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The Language of Loyalty [Closed]

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"I value loyalty above all else."

"Direct him to me. I may need to... place him somewhere beyond his father's reach."

"Try not to let too many people who know your face see you as having been the last person to see this boy."

"Seek young Algincourt at Scorpion's Crossing. They're smart enough to know his father is a danger to him now."



It was mid-morning when Coatleque arrived at Scorpion's Crossing. She had come from the north as if from Horizon, electing not to stop in the city for personal reasons. Had she been seen and recognized back so soon from Ishgard already it would have raised suspicions, being so close to her previous visit. Along side her instructions not to be seen, this was the safest route for all involved.


She wore no silvery armor today. No bright blue and white tabbard to signify her position. Merely drab brown and olive leather with steel boots and half-gloves. A large black robe concealed most everything else but her emerald eyes visible just below the lip. To anyone not paying attention she was nothing more than another traveler through the hot sands of Thanalan.


Upon reaching the crossroads, for that is all the the Crossing was, she made for the watering hole to drink. Even at this hour and season the sun oppressed any who elevated walking above riding more than a malm. As the ladle lowered back to the barrel her eyes roamed over the merchants gathered at the center of the palisade. It did not take her long to single out one man in particular.


Oswell stood off to the side a few fulms from the rest, gesturing to crates and barking orders to the rest. If anyone knew anything about who or what passed through daily it would be him. Coatleque waiting until he had a breath to respond before pulling him aside and depositing a small pouch in his hand. A generous tip for all his hard work, and all she needed was information on one name. Algincourt. He smiled her a wide, gap-toothed grin.


"Oh, the boy. Yes, yes."

"Yes, the boy. I've heard he comes through here on occasion. Perhaps you know when he is next scheduled?


"Now he don't go by that there name, some reason. Goes by Dex. But yep, that's the one. He parked his buttocks here near a week ago, anyroad. Paid for some tent space to lay his head. Course, boys bein' boys, well, they don't sit near long. He's been makin' his way givn' chocobo ridin' lessons. He's usually out tow, maybe three times a day sometimes. Course he usually takes longer when it's a young lassie he's teachin' hehe!"


Oswell winked, then winked, then winked once more a half-second later. While she found it odd that the lesser son of a Lord of Ul'dah would be dirtying his hands at the stables lik that, she voiced no concern over the matter. She was not here to judge, only to retrieve. Her hood remained low and hid any expression that may have given away such thoughts.


"So he should be returning soon then?"

"Boy's due back any moment. Park yer fanny and sit a spell, like as not he'll be back an' covered in dust per th' norm. Though, uh... if'n he asks, you don't got t' say it was me that gilled 'im out."


A sly smile was visible then just under the lip of her hood. "Of course not. If you would be so kind to return the favor for the one who asked." She bowed low then and returned to the merchant's stalls to browse. It seemed she had some waiting to do.



It was close to noon time when three other strangers arrived to the crossing. Coatleque had taken up a position away from the tables by then, leaning casually against a wooden post by the cargo platforms to observe the mundane business dealings of the merchant class. Her head turned almost imperceptibly at the sound of approaching footsteps and she quickly tried to mentally count the number of new arrivals.


The sound of heavy boot-steps grew louder until there was one man standing directly in front of her. The rest had scattered around the square. The man leaned in close to her, reaching out to lift her cowl and see who may be hiding underneath. She slapped his hand away instantly and pressed herself backwards against the beam. "I beg your pardon!"


"Aww, baby, nuffin." He turned to holler over his shoulder. "It's just a bitch!" She frowned and pulled her cowl low once more as the man walked off to question one of the merchants. "Algincourt. Yeah, red hair." The others began asking similarly to other merchants, passing from one to the next, kicking crates and disturbing business. Coatleque slowly moved across the yard then to where Oswell stood by the stables talking to one of the newcomers.


"Perhaps we did not make our position clear. We are no threat to the boy. We come bearing good news." The man, tall and cloaked dropped another purse in Oswell's hand. At least twice the size of the one she had passed the man. Oswell shot her an apologetic look.


"We just wanna talk. It's for 'is own good."

"The boy is due to come into his inheritance. We are not here to wait. What direction, friend?"


As they continued to press the man, Coatleque knew she was outnumbered here. All three men were armed, and probably armored. She moved slowly to the stables, feigning as much interest as she could to look harmless. An inspection of the nearest bird's barding was made. She pulled the straps to ensure they were tight, glanced to Imme with her own sorrowful expression and tensed. Her head turned to the side as she listened.


"So, the route he normally takes?"

"Could be dangerous out there for a boy, we'll meet 'im halfway just to be sure."

Some gesturing was made.

"West? Very good. You see? We are friends."


It was all she needed to hear. Coatleque hoisted herself upon the bird and ripped the reins from the post they were tied to. Pulling them hard, she reeled the bird around and made straight for the gate. The Blades barely had time to react before she was through the palisade and riding hard towards the Bazaar. Stolen bird or not, she would deal with the consequences of her actions later.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Just over half a bell later, the Silver Baazar was in sight and she had seen no trace of the man she was looking for. Would that she was not being pursued she may have stopped to look for tracks along the road. So she rode onward, eyes constantly scanning the road and plateaus to either side.


Still at full flight, it was by mere chance she spotted the pair of chocobos off the road towards the old lighthouse. She pulled the reins hard after a double-take which prompted a loud wark and dust cloud as the bird skidded sideways. Two riders were standing just up the stairs before the doors. One male, one female by the look of their clothes from a distance. They noticed her quickly and the man waved an arm and hand high over his head to flag her down. "Hello there rider!" he called out.


Drawing the bird up alongside the bottom step, she dismounted and turned to wave back a signal that she was no threat. Her cloak was still drawn tight, her hood covering her fiery locks and pulled low in front of her eyes. The paladin wasted no time ascending the stair to meet them. "Hello." the man said again with some hint of caution. She could see the woman also fidgeting nervously to the side.


"Forgive me, my lord, lady. Would you happen to be the son of Lord Algincourt?" Coatleque glanced from one to the other before settling her gaze on the woman. Their eyes met briefly, then they both looked away. Her cowl was pulled down even further when she recognized Lady Mandercrown's handmaiden. Coatleque immediately moved to stand between the pair then, keeping her back to the woman so as not to be recognized.


The boy drew himself up from his position atop his own mount. "I am," he replied forthrightly. "But few are supposed to know. What is your business? If my father sent you, I should ask you to turn and go. I am not to return to his side for... a while yet." The man she was looking for was in fact no man at all. A boy, just coming of age by his appearance. He had an odd look to him. While his name was certainly Elezen, he was Midlander himself - though with much more fair features than one would expect. Though he was clearly young, a long scar already graced his cheek along the right side.


"Nay, not your father - a concerned friend. I would urge you to come with me if possible. There are those nearby who seek to do you harm."

"Then show me your face if you are truly a friend,... friend. You are the first to bring me news of them."


She hesitated as if to protest outing herself in public already. She had only just found her target and did not want to risk any recognition. Trust would be required, however, if he was to even agree to go with her. So she lifted her cowl without pulling it back and gave the boy full view of her face, her eyes, her hair. "I mean you no harm, Ser."


He blinked. "Lady... er, Ser Crofte!?" Her lip twitched then as she stared into his eyes. "You do not remember me? We met ever so briefly at the Starlight Ball! You were with Lord Taeros." He paused, smiled, tilted his head as if to invoke the memory. "I was a year younger, and with longer hair."


Coatleque gave a low sigh and yanked her hood off then. There was no sense hiding now that she was recognized. The handmaiden behind her fidgeted again before sliding down from her bird a little clumsily. She maintained a watchful silence from the side through her thick-framed spectacles. The knight glanced to her with her own sense of caution. She did not entirely trust Belaire, but doubted the girl would stand in her way.


She bowed low and respectfully to Dheres. "Forgive me, my lord. I met many faces that night and had plenty of distraction later. I do believe you though I do not recall your face specifically. If you know me, you know that I can be trusted." Her head rose with a slight curl to her lips. "At least I would hope."


The boy chuckled at her display. "That is fine. Well, if a Sultansworn tells me I am in danger, then I will believe her! But tell me of this."


Coatleque took a step down from the pair then to offer them some distance. "Three men I saw briefly at Scorpions Crossing. They inquired about you. Armed - all of them."


"Why would they wish me harm? If they are highwaymen, I would be honored to fight them at your side, Ser Crofte!" The boy's confidence was clear, though she noted he had no sword by his side. One armed Sultansworn protecting two civilians against three hired mercenaries did not make for good odds in her mind.


"If I knew that, I would have stopped them before now." She replied. "As it is, I am alone. They struck me as hired mercenaries and heavily armed. No, we must flee in the opposite direction." She gestured towards the Baazar, a plan of escape already forming in her mind. "They would think you are trapped here against the sea."


"What of Belaire?!" He protested.

"Bring her with if you like! Your safety is paramount. We will not be returning to Ul'dah."

"A lady's safety is paramount!" He protested again.


Coatleque paused in her decent and turned back. She had not expected such a sense of honor from any young lordling of Thanalan. Her head bowed in deference. "I misspoke, mi'lord. Forgive me." She turned back down the stair again as if to begin leading them away only to be greeted by another man approaching. A familiar face to her, for she had seen him at the Crossing. Stepping backwards, Coatleque drew close to Dheres and pulled lightly upon his leg from where he still sat atop his mount. With a low voice she whispered, "Be wary, my lord, for this man is on of them..."

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The man had seemingly followed her from Scorpions Crossing on foot. He trotted to the bottom of the stairs and looked as if he could collapse any moment. Doubling over and leaning on his knees to regain his breath he stammered, "Lord Dheres!," followed by more heavy panting. "Thank the gods I found you! Get away from that woman" One hand was lifted from a knee to point accusingly at Coatleque who had not yet replaced her hood.


"What is your name, ser. For I know this woman well. Her honor is unimpeachable." came the reply. The young lordling sat tall on his mount as the man slowly approached. The young woman he was with seemed to cower away as this was very much more intrigue than she was ever used to. Coatleque slowly stepped around the bird to place herself between the man and her charge, reaching her hand across her midriff into her cloak to grasp at something.


"Alfonso, Lord Dheres! Your father sent me!" He staggered up two more stairs closer to them before doubling over again. The man may have ran the entire distance.


"With what news?"

"Yes... what news does Lord Algincourt bring?" Coatleque echoed as she peered at the newcomer.

"Beggin' yer pardon, but my news is for Lord Dheres!"


The man continued to press upon them, and despite the knight's warnings the boy eventually dismounted. "Please stop your quibbling. I am certain we can all find a reasonable arrangement. This is Ser Crofte of the Sultansworn. Do not let her cloaked visage frighten you." She groaned inwardly as her name was once again spoken aloud - and to a clear threat this time. Her grip tightened within her robe, her body tensed as the man drew closer to the now ground-level young lord.


"Lord Dheres, there's news. Family news."

"Is it my father?"


"No, milord. Yer brother."

"Marcoul? Was he wounded? Tell me!"


A glance was thrown again from Alfonso to the other two bystanders. The girl, Belaire, remained huddled by her chocobo at the top of the steps. Coatleque remained a step away from the boy and looked as if ready to spring at any moment. "Milord, he's dead. I'm to bring you back right away. We've been tryin to locate you for five days."


Such news was a shock to perhaps all present, but none more so than young Dheres who's eyes began to swell. He stumbled forward past the two in a daze while mumbling quietly to himself. "Marcoul... not Marcoul. He was sweet, gentle. He loved poetry, was not reckless like Jeremaine." Belaire finally descended the stairs and rushed to him as she also pushed past the knight and the messenger. Her hand reached for his shoulder. "I'm so sorry," she whispered.


Coatleque watched the two for a moment before trying to resume her post between Dheres and this stranger. Alfonse stopped her with a hand. "Ain't no funny business while Alfonse is about. Who sent you, eh?" She complied out of respect. A curl came to her lips.


"That is for him to know." She scanned the road nervously before pushing past the messenger. The man eyed her annoyedly but made no move to draw his blade. "Mi'lord, we must speak before you return home."


Belaire continued her consolations of the young lord. His immediate grief began to subside as the realization of his position took hold. "I'm... I'm the heir." His head jerked upwards suddenly. He spun on his heels to face her and Coatleque both. "This will shame my father, surely. We were to return to Ishgard. The Algincourts. We are three generations removed from setting foot in that hallowed city. After Jerem... was killed, Marcoul was groomed to succeed. Our return under Halianarte's banner was to be..." His words trailed off.


"I am sure you'll do well!" Belaire offered in him in all sincerity. He swallowed hard and shook his head. "I am not Elezen. I cannot produce an Algincourt heir. Father adopted me for a kindness. A debt he owed my honorable mother. Now this is all he has?"


The paladin kept silent, allowing the boy to reflect on his loss while she exchanged distrustful glances with the so-called messenger. As if the man could tell what she was thinking he turned back to young Algincourt to once more attempt at persuading him over to his side. "Your lord father would urgently like to see you safe and sound." He eyed Coatleque suspiciously.


Dheres looked over to them at that point and gestured to Belaire before drawing close to the paladin. Leaning in, he noted "Ser Crofte, you asked a word?"


"Yes, a word alone please. About why I am here."


Dheres nodded. "Very well." He gestured to follow and the two climbed back up to where the mounts had been left. In low voices they conversed so as not to be heard by the messenger. There she explained why she had come, who had sent her, and the perceived danger the lad was in. "My lord Taeros sent me to find you. While I am sorry for your loss, truly, you must understand my suspicions. I was told your life is in danger and was to find you before your father did. I must urge you not to return to him."


The boy was not entirely convinced of her words. She did believe his own father wished him ill, after all. "Why would father harm me? I am now his only... I mean, it has been difficult at times. Our relation. I have not always lived up to his ... expectations. Try as I may, I see in his eyes that I am not his son. Not the way my brothers are." His voice lowered as if some realization just occurred. "Oh gods," he whispered.


"As I said, he may be your greatest danger now. Lord Taeros awaits you in Ishgard, and if you must tarry then I insist I stay by your side now that you have announced my involvement to all present." She gestured to the girl and the man who had been left standing awkwardly at the bottom of the stair.


"That father would harm me is absurd! And why should I not say who you are? Why do you travel cloaked, Ser Crofte?"


"Because discretion was requested of me!" She hissed at him, now clearly displeased. "And I do not intend to fail my lord!".


Dheres paused to take in her words before gesturing for her to follow. They descended the stairs with him leading the mounts to the pair who awaited, voices raised back to normal levels once more. "I suggest a compromise." Dheres began. "Ser Alfonse, I regret to inform you that I will not be accompanying you. I will accompany Ser Crofte who will personally escort me to my father. I assure you I will reach his hall safely. You are dismissed."


The man began to protest but was cut off by a hand wave from the young lord. He turned away quite visibly upset and began trudging back towards the crossing, uttering curses and muttering to himself until he was out of earshot. That is when Dheres turned back to Belaire with a request to see the birds returned to the stables. Coatleque watched them momentarily from a short distance before turning away to give them a respectful bit of privacy.


Once farewells had been said, Dheres stood beside the knight to signal he was ready to depart. Assuring her his fathers estate was not too far away, they set out. The sun hanging low upon the horizon.

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Very little was said for the first half of their journey. Coatleque wore her typical stern expression signalling she was focused on her mission. Dheres flitted between melancholy and some sort of agitation. The paladin considered him to be taking the news of his brother's demise rather well. Or perhaps it was all a show - her time spent around Jameson and other nobility by proxy had given her a glimpse at the steel nerves that were required of the rich and powerful. More so than any time she had spent in the palace.


The house of Ul was a very static mode of living by comparison. Very little had changed in the palace since she had joined the Order those few years ago. With the exception of recent political scandals, there was hardly any excitement to be had. Not that Coatleque was one to complain - she preferred the quiet. Even she could grow bored, however.


The sun had begun to dip below the horizon by the time they reached Scorpion's Crossing. To her benefit, Oswell knew who he was dealing with and had pacified the guards for the most part. Still, further proof could not hurt. Dheres waited patiently while she spoke with the Blade Commander on duty. Badges were flashed and reparations promised should the bird fail to be recovered. Imme was content enough with that though she still flashed the Sworn a look of annoyance.


Coatleque collected her charge again at the northwestern gate. Checking both their supplies she glanced behind to scan the square. A small group had gathered and began to murmur to themselves, pointing in their direction. It was then she decided to raise her cowl again. Adjusting her sword, she pulled the boy closer to her before urging him onward. They still had malms to cover on foot and light was quickly fading.


When they were a hundred yalms from the crossing, Dheres finally took it upon himself to break the silence between them. "So, how is Lord Taeros?," he began. "I was cheered to hear his demise had been greatly exaggerated."


Of all things to speak of, this was not the best conversation he could have chosen. Coatleque swallowed and kept her eyes on the road in the distance. "As was I. He has seen better days. I pray he sees them again soon." She did not see the boy smiling at her.


"Are there plans to wed?"

A pause. "He has many plans. None with me, sadly."


It was not hard for him to guess at her meaning. Another silence fell between them then, but this one carried a familiar awkwardness to it. He muttered an apology and she assured him none was required.


They were nearing the cliffs overlooking the ruins of Sil'dah when he tried to speak up again. A change of subject might have done some good had the paladin been at all interested in conversation. Instead she stopped and took him by the shoulder, spinning him to face her.


"Mi'lord Algincourt, are you absolutely certain this is wise?" She hissed at him. The sun had disappeared entirely now and gloaming was giving way to twilight. Black Brush was still a bell or more away and the chances of ambush increased with each minute after dark.


"Is what wise?" he stammered.

"If your father does intend you harm, you may be walking into an ambush!"


Dheres looked at her as though she may be addled and she very well may have been. "Father would not harm me, Ser Crofte! Why would you say such a thing!? I am all the son he has left! I know I am not what he might have hoped for, but..."


She cut him off there, her voice still hissing in annoyance. "What he might do and what he will do are two separate things!"


"You do not know him. Yes, he is... can be difficult. But he loves his sons, and more - the honor of his house!"

"Yes, well," she swallowed. "I've learned much of how lords show their love."


They both paused once more. She released his shoulder and turned back to the road. "I'm sorry." She heard him call out behind her as she continued down the road. "Can I ask what happened between you?" His steps quickly grew louder as he caught back up to her. She stopped again but refused to look at him.


"My lord chose someone else. Simple as that."


She waited only a moment before taking her next step, and Dheres began to voice another apology when his words were cut off by a cry of rage from around a boulder to the side of the road. The pair spun on their heels just in time to see a flash of steel in the moonlight, bearing down towards the paladin's neck.

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"RAAAHH! Die you meddling bitch!"


The pair had been taken almost entirely by surprise. Almost. Where her senses not already heightened by the cloak of night and the suspicions raised as they passed through Scorpion's Crossing. The Sultansworn are trained, however, to protect a much higher value target than the low-born son of a lesser lord. She barely jumped aside, avoiding an untimely end, and drew her own blade to face their attacker.


Coatleque placed herself immediately between her ward and assailant and pulled back her cowl with her free hand. She glared at him from under her bangs as he brandished his sword. "Stay back, milord!" the man called out as if yelling past her. He then rushed at her to press his attack with a stab to her midsection.


She noted that his attack was clumsy if not inexperienced. The man did not have formal training. This fight would be decidedly one-sided. Her blade twisted to parry him easily and with much more force than he was accustomed to. As he staggered backwards, Coatleque leveled her blade parallel to the ground with both hands and stepped back to force distance between the two men. "I am warning you... put up your blade. Now!"


"A-Alfonso, you fool! Hold! Both of you! Hold I say!" Dheres called out futilely from behind her. The young Flame reached for the non-existent sword at his side. Alfonso wasted no chance in the mean time. He kicked up the dust and sand from the road right towards the pair. While Dheres caught his own mouthful, Coatleque turned aside and spun away from the predicted low-cut to her knees in order to keep her distance. This unfortunately now placed her attacker between her and her ward.


As the poor boy sputtered, coughed, and gagged, Alfonso looped round behind him and pressed his blade to Dheres's throat. Coatleque froze suddenly, blade still poised and ready to strike. Her eyes half lidded as she peered at the man, gauging what he might do next to present an opening for her.


"BACK!" He demanded of her more than once.

Slowly she circled the pair, and he twisted his captor along to keep her facing.

"A-Alfonso!" The boy choked out in shock.

"Why are you doing this?!" She hissed at him.

"Damn you, bitch! I'll do it, so help me!"


Her weapon did not lower, her poise remained calm. "You might, but you do not want to." Her voice had slowed, become more calming as she tried to suggest to him this was most unwise. She had stopped circling now but kept her gaze steady with his.


"DROP the BLADE, Sworn! You are leaving me no choice!"

She paused. Her blade began to dip slowly.


A thud followed as steel impacted the hardened dirt below.

"Do not do anything rash." She offered, her hands remained open palmed.


The man snarled now that he had the clear upper hand. His blade slackened ever so perceptibly over the terrified and motionless captive between his arms. "Right. Good. Now, back the fuck up." Coatleque did not step back, but one hand did lower to her side in a clenched fist. Her gaze remained fixed on Alfonso, her opposite hand outstretched in a soothing gesture.


"W-we can talk this out, yes?!" Dheres managed to choke out again.

"Oh, aye, milord. When we get our money! What's he worth to you, Sworn? Clearly somethin'!"


"He is worth more to me than any price you could collect", she hissed. While her one hand remained outstretched as a distraction, the clenched fist by her side began to glow dully. Her concentration was split - it would take just a few moments longer to channel the spell while she kept him busy. Alfonso grinned tauntingly, a rotting tooth showing through. "Then a million gil ought t' be no trouble a'tall, aye? That's what we want! A million!"


"Who is we!?" Dheres hissed through clenched teeth.

"Never you mind, pretty boy!"


"What is one million gil," Coatleque whispered, "weighed against the man I love?" With that she threw her clenched fist upwards and directed at Dheres. Her conjuration complete, the boy's skin and clothes began to calcify over in a hardened, grey shell. Alfonso flinched and stared at the unexpected change giving her just the break in concentration she needed. Coatleque rushed forward and threw her shoulder into the boy unexpectedly. Now at least twice his previous weight and armored, he fell backwards into Alfonso who's blade slipped along his neckline before dropping from his hand.


The pair toppled over just as she had expected. Dheres landed across Alfonso's leg pinning him in place while simultaneously wrapping his own head off a large stone and falling unconscious. Coatleque rounded them immediately and kicked the man's sword away then turned and laid her boot to his face. His eyes crossed and he slumped backwards. "Stay down." She murmured.


She knelt down beside Dheres to examine where the blade had slipped and found he was cut. Deeply so. Her conjuration was all that had saved his life from draining away right there on the road. "Damn it!" she whispered to nobody in particular. Glancing up and down the road as if expecting travelers at this time of night, her heart sank when she saw no one. So she turned back to him and wrapped her hands gently around his neck.


She cursed herself again for never having gone back to Jancis to practice her conjury. Of all the most basic spells in Eorzea, that of curing was the one she had most difficulty with. She refused to let him bleed out, however. Summoning forth what strength she could, she directed her flow of aether into him with just enough efficacy to slow the bleeding to a bare trickle. As the soft glow faded from her hands she slumped over from the strain.


Dheres twitched underneath her, bringing her sense back to reality if only for the nonce. She jerked upright. Her hands slid across the light, but now stony armor of his chest. "M-my lord," she stammered. "Are you alright?" There was no response from him, but what she did not expect was the struggling of Alfonse still pinned beneath him.


His arm crossed over out of nowhere, stabbing a long dagger into her arm. Steel pierced leather and flesh clean through as Coatleque cried out in pain. Pain, anger, terror. Her survival instinct caught up a moment later as her left hand balled into a fist and cross over to punch him square in the face. His hand pulled back, taking the knife with him as he held his now bloodied nose with the other.


Coatleque pushed herself back from them. Her injured arm was held close to her stomach as blood began to soak the leather. Her head spun and all time seemed to slow. "He stabbed me... he stabbed me... he stabbed me!'" Her mind had trouble just processing that fact. It was as if this was some dream pulled over her eyes she expected to wake from. She thought he was incapacitated, that she had won the field, yet he pressed on. Scrambling to her feet then, she instinctively grasped the closest weapon from the ground in her left hand. The man's own blade.


Then a new thought flashed through her mind. That of failure. "I will NOT fail him!" she forcefully protested against her weakening limbs. Despite his plea now for mercy, it was over in another heartbeat. Coalteque fell to her knees beside the now lifeless man, her weight pressed forward over the hilt of his own blade that now pinned him to the ground through the chest. She stared. Stared. She could not look away. The smell of blood hung thick in the air almost causing her to wretch.


As her vision slowly sharpened again she remembered poor Dheres. Turning away she crawled back to his side, arm still pressed to her stomach. Still unconscious. She tried to wake him, vainly shaking him by the shoulder with her good hand. She bowed low to be sure he was still breathing then surveyed the area. Settling on a more sparse looking area to the opposite side of the road, she wrapped both arms under his and pulled. Pulled with all her remaining strength, crying out painfully from the strain on her wounded arm.


Once he was clear of the other body she removed her cloak and cut a strip off the bottom to wrap her arm. She pulled the field bandage tight while blinking away her own tears of pain and then propped herself against a boulder nearby. It was near midnight by her guess... and they were going nowhere in this state.

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It felt as an eternity to her. Sitting there in the middle of the desert waiting. What more could she do, though? Dheres was still unconscious. Her arm throbbed with every beat of her heart. Coatleque tried to keep herself calm if only to slow her heart to lessen the pain. Still propped against the bolder with eyes half lidded watching over her ward.


The conjuration finally began to fade and the boy's skin and clothes shed the calloused, grey stone for their natural look and feel. Coatleque took a deep breath and crawled the few paces back over to him. Again she shook him gently by the shoulder. "My lord Algincourt? Dheres, please, you must wake up." He twitched, head rolled to the side as he choked out something incoherent, then fell back to unconsciousness again.


She examined his wound again now that it was more visible. He was still bleeding. Fearing it may re-open under too much stress, she knew it would need immediate tending. Scooping her arm around him and pulling, she again tried in vain to lift him. Lifting dead weight with one arm is not easy, however, even for those in good health. She stumbled and he began to slip out of her arm causing her to instinctively reach with the other hand. While she did manage to set him down gently, the strain caused her to cry out again and she staggered away clutching her bad arm tightly to her.


Settling in by the boulder again, she rubbed a hand down her face in thought. It was the middle of the night, at the week's end in Thanalan. Where would the closest healer be and who would even be awake? Two realizations suddenly hit her. Firstly that there was a fighting tournament underway barely two bells away. They always had at least one medic present by necessity. But secondly... it would mean asking him for help. Coatleque groaned and looked to her ward.


Her relationship with Warren was nothing sordid, and certainly not hidden. They had parted over a cycle ago under much the same reasons as she and Jameson. He simply chose someone else. Someone better, she told herself. It seemed to be a repeating pattern in her life now. The fact that he was the only one in reach capable of helping only served to rub salt in an old wound. Her mouth twitched at the thought while her hand slowly raised to her ear to activate her pearl.


"Warren? Ser Castille, if you are listening... please respond. I - I know you may be busy..."


Her ears strained at the pause to follow; Her pulse echoing through her head.




She cried out. A loud and joyous "HAH" that broke into stammered laughter. "Warren! I need a healer. Please, if you have any you can spare - I am on the road from Black Brush to Horizon and have a wounded man who will bleed out if he is not tended immediately! We are overlooking the expedition site."


"Sit tight." came the response.


"Thank the Twelve!" She sighed with immediate relief. "You are a godsend, Arbiter. I owe you."


It was nearly a full bell later when help did arrive in the form of Artemis Newton. Coatleque still sat propped against her rock, listing to the side and nodding occasionally as she jerked herself awake. Her arm had begun to numb in the cold night air and the bandage was soaked through. Artemis saw her first and approached only to be waved off to the side dumbly. "Neck wound," she mumbled. "I've done what I could."


The woman of many trades turned and knelt to see to Dheres's wounds. Aether flowing from her as if pouring water from a cistern. Coatleque may have been jealous of the ability were her mind not clouded from her own wound. Despite her protests of being 'fine', the tiny Eos worked its own magic to close the wound on either side of her arm.


She stood and unwrapped the bloody field bandage, letting it lie with the rest of her tattered cloak. She flexed her hand a few times to test her arm before joining the other woman next to Dheres. "Not responsive, sadly." Artemis looked up to her. "Not much I can do here. You take one shoulder and I will get the other. We'll make a nice procession to Black Brush."


Between the two women they managed to hoist the young lord to their shoulders. Half carrying and half dragging they stumbled their way the remaining few malms to the mine train station. Once there, Dheres was propped against the wall of the Stone Torch's office. Coatleque spoke to the men on duty about bandits along the road while Artemis saw to transportation. They met a few minutes later at the door.


"SoooOO. You want to maybe paint me a picture here about this?" Artemis began to press.


"It would take far too long." Coatleque shook her head. "I must stay with him. Is there anywhere else he could recover for the night?"


The pair conversed in hushed voices to avoid further unwanted attention. Of closest locations, the Coffer and Coffin was far too public. Black Brush was already alerted to her presence, and news of wounded travelers would spread like wildfire. They could not go north as that meant passing straight through his father's land. No, the only option was to press eastward. A few minutes later, Dheres was strapped tightly on the back of one Chocobo while Coatleque held two sets of reins atop a second.


Brief and mumbled farewells were said with the promise of not speaking of her passing through the area. The pair then set off eastward per the current plan. The remainder of the night passed in silence, and Coatleque had trouble staying awake as the birds plodded onward. Whether by luck or fate they did eventually reach Drybone as the sky began to glow the first signs of dawn breaking.


Stumbling into the inn with an unconscious man over her shoulder, Coatleque somehow reached for her coin purse and managed to spill gil over the counter and floor. Mumbling incoherently to the staff on duty about a room for the night, the last thing she remembered was her world spinning as she collapsed hopefully over a bed.

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"Thank you for your... trust. And your friendship." Leaning in towards her, he kissed her softly on the cheek. "Be safe," he whispered in her ear.



His eyes opened slowly then fluttered. The room was not familiar at first. No, this was definitely not his room. Nor was it a tent at Scorpion's Crossing. Dheres sat up looking groggy as one who has overslept their mark by a few bells. "What," he began to stammer before holding his temples with both hands. "What happened?"


The sun was already making its descent across Thanalan when he had finally come to. Coatleque had not awoken much sooner than he, but had already adjusted her armor and checked their gear. She sat quietly on a stool by the foot of his bed staring down at her arm. Slowly she opened and closed her hand, flexing, feeling the stiffness of the muscle as it strained against the recently closed tear.


She wined but looked up from the blood-stained leather when he spoke. "My lord! You are awake!" She said breathlessly as if the news was fresh air to a weary soul. "How do you feel?" Her hands moved to her knees and the paladin straightened herself to hide any doubts she may have had.


His hands were shaky, voice low. One was run slowly through his hair. "Weak, to be honest." There was a pause while his mind replayed the events most recent to his memory. Coatleque's head dipped as she watched him with upturned eyes. "He tried to ASSASSINATE me!" Dheres exclaimed through the shock of his slow realization that he did not dream the past evening.


His outburst was met with a quieting motion from the paladin. "Shhhh. Yes, he did." She offered what little comfort she could. "Surprising, but not unexpected." As she spoke, she gestured to the chest of drawers by the bed. Atop it was laid a platter of bread, cheese, and grapes with a pitcher of water. Not the best of breakfasts, but affordable and easily available.


"How? How is that expected?" He ignored her gesturing and pressed with his justifiable questioning. In truth, Coatleque knew nothing more than what Jameson had told her. It was her experience in observing his business from the sidelines that had prepared her for whatever dangers were still lurking. She could not pretend to understand the games these nobles played - distrust, intrigue, murder. And she liked none of it. But she did not have to play at it, just be there to encourage the man when he was losing and congratulate when he was winning.


Coatleque stood finally and crossed her arms, turning away from the boy. "I told you that you were in danger. I was surprised it came so quickly, but I expected it nonetheless." She did not give him pause long enough to retort but did look back over her shoulder. "Please, you should eat something. Recover your strength. We can talk in the meantime if you are so inclined." Her head bowed respectfully. "Would that I had the answers you seek. We cannot even be certain the attacker was sent by your father. But we are lucky there was only one of them."


Dheres began to rise instinctively at that. "We must confront him! If we--" but he slumped back to the bed, lightheaded. Coalteque turned back to face him.


"Carefully, please. You were badly wounded."

"But you saved me." He said quietly. "That was you."


"I did what I was sworn to do. By the grace of the Twelve do you still draw breath. The Twelve, and the help of a friend."


"I am in your debt, Ser. I will do all I can to repay your stalwart presence."


Coatleque looked away again with a shake of her head. "I keep no debts, my lord. I gave my word to see you to safety, and I shall."


The boy was much more readily agreeable to hear her out as he ate what was provided. She let him eat in silence at first till she was sure he would not pass out again or fall ill otherwise. Then she began to detail the trip that lay ahead.


From the Flames' garrison at Drybone she was able to procure some equipment and supplies, as well as two birds. Such things they were accustomed to providing to the Sultansworn when required and they knew it would be repaid quickly. She intended to lead him north and east through the Black Shroud to reach Coerthas from the opposite side of where his father may expect.


Her goal was to reach the Druthers to rest for the night. Judging by the sun they would be lucky to reach Highbridge before twilight. While Dheres finished eating, Coatleque put the rest of their affairs in order. And then they were off. On the long road to Ishgard.

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"So. You have multiple oaths, I take it?"


The remainder of their ride through Thanalan had been spent in silence. As the sun dipped slowly beyond the horizon, the buzzing of flies was replaced by a chorus of crickets and toads. There was a pleasing calm about it at first, but as they drew closer to the borders with the forest the cries of nightlife turned more sinister. Coatleque sensed the unease in his voice and slowed her pace to fall back next to Dheres.


"No, only the one. I assume you are referring to my friend last night?"

"Well, ah... no. I mean you... have sort of... an oath with Lord Taeros. On top of your oath to the Sultana."


The boy seemed to have difficulty in bringing his thoughts to words. She watched him struggle in amusement, keeping her mount's pace even with his. "Ahh, that," she replied evenly. "Not so much an oath as a... promise."


"Is a promise not an oath?"

"A promise? It is... well, it is complicated. Yes, I suppose it is an oath of sorts. It is just not as serious a thing."


Night was well underway by the time they reached camp Tranquil. The darkened sky meant they could not see the storm clouds which had been approaching, but white flashes over the treetops had heralded an impending storm. Dheres stopped them in the middle of the camp. He looked quite pale in the torchlight. Begging her pardon, he dismounted and wandered away from Coatleque to be sick over the edge of the plateau. The paladin also dismounted and collected both birds to stand patiently by the aetherite. There she was recognized yet again by the most unexpected of faces.


Lord Darius Vontraus was a merchant based out of Ishgard. He had come southward on business and was slowly making is way back home, stopping at various markets to conduct his business. Coatleque had only met him once, and briefly, at dinner with Jameson and Edda at their apartment in the city. Jameson had decided to rent a cabin in the mountains from him, for use on his honeymoon. Irksome as dinner conversations could go. It was surprising to see him here of all times, but even more surprising that he recognized her.


They chatted briefly about why she was now here. "Lord Algincourt, you say? Now there is a name I have not heard in a while." Lord Vontraus turned to regard the boy who was now returning from his bout of nausea. His color had not improved. "My, it's not anything serious is it? I could call for a conjurer." He asked while leaning towards the paladin.


Coatleque shook her head and crossed her arms. "No, nothing like that. My lord was attacked and injured in Thanalan. He has been tended but still needs rest."


"Attacked?! By whom?"

"Would that I knew. Hired blades looking to make quick coin. Sent by whom, I could not say."


Dheres, in the meantime, looked perhaps worse than before. It was decided they could press on no further this night. By the good graces of Lord Vontraus, a tent was provided for them in the camp. Coatleque saw Lord Algincourt safely inside and allowed him some privacy to rest, at least for the first half of the night. She had intended to stand guard just outside. Darius took the opportunity himself to ramble on to her about how he had met his wife.


It was in these rare moments that she felt some measure of thankfulness for her time spent in the pillowhouse. She was able to nod along and feign as much interest as necessary to keep the old man happy. That is until he began to imply there was something between her and her ward.


"Shall I be preparing another honeymoon cabin?" He asked with a small grin.

"No, thank you. I shall not be needing such."

"Ah" Darius glanced back to the tent behind them. "Well, have you thought about it?"

"... more than you know." She muttered quietly.

"Oh my." He gazed at her with new understanding. "He fences with the other hand, eh?"

"What?" She gave him an odd look, clearly not getting his meaning.

"You know. He's... light in his gaiters?"

"... who are you talking about?"

"Who else?" He gestured back towards the tent.


"Wh.. oh. OH! No, no, no - that is out of the question. I am simply escorting the young lord to safety. And besides that, my affections belong to another."


By chance they were then interrupted by what appeared to be a travelling alchemist. Lord Vontraus took it upon himself to inquire about healing salves and poultices for the sick man sleeping in his tent. The alchemist seemed off to Coatleque, though, smelling of dirt and staggering off balance at random. When Darius offered to let her examine the boy, the paladin objected firmly.


"I assure you, he only needs rest."

"Aww - chill, bro! It's all natural!" The odd little woman staggered again.

"So is my blade, yet I do not recommend falling on it. I would rather he not be disturbed."


The alchemist rolled her eyes. "Here." She tossed something to the paladin. A small wrapped square that smelt of chocolate. Coatleque caught it and turned it over a few times in her hands. "I think this was supposed to come to you. I feel it." She pocketed it then, not quite sure how to react. "Only eat half, okay? You can't take too much cosmic truth at once."


She staggered off then, leaving the two standing dumbfounded outside the tent. Lord Vontraus shook himself out of the trance first as he realized the time of night. He ensured the pair would be alright until the morning and Coatleque insisted he had done more than enough already. With one final promise of dinner invitations so she could meet his wife, he departed to continue his business.

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Dheres awoke the next morning alone in a strange tent. While not exactly a full-service inn, it was still a far cry above a thin bedroll beneath a rain-soaked tree. He emerged when redressed to find Coatleque once more had been awake for far longer. She stood off by the aetherite securing their gear again and making sure the birds were fit for longer travel. The rain had not let up all the night. Even this morning it still drizzled around them like a coarse mist.


"Did you sleep at all, Ser Crofte?" He asked as he approached.

"Would you feel safer if I said yes or no?" she replied without looking back.


He gave her a rather indignant look and perhaps it was justified. He was no back alley refugee pressed into service when faced otherwise with starvation. He was the son, a lesser son, but son no less of a Lord. Trained in many things not the least of which was swordplay. "Ser, I realize you are here to make me safer, but I assure you, I can fight."


The flap of one sack was flipped downward and tied securely. She stopped and leaned towards the bird, resting one hand upon the saddle. "I do not doubt your abilities, my lord. I simply prefer to play things safe."


"I was not elevated to the Immortal Flames because of a- a lordship!" His voice lowered then. "Or the potential of one."


There was a pause. Coatleque turned to face him and bowed her head low. "Apologies, my lord. I misspoke."


She held his bird steady while he climbed atop, then followed suit. The rest of the morning was spent in silence after that. They departed Camp Tranquil heading northward towards the Druthers. Her intention now was to reach Fallgourd if possible. Barring no interruptions along the road, they should make it before nightfall she guessed. She had made this trek many times before to avoid passing the castrum that loomed over Mor Dhona. It had been safe enough in the past, but she was not escorting high value targets then.


It was Coatleque's turn to break the awkwardness this time. She owed him that at least after her blunder this morning. Once more she held her pace to allow her bird to fall back next to Dheres. "So," she began. "How long have you known Lord Taeros?"


"Oh, near two years now? Ever since father moved us to the Jewel." He did seem more amenable to talking. The afternoon passed more quickly as he spoke at least. He told her of how they moved south, where his mother was from, how Jameson had assisted in their settling in Thanalan.


Coatleque managed a gentle smile to his side. "He is a generous man, despite what most people think."


Dheres frowned. "Yes, some speak ill of him, but they do of all monetarists."


She hummed to herself. "Which is why they do not like me on his arm, I am sure."


The trees which flanked them soon began to thin and the terrain became more rocky, signalling their proximity to the northern part of the Shroud. Coatleque chose to dismount and lead them on by foot from here as this would be the more dangerous leg of their trek. Should they be walking into an ambush, she wanted to be ready to defend while Dheres could flee backwards. Dheres continued to talk to her even though she could not face him from her position ahead.


"Without Lord Taeros, I would never have met one of my very best friends."

"Oh?" She asked if only to keep his spirits up.

"Yes. Belaire. You briefly met her."


Coatleque had met the girl more than once before. Typically in the presence of her Lady's husband. "She is the Lady Mandercrown's handmaiden if I remember correctly." Her tone turned rather dry. "I do not envy her position."


He laughed lightly. "No. They are in truth very difficult. And rather entitled. And not at all like Lord Taeros."


They continued on again in silence for a time. Coatleque found herself holding her arm tightly to her chest as it began to throb. 'From the weather', she told herself, and that brought the idle thought that perhaps it will always do so now. She did not like that much.


It was still early evening when they arrived in Fallgourd. She led them round the aetherite before Dheres dismounted and moved up beside her. "This would be the next best place to stop," he began.


"Of course, my lord. I was about to say just that. This is our last stop before Coerthas." She regarded him then as if gauging how his strength had recovered since the previous night. With a cluck of her tongue she gestured to the large building suspended over the river by cliff side. "The Bobbing Cork will have a proper room for you. I will see to our birds and join you in a moment." He needed no further convincing, already excited by the prospect of a real bed, and headed for the inn while she turned aside to stable their mounts for the night.

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A few minutes later, Coatleque rejoined Dheres at the Bobbing Cork. There was a measure of relief felt at finding him somewhat dazed and alone on the ground floor. After a brief exchange it was decided they would stay here for the night. So Coatleque stopped at reception to set things in order while Dheres made his way to the balcony on the second floor. Two rooms were requested and two keys handed over after the appropriate exchange of gil.


She then followed suit and made her way to the second floor. Her feet grew heavier with each step till she was only just plodding along near the top of the staircase. There was no denying she needed this rest as much as he did now. Thoughts of bed were pushed aside however at the sound of a familiar voice. "Sup, hot stuff. You lookin' for a seat? I got one riiiight here."


Coatleque found Dheres standing dumbfoundedly by a table across from a familiar woman. She stepped close to Dheres and slipped him his room key with a whisper of warning. "This one is trouble, be wary my lord." The two women exchanged glances briefly before familiarity set in.


"Crofte! I knew that sad puppy face was familiar!" The paladin's mouth twitched as she died a little more inside when her name was yelled across the room for all to hear. She kept her peace for the nonce, however, and Tash seemed to get the hint. "The fuck are you doin' here? Yeah, yeah, I know. Damn, upgraded to the younger model, huh?" She waved nonchalantly to Dheres who boldly took a seat adjacent to her. "Is this like your revenge boytoy fling? I mean, not bad!" With that she burst out laughing.


The paladin sighed heavily and slowly before taking her own seat adjacent to Dheres and across from Tash. Scanning the table she noticed quite a few shot glasses arranged in rows. Some empty, some waiting to be emptied. Her eyes half lidded, she glared at the mercenary. "No. To all your questions, Miss Holbrook. And where is your vulgar half?"


Tash smirked. "Huh? What, like my ass?"

"Yes, him. The large one."


Conversation quickly devolved from there to a series of posterior insults and conjecture of flotation devices. By the grace of the Twelve Coatleque was able to keep her voice from trembling in her disgust. "Mister Morn is not here then?" She tried vainly to change the subject matter at every turn. Eventually Tash slid each of them one of her shots.


"Here, you deserve this. You want one, Hair? Or you more a wine cooler kinda guy?" Dheres looked at her with his own form of annoyance before reaching out and sliding the offered glass to himself. All three then downed their respective shots. Tash slammed the glass back to the table. Coatleque gently set hers down. Poor Dheres tried to mimic them only to break down into a fit of coughing. "Whoo! Good shit, right?!" Tash exclaimed.


Coatleque sat quietly watching him and almost felt sorry for the boy while Tash just laughed. He did recover eventually but a strange calm seemed to overtake him. She leaned over the table slowly and turned back to Tash. "I am surprised to see you apart."


The mercenary just shrugged. "We gotta get some work. He's checkin' one lead, I'm on another. Your ex is a bitch, so we're poor as fuck."


Coatleque's head shook once and tilted. She remembered the last time she had seen both Tash and Vandol at Jameson's estate in Ul'dah. For delivering Roen they had received payment in gems and precious stones. "What did you do with your last payment?" She asked, now curious where it had all gone.


"Spent it. Duh."

"... on WHAT?!"


Tash gestured to herself as if the answer was clear. "Man, twink ain't cheap! I'ts a fuckin' investment!"


Coatleque found herself gripping the edges of the table on either side, her breath becoming slow and forced. Her voice slowed as she hissed, "You received easily what I make in two or three cycles... and you spent it already!?" Her lips began to curl but the anger slowly subsided as Tash explained where most of the coin had gone. When she finally let go of the table, a hand shot to her pocket to retrieve the parcel she received at Camp Tranquil. She slid it across to Tash. "Fine. Here, for the drinks."


Tash eagerly grabbed and unwrapped it with the expectation of a few gil at least, then made a face. "The fuck is this?" The smell of chocolate came over the table.


"I have no idea. Some sort of cake that a strange little herbalist gave me as we passed through the Shroud."


The package was transferred and the conversation began to meander between work and personal affairs. It was clear that Tash held Jameson in rather low regard despite anything Coatleque could say to the contrary.


"I admit, James can be difficult to work with sometimes but..."

"Difficult to WORK with?!" She was cut off. "He thinks he's too fuckin' good for everything!"

"That's not true," Coatleque whispered.

"Why the fuck are you defending him!? He dumped your ass. Why ain't you mad!?"

"I am livid," she hissed. "Does that change how I feel about him?!"


The two went back and forth a bit longer as poor Dheres began to nod off. Seemed the young boy had no tolerance at all to whiskey. His head bobbed from one woman to the other as he tried to follow along. Eventually Tash tried to suggest he spend the night in her room of all places. Coalteque pushed back from the table then, disgusted.


"No wonder Morn needed some time away."

"The fuck's that supposed to mean?"

The paladin waved a hand dismissively. "Nothing. Since you're 'not like that'."

"Bitch, don't you talk-to-the-hand me! What, like now you're the fuckn' Morn translator?"

Coatleque smirked. "My," she sighed, "so defensive about a mere business partner!"

"Well, so's you know, Morn agrees with me. So fuck off!"


Coatleque rolled her eyes to the side then snapped forward to stare Tash down. "Good! Maybe I'll just go see for myself! He loves us paladins if I remember right. Something about 'horny freaks doing it in armor'."


Tash muttered quietly to herself as she nursed another shot. "Pretendin' you're this or that 'cause you think it's what they wa--" She stopped and glared back across the table, chewing her cheek. The idea of the other two together did not exactly thrill her. "Yeah, whatever. If you think Lord Taeros would let ya."


Coatleque sat back once more, her glare hardening. "Bitch," she muttered to herself.


Their arguing was interrupted by a thud as Dheres's forehead met the table. Coatleque sighed deeply before standing and pulling him to his feet. Looping an arm around her shoulders she turned him around to lead him to his room. "Take care, Miss Holbrook!" she called back to the woman who then left to refill her shots.


"Bitches. Everyone is bitches."

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She stood by the hearth, gazing into the fire with glassy eyes. "You called me maddening once, do you remember? That we were dangerous together..." Her voice trailed off as he approached. "That was no lie. You were maddening - still are." His own gaze hardened. "That doesn't change reality."



The pair met again the next morning in the lobby of the Bobbing Cork. Coatleque had once more shown her discipline and rose earlier to retrieve their mounts, secure their supplies, and settle pending accounts with the clerk. Miss Holbrook, however, seemed to have been up all night and was now draped over the front desk moaning. "Aelleueuein... C'mooon. Toast. Two eggs, medium. Toast, diagonal..." By Coatleque's count there were near twenty empty glasses on the table when they had left the woman the previous night.


Dheres made his way down the stairs with a wide smile plastered to his face. "I feel a thousand times better!" He exclaimed. Coatleque turned to face him and as the distance between them closed even she noticed the change in his health. Whether it was the whiskey last night or the chance to sleep in a real bed again she could neither tell nor cared. They were on the last leg of this journey now, and she was eager to finish.


"Good. You should, for how long you slept. How is your head today?" She remarked.

"It is much better. I feel like a new man! Who knew alcohol cured headaches? So, how many days through Coerthas?"


His own eagerness to be off was a refreshing change she thought. Soon he would be safely in Jameson's hands and she could return to her own duty. "That will depend on the weather," she began. "One if we are lucky and do not stop for rest."


"Well, we'd best get going!"


They bid farewell to the poor woman doubled over the counter in that chipper, energetic way that is oh so annoying to those who've drunk more than they should the previous night, and were met with a weak wave of a hand. Coatleque allowed Dheres to exit first and they were soon mounted, ready to depart. "We will be heading over the mountain pass. I hope you do not mind the cold."


"Pah, the desert is cold enough at night. I fear nothing."

The paladin smirked knowingly. "We shall see."



It was nearly three bells later and a continuous uphill climb through the mountain road that they crossed what was considered the Gridanian-Ishgard border. Trees had long ago yielded the land to barren rock, and humidity to cold, dry air. By luck the only snow needing dealt with was the steadily deepening drifts on and along the road. Coalteque pulled her cloak tight around her and stopped their march at the sound of chattering teeth behind her. "G-G-Gods it's-s blood-dy COLD." She reeled her mount to the side and twisted to see him.


"Do you require more coverings, my lord?"

"D-do you h-h-have a cloak?"


Her mouth twitched and she reeled the mount around again. Looking over her shoulder she called back. "I have the one I am wearing. Come, if we reach the Observatory I have additional supplies there." She gazed skyward and closed her eyes as if considering, or perhaps counting. "Yes, everyone should be away." she murmured.


"Away? From what?"

"You will see."


The sun held with them, or at least what could be called the sun through the sea of perpetual grey above, and the outpost of the Observatory was reached in near record time. She had not come so far to watch her ward freeze to death after all. Pulling her mount to the side of the road, she quickly dismounted by the side of the local inn. It was almost noontime by her count, and the rest of the squad should be out scouting. Dheres watched her indecisively until she began climbing the stairs straight to a room. He then dismounted and quickly followed suit, eager to be someplace warmer even if temporary.


The inn room itself was more an inn floor. Six beds occupied half the room. A table and chairs the other half, with a large hearth. Various crates of supplies, food, and clothing were stacked against the walls. Banners bearing the Scales of Ul'dah were draped over the chairs. Across the table was sprawled a large map of Coerthas held down by various bottles and mugs. Points of interest were drawn and marked all across its surface. It was clear that someone, or perhaps multiple someones, had been staying here for some time now. Someones who had vested interest in the region.


Someone who was still present, it seemed. A woman stood by the hearth to keep warm. She and Coatleque exchanged glances before the paladin continued on her way, striding across the room to start rummaging through the supplies. "Coatleque? Did I miss something?" She asked?


"I did not expect anyone here, Sharla. I apologize. Er... meet Lord Algincourt." She continued her search without looking back, and assumed the boy had followed her inside.


Sharla turned then to see the stranger who had followed her colleague inside. "Lord Algincourt, aye? A pleasure. Sharla Blackheart, at yer service."


"Blackheart? I hope that's not literal." Dheres replied.

"Once upon a time perhaps." Sharla grinned. "Not so much these days."


Coatleque rejoined them by the table then. A bundle of cloth was pinned beneath one arm. "Of course not. Sharla is a friend of mine. We serve the same master, as it were." With that she handed the cloak over to Dheres.


"What's with th' robes an' all?"

"Discretion. We've been running from Thanalan for the past three suns. Assassins are after the boy. I am taking him to the city for safety."


"Assassins? Like we need more o' those running' around th' place."

"With luck they did not follow us."

"Hmmm, I don't much count on luck these days."


Coalteque tapped her chin and gazed at the woman. Dheres donned his cloak and already seemed warmer for it. He rejoined the other two as Coalteque's hand lowered. "Actually, Sharla, I have an idea. Grab what you need and meet us outside." She turned on her heels before any answer was given and headed for the door.

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Not until the three of them were saddled and on their way again did Coatleque venture to offer any explanation. One thing had been wearing on her mind the past three days. That she had been instructed specifically not to be the last one seen with him. Difficult when you are so easily recognized all across Eorzea and your name spoken loud enough to travel. She could at least adhere to the letter of the request if not the spirit. "We will be splitting up once we reach the city." She began. "Sharla, I need you to accompany Lord Algincourt to the Forgotten Knight. Get him a room at Cloud Nine. I will leave in the opposite direction to Fortemps estate to announce his arrival. Lord Taeros will collect him afterwords."


"Th' Forgotten Knight? Consider it done."


Her own cowl was raised again to hide her hair and eyes and they set out northward to Dragonhead. The rest of their ride was uneventful, to the relief of all. Coatleque remained wary just the same. More so as they neared the Gates of Judgement. Her pace slowed so she could fall back next to Sharla once they were on the bridge to the city, and a purse was passed between them for the room that would be required. The promise of further explanations at later times always accompanied these transactions, though lately it was rare to make good on them.


They departed as planned just inside the city. Coatleque kept her cowl pulled low but did not instruct Sharla or Dheres to do likewise. As they turned right for the inn, she collected their mounts and turned left to the stables.



Coatleque was greeted shortly after arriving at the apartment by the house servant, Percibald Petrias. She wasted no time removing her bothersome robe and leaving it on a nearby peg. "S-Ser Crofte! We were not expecting you!" She turned him with something of a frown. Such news was unexpected given the circumstances. She had thought her mission would have been well advertised among the house by now.


"Truly, Mister Petrias? T'is a pleasure to see you again at least. No matter, I am here to see Lady Eglantine if she is available."


He looked her over once and beckoned her further into the hall. "Come, here, sit by the fire!" She did as he bade while he fussed over a decanter and glass, handing her some wine which she held close with both hands. "Wait right here; I will see if Lord-- wait, you said Lady Eglantine?"


"Yes. I am forbidden to address my lord directly. Lady Eglantine is to be his proxy."

"I see. Well. Wait right here!"


Perci left her and for a time she sat in much needed silence by one of the most welcoming fires she had seen in the past few days. There was no time for a proper inn since she had left Isghard so many days ago. She smelled of the road, and perhaps some other foul things as well. Her hair had not been brushed in far too long, and looked matted and stringy with dirt, sweat, and grease. All things considered, she was glad Jameson would not have to see her in this state.


The wine also helped to warm. Setting her now half-empty glass on the small table by the decanter, she chose to stand by the fire as she waited. Her arm throbbed in the chill air beneath her still blood-stained leather. She held it firmly to her stomach and massaged it with her other hand. Standing there reflecting over the past few days she almost did not hear the approach of Edda's handmaiden from around the corner.


"Oh! Ser Crofte! Do you need assistance?"

"Miss Laine." She greeted the woman flatly. "Mister Petrias is notifying Lady Eglantine of my arrival."


Tamsin looked over her arm with worry then. "Are you... hurt?" Her eyes widened then. "Fury have mercy, m'lady! That needs tending! Let me draw you a bath." Coatleque stopped her with a raised hand before she could rush by to the baths however.


"I am fine, it is just sore in the cold is all. Business first. I can see to this later." Tamsin paused and looked at her worriedly, but relented. The paladin was not part of the household. Today, she was not even a guest. She was only a messenger, and by her expression she had no intention to stay longer than necessary. Bowing her head, she hurried along to find where Perci had gone.



It was not too long after that Coatleque was seen to the dining room where she was told Lady Eglantine would be joining her. Another hearth was aglow behind the table, and the paladin chose to stand once more by the fire rather than taking a seat. Tamsin began to pull a chair for her as she strode past the table. "Would you care for a pastry while you wait?"


"No, thank you. I do not plan to stay for long." She did have a steaming hot cup of something already prepared however, which was now offered to Coatleque. "Really, you needn't on my account..." She hesitated as the cup was offered closer. The sweet smell of chocolate was incredibly hard to argue with, so the cup was taken and held closer than the wine from the hall. She inhaled slowly and turned back to the fire. She might have even began to feel comfortable if not for the involuntary bristling of the hairs at the back of her neck.


The door to the room had opened and closed causing a draft. More than that, she knew who was now standing behind her. "Thank you, Tamsin." came the soft voice as the servants attention turned to the Lady of the house. There was a slight sucking of air as Edda winced from the heat of the cup given to her then the soft padding of footsteps as she moved closer to the fire. "Ser Crofte. Thank you for waiting."


Coatleque did not turn or otherwise acknowledge her presence beyond a sniff. "Of course. I've come to report on the task I was set to." She spoke in an even tone. The restraint in her voice evident.


"And what is that?"


"Your betrothed asked me to see someone to safety from Thanalan to Ishgard. I collected him near the Silver Bazaar, drove off his would be assassins, and escorted him through the Shroud. He is awaiting my lord Taeros at the Forgotten Knight under guard of another Sultansworn." She paused, her blood becoming heated and her voice more stern. "Though I wonder why I could not tell him this myself."


There as a soft laugh. It seemed almost mocking to the paladin. "Then you may ask him when next you see him." Edda paused to study the woman but made no remark on her appearance. "Why did you not bring your charge here directly?"


It may have been the laugh. Perhaps the inane question. Coalteque felt something snap inside, and she had to do something to keep from lashing out. So she drank. Not a sip, but a large swallow of scalding-hot chocolate. There was no flinch. No acknowledgement of the searing pain assaulting her tongue and throat. The cup was then set aside on the table. "It was requested that I not be seen with him last. And as everyone from Ul'dah to Fallgourd knows who I am, I had no other opportunity."


"I see. Shall I send someone to collect him then?"


"You may wish to do so yourself. He is a young lordling, after all." Her tone turned mocking then. She turned to Edda with a glare as she began to understand. "You did not know I was forbidden to speak with him?"


Edda glanced down at her own cup and took a tentative sip. "I knew," she began slowly. "Though it was not I who proposed the idea. That is not to say I was not the cause, however, but I had planned to appeal to his decision the very next sun. But..." She smiled wistfully and glanced from the fire to the paladin and back again a few times as if her words should explain everything.


Coatleque's glare turned to a frown, and for a brief second may have had death itself in her eyes. She gestured angrily to Edda, the sword across her back gleaming in the light of the fire. "You DO love him, don't you!"


Edda remained ever so calm, blinking and smiling widely. "My, so that is what you were worried about? Does the prospect disturb you?"


The paladin scoffed at her. "Me? No. Why should it. I see the way he looks at you." She took a step closer, to the worriment of the servants behind who had kept their silence thus far. "Take care, Lady Eglantine," she hissed as she gestured accusingly to the woman. "He is a powerfully driven man. He will take what he wants when he wants it, and you will not be able to stop him." She leaned back again, standing straighter. "You will either learn to pacify him or..." She paused. "Find out yourself. And when you can not... when everyone else has come and gone, I mean to be the one still standing. Then he will see who is truly loyal."


She bit off the last few words with some measure of scorn. A blatant challenge being laid between them. The room had fallen eerily silent. Tamsin stared from across the room, and even the sounds from the kitchen had ceased. Edda merely smiled. "I have completed what he asked." Coatleque said at length, her breaths coming heavily. "Be sure that he knows that." She scowled at Edda only a moment longer before storming away.

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"That was when I knew. We were not the same. For I cannot go quietly into the night."

"I never expected you to. Do you not understand that? I love you, not your coin. I would not have let you fade so quietly."

"What would you have done, Coatleque? Would you have stolen for me? Forsworn your vows for me?"

"No. But I would have stayed by your side regardless."



Coatleque had wasted no time after her rather heated exchange with Lady Eglantine. She ignored the gesticulations of the servants with their towels and bandages and left the apartment straightaway. She had no intention of staying here. Especially when her own work was now falling behind. So she retrieved their mounts from the stables and met Sharla at the Gates of Judgement where they could ride back to their outpost together.


It would be just over a sennight since Dheres Algincourt was delivered safely to Ishgard that she would find herself back in the city. It had become a regular trip for her, once every week, to visit the cathedral for prayer and to restock their room with more specific luxuries. There was no shortage of bland soup and strong spirits on the outskirts of Coerthas. Scented oil however, was unheard of.


While she perused various wares among the stalls of the Crozier, Coatleque became aware of someone making a fuss to the other side of the street. Her eyes did not need to see for her to recognized the voice of Lady Eglantine's handmaiden Tamsin as she rushed from stall to stall asking of someone gone missing. Smiling and nodding her appreciation to the vendor, Coatleque quickly crossed the road to stand near where Tamsin last stopped. Despite her conscience telling her to leave, her heart could not feign curiosity now.


Tamsin turned from the woman she had been speaking to with an almost grief stricken look and nearly collided with the paladin in her rush to the next stall. "Ser Crofte! Oh my goodness, thank the stars! Have you seen Lord Algincourt!?"


She took one step back out of the woman's way just in time. "Miss Laine - I've not seen him since my friend took him to the inn." She knew where the boy was left, and that he had at least been collected. What they did with him afterwords was not her immediate concern. Tamsin tried her best to explain the situation to her.


"...I ...I wasn't supposed to let him out, m'lady, but I thought it would be just a short ride! He's all by himself in the apartments and ...and he looked so sad, m'lady!"


Coatleque looked incredulously at her as her patience began to thin. "What are you talking about? Where has everyone bloody gone?!" She simply could not believe Jameson allowed his entire house to vanish with no word.


"Well, first m'lord had his business, and then m'lady went er... home. So I was to watch over Lord Algincourt, but..."


The paladin rolled her eyes away from the poor woman, muttering to herself. "Leaving an impulsive young Flame alone for an extended time, yes I can see how that would go over so well." Tamsin's expression fell. "Och, I wasn't blaming you!" Coatleque shook her head then groaned inwardly. Was she really going to wait for the girl to beg her? "Fine! Fine..." Her hands lifted in a calming motion. "When did you lose him, and which way did he set off?"


The girl's spirits seemed to lift almost immediately at her offer. "Just after lunch, m'lady! He said he was just going to have a bit of a ride near the gate. I suppose I must go to Lord Faltheren, if I can find him. Perhaps he could help."


"Yes, yes - you do that and I will start searching near the gate." Coatleque sighed and lowered her voice. "I swear I am the only one who cares spit about James's household." For all his talk of loyalty and legacy, it seemed to Coatleque that she was the one doing most of the legwork at preserving his. A gamble, she kept telling herself. A risk she was taking to secure her own.


"Thank you, m'lady! I am in your debt!"

Coatleque waved her off as if this was routine. "I do not keep debts."


"If... if perhaps we could not mention this to m'lady... heh heh"

The paladin's mouth twitched, almost curling into a snarl. "As you wish," she murmured. And with that, the girl was gone.



Later outside the Gates of Judgement, Coatleque had changed back into the same leathers she wore south. Atop the chocobo she had appropriated from the garrison in Drybone, she pulled her cloak tight and shook off the loose snow that was steadily accumulating. She checked the stitching she had made to the arm then settled herself for a long ride. Light seemed to be fading fast now, and the soft but steady fall of snow obscured visibility beyond a few score of yalms. "Blasted snow. Does it ever stop?" she muttered to herself.


A humorless laugh came unexpectedly from her side causing her to reel the bird around in an instant. "Have you considered that perhaps it is your reaction to the snow that is the problem, rather than the snow itself?" It was another woman's voice, cloaked darkly and seated upon a bird of pure white. "Embrace your trials," she murmured.


Coatleque peered at her once her heart began to slow again, trying to meet her gaze from under the cowl. Her voice was familiar enough. Cold, steady, emotionless. The paladin frowned. "You again?"


"Why, who else should I be?"

"What kind of question is that? Nevermind. You haven't seen a boy ride through here have you? Nearly twenty summers in age, ruddy hair?"


"No." Her voice continued in a murmur, her image against the backdrop of the snow and grey sky seemed almost immaterial. "I did see one at the stables after midday prayer, however. He seemed more out of place than even you."


Coatleque turned back to the vast expanse of Coerthas that lie beyond the Steps. "I doubt I shall be finding his tracks now. Pray for us, priestess, that Halone may shew mercy at least. His name is Algincourt, and he may be in more danger than he realizes." She pulled the reins back around and with a short 'hyah!' disappeared once more into the storm.

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Nearly five bells she searched up and down central Coerthas without straying far from the Steps. She was not foolish enough to risk being caught in the weather should the storm increase. As the dim grey slowly turned black she was forced to return to the city lest she risk freezing them both. Once her bird was properly stabled she found a room at Cloud Nine and managed to drift off. Losing sleep would not have him found.


The next morning Coatleque awoke to an urgent letter awaiting her. Tamsin had bid her return to House Fortemps's guest apartment as Lord Faltheren had some news. So she made ready in her armor once more, had her breakfast, then made her way there expecting to find the boy had found his own way back.


She entered the large stone building and hung her cloak upon the first peg, then stood to the side of the door and waited. There was no sound. Not a greeting. As Tamsin had said, everyone seemed to be away. Coalteque cleared her throat after a few awkward moments to finally be greeted by the handmaiden's voice around a corner.


"Oh! M'lady! I am so glad you could make it. I, eh, don't suppose you found anything?"


Coatleque straightened herself again once greeted and gave a short bow. "Miss Laine. Of course I could make it. When one goes missing in the snow it is certainly a call for urgency. Alas, I found nothing. The snows had already covered any trail, and nobody had seen anything suspicious. I had even doubled back to the porter to see if young Dheres had returned to the stables. I pray he did not meet his brother's fate over the cliffside."


Tamsin frowned. Even in the dim candle light of the hall the dark circles under her eyes were evident. Coatleque pitied her in that moment, knowing full well her employment was on the line - perhaps more depending on Jameson's mood at the time. She thought back to what she had told Edda and wondered if she had learned anything yet. "Your letter mentioned information. Eh, Lady Eglantine has not returned yet has she?"


"Oh, no, she's not due back until tomorrow, m'lady."


At this news the tension in the hall relaxed instantly. The two ventured further into the manor to stand by the nearest fire while they continued speaking. Voices echoing off the stone even at a whisper. "You are doing me a big favor," Tamsin murmured. "It's really very kind of you to help. I know your recent visits to the house have been..." She paused to search for the least offensive word.


"Taxing?" Coatlque offered without a smile.

"Er... yes."


"I apologize if I had caused you undue stress, Miss Laine. I certainly mean no physical harm to your mistress." Her had waved absently at that as if trying to swat the idea away. Her emotions wavered between either extreme recently based on whom she talked to at the time. It would be more appropriate to say that she did not truly care if harm had befallen Edda though she would not be the one to cause it. That is not to say she would relish in it.


"I do understand," Tamsin replied carefully. "I hope things are not always so difficult."

"We shall see," the paladin nearly snorted in response. "I've been called stubborn recently, perhaps with good reason."


"I am forbidden by the Handmaiden's Code to wish you success, I'm afra..."


Tamsin's words were cut off by the hinges of the front door protesting sudden movement followed by the sounds of an argument. Her eyes grew wide and she gave Coalteque one last glance before turning to see who it was. The other woman followed, of course, ready to deal with intruders if necessary. "Are you expecting someone, Tamsin?"


"No! M'lady isn't due back until tomorrow!"


They turned the corner to be met by two figures just inside the threshold. One, a tall and thin looking Elezen with slicked back hair and thin lips. On his arm he supported another man, hunched and cloaked so as not to be recognized. "Ah, you must be Tamsin!" The Elezen exclaimed as soon as they were in view. "Jannequinard will not stop talking about you."


Tamsin stopped dead in her tracks, neither guest was expected nor recognized. "Oh.. y-your a friend of Jannequinard's?" She noticed the other man then who had stumbled alongside his more healthy looking friend. "M.. M'lord?"


"We need to pay a visit to your room, Miss Laine." The cloaked man cut her off in a rasping and sickly voice. His gaze slowly rose to the armored woman who was standing just a few paces behind Tamsin. A shaky hand slowly pulled the cowl back to reveal one clearly afflicted. His skin had been sallowed, his veins clearly visible as disturbing rust-orange spiderwebs just beneath. His eyes remained ever sharp as he focused on her. "Coatleque." He rasped.


"J... James?!"

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"James?! By the gods, what happened to you?!"


"I am returned. Out of necessity." He rasped. "I am... ill."


As if that was not plain to see by anyone present. Both women rushed to his side to render whatever aid they could. "Oh, my goodness, m'lord. It is you!" Tamsin exclaimed. "Do you need soup?" Coatleque tried to offer an arm, a hand, anything to help at first but he would have neither of them, pushing her away even.


"I require your room. Now." His anger began to ebb and Tamsin quickly relented. She led them into the estate without further protest. The tall man kept close to his patient and Coatleque followed them at her usual respectable distance.


The servants quarters themselves were sparse and undecorated save for some dried flowers and incense. A few empty crates and barrels which were whole enough to serve as furniture had been arranged in a sort of table and chairs in front of the hearth. An inexpensive tea set was arranged on top. Jameson seemingly threw all of these aside to make room as he headed straight to the hearth. "I need water to douse the hearth."


Poor Tamsin stared mournfully at the bits of ceramic being crushed underfoot. She seemed at a loss until Coatleque brought her back to reality. "Hurry, please." She rushed to a cabinet to fetch a pitcher which was filled quickly from a cistern and brought to Jameson. Taking it without looking at her, he dumped it over the fire and seemingly ignored the hiss of smoke and steam that billowed forth.


"James. Is this the poison you had told me of?" Coatleque questioned him from just across the tiny room. She had stood aside so as not to be in the way, knowing full well that James had a purpose to his madness. "And you!" She turned to the tall man. "You are the doctor he told me of!"


Jameson nodded quietly as he removed his shirt. The cloth was wrapped quickly around his hand and used to buffer the still smoldering wood and coals aside as he reached into the hearth. One of the stones at the back corner was pulled forth to reveal a hidden alcove just large enough for a small box to be secreted away. "Come now, Rossenheims," he murmured. "Do not disappoint me from the afterlife."


Coatleque stepped forward then to watch Jameson from behind. She stood by the 'good' doctor and gently tugged at his sleeve. "What is happening to him. Tell me, please." The man's naked back looked even worse in the dim candle light now that the hearth was put out. Something wholly unclean coursed through his veins, and she felt altogether helpless in that moment as if watching her love slowly die.


"Why, my dear," The Elezen replied. "He is suffering the effects of a possibly deadly withdrawal from a very wicked little formula. It is only due to my genius that he looks this good!" His arms were thrown wide as if to accept silent praise from the unseen masses assembled in the room.


"Then I cannot thank you enough for what you have already done for him."


Her word were cut off by a laughing cough from the hearth. "You were right, old friend!" Jameson rasped as he turned to them, a small spark of triumph across his face. He held up a small, black leather pouch with a glass vial protruding from the top. Coalteque could not tell what liquid it may have contained, but the glass itself was etched in gold with the Garlean numeral 'IV'

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They moved from the servant's quarters back to the main hallway and settled near a fireplace. He finally allowed her to help him then, and once he was situated on the closest couch Coatleque took her own seat next to him. He already looked better just at knowing his fate was not sealed yet. "It seems I flit away from death once more." He rasped between coughing. "A parting gift from my good friend Banurein. Would that we were not so close." His head turned to face her by his side. "What are you doing back here, Coatleque? Has Edda already returned?"


"Personal matters." She replied curtly. "Please, you must rest."


Ignoring her plea, he turned pointedly to the handmaiden who stood off aways.

"Where is your lady, Miss Laine?"


"She-- she's gone, m'lord! She left on a trip to Limsa Lominsa!"

"Then why are you not with her?" He asked quietly.

"I-I don't know, m'lord, she took..."

"WHY are you not with her?" He repeated, his annoyance becoming evident.


Coatleque's hand shot out to rest upon his arm. "James, please. I am sure if your betrothed wanted her along, she would be there." If anyone present knew how his mood could swing, it was she. Tamsin had done nothing deserving of his ire and she would not sit idle and allow this. She squeezed his arm lightly.


"Why would she not want the handmaiden I provided for her?"


Tamsin finally broke down there in her own guilt. "She took Mister Kitty, m'lord!"


The two seated both looked towards her in confusion. Jameson squinted. "Who?" they asked almost in unison. The poor girl motioned with her hands to signify horns at the sides of her face, and of someone who was much taller. Jameson frowned and exhaled through his teeth. "Khadai."


"Oh! Kittai, yes! She left without saying anything and wanted me to stay and keep an eye on Lord Dheres, m'lord, but..."


"I specifically asked her to look after Algincourt and she left him with you? Well? Fetch the man for me. I need to impart some instructions upon him."


Tamsin looked as if she may start to cry then, but was quieted suddenly by Coatleque's raised hand and strained voice. "You heard him, Miss Laine. Go and fetch the boy." She began to protest as she knew full well Dheres was not there. "No questions!" Coalteque almost hissed through her teeth. The girl finally caught her hint and turned to flee from the hall.


Jameson turned back to her as Tamsin left and managed a smile. He looked absolutely exhausted, she thought, but it was heartening to see him fighting it back. "Am I to replace my personal guard with you soon, Coatleque?"


"Hah!" She exclaimed. "It may yet come to that if you are not careful. Why do you tarry here anyroad, you have a cure to administer!"


"I am still here because I cannot apparently even control my own household. Edda scampering off hither and thither in some rather churlish company. I daresay she will not be so charmed with that creature after more than a day in its gray company."


She looked about to protest his view of the household but kept silent. It was not her's after all. Not yet. During the brief lull, the doctor who had been keeping mostly silent took it upon himself to administer an extract of bindweed for the weakened man. Something to dull the pain, Coatleque discovered after pressing him on it. She did not come this far to sit and watch the man succumb to yet another poison right before her eyes. Jameson's head rolled back to her. "My dear, I don't suppose you are terribly busy?"


"I am, in fact." She replied with pursed lips. "I am looking for a runaway."


At that moment Tamsin decided to exercise her most horrible timing as she returned to the hall without the company of Dheres. Jameson turned his attention back to her with an expectant look. He waited, patiently, for a few awkwardly silent moments as the girl stood wringing her hands together. "Really?" he sighed.


"Young Algincourt is not here." Coatleque interrupted his thought straight away, attempting to draw his attention. "And that is why I am." She failed, however. Jameson continued to glare straight ahead waiting for the explanation to come from Tamsin.


"It's all my fault, m'lord! Please don't be cross with Ser Crofte! I begged her to help, m'lord!"


Jameson stood slowly, shakily. Coatleque rose with him, about to grab his arm or something for leverage, but he shied away. "Is he even fucking alive? When did he disappear? Do you realize he was nearly killed on the road here, and that was in Coatleque's presence, not ALONE!"


"James, please," the paladin broke in once more. "As if the poor girl could have stopped him. You asked me to keep him safe. If anything this was my own failing for not watching him myself."


He whirled to face her then, his rage being quite apparent on his face. "That fucking boy is worth more to me than--" Jameson doubled over in a fit of coughing that prompted the woman to draw closer and grab his shoulder to steady him. He rose slowly land laid his hand on her own shoulder as well, looking haunted. "Coatleque... the boy ha enemies he will not acknowledge. His own father, and more. House Haillenarte alone would gleefully place his head on a spit." His eyes turned feverish then. "Find him. Find him for me. I will reward you with whatever you want, just find him!"


She tried to guide him back towards the couch against the wall but he slapped her hand away. Coatleque stepped back looking none too amused at that. "I will find your young ward." She said flatly. "You just... get well again." She turned and pointed accusingly towards the doctor. "And you. If he needs anything I can provide, tell me."


Jameson turned from her back to Tamsin. His voice hoarse still with his anger. "You are useless here. Go to Vylbrand, to Summerford, and serve my betrothed as you were instructed to do in the first place." The girl stammered and protested nearly on the verge of tears. It was then that Coatleque stepped between them, drawing his gaze into hers. She set her jaw and stood firmly opposite his rage.


"I will set her in order." She declared.


They stood there for an eternity. She fully expected him to strike her, or to at least flex his authority over the household. Her breath was held involuntarily until he finally nodded. "Fine. You have my house until my less attentive betrothed returns. Get it in order, if you even can." He turned back to his doctor. "We must go," he rasped.


She saw them to the door quietly after that. As the two men left Jameson looked back to her searchingly, and she hesitated as if to say something more. But all she could do was bow her head.

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When the door was closed and barred again, Coatleque sank back against a wall holding her forehead. The two women looked at each other with shared relief. "That could have gone better," she said pointedly then sighed and added, "Or much worse." She never could quite tell which way Jameson would lean as pressure mounted. In her heart she told herself he would never hurt her - at least not in any way she could not handle. So long as she did not push him in the wrong way. She could see it in his expression as he moved wildly from anger to irritation and back. A familiar dance they were both now accustomed to.


Tamsin looked back to the door. "Thank you, m'lady. I think you helped a great deal."


"Who can say for certain? I have dealt with his ire in the past." Coatleque crossed the hallway to her now to press the original issue for her being here. "Tamsin... where is Dheres Algincourt?"


The girl had almost forgotten the very news she was supposed to be delivering. Jameson's unexpected arrival was probably to blame for that. Regardless, the boy's life was once again in danger. From the elements alone if not a blade, and she was now one day behind.


From Lord Faltheren, Tamsin heard he had been seen riding west of the city on a coal-colored chocobo to Falcon's Nest. By that admission Coatleque realized she had been searching on the wrong side of Coerthas from the start. Her eyes nearly went cross. "Miss Laine..." she groaned and rubbed her forehead again. "Alright, alright," she relented. There was nothing she could do about the mistake anyway, besides hope she could make up for lost time. "I will leave for Falcon's Nest. Was there anything else?"


"No, m'lady, don't let me hold you up!" Tamsin replied even as Coatlque began fishing around the purse that constantly hung by her side. She withdrew five large gil and handed them over. Probably a third of the money she carried. Tamsin's eyes went wide. "What is this for?"


"Sufficient to purchase a new tea set," she noted. "Try to have at least a small break before your lady returns from Vylbrand."


Tamsin smiled wearily yet gratefully. "I'll try, m'lady, but it's hard to rest knowing poor Lord Dheres is in trouble. Oh!" She started then and dug around in her own pockets. She pulled forth a small hand-woven sachet of dried herbs. It was tied with a yellow ribbon. This she promptly handed over to the paladin who hesitantly took it with a smile. "It's for luck, m'lady."


Coatleque fiddled idly with it momentarily before pocketing it herself. "Thank you, Tamsin. I may yet need it." She pulled her cloak from the peg by the door and spared one last glance back before making her way to the stables.

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The weather was not in her favor that evening. For the last part of the day Coatleque rode westward trough the mountain pass to Falcon's Nest, fighting near blizzard conditions the last third of the way. It was nearly the 4th bell of the day when she arrived at the fortress and was able to stable her bird to rest under a large blanket. She watched him curl up under the care of the stable hands and for a moment felt pity for the creature she had dragged away from Thanalan back to this harsh wilderness. An odd feeling to her, as she was never very fond of chocobos.


She had no rest herself, however, setting straight to questioning the night's watch. The blizzard worked against everyone that night however. Nobody had seen him leave the fortress at least. It was somewhat comforting to know he did arrive. Perhaps he was still here somewhere, though inquiries at the inn turned up nothing.


As the snows began to relent again near dawn, she found herself standing in the courtyard overlooking the aetherite staring off to the horizon. The quietness of the early morning combined with the softening snowfall offered some reprieve from recent stresses. A gauntleted hand was laid atop the snow-covered crenelation of the upper court and she leaned forward, trying to ignore the frigid wind that whipped her hair from behind.


The silence was broken by the beating of large wings and the hallow voice from behind. "I recognize your hair, Ser Crofte." Her hand gripped the stone before she reeled herself around to face the newcomer who hovered above her. A man clad in white armor on griffon back. He bore a large shield bearing a golden lion's head.


"And I recognize your voice, Chosen of Halone." She replied in an almost biting tone. The beast landed then but the rider did not dismount. He slowly twisted upon the saddle so the darkened eye slits of his helm remained pointed at her.


"You look cold." he said with a single nod.


"It is a cold land." Coatleque spoke in her typical measured voice. "And steel does little to keep such at bay." Her eyes flitted between the rider and the beast. She could not hide a twinge of envy at him. They remained at a respectable distance, neither one daring to move against the other. "You have come far," she remarked with more than a singular meaning. She knew who this man was, after all. "Have you declared this your realm now?"


"All realms belong to Halone, and She tests every one of us." His voice bore as little emotion as hers. Speaking behind the visor as he chose to only gave it an eery echo as if talking to a phantom. "I come in search of a boy. A Midlander, male, tall with ginger hair. He was seen riding through this gate some two days past. A concerned member of High House Haillenarte has offered to... tithe... a respectable sum for his safe return."


She pulled her cloak around her as the winds picked up again. This was so very coincidental in her mind. First she spies that strange priestess she always seems to run into, and now the 'redeemed' lapdog looking for the same mark. It did not sit right in the pit of her stomach. "Have you perhaps questioned their reasoning for wanting him found?"


"He is their adopted kin. What other reason should there be?"


Her brows furrowed at the question and she mulled it over for the moment while the wind whistled over the wall behind her. "It seems you and I have two pieces of a puzzle." She said at length. "We are after the same boy at least."


"Truly?" The figure asked as his head tilted. A cold metallic creak accompanied his every move. "The Sultana is gracious indeed."


"I am not here on her behalf, Champion" Coatleque snapped. Her voice lowered afterwords. "Though I do not doubt she would approve of the aid I proffer. I have promised to keep the boy safe, yet he seems to have wandered off again. Would that the storms had let up sooner, this task might have been over by now.


"Little and less has been seen of him. I go in search with the coming dawn."


She shivered and gripped the cloak about her as her teeth began to chatter. "These l-lands are no place for one of his ilk." The cold of night was sinking into her core now, no number of layers would stave it off. How this so called Champion remained unaffected she could not begin to guess.


"I was told he is a green boy, and newly-minted Flame." The armored figure shrugged. "If the cold takes him, that is Halone's will." He paused. His head slowly tilting the other direction though his eyes never left her. "You are the second person I encountered seeking the boy. Perhaps he was found and you simply do not know."


Her heart fell at the prospect. The thought of Dheres already being in the enemy's hands made sense given the lead they had on her now. So much time already wasted. The fear of returning to Jameson empty handed only added to he growing knot in her stomach. "W-who?" She chattered. "W-who else s-s-shows such interest?"


"I do not know, though some of the soldiery might. They played dice with him last night. A tall Elezen, dark of hair. Perhaps a ... mercenary." The last word was spoken with distaste as if the very thought was unclean to him.


Coatleque's head turned with closed eyes as another gust of wind took her by surprise. She forced a slow, shivering breath and looked back to him only when it had passed. "I w-will ask. If-f you do f-find him first, what t-then?"


"Then I return him to his family."

"For the coin?"

"For the tithe. You would have me return him to you?"

"What would you have me say to that?" she snapped again. "That I will r-rip him f-f-from your hands by force if n-necessary?!"


He laughed. An empty, mirthless echo within his helm. The griffon was nudged a few steps closer to the paladin, it's beak now just out of range. The beast towered above her looking down with a cocked eye but made no move to lunge. She did not flinch or shy away, but stood her ground at the edge of the courtyard for all the night's watch to see if necessary. "You suggest we are at opposing ends." He said evenly. "I have told you my end desires the safe return to his family. If that places you on the opposing end, well..." His voice lowered, still hollow. "Perhaps then you will have opportunity to become the Champion."


She glared up at him from her stance. "I have no desire to claim your title, nor your tithe!"

"But you oppose his return to his family."

"I do! You may be saving him from one death to deliver him into another!"

"Death comes for us all, Coatleque Crofte."


Her hand moved to her sword in that instant as she considered whether she would be able to fend off the griffon and him together. Something stayed her hand, though, as the dawn began to rise over the horizon behind her. "I go to scout the land," he continued. "I will give the boy a choice of returning with you or with me. If he is a corpse... he goes to his family."


"Acceptable." She only half nodded in agreement.


With that he reeled the beast backwards causing it to flap its wings and slowly rise, kicking up grime, slush, and wind from the ground beneath them. Her hand slowly moved away from her blade as she watched him go, not caring about the mess whirling about her. She watched as both rider and beast flew off towards the sunrise. When her strained vision could no longer make him out among the sky, she turned and made for the garrison commander's post.

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The commander on duty that night was less than thrilled to be questioned by a stranger just at the end of his shift. Shifting from foot to foot he seemed to be staring over her shoulder just waiting for the next shift to relieve him. Thanks to her persistence he did eventually let out that the supposed mercenary was seen dicing with some of the men. Such frolics were quickly broken up when noticed. He also made it known, with a suggestive smile, that his bed was far warmer than the Coerthas sunrise.


A disgruntled sigh and roll of the eyes put that notion to rest quickly, and Coatleque very nearly stormed off towards the mess hall. She was fast losing patience with these so called high-borns. She let herself inside quickly to avoid causing too much of a draft. The near instant warmth she was assaulted with was a welcome relief. Licking her quickly chapping lips, she surveyed the room.


Dimly lit, somewhat seedy, smelling of stale ale. Everything one would expect from a remote tavern at a heavily garrisoned fortress. She did find one stool available and set herself down between two very drunk looking soldiers. Between her blade, her armor, and a very sharp glare, it did not take long to convince them their hands were safer on their cups than on her. She was there for information only.


Bits of story began to come back together after another two rounds, at her expense of course, and the name 'Thaelys Swiftblade' finally came to the fore. From the mashed descriptions of six different soldiers, she gathered he was extremely tall, almost gaunt, with hair the color of night and a dagger-shaped beard. His did not favor him at all, and he lost at least sixty gil. The man was none to eager to go out into the storm, but it was thought he may have been seen leading another man towards the city.


The description was not clear though. One tall man leading a smaller figure wrapped in a cloak with his arm around. She sat and quietly mulled that over for a few minutes while the men went back to their drinks. She realized then that she had no idea from which direction Jameson had returned. And no reason to believe it was the mercenary seen last night. Her mind was made up then. She thanked the men with enough coin for one final round before rising and heading towards the stables.



To her great displeasure, there was a line at the stable this morning. A line of one, but a line no less. The woman in front of her whom had seemingly arrived with plenty of time before, was arguing with the stablehand. She had requested TWO birds, not one. Coatleque was made to wait at the side before her own bird would be retrieved. She eyed the woman with some measure of annoyance.


"Yes, the hardy one, and one who can at least keep up, as I said several times. Surely you are not so beleaguered with tourists that you cannot afford me two birds. The best two, as you know."


The paladin bristled instantly at the voice. Or perhaps it was the chill morning wind blowing in from the clifside to the east of Falcon's Nest. Her mouth twitched and went flat as her lips pressed together. "Lady Eglantine."


Edda glared at the stablehand in her growing impatience. He was in no amount of hurry to help her, so she snapped a cold look towards the voice. "Can I help you?"


"No, I do believe you have helped me quite enough already."



She turned immediately back to the Chocobokeep without seeming to recognize the woman behind her. His own patience was wearing thin as well now. Edda seemed woefully unprepared herself, and sorted through a meager looking gil purse before simply handing the entire thing over. This changed his tune immediately."


"Ah? That's it? Ah? What are you doing h..." Coatleque stopped as the transaction was made.


The keeper looked through the purse before whistling to the stablehand. Two large birds were led out, fully saddled and stocky. The second was led by the reigns of the leading bird. Both were promptly handed over to Edda who took a few moments to inspect them wordlessly. In the mean time, Coatleque's own mount was finally brought after the first two. Not nearly as stocky as the specimens Edda could afford. She turned and began inspecting her own barding - the two women being back-to-back now.


"Going somewhere, my Lady?"

Edda stopped to look over her shoulder with a now surprised look. "So it would seem.." Her words came carefully now as if it was a trick question.


"With two birds even. Planning to collect someone?"

"If it comes to that, yes. That is the hope."


There was a pause between them as they continued their preparations. "You are chasing after the boy as well." Coatleque said at length, and matter-of-factly.


"That was the idea, yes."

The paladin climbed atop her mount then after being contented with her provisions. She quirked a brow at the woman as she reeled the bird around. "Does James know what you are doing?"


"I would be surprised if he did."

"I must protest your decision. Your place is by his side right now, and to not let him know your plans..."


Edda seemed surprised by that. She smiled. "No, I think not. This is my responsibility after all."


Coatleque stopped, taken aback by her claim. "I beg your pardon, mi'lady, but it is mine. His safety was entrusted to me, and had I not simply left him as I did this would not have happened."


Edda laughed darkly. "Oh, I will not stop you, believe me. Whatever oaths you have do not absolve me of my own responsibilities, however."


"I cannot perform my own search and see to your safety as well." Coatleque frowned now. "And if anything did happen to you, James would hold me accountable. For both our sake, if there is any way I could dissuade you, please turn back." She paused, waiting for a response. The thought crossed her mind to force the issue - she certainly had the authority to now that Jameson asked her to look over his house.


Edda looked incredulously at her. "I certainly don't recall asking you to see to my own safety. I would hope that you would not stop me. My death will only surely result in your unprecedented happiness, as it were. And if you think James to be at all concerned with my well-being, I would simply urge you to lie about ever seeing me here."


She snorted at that. "Do not think he does not care for you simply because you fail to recognize it. You are just as much a fool as he is. Fine then! If you wish to play in the snow, I certainly will not stop you. Try not to freeze to death." Her words again took on a familiar biting tone as she cut them off towards the end.


Edda climbed atop her mount and smiled with an incline of her head. "As you say. Is there anything else you might have need of before your trek?"


Coatleque withdrew the small sachet given to her by Tamsin and dangled it by the ribbon in display. "No, I have all the luck I need for now. Stay warm, Lady Eglantine. I shall see you when I return with young Lord Algincourt."


"If you are lucky, Ser Crofte, you will never see me again. I will pray for your good fortune."


Yet another smile was met with a familiar icy glare before the two women set off in nearly opposite directions across the Western highlands.

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"Nothing will change." her voice trailed off weakly.

"Is that what you want?"

"I want back the man who found me so maddening.. the one whom I find equally so."

He looked away, perhaps for the first time he was unable to meet her gaze.

"I told you how I feel. It doesn't matter. You cannot help me."

"Because you do not let me! Just as I try to get close to you, you push me further away!"

"What would you have me do?" he snapped.

Her silence was more than enough of an answer to him.



For two days Coatleque wandered the Western Highlands. She moved slowly, eyes always wary as she searched for anything - any sign of Dheres's passing. The blizzard some nights before had covered over any tracks, and to her chagrin there was nothing. Not a witness, no caravan, not even a strawberry blonde hair visible against the constant white glare of the land before her.


Despite the weather holding this long, she was cold, wet, and utterly miserable. She was no stranger to life on the road, but even this had begun to stretch her limits. She slept little if at all, huddled around a pitiful fire and surrounded by feathers as her bird wisely kept close for the good of them both. Only when dark clouds began to threaten the skies again did she make her way back to Falcon's Nest to resupply and consider her options again.


The road to the city had been blocked once more which meant supplies would triple in price. It did not matter how she argued, tried to bargain, exchange favors. House Dzemael's merchants would not move a gil on their prices until the road was cleared again. One did offer a small discount if she would just 'give him a peek'. This prompted a short, humorless 'hah' before she stormed off again.


To the commander she went a second time to request information. She needed to know how far to the next settlement at least. Perhaps she could reach it before the storm grew too thick. From there she could venture further into the Highlands if necessary, or so she thought. The commander urged her to reconsider though. Even the residents knew it would be her death to be caught in the Highlands after dark now.


"If ye'll take my advice, ye'll find a warm place an' a warm bowl an' wait out his weather, lass. Favors from a High House is rarer than a crow with three feet for most of us, aye?"


"And if I do not heed your advice?"


He tugged his wool-lined cap a bit lower against a frigid blast of wind from the approaching storm. "If yer wise, ye will. They dun make winters down south like we get 'em here."


It was far from ideal, but the commander was right. She had little and less to go on now and if she also perished in the storm there would be no chance that either of them were found. Coatleque bought what few supplies she could afford as well as a room at the inn for the remainder of the night. Now penniless, still cold, and dejected, she tried to sleep till first light of the next morning.



Her mount was nearly packed and saddled as the sun finished cresting over the horizon. She tugged upon the saddle straps to be sure everything was secure and had almost climbed atop when she was interrupted by one of the stewards of the garrison.


"Mornin', miss. No luck with that Thaelys bugger, eh?"


She turned and recognized him as one of those in the mess-hall who had happily drank whatever her coin provided a few nights prior. By his look he was still very much appreciative of that. She shook her head as she turned back to what she was doing. "Not a trace of anyone. It seems Halone's favor trumps any good luck charm of mine this day." Her voice lowered to a murmur. "I do not know how the Champion did it."


She spoke of the man on griffon back of course. News around the 'Nest was that he had found and returned one of Haillenarte's lost patrols in the area. It galled her greatly that he could find six men and she could not find even one. "Fury's favor, and long wings, ma'am." The steward continued. "But you know he didn't go through that gate, right? T'was the southern one."


"Well of course he did," she scoffed still not looking back. "When he returned with the soldiers he recovered. Wait..." She stopped. A lump began to rise in her throat. "Who did?"


"Thaelys, ma'am. Wasn't it him you was askin' for?"


Coatleque's hands tightened around the straps of the barding, her shoulders trembled as she leaned forward. Her eyes closed as her forehead met the bird's side. It looked back to her with its dark, beady eyes and cocked head. "You are telling me," she stammered slowly, "that the mercenary trailing the man I am looking for left in the opposite direction?"


"Aye, ma'am. Thaelys an' the other one went back through the southern gate after he was done losin'."


"Other one? What other one?" She whirled around then, realizing just how badly she had erred. "I thought Swiftblade was alone!"


"No ma'am. He took someone with 'im. Didn't Ralfie tell ya that?"


"He did not recognize them. He said they came from the north. Could have been anyone." Her lips quivered. "I had thought it was someone else matching the description." She grabbed the chocobo's reins and turned for the southern gate. "Is the road south clear yet?"


"Not all the way, ma'am, but enough fer foot traffic."


She nodded once, pressing herself once more to the side of the bird. She sighed into his feathers. "So long as I can make it back." She hoisted herself into the saddle. "I would buy you another round, but I think you've all had enough." Her heart sank again as her lead between here and Dheres widened even further. To the city again she rode off.

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  • 2 months later...

Returning to the city so soon and empty handed was not something she had planned. As such, she gave the Fortemps apartment a wide berth and made straight to the nearest tavern to ask about Swiftblade. Dark, filthy, and no place for a paladin of her statue. She hated more and more the need to come to these places the longer she spent in Jameson's household.


Thaelys Swiftblade was a known quantity, but nobody had seen him for over a week now. It was soon clear that he they never stopped here, most likely passing through quickly on their way back south. Only the chocobo porter had seen anything, but the stable keeps would not talk to her without a bribe of sufficient warmth to last many cold nights. The paladin's nose scrunched.


"Gloves?" she asked flatly. "You want ... gloves?"

"Aye, the blue ones. Lambskin! They go with my eyes!"


He batted his eyes at her mockingly till her head rolled away with disgust. "Fine! I will get you gloves." Though she had no idea how. Her own purse had long been empty now and she still had to stable her own bird and find somewhere to lay for the night. As the sun began to dip her desperation finally overcame her fear as she approached the apartment by the Crozier.


Her hand slowly raised and was just about to reach the knocker when the door was violently thrown open. Out rushed the House Servant who nearly ran her over had she not jumped to the side in time.


"Mister Petrias?!"

"Ser Crofte?!"


Their mutual alarm and relief was voiced in unison. They regarded one another with mixtures of confusion and disgust at the disheveled appearance of the other. While still well dressed, it was clear the past few nights bore no sleep for Perci by the circles under his eyes. Her hair hung in thick strands aside other marks of limited bathing opportunities.


"Are you quite alright?" she asked.

"No!" he nearly howled straight into her face. "What is going on!?"

"Besides Lord Algincourt missing?"


Jameson's new ward was bad enough, but now it seemed his betrothed and her handmaiden had also gone missing. Lady Eglantine did not return to the apartment from La Noscea, which means she went straight to Falcon's Nest. It was nearly three days past when Coatleque had seen her. Tamsin, however, had been sent the opposite way to investigate rumors of Swiftblade's passing. Lord Taeros had not yet returned, so poor Mister Petrias was the only one left with no word from anyone! She could feel the bile rising in her throat as he continued to vent, arms waving frantically.


She rubbed her forehead forcefully enough to leave a red mark before sighing. "The porters may know where Swiftblade was heading, but they will not tell me anything without a bribe. A significant one."


Perci fretted about at that thought then raised a finger to the air. "I'll borrow from the discretionary funds! Surly the drape cleaning can, ah... wait."


"I swear I will make it up to you somehow," she reassured him. "If the missing sum is noticed, lay the blame on me. I am sure Lord Taeros will understand when young Dheres is safe again. And if Tamsin returns... have her find that Mister Kitty or whatever his name was. He is supposed to be Lady Eglantine's bodyguard is he not?"


There was an additional promise to only spend what she needed before He nodded in agreement and a sizeable purse was exchanged. The next hour was spent wandering the Jeweled Crozier purusing three different clothiers until she found the items she needed. By then it was just past dusk and most of the 'discretionary fund' was gone. She trudged back to the stables.


"Hmm, these might do." The porter seemed rather unconcerned now. "Are you sure these are the right shade to flatter my eyes?"


"Yes, yes. Quite flattering. I might have even considered having a drink with you now." Her sarcasm evident to all present.


As luck would have it they did see her quarry. He needed a cart and a bird as he was taking someone south. Someone not fit to ride seeing how he was too drunk to stand. Retrieving her own mount now, since they would not exchange it with one more rested, she quickly checked her remaining supplies and headed once more into the snows of Coerthas. This time she was headed for Dragonhead, and the road south.


Night had fallen now. Another two days without sleep. Not even ten minutes from the city and she felt herself nodding off atop her mount. As her head rolled to one side she caught sight of something dark through her fading vision, enough to cause her to jerk suddenly and pull the reigns. She dismounted and waded a few steps away through a foot of unpacked snow to find a torn cloak half-burried. A cloak, and blood.

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That was the first thought to flash through her mind. Her hand moved instinctively to her sword's hilt while taking one uneasy step backwards towards her mount. Eyes darted in all directions, ears straining for the sound of movement in the dark. Nobody came. There was no cry of anger, no rushing of bodies from behind nearby trees.


The snow fell just as quietly as always through the nights here. Her body relaxed and she stepped forward again to examine what it was she found exactly. There was not as much blood as she initially expected. Very little, in fact, but what was visible had clearly trailed off to the east. While the drift the cloak was caught in had been large enough to easily conceal a body, she was relieved to find none.


She turned the cloak over in her hands then, examining it from end to end. The bottom corner had been torn away but it was otherwise unmarred. She began to fold it to stow for later when something fell out of the folds into the snow. A charm of a familiar make but tied with a blue ribbon instead of yellow. Holding it up and shaking the snow off of it she muttered quietly to herself. "Tamsin."


The charm was pocketed and the cloak stowed with her things. Coatleque then went to work kicking over more snow and covering the trail as best she could so no others would follow. By her estimation whoever fled away headed east and with long strides and heavy boots. Much too large for Tamsin. Wounded as well. Content for now, she climbed back atop her bird and continued east along the road.


Exhausted, bleary-eyed, and having nodded off more than once along the way, she would not even remember what time it was when they arrived at the fortress. The false glow of morning could already be seen on the horizon - or at least it would have been save for the mountains blocking the view. The promise of a bed just yalms away gave her enough renewed energy that she dropped to her feet and led the mount to the stable. The hand on night watch seemed equally annoyed and surprised to have a customer at this time of night.


"Cold one, ain't it? Heh, course," he muttered amusedly, "it's always a cold one. You'll be want'n a room, I take it?"


The paladin pulled her hood back then to let her hair fall forward with a slight shake. "It's me, Tilda.", she rasped. One of the many aliases she had taken throughout her tenure. For the past two moons she had been leading a small group of paladins undercover at the Observatory to the south. An unofficial outreach to protect the Sultanate's interests within the current diplomatic upheaval. There was a whole new market to be had in Ishgard once the war was concluded, and Ul'dah would be sure to stake the largest claim. "Is there any work tae be had fer a discount?"


"Sure, there's always work. Can't guarantee it's nice work, though."


She staggered as her head shook. "Ye know we're good for it. My brother should be fishing tae the south. I can send him up for payment."


Of course by 'brother' she really meant one of her shield brethren back at their post. They had all done their fair share of wood splitting, pelt collecting, and fishing to get by. Not that they needed funding to survive - it simply would be too suspicious for a group of foreigners to be flashing endless coin around.


"Hmm, what kind o' payment? There's that bounty on snow wolves. Unless yer look'n fer something bigger..." His voice slowed and ended with a sly smirk.


She waved him off while pulling a hunting knife from her belt to hand over as collateral. "Caen we worry the details," she yawned, "in the marning?"


"Heh, sure Tilda. Might be Ninne's got breakfast on already. Eat someth'n, will ya?"

"Mmm" she mumbled something incoherent as she made for the inn.

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Breakfast was indeed already in the works as Coatlque dragged her feet through the door. The smell of some kind of spiced meat had begun to fill the bottom floor of the inn. She would have been tempted to stop there first if she wasn't so tired. Ninne spied her over a recipe card as she stired something around a bowl. "Tilda? Is that you? You look awful!"


"Ninne!" she replied with half a smile. "Would that I could sit and chat tonight... I need a bunk is all. Someplace to rest before light comes."


"Well, you best scurry if you're hoping to beat the light! Ten gil for the night then."


Coatleque promptly counted out the appropriate coin which was swept up into Ninne's apron before making her way upstairs. The public room would do for a one night stay with no amenities. Passing a tall, dark man by the door, she collapsed onto the first available bed after nearly tripping over the footboard. She gripped the blanket in one hand and all but drifted off before being wretched back to consciousness by a gruff voice by the hearth.


"Juline! When is the chirurgeon returning? You said he would be here by morning."


She groaned and pulled the pillow over her head in an attempt to ignore the man.


"I don't care how many knights are waiting. You owe me a favor! Or are we not 'friends' any longer?! Fucking GET him, Juline!"


The pillow was flung back to the headboard and she rolled over to prop herself up on one arm. "Do you MIND?!" she muttered weak yet harshly.


"Piss off." The man hissed as he re-entered the room and crossed to his own rented bed. He hoisted a bag from the floor as he sat, and then began to roll the sleeve of one arm up to reveal a heavy blood-stained bandage beneath.


"Is that how you always address strangers?"

"It's how I address cunts who can't mind their own business." he growled.


She frowned angrily. "You chose the public bunk just as I did. If your business was so private, you should have taken the room." Coatleque rolled over now and sat up on the edge of the bed. Since there was no sleeping just yet, she figured it would be more comfortable to remove some of her armor at least. She regarded the strange man as she began to untie her gauntlets one at a time. An Elezen, tall and lithe with a brooding countenance. Storm-blue hair matted down above his pale eyes. His beared trimmed quite immaculately into a pointed shape. He had since began to unwrap the bandage.


"I said piss off." He growled again. Removing the bandage revealed a poorly stitched wound on his forarm, probably something he did himself and in haste. Her eyes could not help but to examine it from afar.


"That looks bad."

"Yes, it is bad. Don't ever get wounded in this fucking place unless you're a knight."


As her second gauntlet came free, Coatleque flexed her right hand absently. "If it is any consolation, I know how you feel."

"A consolation would be the chirurgeon showing up!"


She turned away from him, sliding herself back up onto the bed to sit leaning against the headboard. The man had began to re-wrap the wound with fresh linen in the mean time. "What happened to you anyway?" She finally inquired.


"Dzemael cunts is what happened." He growled. "I'm done with Ishgard. Too bloody cold, and I don't get paid enough for this shite."


"Dzemael? Soldiers?" Her head tilted as she feigned interest.


"Not soldiers." His eyes rolled then narrowed and focused on her. "What's it to you, anyway?"


"I thought we were just two travellers swapping tales before bed. If you prefer to sit in pain alone till morning, no skin off my back." Her shoulders shrugged back against the headboard. Coatleque leaned forward again to stand. "You are leaving the north then?"


"Yes, and you will to if you have any brains." He grunted and pulled the bandage tight to fasten it, all the while muttering curses to Dzemael. Coatleque managed a few steps to the door and scanned the room warily. Her nose wrinkled.


"How long have you been waiting to have that tended?"

"Two fucking days."

"I can tell."


The man furrowed his brows at his own arm. "You think it looked bad?" The sternness of his voice fled away momentarily and she almost took pity on him.


"Looked alright for a field dressing, but smells wrong. Dzemael did that?"


He stood and nodded, looking a tad paler than before. "Followed me from Falcon's Nest. Had to be them. I'm sure of it. Armor had that little cart thing on it. They'll be sorry." His voice trailed off to another series of mutterings as he began stuffing his sundries back into his bag. Throwing his own cloak about his shoulders he finally turned to leave. "JULINE! Where the fuck IS he?!"


As he passed the paladin leaning on the door jam, she yawned and gestered absently. "Ashame. S'not your dice arm is it?"


Thaelys Swiftblade stopped and turned, smiling suddenly. His voice lowered, calmed from before. His pale eyes narrowed upon her. "Why no, friend, how did you know I was fond of dice?"


"Travellers hear many tales abroad, 'friend'." She returned his stare from under her bangs and crossed her arms trying to appear rather unimpressed though he could not hear her heart racing. "Oh, what now? Going to gut some poor traveller in the middle of an in over a perceived slight?"


He laughed coldly and moved a step closer. "Of course not. Don't be silly, 'friend'. But you have piqued my curiosity now. Just what tale did you hear?"


"Nothing impressive," she scoffed. "A tall, striking elezen with dagger shaped beared and horrendous luck was fleeced pretty badly by the guards."


"I see. And you," he gestured to the room "came to see if the man was as striking as the stories say?"

"Me? Oh no, I simply have better luck it seems."

"Oh? And why is that?"


It was then she uncrossed her arms, pulling Tamsin's good luck charm from a pocket it and dangling it by the ribbon before him. "Because it was given to me."


That stopped him in his tracks. He gave her one look as if she was daft, then laughed. He laughed and laughed and managed to choke out "May it continue for you then, friend.", then continued laughing down the stairs and out to the stable. Coatleque almost laughed after him, but it turned to a yawn mid-chuckle. She pocketed the charm again and returned to bed.

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