C O R P S E
B R I G A D E

RETURN ADULT FICTION

E X   O R N A M E N T I S :   I

Completed August 26, 2019 (♍)

Author's notes at the end.


He had just been told his mount was saddled and that his men were ready to ride east when a squire pushed his way into the office, stammering apologies to the tune that he had tried to convey the urgency of the situation and that he knew how little the general could afford any interruption. Before the boy could fully explain or finish, the appearance of two Temple Knights made any further clarification unnecessary. Zalbag raised a hand to quiet him.

The Templars did not wait for an invitation to enter. The thick wool of their cloaks—one red and one green—muffled the clatter of their armor. Neither removed their hood.

“Zalbag Beoulve,” the knight in red began. “We need a word with you.”

“My sincerest apologies, Templar,” Zalbag said tersely, “I am needed at Dogoula and I cannot brook any further delay.”

“I’m afraid the matter cannot wait.”

“Is this matter of more weight than the security of the capital?” Zalbag replied, trying to remain as respectful as he could despite his obvious irritation. “We are at war.”

“I would remind you, commander, that the Church has taken no side in the conflict. You are at war.” Wiegraf drew back his hood. “We are here to discuss issues of heresy and the murder of clergy—crimes which I believe hold quite a bit of weight across all seven kingdoms, regardless of whether they hold Lesalia or are advancing upon it.”

Upon seeing Wiegraf’s face, Zalbag took a deep breath, wondered if there were any other ghosts from Zeakden lurking about the palace to call on him today, and did his utmost to refrain from giving his interlocutor the satisfaction of seeing him rattled. He’d already lost his temper once that morning and it still smarted. He sat down slowly and turned to whomever the man in green was.

“Is the Church aware of this man’s past?” he asked coolly.

“Once one is becomes a Temple Knight, the Church holds that his past ceases to be,” came the reply. “I am aware only that this man is my brother in God and my comrade in the Templarate.”

“He’s right, you know… about my past,” Wiegraf interjected, evidently annoyed at somebody speaking over him. “The Concordat of 1134 holds that Templars are only subject to prosecution for offences pre-dating their initiation if the Murond Tribunale pursues it.”

Zalbag nodded, continuing rather purposefully to address Wiegraf’s associate rather than him.

“Forgive me, your companion wasn’t quite so versant in ecclesiastical law when last we met,” he said in as withering a tone as he could manage. “As I am unlikely to have Gallione send petition to the High Confessor for his execution and see results in the span of one afternoon, however, I suppose I ought hear you out.”

He turned to the squire and bade him send word as quickly as possible to the War Council that he was facing a delay, although he would endeavor to make it as brief as he could possibly manage.

“What is all this about heresy and murder?” he asked when the three of them were finally alone.

“You are not aware?” Wiegraf replied.

“I am not.”

“Your brother, Ramza, stands accused of heresy following his role in the assassination of Cardinal Draclau and the theft of a holy relic from Lionel.”

Zalbag continued to breath deeply, deliberately—trying to remain stoic in the face of the increasingly surreal chain of circumstances. Wiegraf, who had evidently taken notice of his attempts to ignore him in favor of his nearly silent companion, drew close, resting his hands on the table next to him as he sat down himself.

“He was seen a few hours ago entering these offices to speak with you.”

A few hours. Zalbag closed his eyes a moment. Had fortune given him one more he might be eight or so leagues into the Grog hills where all he’d have to worry about was Orlandu running him through.

“Why is this the concern of the Temple Knights,” he asked after a while. “Shouldn’t Murond have sent an Examiner?”

Wiegraf smiled broadly. He looked as if he hadn’t done so for a long time.

“They did,” he replied. “He was quite nearly killed attempting to question Ramza, who was then reported to have fled with his accomplices—your sister among them.”

“My sister,” Zalbag repeated.

“Yes,” Wiegraf said softly. “Your sister.”

Silence followed, and the weight of so many unspoken things seemed to leave the air heavy as Wiegraf slid the documents affirming his claims onto the table. The man in green grew visibly uneasy as it became apparent precisely how little he understood of that persistent quiet, and he seemed relieved when Wiegraf finally waved him over.

“Why don’t you seek out the War Council yourself, Izlude? I think it mete that the Church have somebody to explain our position lest we encounter any interference.”

The boy—for he was near enough for Zalbag to see now he was a boy—left them. He scanned the stack of documents Wiegraf had handed him, the words sounding in his brain without leaving any real impression other than that they appeared to have been genuinely produced by the office of Examiners.

Looking back at the man who watched over him, he wondered but briefly at what circumstances should have so altered his position—heaven knew the extent to which his own fortunes had reversed themselves in one day. He wondered more at how little Wiegraf himself seemed to have changed. It was as though the man had dropped from the sky again, stepped fresh from the Mandalian hills of a year prior and into his office. His rugged, gaunt features still burned the same intensity, and though he could not imagine that the interim of time had treated him kindly, he still bore himself with the self-assurance of a committed zealot.

“I imagine you must see why the Church is interested in speaking to you,” Wiegraf, seemingly taking notice that Zalbag now looked at him rather than at the writs in front of him. “For all that Murond recognizes your prior devotion, the situation hardly looks favorable.”

“You want to know what I spoke of with my erstwhile brother then?” Zalbag asked, mentally replaying the family drama of that morning.

“Erstwhile?”

“We did not part on good terms.” He paused, chose his words carefully. They hadn’t even met on good terms: after all that happened, after all that was never addressed, the distance of time had left them strangers. “He is only partly my brother by blood, and he made it clear that he did not respect that tie.”

“So,” Wiegraf asked, “What was it you spoke of?”

Zalbag thought of the great many things they did not speak of—of Zeakden, of Ramza’s sudden flight from Igros, of his years of absence during which he roamed of countryside with some ignoble sellsword, of all the endless ways in which those who didn’t run from their duties had to confront where those duties led them. He had not been asked by Wiegraf to address the unspoken, however, and did his best to concisely recount their conversation—how Ramza had asked him to stop the war, how he had accused Dycedarg of arranging the princess’ abduction, and how he had been sent on his way with more charity than he deserved.

“Wait,” Wiegraf said with obvious incredulity as he finished his tale. “Are you saying you disowned him because he accused Lord Beoulve of orchestrating… a kidnapping?”

“Yes,” Zalbag replied, growing angry at his obvious disdain. “Some are above such tactics, and I count those of my house is among them.”

Wiegraf began to laugh, and Zalbag grew more and more unnerved as it became clear that it was not quite directed towards him. As he continued, it took on the bitter inflection of something almost like a sob.

“Do you have any more questions?” Zalbag asked impatiently.

“Plenty, general. Plenty, I assure you,” Wiegraf said, trying to compose himself, “But… you are seriously telling me that back then… you didn’t know about Gustav?”

“Margueriff?” Zalbag asked in exasperation. “Know what about him? He was a war criminal. He kidnapped a Marquis. He was one of your soldiers.”

“And you didn’t know who gave the command he kidnap Elmdor?”

“I presume you did.”

Wiegraf looked as though he was about to laugh again for a moment; instead, he gazed blankly at Zalbag, as though he were trying to look past him—to somewhere beyond the palace walls and the world that enclosed them. “You really are that much of a fool,” he said in a monotone.

Zalbag waited for him to continue, and to his frustration he did not. Wiegraf breathed deep for a moment, as though he were about to launch into some tirade, but instead he focused his dark, morose eyes on him, silently staring at him with an expression somewhere between wonderment and accusation. Apparently this room was fated to host a great number of weighty silences today.

“Listen,” Zalbag finally said, exasperated. “Are we to discuss the alleged heresies of my siblings, or do you want to revisit a past that is supposed to be dead to the point I can no longer hang you for it? I have an army waiting on me.”

Wiegraf shook his head. “I have errands of my own to run,” he retorted dismissively. “I’m confident yours can wait as well as mine.” He took a breath, trying to regain the former thread of this increasingly strange interview. “Your brother—Ramza—you allege you knew nothing of his attacks upon the Church?”

“That is correct.”

“Have you ever suspected him of heresy in the past?”

“I hadn’t seen him in well over a year until today. I cannot speak to his present beliefs. He never struck me as particularly devout or particularly errant before.”

“And your sister?”

Zalbag hesitated, realizing anew the full weight of Alma suddenly being somewhere else embroiled in matters over which he had no control. In the midst of all that had happened—was happening—he hadn’t been able to move far beyond his initial shock as to her involvement. It was strange. He had only seen her that morning at breakfast. She had been picking at a quince tart. He remembered now that she had wished him a good day—a thing common enough that he had apparently not marked it, even after all the long months prior when they had endured together in hateful silence.

“I have every trust in the purity Alma’s devotion,” he answered. “She spent most of her childhood at Orbonne, and she has never given me any cause to doubt the sincerity of her faith. If Ramza has entangled her in his crimes, I trust her to be conscientious enough to abandon him before she falls victim to whatever poisonous ideology he espouses.” Some cruel impulse got the better of him, and he shot Wiegraf a deliberate and venomous look. “Would that all young women might be so wise.”

Wiegraf slammed his fist into the table, obviously incensed.

“How about you, general?” he asked sharply, raising his voice. “How do you evaluate your own faith?”

“Are you accusing me of heresy now?”

“Are you pretending to be above investigation?”

Zalbag had expected things would turn this way, but it didn’t make the accusation any less disquieting. “I believe any investigation conducted with a genuine aim towards finding the truth would find me to be free of any heterodoxy,” he said in as calm a tone he could summon, “let alone heresy.”

Wiegraf, very animated by his anger, moved behind the chair in which Zalbag sat, placing his hands on its back as he leaned uncomfortably close to him. There was a sickly tension to the feeling of the man’s breath against his skin, to the fleeting glance of a flyaway blond hair against the side of his face. He closed his eyes a moment as Wiegraf leaned to speak quietly in his ear.

“Is that the extent of it, Beoulve?" His voice dropped to an acerbic whisper “‘Free of heterodoxy?’ Is that the extent of your beliefs?”

“Which of my beliefs concern you, Templar?”

Wiegraf placed a hand on his shoulder, his fingers brushing the edge of the high necked tunic that covered his throat. “How about your understanding of death,” he said. “Why don’t we start there.”

Zalbag tensed, genuinely unnerved by both the question and the sudden and unasked for intimacy of its asker's touch. He stilled the impulse to turn and draw his sword.

“I believe in the separation of body from soul and in the promise that Ajora will lead the latter to Paradise when the former dies,” he said, paraphrasing a major article of the Credo.

“I asked for your understanding, General,” Wiegraf said icily, “not for your ability to recite the words of others.”

“Are you about to kill me, Wiegraf?” Zalbag asked. “Or is there some point to this?”

He could feel the tightening of Wiegraf’s grip along the edge of his neck, pressing the chain of the icon he wore beneath his tunic ever so slightly against his collarbone. He imagined for a moment that he would reach about to throttle him, that the period between Zeakden and now had just been one prolonged pause in a battle still being fought—that they were still caught, suspended in that empty space above the snow.

“Kill you? In the middle of the Lesalian Imperial Palace?” Wiegraf asked, evidently bemused. “Do you really think I’d survive that?”

“I don’t recall your survival being much of a priority the last time you tried to kill me.”

“I’d be a greater idiot than you if you were the Beoulve I died killing,” he said darkly. “Since we’ve broached the topic, however, let’s frame my question in terms of our last encounter. What did your faith do for you then?”

There were a great number of things that Zalbag wanted to do or say in response, and he chafed to realize that none of them would get him through this charade of an interview any faster. He was bound, by multiple laws, to answer questions asked by somebody acting under the powers of the inquisition, and every evasion on his part was another delay to getting him to where he was needed.

“I accepted that we’d die,” he said very quietly. “Faith, I suppose, made that acceptance easy.”

“Easy?”

He took a deep breath. “There is a restfulness that comes from assuming a divine providence. Men are free agents, true, but no man is free from dying, and that...”

He paused a moment to pick his words, conscious of how carefully they were being scrutinized. It was so strange to speak of these things, to give them shape and voice beyond his own private sense of them.

“That makes death, with everything it promises, almost mechanical.” He looked down, the hint of an unbidden and unseen smile lighting across his features. “I suppose I find comfort in such machinery.”

He could not see Wiegraf’s expression, but there was a long pause before he asked another question.

“Would you say you embrace death then?”

“I am well aware of the injunction against self slaughter, if that’s what you’re asking. An embrace would require impetus on my part, and I think when it comes to God’s devices, it’s clear who is meant to be mover and who moved.” He turned his head slightly, but did not look behind him. “I wasn’t the one leaping off a cliff.”

“You weren’t.”

“What about you, Wiegraf? Would you say you embrace death?”

Wiegraf removed his hand from Zalbag’s shoulder and placed it rigidly on the table. He leaned until he met his gaze.

“I move myself, if that’s what you’re asking,” he said firmly. “I imagine your superiors are pleased that you do not.”

Zalbag nodded. “I suppose revolutionaries have their own outlook on dying.”

“I’m not a revolutionary,” Wiegraf said, not disguising his bitterness. “But I am wont to understand that such men would prefer to die with the promise that their deaths have some meaning beyond their own peace.”

Zalbag didn’t say anything further. He looked at Wiegraf intently, making no remark as to the complete non-answers he’d provided to his question. He was not the one, after all, with the right of asking them. They were at such an angle that the sun from the window backlit his interrogator. The nimbus of his dirty blonde hair glowed gold—something like a painting of Bariaus he had once seen, where the halo was only implied by the scene.

“We’ve covered death well enough, General,” Wiegraf continued after a moment. “Why don’t we discuss sin?” He finally backed away from him some degree. “I, for one, am quite content to postpone my other orders for as long as I am permitted to do so, and we have a long afternoon in which to converse.” He stood, paced a bit, tried to smile. “Where do you think your sins lie, Beoulve?”

“Is this really necessary?” Zalbag replied coldly. It was evident that it was not and that whether he cooperated or dodged made little difference. Nevertheless, he continued. “What is the point of this farce other than to trouble me? You have barely asked about the actual heretic you’re pursuing despite the fact that I obviously bear him little good will. You haven’t asked where he might be—not that I know. You haven’t asked whether I knew anything about Lionel. You certainly haven’t asked me anything useful about my sister, save to needle me about her in a fashion that I must assume constitutes some dreadfully anemic revenge as regards your own.”

Wiegraf, obviously angry, wrenched his fist hard around the hilt of his sword for a moment, but he did nothing foolish. Instead he moved to turn the chair upon which Zalbag sat, until they were face to face and once again uncomfortably close.

“Perhaps your sins aren’t necessary for my investigation,” he continued. “I won’t know until I hear them. I am still permitted to ask, and you are still obligated to respond.”

“Temple knight, examiner, and confessor now,” Zalbag replied flippantly. “You wear a variety of guises today, Wiegraf.”

“You know, I think more men of your rank could do with confessors like me. You might benefit from speaking to someone eager to fully condemn you instead of tripping over himself to absolve you each Sabbath.”

“Fine, what do you wish to know?”

“Name me whichever sin it is that might disrupt your ‘comfort’ as you call it. If you’re so acclimated to being moved by heaven, humor me, and show the same obedience to her representative.”

Zalbag looked at him again, overcome with a silent and carefully contained loathing as he thought through all the lapses he so little wished this man to know. Were he a different person, he would lie. He would tell himself that Wiegraf was no legitimate Templar, that his request held no legitimate Church authority, and that whatever transgression there was in lying to a corrupted cleric might be easily be forgiven through the auspices of the genuine sacrament. He was certain that no man—present company excluded—would condemn him for that reasoning.

And yet, he was no person other than himself. He condemned such reasoning, and for all he knew Wiegraf should rightly be no Templar, the judgment of that was not his. How often had he been assured of his own absolution by men clearly concerned more with his name than with his soul? Did he stand outside of grace for their vanities? Was he to judge Wiegraf’s feigned devotion as more invalidating than their laxity? Requiring the infallibility of clergy was itself heresy, and he thought to those early schismatics in the days just after Yudora’s fall, whose obsessions with their brothers’ impurities led to their orders’ collapse. Were he an Examiner himself, he knew how he would rule.

And yet… he was no Examiner. He was—as all men were—a stumbling penitent, trying to stand for judgement. That it should be by this man, on this day, when his house and country were at such a pitch of calamity—that this man should judge him...

“I’m waiting...” Wiegraf began impatiently.

Thoughts pursued him unbidden: a litany of sins confessed but never extinguished. There was smoke rising from the vales outside Viura, the feel of his bloodied mouth contorting into unvoiced blasphemies, the sound of a crossbow bolt snapped into space never to be recalled—every crime he had counted and reckoned in its degree. More than that, though, was the creep of the immeasurable—the continuous, abrading sense of an unnaturalness that discomfited him too much to name in silence. Of all transgressions, it best fit what was demanded of him. He gazed into Wiegraf’s eyes, thinking of the expression that had been infinitely mirrored between them on that winter’s day when they both fell.

"Beoulve" Wiegraf continued, not flinching from his stare. “I asked you a—"

“Lust,” he said icily, cutting him off.

“Lust?”

It was the correct answer, but evidently not the one he had been anticipating. Wiegraf looked away a moment as if to compose his thoughts. “With all you and your House and your order do and have done, that is the sin you confess to?”

“It’s the one I’m least at peace with,” Zalbag replied honestly.

“I see.” It was clear he did not. “And who suffers for your lust?”

“Nobody.”

“Nobody?”

“Nobody save myself.”

Wiegraf looked ill at ease for someone not spending the afternoon being interrogated and menaced. Zalbag did his utmost to remain serene, however little he felt it. He had resigned himself to the delay and all the bloodshed that would come with it. The mortification he presently faced was of comparatively little consequence.

“I suppose this is how nobles view their sins,” Wiegraf said, regaining some of his stride and all of his scorn. “You scatter corpses like hayseed for years, rob men of their pay, hang those who object, and what truly rankles you is some unspoken perversity that sickens nothing but your own selfish sense of purity.” A thought suddenly occurred to him. “Does it even do that?” he continued. “You sound like another self-abasing courtier keen to humiliate himself over some woman he’s never addressed outside of a couplet. Perhaps this sin is all some grand romance to you? So, who is she who never suffers?”

“Wiegraf,” Zalbag replied in as emotionless a tone as he could muster. “There is no woman whom my sins touch upon.”

Wiegraf finally backed away some small space as he presumably understood. The dust motes caught in the sunlight between them seemed to hang still in the air, and Zalbag wondered at how differently it did feel to admit such things—even veiled as they were—to somebody eager to condemn him.

“and who—?”

“There is no who. There never has been. A layman’s call to celibacy, I suppose.”

Wiegraf hesitated again, his handsome features registering surprise more than disgust. Zalbag felt rather certain this wasn’t the conversation he had prepared for. He waited, humiliated, for something by the way of actual acknowledgment or condemnation. It did not come.

“Do you have any other questions for me, Templar?” Zalbag asked firmly after a span, breaking the silence before it could take further root.

Wiegraf clearly did not, but that did not prevent him from finding more to ask. They discussed the case of his brother and sister at some length, although it soon became clear that there was nothing significant he knew and that Wiegraf would move nowhere with any new line of inquiry. Circling round the same half dozen questions at length, neither brought up anything smacking of theology again. When the door finally swung open, the interruption seemed a relief to both of them.

“Templar Folles.” A purple-hooded member of Wiegraf’s order addressed him. “My son tells me that you’ve been speaking to the general at some length. I was coming to let you know that Lord Beoulve has recently arrived in the capital and seems better positioned to address some of our inquiries than his brother.”

“Am I free to be on my way then?” Zalbag asked in a manner he hoped didn’t betray the full extent of his disquiet.

The man in purple did not answer, but instead unhooded and turned to look at him. He was some years older than Wiegraf, having already begun to grey, and he carried himself with a sense of overconfident authority that he imagined Dycedarg would have more than one thing to say about later.

“General Beoulve,” he said, finally addressing him. “An honor. I am Vormav Tengille.”

“The head of the Temple Knights?”

“The same.”

Zalbag stood.

“Then I suppose you would know,” he continued firmly, “when precisely I might leave for Dogoula.”

Vormav smiled. “I’m sure I will have an answer for you in the morning, General,” he said in a tone that spoke to his complete disregard for whatever might be occurring on the northern front. “I’ll let you know as soon as I am able.”

Wiegraf turned to Zalbag as he stood up to leave, but said nothing. He joined Vormav, who made a goodbye for both of them, informing him that the Church thanked him for his cooperation.

Finally alone, he did not sit down. Now that he was caught in an instant where he could contemplate everything that had occurred and every way in which he had mismanaged it, the thought of moving even a hairsbreadth seemed momentarily beyond him.

He only let his despair hold him a few moments. As he walked into the long stone hall that overlooked the palace courtyard, he began to rehearse any number of things to say to the War Council by way of explanation. He tried not to think of Wiegraf, although for a moment he bitterly reflected that he owed him some scant thanks, having given him ample work with which to distract himself.


Author's Notes: I should probably note I'm going with the original PSX translation, which indicates that Gustav was the one committing abuses amidst the Hokuten, instead of the PSP translatin, which indicates that Gustav left the Hokuten on account of their abuses. It's a minor point, as Gustav is a minor character, but I should probably explain this if anyone was really invested in whether or not Zalbag is right in mentioning him as a war criminal.

Also, I totally dropped a reference to the Donatist heresy and the Circumcellons here, knowing full well that those things don't exist in Ivalice. This is the trial of trying to worldbuild for a religion that is very obviously just medieval Christianity with some palette swaps. :P

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