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Prologue – Transferred Malice
Prologue – Transferred Malice
For my birthday, when I was ten, Papa gave me hair ribbons and chocolate and a new set of spanners and the chance to pilot an airship without Erin at the co-pilot's wheel. For Vivi's birthday, when he was twelve, he got a houseful of dead children and left us a very gentle little note and went off and Stopped.
Papa said it best himself. "My little love, do not fault his reasoning. If I came in one morning and found you dead, and Hilda with you, and my entire city stiff and cold, how could I inhabit this bleak world alone?"
As he says, I could not fault Vivi's reasoning. Could not blame a little boy who had watched every other single Black Mage stop like clockwork toys around him and had worked so hard to make his own little sons, little Mages – Oh, Vivi, a father at nine! – only to watch them fade away, clouds in dissipating winds. "Would you have wanted him to live like that, alone?" Mother said to me, gentle. No, Mama, never no, I would never have wanted him to suffer.
No matter how little I wanted Vivi to suffer, that never stopped the angry floods of tears into my pillow, the fiery volcanic tantrum that left all of my precious moogles too frightened to come into my room to try and quell my sobs, or any of the maids when in final violent destruction my headbutting the wall tore a hole in it. Although we had been estranged for far too many years, I still couldn't take this perceived betrayal of my childhood companion.
Ashes to ashes…
A world without Black Mages. No more little bobbing hats, no more lamplight eyes, Vivi gone for ever. I still remember my tears salty on Zidane's shoulder, and his wet on my hair.
Dust to – mist to mist, Vivi, would that be more suitable?
Did I forget him the year afterwards, or the year after that? I went and lit a candle for him every year of his birthday. We found – well, you couldn't call it a body, there never were, with Black Mages – but Zidane found the hat, and hung it scarecrow at the forefront of the higgledy-piggledy vegetable garden that was the graves of so many who had Stopped before he had. Vivi with his children and his brothers and… And I'm so sorry I forgot.
I'm so sorry. So, so sorry.
Again, I get ahead of myself. Papa writes it at the end of all the articles of mine he intends to publish in the airship journals, my treatises on the insides of machines.
Deep breaths, woman. You can do it. Damn it, Father, we should have checked that they were all dead.
Oh, Vivi. I wish you could've seen this.
"Eiko Hildegarde Carol!"
I froze, mid-step, attempting to look like part of the scenery. Like a very decorative part of the scenery. Part of the scenery that looked an awful lot like Eiko and was smeared with oil.
Obviously, my plan to meld in with the wallpaper had failed miserably. "Yes, mama?" I asked innocently.
My mother looked me over, head to grimy toe, noting with grim finality the dirt lodged underneath my fingernails, the oil smear on my cheek, the clattering workboots still on my feet. She herself was impeccable, very late fifties and looking suitable for the same number in her thirties, the only clue to her age her ashen hair. "Do I need to ask why you are not yet dressed for the luncheon with the Minister of Engineering and the Mayor of Treno?"
"Yucky's coming? Great," I said enthusiastically, naming my friend the Minister.
"Do you have to call Minister Yucata that? No, no, I don't care if he laughed like a drain, it's simply not good etiquette." My mother was loving. She was tender and refined and gentle. However, when it came to bad manners, she was demonic, and I shiver to think of her youth as a talented Red Mage. I say this for the benefit of any denizen really wondering who was the power behind the Regency. "Have you been working on your airship again?"
I hung my head. "I forgot the time. I'm sorry."
"Really, dear?" Papa said cheerfully from behind my mother's shoulder, straightening his cravat and immediately making Mama take it away from him and straighten it again. "Did you manage to get the coolant system up?"
"The coolant system's not the problem, Father, not in itself, but the engine's too powerful and uses up too much of it to ever be economically convenient – "
"Blast! We should have seen that from the outset. Still, as long as you've got the research going we – "
"Eiko. Dress. Now," my mother commanded, steely glint in her eyes, and I could hear her mutter as I ran down the hall leaving oily footprints in my wake, "Blood or not, Cid, she is your daughter."
"As if there was any doubt?"My laughter rang down the hallway.
This is a story about Vivi, and Vivi's legacy, and Vivi's children, and me, to a tiny extent.
And it really did start when I was nineteen, soon to be twenty, the chief engineer in all of Father's personal research prototypes and Eiko Fabool when it came to names printed on academic writing. There had been no war for over ten years and the callouses on my fingers came from holding tools of engineering, not of magic. White magery? I was severely out of practice. Summoning? Even worse, though I prayed to Madeen every night of my life and closed my ears so that I could possibly hear her whisper in my heart. I spent most of my time neck-deep in axle grease and graphs, I clipped my hair to barely brushing my shoulders to that it couldn't get caught in mechanisms, I knew which fork to use when eating Alexandrian pears and I hadn't been kissed since I was ten; I was happy as a sandboy and heading for a fall.
It's hard… adjusting, they say. I'd grown up for the first years of my life with my grandfather on a wild open plain and the only rule of my childhood was, really, don't get yourself killed. I loved wildly and I lived wildly and then I was put into this big huge city where future magic lived in the noise that the pipes made as they creaked in big airships. Years of patient tuition from my adopted father himself and his ministers broadened my mind so wide I put the sky in it permanently, and all the things that flew in it. You can take the girl out of the ruins, but can you put the city in the girl?
… I have a problem about veering wildly off into the sky, never to return to the subject at hand . Never mind –
First kiss? You want to know about my first kiss? My first kiss was, of course, Zidane, pre-Prince Consort Zidane, clumsy exuberant smacking on the mouth that had him lift me up by the scruff of the neck, shake me, and soften me by asking what Dagger would think if she saw him kissing a pretty girl? My first kiss was Vivi, and it wasn't even on the mouth, but he'd smoothed back my hair and brushed something nervous against my forehead and stuttered so hard it sounded as if yans had infested his throat but whatever he'd done it burnt like holy fire. The adults surrounding, of course, had all mmmed and awwwed as if we were two rare species of round-eyed kittens batting snowdrops. If anybody had seen how pink my cheeks were, they must have attributed it to possible embarrassment-germs.
All right, that was my first kiss. Es. Kisses. Only one mattered anyway.
Was I to be Regent when my father died, or another voted in? It was, after all, traditionally a Cid, but my father had been inconvenient enough to not have a boy child – or any children at all; I was adopted and the only one. I didn't really want to be Regent, and I didn't really think anybody wanted me as Regent either. I was many things, but no leader, and would've just been resentful of the title.
Hades, I was resentful enough just being a 'princess', once I found out what the duty entailed.
"Don't you think you need to brush your hair?"
I paused in the middle of my frantic spongebath, long enough to lose the soap and begin scrabbling frantically. "I need to wash my hair first. Great damn gods above, I look like I've been dragged through an engine backwards!" One of my assistants had told me I looked like that once; charmed, I never dropped the expression.
Mogara, who this comment had been addressed to, fluttered daintily over to the window, letting out a soft kupo of disapproval. "You've got oil down your front."
"It'll match. I've got oil down my back, too."
"Your mother'll be mad as fire."
"She's the clotheshorse, not me. I am not a beauty. Or a bimbo, for that matter." I scrubbed frantically; my little Mog had been right about the oil. "Should I bring my reading glasses?"
"Do you think the Minister will pull out any plans?"
"He's not supposed to, but I know he's itching to discuss the Excelsior with Papa. I'll put them in my pocket; that way Mother can't harp."
"They'll make a bulge, you know."
"Oh, I'll just stuff them down my front with my hanky, that'll really make Mother foam at the mouth." I grabbed the puffy sponge and scrubbed furiously, soon an unattractive pink colour. "How come Garnet never has these problems? Geez!"
I have never been the cleanest individual. This does not come from a hatred of baths and fresh clothes, as I can sink into a bath and blissfully ignore reality for any given number of hours; but I was sticky-fingered as a little kid with the tendency to upset anything I was handling down my front or on my face and now I was a sticky young adult mostly covered in oil and grease with a steam-fried face. Understandably, this did wonders for my complexion, and I was perpetually ruddy-cheeked and lean instead of curvy, though Mama made me drink a glass of milk each night in a vain attempt to help fill out my dresses in the right places. I had long ago stopped thoughts of ever my possibly being beautiful, gave up, and decided to be an engineer instead of a beautiful princess. When I did marry, it would be somebody dumpy and short with as bad sight as mine who could help me read my plans and look after the children when I was designing. Gods, the way dreams go.
"You're going to be late," Mogara scolded. "And then your mother is going to shut you out until luncheon is served and cough pointedly when you come in."
Frantically, I jumped out the bath and left wet footprints as I towelled myself dry, conveniently forgetting a couple of petticoats I didn't like and figuring Yucata wouldn't know the difference. Little wings fluttering and looking as censorious as a Mog possibly can, Mogara buttoned me up at the back, worrying all the while and trying to comb my hair at the same time as I pulled on my shoes. When you have a summoning horn, I've learnt, is to never worry what on Gaia your hair looks like; nobody's going to be looking at it when you have that thing smack dab in the middle of your forehead. Pulling and gasping and unsticking, when I finally saw myself in the mirror, I looked like… I had gotten dressed in five minutes, but I was too frantically overtime to care. I was buttoning my front as I ran down the corridor, the guards trying very hard not to look amused, ran back because I had forgot my glasses entirely and lost them again stuffing them down my front, and then raced so hard to the Blue Room that I almost broke sound.
To arrive, of course, to a closed door.
"Mama – " I began gloomily to the guard on duty.
"Lady Hilda has informed me that you're to be summoned for luncheon once the Regent has finished talks, your grace," droned the guard.
I said a very rude word and stamped my foot. The guard looked as censorious as Mogara had, and I stomped off to the elevator. I was not going to hang around in my room for the next half-hour whilst my Mog busily told me off. Miserable and embarrassed – why did this always happen to me, I was almost as grown-up as you could possibly get – I slunk outside.
Years after, I still wonder whether this was a good choice.
I've always found it hard to sulk when I can watch the traffic. When I first came to Lindblum, properly, to make it my home because Garnet made the gentle suggestion to me that since I had no parents and Cid and Hilda had no children maybe we could help each other out since we'd gotten on before – Cid took me up at the top of the Grand Castle, because it was beautiful and because I was overwhelmed and nervous and homesick (and being stubborn to make up for it). The ballet of the airships rocked me to the core – how could they all stay in the sky at the same time! – and I loved it, deeply, ever since. Dreamily, hastily rebuttoning the buttons at the arms of my sleeves and leaning my head against the cool stone of the wall, watching the sky.
All too soon I forgot my shameful poutiness and got lost in crystal cornflower, the far-off throat-taste of oil and the way steam engines smelled. I grew up a dreamer, eventually, but with all my old six-year-old canniness to make my dreams reality. It made me a good engineer.
I was flowergirl, you know, in Zidane's wedding, me and Vivi though I teased him heartlessly about being flowergirl with meI was convinced my heart was breaking, seeing Zidane get married, though it was awfully hard to keep on in that state of pristine angsty unhappiness because it was so happy. Queen Garnet, married to Zidane! Everybody knew the fairytale romance and now it was going to get stamped with a big Happily Ever After. Baskets full of rosepetals Vivi and I skipped down the aisle, me in pink and him in grey, me riding on the smug wave of approval at being so gosh-darned cute as he tried not to trip over his own big feet. (He did. I helped him up and told him off in virulent whisper, and pulled him the rest of the way. Dagger, lead by Cid, practically giggled all the way after.) And it was probably the last time I saw him alive, properly, thinking about it.
Lost in dreams, loud noises far-off and all around me, when the first explosion came I didn't think much of it. There are explosions all the time in the city of Lindblum, especially from the experimental factories.
But when I looked south from my reverie, the sky was on fire!
I leapt to my feet, staring dumbly, the roar suddenly huger than anything other than the noise because a junk, a cargo ship, had exploded and was now raining fiery death to the ground. The entire sky was red with the flames. The structure had burst apart as if it had been hit head-on with a missile, exploding rather than crumpling in on itself, and pieces were spinning everywhere –
And another! To the west, another airship blew into smithereens, a low mournful echoing boom; horror upon horror, suffering upon suffering, crucified molten metal cascading down to the screams I could already hear below. I was insanely terrified and insanely angry. This was no normal occurrence; Lindblum was under attack. I could feel magic, taste it silvery on my tongue, and I was racing down to the castle again with warning klaxons screaming into my ears and panic all around me before I knew really what I was doing.
You do not blow up Eiko Carol's people in Eiko Carol's city!
There was chaos inside the building, too, and it was easy for me to slip into the elevator and punch my code in to get to the dock. (Of course I had one. It was practically my dock.) I was the first to climb aboard a skimmer, the sleek smooth mini-airships I designed a lot myself and thank Fenrir for that because I went in for acceleration more than anything and I was up into the air before you could say knife.
I tucked my skirt in at my knees and clung hard, narrowing my eyes at the thick choking smoke as I tasted fire. I was sick with anger, ill with it, desperately trying to grasp my summons in my head – but I was suddenly all thumbs spiritually, and filled with self-loathing for it.
More explosions. They were being aimed randomly now, at the sky at the buildings at the Grand Castle – oh, Mother! – and I concentrated on the magic flow, ducking past traffic speeding out of the danger zone in a way that might've made Zidane proud of me. I sped higher, to clear the smoke, and then I saw it. It made my heart go cold.
A figure, on top of the control tower near the gate, perched like a crow and knitting magic with their hands that billowed out powerful and fiery to the city in front of it. Oh, but hadn't I heard descriptions of this all before? There was a hat, and clumsy black clothing, and ragged ebon wings stretching up behind it. This was all happening too fast for me – I remembered warm firelit nights kneeling in front of Garnet and content to have her comb out my hair as Zidane, virtuoso storyteller, told us about the Black Waltzes. Three of them, like the dance step, and they looked like Vivi – you remember, don't you, Vivi? We socked it to 'em good, don't shiver now – and the other Black Mages, only they were more… malevolent. Tall, and ragged, and very dead.
I couldn't let them take away Dagger, now, could I? Stop your noises, Rusty.
So who was this chill from the past, golden eyes huge and hands clad in dragonleather as he blew up my city? The screams and the continuing dementia from this… this thing brought me back to reality, and I settled the skimmer pointing at him and prepared to rush. At least that made him stop casting!
Why hadn't I got my Angel Flute? I could be casting Holy now, and blowing this bastard into ten million Black Mage bits. Stupid, stupid Eiko! Get ahead of yourself again, why don't you! I was suddenly hugely aware of the danger I was in until the Regent's Guard arrived, a white mage summoner who didn't have her staff and couldn't find the words to Call her slumbering summons. Desperate, suicidal, I lunged, my hair whipping in my face.
Lazily, wings stretching out, he stepped off the tower and zipped upwards with a few beats of the powerful appendages. I swerved so fast my teeth chattered and the chase was on.
I had gotten soft. I had been the leanest brownskinned wilderness-child that had ever grown in Madain Sari and months of adventuring with Zidane eating my own cooking (yuck!) had toughened me up further, but sixteen years of big meals and
Mama forcing me to eat every last bit and remember the poor starving dwarves had softened me up. Being an engineer, it hadn't taken away from the toughness of my hands, but thinking in a situation when everything around you is on fire and you're unarmed and the culprit is getting away made me weak at the knees. I think that the only thing that bore me through those minutes was my anger and my hatred.
Caught without a weapon. Freya would have given me a right ding about the ears, in her words, if she'd known.
The figure – I called it he out of the simple subconscious need to place anything destructive with a masculine gender – stopped so quickly I shot past him, having to flip around so hard I saw red spots in front of my eyes and my palms were slick with sweat. The smoke from the fires was going to reach me soon, and I was going to choke; I didn't care. All I could do was stare at him; those malevolent golden eyes, curved into crescents and utterly emotionless behind the smoke-dark mask. He turned to survey the city, overturned utterly into chaos, and then back at me, as if to say; Well? Did you like my handiwork?
I screamed out my frustration. "You bastard, you murderer, I'm going to kill you ten million times over and make you wish you'd never been born!"
"I exist only to kill," he droned simply. His voice was deep, a drone, hot and dusty. I noticed that there was a pair of dark devil-horns on his hat. Oh, I remembered, I remembered with a sudden burst of clarity the old possessed Black Mages that followed Kuja and had no thoughts and the simple businesslike way that they murdered.
I couldn't die. Grandpa, Alexander, Vivi, I couldn't.
"Yeah, well," I spat, unable to think up a suitably cutting remark, "How about a taste of your own medicine!"
"I exist only to kill." He hovered there, caught on the hot updraft, and held out his hand to me as if offering; fire blazed there, hot and blistering, his hand caught in the wavering nimbus of magic. I could feel it rolling off him in tonguetied waves, magic, the miasma thick and polluting. His voice sounded as if he hadn't used it in years. "I come to destroy. I am retribution. I exist – "
He never got any further than that, as I rushed him again. I could hear the distant chopping noises of the other airships my Uncle Artania would be pulling out to deal with the damage. Ha. You're nicked, my lad. He couldn't possibly outrun machines – not with just wings.
The mage seemed to think of that as well and suddenly took off – up! In the silliest, most knee-jerk and thoughtless reaction of my life, I jolted the speeder up at breakneck speed and launched myself at him.
High up over the city.
I hadn't flown in years, and I didn't even have my grandfather's wings, packed safely and lovingly away in tissue paper at the bottom of my closet. If I fell, I was going to be the splattiest engineer this side of the Fossil Roo. And staying on was awfully hard when the target was shaking and spinning like a bucking chocobo and me a gadfly clutched to his back.
My speeder stopped, launching into autopilot the moment it lost my weight; the muscles in his back pumping as he tried to fling me off, I dug my nails into his layers of clothing. I clung for dear life, both of us spiralling upwards and upwards as he flung out his arms and screamed; my intervention didn't stop him from casting, his spell already too quick for me to even think about dispelling, and we both crashed headlong into the portal he'd cast above us and everything went black.
This turned out to be a bad career plan, and definitely no way to treat a lady!