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Sentry

My Sum For Your Future

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“Kugane?!”

 

Marius winced at Drucilla’s sudden shrill question. Even though he had expected something of an outburst, her high-pitched voice, fueled with indignation, still bore into his senses. The fact that his room in the attic was an effective echo chamber did not help. He said nothing in return and continued to pack his bags.

 

Drusilla spun toward him, her hands on her hips. His silence only infuriated her more. Her lavender eyes seemed to shift to an icy hue as a veil of shadow crossed the whole of her features. In contrast, the platinum blonde hair that flowed past her waist seemed to gain more of an unnatural pallor, lending the illusion of a wrathful ghost standing across the room from him. It was never a pretty sight when his sister was upset.

 

“Why in the world are you being transferred to that ill-forsaken place in the middle of nowhere?” She strode toward him, her lilac dress billowing out, and Marius could imagine she was floating, ghostlike, across the room. He wasn’t sure if envisioning his sister as an apparition either helped or hurt the situation. But it was certainly (oddly) amusing. “Is this because you were demoted? Is this your punishment?”

 

Marius leaned forward, pressing down on the folded clothing, before he closed the bag. His own garments took little room; the was mostly filled with books. Luckily, the position in Kugane had a set uniform; he would not have to worry about what to wear most suns. Even as his sister continued to prattle along, he let his mind wander, imaging the scenery there. The open sea, the foreign architecture, and the Hnigan culture… it filled his lungs with a fresh sort of expectant air that he was not generally afforded, here in his cramped quarters, and he felt a rare sense of rejuvenation.

 

“I thought you would learn the military ways soon enough." Drusilla sighed, a nasal wheeze through her narrow nose. "Everyone does! But no. You could not do the one thing your Centurion ordered you to do. They were insurgents!”

 

“They were children, Drucilla.” Marius’ voice was stern, though it lacked any real ire.

 

“Well, luckily Atticus covered for you. Conscripting is the logical choice over execution anyway… but clearly, your superiors must have noted your hesitance. Why else would you be demoted and sent to an Hingan port, of all places? What do you even do there?”

 

“I will do as I am told.”

 

“Too late for that!” Drucilla spun away from him, her long white locks flowing through the air as she paced back and forth. “I suppose we should be grateful," she sighed. "Had your Centurion seen it as disobedience, you would be facing execution instead.” Her voice had calmed somewhat. She approached the table where the parchment with his transfer orders lay, staring at it balefully. “Relegated to the lowest rung. You will once again be the grunt for all other soldiers there.” She sighed, her shoulders sagging. “And after all your hard work of climbing through the ranks here.”

 

When Drucilla’s head bowed and her hair fell like waterfalls around her face, Marius stepped up behind her and placed his hands upon her arms. He tucked his chin upon her shoulder, and spoke quietly. “Do not worry for me. I will be alright.” When she did not answer, he gave her arms a gentle squeeze. “And the Sekiseigumi enforces a strict no violence rule there. This applies to all in the port city, without exception.”

 

That made his sister turn about, and he thought he spotted a hint of a glisten in her lavender eyes. She had shed her fury, and was less a spectral vision. Marius smiled.

 

“Well, if you somehow managed to be transferred to a non-violent city of all places…” She sighed with a reluctant smirk. “Then you are more clever than I thought.”

 

Marius chuckled and scratched the back of his neck. “I was just lucky. Thanks to Atticus’ quick thinking, not to mention mother’s pleading to our lord. I am certain he had a hand in deferring my punishment.”

 

Drucilla gave him a skeptical furrow of her brow. “I doubt that. He has never been the same since he lost his family. I do not want to sound cruel, but he is no longer the man you think him to be. I do not think he cares.” She shrugged. “But at least Atticus does. He saved your life.”

 

A certain melancholy pressed upon him with those words. He would certainly miss his best friend and comrade. Marius offered a pitiful smile. “It is a lovely port city. Perhaps he will visit. And you as well!”

 

Drucilla rolled her eyes, but Marius could see that her mood was starting to lighten. “Perhaps I shall. The Empire still has trading ships sailing there after all. I just have to convince my dear husband it is worth the trip.”

 

“And they also have the Thavnairian Consulate there. I know how much you favor their silks,” Marius offered with a gentle prod.

 

Drucilla’s expression finally broke into acquiescing smile. “Alright, I shall speak to Julius about it when I find his mood favorable. But you better write until I manage it!” Her delight soon faded as she frowned soberly at him. “Do not let them overwork you. Hm?”

 

Marius answered with a tilt of his head and helpless shrug. “We are still talking about the Imperial army?”

 

His sister’s eyes slowly narrowed. Not having a comeback, she grabbed the nearest thing she could find -- a pillow, thankfully -- and threw it at him.

 

Marius laughed and feigned surrender as he staggered away after the impact. While neither of them could deny the truth underlying those sentiments, all they could do was laugh about it. He did not know when he would enjoy another such moment with his sister, so he savored it for as long as he could.

Edited by Sentry

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The large barrel thunked onto the ground, the steaming water within jostling with the movement and splashing his arm. The heat only stung a little, and Marius was relieved that it was still plenty warm.

 

“This one better be hot.” Justus pushed off leisurely from his post at the Garlean Consulate gate. His voice remained slightly muffled behind the helm that marked all Garlean soldiers in Kugane, but his air of superiority came through loud and clear. Justus had only been in Kugane for a year before Marius arrived, but he took delight in receiving the newly-assigned soldier to delegate all the work he deigned not bother himself with.

 

Justus leaned over for an inspection and the bath water quickly steamed his mask. He immediately straightened with annoyance and waved toward the gate. Two servants came trotting out. “This one is good enough. You can take it in,” he ordered.

 

“Respectfully sir, we can have our usual contact get the water…” one of the servants murmured with a low bow.

 

There was a pause, but the tilt of the Garlean’s helmet spoke volumes in terms of the disdainful look that must have been behind it. “Know your place and do as you are told,” he snapped, his voice cold in an instant. The servants scurried back into the building with the water in tow. He then turned to Marius, who was still leaning on his knees, trying to catch his breath. “Now then. Retrieve two more barrels,” he said with a sneer.

 

Marius lifted his gaze tiredly, his long forelock dripping with sweat. His tunic clung to his chest and his arms still trembled with the exertion of running through the city three times now. During the first attempt he had gotten lost, and upon delivery, Justus deemed the water too lukewarm. The second attempt, he had tried to take an unfamiliar shortcut and nearly collided with a lalafell who had been bent over to study a vase. In a clumsy attempt to avoid both the Dunefolk and the ceramic work she was studying, Marius had stumbled and tripped, letting the water spill all over the stones of Kogane Dori. It took a lot of apologizing on his part to both the merchant and the lalafell, and the further delay only bought more displeasure from his commanding officer.

 

He supposed he should have been grateful that Justus saw it fit for him to be out of his Garlean uniform as he made his runs. The armor would have only hampered him further. Ironically, it was deemed not dignified for a Garlean soldier to be seen performing such menial tasks.

 

When Marius was slow to rise, Justus lifted his chin scornfully. “Be grateful that this is the way I orient you to the streets of Kugane. You will never forget the quickest way from the Hot Springs to the Consulate now,” he stated with an accompanying snicker.

 

Ignoring his aching back and the burning in his arms, Marius straightened and saluted. “Gratitude, ser.” He was answered with a satisfied snort from Garlean officer who waved him off.  With a determined yet resigned furrow to the brow, he turned around and began trotting towards the Rakuza District.

 

Marius was well familiar with the likes of his superior officer. Sympathy and leniency were never a virtue within the military, and Marius had long grown used to such treatment -- especially since he was not pure-blooded. Nor did he come from a family of any real influence. But he had climbed up and off of the bottom rung before, and knew he could do it again.

 

And at least he could not deny that Justus was right about one thing. He would not soon forget the route to the Bokaisen Hot Springs.

Edited by Sentry

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Everything hurt.

 

Marius lowered himself slowly against the tiles, all of his muscles aching in protest. The day had been full of laborious tasks, none that he had imagined would be part of his duty as a Garlean Consulate guard. But Justus seemed to take great pleasure in assigning him tasks that no other guards seemed obligated to perform. It was all under the facade of “educating the new arrival” but Marius knew better. He hoped that it was only temporary, an initiation or a whim perhaps, rather than what would be his daily routine for as long as Justus saw it fit.

 

His gaze rose to the skies above and the moon that was slowly making its trek to its zenith  The sloped slant of the Hingan rooftops allowed a natural recline, allowing him an easy view of both the starry skies and the landscape beneath. Even after a fortnight, he still found it breathtaking. Since arriving in the port city, he often found himself staring at all the foreign details, from the vibrantly colored banners, to the painted lanterns, the array of colorful umbrellas hanging above a vendor stand, to the paper wall partitions that separated the rooms. And at night, an entirely new vision beguiled his senses, the city’s rich colors emblazoned with strokes of lights and shadows that painted the city anew.

 

Views like this at the end of a long day eased his thoughts. Whatever pains that plagued his body slowly seeped away as he took comfort in the cool breeze rolling in from the pier. Marius far preferred unwinding on the rooftops rather than retiring to his small windowless room in the Consulate. He even pondered venturing to the Umineko Tea House to try the teas there. He had heard from a passing resident that the establishment was known for their flavorful drinks. Of course, whenever he neared anyone while in uniform in hopes of hearing more details, most often fell to a nervous silence. They all seemed to respect (or more likely fear) his presence, and none offered a friendly smile nor a spontaneous conversation. It was probably for the best, for it would be frowned upon if he were to actually try and socialize with the natives.

 

Still, his curiosity tugged at him. He was in a foreign city after having travelled across the seas; it was an opportunity for exploration and learning that he could not resist. He imagined he would not gain any guidance from the natives however. Hingans were polite enough, but not social, at least not to him. Fortunately, they weren’t like the citizens in an occupied state; there were no hostilities -- open or repressed. But their unease about him was still discernable. And then there were the other foreigners, whose dislike for his uniform was obvious to anyone paying attention.

 

He suddenly wished Atticus were here. His friend always knew how to stay just within the rules and yet somehow justify bending them. Atticus was the one that would always convince him that reckless ideas still had merit. Had Marius tried the same on his own, he surely would have met with far worse consequences than being sent to Kugane. Atticus was always more charismatic than he, influential or not. What would his friend say now?

 

The mumbling of voices and distant laughter drew his attention to a group of people walking through the streets below, and some of them were holding what looked to be colorful round pastries arranged on skewers. They were leisurely chatting with each other as they made their way toward the Inn at the end of the avenue.

 

Drucilla would probably enjoy those treats, he thought. There were no rules against partaking in the offerings this city had to offer, after all. He just had to be careful not to tarnish the Imperial repute. But if he was out of uniform… none of the natives would recognize him patronizing their stores.

 

Besides, if he did not explore what the Hingans had to offer here in the city, what would he show his sister when she visits? He owed it to Drucilla to at least do the research. Justus may not approve of it, but Marius was not beholden to his superior officer during his offtime. And if he went about it at night, likely not many would notice him. Besides, Hingans were too cordial  to pry anyway.

 

A grin split across his lips as he rose.  

Edited by Sentry

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“Are you certain you do not want us to take care of this?”

 

The two servants, Aldwyn and Estrid, hovered near him. They were in their usual subservient hunched pose, hands clasped in front of them... but the look they gave Marius was one of bewilderment. After all, cleaning the bath and emptying out the bathwater were a part of their duties. No Imperial soldiers would ever deign to clean up after the dignitaries have taken their leisurely soaks.

 

It was true that soldiers were also never asked to deliver the bath water before Marius came, but the servants never mentioned it again after Justus dismissed them that first time. Ever since, Aldwyn and Estrid just lingered about nearby, waiting for a command from Marius to do whatever was necessary. But such orders never came from him. Marius preferred to do whatever he could himself.

 

The two Hyurs, who were much older than he--perhaps in their fifties, had been serving the Consulate for years. They carried out their duties without complaint and did all that was ordered of them punctually and efficiently. At first, Marius thought they would be relieved that certain duties had been lifted from their shoulders. He would happily let them do as they pleased as he went about completing whatever Justus had ordered him to in their stead. But soon, Marius began to realize that they felt a certain measure of unease when one their duties was being performed by another. They held to the belief that their worth was measured by their work.

 

So Marius stopped dismissing them, instead accepting their help with quiet gratitude. And they, in turn, seemed more content in carrying on about their day.

But in this task, Marius refused their aid. “Only on this particular occasion, I must insist.” Marius gave an apologetic smile as he lifted one edge of the tub, to drain the water back out. Instead of emptying it through the usual drain into the sewers, he was pouring the water back out into large barrel. This seemed to confuse the two servants greatly.

 

“Perhaps he has become addled from the heat,” Marius heard Aldwyn whisper to Estrid.

 

“Too much work,” Estrid nodded back with a deeply concerned look.

 

Marius stood after the last of the water was poured into the barrel. He chuckled and gave them a bright smile. “You two worry too much. I am of sound of mind. It’s just that... this particular bath water, I would like to take care of myself.” He waved them off. “Do go on. I am certain you have other things to tend to.”

 

When the two shuffled off, still wearing matching worried looks, Marius heaved the barrel into his arms, and began to make his way out of the manse. It was true that Justus did not order this of him, but it was a task he felt he needed to attend to himself.

 

The water at this spring is cheerful. It is well-loved, and knows it,” she had said.

 

What a peculiar sun it had been. He had broken his own streak of thirty suns without any incident in delivering the bath water until earlier today. He had the misfortune of crashing into a foreign Hyur woman in the middle of the street, and rather tragically soaking her to the bone with the barrel of water he had been tasked to deliver.

 

He still remembered clearly the woman on the ground, the water sinking into the dirt around her. Her deep red hair clung to her face, as rivulets of water traveled alongside her green eyes, with a few droplets lingering on her lashes. She seemed more surprised than anything that the water was warm.

 

But not only had she shown no anger, she proceeded to show him something strange and miraculous. She spoke to the next barrel of water he retrieved and told him that the water had agreed, as a favor, to stay warm for many bells. Or until it touched the sea.

 

Marius was slow to believe it, even though he had read about Hearers long before coming to Kugane. Reading was his love, and learning about foreign tales and histories had always fascinated him so. And yet, when he read about the strange creatures of this place called the Black Shroud, he had imagined both Hearers and the Children of the Forest as miniature childlike people with horns. At least that was what he allowed himself to imagine.

 

Liadan was the furthest thing from a horned child. Her face actually reminded him of another, a childhood vision that had long been absent from his mind. He had stared at her, rather shamelessly so, at first. She did not seem to notice. Instead, she spoke of her teachings.

 

We are taught to seek balance in all things, that to know how to mend, you must know how to break.  But I did not journey this far from home to break others. I came to calm storms and heal wounds.

 

Her words held a certain poetic beauty that still moved him. All he could do was to invite her to dine with him before she left the port city.

 

The sounds of the ocean returned his attention to the scenery before him. He had reached the end of the pier, and the moonlight shimmered over the deep blue horizon.

 

“Now, into the sea you go,” Marius whispered into the barrel as he kneeled at the edge and poured the contents out. Steam rose and warmed his face as the hot spring water descended into the ocean. As she had said, the water kept its promise and did not cool until then. He could almost imagine it swirling happily before scattering into the sea.

 

Marius smiled, and made his way back to the Consulate. It had been a peculiar sun indeed.

Edited by Sentry

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“Not bad,” Elam grunted, looking through the box. He picked up a gunblade from the confines of the crate, turning it over in his hand for an examination.

 

Justus suppressed the sneer that wanted to twist one corner of his lip. It was all he could do to resist any outward display of scorn for the Highlander. Even if many savages have come to learn how to use and appreciate all that Garlean technology had to offer, Justus was still not convinced that they knew even half of the intricacies of what made magitek work. That is why they oft came to people like him to pay exorbitant amounts of money and obtain it illegally.

 

Justus generally ignored the rumors of that traitor, Cid Garlond, working for the savages and actually opening up a company that manufactured weapons using Garlean technology. It was still rare enough that Justus was not running short of customers. And being stationed in Kugane, where much Garlean products were shipped for sale to other nations... well, that was a perfect place for him to conduct his own private sales.

 

He ran a hand through his dark hair, slicking it back. His third eye blinked as he glanced about their surroundings.

 

The pier was quiet, as it should have been. Justus had made arrangements to block all access to it for a set period of time. It was also late enough that most the city had retired for the night. He had made certain that only specific personnel was assigned to patrol duty in this area so that they would all turn a blind eye to the exchange occurring between a Garlean and a Highlander. When he was satisfied that the area was still secure, he turned his third eye's attention to the man in front of him.

 

Elam Grave was a new contact; Justus had never met him before. He was a tall, thick-shouldered man, black of hair and short of words, with no pleasantries to be spared. That suited Justus just fine, as he wanted to limit his encounters with savages as much as possible. Crescent Enterprises had sent this new agent following the previous contact's untimely demise. The former handler had been discovered while transporting the weaponry that he sold him, so Justus was forced to shoot the man in the head--quickly and publicly--before any other details could be discovered. Marius Aventine had tried to arrest the man to question him, fool that he was, but Justus put an end to that notion with one pull of the trigger.

 

When the dead man's replacement arrived to re-establish Crescent's smuggling trade, the Highlander didn’t seem to care for what transpired before him, only that he was certain he would not make the same mistakes that his predecessor did.

 

Justus had to correct mistakes of his own making. Assigning Aventine to pier duty to oversee the general shipments was a mistake, he had quickly realized. The man was too diligent to the point of annoyance, and he did not let one unlabeled box go unnoticed. Justus was full aware that his involvement in this illegal trade could have been uncovered, and he did not want to know what kind of punishment would follow. But short of framing Marius and having him arrested and physically removed, Justus was at a loss with what to do. But something will have to be done, he thought sourly.

 

“That should do it.” Elam shut the box tight, securing the lock.

 

Justus nodded. "Leave the payment at the end of the pier, and we're done."

 

“Payment will be given after I receive confirmation that this shipment is secured at the Cove.” Elam said the impertinent words as though no argument would be brooked.

 

“That has never been the deal," Justus said with a glower. "Payment always has been up front.”

 

The Highlander gave him a smirk, his dark gaze cold and steady. “My employer does not appreciate not receiving something he has already paid for. I believe the last shipment was sent back to your warehouse after it was confiscated.”

 

The Garlean’s upper lip twitched. “That was because of your agent’s sloppy handling. That fiasco nearly exposed me.”

 

“Pretty sure the payment you received well made up for your anxiety.” The Highlander’s growling voice was almost mocking. It only further deepened Justus’ indignation. “Anyroad, you're selling the exact same merchandise back to us a second time, aren't you?” Elam laid a hand on the box he just closed.

 

Justus remained silent, although his eyes narrowed just slightly. Without knowing the full inventory of all the weapons, there was no way the Highlander could know that. The corner of his lip twitched slightly, and the third eye intently stared at the man.

 

Elam snorted, seemingly amused. “Aye, silence tells me all I need to know. Really, I don’t care. I'm not the one paying for this. My employer is, and for whatever reason he’s willing to do it twice." The Highlander smiled a smile that did not reach his dark eye. "Maybe he's just a nice guy.” He finally just waved a hand once, dismissively. “Not my business. I'm just here to make sure all goes smoothly. Glad it has.”

 

The Garlean curled an ugly snarl, displeased by the very tone of this exchange. An Ala Mhigan savage--mocking him. Justus cared not for the overall politics of the Empire, so long as it promoted his own wealth, but he still saw these lesser tribes for what they were. He couldn’t stomach the thought that the warlike Ala Mhigans, rustic backwater people like the Hingans, and the bestial Xaela tribes somehow succeeded in liberating occupied lands from the Imperial hold.

“My side has been well secured,” Elam continued, throwing a tarp over the box, and gesturing to a few Hyurs who had been waiting behind him to carry the crate away. He gave a pointed look at the Garlean. “Make certain the same can be said on your end, eh?”

 

“There will be no mistake on my end.” Justus’ answer was sharp and clipped.

 

Elam gave him a nonchalant shrug and turned, leaving the pier without another word.

Edited by Sentry

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The tiles were slick with rain that fell from an ink-black sky.

 

Despite the rubber soles of his boots, Marius found certain inclines over specific spots still caused him to slip. He had become well familiar with their locations by now, as he came out nightly to breathe the cool evening air. Even rainfall did not deter his excursions; he found that the expanse of the ocean view, the bright colors of the city, and the endless canvas of stars above cleared his mind and renewed his spirit.

 

Lately, some of his duties had come to weigh more heavily on his mind. Marius had witnessed Justus shoot someone in the head. The accusation was that the foreigner, an Eorzean, was stealing Garlean weapons while the ship was docked in Kugane. The man was judged and executed on the spot by his commanding officer, without as much as a word in his defense. Marius knew Garlean law to be strict without mercy, but something about this case still did not settle easily in his mind. Just how did he manage to gain access to the weapons? Some of the inventory that was found was not meant for general trade, the technology was too advanced. So how had they come to be on the trade ship? Surely the Eorzean had other contacts to enable his access, but with the deadly sentence passed, no further questions could be asked.

 

Marius had initially inquired around about the dead man, but was immediately dismissed by Justus from the investigation. He wasn’t sure if it was a way that Justus was trying to minimize the appearance of flaws in security by leading the probe himself, or if it was motivated by something more.

He was curious about the truth himself, so he had been watching the streets at night as well as discreetly investigating the dead man and researching any possible acquaintances.

 

All without gaining the notice of his superior officer.

 

These were the speculations that perplexed him, and he found running over the rooftops, sometimes at full sprint from building to building, released the tensions in his muscles and freed his thoughts from their usual constraints.

 

He skidded to a stop at the bottom of the sloped tiled roof, finding leverage with his wide stance and lowered posture. His quickened breaths came as small puffs of steam against the cold night air, his chest rising and falling after the run across the city. But his attention was drawn upwards, toward the towering wooden beams that overlooked the city from the north. He spotted a figure swinging from the wooden pillars, the silhouette visible only when it was set against the bright banners that hung higher up. He squinted to try and make out the details, though the person was dressed in all black and well hidden by the darkness of the night.

 

With a curious smirk he decided to follow, and stepped over the tightly hung ropes with the lanterns hanging above the streets. He crested a few more rooftops before he was able to close some distance between them, and as he did so, he could see that the figure was a woman, with a gun holstered on her back. Well, well. An odd mixture of alarm and curiosity pushed him to continue pursuit, despite the fact that he himself was not armed.

 

As she leaped with ease from one pillar to another, he had to admire her dexterity. As he too liked to climb and test himself with balancing challenges, he made a mental note to try and test out her path through the pillars the next chance he got. Marius finally came to a stop at the end of the last building on the street, the courtyard of the Sekiseigumi Barracks opening up below him. The woman still continued to traverse through the air, although she too eventually reached the end of the rafters.

 

“Where will you go now?” Marius murmured to himself as he watched. He then arched both brows when she turned and looked directly at him, giving him a two finger salute. He thought he spied a grin.

 

Then she leaped off the pillar.

 

Marius leaned forward as he watched her free fall through the air, until she grabbed at a high hanging banner, the fabric twisting and knotting with her weight as she gripped it firmly to slow her fall while she slid down its length. A high pitched whistle came from one of the watch towers; apparently the odd movements of the banner had finally caught an attention of a sekiseigumi standing watch. A few shouts rang through the air and Marius saw samurais darting through the streets in the direction of the woman’s descent.

 

Her silhouette disappeared beyond the walls and rooftops of the barracks, and so did the rushing guards.

 

As he stood at the edge of the roof, Marius could not see the final fate of the pillar jumper. What a reckless thing to do, he mused with a shake of his head. But still, the adventurous part of him wanted to see if he could duplicate the feat himself.

 

When no further shouts came from that corner of the city, Marius turned and trotted the way he came. If she was caught, he would find out in the morning when he made his patrols, and if she wasn’t…

 

Well, perhaps he would see her again tomorrow night.

 

But as he made his way back toward the Bokairo Inn, he noticed a flicker of light on the pier, near the Garlean trade ship. He paused and lowered his goggles over his eyes to get a better view, quickly spotting two figures on the docks. He frowned; only guards should be stationed near the ship at this late hour, and of the two that he could make out, only one of them wore the uniform. The other was a taller hyur, possibly a Highlander.

 

Could this be a lead into the Garlean weapons theft?

 

The rain began to fall heavier, now drenching his hair and snaking in rivulets down his cheeks. Bad idea for bad weather...

 

But it was an opportunity that Marius could not ignore. He leaped down from the rooftops onto the streets below, and began to make his way toward the docks.

Edited by Sentry

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“Aventine, you are on pier duty.”

 

Justus pyr Druilio did not look up from his papers as he barked out the order, his dark eyes narrowed intently on the report that was in front of him. It irritated him that he felt nervous enough to avoid the gaze of an inferior. The pen in his hand tapped with some force onto the desk.

 

“Pier duty?” Surprise was evident in his voice, as Marius oen Aventine stood in attention in front of him. Justus had made it a point to avoid assigning him to anywhere near the weapon shipments since the day when he had to shoot Hawkins, the previous Eorzean contact. Justus knew that Aventine had initially advocated for himself to investigate the missing cargo, but he had assigned him to other duties far less important.

 

That was his mistake. He should have kept a better eye on Aventine. It was only after the blasted can’t-help-but-be-earnest peon reported that he saw suspicious activity on the pier, that Justus had become aware of his continued meddling in the matter.

 

I had forbade it but he continued to investigate under my nose. His lips twisted into a sneer at the very thought, and he had to forcibly prevent himself from grinding his teeth. He should have swiftly punished Aventine for his insubordinate behavior, but the report he had made was filed to both him and his superior officer. To save face, Justus had no choice but to act on it.

 

That did not go over well with Grave. Not one bit.

 

It was when the tip of his pen nearly punctured a hole into the document that Justus stopped his relentless tapping.

 

“I have reports of the raid on the stolen weapons,” Justus said, barely keeping check of his simmering anger. “All five soldiers, butchered. No weapons retrieved.”

 

“Sir,” Marius answered, consternation darkening his features. “If we had sent more in pursuit… perhaps--”

 

“I did not ask for your opinion,” Justus snapped as he slapped the pen against the desk. “With Doma no longer under the Imperial control, large excursions into Yanxia are now frowned upon. At least we only lost conscripted Domans. They died upon their own treacherous land.”

 

Justus noted the slight tightening of the man’s jaw even as Aventine continued to stand silent in attention. He had no doubt that Marius harbored some sympathy--or even a vague sense of loyalty--towards other soldiers who were not true Garlean. That made Justus detest him even more.

 

“So now we’ve lost both the weapons and the soldiers. So I am assigning you personally, to oversee the arrival and departure of the next shipment. Since you seem to have taken a personal interest.” He didn’t bother hiding the disdain in his voice. “Dismissed.”

 

“Yes sir.” Aventine saluted sharply, before turning and exiting the room.

 

Justus stared at the door that closed behind him, a displeased twist lingering for awhile longer on his face. At least this might be the last I have to deal with him. It took much convincing on his part, but Justus was able to deflect much of Grave’s ire. After all, he had just told the Highlander the truth. He was just covering his tracks in sending those soldiers, but he had no intention in ending what had been a profitable deal between him and the agents of Crescent Enterprises.

 

Justus also reminded Grave that he sent the least number of soldiers that he could, and conscripted forces no less, with inferior arms. Had he asked to send an advanced squadron, likely Grave’s forces would have suffered heavier losses.

 

Grave finally seemed appeased when Justus offered up Aventine as the leak for him to eliminate; assassinating one of his own would have been much too tricky for Justus to handle it himself. But a Garlean soldier dying at the hands of Eorzean savages would draw suspicions elsewhere. And perhaps it would lend more credence to his argument of sending more weapons and soldiers to fortify the unit guarding the Consulate. Justus could then have his pick of the newly assigned to command.

 

A nasally exhale escaped his nose as he picked up his pen again, scribbling his signature upon the report. The deaths would be blamed on the Domans as well as the Eorzean smugglers that were responsible for the theft, while much care was taken not to blame the Hingans. The peace--and the trade it brought--had to be maintained between Garlemald and Hingashi after all. Kugane was an important port for the Imperial trade industry.

 

There was also the smuggling ring that filled his own pockets that Justus had to protect.

 

Aventine would be but a barely notable sacrifice in the larger picture, a bug crushed by the wheel that would keep turning.

 

Justus finally snorted, shook his head to rid it of thoughts of Marius oen Aventine, and reached for the next report.

Edited by Sentry

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Rain. Of course it would rain, this night of all nights.

 

Shael glowered at the thick storm clouds in the sky. The rain had started to fall steadily a bell ago, soaking her hair and clothing. She was wholly shrouded in black attire, save for the red goggles that rested over her eyes. At least she had enough sense to equip herself with gear that afforded her plenty of traction; her gloves and boots were made to scale difficult landscape. The rafters that supported the deck next to the Bokaisen Hot Springs usually would not pose a huge challenge for her, but when bathed in rain, all the surfaces become more slick and precarious.

 

But this was the best spot. She had scouted out the area around the docks for multiple nights, to see where she would gain the best vantage point. Up high and north of the pier, she could see the entire length of the landing. Rain just made her footing slightly tricky is all. She adjusted the setting of her goggles with a few presses on the side of the frame, allowing her to focus in on those below.

 

The sole Garlean soldier walking the docks was easy to find. Grave assured her that there would be only one Imperial assigned to patrol for a sennight, so that there would be no mistaken identity about her kill target. At least the rain deterred random bypassers from strolling onto the dock, and the stalls had closed up early due to the unfavorable weather.

 

So who in hells was sitting at the end of the pier? Shael squinted as she saw the Garlean approach a seated figure, a female hyur from the look of things. What surprised her even more was that he then took a seat next to the woman. Imperial soldiers weren’t known to be inclined to carry on any conversations with non-Garleans.

 

Stop asking questions, Shael. She had already delayed in carrying this out. The time had run out for any lingering doubts or hesitation. What did she care about a Garlean anyoad? She had killed plenty of them during her time with the Resistance, and even more recently in the Gyr Abania conflict. Was it the fact that Grave wanted him dead that bothered her? Or the fact that she had left the war, to escape to Othard, and this was just her returning back to her old ways again?

 

This is different, she told herself with a grimace. After this job, Grave agreed to leave both Nabi and Tserende out of his business. Any kill was worth getting him away from those she cared about. She drew her rifle from her back, and with a snap and a click, affixed it onto a vertical wooden beam. She adjusted the scope mounted on her rifle and squinted into it. With a flick of the finger, she activated the targeting light. Her finger hovered over the trigger as she guided the small blue pinpoint over the Imperial’s back then the back of his head. Her finger was ready to pull the trigger, when the woman the Imperial was seated next to, turned to face him.

 

She was a female Midlander, of fair complexion and dark reddish hair. Shael did not recognize her, but her face reminded her of another redhead she knew back in Eorzea. In that moment, her hand twitched involuntarily, shifting the target light onto her forehead. Shite. Shael shifted it back quickly. The last remnants of Grave’s drugs were still running through her system. Stop. Hesitating. She fixed the blue mote of light squarely on the back of the Garlean soldier’s head and fired.

 

She had taken such sniper shots before in the war. There was never a satisfaction to it, catching the enemy unawares and watching them slump forward lifeless in an instant. But it was something she was good at and she could not deny its efficiency and effectiveness. And when the job was done, she would at least feel some sense of completion that her preparation had paid off in the end.

 

This time, that twitch of her finger undid all her groundwork. At the last minute, the soldier reached for the woman, pulling her down and shielding her with his own body. Her first shot sailed right over the man. Shael hardly had time to think. The fact that he was using his body to protect the woman -- one who did not seem to be an Imperial -- nagged at the back of her mind, but her element of surprise was blown. With a foul grimace, she squinted into the scope again. The Garlean had ducked his head out of her line of sight, but his broad back would do. Enough holes would be almost as quick in bleeding him out anyroad. She fired two more shots into his upper back and another aimed for his flank.

 

She saw his body jerk twice as the impact of her shots pierced through his armor. She saw him draw his own weapon, a gun that hung from his hip, but he maintained his defensive stance over the woman. It would do him no good. She was not her target anyroad. All Shael had to do was to keep shooting him until he died.

 

But then a white shield suddenly grew around the Garlean and the woman, creating a dome of blinding light around them.

 

"Shite," Shael muttered under her breath. "What in soddin' hells..." She pulled back from the scope, one hand tapping at the frame of her goggles as she squinted. She tapped again as the scanners were recalibrating, but she already knew what the problem was. It was a lot of aether to get past to see what was within. And with the sudden appearance of a beacon in an otherwise poorly lit pier, she was starting to hear shouts from the watchtowers that the Sekiseigumi manned. Whatever and whoever had managed to coalesce all that aether was also raising the alarm. Her chance of succeeding in eliminating her kill target was fading into the wind.

 

She scowled a deep grimace. With practiced dexterity, she collapsed the stand and holstered the rifle onto her back. She took a few steps back and took a running leap, off the rafters and into the waters below.

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It felt like he was drowning.

 

Marius had been shot before, during his previous years of service; it was an expected part of duty as an infantry soldier. And the typical lifespan of a grunt was the shortest when compared to the rest of the ranks in the military, drastically so. So when he was demoted back to the lowest rank after his disobedience, he knew that a part of his sister’s distress was because of her concern for his safety.

 

He still remembered comforting her with the knowledge that he was to be stationed in Kugane, a peaceful port city. What dangers could there be when he was just serving as a guard to the Consulate and overseeing trade ships?

 

The bullets had easily penetrated his Imperial armor. From the target light he had spied only a seconds before the shot went off, he had already known -- even as he used himself as a shield to protect Liadan -- that likely whoever was shooting had advanced weaponry. He felt the piercing pain in both his upper back near the shoulder and another in the mid lower back. Lung, and possibly kidney. At least it was not his spine. Not yet. He was able to still reach for his gun and return fire, for however long he could.

 

“Get to safety,” he grunted as he raised his gun to where he thought the shots came from. But it was too far. He had no view of the shooter. At first he thought it was his blood loss that was causing him to lose sight. Everything became washed in white, and soon he realized that there was a dome of light that had descended over both him and Liadan, the smaller hyur lying beneath him. But in her hand was a glowing white staff.

 

“I’d be an easy target if I left this shield, soldier.” Liadan squirmed to the side to get a better view of what was happening, her voice sounding oddly distracted. “I mislike the openness of this place. We are too easy a target.” She closed her eyes and the light that swirled from her staff shifted to a pale green. Marius squinted as a thick mist began to rise through the wooden beams, as if emerging from the water beneath their feet.

 

She was a Hearer. Marius had almost forgotten. It had been months since he had seen her last, and their last encounter while he was in uniform had not been pleasant. She had not known who he was behind the mask, just another Imperial soldier that terrified her. As he took a seat next to her on the pier on this rainy night, he had hoped to tell her the truth. That the man who had soaked her on the streets of Kugane was also a Garlean soldier.

 

But now that he was bleeding internally, he would not have that chance. And even as he scanned the area around them, his arm with the gun was getting heavier by the second. “If you have to make your escape, the water might be the best route.” He turned back to her when he was reassured that the fog had hidden them from any ranged shooters. But that relief was short lived. His hand lost the hold of the gun, and it clattered to the ground. His reached down to steady himself, and his eyes came upon the blood staining her cloths. His blood. He coughed, and a coppery taste rose in the back of his throat.

 

“”We both go, or none at all. But first...” Liadan said firmly then laid a hand upon his shoulder. He could see in his periphery, a flare of pale green light. His eyes were drawn to the staff that she gripped in her other hand, that too mirrored that faint shimmer.

 

Suddenly his lungs expanded again with a new breath, as if he had just broken through the surface of the ocean for air. His arms no longer felt like they were tied to an anchor, and he grabbed his gun again and pushed off his knee. His body was responding, partly from the aetheric healing she just applied, and also in part due to the adrenaline running through his system. He glanced to the static dome around them. “Will this shield move with you? We should get off the pier.” His mind was racing still, there had been no further shots fired since the shield was raised. Did the shooter run? Was he the target or Liadan? He could also hear shouting from the other end of the pier. The alarm must have been raised.

 

“No.” Liadan shook her head. “Unfortunately, I reacted instinctively. This shield is too strong to be mobile.” She too looked through the shimmering haze. “However, I believe the Sei-Sekiseigumi are here. We may not need to move now.”

 

As they both expected, three samurais rushed up to them through the fog, two of them with blades drawn. “Drop your weapon!” The one in the center commanded. While the Hingan did not recognize Marius behind the Imperial mask, Marius knew him to be Kanekazu. They did not talk much, but he knew the samurai to be a strict but fair warrior.

 

Marius obeyed and laid his gun back down, keeping his hands up. One of the other samurais sidestepped around the glowing shield with his sword drawn, warily eyeing Liadan.

 

“My apologies, honored sir.” Liadan gave a nod to the Hingans, the white light fading from both the branches of her staff and the air. When the glow from her staff was extinguished, the dome also disappeared. “It was but a shield. We were attacked from a distance. This soldier was shot.” She kept her voice firm but respectful.

 

“Restrain him and search him,” Kanekazu ordered the other two samurais. Marius grunted as he was pushed back down to his knees, the forceful movement returning the burning pang to his back. He could feel the warmth starting to flow from his wounds even as his hands were pulled behind him.

 

“She tells the truth,” he said through gritted teeth, ignoring the growing ache. “The shots came from up high. She only raised the shield to protect us. You need to search the beams north of us.”

 

Kanekazu narrowed his eyes on both of them, then let out a sharp whistle to draw the attention of one of the other samurais searching the docks. He motioned northward toward the beams. He then scanned the rest of the pier before turning back to Liadan. With a lift of his chin, he gestured to the fog that still swirled around them. “Is this your doing as well?”

 

“It was the only thing I could think of to force our attacker to move closer and hopefully expose him or herself.” Liadan sighed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cause more trouble. I will ask it to disperse.” She closed her eyes for a several moments, her breathing becoming deep and even.

 

A sharp breeze swirled around them and the mist began to drift away. When she opened her eyes, she wore a consternated expression.

 

“Please be careful with him. This man nearly gave his life to protect mine when we were attacked.” Liadan gestured to her blood soaked clothing. “None of this is mine. He used his body as a shield. He is still wounded.” Her tone remained calm and polite, but Marius could tell there was tension in her small frame. “The healing I did was minimal, designed to keep him alive and little more. I need to finish healing him.”

 

“A conjurer,” Kanekazu observed. “Isn’t that what the westerners call you?” There was an odd inflection to his voice, possibly a hint of respect or appreciation. But his stoic expression did not betray either. His attention didn’t stay on her for too long as he glanced to the two other samurais next to Marius. “If he is healed enough to live, then we will take him to the barracks for questioning. If he is innocent, then the Consulate can send their own to retrieve him and finish the healing.”

 

Marius winced when he was dragged back to his feet. He could see the crimson drops from his fingertips staining the wet wooden floor. “Search the water as well,” he muttered. “It would likely have been the shooter’s escape route. And a guard for the lady. She may have been the target.”

 

Liadan straightened, raising her green eyes to meet that of the samurai in charge. "I am called a Hearer in the place of my birth. An emissary who intercedes for mankind with the spirits of the land. I know I ask much, sir, but among my people, to save the life of one you hate is an act of great mercy and honor. His people and mine remain at odds, but I would finish what I started. I owe him a great debt for his protection. I would repay it." She turned and gestured toward Marius. "I merely stabilized him. I could not afford to do more while holding the shield in place. Even now he bleeds. Please, do not leave me with such a debt on my conscience."

 

Kanekazu’s features tensed, his eyes narrowing. Just as his two men were about to drag Marius off, he held up his hand. Much to Marius’ relief, they halted. He shivered with another pang that shot through his back.

 

“Honor demands that debt be repaid,” the samurai echoed solemnly. With that, the two men stepped away from him, leaving Marius to sway slightly. The heaviness to his limbs were starting to return, and he had to blink a few times behind that mask to regain his focus. That was when Liadan stepped in front of him.

 

“I can’t force this,” she murmured to him, her gaze going over that featureless Imperial mask that covered his face. “It’s a gift, to be accepted or refused. But you risked much to shield me, and I would see you whole again without being further damaged by butchers playing at healing.”

 

Marius lifted his gaze to meet her eyes. “You don’t have to do this,” he replied quietly. “You have already saved my life.”

 

"You don't know many Hearers, I imagine." Her visage remained serene. "I made a mistake once, a long time ago. I called forth something I could not control. I did it to protect my family. I did it because I wanted vengeance. But blood that has been shed cannot be replaced, or atoned for, with yet more bloodshed. By the time I understood this, it was too late. And I was then too ignorant to control what my fear and grief had called forth." She swept her hand down to her bloodstained clothes. "My hands are red with the blood of your kinsman. This is something that I will have to carry for as long as I live. Yet you saw fit to lay your life down for mine.  You who do not even know me. You who could not know what I am. Will you give me this one thing? I shall ask nothing else of you. I would but have you know what your people seek to destroy. For it is almost certain you have never felt the healing of one such as me."

 

Marius stared at her for a long time in silence. He could not quite comprehend her words. That someone like her would be responsible for the violence she was admitting to. But before he knew it, he found himself nodding. “I do not doubt your words, Lady Hearer. Do as you wish.”

 

Liadan regarded him intently, wordless, before she gave him a nod in return. She brought about her bone-white staff in front of her, one hand steadying the tip of it upon the wooden pier, her other hand rising to place her palm flat against his chest. She then closed her eyes, and prayed.

 

What followed was something Marius did not understand. His eyes widened as that white blinding light returned, traveling down the shaft of the staff. There were symbols carved upon the bark that then came to life, as if written anew in starlight. Then beneath her fingers, the same light flared, spilling out in streams and ribbons around him. Even before he could flinch, it wrapped around his entire form. It was a magic that he had never seen, followed by the sensation he had never felt. Just as she had said. It was a surreal feeling; he felt as if he was almost lifted from where he stood by the sheer force of those glowing tendrils. He felt those metal slugs within his body leave him, and he knew he should feel pain as it traversed the thickness of his torso, but there was something soothing that immediately followed. Even his vision was drowned out in the light, as images flashed before him in an impossible speed. He didn't know how much time passed, or if it passed at all, until finally the world returned to him, leaving only his gasping breaths in the silence.

 

His feet were firmly back on the ground, had they ever left? There was a trail of moisture upon his cheek. Where did that come from? His mind spun with what he had just experienced, but one thing for certain, no pain remained upon his body. He let out a long exhale and looked down. Somewhere, his hand had gripped hers. His fingers closed in just a little tighter, just enough to bare his disbelief and awe.

 

"That was..." he rasped, then stopped. "What was that?"

 

Liadan was looking to their joined hands, her expression turning thoughtful. Her gaze was slow to return to his face, but when she looked upon him again, there was a certain gravity in her eyes. "Something most believe was lost so long ago that few even remember its name. It has been kept hidden for longer than we two have lived out of fear and, I confess, out of pride. Out of a belief that some are unworthy - as if mortals could ever be wise enough to decide who deserves hope, and who does not." Her voice turned almost derisive with those last words.

 

She sighed, her features softening and she smiled again. "That, soldier whose name I do not know, was hope. The hope of all mankind. The light which never dims, no matter how great the darkness grows. Many names have we called it, and none have truly captured it. It is aid when all seems lost, a promise long-forgotten but now fulfilled. It is that which the Void fears most, for it is that which the Void cannot overcome."

 

When her answer left Marius speechless, Liadan took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. She still did not pull back her hand. "It is the reason I left my homeland. For too long have we few stopped up our ears to a world losing hope. I will not close my ears to their cries, no matter who they may be or what banner they follow." She tilted her head, some of that weight leaving her frame. She gave him a wry look. "And, I suppose, you are now privy to perhaps my greatest secret."

The softest of exhales left his lips, the slow smile that rose upon face hidden behind the helm. She confessed of horrors, but this was the Liadan that he had met months ago. The woman who wanted to heal the world, the woman who spoke to happy warm spring waters. His pale eyes studied her face, the one he had recalled time and again since.

 

"Marius," he whispered. "My name is Marius."

 

That seemed to shatter her serene composure that had been unbroken until that moment. “M-Marius… but…” she stammered, a look of shock suffusing her features. He could see the recognition flaring in her eyes.

 

Kanekazu stepped in between them in that moment, blocking their view. “Well, that was an impressive display, Hearer.” His tone was one that would brook no further delay. He gestured to his two men, who then took Marius by the arm and started to lead him away.

 

Marius glanced once behind him as he went along dutifully with the Sekiseigumi. He could see her leaning to the side to get another look at him, confusion evident on her face. He had wished that he could have told her in his own time and his own way, but it was not to be. He had already waited too long, and tonight only demonstrated that some things may never come to be.

 

Liadan had entrusted him with her secret, so in return, he had given her his.

Edited by Sentry

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Justus paced the length of his room.

 

The Decurion read the reports from the Sekiseigumi thrice, his eyes combing over the words as if there were some hidden meaning to be found in between the letters. Aventine had been shot. Multiple times. He should have died. But instead, he sat in the brig without a scar to be seen on his body.

 

A white dome of light? Healing that came from some gnarled tree branch? Preposterous. And yet...

 

Aventine’s own report had also mentioned a Hearer. He was saved by one of those Eorzean tree-worshiping savages. Of all people.

 

Justus flung the report to the far side of the room, the individual papers flying into the air. His chest rose and fell with pent-up screams of anger he couldn’t release. His breath hissed through clenched teeth. This was Grave’s fault. He and his kind. Aventine had been left alone to patrol the docks. Just picking him off should have been an easy task.

 

Where did this cursed Hearer even come from? Why was she there that particular night? And what had possessed Aventine to protect the damnable woman?

Kanekazu, the lead samurai on the case, had mentioned something about honor and returning favors. Justus skimmed over all that nonsense. Sentimentality would be the death of anyone. Only, in Aventine’s case, it had saved him. Was he cavorting with the savages? If that was the case, it was going against protocol. But bringing attention to such a minor infraction would only raise more questions, would only beckon extra eyes onto everything else that had occurred. That, Justus could not afford. Close scrutiny by those above him may uncover the flaws in the records and the missing inventory.

 

Once Aventine was dead, he would make the perfect scapegoat. That, and the excuse for more arms and soldiers. Why did he refuse to just sodding die?

At least this incident bought him some time. Aventine would be put through multitude of medical exams. It still amazed him that after multiple gunshot wounds, the man only had minor bruises to show for it. Had the healing magic of Eorzea been grossly underestimated all this time? Certainly Garlemald had their own medical advancements, but nothing that was able to treat a fatal gunshot wound in matter of seconds that left the wounded almost as if he was never injured at all.

 

Justus narrowed his eyes, his pacing coming to a stop. Perhaps that was how he would twist this investigation. A request for soldiers to fortify against savages and their attempts to kill one of their own, as well as commissioning a side investigation into Hearers and their abilities. Certainly the medical engineers and historians may take interest in the details. Granted, they had no facilities for the study of such things, not here in Kugane. But should they bring one to the mainland of Ilsabard, certainly more complete experiments could be done. It would be a tricky thing, since Garlemald was under the guise of diplomacy within Hingashi that no such hostile actions would be authorized.

 

Justus let out a triumphant snort. He would task this to Aventine. It would get him off the trail of the missing weapons, and keep him busy until Justus could figure out a new way to cover his tracks. And if Aventine disobeyed, then Justus had every right to exercise his authority for disobedience against a superior. He just had to come up with plausible orders. And they should at least sound legal.

 

Grave would just have to wait. The scrutiny would be increased for awhile, and he could not risk getting caught. He knew the Highlander would be unhappy with this news, and that only drew another disdainful sound from his nose.

 

He needs me, not the other way around.

 

Justus was certain of that, at least. His course settled in his mind, the Decurion sat to begin the first of many requisition letters.

Edited by Sentry

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As the sun was setting to the west, the sky was starting to shed the colors of day, letting the darkness slowly spread over the port city below.

 

Marius sat on the rooftops, overlooking the herbal stall that had been rebuilt. Nabi had yet to return to her usual post, but the missive in his hand reassured him that the herbalist was back in Hingashi, recuperating with the Naeuris in Shirogane.

 

He hunched forward in his perch on top of the tiles, his hands hanging limp with his elbows propped on his legs. His fingers rubbed at the parchment in their grasp, a letter in each hand. Both were from non-Imperials, and both would be rather frowned upon should his superior officers get a wind of it. What missives would an Imperial soldier be exchanging with savages after all?

 

Marius was relieved to hear that Nabi had been retrieved and was safe. From the scattered bits of information he had gathered both from her and from the gruff Highlander that visited him a few suns ago, he had deduced that a friend of the Xaela had gotten into some trouble, being forced to fight in some illegal Doman fighting pits, and then Nabi herself got herself into that same mess when she tried to help him. At least she had left Kugane equipped with the little device that Marius had constructed for her. It would have rendered one of those collars useless.

 

He was more than surprised when a Highlander woman, one named Shael, then came to find him suns later, to inquire -- no demand -- of him a way to free Nabi of the same collar predicament. Marius was far less willing to help a woman who was practically threatening him with violence, but she seemed to have genuine concern for the Xaela herbalist, in her own angry way. And he did want to see Nabi well, so against his better judgement, and definitely against the wishes of his superiors should they ever find out, he engineered a new device, this one that deactivated and unlocked those collars remotely.

 

Should Justus or anyone else above him find out that he had shared Imperial technology with savages, ones that were used on conscripted soldiers no less, he would certainly face serious punishment.

 

He never did liked that term. Savages.

 

Marius let out a long sigh, his frame going lax in his reflection. Drucilla would be furious with him. She had always scolded him for showing any kind of leniency or benevolence toward anyone not Imperial in origin. But while his allegiance to the Empire and the emperor never wavered, he never believed that it meant being unable to show empathy or doing what he felt in his heart was the right thing to do.

 

Was that why he also blatantly ignored his superior officer’s orders to find and bring in another ‘savage’ for questioning and study?

 

His findex finger tapped against the letter in his other hand. One that had been left at the holstery in his name by Liadan.

 

It had been months since he was shot on the pier, and she had healed him miraculously with her magic. After he was cleared to return to duty, free of any undue influence or effects of Eorzean magic, Justus had handed him an order, to bring in the healer responsible for such an extraordinary feat. There were questions to be answered.

 

Marius had all but refused. Not outright, but by feigning the ignorance of her whereabouts. Her letter since reassured him that she was no longer in Hingashi, and for that he was relieved. Now he wasn’t openly disobeying orders. Liadan was no longer within the Imperial’s reach.

 

‘I want you to know that, whatever else may come, I am glad to have met you. You are the first of your kinsmen who has ever treated me with true civility and kindness. Even more, you risked your life to safeguard mine. I shall never forget what you did.’

 

It was for the best. With her back in Eorzea, Liadan was back with her own people, and hopefully, despite the contents of her letter, in the safety of her own land.

 

Marius leaned back, gazing up at the myriad of colors of the sky. His eyes drifted to the brilliant reddish hue toward the western horizon. And without conscious effort, his thoughts kept wandering back to the tresses that bore the same hue.

Edited by Sentry

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Many years ago...

 

The garlean soldier was writhing on the ground, bleeding from his stump of a leg, the lower portion of it having been blown off thanks to the explosives she had set earlier.

 

Shael approached the ruins of the wall, her gun rising to point at the man’s head. The garlean’s third eye flickered in the sunlight as the man turned to look up at her, fear contorting his face.

 

“Well, what is this? An actual true blood for once.” The Highlander snorted, a dark smirk quirking her lips. She had gotten used to seeing dead conscripted soldiers everywhere she went. She was starting to think that there were no more true Garleans that dared to dirty their hands on foreign soil. “I guess it’s my lucky sun.”

 

The Garlean closed his eyes, his head turning slightly away from the barrel of the gun. She could see that he was steeling himself for the inevitable.

 

Oh, death would come. Just not an easy one. At least not by her hands.

 

Shael lowered her gun from his head, pointing instead at his abdomen. She pulled the trigger.

 

The Garlean's scream cut through the air as the man recoiled in pain. Shael continued to walk past him, toward the remnants of the destroyed barricade. But she stopped when the agonized howls came to an abrupt end behind her with a sickening thunk and a weak gurgle.

 

She spun around to see the Garlean’s head rolling away on the ground, and a looming roegadyn standing by the corpse, heaving his giant axe back over his shoulder.

 

“Ya didn’t have to do that, Shooey. The alarm’s blaring all over the place. No one would have heard him.” She shrugged. “At least for awhile, anyroad.”

 

The Hellsguard shrugged and muttered a wordless mumble. He had a tense look on his face.

 

“So? For all the people they conscripted, that we killed, I think he was owed some agony. Far more than just bells of it. He would’a died, sooner or later. I chose later.” Shael turned back around to head toward the rubble, not wanting to see the obvious look of disapproval on Shooey’s face. He'd never liked cruelty, and didn't seem primed to start liking it now. And it wasn’t because of any sympathy for Garleans, but because he knew how it lingered on her like a foul smell. And because of him, Shael started to notice it too. How much colder she got with each kill. She just didn’t want to acknowledge it.

 

But Shooey wasn’t going to just let this go. His hand gripped her shoulder from behind, spinning her back around. He wasn’t angry. He was worried.

 

Shael avoided his gaze, rolling her eyes to the sky. But his large hands remained on her shoulders, nearly encasing it completely. He just stood there, looking at her.

 

Fine,” she relented with a groan. “Like I said, this be our last job, yeah?” She shrugged. “I already told Aylard.” The Highlander felt the weight of his hand lighten, the roegadyn’s stern expression easily splitting into a broad grin as he nodded. That made her smile too. “After this, we just be on our own on the seas. We'll be out of the war business for good.”

 

Her lips parted into a toothy grin. “We'll be starting our own business. How's smuggling weapons sound to you, Shooey?”




 

Now.


 

Shael tapped the ashes off the end of the cigar, letting it drift down to the wooden planks of the pier. One knee was propped up on the crate she was perched on, while the other leg hung off the edge. She didn’t bother turning, though one hand came to rest by her gun that lay next to her leg when she heard approaching footsteps. It was past middle of the night, Kugane had no more wandering patrons this late and the residents had gone to sleep long ago.

 

She was only expecting one person really, especially in this part of the pier and under the shadows of the criss crossing rafters that hid her and the crate she was sitting on from plain view.

 

Her presence didn’t surprise the newcomer either. Armored footsteps slowed, then eventually came to a stop.

 

“Ya know, I could never tell any of you apart with that helm. And the uniform.” Shael set the last remnants of her cigar on the crate, unhooking her leg and hopping off the box. She leaned an elbow against the crate, just next to her gun that rested there. “How do I know yer not the guy I tried to off a few months ago?”

 

The voice that emerged from behind the helm was muffled annoyance and scorn. “Well if you actually succeeded in what you were supposed to do, then you wouldn’t have that problem.”

 

Shael snorted and ran her hand through her ponytail. “Can’t argue that. Although I was assured he was going to be alone. And not enjoying some moonlight date with some conjurer.” She cocked her head at him. “Obviously yer still here and willing to do business. So my guess is you took care of him yourself, Justus pyr Drulio?”

 

There was an icy pause when she said his name out loud. The Garlean then yanked off his helm, revealing dark hair trimmed short, along with a sharp goatee on his chin. The man looked to be in his late forties from what Shaelen could tell. He had narrow and pointed eyes and hawk-like nose. And a third eye shimmered on his forehead.

 

Shael snorted, her fingers drumming on the top of the crate near her gun.

 

“Of course I took care of my own end. I may change my mind again on whether he needs to be disposed of, but I can’t afford that scrutiny right now. Maybe if something can be made to look like an accident.” Justus sounded annoyed even in explaining that much, and for that, Shael was pleased.

 

“Well good. As much as I enjoy shooting Imperials, I’d rather make money. And not have to run from the limb-lopping samurais.”

 

Justus narrowed his eyes at her, his lip twitching. “So what happened to Grave?”

 

Shael shrugged. “Accidents. Things happen in our line of business.” She tapped the crate she was leaning against. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t get rid of the surplus you’ve been hiding away.” She lowered her head, looking at the Garlean over the rim of her glasses. “You must be missing the extra wealth you’ve gotten used to.”

 

The Garlean snorted. “You? You were just a mercenary for Grave. What do you know of this business?”

 

She shrugged. “Not going to brag. You don’t need to know what I do. You only need to know this. I know your name, where you store your extra weapons, and your association with the Cove. And you also know I am offering you wealth. Just like Grave did.” She smirked, although it lacked any real humor, just a challenge. “So you interested?”

 

Justus wore a look of disgust, but after a long pause, he nodded. “I have no preferences among savages,” he hissed. He jutted his chin out to the crate next to her. “Do you have a payment for that ready then?”

 

Shael shook her head. “Not right now, eager soldier. I have to find a buyer.” She furrowed her brow, shooting him a warning look. “And if I even smell another ambush, remember. I am not shy about coming after you, here even in this city.”

 

The Garlean glared at her through slitted eyes. “Don’t bother with threats. Grave knew the circumstances of that trouble. Which is why you were hired to get rid of that trouble. Let’s not have selective memory here if we are going to do business?”

 

She shrugged, both hands in the air. “Just wanted to make that clear. Just as Grave can be replaced, so can you. I’d just rather not train another Imperial.” When the Garlean’s expression twisted into something uglier than it already was, Shael knew she was just at the threshold. She barely held off grinning wider.

 

“I’ll have payment for you in less than a moon,” she offered as appeasement. She gathered her gun and holstered it behind her, before she reached for what was left of that cigar. It was her very last one from Nabi. There was a small voice in the back of her mind that said that neither Nabi nor Tserende would approve of this.

 

But Nabi wasn’t ever going to know, and Tserende wasn’t here. Shael needed the money, but moreover, the excursion into that mountain lit a fire in her soul again. She found herself hungry for that thrill. The exhilaration that came with getting away with something she shouldn’t. Of surviving situations that she shouldn’t.

 

Elam had encroached on her illegal weapons business, anyroad. With him out the way, someone had to fill the void again. So why not her?

 

She stuck the cigar back into her mouth as she passed by the Garlean, patting him on the shoulder. Shooey would be proud. She didn’t shoot this one in the gut even if she wanted to do it so badly.

 

“Looking forward to doing business!” she called over her shoulder, and strode off into the night.

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