The first hazy streaks of sunrise reached softly over northern Alexandria. Beatrix paid no attention, having been up for well over an hour. Reconstruction didn’t end at night; it would take weeks simply to identify and bury the dead. Meanwhile, there were still survivors waiting to be rescued, gallons of clean water that needed to be distributed, and a castle to be rebuilt. There was no chance to sleep.
Not that she’d been a fool. She knew better than to push it. She had healed her broken legs and given herself the minimum amount of time necessary to rest before she went off to work. At any rate, she was better now, and could help the masons stir mortar for the castle foundation.
Beatrix turned. One of her junior officers stood nearby with an envelope in hand. “A letter’s arrived for you, General,” she said dutifully.
“From whom?” The words seemingly tumbled out of her mouth of their own volition. “Ah, thank you, Lieutenant. Dismissed,” she said, taking the letter. Its crisp parchment snapped between her fingers. The officer saluted again and left.
“A letter,” Beatrix repeated. “Why...?” She neatly tore the wax seal and began to read. She straightened up in an extremely professional manner, if only to make it clear that she wasn’t dallying.
I wanted to write to you because I always thought you were lonely. I’m not mad anymore about when we had to fight. The more I go places and see things I find out that it’s harder to know what’s good and bad. Zidane says even grown-ups don’t really know what’s right and wrong sometimes.
Freya told me that a lot of bad things can happen when people are loyal. What does that mean? It sounds nice and I think I want to be loyal too but if it means somebody could get hurt I wouldn’t want to do it.
You should try to talk to Mr. Steiner soon because he’s very worried about you. He doesn’t say anything but he sighs a lot and I can tell he’s sad. It must be extra hard when you’re far away from the people you care about most.
I don’t know if I’m going to make it home. I don’t even know how long I’m going to live. I think I would’ve liked to be your friend.
I wanted to write to you because I always thought you were lonely...
The simplicity of his speech chilled her to the core. Beatrix fancied herself as proud, stubborn, diligent, and generally too complicated to describe with ease, but a little boy had done it all in one word: lonely.
Why does that matter? she thought, leaving the workman’s tent. It was worthless trying to establish real relationships on the front lines. More often than not, one’s closest companions died before the year was out. By the time they were promoted to a less hazardous position, most soldiers were too embittered to be kind.
“General Beeeea-trix!” Blutzen ran to her, flailing like a broken windmill. Peculiar incompetence was a shared trait among Pluto Knights. “Hey, uh, General. The guys in the castle wanna know why you have the staff of state with you.”
“Blutzen, what would your captain do if he saw you acting so untoward?”
He scratched at his helmet. “Jump up and down and holler at our ‘disgraceful lack of propriety’ or something like that. So anyway, what’s with the mace?”
Beatrix sighed, then gazed down at the ceremonial wooden rod under her arm. “Alexandria’s people need hope now more than ever,” she said. “I thought it might prove helpful to provide a symbol of this country’s great tradition.”
“Wow. That’s a really great thing to do, General. And---”
“Aren’t you to be patrolling the east side of the castle?” she interrupted. He gave her a sheepish grin and ran off again. Beatrix watched him leave. She hadn’t quite lied to him, but she still felt somewhat guilty. Yes, she’d wanted to bring inspiration and encouragement to Alexandria. The mace was a good way of doing that.
Above all, she couldn’t walk without it.
I’m not mad anymore about when we had to fight. The more I go places and see things I find out that it’s harder to know what’s good and bad. Zidane says even grown-ups don’t really know what’s right and wrong sometimes...
History would probably not be so forgiving. She’d be known as the murderous, merciless right hand of a deranged queen. No one would care about her personal sorrow, her internal conflict between obligation and morality. The old days of Brahne’s boundless generosity would be lost to the ages. Wickedness and betrayal were much more interesting than kindness and peace.
In retrospect it was painfully obvious. Of course Burmecia had posed no threat to Alexandria’s sovereignty, nor did Cleyra. Yet Beatrix had willingly led her armies against both countries. She had believed Queen Brahne long after there ceased to be evidence of international conspiracy.
Beatrix’s complete trust had been her undoing.
Freya told me that a lot of bad things can happen when people are loyal. What does that mean?
Two years ago she would’ve been able to give him an answer. Granted, it would’ve been trite and meaningless, but an answer all the same. Now...
Beatrix passed on her afternoon rations to a young woman and her son. Earlier that morning she’d dragged children’s bodies out of a collapsed schoolhouse; she couldn’t bear to eat when so many innocent people had lost everything. She was not innocent, if anything, she was the most guilty of all. But she had been spared.
Because she had been loyal? Loyalty had brought her an esteemed rank, which in turn had given her protection. Meanwhile, the ones she’d sworn to protect lay dead in the streets.
She wondered offhandedly what Steiner would say. She could imagine him at her side, exclaiming, “Why, Beatrix! Loyalty is that for which we knights live! It is the means by which we give our all for the service of the state. There is no nobler profession in all the world.”
If she closed her eyes she could hear the rattle of his armor. Yes, she decided, that was just what he’d say. Since his first departure from Alexandria he’d become wiser and more self-aware, but he was just as dedicated as ever. His absurd sense of optimism was what made him strong.
A lot of bad things could happen when people were loyal. Devastating international wars, for instance. What did it mean to be loyal? Was it the process of offering up the soul for another’s use, no matter how cruel they might be?
It sounds nice and I think I want to be loyal too but if it means somebody could get hurt I wouldn’t want to do it...
She recalled the swarm of mistodons in the streets only days before. She and Steiner had been back-to-back, facing off the invaders together.
“This might be it,” he’d warned her.
“I have no regrets!” A lie, a damnable lie. Beatrix had always told herself that it was what she’d say when the end was near, but the more she thought about it, the more regrets she had. For Burmecia, Cleyra, imperiling the princess, having turned her blade against her partner in arms. There were so many things she regretted, and all because she had been loyal...
Loyalty did sound nice. It was nice, in theory. But if the person to whom one had pledge eternal loyalty became a destructive megalomaniac, was there still an obligation to follow their word? In the end, she’d decided to swear fealty to Alexandria alone. The plunging waterfalls and summery meadows could not betray her.
Did she regret ever having chosen this path? The late afternoon sun beat down on her scarred back. She didn’t know. She couldn’t know. Serving Alexandria had been so much of her life that she couldn’t imagine herself in any other occupation. And what was the point of hypothesizing? The past could not be altered. This was her lot, for better or worse.
You should try to talk to Mr. Steiner soon because he’s very worried about you. He doesn’t say anything but he sighs a lot and I can tell he’s sad.
If his other words had struck like blows, the last sentence was a knife in her chest. Steiner, sighing? She’d heard him rant, rave, scream, holler, fuss, cry, shout, and protest, but sigh? It didn’t suit him. It was such a passive thing to do, a way of trying to hide a greater pain. Steiner never hid his feelings. She didn’t doubt Vivi was telling the truth, but...
How much have I hurt him?
What was the point of writing to him, anyway? What was there to be said? How could she in good conscience cause him more agony as he marched to an early death? He would not return alive, she was sure of it. He would sacrifice his life a hundred times over before he allowed Queen Garnet to be harmed.
No, she could not contact him. Not now. Not ever again.
Beatrix felt a sudden, overwhelming rush of anguish. “I’m sorry,” she croaked, as though she had to justify herself to him. “I, I can’t.” Why did it matter? Since when did she give so much thought to his feelings? She shouldn’t even bother. But the pain remained, wrenching at her insides. “Leave me alone!
“You know how I feel, don’t you!”
She hadn’t meant to shout, but she no longer cared. So what if someone heard her? No one, not even she, was invincible anymore. She was as broken and helpless as anyone else.
Would Steiner would go to his grave wondering what could have been? Maybe in a different nation, under different circumstances, they...
No. What would be, would be. They were both instruments of the state, and instruments did not have hearts of their own.
It must be extra hard when you’re far away from the people you care about most.
Was it? When Steiner had first left with Princess Garnet, Beatrix had been relieved above all else. The princess would be safe with him around, and it would make running the castle much smoother. Of course, at the time, she’d also thought Queen Brahne’s prime concern was her daughter’s safety.
Other people---young people, older people, normal people---might find it hard. Knights came and went all the time, it was a fact of their lives. Any mission could well be their last.
Her mission was different now. With the old queen laid to rest and the new queen away, Beatrix had been left to help the common folk pick up the pieces. She wouldn’t have minded so much if she didn’t feel like a damned housewife, keeping things tidy at home while her husband went to work (only “home” was “the second-largest nation in the world”, “husband” was “a man with whom she had a nebulously romantic relationship”, and “work” was “stopping a deranged genocidal clone from another dimension”). It wasn’t being away from him that was hard; it was knowing that their duties lay miles apart. He had other companions to assist with the knightly work they usually did together, and she was now the general-cum-regent of all Alexandria.
He was a warrior to the end, and she’d become a...a politician.
“Intolerable,” she murmured. “Absolutely intolerable.”
I don’t know if I’m going to make it home. I don’t even know how long I’m going to live.
She found him in the library, where he was engrossed in a copy of The World’s Last Night. His ubiquitous tortoiseshell glasses lay beside him on the armchair, and she knew he wouldn’t have ever noticed her if she hadn’t spoke.
“Mm...? Oh! General!” He shut the book and jumped up, a mess of awkward lanky arms and legs going everywhere at once. “Uh, um, my apologies. I shouldn’t be idling.”
“You were off-duty, Laudo.” She could see him wince at her use of the past tense. “Don’t worry. I only need you for a little while.”
“What is it, General?”
“I want you to write a letter to Regent Cid.”
Beatrix gestured for him to follow her, and together they set off for the royal study. It was a testament to her grace that she walked more smoothly and assuredly than the healthy young man beside her.
“Please make an inquiry regarding how he intends to transport the emergency supplies. We may have difficulty reestablishing the entry ports at the harbor.”
“Tell him that I have arranged for the southern ambassadors to visit over the next two weeks. We will be allocating and distributing funds on a per-country basis, so Minister Artania should know to begin requesting priorities.”
“Lastly, I need to know the whereabouts of Her Majesty and her companions. They have been stopping to visit the regent periodically throughout their travels, and I am sure he knows when they intend to leave for the...rift above Iifa.”
She’d expected that. Any of the others would’ve accepted it without question, but Laudo was too thoughtful, too cautious, too sensitive. “Is there a problem?” she said, hoping the tone of her voice would convey that she was in no mood to elaborate.
“What are you planning?” he asked simply.
What was she planning? She didn’t know. All she knew for sure is that she would not let him die without her. “Forgive me, Laudo. For the time being, I ask that you be content to trust me.”
He knelt, his sword held down in a show of respect. “General,” he said, “I trust you. We all do. But please be careful. W-with yourself.”
Beatrix glared, then frowned. She didn’t know if he was referring to her wounds, her precarious mental state, or possibly both. What she did know was that it was an exhortation to not throw her life away. Would she? Was that was she was going to do?
“It is none of your concern,” she managed.
“I know,” he sighed. “But if you won’t do it for our sake, then please...do it for his.”
She let him plead with her, his brandy-brown eyes still boyish and innocent. “Noted,” she said coldly.
Perhaps wisdom had nothing to do with age after all.
I think I would’ve liked to be your friend.