Dream Of The Devil
by Margaret Rennie
My name is Julian Stone, and I have seen the face of the Devil.
She is quite beautiful.
But of course, the Devil would be beautiful, wouldn't she, and wear the face of an angel. All the better to move among men undetected, to play her tricks, to rob and consume the souls of mortals like me.
I can't say that what I felt for her was love. I'm fairly sure I'm incapable of anything like that. But I needed her. Ah, God help me, I did. And she laughed at me. So I tried to destroy her. But I was a fool, for the Devil cannot be destroyed, not by mere men. As for those who try...well, this is how I came to this bitter place.
She first came to us as part of Cid's MK program, the genetic augmentation experiment that is intended to build a race of supermen and superwomen who will lead this Empire to future greatness. All babies, at least those born here in Imperial territory, are genetically blueprinted at birth, to identify congenital weaknesses and diseases. When Cid, the head of the Imperial lab, developed the MK program, we began to use those blueprints for our own purposes. The program seeks near-perfect children, disease-free, slated by nature to be tall, strong and exceptionally intelligent. Our augmentation protocol then turns them into superhumans, with magical abilities. Her genetic blueprint was ideal, and she was immediately marked for the MagiTek Knight program.
As a subject for the program, we intended to follow the same procedure with her as was applied to all the others. She was to be taken from her home at the age of three, to be transferred to the dormitory housing her new siblings. Her name was to be changed, and her history kept from her all her life. It was a hard and fast rule that these kids have no ties to, nor memories of, their original lives. The Empire was to be the only mother, the Emperor the only father, that they would ever know.
I was a young scientist in Cid's lab when she came to us, or rather, when we went and got her. I was twenty-three at the time. The securing operations were wholly unimportant to me; I only got involved during and after the augmentation process. These kids were just specimens to me, really. But for reasons I don't recall, I was along on the day that they went to collect her.
In truth, I don't remember what town we got her from. Or her family name. Or her name, for that matter. I do recall one odd fact: her father's first name was Will. I remember that because, unlike many parents who are proud to have their children selected for the MK program, this man resisted us. That's rather an understatement; he was a charging bull. He was a tall, muscled blond man, and when we came for his daughter, he rushed us, teeth bared, brandishing the biggest sword I have ever seen. Cid and I stayed well away from him, letting the guards handle the situation.
I was amused by it at first. There were a half-dozen armed guards, and I fully expected this rash man to be slapped down in short order. But in the first fifteen seconds of the melee, he had killed three of our guards, and I began to panic. They took him down, finally, after the fourth guard had been grievously wounded. I remember thinking then, as I patted perspiration from my lip, Will, an apt name. His wife, whose face I do not remember, came howling out of the house, and threw herself sobbing on her husband's prostrate body. When she saw one of the surviving guards carrying her little girl out the door, she commenced howling again, and struggled briefly with the guard, who pushed her down into a flower bed, and resolutely walked away with the girl, leaving the woman weeping, face down in the dirt.
The guard handed the child to Cid, who carefully folded her into his arms, an odd look on his face as he watched her. She wasn't crying, as you might expect her to be, after all the drama her parents had subjected her to. He leaned down to her as we rode away, and I could hear him whispering.
"You come from fine stock, princess," he crooned. "You will be a mighty warrior-queen someday, my little beauty, a great and mighty warrior-queen!"
Cid broke an important rule with this one. He did not turn her over to the nurses and teachers who ran the MK dormitory as he was supposed to. He elected instead to keep the wide-eyed child with him in his suite of rooms and in his lab, in effect, raising her as his own. He was a favorite of Gestahl, and the Emperor allowed him this breach of protocol.
Cid did change her name, at least he did that much. Celes, he called her, in observance of her angelic, blonde and blue-eyed countenance. And, Chere, he explained, because she was precious to him from the first moment he saw her.
Cid is a brilliant scientist, but a weak and sentimental fool he always has been and always will be. The Devil will eventually pay back his devotion to her by destroying him, I am certain of it. It is her way.
It was shortly after her arrival in the program and in Cid's life, that I completed my own project, which was a magical energy dampening field, for use around the esper tubes. My energy dampening field is the thing that has made working with espers safe. Without my invention, their power would destroy us all; we would have no hope of keeping them safely in our lab or anywhere else. And we would not have been easily able to avail ourselves of their magic.
Needless to say, my invention paved my way to high position within the Empire. It was considered to be the most important scientific achievement after the MK program, which is Gestahl's pet project. So, at the age of twenty-five, I became a member of Gestahl's inner-circle, a trusted and privileged scientific advisor to the Emperor himself.
After I left the lab, I didn't see, or rather didn't notice...her...for several years. I did hear tales. She eventually became the young superwoman that she had been so carefully nurtured to become, and in fact proved to be quite a gifted battle strategist. Because of that gift, she was made a general at the incredible age of sixteen. Men three times her years followed her, too, and without question, because she had an uncanny sense of the opposition. The enemy was always concentrated where she said it would be, and its strengths and weaknesses were always what she'd planned for. Entire cities quickly fell before her army. The MKs were all prodigies; still, no one could ever understand how a girl of her age and limited experience could be such a shrewd tactician, a step ahead of her opponent all the time. It is one of the reasons that I suspect she is really the Devil.
I did not take particular notice of any of this, however. The MK program wasn't mine, and I am never very interested in anything that does not directly affect me. Therefore, I had no real awareness of her. In fact, it wasn't until the occasion of her eighteenth birthday celebration, that I once again took note of her.
A large dinner party in her honor was hosted by no less a personage than the Emperor, not out of any affection for her, but out of deference to Cid, her stepfather, and the head of Gestahl's beloved laboratory. When she made her appearance, bare-shouldered in a silver gown, one could hear gasps all over the dining hall. The pretty child had become a magnificent woman.
She was tall and well-made, as I recall that her father had been. She had his fair hair as well, which she wore down, nearly to her waist. Her face was -- is -- ravishing, all wide-eyed innocence, and at the same time, almost wanton in its full-lipped sensuousness. Cid had been right; she had grown to become quite the warrior-queen, indeed.
Still, I watched with detached amusement as adult, intelligent men paid her court and drooled like simpletons for her sake. I paid close attention to her eyes, not their hypnotic, sapphire depths, but the expression within them, the feeling they conveyed. Which was none. None at all. She sat there, untouched by any of it. She did not even appear to me to feel flattered. Perhaps not warrior-queen, I thought then, but rather ice queen. Yes, ice queen. And I was smug in thinking that, because I was not caught up in it. Not caught up in her. Not yet.
The party ended on a very nasty note, which turned out to be the first step towards my own finish, although I didn't then realize it.
It was Garrett's own fault, really, the stupid drunk. He had had far too much wine, and before Cid or anyone else could stop him, he had stumbled up behind her, put his arms around her, and cupped her breasts in his hands. Everyone in the room stood frozen with shock. She remained seemingly impassive, her face arranged in the chilly non-expression that I have come to associate with her.
It may have been the wine that prevented Garrett from feeling the pain right away, I don't know; perhaps it takes some time to set in, with a wound like that. But she was well-along before any of us knew, before any of us saw. She had drawn a small, pearl-handled shiv from her sleeve, and was coolly slicing a long, crimson line into Garrett's left arm, as he held her to him, his hand caressing her right breast.
By the time his face registered sick surprise, then horror, she had cut him from the midpoint of his upper arm, all the way down to his wrist. She had damaged nerves, and his arm suddenly fell useless at his side, dripping an alarming amount of blood. His mouth twitched, and his face went ashen as he finally understood the gravity of his injury. All at once, everyone began shouting and rushing around, some to aid the stricken man, some to soothe the outraged virgin. She stood holding the shiv in her right hand as one might stand holding an emptied glass at a fancy dress ball, unsure of what to do with it, unable to just set it down. The unfortunate Garrett's blood was smeared down the left side and front of her gown, and she stood apparently unmoved by it all, without even a look of smug satisfaction that the clumsy bastard had gotten what was coming to him, for pawing her the way he did.
She was an ice queen, make no mistake. And I was shortly to meet my fate, and the beginning of my end, at the door of her palace.
After Garrett had been taken away, so that Gestahl's physicians could try to salvage his arm for him, the dining hall quickly cleared, and everyone headed for their suites. A minute after I arrived in mine, I realized that I had forgotten my jacket in the dining hall, and went back to retrieve it.
Seeing her took me utterly by surprise. I suppose I'd thought that she and Cid would have gone home; it wasn't that far, after all. But as I walked down the hallway intent on my jacket, I passed a suite with the door slightly ajar. I turned my head without slowing my pace, and I saw her bloody gown draped over the back of a chair. I don't know what made me stop. I moved toward the doorway and peered into the room. It was empty. I pushed at the door with a finger. The bedroom entry just beyond stood open. I stepped forward, and she unexpectedly came into view, standing with her back to me, in front of a gilt-framed, full length mirror, stark naked.
I stopped where I was and watched, rapt. She stood examining herself, a look of puzzlement on her face, as she slowly moved her hands down her taut stomach, and over the feminine swell of her hips. I knew what that look of puzzlement was for. She was trying to understand what all the excitement was about, why men behaved so curiously in her company. I nearly laughed out loud.
I knew I should go, move on, but I couldn't get my feet in motion. And I couldn't bring myself to look away. Even as I began to realize that I was getting drawn in, I couldn't move. I gazed at her, filled my eyes with her. I wanted every detail of this in my memory. I was twenty years her senior, and had seen some things in my life, but I had never seen anything like her. She was only a child, and I was getting ready to throw my life away for her. I could feel myself begin to tremble.
I didn't hear the noise I must have made, but I saw her eyes shift in the glass. She looked up, and saw my reflection in the mirror. I don't know how I would have expected her to react. Perhaps with fear. Or embarrassed modesty. Even anger. But not the way she did. Never that way.
This is what happened next.
She watched me in the glass another few seconds. Then, she laughed. God help me, she laughed at me, and shook her head derisively, as if she had just seen the silliest, most pathetic thing in the world. Then, she turned, and not even bothering to cover up her nakedness, calmly walked to the bedroom door and slammed it in my face.
I hurried back to my suite, burning with humiliation. I shook with chagrin. I found myself envying Garrett. He perhaps had lost the use of his arm, but his manhood remained intact. He at least had a wound that told the world that she had felt threatened by him. She hadn't shown me even that much. I got her contempt. My disgrace was complete.
I dreamed of her that night. She came to me out of a mist, beckoning, her blonde hair flowing behind her, her lovely mouth in a pout, begging to be kissed. I tried to run to her, to take her in my arms, but my legs felt as though they were slogging through thick soup, and as I moved toward her, I realized that she was farther away than I'd thought. I called to her that I couldn't reach her. I begged her to come to me, but she only pointed and began to laugh, laughing at me over her shoulder, as she turned and began to run the other way. I reached out for her, but she kept running, running and laughing. I woke in a sweat, sick to my stomach.
That was the first time I had the dream that, ever since then, has tormented me almost nightly.
The next morning at breakfast, I stared at her, silently bidding her to look at me. When she finally did, I blinked and blushed like a boy, much to my dismay. My dream had been vivid; I felt as though she could see it on my face. She watched me a moment, as she had done in the mirror, and smirked as if reading my feverish thoughts. Then she looked away, uninterested. It was in that careless gesture of disregard that my hatred of her took root.
In almost the same moment that I first realized I wanted her, needed her, I had come to hate her. All I wanted in the world was either to possess her utterly, or to see her destroyed, utterly. I would not rest until I had achieved one goal or the other.
My avocation is hunting, and I delight in the tracking and capture of rare and dangerous game. I had never felt drawn to...her...in spite of her brilliance in the field, in spite of her breathtaking face, until I had seen firsthand what a mindlessly vicious creature she could be, when she carved up Garrett's arm for him. Yes, I thought, Celes Chere, the Devil, would be the rarest and most dangerous of prizes, the trophy of a lifetime. And I began to formulate a plan that would either put her under my control and make her mine, or else end in her death. Frankly, I didn't care which way it went. If she was killed, I could at least rest assured that no other man would ever pluck that flower. And I wouldn't have to be driven mad by that dream anymore.
"What makes you think that General Chere is softening," Gestahl asked me that evening at dinner. "Her performance in the field has been exemplary, by all accounts. Have you heard otherwise?"
Of course I had not heard otherwise.
"Yes, sir, I have," I lied. "Several of her officers-- they would not care to be named, Your Majesty -- say they have seen...hesitation." Gestahl leaned forward, his brow furrowed.
"Hesitation? You mean, cowardice?" I quickly shook my head. If I wasn't careful, I could get her executed before I had my chance at her. That was hardly the point.
"Oh, no, Emperor, nothing like that. Not cowardice. Only, shall we say, misplaced sympathy. A consideration of the plight of Your Majesty's enemies." I watched for his reaction. He sat back again and rubbed his chin.
"Dear me. You realize that this could have dire implications for the MK program!" Of course, Gestahl would be worried about his precious MKs.
"Yes, well, Majesty, perhaps it is only General Chere; perhaps it's a flaw in her alone, having been brought up apart from all the other MKs. Of course, you will recall the unfortunate incident that we had with that MK last year. We believed at the time that it was an isolated problem, but we can't be too careful now. Then again, perhaps none of this is true at all." Gestahl frowned.
"Not true? Why would you bring this up if you don't believe it to be true? You are testing my patience, Advisor!" He patted his jacket pocket, then reached in and drew a long cigar. He shook his head and glared at me as he clipped the end and clamped it in his teeth. I leaned across the table and lit it for him.
"I am actually not at all certain of this, sir, and I think you will agree that we must sort this matter out once and for all. For the good of the Empire," I added. "We would certainly not want to take an effective MK out of the field, but on the other hand, if she is going bad, we need to act quickly. And if this is the second MK to go off on us..." Gestahl sat watching me, puffing clouds of smoke in my direction and swirling his brandy around in its snifter. He was becoming agitated. I needed to get to my point. "I propose a test, Emperor," I offered.
"Mmm? What sort of test?" Gestahl slouched in his chair, his eyes fixed on me and glowing like two bright blue marbles. I was on dangerous ground. I had criticized one of his MKs, and had given him reason to worry about the whole program. I had attacked his baby, and he was angry with me.
"The north, sir," I replied. Gestahl sat up and leaned forward again. "As you know, Majesty, we have recently begun occupation efforts in parts of the north. There has been some resistance up there, and we have had our difficulties. This would be the army's call, of course, but it seems to me that some decisive action might be in order. You know, sir, to discourage defensive behavior. Perhaps a few buildings, even a few executions..." My voice trailed off. Gestahl caught my drift and nodded.
"Like Maranda, you mean. The way we handled Maranda."
"Yes, like that," I answered. "General Chere led us on that one, so she wouldn't be surprised to receive a similar assignment up north too. I propose..." Gestahl chuckled, interrupting me.
"You propose that someone be assigned to keep an eye on her, see how she behaves," he said. I nodded.
"I propose myself, uh, me, sir," I hastily continued. "Her colonels are very loyal to her and can't be counted upon in this effort. And Cid, well, he's..." Gestahl frowned again and I dropped the point. "It would take a scientist, I believe, sir, to be able to tell whether an MK is going off. A scientist who has worked in the MK program. A scientist with some objectivity in the matter. Like me, sir," I finished. Gestahl watched his cigar thoughtfully as he rolled it between his fingers. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. Finally, he looked up, decided.
"All right, Advisor Stone, I suppose that we must find out for sure, one way or the other. I will agree to your suggestion, but I warn you..." He stopped, and looked me in the eye. His voice became quiet, his tone vaguely threatening. "I am giving you full authority over this mission. This is one of my finest MKs. Don't let anything go wrong. I will hold you entirely responsible." I wanted to kiss the old buzzard.
"Yes, Emperor," I said deferentially. "Thank you, sir."
The groundwork of my plan was in place. I could have shouted with joy. I hid my grin with my napkin, dabbing my face and contemplating my next move.
The following morning, I entered the door of the palace gymnasium, carrying her orders in my breast pocket. Grunts of effort echoed about the large room, and the acrid smell of sweat disagreeably flooded my sinuses as I walked amid jogging, stretching and weightlifting MKs. Halfway into the room, I found her, running in place among her equally beautiful brethren, her long blonde hair plaited into a single braid that bounced along as she sprinted toward her imaginary destination. She glistened with perspiration, her cheeks flushed with high color. I don't think that she is capable of looking ungraceful under any circumstances. She saw me approach, and subtly cast her eyes upward, as if thinking to herself, oh, no, here comes that dirty old goat again, probably disappointed not to catch me naked. The vicious brat.
"General," I nodded, trying not to let my voice sound too oily. She ignored me and continued running, puffing air, obviously hoping that I would go away. Fat chance. I cleared my throat.
"Ahem, General, a moment please?" My voice did sound oily. She was turning me into a simpering fool. It made me hate her all the more. I stood watching her, folding my hands in front of me and making a show of patient resolve. Finally, she stopped, grabbed a towel and began to walk quickly toward the refreshment bar.
As I followed her, we passed a sloe-eyed, raven-haired beauty who looked my way and grinned invitingly. I am tall, dark and broad-shouldered, considered by most to be a handsome man, and have never had problems attracting women. Until now. I ignored the quite lovely dark-haired female and strode after the blonde girl who raced ahead, determined to lose me.
It is one of life's nastier little twists: we always want most that which we cannot have.
She poured herself some sort of juice of an unappetizing greenish color and sat down. I sat, and watched her as she drank, trying to decide how best to begin.
"General...Miss Chere...I...I'm...you must forgive me for the other evening. Walking into your suite like that, staring at you. It was most improper. I don't know what came over me. I..." She looked at me over the rim of her glass, then set it down on the table.
"I have a fencing lesson in a few minutes, Advisor, and I have to prepare for an inspection early tomorrow morning. If you would be good enough to come to the point?" She waited, those cold blue eyes of hers boring into me. They gave me the chills. I reached into my pocket, withdrew her orders, and laid the papers on the table in front of her. She opened them.
"So I'm to go north," she said, almost to herself.
"Yes," I replied. "As you know, we have a very effective MK up there already, but we have asked him to concentrate on the east. We would like you to lead our efforts in the west." She nodded, looking no longer at me, but at something I couldn't see, something troubling to her.
"Yes," she mused. "General Kefka has been sent north. I wonder if that was wise. I wonder if..." She stopped short and looked at me again, this time with caution in her eyes. She'd suddenly remembered whom she was addressing, that I was not a good person in which to confide her concerns.
I was intrigued. This was the first time I had ever detected anything approximating real feeling within this girl, and I could see where she had been headed. General Kefka is, like her, considered by Gestahl to be one of the finest MKs the Empire has developed. But, just as her special gift is strategy, so his is ruthlessness. It is not in the nature of MKs to be bleeding hearts, to say the least, but even by those standards, he is a cold one. No, worse than cold. It is almost as if he takes pleasure in destruction, or anyway would like us all to think so. It is most unnerving. And now, the Devil, who has absolutely no room to be criticizing anyone else, was expressing concern that we had sent Kefka north, to spearhead our colonization efforts there.
It is said that life imitates art. Could her expression of concern be evidence that my lie about her might actually be based in truth? Was this MK really going off on us? The possibility fascinated me, but of course, in the end, it really didn't matter. Judgment of her performance in the service of the Empire wasn't the point of this journey to the northern continent. The satisfaction of my vanity was.
You may think me a man of low character, perhaps even that it is I who is the Devil of this piece. That is your privilege. Men of high character, good men, take orders from people like me every day.
"I will be coming along, General, to observe," I said, as she scanned the papers in front of her. "We are considering scientific means to bring the populace under control, perhaps chemical means, in some of the more stubborn cases, such as in Doma. I will try not to get in your way." Ugh. There was that oily note in my voice again. I hated being like this. "You know, it's ironic, General," I continued, in an artificially conversational manner. "In a way, this will be a sort of homecoming for you. Ah, I shouldn't have said that!" I quickly put my hand to my mouth and did my best to arrange my face in an expression of regret. As I had intended, she looked up at me, her interest piqued. I hoped that she would buy the story I was about to spin for her. My plan depended on it. I leaned forward, and spoke in a confidential tone.
"You know, Celes -- may I call you Celes? -- I could lose my position for this. Gestahl would never forgive me. Cid would...well, an MK's file information is strictly withheld from him or her for very good reasons, but...I feel that there are some things that a person has a right to know. Celes, you came to us from that town." I tapped the papers on the table with a finger. "It's possible, even likely, that your family still lives there." I watched her eyes soften almost imperceptibly as she absorbed this fabrication, then I went on. "Did you know that I was along on the day Cid went to pick you up? Yes. I was one of Cid's assistants in the MK program then. I regret that I cannot recall your family name. But I do seem to remember that you had a little brother, about two years younger than yourself. His name was, let me see, yes, his name was Will. He was blond, like you, and..."
"Enough, Advisor!" Her hand trembled slightly, and her eyes were lit with emotion. She looked positively shaken. So, this was what it took to crack the ice, a baby brother. How sweet.
When her face came alive this way, one might find it hard to believe that she is the Devil. Ah, but that is one of the Devil's best tricks, to seem feeling. I wouldn't be taken in.
She hastily folded the papers and stood.
"I am late for my lesson, Advisor," she said thickly. "Of course you will be welcome to accompany us north. And I appreciate that you will try not to get in the way. See that you don't." With that, she turned and headed for the gymnasium door. I continued to sit, a half smile on my face, watching her go. Nearly everything was in place. Things were shaping up very nicely.
It becomes quite cold at sea as one progresses northward, and so I took advantage of the last warm breeze we would be feeling for awhile to take a walk out on deck. She was out there, standing at the bow, her hair lit golden by the setting sun and blowing out behind her. She was so very much as she is in my dream, that it took my breath away, and I could feel my heart soften in my chest. I wanted to give her a chance, a chance to see me in a different way on her own, as I longed for her to see me. After all, I knew by then that she could indeed be defrosted; I had seen evidence of it during our talk in the gymnasium. With the right man, I thought wistfully, she could become... But of course I am not the right man; I see that now. I just couldn't bring myself to accept it then.
I approached her quietly. She turned before I was within twenty feet of her. She has eyes in the back of her head. The Devil, I tell you.
"Good evening, Celes," I said. She turned back toward the bow, as if I weren't there. I came up alongside her. "It's going to be a lovely night. Perhaps the last lovely night for a while. I was wondering...if you would be so kind as to join me for dinner tonight? I would so enjoy the pleasure of your company. I would very much like us to be friends." I reached out and tenderly pushed strands of her hair back off her face. It felt silken against my fingers, and I found it difficult to resist burying my face in its softness.
"I'm sorry, Advisor. I have much work to do and will be eating alone in my cabin tonight." She turned back to me and looked me in the eye. "And if you put your hand on me again," she said quietly, "you will lose it. Good night, Advisor Stone." She walked past me, down the deck and disappeared into a stairwell.
I was incensed. So, this was the way she wanted it! Well, so be it, then. She would soon find herself choosing me or choosing to die. Of course, I knew very well that she might really prefer Death's embrace to mine, but as I have said before, that would be perfectly all right with me. Let the vicious little beast die. She would die untouched, and I could live with that. Yes, I could. I could indeed.
It was late afternoon on the day that we made port. All of us settled in at the inns around town. The townies gave us no trouble about accommodations. The place was ours to do with as we chose; the Empire was already unquestionably in residence here. There were Imperial soldiers everywhere.
As it was so late in the day, and since most of the occupational forces were still several days away, we decided to begin getting our plans for siege underway the next morning. I had cleaned up and changed clothes, and decided to try to find a drink somewhere. I walked into the cafe, and looked around for an empty table.
What a scene it was. Scruffy adventurers lined the bar. A piano-player banged out loud tunes as heavily made-up dancers kicked their skirts up on a small stage, and flirtatious barmaids coaxed large tips out of the homesick soldiers who mobbed the place. I nearly walked back out again, but then I saw...her...sitting at a table with one of her colonels, a big, hairy brute, name of Mason.
Mason was an army lifer, a never-married, middle-aged type who lived and breathed military. He was quite a soldier, heavily-decorated, and not one I'd like to have crossed swords with. Mason had given General Chere a terrible time of it after she'd been promoted above him. He did not easily grasp the concept of the MK program, and was uneasy about taking orders from a teenaged girl, prodigy or not.
As I understand the story, the newly-made general was to lead an assault on a castle belonging to a land baron just outside of Maranda. Prior to their departure from camp that morning, Colonel Mason was barking instructions to the troops about getting across the moat. General Chere interrupted him, telling him that the enemy soldiers would not be found inside the castle walls, but would instead be waiting in the surrounding woods.
"As soon as our troops are concentrated in front of the castle gates," she'd told him, "we will have nowhere to run, and the enemy will come storming out of the woods and crush us like so many chocobo eggs." The colonel, embarrassed at having been corrected in front of his men, nearly refused to follow her order to have the troops fan out widely, enter the woods at the far ends, and attack the enemy from behind. Only the knowledge that Gestahl would surely have had him executed for such a refusal made him grudgingly obey.
It was a good thing he did, too, because the enemy soldiers were indeed hidden in the woods, crouched and waiting for the Imperial troops to approach the castle. The element of surprise had been shifted from the baron's soldiers to the Imperial side, and the baron was handily defeated. It was the biggest land gain for the Empire up until that time. General Chere had enhanced her reputation -- as well as that of the MK program -- and had gained the everlasting respect and loyalty of the grizzled old Colonel Mason.
He thinks it took genius to have guessed the baron's strategy. I think she's the Devil, pure and simple.
I knew that I would have to be cautious with her whenever he was around. As dangerous as she was, he could flatten me with one hand, and would not hesitate to do so, either, if he ever suspected me of trying to do harm to his general.
I approached the table and greeted them both. Neither appeared overjoyed to see me. I sat, and waved a barmaid over to our table, ordering a round of drinks.
I started to say something about the shiploads of troops that were making their way northward even as we spoke, but the general shushed me, reminding me that anyone could be listening, anyone at all. It was true; an alarming amount of confidential information had leaked out from this town in the last weeks, and it was clear to the Empire that there was a spy lurking about. One couldn't be too careful.
We made small talk then, and as the evening progressed, Colonel Mason began to show signs of wear. He yawned and excused himself, citing a long day ahead. General Chere started to rise, and I asked her to stay another minute. Not wanting to make a scene in front of her colonel, she sat down again.
She watched as Mason exited the bar, then gave me a weary look.
"What is it now, Stone? This had better not be more of your..." I raised a hand and shook my head.
"No, of course not, General. I only wanted to ask you...about the comment I made to you back home, in the gymnasium, about your family. That was very inconsiderate of me. I can only imagine that I must have made your job harder. What we plan to do here..." She quickly pressed her finger to her lips and scowled at me.
"Uh, yes, General, sorry. I, uh, only...won't you find it difficult, you know, to...follow your orders here? I mean, considering?" She sat chewing her bottom lip, her brow furrowed. My hopes rose briefly, then fell again as she answered me.
"I confess that I wish you'd never told me, Advisor. To know that I came from this place, that I might have a family here...but I can't think about that. I'll go mad if I let myself think about that. I'm only grateful that you're unable to remember very much, and that no one knows for certain whether I have a family in this town or not."
I silently berated myself for not having embellished my lie enough to have achieved what I wanted here. What did I want?
I wanted her to fail at her orders. In any way at all. To crumble. To refuse. To run. Anything. Anything from which I could form the basis of a charge of treason. Anything to give me an excuse to have her arrested, to threaten her with execution. My position in the empire gives me the power to accuse her, and to have her executed if I so choose. And -- this is the key -- to save her, if I so choose. To pardon her. To let her live. For a price.
I was the one to have failed, however, or so it would seem. The fabrication about her origins had seemed to weaken her, but had not shaken her resolve. She would still strike down this town because she had been ordered to do so. Her soldier's training had stilled any stirrings of her heart. With what I knew of her heart, I don't know how I could have let that surprise me.
I could see that extreme measures were called for. She needed something to really shake her up, to make her unable to lead an attack on this town. I believed that I knew just the thing.
The next day, I saw little of her. She had her plate quite full, coordinating the landing and positioning of the additional troops and heavy equipment that would be arriving soon from our home continent.
I didn't miss her. I had business of my own to attend to.
"Uh, sir. Respectfully, but, I don't know about this," the young soldier said nervously. "I mean, we aren't exactly at war with these people, and if Colonel Mason found out...sir, I could be...executed." The boy gulped. I put a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
"Lieutenant Gibbs, I think you understand that I outrank your Colonel. I am, well, think of me as Emperor Gestahl's representative here. What I am asking you to do isn't a crime unless I say it is a crime, you understand?" The soldier nodded, his eyes wide, unconvinced.
"But, sir, we aren't at war. This would be murder, sir. These people haven't done anything to us." I sighed, becoming impatient.
"Gibbs, look. I know that you wouldn't ever willfully disregard an order from the Emperor himself; I know that you wouldn't. You have a family, don't you, soldier?" Gibbs stared at me, his eyes darkening. The boy wasn't stupid.
"A wife and daughter, sir. In Albrook." I nodded, smiling, and put my arm around his shoulders.
"A man needs to take care of his own, Gibbs. A man needs to do what he must in order to protect his home and his family, don't you agree?" Gibbs looked at the ground. "You know, these people aren't innocent, Gibbs. We have suffered a good deal of damage to much of our large equipment, as well as the theft of our supplies. Sensitive information has been stolen and relayed to the other side. There is underground resistance afoot in this town, Lieutenant. And, confidentially, we believe that the King of Figaro himself may be behind it, that he not only sympathizes with the forces of resistance but may in fact have joined them! Don't you see, son, the war is already underway, make no mistake. Murder? No, son. War." I squeezed his shoulder. "War, Gibbs." Gibbs shook his head, still looking at the ground, undoubtedly thinking of his family back home in Albrook.
"So, you want me to find a local boy, blond, around sixteen-years-old, and you want me to...kill him. Just kill him. And then...come and find you and the general." I nodded, beaming. The lad had it exactly. I kept my arm about his shoulders as we began to walk, and I gave him the rest of his instructions.
I woke from that damnable dream just before dawn, sweating and trembling. It had gotten progressively worse. Each time, I had gotten closer to her, and her escape from me became more and more painful. The dream from which I had just awakened had been the worst ever. I actually grasped her elbow; I had her, and she turned to mist right in my fingers. She disappeared before my eyes, and I could hear her laughter, that cruel laughter of hers, drifting farther and farther away. I tossed back the covers, stumbled to the privy, and vomited.
The air was somewhat chilly despite the afternoon sun, as we stood together in the town's center, Colonel Mason, the general, and me. Mason was in the middle of delivering his report to her, having just carried out her order to have the town locked down. All exits had been sealed, no one in or out. It was an action meant to stabilize the vicinity, readying for the imminent arrival of additional troops. She also hoped to keep whomever was spying, from getting out of town to deliver his stolen information.
The colonel was winding up when Gibbs, right on cue, came running, huffing and puffing, up to Mason. I had no doubt that his look of extreme consternation was genuine. He had not wanted to do this.
"Colonel, General," he gasped, out of breath, "sirs, something has happened! Y-you'd better come! You had issued orders to keep the peace, and...and...please, sirs, you'd better come!"
We hurried after Gibbs to a shadowed area underneath the inn, where lay the body of a young man in his mid-teens, with hair as yellow as the sun. The boy had been struck through the heart, and must have died instantly, as there was surprisingly little blood. Gibbs stood alongside the body, pale and trembling, looking as if he might die himself.
"Uh, Colonel Mason, sir," Gibbs began, "this boy attacked me, with this knife, sir." Gibbs pointed with his boot to a weapon that lay on the ground next to the blond boy. "I tried to disarm him, sir, naturally, but he kept coming at me, even when I yelled to him that he was arrested. I couldn't get his knife, sir. He continued to jab at me, and when I pointed my sword at him, he rushed at me sir, and I stabbed him. I didn't want to, Colonel, but..."
Gibbs' delivery was perfect. He had carried out my orders precisely. I thought that I would reward him with a trip home to Albrook, and a permanent assignment somewhere on the southern continent. I believed that he had sacrificed his peace of mind perhaps for the rest of his life, for the sake of his family, and he deserved to be near them. He had been so unnerved by all of this, he'd have done us no earthly good in the field anyway.
The colonel gripped Gibbs' shoulder.
"It's all right, soldier," Mason said sympathetically. "These things happen to..." Mason stopped short as his attention was suddenly drawn to his general. She had been standing and staring down at the body of the dead boy as if dazed. Now, she shouldered her way between us to stand next to him.
She stood there for a moment, then dropped to one knee, her head bowed, as if she were kneeling before a king. She briefly covered her face with her gloved hands, and I unaccountably thought that she might weep. I bent toward her.
"It probably isn't even him, General," I said in a low voice. "It's unlikely that this would even be him."
That finished her.
"Colonel," she said, not looking up, her voice ragged with grief. "When the rest of your men arrive, they are to stand down. Unblock the exits of this town. There will be no attack made on South Figaro." Mason looked confused, uncertain that he heard right.
"Pardon, General, did you say..." She looked up slowly, her eyes dangerous.
"You heard me, Colonel Mason. We are standing down. I do not expect to have to tell you twice." She bent her head again, over the body of the boy whom she feared might be her brother. "What have we been doing, Colonel, this Empire of ours? What right have we to do what we have done? These are people! Innocents! God! Maranda! Tzen! Albrook! And, Doma! What Kefka has planned for Doma! What right have we?" She fell to the ground, holding her head. "Ah, God," she wailed, rocking back and forth, "what have I done? Ah, God!"
Mason was thoroughly shaken. His mouth worked, as he watched his general break down right before his eyes. I took the situation in hand.
"Colonel," I said, in a tone that I hoped sounded regretful. "I'm sorry, but I must ask that you take General Chere into custody. She is under arrest. The charge is treason." Mason looked incredulous.
"T-treason," he stammered. "Advisor, this isn't treason! Battle fatigue, perhaps, but General Chere..."
"...is a traitor," I interrupted. "Please, Colonel. Do not make this harder than it has to be. Take the general into custody. Now." I looked down at her. She continued to sit on the ground, holding her head in her gloved hands, her lips moving, her eyes glazed. I didn't think that she was even hearing us. I thought that she might have been in shock.
"Advisor," Mason began, as he ran fingers through his thick gray hair. "The penalty for treason...sir, is this necessary? Look at her, Advisor. This is not a common traitor. And she has been such a stellar force in the Empire. Don't you feel that we owe her something, Advisor Stone? With her record, to let her die a traitor, well, sir, I don't know if I can be part of this." Mason stood firm, implacable.
Like love, loyalty is something I am not sure I am capable of. I certainly have never felt it for anyone. Looking at Mason, seeing this noble sentiment in his eyes, it made me almost wish that I could feel it, could be the recipient of it. Almost.
"Check with the owner of the mansion in the north part of town," I replied. "He's been working with us. I'm sure with that huge place of his, he can find a spare room to put her in, until I decide what to do with her. Also, I want you to select two reliable guards to watch her, and send them to me. I will instruct them personally." Mason looked at me, his eyes unreadable.
"Yes, Advisor," he said, his voice cold. "I will do as you instruct. However, you will be responsible, sir. You will be held entirely responsible." Where had I heard that before?
Mason bent and gently took his general by the elbow, helping her to stand. Gibbs took her other elbow, and they began to lead her away. I leaned in toward Mason's ear.
"Oh, and, Colonel?" I whispered. "When the troops arrive, you will have them stand down." Mason's jaw dropped.
"What," he spat. "After...have you lost your mind, Stone?" I gave him my haughtiest look, and his eyes fell. "Advisor, I don't understand, sir!"
"We never really planned to do significant damage to South Figaro, Colonel," I replied. "There is far too much technology here that we would like to avail ourselves of. No, Mason, this whole thing has been a test of your general's field effectiveness. These MagiTek Knights, well, you must've heard that in rare cases, they can go off on us. We had suspected that General Chere...but, no sense in going into all of that. We were right, unfortunately. So you see, Mason, there will be no need for additional troops." I smiled. "As soon as their ships arrive, send them home again, will you? Thank you, Colonel."
I left him staring after me as I made my way back to the inn.
An hour later, I sat in my suite, sipping cognac, and appraising the two guards who had been assigned to General Chere. They stood before me, nervously shifting their weight from foot to foot. I set my glass down on the table in front of me and sat back in my chair.
"You gentlemen have a very important assignment ahead. Has Colonel Mason explained the circumstances to you?" The men nodded, lips tight. I smiled. "You both seem ill at ease. Why is that?" The two soldiers looked at one another, then one of them spoke.
"Well, sir, she is our general." I held up a finger.
"Was your general, boys," I replied. "Now, she is nothing more than a common traitor. She has turned her back on us, you and me, and the Empire we love. And, she is to be treated like the traitor that she is, do you understand?" They didn't understand; I could see it in their faces. "I want her, gentlemen, to regret her action. I want her to be sorry. The way you would make a man sorry." The same one who spoke before now looked down at me.
"You mean, hit her, sir?" I picked up my glass and took another sip of the cognac.
"I mean, soldier, that she is to be treated as if she were a man. Yes, hit her! Scream at her! Intimidate her! Let her know that execution awaits her! Terrify her!" I stopped, realizing that I was yelling and gripping my glass so hard that my knuckles had turned white, and that both men were now looking at me strangely. I took a breath, set my glass down and continued in a modified tone. "I think you understand what I'm driving at, gentlemen. We are dealing with a traitor. In a day or two, I will decide her fate, one way or another. In the meantime..." Both men nodded. They knew what I wanted. I dismissed them, then stopped them again just as they reached the door.
"Men," I said, looking down at my cognac and fingering the stem of my glass. "Don't mar her face. Don't bruise her face. And don't break anything." The two soldiers again looked at one another. It was clear that they thought I was crazy. Well, perhaps I was. It's just possible that I was.
My dream of the Devil was becoming a nightly thing, and so taunting that I thought I'd go insane. A new character had appeared, or a part of one. I grasped her elbow again, as I had the night before, only this time, it was jerked away from me, and not by her. I looked down, and saw a man's hand on her arm. Another man's hand. I couldn't see him; the features of his face and body were lost in mist. But she took his hand and they began to run together, both of them laughing. I woke to find the innkeeper and his wife standing at my bedside, their hands on my shoulder.
"Are you all right, sir," the innkeeper's wife asked, alarmed. "You were screaming so! Y-you scared us half to death!"
I nodded, wiping perspiration off my face. Before this day was through, I thought, I would put an end to it all. One way or another. She would go with me or go to the sword. I couldn't stand one more moment of this. Not one more.
I rose, bathed, and let my breakfast tray go cold as I occupied myself with packing. I would be leaving on the evening ship to the southern continent, with or without her.
It was midmorning, when I went in search of Colonel Mason. I found him out on the docks, giving instructions to some of his men posted there. I approached him.
"Come with me, Colonel," I said. "I've come to decision. If you will kindly show me to General Chere's cell."
We walked to the big house that lies on the north edge of town, whose owner had been a spy for us. Mason said that the general was being held in a room in the basement. We entered a staircase that was curiously hidden, for what reason I cannot tell, and descended. The Colonel stood behind me and pointed to a room in the hallway. The door was open. I walked slowly toward it, my heart racing, my whole being primed to finally claim my prize. I turned into the room.
The cell was empty. Except for one sleeping guard, and chains that lay neatly folded underneath a chair that had once held the prisoner, the cell was empty.
I stumbled backward. I felt my blood rush to my head so that I thought I might pass out. My breath grew short. My stomach went to ice. This was impossible. This could not be happening. With my own hands, I would kill this guard, who obviously had helped her escape. I stepped forward and kicked the chair out from under him.
He spilled clumsily to the floor. His eyes, puffy with sleep, now widened in surprise. I watched his face as he looked up at us, and the reality of his situation began to dawn on him. He looked sick with fear as he frantically patted his pockets and realized that his keys were gone. I saw then that he was as surprised by all of this as we were.
"He couldn't have unlocked her chains, Advisor," Mason said, his own voice edged with shock. "I am the only one who held those keys, for security reasons, sir." I moved up to the chair where she had been sitting. I looked down at the chains, then bent and picked up a length of them. I ran my fingers thoughtfully over the heavy links, and looked carefully at the locks. They had been expertly picked.
"What key was taken from you, soldier," I asked the guard, who stood with his head down, hands folded in front of him, quaking in his boots. His eyes shifted up to look at me.
"Th-there's a way through this basement, s-sir, that leads out of town. The secret passage requires a k-key. I, uhhh..." His voice trailed off and he cast his eyes downward again. I walked up to him, holding out the useless chains.
"It is clear, then, soldier, is it not, that someone helped her escape? That, as you slept, someone got her out of these chains, and through this basement, and past her own barricades? That she has by now left town and has gone God knows where with God knows whom?!" I was shouting. I felt a wave of nausea as the dream image of another man's hand on her arm floated into my mind. "There will be an inquiry, soldier! An inquiry that will include both of you, as well as the second guard! The disappearance of a popular general can only mean a conspiracy among her devoted men," I said, looking over the guard's shoulder at Mason, who stood glowering back at me. "There will be executions..." I began in a loud voice.
"Yes, there will," Mason shouted back at me. "Indeed there will! Of the person who is responsible for this whole mission! I wonder what Emperor Gestahl will say, Advisor, when he learns of General Chere's disappearance? I wonder what he will say!"
Mason stood, filling the doorway, blocking my passage, his eyes glowing. And he smiled.
What Emperor Gestahl said, well, never mind about that. Most of it is unprintable anyway, and I do want you to read this journal. I want someone, anyone, to read this journal and know my plight. My innocence in all of this. My side of the proverbial story.
What Emperor Gestahl said... The penalty for the small matter of misplacing an imperial general, especially an MK, is death. That was the essence of Gestahl's message to me. And so, here I sit, in this small cell of my own, in a Vector prison, awaiting my own execution in the morning. I do not think that a beautiful woman will rush in here at the eleventh hour and offer me a pardon if I will just be hers. That sort of thing only happens in storybooks. And in my own, poor, fevered mind.
I'll tell you, I do not really believe that there was a conspiracy among her men. The shocked looks on the faces of the two who were in her cell with me were genuine. I know this. So, what do I think really happened to her?
I haven't a clue. None. Why would anyone help her, if not her own men? What motive would there be? I have racked my brain trying to picture it, and I can't. I have come to the conclusion that, in a way that I shall never understand, she could only have gotten herself out of that prison room. This is why I call her the Devil. Not only because of her preternatural instincts in the field. Not only because of her grip on my soul. But because, who but the Devil could have escaped from me like that? She is the Devil, and she got away all by herself. This I know. Still, the memory of that dream...that man...won't leave me.
How she escaped doesn't really matter anyway. What matters is, where can she go? There can only be one of two possible outcomes for her. Either she will end up in the hands of our own people, and they will kill her. Or she will end up in the hands of the other side, and they will kill her. Either way, she will die, and no other man will wander her garden. No other hand will pluck that rose. And that knowledge is what has given me back my sleep, and will allow me to die in peace.
I am nearly out of ink. My candle has burned low, and the first rays of the morning sun have begun to glint through the small window set high up on the wall of my cell. They will be coming soon, the guards who will escort me to the courtyard to face the swordsman. I will go willingly. My mind is at peace, and I will finally see her. I will see you, my love, soon! On the other side, where all weary souls go! I will see you, and you will at long last be mine, Celes, my heart, my own! At long, long last!
The pair of jailers sat together at a low table, one sipping tea while the other slowly shuffled cards.
"What went wrong, d'ya think," the tea-drinker asked his partner. The card-shuffler shrugged.
"I dunno. He'd seemed so...brave, you know? So courageous. Then..." He shrugged again. His friend set his teacup down, worry creasing his forehead.
"Geez, I hope it's nothin' that I said." The other guard put down his cards.
"Why, Martin? What'd you say to him?" Martin scratched his head.
"Well, I only wanted to help, you know? To let him know how highly I thought of him. When we were walking him out to the courtyard, I whispered to him all that stuff you and I had heard about her, about how she's gone over to the other side, joined up with that band of resistance fighters. The turncoat. I told him that I thought it was a shame, a fine man like him, bein' executed for the loss of someone like her!" The other guard nodded.
"I suppose that made him feel like he was dyin' for nothin', sent him over the edge. I can only imagine how somethin' like that would make me feel." Martin shook his head.
"No, Carson, that wasn't it. It was that other thing, you know, about the guy."
"Ohhh, the rumor about her and that thief..." Martin grimaced.
"Yeah, that. What kind of woman is she, anyway? Turnin' on her countrymen like that, joinin' up with the enemy, and then gettin' mixed up with a thief! A common thief! Can you imagine it? An imperial general gettin' cozy with a criminal. I never heard of such a thing!" Martin shook his head. "Anyway, when I told him about that, it was only to show him what a floozie she really is, that she ain't fit to wipe his boots, that she..."
"...and that's when..." Carson interrupted.
"Yeah," Martin replied. "That's when, all right. Right off the deep end, poor guy. Musta thought, why in hell am I dyin' for the likes of her? It was pathetic, though, seein' him crumble like that in front of everyone. Started blubberin' like a baby, strugglin' to get loose, beggin' to see Gestahl, screamin' that there'd been a mistake. Just lost his courage, at the end, I guess. I probably would too. Still, it was a shame to see it."
"What was he mutterin' about, when they made him kneel for the swordsman?" Carson asked. "You were standin' closer that I was. Did you hear what he was mutterin' about?" Martin shook his head.
"I'm not sure, but, it sounded kinda like, gave her to him. God help me, I gave her to him." Carson sadly picked up the cards, and began to shuffle again.