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Warren Castille passed through the streets of Ul'dah with slightly more than half of a million gil in Syndicate money. Otto had insisted it was only half Syndicate money and Warren knew a portion of it came from the pot that the Grindstone paid, but he was having trouble seeing where the lines were any longer.


Otto Vann had been present at the Grindstone the past several weeks. There was no harm in that, not exactly, but he had made a large amount of commotion by raising the stakes and making the prize money larger and larger, ballooning the purse until it overshadowed the purpose of the tournament. What once was about martial prowess and the thrill of victory became a contest for more money than most of the fighters would earn in a year's time. The turnouts had grown as explosively as the payout and Warren felt a small twinge of disgust at watching those who might not normally risk bodily harm at the chance of getting lucky and being able to provide for their families for the foreseeable future. To a man without the means, the danger was worth it.


Otto was too well connected to not have his fingers in the Monetarists pie - or more accurately, not not have them with their fingers in his. He'd mentioned before his penchant for fashion and while garbed in exotic colors and silks majority of the time, you didn't come across those sorts of tastes without the requisite gil to supply them. Money in Ul'dah had an incestuous bent, and what grew in the city often didn't wander far from it. If Otto Vann was as well off as he purported to be, others would have noticed. He had to either be a part of the circles, or he would have been destroyed by them.


Still, there was no hard line. Otto didn't go on about the usual motions of the monetarists. He didn't push for war, he didn't begrudge the Sultana. Much the opposite; Warren had noticed how often Otto had found himself speaking with or standing near one of the Sworn's finest; The woman heralded as an incorruptible beacon. Coatleque had been brought forth in complicated matters before regarding corruption charges and as far as many in Her Resplendence's service were concerned, she was untouchable. But she wore Otto's clothing sometimes when she intended to be out without her armor.


Warren weighed the alleged evidence in his mind as he carried the sack of large-denomination coins to the Immortal Flames' office on the Strip. It landed with a heavy thud on the countertop and drew the attention of a young hyur woman.


"I'd like to make a donation to the Refugees Relief Funds, please." The woman was of no important rank or decoration, not yet. She seemed to be in the start of her career as she reached for the proper paperwork with some amount of uncertainty.


"Ah, er, yes sir! The Immortal Flames thank you for your generos- Er, I'm sorry. How much were you meaning to donate?"


"Unless they shorted me, five-hundred and fifty thousand gil."


The clipboard bounced off of the floor.



Warren returned to the Duskbreak with a pair of bags in his arms and a bottle of fine wine in one hand. A banquet was requested, and for his dear ones a banquet would be provided. If either of them asked he'd say he paid for it out of his Grindstone winnings, but Warren wasn't so proud that he couldn't provide for his own. It seemed to taint his good intentions to skim off of the top, and he'd made firm in his statement that he'd give it up as soon as he received it.


A sumptuous feast was spread out on the dining room table. Still-steaming roasts of dodo, grilled and marinated aldgoat steaks seared on the outside and gleaming red in the center. Piles of creamy whipped popotos and freshly baked dinner rolls and biscuits. Warren took his seat at the head of the table and smiled to himself. He felt he earned this. He'd fought for it, endured hell for it. The sun was shining overhead and in his heart and for once... Just for once, it seemed it would stay that way for a while.

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Howl leaned back casually in his chair and surveyed the four masked individuals seated at the large, round table with him, each studying their cards with a casual indifference that belied their concentration.  Even for exalted luminaries such as these - and masks or not, he knew each of them was wealthy beyond anything he could ever hope to attain - whole fortunes exchanged hands at the gambling tables of the Gilded Knuckle, the elite invitation-only private sports parlor deep within the heart of Ul'dah, location known only to a few.  Fortunes exchanged hands, and occasionally honor.  And lives.


The engraved invitation had been resting in Howl's mailbox when he'd risen that morning, not entirely unexpectedly, and he had cleaned up and arrived by noontime.  He knew from past experience that, if he ignored the invitation, another like it would arrive tomorrow, and the next day, until he responded to the summons.  It simply said the honor of his presence was requested at the Gilded Knuckle by an anonymous host; only sponsors could invite outsiders to the Knuckle, and only the very wealthiest could be sponsors.  Since most chose to come masked to this place - whether to preserve anonymity or as a statement - he had no way of knowing who chose to invite him, or why, or even if it was one of the four at this table, though it likely was.  And he had several guesses as to why.  None involved the pleasure of his company, of course.


He'd played before with three of the four.  Bandit, as the domino-masked tan-skinned Lalafell to the far left was named in Howl's brain, favored a large Lominsan-style tricorne hat and spoke with an affected brogue that was so clearly out of place with his gleaming Dunesfolk eyes that it shouted the lie far stronger than anything else.  Howl supposed Bandit got something out of the deception, though he doubted even a child would think Bandit was actually Lominsan.  Or perhaps he was, and he used people's preconceived notions and stereotypes to bolster his cover.  One never knew in this place.


Cashmere was an old Lalafell with long white hair and drooping mustaches.  He wore a half-head covering of his namesake's material over his head and face, only the mustaches poking out underneath, and from his sighs and head-shakes, his hands were always the worst.  But the pile of coin in front of him was also the largest of anyone at the table (save Howl himself), and he was as free with his bets as he was with discreet fondling for the serving girls.


Howl had only played with Antlion, a dark-skinned Elezen with a soft velvet mask and a permanent sneer on his face, once.  Howl had assigned him the name for his vicious playstyle and condescending attitude, as quick to pass judgment or call a bluff as an antlion's jaws were to snap on prey.  He seemed wealthy enough - perhaps he was an Ishgardian lord or something - but he was all too aware that he was an outsider here, and therefore treated much like Howl was himself - as a commoner.  A wealthy commoner, or in Howl's case an amusing and privileged commoner, but just a commoner.  That made him silently bristle behind that predatory smile.


The fourth was a Lalafell, but Howl could only guess as to gender or age.  They were swathed entirely in a strange kind of dark leather armor that enclosed their head completely as well.  He had no idea how they could see.  A diamond pattern was painted onto the face, so he dubbed the individual Diamond in his head.  They seemed to play quite conservatively, and had spoken very little.


Two bells had passed since the game had begun, and Howl had nothing to keep his throat wet but wine.  Ale was a commoner's drink, and not served at the Gilded Knuckle.  So far, his tablemates had stuck to betting and light conversation; he highly doubted the reason for his invitation had been brought up yet, though he'd remained on his guard the entire time, behind a mask of hedonistic enjoyment.  He let his eyes linger on the serving girls, chosen for their beauty and grace - many connected to the great families here in Ul'dah, it was said, either as servants or allegedly slaves - and he drank cup after cup of wine.  The gaming tables were spaced far enough apart that they had relative privacy, but the walls of the Knuckle were lined with thickset Roegadyn and Highlander bodyguards, each armed to the teeth and fingering their weapons, glowering around the room for any threat to their moneyed masters.  The lamps were turned low, the light soft and shining on the golden surfaces of the rich wooden chairs and tables, all polished to a gleam, and the air was perfumed with incense.  After a few bells of wine, that smell, the moneyed surroundings, and having to watch his tongue, Howl's head felt a bit stupefied.


They were playing a card game popular in the Empire, though the players would've denied knowing that if asked.  Howl's usual luck with gambling did extend to a game like this, though the custom here was to use only one deck per table, which seemed to throttle it back a little.  Cards were custom-painted for this game, ranging in value from 1-10 with a Primus (or leader) card, in four suits of ascending value; players were dealt a hand of three, then two more rounds of betting each accompanied by one more card.  Antlion scowled at his initial hand as if they were responsible for his empty wine cup, which was being discreetly whisked away from his elbow, but he tossed in a few high-denomination coins nonetheless.


Howl checked his hand and, with the discipline of extensive schooling, kept his face still.  He already had two Primii in his hand - the Primus of Wands, painted to resemble Kan-E-Senna of Gridania, and the Primus of Coins, usually painted after one of the Syndicate.  This one sort of looked like Lord Lolorito, though the resemblance was vague enough that it likely appeased any number of wealthy Lalafell Ul'dahn elite that might want to be the Primus of Coins.  He also had a Two of Swords, but that didn't interest him much at the moment.  Even with just these two, he had a strong hand, even if Wands was the weakest suit.  He matched Antlion's bet without a word.


Bandit leaned back in his chair, accepting a wine cup from a tray proferred to him by a serving girl with a contented sigh, like a man pushing back from a rich meal.  "So, Howl, you never used ta' wear jewelry before."  He nodded at Howl idly, one arm stretched behind his back.  "Gettin' soft on us, are ya there?"


Howl realized he had been fingering the choker at his throat and hastily dropped his hand, then cursed himself mentally for not being more casual.  He fought to keep a blush from rising to his cheeks, more at embarrassment over his lack of self-control than anything else.  A mistake here could be costly, in more than just gil.  He summoned up a light, casual smile.  "Oh, well, I've done well for myself lately."


"He's become someone's pretty, no doubt," Cashmere laughed, sipping his wine.  "Taken a lover."


"Probably some Lord," Antlion commented with a frigid smile; Howl had thought the man had some personal grudge against him for a time, but Antlion seemed to hate everyone.  "I could see Howl as a kept man, couldn't you?"


Bandit laughed boisterously.  "Yar, an' sweepin' and keepin' house like a servant, no less!"


Howl was spared blushes by the serving girl kneeling by his chair.  He moved to take a fresh cup and hastily had to avert his eyes; the meekly kneeling Miqo'te girl was wearing a sheer silken robe, skintight along her lush figure, that showed every contour and roundness of her body.  He could practically count the freckles on her skin.  Bandit, still chortling, tossed his coins in for the bet, and after a long moment of weighing consideration, so did Diamond.  Cashmere sighed long and theatrically, twisting his mouth this way and that so that his mustaches trembled.  "If only my luck with the cards were as good as yours, Howl," he mourned, finally stacking his cards neatly face-down in front of him to signal a fold.  "Or with the girls."


"My luck with cards is far better than with girls," Howl acknowledged dryly as a dealer passed out one more card to Bandit, Antlion, Diamond, and himself in turn.  "And neither seem to serve me when I come here.  Ain't been lucky on either front in moons."


That drew a few appreciative chuckles from around the table.  Howl picked up his card, sliding it expertly to his hand in a way so that even the serving girl couldn't see - one could never be too careful at the Knuckle - and tongued the back of his teeth silently.  The Primus of Swords, the likeness of Admiral Merlwyb, stared up at him, a cutlass in one hand and a gun held across her chest in the other.  His hand had increased to one few could beat.  With only one deck in play, only one more Primus was out there, and only a series with five ascending cards in one of the stronger suits could beat a hand with three Primii.  He'd heard that in the Empire, the cards were painted to be military figures, with the Emperor's current favorite as the top suit.  He lowered his hand.


Diamond turned their heavily-masked head toward him, their voice low and husky.  "So, I heard you took part in Lord Vann's little... entertainment the other day."


Well, that was one of the topics he expected he was invited here for, and not a moment too soon.  He sipped his wine, leaning back casually in his chair again, flicking his tail as if it didn't concern him much.  "Yes, I don't pretend to be cultured I admit, so I kinda like a good dust-up from time to time."  He deliberately kept his verbiage informal, common.  "Guess Vann does too.  He was sponsoring a fighting tournament for fistfights only."


Cashmere giggled faintly into his cup.  "Likely just to look at the half-naked bodies.  He does have his tastes."


Antlion's mouth twisted in disgust, though his eyes were still on his cards.  "No proper regard for station, that one.  He'll lay with adventurer trash or refugee scum as soon as any woman of rank or merit."


"Though I hears he's raised standards a bit of late, aye," Bandit said slyly, grinning over at Cashmere and Antlion conspiratorially.  Antlion exchanged a warning look with him, but he simply cackled and dropped his gaze back to his cards.  "I bet Ser Castille would be interested in that, wouldn't he, eh Howl?"


Howl kept his face smooth with a concerted effort, his thoughts a jumble in his head.  They crowded one another out, and he forgot himself enough to start to reach for his choker again, but he diverted his hand to scratch his ear, faking suppressing a yawn.


Calm down.  They're as like trying to rile you into making a mistake as anything else.  Everyone's seen Lady Crofte hanging off of Otto's arm of late - they're probably just trying to figure that one out.  Or could be something else entirely.


"Are you all betting or not?" Antlion demanded, his own final bet stacked in front of him - enough to force a fairly serious wager on the last card.  Howl slowly moved to match it, acting casual, but Cashmere's eyebrows raised.  For a commoner - or even a Monetarist - there was a jaw-droppingly large pot, and Antlion was pushing the stakes ever higher.  Howl had to distract them, and hopefully lure the others in, as well.


He leaned back, draping an arm over the back of the chair, and forced a light laugh.  "That tourney of Otto's though - it makes others look like a joke.  I found myself at the end facing a Hellsguard three times my size, and I ain't prepared for that even on a good day.  He's some sort of personal bodyguard for a lady of repute, and I found myself wishing she was there cheering him on by the end so's as I could see something prettier than my blood all over the floor.  Broke my sternum clean in half with a single blow.  Otto's money smoothed over the pain of course, but I imagine once you all are done taking that from me I'll just be left with a sore chest in the end."


Bandit barked a laugh, pushing his gil into the center, and after a long moment Diamond joined him.  Four more cards made their way to each of the players still in it, and Howl suddenly knew as he reached for it what his would be.  The Primus of Shields, Raubahn's familiar stern visage staring up at him over a round gladiator-style spiked shield on his arm.


"So, Howl," Diamond said unexpectedly, as they stared at Raubahn's face, "I heard an Elezen Sultansworn was found beaten and stripped naked in an alleyway the other day.  I don't suppose you know anything about that?"


He nearly dropped the Primus, his head jerking up.  He found himself grinning uneasily.  "Who knows what sultansworn are up to?  Probably went into the wrong part of town."


"That Vann," grumbled Antlion, frowning at his hand, "slinging money around to peasants and thieves."


"Less for him in the end," Cashmere remarked cryptically.  "His focus on his toys and amusements will be his undoing.  Even the pretty ones have eyes, after all."  He chuckled.  "And you'd be well served to steer clear, Howl."


Diamond abruptly rose, setting aside their cards face-down.  "That'll be enough for me today."  They turned and left, several of the waiting guards falling in behind them, and one by one the others made their excuses and left as well, leaving only the pile of money behind and Howl's four-of-a-kind hand of Primii.  He stared at the four Primus cards thoughtfully, packing his winnings into a sack, declining the Knuckle staff's helpful offer to ship it securely to his home.


Whatever they were after, they got it.  Peace!  What did I say?  Can't be about Ser Longneck or the money... can it?  Or are they just after Vann?


No matter how his luck tended to run at the Gilded Knuckle, Howl was well aware that he always came home feeling as if he'd lost in the end, which was one reason he always dreaded seeing those engraved invitations appear in his mailbox.

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Howl sat at a table in the Quicksand, slumped over in the chair so that his legs hung loosely and wide underneath, his arms wrapped around themselves, his fingers drumming on his elbow.  That was the only outward signal of nerves.  His expression, while not worried or anxious, was somber; but most would likely think him just overly serious of late, with unknown worries resting on his mind.


Well, he had one now.  A secret he'd been keeping from Warren, one that he had to out and in a hurry.  Hence why he was at the Quicksand, where a relatively private conversation could be had over drinks and under the cover of innumerable nearby voices.


It only took a moment to summon the memory.




Ser Longneck had chosen the wrong damn alley to come down.


Not by chance, of course.  An enigmatically-worded invitation to meet, as if from a nervous source, picked out this alley, this time - in a disguised hand of course, on a sheet of butcher's paper that gave no hint as to its buyer.  Snow had been surprisingly adept at crossing her t's and dotting her i's when it came to conspiracy.  Howl supposed it was a hidden talent of hers.  She was seated on a low roof nearby, hidden in the shadows; he was concealed in a doorway.


When the gleaming, white-tabarded symbol of righteousness came around the corner, all unawares of the ambush that lay ahead, it was almost laughably simple.  Snow, when she so chose, could be incredibly vicious - and she certainly had chosen so that night, leaping down from her place of concealment with lance stabbing and with the speed of a true dragoon.  Ser Longneck had barely time to yelp and get his shield up, only it seemed the paragon of virtue and light hadn't been taking such good care of his belongings of late, for his shield cracked down the middle at the impact of Snow's spear, going skittering off his arm and crashing into the wall with the sound of a collapsing bellows.  He went for his sword, trying to scrabble it out of its scabbard, but Snow had already driven the butt of her lance into his stomach and her mailed fist into his face, bringing him to his knees.  A simple touch of her spear to his neck caused him to freeze.


She smirked down at him as Howl quietly moved to block Longneck's exit, trapping him between the two Miqo'te.  She'd gone with a traditional full-face mask and a turban wrapped around her distinctive hair; Howl wore a bandit's turban and mask combination that gave him a bit more room to see.  "Looks like Ul'dah's finest have a long way to go before they can hope to match a couple of ragtag street trash," Snow smirked.


"Here to kill me then?" Longneck spat; to his credit, he had none of his haughtiness removed just by being on his knees and with a lance at his throat.  Typical Elezen, Howl reflected.  "Go ahead and do it, if you have the courage."


"Hardly," Snow sneered.  She even backed away, putting her lance down casually; but as Ser Longneck got warily to his feet, he seemed to know it could come back up at any instant.  Without his shield, he likely couldn't defeat her in these close quarters.  "But you are going to learn a little lesson."


"From you?"


"No, from him."  She nodded to Howl.


Ser Longneck turned.  "If you think I'm to be intimidated by a couple of street thu-"


The sound of Howl's fist breaking his jaw interrupted whatever he was saying.  Howl wasn't a violent person by nature.  In fact, he rarely fought someone in anger; he dind't like it.  He'd killed someone that way, and no matter what the facts had been as they later came out, he had never forgotten that moment.  But he remembered what Warren's face had looked like when he'd first been freed from his prison; he remembered how Sultansworn tended to treat him and his friends; he remembered how everyone damn person he fought lately talked innumerable amounts of shit, from Iron Sea to Koporo on down.  Howl wasn't a street tough in a barfight.  He was an adventurer who used his hands to kill fiends, and his single right hook against Ser Longneck's flapping jaw in the breeze was enough to send him reeling.  The follow-up blow, a running knee to the chin, would likely have downed a wivre.  The Grindstone had taught Howl well where to hit armored foes, and the answer was almost always in the head.


Concussed and staggering, Ser Longneck fell.


Howl flexed his right hand absently.  He was no amateur to have broken his hand on the punch, but he could feel it.  It felt good.


Snow produced a knife and began slicing straps, yanking off Longneck's armor piece by piece and tossing it down the alley negligently, along with his belt pouch, all of his gil (in a hail of coins) and various papers and personal effects, all kicked or thrown away as if they were nothing more than garbage.  She added a few irritated kicks at Longneck's body when it got in the way.


Howl didn't hit the man anymore, simply standing over him with his balled fists ready.  Longneck was dazed and senseless, his eyes seeing nothing.  Snow moved to stand next to Howl.


"Think that's equivalent?"


"It's enough," Howl agreed.  The man didn't seem as bruised and battered as Warren had been, but he wasn't sure he could casually break a few more bones and leave him there.  One was enough for him.  Though perhaps his nose...


The two melted off their separate ways into the city, not looking back at the sprawled Sultansworn as the tentative, sneaky army of street urchins and pickpockets began to move in on the valuables strewn so carelessly all around.




It had been easy - perhaps too easy, in truth.  Howl didn't tend to have a taste for vengeance, but it had felt good getting comeuppance on the guy for what he'd done to Warren.  But he felt guilty for not telling him.  Warren would likely not be mad at the crime, such as it was, committed on his behalf, but he would be mad at the concealment, and would probably see it as a threat he'd have to protect them from.  Howl could understand that, even if he didn't necessarily agree.  He thought himself perfectly capable of protecting Warren in turn, but it made Warren feel good to be the protector of the bunch.


The true sign that Howl was a bundle of nerves was that his ale sat in front of him untouched and allowed to get warm.

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He'd joked about the armor being cursed but Warren was beginning to wonder if he was on to something. The frigid encounter with Coatleque Crofte had left both himself and Howl uncomfortable; Warren had found out only moments prior to the encounter what Howl and Sei had done and probably overcompensated for his attitude by leaning more apathetic than he would have normally.


He didn't want to fight about it later, but his point was lost in the noise. If Longneck had been less smug, a hair smarter, he would have brought his own backup to an obvious trap. Assailing an Elite Sultansworn would be a crime that kept them both locked up at the best, executed for treason at the worst. Warren just wanted to let Howl know that those terms - risking his life for petty revenge - were unacceptable. The tension of the moment and the general mood caused that to land awry, though, and the two of them had it out. It took some hours and much effort to soothe over both of their worries but something still felt wrong. In the late hours of the night Warren laid awake and tried to figure out why.


His issues with Howl weren't the source and he knew it. Neither of them reacted that poorly to the other in any given circumstances but lately it had been touch and go for a lot of things conversationally. He knew he needed to talk to Sei soon, but he didn't want to bother her when he knew how much trouble she was going through. He would work out his issues with Howl. Deep down he was sure of it.


It bothered him how often Otto Vann was appearing in his life. Warren initially didn't even know the man was Syndicate; He thought he was a fashion designer by trade. He was an associate's of Coatleque's, and while the man had always been polite enough in company his connections had to go further. Now Otto was a mainstay at the Grindstone, flaunting wealth and encouraging citizens to fight for his amusement. Otto's personal fighting club had been put together because of his love of pugilism. Removed from the formal organization of the Grindstone, Otto's club was strictly to find the toughest, most brutal combatants. Coerthas had proven a cruel training ground for many, and while the evening avoided the amount of blood the Grindstone typically allowed, there were many bones broken and plenty of wounds. Miss Jancis had gone above and beyond to keep people going between rounds and the toll on her after such a grueling night would have been substantial. He wondered if Otto would have words with her regarding it; His original wish that was healing would be minimum to weed out the weak from the strong.


Warren considered that perhaps there was more to the scheme than Otto Vann was telling people. He recalled his match at the Grindstone against Ruinfeild; Prior to their bout and following it, the roe and Otto had discussed some sort of work arrangement. Ruinfeild was a smith by trade, seemingly so, but his strength was immense and hammers could be used for flattening more than steel. Similarly, Iron Sea had been welcomed and greeted with open arms by Otto following his victory over Howl.


Warren couldn't hope to know how to Syndicate operated, but he figured Otto was on the outermost reaches of it. Could it be a power play? Otto was looking for muscle, and finding it. For certain though, Warren knew that if he was noticing these sorts of things, the big fish were as well. The Syndicate's eyes were everywhere.

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  • 2 weeks later...

"Don't hold back. I won't be."


Warren didn't need to worry about that at all. He should have known better than to face Howl as he was, but unlike the previous week where their spar had been in kind-hearted fun, the miqo'te's expression was one of seriousness. Howl wanted a fight, wanted to prove himself, and the Grindstone had given them a venue to even things out. Warren took his stance uneasily and Howl readied his attack. The whole incident was over in seconds.


Warren spent the rest of the night bisected emotionally. Howl had preempted his every offense with a hard counter and prevented the highlander from getting off seemingly any offense. The tactics he'd used before had gotten him precisely nowhere; Howl had won the fight before they'd stepped off towards one another. The flipside of that was that his partner had observed and memorized enough of Warren's movements to know what he was doing before Warren himself knew, and that was exhilarating in a new way. His entire purpose for entering in the Grindstone was to better himself and to learn to achieve victory without his reliable weapons and armor. Two Grindstones past he had seemingly proven himself for the second time to be able to secure victory, and following that Howl had completely dismantled him.


It seemed fitting to him that the first night Warren won the Grindstone he had to go through Howl, and in the miqo'te's first victory at the event he had torn clean through Warren.


Howl followed up on that by winning Otto Vann's event the next evening. Otto pointed out that Warren had won the largest pot the Grindstone had ever offered, and likely would ever offer. Howl had won nearly as much from his victories in Vann's private version of the spectacle. Warren was beginning to be aware just how public he and his could possibly have become in recent history and the prospect was not one he relished.

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Warren Castille rattled slightly as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. The constant buzz of the Quicksand was persistent and familiar but Warren was troubled by the faces seated at tables and the bar. Barring few exceptions, he didn't recognize them. The thought troubled him while making a degree of sense.


Surprised you heard about that tucked away in your fortress.


The criticism had been leveraged correctly against him and he saw the truth of it before his eyes. He simply did not know the people he was standing watch over, and by and large they paid him no attention. Two moons removed from the eye of the world would do that. In the current swing of political dissent and vague, floating concerns otherworldly it made sense that the population was constantly changing. Warren's gaze hardened as he glanced from group to group.


Otto's words from the other night hunt over him like a cowl. Warren's brief celebration at Howl's victory was cut short by the flocking of friends and fans, and the wealthy aristocrat had been cordial in his pleasantries though the words stuck in the paladin's ribs like a knife.


"I guess I'll keep an eye out for any letters..."


Howl seemed brought down by the implication of watchful eyes as well. Warren knew about the letters but hadn't brought it up for conversation yet. Despite his misgivings about the world and the people in it, Warren did trust the man. The world held few people he could say that about.


Warren's gaze landed on a hyur wearing a long robe. The hood was pulled up over his head but the man's attention wasn't on the company in front of him. Warren wondered how long he was being obserbed, but then the hyur smiled knowingly and turned his attention back to the elezen woman in front of him and the dark-skinning miqo'te man by her side. Their words continued, lost in the constant murmur of the Wellspring of the Jewel.


"Things seem to be in order for now, Miss Momodi." Warren bowed slightly to the diminutive hostess and turned for an exit. "I have matters to tend to, and will return."


If she replied, he couldn't hear her. His mind was already considering how his conversation at home was going to go.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Warren had lost count of how long it had been since he'd found the words, taken the steps. It was blissful nights and lengthy days, time defined not only by action but by inaction, the sort of ephemeral passage of sun and moon that your mind blends together when remembering something from years ago, perhaps happy memories from your childhood. Those endless summer days and moonlit nights. Happiness of the eternal variety, even if eternity takes breaks now and then.


Castille had been functionally doing his sworn duty in Ul'dah for some weeks and despite the fact he no longer stayed centralized in the Quicksand, he could see that his ride on cloud nine was coming to a finish. While he had been away there had been serious going-ons, and for a time he wondered if he'd been involved at all if he would have been able to do anything to avert the shift in the status. He had returned to a world that somehow seemed wrong, like his memories had a definite Before and After and they were only tangentially connected in the middle somewhere. The lay of the land had settled and turned while his eye was turned away.


The story was the same but the characters were different. Civil unrest. Hushed whispers of conspiracy. Intentional blacking out of documents and investigations. More and more the cruel gaze of the world focused on his corner of the world, and now the currents were starting to sweep away the things not nailed down. It was the way the world seemingly operated, but Warren felt that he had to stand against the rushing tide.


Any respite, regardless of how well-earned or how hard-fought, ends eventually. The downtime afforded to someone between the defining moments of their lives is ever brief. Every intermission must end before the story can progress.

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