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Kuchimane (Mimic) [Closed]


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Many malms beyond Mist, where many of the more well-to-do newcomers to the island made their home, a lavish holding draped itself precariously across the Vylbrand cliffs. Typical whitestone roads and bleached walls would eventually give way to a wide field of green contours traced by sparsely paved road and a grey stone wall, where the cliffs did not create a natural barrier. Tall, neatly manicured trees with a distinctive asymmetrical lean to them from the coastal winds drifted lazily over the short grass like passing clouds. Rows of short walls and teak fences outlined a series of terraces in the Yanxia style, wide and curving, topped with lush garden greenery, colorful flower beds, and even orchard trees. They gave the natural incline the appearance of a long, flat staircase. For the island, the private grounds were generous but there was still a paucity of space that left the panorama feeling compressed in comparison to a wealthy family’s home in Gridania, to say nothing of a Monetarist abode near Ul’dah. It was as if all of the common amenities of a country mansion had been compressed haphazardly into a can a size too small. The terraced gardens appeared to be constructed with both the curious grafting of Eorzean/Othardian aesthetics and economy of space in mind. A small manor lay some distance away; its two consecutive sets of walls distinguishable due to the upraised cliff it perched upon. Its crenellated dark stone facade, almost the color of basalt, rose over the fields in contemplative melancholy. Judging from its militarist bent, it perhaps was once a wealthy pirate’s stronghold or arsenal. But where cannon emplacements once stood vigil watching the coastline, wide, round exterior decks wrapped in rich mahogany now exploited the view. The thick stone walls and Lominsan-style iron, gate, however, were no less unfriendly to unexpected guests as they had likely been when the residence first arose. Virara’s plan of breaking and entering, while not impossible, seemed even more ill advised than ever before.


As they approached the exterior iron gates, Virara raised her small chin to look up at the widening gap between the tops of their heads and the arch’s capstone. A Gyr Abanian griffon gazed scornfully downward upon them across its beak. Her ignorant eye spotted a muted, angular pattern secreted within the black stones encircling the gate’s columns, but she was hardly cultured enough to recognize it as anything but a design that looked quaintly Near-Eastern. The owner of the residence had made many modifications to the stronghold, it seemed, that served only to obfuscate their origins-or indulge a dramatically xenophilic streak. Every oddity skirted playfully close to gaudiness without truly crossing the line. The designer’s eye was finely attuned to the sensibilities of a person who wanted to entice and irritate in equal measure. Without question it was the work of an architect with habits borne of carrying out countless projects for decadent Monetarists, as it had none of the graceful restraint of the Gridanian school, and it clashed sorely with the uniform austerity of Lominsan coastal cities.



They’d heard a scattering of things about the Kuze Group, both from the papers and Chachanji’s mother. A small trading company specializing in Far Eastern agricultural products, it had expanded its activities dramatically after the Razing, all of its constituents removed from its homeland. Previously a traditional, family-owned business following a standard inherited model, the original Kuze family endowed a bloodless stranger freshly returned from a sojourn in Thavnair. Having taken their name without so much as a marriage, the new Kuze immediately relieved the previous management council of its responsibilities, with no provision for hiring replacements publically known. Shortly after, the Kuze Group enlisted the services of several defunct privateer bands that had been rendered headless by a power struggle with the Admiral’s thalassocracy, stripped down all but a few of the seaworthy ships and emptied their cannon and magazines, selling those ships that couldn’t accommodate a presumably satisfactory level of goods. These were merged to create a small merchant fleet of the Group’s own supervision, with a few armed ships remaining as token security, but largely relying upon the Maelstrom for protection. Indeed, the Group’s interactions with the Maelstrom itself allowed for many previously untouchable rogue bands to make amends with Limsa. Whoever led the company had the ability to overcome their status as a foreign upstart and arrange for a favorable deal, or one that seemed favorable to the thalassocracy in any case.


In addition to this, the flow of agricultural goods the Kuze Group presided over slowed to a trickle. The low-status monetarists who dealt with the Group only begrudgingly in Ul’dah knew of whisperings of a buyout, a wealthy moneylending family embroiled in controversy and courting the suspicious Far Easterners. On the perimeters of the Black Shroud, the Group pressed unsettlingly close with an agricultural project under the suspicious eye of the Wailers, and in their holding upon Vylbrand, terraced fields sprung up even around an old, abandoned mansion. The Group had dramatically increased its manpower. Where did they find the additional hands necessary to develop a small merchant flotilla of their own? The refugees from Kuze’s homeland seemed to know.



All signs pointed to an aggressive business inclined to brazen risk-taking. The massive, internal build-up of its own infrastructure and workforce combined with a bizarrely small leadership pool, if such a thing even existed, seemed to be evidence of that. They were betting on themselves. It was possessed with a suicidal lack of reverence for territories or Eorzean business tradition, such that they’d even consider purchasing their own moneylenders. They seized what they could before the small company could be crushed by the massive resources of their competitors in Thanalan and Vylbrand. A sense of centralization existed within them, a hegemonic intent to control all stages of Kuze’s product internally with a secrecy bordering upon paranoia. The coordinator, Makoto Kuze, never appeared in public, never entreated with a business partner directly; no one even truly knew their sex. Without question, Chachanji’s mother knew this company was losing money at a dramatic rate, but it was beloved by fortune. To be certain they were an ugly duckling, albeit a wily, opportunistic one that changed its plumage regularly. However, not even so much a tiny murmur of illicit activity stained the group’s dealings. What connection could Kuze possibly have with Virara’s old enemy?


Virara herself could not gather even a guess, not to her own satisfaction. Nothing she’d been told betrayed a tangible thread between the Kuze Group and Tsuchigumo. Yet the feeling would not abandon her. When she gazed into the darkness behind her eyepatch, she felt its malign touch, the bite of its wire, heard the wet popping of its aberrant joints. The air was thick with the acrid scent of static along with a familiar floral note. A mask lay in the darkness behind her eyepatch, one with a gentle, elderly smile, eyes like the falling crescent moon. Waxy cheeks of faded wood and lacquer, tufts of white hair peeking from beneath cracking, pink-tinged wooden lips. They frothed over with stolen words. Virara hated that smile. She didn’t think about things like hate. Yet she could not help but know this.


No one who knew Tsuchigumo was normal. Nothing about this business could be normal. Virara was certain of it. The question remained, however; why had they allowed her to make such a connection in the first place? What had happened to the empty monk who’d spilled the name Kuze to Chachanji the same way? Did he still watch over those refugee children? Virara’s weathered hands tightened at her sides. Were they eating well? Had he been forced to abandon them? What sort of hold did Kuze have over his pious soul?



They were beckoning to her. Virara felt it. They beckoned and yet refused her, confounding her at every turn. The dark, empty-looking manor on the hill was engraved with silent laughter. She felt the owner’s unspoken ridicule, of this place, of Eorzea, of its businesspeople, of their own people, of her, and yet it was a sign of some kind of interest. Or perhaps, Virara considered, just another way to keep her from causing them excessive trouble. Continue to frustrate her with their refusal to communicate long enough that she’d consider simply giving up. But Master had told Virara long ago that her only useful trait was her thick skull. She was too stupid, too stubborn to give up. The memory of her was sharp and distinct and redolent of apricot blossoms. It urged Virara onward even when her mind could perceive no path before her.



She allowed herself an apprehensive glance over her shoulder at the boy.



“... Without question. This is it.”



A slow blink. He’d followed her this far. She barely could understand why. But it wasn’t an unpleasant thing, having him there. Virara’s voice was quiet as ever. The wintry air, spurred into a chilling breeze by the ocean wind, burned her cheeks pink, and she burrowed deeper into her ragged coat.


“You don’t need to go in. Not if you don’t want to.”

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Chachanji shifted a bit uncomfortably as he looked over the strange amalgamation of architectural designs. Not due to any particular understanding of the aesthetics at play here, but more in a sycophantic reaction to the general sense of unease that just seemed to pervade the place mixed with a basic discomfort from the biting breeze. He was dressed well enough for it, but given the situation they might possibly be dealing with, he would have to have been an absolute fool not to have some manner of protection at the ready.


Not that one would be able to identify the armor at a glance - it was a design made out of necessity during the incident with the crimson-earringed rogues a few moons back. Clothing that hid a thin layer of high-quality chainmail underneath, a level of misdirection that was highly uncommon for such a straight-forward Lalafell like Chachanji. However, after attempted poisonings, attacks on his person, and even arcane hypnosis, one had to forgo their scruples a little in order to survive such altercations. Though, what bothered the little Lalafell about the results of such actions was a little more intangible than just having concealed chain sewn into his clothing. But those were thoughts for another time, and he was forced to press them down rather than dwell on them - what mattered was the here and now.


At his back, strapped in the usual manner, was an oversized hammer that had come to be Chachanji's trademark - though, in truth, it was a tool in keeping with the Gegenji family tradition. This one was, again, a divergence from the norm however. His usual hammer had been left at the smithy, as it was a tool and he intended to keep it as such. The protective hand-guard and armor-piercing spike on the reverse of this one marked it more a heavy warhammer, though the finer details were hidden within its snap-sheath - leaving only the forearm-sized head visible. It was a weapon that seemed more appropriate in the hand of a Roegadyn than a Lalafell, but Chachanji had proven on multiple occasions that he could handle such things surprisingly deftly given his stocky and diminutive form.


"'s defin'tely a fittin' place, I 'spose," he murmured in response to Virara's initial announcement. She was always rather terse with words, but he was rarely left wondering what she meant - though whether it was due to her ability to transmit intent succinctly or his own empathetic nature or some combination of the two was left uncertain. Or perhaps he simply took her words and intentions to mean whatever he thought them to mean, which could explain the lengths he had gone to seek to befriend her and show her a gentler path that deviated harshly from the teachings of her merciless Master. A highly-trained pugilistic assassin and a stalwart armorsmithing pacifist - they made for quite the odd pair.


And a pair that would remain as such for the course of this venture, as he shook his head in response to her follow-up.


"I came this far, y'know? I ain't givin' up on ya now."


Which was a given truth, if one knew Chachanji well enough. Like Virara, he had a stubborn streak; but his was more in his almost childish desire to protect people, especially those closest to him. The former had resulted in a rather odd secondary goal for the smaller Lalafell as well, another reason to be at her side on this trip. While he understood Virara's fear and repulsion of the Tsuchigumo - he had been there when she had been taken and had participated in driving it off - the Kuze group's assertions to the earth spider worthlessness via their strange Hyur contact had kindled a strange desire to try and help the thing. Everyone else seemed to want it dead, thinking that it didn't belong and had no place in this world... and that tugged at his stubbornly protective nature.


He was here to help Virara seek closure with the issue, but at the same time he sought to give a second chance to the very creature that had scarred her so. It was an illogical dichotomy that seemed to entertain the Kuze group just as much as it likely bothered Virara. Not that she had spoken too openly about it, since she begrudgingly admitted that this was in Chachanji's very nature to behave. And one of her most adamant demands of him was to never change who he was.


And so here he was.


"So, um... do we jus' knock? Ring a bell?" he questioned, looking over the front gate with a canted gaze. "Though, I'd figger given th' design'a this place, they prolly already know we're 'ere. Still, can't hurt ta be polite 'bout it."

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The gate loomed over them. By all other accounts it wasn't particularly tall. Eorzea wasn't a place that was always made friendly to those of their stature, but they generally were able to make do. Here it wasn't even a matter of being able to simply reach up and find a latch, already a pain in the neck-literally. There was no latch at all. A house of this size was alien to Virara, who had thought the minor estate of her previous company a mansion. Here they were, at the gate of the residence, and it was still far enough away to appear rather small. 


"... I, uh... I didn't think it would be so difficult simply to walk up. This was not part of the plan."


Slowly, Virara drew back her fist. Her breath drew into a quiet hiss as she inhaled deeply. Her boots pawed at the gravel beneath her, grinding down firmly against the earth. Centering her sense of balance, she drew inward, coiling her spine, filling her lungs with the biting air. The dense, finely honed power at her core built like a boiler near bursting, as she had always been trained to do. Every ilm of her body entrusted itself to the function of lending force to her blow. A small cannon, the caliber was low, but the ammunition was quite volatile. 


Of course, it was just the path of least resistance. Even as her unconscious body prepared to strike, Virara gradually became self-aware. Feeling another's gaze upon her, she glanced to Chachanji, entire body primed to begin beating away at the iron gate. A typical response from a person who lived her life in linear paths. When something got in the way, crush it. That was the sort of way Virara had been raised. Yet even so, she tilted her head questioningly at him. Somehow, she seemed to already know what his answer would be.


However, even before she began to relax her tense posture, Virara's soft ears, red with the cold Vylbrand wind, twitched. Chachanji likely heard it too; hurried footsteps on the gravel path ahead, beyond the gate. A figure slouched its way down the terraced hills, appearing limbless from the way they folded their arms under a thick, green, woolen robe. Their face was obscured by a massive wide-brimmed sedge hat, and their sarouel-style pants hinted at a workman's outfit, the sort Chachanji probably had seen countless times in his youth in Othard. A question leaked quietly out of Virara.


"... How did he see us from that far off?"


Virara relaxed her posture, to a degree. No need to broadcast any more hostility than she naturally emitted; Virara was, after all, made aware of her unconscious glaring by Leanne. She decided upon the method of holding her eyes open, a bit wider than normal, taking extra care not to leer openly. Chachanji was better off speaking to them than she was, but she had called him there on her behalf, and the idea of making the boy speak to the transparently misanthropic merchant lord alone did not sit well with her. The unfortunate side effect was that she looked much as she did when Eaubront gave Virara her first coffee, but better to look overstimulated than vaguely murderous. Given the circumstances, Virara had no faith in her already lacking ability to remain cordial. 


The man's sedge shade hid his face from view, which stirred a sense of unease within the girl, but she barred it up deep within. When he raised his chin to address the two unexpected guests, Virara momentarily forgot her resolution not to leer.


"Greetings, si-..."


The Doman Hyur's face had the square chin and well-defined lines of a handsome man, perhaps ten years their senior. His calm, small brown eyes and natural dimpled grin broadcast an intense atmosphere of warmth, enough that the frigid cliff side demesne seemed almost temperate. Yet all of this was utterly despoiled by the hideous network of scars haphazardly splayed across his face, like they were etched there by a child's wandering hand. Scars from puncturing. Scars from slashing. It almost appeared his nose had been reattached, and the repairs were crude. Half an ear peeked out from behind coarse black sideburns; Virara could see nothing on the other side. With the methods of recovery available in most nations where magic was practiced, the mind boggled at the depth and severity of the injuries that could still leave such lasting traces. Even the aged, craggy emptiness monk Bozu had a face as soft as a baby's in comparison to the man standing before them. Was this how Kuze greeted all of their guests?


Virara suppressed a desire to step back. Faces were nothing but shapes and shadows to her. She marked them but did not invest within them any sentiment deeper than its layer of skin. There were only a few who defied her best attempts at total indifference. The feeling that seized her heart in that moment wasn't disgust, as others might have felt, but a sense of confusion. She was overwhelmed with the task of committing his face to memory. Virara simply did not know where to begin navigating the pitted, creased landscape before her. 


The man's soft, almond-shaped eyes darted between the two of them. They lingered on Virara, but if he was bothered by her reaction, he hardly let it show.


"Mite bit chilly for a walk 'innit?"


The man huddled into his robes uncomfortably, cold air dying his breath white. His voice was mellow and carried faint traces of the Lominsan accent, like he'd adopted it as affectation. Somehow it fit his low-class, ragged clothes and unassuming bearing. Up close, they could see his olive work clothes bore many gardening tools, like a small sickle and a short-handled spade, fastened to a thick belt about his waist where the sash would normally be. 


"What brings ye all the way out to these parts? Go on, come inside."


Even before Virara opened her mouth to answer him, the groundskeeper hustled to the side for a moment before returning to drag the large iron gate to the side. With a groaning of metal, he invited the pair in, dipping his head and oversize hat with an obliging nod.

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As soon as Chachanji noticed the tensing of Virara's form, he was instinctively moving to put a hand on her shoulder - as if that movement alone would halt her in her steps. He was well-aware of her rather straightforward method of dealing with obstacles, though even one less in-tune with her habits would've been quick to notice her intent to simply force their way in. However, unlike such individuals, the Doman Lalafell also knew quite well that should she deign that this was the path she had to take, it would take considerably more effort than a mere staying hand on the shoulder to stop her. Such an act was merely pretense, however, as what would truly keep her from doing such things was her own conscious decision not to - perhaps colored by the thoughts and opinions of the unlikely companion that had accompanied her.


"Ah, hold--"


He had only begun the motion when she paused of her own volition, tilting her head questioningly towards him. He looked at the gloved hand, paused in mid-flight to her shoulder, and returned it to his side with an awkward chuckle. He felt it necessary to explain himself, even if it was something as simple as "I didn't wantcha ta break th' door down," however the first syllable hadn't even left his lips when something else caught their attentions. The twitching of Virara's ears were mirrored by Chachanji's own, like two hares overhearing the crackling brush beneath the paws of an oncoming fox.


The first thought that came to Chachanji's mind as the Hyur approached was of Bozu - the large, quiet man that Virara seemed rather fond of. No great surprise, considering it was picking the emptiness monk's knowledge that had started them on this trek to seek the Kuze Group to begin with. And that has still taken some considerable effort and wheedling in order to get the information out of him. A man who had apparently fallen from the Sea of Clouds - according to Gogonji's testimony - and survived such an ordeal, and yet he was wary of these people.


Such thoughts unintentionally put up the boy's hackles, and he flinched a bit at Virara's sudden question.


"A-ah, m-mebbe th' place is jus' built like tha'?" he ventured as the man approached, scratching idly at a rosy, freckled cheek with a gloved finger. "At least 'e saw us before ya let us in yerself..."


His unintended chiding drifted into awkward silence as the Hyur drew closer, not wanting to sour any goodwill by alerting the supposed greeter to the near-breaking and entering that had almost occurred. Though, any conversation he may had replaced it with would've been cut short in any case once he got a better look at the man's visage. While Bozu had apparently suffered a great fall no worse for wear, this man's face looked as if he had suffered a similar ordeal much less favorably. And landed face-first into a well-stocked armory for good measure. Not that Chachanji would voice such thoughts - both due his desire to not cause undue friction and the simple reason that doing so would just be rather mean - but his moment of surprise was given away by a widening of violet eyes and a brief downturn of his chapped lips.


If the man's eyes marked his reaction as he glanced between the pair of Lalafell at his gates, it was overshadowed by Virara's own response - his gaze lingering more on her than on him. The sympathy-raising atrocity that was his face made reading any real emotion difficult, even to someone as empathetic as Chachanji. Though, perhaps he was also well-trained in keeping his feelings masked to further stymie such attempts. Not that the friendly little Doman would consider such a thing, nor the darker reasons why one would want to keep their emotions under such careful wraps.


Instead, all he saw was a fairly friendly groundskeeper with unfortunate features stuck with the task of answering the front gate in this chilly Lominsan weather. So, when the man moved to let them in, Chachanji felt it ill-advised to keep the Hyur waiting on them. He returned the nod with one of his own before glancing to Virara.


"Well, um... shall we go? Dun wanna keep 'em waitin' if'n they know we're 'ere, right?"

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"I... I've business with your Coordinator. He has my letter, I believe."


The words tumbled from her lips like they'd already frozen solid before they'd even fully formed.

"Ah 'spose it's no bother. Quite busy, the master is, but should 'ere be time enough for ye visit, I'll give 'em a whisper. 


He tipped his wide hat with a fetching smile.


Uncertainty filled Virara's frigid expression. They'd ignored all her attempts to communicate in writing. Spoken to almost everyone who'd looked into them but her. Why was she being greeted at the gate with such casual ease? The checkered man beckoned with a cordial curl of the fingers and tromped up the gravel ahead of them, sedge hat weaving from side to side. He paid more attention to the crops filling each layer of the garden than his diminutive followers. Some soil was still slick and glistening with moisture, a quilt-like black layer of dirt crossed with vines and gourds. Other platforms were submerged in gently rippling water, tiny sprouts emerging from the mud like green gems. The soaked platforms had tiny brass funnels at the edge of each stone terrace to siphon away the excess water to the lower levels. It was a rudimentary application of rice farming methods from mountainous terrain, but it would surely yield enough for the large household ahead. Perhaps the owner wouldn't settle for simply buying goods from another provider when they could raise their own. It was consistent with Kuze's background as agriculturalists. 


"Bah, soddin' weather. Apples behin' the manor lost f'sure. Nothin' to do for it but replant 'em."


The man's wavering tone chirped upwards and downwards with each step, suggesting a subtle shiver. He glanced downward to Chachanji, blinking and moistening his chapped lips. The groundskeeper had perhaps been out there in the cold wind for the better part of the morning, and the air had undoubtedly left the skin cracked. 


"Y'some kinda smith or s'thin lad? This a hirin' meetin'?"


There was a curious glimmer in the man's eye. Chachanji perhaps wouldn't think much of it, but it was the look of recognition. Yet he went through the motions of questioning Chachanji anyway, his cheerful voice transparent and loquacious. 


"Ach, where are my manners?"


The groundskeeper stopped abruptly. Stooping to bow at the waist in the Far Eastern style the two were so familiar with, he took a moment to adjust his ponderous headgear afterward. 


"I am Rokuro Sorimachi, groundskeep and ah, Kuze Group Factor, Vylbrand Division. 'Lest I was, 'till sis swapped w' me. Responsible for Thanalan, now."


The manner in which he introduced himself was not unlike the woman Chachanji had met at the altar in Southern Thanalan long before. Yet he introduced himself as a groundskeeper first, with very little respect for the title. What was the leader of trade operations in Ul'dah doing hunching his back over lilliputian rice paddies in Vylbrand? Then there was the matter of his 'sis.' Very little of his face remained to identify him as Miyabi's brother. His surname too was entirely different. The quaint introduction was bound to only provoke more questions within Virara, but she chose to ignore them for now. He was, after all, a middleman, and she she was in even less of a mood for unnecessary words.




She gave Sorimachi a curt nod and continued onward towards the mansion. Virara possessed a cursory understanding of manners, but they were as valuable to her as involuntary reflex. Trained habits, not sincere politeness, drove her decorum, and with conscious effort she could easily suppress them. Still, it was far from a pleasant first impression. She could have at least bowed.


"Heh, quiet lass, aren't ye? Needn' say any more. Sorimachi won't be a pest. There's plenty out here w'out myself among the number."


The house's darkened exterior rose ahead of them, much larger than it appeared from the bottom of the hill. Few lights were on. Either the Kuze family was out or it was never particularly large. Of course, it could be that it was only one of their residences. Or perhaps their prodigal adoptee didn't see fit to keep them near, now that they had control of the Group's finances. Its many black windows, like a galleon's battery, yawned emptily into the wind. There were few sights more sobering than an empty home, but somehow it had simply become part of the mansion's chaotic decor.

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Chachanji glanced between the two of them as they conversed - Virara's normal terseness a bit at odds with the warm, accented verbosity of the Hyur. The latter was not unlike Chachan's own affected manner of speech, and his overall friendliness tended to result in being a bit on the talkative side as well. It was a similarity that Virara might've noticed, but was ultimately lost on the little smith. He just seemed content that things were seemingly going pretty well thus far, and his eyes thus turned to roaming over the terraced yard as they wound their way through it. Taking in all the various sights with a silent curiosity.


"'m sorry fer yer apples," he offered earnestly at the Hyur's chattered complaint, giving the man a brief apologetic glance before resuming his sightseeing. The boy was fond of his fruit, especially in juice form. And several of the best juices he'd had partaken of had apparently been made from La Noscean stock. Not that the groundskeeper's apples had been destined for the juicer, but it was a lamentable loss nonetheless.


Those violet eyes returned to the man a second time when the question was posed at the little Doman.


"Huh? Oh, um... yeah, 'm a smith. Armor, mostly," he admitted, scratching at his cheek idly. "Though I ain't lookin' fer hirin' - 'course I'd offer ta help if'n ya needed somethin' made, a'course. 'm here wit Virara since she's me friend, y'know? Travellin' buddy."


Which was more or less the truth, since Chachanji was both somewhat adverse to - and bad at - lying. He truly did not have the various reasons to seek out the Kuze Group that Virara did. The only noteworthy bit of information that the Dunesfolk Lalafell might want out of them being the possible location of the Tsuchigumo. And perhaps to further dissuade the apparently plan to hunt the dirt spider down and kill it, if possible. And even if he had no such stake in the matter, Chachanji likely still would have offered his - and, by extension, his family's - help in procuring this meeting. Because, as he had openly stated, Virara was a friend - one of his closest, in fact, despite a few situations that sought to pull them apart.


"Chachanji, Chachanji Gegenji. Nice ta meetcha," he added as introductions were bantered about in the frigid air. Then, as if mirroring Virara's own internal confusion, he canted his head and continued: "So, um... if'n yer in charge'a th' Thanalan branch, why're ya over 'ere? 's a bit of a way's 'way, y'know? Didja jus' make th' trade 'r somethin'?"


He likely had further possibilities or questions to add to the list, but they died on his chapped lips as they neared the manor proper. Most of the larger homes like this that he had visited in his stay in Eorzea were far more... alive than this. All, or at least a large number, of the windows aglow with lantern and candlelight in the later bells rather than the darkened look of this place. His sharp Lalafellin hearing would also oft pick up the faint sounds of life from within those other abodes - movement and conversation - but there was little that his red-tipped ears picked up here beyond the quiet, incessant moan of the frigid winds and the rustling of the frostbitten plant-life.


"... Did we come at a bad time?" The words tumbled out of Chachanji's lips before they had time to cross his brain, and he found himself leaning this way and that - seeking to peer in through what few lit windows there were. Perhaps to reassure himself that the owner, or at least more of the staff beyond just the groundskeeper, of the place was actually home. Though, the vast difference of scale between him and the manor itself made such glances difficult at best.

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  • 2 weeks later...

The tattered man blinked, his thick pea-green cloak shrouding his hands only so for as long as he could keep his habitually busy hands still. Ropy fingers shaking with the chill despite their gloves pushed the brim of his sedge hat upward. Sorimachi's startlingly white array of teeth stretched onward radiantly.


"Ah! Fine, fine, well met! 'Tis the charming son himself, eh?" 


The groundskeeper suddenly dipped to shake Chachanji's hands, gloves covered in a thin layer of soil. His bubbling, merry voice and the jerkiness of the man's stoop alarmed Virara, who Chachanji could see at the other side of Sorimachi reaching into her coat, largely upon reflex. Her expression, round face pink with the frost and gaze unerringly placid, betrayed the reflexive, thoughtless ease through which her trained body acted. Thought was not part of the equation. 


"The Coordinator, he's told me about 'er y'see. Li'l lady of astute sense from the settlements near Silvertear. Askin' about, gathering this and that notification. Husband has a tremendous, charmin' beard, but ain't famous for that, oh no. Might make a fine coordinator herself methinks. Ah... an employee shouldn't be indiscreet... Ah, well..."


Sorimachi chuckled sheepishly, running his glove across a chin which carried scars as innumerable as the stubble upon his skin. Surely he'd not sustained those hideous injuries shaving? His thin, almond-shaped eyes carried the glint of an unexpected light in the manor ahead, upon the first floor, dim and spectral. 


"When the Coordinator knows a person, he -knows- them. Naught but their innermost thoughts, nay, even that, rest under his fingers, his quill. So y'see, Young Master, ye already be invited, lad. Dare I say, ye be upon the visitor's ledger right this minute!" 


The man's voice wavered. It was there for merely a split second, but his jovial warbling grew brackish and still. Virara raised her chin curiously to meet Sorimachi's gaze, but the man seemed intent on not speaking with her needlessly, perhaps in respect for her love of silence. And yet his tall, broad back seemed a size smaller in that instant.


"Coordinator Kuze... ye do as he wishes. Even if ye don't."


Sorimachi noted confusingly.


"Factor might I be, but so long as my boot is soilin' his manor grounds, I'm naught but a gardener. Just felt it was only square I took it a bit more literally than the others, seein' as it is my hobby t' begin wit'."


They were nearly upon the doorstep of the manor, a broad path of dark tiles ahead. It almost seemed as though they had declined in color and luster the closer the trio got to the residence, as if a creeping rot festered ahead. But in truth, the light was growing dim and the clouds thickened above. The coastal fog gave way to the first stilettos of frigid rain, and Sorimachi ushered them insistently under the overhanging manor coach gate, yawning open lazily before them with no sign of recent use. The tiled roadway featured long, graying masonry platforms so immaculate it was hard to imagine chocobo-drawn cart ever traveled upon it, despite its arch being more than enough to accommodate its lifting balloons. Above the same out of place Abanian griffin glowered disapprovingly upon all guests. Or perhaps he was displeased at being so ungraciously fused with the patchwork aesthetic of the building's heretical exterior. 


Sorimachi cast aside his thick cloak, tossing it with an old friend's levity to Virara. He wouldn't need it inside. His workman's clothes barely concealed a powerful build, ropy muscles honed from ages of backbreaking fieldwork. Dark green hues in all of his clothes easily soaked up the earthen dyes of his profession, but he seemed to keep the threadbare uniform in good condition, a reflection of his pride. Removing his gardening gloves and buckling them at his side, Sorimachi bowed deeply in a surprisingly graceful, almost genteel motion. With the same curling of the fingers he ushered Chachanji onward towards the dark cherry-wood manor door, inviting the boy in as if it were simply his own modest farm hut-but not Virara.


"... Hm?"


The girl's forward march was abruptly halted at the raising of Sorimachi's newly-ungloved hand. His gaze settled down upon her, as his fingers plucked the sedge hat from his head. His eye was almost watery with an apologetic, pitying cast, but it had all the glimmer of a cold, cut stone. It was not unlike Virara's own stare.


"Beg your pardon, miss, but the Coordinator ain't acceptin' visitors."


Virara's teeth ground furiously behind her tightening lips. Had she not endeavored to overcome her own terse mind, worked her fingers to the bone to get the calligraphy correct? She'd exchanged so many drafts from table to wastebin waiting for the one perfect copy that would get the merchant recluse's attention, tapped Edda's training and expertise, as much for the reassurance that he might pay her some attention as for the penmanship of a true lady. Virara's fingers, worn rough by her training as much as Sorimachi's, closed upon themselves in bitter chagrin. The penmanship of a true lady. A polite tongue. They were all insurmountable walls, challenges that could not be pulverized through repetition and effort. Yet that was all Virara had. Where was her answer?


"Even Chagenji. Even Chagenji is lured here. I am lured here. Yet he will not permit me. He aims to shame me. In parts equal to my desire for his knowledge, Kuze mocks me!"


Sorimachi was welcoming to Chachanji. But he looked upon Virara as if she were a mangy stray. The cloak was a shield against shame, not the wind, the same way an old man might humor a wild dog with his dinner scraps if it whined piteously enough. There was no malice there, but neither was there any recognition of a Spoken.




Lowering her gaze to the tiles that permitted no scratches, Virara's firm, small shoulders sunk, and she could only bite her lip, words imprisoned behind her impermeable face. 


"Why? What does he know about me? About Tsuchigumo?"

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  • 3 weeks later...

Chachanji flustered a bit at the praise slowly piled upon him and his by the groundskeeper, feeling a quiet burning across his freckled cheeks that was of a different nature than the pink already placed there by the biting winds. His gaze flicked to Virara, though less out of concern for her trained response to the sudden movement, but more for perhaps a manner of support in changing the subject. Those violet eyes switched back to Sorimachi at that momentary wavering. Lalafellin ears were widely considered one of the sharpest on Hydaelyn, and the Gegenji child's was no less keen for having spent a life around the cacophonous din of the forge.


"A-ah, 'm not all tha' charmin'..." he managed, an awkward segue from the Hyur's commentary on the Coordinator. "Though, 'm sure Mama'd be pleased by th' compliments. 'n Papa's always been pretty proud'a 'is beard... o-oh, but 's good tha' ya enjoy gardenin' 'n stuff. Always nice ta have a hobby, moreso if'n ya get ta do it as part'a yer job."


The short Lalafell quieted again as they approached the manor proper, though he let out a little noise of surprise as one of the first frigid drops of rain splattered against the broad brim of his hat. When the groundskeeper hurried them under cover to avoid the rest, he proffered no argument - the weather was already brusque enough without being soaked to the bone besides. He still took a moment to doff his puffy hat - exposing his unkempt mass of ivory-frosted jade curls to the elements - and shake off what raindrops had still managed to alight themselves upon it in their hurried exodus from the open air. Another curious glance was cast betwixt factor and friend at the tossing of the cloak, fixating more on the former with another minute fluster at the bow.


A fluster that faded sharply into confusion when Virara was barred entry.


"W-wait, we're here t'gether, y'know? We're 'ere jus' as much fer 'er as fer me.. if'n not a bit moreso," he offered, glancing between the two as he motioned to the taller Lalafell for emphasis. He wasn't exactly the most mentally adept individual, so he continued motioning idly between Virara and himself as he tried to formulate some sort of idea or reasoning to allow his companion to enter alongside him. "I-I mean, can't she be like me... I 'unno... 'plus one' 'r whatever? Or at th' very least let 'er in so she ain't out 'ere in th' cold?"


His gaze flicked back to Virara at that quiet utterance, that single word - a single letter - that slipped from her lips at her denial. Her face was set in its usual, unreadable placidity, but she was one that Chachanji had spent much time with. As a friend, as a training partner, even - at times - as an opponent. So even the smallest twitches were as glaring signals to his eyes.


Even discounting his natural empathy, he immediately noted the grinding teeth that quietly flowed into the biting of the lip, the near-unreadable confusion and indignation hidden in her eyes that led to the drooping of her shoulders. Small, nearly unnoticeable things that each tugged insistently at the boy's heartstrings as he noticed them. It all built to one simple resolution: he couldn't, he wouldn't leave her out here alone. Not after coming this far together.


"I ain't leavin' 'er behind," he stated, a sudden firmness creeping into his tone and slowly building as he continued. "If'n yer Coordinator knows as much as ya say 'e does, then 'e'd know I ain't one to leave anyone behind... 'specially not a friend. Never a friend."


He looked back at Virara, then to Sorimachi. The stuttering, the timidness and sheepishness had all but drained away at this point. As if sapped from him by the groundskeeper's actions and Virara's reactions like the dreary chill continued to sap at their warmth even while out from beneath the icy rain. Violet, reflective orbs pierced into the Hyur's as the incessant drum of the rain continued to build around them.


"Let 'im know if'n ya hafta, but Chachanji Gegenji 'n Virara Wakuwa'r both 'ere ta meet wit 'im."

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  • 4 weeks later...

Sorimachi gazed down upon Chachanji with a look that straddled amusement and faint confusion. But with time, as he spoke more, his voice acquiring a firmness not unlike steel, the tattered man’s expression underwent a subtle metamorphosis. The corners of his eyes sagged, his smile grew rigid and firm, like he needed to pin it there to keep it from falling away. The curve of his gently bent neck and back, to make it easier for him to meet Chachanji’s eyes, grew heavy with invisible weight. A silent melancholy, a sense of resignation. These lay deep within Sorimachi, as evident as his utter lack of surprise.


“Mn. As much as I ‘magined. T’weren’t any other response ye could give me. Ye, yerself, aren’t able to respond any other way. ‘Pologies for wasting words, ‘tis simply… ‘tis simply the Coordinator’s orders.”


He glanced to Virara, and yet despite her greater height compared to the other Lalafell, Sorimachi had to stoop to meet her gaze, practically kneeling. As Chachanji spoke, Virara’s eye drifted ever downward. Rather than emboldened, something about her usual, firm figure seemed less confident, suffused with doubt. Virara never allowed herself to express doubt.


“Aye, that much is true. If ye weren’t as such, ye wouldn’t be Chachanji Gegenji, the man the Coordinator asked for. C’mon then. I’ll answer for this later personally.”


A suppressed ripple of morose sympathy traversed his face. As if to apologize in advance for something, but it wasn’t clear what. Sorimachi even spared Virara one moment of his attention and beckoned her with a quick twitch of his fingers. With a short rustle through his many layers of clothes, the groundskeeper withdrew his cluster of greying and tarnished keys and unlocked the manor’s door, back hunched over its undersized knob. The entryway complained with a oaken groan.



“It wouldn’t do t’ let the young miss stand outside in the weather. Whatever she be, a lady she is as well. A lady with pride.”


Sorimachi glanced knowingly down to Chachanji as he bowed deeply in the Eorzean manner, hands ushering the two inward into the poorly-lit foyer like he was tossing linen sheets, his tremendous sedge hat set aside. Threadbare black hairs matted his skull with the occasional grey strand standing out like veins of silver.


For her part, Virara did not speak. She simply moved her body forward without thought, eye dark and hidden behind her dyed bangs, wearing an expression colder than the slick cobblestone they’d walked upon to reach this place. A silent pride suffused every aspect of Virara’s being, no matter how unassuming or awkward she might be, but somehow Chachanji would likely not see it at that moment. It had become submerged beneath a deep tide of uncharacteristic trepidation.


How much did he understand about Virara, after all? They’d spent considerable time together, and he knew of her past, her strength, her resolve. Besides the times they’d gathered to train, mere playfighting with pulleys and wooden figures, it was difficult to keep track of her transient existence. Constantly traveling and finding new places to test her limits, Virara lived the life of a girl who was being chased. She was a loosed arrow flying heedless of the wind. Did the arrow know the will behind the archer’s hand? What did the arrow want? Could it know want? Again and again Virara was challenged with that question, and no answer was ever truly given. Or could be given. Brackish and reflective, people skipped words across her and still she retained her shape, until perhaps, one day, she would dry up and there would be nothing but the basin, the parched lack that remained behind. Did Virara want something, truly, then?


As if to suffocate any doubts they might have had in an instant, the thick door of the manor shut behind them like rolling thunder. Or it might have been thunder. The weather was, after all, awful.


“Please, this way.”


Sorimachi led the two guests along a hall lined with Thavnarian damask and ancient Nymian light fixtures, the oaken floor creaking with every step. Here and there stone walls clearly too spartan for a wealthy abode reminded visitors of the house’s history as a pirate bunker. A high ceiling clearly intended to accommodate the tallest of Sea Wolves dwarfed even Sorimachi, despite his substantially greater stature.


It wasn’t long before they reached a wide open living space, a main hall redolent of medicinal herbs and sandalwood incense. In the center, a pool of light illuminated by a great Ul’dahn chandelier; along the sides of the room, parlour tables and a long lounge seat, presently occupied by a reclining figure. In the back of the room, a small private bar. A woman with tanned skin and a thick arm, face half-obscured by messy locks of black hair, hunched over her station, following the two Lalafells’ every movement with a guard dog’s hostility. Her powerful arm and half of her chest, aside from a typical Far Eastern chestwrap, were bare, like the attire of gambling house dealers, shoulder and bicep etched with intricate patterns. The other half of her body was shrouded in Doman robes, left arm hidden in billowing navy blue and scarlet cloth. Flying cranes, swirls of heavenly wind, the thin, emaciated red petals of the flowers that lined the banks of the river before the underworld; her body was a canvas, and it was difficult to determine how much more was concealed by her Doman attire.


The figure in the lounge chair, however, lay back fully, black-haired head facing Virara, Chachanji and Sorimachi. Their face was covered in the improvised tent of a thick, leather-bound book, slovenly resting upon the bridge of their nose and forehead. A small oil lantern adorned the cartonnier at their side, along with a conspiracy of crystal glasses filled with melted ice. He did not stir at the sound of their entry, but Sorimachi bowed deeply, after a quick, familiar nod and a warm smile to the tremendously intimidating bartender.


“... Beggin’ yer pardon Young Master. Cha-... Erh, Young Master Chachanji Gegenji is here to see you. And ah… one more…”


Sorimachi’s pained expression seemed nostalgic for the handy refuge of his great hat. Yet the figure upon the lounge chair refused to move.


Virara bowed deeply, even going as far as to kneel and kowtow her head to the ground in exhausting respect. Her face was entirely obscured from view, perhaps so that they, or Chachanji, would not know what shape it took.


“... Virara. I am here as per my note. I believe you have received it. Master Munakata Kuze of the Kuze Concern, I humbly apologize for the imposition posed by my visit.”

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  • 1 month later...

It was a victory of sorts, but Chachanji felt a bit stymied on the internal celebration at the various minute expressions and other minor displays of emotion that he noted on the groundskeeper. He was nothing if not an empathic sort, so any happiness that would've been wrought at his success was tempered by the gnawing confusion caused by the Hyur's behavior. Virara's actions only further helped to drain at whatever fledgling confidence the smith had girded himself with in his little stubborn tirade.


"W-well, yeah," he managed weakly after Sorimachi's pair of statements, rubbing at the back of his neck awkwardly. All that resolve that had flared so brightly before had faded into the shadows once more. "I mean... 'm me. Can't be anyone other'n me, I 'spose..."


Those last words rung sharply in the little Dunesfolk's own ears as the groundskeeper fished out the keys and worked the lock open. The words of the Void Monk and that strange woman came back to him in trickles of memory, as if lazily pouring out like a miasma from the slowly opening door. He said he could only be himself, but he was all but engulfed in the realm of individuals who hid behind masks. Or were personified by their masks - he had yet to fully grasp what they were really going on about.


It was in these brief moments of clarity that Chachanji found himself wondering if he had gotten himself swept up in something that was far beyond his ken. He was certainly not the brightest of the Gegenji children, and yet here he was at the gateway of this great manor because he had espoused his beliefs in a manner no less stubborn than his father had when he drove Gogonji and - ultimately Chachanji himself - away. And, to many, weren't his own ideals almost as crazy as those that had nearly driven his brother into the heart of Garlemald?


After all, at his side - the reason he had come this far and was entrenched this deep in this strange matters - was someone who had been raised only to kill. Someone who he had trained alongside with but a little and yet was fully cognizant, if a bit unwilling to admit to himself that she could, that she had a power and skill that could end the youngest Gegenji's life in an instant should she wish it. And yet he had been all but stubbornly insistent in turning her away from that path her Master had set her upon - steadfastly believing that she could be "better," be "more than that." As if his own childish views on the world were infallible and sacrosanct, despite all the claims (and perhaps even cold hard evidence) to the contrary.


And here he was again because he bucked against what might be common sense and again refused to let someone - in this case the apparent embodiment of the mythological dirt spider of Doman fairy tales - be considered nothing more than a tool. The very beast that had ensnared his current companion and wracked her with fear and paranoia for moons afterward, this was the one he sought to save despite all that it had already done. Stubbornly oblivious to the fact that, as cyclical as his foolishness might be, his dumb luck might not hold this time around.


And yet Chachanji couldn't, he wouldn't tear himself away from this path. He was here because he felt he needed to be - that he had to be. Not for himself - or at least that was what he told himself - but for that now marked-for-death spider that no one wanted. For the Plainsfolk girl whose dreams had been tainted by that very same creature. And so he plodded forever forward in his own bumbling, stumbling, stubbornly childish way. And now he was crossing this threshold - both figuratively and literally - deeper into the shadows of a realm that may ultimately be beyond his own understanding.


And ultimately his downfall.


The little Dunesfolk's thoughts - perhaps a bit poetic in how they had ultimately turned inward and self-reflective, much like his companion's - were interrupted by the thunderous noise of the door closing behind them. So suddenly torn from his thoughts by the suddenness of it, he lurched a bit in surprise and subsequently sought to awkwardly recompose himself as the light burning of embarrassment in his cheeks tussled with the incessant, biting cold of the locale.


"A-ah, r-right right, a'course," he stammered out with a nod that came perhaps a bit too hasty, an obvious attempt to quickly segue away from that embarrassing moment of surprise. "Right b'hind ya."


Perhaps to further try to distract himself from the invasive sensation of his burning cheeks, or to keep those darker musings from bubbling up from the recesses of his mind again, Chachanji's attentions flitted to the sparse decorations of the hall. His violet eyes flickered from sconce to sconce, traced the curves of the wall as it arced upwards into the high ceiling, and idly drew mental pictures among the stone architecture based on how the flickering light danced across them.


This flowed nicely into taking in the sudden flood of stimuli as they entered the main hall - his Dunesfolk eyes not even flinching at the brighter light source, simply continuing to roam until Sorimachi's words brought his attentions to the figure in repose before them. Perhaps reacting simply on instinct, or a desire to not further cause any issues, the little Lalafell mimicked the Hyur's bow but a half-beat after the groundskeeper had done it. Which then, upon noticing Virara's far more resplendent option, segued awkwardly into a more traditional Doman kowtow of his own.


He said nothing at this point, letting Virara take the lead as that faint feeling of being in over his head gnawed at his gut once more. Remaining still and silent as he quietly sought to find where his own awkwardly-shaped piece fit in the grand puzzle that was the events unfolding around them. If it fit at all.

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