A knock sounded from the door. Three or four youngsters cheered for the sound, and Terra had to shush them in order to gain some composure before answering the summons. When she opened the door a crack to peek outside, she relaxed and smiled with delight at the vision before her.
“Relm! What an unexpected surprise! Please, do come in. Don’t mind the children.” She opened the door broader and let her friend inside. The air was a bit stifling in the summer heat, so she wanted to get her inside as quickly as possible. Some of the townsfolk had installed mechanical fans in the great room and the bedrooms, so indoors in the shade was more bearable than out there. “Can I offer you some water or tea?”
The young woman stepped into the large cottage where Terra had been living with her brood these last few years after the war. She had matured in both height and temperament, and her woman’s figure was curving out nicely as she bloomed into adulthood. Her clothes were more shapely, too, no longer the innocent flamboyancy of her childhood tube shirt, but simple femininity with a fitted bodice and some lace. She managed to retain her red hood scarf, though. “Water would be just fine, thanks. I’m so happy to get a chance to come see you! How is everyone?” She lowered her hood and followed Terra into the kitchen.
“Oh, we’re getting along fine here. The three oldest left last year for a life in the nearby village, helping out as carpenters and gardeners. Two more will follow them next year. But that still leaves six here with me.” Terra smiled as she handed Relm a water and beckoned for her to sit at one of the tables. They could hear laughter coming from the great room, there were flashes of older children attending their chores outside, and everything radiated peacefulness and domesticity.
“This was such a big responsibility you took on, after all we did to save the world. I didn’t realize it at the time, since I was young myself, but I’ve been coming to know more about the world and how people live in it lately, and this was such a huge endeavour.”
Terra blushed a little. “Thank you. It was a lot of work, but I really love it. And it was something I needed.” Terra examined her guest and saw how much more composed Relm was now. “What have you been doing? What have you seen?”
Relm’s eyes lit up on the topic. “Oh, I’ve been traveling! The last two years have been something of an apprenticeship for me, though not with any one person, but rather with a group of other artists. King Edgar set it up for me so I might study under the greats. I’ve studied a lot of different techniques and drawn images all over the world. I’ve also learned a lot about business and bargaining and economy. It’s interesting to see how some parts of the world are flourishing and some are still struggling.”
“Yes, it was difficult here for a while as the land was rough and parched for some time, but we managed to pull through once the rains started again. I had quite a lot of help from the townsfolk getting our gardens and animal pens set up. They helped me get established over the first years, especially with the children so young and dependent on me, but now I’m pretty self-sufficient. It helped that as the kids grew older, they could pitch in, too, and now they are helping the village in return as it grows bigger.” There was lots of pride in her voice at the thought of her charges.
Relm, however, looked on her with sadness. “It must have been very difficult for you. Not just being alone, but also without having your magic. What’s that like?”
Terra looked at her, confused. “Surely, you must know. You lost your abilities, too.”
Relm shook her head. “It’s not the same with me. I didn’t really feel the magic inside, not the way I think you did. I could feel it tingle in my brush, in the strokes I left on the page, but it wasn’t down in my heart, in my soul.”
Terra’s expression changed to one of understanding and then she grimaced. She glanced down at her drink, gaging how much she could tell her friend. Her answer was slow in coming.
“For a long time I was sad: sad that my ancestors were forced away or killed, sad that my parents had such a tragic ending, sad that the world was still broken. I tried not to miss my magic. I thought to throw myself into taking care of the children, that helping them live would help me live. And it did to some extent. But the days went by and I kept thinking, ‘oh, this would be so easy with magic’ or ‘I could do this if only I had magic,’ and I became increasingly frustrated. And that was just with the little everyday stuff. I ignored much of my deeper feelings.
“Until one day, I couldn’t. I had gone up north to excavate a cave dwelling, looking for mushrooms and other such vegetation and possibly any metal deposits. Sometimes, if you found some, the townsfolk would send up a party to dig further, to see if it would be feasible for a mine. They hadn’t been to this one yet, and they’d convinced me to go explore it, as something of a vacation from my work here with the children. It had been about three years by then. Anyway, I went up to the cave and searched around in it. And it started to give me a cold feeling. It wasn’t cold in there--it was the middle of summer, after all--but there was a creepiness to the place that left me uneasy. I--I didn’t want to be there. But I had told them I would check it out, and I was determined to finish my perusal.” At this she closed her eyes and shook her head.
Relm’s eyes sharpened in comprehension. “You found something.”
Terra nodded her head, just a little. “I found a battle mech, like the ones I used to control. And then it hit me why that place felt so creepy and familiar, why it felt cold. It reminded me of when I first awoke in the Narshe Mines, after the slave crown was removed, when the soldiers had come for me and I was frightened and confused. I didn’t know up from down back then. I didn’t know whom I could trust or whom I couldn’t. There was little knowledge of my past or who I was other than having been a member of the Imperial army with magitek at my disposal and forced to do someone else’s bidding. Seeing that suit again, it brought it all back to me.
“I was filled with rage and anger and unknown levels of hurt. If I’d still had my magic, I would probably have transformed into my esper form and flown off in a rage, just as I did so many years ago. And when I didn’t, when I couldn’t transform, that just fueled my anger even further. It brought home how much I had lost. I ended up demolishing half that cave with my bare hands.
“I came home an utter mess. All my fingernails were split open and bleeding. I had scrapes down both arms and all over my knees. I was filthy, with dust and dirt crusted on my hair, which was a complete frizzy mess, by the way. They say I had a wild look in my eyes, and I just kept screaming. None of the townspeople could help me. They thought I was a total loon and tried to drag me off to some encampment somewhere. Maybe some shack in the woods to the west of here, I don’t know. I was too strong for them. I broke away, still screaming that it was all unfair. I even tried sending out magic to show them, but nothing happened.” She scoffed at herself. “You’re right, you know. It is different for me. The magic had been...alive inside, a spark, almost an itch even, under the skin, warm liquid flowing through my body, ready to light up at my slightest thought, to surge upward through my being and out into the world. And it was gone. I felt empty, numb. Like half of a person, my glowing side snuffed out, not even a trace of smoke left to show that it had ever been there. I felt half dead. I still do.”
They sat there in silence, Terra wishing the ache in her soul would go away, Relm taking in all she’d heard. When the quiet lapsed into subdued resolution, she braved a question. “Do you remember growing up at all?”
Terra leveled her eyes back on her friend. “Some.”
Relm let the silence linger, hoping Terra would elaborate on her own. When it became obvious that she wasn’t, Relm dropped her gaze down to the table top and said in a quiet voice, “Over the years, I’ve thought about my childhood. Mostly, it was good; I just wished my father had stayed, but, otherwise, I was happy. And then something would make me remember you and I would wonder how your childhood had been. For instance, I was at the Imperial palace for two months learning about large-scale architecture and I’d walk the halls and think of you. What was it like?”
Terra closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, holding her pain and irritation in until she was more composed. She let her breath out and reopened her eyes to focus on her hands. They were long and delicate and contained years of experience, some good, some bad. “When I was very small, I remember being doted on by the court. They were indulgent with my little mannerisms. I could jump and skip about the palace, and they would all smile and say I was a clever girl. I didn’t realize until later that it was all done with falsehood, that their smiles were edged with caution and anxiety. You see, normal kids have temper tantrums and nothing bad comes of it if you don’t give in to their demands, but I wasn’t normal. They didn’t know how I, as a half-magical being, would react to stress and having my wants denied. Luckily, I never seemed to want for much than other people’s company, so that was easy enough for them to give me without it seeming like spoiling, but they still walked around me as if they were on Chocobo eggshells.
“The one smile that I did take notice of was Emperor Gestahl’s. He was like...oh, I guess you could call him an uncle, or at least that’s how he felt to me. He would laugh at my antics and give me praise when I accomplished something new, especially if it pertained to magic. But there was always something in his eyes that unnerved me, that gave me a creepy feeling. I’ve since identified it as hunger, lust. Oh, not the sexual kind,” she said, holding up a hand at Relm’s shocked gasp to forestall any other comments the girl might make. “No, I don’t think he was ever interested in me in that way. No, this was more like greed, a lust for what I could bring him in terms of magical prowess and military might, though I didn’t know those specifics at the time.”
“When did you know that?” Relm asked. “Or did you not until you’d escaped?”
Terra bit her lip and looked hurt and angry for a moment. “I didn’t know more until I was in my early teens. He already had me studying tactics and magitek usage for several years prior, besides the normal studies of grammar and mathematics and history. Between all those lessons, I never had any friends. I wasn’t allowed to play with kids my own age and I would often ask why. Most of the time the answer was that it would be inappropriate and unsafe for the emperor’s ward to engage other schoolchildren, but I’d begun to wonder about that answer, since I was often in the company of scoundrels and ruffians in the army. Oh, yes, I was in combat training, too. Quite a rough time for a young girl.”
Relm interrupted at this point. “Wait, wasn’t Celes training to be a general, too? I thought I remembered General Leo saying you’d fought with her a time or two.”
Her eyes scrunched up in concentration and then Terra nodded a tad. “Yes...it’s fuzzy in my head, but I do have one image of me fighting Celes. She was good, I remember that. Fast and determined, with excellent magic control. We weren’t friends or even comrades. I don’t recall seeing her much. They had us on different tracks, and I believe they had her living in the barracks with the other soldiers.”
“Where were you? I bet you had a nice suite of rooms, thanks to Gestahl.” Relm perked up at this idea of the pampered princess, something to stick it to him in her memory--that his precious weapon had betrayed him--but her spirits fell again when she saw Terra’s face darken.
“No,” she said, while shaking her head. But then, she stopped and rolled her eyes at herself. “Well, yes, at first, when I was little, but when they started me on the heavy-duty training, they told me I would need a more grown-up room, so I was moved to something more...spartan.”
Relm could sense there was more there, a deeper deviousness than just having a smaller room with less toys in it or something. Rather than ask and break the dark mood Terra was in, Relm waited her out, hoping she would elaborate. But she only continued the narrative.
“Kefka had come on board by then, and he watched me. A lot.” At this she grew quiet and a deep pain entered her eyes. “He convinced Gestahl to let his scientists experiment on me, in the name of advanced training, of course, so they moved me to another room, which was in the laboratory wing. I--I remember being confused by those days, thinking I must be something special to get so much attention from everyone or that I’d been lucky in being chosen for such important medical research. But I could never forget the sharp pain of the needles poking me nor the frozen searing in my veins as chemicals were fed into me. They also did monitoring of my muscles and reflexes and pushed me to my limits. There was one week when they tested my magical capabilities against my physical endurance, and near the end I just collapsed. My knees gave out on me and I collapsed and no one came to my rescue. They let me lie there, groaning, while they ran more tests. No one cared. After a few hours, I eventually had enough energy to pick myself up off the floor and wobble back to my room. My body ached for days afterward, but I thought that was part of the training. Little did I know how cruel that was for them to do to me.”
Terra drained her drink and shook herself to escape the chills. She hated going down memory lane. “But surely, you don’t want to hear about all--”
“Yes, I do. I’ve always wanted to ask you what it was like, what you feel now. What about the slave crown? What was that like?” The girl looked so earnest in her questions.
“That...that was awful.” She was truly shaking now and started rubbing her arms to dispel a cold she felt inside. “I actually don’t remember much, which is partly why it’s so awful, but what I do recall...it shames me.” Her eyes closed and her cheeks reddened, not in an innocent blush, but in humiliation, tension lines appearing taut all around her face. “Kefka would dote on me one minute and then he would turn around and laugh maniacally and order me to lick his boots the next, even in front of the other soldiers.
“I had no control. If he said jump, I jumped. If he said bend over, I bent over. If he said tear this little boy limb from limb in front of his parents, I--” She placed her hand over her mouth as the words stuck in her throat. Fire ran in her veins and it felt like an iron fist was pressing down on her chest. Her breath hitched, but she managed to choke out, “I--I did it.” A solitary tear escaped her eyes and traveled a wandering path down to her jaw. “And I murdered a whole group of soldiers on his word alone. And I know there were more times like that, even though I can’t remember them because it’s all so fuzzy, but I can feel that they were there!” More tears leaked out and followed the first on its journey. “There is so much I have to atone for,” she whispered.
Relm’s lips pursed in a straight line, anger radiating from her. “You don’t have to, Terra; there’s nothing you did wrong. Nothing you could have done. It was all that murdering bastard’s fault.”
Terra shook her head. “No, you don’t understand. I mean, yes, there was the slave crown forcing me to obey him. But before that, I could have said no. I could have quit! I could have run away from the Empire! But I thought Gestahl cared about me. I deluded myself into thinking I was some sort of princess or perfect warrior whom everyone would respect. That life would be wonderful if I would just obey. I was so wrong, so very wrong.” She put her hands over her face and sobbed.
Relm slammed her hand down onto the table, making cups dance and clank in counterpoint to Terra’s shocked gasp. “Well, that’s just stupid! You were--what--five, ten years old? That’s not any different than the kids you have had around here. Would they have made better choices? And this doesn’t even touch the fact that you were sequestered away from normal folk. How would you have learned what was morally right in that place? I doubt you knew right from wrong until after the slave crown was removed and you got a good look at the world outside. How dare you say you could have known better at an earlier age?”
Terra had lowered her hands from her face during the rant and most of what Relm was saying shocked her tears away. She placed her hands over Relm’s on the table and said, “I couldn’t; you’re right about that, but it doesn’t lessen my guilt. Looking back, I can see the clues as bright as day and I should have heeded their warnings. But I didn’t.”
“Of course, you can see it all very clearly now, when it’s years over and done with. But when you’re in the thick of it, you can’t tell left from right, top from bottom. All you can do is muddle your way forward and hope everything comes out alright. Which, I think, you did. We all did, under the circumstances. Please, don’t blame yourself anymore.” Relm turned on her best puppy-dog eyes on her and felt Terra’s tension relax.
“Oh, you, that old eye trick doesn’t work on me. I’ve had dozens of children try it over the years and I’ve become immune.” She gave her guest a small chuckle, though. “But perhaps you are right. That was a long time ago, and I was so young. It still hurts to think about, though.” She rubbed her hands over her face, trying to smooth out the weariness that was there.
“Well, despite the pain, at least you know you beat them.” Relm looked very satisfied at that. “You escaped. You survived. You saved the world. And on top of that you made friends and had a great adventure! And now you have all these little ones, a family of your own.” She gestured at the small kids in the next room.
Terra looked back at her kids and her face softened as she smiled at them. “They are; I love them so much.” A little pain entered her eyes. “I’ll never let them be treated the way I was.”
“I should hope not,” Relm said with great conviction, pumping her fist in the air. “That wouldn’t be you at all.”
Terra smiled a bit broader at her friend. “Thanks, Relm. So, can you stay for dinner?”
Relm snorted. “No. I’ve got to meet with the artist guild in your village, not that it’s a big one, but there is a pottery sculpturer I should apprentice to for a few weeks. It looks like I’ll be staying nearby, so we can get together for dinner over the next little while, just not tonight. In fact, I should be going.”
“Then I will look forward to seeing you soon. It was nice of you to visit me.”
Both women got up from their seats and Terra took the cups over to the sink. Relm brushed off her skirts and walked to the front door. The children who were there were all excited for their visitor and sad to see her go. They crowded around to give quick hugs, then were back to their games and activities just as quickly.
Relm watched as her friend came back over to where she was standing. “I’ll let you know when I’m settled and free for dinner. Bye, Terra.” She reached over and embraced her.
Terra returned the hug. “Take care, Relm.” She opened the door and watched her friend leave with a wave and a skip along the way. It was refreshing seeing her grow up into a beautiful, young woman. They had all been through so much, so the peace and contentment now was a treasured feeling she would never take for granted. As such, she closed her door and turned to her kids, sitting down and playing with them for as long as she could.