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The Coming Storm 【Complete】


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((The events of this thread follow the story arc from here and here.))








Jameson Taeros kept his expression neutral; one would never know, simply by looking at him, the displeasure he held behind his slight smile. His eyes went lazily from his sleeves, where he scanned absently for dust on his pristine white doublet, back to the two Brass Blades standing across the desk in front of him. They shifted their stances often, their anxiety making them fidget.


"So tell me again, why you did not bring this to my attention earlier," Jameson said slowly. He still smiled, but his words held a vexed edge to them.


The Midlander Blade named Raffe swallowed and looked askance at the Highlander next to him. When Louvel did not catch his pointed look, Raffe sighed, shoulder sagging. "Well, Mister Taeros..." He cleared his throat. "It was just a confiscated wagon that was taken. I mean, it was to an ex-Blade after all, so we didn't really think it was anything worth...reporting."


"And the affair at the mines? You recall it. It involved missing supplies, dead bandits, and one of your own compatriots," Jameson added with a barely patient drawl.


The Highlander cleared his throat and spoke. "Well, ser. We took care o’ the Flame Inspector that came by, and he agreed not to report anythin’...so we...uh, we thought that was taken care of."


Jameson slowly arched a brow. "A Flame Inspector."


Raffe shot the Highlander a glare then straightened. “Aye, ser. He asked about what happened, and once we told him Deneith’s name, he just left us be.”


“He did leave rather quickly after learning her name. I thought she’d be arrested by now,” Louvel shrugged.


Jameson narrowed his eyes. “What did he look like?”


As both Raffe and Louvel began to describe this Immortal Flame Inspector, the noble tapped his gloved finger against his arm. A Midlander male with a well-trimmed beard and a scar over one eye…who happened to recognize Deneith’s name. Jameson could count on one hand the possible number of suspects that it could have been.


Actually, he only needed one finger.


Melkire never did know when to back off.


He narrowed his eyes, recalling that the investigation into Ser Besten’s murder never got as far as he had hoped. The Flame Sergeant was still meddling into affairs he should not be.


Jameson waved the rest of the explanation off, dismissing the two Blades. He glanced with a nod to the man standing by the door, who then beckoned a raven-haired Highlander woman to enter. She was dressed in her usual colorful layers; billowing sleeves and draped skirts, with anklets and bracelets jingling to herald her arrival.


"Miss Callae, I have an assignment for you." The noble did not waste any time, although he did afford her a pleasant smile in greeting. Smiles were important.


Brynnalia Callae sauntered up to the desk and hooked one leg onto it, halfway sitting on the edge. She rested her chin on her bare tanned shoulders to smile at him. "What is it?" Her tone always carried with it some suggestion of challenge, or even playfulness. It was like a constant quiet melody around the woman, either intended to ease or arouse others' attention. Jameson always made note of it.


"I need you to return to Limsa Lominsa. You have a history of service with the Maelstrom, yes?" Taeros leaned back on his chair, lacing his gloved fingers together on his lap.


The Highlander woman arched a slender brow. "Aye. Why am I returnin' tae the coast? Ye tired o' me already?" Her smirk remained as she leaned closer to him teasingly.


"Not at all, dear," he curled his lips cordially. "I am getting you a promotion, as matter of fact. You are going to become an officer."


Brynnalia canted her head and answered him with a saucy grin. "I always did look good in red."


"You will look ravishing, I am certain. And the rank will afford you resources to look into some rumors of piracy. I need a man found. Nero Lazarov."


"I'll have tae dig up my contacts, I've not been back in over a cycle."


"You will not be working alone. Matter of fact, you will be assisting dear Natalie, Ser Mcbeef of the Sultansworn. She is heading up the efforts. She will be recruiting other Maelstorm agents, I am certain."


"A Sultansworn? And more Maelstorm? Just tae find one man?" Her green eyes narrowed; the bard was truly curious now, her flirtatiousness faded as swiftly as the wind changed.


Jameson inhaled, letting a pause fall between them. "He is one troublesome pirate, to me and to my employers. Therefore to all of Ul'dah." The noble arched a brow in answer to the look of disinterest on the Highlander. She cared not for politics or even the welfare of the Jewel. He gestured vaguely into the air. "I want him found, that is all you need to know. I intend to call upon some old acquaintances as well. I hope you do not mind working with Miss Grimsong again."


The woman flicked a hard look at him. Her easy smile had faded completely. "We never worked together, she and I."


The noble nodded ever so patiently. The topic of her past with the Resistance was still hot rod he could prod her with every now and then. "I am certain both of you will do your best to remain of the utmost professional toward each other," Jameson drawled.


Brynnalia shrugged and looked elsewhere almost as if bored. The woman was never cowed by him. "Anythin' else I should know?" she asked tersely.


"Yes. You will likely be working with Ser Crofte as well. She and Natalie are close."


That brought the woman's attention back to him. "Crofte? Ye courtin' all the Sworns now?" She almost sounded impressed.


Jameson did not bother to answer that. "I know you know her well enough. I am certain she will not like a few of my plans, but she will comply with what needs to be done, in the end. If it is for the best of Ul'dah."


"Oich," Brynn snorted, rolling her eyes. "Iffin' ye wish. If bringin' one pirate down be so important, why not just get the Flames on it?"


"Because they are short sighted. They do not see Lazarov coming. They care for the safety of the Jewel, not for her prosperity. That is where I come in, my dear. My employers and I, we like to ensure that the gil continues to flow, and in an inwardly manner. This pirate wants to choke off our imports through the seas. That will not do." His eyes locked on the Highlander, sudden intensity in his amber gaze. "I intend to do whatever is necessarily to ensure the end of his interference."


Callae met his gaze soberly for a moment before lifting another smirk. "Ye be the boss." She slid off the desk, standing to straighten the ruffle of her fabrics. "Anythin' else?"


"Tread carefully in Limsa. Merlwyb does not tolerate violation of her rule. We will need to find Lazarov quietly without undue escalation of these matters."


"And if he does escalate things?" Brynn arched a brow.


"It could be war." Jameson said simply, the words hanging heavily in the air.


It was a breath's pause before Brynnalia broke the tension again with a dismissive click of her tongue. "Oich. I've seen war on me homeland. I ain't a stranger tae it. But it don' mean I welcome it either." She splayed out her fingers, as if to examine her nails. "I prefer the easy life."


She turned for the door, then glanced halfway over her shoulder to the noble. "I guess we better find this Lazarov then, before he be bringin' a storm down upon us."

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Kahn'a Od'hilkas and Anelia Sadowyn:


An Immortal Flame Lieutenant and a Sultansworn who bore witness to Daegsatz’s execution.


Natalie Mcbeef:


Roen's former mentor--and the miqo'te woman who wielded the blade that ended the Sea Wolf’s life.


Roen had stormed out of the gaols once she had collected herself, armed with the three names given to her by Ser Jojon. Her emotions burned with rage and the pit of her stomach was twisted with indignation. She needed answers. She needed justification. Something. Anything.


It was less than half a bell before the Flame Lieutenant answered her call, approaching her with a weary look. "I heard the word, Ser Deneith." He wore a small frown, but his attention seemed to be elsewhere. "How can this one assist you?"


Roen had no pleasantries to exchange. Her fists were curled into tight balls by her side, her eyes were blazing. "Ser Od'hilkas," his title was spoken in a clipped tone. "Is it true? Did you witness Daegsatz Traggblansyn’s execution in the gaols?"


"Indeed. I had requested to come observe the interrogation, I walked away with a bad taste in my mouth." His expression was distant, with a hint of displeasure at the edge of his lips. He did not seem to note her ire just yet.


"What were the charges? Was there a trial?" The paladin seethed, just barely keeping control of her voice. "Tell me there was a trial. Tell me there was just cause.” Roen tightened her fists even more to keep herself from shaking. "Tell me something because you were there, and you stood witness to a good man's death."


Kahn’a sighed, avoiding her gaze. "Smuggling, murder...I don't remember it all, but 'tis what she called upon to prove the rightness of her action."


"Natalie." She spat the name out like it was poison. "Natalie had the charges?"


"So she did. I had half a mind to protest, but it wasn't my place to do so. Meddling into the 'sworn affairs was also risky, I couldn't risk further."


"You are a Flame!" Her voice rose quickly. "You are to look to the welfare of the people as much as any Sworn! Why did she even…” Roen laid a hand on her forehead, frowning. “When did she start taking it upon herself to execute smugglers? He was no threat to the Sultana!" She turned from him, taking a step away then spinning back back around. “Were there conditions? Anything? Did she just go in and execute him without a word?"


The Flame Lieutenant regarded her oddly, a look that held unspoken curiosity. "They talked. She threatened to harm if he showed reluctance to cooperate. She never spoke of execution bef-- before it happened.”


“What cooperation?”


“She wanted to know where his boat was sailing, his latest quarries. I'm unsure why those activities rose her interest, and she was trying to be thorough. And the Roegadyn tried to say as little as he could."


“Whose boats,” Roen said icily.


Kahn'a rubbed his forehead in weariness. "I know not. Look, this is probably one of the worst suns to ask me about this. Mind's busy with other matters, and like I said, I was merely observing."


"She killed him because he did not give up information on--" Roen began then paused, her brow twitching. "Oh forgive me, ser Od'hilkas. Obviously witnessing an execution must have been a burden for you!” She was unleashing all her vitriol at him, for he was the only one she had found--the only one she could lay the blame on at this moment for not stopping what she herself could not.


“I should just go to the source myself,” she stared angrily at nothing in particular. “Except I know the source. I know the violence she is capable of. I now know she has no heart. But I would have hoped that at least others there with her could have tempered it!"


Lietenant Od'hilkas looked straight at her, miserable eyes set upon her beset face. "Why is it to me you're asking those questions? Tha-- That woman, she's done things I had headaches trying to understand the reasoning of. Why is it striking such distress into you?"


Roen stared at him hard. Kahn'a Od'hilkas, he was the Immortal Flame that Osric had named that could be trusted. He was part of the justice system that she had defended to Nero with fervor. "I am asking you, because you were there. You could have stopped it. You stood witness. I trusted...I trusted someone in our justice system to not see a good man die."


"Tell me then, how was I to know that man was good without time granted to open a case on his account? She came with believable claims, and again, I was there to observe."


The paladin had no answer. She just wanted this wrong to have never happened. "He did not deserve that fate."


"Who did not deserve that fate?"


Both Roen and Kahn’a turned to notice the blonde Hyur paladin standing there, just a few fulms away. Anelia Sadowyn regarded them with her usual cool glare.


"Ser Sadowyn. Ser Deneith seemed to be informed of the demise the captive met, at Ser Mcbeef's sword,” the Flame Lieutenant answered the woman, his tone dour.


“Both of you stood witness as she slit someone's throat without due process,” Roen growled at both of them. “This. This is why I will not return to the Order."


"I was just an observer, but I have written full reports about Ser Mcbeef's actions,” Anelia said matter-of-factly, no regret evident in her visage. “However, I also am taking up the case of Nero Lazarus while Mcbeef is chasing it too."


Roen’s eyes narrowed. She did not bother to correct the woman on the name. Why should she? “There is no case.”


"...Roen, the man is a smuggler."


"Why the sudden interest in a merchant from Limsa, smuggler or no? This city is full of smugglers! He is no longer even here! Natalie chased him out with threats of violence!" Her voice quickly rose. "And still she executed his first mate!"


Kahn’a frowned deeply then sighed. "Not my affairs, I'm not privy to the reasons that pushed her to do that. I'm not your man for this case, Ser Deneith."


"No." Roen’s tone was bitter, flat. Cold. There was only resentment that lingered as she gazed upon the Miqo’te Flame. "I suppose not."


The Lieutenant’s own expression became sullen. "When you've settled, Ser Deneith, you know where to find me. Mayhaps we can make some sense out of this,” he said quietly as he walked away.


"Roen,” Anelia said cooly, stepping in front of the paladin. “Would you believe me if I am actually trying to stop Natalie?”


She paused with a grim set to her brows. “She means to kill Nero."

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Anelia Sadowyn. A Sultansworn who had taken up the mantle of being her mentor when Roen had first come to Ul’dah, along with Erik Mynhier. She was the same woman who accused Erik of practicing the dark arts, then dismissed herself as a mentor only to disappeared for countless moons pursuing her own agenda. When she finally returned, she beheaded a man in cold-blood in front of Roen and Kage, claiming that the man was possessed by a voidsent.


Roen stared at the Sultansworn standing in front of her with wariness. Where once she had looked upon her as mentor and trusted friend, she now only saw Anelia as unpredictable and violent. Her eyes narrowed.


"I thought to gather some information from you about Lazarus, but apparently if I don't have any leads...then Mcbeef will take the case." Anelia rubbed her forehead, frowning.


"Do not try and manipulate me for information on a man that is no longer even here.” Roen glared at the woman. “Nor should he be a concern for the Sworns." She stared off down the street where the Flame had disappeared to. "I will deal with Natalie myself."


Anelia sighed. "Very well. Then I will personally gather information myself and apprehend Nero on my own."


That made Roen spin back towards the Hyur. “For what?! What has he done that you or Natalie to pursue him?"


"Perhaps that is the only way that I can keep Natalie from cutting his throat."


“Natalie will do no such thing." Roen gritted her teeth.


“He has the Monetarist's attention. So I need to keep him under my watch before they have his head."


“You leave him alone, Anelia.” Roen shook her head. “Do not further this corrupted fiasco even more so. Just because he has the eyes of the Monestarists does not mean you need to arrest or pursue the man. That logic is flawed beyond reason. It is what got Daegsatz killed, in a Sworn gaol." She felt heat rising within again even at the mere mention of the Sea Wolf’s name. “You think he is safe under your watch?"


"Better with me than Natalie."


Roen scowled. “I thought Daegsatz was safe under our watch. I thought he would get the due process. No. You and a Flame that I thought to trust just watched him get executed."


"Natalie told me that the man was a criminal sentenced for death, and it is not my business.” Her tone remained calm. “So I did not intervene."


"Do not use Natalie for an excuse of your vigilante justice,” Roen spat back at her, her outrage unwavering. “Leave. Nero. Alone."


Anelia’s face suddenly contorted with anger without warning, as she yanked off her gauntlet and slapped Roen hard across the face. "You idiot! Look at yourself! You can't even tell who's on who's side! I didn't even know what was going on until now, so I was looking for you so that I could stop Natalie. But how dare you speak to me like that!? I am your friend!"


Her head had snapped to the side from the blow, but the paladin stood stalk still. Roen slowly turned back to Anelia, her expression stony. Her cheek burned, but she did not care.


"I have no reason to point a sword at you!” Anelia continued to shout, seemingly desperate for the younger woman to understand. “We've been together since you were under Erik's supervision! I care about your safety and your wishes for your friends."


Roen just shook her head coldly. "You have not been my friend since you left. Since you accused Erik of whatever you accused him of. Now you return out of nowhere, and you stand witness to a good man's death. And then you ask me for information on another?" She seethed. “And if I do not give that information, you turn the case over to Natalie. Who you just said would go after Nero's life, without any justification. Just as she did Daegsatz. Tell me. Tell me how I am supposed to trust you.”


"I did not know that the man was innocent, Roen,” Anelia sighed, remorse finally sagging her shoulders. “I just deferred to Natalie's judgement. I am sorry."


"Apologies do not bring him back!!" Roen voice cracked as she shouted at the older Hyur.


"...I am sorry."


"He..." Roen paused, to stop herself from shaking. She quickly brushed her warm cheek with her hand. “I am done talking to you. I am going to go fine Natalie and settle this."


“Even though it is too late to save a good man, I have a chance to stop this from spilling more blood,” Anelia pleaded.


"I am not turning over Nero. Nor am I sharing anything about him. Stop asking me,” Roen growled through gritted teeth.


Anelia inhaled deeply, her head bent. “If that's the case, you'd be making yourself an accomplice to him. Are you going that far for this man? Whatever the reports Natalie has against him has stronger favor, Roen. The next accomplice after that executed man is you.”


The Sworn’s threats did not register. Roen simply could not fathom any more violence being visited upon people she cared for. She stood rigid. “I will not help you find Nero. He will not be brought back to the gaols like Daegsatz was.”


“It doesn't matter. You don't want to cooperate with my offer to help you, then that is your choice. But, I can't stop Natalie either without any vital evidence. You can seek for me if you need help." Anelia sounded defeated as she turned away from her. “Take care, Roen."


Roen stood in the middle of the thoroughfare as Anelia walked away. The rest of the throng of Ul’dahns carried on about their day, as if nothing was amiss. A few gave the paladin a passing look, for Roen had not bothered to keep her words quiet nor calm. But she did not care. The fury within her still burned. She could not even fathom the thought of bringing this news to Nero. For her to think of him now…it would break whatever control she had managed to regain after the gaols. She could not face him. Not yet.


No. She would find Natalie first.

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"What have you done?!"


Roen slammed both her hands on the table, rattling the steaming mug that sat dangerously close to a scattered array of documents. Natalie Mcbeef just looked up at her with cold green eyes, unaffected by the raised tone of the Hyur woman who stood in front of her at the table in Bismarck. The afternoon sea breeze felt especially chilly as it whistled between the two women who once thought of each other as Shield Sisters.


“I guess Nero didn't take my advice.” Natalie picked up the mug, setting it atop the pile of documents as to weigh them against the winds. “I asked Nero to cut things off with you and leave the city. That’s all.”


"And then you executed his First Mate.” Roen struggled to keep her voice under control.


"He was a pirate after all. What did you think would happen?" Natalie shrugged. "Even Nero didn't ask about him. It was cruel to keep him in there anyway.”


"Do NOT make light of this, Natalie!!" Roen gave her a look of disbelief, slamming a fist against the table again. A few of the other patrons turned from their conversations at their tables, disapproving glance thrown her way. The paladin cared not.


"Roen..." Natalie drummed her fingers on the table, looking at her in an almost amused way."The man was a pirate, a smuggler, and a murderer. Do you deny any of those facts?"


"So are half the privateers in Limsa." Roen gritted her teeth. "The only reason Daegsatz was targeted is because his Captain targeted the Monetarists. Tell me that is not true. Tell me that they had nothing to do with his execution."


“Ul’dah killed Daegsatz, Roen. I merely swung the blade.” The Sworn rolled her eyes, then rested her gaze back onto the younger woman. "Do you want to know the real reason?" She raised a finger and pointed at her. "You started this Roen. You and your fool’s quest for revenge."


When Roen stiffened, Natalie took up her mug and took a sip of the warm drink as if to let her point sink in. “Don't blame me for what happens, when you've stirred up things that should have been left well enough alone."


Roen stared at the Sworn, incredulous. "My fault." She paused tilting her head. "Because I sought out the truth?"


"Would any of this had happened if you hadn't?"


The paladin narrowed her eyes. "I--"


She bowed her gaze, looking to her hands that closed into a fist. Natalie had struck close to home. A part of her did blame herself for Daegsatz’ arrest and imprisonment. And she had failed to free him in time. But she was not going to let Natalie shed her own blame in this. “So what. I am supposed to close my eyes? Turn the other way? Ignore everything that feels so wrong just so I keep the status quo?!"


For a moment, Natalie looked upon her with a softened gaze and a tired smile."What is the symbol of Ul'dah, who is our patron god? Nald’Thal. Many others have tried to alter the balance of the scale, but the Twins always correct it."


“It does not have to be that way. You need not just accept the weight of the suffering as long as it is counterbalanced by prosperity. That is wrong, Natalie."


"Well keep going Roen, keep trying,” Natalie shook her head with feigned patience. "Maybe when Nero lies dead we'll talk again, perhaps your viewpoint will have changed.” She paused for an effect, then flicked her glance back at her former apprentice. “Or you could just stop this now..."


Roen frowned deeply, locking gaze with the Sworn. "Why are you intent on his life??"


"Because of what you're doing. If you touch fire, Roen, don't blame it when you get burned." Natalie leaned back with her best tolerant look on her face, then she suddenly laughed. “But you're never the one who gets burned, are you? So perhaps you'll never learn that lesson."


"How could you even say that to me,” Roen growled, “after all you have done.”


Natalie’s cold expression did not waver. "Whatever you suffered, you still came out of it with your ideals and you precious virtue unscathed. Some of us were not so fortunate. Some of us had to bend.” Her green eyes narrowed, laced with bitterness. “Some of us had to shed whatever righteousness we had left, all to do what was necessary. Some of us had to make deals with the devil for you. So don’t you dare cast your judgement upon me. I forged those deals because of you, and I am now better and wiser for it. Whereas you? For all that I did, here you are, trying to destroy all that I have worked for.”


Roen blinked, staring, eyes wide at Natalie’s sudden vitriol. She was only answered with another slowly curled grin from the Miqo’te--a smile that did not reach her eyes.


“Whatever you seek to gain from this, I hope it's worth it." Natalie’s voice returned to its condescending tone. "Because whatever happens, I'm going to ensure you survive it, Roen. Let’s see how much of your virtue stands intact then as you see all the violence you have wrought around you. This is the price for your righteousness.”


Roen could only continue to stare. The paladin no longer recognized the woman seated across the table from her. Was this the same person who had taken her in as an apprentice when she had nowhere else to go? The one who had risked her life to save hers, multiple times over? She did not see any hint of compassion in the Miqo’te’s ruthless green gaze. No hint of that laughter they used to share so many moons ago. Nor the warmth the Sworn had shown in her times of distress.


"Natalie. Why…?” Roen's voice was a rasp. Her tongue felt like it was coated in sandpaper.


The Miqot'e's shrug was careless. "I could ask you the same question."


"Because I believe I can make a difference." The paladin straightened, her voice steadying with determination. "Because I believe those I am fighting for deserve someone to try."


Natalie let out a laugh, waving a hand dismissively. "Well, do your best Roen. Like I said it's not you that’s getting burned. It’s Nero I want. You just get to watch."


Roen narrowed her eyes dangerously. "If you are going after Nero, you will have to go through me."


"Ah...heroics." Natalie clucked her tongue then let out a sigh. “This will do you no good. It isn’t just me hunting him. I suspect that Nero is behind more raids on the seas than I can yet prove. And the fact that he’s smuggled drugs and Garlean weaponry into our city-state...I can easily argue that he will do the same to Limsa Lominsa. The Maelstrom and Yellowjackets will, at that point, lend assistance in any way they can.”


Roen’s mind began to race. The Sworns were in Limsa to hunt Nero, and they were recruiting the Lominsan law enforcement. This did not bode well for him.


“An example must be made.” Natalie broke the silence between them. “Our merchant shipping is not an open target to Limsa. For this alliance to survive there must be an example made if someone goes too far." The Sworn leaned back, crossing her arms with a smirk. "Nero will be that example."


Roen felt herself grow cold. There would be no reconciliation. Even after Daegsatz’s execution, there had remained some small flame that burned within--a distant glowing ember of hope that Natalie could be turned away from this course set by the Monetarists, or that she might find even a glimpse of remorse in her eyes. It was clear now that those were impossible wishes. Any faith the paladin had hoped to rekindle was now fully extinguished, leaving nothing but a dead grey taste akin to ash in her mouth.


Roen shook her head, giving Natalie one last withering look. "I hope you did not put these blinders on just for Ul'dah's sake, Natalie."


Natalie answered her with a sharp look of her own. "If I had, Roen, you would have died in that cell." She curled one corner of her lip ironically. “Hmph. Maybe I have learned from my mistakes since.”


“So be it,” Roen said softly, and promptly turned and walked away from the Miqo’te Sultansworn.


She knew the next time they met it would be as enemies.

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The Second Forte’s silhouette stood tall against the stormy skies, its towering masts threatening to pierce the swirling grey clouds above. No sunlight reached the Lominsan coast this midday, as the heavens opened up to release a downpour onto the white stoned city-state below. It was one of those rainstorms that flushed away the rooted grime from the lower streets, the mud and dirt washing out to the sea. No one noticed the woman walking through the empty merchant streets, the vendors and street rats busy scurrying from unprotected streets and piers.


Roen approached the docks, her footsteps heavy. Her hair was already plastered onto her face, her shirt soaked through the skin. She had been standing on the cliff overlooking the sea, wondering what she would say. No answers came. She could not fathom what she could say that would ease Nero’s pain.


The crew already recognized her as she neared, and pointed out where she would find their captain. Roen found herself avoiding their gazes, unreasonably afraid that if they met her eyes, they too would know the loss they had all had suffered.


When she reached the double doors of the captain’s quarters, the paladin found herself frozen, her hand hovering just before it.


“I saw you approach the ship,” Nero’s muffled voice came from within. “This cabin has portholes, you know. Come in.”


Nero stood in front of his desk, looking over some maps. Roen could barely look at the edge of the desk, dread already gripping around her heart. She frowned as she tried to collect her whirling thoughts; words would not come easily.


There was a pause from the smuggler--as if he noted her expression--but he greeted her with a grin anyway, as if to ease the tension. “I do believe I ordered some raptor from the Bismarck. I take it you're not here for that delivery?"


His jovial tone only made things worse. She knew she had to say it before she lost the courage to do so. Roen turned to him with haunted eyes. “Nero…” her voice was hoarse. “I…need to tell you something.”


She watched as his mirth drained away from his expression. He exhaled, as if to brace himself for bad news. “Speak, then.”


Roen closed her hands into tight fists by her side to quell the trembling there. But her voice still shook. "It is about Daegsatz. He..." She closed her eyes, hating the words she was about to say. "...He was executed in the gaols. For the crime of piracy." She wanted to hide, she wanted to be anywhere else but here, but she stood and forced her gaze back onto the pirate.


Nero's expression soured, gradually at first. She saw his eyes flit about, as if chasing a million different thoughts. His fingers curled, gripping the table he was leaning on, fingertips white on the rough grain, his breaths coming quicker. His head slowly lowered, his long forelocks falling around his eyes, hiding his expression from her.


“I am…so sorry,” she rasped. “I did not know until it was too late. He had already been…”


His voice trembled when he finally spoke. “...How did he die? And by who’s hand…?” Each words sounded leaden, almost a struggle for him to speak them. Roen saw his knuckles turning white as his fingers dug into the wooden desk, a few splinters breaking with the effort.


Roen swallowed, fighting the constriction in her throat that wanted to rob her of her breath. "Natalie had a signed death warrant. He had confessed and..." She found her own voice faltering. She had to tell him what happened. He deserved at least that much. "...and she questioned him. He did not give her what she wanted to know. So she carried out the execution."


"Did he suffer?" His voice was tight, strained, as if it was going to snap like a cable stretched too thin.


"Nay." Her answer was immediate."Natalie had two witnesses. They all said it was quick."


"Witnesses...." he rasped, his tone distant as if not quite understanding.


"A Flame and another Sworn." Roen nodded, sadness fighting with her own lingering bitterness at those words.


"...Witnesses..." he echoed. His voice sounded hollow. "A…warrant. From whom? Natalie is…she is a a Sworn. Did the Sultana...? Raubahn?"


“From an authority higher than Natalie."


"Then..." Nero started to say something, stopped, struggling with each word, as if trying to grasp the truth of what she was telling him. When he finally raised his head, his movements were labored. The eyes that bore into her through his bright orange forelocks were moist and bloodshot. "Tell me, then…where was…where was the trial?"


"The warrant. Tell me it was by a court's authority. Tell me that there was justice." His voice grew shakier, fraught with grief and anger. "Tell me…lie to me....tell me that he did not simply…tell me that…" he gasped. "Tell me he did not…die like an animal in a cage…" His words were broken by stuttered breaths.


Roen could only stand there. Her body felt emptied, as if all the blood had drained away. The rain that had soaked her to the skin now cloaked her in a cold embrace, though it was not the rain that made her tremble. "I am so sorry, Nero," she whispered, her head bowing.


"Tell me!!" He slammed his hands on the table. "Tell me that! Tell me that I was not foolish for…believing..."


Her own face twisted with grief but the paladin stood stalk still. She had no more words for him.


He rose from the desk. "You…you lied, didn't you..." Nero was in the throes of his grief, his despair fueling his words. "You told me…you said…he'd be freed…why did you lie? Why did you give me hope? Why did you…why...." His words died in a choked whisper.


Her hand slipped over her mouth as Roen forced her gaze to rise to meet his. He needed to grieve, perhaps to blame. She blamed herself, she could not turn his away "I am so sorry," was all she could offer. Her eyes were overflowing with tears, spilling her sadness and guilt.


He seemed naught to hear anything she had to offer. "I...I should have...no, I...why didn't I...I should...." He was pacing now, like a lost, confused animal, though the desk remained between them. His eyes, once so focused and sharp, they darted helplessly about the room, lost. His words stumbled over each other. Gone was the pirate captain, the sarcastic rogue, the determined smuggler, the fearsome thaumaturge. In its place was now but a boy, looking for answers, for a purpose.


"This...this was not your fault,” Roen shook her head. If nothing else, she needed for him to hear that.


With an animalistic scream, Nero whipped around and smashed his fist against one of the thick glass portholes. Cracks ran like spiderwebs across it, and blood began to seep from his knuckles. He did not seem to register the pain or the blood or the cracks. With his fist still pressed against the glass, he heaved, his chest rising and falling.


"Tell me...tell me...why…why he had to die like that…like -that...." His voice cracked. "Did he…did he not deserve better? Was that his fate, when he was brought into this world? Was...I..."


Roen swallowed, her throat suddenly dry. "He did not deserve that fate."


"Why...why him, why not me? Why was he punished? For my wrongdoings...?"


She stepped forward, pressing up against the desk that stood between them."His death was not your fault." She said again, desperately willing for him to hear.


"Then who's was it!? Who do I have to kill to...to bring Satz back? If it was not my fault, then...who...I'll... what do I..." The grief in his voice had given way to rage, and fury--not the indignant soul arguing for bettering Ul'dah, but merely a man lost in the throes of his despair. He was staring at the floorboards now, his bloody fist still pressed against the cracks in the glass. His left arm was slack, his knees stiff, his neck hung loose. Tears had begun to trace the scars on his face, dripping forlornly to the floor.


Roen had no words to offer. She took a step to close the distance between them.


"Leave me," he said hoarsely with his back to her still. "You've…done enough. Leave me."


Her hand rose then lowered again. She bowed her head and turned, and slowly walked back out of the cabin.





When she crossed the threshold, she saw Garalt, waiting outside the door. The Highlander's stoic face was creased and cracked with sadness, and his burly arms were folded across his chest.


"It is true, then," he said softly, his gruff voice full of sorrow.


Roen could only nod in response.


Garalt merely nodded his head slowly, standing aside to let her pass. "For what it is worth, miss...thank you for trying."


A broken gasp escaped just then, the paladin nearly faltered as the Highlander offered even that small bit of kindness. Her vision began to blur as she lowered her head. Anger was easier to take, to accept. She shook her head quickly again and stepped past him, her hand quickly brushing the moisture at her cheeks. "It was not enough."


"It usually never is," Garalt said, eyeing the grief-stricken captain in the cabin through the doorway behind her.


Roen fought for another breath, trying not to let more tears flow in light of Garalt's sympathy. "Nero is going to need...I knew Daegs loved..." she whispered between gasps. She turned and looked up at Garalt, her eyes imploring. "You will help him...aye?"


Garalt patted her shoulder with sympathy. "As best...as I can. But he's lost two of the most important people in his life…any man who's lost that much..." Garalt shook his head with a knowing sadness. "Daeg was a brother to me. But to Nero, he was…his binding element. Daeg kept him together during his hardest times." He paused and regarded her intently. "He may not say it, but I believe he trusts you, at least a bit. It would do good for you to....keep an eye on him as well."


The paladin searched the Highlander's expression, as if trying to make sense of his words. She just witnessed firsthand the pain she had brought upon Nero. She could not fathom that he would hold anything but blame for her. And yet...


Roen nodded, her gaze drifting downwards. "Aye. Whatever he needs," she whispered. She promised Daegsatz, did she not? She casted a forlorn glance back towards the cabin.


Garalt nodded to her. "You should go..." the Highlander said softly, almost guiltily.


She nodded, brushing her cheeks again. "Gratitude for your words," she whispered hoarsely, then quickly exited the ship. It was only after she stepped outside into the torrential rain that she let her tears flow freely, wishing the sadness and regret could be washed away out to sea.

Edited by Roen
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A day went by. And then another. The bells rang every hour on the hour, and yet the passage of time offered Nero no respite from his grief.


Days that should have spent working, on furthering his plan, had been abandoned in favour of him collapsed in his bed, the door to his cabin locked. He refused water or food, bidding that his crew leave him be. Garalt, ever the crutch that he was, had been courteous enough to shoo away anyone who attempted to disturb him. The storm had lapsed the previous day but had returned in full force, the sound of lightning cracking open the sky with the boom of thunder resounding in the horizon.


His thoughts were as turbulent as the weather. Every now and then he caught himself thinking of Daegsatz; a fond memory, an amusing anecdote, an embarrassing moment. Every time one of those grieved musings floated to the top of his consciousness, it felt as if his despair would tear him apart, and the more he tried to force his thoughts away, the more they came back to haunt him.


Was it worth it? Nero wasn't foolish. He knew that a risk always existed that his plans could harm his crew; if he wasn't certain of it before, then the the deaths of Liam and Martin during the raid on the Silver Bazaar was absolute proof. Daegsatz, though...he had never expected to lose Daegsatz. The smuggler had taken it upon himself to keep his crew out of his plans. The Forte would be involved, but the crew themselves never took to Thanalan. They didn't know of his plans, of what he intended to do. And yet, that attempt to shield the men under his command...had gotten Daegsatz killed. Because the Roegadyn did not know anything useful for his captors.


Why? Why was Daegsatz punished? No...no, Daegsatz' death was Nero being punished. Or was that his egotism speaking? He felt confused, lost, drowning in a whirlpool of turmoil that threatened to pull his head beneath black waters, to allow him no rest, no respite.


For two days his mind cycled through these thoughts. A memory would bring itself to the fore, only to be suppressed by Nero's haphazard attempts to control his emotions. Grief, followed by guilt, followed by numbing amounts of self-pity...when suddenly, after what felt like years, his anger flared.


No. The fault was not his. Daegsatz was just something else that Ul'dah had taken from him.


The city was corrupt.


Something had to change.


Lethargically, Nero willed himself to raise his head. Then he managed to sit up. After a few minutes, he managed to stand, and by that point, his rage had quelled itself. It was no longer a blazing flame, but had frozen itself into frigid ice.


That's right; Daegsatz died because he had been too slow. He'd been naive enough to allow Ul'dah's justice to murder his first mate. From this point forward, his plans would not be stopped. The city would bend to his will, or he would destroy it and bury the ashes. He'd spent far too much time as it was wallowing in his grief. Daegsatz was dead and gone, but fortunately, Nero had someone to blame. He had a clear enemy, and his resolve was unwavering, for if he gave up now, then Daegsatz' death would have meant nothing.


Even so, Nero would not let his plans devolve into petty vengeance. This was far more than simple revenge. For Daegsatz' sake, he had to go through with the full entirety of his plan, now more than ever. A new, steely sense of purpose reinforced him as he pushed the doors to his cabin open. Garalt had been standing guard outside, resolutely. Nero's gaze softened slightly, as the Highlander was now the only true confidante that the smuggler had left.


"I apologise for the trouble," Nero croaked. He had gone without food or water for two days, and it must have showed in his haggard conditions; he became acutely aware of his dried and parched throat, of his stomach loudly protesting the absence of sustenance. The smuggler leaned against the door frame. 


Garalt nodded. "I'll bring something up to you," he said gruffly, quickly striding away.


Nero slowly sauntered over to his desk and collapsed in his chair. To anyone entering the room, he would have looked tired and lost, like he had given up. But that sentiment was far from the truth. His icy blue eyes bore holes into the wall.


He would not be stopped, not now, not ever. 


Lightning split the sky and thunder roared.


A storm was coming.

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When Roen returned to the Second Forte, the pirate captain she found working at his desk was not the grieving man she had left behind three suns ago. He looked haggard, his eyes sunken, as if he had not slept in days. He was hunched over the table as he wrote rapidly in large block letters on a piece of parchment. The desk was strewn with maps and books. He did not sit; there was a restlessness about him even in his wearied state. He did not look up at her when she entered his cabin.


“Was there something you needed?” He continued to write, finishing the last bit with what seemed an angry flourish. He folded the parchment and sealed it with wax.


"I have some of Daegsatz's effects," she said, "from the gaols. Ser Jojon had collected and saved them for me." Her own voice was soft, her eyes intently regarding him. "I thought you should have them."


Nero gave a wave. "Physical mementos of him are…plentiful. And I have my memories. I believe you should keep them; you did keep him company in the gaols, after all." He still did not meet her gaze, and his tone was almost nonchalant in its dismissal as he set to writing another letter.


Roen nodded, noting his distance. "How are you..?"


"Well enough." He finished the second letter, folded it into an envelope, and sealed it before stepping past her and opening the doors to his cabin. Not once did his glance flicker in her direction.


"Kendrick," he called out. From the top of the stairs leading to the deck, a boy in his mid-teens scampered down. Nero held out the letters to him, which were promptly taken. Nero closed the door again, stepping back to stand behind his desk, attention now turned to the various maps on his desk as he took one of the books and began to flip through the age-browned pages.


It was as if she was not even here. "Nero..." she broke the silence gently. "I know you must be angry. Is there anything I can do for you?"


"Anything you could do for me, you will not do," Nero said matter-of-factly. "So no."


Roen stiffened. "Tell me. Tell me how I can help you."


Nero sighed, frowning as he rubbed his forehead. "The question is not what I want you to do. The question is what are you willing to do? If you truly want to help, then when your Sultansworn friends pursue me--and they inevitably will--simply remove them from the city. Chase them out. Make their superiors recall them. Or kill them for all I care. Just keep them from interfering." His tone was cold, and his eyes continued to scan the maps. After a moment he added, softer, "If you do not take care of them, I will, and trust that I will not be nearly as kind to them."


She felt her throat tightening. "They are here already. Natalie has already inquired within the Maelstrom and Yellowjackets about you."


Nero paused in his turning of the pages but did not look up. "How long have they been here." It was more a demand than a question.


"A few suns.I am not sure when Natalie arrived. Ser Crofte followed as well, but of her own accord, trying to stop Natalie. Natalie is looking into the raids against the Syndicate ships. She has been pointed your way. I know that she has contacted the authorities here."


Nero's brow creased somewhat but he only continued to flip through the pages of the book. "Let me make myself clear, Roen." He still did not glance at her. "I sent two letters, just now. The first letter was to Zazarano Yoyorano, a minor Ul'dahn nobleman with a growing stake in the Amajina and Sons Mineral Concern. He also possesses tariff rights to several overland trade routes from Thanalan to Mor Dhona. He is not Syndicate material, but is influential enough to make himself a relatively valuable asset."


"I do not--" Roen began.


"My letter stated that Sebastian Redgrave was more than happy to accept a very sizeable share in controlling those tariffs, and that Sebastian was very glad to see that Lord Yoyorano was capable of seeing reason in the end. The second letter was to be distributed to the Thousand Suns bandit gang to raid his palatial estate in Eastern Thanalan and leave none alive, and that payment has already been sent in advance. The instant that letter left my hands, every living being directly sharing in Zazarano Yoyorano's bloodline died." His words were clipped, his tone cutting as a freshly-sharpened blade. "You see, Sebastian had already arranged for Yoyorano's distant family to meet for a gala with only a token force of Brass Blades. When he receives my first letter, there will be no one left alive who can make a direct claim to his inheritance."


Roen blinked, the blood draining from her face.


Nero finally glanced up at her, his gaze steely and cold. There was no fire, no flame; only silent ambition. "Get rid of them," he repeated.


"You…you are going to kill his entire bloodline for--for trade routes?" She shook her head. "Nero…there must be another way to--" She placed both hands on his desk, leaning in to beseech him. "There must be another way."


"The machine of Justice serves only those in power. It is slow and cold, and it belongs to whoever holds the reins. It is only the little people, the powerless, the helpless, who suffer at the hands of Justice. The creatures with power slide away from beneath its gaze with naught but a wink and a grin." The mercilessness in his gaze did not waver. "If you want justice, you will have to claw it from them. Make it personal. Decimate them. Send the message. That way, you stand a better chance of being taken seriously, and of being considered dangerous."


He looked back down at the map. "I will make it personal," he said, voice steely quiet. "I will force them to pay attention."


Roen frowned, shaking her head. "The Sworns already think you dangerous. Now you mean to make enemies of the nobles--all of the Monetarists! To what gain? You are making this personal and are being reckless. Do you mean to put yourself in the line of fire already?"


Nero shrugged. "The Sworns may think me dangerous, but I will not be linked to the destruction of the Yoyorano house. Trust me, my dear, I am being far, far more careful this time around. You would be wrong in thinking I will let Ul'dah take anything else from me ever again, let alone my life." His statement was almost metallic, hollow, robbed of life and vigor.


Sadness gripped her then, as she noted that emptiness in his voice. "Nero. I know his death...I know it must eat at you." She searched his gaze. "Have you abandoned all hope for what could be?"


"This was always my plan," was all he said in answer.


Roen bowed her head, her hands curling into fists on the desk. "To kill families? Children? Simply because they share a bloodline to one noble? That was your plan?!"


"They had the power to stop it, Roen. They needed only but surrender gracefully to me, and this--none of this--need not have happened. But they valued their gil more than they valued their families. They valued their names more than they valued those who would carry them on through the years. I am not the murderer. I am only the weapon." His eyes narrowed. "Natalie Mcbeef did not kill Daegsatz. Ul'dah did. And thus I will take the justice that is due. She was nothing more than a tool. She and I are the same; instruments for things far greater than us.”


Roen stared at Nero as he echoed the very words Natalie had spoken to her a mere three suns ago. Were they truly no different?


"I asked Daegsatz, Nero, about you. More than once." She hoped that perhaps the memories of someone he loved would reach the smuggler, break through this vengeful mindset. "Daegsatz did not share much. He did not want to break your confidence. He loved you like a son. I cannot believe he would condone you killing families. Children. An entire bloodline."


"Daegsatz cannot condone or condemn anything." He stared her down. "He is dead." Nero's tone remained hollow as ever. "He has gone to a place where happiness and sadness, good and evil, justice and injustice…these things do not exist where he is now."


"And you are staining his death with more bloodshed," Roen said quietly, her voice tinged with sorrow.


"This was always part of my plan, regardless of whether or not Daegsatz died. My memories of him will remain. I will remember the man for how he lived, not how he died--alone, in a gaol, with naught but the stone floor to comfort him," Nero spat bitterly. It was the first flash of emotion he had shown since she had returned. He turned his icy gaze back to her.


"Feel free to lecture me on the reform of Ul'dah when you have a better plan, Miss Deneith. When you've accounted for every single variable and accounted for every factor and wild card, when you have made the absolute most precise calculation of how much blood you need to spill. When you have done all of that and formed a plan superior to mine...then you may lecture me."


His look was colder than she had ever seen it, as were his words. "But until then, get out. You've no use to me for now."


"If those orders have not been carried out yet, I still have time." Roen frowned, indignation rising.


Nero rolled his eyes at her. "That was the thirtieth copy I have sent in the past two days. If I believed you to have any chance of interfering, I would not have so brazenly told you what my plans are."


Her heart sank. She narrowed her eyes as she stared at the documents on the table. "Then I will have to stop the bandits. Whatever tools you are using to incite violence." She scowled, slamming the palm of her hand against his desk. "Nero, I want to help you change Ul'dah, not stop you!"


"You want to help me change Ul'dah your way," he snapped at her. "That's all I was to you, wasn't it? You didn't know how to change it. You had no plan. You still don't. You don't know how to make the nobles bend to your will. You don't know how to weaken the Monetarists enough for the Sultana to take power. You don't know anything that is of use." He took a deep breath. "I have a plan. I am trying to do things with as little casualties as possible. I do not wish death upon anyone. But this is the only way."


"I know your way begets more violence,” Roen protested. “The deaths of corrupt nobles and lawmen, yes, that perhaps is needed, but you are talking about killing children."


"I don't care if you believe otherwise,” He spat back at her. “I don't care if you think I'm wrong. Show me some results. Show me that there is something ringing in that pretty head of yours besides hollow ideals. You know, they say that evil prevails when good men do nothing. What they ought to say is 'evil prevails.' Period."


"I am working with someone within the Immortal Flames and the Brass Blades--”


"And how long will that take? What is your plan, Roen Deneith?!" Nero's voice nearly cracked. "You have yet to offer me anything. You sit there on your pillar of self-righteousness and criticize me when you have nothing to show for yourself! Daegsatz died believing in your justice. I will not allow that to happen to others. The system is corrupt beyond salvation. To use it is to invite our own destruction."


She shook her head. "They were but a start. I--"


"Show me some results, and then--and only then--will I be inclined to entertain your ravings on morality," Nero said coldly. His tone was beyond dismissive now-- it was mocking.


"I do not know what results I can show you to convince you," Roen said, voice hoarse. "I want to change things from the inside out. But...it will not bring the results you want. Not quickly."


He swept his hand in a gesture toward the door. "Then get rid of the Sworns. Regardless of how you spin it, their presence in this city is dangerous. The Sultana herself will end up answering for their reckless actions. I do not want to see you again until you have something with which to present to me besides another useless tirade on 'the right way'."


He gave her one final stare, and then returned to his books and maps.


Roen spun on her heel and strode out the door as quickly as she could.

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What do I do?


“Watch ‘im in me place,” Daegsatz’s had asked her.


Roen curled her knees tightly to herself, laying her head against them. She was perched upon a large white boulder that sat on the sandy beach of the Mist, the waves washing up quietly against the base of the pale rock. Despite the cool breeze of the early dawn, melancholy made each intake of breath more difficult; even the misty air itself seemed to press down upon her with a crushing weight. She wanted to curl up into a ball and forget the rest of the world.


But she could not. She made a promise--a promise to herself, a promise to Daegsatz…and even a promise to Nero.


"You and I will become a sword and shield. I will slay those who encroach upon us. You shall defend justice and the innocent. An apt analogy, no?"


How had those words come to sound like a distant dream? Did Nero really say them to her? Or did he just offer her what she wanted to hear?


Roen refused to believe the latter, or at least she was trying her best not to. But there was a part of her that wanted to scream bitterly at herself for believing in the man. You are naive. Ridiculous. Foolish! That angry voice inside her did not want to relent.


But these were not her words. They were his. And it was his voice she heard.


“This was always my plan,” his voice echoed in her head, like a hollow metallic ringing of a hammer striking an anvil.


Roen had come to the Second Forte to console him, although partly it was for herself as well. Daegsatz had become a friend and confidant in the fortnight she had come to know him. Even though she knew Nero’s loss was so much greater than her own, she had hoped that perhaps they could find some solace in each other.


Nero’s reaction had been severe when she had delivered the news that first day. He bid her leave him, and so she abided by his wishes and had left him alone, grief stricken. But when she returned, determined to lend some comfort his way, he greeted her with this grim news--the latest development in his grand plan. Her sympathy drained away as she could do nothing but stand there stunned. Her plea for compassion in remembrance of Daegsatz, it touched him not at all; Nero seemed intent on carrying out his plan. He barely met her gaze, and when he did, it was with the coldness of an icy spear, piercing her clear through.


"Daegsatz died believing in your justice. I will not allow that to happen to others. The system is corrupt beyond salvation; to use it is to invite our own destruction."


His words…they made her doubt herself. Nero questioned her usefulness, her lack of plan, and her lack of results. He cared naught about her justice, accusing that Daegsatz died believing in its fallacy. And a part of her…


She could not argue. The justice system, the due process that she had so fervently petitioned for…it failed her. Nero had offered to put his plan on hold, to allow her justice a chance to work, but now with his First Mate’s wrongful execution, he was not willing to wait any longer. He had put it into effect with deadly precision and haste.


Families killed. Would she do nothing? Was this the only way? Was the path of righteous and just truly ineffective?


"You want to help me change Ul'dah your way," he had snapped at her. "That's all I was to you, wasn't it? You didn't know how to change it. You had no plan. You still don't. You don't know how to make the nobles bend to your will. You don't know how to weaken the Monetarists enough for the Sultana to take power. You don't know anything that is of use."


His words, they cut her like sharp knives. Nero was no longer the man she had raced with, grinning into the wind on the backs of chocobos through the Noscean hills. He was not the man she finally took the initiative to kiss herself, nor the man who held her hand and returned that kiss, many times over. Gone was the twinkle in his eyes, and the warmth of his smile. The fire that now burned was ice; that gaze held no heat, only cold, deadly ambition.


Roen had walked out. She knew there were no answers she could give him that would soothe his pain. She failed to give him any comfort. He hungered for revenge, and saw her only as an obstacle in his way.


"Ye be takin' care o' Nero's fool arse, aye?" the Roegadyn’s voice rumbled in her memory. "I guarantee 'e be needin' yer compassion far more than me." It made her tremble with sorrow.


Nero was lost in his grief and he had thrown himself into his work--his plan. Anything to shove aside the sorrow that ate at his heart--what compassion that was left in him. Roen knew the signs all too well. She had seen it before. Before the Calamity.


Was she letting it happen all over again? She had ran away from her father, desperate to look worthy in his eyes. She had joined the Battle at Carteneau, believing that she could do something that he would take notice, to bring him out of his pit of despair. She had been wrong then. Her father had only descended further into his obsessions, one that resulted in the deaths of countless men, women, and children.


And now Nero was walking the same path. Despite his assurance that he had looked for a way that involved to the least amount of death as possible, he was still implementing plans that would wipe out families, entire bloodlines.


And he was no longer waiting or hesitating. He was burning away his grief with the cold flames of vengeance.


"Because you do have compassion. Despite what you have known. The hardships and the darkness that you have seen. It still is in there. Somewhere." Those were her own words given to Nero as they both looked over oceanic horizon in Limsa Lominsa just a few suns before Daegsatz’s death. "I find that...remarkable." A part of her wanted to still believe it was not lost.


The paladin released her hold on her legs, straightening. She rose and dusted herself off, her eyes going to the horizon that began to glow gold with the slow arrival of morning. She could not let Nero drown in his grief with the blood of his enemies.


“I would not give up on him for anything.” Nero’s own voice echoed in her head, just above the sound of the waves. “I don't think I would forgive myself for giving up on him." He had spoken of his own father, then. It rang so true to her now.


I would not forgive myself either, Roen said silently to herself as she slid off the rock, her booted soles sinking into the soft wet sand. I still have not. She squinted at the vast sea that rippled with the light of dawn, as the sun was just beginning to crest the horizon.


I will not make the same mistake again.


She would not see Nero lose himself in his violent plans. She could not.


I will save him.

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It was later that day that Daegsatz' funeral ceremony was held. It was a simple affair, without words or tears. There was no plea for remembrance or grieving speeches. It was simply a group of men mourning another lost brother.


Nero and the crew had stood on a private dock, where a dinghy had been tied. In the center of the tiny vessel lay a well-cared for battle ax; it held some minor scratches, but it had been lovingly polished to a mirror shine, and the wooden handle gleamed with fresh varnish. In lieu of a body, the dinghy had been loaded with the Roegadyn's personal effects and various gifts ranging from mundane to splendidly luxurious. An ornate pen and ink pot with several sheets of high-quality vellum, a sextant, a jar of seashells, bottles of brandy, a basket of oranges, a set of large scale armor, gaudy jewelry, a gold-trimmed tricorne hat, and other items. The interior of the dinghy also gleamed with oil and dry hay.


With naught a word and with a gust of the wind as his signal, Garalt lowered the small sail and untied the dinghy, shoving it towards the sea. The wind gradually caught in the sail and the current slowly pulled the vessel towards Llymlaen's embrace. The men standing on the end of the pier were silent as the dinghy pulled further and further away. Eventually, the tall Highlander picked up a longbow nocked an arrow, the head of which was wrapped in an oil-soaked rag. The slight tchk of a match strike was heard as the head of the arrow was ignited, and with a practised eye, Garalt let loose the missile. Several seconds later, an orange silhouette made itself known on the horizon as the dinghy ignited.


One by one, the crew parted from the edge of the pier as the tiny blaze became smaller and smaller. There was the patting of shoulders and audible exhales as the men left, with only Garalt and Nero left.


It was after a long silence that the smuggler spoke. "Do you believe I should have invited Miss Deneith?" he asked, his voice cracking slightly as he stared at the horizon.


The Highlander inhaled, folding his arms across his chest. "It would only be right for her to have been here," Garalt said gruffly. He kept his tone neutral, but Nero could hear the disapproval that edged itself onto the Highlander's gravelly voice. "She had been with him in his last days."


Nero exhaled, his arms wrapped around his abdomen as he pursed his lips. "This...would not have been approved by her. She would have expected speeches, sobbing. Perhaps an award with his name." The Highlander responded by flashing a brief glare at him.


"She is not nearly as foolish as you seem to think," was the curt response, as Garalt turned and left the pier.


Nero knew that. Or did he? They had argued only earlier that day. His words had been sharp and venomous. He had demanded from her results, for truly in this world effort meant nothing if there was naught to show for it. Roen had, from the day they had made their alliance, insisted that there was another way. The wind blew at his back, causing his hair to ripple forward. The Hyur did not notice the weather, for he was too deep into his own thoughts.


That stupid woman. Nero had thought of all of the other ways. None of them would work. The people were too fickle, too short-sighted, too dull and dim and ignorant. For their own good, they had to be herded like cattle in the right direction. It was like Vail said; the surest way to make people act how you want them to is to make them act in self-interest. The Monetarists held a firm grip on the city. The people who knew about the corruption didn't care and the people who cared about the corruption didn't know, or at least didn't know enough to make any sort of difference.


Radical change required radical action.


This was the only way.


He loved you like a son. I cannot believe he would condone you killing families."


This was the only way.


And you are staining his death with more bloodshed,"


No. Daegsatz was dead, and what was left of him had been sent to Llymlaen. Ul'dah had killed him. Nero folded his arms, his hands clenching into fists.


"Nero, I want to help you change Ul'dah, not stop you."


The more he thought about it, the angrier he became. She was still intent on lecturing him, criticising him, perhaps even opposing him, all because she balked at the actions that were necessary. And there were others like her, others who would condemn his extremism, simply because they had never seen the Jewel for what it was.


Rotten. Festering.


This was the only way.


The Monetarists had to be destroyed. Their greedy talons had to be severed. The people, though perhaps they themselves did not know it, were crying out for salvation. They needed to know that their lives were more than just the clink of gil.


This was the only way.


Images flashed to the surface of his consciousness. A screaming child as a noble's guards dragged him away from his destitute mother. A Brass Blade grinning as he slapped a spindly beggar away, breaking the man's jaw. The bandits hustling merchants in broad daylight before beating them within an inch of their life. The prostitutes hurrying to hide the orphans before their crime lords came to take their due.


This was the only way.


An Ala Mhigan man holding a child in his arms, sobbing outside of the city walls. The child was skeletal, his skin drawn taught across his bones like paper. The man was in no better condition, his rib cage showing clearly. The Blades kicked him away to the refugee camp. Nothing but the quiet, weakened wails could be heard.


This was the only way.


A haggard Roegadyn, trying to teach a Hyur teenager patience. The Hyur was tugging on the rod with too much force, such that the rod would break before the fish would be landed. A large, gentle hand clasped itself around the rod, thick arms skillfully waving the rod in a dance as he turned the reel, a subtle twinkle of joy when the Hyur finally managed to do the same, even if the bass was small in size.


This was the only way.


Nero turned and began to walk back to the ship, his footsteps heavy on the planks of the pier.


This was the only way.


The city would bend to his will or be destroyed.


This was the only way.

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Osric Melkire, Chief Flame Sergeant of the Immortal Flames.


If anyone can be an invaluable asset, it would be he.


Despite the fact that it was Jameson Taeros who had initially recruited Sergeant Melkire into investigating the cover up at the Nanawa Mines, Roen and Osric had since developed a measure of trust between them. He was the one who had tried to prove the Sultansworns’ innocence at the risk of his own life, and was also the one that had recruited a sizable force to raise arms against Crimson Mountain when she had been kidnapped.


It was also Osric Melkire who had investigated and neglected to report her involvement in the deaths of the bandits at the Nanawa Mines--an incident that had also resulted in the death of a Brass Blade.


It was no secret that Roen owed Osric much.


So when Osric asked to meet Nero, she complied. Not only did she trust the Flames sergeant, but he had numerous connections, ones that could be valuable. And after the last conversation the paladin and smuggler had exchanged a sevenday past, a part of her wanted to have a third set of eyes to assess the situation. Even if she knew that Osric would not like all of Nero’s plans--if any.


Nero had agreed to the meeting, albeit reluctantly. His voice still held a sharp edge to it when they spoke through the linkpearl.


When the sergeant and she approached the end of the pier in lower decks of Limsa Lominsa, the pirate had his back turned to them. He was dressed in a finely tailored black and brown robe, his silver scepter hanging by his side.


Osric was in stark contrast to the pirate; he had come dressed in a ratty brown hempen cloak, most of his armor hidden beneath the coarsely woven cloth.


"I will assume you have good reason to bring a Flame here,” Nero spoke first, his tone monotonous and controlled.


“I thought it was time that both of you met. This is Flame Sergeant Melkire.” She gestured to the cloaked man next to her even though Nero did not turn around.


"That wasn't yours to give," Osric said, shooting Roen a glare.


"I am sorry, Sergeant. But to start off with a lie does not bode well for alliances. If that is what this is." Roen gave a look of an apology to the man.


The Flame sergeant snorted, turning back to look at Nero. "You're sloppy. That should be reason enough."


"If you are referring to the mines, then the fault would be the paladin's, not mine," Nero said, his voice still controlled. "You would not have found me if it were not for her leaving a trail that a blind child could follow." After a pause, he added, "And no offense meant, Miss Deneith. I recognize that subterfuge is not exactly a strong point of yours."


Osric crossed his arms. "You brought her into this. That means accepting responsibility for the consequences. But then, I understand that responsibility is not exactly a strong point of smugglers."


Roen remained silent, although she had stiffened at Nero’s judging words.


"She brought herself into this by her own choices, but now we are simply arguing semantics. How much has she divulged to you?"


"Enough. I'm but a glimpse of your face away from having you made." The sergeant shrugged.


Nero craned his head back at the sergeant, his smirk more audible than visible. "Perhaps, but that is not why you are here, is it?"


"I'm here to learn whether your brand of madness will benefit the people or cost them their lives. What was seized alongside the refugee supplies that you couldn't afford to lose?"


The smuggler raised a brow, clearly impressed. "Certain luxury goods that I had intended to use to ingratiate myself with some of Ul'dah's lesser powers. Though that hardly matters now, no? The goods are far away from my hands now."


Osric’s words had a tinge of wariness about them. "It matters given what you've just told me. Lesser powers...reform..." The sergeant heaved a long, slow breath.


Roen had fallen silent, her eyes going to the wooden planks of the pier. Her frame was tight with tension, gone was the hope that she had held when Osric and she had spoken last. So much had happened since.


"Tell me truly, if you'd like a man on the inside: why should I assist you in rebellion rather than report what I know, and what I now suspect?"


"Because, Sergeant, reporting what you know and arresting me accomplishes nothing. A seasoned man like yourself surely knows that lowborn criminals like me sprout like weeds. You may, of course, choose to arrest me. Or report me to your superiors. Or have me assassinated, or what have you. Whoever ends up taking my place will have far less noble intentions."


"And far less fanatic fervor. As one lowborn criminal to another, trust me when I say that I understand fully well that those who follow in your wake will be far less capable. If your intentions are so noble, win me over with silvery tongue and honeyed words. That's what you do, no?"


Roen glanced between the two men, her look of consternation growing.


"Miss Deneith seems to believe in our alliance. Is that not enough? Or do you believe her to be suspect in all of this as well?"


"I believe you've sold her the prettier tale from your shelves. I'd like the unabridged copy."


"Consider me, then, a political radical. Ul'dah is too corrupt to change from within the system, so I would like to change it for the better using external forces." His statement lacked any elaborate wording or flowery vocabulary; it was as blunt as a hammer, and as subtle as one.


"The system, as systems typically go, favours those with power. Those with gil. That needs to change."


Osric grimaced. "You intend to replace one standard power with another, then?"


"You believe that the Syndicate's power is standard?"


"I believe gil is the standard, as you just pointed out."


Nero snorted. "I intend to change the standard entirely. What it will be replaced with is not up to me."


Osric paused, as if to consider those words. When he spoke again,his tone had taken a slight prodding turn. "Those luxury goods. Weapons?"


"I do not believe I am under any obligation to answer that question."


Osric snorted. "Only those with something to hide refuse to supply answers. I'll tell you this: while I applaud your vision, your methods leave the Alliance open to the Empire...unless I've missed something?"


Nero grinned with a sidelong glance toward the Flame sergeant. "And only fools fail to hide the things that truly matter to them," he returned. "As for the Empire, I do have a deterrent in mind. Not that I have any intention of revealing what said deterrent is to you." He paused with a nod. "Of course, there is a risk. There is always a risk. A plan involving anything worth fighting for carries a risk."


Roen flicked a glance at Osric at the mention of the Empire. Her frown only grew, but she held her tongue.


Osric returned that look with one of his own. "Risk naught, win squat. I know the adage. I know the logic." He met her eyes for a moment longer, as if to press that point, before turning back to Nero.


"I asked for this meeting in order to better understand you. I had hoped that you might offer some justification for my assistance...yet not once during this conversation have you given a thought towards lives that might be lost. Instead, you focus solely on your goal, as if you only seek to feed your own ego. 'I was right. I did what I had to do. It needed changing because I said so. Damn everyone else.'” Osric shook his head, his arm still crossed in front of his chest. He sounded almost regretful. “I'm afraid I can't support that."


The paladin let out a long sigh, her head bowing slightly. The alliance between Nero and Osric would not be agreed upon. despite her hopes. Nero had not opened up and discussed his true intentions, and Osric was too cautious of a man to accept any plan without knowing the truth about the man orchestrating them.


The Flame sergeant pivoted to walk away, pausing only to leave his parting words. "Should you founder, and your eyes open, you can reach me through Roen."


Osric quickly made his exit off the pier, his head bowed low as his heavy hood fell over his eyes.

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Nero snorted as the silhouette of the Flame Sergeant eventually disappeared from the corner of his eye. His arms remained folded, and he did not turn to face the paladin whom he now addressed.


"That was a thorough waste of time," the smuggler commented idly. "He expected me to prostrate myself before him, to insist that it was for the people's sake. What an incredibly dull and short-sighted man he is." The splashing of the sea against the pier almost drowned out Roen's response, so quiet was her voice.


"He needed to believe...he needed to see that it would all be worth it." Another snort ejected itself from Nero's nostrils.


It had been a week since they had last spoken, and the two of them had not parted on good terms. Nero had demanded that she show some results, and the Flame Sergeant's presence was the culmination of that effort. As for the smuggler, it had been a week of planning, a week of deals and compromises, a week of thoughts and contemplation. The blazing rage that Daegsatz' death instilled within the Hyur had cooled to smoldering coals. To surrender his plan to the whimsies of revenge was pointless. What was required now was cold, mechanical efficiency.


"Why must you be....so cold. And arrogant," came the displeased voiced that muttered behind him.


"What would you have done in my place, Roen?" he asked idly.


He could feel her gaze boring into the back of his head. "You should have trusted me enough to know that I brought a good man to you. Someone who could have helped you. You should have trusted me enough to lower your guard for just a moment, to let him not stare at your back, but to look into your eyes. To not let him hear your cold rehearsed--"


The smuggler tilted his head slightly, not enough to show the full extent of his expression but enough to glare at her from the corner of his eye. "The last time I trusted a good person to help me, my first mate was executed like a dog in Ul'dah's gaols." His tone was steely, and his grip tightened against his arms. "You will excuse me if my trust is in short supply at the moment," he practically spat the words.


It had been a week, but it seemed that the smoldering coals still had enough heat to burn.


He tilted his gaze forward again, showing the paladin naught but the back of his head. "I am cold and arrogant because the circumstances demand it of me. Because simple words of altruism are cheap. My opponents are ruthless, and I must be just as ruthless if I am to succeed."


He could practically hear her stiffen behind him.


"..I am sorry for his death," she said quietly, her tone gradually growing more pronounced. "I am. I do not know how to make this right!" When Nero did not deign to respond, she continued.


"Is that it? Will you hate and distrust everyone from here henceforth? Is the world no longer worth considering at all? Is no one else worth your trust, or even a glimpse of the rest of the truth?"


Venomous words boiled beneath Nero's veneer of placidity. No, he wanted to shout. The world is not worth considering. Everything I am doing is in an attempt to change it into a world that is.


In that moment, it was as if the smuggler was viewing himself from a void in the outside. A realisation struck him like the blow of a hammer. Had his extremism grown so wild? Nero had just shut out what could have been a valuable asset. A ranking officer within the Immortal Flames. 


My plans.. He had been willing to go to such length for his plans, but now it seemed he was self-sabotaging. He had built a tall, thick wall of jade around himself, and it was only now that Nero could sense how badly that wall would sabotage his ambition. 


For was that not the reason why he fought? For his ambition? Was that not why Liam and Martin and Daegsatz died? For his ambition? If he did not carry out his plans to the fullest, if he did not succeed in every avenue, their deaths would have meant nothing.


And that was unforgivable.


He felt his legs grow weak. His arms dropped to his sides; his head turned to Roen briefly before he turned his gaze away, unable to maintain eye contact with her. "You..." Nero said quietly. "You are the only one...who has seen even a fraction of the truth." Despite everything, despite her indignation, her own arrogance, her anger at his killing, despite everything that threatened to keep them apart....Roen had stayed with him. She had resolved to see his plan through.


In the wake of Daegsatz' death, though Nero would never admit it to himself, Roen had become his stabilising agent.


"I know," she responded softly. He still could not bring himself to look at her. "And...I betrayed you. I did not free him. I wish for all that I could give, that I could change that."


Nero turned to face her, at last, and gently gripped the sides of her arms. "The fault..." he murmured, his voice threatening to crack. "It is not yours. My mind...has been trying, endlessly, to convince my heart of that truth. You are not at fault, Roen Deneith." He shook his head. "You...you have never been at fault. You have only ever been at the mercy of that city...like me."


Her eyes lowered as she shook her head slightly. "I should have. I should have..."


Nero tilted her chin up to look at him. "I...do trust you. Even if I trust no one else...I trust you. But there is a time and a place for kind words and altruism...but that time is not now. Not while the city suffers."


His gaze hardened slightly. "Your friend is concerned with the people. He is only concerned with the present, with the immediate loss of lives. He did not give an ounce of thought to the city's future. He did not think about what a new system can give them."


The paladin blinked away what moisture rose to her eyes as Nero shook his head.


"Lives will be lost. But this plan...it is not about the people who live now. The change I seek to enact is for the people who will inherit the city in the future. It is for the children who deserve to grow in a brighter world." Nero exhaled softly as he continued.


"I would not convince Melkire with lies. Had I told him that I believed in the people, that would have been a falsehood, for I do not. I do, however, believe in the future, a better future, and I believe that the possibility of that future is worth more than the lives of people living today." 


The smuggler could not help but grin wryly at his own words. "Listen to me. A perfectly capable ally searched for the words that I speak to you now...yet, the only one I can say them to is you." He could not help but let out a small chuckle. "Perhaps I should lie more often."

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"Nero. You are not the only one who wants to save Ul'dah. In that you are not alone."


Those were her own words, offered to the pirate over a moon ago.


"That remains to be seen," he had replied. "The night is darkest before the dawn, and blood will be spilled. The question remains, Miss Deneith, not whether you know to spare a life, but whether you will know when to take one. And take you shall. All of us will sacrifice. Sooner or later we are all forced to sacrifice our morals and integrity."


Nero had warned her then: "The Jewel has shaped all of us, as the waves shape the shore. What form will you take when the smoke clears and the blood dries?"


Roen regarded the smuggler with sadness as the memory of their earlier conversations flitted before her mind's eye. How true his words rang to her now. There was anguish that tugged at her thoughts, as she pondered on the loss of lives, weighed against the hope for the future. And the hope she held for the man in front of her. She still believed that she could change the course of his plans.


But lives had been lost already, and he was planning for more. Would she be able to stop it? What was her other choice? To stop him?


There was still hope for the refugees and for Nero. She could not give up on that, and the hope to spare innocent lives as well. She had made her mind up suns ago. She had to work to save them all.


"I would hear the truth every time,” she said quietly, peering up at him. "But it is always just...glimpses with you. And you show naught to hardly anyone else."


"Even those are...difficult," Nero said softly. "I've lived in nothing but a world of lies, Roen. You begin to tell so many that the word 'truth' becomes just that. It just becomes another word with which to lie." Nero frowned, and she could see conflict behind his expression. "I tried…I tried so hard to blame you. I tried so hard to think that Daegsatz' death was your fault. But the blame I held for you was only a mask, one of many. All it did was veil the blame I held for myself. The blame I still hold for myself." She saw his mask fall away then, arrogance evaporating to leave a man weighed with sorrow, guilt, and weariness.


Roen canted her head, regarding him with tenderness. “He would not want to inflict this pain upon you," she said softly. "He knew you already held so much within."


"I am…glad. For what it's worth, I am glad that you grew to know him. And I am glad that he had the chance to know you, even briefly." He met her gaze honestly. ”Despite everything, though he and I did not share words during that time…I believe he considered you a friend."


She lowered her gaze again, fighting the sadness that rose. She swallowed it down. "I am sorry, Nero. I truly am.”


Nero seemed to hesitate briefly before taking her hands in his own. "In Crescent Cove, I promised you. I said I would try…I would try to be better. That promise is not just for you, but for Daegsatz' sake as well. But there is something I need to know."


When she looked back up at him questioningly, Nero met her gaze with his own.


"I need to know that you will stand by me. I need to know that I am not wrong to pursue this path. I need to know that…that this dream we share, of changing Ul'dah…I need to know that it is something worth believing in. I need to know that Daegsatz died…for a cause. A good cause. Even if he did not know it himself." He bowed his head slightly, as if to level his gaze with hers. "Despite our arguments, our heated barbs, our differences…you still…insist. You push. You are still trying to save me." He shook his head. "You are as foolish now as you were back then." He took a breath, then added softly, "but…it is not so bad to be a fool at times, I am beginning to find."


She glanced down at their hands, and tightened her own hold around his fingers. "I know. I am. But I still believe. I believe in this dream. And I believe in you. I believe in the hope that I know you still hold deep within." She glanced back up at him. "Daegsatz saw the same man that I see." Her voice lowered to a whisper. "I cannot give up on him."


Nero pulled her ever so slightly closer. "And what man do you see? What does Nero Lazarov mean to Roen Deneith?”


Roen brought one hand up to his face, her finger gently tracing a scar there. "I know him not. And yet...I believe that I do." Her eyes studied the scar, her fingers tracing his jawline. There was slight trepidation there. "And…as much as you push me away, I cannot leave." She gave him a sorrowful smile. "Am I foolish to think so? That I believe you are still good? That you hold hope in your heart?” She bowed her head, as a thought came to her unbidden. “And that you might…hold something else?" It was purely selfish thing, she knew, a thing she did not want to give voice. She did not want to acknowledge it even to herself except in her secreted moments. And yet...she asked. "For me?"


Nero responded with a sudden, almost forceful kiss, one that seemed equal parts passion and desperation. He held his lips to hers for what seemed like days. He exhaled when their lips parted, his hands still clasped in hers.


Roen released her own breath in a quiet gasp, inhaling as he pulled back.


"I do not know," he breathed quietly. "I do not know if I can give you what you seek. I do not know if the man you see is real. I do not know..." The smuggler then gave a small, weak smile. "But…I suppose I am willing to find out, for now."


Her hand was still tightly curled around his. “Then we will find out together.” Her lips lifted into a small but hopeful smile. “I will save you.”


Nero blinked, something in his eyes changing at her words. He turned away from her then, though his voice remained quiet. "I do believe that your friend Melkire is a good man," he said, abruptly changing the subject. "But I do not believe he will approve of my plan. He cares about the people, but I do not believe he has a place working with us. Sooner or later, the city will force him to choose, and he will choose the status quo, or he will choose change. He is not like you. I do not believe the city's true darkness has revealed itself to him yet, even if he believes otherwise."


The smuggler’s mask seemed to return gradually as a somewhat playful if tired smirk drew itself on his face. "And I would not have him diverting your attention from me, if I can help it," he teased quietly. "I do not believe I can convince him with mere words. The city itself must make its argument to him. Either he believes it can be saved, or he will believe that reform is needed as we do."


"I will continue to speak with him. Perhaps…find a way to convince him. Or at least not stand against us." The paladin released a quiet sigh. "He does believe in the reform. But he is like me. He does not want to see bloodshed. But he also does not know you as I do." She bowed her head and nodded as if to herself. "I will speak to him."


"I feel guilty. If only I were…not so stubborn, perhaps you would not have so much work ahead of you," he said a bit jokingly. One of his hands released hers and tilted her gaze at him. "I would like to see you on the Forte, later," he murmured. "If it pleases you. There are some important matters we need to discuss."


Roen glanced back up at him and smiled softly. This was the man she had wanted to see--this was the man she wanted to save. She leaned her head against his chest and closed her eyes.


“I just want to remember this," she whispered. "Here and now.” There was a twinge of sadness that rose, for she knew the struggles that awaited them both. But she wanted to capture this moment in her mind’s eye--to protect this single small ember of hope that lent its gentle warmth and comfort in their stillness. She could hear his heartbeat, and feel his breath upon her hair.


Nero tilted his head, his lips resting against the top of her head as he embraced her. He whispered quietly, “I cannot promise that I can be the person you desire of me, Roen. But…I will try.”


Roen nodded, not looking up.


That would be enough, for now.

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“You can’t catch me!”


“When I do, you will be sorry!”


Light laughter tumbled through the air as three Hyur children chased each other around the well, daring and teasing each other.


Roen cupped her chin with both her hands as she leaned on the windowsill, watching them at play. The usual Thanalan heat had given pause, and that in turn had given the merchants in the Silver Bazaar a rare respite this afternoon as clouds roamed the skies above. A cool breeze rolled in from the southern shores, and the usually deserted courtyard bustled with unusual activity this day.


The paladin’s attention drifted to a mother that came out to retrieve one of the children, following her course to a vendor stand at the base of the building where Roen had rented her room. She saw another man hand the woman a newspaper, the two Midlanders exchanging some words. The woman then looked up to where Roen was watching from her second story window. Her expression was one of curiosity, although the smile she soon sent the paladin was warm and welcoming. The mother waved with one hand, then turned and led her child away with coaxing words.


Roen blinked at such a gesture. Did she recognize me? the paladin wondered as she stepped back from the window. She glanced at the copy of Tonberry’s Lantern that sat on the table nearby, its bold title clear for her to read standing even fulms away: “Jameson Taeros Named by Former Sultansworn”.


She knew she had thrown herself into the spotlight when she read the newspaper article. But that had been her intention: to shed light and make public the corrupted methods that Taeros and Natalie were using to hunt Nero, and to turn the public’s opinion against them, perhaps even the nobility’s as well. Would it work?


"I need you to be our symbol. I am the sword. You are the shield. While I work my blade in the shadows against our foes, you shall be the gleaming surface they look upon."


Roen recalled Nero’s words. They had spoken much of his plans when she had met him on the Second Forte. He had been earnest, forthright, and without arrogance or bitterness. They had talked and exchanged thoughts about what they hoped to achieve without their usual clash of ideals. It was as if they had agreed to meet each other halfway, perhaps for Daegsatz’s sake. Nero discussed ways to deter Eorzea’s enemies from within and without, while she listed possible allies to be gained. She shared with him the names of all of her contacts, from Franz Renatus, the man who was living with Natalie but promised loyalty to the paladin’s cause, to a Roegadyn who called himself Mister Steel and a Miqo’te woman named Leanne--both of whom considered Natalie a friend but worried for Roen’s safety. There were others that had offered their aid, even though none of them had actually met the pirate.


Perhaps that is why he asked of her what he did.


"I am not a trustworthy man. I understand that. My encounter with your friend made it quite clear that I am not the right person to be making the deals of this nature. Gathering allies."


“But how am I to be…?” Roen had not quite understood what he was asking at first.


"Simply do as you have been. Meet with your allies. Gather information. Deflect them away from me. I trust your judgment in this, Roen, and I am sorry to ask this of you. But I need you to be my mask for a while longer."


Nero had asked her to draw attention away from him so that he may continue to conduct his business, continue to work to strangle the Syndicate’s sea trade, and to gather material for the Soldier Dance.


Roen slid the newspaper aside to study the second parchment that was beneath it. The list that Broken Nose had given her. It was a list of warehouses where Taeros had used some of the Brass Blades to provide extra security.


“Make no mistake, Deneith. You’ll be stirring, nah--upturning--the hornet’s nest with this,” Broken Nose had warned her when he handed her the list. “Taeros isn’t the type of man who’d forget or forgive a slight against him. And with this, you’ll be targettin’ him personally. Again. You ready for that?”


She had given the list to Verad Bellveil, the Duskwight merchant who had befriended her in Limsa Lominsa. He had come to her in her time of need, and had drawn her out of her pit of darkness. Roen had come to trust the merchant implicitly since, and at his behest, and against her better judgement, she had accepted his help in working against the Syndicate and Jameseon Taeros.


The tasks she had asked of him had started innocuous at first: simply watch the noble when he walked freely about the streets of Ul’dah and make note of his contacts. Mister Bellveil soon brought her a reporter from the Tonberry Lantern, Miss Spahro Llorn, to tell Nero’s side of the story--his being persecuted by the Sultansworns and unjustly blamed by Taeros. After that, Roen had accepted even more aid of the merchant when he asked for a list of Taeros’ holdings to look into them himself. That was when she obtained the list from Broken Nose.


A few suns later, Mister Bellveil informed her that the raid had been successful, and although no somnus or Garlean weapons were found--nothing that would have incriminated Taeros and provided some proof of Nero’s innocence--there were illegal goods discovered nonetheless. And the fact that the warehouse was then left open to looting, Roen surmised that Taeros’ wealth and business had taken some hits.


It gave her pause, that she had asked someone like Mister Bellveil--a man who was not involved or invested in these matters at all, except for his friendship with her--to take such risks in this conflict.


But he was not the only one. The paladin had also recruited Delial Grimsong, a Highlander woman who she once considered friend, and then an enemy. Now…


Now she was not sure how she saw the Highlander. Delial had a hand in handing her brother over to the Garleans for experimentation, and yet her regret in that affair after it had occurred was clear to see. Delial had played a part in getting Gharen freed, and then recently killed Crimson Mountain, the Roegadyn who had kidnapped and tortured Askier and herself. Roen could see that Delial was slowly trying to redeem herself, and needed a second chance.


So Roen granted her one. She asked the woman to find employment with Taeros, to spy on him. This was not an easy thing she asked, Roen knew. Both the paladin and Delial knew that Taeros had connections with Raelisanne Banurein, the Garlean woman who had tortured Gharen, and Roen knew Delial wanted to be free of Banurein’s shadow. Returning to work for Taeros would be akin to calling upon the mysterious Garlean’s attention again. And working with Taeros would also necessitate working with Natalie, one who had earned Delial’s hatred when the Miqo’te interrogated the Highlander by pulling out her fingernails many moons ago.


And yet, despite all the reasons to refuse this request, Delial had agreed to help Roen spy on Taeros. She had even thanked the paladin for giving her a second chance. Roen did not quite know how to respond to that. But she could not deny that everyone deserved a chance at redemption. Even a woman like Delial.


Then there was Gideon North, a man of calm (if not somewhat emotionless) demeanor, but polite to a fault. Gideon had been raised and trained to be the perfect valet to a noble family, and he had approached her about investigating the Monetarists. He had lost his own family when his Roegadyn masters were all killed two cycles past. His master's ship was sunk off the coast of Limsa Lominsa, and his ward and their only heir had been poisoned to death. Mister North suspected other Monetarist noble families for being responsible for their murders, for his former Masters had diverted their influx of wealth towards the commoners in favor of trade and expanding industry.


Roen could not deny that she and Mister North shared something in common in detesting the nobility’s casually bloodthirsty greed, so she had accepted his help. And he agreed to seek employment within a Monetarist family to glean insight and intimate knowledge of the political workings of the Syndicate.


And it just so happened that the person who often did the hiring for many noble families was none other than Jameson Taeros.


A part of her stomach twisted into a small knot of anxiety when the paladin pondered the possible dangers she had put upon people like Mister North and Mister Bellveil. Was she using them? They had volunteered for the task, but should she have refused them? What if they were discovered? Could she forgive herself if harm was to befall upon them because they were aiding her?


The paladin released a long sigh as leaned against the wall next to the window, her eyes going to the ceiling. She was collecting evidence, turning Taeros’ attention away from Nero, and trying to turn the tide of favor against the Monetarist noble, all to try and prevent violence and bloodshed as much as possible. To try and look for a vulnerable spot. To place the scalpel, as sergeant Melkire would say.


“How far would you go? To change things? Would you cut?” Roen had asked him.


"I'd place the scalpel. I wouldn't push. I'm a Royalist and a Flame. I want reform…but I have obligations. Were I free…yes, I would cut."


“I do not wish to cut. Nor does Nero want me to. And yet I have allied myself with someone who will, and plans to cut a large, bloody swath in order to change things.” Roen had implored the sergeant then, searching his face for answers. “I do not know what that makes me. Only that I feel that I have to see it through. And perhaps try and help him not cut so deeply. Does…that make sense, Osric?”


"I told you. He's what I would have been had I not been...tch. The trick t'saving a life is knowin' when and where to cut, how much...that does, aye, but it's a damnable position t'be in. However this ends, there'll be pain."


Roen frowned as she recalled the Immortal Flame’s parting words. She turned her eyes towards the window again, her attention drawn back to the distant laughter of children that resumed their game around the well.


She watched them for awhile longer, trying to remind herself why and whom this was all for.


It had to be worth it all.

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A kiss. A caress. A timely flutter of the eyelashes. A coy smile.


Brynnalia Callae always knew how to use these things to elicit the response she was looking for. It was not too different from training a mount; when breaking in chocobos and coeurls, she just needed to find what made each creature tick and use it to make them respond accordingly. Men weren’t so different. Knowing what brought pleasure to the target, then using that to make them do what she wanted...well, it was something she kind of reveled in.


William Hardy was a Maestrom Captain. Brynn came to discover that he liked things he was not supposed to have. It was an easy motivation; many did enjoy tempting the dangers involved when participating in an illicit affair. The Highlander was a married man after all, with two children at home and a loving, doting wife. And yet when Brynnalia caught a few stolen glances her way as she reported back to the Maelstrom headquarters, she knew he was a possible mark. Insinuating herself under his command added another deterrent; becoming involved with one's own officer was the height of taboo. All the more reason she had to test the waters.


The Captain responded tepidly at first to a few flatteries thrown his way, coupled with a shrug here and a smile there. She let her gaze linger just long enough to catch his attention, then pretended as if it was not intended. It was like reeling in a fish. Pull a little, give a little, until they were netted.


It was not long until he was in her bed, utterly forgetting the name of his wife and children.


Brynn slipped her feet into a pair of slippers, sliding out from under the sheets as the Captain snored away. She padded to the mirror by the door, fingers ruffling and rearranging her messed mass of black curls. She eyed the reflection of the captain’s naked back as he continued to sleep soundly behind her, before she reached for his coat and the bag beneath it. She withdrew a thick stack of parchments bound with leather, and quickly undid the knot to finger through them. She scanned over the reports, her attention lingering on those that had to deal with investigations of piracy.


The name she was looking for, Nero Lazarov, was not found in any of the reports, but there were more than a few mentions of raid on Syndicate ships. And there were names of businessmen as well, those that were suspect of illegal dealings due to their associations or rapid growth in wealth. Her skimming came to a pause as she read one document in particular, one that listed a number of warehouses that had been seeing a lot of traffic despite the fact that the names on those warehouses were not particularly known to be wealthy businessmen. It was a minor note in a long list of reports, but it was the sort of information she had been looking for.


Smugglers had to store their goods somewhere, and an elusive one like this Lazarov would have to have multiple aliases. So while the Sultansworn and her Maelstrom allies sought the pirate himself, the bard turned her search to the telltale traffic of imports and the growing wealth of certain businessmen. Money was sometimes easier to track than the criminals themselves.


Brynnalia paused when she heard rustling behind her, a throaty groan rising from the Captain. She quickly slid the documents beneath his coat, then looked at the mirror again, ruffling her hair just right. She saw in the reflection his form turn in bed, the Highlander smiling lazily at her. He was blatantly staring at the back of her bare form, and she let him enjoy that view for a moment longer.


“Ready fer another go around, sweets?” She glanced at the man over her shoulder with a sultry smile.


William answered with a broad grin, his eyes still half lidded. “You are insatiable, woman!” He protested as he flopped onto his back, his arms splayed out. But his expression said he was not actually objecting.


The bard turned from the mirror, a white grin splitting her tanned complexion. “Tell ye what, ye wet my appetite with some juicy gossip, and I will reward ye fer each one.”


“Gossip?” William chuckled. “That is what I have to tempt you with?”


Brynnalia rolled her shoulders with a long exhale. “I’ve been away a cycle.” She sauntered back toward the bed. “I like knowin’ who is who and what they be up tae. I just want tae know who to make friends with, and who I should avoid…mm?” She slid under the sheets next to him, her manicured fingernails, lightly grazing his chest. “ And I know a man like ye would know a few things he shouldn’t...”


The Captain let out a gruff laugh, impish smile tugging at the man’s lips. “What gossips would you have of me, wicked woman?”


The bard swung one leg over his torso, coming to straddle him at the waist. She sighed, looking about the room as if to search her thoughts, letting his eyes drink her in for a long moment. “Hm. How about some rich businessmen. I like my fine wines expensive and aged. And I like men who can afford them.”


William arched a brow at her, looking slightly disappointed. “Looking for other men already?”


Brynnalia gave him a sidelong glance and a coy smile. “Why, ye be gettin’ jealous? I am flattered, Captain.” Despite the formal title, her tone remained playful. “Alright then, who should I not associate with? Anyone under the eye of the Maelstrom?”


The Captain snorted. “There be plenty of those.”


“Well,” she let her fingers dance like footsteps from his navel to his torso. “Then mayhap ye be in store for plenty of rewards, eh?”


William’s face split slowly into a wide grin.

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"There is no one else I trust. Not yet. Perhaps not ever. No one shares my vision like you do.”


The memory of her conversation with Nero would come to her out of nowhere, without warning. It did not matter what she was doing. Or in this case, who she was talking with.


“So then when they saw the smoke, they thought there was a fire! HAR!”


Broken Nose threw his head back in a rancorous laugh that echoed off the walls of his office, his large hand slapping against his armored thigh. The chair he was sitting on creaked with his weight. “I woulda loved to have been there to see their faces when they saw the Immortal Flames called in.” He sighed with a shake of his head. “Although bein’ that I gave you that location, it’s probably best that I wasn’t--” he paused, looking at the paladin in front of him. “Deneith...?”


“Trust...it can lead to the most painful of betrayals. I know this all too well--"


Roen blinked out of her reverie when two thick fingers snapped just ilms away from her face. “Hm..?” She looked distractedly at the Roegadyn Brass Blade.


She was answered with a cock-eyed look. “Have ya been listenin’ to anything I said? Look like you were daydreaming.” One corner of his mouth lifted into a teasing smirk. “Got yourself a goofy grin an' all.”


Roen cleared her throat, feeling a sudden flush to her cheeks. “A-apologies, Broken Nose. I was um...pondering on other matters.”


The paladin did her best to calm her expression, attempting what she hoped was a blank look, hoping fervently that the warmth in her cheeks would abate. But guessing from the odd look that Broken Nose was giving her, she doubted that it went unnoticed.


“I am tellin' you about how Taeros’ warehouse was raided, second time no less, and by the Immortal Flames, and there’s something more important on yer mind?”


“Ah. No…nothing, really.” Roen knew she was a terrible liar. Thoughts of him kept floating through her mind like a welcomed breeze on a summer’s day, and they would not blow away.


"I wonder too. There are doubts in my mind I cannot quell. Will you use me as well? Will there come a time where my belief in you will be dashed? Will I perhaps end up one day betraying your faith?"


The memories would come at the most unexpected times. Sayer had caught her staring off to nowhere while he and Lancel prattled on about their parents. The two refugee Highlander youths took her absent smile to mean that she was approving of their parents becoming fond of each other, something that the two boys seemed in absolute opposition of. But the paladin soon realized that even in the most destitute of conditions, Sayer’s mother and Lancel’s father had found a blossoming romance. Perhaps they were each other’s port in the storm, drawing comfort from each other despite the suffering that weighed upon them.


How could Roen not support such a thing?


"That is what trust is. To leave it in the hands of that other person. I…trust you. What you do with that trust, I leave to you."


“Well, unlike the first warehouse where everything was looted and untraced, this one, well, the Immortal Flames combed through it, quick as fire.” Broken Nose’s booming voice broke through the haze of her reflections again, the paladin furrowing her brows to quickly bring her attention to bear. “Mayhap they can nail something on him this time, though I doubt Taeros is foolish enough to leave anything laying around that implicates those illegal goods as his. Them warehouses are always under an alias.”


“Right. Well, I will look into it,” Roen pushed herself off the desk she had been leaning on, nodding. “Gratitude, for the update.”


Broken Nose cocked a brow at her. “You alright there, Deneith? You been awful distracted of late.” The tone in his voice suggested he was amused more than worried.


Roen wrinkled her nose, fearing he knew exactly what was going through her mind. She shook her head quickly. “I am, but that is alright.” She felt another smile emerging, and willfully pressed her lips tightly together. “I will speak to you again soon?” When the Roegadyn shrugged back at her, the paladin quickly ducked out of his office and strode out through the back exit.


When she felt the warmth of the Thanalan sun against her face, she leaned back against the building, finally not resisting the broad smile that lifted her expression. It had threatened to emerge at the oddest of times, and for no reason whatsoever.


Well. That was wrong. There was a reason.


"Then I will do my best not to betray that trust. For what it's worth--which is very little, I'm sure--you have my word on that,” Nero’s quiet words still rang clearly through her mind, her memories calling upon their words exchanged in small fleeting snippets.


When they had spoken last after a secreted shipment into Crescent Cove, the smuggler had let his mask drop, something that he was allowing more often in her presence, even if it was only for a few moments. This time it fell away as he gave her a weak grin, and she knew he had no pretense about him when she saw the ragged expression that lay beneath. His arrogance and smirk often disguised his fatigue, his struggle to stay focused hidden behind his eyes; the dark circles under them spoke of sleepless nights.


But the smile he gave her was honest, as were his words. "I do not imagine I will ever truly know you well enough to understand why you seem drawn to me so."


Did she know why? Did she need to? This unbearable lightness of being that lifted her onto her tiptoes--this feeling that she could not put words to, that made her feel both bold and bashful at the same time...did she need to explain it? She wanted to guard this happiness as if it was something precious, and yet wanted to share it with the rest of the world too. She had never felt this way before.


"You have caught me so unawares. I hope you know that,” she had whispered to him.


"Believe me, the feeling is mutual. I've never known a woman quite like you, Roen Deneith."


Since that night, when the vision of his smile rose in her mind, she found herself catching her breath, her focus lost. Roen could not help but share the news with at least one person, she had to.


She had met Coatleque on the airship lounge, and had gushed to her--odd smiles and blushes abounding--about her feelings. The Sultansworn had shared her joy for awhile, before she then bequeathed upon her a warning regarding the pending dangers ahead.


But Roen heard none of them. It was as though she were distracted by a distant song.


"What…what do I mean to you, Roen Deneith?"


Nero had asked her again. She had answered him in the past with how she saw him: the good man that she believed he was inside, the earnest intentions that spoke of his soul, and the compassion that was hidden beneath his layers of ambition and pain. But she had never truly answered what he meant to her. Not until that night by the pier. Beneath the moonlight surrounded by the whispers of the ocean, she finally summoned enough courage to admit her feelings that she had been hesitant to accept herself.


"I believe...I believe you have more than my trust."


"Dare I hope...that I may have some of Roen Deneith's heart, as well?”


She had nodded ever so slightly, as if that would conceal her confession. He then answered her with a kiss, long and unabashed, his fingers entwined with hers. Only the moon and the sea stood witness to his acceptance of her heart.


Roen closed her eyes, allowing the sun’s rays to warm her skin. She let those memories waft through her mind like a delicate melody, savoring each note.


Despite the impossible odds...despite the threat of violence, and the darkness of corruption that loomed over them, Roen still felt hope lifting her from within, filling her sails with sunlight and sea wind, as if she too had finally found a port in a storm. She did not know what awaited, or if the world would come tumbling down at the end, for distant stormy skies loomed on the horizon.


But her heart, one that was now entrusted to another, it held boundless optimism, one that threatened to fill her days with fleeting and distracting thoughts. And for the first time, Roen was content to let her mind wander, to revel in the joy of it all.

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How in seven hells did everything get so out of hand?


Brynnalia Callae paced the floor of her bedroom in Limsa Lominsa, the bells of her anklets jingling chaotically with each quick stride. Her eyes were narrowed as she chewed on one fingernail, her mind trying to put the mess of events in some semblance of order.


Jameson Taeros would want a full report, and he was not going to be pleased.


It started as a simple raid. Well, as simple as any raid can be. From the information Brynn had gleaned through various means--mostly through prodding bedroom gossip from the salty lips of a certain Maelstrom Captain--she had picked a few choice warehouses that were suspect in terms of their contents. They were under the names of average businessmen, but had recently been seeing more deliveries and increased traffic, sometimes in the middle of the night. It was a passing observation that was made by one of the Yellowjackets, and one that Captain Hardy was not going to give much pursuit to in his investigation of piracy. And because he did not give much weight to the report, Brynn also found herself out of luck in acquiring a warrant for an official search.


But the lack of legal justification to search a private property did not seem to be a deterrent for Natalie Mcbeef. As soon as the Highlander bard brought the location of a possible warehouse of interest in Moraby Drydocks, Natalie formed a group to raid the place: a Miqo’te named Askier Mergrey, a Midlander who was only known by the name Jana, the Sultansworn Coatleque Crofte, and the ex-Garlean sympathizer, Delial Grimsong. A motley crew to say the least.


It still twisted something inside her, every time Brynnalia was near the woman who used to mercilessly hunt Resistance loyalists, but even while bitterness and suspicion lingered in the back of her mind, the bard put up a casual front--an easy smile firmly in place for Delial Grimsong. The fact that Ser Crofte also came along with Mcbeef, however, did surprise the bard. She always took the former for the type not to get involved in illegal affairs such as this.


Brynn tried to keep the raid under control, but it was not to be. As she approached the warehouse guards in her Maelstrom officer regalia, she had already found two other Maelstrom members there--a Midlander woman dressed in a private’s uniform, and a well armored and dark-skinned Highlander male who proclaimed he was a Maelstrom Captain. They were both seeking entry into the warehouse as well, and were being held at bay by two stubborn guards.


She had just begun to try and reason with them when the shout of “Grenade!” came from behind her. It was Mergrey, and he tossed some metallic object towards the chained and locked warehouse doors.


It all went to seven hells from there.


All the bard remembered now was the chaos that followed the thunderous explosion that blew the warehouse doors into a mess of flying wooden splinters and twisted iron. The two guards that were by the door were the worst injured, but other people were screaming and running about. Yellowjacket whistles quickly filled the void left by the grenade's fading echo, raising the alarm. While the rest of Mcbeef's crew rushed into the warehouse, Brynn quickly disengaged herself from the group.


She diverted enough Yellowjackets away from the site of the explosion, focusing them on the rescue efforts and the fire just long enough to give Natalie's group the barest breath of time to search the warehouse. Brynn did not know what exactly transpired within the burning building, but she did recall the sounds of shots being fired from within.


By the time she made her way back to the warehouse, the rest were making their exit, quickly retreating back to the ship docked nearby. They had brought the two wounded guards from the warehouse, neither of them in any condition to argue. Once on the boat, Brynnalia had thought that they had gotten away clean with at least two mercenary guards to pry information out of.


But somewhere between the trip from Moraby Drydocks to Vesper Bay, Natalie Mcbeef bled to death.


The Highlander was still not quite sure how that had happened. She had left the Miqo'te Sultansworn with the injured mercenaries, and Natalie seemed fine at the time. Jana had joined her in tending to the guards, while Brynnalia checked in on Ser Crofte, who clearly was unhappy about her involvement in the raid and its explosive outcome. Brynn gathered that Coatleque had intended to stop Natalie from creating such an incident, but had failed miserably. The bard also regarded the Miqo'te bomb expert and Delial talking quietly in the corner, and noted that they seemed to share some kind of relationship even if there was palpable tension between them. But by the time the bard returned to check in on Natalie with the guards, she saw the two mercenaries and Jana staring at the unmoving and pale corpse of the Sultansworn laying in her own pool of blood and refuse.


Brynnalia had immediately called to Crofte for aid, but despite the Sultansworn's best efforts, Mcbeef could not be revived. Grimsong and Mergrey did not seem to care much for the Miqo'te's passing, though Jana and Crofte fell to stunned silence.


The bard had no love for the Miqo'te, so it was up to Brynn to salvage the situation as best as possible. She blackmailed the two guards into giving her the name of their employer, threatening them with accusations of guarding illegal goods and participating in piracy. They were all fabricated charges at that point, since Brynn knew nothing about what was recovered in the warehouse, but they didn't have to know that; the two were too harried from the wounds they had incurred, and had not the wherewithal to doubt her. They sang like songbirds. The name they gave was not Anselm Mercer, whose name was attached to the property, but another businessman named Sebastian Redgrave. The bard did recall that name, just vaguely so, in William Hardy's mutterings. And the guards also confessed that that they were approached in Redgrave's stead by another Highlander--a woman named Shaelen.


That name Brynn also knew--a ghost from her days within the Resistance. Shaelen had been close to Aylard Greyarm, the man Delial Grimsong had killed. She briefly mused on how the encounter between the two women would go.


At least I've got names to give to Taeros, the bard told herself. She knew he was not going to be pleased with the news of Natalie's death. She wondered if the noble actually cared about the Miqo'te Sworn, or if her death would be considered something akin to the loss of a valuable tool. Either way, the end result was not going to be a good one.


When the ship docked at Vesper Bay, Immortal Flame agents were already waiting at the pier to meet them. Brynn suspected that they were called upon by someone on the boat. There were too many people she did not trust within that motley crew, it could have been anyone of them. The bard bluffed her way through the Flame's questions about the dead Sultansworn, and let them claim the Natalie's body. She quickly made herself scarce afterwards.


Menphina’s Tits, Brynnalia cursed to herself. They were supposed to find Lazarov and dispose of him before something like this happened. Bombing a warehouse on foreign city-state, that could be a spark to war, or at least a political disaster. If they had at least made a clean get away, none may have traced this act of terrorism to those responsible. But now with a Sultansworn's death...there were bound to be questions.


With a shake of her head, the Highlander paused her pacing to fall to a seat on her bed. She grabbed herself a bottle of wine that sat nearby, uncorked it and poured herself a large glass. She did not like the implications of the troubles ahead and needed to soothe her nerves before seeking out her employer.


What a mess ye've left us with, Natalie, Brynn cursed silently as she took a long sip of the dark red.


If Lazarov had intended on starting a war, ye certainly provided him with the ammunition.

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She was dead.


Natalie Mcbeef, once her mentor, Sworn-Sister, friend and confidant; the miqo'te who then turned torturer, executioner, and became the one responsible for so much pain and suffering…


She had bled to death on a ship.


When Coatleque had delivered the news to the paladin, Roen did not quite know how to react. Her first instinct was to insist that despite what she was involved in her time of death, Natalie should still receive the proper rites of a burial as an honored Sultansworn. Those were her first words. She had then walked away from Ser Crofte, numb on the inside.


But since then, the longer Roen pondered upon Natalie’s life--the woman she had become towards the end and the words they had exchanged in their last encounter, the more bitter she became. Why was that her first response? After all that the Miqo’te had done, why was preserving Natalie’s honor and memory her first reaction?


Roen stared at the medallion of Nald’Thal in her hand, the one that Natalie had left for her. Her eyes studied the scales engraved within the metal, before her fingers closed down upon it. She instead regarded the view of the bay from her perch on Anchor Yard. The sun was setting into the ocean, lending a fiery hue to the clouds above.


"Are you glad that she is dead?"


Roen turned her head to the voice behind her to see Nero watching her. Of course he had already heard the news. "Should I not be? I should be dancing with joy on her grave, for all the things that she had done."


The smuggler's expression did not change. He just shrugged. "That is up to you to decide. I, for one, am only regretful because she deserved far more suffering."


His words did not surprise her. Of course Nero would want Natalie punished. He knew her only as Daegsatz’s executioner and a Sultansworn dog for the Monetarists. He knew not the woman Natalie was before all this. Suddenly the metal pendant felt a little heavier in her grip.


"Nald'Thal's medallion, she left me." She looked down at her hand again. She had nearly thrown the cursed thing toward the bay at least half a dozen times now. And yet it still remained in her hand. "To remind me that everything has two sides. ...As if there were two sides to the woman she had become."


"In that, you and I are in agreement."


Her indignation simmered. "Does she think that I would try and…understand what became of her in her last days?"


"I am under the impression that she did not think much of anything. Such was her way,” Nero said coldly.


"Impatient. Single minded. Ruthless. Without compassion. Foolish." Each of her words were sharply said, nearly spat out. "Foolish above all. Thinking that there was always a justifiable cause in her mind, for all the mistakes that she had made."


"I have never heard you spew such a low opinion of someone before.” Nero crossed his arms in study of her. “It's…refreshing."


"I should hate her."




Roen stared out over the bay, her eyes fixed on that distant horizon. "There should not be a but. Because that would make me a fool."


“You are too good of a person to not have such regrets about her character, Roen,” Nero said quietly.


“Do not justify any sadness that I…that I should not have. You have no idea what she put me through." A rueful chuckle was forced out. "Just call me a fool and tell me to forget her. Rather than stand here and wonder why I still mourn her death."


"You don't mourn who she was. You mourn who she could have been." He stepped up behind her. "If she had waited. If she had given some thought. If she had considered. If she had reached out."


"I loved her once. Like a sister." Roen sighed, her voice losing some of its venom. "Before she turned into someone I did not recognize.”


"I’ve said before, she and I are a lot alike. In another life, we might have been friends." Nero observed. "It is unfortunate that it was not this one."


Roen gave him a sidelong glance over her shoulder, her head half turned. "In this life, she had killed. And so have you. You likely would have killed each other."


"It would have been a pleasure for me to kill her." Nero was matter-of-fact in his tone. There was no restraint, no stiffness, no doubt.


Roen shook her head, turning her gaze towards the sea again. "Is it wrong that I am relieved it never came to be?"


"If we had fought, who would you have supported?"


She bowed her head. "I would have tried to stop you both, even though I knew neither of you would have ceased."


"And you might have died in the crossfire. That might have opened our eyes. Or perhaps it wouldn't."


Roen kept her back to him, her arms crossed as she hugged herself tight. "Is that where we are headed? Down the road for more violence, to kill or be killed?" Sadness finally emerged in her lowered tone and sagging shoulders. "I know she made mistakes. She killed Daegsatz. She brought a bomb. Fool of a woman! I knew she had to be stopped. But in the end, she died doing everything and anything she thought was necessary for what she believed was a justifiable cause."


"You realize, of course, that that is a very likely outcome for myself as well." Nero’s voice had become quieter. "Conflict in this world is not brought about by evil people, but by good people who believe they are doing evil things for the right reasons."


Roen hated that his words rang true, because regret and dread then began to root themselves from within. Natalie’s death was a cruel, sharp blade that tore through her dreams and hopes, and brought to bear the thought that the Miqo'te’s end could be a harbinger to his. They had both compared themselves to each other, in how they were not so different in their relentlessness. The paladin had loved the Sultansworn like family once, and now she struggled to even recall those memories. "Will I again wish for hatred in my heart to ease the pain of your passing?" she asked quietly.


The smuggler said nothing, merely wrapping his arms around her waist and holding her against him, his head leaning lightly upon hers. "That would be merciful," he murmured. "But life is usually anything but."


Her head remained bowed, but she shook it just slightly. "I should hate her. A part of me…perhaps I do. But I hate her for dying. For never allowing the possibility for us to…to..." Her hands were tight fists pressed to his forearm. "Why did it have to turn out this way?"


"I suppose only the Twelve know why we mortals insist on fighting,” he whispered by her ear.


Roen frowned deeper. "Why must you walk the same path that she did?"


"Because if I didn't…I believe I would become something much worse."


She glanced over her shoulder, turning her cheek slightly. "I do not want to hate you. Nor mourn your death. If I truly believed that is the path you were on, and there was no other recourse..." She paused. "Tell me there is one."


"I cannot," he breathed, resting his chin along her left jawline, his cheek meeting hers as if to keep her gaze from him. "To turn away from my path would mean rendering all of the sacrifices thus far meaningless…and I cannot do that. Those deaths had to have meant something."


A sharp exhale was followed by the turn of her head, as if to withdraw from that touch. "What am I to do, Nero," she whispered. "I have stood by your side. I have…trusted my heart, despite all you have done so far. And now…now you tell me you walk the same path as the woman who I am struggling to forgive even in death."


"Do what you feel you must…for the path will not grow any easier. There will be little respite from the storm." Nero’s voice lowered, almost forlornly.


She felt her heart sinking. “Is there not a part of you that want a recourse?"


"Whether I want a recourse is not is irrelevant…this is the only way to change things with any measure of certainty."


"It does matter! It should matter! Your fate is not decided! Your life is not forfeit to be a sacrifice. Lives lost does not gain justification with more lives lost!" She stiffened in his embrace. "Your wants. Your life. Your hopes. They should mean something. If Natalie had held the same hopes, she may not have ended up as she did. She may not have done the things she did."


Roen exhaled in regret. "She could have…just reached out to me. Something. Anything. Rather than rush head first into something because she believed it was the only way."


"My life..." he murmured, slowly releasing his clasp around her waist and stepping back. "What is the measure of a life's worth?"


She turned to face him, unclasping her arms. It was as if she was holding herself together. Her expression was now filled with sorrow, the stoic cold control she had held on to earlier had completely fallen away. "I do not know, Nero. But soon as it is lost, so is all the potential it had with it." She canted her head. "Are you afraid of it being worth anything less than saving all of Ul'dah?"


He stiffened, slowly curling and uncurling his hands. "No," he said. "This is not, and has never been about me, or my life."


She felt her chest tighten. Of course it was not. If it was a selfish thing, a matter of pride, she would not have been drawn to it so. "It is about all the lives you have lost and taken, is it not?" Her grey eyes were steady on him. "You hold your life as payment for them.”


"That is the least I can give. The price can never be high enough. But a redeemed Ul'dah…that may be enough."


Roen slowly bowed her gaze as she nodded. "I will help you. As I said I would." Her expression and tone were muted; she could not bear the thought of him coming to harm, much less offering his life to this cause at the end of it all.


"But you promised,” an emphatic whisper suddenly rose. "Do not forget your promise." Her eyes locked onto him, imploringly. "That you will try to be better. And that you will let me save you. That the end does not have to be what you foresee, that I can find a recourse even if you do not fathom one. Do not lose faith in that. Do not give me reasons to try and fill my heart with hatred for you."


Nero nodded slowly, although he no longer met her eyes. He turned and walked away without another word.


“Never falter,” were Natalie’s final words left in her will for her former apprentice. Roen looked down to her hand and opened her fingers to look upon Nald’Thal’s scales once more. There are two faces to all things.


The paladin stood at the Anchor Yard, looking in silence to where Nero had exited. The earnest and compassionate man who had her trust and heart, but also a ruthless revolutionary who had already ordered the deaths of many to achieve his goals.


When the balance tipped for Nero, she wondered what would be left on the scales.

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Nero sighed, taking some time to gaze out onto the open ocean as Roen left, his arms folded. His mind remained with his jumbled thoughts until the sun dipped beneath the horizon, and night embraced Limsa Lominsa like a cloak of velvet. The spires and docks of the city began to flicker as lamps and lanterns were ignited, illuminating the towers and walkways with tiny spots of red and orange that were not unlike the stars that were beginning to emerge from the sky.


"Your life is not forfeit to be a sacrifice. Lives lost does not gain justification with more lives lost."


Her words echoed relentlessly in his head. Was all of this pointless? Part of being a businessman was understanding the concept of a gamble, and knowing when to cut losses. Was continuing after all that had happened a fruitless endeavour? 


No, the real question wasn't whether or not it was pointless...the real question was whether or not he would be willing to accept it if it was.


The Hyur sighed again, shaking his head to shove his doubts aside. It did not matter. Even if he wanted to quit, he'd come too far now. Scythe was slowly but surely beginning to strain against his leash; the bandit and his gang was getting antsy and eager to try their new weapons. In addition, the supply lines for the steel and ceruleum had been solidly established and fabrication of the foundation parts had already begun. Nero was preparing to march both doom and hope to the walls of Ul'dah, whether the city wanted it or not.


No, it was far, far too late.


Nero pulled up a pocket watch from his trouser pocket. While it was not shoddy, it was not nearly as elaborate or sturdy as his Garlean timepiece. The smuggler made a mental note to barter with Shaelen for his timepiece's return; she had been very...forward in their last interaction, but there was quite the difference between a drunken fling and a passionate reunion. At the thought, the corner of his lip curled in a grin. There'd be time later when this was over to mix together business and pleasure.


Another shake of his head. Clarity, that is what he needed. He needed to be of sound judgment, for there was no rest for the wicked, and there was much work to be done. 


As the veil of night deepened in Limsa Lominsa, Nero drew up his mental checklist of tasks to be done. While he traversed the various walkways, his mind wandered other avenues, namely how to respond to the destruction of his warehouse. Try as he might, the smuggler could only scrounge a few details of the incident as witnesses were few in number and the perpetrators had fled the scene after the explosion. He knew that the Sultansworn were present; Mcbeef would not have been alone. A frown formed on his lips as he considered the possibility that Crofte had been present, but the lady knight did not seem inclined towards such subterfuge and sabotage. Still, anything was possible. It was also likely that the Maelstrom had participated in the raid, and if the Sultansworn were there, then the Flames were there too.


Was that possible, though? If Maelstrom personnel were present, Nero had to operate on the assumption that they were assisting as independent parties and not as representatives of the Grand Company. Merlwyb would have never suffered Ul'dahn interference in Limsan affairs.... unless refusing the Sultansworn would have caused a major political incident.


No, that wasn't possible. Nero might not have escaped the notice of some of Ul'dah's more powerful elements, but he assured himself with some confidence that he had covered his tracks. There was no hard evidence that they could have brought to the Maelstrom. No, any officers of the Storm would have been there as a personal favour, and not as legal authorities. Still, though, that presented another worrying element. The Sultansworn were well-connected and could call upon members of the Storm. Part of Nero's security had relied on the rivalries between Ul'dah and Limsa Lominsa to get in the way and prevent any sort of consistent collaboration.


The situation was getting dangerous. The number of factors had to be trimmed down considerably.


The smuggler's contemplation came to a halt as he arrived at Naldiq & Vymelli's. Most of the apprentices had gone to the Wench to drink, but there were still several journeymen working hard on their craft. Nero sauntered down the ramp on the eastern side of the building, where leaned a Highlander man who looked like anything but a Highlander.


Rather than tall and bronzed, the man was short, pale, a bit portly, and scraggly. His unkempt ashen hair was kept in place by a haphazard bandana, and his face was pointed and narrow, like a rodent's. The adornments covering his body was a simple linen outfit, and a pair of sheathed stilettos hung from his side. The Highlander's grin revealed a few missing teeth as he glanced at Nero, who swiftly withdrew a pouch and tossed it at the rogue, whose vermin-like countenance had earned him the unflattering moniker of Ratface.


"Ye be providin' quite the greed t' keep me from blowin' me gab," Ratface said roughly as he eagerly opened the pouch and started counting. 


Nero merely shrugged. "I make the necessary investments to keep my business running. You are one of those good investments," he said diplomatically, though truth be told the Midlander wanted nothing to do with the man.  The smuggler disliked dealing with Ratface, but the latter and his various corrupt associates were so far the only reliable veil that Nero had from the Rogue's Guild, and what Ratface lacked in any sort of etiquette or pleasant qualities, he made up for in efficient information gathering. Ratface peered up at the smuggler, temporarily distracted from his coin counting. 


"'eard one o' yer hangs out been floored," Ratface said idly.


"Who do the rogues suspect?" Nero said shrugging, though he was a bit alarmed that news had spread that quickly. The Highlander scowled.


"Mixi been tryin'a split 'em t'wards th' Executioners, but 'er mobs be thinkin' otherwise," Ratface said, scratching the back of his neck with a spindly hand. "If'n the ruffmans be catchin' the wrong rummy, ye bet yer millin' be imminent."


"As long as you keep doing what I pay you to do, that shouldn't be a problem," Nero said rather sharply. Ratface merely grinned and waved a hand. "Ye wanna be cookin' more eggs, ye be turnin' up the heat," he said.


"If it comes to that, your fee will increase," Nero replied, trying to keep the distaste out of his voice. Anyone who was anyone in Limsa Lominsa's underworld knew about Merlwyb's shadowy enforcers and that escaping their grasp was not a simple thing to do. That said, scum was still scum, and though the rogue's guild was not incompetent, they were not infallible either; many believed in that farce of a code, true, and many still like Ratface were willing to bend or break the rules to get ahead in coin or influence. The Highlander had the upper hand, and he knew it, and that was something Nero hated; so long as he was dependent on Ratface's protection from the rogues, Nero had to adhere to the scraggly Highlander's terms.


"Keep an eye out for me for any Ul'dahns that enter the city. Suspicious-looking types. You know the ones." Ratface tilted his head in curiosity.


"Funnily 'nuff, we already been lendin' our daddles gazin' fer some stranger coves. This be fer yer paddy warmin' up?"


"Possible and probable," the smuggler responded as he began to walk off. "Keep me posted and there'll be a reward as always."


Meeting with Ratface was only one of many things on the agenda. As he left the corner of Naldiq & Vymelli's, the paladin's words floated back to his mind.


"Do not give me reasons to try and fill my heart with hatred for you."


Nero had not deigned to respond. He couldn't think of one. He couldn't promise that he could give Roen what she was looking for.


It was far too late to turn back now.

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A large map of Eorzea lay spread on the desk, with small ceramic markers dotting various points on the map, mostly based around Thanalan and La Noscea. On the left side of the desk was a large stack of letters. On the right, a ledger. Soft, warm light illuminated the office as Nero Lazarov pursed his lips in study of the map, alternating his gaze between it and a letter in his hand. A previously empty notebook laying on the right side of the map had been filled with notes; personal thoughts, plans, addendums, everything that the smuggler was keeping track of in his grand scheme. The smuggler sighed and brushed a hand through his hair; the chronometer on the wall indicated that it was early morning. Nero had been up all night organising his plans, and now it was time for a review.


The latest letter from Arturieaux indicated that the manufacturing was slow but steady, and the Duskwight was not complaining; the plan for keeping such a large operation under wraps was the arcanist's idea, after all. The key to keeping the plan quiet was to make the act of tracing the lines extremely complex and convoluted; they would contract ten separate companies, who would contract ten more, who would contract even more suppliers. The supply line was chaotic, like a tangled ball of rope or twine, and even Nero had trouble keeping it all together, though at the end as long as the steel and the ceruleum came in, it mattered not. As far as anyone involved was concerned, they were all making a profit. And since every company was only involved with making one type of part, and those parts were passing through so many transactions, no lowly accountant would be diligent enough to put all the pieces together enough to have any evidence.


Construction, however, would be deliberately slow. The purpose was twofold: one, to maintain the veil of secrecy, and two, to lessen the immediate demand for gil this project required. Nero's smuggling operation had ceased to become adequate, and with hesitation the smuggler had begun to probe certain areas looking for wealthy investors. He knew that some of the nobles in Ul'dah held a vested interest in seeing the power balance shift. With a silver tongue and some deception, several mining companies had invested in Dyna-Forte, Nero's front company, under the impression that he--or rather, Sebastian Redgrave--was constructing experimental magitek drilling technology. The investments made by those companies would keep his operations aloft for a while, but it was a temporary fix. More gil needed to be made, whether it be from trading profits or investors.


He put the letter from Arturieaux away and opened the next one. This was another curious specimen; a letter inviting Sebastian Redgrave to join the "Rhotano League", a planned conglomerate of Lominsan trading companies. It was a monopoly in everything but name, as such a theorised organisation would hold undisputed control over the routes of the Rhotano Sea and the Indigo Deep, perhaps even as far as the Sea of Ash. This kind of endeavour had the support of the Bloody Executioners written all over it; though Hyllfyr ostensibly followed the command of Merlwyb and the Maelstrom, the Executioners longed for an opportunity to metaphorically punch the Admiral in the nose. This "Rhotano League" would cause seaborne profits to sink--Nero's lip curled at the small pun--for all companies except those with the League. The Executioners and free pirates in their current state rivaled the Lominsan armada in terms of naval strength, and if they truly were heading the Rhotano League, Hyllfyr would have the economic base of power with which to oust the Maelstrom, or at least break any authority it might have.


Or, the worst case scenario happens and civil war would break out.


The implications were....interesting, to say the least.


The most pressing issue, perhaps, was how to respond to the destruction of his warehouse. Clearly, Nero's distraction was not working; he needed the focus to return to Ul'dah, and keep the eyes away from Limsa Lominsa. Yet, if Nero unleashed Scythe too early, that would do nothing but cause chaos and bloodshed, and if Scythe failed in turning the political pressure against the Syndicate, then the heat would return to Limsa Lominsa. Simply put, if Nero reacted at all to the bombing, the chances of it turning against him increased. Direct retaliation was not an option, but neither was taking losses like the contents of that warehouse.


A reorganisation was in order. It would be expensive, but in the long run if it worked, it would pay off. Nero scribbled a note to start planning for a rotation of goods in warehouses. Some of his underworld associates might be interested in participating; already in his head the general idea was forming. Every moon, sell certain properties and repurchase others. Move the goods accordingly. Hopefully such movement would be mobile enough that if another warehouses was targeted, it could be pinned as Ul'dahn sabotage, taking the heat off of the smuggler.


Nero sighed again. Really, he was relying on Roen for this. Hopefully she was gathering allies and punching holes in the Syndicate's network.


As if recoiling from his own thoughts, Nero shoved all his thoughts of the paladin away as he pulled up several sheets of parchment to begin writing letters.


The chronometer ticked silently as the night went on.

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They had met at Buscarron’s, the remote tavern in the middle of the Black Shroud. A neutral territory, where an Immortal Flame sergeant, a Sultansworn, and a suspected accomplice to a pirate could meet without prying eyes and ears. It was a stormy night when Roen approached, the shelter of trees doing little to guard the building from pelting rain and howling winds. She looked up to the dark skies above, eyeing the storm somberly.


Roen did not suspect that either Osric Melkire nor Coatleque Crofte would try and arrest her. She still trusted them implicitly and hoped that they still had faith in her intentions for Ul’dah. But much had happened since Roen had last spoken to either of them, that she could not help but feel some measure of apprehension as she agreed to the meeting.


The paladin had not talked to Osric since, as she had heard, he had intervened on Verad Bellveil’s behalf. Mister Bellveil, whom she now considered a dear friend and trusted confidant, had been beaten within an ilm of his life by the Brass Blades--like as not for his participation in her movements against the Monetarists.


It still pained her deeply to think of the vicious attack. Roen had come to see him as he convalesced in Gridania, under the watchful eye of Kiht Jakkya--another dear friend--and the Morbolvine Clan. Seeing him in such a weakened state, despite his words of bravado and reassurance...it brought about such pang of guilt that Roen soon had to depart after making him promise to take his time to recover.


Suns later, thoughts of the Duskwight merchant and the rest of the people she had involved in this matter began to further solidify her resolve. They had put themselves at risk, therefore she had to do more to make their efforts worth something. And despite the fact that it began as an investigation into one Monetarist noble, Nero had opened her eyes to the fact that it had to become more than that. For all the suffering and for all the people who were trying to help her, it had to mean more than just the downfall of one man.


“You heard what Crofte said over the pearl,” Osric’s words pushed through her thoughts, bringing her attention to the fore. Roen glanced at the sergeant then the Sultansworn, both of whom were seated at the table across from her. The Immortal Flame wore a deep frown. "Explosives. He's makin' explosives. I already have one Askier t'deal with. Not sure I can handle two. Not sure the cities can take two."


Coatleque had inspected the warehouse at Moraby and had discovered that it was filled with garlean steel and empty containers that should have contained ceruleum cores. Both Crofte and Melkire immediately suspected the worst. The paladin looked between them, shaking her head. “If you think Nero is making explosives, you are mistaken.”


"Roen, he is stockpiling ceruleum somewhere,” Crofte spoke calmly, but was regarding her carefully. "What else could he be using it for?"


"Might be fuel,” Osric grunted.


"Aye, that was my second thought, and it may explain the steel," the Sultansworn nodded.


Roen considered her next words carefully. Nero had confided in her what they were for. It was for the Soldier Dance. But that was his secret that he had entrusted to her, and she felt that she could not share it with anyone else. She was not even sure that the two people she trusted at this table would understand, or believe in Nero’s altruistic intentions. "It is not for explosives,” she said quietly. "He trusted me with that knowledge and I vowed not to break that trust. But he is not Askier. He is not planning on massive destruction of cities.” She glanced to Osric pointedly. “It is a deterrent.”


"Deterrents only work as such if the folks what have them are known t'be willin' to use them.” Osric met her gaze squarely.


"Do you think him such a threat?" Roen blinked.


"I think him wronged and rightfully infuriated enough to possibly make such rash decisions, yes."


"He is not a foolish man. Nor is he wanting wanton destruction, even when wronged. He does want to improve things."


"Things are rarely improved through force,” Coatleque chimed in quietly.


Roen narrowed her eyes, eager to change the subject. “I heard of a recent bargain struck between you and Taeros, ser Crofte." It was something that Mister North had mentioned, but never elaborated on. His selective discretion had roused her curiosity then. She looked to Crofte expectantly.


The Sultansworn’s gaze was slow to meet the paladin’s. “Nor should you want to…though it does concern your welfare."


"Don't strike bargains for her welfare. Nat learned the hard way that all it earns you is a collar,” Osric said bluntly. Roen felt her own expression harden.


"Jameson wanted me to betray you to him. To lure you back to the city. He has no legal proof nor reason to detain you, so he wanted you to make yourself available for easy capture." Coatleque averted her eyes to the table in front of her. "I…gave him someone else as a distraction."


"Someone else?" Roen straightened, eyes widening. "Who...?"


"Not important. What is important is that I shall keep him distracted as long as necessary for you."


"Tell me it ain't Gharen.” Osric interrupted, his eyes narrowed. “I want to hear the words."


“It is not."


The sergeant then grinned. “Ain't me, is it?”


The Sultansworn seemed taken aback as she stared at the Immortal Flame. "... No."


"Coatleque, I would not have you throw anyone to the wolves in my stead,” Roen implored, leaning forward. Roen rarely spoke the woman’s first name, and when she did so, it was to beseech a friend.


"Roen...this person volunteered. Please, just...do not waste the chance. I do not know how long his gaze can be held. He will surely find someone else to hunt you down."


Roen just stared at her, not certain what to say.


"Please just trust me," Coatleque murmured, her green eyes locking gaze with Roen’s.


"Enough," Osric cut in, angrier. "She's struck her bargain, and it's buyin' you time.” He pulled out a vial of white liquid and held it up to Crofte. "This is milkweed."


"So I see. But where did you get it?" Coatleque canted her head.


"We seized it from a warehouse. This is but one vial of many from one crate among several crates. We also seized more than a few somnus samples from another warehouse, and enough incriminating records from both. They belong at least in part to a certain fop what dresses in white. If not him, his employers. The lieutenant and I have been buildin' a case, with some help. This whole conflict with Nero could've been avoided from the start. It ought t'have been a Flames matter, given the foreign nature."


Roen fell silent, her eyes darting between the sergeant and the Sultansworn. It was obvious that Osric had come to a realization that she herself had not, and was driving the conversation elsewhere.


"Normally, the Syndicate and every authority in Ul'dah would look the other way, what with Brass Blades and their penchant for makin' off with illicit goods. But this conflict's been instigated. A fire's been fanned. A man was ordered executed without due process from the Hall. There are witnesses. There is physical evidence." Osric looked to both women in turn as he slipped the vial back beneath his shirt. "I intend to use it."


Crofte tapped her chin pensively. "To what end? You plan to ruin the man once and for all? Or to simply hold leverage?"


"The man is entirely too competent at stirrin' up suffering. It needs to end,” Osric said gruffly.


"Agreed,” Crofte nodded.


Roen shook her head. "He is responsible for much. But...he is also the man who arranges things for many Monetarists. I hoped to gather enough evidence to implicate and trap him. And perhaps use him against his employers as well."


"Nero wants to cut deep t'make things better. I'm content t'just cut out the bullet.” Osric shrugged.


Roen inhaled and steeled herself. She knew neither of them was going to like what she was about to say. "I want to do both, sergeant."


Osric met her words with a hard stare. Roen continued calmly. "If you remove one bullet, they will find another to replace it in the pistol. It may take some time, but the pistol still remains."


"I move slowly, but I get the job done without bloodshed,” the sergeant’s voice had lowered considerably.


Her own voice has taken a determined turn, her expression intent. "I do not mean to bring violence. Only sow more chaos and distrust amongst the Monetarists."


"I can't help you there,” Osric growled. "I won't."


Roen narrowed her eyes, her hand laid flat against the wooden grain of the table, as if to press her point. "From what I have seen and observed of the man, Taeros moves products, offers services, and arranges for things for his employers and for families that can pay. If his services and loyalties are held in suspect, then they may question their own alliances with each other." She finally flicked a glance back towards the Immortal Flame, an odd calm settling over her. "I know this is not what you wanted to hear, sergeant.”


Osric stared down at the wooden table, teeth grinding hard as his fingers dug into his knees. He was not pleased.


"I am not cutting either. Only…waving the scalpel a little. To see who flinches."


Osric barked out a laugh. "Well, Crofte. I'm sure y'must be shocked."


The Sultansworn kept a placid expression in place. "I rarely am anymore."




"It appears Mister Lazarov may be rubbing off on dear Roen more than she is on him.” Coatleque regarded the paladin carefully from across the table.


Roen blinked. Was that true? Was she starting to see Nero’s way of things? Was she bending towards his radical views? Was she sympathizing with his needs to justify the means by the striving relentlessly towards the end no matter what the cost? She could not believe that. Where Nero saw her plans as not enough, Coatleque and Osric saw it as too much. She felt pulled in both directions. "I see the need for change. I just do not want to see the most radical plans come to fruition."


"Quite likely,” the sergeant grumbled.


"I do not want bloodshed,” Roen insisted. “But if some chaos can be thrown into their camp, mayhap the Royalist and those who support the Sultana can take advantage.” She shot both of them a look. “Are both of you so content to leave things as they are?"


"No. But I prefer the slow road.” Osric frowned. “I've an obligation to the little folk, t'make sure they don't get trampled."


Coatleque shook her head. "T'is not about contentment as much as knowing my place."


"There are too many that are already getting trampled, sergeant, everyday. I too do not want any more violence to come to those who already suffer. Nor innocents to become drawn into this crossfire. That is the last thing I would wish." She wanted them to understand that more should be done. That more could be done. "Turn the corrupt upon each other. Make them work against each other."


"You asked me somethin', once. I figure I'd better ask you now." Osric met her gaze again, his words deliberate. "Would you cut?"


Roen blinked slowly at Osric, the memory of their previous conversation jarring her conviction. "Do you think…this is cutting...?" her words came out quieter, shaken with uncertainty. "Is that how you see this?"


Osric bit his lower lip as if in thought, then shook his head. "Not yet, but you're on the edge of a knife." He added after a pause, "Don't fall."


The paladin and the sergeant stared at each other in silence for what felt like hours, before she nodded slowly. He then answered her with one of his own. It was an unspoken promise.


Osric then rose from his seat to go. "Ser? Anythin' else?"


Coatleque nodded to the Flame. "I will keep you informed of anything I find."


With a quick and sharp salute, the sergeant ducked out into the rain, leaving the two knights at the table. Coatleque broke the silence after two breaths. "Roen." She leaned forward to draw the paladin’s attention. Her voice held no accusation, only earnest curiosity. "I need to ask you...why? Why are you doing this? Trying to affect such change?"


Roen leaned back, exhaling slowly. "Because no one else sees the need for it, but I am beginning to." Her words were calm, unwavering. "The Syndicate walks and lives off the backs of the poor. And the refugees...they suffer so greatly beyond the walls, and yet nothing changes.


"Of course we all see the need. But how is that our place to act?"


"I see their desperation, and I see it driving Nero. Perhaps he has opened my eyes to it." She shook her head, determination swelling her chest. "Should someone not try? Just because it may be impossible does not mean the very idea should be dismissed."


Coatleque regarded her for a moment longer, before nodding."No, you are correct. Would that it were my place to try. But my place is to serve."


"He wants to try. He will give his life to try. And I chose to stand by him. I mean for this not to take his life, or his humanity."


"You still care for each other?"


That made the paladin pause. Roen looked back to the table between them, studying a random wooden grain. But she nodded.


"Why remain here then? Take him and go. Leave Eorzea. You still have family do you not? A chance to be happy? Ul'dah's troubles should not be your own."


Roen blinked, her hands curling into a ball on her lap. "That would be running away." She frowned inwardly that there was a part of her that considered that temptation even for an instant. "Ul'dah is in his blood. The Jewel's pain is his own. And it is also my home, however flawed it may be."


Coatleque smiled slightly. "True enough. I had hoped you would realize that just the same, but…still it is tempting?"


"I do wish..." she whispered, almost inaudible over the din of the tavern and the roaring storm outside. "I do wish that after all this is over…that there is some chance of happiness for him.”


"I need you to understand something then." The Sultansworn sighed as she rose. "Perhaps for both of our sakes. You may hear some disturbing rumors soon. Whatever you think, I need you to know I am still your friend, and that I still mean to help you in mine own way."


Roen blinked, her eyes widening with some alarm as she watched the woman pull the turban back over her eyes. "Are you…alright?"


"Yes,” Coatleque said, and turned for the door. She paused as Roen rose from her seat, her gaze hidden beneath the fly-mask of the turban.


"It was me,” the Highlander said quietly, then strode for the door.


Roen blinked, not understanding at first, then she felt herself grow cold at the realization. She could only watch in stunned silence as the Sultansworn disappeared into the stormy night.

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Night enveloped Ul'dah, the cool breeze contrasting with the heated tempers that shouted in Pearl Lane. It was a scene not unusual for the city; on one side of the street was a skinny Elezen, flanked by a Hellsguard Roegadyn and a Midlander Hyur. On the other side of the street were two other Midlanders and several Ala Mhigan Highlanders. The Elezen and his companions were dressed in scraggly cotton robes and held no weapons that could be seen. Conversely, the opposing Hyur were shirtless, wearing only some woolen kecks and armed with unpolished but clearly functional scimitars. Their arms were adorned with tattoos that depicted a crude image of a hawk with a warhammer in its mouth, and all of them wore confident smirks.


"Scythe owns this area now," the Wildwood Elezen spoke calmly, folding his arms in the cotton robe. "We had gone over this before. Everywhere from the Onyx Lane to here belongs to him. You had best be on your way."


One of the Midlanders briefly scratched his head, before letting out a bark of laughter. As if on cue, the rest of the Hyur followed suit, filling the area with guffawing.


"'ear that, laddies? We'd best be on our way," the Midlander said with mocking confidence. "Th' 'ammerbeaks be bowin' t'nobody, an' if ye got a problem wit' that, well..." he patted the scimitar on his side. "Bein' the generous sort o' people, we can sort that out fer ya." 


The Elezen shook his head. "Your numbers are meaningless. Scythe is giving you one chance. One. I suggest you take it." Out of sight, one of the second-story windows that had been previously boarded up silently swing open, a detail that would be fatal to miss.


The Midlander's amused expression dropped. "Who ye be thinkin' ye are, ye knife-eared shite licker? Ye think ye can waddle in t' our turf and get out unscathed?" He and the other Hyur drew their swords, their joviality replaced with violent anticipation.


"On the contrary," the Elezen said, smiling. "It is you stepping into our territory, and it is you who will not be escaping unscathed." He raised his hand, seconds later a sound not unlike the crack of lightning was heard. A plume of smoke emerged from the open window and the Midlander's furious countenance was replaced with one of shock. He looked down at his chest and found a small hole that quickly blossomed into a crimson plume. The Midlander looked up at the Elezen's now sadistic grin, and tried to say something. Nothing emerged but a gurgle as blood escaped the Midlander's lips, preceding the dull thud of a body hitting the pavement.


As if on cue, several other windows swung open, and polished wooden rifle barrels poked out. The remaining Highlanders were surrounded as their position of confidence had crumbled under the threat of the barrage.


The Elezen reached into his robe and pulled out an ornate pistol, pointing it at the next Midlander in the gang. 


"Scythe extends his invitations," was the smug proposition.

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Roen tugged on the cowl of her hooded cloak as she ducked out of The Gold Court, her eyes warily looking about as she began to make her way toward the Gate of Thal. Her meeting with Broken Nose was a quiet one, shared over a sandwich under the fountain, the quiet babble of the water masking much of their muted conversation.


Her thoughts were a whirl with some of the updates she had received, both from the Roegadyn Brass Blade and from an earlier meeting with Mister North. The Hellsguard confirmed what she was already expecting to hear. There were rumors about that since the three Monetarist warehouses were raided, that the security had been heightened and blame had been eagerly dispensed to any and all who could have been responsible. Broken Nose counted himself fortunate that suspicion had not been cast his way as yet, and even though the Roegadyn put up a brave front, Roen could tell there was wariness behind his dark eyes.


But the Monetarists were starting to founder, starting to suspect each other in who was betraying whom--so much so that there was another agent from Lolorito that was sent to “clean up” the mess. Mister North had been privy to the meeting between someone he referred to as Master Zuka and the noble Jameson Taeros. He had noted that Taeros sounded almost deferential in his conversation with the Lalafell, and that this Lalafell Enforcer seemed to be very well informed. The two Monetarists spoke of her and Nero, but also had discussed nearly all of her allies, including her brother, and even Qaeli Varily, a friend to both her and Gharen.


While this meant that her plan was working--to throw more chaos and disorder into the ranks of the Monetarists and turn their focus towards their own troubles in Ul’dah--it also meant that her efforts here were started to get noticed, and the list of enemies was growing. If only this opportunity unveiled more weaknesses that she could capitalize on...


Her thoughts and her steps froze when a distant crack rang out from the far end of Pearl Lane. At first, her thought was to look up at the sky, as if to expect rain. But it was not the sound of lightning she had heard. That was a gunshot.


Roen instinctively reached behind her back to draw out her shield, her fingers sliding into the grooved handle even as her pace quickened down Pearl Lane. She had heard shots from pistols and rifles before, but it was mostly in Vylbrand and her homeland Garlemald. But here? In Ul’dah? Before drawing her sword, her free hand reached into her pouch and withdrew a pearl that she inserted into her right ear.


“Broken Nose, shot fired. Pearl Lane. Relay to Brass Blades...and the Immortal Flames if you can.” She knew she could have used the pearl that sergeant Melkire had given her, but she was not exactly sure who else was on that shell. She had hoped that Broken Nose could contact whatever law enforcement was nearby. He had access to the linkshell that the Blades, Sworns, and the Immortal Flames all shared. She hurried down the street, even as she passed panicked refugees running away from the scene.


The paladin skidded to a stop at a turn, hearing voices. She gave a glance around the corner and spotted a showdown between two groups. One man was bleeding on the ground, motionless. The larger group of men was looking up; she followed their gaze to the open windows above them. Roen thought she spotted at least one rifle poking out. A robed Elezen stood amongst the smaller group of men, in his hand an ornate pistol.


Roen’s eyes narrowed. She had never before seen the firearm's like outside of Vylbrand. She ducked back out of sight and summoned aether with a quick, practiced cast, and a thin layer of stone began to form from her fingertips, wrapping around her gloved hand, then her armored limb. A layer made of hardened earth began to coil around her entire form, but fading and ultimately disappearing as soon as it came. The paladin knew enough of pistols and guns, after all; gunblades were a well used weapons in Garlemald. Any unarmored body would be vulnerable to a single well placed shot. One had to close the distance on the shooter before that shot was fired, else any blade held in hand was useless.


With multiple rifles atop buildings and another pistol wielder at ground level, this was not something Roen could rush into and expect to survive. But she could not wait either--there could be more shots fired and more violence erupting before others could arrive. Perhaps she could end the face-off before it turned into something more bloody.


The paladin took a deep breath and called out, “Cease and desist! Brass Blades and the Flames have been alerted! Drop your weapons before this ends even worse for all of you!”

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The sudden shout startled all present in the alley, and the Elezen whipped his head around looking for the source of the voice. Unfortunately, the cramped conditions lent the slightest bit of echo to the female timbre, and the Elezen's moment of distraction would not go without punishment.


The Midlander opposing the Elezen shouted and swung his sword, cutting a large gash in the Elezen's hand and calling the Wildwood to drop his pistol. Snarling, the Elezen, clutching the wound with his other arm, made a wild gesture at the remaining Hyur. "Kill them!" The Highlander Hyur all made various battle cries that seemed to synchronise with the crackles and booms of gunpowder igniting in the rifles, and in the first few seconds several of them fell.

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Zazuka Zuka –



Children streaked through the cobblestone streets, shrieking with comingling laughter and distress as their weapons comprised of stripped branches clacked together with hollow threat. Devoid of the watchful eye of their parentage, the prepubescent churls heeded none—not even themselves, much less where they were going.



"I am Raubahn the Mighty! All fall before my mighty cleave!" boomed one stocky lad as he chased down two smaller boys, who ducked between merchant and streetfarer into one of the dim alleyways branching from Sapphire Avenue. His frenetic pace afforded him little control, and thus he had no chance of evading the Lalafell approaching from the other direction. Like a hapless pup scrambling over a pile of stones, the young hyur half-flipped over the smaller creature, crashing side-first onto the unforgiving street.



A pained cry turned to a flash of rage as he clambered to his feet, twain-snapped branch clutched tight at his side. "Hey, watch where you’re going!" the boy yelled blindly into the shade before turning and resuming his chase.


Zazuka brushed the dirt and grime from his cotton tunic and leathered breeches, subtly luminescent gaze following the retreat of the young fool that had sent him to the ground. Smoothing out a wrinkle here and there, he re-shouldered the satchel that had uprooted during the collision and continued on his way.



High were the Jewel’s walls, concealing from the world the tempest of chaos and anarchy that had been gaining potency for the past several moons. Yet if such anarchists and many refugees had their way, the Gate of Nald would tremble and collapse, shining a dust and corpse-ridden light upon just how weak and reachless the Sultana and her agents were.



The loose thread of coin and compromise that had kept the Monetarists together was beginning to fray, all by the making of their own greed and ill-informed decisions; an inevitable byproduct of the autonomy afforded—and purchased by—the various houses. This had led to the allowance of foolishly short-sighted action, such as the unsanctioned execution of Daegsatz Traggblansyn, first mate of Nero Lazarov.


‘Underestimated’ was the frail justification that Jameson Taeros had applied to the gross mis-step. And yet the well-kempt hyur had yet to be touched by the consequences of his failures. For Zazuka, every attempt to make a fist or hold one of his beloved instruments of inquiry was a ghostly reminder of the price he had paid for his own underestimation. Soon, the streets and courts would be filled with the consequential spectres of that lone act.



It was for the prevention of this grim future that he had been sent. He was the needle that would guide the wrongly-sewn threads back into accord; or the blade that would clip the extraneous stitches from the whole.



Lolorito’s First and Final Pence.



And there were many accounts to be settled.



Even in the dusk hours, as many vendors began to pack up their stations and prepare for the journey home, Ul’dah’s economy was a flurry of transactions of various magnitudes. The dark corners of the sacred Jewel held many secrets, and few of them were beyond the reach of his shadow. In one, someone was being beaten for coin, insult, or no reason at all. In another, a woman’s thighs were spread for similar reasons. In still another, clandestine folk were exchanging clandestine goods with (sometimes) clandestine intentions.



The city’s walls towered high above all, obscuring sight of such misdeeds from eyes that often preferred to look elsewhere. But as the sun crept below the Jewel’s spires, her shadows grew ever longer; and so too did Zazuka’s.



His shades were ever vigilant, dispersed into the city like so many scattered coins, lodged into the many cracks of its streets, alleys, and walls, collecting interest and sensitive value for their master. And this particular eve, dividends were being paid.



Further delving into the suspicions Taeros held concerning the lifted products from his warehouse had yielded a trail of crumbs that led to a certain Flame Sergeant. Moreover, collections had gathered that the former Sultansworn Deneith was somewhere within the city, doubtless conducting her covert affairs.



A hasty man would have rushed to cast a net and attempt to sequester the woman with forceful repercussion. Zazuka, however, had learned the value of temperance. Deneith’s presence had left crumbs, however miniscule. And for as much value was placed in the paladin’s dealings, keen was his interest at whose feet the last crumbs fell.




‘When seeking sign of rot, look first beneath the drawn sleeve.’



No, he would leave the net unfurled for the time being. Now was the hour of the snare and hot iron. He would cauterize each of the gaping wounds in Taeros’—and the Monetarists as a whole—operations, and thereby wall off the avenues of the paladin’s offenses.



He had so many questions for so many people; a prospect that nearly brought a smile to his commonly undiscernible expression.



And he knew just where to begin.



Somewhere behind him, pockets of thunder cracked with spurious frequency, limned by a familiar choir of enraged and agonized screams.



He did not take pause to consider the source, for it was already known. Rather, he quickened his pace.



The walls were already shaking.

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He stood straight-backed over the flat workman's table, a fire crystal grasped in his gloved hand and warm to the touch. A gentle hissing filled the air as, stroke after prim stroke, he ran the hot crystal's smoothed face down the wrinkles of an exquisite cream-colored suit jacket. Entirely focused on his work, his eyes remained calm and focused on the texture of the master's formalwear; fine work, and barely worn.




That was the word that kept returning to North's mind, unbidden, in the midst of his daily routines and work on behalf of the illustrious Lord Taeros; like a child tugging at his sleeve. Insistent, and admittedly testing his renowned patience.


It was regrettable indeed.


He and Eadmund Prosser had not been terribly close, even in their school days, but time hadn't had much of an effect on him; he was still delighted to see a familiar face, and his brown eyes had beamed at the sight of North, quite unexpectedly in his master's foyer. Their encounter in the Crowes' palatial manor had been brief and muted, but fond. He had not voiced his observations, but the young valet's face had shone like a schoolboy's at the gift of Ishgardian Crystwine(!), handpicked by Lord Taeros himself and passed on to North with a smile. A calm, assured smile.


North had hoped that Eadmund would hear the tone in his voice as he cautioned against overindulgence, advised careful dilution of the wine, suggested that it was known to cause terrible gastritis, urged modesty and alcoholic abstinence. Part of him had already accepted, however, that the gift was perfectly selected so as to be utterly irresistible. And so they celebrated, and North made his way home, having accomplished his duties.


And now Eadmund Prosser was dead, House Crowe was dead, and the bottle was empty, because Taeros had smiled, nodded, and determined that it all be so, and Gideon North, humble servant, had performed his duty. And it was regrettable.


He started, then gave a curt tsk of irritation, realizing his hand had stopped moving, letting the heated crystal hiss and whine against the cuff. His thoughts had distracted him from the task at hand, again... Hastily drawing the aetheric chunk back, he inspected the damage critically. No visible difference, but the wrist would be rather crisper than the master may be used to. Fortunately, the style appeared to be Elezen cuff... more than enough room for the wrist to shift and move as necessary, without the chafe of a too-stiff cloth. Still, the other would need equal treatment. Inconsistency would be far worse than simply hoping the difference wouldn't be noticed. Another hiss, and a light wisp of hot vapor as he turned his attention to the other sleeve.


Jameson Taeros was the master. He was not Gideon's Master, but he was the current master, and not to be displeased. He suspected that Miss Deneith's expression would twist to hear it, but he took a certain satisfaction in being able to serve a master again in whatever capacity needed; to be relied upon to carry out his duties and to be counted on as the best within his field. When the time came for Taeros's retribution - and, seeing how he treated others, he was sure it would come - he would not be the one to pass down judgment. It was a natural law: there were Masters, and there were Servants. Gideon North was no master.


And neither indeed (he suddenly thought) had been Eadmund Prosser. Attachments, fond memories and betrayals aside, Gideon realized with an unsettling calmness that the both of them were equally expendable. His death was regrettable, indeed... but not for Gideon to regret. He was a tool, being used. That was his role, and had been Eadmund's. He had done what he could. Surely. The master's will must be carried out, and indeed, Gideon's true Master, the young Master - his guiding star - must still be served. He checks his tightening grip, and the hissing dies down as he delicately arranges the right cuff.


Miss Deneith obviously meant well, and her idealism and earnestness had certainly impressed upon him her determination to her cause. Lazarov had been described by a bored-looking Taeros as a radical, and perhaps in that, they were alike... in thought, if not precisely in action. It was a cause that intersected with his, and though he lacked their altruistic motives, he was happy to lend his services to the two so long as they might further his own goals. Neither side had seen much success arise from the other, and he was very conscious of the fact - Miss Deneith, for all her efforts and ideals, was in no condition to delve into Ul'dah's secrets, especially to discover the identity of an assassin. North's efforts, too, had borne few tangible results; he had managed a gift here, a slight disturbance there, a change in delivery or a hint at alliance, but turmoil among the wealthy houses was rarely perceptible from the outside. If his efforts had stirred the pot, there was no telling from his current position.


Still, Five had made a fine point, and one he should have realized himself. The Roegadyn naturalist had struggled through a series of increasingly unwieldy metaphors of Eorzea's monsters before settling on a satisfyingly simple observation: Symbiosis doesn't happen overnight. A bit of patience, and the winds would surely change... and North had a great deal of patience to exercise. Roen Deneith was certainly a Master, and he a Servant, but if she had impressed any of her values upon him (he smiled, faintly) it was that she would not tolerate selflessness. He would serve, and for once, he would be served in turn.


Miss Deneith had often said that he reminded her of her childhood teachers. Vaguely, he wondered if he had been instructed by any of them in his valet training. Eadmund Prosser's face rose to the fore again, and he pushed it from his mind with practiced calm and detachment.


The suit was impeccable. He raised it by the shoulders, pinched carefully between two slim, gloved fingers, and laid it carefully within the master's wardrobe.


His time with the young Master Aerstorn was proof enough that Five's words rang true. It would be preposterous to expect that the bond that he had shared with the young Master would be replaced, but if he could attain even a scant quarter of the trust he and the young Master shared, newly formed with Miss Deneith and her allies, it would be a fine place to find himself. Two distinct sides, concordant in harmony and purpose, and prepared to help each other in their times of need... and in their ultimate ambitions.


He exited Lord Taeros's chamber, nodding to a chambermaid. "Inform the master that his suit has been prepared for the operetta this evening."


"Oh, North, he's going to be livid! He says if you take any longer, he's going to be late to his place, and he's in the box seats alongside Lord Rezhenne tonight!"


A wan smile. "You may assure my lord that patience is a virtue. I shall expect him momentarily." The door clicked shut behind him.

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