Chapter 1: Alazlam: Arachi
"I'll take you down the only road I've ever been down
You know the one that takes you to the places where all the veins meet."
-The Verve, "Bitter Sweet Symphony"
Words slip in and out, an invisible weave that binds faster than iron, quicker than blood. Truth may be dead and buried, but words endure.
A warrior takes sword in hand, clasping a gem to his heart
A man sits at his desk. The room around is bare. A plant is dying in the corner. His battered mahogany desk is crowded with papers, water-stained and mildewed and torn, piled high and rustling. In the shadows, they are the restless plumage of some great tan bird hunched over the man. It waits, hungrily, and edges into his lamp's small circle of light. He has managed to keep it at bay as of yet.
Engraving vanishing memories into the sword
His pen scritches across cheap paper, pauses to dip within his small well of ink, and then continues its journey across the page. Otherwise, there is no noise. There are sounds beyond his window; it is late, but not too late for revelers to stagger home. The city will become only truly silent in the small hours of mornings, when the soft aquatic sounds of death bubble up through the stillness.
He places finely honed skills into the stone
Now the man stretches, yawns, rubs his head. Looks out the window in surprise. Carefully arranges his notes, sets his pen in his ink bottle, and blows out the lamp. Makes his way through the darkness towards his hard, thin mattress. Falls asleep with his clothes on.
His landlady worries about him. She sees the circles under his eyes, the frayed ends to his coats. She was the one responsible for the plant in the corner, though she had no idea the neglect her gift would receive. His landlady does not understand him. He can be stiff with pride when he chooses, and draw himself up to his full, thin height. At other times, when he discusses his current project, his eyelids lower and his voice deepens and his long fingers float through the air to illustrate his point. She nods, though she does not understand. And when he is late with the rent, she does not say anything. She knows he will make it up as best he can. He says that one day he will be famous, and she believes him.
Spoken from the sword, handed down from the stone
Even while he sleeps, his current project consumes. Around him dance a mad band of characters that he has never met. The laughing knight twirls the pale queen, who clutches the bloody dagger close to her white dress, and the four children of the dead General join hands and skip around them, screaming nursery rhymes at the top of their voices.
And in the morning, he will awaken and stagger back to his desk, back to the pale circle of light. He is driven by forces beyond his control. The project stopped being merely a scholarly inquiry long ago. And he will write and he will write and he will write, desperate to let the poor, ignorant fools outside know that their silly fairy tales are lies. He will write to show them the truth.
Now the story can be told
But what version of the truth will he show them? Which version of the truth does he know? Hold up a prism, and watch the clear light diffuse into murky colors. Everything depends upon the perspective, the position, the place, the person.
In the darkness, the papers whisper together, and Alazlam begins to snore.
Chapter 2: Alpha Omilia
Chapter by Moe Machina (moemachina)
"Suffocated by mirrors, stained by dreams"
-Peter Gabriel, "The Family and the Fishing Net"
When I was very young, my mother had an ornate mirror set atop her dressing table. It was framed with dark wood, with carved cherubs and demons peering out of its curves, and they judged those who peered within its glassy depths.
Yes, I remember that mirror well.
Sometimes, when the nursery grew unbearable, I used to escape from my wardens and toddle down to her rooms. They told me that my mother was ill -- she had nearly lost her life in childbirth -- and I wasn't allowed to see her or disturb her with childish prattle. Instead, I would climb up on the chair before her dressing table, leaving sticky fingerprints on the faded pink cushion.
Eventually, the process of going through her things evolved into a ritual, performed with the same sanctity as a sacrament. I would pick up her brush, reverently touching the few golden strands that lay among stiff bristles. Opening her top drawer, I would study the ribbons, dutifully rubbing a finger against the softness of each one. The drawer after that held gleaming silver bracelets and golden necklaces, and the one after that held the smoky vials of fragrance.
I performed the ceremony in utter silence. I would have rather screamed in church. It was only later that I realized she would not have woken, no matter the noise I made. The doctors had been frantic at the amount of blood, and now they came every day to dose her with their strange and potent brew, trapping her in slumber. They went away, murmuring that she would bear no more children. I think my father was secretly glad, as he had begun to worry. Thoughts of a large family led to visions of fratricide dancing in his head. It was not unusual, even when the class struggles were at a low boil, for younger brothers to acquire their family estates through unorthodox means. He needn't have been concerned. Alma was a girl and Zalbag was more than happy to work under Dycedarg's shadow. And I...I, of course, was entitled to nothing.
The mirror I saved until last. Within its shining depths I saw a moon-faced boy with ragged honey hair and a constant layer of grime. I would practice scowling at myself until the demon glares grew too fierce for me. Then I would creep away, back to my frightened nurses and feverish dreams, angels and devils writhing around my face.
The nightmares did not last, though, because I knew that the boy in the mirror was not me. My reflection smiled and frowned when I did, but it was flat and silent. It could not be courageous and cautious and laughing and furious, or the thousand other emotions I contained within my small frame at one time. It might grin mischievously with me, but it had no way of knowing that I whistled in church , or of the fiercely protective love I had for my vulnerable little sister. To the mirror, I was not a trouble-maker, or a bastard, or the other names the manor people affixed to me. The mirror, with its grinning demons and solemn cherubs, only witnessed one aspect of my existence -- yes, it was like me but it was not me.
Somehow, in a child's mind, that was an important distinction.
Then I grew up, and lost my fascination in reflections. I ran out of the manor, to escape brothers and a fading mother, and down to the stables. Where I found somber Delita, and friendship, and some small measure of happiness.
It was only later, though, that it occurred to me that I had only found a different sort of mirror.
Chapter 3: Ovelia: Prologue
Chapter by Moe Machina (moemachina)
When she was a child, she had dreamed of witches in black coming to visit her.
"A justice that accepts the innocent as a vicarious sacrifice"
-Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human
She knelt rigidly at the rail and clasped white fingers tightly together, as if her piety was judged by an outward show of complete absorption. And perhaps it was -- she was achingly conscious of her two witnesses. They were her protectors (her wardens), and she knew that their presence was merely a prelude to what was coming, but still...she wished that she could have been left alone for this, at least.
The ritual was much like the wood beneath her bloodless hands: firm and polished smooth. She had learned early to take comfort from it, from its strange mixture of shame and sacrifice and numb absolution. It didn't matter what she was before she bent her head and pressed dry palms together. Laughter and lust would be wrung from her soul like spilled wine from a errant sleeve, leaving a pure expanse of white behind. Once again she would be God's vessel, empty and undoubting, to go forth and fulfill divine dictates.
She longed for that unfeeling void to burn all of her frantic human frailties away. That was Heaven. That was God.
Ovelia had never thought to visualize Heaven, but had she been asked to paint it, she might have drawn something like Orbonne Monastery. The stones underfoot and overhead were gray, a mottled composition that seemed to whisper of sins and misery. In contrast, the wooden pews and doors were a deep brown, an epiphany of unconditional love and rich satisfaction.
And in the corners, dark shadows congregated, waiting and watching...
She would not have included herself in the picture. It would never have occurred to her. It would have been very easy to paint her, though, had anyone ever so desired (No one had ever so desired). Had there been sunlight, it would have lit the light gold of her hair, cascading down the shoulders of her white attire. Her skin was the very palest of pale, and it only suggested any hint of color when contrasted with the stark blankness of her dress. For all intents, she might have been carved in marble, only lightly splashed with oils by some clumsy painter. The perfect little snow angel, the innocent little lamb.
And even though she didn't see herself in Heaven, the other two in the room did, and knew that she was too good and too pure for this mortal life. The Church may cover saints in glory, yet the unpleasant thought remains that every saint was once a martyr. The praise and worship lavished on them after death only serves to highlight the misery and blood they experienced in life.
Sounds carried through the dusty space of the monastery like blood in the snow, each drop distinct and human against a background of cold severity. There was the low breathing, the rustle of fabric as stances were changed. Each little noise, each smudge in the white canvas of sound, served to highlight Ovelia's stillness. She didn't move from her kneeling position, didn't utter an audible sound in prayer. She was perfection personified.
(If she had been told this, Ovelia might have laughed, or at least smiled in grim amusement. She knew the flaws that ran through her core, the weaknesses throughout her marble base)
There are some who point out saints and say that they are without vice, the living embodiment of vaguely defined moral concepts. They are wrong, though. Saints strive so hard precisely because they are sinful, and the anxious thought lends fear and shame to their every moment. Saints feel temptation all the time. They know that any minute they could tumble into that dark abyss and cling to their ethics and morals and sanity as long as they can. Saints are no more than the heretics and madmen of tomorrow, saved only from infamy by the fortuitous timing of their mortal demise.
Someone shifted restlessly behind her and said, "Princess Ovelia, it's time to leave." Agrias' voice, like the woman herself, was respectful but sharp, a ball of silver spikes politely restrained within ribbons. Press too hard, and the points would emerge, exposing pinpricks of blood.
"Please, just one more moment," Ovelia said, pressing her palms closer together. I have sinned, My Lord.
"The knights have been waiting, your Highness! If we're to reach shelter by nightfall..." Agrias' crimson words faded to an angry mutter, and Ovelia mentally saw her, tall and brave and strong. No doubt Agrias would silently accept her destiny, instead of denying and delaying it. Ovelia felt a surge of pale inadequacy next to the radiant knight.
"Princess, don't give Agrias any trouble," the other man pleaded, and Ovelia inwardly cringed. She had never meant to be any trouble to anyone, but it seemed she couldn't help it, it seemed that the very fact of her birth was an inconvenience to the universe at large...
"Please," Ovelia whispered, opening her eyes to regard the rail. Please, my Lord, forgive me of my doubts. Give me the strength to follow your plan. I know that you will shelter and protect me. O God...but... O, she was weak.
(When she was a child, she had dreamed of witches in black coming to visit her, feeding her sugar cookies and making her tea, and they had loved her and she had loved them, and even after waking, she couldn't shake their claim on her. The only thing that kept them at bay was prayer, and God, and Orbonne Monastery)
Her fingers constricted as the traitorous plea rose up within her. Please, please, please let me stay here. I won't be a trouble, I'll be a saint, just let me live here. O God, when I'm here, I'm safe. If I go out there - O, I'll bring misery and suffering with me, God, because that's all I that I ever cause, and then, and then, and then, they'll get me then. She bent her head, feeling the waves of guilt assail her. What right did she have to ask God for mercy? Everything moved as he ordained - did she think that he would alter his universe just for a foolish girl's whims? St. Ajora had only smiled at his execution, and now she was wailing because she had to leave the dour building that had been her home for a handful of years. Surely God was the only shield the faithful needed, and if she could only be faithful, she would be safe. She felt tears welling up at her selfish nature, and she desperately tried to choke them down. My Lord, forgive me.
Behind her, the monastery door opened, allowing the chilly evening air and the loud voice of one of her escorts. "It's been nearly an hour! What the hell is taking this long?"
"Show some respect, Gafgarion," Agrias snapped. "When everything is ready, we'll leave. Not before."
The door was shut, and there was a scuffle of boots against the stone floor. "And will all of this be all right, Agrias? This is an urgent issue for us, and a storm is coming. We're in a hurry."
"You are in a hurry?" Agrias growled. "Ah, forgive me. I had forgotten we moved to the whims of the Hokuten. Or are we to move to your whims, Gafgarion? Forgive me, I was not familiar with their practice of hiring such knaves." Her tone was piercing and cold and thin.
"Remember, my Lady, we are merely mercenaries." Gafgarion sounded amused. "We're not obliged to show you any respect."
Ovelia slowly rose and faced the others, as Agrias made a motion to pull out her sword. "Please, that's enough. I'm ready to go." Lord help me.
Agrias sullenly turned, stuffing her half-bared sword back in its sheath, and a smirking Gafgarion dropped to his knee. His two companions, a plump young squire and a lean honey-haired knight, followed suit. Simon folded his hands within the sleeves of his robe, smiling up to her expectantly. Ovelia looked down to them, and felt her heart drop. They looked to her as a princess; they expected her to be a princess. She knew she would disappoint them. She was not capable and glorious. She was limp and ineffectual. It was far safer to simply kneel at the rail.
Instead, she stepped forward towards her waiting attendants. There was no honorable way out of these summons, and the most she could do was merely follow God's bidding, like an obedient servant. St. Ajora had been tortured and killed for his beliefs; all that was asked of her was to make a little journey. As long as she had faith in God, he would shelter her. What did she have to fear?
Her stomach twisted inside her, but she concentrated on making her steps deliberate.
Simon bowed his head. "Go with God, Princess."
Does God go with me?
"You, as well," she said, choking down the traitorous thoughts. O, I am an obedient child, God.
Agrias turned, satisfied that her charge was coming, but before she could take more than a step, the door burst open with a violent noise. In staggered a woman -- another of her escorts -- and the first raindrops of the coming storm. The knight fell just inside the threshold, and as Agrias ran to her side, Ovelia could see the spreading crimson stain against the side of her tunic. O God...
" 's the enemy...Goltana..." the knight gasped out as Agrias desperately tried to judge the severity of the wound. Ovelia felt herself grow lightheaded for a moment. They were fighting...they were fighting over her.
Gafgarion growled and barked a command to his two companions, who nodded and ran out into the rain. He looked to Agrias, and a grin slid over his face. "What one must do to make money in this world," he said with a feral smile, and then dashed outside, sword at the ready.
Agrias stood up, her hands red with the knight's blood. She looked at the doorway, and then turned towards Ovelia, her expression unreadable. She regarded Ovelia for a minute, and her face became grim. She motioned towards Simon. "Take care of Lavian, Father. Princess," she said, looking up at her young charge, "please stay here."
Ovelia managed to nod, the tiniest of motions. Agrias stood there for a moment more, her dark eyes focused on Ovelia's white face. She nodded once, tightly, before running out to join the melee, golden braid bouncing against her blue coat and the gray rain. In a moment, she was lost from sight.
Simon came to kneel beside the fallen Knight, his gray robes brushing up against the crimson-stained flagstones. His face grew long and concerned as he regarded the wound. He whispered something to the girl, too low to be heard, but it gaspingly propelled her to her feet, supported by Simon.
He turned toward Ovelia, and he looked somehow exhausted, as if he bore more than the weight of one small woman. "I'll take her to the dormitory, Ovelia," he said, and she nodded, the tiniest of motions. The girl gave a soft moan, and they stumbled off into the darkness, towards clean sheets and dusty air.
A moment after they were gone, Ovelia realized what she should have done. She should have ran after them and aided Simon in supporting the bleeding knight. She should have grabbed a white pitcher of cool water to clean the mud, or a bundle of soft bandages to staunch the wound. She should have...she should have helped. But no, all she could do was stand there, white and trembling, and nod her head.
It was raining in earnest now, and she could hear the steady staccato of raindrops against the wooden roof of Orbonne. From outside the half-open door, Ovelia heard someone scream, high and loud and long, and then stop with ominous brusqueness. They were fighting...they were dying on account of her, a foolish, powerless princess. Why? She wasn't important - they had sent her to a convent simply because she was of no use. And now, now that she was eighteen, they would have taken her to Igros, where she would have taken her place in the excess nobility and been married off in a few seasons.
She knotted pallid fingers together, trying desperately to pray, for her companions and for herself. They had always told her that if she placed her faith in God, he would provide. O God, where are you? Have you deserted me? He had asked that she go to Igros and take her rightful place, and in her hubris, she had thought to go against his will. Now, he would punish her.
And in the corners, she could feel the dark witches raising up, watching her, reaching for her with bony fingers...
She closed her eyes, feeling a sickening lurch of fear in her stomach. O God. Ovelia's elbows rose automatically, so that her rigid fingers brushed the bottom of her chin. She had done wrong in doubting God, and she must atone. She must pray for forgiveness -- but the prayer itself would be a comfort, an old familiar friend. She drew in a breath, her face solemn--
"Say one word and I'll have to hurt you."
--and let it go in a gasp, feeling a cold metal edge against her neck.
"That's good," the hard, male voice continued. "Are any of your retainers around? Whisper, now."
There was a great raspy void where her vocal cords should have been, and for a moment, Ovelia doubted that she would be able to say anything. Sheer animal panic summoned a hoarse "No." She should have lied, she instinctively felt, she should have told them that they were within easy screaming distance. No, perhaps that would have been worse.
I should have lied...I should have helped...I should have hurried...I should have been obedient...
"Well, then." The knife against her neck disappeared, and her left elbow was roughly grabbed. "You'll come with me. Don't try anything, and you'll be fine."
Ovelia turned her head to look at him, feeling her heartbeat echo through her ears and skull. He was tall, with dark mahogany hair swept back over a somber face. His dark eyes were intent on her own face. They stared at one another for a moment, and then he pulled on her elbow. "Come." It was not a request.
So she went. His long fingers gripped her crooked elbow securely and steered her towards the back of the chapel and the small door set in the corner. The distance was short, yet the walk seemed an eternity. She seemed detached from her body, feeling her feet move as if they were controlled by some other entity, stepping forward almost smoothly. The blood was pounding too hard for her to hear anything, and she could only see the door in front of her. She could not breathe; she could not think. And then his free hand was around the knob, and the door was opening to the gray storm outside.
And she thought, I'm being kidnapped. The thought was distinct and clear, floating in the panic-frozen blackness of Ovelia's mind. She felt no emotions from it, as seemingly detached from the situation as she was from her body. She was helpless, but oh, she had always been helpless, pulled along by her role and responsibility. This was nothing new. Her captor pulled her through the door frame, into the cold rain. Then:
He's taking me away from Orbonne.
The thought snapped through her mind, and she instinctively jerked back from the idea and loss of safety and the vulnerability and the witches that ringed her, and from her captor with a force that startled him.
She flung herself back towards the door, but it was too late, her guard had been let down and her shield had been lost, and they were all around her with their sharp teeth and bloody claws, tearing into her dress and hair and skin. She screamed then, a wordless wail of desperation, and she felt them move inside her, curling up within her stuttering heart.
The dark-haired man grabbed her with a bruising force and desperately hissed, "Shut up, shut up." Ovelia couldn't stop screaming, because their sharp elbows were sticking into her lungs, and now they were slinking up her throat and peering out her eyes and O God, please!.
He stared at her with horror and anger, and through her frantic consternation, she thought she felt his grip loosen. Then there was a distant noise, towards the front of the Monastery, and something hard and resolute passed across his face. He hit her, with a hard crack across the face, and as she stumbled back and down into inky unconsciousness, she heard him say, "What an annoying princess."
And then she fell for a long, long time.
The witches were waiting for her at the bottom.
Chapter 4: Alazlam: Ghosts at Play
Chapter by Moe Machina (moemachina)
Alazlam stayed at the bottom of the hill, watching the dark boy trudge after the light.
Chorus: Book I -- The Meager
"Applause, applause -- no, wait, wait;
Dear studio audience, I've an announcement to make"
-Panic! At the Disco, "The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage"
Alazlam: Ghosts at Play
"Have you seen Mr. Durai recently, Else?"
"This morning," said Else, who was up to her elbows in soap suds and thus liable to be laconic. "Wanted more ink."
"Ah," sighed her mother. "That poor man. I don't think he sleeps at all."
"'s good trick."
"Always scribbling away in his room," said her mother. "Writing, writing, writing. But you know, my dear, I've gotten used to it. And it's come to be oddly comforting."
"I can't hear it," Else said suspiciously.
"I wake up in the middle of the night, plagued with premonitions, worried about your brothers and what will happen to you and this inn and who will fix the upstairs door since Squiddy Dan broke the hinges last week -- and, anyway, plagued with portents, but then I just hear Mr. Durai -- scribbling, scribbling, scribbling down the hall -- and I think to myself--"
"Oh, God," Else said.
"'Maud,' I think, 'All is right with the world so long as Mr. Durai can be writing away.'"
Else violently plunged a soap-scummed pan into the tub of water.
"But he does look tired," her mother said. "And thin."
"He ate three helpings of sausage last night," Else said. "And he took an extra potato."
"And I would not be surprised if he was coming down with a cough," her mother said. "He looked a little like he was coming down with a cough, last night. He's devoting so much time to his Great Work that he's killing himself."
"What?" her mother asked placidly.
"Why are you doing this?"
"This. Last time, it was Mr. Ludger and his portraits of monkeys, and then it was Mr. Heribert and his harmonica symphonies, and then -- Oh, God! -- it was Squiddy Dan and his amazing collection of aquatic pets."
"They could have really been something," her mother said mournfully. "But the people just never gave his octopi a chance."
"And now this! You're mooning after some sad-eyed historian! I bet you're letting him slide on his rent."
Her mother said nothing.
"Because he's writing, writing, writing," Else hissed.
"It's a very important book he's working on," her mother said.
"I bet," Else said.
"No, it is. He told me. The morning I gave him that plant," her mother said. "I asked him about his Great Work, and whether it was going to have any comic bits -- because I dearly love a good comic bit, Else -- and he said to me--"
"'Mrs. Felix, your generosity is appreciated -- not just by me, but by your future descendants, who may one day be unimaginably enriched by the Great Work that you enable. And thank you for the plant.'"
Else said nothing.
"Quite like a gentleman."
From upstairs, there came a scraping noise, followed by a distinct sloshing sound.
"Oh, dear," her mother said. "Squiddy Dan will be trying to get up, even though what the doctor said!" And she bustled out of the scullery.
Else sighed. It was the kind of sigh you can only make if you are fourteen years old and your mother is the silliest creature to walk the earth.
"Delita's name appears for the first time a year before the Lion War broke out."
It was 4 o'clock in Lesalia, a land cupped in God's hands, and all was right with the world. Outside the library's windows, perfect clouds scudded across the cerulean sky. The smell of gently decaying books mingled with the honeysuckle growing along the outside wall, and stout bumblebees occasionally confused the two. The light was golden and mellow. And Mrs. Darcy had outdone herself on her tea tray: the biscuits were golden; the cucumber sandwiches were crisp; the scones were both buttered and clotted.
"So?" Alazlam said, helping himself to another scone.
"Well, isn't that odd?" his student asked. "I mean, he went from some charity student at Gariland Academy to the shining hope of the Nanten in a matter of months. Devilish tricky to pull off, I should think."
"He was blessed," his other student said. "God chose Delita as his divine instrument and cleared all obstacles from his path."
Rupert frowned at his dark-haired cousin. "The problem with you, Emil, is that you say things with such conviction that people never realize that you're pulling their leg."
"I know," Emil said quietly. "It is my one true virtue."
"But back to Delita," Alazlam said. "You mentioned Delita's appearance in the registry of Gariland Academy, one year before the Lion War."
"Assuming it was Delita's name..."
"Ah," Alazlam said. "The Edinger Theory."
"I think it's quite a sound hypothesis," Rupert said earnestly. "Look, it makes a great deal more sense to think that 'Delita' is just the alias of some unknown nobleman. How could some unlettered commoner rise to glory and marry a princess?"
"Perseverance," Emil said. "Perseverance and God."
"It's much more realistic to think that Delita had all the advantages of good breeding," Rupert said. "More realistic than being some charity case at Gariland, at any rate. And I think it's just as reasonable for God to pick a promising nobleman for his instrument as for Him to pick some chap in a ditch."
"Why'd he need an alias?" asked Emil, who knew something about life as a charity case.
"Maybe he'd fought a duel and killed the brother of the girl he loved and had to go into exile and realized the error of his past wastrel life and---"
"Fine, there's an alias. He's now nobody. How'd he rise to glory?"
"Many soldiers returning from the war had no jobs, little money, and even less loyalty to the crown," Rupert said grandly. "Many became thieves plotting rebellion against the royal family. Robbery and murder were commonplace, once upon a time."
"But not your Delita."
"No, but he was disgusted with the corruption of the king's court. So he discarded his past and adopted the identity of nobody. And then, rising like a phoenix--"
"Yes, the theory is quite poetic," Alazlam said.
"--like a phoenix, he banished the darkness and brought back the enlightened rule of an ordained sovereign--"
"Specifically, his enlightened rule," Emil said. "And, anyway, how does that solve the problem of Delita's name in the Gariland registry? Why would your masked hero adopt his nobody identity at school?"
"He didn't," Rupert said airily. "The Gariland registry is hardly legible. It's probably some other name, smudged into notoriety."
"A name beginning with 'B,' perhaps," Emil said, smiling sphinx-like at their tutor.
"Oh, that's right," Rupert said. "You've done some research on the Beoulves, haven't you, Alazlam?"
"Some," Alazlam said, examining another scone.
"I don't really like that theory, though," Rupert said. "The idea that 'Delita' was one of the Beoulve brothers seems hard to accept. I mean, the Beoulves were hardly low-profile. You'd think someone would have recognized Delita if he had been formerly famous."
"Of course, if you accept the idea that there were three Beoulves, instead of two..."
"And a sister," Alazlam murmured into his tea cup, but neither boy heard him.
"I don't," Rupert said. "Most of the reliable sources only mention two. What contemporary source mentions three?"
"Well, he was probably just confusing a cousin for a brother or something. And he's hardly reliable. There were only two Beoulves, Emil."
"Well," Alazlam said, "now that we've successfully solved age-old historical quandaries and finished off the tea tray, I believe it's time to see the family heirloom you promised, Rupert."
"Oh," Rupert said. "Right. Of course." He brushed back his blond hair and bounded up from his chair. "I think you'll be impressed, professor."
Nestled in black velvet, a stone sat in the center of the glass cabinet. In the sunlight, it would have been red; in the darkening shadows of the afternoon, it was the size and color of a sleeping toad.
"Scorpio," he whispered.
"Bang on, professor!" Rupert cried with delight. "Most people can't make out the explanatory placard. I think Horatia was going for a gothic lettering style, but I'm afraid she botched the job."
Alazlam hadn't even noticed the explanatory placard penned by Rupert's sister. He realized he was stroking his mustache. He stopped.
Emil had hung back, but he stepped forward now. "Have you ever taken it out of its case, Rupert?"
"God, no," Rupert said. "More than my life is worth."
"Is it cursed?" Alazlam asked.
"No, no," Rupert said. "My father would kill me, that's all. I can't even open the cabinet. He's got a special locking mechanism there, and that's not glass, you know -- it's crystal or diamond or something awfully hard, at any rate."
"And how did it come into your family, Rupert?" Alazlam asked, although he already knew.
"Haven't a clue," Rupert said.
"But the family cherishes it, I suppose," Emil said quietly. As a poor country cousin, he had only a second-hand familiarity with Rupert's family and its heirlooms.
"Yes. It's hideous, isn't it?" Rupert said with great affection. "Edith refuses to look at it, which is strange -- normally she's much more of a brick than Horatia."
"Horatia thinks it's enchanting," Emil said from amidst the rising shadows. "She likes to point it out to visitors."
"With good reason," Alazlam said. "I certainly appreciate the opportunity to view it."
"Happy to oblige, professor," Rupert said, rubbing his hands briskly together. "I thought you might be the kind of person who would appreciate it. Just a feeling I had about you. But, I say! Now we should show you the family crypt!"
Alazlam was not as impressed with the Lucien family crypt, but he allowed Rupert to drag him down the aisles and point out cunningly carved emblems.
"And that slab is Great-Great-Uncle Harold. He died fighting a dragon, you know."
"I thought he died from gangrene," Emil said, trailing behind them.
"Yes, well, the dragon bit him," Rupert said.
"On the ankle," Emil said. "The dragon was supposed to be the size of a house cat, wasn't it?"
"But fierce, for all that!"
"Are all your ancestors down here, Rupert?" Alazlam asked.
"I imagine so," Rupert said. "Although every couple of generations, we run out of space and juggle around the people we no longer like."
"The disgraced branches are exiled to the outer shelves," Emil said.
"But not yours, Emil," Rupert said.
"No," Emil said. "My family is buried under the sky."
"I rather thought they should have come here," Rupert said. "There was room. We could have given them all a terrific funeral."
Emil stared at carved crosses and stars. "Yes," he said. "But they wanted to be buried out there, in the cemetery of our parish church."
Rupert looked at Emil, and Alazlam saw his next comment -- something about the dingy parish church or its sandy cemetery -- die on his lips.
Instead, he looked up at the ceiling, which Alazlam recognized as a nicely executed cloister vault.
"Personally," Rupert said softly, "I should like to be buried at sea. I'd like to sleep eternally beneath the waves and the sun."
And small nibbling fish, Alazlam thought.
"Indeed," Alazlam said.
"And you, Emil?" Rupert asked. "Where do you want to be buried?"
"I am indifferent," Emil said. "I'm the last of my line. No one will ever care where I was buried."
"I'll care," Rupert said promptly. "And you shall be buried here, my cousin. And since I'll be buried here too -- because I have no real chance at a maritime burial -- we shall be dead together!"
"A comforting thought," Emil said.
"Indeed!" Rupert said. "I don't know what lies beyond the final earthly veil, but I shall rest easier knowing that my beloved family is nearby. In fact, I sleep better nights now because of it. There is nothing that instills inner peace and family pride like strolling along here and knowing that this chap--" and he reached up to rap on Uncle Harold's marbled shelf "--sacrificed himself for you."
The marble top of Uncle Harold's coffin squeaked against its restraints and then toppled forward to fall on Rupert.
Had Rupert been by himself, Uncle Harold might have been the end of him. As it was, Emil and Alazlam were able to grab enough of the falling slab to prevent a killing blow. Rupert shrieked like a girl when it hit him, but it only bruised his arm and streaked him with dust.
Alazlam lifted the marble sheet and rested it against the crypt shelves. Emil helped Rupert to his feet and dusted him off.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes," Rupert said, gingerly rubbing his forearm. "Although I'm considerably disappointed in Uncle Harold."
"Should we put the slab back?" Alazlam asked.
"Just leave it," Rupert said. "We'll tell the girls that Uncle Harold was prophesied to haunt his descendants, and the next time Horatia comes down here, she'll have hysterics."
"An absolute silver lining," Emil said, but he kept his hand under Rupert's elbow and his dark eyes on Rupert's face. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"Thank you for the tour," he said.
"Not a problem," said Rupert, who had regained his sunniness. "I look forward to continuing our lesson about King Delita's origins."
"Yes," Alazlam said, "but in the meantime, please resist the temptation to re-enact Death Corps battles. Your mother gave me an earful the last time you did that.
"My mother," Rupert said, "has no sense of verisimilitude."
Alazlam put on his hat.
"But you, Alazlam, you appreciate it," Rupert said. "I really envy you sometimes. All you do is consider the past and chart its possibilities. You practically live for the past. Lord, that must be a fantastic way to live!"
Alazlam looked at him.
Alazlam lived in a squalid pockmark of a room. It was always too cold and too dark. He spent his nights writing until his hands cramped up and his eyes blurred. His landlady was a bubbling idiot; her daughter was a sloe-eyed cynic. He had no friends or family. His left-hand neighbor had an unhealthy obsession with sea creatures. Other historians regarded him with contemptuous derision. He spent his days teaching history and geometry to nit-witted larvae (and, speaking of which, two prime specimens were currently in front of him). His Great Work shuddered along in fits and starts, and there were mornings when he was tempted to burn the entire damnable thing.
When he died, no one would mourn him, with the possible exception -- and here was a horrid thought -- of these two.
Irony, Alazlam thought.
"Oh, yes," Alazlam said. "It is an unimaginable garden of earthly delights."
"I rather thought it would be," Rupert said. "Oh, Lord, is that Mrs. Darcy's bell? I hadn't realized it was so late!"
He started scrambling back to the house on the hill, but Emil lingered, watching Alazlam. He was nearly obscured by shadows.
"No Death Corps battles, Emil," Alazlam said. "And take care of him."
"Of course," said the shadow boy. "I always do."
And he turned and started after his cousin. Alazlam stayed at the bottom of the hill, watching the dark boy trudge after the light. When they disappeared from sight, he opened the gate and slowly went home.
"Many heroes and wizards came out of that era," he said into the dark. "Two of note came out of Magic City Gariland."
Author's Note: (06/15/06) This chapter was completely rewritten.
(For the morbidly curious, the original 5-year-old chapter has now been cast into the outer darkness of fanfiction.net: http://www.fanfiction.net/s/2992961/1/
I wrote this chapter straight through in a coffee-fueled blaze. Which may mean that, once I get some sleep, I will realize what a terrible idea this chapter was. Original characters? ...yeah, that may turn out to be an error in judgment. But I am comforted by the thought that, no matter what, this can't be any worse than the original chapter.
Next stop: Delita! Tragically, he may also require a total rewrite. But no original characters! ...I hope.
Chapter 5: Delita: Hangovers
Chapter by Moe Machina (moemachina)
"I was very pale in the looking-glass; my eyes had a vacant appearance; and my hair -- only my hair, nothing else -- looked drunk."
-Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
"Now that part of his head which nature designed for the reservoir of drink being very shallow, a small quantity of liquor overflowed it and opened the sluices of his heart, so that all the secrets there deposited ran out."
-Henry Fielding, Tom Jones
Delita Hyral ended his last day in Magic City Gariland watching Ramza Beoulve throw up.
"It was probably the zurra," Ramza said at one point, leaning his forehead against a brick wall. "Zurra always makes me sick."
Delita, more than a little drunk himself, stood there and considered this.
"It was probably the peaches," he said at last. "You're not supposed to eat the fruit in zurra."
"Were they peaches?" Ramza asked faintly. "I couldn't tell."
It was the small hours of the morning, and the thick quiet of the city was occasionally broken by distant laughter, breaking glass, and lovelorn cats. The air felt cold and clean against Delita's face, and he perceived single-syllable truths with great clarity. He was leaving the city tomorrow. He had killed a man today. He was standing on the cusp of some great shift in his life, he thought.
Standing in the alley, he felt as tender and hollow as a pumpkin scraped free of its pulp.
"Ramza," he said, much struck by this thought, "do you ever feel like a pumpkin?"
"Mmm," Ramza said, and then threw up again.
Delita had not been present; Delita had been somewhere else in the drunken crush, chatting up a pretty archer he remembered from last month's course in siege craft.
She had fought in the morning's battle, of course, though she had been part of another division in a separate part of town. She had not seen much action. Few rioters ventured as far as her division's quarter, she said, and her exploits were limited to disarming small boys of their stones. Delita, on the other hand, had been near the center of the mob. Delita had killed a man, and the archer listened to his fumbling account with parted lips. She was not the only one; passing cadets kept stopping to listen and smile with an intoxication that seemed due, in equal parts, to alcohol and blood.
She wanted to hear about the man he'd killed, but there was not much to tell. (It had been a lucky blow and a long, gurgling death.) Instead, Delita wanted to talk about the scene before the battle: the layout of the street, the deployment of the troops, the crackling sound of the approaching mob.
"And then," he told her, "the first band rounded the corner, and I wanted to cut them off at the next street, but Ramza said--"
"Hey," said a passing mage, "you were with Beoulve today?"
"Yeah," Delita said impatiently. "But Ramza said--"
"Oh," the mage said. "I heard that was some good work, this morning. Is it true that he's drinking against Mad Sally tonight?"
"The Mad Sally?" the archer asked.
"There's only one Mad Sally, sweetheart," the mage said.
The mage kept talking, but Delita was not listening; he was scanning the crowd for one particular golden head. But The Merrier Milkmaid swarmed with light-haired cadets jostling one another's drinks, and Ramza Beoulve was not visible among them.
"But I heard she was expelled from Gariland," someone was saying in the sudden knot of conversation around Delita.
"The provosts decided to forgive Mad Sally," the mage said expansively. "Her father is one of the largest land-owners in Gallione, you know."
"Didn't she cripple someone?" someone else asked.
"She just broke his knee," the mage said. "And to be fair, he was the one who started it. Hell, I think it happened here."
"Where are they?" Delita asked.
"I don't know," the mage said. "Probably upstairs. I don't see Mad Sally down here."
"You'd know Mad Sally?" the archer asked. "You've seen her?"
"It's hard to miss Mad Sally," the mage said with a laugh. And then, "Hey, wait up! We're coming too!"
The stairs were on the other side of the room, and it took Delita and his new-found compatriots a good ten minutes to shove their way through the press of cadets. Most of Gariland's students had fought the first battle of their lives a few hours before; they now displayed no less zeal in defending their drinks from inconsiderate elbows.
Delita knew some of the cadets he thrust past; others were total strangers. Gariland Academy was not a large institution, but Delita had not bothered to embrace its thick flock of second sons and first-born daughters. He knew the people worth knowing in Magic City Gariland: the watchful merchants, the quill-pricked clerks, and the talkative maids. Otherwise, he stuck to himself and one other.
But even Delita had heard of Mad Sally.
Delita found them sitting in a room on the second floor. Someone had found them a table; someone else had found an unopened barrel of ale. Cadets were clustered in awed clots behind one side of the table, and from the door, Delita could hear their muttered motto: "That's Mad Sally? The Mad Sally?"
The mage (who was now standing behind Delita with his arm around the archer's waist) had been right: it was difficult to miss Mad Sally. Beneath a mass of flaming red hair, she looked fully six feet tall, and she had the proportions of a valkyrie. She had a voice to match: a moment after he entered the room, Delita heard her laugh thunderously at something Ramza had said.
Ramza was sitting across from her. As he brought a brimming cup to his lips, he caught sight of Delita in the doorway.
"Hullo, Delita!" he called out. "I'm drinking against Mad Sally here."
"I've heard," Delita said.
"She doesn't think I can hold my own," Ramza said in a loud conspiratorial whisper, and the crowd behind Mad Sally laughed.
"And what's the prize?" someone shouted.
"That," Mad Sally said, "is a matter between the boy and myself." And she winked, which made the crowd laugh again.
"And what are the rules?" Delita asked quietly.
"The rules," Ramza said, "the rules are...what are the rules, Sally?"
"There's just one, my dear," she said. "You take a drink every time I take a drink. The first one to stop or pass out loses."
"As you can see, it's admirable simplicity," Ramza chirped, and Delita could tell that he was already drunk. Ramza always started sounding like his brother Dycedarg when he was drunk. "Let us resume!"
As they drank, bets were being negotiated in the crowd behind Mad Sally. Most people leaned in favor of Mad Sally. She had a mythic reputation, and people would have bet the same whether the contest had been chess or bull-fighting. But one or two rebels picked Ramza, and they listened to his verbose civility with a smile. Ramza Beoulve may not have been a figure of tavern notoriety, but he had a reputation of his own among the Academy cognoscenti.
Part of that reputation had settled against the wall behind Ramza with a sigh. Delita knew better than to intervene in the contest, despite the dubious stakes and Ramza's mercurial opponent. He was somewhat relieved to see that, if he disregarded the gleam in Mad Sally's eye, she did not look like she was in the mood to break bones. Yet.
More people were wandering into the room. In their ignorance, they gathered on Ramza's side of the room. Many had heard only the garbled, third-hand account of the contest being passed along the lower floor, but they had caught the irresistible scent of competition and scandal.
"Is that Mad Sally?" an alchemy student asked Delita.
"And is that Beoulve?"
The alchemy student pondered this in silence as Ramza and Sally systematically drained their mugs. Her every action was an echo of his.
"Care to wager a fiver that Sally wins?" the alchemy student asked.
"Done," Delita said.
"Is that Beoulve?" someone else asked. "Didn't he lead one of the divisions this morning?"
"He did," said the mage who had followed Delita upstairs.
"And this one was his lieutenant," Delita's archer added loyally, despite the mage's arm around her waist.
This fact impressed them; there was a momentary ripple in the crowd as people turned their attention to Delita. So far, the drinking contest was methodical and polite, and the crowd was disappointed. They wanted some fresh entertainment. They wanted to know about the battle; they wanted to know about the men killed.
Delita flushed under their scrutiny. Boasting to pretty archers was one thing, but he was reluctant to tell the story in the presence of Ramza -- because Ramza was likely to interrupt. He would probably fussily correct Delita's details or assert his own important role, Delita thought. Ramza tended to re-order his memories to his convenience, and by this point in the evening, his recollection of the battle might bear only a faint resemblance to actual events.
It was an uncharitable thought, Delita knew, and he felt a guilty lurch when he looked past the expectant faces to see Ramza watching him impassively. Ramza's hair was ruffled, and his face was flushed, but his expression was coldly sober. He looked as if he knew what was going through Delita's head. Startled, Delita felt his ears and cheeks going hot.
Their locked gazes held until Mad Sally thumped down her tankard.
"Your turn, my lord," she said. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
"Ah," Ramza said, turning his attention back to her. "Thank you, my lady. I am powerfully thirsty. Did I mention that I led one of the divisions this morning?"
"A few times," Sally said dryly.
"Well, the day dawned bright over myself and my troops," Ramza said, filling his mug. "We knew we were dealing with desperate men, but when the black-hearted rebels hove into view, I shouted--"
He continued on, telling the shushed room about the morning's battle in familiar words snitched from a thousand ballads and romances. People turned their faces away from Delita to listen. Delita leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes.
"But the men refused to surrender their stolen goods or their ill-gained weapons, and my appeal to their reason was drowned out in a beastly roar for blood."
It was a good story in Ramza's mouth. The crowd was quiet and calm. Even Mad Sally was raptly listening.
It wasn't beastly, Delita thought, his eyes tightly shut. It was just desperate.
"And as we fought our way through the law-breakers, my lieutenant Delita defended my back against a knavish thief. The cowardly thief tried to stab me in the back, but Delita struck him a might blow and--"
Hopeless, Delita thought, seeing the gurgling red spurt of a bad neck wound. It was desperate and hopeless.
"--And then he lifted the blade--"
Ramza had gotten to the really good part -- the killing part -- when there was a shout from downstairs.
"What was that?" asked the archer next to Delita.
"Somebody bumped into the wrong drink," Mad Sally speculated, and she leaned back to swallow her own ale. "Now, back to the contest, Beoulve--"
"No," Delita said, gripped by an evil intuition, "it's not that. It's--"
"Hell," said someone on the stairs, "it's the provosts."
The crowd convulsed like a galvanized toad. Cadets ran for the doors, the halls, and the windows. People were fighting their way up the stairs -- the provosts must be blocking The Merrier Milkmaid's front entrance, Delita thought. There were angry cries from below; clearly, the downstairs cadets weren't going without a fight. Upstairs, they scrambled for exits. It was hysterical, drunken pandemonium.
And in the middle of it, Mad Sally was standing on top of the table and shrieking with laughter.
Because, of course, the cadets were not supposed to be at The Merrier Milkmaid. They were not supposed to be outside the Academy after curfew; they were not even supposed to be drinking. The Academy held its cadets to a rigorous code of conduct, Delita knew. As far as its provosts were concerned, the only actions that a cadet should be taking at this hour of night involved bed-time prayers and a warm glass of milk. The city's taverns and the Academy's easily climbed walls were earthly temptations for the cadets to resist.
Most cadets failed this test of character, but even so, it was unusual for the provosts to cinch up their dressing gowns and sally forth to seize debauched students. Standing in the middle of a frenzied mob, Delita wondered what had compelled them tonight. He also wondered what would happen to the cadets they caught. He suspected it would not be pleasant; the Academy viewed intemperance as a more serious sin than broken kneecaps.
"Delita," someone said, and Delita looked up to find Ramza at his side. "Come on."
"Where?" Delita asked. People were shoving past them to the doors, only to be pushed back by the waves of cadets surging into the room. Delita had lost both his archer and the mage in the crush.
"Come on," Ramza said again, tugging his sleeve. "Sally says she knows a way out."
They roughly forced their way through to an opposite door, where they found Mad Sally, down from the table but still laughing. It was impossible to talk in the rising babble of hysterical noise -- Delita heard someone say that a provost had gained the foot of the stairs -- so he and Ramza wordlessly followed Mad Sally as she shouldered her way out into the hall.
The hallway was lined with windows that faced the street, which was the only reason desperate cadets hadn't started climbing down from them. The provosts were down on the street; Delita caught a glimpse of their torches as he hustled past the hall's squeeze of people. Not everyone in The Merrier Milkmaid was a cadet, but most were, and the other patrons had caught their panic.
Mad Sally led them down the hall, through another room, and to a closed door. When she opened the door, a tiny closet stood revealed. It was full of brooms.
"You must be joking," Delita said.
Sally snorted. She pushed the brooms aside and reached for the cord hanging from the ceiling. A hinged panel fell open at her third jerk, revealing a great deal of dust and a folded ladder nailed to the panel.
"It leads to the attic," she said as Delita and Ramza coughed. "And there's a window at the far end, big enough to fit through."
"It'll be a three-story drop," Delita said.
"Nah," Sally said. "The window opens over the roof of the inn next door. It's a few feet, no more. You'll see."
"But you," Ramza said slowly, "what about you? Aren't you coming?"
"What? Leave this party? But it's just beginning," she said with a laugh. "And if you think I would miss the chance to tussle with the provosts, you're sadly mistaken, my boy."
Ramza frowningly considered this position as Delita brushed dust from his hair. More cadets were pouring into the room behind them, possibly in response to Mad Sally's magnetic pull, Delita thought sourly. Some of them had seen the open trap-door, and there was going to be a murderous stampede at any minute if Ramza and he kept blocking the way.
"All right," Ramza said abruptly, "if your mind is made up. But godspeed, my lady, and I hope to see you well after this." And so saying, he stretched up on his tip-toes and kissed her on the mouth.
Sally and Delita made the same squeaky noise of surprise.
Ramza pivoted and had his foot on the second ladder rung before Delita realized that they were finally going. He hastened forward as Mad Sally mutely stepped back. As he climbed up behind Ramza, he could hear the eager throng jostling to follow him.
The attic was a filthy place, and Delita was glad that it was too dark to see clearly. The roof was low, so Delita and Ramza shuffled forward, half-crouched, into the dusty gloom until they saw a gleam of glass and moonlight.
"There," Delita said, ignoring the people stumbling in the dark behind them.
"I'm looking for a latch," Ramza said, kneeling to root around the window's invisible casement. "It's...I think...oh, here it is."
There was a snap, and Ramza pushed open the grimy window and peered out.
"Sally was right," Ramza said, climbing halfway out the window. "There's a roof down there. Here, hold on..." He swung his other leg around until he was sitting on the window's sill with his feet against the outside wall. The window was only as tall as his chin.
People were pressing up against Delita's back, but he stood his ground. "There's no obstacles?" he asked.
"None that I could see," Ramza said. "And -- here I go!"
Ramza leaned back as he pushed himself forward; his nose only just slipped under the window frame. His disappearance from view was immediately followed by a sharp thumping sound below the window.
Delita decided the lack of pained screams was a good sign. He quickly assumed Ramza's position on the window sill, but he had less time to prepare his descent. The cadets behind him, maddened with panic and beer and this new-sighted possibility of escape, shoved him out the window.
He landed hard on the flat tile roof below, and an agonized protest reverberated from his tail-bone all the way up his spine. Despite the pain, his Academy training pulled him sharply to his feet.
And then Ramza was there, swearing and jerking him to the left. There was a thump, and Delita looked over to see an unknown cadet who had landed on the exact same patch of roof.
Ramza and Delita limped back to roll the befuddled cadet out of the way. They had barely done so when the next cadet landed.
"Someone is going to kill someone," Delita said, looking up at the window, where yet another cadet had appeared. "Or break a leg, at least."
"Probably so," Ramza said calmly as they pulled the landed cadet to safety. "It's a good thing The Merrier Milkmaid's never had a fire."
It took a few more minute, but the other landed cadets finally regained enough of their pain-added senses to help their incoming classmates out of danger. Relieved from rescue duty, Ramza and Delita moved over to the side of the roof, where they had a clear view of the action in The Merrier Milkmaid.
Not every cadet was jumping from the attic. Others had found alternate escape routes, and they boiled out from the tavern like fleas from a drowned dog. Watching his fellow students burst from the cellars and shimmy down rain pipes, Delita felt a strange affection for them. He knew that this might be the last time he'd see most of them. He was leaving Magic City Gariland tomorrow.
Inside The Merrier Milkmaid, things had settled down somewhat, but there were still pockets of resistance. Downstairs, the provosts had sorted out most of the confusion, but they had yet to establish a foothold on the second floor. The lights had been doused by clever cadets in some of the upper windows but not all. Through one, Ramza and Delita could see Mad Sally's red hair as she held off two provosts with a broom handle.
"Think they'll finally expel her for this?" Ramza asked.
"Who knows?" Delita said. "It's Mad Sally."
"The night," he said, "is still young."
Delita thrust his hands in his pockets. "If the provosts got The Merrier Milkmaid, they've probably staked out other taverns."
"Then we'll go farther afield," Ramza said. "The city has many taverns, and the Academy has only so many provosts."
Delita did not resist. He was suddenly reluctant to end this night and, along with it, his life as a Gariland cadet. To be sure, he had not yet graduated -- but tonight still felt like the end of his schooling. He was on the cusp of something, he thought.
"It's our last night in Gariland, after all," Ramza said. "Let's make it count." He was already moving forward, as if he bore an antenna that twitched unerringly toward taverns.
Delita matched his stride. The night air felt cold and clean.
"It's not even that fine a place," Ramza said, kicking a loose brick. "And the owner is forever shouting about trivial things. Do you remember the frogs that we had last month?"
"Yes," Delita said, stalking alongside him.
"Well," Ramza said, "he had no sense of humor about the frogs. You remember, right? So why do we keep returning to a place that doesn't appreciate us?"
"It's cheap," Delita said. "And it's close."
"True," Ramza said mournfully. "True."
In the distance, the two cadets could still hear the odd war cry from The Merrier Milkmaid, but every step they took submerged the sound within the deeper noises of Magic City Gariland at night.
"But strange, isn't it?" Ramza said abruptly. "Strange that the provosts showed up, isn't it? They haven't done that before."
"Not at The Merrier Milkmaid," Delita said. "But they shut down The Horse's Handkerchief in the winter."
"But the Handkerchief is nearly on the other side of the city," Ramza said, changing direction suddenly to lunge down a narrow side-street. Delita followed.
"They found cadets betting on cockfights in the basement," Delita said. The alley smelled of charcoal and urine.
Ramza's giggle echoed off the walls. "Oh, was that what happened? I only knew some cadets under Rona were disgraced suddenly. But everyone was tight-lipped about the reason."
"I hear their real crime was using the Academy's cock," Delita said. "I believe the provosts first became suspicious after Sir Gideon's rooster went missing."
"I do remember that week," Ramza said. "I specifically remember getting some extra sleep that week. But I can't believe the other provosts weren't secretly delighted when that bloody bird went away."
"Sir Gideon was distraught," Delita said solemnly. "His rooster is his memento of home, I hear."
"What's its name? Percy? Persephone?" Ramza twisted in mid-step and led Delita down another tiny street, too narrow to admit the moon. They shuffled forward in the dark. In the distance, someone was playing the fiddle faintly.
"Percival was the name," Delita said.
"Oh, Lord," Ramza said. "That's right. Percival. But how did the provosts smoke out the thieves?"
Somewhere to their left, a woman was shrieking hoarse curses. There was the sound of glass breaking, and then she was silent.
"It was their sudden and unexpected wealth," Delita said. "It turns out that Percival is renowned for his viciousness in the arena."
Ramza laughed. "Perfect."
Without warning, their tiny passage delivered them onto a wide boulevard. The moon hung large and low above them, and flickering magelights hung from iron poles at regular intervals. The fiddle was louder and clearer, and it was accompanied by a male tenor voice singing an old ballad.
Delita recognized the main bustling thoroughfare of Gariland. In contrast, Ramza stared at the street and its lights in wide-eyed alarm.
"Ramza," Delita said.
"Do you know where we're going?"
"Yes," Ramza said immediately. "Of course. In a sense." He ran a hand through his hair and hesitated a moment before turning left.
They were no longer alone. They passed stumbling farmers, sad-eyed whores, and clusters of pale law clerks, who were undoubtedly hurrying toward greasy pub dinners and rented rooms. But the crowd was thinner than usual, and Delita felt the back of his neck prickling. The atmosphere was different tonight. There was a strange tension on the street.
Next to him, Ramza was humming happily under his breath.
It took Delita a few blocks -- in which they passed the fiddler, who was singing up to a shuttered window about the legendary Queen Irreverre and her celebrated knights, who numbered a baker's dozen -- to piece together the intangible detail setting his teeth on edge.
It was the other people, he thought. The stumbling farmers averted their eyes; the sad-eyed whores shrunk back; the law clerks gave them a wide berth.
Delita had been wandering Magic City Gariland for nearly a year, crossing the strangest and unruliest neighborhoods, and never before had he been treated like a leper. It made him uneasy -- especially as Academy rules forbade their cadets from carrying swords outside Academy assignments. He felt abruptly vulnerable without his cheap, borrowed blade.
"But the rooster," Ramza said, ending his murmured melody. "How did the provosts hear about this renowned rooster?"
"Oh," Delita said. "The cadets weren't discreet, and I suppose someone must have slipped up. The provosts confiscated both the rooster and their winnings, I hear."
"I'm surprised that they weren't expelled," Ramza said, stepping over a prone form slumped against the wall.
"I'm surprised that they weren't flogged," Delita said. "That's the punishment Gideon wanted, anyway."
"Ha ha," Ramza said. "And how did you come to know all this?"
"I hear things," Delita said. "Here and there." He saw a prostitute in a doorway make a quick, warding gesture as they passed. He recognized the motion from his country childhood; it was a sign against evil.
"But you always know what's going on," Ramza said. "You always know about who's feuding with whom and who's stealing pen knives and, and...and the current political climate."
"I just listen," Delita said quietly. "It's just lots of listening." The fiddle had slipped past earshot, and now Magic City Gariland sounded preternaturally silent to his ear.
"No, no, it's marvelous," Ramza said happily and obliviously. "A good commander needs good information -- isn't that what Gideon says in half his lectures? So...so you're my source of information. And you do such a good job of it!"
"Thank you, milord," Delita said. He gave Ramza a rolling sideways bow.
In response, Ramza shoved him so hard that Delita nearly fell. As he staggered back, the stragglers on the street scattered like blown smoke. For a moment, the two were alone again.
"Enough of that, I think," Ramza said. All the drunken warmth was gone from his voice.
Delita dusted his sleeve and said nothing.
"I don't appreciate that smirking tone, that fake humility, when I'm just trying to give you an honest compl--"
"Would you prefer sincere humility?"
"A compliment!" Ramza nearly shrieked. "God's blood, Delita, I'm no duke, and you needn't treat me as one."
"But you are a Beoulve, remember," Delita said.
For a moment, Delita thought Ramza was going to hit him again. The other boy's eyes blazed under the magelight, and Delita took an instinctive step back.
But then Ramza's shoulders sagged. "Oh, right. This morning. Right. But I didn't mean it like...like that, you know. I just...I meant that I didn't need any advice in conducting the battle, because the Beoulves have always been in the military, and I've been brought up in that..."
Delita said nothing.
"Oh, hell," Ramza said, running his hands through his disordered hair. "I don't remember why I said it. I seem to remember screaming a lot of nonsense at the time. I couldn't really hear myself. It was like a berserker rage, or something. A very genteel berserker rage." He laughed weakly.
"So, fine," Ramza said. "It was bad manners to cut you off this morning, during the battle. I can't believe that you even remember it, much less that you're still angry about it, and furthermore, Delita--"
"Do you hear that?"
"Shhh," Delita said. "Listen."
Ramza cocked his head and screwed up his face in a show of heroic concentration. In the quiet, they both heard the sound: a low, wordless cry that undulated over and over, unendingly. It was coming from someplace nearby.
"What is it?" Delita asked, smothering his initial instinct to make his own country warding gesture.
"I don't know," Ramza said. "Let's find out!"
As Ramza darted down a dark and crooked alley, Delita wished again that he had a sword.
They smelled the battlefield before they reached the square. The too-sweet odor of magic, blood, and burnt meat grew stronger with each step, and the air grew itchy with old spells.
The plaza here had been one of the scenes of the morning's riot. Delita dimly remembered its role in the Academy's afternoon dispatches, but not how the battle had gone. Not well, apparently. The city's magelights had not been activated here. Dozens of windows had been smashed, and the broken glass lining the street was as bright as snow in the moonlight. One or two store fronts had been blackened by fire.
The dead had lain here for hours, long enough to reek; Delita and Ramza could still smell them. But Mage City Gariland was a modern metropolis; it prized public sanitation. It did not allow corpses to simply lie about. It employed a number of ditch diggers who, in addition to their primary responsibilities, were responsible for removing the dead to some suitable place of burial or disposal.
And there, of course, was the covered corpse wagon tucked into the alley. But the figure standing beside the harnessed chocobo was not a ditch digger. For one thing, the corpse handlers rarely sang. For another, the long black robe was not a regulation uniform.
The black figure went still and silent as soon as the two cadets were sighted; Delita and Ramza stopped dead as soon as they saw the black figure. There was a long moment where nobody moved, as if they were all in some parlor, playing at statues.
"Is that...?" Ramza whispered.
"Yes," Delita said. He had felt a flicker of fear in that first second of recognition, but that sensation had been suppressed under scientific curiosity and a strange sense of self-satisfaction. He had never before seen the Black Sisters in action.
The black figure rocked back and forth on her (or his) heels for a second before shuffling toward the corpse wagon. The figure pulled aside the overhanging cloth and stuck his (or her) head into the opening for a moment of whispered conferral. Delita caught a murky glimpse of other black forms within the wagon, moving among the collected bodies like rustling beetles.
"We should--" Ramza began to whisper.
"No," Delita said. "Just wait."
Another figure, as black-robed as the first, slid out of the wagon and moved toward them. She lit a wobbling magelight as she came, and by the light cradled in her left palm, Delita could see a face crowned with gray hair and covered in boils.
He felt Ramza beginning to draw back in revulsion, but before he could complete that disastrous movement, Delita moved forward and gracefully dropped to one knee.
"Good evening, milady," he said, in his best imitation of a courtier. "I apologize if my companion or I alarmed you."
She stopped before him. "Cadets?" she asked. Her voice was surprisingly deep and melodic. It was not a voice Delita would have expected from a woman so bent and cracked.
"Yes," Ramza said, sounding a trifle strained. "From the Gariland Academy."
She seemed amused by Ramza's unease, and her mouth quirked upwards as she looked back to Delita, still on his knee. With great solemnity, she offered her hand to him.
With equal sobriety, Delita kissed her withered knuckles.
"And have you returned to your scene of triumph?" she asked.
Ramza blinked. "What? But this wasn't us. The Academy cadets weren't sent to this district."
Delita slowly got to his feet. "No, it must have been the Hokuten. One of their divisions was also part of the campaign. Of course," he said, looking at the woman, "you must know that. Some of the bodies you've seen must still have their uniforms."
She grinned, and the magelight illuminated her few remaining teeth. "The uniforms are the first thing we cut away, dear heart. Ain't much good to us, and their allegiance makes no difference to the spells."
Ramza started to make a sound of protest -- which would inevitably evolve into a ringing denunciation of corpse-snatching and death magic, followed by a call for the Black Sisters to repent, mend their evil ways, and take up charitable works -- but Delita smoothly interrupted.
"Ah, that makes sense," he said. "Though I'm surprised that the bodies have been abandoned here."
She smiled slyly. "Ah, they had to make a great many rounds, you know, to reach all the dead in Gariland tonight. And they came here last. They didn't want to get too close to this place too soon, not with so much fresh wizardry floating in the air. And even now, they're all down at the pub at the end of the street, trying to drink all that sticky magic away."
"What wizardry?" Ramza asked at the same moment Delita murmured, "Yes, we felt it..."
"They called something," the Black Sister said with relish. "The mage-soldiers did. They summoned some old, dark creature full of fire. It boiled the air and burned half the people here. That's how we knew to come here -- Sister Angela had a true-dream last night about the deaths, and we knew the corpse wagons would be slow to get to a place stained with that much wild magic."
"So you knew about the riot, before it happened?"
Her amusement returned. "Dear heart, half the city knew about the riots beforehand, and I reckon some of the lords did as well. But the true-dream just told us that there would be deaths by old magic here today. Here," she said, "wait a tick, and I'll have Sister Angela tell you herself." She turned and, outlined by the nimbus of her magelight, walked back to the wagon.
"Delita, we should call the City Watch," Ramza whispered.
"No," Delita said. "And it won't do any good. If they've already heard about the summoning, they'll be too superstitious to come here."
"Then the Hokuten, then," Ramza said. "Delita, it is a capital offense and a grave sin to associate with the Black Sisters. They're stealing bodies!"
"They're probably only stealing parts of bodies."
"By the time we got to the Hokuten barracks and convinced them to come out," Delita said, "the Black Sisters will be gone. They'll steal those bodies whether we intervene or not. And I want to hear about this dream."
"Delita, they're unholy. They're going to use those bodies in dark demonic rites. Necromancy! Damnation!"
"Maybe not," Delita said. "I mean, I think Old Martha used to make her love philtres with a dead man's thumb."
Ramza sucked in his breath. "Not Old Martha. Not our Old Martha!"
"That's the story I heard from the Master of the Stables at Igros," Delita said virtuously.
"But, Delita! She gave us treats," Ramza said in an agonized whisper. "She sneaked us iced cakes."
"It was just one man's thumb, I think," Delita said. "She'd soak it. I'm sure she didn't rob a grave every time she wanted to mix a potion for the maids."
Ramza whimpered, but further comments were precluded by the return of the Black Sister with the other robed figure, the sister who had sang.
"This is Sister Angela, dear heart. Angela, these young men want to hear about your dream last night."
If the first Sister seemed a primordial crone, Sister Angela was surprisingly young and pretty. She had light brown hair and wore thick spectacles. She glanced anxiously between Delita and Ramza, as if uncertain whom to address her story, and her pale hands ceaselessly kneaded the cloth of her robe.
"It was a true-dream," she whispered. "I can always tell, because my true-dreams taste like buttermilk. And I dreamed that, in this square, there was a huge swarm of moths. Only they weren't always moths; sometimes they were butterflies. And then a queen came marching through the square, holding a candle. And all the butterfly-moths lined up to fly through the candle's flame, one by one, and on the other side, they became bits of paper torn from an old book."
Sister Angela fell silent. Ramza and Delita were equally silent until they realized that she was done with her story.
"And, so," Delita said, "that was how you knew about the riots beforehand?"
"No, dear heart," said the first Sister impatiently. "Just that there would be magicked dead here tonight."
"It was the taste of buttermilk," Sister Angela added faintly. "That's how I knew it was a true-dream."
"Hmmm," Delita said.
"But what if you were having a dream about buttermilk..." Ramza, intrigued by Angela's dream logic, started to ask before the first Sister interrupted him.
"The summoning left a piece of himself behind," she said. "The poor things always seem to shed when they're pulled here. Would you like to see it?"
Ramza's sense of moral outrage about the Black Sisters briefly struggled against his desire to see the summoning's relic. The moral outrage lost.
"Could I?" he asked wistfully.
"Walk this way, my young cadet," she said, smiling as she pulled him toward a strange heap lying among the bright glass in the plaza. Delita and Angela, left behind, watched the magelight recede.
"Why are you telling us all this?" Delita asked her. "Surely, you have no reason to confide in us. Even as cadets, our sworn testimony would be damning for you in the king's court."
In the moonlight, Angela began to tremble. "No..." she whispered, "no, because...you were there, too. In my dream. You were reading the book."
Her voice had gone so faint that Delita had to lean closer. "Pardon me? What about a book?"
"When the butterflies went through the candle...they were the pages from your...oh!" Angela shrieked suddenly.
Delita took an involuntary step backward, but Angela took that step with him, and then another, and before Delita knew what was happening, the Black Sister was crouching at his feet, pressing her forehead against his shin and babbling unintelligibly.
"The book, the thirteen plums on the window's sill, your glowing crown, Your Majesty, the butterflies, clasping a gem to his heart--"
"God!" Delita cried. "Get up!"
"You'll remember me, won't you?" Angela quavered. "I was the first to recognize you. I was the first to bow down before you. You'll remember me, won't you, Your Majesty?"
"Up!" Delita said roughly, kicking her. "Up!"
Angela fell back and sat against the ground, wide as a spider in her billowed robes. "Yes," she whispered. "I was the first to recognize you." She stood up slowly, and her robes seemed to shrink back around her. "The first."
Behind her, Delita saw the bobbing magelight moving toward them.
"Delita!" Ramza cried. "Look at this!"
He sprinted up to Delita, and Delita saw a curved and gleaming something cradled in Ramza's hand.
"Isn't it odd?" Ramza breathlessly exclaimed. "Isn't it scaly?"
"Yes," Delita said automatically. He saw the black-robed crone smiling at him sardonically; he saw Angela shrinking back behind her.
"It's a sacred relic from a summoned monster," Ramza said.
"It's a toenail, most likely," the crone said.
"Excellent," Delita said. "Excellent. But what about--"
"And now it is time for us to be going," the crone said. "And undoubtedly time for you two heroes to be heading wherever you're heading. But I thank you for your bow, dear heart," she said to Delita. "I will remember it."
A muscle jumped in Delita's jaw. "No doubt," he said slowly. "No doubt you will."
Ramza stood apart, frowning, obviously torn between the lingering urge to denounce the corpse-robbers and the fear that, if he did so, they would take back his sacred relic. He hugged the curved object to his chest and scowled.
"Come, Angela," the crone said. "Our work is done here. Come."
"I come," Angela said meekly.
The two robed figures and the tiny magelight moved back to the cart.
"Did you hear--"
"What?" Ramza asked.
"Did you hear what that one was saying to me?" Delita asked distractedly. "The one with the dream."
"Um, no," Ramza said. "What did she say?"
"Something..." Delita said slowly. "I didn't quite get it..."
And now more black figures were pouring from the cart, many more than might seem to fit within its covered interior, and they all carried dimly seen bags and bottles. The gangrenous reek of death strengthened.
"We should have gotten the City Watch," Ramza said firmly, and Delita could tell that he was sobering up, because he sounded like his brother Zalbag. "We should have told someone." He rocked his relic sadly.
The figures shuffled together and then moved off in concert, one black bumbling mass through the bright glass of the plaza. The harnessed chocobo made a sad noise and went back to sleep.
"They said the ditch diggers are in a pub here," Delita said absently. "You could tell them."
"Oh!" Ramza said. "An excellent idea!" He moved with great deliberation into the plaza.
"Wait," Delita said, belatedly coming back to himself. "I didn't mean... Ramza, wait!"
Ramza found the tavern easily; it was the only business open on the street, and it was filled with drunken and boisterous ditch diggers wearing identical uniforms. They hushed, as one man, as soon as Ramza marched through the door. Delita warily followed.
"Gentlemen," Ramza said in sweeping tones, "is that your cart outside?"
Two dozen burly, surly, drunken diggers blinked at him.
"With the chocobo, I mean," Ramza said. "And the dead people inside."
"'e means the black wagon," one of the men said to another man, who was wearing a lopsided tin badge.
"Oh," said the man. "Right. Yes, that's our's. What about it?"
"Well," Ramza started, but then he looked down at the bulge of the relic, which was now tucked under his shirt, and he sighed in the tones of moral defeat. "I was just wondering. I just wanted to know. About the cart. From curiosity, my good sirs."
"Oh," said the man with the badge, and Delita could see him struggling between confusion and irritation.
"But," Ramza continued brightly, "we were also looking for a tavern. Where's the owner of this fine establishment?"
As one man, the ditch-digging company stiffened, and Delita could see the same thoughts moving across each face: What the hell? Why are these damn swells here? This ain't their turf. This is our place, a place for the working man. What nerve, what cheek, especially when we've been taking care of their mess all damn day, and now they're even here, with their damn airs, and god-damn it, we oughta--
Delita was already tracking the proper avenues of escape and planning how to hustle out Ramza by the time the glum tavern-keeper -- who was certainly foreseeing the same violent future as Delita -- tentatively raised an arm.
"Here, milord," he said pitiably. "But I'm sure that there's nothing here fit for you...the mob this morning burst my best casks...surely another place--"
"I'm sure we can go--" Delita began.
"Nonsense!" Ramza said. "I'll have whatever these fine gentlemen are having. And the same for my friend Delita here! What are these fine gentlemen having, might I ask?"
The ditch diggers contracted in one motion, like a dog preparing to lunge. Delita involuntarily closed his eyes and thought, This is going to be so, so bad.
"It's...zurra," the tavern-keeper whispered. "It's all I had left."
"Zurra!" Ramza exclaimed. "Why, I love zurra. A round of zurra, then! In fact, a round of zurra for everyone here, on me! Zurra!"
Delita opened his eyes. The men blinked and slackened in surprise.
"And now," Ramza said, "would anyone here be interested in seeing my relic?"
Delita sat in a corner, sipping his wine and moving the chunks of peaches around with his finger. Ramza eventually abandoned the game and joined him, and together they watched the ditch diggers play a rowdy and incomprehensible game with dice.
"What did you wager against Mad Sally?" Delita asked.
"Against Mad Sally," Delita repeated. "At The Merrier Milkmaid, when you were drinking with her. What was the wager? And who started the challenge?"
Ramza stared at the floor. "I can't remember how it got started. And I...I can't remember the wager, either."
Delita took another long sip of zurra. He could tell Ramza was lying.
"Delita," Ramza said.
"Whom did we fight this morning, Delita?" Ramza asked. "From the briefing this morning, I thought they were just Gariland malcontents, but one of the diggers just told me that the Death Corps were involved."
"The authorities don't know yet," Delita said. "As far as I know."
"What did they call them at the briefing?" Ramza asked.
"Tortured thieves," Delita said promptly. "And then someone else called them rebels, and I heard that they were anarchists, and traitors against the crown, and -- yes, Death Corps scouts, from someone else."
"But," Ramza said, "the Death Corps have to be involved somehow, don't they? Why else would Gariland citizens revolt?"
"People are hungry," Delita said. "There's no work, and the harvest was bad. The granaries are running low, and the cost of bread is rising. Some people think the merchants are hoarding food."
"It's not as if the city or its merchants are rolling in grain or gold. There's bad times all around."
Delita shrugged. "There's been riots before. Smaller ones."
"Really?" Ramza asked. "I hadn't heard that. How did you hear that?"
"I listen," Delita said wearily. "I'm always listening." He drank more zurra.
"But what set them off today?" Ramza asked.
"I don't know," Delita said.
"Maybe the Death Corps were involved," Ramza said.
"Maybe," Delita said, but he was thinking of the crowd, mad with terror, at The Merrier Milkmaid. That multitude had not acted with logic or reason. Their actions had seemed more than mere intoxication could account for; their panic had been contagious and overwhelming. The crowd had knit together to form a roiling creature acting from blind instinct.
"Do you think there will be any further trouble, here in Gariland?" Ramza asked.
"No," Delita said, remembering the nervous streets, the warding whores, and the dead. "The city will stamp down any further protests. They won't give the mob a chance to form again. But there's trouble throughout Ivalice. There's bad times all round."
Ramza was silent for a long moment, and then he said fiercely, "It's stupid. It's so stupid that they're doing this. We're finally at peace, when we've always been at war. Why can't they enjoy that?"
"Peace," Delita said, "is not our natural state. We don't know how to handle it."
"Hmm," Ramza said as he rested his flushed cheek against the table top. "Maybe. But now...perhaps...this is a nice place, isn't it?"
"This tavern," Ramza chuckled. "I'm glad we found it. Though you were trying to get us to leave. I could tell!"
"Yes," Delita said, staring at the ceiling. "I was trying to do that."
"It's fine," Ramza said comfortably. "Strange crowds make you nervous, I know. I could tell even at The Merrier Milkmaid, when they were trying to get you to talk about the battle. I saw you freeze up. It was a good thing I was there, wasn't it? Because I knew I had to rescue you from them." And then Ramza began to hum into the table.
There were many sharp things Delita could have said at this juncture, ranging from sarcastic to honest, but the image of Mad Sally slid through his mind, and his mouth tightened.
"I don't really remember," he said.
"Hey, Beoulve!" one of the ditch diggers shouted. "We're breaking open another case!"
"Oh," Ramza said, straightening in a moment. "Excellent! Wait for me!"
Delita stayed in his corner, dourly sipping his zurra, and watching the golden-haired cadet amid the stained ditch diggers. An hour ago, they had been willing to rough him up as an unwanted toff; now, they were all laughing at something Ramza had said.
Damn him, Delita thought. Damn him, damn him, damn him.
After that, his thoughts were decidedly less clear.
"We're leaving Gariland tomorrow," Ramza said, walking next to him in a mostly straight line.
"Today," Delita said vaguely. "It must be past midnight."
"Oh," Ramza said, and he giggled. "Right. Today."
Some of the street magelights had flickered out, and the heavy moon seemed to swing just out of reach.
"Home," Ramza said. "It's been a year."
"Yes," Delita said.
"I wonder what's changed. Or will it be the same? Alma...and my brothers. And you'll see Teta, too."
"Yes," Delita said.
"And at least...at least we're going there on Academy business. My brothers can't treat me like a child now. I've been in a battle, after all."
Delita considered this. "I killed a man today," he said slowly.
"Yesterday," Ramza corrected.
"Yesterday. I killed a man."
"Yes," Ramza said. "But if you hadn't killed him, then he would have killed me. Or at least hit me with his sword. And that wouldn't have been nice."
"Good point," Delita said.
"And the battle...it's just the start," Ramza said. "The start of our long and glorious future."
As soon as Ramza said that, Delita involuntarily thought of the Black Sister Angela and the muddled things she had said -- but he deliberately put that thought away. I won't be burdened with it, he thought. My life is my own, and it started today. Or yesterday.
"How do you feel, Delita?" Ramza asked suddenly.
"Me?" Delita said. "I feel great, actually. I feel wonderful. I feel like I'm in the right place doing the right thing. I feel good."
"Well," Ramza said faintly. "Well...I feel not good, actually. Like I'm going to be sick, actually."
"Oh," Delita said. "I'll stay with you, then."
"Good," Ramza said. "Good."
I dedicate this section to my mother, who shipped me off to college with only one piece of advice: "Don't eat the fruit." (Sage words, kids.)
This chapter has now been completely rewritten three times.
In January 2002, I wrote a slow-moving piece about Delita right before the first battle. It's available here: http://www.fanfiction.net/s/428303/5/.
In November 2002, I briefly decided I hated the original piece, so I ditched everything and wrote an angst-wank about Delita's unhealthy fixation on Ramza immediately after the first battle. It's available here: http://www.fanfiction.net/s/1221715/1/
Then I decided that I didn't hate the original piece that much.
Four years passed.
Then I ditched everything and wrote a story about Delita and the night following the first battle.
There's a pattern here!
Not that this third attempt is perfect. It's talky and too long by half. No doubt I'll be ditching it for something new in four years. Something about Delita in the week following the first battle, perhaps.
The Black Sisters are also a decision I'll likely regret next week, but they amuse me at the moment. (Just be thankful I didn't lead off with an epigraph from MacBeth, because I considered it! Briefly!)
Chapter 6: Balbanes: Violets and Ravens
Chapter by Moe Machina (moemachina)
An eternity broken only by the flight of ravens
"Our life is twofold; Sleep hath its own world,
A boundary between the things misnamed
Death and Existence"
-Lord Byron, "The Dream"
Sometimes he would wake up to find his daughter holding a washcloth or one of his sons watching him sullenly from a corner. They fed him a wet gruel periodically and changed his bed sheets on a regular rotation, but these were fleeting interruptions. Instead, his attention was consumed by dreams as his tender brain rearranged the events of his life.
He dreamed of that first terrible winter in the mountains, when they ate all their rations and had to start on the horses. The snow around them turned into a dirty soup as the blood of men and horses flooded their encampment. The smell was everywhere, and the night air was filled with the screams of men waiting to have their limbs amputated. Nobody slept, and the entire camp grew red-eyed and jerk-nerved as they awaited the next surprise attack from the enemy.
But there was no surprise attack. Instead, a set of black-clad men on sharp-fanged steeds rode into camp, carrying a rosewood casket between them. They dropped it in front of him and retreated. Inside was his older brother, his skin waxy white and veined in blue, as it had been when they buried his brother in the family crypt five years hence. Only now his brother opened his milky eyes and got out of the casket of his own volition, with limbs that moved like awkward clockwork levers. His older brother surveyed the broken and dispirited men standing besides their messy little tents. The subsequent laughter was high-pitched, reedy, scratched.
Stained with horse blood, he flushed crimson under that mocking laughter. He lunged for his older brother's throat. They tumbled down the snowy bank and grappled with one another as the hopeless men looked on. Sometimes his brother triumphed and broke his neck, leaving him to stare at the winter sky overhead for an eternity broken only by the flight of ravens. Sometimes he gained the upper hand and gouged out his brother's eye in a oozy explosion of decaying fluids. Sometimes neither would win: exhaustion would snag the limbs of both, and they would simply lie in the snow and pant desperately. The cold air burned their wet throats and hurt their stomachs. The air was filled with the perfume of death.
Sometimes he would wake and find no one in the room. Only a low-burning candle proved that other humans inhabited this universe. The curtains were drawn tight, as if sunlight could sear his skin. The cloying smell of ether clung to the room. He would lie there in his too-big bed, swathed in his choking sheets, and stare at the ceiling for an eternity unbroken by ravens. And then he would sleep again.
He dreamed of his childhood in the mountains, where they had slaughtered all the horses and now rode their fiery skeletal remains. The kitchen spit dogs were there and they would tear into his fleshy brother if he appeared. Sometimes she was there as well, wearing the skin of a horse and smelling like violets. He kissed her and she laughed against his open mouth, a throbbing note of mirth that filled him more surely than a pound of horse flesh.
He dreamed he was fourteen again and receiving his first sword. He dreamed he was twenty-three and a father for the first time. He dreamed he was seventeen and lying beside the warm body of a kitchen wench as she played with his hair. He dreamed he was twenty-one and marrying an unknown and barely pubescent girl. He dreamed he was thirty-five and watching the farmers move through their fields with silver scythes. He dreamed he was forty-one and lying beside the warm body of a kitchen wench as she played with his hair. He dreamed he was thirty and driving his sword under an opponent's neck. He dreamed he was sixty and growing sick and blind. He dreamed of horse flesh and love.
He opened his eyes. His daughter was sleeping in a chair beside him. The curtains were drawn. The candle was burning. The room smelled of violets.
"Alma," he said with a voice grown blood-rusted from lack of use. Her head snapped up.
"Call my sons," he said.
She ran from the room, her steps echoing down the hall.
He lay back in his stifling bed. He stared at the ceiling and longed for ravens.
Author's Note: (12/06/06) Mild revisions. Meditated on the horses. May yet cut them.
(11/30/02) Wrote this straight through in about an hour. Um...because editing is for the weak? Pshaw. There's a good possibility that I'll be actively loathing this chapter in less than a week (which tends to be the result when I speed-write stuff at one in the morning) but we'll just have to see how things go.
And...yes. Horses. In my defense, it can be canonically defended - Delita's parents are horse breeders. There just aren't any horses in the actual game because...Balbanes ate them all. As far as literary merits go - with horses, I can at least strive for the illusion of gritty seriousness. With chocobos...it's just silly. Well...sillier, at least.
Chapter 7: Algus: Orchards East of Eden
Chapter by Moe Machina (moemachina)
the tacks, the hot wax, and the sharp edge of belt buckles
"He himself felt impoverished and bare, like a tree experiencing its first winter after a fruitless blossoming."
-Robert Musil, The Confusions of Young Torless
Algus cannot get the taste of copper out of his mouth.
He takes another sip of wine, but the unexceptionable white fails to chase away the metallic ghost in his mouth. The mussels on his plate are no more effective.
He looks up and finds Delita watching him. Algus stares back. The moment stretches out until the conversation at the end of the table intrudes.
"I hear your troops beat the vanguard," Dycedarg Beoulve is saying from the head of the table. "The court was speaking very highly of you when I left. They told me I should be proud to call you my brother." With his golden beard, he resembles a well-fed lion lazily surveying the savanna over his wine glass.
The object of this survey mumbles a reply as he pushes black shells around on his plate. Algus can see the family resemblance between Dycedarg and Ramza in their fair coloring and high foreheads, but where Dycedarg's features are lean and leonine, Ramza still seems muddled by lingering baby fat. Hunched shoulders and half-lidded eyes further diminish him in comparison with his lounging half-brother.
Algus knew boys with that expression in the Limberry Academy. Short, sullen junior boys who had fallen out of favor with the seniors would have that discontented expression as they ate by themselves in the dining hall. Algus had been one of them occasionally. He would shovel down dark porridge with a scowl, ignoring the laughter on the other end of the hall. If he looked up, he saw the blessed chosen inhaling their patron's discarded meat and wine. They were as eager as puppies, and the older boys watched them with tolerant mouths and possessive eyes.
"Aren't you happy?" Dycedarg asks with a chuckle, but Algus can hear the growl behind the words. Ramza clearly hears the same sound. All expression drains from his face.
Limberry boys had reacted like that. Tolerant mouths could be deceptive, and even if an instructor was present, threats could still be delivered innocuously. But instructors were rarely present, and seniors rarely had any reason to disguise their spleen. Algus had once spent two months trotting obediently after a boy who would not allow him to take any action without asking permission. His name had been Bernd; his motive had been simple amusement. His punishment had been to viciously bend Algus' fingers as far back as possible. A year later, Bernd died from scarlet fever. Algus still has dreams about him. "May I pick up the boot?" "May I go to the latrine?" "May I wake up?"
He wakes up with aching wrists.
"Oh," Ramza is saying. "Yes, sir, I am. I'm happy. Thank you kindly for the kind words..." He drops his fork and takes a deep breath. "And I was wondering...brother, have you learned anything new about the abduction of the Marquis?"
Dycedarg covers a yawn. "No, there's nothing new. No doubt, the Death Corps want to inspire terror in good king's men, but now that we know how bold the scum have grown, we shall double our vigilance." He inclines his head slightly. "It is certainly fortunate that you survived to bring us testimony of the Marquis' abduction. Without you, there would have been confusion."
It takes Algus a moment to realize Dycedarg is talking to him. He forces himself to smile and nod, but he is thinking of yesterday's confusion of swords and screams. Something harsh and hot slides along the roof of his mouth.
Delita is watching him, so Algus takes a long drink of wine and straightens up.
"Not at all, sir," he says. "Without the arrival of your troops, my testimony would have been worthless. As long as King Omdolia has such diligent and loyal forces, the Death Corps can have no success with their plans of anarchy." Algus wets his lips. "But...I would hope that I could continue to be of service..."
Dycedarg takes a long sip of wine.
The first thing a Limberry boy learns is how to grovel. Algus occasionally found the situation ironic -- but only after the senior boys taught him about irony. After all, Limberry boys were the unfortunate chaff of the aristocracy. They were the spare sons of prestigious houses or the heirs to disgraced names. They had been sent out to prove their right to a station and a commission through sword and shield. Limberry was supposed to be a gate to glory.
Instead, they walked into a world with a hierarchy as capricious and cruel as the royal court. They arrived at the bottom. The instructors were hard men and solely concerned with bending spoiled aristocrats into biddable soldiers. They were indifferent to what the cadets did off the practice field. Both the dining hall and the dark were the province of the senior boys, who had spent so long groveling themselves that they were hungry for inferiors.
Algus swallowed the first lesson, even when his first impulse was to choke or gag or weep. He had swallowed until he earned the right for the second lesson.
The second thing a Limberry boy learns is how to command.
Dycedarg signals for the next course, and silent servants replace their plates with tiny cups of sorbet. A spoonful fails to cleanse Algus' palate; the harsh taste is still in his mouth.
"I hope my sister is doing well," Ramza says quietly, looking toward the window.
Dycedarg smiles. "Yes, Alma is well. She is considering taking vows, I understand."
Ramza blinks, but all he says is, "Ah."
Delita clenches his jaw, and the servants bring in a covey of roasted quail.
As bird flesh yields under his fork, Algus surreptitiously glances at Ramza. The other boy has a sticky reminder of sorbet at the corner of his mouth. A moment later, Ramza blots it away with the back of his hand. He has dark smudges under his eyes.
Algus knows precisely the kind of boy Ramza would have been at Limberry. He would have walked into walls and tripped down stairs; he would have stumbled through classes in a dreamy, oblivious fugue. He would have smiled easily and emptily. He would have mutely suffered the tacks, the hot wax, and the sharp edge of belt buckles. After a year at Limberry, Ramza would not be able to fall asleep without the dormitory lullaby of rustling fabric and whispering boys; the fumble of skin on skin in the dark corner past the sinks would just be another part of his morning ablutions.
After a year at Limberry, he would have been awake.
Algus had woken up. Algus had awakened into a senior who ate boys like Ramza for breakfast. Algus had suffered no more humiliations in the secret attic or midnight beatings in Limberry's orchards. Instead, he had been the one with the raised belt; he had been the one with the pins and hot wax. Junior boys had squirmed like worms at his feet and shrieked insincere pleas with ruined mouths. Algus had never really doubted the order and rightness of the world, but he never felt it more strongly than when he was thrashing some first-year under the apple trees for some imagined offense.
Ramza would have been one of those boys (never mind that they were the same age). With Algus, Ramza would be awake and conscious of his inferiority. He would not be guiltily indecisive. He would not be in half-hearted rebellion against his magnificent and terrible brother. He would not be clinging to a heavy-browed commoner for comfort.
Algus is no fool. He looks up and finds Delita watching his hands. Delita is trying to figure out how to eat a quail. Algus smiles, and Delita flushes. Algus takes another bite.
The Marquis had complimented Algus on his neat and refined manners. The Marquis had lectured him about good wine and buffed boots. Riding under the never-clouded sun, Lord Elmdor had told Algus amusing anecdotes about Queen Ruvelia's many indiscretions. For the first time that he can remember, Algus began to relax. A terrible burden on his chest eased. It was a burden that he had carried since his childhood of clean silverware and empty plates. Riding under the spotless sky, Algus looked at the silver-haired knight beside him and felt his ribs expanding with envy and awe. Lord Elmdor would never go face down in the dirt so that the older boys could kick him. Lord Elmdor would never let apple spume dribble down his chin in afternoon orchard raids.
Then Algus woke up. They came out of nowhere. Their faces were smeared with shit. They screamed at first, but eventually Algus just heard it as a faint buzzing noises, as if they were bees with bright red stingers. They killed his mount, and he hit the grounds so hard that he blacked out. When he woke up, he couldn't hear anything at all, but he saw them surrounding the Marquis. He saw crimson on the Marquis' forehead. He opened his mouth to shout -- a warning, maybe -- but his tongue tangled up in his teeth and all he could do was spit blood and dirt. Then someone kicked him in the back of the knee, and he went down again.
It happened very fast. Once the mud-born bastards were done with the company, the other senior boys from Limberry Academy would never eat apples again.
Algus can feel bird bones in his mouth. Delita is watching him with eyes as clear and cold as a creek bed.
"And Zalbag?" Ramza asks, abruptly picking up the threads of his long-abandoned conversation. "Is our brother well?"
"Oh, yes," Dycedarg purrs. "Zalbag does well. I had him send out a search party for the Marquis when you arrived. The Death Corps will probably demand ransom...if the Marquis is still alive."
Algus crunches through the bones and swallows -- they feel like shards of glass -- before he surges to his feet.
"Sir!" he gasps. "Let me have a hundred soldiers. Let me avenge the murder of my comrades!"
Dycedarg raises an eyebrow. "I said it was taken care of. And I question your presumption -- this is a matter for Gallione, and we will handle it."
Algus makes a sound -- not even a word; if it had been a word, it would have been an expletive.
"Cadet," Dycedarg says, and his voice is terrible. "Consider your rank. You're not even a knight. What right would you have to issue orders? What right do you have to command me?"
Algus sits down. Beyond the roaring in his ears, he can dimly hear Dycedarg, with gentle feline civility, speaking again to Ramza.
Algus bites down on his tongue, and he tastes blood.
Author's Note: (12/10/06) Corrected a few typos. This brings us to the end of regurgitating old chapters. From now on, everything will be new! Next up: Teta! And drabbles!
Funny story: when I originally wrote this, ten months ago, I was filled with a sense of restraint. I could have gone much further, I thought to myself -- but I held back, I felt, to write something mild and quiet.
Now, of course, I read this and shudder. Self, I think, you are repulsive.
(2/26/06) Inspired by Robert Musil's The Confusions of Young Torless and an extremely minor sub-plot from Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (specifically: Clive Mossmoon reminiscing about the purity of World War I).
I feel like I should base the next chapter off a pop song and a dirty limerick to balance out the pretension.
In other news, it is really maddening trying to square the game's mechanics ("Look, Ma! It's a military school!") with the story's wobbling time period ("Look, Ma! It's a feudal system!"). Limberry is a mix of Musil's Austrian boarding school and some half-remembered details about Napoleon's experience in the French system of higher education (although the Napoleon stuff is more relevant to Delita and Gariland). I make no promises that I will stick to this model in the future. I may find a better model.
Chapter 8: Teta: Thirteen Ways
Chapter by Moe Machina (moemachina)
Delita could not wait to escape her. She was his anchor.
"I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms"
-Wallace Stevens, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"
To her father, Teta was a complication. It was a difficult and undesired pregnancy; the child was at last born small and weak. She never cried. Instead, she mewed like a dying kitten.
He could have gotten a better place, he always knew. He was unappreciated in the Beoulve stables. But a man cannot move his family to another estate with a child so precariously alive.
And it never got better. The mewing infant grew into a shivering girl, prone to fevers and chills.
He listened to her cough at night and often thought that death would be a simplification.
To her mother, Teta was a doll, helpless and pliable. She brushed her young daughter's dull brown hair with a wire brush and hard, chapped hands.
The lady of the manor had a daughter a few months older. The lady sent her out-grown baby clothes to Teta's mother, who grimly dressed Teta in a different-patterned smock every day. "These are the dresses of a princess," she told Teta.
For some reason, young Teta thought that her mother was talking about her, that she herself was the princess. Teta would spend hours by the window, waiting for the queen to return.
To her brother, Teta was first a briar: always tangled in his clothes, always tugging him down. She whined. She dripped snot. Delita could not wait to escape her. She was his anchor.
After the death of their parents, she became an egg shell: something small and fragile, something to protect. He would save her, he knew, because he must. He fed her oatmeal. He tried to brush her hair. He told her stories about princesses and ogres; he sang until she fell asleep. He cleaned away her tears. She was his gosling.
To Delita, Teta was always a symbol.
But it was not until Teta, dirty and mute, had been named her "companion" that the prepubescent Alma found her God-given canvas. She taught Teta the alphabet. She bullied her into bathing. She dragged her to chapel each morning.
Saints started small, she knew. Young Alma started with saving Teta.
And because he loved Delita, Ramza was nice to Teta. At first, this involved a masterful suppression of his natural impulses, but as years went by, less self-sacrifice was required. Teta was quiet, but she could always find the best bird's nests and blackberry bushes. Teta was useful baggage on adventures.
When she and Alma first left for their abbey tutelage, Ramza cried over both of them equally.
When they flitted through his presence, however, he seized the opportunity to tell them stories and riddles. He liked children. The Hyral siblings had simply swollen his natural bounty. He took the boys fishing; he took the girls riding.
When he thought of Teta at all, he thought of her as Alma's loyal shadow.
Lice were the least of it. While Alma stayed as short and puppy-round as ever, Teta was growing tall and womanly. The marks were hard to miss, even without Teta visibly flushing whenever Dycedarg prowled over to sort colored thread for the two girls.
Nits breed--wasn't that how the expression went?
For another thing, she sang like an angel. Zalbag always watched Alma and Teta when they rose for chapel hymns. Away from home, it was the first thing he remembered about Igros: the two girl under the stained glass, lifting their voices in praise of God.
Zalbag did not love many earthly things, but he loved that moment.
Needless to say, the young ladies of the abbey were delightedly horrified when Alma brazenly brought her companion along to tea with Her Royal Highness, the princess Ovelia.
To her credit, Ovelia neither noticed nor remembered the mousy little shadow eating buttered scones beside Alma.
Of course, they said these things quietly, because Teta's brother held no mystery whatsoever for the squires and stablehands of Igros Castle. They fervently did not want Delita to catch them talking about his sister, which meant that they were content for Teta to remain a mystery to them.
And why would His Highness care in the first place? What is one girl?
(Algus fancied himself to be a master of split-second analytical observation. He met Teta once, maybe twice; the sealing-wax metaphor came from some book he read long ago and largely forgot.)
He saw Delita trying to make his own mark. And Teta was endlessly receptive to everyone. It is possible that even Algus briefly considered making his own score on that soul. An idle, passing consideration, surely. She was pliant; she was moist.
To Algus, Teta was mud.
She had gotten the wrong life, somehow, but everything would be sorted out eventually. All the changelings would be restored, and Teta would be recognized as the heroine she always knew herself to be.
Great things would happen any day now. Teta felt it in her bones.
Chapter 9: Wiegraf: The Mouth of the River
Chapter by Moe Machina (moemachina)
She keeps his heart in a brandy-filled jar: dark liquor and a darker muscle dimly glimpsed.
"Moreover they desire death, and do verie often behight and determine to kill them selves, and some feare that they should be killed. Many of them do alwayes laugh, and many do weep, some think them selves inspired with the holie Ghost, and do prophecy uppon thinges to come."
-Philip Barrough, "Of Melancholie," (1583)
I had a good feeling, so I knew that my day would be going south soon.
I had been lying low in Dorter for a week. My lieutenants thought I was somewhere farther off, honing speeches and designing medals while they did the real grunt work of the Revolution. I let them keep thinking that.
You knew what I was doing. Or maybe not; I've forgotten the last time we talked. Perhaps I was gripped by paranoia or discretion. Perhaps I didn't tell you that I was hunting rats.
I got up that morning and accompanied that good feeling in my gut with a mug of ale and two greasy sausages, courtesy of Goodwife Ada Rose, that linchpin of our Glorious Cause.
"And the fishmonger tried to charge me full price for yesterday's catch, but I don't fink so. You'd have to get up very early to pull that on me, m'dear, I tol' him."
I no longer remember how or where we met Goodwife Rose, but she has always been handy when I need a hole to bolt down. A person might pass her on the street every day and never guess that she harbors enemies of the state and enough ammunition to arm an ark.
"And about those crates you done left wif' me last time," she said as I thoughtfully dissected my third sausage. "I don't know if I like the look of 'em."
"Just don't strike a flint around them," I said through a mouthful of pig intestine, "and you should be fine, Goodwife."
Some people say the title "goodwife" is more pleasantry than fact, but then, they've never seen the proof of Ada Rose's dearly departed husband. She keeps his heart in a brandy-filled jar: dark liquor and a darker muscle dimly glimpsed. She wanted a reminder of him, she told me years ago. I never asked what she wanted to remember about the smothered organ.
"Still," she muttered, "I don't like the crates..."
I stood and stretched. "They won't bother you for much longer, m'dear. We'll be moving them west in a week."
"Oh!" she said, flustered. "I don't...I don't really mind them, Wiegraf. They can stay."
I laughed. Much as Goodwife Rose would miss our contraband crates, she would miss the black-market profits more. A person can't make a killing as a middle-man for the Death Corps, but a person can scrape out a living. And Goodwife Rose needs those scrapings.
I stooped and kissed her forehead. "Never mind them. There's another shipment of gunpowder coming soon, we hear."
"And you should eat more," Goodwife Rose said, not deflected by this specimen of good news. The goodwife took to nagging with the relish of a dragon in a nunnery. "You're too thin."
"'The lean cat is the fiercest hunter,'" I told her as I buckled my sword-belt. "That's what I said to my men during the war, when we were starving on campaigns. It's a handy mantra, I found. It's multipurpose."
"But there's no need to starve yourself now, m'dear. You're not on campaign."
"I'm always on campaign," I said, looking into my purse. "And today, I'm hunting a rat. M'dear, do you know a fellow by the name of Kley?"
Her black eyes fastened on the coins I weighed in my hand. "Kley?" she said, and she licked her lips. "He drinks at that place called the Oarsman's Troth, down by the west side. What do you want with him?"
"I'm aiming to have a conversation with him," I said. "I figure that we can exchange certain insights. Now, let's see... I hope that this will cover my room and board and all the trouble of those crates."
I dropped a couple of coins on the table. I probably put more than needed, because whatever else Goodwife Ada Rose was, she was still loyal to me. She didn't need any extra encouragement. But I was watching the rest of my organization rot from under my feet, and I was inclined to shore up my support where I could.
Her eyes grew round at the sum offered. "Oh, aye. But won't you be staying any longer?"
"I think not," I said. "It's time to visit the troops. It's time to remind them that I exist."
"Well, take care," she said. "And remember me to your sister, m'dear."
I promised I would.
The sun outside Goodwife Rose's door was pale and glum, and I caught of glimpse of myself in a puddle of standing water. It always takes a moment to recognize myself, no matter how I look. The drowned face, with its bloodshot eyes and week-old beard, looked no more and no less strange than the face I had worn last month, when I was busy being golden and glorious. I am always a stranger to myself.
You have the opposite complaint. You always recognize me, no matter who I am.
The wind was blowing from the direction of the docks, carrying the smell of fish. It was hardly a perfume, but it fit my mood perfectly. That good feeling was expanding in my chest. I set down the street, dodging chocobo droppings. I could not help humming.
The Oarsman's Troth was a little bar on a little street full of little doors and broken windows. A person automatically walked into the place with lowered expectations. Considering the quality of the beer, this was the right approach.
I ordered a beer. I spent the next ten minutes nursing something brown, warm, and flat. I scanned the common room, idly noting empty chairs and potential escape routes. The barkeeper scanned me dubiously. He probably couldn't help it. In a place like this, a dubious expression is like a phoenix feather in your hat: you'd wear it just to be fashionable.
"So," I said to him.
"So," he said.
"I'm looking for a friend," I said.
"Looks like you need one," he said.
I let this pass. "Name of Kley. Comes here, I've heard. Tall individual. Wears spectacles. Has an annoying laugh."
"Lot of people come here," he said, despite all evidence to the contrary.
I ordered another beer.
"An annoying laugh, huh?" he said. "There is one guy. Shrieks like a banshee. Used to come here and pick fights. Haven't seen him in a fortnight, though."
"You know where he lives?"
"Nah." The barkeep began cleaning a mug with newfound industry.
I gazed down at my drink and sighed. I wasn't sure I could stomach a third round.
"Nickie might know," he said suddenly. "Nickie hung around the shrieker a lot."
"You know where Nickie lives?"
The barkeeper smirked. "Oh, yeah. Nickie lives upstairs."
"You mind if I paid Nickie a visit?"
He waved a magnanimous hand. "Be my guest. Third floor, second door. But Nickie don't always like visitors."
"Then it's a good thing that I'm so charming," I said.
The second door on the third floor failed to respond to polite knocks, so I broke the door down. I did it genteel-fashion, though, because it was such a nice place. I just kicked the lock a few times. The door fell open.
The interior was dark and smoky, which was probably just as well. I had no suspicions that the place might improve with sunlight. I got to the middle of the room, wondering if I'd broken the right door, before I noticed the woman watching me.
She was sprawled across a bed in the far corner of the room. Her body was wreathed in blankets, with the exception of a solitary knee. It was a nice knee, as far as knees go.
The woman said nothing, but her long eyelashes shaded lower over glittering eyes.
"Sorry for breaking your door," I said without a great deal of sincerity.
"It was already broken," she whispered, low and indistinct.
"You Nickie?" I asked again, stepping closer.
"Mmm," she said. "Nikolina to my friends. You're not my friend."
"Not yet, Nikolina," I said. "You know where a guy named Kley could be found?"
She thought this over. "Who wants to know?"
"His employer," I said. From here, I could see her dilated pupils and smell the bitter remains of whatever she'd been smoking. Probably marlboro vines. If I was lucky, I'd caught her on the downward slope. If not, I was probably in for a lot of giggling and hallucinations about polka-dotted unicorns. I sat down at the edge of her bed, and she accommodatingly moved her knee to give me room.
"Kley's been gone for a while," she said at last.
"You expecting him back?"
"Mmm," she said, closing her eyes again.
"I would like to find him today," I said. "More than you can know rides on this, Nikolina The fate of men and kings, as a poet once said."
She opened her eyes. "Maybe Kley's dead."
"I'm distraught to hear it," I said. "How are you two acquainted?"
She watched my face curiously. "I'm his sister," she ventured.
"You don't look like anybody's sister," I said.
She frowned, unsure how to take this. I was encouraged. If she was straight enough to be offended, she was straight enough to remember where Kley was.
"And you're his employer?"
"In a manner of speaking," I said. "Could I ask what exactly you took, Nikolina? Unless you're always this enchanting, of course."
"Dragonsbane," she said darkly. "But you've really ruined the end of it."
Not the vine, then. "Bane berries? I've heard those things are killers."
"Maybe I'll make you a batch," she said grumpily, pulling her delightful knee under the covers. I watched it vanish with regret. "Why are you asking me about Kley?"
"I heard you were the one to ask," I said.
"Maybe I shouldn't tell you," she said. "Maybe I shouldn't tell anyone. How do I know what you want with Kley?"
"I want to ask him some questions," I said promptly.
"What sort of questions?"
"For starters," I said, "I'd like to know if he is the mastermind of the latest attempt to subvert the Cause and double-cross me, or if he is just the minion, the underling, the go-between. After that, I might have some other questions. I don't know yet."
She regarded me narrowly for a moment. "Oh," she said, and the light dawned in her eyes. "You're the boss. I've heard about you."
"Good things, I hope."
She smiled. It was not a nice smile.
I smiled back. "So, you know where I can find our good friend Kley?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. I don't care. Sometimes he comes here. It doesn't matter. He could be dead, for all I care. Are you going to kill him?"
"I don't know," I said, looking around the room.
She closed her eyes wearily. For a moment, I was afraid that she had fallen asleep, but then she said, "Would you bring that bottle over here?"
The bottle sat on a three-legged table under a broken window. "Is it dragonsbane?" I asked with trepidation.
"It's just table wine," she said. "I wouldn't waste the good stuff on you."
"Thank God," I said, finding two chipped cups to go with the bottle.
"You ever had the bane? It's wonderful."
"As long as your ears don't fill with blood, I'm sure it's fantastic."
"It lets you forget who you are; it lets you be something completely new for a little while. It transforms you."
"I've heard about those transformations," I said. "Isn't there a fellow in the docks who now spends half his nights as a head of cabbage?"
She made a derisive noise. "It's worth the risk."
"And I've heard about spontaneous combustion as well," I said, settling back on my corner of her bed. There were no chairs in the place. I passed her a cup of red, and she straightened so she could cradle it in her hands. Her unpredictable knee reappeared.
"You just gotta be careful," she said, peering at her own reflection in the wine. "You can't take the stuff during a full moon, or when the stars are out of alignment, or when the day is inauspicious."
"So today was auspicious, Nikolina?"
"Oh, yes," she said. "I got up, and I had a good feeling."
"That makes two of us," I said, taking a drink.
"I dreamed," she said softly, running a finger around the rim of her cup. "I dreamed that I lived on the floor of the sea."
She told me about her dream, where she had breathed salt water as if it were alpine air and floated through a menagerie of sharks. She had swum to the surface; she had sang to sailors. She had finally been happy, she said; every scale and flipper was an integral lineament, always suspected and finally found. In her dream, she had known who she was. But her security was not to last: the sea around her had shifted first into sand and then into smoke.
"Then I woke up," she said sadly. "But doesn't that sound like a nice dream? Wouldn't it be nice to live in the sea?"
"Sure," I said. "If you can swim."
She frowned; the knee withdrew fractionally. "So you're the boss," she said. "Kley talks about you."
"So you've said," I said.
"Kley said you were good with words," she said.
"I have the soul of a poet," I said. "I keep him in a bottle in my pocket."
"You don't talk much like a poet," she said.
"I save all the poetry for the battlefield," I said. "That's the proper place."
"Say something nice, then," she said. "Kley said you were famous for your speeches. Say something speech-like."
"I'm rusty," I said. "And I'm fresh out of material. Look me up in a week, and I'll knock your hat off with rhetoric."
"Huh," she said. "I thought you guys were mostly words and hot air. But you're not even that, are you?"
I sighed. "You want a speech? Okay. Are you part of our Glorious Cause, sister?"
She rolled her eyes. "That shit is for people with full bellies and free time."
"Actually," I said, "that shit is for the hungry and the poor, the oppressed, the dispossessed, the lame, the lost, and the broken. You think the rich and the landed care about that shit? No. It is always the miserable who are motivated. They are the ones who know exactly how much there is to lose, simply because they've already lost it."
Contrary to what I had told Friend Nikolina, there's not much effort in pretty speeches. Words are easy. Especially when you've been saying the same words and making the same argument enough times to wear a permanent groove in your brain pan.
I won't bore you with what I said to Nikolina; you've heard my speeches before. Picture me looking heroic and verbose, back-lit by that broken window so that an errant slant of sunlight made a halo around my hair. Picture Nikolina trying to smother her despair under cynicism and ostentatious gulps of red wine. Picture that poor little room filled with the smoke of dead dreams. Picture me, for I thought of you as I spoke.
When I finished, Nikolina was smiling that not-nice smile again. "You talk differently when you talk about that stuff."
"Yep," I said, taking another drink. "Soul of a poet in my pocket. When I shake it, sometimes I get a sonnet."
"How do you do that?" she asked. "When you walked in here, you just looked like some drunk heavy. Now...I don't know. You're no heavy. You've switched."
"First of all, I'm not that drunk," I said. "Secondly, it's easy, once you get the knack of low-mindedness. It's just a mask; it's just a uniform." I tiredly picked at my shirt sleeve. "See, I've been wearing this rig for a week. It's been stained with mud and food and whatever sleeps between the covers under Goodwife Rose's roof. Nippy buggers, I don't mind telling you. But at any rate, I'm fairly filthy, and I've been hanging out with filthy people in filthy bars all week, so it ain't hard to be coarse, you know."
She laughed. "But that don't answer the switch, boss."
"Hold a minute; just hold. So it's easy for me to be rough and low-minded, because I'm wearing the scruff for it. But slap a cape and some plate mail on me, and I've got a diction like nobody's business. I can court kings; I can best bards. And I don't even think about bedbugs and beer, much less talk about them. My mind isn't wide enough to handle a range, you see. It's either the gutter or the stars, all the time. But it's all in the clothes, you know. It depends on my uniform."
"I don't know," she said. "You sounded pretty good just then, and you ain't dressed to the nines."
"I keep my soul in my pocket," I said. "But it drowns easily, Nikolina. One day, I'll lose it, and then I'll just be left with whatever mask I'm wearing."
She stared at me. "What are we talking about?"
I didn't know what we were talking about.
"Never mind," I said. "It's been a long week. I'm feeling a little melancholy. But speeches, you see, are easy. I haven't said anything pleasant for days, and look at me now. Already I'm getting big-mouthed. It's like priming a pump. Soon, I'll be gushing. Just you wait."
But Nikolina was spared the suspense, because just at that tender juncture, there came a melodious voice from without. To wit, it said:
"Shit, Nickie. Somebody broke your door."
"It was already broken," Nikolina called back. "Come in, come in. Maybe you can settle a question for us, Marny."
Marny was small, dark, and unmemorable. He fenced pirated goods and did small jobs for the Cause in his spare time. He nodded at me warily as he shuffled into sight.
"'lo boss," he said.
"Hello, Marny," I said.
"Marny," Nikolina said, "this nice gentleman wants to know where Kley is."
"Said you didn't want to hear about Kley no more," Marny said.
"I don't want to know. He wants to know."
Marny processed this. I could see various thoughts shuddering across his face. If I had approached Marny or one of his many associates on my own, they would have smiled and shrugged and dissembled with ease. It was not in their best interests to get involved in internal Death Corps feuds, just as it was not in their best interests to turn informer and betray me to the authorities. We understood each other, the thieves and I.
But Nikolina was something else entirely.
"Down by the docks, boss," Marny said, addressing me but looking at Nikolina. "He's living in the third warehouse off the southern road. Knock three times and say the password. 's 'Cucumber.' He's got some guys with him, but they won't give you no trouble."
"Excellent," I said. "Good work, team."
"Are you going to kill him?" Nikolina asked, sliding back.
"You're not much of a sister," I told her.
"Not enough practice," she said, and she laughed. Her laughter followed me down the stairs; it had reached a pitch of hysterical grief by the time I got to the bottom floor.
I won't bore you with the details of my hunt. I reached the warehouse and passed the doorkeeper. Our man Kley tried to flee; I followed him down to the water. He finally broke and gave me details.
I thought about killing Kley then. Killing is what you would have done, but something stayed my hand. Maybe I remembered Nikolina's laughter. Maybe I thought of you. In any event, other parties appeared on the scene. So I left Kley and his men to handle the situation.
Gustav is in Sand Rat Cellar, Kley told me. I will go there now and attempt to salvage his debacle. I have done what I can in Dorter to slice out the gangrene, but I can feel the organization groaning at the seams. We must be prepared to act.
I will write all this in a letter to you soon. Or I will write something completely different, something curt and innocuous, and hope that you will read between the lines. I don't know what I am going to write. I never know what I am going to say until I open my mouth. I suffer from a disease of spontaneity.
And the letter will reach you in the marshes as you plan for a winter campaign. Or the messenger will go astray and the letter will go missing, and you will not know what I wrote or what I meant to say until we see one another again. May that day be soon, my dear. There are mornings when I have trouble recognizing myself, but you always know who I am.
I drown easily, Miluda. Keep my soul safe for me. You've had practice.
Author's Note: (02/01/07) This has been rewritten a few times, because the original idea (Raymond Chandler parody) proved funnier in idea than in execution. Memo to the universe: Wiegraf does not make a great pulp-noir protagonist. Maybe I picked the wrong Folles sibling?
When the for-real Final Fantasy Tactics translation emerges, I look forward to correcting all the proper nouns. Until then, I will sigh and stick to the current Daravon translation.
Chapter 10: Alazlam: Ink and Ice
Chapter by Moe Machina (moemachina)
Better anger and contempt and truth than the blank page of mute acceptance, meek capitulation, an educated mind asleep under the snow.
"all history's a winter sport or three:
but were it five,i'd still insist that all
history is too small for even me;"
--E. E. Cummings, "XXXIX," 1 x 1 (1944)
If the ink in his inkwell was not frozen, it was only because the nib of his pen broke every layer of ice in its infancy.
He had wound one of Mrs. Felix's scarves around his face, leaving a long triangular gap for his eyes and nose. The skin of his knuckles, visible between strips of flannel, was flaking away to reveal the red past the white.
He was not cold. He was too angry to think of being cold.
and in a rare accomplishment, Mr. Reed manages to conflate the Ingenious Mechanick, mentioned repeatedly in Abbot Saul's account, with the Bandit Balflear referenced in the Lay of the Judges. Unfortunately, as Mr. Reed would know if he had bothered to read the voluminous literature on the ballad, the Lay of the Judges has been shown to be a bastardization of a classical Archadian text and in no way original to the Warring States period, from which the Ingenious Mechanick dates. No serious scholar could thus possibly believe that the semi-historical figure from one account could possibly be the same individual as the purely mythic creation of a much older literary tradition, but that does not
A distant laugh pealed out and Alazlam involuntarily flicked a drop of ink on his manuscript. He swore and blotted the spot with a strip of his flannel. This technique was of long standing, as demonstrated by the pattern of leprous black smudges across his palm and fingers.
Alazlam stuffed his pen in his inkwell and leaned back in his chair with a sigh. He stretched his arms over his head, and his muscles ached from too many hours spent crouched over his desk. It was getting dark. He would need to light a candle soon. He had no candles.
The laugh came again, and Alazlam looked toward the window in vaguely irritated curiosity. For the first time that day, he felt the cold.
His window had not been opened in a monkey's age. He could only raise the sash after he repeatedly hit it with his flanneled hands. His hands, wrapped in rough cloth and cold, felt nothing.
The poets liked to say that the city was deep in the throes of winter, but the city had no spasms: it lay silent and smothered. Snow lay everywhere in white heaps and dirty slush piles, and the air was dry and sharp. It was by no means the coldest winter in the city's memory, but it was cold enough to be inconvenient. It was cold enough for the warmth to bleed from any hand that lingered against stone or glass or wood. It was cold enough for the chill to insinuate itself past coats and boots and quilts to settle deep in the bone. It was cold enough for beggars to show up as blue-toed corpses beneath the city bridges. It was cold enough to make a person weary for spring.
Outside Mrs. Felix's boarding house, the snow lay knee-deep around the house, past the kitchen outbuilding, and against the low stone wall between the house and the city road. In the spring, Else would have her vegetable garden here, Alazlam was reminded, in part because Else herself was now sitting on the low stone wall. Her skirt kilted up to her knees and her gray stockings were visible to all as she leaned back and laughed with a ruddy-faced man who stood on the other side of the wall.
Alazlam shivered and drew his patchwork coat closer against himself. He leaned out the window, going from the quiet coldness of his room to the abrasive coldness of the second-story wind, and shouted Else's name.
She and her young man both looked up in surprise.
"Else," Alazlam shouted hoarsely, "I need some candles. You've let me run out of candles."
"All right, all right," she cried, sliding down the wall and brushing her skirts to swing past her ankles. She turned to say something to her young man, and it must have been amusing, for he laughed before he touched the brim of his cap and began sauntering down the street. Else turned and darted into the house. Above them, Alazlam stood with his arms crossed, grimly surveying the empty yard.
With great difficulty, he managed to close his window. By now, the gloom of the late winter afternoon had encroached upon his room, and he regarded the murk around his desk with distaste. Yet, candles were a dear expense... He should not have asked Else for candles, he realized, because Else would not be dilatory about tacking the tallow charges to his monthly bill. If he had only asked Mrs. Felix, she might have been generous about giving him the candles or, at the very least, forgetful about how many she had given him. Yes, it had been a mistake asking Else. He needed to rectify that.
He removed his scarf and left his room. Through sheerest luck, he found Mrs. Felix standing in the hall.
"Good evening, Mrs. Felix."
She looked up with a smile. "Why, Mr. Durai! It is a pleasure. I don't believe I have seen you for three whole days. You have been sadly missed at dinner, I assure you. Why, Squiddy Dan was even saying--"
"Yes, yes," Alazlam said hurriedly. "I went down to Zeltennia, for there was a book in the University's collection I needed to see. And I assure you, Mrs. Felix, that their public inns are not the slightest patch on your establishment. I am happy to be back."
She beamed at him. "I am glad to hear it. I just came up to finally repair this door to the stairs. It's been swinging loose on its top hinge, and so I thought I would nip up here and re-hang it."
"Oh, Mrs. Felix," Alazlam said, seeing his opportunity, "please allow me."
Mrs. Felix fussily protested, and Alazlam smoothly insisted, and as soon as all the standard maneuvers had been performed, she surrendered her hammer with relief. "But I surely don't know how I can rely on a guest for this little job..."
"It will be my pleasure," he said. "I pine for carpentry jobs, as a matter of fact."
She giggled. "But you will need someone to hold the door straight, Mr. Durai, so I will be some small help to you."
"An enormous help, my dear, I assure you."
And thus, when Else climbed the stairs with an armful of candles, she found her mother holding the upstairs door while Mr. Durai hammered a new hinge into place.
"Hello, Else," her mother sang out. "Mr. Durai has been good enough to help me with this door."
"Has he?" Else asked quietly. Alazlam did not look away from his hinge.
"Lord, those are a heap of candles, Else," her mother said, a trifle more sharply. "What are you doing with them?"
"Mr. Durai asked--" Else started at the same moment that Alazlam said, "Actually, Mrs. Felix, when I returned to my room this morning, I discovered that I was bereft of candles, and so I begged Else here to bring me a spare one. I think," he said slowly as he slammed the last nail home, "that with great care, I may be able to stretch that one candle out for a good many days."
Mrs. Felix gave a horrified gasp. "Oh, Mr. Durai, with the way you write? No, I don't think a single candle will last you an entire night."
Alazlam shrugged with enormous pathos and stepped back from the door. "I am sure I could use it sparingly...perhaps when it is only absolutely dark..."
"Mr. Durai, you will positively ruin your eyes," Mrs. Felix said. "No, I really must insist you take a dozen candles--no, no, you must. Your work can not be allowed to suffer from the shortness of our daylight hours."
"Well..." Alazlam said, teetering on the precipice of relenting.
"Else," Mrs. Felix said firmly, "you take those candles into Mr. Durai's room right this instant."
"Of course," Else said. "I already entered the cost into Mr. Durai's ledger."
Mrs. Felix sucked in her breath.
"Of course," Alazlam said before she could speak. "Oh, and Else, I was meaning to ask about that well-favored young man who was standing in the garden with you. I don't believe I've seen him in the neighborhood before..."
He casually ran his hand along the shaft of the hammer as he glanced to Else. Their eyes met with all the mutual menace of drawn swords.
"What man?" Mrs. Felix asked.
Else hesitated fractionally before she said, "It was just Young Joe Cobbles on his way home, Mother."
"Cobbles?" her mother squeaked. "Why, that family is no better than it should be. I remember when Old Martha Cobbles...well. Never mind that. But I would hope, my girl, that you are not embarking on anything foolish."
"He was just passing by," Else said grimly.
"He is just a brick-layer!"
"Mother..." Else hissed, and Mrs. Felix abruptly remembered Alazlam standing beside them.
"Well, anyway," she said, smoothing her skirt with her hands, "best bring those candles into Mr. Durai's room, my girl, and be sharp about it. And Mr. Durai, thank you so much for your help with the door. I do declare, I am so thankful to have some men around this house. If it were just Else and me, we would be well-nigh helpless."
Else brushed past her mother and Alazlam with her burden of candles and, in passing, trod on Alazlam's left foot.
"Mrs. Felix," Alazlam said with a grimace, "it was my pleasure, believe me."
"Mr. Durai, as a reward for your hard work, I hope you can join me in the kitchen for some hot apple cider. It is most powerfully cold, and hot apple cider will be just the ticket..."
"What does 'objurgation' mean?" she asked without looking up.
"A scolding," he answered briefly. His chair was occupied, so he stretched out along his bed and squinted at the ceiling rafters overhead. He had not eaten anything all day, and Mrs. Felix's hot apple cider was liberally laced with strong spirits. He felt pleasantly muddled.
"Who is Mr. Reed?"
"An idiot," Alazlam said, turning his head to look at her. She had folded her legs beneath her in a boyish manner, and one gray-stocking'd knee was visible.
"Why is he an idiot?"
"Because he cannot read," Alazlam said. "Or maybe he can read but he cannot understand. He is an idiot because he makes simple things complicated and complicated things simple. He does precious little research, so he persists in 'discovering' things that other scholars have known for centuries. And when he does say something new, it is always something patently ridiculous."
"Sounds like quite a man."
"He just got a position at the University of Zeltennia," Alazlam continued dreamily. "He lives in a snug little house with three chimneys, and he eats meat and drinks wine every night with the college fellows. He wears new boots and a fur cap. He is engaged to the daughter of a prosperous sea captain."
"She probably smells of tar and hemp," Else said.
"He re-translated the account of the Abbot Saul. Which is not itself objectionable, but he changed half the names to match an old epic poem that has no relation to the account. Or maybe it does, but that is beside the point. The point is that he has named Algus as 'Argath,' and Algus is not an Argath. At least, I've never thought of him as an Argath. Argath sounds like a noise you'd make in the back of your throat when you were sick."
"I think you're drunk," Else said.
"Maybe a little," Alazlam said.
"Who is Algus?"
Alazlam was silent for a moment, and then he said, "An unimportant squire who was killed in a minor skirmish in the beginning of what we call the War of the Lions. Abbot Saul mentions him once. Either scholars do not care about him, or they care about him excessively."
"I see," said Else, who clearly did not.
"He deserves better than to be named after a gargle," Alazlam said. "More importantly, I do not want to go back and change his name in what I have already written."
"Then don't," Else said. "Just keep him as Algus -- although that sounds like a real sniffle of a name, I have to tell you."
"I may," Alazlam said. "It depends on whether I can squash this bug Reed immediately or not. He may infect other scholars before I can register a protest."
"Why would other scholars want a squire named after a cough?"
Alazlam shrugged. "History is a cacophony, you know. A chorus of hundreds of people, each singing a different song. And Mr. Reed has a particularly penetrating voice. We may have no choice but to listen to him." He tiredly pressed the palms of his flanneled hands against his eyes. "I aim to throttle him before he can do that, though."
"With a nasty letter?"
"Ours is a profession built on nasty letters."
"Gets a bit old, scribbling all that spleen, I imagine," Else said.
"On the contrary," he said. "It is a rare delight. I will write until my ink runs out, and then I will open up a vein and bleed on the paper. Better anger and contempt and truth than the blank page of mute acceptance, meek capitulation, an educated mind asleep under the snow. I will not be that. I must protest."
Else put down his manuscript. The room was dark. Outside Alazlam's window, she could see roofs stained pink by the setting sun. In the next room, she could hear the thumping noise of Squiddy Dan crossing the floor.
"I had a dream about them last night," Alazlam said in a low voice. "And I woke up thinking, how do I cite a dream? What is the format? A footnote?" He shivered and drew his coat more closely around himself.
Else looked over at him with an expression that Alazlam would not have recognized, had he seen it, but he was looking at the ceiling again and so missed it completely.
"We will be eating dinner soon," she said gently.
"What are we having?"
"Cabbage and corned beef," she said.
Alazlam groaned. "Clearly, I should have delayed my arrival by a day."
"We are having cabbage and corned beef tomorrow as well," Else said. "We are having it all week."
"It is absolutely inescapable, I see."
"It will be ready in an hour, I think, " Else said. "Come down then. Maybe you can cadge some more candles from my mother."
"I live in constant hope," Alazlam said, still watching the ceiling. He heard her stand up and arrange her skirts; he heard her cross his floor and open his door. He heard the door swing shut and silence descend upon his room to join company with the cold and the dark.
At last he stood up. He found where Else had put the candles and lit one. The pool of light flickered uncertainly across his desk. He looked at his manuscript and sighed. He reached for his pen.
It took three tries to free it from its anchor of frozen ink.
Author's Note: (11/02/07) I haven't played the new version of The War of the Lions for the PSP, and so I haven't yet decided how I'm going to apply it to this ever-peripatetic project. I suspect I may be splitting the difference. We will see. Don't hold your breath for the appearance of anyone named Argath.
Writing Alazlam is, as you might suspect, just an excuse for me to drone on about historiography. This chapter wasn't supposed to be about Alazlam. This chapter was supposed to be about Ramza, Delita, and Algus and their wild and crazy adventures. However, I found it impossible to write the chapter I had in mind, which I have slowly discovered is a sign that I have the wrong chapter in mind. (I forced the Wiegraf chapter, which increasingly seems like an interesting artistic choice that I should not have chosen. In my next mania for revision, it may get overhauled substantially.)