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Dead Debt [semi-closed]

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The ship moaned. It was echoed by something lesser, deep in the belly of its hold, issuing from the mouth of a skinny, hollowed out man who lay on his side. He was barely illuminated, but the excesses of life and all its troubles were clearly visible, from his sagging skin to the threadbare, stained clothes that hung off his frame. He'd curled up, contusions marking what skin was visible. At the least, he wasn't bleeding much.


"Shit," Zhavi said.


"Shit," Brindle agreed.


The two stood, looking down on the man. Zhavi's face was pulled into that death's mask grin that was one part gallow's humor and one part high; she put off a reek that ventured somewhere between her own excesses and a general disregard for bathing. Where her clothing was relatively well made, compared to the gentleman shivering and miserable on the ground, it too was stained and, quite frankly, ill-cared for. Remarkable how fitting it matched the situation.


"I'll have it back," Zhi continued, voice full of gravel and misbegotten pleasantries. "I been sayin' that, me laddy-buck, aye?"


"Been sayin' plenty things." Brindle sighed: it was the sigh of a child grown too soon, mismatched with his tall, gangly body and puppy-large hands and feet. He was clean, though he'd compensated for Zhavi's stink by wearing far, far too much cologne.


It stung her nose.


"Yeah? Aye, so I have. Like how I've need t' get some property back what belongs to me boss."


"Afore 'e finds out," Brindle muttered.


Zhi spared a scowl for the lad. He made a face at her. They resumed staring at the man on the floor.


"So ye see why I'm a touch... o'erwrought when ye come in here talkin' tales 'bout scrags dyin' afore I can recoup me stolen ... property. Understand?"


"And I- I tole you. If he ain't dead yet, he will --"


Zhi's foot caught the downed man in the knee, and he broke off with a breathless grunt. Given the expression on her face, he was at the peak of her annoyance. As ever, it didn't last for long, a wide and guileless grin shifting her lips with her mercurial mood.


"Now, now, guv, I'm sure there's still somethin' useful rattlin' 'round in that cracked knob o' yers. Spit it out fer me, me little songbird."


Brindle chewed on his stubby fingernails, watching.


"I can't change that!" The man's voice was trembling, and raspy in the way of an addict gone too long without a fix.


"Then where's he gonna die, huh?"


"He-he-he ... racin' -- he's racin' for th' Thanalan races."


"On his pretty new bird?"




Zhi spat, eyes narrowing. "Figures. Him an' his new bird, me without me goods. An' I was gonna have th' drop done early this time." Her turn to sigh. She kicked the man again, but it was half-hearted. "Anythin' else?"


The man coughed. "Gambler. Bad gambler."


"Who ain't, in this sorry place." Zhi turned away, picking up a coil of rope. She handed it off to Brindle, who took it without question.


The lad crouched before the man, hands working deftly. Zhi moved to a long table bolted to the wall, listening to Brindle's tuneless humming as she bent and sniffed loudly. Once, twice, thrice. Ah, relief.


"I guess we're off t' Ul'dah?" Brindle rubbed the peach fuzz on his chin, eyes gleaming in the dim lantern-light. His muscles worked as he hefted the rope, pulling, pulling, pulling.


Zhavi Streetrunner snorted. "Jes take care o' this. I've a few more tongues what need shakin' loose."


"Then Ul'dah?"


She moved for the stairs. "Keep yer head in th' game an' out from 'twixt yer legs, ye witless churl."


Brindle's laughter, mixed with the gurgling moans of the fallen, followed her out.




Dry heat and large, overbearing casks of alcohol matched well. Well enough that even the struggling merchants of the Silver Bazaar looked pleased, under their hard expressions and suspicious eyes. They suffered the races and the motley entourage that stumbled along behind, charging outrageous overhead to those greedy merchants who followed behind to attend the needs of the drunk, disorderly, and properly wasted. In her day job, Johi Jade didn't have much use for these sorts of customers. Then again, in her day job she didn't make so much money hand over fist. Everyone had a use for a well-stocked apothecary, but she paid out enough in protection money already to want to risk selling such...refined products as were sought at these not-quite-sanctioned events at her registered stall in the city.


It said something that she made enough to cover a full moon's rent on these days, even with the Bazaar taking a full quarter from her profit.


The bookie was hanging around the casks, and nearly every single swaggering idiot that went to him wound up buying more to drink. Sots, all of them. She wondered if the bookie had cut a deal with one of the Bazaar lot, and then wondered if she might do the same. Another day.


One of the jockeys -- the winner, she realized, from the morning race; favored to win in the final late afternoon race a few bells down the line -- went up to the bookie. He was saying something. Johi couldn't see his face, but his back was stiff, and he was gesticulating wildly. Another gambler laughed, and the merchant pulling the beer -- or whatever it was -- filled up a hefty mug for the jockey. He took it, but it didn't calm him down. He started getting louder, and Johi took it as a sign to move to another area; such displays weren't good for her own business.


Bells passed as she plied her trade from her discreet bags, word of mouth and a few careful lines keeping her busy between (and sometimes, rarely, during) races. It was hot, nasty work, and she knew herself to be one of many scavengers feasting on the misfortunes of others, but she didn't let it bother her. She'd her own survival to tend to, same as anyone else. Besides, she'd never had much respect for those who couldn't control themselves.


She was drifting past the pickets of racing chocobos (race staff and organizers keeping keen watch over the birds; foul play could absolutely destroy attendance for later events -- gamblers didn't take kindly to any cheat not themselves) when she caught sight of the golden bird -- thronged with admirers, as usual.


More unusual was the jockey, sprawled on the ground, leaning up against the post his chocobo was tethered to. The empty mug was beside his hip, tipped over. His condition was snickered over as officials went up and down the line, doing the pre-check before the race could start. This jockey was known for his lack of discipline, but even this was bad for him.


Drunkards were always the same.


The official got at last to the pair, and tried to rouse the jockey. Several times. Someone made a loud joke about shooting his wad too early. The crowd got loud, and then quiet when the jockey wouldn't wake.


"He's dead," someone muttered. Johi didn't see who.


Minutes passed.


"Get th' arbiter!" The official snarled, gesturing for the guards to come attend. Murmurs rose as the guards came, pushing the crowd back.


The two words, "he's dead," were repeated ad nauseum. Then the rumors started.


"Huh," Johi said. She left soon after.

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"Please, sir..." The woman glanced up at Warren pleadingly. From the red in her eyes to the defeated, hopeless expression it had been evident she'd been crying for longer than the sun had been up. "Please help us..."


Anyone who spent time in Ul'dah and dressed in better than rags had probably heard a cry of a similar sort a dozen times a day. The unlucky and the destitute and the downtrodden all sounded the same once they'd been trampled enough, and the boots in Ul'dah were heavy. There was a small child at the woman's side, half-hidden behind her leg. A youthful, albeit dirtied, face and lengthy hair concealed whether it was a little boy or a girl.


"What's wrong?" Warren's arms were both occupied hauling bags from the green grocer, supplies for back home that were long overdue. He quickly weighed his options should the woman not be as defeated as she appeared.


"My brother... He's dead." The woman's tone indicated her discomfort with the order of the words, and her features threatened to give way to another shower of tears. She managed to persevere and continued. "He's been killed, I just know it. Will you find out what happened to him...?"


And that was how Warren ended up having a breakfast with a mother and her child.



The boy scarfed down his third muffin as the woman stared into her tea. It was heavily steeped black stuff from somewhere off in the depths of the Black Shroud, pungent but supposed to help with stress. It was small wonder the woman needed it.


"After the Calamity, it was just me and Teland here..." She tried to smile, ruffling the boy's gangly head of hair. "Once his daddy died I didn't know what was going to happen. He was just so young and I only knew how to be a wife..." She interrupted herself by blowing on the surface of the drink slightly and sipping at it. "It was my brother who stepped up for us, offered to take us in. He didn't have much but he was happy to share, and he promised us that we'd never have to go without as long as he was around." Her smile fell hollow.


"You think he got killed." Warren was seated at a worn table with just a touch of a wobble. The work seemed amateurish though it was perfectly serviceable, the sort of thing someone tried their hand at as a side project. The kitchen itself was small like the rest of the homestead it occupied; Barely enough for one person let alone two adults and a child. There was a makeshift barrier done with some sheets and a nail that Warren suspected made up a sleeping area.


"He wouldn't... He wouldn't leave us like this. He promised me..." There was disbelief on her voice now, the tone losing restraint and threatening to break again.


"Anything you can tell me about what he was up to would help. Have you already gone to the Brass Blades about this?" He knew his bedside manner was rough, but Warren hoped that if he kept her talking she'd keep her footing and not break down in tears.


"I tried, they told me they'd look into it, and then said there was nothing to be done. Those bastards are hiding something, I just know it! Sure he drank a little, but who doesn't who can afford to?! There's no way he drank himself to death, I know he couldn't..."


There came a long exhalation as Warren weighed the pieces mentally. This woman was making bold claims, and these sorts of implications wouldn't go unnoticed of someone went double-checking on the official word of the law.


"He said it was all going to be okay... He'd just gotten his break into racing on that bird, and he was doing so good!" There was a light in her eyes as she insisted on his performance, a pride of a man doing good. "He was turning things right..."


The boy had finished his muffin and toddled off to wash up. "I can look into this for you as best I can, Miss Yates, but I can't make you any promises." Warren tried to make that as clear as he could, but he knew as well as anyone else how badly hope could distort any message relayed in a trying time.


The woman's thanks and sense of relief were almost overpowering, but Warren was already puzzling out possibilities. The woman's testimony didn't paint a pretty picture for him going forward. Murder, cover-up, Blades in on it? It was a lot to think about.


First things first: We'd need to stop at the grocer on the way back to his home, to replace the bags he'd left behind.

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Zhavi didn't think she'd ever get used to airships. No matter how many times she took 'em, it gave her the shivers to be so high up in the air. It weren't natural, and there was something wrong about seeing the city that had ruled her life reduced to a tiny speck below, and then behind her. Limsa Lominsa was a monster in itself, and it always chilled her to leave it behind, like it was about to reach out and snatch her back. She fought the sensation and looked away.


Brindle was nattering something at her, his form irritatingly tall and lanky beside her. She missed being able to look down at him; at least then she knew he had no other better options. Keeping him around kept her sharp, she told herself. Repeatedly.


"Slow down," she snapped at him, turning away from the rail to hover near one of the benches on deck. It kept her from pacing. Not pacing kept her from attracting too much attention. "Start over." She hadn't been listening.


The sound he made told her he knew she hadn't been listening. "Listen, I went an' checked out some o' me larks, thinkin' mebbe 'twere that he'd taken on some sort o' yoke. Copper's crew, an' take a roll on whether'r not it was a one off, aye? But that's th' wrinkle, he ain't some sort o' poor gaffer, he ain't, 'twas a jockey what gambled, wi' a big break aside."


Zhi looked up at the lad, squinting against the sun. Why was he so tall? "What's 'e doin' on me turf, kickin' up sod wi' Rourke?"


Brindle shrugged. "Weren't no job caught at th' docks, no from what I can tell."


Zhi gritted her teeth. "Well now, I'll pull me take from his widow, if I've need, mark me words."


"Don't have one."


"Th' take went somewhere."


Brindle nodded, uneasy. "He's debts -- an' yeah, we knew that -- but I'm thinkin' they weren't all circlin' 'round gil."


"So what, this's a blimmin' favor?"


Brindle shrugged.


"What's a jockey workin' Thanalan out doin' stealin' from some boss in Limsa?"


Brindle shrugged again.


"This ain't me gig."


Brindle grinned, his bared teeth completely without humor. "Nah, but it'll be yer hide if Jager finds out. Mine too if Rourke finds out."


Zhavi gripped the back of the bench. She hated airships. She hated travel. "Then we'd best move quick, aye?"


Brindle nodded, eyes straying to her whitened knuckles. "Aye."




Johi hadn't opened shop back in Ul'dah after the race, and she decided to keep it closed the day after, too. The last thing she needed were any high-minded Blades coming sniffing around her stall asking questions about where she'd been and what she knew about the murder at the races. She wasn't involved, and they'd like as not know that, but that didn't mean they wouldn't steal some of her inventory as "evidence," and she'd a mind to keep her profit. Besides, if they really needed her for questioning, they'd dig her out of her little one-room home.


As it was, she sat in the narrow alley outside of her home, next to her open door, grinding and mixing herbs she was low on in the shop. Around her, men and women moved on their various daily errands. Gossip flowed, and Johi supped from it, casually, letting it keep her mind occupied while her hands worked.


"Didn't you hear about that poor Miss Yates? Brother was the only thing keeping her and her boy fed, and now he's gone. Poor things."


"Poor? Better off without that louse, if you ask me."


"Better off? They'll be starving afore the moon's out!"


"He'd tatty connections, and word was he was digging himself deep with his debts."


"Connections? He was a gambler, aye, but he weren't no beater."


"He got hisself in with a bad crowd, mark my words, because..."


The voices trailed off, Johi catching herself seeking after them. Yates? Miss Yates and her boy? Surely that wasn't the good for nothing brother she'd seen dead yesterday...


She chewed on her lower lip, hands stilling in her lap. Maybe...maybe she'd open her stall up anyways. Just in case. Just to be sure.


There were some routines in Ul'dah it was better not to mess with.

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The gathering of information wasn't normally something that required as much foresight as Warren was determined to apply. The details he'd gotten from the Yates woman were a start, but she couldn't provide enough to begin answering any of the questions Warren was contemplating. A dead body with a newly-bought racing bird, one that doubtless had earned some attention. An alluded to criminal background. It reeked of underground involvement, and that meant that as soon as Warren started asking around, ears were going to pick up on that. He eventually decided that striking while the iron was hot would be his best option; Word would get around fast and the longer he waited to snoop the more obvious it would be he was snooping.


The roads to the Silver Bazaar seemed an obvious choice for racing. Long and straight, mostly safe due to their proximity to the Jewel itself: It was sufficient for the recreational purposes that had popped up since the Calamity. During the normal working hours it was exactly what Warren would expect to see from the laboring classes, with the hustle and bustle that seemed to be ever-constant, similar to the Scorpion Crossing trading grounds. There wasn't much that hinted at the betting that would go down once the work was done on some nights.


"Pardon, friend," Warren began as he approached a large Roegadyn hauling boxes. His demeanor didn't read as particularly friendly, but the weather and sun gave the workman little to be happy about. Warren was dressed as any merchant might be, nothing so fancy it would draw attention but enough that it would make him appear to have some wealth. His hair was down and his hat felt oddly foppish; It wasn't a look he was used to.


The Roe dropped the load from his shoulder and wiped his brow. "Awful busy, sir. What do you want?" The honorific came with a hint of resentment. Warren grinned.


"I was hoping to bend your ear for a moment or three; I've heard the most delicious rumors popping up about this place especially in recent days, and-"


The Roe raised a hand to cut him off. "You an' everyone else, you know. A man's dead."


"So it's true?!" Warren sent his eyes wide open and half-raised a gloved hand to his mouth, appearing all the world as a man who just had the world opened to him. "Is it all true, then? That he died protecting his bird from a wayward arrowshot?"


A confused expression crossed the Roegadyn's face and he shook his head. "Where'd you go an' here somethin' like that? Idiots spreadin' rumors, I reckon. No, the man didn't die of a shot. I saw him after his race, an' he looked panicked despite winnin'. Next time I saw him he was sittin' in front of his bird, dead."


Warren clapped his hands in delight. "Oh, this is so exciting!"


The hulking worker frowned, his expression hard. "Yeah, real excitin' to have someone turn up dead in the middle'a racin'."


"I wonder if I could make an offer on his steed... I could put together a racing team!" Warren feigned thoughtfulness, tapping his chin with a covered finger.


"No, you can't. Bird's already got a new owner." The Roe was barely containing his displeasure at the callousness of the conversation. "You should probably leave that alone, unless you want to be meetin' up with his last rider."


Again Warren sent his eyes wide. "Oh! Oh... Oh." He let realization play across his expression and flicked his eyes over the worker, pulling the side of his mouth into a sneer. "Peasant sport anyway." For extra measure Warren dusted himself off and spun on his heels, striding away as best he could replicate the arrogant swagger of those who often place hard dividers between themselves and the populace.


That was enough for the first outing. Warren had a little more to go on, though he'd need to somehow check out the Roegadyn as well. There wasn't anything overtly threatening in his replies, not that Warren picked up anyway. At best, he'd regale his friends after work with stories of the ignorant fop who came chasing serial tales.


At worst, he just introduced himself to someone involved with the murder.

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Ul'dah stunk like dust, and dirt, and sweat. It coated the skin, the mouth, and the inside of Zhi's nose, so that she couldn't breathe for sneezing and frequently got nosebleeds.


"It ain't th' air what makes yer nose bleed."


Had she been muttering? Zhi bounced from foot to foot, glaring up at Brindle as he looked innocently away. "'S too hot," she groused, wiping at the sweat that was already starting to coat her forehead. Everywhere else too, but she wasn't about to go slapping at herself. Scratching, however...


"Gods, Zhi, really?"


"Go," Zhi snapped, flinging a hand in a careless direction as they funneled out of the receiving area for the airships and towards the elevator. "Go away. Be useful. Get me infermation, laddo, afore I take it out o' yer hide."


She'd never been so annoying. He tossed her some semblance of salute, grinning like he'd guessed her current train of thought, and they kept that silence all the way down. He dashed out once the lift reached its end, and Zhi stared after him. To any casual observer, he was just another Ul'dah streetkid, indistinguishable but for the occasional off word or gesture. She? The Limsan way of walking, all rolling steps and loose-armed ego, was imprinted in her to her bones. She'd thought herself a fair act, but her time away from Limsa had only served to show her just how shaped she'd been by the city she'd grown up in. Not that time couldn't scrub that away like it did everything else.


Brindle was affixed to places of crossing, so she knew he'd set to the markets -- which meant she was left to her very most favorite haunts: places that sold alcohol and other.




The smoke hanging hazy in the air smelled wonderful in the way it did to those who weren't quite ready to give it up. If only the same could be said for the rest of the room, which gave up sweat, booze, vomit, and ... various other bodily fluids. Perfect.


Zhavi took a seat next to the biggest cluster of scrags, sitting upright but slumped -- just another lowlife come to feed at the table. Which, really... Not the point. She had her order, took her time looking over the broken lamps and dimly lit walls, taking in the slightly fuzzy texture of every visible surface. Judging by the smell, cleaning was second to excess, and that was perfectly fine with her. She doubted they could even smell her; the room was its own coagulation of present and past odors.


Conversations and people came and went, far enough along that a few eyefuls of sinuous, long-past-retirement wenches eventually turned into a handful, which turned into ... gil exchanging hands. The right hands. The good thing about broken down dumps was that their standards were even lower than Zhi's -- and that weren't nothing to complain about. Still, she was nursing the right kind of headache when she finally heard gossip pertaining to her original intention, and she wasn't nowhere near hazed enough to let it go to waste. She let the conversation -- about the right jockey, ruttin' scrag -- play out and start to die before she caught up her thread.


The man she wanted to talk to was a cartwright, evidently working on the wagons of one of the merchants who visited the races to gouge prices on items otherwise not worth mentioning. Everyone had something to say about merchants. So, she contributed. She said, overloud: "Trust merchants t'always be there when summat happens, aye? Blimmin' scavengers, they is."


There was a nod, and a flicked glance towards her before she was dismissed: nothing particularly exciting about another washed up junkie, after all, and she'd not said anything worth getting worked up over.


But the cartwright nodded, evidently a blasted enough sod to enjoy any attention lain upon him. Sad bastard. "Aye, but lissen, they get it taken right out o' them, at the races. Silver Bazaar charges a fee, see? Outta hear them moneyed tots cry."


This time, there was a ripple of dark laughter, all of it muted and rinsed down with vapors and questionable liquids.


"They're payin' yer drinkin'n gamblin' money," Zhi pointed out with half a grin that lasted exactly four seconds.


She shooed off the wench still perched on her lap, and took a seat at the group's table. They all obviously worked hard, given their burly upper bodies...and played hard, given that their guts had no doubt seen an endless supply of cheap booze. She stood out by contrast, all skin and bones, marked by hard use. They sized her up, making their assumptions, and she let them -- giving a sneer that showed just what she thought of them. The table's ambience shifted, and settled.


"May be, but they ain't done me no great service. Just more merchants."


Easy. The next few quips got Zhi names of merchant company and merchants, folk who'd been at the event in question. Rumors, and gossip, and opinions on the living and deceased, coated in sarcasm and cynicism, and in language that could make even a sailor blush. A young one, anyways.


By the time she left, she was feeling a sight more relaxed. She took a sideline to sell a few questionable substances she'd...secreted on the trip over (part of the boon of being so reprehensibly unhygienic was that the customs officers invariably chose self comfort over valor, and left her and her cheap ass clothes well enough alone), the proceeds of which would cover her bill at the rather rundown boarding house they always stayed at.


Brindle was already there, catching sleep. He woke up when she opened the door to their room, and was bright-eyed in no time. They exchanged a report: names of expected merchants, possible nobodies, strangers, and one that caught Zhi's ears.


Johi Jade. Apothecary and supplier to some of the more exotic demands, including the refiner Zhi was supposed to have gotten the drop from. Before it was raided and stolen. Possibly a coincidence, but with the way things were shaping up, Zhi was going to be visiting the woman first. In the (cringe) morning.


For the millionth time, Zhi wished she'd been born as anything but a nocturnal Keeper.


She slept terribly.

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Warren could only guess at how deep the hole in front of him went. At the surface, it was just harmless racing between friends and competitors; A couple of fellows had chocobos and it was more exciting than racing marmots. Just below the surface was a friendly exchange of gil in the form of some meaningless bets, the wages of a few hours or the day doubling, or tripling, or vanishing outright. Nothing in the way of taxes or permits, no official decree of when or where, and no reason for the stalwarts of making sure the Jewel took its cut needing to know about it. Deeper down, reason enough to want to kill one another, and the means to cover it up. The bottom was a long way down, and Warren was standing on the precipice.


There didn't seem to be much he could do until another night of racing rolled around, and he didn't know how long that would be. Trying to track down where these birds might be kept was too many trails to wander down, considering the influx of available mounts in recent years. The actual breeding only happened - officially, anyway - in places Ishgard decided, but then again you were only supposed to find racing birds out at the Saucer. The Goblet was chock-full of personal stables for the myriad adventurers who managed into owning a chocobo, and Warren's own stables held more than its share of curious and questionable creatures.


He was stuck.


He didn't want to stick his head around at the Bazaar too often. He might be able to get away with a rough disguise to look less conspicuous but Thanalan had more than a few ways for the smallfolk to pass their time, and some were more interested in fighting than racing. There was no guarantee his presence would go unnoticed, a thought which gave him no small amount of frustration. He also tried to push the possibility of similar things happening under his nose at his own venue far, far from his mind.


Again and again he turned what he knew over in his mind, hoping to catch something he'd missed. Each time just further solidified what he was most pressed about, though; There wasn't enough information to suss anything out without compromising his reasons to investigate in the first place, and his only connection was the bird, however tentative that would turn out to be.

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