Through Fire and Blood
A gasp escaped his lips when he saw them—leathern wings too numerous to count, beating rhythmically overhead. For a blessing, the dragons showed no interest in him, a lone shepherd boy tending a flock scarcely worthy of the name. No, their sights were set upon something more substantial, and they continued on their course towards... Oh no. Dread gripped him like a vice. He broke into a run, half bounding, half rolling down the hillside. Regaining the trail, he followed it east, where the dragons were headed—to the village.
After what seemed an eternity, the boy stumbled onto the muddy thoroughfare. All the way, he had told himself that the village might be spared, that the dragons had designs on some other place, but now the truth asserted itself. Devastation spread out before him. Piles of splintered wood and rubble lay where houses had stood, while haystacks, sodden from the recent rains, spewed forth plumes of white smoke. Though his chest was ripe to burst from his headlong dash, seeing the carnage imbued him with a desperate energy, and he broke into a run once more. Though the acrid fumes choked his lungs and stung his eyes, he did not slow his pace. Please, Halone! Please let them be safe!
The Fury did not hear him. Rounding a corner, his heart caught in his throat as the remains of his home swung into view. The roof had fallen in on itself, bringing one of the walls down with it. Passing the splintered fence, he found his parents. His father's arm lay across his mother as if shielding her from the wind, but the scorched earth told a different story. Though a deathly numbness had begun to overtake him, his legs continued moving of their own accord, taking him inside the cottage. There, he discovered his younger brother sprawled upon the floor, his body obscured by fallen masonry. His face was untouched by the violence, his expression serene. At a glance, it appeared as though he was simply asleep and would open his eyes at any moment. He would have given anything for it to be so.
All hope extinguished, the boy's strength finally deserted him, and he fell to his knees. With a trembling hand, he reached out to stroke his sibling's snow white hair, tears drawing pale lines upon his soot-blackened cheeks. But the sorrow soon gave way to rage. He cursed Nidhogg and his brood for taking from him all that he held dear. And he cursed fate for condemning him to live on.
"Wake up! You weren't among the fallen as I recall!" A commanding voice tore Estinien from his nightmare. He found himself propped against a rocky outcrop. Through blurry eyes, he made out a male silhouette. His head swimming, he mumbled the first name that came to mind, that of his adoptive father and mentor.
"Nay, friend, alas," the figure replied. "We would have fared better had he been with us. Here, drink this and clear your head."
Estinien gratefully accepted the proffered skin and gulped greedily, the water soothing his parched throat and restoring his senses. Pausing after a long draft, he stole a glance at the dark-haired man crouching next to him. His armor identified him as a fellow Temple Knight. By his reckoning, they were of an age, no more than a few years past twenty. Estinien had seen him before, but he had no name to put to the face. Since joining the order, he had always been something of a lone wolf, spurning contact with his comrades in favor of honing his skill at arms.
"My thanks, Ser..." Estinien began.
"Aymeric, and you are quite welcome," the dark-haired knight responded, a hint of amusement in his voice. Glancing over his shoulder, his tone became grim, "I fear we are the sole survivors."
Regaining his wits, Estinien scanned his surroundings and stifled a gasp. The scorched field was strewn with the bodies of a dozen knights, their armor blackened and their flesh fairly cooked. In an instant, it all came back.
He and his unit had been dispatched to Ever Lakes in response to a dragon sighting. As they traversed hilly terrain, a massive red beast had descended upon them. Half perished in its searing breath before they could even draw their weapons. Leading the counterattack, Estinien had succeeded in wounding and repelling the dragon, only to succumb to the smoke. Though the air had now cleared, the stench of burning grass still lingered. Fuel for that accursed dream. The remembrance, together with the scene of carnage, stoked the fire in him that ever smoldered—vengeance. Such pain as I have suffered, I shall visit upon them a thousand times over.
Estinien turned his attention to Aymeric once more. "I have a knack for surviving." Whether I will it or no.
He clambered to his feet. A wave of dizziness swept over him, and he nearly found himself back on the ground. Shaking it off, he picked up a lance to replace the one he had lost. Satisfied with its point, he turned to leave. After a moment of puzzled silence, Aymeric called after him, "The Holy See is the other way."
"You are free to head back," Estinien replied simply. "But I mean to finish what we've started."
"You mean to go after the beast alone!? That's tantamount to suicide! Besides, we have no way of tracking it!"
A knowing grin played upon Estinien's face. "Ah, but we do. Behold," he said, gesturing to a trail of blood. "From the blow I dealt to its underbelly." With that, he spun upon his heels and strode away before Aymeric could utter another word of protest.
For hours on end Estinien walked. The sanguine trail led him across hill and vale, forest and plain. At length it descended into a ravine, where it suddenly veered off and disappeared into a cave. Estinien took a deep breath and entered, his eyes gradually adjusting to the gloom. About a hundred paces in, the cave opened into a chamber. And there, at the far end, he found his quarry, its scaly form curled up tight. I shall show you a nightmare such as you showed me.
Estinien drew his lance, checking his grip once, and again for good measure. Then he charged. The flurry of footfalls roused the dragon, which reared in fury and bellowed a deafening challenge. In the next instant, a stream of swirling flame burst forth from its maw. Anticipating this, Estinien dove clear of the withering heat, rolled, and regained his feet within striking distance. Unerringly, he thrust at the dragon's wing, tearing through the leathery skin, and was rewarded with a pained howl.
"You'll not escape me again!" Estinien roared. But his foe had no intention of fleeing. No, it craved his blood more than ever, and came after him with a vengeance. So began a game of cat and mouse.
The dragon lashed out with fire, fang, and claw. Using the lay of the cavern to his advantage, Estinien succeeded in evading the worst of its wrath, striking back when the opportunity presented itself. And so the dance continued for a time, with neither side able to gain the upper hand. Eventually, however, the rigors of battle began to tell on Estinien, and his lance grew heavy in his hands. Must end this quickly...
As it turned out, the cavern itself would be the first to succumb. Shaken by countless wayward blows, a cluster of boulders came loose and rained down upon Estinien without warning. Though he managed to fling himself away in the nick of time, he found his footing scant yalms from his foe. Too close. The dragon's tail caught him full in the chest, sending him flying into the cavern wall. He crumpled to the ground, the breath knocked out of him, and lay there limply as his foe closed in to administer the killing blow. Lucky bastard. His vision already darkening at the edges, he clung to consciousness, and willed his body to move. But it would not obey.
An instant later, the dragon loomed over him, its molten eyes steeped in hatred, and time seemed to slow. He watched helplessly as the beast filled its lungs, and stared into its maw as fiery death welled up within and began creeping towards him. But just when it seemed certain that he would be engulfed, the creature's head lurched sideways, spilling fire everywhere and nowhere. Estinien did not pause to wonder why.
Summoning what remained of his strength, he leapt into the air. And at the height of his leap, he became as one with his lance and descended, tracing an arc worthy of the Azure Dragoon himself. With the full force of his weight, he came down upon his foe. The beast shuddered, collapsed to the ground, and was still.
Half in a daze, Estinien took in the sight of the first dragon he had ever slain. Only then did he notice the arrow protruding from one of its eyes. Moments later, a familiar figure emerged from the shadows to stand beside him, a longbow in hand. Estinien frowned.
"This is not the way to the Holy See."
"I know. But I thought the journey home would pass more swiftly in good company."
"You have my thanks, Ser...?"
A wry smile formed on his savior's lips. "Aymeric. And it shall be thanks enough if you remember my name. ...Though I shan't object to a tankard of ale back in Ishgard."
In spite of his exhaustion, Estinien could not help returning his grin.
The Dreamer and the Dream
Such a tiny thing, Ysayle thought as she cradled the crystal in her palm. Like the purest water turned to ice... She squeezed it with all her might and then slowly opened her hand. Turning her gaze to the heavens, she sighed and continued onward.
Across the cracked cobbles and up the ancient steps. When last I walked this path, I was not alone. Through the ancient arch and over fallen stone. The defender, the diplomat, the dragoon...and the dreamer. Past the spinning aetheryte and towards the winding ramp. How far we traveled...and all for naught.
"'Tis but a shade conjured by thine own fancy."
Zenith was where it had all come to an end─where her beloved had named her an impostor and a fool. Where her companions had turned their backs on peace.
How desperately we yearn for that which we have lost.
"Hear... Feel... Think..."
She had sought refuge from the snows in the Dravanian forelands, and while wandering those unfamiliar fields had been chanced upon by the great wyrm Hraesvelgr, descended from the heavens to hunt. Or was this too somehow Her design?
Through his memories she had glimpsed the truth behind a thousand-year lie. An eternal requiem sung for his murdered sister. What could I do but speak out? And so, after years of hushed half-heresies, of coded missives and midnight gatherings, she had gained a flock. "Redemption is not beyond us, my friends! Come and hear the truth! Come and hear the Lady Iceheart speak!"
"Spread the truth and cast down those who concealed it. I was so certain that would be enough..."
"Men have ever been fond of lies."
Ysayle felt Hraesvelgr's eyes upon her as his voice resounded in her mind, each word a dagger through her heart. She could not bear to look.
"I had to believe..."
She knew not what the Ul'dahn's intentions were. But we are come too far to turn back now. And so the bargain was struck, and the merchant furnished them with the supplies and the information they required. While the lord commander and his allies celebrated their victory, they would finish what Vishap had begun. And so we did.
Fire and blood. And screams...so many screams. Mine own join the chorus, calling for order, calling for justice...but there is none to be had. Men fight, men run, men die—without reason, without logic. I speak, but they do not listen. I see the girl, no more than ten, hiding amongst the rubble. The wyvern sees her too. I beg. I plead. I pray...
At last, she spoke. "I twisted your memories into a fantasy of mine own creation to further my selfish dreams."
"Is this why thou art come? To beg forgiveness?"
"No," she replied, raising her head to meet his gaze. "I am come to atone."
As I came before, with the ones I thought mine enemies. They who were truer allies than any in the hate-filled Horde...
"I would go to them—to the Warrior of Light and the others. I would aid their cause once more. But I know not whither they have gone..."
The great wyrm regarded her silently for a time. "The dragoon beareth my brood-brother's eye to Azys Lla...and its twin."
"So you can sense them," she said, with a hint of accusation. "I beseech you, then: deliver me to my comrades. Let me join in their fight!"
Hraesvelgr bared his teeth ever so slightly. Was that a smile? "Such power was never meant for man. Yet ever shall he covet it. Hast thou the strength to deny him his desire?"
She felt for the familiar angles in her pouch, drawing comfort from the crystal's coolness. Such a tiny thing. "I have," she said at length. "Lend me your wings, Hraesvelgr!"
Scarcely had she uttered the words when she found herself in a mind not her own.
In azure skies we soar, her laughter music to my ears. As I fold my wings and turn into a dive, she clutches me tightly, pressing her face against my back. "Lend me your wings," she had asked, though they are hers to command. My gentle Shiva—
Ysayle blinked. The great wyrm's expression was unreadable. He knows. Hraesvelgr lowered his head and she clambered onto his back without a word.
I spread my wings, tense my legs, and push... Yes...I remember...
She tried desperately to forget.
The hours slipped by as the skies grew dark and cloudy. In the distance, a light shone. That light should portend such darkness...
Hraesvelgr's voice came to her. "He draweth upon the Eye's power."
As they drew closer, she could discern a small airship at the center of a mass of swirling aether. The reddish black maelstrom grew in intensity, accompanied by a rising hum, then suddenly winked out as the sound of breaking glass echoed around the heavens.
"We must hurry!" Ysayle yelled, straining to be heard above the cacophony. "Below them, look!"
A massive Garlean battleship rose from the depths and positioned itself behind the smaller airship. In an instant, the air was thick with cannon fire.
No...not like this. Not like this!
"The time is come to use Hydaelyn's gift," she whispered, drawing the crystal from her pouch. "Much blood has been spilled in my name. And for what? For a false cause that I created for want of the warmth of companionship." She clutched it to her breast and felt the cold seep into her skin. "Saint Shiva...Hraesvelgr... Pray forgive this fool. But even now, I cannot let go of my dream—my dream of a tomorrow in which no child need freeze alone in the snow."
With a roar, Hraesvelgr bore her high above the battleship. With a breath, Ysayle closed her eyes and let go.
Never again would I harm another, I swore. Never again would death stain my conscience...
Ysayle felt him slip away as she fell and a thousand thousand fires blossomed around her. Slowly, she opened her eyes. "Thank you, Hraesvelgr." And forgive me.
And then she spoke.
"O goddess born of mine own hopes and dreams. For the last time, I beseech you! Fill this vessel with your light! Still the hatred within our hearts and bless us with eternal grace!"
The crystal melts into light, and we are whole again. Warm. My mind grows cloudy, my essence faint, but I hold fast to the memories.
In azure skies we soar once more...
The wind nipped at the young man's face as he trudged up the path towards the stones, fresh lilies clasped tightly in hand. Another blizzard on the way, he thought. The worst is yet to come.
All too soon, he arrived. As he knelt to replace yesterday's offering, Francel's eyes drifted to the shield leaning against the marker. A red unicorn, erased and wreathed in thorns. And below...
He shuddered, and looked away. "You just couldn't help yourself, could you?" he muttered through clenched teeth, twisting and crushing the flowers in his hands until there was nothing left.
Fifteen...sixteen years now, Francel reflected. A boy of six summers, yet nevertheless old enough to assume his social responsibilities. Father had told him the dinner party at Fortemps Manor was to be the first of many.
The lords and ladies had treated him with predictable kindness as he made his rounds with the count, carefully repeating the phrases he had been taught. "This one is a baron, but you mustn't address him as such in person," his father whispered as they moved on. "That one is sworn to our house. You met him when you were..."
It was altogether too much.
But he pressed on, as instructed, until he had spoken with every individual of standing. Utterly spent, he duly begged his father for a moment's respite and was surprised to find him amenable to the request. Moved by my efforts─or mayhap the wine.
After the count set him free, Francel made straight for the doors, pausing only to snatch a serving of pudding from a nearby table. Outside, under the starry sky, he breathed deep of the cool night air and savored the silence.
"Come! Have at thee! For the glory of House Fortemps!"
The shouting seemed to be coming from the nearby gazebo, where Francel had hoped to eat his pudding in peace. He crept closer, unsure what he would find.
A silver-haired boy twice his age was swinging a wooden sword with reckless abandon, his bare chest glistening with sweat in the moonlight.
"What are you doing?" Francel was surprised to find he had spoken. The older boy whirled about, briefly falling into a half crouch. He blinked, then drew himself up to his full height. "What does it look like? I'm practicing!"
Francel was at a loss. His father had stressed the importance of the evening's festivities. "But... The party... Shouldn't you be─"
The older boy snorted. "The countess forbade it. Father wanted me to come, but I told him I wasn't interested. It's just as well─what good's a knight who can't fight?"
It was better when I didn't know. Trueborns, bastards, baseborns...
The older boy simply stood there, hands resting on the pommel of his wooden sword, point planted in the earth. Francel suddenly remembered the pudding in his hands. "Would you like to share?" he said, proffering the sweetmeat with trepidation.
Haurchefant arched an eyebrow, then grinned. "I would like that very much."
They complemented each other rather well. So far as a fourth-born and a bastard could. Quiet and reserved, Francel's inclination was ever to bury himself in a book, but Haurchefant was wont to appear without warning and spirit him away on some grand adventure. Six years his senior, the older boy continued to pursue his study of swordplay, spurred ever onward by his dreams of knighthood. For we all must serve, each in our own way.
In later years, Haurchefant's impromptu visits grew more frequent. The more he grew to resemble his father. Francel came to recognize the signs he would be along shortly─muffled shouts from the manor, a door slamming shut, the patter of running feet across the cobbles.
And there he was, huffing and puffing, eyes red and full of anger. I'd touch his shoulder, and he'd remember where he was. "Where shall we go today?" I'd ask. "Anywhere but here," he'd say.
He shifted in the saddle and kept his eyes firmly fixed on the horizon. The trackers were off watering their chocobos, leaving Francel alone with his father, who continued to speak.
"Many of your peers are avid falconers, you know. And with good cause─not all bargains are struck over wine. Out here, in the wilds, astride a chocobo, men are more like to speak with candor..."
To celebrate his eleventh nameday, his father had insisted they go hunting in the eastern lowlands. Father always had a way with gifts. Glancing at the trackers, Francel saw a shock of silver hair and smiled, before returning his attention to the skies. One small concession, at least.
The black speck in the fading daylight had begun to circle above the woods on the far shore of Clearwater Lake. He felt the count squeeze his shoulder. "You see? All you have to do is follow the falcon. He knows where to go." The count paused, then turned to face him. "He was born for this─as were you."
The falcon's cry was a blessing. "He's got something!" Francel yelled, then dug his heels in and spurred his mount forward. He was dimly aware of his father shouting as he gripped the reins tighter and urged the chocobo on.
If there's one thing Haurchefant managed to teach me, it was how to run away. Francel grinned as he lowered his head and rode light in the saddle. His father's men would not catch him before he made it to the trees.
When he was nearly upon them, a flock of pheasants burst from the underbrush. Towards me. Francel reined his mount in, puzzled, and squinted into the gloom, only to feel a sharp pain in his head. And then he was tumbling from his saddle while the world went black around him.
He awoke with a start to a dull throbbing at the base of his skull and the taste of blood and cotton. Moaning, he tried to reach up and feel his head, but found that he could not. Sawdust and hemp. Oh how it chafed.
"Oi, the little lordling's awake!"
Gradually, the world came into focus and Francel found himself lying on the floor of a candlelit cabin. A woodcutter's shack, long abandoned and forgotten. The door on the far wall appeared to lead out into the night...but sat on a stool across from him was a balding man in boiled leather, with a nose which had been broken at least half a dozen times and teeth which had fared still worse.
The man leered. "My mates was afeared I hit you too hard, but I told 'em blue blood skulls're thicker'n you'd think." A knobbed wooden club lay across his knees. An ugly, misshapen thing, not unlike its owner.
Francel tested his bonds once more, and the coarse rope bit into his wrists. He tried to speak through the gag. "Quiet, boy, or I'll send your tongue back to the count before your fingers," the man growled. An empty threat, but how was I to know?
Horrified, Francel pressed himself against the wall and stared up at the bandit, who smiled. And was all the more terrifying for it.
"That's better. Now then─"
The door flew open, and the bandit rose to his feet and whirled about, club in hand, just in time to catch a glimpse of the silver-haired youth who barreled into his chest, dashing him to the floor and driving the wind from his lungs.
The bandit clawed at Haurchefant's face, spitting curses as the youth fumbled his knife. Beyond, in the doorway, a man was lying flat on his back, staring into space. Unblinking. Haurchefant groped blindly for the knife, found it, then drove it home between the larger man's ribs. Again and again, long after he had stopped moving.
He lay there for a time, face buried in the dead man's chest. The cabin was silent save for his labored breaths. Less a man and more a beast, his tunic dyed red, his hands trembling. Slowly, he pushed himself up and looked into Francel's eyes. "It's over. They're dead," he whispered, leaning forward and pulling the wadded cloth from the boy's mouth.
"All of them?"
A man filled the doorway, arrow nocked and drawn. "You little shites!" he roared, and the bowstring sang.
I shut my eyes, but I heard it strike─heard him howl, heard the pounding of the floorboards. Heard them wrestling, two voices grunting...then one wheezing...
When he opened his eyes, Francel saw Haurchefant kneeling next to a third bandit. "Right. Now it's over." He rose to his feet, swaying slightly. A thin stream of blood trickled from the broken shaft embedded in his left forearm. He looked down and almost seemed surprised. "Best not try that again without a shield, eh?"
The third one lived to tell the tale, Francel mused, as he traced the sigil on the battered shield. Of how an untrained, unseasoned bastard of seventeen summers saved a lordling with naught but his knife. And so the Silver Fuller won his spurs.
His fingers came to the hole.
"A knight lives to serve—to aid those in need," he managed, his voice trembling. Beyond the descending veil of white, the city rose to meet the day as Francel, kneeling in the snow, smiled and wept.
For Coin and Country
Nanamo did not learn of the circumstances surrounding her strange slumber until three days after she had awoken.
It was Papashan who finally unfolded the truth to her. Though the retired Sultansworn was no longer her bodyguard—a position he had held since the sultana was a child—he had never quite relinquished the role. At first, Nanamo could do little more than listen to each shocking revelation in stunned bewilderment. But when Papashan described the loss of Raubahn's arm, and the accusations leveled against the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, she was overtaken by fury and demanded that Lolorito be brought forth to face immediate judgment.
At this, Papashan shook his head. "I suggest you first allow Lord Lolorito to explain his motives, Your Grace," he said quietly. "Naught good ever comes of rushing to conclusions."
The following day, Nanamo summoned the foremost members of the Syndicate to the Fragrant Chamber—Lord Lolorito Nanarito, the purported mastermind of recent events; Flame General Raubahn Aldynn; and Dewlala Dewla, head of the Order of Nald'thal. Thus were the Monetarist, Royalist, and neutral factions each represented.
"I take it this intimate little meeting was intended as an opportunity for me to explain my actions," Lolorito declared airily.
"If there is aught you would say, then say it now," Nanamo responded with as much calm as she could muster.
"Very well," he sighed, as if indulging a spoiled child, and paused for a moment to remove his mask. It was considered a sign of great disrespect to wear such accoutrements to an audience with the sultana, but the Monetarist had always excused his discourtesy with the claim that his eyes were sensitive to bright light. Now, however, he stood barefaced without the slightest hint of discomfort.
"Forgive my candor, Your Grace, but it has become painfully obvious that you underestimate the dangers facing our great nation." The elder Lalafell's golden-eyed gaze remained steady upon the sultana's face while he delivered his blunt appraisal.
Raubahn's jaw clenched visibly, but he bowed his head and said nothing. Noting the Flame General's struggle from the corner of her eye, Nanamo motioned for the merchant to continue. She would heed Papashan's advice, and listen to Lolorito's account in its entirety—though she could gladly have strangled the preening little swine.
Somewhat predictably, Lolorito had come prepared to make his case. He spoke at length on the threat posed by the new emperor and a united Garlemald, warning that it was only a matter of time before the Garleans resumed their Eorzean campaign. To destabilize Ul'dah's government at such a juncture, he contended, was reckless in the extreme.
"To prevent Your Grace from enacting such a...radical reform, Teledji Adeledji chose the simple expedient of assassination. I merely slipped the reins of this foul scheme from his fumbling hands."
Nanamo caught herself clenching her fists as the merchant calmly explained how it had been necessary to maintain the illusion of her death in order to expose Teledji's sympathizers and thereby uproot the villain's widespread corruption. The audacity of the man...
"Had you deigned to consult with the Syndicate on the matter of your abdication, then perhaps such extreme measures could have been avoided," Lolorito smirked. "At the very least, Your Grace might have sought the advice of the General before making such a momentous and far-reaching decision."
Nanamo stiffened, each word a dagger in her breast. Lolorito was quite right. She had deliberately concealed her plans from Raubahn, knowing he would attempt to dissuade her from her course.
All she had wanted was a government answerable to the people—a government able to set aside self-interest and devote the nation's resources to solving Ul'dah's many problems, not least the ever-worsening refugee crisis. She had harbored hopes that the General, supported by a populace that had loved him since his days as a Coliseum champion, would continue to play a leading role in her imagined republic. Naturally, Lolorito and his fellow merchant princes would purchase influence as they always had, but the prospect of their wealth lining the pockets of the common man had seemed to her an acceptable trade.
But what tragedy has come of my clumsy maneuvering? The ensuing chaos had cost her dearest friend his arm, and all but destroyed the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, an organization to which she and every other Eorzean owed so much. A wave of regret rose up within her, and for a moment she felt she might drown in her sorrow.
"Of course, the execution of my plan was not without its flaws," Lolorito continued in an even, unhurried tone. "I did not anticipate the escape of the Scions, nor the violence that followed their flight from the palace—a most unwelcome complication."
According to Lolorito, accusing the Warrior of Light of murder and implicating the Scions as accomplices had been Teledji's idea. He speculated that the late Syndicate member wished to "repay" the Archons for interfering in the passing of the Carteneau Reclamation Bill. Lolorito himself purported to bear no ill will towards the order, but was forced to play along with their capture so that Teledji would remain ignorant of Ilberd's duplicity. Once the charade had ended, he assured Nanamo, he had fully intended to clear the false charges and release the Antecedent and her companions.
Nanamo railed inwardly at the implication that, by refusing to accept wrongful imprisonment, the Scions had brought retribution upon themselves. With an effort she hoped did not show upon her features, she held her breath and counted to ten.
"Regrettably, I did not anticipate the extent of Ilberd's insubordination," the merchant went on, oblivious to Nanamo's rising ire. "You are aware of our...disagreement with regard to the General's treatment, I believe?"
The sultana nodded mechanically, and replied after a moment, "I cannot well imagine why Captain Ilberd should desire General Aldynn's death."
Lolorito nodded in turn, and launched into another practiced explanation. He had, he revealed, initially secured Ilberd's services with the promise of sufficient weaponry and funding to transform Ala Mhigo's refugees into a well-armed and well-trained militia. These "resistance fighters" were to be deployed to their former homeland, where they would hinder the advance of imperial forces.
"As well as delaying the Garlean invasion, this mobilization would have had the added advantage of thinning the throng of refugees crowding Ul'dah's walls," the merchant pronounced with no small satisfaction, the beginnings of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
At a look from the brooding Raubahn, the smile vanished, but Lolorito pressed on, "Alas, General, your mere existence presented Ilberd with something of a problem."
The Monetarist likened the former gladiator's position in the Syndicate to a beacon of hope for Ala Mhigo's displaced and downtrodden. Many, he noted with faint amusement, preferred to cast their gaze towards the light of an unattainable star, rather than turn and face the grim shadows of their troubled reality.
"Ilberd believed that the General's death was the only cure for this pernicious romanticism," the merchant continued, turning back to the sultana. "But while there may have been some truth to that, we needed our one-armed friend alive if we were to persuade Your Grace to sit the throne once more. And therein lay the root of our contention."
Had Raubahn been executed...what then? Would I have thrown reason to the desert winds, and called once more for the sultanate's dissolution? Nanamo suspected that she would. Damn you, Lolorito.
"Pray accept this token, Your Grace. Mayhap this material example of my support will remove any lingering doubts as to my loyalties..."
Nanamo accepted a scroll from the merchant's outstretched hand, and unfurled the fine vellum sheet. She read aloud the contents of the document—a legal contract that, when signed, would confer ownership of all of Teledji Adeledji's assets, and half of Lolorito's personal wealth, to the crown.
"Seven hells!" Raubahn roared, his patience finally spent. "You think to bury your sins under a mountain a coin!?"
A single gesture from the sultana was enough to silence him. He set his jaw, still scowling, while Lolorito affected a wounded air.
"My dear General, is not the sacrifice of coin the most fitting means for a merchant to express his contrition? You will note that there are no stipulations or constraints on how Her Grace might spend this fortune. Build a monument to the Scions, ease the suffering of the refugees—the possibilities are endless," Lolorito beamed benignly. "I would humbly suggest, however, that some thought be spared for the looming imperial invasion."
Having dispensed this final pearl of wisdom, the merchant addressed the sultana once more. "I thank you for your patient audience, Your Grace. Now, if you will excuse me, there are pressing matters to which I must attend."
With that, Lolorito replaced his mask and, without waiting for the sultana's leave to withdraw, strode briskly from the chamber.
And so the meeting ended.
Drained, Nanamo retired to her private quarters to reflect on the merchant's words. I cannot forgive the man his methods, she mused, but mine own scheme is no less deserving of censure. Her shortsighted resolve had invited bloodshed and turmoil, and she knew not how she might atone for her wrongdoing. For his part, Lolorito had surrendered a princely share of his riches—which, as a merchant, was an act akin to relinquishing his own flesh and blood. But what could she, as sultana, do to repay the debt she had accrued?
"Fetch General Aldynn!"
Raubahn arrived at her chambers soon after, escorted by Nanamo's new lady-in-waiting, and she handed him the contract without a word. When the General saw the sultana's flowing signature appended to the document, his brow knit in consternation.
"I despise that man," she declared, flatly.
"As do I," came the reply.
"And yet, I despise myself even more. I failed to confide in my most trusted advisor and blithely invited open rebellion within the Syndicate. My callow ambition has visited pain and suffering upon those who deserve it least, and shown me to be the greatest fool of all!"
At this, Raubahn could only bow his head.
"Lolorito is a callous, calculating villain, driven only by greed," Nanamo grated. "But in spite of this, I cannot ignore his skill as a politician nor the deeds he has performed in service to Ul'dah."
Nanamo closed her eyes as warring emotions threatened to engulf her once more. But she held firm to her emerging purpose, and looked up to find Raubahn gazing upon her with fatherly concern.
"Summon the war council, General," she commanded in a clear, strong voice. "We must discuss how Ishgard may be reintegrated into the Eorzean Alliance. And then we shall explore our strategy for opposing the inevitable advance of the Empire."
Nanamo took a deep breath, and fixed Raubahn with a resolute stare. "I will be intimidated by Lolorito and his ilk no longer. No matter her personal feelings, a sultana must make use of every resource at her disposal...for coin and country."
She had ascended the throne at the age of five and sworn an oath at her coronation—empty words that she had memorized but not understood. The oath she swore now, however—though it better befitted a soldier than a sultana—resonated through her entire being.
"For coin and country," Raubahn echoed in his deep rumble.
Then the one-armed general smiled, and Nanamo could not help but do the same.
Ul'dah was a sultanate once more.