DISCLAIMER: Dept. Heaven © Sting.

(in ten years the world will have changed – illusions to illusions.)

Triumphant, the new queen of Fantasinia—the grand sovereign of all the world—stood speaking to the masses in the midst of the courtyard. Sunlight glinted against her golden hair, the silver of her crown, the rose-colored gems set into the staff she carried.

Mizer tuned her out. It was one of the skills you picked up when living by the winds of fate. Her words didn't matter, wouldn't touch him; to him, she was her deeds.

He'd traded his bright leathers for dyed-gray clothes, the kind he tended only to use for camouflage work. So that his hair wouldn't betray him, he'd wrapped it up in a bandana, and from this distance, no one would notice him.

The lone heart left uncrushed by her merciless crusade, he adhered to the wall and probably seemed to be one with it.

For today, he'd brought along the crossbow he rarely used except for this heartless work. His longbow was like a part of him, and right now he didn't want to take on the high spirits his freewheeling lifestyle had always let him coast upon. The crossbow was mechanical, cold. It suited his mood.

Ignoring whatever snatches of High Queen Yggdra's words drifted towards him on the wind, Mizer lay calm and still and sighted down the length of the wood in his hands.

Even after he'd moved down to the desert—warmer climes, unravaged if less hospitable land—he'd always kept his ears open for news from the north. And he'd gone back to visit every few months.

Luciana and Aegina seemed to be more womanly every time he saw them, and it was always a shock to see how little Emilia was growing. Not so much in height, but in doggedly chasing after her brother's footsteps. She was short, but covered in muscle, and could beat everyone but Leon and Gulcasa himself at arm-wrestling. The tiny girl had made herself worth as much as an entire platoon.

And Gulcasa himself…

While everyone else kept pestering Mizer to join the Imperial Army already, he did enough jobs with them as it was, weren't they as good as family anyway and on and on, Gulcasa never said a word on the subject. Mizer guessed that it was probably both Gulcasa hoping but not wanting to push it and recognizing that Mizer was smart to stay out of the way.

He didn't really want to be a mover and a shaker. That peaceful world Gulcasa kept going on and on about wouldn't hold any meaning unless someone was alive to enjoy it after he and all the other martyrs bled themselves dry making it come about. Both of them understood it.

Mizer wondered sometimes why it was that Jenon and Medoute had been so damn blind. Whether he should attribute it to fear or bigotry or talking themselves into being unable to believe any side of the story but their own, or some combination of all three.

Because Gulcasa—

He slept like ten men, ate like an army, fought like a country, and dreamed the dream of all people. And in order to take care of everything, he was half killing himself.

Mizer always shook his head in amazement. There were military drills to oversee and paperwork to be filled out, construction to participate in and public relations to mediate, civilians to be talked to and companions to be babysat. And if Gulcasa kept doing all of this in one day every day, at the rate he was going, he'd burn himself out and die of overwork before he hit thirty.

The shadows under his eyes looked more like bruises than anything else, and even when his face arranged itself into the same blithe smile Garlot had always worn, he always had the expression of an old man from the cheekbones up.

Maybe the real reason the people of Bronquia so adored this young Emperor who worked himself to death for their sake was because of that smile. Whenever Gulcasa's harshness eased, he always seemed on the edge of tears.

Over the years, Mizer heard numerous reports of Gulcasa falling ill, and somehow it never exactly surprised him. With that kind of workload, and so on; he brushed off some of the more alarming details of those reports as the worry of the people. He had to; otherwise he'd wind up rushing over to Bronquia all the time, and that wasn't always conducive for a guy who worked for a salary.

And then one time, it happened in the midst of one of his visits.

It was like a curiously lucid dream, because something like that had to be some kind of really twisted, really terrible joke.

Completely without warning, Gulcasa crumpled and hit the ground hard, collapsed to hands and knees; his breathing had gone tight and pained and blood came up when he coughed. And Mizer barely had time to blink before the strongest man he'd ever known was curled unconscious and pathetic on the castle floor.

Afterward, when Nessiah said dispassionately that at least this was a lot better than it used to be, Mizer had to struggle to stifle the urge to punch him. Or at least vomit.

He listened to the explanation quietly, but even then it all mostly went over his head. Something about the length of time that Gulcasa—then Garlot—had believed himself to be human being the root of the problem, and his human memories and demon blood subconsciously rejecting one another. All he really retained was that these sicknesses and attacks would die down in time, and no one knew how long it would take. Just that Gulcasa pushing himself too hard probably wasn't helping.

And he wondered if maybe the way the Emperor's retinue and his citizens clustered behind and around him was actually so that they could bear him up again if he fell.

And he wondered, somewhere deep down, what this would mean if the time ever came that support were stripped away.

It felt like bad luck, so Mizer cast it out of his mind, and locked it there to lurk in his vague worries in the months and years afterward.

And then the war came.

The bounty itself was negligible. It was more the fact that this was Gulcasa and his army—that this was Gram Blaze—that got Mizer chasing after the princess and her ragtag followers. He wasn't in a position of any real power, but he might as well help out if he could.

When he clashed with them the first few times, he could sense it—the fact that deep down, Princess Yggdra had just a pale spark of that same charisma that had brought Gram Blaze together, the charisma that shone in Gulcasa like a beacon. It meant, among other things, that this farce of a royal army ought to be bottled up now while it still could be.

And then, right when the Imperial Army had almost snatched victory back from the jaws of defeat, Nessiah had died.

And the bodies began to pile up.

Mizer did what he could to help—these people were after all his friends and comrades, even if he couldn't call himself one of their number—but he was forced to realize eventually that it was too late and he was way over his head here.

He left the front lines and steeled his heart and listened to the messages that came in. If he was too powerless to actually help, then at least he could witness the outcome.

Everything had gone wrong when Nessiah died because, after all, Nessiah had been the brains of that outfit. Without him there, everyone else was too good-naturedly stupid and straightforward to do anything but charge into things straight. It was bad enough that this wasn't even a joke Mizer could laugh at any longer. Inzaghi had been killed when their new general Russell had turned on them. Leon dead buying time; Aegina gravely injured. Gulcasa's body betraying him at the worst opportunity it could. Zilva gone missing and later found dead. Baldus dead. The people of Bardot and Drominos slaughtered. Eudy killed in action.

He received the message that the twins had been slain in the streets of Flarewerk scant minutes before the distant coastline erupted into flame.

Even if he hadn't known what it meant, Mizer could've guessed. He'd been there through the end of the revolution, after all. He'd worked with the Imperial Army plenty of times over the past three years. Those flames with their inverted colors were too recognizable for anyone to mistake.

He watched Castle Bronquia burn—watched it even as his vision became too blurred to really see anything at all anymore.

If you looked at it heartlessly, then this outcome had been as likely as any other.

There was a huge discrepancy between the ideals Gulcasa held and the way the world worked.

So that he wouldn't be crushed by that gap, all he'd been able to do was lash out at that world—to bend to the way it had grown used to turning for long enough that he could sit at its peak. If he won dominion through force, then he could burn all of society's unfairness to the ground in one instant and take his time nurturing it into something forgiving and beautiful as slowly and carefully as he had to.

But in any question of force or battle, it was pretty much inevitable that you'd have to compete with opposing forces that had the chance of defeating you.

You were trusting your fate to a roll of the dice.

And this time, the results just weren't kind.

Simple as that.

Mizer aimed. His arm was steady and his finger was tight against the trigger.

He couldn't lead an uprising. There was no one left to lead, and in the face of these people he was powerless. He didn't have that charisma that one needed to gather others around a single ideal.

But he could at least smite the enemy, and make her repent for all the good men she'd killed in red blood.

He breathed in, held the air in his lungs until it was painful, and watched her.

The faraway high queen in her jewels was talking about peace and justice and how there were so many things in the world that needed to be protected, not with force, but with wisdom alone.

It was something that could only work in a world like this, whose leaders had all died beneath her blade and so could not stand up to her with true power—that comprised of strength, ideals, and wisdom together.

Mizer smiled grimly. So in the end, had Gulcasa died because he—a demon—had more mercy and pity in him than this girl?

He sighed and closed his eyes, drawing the man with the saddest smile in the world up from his memories.

There was no way for him to tell what Gulcasa's last wishes would have been, but Mizer didn't think he would want this. The Gulcasa he remembered would have worried for the people should another war result from the assassination of High Queen Yggdra, and asked Mizer to stay his hand.

Or maybe that was just Mizer projecting what he wanted the most. Maybe maybe maybe. He hated this girl who played innocent and spoke as if to profane the ideals Gram Blaze had bled for by taking them up herself, but he didn't want to plunge the world back into darkness.

He stood up and unstrung the crossbow, slipping it back into the holster at his belt.

For now, maybe it would be best to give Yggdra and her former army a grace period to prove what they would do with their absolute dominion over this orphaned world. As a conqueror, she'd baptized herself in the blood of Mizer's homeland and the people he'd loved. But as a human, she'd have to fight for the right to keep living with her actions from this day onward.

If she chose the path of the tyrant, well, there would always be more chances.

Mizer pointed at the distant blond figure, mimed pulling a trigger, and walked away.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Earth to earth.

And illusions to illusions.