The pilgrimage arrives in Luca, where the Tidus and Wakka Memorial Cup is in full swing.
Despite his pleas, Kiyuri insisted on flying Bevelle's crests for arrival in Luca. The Grand Maester would have his due, even if it dashed his hopes of slipping through the city quickly and quietly. Judging by the din from the docks, Isaaru would do neither. Other cities welcomed maesters with hymns and ceremonial; only Luca could sprout souvenir stands and hawkers in the time it took for the SS Korra to hoist sails at sunrise and put into port. Cheering crowds waved prayer flags. Sphere cameras flashed up and down the waterfront like so many pyreflies. Children clutched collectible summoner statues and played dueling aeons while waiting for the ship to dock. Over the general hubbub, the public address system blared a breezy patter, the local equivalent of pious homage.
"Ladieeees and gentleman, we'll return to the pre-game show shortly. But first, here's an exclusive update on today's developing news story. The SS Korra has arrived at Dock Three. We can now confirm that Grand Maester Isaaru is aboard. We repeat, Grand Maester Isaaru has arrived! We missed him at the High Summoner's festival, but he's joined us for Luca's most famous tournament, the Eleventh Annual Sir Tidus and Sir Wakka Memorial Cup! And it looks like all Luca's turned out to welcome the ruler of Yevon and the undisputed leader of Spira!"
"While we wait for the maester's party to disembark, Jimma, this is a good time to remind folks of the new security measures in place at the stadium for our fans' safety. All bags will be searched, and machina not approved by Yevon will be confiscated. Sphere cameras with Yevon's seal are permitted. If you're wearing goggles, please remove them as you approach the turnstyles—"
Isaaru waved to the crowd placidly while the crew prepared to lower the ship's ramp. Maroda shook his head at the broadcast. "It's only going to get worse, the longer Sin's out there."
Isaaru nodded. "One more reason to be on our way."
"Some people are sayin' the Al Bhed are planning to attack Yevon," Pacce explained to Auron. "They've almost disappeared in the last year except for tournaments. The warrior monks say they're up to something."
Auron snorted. "Keeping out of Sin's path."
"We know that," Maroda said. "But the rest of Spira needs a scapegoat."
"The maesters know it too," Isaaru said firmly. "There will be no war between Yevon and those who should be our allies this time, Maroda, I promise you."
"That depends on your replacement," Maroda said. "I still think you shouldn't—"
Captain Kiyuri, barking orders over her shoulder, abruptly caromed between guardians and summoner. "Hey! Get that dock cleared before you drop a gangplank on someone's head!" She turned to Isaaru. "Almost ready, Your Grace. But I wish you'd reconsider. The repairs should only take a few days. Seal a few seams, replace a few beams— we can catch you up in Djose, bring you the rest of the way to Bevelle."
"Nay, Kiyuri, you've played your part. Mine is to tread the summoner's road; yours to keep your ship intact. Your chances of that will be better without us. If you would yet serve Yevon, hasten to Bevelle and bring tidings to the other maesters. Tell them what we have seen of Sin and advise them to evacuate the temple district and as much of the eastern quarter as possible."
"Yes, Your Grace." She bowed. "We'll pray for you. And... you, there! Where'd you learn to coil a line like that, the Besaid weavers' guild? It's rope, not a rug!" With that, the captain charged off again. Isaaru pinched the bridge of his nose and resumed waving, his smile fraying ever so slightly as the announcers' commentary washed over them.
/"Lord Isaaru replaced Grand Maester Mika thirteen years ago at the beginning of High Summoner Yuna's Calm, and no maester has done more to restore Spira's confidence in Yevon."
"Speaking of High Summoner Yuna, wasn't Lord Isaaru a summoner himself once upon a time?"
"That's right, Jimma! And by the way, it looks like his old guardians are with him today. The man with the tan is Maroda, captain of the Yocun Crusaders who've finally made the Calm Lands live up to their name. On the right is their younger brother Pacce, fresh from training and a full-fledged warrior monk of St. Bevelle!"
"Quite an accomplishment at his age, Bobba. You know, by my calculations, he must have been less than ten years old the last time he was a guardian—"/
"Stop puffing," Maroda muttered. "You look like a rutting chocobo."
"Do not!" Pacce said, glancing back at Auron furtively to see how he was handling the publicity.
The white-haired guardian seemed oblivious, slouching with his arm slung in his coat and a vaguely bored expression. He stirred when the gangway slammed down. "Let's move."
Isaaru strode to the top of the ramp and paused there for a sweeping bow, bestowing Yevon's blessing on those below. A mirroring ripple of bows spread out across the crowd. At the base of the ramp, a semicircle of local Crusaders was holding back the crush of people. An officer in a red-kilted uniform stood at attention before them. Isaaru was spared the need for speechmaking by the loudspeaker crackling to life again.
/"Hoooooold everything, folks, do you see what I see? It's the one, the only, the legendary Siiiiiiiir Auron, guardian to both High Summoner Braska and Yuna, the most successful guardian in history!"
"He sure is, Bobba. It looks like Grand Maester Isaaru's pulling out all the stops to add 'High Summoner' to his resumé."/
"I keep tellin' you, Isaaru," Maroda said. "Spherecasts use forbidden machina. For Yevon's sake, ban them." The two younger brothers marched shoulder to shoulder ahead of Isaaru; Auron, as usual, was guarding the rear.
"Your Grace," the waiting officer said crisply, dissolving into a broad grin as they drew close. "About time you got here. Follow me, please; the general sent me to make sure you didn't get away."
"Thank you, Elma," Isaaru said faintly. "Maester Lucil is here, I hope? We've much to discuss."
"Yes, sir. I hope you've got a speech ready, sir; she's expecting you at the stadium. There'll be time to talk once the game's started. This way, sir." Shooting Sir Auron a curious glance, the wiry woman gestured for the Crusaders to surround them. She set off at a brisk clip.
Just in time: a reporter with a cameraman in tow was using a large microphone like a ship's prow to cleave a path through the crowd. "Your Grace!" she called after them. "We'd just like a quick interview...Lord Isaaru, please!"
"Don't look back," Maroda growled. "Whatever you do, don't make eye contact."
"I trust you to defend me," Isaaru said serenely, "even from those who wield such fearsome machina."
"Phew," Pacce said as they broke free of the main press of people piled onto the dock. "Almost as bad as the field exam."
"Congratulations, by the way," Elma said.
"Thank you, ma'am!"
"You owe me fifty gil, Commander," Maroda said.
"Not until I see his sword-work for myself," she said affably. "Gotta make sure they didn't go easy on him for your sake and Lord Isaaru's."
"Like we'd pull any strings."
"No, but those machina-wielding sissies spend all their time playing temple doorposts and escorting dignitaries in places that never see fiends. They're probably terrified of Captain Maroda and his gang of Calm Lands thugs."
"Elma," Isaaru said quietly. "Please. I lost several warrior monks on our voyage. Good men."
"Oh...dear. I'm very sorry, Your Grace."
"...Isn't this exciting, folks? And now we continue our live coverage of the Opening Ceremonies. Be sure to stay tuned at halftime for all the latest news on Besaid and Kilika. We'll have interviews with the captain and crew of Lord Isaaru's vessel, including an exclusive eyewitness report giving a play-by-play of a guardian's epic battle with Sin!"
Elma raised an eyebrow. "Epic battle?"
"Sir Auron, of course," Isaaru said. "You'll hear the whole story shortly."
"We'd better," she said, giving the white-haired guardian another respectful glance. "We feared the worst, Your Grace, when your ship didn't turn up."
"Didn't you get my messages?" Isaaru said, dismayed. "A merchant promised to relay them. I pray he did not meet with some mishap!"
"We got 'em, sir, but the general was fit to be tied when she heard where you'd gone. If you hadn't turned up today, she'd have sent me after you as soon as the tournament was over."
Auron, who had been scanning the tide of faces flowing past, abruptly spoke. "Wakka. Is he here today?"
"Not that I've heard, sir," Elma said. "The tournament was named for him and Sir Tidus, but he's not been seen in Luca in ten years. Don't you know where he is?"
"We...parted ways after the pilgrimage."
"Ah." Elma frowned and exchanged glances with Maroda, who shook his head.
Isaaru was starting to lag behind. "Commander," he called with a chuckle, "not all of us are trained to keep up with chocobos."
"Oh! Pardon me, sir." She dropped back a few paces. "Wish I could've met you with a few, but there just isn't room for 'em in town."
For a time they were carried along by the late crowd rushing for the stadium until a jam outside the main entrance caused another check. Elma veered off and led them around to a side entrance. "Biggs— yep, we've picked up a stray maester; have stadium security on full alert— don't let Shaami and her reporters in here; use batons if you have to— this way, your Grace!"
Whatever weariness Isaaru felt was masked the moment they emerged from the stairwell into the blaze of sunlight and a barrage of sound. While the crowd's roar threatened to shake loose the fields holding the sphere pool suspended, the beaming maester led the way around the stadium's perimeter. He paused now and again to grasp someone's hand or bless a toddler held out to him. Finally he reached the raised platform on the far side, where the team captains were just exiting en route to their locker rooms. Isaaru shook hands with each of them. At last he mounted the dais where Lucil stood waiting, forearm and fist raised in a military salute despite the voluminous maester's robes she now wore. Her eyes flicked from Isaaru to those behind him, resting a beat on Sir Auron. She bowed stiffly and pushed herself away from the podium, gesturing towards it in silent invitation. Elma moved unobtrusively to Lucil's side while Isaaru strode forward confidently to take her place.
Isaaru raised his hands, summoning silence. "People of Spira! Glad indeed are my brothers and I that we could be with you today by the grace of Yevon, despite Sin's obstructions." Murmurs swirled around the stadium as he paused to pray. "I will not keep you long from the day's festivities. But I have heard your pleas and know your fears, and so it is my humble honor to announce that I will be stepping down as maester in order to resume my pilgrimage. In Yevon's name, I vow to do all that lies in my power to shield you and serve you as Lady Yuna and her noble father did before. With Sir Auron and my brothers at my side, I have the best of help, and have no doubt we shall succeed." He smiled, waiting for the roar to ebb.
"But for today, even the rigors of pilgrimage should be set aside to honor the glory of blitzball and the celebration of life which is Luca's finest art. I'm sure that Sir Tidus and Sir Wakka would say that the pursuit of joy is another form of courage in Sin's despite.
"Last but not least, it is my great delight to introduce to you a man who needs no introduction, mentor to Sir Tidus and guardian to Lady Yuna and Lord Braska, the legend himself. Sir Auron, would you care to share a few words with us about your fellow guardians, in whose honor today's tournament is named?"
Auron gave him a withering look and stepped forward into the range of the hidden microphone. "Two," he said. "As Wakka and Tidus used to say before battle: 'Let's blitz.'"
A thunderous burst of applause crashed over them. Isaaru sank into the high seat next to Lucil. Guardians fanned out on his right while the crusaders sealed off the left side of the platform, Elma waiting attentively at Lucil's side. The buzzer sounded. Lucil turned to Isaaru as the match began.
"Resigning, my lord? That should have been broached first with your fellow maesters. But I am glad indeed to see you and your brothers in one piece, and Sir Auron as well."
"My apologies, General, but there wasn't time. Sin's stepped up its attacks. Besaid is gone. Kilika was spared, apart from the temple. We fear Djose will be the next target."
"If so, it will pass here first." Lucil glanced at Elma.
"The watch is on full alert, ma'am. We'll know the instant Sin shows so much as a scale."
"Very good, Commander. All right, my lord, tell us your tale."