L I V I N G   S T I L L

Written on August 21, 2019 (♌)

Author's Notes: This is very obviously about fairy stories and happy endings, and the title is derived from the formulaic stock phrase of folktales: "and if they haven't died, they're living still." Also, this is supposed to vaguely take place in some sort of Vagrant Story adjacent region.

Also, Delita is scum, but I sometimes like to imagine nice things happening to scum.

Delita was conscious that the people of the city viewed him and his entourage as a travelling menagerie of sorts, and he did not begrudge any of the men clustering from each bridge and balcony their gawking. Had some creature from the lands beyond Ordallia walked through Igros in his youth, he would have regarded them similarly. Besides, what shame could he take in being a barbarian oddity to these people when he was forever an oddity in his own court and castle: already writ in histories as the meager king.

He did not dwell on it. While time never eased his griefs, old age had largely taken his bitterness, and it was in that spirit that he had ridden East. He had no anticipation that whomever the Senate named as successor would give much care to whatever agreement he made with the Valendians--if there was to be talk of treaties and agreements at all. Invitation from lands so far flung from his own could have any number of eventualities, and he had reached a point where he was willing to embrace any of them. To die on this pilgrimage would, he told himself, have something of the poetry his life never attained.

As his gaze drifted hazily about the procession, tracing the metal supports of towers and the strange swooping spires on the skyline, he saw in the teaming faces one that immediately struck him--almost absurdly so--as having an Ivalician bent. He wondered a moment if all of his own retainers were accounted for. Upon looking back, however, the phantom in question had vanished, and he hadn't faith enough in having seen it to care to mark it to anyone. He remained strangely chilled by that fleeting instant throughout the rest of the day--amidst the splendor of the palace, in the presence of the monarch, caught in comedic negotiations with their baffled translator, Delita allowed himself to drift, trying fruitlessly to reconstruct that face that had caught his attention but failed to impress itself in memory.

He saw it again, as well as its owner, the next day: a lone figure walking at a distance as he passed the courtyard nearest where they'd quartered him and his men. The man, for it was a man, receded from his sight almost as soon as he glimpsed him, but Delita felt a strange conviction from his gait, from his posture, from the angles of light that caught his features, that this was a countryman. He regretted that he had no chance of running after him, not at his age and in his circumstances. In this strange land he would see but once, it seemed of such significance to see something familiar, and for all it should strike him as no great impossibility that someone from the seven kingdoms had drifted this far East, he wanted desperately to speak to whomever it was and hear tell of how it had happened.

That thought, that desire, took on different weight over the course of the long day. He realized in the midst of what he thought to be trade discussions that he could not follow the words of his own advisers, that there was something that was untethering him from proceedings to the extent he knew not his own course. That he should choose to fixate on this person--some shadow that had perhaps crossed his path twice--seemed such an absurdity, and as the day wore on he wondered if he had begun some final decay into the idiocy of old age, if there had ever been a man or if his mind was simply beginning to also populate his waking hours with ghosts.

He weathered the proceedings as admirably as he could--told them that he'd consider their position carefully and refused to commit. He slept but lightly that night, rising well before dawn from fitful dreams that he did not recall. When he dressed, when he left his room to wander the halls of a castle not his own, he found himself surprised that he met with no resistance, not fully contemplating in that moment that he was--after all--a king and that even if he hadn't been, the world was asleep to what he did or where he wandered. In that quickening twilight, he felt almost an exultation at thinking how far removed he was growing from the stage of history--that he was moving in that instant with nobody watching him.

Somebody approached him as the dawn of his third day there came upon them. He was old, as old as he was at least, and at every point his bearing and demeanor brought to mind memories of a man long dead: the grey and bearded Knight Gallant of his youth with all of his stumblingly earnest pretensions of fatherhood. They stopped, silent. The deep furrows of Delita's weathered face filled with tears as he tried to make meaning of this final visitation.

"Three days at the edge of the world, and I find you here?" he asked, wavering. "What sort of fairy story have I fallen into."

The man before him breathed deeply for a moment. “Perhaps one where peasant boys grow up to be kings?" he replied in a perfect Ivalican that gave credence to all of Delita's mad suspicions. He hid his emotions just as poorly as he had when they had been two youths wandering, hands locked, through Gallione's sunlit orchards.

"Perhaps one in which the thirdborn son bests the monster?" Delita laughed.

Ramza embraced him with an earnestness that took no heed of how little he deserved it, and trembled as he failed entirely to answer the question. They stood there together for a moment, and Delita thought very firmly that this must be some madness or phantasy that would melt once the full rays of the sun touched it. It struck him as a rank impossibility that he had entered a space and time in which he might hope after a happy ending.