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Title: be ye therefore wise as serpents and innocent as doves
Fandom: Guilty Gear
Characters: Ky, OC soldier
Rating: PG-13
Contains: war era, politics, Ky being the resident tiny badass because he is
Summary: "The day they hand him the boy is supposed to be his first day of furlough."
Ky Kiske, before he acquired rank, fame, or a respectable height, and a captain who is just way too tired for any of this bullshit.



The day they hand him the boy is supposed to be his first day of furlough.

Nine months in the field, front line duty, and down to a third of his men, the only thing that was keeping him going for the past couple of weeks was the thought that this was it. This was the home stretch. If he just got them all through this, they could finally enjoy a meal with real ingredients and an actual, honest-to-God bath, the non-negotiable things that help to remind them that they're human. He doesn't think he's even heard a single utterance of "boobs" past month four. Just food, and sleep, and not waking up in a layer of mud and leeches, but then the package shows up on his doorstep and he knows, by the power of his gastric ulcer, that he can kiss that dream goodbye.

"Captain Ramius, sir!"

Nobody salutes out at the front because nobody knows whether the Gears are smart enough to start picking off COs. Ramius hasn't had to cut any fresh meat down to size in almost a year, but between the orders in his hands and the sight of the boy, he finds that he's misplaced the face that goes with drilling some goddamn common sense into naive recruit skulls.

He squints.

The boy doesn't, hand still hovering at his brow, back ramrod straight and gaze unyielding.

Ramius has seen courier kids younger than this, and for a moment, that thought softens the blow — it's a mistake, it has to be, they aren't really kicking him back into the field to escort this skinny wisp of dandelion — but then the boy opens his mouth again and it's so much worse than he could have imagined.

"Commander Candidate Ky Kiske, reporting for transfer!"

A Candidate. God help them all, this pixie-faced little slip of nothing is a Candidate, and for just a moment, nine months of bugfuck lunacy from the collective mouth of central command make this one seem all too plausible.

"I sincerely apologize for the—"

Somehow, Ramius finds his voice. "I'm not in the mood for pranks, boy. You better tell me who put you up to this so I can go ream his fucking ass."

"Um." That at least has the boy blinking, his arm slowly sinking back to his side. "That… would be Commander Undersn. Sir."

After a small pause, he reaches into his coat, pulling out an envelope that has somehow survived the journey without a wrinkle, and holds it out to Ramius as if fully expecting him to check the authenticity of the Commander's very own seal.

"I'm sorry this is on such short notice, but Commander Undersn wanted to oversee my field training personally."

Field training. Ramius can still remember the days when they actually waited for a Candidate's voice to break, just to avoid having it sound like it's the field mice giving the orders, and the boy is maybe ten, eleven at best, handing over his transfer papers like it's the most natural thing in the world. Heavily, Ramius rubs a hand across his brow, the sudden plug on his anger leaving him with nothing else to offer.

The boy is still talking, explaining himself, trying to salvage the situation with diplomacy and politeness and all the things the front has no room for, and so Ramius doesn't feel too bad about leaving him standing there, outside the tent, with the mud starting to stain his absurdly polished boots.



"Hey, check this out. Boy or girl, whaddya think?"

The jeer is uttered none too quietly, obviously intended for someone besides the three lancers who have drifted out of formation to ride side-by-side. Up ahead, Kiske stiffens, squaring his shoulders even more for the extra inch it gives him, though it makes him look no less out of place. One of the handlers thought it'd make for some entertainment to put the boy on a hulking black Friesian, watch him dangle helplessly in the stirrups, but the little bugger sits in the saddle like he's been glued there, denying the men a good spectacle. Ramius has kept an eye out, though he's had little reason to stop the barbs and jabs, small outlets for the bitter pill of seeing a well-deserved rest swapped for escorting this princeling around. He'll step in to stop the inevitable brawl, but beyond that, there's no reason to go easy on the boy.

“I dunno, has anybody checked the front?”

“Flatter than a witch’s tit, more’s the pity.”

The chuckles are rising in volume, and Ramius frowns, makes a mental note to knock a few heads together on his own time because hell, there's disbelieving that this little wisp could be in line to be Commander, and then there's being too dumb to notice the thrum of a mounting charge in the air.

Lightning user, level four. Written right at the top of his file in red ink, because "holy fucking shit" doesn't quite fit in the box. Ramius has met a handful of the Order's rarest pearls over years, has seen enough of them in action to know that even a level one can fry a ten-ton Gear to cardiac arrest without breaking a sweat. Walking live wires, and they all look like nothing, slight and fine-boned and always a couple of years off their actual age. Kiske hit thirteen a few weeks ago, though it's not like these two years to Ramius's estimate make things any better.

The boy shouldn't be here. None of them should be.

Ahead, the ribbing is still going strong, the soldiers egging each other on with lewd gestures. “Rear’s not so bad, though.”

“Not ‘nough meat, if you ask me.”

“Heh, wanna check and find out?”

One of them picks up his reins, ready to send his horse bolting past Kiske to take the game to the next level, and himself out of commission.

“Oi, Farkas! If you've got asses on the brain so much, how about you clowns get yours back to where they ought to be before I kick them all the way to Sunday?!”

The bark is enough to send the trio scurrying back into formation with a lackluster "yessir" at having their fun spoiled. Entirely unaware that Ramius has just spared them from finding out what happens when they try to play ass-grab with a level four, but that's just as well. He'll deal with this particular bit of incompetence later.

The tension in the air drops noticeably when he nudges his horse into a trot, pulling up alongside Kiske. He's made a point of avoiding the boy's attempts at conversation, too weary to listen to someone so obviously fresh out of headquarters, the rule-obsessed asstardery of central command present in every perfectly placed buckle, every precisely folded tent sheet, the ridiculous hours Kiske observes for prayers or meditation or whatever it is they drill into them these days. It won't smooth things over to try talking now, but this is far from the worst the front has to offer to a kid like that, and the sooner he understands, the better.

"Try not to let it get to you."

Spoken as if in passing, and if he just keeps his eyes on the road ahead, he can ignore the boy looking at him, surprise melting into that same unnerving gaze from their first meeting, a level of serious contemplation in it that's enough to put anyone on guard, makes them want to cover all their bad spots. Defiance, haughtiness, indifference, there's so many things that can be read into his expression, and if the kid isn't doing it on purpose, then he's bound to piss off a hell of a lot of people by accident.

"…I won't, sir," Kiske says evenly, eyes lingering a moment longer before turning to look straight ahead, his posture a mirror of Ramius's own.

"Usually, we get them when they're older." It's the closest Ramius will come to asking what the fuck they're all thinking, central command and Undersn and, yes, even the boy, whom he's seen rifling through their maps and the mission logs like an inspector. Hell, maybe that's what this is all about. Hopefully, that's what this is all about.

"I'm aware of that, sir." No change in Kiske's tone, the same bland, polite neutrality, and Ramius frowns. Whoever first started calling him Commander Pissenlit deserves a goddamn award. The boy knows, has to know what it looks like, can't possibly be so blind or arrogant to think that the reason he's setting everyone's teeth on edge still has much of anything to do with that aborted furlough. Commander Undersn isn't getting any younger, that much is obvious, and his little army of miracle workers isn't getting any more durable, either. The mere fact that central command hasn't shut down the Candidate program years ago means they've got no other plan. Looking at the boy, they must be scraping the bottom of the barrel.

What the hell makes you so special, boy? What the hell's going on that they'd send out a kid like you?

Ramius hates being left in the dark, but he hates being made to beg for scraps of information even more. There's no point to secrecy other than ensuring the worst possible outcome. He's lost his share of good men to some chickenshit higher-ups who thought sparing the troops the cold hard facts was the way to go. He was there when secrecy killed Naples, when provisions and ammo and all high officials were shipped out of the city in the dead of night, leaving the rest to descend into chaos.

"It's making my men uneasy, not knowing what to expect."

"I understand that, sir. All I can do is ask you to allow me to prove myself where it counts."

Under different circumstances, Ramius would have laughed. Would have patted the boy on the head and sent him on his way, to come back at a time when he's grown out of the self-assured storybook quotes, but the only way this one would be coming back is in a coffin, with the deaths of several hundred men to his name. "Do they pick you with that stick up your arse, or do they shove it up there during training?" he growls, frustration winning out over pity. "I wasn't born yesterday, boy. Kid like you out here, I know we're hip-deep in shit. I just wanna know what kind of shit it is before it's up to our necks, is that so much to—"

"Captain, sir!"

The shout freezes the words on his tongue, shoving Kiske's presence into the lowest problem category there is. One of the scouts is galloping towards them from the east, so pale and alarmed that it can only be an ambush, but then the man is past the dip and up the hill, and his next words are enough to make Ramius wish he could take his chances with the Gears.

"Bloodcrosses, sir!" The scout slumps forward in the saddle, flushed and panting. "Bloodcrosses approaching Lentíy!"

Letting go of the sword takes a bit of conscious effort, though the reason he manages to do so at all is the simple fact that the blade to fight that particular blight has yet to be forged.

"You're sure."

The scout swallows. "Yes, sir. At least a dozen, maybe more. They were flying the flag and everything."

"Hell."

Behind him, the ranks have stopped, murmurs swelling in the midst of latches popping open, bags getting shuffled around to dig for long-discarded rosaries and anything that might have gotten labeled as contraband during their months away from civilization. Smokes. Booze. A well-thumbed deck of cards. Not that it matters much how long they were gone. Ramius has dealt with the bastards often enough to know that the rules can change within a day or an hour, at the whim of every petty thug who's managed to earn the name of head inquisitor.

He's seen them strolling around HQ like they own the place, imposing men in pristine robes, with the only spot of color a pair of crossing blades laid over a scarlet crucifix. They go by other names there, of course, but it's not like those ever managed to fool anybody. Sages of the Sword. Defenders of the Faith. Names that look good stamped on letterheads, that sound noble in polite company, the same way it sounds better to call a bunch of troops a vanguard rather than meat shields.

The Bloodcross Knights. God help them all.

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Ramius makes his decision. After a brief struggle with the saddlebags, he is dragging out the battered map and spreading it across his horse's neck, the signal for his officers to join him. That's one small benefit to making it for nine months, at least, that the need for orders just disappears, six riders crowding round without so much as a jostle or a shove. Six faces, ranging from concerned to grim, six shades of jaded. Ramius isn't sure the muscles in his own face even consider the development worth the effort.

"Fine mess this is," his sergeant major is saying, staring sourly at the wide expanse of marsh and forest between Lentíy and their destination. "I was hoping maybe I could get my feet dry before I'd have to get my feet wet again."

"Let's just keep going. If we ride through the night—"

"I'm not crossing the marshes sleep-deprived and hungry."

"But our supplies look good. We should be able to make do till we get to the fort."

"If we don't get held up."

"What about the area west of here? There's a depot there, if we could—"

"That'll take days. Let's just cut across here—"

"You like your balls charbroiled, Laine?" Ramius interrupts, smothering a spark of irritation. He isn't about to spend the night anywhere near downwind of Lentíy, or huddled in the cold just in case the watch fires might attract some undue attention. The Gears, at least, will smell them just the same, warm dinner or no. "If they're going in with the flag, they mean business. And I'm not about to make us their business. Especially not with that kind of cargo-"

He jerks his head towards Kiske meaningfully, only to find the space vacant, the boy gone from his side. For a moment, Ramius keeps squinting at the spot, so convinced that the little bugger was just waiting for the right moment to waltz into the discussion that it takes him a while to locate Kiske a few yards away, at the highest point, standing in the saddle and gazing into the distance with one hand shielding his eyes from the sun. Then, slowly, he turns around, as if realizing he's being watched, and though his voice doesn't carry over the haggling of the officers, Ramius is good enough at lip-reading that he instantly finds himself longing for a pointless smartass remark.

"I'd like to stick with our original route, Captain."

"The hell you will."

Another nice thing about making it for nine straight months is that he doesn't have to shout anymore. One sharp growl, and it's total silence all around, every last soldier looking from him to the boy and back. The downside to the silence is that it's the perfect stage for Kiske's quiet-voiced arrogance.

"Captain..."

"Forget it. My team, my orders. I don't care how many gold stickers you've earned, I'm not risking my men on your whim."

"And I would never ask you to." Picking up the reins, the boy shakes his head. "But if the Inquisitorial Knights have chosen to come here, I'd like to know the reason. There's no need to send anyone, so please, just proceed on ahead. I'll catch up with you."

At least, Ramius can take comfort in the fact that he isn't the only one staring, wondering whether Kiske is serious or merely stupid, and which option he'd prefer.

“Now listen here, boy—“

“Don't worry, sir. The Commander will know that I was acting at my own discretion.”

A slight smile darts across his lips, the first time during the entire trip that he hasn't been polite and stoic, and then he's gone, a flash of white on black thundering off into the distance to meet the hounds of hell.

For a moment, Ramius remains staring after him, fully aware of the dead silence all around. Then, he reaches into his breast pocket for the little bag of chewing tobacco, pops a wad into his mouth, and starts swearing in every language known to man.



His impressions of Lentíy are a good ten years old and don't amount to much, little beyond the big barn on the edge of town that they converted into a rest stop for soldiers. The most memorable thing was the bread, fresh from the oven and dipped into a milk and leek stew, the best goddamn thing to a newly promoted captain who just got his unit through two months of icy storms and near-starvation. He never got to look around since they all got deployed again as soon as they were back on their feet, though that's just as well.

The war's done a number on it since, everything looking smaller, grayer, food shortages and the shifting front lines distracting people from the upkeep of their homes, the same as any other place he's ever been. No obvious damage yet, which means the front must be stable for now, except…

"What in the blazes is that?"

Leave it to Laine to ask what he was trying his hardest not to think about. The sun is starting to hang low, its reddish tint and the lengthening shadows rendering the damage in stark relief — an entire section of the town wall smashed to pieces, leaving a gaping, v-shaped hole, and beyond that, several houses with their roofs nearly gone, the upper sections charred black from a recent fire.

"Don't know."

Whatever was bad enough for the church to dispatch the inquisition instead of the nearest priest means the less they look and listen, the less screwed they'll be, and as far as Ramius is concerned, they're already pretty damn royally screwed.

"Doesn't look like the Gears to me. Doubt the town'd still be standing if they hit it." Laine is still staring, scratching his chin. "Wait a minute— this couldn't have been the Bloodcrosses, could it?"

"Don't. know," Ramius grinds out. "Waste any more time and you'll get the chance to ask them personally."

"No thanks, sir." An apologetic grin as Laine turns to rejoin them.

"Then let's get a move on. The sooner we recover the package, the better."

"How do we—?"

"Spread out. Find him. Grab him and pray they don't follow."

It's not the most brilliant plan in the world — hell, it's no plan at all, but Ramius isn't sure what kind of strategy he could have devised even if he had the time and resources to spare. The inquisitorial inspectors are nothing but a joke, petty, angry little men that show up in camp with a thirty-pound rulebook to harass the soldiers about their belt buckles. The Bloodcross Knights are nothing but these rules unchained, devoid of sense or meaning, sent to deliver judgment with their swords. If the heavens are holding Ramius in any favor at all, they might spare him having to explain why the Candidate he was meant to deliver is facing charges of espionage, or is gracing the nearest wall as a stain. Whichever the divine executioners are in the mood for. From what he's seen, they can never seem to decide whether they like witnesses or would rather just make them disappear.

He takes the route following the v-shaped scar, the smell of incense thick enough to tell him that's the way the Knights went in. More burnt rooftops, the oriel windows on the upper floors knocked off a couple of houses. Not a soul around, but chalk symbols drawn on every door, some of the steps still glistening with water. Gritting his teeth, Ramius tries to keep his eyes trained forward to avoid the details, the shaky hand, the incomplete pictograms, somebody trying to draw warding circles on the entire town with the bit of Sunday school knowledge a parish priest might have. He isn't too studious on the subject himself, but there aren't too many ways to interpret this.

Neither are there too many ways to interpret the horse sans rider waiting at the next corner.

Hell.

The street beyond is lit up by long rows of torches, incense burners pouring milky smoke out onto the cobblestone, a cloying haze that's making his throat clench and itch. If he was wondering where the people went, well, now he's wondering no more. From the looks of it every single resident has been packed into the town square, and when they ran out of square, into the main street. Shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, with children squeezed between the adults' legs. Mostly women and the elderly, with every able-bodied man long drafted, but it's not like it would make a difference either way.

Cursing under his breath, Ramius casts his eyes over the crowd, hoping in vain to catch sight of the crazy little missionary — and stops.

No one in the crowd so much as turned when he came thundering up the alley, no one moved or shouted or tried to entreat him to stop whatever madness is happening in the square, and now he knows why. The reason is rising from a ruined building on the far side, sharp and angular, a coal-black bird of prey.

Swirling around it are ring upon ring of magic circles, crimson bands drifting back and forth between them like fat snakes. The biggest piece of blacktech Ramius has ever seen was no larger than his little finger, and he still destroyed it as fast as could, couldn't stop staring at the hand that held it for weeks after. This thing is as big as a house, more than big enough to tear that swath of destruction through the town, and he doesn't even want to imagine where it came from or what else it might be able to do, because all he has to do is look at the goddamn circles. The magic he knows is light and airy, tendrils twined together by the will of the caster. This thing is like a boil ready to burst, and no wonder his throat is trying to close up when the damn spells are looking almost solid to the touch, pulsing with a fierce, chilling power.

Nobody reacts when he dismounts, nobody grunts or shuffles when he starts pushing his way into the throng. It's like plunging in and parting a stream of molasses, every single person slack and pliable, spellbound by a spectacle the furthest of them can't even see. There's only a handful of reasons to assemble the entire town like this, and none of them pleasant. It's not like he was expecting any differently; the Bloodcrosses can never show up anywhere without setting fire to at least one thing, and with that shadow hovering over the scene like a bird of ill omen, it's a miracle they haven't just torched the place wholesale.

More torches in the town square, providing the ambient lighting for the events to come, and—

"What's the meaning of this?!"

No.

Dear fucking Christ and all the archangels, no.

For a second, Ramius finds himself gripped by the hysterical urge to laugh. Why even be surprised at this point? Why ever pretend this was going to turn out any other way, that he'd be able to just drop off the fucking package and let the little prince be someone else's problem? He's not even sure why he was expecting to find the boy in any place but right in the thick of things, facing off against the inquisition without the slightest sense of self-preservation. On the ground, because why bother with the tactical advantage of a thousand-pound warhorse when he can try to intimidate the Vatican's personally approved murder squad from an angle that requires him to tilt his head almost all the way back to meet their eyes.

Right now, his only advantage is that the inquisition seems too surprised to try and take his head off.

"I'll ask one more time. I'm Commander Candidate Kiske, and I demand an explanation!"

In any other situation, Ramius would almost feel inclined to muster a shred of pity for him, this child that someone let loose on the world thinking his title means something, that anyone would hear it and think of order and authority instead of a pile of long-dead sacrifices to a long-dead hope. Apparently it means something to the inquisition, though, because their ritual circle parts to let a tall man step forward, the polished mask concealing his entire face and the ceremonial sword against his hip setting him apart from the others.

An Elite. The Bloodcross Knights know no rank, only status, and the heavens know what they have to do to earn the golden mask and the flametongue blade, and of course, of course the boy has to go around antagonizing one of these because he's an insane little martyr with a head full of useless ideals and no common sense to spare.

"…A Candidate. Is that so?"

Even dulled by metal, the Knight's tone is hovering somewhere between curiosity and amusement, and thank fuck for that because it means if he hurries, Ramius just might be able to get them out of this by passing the boy off as an ignorant child not worth their time. Elbowing more of the dazed crowd aside, he makes his way towards the center.

"And rather far from home, it would seem."

"As are you, if I'm not mistaken," Kiske returns, either too stupid or too arrogant to recognize the threat for what it is.

"We go wherever the Lord's work must be done."

"What a coincidence. So do I," Kiske says, just as Ramius shoves past the final row of spectators.

He had the beginnings of a speech worked out in his head, a few phrases from the long-abandoned book of humility and respect that do nothing except let the Knights know that he's this close to pissing his pants, but then the Elite glances at him and the words just shrivel and die on his tongue. Nothing, less than nothing, just a flicker of the eyes from the depths of those dark slits and Ramius has been dismissed, logged, categorized and cast aside because even if he were the fucking High Commander himself, it's Kiske who has aroused their interest.

"Your subordinates?" the Elite asks idly, sounding almost human, like they aren't standing in the middle of some podunk town prepped for a ritual burning. It's all there, the stakes, the piles of tinder, two of the Knights circling around them to bless each pyre with holy water.

Kiske doesn't even turn to look at him, as if he's not the least bit surprised that he made Ramius follow and put all his men in mortal danger. All his men, and all their families, too, if somebody's feeling particularly vengeful. Wives and kids and old, frail parents to be dragged to the stocks or flogged or excommunicated, or anything in between. When they get out of this, if they get out of this, he's going to wring the self-important little asshole's neck.

"My escort."

"Oh? Then you're not officially recognized?"

"I am not sworn in yet, and won't be for some time," Kiske explains, and if Ramius was expecting chagrin or defeat at the admission, well, apparently the boy doesn't mind openly declaring that he's powerless to stop them. Not that he'd really be able to, otherwise. The Bloodcross Knights answer to no one except His Grace the Pontiff himself, but Commander Undersn's name carries enough weight at the Apostolic Palace to at least make things slightly difficult.

Of course, the Elite knows as much, tilting his head in mock wonder. "And still, you'd interrupt a holy ceremony?"

The boy's stance hasn't changed, still rigid and bearing that razor edge gaze without flinching. "I may not have the rank to lend consequence to my words, but my duty is still to my Commander, whose duty is to the people. He would see what I see, hence my questions are his questions. And I would know what kind of crime could possibly require a sentence meted out by a dozen Sages, for it must be a crime far greater than it is in the capacity of a single woman to commit."

What the—?

Ramius jerks, the words enough to puncture the bell jar that has descended around him, narrowing the world down to just the Elite and Kiske and his own frantic thoughts. He hasn't even noticed the accused, too intent on not staring at the winged shadow overhead, too busy seeing and hearing as little as possible in order to be able to claim conscientious ignorance. Even with the demonstrative sweep of Kiske's arm, he needs a moment to locate them, and another moment to actually see.

Surrounded by the Knights, the woman is little more than a wax figure, her entire body looking ready to lose form and dissolve. There's nothing on her face, not even terror, because all that's left of her has gone into her arms, clutching a child to herself as if that alone could save it from its fate. Frowning, Ramius casts a look around in a futile attempt to find more defendants. The shadow by itself would be a justification to raze the entire town; there's enough whispers of places that simply vanished off the map one day, small towns just like this one where someone might have seen something, or found something, and in their pious innocence asked the inquisition for help. If they've decided to conduct a full-on ritual assembly instead, then this might just be their way of showing mercy.

Provided, of course, that nobody offers resistance.

The mask makes it impossible to gauge the Elite's response, an expressionless metal cast that hides even the movements of his lips. There's a gleam shining out from those dark slits, though, and Ramius hasn't made it all the way to captain without knowing how to read the warning signs. If there's anything more dangerous than an Elite on a mission, it's an Elite who has taken an interest.

"High treason does not take a great many men to commit."

Kiske doesn't reply, only inclines his head in a silent gesture to elaborate, when Ramius was so sure he was moments away from a self-righteous tirade. It doesn't fit with the image of a sheltered neophyte, but at the same time, there's a reason why they don't put thirteen-year-olds in charge of so much as a courier squad. The Elite seems to be thinking along the same lines, because he shakes his head.

"I see the High Commander has grown negligent in the education of his lambs. You are aware that the ordeals we face are a trial sent by Him, who in His infinite mercy has granted mankind the chance to renounce their blasphemous ways and repent. Who, then, could be a greater enemy than the ones who continue to sin, full well knowing that with each passing day, their sins give birth to more ordeals? And who could be a greater traitor than the ones who would shamelessly convene with the blasphemers, to allow their hearts to be swayed by falsehoods?"

"But he was just a boy!"

The cry takes Ramius by surprise, not least because he was expecting Kiske to be the one to protest. The woman didn't look to be in any shape to defend herself anymore, too stunned by the proceedings and likely too afraid to invite the Sages' wrath on the entire town, but now, she's struggling, her voice clawing its way out of her throat with the courage of the desperate.

"I only did— I only wanted to— please, you can't—!"

The crossed blades barely shiver when she strains against them, none of her captors so much as shifting his weight.

With a lingering glance towards Kiske, the Elite turns around to address her. "Your words are of no consequence. You've been granted the chance to speak out against your charges, yet you chose to confess to them instead. There is no meaning to your objections now, other than to spread doubt and decay among your fellow man."

"But that's not— I— Your Grace, please, at least my son—!"

"A child's heart bends easily to the parent's desire. Have you not already confessed to instructing him to disregard the principles of righteousness?"

A show, Ramius realizes. There's no reason for the Knight to even respond to someone who's already been judged and sentenced; this is just a little speech for Kiske's benefit, to give him the chance to understand what he is doing by delaying the inevitable. A fool's hope for the condemned. In a way, it would've been more merciful if the boy had never come.

"…Captain."

The voice is quiet, barely above a murmur, and yet, it breaks the spell Ramius didn't even realize he'd fallen under, following the Elite's preaching like a fool at a country fair. Kiske is watching him, serious and calm, as if he's shoved the Elite and his entire steel-masked entourage in the same mental box Ramius was in a minute ago, reducing them into unimportant background noise.

"I apologize for involving you in this. Unfortunately, as I am now, I can't make any guarantees as to the outcome."

"Should've thought of that before diving headlong into this mess," Ramius hisses, laying one hand on the boy's shoulder to pull him along. The thrill snapping through his body has him yanking back his arm sans Kiske, now numb to the elbow. A glance downwards, and he realizes the boy's hand is resting right next to his scabbard, relaxed enough to pass for a habitual pose, except Ramius is frighteningly certain that the jolt wasn't a warning for him to let go. "Jesus, boy. Did the clouds of incense fog your brain, or are you just out of your mind on principle? We leave. Now."

"Your duty is to your men first and foremost, I understand that. But the Commander wouldn't turn his back to this." With a decisive shake of his head, Kiske steps forward, away from him and the relative safety of the masses. "And neither will I."

For a second, Ramius can't help but wonder if, maybe, this is Undersn's master plan. Some kind of last resort tactic. Just dump this kid in front of the Gears and take them all out while they're too busy staring.

Murmurs are starting to rise around the square, sheer confusion The murmurs are rising as Kiske makes his way towards the center, sheer bewilderment slowly waking the townspeople from their paralysis, reaching their crescendo when he comes to stand face to face with the Elite once more.

"Thank you for clarifying the situation. If you have cause to suspect a collaboration, then this is a grave issue indeed. Since Lentíy is an outpost, I'd like to personally ascertain whether any military secrets have fallen into Zeppian hands."

Nothing in the boy's tone betrays the utter ridiculousness of the request, the idea that a lone peasant woman would know anything worth selling. Kiske has to know that the rule is just pro forma, a pretty little concession to the army chain of command to make them feel better about the constant reminder that they're being watched wherever they walk. The Bloodcross Knights have no reason to let anyone interfere with their business, let alone a half-pint Candidate with no power to his name. Ramius can't even fathom what he's trying to do — stalling for time, perhaps, even though that won't change anything, or making some last-ditch attempt at proving the woman's innocence, as if the inquisition has ever cared about that. It's all about setting an example, ensuring fealty and unity in the most efficient way possible.

"Unless you consider the matter not worth pursuing?"

Under different circumstances, Ramius might believe he imagined the little pause, the slight change in inflection, but not here. Judging from the silence, the Elite has heard it too, and has decided in that instant that the boy has exhausted his amusement value. Kiske doesn't say anything further, just watching his opponent with that same intense gaze, like he's seen through everything, like he already knows what's coming, like this could end with anything other than a sword to the face.

"…Very well."

Wait, what?

"As one of those in waiting for the post of High Commander, this is certainly within your right."

A rustle as the knight guard shifts in surprise, and maybe Ramius would check to see if they'd ever let something as human as bafflement show in their countenance, but he's too busy trying to keep his own under control, grappling with the realization that Kiske was betting on this. That somehow, impossibly, he was able to look at this near-statue of a man and figure out he'd—

—go along with it even though he doesn't have to, even though there's nothing in the world to stop him, at least not until well after the deed's already been done, except he'd be losing face, he'd be losing face in front of his men to some /goddamn little kid/—

"Thank you kindly." With a nod, the boy moves past him, a quiet gravity to his step that gives Ramius the uncomfortable idea that maybe, Kiske isn't as ignorant of his own position as he'd first assumed. In a sense, it would have been easier if the boy were merely stupid, instead of stupid and aware.

In unison, the Bloodcross Knights withdraw their weapons, and if there was any hint of doubt before, it's gone now, the cogs of a well-oiled clockwork moving without question at their leader's behest. Some half-baked suicidal impulse gets Ramius's legs moving, hurrying after Kiske because the idea of said goddamn little kid walking right into a circle of blades irritates more than just his pride. The swords cross again before he can make it through, though, and perhaps that suicidal impulse was stronger than he thought, because for a moment, he's seriously considering trying to shove his way past.

Kiske doesn't seem to notice or care, bowing to the prisoner as he would to someone of high standing. "I am Ky Kiske, of the Sacred Order of Holy Knights. Might I ask for your names?"

It takes several tries for the woman to find her voice again, bravado in the face of the inevitable replaced by fear of the unknown. "Y-your Grace?"

There is something to be said about the absurdity of hearing that honorific used for someone barely as tall as the swords all around him, but Ramius has no illusions that he'll be given the luxury of looking back and laughing about it, or of looking back at all.

"St-Stasia, Your Grace." After some hesitation, her white-knuckled hold on her son loosens a little. "Ivar. After his father's father."

From Ramius's vantage point, the child looks barely old enough to walk behind a plough, a tear-streaked, trembling mess. A fine traitor to the Cross, indeed.

"You've got nothing to fear from me, Lady Stasia, of that I assure you. I would only like for you to tell me what happened here, in your own words."

"I…" Her free hand twists in the fabric of her skirt.

"You were there when the cause of this destruction arrived, weren't you?" Kiske asks, his voice a blend of authority and gentleness suited for someone much older.

"…Y-yes, Your Grace."

"Please tell me of it, exactly as you saw it."

"I— I'm afraid I don't know much, Your Grace. Sixteen days ago…" The woman pauses, her eyes skittering around to look at each of her silent prison bars in turn. "I was just tending to my shop, when…. everything started shaking, and then I heard the roar of some great beast. When I rushed outside, everything was on fire… We— we all thought the Gears had come for us— the thing that fell, it— it was covered in them, and it just kept burning… at first, we couldn't even see what the Gears were hiding. It's… we didn't know what to do. We put the fires out, and sent for a priest. Nobody wanted to get too close… nobody wanted to get cursed, but then…"

"Go on."

"It's as they say, Your Grace. I… There was a young man inside. I… I couldn't help myself, he looked so much like my late husband, and… and he was so afraid—"

"You tended to his injuries?"

"Yes, Your Grace. That's all I did, I swear by God it is! The only time I spoke to him, it was to dress his wounds, and I don't think he even understood— he was already weak, and so scared— please, Your Grace, I beg of you! I'll accept any punishment, but please! Ivar, he's done nothing wrong! He only helped to wash the bandages, nothing more! I never told him— he doesn't even know who that man was—"

Half meant for Kiske, and half for the Elite, who hasn't moved from his spot, and if Ramius was expecting to see scorn or resentment in his gaze, it's all the more worrisome that the gleam of interest has made its return. It's even more discomfiting to acknowledge that he himself is in a similar position, no longer anxious to get out of here and instead curious to see what Kiske will do now that he's run out of options.

Where will you go from here, boy? There's nothing left for you to try, is there. If pleas of innocence were known to be working, they wouldn't need quite as many stakes to get their point across.

Kiske doesn't seem quite foolish enough to try and fight his way out of this, but Ramius has met enough of Undersn's charges to know that in a way, they've all got a few screws loose in their heads — as tenacious as the Devil himself, every last one of them, and at least twice as likely to charge ahead even in the face of the impossible. As if in response to his thoughts, Kiske has fallen silent, brows knit tightly, trying to put together an argument for a lost cause.

"...You said you own a shop, Lady Stasia?"

The conversational tone isn't quite what Ramius was expecting.

"Y-yes." The woman is nodding quickly, bewilderment and newfound terror brightening her eyes and making her shoulders tremble with the strain. "A small leather shop, my late husband's business."

"Then you're proficient at mending horse tack?"

"Yes, Your Grace." Still confused, but less hesitant now, getting swept up in the casual inquiry. "I've never heard complaints about my work."

"And your son will be learning the craft, as well?"

Subconsciously, her hold tightens again. "Ivar is… was to start apprenticing next summer. He already knows how to wash and soften the leathers, and—"

"I see."

Kiske nods again, and it's only because Ramius has spent the past week and a half watching him like a hawk, trying to figure out what the hell he's been saddled with, that he notices something other than stubbornness in the set of the boy's mouth. Faint, too faint for anyone but a desperate prisoner to notice, the same ghost of a smile he's shown to Ramius on top of that hill — All I'm asking is that you'll let me prove myself where it counts — and Ramius has only the space of a breath to realize with a sudden, perfect clarity that everything up until now has just been a prelude, that Kiske had it all worked out before he ever opened his mouth—

"Then I'd like to ask you, Lady Stasia, what you would think of lending your services to our cause?"

Somehow, the words feel like they should have been punctuated by a thunderclap, but the only sound is the woman's quiet gasp.

"I fully understand that this is no small thing to ask. It would require abandoning your home, your friends and neighbors, to join the soldiers as they move. I can't even promise that it would not be dangerous, that there is any guarantees to be made, but your abilities would be invaluable to the Sacred Order. There is no pair of hands we don't absolutely need, and no skill that isn't worth just as much as a strong arm with a blade. And of course, you would receive full pardon on all charges, as is the Order way. An individual's past means little, when it is their ability to shape the future that matters the most."

There silence is deafening. Ramius never quite understood the meaning of that phrase, because even in this deadest of silences, there is still sound. There's still the crackling of the flames, the straining of seams as the woman twists her fingers in her skirt again, there's the rustle of cloth as Kiske extends his hand for her to take. What's deafening is the idea budding in that silence, the realization that there is no objection forthcoming because somehow, impossibly, the Bloodcross Knights have been had. Had by a thirteen-year-old child, and the thought following hot on the heels of this one says that the boy's going to need all the guardian angels that heaven can spare, because the Knights are never letting this go.

While Ramius is still busy figuring out the why and how, the circle parts, and then the Elite is gone from his back to tower over Kiske again.

"…You refer to the Second Statute of Rome, do you not?"

Slowly, the boy withdraws his outstretched hand and turns, careful to keep himself between the mother and the lead inquisitor. There's no triumph in his eyes when he looks up, no pride or urgency, just the steadiness of tempered steel. "The amendment to the Second Statute, to be precise. Paragraph seven, subsection twelve. 'It is within the right of the High Commander, or his locum tenentes, or an envoy chosen for such purposes, etc., to requisition any aid in supplies or personnel from any allied region, regardless of birth, without prior consultation of said region's sovereign, its temporary sovereign, or any other body of the law, if the situation so requires'."

It really shouldn't surprise him that the boy is able and willing to make his point with an obscure piece of legalese almost a hundred years old. Ramius barely knows what the Second Statute itself entails, and only because it's a massive pain in the arse to have everyone ignoring all the provisions that are supposed to make the fighting just a tiny bit easier. Whoever said that it's crisis that brings humanity together has never had to deal with the local lords and bishops, or anyone with enough sheep to call himself the chief of some backwater circle of mountain huts, and the hundred tiny ways they can fuck the war effort into next Sunday.

"The amendment was never adopted into the Great Charter. Thus, there is no need for the Sages to consider it binding."

"Perhaps not," Kiske concedes, "but neither has it ever been contested. Hence, what is written is binding."

The Elite is still preternaturally calm, shaking his head like a disappointed instructor. "You seem to be under a grave misapprehension. It is the Order's task to purify the Earth, while it is the Sages' task to purify the souls. We have tolerated your interference out of respect to the High Commander and his accomplishments. As a Candidate who has not yet taken the oath, you should be well aware that you can't presume to act as his proxy. And if you had perchance received a procuration, you would have made use of it by now."

"I would never presume to exceed my competence," Kiske returns coolly. "The Commander is awaiting my arrival at Fort Sarnova. I will dispatch a message at once."

Except the fort is at least a four days' ride away, twice that time for a message to return, and only if the High Commander isn't otherwise occupied.

The Elite takes a step forward. "You would have the Sages wait while you obtain the paperwork to support your audacious interference?"

Kiske doesn't budge, mouth set in a thin line, eyes as hard and clear as chips of diamond. "I would."

Another step. "You would allow the seeds of corruption to take root, and, by insisting on your own moral purity, erode the fundamental rules in which the people have come to place their trust?"

"If it is kindness and mercy that you consider corruption, I would."

Another step. "You would defend this position, which you have taken without repute or credibility to your name, without a single man to command, against the unified will of the Sages?"

"I would."

With a whisper, the cloak parts.

There are no stories of what happens when an Elite feels compelled to draw his combat sword, the flametongue's hidden twin. Kiske doesn't shy away, though, doesn't move back or fall into a defensive stance. His hand stays where it is, resting lightly against his scabbard, giving the Elite all the time in the world to draw the blade and cleave him in two.

"Your spirit is commendable, but wasted here. You're mistaken if you expect your status as the High Commander's chosen to carry any weight."

Ramius moves. He can't say how, or why, or to what end; all he is aware of is the crunch of his boots, the jingle of dog tags greeting the open air, and the sound of his own voice, hoarse from the fumes but infused with a certainty he never felt.

"No. But a captain's rank does."



In a distant corner of his mind, Ramius recognizes that this is what it must be like to be insane.

His entire field of vision is taken up by the featureless golden mask, everything else bleeding out into a haze, and there's a storm rising up inside of him, long-dead pride and fury and knowing there is a way and having goddamn had enough all rushing up to eviscerate sensibility and self-preservation, all the things that brought him to this point. He'd like to say that he doesn't know what he's doing, but the pants-shitting truth of it is that a part of him knows exactly what he's doing, knows the precise consequence of pulling out the chain with the dog tags to give them his rank, name and division, that he's risking his men and all their families for a point that is utterly meaningless if the Bloodcross Knights decide to torch the whole town after all. Part of him is reveling in it, even, feeling good about the goddamn useless rank he mostly earned by everyone else around him dying, almost giddy at the sudden realization that according to the fucking law the inquisition loves so much, he's technically been appointed by the High Commander himself.

It doesn't even matter that once it's all over, he's still a meaningless cog in the Elite's eyes, whose attention is once again consumed by the boy.

"Perhaps I have misjudged you."

If the boy is at all surprised or grateful, he doesn't show it, dead-set on countering the Elite's probing intensity with the indomitable wall behind his eyes. Ramius can't truly find it in himself to care. Mostly, he'd like to find his horse again, just so he'll have somewhere to sit when the revival of his common sense finally hits him like a ton of bricks.

"The hearts of man are weak, loyal only to those who have the power to protect and guide them. You possess no such power, and yet… to inspire such foolhardy passion in the common pawns is truly remarkable."

"Perhaps you judge too quickly," the boy counters. "The hearts of man may be fragile, but within them burns a limitless potential. No one can say where that potential may awaken, or how."

A whisper of cloth, and the second blade is hidden from sight once again. With a flourish, the Elite turns to face his fellow Knights, before casting a glance back over his shoulder.

"You said your name was Ky Kiske?"

"Yes."

"I am Ignatius of the Sacred Flame. May we meet again."

Kiske only nods in return. "For both our sakes, I hope we never do."



A long time ago, when he was freshly conscripted and only seventeen, Ramius got assigned to the Northern Front.

Not four weeks later, Commander Undersn finally managed to force its dissolution, to pull back all the soldiers and defend places where people actually lived, but by then, winter had the regions in its icy grip and the order to withdraw never made it all the way. Ramius still remembers lying buried under a mound of snow, the only sound his own shaky exhalations, and the only sight through the small breathing hole at the top the endless Northern darkness. He remembers lying there and mostly thinking of nothing, unable to even feel terror whenever the crackling and creaking of the frozen landscape sounded like Gears on the prowl. The first hint of light after months of inky blackness felt like a part of himself was returning, reawakening to conscious thought and reason, and allowing him, for the first time, a good, long look at his frost-bitten, emaciated self.

The standoff at Lentíy might have lasted only a couple of hours, but the feeling is much the same, the first faint hues in the eastern sky allowing Ramius to take a step back and try to recover the part of his sanity that got lost in Kiske's alternate version of reality.

Ever so often, the horse shifts beneath him, taking a small step sidewards to better reach fresh bits of green, content to just follow its instincts now that the danger has passed. It's enviable, in a way, for a creature to bounce back so easily, and Ramius almost finds himself wishing he could fall back into the same rhythm, content to go through the motions so long as nobody is about to get eaten, though he knows that's no longer possible. Even if he manages to sort through the hopeless tangle of his thoughts, things won't return to the way they were. In the span of less than a single night, he's gone from a man just trying to keep his troops safe to a man who would place them all in danger. To what end, he isn't sure.

The Bloodcross Knights departed sometime during the night without another word, leaving behind a mass of confused and frantic citizens and a crater extending halfway across the plaza. He's pretty sure that if they felt like it, they could have removed that black-winged husk without a trace, but instead, they chose to crush the damn thing out of existence, snake upon snake of that red power constricting into a stranglehold, devouring the metal corpse and everything around it until the only thing left was a featureless pit. A demonstration, a reminder that they all got off easy, that the only reason Lentíy hasn't turned into a pile of ashes is that the Elite has taken such a shine to Kiske, which in itself is bad enough.

The source of all the trouble is busy just a few feet away, helping the woman and her child into the back of the supply wagon. Ramius can't make out what is being said, but it's not like it takes a lot to guess, between her tears and Kiske's gentle murmurs and the way he keeps reaching out to clasp both her hands. The fact that it's so easy to imagine their roles reversed, that in a different place and time, Kiske would be the one on the back of a wagon, getting embraced and soothed by a woman just like this one, only makes the sight even more surreal.

Ramius isn't sure what it says about him that he ended up getting pulled in by someone like that. He'd like to say that it was the thought of the boy ending up skewered on a holy blade, but that's not it. Someone with the guts or the crazy to beat a contingent of Bloodcrosses at their own game wouldn't just have stood there waiting for the blow, he's pretty sure of that. He'd also like to say that he was just doing the right thing, except the right thing could have just as easily left him with the deaths of a bunch of good people to his name.

And above all, there's still the nagging feeling that he's been set up, that the steel-balled little bugger was sure of his support all along.

Across the street, the boy has finished securing the wagon and, perhaps sensing that he's being watched, perhaps just not finished making Ramius feel like the butt of some cosmic joke, begins to make his way over. If he had any energy left, Ramius would have turned and occupied himself with something slightly more productive than vacant staring, anything to avoid the supremely uncomfortable conversation that is bound to happen.

Kiske takes his time, though, pulling and tugging the straps on his own mount in order, as if giving Ramius the chance to decide whether he wants to hear it or not. The thought of being patronized by a thirteen-year-old kid doesn't exactly make things better.

"I haven't thanked you yet, Captain, have I?" the boy says, and though he's keeping his voice low, he apparently doesn't feel like giving Ramius the option to pretend he never heard it. There's that smile curling the corners of his mouth again, more pronounced now and unfairly disarming. "I didn't mean for you to get caught up in all this, but still. Thank you for intervening when you did. Without you, I doubt things would have ended quite so—"

"Bull. shit," Ramius presses out between clenched teeth. "I'm done being played for a fool."

The smile disappears, buried by a stare so wide-eyed that it helps to take off another two years. "Sir?"

"You meant for this to happen." Strange, he's almost forgotten what real anger is like, the icy, gut-clenching fury that got sacrificed to the grind long ago. "You were counting on us to follow you, and you were counting on me risking my men to make sure the High Commander sees his precious pupil safe."

Slowly, Kiske shakes his head, and though his voice is soft, there's that diamond wall, surfacing again. "I couldn't have foreseen your actions, nor would I try to gamble with the very lives that will one day be placed into my care. I meant what I said, about the potential in each and every one of us."

His fingers resume their examination of the bridle, pausing every now and then to scritch the white star on the animal's forehead. "The Sages believe that this potential can, that it must be controlled, bent to achieve a single goal. The Commander… I believe that this potential is what has helped us survive, and that it will help us see this through. All I can do… all I did was find a way. The decision to walk it was yours."

Grabbing onto the pommel and cantle with both hands, he pulls himself into the saddle.

"Besides, you seem like the kind of man who has a hard time doing what he doesn't believe in."

Ramius's first instinct is to snap back, something along the lines of how the boy shouldn't presume to know anything about him, but the words won't come.

His head's still not quite right, jammed with bits of debris from the storm, fragments of a different person who used to fight other battles that didn't require a sword, someone who kept arguing and throwing himself against the barriers set up by some bureaucrat in a safe, comfortable office a thousand miles away, until he learned how useless it was, how nothing a simple soldier had to say was of interest to any of the people in charge of the decisions. Better to save his breath and go along with it, keep his head down and just do his best to avoid the worst of bullshit — the obvious ponces, the quaking nobles, the fools who thought this war could use yet another hero — and maybe make it out alive.

He's not sure what to do with this reminder of that past self, or with the fact that Kiske was able to figure out something he himself had almost forgotten.

He won't be able to look back on his actions with any sense of rightness for a good long while, not even when the result has been carrying him into battle every single day for months without a torn strap, without a single ripped seam. He'll avoid looking at it more than necessary, especially the spot on the back of the fender where the stitching curves into two names and a grateful prayer. It's only years later, when the skinny little slip of Candidate has become less of a slip, when there's a Miracle of Les Roises and a Hero of Rome and a Divine Savior to keep the people fighting, and the title of High Commander changes hands for the last time, he'll finally make peace with the force that compelled him on that day.

In the present, though, all he can do is shove that bundle of realizations down as far as it will go, and then go digging in his breast pocket for the last wad of tobacco for lack of anything else to do. Thankfully, Kiske doesn't say anything further, back to looking young and green and too damn short to be sitting on that warhorse, giving Ramius the option to forget, to ignore the idea forming in the back of his mind that maybe, just maybe, he's got the slightest inkling of what possessed Undersn to pick this boy.

The road to Sarnova is long, and for now, that's all that matters.

Beyond the hills, dawn is breaking.


-Fin-


A/N: I've been wanting to do a story about a common soldier's view of Ky for a while now, especially a younger, less experienced Ky who's still a bit rough around the edges and has to work hard to gain his subordinates' trust.

Ramius: So how were you planning on doing this if I hadn't shown up?
Ky: *flat look*

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
infant_queen
Oct. 3rd, 2013 05:13 am (UTC)
I need to see this gentleman in the Off-Record verse.

Pretty please?

He's a charming man xD Saving those poor soldiers from an unpleasant surprise.
aphelion_orion
Oct. 5th, 2013 08:27 pm (UTC)
Hee, glad you enjoyed it.^^
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )