The Heretic's Confessional [FFT]
(originally published here)
"On your feet, filth." The heavy strike of the guard's steel gauntlet against the bars of his cage brought Olan from his meditative state with a start; he did not mean to dignify the rude awakening with a response, save that instinct had directed his gaze toward the sound before conscious reason could set in. The guard -- a knight of the church, it seemed for his dress and brash demeanour, though one for whom this dreary prison assignment was punishment for some infraction like as not -- met Olan's eye with spiteful sneer. "You've got a visitor."
A vistor? At this late hour? Olan's mind scattered through the list of those who might have cause to seek his audience, coming up with no name of whom he actually cared to see (save one, and she was gone east and safe, he had seen to that). He found, however, that he might have racked his brains for days to create lists of those yet alive who cared that he yet lived, and never once added to their meagre ranks the man whose footfalls he heard approach down the stone stairs -- not the cushioned, aged steps of the church's heresy examiners, nor the steel cacophany of a guard's armour, but the tread of fine leather boots, followed close behind by brush of heavy cape.
"Your Majesty," Olan spat, disgusted. "Forgive me for not standing." It was a bitter taunt, for Olan could not stand, having been shackled by his wrists less than half a metre from the floor. The manacles had been infused with shards of nethecite to prevent the working of magicks; Olan's bare wrists bore bloody testament to his sole attempt, where casting had turned against himself, the spell's heat absorbed and redirected to the captured caster.
"Pardon the intrusion." Delita seemed both impervious to Olan's venom and unwilling to reciprocate with his own. "But I knew I could not wait the morrow."
He spoke truth, Olan knew; already he had perceived above him the noise of several heavy carts, rolling wood into the courtyard a mere two flights above his cell. A swiftly severed head was too good for a heretic, it seemed. There was no mercy for the enemies of God. "What use think you have I for regency when tomorrow I shall be delivered into the arms of St. Ajora?"
Delita drew his cloak more tightly around his shoulders, a ward against the dungeon's pervasive stony chill. "Your words are not the words of a heretic."
"Neither are yours those of a noble-king." A growing darkness on Delita's brow showed Olan that his strike had hit its mark, and hit it well. "Perhaps then we are both charlatans, condemned to burn for our deceptions. The difference is that I can see the fire approaching, while you must lie your days in wait for it to creep upon you from behind."
Delita's leather-gloved hands became fists at his sides. In the torchlit darkness of the dungeon, he looked so very old, eyes and jaw creased with worry-worn time. He had taken to wearing a beard since last Olan had beheld him, an unflattering addition that shrouded his otherwise attractive face. There had been a time many years ago Olan had thought the young Black Sheep Knight comely, his face even then grim and merciless, but taken to the occasional sincere smile. The face that stood before Olan now had not seen fit to break its hardened scowl in many years. "Your speech is bold," Delita said at last.
"And why would it not be? A dead man has aught to lose for a careless tongue. Unless you intend to divorce it from my head." His dark eyes level at Delita, his lips curled in the smirk of one who has no other recourse in the face of unclosed wounds. "And even then, I should not miss it long."
The bars rang as Delita struck them with the flat of his palm, though not as loudly as they had to the tune of the guard's blow, and not for nearly as long. "I did not come to trade in mockeries with you."
"Then for what reason, pray tell, my liege, have you seen fit to descend these stony steps and gaze upon a man condemned?" Olan's tone was bitter, though he supposed it had every right to be.
Delita drew closer to the bars, resting his brow against the filthy steel. "Leave us." For a moment, Olan had understood the instruction as directed toward him, and wondered how on earth he might be reasonably expected to comply with such an order; then the guard who had announced the regent's arrival turned and retreated unquestioningly up the stairs. Delita held his tongue until the heavy door had shut behind the armoured man, leaving the two of them to their seclusion. "...I have come to offer you pardon."
"Pardon?" Olan scarce could have imagined such a thing from Delita's lips, and as he spoke, he felt the gall rise in the back of his throat. "You allow such grief to unfold, such destruction, and all the word I hear from your office is that these are affairs of the church, not of state, and therefore you had not cause to intervene -- and now you come to look upon me, manacled and bruised, in my eleventh hour, resigned to my fate, and you offer me pardon?" Had the shackles not held him fast to the floor, Olan felt he might have risen to his feet and taken the dark-haired ruler by the neck. "I spit on your pardon. I have wrought the matter of my own fate, and tomorrow shall burn by the pyre it has fashioned -- yet I shall do it as a man who owes no boon to the likes of you."
"Do you not understand you are to die?" Again Delita's fist sounded its impotent anger against the bars.
"Aye, indeed I understand! One does not come to this rank place for holiday!" Yet Olan looked upon Delita's countenance, and saw there the pained expression of true regret. Whatever matter had brought the commoner-king on such an errand, it looked to eat him from within, and as such Olan was moved to pity. "...Then, tell me of this royal pardon, that I may suss the royal thorns embedded in its rose, and as such may reject it from a place of greater wisdom."
For long moment, Olan was unsure whether his words had served to silence Delita for good, for the man looked at him with eyes that bespoke such a broken spirit that Olan could scarce imagine speaking would not shatter him entirely. There had been a time once, lo these many years, when Delita's silvered tongue and inner fire had shone so brightly that none in Ivalice could have denied him anything. Yet now, having gathered to him the highest achievements one could imagine, no vestige of that fire remained -- only the sad embers that marked the place it once had burned. "...Tell me of Ramza," said Delita softly. "In your writings, you.... I have read your works. You speak of him and his deeds."
"Aye," nodded Olan.
"Near the end, the very end, you ... tell a tale." Now Delita's eyes looked to the ceiling, the floor, the bars, his own hands -- everywhere but the man bent before him; his voice, barely a sigh, carried yet through the stony chamber. "You write that you saw him. After he and the others descended, after the threat of the Zodiac Stones became no more, you say you saw him ride away." Delita took air into his lungs and let it slip again through pursed lips, then knelt upon the straw-strewn floor, a penitent gesture. "Tell me true: Does Ramza live?"
Though it broke a portion of his heart he had not even known existed to break, Olan shook his head. "Nay." He saw a grim wince cross Delita's pale brow. "What I saw was what I wished to see. A fetch, a ghost. Are you surprised?"
"Nay." Surely Delita could not have believed such all this time, as sense and reason prevailing must have given no cause to such a fanciful thought -- yet despite Delita's sensible words, Olan saw his face change, his expression harden. It was the look of a man for whom hope had finally died.
Olan inclined his head. "For this alone, you would offer me pardon?"
"For this, yes. I would still."
"No." Though it took every inch of his honour to refuse, honour was all Olan had left to him, and he would not see it denied now. "Yet I will bear to him a message, if you desire as much from me. But in return I ask a different pardon."
Delita motioned for Olan to continue. "I listen."
"My writings are to be burned with me come morning. I ask you work within your power to save them -- perhaps not that they may come to bear in your lifetime, but that generations hence, our children and grandchildren will be able to know." As much as his bonds would allow him, Olan leaned forward, bringing his body to close the distance between them; it was he now who assumed the obeisant position. "And they will know, one day. Histories like ours never unwrite themselves. I ask only that you secret me, for truth will out, and when it does, I wish my words to be its champion."
"It has been done." Surprised, Olan lifted his head to find the ghost of a smile curled at the corners of Delita's mouth, lifting at last at the heavy lines of his face. "The church preserves even its critics; the existence of the Germonik Scriptures should be testament enough to that."
"Is this your doing, or that of another?"
Delita sighed, resting back on his knees as though crouching so long in such a position pained him. "I inquired, only to find the decision made ahead of me. The papers to be burned at your feet tomorrow are scant forgeries, false books whose leaves the flame will consume ere anyone notices their pages empty." A sharp laugh leapt from the king's throat, and he shook his head to chase it away. "Ah, that I had lied and thus been able to satisfy the conditions of your bargain! For surely where he is and where you go will be closed to me when I depart this world. All my life, the Lie has been my only companion, yet as I age I far more often find Truth's bitter dregs lingering at the back of my throat."
Perhaps it was consideration of the miserable state of the man in front of him, or perhaps a simple surge of heretofore undeserved mercy brought on by the knowledge of his few remaining hours, but Olan felt his heart moved by Delita's plight. A foul trickster the man had been, true, a manipulator and a rogue -- yet seeing him at the end of all his travails emptier and angrier than he had been at their beginning stirred Olan to pity.
'For what is a man profited,' spoke the Scriptures through St. Ajora's mouth, 'if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?'
"I will bear your tidings," Olan told him. "Speak to me what you would have him hear."
Even in the darkness of the cell, Olan could see the edge of tears stinging at royal eyes. Delita edged closer to the bars, extending his arm first to them, then through them, grasping with outstretched arm for purchase -- only to find his quest for contact denied as Olan's chains anchored him far beyond reach, the barriers between them a formidable opponent even to the end. "...I do not know," he finally admitted, his gloved fingers falling to the stone floor. "That I am sorry. That I used him for my own advantage, yet that advantage has come to naught. That ... I was never in my life so happy as when we sat out under the endless sky and could be not commoner and noble, not at odds with ourselves, but honest friends. Only with him was I ever able to sheathe the sword of my anger."
"Was thus the weapon that ended Ovelia's life?" Madness it was to ask, yet Olan knew he would never have another chance.
The pain that struck Delita's face was visible, and the king withdrew his hand from between the bars, retreating again toward himself. "I did not kill her. I was but the instrument she employed in her self-destruction."
"Does it help you sleep the night to think this?"
"No." Delita did not hesitate in his response.
Such honesty surely was bitter indeed, and by this token Olan was satisfied. "I will." He bowed his head low, so low his brow met stone. "Though mayhap it is not too late to find a way to where he is yourself. For you were willing to save both my life and its work, and in assuring me of the latter's continuance, you have brought me comfort Glabados never wished me to have. These are not the mercies of a man whose damnation is irreversible."
"I fear my time to make amends has long past," Delita answered with bitter grimace, "yet it is kind of you to say as much." With careful hand, he raised himself to his feet, brushing off the straw and grime accumulated by his time spent against the floor with an effort yet so half-hearted that Olan knew it was not the dirt of the cell Delita felt he could not cast away, but the stain collected on his soul. "...Have I else I can offer you?"
"Nay, your Majesty."
"Then I will take my leave of you and let you spend these hours undisturbed."
Olan shut his eyes and rocked back on his heels, knees spread and balanced, arms weighted fast to the ground between them. He listened for, but did not hear, the sound of Delita's retreating footfalls -- yet he did not look again. The business between them, their history for good or ill, had been concluded, and Olan would not be the one to prolong it. His writings would remain, his most intensive labour of love, and that was the piece which finally set his heart at ease. Men died, kingdoms crumbled, cities sank, saviours rose and fell (and occasionally rose again), but Truth could outlast all such petty lives. For this knowledge alone would he meet his death with quiet calm.
If Delita said else, Olan did not perceive it, and presently the king made good of his word and took his leave, though no soldier returned to fill his place. As such Olan was indeed left undisturbed his last night, meditating through the hours in solitude, his only companion the occasional thunder from above as the carts rolled their inflammable burdens ever forward, heavy with the weight of the approaching dawn.
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