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The Grace of God Chapter 6

IN EMPEROR GESTAHL'S throne room, General Rurik was bowing deeply.

"We've sent out fifty search patrols since last night," he was saying. "Five to each district. They haven't found anything as yet, although we've gotten reports of such a woman sighted in the eighth precinct."

"From?" asked the Emperor. He was pacing.

"Merchants, passerby."

"And they did nothing."

"I believe they thought she was the General herself, sir," Rurik said. "As did our own guards."

Gestahl stopped abruptly, resting his hand on a slim, slightly luminous scabbard at his side. "How are they reacting, Dimitri? The townspeople."

"They're, ah, concerned, sir. Even those who know about magic have never heard of something like this. And with the Esper incident ... Our answers in the newspapers don't seem to be sufficient anymore. Many are frightened."

"Frightened. And in doubt of their Emperor's competence, I would venture."

"Oh, no, sir, certainly not."

"This is a most inopportune time for me to be made a fool of, Dimitri. I feel we're on the very verge of some great discovery. We must not allow the actions of a few stray rebel factions to sabotage us."

Rurik bowed his head in silent assent.

"Triple your men. I want every store, every home, every building in the city searched. Bring the Returner back here, but when you find the woman, I want her executed. Immediately. Keep the firing squad at the ready, twenty-four hours a day, if you must. The city needs to see someone take responsibility. It will restore their faith in us."

"I agree completely, sir."

"That will be all."

General Rurik rose to leave.

"Wait," said the Emperor suddenly. He regarded Rurik for a long moment.

"Dimitri," he began slowly. "You are aware, are you not, that our highest priority is to the people of Vector -- to allaying their fears."

"Of course, sir," Rurik replied, sounding slightly confused.

"You understand, then, that if circumstances become truly desperate, certain sacrifices may have to be made."

"I -- I'm not sure if I understand your meaning."

Gestahl gave him a hard, steady look. "The people are in need of justice. A balance has been upset; they need to see General Chere's imposter killed in order for that balance to be regained. They need to see executed," he said, emphasizing each word, "a woman who looks exactly like the General. Do you understand?"

The implication of his words set in. General Rurik straightened up, temporarily speechless.

"It may seem callous," Gestahl continued, walking around his throne, "but there are times when an unpleasant price has to be paid for the greater good. You, or I, or any of us might be similarly asked to pay it, but for the grace of God. Believe me when I say General Chere knows this."

He stopped and studied General Rurik again.

"May I place my trust in you in this matter?"

Rurik raised his head, squared his shoulders.

"Always, my liege."


***


Terra woke before dawn -- or what she thought was before dawn, in this windowless place. Her sleep had been light and feverish, recurrent with flash-dreams of drowning, suffocating, old memories of blood and screaming in a Thamasa twisted with flames. The lights of the laboratory were still dimmed when she awoke, and the doctor -- who'd not spoken a word to her after Leo's departure -- had not yet returned, so she assumed it was either very late at night or very early in the morning.

Bleakly she stared out at the blue-tinted, watery gloom of the lab. Though she'd not eaten since the previous morning, she felt no hunger. Nor did she feel any thirst, or any need to relieve herself, or any weariness -- she suspected that she'd fallen asleep more out of habit than necessity. Now, though she tried not to, she found herself wondering whether she could be kept in here indefinitely, three inches and a world away from freedom, till her muscles atrophied and her mind cracked. Surely, they couldn't do that to her -- surely no one could survive it.

She thought of her father then, and shuddered.

Suddenly there was a dull booming in her ears. It took her a second to realize it was approaching footsteps. Terra pushed herself back and up, determined to look strong and spirited, despite how she truly felt.

It was Leo. Even at this hour, he was fully dressed in ceremonial uniform, complete with a crystal-pommeled sword at his side.

She watched him silently as he came near.

"Good morning," he said.

Then it was morning. Terra felt a pang of panic -- two sunsets left.

"I was thinking you might prefer to talk in private," Leo went on. "Dr. Leavens is a brilliant man, but he tends to get carried away with his enthusiasm sometimes. An excellent trait for a scientist, but less so, perhaps, for a diplomat."

There was a pause.

"Do you have a name?" he asked. "Something others call you?" He tilted his head slightly, watching for any kind of reaction.

"Is it the stasis tube? I am truly sorry that we've confined you in such a way, but it's for your safety as much as our own. The few others of your kind that we've known have become frantic and out-of-control in our world. Some have even destroyed themselves in their frenzy.

"The Emperor is only concerned. If you can indeed think and reason, or communicate, he would of course not authorize any further testing, nor hold you here against your will. You have my word on that."

Even in Esper form, Terra's voice was not naturally rough, but now, from hours and hours of disuse, it came out in a sort of rasping croak.

"It's not your word I doubt, General."

Leo took a full, almost comical step back, but managed to recover admirably.

"I'm happy to hear that," he said evenly, and there was only a hint of disbelief in his tone. "Is there a particular reason that you place confidence in me?"

She paused before she answered. "I know you. By reputation."

"I see." He took a step nearer, and what a sight they must have made, Terra thought, watching the scene in her mind: the long-dead soldier, head tilted up, hands clasped behind his back, speaking casually to the long-lost Esper girl through a barrier of prison glass.

"My name is Leo," he said. "Do you have a name?"

Possibilities flickered through her mind, but she decided on the wisest choice. "No."

"Do any of your people have names?"

"No." She would no sooner betray them in this world than she would in her own.

Leo nodded, slowly. "Is there a reason you were in Vector?"

Terra didn't reply.

"That man -- the one who tried to assassinate the Emperor. Do you know him?" When she didn't answer, he went on. "Another of our Generals -- Celes Chere, she was protecting the Emperor -- thought you wished him dead." He squinted, trying to read her expression. "Did he injure you? Insult you, in some way?"

After a minute of waiting patiently, he sighed. "I hope this doesn't mean where back to where we began."

"One has to watch what one says, General Christophe," she said, deliberately keeping her voice deep, her diction high. "Especially when it travels to so many ears."

"Do you mean you would prefer for our conversation to remain between you and me? And please, call me Leo."

"If I thought such a thing were possible. General Leo."

"If that's what you wish, I'll keep all that passes between us strictly confidential."

Terra closed her eyes briefly. If she didn't press any further, she could almost let herself believe him.

"And when your Emperor asks for a report?" she said at last.

"I'll give him a brief summary, no more."

"But enough to make our confidentiality void."

Leo raised his eyebrows slightly. "Yes. Yes, perhaps. But, may I ask -- is there a reason you distrust the Emperor?"

Terra could not suppress a short laugh. "Besides that he has sealed me in this tube like a frog in formaldehyde?"

"I can promise you, that will change as soon as we can be sure that you are not a danger to yourself. The Emperor has told me personally."

"Your Emperor is not nearly the paragon of virtue that you make him out to be, General Leo. I'll say only that."

"You're right that he's not a saint. No man truly is, but why have you chosen him to blame for it?"

"Ask the people of the countries he conquers," Terra said, trying to mask the growl that had entered her voice. "The royal families he slaughters."

"That's a serious accusation," Leo said, frowning slightly.

"Yes. It is serious."

"I hope your opinion of me is not so low that you'd think I'd continue to serve the Emperor if I truly believed he was resorting to such despicable acts. Do you mind if I ask you to elaborate?"

Terra opened her mouth to speak, then suddenly realized how much she might have already given away. She shook her head, slightly.

"War is never desirable," Leo said, after a time. "But it is, sometimes, necessary. More slaughter can take place in fringe countries, in contested land, before war is ever declared. It's human nature to splinter and quarrel; it has led to some of the worst tragedies in our history ..."

He smiled faintly. "We are, I'm afraid, still a very young race, forever forgetting that we were born from the same earth. When we are not starving from famine, or suffering from disease, or divided into countless warring factions, we begin to remember. The Emperor believes this, and so do I."

Terra continued to shake her head, her jaw tight. She didn't know what was harder to bear: that he still upheld the sad naïveté that had caused his death, or that he had, even in this world, that eternal hope in humankind that had made him so remarkable.

"You're so sure," she burst out, suddenly angry with his refusal to see, with his argument almost making sense. "You've never in all your travels met a single person, General Leo, who expressed unhappiness in being forced into your Empire?"

"I could never claim that. Certainly I've met such people. But whether they number more or less than those who were equally unhappy living under primeval feudal rule, or in disease-ridden tenements, or in hovels without lights or heat or running water, I couldn't say. The life of a human is a painful thing. I believe the Emperor has done far more to ease that pain than to worsen it."

"Of course," Terra said bitterly. She knew she should stop, but she couldn't. "Inevitable casualties. Unfortunate, but only to be expected. I suppose there are no victims in your unified dream for the world? No one innocent lost in the shuffle, no one left to fall through the cracks?"

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you --"

"I think," she went on, knowing she was going too far and not caring, feeling the freedom of anger, "that you may have a selective memory in that regard, General Leo. I wonder if there aren't citizens of your nation that have been used solely for the Empire's gain. I do not think even you could justify such an act."

His brow furrowed as he opened his mouth to reply.

"Locked away, perhaps, from sight." Terra's voice was very soft now. "But not from memory. Not from yours, Leo."

For a minute he remained uncomprehending. Then there was a shift to the fine lines around his eyes, and though he was careful not to let it show, Terra knew that he had understood her.

"I," he began, in something of a whisper, "I -- you're right, in that there are... elements of the Empire that I'm not happy with, that I wish I could change. That I cannot in good conscience -- but there are complications. It isn't as easy as --"

Just then Leo jerked his head to the side. An out-of-breath page, her hair in disarray from running, entered Terra's field of view. She must have been sent in haste indeed, with nothing but an oral message, for there was no Imperial-sealed letter in her hand.

"General," she said, gulping. "The Emperor wishes to see you immediately. There's a prisoner been escaped, and talk of treachery."

Leo's hand went to the sword at his hip, as if out of reflex. "Does he need anything?"

"Just you and your weapon, sir. Oh, and any news about the, um..."

The page inclined her head in Terra's direction, either unwilling or unable to meet her eyes.

"I see." Leo looked up one last time. Terra could see him searching her, and his own thoughts.

"Yes. Well, I'm afraid I'll be disappointing him in that regard," he said finally. "But lead the way."


***


Celes had already known where she would bring him before she had found him. In the third basements, near the south entrance, were the old soldiers' barracks from nearly forty years ago, when Gestahl's father had ruled. They were dusty and ancient, but otherwise untouched, and Celes had chosen the least conspicuous room she could find: a low-ceilinged affair with two rows of bunk beds, their sheets still turned smartly under, and a sink with taps that ran, after ten minutes, more or less clear.

There was no electricity, but she wouldn't have used it even had it been available. A bright light would bring unwanted attention. Through that night, and all through the next day, she burned down eight tall tallow candles as she worked steadily.

By the following evening Locke had not yet stirred, but she didn't let herself think what would happen if he did not wake up. She kept busy instead, setting his broken leg with a homemade but sturdy splint, wrapping his ribs with many layers of thin cotton strips, pushing his dislocated shoulder back into place with a sound that made her cringe. After that, she sponged his hot face every hour or so, and tried, with little success, to coax him to take some water from a dented tin cup.

She was preparing to change the dressing on his bruised, split lip when a sound made her jump.

"Hey."

One dark brown eye was open and looking at her, reflecting the candlelight.

Celes couldn't speak. She could only slide her stool closer.

"So." He winced, brought up one hand to touch his bandaged ribs, and winced again. "I think you were right. My plan had a few flaws."

She shook her head, not in reply, but because she didn't know what to say.

"But we made it through," he continued.

"We did."

"What happened to Terra?"

"She's fine. She's -- with Edgar. We'll be meeting them tomorrow."

"Ah. Good." He closed his eyes. "I didn't think we had any smoke bombs left."

"We didn't. It was Relm's. I'd promised her I wouldn't use it."

"She'll understand, I think."

"Mm," was her reply. "Hold still a second." She dipped a clean white rag in the water basin, wrung it out, and gently dabbed at his oozing left eye. He hissed quietly in pain.

"I'm sorry," she said, drawing back.

"No, it's all right. What's the damage report? Feels like Sabin gave me a demented bear hug."

"Those would be your ribs. Three cracked. You also have a fractured leg."

"Sounds fun."

He was not as strong as he was trying to sound. His eyes, glassy with fever, were half-shut, and he lay almost motionless against the pillow.

"I've never experienced a spell quite like that," he said. "Do you know what it was?"

"Rasp," she said quietly. "Fused with gravity. I don't know how ... she ... managed to join the two." She did not tell him that she herself had been researching just such a spell, in her last days with the Empire.

"We always manage to meet the nicest people," he said.

She was quiet.

"Celes?" His eyes, which had been almost closed, were open and watching her again. "I'll be all right, you know. I've been hurt worse, and it looks like you wrapped me up pretty good. I think we'll make it through this one okay."

The candlelight flickered, casting looming shadows on the whitewashed walls.

"I've often wondered," Celes said at last, watching the flickering shapes, "what would have happened if I had never intercepted that message. If I hadn't learned that Kefka planned to poison Doma. How my life would have been different, where I would be. Who I would be." She turned her eyes to him. "And now I know."

"Celes," Locke said, after a second. "Are you -- what are you saying? You, more than anyone else, should know that it's our choices that make us who we are."

"And what choice did I make?" she demanded suddenly. "I watched idly by as city after city fell. It took the prospect of an entire country being slaughtered before I took action, and what did I do? I wrote a letter. A letter. It was only when I was sentenced to death, and you --"

She shook her head and brought up a hand to cover her eyes. "Before that, I followed the orders I was given. I attacked when I was ordered to attack, I killed when I was ordered to kill. I didn't think, didn't question. You never saw," she went on, when Locke opened his mouth to protest, "you never saw how it was, at Maranda. How I was. No -- who I truly am. But you saw last night."

The words settled in the air. She kept her hand over her eyes.

"Is that what this is all about, Celes?" he asked, very quietly. "Is that what all of this has been about?"

She didn't answer him. She had already revealed far more than she had ever meant to, and with him injured like this. She could not believe she had let herself be so selfish.

"You're wrong," he said.

Celes tried to laugh, but he interrupted her. "Stop. Listen to me, please. This place we're in -- it's not a simple 'what if.' There are so many factors, so many variables that shape our lives, that we can't even imagine. If I've learned anything from my own mistakes, I've learned that.

"I don't care about that woman. I don't know her. I know about you, Celes; I care about you. You are the bravest person I have ever known. I don't know how I can make you see that."

She wouldn't look at him, couldn't, until he took her hand.

"Celes." He stroked her skin gently with one warm thumb, his eyes sad -- sad for her. "How can I make you see that?"

His hair had fallen over his brow, and Celes had the desire to brush it away from his face, to trace with one fingertip the line of his brow, to touch that bruised, dear face. She even leant forward a little, before she recoiled, suddenly disgusted with herself for thinking of it, for thinking that she even had the right ...

She drew her hand away.

"Please try to sleep, Locke," she whispered, eyes closed. She knew she must look ridiculous, talking to the air, but she had to focus now on rebuilding her walls, reforging her shields. She knew now that she had hoped for the impossible for too long; it had done nothing but weaken her.

"Tomorrow's our last day." She turned away and took hold of a sheet, preparing to tear it into strips. "We'll leave in the morning."

Locke said nothing more, but Celes felt him watching her, felt his eyes on her back. It wasn't until the candle had burned down to a tiny stump that she dared to turn around again.

He had tried valiantly to stay awake, but his exhaustion was, for once, stronger than his will. He slept now, lips slightly parted, still turned in her direction. She watched him for a long time.


***


Their plan for entering the Magitek Research facility had been flawless, Edgar mused. It was only circumstance that had complicated matters.

He was half-crouching, half-crawling through the cramped delivery tunnel that, he hoped, led to the processing center. He had studied the layout of the place for hours the previous night, both from news reports that Locke had left and from his own personal observation, studying the Facility from all sides while trying to look as unobtrusive as possible, but he still wasn't quite sure if he was headed toward the processing offices or the lower laboratories.

He would know soon enough, Edgar thought grimly, as he climbed the steel-runged ladder at the end of the passage and, with a great many bangs and clangs that made him grimace, pushed up the duct cover.

His face was smeared with an unpleasant combination of dust and axel grease, so he had to blink for a few minutes, and wipe at his eyes with a comparatively clean corner of his cape, before he could see anything.

It seemed as though he had been completely off. There were no desks or file cabinets, no lab counters or beakers, no windows, even; only strange, wide pillars that were, for some reason, connected to control podiums through tubes and wires. He was just considering whether he should make his way back down, try to find a different route through this room, or simply spend five minutes berating himself for his stupidity when something caught his eye, deep into the dim light.

It was something blue and wavery, like a battery-powered torch shining through some clear, tropical water, and through it there was the gleam of something bright and violet-glowing, something moving.

Cautiously, he made his way towards it, sliding his crossbow into his hand. Who knew what kinds of things the Empire kept in this place, what kind of creatures ...

Then he stepped into the dimmed security lights, and realized the pillars weren't pillars, they were Esper tubes.

"Terra," he said hoarsely, remembering too late to keep his voice down.

She had been drowsing against the glass of her tube, but as he approached she jerked upright, her red-yellow eyes going wide. "Edgar!" In her shock she transformed briefly to human form, then transformed back, crying out in pain.

"What is it?" He pressed his palms against the glass.

She was breathing -- if you could call it breathing, when there was no air -- heavily, her eyes clenched tight. "It's the -- ah. The fluid. It's poisonous to human skin. Stings."

"Hold on. I'll get you out of here." He studied the tube's control podium, trying to make sense of the scientific shorthand labels, the complicated system of buttons and dials. Finally, he chose one switch that he thought might open the way to master control, and flipped it experimentally.

There was a small, musical chime which left Edgar utterly bemused. He stared down at the panel. The chime repeated, and, before Edgar could do anything else, turned to an angry buzz. The panel shut down, its colored lights and illuminated text going suddenly dark.

"Damn," Edgar muttered, as he tried another switch. They were all locked in position. "It must have wanted a password." He brushed a piece of hair out of his eyes, thinking.

"Stand back," he said at last. "I'll break you out."

"No, Edgar --"

He was already looking for a suitable battering ram. There was a long piece of piping leading alongside the chute from which he'd come. He grabbed hold of it, preparing to wrench it away from the wall.

"Edgar, stop," said Terra, in a desperate, hoarse whisper. "This liquid is poison. It will kill you. And you couldn't break through anyway; the glass is far too think. You'll just be captured."

"Terra, I have to try something. There's less than a day left ..."

"Listen to me, please. Could you figure out where this liquid is coming from? They're constantly replacing it. I can feel the currents."

He looked up at her, one hand still on the pipe. "I -- suppose I could follow the plumbing. I should be able to. Yes. Why?"

"It's what's keeping me from casting magic. But if you could stop it at the source -- replace it with water, maybe --"

"What? Terra, you'd drown."

"I don't think I would," she said quietly. "Not if it were done gradually."

Edgar tried to think of something he could say to change her mind, some other plan of action; but Terra was staring down at him, her glowing violet hair floating softly, her eyes pleading.

"I expect ..." He had to start over. "I expect to see you in that alley tomorrow afternoon, Miss Branford. I -- there's a lot I still want to talk to you about."

"You will, Edgar. I promise."

He nodded, trying not to think about what he was doing, leaving her here. Running his hand alongside the stasis tube, he found a hard rubber hose secured to one side that was turgid with water pressure. "It leads downstairs. I'll -- fix things here, and then I'll get the Illumina." He didn't mention that he had no earthly idea how he would manage that last part.

"No," said Terra. "I'll take care of the Illumina. You just get out of here as soon as you can."

"Terra, I can't --"

"Please, go," she said, as firmly as Edgar had ever heard her. "Don't worry. I'll see you there tomorrow."

Edgar looked up at her one last time, helplessly; she gave him an encouraging smile. He managed a nod, and began his long climb back down the delivery chute.

Soon Terra's smile had faded. She would remain awake for the rest of that night, wide-eyed, trembling, counting every breath like the ticks of a clock.


***


On the second-highest floor of the Imperial Palace, in the East Wing overlooking the Emperor's courtyard, a tall blonde woman in an immaculate white cape scaled the stairs to her room -- as she did every night at precisely this time. She was briefly delayed at the door, which she had only recently begun to lock; with the turn of a long, elegant silver key from her pocket, it opened into darkness.

The electric gaslights took several minutes to flicker on. The woman did not wait for them. Through the dark she made her way around the odd, one-chair dining room set (there had once been a second chair, but as it was never used she'd had it taken away), through the spotlessly clean hall, into the chrome-and-porcelain washroom where she splashed her face with cold water -- as she did every night at precisely this time.

She made her way into her bedchamber. Even as she prepared for bed, there was something in her movements that suggested agitation, disquiet.

On her bedside table there lay several small, delicate pieces of what had once been, it appeared, a silver ball. Barefoot, and in her nightdress, she picked one up and tilted it so that it caught the light.

Her eyes narrowed. She gathered the shards in her hand and threw them away.


Chapter 7

All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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