There are monsters in the dark. She can hear them as they creep beyond the light of the solitary candle. Their toenails clack against the rough stone floors; their scales slide against the damp walls.
No, Merlose has no doubt that there are monsters in the dark.
She shifts, and even that slight movement brings pain to wrists rubbed raw against coarse bonds. She sighs, and even that faint exhalation triggers some excitement among her unseen watchers, for she can hear them rustle against one another with renewed energy. She waits, and the waiting stretches on.
Merlose is not sure which she prefers: long waits in Lea Monde's uncertain oubliettes or brief encounters with her captors. Shall she choose the monsters in the dark or the ones who speak with the sweet tongues of men? It is not an easy decision, and Merlose has the leisure to consider its every facet.
Time passes. Merlose concentrates on the steadily melting candle and the endless whispers in the dark. The boy wakes up.
Merlose watches him as his eyelids flutter and his unfocused pupils seek first the candle and then her. Sleep has ruffled his hair and flushed his cheeks. Merlose knows him as Joshua. She has never heard him speak.
"Hello," she says anyway, because she must speak to someone or go mad. She is beginning to long for the return of her captors.
The boy sits up from the dusty sacking that had served as his bed. He is not bound. They have no need to bind him.
Merlose licks her lips and wonders if she could convince him to untie her. It is chancy at best: he is likely deaf, or an imbecile, or worse. And he has displayed a marked preference for the man who tied her up.
"Did you sleep well?" Merlose asks instead. The boy regards her unblinkingly.
"Are you hungry?" In response, he scratches his nose.
"Well," Merlose says, abandoning all half-formed plans of escape. After all, even if her bonds were loosed, she would be no closer to freedom. She is still stuck in the bowels of Lea Monde and hedged by unseen horrors on every side.
"Well," she says again, and she hears the word fall like a stone dropped into a deep well. The invisible monsters fractionally draw back. The boy scoots infinitesimally closer to her.
She would say anything to stave off that watchful silence, and so Merlose says, "Would you like a story?"
The boy inches nearer.
"What shall it be? Cinder Prince? The Mirror Queen?" Merlose licks her lips again.
The boy says nothing.
She is uncertain what stories would appeal to a young boy. She does not have much experience with children, and her own recollections of childhood are hazy. As a little girl, she had ignored princesses in preference for gruesome tales of walking corpses and murderous queens. As a student in the Academy, she had pored over antique bestiaries that bored her classmates senseless. She does not know stories; she knows fragments about regicide and trivia about wolves.
Still, it feels good to speak again after so many hours of silence in the dark. She does not want to think about her peril any longer. She wants to think about a story.
And so Merlose tells him a story jumbled together out of half-remembered folktales and fantastic beasts. It is spiced with abductions, darkness, and despair.
She can feel the unseen monsters leaning forward to hear her stumbling narrative. Joshua moves within a handbreadth of her.
"Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess..."
She passed the day like a clockwork automation, blind and obedient. She could feel the blood ticking through her veins.
At dawn, her giggling ladies began the long process of dressing her. By the time their work was done, the sun was well-risen in the sky and she was weighted with yards of costly silk and chains of pearls. They brought her sliced oranges and peeled grapes, but she was unable to eat. From outside her solar window, she could hear the noise of an enormous crowd rise and fall like the breaking waves of some distant, senseless sea. Then her ladies ushered her from her rooms, which she knew she would not see again, and guided her down halls and stairs. At some dimly perceived point, a door opened to sunlight and a waiting coach. Her ladies bundled her inside, and another interval passed. The coach stopped, and she was pulled out for the waiting crowds, the waiting cathedral, the waiting doors, the waiting nobility craning their necks to see her--and beyond them all, the waiting man, too shadowed in the depths of the nave to make out.
Ovelia knew him anyway.
The priest spoke, and Ovelia heard herself respond serenely as she concentrated on the golden braids of his office, because to look elsewhere would destroy her final shreds of composure.
When the priest placed the heavy crown on her head, Ovelia felt a spike of panic that it would tumble off. Nothing so catastrophic happened. Instead, the priest turned his attention to her companion, who spoke at regular intervals when the priest paused. Ovelia heard nothing. There was a ceaseless buzzing in her ears.
Then she was standing up, and he was standing up, and the priest was pressing their hands together. Ovelia stared dazedly at the man. At some point in the ceremony, he had gained a crown himself. Then they were walking down the aisle and through the cathedral doors, and Ovelia saw mobs of people cheering.
Further things happened, but Ovelia was never able to remember them clearly. At some point, they were sitting before a great feast, where Ovelia stared dumbly at her suckling pig and candied apples and ate nothing. There was great movement around her as people toasted jugglers and dogs fought for scraps among the floor rushes. It was as if she and the man beside her sat at the center of a vortex.
A song, and then another one, and then a group of foreign tumblers, and then Ovelia was being ushered up some stairs by her ladies, who brought her into a room with an enormous canopied bed. They began the laborious process of undressing her. The silken yards, the nacreous chains: all were stripped from her.
At last, her ladies wrapped her in a patterned dressing gown and left her alone. Ovelia lay on the bed and stared at the underside of the embroidered canopy, which depicted a deer being hunted by a knight. The doe was stitched in golden thread. The knight was black. The buzzing had disappeared from her ears, and she could hear the silence, as heavy as a blanket, over the smothered whispers of the fete downstairs.
The silence lay heavy against her chest and limbs. She blinked helplessly. The knight was thundering close behind his glittering prey.
At last, she heard the distant creak of the door. She did not look away from her study of the canopy, but she heard the rustle of clothing, the thump of dropped shoes, the breath of her husband. And then: silence. He was watching her, she knew, and she closed her eyes.
The bed shifted and dipped as someone climbed into the other side. More silence. Ovelia opened her eyes. With great effort, she turned her head.
Delita sat cross-legged on the other side of the bed, regarding one of the bed's posts. He was still wearing a loose linen shirt and hose. Ovelia watched him silently. He did not look at her.
"Did I ever tell you," he said at last, his voice low, "the story about the wedding of Queen Ashelia and her consort? My mother used to tell it to me, when I was young." He ran a hand through his dark hair. "I kept thinking about it today. It had a genie in it."
Ovelia was silent for a long time and then, reluctantly, she whispered, "No."
"What?" he asked, cocking his head towards her.
"No," Ovelia said helplessly. "You never told me that story. What happened at the wedding of High Queen Ashelia?"
"Well," he said, "once upon a time, before the High Queen had ascended her throne, she was promised in marriage to the prince of a neighboring land. Guests came from far and wide, and the celebrations went on for weeks. And on the evening before the wedding, a strange old beggar-woman came to the gates of the High Queen's city and said that she had a gift for the High Queen..."
Ashe spent the night before her wedding listening to horror stories.
First, Lord Perlot, her great-uncle, spent an hour at dinner explaining the grisly details of the latest political intrigue in Archadia. The whole table had listened with relish, but Ashe had stopped paying attention at "disemboweled" and instead watched as Perlot stabbed his knife in the air for emphasis and incidentally scattered drops of gravy on everyone sitting near him.
Then, after dinner, she had been button-holed by Duchess Tully, who had risen from her bedside despite the express orders of her midwife. After all, darling, nobody could expect her to miss the wedding of little Ashelia, although it had been such a difficult time, not that she could expect little Ashelia to know anything about it yet, but yes, she had bled for days, and the midwife had despaired, as she had always been delicate, not that little Ashelia had anything to worry about, as the Duchess Tully was sure that she was sturdy as a bear, not like her dainty self, but, oh, her son was already a trial, and they had gone through three wet-nurses finding one, and--
Lastly, after finally making her escape from bloody births and comparisons to bears, Ashelia was pulled aside by the terrible Lady Aeilinn, her second cousin once removed, who wanted to hint dark and salacious things about the coming marriage bed. Ashe pried her off with difficulty; Aeilinn was as tenacious and abrasive as a barnacle.
But after Aeilinn finally scuttled off to engage the Lady Uterl, who had crushingly snubbed Aeilinn earlier, Ashe slowly exhaled and leaned against the wall. In the corner of her eye, she could see her shadow pressed against the wall to her left.
She should have felt suffused with satisfaction. Here she was, surrounded by her kin-folk, barraged with attention and gifts, on the eve of a prestigious alliance. Her father's feasting hall was filled with guests, replete with wine and gossip, sprawled on floor cushions. The air was perfumed with the smoke from their after-dinner bubble-pipes. Someone was plucking a tambur, slowly and sadly. What more could a princess want on the night before her wedding?
Through the gloom, Ashe could see the Lady Uterl waddling in her direction with an air of determination. With barely a conscious thought, Ashe found herself sliding across the wall until she came to an open door, through which she ducked. Her shadow slid a second behind her.
She walked briskly down the quiet hall, across a tiled receiving room, and out into one of the walled gardens within the palace of Rabanastre. Her shadow was a step behind her. The fountains were murmuring, the air was blessedly cool, and the stars were out.
"I suppose that was badly done. To run out on your own bridal dinner."
"No, milady," said Vossler. "You were over-warm. You needed a walk in the gardens to clear your head."
"I was afraid of Uterl," Ashe said grimly. "She always knows the worst stories."
"Certainly," Vossler said gently.
"And if one more lady takes me aside and offers to explain the facts of life, I think I will...I will..I will...!"
Vossler was tactfully silent.
"I will spit!" Ashe said finally. "Who do they think I am? I am hardly an innocent."
Vossler's silence took on a strained quality.
"As if I were a lamb going to the slaughter," Ashe continued heedlessly. "And they're all licking their lips and waiting for the carnage."
Vossler cleared his throat.
"I am going out," Ashe said abruptly.
"Out into the city," Ashe said. "I want to walk its streets one last time as...as myself. As my father's daughter. Before I am Rasler's bride."
"Milady, the city is...unruly tonight. The people are celebrating your wedding, you know, and--"
"Even better that I should partake of their goodwill," Ashe said coldly. She added, impatiently, "I shan't go in full royal regalia, Vossler. I shall go...incognito. Lend me a cloak, and no one will recognize me."
Vossler sighed. "We shall walk as far as the cathedral."
"No, the bazaar," Ashe countered.
"The Centaur's Fountain," Vossler compromised with a note of steel in his voice.
"Fine," Ashe muttered.
They made it no farther than the palace gates.
Ashe and Vossler found the palace guards involved in a spirited discussion with a trio of murky shadows standing on the other side of the gates. The guards stopped shouting when they saw Vossler; they stopped laughing when they saw Ashe.
Vossler looked to the three standing outside the gates and grinned. "Well-met by moonlight, Basch."
"Vossler," the tallest shadow nodded. "Your Highness."
Ashe ignored him. "Why have you not opened the gates?" she growled at the nearest guard.
"But...milady...we were not sure...they would not identify themselves..."
"Basch!" Vossler cried. "Can it be? Do these tadpoles not know your heroic visage by heart?"
"No," the other man rumbled from the other side of the gate. "I have not yet had a chance to introduce myself."
"Open the gates," Ashe said quietly and distinctly as she pressed the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger. Had she known it, this gesture was her single mannerism that Vossler found endearing. It was a reminder of her as an overlooked eight-year-old: her hair full of ribbons and her mood prone to long, rage-filled silences.
But Ashe did not know, and her unwavering gaze remained on the trio standing beyond the gates. The guards tripped over themselves to be the first to open the portal.
"We missed you at the banquet, Basch," Vossler said easily. "They served pickled eels, to which I know you are partial."
"Alas," Basch said. "It pains me to hear, but I was summoned to a pressing duty."
Ashe ignored him. She was watching the man standing beside him, who was looking back at her with a barely suppressed grin.
"A pressing duty? More pressing than eels? Nonsense."
Basch gestured to his companions. "I have been showing Rabanastre to Prince Rasler, and we found a fortune teller who insisted on offering a wedding gift to Your Highnesses."
"A wedding gift?" Vossler asked. "What kind of wedding gift?"
"She would not say," Basch said. "She insisted on presenting it in person."
The gates were open now, and the guards hurriedly lit more lamps. Under their yellow light, Ashe could see her betrothed standing beside a small, hunchbacked figure, wrapped so heavily in striped cloth so as to be unrecognizable. Both gender and species were indeterminable, but there was no reason to doubt she was a woman. Of course, there was no reason to doubt she was a set of acrobatic moogles. All things were possible beneath her bindings.
"The fortune teller, I presume," Vossler said with a faint note of exasperation.
"You have a wedding gift for me?" Ashe asked, and her voice rang like a hammer hitting an anvil. Vossler and Rasler both took an instinctive step back. The fortune teller, unfamiliar with the princess' tone and what it betokened, simply cocked her masked head in Ashe's direction.
"Yes..." the lumpy figure said at last. "Yes, I have a gift for Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca." One bundled hand reached within the creature's robes and fumbled invisibly for a moment. Vossler coughed, and the dimples in Rasler's cheeks grew slightly more pronounced, although his mouth was still set in a strenuously sober line.
The fortune teller pulled forth something small: a glass orb. It took Ashe a moment to realize that it was shifting colors under the flickering light of the lamps.
"It can prophesy, but only for a price," said the robed fortune teller. Her voice was low and hoarse.
"Ah," Vossler said. "Naturally. And what should this price happen to be? Pearls? Souls?" He scuffed his feet impatiently against the ground, and Ashe recognized the familiar note in his voice that signaled a shift from amusement to irritation.
"Neither," the fortune teller said. "It eats stories."
"Eats?" Vossler asked at the same time Rasler said, "What kind of stories?"
Ashe leaned closer, and the clouds within the orb began to thicken to dark blue.
"Any stories, but the newer and truer, the better. Of course, it all depends on you, my lords and lady. But it offers better results to those who tell it fresh tales in good faith."
"But then," Ashe persisted, "how does it prophesy the future?"
"By various and diverse signals," the fortune teller sniffed. "After years of study, I can interpret the creature that lives within the glass. But it must be placated first, and it dearly loves stories."
"I have heard of such things," Basch rumbled softly. "There are monsters who have delayed devouring wayfarers in exchange for a good yarn."
"Are we in any danger of being devoured?" Ashe asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Of course not, milady," the fortune teller burbled. "The thing is harmless at all costs, especially contained within the glass, but he...he sleeps. If you wish to rouse him to tell your story, you must feed him your own tales."
"A fair exchange," Vossler said dryly.
"And it would be most lucky," said the fortune teller, reaching out to Ashe's sleeve but not quite touching her, "for the bride. It is the custom among my people, and I felt, since I was here in Rabanastre..."
Ashe looked at the walking mound of scarves and wraps, and then she glanced at her companions. Vossler was sardonic; Basch was thoughtful; Rasler was regarding her with intensity.
"In my homeland, too," he said quietly. "We don't tell fortunes, but we...we tell stories during our celebrations. And I do not think I have heard many stories from Rabanastre yet."
Ashe felt a small rush of guilt and shame. She had forgotten him. He, too, was worried about tomorrow. He was looking for comfort. She was a heel.
She held out her hand, and when he took it, she could feel the calluses across his warm palm.
"Certainly, my lord," she said. "We shall proceed to my grandfather's chapel in the rose maze. I think we may not be disturbed there. Sirs?" she asked the two knights.
"We come, Your Highnesses," Basch said. "I, too, would dearly love to hear your fortunes read."
Vossler snorted. "Very well."
The fortune teller bobbed in frantic excitement. "Yes, yes."
And so, hand in hand, Ashe and her betrothed led their small company past moonlit pools and silent marble statues. In the distance, the banquet was a murmur like the sea, but the gardens were quiet and heavy with the scent of flowers.
Rasler bent his head close to Ashe's ear as they walked. "What will you bet, milady, that our fortune teller will predict bountiful crops, decades of peace, and bonny grandchildren as our coming dues?"
"No bet," Ashe muttered. "I think it far more likely that our fortune teller is the vanguard for thieves seeking some weak spot in my father's treasure houses."
Rasler chuckled. "You don't believe her tale about a hungry stone?"
"Hardly," Ashe said. "But we will allow the fortune teller enough rope to hang herself. I do not think that Vossler will let the creature stray too far from the garden path."
Behind them, as if on cue, came Vossler's gruff bark and the fortune teller's murmured apologies: so sorry, so dark, so difficult to see the path, did not mean to step off the paving stones, so sorry.
Rasler squeezed Ashe's fingers. "I am sorry for bringing a viper into your father's house. Truly, I did not mean to. I thought we might convince her to disgorge her wedding gift without entering the grounds, but then you arrived."
"But, my love, I would not miss her predictions for the world," Ashe said dryly, and Rasler laughed.
The chapel was a small marble building that gleamed in the moonlight. Low pillars supported the roof, leaving the interior's low-slung table and scattered cushions open to the air. When Ashe and Rasler had been children, the chapel had been the perilous place where they rescued one another from imaginary dragons. Ashe had valiantly slain no fewer than three cushions in the pursuit of her abducted prince. But that had been long ago.
Vossler lit the lamps with one lazy snap of his fingers. Under their sudden light, Ashe settled at the head of the table and regarded the fortune teller over steepled fingers. The rest of the company ranged themselves around the table.
The fortune teller awkwardly sank to a cushion and placed the orb on the table. It was now deepening into a royal purple.
"Now," she said, "you must all tell it a story. It can be a true story, but it should sound interesting. It can be a false story, but it should sound authentic. It can be an old story, but the stone hungers most specifically for the new and fresh."
Ashe opened her mouth, and then closed it once more. Her mind was abruptly blank. What story did she know that was appropriate for the stone? What story did she know that was appropriate for these three men? Vossler was rubbing a finger along his close-cropped beard; Ashe knew he would judge any story as a personal portrayal of the teller's level of honor and morals. Vossler was very literal. Basch, on the other hand, would be shocked at nothing she could tell; he would solemnly accept any tale, no matter how impossible or freakish. Basch was watching the orb now with the quiet calm of a man who saw prophetic orbs every day of his life. And Rasler...well. Ashe knew the type of stories a woman was supposed to tell her beloved, accompanied with lowered eyes and a suggestive smile, but these were not things she could say in front of Vossler.
Vossler stirred. "I will go first, for, to tell the truth, I heard a most interesting tale this morning, when I was conversing with the Prince's old tutors."
Rasler smiled. "Oh? I always knew they were a fount of fabulous histories. Which story did they tell you?"
"A strange tale," Vossler said, his forehead creasing. "I've had it stuck in my head all day. I can't quite figure it out, but I suppose it suffices for this purpose."
"Once upon a time," he said, "in a land far away, there lived a king. Now this king was a great king, and he had ruled over a mighty empire, but he was also an old king. He had no children; his wife, the queen, had died young, and the king had never remarried."
Ashe watched the moths beat their ashy wings against the glass of the lamps.
"So it came time for this king to choose an heir among his lords, but he hesitated, for he presided over a vicious court and he feared surrendering any of his power. And so, instead, when the frost sat heavy on his hair and his brow was lined with years, this king announced that he would wed the princess of a neighboring land and beget a new heir."
The orb on the table began to lighten in shade.
"Now," Vossler said, "many in that king's country did not like this, and they liked it even less when the princess arrived for the wedding. For it seemed that there were strange things about this lady. She always wore a heavy veil. She was never observed eating nor drinking. And animals could not abide her. The chocobos in the royal stables went wild whenever she came near, and no dog in the palace would consent to remain in the same room as she. The people of the king's country began to whisper that there was something unholy about the princess, that she was a witch, that she had tricked the king into wedding her through black sorcery.
"But the king was deaf to these concerns and, in due course, the wedding day dawned. The king's subjects came to see their lord married. The ceremony began and, in due course, the time came for the royal couple to utter their vows. The king said his portion in a strong, commanding voice, but when it came time for the princess, she said nothing.
"Then, very slowly and deliberately, the bride threw back her veil, and the assembled masses groaned in horror, because standing there in the bridal gown stood the queen--the king's first queen, dead these many years and stained with grave-dirt--"
"Wait," Ashe said, unlinking her fingers. "How could they recognize her if she had been dead? After years and years, would she be anything more than bones?"
Rasler laughed. "You're expressing skepticism over the wrong part, milady," he said. "You're supposed to be shocked that a dead woman is standing there, not that everyone recognizes her worm-eaten head."
Ashe shrugged. "I've heard tales of undead brides," she said. "I've just never understood how they are so quickly identified. What if another skeleton stole a march on this long-dead queen and took her place?"
"But the story, Your Highness," Vossler said with a hint of irritation, "goes on. For as the king and his court stood there, staring at the dead bride, there came a mighty clatter at the church doors.
"The queen said, 'I have come back, my love, even after you thought yourself rid of me. I have come back, at last, for my vengeance. You shall not escape from your sins, my love.'
"There came another furious knocking at the church doors, and the queen said, 'You, whose hands are stained with innocent blood, you shall suffer at last. I had a hard road back to you, my love, but I am finally here.'
"There came another banging on the church doors, and the church doors finally opened. There, on the threshold of the church, stood a dusty knight leading a chocobo, upon which rode a young priestess. The knight and the chocobo marched into the church, and the congregation fell back before them.
"Seeing them, the king groaned, 'Oh, am I dead? Is this why I see these past shades before me?'
"'No,' said the knight. 'No, dear one, we have come for you too. It is time for you to come away from your kingdom and join us on our journey, as you should have from the first, years ago.'
"'No!' cried the queen. 'No, how can you forgive him after his sins! He must suffer! He must be punished!'
"'He has already suffered,' said the young priestess, and at her voice, all the windows of the church shattered, for her voice was not human; it was the voice of the gods and not meant for mortal things. 'He has suffered all these years on his throne. And now he must come with us.'
"The king and the queen shrieked in one breath. The queen said, 'He shall not escape my vengeance,' and the king said, 'I shall not leave my kingdom.'
"'Oh, you are well-suited,' the knight laughed. 'But the time for all that is past. You must abandon these little concerns, my loves. My poor friend,' he said to the queen, 'you must return to the ground, for the affairs of the living have moved beyond your control. And you, my dear,' he said to the king, 'must put aside this petty responsibility, for my sister and I tend a far greater garden, and you must take your place among us. And maybe, a long time from now, the two of you may stand properly reunited, but I do not know when that time may be.'
"'The queen wept, and all who saw her wept also. But the priestess raised her hand and said, 'You must go back that dark road you came.' And there was no denying that voice, for it was not human. So the queen walked slowly down the aisle, past the knight and the priestess, and out the chapel door, and no one in that country ever saw a sign of her again.
"The knight and the priestess turned to the king, who was still standing there. 'Are you coming?' the knight asked.
"'I cannot leave my kingdom,' the king said. 'It will crumble without me, and all my hard work, all my sacrifices, all of you--all will have been for naught.'
"The priestess and the knight looked at one another, and the priestess said, 'Very well. But remember: we have given you opportunities beyond measure, and each time you have forsaken us. I do not think you will be given another such opportunity.' And the knight led the chocobo out of the church, and they steadily climbed down the church steps until they could no longer be seen by the congregation.
"And then the king gave out a mighty cry. He tore the crown from his head and went running from the chapel. And, like, his queen, he was never again seen in the land. As he had predicted, his country fell apart in his absence: his nobles waged various wars against one another until the land fragmented and fragmented again, and finally its name fell from history."
"But who were the knight and the priestess?" Ashe asked. "And did the king ever find them again?"
"No one knows," Rasler said. "It is not part of the story that the scholars have uncovered, so far as I know."
"It's a strange tale," Basch said. "I can see why it might stick in the mind, Vossler."
Vossler grunted. "It feels like only half a tale. The first half."
"Or the last scene," Ashe said. "It says nothing about the sins of the king, after all."
"Assuming that they were sins," Vossler said. "I don't know that the queen is the truth-speaking hero of the piece, milady."
Ashe rolled her eyes, and Vossler grinned, and Rasler watched them both from the corner of his eye.
Basch said, "Whether a whole tale or not, does that suffice, fortune teller?"
"Oh, yes," the fortune teller said. "Yes, a prestigious effort, milords. But who will go next?"
"I'll go," Ashe said. "But unlike Vossler, I have only a brief story, and it bears no dead brides. Once upon a time, in a land far away, an emperor married a queen, and they had four sons. But one day, the emperor discovered the queen had conspired with her two eldest sons against him. Part of this conspiracy involved secret marriages, for the two eldest sons had married without their father's consent. The queen killed herself before she could be tried for this foul treason; the two sons were not so lucky. They were executed by another brother, one who had stayed loyal to his father despite the blandishments of the queen. Being of royal blood, their executions were a complicated affair: dismembered, disemboweled, dishonored. Slowly. And not just the two princes but also their households: their wives, their young children, and even their dogs were snuffed out with ruthless efficiency."
Ashe was aware that her voice had reached a dangerously high note in her last words. The three men were staring at her with wide eyes. Even the fortune teller had lifted her head to regard Ashe with interest. Ashe closed her mouth and blinked steadily back at them.
"And?" Rasler said at last.
"And?" Ashe repeated.
"What happened next to that most enigmatic family? How fared the figure of fratricide?"
"And the youngest son," said Basch. "For were there not four brothers?" His mouth was set in a grim line.
Vossler merely smiled at her. He knew her very well, and he, too, had been sitting near Uncle Perlot for dinner.
Ashe regarded the cloudy orb with a meditative air. "And, then...the blood-stained brother was covered with remorse. He dreamed of his dead brothers at night. He became strange, hard, twisted. And people began to fear him, and he cast about for some way to make them love him. He told them stories about his own valor, his own bravery, his own loyalty, but no one listened. So one day he went riding out to kill a monster, and in the fight, both he and the monster were killed. But, alas, when the people brought back the hero for a hero's funeral, it was not the prince they bore. It was the monster."
Rasler burst out laughing. "Neatly done. And all our problems are solved in a single blow."
"Your turn, Basch," Vossler said. "What story will you choose? Any deaths? It seems a veritable night for funereal stories."
"And wedding stories as well," Ashe murmured.
Basch was silent for a long moment, and then he reluctantly said, "There is a story in my own family that we sometimes tell, and I suppose that will answer." He stared down at his hands with a frown, and his voice was low when he began to speak.
"Once upon a time, in a land far away, a prince came riding into the estate owned by an ancestor of mine. This was, you understand, a very long time ago, so long ago that we have lost all the names and minor details of the story. It may not be true, but the women in my family have always told it as if were the truth.
"The prince saw the eldest daughter of the lord and fell in love, as princes in stories are wont to do. The lord was not loath to match his daughter with a prince, even an itinerant prince, but the woman in question was more resistant. In truth, she was already secretly pledged to another man in the neighborhood, but she knew that this explanation would convince neither her father nor her unwanted suitor. So, instead, she demanded proof of the prince's attachment. She demanded that he slay the Black Knight.
"Apparently, the nearby estates were troubled by a marauding knight, dressed all in black armor, who was terrifying the people and murdering the farm animals. He was a mystery, but it was agreed that he was not human, for his strength was unworldly. So, the woman demanded that the prince defeat the Black Knight in exchange for her hand in marriage.
"Thus, the prince set off to find the Black Knight. He at last discovered him in a farmer's field at midnight, drinking the blood of a slaughtered calf. As soon as the Black Knight saw the prince, the Knight fled on his horse (which itself had fangs and ate red meat). So the prince pursued him all night and all the following day until the Black Knight at last arrived at a strange cavern that led deep into the earth. The prince, of course, followed him. The cavern led to an abandoned underground city, itself a place of horrors far worse than the Black Knight. The prince pursued the Black Knight through a terrible labyrinth and alongside an abyss from which there was no return.
"Finally the prince confronted the Black Knight, and they had a terrible fight. Back and forth they fought for hours, but finally, bleeding from a dozen cuts, the prince pressed the tip of his sword at the Black Knight's throat and said, 'Surrender, knave!'
"'Very well,' the Black Knight said. 'But first I must tell you what you have won by defeating me. For I was charged with wearing this terrible armor and living apart from humanity until I could find someone strong enough to defeat me. And so now you have won the burden of this armor and its solitude, and you must carry them until you can find someone stronger than yourself.'
"The prince did not believe him, but as the Black Knight spoke, the dark armor came loose and wound itself around the prince, as if invisible hands were binding him within it. He could not speak. He struggled to tear off the heavy burden, but it was fixed immovably in place.
"The heavy helmet constrained his vision, so that he could only see a narrow slit before him, and nobody outside could ever see his face. Within it, the prince himself was invisible. He could only be a symbol of the Black Knight, only a thing to inspire terror and fear in everyone he encountered. He was never to be himself again.
"The man who had once been the Black Knight explained that once he had been a young lord who set off to free his land of a lurking menace. As soon as he had defeated the black-suited knight, however, he found himself encased in the armor and bound to its strange conditions. He was unable to speak. He was stronger than was natural. He had no need for food nor water, but the armor itself hungered insatiably for fresh blood. This was why the Black Knight lived apart from other humans, and this was the fate to which the prince had fixed himself until he could find a stronger swordsman.
"So the new Black Knight took his place in the cursed city within the earth, and the man who had once been the Black Knight traveled back to my family's estate, where he told his story. But when he led a company of men back to the entrance to the dark city, they discovered that the cavern had collapsed and the way was sealed."
"And so the Black Knight finally perished?" Ashe asked.
"No," Basch said slowly. "Because...well. The lord's daughter finally married her betrothed, and they began to raise their children. And, sometimes, the lord's daughter would watch the forest at the edges of her land and see a dark figure walking the perimeter. And not she alone, but also her children, and her children's children. There were many stories in my family of seeing the Black Knight, the prince who had loved our ancestor and was cursed to eternal separation as a result. It is considered...a sign of sorts. A sign of changes to come, within my family, if you see the Black Knight."
Ashe stared fixedly at Basch. "And have you ever seen him?"
"Once," Basch said. "Maybe."
There was a long silence as the orb clouded to a peach-like pink, until finally Vossler stretched his arms upwards and said, without preamble, "Very well. And now a story from our fortune teller, I think."
The fortune teller's head jerked up. "Me, milord? No, surely not. I am just here as the vessel. You are the ones responsible for the stories."
"Come, come," Vossler said. "If we're going to share all these glorious tales, I believe you owe us one as well. Tell us a story, fortune teller."
"Yes," Ashe said, fixing her gaze on the fortune teller with a disconcerting intensity. "Tell us a story."
The fortune teller flapped her arms in the direction of Rasler. "But the prince, he has not yet gone, and the orb, it must--"
"He will tell his story next, after you," Ashe said. "Tell us the story of how you came here."
"Tell us a story about how you received that prophetic stone," Vossler said.
"Tell us a story about a wedding," Rasler said. Vossler and Ashe both jerked their heads back to stare at him. He shrugged in partial apology at disrupting their pincer attack, but his attention did not waver from the little fortune teller. "We've been talking about weddings tonight, it seems. Or almost-weddings, at any rate. Do you know any stories about weddings? Happy stories, for a change?"
The fortune teller nervously moved her head, and Ashe knew she was scanning the room for the best exit. Vossler went very tense and still, and Rasler moved his hand toward his sheathed sword.
Then something in the fortune teller's twisted posture changed, and the creature tossed back her head so that Ashe caught a momentary glimpse of two glittering brown eyes within the heavy scarves.
"Oh, I know a story or two about weddings," the fortune teller said, and something had changed in the cadence of her voice. The earnestness had slid away, to be replaced with a dry note. "I have been to a few weddings in my time, and thus I look forward to tomorrow's festivities with great anticipation. But I doubt it will beat the wedding of Doctor Bunansa, for at that wedding...well. Well. I was not there personally, you understand, but I received the details from an excellent source.
"It all started, I'm afraid, when the Good Doctor fell in love with a proper young lady of a good family. The Doctor, you see, had neither propriety nor family, and thus his suit seemed doomed from the first. But the Good Doctor was never a sensible man, and thus he persevered. He built mechanical homing pigeons to fly messages to his love. These inevitably crashed through her family's windows en route to her bedroom.
"The young woman's family harbored no good will toward the Good Doctor, and they did their best to ruin his prospects and run him out of the city. The young woman, in contrast, was somewhat charmed. Certainly no other suitors were building her suicidal clockwork birds. They have a certain appeal, I suppose.
"And so, finally, the Good Doctor and his young lady arranged to elope with the aid of the Doctor's most cunning contraption. For, you see, the Good Doctor was designing a moving life-sized doll that resembled the young lady in every particular, down to the count of her eyelashes.
"The plan was that a switch would be made: the young woman for the moving doll, which would be a cuckoo's egg laid within an unsuspecting nest. Unfortunately, the Good Doctor took longer than he had expected to build the doll, and before the switch had been made, the young woman found herself engaged to a suitable member of her rank and class. The young woman received no word from the Good Doctor; she could not even be sure that the Good Doctor was aware of her plight, as she had already learned that he could be somewhat inattentive while operating in his laboratory.
"So, on the evening before her wedding, the young woman took matters into her own hands. She jimmied open a window in her bedroom and climbed down a rope made from knotted sheets. She took her wedding dress with her, and she disappeared into the night. She always had a certain gumption, that young woman. Her family did not discover her absence until the next morning, when they rose to attire her in her bridal finery.
"Her family, as you might imagine, was in a state of some distress. Calling off the wedding would have grievously offended the other family. But then there came word that the young woman was, strangely enough, waiting at the Hearth--the place of marriages, the place other cities might call a church or temple.
"So the wedding party hustled down to the Hearth, and there stood the young woman, dressed in her elaborate bridal gown. She was silent and downcast. Her family heaved a sigh of justifiable relief, but before they could join the young woman with the groom in matrimony over the sacred fire, there was a disturbance inside the Hearth. And then the young woman appeared, the same young woman, dressed in the same bridal dress. Now there stood two of them, staring at one another.
"'I am the real bride,' said one.
"'No,' said the other. 'I am.'
"The first gave a squawk, and the second gave a strange little hoot, and then they rushed at one another. They fought over the sacred flame, and bits of their dresses burned in the heat. The young groom tried to get away from the confusion, but the two kept hooking him back into the fracas. No one knew what was going on, and the young woman's family was helpless in terror and fury. Then the other brides showed up.
"There were, perhaps, a dozen of them, and they all looked identical to the bride, identical down to the eyelash. There was a great confusion as the brides converged in furious struggle. The onlookers managed to extricate the bloody groom and fled the Hearth, for the brides were not terribly discriminatory in whom they tried to dismember. They were aiming for one another, of course; each kept crying that she was the 'real' bride. They kept up the struggle for hours, until finally they were too broken to cripple one another. Their clockwork wound down; their furious thrashing stilled. The silent Hearth was littered with arms, legs, heads.
"Meanwhile, on a high building ledge, which had a splendid view of these proceedings, sat the young woman and the Good Doctor, eating peanuts. They watched the commotion with interest, and they discussed what further refinements might be made to the dolls. The young woman was no longer wearing her wedding dress, of course; she had been married the previous night, after she had finally managed to locate the Good Doctor. At last, they finished their peanuts--their wedding breakfast, if you will--and went down into the Hearth to collect the dismembered limbs of the false brides. They had to get a cart, for there were too many to carry. And then, whistling in tune, they trundled into the city and disappeared for a time, until everyone was a great deal less angry with them."
"And how long did that take?" Ashe asked.
"Oh, a year or so. Unfortunately, the Good Doctor was a paragon of cleverness, and his little devices were in great demand in their city. The various injured parties--the young woman's family, in main part--had to swallow the insult eventually."
"And the dolls?" Rasler asked. "Were they ever seen again?"
"Oh, no," the fortune teller said with dark amusement. "For one night, when the Good Doctor slept, his clever wife crept into his laboratory. She was pregnant with their third child, and she was suspicious that the Good Doctor's attention was turning overmuch to her clockwork sisters. So she smashed them all into tiny fragments and burnt her husband's notes, so that he would never be able to reconstruct her. She always had a certain spirit, that young woman."
The orb was golden and slightly glowing now.
"A good story," Ashe said at last, regarding her fingers.
"Happy, even," Rasler said.
"Maybe," Basch said quietly.
"Then I suppose it is my turn," Rasler was saying when there came a sudden bang and the air filled with smoke. The fortune teller reeled back from the table; the men cried out and came to their feet with weapons drawn. Ashe alone remained sitting quietly as she regarded the colored ball and the small creature seated upon it.
It was a tiny imp, blue-speckled as a robin's egg. It looked back at the company with minute eyes that gleamed jet.
"Good evening," said the unruffled Ashe. "Are you here to tell our future?"
The imp gurgled in amusement. "I am here to tell your story, Your Highness."
"What is this witchcraft?" Vossler growled at the fortune teller, who had rolled away from the table.
"Not...not witchcraft," the fortune teller nervously cried. "And the creature is hedged with protections, with my protections, and--"
"Enough," the imp said crisply. For such a tiny figure, its voice came deep and distinct. "That is merely a little thief, who bore me for a time. Now I am arisen, and I will fulfill the covenant of your stories."
"What sort of covenant?" Basch asked. Vossler edged nearer the fortune teller. The fortune teller edged further away.
"Nothing...unpleasant," the imp laughed. "I admit, I did place a minor curse on the little thief for his crime, but the little thief has managed to break the curse. He is cleverer than I thought."
The fortune teller--the thief--made a sound that might have been either terrified or amused.
"Was it the stories?" Rasler asked. "But, I didn't..."
The imp waved a spindly hand. "It was not the number of stories that mattered, Your Highness. If you'd like, I will listen to your story. But I warn you, it will engage you in a new covenant, and then you will be responsible for feeding me more stories."
"No," Ashe said. "If we have fulfilled the terms of your original bargain, that is enough. And what is your part now?"
"Oh," the imp said with surprise. "Did not you know? I am a judge of dreams, of stories, of lies. I eat them; I live on them. I will judge your offerings, and then I will offer one of my own. Who comes forward? Who will receive their story?"
"The princess," Rasler said promptly, before anyone else could speak. "This was supposed to be a wedding present, I think, so say something about the wedding."
Ashe frowned, but before she could speak, the imp said, "Very well. I have been listening to your stories with interest. They were good stories, although they did not always go as I remembered, or even as they should have gone. But that comes with time, I suppose. Eventually, you will see where you went astray and what the story deserved instead.
"You ask about the wedding, and I say to you, you have already recounted the wedding and its aftermath. You have offered stories about constancy, of union, of family. You have offered stories of despair, of departure, of death. And this, too, is marriage, for you have spoken of it in the same breath. And so too will be your wedding, Your Highness, for these are the stories that you and your companions have chosen.
"Highness. You stand in this room with your future husband..." The imp hesitated and shook its tiny head, as if to dislodge water in its ears. "Yes," it said at last, "you stand here with your future husband, and I foresee trials ahead of you. I see long separations, misunderstandings, mistrust. I see resurrections, masks, and doubles. I see a long, strange journey before you, one in which you will both walk alone at times. You will have choices between duty and pleasure, and I think you will chose duty. But the journey will not be forever lonesome, I think, for you will be a family, a family that binds others tight to you, and you will have your stories, and the time in which to correct them. And Archadia," the imp said as an afterthought. "I foresee a great deal of Archadia."
"Archadia!" hissed both Ashe and the fortune teller with the same shared note of horror.
"Maybe," the imp said, squinting at some unseen point. "This story is tangled, and I may not have its full measure yet. Maybe Archadia?" He spun around on his orb until he faced the fortune teller, who had stopped inching toward an escape. "And you, little thief. You have received more than you deserved, but you have lifted your curse, because you offered your own story in good conscience."
The fortune teller said nothing, although Rasler caught a murmur, furious and masculine, from beneath the striped cowl.
Ashe was still grinding her teeth over the imp's previous words. "It does not sound," she said slowly and carefully, "like a glowing prediction for my wedding, creature."
"You were the ones who chose the stories," the imp said. "And so you will be the ones who chose the path you follow. But you have time, like I said. You can still fix your stories. I must say, they are not quite the way I remember, nor the way they should be. They have pieces missing."
"Remember?" Vossler repeated. "Have you heard these stories before?"
The imp shrugged its tiny shoulders. "Perhaps. Or later. I am not as bound to chronology as you humes. In Ivalice, stories do not follow a straight line. They ripple back and forth. They repeat themselves as they work their way loose. They seek a proper ending, I suppose."
"And so you live on stories?" Rasler asked.
"We both live on them, prince," the imp said with steely dignity. "All thinking creatures are trying to be something else, something better, and they do that through the stories they tell themselves. Did not you know? But, yes, I suppose, in a purely objective sense, I eat them. Your stories tasted like ash, rust, roses, and curry, respectively. If you must know."
"Oh," Rasler said, blinking. "I think the fortune teller is gone."
Vossler jumped to his feet. "God's breath, that devil! He's escaped!"
"Go and see if he has gotten past the guards at the gate, Vossler," Ashe said calmly.
"If he's gone for the gates! He could be anywhere on the grounds by now--"
"And yet he will have gone to the gates, for his disguise is no longer worth anything," Ashe said. "Go to the gate, Vossler."
He growled something under his breath and went running from the chapel.
Basch watched him go. "Shall I alert the palace guards, milady?"
"You might as well," Ashe said, rubbing her nose. "Although I think we will not be seeing our thief in the immediate future."
"Even so," Basch said. He rose and bowed, in turn, to Ashe, to Rasler, and to the imp. "Good evening. And if I do not see you in the morning, Your Highnesses, may I also wish you every happiness on your wedding day."
"Thank you," Rasler said, but Ashe waved an impatient hand.
"No, you'll be seeing me in the morning, Basch, for I mean to speak with my father before the ceremony."
Basch bowed again. "Then, until tomorrow, princess." He strode away down the steps of the chapel and disappeared past a moonlit rose bush.
Ashe turned her attention back to the imp, who had watched these proceedings attentively. "And just who was that robed fortune teller?" she asked.
"Simply a thief," the imp said with equanimity. "He has not yet decided what his own story will be. He stole me from a tomb, and I cursed him with restless dreams until he should be selfless enough to sacrifice his own hoarded past for the good of another. Those are the tastiest stories, you know. Although, of course, I did not tell him the conditions of his curse."
"Of course," Ashe said dryly.
"And now, Your Highness, I must ask a boon. I have grown tired, and I must sleep. Is there a place where I might lie undisturbed for some time? Even years?"
"I suppose," Ashe said dubiously. "But my father already houses strange objects. What will I bring down upon his house by placing you here? Will you plague us with ill dreams?"
"Oh, no," the imp said earnestly. "I am quite unobtrusive while I sleep. Nothing, good nor bad, will befall your father's house because of my presence. I desire only to sleep, and all my power will remain within my glass ball."
Ashe looked to Rasler, who shrugged. She sighed. "Very well," she said.
The imp gave a little cry of delight before he winked out of existence. The orb turned blue, purple, and orange before settling on a mild teal.
Ashe stood up and reached for the ball. It was warm as blood to the touch. She dropped it within the pocket of her dress.
"Well," she said.
"Well," Rasler said.
"That prophecy sounded fairly dire," she said, smiling at him. They were standing near enough to touch, although they did not.
"Oh, I don't know," Rasler said. "It just sounded like the standard things that people say about marriage. Well, not quite the standard things, but close."
"Unfortunately," Rasler said, "I did not get a chance to tell my story. And it was a good one. It had dragons. And you."
Ashe reached out and took his hand within her own. "I want to hear your story."
And, as the moths beat their ashy wings against the glass of the lamps, he began to tell it.
Meanwhile, deep within the labyrinthine streets of Rabanastre, a strange figure was hobbling down narrow passageways. In the unreliable shadows, the figure seemed to contort and elongate as it hustled along, shedding successive layers of hideous fabric at every step. The figure entered a passage as a short, swaddled demi-human; the figure exited the passage as a dapper hume of medium height. In the muddled light, his face was only dimly visible.
He was unwinding the last shawl from his shoulders when a throaty voice whispered into his right ear, "You're late. Where be the stone?"
He did not break his stride, and his taller shadow moved in step with him. "Ah, the stone. Well, my dear, I have some good news, and I have some bad news. Which would you prefer?"
"The bad news," the voice said decisively.
"The good news is that the stone is no longer cursed, and we can finally get a good night's sleep without that little imp invading our dreams," the hume said.
"Ahh," the voice sighed. "The bad news is that you no longer have the little imp."
The hume shrugged. "More trouble than he was worth. Meanwhile, there will be a wedding tomorrow. I met the central participants tonight."
"Ah? How be they?"
The hume chuckled. "Those poor little darlings. I predict that good feeling lasts only a year or two after the wedding. Then begins the fighting, the petty intrigues, the circuitous slander. The foreign prince will disappear on long trips to his homeland and become involved in strange, expensive hobbies. The native princess will conduct scandalous affairs with her men-at-arms. The marriage falls apart, the prince returns to his people, and the princess grasps her personal power with both hands. God help their children, should they have any."
The shadow said nothing.
"Or," the hume said quietly. "Or, instead, maybe they will have a time of misunderstandings and compromises. They will be separated by events. They will struggle over their individual vices on their own. And they will always have the model public relationship; they will always act with perfect propriety. But behind their external masks, they will be...themselves. And those masks may conceal hate as easily as love. They will have their roles to play, and they will only be themselves with one another."
"A benediction of sorts," the shadow said.
The hume laughed. "Or maybe it will be something else. I'm not good at weddings, Fran. Instead, let's scamper. There's good hunting in Bhujerba this season."
The shadow shrugged. Together, they moved off into the night and out of sight.
"...and thus, with his last riddle answered, the imp granted the High Queen and her Consort health and happiness. 'But you will only have these things for so long as you stay together. For, if you should part, the enchantment will begin to unravel.' The imp vanished in a puff of smoke, and the High Queen and the Consort were happy for a time, until they forgot the imp's warning, and the Consort went to fight a valiant battle on the High Queen's behalf..." Delita's voice trailed off.
Ovelia blinked at the embroidered canopy. She felt something stirring deep within her icy chest. Something big. Something hot.
"Anyway," Delita said. "My mother used to tell that story to my sister and me. It was a ritual, I suppose, on the nights we couldn't sleep. It soothed us. We liked the riddles, my sister and me. And Ramza--"
"You monster," Ovelia heard herself say. The embroidered canopy began to blur before her eyes, and she blinked back furious eyes.
Delita said nothing, and then he said, tentatively, "Ovelia."
"You've got everything, don't you," she heard herself say in the same level, deadly voice. "You have the queen. You have the castle. And you let him go, alone, to rescue his sister. You bastard."
"Because it wasn't part of your plans, I see. You had to hurry back and secure me. I was your bloody trump after all."
"Ovelia." He touched her, gently, on the shoulder.
"No!" she cried, and she lashed out blindly with her arms and legs, striking him on the chest. She could not feel anything, but she could feel her frenzied feet and elbows making contact with his soft trousers and warm skin. She felt like the mindless center of a whirlwind.
Then the bed dipped alarmingly and Ovelia felt her arms seized and her legs pressed down into the bedding. She blinked away her tears and saw Delita above, easily restraining her. His hands were tight around her wrists; his knees were locked against her thighs. He had no expression as he regarded her.
"You monster," Ovelia said. It seemed like the thing to say.
Delita looked toward the head of the bed and then back at her. "So here we are."
Ovelia breathed raggedly.
Delita exhaled softly. It was the smallest of sighs. Then he leaned his head down, lower and lower, until Ovelia felt the faint stubble on his jaw slide past her left shoulder. Ovelia went rigid. He stretched his legs along her legs. Ovelia felt her belly contract with a feeling almost like nausea.
He let her hands go.
Of course, she immediately began to hit him again, even if her legs were firmly imprisoned. She silently beat her palms against his broad back; he silently lay there, enduring her blows, weighing her down.
The whole time, Ovelia could feel the steady heartbeat of the body pressed against her.
At last, she grew tired, and her arms slumped to her side. She lay there, exhausted and helpless, and he lay there, silent and warm. From below, they could hear the faint sounds of the ongoing celebrations.
"You think," she whispered at last, "you think that you have achieved the treasures, that you have finished the story. But it is not that easy. This isn't the end of it."
"No," Delita said, stirring at last. "It is the start."
"...and thus the High King Delita achieved both his crown and his queen. But his trials were not at an end, for there was a furious monster still loose within the land, and so--"
"God's blood, woman. Are you telling him faerie tales?"
Merlose jerks her head up, and there stands Hardin, frowning down at her.
"Women," he says. "They always tell the lies about princesses and dragons."
"No, a true story," Merlose says. "Some history, in fact."
Hardin shakes his head. "History always honeys up the truth. It doesn't get the dragons right, and I'd surprised if the princesses smelt so sweet in life either. History, feh. It's just another kind of faerie tale."
Merlose thinks to herself, rebelliously, How many faerie tales end with the princess stabbed to death?
Hardin spits thoughtfully to one side, and Merlose hears the monsters, her silent audience, pull back further. Joshua, in contrast, turns his attention to their captor like a dog hearing his master's footstep. He nearly wags with delight.
"And how goes the hunt?" Merlose asks. "Had any luck with Agent Riot yet?"
Hardin spits again. "Oh, he'll get what's coming to him, never fear. He won't be coming for you, woman."
"Of course not," Merlose says complacently. "He'll be coming for Sydney. And I don't think you can stop him."
Hardin regards her dangerously for a moment, and then his features relax, and he bursts into laughter. "Gods, woman. I won't stop him. Nor will Sydney. Lea Monde will stop him."
"Ah, Lea Monde," Merlose says with an insouciance she does not feel. "Fabled Lea Monde. I do not know that Lea Monde is such an insurmountable place, if the efforts of one city cannot impede Agent Riot's progress."
"It's not yet trying to--" Hardin starts to say, and then he shuts his mouth with a mulish expression.
Merlose hopes she is regarding him with an expression of disdainful ease, but apparently she does not entirely succeed, for Hardin's face once again creases into a grim smile.
"Ah, woman," he says. "I see now. The city terrifies you, doesn't it? How strange. For such is not its aim with you. You are naught but a small fish in great waters. It barely perceives you, and it hardly aims to crush you."
Merlose says nothing.
Hardin crosses his arms. "If anything, the minor creatures crawling through this shrine bear more fear of you than you do for them." He laughs at her face. "No, you don't believe me? I would hardly leave you and the boy in a place where you might be devoured. You may not believe it, but Sydney is treating you most courteously. Here, come and see."
He moves behind her, and Merlose feels his swift fingers among her bonds. Finally freed, she winces as she pulls her arms forward and rubs her sore wrists. She stands and closes her eyes as blood tingles along her limbs.
"No escaping now," Hardin chuckles, and Merlose shoots him a look of loathing. She knows she lacks the strength to overcome him, and even if she did, she would not be able to rescue herself and Joshua from this fell place. Hand-to-hand combat and breakneck escapes are not her strengths. They are more in Agent Riot's line.
"Come and look," Hardin says, taking her gingerly by the crook of her elbow. Merlose stoically allows herself to be led beyond the lit space among the crates and down the murky steps. She can hear rustles in the dark at their approach.
"Here," Hardin says, and he cups his hands until a faint luminous ball appears between his palms. "Stay," he says to it, as if it was a recalcitrant pet, and it obediently floats to hang over his right shoulder.
"Look, Callo," Hardin says. "Aren't they beautiful?"
The problem is that they are beautiful. The creatures writhing up and down the stone walls are an iridescent emerald in color, and their segmented joints make them look like wiggling pieces of lacquered clockwork. They are only a few inches in length, but there are dozens, maybe hundreds, moving along the face of the wall. They have wings, Merlose sees suddenly. Their wings, ceaselessly fluttering, account for some of the overwhelming sense of motion.
"God's sleeve," Merlose breaths.
"Here," Hardin says with childish satisfaction. He reaches out and plucks one creature from the wall. It whirrs its wings in increasing agitation, but it remains otherwise docile. "Here, catch."
Merlose catches the tossed monster only from reflex, and she freezes as soon as thought penetrates her brain. She can feel the tiny feet, sharp and plentiful, rippling along her palm. At last, her heart in her throat, she looks down at the creature in her hands.
It marches back and forth across her palm, with occasional excursions up her thumb. From here, Merlose can see its two heads and their gaping purple mouths lined with tiny teeth. It seems blind, for it presses the antennae from its two heads against her hand to determine its route. Merlose finds herself curious about the advantages of two heads for the creature. Did it have two separate digestive systems, or does it share a common stomach? And the blindness...but no, of course, if it lived only in the dark, that is only natural. Merlose remembers her lessons in dissection and anatomy from the Academy, and she finds herself trying to trace the lineaments of the creature. Her first reaction--the shriek of a six-year-old girl--is ruthlessly suppressed by her scientific Academy-trained curiosity.
The thing is horrible. It is also, faintly, wonderful.
"Ah," Hardin says in tones of satisfaction. "Sydney was right. He said the place would call out to you."
Merlose stops smiling. She coolly drops the creature, and it rushes back to its countless companions. "Did he?"
Hardin shrugs. "You may be as you please. But I've brought you and Joshua lunch, for we must be moving soon."
"Oh?" Merlose asks as she follows him back to the candle and Joshua. "Some new prison?"
"We must go deeper into the city, but not yet. First, you must eat."
They break their fast with stale bread, hard cheese, and warm water. It does not rank as one of the most savory meals Merlose has ever sat before, but she has not eaten for hours, and hunger is its own salt.
Joshua happily eats everything, and Hardin watches him with an expression that Merlose might have, in another man, called paternal.
"You were telling a story, when I came in," Hardin says. "About that King Delita fellow, yes?"
"Ah, the nobility always tells stories about him as a king, him as a great man, but I prefer the stories about his early life, when he was naught better than a bandit."
"And you accuse me of faerie tales," Merlose says. "Those stories are even more dubious. We have fragmentary evidence of his later life but almost nothing about his early life."
"Writing is only good so far as it goes," Hardin says. "But stories...they have a mind of their own, you know. They don't want to be forgotten. That's why they tell themselves, again and again. They're like a plague, of sorts. And once you've been told a story, you've got to tell that story yourself. Stories keep themselves alive. Books...well, they're already dead. They're born dead. No better way to kill a story, I think, than to set it down in a book."
Merlose lifts one sardonic eyebrow.
"As I was saying," Hardin says. "My favorite story was the time he kidnapped that princess."
Merlose rolls her eyes. "That was the story I was telling, Hardin."
"Then I know a different version, Callo," Hardin says. "And it has a sight fewer tragic princesses and sighing monsters, you may be sure." He turns to Joshua. "Would you like to hear the tale, m'boy?"
Joshua wiggles ecstatically.
"Well, then. Once upon a time, in a land far away, the Good King Delita--although this was before he was king, you understand--went riding in a woods when he came upon a princess being kidnapped..."
"But what about bears?"
There was a long silence in the dark. "There are no bears in these woods."
She bit her lip. "But...perhaps not native to these forests, but maybe they traveled...?"
When Delita spoke, there was a fine note of patience in his voice. "No. No bears."
"There's a creature who lives in these woods," said Delita, "who eats bears."
Ovelia swallowed. Her fears were not assuaged.
"And you need not ask," Delita said, "for that creature is not around either. I assure you, princess."
Ovelia nervously hiccuped, but she bravely forbore asking him for more details. She dimly suspected such details would not be a comfort.
"Good night, Princess," he said with an air of finality, for he had said the same phrase several times. His voice, quiet and deep, came from a point perhaps three meters to Ovelia's left.
She could not escape from him--not that she so wished, not any longer, not after he had explained his secret mission to rescue her from the grasp of treasonous traitors. No, she did not wish to escape, even should such a thing have been possible. She trusted this dark, laconic knight. She did. Honestly.
She also had faith that he would not allow wild monsters to devour her during the night, but this faith would have been stronger if he had been nearer. Perhaps the monsters were supernaturally silent? Might he not wake up tomorrow to discover her bedding empty and bloody?
"It's just," she said shrilly, "that bears are unpredictable. They might even have killed this creature you mentioned."
There was a long-suffering sigh. "Is there anything I could do," he said, "that would make you go to sleep?"
Keep talking to me, Ovelia thought, but she said instead, "Maybe if we slept...um...closer together. That way, nothing could come for one of us without the other knowing."
Delita sneezed, or at least she thought he sneezed; it sounded a little like a sneeze. "Very well, princess."
Ovelia heard rustling leaves getting closer and closer, and she was just congratulating herself on her own cunning when she felt the edge of his bedding brush her elbow.
"Here," he said. "Close enough?" And without waiting for her answer, she felt him straighten out the bedding and stretch out along it. She was close enough to feel the warmth from his body, as if he were a radiant sun.
Ovelia swallowed again. Somehow, she had not anticipated that he would be this close. Bears now seemed the least of her concerns.
"So," he purred. "Is there anything else you would like from me, princess?"
It was on the tip of Ovelia's tongue to stammer out an apology and then feign sleep, for nine tenths of Ovelia's personality comprised nervous self-effacement and free-floating anxiety. Instead, at this supremely inappropriate time, the remaining tenth--the saucy and rebellious tenth--reared its ugly head.
"Why, yes," she heard herself say. "I would most dearly like to hear a bedtime story, sir."
There was a moment of ominous silence, and then Delita chuckled. "Oh, you would, would you?"
"Yes, sir," Ovelia said primly.
"No," Delita said. "You go, instead."
"Tell a story, Ovelia," he said. "It seems as if I've spent this whole day talking to you, and you've hardly said one word."
"I don't know any stories," she said immediately.
"Nonsense," he said coaxingly. "Go on. I don't care what it's about. Tell a story, any story."
"Well," Ovelia said, and she licked her lips. "Well, I always liked stories about the High Queen Ashelia. Have you ever heard of her?"
"Yes," he said slowly. "Yes, I have heard of her."
"So," Ovelia said, and she closed her eyes for a minute to steady herself. Her action accomplished nothing. It was still just as dark inside her eyelids, and she could still feel him beside her. She could have reached over and taken his hand, had she wished.
Instead, she opened her eyes. "Once upon a time," she heard herself say, "before the High Queen came to her throne, she went on a mighty quest and achieved a magic stone. This stone was blessed, for only a true hero would have been able to grasp it, and it contained a mighty guardian, a monster of gigantic proportions. But the High Queen tamed it, and ever after that, it followed her as might a loyal dog. The High Queen and her companions rode through the desert, and then..."
The stone whispered in her ear when she slept.
Ashe stifled a yawn. Overhead, an enormous full moon swung over the Dalmasca Westersands. It was her own fault, she knew. She should not have taken the watch when she had been unable to sleep the previous night, but her pride and her fear had required it.
And she could tell no one about the stone's whispers. This she knew, instinctively and incontrovertibly.
She leaned against the rock, still warm from the day's sun, and cast an eye across her companions. Four were sleeping. Vaan was sprawled on his back with his arms stretched above his head. By morning, Ashe knew, he would have wiggled his way completely out of his bedding, unconscious all the while. Penelo, curled into a fetal position, lay to his right. On her other side, Fran was stretched out, perfectly straight, with her arms folded behind her head. Ashe suddenly doubted that Fran was asleep; she lay too perfectly still for that. She was watching the constellations, perhaps; Ashe knew that viera put great store by the stars. Balthier, on the far side of Fran, was a distant and faintly snoring lump.
She was still deciding how to feel about her companions. Irritation seemed the safest course, but it was polluted with a creeping, servile thankfulness. Without this motley crew, she would undoubtedly be dead now. On the other hand, everyone she had ever loved was dead now. Or nearly everyone.
The bedding of her fifth companion was empty, and Ashe stared at it for some time. The moon continued to climb above her.
Ashe straightened and stamped her feet idly against the packed sand. She was so tired, and yet she was so nervous of sleeping. She had such dreams, and the stone...
She deliberately pushed that thought away. There were stories about magic stones and the madness to which they drove their users, but Ashe could not afford to go mad yet.
Later, she thought. After my vengeance, I will be as mad as you desire. I promise. Cross my heart and pray to die.
She began walking the perimeter of their encampment. Just a few more hours of this, and it would be Balthier's watch, and then Ashe would have the opportunity to put her weary head down and...watch the stars, most likely.
She sighed. Even without the stone, she did not look forward to her dreams. Vossler--
This thought, too, she deliberately pushed away.
She crested a small dune at one corner of their camp and suddenly saw Basch, a silvery statue in the moonlight, a few meters down the hill. She cast a glance over the magical wards that Fran had set up around their camp. Nothing had disturbed them. She stepped over one silvery line on the sand and padded down the slope to Basch.
He straightened and turned at her approach. He held his sword in one hand, and Ashe now saw that he had been sharpening it. He looped his small whetstone around his belt and sheathed his blade. In the moonlight, he had brilliantly pale hair and an unseen expression. Between the stark planes of his forehead and cheeks, his eyes were shadowed; beneath the line of his nose, his mouth was dark.
"You Highness," he said, and even his voice was stripped of inflection.
"Basch," she replied, uncertain what else she should say. It had been easier, before, when she had been free to hate him.
Basch seemed to share her unease, for he folded his arms in a gesture that she remembered from her childhood, when he had been new and untried in her father's court. "I do not remember," he said, "the last time that I saw a moon that size."
"Yes," Ashe agreed dully.
"We will reach Rabanastre tomorrow, I believe."
"Yes," Ashe said. "Of course, we would have reached it sooner if our companions had not crashed our flyer."
"Mmm," Basch rumbled. "The imperial patrols are swarming in the area, after the destruction of the Leviathan. Balthier felt it would be safest to destroy the evidence, Your Highness, and I am inclined to agree with him."
"And now I lead a gang of sky pirates on foot."
"We are blessed," Basch said gently, "that they have accompanied us this long."
Ashe stiffened. "Do not presume," she hissed, "to lecture me on my blessings."
Basch looked away. "My apologies, Your Highness."
Ashe stared grimly at the swollen moon. After all her work, after her sacrifices, she was little better than a wandering desert pilgrim leading a crew of thieves and murderers.
She touched the pocket hanging from her belt. Still. She had some power. She was not completely helpless.
"Has Your Highness discovered anything new about your birthright?" Basch asked quietly.
"The Dawn Shard?" Ashe asked. "No. It might be merely a dumb stone, were it not for what we witnessed on the Leviathan. No, I cannot yet unlock its secrets but, perhaps, in time..." She frowned into the distance.
"And the other?" Basch asked. "The stone that summons the Gigas?"
Ashe was silent. "No," she said. "It has done nothing untoward, but...it is always warm, and I can feel it throbbing when I touch it. It is a thing living, Basch."
"Yes," Basch said gravely.
"I have heard legends of King Raithwall's monster," Ashe said. "But I had never dreamed of seeing it myself. Do you know ought of it, Basch?"
"Of Raithwall's Gigas? No, not really. As much as you do, if that. It's just..." He frowned at the sands.
"It reminds me of another story, one that I heard as a boy, but I can not think why. I do not think it is connected to your Gigas."
"Ah," Ashe said. "Do tell."
"The story, Basch," Ashe said impatiently.
"Very well, Your Highness," Basch said, in the tones of a man choosing his words with care. "Once upon a time, in a land far away, there existed twelve magic stones, and each contained a most horrifying monster. These stones were responsible for great evil over the years. In some fashion or another, the twelve stones all came within the possession of one knight, who was pure enough of heart to overcome the cursed stones. And so he traveled the land with these twelve stones, for to stay in any one place would mean tainting the land with their evil."
Ashe slid a furtive hand within her pocket. She ran a protective finger against the pulsing orb wherein slept her Gigas.
"But he did not travel alone," Basch said. "For beside him rode his sister on a snow-white chocobo. The sister was surpassing fair, and the knight had a goodly countenance, and so the people who saw them attested that they must be on a holy pilgrimage. But it was not so. For the sister also bore a curse, a curse linked in some way to the twelve magic stones in her brother's possession. She was possessed by a dark spirit, something unclean, and it used her as its mouth.
"Whenever she spoke, it was to prophesy disaster and catastrophe. All who heard her knew that she spoke with a demon's voice, for her voice was the voice of the flaming pits. All who saw her thought her most comely, but all who heard her knew her as a puppet of the dark. And beside her walked her brother, the knight, who tirelessly towed both her and the stones from place to place, never resting long enough to do mischief to the land. They traveled ceaselessly, like eternal vagrants. And so they sought a respite, a way to rid themselves of their curses, but it was not to be found. And finally they disappeared into distant lands, and so the twelve magic stones passed from history. None know where they may be now."
Ashe withdrew her hand from her pocket and pulled the stone with it. In the moonlight, it glowed faintly red: darker than rubies or roses, brighter than blood or rust. It fit comfortably within her hand with the sturdy weight of a sword hilt.
"Cursed stones?" Ashe said. "I know naught about them, but I know that power may always be used or abused by we mortals. Left alone, it is...nothing. It is merely power. I wonder if these stones of which you speak were truly evil, or if they were merely stained by the actions of others. Or if that sister was merely misunderstood."
"A tool, badly used, may become too warped for its needed role," Basch said.
Ashe laughed dryly. "But I have no time for such reflection, Basch. I must seize what tools I may. I will pay whatever price I must, but I will not shy from what is needful."
"No," Basch said. "I would not ask you to do so, Ashe."
She glanced at him sidelong. "Do you think I act as one cursed, Basch?"
"Because," she said slowly, running a trembling thumb across the stone's smooth surface, "I believe the stone speaks to my dreams."
Basch said nothing.
"I have dreamt such strange things these past nights," Ashe said. "About my father, and Rasler, and you, and Voss--about other people, I mean. And the Dynast-King himself. It seems as if I half-remember stories that nobody has ever told me. Are you not concerned, Basch?" she asked sharply. "Is not this the first sign of a cursed madness?"
"No," Basch said quietly. "Your Highness, it is not. You have undergone great hardship and sacrifice, and it troubles your sleep. Nothing more."
Ashe lifted her arm slowly. "Here, Basch. Take it. Hold it to your ear. Tell me that you do not hear it muttering."
Basch took it from her; his warm hand briefly grazed her fingers. He pressed the red stone to his ear in the manner of a man listening to the sea through a shell.
The moon hung overhead, waiting.
"No, Your Highness," he said slowly. "I hear nothing but the heartbeat of some sleeping beast. It breathes, I think, but it does not speak. Yet."
"Does it not?"
"And even if it does," Basch said slowly, lowering his hand, "I do not think you should take alarm, for I do not think it means you harm. I do not think that your ancestor, the Dynast-King, would have left his descendants anything so pernicious. If it tells you stories, Your Highness, perhaps you should listen."
"They are only stories," Ashe said tonelessly. "They are not the truth." She felt tremendously tired.
"I once met a tribe, far to the south," Basch said, "who collected stories. They believed that stories lived a life outside mortal affairs. Or, rather, that stories swam in the shared dream of the tribe. Two people, separated by miles, might yet know a common story. Whether a story was true or not...well, that was beside the point. The tribesmen merely wanted to fish out the story in its entirety. They asked all visitors for their histories, for they expected a multitude of people to possess scattered fragments of a common truth. They revered the story, and I do not think that was any bad thing."
Ashe said nothing.
Basch hesitated, and in his hand, the stone glowed more intensely. "You have...dreamed about Vossler, have you not?"
Her head snapped back. "Do not speak his name to me."
"Your Highness," he said, "I cannot defend Vossler's actions. He...he was much changed, and I do not know that I truly know his mind. But he had not changed so much that I could not read his heart. What he did, Your Highness, he did for you and for Dalmasca. He followed the path that he thought would serve you best."
"And instead of serving me," Ashe said, "he served our enemy." Two years ago, she might have sobbed like a child of six at his desertion, but she had no tears now. She was a desert now.
Her shadow, her single support during those two years of agony, had ripped off his mask to reveal the face of a monster. And the monster whom she had reviled as the slayer of her father? He had emerged from the darkness, and now he stood before her. In a company of thieves and children, he was her most loyal ally.
She felt the familiar flare of irritation and gratitude.
"What shall I do now, Basch? I once saw my path so straight before me, but now...now, things seem to cloud my vision. What do I now seek?"
"Sleep," Basch said promptly. "We will make our plans when we arrive in Rabanastre and have a clearer view of the situation. But for now, Your Highness, you should sleep. I will take the remainder of your watch."
Ashe considered this for a moment. "No," she said at last. "No, Basch. It is my watch, and I will keep it myself. I will not ask any more from my men than what I ask of myself."
"Very well," Basch said, and he held out the red stone to her.
"But you," she said, "you should sleep, Basch. Consider it an order."
"Very well," he said, his face without expression.
He trudged up the hill to their camp, and Ashe watched him go. In her hand, the stone pulsed faintly, like the tiny heartbeat of a chick within its egg. Ashe closed her eyes.
No, she thought firmly. Not yet.
The stone subsided. The moon waited overhead.
She walked around the camp in circles that alternately widened and contracted. She prowled over cliffs and gullies; she scuffed a parallel line around Fran's silvered ward-line. The quiet of the night comprised the hum of distant insects and the scuffles of unseen rodents. Once, she startled a brown fox burrowing into a rabbit's hole, but otherwise the larger creatures of the Westersands were hunting elsewhere on this night.
When she returned to camp, she sat on the rock and watched the moon. Ashe could feel Fran watching her, but they did not speak; they allowed one another the illusion of solitude.
Ashe heard Basch's steady breath as he slept, and she remembered how the sound of sleeping men had been one of her childhood comforts. She could remember slipping through her father's moonlit palace on some illicit mission and feeling reassured by every snoring courtier she passed. Her father had possessed a rattling snore that could be heard in distant hallways at night. Her husband, in contrast, had barely made a sound when he slept; he merely exhaled deep, warm whispers. Ashe could remember waking to the sound of his breath and the beat of his heart, like two muffled clappers to the same ringing bell.
Her Gigas throbbed.
Vossler had talked in his sleep. On more than one occasion, Ashe had sat upright in bed, shedding sleep and seizing her sword in the same second, only to realize the sound of an enemy interloper was only Vossler holding a gruff and fragmented conversation with his dream self. Every time, she sighed and went back to sleep. She had never bothered to puzzle out the conversation. She had never asked her shadow about what haunted his dreams. They shared enough ghosts to make the question superfluous.
She rubbed her eyes wearily.
Basch, sleeping before her, did not quite snore, but there was a slight rumble, the faintest edge, to his respiration. He sounded hoarse, as if he bore some long-past injury to his throat that had never quite healed. His breath rasped like the rising waves of some faithful tide.
The moon waited. Ashe closed her eyes for the merest second only.
The monster gnawed on the thighbone of a goat as he watched the boy climb the cliff.
The boy had spent the morning crossing the sands, and the monster had spent the morning shadowing him, unseen, from the high cliffs. The monster knew that the boy had come to kill him. That was the only reason that people came to the outer reaches of these sands. The monster was accustomed to their pilgrimages. Normally, he cracked open their skulls and drank the pulp of their brains, but that was only after he had grown bored of following them. He had not yet bored of the boy.
The boy hoisted himself onto a ledge and paused to brush grit from his hands. He was dressed in the leathers of the tribes to the south, the monster observed. He had originally come riding a chocobo, but the chocobo had died from the desert heat on the previous day. The boy had left the bird behind and continued forward on foot. The monster had circled back and devoured the dead mount. Sticky feathers still clung to his beard, no matter how often his four hands brushed them out.
The boy resumed his precarious clamber upwards. He did not look like the usual type of hero who came to kill the monster. He was a young hume, barely older than a colt. He bore no sword and no armor. He had been carrying a long pack over his shoulder, but that had been lost at some point. And, even more puzzling to the monster, he was going the wrong way.
At some point in his hike over the sands, the boy had gotten turned around and started retracing his steps. The cliff he was climbing now was a cliff he had climbed yesterday, only going the other way. He might have lost his way, but he did not look like a boy who had lost his way. His movements had a firm, determined quality.
The monster hunkered down, out of sight, and watched him. The sun was blisteringly hot overhead, but the monster liked the heat. He felt it soak through his arms and his heads, stoking a fire banked beneath his skin. The monster had been born within fire. This shimmering desert seemed a cold and lonely place in contrast.
The monster tossed the stripped thighbone aside and began to pick at the bits of flesh stuck between his teeth.
The boy reached the top, a flat face of stone that abutted yet higher cliffs. The boy brushed the sand from his hands, brushed his hair back, and disappeared.
A few seconds passsed before the monster reacted. He stood up and ambled closer to the cliff edge, but even with this new vantage, he could not see the boy. The boy might have eeled his way through a narrow crevice along the cliffs; the monster was used to hunting prey who tried to escape him thus. As a rule, the prey did not reckon on the monster's slender fingers and opposable thumbs.
On the other hand, the prey only did such things when they saw him. The monster had not realized that the boy had seen him. The monster felt a flutter of confusion and unease.
The monster swung forward and leapt from the cliff edge. He landed on the lower ledge with a crack like a thunder, and all the pebbles skittered an inch to the left or the right. He now stood where the boy had last stood. There was no sign of the boy.
There was, however, a gap in the cliff face: a crevice gouged out by the running waters of a past rainy season. A higher mass of rock had collapsed against the top of the opening, providing a crude archway and virtual invisibility from above.
The monster shattered the roof with one blow and pushed himself through the gap. Rock crumbled away at his rough passage. He dragged himself from the confines of the cliff and stepped forward to stand on the wider avenue on the other side. Instead, he fell.
He went down with a crash and a roar, and part of the cliff face came with him. Rocks and monster together tumbled into the pit's net.
The monster hit the ground with an earth-rumbling crash. A second later, he thrashed upright, and by then it was too late. His movements had wrapped him more tightly within the netting strung beneath the deceptive ground, and its weighted edges had snarled themselves around his limbs. He wrestled with the net, and the net tightened its grip.
The monster collapsed against the ground and panted heavily. He thought of fire, and the threads of the net began to smoke.
"I wouldn't do that," came a high-pitched voice from above him. "I wrapped the selkie hairs over a framework of binesi bones, and I do not think they take fire well."
The monster strained against the netting and looked up to see the boy perched on a ledge. The dirt and dust thrown up by the monster's plunge was still thick in the air, and the boy was surrounded by a cloud of sunlit motes.
The monster howled with terrible promise.
"Yes, I know," the boy said sedately. "I have interfered with your noble plans to eat me. You cannot be too hungry, though. After all, you dined upon my chocobo only yesterday. I hope he was a toothsome morsel, for he was a noble steed and a difficult sacrifice. As I strung up this very net, I kept thinking of the two of you back there. I hope you made his death quick. I hope he proved a delicacy to you."
The monster growled menacingly.
"Yes, I know," the boy said. "You want to drink my blood and braid my bones into your beard. You, the great and terrible beast that roams the ends of the earth. You, the monster the southern tribes know as Blaze Walker and Four Hands. You, the creature the western sailors know as the Fire With Two Mouths. You, that one the northern philosophers call the mythical Gigas. You, that the gods named Belias. Yes, I know you."
The monster snuffled irritably.
"You don't know me, though," the boy said. "I am not like the others who have come to find you here. I have not come to kill you, Gigas. I have come to enlist you."
If the boy had expected surprise at this statement, he was disappointed. The monster shrugged and turned partly away. He was more familiar and more weary with would-be masters than the boy may have thought.
The boy drummed his heels against the cliff wall. At last, he said, "Yes, I know you. You, made to be guardian and gate-keeper of the gods, if the musty scrolls of the philosophers are to be believed. You, man and monster and mistake. You, thrown from the heavens and denied their ethereal flames. You, you are necessary."
The monster slumped sullenly.
"I had a dream two years ago," the boy continued in the sing-song cadences of someone reciting a well-rehearsed story. "I was out on the plains, watching my father's herds. Night came, and I sat among the warm bodies of the slumbering animals and watched the moon--the largest and brightest moon I have ever seen--rise over the grasslands. And perhaps I slept for a time, for it seemed to me that the moon descended to earth like a soap bubble falling to the ground. And when it hit the ground, it broke apart into smaller bubbles of light, and those bubbles spoke to me with inhuman tongues. They called me Future-King. They called me Emperor. They called me Chosen One. They said I would be lord of all the lands between the two seas, the conqueror and the unifier of all peoples in those lands."
The monster pricked one ear up.
"All I must do, they said, was come to their city," the boy said. "Just come to their fabled, hidden city. There, they would give me the tools to build an empire and a history that would ring in the ears of man long after I am dust. I shall be the selected instrument of their fate. Or so they said." The boy laughed. "And then the moon was simply a moon again, and I found myself amidst my father's slumbering animals. The next morning, I stole one of my father's knives and a wheel of my mother's cheese, and I left my tribe. I have spent two years in the world: walking across the plains, rowing as a galley slave, fighting as a merchant's guard, learning to write in the great cities of the north, winning a sword and a steed and, finally, a name. The priests named me Raithwall and promised me a grand destiny, but that one I already knew. For I have spent two years searching for the city of the gods, and at last, I have discovered it. Down in the fogged forests that lie in the farthest southern reaches, there is a city. And a gate. And a gate-keeper."
The monster looked up at the boy, and at last he realized what he had missed about the boy before. There was a gleam in the boy's eye, an unnatural light shared by madmen and prophets alike. The boy housed a flame of destiny. The monster had seen the look before; he had felt its devouring heat.
"And so I have found you, Gigas. But I have not come to command you or enslave you. I know that you have been exiled by the gods; I know that you now wail in this wilderness. And so I offer you something better. I offer you a partnership. Come with me, and help me scale the walls of Giruvegan. Come with me, and help me build an empire. I offer you a purpose and a place. I offer you my friendship. Come with me, and be not a monster any longer."
There was a silence. And then, in a voice grown cracked and acid-eaten in centuries of disuse, the monster said, "The gods are not to be trusted."
"No," the boy said easily. "I would not suspect that they are. But I shall be emperor, with the gods or without, and I believe they are a tool fitted for me. I believe the story they told me, even if I do not believe in their good intentions. And I believe in you, Gigas. I do not believe a thousand years of living like a mindless beast have robbed you of your higher instincts. The old stories say that you are loyal, so long as you are repaid with like coin. And I believe the stories."
The monster stood there, with netting fast around him and blood in his beard, and thought about things that had not troubled him since the world was young and he was new-made. Finally he said, "Tell me, first, about this kingdom you would cut from whole cloth, little princeling. Tell me about this promised empire."
The flame leapt higher in the boy's eyes, and he began to tell the monster about the nation he would build. The monster let the boy's voice spool past him and peered between the words to the other tales bound to the boy's dream. There were histories both dead and nascent, and the monster saw they shared common threads, the same pattern of rebellion and power. Images skittered through his mind: a broken plinth, a rusty crown, a sunken city.
The monster had heard this story before, and he would hear it again. It was either part of the same long story that unwound into eternity, or it was one of the many echos of a forgotten story, like concentric halos marking a stone vanished within well-water.
The monster let the boy tell his story, and then the monster opened his two terrible mouths to say--
"Hello, Princess. Sweet dreams?"
Ashe started and cursed herself for starting in the same spurt of consciousness.
"Keeping a close watch on the camp, are we?" Balthier asked in a voice that was as light and as sharp as a stiletto blade. "Keeping an eye out for vagrant monsters and wandering Imperials?"
Ashe crossed her arms furiously. "I only had my eyes closed for a moment. I was still awake."
"Well," Balthier drawled, "I perceive you possess strange and powerful abilities of sight, Princess, because your eyes have been closed for ten minutes. I stood here and watched you. You will be pleased to know that you do not snore when you sleep. You make little kitten-like rumbles. They are oddly endearing."
Ashe's retort was cut off at a motion behind Balthier. They both turned to look at Fran, still prone under the stars, as she raised one leisurely hand with every finger unfurled. After a beat, she lowered the hand. Her face did not turn from the sky.
"Ah," Balthier said. "My better half corrects me. You have only been asleep for five minutes, not ten. Clearly insufficient time for an Archades death squad to slit our throats while we slept. My apologies, my dear."
They stared at one another, and their teeth gleamed in the moonlight. Ashe had drawn her lips back in a snarl. Balthier was grinning.
"I suppose you wish to take your watch early," Ashe said, spitting out the words.
"Gods, no," Balthier said. "I wish to take my watch at the appointed time. Which would be...now, by my calculations."
Ashe shot an involuntary, incredulous look at the sky, and, indeed, the stars had wheeled into a later position than she had realized.
"Though I know that it is far too easy," Balthier said, "to lose track of the hour in the depths of dreams. Time moves differently there, and--"
There was another motion behind Balthier as Fran's hand rise once more, this time to perform a strange undulating wave motion that Ashe did not understand. It seemed to make sense to Balthier. His head was turned away, but Ashe saw the back of his right jaw bone, scored by the moon, shift as he wore several different expressions with great rapidity.
When he turned back to Ashe, he wore his familiar mask of sardonic solemnity, but his voice, when he spoke, held a strange note: nearly raw, almost tender.
"Pray, Princess," he said. "I think we are all unraveled with exhaustion, and you most of all. Sleep, Princess. I will take my watch."
"I wasn't asleep before," Ashe said stubbornly. "I was just thinking about something."
"I know, Princess, I know," Balthier crooned. "Some problems are best considered in the dark. But now it is time for me to bear the mantle of responsibility and for you to sleep."
He offered his hand, and she grimly took it as she rose from her stone seat. "Just so we are clear--" she started.
"Everything, Princess, is crystal," he said. "Now go to bed, Ashe. You are off-duty. I duly promise that I will eat my heart and wring my hands enough for the both of us."
She snatched her hand back, and his teeth grinned in the moonlight. She stalked away.
Even wrapped in her bedding, just past Penelo's warm form, it took Ashe some time before she fell asleep. She listened to the distant rise and fall of Basch's reassuring breath. She felt Fran's steady awareness, like a blanket across her companions, as the viera watched the stars. And Ashe saw, from the corner of her eye, the moonlit edges of Balthier's face, turned not to regard the sky but to watch her.
The Gigas stone pulsed faintly by her side.
But eventually she closed her eyes, and her restless dreams turned to the homeland she would recover. If monsters or ghosts whispered stories in her ear while she slept, they were no different from the tales she already knew.
"...and so finally the High Queen climbed the sacred mountain, but there her companions and she discovered a most foul treachery." Ovelia yawned. "And I think...maybe...I will continue this story tomorrow night. If...if you still want to hear it, I mean."
"I still want to hear it," Delita said in the dark. "It was a good story, Ovelia."
"Thank you," Ovelia whispered.
"I had a friend, when I was a child," Delita said musingly, "and he would tell stories like that, only he could make them up off the top of his head. He and his sister both. They were such strange stories; I wonder now how they thought of them. And we would say, when we were children, that as soon as we grew up, we would go on our own fantastic quests. Together, as a family. He and his sister, along with me and mine."
"You have a sister?" Ovelia asked sleepily.
"Yes," he said shortly. "She is dead now."
Ovelia said nothing to this, but the thought that Delita had once had a sister made him seem somewhat different, slightly more vulnerable. He seemed more like someone with stories of his own.
"Good night, Delita."
"Good night, Ovelia," he said. "Sweet dreams."
"...and then they had a most fantastic fight over a waterfall, and Good King Delita drove his sword through the gullet of the enemy commander, who was naught but aristocratic scum, and then--"
But Merlose and Joshua are destined to be deprived of the grisly particulars, for just at that moment, Hardin stops speaking. He tilts his head to one side and looks for all the world as if he is listening to something, but Merlose can hear nothing. The room is silent. There is not even the sound of monsters in the dark.
"Damn," Hardin says suddenly. "He has penetrated further than I expected. We need to go deeper now."
"Yes, yes," Hardin says impatiently as he stands. "Deeper into the city. Come along, Joshua. And you, you come here."
Merlose icily endures the indignity of having her wrists bound once again. "How much deeper do we go?"
"To the center," Hardin says. "Eventually. But no worries, lassie. So long as you stay close to me, there will be nothing that harms you."
"Now," Hardin says, turning to Joshua. "Are you coming?"
The boy nods enthusiastically.
"And you, milady?" he asks acidly. "Will you be joining us on this pleasure excursion?"
"It seems I have no choice," Merlose says.
"No," Hardin agrees. "But your compliance is appreciated, all the same. Come along, then, children. And mind your steps." He turns and begin to pound down the crumbling steps. His magelight dances beside his head.
Joshua scrambles after him like a puppy. Merlose follows at a more stately pace, her hands tied tightly before her.
As she steps down, she sees one of the emerald clockwork monsters. This straggler is lurching along the edge of the wall and before it disappears down an inky crevice, Merlose sees a glimpse of its many shiny legs pumping along its side.
She thinks about that creature as she stumbles behind Hardin along wet tunnels and sunless roads. She keeps inspecting it within her mind. It has stories locked within it, she knows. Every bone, every eye, every drop of ichor is a key.
If I get out of here, she promises herself, I'll learn more about them. I'll teach myself about them. Have they ever been studied before? What things will they be able to tell us? She feels a buzz of giddiness.
And as she walks through the dark, the monsters of the sunken city rise from their scummed ponds and watch her pass.
"...and so then, the courageous secret agent was carried deep within the cursed city. She could have fought her way free at any time, but she bravely imperiled herself for the sake of the mute prince, who was under a terrible curse. The ghosts of the city came forth and told her their horrible stories, but the agent was unquailing. For she had a secret power: she could read the hearts of all around her. But she also had a terrible destiny, and she had been brought to the city to bear a terrible blessing."
"Terribly gothic," said the young man. His leathers were stained and travel-worn, but the hilt of the sword sticking out of his scabbard was tooled in silver, and anyone might have been forgiven for thinking he was a knight.
"Shhh," said the young woman. "It's my story, after all." She was leading a saddled chocobo. He occasionally tried to eat her hair.
The road stretched before and behind them.
"And what's her partner doing during all this, may I ask?"
"Nothing much," the young woman said cheerfully. "But he's hardly the hero of this piece."
"Naturally," her brother said.
"Well, I think it's better than your effort," she said. "I didn't even understand half the things going on. There were all these assassinations and double-crosses and coups. And everything important happens away from the heroes, who are just muddling around and doing unimportant things in the countryside!"
"So sorry, my dear. My next effort will be...it will be about a pair of poor but scrappy orphans who are sucked into another kingdom when they read a magic text. There, they become the princes of different houses and are unknowingly forced to war against one another. But then they discover the deception and team up to destroy the evil force that brought them there. The end."
She said nothing. The chocobo warbled happily.
"Only with more details, of course," he said thoughtfully. "And maybe some magic animal companions. Magic talking animal companions. Who just want to be friends with our heroes. And have tea parties."
She still said nothing, and at last, her brother looked over to her. "And...oh. Here, give me the reins."
Her head lowered, she handed him the reins. She was trembling; her breath came in shallow gasps.
They stopped moving, and the inquisitive chocobo made a preliminary taste of the young man's hair. He batted the beak away casually and continued to watch his sister. The trembling became more pronounced.
She shuddered convulsively and then went perfectly still. The young man continued to regard her as he absently stroked the chocobo's neck. The chocobo, well-used to this routine, happily twisted so that the young man could reach his best spots.
Around them, the birds were singing from the trees. The bees were buzzing sleepily over budding flowers. In a field beside the dusty road, sheep stood like distant clouds with stubby legs. Anyone might have been forgiven for thinking the scene bucolic.
When the young woman lifted her head, her eyes had rolled back so that only the whites were visible.
"Good afternoon," the young man said wearily.
"Thrice the stone breaks," said the young woman, but now she spoke in a different voice: a voice that crackled like burning wood, a voice that rang like shattered glass. "Thrice the unborn lamb is undone."
"Jolly good," said the young man.
"And you, you will be thrown down at last, like the wheat before the scythe, and blood will seep from the wells, and twelve shall be the number of the handmaidens who bring it forth like water, and--" The woman's head snapped back abruptly, and she went silent.
"Ah," the young man chirped. "That was quick."
The young woman lowered her head and ruefully rubbed the back of her neck. She opened her brown eyes and focused on her brother.
"Well," she said, in a high, shrill voice. "Well! Did I bespeak any good gossip?"
"It was the standard fare," her brother said.
She laughed a trifle hysterically and sank her face against the chocobo's neck. The chocobo hummed against her.
"You are getting faster," her brother said. "It didn't even have a chance to get into the boiling lakes or the flaming rain."
"Oh, yes," she said. "There's a trick to it, I think. You just have to...well. It's hard to explain. It's as if you adopt a certain frame of mind and pull it right from under his feet. Her feet. Its feet."
"Ah," he said.
"Ah," she agreed. "What did our friend say, though?"
"Nothing out of the ordinary," he said. "It was the usual drill. Talked about bleeding wells."
"God," she said. "Our friend has a fixation on wells."
"I wouldn't be surprised," he agreed.
"And it just repeats itself, over and over," she said. "As if it's trying to remake itself through words alone. It's as if it thinks, if it says the thing, then it will happen."
"Mmmm," he said.
She pushed herself away from the chocobo and began to calmly smooth back her disordered hair. "I do hate our friend, though," she said conversationally. "The feeling comes over me, and I know it's about to come out. Like knowing you're about to be sick and feeling that nausea grow and grow... I hate it. I thought it would be gone now, after everything, but...no. It has infected me."
"We have been marked," he said tonelessly.
"I have been marked," she said a little sharply. "You...you could go back, if you wanted."
"No, sister," he said gently. "I truly could not."
She looked at him and then away. "I suppose not. But at least you don't have that voice whispering in your ear when you sleep. It tells me such things."
She giggled suddenly. "Oh, but it's all old material by now. It doesn't seem to realize that, by the fiftieth iteration of the plan to conquer the world, it has all gotten a bit boring. And I get the thing back, of course, for I just tell it all of our stories. And our stories are superior. I think," and she giggled again, "I think it has even getting interested despite himself. It wants to know how they turn out."
"Are you stringing our friend along?" the young man asked with amusement. "Good. Serves it right. Come on, there's a town over that next hill."
"Oh, yes," the young woman said as she fell in step beside him. "Our friend won't admit it yet, of course, but it wants to know how everything will turn out for the captive dragons and the marauding princesses. Strange to think of our friend that way. Strange to think that it has a personality."
"Maybe our friend is developing one," the young man said. "Maybe we were not the only ones changed."
"Hmmm," she said. The chocobo trotted behind them, and now mad-eyed goats were ambling down the hill to take a look at them.
"But I still worry," she said softly. "I still worry that I'll lose myself. That I will be submerged within him again. That I will forget myself."
"Unlikely," he said, and he reached out to tightly grasp her hand. "I'll find you again, if you're ever lost. And if you forget, I'll remind you. I know all your stories."
"Not all of them," she said tartly. "Speaking of which, I didn't get a chance to finish my story. You see, the subterranean city began to fall apart, and so the brave and beautiful secret agent had to reach the surface. It was a hard and arduous journey to the sunlight, as you might imagine..."
The two itinerant children, followed by the chocobo, passed over the hill and into another story.