Domitian rem Vesu is a coward, and Gaius can smell it.
Domitian rem Vesu is a coward, and Gaius pyr Baelsar is not. He is a fool, perhaps, but he is not a coward.
It is by his body that one age ends and another begins anew, and Gaius pyr Baelsar steps foot into posterity.
By the time he looks back, it will be too late indeed.
In his memories of long-ago summers days spent visiting with the Junii, Livia is all of perhaps six and already painfully precocious, Lucia too young for Gaius (not well-versed in the ways of children) to number, constantly in her sister’s shadow, frightened of the wolf stepping out of the play. The atrium of that childhood is dappled beneath golden summer sun, and he is one of three fathers laughing at the antics of children. Livia and Lucia are children still, Cid hardly much older, and hope still blooms bright upon the yet-unwritten pages of their future.
That atrium is draped in black now. Marcus tol Brutus and Claudia sas Brutus’ ashes have been cremated, and the family mausoleum closed. The plants that once flourished sit unwatered, dry and starting to yellow in the Garlemald chill. Alone in that empty room with two waifs no longer children, eyes hollow and ageless, Gaius van Baelsar stands alone with the ghosts of the unquiet dead, and fails to make peace with the fact that he has the hells’ own luck.
Grief has rendered the daughters Junius old before their time. Orphans upon orphans. Another shattered family the Legatus has been left to rebuild from a schematic he never read. Marcus and Claudia had never changed their wills; Midas had been their executor. Mid is dead. Mid’s next of kin is Gaius, who now is meant to father Cid, hardly still a child and absent in his grief. Atop that, he has the XIVth—and the Emperor, who is not well-inclined to sharing. He is no fit parent; it is better these girls go to a home that will nurture them than one where his presence in absentia will only reinforce their grief.
Livia Junius comes up to his waist, her wrists so narrow they look like they would falter beneath so much as a practice blade. Her sister clutches at her shoulder. She squares her chest, and stares him down to inform: “I’m leaving for Dalmasca tomorrow.” Gaius thinks of how girls who run away to be soldiers when they’re still children are not supposed to come home.
On the morrow, she is meant to go to the country.
The Legatus raises both his eyebrows at her; recalculates his scope of the world to include Livia Junius as a force of nature.
“You are twelve.”
“You joined the legions at fifteen.” Touché, a point to house Junius.
“I was full grown at fifteen, and you are still a sight away from that.” Her rage as she glares at him is a palpable force, the smell of ozone and blood.
“Livia,” Lucia begins, “Let’s just go to the country, and you can join the legions—” Livia shakes her sister’s hand off of her arm.
“Stop it,” in her voice is the kind of venom that the Legatus would sooner expect of an asp than a slip of a girl. Lucia grabs at her wrist, Livia slaps her hand aside. “I’m not going to the country.” She turns back to him. “Are you going to stop me from going to Dalmasca?”
Rather than answer, the Legatus crosses his arms. Livia bristles. “Why. Should I?” Like knows like, and Livia Junius is not a dog.
(Once, long ago, wolves made mankind learn fear.)
“Convince me. You wish to fight a war with your bloody eyeteeth, Livia Junius? Convince me.” Her jaw clenches. “Convince me to take you to war, child. I can forge a weapon, girl, but tempering steel is not a thing done by halves.”
When she speaks, her voice trembles with something not unlike euphoria, her whisper a promise; a guarantee. “I will find the savage who did this and I will eat his heart in the street.”
(Someday, years ahead, Livia will unearth a boy from Dalmasca no older than she is, a street-thief who once fought back against two Tribunii out of uniform, a well-placed lucky dagger and a body spilling red on the golden sands. She will tear the blade from a soldier’s back and run the boy through at the base of his spine, pin him to the packed-soil of the street while blood runs in the gutters. She will cut him open while he yet lives: cut, snap, bend, and break. She will listen to his gurgling scream as his ribcage beneath her slender, powerful fingers, gives way.
Later there will be blood on her lips, between her teeth, across her chin and fingers, and—
Gaius will learn a lesson, that day, about loyalty.)
Balanced atop the parapets of Ala Mhigo beneath a calamitous storm stands Nero tol Scaeva, blond hair whipped to chaos by the wind, face ghostly in the midnight darkness. Left breathless from climbing two hundred stairs at a breakneck pace when roused from his fitful slumber, knees no longer what they once were, when he comes to a halt the Legatus all-but-doubles over, snarling “What damn-fool thing do you think you’re doing.”
“I should think it fairly obvious,” Nero replies, a disingenuous note of teasing light in his voice. “I am debating the merits of flying lessons.”
Gaius grits his jaw. “Get down from there.”
“Convince me.” Nero will no doubt jump if he tries. “Cid has been dead for six moons. Did you know that?” Gaius knows. It haunts his every waking and sleeping moment. He has counted every day that’s passed. “Six moons, and nothing has happened. Nothing has changed. All our lives I’ve thought the world revolved around him as its polar star; and now all along the only thing that found him a lodestone was me.”
“So you’re going to kill yourself to follow him to the grave?” He wishes it would come out judgmental, or worried, or hateful, or kind. It just comes out tired. “And, I suppose, leave me without a Tribunus—”
“No,” Nero corrects him, looks over at last. Gaius is struck by how hollow he looks, strange and wrong. The humidity is such that he is covered in sweat, heat-lightning making both their hair stand on end. Nero has not shaved in a week or more. His hair is a wreck. His eyes, fever-bright, stare past him, nearly white-blue and sightless as they ever have been. Nero looks like a ghost already, in nothing but his armor, no helm. “I’m bored.”
The petulant tone to his voice is such that Gaius is, briefly, tempted to kick Nero off the edge himself. He smothers it.
“I am so bored,” Nero whines. “You brought me to Ala Mhigo to do battle with him from behind enemy lines, and now what, Gaius? My entire life has been spent in his shadow. What did you do when you stopped chasing Mid?”
The Legatus shuts his eyes. “Nero,” his voice is a low warning, but the man just laughs, mad with it.
“What have I left to live for? Surely you understand, Gaius—you had him left, and now what have you? Another Garlond, gone where we can’t follow. Completed his life’s work and saluted the burning sky, blew a kiss to Nael for luck.”
“Thrice gods-damned aether-soaked bastard,” Gaius spits it under his breath, and he knows it is unfair to Nael—the Nael who pulled Meteor from the sky may well have been a different Nael from the one who set the project in motion. He will never know. Nobody will.
The Legatus crosses the rest of the way to where Nero stands, and grabs him by the back of his belt. “Get down from there,” he mutters, hauling his Tribunus back to solid ground. Nero does not try to stop him, just sighs with the frustrated acceptance of a diverted coeurl. “Before I push you off myself.”
“What did you live for?” Nero’s tone has changed completely—defeated, raw and broken down to a tiredness so humbling it’s not unlike despair. Gaius wraps the boy in his arms, holds him tight as Nero grabs onto the front of his shirt like it’s the one thing that keeps him from drowning, crushes him to his chest. “How did you go on?”
“I just did.” Overhead the lightning coils and multiplies, thunder a jagged rumble in the charged air, echoing across the scrubland of the Lochs. “One day at a time.”
It’s all they can do.
For his twenty-fifth nameday, the Legatus of the XIVth is gifted an assassination attempt. He survives it with a single bullet lodged in the meat of his calf and a man bleeding out at his feet—the bullet in his leg will keep, but the bleeding man will not.
“Bring a medic!”
His soldiers go scampering, and the Legatus is left alone to bend over the Roegadyn, the man doubled over, grey skin ashen with pallor, breathing shallow, ragged, broken. His eyes are glassy with pain, his hands pressed to his wounded gut. “Boy.” They are almost certainly of an age; he corrects it. “Soldier.” His calf is bleeding; the blood is beginning to pool in his boot. “That was a foolish thing you did.”
His soldier stares at him and then starts to laugh, clutching his stomach. “And here I thought you’d say brave,” he finally speaks, breathless, liquid bubbling in his voice. Beneath his helmet, the Legatus frowns. “Taking a bullet for my superior officer.”
“Foolish,” he repeats, kneeling beside the man, wincing at the pain in his leg. “Being shot in the leg will not kill me. Being shot in the stomach will kill you.” The would-be assassins lay dead in the dirt not thirty fulms away, their sluggish blood staining the ground. Gaius curses under his breath, putting too much weight on his injured leg, grits his teeth beneath his helmet. He nods towards the cooling corpses. “Were these lands just, I would see you as Tribunus.”
The Roegadyn’s hair is matted nearly to the color of the Legatus’ own with sweat. His breathing is shallow and pained. Gaius can do nothing for him: his skills come in the dealing of death, not in the salving of it. “I simply saw the angle.”
The Legatus corrects “You foresaw their attack, and it is for that reason I yet live.” He knows this will not be the last such attack, and trustworthy men are worth their weight in gil: he is five and twenty; has been Legatus for two years. It would be well and good to call his title merit earned, but all and sundry within Garlemald know what use he was that let him climb the ranks. There is not a soldier in her legions who cannot guess which of van Baelsar’s swords first pleased the Emperor. “You earned your promotion, should you survive the night; I cannot see you Tribunus, but perhaps just as fitting is to oversee the cohort who you so recently decapitated.”
“Your name,” Gaius finishes. “I care not for title or rank. I care for results. You have given me five results this day. I would have you give me five more of the same.”
The look the man bears is something not unlike awe—but closer, perhaps, to terror. When he does whisper his name, it is so low it could fain be missed beneath his breath. “Rhitahtyn oen Arvina.”
“Rhitahtyn rem Arvina,” the Legatus corrects. Footsteps are approaching; the Medicus at last. “I have faith in your worth, Pilus. Value is that which a man can produce, not that with which he is born. The purpose of strength is to use it to protect the weak. The VIth cohort is your flock. See to them.” Their eyes meet through the frosted glass of his helm. “Give me but a reason, rem Arvina, and I will see your flock grow.”
“Sir,” Rhitahtyn says, and within the agonies of his voice is buried awe, and to their side of the board does the XIVth add a knight.
Cid watches the Black Wolf with his own eyes—bright blue, and while they may not share a color they are so alike to the Legatus’ in that moment that it haunts him.
They glow now with the livid rage of a child scorned, abandoned by kith and kin, incandescent and, would that it could, would strike the Legatus down where he stands. The force of that gaze is blistering, and it cuts him to the quick, without the slightest allowance for hesitation. Cid’s hate is palpable, a force not far from gravity, rage against all the things the Legatus of the XIVth represents.
The Legatus should shoot him. He should. He should aim and fire, strike down Garlemald’s most beloved son—
But when he looks at Cid, he sees Midas.
For all the things he is, all that he has become, he cannot stain his hands with the blood of his own child.
The last night of the part of Gaius’ life that he later comes to think of as before ends without fanfare, meeting the love of his life on a battlefield where the sky rains fire and thunders gunshots, laughing like the world is about to end. Above them ashes are drifting down like black snow, and all around them is the sepulchral silence of the tomb. Gaius stops, exhausted and dehydrated, stands in the clearing, and stares. The man, too busy nattering on to himself animatedly about whatever it is he’s doing, dictating everything he does with the same near-religious zeal that Solus gives speeches, doesn’t even notice his audience. Eventually, Gaius is forced to speak: “What in the Emperor’s name are you doing?”
The man looks at him and waves, as if this is a perfectly ordinary afternoon and not an active battlefield. “Good morrow!”
“Aye, the morrow begins at the turn of the day, not upon the dawn! Have you some need of me, my dear sir? Or are we but two airships, passing upon the field of battle, never to meet again?”
“The Legion left two bells ago.”
“Did they? I’d not even noticed. Quite unfortunate, really. I suppose I can only but blame myself and my fallen friend here.” The man bangs his hammer on the colossus, which does nothing. Whatever comes out of his mouth next is practically incomprehensible, but Gaius manages to catch enough to put together the concept of no waterproofing and ignored by command before the man reaches the end of his tirade, gives a gusty sigh; shrugs. “I suppose that beggars can hardly be choosers in this world of ours. I’m sure you know what I mean.”
Gaius continues to lean on his gunblade. “Not in the slightest.”
“Fantastic!” The stranger laughs, and there’s a tone to it of mania, a high cackle that, in a decade, will have lost the note of worry it strikes in him now, gained a tenor of affection—and he will curse himself, night and day, for forgetting how fine a line Midas nan Garlond has always waked between the soil and the firmament. “I haven’t a clue either.”
Gaius elects to ignore it. “Have you a working comm unit?” He asks, approaching just enough to not have to raise his voice. His throat is sore and raw from yelling once his own communicator broke, his helmet discarded for his need to make himself heard in the melee.
“Why, certainly.” The man fishes around in a pocket and tosses one down. Gaius catches it, undoes the buckle that holds on his vambraces to shove the armor between his thighs to keep his hands free so he can get to the buttons and swap frequencies. “You know, I had forgotten all about that until you asked.” Gaius patches through as the man rambles, calling in his frequency code to gain access with an insecure line and request airship transport back to the rest of the Legion, paying attention to the comm with half an ear and his newfound companion with the other. “Here I was, sitting stranded, when the world was but a single breath from delivering unto me redemption in the form of your fine self. Of course, I suppose I have to dispose of this damnable machine of mine. How terrible but to have no recourse but for a ground-up redesign—what agonies I will undergo!” Gaius, even half-listening, can still catch the sarcasm dripping from every word. “Why, it should be possible to not have to drive the colossi at all. What, I query, what is the purpose of Magitek if I am the one who must make it act not as a fool? I warrant you, automation is the future of the industry, with proper designs for the recognition of saved energy needs, and I fain shall see such done in my lifetime or not at all.”
Even when the comm has long-since gone quiet, Gaius still stares at this strange man, now sitting dreamily atop the downed colossus. His entire face has been rendered sooty-grey by sweat and smoke and an ember carried on the rising storm winds has caught in his hair. A few strands are slowly burning. “But,” the man says, turning to him: for the first time, Gaius sees him clear, the glow from the battlefield blaze shifting to light him from below.
His wide, wild eyes are the most striking blue. Like the winter sky over the capitol but brighter, lit by some inner, ceruleum-burnished glow, light that Gaius will later see as progress. He has a broad, rounded face with high cheekbones rendered soft and ruddy, flushed and vibrant. There is a look to him of a man who is but a hair’s breadth from either madness or genius or both, a gift and a curse all at once. It is the same look Solus wears when he sees some distant view of the possibilities of the open future, this hyperfixation of some knowledge beyond the ken of the rest of Hydaelyn.
“Who might my savior be? I neglected to introduce my humble self, for I fear that of the two of us I am far less likely to get a direct line to the XIth.” The engineer smiles—an oddly lazy, self-satisfied look that is out of place with his tense, burning energy and his own self-deprecating words. “Midas jen Garlond, I am afraid, is a name that inspires very little awe.”
“Gaius sas Baelsar,” Gaius replies, “Is not quite there yet either.” He pauses, lifts one eyebrow. “Perhaps now we’ve met we ought to do something about that.”
Midas grins at him. “I like the way you think, dear man. I like the way you think.”
To call the space they currently inhabit a safe-house is generous; to call it a hovel is demeaning to hovels. He would rather they be anywhere but here, but there is something fearsome clawing its way up the back of his throat: some primal terror of their far-distant nascent days as sentient beings that he had thought died with his name. At least they have a roof and four walls, an empty room that was once an apartment. That is better than nothing.
Walls, roof, bed, and Alphinaud, curled upon the floor, head in his hands, crying in pain, shaking as if the very ground beneath his feet yawns.
He has spent five years with but one drive—vengeance. Alphinaud has changed that, redirected him with the gentle firmness of a man training an errant dog. Alphinaud has pulled free the blinders from his eyes, reminded him there is more to freedom than the count of bodies that tally the page, bound his soul inextricably to that of Eorzea. Alphinaud has once more taught him to shape the world to the image he would see it, to not merely hunt but to eat the meat he has hunted lest it should spoil.
His Alphinaud, who, even now, looks with grim determination as he dresses with still-trembling fingers. His lucidity has never once wavered, speaking on his own behalf over the greater objections: they must move on. If not to find medical treatment beyond what Alphinaud can offer himself, then to go somewhere they can survive it. Despite this, he still insists on standing watch over Alphinaud, fearing should it take him again.
He can see the column of Alphinaud’s neck where he is bent over his bootlaces, the light of the lamp reflecting off of the silver of his hair. It makes him look even paler; wan and lax with exhaustion. Standing in the doorway, arms crossed, he watches over the other man like he could protect him, and it is only when Alphinaud looks up at him, hollows beneath his eyes, that he feels guilty.
“I am not incompetent,” Alphinaud’s voice is kind as he says it, but there is a note of frustration that leaves it raw. The smile the younger man tenders him with is gentle; he feels warm to his toes, a strangeness in Garlemald’s long, cold dark. “Go; I shall be but a moment.”
He hesitates, moves back out into the other room and then the outside hall. They are almost out of supplies—they will have to stop and barter soon, or find some kind of work that will pay, as Alphinaud’s supply of gil is beginning to run low.
When it grows quiet, the blizzard that has been building for the last two days begins to pick up. Their two other companions return, and he stands talking with them, peering over a map under thin sunlight when Alphinaud rejoins them, holding aloft the lamp for them to see by.
“We could press on for Baetica,” their lancer says, rubbing her hands together even despite her lined gloves. “They have the canning plant there; we could easily take cast-offs.”
“That should be our final destination,” he agrees. They all wait for him to push through a fit of coughing, his throat and lungs dry and ragged in the biting chill of the air, before he continues, the magitek lamp casting light but no heat, even though all four of them huddle around it like it does. “I fear getting lost in this. We should be able to wait the blizzard out at the trading post.”
When he glances at Alphinaud’s face, his mouth is a firm, unrelenting line. “Best hope we make it by nightfall,” he says, in lieu of anything else, looking up into the storm. “This will whiteout before we know it.”
Nobody needs say anything beyond that; they trudge down the stairs, careful of the crumbling cermet in the snow. Tall as he is, he’s forced to duck a few less-stable overhangs, but he is glad to be free of this barely-present safety, glad to be back on the road: he has found more answers on the road these past five years than in all the rest combined.
Four steps from the ground, half a flight of stairs above him, there is a gasp, and then—
The noise Alphinaud makes is not a scream, cannot be called that, cannot be demeaned as that: it is a sound not unlike the rattle of the dying, the shrill of collapsing steel, the noise his heart made in his chest the day he looked upon Bozja and saw naught but ash, a shrieking wailing agonizing thing not unlike the sensation at the split-second moment before drowning bone-snapping vertiginous thin air. It is his name, Alphinaud’s voice high and clear on the shape of five letters he has never before called into being. Alphinaud screams his name in a voice like the void itself opening before them.
In his ears, his heartbeat is suddenly as loud as cannon fire. The sound of the magitek lamp as it hits the stone is louder, and that is the ringing of steel into flesh, of a blade striking bone. The catch of air in his ruined throat is a noose; the pain in his lungs shrapnel-burst, all of it nothing, nothing, to the torture in that voice.
There’s crumpling, cloth and the weight of spare flesh giving way, and he barely makes it to the step below the landing as Alphinaud’s knees give out. The boy sags, a marionette with all his strings severed. He sobs once more his name, and in the six and some moons that he has known his boy—
Alphinaud has never before sounded scared.
“Gaius,” Alphinaud’s voice is trembling as he cries. In that moment, the loss he cut into himself five years before, ashes poured into the fires that drowned him, is unfathomable. Alphinaud cuts through it to bone in but one word. His blue eyes are wide and wild, and there is a light in them that is terror, the scent acrid as ceruleum burn. “Gaius,” he says again, voice thick as his throat closes.
“My boy,” he replies, catching the hand reaching for his sleeve in his own. “I’m here—” His boy’s eyes, the clear, undiluted blue of the sky above Mor Dhona, are staring, the whites visible all around. The skin of his throat pulses, that tender hollow vibrating with the too-rapid beat of his heart. Alphinaud is staring, looking around frantically, as if—as if he cannot see the man he reaches for, only a hand’s breadth away.
“Why won’t they open?” Alphinaud’s voice breaks on it, the clarity of each word wavers, his mouth rebelling against his speech. “Please,” he begs, tears tracking from the corners of his eyes, gasping between each word. “Please, I bid you, open.” His lips are slack; the words mean nothing, but the care with which he forms them bespeaks their importance.
He realizes between the pound of his heartbeats that this is what Alphinaud is hearing, louder and louder each time. The fine hairs on the back of his neck stand on-end, that primal fear again, the terror of the dark unknown, the things that lurk at the corner of your eyes. That Alphinaud has called him, has used his name—that which he has not even spoken between them as a benediction into his mouth—has dropped both their hands and revealed that all along he held only Spires, and the lot of them Umbral.
“Alphinaud,” he whispers, one broad hand catching his boy’s neck where it lolls, as he cries between grit teeth in little wheezing, hitching gasps, high in the back of his throat. “Please, my boy, please,” he tries again, and would he were a praying man—
“Ahead looms a calamity,” Alphinaud says, and this time, his voice does not waver. “Ahead looms a calamity,” he repeats it, makes every word as firm as the impression of a hammer in a forge. “The light,” and he holds his boy by the shoulder, the arm, the chest, as if something could cease Alphinaud’s trembling, voice fading to a murmur. There is blood on his bandages he knows not from where, smeared into the side of Alphinaud’s neck and the hollow of his jaw, those narrow trembling fingers pressing to the side of his temple as if anchoring to him by touch alone. “Will expunge all life. Only you—”
Abruptly, Alphinaud goes silent. His breathing is wet, ragged gasps. Alphinaud finds his jaw, his chin, and jerks him up.
Their eyes meet.
Alphinaud’s gaze is clear; lucidity marked in equal parts terror, each breath a rasp in his narrow throat. He wants to speak, to open his mouth, to say Alphinaud’s name. Is that all.
The last thing Alphinaud Leveilleur sees is his face. He looks as he is: a ragged, unwashed old man, rendered thin from poor health and poorer food, his skin mottled with burn scars, a man now bought blade and soul for a cause he had once thought rendered impotent by loyalty to a mere slip of a man who amputated from the heart of him his indecision, as damning as any poison, and forced by will alone his shadow to cast once more behind him.
“Throw wide the gates that we may pass,” Alphinaud says in his own voice, the voice Gaius loves.
They are the last words Alphinaud Leveilleur says to him.