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Nero

Remnants

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These Hingans were unfailingly polite.

 

To Ashur, that was not a particularly glowing compliment. In fact, the Hyur was practically gnashing his teeth when he stepped onto Kugane's docks. Despite the beauty of the Shirogane inn he had just been in, his mind was swirling with discontent.

 

It had been some time since Ashur first landed in Kugane. A mysterious Elezen, representing an even more mysterious but powerful group, had hired a great number of adventurers, treasure hunters, and mercenaries--of whom Ashur was a part of--to comb Othard for something called a "keystone". What it was and what it did was unknown and frankly did not matter to him. The only relevant details were that it was a large sphere the size of a Roegadyn's head, perfectly polished out of black obsidian, it most likely belonged to a clan of Xaela in the Azim Steppe, and that this mysterious client wanted such a thing quite badly.

 

However, Ashur had encountered significant difficulty when first arriving. He was totally unfamiliar with the Far East. His first week had been spent stumbling around Kugane, looking first for a map and then a captain willing to take him across the Ruby Sea. Ashur's gil was good, but for some reason it was nigh impossible to leave Kugane unless he paid some truly absurd sums.

 

As such, it was serendipitous that there was at least one Hingan clan willing to sponsor ijin. The Kozakuras were more than willing to take advantage of the resource that was foreign adventurers; guaranteeing passage across the Ruby Sea was a shrewd way of obtaining goods from mainland Othard. For Ashur's efforts, he was assigned what could only be called a shopping list of wares from Reunion after mentioning that his destination was the Steppe.

 

Still. It was infuriating having to deal with that veneer of etiquette. Ashur hated it in Ishgardian nobles and he hated it here in Kugane. That feeling of being talked down to...were Ashur a less restrained man, it was a sensation he might be driven to kill over.

 

The morning sun was far too high and far too bright. Ashur pinched the bridge of his nose, glancing at the Shiokaze Hostelry. Was it too early for a drink? The Kozakura vessel wouldn't be leaving until tomorrow at the earliest...no, he had best stock up on supplies first. If nothing else, haggling with Eastern merchants was far easier than dealing with Lominsans or Ul'dahn gil hoarders. That was a small solace as Ashur began sauntering towards Kogane Dori.

 

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“So, do you think you can repair it?”

 

Roen eyed the woman behind the counter as the jeweler continued to study the chronometer in her hands. The older Hingan had brought out pair of glasses to inspect the device more closely, and so far just indistinct mumbles and hums were all Roen had to go by in terms of her assessment. Since the paladin accidentally dropped it while wandering lost in the busy streets of Kogane Dori, she had been unable to find someone who was familiar with magitek technology that seemed comfortable in repairing this particular nonworking timepiece.

 

Had it just been an ordinary gadget, Roen was sure any capable craftsman would have qualified. But this was one of Nero’s treasured personal belongings, and he had a penchant for collecting odd and unique items. Garlean designed devices certainly were one of them.

 

But Kugane was a port city that even showcased a Garlean Consulate in their Ijin district; for certain Roen thought that finding someone capable would not be such a task. Or was it that she was a foreigner herself and she just didn’t know where to look? Who to ask?

 

Having landed not long ago in the East, Roen was careful to abide by the rules here. She was given plenty of advice during the trek across the seas, of what pier she was allowed in and under no circumstances was she to cause any ruckus, violence, or mishaps in the streets of Kugane. The law enforcement -- she was happy to call them that for now for Sekiseigumi was truly a mouthful -- was reputed to be ever strict and unforgiving, especially where foreigners were concerned.

 

And yet the Hingans themselves seemed indisputably polite. All the merchants greeted her with a meek expression and a courteous bow. And just walking about the well swept streets of the marketplace, it was easy to believe why all the different factions could coexist here in peace. Colorful umbrellas hanging above stalls lent a festive air, and the intricate woodwork of the archways and the buildings drew the eyes upwards, to where eventually one could gaze upon the magnificence that was the Kugane Castle.

 

But none of those details helped her right at this moment. She had come to the East for three specific purposes, and the first was already hindered from the start with the clockwork being broken. The carelessness on her part that led to the incident, of just bumping into another person of all things, still made her grimace in reflection.

 

No matter. She would get the chronometer back in working order, then go about fulfilling the purpose of why she had left everyone she knew in Eorzea to come here.

 

“Yes, this is definitely repairable.” The jeweler finally looked up, breaking Roen out of her reverie. “It is a bit of an old piece, an antique I’d say, but all the components are here. I will just need a couple of suns to get it work again.”

 

“Wonderful.” Roen sighed with relief. “My gratitude. How much would that cost?”

 

“Five hundred koban,” the woman answered with a pleasant expression.

 

Roen paused, her brow rising. She was not at all sure about the currency or what labor of such a thing was worth. But she was never the one to haggle. She nodded and began to reach into her bag hanging from one shoulder. “Of course,” she murmured, retrieving her coin pouch. Then she slowed, wincing. “What would that be in gil… exactly?”

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Two months of dry rations, potions and elixirs for emergencies, a map, a compass, bags and pouches to carry everything in...

 

Ashur's mental checklist was progressing merrily. The last item he was attempting to purchase, however, was proving difficult. Or rather, the merchant who was carrying it was being difficult. It was a leather belt pouch for holding potions: a hardened pouch of gyuki leather contained within it an array of adjustable metal rings for securely holding bottles and vials of various shapes and sizes. It was a masterwork.

 

"This is my best product. I'm afraid I can't let it go for any less than six-fifty," the Roegadyn said with a huff. "And I would hate to hear that such an exquisite display of craftsmanship ruined!" By an ijin was the unsaid but clearly heard subtext. Ashur frowned. He supposed part of that attitude couldn't be helped; gone was the clean chainmail, the neatly trimmed dune of sandy blonde hair, and the knightly demeanour that might have afforded the Hyur some manner of dignity. In their place was a plain black gambison, a wild mane of unkempt blonde growth, and little more than a large firearm on his back and a sour attitude. The Twelve themselves would be hard-pressed to be generous to such a vagrant.

 

They engaged in a staring contest for a time, but Ashur eventually sighed and relented, pulling out the requisite number of gil as the merchant smiled in smug satisfaction. The merchant had the upper hand here: foreigners were at a disadvantage, and one without the proper leverage or mercantile wherewithal was certainly asking to be cheated to some extent. It was almost as if he'd never left Ishgard.

 

Potion pouch in hand, Ashur began to make his way to the next merchant when he glanced at a scene similar to the one he just left. Another Hyur--most likely another foreigner--was looking to get....something repaired. While a part of him said to keep moving, Ashur couldn't help but squint at it. It was some sort of mechanical timepiece. Ashur paused in his stride; it was clearly nonfunctional, but the mechanisms looked more complex than they really were. What caused Ashur to scowl, however, was the merchant's exacting price. Five hundred?

 

"I wouldn't, if I were you," Ashur said lightly as he passed by the woman, glancing at both her and the jeweller out of the corner of his eye. "You're paying an absurd sum, and it's most likely going to break again as soon as you get it back."

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Roen was still counting out the coins when another voice from behind her drew her attention. She looked over her shoulder, then had to turn back around the other way for the man had chimed in while walking past them. A quick study of him, she noted his rather scruffy appearance, the large gun on his back, and the distinctly non-eastern accent. He was a foreigner like her.

 

“You say that ser, as if you might have a better option?” She quickly retorted back before he got too far away. He was either considerate enough to lend his advice when it was not asked for, or arrogant enough to throw his opinions about when unwanted. Either way, Roen would hear him out. It would do her no good to haphazardly spend what coin she brought, especially this early in her journey.

 

Giving the jeweler a sidelong glance, Roen also spied that the woman’s courteous expression had dimmed somewhat, some lines appearing at the edge of the Hingan’s narrowed eyes. She certainly didn’t appreciate the stranger’s unsolicited input. Which made Roen all the more curious to hear what he had to say.

 

She turned where she stood, facing the male fully. Compared to the blonde mercenary, she resembled more of a merchant in traveling clothes, for she wore no armor this sun. She was dressed in a simple but clean overcoat, with detailing that could be seen on Sharlayan garbs. At least, that was what she was told by a merchant in Ul’dah. It was a lighter fare to travel in, without the worries of humidity and the weight of metal armor.  Her hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail, and she wore no jewelry nor baubles that advertised any wealth. She was dressed for comfort and travel. She certainly did not carry a large weapon as he did.

 

Roen canted her head expectantly at the stranger, which also brought the Hingan woman’s annoyed gaze upon him as well. 

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Ashur felt his brow twitch when she called him "ser", threatening to curl his face into a frown, but he resisted the impulse.

 

He cleared his throat, "Firstly, just at a glance, the fix is a simple one." He peered more closely at the timepiece in the woman's hand. The hands on the face weren't moving, but the inner workings were visible through the crystalline case of the chronometer: the teeth of some of the gears had fallen out of alignment and were pressing against one another, meaning they couldn't move. Ashur shot a glance at the displeased merchant. "Secondly, it's the kind of fix that would barely take a few bells to fix, if you knew how to fix it. A few suns of fumbling around it would almost certainly break it even more. And with all of that in consideration, five hundred is an absurd sum to pay."

 

The Hyur crossed his arms, leaning to one side. "Fortunately for you, I do know how to fix it in....oh, maybe a bell or so, I have the tools on me now, and I'm certainly not going to demand five hundred. Buy me a drink at the Hostelry and we can call it even, hm?" Wouldn't you rather trust another foreigner was the unspoken subtext, one he knew that the Hingan merchant picked up on because her brow had furrowed considerably. He couldn't help but let the corner of his mouth curl into the veil of a smug grin. After being cheated by the last merchant, it was somewhat satisfying to return the favour.

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Well, he certainly sounded confident.

 

Roen arched a brow in Ashur’s direction, her head slowly canting as she considered his offer. There was not much to lose, he was practically offering his services for free. Labor a mere drink? She would be a fool to refuse. At best, this man knew what he was talking about and she would see the chronometer fixed and avoid being cheated, and at the worst, the timepiece still would still be broken after a drink and she would have to come back to this jeweler, and probably offer her more coin.

 

It was worth the risk. And judging by the very displeased look on the Hingan woman’s face, a rare sight for the paladin thus far, Roen suspected that this man at least spoke some truths.

 

With an apologetic sigh, Roen turned and bowed politely to the jeweler, taking her device back. “I apologize for wasting your time. I think I will see if he can help me.”

 

The Hingan huffed, but recovered herself quickly enough to manage a cool smile and a bow. “Of course,” she said calmly.

 

Roen carefully pocketed the chronometer into her belt pouch and turned to the man. She narrowed her eyes at him, but her gaze did not hold him suspect. If anything, there was a hint of amusement behind her muted expression.

 

“You have yourself a deal, then.” She half turned and gestured down the street in the Hostelry's direction. “Although I dare say that you are probably underselling yourself, offering your services for something so little.”

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The Hostelry was busy, but not so busy that Ashur couldn't quickly find a table. He set is belongings aside and withdrew his gunsmithing tools. While the fix was simple, in truth if it were any more complex then such clumsy things would not be precise enough. Ashur breathed a secret sigh of relief as he carefully pried open the crystalline case of the chronometer and found that the problem truly was as simple as he thought it was. With a pair of thin metal drivers he set to work carefully re-aligning the gears of the chronometer.

 

Ashur squinted as he worked, observing that this was no ordinary mechanical timepiece, but something that could only be of Garlean make given the presence of extremely fine metal cords wrapped inside, and a cylinder that he could only assume was some kind of ceruleum container. He glanced out of the corner of his eye at the woman now sitting across from him. A collector of trinkets, or a Garlean herself? Well, not that it mattered either way. "This is remarkably complex," Ashur commented out loud, nodding as one of the Hostelry's employees brought a tray of drinkware and a porcelain bottle of rice wine. "Not too complex to fix, mind, but I think you can count yourself lucky that one of the more problematic components wasn't damaged. Where did you get it, Miss...?"

 

Ah. That's right. He didn't know her name. Well, again, it's not like it mattered. They would be quickly parted soon enough as it was.

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Roen watched the man closely as he opened up the chronometer and began working on it. She had a sudden flash of worry at the start, wondering if he would do more harm than good. What if it was irreparably damaged in his hands?

 

She leaned in and curled her hands together, extending her neck as forward as much as possible to get a better view. But to her pleasant surprise, his touch was precise and careful. One would not imagine such skill or technique by just looking at the man, what with wild hair and clothing that has seen plenty dust and wear. And yet she had hoped that his spontaneous generosity as well as the gun on his back were some signs of his good will and competence. And judging by his technique and familiarity with the device, he certainly had more knowledge of it than she.

 

She straightened when the drinks were brought, finding herself relaxing a bit more as she felt comfortable in dismissing her doubts. Although when he posed his question, she raised a brow. So intent was she in getting this fixed that they had foregone introductions.

 

“Deneith,” she answered with a huff of amusement then shook her head. “Although most just call me Roen.” Her surname always reminded her of her suns as a Sultansworn. “And the device belonged to someone else.” There was a small pause, her expression turning distant for a moment. Even now, thoughts of him always threatened to bring about a wave melancholy. But she shook it off. “I am hoping to return the keepsake to his family. Hence… I need it in working order.”

 

Roen found herself frowning, wondering why she even shared that. But the stranger was kind enough to offer his services and likely saved her a bit of coin. She supposed she owed him that much. And a drink. She started to untie the cork from the top of the bottle. “And who am I thanking?” She glanced at him expectantly, as she set a cup near him, pouring him some rice wine.

Edited by Roen

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"And his family is in the Far East, hm? That is quite a ways to go." Ashur mulled aloud. He couldn't help but note that that was some remarkable determination; whoever it was must have been close to her. And judging by the way she worded things, the person in question must be dead or something close to it. Tragic. Returning a last keepsake to a family...it made Ashur think. Did his mother have anything left of Alric? For that matter, anything left of him? The Hyur felt his fingers clench together somewhat tighter upon the tools. He couldn't risk contacting her lest she also be accused of heresy. It was just a reminder that he needed to return to Ishgard, and that meant fulfilling the request of his mysterious patron. If they could do what they claimed they could.

 

He glanced up as she returned his question. "Ashur. Just Ashur," he insisted. He'd been careful about giving out his surname, just in case. Ashur wasn't sure how far the Inquisition would go, and that wasn't something he was willing to test. Smarter and more capable people than him had been thrown into Witchdrop for smaller mistakes.

 

"Well, I hope you've already found them or have an idea of how to reach them. I'm afraid you can't look forward to getting too much assistance here as an ijin...ah, a foreigner. The Hingans are only looking for your coin or your goods, whatever they might be. I haven't had much luck in my own endeavours." Ashur grunted, twisting one of the metal drivers to spin a gear forward. "If you're looking to do more business here, I'd try to get situated with the Ul'dahns at the Ruby Bazaar. I wouldn't trust any of them as far as I can throw them, but at least the mannerisms are the same."

 

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Roen slowly pursed her lips, considering his advice. A small furrow deepened between her brows at the mention of the Ul’dahn delegates here. While she was no longer a wanted criminal where the Monetarists were concerned, her prior experience with them had left a sour taste in her mouth. The East Aldenard Trading Company’s cut throat repute was a well known one, and even just strolling through the Ijin District, she saw the Brass Blade standing guard outside of their main building. That was the last place she would feel at home, even in an exotic place like Kugane.

 

“The fact that the mannerisms are the same as those back in Eorzea is precisely the reason I will not be looking to the Ruby Bazaar for connections.” She tried not to sound too dismissive or weary, but a frown was already set upon her visage. But that problem was another issue completely and one that did not need to be explained to a man she just met.

 

Roen sighed and set the bottle aside, not pouring a drink for herself. Her attention remained on the chronometer as she continued quietly. “I actually have no idea where to even start looking, in truth. All I know is that I have to find a hyruan courtesan from Eorzea who was sold to a Hingan twenty years ago.” She glanced up at the blonde male who had been graciously and unexpectedly helpful so far. Perhaps there was a small hope that his generosity would continue just a little longer.

 

“You would not have any other suggestions on where I could start asking about, by any chance?”

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Ashur couldn't help but raise his brow. Ul'dah was, to put it kindly, a city with a polarizing reputation. He supposed it shouldn't be surprising that people might be hesitant to deal with the ilk of merchants and coin-counters who saw little beyond the glimmer of gil. Such vipers were bad enough in Ishgard; he dreaded to wonder what an entire city comprised of such people would do to a person over a long enough period of time.

 

At the same time, the Hyur couldn't help but snort. "That is preciously little information to go on," he remarked. "I couldn't even tell you if the Hingans still practice that kind of chattel commerce these days. If she was a courtesan, maybe she would have been a curiosity in the Sanjo Hanamachi, but the... shelf life of such a profession is notoriously short. I'd be surprised if there were anyone there who could remember last year's attractions, much less those of twenty years ago."

 

With a final click, the last gear slid into place. Ashur carefully replaced the crystalline cover of the chronometer and the mechanism began buzzing, humming, and whirring with relieved satisfaction. "You'll have to adjust the hands, but as long as you're careful it should work quite nicely." He slid the chronometer across the table before taking a swift sip of the rice wine from the porcelain cup. "As for who you're looking for, well...I suppose if there's no one else, I could ask the family that's currently sponsoring my, uh, contract. Though I'm afraid I'm not in a position to ask them right now, or any time soon."

 

Ashur rubbed his forehead with one hand while tapping his knee with the other. "I have a certain task that requires me to go to the mainland of Othard...the Steppe, specifically. Until I finish it, I'm afraid I'm not exactly in a position to help with your predicament." Exactly how much should he tell her? His mysterious client had mentioned hiring a large group. While they had not explicitly mentioned a competition, there was no guarantee that they would follow through on their promise to restore Ashur's name if he was not the one to personally deliver the object they were seeking. Ashur's eyes narrowed somewhat. Was this Roen woman another treasure hunter? A competitor? The Hyur found himself wishing he had the foresight to ask for the exact conditions of the job: there were plenty of unscrupulous mercenaries who would kill in order to gain a larger share of the supposedly large payment that was waiting.

 

"If you wanted to help with such a task, I might be able to assist you," Ashur offered, careful to try to keep the uncertainty from his voice. "How much do you know about the Xaela?" This was just an attempt to probe. Depending on how she answered and what she said--or more importantly, what she didn't say--it might be necessary for him to leave sooner rather than later, lest he lose whatever lead he had on obtaining the keystone.

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As Ashur confirmed her apprehensions about what little lead she had in finding Nero’s mother,  which is to say she practically had none, Roen’s expression had flattened with disappointment. But just as a frown was beginning to crease her brow, he slid the chronometer back her way across the table. A small sigh of relief left her nostrils as she lifted it before her eyes, her lips quirking up at one end as it ticked in her hands.

 

She reached to the dial to adjust the setting but paused when he proposed another deal between them. Her brow arched in surprise, eyeing the man once more. While finding Nero’s mother was the first on the list of things to do, it wasn’t the only thing she had hoped to accomplish here in the east.

 

How fortuitous that this man brings up Xaela, to her of all people.

 

Roen laid the chronometer back onto the table, resting her hands there, using that time to regard the man more carefully. Her tone was kept carefully neutral, watching him all the while as she answered. She still was not a good liar, but she had become better at masking her emotions when speaking of things she was wary of. And certain aspects of Kasrjin's visit to Eorzea were things she would prefer to keep private.

 

“I have met a few, in Eorzea. While rare, you can find them here and there in the west.” She canted her head, looking down at her hand and the timepiece, her eyes softening despite her efforts with the recollection. “One in particular became a friend of mine. He was rather poorly accustomed to our ways, and eventually returned home. I know his tribe was… unique to say the least.” She flicked Ashur a glance. “I was hoping to possibly run into him or his kin while I was visiting the East.”

 

Roen narrowed her eyes, although it was more in thought than suspicion. “Exactly what kind of help are you needing?”

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While Ashur was still instinctively uncomfortable with lying, he had quickly learned the necessity of such a skill in his particular profession. It wouldn't do to tell her too much; he had no idea what her motivations were or how she might react to certain pieces of information. Yes, it was best to be cautious.

 

"I'm currently under a contract to trade for an object that a certain tribe has in their possession," he said, taking another sip of the rice wine. That wasn't entirely a falsehood, to be fair; if he could obtain the keystone without violence, that would be ideal. Though, Ashur was under no illusion that such a thing would be particularly easy. "And, well, I am not sure where to find them and even if I did, I have never personally dealt with the tribes. It would be unfortunate to fail due to cultural misunderstanding. I suppose you could say I'm looking for any kind of help you can offer. If you know how to talk to them, what kinds of things they would value, or just where they are. I understand the tribes are scattered throughout the Steppe, but I don't have the luxury to comb all of Othard for them."

 

Ashur folded his hands. "It goes without saying that my patron is not interested in seeing me again until I've retrieved what they want. While I can't say for certain they'll grant me any favours, at the very least I expect them to hear me out when I return, and by extension they should be willing to hear you out."

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Roen couldn’t help but quirk a subtle smirk.

 

“Oh, aye. I do know of cultural misunderstandings.” There was a hint of amusement to her words. “I have had quite a few while getting to know them.” She began to tuck the chronometer away into her belt pouch, using that time to consider this further.

 

This man named Ashur seemed earnest enough, and she didn’t know anyone here. It would do well to at least make some contacts, and the fact that he saved her from cheated and he seemed to hold a wary view of Ul’dah, already put him in a favorable light in her eyes. And his goal of finding where the Xaela gathered at least coincided with her hope to find Kasrjin. But she pondered on something he said and flicked a sidelong glance in his direction as she tied off the pouch.

 

“What kind of object are you looking for?’ She folded her hands back on the table. “Because I think I do know where to go, at least where to start, but it depends if you are just looking to trade, or find some reclusive or hostile tribe.”

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Ashur relaxed somewhat, though a part of him remained at least a little bit suspicious. Judging from her reactions and demeanour, Roen didn't seem like a competitor, or she was very, very good at hiding that fact. However, given that Ashur ran into her when she was about to get cheated out of a few hundred gil, he found it increasingly unlikely that she was hired by the same patron for the same contract.

 

"I'm actually not sure," the Hyur admitted. "It's a rock. Well, a stone. All black, about the size of a Roegadyn's head, give or take a few ilms. Supposedly it has some sentimental value or ceremonial function, but if you ask me it's probably something magical." Ashur felt a twinge of instinct demanding that he lean back, except he was sitting on a bench and would look quite foolish for doing so. "A 'keystone', according to my contract, that belongs to a tribe that lives in the glaciers in northern Othard. They rarely come south, but I've been told to start looking at Reunion. All of the Xaela partake of that marketplace, or so I've been lead to believe."

 

He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I don't quite know what it does and frankly, don't particularly care. I just need to find it, find what I need to trade for it, and bring it back to the client." And then I get my life back.

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Even as Roen heard the words, their meaning were slower to sink in. There was a part of her that could not believe what this man was saying.

 

Not in a hundred years did she expect that what she and Kasrjin did in Ishgard, to relieve a dangerous cultish group from the very magical stone that Ashur now spoke of, would follow her here, to the far East. Although in the time she had left Ishgard, to attend to the affairs of Ul’dah, settling Nero’s wealth and setting up charities, perhaps she did allow herself to forget the dangers that they had left behind. After all, the Redeemers didn’t know who took the keystone.

 

That is, unless Maximillien Valencourt informed them. But that was unlikely, since that would eventually circle back to him as the informant and the traitor amongst them.

 

Perhaps they knew nothing of her and Kasrjin, only the history of the keystone and what tribe it originally belonged to. Was Ashur the only one that was sent after it? Highly unlikely, if what was said of this secret organization was true. They were wealthy and powerful with likely influences in all parts of Ishgard’s governing hierarchy.

 

Roen said nothing for awhile, but her grey gaze remained hard and fixed on Ashur. She wasn’t sure if she even attempted to hide her surprise, it had come upon her too unexpectedly. Finally when the silence that fell between them seemed too long, did she moisten her lip to try and compose a response.

 

What was she to say? How much did Ashur know? The fact that he said as much as he did, he obviously couldn’t know of the power of the keystones. Even she wasn’t sure exactly what they did. And he certainly wasn’t aware of her involvement, else it would have been foolish to show his hand so soon.

 

So then how much would she share with this man she just met?

 

“Do you know your employers?” Her voice sounded somewhat hoarse. “Do you know what they intend to do with this keystone?”

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As Roen's demeanour changed, Ashur's felt his harden somewhat as well. He wasn't sure why, but the atmosphere between them had changed, and it had only changed after Ashur revealed what he was looking for. She was a competitor after all, then? It had been foolish of him to assume that she wasn't. The safest thing, the smart thing to do would be to assume that everyone was in his way. If she was another competitor, then Ashur had certainly revealed himself, requiring that he move up his schedule considerably. While he wasn't exactly brimming with joy, Ashur's face curled slightly into a frown.

 

"No, I don't know them," Ashur said cautiously, folding his arms. "They came and went under circumstances that were more than mysterious. As for what they intend to do, I don't know that either. Probably something magical. Like I said, that doesn't matter to me. All that does matter is they've offered me something that's more than money for me to retrieve it for them." And I intend to do so. Ordinarily, Ashur would have never taken such an offer. A part of him still wasn't sure that his mysterious patron could actually do what they claimed to.

 

If she was a competitor, what then? She certainly knew his name, his face, where he was going and how he intended to get there. But then, maybe she knew something he didn't. This could be his chance to get some information and some leverage. "Why do you ask? What do you know about them? About this stone?"

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What was she to say?

 

Roen stared at Ashur for a long moment. Would she tell him what she knew? Or use the information he gave her so far to somehow try and sabotage him and find a way to warn Kasrjin and his tribe ahead of time?

 

She let out a measured sigh. It was a gamble. She had made wrong decisions in the past when it came to deciding who to trust and who to throw her lot in with. But she had to take the chance.

 

“I suppose I know more about your employers than you do,” she began quietly, grey eyes scanning about the common room of the Hostelry. The fact that this place had multiple floors, she wasn’t sure how easily conversations were heard from above. She shifted uneasily in her seat. “The fact that you told me as much as you have, I believe you are not with them. You do not know their intent, else you would not be so upfront about it. Which... I suppose then whoever else they hired probably knows as much as you. I hope.”

 

Roen lowered her voice and leaned forward, closer to Ashur so that her words did not carry far. Her eyes bore into the man. “This thing you seek, it is powerful. And it should not fall into the hands of your employers. They intend to use it for their own gain, and at the cost of many innocent people’s freedom.” She held his gaze steadily, her own unfaltering. But after a long silent moment, she leaned back in her own seat.

 

“That is all I will give you here, in this public place.” She glanced down at her pouch. “And my thanks for your aid,” she said quietly, almost apologetic as she slowly shook her head. “But I cannot help you if you intend to return what is not theirs to those who seek to control others unrightfully.” She peered intently at the man seated across from her, as if to gauge his integrity.

 

“The people who hired you, cares little for any moral ground. If that matters to you at all.”

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Ashur studied her face intently. How much of this was true? How much of it was a lie? She was vague enough with her information that if anyone else had been telling him, Ashur would have thought it a lie; anyone could be this vague if they were attempting to get him to give up on his contract. But he didn't think she was a liar. Perhaps it was instinct or something else, but though her words seemed suspicious, her demeanour and expression did not.

 

But if it was true, then what? Nobody as mysterious as Ashur's patrons had good intentions in mind; that much was clear as day ever since he took the contract. They were obviously planning on doing something with this keystone. What mattered was who they were planning to do it to.

 

Should he just give up, and forever remain an exile? Ishgard was often rough and charmless, but it was home, one way or another. Not Eorzea. Not Aldenard. Not Limsa Lominsa, not Gridania, and certainly not here in Kugane. Everything Ashur had done--mercenary work, piracy, unscrupulous activities unbecoming of a knight--was with the implicit and explicit understanding that it was temporary. He was going to go home one way or another. Perhaps that was simply his weakness. It felt like eons since that day in the Shroud with Loren and the cohort, but Ishgard was never far from his mind.

 

Ashur folded his hands together and leaned forward, exhaling before finally speaking. "If what you say is true, then that's all the more reason for you to give me your info, then," he tried to say so in a tone that was matter-of-fact, but there was a hard edge to his words. "I am not the only one they hired, and I am certainly not the worst of them." That much was true; the ship that carried Ashur to Kugane had certainly transported a rough crowd more eager for the gil than any moral grandstanding. "Treasure hunters, mercenaries, all sorts of characters are going after the bounty this contract offers. If not me, then someone else will bring it to them sooner or later. I'm under the impression that my patron has more than enough coin to throw at this problem until it's solved."

 

The Hyur leaned his head on his fist. This was duplicitous, but if it got Ashur what he needed, then it was necessary. "If this object is as powerful as you think it is, and if my clients are as dangerous as you think they are, then don't you think it would be better to keep a closer eye on it? If I retrieve it, then perhaps I can take it to an alchemist or someone. Understand what it does. Perhaps have a fake of it made, enough to get me what I need. And if you are with me, you can personally oversee what happens to it and who takes it, if that's your concern." If that was even possible. Personally, Ashur didn't think so, but at the moment it didn't matter.

 

His gaze hardened. "I intend to go after it one way or another. I will be getting my life back." That last sentence slipped out before Ashur could stop himself, but his voice was steely with determination regardless.

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Roen appreciated his honesty regarding the rest of the sellswords that were also hired to retrieve the keystone. But she nearly snorted in disbelief when Ashur followed it up with the idea that he still would retrieve the keystone.

 

“Do you have any idea how important this relic is to the Xaela tribe you are trying to find? There is no chance of them just relinquishing it to you willingly. And your employers already know of it quite well. They held it in their own hands before this. They would know a simple replica.” She shook her head, another long exhale leaving her lungs. With his last slip, it was obvious that Ashur was driven in this. He wasn’t a simple sellsword looking to make gil out of this.

 

And that made him more dangerous than the rest.

 

Still, there was a part of her that didn’t want to think of him as a threat to her or Kasrjin. At least, not yet. Where as his tone sharpened, her own quieted and softened.

 

“Do they have something over you? Your employers?” She held up a hand even though it didn’t lift from the table. “I do not ask to pry, only that… whatever they offered for your services, I want you to do know what you would trading.” She leaned forward again over the table, her face hovering near his, so that he would be the only one privy to her whispered words.

 

“This life you long for…” Her eyes narrowed, watching him keenly. “Is it worth the freedom of all the people of Ishgard?”

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What did it matter if his patron was one more powermonger seeking an advantage that didn't exist? The Church would crush them. The dragons too, if that failed.

 

Freedom. Ashur was careful now, given his last slip, but how he wanted to scoff at that notion. Chains upon chains upon chains. Class, status, family, the knights, the dragons, the Fury herself. Was anyone in Ishgard free, to a degree that mattered? Their lives weren't their own. One way or another, they belonged to someone else. They owed their lives to the nobles, to the lord commander, to the Archbishop to the city, to Halone. Ashur didn't consider himself a harsh man--yet--but even he could not prevent his eyes from narrowing in disdain for a brief moment. Stella would have known what to say. Stella would have some choice words regarding this woman's notion of "freedom".

 

To Roen's credit, her question reminded him that this wasn't really about him, in a way: Ashur simply had to know if there was anything in Ishgard to go back to, after all that had happened. What mattered was that Emilia, his mother, was all alone. Alric was dead. To her knowledge, Ashur was also dead or at least branded a heretic, which was the same thing. He had no way of knowing if she was even still alive, or perhaps if she had been executed by the Inquisition. Did she manage to survive? Was she acquitted? If so, was she surviving? Did she hold out hope that Ashur was still alive, and innocent? Was she eating right, now that he wasn't there to prepare the meals for her?

 

He could almost hear Alric behind him. If you're gone, at least Mother will have to learn to cook properly. An awful joke. But one that Al would have delivered with perfect humour.

 

"No, I suppose not," Ashur said finally. "My life has never been worth much. I see no reason for that to change now. But even so, I can't give up. There is someone depending on me. Someone I have to save." Ashur's amber eyes glared somewhat. "And their life is worth enough to me. They mean more to me than my own. They are innocent and worth saving. If my 'employers' threaten them with this contract, then once they've given me what I need, I will kill them."

 

Ashur took one last swig of rice wine, stood up, scattering a handful of gil on the table. Despite the fact that he and Roen had ostensibly traded favours, the Hyur had no intention of leaving any sign of a debt. "From what you've told me, you clearly know about the object I am looking for, and about the tribe that has it. Perhaps you already know what it does and where to find it. Consider my words: the only way you will have any control over how this ends is if you help me. My ship leaves for the Ruby Price tomorrow at dawn. If you change your mind, you can find me then. And if you want to try to stop me, then you'd better make sure I don't see you coming." It was equal parts challenge and threat; with that, he left the Hostelry to finish making his preparations.

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As Roen stepped onto the docks, her gaze went to the sky and the seagulls flying above. It seemed that the bustle of sailors and merchants started early in Kugane, and the birds circled above as the sky began to brighten with the arrival of morning, they too ready to take part in the dawn’s flurry.

 

Her leather boots made hardly a noise over the wooden planks as she began to make her way further down the pier, her eyes looking about for the glimpse of blonde wild mane amidst the unfamiliar faces. It still didn’t feel quite right, not having that familiar weight of metal greaves over her legs and the absence of quiet clatter of heavy armor with her movement. But such heavy gear would definitely not be advised in any overseas journey, in case there was an unfortunate event where she would end up in the water. Heavy leather armor would have to do, with spaulders and bracers. But they felt like minimal protection.

 

And the very thought of making yet another trek over the turbulent waves would have made her somewhat queasy, but thanks to the medicinal herbs provided by Maril, the long journey to the east was made quite bearable. Certainly a shorter trip across the Ruby Sea would not pose a challenge. She still had some herbs left over, after all.

 

And the trip was necessary. She had planned on making her way to the Reunion even before meeting Ashur, but after the revelation that the Redeemers had hired many mercenaries to retrieve what they had lost, it made the expedition that much more urgent. The fact that she was about to accompany one of those very same sellwords to find Kasrjin… that she was still not sure on.

 

‘There is someone depending on me. Someone I have to save.’

 

Of all his words, those in particular stayed with her. Ashur didn’t put much value on his own life. He was trying to help another. That thought was what ultimately brought her here, looking for him. Was this person in Ishgard? If so, Roen knew that Ashur would never allow the keystone to fall into the hands of his employers. Not if he knew the truth of the matter.

 

So why not just tell him the whole truth?

 

Roen still had her doubts. She had just met the man the sun before. Was he lying to her? Was he trying to tug at her heartstrings to gain her help? Even if that was the case, his latter sentiment also held true. She had to find Kasrjin or his tribe to warn them, and keeping an eye on Ashur would be at least one way to take some control of this situation. It was also obvious he didn’t want any of his other competitors to take the prize. He would at least aid her in running interference or impeding their success altogether when it came down to it.

 

Whether she could trust him with all of the truth, whether she would indeed help him in finding Kasrjin’s tribe, that still remained to be seen.

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There was still a part of Ashur that found comfort in heavy armour. The weight of Ishgardian chainmail had been burdensome at first, but over time became something of a relief, like a heavy blanket. Even now, Ashur found himself missing that sensation. For practical purposes, that had been shed for heavy padded clothing and reinforced leather. The aetherotransformer strapped to one side of his waist, the handgun on the other, and a shortsword on the small of his back. His pack held enough supplies for a month, and the various pouches had contingencies in them. Potions, tools, first-aid supplies, navigation tools, the like, though unfortunately the Hyur had found no way to take his explosives with him.

 

He found himself standing on the docks before the sun had even risen; sleep had not been generous to him. He sat crosslegged in the dark, listening to the flow of the waves and the distant bustle of nightlife. Despite his claimed disinterest, he found his thoughts drifting towards Roen's words more and more. The freedom of everyone in Ishgard: apparently, whatever his patrons were doing would jeopardize that. Was that possible? Ashur had talked a big talk, but would he be able to stop them after they gave him his life back? Would they even give that much?

 

The life of a mercenary had exposed him to many characters, most of them dishonest. Ashur knew that Roen knew more than she was letting on; he didn't trust her; not by a long shot. He had to say, however, that whatever her apparent faults, he still trusted her more than he trusted his mysterious clients. Time would tell if they would give their word.

 

When dawn finally came and Ashur saw her striding toward him, he made a show of grasping the grip of the handgun. "Well, you've let me see you coming, so you've either agreed with me or you're very foolish about trying to stop me," he called aloud.

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Roen almost snorted.

 

She didn’t yet know enough about Ashur to be certain how serious he was when he placed his hand on the holster of his gun, but even she knew how strict the laws here were against any show of violence or even impropriety. So she gave him a lopsided crook of her lips with a cant of her head, crossing her arms rather than reciprocating by reaching for the longsword hanging by her hip.

 

“Stealth has never been my strong suit,” she retorted, a quick glance looking over his equipment. She had hung around both Ishgard and Shaelen long enough to be familiar with the aetherotransformers, but she also appreciated the shortsword hanging from his back. She always did prefer the blade over firearms herself, even though a sword and a shield would not travel far in a long range battle. She pursed her lips at the thought.

 

“Let us say that I am still pondering on it,” Roen said neutrally. “But sitting in Kugane while you start making your way to the Steppe certainly is not going to do anyone any good.”

 

She stepped past him to look to the ships docked on the pier. “Is it true? There is still a tithe to be paid for the trip?”

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Ashur withdrew his hand from his handgun and folded his arms. If she was intending to cause trouble for him, she probably wouldn't do it here anyway. Still, it was best to keep her guessing. If push came to shove, Ashur was prepared to use his weapons, however reluctantly. "In a manner of speaking. We--well, I have been paid for. I have something figured out for you," he said nonchalantly. That was actually a complete lie. Only when Roen mentioned it did Ashur remember that only one foreigner, namely himself, had been guaranteed passage across the Ruby Sea. If he thought he could have gotten away with slapping himself in the forehead, he would have. He didn't actually think she'd agree to come along! Not that it mattered, because he'd completely forgotten about the tithe anyway. These damn pirates and their tolls.

 

He raised a brow at her. "Though, I hope you weren't expecting me to handle your tithe. These pirates are strict, so I'm told." There, that would probably do the trick. At least if Roen herself forgot to bring payment then he wouldn't look like the more foolish of the two. Probably. "Dealt with them before, have you?"

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