The dump reeked to high heaven and she’d never smelled anything like it before. She thought if maybe you took the toilet in the abbey, when it had clogged up that one summer, multiplied it by ten, and then rolled it together – porcelain and metal and all – and set it alight so it burned the sky black. But even her attempts to contextualise within a familiar frame of reference fell short. Really, it reeked so bad it defied expression.
There are many reasons she might have appealed to Stahn. She didn’t know these people that she was travelling with very well. Mary was flighty, Rutee and Leon temperamental. Stahn was the most approachable, and maybe also the most handsome, she’d noticed even back then. But the reason she retroactively decided on inexplicably turned out to be the most accurate. When she halted in her progress up the heap and coughed into her hand, Stahn was the first to notice and take concern.
“What’s wrong, Philia?” He observed her, eyes softened with compassion.
“I’m fine,” Philia hastened to reassure him she was okay. And then hastened to air her grievances. “It just smells awful... Is- is this really a place where people live? It’s so filthy! I cant imagine living here.”
She caught the way Rutee scoffed and turned away out of the corner of her eye, but she couldn’t help but care more about Stahn’s reaction.
Even that turned out to be a let-down, though. Where she had expected avid and eager agreement, Stahn hesitated. He scratched the back of his head and scanned their surroundings. “Don’t you think...” But by the time he stammered out the rest, it no longer sounded like a question. “That’s kind of harsh.
“I know it’s dirty,” Stahn allowed. “But you’re surrounded by people who call this place home. It might be hard for you or me to imagine living this way. But for the people here it’s just their normal day – they don’t have to imagine what it’s like.”
“B-but-” Philia looked down at her feet, and the littered ground. Stahn was saying more, and touching her shoulder in a way that was clearly meant to be comforting. But she couldn’t hear and didn’t want to listen. She nodded and said whatever she needed to say to end the conversation as quickly as possible. She felt ashamed she had ever broached the subject, and felt upset with Stahn for scolding her. How unfair. She hadn’t said anything worthy of criticism. Nothing ill-intentioned, and nothing that wasn’t true. But, no, she was naïve and foolish and inferior, she didn’t actually have to do anything wrong to be worthy of criticism.
She swallowed both her shame and her resentment whole. And by the time she was finished, Stahn and Rutee had moved on, and stepped further up the mountain. Mary was lingering somewhere behind, and she braced herself for a lonely few steps up the hill when Leon came up behind her.
“Feh!” he snorted. His nose was pinched, and he didn’t pause so much as slow as he swept by her. “You have the right of it. This place is putrid. And the sooner we’re done at this dung heap and back to business, the better.”
And she felt, in that moment, that she was a little warmer and a little less alone, and that the world was a little more just.
She hadn’t known what to think of Leon at first. He was a saviour in the strictest of senses, the one who had found her in the ruined cloister at Straylize Temple and administered a panacea on her petrified form. But something about him defied the need for recognition and gratitude. She had not thanked him for saving her, and he did not ask it of her.
He yelled at her, and told her not to bore him and his party with her self-loathing.
“Stop referring to Lydon as the High Priest,” he’d demanded.
“I beg your pardon?”
“That thief,” Leon had been breathing hard with frustration, “is our enemy. Do you understand me?!”
Philia had been impressed. Leon had seen right through her from the start. (She conveniently forgot the way he’d mistrusted her. The way he’d mistaken her for Lydon’s mistress.) Lydon is our enemy, Leon had said. And Philia had felt assured – Yes, Lydon was the one in the wrong. Lydon was the one who had betrayed her. Philia hadn’t done anything wrong. She had no reason to blame herself the way she always was.
Beyond that, Leon was a strange person to observe – younger than her but at least as knowledgable. He had a sword named Chaltier, with whom he had whispered conversations with when he thought nobody else was paying attention. (Philia thought a talking sword was a strange thing, but she was very naïve and foolish, of course, and she supposed a talking sword wasn’t that much more strange than the empty wilderness they travelled through.) Leon was also the leader of the small group they travelled in, and at times he would assert himself with frightening severity. But at others he would step back and allow Stahn to direct their course for reasons Philia was obviously too silly and inexperienced to understand.
Stahn, Rutee, and Mary were all criminals. Although certainly not the bad kind, or else the Good King of Seinegald would not have allowed them to wander around like this. Leon was there to keep them in line while they were on parole, and had them attached to a system that let him administer electric shocks when they misbehaved. At times, the way Leon used this system seemed unpredictable, perhaps cruel and unusual, and Philia found herself thinking he might have it out for Rutee in particular. But as she continued to observe him, she found herself more unbothered. They were, after all, under his jurisdiction. Stahn and the others had clearly done something to be detained in this way. And it wasn’t like Leon shocked them out of the blue, it was only in response to their insubordination. Philia shrugged it off.
The same could have been said of Batista. Philia was terribly uncomfortable watching Leon interrogate her old colleague. She could not help but remember all the ways that Batista had helped her, back at Straylize Temple. But that was why Leon was in charge of the interrogation and not her. It wasn’t as if Batista had done nothing to deserve this, and Leon administered the shocks with a cold and uncaring disposition that left Philia feeling assured that justice and fairness were impartial. She slept poorly that night but, although she wondered if she should free Batista, she did not. She instead compromised with the weakness in her heart, and decided to make him breakfast the following morning.
Rutee had far less faith in her than that, when Batista was found missing. “You didn't let him go because of your past relationship with him, did you?”
“No! I didn't do anything...” Philia protested meekly. But Rutee’s voice only became more accusing and heated as Stahn spoke up in Philia’s defence. Philia stopped listening. She was upset and resentful. It struck her as terribly unfair and mean of Rutee to lob these accusations at her, who believed in justice more than anyone.
Leon, saviour that he was, came and diffused the situation. “Oh, that. I let him go on purpose.” He seemed utterly unconcerned when Rutee turned on him.
Leon explained his reasoning quite efficiently. But Philia didn’t need to listen to his explanation to find it very righteous. She had wanted to free Batista, but had not out of deference to Leon’s authority and sense of justice. And now his sense of justice had let Bautista free, exactly as Philia had wanted. It had retroactively transformed her desires into what was objectively right.
When Leon and Rutee had gone, Philia made the decision to try, once more, to appeal to Stahn.
“It’s my fault,” she told him. “I was doing something that made Rutee suspicious of me...” She did not know what this thing was, but she decided to assume for a moment it must have been something.
“What are you saying?!” Stahn said emphatically. “That's not true. Rutee admitted she jumped to conclusions.”
“It’s okay,” Philia said. “I’m too naïve…” This was her problem. She was too naïve and foolish to understand what Rutee had said as anything other than spiteful and unjustified.
“You're not naïve,” Stahn said. “I think you're a kind person. In fact, you are who you are because of your kindness.”
Philia smiled and felt her cheeks go red. She decided Stahn was very nice, and that she quite liked him after all.
Batista did not survive their next encounter. When Philia approached him, confident that her kindness would see her through for all her foolishness and naïveté, she had thought that him recognising her strength would save him. She did not think it would relieve him his fear of dying.
“Batista!” she cried, as he crumpled to the ground singed and shocked. (She conveniently forgot the way she had mistrusted Leon. Before he explained the lethal shock was the automated result of Batista attempting to remove the headband himself.)
“Philia, let's go,” Rutee pulled very insistently on her shoulder.
Philia could not look away from Batista’s crumpled form, or pull her hands away from where she’d covered her gaping mouth.
“Come on, Philia!” And Philia felt bad, because she knew Rutee was worried and frantic on her behalf. She later learned that Rutee was always like this watching her friends lose people – afraid they might perish if left too lonely in their suffering. A projection of how little Rutee wanted to be alone with her own grief. Stahn had had to talk her away from Mary and Dalis’s corpse too.
“Leave her alone,” Leon said. Cold and impartial, ever her saviour.
“W-What?” Rutee stammered defensively.
“Have you no tact or decency?” Leon queried.
“What did you say?!”
“Just shut up and come along,” Leon ordered. He sounded almost tired.
Stahn, who was very kind, said something comforting. And then Philia was blessedly alone with Batista’s remains.
Philia thought she might try to go through the motions of prayer. Or maybe begin plans in her own head for Batista’s burial imbetween chasing after Lydon. But all she managed was to crouch next to the body and stare.
After an appropriate period of time, Clemente spoke. “I’m sorry, my mistress. I still stand by my word, that you will face many trials, and conquer them all. But it has been a long time since I’ve felt something akin to grief. I wonder if I have no way to understand the struggles of humans anymore.”
Philia clung to her Swordian, anchored against the unmoving ground. “I don’t regret accepting you as mine…” If that’s what you mean to ask… she thought. But she struggled to piece together how things had gone so horribly wrong, when she had not done anything wrong herself.
“You will have me and the others to rely on,” Clemente said. “What you are feeling is not a weakness.”
She didn’t think it was a coincidence that, later, Clemente was one of the few Swordians to wonder, openly and without disdain, if it was Chaltier’s human side that had led him to betray. And if there wasn’t something to grieve in the fact that this humanity might be missing from the rest of them.
“I just wondered if you had seen Rutee?” Philia said.
“I have not. Leave.”
Philia did not leave. She examined the room. They were remarkably lavish for what she had expected might be aboard a transient airship. She eyed a crumpled paper at the bottom of the waste basket, the dresser, Leon was huddled underneath a duvet pulled up so it partially covered his eyes. He was facing the other way, as he lay in bed.
“Are you feeling well?”
“Sick,” Leon said succinctly.
“Airsick?” Philia queried.
“...Yes,” Leon agreed. Although the room smelled clear and crisp, and not of sickness at all.
“You know,” Philia let herself be the sole recipient of a secret smile, “if you helped me find Rutee, she might be able to heal your airsickness with her magic.”
“Don’t,” Leon warned.
Philia giggled to herself. She caught the edge of a sword hilt, peeking up next to Leon’s nose. He was cuddled up with it remarkably close. She suspected she knew what this was about.
“Chaltier’s been quiet,” she said.
“He usually never shuts up!” Leon said venomously. But the edge of his voice cracked.
“Clemente, too,” Philia sympathised.
“...They’re in stasis,” Leon murmured. “They rest once they’ve completed their purpose. They won’t wake up so long as there are no further threats.”
Philia nodded and accepted this, and wondered if Clemente would have teased her for this, if he had been awake: she considered approaching Leon’s bedside and running a hand through his hair.
“This is why you should come help me find Rutee,” she said. “You need someone else to talk to.”
She could hear Leon let out a muffled sigh. “What could possibly make you think I’d want to talk to her?”
“What is it they say – close enough to argue?” Philia said. “You know you bicker like siblings? You look alike too.”
She hadn’t figured out just how they were related yet. Perhaps they were only related spiritually. But she felt confident that it was more than just coincidence, and that she’d figure the rest out in time.
“You’ve wasted enough of my time,” Leon snapped. “Get out!”
“How rude~” Philia chided. “In cases like this, you should say, ‘I’m terribly sorry, but I’d like to be left alone to rest. Please excuse me.’” And when Leon failed to respond. “Now you try,” she prompted.
For a moment, there was no movement for the bed, but very quickly he flipped over and faced her for the first time. He glared, dry blue eyes sharp enough to cut steel.
“I would electrocute you right now,” he hissed, “if I’d had the foresight to attach one of those tiaras to you.”
She did not doubt him – she had shown enough insubordination to earn his ire. But since he had not had the foresight, she only chuckled and took this as her invitation to leave. She would ask Stahn to help her find Rutee instead.
She saw him again sooner than she expected, on an escort mission to return one of Atamoni’s bishops safely from the Capital back to Straylize Temple.
Circumstances aside, she was relieved to see him. She realised how much she missed Clemente. Returning to the Temple as hopeful and kind and naïve and unchanged as she had left was difficult, given how much the Temple itself had changed in her absence. It was nice to have a familiar face to discuss things with. And Leon wasn’t so immersed in Temple politics himself that he was personally invested in anything save for what she was telling him. Cold, impartial, just.
“We’re rebuilding the Temple,” Philia said. “But there’s been some dissent. Some of the clergy have been questioning our purpose as an institution. You see, it’s only one theory, but it seems likely that the Temple and the Church were founded to protect the Eye of Atamoni. Many of them think that, now that the Eye is being moved, the Church has no further purpose…”
Leon, until that point, had been a quiet listener. But as she reached this juncture, he spoke up. “What about you?”
“Me?” Philia felt a bit baffled.
“What do you think?” Leon asked. And when Philia only stammered. “Is the purpose of the Temple to gather people to guard it and its assets? Or is the Temple there to guard the people that gather around it?”
Philia forced herself to think about it, instead of answer by rote. But no matter how she thought about it- “The latter,” she said. “If keeping the Goddess in people’s hearts is able to give them hope-”
“If that’s true, then it doesn’t matter what the higher ups think.” Leon had a way of making everything sound so simple. He reached for the silent Chaltier in his sword sheathe, and drew the blade. He turned Chaltier in his hand, as he faced away from Philia. “In the end I can’t think we’ll be judged by how well we got along with our superiors. It’s how well we come through for the people who are relying on us. Call it what you want: friends, beloveds. Those who are important to us. I don’t have many, but that’s because people who can’t protect what’s important to them are the lowest of the low.”
“My...” Philia felt moved. “Whose words are you quoting then?”
Chaltier seemed brimming with energy in spite of his silence. Leon flipped him in his hand and sheathed the blade. “They’re my words,” Leon said with disdain. “Do you think I can’t speak for myself?”
Philia chuckled to herself. All they’d been through, and he still couldn’t take a bit of teasing. “In that case, I thank you very much. I might not have held them in such high esteem, if they hadn’t come from someone I trust so dearly.”
Leon harrumphed. But his face looked lovely in that shade of pink.
“Am I one of your friends then?” Philia asked.
“Absolutely not!” Leon snarled, turning a deeper shade of pink.
At first, she had had trouble trying to rectify some of the cruel and hurtful things Leon said (‘Hah! Who can trust her?’ ‘They're not worth paying attention to at all.’ ‘Silence! Who asked you for your opinions?!’) with the just and kind person she knew he was deep down. But she had had a lot of time to practice since, so his snippy denial rolled off her back like oil to water. She wished him a safe journey home.
Inspired by the way that, in being near Leon, Chatier had seemed more awake, Philia felt inclined to spend the night with Clemente nearby. Her Swordian was more a club than a blade, large and heavy with blunted sides, made for magic rather than poking holes in one’s enemies. He’d be safer to sleep next to than Chaltier must have been, when Leon had done so on the Draconis. She fell asleep to dreams of togetherness and the bashful look Leon had given her when she complimented him.
In the morning, she would discover that she pushed Clemente over the side of her mattress overnight, and knocked loose one of the disks that had been installed. And on a whim she’d remove the adjacent disk that Leon had forced on her in the immediate aftermath of the battle with Lydon.
But that night she slept peacefully, content that the world and the people around her were made in her image.