The Grand Stadium at Treno was something of a misnomer. It was not particularly grand, nor even a stadium, but rather just a large arboretum that had been converted to a public gathering place. It was also the only place in town where nobles and commoners intermingled freely---card skills didn’t discriminate between rich and poor.
Steiner observed this peculiar phenomenon with detached interest. He had no desire to be associated with irresponsible, gambling trash, or so he had thought. But now that he saw it for himself, it seemed remarkably benign. There were no seedy, smoke-filled rooms or illicit drinks on the tables. For every one person who got out of control there were fifty others simply having a good time.
So there was plenty he had yet to understand. That was all right by him now.
He turned. As much as he disliked the epithet, he’d come to accept it. Zidane swaggered up to him with a smug grin on his round face. His eyes held a mischevious gleam.
“I got somethin’ for ya.”
“Is that so?”
“Uh-huh.” The teenager stopped, then threw something just past his head. Steiner reflexively caught it with his free hand and looked.
It was a standard playing card, gilded around the edges. There were numbers and arrows that presumably meant something to frequent players. The image on the card itself had been hand-painted, detailing a weapon in coral and red. Its name was printed at the bottom in silvery script: Save the Queen.
“Knew you’d like it,” Zidane crowed, folding his arms with smug pride. “I won it off the weapon master. Guy was pissed to see it go, and it’s one hell of a card, but I figured you’d like it more, am I right?”
Steiner intently examined the card. He noticed the artist had gotten it all right, even down to the runes detailed on the hilt. “Why is this a card?” he asked, not looking up. “I thought they were all monsters.”
“Most of them are, but the more powerful cards are weapons and eidolons and stuff. There’s this really awesome double sword that I would totally kill for to find, but the guy said it was sunken treasure or something. Anyway, it figures, you know? Everybody knows how powerful Beatrix is. It makes sense they’d make a card off of her sword, right?”
The knight said nothing, although he had stopped marveling at the card itself. More astonishing by far was how such a simple thing arrested his every nerve---and the way that skirt-chasing monkey had known it would.
“Zidane,” he said at last, “thank you.”
“Hey, sure! Anything for a pal, right? Don’t worry.” He gave him a strange wink-jump-salute signal that was quite possibly the most unpleasant thing Steiner had ever seen. “I know just how you feel.”
It was a while before Steiner could respond. “Zidane?”
“What if you hadn’t rejected Garland’s offer?”
Zidane’s jaw dropped and he jumped back, stricken by his words. “What? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Suppose you were under different circumstances. You were a young boy---ten years old, let’s say---and you chose to give yourself unconditionally to his service. As a page, perhaps.”
“Like shit I would! What’s gotten into you? What are you trying to say?”
Steiner remained unnerved. As captain of the Pluto Knights, he was used to adolescent tantrums. Although, to be honest, it gave him a certain satisfaction to see him so rattled. “I’m speaking hypothetically. Now then, you’ve given yourself over to Garland because you genuinely believe he is good, just, and honorable.”
“Well...” Zidane had calmed down somewhat at the reminder that it wasn’t real. “Still. I’m ten years old. I shouldn’t be allowed to make that kind of decision. But even then,” he insisted, “I wouldn’t do it! To trust somebody with everything? No way! What about my hopes and dreams?”
“They would be the same as Garland’s, of course.”
“Nobody would choose to do something like that!”
“Now then,” he continued, “what do you suppose happens to you, eighteen years later? You learn that you have been betrayed by Garland. What do you do?”
“Uh...um...” He wasn’t quite sure where this was going. He thought of the black mages, their souls opening for the first time. He thought of the genomes slowly learning to communicate with others. “Eighteen years? That’s so long. I can’t even imagine. I don’t...I don’t know if there’d be anything of me left. I’d be hollow, wouldn’t I? I’d have to find my heart and my soul all over again. Would I even have a reason to live? It’d be like...”
Steiner smiled ever so slightly and left the stadium. Zidane watched him leave, speechless.
“Zidane!” Vivi approached him with a handful of cards. The glow in his manufactured eyes was the only discernible sign of his excitement. “I w-won a game! I won one! I really did it!”
“And I helped,” Eiko chimed in.
But Zidane’s thoughts were elsewhere. Nobody would choose that. I can’t even imagine. I’d be hollow, wouldn’t I? I’d have to find my heart and soul all over again. Would I even have a reason to live?
What do you suppose happens to you, eighteen years later?
Zidane stared, past the players, the entrance, and the endless Treno evening.
There were a lot of things about Steiner that he had yet to understand.