Chapter II Capture
Balamb Garden set down outside the gates of the Presidential Palace, adjacent to Deling City's Council Hall. An honor guard of Galbadian soldiers greeted Squall and his SeeD party as they disembarked, and escorted them inside to the hall's lobby. Among the forest of polished marble columns they met Foreign Minister Kittering, in the flesh even shorter and slighter, though his wide, fixed smile was undiminished. "You and your men--uh, people," he hastily altered, noting Quistis and Selphie, "are most welcome, Commander. If you'd like to see the chambers we've prepared--"
"We'll stay in the Garden," Squall told him. "The council meeting is tomorrow?"
"It begins at noon. We'll send a messenger to bring you," the minister said. "Until then, you can visit the city--we can use the tourism." He broadened his smile.
Squall didn't return it. "I'll tell them."
Behind him he heard Selphie whisper to Zell, "You and Sashi can go to a restaurant here!"
He missed Zell's reply as the minister added, "I don't want to seem impolite, but warn your people to be cautious. A few malcontents might attempt to spoil our citizens' good reputations. You'll of course have a guard, and our officers of the law are quite competent, but I wouldn't want you to receive the wrong impression from a couple--"
"I understand," Squall said. "Thank you, but we can take care of ourselves. Is that all?"
"Yes, I suppose--" The minister blinked as Squall offered a curt good-bye and departed, the other SeeD following suit.
By the time they exited the council hall Selphie was on her communicator, discussing a change in plans with Irvine over Zell's increasingly vocal protests. The sharpshooter and Rinoa joined them at the Garden entrance, neither half so interested in Squall's announcement as they were in convincing Zell not to forgo his date. "I know a wonderful little restaurant," Rinoa said. "The best food in the city--"
"Great!" Zell latched onto his one escape. "You can show us!"
"I'm sure Sashi won't mind having you along," Zell said hurriedly. "How about you all come? Quistis? Squall? We can meet here tonight at 18.00 and all go out together." Once he had confirmation he sauntered off, whistling.
Irvine stared after him. Rinoa shook her head. "Sometimes we don't give him enough credit."
Quistis sighed. "Well, if it's not going to be a real date, I guess I can come. Better see what I have to wear."
Selphie watched her go, her forehead wrinkled. When the others went on ahead, the small SeeD pulled Irvine aside. "I think I know what's up with Quistis," she whispered, "and I know what to do about it."
"What do you mean, not a good idea?" Fists on her hips, Rinoa eyed the guard. "I'm a Galbadian citizen, and my friends are visitors invited by the President himself."
"I didn't say you couldn't go," the guard said nervously. "But there's plenty of other restaurants, with friendlier patrons--more your style people--"
"We prefer here, thank you." Holding her head high, Rinoa looped her arm through Squall's and strode past the guard, pulling her escort along beside her. The other five followed suit, Selphie sticking her tongue out as she passed.
The alley, lacking the streetlamps on the main streets, was dark and forbidding, the doors in the towering brick walls tightly shut and the windows shuttered. A cat's green eyes watched them suspiciously from under a trash receptacle. Next to Sashi, Zell cracked his knuckles. "You sure you know this place, Rinoa?"
"Sure I'm sure." Passing the cat's dumpster, she picked a blank brown door and rapped sharply twice. A hidden panel slid aside, closed again, and then the door was flung open.
"Rinoa Heartilly!" An enormous, ruddy-haired man, almost too large to fit in the doorway, beamed down at her. "By the Brothers' beards, you haven't come by in ages! The stories we've heard, wasn't sure we'd see you again, if one quarter of 'em were true."
"They probably are, Lank," Rinoa admitted. "But since we were in Deling, I wanted to come here. These are my friends. They're SeeD--I hope that's not a problem?"
"SeeD, eh?" Lank looked them over critically, then gave a deep chuckle. "Aye, there'll be no trouble, even if they weren't your friends. Be enough here that might be interested in their services."
"Not tonight," Rinoa said firmly. "They're--We're off-duty."
"Understand that right enough," Lank winked. "I'll put you where fewer will see you, then. So, you came in that Garden that caused such a rattle this afternoon?" Rumbling on, he escorted them through the door. Inside, the tavern seemed larger than the building without, the warmly lit, white walls giving an impression of space, with tasteful frescos and tapestries of mythological scenes to add color. The thick walls must have had sound-proofing as well; once inside, they were inundated with the hubbub of the crowd. Not a chair was empty, and many more stood around the bar, with the coloring and costumes of a wide variety of peoples from across the continents. Even a couple of Shumi merchants haggled at a corner table.
Lank must have seen their surprise. With a hint of a smirk, he said, "Welcome to the Minotaur's Horn. If you'll sit here, I'll have the Missus throw on the house special for all of you. Don't have any special distaste for frankfurters, do you?"
"No, sir!" Zell assured him.
True to his word, the proprietor placed them at a long table against the far wall, giving the SeeD an excellent view of the entire restaurant while the low light drew no attention to them. With a little maneuvering, Zell was seated beside Sashi, with Irvine on one side of them and Rinoa on the other. If Lank noticed their not-so-subtle guidance, he made no comment. But he did glance curiously at Squall once, small hazel eyes searching the SeeD's face and coming to rest on the scabbard at his side. He said nothing of it, however; most of the patrons had weapons barely concealed.
Once he left, Irvine planted his elbows on the table top and spoke over the room's babble. "Rinoa, how'd you find here? Doesn't look like a place your dad would frequent."
"That's how I found it." Rinoa admitted. "Trying to get away from home. I worked here for a waitress for a couple months, before my father found out and made me quit. But I'd made friends, and he couldn't keep me from visiting. I always found interesting people here. Actually, this is where I met the Forest Owls."
Squall looked up from his water glass. "Those Timber revolutionaries?"
Rinoa nodded. "Watt and Zone were recruiting for their cause. They wanted a general or a prince..."
"You told them you were a princess?" Selphie asked, recalling the title the two revolutionaries had always granted her.
Rinoa blushed. "I never told them that--I said I was the daughter of an important man. They decided he was a king."
"King of where?" Squall cocked his head inquiringly. "There are no countries with kings."
Rinoa shrugged. Irvine tapped Zell on the shoulder. "Hey, you're being awfully quiet." Lowering his voice, he whispered, "Just be yourself, that's the best way to go." Then, louder, he remarked, "So, Quistis, Sashi, you've been working on that new cross-Garden index, haven't you? Found any cool books of magic?"
"Hey, uh, yeah," Zell said, clearing his throat. "Like that--"
He broke off so abruptly everyone looked to him, then followed his fixed stare to the bar. They all jerked. "What are they doing here?" Quistis muttered, one hand going to the whip on her belt.
Even given the wide range of patrons, the pair that had just entered should have drawn more attention than they did. The man, as tall and wide as Lank but with darker hair and complexion, towered over the whip-thin, silver-haired woman. Their backs were to the SeeDs' table, but they didn't need to see her eyepatch to recognize their former comrades.
"Fujin and Raijin," Zell growled. "Think they're still tagging along with Seifer?"
"Easy, Zell," Quistis murmured. "I don't see Seifer, and they aren't causing trouble."
"They seem to be known," Squall observed, noting Raijin gesturing to the barkeep in a friendly manner.
"Mercenaries do hang out here," Rinoa began.
She was interrupted, not by any noise, but rather a sudden hush descending over the crowd as five Galbadian soldiers marched through one of the side doors. Everybody made such an effort not to meet the men's eyes that it would have been less obvious simply to stare. Ignoring the quiet, four of the guards strode to side table, grabbed the collars of the two seated there, and yanked them to their feet. The fifth, a red-armored lieutenant, announced loudly, "Malkon Amethyst, you and your comrade are under arrest!"
The quiet deepened to an instant of utter silence. "What for?" one of the men yelped, struggling fruitlessly. "Man, I've got rights!" he screeched as the guards shoved him and his associate toward the door. "We're citizens! What's the charge?"
The soldiers said nothing, until Raijin tapped the officer's arm. "Hey, lieutenant, what's up? We're just here for a quiet drink, ya know?"
The lieutenant wheeled, then saw who had addressed him and immediately straightened. "Official government business, Master Raijin."
"Master Raijin?" Zell hissed.
"You and Ms Fujin can enjoy yourselves. We'll be gone in a moment," the officer was saying. "As long as these traitors come quietly--"
"TRAITORS?" Fujin rasped.
The lieutenant jumped backward, then flailed for composure. "Yes, Mistress Fujin, we've got it on good authority that Malkon's a ringleader behind the police station bombing. Come along, now." He gestured hastily to his men.
"Well, if it's government business, it's none of ours, ya know," Raijin said sagely.
"But it is ours."
The soldiers with their prisoners spun around. The crowd parted to reveal six black-garbed figures who had appeared in the back, each wielding a stunner. "Release them," the leader ordered.
"Get out of here," snarled the lieutenant.
Tension was building in the air. Across the restaurant, weapons were suddenly not so concealed. "We've got to do something!" muttered Zell.
"Do what?" Squall asked. "Who do we help?"
Two of the soldiers had their guns trained on the newcomers. "Hey," Raijin said, stepping before them with his hands raised. "Keep it peaceful, ya know?"
"BUSINESS," Fujin said, and promptly kicked him in the back of the knee. Raijin went down--and one of the black-clothed figures fired over his head, stunning a guard.
It was all that was needed for all hell to break loose. While the first shot was clear, whoever threw the first punch was lost in the tumult which instantly exploded. An attack on the Galbadian soldiers was in no time a full-blown free-for-all, fortunately keeping more to fists than weaponry. Breaking away from the central knot of fighters, Raijin limped back to his comrade, knocking patrons aside left and right. Fujin stood ramrod straight against the bar, juggling her shuriken in her hand as she debated where it could be most effectively applied.
The six SeeD and Rinoa stood by their table and watched. Having no way to tell sides--not that this stopped anyone else--they did nothing, though all reached for their arms when the Galbadian police joined the fray. Bottles started to fly, along with plates and silverware. Squall was considering ordering a discreet retreat when an airborne chair soared toward them. Zell pushed Sashi back, just in time; the chair smashed to splinters against the wall an inch above her brunette head.
"How dare you!" Zell yelled, and vaulting the table he plunged into the thick of the melee. Before Squall could speak, Irvine sprang after him, and Selphie was hot on his heels, her whirling nunchakus cutting a swathe through the combatants.
Quistis shrugged, uncoiled her whip, and inclined her head to Sashi. "Shall we?"
"He--he saved me!" the girl gasped. "Zell!" Pushing up her blouse's long silk sleeves, she hurtled into the fight.
Rinoa stuck by Squall, both of them dodging missiles and fists with ease. "Squall!" she cried as she ducked, "you've gotta--" broke off to block a kick and resumed, "--stop this!"
"How?" Squall demanded, as a table leg whistled past. He could barely make out his friends through the melee, though he caught a glimpse of Zell pushing toward Raijin. That didn't bode well. But what could he do? Bringing magic or a guardian force into the battle would only make things worse. "Stop!" he called experimentally, to no effect.
"SeeD, quit fighting!" he tried again. Rinoa threw him a shrug and a smile, then yelped as a well-aimed pewter stein shattered the lantern over her head. She flung herself back as the glass shards burst out, slamming into a slight man behind her. Both went down.
"Rinoa!" Squall shouted, and pulled his gunblade. "Stop!"
Lionheart's brilliant blue was ghostly in the abrupt pause. Every fighter near Squall and Rinoa took a few involuntary steps backward, leaving an empty circle where the light shimmered on the scuffed floor. The rest were motionless, some frozen mid-strike. All eyes were on the gunblade, and not a few were saluting--all SeeD, Squall noted, doing a quick visual sweep of the crowd, but also a number of others who were not possibly under his command. And every face, patrons, SeeD, and Galbadian soldiers alike, held the same look of awe, trepidation, and, oddly, recognition.
Excepting his friends, whose expressions showed chiefly consternation. And Fujin and Raijin; Fujin was cool as ever, and Raijin's open mouth was more surprised than amazed.
They all were quiet, though. Waiting, he realized, when Rinoa nudged him surreptitiously. Squall cleared his throat. "Thank you." Several people were pointing in his direction and whispering. He didn't know what that meant, let alone what he should do about it. "...Soldiers, if you're done, you can leave."
They had no reason to obey him, but they did, all edging for the doors. Without the men they had arrested, he realized; those two notables had vanished in the confusion. Fujin and Raijin remained by the bar, with Zell a few feet away, trying to look like he wasn't glaring at them.
Before Squall could decide what to do about that, the problem was solved for him. "Fujin, Raijin. There you are."
They and everyone else looked to the golden-haired man at the main entrance. Even from his distance, Squall could see Zell's fists clench, and Quistis adjusted her grip on her whip. The crowd shifted uneasily, though several nodded with respect.
Seifer Almasy paid them no attention. He waited silently, a tall, handsome, young man, as always clothed in the crosses of the knights of old. His bearing and the gunblade in the scabbard at his side also might have belonged to the ancient heroes; the scar across his forehead lent him a maturity belied by the youthful arrogance in his eyes. That blue gaze locked with Squall's, but Seifer's gunblade remained sheathed.
Raijin and Fujin paced over as he raised one hand. "Go about your business," he addressed the tavern; then he looked again to his former rival. "Enjoy your stay in Galbadia, SeeD. Try to keep them under control, Commander Squall." Turning on his heel, he strode out, his long coat flaring behind him. His cohorts followed.
Squall released the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, and returned Lionheart to its sheath. A hand lightly touched his arm. Rinoa, gazing curiously after Seifer.
"'Keep us under control'!" Zell stalked back to the table, smoldering. "Why the hell is Seifer in Galbadia, anyway?"
"He needs a leash," Quistis agreed, waving her whip suggestively.
"You know him?" Lank returned to the table with the others. "Reckon you would, at that--they say he's former SeeD."
"Wannabe SeeD, you mean," Selphie sniffed.
"Huh." The proprietor aimed a sideways look at their commander as a waiter set about clearing away the broken plates. "So you are him. Squall. Thought you might be, by the scar and the scabbard, but I didn't want to say anything. Well! You weren't exaggerating about this past year, were you, Rinoa?"
"What do you mean? You know Squall?"
"I know of him. All of you, I expect. There was a bard here a month back, trying to write a song of your battle with the Sorceress. She wasn't the first, either."
Rinoa's hands were tightly clasped in her lap. "What Sorceress?"
"What's that?" Lank squinted at her. "The Sorceress you fought, of course. She who would've been Queen of our sorry state. I've heard her called Edea and Adel most often--there's not a single part of the story anyone can agree upon. Except that you did us a great favor in defeating her--and there's those who'd argue even that." He shook his head, sighing. "It's a terrible truth, that our great and noble leaders would rather have accepted her power, forgetting all its evil. Maybe you can remind them of it--they won't listen to us."
"Is that what the arrest attempt was about?" asked Rinoa.
"Aye, and they aren't the first." Lank's broad face was rigid as a statue's. "We're a people in turmoil, and it's only darkened since the Sorceress fell." Just as quickly he shook off the mood, his customary grin returning. "But I reckon off-duty soldiers have no need to talk of grim affairs. The Missus keeps the kitchens running come hell or high water; that little scuffle won't have slowed her cooks the least--you'll have your meal soon enough."
Sashi, tenderly prodding the bruise forming over Zell's cheekbone, raised an eyebrow. "'Little scuffle'?"
They didn't get anything more out of Lank, neither about the arrest attempt nor their old mates' presence in Deling City. But when Squall, Zell, and Quistis entered the Galbadian council hall the next day, Seifer was there, seated at the right hand of the Minister of War.
It was too late to send Zell back. Squall hoped his friend could control himself. Quistis would cause no trouble; Zell wouldn't intentionally, but his temper often got the best of him, especially around Seifer. Squall had asked them both to stay quiet unless he called for them to speak, but under pressure Zell might forget that. He was a great fighter and a great friend, but not the most level-headed of individuals. If only there had been some way to justify bringing Rinoa; she might not be SeeD, technically, and she could be as volatile as Zell, but he could use her insight. And it rooted him somehow, made him feel more a part of wherever he was, when he was with her.
Alone, he walked onto the dais ringed by the council's table and faced the man in the central chair. "President Deling. I'm Squall Leonhart, SeeD Commander."
The President, a large, black-haired, amber-eyed man, nodded ponderously. "Greetings, Commander. You and your people are welcome to Galbadia. Thank you for responding so swiftly. As for our request." He glanced over his ministers, then past them. In the corner of his eye, Squall saw a pair seated in the first row of the empty audience tiers. A woman in dark green, and a man in a beige suit less formal than the council's conservatively cut jackets and ties. Though this part of the council meeting was not open to the public, Squall was just as glad he and his teammates had come in full SeeD uniform, as Rinoa had suggested. While inexperienced in the art of politics, he understood enough to know appearances mattered.
Ferdid Deling was speaking in stentorian tones that reminded Squall of Vinzer. "You may have heard of the terrorist bombing of the city's main police station last week. This is not the first such incident; nor is the capital the only place hit. Over the past year such vicious, cowardly attacks have become increasingly prevalent throughout our nation and our holding provinces. Our citizens live in greater fear every day. Trade is difficult when merchants fear attack and our ports and stations are damaged. We are a strong people, but even the most powerful tree cannot grow when insects eat away at the trunk from within the bark.
"We're doing all we can, but our forces were weakened by the Sorceress. In light of this, we prevail on you. SeeD is well-known for accepting difficult tasks; routing out these terrorist revolutionaries isn't a normal duty for mercenaries, but frankly, we have no one else to turn to. We're willing to pay whatever price you ask, and we'll board all your people, wherever they need to be, until the job's done."
Squall stood still for a minute, considering it. "You want to hire us to find the people responsible for the attacks?"
"Yes. Everyone in the circles--there's more than one group. The ministers of War and Internal Matters will tell you more when you're officially contracted."
"Why are these circles attacking?"
He saw a couple of the ministers react angrily, brows lowering and shoulders stiffening. Ferdid's countenance remained placid. "They have different demands. They're confused." His tone changed, from an official speaker's to one more expressive, more personal. "To be blunt, much has been a mess recently. The Sorceress's appointment--which you know something of--threw everyone into hysteria, and her murder of the President stirred up the chaos. I admit that I myself am part of the problem. As our lifelong President, Vinzer Deling should have ruled for another decade at least; there are some who oppose me now because of that. They'll stand in the way of progress because they can't take or don't want to accept the future."
Squall remembered hearing that argument some time ago, before he became SeeD. Then it had supported Galbadia's ceaseless expansionism, a reason for their continued holding of Timber and their attack on Dollet. Those who weren't powerful enough to defend were told to accept their future as a Galbadian holding. Superficially, Timber and the others had to, their forces too weak to throw off that rule. But it didn't stop those peoples from revolting in every small way possible. Including terrorist attacks, if necessary, and resistant groups had scraped together the money to hire SeeD for some attempts. How many of these attacks now were in support of those causes? The council did seem cagey about the actual demands of the revolutionaries.
It wasn't a question he could ask outright, however, though not long ago he would have been tempted to. Diplomacy meant using other channels to learn the truth. "We'll consider your petition," he said.
Quistis was gesturing covertly. With his permission, she stepped forward. "If I may ask, Mr. President, how many casualties have there been in these attacks?"
This time Ferdid didn't quite quash the anger. He quickly forced his squared jaw into a smile. "Of course you can ask, young lady. Fortunately there's been relatively few. However, there have been deaths, and the property damage is astronomical. And we fear our luck will soon end as far as our citizens go. These circles are clever campaigners, but they don't care for anything but their own ends. People are only pawns to them, and if they decide murder will support their causes better, they won't hesitate to kill."
Squall nodded, thinking as he did that the same could easily be said about most governments. Including this one, he imagined. Galbadia had been ruthless in its conquests even before the Sorceress's rule. He knew it was that rule, and the attack on the Gardens, that fueled some of his feelings, but it was also simple reason. Politicians tended to care for people's votes more than their persons. Not all, he admitted to himself, thinking of Esthar's president. But most...still, it was a petition, and he had to consider it as open-mindedly as he could. Even if his gut was telling him to reject the offer there and then. "We'll decide within the next three days."
"Thank you," said the President with formal gratitude, and extended his hand toward the SeeD commander. Squall turned and left without a word, Quistis behind him. Zell, leaping forward, pumped energetically, then jogged after his friends.
Two others caught up with them in the building's lobby. Squall recognized the green and beige of the pair auditing the meeting, and gave them a closer look. The woman was striking, certainly. Her long dress swept the floor and rose to cover her slender arms and neck, yet the velvet hardly concealed the well-formed curves beneath. Carefully styled auburn hair fell in waves down her back, braided with tiny golden charms to match her narrow throat chain. Yet none of this ornamentation detracted from her eyes, like the palest sapphires in a setting of dark red lashes, gazing boldly out of her smooth, oval face.
"If I may have a word with you, Commander," the woman murmured in a low alto.
Squall indicated for Zell and Quistis to go on ahead and faced her. "I am First Lady Jezikan," she told him, "Ferdid Deling's wife. I only wish to ask that you consider my husband's petition in our favor. The palace has been spared by those...people, but I fear..." Her musical voice caught a little. "I fear something may happen. Especially to my husband; there are those who hate him..." She trailed off, her rose cheeks paling, and placed one hand on his arm as if to steady herself. "Please," she breathed.
He looked at her, and then down at the hand clutching his jacket.
"We will pay you," she whispered, low in her throat, "in whatever coin you wish."
He looked back up. She was a tall woman; her eyes were level with his, half-lidded but intense.
"Milady," murmured the man, and she withdrew as he bowed to Squall. In the lady's shadow he was less noticeable than he might have been alone. The light tan of his suit was darker yet than his fair skin and still fairer hair. It shone like white gold in the sun, and if not for the faint pink flush his skin might have been marble. His face and body had the aesthetic, slender fragility of classical sculpture. But if he were a statue, his eyes were carved from onyx, a blue so black the irises could have been mistaken for pupils. There was something dangerous in those eyes, too dark to be read.
"My lord commander," the man breathed, "it is...an honor to meet you. I scarce imagined I would have the chance." He daintily held out one white hand, the fingers dangling like limp petals.
Squall regarded the offer silently. Jezikan laughed prettily and batted the man's hand away. "Oh, he's not the time for that, Dahl." She turned back to Squall, the gold charms twinkling in her hair. "You must excuse Lord Dahl. He's quite the follower of warriors and battles. I'm afraid you're something of a hero to him, Commander."
"It's...nice to meet you," Squall said, realizing something was required of him before they would let him go.
"Charmed," purred the woman.
"Oh, indeed," Dahl gushed. "Wonderful--it was quite worth your coming just to see that Garden float down from the clouds, as if a jewel from the heavens! Even if you don't accept our petition--well, you have your reasons. You've done so many deeds; asking you for any more, it's practically overkill."
Squall tried to tell if he were serious. The lord's smile was so vapid and his prattle so light it must have been affected, but who except an idiot would affect an idiot's demeanor? He knew more than one important personage who were quite intelligent but nonetheless fools. Dahl might be sincere, or sarcastic, or he might only be kissing up; it didn't affect Squall one way or another. Did it matter?
But his eyes were unreadable. And the SeeD couldn't shake the impression of danger beyond their opaque ebon surface.
"It was an honor and a pleasure, Commander," the lord said, and with another bow retreated to the council chamber.
"Please, if you have need of anything, only ask," Jezikan said. "Or even if you only want." She lightly pressed her fingers to his glove, a butterfly's touch, and then she was gone in a swirl of green skirts. The scent of lavender lingered after the click of her heels on the tile faded.
Squall sighed and started back to the Garden, wishing Rinoa had come with him.
Once at his office, Squall called a meeting with what most SeeD referred to as the 'inner circle'--Rinoa and his closest comrades in SeeD, plus Xu and a few trusted others. A short discussion of the Galbadian petition proved his uncertainty was shared by all. "It stinks," was Zell's major contribution. "Like a week-old fish." The others, though less blunt about it, seemed to be in agreement.
He assigned them to investigate various angles of the petition. Once they were dispatched, Squall tried to contact Cid. His communication to the orphanage was immediately answered. "Hello?"
Squall frowned. The person responding could not have been more than ten, a round-faced, pig-tailed imp of a girl. One of Edea's adopted children, now living at the orphanage since Ellone's SeeD ship had been retired. The girl's violet eyes went very large as she stared at her screen. "Wow wow! You're him!" Pulling herself so straight he suspected she was standing on her toes, she executed a reasonable facsimile of a salute. "What do you want, Mr. Commander Squall?"
"Please get Mr. Kramer," Squall said.
She vanished. A minute later a face he knew popped onto his screen--not the one he had asked for, though. A man, but rather younger than Cid Kramer, in a cap. "May I help you, sir--oh, it is you, sir! Hello, good morning! Can I help you?"
Squall refrained from sighing. "Hello, Watt. I'm trying to talk to Cid. It's important. Is he there?"
"Well, actually, no, sir." Watt scratched the back of his head. "He's not. Can I take a message?"
"Where is he?...forget it. Is Edea there?"
Watt nodded earnestly. "I think she's talking with Zone. I'll go get her right away, sir." He rushed off.
The moment he was gone the girl returned, along with two other children. The oldest, a skinny, black-haired boy, squinted at Squall suspiciously through thick glasses. "Are you really Commander Leonhart?"
The suspicion vanished like hot dogs in front of Zell. "Oh, cool! Can we see your gunblade? Is it really five feet long? Do you--"
"Mak, Palli, Danna," someone called offscreen, quietly but with enough force that all three children instantly snapped to attention. "Go finish your lessons, now. Thank you for answering the call, Danna."
He heard the girl chirp, "You're welcome, Matron," as the kids ran off, and then Edea came into view. Petite and elegant, her long, black hair still had no gray, and her face was a match to his faded childhood memories. No longer bearing the weight of the sorceress's powers, she appeared much younger than her husband, though she was always more somber and that evened things out.
Squall bowed his head. "Hello, Matron."
She smiled, quiet but gentle. "Hello, Squall. You wanted to talk with Cid, didn't you? I'm afraid he's at Fisherman's Horizon now."
"...Oh. Why...Never mind. Can I contact him there?"
"You can contact him. As for why, he's overseeing the renovations on Galbadia Garden. He had some concerns." She paused. When he said nothing she went on, "It's already night there. You might want to wait for your evening to try. How urgent is this?"
"It can wait until then."
"Good. He needs his sleep." Edea smiled. "Make sure you get some, too. You and Rinoa and the others are all in good health? I'm glad. Good luck, Squall. I hope Cid can help you, but I know you'd do well regardless."
"Thank you, Matron," he said, and meant it. He was nearly smiling when he disconnected, not quite as confused, some measure of confidence restored. It wasn't what she said exactly, or even how she said it; it was that she had said it at all. He didn't question Matron. She believed in him, and he wouldn't, couldn't, betray that trust.
"What kind of monster commands the SeeDs, anyway?"
Jezikan was in a fine temper. She had maintained her poise for the rest of the council meeting, but once she had returned to her chambers all semblance of calm was lost. Her maids, familiar with these occasional flashes, wisely fled, taking the more fragile curios from the room as they did. Once she had stripped off her dress and torn the ornaments from her hair, the lady stalked to her closets to choose a new costume. Rejected garments were flung across the room as she snarled to herself.
Dahl, slipping in through his regular side entrance, narrowly missed getting slapped by a copper-trimmed sleeve. He caught the attacking gown and laid it carefully across the bed, then settled himself beside it. "It could have gone worse," he remarked.
"How?" Jezikan whirled on him. Dahl wondered if she was aware of how attractively her eyes sparkled when she was angry, how enticingly her breasts heaved. Almost definitely. She wouldn't miss a trick like that. "How could it have gone worse? Maybe if he were a woman--or a ceramic doll!" She flounced across the room to pick up the last dress thrown, pulling it on with short, violent jerks. "He's a boy, Dahl! Not even as old as our so-wonderful Knight. I should've had him wrapped around my finger before I even spoke."
"Like you did with the Knight?" Dahl reminded her.
"I wasn't trying with him," snapped Jezikan. "He's not important enough to bother. But this commander--what went wrong? What's wrong with him? A boy that callow, and his expression never changed once!"
"Maybe he is too young. Or maybe I should give it a try," the fair man suggested with a smirk. "We don't know which way his tastes swing."
"I suppose." Slightly mollified, she concentrated on tying the dress's lace sleeves.
Dahl came up behind her to assist. "It doesn't matter anyway," he remarked as his dexterous fingers worked. "I've met him now. Enough, I think."
"It better be enough." Jezikan turned her head enough to see him, keeping still while he arranged the dress. "They aren't going to go along with it. I could see that much on his face. They don't trust us."
"But we'll still go ahead with it?"
"Yes," she said. "We suspected this would be the case, and Ferdid knows it too. He's taking action tonight, if he can." When Dahl paused in irritation, she reached back to stroke his cheek. "At least we have them here. We've come too far now; even the SeeDs and their stone commander won't be able to stop us." Her eyes narrowed spitefully as her fingers combed the warlock's ashen hair. "And I'll laugh when he tries."
The SeeD commander was known to have impressive patience, especially given his youth. But bureaucracies had broken stronger than even him. It was fortunate Rinoa came when she did, or else Squall might have given in to his rising temptation to smash his fist through the communicator. When he heard the knock he gratefully raised his head, not caring who it was. Any interruption would be better than this. "Come in."
"Doing anything important?" she inquired. "I want to tell you something."
"Tell me. There's time." He glanced at the still screen. "They've had me on hold for twenty minutes."
"What are you doing?" She came around the desk to peer over his shoulder. "Contacting Fisherman's Horizon? Why?"
"Oh. Because of Galbadia Garden? I wonder how that's going--you should ask him."
"I will. But I have to report the situation here first."
Rinoa nodded, taking a step back. "That's what I came about. You asked me to talk with Lank about the revolutionaries."
"Yes. Is that--"
"That's fine. If anyone knows anything, he would, and he'll tell me. I can tell him why I need to know, right? Then it'll be okay. He likes me, and he respects you, Squall. And he'll want the SeeDs on the right side. So it's not a problem. I just wanted to tell you that I might not be back tonight. Talking with Lank might take a while, and then..." She looked down, toeing the floor. "I might visit my dad. If he'll let me."
"He will, I'm pretty sure. He loves me. I just...I haven't seen him at all since last year. There's a lot I need to talk about with him. Things I need to tell him about. Like the Sorceress. And you." She glanced up again, almost shyly. "So I'm going. Just wanted to let you know, so you don't worry if I'm not back tonight."
She hesitated a mere instant, rocking back on her heels. "Oh...and I'm going somewhere else. A friend left me a message; he wants to see me tonight. I think I'm going to. Is that all right?"
"Why ask me? It isn't my business--" The communicator beeped. Squall broke off as the screen flashed to life, asking the lady who came on, "Is Cid Kramer there?"
"Who is this?" demanded the woman.
He told her. Rinoa propped her elbows on the desk and watched as the woman, after verifying his identity, asked him to wait. The screen returned to the holding pattern. Squall banged his fists down on either side of the comm. "They still don't like us; they're doing everything they can to delay, even when I told them it was important. Damn it. I hate this." He noticed Rinoa was smiling. "What?"
"Just thinking. A year ago you never would've admitted that. You'd have kept it all in here." She poked his forehead with one finger. "You're more fun when you let yourself be human."
He sighed. "This is driving me nuts. She didn't even say how long it'd be."
"You'll get through eventually. Good luck. I guess I should go, Lank will feed me dinner. You're sure you don't mind me seeing Seifer?"
"No, that's your--Seifer?!"
Rinoa had the grace to look embarrassed. "He's the friend. He sent a message a little while ago--it must have been right after the council meeting ended. He wants to talk with me tonight. Only an hour, he asked for. He swore on his honor no harm would come to me--he can be awfully formal, when he wants to be."
"Rinoa, you said a friend--Seifer..."
"He was my friend," said Rinoa, as soft as Matron and just as undeniable. "He was more to me, once."
Once. At one time he might have been. A year divided then from now, and much pain. Battles and betrayal. Seifer had become the Sorceress's Knight; he had stood first at her side, fought for her and lead her troops against them. And when Ultimecia demanded it, he had given Rinoa to Adel, brought a girl he had perhaps at one time liked to the mouth of the beast and thrown her to it. Not smiling. But he had done it. He was no friend to her. No friend to any of them.
Though he said nothing, it must have been visible on his face. Rinoa reached for his hand, caught it. "Squall, it wasn't his fault, not entirely. Ultimecia was controlling him--I think she always was, a little. Even when he was young, giving him that dream through Edea. She wanted a knight and she chose him. Like she chose me to do her evil...I know what it's like, to be controlled like that. How it feels not to be able to do anything, not even to fight it--to barely be aware of yourself. I understand what it was like for him. Maybe he wants to apologize now. And I want to forgive him."
"Maybe. You don't know. Even if she was controlling him for a little while, it's still Seifer."
"People change." Rinoa laughed, barely audibly. "I hate talking in cliches. But we do. We grow up, we get older, and things happen. I thought I had everything figured out, and then I met Seifer. And then you, and then Ultimecia...and I'm the Sorceress now. I'm not Ultimecia, but I'm not Rinoa Heartilly, either. Not the same one."
"I know." He wondered if he could have loved that Rinoa as much. That princess of the Timber Forest Owls, bold and giddy and somehow much younger than she was now. And she had known Seifer then, when he was only an arrogant SeeD cadet.
At one time Squall never would have noticed the differences, never would have cared. Rinoa wasn't the only one who had changed. Still, Seifer...
"I'll be fine," she said. "I'm not going unarmed, and I'm junctioning more magic than Seifer could even hold. You don't need to worry."
"I'm not," he denied, too quickly. "You shouldn't be in danger. If he gave his word, he'll probably keep it. But--"
"I'll be careful." She let go of his hand, and then, without warning, she leapt on him, flinging her arms around his neck as she had when they first officially met, on the train in Timber. She was no longer leading a revolution, and he wasn't her hired mercenary, but some things remained the same. Though he hadn't put his arms around her then the way he did now. And she hadn't rested her head on his shoulder, murmuring, "You really don't need to worry. I liked Seifer. But I love you, Squall. That's never going to change."
At his desk the communicator chirruped. Rinoa released him. "Duty calls. Mine and yours."
"Be careful, please,"uot; he told her, and with a thumb's up and a smile she was gone.
In a private corner of the Minotaur's Horn and with only Rinoa, Lank was willing to talk. Most of what he had to say was no surprise to Rinoa, who had spent most of her life exposed to the hairy politics of Galbadia. The past year was reaching new levels of discord, she soon learned, of which Sorceress Edea's rule and the President's assassination were only overtures. The major problem now had a name, apparently--"Not Ferdid," Lank told her. "He's bad, but he's only a minnow. The shark... Maybe Jezikan, his wife--some would rather he were married to the sorceress herself. No few of the revolutionaries want Ferdid out because it will get her that much further away from power. She's a poison, and those they call terrorists are cutting to bleed out her venom. We're--I mean, they're hurting as few people as possible; if there were any other way to make them listen they'd do it. They're trying to save this nation, these 'terrorists' are."
Rinoa couldn't make guarantees, but she promised Lank she would tell Squall everything, and she was fairly certain SeeD would reject the petition. Squall didn't like it much anyway. She wondered how Cid had advised him; the former headmaster wasn't in Galbadia, but he still might understand the situation. And Squall would in the end make his own decision--it would be the right one. She had no doubt of that.
Seifer's designated meeting place was several blocks away. Rather than take the bus, she walked, seeing with her own eyes how much had changed since she was young. Very little; it might feel like years ago, but she was barely an adult, her childhood still close. The streets were darker than they had been, with many streetlamps smashed and not replaced, and more police and guards on patrol. But the shops' windows still shone well into the night, and the crowds were resplendent as always.
She heard a howl somewhere behind her. Automatically she reached for her shooting star, then realized the call had a familiar ring. Turning, she found a large brown and white dog bounding toward her, its red tongue dangling between dripping canines.
Rinoa frowned. "Angelo!" She crouched as pedestrians cleared out of the animal's path. "Here, boy. Heel!" The dog halted before her and thrust his wet nose into her hair, panting eagerly. "You're not a good dog," she informed him, scratching behind his ears. "You were supposed to stay at the Garden." Not that Angelo ever did. The one command he had never completely mastered was 'stay.' If she went with others he would usually remain behind, moping. But if he knew she was alone, or in a dangerous situation, he tended to pop up, regardless of what she had told him to do.
"You aren't going to go home, are you? Come on, then." The dog at her heels, she set off again. On her way to meet with Seifer. Seifer Almasy, former SeeD cadet, former Sorceress's Knight. Former friend...maybe more. Had she loved him? She wasn't quite sure. She knew he had never loved her. And what she had felt that summer with him was nothing compared to what she felt with Squall now. It had been exciting, and fun, and she had craved it desperately, just the idea of being in love. Now, though...she didn't know if she was in love. That was a light feeling, giddy and absorbing. What she had now, what she and Squall had, wasn't only emotion. It was reality; it was being. She loved him, and was loved by him, and everything they were was multiplied a thousand times over for it.
But Seifer had been a friend if nothing else. And she wondered how much of what he had later become was her own fault. If she hadn't asked him to Timber, asked him to attack Vinzer Deling, might the Sorceress never have found him? Never have taken him to be her Knight, banishing everything else he might have been. He had given his soul to Ultimecia, and now that she was gone, what did he have left?
The message he had left her, voice only, hadn't sounded like the Seifer she had once known. Still brazen, not begging, and calm without being peaceful. But there was something missing in the baritone, something broken. The confidence that she had admired in him, the feeling that he could take on the world and maybe come out on top, that was gone. He had no challenge now, nothing to fight for, his dream irrevocably shattered.
Angelo whimpered and bumped his head against her hip. Startled out of her thoughts, she stroked her pet's head. "What is it?"
The dog whined again, then growled, deep in his throat. Instantly Rinoa raised her arm, the straps of her shooting star tightening around the flexed muscle. With her back to the closest building, she scanned the faces of the passing people. Her battle-ready stance was winning her a few odd looks, but nothing suspicious--
The prick was no worse than an insect's sting, but when she looked down a tuft of green feathers protruded from her arm. She wrenched the dart out, her head already spinning. Angelo growled as two soldiers marched up. One of the armored men flicked his hand; sparks from his fingers flew into the dog's eyes.
Rinoa felt the energy surge. Fire magic. With a pained howl, Angelo ran. Not far, but enough that the other soldier could take her arm. "Are you feeling all right, Miss? Here, come with us."
She tried to tear away. "No--stop! Help!" In her mind she summoned the magic to cleanse herself, esuna's power driving away the dart's drug. Then there was another prick, and with it the whisper of a sleep spell. That darkness fell too fast to banish.
The soldiers caught her as she crumpled. Just a young lady who must have over-indulged, swooning on the streets. Nothing anyone would deign to notice, especially when she had guards to protect her. Only Angelo tried to stop them. Another sleep spell knocked the dog out cold. The soldiers left him lying in an alley, and spirited their prize away.