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Roen

Cigarettes and Fireflies

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Twenty-five years ago…

 

 

The battle was over.

 

Dark red blood dripped from the end of his greatsword as the booming horn sounded in the distance.

 

Chagur Jhungid stared at the Xaela that lay writhing on the ground before him, his hand grasping the shoulder where his arm had been severed. Lifeblood spurted angrily from where it should have been, and Chagur knew the fighter was not long for this world.

 

He had decided at the last minute to relieve the Kharlu warrior of his sword rather than his head, but it had only really bought his opponent a few more breaths to gaze upon his killer, as death’s oblivion came for him. A pity that it had been only seconds later that the battle was declared won. Chagur did not yet know which side was victorious, only that the time for fighting was over. Had he faced this adversary in the middle of the field, perhaps then a healer could reach him in time to save his life. But they were partly separated by large boulders jutting upwards from the ground, where the warrior had retreated to seek higher advantage against Chagur. It would be to no avail.

 

Neither the Jhungid nor the Kharlu believed as the Dotharl did, that they would return once more to this world in another body. The life lost on the battlefield would be their final end. It would be their ultimate sacrifice for the glory of their people.

 

It used to fuel his blood, the impending peril as he faced his enemies, year after year. But as Chagur looked around the battlefield, the bloodied bodies that were littering the landscape no longer represented a scene of a glorious courage. As the cries of feral brutality and agony still echoed through the air, he knew that it would soon be followed by sounds of wailing mothers and lovers, as they came to claim those they have lost.

 

The tip of the greatsword lowered to the ground, as the fallen Kharlu warrior drew his last breath, and his movements stopped. A large crimson pool surrounded his body, as it slowly seeped into the soil that would wear the stain for many suns.

 

“May the Mother guide you beyond this life,” Chagur prayed quietly.

 

It was then that a searing pain ripped through his gut, robbing him of his breath. Only upon seeing the speartip protruding out from his stomach, did he realize too late that he had lowered his guard. The battle had been declared over, although never before had he been foolish enough to assume that the rest abided by it as he did. Many eager young warriors often sought out one last strike against their embittered enemy.

 

Chagur spun around at the same time the spear withdrew, one hand reflexively going to the wound to slow the bleeding there. It was not a fatal wound yet, and he would only need to defend himself for a little longer, before his tribe’s healers would be able to spot him. All he needed was to strike down the spear wielder.

 

But when he looked upon his adversary, something made him pause. It was a vision, for surely it was not possible to see the face that flashed before him now, here, on the battlefield. In a blink of an eye the ghostly visage of a woman faded, leaving that of a fearsome male Xaela instead. Chagur's arm lost but a second with his hesitation, his greatsword falling short of a strike that would have cut across his enemy’s chest. The massive Kharlu warrior leaped back out of reach in that half-heartbeat of a moment, then lunged again with his weapon. And this time, the spear found its mark.

 

Chagur saw his own blood spray out of his mouth as he fell to his knees, then fell back, limbs heavy, onto the dirt. He felt his own lifeblood leave his body in great pulsing gouts, as his killer stepped forward to loom over him.

 

Once more the vision returned even as darkness fell. There were the golden eyes that were so familiar and comforting.

 

As his last breath left him, Chagur could imagine in the distance, her cries of sorrow. He prayed to the Mother to watch over her even as death’s oblivion took him.

 

 

 

Years later…

 

“You dare walk out on me, Chanai?”

 

Tugan’s voice was booming, and it shook Chanai to the bone. She was convinced that his rage echoed well beyond his yurt, although none dared to enter the abode for the fear of his wrath.

 

Chanai forced her back to straighten as she turned toward him, her golden eyes rising to meet that of her brother’s. While their pale yet warmly-hued gaze made them easily recognizable as kin by blood, that is where their similarities ended. Chanai was a slight figure with black hair and slender horns slicked backwards, whereas Tugan was one of the tallest of the males, with thick onyx horns that jutted forward. His frame was that of a chiseled warrior, and he wore his battle garment with strength befitting his formidable size. Where she mended wounds and soothed pain, he excelled in the martial arts, relishing especially in killing and violence. He was a highly valued member of the Kharlu for his battle prowess, as anything that gave the tribe advantage over their nemesis, the Jhungid, was given much reverence.

 

None dared cross Tugan Kharlu, especially those of his blood. So when he came upon his sister’s carefully packed stash of supplies, containing cured meats, jars of preserved fruits and dried herbs, he had confirmation that his long held suspicion was true. That his sister had planned to leave the tribe that had been their home for all their lives. And Chanai could see that he could barely contain his anger, and not strike her where she stood. Even when she did not deny his accusation.

 

“I cannot abide by our ways any longer, brother,” she said quietly. She was surprised when she heard her own voice, calm and steady. She had to do this, for her child. “I cannot stay here.”

 

Tugan's nostrils were flared and his lips downturned with loathing. The flickering flames within the tent threw fearsome shadows upon his visage; but his pale eyes remained lit within his dark silhouette and pierced her through like a spear. “You never had the heart for our way of life. You were born a whimpering whelp. If it was not for me, you would have been relegated to caring for the newest captives, as their wet nurse.” He spat on the ground. “Instead you are a respected curer amongst the tribe. And this is not good enough for you?”

 

Chanai clenched her fist at her side, her chin tilting upward. “You had nothing to do with the work I’ve done. You have never worked to preserve a life nor heal what was broken. All you aspire to do is soak the land in blood in the name of Kharlu.” And bask in the glory, she wanted to add. The tribe had their own ideals on why they continued to fight their nemesis, why the yearly war was necessary. But she knew better of her brother. It was a means to quench his thirst for what he enjoyed the most: seeing his enemies fall at his feet.

 

She would not have her child grow up under such influence; Nabi would not take part in the Kharlu’s warring way of life. Her daughter would not know the depths of the sorrow for a love lost.

 

A hiss of breath through his gritted teeth warned Chanai that her brother’s temper was nearly at its peak. She could feel her heart pounding against her chest, but she dared not move. She wanted to take flight, like a rabbit who had just caught a wolf’s scent upwind. But she knew if she were to flee now, her brother would draw his weapon and cut her down.

 

The silence that fell between them was nearly suffocating. He took a step toward her, standing three fulms above her head. His fingers opened and closed, hovering next to the short sword that hung by his belt.

 

“Go,” rose a rumble from Tugan’s chest. His fingers had stopped moving. “Leave my sight and never return.” Disgust ran thick in his voice. “I will no longer see you as my blood. You will be a traitor. A deserter.”

 

A stuttered breath left Chanai’s lips, and the woman had to hold herself from collapsing to the ground in relief. She took a slow step back, then another, from the menacing frame that was her brother. She had to be sure he would not change her mind and unsheath his blade when her back was turned. When he remained still as stone, she gave him a bow. “My thanks to you, brother. You will never see me again.” She turned, ready to flee the tent as fast as her feet would take her.

 

“On one condition.” Tugan’s voice cut through the heavy night air. “Leave the child.”

 

That froze Chanai in an instant. The hand that was reaching for the entrance dropped to her side, and the woman turned, new fire in her eyes. “Nabi is my daughter.”

 

“She belongs to the Kharlu. Even if she carries the tainted blood of her sire.” Tugan’s hand was now resting on the hilt of his sword, his expression twisting into one of triumph. Even in this, he would claim his spoils. Chanai was caught speechless at the revelation that his brother had known about Nabi’s father. It was a secret she had never dared to share with anyone.

 

“And you still let me live? All these years?” Chanai whispered hoarsely, seeing her brother in a new light. She had never suspected such familial loyalty.

 

Tugan sneered, his grin gleaming and frightening as it split a white fissure across his dark face. “Half of her carries their blood, and yet she is of Kharlu. She is mine. You tell me, who is the victor?”

 

Of course. Chanai quickly chided herself for suspecting any pity from her brother. It is not about loyalty. It is about power. It always has been.

 

She felt all of her muscles tense, and the Xaela stood there rigid as her thoughts whirled with turmoil and grim determination. She lowered her head, her hands clasping in front of her. “If I leave her, you would let me go? You will not hunt me down?”

 

Tugan nodded once but firmly. “I will grant you this one mercy. Dusk Mother would weep should I would raise blade against my own kin so easily. But your cowardice will not make two deserters of our blood. Carry your own sins with you into the wind. I will see that she bears none of your crime.” Some of his wrath had faded, his voice now only rumbled like distant thunder.

 

“And you swear, you will take good care of her?” Chanai felt herself tremble again, as did her voice.

 

“I swear by the Mother.”

 

Chanai clenched her fists so tightly by her side that she nearly drew blood. She bowed again, deeply from her waist. “Be the father to her that she never had, Tugan. Farewell.” She stifled a sob and spun around, running out of his yurt. Her brother did not stop her.

 

She sprinted to her tent, paying no heed to anyone else staring at her. Loud rebukes coming from her brother’s yurt were not unusual, as was the scene of his sister retreating from it in tears. Others would let her be, and would allow solitary meditation for at least the rest of the night.

 

The fabric to the tent’s entrance was thrown open as she rushed in. She immediately went to all of the little packets that she had been hiding away in different places within her yurt. He had found the largest collection but not all of them. Not the small mementos like a carefully woven bracelet of gold and silver threads, and not the spare clothes that only a child could wear.

 

Chanai had never explicitly lied to her brother before. She knew he believed her; that she would leave Nabi behind. But he knew nothing of true love. Else he would know that her life mattered not if she could not save that of her daughter.

 

Chanai would leave the Kharlu that night. With her young sleeping daughter in tow. Even if it meant a death sentence upon her head for the rest of her life.

Edited by Roen

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The dark lid of the ceramic pot was slightly lifted, golden eyes peering carefully at the contents within. A puff of steam greeted her nose first as the pressure trapped within was released, and Nabi could see the bed of green pollen seeds still bobbing up and down in the water. She set the lid back down over the pot, and bent to add a few more pieces of wood to the flame burning below it.

 

“Do any of your potions ever have an agreeable scent?”

 

Nabi turned from her small fire pit to the Hingan woman who had entered, a tray of teapot and cups in hand. The Xaela rose from her worktable and retrieved two silk cushions that were piled in the corner, setting them down on the bamboo floor next to the table set in the middle of the room. She lowered herself into a seat and patted the silk cushion next to her for Mimiyo. She gave the Hyur a bright smile in greeting, as the older woman sat and poured herself and the Xaela a steaming cup of tea.

 

“It is buckwheat tea,” the Hingan asserted, although she frowned as soon as she took a sniff of the aroma pervading the room. “Not that you can smell it over your concoction there.”

 

Nabi gave a small roll to her shoulders with a sheepish curl to her lips. “You’d think it odd, since the chaochu themselves have a flowery scent.” She paused before bringing the cup to her lips. “Did you know they can move very quietly?”

 

Mimiyo shook her head and tsked at her as she took a leisurely sip of her tea. “Why do you bother going with those people you hire? You can give them pictures of what you need, and then have them earn their coin by letting them do what they do.”

 

“You remember what the last Roegadyn warrior did? The mangled mess he brought back?” Nabi rolled her eyes to the ceiling with a dramatic sigh. “It was such a waste. Hardly anything was useable.”

 

The Hingan narrowed her eyes in disapproval as she took another sip of the tea. “At least the last two hirelings brought you back in one piece, but you looked like a pig who had rolled all day in the mud! Did they have you wrestle one yourself in the rain?”

 

Nabi paused before answering the question with her brightest and toothiest grin, then took another hurried sip of the buckwheat tea. To that, Mimiyo pursed her lips in scrutiny, and many lines appeared around her eyes and forehead. “And the foreigner that has visited the stall more than once…” the woman began with another cluck of her tongue. “Is he still working for you now or--”

 

“Oh!” Nabi exclaimed, setting her cup down hastily. Her eyes were affixed to the window and the grey skies that had descended with the arrival of twilight. “Can you watch the pot and make sure it does not overflow? I will not be long!”

 

Mimiyo did not bother to continue, for the young female quickly rose to her feet even before her plea was answered. She straightened her robe and hurried to her shoes, just giving the elder Hingan a quick bow as she headed on out. The Hyur rolled her eyes, but a hint of amusement lightened the woman’s aged visage. It was still the same, even in her twenties, the Xaela’s love of certain things had never diminished.

 

 

 

 

“When the darkness falls, do not be scared. Look for the fireflies, and you will not be alone.”

 

Nabi sat upon the bench, her eyes searching the dimming skies. She released a breath into the night air as, one by one, they appeared: tiny motes of light, blinking idly as they flitted about. She could imagine some of them spinning and dancing, swooping low toward their reflection on the koi pond as if to show off their skills.

 

Then one firefly descended just in front of her nose, hovering there as if to study lantern’s light that reflected off of her pale eyes. Nabi exhaled with a smile and lifted a single finger, upon which the tiny glowing critter landed, and stretched its wings. Its body still pulsed with a soothing green light, as if pleased by the attention of the Xaela woman.

 

A smile found its way to her lips as she brought her hand closer, slowly and carefully as to not scare the perched visitor. Her eyes narrowed as she continued to marvel at the shy yet radiant little thing. It always took her back to the first time she had laid her eyes on them. It was just after nightfall, when the tall blades of grass swayed and rippled like the sea across the plains of the Azim Steppe. She had been crying, afraid and alone, waiting for her mother to return. At first, when the lights appeared all around her, she thought that the moon itself had dusted the fields. But when she blinked her tears away, she saw the countless fireflies rising up from the waves of the meadows and quickly her sniffles gave way to a sigh of wonder.

 

It’s been twenty years since. But even now, in the tranquil embrace of the city like Kugane, watching fireflies emerge to begin their nightly dance always brought her a measure of peace and joy. And it was that feeling that she wanted to share when she had brought Tserende here just a few nights ago.

 

He had commented on the peaceful nature of it, but remained a restrained observer. She recalled him suggesting how she should try and enjoy it more, rather than taking in the beauty for himself.

 

Such a serious fellow, she reflected. Ever courteous but with a certain discerning way about him.

 

Still. There were cracks in that wall of indifference that surrounded him, and she had been fortunate enough to get a few peeks in. Nabi could not help but chuckle though, recalling those moments where certain looks would rise upon his face: when either he was giving her a skeptical eye or a wary glance, or that “wet cat” expression whenever the rain started to fall from the sky.

 

“Can you make certain that the skies are free of rainclouds the next time we meet?” Nabi whispered into her palm, upon which the firefly responded with a slightly brighter twinkle. She smiled wide and raised her hand, her winged friend taking flight toward the heavens with her wish. She watched it spin and twirl, before joining the rest of its kin and the glimmering landscape.

 

She spent another blissful bell of watching the skies slowly darken, countless stars also making their appearance to illuminate the night. Then something began to tug in the corner of her mind, as if she had forgotten something. Something important.

 

Nabi’s eyes slowly widened. The chaochu pollen distillation! She bolted to her feet in a panic. Oh, the scent of it would be thick in her clinic! Would Mimiyo still be there after all this time? A shameful wince twisted the Xaela’s face as she could already imagine the exasperation etched clear on the Hingan woman’s visage. Dusting off what grass lingered on her robe, she darted down the street, veering toward Kugane Dori.

 

Perhaps... the gift of a tempura platter would ease the woman’s ire upon her return.

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2 years ago...

 

Bitter, unforgiving wind swept through the courtyard of the small estate grounds. It cut through even the heaviest of furs and jackets, sapping any semblance of warmth the bodies beneath the attire may have hoped to cherish. Winter was a harsh and perilous time of year, sparing no mercy to any foolhardy enough to travel through it. Harsh conditions tend to instill a harsher temperament in things, some people say. Tserende agreed with them, some of the dreams which plagued his sleep a stark reminder of that fact.

 

It didn't take long for him to recognize which dream his mind had conjured for him on this particular night. He could sense it, deep in the pit of his stomach, that familiar churning and sickening queasiness. For all the life of him, Tserende would give everything to wake up. He knew well by this point he was dreaming, told himself to wake up. Yet, here he was all the same, enraptured, ensnared, a captive audience to the scene he was all too familiar with. It was nothing if not memorable, even if it were for all the wrong reasons.

 

Tserende tried several times to rouse himself from his fitful slumber. With little success for his shoddy attempts, he resigned himself to the experience unfolding before him. He could hear shouting echoing from across the courtyard he found himself in. The noise carried easily across the stone ground, echoing off of the stone ground and ice slicked pillars.  The number of voices all talking over one another made it difficult to discern any purpose to the ruckus. After a moment of careful listening however, he was able to pick one familiar sound from the rest. Constantine's voice, calm and resolute, was a stark contrast to the others.

 

Tserende had known the older man, Constantine, ever since he was a young boy. He was, for all intents and purposes, Tserende's father even though they had no relation by blood. The man had taught him everything he knew after taking him in and providing him a place to call home. Things had become a bit precarious of late, and this was only one of the symptoms of such. The anxiety and uncertainty in the air had only become more obvious as Tserende rose to station alongside Constantine. A by-product of success.

 

The situation seemed to be rapidly approaching its boiling point, however, which was something that Tserende had not been expecting. Despite the many times Constantine had warned and cautioned him of this exact thing happening. The resigned tone of Constantine's voice cut like a razor's edge through the still, cold air.

 

"No. I will not."

 

The older man's voice was firm, resolute and deep. The sound of metal hissing the confines of leather was accompanied by the sound of someone sneering.

 

"You brought this on yourself, then. I tried to be civil and accommodating." A voice spoke in reply to Constantine. One of the guard's to the head of the estate, Tserende recognized. A sick, sinking feeling began to take root in the pit of his stomach. He ducked his head around the pillar briefly to catch a glimpse of the scene, and saw them all there. Constantine was surrounded by a semi-circle of four men, each with swords drawn and held at the ready, cornering the man in the courtyard. It was a grim, and hopeless sight.

 

As Tserende stared at the ordeal for a moment, he managed to catch Constantine's gaze. The man gave him a pointed, knowing look, before stepping forward into the four men in front of him with a heavy swipe of the blade he kept slung over shoulder. It was time to go. Tserende  let a last, lingering gaze pass over the scene before he turned to slink off, before any of them took notice of him. He wouldn't have much time to gather his belongings and slip from the grounds. The damp, wet sound of blood spattering across the cold ground follow him out as he departed.

 

~

 

2 weeks ago...

 

When Tserende woke with a start, he found himself coated in a light layer of sweat. A shiver passed through his body as he stirred, prompting him to raise a hand. Lifting to his neck, he found the locket kept around his neck, and curled his fingers around the dull metal. The ground was cold under foot as he swung himself from the bed to rise, though it was refreshing in an odd sense. The cool evening breeze that blew in from the open window in his room was a welcome touch, helping to ease him awake. He knew he wouldn't be seeing any more rest for the evening, despite the early hour. Fortunately, early rising was something Tserende had long since become accustomed to. The view of Kugane at this late, dark hour was a pleasant sight as well.

 

Producing a cigarette from his bedside stand, Tserende took a spot against the window. Observing the passage of people below helped his late night ruminations. It also helped to calm his mind after those sorts of dreams. Dreams which tended to leave his thoughts stirring like a hive of hornets.

 

At the very least, he had one thing to look forward to once the sun had finally risen over the horizon. He has promised to take Nabi out flying over the sea, to help her become more accustomed to that mode of transport. It only made sense, seeing as she was more often than not being ferried back and forth by him. Despite all the strangeness and discomfort he felt from being in a land so different from his home, her company brought him some amount of comfort. That comfort seemed to bring with it its own host of concerns, though. Such as the questions she had begun to ask.

 

She's starting to become curious. He thought to himself. She isn't going to like what she finds, when she starts digging.

 

The thought brought a frown to his face, lips twisting into a foul grimace. The thought of driving her away, intentionally or otherwise, was disheartening. His cigarette burned bright in the dark evening, a tiny spark of orange and red. He exhaled, sending a cloud of pale smoke from his window into the city below.

 

I don't want to lie to her.

 

 

Maybe I should, though.

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Nabi gently plucked one mushroom from the bubbling water, bringing it to her nose. She sniffed it twice before setting it down on onto a wire rack. They are ready. She grabbed a thick folded dishtowel nearby and lifted the pot, removing it from the firepit. She eyed the contents within, as the thin white mushrooms swirled and spun in the steaming water like koi at feeding time. She set the precious cargo down onto a placemat.

 

She rose from her worktable to go light the lanterns within the room, for the sun had set and nightfall had arrived. The door to the clinic opened, and Mimiyo poked her head in. She sniffed the air once.

 

“No brewing today?” The Hingan’s tone was one of surprise. It was true, there was rarely a sun that passed where Nabi wasn’t working on one concoction or another.

 

“I’ve been at it all sun, truth be told.” Nabi gestured to the pot that was set to cool. “But these mushrooms don’t have a scent.”

 

Mimiyo stepped in, her hands clasped behind her back as she approached the table to study the contents there. “It’s dusk and you are not even going outside. What are you working on?”

 

Nabi spun around after lighting the last lantern, with a grin that grew from ear to ear. “They are special mushrooms called shibiretake. One of the rarest, I’ve only read of it before. It is said that they are only grown by a few enclaves of monks in secret, in the peaks of mountains I will never see.”

 

The Hingan woman lifted her brows. “Oh? And how did you get such a scarce thing?”

 

There was a moment’s hesitation, as Nabi pressed her lips together---a look that did not go amiss by Mimiyo. She crossed her arms with a pointed and expectant look, already silently chastising her even before hearing the answer.

 

“I… might have gone to a... black market of sorts,” Nabi murmured. “Now before you start scolding me for it, I am fine! Obviously!” She spread her arms wide in display as if to reassure her. “I knew they had things I would never otherwise come across anywhere else. And I was right!”

 

Mimiyo tsked, clear disapproval on her face. “Those markets are no place for someone like you, Nabi. Criminals, thieves, and who knows what else run rampant in such places! Kami be thanked that you came out of it unscathed!”

 

“You can thank Tserende for it,” Nabi crossed her arms, defiant. “I was not foolish enough to go alone, after all.”

 

The Hingan looked even less pleased, her eyes narrowing into slits. “That’s the foreign mercenary that you hired. You entrusted your safety to him? Have you’ve been keeping his company often these suns?”

 

Nabi bit her lower lip as she gave the woman a small shrug. “And what if I have? He is a good man.”

 

Mimiyo clucked her tongue. “How much do you know about him? He’s a sellsword! And a foreigner. You shouldn’t trust that lot.”

 

“He is most considerate,” Nabi immediately objected, her tone sharper than usual. “If it weren’t for him, I would not even have these mushrooms. He insisted on keeping me company at the market because he knew, better than I, what to expect.” She frowned only momentarily, but her expression eased as she continued. “He is generous, and funny too. I think you would like him. But most of all… I trust him.”

 

The Hingan regarded her for a long moment, her arms still crossed. But soon the lines around the corners of her eyes softened. “Is he the reason you have been even more merrier than usual?”

 

“Have I?” The Xaela blinked, and her hand went to her cheek as she began to feel some warmth there. She did not bother to hide the smile that rose. “Perhaps.”

 

“Hm,” Mimiyo said, her eyes once more narrowing critically. “Well, you will have to tell me all about it then.” The woman spun back to the door. “When I return with tea.” She raised a finger to silence any protest that might arise as she left.

 

Nabi sank to a cushion on the ground, letting out a long exhale.

 

Did you tell her I am a decent man?” Tserende’s voice rose in her mind as she recalled that they had spoken about this very thing. That both Mimiyo and Yoshinari had been curious about the foreign Hyur who had been seen at the stall more than once. Nabi had made a joke to him in reply, but in truth, she wanted to say he was much more than just decent.

 

She suddenly felt nervous as she imagined what she would tell Mimiyo. She and Yoshinari were the closest thing to family she had.

 

"Do you have anyone you call kin?" she remembered asking Tserende.

 

"I do not, no. I lived on the grounds of my last employer, before I was inclined to leave. I had since I was very young." His answers were very matter-of-fact; there was no hint of self pity or bitterness for what seemed like a hard and lonely life. But that was always the way it seemed with him. He always had a objective and unflappable air about him, even when he spoke of hardships of his home. So when she found out from Kiyokage that Tserende was mentoring him in techniques that potentially drew upon dangerous parts of the mind, his perspective was pragmatic, but reserved.

 

Mundane martial prowess only takes one so far. I'm not an accomplished user of the other typical measures to enhance or further my capabilities. I'm not an accomplished healer. I had to find something to preserve myself with, and this is what I was left with. I make do with what I can. Besides, I haven't gotten myself skewered thus far. That counts for something, yes?"

 

Nabi suspected that Tserende downplayed the risk of it all, for her sake. It was more likely that Kiyokage was more accurate in hinting at how truly dangerous it could all be. And even he, for all his bluntness, had not told her everything.

 

This was definitely something that she was not ready to share with Mimiyo. Nabi was not even sure she fully understood it herself. She rose and returned to the cooling mushrooms, picking them up one by one, laying them with care on a wire rack.

 

"Would you like to know something in particular?" she recalled the last question he had asked her.

 

"What would you say... if I said I wanted to know everything?"

 

Nabi let out a long exhale. There were a thousand butterflies fluttering in her stomach when she had asked that question, and that same nervousness returned to her now.

 

What was she anxious about? She already knew that Mimiyo would have all sorts of questions. Only she didn’t have clear answers to them. What would she say when she asked about Tserende? Or how she felt about him?

 

A sudden opening of the door without warning made Nabi turn. It was Mimiyo at the entrance, and the woman wore a look of urgency and apprehension.

 

“There is a messenger here for you. It’s about that foreigner.”

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Why isn’t anything ever easy?

 

Shael slammed the small ceramic bottle of sake down on the table, the clatter undoubtedly drawing the attention of the patrons around her. She didn’t care. The edge of her vision was blurred and the room rocked slightly whenever she turned her head quickly, as if she was still on the seas. Let ‘em stare, she thought. I couldn’t give half a shite.

 

It had taken five bottles of sake to get her roaring drunk. A part of her wasn’t sure why she was even still hanging around the hostelry. After all, even if the the messenger wasn’t caught, as soon as the herbalist made her way back to port, she would surely report her to the Sekiseigumi.

 

What would be the charge? Kidnapping? She didn’t take anyone at gunpoint. Sure, she did lure the Xaela out with a little lie, but there was no threat of violence. What could Nabi really accuse her of anyway?

 

Well… there was that one thing. Shael did try and lift whatever was in Nabi’s bag at the Watcher’s Eye Black Market. But she gave that right back! (Even if doing so was under the coercion of the large sword wielding bodyguard that was with the Xaela, could they really call that thievery? Besides, who would even claim jurisdiction in such a place?)

 

Shael folded her arms on the table and laid her head upon it. As she slid lower against the table, her arm knocked down an empty sake bottle, sending it rolling against the other four stacked to the side; it clattered against two, finally stopping with a loud clink. She just wanted to sleep and forget. It had been nearly a sennight since she was able to sleep, since she ran out of those precious herbs.

 

Nothing else had worked. She tried to tell Nabi that. She had tried so many other drugs, which was one of the reasons she went to the black market. She wanted something, anything, that would bring her dreamless sleep. Alcohol had long lost its potency, no matter the type; it just dulled her senses, and she had to indulge in increasing doses to keep herself from jumping out of her skin every day. Her eyes burned, her nostrils felt bone dry, and her tongue felt like it was coated with sand. Her body felt heavy, like iron flowed in her veins rather than blood.

 

“You are pushing your body to the limit with all these drugs! You must stop!” The Xaela’s woman’s plea buzzed through her head like an annoying gnat.

 

As if Shael didn’t know. She had access to all the drugs because she had smuggled them before. She of all people knew their effects, especially the bad ones. That was why it was always her policy to never partake in what she peddled.

 

Or at least… that used to be her policy.

 

Shooey would have never approved. He would have never allowed it.

 

But Shooey was no longer here.

 

“Two more bottles!” Shael yelled toward the bar. “I said keep ‘em coming, didn’t I?!”

 

It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. So why not wallow in everything she could get her hands on until inevitability caught up to her?

 

“Make that three bottles!”

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Nabi wiggled her toes.

 

The sensation told her her foot was intact, at least. But when she tried flexing her tendons, her ankle immediately protested. Nabi winced as she brought her foot closer, her thumb running over the splint she had made for herself. She noticed that her fingernails were slightly pale from the cold, and she fought the shiver that ran through her body. The heavy rain that had soaked the Azim Steppe all day had weighed down her robe, had plastered her hair to her face. By the time she had found shelter in the caves along the river, she was soaked to the skin.

 

The sun had only peeked out from behind the clouds at sporadic intervals, the herd of rainclouds showing no sign of scattering as they drifted across the sky.

 

Staying within the caves was safe. The warriors on their Yol mounts often took to the skies, and she did not want to be spotted as a lone Xaela traveler wandering the plains. While not all Xaelas tribes were belligerent, there were enough prominent ones -- including her own -- that Nabi knew better than to risk encountering them.

 

Should I have just agreed to her demands?

 

Nabi hugged her knees to herself as she recalled how she had come to be stranded in the Steppe in the first place. The messenger had come to find her in Kugane with an urgent yet cryptic news: that Tserende had been shot and badly wounded, and could not be moved. That he had sent a messenger for her to come to him with aid.

 

Looking back on it now, Nabi knew there were questions that she had not bothered getting answers to, before she agreed to take the transport that was already arranged for her. Who arranged it? Tserende? And when she realized the destination, the plains of the Azim Steppe, she had more questions. Who would shoot him, out here? But by then, it was too late. She had already come too far, and she was not willing to risk not going to his side if he indeed was suffering from a dire wound.

 

But all the warnings in her head proved to be true. There was no incapacitated Tserende at the end of her trip, only the Highlander woman who tried to steal from her at the market a few suns ago. She could tell from her bloodshot eyes, the redness around her nostrils, and the slight twitching to her movements now and then, that things were not well for her. When Shael Stormchild came to her stall over a fortnight ago, she had told Nabi that she had been trying to find restful sleep. While the woman did not relay to her all of what had happened, it was clear to the Xaela that the Highlander was suffering. There was a desperate edge to her that she tried to conceal with bravado and nonchalance.

 

Nabi offered what she could, a special blend of herbs that she had concocted for sleep. But it too had possible addictive properties, especially if it was mixed with other drugs. Shael did not heed her warning.

 

The woman who greeted her on the top of the peaks of the Steppe wore a frenzied grin, and she tried to bargain her a safe trip back to Kugane for more of her medicines. But she did not threaten violence nor did she ever wield a weapon. And a part of Nabi did sympathize with the Highlander, but she could not in good conscience give her more things that would help destroy her body. Nabi tried to reason with her, to offer her help to ease her off of all the toxins floating in her system. Shael refused, became angry, and left her on the cliffeside to reconsider her decision.

 

What happened next was probably not the wisest choice that the Xaela could have made. She tried to climb down the mountain, but with muu shuwuus littering the mountainside, Nabi had to choose a less beaten path. She had never scaled a cliff before, but it seemed less perilous than taking her chances with creatures that would happily rend her to pieces.

 

All in all, a broken ankle and numerous scrapes and bruises later, she still lived. But as she sat in the cave to wait out the rain that poured endlessly, she wondered if Shael would return a bell later, as she said she would. Would she try and look for her?

 

Nabi did not want to face her again. The Xaela reached into her bag and retrieved a small vial of green potion and a wrapped linen package. She had left droplets of the potion along the river as she followed its course to the cave, in hopes that perhaps it would leave not so obvious a trail but a trail nonetheless. She had to leave some clues in case someone came looking for her.

 

Despite all the uncertainty that led her here, and the fact that he was a foreigner and a sellsword for hire… she still did not doubt that Tserende would come looking for her.

 

No more droplets fell as she tapped on the empty potion bottle over the edge of the creek. Setting it aside, she unwrapped the parcel -- something she had carried for over three suns now as a gift. A dozen small cigarettes that she had crafted with a mixture of tobacco and mint rolled in her palm. She dropped one into the river and watched the white bud float down the stream. Would he find them?

 

She had to believe that he would.

 

Another shiver ran down her back and shook her small frame. She curled her arms around her legs tight to try and preserve what heat she could. She could not risk a fire for attracting other Xaela warriors, and she dared not travel out in the open in case she ran into more beasts. She huddled by the river and tucked her head in her arms, hoping that the rain should give some reprieve and the sun would return to warm her even a little bit. She just needed to stay warm until she was found.

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The questions were all very straightforward.

 

What did she overhear? When did Nabi leave?

 

Skepticism and hostility met Tserende when he arrived at the stall. While it was an inconvenience that he did not appreciate, he could not bear the woman any ill will over it. He knew that she meant well, and was only concerned at the apparent strangeness of events. It took time. However, with persistence, Tserende felt he would erode some of the mistrust the woman had for him. Fortunate for both himself and Nabi, he was correct in this assumption.

 

The information that he coaxed from the older woman did not leave him surprised. Nabi had left in a hurry to find him somewhere out in the grasslands, incapacitated and shot. Unable to move. It did not take his mind long to piece the parts together. Despite his certainty in the matter, the cold, weighty numbness which took root in the pit of his stomach was unmistakable. Worry? Or the knowledge that he had grown a bit too comfortable, and a bit too complacent. There was no immediate answer for what he could have done different to prevent it. He was certain there was something, though. 

 

He had half a mind to interrogate the one who delivered the message. After a cursory glance over the boy, he dismissed the idea. He doubted that they knew any more than he had already learned, much less the true intentions behind the arrangement. It would not have done any good. There was little time to waste anyways, and he made haste towards the sea.

 

The journey to the Steppes was a brisk and silent one, providing adequate time for Tserende's ruminations. None of them brought him any peace of mind. If anything was definite, it was that he was without a doubt his own worst critic. He was also more than proficient at envisioning the worst when it came to things he was uncertain of. None of this eased the tightly wound knot in his stomach, or the white-knuckled grip he held the reigns of the chocobo with.

 

The cold, bitter sting of rain pelting across his face brought him out of his ruminations. Tserende's feathered companion carried them along the river-way of the Steppes. Heavy, plodding, and with all the grace of mammoth. He had spent a fair amount of time over the years traveling, yet there was something which bothered him now. He had never spent the time to learn how to track something. The idea had never seemed as important as it did now, and he was learning very quick to regret neglecting it.

 

He found nothing upon his initial sweep along either path he had expected them to take into the area. He found nothing on the second or third pass, either. If finding Nabi out here was to be a test of his patience, it was doing a fine job of it. Drenched, cold, and tired, he could only imagine the state she must be in by now. It was not until he traveled further up the streams that something... peculiar caught his attention. He had no doubt in his mind over the fact that he stumbled across the clue by mere chance. That fact did nothing to diminish the relief it brought though.

 

The odd, discolored patches across the stones was quick develop into a path for him to follow. First the green coloring, and then the cigarettes which he found trickling down stream -- it may not have been much to some. The fragrant mix within the cigarettes was something he could immediately place, however. Mint mingled with the tobacco. With renewed energy and vigor, he followed the stream to the cavernous cliff-faces, searching them one by one.

 

What he found upon entering the second cavern brought him some measure of relief. There was no blood, and Nabi appeared to all be there -- albeit a bit scrapped up and bruised, and no doubt drenched from the rain. No culprit was to be found on the scene however, nobody to blame for the cause of it all. That was something which he would have to deal with later. For now, his priorities were very simple. 

 

Get her back to her home. Once that was taken care of, he would have time to ponder over a solution for the one responsible. While he was not without his immediate impulses, he was all too aware it was something best approached with a clear mind. That was something which would come after a night or two of rest.

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Nabi could feel the raindrops against her face. Her eyes were heavy with fatigue, although she could not asleep. She felt each stride as she was carried, plodding footsteps echoing with metallic clatter of armor. It was a sound she had become well familiar with over the last moon. Whenever she heard it approach the stall, she found herself turning around with a smile in anticipation.

 

She inhaled deeply and she could smell the distant scent of the mountains. It was brisk, although she no longer felt cold. There was a tinge of mint and sweet tobacco upon the wind as well.

 

No... that wasn’t the wind.

 

A muted heartbeat sounded against her right horn as she laid against his chest, protected behind the breastplate. The hold of his arms around her frame was strong yet gentle. She felt safe. Calm.

 

I’ve come to count on you.” She heard her own confession echo in her mind. “I knew you’d come.

 

Nabi woke from her dream, opening her eyes to squint at the shaft of sunlight that had found its way into her room. It was speckled by the pine needles sprouting out from the gnarled branch that swayed with the breeze just outside her window. It had been five suns since Tserende had retrieved her from the caves within the Steppe, and yet whenever she closed her eyes, she could easily imagine herself back there again.

 

A house sparrow landed just outside her window to peer in, before hopping along the length of the branch to scratch its beak against the bark. She watched it for a moment, as another sparrow joined the first. They chirped and chased each other, before both taking flight again. Nabi rose from her bed as her eyes followed their pursuit. She paused as she noted the extra layer of blanket around her feet, and a teapot and cup laid on a tray nearby. Mimiyo had not stopped fussing over her since her return, and even Yoshinari restrained his usual grumpy demeanor, only looking in on her now and then with his stubborn frown in place.

 

Nabi slid her left foot out from under the blanket, and was pleased to only feel a distant ache there. Her bones were mending quickly, thanks to the mandible powder, and the daily massages loosened her tendons. She was still using the cane for support, but her movement was improving every day. She considered herself lucky that the break itself was not a bad one, and that she had the sense to splint it right away.

 

She reassured both Mimiyo and Yoshinari that she was doing much better, but they hovered still, their regard of her more attentive than usual. Tserende also made it a point to visit her daily, likely to check in on her as well. Nabi did little to protest, even though a part of her felt guilty for it. Was she taking advantage of his concern for her well-being to satisfy her desire to see him?

 

Your face would be a very comforting thing,” she had said to him when he asked about visiting her in the morning. He seemed skeptical of it, saying that none had ever said such a thing before. But it was true. She had grown fond of the light freckles upon his cheeks and his piercing pale eyes. As icy as they were, she did not believe they reflected the warmth of the man that bore them.

 

"I depend on you, too. Whether I would like to or not, I think." Tserende had quietly admitted to her. Despite the frown that were etched on his face with that revelation, those words filled her with unexpected happiness. Such glimpses were rare, but precious when given.

 

You don’t like to rely on anyone, do you?

 

"It's a dangerous prospect, is it not?"

 

Nabi bowed her head, a finger lightly touching her lips in thought. A small smile found its way beneath her fingertip as she recalled how he had embraced her, placing his chin upon her head as his arms wrapped around her. She stayed there, tucked against his chest, as the sun painted the sky in orange and gold, setting into the sea.

 

What shall you do when you do not like what you learn?” were his last words of caution when she reminded him she still wanted to know everything about him.

 

I already know what I need to,” she reassured him. “How I see you will not change.

 

“You will see,” Nabi murmured as she rose out of bed, echoing the quiet promise she had said to him.

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Explosions. Magitek. Gunfire.

 

The patrol had returned too soon. The Resistance squad was supposed to lure them away while Shael and Shooey set the explosives. But the diversion did not work and the squadron of Magitek Battle Armor was marching down upon their position.

 

“Shooey, get out now!”

 

“No! Do not set them off! We are not in the clear yet!”

 

“Forget the last coordinates! Just get out!”

 

Panicked cries reverberated over the pearl, more gunfire drowning out the voices. Shael remembered shouting desperately for anyone to hear. Then all went white as the ceruleum explosives were detonated, and the booming blast blew out her eardrums.

 

 

 

Shael sat up with a gasp, an anguished cry dying in her throat. Her chest heaved with heavy breaths, and her linen shirt clung to her skin, soaked with sweat. A sharp shooting pain through her right side immediately reminded her that her arm and hand were in a sling, her index and middle finger roughly wrapped. She had not bothered to tend to them, and the pulsing ache there was a constant reminder of the broken bones and the swollen tissues beneath the cloth.

 

A part of her did scream in protest that it was her dominant side that was being pulled out of joint, when the armored bodyguard had her pinned against the tree. “I don't want to kill you. I want you to not steal from me. Nor the people I work for.” The Hyuran mercenary’s voice was placid. Calm even, in the wake of her pained cries. "Are you able to do that much?"

 

Had she been sober, she would have never agreed to go with him to the Ruby Seas. To ride on his gigantic angry bird of a mount, to be shuttled off to one of many numerous outcropping of islands scattered along the coast. In the back of her mind, even while piss poor drunk, Shael knew what she had done. Trying to steal some valuables from the Xaela herbalist at the Black Market, then luring her out to the Steppe with a lie just to intimidate her for more drugs. She had left Nabi stranded out there up on the cliffs. She was so sure that the wide-eyed herbalist would agree to her terms, if she just realized she was trapped there without her help. Even after that, Shael did not face any repercussions. She did eventually check on the Xaela’s stall, and found her returned home, almost as good as she found her.

 

There was a tinge of guilt at seeing her limp about with a cane, but that was not her fault. If the woman had just agreed to her terms, Shael would have delivered her safe and sound back to Kugane. It was the Xaela’s stubborn recklessness that endangered her own life.

 

At least, that is what Shael told herself.

 

She knew she should have stopped there. Let well enough be. For whatever reason, Nabi was not seeking restitution of any form from her. But Shael needed those herbs. She needed to sleep. She felt her mind going insane, seeing hallucinations, faces of people long dead, while she was awake. Nightmares that used to plague her dreams were starting to replay themselves in flashes while she walked and talked.

 

Shael never thought of herself as a petty thief before. She was a smuggler: someone who knew how to get ungettable things, and then transport them to unreachable places. Crimes like simple burglary and vandalism were far below her standards and code. Until it wasn’t.

 

She had watched and waited until the Hingans and the Xaela retired for the night. The street was usually peaceful, and Shael had become well acquainted with the Sekiseigumi’s patrol routes. It was easy enough to break into the stall unseen. But those damnable herbs were nowhere to be found. She started to just break open jars, pour out contents of boxes and bags in a frantic attempt to find what she was looking for. Frustrated and angry, she snatched up the mushrooms that she knew were at least worth thousands of gil and ran.

 

The mushrooms did not do what she wanted of course. Nabi had altered them somehow, it just numbed all sensation. It did nothing to give her rest; there were none of the euphoric dreams that they were supposed to bring.

 

A part of her knew this was likely the last straw. Shael went back to her usual table at the hostelry, and ordered way too much sake. It was after many bottles rolled around empty on the table and at her feet, that the armored bodyguard came looking for her.

 

She knew his name. Tserende Valqirelle. After all, she used it to send the message to Nabi about him being wounded. He was a no nonsense bodyguard who had caught her at the market, who then also came to find her at the hostelry. Was it his polite manners that made her think it was a good idea to talk to him alone? Or was it the seven bottles sake that just made her not care what his intentions were?

 

She started to care when he suddenly pinned her down and started to pull her joints in the most unnatural angles But even as her bones and tissues popped and bent under the pressure, the man remained cold and calm.

 

And when he was done, when she was left with her right arm hanging awkwardly at the elbow and the fingers, he had the gall to offer her a choice. To either die in a gutter or to crawl back out of whatever pit she was in. The very thought brought the taste of bile back up into her throat. Self-righteous and arrogant types like him made her blood boil. What did he know about loss? Or the fears that drove people to kill their own kin? Or the overwhelming anger and despair that it made her want to tear off her own skin if it would just let her bleed out into a blissful nothingness? Who was he to offer her a chance for change?

 

A shaking hand reached for another ceramic bottle by her bedside. But when she brought it to her lips, she found it empty. It was too small of a bottle, and useless liquor anyway. She flung it angrily to the other side of the room, the ceramic shattering at the impact.

 

She knew that would bring the innkeeper knocking against the door soon. She had already refused an offer to send for a healer. He might insist this time. Or he may just have her thrown out.

 

Soddin’ pathetic. That is the new me.” Her voice had cracked when she conceded that much. But she refused to beg. She spat on the the Hyur’s face and then he broke her arm and fingers.

 

She buried her face into her left hand, her fingers digging into her disheveled locks. She did not answer when the knocks came to her door.

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It was the smallest little thing, a round seed pod that had prickly thorns covering the whole of it. Nestled just within the folds of the fabric of her clothes, it could have stayed hidden for many sennights. If left alone, it would have eventually started to sprout out tiny tentacles, possibly crawling out of its hiding place from her shirt when it got hungry.

 

It was a fascinating prospect to consider, but Nabi knew if a purbol actually got loose within the port city, likely the Sekiseigumi would exile her for certain.

 

With a metal forcep, she plucked the small burr from her shirt and dropped it into the jar, adding it to the small pile that she had already collected there. She had rubbed the oil that she had prepared onto both Tserende and Kiyokage’s armor, to make sure any remaining burrs on their equipment were neutralized. She could only imagine their chagrin should seedings with flailing appendages started to worm out of their armor. Their aversion to the tentacled creature was clearly evident, especially on Kiyokage’s face, and who could blame the Xaela?

 

But she could not douse all of her curiosity, so she left one piece of her own clothing untreated, so that she could harvest a few viable pollen from it upon her return. She had counted at least fifteen individual seed pods already in the glass jar.

 

Nabi paused and brought a lock of her hair to her nose, to give it a good sniff. She recalled with much dismay the memory of being soaked head to toe in the purbol’s secretions along with Tserende. The two of them were conversing while Kiyokage charged another purbol that was crawling near by. While Kiyokage denied it, Nabi could not help but think the Xaela warrior turned the beast toward them at the last minute as it spewed forth its plethora of excretions.

 

Nabi made a face even at the mere thought of it, the smell was so foul that it had burnt itself into her memory. Luckily, she had prepared a solution for such an accident, although it had been intended just for the two fighters were putting themselves at risk. Who would have thought that she would be one of the ones steeped in the purbol goo?

 

A soak in the Yanxian natural spring managed to wash it all off, the bubbles effectively cleansing away all the burrs and the unsavory juice from their skin and hair. Nabi bit her lip as she thought back to the scenery that was afforded with the opportunity. Even though she denied that she would be taking advantage of the situation to gawk at their undressed bodies, Nabi could not help but at least glimpse at what was readily in front of her.

 

Kiyokage certainly was not the modest kind. She had already seen him at least half undressed to heal some of his wounds near his ribs. She was rendered speechless though that first time, at least for a few seconds, at the numerous old whipping scars that spanned his entire back. So she didn’t expect any surprises at the lake, but with the Xaela warrior taking everything off to change in and out of his armor, Nabi did turn her gaze away for the sake of some propriety. But it was a concept that Kiyokage clearly did not have any respect for.

 

Nabi also recalled glimpsing Tserende’s body as well. She had told him that the nature of the wounds and the scars they left behind always told a tale, and that she was curious about the stories of the marks that marred his frame. Although as they sat on the top of a tall cropping of an island to allow their washed clothes and armor to dry, his answers to her questions had slowly began to paint the picture of a man who had previously devoted his life to nothing but his job. She asked him if such a lonely life was a conscious choice for him. He had said that it might have been.

 

"Would you... still make that same choice? Now that you are here? Starting over?" It was a careful question on her part, but one that she felt a certain necessity in asking.

 

"What reason would I have to not make the same choice?" he answered her while he studied her carefully from the corner of his eye.

 

"What if someone came to care for you a great deal?” She had blurted it out before she could think. Before she could convince herself out of it. “What if... they didn't want you to leave?"

 

Nabi could not recall how long he had stared at her after that with those steely blue eyes of his. There was a silence that fell in between them, and back then, she thought he would never answer. The corner of his eyes crinkled in consideration, and then without any words, he leaned in and kissed her.

 

Nabi watched as her reflection on the glass jar become clouded over as she sighed. A dreamy expression had snuck onto her face, and her cheek had become flushed with the memory. She shook her head as if to clear her thoughts, her golden eyes focusing back onto the collection of purbol seedlings.

 

There was a nervous and yet joyous excitement that quickened her pulse. With a renewed vigor she closed the jar and turned to soak her shirt, when a knock came upon her door. It was a messenger, who poked his head in with a friendly smile.

 

“Miss Nabi, Ushitora would like to summon you to the inn. It seems there is a patron who is in need of your care.”

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Those who believed that children were the embodiment of innocence and purity never actually followed the little shites when they entered adolescence. It might be the sudden surge of growth, or a new sense of independence -- or the idiotic belief that one was no longer a child overnight -- that often inspired them with a need to show dominance over the rest.

 

She wasn't sure. She wasn't sure she cared. She was only sure she found them incessantly annoying.

 

Shael sat on the railing outside of the hot springs, her back to the ocean. One sake bottle was balanced precariously next to her, half empty. She idly watched a group of children that ran up the stairs with some treats in hand. All seemed cheery and innocent and light-hearted... until one of them snatched the snack from another child's hands and pushed him down. The child on the ground at first didn’t quite know what to do, shock evident upon his face. The taller child, now with two goodies in hand -- candied plums, she surmised from a distance -- let out a laugh and ran back down the stairs into the street leading away from the inn. Two other children blinked, a bit dumbfounded, before they too ran down the stairs after the first. The last child, left on the ground, began to cry.

 

Shael only watched, bringing the bottle of sake to her lips once again. She hissed when the bitter taste of the powder hit her tongue; even sake could not quite mask the acrid taste of the medicine that Nabi gave her. Good for healing bones, she said. But so much for the taste buds.

 

Smacking her lips with a surly expression firmly etched in place, she watched the child eventually wipe the tears off his cheeks, his bawling giving way to occasional sniffles. It was only a matter of time before the ghostly image of a well-dressed woman appeared, walking tall and straight, looming over the child.

 

Just stay away from those rabbles,” Shael's mother said with a sniff. “They are just proving that are savages.

 

Shael watched her younger self push upon on her knees to stand. She could not have been older than nine, sporting bruises on her cheeks and scuff marks on her knuckles. Unlike the child that had his treat taken away, she had fought back -- had thrown punch for punch, despite the fact that the boy that was picking on her was older, bigger, and stronger. It was the last kick to her belly that made her stay down while he and his friend laughed, though they scattered into the alley when her mother came into the scene.

 

Shael pushed her mother’s hand away when it tried to hand her a handkerchief. She wiped her bloody nose on her sleeve instead, glaring up at her mother with a look of defiance, and promptly stalked away. Her mother did never asked what that fight was about, or she may have questioned who exactly was the savage in the fight.

 

The ghosts of her memory faded from her vision, leaving only the child in the distance, still robbed of his treat. She watched him slowly rise and trudge back down the stairs, likely in search of the other children who had abandoned him. Shael guessed that he was going to go find them, and forgive them, and try to be friends again.

 

Pathetic, Shael told herself. The child should make do alone rather than trying to make nice with that greedy boy, or the spineless shites he hung out with. Who needed the likes of them? Today it might a candied plum, but tomorrow something much more valuable. The child was only setting himself up for more disappointment.

 

Infuriating people who just can't help but be nice. I've known a few of those. Bleedin' hearts, I call 'em.” Her own words echoed once more in her mind. She looked down at her right arm and hand, now encased in a firm cast and supported by a sling. Shael vaguely remembered yelling and pushing the Xaela away in her drunken stupor, but Nabi had continued to insist on examining her arm. Shael did not remember actually hitting the woman, but certainly threatening her with all manner of violence, especially when Nabi (painfully) straightened her deformed and broken fingers. A part of her knew that they were dislocated as well, but the sake helped her not care. The Xaela woman unfortunately confirmed it, and then promptly corrected the defect. It was not a gentle process.

 

Why is she being nice to me?” Shael had asked quietly, when the Xaela ran back to her stall to retrieve yet another potion for her, leaving her bodyguard to watch over her.

 

Hm. I couldn't say," Tserende answered after a long pause for consideration. "More than likely the same reason she was surprised, at the market." His tone was neutral, almost polite, but Shael knew that was just an act. He was an enforcer: One of those quietly spoken brutes that had no problem carrying on a civil conversation as they yanked out their victim’s fingernails.

 

She had made her mind up to shoot him the next time he approached her, but when she saw him again, it was with the Xaela. Nabi remained clueless as to how her hand was broken, since Shael elected not to tell the woman, so of course bringing the offender along for the next visit didn’t seem odd. What was odd was that she subsequently found out that he brought her unconscious body back to the inn, at least according to the innkeeper. And what was even more odd, was that he then offered her a job. A paying job that she actually had to work for. Shael shook her head with a groan as she cupped her chin in her hand. She could not quite understand it.

 

Shael was convinced he was trying to make up for his guilty conscience by somehow helping her stay sober and out of debt. Or something along those lines.

 

She accepted his offer, at least in Nabi’s presence, for the sake of keeping up the pretense. Although she wasn’t quite sure why she was even making the effort of keeping the woman in the dark about what what really transpired between her and the Midlander. Then when Shael confronted Tserende alone later, she found out his offer of employment was genuine. Despite her reluctance and dislike of the man, she could not quite argue against the fact that she was out of money and had no other options for paying for her stay, much less her medical treatments.

 

Only until my hand is healed, Shael told herself. And if she changed her mind, she was certain she could make herself unpleasant enough to just get fired. She firmly told the Midlander, and herself more than once, she most certainly did not need some swivin’ charity.

 

A frown slowly creased her brow; Shael wondered idly if she was the crying child or the one that took the treat away. She snatched up the sake bottle from the railing and gulped down the rest of it in one long pull. Her face twisted at the taste, but it was emptied and angrily slapped back down onto the wooden surface. She hopped up off her perch, and stalked back toward the inn.

 

Soddin’ pathetic,” Shael recalled those words again, the confession of a desperate woman.

 

Never again.

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Nabi sniffed the three leaves in her hand. Each one smelled of its own distinct flavor: one with a tinge of spice, another with the deep fragrance of the woods, and the last with the sweetness of molasses. They were whole leaves, pressed then dried but still managing to keep their leathery in texture. While they crunched quietly in protest as she squeezed them, they did not break. She pressed them in between her hands, rolling them thinly. Neatly arranging them diagonally on top of a wrapper leaf, she began to roll it carefully into a fulm-long tube. Finally, she held the finished product before her eyes for inspection, a proud smile rising to her lips.

 

“Why are you even bothering?” Mimiyo broke the silence, her sharp tone wanting to break the Xaela’s moment of delight.

 

Nabi placed the roll next to the three others that she had made. “They call them cigars. A bigger, thicker versions of the cigarettes that I made for Tserende.” She was not going to let Mimiyo dampen her mood. Just recalling how pleasantly surprised Tserende was at her gift, the corner of her lips lifted further. It still brought her joy to see him preferring it over the rest.

 

“That isn’t my question,” Mimiyo scoffed behind the cup at her lips. “Why are you doing all this work for that woman.”

 

Nabi turned from her work table, to face the Hingan woman who was seated in the middle of the room. As per their daily ritual, she had brought afternoon tea for them to share and found the Xaela making the cigars. Mimiyo was flabbergasted to say the least, when Nabi told her whom it was for.

 

“I am not sure that Shael is using the medicines I gave her properly, despite my instructions.” Nabi tilted her head, some measure of concern furrowing her brow. “But I saw that she really did enjoy the cigarette that Tserende offered her, so if I hid the medicines in these cigars, she would never know she is actually taking some of the remedies.” There was smug twinkle to her eyes.

 

The ceramic cup clanked upon the polished wooden table as the Hingan set it down somewhat firmly. “Need I remind you all the things that woman has done to you? And to our stall?”

 

Nabi’s pursed her lips, her expression turning somewhat thoughtful. She rose from her table to come take a seat next to Mimiyo. She slid her hand upon the older woman’s and gave it a small squeeze. “I have not forgotten,” she said quietly. “But all is well. My ankle has healed, the potions from the purbol hunt made up for what was lost. And I don’t think she is ever going to try something like that again.” The Xaela tilted her head, golden eyes peering up at Mimiyo intently. “She has even taken a job with Tserende. Some honest work.”

 

“You mean until her arm and hand has mended. Who else would hire her?” Mimiyo shook her head, disbelief clear in her critical tone. “I don’t know what you two are thinking. She should be in jail.” The older woman humphed and poured herself more tea. “You think she suffered those injuries doing honest work? People like her associate with criminals and the like.”

 

"How do you think her arm was broken?" Tserende’s voice suddenly echoed in Nabi’s memory unbidden. It brought forth a small frown and the Xaela paused. It was in response to her asking him how he had encountered her after the incident at the market. It was such an off handed answer, that in that moment, Nabi’s mind refused to go to the next logical conclusion. Even now, a part of her was reluctant to accept it.

 

“You trust his judgement, don’t you?” Nabi asked, clearing her throat. She poured herself some tea, suddenly the back of her mouth feeling dry.

 

“Hmph,” Mimiyo exhaled as she brought the cup to her lips again. It was a reluctant concession.

 

Nabi fell silent as she took a sip, her gaze lowered in thought. When she was summoned to the Bokairo Inn by Ushitora to help attend to an injured patron, never in a million years she would have thought it would be the very same woman who has been causing her all sorts of trouble for the last moon. But it had indeed been Shael Stormchild lying nearly unconscious on the floor of her room, her arm and hand badly broken. There was only a moment’s hesitation on Nabi’s part, in whether she should explain to the innkeeper of their sordid history. But there was no denying that the woman’s hand was in bad shape, and Nabi was never the one that could ignore neglected injuries.

 

Despite the Highlander’s initial belligerence, Nabi somehow managed to talk her into accepting treatment, and reduced the angle of the broken bones. The Highlander barely sat still long enough for her to put a cast on the arm and hand, and adjust the length of the sling. The fevered look that used to burn in her eyes had given way to a tired sunken gaze, although despite the weariness that seemed to weigh her frame, Shael was determined to not relinquish her antagonistic nature the entire time.

 

The awkward situation was only made more complicated when Tserende discovered that she was treating Shael and insisted on accompanying her for her next visit. There was a certain measure of tension between them early on, this Nabi noticed. She then learned that it was Tserende that had witnessed Shael’s “fall” -- the reason that Shael gave Nabi initially for her injuries -- and that he was the one who brought the unconscious woman to the inn.

 

When all the coincidence of the events were laid out before her, the missing pieces seemed to take clear shape. Even if neither Shael nor Tserende wanted to tell her outright how it had happened, just examining the nature of the injury, Nabi could tell that it was no fall that caused it.

 

And yet, she was still unwilling, not wanting to accept it.

 

After all the scars she had glimpsed upon the man during their time in the lake, and the tales of hardships and injuries he had shared with her, a part of her still did not want to see the violence that was part of his history, and possibly part of his life still.

 

Was she being intentionally obtuse in believing that his new life here would help him shed what was likely an ingrained part of who he was?

 

“What shall you do when you do not like what you learn?

 

“Well, if this was just your idea, I would call you much too obliging.” Mimiyo’s prattle filtered through her senses again. “Just like your mother,” the Hingan woman added with a soft sigh as she set the cup down on the table. “But I suppose that mercenary of yours can keep an eye on her if she is under his employ.”

 

Nabi flicked a glance at the woman, her pensive expression easing to a soft smile. There were small hints that Mimiyo was starting to approve of Tserende, ever since the Steppe incident. There was notably less criticism directed his way, and sometimes even an implication of unspoken trust. Nabi shook off whatever doubtful thoughts that wanted to linger and gave the Hingan woman another small squeeze of her hand.

 

“Everyone deserves a second chance. A new start, yes?” The Xaela's smile broadened. “I think this will be one.”

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Shael eyed the cigar in her hand, squeezing the shaft gently. It was solid and even throughout, much to the Xaela’s credit. For a woman who had never made one before, this unexpected offering had no unusual lumps or discoloration. Shael brought it to her nose and took a long whiff, taking in the mixture of rich aromas bound within.

 

Perhaps she was hoping it might lighten your mood while you recover, since you seem to enjoy the cigarettes,” Tserende had replied when Shael asked him exactly why Nabi would gift her such a thing.

 

“What is with those two,” Shael muttered, looking out to the view of Kugane in front of her. She had found a perch on the rooftops near the Bokairo Inn, and after the earlier jaunt into Doma to scavenge for any mementos of worth, she didn’t feel like going back to her room. Thankfully the wretched rain finally ceased as the night fell, and the stars began to emerge one by one in the dark sky.

 

The chill of the night air and the light sea breeze rolling in from the ocean were just what she needed to calm the energy that was left over from the trip. Even if it was with her non-dominant hand, handling her gun, managing the turret, and even lighting a few things on fire... that felt good. She and Tserende made a decent team, obliterating the metal guards and those creepy face things as they moved from one building to the other, looting whatever she could find... it almost felt like the old days. She had forgotten how exhilarating it could be, finding hidden rooms, treasures long forgotten, and blowing holes in things every once in awhile.

 

She had to admit it was mostly Tserende who was doing all the killing and the cleaving while she poked around abandoned homes; he was handy to have around. She never did get a straight answer from him regarding whatever that red energy was that seemed to bleed around his silhouette as he fought. But whatever it was, it made him swing his gigantic sword as if it was half its weight, and cleave through metal and monstrosities with ease.

 

Shael had not wanted to ask him at all to come with, at first. But with her main hand still out of commission, she wasn’t going to take stupid chances in going into an unfriendly area to scavenge. And to her surprise, he agreed to come. She might have guilted him into it, complaining that if it wasn’t for her lame arm, she would be doing it by herself. She also might have complained about the slave wage he pays her, despite the fact that she had been able to pay for her room and board since she had been accompanying him on his cartography trips.

 

And Nabi hadn’t asked for any payment either for her care. Nor for the medicines that Shael stole or destroyed when she vandalized her stall.

 

After this trip, their debts were square. Shael hated owing people; any debt gnawed at the back of her mind like an itch she couldn’t quite reach. So when out of the blue Nabi wondered if Shael could get her a garlean weapon, to study what kind of injuries it inflicts of all things, Shael decided to oblige. But in reaching out to her previous contact here in Kugane, Shael discovered to her dismay that he was no longer in the land of the living.

 

Instead, an old acquaintance from her days in the Ala Mhigan Resistance had taken his place. Since when did Elam work for the Cove? Shael frowned. His face brought back all of the woes from Gyr Abania she was desperate to leave behind. But he was her only way of getting hold of a garlean weapon, so she bit the bullet and made a deal with him. He wanted anything Doman that he could use to increase his contact base in the Hingashi port, and offered her one of the more advanced guns he had obtained in his latest illegal smuggling deal.

 

It was a one time thing. I don’t ever have to talk to him again. Shael gave the gun to Tserende to give to Nabi and that was that. She wasn’t sure if she detested the thought of working with Elam again because of his involvement in the last Resistance fiasco, or because he was now in the thick of the smuggling business when she willingly walked away from it. I’m not jealous, Shael told herself. He can rot in hells with all his guns.

 

Shael shook her head and reached into her side pocket, retrieving a single bladed cutter made for cigars. She snipped the end of it then pulled out a firestriker. As she puffed a few times to light the end of the cigar, she could see from the corner of her eye the ghost of a familiar Roegadyn sitting next to her, with a glowing cigar in his mouth. He grinned happily at her.

 

Cigars were his favorite things.

 

Shael said nothing as she drew in the smoke of the cigar, letting it roll around over the tongue as she savored the taste. She exhaled the stream of pale smoke toward the twinkling stars above and watched it disappear into the night.

 

Eventually, the ghost that sat next to her was gone too.

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“This is…” Nabi’s eyes widened as she looked over the ornate fabric of white and red silks woven together. The embroidery in golden thread was exquisitely detailed as they curled and twirled in elaborate patterns throughout the dress. She glanced from the robe in her hand to the man who had gifted it. “This is quite beautiful. But entirely unnecessary.”

 

Elam Grave gave her a pleased grin and shook his head. “But if you are to attend the All Saint’s Wake celebration as my guest, I'll see you properly dressed. You like the costume?”

 

Nabi lowered the robe into the box it had been delivered in, taking care to fold in the sleeves as she did so. “Of course! I’ve never seen the like. I would assume it was just a beautiful dress.” Her hand went to the gloves that were also laid within the box, her fingers tracing the red cross that marked the length of it. The hat that was also folded within had similar design. “You say that this is a costume?”

 

“Not exactly,” the Highlander’s smile was slightly twisted to one side. “It is a very close replica of the robes that are granted to Ishgardian priests.”

 

“Ishgardian priests?” Both eyebrows shot up even as she reached for the teapot to pour her guest a cup. He had come to her clinic with a wrapped gift box and an invitation to an All Saint’s Wake celebration in Shirogane. “Is... that appropriate?”

 

Elam gave her a wide roguish grin. “Why, All Saint’s Wake is all about dressing as something inappropriate. Beasts and creatures of darkness have one night a year to come out to wreak devilry upon the land. Why should our costumes not reflect such chaos?”

 

Nabi chewed her lower lip in thought. She had come to learn the violent reception that the Au Ra received in Ishgard in the years past, and while much of it was a thing of the past, the disfavor she still received from some Ishgardian foreigners by way of subtle glances and avoidance was something that did not go unnoticed. A part of her however wanted to disregard all that historical decorum since it only represented wrongful perceptions and unnecessary restrictions; and yet… she knew religious beliefs held strong sway in the minds of many. Although she did spy some Hingans also taking part in the foreign celebrations and donning masks that would otherwise fly in the face of their worship to the kami.

 

So then what was really making her hesitate in accepting Mister Grave’s invitation? He had been nothing but generous and friendly since he approached her stall many suns ago.

 

I do not trust strange, 'generous' individuals,” Tserende’s words suddenly echoed in her thought.

 

Despite the fact that it was Elam Grave who told Nabi about the western holiday, and helped her get some of the rarer ingredients so she could attempt to make certain Ishgardian dishes as a surprise for Tserende, the meeting between the two men were cool and distant. The Highlander, who had been nothing but charming yet businesslike during their first meeting, was polite but aloof when Nabi introduced him to Tserende and left quickly soon after.

 

And now here he was, inviting her to be his guest to a party.

 

“No need to answer right away, lass.” Elam seemed to notice her hesitation as she closed the box. His expression was patient and his voice calm. “How goes the potion making?” He gave her a new grin. “Did you have a chance to study the samples I brought?”

 

“Oh yes!” Nabi quickly brightened as she set the box aside. She rose from her seat to retrieve the collection of bottles on the shelf. She arranged them on the table in front of him. “This drug you brought from the west, it’s fascinating. It turns your skin as hard as steel.” She brought one of the smaller bottles up to her eyes for examination. “You say you have all the ingredients needed to make it?”

 

Elam nodded, setting his teacup down onto the table and folding his arms upon it. “I do. The yield by our alchemists had been small and unpredictable at best. The effect is unfortunately short in duration.” He leaned onto the table, his eyes intent upon her. “D'you think you can make something that lasts longer? Maybe even increase the potency?”

 

A slow smile emerged upon her lips at the challenge. “Perhaps. I think so, given enough time and all the ingredients. I can think up a few additional things I might be able to add to it to see if it is compatible.”

 

Elam answered her smile with a broad grin of his own, his white teeth nearly gleaming as he did so. “Had a feeling that you would be one of those rare assets. An undiscovered talent in the East. I'm looking forward to seeing what else you’d be capable of, given the right resources. And if you’re successful with this task, I have many more projects that might interest you. And more rarer ingredients that I have access to in Eorzea and beyond.”

 

Nabi could not deny that her curiosity was piqued by the proposal. To be able to work with reagents she had never seen before! To learn about alchemical formulas that others have created far across the world. “I can’t wait!” She beamed. “I am sure there are ways where both eastern and western medicines can enhance each other as well.”

 

“I'm counting on that, lass.” Elam’s gaze on her lingered with a sly smile. He lifted the teacup to his lips to finish what remained before rising from the table. “Now, try on the dress and see if it suits you. I'll come by later to escort you to the party.”

 

Nabi parted her lips to protest but the man walked out before she could say another word. She pursed her lips with a small furrow to the brow. The Highlander was certainly an insistent fellow, but at least the potions he had commissioned from her came with a generous pay. And he seemed quite benevolent, gifting her with rare figs, and now a beautiful gown. Still, something tugged at her in the edge of her thoughts that made her uneasy.

 

Was it because she wanted to attend the party with a specific individual and Elam Grave was not he?

 

Nabi shook her head and gathered the bottles again. She would just politely decline the invitation when he returned, since she did want to try and distill some of these new reagents he had provided her.

 

But her gaze did occasionally stray back to the dress in the box...

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One, two, three...

 

Shael bounced the ball against the wooden beam that climbed the wall and extended to the ceiling. The rubbery toy slapped against her hand when she caught it again after it bounced off the rafter and flew back to her. She welcomed that slight stinging sensation it produced across her palm. Since her primary hand and arm had been in the cast for over over a fortnight, and the itching there towards the end made her want to either hammer it against something hard or jam something long and thin in between the spaces.

 

Seven, eight, nine…

 

When Nabi finally cracked the cast open, Shael immediately went to pick up her gun, only to nearly drop it. The muscles in her arms had greatly thinned with inactivity and her fingers could barely close into a full grip.

 

You will need to retrain your muscles, build them up again.” Nabi’s assessment eased Shael’s initial panic and impatience; the Xaela gingerly took her hand, helping to open and close it into a fist. “And I have just the thing to help do that.” Nabi beamed as she handed her the small blue ball.

 

Shael paused in her exercise, examining the object in her hand. It had tiny yellow winged creatures painted on it, and when she squeezed it hard with her fingers, the soft orb ballooned out on one side to stretch out the painted pattern. Shael thought it was a butterfly, until Nabi corrected her, saying they were supposed to be fireflies. The smuggler still recalled with some amusement how she had teased that it should then have been green not yellow, and the large wings still made them look like butterflies. Nabi pouted, but only for an instant, then they both chuckled.

 

Now I painted them on, because I expect those patterns to fade in the next sennight since you will be using this ball eversun. Fifty tosses to strengthen your arm and fifty squeezes for your fingers!” Nabi took her hand and proceeded to show her various exercises in grip and coordination. Shael vaguely remembered how she yelled at her and pushed her away when she had first come to her inn room at the behest of the innkeeper. And here she was now, still making sure her recovery was completed.

 

Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen…

 

Shael resumed her exercise of playing catch with the wooden rafter. She recalled laughing, albeit briefly, when she had teased Nabi. When had that snuck its way back into her life? She hadn’t laughed since last time she was chatting with Shooey. There was still a pang of guilt that tugged at her, that she had laughed when he was no longer there to laugh with her.

 

"Remember when I said... people have that person? That they rely on? Shooey was mine. My one person."

 

The wooden beam let out a small creak of protest as Shael tossed the ball just a little harder, its return sending a burning prickle through her palm. She still didn’t know why she had answered Tserende honestly when he had asked about Shooey. She chided herself for getting carried away during their hunt in Doma, and letting her mouth run too freely. He had remembered her mentioning him, and asked about it as they decided to go for a drink in the middle of the Ruby Sea. Shael first blamed herself for relaxing a bit too much around the mercenary. But she knew better. The absence of her former first mate was like a void that sucked all the light out of her day, and she had been angry in that darkness since the day he died. A part of her was tired of that blackness. And somehow, here in Kugane, around two strangers she met through attempted robbery, she had started to see some slivers of light.

 

But until that conversation under a crooked pine tree, Shael had been afraid to speak of Shooey. That like her nightmares, whenever she thought of her best friend, she thought she would again feel that crushing weight that would rob her of breath and control, that she would have to resort to rage just to be able to function. But in that, in refusing to think about him and talk about him, no one else knew just how important he was to her.

 

So when she screamed about railed about it, about how he died, about how it was her war and not his, and that she had only dragged him into it to be killed by the side they were working for… Shael found, in the after, that some of that heaviness had actually lifted.

 

Tserende listened and remained silent for a long time before he answered. “You have at least two people with your interests in mind, even if it may not be exactly what you had before.” Shael had not met his gaze, but his voice was somber yet thoughtful, and she felt his hand upon her shoulder. “They are not going anywhere, either."

 

Forty-eight, forty-nine, fifty.

 

There was a distant throbbing in her fingers as Shael snatched the ball from the air after her fiftieth toss. She had been throwing a bit harder than she should have as she had reflected on what had happened in the last few suns.

 

"I feel like... the train is coming, you can hear it, but we are just waiting to see if it actually comes. I don’t like it." She had warned Tserende of Elam, who had apparently approached him about hiring him. Grave had tried to coax her back into his employ as well for another job. And her old acquaintance was also interested in doing business with Nabi as well. Shael twisted and rolled her shoulders, suddenly feeling tension there. She didn’t like him showing up in Kugane, much less getting rather uncomfortably comfortable with the two people that she especially did not want him to know.

 

“Sod it,” Shael muttered as she rose to her feet, tossing the ball onto the haphazard pile of blankets upon her bed. Elam and his business put an end to all she cared about in Ala Mhigo. She was not going to let that happen again.

 

Snatching up her gun with her left hand, she stalked out of the inn room.

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The taste was bitter on the tip of his tongue, with the drug leaving a distant burn in the back of the throat as he swallowed. It was not unlike the effect of strong whisky, and for that, Elam Grave was pleased.

 

Who would have thought that he would find a uniquely skilled alchemist here in the Far East?

 

A curious thing, she was, and blissfully ignorant of the illegality of various drugs in Eorzea. The Xaela had already found a way to extend the duration of the Pluto’s effects. He told her that it was a compound developed to help soldiers on the war front and that potentiating its effects would help the end certain conflicts quickly.

 

But the compound she was able to produce working with milkroot, usually an unpredictable hallucinogen, was truly remarkable. The alchemist he had worked with in Ul’dah had combined it with somnus in an effort to be able to induce hallucinations, while preventing the user from getting too agitated. It still was unpredictable, but when the delirium was pleasant, it had the potential to attract avid customers.

 

This new compound that Nabi produced, however, was far more marketable in that she isolated it down to specific emotional effects. And even now, only minutes after he sampled a droplet of it, he could feel a wash of warmth throughout his body. His fingertips tingled, his muscles felt energized and his senses sharper. He could not tell if it was making him feel more lustful, or just eager for something. Hungry. But hungry for what, he could not say.

 

Elam snorted to himself as he uncorked his bottle of rum and took a long pull from it to banish the aftertaste. Perhaps sampling it himself was not the wisest decision, but the Xaela had assured him that as long as he kept it to a droplet and no more, the effects would be mild. After all, if he was going to tout its benefits to his more favored clients, he should be able to boast of it genuinely, no?

 

He reached into his vest pocket and withdrew a second vial, laying it on the table next to the first one he had already tasted. What could Nabi produce with blackroot rose? He’d make up a tale that he was searching for a cure in case someone accidentally ingested it, if only to get her to study it. He had come to learn that her alchemist’s inquisitive nature often led to experimental side products as she investigated the drug’s properties.

 

“If you could isolate the different effects of a poison, it is much easier to understand it and counteract,” the woman had chirped cheerfully. It was almost painful to listen to all the mundane details of her process, but if it meant she would share with him all the curious byproducts of her research, he could bear to act intrigued for a few bells. Maybe after he plied himself with some whiskey, anyroad. The woman had a penchant for rambling, and she seemed convinced that even the oddest things could have medicinal properties if it was used correctly.

 

By the same token, Elam knew those very same things could also make a profit. He saw an opportunity to have a unique drug maker of his own and he wanted it. He even made the Xaela a generous offer to work for him and his employer exclusively. Who knows the unique potions she could make, if she wasn’t wasting her time as a healer?

 

The temptation of wealth wasn’t enough to draw her away from that small stall peddling herbs on the streets of Kugane. He had no idea why, but it was only a matter of time before he found a way to get what he wanted. Everyone had a flaw or weakness; he just had to find it and exploit it.

 

He was pouring himself another glass of rum when the door to his office crashed violently open. Elam’s hand slid under the desk to the gun hidden below, but paused when he recognized the woman standing across the threshold.

 

“Decided to accept my offer?” Elam smiled cooly.

 

“I don’t like what you are up to,” Shael Stormchild held a gun in her hand and she was glaring at him behind those red glasses of hers. “I don’t like you doing business with people I know.”

 

Elam rolled his broad shoulders languidly. “Kugane's a big port. You're just going to have to learn to share, Stormchild.”

 

She leveled the gun at him, and Elam could spy a small blue glow down the barrel. “Not these two. I am not sharing them. Find someone else.”

 

Elam arched a brow. “Two? You're speaking of the mercenary you introduced me to… and… who else?”

 

Shael frowned, and there was hesitation before she answered. “Nabi. The Xaela herbalist. You’re doing business with her, right?”

 

Elam laughed. “Curious friends you’ve made.” He slid his hand out from under the desk, pouring himself a glass of rum. He pulled a second glass from the side drawer. “Care for a drink?”

 

“Say it. You are going to leave those two be.”

 

Elam snorted. “Reckless and impulsive as always. See, this's why you were good for jobs that no one else would take. Problem is, you were never patient enough to actually make your smuggling business a success. You could have made a lot more money if you just knew when to hold your tongue and keep that gun in its holster.”

 

He gestured to the sofa in the room, across from his desk. “Sit. Let’s deal. Your friend the mercenary has yet to give me an answer. He seems to have a bad opinion of me.” Elam gave her a pointed look. “But the Xaela, now... She’s skilled. You’re going to have to do more than threaten to shoot me for her. My employer already knows of her. You get rid of me, someone else takes my place. You going to shoot them all?”

 

When Shael’s nostrils flared but the woman remained silent, Elam pressed further. “I've a better offer than the one you already turned down. How about just a single job... and you can have everything you want.”

 

Shael furrowed her brows, but her gun tip lowered just slightly. “And you expect me to believe that?”

 

“Wait until you hear what the job is. I need it done, and it's risky as all hells.” Elam knew that the bait at least was too good for her to turn down right away. The risk and the reward of what she wanted. He grinned inwardly when she holstered her gun, and began to pour the second glass of rum, while one hand slyly reached for those two vials.

Edited by Sentry

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Mercy! Show us mercy!

 

The soldier had pleaded desperately as he struggled to crawl away on the ground, one leg trailing crimson blood. But the pirate that loomed above heard him not, as he lunged his sword straight through the man’s mouth, ending his life.

 

It was only a sun ago, but the mere memory still quickened her heart.

 

Shael stared at herself in the mirror, her left upper arm and shoulder wrapped in a bandage. Her face twisted into a foul expression at the sight of her arm in a sling, her other arm had just been freed of that cursed imprisonment only a month ago. She rolled her shoulders to test out its range; surely it wasn’t as limited, it was just a gunshot wound. She hissed at the pain that immediately shot through to her shoulder blade, and tsked at herself for doing exactly the thing that Nabi told her not to do.

 

Shael supposed she should be grateful for the incompetence on the part of the Garleans. The ambush could have been far better orchestrated; they had the element of surprise and the high ground. But just one sniper was situated up high, and the rest on the ground were only able to get off two rounds before they were rushed and had to engage in melee combat.

 

They were conscripted soldiers, this much Shael knew. They didn’t have the most advanced Garlean arms, and some of them spoke with a Doman accent. That didn’t make a difference to her though, nor to the Confederate entourage that Elam had also hired. She had shot two of them, and Anchor had cut down three.

 

Three of the guards escorting the shipment were injured, but they were still able to deliver the goods to the buyer after the ambush. To Shael's annoyance, the attack did prove Elam’s suspicion that his Garlean contact was at the least unreliable, and at the worst, a double-crosser. Was the fact that the kill target was a Garlean make it that much easier for her to accept Elam’s offer?

 

Shael fell back onto her bed, atop the blankets that were crumpled and wound in disarray, although she regretted that careless movement as soon as the shoulder hit the mattress. Nabi’s treatment had greatly decreased the throbbing in the area, and the heat that was starting to build there. The Xaela had warned her to rest the torso and the limb for at least a sennight, even though Shael could not make that promise. She could not share with Nabi what had happened to cause such an injury, nor what she had to do in the next few suns. She could easily read the worry in the Xaela’s golden eyes, but to her credit, Nabi let it be. Only left her with some salve, and chamomile tea.

 

Having studied her reflection earlier, Shael knew what Nabi saw: Shadows under her sunken eyes, slight sallow tinge to her cheeks. She was relieved that she had managed to at least hide the tremor of her hands. That would have certainly been a give away that she had drugs running in her system again.

 

Maybe Nabi already suspected, Shael wasn’t sure. But she also didn’t bother explaining that she had never meant to return to that habit. It was a necessity, given the circumstances.

 

He thinks he has me under his thumb,” she had shared in confidence with Tserende. “Slipping a drug into the drink now and then. But I’ve got it handled.” She hoped she sounded convincing despite the doubts that swirled in her mind every time she craved the next hit. She held up her hand in front of her, splaying out her fingers. It shook slightly, then as she tensed her muscles, the shakes stopped.

 

These drugs were something else. Nothing like what she had tried before. They gave her visions when she let herself go, visions of people she so desperately wanted to see. It was so very alluring. She knew she could have just avoided Elam’s drinks, and still agreed to his bargain. But Grave believing he was getting her unknowingly addicted again, fed his confidence that she would be in the end desperate for what he had to offer.

 

What she had witnessed with the weapons escort confirmed that at least Grave had legitimate reasons to want the kill target eliminated. And the connections that he was starting to establish in the mainland of Doma seemed to suggest that there was going to be plenty of opportunities for him to take advantage of. Arms, drugs, and even skin trade. The last made her lip twitch but Shael dismissed it.

 

Not my concern. Just get the job done, and all the ties are cut.

 

Her hand went to her breast pocket, where she withdrew a small flat tin container. Tserende had lent it to her, perhaps to ease her nerves, after she had shared with him her intent to do this one job. He had even offered to help, but she turned that down flat.

 

The very reason she was doing this at all, was to try and protect them. Neither he nor Nabi was going to be involved in any of this or with Grave, not if she had any say in it.

 

Shael shook the tin lightly and the few cigarettes that remained within gave a quiet rattle. A part of her wondered why, despite her determination to keep them out of things, she still took it upon herself to tell Tserende what she was up to. She was sure that if things went sour, that he would somehow try and help her. But after some insistence on her part, he finally agreed to trust her and let her do what she needed to do.

 

Shael stared at the tin for a long time, a small upward curl tugging at the corners of her lips. She flipped it over and squinted, eyeing a pair of letters stamped onto one side: “N.K.” She exhaled, her expression sobering again. She tucked it back into her breast pocket and rose, and retrieved her gun. She had to make certain all the parts were in perfect working order.

 

She knew that when she took it out again, she would not be able to afford any mistakes.

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Alcohol was both a boon and bane when conducting business. It often loosened a client’s tongue, made him more amenable to negotiations, and if consumed in excess, made him pliable to all sorts of suggestions.

 

It also shortened tempers for some and clouded judgement. At least, that was where the bane came in for Elam Grave.

 

He usually limited his intake strictly to no more than two glasses of the finest rum. It was hard for him to become drunk, but he had learned early on that indulgence beyond four cups often made him irritable. His thoughts were still clear, but his temperament sharpened. At least he took comfort in the fact that none would ever find him docile under the effect of too much, but he was well aware that even anger could be taken advantage of. And that it was a weakness. He hated weaknesses.

 

So why, after entertaining a particularly wealthy Doman noble who was insistent on both of them drinking beyond their tolerance, did he think it was a good idea to answer the Xaela herbalist’s call to her clinic on the same night? Perhaps he thought her gullible enough that he was confident he could still get away with playing the part of a wealthy and generous merchant even while inebriated. She certainly wasn’t the type to be able to take advantage of anyone’s emotional state.

 

But he should have also remembered that she was a valuable asset to him because of her uncanny aptitude with alchemy and herbalism. Certainly someone with such intellect was not beyond all deception, and it was much to his displeasure that this night of all nights, he would discover such was the case. Nabi had somehow gotten hold of a book that listed many of the various potions and drugs of Eorzea. Some academic fool in Ul’dah had recorded such things onto paper, then published it for all to read.

 

Nabi had all sorts of questions, because of course she did. Most of the drugs he provided her were of the illegal sort, and those too were listed in that cursed book. She recognized too many of the substances, from Pluto, to milkweed, and blackwood rose. He had made up some vague tales to explain their use, but she questioned why the illegality was never mentioned. Her questions were earnest, but it still made Elam clench his teeth that she even dared to question him.

Didn’t she know that he could easily snap her in two like a twig?

 

Elam knew it was the alcohol burning through his veins that tensed his muscles, his tone much more short and rough than his practiced smooth drawl. He mumbled out some lie, flattered her on her ability to separate legality from usefulness of any substance. She didn’t seem to shy away from the intellectual curiosity side of things, and yet he could see that the usual sweet naivete that shined in her eyes was clouded with doubt and suspicion. Who was it that made her turn against him? Was it Shael? Or that Ishgardian mercenary?

 

“If it is forbidden there… perhaps we shouldn’t continue to experiment with it here.” Nabi gave voice to her doubts again, as if he hadn’t heard it the first time. “I am just worried that--”

 

Elam slammed a fist into the wall as he loomed over the tiny Xaela woman, pinning her just using his looming frame that she had no room to maneuver around him. She flinched, her back stiff against the wall. Her eyes were wide with fear and she blinked quickly up at him.

 

“Mister Grave, you are scaring me,” she said quietly but firmly.

 

Perhaps it was the surprisingly calm tone she took with him that yanked him out of the rolling waves of rage that crashed against his insides. The cursed alcohol. He took a long, controlled breath in and exhaled slowly, forcibly releasing the fury that was knotting his muscles. He bowed his head, his forehead coming close to touching hers. She shrunk away from him.

 

“Apologies, lass…” he said in his most rueful voice. “Had far too much to drink for the night.”

 

When she didn’t move and said nothing in response, Elam pushed off the wall and turned. He rubbed his face roughly, to hide the deep scowl that twisted his expression. He knew it only took one misstep to break a trust carefully cultivated, and he knew he might have stumbled this night. He kept his back to her as he struggled to compose himself, trying to calculate his next move.

 

“We… all make mistakes, every now and then.” Nabi finally said quietly behind him.

 

Elam let out a long exhale, turning around with some relief. He was struck with disappointment as soon as he saw her face however, it was still full of doubt. Her words were to try and reassure him, nothing more. He had enough sense to keep his expression as sorrowful as he could, and nodded in response.

“I should go before I do something more foolish,” he grumbled, reaching for his coat.

 

“I don’t think we should continue to--” Nabi started as he hurried toward the door, once again trying to make her case clear. Elam stopped her as he held up a hand.

 

“Please... lass,” he said as humbly as he could manage. “Make no decisions tonight. Not after my asinine display. We’ll talk in the morn, after I’ve grovelled at your feet, sober. Then if you wish to turn me away, I’ll accept your decision.” Dramatic choice in words, but he hoped it would tug at the woman’s sympathies.

Before she could say another word, he quickly turned and left. Once the cool night air greeted him, a dark glower emerged. He fished out a couple of pearls from his pocket, twirling it between his fingers. If Ghoa couldn’t convince Nabi to change her mind about their contract, then more drastic but calculated measures had to be considered.

 

And Elam was never the one shy about taking drastic measures.

Edited by Sentry

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(Continued from here...)

 

 

Nabi turned the small knife in her hand. The narrow steel blade was washed with a hint of a violet sheen, the only clue that it was coated with poison. Miss Ghoa’s words echoed in her memory.

 

"I'm not a fighter myself, but this has seen me out of more than a handful of sticky situations. The blade is coated with a poison I bought from a Mankhadi woman. It only takes a shallow knick and it's quick to slow a person's movements, but not strong enough to be lethal. It gives the wielder enough time to wriggle away and escape when things turn sour."

 

Nabi held the blade before her eyes, the flames of the small firepit lending it a foreboding glimmer. The Xaela replaced it carefully back into its sheath, then tucked it into the top of her boot, as she was shown. There was a pitting in her stomach at the thought of using it, or even consider needing it for that matter, but the affair with Elam Grave had left her with lingering worries.

 

Her first instinct was to go to Tserende, of course. He was the one she turned to when there was trouble, to make things alright and to feel safe. But something had stopped her. Elam Grave was her client, and it was not as if she had never dealt with difficult clients before. Whether it be an argument about costs (although that was rare, she was never known to be an expensive alchemist) or the effects of the potion, Nabi had always been able to open discourse with whomever was unhappy and eventually reach an amicable agreement.

 

But Elam Grave had reacted so suddenly and violently (even if it was only directed against a wall), just the memory of it gave her pause. She had known him to be a persistent sort, the Highlander was fond of twisting words and situations to insist upon his needs. He had been a generous customer nonetheless, and when she declined his offer of exclusive employment more than once, it didn’t seem to raise any true ire, only a hint of frustration. Nabi had not thought much of it, at least until now.

 

After his outburst, Nabi could not help but remember that Tserende’s first impression of the man seemed less than favorable. Was that one of the reasons why she felt more at unease around Elam Grave now? But was it the right thing to then, to turn to Tserende at the first sign of difficulty for him to fix her problem? It wasn’t fair for her to expect him to step in every time there was a conflict. He had told her he didn’t like relying on anyone. Perhaps she was starting to rely on him too much.

 

Nabi was wrestling with these questions when she had a timely visit from a woman she secretly admired. Miss Ghoa, a beautiful and worldly Xaela dancer and traveler who had visited her stall months ago, returned for a social visit. She was quick to notice the consternation that darkened her mood and so when asked, Nabi open up about all her worries to the Xaela.

 

It was Miss Ghoa that told her that Eorzean men often did not hold their liquor well, and while much like the Xaela males they all growled and beat their chest in anger, the westerners were far less likely to act upon it. Nabi could tell that Miss Ghoa was far more experienced than she would ever be, and she was willing to share with Nabi her well earned wisdom. She also did not like the idea of Nabi asking another male for help, especially if that could turn the situation more stifling or controlling than before.

 

Not that Nabi ever worried that would be the problem with Tserende. She suspected that Miss Ghoa must have had some past experience to color her view in such a way. Or perhaps the woman just had a strong pride in relying on herself and no one else.

 

Even so, her words did empower Nabi in some ways.

 

Others might think they can step upon us, but no one should stop us from pursuing that which brings us happiness -- dancing, exploring, learning, potion making, or whatever else we set our eyes upon."

 

Nabi inhaled, filling her lungs with the evening air that rolled in from the opened window. She let out a long exhale, forcing out all the worries that had been troubling her mind in the last few suns. Nabi mulled over Miss Ghoa’s advice on focusing on what was important to her, in making her decision. Even if the concoctions were illegal in Eorzea, Miss Ghoa rightly argued that they weren’t forbidden in the East. Nothing was criminal in studying and working with them in Kugane, after all. And Nabi did enjoy studying new reagents.

 

Perhaps she was letting one drunken mishap on the part of a westerner to cloud her thoughts too much. After all, there were many other things she had to look forward to. Tserende and Shael (the latter somewhat reluctantly) agreed to take her with them on their next trip to search out relics and hidden antiques in Yanxia. Beyond that, there was the trek through the Steppe as Tserende worked on mapping the some of the region, with Akhutai as their guide. Months ago, she would have never imagined going on such exciting adventures. And yet now, with new friends and loved ones, she felt that her world was growing bigger.

 

Perhaps learning how to deal with stubborn, impatient men like Elam Grave was one of the price to pay for her new boldness. She straightened and lifted her chin. She could handle this.

 

Nabi swung herself out of her seat and rose, the walls of the clinic turning gold and orange as the sun began to retreat from the sky. As distant sounds of people retiring to their homes started to filter in from the outside, Nabi found her thoughts flitting about like a butterfly. As the day gave way to night with the promise of tomorrow, she too would look forward to what was to come.

 

A world of experiences she had never known awaited her. She just had to take it one step at a time.

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Twenty-six years ago…

 

Another year, another battle awaited.

 

Chanai stared into the vast, desolate field. The sun had yet to awaken the earth, and a heavy grey fog still roamed the plains. It was the quiet before the storm, before the Kharlu and the Jhungid would meet upon the steppe with clashing swords and lances upon the arrival of morning. Battle cries would echo into the sky and the soil would be soaked with the blood of the fearless and the desperate.

 

Some fought for the honor of the tribe. Others for the glory. And some, like her brother, for the thrill of battle. Bloodlust burned in his veins.

 

Slow footsteps, accentuated by the sound of the wooden staff prodding upon the land, drew Chanai’s attention behind her. The quiet clatter of bones and beads announced the arrival of the elder seer, although Chanai did not turn as custom demanded. She stood still, facing forward, her frame draped in a heavy cloak. As the older Xaela approached, adorned in layers of leather with carved ornaments wrapped around her neck and wrists, there were no exchange of formality, only silent acknowledgement for each other’s presence. Alone with the Elder, Chanai knew she could speak freely with the woman that raised her.

 

“Are you certain of the prophecy, Siban?” Her voice trembled as her gaze remained fixed on the prairie.

 

“The blood and the bones have never lied to me.” The older Xaela’s voice was cracked and brittle with age, and yet her certainty still cut through her words like a sharpened knife. “You took part in the ritual. You know the sacrifices that were made to even attempt that divination.” The woman ambled up to stand next to Chanai. With her back hunched, she planted her gnarled staff firmly into the ground and leaned heavily against it. The bones and the stones that hung from the metal rings on the head of the staff rattled.

 

Chanai clenched her fists by her side, turning her golden eyes upon the older woman. “Why would the gods be appeased by such a thing? Do we not shed enough blood already?” She felt the heat rising to her face, her heart starting to pound with indignation. Even a hint of such impiety would never be allowed in the presence of others, and yet Siban was the only one that she trusted with all her questions and doubts. And she was the only one that would have even considered performing the augury.

 

“It is because of our ways, that it has to be blood that is given.” Siban turned, her white milky eyes rising to meet Chanai’s ire. “This yearly strife, it is in hope of gaining the god’s favor. It is fleeting. We must fight for it yet again with the next turn of the year. You wish to forever end it? To end the cycle of carnage? The sacrifice must be made through suffering.”

 

A long pause of silence fell between them, before Chanai eventually turned her head, fleeing from the older woman’s unrelenting conviction. “Perhaps you still cling to the old ways, Siban. Perhaps it is you who desire such misery. It is all you believed in.”

 

Chanai regretted her words as soon as it left her mouth. They were said in anger, and she knew better. Siban’s Dalamiq origins always let other shamen see her as somewhat inferior and eccentric, in worship of a red moon rather than the Dusk Mother. But none would never say it to her face, for they feared her magic. Gifted unlike most with the ability to see into the mysterious patterns of aether through use of blood as her medium, many came to her for portents and healing. And it was under her tutelage that Chanai grew into her own talent in drawing upon the aether and the elements.

 

When she was met only with silence from the Elder, Chanai bowed her head. “I did not mean…”

 

“You asked the question,” Siban interrupted her, although her voice remained neutral. “I gave you the answer. Only you can decide what you will do with it.” She slowly turned away from the view of the plain, making her way back to the yurts.

 

“The fog is lifting,” the old woman said as she clacked away.

 

Stuttered breaths left Chanai’s lips as she turned back to the plains, and indeed, the heavy mist was burning away under the rising sun, the distant peaks of mountains becoming visible. She squinted her eyes and she could see the silhouettes of banners and yurts that were also starting to emerge across the field.

 

She turned, her cloak and hood wafting with the wind that suddenly swept into the valley, chilling her to the bone. It cleared away the last remnant of fog, as if to draw the curtains back from the empty stage.

 

A distant horn rang through the air.

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Continued from here...

 

 

 

Nabi leaned in, inhaling the heady scent of pine. The prickly needles tickled her face, so she leaned back away, lightly rubbing the tip of her nose with her finger. The scent was similar to the eastern pines, although the western variety stood straight and tall, with the deep green pine needles jutting upwards. It was as if the tree wanted to show off how strong it was, towering over the rest of the foliage. It was unlike the pine trees that she was familiar with in Othard, where the bark twisted and curled, as if it had taken the time to explore and to grow, outward and upwards from the time it sprouted.

 

Still, it was western custom to drape the pine in fancy baubles during Starlight. So when she wrapped the miniature starlight tree in twinkling lights, it looked like the proudest sapling she’d ever seen, joyfully basking in all the colors.

 

Nabi stepped back and placed her hands upon her hips, admiring the new addition to her clinic. It was only for the holidays, but she had sought out western merchants specifically to try and collect some appropriate Eorzean decorations for this time of the year. She could not help but smile giddily, wondering how it would be received.

 

It was a strange sight, certainly; her clinic was mostly Hingan in furniture and decor, but she wanted to make the place more welcoming to everyone, especially those that she would invite for holiday dinner. Starlight was an Ishgardian celebration after all. Would Tserende feel more at home if he were to see some traditional dishes? Did Shael enjoy this holiday? Did she exchange gifts? Kiyokage has also been in Eorzea, only recently having made his return to Othard… perhaps he would enjoy a reminder of his travels as well. And he had promised to bring his lady love, no less.

 

Nabi hummed cheerfully, anticipation bringing a certain lightness to her mood and steps as she spread the Starlight poster onto her wall. It was a lovely painting, depicting children being brought to a warm dinner in the cold of night. The spirit of the occasion did appeal to her, it was a time to celebrate kindness, remembrance, and generosity to those less fortunate. Even with all the grim and violent tales she had heard from Eorzea, she had to believe that any realm that observed such festivities must be a hopeful place.

 

She sighed quietly as she admired the colorful decorations within her clinic. What would Mimiyo think about the sudden influx of western ornaments? The older Hingan woman seemed to be a little more tolerant when it came to the matter of ‘ijins’ of late. She no longer referred to Tserende as a ‘foreigner’ and she even stopped glaring at Shael whenever she came around. Mimiyo still did not trust the Highlander woman, but acquiesced that she seemed to have found more honest work with Tserende. And she did surprise Nabi when she asked with some measure of concern about Tserende’s wounds after Nabi treated him in her clinic.

 

Mimiyo did not want to let on that she was starting to accept the new people Nabi’s life, that some of them were becoming quite important to the Xaela. And the Hingan definitely did not want to show that she was fussing about the injuries of a man she used to consider an outsider. Nabi could not help but smile at the thought.

 

She turned to her work table, leaning over the book of recipes. Now, where was she going to find mandragoras for the stew? Perhaps she could just substitute it with other tubers and vegetables. She was making a list of the ingredients when she noticed the first white fleck twirling downward that tugged at her peripheral vision. A pleased gasp rose from her lips as she stood, running to the window to open it. She reached out with a hand as a snowflake landed lightly upon her fingertips. It melted into a tiny droplet against her warm skin, but then another snowflake landed and then more. Nabi let out a laugh as she looked up, as the sky above began to dust the the earth with the lightest of pristine white flurry.

 

It was going to be her first Starlight, and her heart bloomed with glee at the thought.

 

It was then that a quiet knock at the door drew her attention. She brushed off her hands and closed the window to ward the room from the chill that would eventually enter and went to the door to open it. A familiar Highlander -- one she was not expecting -- loomed at the door with an odd expression in place.

 

“Miss Nabi,” Elam Grave greeted her in a cool tone. “We need to talk.”

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Elam flexed his right hand, sensation finally returning to his fingertips. He splayed his fingers out then turned his hand over, where two rough lines of abrasion had marred his skin. He had struck the Xaela hard enough, that the top of his hand had been scratched by the scales upon the woman’s cheek. He could still recall the fury that ignited instantly within him when Nabi had brought out a small knife to knick his arm.

 

He had not given the wound itself much thought at first; it was the very fact that the woman had brought out a weapon with intent to cut him that angered him. Such a petite girl, she didn’t even know how to truly cut a man to stop him. He laughed at her at first, then sent her sprawling to the floor with a vicious backhand. That small knife in her hand went spinning on the floor, disappearing under a bookshelf. Elam didn’t care, he was infuriated. She had panicked when he had taken hold of her wrist, squeezing it tightly to emphasize the fact that it was in her best interest to work for him and his employer exclusively, and that the time of patience and cordiality had run out. Did she think that such a minuscule wound would ward him off? Scare him away? The girl was so naive, Elam was ready to teach her a lesson about not listening to those who were far above her in the position of power and strength. He could do a lot worse than threaten to break her wrist.

 

That was when his leg gave out from under him. "What..." He had muttered with his eyes widening. A heavy numbness had quickly spread throughout his body. He fell hard onto the floor of her clinic, his limbs frozen, unable to move. He barely managed to lift his head, as he watched her scramble up and running for the door, no doubt about to call for help.

 

But Elam had not been foolish enough to come alone. He saw his foreman, Torrad Stonebreaker, standing just outside the door when she threw it open. Much to his relief, the Highlander grabbed her and covered her mouth before she could scream. A quick thinker, Torrad had a drugged piece of cloth ready for just the occasion, a few breaths of it rendering her unconscious in his arms. But seeing his employer lying limp, the foreman dropped the Xaela on the ground in a heap, and rushed over to Elam.

 

Elam remembered the rage that burned inside him at having been found so handicapped, left helpless by a woman half his size. It was humiliation that fueled his fury. But the decision that followed was not made hastily. After Nabi refused him, he could not just let her be. After her show of defiance, he could not let her livelihood remain. While the foreman looked nervous at following his orders, he obeyed without protest.

 

With all of his strength now having returned, Elam poured himself a glass of his finest rum and approached the window. Across the port city, a bell echoed through the air and he could hear shouts as people raced toward the Rakuza District. There was an ominous black tower of smoke that was rising into the sky.

It would be too late. The oil that was poured throughout the clinic behind the herbal stall was highly flammable. It would turn into a burning tower of flame in minutes, incinerating everything within. A quick fuel to dispose of what he wanted, without setting all of the port city on fire. He considered himself an efficient businessman after all. It would do him no good to incur heavy damage to his own city of business.

 

But the Xaela’s herbal stall and healing clinic would be no more. Soon it would be reduced to a burnt carcass of a building, along with the unrecognizable charred Auri corpse that laid within.

 

Swirling the dark brown liquor in his glass, he reached with his other hand, bringing out the two pearls again. Anchor would provide the transport, and Ghoa needed to fill in in Nabi’s absence. At least, for a little while. He still needed to meet demands, and this development would delay the production a bit.

Elam tossed his head back and drained the entire glass of rum, washing away the bitter taste that lingered in the back of his throat.

 

It was only business after all.

Edited by Sentry

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Aritake Yumishi was an ambitious man.

 

Born the second son of the house of Yumishi, he would have never inherited his father’s lands and wealth, which consisted of a sizable chunk of the southern coast off of Doma; it would have gone to his brother, Hikotoke. But the Imperial occupation that began when he was twelve years old made the matter of birthright moot, since all holdings and properties were immediately claimed by the great Empire and their sympathizers. It was also in thanks to the reach of Garlemald that both his father and his brother were killed in a failed uprising.

 

Aritake had better sense than his kin; he had escaped to Kugane and laid low for all these years. Then when Lord Hien rose and took Doma back from the Imperial clutches, Aritake was one of the first to shout at the top of his lungs his support for the returned heir to the throne. He didn’t take any part in the liberation, of course, that would have been too dangerous. But where he lacked in bravery and patriotism, Aritake excelled in exploitation.

 

When the ijin began to come flooding into Kugane to trade, Aritake seized the opportunity to make his connections with those that mattered. Those with money. Elam Grave was one such man, and with the promise of expanding businesses and political power into the newly liberated Doma, Grave and his employers at Crescent Cove Enterprises agreed to invest in the brothels and the drug houses that Aritake would soon establish throughout Doma. The Cove were paid handsomely for the illegal cache of Garlean weapons which would arm his guards at these establishments, as well.

 

And this sun, Aritake was to receive the best alchemist that Grave had to offer this side of the continent. Aritake awaited impatiently as Grave’s men arrived at the fishing village, with the crate in tow. Behind him were the Confederates that were also under Grave’s payroll. Aritake had dealt with them once before, in the Garlean weapons delivery. They seemed the hardy sort, they had survived a Garlean ambush to still deliver the goods, after all.

 

“Open it,” Aritake said with a lift of his chin, watching as the wooden crate was loaded onto the wagon. “I wish to check what I’m paying for.”

 

Grave’s men glanced at each other, before the foreman nodded. With the lid removed, they pulled up a petite figure of a Auri woman, bound at the wrist with a bag over her head. Aritake leaned over on his horse and yanked the linen sack off her head, to look upon a confused and frightened Xaela. Golden eyes, Grave had said. Such things were said to be good luck to whomever possessed them.

 

This obviously wasn’t the case for this alchemist, since she was sold to be his, to use as he willed. “Was violence really necessary?” Aritake tutted, noticing a growing welt upon the woman’s cheek. “We wouldn’t want her suffering from a head wound. She’s supposed to concoct potions!”

 

Torrad, Grave’s foreman, stepped forward with an apology. He muttered some vague threat to the gagged woman, to which the Xaela shook her head emphatically at the Highlander. “She will behave from here on,” the Highlander grumbled.

 

Aritake pursed his lips with satisfaction. He had a distaste for beating women. He would hate to use his whip to deliver a lesson so early on. With the slave trade filling his pleasure houses, his own alchemist would provide the unique blend of drugs that Grave had promised. The second son of house Yumishi could easily become one of the wealthiest lords of new Doma.

 

But then something happened that he did not expect.

 

Aritake had not kept an eye on the Confederates, for they were part of Grave’s payroll after all. But one of them began to stalk toward the wagon, and drew his sword. The Doman lord had thought nothing of it at first, until blood splattered from the backs of two of Grave’s men, struck down by the pirate. Aritake remained sitting on his horse, somewhat puzzled, even as his own guards rushed forward to protect their lord.

 

“Stand down, Anchor!” Torrad shouted angrily as he spun around, drawing his own sword. He stood behind the Doman soldiers however, perhaps trying to deduce why the Confederate was suddenly turning on them.

 

Aritake sniffed as his soldiers surrounded the pirate. He was confident that his own men would cut down one very unwise -- and perhaps unstable, by the look of blind rage on his face -- Confederate. But as their swords clashed, the one called Anchor dodged and swerved with surprising speed. But it was three against one, after all. A slash to his leg was delivered by his soldier but the man did not slow down. When a second cut was delivered to his back, Aritake smiled, certain that the pirate would be slain in matter of moments. But then he glimpse the man’s eyes. What had formerly been an unsightly red hue was now glimmering odd amber.

 

Anchor did not seem to be slowed by the second cut to his back either. He parried away more blades with his own, then in a move that Aritake could not quite follow, he thrusted the sword through the first soldier’s chest, then jerked it back and twisted his arm to run it through the man coming in behind him. He somehow then sidestepped the third and cleaved the third soldier’s skull.

 

Torrad then stepped forward, his longblade drawn. “You crazy shite-eating son of a coeurl…” the Highlander growled angrily and the pirate and the foreman clashed swords. The Highlander managed to land another hit on Anchor, slashing him from shoulder toward his torso. But still the Confederate remained upright. Was this pirate a demon? Aritake felt a shiver run up his spine. But his head snapped around when a shot rang out. It was the Confederate’s quartermaster. The rest of the Ironsong’s crew had not deigned to get involved in one of their crewman’s idiocy. At least, until now. The quartermaster was aiming at Torrad with a Garlean pistol.

 

The Doman lord pulled back on the reins of his horse, back pedaling. He looked at the wagon driver who still had his prize loaded behind him. “Go,” he commanded in a hiss. But just as the wagon lurched forward, he spied the Xaela alchemist, climbing out of the box and jumping off the side of the moving wagon.

 

Aritake was watching his fortunes collapsing around him. He drew his whip from his belt and with a snap, wrapped it around the Xaela woman’s neck, yanking her back to him. He wound his end of the whip on the saddle and reared his horse around. He would at least make his get away with what he had come for.

That was when he saw the pirate sprinting full speed, leaping onto the wagon. With a swing of his katana, the driver’s head went flying.

Then the pirate spun and flung his sword in Aritake’s direction.

 

The Doman lord raised his gauntlets to block the flying weapon, the katana clanking to the ground as it grazed off his well made and very expensive armor. But now, this crazy pirate was without a weapon. Aritake grew bold. The fortunes were turning again. He spun his horse around and drew out his own pistol, ignoring the foreman, the crew, and the quartermaster for now. This yellow-eyed pirate was a rabid dog that he alone could put down. He aimed the pistol at Anchor who was now weaponless, and fired.

 

The man should have fallen. He didn’t. Blood trailed his every step; his chest, now also gifted with a gunshot wound, heaved with liquid breaths. But still he ran toward the Doman lord, unnatural strength allowing him to leap onto the horse, his hands going to for Aritake’s throat.

 

Aritake desperately attempted to fire his pistol again, when he saw the veins upon the pirate’s face -- around his eyes, his arms -- all bearing that same sickly yellow hue. The lines beneath his skin pulsed. Aritake, his panic drowning him, noticed the same glow upon his own body, like fissures upon a cracked land. Too late, he felt an ungiving pressure build within his own head and neck.

 

The last thing he saw was amber light bleeding into his own vision, blinding him... and then everything went red.

Edited by Sentry

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Anchor’s awakening was proceeded by the following: first, pain. A debilitating amount of it. Its origin seemed to pulse greatly from around his leg, where an immense pressure was constricting around the fresh stitches along his thigh. His wounded back and shoulder were next to follow, from bolting upright in his shock, then his lungs in the strained gasp. Confusion followed, immediately giving in to alarm and anger.

 

He felt that familiar heat rise inside, but before it boiled over and clouded his mind, a firm slap snapped his head over an ilm. The hyur blinked, blurry gaze readjusting and looking over towards the perpetrator, Brick, his quartermaster. Or tried, rather, since a set of clothes were smacking into his features, blinding him again.

 

“Bastard,” he managed out in a wheeze while he shakily reached to remove the fresh attire from his head. Hells, he felt weak. Aggravating. His voice was also grating and he noted then how much his chest ached when he spoke.

 

“Prepare to disembark, Saltborn. In the meantime. Girl. Get out.”

 

Girl…? Oh right. That wench, Nabi. She had been here with him, hadn’t she? Anchor vaguely recalled having woken up prior since their departure from Isari, but he could scarcely remember the details of it. His teeth clenched as he reached up with his better arm, holding his head while looking around through hazy vision. He still had that sleep draught in his blood. Frustrating.

 

There was a shuffling noise of loose paper, as if was being exchanged. “He isn't fully recovered yet, and these would help.”

 

Nabi’s voice, but Anchor hardly paid mind, trying to regain his bearings. He was below deck, in the crew’s quarters. It was its usually murky darkness, the only lightsource currently a dim lantern by the entrance to the cramped space. It had been rearranged; Anchor was on one of the corner cots, it having been dragged to the center of the room. There were a couple more that had been shifted around closer to his own for reasons he couldn’t discern yet. The hammocks remained untouched, hanging around the corners. His lacerated and bruised body was quite naked, save for the blanket covering him for decency.

 

By the time he attempted to focus his attention on the two au ra in the room, the female was disappearing behind the cabin door--And by door, he meant raggedy curtain. Piece of shit. So, he turned his crimson gaze to the towering male in the room instead, immediately glowering.

 

“Fuckin’ hells be your problem??” All the pain had Anchor’s rasping voice rising in aggravation.

 

“My first is being you have yet to put clothes on,” Brick offered mildly, eyeing the set in Anchor’s blanketed lap. “And it’s quite the eyesore.”

 

The wounded pirate scoffed, impatiently tossed aside the blankets and, much to the protest of his body, shifted his legs around to begin amending the whole bare situation. Anchor’s breaths came out hard and strained. It didn’t go unnoticed by the stoic au ra, but he continued nonetheless.

 

“My second being you may have cost us future business. And, quite possibly, rewarded us future problems.”

 

Another incredulous huff resounded as Anchor let his feet settle to the floor with a wince, pulling loose pants up over his hips and tying them off. “Good riddance to it then, damn bastard nearly sent us off to a deathtrap if’n I remember rightly the last or so time.” Though, he only half-meant it. Dangerous or potentially dangerous work wasn’t unknown or uncommon to the Ironsong crew.

 

“It was quick work, for the most part, and regardless of the trouble, it paid well.” There was little comment on that. “Do you even remember what happened?”

 

Huh. That question sounded familiar. Probably because Nabi had asked him the same thing. “More or less,” Anchor grumbled.

 

It was an odd remembrance. Fragmented, in a way; blurry between more specific acts. It was not unlike points along a string, places more distinct when either his blade had cut through flesh or the times his own had been. There was no recollection of satisfaction or victory though, no matter how many bodies dropped that day.

 

Brick nodded, “Well, while you were showering in the blood of our associate’s business partners, I was having a friendly chat with one of Grave’s men.”

 

Anchor narrowed his gaze over at Brick as he carefully situated a loose hanten jacket over his shoulders. So he had missed one. That part, he hadn’t been aware of.

 

The Ironsong’s quartermaster began to give the details of the discussion Anchor hadn’t been present to. Not that there were many details to cover. At least not as many as the quartermaster would have liked at this point.

 

Brick parroted Torrad, the surviving foreman’s words: the men Anchor had killed had been in the works to start brothel rings and drug trade throughout Doma. The girl--who’s name Brick couldn’t recall if it had ever even been mentioned to him, nor did he really care--had been part of the deal for unknown reasons. And then that, unsurprisingly, with this line of work, Grave and the now deceased Doman Lord, had competing enemies out there.

 

The auri quartermaster moved on to speak of the current situation with Nabi’s family. How they were left with a burning body in a burning clinic, and that the girl knew none of this, only having the threat of her family’s well being hanging over her head for compliance. It would make it easier on them, Brick explained. There was hope it meant no one would come looking for the assumed dead, and it meant the female’s bleeding heart would keep her from doing anything drastic. She seemed the naive sort, at least.

 

Pieces of past jobs and experiences were clicking into place in Anchor’s muddled mind all the while; the crate they delivered to Kugane that had smelled of embalming fluid, the body inside, and then, more recently, the smoke and commotion he had been privy to before setting sail to deliver new cargo; to deliver that wench, Nabi.

 

The quartermaster quieted when he saw Anchor shaking, brows furrowed, holding his palm over his temple. The young pirate’s breath was quivering out through his nose in a controlled fashion, the dark circles under his eyes making the rage glistening in their red, unfocused gaze seem accentuated through his sickly paleness.

 

Brick exhaled wearily, “Aye… an awful lot of trouble to be had for one girl.” He reached into his clothing to fish out a cigar, placing it between his lips. “As it is, for now she is to stay out of Kugane and out of sight.” The au ra pointedly looked down to the last garb Anchor had yet to put on. Which was fine, as it was not meant for him. Said pirate followed his gaze with a raised brow. The fabric was thick and dark. “In that time, you can mind her here as you recover.” He puffed to life his smoke as he lit up with a matchbox.

 

“...”

 

There was a very long pause. At that moment, Anchor’s features blanked, the pain, irritation, and anger being replaced with incredulous confusion. Then, realization followed and all the aggravation returned in full swing,

 

“You be sayin’ bloody what now?”

 

“You will mind the girl, here, in Shirogane.” Brick repeated with a dull stare, “We anchored a bell ago and as I said, you best prepare to disembark.” He took a puff from the large blunt hanging out of his mouth. “It was your decision, after all, regardless of lack of mind or presence in that time. And since you are useless as you are, it seems the most appropriate.”

 

Anchor felt his hackles rise at the insult, true though it may be. His mouth fell open to retort, but Brick continued, cutting off the start of his baffled rage.

 

“In the meantime, we will place a few men here after you and then set to Kugane to do the same. Keep an eye out, make preparations to move if need be.” Brick nodded with finality as if the conversation was over, turning on his heel and started out of the room.

 

The younger pirate was not through with this, however. It was only through the rising blood pressure that he could push himself through the pain and start stumbling after his quartermaster, grabbing the folded dark-colored garb nearby by reflex. Anchor’s pace was inconsistent and somewhat unstable, grasping desperately to nearby walls or door frames and anything else to keep up with the other’s brisk pace.

 

“You be waitin’, ya shite-eatin’ sod! You be sayin’ it yerself--I be useless, aye?” Apparently he could agree with the jab if it worked in his favor, “Ya can’t be havin’ me watch ‘er--she--she’ll run off or some shite! Not that I be carin’ if she did!”

 

“A possibility, but doubtful, given her and her own family’s believed situation. One you can always kindly remind her of.”

 

Anchor’s chest heaved with labored breaths. He was getting light-headed again thanks to the movement in his futile chase; the pain, the anger, the anxiety--it was all so heavy, “I. That.” He cursed when he failed to find the right words, instead just blurting out dubiously, “Where in Hells do I bring ‘er?!”

 

“You are a foolish, infuriating bastard, Saltborn, but hardly an idiot.” Brick didn’t slow his pace, exiting out from below into the blinding, morning light on deck. “Somewhere safe, i imagine, and out of the way.”

 

"--And where the Hells would that be??"

 

Anchor’s attempt to follow was brought to a halt as soon as the walls below deck ended and the shining rays hit his eyes, making him squint so hard they nearly closed. He let out another string of expletives.

 

He knew where to take her.

And Brick knew that Anchor knew.

And somewhere inside, Anchor knew Brick knew that he knew!

 

Bastard.

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The fire in the hearth crackled and popped. Nabi watched as the flames danced over the wooden logs in the hearth, her eyes following the course of the tiny embers that would take flight. They reminded her of fireflies, the small and beautiful motes of light that would bring her a measure of comfort in times of darkness.

 

"No showin' your face around here. No runnin' off smart to Kugane thinkin' the wrong things. If'n ya don't think of your OWN benefit -- which I'm beginnin' to think is the case -- then think of your loved ones, aye?" Anchor’s earlier words returned her as her eyelids grew heavy. The fatigue that was descending on her was no longer letting her push aside the memories of all the things that had happened since the night before. "And if you STILL find'in inspiration lemme remind ya that YOU decided this. Ya could have gotten away -- and ya chose not to. Damn daft broad."

 

Her answer had been simple. “I needed to see that you lived.”

"AND LOOK WHERE THAT GOT YA!” That only made him more vexed. “With the one who's livin! Congrats on ya! There was the THIRD choice where ya took the damn horse ya was gettin' rattled around on and made straight away north--fuck all to this. Sod it all... ya live with your actions now, woman."

 

Nabi wrapped her arms around her legs as she brought her chin to rest on top of her knees. Anchor was right. She could have taken that horse and just ran from it all. Perhaps the thought might have occurred to her when she watched the Doman on horseback as his head exploded in Anchor’s choking grasp. She had already witnessed so many deaths, Anchor’s sword shearing through flesh, soaking her and everything else around him in blood. But when it was all over, Anchor’s eyes dimmed and rolled backward in its sockets as he collapsed onto the ground in a heap.

 

She still remembered the halting uneven breaths, his chest laboring to take in air in despite the blood that was rapidly filling it. The thought of running away while he was dying… it never came.

 

Nabi looked over her shoulder, to the chair where the pirate was now sound asleep. The elixir and the tea that she had made had done its work, easing his pain and slowing his thoughts to allow him to drift to sleep, despite his protests.

 

She had watched him sleep only twice now, and it was the only time when his face looked at peace. When he was awake, his deep red eyes always seemed to broil with irritation, ready to explode into a fit of rage. She remembered recognizing him when the bag was yanked off her head, standing behind the man who had taken her. A sob choked her breath in that instant, at the thought he too would be part of it all.

 

But then something changed in his barely controlled expression, and he stepped forward, drawing his sword. Nabi shuddered at the memory of the violence that followed.

 

She looked to her wrists where abrasions remained from the bindings that she had forcibly pulled her hands through. The glow from the hearth caught the glimmer of the thin circlet of silver and gold that wound around her wrist. A bracelet that her mother gave her years ago… one that she pulled off when she tried to mimic her mother’s art of healing using the earth. It had drained her with the effort but it was enough to stabilize his severe wounds that Anchor did not immediately bleed to death.

 

Trying to save his life, attending to his injuries, that was what she had focused on to force her emotions to stay at bay. She did her best to keep up the brave facade, clutching onto the positive things: that she was in Shirogane now and not on a pirate ship, that her family was still safe, and that she was not being sold off to some Doman lord. But now that she sat upon the rug in the small abode that was Anchor’s home -- a small apartment enveloped in a scent of wood and musk -- the weight of the day’s events was starting to settle into the pit of her stomach.

 

Just yesterday she was decorating her clinic for Starlight, and planning a dinner for her loved ones. And now, she was hiding from the world for the sake of her family, and counting on a man who had violently killed so many to keep her safe. He did not want her near, that much was clear. She had promised him as he slept that she would stay to see him recover, see him whole. But once Anchor was fit and able… then what? What would become of her?

 

Nabi had to believe that Brick sent her letters. To her family to let them know she was safe. And to Tserende and Shael to let them know what had happened. Tserende would search for her, she knew this. She had to believe that they would somehow figure this out. So that she could return home without worrying for anyone’s safety.

 

She just… wanted to go home.

 

Her hand rose to rub at her neck, where the memory of the strangling hold of the whip had left fresh bruises. She touched her cheek where the throbbing reminded her of the man that had started it all. She felt her fingers tremble against her face before she realized she was shaking. Hot tears fell from her eyes without warning; the view of the flames blurred before her eyes.

 

Nabi curled into a tight ball and cried where she sat, her quiet sobs only accompanied by the soft crackling of the fire.

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