For Want of a War
Chapter 21: Ramza
Although I'd finished my fight with Zalbag, my body was not without aches and pains. Despite the magic of the Angel Ring I'd been wearing restoring me to life and despite the potions I'd consumed afterwards, a phantom echo from being run through remained.
Even if the damage was gone, it was hard to forget the feeling of something sliding right through one's torso before being ripped out the side, and even now I was still a little uncertain on my feet. I could only content myself with the knowledge that my older brother would no doubt be feeling the pain from whatever I'd done to his body.
I hadn't allowed Celia to complete the move on myself, though it shared many principles with killing strikes Tristana had taught me. A monk's knowledge of how to fight barehanded was rooted in a deep understanding of just how a man or woman was put together beneath the skin, and the secret fist branch of it was focused on killing strikes.
It was why monks made good assassins: A few blows disguised as regular attacks and my foe would be dead in moments, never knowing the moment was coming even as they used healing magic to counteract the superficial bruises my strikes had left.
At each side of me my unwanted companions propped me up, escorting me to a much-needed bath before I was due to meet with Alma. On my left, Lede's grip on my arm tightened, and the normally seductive demon was actually glaring at me.
"Master, how in the world did you perform those strikes?" She finally demanded. I frowned a bit.
"It's actually so simple I'm surprised nobody's ever figured it out before now," I replied with a grunt. At her raised eyebrow, I continued. "Your assassination skill isn't much different from mine. Much more effective, of course, but not so different at all."
"May we ask how you drew that conclusion?" Celia chimed in from my right. I turned my head to her, noting the worried frown as she gnawed her lower lip a bit.
"I'm not sure if you're aware, but most monks learn a similar skill. We simply strike in slightly different places in a different order, but to the same result: We injure organs and rupture arteries, leaving our foes to die from within soon afterward," I explained, waving my right hand for emphasis. "Your strikes cause the foe to die immediately. Mine would normally leave my target a handful of breaths before they expire."
"And where would you strike?" Celia pressed. Given that the demons attached to me had a superior killing technique, I didn't see the harm in a demonstration. I lightly began to poke my finger at various points on Celia's body. "Jab. Jab. Pinch the nerve cluster. Palm strike to the diaphragm. Double punch to the left kidney and liver. Simultaneous chops here and here.
"Not that much different from your strikes. Just a little off base if we were to use your technique as the standard against which mine is judged," I concluded with a shrug. "My own master taught me what it feels like to die using our method as part of my training. Yours felt much worse, so of course I stole it from you."
"I should blast you into shreds for that. Do you have any idea how long it took us to learn that? You'd be an old man by the time you learned, if you'd been forced to learn the way we did," Lede noted with a scowl.
"Sure, hit me with magic. I'd probably steal that, too," I countered with a grin, pulling my arm free of her hands as we reached the baths. I opened the door, half stepping inside before turning back to the duo of hellspawn behind me. "I shouldn't be long. Feel free to have a bath yourselves."
With that I slipped into the room, shutting the door behind me with a sigh as I reflected on my upcoming meeting with my sister. Normally the occasion would be cause for celebration: Alma and I had not seen nor had word from one another in a year. I was... anxious to see her again.
That feeling was tempered by the knowledge of how she'd react to my newest companions. I had a suspicion that it would not be a good first impression, especially since I'd spent the night at Igros already. Gossip tended to move throughout most places faster than rats could spread a plague, and I suspected more than a few of the maids had noted where Celia and Lede had spent the night.
On the whole, I was not looking forward to seeing my sister.
Sinking into the bath, I wondered if perhaps Zal was up for another fight instead.
It was no surprise to me that when a servant passed me word of where Alma was waiting for me, it would be at her favourite reading spot. The place in question was a trio of benches to the north of the castle proper, next to which was the aqueduct which emerged from the castle. The aqueduct itself was a feat of engineering, featuring a sort of fountain as a centrepiece. The quiet rush of the water in the background was relaxing, and the pair of us had spent many a summer day doing nothing but reading books
As I approached the bench where Alma was seated with Delita, Mustadio, and Teta I wondered if, perhaps, my suspicions had been over thought. It was likely that escaping Celia and Lede's attention before arriving had been a good plan. As I drew closer, my friend gestured to me and my sister rose, waving enthusiastically before I was within speaking distance.
It was then that I saw the ice in her eyes and knew that the coming conversation was going to be no fun at all. The last time she'd had that sort of ice in her eyes, she'd maneuvered me into gravely injuring Merissa's escort at the ball celebrating the prevention of civil war.
"Brother!" For all the cheer in her voice, my sister's eyes didn't warm up even a little. She stepping in to give me a hug, which I returned for a moment before she stepped back. There was the smirk, the one she had whenever she was closing in on prey. "So I hear you have the most interesting companions... Would you care to tell me about them?"
Ajora damn me. My father and I agreed that knowledge of the holy stones and the Lucavi was to be kept only to those who already knew or needed to know. Frankly speaking, my younger sister didn't need to know, no matter how much I felt like she deserved to know.
That meant I had no reasonable explanation for why Celia and Lede were following me around that would absolve me of the sins my sister presumed I was committing.
"Celia and Lede?" I asked, feigning confusion. From the way my sister frowned at me and the tapping of her foot, she didn't buy it for a moment. I sighed, gesturing to Mustadio. "I'm not sure if Mustadio explained, but they're a pair of warriors from a very far off land," and at this Mustadio choked a bit. Perhaps it was a bit of an understatement, I'll grant. "They have some strange customs. I came into possession of a trinket on which they place great value, and they fought me for its return. When I defeated them, they swore themselves in service to me. It's all been quite troublesome."
That, I thought, was a perfect explanation. It was not, technically speaking, a lie. It utterly downplayed the extent of their bond with me.
"Deception doesn't suit you, Ramza. What's this about them promising themselves to you, body and soul?" My sister asked, raising one slender eyebrow as her foot continued to tap.
I'd been betrayed by Mustadio. My eyes travelled from my sister's to find the young man, who was glancing aside and doing his best not to meet my gaze. At his side, Delita patted him on the shoulder and flashed me an amused grin.
"I'll give him this, Ramza. He didn't even realize he was saying something he shouldn't until it had escaped his mouth," my oldest, best friend told me with a chuckle. "You know how Alma is. She had him wrapped around her pinky finger before the poor boy knew what was happening."
"Ramza, you never warned me your sister was a mediator," the blond engineer grumbled, still not meeting my gaze.
"She's not, yet. She's just manipulative," I muttered in commiseration. I couldn't find it within myself to blame Mustadio. Not really.
Alma had apparently decided that I was derailing the conversation, for she slammed a booted heel on my instep, prompting a yelp. "Damn it, Alma!"
"Explain," my sister pressed, one finger pointed about an inch from my nose.
"Look, it really is like I said," I informed her with a scowl, fighting the urge to lift my foot and rub it. Damn but she could stomp hard, for all that she was a slip of a girl and hadn't really had any true combat training beyond the basics. "The two are a moderate annoyance most of the time, and a major annoyance the rest of the time. It's some cultural thing for them: I qualified to challenge them so they ambushed Mustadio and I, and because I won they're literally going to follow me to the death."
"Oh? Is that all they are?" My sister asked, still frowning. She cocked her head to one side, measuring me for a moment before speaking once more. "And what is this I hear about you sharing your bed with them? Strange that you'd consider them an annoyance for that."
"Part of why they're a major annoyance," I growled, my face going bright red at the insinuation. At her brother's side, Teta was blushing as well... Likely because of the impropriety of my sister bringing up this topic in public. Since I had no choice in the matter, I pressed on. "Yes, they sneak into my bed. I don't like it and would prefer it if they didn't."
"Sure you would," Alma sniffed, turning her back on me. "Why not simply release them from their oath?"
"Alma, the only way to release them from their oath is to kill them," I said with a frown. She turned back to me at that, suddenly more serious. "I wish I was jesting, but it's the truth. They will follow me for the rest of their lives and have already offered to let me just kill them. They're serious about this."
"Of course we are," Lede chimed in, and I turned to see the pair sauntering towards us. The damnable demons had somehow managed to find their dancer's silks and were once more garbed in their usual attire. They stopped well short of us, opting instead to have a seat on a nearby bench.
"Ramza will either fall to our charms or kill us. Those are the only two outcomes of all this," Celia added, serenely propping her chin on one hand, elbow balanced carefully on her knee as she brushed an errant lock of hair behind her ear. "My kind do not swear ourselves lightly to anyone. We've got the resolve to see this through to the end, whatever end that may be."
"You'll be waiting a while then," Teta said softly, and I quirked my head at that. I knew someone was going to say something in response, but I'd assumed it would have been Alma. Her voice grew more fierce as she continued, "Ramza hasn't ever done anything but what he decided he would do. You think your resolve is stronger than his? That's laughable."
My jaw dropped at that. Teta was not an outspoken girl. Normally she was shy and withdrawn to a fault, content to drift along with a conversation. At her side, Delita's eyes widened before he turned and shot a quick glare at me, like this was somehow my fault.
"Oh? Strong words from a little girl," Celia taunted, opening her mouth to speak more before I cut her off.
"Please, be quiet. Teta is an old friend, one who knows me well. Besides, I've said as much to you myself," I noted to them narrowing my eyes. "I've sworn that you will neither charm me nor force me to kill you. We're stuck with one another, and that's all there is to it."
"Not letting us play, Master? How boring," Lede pouted, before standing and walking away. After a moment, Celia followed.
"Those two..." I grunted with a scowl.
"Well handled, brother," Alma praised, the warmth in her voice genuine for the first time in the conversation. I turned to find her grinning at me, no trace of her earlier irritation. She extended her hand, as if we hadn't been fighting not moments ago. "Shall we go to the western gardens? I've asked for them to prepare lunch for us there. I'm sure after your fight with Zalbag this morning you're rather famished."
I allowed her to take my arm with a confused grunt, allowing her to lead me away from the garden. Delita drew even with me, bumping me with his shoulder to get my attention as Mustadio engaged Teta in conversation.
"Make Teta cry, and I'll make you cry," he whispered lightly, and I frowned at him in confusion.
"What?" I whispered back, utterly bewildered.
"We'll discuss this later," he muttered back, falling back to offer his sister his arm.
I allowed Delita to pull ahead a bit, pacing myself so I was walking parallel with Mustadio.
"Did any of that make any sense whatsoever to you, Mustadio?" I asked the blond Romandan in a quiet voice.
"Very little," my newest friend agreed with a perplexed look. He frowned a bit. "Why are you asking me? I fix windmills and play with ancient technology. I'm not exactly a people person, Ramza."
At my side, Alma giggled.
Previous experience told me that was never a good sign.
First off, big thanks to Tovath for the help with this chapter. I got some solid feedback which helped make this chapter just a little bit better than I could have done on my own, so send your thanks that way.
Second, expect another update in a week or two. Maybe sooner, but hopefully not later.
For the observant, yes, Alma's favourite spot is indeed the same place where Zalbag tells Ramza, Delita, and Algus a little bit about the Death Corps in Chapter 1 of FFT.