Freya had known that she was finally home when she'd realized that she didn't resent the rain anymore.
The rains in Burmecia almost never stopped, pounding against the country's lands and people. The country received few visitors, and almost no one lived there besides the Burmecians themselves. It was even said that the gods and masters of Gaia had cursed the land where it stood, and that the rats had been driven to it because they had been unwelcome everywhere else.
It was a point of pride that they had not only survived in such an inhospitable land, but that they had thrived, that they had created such a great city out of their hardship. The rains were a symbol of their fortitude. But for Freya, who had spent so much time in other lands that she had almost forgotten where she had come from, the rain had felt oppressive. She would wake up at night and watch it fall against the window of her room, and then wish that it would stop... or that she could get away and see the sun, just for a day or two.
But it was easier now to accept the rain as a gift. This fragile new Burmecia that had risen from the ashes needed the rains to temper it, just as it had the home of their ancestors. This place, her home for the past four years, was finally starting to feel like more than a name and a duty that had kept her up for nights and nights before.
In her more cynical moments, she wondered how much of that feeling of home was tied to Sir Fratley, how much more it meant that he was there now. Their relationship had... altered, somewhat. Things were different, especially since Fratley had never recovered his memories - not fully, at least. Bits and pieces seemed to come from nowhere, things that he remembered and then quickly forgot again, as if there were some force at work that kept them from fully coming into his consciousness.
But he loved her. He had said the words that she'd longed to hear for years, ever since she'd found out that he was alive. Even if he didn't remember everything yet, it still gave her hope.
She turned the silver ring on her finger. They were not yet husband and wife, not by Burmecia's laws; there had been no true weddings in Burmecia since Master Gizmaluke had been driven mad. They had been given a Handfasting by the Oracles of Cleyra, but that was a much more informal sort of relationship. The rest would have to come in time, when either he returned to his senses, or a new spirit came to inhabit the Grotto.
She smiled at the thought, but almost immediately caught herself. She was forgetting where she was; her mind did tend to wander somewhat, if she let it. She straightened up and stood at attention, her eyes darting over to the King on his throne.
She and Fratley stood across from each other, of course, at the head of the other warriors. They were the only Dragon Knights who had survived the attack on their realm; she had found out later that Kuja had taken it on himself to destroy them, had toyed with their powers until he'd grown tired of the game. It would be up to them to train the new generation of the Knights, because there was no one else who knew the many secrets of their order.
She stood in full dress-costume, in her long red coat and breeches and her pointed hat, and with her family's crest proud on the scarf around her neck. The King himself was in his royal robes, and he looked truly grand as he gave his proclamations. His Highness had held Court on the first morning of the week for two hours, as tradition commanded. But the thrones beside his were both empty - one that had once belonged to the long-deceased Queen, and a smaller one that Prince Puck had long since outgrown. But despite the absence of the Crown Prince, His Highness the King had been in good health and fine spirits.
He had every reason to be in good humor, of course. The rebuilding was progressing well. The remaining monsters that had poured from the gates to Memoria were being quickly hunted down, with the aid of the Six Dragons, and they had started to make a real dent in their population. The city walls were almost finished, and the number of civilian causalities were down. Things were almost perfect, save for one black spot that Freya could not let go of...
Finally the King dismissed his Knights with a wave of his scepter. Court was over. Freya and Fratley turned and led them out, holding their ceremonial pikes in the air as they marched back to the castle courtyard.
She stood beside the courtyard after the spectacle was over, watching the rain that sluiced from the rooftops above to the cobbled yard below. The soldiers had dispersed, as she had ordered them to do before; they all had their duties. As she had hers, she thought guiltily, and none of them involved watching the rain fall...
She turned to see Fratley beside her; she had been so preoccupied that she had not heard him approach. "Things are improving, love," she said. "There's no reason to worry. I remember how hopeless everything seemed at first..."
"But you are worried," he said.
She nodded. Things were going, on the whole, very well - much better than she could've hoped. But there were things missing, supplies and money that couldn't be accounted for. She'd done a bit of investigation of her own and had found a small but steady amount of loss that she couldn't explain... and the most obvious reason for such a thing was theft. Someone was stealing things from soldiers and farmers who wanted nothing more than to rebuild their home. It did more than worry her; it enraged her. "Yes," she said tightly. "I suppose that I am."
Fratley nodded. "It will be all right. These blackguards can't continue this forever; we'll find them out eventually."
"Of course," she said. "They have to answer to all of Burmecia for this."
"And they shall." Fratley took her hand. "We must remain vigilant, love."
"Indeed," said a deep voice from just above. Freya and Fratley looked up as Master Lorn approached. The old, tall Master Diviner was as dignified as ever in his white and silver robes. His fur was black and just starting to turn silver at the muzzle, and his eyes were quick and alert. A young woman trailed behind him, demure and subservient in her pale blue robes. "I am sorry to intrude on your conversation," he continued, "but I could not help but overhear."
"Think nothing of it, Master Lorn," Fratley said before Freya could answer, and bowed slightly in greeting. "It is good to see that you are well."
"Thank you, Sir Fratley." He turned to Freya again. "I wanted to let you know that I and my students are at your disposal."
"Thank you," Freya said, and meant it. The Diviners were the only mages who had chosen to study the arts of war, instead of fleeing to the place that had been Cleyra; they were formidable indeed. The best of them could see through incredible distances and perhaps even through time itself to spy on a battlefield, if given a single spoonful of dirt to work with. They could fix their sight on a single place or person and follow them for the rest of its existence, given a drop of blood. And they could hear the blood of a murdered man cry vengeance against his killer. Of course, those were rare skills... but then, Lorn was an old master, and he was one of the best mages that Burmecia had known in a long while. "I am sure that with your aid, these thieves will not be able to hide for long."
"Yes, let us hope that they cannot counter our abilities." He chuckled dryly, then stopped and frowned. "It is a shame that there are those who still only think of their own good fortunes in these trying times."
"It's more than a shame," Freya replied. Her voice sounded flat and angry to her own ears. "It's an abomination. The ones who are doing this are no better than the ones who destroyed Burmecia."
"Lady Freya," Fratley said, laying a hand on her shoulder. "We will find them and bring them to justice. It is only a matter of time."
Lorn coughed slightly. "I would imagine that the mastermind behind this is not in Burmecia - Treno, perhaps. There are many in that city who would do anything for money. But there must be someone helping them from within Burmecia. Gretchen has already been searching for clues," he said, looking back at the young woman in blue. She blinked and nodded, her eyes distant as they looked at her master - Freya had to smile when she saw that look. She knew it very well. "But we have had no luck. My other students are not old enough to help, not without more clues to work with."
"Then let us help you search," Freya urged him. "There must be something we can do."
"Not until we have more than a few vague impressions, I'm afraid - anything you do now would more than likely be a waste of time. But don't fret, my Lady. These men can't hide forever."
She nodded absently as they took a step into the courtyard proper. The rainwater poured off of Freya's coat and hat - the water was cool, perhaps a bit too cool. Winter would be there soon enough, and the rain would turn to ice as it fell; Burmecia would be covered in a shimmering layer of glistening ice, and it would be impossible to travel in or out of the city without risk. It made autumn construction risky, since the first freeze sometimes came much earlier than expected.
Fratley cleared his throat. "It is good that our King is in such excellent health," he said conversationally. "His illness during the summer had all of us concerned, and it cheers me greatly that he has recovered so well."
"Yes... well." Master Lorn coughed. "Gretchen, will you go back to the tower and finish the morning duties? I will be there presently." He didn't even watch her as she bowed and turned away - Freya felt a brief pang of sympathy. Her own infatuation had turned out quite differently, but she couldn't help but feel for the poor girl.
"What you say is true," Master Lorn finally continued when Gretchen was gone, "and we should be doubly thankful for our King's health, since Prince Puck seems to have abandoned him."
Sir Fratley frowned. "Do not judge the Prince so quickly, Master," he said. "If it were not for Puck's fondness for wandering, no one in Cleyra would have been spared from destruction. I certainly cannot credit myself, not with my memories ripped away so completely."
"Perhaps that is true - but be that as it may, the Prince is certainly not traveling to aid Burmecia now. He is merely shirking his responsibilities. He should be learning statecraft from his father, not wandering about like a common street urchin..."
Freya held back a smile. She had her own ideas about Puck; she knew that he loved Burmecia more than perhaps anyone else, that he'd do anything for his country. But she also knew how much he loved his freedom, and how sweet these last few scraps of it must taste. She could most certainly understand that.
But she never got a chance to defend her Prince. Just when she had been about to speak, she stopped. Something was wrong... she hadn't had such a strong premonition about anything in a very long time.
The Dragon Knights of Burmecia possessed a sort of sixth sense; most Burmecians considered it a gift from the Six Dragons, although it was just as likely a natural result of their training and the heightening of their normal senses. Whatever it was, Freya had learned to trust it. It had saved her life enough times, after all.
She hefted her ceremonial pike, wishing that she had a better weapon - the light silver spear was pretty enough, but it wouldn't do much against a well-armored intruder. She'd just have to hope that she'd be able to compensate for her weak weapon with her skills. Sir Fratley and Master Lorn were still deep in conversation, and didn't notice as she turned away.
It was a strange feeling, urgent and swift. There was something there, something that didn't belong there - an intruder. A monster, or a person... she couldn't tell, not without seeing it more clearly. She looked up and around, scanning the rooftops with her steady gaze, and saw nothing. Her tail lashed back and forth nervously as she kept looking and looking...
After a few moments she started to wonder. Had she made a mistake? She knew that it was foolish to second-guess her senses, but she couldn't seem to help herself. There was simply nothing there, just the plain gray sky -
"Lady Freya?" She jumped slightly and cursed her own skittishness as Fratley approached her. "Are you all right?"
"No," she said, and turned to look at him. "Can't you feel it? Something's wrong."
"My lady, your nerves are on edge. I have felt nothing unusual, and the palace is under heavy guard." Still, he at least trusted her enough to ready his own spear. "What is it that you feel?"
"An intruder." She paused for a moment. "But a familiar one," she added, not quite knowing why or how it could possibly feel familiar but knowing that it was true.
"Familiar? What do you -" He stopped abruptly, then threw his own spear aside. "Freya! Down, quickly!" he shouted as he leaped at her and pushed her down to the cobblestones.
She at least had enough presence of mind to drop the spear; it clattered across the stones. She felt something odd pass over her as she fell, something that seemed to whistle and split the very air in two before landing and screaming against the stones.
She hit the ground hard enough to jar her, and with most of Fratley's weight squarely on her back. Almost everyone in the courtyard was screaming, and there were a thousand cries of shock and confusion. The chaos might've intimidated her once upon a time. Now it was easy, and somehow invigorating - she'd fought her way through chaos so many times before that it seemed natural, as if some balance had just been restored instead of disrupted.
Fratley pushed himself away and stood up to offer her a hand, but she ignored it - not out of any wish to be rude, but out of pure agitation. She stood up on her own and ran to retrieve her spear. "What was that?" she asked him. "Come on, we have to find it -"
"No, Freya!" Fratley shouted. "You must leave here -"
"Nonsense! I won't let this assassin make me a coward in my own city!".
"The soldiers will find him!" He grabbed her arm as she tried to pull away. "You mustn't put yourself at risk!"
"At least let me look at the weapon!" she snapped back, and pulled herself away before he could answer. She dashed across the courtyard, hunting for the object that had nearly struck her. Fratley was behind her, shouting, but he couldn't catch her; her speed was the one advantage she had over him. She ran across the courtyard until she found the weapon that had passed just over her head.
It was a ring of metal about the diameter of her waist, and she knew without looking at the edges that it was razor-sharp. It was crafted well enough, for a weapon, and its edges were fluted into abstract wing designs -
Oh, Dragons. This can't be. She felt her lips move, but no sound came out.
"I don't like just tossin' stuff around. It's not like winning a real fight at all."
She did not resist as Fratley took her arm and led her away. "It's not safe here!" he said urgently to her. "You must leave this to the rest of us, Freya!"
She didn't answer. It can't be, she kept thinking, over and over again. It can't be him. Can it?
The waiting was driving her to distraction.
Freya stood up and then sat down again, glaring balefully at the walls of the tiny room. The small bed and dresser and short table took up just about all of the floor space; Freya barely had room to pace about, it was so cramped. Not that the lack of space had stopped her from trying, because if she'd just sat around she would've gone mad by then.
Not only had Fratley forbidden her to go out into the streets until they found the one who had tried to kill her, he had begged for her to stay in that little room until they found him. Their bedroom had windows, and a door that opened onto a sheltered balcony. Too risky, he'd said - too hard to block completely. It was much safer, he'd said, to stay in this room which had been furnished just for this purpose. She'd finally agreed - and she hadn't seen the outside since. She'd grabbed a few odds and ends from her own bedchamber, and there were a few old clothes in the dresser; that was all she had.
Still, she could've been in the most sumptuous room in the city and she still would've been angry. She'd been a sort of prisoner in that place for almost a week, or perhaps more. There was only one window, and she could barely see any light through the crack in its shutters.
She'd had only one visitor, Fratley himself, and he had come to see her only a few times; mostly he was busy hunting for the assassin, searching the streets of Burmecia endlessly with half of the King's army. Even the house was well-guarded; he'd left five men there to make sure that no one could enter. Or leave, she thought darkly. But they never came in, except to bring her meals and then quickly lock the door behind them, and she was largely alone. A week was far too long to have been left alone, especially with the thoughts that kept springing up in her mind.
If Fratley hadn't stopped her, hadn't pushed her to the ground... would she even be alive? Or would that ring of metal have sheared through her skull, left her dead in the courtyard? And then there was the weapon itself - the same thought kept coming back to her mind. She'd seen that sort of weapon used several times before, and only by the one man...
Her mind kept balking at the idea. It can't be Amarant, she kept thinking. I know he wouldn't do this. I've trusted him with my life before, just like I trusted Zidane and Fratley. Surely there are others in Gaia who are skilled with that sort of weapon. But she kept thinking about it regardless, about how the intrusion had felt so familiar. It made far too much sense.
What was she supposed to believe? Her mind told her one thing, but her gut told her another. She'd learned to rely on both, but what was she supposed to do when they disagreed to such a huge extent?
She kept thinking back to when she'd still been traveling, thinking of anything that might give her a clue. It had been years since she'd seen Amarant, since Queen Garnet's wedding in Alexandria - he'd left town the day after the marriage, and had never even said goodbye. She'd seen him only briefly on the wedding night, had spoken to him about fireworks, and all the while she'd felt that there was something wrong. There'd been an odd sort of distance in his eyes.
There hadn't been much distance between them before, anyway. At first she hadn't been able to stand him, had actually tried to fight him - they'd fought each other to a standstill during their first meeting. They'd both drawn the other's blood, and for some reason that had started to clear the air between them.
She remembered wondering what he was, exactly; she'd seen humans and demi-humans in many shapes and sizes, but Amarant had been something else entirely. She'd asked him, once, where he'd come from, and he'd just scowled at her. "Forget it," he'd said. "Just forget it. Who gives a damn? Same people who'd call you a sewer rat just 'cuz you're from Burmecia, that's who..."
She had remembered, and then she had nodded and left it at that.
Whatever he was, he'd been dangerous, a huge hulking sort of beast with blue-gray skin and more tattoos than she cared to think about. He kept the red hair on his head matted into dreadlocks, even though he had spent a ridiculous amount of time trimming his beard and his mustache.
He'd spent most of his time brooding, when he hadn't been talking to her or to Zidane. Quite a bit of his time had been spent sitting cross-legged on the bare dirt, muttering something too soft for even her sharp ears to hear. He'd been good at unarmed combat and could hit almost any target with those metal throwing rings, which he'd jokingly called "pinwheels." And then there head been other abilities that she couldn't even put a name to, and that he refused to name for her.
The first time he'd saved her life, they'd been fighting one of the Grand Dragons on the fringes of the Mist Continent. She had been knocked down by a particularly furious attack, her mind dizzy and exhausted and her body aching and covered in blood. She couldn't even beseech Reis for her aid, she'd been so tired.
She remembered it clearly, just before she'd collapsed - a wave of energy that seemed to wash over her, strengthening her mind and healing her body as she forced herself back to her feet. Out of the corner of her eye she'd seen Amarant turn to look at her, his teeth bared and eyes narrowed in concentration...
"C'mon, pull yourself back together," she'd heard him growl next to her, and had seen him bleeding - thick black blood running down one arm and into his eyes. It was a wonder he was still standing. "You said you were a Dragon Knight, so kill the damn thing!"
She hadn't asked questions then; there hadn't been any time. Only well after that, when the dragon was dead and they were well away on the Blue Narciss, did she approach him about it. "So," she'd asked, "how did you do that?"
"Eh? Do what?"
She'd rolled her eyes. "You know what I mean. How did you save my life?"
"Oh, that." He'd stopped for a minute, then had started to chuckle. "Forget it. I can't tell you."
"'Cuz you don't wanna know. Learning that stuff cost me more than you can imagine."
"Oh," she'd said. Then, after a moment's thought, she'd added, "I wouldn't be so sure. I can imagine a lot of things."
He hadn't answered, except to laugh a bit more and then turn away. She'd taken the hint; she'd never asked again.
Yes, there had always been a lot of things she hadn't understood about him, but there had been one thing that she'd thought that they'd shared. She'd always thought that they were two of a kind, that he had some twisted sense of honor and if he'd been a Burmecian, he would've been the same sort of Knight that she had been.
And all of that kept running up against the inescapable conclusion that he was there, that he was the one trying to kill her. That she hadn't known him as well as she'd thought, or else that he'd changed and she didn't know him at all anymore... but she didn't want to believe it. Not at all, not even for a moment.
She was jarred out of her reverie by the clicking of a key in her lock. She turned to the door and watched it open outwards, and watched Fratley walk through the doorway. His clothes were still a bit wet, and he was shivering, she could see it as he approached her. Freya didn't watch him for long. She turned away as he walked into the room, not trusting herself to keep her anger a secret.
"My lady," Fratley began, then paused. It didn't matter what pains Freya took to hide her emotions from him; he always saw them somehow. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," she said dully. She knew that she was being childish, and didn't care. "The guards in this prison have been quite good to me. I am hoping that if I stay out of trouble, they will let me leave before I've grown old and feeble."
She could hear him grinding his jaws together, biting back a retort, as he sat down on the bed next to her. "We've had no success, I fear," he said. "I am sorry, Freya."
"It doesn't surprise me," she said, turning to stare him in the face. "What fool would risk capture as long as he believes that his target is locked safely away?"
Fratley closed his eyes wearily. "Freya, you've already-"
She didn't let him finish. Yes, she had already told him something very similar, but he had never listened. "I'm a Knight, Fratley! I'm the same as you, remember? I'm not some bloody damsel in distress that has to be locked up in a tower at the slightest sign of danger!"
"Freya, please!" he almost pleaded. "This is too much danger. He's nearly decapitated you once!"
She decided that it would not be wise to share her questions about that; it would only confuse them both, and she was sure that Fratley wouldn't change his mind either way. "He caught me by surprise that time," she said instead. "I won't make the same mistake twice. Let me fight with you, Fratley!"
He turned away. "I can't, Freya! If something should happen to you... how would I go on living?"
"Blast it, Fratley, listen to me! How can you say that you love me when you don't understand something so simple?" She stood up as she yelled, felt the fur on her muzzle start to stand on end. Her tail lashed against the wall behind her. "I'm not a child anymore, and nor am I a helpless waif! I've fought as many battles as you have. Hells, I helped defend Gaia against a being who threatened to destroy all of creation - and we won. And now that some coward - someone too craven to even show his face as he attacks - is hunting me, you treat me like a neophyte who can't even hold a spear without stabbing myself in the foot! Is that how much you trust me, Fratley? Do you have so little faith in my skill?"
Fratley did not look up at her. "I have more faith in you than I have in my own mind," he said quietly.
"Then why? Why do this to me?"
He stood up, sighing softly, and took her arm. "Freya, please. Try to understand," he said again. "If things were only a bit different, I would let you fight beside me. But don't you see? It's taken me four years to learn to love you again - four years of wishing that I could reclaim all that I'd lost." His voice quavered. "By the Dragons, I'm not going to let this coward take you away from me again. I won't allow it. No matter what I have to do, I will protect you."
For a while she just stared at him, unable to say what was going through her mind. Her head felt like cotton, bleary and stiff. Did he honestly believe that the way to protect her was to make her deny what she was? But finally she nodded. "All right," she said, and hugged Fratley before she pulled away and sat down again.
Fratley nodded. "My love... I won't let him escape me. I promise you that."
"I know," she said. "But... can you make me one other promise?"
He was cautious. He did not agree to it immediately. "What is it?"
"Please don't kill him right away. I want to see him before you do. I want to ask him why."
Fratley stood there and stared for a long moment, then turned away. "I will try, but I cannot swear that I will. I will kill this man, if it becomes necessary to keep you safe."
"Thank you, Fratley." But she did not look up as she said goodbye, or watch him leave.
She had known that he wouldn't listen from the start. Fratley was predictable, sometimes; he wouldn't have let her leave, no matter what argument she'd used. That meant that she could take other steps with a clear conscience. She had to get out of that room one way or another... she had to see this for herself, and know whether or not her suspicions were well-founded.
She reached into the pocket of her great red coat and curled her hand around three small balls. Then, glancing up at the slit of light that shone through the shutters, she decided to lie down for a bit. It must've been getting late, she decided, and she needed to be well-rested if she was going to carry out her plan...
She opened her eyes with a sudden start.
There was no light coming into the crack in the shutters. The sun had gone down again, all but unnoticed in Burmecia behind the thick storm clouds, except for the deepening darkness. It was night, but she had no way of knowing how late it really was. She would have to hurry.
She got up and moved around as quietly as she could, cursing herself for not thinking to prepare before she'd slept. Still, it shouldn't make any difference; she would just have to be careful. She undressed quickly, and took the three tiny round items out of the pocket of her coat. She laid them carefully on the bed, and turned them around until she could see a tiny strip of vivid red... just as she'd hoped.
She smiled as she thought back to a conversation she'd had with Zidane shortly after they'd first met. They had been sitting at a table in a cheap pub in the bad part of Treno. It had been her first visit to the city, and she'd stuck out like a sore thumb; few Burmecians ever visited Treno, and fewer still kept the company of known thieves and scoundrels. But Freya and her new-found friend had paid them little mind as they talked, and as Zidane held up objects and gestured broadly and animatedly, demonstrating their use through pantomime.
"See this?" And he'd held the tiny ball up between his thumb and forefinger - Freya had seen the strip of red on the side. "It's a thief's best friend, especially the ones made like this. See, that red band means it was manufactured with the help of a real Red Mage, and it has its own source of heat inside of it. If you get the kind that relies on chemicals or whatever... well, it'll fizzle out in the rain, or just about wherever if it's not totally dry..."
She hoped that he'd been right, because she might need them all. A fizzle would be a disaster.
She got up and then hunted through the drawers, and pulled out an outfit she'd seen there a few hours ago. It was a simple outfit of black leather, a vest and a pair of knee-length breeches - a bit too skimpy for the cold autumn rain. Still, she couldn't just announce her identity to all of Burmecia.
She got dressed again quickly - the clothes were a bit snug, but they would do - and tied her long white hair back with a thin leather cord. Then, as an afterthought, she pulled out a dark blue nightgown, made of heavy blue cotton cloth. She would have to hope that Fratley was still out searching, because if he saw her in a nightgown he'd know immediately that she was up to something; she'd never wear such an uncomfortable thing willingly. But the guards in her home wouldn't know such things.
She took a deep breath. This was going to be risky; she would only get one chance, after all. But she had no choice; it was time for desperate measures.
She grabbed the small table and pushed it as hard as she could. It hit the floor with a loud clunk, and one of the old legs broke off and skittered across the floor as it struck the ground. Almost as soon as she heard the sound she faked a scream, which she cut off almost at once.
In the sudden silence she could hear faint voices, and the fainter clicking of claws against the stone stairs. She grabbed the smoke bombs and settled herself down against the wall, trying to look limp and faint. She took one of the bombs in her hand, twisted it, and then gave it a shove toward the door. "Do it just right," Zidane said in her memory, "and you'll get just a second's delay. It takes some practice - I'll try to show you tonight - but if you can get it to go off when they don't expect it, that'll make it even easier." It stopped just by the doorway as she closed her eyes and let her arms go limp, hoping that she looked enough like she'd been attacked to fool those young, green guards...
The key clicked in the lock, and the door opened into the hall. Three guards stood on the other side - she could hear them gasping, and then talking all at once. "Lady Freya!"
"Oh, Dragons save us! Is she all right?"
One boy seemed bolder than the others - after a second of hysteria she felt him take her arm, and press a hand to her forehead. "She's alive! But there's no way anyone could've gotten in through -"
Freya tried to stay relaxed, tried to convince herself that she'd already fooled them. "Don't worry so much about what people are gonna see," Zidane had chuckled after she'd made some protest or another. "If there's one thing I've learned on the stage, it's that people will see whatever you want them to see, as long as you make them expect to see it enough -"
The bomb popped - it was very loud in the tiny room, and she could smell the first traces of the acrid smoke. So could the guards; she heard them screaming about poison. As soon as the smoke came close enough she tensed against the wall and kicked - her feet struck the guard square in the gut, and he flew away like a rag doll. She ran out of the room past the others and shut the door, locking it with the key that the guards had left in the lock. Quickly, as the guards began to pound at the door, she yanked the ring of keys out of the lock and held onto it tightly.
She paused for just a moment to get her bearings, and to blink the worst of the smoke out of her eyes. She knew where she was, and she knew what she needed - a weapon, and a way out. If she was right, she knew where she had a good chance of finding both. If Fratley hadn't hidden or blocked them somehow, at least...
"Don't ever second-guess yourself," Zidane said with an odd sort of solemnity. "If you think it'll work, do it. You'll never get anywhere if you just stand around and think!"
There wasn't any time to lose. She ran through the hall and down the stairs, and turned into another room - this one quite large, and dominated by two display cases full of spears. Fratley hadn't had a chance to take them away, she thought with relief. There were no guards - more luck for her. There was an open door near the cases, but she quickly shut and locked it before anyone could arrive.
A smaller key on the ring unlocked one of the cases. The spears were all fairly weak, meant to be decorative, although they would have to serve. She took the sturdiest-looking one - it gleamed silver and blue in her hands, and the gemstones that adorned it glittered in the dim light of the lamps.
She ran and unlatched the shutters of the large window on the opposite wall, then drew back and struck the window itself, breaking the glass and knocking large chunks of it out of the frame. She would have to do it just right, or else she'd hurt herself badly -
"Lady Freya!" a strange voice yelled from behind her." What is going on?"
She spun around and saw another guard standing on the stairs. He was staring at her in shock, and drew back in alarm as she readied the spear. "Stay back!" she said. "I'm going to leave now, and I don't want to hurt you."
"But... but Sir Fratley told me not to let you leave under any circumstances! I have to try to... to..."
She nodded grimly. "I see," she said.
"Don't think you won't have to fight your way out of a situation or two, because you almost always will." The little thief stabbed at an invisible foe to emphasize. "Never hesitate to do what you've gotta do, even if you have to fight."
"I'm sorry," she continued, but she didn't give him time to react to her apology. She attacked right away and hit him on the head - not with the head of her spear, and with enough force only to knock him out. He went down almost at once, disbelief written plainly on his face, as she heard a pounding on the other door - the last guard had finally realized that something was amiss, it seemed.
She wasted no time in leaping out of the ruined window, and flew through the rainy night. As she leaped she ripped the nightshirt off - what did she care if it was ruined? - and discarded it in an empty street. Somehow, despite the chill in the air and the tight worry in her gut, she found herself laughing - she felt exhilarated, utterly filled with a sort of ecstatic glee. It had been the first real challenge she'd had in years, and by the Six Dragons, she'd pulled it off.
After all of that was over, she resolved, she was going to have to go to Alexandria for a while, and she was going to have to convince Queen Garnet to let her take her consort to one of the local bars and buy him a few rounds. He'd probably get a real kick out of the whole story...
She half-ran, half-leaped into the night.
The rain was unusually cold and heavy that night, and Freya was starting to worry. The rush of her success had finally worn off completely, leaving her facing the reality of her situation - poorly armed and defended, nearly naked and very cold and wet, and with barely even a hunch about how to find the man that she was searching for.
She'd already had to avoid two search parties - she'd heard them coming, and had leaped away just in time to avoid discovery. Other than that... there had been a few flashes of insight, like the one she'd had at the start of that whole mess, and that was all. She kept moving, but the rain felt like needles on her arms and her back, and the streets were dark in the rain.
Finally she had to stop. She was shaking with exhaustion and anger, and she could feel him there again; she could've sworn that he was close enough to touch. She stood there in the empty street and looked around wildly, hoping to catch a glimpse of something...
"Blast it, you damned coward!" she screamed, finally losing her temper completely. "Are you too afraid to fight me face to face? Come down and show yourself, and we'll finish this!"
For a moment there was nothing but the sound of the rain. Then she heard laughter - a familiar laugh, low and rasping and as mirthless as a dirge. "All right," the voice rasped dryly. "Have it your way."
It had come from just above her, on the rooftops. She looked up, certain of what she would see - a hulking figure, too tall and too broad to be a mere human, with long red hair matted into the familiar dreadlocks. His smile was cocky and empty of any sort of warmth.
She held her spear ready, gripped it tightly. "I knew it was you," she said. "I knew."
"Hmph." He leaped down and landed just in front of her. His skin was a sickly blue-gray in the dim light of the enchanted street lamps. Tattoos marked his body, some of them familiar, black and abstract and dangerous - there was one that she didn't remember, vivid red and curled, and she thought that she ought to recognize some sort of shape in it... "So," he continued, "is that s'posed to mean something to me?"
"I thought it might."
He snorted, and the odd smile faded. "Yeah, well. It's been a while."
Freya couldn't seem to stop shaking. She kept thinking of fighting with him, of him saving her life and of her saving his... "I thought we understood each other," she managed. "I thought I knew you. But now... why are you doing this to me?"
"I'm doin' something I have to do." He looked away. "That's it."
"Something you have to do?" she echoed. "Is that all that my life means to you? Am I worth less than another payoff?"
"Like I said," he said, his expression not changing a whit, "it's been a long time."
"Then come on," she said. She took a step forward, her spear pointed at his heart. "We can at least finish this like warriors."
She saw the smile creep back onto his lips. "You haven't changed, Freya." Then he drew back, as if to strike, and Freya tried to drive her spear home - but before she could attack he leaped away, straight back onto the rooftop. She wasn't quick enough, numb and upset as she was. Her spear passed through nothing but empty air. "Except that you're not as quick as you used to be."
"Amarant!" she shouted after him. "What are you doing?"
"I'm gonna finish what I started. If you wanna live, you'd better start running right now." He turned and leaped away, out of sight.
She should've followed him straight away. She knew that. She should've caught him, should've proven to him that he had been wrong about her speed in the most definite way possible.
She didn't. She couldn't. She felt something breaking and collapsing inside of her. She'd always believed that her trust was somehow infallible - that once she trusted someone, she couldn't possibly be wrong about them. But now she'd trusted a man who had taken stolen gold to kill her. Better that he'd killed her at the start, that he'd never wounded her pride...
She made a small strangled noise in her throat, the closest she could make to a sob. She would have cried, would've shed tears if she had been human... but Burmecians didn't cry. They couldn't, not the way that the humans did. She wanted to fall to her knees, but forced herself to stay standing. And she was shaking... she couldn't seem to stop shaking, not for anything. Her mind raced with rage and despair, and under it all was one cold, rock-hard resolution, all that remained of the part of her mind that had suddenly collapsed.
She wasn't going to die like that.
She was cold, badly rattled, shaking and half-naked in the rain, but she'd be damned if she let herself lose that way. She was a Dragon Knight. She still had her pride.
There was only one thing left to her. There was no one else that could help her, only one thing that she could call on. She braced herself against the street, bowed her head and squeezed her eyes shut so tight that she saw bits of light swimming against the darkness.
Reis! She screamed the name in her mind as loudly as she could. Please, honored sister, I need your help! Please...!
Something seemed to change, then, as if the sky had opened up over her to let her in. She took a deep breath and held it, bent her legs and then pushed against the street as hard as she could. She leaped, spiraling upwards through the rain with her spear clutched tightly in her claws - further and higher than any normal Burmecian would've been capable of.
A thousand things seemed to happen all at once. Time seemed to slow almost to nothing, as if she could fly into the air forever and never, ever fall. She flew among the raindrops, or perhaps between them - she did not feel them touch her. A nimbus of silver light surrounded her, dazzling her, cloaking her in brightness.
All at once the rain and the clouds and the city were all gone, and Freya found herself floating freely among the stars. Familiar figures hovered around her; she felt their presence there, and heard them welcome her to their home.
She knew them all, had seen them in her dreams. She saw Fafnir, his deep red scales the only things in all of Gaia that could withstand the heat of his fiery breath. There was many-headed Tiamat, who was the source of all the winds of Gaia - from the slightest breeze to the strongest gale. There was the great scaled bird, Quetzacoatl, whose green eyes and strong claws shot lightning and whose cry was thunder.
Hydra was there, brother to Tiamat, whose will controlled the currents of Gaia - he had claimed Leviathan's powers, had taken up his throne when the great serpent had abandoned his chosen place to join Bahamut in binding their lives to the Summoners of Gaia. And there was Uwibami, the youngest of the Dragons, a strange sight with his stone-gray body and his leonine jaws forever tinged red with blood. He had proven his place with the Six Dragons and with Burmecia when the country had been threatened by an army of cavalry, a thousand men on fine horses. He had snatched rider after rider from his steed, leaving the basin full of frightened, panicky chargers and giving it its name.
And then she opened her eyes and saw Reis flying before her, her eyes red and wise, her body supple and covered in silver scales. She flew around Freya, then within her, as if she had been nothing more corporeal than clouds.
I hear you, little sister, the dragon said in her heart. I am here with you.
As always, Freya felt a swelling of worshipful gratitude towards her Dragon-sister, the one who had claimed her and taken her under her wing during her training. Reis... I know it's been a long time, but please, help me. I have to stop him!
Almost as soon as she had made her plea, Freya felt the world twist and lurch again. All at once she was back in the city again - or, rather, above the city, gliding and floating above it. Her wings were a dragon's wings; her eyes were a dragon's eyes, seeing everything that was visible below. But even more than that was the way that she could feel everything, even things she could not see.
She felt Amarant below her, running away. Or, at least, so it seemed - she felt him leap from building to building, although she still couldn't see him and had no time to wonder why. Now he was her prey.
The cold rage inside of her erupted. She drew back her arm as if to throw her spear, then gestured with it. Another spear seemed to appear, flying through the air, making the raindrops in its past sizzle and boil away.
It struck bare stone - she felt alarm and fear as her former friend danced away, and he began to run faster.
She kept moving. Spear after spear appeared, glowing silver in the night, but even as they fell like rain he kept avoiding them. How, she couldn't know; he was even faster than she remembered.
She would be quicker, then.
As fast as lightning she sent forth three more phantom spears. They sizzled for the street just in front of her prey. Before they struck - before she even felt him leap back, as she was sure he would - she threw the spear. She felt it whizzing through the air, felt it moving faster and faster as it fell.
He leaped away from the false spears she'd sent flying before him as she'd known he would, and landed directly into the path of the true one. It crashed through his body, just beneath his heart - she felt him scream, felt him screaming in pain, felt the blood flowing from his body, washed away by the rain. She felt his heart beating faster and faster as the blood dwindled away, until it was too exhausted to beat any more, and stopped.
Freya cried out in terrible triumph, her voice like a dragon's roar, and in her mind she felt her sister roaring with her. In her trance all of her misgivings were forgotten; there was only the hunt and the kill.
She felt herself falling, the energy spent. She felt one final touch in her mind - Reis. Goodbye, little sister. Do not forget me for so long again, she said, before Freya felt the dragon's spirit leave her entirely. She fell to the ground as if she'd merely leaped a few feet into the air, graceful as ever, at the very spot where she'd felt Amarant's life slipping away.
He wasn't there.
She stared for a moment at the spot, the very place she'd felt him die. But there was no body there - even the blood was gone, washed away by the rain. She saw her spear; it had been cast to the side. Somehow he - or someone else - had managed to tear it out of his body and throw it aside.
Lost, she looked around but saw nothing. No clues, no way of knowing... it was as if he'd just vanished into nothing.
She didn't know how long she'd been hunting for him when she'd heard another voice - not his, but someone she didn't recognize. It was a long, drawn-out scream, followed by a thud barely muffled by the rain. She hesitated for just a moment, before running in the direction of that sound. She simply did not know what else to do. She ran as fast as she could, fast enough that her claws lost purchase on the stones a few times.
She didn't know how long she'd been running before she found him. She just remembered stopping short as she saw Amarant's body on the street, his back barely supported by a gray stone wall. His head was bowed, and his hair obscured his face.
Freya approached him, expecting nothing to happen - he was dead, he had to be. She could see the wound in his gut under the pale streetlight, could see torn flesh and splintered bone poking out of it. She certainly didn't expect to see his head bob upwards - just slightly, as if he was trying to look up but simply didn't have the strength.
She stopped short as he did just that.
Sensible as Freya usually was, she did the logical thing at first and refused to believe it. That sort of motion had to be impossible. Even without the wound - which was very difficult to ignore, even on purpose - he was clearly dead; his skin was pale and almost white, and the black tattoos stood out against it in stark contrast. The red ones, however, were gone; she narrowed her eyes as she tried to think. Perhaps she'd just imagined them.
Then she heard him speak. "Good trick," he said - although she didn't hear him breathe as he spoke, or move his head. His voice was barely recognizable. The rasp that she'd remembered best about his voice, the one that had always brought to mind a snake about to strike, was gone completely, and the words were too deep and too slow. "I don't remember you showing me that one b'fore."
Maybe that was all her imagination too. The adrenaline rush from her trance was fading, and that sort of thing did strange things to her mind. "It's been a long time, Amarant." Her voice was still flat and harsh with anger. "You said so yourself."
"Heh. You really haven't changed." His arm twitched a bit, but then was still.
She came closer, more slowly and more cautiously, trying not to look at the wound she'd inflicted; looking too closely at it would've made her ill, especially when she considered how far he'd moved while so badly injured. She had to remember her training, to detach her mind from the reality of the situation and wait until later, when she could afford to feel such things.
She knelt down next to him so that she could look at his face. His eyes were half-closed and averted from her. "You never showed me this trick either," she said softly. "How are you doing this?"
"Forget it." His lips barely moved to shape the words, and he still did not breathe; the voice seemed to come from somewhere far away. "Can't tell you... it cost me more than you can possibly imagine. And there ain't time for me to tell you... everything I'd like to tell you... anyway."
"Then can't you at least tell me why?" She was half-pleading with a creature who'd tried to kill her. The irony was sickening. "Why did you have to do this?"
For a long time he didn't answer. Then he began to laugh, and the unnaturalness of it chilled her to the bone. It rolled on and on, deep and cold as a tomb.
It brought to mind something that her grandfather had told her once, long ago, when she had been too young to understand it: One thing that all warriors learn, Freya, is that the real humor in life cannot be appreciated more keenly than when you are at Death's door. And then she remembered telling Zidane about that, and then seeing him nod and start to smile...
"Yeah, I guess I believe it," he'd said with a bit of a chuckle. "It's like Baku always said. Once you're starin' Death in the face, all the little ironies come rushing back at you, and all you can do is laugh 'em off..."
Finally the laughter slowed and died. "Damn it, Freya," he said, "making me waste my time with stupid questions like that... I saw the bounty posting in Treno... found out some other rat wanted you out of the picture." The voice started to falter, fading at strange moments. "Did you really think I'd let... any of those bloodthirsty bastards have a... a shot at you?"
Freya wanted to answer, wanted to yell at him. There were so many things that she wanted to say, but somehow none of them seemed to fit. Instead she rested her spear against the wall, reached out and took his hand in hers, like the noble soldier in one of the old Burmecian epics who took the time to comfort a dying enemy.
His flesh felt cold and heavy and soft, like rotting wood, and he did not squeeze her hand back at all. It finally hit her then, and hit her hard. She wasn't watching Amarant die - he was already dead, and had been dead since she'd put a spear through his gut. But somehow he had kept moving, and she was watching him slowly grind to a halt, and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it.
"Guess it's... just as well. Dunno what else... what else I could've done to... fix this." His voice was fading fast. When he spoke again, it was barely above a whisper. "You know... when I first saw you again... I thought you'd gone soft on me. I guess... I'm kinda glad... you proved me wrong..." His head sagged, and his body slid down sideways against the wall. He said nothing more.
Freya stared for a moment, then reached out with her free hand and gently closed his eyes, very careful not to damage them with her claws. She felt numb and cold and soaking wet, and her eyes burned.
Fratley would be there soon. He would know that she had called for Reis's aid; Dragon Knights always knew. It was part of their kinship with the Dragons and with each other. He'd come, and he'd find her. And she wasn't going to run away - she had been right, damn it all. He never would've found Amarant without her help.
She stood and picked up her spear and leaned against the wall, and closed her eyes so that she wouldn't have to look at the broken body lying below her anymore. She just waited for Fratley to arrive, and tried not to think about what would happen when he did.
At least they didn't make her wait for long. She didn't look up as she heard the shouts, heard the sounds of soldiers running to her in the rain. A few of them gasped as they saw her, standing next to the corpse. They approached her slowly, fearfully.
"Lady Freya," one of them finally managed. "This... did you do this?"
"Yes." She didn't look up at them. She didn't even move.
They were definitely green; they gawked and started babbling like cadets who'd never seen a real day of fighting in their lives... which was probably true, considering how completely Burmecia's army had been wiped out four years ago, and how peaceful things had been since then. She knew from experience that fighting a dumb beast didn't compare to seeing a man - or whatever he'd been - lying dead on the ground with such a massive hole in his body that it made you sick to look at it.
"Are you all right, love?" Fratley's voice came from just beside her. She hadn't even seen him approach.
She couldn't ignore him, hard as she tried. She looked up briefly at his face. "I'm not injured."
"But are you all right?"
"I..." The words caught in her throat. He wasn't going to apologize, and blast it all, neither was she. "I was right, Fratley."
She heard him sigh. "It's all right now, Freya," he said, and before she knew what was happening he'd put one arm around her shoulders and had pulled her close. "It's all right. It's over."
He said it again and again, as if repeating the words would make them more true. As much as Freya wanted to fight against it, she found herself giving in to it - to being held by the man she'd almost lost herself to find and hearing him reassure her. Finally she rested her head on his shoulder and let herself relax.
But she couldn't make herself believe that it was over... not with all of those questions in her head, and not with the most prominent of them being the question that Amarant hadn't had time to answer: Why had he done this?
There was more noise from the streets, more guards and more chatter - and then Freya heard something that startled her. "Where is he?" Gretchen was demanding, her voice loud and full of rage. "Lead me to that monster!"
Freya blinked in confusion. Why was Gretchen there? "Fratley-"
Fratley hushed her. "Gretchen," he called out. "He is here. Lady Freya has killed him."
"Thank the Dragons," Gretchen said as she approached. Her apprentice's robe was disheveled, and her black hair was mussed. "The bastard... death at her hands wasn't good enough for him..."
"We don't even know if it was him who killed the master," a nervous voice interjected. "How could he have come so far?"
"The master?" Freya echoed quietly. "You mean... Master Lorn?"
Fratley sighed again. "Yes. But we should wait to discuss this until you have rested, love."
"Why? I'm not a child," she said, but there was little fire in it. Master Lorn was dead? But how, and when?
Gretchen, meanwhile, had knelt over Amarant's body. Her face was tense with concentration as she closed her eyes. She stretched one hand over the corpse and held it there for a few seconds, as if she was meditating on it somehow. "Yes," she said. "My master's blood is on this creature's hands. I feel it..."
"He killed..." She was whispering to herself, not caring if Fratley or anyone else could hear her. "Why was he even here? I thought that he was after me..."
"Shh." Fratley touched her forehead. "You're cold, Freya. Let's go back home."
Freya couldn't look away from the scene as Gretchen collapsed beside Amarant's body, gasping in breath in her rage. "My master... he was a good man," she managed through gritted teeth. Then, without warning, she lifted one arm and struck his face as hard as she could. It barely moved his head, but her claws left thin white scratch marks on the already pale skin, and the force of it was enough to make Freya wince. "Why?" she screamed. "Why did you do it? Why did you kill him?"
Freya went cold. "I don't know," she said softly. "I don't know."
Fratley took her arm. "Freya, please. You've been out here for far too long."
Freya didn't resist as Fratley led her away, led her down the streets back home. She was too tired to put up a fight, and her mind was too full of questions.
She spent most of the next week in her home, pacing through the corridors or pushing herself through a few training exercises in the basement... it didn't matter, really.
She was alone almost constantly. Fratley was very busy seeing to all of the duties that the two of them would have usually shared; he did not even come back to sleep, apparently choosing to stay in the palace instead. He would come back to speak to her from time to time, but Freya never knew what to say to him, and so she would mostly let him speak. She'd let him tell her how he'd found her, how he'd sensed her communion with her Dragon sister and how he'd allowed it to lead her to him.
"We found Lorn when we knew we were close to you," he said, "dying on the street. He was already beyond our help, I fear. He was a powerful man, but his back was broken, and he was suffering from the poison in his veins. Somehow..." He shook his head. "Gretchen is beside herself, trying to figure out how the assassin got close enough to kill him. But the only two people who might've been able to tell us are dead."
She tried to listen to Fratley, tried to feel something for Master Lorn and for the apprentices he'd left to stumble in the darkness, but she couldn't. Her mind kept going back to Amarant, to the sound of his laughter as he'd faced death for the last time.
He said little else to her for some time. He was giving her space, somehow knowing that there was more to the ordeal than she was letting on; still, he never pressed her. She was grateful for that; there were things that she was not ready to say to him yet, and was not sure if she would ever be.
The only thing that she went out for in the first few days was Master Lorn's funeral, and that had been only for a short time. She had helped to bear his body to the Grotto, carrying the heavy casket with Fratley and a few other soldiers as Gretchen and the junior apprentices had walked behind them. They had buried him in honor, had sent his body to the sacred waters where Master Gizmaluke had once held sway, and where they still hoped he would someday return.
She had seen the look on Gretchen's face after the funeral. That look of blank, resigned hopelessness was so familiar to her that she had to feel a stab of sympathy. Gretchen had lost her master; now she had to lead the other four through what was left of their lore, a child teaching children when she knew little herself. Freya understood that feeling far too well.
She had not been present when Amarant's body was destroyed. They'd chosen to cremate him, a death which most Burmecians would've considered the worst dishonor of them all; it separated even their flesh from the rains of Burmecia. Freya thought that burning suited him, although she did not say as much. She had kept her past friendship with him to herself. It was safer, and easier to explain, that way, although she thought that perhaps Sir Fratley suspected something.
A few days after they'd burned them, the captain of the palace guard visited her, and in his hands he'd held a large burlap sack. "Lady Freya," he said, bowing. "Please accept these gifts."
Freya had stared for a while before managing to speak. "What is this?" she asked quietly.
"The spoils of battle, Lady Freya. You defeated the man who killed Master Lorn. Tradition dictates that you are entitled to his most valuable treasures. You should know that better than most, my Lady."
She pressed her lips together. "Very well," she said. "Forgive my lapse in memory, captain. I... I will accept the spoils."
Freya didn't even open the sack immediately; she left it tied in a closet for days. It was at Fratley's insistence that she finally opened it, revealing three things.