CHAPTER THE NEXT
--1st of Altima
--Ongoc City, Fragrico
Getting past Judgemaster Ginyu had not been possible for the group, but the two nights spent in the inn were certainly welcomed after crossing Bomb Road. Barta was constantly going into the city but said very little. The Visilisk only showed up around at night and only gave them accusing looks if they asked about him.
Melfious was growing uneasy. Something had begun to deeply trouble him about this group. Something foreboding, he was not quite sure what it was. He considered himself lucky that his troubles would be ending very shortly. In fact, the moment they walked through the gates he would never see them again.
Ginyu regarded them with his usual coldness as they approached the gate. "It seems you managed to wait the full two days, I'm proud of you," he said mockingly.
"A riot, as usual," Barta retorted. "May we enter now?"
Ginyu glowered at him but relented. He waved at the two guards behind them and they opened the gates. He barked 'Yah!' at chocobo and rode off in front of them.
Melfious nodded to them, "Good luck, my friends. But our paths must part here."
All but Barta bid him farewell, who instead nodded slightly at him. When the Lupinous was gone, he urged them forward. When they arrived at the palace, they saw Ginyu speaking to a guard. The Judgemaster noticed their arrival fairly quickly and soon dashed off into the streets.
The palace was perhaps not as impressive as the Imperial Palace, but it did not fail to please the eye. The great palace did not have towers or anything of that sort, but was one large dome. It was covered from the very top with vines, strange stone carvings and statues. It was built long ago and through the course of its history been constantly altered.
They were escorted inside, Barta leading and the others following. Except the Visilisk, which had been absent for the entire day. Some of them asked, occasionally, about odd pictures or statues and he would give them only short responses. The first place they went was to the throne room. At least in the past that was what it had been. Since the capture of the city by the empire, it had become a court for affairs.
The king, who has willingly surrendered to the empire, became the Viceroy. He served faithfully for the years he was alive, after his death, each Viceroy was selected by the emperor (after being elected by the people). Unfortunately, to the emperor's ignorance, the Viceroys had become increasingly corrupt with time.
The current Viceroy was known as Jeice Fengiven. He was elected shortly after he had personally saw to the assassination of his predecessor, who happened to be his older brother. The Fengivens were a powerful family in the Fragrican territory, their influence covering politics, economics, and into the military force. That is, the military force that the Avito Empire had allowed it to keep.
The Fragrican army existed solely to defend the area and often as a 'recruitment center' for the Avitean Brigade. Not that the brigade was never extremely large. Having been surrounded by the kingdoms that had been conquered, the empire had been surrounded by independent armies. The brigade kept the peace by putting down uprisings, catching criminals, and hunting down spies and traitors. Being selected and integrated into the Brigade had always been a dream of Wedge. Not that it mattered anymore. Avito was gone and Fragrico's army now served only Fragrico.
The Viceroy was a tall slender man. Not a hair existed on his except for a thin beard which grazed slightly on the bottom of his chin and the thin lines that were his eyebrows. He dressed in a fine silk robe done in vibrant colors in rich patterns. He held himself strictly upright and stood taller than all of them by a few inches. He kept his fingertips resting against its opposite on the other hand, held downwards to the ground. His expression was one of cunning and intelligence.
"Thank the heavens that you arrived safely," the Viceroy said, glancing fleetingly at Kaleena. This earned a slight nod of the head from Barta. This did not go unnoticed by Biggs, Wedge, or even Angel. The rest remained, as they had been so far, completely oblivious to the presence of the Empress.
"It was difficult returning, especially after the death of Elem Tarey," Barta explained. "However, I secured something far better."
Biggs and Wedge exchanged glances.
The Viceroy turned to the others. "I pray that you will find our city as a safe haven after the difficulties you have faced. Now, if there is no more to discuss..."
Biggs cleared his throat. "Actually, there was something I was wondering about."
The Viceroy nodded, "Go on."
"I couldn't help noticing that, despite the Ambassador's warning, the city does not heavily guarded," Biggs said. "In Avito at least, I know the amount of guards was high, despite the fact it had been believed to be... well, invulnerable. However, the guard duty seems incredibly lax. And where is the army?"
The Viceroy smiled. "Concerned about being caught off guard, are we? Do not worry my friend, we are quite safe. The army is on the northern borders as it should be. And you will have to forgive our lack of security, for we are not quite as prosperous as the interior of Avito."
"Actually, Biggs is right," Kaleena said to the surprise of them all (save Akasha and Arturo, who were by now bored out of their minds and even still would not have been shocked. She was a bodyguard after all). "Fragrico usually has twice as many guards."
"Well, you have caught me," the Viceroy said laughing quietly. "It is the beginning of Altima, a holiday here. Many of the guards were spared to celebrate. The ones you saw were the poor souls unfortunate enough to draw the 'short straw' if you will."
Kaleena said nothing more, though frustrated. She was, apparently, not quite buying this. But there was nothing to be done of it and they were soon escorted away. En route to their accommodations, Biggs and Wedge spoke to each other lowly. Angel had decided to have a few words with the 'ambassador'.
"Why didn't you tell Kaleena?" Angel demanded, but not loud enough to be heard by the current subject of conversation.
Barta glanced slightly are her, "Ah, so Biggs and Wedge told you."
"Yes. And we're here, safe in your homeland. Why haven't you told her?"
"For her safety and her own good," Barta replied.
"She deserves to know!"
Barta shook his head and looked away. "For what point and purpose? I like her, believe me. I do not think her a bad person. But she cannot lead us, she is only an emblem, a symbol of hope. What's important is that as long as she is alive, Avito is alive. But she can only lead us into disaster, it would be unwise for us to put ourselves in so precarious a role."
"But she's the empress!" Angel hissed, clearly shocked. "It's her right to rule, dangerous or not."
Barta turned on her. "I will not destroy Fragrico because of the right of one person."
Angel stopped in her tracks as the group walked past her. She was stunned by all of this. After all they have been through, she thought perhaps she had known Barta better than she did. But now it was beginning to dawn on her that maybe she known nothing about him at all.
That night they all slept in separate rooms. It was the most peaceful night anyone of them had had for some time. They were safe within the walls of Fragrico now, the worries of Harmanor was but a memory. All, that is, except Barta who barely slept at all. Or the Visilisk, who had not been seen since they entered the city. He was currently snooping around the palace. He was shocked by what he found. Perhaps he should not have been so shocked by what happened when someone found him.
2nd of Altima
"I think we should move on," Biggs said. "I don't think we're safe here."
Wedge looked out the door and turned around. "The Viceroy says we're safe."
"It's him I don't trust," Biggs replied.
"Barta seems to trust him."
"Too much, it seems."
"I don't think there's anything wrong, Biggs" Wedge said. "Just politics, that's all."
The conversation did not progress after that. The mages soon joined them, Arturo looking worried. Akasha simply looked annoyed and Angel was still preoccupied by her own thoughts as she had been since her conversation with Arturo.
"Hey guys," Arturo began. "Have you guys seen Vissy?"
"The Visilisk?" Wedge asked, but did not wait for an answer. "No, not since we got into the city."
"What are you so worried about?" Akasha asked sarcastically. "Going to take dating lessons from him?"
"No!" Arturo blurted out. "I was just, shut up."
"Still, we should probably look for him," Biggs interrupted.
"I'll have some of the guards look into it," said Barta, who was now standing in the doorway. "Right now we've been invited to the banquet hall."
"Where's Kaleena?" Angel asked.
"Waiting for us," Barta replied. He turned and left the room. Once more Biggs and Wedge exchanged glances, but shrugged of their suspicion. They fell in line with the others and followed Barta.
As they were walking, Biggs decided to ask the question that had been bugging him the most. "The guards are agitated, but there are still few of them. What guarantee does the Viceroy have that we're safe?"
"Our country is too small a threat to concern Harmanor. Besides that, the Viceroy has made some arrangements to make sure we remain safe."
Before any of them could reply, they walked into a room. Inside was a long table filled with food of all kinds. At the very end was a wide brimmed had with a pointy top. It sat on the head of a robed man, his head was covered and only two yellow slanted eyes could be seen. The doors closed behind them, revealing two Harmanor Guards.
"Sit down," said Lord Zok. "We've been expecting you."
Akasha and Arturo prepared to fire off a spell, but Zok quick to cast a barrier spell. The others were apprehended by Fragrican guards before their weapons could be drawn. Zok stood up and though his face was concealed, there was a certain air that made one know that he inside he was laughing like hell. He tipped his hat down further and walked towards Kaleena.
"Ms. Madren, what a curious name is it not?" Zok asked.
"So I named her," Barta replied.
"Curious of such convenient amnesia, but you said there were no others, am I right?" Zok said.
"Only those you see before you, who were all deceived."
"Very well," Zok replied. "Have these vermin taken to the dungeons and bring Ms. Madren to the airship."
"How could you do this!?" Wedge demanded as he glared at Barta. "To us, why!?"
"Because he's a smart man," Zok answered. "A con man, a useful one. Pity he didn't agree to my offer to work for Harmanor."
Wedge shook his head in disbelief. "We trusted you!"
"That was your mistake," Zok replied. "Take them away guards."
Barta watched as everyone eventually left the room. The guards taking the prisoners to their new leaving him alone with a table full of food and Lord Zok. Sitting down, the mage took an apple and took a bite. It was impossible to see his expression, but easy to guess what it was. It was satisfaction.
"The food is good here," Zok said. "In Harmanor we have only the fish we catch off shores and the bland vegetables we farm in our pitiful farmlands. Not like this though, the taste is rich."
"Imprisonment was not part of the agreement," Barta replied.
"What a trivial thing this agreement is," Zok said whimsically. "It was inevitable that your band of travelers would be caught and you would have been killed along with them. In reality, you made things easier for all of us and saved you and your pitiful country in the process."
"You told me the others would be kept safe," Barta insisted.
"Oh they will be. They'll only be imprisoned for a short while, then when all is dealt with, they will be free to do what they wish in Fragrico."
"That wasn't part of the deal," Barta retorted, growing angrier.
"I'm altering the deal," Zok said as he stood. "Hope that I do not alter it further."