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Which Shines as the Darkness

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I.

She is a newly appointed Judge Magister, still under Judge Zargabaath's tutelage, when King Valdus and Queen Thage of Valdia present their heir, the Crown Princess Lenarshe, to Ivalice. Valdia is a small kingdom, even smaller than Dalmasca, and not an important ally of Archadia, but there are certain forms that must be followed. So Emperor Gramis accepts the invitation to the Crown Princess' presentation ceremony, and Zargabaath and Drace are the Judge Magisters selected to escort him. Drace suspects, though she will never voice such suspicions, not even in the privacy of her room while praying to the gods, that Emperor Gramis welcomes the excuse to leave the Imperial City. The death of his eldest two sons weigh heavily on him, another thought Drace will never voice.

It is her first mission outside of Archadia's borders since becoming a Judge Magister, and her first time in the presence of the Emperor since taking her vows. She is nervous -- not even the Judges, especially not the Judges, are immune from politics -- but she has long since passed the point where her nerves are worth noticing. Her resolve and her duty are what guide her. Everything else is a needless distraction.

She finds she must remind herself of that, though not because of her nerves. King Valdus has also provided an escort for Emperor Gramis, not, as would be customary in a kingdom like Dalmasca or Nabradia, Knights from the Royal Order, but a pair of Protectors of the Faith from the kingdom's Church of Holy Atona. Since they are not under King Valdus' direct command, they are seen as more neutral, Zargabaath explains, so Drace does not take offense. Far from it, in fact. She is not given to silly bouts of lust, but she cannot deny her attraction to one of the Protectors, Leto. He is quick to smile and laugh -- both are in short supply amongst the Judges -- and he finds nothing odd about a woman holding the rank of Judge Magister.

(Years later, she learns it is common for women to join the ranks of the Church of Holy Atona as Protectors of the Faith. She does voice her amusement that such a rustic country has such an enlightened attitude, but only to Gabranth, and only after she is sure of his discretion.)

The ceremony for the Crown Princess is tedious. Emperor Gramis has brought jeweled combs and other finery for her dowry, silk gowns fitting for a year-old princess who spends most of her public appearances on her father's knee. Archadia's gifts are indistinguishable from those from Valdia's nobility, from Valdia's allies. Only the gift from Valdia's southern neighbor, Peluna, stands out. In addition to the customary baubles, they present her with a gorgeous hunting bow, the wood polished and gleaming and decorated with swirling symbols.

"Now that's a gift," Leto murmurs beside her, and because she is wearing her helm, Drace allows herself an honest smile.

II.

When Larsa Ferrinas Solidor celebrates his first birthday, relations between Archadia and Valdia are slightly strained. Archadia had sent no representative to Queen Thage's funeral the year before, so rather then attend Young Master Larsa's presentation ceremony, King Valdus sends Crown Princess Lenarshe in his stead. Drace is pleased to discover Leto is part of her party.

At the ceremony, she wonders if Leto -- she's learned he is a Master now, and that pleases her, too -- had a hand in Valdia's gift to Young Master Larsa. The dagger Crown Princess Lenarshe presents on behalf of her kingdom is not merely ceremonial. Drace is allowed to inspect it afterwards because she is Young Master Larsa's protector, and it is a fine weapon, one that will serve Young Master Larsa well long after he becomes Lord Larsa, if he takes proper care of it. Drace will teach him.

Crown Princess Lenarshe lingers in the Imperial City for a week. Entertaining her falls to Drace, and she is still much too low in the Judge's ranks to complain. Besides, she can choose to believe Zargabaath thinks he is doing her a favor since it puts her in Master Leto's company.

(Years later, she still chooses to believe Zargabaath had good intentions. He has always treated her fairly. She had no desire to ask his true reasons and risk learning he took over her duties with Young Master Larsa because entertaining is, as other Judges say, woman's work.)

And on the Crown Princess' last day in the Imperial City, it puts her in Lord Vayne's company. "Your tutors have asked me to remind you it is Valdian custom for the Commander of the Valdian Knights to marry the Crown Princess, my Lord."

Lord Vayne does not look up from fastening his cuffs. He is a handsome young man, used to bending people to his will through his charm and charisma. His tutors voiced no such concern to her, and Lord Vayne likely knows it, but he will allow her the lie. Drace knows it amuses him. Few Judges would consider the virtue of a visiting dignitary.

The Crown Princess is a beautiful young woman. Even if she were not, her status alone makes her a tempting conquest, for Lord Vayne enjoys human sport. The fact she is young and beautiful...well, it would not be gracious of Drace to think so poorly of her Lord, but Larsa, not Vayne, holds that distinction.

"So I should refrain from squeezing her knee under the table?" He pulls on his gloves and makes a show of inspecting them even though they are flawless.

"That would be best, my Lord."

He smiles, though not at her. "And what reward will you grant me for my good behavior?" He glances at her then, still smiling, and Drace finds herself straightening up to her full height in return. "Will you fight that paladin of hers for me? I would like to see a test of his skill."

Lord Vayne rarely issues orders, or requests, that Drace enjoys. This is one of the rare exceptions. She wins her match with Master Leto, though it is close, and the sheer joy in his smile as they spar makes her wish he can see hers, but she is, as is customary, in full armor.

She refrains from inviting him to her room that night.

III.

She does not hide her correspondence with Master Leto. There is no reason to, and she does not wish to draw attention to the friendship she has formed with him by trying to keep it secret. The letters they exchange are cordial. The closest they ever come to their nations' politics is when Master Leto mentions he has taken on a promising new charge, calling the girl "my Ashley to your Larsa" and somehow manages to wrangle a promise from Drace that she will show young Ashley the proper way to handle a mace when she is next in Valdia.

There is, of course, no mention when that visit may come. Archadia's focus is on the Republic of Landis, then Nabradia and Dalmasca, and always on the Rozarrian Empire. The Senate and Emperor Gramis spare Valdia just enough thought to maintain polite relations. Valdia has little to offer its allies, but as a matter of principle, Archadia does not want to neglect an ally, no matter how small, so it offers its friendship to Rozarrians instead.

It is Lord Vayne's spies who send word of a strange apparition in Valdia. "It is called Besek."

Drace does not like the way Lord Vayne watches her as he speaks. There is a hunger in his eyes, one she has not seen for years, not since his older brothers died.

(Years ago, she learned of his involvement in their deaths. She dares not call it what it is -- murder -- because men like Lord Vayne do not murder, and anyone who says they do do not say much more after that.)

"I want you to infiltrate it for me."

"What of my duties to Lord Larsa?"

Vayne smiles fondly, and because they are speaking of Larsa, Drace believes it is an honest expression. Lord Vayne is not a kind man, but what he feels for Lord Larsa is, Drace believes, what passes for love in his heart. "Larsa is his own man now. He no longer needs to hold your apron strings."

"I have served Lord Larsa no differently than any other Judge Magister would."

Lord Vayne's expression darkens. She has pushed too far. Drace bows her head. Lord Vayne has allowed her the courtesy of keeping her helm in his presence, so she must bow. "Please forgive me. Lord Larsa is a fine young man, and I will not have anyone think less of him because I was responsible for his tutelage. I forgot myself, my Lord. You hold Lord Larsa in high esteem."

"I chose my words poorly." Vayne waves off her apology. "You are due for one of those Senate-mandated furloughs." He purses his lips, and his expression conveys his distaste for that new regulation. "Gabranth is scheduled to take over your duties."

Ah, she understands why he has summoned her. "You wish for me to visit Valdia."

"You have friends there." Lord Vayne has a talent for meeting her eyes even when she wears her helm. Sometimes, she feels bare before him. "A friend there."

"I also have fond memories of my sole visit to Valdia. I have often wished for the opportunity to see more of the land."

"If that is how you wish to explain it."

She holds his gaze. It is more for her benefit than his, though he does seem to know when Judge Magisters are meeting his gaze squarely from behind their helms. It is a learned talent, one he developed far too easily, but he has always been skilled at reading people. "It is, my Lord."

"Well, that does give you an excuse to travel."

She bows her head again. "What shall I search for, my Lord?"

IV.

Gabranth walks her to the Aerodrome. She will fly to Giruvegan and from there ride south by Chocobo into Valdia. Even if Lord Vayne had not ordered her to do so, it is how she would have chosen to travel. If she flew to Valdia, nobody would believe her furlough excuse, and she has no wish for such blatant subterfuge. It feels dishonest.

"I am comforted that you are available to tend to Lord Larsa," she says. Gabranth is in one of his moods, and while she does not wish to force cheer upon him, she does want -- for reasons she would rather not analyze -- to leave on pleasant words.

"He will find me a poor substitute. Lord Larsa prefers your service."

She laughs. "He tells me he prefers yours. Our young lord is playing us, it seems."

Gabranth's chuckle is dark. "A lesson he no doubt learned from his brother."

"Ah, but if not from Lord Vayne, he would learn it from another."

"So you've joined with Bergan?"

"Hardly. There are many lessons I wish to keep from Lord Larsa. I trust him to you above all others."

They walk in silence for a bit. She feels Gabranth's mood darkening and is grateful when he speaks first, because she does not know what to say. "There are already rumors you are off to play hero for a Valdian damsel."

"I prefer that over rumors I am the damsel."

This time, Gabranth's answering chuckle is light. "That would be a rumor none would believe."

They stop outside the Aerodrome. Drace turns to him. She knows Gabranth well enough to recognize the way he issues his warnings. More is coming.

He shifts, and though they are both in full armor, she knows he is looking past her. "There are also rumors you are carrying on a grand affair with a Protector of the Faith from the Church of Valdia."

"It seems, then, someone is intent of my life an epic love poem." She considers laughing again but decides not to. "Those rarely end well for the lovers. I shall have to keep the bards away from me."

"They should sing of your devotion to Archadia. There is no room in your heart for anything else."

"I would have too small of a heart if it did not also have room for friends."

"Valdian friends?"

"And Archadian."

(Minutes later, on the airship, she wishes she had explicitly said she counts Gabranth amongst her friends. Such confessions are dangerous -- she and Gabranth are equally cautions -- but Gabranth has, time and time again, earned her trust.)

He shifts, and now he is looking at her. "Your friends in Archades pray for your success and safe return."

V.

Valdia is a wild country. The forests are deep and old, and Drace finds her ride through them both terrifying and exhilarating. Lord Vayne's agents had left reports for her at various way stations. She follows their trail southwest, picking up other pieces of intelligence as she rides.

There are beings called Majin who hail from Besek. They have abducted the Crown Princess Lenarshe. It is hard to tell rumor from fact, but it sounds as if they intend to sacrifice her to something called Izel.

Drace remembers her orders from Lord Vayne, his suspicion -- his hope -- that Besek houses an Esper.

(As a child, she wished to hunt Espers. She imagined life as a grand explorer, discovering long-hidden tombs. It was a short-lived childhood dream. The first time she had seen a Judge Magister, she knew she had found her true calling. And now she was getting a chance to play explorer. Yet another reason to hate Lord Vayne.)

There is also news of Master Leto. He has gone into Besek, and the Pope of the Church of Valdia has sent squads to ensure Master Leto never leaves Besek. The Pope has never had a hold over her, and simply being in his domain gives her no reason to watch her thoughts. She can call his actions what they are, assassination orders.

She rides harder.

VI.

The air in Besek is heavy. Drace does not notice it during battle. During battle, her blood sings, and all she knows is the reassuring weight of her armor, the heft of her maces, the give of flesh and bone beneath her as she fights her way deeper into Besek.

She finds she cannot allow herself any spare thoughts, even when she is not fighting. It is a shame. The beasts of Besek are unlike any she has seen. She almost wishes she can spare the thought -- and the time -- to compile notes.

Eventually, she comes to a town, Isapolis. She is greeted by its Count, a man named Duphaston, who reminds her too much of Lord Vayne. She stays long enough to replenish her supplies, repair her weapons, and to see if Lord Vayne's agents had left word for her.

She is not surprised to learn all but one of Lord Vayne's agents had fallen to the Majin. She finds the sole survivor at the town's only inn, bruised and bandaged and missing his left arm.

He has no new news for her. She escorts him out of Besek and gives him her Chocobo. There is another town a day's walk to the east. When she leaves, she will be able to buy another mount.

She gives Isapolis wide berth when she returns to Besek.

VII.

The being calls himself Morpheus. "You're too late for your friends." He extends his arms and flexes his claws.

Drace readies her maces. If she could allow herself spare thoughts, she would consider how beautiful their fight will look to a witness, the contrast of his golden armor against her silver. "You know nothing of my friends."

He laughs, and it echoes as if they are in a cavern instead of a field.

"You know nothing of me," Drace says.

"I know everything of you."

"Then you know you can either let me pass or fall before me."

"Come at me, woman."

She obliges. He gives her a good fight, but she is better. He's laughing when he falls. It sounds mocking. Drace grits her teeth and moves on.

VIII.

She finds Master Leto the next morning. She's following distant battle sounds and almost misses his form slumped against a tree. He is badly injured. Drace rushes to his aid. Her potions are ineffective. The wound is in his stomach, and it is deep. She does not have the means to heal it.

"Ah, now I must be dead." He smiles and reaches for her, curling his fingers on her gauntlet. "Judge Drace."

"You are not dead."

"Yet." Blood trickles from the corner of his mouth. "It's a fatal wound. No need to hide that from me."

"Yes, it is fatal, and I do not have the talent to heal it."

"Well, you'll just have to grant my dying wish." He smiles. "Wishes, really. I'm greedy."

"I will do what I can."

"Will you let me see your face?"

That is easy enough. Drace removes her helm. It is, she realizes, the first time he has seen her face. Leto's smile widens. "As beautiful as I imagined."

"Your tongue is as silver as your hand."

"I was a rogue in my youth." He cocks his head to one side. "You hear that?"

"The battle?"

His gaze is starting to go glassy. "That's my Ashley."

There's a peal of vicious laughter, and it brings Leto back to himself. He reaches for Drace's gauntlet again. "Help her, Drace."

She nods, reaches for her helm, and rises.

IX.

Leto's apprentice, Ashley, is capable, but she and her team are outnumbered. Drace wades into the fray, blocking a blow from a robed figure meant for an archer. "I am a friend of Leto," she says as the archer -- quick reflexes -- turns the bow on her.

The robed figure straightens and raises its mace. Drace hits it again. It vanishes.

"Get down!" The archer's aiming, and Drace moves to her left. There's another robed figure approaching. The arrow hits it, and it stiffens, but still comes. Drace steps forward, dispatches it.

She catches sight of two women, twins, fighting ahead of her. No, not exactly twins. One glows silver. "Ashley and her persona," the archer says, notching another arrow.

"You're injured," Drace says. She fumbles for a potion, hands it to the archer.

"Just a scratch." The archer fires. "I'm Reyna."

"Drace." She steps forward, takes on another of the figures.

She never makes it to Ashley's side. She and Reyna pick off the robed figures, leaving Ashley and a dark-haired spearman to focus on the persona. She falls with a snarl.

Drace's breathing is heavy.

The boy -- how could she have mistaken him for a man? -- levels his spear at her. "Who are you?"

"Glynne," Reyna says.

Ashley steps forward and forces the head of Glynne's spear down. "He helped us, Glynne."

"She," Drace corrects. "My name is Drace. I am a friend of Leto."

"Master Leto!" Ashley runs past her, back into the forest.

Glynne narrows his eyes. "You better not be lying."

"Careful, boy. Your weapon may have longer reach, but I have better skill."

"Glynne," Reyna says again.

"Shut up, Reyna."

"Look at her armor, Glynne. It's Archadian, the kind their Judge Magisters wear."

Glynne turns that narrow-eyed look on Reyna. "You seem know an awful lot about Archadians."

Drace takes advantage of the opening. Like all Judges, she is faster than she should be in the armor. She rushes Glynne, twists to hip check him, and twists his spear out of his grip. He lands with an "oomph," and glares up at Drace.

She levels his spear at him.

"That's enough," Reyna says from immediately behind Drace. She feels the slim blade of a stiletto between the plates of the armor at her left armpit.

"There is a letter in my pack," Drace says, raising the spear so Glynne can rise. "One Leto wrote to me, and, if he still lives, he can confirm my identity."

Glynne wrenches his spear from her. "Fine." He walks off after Ashley.

Reyna removes the stiletto.

"You're quick with that," Drace says.

"Glynne is difficult enough. The next time, I will strike." Reyna watches her for a moment. "Leto's wound is fatal."

"Yes," Drace says.

Behind them, Ashley wails.

X.

She stays with them. What else can she do? The deeper they move into Besek, the more formidable the Majin, so she uses that as her excuse to join their party. Leto's Ashley to her Larsa. She feels responsible for Ashley.

And she still has her orders from Lord Vayne.

"I came here to save him," Ashley says.

Drace had overheard Reyna talking to Ashley. The archer has a good head and good intentions. Were Ashley just traveling with Reyna, Drace would have no concerns about leaving them. But there is Glynne. Drace knows what kind of boy he is, what kind of man he will become. Ashley does not. Not yet, anyway.

"You came for more than that," Drace says.

Ashley blinks at her, then nods. "And you? Why have you come?" She looks over Drace's armor. "All the way from Archadia, Reyna says."

"Many reasons."

"Master Leto used to tell me about a Judge he knows who's more skilled with a mace than him. That's you, isn't it?"

Drace smiles. "We sparred once."

"Will you miss him?"

"Yes."

XI.

There are no Espers in Besek. Drace decides her orders from Lord Vayne do not extend to Valdia. She has her suspicious about the palace, about the Goddess Atona, her statue, but perhaps what she feels is the magic of a holy place.