[03.23.00] » by Matthew Schuele
Every once in a while there had been someone out in the rain during a storm. Most of them died out on the rocks, as would be expected, and some died during those explosions of light from the sky that had become less linear and more formless than lightning since the cloud cover got to be too much to see those individual brilliant forks. And occasionally a dispatch from one of the oppida ringing Centra Prima would indicate that one of those weary travelers had made it across the rocky plain. Sitting in the protective warmth of the Kastle with a view of the window from her similarly warm, if rather small, bed, she had frequently wondered with the typical arrogance of a noble as to how anyone could possibly be so stupid as to be running in the rain, out on the barren Kape.
Having decided from the throbbing, twisting pain in her ankle that the ditch she’d landed in after her last misstep on the rock bridges over the mud was a good enough place to spend the night, Ultimecia had found the answer. Anything and everything could put one out in that storm-serrated, thick and fathomless darkness, and for her, it was beginning to look increasingly like the entirety of her life prior to that moment had been leading up to the midnight trek from her surrogate home. She cried softly, not knowing what else there could possibly be to do anymore.
She had been tagged from the start-- Ultimecia. A fitting moniker, her mother’s death in that last childbirth considered. "The last," indeed. She was cursed from the outset in the peoples’ eyes-- as the old arts slipped further into obscurity, the increasing prevalence of magic used dragged along with it the associated superstition. The public was more and more of the mind that little, if anything, happened without a reason behind it, and along with such attitudes came a plague of invented angels and demons.
Being the daughter of a noble, though, allowed her certain special privileges regardless of public opinion or superstition, chief among these the eventual guarantee of a ladyship at the court, given a certain amount of effort and study. Guarantees had become increasingly rare over the past centuries, and any that remained were typically taken full advantage of. Her home life was nothing much to speak of-- three sisters largely ignored her but for Doloris, three years older than Ultimecia herself, whose attitude toward her sole younger sister ranged from indifference to outright cruelty. Her father was heavily dedicated to his work as a magic scientist, and typically they had a succession of hired staff to deal with in lieu of either parent. Even when her father was around, Ultimecia noted, he seemed to have quite a lot more time for the other three than for her. Given the attitudes of the day in combination with the circumstances of her own birth, Ultimecia could understand, and from that understanding could derive at least a little hope-- that she herself had done nothing to deserve the treatment.
And the the world roiled inexorably along toward that night spent in the storm, as well. Centures before, when Deling was taken captive by SeeDs hired by the Timber Owls, an outraged Galbadia expanded their declaration of war to the island nation of Balamb. Balamb was unable to stand on its own, naturally, against the full brunt of the Galbadian onslaught, but at the same time Galbadia began to spread onto largely uninhabited Centra and then onto the continent of Esthar, where it was greeted in a decidedly hostile manner by the country that turned out to be, despite its isolation, the most technically advanced to be found anywhere on the globe. An alliance between the small, beseiged Trabia and Balamb and the unexpectedly mammoth Esthar was formed for the duration of the war. Missile strikes had everything moved onto Esthar, pushing the city limits further and further into the Great Plain. Meanwhile, the deadly metal rain upon Galbadia itself swept in a wave of devastation down from the north, pushing Galbadian civilization further and further onto Centra.
And tensions snapped two centuries before Ultimecia’s birth, as self-proclaimed Sorceress’ Knight Seifer Almasy rescued Sorceress Adel from her prison in deep space, and brought her "home"-- to his adopted home, what had been known then as the Cape of Good Hope-- the modern Kape.
Adel promptly took control of things and funneled the remaining passions of the increasingly discouraged Centra / Galbadians back into the fight, at the same time setting up a ruling system led by the Sorceress, passed down to the family’s oldest living daughter, or if not that then to the Sorceress’ oldest living sister, and at the very last to the wife of the imperator, the oldest living son of the Sorceress. The Sorceress’ husband, given these cases, was called the King, though all the political power he had direct control over regarded an official advisorship to the Sorceress, a position on the Royal Council, and a high military rank. The King wasn’t even necessarily expected to exercise any such power-- it was, at the most, his choice to do so.
During the first decades of Ultimecia’s life, Sorceress Phaedra ruled Centra from Centra Sekunda, the city built by Adel and Seifer on the Kape. Phaedra was known as a competent ruler, at the least, andit was true that her command of the military was renowned for its efficiency, if not its bloodlessness-- the SeeDs had been driven from the Kashkabald Desert under her rule, most notably, bringing the entirety of the Centra archipelago under Centra control. Her husband had died before the birth of Phaedra’s only child, and that with the Sorceress at the age of thirty-eight. Phaedra’s son was called Lokus, Locus in the colloquial, and was much talked-about, seeing as his future wife would become the ruler of half the civilized world.
And what had culture and technology wrought, during that time? Centures of warfare had led to gunblades that never needed recharging, guns that fired almost-silent bursts of magic identifiable only by the green energy burst wherever the shot hit, and a host of other instruments of destruction. The rest of technology had all but ceased progress from the time that Esthar joined the war, and magic was more and more frequently employed in everyday use. All towns and people became part of the great megalopolis in Esthar, and on Centra, all who didn’t live in Centra Sekunda or Centra Prima (also called Urbs Odinis, after its founder) lived in the surrounding oppida. The arts had become seen as a architectural and aesthetic necessities, final proof that a necessity in either category was not a contradiction in terms, and both dress and architecture became increasingly elaborate and colorful, with the latter particularly assuming a strange blend of Galbadian Victorian-Industrial stylings and Estharian decoration and smoothness.
And these were the circumstances under which Ultimecia’s childhood played out. She idolized her oldest sister, Psyche, ten years older than herself, and respected Danae, by two years Psyche’s younger, and felt an odd mix of loathing and affection for Doloris, the closest in age to Ultimecia herself. And for her father... her father was somewhere and something else entirely. He was a hero, she was often told, a major driving force behind the continued freedom and life of the people of Centra. That he was only thus in the sense that his work with magic was aiding Centra troops in fighting the war and keeping it from the settled portions of the archipelago bothered few people-- the national mentality leaned decidedly towards a fight-or-die attitude, and rarely did the armies want for soldiers or artillery operators. A mixture of awe and fear were always present within Ultimecia when near her father, but on a deeper level, there was something much more powerful acting within her:
She wanted to be accepted, to be loved, to be cared for. This became what she wanted, even when she had all and more of it than should have been, by any logical analysis, necessary to fill the gap left by one person.
So Ultimecia studied in preparation to become a lady of the court. The schooling given to girls preparing for this role ranged across topics as diverse as handwriting and language, mathematics and politics, etiquette and swordfighting, magic and the art of war. She saw her sisters progress through their own schooling and, at the usual age of seventeen, go off into their lives. Psyche became as radiant and brilliant as had been predicted all throughout her life, but was never to go to the palace-- indeed, she ended up living with a bard in Centra Prima. This was not a popular course of action among the nobles about Centra Sekunda, but Psyche was not typically one to let her actions be dictated by the flow of popular opinion. Ultimecia further idolized her for this. Danae did enter the court, and married a lord who oversaw certain business dealings within Centra Sekunda. Two years later, when Ultimecia was eleven years old, Danae was found hanging from a length of cord (which was itself covered with her own fingerprints, and no one else’s) strung from the branch of a dead oak tree in the slums of Centra Sekunda, for reasons that Ultimecia would not fully understand for three years more. And at sixteen, Doloris was found to have a certain amount of extra money of uncertain origin-- and her father’s survey of a few of the city’s gentlemen with the appropriate sort of reputations readily explained the source of this extra income. Doloris was not disowned, and her father would never consider turning her over to the police, but she was told not to return home until she had become a member of a profession that was, at the very least, legal. Ultimecia was not long in discovering that her youngest sister had a particular combination of mental disorder and animosity toward a distant father that had given her trouble all through life, and Ultimecia’s one-time hatred of the sibling that used to cruelly manipulate her was dissolved almost entirely into something much more like pity.
By seventeen, Ultimecia was ready to enter the palace itself and the life that went along with it. She had matured into a pretty, slender young woman, with straight dark brown hair that fell a few inches past her shoulders. Over her long years of education she’d learned a number of things vital to her life in the palace court: the art of swordfighting; the subtleties of politics and diplomacy; the proper etiquette for a lady of the court; the refined, royal speech, including most importantly the ability to speak in such a way as to orally communicate the use of ‘k’s in place of hard ‘c’s. She never found the nature of her task and education sexist-- yes, she was expected to follow certain oppressive guidelines, but the enforced matriarchy of Centra had brought about a sort of equality wherein the proper etiquette and attitudes were expected of everyone, male or female. She was also dimly aware that among the intended side effects of her schooling was a mild physcial and emotional dependence on the continued availability of pure magic, rather than draw-and-cast para-magic-- ensuring loyalty since the Sorceress had the power to take that ability away from anyone.
On that day, she and the other new ladies of the court were led by royal attendants to the magnificent palace, floating above the ocean, attached to the Kape by huge chains. To its sides were floating the wings reserved for the quarters of the palace staff, seperated so they could be detached and floated ashore in the case of an attack on the castle from without. A few birds sang out in the sky, in the far distance, their cries reverberating across the ocean; the sun shone bright in a sky peppered with fluffy white clouds that seemed to funnel toward the sun.
The castle was beautifully and lavishly decorated within, and Ultimecia could scarcely wait to explore as much of the palace as she could, but there were other things on the agenda for that day-- first and foremost, a meeting with Sorceress Phaedra and Lokus in the chapel, a tall room at the base of the clock tower with one wall covered from top to bottom with stained glass windows, and a huge and ancient pipe organ in front of that.
Lokus entered first, on a high balcony above the rest of the room. He wore black pants, tucked tightly into black boots above the ankle as was the fashion of the time, a dark blue shirt, and a long black coat rimmed with golden wire, decorated with flowing white designs, and belted at the waist. Around his neck hung a silver necklace. His thin face and shoulder-length hair were both very pale, while his eyes were dark grey, and a slight smile seemed to be tugging at the corner of his mouth. He was two months short of his twentieth birthday on that day.
Behind him, flanked by Sorceress Knights, was Phaedra. Over a heavily decorated dark brown dress she wore the distinctive marks of the sorceress-- the xerampelinae, a glossy red coat with a dark fur cape belted at the waist by a magical bronze buckle fashioned years ago by a previous sorceress to simplify the process of casting magic. Phaedra also had an angular, pale face and blonde hair which was several shades darker but graying rapidly, and fell to mid-back. Her face was lined and wrinkled from the stress of her occupation, and she walked with a slight but noticeable limp.
The assembled young women were addressed at length regarding the importance of their role to the future of the nation, but Ultimecia was concerned chiefly with the excitement boiling over within her. An entirely new life, one as free from the past as possible, seemed like quite a pleasant proposition to her.
The remainder of the day passed by in a flurry of further training from the lavender-costumed baronesses in her various assignments around the castle, exploration of the palace, and introduction to the life she would be living. All of her old clothing was sent back to her father’s estate-- one of the attendant ladies, the lowest rank among the women of the court, had only a few articles of clothing. The main ones, worn in public, were a fairly tight-fitting, high-necked brown dress, a flowing cloak of orange and yellow and red and a matching hat under which her hair was expected to be pulled back, and a pair of knee-high brown leather boots. Another article, a plain white cotton dress, almost a slip, with no sleeves, a low neck, and a skirt ending at mid-thigh was to be worn while sleeping. A few of the attendant ladies, including Ultimecia, were also given constricting articles to be worn high under their dresses in public-- it was not considered polite to be more attractive to a male noble than was a lady of a higher rank.
And the escape seemed welcome, at first, and for a long time thereafter, but in the middle of the night Ultimecia found herself reminiscing sadly, recalling the scene of the other girls’ families bidding them goodbye at the edge of town earlier that day.
"You’ve done well," her father had always failed to say. Something to that effect, at least.
Some weeks later, Ultimecia was feeding thin slices of apple to Griever, a pet creature of Lokus’s assigned to guard the housing wings. She ran a hand through the beast’s flowing at the same time. Over the few weeks here she’d developed a peculiar affection for the supposedly fearsome monster, particularly from being the only attendant assigned to care for him six days of the week.
"So, have you, ah, overheard anything partikularly worth repeating, of late?"
This one would not, thought Griever to her, be one to divulge secrets entrusted to him by the nobles.
"Even the ones kareless enough to forget your... intelligence...?" It was a sore topic with Catoblepas, who possessed human-level intelligence and was more skilled at telepathy than most.
Griever emitted aloud a soft growl. Well... one, through certain recent machinations, has kome to understand that Master Lokus is at this time building an automaton of a sort...
"Really? What use does he have for an automaton?"
It is, as this one understands it, merely a pet projekt of his-- it is almost a work of art as much as anything. Though Lokus officially held the honorary position of Sorceress Knight and was at least moderately skilled with a gunblade, he spent most of his time in his studio in the castle, painting and sculpting and building things which usually turned up around the castle in places where they were likely to be noticed.
Ultimecia was determined, at the very least, to make certain she’d be accepted and liked by the others living in the castle. It was this desire and drive that prompted her to go about her tasks in a generally cheerful manner, regardless of her actual mood, and in time the life of an attendant lady gradually pushed her life prior to that time out of her mind, until she could think of her father or sisters without any particular emotions bubbling suddenly to the surface as they once had. It also came to her attention that she had allowed herself very few friends up until this time; she only counted one of the other girls-- a tan, dark-haired, unusually tall young woman called Lucia-- as a real friend, and she remained so. Ultimecia made a few other accquaintances among the new attendant ladies with whom she could laugh and live and go through her daily tasks.
What was more, Lokus seemed to be taking a mild interest in Ultimecia, speaking to her for a few minutes most days, both of them talking in an awkwardly polite and formal manner. The new social role in which she lived gave her a different persepctive on all that had gone before, and increasingly she realized that she’d been aloof and distant for most of her life before this time. A new role was a chance at self-reinvention, and Ultimecia changed for the better as much as she could.
And yet, somewhere in the back of her mind was the looming dependence on pure magic, and certain impulses telling her that she needed to learn and to have more, more, endlessly more. That if this much pure magic was good, and had been good for her life-- and she correctly attributed much of her newfound boldness and vitality to the increased concentration of magic around the castle-- then how much better would it be to have even more?
At the same time, though she distrusted magic. Most people owned only one or two sets of clothing, each article woven with magical fibers so as to keep itself and the individual wearing it clean. Despite all this, though, Ultimecia always went by home and took a regular shower on her day off from Kastle duties. The absence of actual soap and water involved in the modern task of cleaning left her a little unconvinced.
Most of a year into her tenure at the Kastle, a decidedly unusual thing happened. Ultimecia had, over the course of their frequent meetings, come to felt as if she knew and trusted Lokus. This was to change, if only for a while.
Ultimecia shelved one of Lokus’ gunblades, setting it in the ornate black iron rack set against the wall. In the castle armory, the heir was busy sparring with a few other swordsmen, all of whom looked to be at similarly intermediate levels of skill. A few attendant ladies, meanwhile, attended them, putting away and fetching gunblades. Though most of the blades could be used for either the men or women’s training sessions, there were a few owned specifically by Lokus and a few the sole property of Phaedra.
"Here," said Lokus. "Hand me the one with the black handgrip." It was an older long-bladed design, rather than the asymmetrical curved swords more in vogue now, engraved at the hilt with the official royal Fire Cross seal-- presumably a weapon older than Lokus himself. Ultimecia followed the proper protocol as usual in presenting the sword, with a hand just above the hilt and a hand under the blade.
Lokus took the sword, sliced a few practice swings through the air, and asked, displaying a slight smile: "Which of my weapons, then, do you most favor...?"
The formal air with which the question was asked suggested the standard decorum test of a trick question. "The one you have chosen, of kourse, highness."
"No, rather I meant-- er-- well... which, then, is your personal favorite?"
"Oh. Um." Ultimecia eyed the rack of gunblades. In truth she’d been envying one of Lokus’ swords, a katana cut with an ornate bronze handle, for some time. "The third from the left."
"Oh?" The half-smile reappeared. "Take it. And... spar with me."
Ultimecia uttered something very high, surprised, monosyllabic, and decidedly in contrast with the hush that had abruptly fallen over the room. She lifted up the sword, at first in the formal manner out of force of habit, and then shifting to her own swordfighting posture. The sorceress’ reign had ushered in a strange sort of gender equality in that while almost all activities were appropriate for both sexes, it was not necessarily considered proper for both to do so together. Sparring was one of these things. It seemed as if Lokus was quite intent, though, on doing it anyway-- and given no real choice, Ultimecia set aside her formal hat and cloak on the rack provided and stepped into the sparring circle.
"And... draw." Lokus circled one way, slowly. Ultimecia completed the circle opposite him a bit unsteadily.
Lokus seemed to be waiting for Ultimecia to lash out. Given a few more moments, she did. Lokus easily sidestepped the weak slash and delivered one in return that came entirely too close, slicing a steep near-vertical cut from the neck of the dress to just below chest level. It wasn’t that Ultimecia wasn’t at least nearly Lokus’ equal, or maybe his better, in sword combat, but rather a principal of deferrence-- his higher rank suggested that it would be in her best interests to lose.
Another slow and unfocused blow was avoided, and Lokus cut down from the opposite direction, cutting a deep V-neck in the front of the dress. The other men began to laugh nervously. They, like Ultimecia, had decided that she’d essentially been brought forth to be humiliated.
That realization was enough to make Ultimecia decide to herself that principals of rank deferrence could be eschewed for the time being. Another useless strike was thrown out, but this time Ultimecia quickly blocked Lokus’ return attack and executed a particular dirty trick learned in her own sparring practice-- a slash preceded by a few fractions of a second by a boot to the stomach. Lokus was totally unprepared for the attack and stumbled backward, spilling over one of the racks of weapons. His own shirt, slashed, fell open. There was a very heavy and oppressive silence throughout the room.
Ultimecia turned a particular shade of red and exited very quickly, letting the gunblade clatter aside as she went. Lokus pulled on his black coat, set aside while sparring, and chuckled slightly in doing so, evaporating the atmosphere of shock that pervaded the training room. It was, after all, proper for one’s mood to reflect that of the person of highest rank in the room.
She’d managed to, in crawling beneath the bedsheets, closing her eyes, and making very little noise, calm down a bit. It was fortunate that Lucia took her time in arriving. The dark, tall girl sat on the side of the bed.
"Go to hell," suggested Ultimecia, very quietly.
Lucia sighed. "You still kan’t really handle social situations, it’d appear."
"That was not," hissed Ultimecia, still face-down under the covers, "just a social situation."
"No. It wasn’t... not really. But you kouldn’t have managed anything more taktful than running from the room?"
"He set me up to be humiliated."
"He was just trying to be friendly."
"You do not ‘be friendly’ in front of a large portion of the assembled lords and ladies of Centra. He knew very well what was going to happen. Lokus doesn’t kare about me-- I’m just another thing to him. Just another thing in his kollection."
Lucia bent closer to Ultimecia’s ear. "I don’t believe that’s true. He really does like you, you know."
"Well, and he’s the heir. The imperator. You understand what that means, don’t you?"
"Of kourse I understand. I don’t kare."
"Mm? Really? I kan tell when someone’s dependent."
The unexpected change of coversational tactic set Ultimecia off-guard for a moment. "On magik?"
"And you want more of it, don’t you?"
"Well... there’s nowhere to go but up, hm?"
"I don’t think I kould simply use someone like that."
"You kan. You do, one way or another. Everyone does." Lucia stood up. "You have to see... I really do want the best for you. I do. You really have a tendency to blow up sometimes. And I’m afraid one day, you’re going to take everyone in the vicinity with you." She withdrew a triangular scrap of brown leather from her cloak. "Aside from that, here’s the leftovers." She handed the scrap to Ultimecia, who re-affixed it to the front of the dress with a bit of simple magic. She heard the door close, and Lucia’s footsteps recede down the halls.
Ultimecia’s father died, and she was granted leave to attend the funeral and wake.
She walked through it, quietly and almost disinterestedly. Her father had died from a poision built up in his system over years of working in the lab. All right. She nodded softly and stared straight ahead.
She cried only once, when she was approached by her oldest sister, Psyche, her nearly-tangible radiance seeming to shine through the simple peasant’s garb she wore. As they embraced, Psyche’s tears conjured up memories of their father’s favoritism, and the sudden realization that it was too late for him to approve of her, ever again.
He had died not caring, and thus he’d remain. Ultimecia cried for that, and then later, cried over her guilt at such self-pity, and then gave up crying entirely, having forgotten what use there was in it in the first place. Nothing had changed.
On her way out of the cemetary, she passed a young woman dressed in tattered clothing making a valiant effort to persuade the guards to let her past despite the distinguishing notation burned forever into her ID: a bright red Pr. 3-- three convictions. Ultimecia tried for a moment to get a closer look at her face-- and turned quickly away, knowing what she would see and unwilling to see it. The woman’s skin was very, very pale.
And three days later, in the evening, she found herself with a chance to attain a certain amount of power.
There was a certain highly-secluded room in the Kastle with a glowing blue pool of something that was in equal parts water and pure magic. Only the Sorceress had the key, and while she was in the room it was guarded from the outside by two Sorceress Knights. This antechamber was of particular concern to Ultimecia that day-- in that she was among the three attendants present in it, and-- when it was handed out from the other side of the screen separating the two rooms-- actually carried the Sorceress’ Phaedra’s clothing (including, most importantly, the bronze buckle) to the small vault set into the wall where it was to remain until demanded back.
Ultimecia’s head spun for several minutes after having actually held the buckle. The amount and potency of magic it radiated was incredible-- totally unlike anything she’d experienced before. And given the two hours she stood in that antechamber among tatsefully-placed bits of sculpture, a few oil paintings, the two other attendants, and two Sorceress’ Knights, in total and awkward silence, she began to formulate a sort of a plan in her mind.
Would it work? she mentally checked several hundred times during that time. The answer consistently came up a delightful, empowering, and mildly disturbing yes. That was all there really was to it. Ultimecia slid off the bronze chain across the front of her cloak, removed a link, and re-attached it to the cloak. She spent the rest of the two hours magically refashioning the link, held out of sight behind her back, into a mirror image of the buckle.
The Knights suddenly began to move, having received Phaedra’s mental command. One of them took a heavily-decorated silk robe from its place on a hook on the wall and handed it to the other side of the thin screen, while the other gestured to Ultimecia. Ultimecia opened the vault and quickly switched the buckles, tucking the real one into an inside cloak pocket. The screen slid aside with a soft hiss, and Phaedra emerged wearing the silk robe, with her slight limp further accentuated and a slightly pale, sickly tone to her skin, which itself was getting thinner and thinner on her bones by the week.
Ultimecia handed the Sorceress the buckle, and Phaedra set it back into place with the same slight smile Lokus was known for-- had inherited, it would seem. After her thorough magic soaking, she couldn’t tell the difference between the massive power of the real bronze buckle and the slight residue still left in the copy, and probably wouldn’t for at least a day more, when Ultimecia would stealthily switch the false artifact for the genuine article. Ultimecia wasted no time in exiting-- it was her last assignment of the day-- and returning to her quarters.
She stumbled giddily into the room, her head still swimming, shut the door, lay on the bed, and pressed the buckle to her waist, the place it was to be worn with the xerampelinae. The power flowed through her, and she was much possessed by it. Ultimecia simply lay there, allowing the horizons of her consciousness to rush away in all directions at incredible lengths, seeming never to die down. After an indeterminate length of time the rush moved to be the back of her mind, and it occurred to Ultimecia that it must be some time of the night by now. Indeed, the lids of her eyes were growing heavy. She changed into the white cloth dress and went to bed, setting the artifact beneath the bed where its power still radiated up to her.
There was a knock at the door. She ignored it at first, until the knocking became more and more urgent. Ultimecia quickly uprooted a loose stone in the upper layer of the floor-- something she’d noticed quite by accident some time prior to that-- set the buckle in the space beneath it, and opened the door. Lucia stood there, also in the standard white cotton dress (with the addition of leather shoes, in her case,) looking (slightly down) at Ultimecia with a certain amount of anxiety in her expression. Ultimecia let her into the room, closing the door behind her.
"Did you hear?" inquired Lucia, excitedly.
"Hear? No... I..." Ultimecia’s attempt at sleep and sudden seperation from the artifact left her a bit groggy. "Hear what?"
"Phaedra’s channeling device-- you know, the bronze buckle she wears-- has been stolen. She’s storming about the Kastle looking for it now."
Ultimecia’s eyes grew wide with shock. "Er... where exaktly would she be looking for this thing?"
"On this floor, aktually--"
The door swung wide, opened by magic without a key. Lokus entered first and stood to the side of the doorway. Phaedra followed close behind him. Both were in their normal attire-- but the xerampelinae hung open over the dress beneath.
"I assume you understand the purpose of our visit," said Phaedra, scowling.
"Er... I haven’t... heard anything about where your device might by, Highness," replied Ultimecia.
"That’s so?" asked Lokus, stepping forward. "Bekause I feel almost as if I kan sense-- hm...?" Lokus had tripped, just deliberately enough to make it clear to Ultimecia and Lucia that it wasn’t entirely by accident, over the edge of the loose stone. "Now look at this."
This time, Phaedra’s eyes grew wide-- and her face livid. She snatched the buckle from its hiding place and set it back into the xerampelinae. "So, it was you... Ultimecia? And Lucia?"
Lucia opened her mouth to protest, but Ultimecia cut her off. "Lucia was not involved, Highness. I akted alone in stealing the device."
"Is this true, Lucia?"
The young woman started to reply to the effect that indeed it was, but took a furtive glance at the terrified face of her friend, and her course of action was decided. "Ultimecia is trying to take the blame from me, but I kannot lie. We kollaborated equally-- if it kan be kalled so, for the plan was mine-- in stealing your device. Punish me, then, as you will." It was Ultimecia’s turn to try to protest, but Phaedra waved her hand sharply and snapped:
"Yes, Lucia, you will be punished." And Phaedra thrusted her hand forward sharply, at a knife point. A flash of fire hit Lucia square in the face, and the impact sent her back against the stone well. She crumpled to her knees, and then fell face-down and unconscious.
Ultimecia shrieked wordlessly, dropped to her hands and knees, and turned her friend over to face her. Even the brief attack had, with the power of a Sorceress behind it, left its mark. Lucia’s nose looked broken, and the center of her face, to the lips and eyes, was charred almost black and disfigured. She was breathing-- not by much. Ultimecia began to incant a Cure.
Lokus, whose pale skin had turned to white stepped forward to face Phaedra. "Mother, are you sure that was not somewhat too... severe...?"
"You know the laws, and the punishments outlined therein." As Ultimecia’s gaze turned back up to Phaedra, the Sorceress brought her hand down sharply, raking hazy black magical whips that appeared just in time to strike across Ultimecia’s back, tearing three very thin gashes in the back of her dress-- and deep into her skin. Ultimecia cried out.
Lokus was beginning to look decidedly uncomfortable. "Mother--"
Another set of lashes. Ultimecia’s knees came out from under her, and she dropped to her stomach. The blood was pooling on the stones on either side of her. A storm had broken outside, and the rain beat upon the stones of the castle, as flashes of lighting accentuated each blow. The Sorceress couldn’t exactly control the weather in Centra, but it tended to, like any good subject, reflect her mood.
"This is really entirely too--" began Lokus, and Phaedra lashed out again.
"Stop it!" commanded Lokus with a sudden, startling authority, catching the whips about one outstretched arm, where they sliced gashes in his coat and arm. The whips dissolved into nothingness.
"You know the laws," Phaedra said flatly. "I am empowered to extrakt this punishment."
"Bekause you’re empowered to does not necessitate that you--" began Lokus. He was interrupted by a sudden fit of coughing from Lucia. Ultimecia stared straight down at the floor, for lack of anything else to do.
"I... ah... well..." Lucia breathed, raspingly. "Sorry..."
She breathed out heavily. Ultimecia listened for more breaths. Lightning flashed, twice. None came.
And she was out and over the window ledge and levitating jaggedly over the short expanse of ocean between the castle and land to the ground before she was even sure that she had gotten off the floor. Ultimecia hit the muddy Kape soil and began to run, past the city and vaguely to the east. Anywhere but there. Phaedra watched her go, quietly, as Lokus carried Lucia’s corpse from room to the Kastle mortuary.
Thus did Ultimecia spend the night in a ditch out in the storm. She awoke from that mud-wrapped sleep to find herself largely immobilized and staring up at the grey sky, from which a few drops of rain were still falling, and, finding herself unable to look down very far, discovered that she was encased almost to her chin in heavy mud, with only her hands protruding from the side.
She sat uncomfortably for some minutes until the hum of a hovercar could be heard in the distance, growing gradually closer. It seemed to park only a few feet from her. From the car came a hoverdisc carrying Lokus, which floated down to Ultimecia’s side. The technology was somewhat unfamiliar to her, as it was only used for inter-city transit-- due the ready availability of transport tunnels within the city-- of which there was increasingly less and less.
Lokus wordlessly took her hands, pulled her from the mud onto the hoverdisc, and helped her into the back seat of the black hovercar. The automatic pilot began to take them back to the Kastle at a leisurely pace. Ultimecia sat on a leather seat in the sleek black interior, her hands clutched tightly to the opposite arms, shivering from the cold. It was a few moments before Lokus, sitting opposite her, said anything.
"I’d offer to klean off the mud, but given the cirkumstances I suspekt that it’s all that’s kovering you any more."
"You know about Lucia, I presume."
She nodded again, and felt the sting of a tear in one eye. The only person who’d genuinely cared for her... and...
"I’m sorry. Truly. I had no idea that the Sorceress would reakt as severely as she did. Is there... is there anything I kan do to make it up to you?"
She sat in cold silence for almost a minute. Then: "You’d be indebted to an attendant?"
"Indebted to a friend," he amended, and a few moments later: "I’m sorry for much of the past weeks, aktually. I have treated you poorly... thoughtlessly. But I do kare about you."
"... do you mean that? Truly?"
"You’re not one to use words lightly."
"Then that’s what I ask of you. Kare. Please kare."
Over the course of the next year, hers was to become a household name.
Ultimecia married Lokus, and they continued to live, usually happily, in the Kastle. Phaedra, as was made very clear to certain of the Kastle inhabitants, was none too pleased about the identity of her successor, but there was nothing she could do to effect any sort of change. Certainly, her daughter-in-law, Lokus’ wife, was beyond the grasp of Phaedra’s right to punish and to make retribution however she saw fit.
Further adding to her annoyance was the fact that, some weeks after the wedding, Lokus added to his gallery a portrait of Ultimecia, who was in the painting wearing a dress of the particular hue of red traditionally reserved for the xerampelinae-- a portrait which Lokus had gone so far as to name "Xerampelinae." Clearly, Ultimecia’s mind was on her future role as Sorceress.
For Phaedra, the end came on a cold, rainy day late in the year, as she, Lokus, and Ultimecia studied a table-sized holographic map of the SeeD movements in Centra. Very simply, she began to cough and continued to do so for most of a minute.
"Mother, are you all right?" Lokus stood from his chair and hurried to her side.
"No, I suspekt that I am not." She began another fit of coughing.
Ultimecia followed Lokus as Phaedra fell from her chair. "Mother! I’ll-- er--" He looked at Ultimecia helplessly. "Kould you use Curaga? I kan’t..."
"All right." Ultimecia was a bit taken aback-- it wasn’t an uncommon spell-- but began to cast it anyway. She began to feel the ebb and flow of Phaedra’s life force, increasingly weak and thin, pushing at the edges of her consciousness, as it began to collapse and drain, and she prepared to push it back the other way.
Abruptly, a startling image burst into Ultimecia’s mind-- the sharp chiaroscuro of Lucia’s eyes against her distorted, burned face, seconds after Phaedra had exerted her vengeance for a crime that Lucia had taken no part in, and rage boiled suddenly up into her once more--
--and without being entirely conscious that she was doing it, Ultimecia mentally sped the drain of Phaedra’s remaining life force. The older woman’s head snapped up as she took a sharp look into Ultimecia’s eyes, but just as quickly, her gaze fell as her head lolled quietly to one side.
Lokus collapsed to his knees by his mother’s body. Ultimecia stood stunned, barely able to comprehend what she’d done, and regretting it instantly. "I’m sorry," she lied softly. "There was really nothing I kould do."
It was customary that the funeral and Sorceress Parade be on the held on consecutive days. Enough rumors of the history between Phaedra and her successor had gotten around that all those in attendance were fairly surprised that Ultimecia was grieving more apparently and audibly than anyone else at the funeral. Most people dismissed it as a false show of emotion displayed as a final act of concession to rank and class. Such a display was customary as well.
And it was customary for the new Sorceress to wear the xerampelinae, bronze buckle, silver helm, and ceremonial battle wings of the Sorceress on the day of the parade. The battle wings were a tangible sign of the role of the Sorceress, as, if worn by her, they would actually fuse to the Sorceress’ shoulderblades and function as somewhat effective wings.
It was not customary for the Sorceress to stumble, almost drunkenly, wearing only these things to the place where she was to make her speech, overlooking some several hundred thousand (and likely more) people gathered on that grey, misty day in the central square of Centra Sekunda. Ultimecia, having jumped abruptly in rank from attendant to Sorceress, was still a bit giddy with the massive increase in power and while her choice of attire was intentional (and, according to most of her new advisers, a massive and egregious violation of protocol; Ultimecia had assured them that she defined protocol, and not the other way around,) her awkward stumbling gait was certainly not. She began the speech on a very literally high note, fumbled for a moment, and feeling a pang of shame and Lokus’ hand on her shouder at once, stood up more confidently, smiled reassuringly at the nearest camera, started again.
At some length, yet managing to maintain a paucity of actual content as was customary for such speeches, Ultimecia described her plans to repel the invading SeeDs, putting the war back on even footing, and make the class system less oppressive to those toward its lower ranks. Even the pro-caste conservatives were obliged to applaud politely-- few people could say anything negative about a Sorceress and get away with it.
On the way back to the Kastle, Ultimecia asked that the hovercar be stopped as they passed a familiar scene: the pale, tattered prostitute, looking skinny and diseased through a pair of low-slung pants and a tight crop top, from her father’s funeral being harassed, this time by a couple of men in street clothes. There was no mistaking her face.
Silently, Ultimecia and Lokus walked from the car. The two men, awestruck, stepped aside. Ultimecia took the woman by the arm and led her quietly into the vehicle, which sped away again.
After a moment or two of silence as the young woman stared intently at her own knees, showing bare through ragged tears in her pants. Finally, Ultimecia broke the silence: "It’s been a long time. We have a lot to talk about."
"Th... thank you," Doloris stammered, continuing to avoid eye contact.
Ultimecia couldn’t afford to spend too much time with her rediscovered sister-- there was the business of civil law reform, after all, not to mention the fortification of outposts on the main continent to repel the supposed impending SeeD attack. She found all thse things particularly frustrating since it was becoming increasingly clear that Doloris did not have much time left to spend. With the same magical antidotes in common use for several centuries, many viruses-- particularly some of the nastier venereal diseases-- had become completely immune. Ultimecia watched her sister’s skin stretch tighter and tighter over her yellowed skeleton and atrophying muscle.
Besides that there was the matter of the stigmates, the customary swirling tattoos of the Sorceress. Ultimecia preferred to have them applied over a peiod of time, considering both the pain involved in the application of the marks and the dizzying side effects of the injection of so much magic into the system. After all, the stigmates were infused with a certain amount of power as well. Though Ultimecia received only one of the eight total tattoos each week, the side effects were sufficient to leave her a bit woozy for days after.
She had smashed the bronze buckle, and reabsorbed its power into her own, to help deal with the effects, closing the xerampelinae by normal means. An official government mouthpiece for the sorceress presented an interpretation of her initial brief and profane statement regarding another supposed violation of custom.
And every night Ultimecia sat with her sister, by her bedside in the room of the Kastle that used to be Ultimecia’s own, and held her hand, and talked. Lokus was beginning to handle more than his fair share of the affairs of state-- he’d reassured her, though, that he had enough experience doing so to feel comfortable and that she’d rapidly become more accustomed to leadership herself. Faint green splotches had begun to appear on Doloris’ skin.
"I’m going to die," Doloris croaked.
"You’re not. There are things that kan be done, there are ways to heal you--"
"Don’t lie to me." The sudden sharpness of the remark drew Ultimicia aback for a moment. "Sorry... I’m..." Doloris looked as if she was trying very hard not to cry. She turned her face away from Ultimecia. "Sorry..." And she stopped breathing.
Ultimecia wasn’t entirely sure what she was meant to do or say in a situation like this. So she continued to sit by the bedside, in the cold moonlight filtering through the window.
Some weeks later, there was an argument of a sort.
To be more precise, Ultimecia found heself engaged in something that was looking increasingly like a shouting match with Lokus on their balcony in Lokus’ gallery. The initial topic had been a certain ruling by Lokus, ruling in her stead for the time being, wherein he’d failed to eliminate one of the lower castes and bring all its members into a higher one when the Sorceress had told him specifically to do so.
"In matters of state, I am in kontrol--"
"You kan’t just remove an entire kaste without expekting reperkussions! There’s a huge amount of bureakracy necessary to--"
"The very thing I’ve been trying to remove--"
"But you kan’t. You simply kan’t make that sort of, well, abuse, frankly, of power--"
"Abuse?! This is not an abuse of power in any way; I’ve never abused--" She thought guiltily back to Phaedra’s death--
"You have! You do konstantly! You seem never to think about the--"
"Far from akkusing me of abusing my power, Lokus, you ought to konsider the fakt that it was you who disobeyed one of my orders..."
She turned away. "I wonder if that hasn’t been your intent all along."
"Hm?" He looked slightly puzzled, and a bit nervous.
"To kontrol me. To gain the power for yourself."
"You know that’s never been my intent!" He approached her. "You know that I love--"
"All the things in your kollektion. Yes. I do."
Lokus took put a hand on Ultimecia’s shoulder. "I think you’re misunderstanding me; that’s not how I think of you at all."
"I’m fairly sure that it is."
He turned her forcefully around. "I do not--"
"Get away!" she shrieked, surprising herself, and waved her hand sharply, throwing Lokus back against the railing. She stood transfixed as, seemingly in slow-motion, the railing cracked, throwing up a spray of dust. Lokus stumbled backward, over the edge, and fell to the floor far below.
Suddenly, time seemed to speed up from its unusually slow pace to being mind-numbingly fast. She was on the floor before she was totally conscious of what was going on. Under most circumstances, she’d likely have been able to help him, but the intent of a Sorceress, even for only as much as a fraction of a second, to hurt someone is a powerful and overriding thing.
The next thing she was totally conscious of was a feeling of emotional blackout, one that had been otherwise absent since her arrival at the Kastle. She listened to herself mechanically explain the accident leading to Lokus’ death, and nodded quietly when told that the SeeDs were attacking the city. She observed herself agreeing, with a blank stare at a very small and insignificant space on the opposite wall, that troops would have to be mobilized.
The weather had turned to a very overcast, cloudy sheet suspended in the sky. It was to stay that way until her death.