For months Belleza had believed that her life had ended the night that her mother had died, and all she'd been able to think about was how sad she was that she couldn't have died too. She'd wanted to go with her mother, because at least then she'd see her father again.
She lost her home; the owner of their old rooms had told her that he wasn't running an orphanage and she was going to have to go, and she had nodded and left, not caring enough to argue. She had nowhere to go, no way to escape Lower City or the pain of losing her family. It was a wonder that she never gave in to that despair, never threw herself into the sky to fall forever. It hurt, having to live on without them. She'd wandered for months, never intending to change; it seemed meaningless to go on living.
There was no moment when she realized that she was wrong to wallow in despair, no blinding epiphany that made life worthwhile again. It was slow and gentle, like the sunrises that she'd only read about in books. It was seeing the desolate faces of children and wishing that she could ease their suffering. It was the nights that she'd spent on the street, wondering how many more people had been hurt by war. It was the growing realization that if only there was a way to stop these wars - to make all nations subject to one sovereign's law - no one else would ever end up the way she had, consumed by despair.
That was why she'd finally enlisted - a skinny girl with wild red hair, barely old enough to catch the army's attention. She'd finally found a way that she could honor her father's life, and her mother's too. She'd fight like a noble warrior, and make sure that others could avoid such a horrible fate.
Belleza had not wanted to wear that costume.
She told herself that it was because it was sheer, revealing, so totally unlike anything that her mother would have considered acceptable to wear. It was designed to show every curve of her body; it provided no protection from the elements, or from the eyes of lecherous men. It was pitiful that Nasrean women willingly wore such clothing; it revealed a great deal about the disgusting nation that they lived in.
She told herself that, until she finally had to admit to herself that it wasn't true; she had no personal distaste for skimpy clothing, and other people's choices in clothing were no concern of hers. What she truly hated was the thought of drawing lustful stares from the men of Nasr. She could not stand the thought of ever performing for the people who had killed her father and broken her mother's heart, who had left Belleza herself an orphan in the streets of Lower City. How could she wear such a thing, a symbol of everything that she'd grown to hate, and still hold her head up high? How could they ask that of her?
She'd had no choice, however, and the day came that she stepped off of a transport ship, feeling naked and exposed to all the world. At first she'd wanted to hide as she walked through the streets of Nasrad, feeling the men's eyes on her body. She was nothing but an object of lust for them, and it made her angry enough to want to kill them all.
It wasn't until much later, after she'd charmed her way past two spellbound Nasrean guards on her way to steal documents from a nobleman's palace, that she finally understood the value of her costume. They stared at her, yes, like an object that they could possess. But as they did that, they underestimated her, never realizing that this soft, beautiful creature could outthink any one of them. And that meant that she could beat any one of them, every time.
It was easier, after that. She even started to learn how to dance, certain that she could use even that to her advantage.
They were really very sweet.
She leaned against the temple wall, deep in thought. She'd never thought that she'd think of Air Pirates as innocent, but there was no other word to describe those three. They were little more than children, and only trying to do the right thing.
She'd let her defenses drop around them, a fact which she was very much ashamed of. She had even told them the truth; when Aika had confronted her about her past and her motives, she'd abandoned the story that she'd prepared in advance and had told them the story of her childhood, as far as she could. She had told them about her parents' deaths and how lost she'd been without them, wandering through the streets without any hope. Of course she'd left out the specifics, let them continue to believe that she was Nasrean, but it still bothered her.
In a way, she didn't want to betray them. She wanted to keep playing her role, to take them back to Maramba and let them go on their way. Showing her true colors would hurt them, and she didn't want that.
But more than that, she wanted the wars to stop. So when the three came back with the Crystal in hand, she shyly asked if she could see it, knowing that she was condemning them to death. She just wished that they could understand how important their sacrifice would be, that their feelings of anger and betrayal were necessary to bring peace to their world.
Everything in Valua was shaped by loyalty; in a sense it was the true coin of the realm.
If Belleza had been loyal to the Prince, she never would have struck him. She would have aided him in attacking Admiral Alfonso and Empress Teodora, and then helped him to escape with his life, so that he could later claim his mantle as Emperor. He would not have been the first leader of Valua to ascend to the throne by killing his predecessor. But there would have been a great many guards to escape from, men loyal to the Empress, and it would have been a difficult thing indeed.
If she had been loyal to the Empress, she would have followed her orders and left Prince Enrique to rot in the dungeons, then followed the new Lord Admiral - and Alfonso was a fool, yes, a damned fool, but the Empress would have heard of no other to lead the new Armada. She would have attacked Lord Galcian, even though she knew that they wouldn't stand a chance.
If she had been loyal to Galcian, she would have stayed in Valua, tried to smooth things over, and convince her that all was well. After that, she would have kept an eye on them and sent reports back to Galcian at every opportunity. She had believed that his only purpose in sending her was to act as a spy - she was, after all, quite good at spying.
Instead, as she sped her way across the Valuan countryside, dodging the Moonstones that fell around her like hail with the shaken Prince at her side, she had abandoned loyalty, left it behind for... for what? Her apprehension, her own gut feelings?
Or had she somehow realized that loyalty was of no value, but only a chain that had kept her tied to the wrong path?
Belleza had loved Lord Galcian.
It had been simple at first. She had been nothing; Lord Galcian had plucked her out of the sea of callow recruits, educated her, molded her into everything she was now. She was an Admiral, a spy, a tactician, and it was all because of him, because he had seen something in her that meshed with his own vision.
She'd wanted to be a part of his vision of the future - a single unified world, ruled by those with power, not by conniving weaklings. That was why she'd followed his commands, even after he'd announced that they would be abandoning the Empire. It wasn't Valua that she'd loved; she could admit that now.
She would have given up anything for him, to hear him praise her. How many times had she obeyed his orders, even when she didn't understand them? She had always known that she would never have his love in return, but his respect and his trust would have been more than enough, if only she could have earned them.
And then he had sent her to die with the rest of Valua. She was nothing better to him than a tool that had outlasted its usefulness, she'd finally realized. A ship crashed, a sword grown dull and brittle... her skills, her abilities, her emotions, all of that had meant nothing to him.
She'd once sworn that she'd die by his side, if it ever came to that. She smiled bitterly, standing alone at the helm of the Lynx; the rest of her men had already abandoned ship, at her command. She was rushing to her doom; she'd keep her promise, but not in a way that she'd ever imagined, or hoped.
Goodbye, my love.
He would never understand how hard it had been to say those words to him.