E C H O E S
Written on January 4, 2021 (♑)
Content Warning: There's some pretty canon-typical violence with some meditations on how much it hurts; there's also some pretty canon-typical Dycedarg and Zalbag being terrible and trying to justify it.
Author's Notes: Written for SomebodyGetsIt.
“I killed that girl, you know.”
He knew it was a melodramatic thing to say, particularly given the time and distance between that event and those of the present. Zalbag did not turn to see Dycedarg’s reaction, and he was not shocked when no response was given. He kept his gaze upon the white-frosted city beneath the palace instead, watching how it caught the colors of the fading sunlight.
It was December, and they were still in Lesalia: still waiting for a decent thaw, still waiting for word from their spies, still waiting for the church to send more word on the fate of their siblings. The hellish winter had slowed the campaign to a near halt, and Zalbag was a cool-headed enough strategist to have remained firm when the Duke asked if his troops were really going to hold back on account of a little snow. With Zeltennia showing no signs of an advance, they had resigned themselves to a long season in the capital.
He supposed that under such circumstances, one came to pass the time with little melodramas.
“Do you think—?”
“I think that you are being very foolish,” Dycedarg finally replied. “I think you’re picking at old wounds because Alma’s gone.”
Zalbag looked behind him. Dycedarg seemed more saturnine than usual in the dimming sun and glowing firelight. The winter season and its holidays had proven little occasion for cheer. Gallione had not fared well in the wake of the blighted harvest; the refugees come to the capital were increasingly a cause for resentment. Even rich men had poor means to celebrate—there was no more wine to be had out of Zelmonia and no more baubles from the east beyond it.
And in their case, they remained half a family.
“Do you think we should not be wounded?” Zalbag asked.
“Did you fire the arrow?” Dycedarg sighed.
“Do we blame a bow instead of the man that aims it?”
“Do you feel this melancholy over all the forty-thousand who died last spring,” Dycedarg continued brusquely, “or did they need all be your sister’s friends to register?”
Zalbag had no reply. He moved instead to sit at the long table where Dycedarg was engaged with a glass of something he no doubt regarded as inferior. He did not look at his brother, but traced the edges of the dark inlay that fanned across the tabletop: triangles and curls of dark wood arranged into an image of the double lion.
He remembered with sudden clarity Gulofavia and the forty-thousand dead. He remembered how he hadn’t been on the field. He’d only understood how badly it went in the aftermath, when the fever had let up and it had been explained to him in great detail how the day had gone with somebody else managing things: some luminary from the Lionsguard better used to escorting queens than he. It had been foolishness—he saw now—to send him off on a mission self-evidently better suited to somebody else, but who was he to deny the request? Rue had demanded it of him in particular.
The Southern Sky had still been a day off when they’d left the capital: one with Orinus and the other with Ruvelia. It seemed the sort of thing that might draw a chess metaphor from a man with a better head for it. He understood, however—regardless of how little aptitude he had for the game—that it was a very bad move to lose a queen.
“Dycedarg,” he began again, “have you ever considered the brother?”
“Should I be moping about him as well? It was a very regrettable incident, Zalbag. I mourned them as much as anyone, but as you’re well aware, not everyone can be saved.”
“It wasn’t confirmed, you know. We couldn’t find a body.”
“What bodies could you find?” Dycedarg answered in increasingly irritated tones. “Saint’s breath, but the fire was seen from Riovanes. Should we be on the lookout for the little squire from Limberry, then? For the kidnapper himself arisen phoenix-like from the ashes?”
“Ramza survived whatever happened, didn’t he?”
“What if the boy ran too? People survive impossibilities all the time.”
They’d run. Perhaps he wasn’t used to it? In his brief span of years, he always seemed in want of ways to retreat; he always seemed to find the world pressing him forward. Zalbag recalled to himself all that wretched ride toward the Araguay, Rue cloaked and clutching at his waist, the rain soaking through to his bird’s down. He should have cut west sooner. The Nanten were thorough, and it would have been better to have to mow through a pack of them while they were still fresh out of the capital.
He hadn’t known that, of course. Everything had happened too quickly to know. He’d been told that there had been complications with the princess’ arrival for months until he’d woken up one morning to a civil war. Even over a year later, it was all as clear as mud.
Doubtlessly his perceptions of those opening moves were colored by the injury. Perhaps that’s what was leading him to draw connections where there weren’t any, to see things that could not be possible: an arrow and an arrow and a girl and a girl. When it had hit him though—that sudden shock of blunt nothing that knocked him from the chocobo—he hadn’t taken it for an arrow?
With the queen having been a wife and a mother for some eight summers gone, she was surely no longer a girl.
Dycedarg’s eyes narrowed as it became clear that he knew there was more to Zalbag’s suspicions than passing hypotheticals. He didn’t prompt, however; he didn’t accuse. Zalbag wondered if it wouldn’t be better for them to drop the matter, if it wouldn’t be best for them to carry on with what little luxury the gutted capital could afford them and make merry until the sun showed its face again.
“Dycedarg,” he eventually began of his own volition. “What if I told you I thought I’d seen him?”
“You what? ”
“When the queen was taken, I thought at the time—”
Dycedarg stood up very suddenly, an uncharacteristic flicker of fear playing over his features. He nearly upset his wineglass with one of the heavy sleeves of his robe as he walked toward Zalbag.
“Tell me what happened.” His voice dropped to a harsh whisper. “Tell me what happened to the queen.”
“I can’t say for certain. I was injured.”
“You could say enough to start on this wild course, saints damn you!”
What could he tell him? He hadn’t actually seen him. He hadn’t been able to see anything at first except the gray April sky pouring itself onto him. It wasn’t the first time he’d been wounded—it wasn’t even a particularly terrible wound in the end, given all the ingenuity of alchemists and priests. He’d taken it to the shoulder. He’d forgotten, of course, what it was like to have yourself pierced through—to feel that sudden cold suck of the air into your flesh as though it would extinguish all warmth within you. Zalbag supposed men must always forget it, because how else should war be made if they remembered?
The voices were muddled, one bleeding into another as he struggled to get to his knees. This was the moment where he ought to be doing something heroic, as little as he’d loved having been made a hero. If you grew up into heroism just as your liege lord's laughing daughter grew up to be queen, it behooved one to do better than die in the mud while she was spirited away.
He’d managed to grab for his sword before he fell again. He heard a little shout—high-pitched as a woman might make.
“It will go better for you both if you come with us of your own volition. The Duke of Zeltennia has every intention of treating you fairly.”
Zalbag started when he heard the voice, but he wasn’t able to place why until later. As somebody barked a command, he’d only reckoned at the time that he should pray.”
“When they took her, the man who was giving orders... I’ve come back to it and back to it, Dycedarg. It sounded like that foundling boy.”
“You can say the name ‘Hyral’ you know?” Dycedarg said disdainfully. They stood very close now, and it was clear neither was in good temper. “I notice how you never do. It’s always ‘that boy’ and ‘that girl’ as if you’d summon up their damned ghosts—”
“It sounded like Delita Hyral, then.” Zalbag cut him off. “I couldn’t see anything. I still had to fumble my way to a potion, heave half of it up, and then coax my damned bird into dragging me north.”
“What, then, might I ask, made you think that it was Delita Hyral?” he eventually continued. “Was there any exchange between him and Ruvelia?”
There was a little pause on the queen’s given name, as though Dycedarg were about to call her by the pet name she’d used as a child. It struck Zalbag that he seemed to have gone very pale.
“A little bit,” Zalbag smirked. “I think there was some concern as to what was to become of me.”
The fire sputtered and popped, and Zalbag morbidly wondered if there were some soft, creeping insect hiding in the logs. He was filled with a sudden recognition as to how little noise there was in a palace bereft of all royalty.
Perhaps he had imagined it. Perhaps it had all been some passing fever dream come to him once he’d made it back to the valley and the war. Still, he recalled Ruvelia Atkascha speaking of him in that imperious tone she had always adopted when frightened—when she determined that whatever threatened her must be too far beneath her to matter.
“If I accompany you, what happens to the general?”
There was a long pause as the rain continued to beat down upon them all.
“Leave him to his own devices.” The voice was suddenly as cold as the gaping absence in his shoulder. “That’s the sort of mercy men like him trade in.”