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Roen

Cigarettes and Fireflies

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The sound of the shouting crowd buzzed in his ear like static. The cacophony of heckling, hollering, howling echoed off the ancient stones that formed the domed ceiling of the underground chamber, and the scent of sweat and smoke thickened the air. His own beads of perspiration trailed down his temple and dripped onto his bare chest.

 

Elam Grave flexed his fingers, his knuckles wrapped tightly with bandages. The cloth was heavily stained with dark crimson, made of both fresh and dry blood. None of it was his. He bounced lightly on his feet with his fists in front of him, keeping his gravity centered, even as he kept his eyes on his opponent.

 

It was a grey skinned Roegadyn, almost twice his girth. He already bore a bruised nose and a bloodied lip, and his left eye was swollen shut. But he still remained standing, and for that Elam was impressed.  

 

How else would those watching fully appreciate the demonstration?

 

The Roegadyn came at him again with two quick strikes, a jab and a cross. He had already lost some of his speed from the beating he had taken, and Elam easily evaded the first and redirected the second with a strike to the man’s wrist . It was like batting away a child trying to paw at him. He felt the tingling traveling down along the length of his arm and quickening his movements. There was a distant pulsing in the back of his head, and his sight felt more keen, his senses more alert. The jeering was louder than ever. The refined form of Pluto worked better than even he anticipated.

 

Elam stepped in, delivering a roundhouse kick to his opponent’s midsection. The Roegadyn raised his leg to block, but pure brute strength of the Highlander sent the larger fighter stumbling to the side, reeling from the unnaturally forceful blow. It was as if he had been struck with a thick steel beam in full swing. Elam strode forward, not allowing a breath of recovery. He thrusted his foot straight out at the Sea Wolf’s abdomen, then grabbed his head to shatter his jaw with his knee. The Roegadyn crumpled to the ground, unconscious and bleeding from his misshapen face.

 

The crowd suddenly fell silent at the sudden and savage ending. Serious wounds were not an unusual thing in this underground Doman fighting pit, but the Sea Wolf had been their long running champion for the past moon. For him to be so soundly defeated by an ijin, who felled four other combatants before him, too much coin was being lost all at once.

 

Suddenly the audience erupted into another screaming match as winners and losers shouted at each other for their money. In the chaos, one lean midlander leaped over the railing that enclosed the fighting circle, rushing Elam with a blade drawn. He spat out some semblance of a curse in Doman; Elam could only make out something about cheating.

 

Grave raised his forearm as the knife was brought down upon him. The Highlander grinned when he felt just a graze, the sharpened edge skidding over his skin as if it was skating along a metal plate. The potion worked just as she said. His dark deep set eyes narrowed wickedly at the now stunned attacker, just before he crushed the man’s temple with a vicious hook of the elbow. The midlander too collapsed to the ground, limp.

 

“Halt! The victor is clear!” The ringmaster trotted out onto the ring with his hands raised, as the rest of the crowd shifted uneasily. The glances and glares that were shot in Elam’s way were not kind, but they also held a large measure of fear and respect.

 

Elam flexed his fingers again, still feeling his strength teeming just beneath the surface of his skin, ready to spill over again, if called for. He wondered if it was just the potion, or the fury that had been building since Torrad delivered the news of the disaster that happened in Yanxia when the herbalist was supposed to be delivered to Aritake Yumishi. One of his biggest investors in new Doma, his new partner for the chains of pleasure houses and drug trade, was now dead, along with most of Elam's own men that had accompanied the shipment and some of the Confederates under his payroll. What boiled his blood was that Torrad was unable to identify those responsible for the attack, and the fact that his alchemist had also been taken by the same party.

 

The Cove had competitors, the East Aldenard Trading Company being their greatest rival. But they would not go to such lengths as this. Likely this was the work of other Doman nobles, those who wish to stake their own claim upon the fresh fertile soil that was the new Doma. Such opposition was not wholly unexpected, but the fact that he had not had even a whiff of something like this in the waiting was more than alarming. How had they even known of the abduction? He had been careful to orchestrate the fire to make it seem accidental, even leaving a corpse behind to deter anyone looking. He rarely went through such trouble in conducting slave trade. Nabi had been the exception -- the alchemist that refined and potentiated the effects of Pluto, the incredible substance that was burning in his veins.

 

The sound of fabric ripping around his knuckles was lost on him as his grip tightened and his hand shook with anger.  

 

He needed to find these new enemies and put an end to them quickly. If he was going to have a firm hold in this new underground enterprise, he had to make it known that he showed no mercy to those who crossed him. But first, he needed to find new investors now that Yumishi’s fortunes were lost to him. Like those that ran these illegal fighting pits. Only these new patrons could not know that the maker of the drug he was demonstrating was no longer in his possession.

He had other drugs to trade after all, thanks to Ghoa, as well as a wealth of arms trade and plenty of slaves. He would dangle plenty of other offerings in front them while this little mess sorted itself out.

 

Elam bared his teeth in his best, most feral grin as he entered through the aged red wooden doors in the back room of the underground chamber beyond.

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A single lock clicked into place as Anchor left.

 

A long exhale left Nabi’s lips as she looked toward the doorway, the small den suddenly feeling both unfamiliar and lonely at the same time. It was a strange feeling. When she had first arrived here with Anchor many suns ago, she was nearly charmed by the place. It was small but filled with character; she doubted there was anything he kept in his home that didn’t hold some kind of significance or use in someway. Nothing was frivolous.

 

She had taken to rigorously -- almost obsessively -- cleaning and reorganizing his kitchen to spend her suns while he rested. Taking care of his wounds, cooking and cleaning, it kept her busy enough for a while to take her mind off of the troubles that had landed her here in the first place. But as suns passed, she started to become restless, her thoughts once again returning to her family, her friends, and her home.

 

So it was to her delighted surprise when Anchor took her to the Shogatsu Festival. She went disguised with a fox mask, and he had insisted more than once that it wasn’t for her, nor was it a vacation of any sort. He just wanted to stretch his legs and get some fresh air for them both. Nabi barely heard any of it, so excited was she to get to attend the festival that only came around once a year.

 

The festival was full of people, performances, and delectable foods. She forgot why she had to wear a mask at all, as she visited one stall after another, purchased hot red buns for them both to nibble as they watched performances, and even won a pair of copperfish at a fish scooping game. But when she recognized a familiar face in the crowd, and had to hold herself back from saying hello, she was abruptly reminded of her circumstances.

 

Suddenly, guilt hit her heavily, that she wasn’t sharing this festival with her family and friends as well. She had been so happy to enjoy the festivities herself that she forgot what her loved ones may be going through. Were they reassured by her letter? Or were they worried? Were they allowing themselves to enjoy the coming of Heavensturn? All merriment left her then like a floating lantern deflated of air.

 

In hindsight, Nabi regretted the gloomy mood that came upon her with that thought. She wanted Anchor to enjoy the festival too. She had been so determined to inject some cheer into his life and the Shogatsu Festival was the perfect opportunity. But at the end of the night, it was he who rekindled her spirit as he shoved the fireworks into her hands, wanting nothing to do with it.

 

As she waved the sparklers to send a flurry of embers flying all around them, Nabi spun and laughed. It was as if she was summoning a swarm of fireflies with a wave of her hand. The sparks would spin and float away, some of them aiming for the sky. She watched them disappear toward the heavens, a sense of serenity finding her in that moment. A belief that things would be alright, somehow, in the end. She could have sworn she spied a smile on Anchor’s face too, if only briefly.

 

Of course, since the night of the festival, she had grown somewhat more impatient. She organized then reorganized his kitchen for the third time, and now she was more certain than ever that there was not a speck of grime to be found in his kitchen and bath. Still, her thoughts strayed to the festival, and her family. And hope.

 

So when Anchor announced that he was going to leave for the afternoon to meet with an old contact, she was hopeful to come too. But he reminded her of her predicament. "You aren't to be goin'," he said. "I trust ya will keep your word about not causin' any trouble--you aren't ta show face, with or without me, aye? I'll be hearin' of it if ya try and be doin' something thinkin' it smart."

 

She had promised it, that first sun when he brought her to his home. That she would not cause any trouble for him. He had nearly died for her, that was the least she could do. Even when he told her that he had worked for Elam Grave, which was the reason he was there in Yanxia in the first place... even then she told him she would still keep to her promise.

 

And so now he trusted her enough to leave her alone in his home.

 

This was the first time since she had been taken, being left to her own care. It felt both freeing and frightening at the same time. Nabi’s gaze wandered, to what she knew to be in his home. Of the possibilities of disguises if she did want to leave. The lock was to keep people out, not in. She could leave while Anchor was gone, and return to Kugane, to at least get a glimpse of her family and perhaps send more word to others.

 

"Once I be recovered, I'll be speakin' to him.” A memory, clear and painful in its lucidity, returned to her. It was when she confronted him about his association with Elam Grave. He had flung spiteful words at her after she accused him. She could not fathom why he then saved her. He did not answer her, but eventually, he reassured her. “Once I do, I'll make it clear you ain't to be touched, aye? Ya can go salvage your pleasant little dream and do away with this. Free to do as you will. But for now. No trouble." His voice had dropped into an almost agonized whisper. "Ya said you wasn't to make anymore trouble."

 

Nabi’s chest rose and fell with another deep breath. Her hand had come to rest over her stomach. In the suns that she had been here, the stir of fear and anxiety had lessened slowly over time. It wasn’t due to Anchor’s kindness; his temperament and demeanor remained harsh and abrasive. But what he’s done for her was something she could not forget, and in that, she found comfort and maybe even a small sense of security.

 

“I promised,” she quietly echoed the words she had given Anchor moments before he left. “No trouble.” Some weight seemed to lift from her shoulders once she made the decision. Pressing her lips together, her golden eyes darted about, looking to the den. She had left this room mostly untouched since it was where Anchor had been resting. Now that he was gone…

 

Nabi smiled and grabbed the rag that hung from her waist.

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Torrad Stonebreaker had always taken pride in his name.

 

It was one that was earned through feats of strength, rather than granted through blood. He cared not for his father’s heritage, weak and miserly merchant that he was, struggling for scraps in the streets of Pearl Lane.

 

Nay, Torrad was a strapping young man, and as soon as he could gain employment within the circle of Monetarists in Ul’dah, he leaped at the chance. He started as one of many bodyguards, but his size and strength soon gained him notice, and his willingness to do just about anything his employer wanted of him gained him ranks quickly. He was strong, hungry, and brutal when he needed to be. None had bested him one on one, and not one mission he was in charge of, he had failed at.

 

When he rose to the rank of foreman for Elam Grave, The Cove’s lead man in establishing their business interests in Kugane and Doma, Torrad was confident that soon his own ambitions would be realized. He just needed to succeed in all things that Grave asked of him.

 

Then the disaster struck at the fishing village outside of Isari, because of one bedeviled Confederate.

 

Torrad now watched the very same man ascend the stairs to the third floor of the Hostelry, approaching the table where Elam Grave was leisurely enjoying his dinner. Anchor Saltborn had asked for the meeting after a fortnight of silence since the slaying of Aritake Yumishi and the disappearance of the Xaela alchemist. A deep scowl drew his brows as Torrad recalled his own role in it all. After all his men had been killed, and with the crew of the Ironsong turning against him as well, he had managed to negotiate a truce, in hopes of preserving his own life. There was shame that twisted his insides, and anger that simmered along with it, that this gaunt-looking pirate could bring him to such defeat.

 

As Anchor sat down across from Grave, Torrad’s finger twitched over his sword that hung by his side. He would have given almost anything to strike down that cursed man where he sat. But he dared not disobey Grave, he now knew too well the price of betraying that man.

 

The greeting between the two men were careful, both speaking in calm neutral tones. Grave was intent on hearing what Anchor had to say, and the latter had come prepared to parlay. Anchor briefly echoed the false tale of the ambush that Torrad had recounted to Grave, but soon moved onto the purpose of this meeting. It was after all, Torrad believed, what sent the pirate into his rage filled killing spree.

 

"See, you's almost be makin' an error with us." Anchor leaned in, setting his arms over the table.

 

“An error? And what would that be?” Elam paused as he poured himself some sake, mild curiosity in his raised brow.

 

"During the madness of it all, your little piece of merchandise be gotten loose. Mayhap have had the time to be noticin’ it look an awful like familiar to a senseless wench that be workin’ here locally.” Anchor leaned back, his folded hands sliding off the table and draping between his knees. “Ya see, I don’t be carin’ much of the daft wench. But, she be a resource to tendin’ to my crew and me and my own for some time now. We know there be little thing of trust in a world such as this one. Paid for by blood and coin it is. But we had no trouble with her. She be daft. Easy to manipulate. Skilled. Ya don’t find a thing like that often.”

 

Anchor cleared his throat, “Ya see, be stealin’ somethin’ of that sort, be stealin’ somethin’ from us. So… lucky you, it didn’t go through, aye?”

 

Elam said nothing although his eyes narrowed just slightly. He gestured vaguely with his hand to continue.

 

"That said, and in your own words, you's be payin' us generously for the work and we has no intention of endin' dealin's. You seem you gots plenty of enemies... and I gots plenty of fight left in me." Anchor looked from Elam back toward Torrad, before turning back around. "However, the continued deals go hand in hand with a proposition, of sorts. Let that woman return to her work, baskin' in ignorance as she likes. In return, I gots a name of another that'll prove ya more useful."

Torrad bore his gaze into the back of Anchor’s head. All for a blasted girl. Fool. Bitterness welled up inside him, enough that he had to clench his hands into a fist to release some tension. But whatever insanity that had taken hold of the man on that dock in Yanxia, was not present this sun. Anchor went on, to offer another poison maker, to replace the Xaela. One that would be far more familiar and comfortable with all that Grave would ask of him.

 

And to Torrad’s surprise, Grave agreed. In exchange for the girl’s complete silence and one of her new formulas. Torrad’s scowl deepened. The woman was too naive, too inexperienced to pull off such a lie. To return to her old life in Kugane, to her burnt stall and home and pretend as if nothing happened? He wanted to snort loudly.

 

“You telling me you can convince her to just… forget about all that?” Grave echoed the same thoughts. “Go back to… what, her life as it were?” His eyes narrowed on Anchor. “You must have a lot of pull with this girl. Something I never managed to get. Despite her being so… easily manipulated, as you say.”

 

"No need bein' so hard on yourself, Grave. She be havin' a good taste now of what soil lays under the green painted over it all, thanks to ya. She knows more than ever on consequences." Anchor sounded confident, encouraged by Grave’s malleability. "Ya lay the options clear for a one, and they should be takin' the smart one. As it is.”

 

“This agreement..." Grave’s lips curled downward, although his expression was one of appraisal. "Sounds fair enough." He set his utensils down, reaching for a second untouched bottle of sake and pouring two glasses. "As long as you can guarantee that the Xaela keeps her mouth shut. And as long as I have a capable drug-maker, my patrons will be happy."

 

Anchor sat up, letting out a slow exhale. "Aye. She be keepin' her mouth shut. You and your own don't be layin' a finger on 'er. You'll have your man for makin'. And a crew to be gettin' dirty outta your pocket." He nodded firmly.

 

Grave grinned lopsidedly, seemingly pleased. “The fate of the Xaela depends on her silence. But I’m sure you’ll see to that.” He set the second cup of sake in front of Anchor and lifted his own in the air. “Not exactly what I had planned, but at the end of the sun, we just need to keep our customers and employers happy, aye?” He tossed his head back and swallowed it in one gulp. “And I can always use a crew for dirty work.”

 

"That I will," Anchor assured, although he did not knock his drink back until Grave did so first. "And a crew can always use coin." There was a hint of triumph in the pirates voice.

 

Grave watched him, that one sided smile broadening just a sliver as Anchor finished his drink. But that expression faded as soon as it came, his jaw set. “Since that matter is now taken care of…” He set the second bottle of sake back to the side, then reached for the first he had been nursing before. He poured out what little was left, and began to sip at it again.

 

“Let’s discuss that ambush.” His tone was suddenly business like. He set his cup down once it’s been emptied, lacing his fingers together as he leaned in. “I like to know my enemies. A word of an ambush like this… it gets around to the people that matter in my business. Can’t let that stand. My business partner getting ambushed and butchered on delivery.

 

“So I did a little looking. And the story that my foreman gave me… didn’t quite explain everything.” Grave flicked a glance to Torrad which almost made him twitch. Grave turned his attention back to Anchor, his expression hardening. “Why all of your men survived and all mine, except for one, died. And there were no bodies or evidence of this mysterious ambushers to be found after.”

 

Anchor stiffened, and he too flicked a look back to Torrad for an instant. There was no ready answer coming forth, a pause of silence falling between them. The pirate finally snorted.

 

"Some might be sayin' it luck, aye? Not one to be lookin' a gifthorse in the mouth, as it were. Especially considerin' how I made out." Anchor set a single elbow on the table again, glancing back over to Torrad. "Look like to me I not the only one be gettin' a close call." He flicked a finger over the lobe of his ear pointedly at the foreman, the earring there swaying before settling again.

 

Anchor shrugged. "And aye... between the desperate lootin' the dead an' the not far off lands to raidin' tribes of Xaela or other, I be not too surprised there little to be found after." He cleared his throat. "Who uh... you runnin' things up west lately? Mayhap have angered the wrong crowds?”

 

Torrad watched Grave, for now he recognized the man was just waiting, like a wolf, watching its prey.

 

“That was my first thought,” Grave said quietly, one finger tapping on the sake bottle he just drained. “It couldn’t have been Garleans looking for their stolen weapons, this time around. And there are plenty wealthy Doman lords looking to claim whatever territory as their own in the new Doma. But they all have their signatures. And no crime scene is clean, not when people die or make a hasty getaway. If all things were picked off, I might have believed it. But…” He shot another look at Torrad, this one slow and purposeful. “Bodies left behind, no one stepping up to fill that void… didn’t make for a believable story.”

 

“So I asked my foreman again.” Grave turned back to Anchor, his voice lowering. “And then my foreman told me the truth.” He tsked. “Of course, I understand. Who wouldn’t put their own lives first?. But he’s learned the price of lying to me. He’ll never speak another lie again. Or speak for that matter.”

 

Torrad said nothing. He couldn’t. There was an empty space where his tongue used to be.

 

A cold silence followed, wherein Anchor suddenly shot a hand toward his katana, but stopped as he had to regain his balance with his other hand on the table, as if he was falling out of his seat.

 

Torrad grinned inwardly. The poison in the sake was taking effect quicker than he thought. He could not see Anchor’s expression, but the man was now bent over the table, like an animal in panic. Then the Highlander felt a familiar static in the air, wavering, just like the quivering form of the pirate as he struggled remain upright. Torrad recognized it. It was the same energy that filled the air in Yanxia when Anchor’s eyes glowed yellow and unnatural energy poured forth from him.

 

"Best make your... next move carefully... or this whole floor... be reduced to splinters." Anchor’s warning was guttural, desperate.

 

Torrad took a step toward Anchor, one hand going for this sword. But a hand raised from Grave that halted his movements.

 

“I need not make any move,” Grave said calmly, his tone steady. “The next move is yours. I meant what I said about our deal. Your crew gets to keep their healer, I get a poison maker. That deal will still be honored, unless you intend to break it here and now.” One corner of his lips quirked upwards, although it wasn’t a smile. “Torrad told me about how you killed the Doman lord. We found his body, after the fact. His veins desiccated, his body withered like someone blew him up then deflated him. And mess where the head used to be.” He blew out a snort. “Impressive.”

 

Torrad remained still where he stood, ready to strike down the pirate if needed. He almost wished that Anchor would do something foolish to warrant it. It was the Confederate’s fault that he could no longer speak.

 

“I’m not going to see you die today,” Grave continued, each moment allowing the poison to take stronger hold. “Or here. But after what you did, there is a price to be paid. If you want to release whatever it is you have and try and kill everyone, and probably yourself in the process, then by all means.” He gestured to the Confederate. “But rest assured. I am not intending to die today. Willing to take the chance that I wasn’t prepared for you to do something?

 

"This is your choice now, perhaps the last I'll ever offer. Keep the deal and take your chances when you wake. Or, act out like a beast on its last throes of life and see where it gets you." Grave leaned in, as if daring the man. "But after, my men will find your crew and the Xaela. Ironsong may have the Confederacy to hide behind, but her, I will have her hunted. And I will kill her."

 

Torrad watched as Anchor continued to try and stay upright. His head began to fall toward, but he positioned his hand over the table to steady himself. He drew in a long breath, perhaps trying to gather the strength to talk. When words finally did come, they came as air, his vocal chords too weak to work above a murmur. "The price then...?"

 

Torrad’s expression mirrored the amusement of Grave’s visage, the latter enjoying watching the man struggle. The pirate was lasting longer than either of them had expected. “You will have to find out when you wake,” he snorted. “But you will fight and you will suffer, until I say so. You will only die if you wish it, or if you fail.”

 

Anchor's head bowed over, hands and arms sliding over loosely, knocking into a few dishes with a soft clatter. His form started shaking. Torrad could swear, he heard soft puffs of laughter escaping from the man.

 

"Bring it..." was all he breathed before the pirate lost consciousness.

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Nabi closed the door after Brick left, her fingers working to twist and fasten all the locks that Anchor had in place.

 

The sounds of metal sliding and securing into place sounded louder in the empty abode, the cool morning air draping her shoulders with a slight chill. Nabi turned from the door, making her way back to the den, where she gathered the pot of tea that had gone cold overnight and the cup that was unused. She emptied out the water in the kitchen, then turned to the stove, where the stew she had made the night before had gone cold and thick. She had used new spices too, from their outing at the Shogatsu Festival. This batch was going to be much more flavorful than the ones she had been making for Anchor the last fortnight.

 

But he never returned from his meeting with Elam Grave.

 

"Even in this world of lies and deceit, there is a time and place and knowing of when and who to lie to. Saltborn failed at this, despite succeeding in many other areas. As part of the arrangement, he will be punished for his transgressions against that man and his own. I know not what awaits him. That is the truth of it."

 

Brick had delivered the news of Anchor’s fate in a matter-of-fact if not a bit subdued voice. Nabi had stayed up most of the night either wringing her hands or pacing nervously, waiting for the pirate’s return. It was on the rise of morning, when her eyes finally surrendered to the fatigue, that the au ra quartermaster paid a visit to Anchor’s home with the news.

 

Nabi recalled being unable to speak, much less breathe at first.

 

"Not any arrangement made by us, by any means." The quartermaster had smirked ruefully. "Saltborn did well in securing your possible freedom from this situation and also mending to the now tentative relationship between Grave the and Ironsong for future business. However, that man proved to be no fool. He was informed well ahead of time what had happened outside of Isari. As such, while he agreed to our comrade's terms, he sees a lesson to be taught. As it were."

 

Nabi could not accept that. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. This began with her. Because she refused Grave. Anchor would never have been in this mess if it wasn’t for her. She would have never wanted this. She tried to press this upon the quartermaster, but it only made him turn cold as he rose to tower over her.

 

"Do not make me regret my words. And furthermore, do not waste the chance that has been given to you. One, I truly do believe, is not deserved. You were not to be my burden. Nor the Ironsong's. And, for I am certain, not Saltborn's. Just like everything else you've seen. You've heard. You've witnessed. You will forget. You will, or I will see you gone. That too--is the truth of it."

 

Nabi stared at the brown gravy that had curdled into a muddy consistency within the pot. She lifted it from the stove to put it away, but she stopped in front of the sink as a fleeting glimmer of shadows and light skirted over her hand. It was from the small fish bowl that she had set by the window, with two copperfish swimming within. She had caught one at the Shogatsu Festival by pure chance, and the second one Anchor had scooped up after much show and splash, once she challenged him that he could not. He had wanted to make them into stew, but she had instead found a glass vase to house them in. She was sure he was going to be annoyed by that...

 

She looked down to see her hand shaking. Hot tears began to flow down her cheeks even before she knew it, and she let the pot drop from her hands onto the cups and the dishes in the sink, loud clatter of ceramic shattering the stifling silence. An anguished cry left her lips as she gripped the edge of the sink, her head bowing over her hands. Her entire body was shaking and she felt guilt and despair twisting her insides.

 

Brick’s words had never left her thoughts, echoing painfully time and again. She shouldn’t have been his burden. If she had known that this was what awaited him… she would have never...

 

She was willing to go back. Work for for Grave. Accept whatever fate awaited. As long as no one else had to pay for her actions. The very thought that Anchor suffered in her stead made her stomach turn.

 

But when she made that offer to the quartermaster, Brick gave her back the letters, those she had written to her family and friends, the ones that were never sent.

 

"These are to those you care for, aye? Your mind is not thinking clearly. By any means. Your emotions are getting the better of you. Calm yourself. Consider again what has been offered. Consider the consequences of each." Brick exhaled, a look of resignation heavily drawing upon his features. "Also consider... your actions do not reflect onto Saltborn and what he has done to That Man. His people. Don't waste this."

 

Breaths came harder through her sobs. Her chest felt like it was being crushed with a vise. To help Anchor, she might put her family at risk. But to do nothing would mean he would be punished because he saved her.

 

Nabi released her hold on the sink, as she slid weakly down to the floor. Sorrow and regret poured freely from her cheeks, her stuttered breaths broken by sobs. Her heart was breaking into two and she did not know how to reconcile it.

 

How could she protect them both?

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Shael rolled the cigar between her fingers.

 

It was the last one she had, and since Nabi’s disappearance, she had refused to smoke it. Now that the Xaela was back, Shael had taken it out a few times, flipping it between her fingers, sometimes bringing it to her nose to take in the whiff of the leaves rolled within. But she didn’t light it. The indulgence didn’t feel right when the girl still seemed so out of sorts.

 

She cracked her neck side to side, trying to loosen the tightness in her shoulders. She pulled her leather jacket in closer, drawing the fur collar tighter around her neck. Doma’s winter was colder than she remembered. It wasn’t the frigid tundra that was Coerthas, but the moisture in the air always made it seem like the cold and the rain were more stagnant and insidious.

 

Or perhaps it was the waiting that made her tense. An old Doman contact, from years back when she smuggled weapons into the occupied land to aid the Doman Liberation Front, was late. Yasukata had gone into his own business of selling weapons with her help, and now that Doma was free, he was dealing with the Doman lords who wanted to arm their soldiers. He wasn’t a big fish in the sea of arms trade, as far as she knew, but he had contacts that she did not. And he was competition, amongst many, for Elam Grave. Perhaps he would be willing to help her dig up the whereabouts of Saltborn where other contacts were unwilling.

 

Although... the longer she waited, Shael found herself asking why she was doing this at all.

 

Perhaps it was the desperate plea she saw in Nabi’s eyes when she and Tserende finally retrieved the Xaela from Brick, the quartermaster to the Confederate ship, Ironsong. Nabi looked despondent over the fact that Saltborn had been taken by Graves after he protected her.

 

That was another thing she was still trying to wrap her mind around. What in swivin’ hells does Saltborn have to do with Nabi? And why was he even protecting her? She couldn’t for the life of her imagine an ornery man like him protecting anything but his own interest and his crew.

 

But Brick, the more civil and cool-headed of the Ironsong bunch, relayed a story that matched Nabi’s, much to her surprise.

 

"Saltborn's actions outside of Isari were not ones done with the approval of his crew. That and--I know not of his relations with this female, but her disposal is not an option he considers and neither is her continued existence locked away out of sight. He sought to amend both, offering trade for the girl's continued existence as she saw fit with the skillset of another alchemist known to our crew. That and, of course our continued employment."

 

Despite the fact that she had no love lost for Salborn’s woes, she couldn’t help but be a little irked that his crew was continuing to do business with the man that was likely going to have one of their own killed.

 

I cannot risk more men by looking into the issue,” Brick told her evenly. “By the end of the sun, each and every sun, I must do my role aboard the Ironsong and seeing to what is best for the crew." Despite his resigned tone, his dissatisfaction with the situation was obvious. "That said, I know not if we will even receive word should his punishment result in death. Perhaps, should you hear anything, you may mention it."

 

What made her pause was the fact that Brick offered her coin for it. Of course she took it.

 

It annoyed her that she felt something akin to a debt to a caustic man like Saltborn. What annoyed her even more was that Nabi seemed so very invested in his well-being. What happened between those two?

 

Tserende didn’t seem much bothered by it, although he wasn’t the man to wear his emotions on his sleeves either. But they both had a clear understanding on one thing: Elam Grave was not long for this world. They were going to have to find a way to make sure he was no longer a threat to Nabi... or anyone, for that matter. Her hopes of trading favors had proven futile. It didn’t matter now that she wasn’t able to kill the Garlean he wanted dead, she had no doubt that the ruse of the fire and the dead Auri body would have happened regardless.

 

And that infuriated her more than all the rest.

 

As she saw a mounted rider approach, she held up her hand, pushing herself off the tree she had been leaning against. Yasukata was older; it had been years since they saw each other last, but the Doman greeted her with a smile and a bow when he slid off his horse.

 

Shael gave him her best grin, tucking the cigar back into her vest pocket. Hopefully, this meeting would give her what she was looking for, and she’d be able to smoke it soon.

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Nabi squeezed her hand firmly, pressing the nail of her thumb hard into the palm of her other hand as they were both clasped in front of her abdomen. It was easier to calm the fluttering in her stomach by concentrating on the pain.

 

Her body wanted to shudder with dread, her instincts screaming for her to flee. As she made her way up the floors of the Hostelry, where she knew Elam Grave to be dining, she had to focus on her steps, so that she did not stumble on the stairs from her nervousness. She began to see armored men, standing idly by the walls as she ascended, giving her a once-over. The first one reached for his ear, muttering something low. All eyes seemed on her.

 

There was fear that gripped her heart and threatened to steal her breath, and a part of her wondered if she had ever been this scared before. She nearly faltered in her stride when she remembered: running away from Elam Grave after being struck, waking up tied and gagged in a small crate, then having a bag pulled off her head to see strange men gathered about her. Indeed, she had been much more afraid than this.

 

Nabi clutched onto those memories as her pillar of strength. Those were the events that guided her now, as she rounded the last turn before the final floor of the Hostelry. That double door to the right leading out to the bridge to the airship port, it was her last possible means for escape. As another patron walked right through it, the sunset beyond seemed almost blinding in its temptation. It called to her.

 

But she could not. There would be no turning from this. She had already asked Mimiyo and Yoshinari to leave Kugane, to stay with their distant relatives in the mainland of Hingashi. At least for a little while. She did not, she could not tell them everything, only that she might be away awhile, and for their safety, she wished for them to travel to Hingashi. Mimiyo of course had questions, and Yoshinari refused. But Nabi would not take no for an answer. She pressed that it was a matter of life and death, and that they needed to trust her. And that she would have Tserende here, so that they needed not to worry about her.

 

It was a lie, of course. But for their safety, she insisted and pleaded, and eventually Mimiyo agreed on the condition that Nabi wrote to them and often. And that they would return soon. Since her return, there was always a quiet concern hidden behind their gaze when they looked upon her, as if they knew something had happened. She could not hide her heartache, and even though her tears came silently beneath the blankets at night, Nabi knew that Mimiyo knew her heart. But Nabi could not tell them the whole truth. But they understood that the matter was of grave importance to her.

 

Would they let her do this?

 

Nabi was certain of that answer. She had pleaded with Tserende just bells ago, for any aid that could be given to Anchor. Tears fell as she told him that she simply could not go on, knowing Anchor suffered in her stead. She had hoped that Tserende understood, that he of all people would help her find Anchor.

 

"I doubt that you coerced him into making his choices.” Tserende was calm in his response, his pale blue gaze intent upon her, even as he carefully wiped away her tears. “Just as I did not coerce the person who ended up giving their life for me to be here at this moment. If he has indeed perished, then he believed that your potential was worth that much. The most important thing that you can do with that confidence is to live up to it. Ensure that you bring about some good with your time here. Ensure that you do not cast it away impulsively."

 

Why did none of them understand? Tserende, Brick, and Shael. Why wouldn’t anyone help her find Anchor? The very thought of him tightened her chest, pierced her clear through with grief every sun. How could they throw away his life so easily? Agree to this unacceptable trade?

 

“And what of all of the aspiring herbalists and alchemists that Grave will try to replace you with? How many of them would you like to exchange for 'Anchor?' That is the state of things, as they stand. I understand that you would like to help him. I have my doubts that there is anything to be done for him at this point, however, even if we were to try. We should minimize the loss others are bound to suffer, now."

 

Tserende’s words finalized her decision. He was right. How many others to replace her? What would Elam Grave accept in trade for Anchor? It started with her, it should end with her.

 

I know you only wish for my well-being.” Nabi remembered her last words to Tserende before they parted for the evening. “I also know you did what you could to make sure Mimiyo and Yoshinari were safe.” She remembered trembling as she looked up at him. “Would you always do so? For me?”

 

“Of course,” Tserende had looked upon her with a curious if not somewhat confused expression. “You needn’t worry over that. Why would I not do so?”

 

That was one comfort she would hold onto. It took all she had not to shed any more tears as he kissed her goodnight. Yes, that would be a good parting memory to treasure.

 

What little courage she had been clinging onto began to slip away like sand through her fingers, as her heart started to pound painfully in her chest, when she spotted Grave seated at his table. He had not looked her way yet, even though the rest of the men standing near him trained their gaze upon her immediately. Nabi squeezed her hand harder, steadying her steps as she came to stand in front of his table.

 

Elam Grave languidly put a piece of fish into his mouth and poured himself some sake, before he finally granted her his attention by looking up. Nabi thought she could feel herself shake as she stood there, waiting.

 

“Miss Nabi,” he said her name slowly, thin lines appearing at the edges of his eyes. “You are looking well. What can I do for you?”

 

It took her a breath for her to gather her words. His calm low voice nearly unnerved her. It was that same unmoved expression he had held when he came to visit her that fateful night. But this wasn’t about her anymore. That wasn’t why she came. She swallowed, and her throat felt like sand. “I have been told of your agreement with Ironsong.” Her voice shook. “And with Anchor.” She slowly lowered herself to her knees, placing her hands upon her lap. She bowed, her head coming to nearly touch the floor.

 

“I am here to beg for his release.”

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Blue skies stretched on over the horizon, the sun set high at its peak. It was just transitioning to the afternoon, where warmth replaced the cool morning air and colored the world in bright and saturated hues. The salt-filled breeze brushed over tanned skin, gently disrupting short, coarse hairs against his scalp. The grass was soft and moist beneath, cradling his head and tired body. His breaths drew in and out with ease, even and relaxed.

 

It was perfect. He could lay here forever and never tire of it. If only time would stand still.

 

“Jude--!”

 

Musical and playful, her voice was, albeit distant. The footfalls approaching were light like a dancer’s, coming closer still until he could feel the presence of another’s foot near either side of him.

 

His eyelids parted open into warm slits of crimson. There, above him, was her silhouette, the light behind her blinding him from making out her features. But he hardly needed to see her to know who it was. The shape of her wisping locks of raven hair were enough, her ears alert, fluttering slightly each time the wind caressed one.

 

“Jude,” more audible, it came, the tone almost chiding, though full of humor and warmth. “Wake up now. We have to go back.” He felt her bare fingers touch his face, the pads of her digits running over the scarring over his features. There was blood on her touch as she drew back, but for some reason this didn’t alarm him.

 

“Wake up…,” she repeated softly, a little more pleading. He didn’t understand; he was far from asleep by now, being able to watch her contently as he was, regardless if she was veiled in the blinding sun. But, for some reason, he couldn’t tell her. He couldn’t find the strength or will to move...

 

“Wake up!” An order now. Almost desperate. Her hands were on his chest, shaking him slightly. He couldn’t reach out to her. She started beating on his torso with balled fists. His breaths were growing anxious, the situation slowly sinking in, filling him with anxiety. “Wake up!”

 

Why couldn’t she see he was awake? Why couldn’t he reassure her he was alright? And most of all, why couldn’t he move?!

 

“w A k E   u P - - - !” Her words screeched against the sudden gale that tore through, piercing his ears, ringing in an echo as she screamed.

 

It seemed to tear the very foundation from their feet, the light behind her engulfing their surroundings like a blast. He wanted to press his hands to his ears and squeeze his eyes shut, but all he could do was stare in horror as her form was revealed in the flash. Some gray creature, with nothing but whites in her traumatized gaze, jaw stretching off her face until it was peeling off the weathered, bloated corpse that she was...

 

- - - -

 

Anchor jarred awake against the floor in a cold sweat, eyes wide and reflecting the same horror at what he had just witnessed. His irises were brighter than usual, but slowly dimmed as he drew in ragged, shuddering inhales.

 

A whispered curse passed his lips as he reached up shakily, chains dragging from the restraints against his wrists. His quaking fingers raked through his coarse, black hair before sliding back down his flushed and contorted features. A dry swallow then, pressing a palm to the cold earth to push himself up.

 

It was an effort; he was still incredibly weak after the second fight. The poison wielder had been more of a challenge than the pirate had hoped and left him terribly dehydrated after his body had expelled much fluid trying to rid itself of the toxins his knife-like nails had produced.

 

Though… he supposed he himself was to blame for half of it; using his own poisonous body to end the bastard’s life. It earned him his victory, but the cost was great. In this condition, he wasn’t sure if he’d have the strength to contend. Not like this.

 

[“He’s had a good run so far… but may I suggest enhancements at this point?”]

 

Nagakane’s words floated into his memory like an echo. Anchor’s fingers curled into weak, trembling fists. His body was already ailing from the years in the mines from years past. What would something like this do to him? He felt... nervous. And he hated it. He hated feeling that familiar sensation of uncertainty when it came to him and his own. It was his life. It was his body. It was his.

 

[“... You will understand one thing.”]

 

It was Elam’s voice now that came to surface. Anchor could still feel the throbbing pain against his throat as the other’s fingers dug in against it from under the metal circlet, squeezing along the fresh gashes from his recent fight. He could still smell Grave’s breath hissing against his skin,

 

[Your life is mine. The moment you betrayed me, then walked right back into my den trying to protect some helpless doe that was mine for the taking. You just haven’t realized it yet. You will kill for me. Someday soon,]

 

[“Even that doe.”]

 

Anchor’s fists slammed into the cavern floor. It hurt. He didn’t care. Even though the words had passed, he still felt the same anger that had nearly taken him all over again. His breaths shook from his nostrils, growing in intensity until he growled in frustration. His temper threw him into a fit.

 

He raked his heels along the ground away from from the cavern wall his ankles and wrists were chained to. The metal dug into his already raw skin as he thrashed and yanked, as if he’d somehow break from the very earth it was embedded in. Grunts and seethes of frustration poured from his lips and between his gritted teeth. His pale, sick flesh went flush for his effort. His body contorted this way and that, twisting legs and shoulders in a mad lash like some wild animal. At some point, Anchor released some violent outcry while he jerked repeatedly against his restraints.

 

His legs gave out.

 

Anchor’s knees collided into the ground, his rasping roar weathering into pained and exhausted gasps. He still pulled desperately, though with less ferocity, with what strength he had left in his torso and arms. The rattling of the chains went on for a few more minutes, before gradually stilling, replaced with the sound of his harsh and labored breaths.

 

He stared out towards the cell bars in front of him, eyes wide with the recent, blind madness as his visible breaths panted out and dispersed into the cold air around him. But Anchor’s disposition twisted slowly; brows creasing over the anguished lines against his forehead.

 

He felt it suddenly…

 

That dreadful feeling he never wanted to feel again. The feeling that kept him submissive for years in That Place. The feeling of control being ripped from his fingertips.

 

Helpless.

 

And SLAM went his head. He had dipped it suddenly, letting his forehead collide into the ground punishingly. That awful feeling passed. Because to hell with it. He was not a child. And he was most definitely not a slave. Not to his past, and certainly not now. To Hells with Shael. To Hells with Elam Grave. He couldn’t trust either of them and he certainly couldn’t count on another to pull him through the gutter that was this world. He didn’t get this far riding on coattails or having his hand held through the darkness. Anchor dragged himself tooth and nail; through blood, piss, and shit.

 

Anchor was still breathing laboriously as he lifted his bruising head off from the stone below. There was still a madness to his countenance as he lifted a palm to his mouth, wiping away the slaver and sweat there from his recent fit. His hand lingered over his lips, eyes darting about searchingly.

 

If Elam Grave could not stand on equal ground with him... If they could not work together... Then he would have to die. Just as all others that got in his way. He would godsdamn crush him and whatever he was trying to build here. He would tear everything from his fucking greedy fingers…

 

...But how…?

 

There was a flicker in his peripheral, beckoning for his attention like the dull light of a firefly. His jaw set slowly as his gaze panned over, breaths easing from his nose as his palm slowly lowered from his features and back to the cavern floor. It slid over with a light rake of chains following behind, his fingers outstretching to the small little crystal embedded into the earth there.

 

The tip of his calloused, grimy digit made contact tentatively, like testing the temperature of a stagnant pool of water. He traced the shape down, following the veins that had become a familiar sight in this mountain. It was gentle, the way his finger drew over the patterns, going from one crystal to the next, towards his side and behind him and back to the wall where they seemed all the more abundant. Anchor’s form rotated in place to follow, palms sliding up the walls and over, eyes flickering over the different portions of the cavern wall like it were a canvas and he was the hungry artist trying to decide where to start.

 

All of these… they all went through these caverns. They might stretch through the entirety and beyond. An odd smile quirked up Anchor’s lips on one end.

 

More intently, he pressed his palms against the wall, brows drawing together. Sweat beaded from his temple and slid down the dark and purple bruises marring half his features. His breathing picked up again and an unearthly static sparked between his knuckles and contact along the crystals and stone.

 

[“...Another use of such ability will kill him.”]

 

Anchor paused, that energy in the air fizzling out as more of Nagakane’s words seeped into his thoughts. He pulled his touch away slowly, looking down at his trembling hands. They weren’t shaking from fear or rage. It was simply strain and the pain wracking his abused form. That’s right. He was far too weak. He didn’t have enough within him. Yet.

 

A soft exhale puffed out of his nostrils and, after a moment of reluctance, Anchor turned from the wall and let his scarred back lean against it instead. Not yet. But soon. He supposed he would get whatever enhancements Elam Grave and the Curator spoke of. And then…

 

Then he would show them what the monster they created could do.

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Elam almost smiled.

 

Just what would a wolf do, if a doe approached and laid itself on the ground, bearing its neck? After all the trouble this Xaela had caused him, now she came to him, begging. He recalled the last time he had her at his mercy, the satisfying crack the back of his hand made against her scales. That was when she had showed a glimmer of defiance, her eyes wide with fear.

 

He could still smell the same fear, like blood in the water, but the woman was holding it in check. All for… what, Saltborn? They both knew that there was some reassurance of safety in the public eye. He couldn’t do as he pleased on the third floor of the Hostelry. At least, not physically.

 

“Would’ve saved me a lot of trouble and Saltborn a lot of pain had you decided wisely long before this,” he said indifferently, returning his attention back to his dinner, content to leave the Xaela on her knees. He could see her flinching even in her bowed posture, her head and gaze remaining lowered still.

She closed her hands upon her lap and straightened her back, those golden eyes rising back to him full of pleading and naivete. “Ask of me anything. It was my transgression. You need not punish him for it.”

 

Elam let out a quiet snort of amusement. It was true that her refusal had started it all. But it was Saltborn’s gall to betray him that stoked his fury. What was it about this fragile creature that somehow drove a man like Anchor to turn on him? To go against all logic? He paused as he plucked out another piece of fish from the steaming pot. “Anything?”

 

Nabi swallowed and nodded stiffly. “Aye. If it would gain his freedom.”

 

“How about if I were to offer your services as a potion maker to an associate of mine, for the rest of your life? To work without sleep, to be beaten at will, and to service him in whatever way he wanted?” He quirked a cruel smirk. “You would go without protest?”

 

He could see her shaking, but she nodded. “Anything.”

 

A slow deliberate smile lifted his lips as he regarded her. “Alas. It is too little, too late.” He pointed his wooden sticks at her. “This is why you should have considered my original offer more carefully and weighed the consequences of your actions. My associate, the one that died, would have treated you much better than most. But that opportunity has passed. Besides, as long as Saltborn lives, he is going to gain me a lot of coin and influence.” He set his utensil down, reaching for a bottle of sake. “And he also offered me a poison maker to replace you. One that would be much more cooperative.

 

“So… it turns out, I don’t need anything you have to offer.” Elam lifted his glass of sake in her direction before tossing it back. “But I do appreciate the gesture.”

Nabi sat there stock-still, her expression distant and distraught. Elam just stared at her, and a part of him was surprised at how much he relished her torment. To think that such a meek and powerless thing would even dare to defy him.

 

“But since Saltborn bound himself to my service to ensure your safety, I’ll grant a token of goodwill.” He reached into his vest pocket, where he drew out a small pouch. He tossed it onto her lap.

 

He watched as confusion washed over her, before she slowly opened the small bag, letting a trinket fall out onto her hand. It was an earring, tribal in design with different metals and ores strung together. As he suspected, she recognized it immediately. She looked pained as she carefully fingered the fragment of the raw obsidian and quartz at the end of it, the two pieces together resembling a moon at first quarter. Her face contorted only for an instant, but she was valiantly struggling to keep her composure in front of him.

 

“If we are going to coexist peacefully in this city, best keep good relations, aye?” He gestured to his foreman who stepped up behind Nabi. “Now, let’s get you back on your feet and to your precious family and life again. People are starting to stare.”

 

Elam watched as she rose, a blank expression on her face as she cradled that earring close to her chest. He gestured with a flick of his fingers for her to be led away by Torrad. Of course soon as she began to make her way, the foreman left her be. It was part of the contract after all that neither he nor his men would touch her.

 

But Elam knew he would see her again.

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(( I guess I should probably start posting these here as well instead of just hoarding them on tumblr! :v ))

 

 

Ghoa watched Elam Grave leave the Rakusui Gardens after their discussion, the smile ever lingering on her lips until the precise moment that he and the last of his men were out of her sight. The second that she was sure sure that none could see her, that warmth left her expression only to be replaced instead by something far different: gnawing unease.

 

I am not the flatterer you are,” he had told her. “..so when I call you indispensable, know that it is true.

 

It wasn’t that she doubted the authenticity of his compliment. Rather, it was the fact that she did believe it to be wholly true that had caused her stomach to twist in uncomfortable knots. Anyone else may have received the compliment with pleasure, a seemingly benign affection that should warm the heart.

 

But ‘anyone else’ had not faced the obstacles that she had had to overcome to take her freedom, obstacles that had only continued to come her way even after earning it. For someone like Ghoa, a woman who had fought against a seemingly never-ending procession of those who wished to own and control her, the word ‘indispensable’ may as well have been a pair of heavy shackles affixed to hand and foot.

 

It wasn’t a rare occurrence. Perhaps even a predictable one, much to her own frustration. It was inevitable that in her business of ingratiating herself to the powerful and wealthy that some marks would grow overly attached to her charm, her skills, or some combination of the two. It was a testament to how well she had adapted to the hand of cards she had been dealt and just how skillfully she could play them, even if it was a terribly inconvenient one.

 

In the past, she had simply fled when she felt the winds begin to change Just as she had escaped the Kharlu years and years prior, she would gather her things and quickly, quietly leave in the thick of night. Sure, it had left the occasional burned bridge and sometimes even scorched earth in her wake, but none had been able to stop her.

 

Yet this was different. This time, Ghoa had felt the shifting of the tides too late. By the time she had realized just how dangerous, how different of a beast that Elam Grave was, the shore had slipped further and further away from her until it was but a dot on the horizon.

 

Her hands balled into fists in her lap, her jaw setting in a tight line. Until now, Ghoa had waffled on how to proceed. Part of her had insisted that to make a move against him was the right thing to do, to make amends for the wrong she had done to Nabi by gently tugging her back into the deep when she had tried to leave. A debt that she now owed to Anchor as well for doing what she had failed to do in extricating the other Xaela from this mess she had helped create.

 

Each time she thought on it, each time she almost made a move forward, she stopped short. Greed stopped her with the promise of more and more wealth and reward for continued cooperation. Fear stopped her with the unstated but ever present threat of reprisal should she fail. And so, she had continued to float along.

 

But now, one word – indispensable – had given her all the motivation she needed.

 

She wasn’t a good and noble person, and what was ‘right’ or ‘fair’ hadn’t been enough. In the end, nothing was a stronger call to action than her own selfish sense of self-preservation. And that instinct told her that there was a current running strong under this whole debacle that could very well pull her under at only a moment’s notice. A current that would pull her straight down to the seabed and never let her go once it had her in its grasp.

 

So swim, it whispered. Now.

 

Finally, Ghoa pushed herself up from the bench and started towards the inn. Yet it wasn’t with immediate escape on her mind; not yet. There would come a time, but she would have to play it smart first. She would have to tread water, to save her strength, before she dared to swim as hard as she could towards the shore again. And that strength started with doing the one thing that she had continually talked herself out of before, even if the motivations were different now.

 

She had a letter to write, and a long overdue meeting to arrange.

 


 

 

(( Adding this on to save from a double post! ))

 

A letter would find its way to Nabi’s hands, delivered by a Hingan boy who couldn’t have been more than fifteen summers old. He certainly didn’t have the look of one of Elam Grave’s own men, but who could know for certain? After all, he didn’t offer up an introduction or even a single word of greeting, simply making sure it was delivered to its proper recipient before hurriedly leaving before his presence was noted.

 

The letter itself was printed in neat handwriting that flowed as smoothly as the black ink it was written in. It was written on nice quality, medium weight parchment that smelled faintly perfumed – a rich and luxurious mix of oriental spice and amber, perhaps peculiarly familiar or even recognizable if the other woman’s memory was particularly keen. At the very bottom of the letter, under the written text, a small white feather was attached to the paper with a small dab of wax at the stem.

 

Dearest Nabi,

 

I apologize for not coming to deliver this request in person, and apologize again for even having to ask it of you at all. I know your hands are already woefully full at current. However, I need to speak with you – urgently.

 

As soon as you are able, please meet me at the following address:  Shirogane, Eighth ward, Thirty-eighth plot. Give the feather to the woman at the counter and she will bring you to me.

 

I ask that you take a leap of faith and come alone, though I know trust must come less and less naturally these days given the circumstances. The blame for that lies partly on my shoulders, as I will explain when we meet. Though I fear I cannot ever hope to properly apologize for my mistakes in full, I hope to start on amends by trying to fix what I can.

 

Sincerely yours,

 

A Friend

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It was not a common occurrence that a non-Garlean -- a non-military personnel no less -- would ask a Garlean soldier on how to dismantle an Imperial magitek collar. And yet, here was Nabi, a Xaela herbalist that he would call a friendly acquaintance, asking him just that, her golden eyes earnest and hopeful as she peered up at him.

 

Marius didn’t quite know what to say at first. She didn’t know that he was a Garlean soldier, nor of his Imperial citizenship. But he had let it slip during one of their conversations over tea that he did know a bit about magitek; he was an engineer before his demotion and transfer to Kugane, after all. He had been careful not to reveal the nature of his association with Garlemald to Nabi, not out of shame for his homeland but to avoid any discomfort on the herbalist’s part. If she had known that he was Garlean, would she have still come to him?

 

They had met a few times, their first encounter being rather serendipitous at the Umineko Tea House. They shared a liking for those little treats called dangos, and she always seemed to find him visiting the stall near sunset at the end of his shift. It was her rambling nature and amiable personality that eventually eased him into conversing with her. She was one of very few with whom he allowed this luxury; his superiors would not be too fond of him socializing with non-Imperials.

 

But as he regarded the Xaela woman in front of him now, he almost didn’t recognize her. Her usual boundless energy was nowhere to be found. There were shadows beneath her eyes and a wan look about her. Even her voice sounded muted, and he thought there was a hint of desperation behind her gaze. This was not the woman he had come to know over the last many months. He had heard that her clinic and stall had burnt down in an accidental fire, but he hadn’t quite learned of the details or the circumstances. He had been dealing with his own set of ordeals for a time. But clearly something more than an unfortunate random fire had occurred, and left her in a certain state of worry.

 

“Inquiring about Imperial collars… is a bit unusual.” Marius cleared his throat with a hint of unease. He gestured for her to sit on a bench, and took a seat next to her. She had been waiting for him by the tea house, and as soon as he arrived, she had taken him aside, wasting no time in asking for this favor. There was a nervous frailty about her, she looked as if she would flutter away with the slightest bit of a breeze. “Why would you ask this?”

 

Nabi bowed her gaze, looking to her hands wringing upon her lap. “It’s being used against someone. Someone I care for. I wish to free him from it.”

 

Marius arched a brow. Those collars were known to be used against conscripted soldiers. “If they are under the Imperial authority--” he began to protest.

 

No!” Nabi quickly interrupted, shaking her head. “It is being used by Domans now. It is being used illegally to force people to fight in pits. For gambling and money.” A look of distress darkened the woman’s wearied countenance, and that made Marius incline his head toward her with a keen eye.

 

“I see. Perhaps they were left behind after the occupation.” The withdrawal of forces from Doma after its liberation was a hasty one; he would not be surprised if many Imperial weapons and technology were left behind. Still… the thought that some of it was being misappropriated for criminal use disturbed him. And the fact that it brought such woe to a woman he’d always seen as a cheerful bright ray of sunlight vexed him.

 

“I do know of the make that was used in Doma.” He internally argued with himself that sharing such an information was not disloyalty to Garlemald. Such technology was never meant to be used outside of the auspice of the Empire, and as such, this would aid in putting an end to such illicit activities. Moreover, it gave him a chance to give some relief to a woman who had always greeted him with mirth and goodwill.

 

“I think I can help.” Marius exhaled with a smile. “Tell me what you need.”

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“My lady,” said the chamberlain, proffering a deep, deferential bow, “Lord Kagero has arrived.”

 

The chamberlain slid the door open as Kagero Kozakura stepped in, dressed in a resplendent suikan. The Hyur’s jet black hair, fringed with gold, had been hastily combed as if he hadn’t been expecting such abrupt summons. As Kagero knelt on a nearby cushion and offered the traditional sitting bow, he heard the screen slide softly behind him with a click.

 

“You are cruel, my dear son,” a feminine voice berated him in a mild whining tone. “You have not been to see me for nearly two moons, and now you intrude upon my work. I am extremely ill-used.”

 

Lady Kyokuho Kozakura was pushing nearly forty cycles but looked as young as the day she had married into the clan. Her black hair was smooth and straight, parted in the middle and flowed nearly down to her back, her face as silky as the immaculate kimono she wore. In front of her was a rosewood calligraphy desk and a small brush, though Kagero knew that Kyokuho would never finish a work of calligraphy; all of her work was finished by one of her retainers to put the finishing touches on it, as Kyokuho would say, though she herself had only accomplished one or two strokes at most.

 

“My deepest apologies, Mother,” Kagero murmured deferentially. It was true that Kagero hadn’t seen his step-mother in several sennights, but that was mostly because he actively avoided the Lady Kyokuho as often as politeness allowed. After mentally counting to fifteen, Kagero lifted his head and placed his hands on his lap. Though Kyokuho wore an affectionate smile, her friendly expression was devoid of warmth, and her kind demeanour was little more than a viper’s dance as it waited for the right moment to strike.

 

“You work far too hard. It’s almost as if it is you are the patriarch of this house rather than your father,” Kyokuho continued crooning, putting on a pout that was far too delicate and feminine for a woman of her age and countenance.

 

“Please do not speak ill of my Lord Koryusai. It is my shame to be such a burden to my honored father,” Kagero said, bowing once again. Though his eyes were affixed to the tatami mats beneath him, he could practically hear Kyokuho’s smirking; his stepmother so delighted in burying him beneath etiquette.

 

Fortunately, it seemed that Kyokuho tired of playing games. “I suppose you are wondering why I summoned you.”

 

I am wondering why I answered, Kagero thought to himself.

 

She gently pushed aside the calligraphy desk, her mask of false maternity being replaced with the steely gaze of ambition. “Tell me what you know of Clan Yumishi.”

 

“I am...not familiar with them,” Kagero responded uneasily, searching his memory. That much was true, to a surprising degree. As the eldest son of Clan Kozakura, Kagero was responsible for being the clan’s diplomatic liaison, particularly when the clan patriarch Lord Koryusai was not personally available. Though he had been on many journeys throughout Hingashi--they were one of the best ways to avoid being in the same room as Kyokuho--he had not once encountered a Clan Yumishi in any of his dealings.

 

Kyokuho nodded, pleased with herself. From her smug expression alone, Kagero knew that she took not-insignificant satisfaction from being able to hold knowledge of this obscure clan over him. “Indeed, I expected not, for they are Doman in origin. They lost much of their holdings during the Imperial invasion.”

 

Lady Kyokuho began making a show of inspecting her rosy nails, feigning disinterest in a subject that she herself brought up. “The current head of the household is Aritake Yumishi. A cowardly and pathetic man from a clan that is all but extinguished...but he is shrewd in business and knows his way around koban.”

 

And this involves me because…? Kagero had been raised thoroughly Hingan, and though it was traditional to dance around the point for the sake of politeness, Kyokuho took such a concept to considerable extremes, generally as part of a pointed effort to be as insufferable as possible.

 

Kyokuho raised a delicate finger to her chin. “Lord Aritake is responsible for certain business dealings that benefit many Hingan lords, Lord Koryusai among them. I am told that such funds go towards the reconstruction of Doma.” She sniffed disdainfully. “Nevertheless, it has been some time since any have heard from him or his representatives, and there are some noble peers of our lord that are growing somewhat nervous at the prospect.”

 

She sighed, lightly tracing a circle on the calligraphy desk beside her. “It would put many anxieties to rest if Lord Aritake were to turn up. You know how it is with...business dealings. It is always uncomfortable to see one’s koban in the hands of another, with nothing in return.” Kyokuho cooed.

 

Kagero understood immediately. Legitimate business concerns of this manner would be taken care of by a retainer or a servant. The fact that Kagero himself was being called upon to investigate meant that this Aritake must have been responsible for feeding the vices of a number of Hingan lords with his "business dealings": vices that would not reflect well on them if word reached the court of the bakufu. If he had truly disappeared, it was possible that Aritake planned to maliciously use such gossip, perhaps as blackmail. Or perhaps Aritake had been captured, and one lord or another’s political rival was skinning the man alive for delicate details that could be used against their enemies in court.

 

On the other hand, there was a great deal of political clout that could be gained from securing Aritake, dead or alive... or more precisely, securing whatever dirt he may have possessed on any Hingan lords. If Aritake was found or made dead by Kagero, the Hingan lords may breathe a sigh of relief that their secrets were safe, but they would be tacitly indebted to Clan Kozakura for helping them save face. However, if Aritake were still alive, then it would be the Kozakuras holding the keys to their proverbial castles. They would offer feast in one hand while holding famine in the other.

 

He eyed Kyokuho carefully. She had named Kagero’s father as Aritake’s business associate out of politeness for Koryusai’s position as lord of the clan, but both she and Kagero knew that Lord Koryusai Kozakura was one of the most humourless and stoic men alive, and while it was not totally impossible for him to have some unseen hedonism, it was highly unlikely. Which meant it was likely Kyokuho’s cravings that were going unfed as a result of Aritake's absence.

 

Though such a fact would ordinarily be carefully guarded, there were few things Kyokuho enjoyed more than reminding Kagero of his own powerlessness; she had casually, though indirectly, revealed her dealings into illicit businesses--with an ijin, of all things! Yet, given his position there was naught he could do about it, not even to his father. She simply enjoyed seeing him squirm.

 

After all, Kagero was the eldest son, but he was not the heir. Though he held value as a diplomatic pawn, his words would be dismissed by all as idle rumors borne out of resentment for his stepmother. Not even the chattiest gossip would indulge him in such nonsense.

 

Not unless he had immutable proof.

 

“What do you wish to be done, Mother?” Kagero asked dourly, though some of his reluctance was feigned; if he could obtain proof of Kyokuho's dealings with Aritake that would be, in the words of ijin, a game changer.

 

Yet there was also the distinct possibility that Kyokuho was aware of this fact. Was she perhaps daring him? Hidden underneath her preening and grooming was a dangerously ambitious mind that was not to be taken lightly.

 

Kyokuho clapped her hands, thoroughly pleased by this current state of affairs. “Pray make haste to Shishu, my son, to the port city of Kugane where ijin roam, and do keep an eye out for Lord Aritake while you are there. Oh, and I am afraid the family retainers will be unable to accompany you.” She clearly intended for this excursion to be as discrete as possible.

 

Kagero bowed. “Should your generosity allow it, Mother, I humbly request that Sekka be permitted to accompany me.” As little love as he bore his stepmother, he still required her permission for even these basic things as travelling with his personal retainer.

 

“That Raen brat? Hmph.” Kyokuho frowned. “I do not see how you can trust such bawdy, promiscuous people. There will be quite a heavy punishment placed on her if she is discovered in your bed. She was raised from the dirt, and she continues to snub our patronage! What an ungrateful little girl.”

 

Beneath the sleeves of his suikan, Kagero’s hands tightened into fists.

 

Kyokuho’s frown quickly turned into a self-satisfied sneer. “Very well, my son. You have been a good boy, after all. I suppose I can allow you a companion on such an important venture.” She raised the sleeve of her kimono to cover her mouth in a poor attempt to cover her mocking smile, her tone like that of a goddess bestowing a blessing upon a desperate peasant.

 

Kagero bowed again. “My thanks, dear mother.” With that, he politely shuffled backwards, only turning his back when he had reached the door.

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Nabi pulled her wool cloak in tighter. The fog had been so thick throughout the entire morning and afternoon, she hadn’t seen a single shaft of sunlight break through. It had made her all the more nervous, and she didn’t know if she shivered from the anxiety or the cool mist that was seeping in through her clothes.

 

“Elam has instructed me to extend to you a different sort of 'offer', if it could be called such. He wishes for me to bring you along to the fighting pits in a few suns time, for Anchor's next fight."

 

As Ghoa’s words drifted into her thoughts, Nabi gave a sidelong glance to the Xaela who sat in the same carriage as she did. The woman gave her a reassuring smile when their eyes met, but it did little to calm her quivering stomach. It was Ghoa who had relayed the message of this invitation, after she had admitted to Nabi about working for Elam for the last many moons. That truth had hurt; Nabi was ready to flee from that meeting, shaken by the knowledge of the woman’s betrayal. The beautiful and worldly woman that Nabi had long admired had been working for the man who had orchestrated her worst nightmare.

 

And yet, here she was, drawing at least some measure of comfort from the same woman’s presence. Was it her belated forthrightness? Or her willingness to help her? Her ability to help Anchor? The last had at least held Nabi at bay, preventing her from leaving as soon as the truth was revealed. But as they continued to talk, Nabi could see that Ghoa’s intentions were earnest. She saw regret and compassion in the pale silver eyes of the other Xaela.

 

At least, Nabi had to believe she did. Ghoa was her chance. It was through Ghoa that she was going to see Anchor, even if it was just to watch him fight for his life. Elam had wished her to come and watch, and used Ghoa to bring her.

 

"I'm certain that no small part of the reason is to cause you pain by watching it. You have vexed him quite a lot. He also mentioned that should Anchor win his fight, he is considering allowing you to see him. Not as a measure of goodwill, of course. Rather, I feel he intends to use the opportunity to test Anchor's resolve."

Nabi tucked her hands into the folds of her cloak, fingers lightly rubbing over her wrist. There hung her silver and gold woven bracelet but with a small bauble attached to it. Her fingers glided over the ornament, lightly rubbing it as it rolled beneath her touch.

 

She had accepted the invitation, of course. How could she not? This was a chance to see with her own eyes that Anchor still lived. And if she was able to see him, get close enough…

 

Nabi glanced outside the small window of the carriage. Ghoa had prepared her for what to expect, at least to some degree. That the Xaela was invited to the match by another “sponsor”, a Doman lord by the name of Hikomoro Ishiku. He had sent a caravan and six armed escorts to meet Ghoa at the docks of Yanxia, and to bring her and Nabi to the mountain where the matches were held. None of the guards gave a second glance to the two petite au ra. They were there to protect the two guests of their master.

 

Ghoa had said that this Hikomoro was one of the sponsors of these fighting pits. Just like Elam Grave. Nabi could only guess how the man accumulated his power and wealth. It made her shiver again.

 

"I've not heard someone more set on walking themselves into foolish, needlessly dangerous situations before."

 

Tserende’s disapproving voice and gaze were still so clear in her memory. He had opposed her decision to accept Ghoa and Elam’s invitation. Of course he would. He only worried for her safety. He had advised her against trying anything impulsive to help Anchor, no matter how difficult it was for her to do nothing.

When she had confessed to both he and Shael that she had offered to surrender herself to Elam, in exchange for Anchor’s freedom, his usually cordial demeanor shifted to something more sharp, his eyes icy.

 

"You did not think that we would suffer for your brash, arrogant, and uninformed decision if it worked as you had hoped? Do we matter that little to you, or do you believe that you matter so little to us?"

 

Those words still panged her. He and Shael had been so angry at the revelation. Nabi could still feel the phantom tingle on her cheek at the slap that had come from Shael. Now she realized that her decision was very much like what was bestowed onto herself. No choice was given, no warning, just someone else giving themselves up regardless of danger, for another’s sake.

 

She couldn’t live with it, how did she expect the same of Tserende and Shael?

 

"He told me to tell you he was dead. He doesn't want you thinking about him. Or languishing about it. He doesn't care."

 

Shael had found Anchor and had even spoken to him. She shared the fact that his life hung in the balance from match to match in the fighting pits, and even relayed to Nabi what he had said. Her warning to Nabi was her attempt at trying to give the woman some comfort in the way of distancing herself from the person who caused her so much worry.

 

But Nabi knew. Even if she had only stayed with the man for less than a moon, even if the circumstances of their shared time was forced and under duress, she knew those weren’t the true intent of his words.

 

The caravan jerked to one side to draw her attention back to the outside. Looming before them was an imposing view of a mountain that was growing ever in size the closer they approached. With one final turn of the narrow road, a dark yawning cave opened up in front of them. Nabi could see people meandering in, and as Ghoa had warned her, there were guards at the entrance checking each attendee. Even as their caravan slowly came to a stop and one of the guards opened the door to allow the two Xaelas to exit, Nabi’s eyes went to the gaping maw of a cave at the base of the mountain. Others were clamoring to get in, but the sight chilled Nabi to the bone.

 

This was where Elam Grave had thrown Anchor into, to fight for his life. This was where men like Grave did as they wished.

 

"The fighting could get very intense. There is... no guarantee that Anchor will even survive it. You need to steel yourself for this, whatever the outcome. Even if he should fall, there's no reason either or both of us should follow right on his heels by making a foolish mistake."

 

As her feet touched the ground, Nabi put one hand upon her stomach, trying to calm her nerves. She had chosen to come here. Against the advice of those more careful and wise, against the wishes of those who wanted to keep her from harm.

 

But she could not stay safely tucked away. Not while someone else suffered in her stead.

 

The guards led them to the mouth of the entrance, where another guard motioned her to lift her arms, while his hands patted and groped her to make certain no weapons were hidden. Nabi wasn’t sure how she did not tremble, but they let her pass after the search, just as they did with Ghoa. Then a cold wind brushed past them all, wailing into the dark hollow in front of them.

 

Nabi stood still, her courage threatening to falter, until Ghoa look her hand and gently led her in.

 

“Listen only to what your instincts tell you is right, not the words of those looking to protect you, however well-meaning they are.” Ghoa’s earlier advice echoed distantly in Nabi’s ears. “Don't allow yourself to become a spectator to your own life.”

 

She had chosen to come. She had failed before in saving him. She couldn’t fail again.

 

“Does he matter to you that much...?"

 

Nabi could not answer Shael when she had asked that. Only tears came forth. Despair and desperation had held her thoughts hostage then. Now that she was standing here, dread and uncertainty weighing every step, she could hear Anchor’s voice. He would be furious if he knew.

 

"You got ones like you. That go sniffin', and diggin', and explorin' them darker corners. And then you got the one's that were bred there. You ain't see the true piss of this world. Its people. You's hardly even had a taste. You saw a peek in from the muddy window."

 

He had warned her. It seemed so long ago now. She had taken his words to heart; she thought she would follow on her promise to exercise caution.

 

"Ya said you wasn't to make anymore trouble,” his raspy voice flitted by her ear, the last rational voice trying to stop her. It was tinged with torment.

 

I am sorry. Nabi wanted to tell him. I am about to break that promise.

 

Nabi followed Ghoa into the dark belly of the mountain, toward the distant roars and the cheers that was rumbling forth and starting to vibrate through the cavern walls.

Edited by Roen

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If there was one word Kagero could use to consistently describe Kugane, it was “noisy”. The clattering of carts rumbling over paved stone roads, vendors hawking wares or calling out to friends, or voices raised to argue with other vendors. A group of workers were carrying stone, lumber, and other building supplies across the streets towards the Rakuza District. The streets were more crowded than ever, and frequently Kagero had to turn his shoulders in order to edge past groups headed in the other direction.

 

The Hyur was dressed in a plain black dogi, the equally plain katana at his side indicating his status as a member of a samurai family. Standing beside him was a fair-haired Raen female, dressed in a similarly martial fashion for ease of movement. Though he was hesitant to admit it, Sekka’s presence was quite comforting; searching an entire city for a single ijin who may or may not be dead was a daunting task.

 

Kagero breathed deeply, glad to be off of the ship, before folding his arms in his sleeves. “We’ll start with the basics, then. Sekka, ask around Kogane Dori and see if there are any peddlers who might know of our lord Aritake.”

 

“Any other specifics? ‘Yumishi’ is a fairly common surname, and it’s possible that Aritake did not give out his first name.” the Raen said with a frown. Already, she was beginning to scan the crowds for any persons of note. The streets were dense with ijin and Hingan alike. Colours flooded Kagero's vision in the form of gaudy clothing both foreign and native. Had Kagero not been in the middle of a mission, perhaps he might have admired Kugane's diversity at that point.

 

“Lady Kyokuho claims that Aritake is--or was--an ardent supporter of Doman independence, particularly when word spread that the Doman prince had returned,” Kagero noted, his brow furrowed in thought. “I suppose that’s the only true lead we have unless we can find one of Aritake's business contacts."

 

“In that case, I will begin my inquiry to see if there are any of his fellow Domans in the city, my lord.” With a terse bow, Sekka skipped off into the crowds towards Kogane Dori.

 

As for Kagero himself, he had a mind to pay a visit to the Sekiseigumi. They were typically the first and last to make contact with any particularly troublesome ijin, and while Kyokuho didn’t see fit to tell Kagero exactly what kind of business Aritake dealt in, it was most likely something illegal, as it usually was whenever foreigners were involved.

 

A corner of his mind flitted towards his secondary objective: he needed proof of Kyokuho’s dealings, but what form would that proof take? Surely criminals didn’t exactly exchange bills of sale and even if they did, Kyokuho certainly didn’t engage in such things personally. She was intelligent enough to use the alias of a retainer of a retainer, removing herself far from the transactions, yet whatever goods Aritake dealt in had to be reaching her somehow.

 

He shook his head. He’d cross that bridge when he arrived at it. If he ever arrived at it.

 

After making his way to the barracks and to Kagero’s great annoyance, the captain of the Sekiseigumi was away. So, too, was the lieutenant; they were apparently off dealing with something in the Ruby Sea, according to the exasperatingly polite samurai that greeted Kagero.

 

“And I take it you know nothing about any recent arrests,” Kagero said, his tone dripping with anticipated disappointment. The samurai wordlessly bowed, which was a response in and of itself. The only one who would have any certain information about arrests would be the captain of the Sekiseigumi or the lieutenant, both of whom were conveniently absent. Otherwise, most of the samurai responsible for policing Kugane made independent judgments save for particularly egregious instances.

 

Kagero sighed, folding his arms together, combing his mind for clues. They were looking for a Doman merchant who most likely had illicit dealings with ijin and Hingan alike. Aside from being Doman, they had no leads as to who they could contact to find Aritake, short of stumbling on one of his associates by sheer accident.

 

His mind’s eye flashed to the scene of workmen carrying stone and lumber to the Rakuza District. While construction wasn’t especially unusual in Kugane, from what Kagero knew it only happened when something was damaged; given how dense the city was, there wasn’t really room to expand unless it was by order of the lord bugyo or it was paid for by someone fabulously wealthy enough to afford additional land within the city.

 

But it was far too much of a stretch that any of this was connected to Aritake. Kagero grit his teeth. He needed more info.

 

“Ah, but there was a fire somewhat recently,” the Sekiseigumi samurai added hastily, as if by way of an apology. “About a moon ago, if memory serves.”

 

Kagero waved nonchalantly as if to dismiss the info. Fires weren’t common, but they did happen without much fanfare unless the damage was particularly devastating; word would have certainly reached Koshu quickly if Kugane had gone up in flames. “And I take it you can’t tell me anything about that, either,” he said dourly, though he wasn’t expecting any useful information out of it. This was already proving to be a frustrating venture.

 

The samurai rubbed his chin. “I can tell you that it was a miracle that nothing else was damaged. It was a single building and a stall at the time.”

 

Kagero raised his brow. A fire in Kugane with only a single building destroyed? Either the city was monumentally lucky, the citizens were exceptionally fast in their response to the fire, or the fire was a tiny little thing that barely warranted alarm. The latter was unlikely if the Sekiseigumi believed they had reason to investigate, so was it foul play? He hesitated to see a lead where there was none, but it wasn’t as if he had many other avenues to pursue until he rendezvoused with Sekka.

 

“Show me,” he said.”

 

--

 

The charred rubble of the apothecary had long been cleared out, though the stonework of the building stood like a mournful skeleton. Workmen were busy knocking down the rest of the standing stonework to repurpose the bricks, and lengths of timber were being measured and cut into planks before being planed smooth.

 

Stonemasons and carpenters competed with one another in the construction of a new dwelling, the taste of stone dust vying with the smell of wood shavings. Overhead, workmen laid clay tiles in neat rows along the roof, a relatively noiseless occupation save for the exceptional tile that slid free of a worker’s hands and shattered on the ground.

 

“A fire, hm...” Kagero wondered underneath his breath, shaking his head at the frenzy of activity. Such was one of the drawbacks of Hingan architecture; compact wooden buildings packed together made for spectacular fire hazards. The city was liable to lose entire streets at a time if the fire wasn’t contained quickly enough, though it seemed this particular one was.

 

“The Naeuris were nowhere near the place when it went up, thank the kami,” a kindly old Hyur woman said as Kagero examined the blank space where the apothecary had been. He absentmindedly took the proffered mug of tea and took a sip from it, promptly causing him to hiss from burning his tongue on the liquid. “Everyone did their best to stop the fire. We were lucky it did not spread farther than it did!”

 

“Who else lived there?” Kagero asked.

 

“An Au Ra girl. Delicate young thing, bright as sunshine. We thought her dead for a while, but she turned up just fine!” The old lady sighed and rubbed an eye with a wrinkly finger. “Oh, I haven’t seen Mimiyo so happy in quite some time. They were all quite close to one another.”

 

Kagero’s frown deepened, running the story through his head. An apothecary went up in flames in mere minutes, with neither sight nor smell of smoke to warn anyone else on the street. An Au Ra body is found, but is inexplicably proven to not be the Au Ra who was living at the apothecary when she turns up more than a fortnight after the fire, and said Au Ra proceeds to vanish to kami knows where.

 

Now, none of this had anything directly to do with Aritake Yumishi, yet the Hyur could not help but be somewhat suspicious. Time would tell if this ended up being a waste of time, but as far as Kagero was concerned, the minds of ijin were complex--they were just as likely to strip themselves in public as they were to set a random apothecary on fire--and so it was not outside the realm of possibility for Aritake to be involved in this act of arson.

 

He’d have to question the Naeuris later, but apparently their apothecary was a frequent destination for ijin. A black-haired man with an impractically large sword, a red-haired woman in gaudy shades, and a tall bearded Highlander, among many other exotic-looking characters.

 

A sigh crossed his lips as Kagero scratched his chin. None of these people sounded like someone he was looking for, and yet, they were all foreigners that frequently visited this particular apothecary over any other. That meant one of two things: either they were all friends and acquaintances--unlikely, given that none of them had been spotted around ever since the fire--or this particular apothecary had something or someone that couldn’t be found anywhere else.

 

Had this particular apothecary been located in Kogane Dori, that wouldn’t have meant anything, for ijin were frequent. However, coming to this specific corner of the Rakuza District when most foreigners stuck to the main streets...

 

Whatever the apothecary was selling was either exceptionally rare or exceptionally illegal.

 

It warranted further investigation.

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Shael checked the cartridges, the magitek pack, the pack with her sniper gun, then her own pride and joy, Jolene. She could not afford the time to give her weapons a proper clean or inspection since returning from Ishgard, it had to be enough just to make sure the temperature shift from the frosty environs back to the humidity of Hingashi didn’t make any significant changes to the precision of the gauges.

 

It didn’t help that she felt somewhat lightheaded from using the aetheryte to teleport to Coerthas, then returning two suns later back to the other side of the world. She had only made such taxing trips when there was a dire need, and this occasion was no different. Only she didn’t know how dire until she came back and found Tserende.

 

She was in a good mood, initially, upon her return. The man that Tserende had sent her to meet in Coerthas was eccentric to say the least, but his unique alchemical creation was frighteningly effective. Tserende was not exaggerating when he described it as something akin to dragon fire. It was explosive, burned hotter than anything she had ever felt, and it kept burning. Not even water could extinguish it.

 

She had been too greedy, she knew, to try and bring back three barrels of the substance, only to realize it would be impossible to do so through aetheryte teleportation. So meeting the maximum amount she could teleport with it on her person, she made arrangements for the rest, before returning to Kugane.

 

But upon her return, Tserende, in the most nonchalant way, delivered news she could not believe at first.

 

"Nabi’s run off on some sort of escapade with Ghoa. Perhaps when she finally finds herself strung up for who ever the man is that she knew for all of a sennight at most, she'll be pleased."

 

Shael just stared at him for a long moment, confusion first furrowing her brow, her eyes behind those glasses narrowing, then her head tilting to the side as if his words and the world itself were all askew. "Say what now? She's where? Who is Ghoa?"

 

"An acquaintance of hers from a while back, according to her own words." Tserende just rolled his shoulders casually. "So, presumably playing the swooning maiden with Ghoa at the pits." He sniffed before continuing. "Did you measure the amount you've brought back any more accurately than half of a barrel? We will need to split it into several portions, more than likely. I'll make the fuses for them, I suppose."

 

She held up both her hands. "So, what you are telling me, is that you let her go back to the fighting pits, you know, where Grave is wheeling and dealing,... with a long term friend? WHAT?!"

 

"I'm no more pleased with it than I presume you are,” Tserende scoffed. “She's a grown woman, however. If she is set on not listening to reason, then there isn't much to be done about that. Go there and see what is going on, and track him afterwards." He waved a hand dismissively. "Nothing is going to get done trying to babysit an adult."

 

Shael could only stare. "Wh-Why the hells are you not there right now?!"

 

“Because I would rather be out here, arranging the solution to the root of the problem as opposed to playing bleeding-heart to a stranger I have no interest in. Regardless of whatever strange infatuation she may have with the man."

 

Shael raked both her fingers into her hair. "And you let her go chasing after that infatuation? What is wrong with you?! Th-the girl is..." She threw her head back with a frustrated moan. "She's just so easily led around by her heart! Gods, and the pit is..." She paced back and forth before spinning back to him. "Is that it? You just didn't like the fact that she was running off to save someone she has stupid feelings for? She's still going into a lion's den!"

 

"No,” Tserende replied briskly, his face infuriatingly neutral. “I want Grave dead. Me being at the pit serves no purpose towards that. If she decides that she doesn't like what she sees there, then perhaps she'll think better of it the next time she has the idea." It was so business-like, with little to no outward emotion shown that it made Shael’s teeth grind. "Now, you need to go there so you're ready to tail Grave on his way out. I will prepare what you brought back into manageable portions and fuse them together in the meanwhile."

 

Shael was not following, her mouth hanging open incredulously. "But--" She paused. "What if..." She clamped her mouth shut again. She finally scowled. "I get that! The end justifies everything else. But you are just assuming that she's gonna make it out just fine. I used to think that you know. Until it wasn't the case. I used to think the Resistance and the end goal was everything. Until I lost Shooey. Then nothing mattered.” She was shouting by the pier, her words echoing down the street. Glances were shot her way from people passing by, but her temper was overflowing and she didn’t care. She shook an angry finger at Tserende.

 

“So I don't know if Grave's death is going to justify everything for you? But if I find her missing, dead, or ‘strung up’ as you put it..." Her face twisted into something foul before she just spun around, rather than finishing that sentence. She exhaled hotly through her nose, trying to calm her thoughts. She had to think. Raging at Tserende would get her nowhere.

 

After a few pacing steps, Shael spun back around to him. "I was right the first time. You are not good." She narrowed her eyes at him bitterly. "Neither am I, but at least I thought you were better than me."

 

He didn’t have an answer, nor did she wait for one. She turned on a heel, spat in the dirt, and stomped away.

 

Shael’s fist still clenched and unclenched by her side as her long strides traversed over the wooden planks of the dock. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do once she got to the caves. Tail Grave? Find Nabi? She had packed multiple guns, those that she knew she couldn’t bring with her into the pits itself. Getting in would be a problem as well if there were no fights going on.

 

Too many questions. Not enough time.

 

She would have to figure things out once she got there.

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Watching him breathe was something she had done many times.
 
There was a strange sense of peace that settled upon Anchor’s visage when he slept, as though the bitter lines that often etched his face had forgotten to return during his time of rest. For that, Nabi was thankful.
 
She sat by his bedside, hands clasped together as they rested on the edge of the cot that he had been laid in. His chest rose and fell beneath the heavy bear pelt that was draped over him, his skin finally showing signs of warmth beneath its shelter along with the relief given by the hearth in the room.
 
For the entirety of the time that he had been here, Anchor's living conditions had been cruel and merciless. He was given no protection from the cold in this cavernous place, where the winter winds seeped through both stone and skin. When Elam Grave allowed Nabi to see Anchor after he won his match, one that had left him bleeding badly from multiple wounds, he had been left chained to a wall in a heat-deprived dungeon made of stone.
 
Nabi shuddered at the memory, when she had first laid her eyes upon him beneath this mountain. It wasn’t the pool of blood around him, she had seen that in her nightmares. No. It was the weathering of his skin, the metal circlet that tightened around his neck, the burn marks beneath that unforgiving device, and his left arm that had a metal gauntlet that was forcibly attached as it pierced through his flesh. This grisly thing they called Enhancement.
 
Anchor had been beaten, burnt, and bled. Evidence of punishment and suffering covered his entire body. Even now, after he had been healed to the best of her ability, and that abomination of a metal thing removed from his arm, his bruised cheek still looked sunken, his bones more prominent, his complexion ashen pale. And his body marred with scars of mended wounds.
 
She had begged upon her knees to both the Curator and Lord Musa on behalf of Anchor. Elam Grave had been deaf to her pleas when she had implored him in Kugane. But here, in the fighting pits, there were other sponsors she could beseech. Men as powerful as Elam Grave. And the elderly Doman named Ieharu Musa, had shown interest. It was by his orders that the Curator agreed to remove the cursed gauntlet, to allow Anchor’s body to recover. She was also allowed to heal him and was given supplies to do so.
 
Nabi knew there were other powers at play. Lord Musa likely had his own agenda for agreeing to let her help Anchor. But for now, she didn’t care. She just wanted to make sure Anchor lived. No matter what the cost.
 
There was a pang deep within at the thought. How ignorant and naive she was. She knew Anchor would be livid in knowing she had come for him. But while she had only one thing in mind, to try and save him, what she did was the worst thing she could have done to him.
 
Nabi felt another shiver run through her spine as the memory of his rage returned so clearly in her mind. He had grabbed her wrist and twisted it upwards, bringing her up to his face, his teeth bared and crimson with fresh blood. His eyes were wide with bitterness as he seethed, even as the chains that hung from his wrist rattled loudly.
 
“And you says no more trouble!” he had screamed at her raggedly. “You betrayed my own, and you be thinkin' words be havin’ weight between us?! You think your life be havin’ weight after this now? You already thrown it away for me. You lay it forfeit. You forfeit mine. The moment ya be skippin’ in this place. You just too simple to realize!” 

His grip didn’t relent as he pushed and pulled at her. “Aye, and it alone might be worth it, wouldn't it? Lettin' the last light flicker from my eyes at chance to know your face when you learn what it all be for. That you'd finally know how it feels when all ya ever did was for nothin’. Meant nothin’ to a corpse. And meant nothin’ in face o’ your struggle.”
 
Tears welled up in her eyes again as Nabi bowed her head, her clasped hands white in their tight grip. She finally understood. All the suffering, all the punishment that he had endured, he had done so, so she could live. And she had made it all meaningless, when she left the life he had bought for her with his blood, to try and come save him. Others have told her this, Brick, Tserende… but she didn’t want to listen, so desperate she was to try and help Anchor. Her need to see him freed blinded her to what her actions actually would do to him. She had not truly understood the weight of that sacrifice until she had witnessed his torment, and saw the agony in his eyes in the realization that it would all be for nothing.
 
That depthless void of regret and sorrow threatened to take her again. She dug her thumb into her bandaged palm, letting that pain bring her thoughts back into focus. He was still here. He still lived. What she may have done to him might be unforgivable, but there wasn’t anything she could do now to undo it. Now she just had to see it through. She had to see him out of here, alive.
 
Whatever it took.
 

 

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Nei Uzuka always thought she should have been born a male.

 

She was the first born to the clan Uzuka, and had she been born a boy, nothing would have been denied her. Her father’s lands, her ambitions, the power and the influence she knew she could wield so much more effectively than the whimpering boy that was her younger brother. She had watched him with baleful eyes ever since she was old enough to understand, that because of that little limp lump of flesh that hung between his legs, he would be the jewel in his parent’s eyes, and he would have all the choices that she would never be given.

 

Her parents were generous enough to provide her the education of a noble lord’s daughter, which became even more plentiful with the Garlean occupation. Her parents were quick to turn sides, which meant they retained much of their wealth and comforts along with their holdings. Or… at least they managed their holdings for the good of the Empire.

 

Nei spent much of her life honing the only two weapons she had. One was given to her at birth and cultivated since, features that had been greatly praised for years: high cheekbones, bright blue eyes, silky raven hair, and a curvy shape that easily drew the attention of the opposite (and in some cases, the same) sex. The other was her mind, one that allowed her to see the flaws in others, sense their desires and hungers, and allow her to manipulate them to get what she wanted.

 

Since she wasn’t born into privilege, she learned how to use what she had, to abuse other’s privilege.

 

She writhed one last time, feeling that all-too familiar shudder of the man beneath her, arching her back in time with his final hip-thrust and letting out an audible gasp. When he was spent, she rolled off him, onto to her side amidst the silks that were tangled around her legs. She didn’t bother pulling the sheets back up over her chest for the sake of modesty, her breasts rising and falling with quick breaths taken. She raked her hair away from her face, letting her dark locks fan out around the pillow beneath her. This was just another calculated move, one she has made all her life.

 

Her deep blue eyes glanced to the man next to her, a sly smile quirking her lips. “I’m not used to seeing such frowns in my bed, at least, not afterwards,” she purred. Nei turned to her side to face him, propping her head against her hand. “Your champion won today. Again. You should be happy.”

 

Elam Grave was staring at the ceiling, his thick dark brows furrowed. It was as if his mind never left the arena even as she and he were pressed against each other, skin to skin. “Winning isn’t everything. I thought it was, but not after Musa wrested control of my own champion’s fate from me.” His voice simmered with anger.

 

Nei smirked with a shrug of her bare shoulders, lightly gliding one perfectly manicured nail along his chest. It traced one long scratch after another, amongst many that she had left upon his torso. “He made his move. He means to see his champion’s victory uncontested. Unquestioned. Are you surprised?”

 

Elam scowled in consideration. “I had expected something. But to then take the girl away from me as well? For what purpose?” His expression and voice were growing darker, his vexation building.

 

“Why did you bring her?” Nei asked outright. When Elam gave her a sidelong glance as if to protest, she tutted. “Don’t insult my intelligence by denying it. Or saying she was Hikomoro’s guest. You arranged it, I know. Why?”

 

Nei of course already knew why. Something about that Xaela got under Grave’s skin. She was his property, and then Saltborn took her away from him. Nei recognized easily enough when men became territorial and possessive. To threaten it was to threaten their very livelihood. She could not argue, if someone had taken something that was rightfully hers, she too would have to make an example out of them. But then why continue to obsess over the object once it was no longer lost?

 

“I wanted to watch her watch him.” Elam was staring at the Hingan chandelier that hung above them when he answered matter-of-factly. “Then I wanted him to kill her. Kill her and win the final fight for his freedom.”

 

A soft but incredulous snort escaped her lips. “You mean to free him after? Even if no one ever leaves the pit?”

 

Elam slowly turned to her, his eyes intent and his voice firm. “I will win the final fight, I will make new rules. I will set him free if he does as he is told.”

 

Nei slowly narrowed her eyes. This was why Grave had made an enemy of Ieharu Musa. His ambitions to change things, break the rules, setting new standards with more successes he gained. It held implications far beyond the arena. If he should succeed in the ring, he would use it as precedent to extend his influence similarly elsewhere. And Musa, a son of a long line of warlords, one who abided by strict traditions and values, would never suffer such a thing. Not even for all the power and the wealth that a connection to the west could bring.

 

“Even Hikomoro might object to that,” Nei said as she sat up, reaching to the bed stand to light a pipe. “And he is your strongest ally.”

 

That brought out a sly expression to split across his face. “You are not my strongest ally?”

 

Nei tossed her head back in a laugh, her smile too broad for it to be genuine. “If you believe that, then you are a bigger fool than I took you for.”

 

When Elam just snorted and looked back to the ceiling, Nei allowed all amusement to fade, as she eyed him keenly. What was the point in setting Saltborn free other than to make a statement? Was there something else to Elam’s ambitions with this Confederate? She could understand the draw to his savagery, in some ways. Even Musa mused about acquiring Saltborn as his own champion. She herself was tempted to toy with the man for a bit. He was after all, instrumental in her rise and taking over the void that Yumishi had left behind. But why bother with having him kill the very girl he was being punished for saving? Especially if it risked his focus in the ring?

 

“Saltborn may be your champion,” Nei narrowed her eyes, her tone growing sharp.  “And your greatest strength in the arena, this I can’t deny. He has gone farther than anyone ever could have foreseen. But I fear he’s also your blindspot. In your efforts to make him what you want him to be, you risk too much, make questionable decisions.” She took a long draw of her pipe, exhaling the smoke to the ceiling languidly. “You brought the girl to the pit for his sake, and it gained Musa’s attention. So far, you’ve just been lucky in all your gambles. I wouldn’t keep testing fate.” She gave him a sidelong glance. “Your champion should be long dead by now.”

 

“Except for that girl,” Grave said wryly.

 

Nei snorted. “Except for that girl.”

 

She propped her hand with the pipe onto her knee, lazily drawing a silk sheet over her chest to ward off some of the chill. She watched Grave as he continued to stare off into the ceiling, no doubt lost in his own thoughts. This little tryst was just a distraction after all, a way of release for both of them after the bloodlust that usually wound them up after the pit matches. Neither of them revealed much about their own plans, although Nei used the opportunity to try and glean whatever hints she could of his machinations. She had no doubts that he was likely doing the same, from these little bedroom talks.

 

After a long moment of silence (in which neither of them felt the need to fill with words), Elam finally stood, and began to dress himself. He never stayed long in her place, and if there wasn’t much more to be prodded out of him, she preferred he didn’t linger either.

 

“I am starting to think you have some hidden fascination with Xaelas,” she remarked off handedly as he was pulling up his breeches.

 

Grave took the bait, pausing and looking back to her with an arch of the brow.

“You can’t let this herbalist be, and now you have another that you bring for Hikomoro’s benefit,” Nei added with a sly smile, gesturing vaguely with her long pipe. “You should do a better job in trying to hide your jealousy when Hikomoro has his hands all over her.”

 

“You’re wrong,” Grave said bluntly. The response came too quickly for it to be true. Nei just smirked.

 

“And you should do better than to fall under Musa’s shadow,” Grave shot back, his eyes trained on her.

 

That made Nei pause, the smug expression she had plastered on her face faltering for an instant. One corner of her lip quirked in annoyance.

 

“I always like our bedroom talks, don’t you?” She shrugged again, taking another draw of her pipe.

 

“I wouldn’t miss it,” Grave gave her a curt nod then headed out.

 

Nei allowed her expression to turn sour after his departure, looking down the length of her pipe. He was more clever than she had initially thought, but... he was still a man. As they all were. Even Ieharu Musa.

 

And she would use what she could of them until she got all that she wanted.

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((GUESS WHO IS BEHIND ON CROSS-POSTING DRABBLES, IT'S YA GIRL GHOA. WHOOPS.))

 


 

ENEMIES OF MY ENEMY :  Ghoa Mankhad

After seemingly countless bells spent hidden away in the belly of the mountain, Ghoa relished the caress of the ocean breeze on her face and through her hair. Her eyes closed as she breathed deeply the scent of sea and salt, willing herself to let her worries be carried away with the gentle winds blowing over the deck of the ferry.

 

For a moment, she felt better, somehow almost lighter. Her shoulders, feeling as tightly wound as a spring, slowly began to ease into a slump. Her brow smoothed from the furrow it had regularly worked itself into over the course of the evening. Even the muscles in her legs had been tensed, instinctively ready throughout the course of the evening to make a last-ditch effort to run if the situation turned bitterly sour. But now they too had started to relax at the ocean’s ever-comforting presence.

 

Yet as her eyes finally opened again and once more settled on the slowly shrinking Yanxian shore, as her gaze was drawn to the movement of the carriage that had borne her to the docks now leaving them again, it was as if the winds suddenly shifted. The tensions returned to her all at once, with such a weight as to make her stomach churn uneasily.

 

These weren’t the sort of troubles that one could simply run away from, after all. They may as well have been a ball and chain locked tightly around her ankle. But every lock possessed a key, and damned if Ghoa wasn’t intent on thieving it away to free herself. Of course, that too was rapidly becoming much more difficult and risky of a feat the longer this game of theirs continued on.

 

New players had set up on the board. Ieharu Musa was perhaps the most deadly of the new contenders, given his position of power upon the dais and his beast of a champion. Squared up directly against Elam, she might have been tempted to think of him as a potential ally. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the saying went. But she knew too little of him to make that call or pursue that potential avenue.

 

There was one other matter besides that gave her pause, and that was the elder sponsor’s connection to Nei Uzuka. The brothel mistress certainly had no love for Elam herself, but there was something about her that deeply bothered the Xaela. Perhaps they might have possessed similar desires to see the Eorzean knocked off the perch he had taken from her, but Nei seemed a risk. She wasn’t at all the quiet, controlled type that Musa seemingly was. Rather, she had fallen into her trap of provocation when Ghoa had tested her, taking the bait and biting back at the slight. That wasn’t even to mention how unclear her motivations and ambitions were. A vain woman prone to lashing out with ultimately unknown motives simply didn’t seem to be the best ally to make in this highly delicate ordeal.

 

However, if her intuition was right, there may have been a third option for allyship. Hikomoro had said time and again that he held no ill will towards Elam, but he had seemed intent on asking her about him all the same. Had it merely been for gossip, or was he perhaps not as indifferent towards the ijin newcomer as he claimed? She wasn’t sure, but even if it were true, there was perhaps an opportunity there. The silk lord didn’t need to have Nei’s rancor or Musa’s frustration to potentially be useful to her. If he was indifferent, that only meant he needed a gentle nudge in the right direction to turn him. And so far? He had been quite receptive to her nudging.

 

Naturally, if it worked out the way she hoped, the Xaela knew there would be a price to be paid for that allyship. Nothing in this world, and especially not in its seedy underbelly, ever came free. She would have to hear a price before committing, but she would venture a guess that whatever the Roegadyn would want in exchange for his aid and protection would be far more manageable than Elam’s black, vengeful, violent temper when he was denied something – or someone – that he wanted.

 

Time would tell, and she figured she had at least a sun or two of it before Hikomoro called upon her for a private visit to his estate. It would give her a chance to think it all through, to come up with her stories and to get them straight. To cherry-pick what information she could feed him, and to rehearse lies for the rest until they sounded truer than the truth itself.

 

 


 

OPPORTUNITIES :  Saya Mifune

Saya Mifune had no idea what manner of business that her husband’s whore of a lover had left on this time, but she could only assume that it had been delicate by the relief that flooded Hisanobu’s face when one of his men brought the news to their bedchamber in the middle of the night. The bedchamber where she currently lie curled against him, content. Yet one glance at that face of his caused her rare buoyant mood to sour like curdled milk, even before he had ordered his man to bring Ghoa to him – and for his wife to leave her own marriage bed.

 

Her temper burned hot at that insult, and though she had left in an irate storm of hissed curses and slinging of robes as she dressed, she had complied. It served her none to disobey his orders, especially where that vexing siren of a woman was involved. The only thing to be gained from argument were bruises, if past experiences still rang true.

 

Besides, there was something more for her to gain by leaving. Much more.

 

Her steps carried her down the hallways, to a side room of her own. Each side of the room was filled with dressers, shelves, and racks of clothing. These she passed, moving to the very back of the room to a large, elaborate vanity packed with boxes and bottles untold. Taking a seat atop the stool, her hand reached for what seemed like just one of many jewelry or makeup cases strewn about. Yet nestled within the container were three lines of linkpearls, each one a different pastel color. The beginnings of a smirk tugged at the corner of her lips.

 

When a merchant had gifted these odd contraptions to her some moons past, they had told her that she might put them to use in the Mifune family’s business. The drug trade could be treacherous, as he said, and it would benefit the family much to know what truths people spoke when they thought that no one was listening. He had asked her to pass the gift along to her husband, that he might take a liking to the devices and order more from him.

 

But the one-way linkpearls had never made it to Hisanobu’s hands. Instead, his wife had kept them hidden amongst her things. She had thought that perhaps she would use it as a means to keep tabs on Hisanobu’s womanizing ways. Unlike the way he flaunted Ghoa in her face, the rest of his lovers he at least had the decency to try to keep secret. Not that it ever stopped her from rooting them out and finding ways to chase them off. The pearls would only make it easier, and so she had hidden them about their home in all the places she knew he was likely to take his trysts. One such place? Their own bedroom.

 

However, it now wasn’t the identity of his lover that she wished to know, but the reasoning for her even being here. In the past few years after she had left, Ghoa had only turned up on their doorstep when she needed something. Usually, that was money for her next jaunt across the world or to use their business connections to get her hands on some sort of reagent she needed. But this time was different. She was sticking close, for far longer than she had in times past. Not only that, but they were going to great pains to keep Saya out of whatever they were doing. If it were only money or sex or simple business, they had never been so shy before. No, there was something more..

 

Her hands plucked a peach-colored pearl from the box, activating it and raising it to her ear to listen. At first, there was only silence, with the occasional sound of movement. After a few moments, there were distant footsteps, growing louder. A voice – that of the man who had brought the news to begin with – announcing his return with Ghoa in tow. Permission was given to enter, and there was the sound of the door sliding open then shut again, and more footsteps. Only once they were gone did the voices begin.

 

It began as one would perhaps expect, with teasing flirtations and relief at having returned safely. Yet not long after such pleasantries were exchanged, as well as a few tender embraces that the Hingan woman couldn’t help but picture in her mind’s eye much to her displeasure, the topic swiftly turned to business.

 

And merciful kami, what business it was..

 

Saya’s heart raced as she listened to the hushed exchanges, quickly come to realize exactly why Ghoa had tried to be so secretive. It would seen that the Auri woman was in serious trouble with this dangerous new business partner of hers and the illegal Doman fighting pit that they had become involved with. Even Hisanobu hadn’t seemed pleased with her as she recounted the happenings at the fight she had attended. Part of her hoped to hear the all too familiar crack of his hand hitting her cheek as his temper spiked, though it never came. Such irritated her, of course, that Ghoa so easily escaped his hand when used it so readily against her. But even still, with the wealth of information that she was picking up from her spying, even that bitter thought didn’t bring her down from her high.

 

Eventually, the conversation began to lull away from business and with it went Hisanobu’s annoyance as they returned to lover’s talk. When she had heard the first wanton gasp, Saya reached up to deactivate the pearl. No more information of worth would be had for now, but she had plenty to think on as it were.

 

Once before, she had tried to rid herself of Ghoa’s presence in her life. She had had her captured, stuffed in a crate like a dog while one of her own family’s business associates come to collect on his new purchase. Only at the last had the plan fell apart, and fallen apart spectacularly at that. And yet while the Xaela had had every chance to reveal to Hisanobu what she had done, knowing as well as she did that he would’ve killed her for it, Ghoa had kept the secret and chose to flee instead. It was a decision that had vexed her more than relieved her, in a sense.

 

But now, the whore had backed herself into a dangerous trap of her own making, and she had unwittingly given her all the information she needed to see that it was sprung. Of course, such would have to be done carefully to ensure that no fingers came back pointed at her. This couldn’t be like the last anger-fueled attempt at disposing of her. But if ever there were a real opportunity to be rid of this annoyance for good, it was now. She doubted a more fortuitous chance would ever come her way.

 

There was much for her to think about.

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The building where Kagero and Sekka were to rendezvous was in quite the sorry state. Lord Koryusai had purchased the three-story building in Shirogane via loophole by buying it under the name of Kagero's biological mother, who was a foreigner from Aldenard. There had been plans to turn it into a profitable business that took advantage of foreign residents on the island, but one thing piled on to another and the property was left neglected and unused. 

 

Kagero took the time to thoroughly inspect the grounds while he waited for his retainer to arrive. It was in a secluded yet scenic corner of Shirogane's residential district, fortuitously located on top of an aquifer which made it feasible to construct a natural onsen that could take advantage of the hot spring. The building itself was in quite good condition despite the lack of maintenance; it could certainly do with a thorough cleaning and dusting, but otherwise it would be a relatively small investment to establish a business here. Kagero was certainly interested in such a prospect, for having a Kozakura family property on Shishu meant that he could readily devise any number of excuses to avoid Lady Kyokuho.

 

The samurai had just begun the mental calculations when the door creaked open. Sekka almost immediately began coughing, waving a hand in front of her to banish any errant dust mites that were irritating her. "Apologies for my tardiness, my lord," the Raen said, wheezing slightly from the dust. "Though could we not have met at Bokairo instead? It was much closer as well. And...not nearly as dusty."

 

"The walls are thin in Kugane, and I did not want to risk anyone associated with Aritake to catch word of what we were doing," Kagero replied severely. He quickly picked up one of the many tatami mats and, gripping it with both hands, gave it a hard wave that lead to a veritable gust of particles flying. "You are right that we will probably have to tidy this place up a bit, especially if circumstances require that we stay on Shishu for an extended period of time."

 

The pair sat down at a low table; Kagero withdrew his katana and began to polish it, which was his way of pacing as he organized his thoughts, while Sekka withdrew a number of pieces of folded paper. Clearing her throat, she began her report.

 

"There were a few merchants in Kogane Dori familiar with Aritake. He was...very aggressive in his dealings. Lord Yumishi was also known to frequent Sanjo Hanamachi. It's possible he either owned or invested in more than one business in the Rakuza District, but details were scarce. He was a notable personality, though; more than one proprietor was able to recite one of his boasts about reclaiming Doma with embarrassing clarity. There was one owner who admitted that Aritake was interested in the substances he provided to his...clientele."

 

Kagero frowned. "Not that I particularly care, but that last bit sounds like something most people wouldn't admit to. Did obtaining this information involve your knives, perchance?" he inquired lazily. Sanjo Hanamachi had a reputation for questionable behaviour, but everything there was legal as far as the lord bugyo and the Sekiseigumi were concerned. It was an unspoken understanding that many of the establishments in Sanjo Hanamachi sold things like rice win, oils, incense, and potions to help their guests unwind and hopefully empty their wallets.

 

"I will allow my lord to choose the answer that would satisfy him the most," Sekka said with a short bow.

 

"You could have just said 'yes' instead of sounding like Kyokuho," the Hyur muttered. "I don't suppose Aritake was an actual client of these things? Are they on the up-and-up?"

 

"From what I could find out, Aritake wasn't involved in the transactions, at least on the surface. The proprietor in question only sold herbs, and the herbs themselves are not illegal in any way. I'm certain they had refined products somewhere, but I could not find more without bladed instruments at my disposal." Sekka unfolded another piece of paper. "Other than that, there was nothing especially unusual about him, other than his penchant for dealing with ijin, and no one I spoke to know where he is."

 

"Well, he's an ijin himself, so that's not all that unusual that he deals with his own kind. What I want to know is what kind of things he had that Hingan lords would want." That, in a few words, was the million-koban question. Assuming that Aritake did trade in such concotions, Hingans in general were incredibly unlikely to be consuming anything that had terrible side-effects; at most, they would overindulge in rice wine every once and a while. This was owing to the fact that arable land on Hingashi was invaluable, given the small size of the islands relative to the mainland: agriculture was focused almost entirely on edibles or essential materials. Herbalists could cultivate more exotic plants on a smaller scale, but not nearly large enough to reach significant distribution. There could certainly be imports from Yanxia or Nagxia, but Kagero could only assume there was a terribly small market for such things, else it would have caught more attention by now given how strictly Hingashi controlled incoming trade.

 

Ijin were less hesitant to engage in mind-altering substances, but such things were socially taboo in the Near East, to the point where merely being drunk was a shameful state reserved only for commoners or for the most boisterous of celebrations. Though, Kagero had to admit that his perspective came from the courts. It was entirely possible that commoners were partaking in such terrible things quite frequently without any aristocrats being aware of it.

 

Kagero didn't look up from his blade as he started speaking to share his own findings. "The only noteworthy event to have happened in the past moon was a fire in the Rakuza District. An apothecary burned down, and an alchemist who lived there was thought dead, only to turn up a few sennights later." He remembered the name: Nabi, according to the Naeuris who had owned the apothecary. She frequently had ijin as her clients, and Kagero instinctively had the feeling she was important somehow. "The fire was deliberate, from what I gathered. No one saw smoke or flames until the entire building was alight, and a body was found that was not the alchemist in question."

 

"Perhaps the apothecary itself wasn't a target, merely someone who happened to be inside the apothecary at the time," Sekka questioned, to which Kagero shook his head.

 

"The Naeuris said they were relieved when this Nabi turned up, which meant that they thought she was dead. Now, why would they think she was dead unless a body had been found in the wreckage? Which there was. Unidentifiable, but not the Xaela in question. Now, there's no proof that Aritake was involved, but this was definitely an act of deliberate arson that had a purpose behind it." Kagero made a mental note that he'd have to start questioning people about Nabi's whereabouts as well, just to make sure all the possible avenues were checked.

 

"Well, since we can't find Aritake, we stop tracking the man and we start tracking what he was doing instead. We know he was a merchant and he sold things, and we know he had an interest in things that were being sold specifically in Sanjo Hanamachi. Do you have a list of those raw materials?" Kagero inquired. He didn't have much knowledge on what kind of goods were popular in the common markets of Hingashi, for most of the dealings of the Kozakuras dealt with luxury products such as silks, precious metals, and refined products like weapons and clothing. Sekka, on the other hand, had extensive experience with merchants and so to Kagero's fortune she was equipped with considerable knowledge of what kind of goods were likely to frequent the markets of Kugane, and so she launched into an extensive explanation of her findings while Kagero listened intently.

 

Pine resins, Nagxian cudweed, red landtrap sap, Yanxian parsley...no, none of these reagents were illegal, per say. Morally questionable for chaste purists, but nothing that would cause alarm. Resins were for incense, the cudweed would make "vitality infusions"--something that would be pertinent in a brothel--and the parsley was edible, or could be brewed into any number of potions. None of these rang any alarms.

 

Red landtrap sap, though...that was expensive. Kagero pursed his lips. That was one thing he did recognize. There was nowhere in Othard to get something like that. Rumour had it that red landtrap sap made a potent aphrodisiac--more than one Thavnairian alchemist had come by Kugane selling such things around Sanjo Hanamachi--but landtraps had to come from Ilsabard or as far away as Aldenard. Koryusai himself had sold such things with considerable profit margins. Would a common red-light establishment be able to afford something like that? 

 

"None of these materials are local," Kagero muttered, his frown deepening. No, there weren't any items that could be procured from either Shishu or Koshu. Still, there was no link. For all intents and purposes, Aritake seemed to be a normal merchant with an interest in herbs, and that was tentatively assuming he did any actual trading at all. Certainly nothing that would provoke scandal among the courts.

 

"Which means there are either importers or smugglers," Sekka added.

 

If there were legal imports, that was easy: Kugane kept track of everything that came in and out of the city, down to the last plank that made up the crates. A quick trip to the dock authority would allow him to rule out what was and wasn't worth investigating. But still, why bother with the risks of smuggling? None of these things were illegal, and there was no benefit to smuggling herbs or potions into Hingashi. At best, you dodged some tariffs, and at worst the Sekiseigumi would seize the goods and, if you were a foreigner, cut you down if they were feeling annoyed enough at the time.

 

"So Aritake was interested in things that were coming out of Sanjo Hanamachi. What kind of things would patrons of Sanjo Hanamachi want? Strong drink, aphrodisiacs, 'vitality infusions'...there is nothing in Othard that can contribute to altering the mind, at least not that I know of." As an occasional patron of the red lanterns of the Sanjo himself, Kagero have definitely known if there were things available to heighten the "experience". He put his katana down, his hand rubbing his chin in deep thought. Finding out exactly what kind of trading Aritake did would bring them one step closer to finding him, but even that was proving to be quite the puzzle.

 

"There is nothing they could want that they couldn't get legally." Sekka brushed a hand through her hair, flipping through page after page. "I have significant doubts that Lord Aritake was interested in dealing in illicit substances. There simply isn't a market in Hingashi. The risk is too great for too little reward."

 

"There's no market in Hingashi, or there's no market among Hingans? Those are two different things. Perhaps we're looking at this wrong." Kagero crossed his legs. "Let's take a look at this from another angle. Aritake needs to be found because he had dealings that would cause lords to lose face. What kinds of things could they be? What's illegal in Hingashi?"

 

Sekka pinched the bridge of her scaled nose with her thumb and index finger. "Technically, anything that's not undergone inspection and tariff is illegal, but if we're speaking in more broad terms...weapons, poisons, and explosives. Things that do harm. Stolen items. Other than that, anything that would offend the embassies would also be illegal. Garlean technology must be turned over to the consulate if it's seized, by the terms of the treaty the bakufu has with the Empire. Thavnair does not care for anything in particular, and the East Aldenard company...I daresay they are less scrupulous than the Thavnairians. The more I think about it, the more I believe that particular list to be terribly short. The only thing the lord bugyo of Kugane particularly cares about is keeping the city peaceful, which means keeping control of weapons or anything similar."

 

"All of those things have specific uses. Aritake was a regular supplier to lords at court, which meant people had to be consuming the things he was selling somehow. Weapons, poisons, and explosives have to be used somewhere or sold to someone else, otherwise they're worthless, and we'd have certainly heard about it if people were being blown up or poisoned in Koshu," Kagero said, his frown deepening into a contemplative scowl. Kyokuho was one of Aritake's clients as well. What would she desire that she had to keep hidden from Lord Koryusai? As Sekka had said, that list was terribly small. There wasn't much that couldn't be gained legally in Hingashi, to the point where there weren't many things worth smuggling. "If we rule out all of those things, the only option that remains is that Aritake must have been providing alchemical substances, or..." Kagero paused. "Or people." Trafficking or the ferrying of criminals would certainly be something the Sekiseigumi would have a problem with, and anyone capable of smuggling people and goods over the Ruby Sea into Yanxia would have quite the koban to their name.

 

Poison, Sekka had said. Yes, it would look very, very bad for Kyokuho if she was caught purchasing poisons for any reason. 

 

"We should not rule out weapons either, my lord. Aritake was an ardent proponent of Doman liberation. It stands to reason that he gave aid to his countrymen somehow," Sekka added.

 

"That's true, but how would he purchase those weapons? I imagine he makes deals here in Kugane, and uses the koban he gains from trading with Hingans and ijin alike to purchase weapons."

 

"We have no proof of that," the Raen protested.


"We don't need proof, Sekka. This is how deduction works," Kagero reprimanded. Now he had stood up and started pacing, as he started to put the picture together in his mind. If he'd guessed right, things were starting to come together. "Aritake Yumishi sells things to Hingan lords that the lords don't want their rivals at court to know about, and Lady Kyokuho is especially keen on finding out exactly what those things are. Now, what could provide leverage over multiple people in the bakufu? No one on Koshu is planning to start a war, and it's more than easy enough to sell weapons through legal channels, as long as you pay the tariffs. Even then, if someone were to attempt to smuggle and stockpile weapons on Koshu itself, they would still need people to wield them. No, weapons are far too impractical to smuggle into Hingashi. Explosives as well. For someone looking to make quick koban, there's not enough profits and not a big enough market. We will rule those two out."

 

"However, if they were planning to or had attempted to poison someone..." Sekka said thoughtfully.

 

Kagero snapped his fingers. "Or, if they had an addiction or vice that had to be fed. And I highly doubt it's dango and sushi that would have a Hingan lord hooked. If a lord was addicted to something only you could sell him, that would be steady income for you for as long as that lord lived. Steady income that Aritake would need if he wanted to fund the reconstruction or reclamation of Doma. Now, what kind of things would someone get addicted to?"

 

"Rice wine, certainly," Sekka said. The Raen was now lying on her stomach on the tatami mat, kicking her feet like an impatient child.

 

"But junmaishu is hardly a shameful thing, now is it?" Kagero said, his frown turning into a grin. It was all starting to make sense. "Food and drink is easy enough. No, Aritake must have sold alchemical mixtures precisely because they're consumable, which meant there would always be demand for them. There's nothing on Othard that fits the bill of addiction, however. Even then, if it was easy to get, those lords wouldn't even bother dealing with an ijin, they'd simply get it themselves. So the substances have to be imported from other ijin, which would necessitate Aritake's presence as a middleman. Thus, we're dealing with a foreign product, though whether or not they're actually illegal or Aritake is just dodging the tariffs remains to be seen." Kagero made a mental note to visit Kogane Dori to find out exactly what kind of things ijin would enjoy.

 

That was an essential question, though. Was whatever Aritake doing actually illegal? Did the Sekiseigumi care about alchemical mixtures from other nations, or only about making sure such things were taxed? Ijin certainly wouldn't know what was illegal unless they were arrested for it.

 

"You mentioned people as well, my lord. Wouldn't that fit the bill as well?" Sekka asked. Kagero stopped his pacing. It was highly impolite to discuss any immodest habits. If a Hingan lord had a particularly large carnal appetite, that would certainly be something to be ashamed about. That would be a secret that could ruin a lord in the eyes of his peers.

 

"Yes, it would," Kagero murmured, disturbed by the thought. Could an ijin be trafficking people underneath the noses of the Sekiseigumi? The notion was appalling. "So Aritake traded potions and maybe people to Hingan lords. He would gain their considerable coin and their patronage. What could a man do with such coin? He was interested in Sanjo Hanamachi, but I doubt he needed the coin just to pay a visit to his favourite geiko."

 

"Perhaps his favourite geiko was...very expensive?" Sekka, who was usually very alert, serious, and dutiful, was now gently rolling from side to side on the tatami. There was no stopping Kagero when he was like this, and the day had been long and tiring regardless.

 

Kagero either didn't notice or didn't care as he shook his head, his pacing increasing in fervor. "No, a man with that much coin will expand. Let's say you're feeding people and potions to lords. The easiest way to gain people would be through the Sanjo Hanamachi, no? No one would bat an eye at a Hingan geiko being invited by a lord. You could smuggle them in plain sight. In fact..." the Hyur snapped his fingers. "You could use the geiko as a mule. Aritake is an ijin; he would never have been allowed within a hundred malms of Koshu. So how is he getting his product to those lords in the bakufu? You either invite the lords to Shishu, or you use people who can go to Koshu. That must be it!"

 

"And the materials list?" Sekka lazily waved the paper in the air.

 

Kagero snatched it from her hands, examining it closely. "I think we were looking at it the wrong way. Aritake wasn't interested because of the exact materials on the list. Aritake was interested because he was wondering if it was acceptable for businesses in Sanjo Hanamachi to be trading in alchemical mixtures and herbs to begin with. That way, he could use his pleasure houses as a cover for his drug trade and no one is any the wiser. These places are known to sell food, alcohol, and these potions to their customers. It wouldn't be impractical to use them to make something less moral."

 

The Hyur suddenly sat down on the tatami, crossing his legs with his hands on his knees with a sigh. "And the burnt apothecary. That alchemist...there's nothing conclusive to suggest it, but circumstantially it points this Nabi girl as being involved in something illegal somehow. If it were legal, the Sekiseigumi could have been called to mediate. You don't burn down a building just because an alchemist ends up being a quack. If there was something else, such as refusing to work for Aritake or threatening to turn him in, that would certainly motivate an act of arson."

 

At the back of Kagero's mind, there was a part of him tacitly aware that there was no proof of any of this. Proud of his deduction as he may be, this was all conjecture and speculation. It was possible for him to be completely off-base, and if he wasted time working through this assumption, there was no telling how far he would fall behind.

 

Something instinctive in him told him that if he could find Nabi, that would certainly clear things up.

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STORMBANE :  Ghoa Mankhad

“I have one more favor to ask.”

 

Ghoa’s words were hesitant, as if expecting that they would invite ire from the man sitting across from her. After all, she had only just finished convincing Hisanobu to track down the reagents for the poison for Musa’s champion. She simply couldn’t risk any of the other sponsors having eyes or ears in Kugane, taking notice of what she was doing. If she hoped to make allies of them, their learning that she was actively attempting to poison one of their champions very much had the potential to sour those relations. Such was a complication she could ill afford, and so she had to remove herself as much from the process as possible.

 

Despite the reasoning, the Hingan drug lord hadn’t been thrilled with the idea of being given a shopping list of items of varying levels of illegality. All the risk and little reward. If that had been a sticking point, then she could only imagine that he would be equally displeased with her next request. Maybe moreso.

 

Sure enough, a hint of wary exasperation reached Hisanobu’s face as he looked up to her from the list he held in his hands. But he relented, giving her a nod. “Ask it, then.”

 

“There’s a second poison I’m making for a different target, even more sensitive than the first. But to make it, I need a very specific item.” She hesitated again. “Something that you’ll never find on the markets, I should think, here nor anywhere else.”

 

The look on the Hyur’s face was somewhere between frustration and intrigue at that. There was a small pause, but ultimately he offered no protest – for now, at least – and simply nodded for her to continue.

 

“There’s a plant that I need,” She kept her face as neutral as she could manage. “So far as I know, it can only be found on the eastern coastlands of the Steppe.”

 

It had been difficult coming up with a formulation for poison for Musa’s champion, going off of only a verbal description of him without seeing him or what he was capable of firsthand. Yet even that had paled in comparison to the other conundrum that she had faced in the question of how she would deal with Elam – and the “accident” that she was supposed to be staging. Ever since her meeting with Hikomoro, she had tormented herself with the question of what she would do, how she could pull it off. She had spent countless bells coming up with plans and plots, only to dismiss each one. Too unreliable, too risky, too obvious..

 

Then one evening, she had let her mind wander too far until it had stumbled upon a memory from what seemed to be a lifetime ago. A memory of beautiful round flowers, with large petals as soft as silk, white at the fringe with vein-like patterns of dark red-purple bleeding out from the center. She could remember their scent, more sweet and richly fragrant than any man made perfume she had ever smelled. Most of all, she could remember her mentors explaining just how deceptively treacherous of a plant it truly was.

 

Stormbane, it had been named, after it had once taken the lives of a great many of the still fledgling clan of Shuurga. When they had found the flowers growing, they had naturally been drawn to their beauty. Flowers had been plucked to decorate homes and to gift to lovers. When people began to suddenly fall ill with gradually rising fever and hacking, bloodied coughs, their loved ones brought the flowers to wish them well. When the sickness had ran its course over the span of about a week’s time, they laid the beautiful blooms on their grave.

 

The clan had almost dwindled to nothing before they realized that it was not a plague that they were afflicted with, but the flowers themselves and the highly poisonous yellow-green sap contained in their stems. Once discovered, they had set fire to any patches of Stormbane they found, but had saved a handful of the plants and quietly entrusted them to their udgan. In the hands of the stormcallers, who held all of their tribe’s poisonous secrets, they would be protected. Now, she doubted most of their tribesmen even knew that the last patch of Stormbane remained. But as an apprentice, Ghoa had had the rare opportunity to see them herself.

 

It seemed a perfect solution to her problems, yet rather than embrace it, she had continued to think and think even after it had come across her mind, desperate to find anything else. Anything that meant that she could continue to leave the past buried exactly where it was. But try as she might, she always came back to those deadly, sweet-scented flowers from her memory. Finally, she had relented. Reluctant as she was, it was her best shot.

 

“There’s a small clan that cultivates them in one of their summer camps. But this time of year, they should be in the southern part of their territory, leaving the plants unguarded,” she explained carefully. “There’s a river that one can follow from the central Steppe that goes directly to one of their currently unoccupied camps on the sea. I can come up with a map, if you can just find me men willing to make the trip.”

 

She didn’t receive her answer right away as Hisanobu continued to watch her, his expression having begun to slowly change from exasperation to curiosity. Yet he said nothing at first, only continuing to watch her. But finally, he bobbed his head in a slow nod.

 

“I can find men for the job,” he began, paused, and then added. “But why can’t you go yourself?”

 

“I don’t have the time,” Ghoa lied, the answer ready for the question she had been certain was coming long before she had ever  broached the subject to begin with. One she had practiced over and over in her head already. “I have to be working on the first poison and time is already short. I can’t afford to waste even a single sun on a trip into the steppe.”

 

“Fine,” he agreed with little fuss, and inwardly she was relieved that he didn’t press the subject any further. “Get me a map and instructions of what they should be looking for, and you’ll have this plant you need so badly.”

 

“Thank you.” Her voice perhaps betrayed a bit more relief than she had meant for it to, surprised but grateful that he had not needed any more convincing. It was unlike him to let things go so easily, but she would not question the unexpected gift of his easy cooperation. “Just be sure that the men you send are the trustworthy sort,” she added. “All I need is one plant and the rest should be left untouched and unspoken about. They’re a closely guarded secret, so it wouldn’t do to suddenly have them showing up on black markets and creating a demand.”

 

As her words trailed off, none rose up to answer her in turn. At first, that didn’t even strike her as odd. Perhaps he was only thinking about who to send? But as the seconds ticked on, and as he watched her with an increasingly pensive look, the silence began to weigh heavier and heavier upon her. It began to make her nervous.

 

“Hisanobu? What’s wrong?” She asked hesitantly. “Is there a problem..?”

 

“It is a closely guarded secret, you said?” His words were more curious than accusation. “You seem to be awful knowledgeable about it.”

 

Ghoa’s stomach churned suddenly, sickly, at the realization of her misstep. She grappled for an answer to explain it away, but could not find one quickly enough. But her silence was telling enough of an answer for him to continue.

 

“They’re your people, aren’t they?” He asked in fascination. Once more she failed to answer, and he kept pressing. “I’m also guessing that it isn’t time that’s keeping you from making the trip yourself. It’s that you don’t want to go, right?” Another pause, more silence, and he pressed again, more insistently. “Or is it that you can’t go back..?”

 

She could tell that it was only his curiosity driving him, the delight he always took in figuring out people and their motivations, but he still may as well have been wielding those questions like a knife. And at the last supposition, she couldn’t stop herself from flinching as if he had truly reached out and struck her. Wordlessly, she rose from her seat and walked around the desk, stopping beside him. As he turned his head up to look at her, she reached up to gently place a hand on either side of his face. Her touch was soft, but her hold firm, keeping his eyes on her own.

 

Don’t–” she began, voice quiet but tone adamant, pausing just long enough to let the emphasis settle before finishing the thought. “–ask anymore questions about where I come from. Not if you want to see me again once this is over.” Those words weren’t a request, but a warning. But seeing the shock at her boldness in his eyes, she relented with a tight smile and leaned in to steal a quick and tender kiss from him. When she straightened, it was with softer, whispered words. “Please, Hisanobu. Just leave it be.”

 

Her hands fell away as she stepped back, allowing the other a moment to gather himself and choose his next words. When he did, they were mercifully clear of bothersome interrogation. It seemed the point had sunk in.

 

“I’ll choose who to send today,” he stated quietly, almost awkwardly. “Bring your map and your instructions by daybreak tomorrow, and I’ll send them on their way.”

 

“Thank you,” she sighed, bowing her head in gratitude as she turned to leave, eager to leave the awkward tension of the room behind and to busy herself to keep her mind from returning to how uncomfortably close the man had come

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Shael tapped a finger restlessly on the ceramic tea cup. It had already gone cold, and the Highlander hadn't even tasted it. Her eyes darted about the courtyard in front of the Umineko Tea House, scanning each and every face that approached. The sun was setting, and the man she was looking for was supposed to be here soon: Marius, a Midlander male with pale hair, dark skin, and pale eyes. He had a repute for visiting the tea house at sunset for some dangos and tea, and was also someone who was much more familiar with magitek than she was. Someone that Nabi (of all people) knew.

 

A part of her was curious about this man. She knew enough about magitek; she had boosted both her weapons and her ship with Garlean technology in the past. Her lineage and smuggling background both had afforded her knowledge of the Imperial machinery, but she herself wasn’t able to figure out how to dismantle or diffuse the circlet around Saltborn's neck in the short time she had snuck in to the pits. She was familiar with it enough to recognize what it did, she had seen similar models used on conscripted soldiers in Ala Mhigo. But the ones in Doma were just different enough that she didn’t want to take any chances. Any mistake would have fatal consequences on Saltborn, after all.

 

And now Nabi, as well.

 

Shael grimaced, her hand tightening around the tea cup. Of course they had collared her too. Nevermind that the girl was harmless, couldn’t fight herself free out of a closet, nor was the Xaela intending on leaving without Saltborn. But she might as well be the sponsors’ slave now, helpless in their clutches. The Highlander shook her head, rubbing her forehead with her free hand.

 

At least she looked unharmed, Shael told herself. She had snuck in a second time into the pits, with much favors owed to the bookie that she had been fortunate enough to know from years past when she had sold Domans weapons. Sukehide was now making plenty of profit from managing the wagers that exchanged hands with each fight. It was also by sheer luck that the Doman was still fond of her, or at least fond of sexual favors, in exchange for allowing her a glimpse at the champions for the upcoming anticipated final match.

 

The little visit did allow her to slip a linkpearl into Nabi’s hands. So at least now she could communicate with the two of them, and formulate some plan. A plan, which so far consisted of somehow disabling the Curator’s device so he didn’t electrocute or blow up Nabi’s head at the first sign of trouble, and somehow placing explosives beneath the dais where all the sponsors sat to watch the match.

 

They could all burn in the seven depths of hell for all I care, Shael silently seethed.

 

But this plan hinged on a few things that relied on a healthy helping of luck. First, Saltborn needed to win the bloody match. He was key in setting off the explosives, something he promised he could do, and also get Nabi out after. At least Ghoa’s attempt to possibly poison Saltborn’s opponent increased his chances---Ghoa, another Xaela alchemist that somehow Nabi befriended, who happened to be working for Grave. Shael knew the woman was working mostly for herself, to free herself from Grave’s control, but Nabi trusted her. And Shael couldn’t deny that Ghoa’s access and her skills with poison would be useful in this plan.

 

Someday, Shael was going to ask how Nabi befriended all these myriad of misfits. Herself included, which Shael still was befuddled about.

 

The second part of the plan that was still up in the air was her getting into the arena to plant the explosives beneath the dais. She wasn’t sure about the access to the place when there was no fighting going on. She knew the place was packed and the security was tight on the suns of the matches. Furthermore, on the sun when this would all go down, Shael also needed her gun. Something that hopefully, Saltborn’s slave boy would be able to smuggle in for her. She, and Tserende as her own personal shield, would provide the cover fire to allow Saltborn and Nabi to escape from the ring. Then somehow, in the chaos, she and Tserende would have to work out on how to get out of the mountain themselves. She still hadn’t figured out how to sneak in Tserende’s gigantic sword into the fighting pits either.

 

All these ifs and hows made her antsy. Her foot was tapping against the ground by the time the sun had completely disappeared over the horizon, the dimness of twilight washing over the port city.

 

That was when Shael spotted a pale-haired man approaching the tea stall. He fit the description perfectly.

 

First things first. She had to ensure that this man could somehow devise a way so the Curator could not activate the collars. If that couldn’t be done, if they couldn’t ensure Nabi’s safety in this escape, then all was for naught. She didn’t care that Grave would still die in the fire, if the person they were trying to save was lost, nothing else mattered.

 

Shael set her teacup aside and stood, her hand sliding to check the gun holstered at her hip. One way or another, this Marius was going to help Nabi. She was going to bloody well see to it.

Edited by Shael

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DOUBLE OR NOTHING


 

No sooner had the door closed behind her in her room at the Bokairo Inn did Ghoa collapse back against it, the strength all seeming to leave her legs at once as she let out a shaking, gasping breath that felt as if it had been trapped within her from the moment that Elam asked her how she was planning to poison him. Now that she was alone, that nervous trembling caught up to her with a vengeance. Trying to will it to stop, and with no prying eyes around to put on an act for, she slowly pulled her legs up to her chest, circled her arms about them, and buried her face against her knees. But try as she might to summon up courage or calmness, the only thing that came forth were more tears.

 

It was hard to judge just how long she lingered there as such. Half a bell? A whole one? Longer? She had trouble settling on one emotion or coherent train of thought, much less judging any passage of time. All she could do was sit there, curled into as tiny of a ball as she could manage, and try to get every last tear out that she could.

 

Eventually they slowed, and even more slowly they stopped, and though she was still trembling ever so slightly, Ghoa was able to wipe her cheeks dry and push herself unsteadily up to her feet again to wobble her way over to her desk and pull out a drawer.

 

It wasn’t what she was looking for, but the three glass vials tucked away in the corner drew her eye first. All the trouble she had went to, to set that plan in motion, and it had died in the cradle now that Elam was wise to her scheming. There was no way she would be able to go through with it now. At least, none that she could think of offhandedly.

 

But even if she could surmise some sort of alternate plan, would she? The stakes had been high before, and she had lost. Double-or-nothing was for winners. If she tried to push her luck any further, and if she failed again.. She shuddered violently, thinking back to that hand wrenching her head back by the hair, the fist that had slammed into her stomach, and not least of which, Nei Uzuka’s smirking face. No, losing again wasn’t an option.

 

Still, disposing of the poison or turning it over to Elam was likewise unthinkable. She would have to try to hide them somewhere just in case, as a last-ditch contingency. But that could wait for now.

 

Instead, her eyes kept searching the drawers contents until they found what she wanted:  a small case of cigarettes. But as she reached for them, her hand hesitated at the sight of the small linkpearl resting next to it, one whose match she had once given to the Keeper in Ul'dah that she had craftily pilfered those smokes from.

 

There was a part of her that wanted to pick it up and turn it on, to reach out to Rhe'ir. There was another part that reeled at that desire to seek him out for comfort and reassurance. There was another part still, the last of all, that recalled their last meeting before she had returned to her business here. That memory caused her brow to furrow and her jaw to tense, and finally her hand to close around the tin alone before the other angrily slammed the drawer shut.

 

Turning sharply on her heel, she marched back to the table by the door, the small hearth meant for tea flickering softly at its center. She sunk down, if not defeatedly, onto the bench and plucked one of the cigarettes free of its case to hold it out to the flames. Once it lit, she brought it to her lips for a deep inhale, holding it in her lungs for as long as she could before exhaling slowly, closing her eyes and letting her head slump forward until forehead rested in her palm.

 

“You’ve really fucked up now, little bird,” she murmured under her breath to herself, and fell silent and still as the rest of the cigarette burned away to ash in her fingers.

 


 

 

[ A DAY (ISH, YAY TIME) LATER ]

 

Ghoa turned the linkpearl over and over in her fingertips, gently and carefully spinning it as her mind itself turned over the choices that laid ahead of her. None of them easy. All of them potentially deadly, whether for herself or others.

 

Immediately following her meeting with Elam, the Xaela had allowed herself to break down. As cunning and cocksure as she tried to make herself seem, her confidence in the face of the complicated scenario they were all entangled within was but a paper thin bravado. When Elam had caught on and called that bluff, that cool-headed façade had readily given way to the truth underneath:  that she was just as afraid as the rest of them, but perhaps even more cowardly.

 

That was a humiliating blow itself, to have such timidity put on display not only in front of Elam, but Nei and – perhaps most frustratingly – Saya. She still had no idea just how that vile woman had come to know the particulars of her situation, despite the bells she had spent agonizing over where the plan had went wrong. Try as she might, she couldn’t connect the dots. Hisanobu was the only person who knew the particulars, and he was loyal to her and careful to a fault. His men were loyal to him and, even if they weren’t, he never would’ve relayed such details to them for Saya to intercept. It made no sense..

 

In the end, whatever the case, figuring out the ‘how’ would not change the fact that it had happened. And just the same, moping about and wallowing in humiliation wouldn’t serve her moving forward. She had real, immediate problems suddenly thrust in front of her and they needed her mind at its best to solve them.

 

Still, even once she had put herself together, Ghoa had struggled to decide what to do. At first glance, it seemed quite obvious;  she was caught and she had alerted Elam to the fact that there was a plan. Her linkpearl was rigged, her every move was being watched, and her orders to cooperate had been given. It seemed she had no other recourse but to flip her loyalties once more.

 

The longer she had thought on it, however, the less clear the choice became. Her orders had been to try to lure Shael into a trap before the fight or to at least figure out the details of what her plan was. The first option, she knew would never happen. Shael seemed too careful for that. No amount of coaxing would convince her to meet. The second option, simply going for information, seemed more likely.. But still only remotely so. She would have to come up with something truly compelling for that, and nothing she could think of seemed like it would be both dire enough and believable enough not to have her lie called.

 

But none of that mattered to Elam, that much was evident. Her fate at the end of this nightmarish scenario wasn’t tied to how hard she tried. It was tied to results. She could try as hard as she could, and unless she cracked Shael – which she doubted she could – then it didn’t matter. It would all be for nothing. If she was lucky, Elam would kill her and be done with it. If she wasn’t, then…

 

Yet even the case that she did somehow manage to succeed didn’t ultimately seem any more of a relief. She had been told that if all went well and the plot was successfully foiled, she would be allowed to live in relative comfort. Relative comfort. Ghoa figured that being allowed to live under Elam’s definition of said phrase didn’t equate to a happy ending, but something relatively preferable to the alternative of being given to Nei as he had threatened. That was certainly the worst case scenario, but there were plenty other possible outcomes only marginally but still relatively better. So the chance of him relenting and letting her go, to give back her freedom at the end of this were abysmal. After all, his own man Torrad was proof enough of how little loyalty meant to him in the wake of betrayal, and just what manner of twisted alternatives he could come up with.

 

In truth, that meant precious little had changed in regards to her predicament. Elam was still a danger to her that needed to be removed. He was just more dangerous now, and her own hands were tied on how to deal with him. She had been defeated, but there was still hope in whatever Shael and Tserende had up their sleeves. She had to believe there was still hope..

 

Only the question of how to proceed had changed. It was no longer how could she convince Shael to fall into her trap, but – even more complicatedly – how did she manage to set one convincing enough for Elam to believe that she was cooperating while purposefully avoiding having the other woman fall into it? Could she find some way to let Shael know that she was compromised, without letting those who compromised her be any wiser? It was possible, if only she could word herself just the right way – and if Shael was just as sharp as Ghoa hoped she was.

 

It had been a handful of hours since Torrad had come to her, returning the now-bugged linkpearl. It had taken a good deal of time for her to work through it, to come up with a feasible approach, and to muster up whatever fragments of courage that she had left to make another move. Double or nothing, and this time if she lost, there was no coming back.

 

She looked back down to the pearl in her fingertips, frowning as her hand trembled. First, she closed her hand tightly around it, squeezing hard as she tried to banish away the nerves. Then, she lifted and activated it.

 

“Shael..? Are you there..?” She paused, taking a second to swallow and steel her tone even as her throat suddenly seemed to go dry. “It’s Ghoa and.. and it’s an emergency.”

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20 years ago


 

“They are gettin’ younger and younger,” Lodmund said with a sigh, pausing mid-step with boxes held against his chest. The Highlander’s eyes were narrowed on a young girl standing off in the distance. She couldn’t have been more than twelve-years old, but she was holding a pistol in her hand.

 

“Ye can’t put a proper age tae savin’ yer own home.” Oddmar shrugged, setting the crate that he was carrying down onto the ground with a grunt. The older Highlander wiped at the beads of sweat upon his brow before looking to Elam. “Ain’t that right boy? Yer just shy of eighteen winters yerself.”

 

Elam nodded, waving away the cloud of dust that rose as he tossed the box that he was carrying onto the other crates laid before him. The three Highlanders had been unloading the latest delivery of supplies of weapons and food, when Lodmund brought all their attention to the gathering at a nearby tent. It was Aylard Greyarm’s tent, one of the more prominent leaders of this particular cell of the Resistance.

 

Elam squinted his eyes to spy a young girl there, of reddish chestnut hair and freckles upon her face. She was wearing a frown along with a fresh bruise on her cheek, but her body language--balled up fists and a rigid back--told Elam that the girl was not upset about whatever circumstances had resulted in that injury. No, the girl was angry. Fuming, as she stomped her feet on the ground.

 

Aylard was kneeling in front of the young girl, speaking quietly. Elam knew the older man to be stern and strict, and rarely did he show any hint of tenderness to others. But how he spoke in close proximity to this girl, and the patient fatherly expression the man wore, Elam took note.

 

“Who is she?” He leaned closer toward Lodmund, who finally huffed and set his box down onto the ground.

 

“Greyarm knows her family.” Lodmund shrugged. “Dirty Garlean sympathizers, they are. But supposedly, that doesn’t apply to their only daughter. She’s been getting into fights with her family, other sympathizers and anyone who voices any support for the Imperial regime.”

 

“I guess best recruit, train, and turn all that energy into something useful. Before she gets herself killed anyroad.” Oddmar snorted and lightly slapped both the younger men on the arm. “Now get back to the wagons. Plenty more crates where those came from.”

 

Elam nodded, watching the exchange between Aylard and the girl for a moment longer, before trotting off after Lodmund and Oddmar. “She got a name?”

 

“Shaelen Stormchild, I think it was.”


 

Years later...


 

“Shh! Keep it down, will ya?”

 

Shaelen snorted out a laugh, tossing her head back as she fell backwards onto the rug. Her hands greedily tugged at his shirt, yanking it free from his breeches. “Who will hear? And if they do, who cares?

 

Elam fell on top of her, his hands catching the ground just enough so he didn’t crush her with his weight. He grinned at her as his shirt was becoming undone, one button at a time. “How is it that you get this way only after combat?” he breathed against her, his lips roaming from her collarbone, to neck, to her earlobe. “I wine and dine you and nothing. Flowers and gifts don’t win you over either. But spilling the blood of Garleans… you’re hungry like a coeurl in heat.”

 

“Hey! I did love the gun you gave me!” Shael pulled the shirt off his chest, her hands going to unbuckle his belt. As she her lips began to graze over random parts of his torso, Elam wondered how that word love only came from her lips when it came to arms and weapons. Although with his breaths quickening and the heat rising within him, this wasn’t the time or place to complain about it.


 

---

 

 

“You piece of shite. Soddin’ son of a whore. Coward. Greedy gil suckin’ snake. Go! Leave!! Never come back!!!

 

Those were Shaelen’s last words when Elam left the Resistance. He wanted something more. Something better than the futile efforts to win back the homeland he barely recognized. He wanted more than to just scrape by sun after sun, just combing the wasteland that was Gyr Abania for any kind of headway or advantage against the Garleans.

 

Elam wanted more from his life. He wanted comforts, food, wine, wealth... and most importantly power. Power to change things. To rewrite the rules. And he wanted her. He asked Shael to leave with him. To make a new life in Ul’dah. With all the skills they had between them, experience with guns, weapons, explosives, and espionage… he knew they could make a new life for themselves in the land of Monestarists. A better life. Something more than fighting a lost war against the Imperial forces that had no end in sight.

 

But not only did Shael say no, but she turned him away in disgust. That was the last time he would see her, for years. From a child soldier who had an uncanny skill with guns, to a fearless girl who backed down from no one, even those within the Resistance who begrudged her for her Garlean allied family, to the passionate woman who cared too much about a cause that it eventually twisted everything into blood lust and anger… Elam had fallen for her, but he couldn’t stay fighting for her.

 

It would be over a decade before Elam saw her again. It was in Ul’dah, when she was hired to smuggle illegal Ishgardian relics for one of the Monetarists he was working for. It was then that he learned that she too had left the Resistance, a year after he did. She had burnt out on all that rage and hate. And the woman he saw in the Quicksand was cocky and carefree, with a crooked grin that rose easily to her lips. She had a ship of her own called Peregrine, and a first mate, a Roegadyn she affectionately called Shooey.

 

Elam and Shael’s reunion had been a tepid one at best. It was as if she had completely forgotten about the year long affair they had, and a friendship that spanned much longer than that. Shooey didn’t seem to like him much either, and Elam was secretly jealous of the closeness that Shael and Shooey shared. Their kinship was obvious to him even from a distance.

 

It was by pure happenstance, that the company that Elam was working for, The Cove, had gotten involved with the last surge of the Resistance efforts in Gyr Abania. And in the ancient ruins of their homeland, Elam found himself working side by side with Shaelen again. She also had been convinced to rejoin the war efforts, although he had long suspected that when the tide started to turn, that she couldn’t ignore the calling of her home and heart much longer.

 

To this sun, Elam would deny that he ordered the early detonation when he knew that Shooey was setting up the explosives in Castrum Abania.

 

There was a part of him that wondered if Shael would have sought him out in her grief once her first mate died. There was another part of him that hated the fact that he almost looked forward to it. It had been years since he saw her last, why did the thoughts of her still linger in his mind? Even more so, did he let her presence affect a calculated decision in warfare?

 

The answer to that question didn’t matter to anyone but Elam. The war was won, Gyr Abania was freed from Garlemald’s control, and Shael disappeared from Eorzea since the night of the explosion.

 

His part in the war did lift Elam in the eyes of his employers within The Cove, that he was assigned a whole new branch, to expand their business--both legal and illegal--into Othard, by becoming their lead agent in Kugane. He was put in charge of making contacts and business dealings on behave of The Cove, with Hingans, Domans, and Garleans alike. He had the entire resources of The Cove’s eastern division at his disposal.

 

Elam was becoming more powerful and wealthy than many of the Monetarists he used to work for years ago. And expanding his reach into the newly liberated Doma, he knew that his ambition could be limitless. This would be the new start, a new chapter in his life.

 

So when Shael found him again on this side of the world, entering his employ for Garlean weapons, Elam didn’t know if this was his way of getting everything he deserved or if she was a reminder that he was still no more than that green soldier lost in a homeland, looking to find his place in the world.

 

Gods, he still wanted her. But he hated her for that.

 

Elam tried to control the woman that had eluded him before. He began to drug her drinks when they talked. He knew well of her addictive habits, for they both had relied on all sorts of substances throughout the war. But slowly Elam began to realize this was no longer the same woman he wanted for all those years. Shael was no longer addicted to violence, no longer looking to him as her kindred spirit, no longer needing him as she used to. He and she knew they both enjoyed walking that line between rage and control, of unleashing anger and turning it into violence and taking pleasure in it. But somewhere along the way, Shael had cut him out of her mind and heart, she no longer needed to share that side of her with him.

 

And now, the woman who had occupied a far corner of his mind since they met twenty years ago... that woman wanted him dead.

 

Elam leaned back, pouring himself a glass of his best rum as his thoughts finally returned to the present, leaving the reverie of his past. He couldn’t help but wonder if the Spinner was taking a special delight in weaving his previous years back into his present. Not only did the only woman he’d ever consider bonding with years ago now wanted to kill him, but the person that Shael had been scheming with was none other than Ghoa, the Xaela that had recently reawakened that nearly forgotten desire and lust inside of him.

 

The same Xaela that he had invited to join him at his side, in grabbing all the power that he could in this world. The same au ra that had confessed to him only bells ago, that she had plotted to poison and kill him to gain her independence from him.

 

As he swirled the rich brown liquor within the glass, he slowly narrowed his eyes.

 

He was no longer some boy following the lead of others in some idealistic political cause. He was no longer some love-sick puppy who begged a woman to leave with him for a better life.

 

Elam Grave was now on the brink of winning the final match upon that dais of powerful criminal lords, and gaining more influence and control of the Doman underworld than any other westerner could ever dream of. He had no place in his heart for longings. He had no place for a heart in his plans.

 

Both Shael and Ghoa could rot in hells. He needed no woman. He would see to it that they both met the end that they deserved.

 

He would have power, and that was the only mistress he would ever want.

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Nabi curled her fingers, her hand sinking into the softness of the blanket.

 

She had all the comforts that a wealthy Doman lord could provide. A mattress beneath her that hugged her form, so soft it felt as if she was floating on clouds, and a pillow that nestled her horn and head, delicate as freshly spun silk. The guest bedroom within the Musa estate was far warmer than the cell she had been in for the last many suns within that mountain. The shoji doors lent soft lighting, diffusing the lantern illumination from the outside, and elaborately painted fusuma walls depicted tranquil scenes of waterfalls and koi swimming about, designed to allow the guests within to feel at ease.

 

And yet Nabi felt colder and more alone than ever.

 

She wanted to run back to that mountain, to the cell that she and Anchor had shared for the last many suns. With its single wooden table in the corner where she was allowed to do some alchemy work, concocting balms and crude recipes to help Anchor’s recovery. She could imagine that table in the corner of this empty vast room, and she saw herself sitting on the cot that Anchor had pulled up to the table for makeshift chair. She saw herself smiling even, as she worked to mix another bowl of gruel, and Anchor reaching over and feeding her a small bite of fish with his own hand.

 

Anchor would call her daft for wanting to return to that place. But that single room within the mountain---sparse of any comforts other than a cot, a fur pelt, a hearth, and a table---was still the space that she and Anchor had shared, enduring everything that was thrown at them. Nei Uzuka had forced Anchor into acts of cruelty against her and Myuto, Elam Grave had demanded that she too wear that cursed collar around her neck, and the Curator had forced Anchor to use his gruesome enhancement to drain her blood and aether for his own experimentation.

 

Nabi closed her hand into a fist, her eyes going to the arm that was still bandaged. She had nearly broken, twice, beneath the weight of the darkness within that mountain. She had willingly entered its depths to save Anchor’s life, anyway she could. But when faced with so much cruelty, she found that her resolve had limits. She had a flash of panic every time she tried to swallow through that ungiving metal circlet around her throat. After her aether was drained, she struggled to remain standing for long periods of time. Her arm ached whenever she tried to use her hand, and any time Grave visited her, he made her shudder from the depths of her bones with fear.

 

But each time she felt herself failing in her determination, Anchor was there to help pick herself back up again. He challenged her the first time, asking if she was only going to last a few bells after entering the mountain. Nabi had felt guilty, ashamed that her courage had failed her so quickly, especially after realizing that she negated his suffering so she could satisfy her own need to see him.

 

The second time he was so much more gentle. She had curled up into a ball, crying upon that cot. Her body was in pain and trembling uncontrollably; she was weak and drained, and wasn’t sure if she could keep going for either's sake.

 

“Jus’ a tad longer,” Anchor had murmured softly. “Then it’s over. No more o’ this. No more.” He had climbed into the cot with her, pulling her tight against him, cocooning her with his body and the bear pelt to lend her his body heat. “There now. Stop your bloody shivering, aye?” Nabi could almost hear his tender whisper brush by her temple.

 

Nabi pressed her lips tighter, slowly exhaling to calm the stirring within. No matter how silky and smooth Lord Musa’s bedding was, she found no rest here. There was no safety and peace that she felt within that pelt, as her shivering slowly came to a stop within Anchor’s embrace. When her crying finally had ceased, they had murmured softly to each other, her mind and spirit regaining some of its composure and strength again.

 

“I was supposed to save you,” she had confessed, her cheeks flushed with shame at her weakness.

 

Anchor snorted softly, although without any real derision. He paused thoughtfully, before he murmured, “...You ‘ave.” He brushed aside some of her locks, before he leaned in, lightly pressing his nose into the space between her horn and the back of her head.

 

“Nabi,” he whispered her name, for the first time since they had met. “Before you left then, what did the sky look like?”

 

Nabi felt her chest tighten as she recalled that question, the same way it had then under the pelt. He had been there, beneath that sunless and starless mountain, so much longer than she. And he was the one that was trying to pick her up as she struggled.

 

“It was misty when I left Kugane,” Nabi answered him, trying to imagine as much details as she could of that last sun before arriving at the arena. “The air was moist, as if it wanted to rain. The sky was covered with clouds. Not the voluminous white billows that took fantastic shapes, but the ones that were smooth and spread even, like fine woven cloth. Although no rays of sunlight broke through, you could still see the soft glow where it waited just beyond.” She shifted where she laid, to gaze upon him. And his eyes remained steady on her, didn’t dart away as they usually did.

 

“I’m certain it will be waiting for us when we leave this place,” she told him. “We will see it soon. I know it.”

 

Nabi still felt that certainty, rooted deep within. It had come to her when she had bathed, upon the insistence of the Curator, that she be presentable for Lord Musa when his men came to fetch her. Only after the blood loss and aether drain, the heat of the bath nearly made her faint in the tub. That’s when Anchor held her, yet once again. She just gripped herself and the tub for balance, while he ran the washcloth over her, gently wiping away dirt, blood, and sweat of the last few suns. They didn’t need to exchange words. She trusted him implicitly. And in that moment, as warm water trickled down her back, and she could feel his breaths as he leaned in and gingerly ran that cloth over her skin, that she knew this wouldn’t, couldn’t be their last sun.

 

Nabi was more certain than ever, that Anchor would win that final match on the morrow. That they would escape, with the help of Shael, Tserende, Myuto, and Ghoa. She didn’t know how, or what the plan was, only that she trusted them to carry it out. As much as she would do her part.

 

As she lay in the guest bed of Lord Musa’s estate, she knew she was ready. She would attend the match tomorrow, sit on that dais next to the Doman lord as his “guest”, and watch Anchor face an opponent that had yet to suffer defeat. Grave wanted to see her wither, but Nabi would defy the Highlander, no matter how much he terrified her. Uzuka wanted to own and control Anchor, but he would slip through her fingers and find freedom. Musa wanted to use Anchor to manipulate the power upon the dais, but it would all come tumbling down tomorrow.

 

The dais, their machinations, their hold over Anchor and herself. They'd be gone from their lives.

 

As Nabi's gaze drifted about the details of the paintings of the fusama that decorated the room, her eyes landed on the picture of a lone samurai facing off against a fearsome dragon. And just as that warrior would stand against unimaginable odds, so would Anchor, and herself as well, with an unwavering faith in those she implicitly trusted. Anchor would win that fight. Shael and Tserende would be there to help them escape. Ghoa would manipulate what strings she could, and Myuto, even that little slave boy, would lend his strength and guide them out of that mountain.

 

With everyone doing their part, how could she not?

 

Nabi closed her eyes and forced herself to sleep. She had to rest. She needed all the strength she could muster for tomorrow.

 

Tomorrow they would determine their fates.

Edited by Roen

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Xaela were a relatively rare sight in Kugane in comparison to the other spoken, and Xaela who had the funds or the wiles to afford living within Kugane's walls were even rarer. While foreigners from Aldenard were not unheard of, only the most adventurous tribal merchant would dare to make the trek across Yanxia and the Ruby Sea. It was far easier for foreign traders to make their way to Reunion than for Xaela to make the journey to Hingashi, and real estate was ever at a premium within the walls of the port city. So it was that Kagero had enlisted the tepid assistance of the Sekiseigumi to scour the city for the Xaela Nabi, and when their search had turned up nothing but rumour that someone matching her description had boarded a merchant vessel to Yanxia, Kagero's mood had become very sour at the prospect of having to cross the Ruby Sea. 

 

He truly did not want to go this far for what he considered to be little more than an annoying errand.

 

Not a day went by in Kugane where the harbour was anything but stiflingly busy. The Hingan lord was still dressed in his martial black dogi, while Sekka had exchanged her kimono with form-fitting travel leathers. It was a sultry afternoon, hotter than any they'd had yet, and a steamy calm hung over the water. Vessels of various shapes and sizes clogged the harbour, some of them fishermen with nets and cages filled with fish, crab, and clams, some larger boats shuttling crates from merchant ships docked offshore. Their vessel would be the Takanami, a merchant vessel; Kagero had insisted on a Hingan vessel to cross the Ruby Sea. As things stood, however, they were waiting for the Takanami's captain to finish unloading their goods before they could depart, and so Kagero and Sekka were left waiting on a bench in the Hostelry as dock workers hustled and bustled past them.

 

"I don't much care for pirates or ijin," Kagero muttered, scratching the back of his neck. 

 

"Lord Koryusai would love nothing more than to be allowed to put the Confederacy to the sword of the bakufu allowed him," Sekka observed sagely.

 

"For once, I am inclined to agree. Perhaps I would not dread such trips to the mainland if I did not have to tolerate the inconvenience." His arms were folded across his chest and his foot tapped impatiently against the front of the bench before Kagero stood up. "I tire of waiting. I cannot remember a time I was this bored." Even worse, the situation demanded something resembling a clear mind, and while Kagero loved little more than drowning himself in junmaishu, he was denied such a luxury at a time like this. 

 

He stomped towards the pier with his retainer following dutifully behind, fully intent on finding something interesting to do, or making something interesting happen if it necessitated it. It seems the kami agreed, for almost immediately Kagero spied an ornery ijin merchant arguing with one of the customs officers.

 

It was a loudmouthed Highlander Hyur, trying his best to stare down the customs officer. "Time is money," the Highlander growled, "And with respect to your laws, I'll be running out of both at this rate!"

 

"Uninspected goods are not allowed inside Kugane, ser," the customs officer replied sternly, though his tone had an edge of indignation and impatience.

 

"What seems to be the problem here?" Kagero folded his arms in the sleeves of his dogi. It was not his habit to intervene in such mundane affairs of bureaucracy, but anything beat waiting on a bench and not being allowed to drink. The customs officer opened his mouth to speak before noting the katana at Kagero's side and the Raen following him, quickly connecting the dots.

 

"Just a trade dispute, my lord. Nothing for one such as yourself to be concerned about," the customs officer said with a deep bow.

 

"His superior, eh?" the Highlander grumbled. "Then maybe you can tell him that it'll take a moon for him to inspect each and every one of my crates."

 

"Which ship is yours?" Kagero asked, to which the Highlander gestured to an Eorzean ketch docked at the end of the pier. Several dockworkers were unloading a staggering number of wooden crates off of the deck, such that it was amazing that the ketch hadn't sunk on the way to Hingashi. Wordlessly, Kagero sauntered up to the stacked crates. They were marked with the names of various grains and seeds: flour, flaxseed, and other agricultural goods. Judging from a cursory glance, there must have been close to twenty small crates stacked high on the pier. 

 

"A miller, are you, ser?" Kagero inquired blandly, the Highlander and the customs officer having followed his path with irritation and sheepishness respectively. "This is quite a lot for a small ship."

 

The Highlander folded his arms across his brawny chest. "The trip to Hingashi is a long one, so it's best we make it worth it. And foreign foodstuffs are quite popular, as I'm sure you know."

 

The Highlander barely had time to protest as Kagero nodded to the crate, prompting Sekka to withdraw one of her knives and begin prying open the top of one of the crates. Sure enough, a layer of brown flaxseed permeated the inside of the crate. "You are right, the journey from Aldenard to Hingashi is a long one. So long that I question why you only have grains with you. Surely you are not so foolish a merchant as to...ah, what is the saying? 'Put all your eggs in one basket'?" Kagero pulled out a handful of flaxseed and let it trail through his open fingers.

 

The ijin merchant shifted his weight nervously. "I got them for cheap," he mumbled. "Seemed as good a place to turn a profit as any."

 

"I'm sure," Kagero replied dryly, before raising his foot and neatly pushing the now-open crate on its side.

 

"What in the hells--!" The Highlander's arm shot out and roughly grabbed at Kagero's sleeve, only for the ijin to howl as he suddenly found one of Sekka's knives jabbed through his forearm.

 

The flaxseed poured out of the crate into the harbour water below, and it wasn't long before the flaxseed had drained and a number of bottles, swords, and daggers tumbled out into the harbour as well.

 

Kagero clapped his hands to face the bleeding and pale Highlander. "Wonderful! You foreigners never fail to impress." The Hingan gave a terse nod to the shocked customs officer. "Fetch the Sekiseigumi, if you would please. They have some merchandise to seize," Kagero said, his mood having been markedly improved. He glanced upwards at the nervous faces of the crew who had ceased unloading their crates onto the docks. With one smooth motion, Kagero withdrew the katana from its sheath and handily lopped off one of the Highlander's arms from the shoulder, causing a ghastly screech of pain to be emitted from the man clutching his bleeding stump. "We'll be occupying ourselves here until our ship is ready."

 

"E-er, my lord..." the customs officer stammered, causing Kagero to wave an idle hand.

 

"They're just ijin, who gives a damn? The Sekiseigumi, if you would, please," he repeated. 

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Shael heard the noise of the arena long before she saw the cave entrance---a distant roar carried upon the wind. The cacophony brought on by the mob that had gathered for this final fight was making the underground fighting pit a poorly-hidden secret on this particular sun.

 

Not that she cared. After this match was over, she wondered what would be left of this place. Very little, if all went according to plan. Good.

 

As Shael and Tserende shoved their way past the tightly packed throng of people to gain a better view of the ring, she took another scan of the place. It was set within a vaulted chamber in the central belly of the mountain, the vast space having once served as a hideout for the Doman Liberation Front. There were plenty of caverns and narrower tunnels all underground in this place, but nothing as large and airy as the chamber that housed the main fighting pit. The ring in the center reminded her very much of the Bloodsands in Ul’dah, where the fighters spilled the blood of their opponents for the audience’s pleasure in a depressed ring filled with sand and soil. Those who were connected or wealthy enough to attend the violent sport, watched from above, safely out of the reach of those who were forced to fight. Thin veins of luminescent crystals running through the walls lit the ring, the largest of them hanging from the ceiling.

 

Rows of tympani resounded their booming rhythm throughout the arena and beyond, the walls of the mountain seeming to pulse with a heartbeat all their own. Shael easily spotted Ghoa seated next to Elam on the dais, the poisonmaker looking impressive, even in Shael’s eyes; the woman was impeccably dressed in finery appropriate for the occasion, of course. Elam, on the other hand, wore a hungry look, for a win and for the power that would follow. Shael recognized that dark, narrowed-eyed expression even from this distance. Her eyes lingered on him for a moment. Was there some regret or hesitation on her part in what was to follow later? They had been lovers once. Did she have any doubts about being an instrument of his death now?

 

...Nah. The answer came to her easily and immediately. The bastard had turned cruel and dangerous since those long years ago, and he posed a threat to the people she cared about. If she had just realized this earlier and ended his threat moons before this, perhaps Nabi wouldn’t be in this mess.

 

Today would put an end to that. Her attention flicked to the other side of the dais, where Nabi was seated next to the elder Doman warlord, Ieharu Musa. She looked so fragile. Even more than usual. Almost sickly. She wasn’t like that when Shael had snuck in a few suns ago to pass along the pearl to her and Saltborn. What had happened?

 

As anger began to simmer beneath the surface, Shael was quickly pulled out of it by Tserende’s dour voice behind her.

 

“You’ve brought us into an ant hill of brigands.” The Ishgardian mercenary adjusted his glasses as he plodded along behind her.

 

Shael flashed him a wild smile, elbowing another patron aside as she made her way to the railing overlooking the arena. Despite the high stakes, this place... the anarchy and violence that prevailed here… she was in her element. She gave the surly man a once-over, appreciating his disguise of a coat and distinctly eastern lamellar armor underneath. It was a change of pace from his usual heavy armor, although she had teased him about sporting a lighter shinobi disguise. She was promptly met with an incredulous scoff. “You’ll get used to the smell,” Shael reassured him with a shrug, ducking a flying bottle. “And the sweat.” She shoved past another woman. “And the smell of sweat.”

 

With Tserende forcibly moving people aside to create a space next to the railing overlooking the ring, Shael scooted next to him and slid the bag she had been carrying by her feet. It was the bag she had smuggled in using Saltborn’s slave boy. Since the bag looked just like the ones that the bookies carried to manage the wagers, once she got past the entrance and the guards there, no one else gave the package a second look. She tapped it with the tip of her boots lightly, checking to make sure the contents were still there.

 

It was in that moment that the Ringmaster announced the final fight of the sun, the most anticipated.

 

“Ladies and gentleman! The final fight of the day, the one that you have been all waiting for has come! Saltborn of The Cove has risen to challenge the reigning victor and champion, Ashen Bear of clan Musa!”

 

As soon as the gates to the ring opened below them, a suffocating stench of rotting flesh greeted her nose, courtesy of the bestial ‘champion’ that exited the door that was situated just below her and Tserende.

 

“Okaaaay…” Shael sighed, sounding less cocksure than before. “You might not get used to that smell.” Her eyes were narrowed, her lips bent in a grimace as she looked to Saltborn’s opponent.  She didn’t even know what she was looking at.

 

It had a towering frame, well above eight fulms in height. Perhaps it was once a Roegadyn.. but she wasn't sure what it was now. Broad of shoulder, thick frame, he bore a name of a Hellsguard, yet the thing that had walked out of those gates, hunched low as to fit the lower frame of the door, was not something anyone would recognize as spoken. Rather than skin, layers of dried tar or soft bark like substance covered Ashen’s form, and with each step that it took, she could see something glistening, like sap, oozing off the body and dripping to the sands beneath its feet. The crowd jeered at the foul scent wafting through the ring, but Ashen Bear didn’t seem to care. His eyes were barely visible beneath a mountain of dark flesh, as if his forehead had grown too thick, one layer of flesh piling over another.

 

Shite… This entire plan hinged on Saltborn winning the fight. "Alright, backup plan if Saltborn dies.” Shael quickly pivoted to Tserende, scowling. “We make a break for the dais, grab Nabi, and jump off into the arena while I try to get the thing detonated." It was definitely not the optimal plan. Far from it. But her mind was now spinning. She wasn’t confident at all that Saltborn would survive this.

 

She wasn't sure anyone could.

Edited by Shael

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