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Nero

Remnants

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“The Confederates?” She shook her head. “Nay. Although I suppose I am not unfamiliar with… pirates.” There was a pensive shift in her tone, as she looked up at the nearest ship. She made a show of looking at the sails, but her thoughts were elsewhere completely. It seemed to be her lot to come upon pirates sooner or later, wherever she was in the world. After all, a certain pirate was the very reason she was here in the East, was it not? She indulged for a moment of reflection, before she shook it off. “The Lominsan pirates are known to abide by a certain code. So I would not be surprised if the Confederacy had some standards of their own.”

 

She gave Ashur a sidelong glance. “Although most of them are… usually up for interpretation.” Her lip took a skeptical twist. “That is the nature of a pirate, is it not? Lawlessness?”

 

Roen canted her head with one arched brow at Ashur. “I brought some coin. I did a little bit of study before arriving here as to not be completely lost.” She made a point not mention her nearly getting cheated in the first few suns, even though the man next to her was the only witness. But that didn’t need to be revisited. “So, what is this arrangement you speak of?”

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Ashur snorted. Yes, he'd encountered his share of pirates on Vylbrand and beyond, and did his best not to associate himself with them too much. An obsession with drunkenness, wenches, booty, and drunken wenches in possession of booty was pervasive enough that Ashur kept his work on land whenever he could afford to, and he was willing to say as much. "I'd still prefer to avoid them if I could. Lawlessness is hardly a virtue," he said disdainfully. Preachy words coming from the knight turned mercenary, he realized, but he at least tried to adhere to the law. Usually.

 

He sighed, scratching his head. It was good that she had come prepared at least; that saved him from having to improvise a way around the tithe. "I have an arrangement with a Hingan family to do some trading for them. They're interested in some herbs or some such from the Steppe." From one of his pouches, Ashur pulled out a small wooden scroll case, popped out the scroll inside and unraveled it. "I'm assuming the traders at Reunion will at least know what I'm looking for if they don't have it in stock. In exchange I get passage to and from the mainland to Kugane."

 

The ship was late. Ashur found himself crossing his arms and tapping his foot as the sun gradually climbed higher into the sky. "So what brings you to the East, anyhow?" he asked idly. Partly to make conversation and also because he still didn't quite trust her.

 

 

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While Roen didn’t say out right, she was relieved to hear Ashur criticize lawlessness. Rarely did hardened mercenaries and sellswords who could often be hired to kill for money, pay any mind to what would be considered a virtue or vice. Neither mattered to most, only profit.

 

It was becoming clearer to her that Ashur was not one of these men. She had a feeling that such was the case, which was why she had shown up here at all. It did help in setting her mind at ease, even if it was just a little. But from the start, for reasons she couldn’t explain, she didn’t feel threatened by him. Not even when he reached for that gun.

 

You have been wrong before.

 

A quick self reminder of her past mistakes however, made Roen suddenly look out to the horizon, a small furrow starting to form on her brow. And since it did not seem that they would depart anytime soon, she started to look around for a place to sit to take a whetstone to her sword. That's when the man broke the silence, with an attempt at small talk even. She inwardly winced. She was never good at such things.

 

She didn’t want to delve into the fact that she was bringing a keepsake back to a woman who abandoned her child, who then grew up into a ruthless mercenary that she herself killed. Then there was the matter of the keystone and the strange otherworldly place she had visited deep in Dravania. Would she then bring up her final reason? That she was looking for a friend of hers that she had long since lost contact with? A smuggler who was likely involved in illegal activities on this side of the world?

 

Roen pressed her lips thinly in contemplation. No, she wouldn’t talk about any of that.

 

“I told you yesterday,” Roen reminded him matter-of-factly, giving him a sidelong glance. She realized she already did share with him some details, before she learned that he was after Kasrjin’s tribe. She glanced down to a belt pouch, where she had tucked away the chronometer. “I am returning something. It once belonged to someone dear to me, and now I have a duty to return it to his mother. It is the least I can do.”

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Ashur raised a brow. He wasn't expecting her to be totally forthcoming, but he wasn't expecting Roen to be quite that terse either. So much for conversation. The Hyur shrugged. "And your only clue is someone purchased twenty years ago, as I recall. Not very good prospects. Though, that is nobly dutiful of you to pursue something so..." Ashur rubbed the back of his neck. Futile? Impossible? What was a polite word in this situation? "...distant," he finished.

 

Something about Roen was starting to seem vaguely familiar to him. Ashur had a hint in his mind that maybe it was her hair colour; it wasn't especially rare but it wasn't that common either. Hadn't he seen someone like her before? Well, not that it mattered anyway. His left hand reached to his back to pull the handgun out of its holster when he paused for a moment. Ah. I forgot a buckler. A shield would have been handy, but it's not like he could risk going to Kogane Dori to get one. Vessels of all sorts were starting to pull into the harbour, many of them merchants or fishermen seeking nocturnal stock. It was only a matter of time until their vessel arrived.

 

He took a cloth out of a pouch and started cleaning the handgun, though he'd cleaned it at least three times in the past two days. Its overall frame was still the double-barrelled prototype that Lantrenel had given Ashur from House Haillenarte's firearm designs, but the exterior had notches and scratches from those times Ashur had used it as an impromptu shield. The slick Ishgardian mechanisms had some slipshod-looking modifications attached to it by Limsan musketeers, and the wooden furniture had three tiny rows of scratches.

 

Ashur peered at the horizon, wondering what was taking the ferry so long. "What's your goal in coming with me, anyway?" He wondered out loud, more to himself than to Roen. "I get the feeling you're not intending to give me an escort the entire way." No, judging from what she'd told him yesterday, Roen would step in sooner or later. It'd be best for Ashur to have an idea of when. Just in case.

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Roen let out a quiet sigh when Ashur continued. She loosened the shield that hung from her back, setting it aside to lean against an unattended crate. She  put her back against the stack of boxes, reaching into her pouch to draw out the chronometer instead. The hands indicated what she already knew, that the morning was getting on. But as she regarded the timepiece, her expression softened. Her eyes slid in Ashur’s direction, the man who had repaired it just a sun ago.

 

What was the saying? In for a copper, in for a ponze?

 

Roen shook her head, but when she spoke again, her words had taken on a softer tone. Perhaps even contrite compared to a moment ago. “In truth? You are right. If you intend to return the keystone to your employers or jeopardize Xaelas in your misguided quest, I will not be helping you. I care not if you see me coming.”

 

There was a pause before she continued, setting her chronometer back into her pouch. “But, I am hoping for something else. I am hoping you are an earnest man. I am hoping that you come to realize that working together to thwart your mysterious clients would be in everyone’s best interest. But I need to see for myself that I can trust you with what I know.”

 

She had turned her head, regarding Ashur intently by now. But not waiting on a response to that rather heavy sentiment, she crossed her arms, taking the opportunity to look away from the man to look to the state of her gauntlets instead. “So. Just how is your employer going to give you your life back?” She knew it was rather a direct and personal question, and perhaps not a good one to lead with, but she was never good at small conversations anyroad.

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Now it was Ashur's turn to mostly dodge the question, though thankfully the ferry was just now cresting over the horizon, ending their conversation. "I've been framed. They claim they can make me un-framed," the Hyur said simply, reassembling the handgun and standing up. He couldn't help but snort at her assertion. Everyone's best interest, Roen said. Everyone's except for Ashur's, apparently. That was the thing about that phrase: despite having the word everyone in it, it was hardly inclusive. Whatever his ideals, Ashur had no intention of spending the rest of his life in ignominious exile.

 

The ferry soon touched on the dock, and Ashur handed over the scroll given to him by the Kozakuras, while jabbing his thumb at Roen. "She's coming too," he said tersely. The boat ride itself was mostly uneventful. The problems started once they landed at the Ruby Price. A Confederacy ship was already waiting in the distance, but the pirate waiting for them had other ideas in mind.

 

Ashur presented him with the other scroll, but the rat-faced Midlander squinted at it for a second before tossing it aside. "Bah. These Hingan lords of yours too uptight to pay with proper koban? Where's your tithe?"

 

Ashur shifted from one leg to the next, crossing his arms in annoyance. "I was promised passage. I believe your Captain Tsura agreed. In fact, that's exactly what it says on that scroll you just threw away." The scrawny Confederate snorted. "The captain will get his dues. You're going to have to pay me to take you to the captain." The Confederate squinted at Roen. "Tithe?"

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Roen remained in the back, letting Ashur do all the talking. But when the document detailing his arrangement was just casually tossed aside, she raised a skeptical brow. Pirates. What was that she said about their disinclination to adhere to the rules?

 

She took a step forward, letting out a patient sigh. At last she had enough sense to exchange her coins for what was proper currency in the East. Kugane might be accepting of gil, but she was not at all sure about the rest of Othard. She gave the squinty man a nod, her eyes slightly narrowing at him in return.


“I brought coin.” She reached for a her pouch, unhooking it from her belt. “What are you asking to bring the both of us to the captain?” She too crossed her arms, eyeing the Confederate. “And I trust we will pay this tithe once for the passage? And not each crew member that we encounter?”

 

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Ashur's hand twitched, resisting an instinct to withdraw his handgun. He didn't really have any intention of using it--yet--but it still did not suit him at all to be coerced like this. Threatening violence in Limsa Lominsa had a way of working by making cheating Ashur more trouble than it was worth, but it seemed that there was such a monopoly in the Far East that such tactics would get him nowhere. He rubbed the back of his head before depositing a number of gil coins into another pouch and throwing it at the ferryman. Ferry pirate?

 

"That'll cover us both, I expect, unless your greed is getting the best of you," Ashur said disdainfully, his voice taking on an annoyed edge. Roen would need to save her coins for whatever Tsura would demand. Perhaps Ashur would need to save them too if Tsura was planning on pulling the same trick. Damn these pirates.

 

The rat-faced Midlander nodded in satisfaction and the two of them were quickly on their way to the Confederacy ship. Of course, the troubles couldn't have ended there.

 

"You've already paid your tithe," Tsura said. Unlike his rodent-like subordinate, the Hellsguard Roegadyn was rather imposing. "The problem is someone else did too. Someone else willing to pay me enough to detain you and others like you from reaching the mainland, for a time."

 

Ashur snorted. How mercenary. Judging from the pirate's language, it was one of the competitors looking to keep other foreigners out of Othard for as long as possible. That wouldn't do at all; his reflex was to simply fight his way out or at least jump off the ship and swim if he had to, but he glanced at Roen nonetheless.

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Pirates.

 

Roen nearly rolled her eyes. It had been awhile, for she had been working with nobles and other businessmen for the last year, that she had encountered such obvious and blatant greed. Or perhaps she had been blessed in at least working with those who wanted to help Ala Mhigans and orphans. She had forgotten how pirates were, brash and proud in their self-interest. Her sword hand almost twitched, as if there was an old instinct that wanted to return, or at least make a show of it and rest her hand on her hilt. But if she learned anything from Nero, it was that things were not always what they seemed.

 

“It must have been an hefty sum.” The paladin tilted her head, steady gaze lingering on the Roegadyn. “Exactly how many people are you planning on denying passage? Did your previous client pay for all of them? And what of other passengers that has nothing to do with… whatever this is? Foreigners make trips to Othard every sun for all sorts of reasons. Are you going to deprive yourself of all their tithe? Surely you are not the only Confederate ship that stands to make koban here.”

 

She stepped up, unhooking her pouch from her belt. “Why not make even more profit for yourself by allowing us passage? Our individual payment could be double what you usually get. You could stand to make quite a bit of wealth, if you choose to accept both tithes.” She glanced from the Captain, to his crewmen, then back to the Hellsguard. “You could still detain whoever else and keep what you were paid already."

 

She shrugged. “What do you stand to lose?”

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"We're not paying them twice," Ashur snapped testily, folding his arms. He glared at the Roegadyn. This is why he hated pirates. "We already had to give your croney his share of this extortion. As far as I'm concerned, we've already paid our dues, but now you're looking for more. A real oathbreaker, this one." The other pirates seemed to tense up at this presumed insult to their 'honour', but Ashur was fully ready to start blasting heads. The last thing he needed getting in his way was avaricious vagrants who didn't know any better. He didn't bring any explosives, but a handful of flash powder should buy them a couple seconds. Enough, anyway.

 

Tsura's gaze swivelled to Roen. "I'll be happy to take your tithe, but I owe a favour and I intend on repaying it. Which means you will be staying here. Whether you want to or not. And if you and your wild friend here are looking to make trouble on my ship, then you'd best accept the consequences."

 

Ashur's voice dropped low, enough so that only Roen could hear him. "They're not going to let us past. If you've got some silver words for them, you'd best use them now before I start shooting. I'm not going to be stopped here."

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Roen shot Ashur a sharp look with a small furrow to her brow. She pressed her lips as if in disapproval of whatever he was planning to do, for they were on the Confederate ship after all. She could see the shore in the distance, and given the lightness of their armor, both she and Ashur could make for shore, if the Confederates decided not to try and shoot them in the back as they did so.

 

But was all that trouble worth it?

 

She let out a long sigh, and narrowed her eyes at the captain. “Do not think me ridiculous in paying you to stay detained on your ship.” She gave Ashur a sidelong glance, this time more obviously so. “My friend is in a bit of a hurry. I would accept our coin… and our thanks for the passage, and go on and keep your word in detaining the rest of the shipful of mercenaries in Kugane that are also waiting to make this same voyage.” She flexed her hand, hooking the coin pouch back onto her belt, where it rested closer to her sword.

 

Despite her calmer words, she too had no intention of staying against her will on some pirate ship. But she preferred to resolve this without violence if at all possible. “So, you can make quite a bit of profit, still repay your favor in holding off the tide of foreigners to come, and let us pass without trouble?” She tilted her head, her words slowing as she started to make note of how many were on the ferry, who wore weapons, both long range and melee. “Or decline the opportunity for wealth, and make trouble for yourself where it is not needed by holding paying passengers captive. Especially those with Hingan noble ties.”

 

Her scan of the surroundings ended with a brief glance towards Ashur, this time more of a readied look rather than apprehension, before she looked back to Tsura. Her voice remained calm but unwavering. “We really are not worth all the trouble that this would bring.”

Edited by Roen

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Ashur's foot started tapping the deck. "Don't forget that it was the Kozakuras who brokered this deal for the Confederacy. Hingashi's not stirring trouble on the Ruby Sea because they can get what they want, but as soon as they hear that errant captains like yourselves are breaking deals, do you think they're going to take that laying down? And while you might be happy to swindle people, I doubt every captain or your leaders share your view." He uncrossed his arms but placed his right on his hip; in one smooth motion he could reach up, grab the handgun, and fire a shot if he needed to.

 

Tsura seemed to consider this. "Just take the gil and we'll take the ferry to the mainland," Ashur insisted.

 

The Roegadyn finally seemed to shrug with relent. "Leave your tithes here. Leave the dinghy on the shore," Tsura grunted. Ashur did his best to keep from rolling his eyes, and with a sigh of resignation, untied his gil pouch and dumped it on the deck of the ship. He made a mental note to find out whoever it was that convinced the pirates to detain them and put a few rounds through their heads. This was not an annoyance Ashur needed.

 

The dinghy was lowered into the water and a length of rope--not even a ladder--unceremoniously dropped down. The Hyur quickly rappelled down just in time to catch two oars thrown at his face. There was a small mast and a makeshift sail on the dinghy, but the wind had died. "I suppose we'd better get to rowing," Ashur sighed. "I suppose we'll find another way to cross when we get back. Were you prepared to fight if I had actually started something back there?"

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Roen finally allowed herself a sigh of relief when she took her seat on the dinghy, a wary glance thrown toward the pirate ship they had just managed to get off of. Despite her confident words of warning, she actually had no idea what connections Ashur had with the Hingan family or what kind of pull they might have had with the Confederates. The politics of the East was one she was not too accustomed to just yet, despite the fact that she was learning and reading all she can during her sea voyage over.

 

She was just glad that the gamble paid off.

 

Roen took up the oars without a word and dipped them into the water, before she gave a small shrug to Ashur. “What would have been the alternative? See you get killed by pirates and stay as their captive until whenever they decided to release me?” She arched a skeptical brow. “That would have been a poor choice.”

 

She set her legs against the base of the boat and started the motion of rowing to shore. It was not something she had done in some time. There was a little bit of an amusement that tugged at the corner of her lips at their predicament, but a physical exertion was something that she never shied away from.

 

“Although, as quick as you were ready to draw your gun, I hope you show a bit of a cooler head as we continue. I believe Xaelas can also be a territorial sort and many tribes are warlike. I would not have our paths be littered with bodies. I hope you can resort to diplomacy whenever possible?”

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"Call it my personal failing," Ashur said, grunting as he pulled his oar across the water. "If you ask me, diplomacy is reserved for the people willing to abide by its rules. Anyone willing to cross that line, particularly for their own personal gain, gets a well-deserved target on their back. Or their head" Yes, there was little more Ashur hated than being cheated. It was bad enough when the powers that be saw fit to abuse those thin boundaries--the kings, the rulers, the wealthy--but it was somehow worse when people not beholden to such responsibilities believed they had room to be just as dishonest. His brow twitched. Yes, one could say that lack of integrity was the entire reason why he was here.

 

Ashur huffed, forcing himself to calm down. There'll be others like that in his life, to be sure. It wouldn't do to get steamed at the mere thought of them. "I'll tolerate what's reasonable, but being crossed like that isn't one of them."

 

They were distressingly far from the shoreline, and while they'd covered a great deal of ground--well, water--it was a stroke of fortune that a favourable current seemed to aid them. Ashur untied the dinghy's little sail and lashed it to the mast, giving them a brief respite from their labour. "As it stands, I won't have any reason to be...forceful with the Xaela unless they give me that kind of reason." He cocked his eye at Roen. "Will they? What do you know of them? Their practices?"

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Roen watched Ashur carefully, at first it was to coordinate their rowing efforts but after awhile once they were in synchronicity,  she began to regard his face as he spoke.

 

There was definitely an anger that was sparked, a reflex almost, when he thought he was being betrayed. He had mentioned being framed for something after all, as the whole reason of him doing all this in the first place. So the man valued honesty. And if he was indeed implicated in a crime that he didn’t commit, one could go as far as say he was innocent.

 

Although looking over the man, he certainly had the look of a well-worn and traveled mercenary; Roen doubted he had been hired nor succeeded this long without compromising some values along the way. Could she call herself completely innocent?

 

A long sigh left her lips and Roen glanced about. She supposed being surrounded by the ocean, this was good a spot as any to speak truths she didn’t want overheard.

 

“The tribe you seek, they are… people with purpose. And nothing grand or bloodthirsty in conquering others, only to survive and flourish. They function as a community, performing tasks they are best fit for. They have...” She paused with a distant look in her eyes for a moment. “... a different way of looking at things in terms of what is valued and what is not.” Her gaze drifted over the water, looking over the reflection of the sun upon the currents. Has it been so long since she spoke to Kasrjin? She could almost picture the puzzlement upon his face. It was such a familiar sight, after all.

 

But soon her eyes narrowed and her eyes flicked back to the man rowing next to her. “What you want to take from them, they will not yield. It is supposed to save their people.” Her motions slowed, as she narrowed her eyes on Ashur. "Are you willing to take from them their very livelihood? Possibly what sustains them?"

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Ashur felt his lips tighten. He had an inkling of suspicion that the circumstances would be something like this. After all, if his clients were willing to spend an inordinate amount of money and manpower to find this 'keystone' then naturally it must be valued by people other than them. His brow furrowed. At this very moment, he was laser-focused on his goal. These Xaela were people half a world away. But there was no telling how that might change. "You sound impressed by them," Ashur couldn't help commenting.  Indeed, Roen seemed...insistent that these Xaela remain untouched, for one reason or another. Ashur could only suspect how much they apparently meant to her.

 

"I don't want to harm anyone if I don't have to," the Hyur said quietly. "But it's not as if I can just give up and go home. This is the only way I can save someone important to me. I don't have the power to erase my supposed crime on my own." If it was only Ashur at stake, it wouldn't be much of an issue; living as a mercenary had taught him how to deal with the exile lifestyle. Whether or not he could live with that lifestyle being permanent was a question he would answer later. But there was no way he would let his status affect his mother...if she was even still alive.

 

"I suppose I'll see this tribe for myself, in time," Ashur huffed, gazing across the Ruby Sea. Ishgard was far indeed. "Though, what would you do in my situation? Would you simply turn around and leave them be?"

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There it was again. That person he was trying to save. And his question of what would she do… it made her pause. Indeed, what would she do to save someone she loved? She had made the choice to sacrifice her heart for the good of all, once. And it nearly broke her.

 

A somber expression flitted over her features, for it was her turn to look to the distant horizon. “There was a time when I would have told you that the good of all would always take priority over the good of one. But now…? I pray that such a choice never has to be made.” She turned back to Ashur, leaning in towards him, more intent.

 

“Who framed you? And how do you know that they aren’t working with your employers? Isn’t it a little convenient that they offer to just make your problems go away?” She narrowed her eyes. “From what I know of them, the people you work for likely have the power to do as they promised. But they also have the power to have orchestrated it in the first place.” She shook her head. “I think… if you keep an open mind and a cool head,” she said the last two words with a pointed look, “... then perhaps we can explore the possibilities of what this keystone can do with the Xaela tribe you seek.”

 

Roen exhaled, returning her attention to the rowing again. She sounded confident enough, but she herself had no idea how she and Ashur would even be received by Kasrjin’s people. If they would even listen to her in the first place. She could only hope that her familiarity with a Khadai would at least allow her to implore with him personally.

 

“Who is this that you are trying to save?” She shifted the subject, her tone turning more quiet and neutral. “What kind of danger are they in?”

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Ashur couldn't help but notice, with a not-insignificant degree of coldness, that Roen had dodged his question. He didn't expect a simple answer, for indeed it wasn't exactly a simple situation, but he had expected...something. Something other than the answer she gave. Finding out what what the keystone did was all well and good, but not what he was asking. Her noncommittal deflection told him that enough to rekindle his suspicion. She was awfully adamant on Ashur not disturbing this tribe of Xaela, but she was never willing to give him substantial info.

 

Ashur exhaled slowly. Well, he said it wasn't simple, and maybe to someone else it wouldn't be, but right now Ashur was weighing his mother, his life, and his status, against a group of people he didn't know. That was not a dilemma that demanded much complexity from him. He wasn't sure in what way Roen would lean.

 

As for his clients...they were mysterious, and likely powerful, but they had to be doing things this way for a reason. Ashur was lacking in concrete details, but he knew enough that it was the Church that had deemed him a heretic. He'd had time to mull over these suspicions since leaving Ishgard. The cloak and dagger wouldn't be necessary if the same ones who hired him were the same ones who framed him; they'd have all the leverage they needed to get what they wanted from him. There'd be no need to hide if Ashur was the only one they were hiding from.

 

"As long as I'm marked the way I am, they're threatened, and I can't return." Ashur said vaguely, with some disgruntlement. He didn't particularly want to answer Roen's questions after not getting his answer to his own, and so some evasiveness of his own would do. "I suppose we'll just see when we meet them, hm?"

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Roen narrowed her eyes, her lips pursing at his own lack of answer. But that irritation was quick to fade along with the next stroke of the oar. Ashur really didn’t have a reason to trust her at this point. For all he knew, he was coming along with him to stop him when it mattered.

 

And she couldn’t deny that it was a distinct possibility.

 

But for reasons Roen couldn’t quite pinpoint, she didn’t want to. Perhaps it was his motivation to save someone, or that he struck an honest and benevolent chord in their initial meeting by offering to help her without much payment in return. A part of her wanted to believe that this man was well intended. That she was here to help him figure out this mess, to realize that his employers were not the kind to be trusted or aided, and that perhaps they can work together to save whoever it was that needed his help but also make certain that no peril fell upon Kasrjin’s tribe as well.

 

Was that the only reason that she came along?

 

Roen couldn’t deny that she looked forward to seeing Kas. It had been over a year since their parting, and she was curious how things had fared for the austere Xaela warrior. He had confided in her that he did suffer a betrayal by his own people and that he didn’t feel as if he belonged there as he had in the past. What had become of him? Was he still with them?

 

All these questions had her mulling and rowing in silence until they were quickly approaching the shore. Roen squinted at the small fishing village along the coast, and a small wooden dock that extended out into the water. She pursed her lips, now truly feeling as if she was in foreign territory.

 

“So. I trust you have been to the mainland of Othard before?” She glanced from the land back to Ashur. Since she was still quite new to the East, she was hoping that he was more familiar with how to navigate to the Steppe. She knew where she needed to be headed, but how to get there was going to be an adventure.

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Ashur frowned. "I haven't," he admitted. Thus far his travels had been restricted to Eorzea, and even then he avoided Coerthas and the Shroud whenever it was practical to do so. "So if nothing else, at least getting lost will be a shared experience. The way forward seems relatively straightforward, though." He unfurled a chart from one of his pouches and stared at it. The cartographer's calligraphy was messy, but just barely legible. The Hyur glanced at the horizon. "If that village ahead is Isari, then we just need to head north through the hills and we should eventually end up at Reunion."

 

He'd done his best to educate himself before embarking, but Ashur didn't know much about the Xaela. They had idiosyncratic tribal structures not unlike beastmen, but Ashur found himself feeling oddly prepared. Immersing himself in the mercenary lifestyle almost immediately after leaving Ishgard had meant adapting quickly to strange practices. In fact, he was a little doubtful that there would be any practices that would truly make him feel out of place. Maybe.

 

The dinghy bumped onto the makeshift jetty of the village, and Ashur was quick to hop up and lash the vessel to the dock. "I'll assume those pirates can get their little vessel back themselves," he said disdainfully, tossing the oar away, glancing northward. Sure enough, off in the distance there was a slight but visible trail ascending into Othard's hills. "I don't know how long it'll take to get there, but let's hope there'll be at least some place to make a camp." He cocked an eye at Roen. "You know who to look for when we do get to Reunion, yes?"

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"There is a place on Othard, where the tribes of the Xaela meet, far from our glaciers. Look for the Xaela wearing adornments of obsidian, and you will find those of my people. You may tell them of your association with Kasrjin of the Khadai, and should it please you, we may meet again."

 

Those words, spoken over a year ago, returned to her as if she had heard it yesterday. It was the only bit of instruction Roen had to go by, but she hoped it was enough. From the rare occasions that she did cross paths with other Xaelas in Eorzea, none seemed too familiar with Kasrjin’s tribe. But it was also known that there were plenty reclusive tribes in the Steppe. So would it be as simple as looking for particular Xaelas wearing unique jewelry in this place called Reunion to find Kasrjin’s people?

 

“I… hope so,” Roen answered both herself and Ashur tentatively, not sounding as sure as she would have liked. “I have only met one member of the tribe you are looking for, in truth. But I call him friend.” She looked off towards the mountains as she came to stand next to Ashur. Despite the uncertainty, the prospect of traveling through a new land, discovering things she had never seen before, there was a sense of excitement that was tugging at her lips. Or it could have been that she was finally out of the rolling waves of the sea, but her mood was improving already.

 

She drew in deeply of the cool moist air, and leaned to the side to glance at the map in Ashur’s possession. It was a cursory look, but even with that, the markings and the terrain noted on the chart seemed vast. She nodded as she followed the marked trail with her eyes, then once more ahead to the village in the distance. Oddly enough, her apprehensions were dismissed in favor of anticipation.

 

A shared experience in getting lost. She still wasn’t sure how that would go over with man like Ashur, but she supposed she was going to find out.

 

Roen began to make her way down the wooden jetty to land, her hands absently moving about her person to make certain all things, pack and weapons, were in order. She was somewhat glad she wasn't’ wearing full heavy armor, for a trek on foot would have been more arduous. “Have you ridden horses before?” she asked out of the blue as a thought occurred to her. “I do not know how long this trip would take by foot, and probably no one will sell horses to foreigners but…” She gave Ashur a look over her shoulder, and there was a touch of curiosity in her eyes. “They ride horses here in the East. Have you ever been on one before?”

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Ashur raised a skeptical eyebrow but said nothing. She only knew one member of the tribe? Either the tribe was small, this particular member was talkative, or Roen didn't know as much about these Xaela as Ashur thought she did. Still, all things considered that was one link, and more than Ashur had. He'd more or less planned to spend a week questioning every Xaela in Reunion before striking out on the Steppes by himself, which was a volatile plan to say the least. Roen said she called this particular Xaela a friend, but Ashur couldn't help but wonder if that sentiment was returned.

 

He pushed his thoughts to the side as his companion tried to make conversation. He merely shrugged. "No, I've never been on a horse. The kn--my upbringing didn't have that kind of exotic luxury. It's only been chocobos for me." Almost unconsciously, Ashur's lips split into a wry grin. Even in Ishgard he was never given much reason to wear his spurs. As a full-fledged Temple Knight he'd only ridden his chocobo a handful of times; the majority of his experience was drawn from his initial training and service as a squire. Ser Praihaux had a tumultuous relationship with his bird and would constantly leave the chocobo in Ashur's unwilling care. That seemed like a lifetime ago.

 

"I did see a few in Kugane. Noble-looking beasts. Though not quite as broad, I think." Ashur glanced up to measure the sky; the sun was approaching its zenith, indicating that midday would soon be upon them. Luckily, the weather this close to the coastline was comfortable. "And I've heard that the Xaela deal in horses, though I'm not sure how necessary new transportation will be." The trail was giving way to denser foliage and getting harder to see. Ashur swore under his breath as he nearly tripped over a particularly intrusive stone on the path. "What about you? Animal person? Don't tell me you have ridden a horse before." The Hyur was careful to keep his tone light.

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Gods, Roen was bad at making conversation.

 

With Nero, he’d always been the more talkative one, and Kasrjin was the total opposite, speaking words only as it was necessary. Now that she was going to be traveling with a man she hardly knew, she was trying to get to know the man, but asking blunt questions, she supposed, would not ease them into any kind of trust. But speaking about mounts and riding, well, she at least felt some measure of ease in it.

 

“I have.” Why not start with honesty? All these vague roundabouts were starting to wear on her. “I was fortunate enough to have a mother who… delighted in learning about all exotic things.” Her voice softened notably as the subject of her mother rose to the fore. “I prefer horses over chocobos, in truth. Horses tend to have a smoother gait when running.” The edges of her eyes crinkled at the thought. “I would think riding one would be something you do not forget. I would not pass up an offer, should the opportunity present itself.”

 

With a sidelong glance, Roen spied that hint of amusement on Ashur’s face. “They say that mounts have a natural instinct about who they allow on their back.” Her eyes narrowed with curiosity. “How did you get along with your bird?"

Edited by Roen

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Ashur squinted, trying to recall what details he could about his chocobo. Were they still taking care of it in the stables? Perhaps he'd been assigned to another knight? Ashur could only hope. Could chocobos be considered heretics? "I don't remember much about him, actually." Now that Ashur thought about it, his chocobo was unusually calm. If a chocobo was capable of being taciturn, Arrow would certainly fit the description. "We got along...well enough, I suppose? He wasn't wild or excitable. If anything, he was probably too calm as a bird. I never had the time or the occasion to be around him all that much. I'm willing to bet by now he's more familiar with the stablehands than he was with me."

 

Maybe when Ashur returned to Ishgard, he should check the stables. It'd certainly beat having to go everywhere on foot.

 

So far, Othard was considerably less threatening than Eorzea was. Other than that incident with the pirates, the wildlife had been relatively absent, and there wasn't a bandit problem like there was in the Shroud, or a beastman problem like there was everywhere else. The path was turning noticeably hilly. How far away were they from their destination? There was no way to tell. "If the opportunity comes to us on the Steppe, I'll take your recommendation," Ashur noted. His thoughts again turned towards his task. Did he actually have a plan? If this keystone was important to the Xaela then the possibility that they would trade for it is rather unlikely. But then, Ashur still didn't know what it did. He simply didn't have enough information.

 

"What will you do when you find her? The woman you're looking for," Ashur said idly. Conversation was not exactly his forte either, but if there was something Roen knew that he didn't, it wouldn't do to find out at the last second. Maybe some rapport would be necessary.

 

 

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Roen nearly faltered in her steps with Ashur’s question, the paladin’s gaze going to the man next to her that she almost missed a small dip in the road. She recovered quickly enough as to not trip over it, but gave the dent in the dirt an accusing look as she passed. But it was more of an excuse to divert her gaze away from the Midlander, for her answer wasn’t readily forthcoming.

 

She pursed her lips in thought. She did resign herself to as much honesty as she could just moments ago, did she not? She wrinkled her nose, displeased with her own indecisiveness before she let out a sigh.

 

“I am going to tell her that her son has passed on.” Roen was staring straight ahead, but even as those words left her lips, so did her resolve. Was her mission here something that would give either of them any closure? Would it only bring grief to a woman who had long settled on having parted with her kin? Or would she want to know?

 

Roen shook her head. “And… answer any questions she may have about him. Look to see if her life here is what she wants it to be.” She frowned, and as she continued, conviction began to seep into her tone and gait. “He had much wealth left, when he died. And I do not deserve it. So if I can use it for good, or… to give his mother a better life than what she has…” Her brow was furrowed, and her grey eyes were narrowed. “Then I will do whatever it is in my power to see it happen.”

 

Her eyes flickered to Ashur. “I think he would have wanted that for his mother.”

Edited by Roen

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