"It doesn't surprise me a bit."
The old woman stood in the field, her hands dirty and worn with the back-breaking labor of harvesting alone in the small field. She wore the clothes that she always wore at work, the plain dress and cotton shawl that had been stained with mud and fertilizer for decades - they made her look exactly like the overworked and exhausted laborer that she was.
The man who faced her was just young enough to have been her son, if she'd had the boy at eighteen or so. "Lisa, is that all you have to say at a time like this??"
Her lips puckered in disgust as she shook her head. The motion freed a few more strands of wispy hair; it hung around her face like cobwebs from an old, dirty broom. "Yeah, I know, Rupert's dead. Life's harsh sometimes. That won't stop me from tellin' anyone the truth."
"Look, Lisa, I'm not asking you to forgive what I did to you. I just -"
The mayor was interrupted by the old crone's peculiar snorting laugh. "Forgive! Get that thought outta your head right now. You're not a baby, you don't need anyone's permission to run this place the way you think it oughta be run." He winced a bit at the cold, bitter words, the same ones he'd fed her when she'd objected to the plan in the first place. "And you don't have to say you're sorry, either."
Sighing deeply, the man rubbed his eyes, trying to keep them awake. The bags under them were horrid, a deep purple-blue that would've made a doctor wince. "I couldn't have known," he said softly. The words had the sound of a mantra. "I couldn't have possibly known."
"Of course not!" she snapped. "D'ya really think that that vicious queen was gonna tell ya that you were making a bunch of weapons? Did you think she was going to say," and here she pinched her nose and continued her tirade, mimicking the dead queen's nasal, pretentious tone, "'Oh, and by the way, good sir, these mages are going to destroy the entire world and make me the ruler of this entire continent. Do you still wish to help me create them?'"
"But they looked so... so cute and harmless!" Crimson tinged the mayor's haggard face. He knew that Lisa was telling the truth, but he didn't want to admit that he was wrong, ever. "How could anyone have known what they could do? I thought they were just dolls, maybe some kind of toy!"
"What kind of maniac would make a toy out of Mist?"
"Er... well... some kind of laborer, then, something to do dangerous work. How was I supposed to know they'd be - "
She snorted. "Don't tell me you've forgotten the time you got lost in the Mist." An oglop hopped onto a leaf near her left hand; before she could even think, the hand had shot out, crushed the pest in its fist, and wiped the bitter oils off on her dress before they could start burning her skin. "All you could babble about were those deadly monsters that the Mist created right in front of your eyes, and all the nasty stuff you'd seen them cast at you. We all thought you'd go mad with terror! But I guess you forgot all that." A sneer curled her lips as she stared at the wincing, shameful man in front of her; she knew that he wasn't an idiot, that he knew how to use his head, or else he never would've been elected mayor. That just made it more disgusting that he'd forgotten to use every bit of common sense that he had. "What made you forget? Was it that bag of gold that they dropped in front of you?"
"Don't tell me that you knew it was gonna be like this!" Something snapped inside of the old mayor. "Yeah, maybe I should've known that something weird was up. But you couldn't have known they were gonna use the damned things to destroy entire kingdoms!"
And Lisa didn't deny it. She'd had her suspicions, but nothing so bad as that. Alexandria had been very, very careful to ensure that no one in Dali was going to find out exactly what had happened. No travelers had come to the village in weeks, except for that odd party that had hijacked their cargo ship. Then that old pilot had come along....
"Yeah, things are a real mess out there. Makes me sorry to leave this town and go back to that chaos - you folks don't know how lucky y'all are." He'd just been another old engineer from Lindblum who'd probably gotten in by mistake. Or maybe security had just been too lax to stop him. "Alexandria up and went crazy for a while, til the old queen died. Lindblum and Alexandria's both gotten wiped out by some kinda weird beasts... and then there were those devil-things that nearly killed everyone in Burmecia and half of Lindblum to boot. Yeah, those were the weirdest damned things I've ever heard of. Looked like a bunch of dolls, they say, with funny glowing eyes and pointy hats, and some of the deadliest magic anyone's ever heard tell of... hey, why are y'all looking at me like that?"
Rubert had been in the pub that night, along with most of the rest of the weary townsmen. The stranger had apparently found it wise to beat a hasty retreat, disturbed by the stares and the murmurs that he'd started by his innocent announcement.
They'd found the man, if he could even be called that - he'd just barely reached twenty-two that year - lying in his bed with slashed wrists and a tear-stained face. He'd managed to scribble out a suicide note, although it wasn't exactly legible; he'd been in a great hurry, it seemed, to finish himself off. But they hadn't needed much of a hint to understand why he'd done it.
Lisa, thinking about it, shook her head. "That poor young fool," she said softly, with only a trace of softness in her old voice.
"Lisa! The man's dead! Can't you show some respect for that? Don't you care?"
"Yeah, I care. The boy was like a son to me; they all are. You know that." Lisa spat on the ground. "But that don't mean he's a hero for offing himself. Just another man dead, that's all, with so many lost already."
"And it's because of me."
Lisa didn't need to agree, and wouldn't have disagreed under any condition. He was right; it was his fault. She'd tried to tell him not to listen to the Queen and her envoys. Her mother had always taught her an old saying of hers, one that had served her well throughout her life: Traditions exist because they need to exist. When traditions are broken, they break the entire way of life along with 'em.
Dali had always been a farming village; at its height, it had been the sole provider of half of the continent's food. But now Alexandria had begun building large-scale farms, and Lindblum had provided the machinery to till them. The young men had gotten restless when they'd seen crop prices fall. And when Alexandria had come with the means to break the tradition once and for all... well, they just couldn't have resisted.
She pitied them. Was it some shortcoming that they'd been raised with that made them so eager to take the easy money? Was it just some kind of moral problem that was going to manifest itself across the entire world, because this generation was just too cold? But more likely, it was fear, fear that the farming life wouldn't provide for them anymore.
The mayor lifted his head. The dusty wind ruffled his hair. "I've already ordered the machines scrapped," he said softly. "I should go back down soon, see if they're following orders. They might still be too scared to do it -"
"Then go," Lisa said curtly. "Don't expect me to congratulate you over destroying something that never should've been built. You should've listened to me before it cost Rupert his life."
"I've been scared," she admitted with no change in her tone. "I've lived all my life here, and I've seen this town's people turn into a bunch of money-hungry bastards who can't think past the money in their hands. I've been scared of what it's turned us into, you hear me?"
The mayor shook his head. "Don't be scared anymore, Lisa. It stops here. We're not letting it happen again."
Good, the old woman thought, with a great feeling of weariness. She was getting old, and her body wanted nothing more than rest, but she'd denied that feeling to work in the field. "I hope so. I'm not gonna live forever, and I don't want to die knowing that this town's dying too."
"It won't. Don't worry. I've learned something - I think we've all learned something."
"Good. Now get going." She turned away, snatching up the handle of her hoe and driving the blade deep into the ground. "You've gotta make sure that the other young men learned something too."
"I... yes, Lisa, you're right. You've been right all along."
She shook her head as the mayor walked away. Did he really think that she just wanted to hear him flatter her, that she would forgive everything if he just admitted that she'd been right? She loved him, like she loved the rest of her town's children, but it didn't stop her from disapproving of them. It didn't stop her from realizing that they'd given in to their greed. It made her feel so old.
Once again she sighed, staring at her crops. Soon there'd be others to help her, the young men who'd been scared away from the Mist and the black mages. Then she'd finally be able to rest, and it was about time. Her feet were killing her, and her hands had been worn almost to nothing. Maybe Dali would be able to recapture its glory days again; she doubted it, but then again, anything was possible.
Rupert was dead, and nothing would ever bring him back; she only hoped that the rest of the town was going to learn something from that one undeniable fact. Their selfishness had cost them the life of one of her town's children. Maybe it would be worth it, but only iif they could be made to understand why it had happened, and how to keep it from happening again.
A single tear rolled down her leathery cheek, mourning the loss of her town's innocence.