C O I N S
Written on December 8, 2019 (♐)
Author's Notes: This fic was generated via a three card tarot spread containing the inverted Six of Rods (victory but not quite the victory you anticipated), the Page of Pentacles (a materially focused, practical youth), and the inverted Ten of Pentacles (prosperity not working out so hot; an upset, bankruptcy, or financial collapse). It is a weird, worldbuildy take on some Fifty Years War events that are relayed inconsistently in character bios across translations (Gustav's participation in war crimes apparently changes a lot depending on the platform you play FFT on). It also stars Rad, the generic unit that accompanies Ramza and Gafgarion at the opening of Chapter 2.
“This victory isn’t a victory.” Gafgarion said, spitting on the ground of the gutted barn in which they were meeting. “All of them poor as church mice, and only half a score wore Viurian gold. If you’re going to commit a massacre…”
The gaunt-faced man to whom he was speaking stood up suddenly from where he leaned against a wall, putting away the thin dagger with which he had been cleaning the dirt from his fingernails. Rad tried not to look at him.
“Massacre?” he asked very calmly. “Is that how you’re going to report this?”
Gafgarion snorted, obviously offended by the implication. “Gads! What sort of mooncalf do you think I am , Gustav!?”
“One who talks about massacres in front of his squire for one,” came the laconic reply. “This was a necessary sweep, right? If we were forced to act as we did and didn’t find more than a few deserters and a starved cow or two, that makes it a strategic error with some sad civilian casualties. ‘Massacre’ though?”
Rad, even when he had heard himself be referred to, had not looked up. He kept polishing the armor he’d been asked to polish, not speaking and trying harder and harder not to listen. He turned his thoughts elsewhere, to the warm scent of smoke and the dusty light of the obscured sun that hit him through the wreck of the roof, tracing accidental stick figures as it illuminated the scratch marks on Gafgarion’s hauberk. It wasn’t his job to listen.
“My apologies, Gustav,” Gafgarion said with obvious condescension. “You can certainly explain it to your command that way if you like. I’m sure that the Hokuten will be much more amenable to being known as incompetents than as monsters.”
“They will you know,” Gustav retorted.
Gafgarion sighed, and Rad realized, much to his satisfaction, that the thread of the conversation involving him had been dropped. He undid a hasp and greased the leather of a strap. If it were his business having thoughts, he would have thought it a lot better a deal to have him do this somewhere back by the Touten camp.
“Good for the Hokuten. I’m glad General Beoulve can afford to make such fine distinctions. Back to my original point, though, we only endeavored to join in this mess because you indicated this strip of villages might offer something a little more substantial than our choice of wrecked reputation.”
“My informants said somebody had a horde up round here—old gold that they were trading for the supplies that can’t come out Zarghidas anymore. Maybe we just haven’t found it yet?”
“My dear boy,” Gafgarion said, walking forward and clapping a hand on the shoulder of a man who couldn’t be less than thirty. “The time to find it was last week. This week, the only thing about to be found is us, as we’re still atop this dreadful patch of Ordallian soil where a village rightly ought be.”
There was a brief silence between them that Rad was glad for until it was broken by the tremulous sound of a high-pitched wail in the distance.
“Looks like one of them cows is loose,” Gustav said coldly.
He left before Gafgarion could remark on it. Rad said nothing. He merely tilted his head and gestured to indicate that the armor was ready.
Back at the Touten camp, everyone seemed ill at ease. They weren’t yet starving, but the sense of hopefulness that preceded the raid had long since dissipated, and everyone was gnawing their hardtack slowly now that they’d run through the scant unburnt vittles they’d carried away from it. There was a general sentiment that the Hokuten had been holding out on them.
Rad, however, was not ill content with his half puck of something that seemed the ghost of a bread loaf. Rad was never ill content with anything. He supposed he might have been, in the past, back before he’d been a page and back before he’d been a hanger on. He’d learned, however, that being ill content didn’t suit well when one was a presumed orphan tossed about in a war. Being much of anything didn’t suit, which is why he had worked very hard to make himself a perfect nobody. Preferences, pasts, and personality were all things that would weigh down a boy of his size, and he had done his utmost to discard them that he might better be packed up and carried along.
When Gafgarion came back, buoyant and swaggeringly drunk, Rad looked to him attentively, waiting for an order. None came. Instead his master marched before the fire, obviously readying himself for some manner of oration as the crush of soldiers around him began to quiet.
“Gentlemen—gentleman!” he began with theatrical bombast. “I am here to convey to you all that we are now the proud maintainers of a one front war!”
A murmur, and not a particularly enthused one, went up from the crowd. There had been rumors that Romanda would formally withdraw soon, but Romanda was—if Rad understood it correctly—very far to the west and across the sea. They were out east killing Ordallians, which was a different matter.
“As such, there are a number of things we must attend to going forward. The first and most immediate, is that we need all to scrape together what blessed little spirits we have left and drink to Ivalice and her king: a task I have already set in motion. The second is that we must prepare to be joined with reinforcements. The bulk of the Northern Sky outside of Captain Margueriff’s company will shortly be on the road to meet us.”
Everyone grew more animated at the mention of mandatory drinking to be done and then less so at the mention of the Hokuten. Rad sucked on his biscuit, unsure what to make of this but hopeful that they’d give him a tumbler of applesack or something on account of the occasion. He was very small, with estimates as to his age generally spanning a range between eight to twelve years, and one glass would keep him warm through the night.
“The third…” Gafgarion’s voice suddenly dropped to a deathly serious register. “Is that there’s a diplomat riding a few days behind the crown’s messengers, and he’s like to want to sue for peace now that we can mass on the Eastern front.” He took a swig of something from out of wineskin.
“Needless to say, there will probably be a great deal of discontent in both Lesalia and Viura if he arrives and reports that both countries have been working off maps that incorrectly place settlements here.”
This time, there was no murmur. In fact, aside from the crackle of the fire and the low warble of some night bird, Rad thought the camp seemed perfectly quiet.
Gafgarion took another drink.
“We shall have to be very careful in helping him to understand our situation.”
As the men fell back to whispering, Rad caught himself wondering what it was that Gafgarion meant by that, and then recalled to himself that his work was not to deal with diplomats and certainly not to wonder at them. Eventually somebody handed him a glass of sour beer, and he raised it with a clink to the soldier nearest him, who tousled his hair with an affectionate amusement that the division’s youngest member should take his drinking so seriously.
As it was not Rad’s business to deal with diplomats, he did not stand about gawking at the one who came within a few days, riding atop a bright-feathered bird whose color stood in contrast to his black robes. Instead, he did as he had been directed and roamed about the woods, gathering firewood and foraging for mushrooms and leeks—something to add flavor to the bland broth they’d been cooking from the bones of the village’s last pig.
It was happenstance—and an unwelcome happenstance at that—which led him to circle back to camp, arms full of kindling, when matters of diplomacy were actually being addressed. As he stopped by his tent, he heard a raised voice that he did not recognize.
“You realize that my father is two days behind me. Two days, goddamn you!”
“And that’s two days we have to smooth over any misunderstandings, friend, isn’t it?” came Gafgarion’s reply. “Word goes round as far as Zarghidas that you’ve been a very shrewd man when it comes to misunderstandings—and what old man wouldn’t trust to a loyal son’s judgement.”
“Somebody needs to be hanged for this to be smoothed over—possibly drawn and quartered too with all the mess you’ve made.”
“Well pick a somebody, then.”
Rad heard enough to know that he should return to the forest, even without asking Gafgarion if there was a large enough heap of wood, weeds, and boletes to be done with it. This was a conversation that it was best nobody overhear, and the fault remained with him that he was a nobody with ears.
He drifted then, away from camp in a direction he imagined wouldn’t take him too near the Hokuten. It was a long hour spent meandering aimlessly through that sea of green. Rad looked about for anything useful to take back but looked more pointedly towards not having occasion to turn round earlier than necessary. Perhaps it was this lack of real purpose that led him to lose his bearings. Perhaps it was some entirely unconscious urge—for once in his life—to be somewhere of significance. Whatever the case, it was entirely without intention that he found himself emerging once again on the ash-stained ground of the village at the center of everyone’s concerns.
His initial impulse was to flee, to race back into the forest and to slink back towards camp come nightfall, when everyone would presumably be attending to business less crucial than whatever was going on now. He didn’t like to be there. He didn’t like to think as to why there were no buildings and no people and none of the other elements of human society. He certainly didn’t like to think upon that noise from the other day that was most certainly not a cow. If it was up to him as he emerged upon that waste, he wouldn’t be anywhere. He’d be back under a Touten tent or out under the sun or nowhere at all, vanishing so thoroughly that nobody might ever mark on him again.
His resolve changed, however, when he looked to the gutted ribs of a burnt house and saw a winking glint catch the light of the afternoon sun. Drawing close, he found within a tiny patch of char the faint nimbus of a coin, and picking it up, he saw the jagged outline of the Ordallian sun triumphant. Somewhere else, that would be a weeks’ worth of meals, several hot mugs of wine, and a new doublet besides. He knew that this was better the boletes at any rate. Beetles scattered under his clawing fingertips as he pawed at the ground, hoping to find others. He wrenched through fragments of black wood and cracked glass, and found at last the shimmering ridge of another disc. Fumbling about for a stick, he tried to poke it free, and as the dark earth crumbled away, a tiny white pebble dislodged from alongside it.
Rad picked it up, thinking to move it away, and spinning it between his fingers, he realized that it was a tooth.
He dropped it, and though he was still as stone, his heart beat overwhelmingly loud and fast as he thought on what a very small tooth it was. He dropped his stick as well upon hearing a barking shout from beyond the trees.
“What in the name of the Saint and all his twelve servants are you doing, boy!”
Rad stood up, trembling, and turned slowly to see Gafgarion, the diplomat, and Gustav standing on the border of the forest, seemingly paused en route to the Hokuten camp. Gustav looked pale as a midwinter turnip. The diplomat looked grim as a church statue. Gafgarion looked angry enough to defy comparisons.
Shaking, Rad held the coin out towards them, hiding behind it as though it were a shield or talisman.
“Ajora be praised!” Gafgarion clapped his hands, suddenly alight with smiles. He ran over and grabbed the coin from Rad’s hand, holding it up to the sun. Over at the border of the woods, Rad could see Gustav tumbled over laughing. He realized for the first time that his hands had been bound.
He gestured towards the still unearthed coin, and Gafgarion clapped him on the back, laughing.
“I knew I’d kept you on to a good end!” He gestured wildly at Gustav, whose guffaws had taken on a panicked tone that seemed to verge of tears. “Cut that bastard loose! There was rhyme and reason to this after all!”
The diplomat did no such thing regarding the man collapsed on the ground next to him. Instead, he looked darkly at the graying knight who was already on his knees digging into the burnt belly of the earth. “My apologies, Gafgarion, but my house doesn’t stay the hand of justice for a single coin. I fear you’ve confused the price of our honor for that of your own.”
“There’s more than one coin, you goat! If your lordship doesn’t want to help me dredge the rest up, have the decency to free up some extra hands.”
The man, obviously unhappy with the tenor the conversation was taking, grabbed Gustav by the wrists and pulled him upwards until he was standing again. He walked him forward until they came to where Gafgarion knelt in the dirt, a small glittering pile accumulating next to him.
“Doesn’t your squire have hands?” he asked bluntly, gesturing suddenly towards Rad.
“Eh!” Gafgarion started, as if crucial elements the past few seconds had slipped his mind and he was recognizing anew that he had a squire, that he was present, and that it was possible to order him to do menial labor.
“Rod! Get to it, boy!”
Rad nodded, ignored the incorrect appellation with which he’d been saddled, and went to digging at the cache in Gafgarion’s stead. He soon discovered the boxy outlines of a half-collapsed coffer that appeared to be the source from which the coins had leaked.
“See!” Gustav said, manically gasping for air. “Necessary sweep, I said! Bastards were funneling this through to royalists in Zelmonia! Fought us tooth and nail! Set the place ablaze themselves!”
Gafgarion, who closely monitored Rad’s work, nodded approvingly. “That seems like the gist of it, right, your grace?”
“Your Grace? You’ve promoted me to a Duke from a goat in half a minute, Gafgarion. I can see why you’d mistake me for a bloody jongleur here to tell your damn stories.”
“If you’re content to tell the plain truth about the state of the Hokuten out east, I commend your commitment to honesty,” Gafgarion said with feigned deference. “I’m sure your house will reap all the glories of such a virtuous son.”
There was silence for a moment. Rad tried to focus entirely on the process of sifting one coin after another from the dust.
“Something will still have to be done about him.”
“Why don’t you give me a godforsaken medal and send me home, then!?” Gustav shouted, obviously hysterical. “I’ve just about staved off a mutiny, considering how long you bastards left us out here to starve! This isn’t Gallione, where we could’ve just weathered a few sieges, thrown your brother a damn parade and have—”
Rad did not look up as he heard the sound of a blow being struck.
Gafgarion rather naturally took charge of the gold once it was decided that Rad has excavated as much of it as would come up. He was thereafter sent packing in the direction of camp, being told that he could inform the lieutenant he was entitled to a whole of a biscuit that evening instead of a half.
As twilight fell on the woods and the green glow of foxfire peered out from under the logs and brush, Rad tried to turn his thoughts to pleasant things—at least more pleasant than anything he had just witnessed. He thought to himself that the gold would bring in new supplies, that they’d up his rations and they might even have meat on the regular again. He even went so far as to imagine that they might even get their hands on some preserves as they’d had the winter before last. He thought long and hard on that, focusing on what he’d do if presented with an actual loaf of bread and a generous dollop of mashed, sugar-swollen currants—how he’d break off the tiniest piece he could and chew it as long as he might and keep on slow as he was able.
It was under the influence of such contemplations that he found himself suddenly confronted with a pair of dark eyes staring at him from behind the crook of a tree. He froze, watching as another body froze alongside him. Even in the dull light of the new risen moon, he could tell it was a woman.
She whispered something very quietly in a language that made no sense, and as she ran over to catch him forcibly in her arms, he realized she must be Ordallian. Rad thought, given that Ordallians were the enemy, that she was about to snap his neck as she clapped her pale hand over his mouth. He did his best to struggle a few moments until she pulled him down with her into the shadow of the tree, hissed something or another at him by way of command, and did her utmost to keep him still.
Rad went still, his head pressed fast against her chest as he listened to the sound of her ragged breaths and racing heart. He thought to himself that he had not seen any woman out of armor for a very long time and that he certainly had no recollection of ever being held by one—which made him all the more aware of how suddenly close and how incredibly warm she was. It must be supposed, of course, that some woman held him before—that children don’t generate themselves like fleas from dust and that he must have had some mother to whelp and rear him—but to Rad’s carefully trimmed and cordoned memories, this might as well be the first time anybody had placed their arms around him.
They sat like that, silent and unmoving, for what seemed a very long time, and Rad wondered if the two of them might fall asleep together. It was, he knew, a very foolish thing to wonder and certainly a foolish thing to wish. Still, as the night wore on, he savored the closeness of another being—frightened and strange as she might be—lingering on the sensation like the fruit he’d earlier imagined turning over on his tongue.
It was well after midnight when he heard the tramp of boots on the leaves and branches nearby, and he felt the woman’s heart once more grow quick as a wink of light shone from somewhere off in the distance. He was so well-practiced at trying to be unseen, that it seemed wholly instinctual to cringe and bend along with her as she curled them together into as small and unassuming a lump as she could.
“You’ve got a real penchant for turning victories into defeats, Gustav.”
It was Gafgarion. He was not in high spirits.
“No survivors, ” he continued. “You’d assured him there were no bloody survivors. That was the one damned thing he needed to make sure his bloody father and all of bloody Ordallia didn’t put together the particulars of this thoroughly stupid atrocity on our hands. Why can’t you have the blasted decency to commit a massacre correctly!?”
“She won’t survive,” Gustav replied with unconvincing sangfroid. “There’s no way she’ll make it out of the thick of us alive. Even if she breaks through, there’s seven leagues of God-knows-what between here and anywhere worth running to.”
“Pardon me if I’m not inclined to stake my very hard-earned money on that claim.”
“It’s just one bitch we have to bring to heel, Gaff...”
“And there’s a whole wild and heathen countryside we’ve traipsed about looking for her,” Gafgarion replied, “Gads, if he’d done proper and fixed your head to a pike, maybe your damned men would have learned a bit of discretion.”
They passed close by, and as the woman holding him tensed, Rad knew that if he thrashed about, if he tried to yell, if he did anything to make the slightest sound, they would catch them. They would catch her, and that would put to rest all of their concerns about whatever it was that scared them.
It wasn’t his job, however, to get anyone caught, and as they waited out the wretched span of heartbeats it took for the two men to move on, Rad thought it a very fine thing to have somebody to be nobody alongside him, even if only for a night.
It was well into the early hours of the morning when she left him, bounding into the growing gray like a phantom. Rad at long last wandered back to camp, where he collapsed in the dirt, biscuitless and too bone tired to make up a bedroll. He was awakened an hour or so later by some aide or another who told him to fetch water for the diplomat's chocobo.
He stumbled, half caught in dreams during the long walk to the local spring. He dropped back into the waking world only when he’d finally returned and the beast had made a lunge for his fingers, evidently expecting sugar or gyshals or whatever it was that nobles fed their birds. Startled, he took a step backwards, nearly dropping the bucket he carried.
“Watch out, she has a temper.”
He turned to find that the diplomat was standing beside him. Placing the bucket on the ground, Rad stepped off further, watching as the man reached out to pet the drinking animal's crest with a gloved hand.
“You have a good eye, Rod,” he said quietly. “You did us all quiet a service spotting that cache yesterday.”
“T-thank you, sir,” Rad stammered, wondering if he ought just resign himself to a new name and have done with it.
“I hope your employer values your skills appropriately.”
Rad nodded vigorously in the hopes of assuring him that he found his polite lie agreeable. He was very desirous, however, to slink away as soon as he could do so without offence, being loathe to talk to anybody and being especially flustered at having been cornered in conversation by a man of such seeming import.
“I’ve noticed that you have another useful skill,” he continued, kneeling down until he met Rad at eye level. “You seem very good at keeping silent.”
Rad nodded even more enthusiastically.
Smiling, the man reached into his purse and pulled out a large gold coin, which he twirled between his finger and thumb before holding it out for him. Rad grabbed the proffered article greedily and held it tightly within his rough, lined palm.
“I’d like it very much if you could remain as silent as you are able. For your sake, for mine, for your employer’s, and for the sake of just about everyone else here, it would be good not to say anything about what happened yesterday. Not about the gold. Not anything you might have heard or seen. Nothing. Can you do that?”
Rad kept nodding, placing a finger over his lips to indicate he understood.
“Good,” he held a hand to his chin, stroking his beard contemplatively a moment. “Would that all boys your age were so helpful.”
He stood up and made a gesture as if waving him off to go, and Rad dashed back to the commander’s tent, tying the coin into a knot in his tunic as he ran. Gafgarion was not there when he arrived, and Rad spent a long afternoon dozing, daydreaming, and generally doing nothing of any use at all.
It took the better part of the day for Gafgarion to finally return, arriving back at camp just as the diplomat seemed to be taking his leave. Rad said nothing to him about the coin or the conversation surrounding it.
A few days later, when another man of seemingly greater import than the last came riding through camp, he continued to say nothing. He said nothing when it was asked widely if all the Touten would attest that the villagers had set their own buildings ablaze. Later, over the next week, he said nothing when slabs of thick salt bacon and casks of wine appeared in the midst of their company. He said nothing when word came down that they were not to march to meet with the Nanten as previously planned. He said nothing when it was whispered that Captain Margueriff had been transferred. He said nothing when the cant went that the whole damned war might be over before the month’s end.
Lastly, although it had never been asked of him, he said nothing as regarded the woman in the forest.
It was several weeks--well after the month’s end--that the diplomat came riding back to the outermost line of Ivalician troops to meet again with the Eastern Sky. Rad, upon hearing of his arrival that night, did his utmost to still his hopes that all his dutiful silence might earn him another coin. It was not, after all, his job to hope.
It became evident upon the man's approach that this was the correct course of action. He was clearly in ill humor, and Rad was none too happy when he chose him among all the Touten in the camp to flag down.
“Where is your festering plague sore of a master?” he asked, clearly fuming. “We must have words.”
Rad, offering no commentary as to the title with which his employer had been saddled, led the man to where Gafgarion sat by the fire. He was in the midst of one of the double rations of wine he had awarded himself for his administrative prowess.
“Dycedarg, my boy!” he said with a sanguine over-familiarity. “Are we at peace yet?”
“We are not at peace, you brainless toad! We are still very much at war and I hope you’re ready for another forty god-forsaken years of it!”
Gafgarion shrugged. “Ah well… I suppose that’s the way of things.”
“There’s some weepy slattern being paraded about the capital singing a mournful tune as regards the inhuman horrors perpetrated by Ivalician soldiers!” he said through clenched teeth. “Needless to say, I had a very chilly reception in Viura.”
Gafgarion sat up rather suddenly in a way that communicated that he was suddenly attentive even if he wasn’t sober. He pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled deeply.
“Rod!” He gave a sudden shout that pierced the boy through like a spear shaft.
“Fetch the gentleman a flagon from the untapped cask--the old one out of Bervenia.” He paused. “Confound it, fetch one for me too! We’ll be in my tent having a painful conversation that would be better endured with wine.”
Rad did as he was told, his heart about ready to sink into the ground with his footfalls as he carried the mugs of dark liquid as carefully as he was able. The coin, still tied in its knot, beat in gentle thuds against his thigh.
Arriving where he ought, he stopped outside a moment. He tried to keep his hand from shaking as he heard Gafgarion speak in a low voice that carried with it none of the open joviality typical of him when he was in his cups.
“The plain tragedy is, you know, we lost our chance at putting this all on Gustav’s neck once we foisted him off on Commander Folles.” He sighed. “Let’s pray the Dead Men live up to their name and he has the decency to die in a trench somewhere.”
“The plain tragedy is that I trusted either of you incompetents to begin with! Your miserable little pile of coins is poised to bankrupt the state if this fighting keeps on!”
“My my...” Gafgarion said in an obvious dark humor. “I suppose I ought take heart in knowing it will appreciate in value, then...”
Rad took a deep breath and stepped through the flap of the tent, wine in hand.
“Rod, Rod, Rod,” Gafgarion said with a sudden smile, clicking his tongue “You’ve delivered us from despair just in time!”
The man, who was apparently named Dycedarg--or given Gafgarion's knack for names, at least something approximating it--glowered as Rad handed him a cup. His anger, however, didn’t seem to be directed anywhere save for Gafgarion.
“Please, speak for yourself.” He drank slowly. “I’m used to better stuff to drown my sorrows, and I’ve a great number of people left to explain this mess to.”
“Lay it at our feet if you like. Your father doesn’t command me, and as you observed some time ago, a Gafgarion doesn’t price their honor quite so highly as a Beoulve.” He took his own glass from Rad. “As for Gustav, I think we’re both in agreement on him.”
“You owe me a considerable favor for all this, you know. Him too if he doesn’t find his way to the gibbet.”
Gafgarion nodded sympathetically.
“You have been very understanding, my lord.”
Rad decided to not wait any further for a cue to leave, and shuffled off into the night air, hoping to abscond with another slice of bacon before he turned in. After ascertaining that the cook was in an illiberal mood, he paced off into grass some distance, gazing up at the unclouded sky.
He felt a little melancholy thinking that the war wouldn’t end after all, although having never known something other than war, it was no great burden. Sighing, he flung his thin frame into the ground, and saw the nine bright stars of the Virgin twinkling above his head. He thought, as he must have thought when somebody had evidently bothered to name the stars for him, that the figure one drew from them looked nothing like a woman--virgin or no.
Some whim grabbed him, and he untied his treasure from the dirty cloth in which it had lain buried this past month. Taking the coin between his two fingers, he held it aloft, the sun embossed upon it facing him, and smiled as he put a head to the maiden which hovered overhead.
For the rare sort of person who cares, the incorrect name "Rod" is, in fact, used exactly six times, and Virgo is Gafgarion's sign.BACK