakfast laid out upon the far table. Only Judge Zargabaath is watching Drace, his grey eyes soft and merciless as Mist.
Ghis still has sleep crusted in a corner of his mouth as he rambles across the first few paragraphs of the folio: something about the honor of Archades, the power vested by the people, the pursuit of justice above all.
Drace wonders if it would be unseemly to break away and pour herself a cup of tea before he's done.
"Of course, there is the traditional match each Judge Magister endures upon assumption of their office. As we judge, so too are we judged by our peers." Ghis sounds almost bored as he continues to announce the procedure in one long, rambling breath, visibly skipping down lines until his finger hovers on the last. This one seems to restore his attention somewhat. "You may select your opponent."
Opponent. Drace tightens her jaw as she runs her gaze over the line of assembled Judges, each attempting to feign boredom, in their own way. Ghis makes one, she counts. Zargabaath, two. Bergan and Zecht are third and fourth on the list.
"Right," she says then. "I'll take all of you."
- - - - -
When morning comes, she is mildly disappointed to find that there is only breakfast brought to her door. Of weapons, she has little in the way of need; her maces are her best companions, and she would rather not exchange them for tourney swords. But on the grounds of armor alone, she and the other Judge are sorely unmatched; her suit is not cut as a whole, but has been assembled over the years from whatever regiments served her best. Not an improper habit for a common Judge, but hardly comparable to the custom work of a Magister -- and her usual helmet has been taken from her by Ghis.
She trundles along to the proving grounds regardless, entering her half of the arena's preparation rooms. Without a helmet of her own, she will have to be doubly careful to protect her skull; Bergan will be certain to harry the exposed skin, and a concussion would be the luckiest she would come away with, should he wield two swords into their battle.
After a moment, she pulls her hair tightly back and loops the strands into a club braid, and then steps out through the wooden door onto the sands.
Bergan is there, waiting. Beside him stands Ghis. The elder Judge cradles a metal band in his hands. As Drace strides forward and kneels before him, she wonders if she should feel fear or not.
The simple metal circlet is placed upon her head, seated until it is snug against her brow. She feels it pinching her temples.
Ghis leaves her like that, sweeping away without word or warning. Only she and Bergan have the arena now; they are the sole variables for this match.
"I do not have a full suit of vestments," she voices, one last hesitation that cannot afford to dress itself as fear.
Bergan surveys her with a gaze so calm it could be mocking. "Such is custom." His drawl is affected; his eyes are sharp and rabid in his face, over the pocked lines of his cheeks. "The armorers will observe the match and the manner in which you fight, and from there draw up their plans." One treacherous, poisonous moment passes, and then Bergan adds, "Unless this means you are... not able, Judge Drace?"
She firms her lips together, but cannot help uttering, "Does that not make this match unfair?"
Bergan's mouth is ugly when it smirks. "If everything in Ivalice were, Judge Drace, there would be no need of the law."
She casts one last, temporary glance around the arena while he settles the crest of his helmet in place. Scattered among the benches are groups of craftsmen, each with paper in their hands and pens at the ready. There is a team of healers clustered together in the shade, their expressions pensive and tight. Above them all in the stands, there is Judge Ghis waiting underneath a canopy, sitting like a king.
And he is king of them all, perhaps, oldest of the active Magisters, senior in service and in years. The Emperor may have affixed the seal on Drace's documents, but it is Ghis who has kept his fingers on the pulse of the Magisters, deftly competent and jaded with the years.
Bergan is nearly equal in threat. His weapons today are a paired set of blades, equally weighed and curved to allow the air to flow over them with a minimum of effort. He holds them as easily as feathers.
"Step down now, Judge Drace," he demands, voice hollow through the metal. The sun is hot on them both. It turns the sheen of Bergan's armor into gold, and she squints to focus against the glare. "You are not fit to be a Magister."
She tosses her head, more to conceal the fact that the sun is causing her eyes to water than out of bravado. "Let us see how well you say that when I've seized your crown," she informs him, and then lifts her maces to advance.
He fights as she expects. The paired swords are both equally massive, with neither one in recession as a guard; she and Bergan share the same reach, though he has the advantage of blade over blunt. It takes all her effort to parry. After a while, Drace stops trying to gauge his brute strength, and simply lets the most of his blows roll off the maces, keeping them angled for deflection.
But she cannot keep it up forever, even if it appears that he can. Each new impact has begun to send an ache up both her wrists. Her initial plan -- that she simply wait him out and take advantage of his tiring -- is looking less and less manageable by the moment.
All too soon, she stumbles.
"Is that it?" he calls out, drawing back rather than press the advantage. The crease of his helm is a narrow slash; she cannot tell if he is sweating. "Is that all the Honorable Judge Drace can provide us?"
Drace finds her lip curling against the burr of his voice, tinny and spiteful. Despite all her self-control, a swelling of resentment bubbles thick inside her chest; she suddenly hates being there in the ring with him, standing there under scrutiny of strangers. They may view her as a newcomer, as a challenger, as someone younger or someone female -- it doesn't matter which outsider's status she wears today, only that she's already being closed out.
The hatred breaks and simmers inside her until her senses quicken, and she lets the rage come.
She hits him harder than she intends.
Up off the ground and dashing forward; her feet kick up dust in trails. She flips the smaller mace around so that both weapons are head-up. The low guard won't work to trap his swords -- she has tried already, tried and failed -- so instead she takes a double high guard and pushes in.
Weak first. They are both right-handed, or so she can guess after watching the way he grips his swords. Rather than permit him to swing, she hooks the left blade underneath a half-parry with her mace, the balled head weighing both weapons down. She disallows his swing as best she can without upsetting her own center of gravity; trusting in her gauntlets, Drace parries high to her right, drags low to her left, and then reverses her momentum.
The smaller mace smashes into Bergan's right wrist. Pinned wide by blocking the greatmace, Bergan's grip weakens; Drace does not risk herself with a counterattack, withdrawing half a step and dropping her left mace back into guard. As she does, she twists to his flank. Inertia sings through her side, flowing from her hips to her elbow to her arm, and then the greatmace crashes into Bergan's calf.
He buckles, sliding to one knee but keeping one sword high; she does not protest the blade but moves around it, twisting to allow the greatmace freedom of motion. It sings and she follows, trusting in the sheer weight of it to protect her as she takes the arc high now and feels it connect with his chest.
He goes down. It is the only thing that saves him from a third swing, this one wild, more to bleed away momentum than an actual attack. On his back, he kicks out, seeking to entangle her ankles with his boot; she barely dodges in time and almost loses the greatmace in the process. Its mass is a goliath pulling at her arm. She lets it go in the only safe way she knows: she lets it dedicate itself into a sweep towards the sun, and then watches as it drags her hand down again, brushing easily past a sword thrown up in defense, crumpling the metal of Bergan's pauldron like the petals of a silver flower.
The sight of blood stops her, a little. "Helm," she commands, and wonders if she should hit him again, just to make certain.
To his credit, his voice is only strained, not screaming. "Insolent chit -- "
"Helm," she repeats, savoring the word with a tight satisfaction.
He yields, pulling off his helmet with his working arm and tossing it carefully towards her feet. His skin is pale; his throat works against the pain, shallow breaths that betray the damage she has done. Now that the battle-haze is leaving her, Drace can see the dents she has left in the rest of his armor. She did not expect to go that far.
She gives him a wide berth as she fetches his helm off the ground. He cannot spit at her, but he does have the energy to sneer.
"Judge Zecht will surely put you in your place, Judge Drace. When that happens, know that I will enjoy it."
The curse, she accepts as her due, blinking a bit.
The armorsmiths and healers are already descending as she exits the ring, twittering and peeling out their measuring tapes, circling Bergan like a flock of hungry pigeons. A few of them veer towards Drace; she lengthens her stride, and they fall away behind her.
Only Zargabaath and Ghis are waiting in the box by the time she marches up the steps. Zecht is gone.
She holds Bergan's helm out, feeling absurdly proud, like a dog bringing home a gamebird to its master. Still, a victory is a victory, and she will not allow her own cynicism to cheapen it.
"Good," Ghis decrees, and takes the prize from her with a nod.
She washes herself that night in the luxurious bath assigned for use of the Magisters only. No one else comes in to interrupt her. She scrubs and scrubs in the hot water, luxuriating in the privileges of rank, and it feels wonderful.
- - - - -
Breakfast the next morning consists of breads and jams taken in her quarters, with a small slice of meat to give her energy for the day. There is a small note folded underneath a corner of her plate. She picks it up while she drinks her juice slowly, cautious not to give her stomach reason to bloat.
I bid good day to you, Judge Drace! the message reads. The writer's hand loops its vowels. If it is convenient, let us plan for the hour before noon. The sun is kinder to everyone in attendance that way, and I find a good spar whets one's appetite for lunch.
On the back is a single line:
You still have time to run.
She crumples the paper in her grip.
Like Bergan, Zecht meets her in the arena with his helmet off. His hair is laced tight to his skull, tiny rows that terminate near the nape of his neck; the dark strands are shot through with pepper-grey. There is a small goatee decorating his chin. Altogether, it is not an unsightly effect, though she cannot help but feel as if he is grinning at her constantly, a mischief unbecoming of a Judge Magister whose decisions encompass the death of legions. She wonders if this is why half the judicial court is terrified of Judge Zecht; she wonders if this is why he is called the Demon of the Courts, because even his helmet seems amused, all cat-jaws and claws.
Then he nudges her, and smiles. "So serious," he chides. "It will kill you."
"I thought we were here to fight, not banter," she replies back, half-disbelieving, half-serious.
The reminder seems to sober his jovial mien; Zecht pulls a long sigh and takes a step away to his side of the field. "I will tell you something, before we play at being enemies." Already he is getting into position, his words becoming muffled behind his helm. "When we gird ourselves in armor and take up the sword, we are touching things that can kill ourselves as surely as we kill others."
"The weight, you mean?" The signal whistle chirrs, and Drace jerks a step forward. Careful, she reminds herself, unwilling to be goaded. She cannot afford the distraction, but part of her is eager to solve the riddle that Zecht is presenting. "The weight can slow us down, and a sword has two edges, no?"
He hesitates, hands lax on his swords. "Oh, yes," he answers, and she cannot tell in the lightness of his voice if he is honest with his surprise. "I suppose you could put it that way."
Then he is upon her.
His armor explains itself once he is in motion, speed giving tongue to the riddle. His feints are low; the studded bracers rake the air with full-bodied swings, throwing every inch of his body into the attack. Each motion rings chainmail against leather. He is faster than she expects. He breaks through her guard as if it was not even there; her hands are too slow, her maces too heavy, and he bats them away before they can build up momentum.
Out of the corner of her vision, dazed and blurring, she sees Zecht's hand grasping for the metal circlet on her head.
A twist of her shoulders and she is colliding against him -- clumsy, but with enough element of surprise that he falls back, struggling for his own balance. It is a maneuver better suited to tavern brawls than a formal match, but she recognizes the lesson here as well, so quickly it is almost insulting that Zecht feels the need to remind her: on the battlefield, there is no guarantee that your enemy will fight by the same rules. On the battlefield, a matter of protocol will not save you from death.
He advances; she retreats. They break the circle drawn out in white salt as if the boundary was not even there to begin with. Around them, the spectators rise to their feet, ripples of cloth and color like the cresting of the sea. The empty weapons rack that stored Zecht's swords crashes against her hip. Drace stumbles against the obstruction, then grabs for the rack and pitches it directly at him.
Zecht does not waste effort on flashy maneuvers; he does not split the wooden stand open with a flick of his swords, but simply ducks to the side. When Drace attempts to follow the distraction with a charge, she finds a parry already waiting.
"Is that desperation I sense, Judge Drace?" Zecht's voice is rough from dust, but still purring. "I think I enjoy the way it looks on you."
The barb stings; she almost, almost pauses to draw breath and force her face to absolute impassivity, but Zecht's sword comes up suddenly and she is nearly caught by it. She wagers then without letting her eyes betray her, staring back without care for dignity of her own expression, pressing and nipping at his stance until he begins a slow retreat to flank her. Careful, careful -- and then, by luck or chance or both, his foot stumbles against on corner of the fallen weapons rack.
Crossing her maces and bracing her elbows, Drace charges forward. She has only time enough to hope that her armor will hold and that Zecht has not secured a knife upon himself; then she is striking his blades and feeling one skid along the steel protecting her belly, legs tangling with his, colliding with him in the most inelegant means possible of winning a duel.
They end up both on the ground, her straddling him only by some miracle of weight. She does not bother with tradition after that, reaching for his helm before he can struggle away. Her hand grips the whorl of one metal ear. She rips the helmet off with little concern for jostling the man underneath, and hurls it aside.
The cornrows of Zecht's hair are disheveled; his eyes are surprised, blinking up at her from the ground, inches away from her teeth.
"You are ruthless," he observes, and she does not know if he is complimenting her in that rich river-voice of his, or if he is lying.
She goes out on a limb, even as she shifts her weight back and climbs away. Instinct is warning her to get some distance; victory is one matter, but pressing her advantage through proximity will force this spar past all appropriate boundaries. She can feel it as surely as her own ribs against her armor. Zecht is a man one inch from breaking. "And you were merely testing me."
For a moment, Zecht's expression shifts into something blank and secretive, like a stone whose colors go to grey when the clouds slip across the sun; then he is grinning at her, all danger subsumed beneath rakish charm.
"Drink with me later, Judge Drace," he offers, rolling up to his feet with an ease that is only slightly tempered by a wince. She has left more bruises than he will admit, it seems. "We will see who wins best, two out of three."
She finds herself laughing as she tips her head towards him, flicking fingers off her brow in a salute. "I accept."
- - - - -
Her third duel is not what she expects.
Zargabaath gives no indication that he is about to spar with her through the rest of the day after her triumph over Zecht. He does not threaten her after dinner; he does not knock on her door with polite threats that evening. At breakfast, he passes her the salt without any trickery, and Drace floats through the rest of the day until finally she finds herself crossing the sands of the arena with her maces in her hands and Zargabaath filling up her vision.
His primary sword is almost ornate in its construction, coupled with a bayonet and reverse curve. It will punish those who move in too quickly, either by catching them at the tip, or cradling them against the sweep of the blade until the attacker's own momentum has split them against the hook at the end. Likewise, his off-hand wields a stubby, tri-curve deflector forged in fluted catcher-style rather than a breaker. Both weapons are delicate enough to be a warning.
Like her, he is conservative, though he has less reason: two matches he has seen of hers, while she has not seen him fight once. The fact that he retains a defensive posture gives her pause.
As soon as she lifts her maces, loosening her shoulders to anticipate his attack, he speaks.
"Why do you fight, Judge Drace?"
She is nettled by the question. Zargabaath was there when she was sworn and interviewed; he has heard the answer to this question already, only dressed up in prettier words. "Why are you asking me these things now, on the field?"
"Where else is best to seek the truth but here, Judge Drace?" There is a strange ceremony to the repetition of his voice, heavy and patient. She wonders how many times he has had to ask these questions before. "Where else do men lose their pride, save when confronted by the basest of fears?"
She says nothing back.
They take each other gingerly at first. She wishes to test the reach of him -- and he, for his part, seems content to be tested. Their fight is carefully restrained. Neither of them do more than scratch metal.
But each pass depletes their waning stamina, obeying gravity and its claim on their metal and flesh; on the finishing end of one parry, Drace can feel a tell-tale grief start to bloom in her right shoulder. At least she wrapped both her wrists before the match today, which is helping a little.
After a moment -- they have circled each other once more, and his left leg is a touch slower this time, limping after a shot to the knee -- she reverses her smaller mace, double-high. Zargabaath's smaller blade is just begging to trap her greatmace, all curves and deflection, and Drace knows she has finally met someone who has mastered the strategy of avoidance to an art form.
She is not certain how fast she can press. They are matched in their own wariness of the other. Zargabaath's light, strategic strikes are no less deadly for all that they are surgically placed; if she advances, he will flank her, he will slip out of the way.
Zargabaath seems to come to a similar understanding. All of a sudden, he lowers his swords, passing the smaller to his right hand so that he can reach up with the left. In one fluid motion, he unmasks himself and offers the helm to her.
"You've the field, Judge Drace," he murmurs, and she is suddenly aware of how hushed the ring has become.
"Thank you," she states carefully, eyes downcast as she accepts the weight of his surrender in her palms: an honor for the honor he is giving her.
He looks upon her, his lower lip slightly twisted, mouth ajar; his gaze reveal nothing of his thoughts to her, and then he turns away.
- - - - -
She is giddy with triumph on the fourth day. Two wins outright and the third voluntary; that is fair enough for record, and surely no one can contest her right to rank now. Even if they ignore her marks of service, her consistency of service to Archades -- even if they ignore all else and see only a woman in mismatched greaves, they cannot deny what she has accomplished here.
Ghis is her final opponent. She salutes him with a flick of her mace while she is still crossing the packed sands; the figures of Zecht, Bergan and Zargabaath are clustered like stalwart ravens in the spectator's box, milling about at the balcony rail.
She will give them a show, she decides. She will give them all something to remember.
Ghis has an even stranger combination of weapons than Zargabaath. Like the other Judge, his off-hand appears more defensive than suited for attack: a metal fan splayed open in a fanged arc, gleaming with the subtle promise of a handblade. The tines look too delicate to trap the brunt weight of a mace -- but if she is wrong, it will be a disaster with her weapons caught.
Ghis's fanned blades are counterpart to the sleek blade clutched in his right hand. The sword has little in the way of crossguard, and the oddity forces her to pause, skidding her weight to a slow prowl as she shifts from charge to circle.
"Are you coming or no, Judge Drace?"
She will be cursed forever with chatty opponents, it seems.
He keeps up his end of the match fairly enough as she gets within range, blocking the occasional swipe of her greatmace, and fielding back a few of his own. As she expected, the fan comes up in periodic attempts to catch the throat of her maces -- but not always, not completely, and sometimes Ghis willingly parries with his sword when he could have made a better effort to trap either of her weapons.
She puzzles over this again, but lets her spine curve as she tilts her weight forward, preparing for a faster advance.
Even as she does, the fan lifts again. This time it moves in a smooth arc that has little to do with physical battle: chest to helm to open air, it waves in a single sleek motion that leaves the tines pointed directly at her face.
She is already planning how to circumvent the flimsy defense when the magick comes.
The spell slams into her with a force that ignores her maces, sliding around them to pound into her chest. Knocked off-balance, she stumbles briefly before being struck again, and then again, pummeled from all sides by the air itself, slapped down as easily as a kitten. She goes to one knee unwillingly. There is sand crunching around her; there is dust in her eyes and pressure in her throat and she cannot even manage to tell which way is earth and which is sky.
And then -- at last -- she feels the circlet ripped from her brow, roughly enough that she loses hairs with it.
A communal sigh ripples around the arena; muted whispers flickering into life like tiny candles of resignation. She cannot hear any of them clearly, but the sound hammers the truth deeply into place. She has lost.
Ghis is dangling the circlet from one finger, well out of her reach. "Magick, Judge Drace," he states lazily. "Simply because you will not use a particular weapon does not mean your adversary will refrain."
She coughs sand off her lips. "The rules -- "
"Said nothing of which tools are forfeit. Let this be a lesson to you, Judge Drace." Bitterly, she observes no change in his voice: Ghis sounds as bored as ever. "Learn every inch of the law before you seek to put it into effect."
She grits her teeth. She cannot help but wonder if this means all her efforts will be wasted -- disqualified, or worse, if she will be considered shamed that Ghis will leave her here, how it will haunt her career forever should she be so disgraced. She glares at the ground, her hands in tight fists; she will not react, she will not care if she earns his scorn. She can overcome it. She will.
But there's a jangle of metal, and Ghis is kneeling into her field of abbreviated vision, inserting himself into her space. His helmet is tucked underneath his arm; the fan is back into place on his belt, looking innocently ceremonial once more.
"Come on, then," he says. One hand is extended towards her. "You have made it far enough for this week. It should be the paperwork of Archades that wears you so low, Drace -- not your companions."
"Paperwork." Pity is not a thing Drace will tolerate. She refuses to meet his eyes. "Paperwork does not spill you on the field."
"You may be surprised." Underneath Ghis's wryness is a warmer note; when she glances up at last, his mouth is crooked with the first smile she has ever seen upon his face. "Mine triumphs over me every single day."
- - - - -
The end of the final ceremonies come with the closing of the week. Her new armor is delivered to her room, along with two assistants and one smith to explain the complex order of which buckles to use first. At first Drace tries to shrug off any aid; then, when she tangles up the straps of her couters, she grimly accepts an abbreviated tutorial for her new clothes.
The helmet is the last thing they introduce to her. She stares at it for a time, examining the bulbs of the earpieces. She's not certain if she should be vaguely offended that they might be mistaken for ornate hairpieces, suspicious that the smiths have made an effort to infuse the armor with femininity; then the weight of it tips her hands and the light slides across the metal just so and all the curves transform suddenly into menace.
"Oh," she says, and forgives it.
She wears it all for the first time when they take the walk together: five Judge Magisters pacing in step, shoulder to shoulder, metal helms gleaming in the sun. Around them, the soldiers make salute. She wears her armor, and she keeps her head high.