Since I’ve decided to start working on this project again as a way of getting my word count up, I’m going to keep posting bits of this for a while. Enjoy!
Reminder: If you’re looking for the previously posted parts of the story, go to the “Categories” drop-down banner on the left banner of the site and choose “Final Fantasy: Returning Hope”.
*Spites via http://www.videogamesprites.net
“There, isn’t that lovely then?” the senior handmaiden cooed.
Terra gazed at her reflection in the full-length mirror and wondered if what she saw was beauty. The handmaidens had dressed her in a delicate red silk dress that slid gently off her right shoulder and fluttered around her thighs. Scarves of white, gold, and a soft baby blue were tied loosely around her waist, hips, and wrists, and one of the younger handmaidens was currently using a few to tie her hair into a long ponytail, high atop her head, that fell soft around her shoulders.
“Come on now, my dear,” aid the older lady. “You look simply ravishing! Let’s see a smile, hmm?”
Trying to avoid moving and upsetting the girl who was fixing her hair, Terra used the mirror to give a hesitant smile to the handsome older woman. She grinned back.
“You really are very pretty, Miss Terra,” said the blond one who’d picked out the dress. There was a hint of jealousy there that Terra didn’t quite comprehend, but she also thought she heard honesty. “I’m surprised that King Edgar didn’t attempt to – how do they say? – court you.”
All the other girls giggled foolishly as though it were some kind of inside joke. Terra flushed.
“Well, that is…” she stammered, “I think that maybe he did.”
They didn’t quite stop giggling, but they looked at her a bit more seriously.
“And you turned him down?” the blond asked, incredulous, before bursting into laughter. “Oh, my dear, you certainly have more class than most of us! Not to mention self-respect!”
Terra looked around the room of laughing women and felt more bewildered than ever. “I don’t understand,” she admitted quietly. “Why do I have more class and self-respect?”
“For being able to turn him down, Miss Terra!”
“Oh, we’ve all had our turn with him, hoping we’d be the one to make him change his ways and settle down…”
“And become Queen in the process, of course!”
“Yes, but in the end there’s really no changing him. He’s just destined to be a hopeless womanizer!”
“Now, now, ladies!” the older handmaiden admonished them in a strong, loud voice. “That’s no way to talk about our poor Edgar! You all know perfectly well how much stress he’s been under since his brother left!”
The girls quieted down at this, some of them looking rather abashed, and after a moment Terra’s curiosity got the better of her.
“Brother?” she inquired to the older woman.
The senior handmaiden smiled wistfully, as though recalling a sad memory. “Yes, our king is a twin, you see. Sabin is the younger brother’s name…born only an hour after Edgar.” She looked as though the thought of him was causing her physical pain. “Such a nice young man he was…until their father passed away and he ran out on the kingdom, leaving Edgar to rule alone.” She sighed then and Terra couldn’t help but feel that there was more to the story. She decided not to pry.
“Ahem,” said a voice from the hallway. “If you harpies are just about finished filling Terra’s head with nonsen-ow!” One of the younger handmaidens had thrown a heavy silver hairbrush out into the hallway where Locke had been waiting. Several particularly rude words wafted into the room and the girls began to chuckle again.
“I’d better go,” Terra told them. She nervously folded herself into a low bow. “Thank you so much for the clothes!”
“No trouble, my dear, no trouble!” they told her, happily. Suspecting that her eagerness to leave with Locke meant more than it really did, they ushered her out the door amid foolish giggles.
“Harpies!” Locke grouched, kicking the hairbrush across the hall and into the door as it swung shut. Then he caught a glimpse of Terra and grinned, which made her cock her head in curiosity. “Hey! I knew there was a woman under that ugly old jumpsuit!”
Blinking, Terra wondered if he was serious. Surely he couldn’t have been unsure of her gender, could he have?
“Come on,” he gestured. “I’ll show you around the castle grounds.”
It was nearing twilight as they wandered back out into the main courtyard. The vendors and swordsmen-in-training had left, but there were still people wandering about, enjoying the cool night air.
“So, how do you like Figaro so far?” Locked asked as they strolled across the yard. “Not a bad place to hang out, hmm?”
Terra nodded idly, but was otherwise distracted by the first groups of stars that were beginning to pop up in the evening sky. Locke noticed her preoccupation and glanced up. “Nice view,” he commented. “You like the stars?”
They were like tiny diamonds as Terra gazed at them, sparkling from so very far away. “They’re beautiful,” was her answer, but there was more to it than that. Looking at them stirred something in her. It was the first time she’d really looked up at the night sky since she could remember, and they triggered an odd sensation in her memory. She felt as though there was something wrong with them…like she was looking at them from the wrong side…
A strange and piercing voice came crashing though her reverie.
“Edgar, you pinhead! Why do you have to live out in the middle of nowhere?!”
Terra jumped at the loud shout. “What in the world-?” she started, but stopped when she saw the look on Locke’s face. Contrary to the sunny, child-like expression he’d worn almost perpetually since their first meeting, now Locke’s face was stony, like a man struggling to hold back a wave of fury. “Locke, what’s wrong?”
“K-Kefka, sir?” rang the voice of the gate guard. “W-what are y-you…?”
“Out of my way, you fool!”
Locke seized Terra’s wrist suddenly. “Quick!” he hissed, dragging her into the shadows of a nearby corridor. They had barely hidden from view when the gate was raised and the most frightening man Terra could have imagined stalked in surrounded by guards in black and brown armor.
His clothing was exorbitant and rich-looking. He was draped in layers of blood-red robes, strewn with yellow, white, and green scarves and decorations, some areas peppered in spots and odd patterns. There was an enormous yellow and white ruff around the back of his neck that extended down to his mid-torso; it was opened in the front, revealing a snow-white chest underneath. His face matched the whiteness of his chest, devoid of color, and his long blond hair – much paler in color to Edgar’s – was piled in a tight knot high atop his head. But his eyes were the strangest, and terribly frightening. They were a fierce, bright, inhuman blue, and were surrounded by an inch-thick border of bright red makeup that bled in streaks down his face. It gave the impression that his eyelids had been slit from end to end.
Those eyes were mad…there was no doubt about it.
Terra felt a wave of terror pass through her as she stared at him, unable to blink.
“Edgar!” his piercing, insane voice rang across the courtyard. More quietly, to himself, he muttered, “Stupid Emperor Gestahl’s orders. These recon jobs are the pits!” His cruel eyes wandered around at the people scrambling to get away from him and then down to the sandy ground in distaste. Suddenly, those terrifying eyes widened and a snarl escaped his lips. “There…there is sand on my boots!”
The black-and-brown soldiers sprang into action as though their lives depended on it. They hit the sand with no regard for their knees, and scrambled like dogs to brush the sand from the crimson boots.
“What brings Kefka, humble servant of Emperor Gestahl, into our lowly presence?” Edgar’s voice rang out as he appeared from the main building and strolled across the yard. His voice was accommodating and friendly, but there was a hard edge to it and his face was as stony as Locke’s.
Kefka sneered at the word ‘servant’ before hitching a frightening smile on his face. He walked forward, kicking the soldiers on the ground out of his way as he went.
“A girl of little importance escaped from us recently,” he explained with a grimace. Locke’s hand tightened around Terra’s wrist and she sucked in a sharp breath. “We heard she may have found refuge here.” He grinned in a way that he clearly meant to be friendly; the effort was an immense failure.
Edgar stopped walking while he was still far enough for it to be have been considered rude, but Kefka didn’t seem concerned. “Hmmm…” Edgar said, pretending to consider this news. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with this Magitek-riding ‘witch’ everyone’s been whispering about, would it?”
Kefka’s porcelain face twisted. “Lies!” he screamed so loud that Terra was amazed Edgar didn’t jump from shock. A moment later he’d collected himself and resumed his horrid smile as though the outburst had never happened. “She…merely stole something of minor value. Is she here?”
“That’s a tough one!” Edgar responded, playing at being thoughtful. “You see,” he said while gesturing at the castle around them, “There are more girls in here than grains of sand out there. I can’t keep track of them all!”
Kefka’s eyes narrowed to slits and the grin on his face was like that of a starving wolf. “I’d hate to be you if we found out that you’re lying…” A small chuckle fell from his lips.
Edgar said nothing in return, but raised a silent eyebrow.
There was a swishing of red fabric and sand as Kefka turned to leave. His guards scrambled to follow obediently. As they passed the gate he called back, just loud enough for Edgar to hear, “I truly hope nothing happens to your precious Figaro!”
Edgar’s face trembled with anger.
When he was sure that the Imperials were gone, Locke stepped out of the shadows. “That guy’s missing a few buttons…” he grumbled.
“Where’s Terra?” Edgar asked.
She stepped out of the shadows, shaking a little, though it wasn’t cold.
Edgar leaned in close to Locke and whispered, but Terra still heard. “Take her to her room, then come and see me in the throne room.” He straightened up a little and turned to Terra, flashing a smile that wasn’t nearly as dazzling as earlier. “M’lady, I’d love to stay here and chat with you, but I’m afraid the Chancellor and I must speak strategy. Sometimes I hate being king!” He sighed dramatically for effect, but Terra thought there was more truth to his words than he let on. “If you’ll both excuse me now?” He bowed and gave Locke a meaningful look before turning and heading back to the castle.
“It’ll be my fault…” Terra mumbled later, as Locke walked her down several corridors. “If that crazy man does something…it’ll be all my fault.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Locke assured her with a half-smile. “On the surface Edgar pretends to support the Empire, but the truth is that he’s collaborating with the Returners. Kefka has suspected this for a long time, so it was only a matter of time before something like this happened.”
“The Empire…” Terra moaned, a pain rising in her throat. “But I’m a soldier of the Empire!”
“That’s not true!” Locke exclaimed. He seemed aghast at the concept. “They were using you like a toy! Things will be different now, I”m sure of it!”
Terra shook her head and leaned against the door they’d arrived at. “I don’t understand,” she groaned. “What should I do?”
Locke’s smile was soft and patient. “I can’t tell you what to do,” he told her gently. “Nor do you have to decide right now. Be patient and make your choice once you feel you’ve seen enough to make the proper decision.” With a protective air about him, he placed a hand on top of Terra’s head and ruffled her hair a bit. “You’ll soon find your way,” he promised, before turning on his heel and heading back the way they’d come.
Terra reached up idly and ran her fingertips across the spot where Locke had touched her hair.
“But how will I know which way is right?”