Maesters with far better intentions hash out plans for the next Operation Mi'ihen. Is this a good idea?
The carnival ambiance of the blitzball tournament had ebbed and flowed around Isaaru and his companions like another world pinned by pyreflies to a gigantic sphere. Fans screamed and cheered for their favorite players, bickered over team loyalties, lived and died with every goal. In the maesters' box, all was still.
Isaaru had been uncharacteristically stark, blunt, and brief as he narrated the bare bones of their journey. Now he and Lucil sat between two worlds, surrounded by a sea of noise, clapping when the crowd roared and feigning interest in a match that none but Pacce had actually watched, waiting for the final moments of a Bevelle upset ("That's one for the history books, folks!") to play out so that they could slip away to ponder the fate of the world.
As soon as the buzzer sounded and fans began piling towards exits and vendors, Isaaru and Lucil retired to a VIP suite below the maester's dais. The chamber was as dark as a Cloister of Trials, despite a few skylights. Luxurious furniture and refreshments could not disguise the fact that it had been built into the stadium's walls as a fortified retreat against attack— from Sin, or from an angry mob, to judge by its defenses. Years ago, Lucil had commanded the removal of all hidden machina weapons embedded in the heavy doors leading out to the stadium, but the peepholes of gunsights and the stripped mountings on the doors' inner face were a sober reminder of what Yevon could be.
Isaaru settled into a high-backed chair, his guardians forming a triangle around him. Elma discreetly helped Lucil into the seat across from him. The maester in charge of Yevon's military concealed her infirmity in public, but a chocobo accident had left her partially paralyzed below the waist. The younger woman— no longer young; there was a brown scar cutting a bare swath through her short salt-and-pepper hair, and her face had been tanned and weathered by years of riding— returned to the entrance to relay a few quick orders to the guards stationed outside, then pulled the doors shut and ambled back. "There. No one's going to disturb us for anything short of a Sin sighting. The next match is in forty-five minutes, if you mean to keep up appearances."
"Thank you, Commander," Isaaru said, forgetting that he was technically no longer the senior official in the room.
"Djose, then." Lucil steepled her hands in her lap, gazing at the wall as if her mind's eye were fixed on something past it. "Elma. Provide Summoner Isaaru and his party with mounts and escort them to Djose. Send ahead couriers to Mushroom Rock Lodge, advising the captain there to begin battle preparations and await your arrival. We will need his ground forces as well for this operation—"
"Maester Lucil," Isaaru said, half-rising from his seat. "With all due respect, what do you think you're doing? Did we four not agree that the tragedy of Operation Mi'ihen must never be repeated?"
"I do not forget a single face of the fallen heroes whom Yevon betrayed," she snapped. "But if Sin wipes out the aeons, it will strip summoners of our only means of protecting Spira. We must defend the fayth at any cost." Her eyes flicked briefly to her second-in-command, who gave a melancholy little smile in return.
"Actually," Maroda said, "Sir Auron had an idea about that."
Isaaru's brows jerked upwards, perhaps at his brother's sudden about-face concerning their enigmatic comrade. "Yes?"
The taciturn guardian said nothing, looking expectantly at Maroda.
"Move the fayth." Maroda shrugged. "We can't stop Sin yet. So put the statue where it can't be harmed. Hide it."
"But won't that screw up the spirit inside?" Pacce said, munching on a fruit. "I mean, can it survive without the temple and hymns?"
"It's been done before," Auron said curtly.
"Is that so?" Isaaru leaned towards him. "I should like to know which fayth, and where. Baaj Temple, perhaps? I have been trying to pinpoint its location, but the records are imprecise."
"We're wasting time," Lucil said. "Lord Isaaru, if my Crusaders provide wagons and engineers to move the statue, can you and the priests of Djose ensure the fayth's integrity?"
He bowed his head. "In theory, I know what prayers sustain and strengthen the bond between statue and spirit, and I have a link with the fayth which may let me soothe its unease. I believe it can be done. I cannot be certain. If we do nothing, however, the fayth will almost certainly be lost, and our hopes diminished."
"Then we must deploy, taking every care we can to minimize casualties. Elma, you will assist Lord Isaaru in removing the statue to a safe location. I suggest Lord Mi'ihen's Grotto. Order Captain Luzzu to deploy perimeter defenses around Djose Temple; your mobile units will defend the Highroad between the temple and Mushroom Ridge. His infantry and your knights will provide cover for the true operation, keeping Sin at bay and staging a mock-defense of the temple."
Elma cleared her throat. "Ma'am, I hate to remind you, but Captain Luzzu is still on probation for heresy. What if he can somehow tell Sin our plans?"
"I'm satisfied with his explanation that it was the toxin speaking, Commander. And if not— and if Sin really is aware— then who better to convince Sin we are defending the fayth of Djose Temple than one of its followers? The fayth's relocation will be on a need-to-know basis. Keep the statue concealed during transport. Use the pretext of evacuating the temple, its scrolls and relics."
"Heresy?" Isaaru said.
"Sin sightings are frequent off the coast of Djose, my lord, as you know," Lucil said. "Our patrols are sometimes affected by the toxin when the foe comes too close to shore, and a few have fallen prey to the Cult of Sin. I confess that is one reason for our exchange program with the warrior monks. Those who seem to be suffering a crisis of faith are sent to Bevelle, where Maester Shelinda can take them under her wing."
"Or to the Calm Lands to be whipped back into shape," Maroda said, shaking his head. "I wondered why you kept sending me your scraps."
"But Captain Luzzu has commanded the lodge at Mushroom Rock for ten years," Elma said. "He's refused promotions or transfers. He's gone a little strange. I caught him up on the headland just talking to Sin one day. He said he was keeping it company so it wouldn't attack."
Pacce chuckled. "Sounds like someone else we know."
Auron ignored the jibe. "Are we finished, here?"
Lucil nodded. "Indeed. Summoner Isaaru, have you any last objections or additions to the plan?"
"Only that I would urge you to authorize machina for this operation. Your troops—"
"—will stand a better chance than they did thirteen years ago, if we don't use forbidden machina and provoke Sin's retribution. However, this will be a good time to test the new Lightning Rock Shield."
"Anyway, Sin's not going to blow up its garden," Elma chuckled. "It's mellowed."
"Don't worry, ma'am, I'm not going to start worshipping it just because it's sending us flowers." She sobered. "So. Move statue, check. Keep it under wraps, check. Have Luzzu's lodge guard the temple, check. Chocobo Knights along Highroad. Activate shield. Fall behind the barriers the instant Sin starts flashing. Are we set?"
"You have your orders, Commander. And... Elma?"
Lucil removed a glove and clasped her hand tightly as Elma reached out to help her to her feet. "I will see you when this is over. I expect a thorough debriefing. Understood?"
The officer's cheeks colored faintly. "Yes, ma'am."