Miraculous, isn't it?
I looked up. Nothing she said ever made sense to me. I doubt it was about to start making sense now. Was she somehow sorry that it was all about to end, even glad that a new era was about to begin? I could never tell with her. She seemed perpetually indifferent about everything - hypocritical, no matter what the scenario. It was only when I really sat and thought about it, really strained to grasp the type of person she was, that I had to stop. I knew who she was, maybe I knew it all along. I guess I just hated the fact that I had some hand to play in causing this whole mess.
We never just marvel at the splendor of anything anymore, do we?
Bound in chain and gagged with a bandana, you can only squirm . . . and listen.
She stands near the main deck portal now, slim figure propped up awkwardly against blade and scabbard, blond hair blowing freely the way my hair didn't. Alexandria castle stood oblivious some several thousand kilometers away from us, beyond the glass of our window in a murky swath of clouds. In five minutes, Alexandria castle wouldn't be there. We would see to that, were seeing to it now. The flying ship that carried us, once used for luxury, was now ferrying a payload of mass destruction, flying like a petrified sparrow at cruising speed. The true rationale behind this whole affair eludes me even now, though I remember being very unhappy with the turn my life had taken when we put an end to Garland's plans. Something was missing.
But then, that was life.
Don't you agree?
Lost in a maze of thought, I somehow softened beneath her scrutiny. She softened in quick success, slipping the gag down from my mouth with the flat of her sword.
Whatever, I told her, eyes straining to focus.
You're not having cold feet, are you?
I hadn't slept in weeks. When you go that long without a decent night's rest, without any way of putting your mind at ease, even the simplest, most immutable truths unravel into chaos. What did she mean? What had I agreed to? What was there to be having cold feet about, other than the fact that we were caught in the momentum of a six hundred mile an hour, uncontrolled vertical dive?
I . . .
Didn't think so. She turned back on, hands on her hips. Still wrestling with your morals right about now, Id imagine. Believe me, its a waste of time. Theyre more than likely all at the opera house, anyways. Just trust me for once, would you? Have I ever let us down before?
Difficult question to answer. All I knew was that in less than four minutes, Alexandria castle wouldn't be there. Alexandria a legacy hundreds of years in the making about to vanish in one fell swoop. How I so wished I could bring myself to put the rest of this twisted little escapade into perspective. So tired. Would it have been possible to sleep only for a few seconds? Just long enough to find some handle on things?
I momentarily put the blonde woman with the sword out of the picture, closing my eyes so that I could try putting the pieces together. Focus, I told myself.
How did things come to this?
* * *
I have no concept of time, but a short while back the world seemed just where it should have been. All sinistrels had been laid to waste, the threat of the genomes had been put behind us, and everybody seemed to prosper. It was a welcome change for a while, giving wounds a chance to heal and muscles the opportunity to rebound. I threw down my sword for a good three weeks after that, traveling to Treno and Burmecia, soaking up the sun on beaches I had never seen, placing bids at auction houses for items I didn't know I needed or even wanted. It was good for a while, a nice while. A nice, long while.
Then one day, it hit me. The vacation was over.
Only . . .what awaits the hardened soldier after all the battles have been fought, when all the dragons have been slain? Something greater? Something less taxing? No, no such thing exists. The hardened warrior needs some task or assignment to keep themselves going, to keep themselves idle. If I were to look hard enough, maybe shirk the soft robes and the spiced foods for a couple months, would I be able to find the scattered uprising in need of being dealt with? Maybe track down some vagrant or assassin wreaking havoc in the wind-swept ruins of Madain Sari or the mountainous reaches of Conde Petie? There had to have been something.
Good morning, class. If you'll be so kind as to take your seats, we can begin.
Teaching. Where had I gone wrong?
How embarrassing, tutoring an entire generation of playwrights and airship mechanics with a patch over one eye and a horn-rimmed monocle in the other. Day in and day out, classroom after university classroom, this was how it went. Economics, Myth and Legend, Metallurgy, everything I'd have immigrated to avoid learning before the Iifa tree went into upheaval. But this was the only curriculum that was available to me, with only the occasional lesson on battle tactics and how to swing a weapon. For truly, what reason was there to still offer instruction in the art of war? To what end?
"That'll be all for today. Class dismissed.
At the end of each afternoon, just after the last pupil trickled out from the tiered room of oak, I remained behind, trying to remind myself why I ever bothered with this path in life. Was I paying for something? Was this the only other road for the warrior not fortunate enough to die in battle? I hadn't picked up or even seen a sword in over five months. More times than once I pondered the advantages of danger over sheer boredom. I have no concept of a life made easy. It just didn't compute with me.
Um, Miss Beatrix?
Speaking of which
Oh, hello there... My voice sounded worn as she approached. Too many years of uttering war cries out on the field of battle. Dear me, Ive forgotten your name.
Mikoto, yes! My mind was only vaguely able to process the name. Aside from being among the last of the genomes, she was also my finest student. Im sorry. Its been a long day, thats all.
She nodded her blond head in understanding, books clutched tightly to her chest. Thats okay. Thats sort of what I wanted to speak with you about, actually.
I plucked the monocle from my eye, as though it had gotten lodged there by accident.
Yes, she replied, tucking a loose ringlet back behind an ear. I just wanted you to know what a good job it is youve been doing so far. I know how hard it must be to have to start over in a world thats so alien to you. Im going through the same thing myself.
Such an apt analogy. I should have expected nothing less from the likes of her. Oh. Well, thank-you Mikoto. That means a lot to me.
Her tail started to wag eagerly. Really? Well, I also wanted you to know that, if you ever need someone to help with the lectures or even just to do some background research, Id be more than happy to do all the running around for you. You know, give you a breather here and there when the workload becomes too much?
Oh. Well . . .
It wouldnt be a bother! she quickly put in. Your classes are going to be my main area of study anyway. Ill work very hard for you and--
Im not doubting that, I said, doing what I could to get a word in edgewise before she tripped up over her tongue. But you need to have a lifestyle too, Mikoto. Growing up is more than just studying old books from one day to the next. Think hard about this before we make any kind of arrangements, okay?
Oh, she said, somewhat beside herself for a moment. Oh, right. Im sorry. I was, you know, just really looking forward to working with you, being your apprentice and all.
The day will come. Dont be in such a mad rush to get to your destination, okay?
Okay. With a hangdog expression, she ground the tip of her shoe into the floor. Alright. Well, thank-you Miss Beatrix.
No sweat, kiddo.
She moved for the door, where several other students were waiting impatiently for her. Sweet though she was, Mikoto reminded me too much of me when I was a teenager, always rushing into a challenge without thinking it through first. The world didnt need another one of those. I tried getting my mind off it by going back over the days register. Perhaps there was a tardy student or two I could discipline as a reality check.
I told you, Mikoto, well discuss it later.
I nearly jumped. Steiner!
He stared at me for a moment, unable to pin down my reaction to his being there. I was happy at first to see an old friend, but it faded as every bit suddenly. Things hadn't exactly been the same between us since fighting side by side against the enemies of Alexandria. He soaked up the boons that came with world peace, with recognition, with acclaim. We sort of drifted apart after that. I hadn't seen him carry a sword since.
You look like you could use a bite to eat, he told me, not moving from the doorway. Join me for lunch?
No thanks, I'm not really hungry. In truth, I remember being famished. I just didn't feel like being with him at that moment. It's a cruel way to be about it, but he was always like that. He was like a dog in need of his master's attention, or at the very least his master's leg. I have . . . papers to grade.
This killed his composure somewhat, and he started to withdraw from the room. I wasn't sorry for turning him down like that. If anything, I was sorry for letting him change as much as he had. He had long since traded in swords for quills, shields for parchment, squeaky armor for fine silks. How one goes from being the right-hand of the Alexandrian army to a Mognet liaison is beyond me. Quite frankly, I missed our dueling out in the soldier courtyards: trading blows; swiping blades; all the commonplace things that define a relationship.
Sorry. I keep forgetting that this is your thing now. I'll leave you to it.
Steiner, hold on for a second.
How plutonic things had become between us. I couldn't even call him by his first name anymore.
Theres supposed to be this get-together down at the opera house next week, a reunion of sorts. I don't know if any of your moogle friends were able to pass the word along your way yet, but you know. It wouldn't feel right without having you there.
His square face brightened considerably when he heard this. What a dope.
I shall look forward to it!
Good. Be punctual, okay?
He smiled, sketched a hasty bow, and was off. I sighed, slumping at the desk.
Grading papers, going to plays, attending reunions. This was joy. This was contentment. The type of things that were only supposed to come after death were alive here on earth. A philosopher from Daguerreo once said that we always become that which we despise the most. Who knew? I have no concept of time, but this could have well been the juncture when my sleeplessness started. Drifting in, drifting out, alone in an empty classroom at the castle. Only my copy of 'Heroes of the Bronze Age' kept me any company. Foolscap pages drifting lazily on the autumn breeze from a nearby window, flapping to, flapping fro...
Hero . . . after hero . . . after heroine . . .
It was just before dusk when I finally left for the evening. I didn't have to leave. Alexandria always had a room for me in lieu of my loyalty to the throne. I just felt like leaving, like finding a tavern somewhere in the backwash of town so I could sort things out properly. Alone among broken cobbled paths, the first stars of twilight winking into being overhead, I soon found her. Or maybe she found me. Out around a dark corner, practically a shadow, she stood with one hand on her hip while the other beckoned with a blade the first blade I had seen in a very long while.
Looking for a good time, soldier?
This was how I met Celes.
* * *
Three minutes. Three minutes before Alexandria castle wasn't there anymore.
So hard to keep my mind on any one thought for more than a few seconds at a time. This whole thing somehow started when I met her. I understand that now. How bizarre though, being scarcely able to put anything into perspective other than one seemingly random encounter. Lack of sleep, the rattle of the deck plating as we converged on our target, the suddenly icy glare I was receiving from my captor, all of it made me lose focus. And still no reasoning behind this alleged vendetta we had against Alexandria.
What . . . I heard myself ask, voice croaking like half a death knell in my throat.
You're still wondering 'why', aren't you?
I was, actually. Peculiar, that.
A teacher, and yet not a very fast learner. She spoke without turning, so cocksure of herself and her - and 'our' - chances of success. Why do you think you've been so unhappy with your life up until this point? It's because you know that something is wrong with the world, something far worse than some tyrant with a God complex trying to destroy it.
Question begetting question. It was getting us nowhere. Did I really know?
You mean . . . the fact that it's found peace.
She winked and gunned. Straight as an arrow. But what is peace? How do you define it? You know better than anyone that peace gained is more an illusion even than the lengths we go to achieve it. We need war to validate our existence, we need conflict so that we can evolve. Without war, without sacrifice, nothing has value. We wither and die. You almost met the same fate, but fortunately I came around at just the right time. Just the right, time so that we could both point this world into the right direction.
The right direction? I heard myself ask. Destroying a castle is a step in the right direction?
Alexandria, she said, is a symbol of peace, of unity. It's the epitome of everything that's wrong with the world, an illusion. Take it away from the hopeful, the ones with the gleam in their eye, and you'll spark something in each of them far greater than any monument could ever hope to accomplish.
What? The chains gripping my shoulders rattled as I tried to shrug. Homelessness?
She gave her cutlass an expert spin over and around her wrist. You give them back their ability to fight.
The ability to fight. That was triggering something . . .
* * *
Beatrix, my goodness! What happened to you?
The week passed quickly. Too quickly. The classes I taught were entirely too long to stand and lecture through and, at the same time, not long enough. I have no concept of time. At the great opera hall of Alexandria, everyone that gathered who knew me (and a few that didn't) all had the same question to ask. Given the bruises I'd suffered from our endless dueling, I should have expected nothing less. Celes and I met on a regular basis now. My daily routine had since consisted of four hours teaching elementary airship hydraulics, followed by an hour and a half of proving to my alleycat of a friend that there was no way to hamstring me with riposte theory and feint technique.
Swords drawn . . .feet circling one another . . . vagabonds cheering us on from the shadows . . .victory . . . defeat . . .stalemate . . .
For all of that, a few light welts was a small price to pay.
It's not as bad as it looks, I told them.
But none of them seemed convinced. The king and queen were beside themselves with concern. Steiner had this wide-eyed look of mortification on his face that made him look like a caricature of himself. Eiko, the runt of the litter, sat close by with her eyes only barely showing over Garnet's frilly shoulders. And so forth: a flummoxed Burmecian; a galvanized gourmand; even that salamander assassin the king's party had befriended so long ago had this barely perceptible look of consternation on what you could make out of his face. Who would dare, their eyes were saying. In this era of calm?
Who did this to you?
I've never lied to a ruler of Alexandria before. I wouldn't start now. A friend from town. She was just showing me a thing or two I'd previously overlooked in my training.
What were you in training for? Steiner offered to take my cape but I wouldn't let him. And who is this 'friend', of which you speak? Is she a mercenary? Have we heard of her?
Can we just sit and watch the production? I expected heartfelt embraces and old comrades getting nostalgic, not an inquisition about what I did in my spare time. What's this one about, anyway? It's not 'I Want to be your Canary' again, is it?
'Di Mezzo Carattere', Eiko's singsong voice replied from the opposite end of the row. I didn't get a program when I came in, but it was supposed to have been a very popular play back in the Bronze Age. That's what a lot of these people have been saying, at least.
When the little one mentioned the Bronze Age, it seemed to ignite something that I didn't believe would find any life outside of a classroom. I dismissed it as every bit as quickly, however. I was still half asleep by this time. Random thought beat more hasty retreats around in my head than rookie Burmecians not knowing which way to leap. The play was about to begin
Well, it's nothing but good news at least for Ruby, Zidane was the first to point out. I'd never get the hang of calling him 'Your Majesty'. This opera is supposed to be her big production number.
Ruby? I asked, not recognizing the name offhand.
An old friend of mine from Tantalus. This has been her lifelong dream.
I shrugged. How could pretending to be something you werent be a lifelong dream?
I remember enjoying, or at the very least tolerating, the plays when I was much younger. At the very least, a well-scripted and masterfully performed play held considerable authority in times of war. Whatever it took, I remember someone saying, to take the focus away from real emotion, from real suffering. I didn't find it much of a productive pasttime now, though. It seems as much a way of being a slave to our own illusions as anything else. Many seemed to forget that there was a world beyond curtained walls and gold-trimmed balconies. But people these days, you couldn't tell them anything.
Shush, said one down in the front row.
Its starting, said another.
A stout little man in dark clothes made his way across the stage down below, welcomed in fine style by a light applause. He stopped near the opposite corner, bowing as a spotlight eclipsed him.
The battle between the West and the East was growing more fierce day by day. On the battleground during a furious skirmish, the soldier Draco of the Western castle Garou thinks of Maria whom he left in his homeland....
Skirmish, I thought. Well, maybe this wouldnt be so bad after all.
The lights dimmed and the curtains parted. All in attendance were suddenly lulled into silence then . . . as a soft, sonorous melody from the string section introduced our first grandiose player of the evening. Soprano voiced and regally armored, this Draco person pouring his theatrical soul out to us simply couldn't sway the soldier in me. I yawned, waiting to be impressed. Where was the bloodshed?
Ohhhhh . . . Ma-ri-a . . .
Ohhhhh . . . Ma-ri-a . . .
How I long to be with you . . .
I slumped in my seat. This was ludicrous. The man had said something about a battleground, but where was it? There was supposed to have been violent contention between the East and West, so why just mention it as an afterthought? Men didnt get up and sing about the ones they left behind, not in the heat of battle. If anything, they were too shellshocked from the rocket of a stampeding army coming their way, contorting themselves into impossible positions to skirt the hail of spears hungry for their blood. What an abomination.
Spellbinding, isnt it? said Steiner alongside me.
Youre kidding, right? There was no nice way for me to say it, so I just said it. Steiner, this play is horrible. When does Draco attempt to rout the army? When do the limbs start flying? It does happen, doesnt it?
There I was, killing the magic of the moment all over again. But can you blame me?
Beatrix, this is one of the most beloved plays to have ever come out of the Bronze Age. So what if it shows a little heart? Its not a reenactment, its the opera.
I . . . uh! I bit down hard on my hand, trying to quill my anger. You wouldnt be acting like this if we were still at war. What happened to you?
Oh, go shush yourself!
Down in the front row, several onlookers jumped from my outburst.
Steiner reached up to take my hand, but I wouldn't give him the pleasure. In the time it took for Marias castle to be taken over by the eastern forces, I was out of there, leaving a chagrined group of colleagues left wondering about me. It seemed as good a time as any to make my exit, as nothing about the evening was making me the least bit comfortable. Were they simply incapable of learning nothing by watching this play unfold? Some maniac could have been plotting to lay siege to Alexandria right now and everyone would have been powerless to avoid it.
Excuse me . . . sorry . . . pardon me . . .
The voices of the others only made me move faster, vaulting through the dark aisles and moving for the balcony exit as quickly as any would let me by. Hapless fools. If beauty could kill them in their sleep, Alexandria would've been a necropolis by dawn. Such a tangled mess of rapt faces, of magnificence. I couldn't take it anymore. I had to get out.
Oh . . . my . . . hero . . . so far away now . . . will I ever see your smile . . .
I stopped. That voice. It was familiar somehow.
I pivoted back around as a vision of loveliness stepped out upon the lit parapet of the play's ad hoc castle. I couldnt believe it. What was this I was seeing? She hardly seemed like the sword-throwing, fist-flinging vagrant I had first acquainted myself with out in the alleyways. That woman was unpolished, uncontrollable, a beast even. But this almost seemed like a cherub, the type of wingless muse children read about in fairy tales that either marry Prince Charming or lure helpless fishermen to their deaths.
And while every ticket holder at the theater that night had their eyes on her, she had 'her' eyes on me . . .
I didn't know you could sing . . .
After fighting through a fanfare of cheering spectators and a shower of roses, we met again on the outskirts of town. A couple of her people (mostly theatre hands and soldier stand-in's) met up with some of my people in a sort of post-opera bash. Neither of us seemed to notice it much.
I didn't know you could fight, she replied, taking a hearty swig from her second ale of the evening. I guess we were able to surprise each other.
I smiled at that. It was an earnest smile, too. It was good to be able to do that again.
You surprised me down at the opera hall tonight as well. You don't strike me as one who usually delights in those sort of things.
I fought silently for a second to come up with the proper retort, even though the proverbial blade had already found its mark. We were alone at our table. Most of what we said to one another couldn't be detected over the white noise of opera workers and reformed Tantalus members. Still . . .
It's complicated, I said at last.
Mmm-hmm. She drank her ale. Is that your guy, then?
What? She must have caught me glimpsing Steiner congratulating Blank out of the corner of my eye. No! I mean, I'm not sure.
Looks delicate, if you don't mind me saying so. I'm more into the hard bodies, myself. She sent a wink towards one of the longhaired beaus sitting at the bar. It was very casual for her, barely noticeable above the lip of her goblet. Still, she was able to get her message across to him. Call me old-fashioned, but whatever.
Not a believer in true love? I had no idea where I was going with this.
If, by true love, you're referring to whatever cosmic force it is that keeps a guy's dick connected to his thighs, then sure.
We shared a private laugh. Celes was giving the nearby hunk a nod now, and the stranger was starting to tread in empty water, gesturing to himself to make sure he was the one she was motioning to. He almost fell off his stool when she smiled.
Glad you came by when you did, I remarked, trying to sound even half as casual as she appeared. I haven't been feeling myself lately.
She went around and turned my conundrum into a guessing game.
You could say that, yeah.
Ah ha. So, separation anxiety then?
I shook my head. You need to be separated from someone before you can feel that. I couldn't escape my friends if I tried.
Who said I was talking about your friends?
Our eyes met yet again. How could this woman, this deviant from the streets, be able to hone in on me so well, so precisely, when everyone I know better than myself keep seeing past it?
What . . . are you implying?
Something's happened to you, something that has you ill at ease. I can't nail down precisely what it is, I just know it's there. I've been there once myself. To be honest, I've never really been able to rid myself of it.
What do you do to cope?
The same thing you and I do every night. I find it helps to put us more in sync with the people we used to be. Don't you think so?
* * *
The Invincible's cabin was starting to shake vehemently now, catching savage updrafts in our descent towards the city and making it seem as though the deck plates were rearranging themselves beneath us. She was a little ways away from me, not bothering much with assuaging me anymore or convincing me that this was what we both wanted. Eyes ahead, with one hand manning the helm and the other gripping her blade, it seemed as though she had achieved a Zen-like state of being. For all she cared, she could have just been taking her father's yacht out for a leisurely spin.
What happened, then? I yelled. I wasn't particularly angry with her. I just found that I had no option but to yell over the jarring vibrations of the airship. What happened between us that would want you to do such a thing? Did the fights get personal or something? Were they cutting into your theatre time? Did I lose a bet?
No reply. Now . . . I was angry.
Fucking tell me!
Are you still mulling over the past? Concentrate on the here and now! This is our fight now, this is our mission! It's right here! What does it matter how we got here?!
It matters to me! I hopped several times, still lashed tightly to my chair. The people of Alexandria don't deserve this. Okay, so they're a little snobby and self-important. But that doesn't mark them for death!
I've told you, the castle's empty. No one's going to die from this.
Then, what is it? What do you find so threatening about a castle? I don't get it! The illusion of peace? What does that have to do with anything? Let these people have their peace. That illusion belongs to them. It's not our problem!
It will be . . . if we do nothing.
She seemed sagely in that one moment, even vulnerable. I'd have reached out to offer some comfort if both my arms weren't still bound behind my back.
Celes, it'll be okay.
If I had never taken this woman off her guard before, I had done so now. Those words, that name, had her looking at me as though I suddenly decided to sprout hydra heads before her very eyes.
What? What did you call me?
I was taken aback. Celes . . . Celes Chere . . . you!
The woman was affronted, despite herself. I must have hit you over the head hard this time.
* * *
I was feeling better now, almost like the warrior I had been before this whole sordid affair of peace and appreciation of the arts got started. I could face my routine of university lectures and correcting exams with a renewed sense of faith, always knowing that at the end of each evening, in the murky backwaters of town, I was learning something new from one who seemed to know all. It harrowed me in a way, how someone with so much experience and a zest for each of the different rungs of life's ladder, could suddenly just show up just when I needed her.
Celes Chere. The woman was an antithesis of herself. She was a tenor whose voice emoted such beauty, such grace, and yet every waking moment not spent at the opera hall was used to make her sword do the singing. Aside from our very heated blood trysts and the occasional time we met to chew the fat over mulled wine at the local tavern, we were almost never together. I puzzled over that. I couldn't be fooled very easily, but she always seemed to succeed in pulling the cloak over my eyes whenever we clued things up for the evening. Where did she go?
One night, while it all went down, I finally worked up the courage to ask her.
What does it matter where I go? she said. She didn't take lightly to being asked that. Her eyes, veiled by degrees, worked as if to impale me. The blade in her hand pinwheeled suddenly. Allay!
Hold on a minute! I jerked back from her advance, off guard but still able to knock the oncoming blade to one side. This is important. Are there others like us? Is that where you go off to? Tell me!
But she seemed not to hear me, her fervor for the battle raging on unabated. What had I said to upset her so? This was supposed to just be another one of our many training sessions, harmless aside from the casual cut and bruise inflicted either by stray sword or clenched fist. Only now, it had become something deeply personal. I had violated her trust in some way, but what trust was there between us? We knew virtually nothing about one another. Nothing, except
Goddamn it! she growled, spinning back towards me after her failed follow-through, the tips of our weapons hovering inches away from one another. "Can you hear yourself speak? Do you know who it is that you sound like? Do you want to keep getting caught up in the everyday affairs of everyone else or do you want to change the world? Like we agreed to? Allay, I said!"
Her sword skewered forward, trained on my rib cage. Wrist swiveling, I deflected it . . . barely. This was insane, I thought. She really was fixing to kill me this night. What had done this to her? What had warped her mind so badly that she would be doing this to me? She came at me again, swiping down in an overhead slash that promised ruin. I ducked this time, dancing beneath her outstretched arm and swung up into her blind spot. The numbing crash of steel on steel jarred us both as each hilt locked tight against the other. For one tense moment, we stood juxtaposed: abreast; blades straining; teeth bared. My curiosity had all but vanished in those twisted few seconds. All I wanted, then, was precisely what she wanted.
I wanted to hurt her.
That's the spirit, she said to me, seeing right through my mental state. You're finally learning.
With a kick to my midsection, she propelled me back, breaking the hold. I stopped listening to her. She wasn't going to give me the information I was looking for, only keep coming at me and occasionally berate me for being slow or stupid or lacking reflex. I didn't care anymore. I roared and charged towards her. Fine, polished metal gleamed in the moonlight as she bore down on me, trapping my blade against the flagstone street. Her free hand came out then, catching me hard in the jaw. Stars and spittle danced as I hit the ground, dazed, disarmed
Get up, she called to me. You're stronger than this. Get up!
I didn't want to oblige her at first. I wanted to catch her off guard. Hacking, slashing at the empty air, the maniacal opera singer exploded into a run, taking the bait. A hidden reserve of energy charged me without warning, sending my legs sweeping out into a wide arch that took her ankles out from under her. With a surprised yelp, she capsized alongside me, her own sword expelled from her grasp in midswing, vanishing into the night.
Evenly matched, now.
Get up, I told her, panting but still full of vigor, you're stronger than this.
Not amused, she jumped up, spearing her shoulder into me. The force of her flighty impact was enough to stand me back up again, winding me but also giving back my vertical base. Leering, she swung out with a savage right-hand, a blow I knew could have beheaded me coming from her. I skirted out of the way, sending her spiraling from her own momentum...
That was it - the window I needed.
Taking hold from behind, I jumped and pounced, telegraphing a metal knee up under her arm. She buckled under the force. I had her. I kneed the joint a second time, then a third, intent on wrenching her arm from its socket. Yes. Now with strategy well in hand, she was mine. I couldn't make my feet move fast enough, taking her own knees out from under her, using greaves to fracture ribs, break her apart once piece at a time. Handy though she was with a sword, I was a general. What advantage could some nobody out of the backwater district of town possibly have on me?
You ready to talk now? A command, not a question. You'd better. Otherwise, I'll make certain to turn you in to the Royal Guard.
You're not . . . going to do that . . . she rasped, bowled over before me, a mess of sweaty, blond hair obscuring her face. It would put an enormous crimp on our plans, if you do.
Our plans, she replied, straining to articulate the syllables, to destroy Alexandria castle.
Then, just as now, she sang while I stood in wonder.
To do what?
A feral flicker came to life as she raised her eyes up to me.
You never learn, do you?
In the blink of an eye, she was unloading on me all over again. Her fists flew like shooting stars, pounding hard into my sternum, sledgehammering against my jaw. I could remember getting hit in the head by blunt weapons and magic ballistae during wartime that were more forgiving than this. Once, twice, three times the world spun around me. And no indication that this woman was in the least bit debilitated from my own attacks, my own brute strength. Such a thing shouldn't have been possible. What 'was' she?
Out of desperation, I pitched a bandana-wrapped fist towards her, trying to turn the tide back upon this creature of war. But she was faster this time, dwarfing the strength and agility of a gigas. In the time it took for me to gauge the distance and swing, she had already countered, snatching my wrist out of the air and hip-tossing me like a rag doll. My sense of direction betrayed me only for a moment, before I came down hard against the familiar brick ground back first. Just as it occurred to me to mount any kind of a comeback, she caved down on top of me, elbow cracking squarely between my breasts.
A-plus, she said, floating above me in a blur of color and shadow. Now then, for the final test.
Test . . . what . . . I could feel the taste of blood creep into my mouth. My teeth were so loose by now that I could practically shuffle them around with my tongue. What . . . test?
She leaned in next to my ear, almost close enough to kiss me.
Find me, she said, if you can
I came to suddenly. It was no longer nightfall - in fact, a scarlet dawn was only just now beginning to spread across the ramshackle awnings of the houses close by. Every part of me felt as though it had come into contact with a live wire, so sore was I from our practicing. I couldn't afford to sit still, though. Not now, not when there was a terrorist on the loose in my city. Gritting my teeth, I forced myself up and into a run, limping all the while. I knew this city like the back of my hand. There were only so many places she could be.
I need your help!
Half an hour later, I was back at Alexandria castle. The hall of records loomed before me like a death sentence. Bookshelves stuffed to capacity stretched up so high that it was impossible to single out the ceiling from the annals of time. A haggard old crone was up on one of the shelf's ladders just as I came huffing and puffing through the door, barely able to detect me.
Oh, hello dearie, she said in a tone that could give people cavities. I didn't hear you come in.
I need you to search the listings for a Celes Chere. Search everything, birth certificates, immigrant registration, even the deaths and casualties of war. Quickly, please!
Okay, love, just try and get a hold of yourself first. Does that last name begin with a 'C' or an 'S'?
With a 'C'. How did I know that?
She flung open a book that appeared as every bit thick as the ceiling was high, beginning the arduous task of scanning through hundreds of thousands of signatures for the person I 'hoped' would be there. If she wasn't...
Chere . . . Chere . . . no, I'm sorry. No record of that one exists. Are you sure that it starts with a 'C'?
Yes! But . . . why was I so sure?
Don't fret, sweetie. The records were probably just lost in the Genome War. Or maybe, she's just not native to . . . wait, where are you going?
Where was I going! Alexandria was about to fall prey to attack. Theoretically, it was under attack already. There wasn't any time to lose!
I took air shuttles into and out of every district in town that day, turning each and every shady alleyway and brackish tavern upside down. Somehow, I knew she had walked in these footsteps before, had crossed the same path that I was now walking. And yet everyone I spoke with had neither seen nor heard of a Celes Chere before. Something was not adding up.
What do you mean, you never heard of her before? She was performing here just a couple days ago!
I would find no more luck down at the opera house. Not for the first time that day was my question welcomed with a reception of shaking heads and shrugging shoulders. Had everyone in this city gone completely mad? Or was this just the most elaborate practical joke in the history of Alexandria? No. I had the sinking feeling that a city full of artisans and vagabonds were far too preoccupied with their gerbil racing and planning a career for the up-and-coming space program to be bothered with the effort. Of course, knowing this didn't make me feel any better.
When I could take no more, I skulked back with my tail between my legs, defeated. I couldnt think of a more fitting punishment than to abandon the district trams altogether. If it was true what they said about the Devil, in that his greatest talent was convincing the world he didn't exist, than this Celes person was as close a creature to the Devil as I had ever encountered. She had had such a vicarious impact on my life these past few weeks, and now it was as though she had skirted reality as feasibly as a sword thrust. I no longer wanted to think about it. Best to just report her to the royal guard and be done with it. If she existed at all, Alexandria would ensure that she was found and executed.
And if she didn't exist, well, all the better.
The sun was directly overhead by the time I made it back to the castle. My feet felt scorched inside of my greaves. They moved like the hooves of a chocobo that had just finished circumnavigating all of Gaia. A long, hot bath was just what I needed right now. I felt like throwing my clothes off and never putting them on again. A brief spell of nausea came over me then, when it occurred to me just how much like every other Alexandrian I had become. The simple comforts, the needless distractions, the necessity of being ignorant. Oh well. I suppose even the most hardened of warriors soften up after long enough.
Plodding up one of the bastion's many spiral staircases, I decided it was best to first pay my classroom a visit, to at least post notice that the lesson for today would be cancelled. As I neared the large oak doors of the seminar hall, however, I picked up on what I thought for sure was page-turning. Rounding the last bend of curlicues, I saw Steiner: back on to me; hunched over; rifling through 'Heroes of the Bronze Age' with silken fingers. I gave a knock upon one of the open double doors to get his attention. He jerked up and looked at me.
Oh my God, what happened to you?
He seemed affronted from the question, each of his freshly blackened eyes narrowing upon me in suspicion.
You have a lot of nerve asking me something like that! He picked up the hardcover book from my desk by its spine, shaking it roughly as if to illustrate his point. Never mind what happened to me. What happened to you, and what's the meaning of all this?
I didn't immediately understand what he was driveling about. What did my favorite book have to do with anything?
Steiner, you have to listen to me! It's not important right now. We have a serious problem on our hands!
We do, indeed, he said to me, looking solemn and heartbroken. Goodbye, Beatrix.
Without another word or so much as a second glance, he turned and walked out of my life for good. It had a horrible finality to it this time. I didn't much care if I lost him as a lover, but I didn't want to lose him as a friend.
The tome on my desk hung open, pages rustling lazily in the wind all over again. Flapping to, flapping fro . . . then stopping as they caught on my bookmark. My breath caught in my throat as I glimpsed the picture from long ago. It was her, my new friend, a hero of the Bronze Age.
You're unbelievable, you know that?"
I reacted as though jabbed with a branding iron.
What do you see in that clown, anyway?"
Celes, what the hell is going on?!
Someone, or something, must have hit her with an Ugly spell, because this was not the opera diva I had befriended several weeks back. That woman, despite some very unsavory back-street behavior, was prim and proper, a starlet that could stir hearts and lift spirits. Sitting before me now in a nearby desk was something that had been twisted by war, warped by shellshock, rocked by everything that was low, base, and outright barbaric. Eyes kohl-rimmed . . . hair askew . . . flesh marred by a latticework of scars . . . no, this was not a woman.
This was a warhorse.
Honestly, you have got to be the dumbest woman I've had the misfortune of turning a sword up to.
Celes, why can't anyone remember you but me? Why is it no matter where I go or who I speak with, they all act as though you don't exist?
Maybe they're right, she said. Did it ever occur to you that maybe I don't really exist? Did it ever cross your mind even once?
I started to laugh, then stopped.
"I don't . . . think I understand."
Whats to understand? You were looking for some way to find the life you lost after the war. But you couldn't just up and start a battle with the first person that looked at you the wrong way. So, you went into seclusion, started to invest an active interest in the arts, in forgotten lore, in the history that came before your own. That's how you found . . . me.
From the Bronze Age.
She nodded. And when you found me, when you realized that you weren't the only one to suffer from a breakdown in an era of peace, it changed you. You're not the first person this has happened to. Whenever it is that people regain some part of themselves they had believed lost for good, they project it upon every facet of their life that has meaning. This is why you're at war with your own people. It's the reason you've been fighting shadows down dark alleyways every single night. But most importantly, it's why you've been teaching a generation of soldiers to prepare for a war that wouldn't happen otherwise.
What does my teaching have to do with anything?
Peace is destroying the will of these people one day at a time and little by little, one class after another, you're helping them to reaffirm it.
No, I told her. She reclined back in her seat, waiting in eager anticipation to poke holes in the story I had built for myself. That's not true. I have seen you before! You sang at the opera house!
That was Ruby.
No! I said, trying to shake loose the cobwebs. But . . . no. Well, I haven't been training soldiers! I teach them economics, and airship mechanics!
You don't know the first thing about economics, and you could care less about engineering. Why do you think 'Heroes of the Bronze Age' is their only textbook?
With a glance, I turned back towards the book resting on my desk. Each of the open pages was hen-scratched almost beyond recognition: passages underlined; entire sections of text circled; paragraphs annotated for emphasis. I was fighting against these facts vehemently now. No one's mind is designed to process this kind of information, least of all a warrior's mind!
You . . . attacked Steiner.
Technically, you were the one that popped Steiner one, though I must admit I'm a bit upset in not having the opportunity myself. What a dope.
This is impossible!
Get a grip, she said, touching my leg to steady me. Don't come apart on me now. This is the final scene, the part where the heroine proves the mettle of her worth to the audience.
No! I growled, as fiercely as my weakened state would allow me. Forget it! It's over! I have to leave this city before I do something I regret!
And consign Alexandria to its fate?
Peace is not fate!
What about destruction?
No! I . . . destruction?
She sighed and craned her head, as if to ask aloud why she had ever bothered in letting herself be discovered by the likes of me. So, she leaned forward again, fingers laced, dark eyes intent. I still have a hard time digesting what it was she told me next
Up until now, you've been projecting your knowledge of Celes Chere upon friends and pupils. An imagination is one thing; you're not hurting anyone. But what happens when you project that knowledge upon someone who's still looking for some identity of her own? Someone who is so malleable, so suggestive to the ideals of a single individual that it becomes a trial to tell one apart from the other?
I drew nearer to the one I thought was sitting before me.
It's one of mine, isn't it? It's one of my students.
The last of the genomes, and your protégé. Her name is . . .
* * *
Finally remembered my name, eh?
The dream faded like an unwanted memory, as I stared back up into the psychotic eyes of my finest student. A student I had corrupted with my own worldly anger, my hatred of peace, my everything.
Mikoto, listen to me The roar of Invincibles dive was deafening, but I fought for her to hear me all the same. I've involved you in something that has nothing to do with you. And I'm sorry! I'm so sorry.
Save it until we're back on the ground. She made a loud roll call over the ship's PA system for the crew to report to the escape pods. The time had come for us to leave. We only have a minute and a half to get off this thing.
A minute and a half?! Had I lost track of time yet again?!
Don't do this! I cried, tears spilling down over my cheeks. I hadn't cried since I was six, but I was crying now. This had to end. You don't know what you're doing!
Her hips jutted to one side with annoyance, one hand gripping her waist while the other clutched her sword. It looked as though she were trying to strangle the serpent head that was soldered to its hilt. Her resemblance to the Magitek Knight was eerie. What I'm doing is what we wanted from the very beginning.
No! I don't want it anymore! I've never wanted it!
That's your problem, not mine! You made me what I am, preaching about the importance of conflict, upheaval, and how to swing a sword. You taught me what it meant for the weak to rise up against the strong, for the disenfranchised to rebel against the wealthy. And now youre just going to deny it all?! I was the only real student you ever had!
Make me your enemy, then.
And everything stopped. Throughout all of the verbal and physical attacks we had dealt to one another over the course of these last several weeks, never had such a retort frozen this genome woman in her place as it had done at that precise moment.
What did you say?
You're not angry because you have no war to fight, you're angry because you have no enemy to share it with. If that's what it will take to end this, I'll be the enemy that you're looking for. Let us end this the same way we started it - by the sword!
The lights of the flight deck started to flicker and die. Dark lumps of cumulus stretched away from the bow of the ship, beckoning like the final curtain call. Something was going to end this day, one way or another.
History without war has no future, she told me, punching at the helm's controls. It stands still. The two of us could change that, together. The intermission would end, giving history a chance to begin anew. Isn't that what we really want?
What I want . . . is one last good fight before I die.
She smiled a satisfied smile, before pressing a red blinking button on the navicom. Invincible trembled to a screeching midair halt as the reverse thrust kicked in. I went careening towards a nearby wall, the ornate steel of the ship catching me in the skull but also breaking apart the chair I was chained to. Brushing the cast-iron links and wooden splinters aside in an unceremonious pile, I picked myself up - dazed, but eager for our final lesson.
I don't have a sword.
Allay! she commanded, twirling her blade about in a figure eight pattern around her. Or we finish what we started with Alexandria!
I could practically feel my heels whipcrack as I vaulted towards her, more concentrated upon the airship helm than my tailed captor. Her eyes were the faster though, following each of my movements even before I was fully able to complete them. The blade came down across my right side, promising ruin. I skirted left, trapping her arm and loosing pain across her jaw with three quick flicks of my wrist. She'd do her damnest, work her worst, to try and get the best of her mentor of all people. I knew, because I was once the young and impetuous pupil myself, always eager to learn a new lesson in the harshest possible way.
What hope do you think you have? she asked of me, ducking as my fist came back around for a fourth try. I move like you move, I know everything Celes knew. We're evenly matched.
I jerked my arm back the opposite way, clotheslining her, spilling her spread eagle onto the deck. The sword spun from her grasp over the edge of the tier.
No, I replied, Now we're evenly matched.
I scrambled for the controls, trying to recall something about airship navigation I had either learned or taught at some point. But Celes - or whoever she was - was right. I didn't know anything about this. So many buttons and switches and levers. I took hold of the helm tentatively. Maybe I could
But Mikoto was back on her feet by that time, grabbing me by the cape and flinging me back around. The helm came with me, pitching us both into a weightless breakfall. Invincible banked sharply to the left, barrel-rolling around us. When I looked again, she was rising only half steadily . . . on the ceiling?
Incredible! We were upside down, still plummeting to earth uncontrollably!
It didn't matter now. Alexandria was in the clear. No harm would come to its people today. All that was left was to incapacitate this woman long enough to jump ship. Could I make it?
Get up, Mikoto scowled, teeth clenched. You're . . . uh, stronger than this.
I ran along the uneven footing of the cabin's roof, leaping and kicking at the air. The genome danced clear of the mark, retaliating with several lightning-quick kicks and punches of her own. Each fist parried, every metal greave deflected, I counterattacked. All that had come before this seems so insignificant, even the epic battle against Kuja seemed to pale in comparison. This was all my doing. I had taken this blank slate of a woman and turned her into a hardened warrior almost overnight. I made her. I had to unmake her.
Before she unmade me, before she unmade the world - again!
The seconds slipped by, promising death with each missed opportunity, each foiled roundhouse blow. I ducked another outflung wrist and jabbed, knocking her back. She rebounded as I plucked the next of her kicks from the air, getting belted myself as her body twisted back head over heels. The force of the impact had me muddled with dizziness, but I pushed myself back into the tumult all the same. No time to rest, no time to regroup. A life made easy? A battle with a quick fix? I had no concept of either. For me, there was only combat. It was what I did, and I did it well.
With all the finesse I could muster in my current state of mind, I feinted, trying to lure her into some false sense of security. Blinded by her ability to handle herself, she dodged the faux blow without hesitation. In quick success, fist after fist, I launched my assault. And no retort from the one I had once called a student, no well-rounded defense to weather the storm of my barrage now. I had her!
The lights dimmed
I jerked back up in the sudden darkness, still feeling the ship spiral down into its maddening collision course with the ground. In seconds, it would all be over. There probably wasn't any such time left as to make a clean getaway anymore, but I would be damned if I was going to let my last enemy ever just waltz right over me. What if she survived somehow? What if she lived to transmit the hatred I had instilled her with to someone else? Somewhere else? It had to end here.
The curtains parted
The shriek sound of a rediscovered blade jarred me away from the rapidly approaching ocean beyond the porthole. Give me a warrior's death, I thought quietly, fading back as Mikoto threw her sword arm out to decapitate me. As every bit visionless as I was, I had little difficulty in landing a few more solid smacks across her chops as she followed through with the missed swipes. My final moment. My finest moment.
You are more at fault for this whole ordeal than I am, I said at last, trying to wind her up.
How do you figure?
You were an individual once. Her tail came up around me from out of nowhere, accosting me by an arm drawn back in midswing. You had the right to chose your own path in life, not follow in the footsteps of someone else. A pity now that it's all about to be taken from you.
In a moment of weakness, with oblivion about to descend on us both, there is no sight in the world that can play more ardently on your heartstrings than a born-again genome that has suddenly realized it had wasted its life.
What are you she stammered, feeling the hopelessness beginning to mount. What are you saying?
In the span of a few weeks, you had almost laid waste to the greatest kingdom in all of Gaia. Imagine what you could have done with your life if you had decided to live it your own way.
She didn't reply indeed, she couldn't. It would have almost been comical to be looking at a Celes Chere look-alike then and there, if not for her abrupt air curtailing, the swift, bestial intensity that possessed her to finish me off. Even I couldn't move fast enough then, for truly there was little in this world or any other that could deter a genome when it had its construct of a mind set on something.
But for some reason, I wouldn't let it matter anymore. For peace, the likes of which even I could embrace wholeheartedly, came to me then. Mere meters away from the ship, an endless black sea, rippling in the moonlight, beckoned for us both the dusk requiem, the final act, our ruin. And I smiled, mouthing silent gratitude as everything came undone around me.
A warrior's death, after all.
* * *
So yeah, that's how I got here.
Beatrix took in a weary breath as Celes Chere - the real Celes Chere - sat in silent wonder over the woman's anecdote. By a staggering coincidence, the two were fortunate enough to be seated next to each other while the Phantom Train rattled on through the ethereal landscape of the afterlife. All of the realms in every conceivable corner of the cosmos went forgotten as the two former generals related to each other the events of their life (and death) stories.
Astounding, she said, putting forth a conscious effort to make her mouth work. I'm not sure what to say. I suppose, I mean, it would be only right to say
Don't, the Alexandrian replied. Don't apologize. It's my fault, really. I was out in a mad dash to make myself part of the history books, to 'hog the limelight' you might say.
Well, such is the way of life's starlets. She looked around at some of the other passengers close by, wondering if their tales were anywhere near so complex as this one. Such is the opera house of life.
Celes smiled, shaking her head slightly. Nothing, just something Impresario used to tell me. He'd say that all of life was an opera house. There are those that perform, and there are those that watch. Some of us puzzle through the many mysteries from one act to the next, while others sit in the shadows backstage, putting together mysteries of our own. And no ones role is what it appears to be on the surface.
Fascinating, said the one-eyed general, though she clearly sounded anything but fascinated.
What I don't understand is, how this Mikoto woman was able to capture you. And how did the two of you wind up aboard the Invincible?
All very good questions, though none of which Beatrix wished to devote any more time to. Maybe she had slept through the ordeal, maybe she had been kidnapped, maybe she picked up on the airship about to leave dry dock and was sneak attacked in the process. She'd never cease to wonder, just as she was sure the history books of Alexandria would never cease to speculate. But she was done talking about it - for now.
Why don't you tell me how you got here? I only know bits and pieces of the story myself.
That seemed to sober the Runic Knight up in a hurry.
Well, I'm not so sure I'm ready to talk about it just yet. Maybe when this train ends
Beatrix pushed her long, dark hair back to one side of her face, looking impatient. We've been on this train forever already. When is it going to stop?
If there's anything life has taught either of us, Celes replied, It's that we shouldn't be in such a mad rush to get to our destination. Let's just enjoy the journey, okay?
The Alexandrian had nothing to say to that.
~ THE END ~
All That Glitters Is Cold 3 Fanfic Competition
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