an unlikely alliance, as beatrix tries to escape alexandria castle.
Blank: "Me? Let's see... Oh yeah, it's been crazy since you guys escaped! Rusty, that rat chick, Freya, and... what's her face, that girl general of Alexandria..."
Blank: "Yeah, the three of them got totally worked! Marcus and I had to carry 'em out on our backs!"
(Final Fantasy IX, disc III, sc. i, lines 36-42)
In the Queen's Company
In her struggle up the ranks of the Alexandrian military, Beatrix had, she admitted, entertained a few fantasies of how she would retire. There was the veteran old soldier thought, herself well-decorated and too venerable to go to battle herself. She had trouble, however, imagining a time when she wouldn't want to fight. There was the lingering war wound thought, an injury to put her out of commission and give her a beautiful scar, that very finest sort of trophy. Not that she hadn't had a taste of that already... but the loss of an eye was hardly enough to render her unfit for combat. Besides, since then, she'd not been touched on the battlefield, careful to have become far too good for that.
And finally, of course, there was always the blaze of glory: slain on the battlefield, face to the sky, name on the lips of each adoring citizen. The Rose of Alexandria plucked, still bloodred. A bit morbid, perhaps, but what soldier isn't a little bit infatuated with death?
All the same, Beatrix had never imagined it would be like this-- a final, futile stand in the dungeons beneath her Queen's throne room, outnumbered, facing off against her own soldiers. There was a Burmecian, of all things, at her back, a woman whose own people Beatrix had just helped decimate. And Steiner (loyal, indefatigable Adelbert!) stood at her side, the two of them fighting against the very government they had worked so hard to protect. She wondered if he fought so desperately, as she did, that they might not die... as traitors to their crown.
It gave strength to her sword arm even as it sickened her. Her only hope was that Princess Garnet would escape this madness, and perhaps return some day to set things to right.
She braced herself at a sudden noise, a clamor not from above, from the door that spilled its incessant barrage of black mages-- but from below!
Swiveling back, sword at the ready to face this newest round of attackers, she found that they weren't attackers at all, but... actors? Beatrix blinked in bewilderment, willing the battle-heat from her heartbeat, trying to steady her breathing. At this point, she ought to have been prepared for anything, help or hindrance from any unexpected quarter.
Even more surprising, Steiner seemed to know them.
"I'm telling you, they got out all right," the thickset one was saying, laughter in his gravelly voice. The redhead added, bouncing on his heels, "Yeah, chill, Rusty! We helped 'em; they're on the gargant to Treno as we speak."
"You are certain you didn't lead them astray?" Steiner insisted, but Beatrix interposed herself in what was fast becoming a fruitless conversation.
"You." She leveled her sword at the redhead. Unbidden, she recalled his face, actor-ruffian from the troupe of the Primavista, from the night of their performance for Queen Brahne. The night that the princess had been kidnapped. That seemed ages ago, and she had little success remembering their names-- recalling only that the shorter one had been an unsavory character, and the taller one had been a man a princess thought worth forfeiting her crown. She deliberately did not let herself think of Zidane, or the way her own princess tilted her head to look at him. She cleared her throat, tossing back her hair. "Did you say that the princess has made it safely from Alexandria?"
He flashed her a grin, and a deliberately theatrical bow-- pointedly avoiding the edge of Save the Queen. "But of course."
Freya, who didn't seem to know any more of what was going on than Beatrix did, shouldered her spear ominously. "What of Zidane? And Vivi? Are they safe too?"
"Look, have we really got time for this?" the other one was saying, looking over their heads at a line of black mages descending the spiral stairs. When neither woman backed down-- and Steiner stood with a self-righteous swagger, glad to finally have someone take his side-- he shrugged a broad shoulder, and spoke with exaggerated carefulness. "Right. Just now, we broke 'em loose from the cage down by Gargan Roo. Zidane (cheeky bugger, blond tail) is taking Dagger (that's Garnet to you, lady) and Vivi to Treno, to Doctor Tot. Got that?" He looked them over, relieved to see the suspension of disbelief on their faces. He'd not had such a tough audience since playing Cid IV, part ii in Lindblum. He coughed. "The name's Marcus; that's Blank--" he nodded to the redhead-- "we're from Tantalus. Like Zidane. And now, ladies--" he nodded to Steiner, with a wide, fanged grin-- "we'd really better scram, or we'll be surrounded."
As satisfied as possible considering the circumstances, Beatrix nodded curtly, clanking sword hilts with the newcomers in an Alexandrian battle-welcome. "It is good news you bring, gentlemen. I thank you." For the first time it occurred to her that escaping the castle with her life intact might be neither impossible nor treasonous.
Freya, with her Burmecian legs, was in the lead as they clambered down the stairs. "I don't suppose you know a way out of this... place?" She left the barest of pauses before her final word, and her eyes flicked to Beatrix, checking her tongue before openly insulting the castle.
"Matter of fact we do," Blank said with obvious pride. He had to shout to make himself heard, though; of all of them, he was having the most trouble keeping up their breakneck pace down the stairs. Beatrix scowled, thinking that actors must have been very out of shape, if they always ran as though their legs were made of stone. "Corridor on the left-hand side, nice sneaky door that leads to the kitchens. Found it on our way back in here."
"You broke into the castle!" This from Steiner, who, to his credit, managed to sound more impressed than outraged. Almost.
There was a noncommittal grunt from Marcus. "'f I'd knocked on the front door, your princess would be in the belly of a black mage by now."
The Knight of Pluto turned a bit green, but waved a hand weakly. "Ugh. Must you?"
"Pretty fine company you're keeping, Rusty." Blank caught up at last, his momentum keeping him careening down the stairs. "Two nice-looking-- err-- very dangerous young ladies?" He changed his tune when both Beatrix and Freya shot him dark looks, but his smirk stayed the same. "How'd you manage that?"
Steiner was saved from answering such an impertinent question by the sharp laugh that rang out before him. "It is true that we've not been properly introduced," Freya said, with a hint of a smile of her own. "I am Freya Crescent, Dragon Knight of Burmecia." Even as she ran, she did something intricate with her spear, salute and greeting. "And this is Beatrix, of Alexandria." There was nothing in her tone to indicate her feelings, and Beatrix was forced to admire the strength of will that it must have taken, not to add: "she who destroyed my country."
"/General/ Beatrix?" Marcus said her name as if it were two measures of a waltz, cadenced and fit for the stage.
Amused, Beatrix graced him with a tight smile. "The very same. I hardly thought Beatrix a common name."
He looked as though he might have tipped his head-kerchief to her, had his hands not been busy at his sword. "Your reputation precedes you, General."
Blank coughed. "Don' let me interrupt, bro, but, uh-- I think it's show time."
Indeed, the first group of mages was catching up to them like a cresting wave, leading edge of the great ocean of pointed hats that came behind, inexorable in their approach and unlikely to tire. But they were five now, instead of three, and their spirits were raised, their resistance renewed. Even Blank was light on his feet, light and fey as an autumn-colored woodsprite; he and Marcus treated the battle as nothing more than elaborate stage fighting, the artfully-dodged fireballs nothing more than special effects.
Freya wielded her spear as though part of some intricate dance whose steps only she knew, leaping over their heads and impaling a black mage before anyone else had seen it coming. Merciless in her grace, she felled dozens of the soulless mages, each time with a cry of victory on her lips: payment, death for death, for the slaughter in Burmecia, for the rout in Cleyra.
For her part, Beatrix found bittersweet satisfaction, too, in wreaking destruction on the droves of black mages. Kuja's precious, untouchable black mages, her Queen's new favorite toys. Her swordedge sang with the rhythm of her anger, slashing skillfully through their ranks. And each time her sword drove home she imagined the look of dismay on Kuja's too-pretty face, painted fingertips hovering before painted lips, for once without a word to say. Or her Queen's voice, coming to her senses at last: "Yes, General Beatrix, such excellent work! You and your soldiers are the pride of Alexandria."
Or her princess's approval, small hands warm in Beatrix's own, sweet gratitude from that soft-spoken mouth--
Belatedly she realized she had a black mage pinned to the corridor wall, shouting defiance with her head thrown back, and that Blank was applauding. Startled, she struggled to regain her composure, freeing Save the Queen from the husk of the long-dispatched mage.
"Nice," Blank murmured, frankly admiring. His own weapon was forgotten in his fingers, as he had leaned against the wall to steady his footing, only to have Beatrix skewer a foe an arm's length from his face. He gave her an easy grin, admiring her sword-form... and the rest of her form, too. "I'd like a slice of that, please." (Steiner must not have heard, occupied as he was with beheading his umpteenth golem; he was not forthcoming with a properly upbraiding retort.)
Beatrix caught her breath, lifting her swordhilt in a mock-salute. With a thin smile, she said, "Ah, thank you, good sir, but it might be a bit sharper than you could handle."
"The General has a point, bro." Marcus, close enough to overhear, tossed him a wink. He was obviously enjoying himself. "Can't steal what you can't carry, y'know."
Blank threw himself back into the fray with a shout. "How you underestimate my strength, good my kinsman! Marcus, thou hast lost even thy senses!" And then they were at it again, easy as breathing, back and forth with lines of dialogue to keep one another on their toes.
Steiner slashed his way towards them through a wide swath of mages, but soon even his famous battle-temper was beginning to flag and stumble. "By my sword! Is there no end to them?"
"All who stand in their way shall be crush'd," Marcus muttered to himself, wiping a smear of blood from his forehead.
Blank took the cue, whether it had been conscious or no, and moved to stand at Marcus' shoulder. Shoving his sweaty headband out of his eyes, he gave them all a vicious smile. "My kinsman's suffering shall not be in vain."
"...For I shall instruct thee in his incomparable pain! Take /that/, you fiends." Beatrix brought Save the Queen down in a ferocious arc, beheading two mages and incapacitating another.
"Damn," Marcus swore appreciatively, his own weapon feeling a bit lighter in his fingers.
"These goons are something else." After yet another round of fighting, the Knight of Pluto was shaking his head. "What I wouldn't give for Master Vivi's assistance."
"They defeated the entire Burmecian army," Beatrix said, levelly. "What chance is there for we five?" From the corner of her eye, she looked at Freya, half-expecting a sharp comment-- she had been unusually silent for the past few moments. She was just in time to watch the ash spear clatter to the floor, the red dragoon hat fluttering to the stones.
"Freya!" Crying out more in surprise than alarm, Beatrix caught the Burmecian woman under the shoulder.
"...Don't fuss," the Dragon Knight said, faintly. "I'm-- fine. Just a bit-- winded."
The two members of Tantalus exchanged glances. "Well this bodes well." Marcus' mouth was set in a grim line. "She was our only long-range attack."
Beatrix swallowed with difficulty; one hand against the stone wall to keep her steady, she wondered why the fallen woman in her arms seemed to be getting heavier. In the distance, growing steadily nearer, was the clamor of yet another advancing barrage of black mages.
"Were you always such a ray of light, Marcus, or is today just my lucky day?" Blank elbowed him in the ribs. "C'mon, let's go; the door's not far. Just a few more minutes and we're out of the mist."
Beatrix and Blank supported the limping Freya between them, and so it was Steiner who got to the door first, his well-battered armor taking another dent as he took the last corner rather sharply. "Here!" he called, wrapping both gauntleted hands around the handle and heaving the door open.
Or rather, he might have heaved the door open, had it not been bolted firmly from the outside. The force of his exertion landed him on the ground, where Marcus nearly crashed into him, too close on his heels.
"Out of the mist, eh, Blank?" Marcus was wasting no time, running practiced pickpocket fingertips along the edges of the doorframe, seeking purchase. "Can I quote you on that?" Finding nothing, he banged a fist against the unyielding door, which rang hollowly.
"Dammit! Like rats in a trap!" Too late Blank remembered to look sheepish, but Freya could do little more than glare.
Feeling light-headed, Beatrix turned back, to gauge how much time they had before the next battle was upon them. She found it hard to measure the distance, the sea of hats unsteady and hard to count. Briefly she closed her eye, to regather her strength, just for a moment--
And then all suddenly the door was opening, pushing towards them. There was a flash of sky blue, like the clouds clearing away after a storm-- and a pretty girl with a smile like sunshine, holding open the thick prison doors. "This way, darlin'!"
"Ruby!" Marcus dropped his guard and very nearly dropped his sword, breaking into a toothy, incredulous grin. "How did you...?"
"Ah, Princess Cornelia, working on your timing, I see," Blank managed through gritted teeth. He was trying to haul Freya to her feet, but with minimal luck; the Burmecian knight had lost her battle with unconsciousness.
Ruby laughed, a bright sound in that dark place. "Can it, sweetheart, you can be grateful on your own time. Your ship's come in, and we've gotta get outta here, pronto."
"I agree with the lady," Steiner said, helping her to prop open the heavy door. "We are most grateful for your assistance, madam."
Blank was laughing. Marcus said under his breath, "You wouldn't be near so nice 'f you knew she was one of us."
"Damnation. You look like you're comin' from a tight spot." Ruby shook her head, after she'd seen the five of them safely through the door and Marcus had thoroughly bolted it behind them. She clucked her tongue at Freya's poor bedraggled state, wishing for an actress's ample petticoats to tear dramatically into bandages. Almost as an afterthought, she looked around. "Where's Zidane? Thought you said he'd be here."
Still chuckling, Blank shook his head. "He's still too busy kidnapping princesses, Ruby. You of all people should know he's hell to track down."
Ruby's ears turned pink, and she stuck her hands on her hips belligerently. "And you? What you boys been into this time? Princesses not enough of a thrill?"
"Nah," Marcus winked at her, trying to catch his breath. "We thought we'd take on a whole /castle/'s worth. Turned out they were all pointy-hatted bastards, though, and not a princess in sight."
Beatrix startled everyone, herself most of all, by laughing aloud. Ruby, her indignity forgotten, watched her, wide-eyed. "'Tis foolishness!" Beatrix swung her sword, her footing wavering a little. "Why, if all were so easy, none would--"
Blank, not very subtly, grabbed her from behind, clapping a hand over her mouth. "Hey, hey, easy. Don't jinx us."
"You!" Steiner was turning purple, though mostly from the bruises on his temple. "U-unhand her, you cur! You know that she is General Beatrix, the finest--"
"I thank you, Steiner." Only when Blank shifted his weight did Beatrix realize how heavily she was leaning on him. "But surely these fine gentlemen are lending us a hand in our hour of need? There is no call to be quite so /rude/, is there?" Her head lolled, Blank's fingers getting caught in her hair as he tried to keep her upright. "I wish to live my life under the sky..."
Blank was shaking his head; the hand that had been around her middle had come away sticky and red. He wiped it against his leg before she could see. "Right. Don't quit your day job... ma'am."
"Verily." Light-headed, Beatrix found herself giggling, while some remaining rational part of her mind was ringing alarum bells loudly as it could.
Even Steiner paused mid-twitch, eyes narrowing in concern. "My Lady Beatrix, are you all right?"
Blank rolled his eyes. "Yeah, she's just fine. Here, Marcus, Ruby-- you take 'er. Rusty 'n' me will grab the rat chick. Right, Rusty? And let's get the hell out of this place."
"Really there's no need." Even as she protested, Beatrix discovered that her head was resting rather bumpily against an unfamiliar shoulder, blue woad tattoos in intricate patterns dancing in her vision. Squint as she might, she could make no sense of the designs. And why was the floor being so unsteady? Never, in all her years, and she heard tell of earthquake activity in Alexandria.
"Can't be much further," someone said. And, "Just our luck that she was the one with the white magic," said another.
"I don't know, try carryin' her!" That was definitely Ruby, sounding worried, and Beatrix opened her eye blearily, long enough to see Freya, most undignified, hoisted aloft on Blank's shoulders. There was a roaring in her ears, and everything seemed just so much jumbling sound, nothing she could string together into sense.
"...Keep her awake."
"Heh. Cinna's coffee'd do the trick."
"Too bad Cinna ain't /here/, blockhead."
"Make her run lines."
"I dunno, darlin', these military gals don't seem the literary type."
"She was quoting earlier--"
"--The Lady Beatrix is quite educated...."
Then, with unexpected clarity, she heard Marcus say, "I pray you, what think you of our estate?"
Blank's answering line, breathless with the exertion of bearing Freya, was genuinely grim. "Even as men wreck'd upon a sand, that look to be wash'd off the next tide."
The familiar words touched something to life behind her eyes, and she found herself smiling softly. Even if she had not completed her study of the seven sciences (which of course she had), what Alexandrian soldier worth her pay had not heard-- or learned by heart!-- the words of Lord Avon's /Save the Queen/?
Someone grasped her arm, and there was a voice at her ear, rough but not unpleasantly so. "Thou hast not told this thought to the Queen?"
"No," she said aloud, startled at her own strength. The other voices around her fell obligingly silent. "Nor it is not meet I should. For though I speak it to you, I think the Queen is but a woman as I am."
For a full moment she could not go on, the truth of this slicing deftly to her core. What difference, save title, between Brahne and Beatrix herself? Or between her and the Princess? The words were not new, but the sudden depth of them surprised her, like hearing a new line of music in a much-beloved tune.
With a quiet sort of wonder, she heard herself continue: "The meadowrose smells to her as it doth to me... Her ceremonies laid by, in her nakedness she appears but a woman. Though her affections are higher mounted than ours, yet, when they fly, they fly on like canary-wing."
"Well, I'll be damned." Ruby had contented herself with ripping Marcus' kerchief and her own skirts for bandages; Freya had luckily stopped bleeding before they'd run out of fabric to sacrifice.
"You're just jealous," Blank stage-whispered with a glint in his eye. "She's better'n you."
"Whist," Marcus, bareheaded and with his ears looking especially pointy, hushed them both. "The act's not over yet." Steiner said nothing at all.
Marcus needn't have bothered; Beatrix could barely hear them. "Therefore, when she sees reason of fears, as we do, her fears be of the same relish as ours are-- Yet, in reason, no one should possess her with any appearance of fear, lest she, by showing it, should dishearten her army."
Shaking his head incredulously, Blank jumped in before Marcus took the cue. "She may show what outward courage she will; but I believe, as cold a night as 'tis, she could wish herself in the moat up to the neck. And so I would she were, and I by her."
"Ah, methinks I could not die anywhere so contented as in the Queen's company, her cause being just and her quarrel honorable!" Her feeling was quite unfeigned, and she caught her breath as sudden light spilled around her face, a freshness of outside air like sweet white magic on her wounds.
She opened her eye to see the sun setting in the Alexandrian sky, reflecting on the great waterways and brightening the faces of her companions. There was a dull uneasy pain in her side, but when she shook her head her vision stayed clear. Belatedly it came to her that she wasn't standing on her own two feet. Focusing, she could see Ruby on her left, flushed and exhausted, seeming to hold her up by sheer force of will.
A voice from her blind side murmured, "Bravissima," and she turned to see Marcus' broad, fanged smile. "You're a natural," he said, looking as though he might have applauded, had she not been in danger of collapsing without his arm around her waist.
Blank-- Freya still slung over his shoulder, but gently so-- looked like he was trying not to laugh. "See, out of the mist, like I said! Hey Rusty, what did I tell you about the healing power of literature?"
Limping up beside, Steiner rested a tentative hand on Beatrix's shoulder. "You said no such thing, ruffian." There was nothing but relief in his voice. "Lady Beatrix, are you--?"
It was an unusual sensation, realizing that the perfect reply had been written for her, years and years ago, penned by a stranger's hand. The waning sunlight found the faceted surface of the Alexandria Castle crystal, refracting into countless shining points that fluttered around them like so many uncaged birds. Giddy with the narrowness of their escape, Beatrix briefly allowed herself to think of her Princess: by this time delivered safe into the capable hands of Doctor Tot.
She smiled up at Steiner. "By my troth, I will speak my conscience of the Queen: I think she would not wish herself anywhere but /where she is/."