Conversations on the way to Djose.
"Please have it," the youth said again, holding up a battered leather pouch to Maroda. "My mother carried it on pilgrimage. There's a half-dozen remedies and other needful things. She... didn't get a chance to use them."
The boy looked about Rikku's age, Auron noted, watching the familiar exchange with fatalistic detachment, like a fan of a team that hadn't seen a victory in his own lifetime. He knew the pattern, he recognized the cycle, he knew every tiresome beat of this movement in futility, but somehow when the faces were new and young he could entertain a fleeting hope that it might play out differently. That had been his downfall the last time, after all.
"Well..." Maroda shot a glance at Auron, as if the legendary guardian's fame were somehow to blame for these road obstructions. At least there had been no fiends so far.
"Just take it," the older guardian muttered. "It's quicker."
No, he corrected himself sharply. Not Rikku's age. She should be almost thirty now, practically old enough to be the boy's mother. It was a minor slip, but troubling: Auron's grasp of time had been growing fuzzy lately, a warning sign that he might not have much time left.
"We will honor your mother's memory," Isaaru said warmly, "and use your gift to help us save Spira. You have our thanks."
"Get back to the village now, kiddo," Elma said. "My knights have been pulled off patrol to escort Lord Isaaru, so there may be fiends about." In fact, most of the Highroad patrols had been sent ahead hours before to start preparing for the operation. The four mounted Crusaders accompanying the summoner's party were hardly sufficient to cover so much territory.
"Yes, ma'am... thank you, my lord!" The youth bowed deeply in Yevon's prayer, then turned and jogged towards the cluster of homesteads that had sprouted on the bluffs around the thriving Al Bhed inn and trading post. A few heads peeped through windows or over fences, watching the small cavalcade with awe.
Maroda passed the pouch to Isaaru as they moved off. "Fourteen-year-old potions," he said in a low voice. "Don't get them mixed up with the rest."
The summoner smiled as he slipped it into a saddlebag. "Thank Yevon he turned them over to us before someone tried to use them."
"We can drop them off at the hazardous items dump below Mushroom Rock," Elma said. "Come on, let's put some leagues behind us. Ya!" At her urging, the chocobos put their heads down and pressed forward in a ground-eating lope.
Chocobos. Auron had never enjoyed jogging along on a mount whose scrawny neck stood in the way of a good swing, but speed was vital. They had already wasted half a day in Luca.
Swift couriers had been sent ahead to convey Lucil's orders, but Isaaru had stayed through the tournament to present a semblance of normality and limit the wild rumors brewing around his abdication and the news from Besaid and Kilika. Afterwards, the victory parade had turned into a citywide farewell celebration for Summoner Isaaru and his guardians, since the Bevelle team's upset was hailed as a good omen for the Maester's pilgrimage. There had been balloons, showers of flower petals (but no rainbows), special pre-Calm sales from street vendors, and live music provided by the Macalania artists' colony. Sphere cameras flashed like miniature fireworks among the throngs of people lining the roads, eager to record pictures of the next High Summoner and his soon-to-be-legendary guardians. The city PA system had broadcast dramatic coverage of the parade interwoven with hastily-thrown-together retrospectives and expletive-laden interviews of sailors spinning colorful yarns about Sin's defeat at Kilika. Auron's fight with a dragon in the stadium thirteen years ago had been shown at least a dozen times.
There had been no fireworks or wailing women, but Jecht would have been delighted. On the whole, Auron was inclined to side with Braska.
Unfortunately, fawning fans were found not only in Luca and along the Highroad. Pacce was bubbling again, thanks to Elma's loose tongue. "Hey, Sir Auron, is that where you killed the Chocobo Eater?"
He gave an affirmative grunt.
"/That's/ how it's done," Elma said cheerfully over the steady drumming of chocobo feet. "Local Al Bhed had been having problems with it for weeks, but all it took was a few swords and Sir Wakka beating its lights out! So much for machina!"
Not to mention a black mage capable of cooking a chocobo in ten seconds, Auron thought grimly. Apparently, sports icons and disgraced warrior monks made better celebrities than an aloof young woman, however attractive.
Riding made conversation difficult, so they ceded words to the rushing wind for a while. At their next check, walking the birds across a bridge, Isaaru spoke again. "Commander. I understand your reluctance, but I wish you'd reconsider the use of machina. Normally I should never presume to second-guess the General's wisdom on military matters, but I am worried that personal feelings are impeding her judgment. Her desire to atone for the mistakes of Operation Mi'ihen is causing her to make another mistake."
"Sir," Elma said, "with all due respect, if Maester Lucil allowed personal feelings to sway her judgment, she'd never have put me in charge of such a dangerous operation. For that matter, she'd not have authorized it in the first place. It kills her every time she has to send the Crusaders into battle while she sits on her ass."
Behind them, Pacce made a choking noise.
Elma grinned. "You're authorized to laugh, kiddo. There's no warrior monks around to give a damn—" she paused at and waved an arm vaguely at Auron. "At least, I don't think there are."
Auron snorted. "No."
"I respect that Lucil has always put personal...considerations aside, but that's not the same thing," Isaaru said. "It's her feelings towards machina— not for her own sake, but for the sake of her troops— that blinker her. We are pitting the Crusaders directly against Sin, something we had hoped never to do again. As the maester said, we must use everything in our power to minimize casualties."
Elma shook her head, holding the reins of his chocobo for him to remount on the far side of the bridge. "I know you're trying to save lives, sir, but you should know better. Machina fall under 'matters of conscience,' remember?"
Isaaru slumped into his saddle. "Yes. I'm sorry, Elma."
"Hey, no problem." Elma turned back to her own chocobo and swung herself up. "Look, we have safeguards in place that we didn't last time. And we're not going to engage Sin more than we have to. This is a defensive operation, not an attack."
"This is true."
"Matters of conscience?" Auron said as they set off again.
"Questions for which the teachings are inadequate," said Isaaru. "In practice, issues on which the Four Maesters disagree. A necessary reform, we felt, to correct Yevon's mistakes. For such questions, no one, not even a maester, may force his judgment on another. On matters of conscience, each lodge sets the rule, and any soldier who believes differently may ask for transfer to another lodge."
"Most Crusaders don't permit use of machina," Elma said. "Except for that renegade there." She grinned cheerfully at Maroda.
Maroda tapped the spear strapped beside him. "Does this look like a grenade launcher to you?"
"Don't play coy, Captain; I know how you train troops to deal with basilisks."
Maroda chuckled. "That's because my men don't use big flapping chocobos to run away."
"As you were," Elma said, noting one of the two knights ahead had checked his bird and was twisting in the saddle to glare at Maroda. "Yo, Maroda, wanna come hunting with me tonight and back up that big talk? Let's see what happens when we meet an ochu."
"Elma, Maroda, please," Isaaru said soothingly. "Sparring must wait for a later date. How much farther until Mushroom Rock, think you?"
"We'll be there by sunset, sir, if we keep making good time," said Elma. "Oh! By the way, you guys haven't seen the Memorial Gardens yet, right?"
"No, we haven't," Isaaru said.
"You're in for a treat, then."
"Does Sin really make the flowers grow?" Pacce asked.
"Hard to say, kiddo. The weather's been crazy these last few years, but that still doesn't explain how we started getting roses growing in sand that's half salt." Elma laughed. "One thing I know for sure, if Sin's behind it, it's not doing it to give the off-duties some place to sneak off and get laid."
You never know, Auron thought, his quiet "hmph" masked by Pacce's nervous laughter. Nevertheless, he suspected other powers besides Venus at work.
Look for me in my garden, Auron.
He was sourly amused at himself for the impulse to kick the damn bird and urge it to run faster.