Walkabout Chapter 9
Nikeah was a big, bustling harbour town, with enough colour and excitement and hedonism to fill a city five times its size. People in the surrounding villages called it a den of vice and villainy, Ifrits Playpen, and the fact that it had barely been touched at all during the Days of Destruction did nothing to dissuade them of this notion. It was full of merry dancing whores with rouged cheeks and flared skirts, lusty sailors from Maranda and South Figaro and Tzen, and merchants, more merchants than any other city on the planet. The open-air market drew them like flies, and like flies they buzzed to and fro in the heavy salt air, plying their wares to anyone passing by with tenacity not unlike a bogy suffering from lockjaw.
It was a loud, colourful, treacherous place, where the smells of heavy perfume and cloying incense mingled with fish-stink and iodine and the musty aroma of chocobo feathers from the livestock pens just off the docks. There were many strange sights to behold in Nikeah, fearful and fanciful both, but one of the biggest attractions the city had to offer besides the market and the brothels, of course was nothing more than a simple wooden sign advertising the ferry that ran to South Figaro.
To look at the thing you wouldnt have thought there was anything spectacularly important about it. Four splintery boards had been hastily nailed together to create a notice board, and the ferryman he had a name, Silas Gill, but everyone had long since forgotten it, including him had painstakingly inscribed his message on it in runny red paint. In shaky, scrawling letters it announced to all passing travellers that:
FERRY DOCKS HERE!
Nikeah to South Figaro
Stowaways will be Summarily Executed!
The ferryman was chest-burstingly proud of his sign. He wasnt sure what exactly summarily meant, but damned if it didnt look professional, so on it stayed.
Of course, this wasnt what had made his sign so famous all over Nikeah (even if he thought it shouldve); that was another tale entirely, one the ferryman was ever eager to tell. All the unfortunate passer-by had to do was look sideways at the crooked sign on its listing plank and he was off, relating the story of how his sign his, the very one right there he had painted had saved a childs life once during the World Cataclysm.
The tale went something like this. On that fateful day when Kefka re-arranged the statues and brought the world to its knees, the resulting earthquakes and shifting plates caused massive tsunamis, great waves that roiled over the coastal cities, flooding buildings and sweeping away bystanders as they went. Through a stroke of good fortune there was no major damage in Nikeah (more fuel for those who said it was under the protection of Ifrit), but the floodwaters did manage to wash away both the ferrymans sign and several children, all of whom unfortunately drowned save one. The survivor rescued himself by grabbing onto the first solid piece of driftwood that passed him by, which also happened to be the ferry sign.
Word went round of the miraculous save, and people flocked from every corner of the area to see the bit of plywood that had snatched the boy from deaths jaws. The ferryman became near unbearable to be around, claiming a hundred times a day that it was his divine hands that had wrought the miracle board. When he wasnt busy boasting, he was strutting around with a hideous look of triumph on his face, puffed out like a leathery and slightly red-faced balloon. People bought him endless drinks in the local pub to congratulate him on constructing such a fine piece of work, until it was a wonder he could pilot the ferry safely at all.
Today was turning out much the same as always. Several sailors from Kohlingen had offered him a round or three, and he had accepted their generosity with good-natured geniality. Then a boatload of Marandans did the same, and a rich merchant from Figaro, until before long the ferryman was in very high spirits indeed. He stood by his sign, proud as a chocobo cob in the spring, watching the crowds roll by with a beatific smile on his lips and a bottle of Tzen whiskey in his hand. Life was good.
By this point it wouldnt have shocked or disturbed the good man if a parade of polka-dotted moogles had come sambaing out of his trousers, so it was small surprise he barely noticed the little girl standing impatiently in front of his establishment at first. When he finally managed to focus both eyes on her he saw nothing more important than yet another street urchin, one of several thousand that had swarmed the alleys of Nikeah after the world cataclysm, and gave the child no further attention. This was a mistake.
He turned his back for a moment to idly check the clock tower. When he swung around again he found his sign ripped off its moorings, the remains carefully snapped and splintered into pieces so small he would never be able to glue them back together.
The shrill scream the ferryman let out had dogs barking as far south as Albrook.
It never failed: just when you thought things couldnt fuck themselves up any more without causing some sort of cataclysmic implosion, they went and one-upped you, just to show they could. Some blamed it on chance, others on an unlucky star. Relm, as usual, blamed it on Stray, whom she had decided must really hate dog-owners.
They had dragged into Nikeah late in the afternoon, Relm wanting nothing more than to find a decent inn and collapse in the kind of slightly-grimy-but-none-the-less-better-than-camping luxury only a second-rate public house could afford. Her first warning that things might not go quite according to plan had come as soon as she and Interceptor set foot into the first establishment, encouragingly named The Quilt and Larder.
Dont allow dogs! the man at the counter had barked, glaring malevolently over his spectacles at the pair. Relm begged, pleaded, cajoled, and when none of that worked, said something to the effect that it was a good thing the innkeepers father hadnt been so goddamned picky, which would have usually resulted in a fight but in this case (Mr. Innkeeper was not in the habit of tackling little girls, especially not little girls with big fuck-off wolves as companions) merely caused said innkeeper to threaten immediate legal action if she didnt get out. It all went downhill from there.
Almost exactly the same scenario played itself out at the Crab and Pickle, the Lobster Coach, and even the Wolfs Teat. Inns werent picky about whom they boarded, but an underage female with what appeared to be a half-feral dog at her side was just a little too much, even for the shadiest of sailors dens. Halfway to the Blood and Cuspid they passed the ferry landing, and Relm got her first good look at how much the trip to South Figaro was going to cost. Snapping the sign in half like a dry branch relieved some of her anger, but not enough to really matter in the long run.
Even the cheapest, most rat-infested of hostels charged somewhere around the 140 gil range for a nights stay. Passage on the ferry was 150. It didnt take a maths whiz to figure out the problem with that when all you had in your purse was 151 gil and a fast-growing brood of lint bunnies. The world fuck did not begin to adequately describe Relms feelings on this particular matter, but she said it anyway, slowly and loudly and with plenty of venom. She hadnt known that there wasnt that much gold, hadnt known supplies and an oversized second-hand cloak would take that big of a chunk out of her savings five months before, but what was done was done. All she could do about it now was swear, and so she did, sitting in a fast-darkening alleyway behind The Cats Boots with her head in her hands, stunned and unsure of what to do next.
There was still enough for the ferry if barely but it was going to mean sleeping rough for yet another night until morning came and the ferry began to run once more. Relm didnt even have the money to buy a loaf of bread or an apple in the meantime, and she was fucking hungry, dammit. They had been living off dried fish since Doma Channel, but even that had dried up two days before Nikeah came in sight. Forty-eight hours without food does strange things to a persons psyche and endurance; since Relm was already strange, it merely made her cranky, and desperate for something to eat.
The alleyway was filled with smells wafting from the pubs and local street vendors. It was a Saturday, the busiest day of the week for food-sellers, and the air positively reeked of grilled meats and fresh-baked bread and the slightly stale aroma of spilled beer. Interceptor sniffed the heady scents, smacked his chops appreciatively, and then turned his gaze to Relm, whining softly. She looked back at him blankly, wondering what it was exactly Interceptor thought she could do. How exactly did you explain to a dog that you were broke? And did he always have to be so trusting of her? It was downright nerve-wracking sometimes.
Look, I dont have any money, boy, Im sorry. No money, no food, capisce? Were just gonna have to hold out a little longer, but I promise Ill make Edgar give you a big juicy steak when we get there. The biggest.
He cocked his head slightly and whined louder, still staring intently at her face.
No, I mean it. There is nothing I can do. IGoddesses, how am I supposed to make you understand?
Those sad eyes! They were boring into her soul. Relm sighed and threw up her hands in exasperation.
FINE. I will find you some food, just dont look so sad, okay? Sheesh. You almost make me feel like I have a conscience. She got to her feet and scrutinized the alley, looking for something she obviously expected to be there. There was almost always one behind the pubs ah-ha. Relms nose wrinkled involuntarily, but with another long-suffering sigh she stripped off her cloak and scarf and approached the garbage crate, filled with stoic resolve. It had to be done, so fuck it, might as well get it over with before she had time to think about just what she was doing. The things I do for that mutt.
The trash bin was a huge wooden structure, roughly the size of a grand piano, and it was packed to the brim with refuse and garbage from the Cats Boots. Old chicken bones, the leavings of half-eaten chowder, stale bread, soured milk and rotten vegetables it was all thrown out into the big cedar receptacle, where the morass sat and stewed for a time until the garbage men came and hauled it away in their wagons. Since they only rolled through once a week, the mess had plenty of time to ferment into a perfectly noxious concoction, with a smell that could render one unconscious at fifty paces. Luckily this bin seemed to have been emptied not long before, but it still had a mighty reek to it.
Relm had not grown up an aristocrat, nor did she have any pretensions of snobbery about her. People that put on airs made her roll her eyes, and money was best when it was being used for buying new paints or a garishly colourful hat. Still, there was something inside the girl that made her occasionally lean towards the more upper-crust side of life, with its fashion and art and exciting operatic diversions, and under the tutelage of people like Setzer and Owzer this part of her had flourished over the past several years. A war raged within Relms psyche now as she hovered beside the bins, the aristocratic part of her crying out against the sheer ickiness of picking through a garbage tip for food. Did she really want to stoop this low? Couldnt Interceptor just wait a little while longer?
Then she thought: what would Sally do in this situation? and the answer became clear. With a deep breath Relm rolled up her sleeves, mounted the side of the bin, and without any further hesitation plunged her arms elbow-deep into the refuse, holding her disgust in check as she rooted around for something edible. Most of the stuff was pretty gross, but she did manage to find one or two dainties that would probably satisfy a dog just fine, including what looked like a perfectly intact fried pie. Relm grabbed these tidbits and hurried back to Interceptor, relieved and just a little bit proud of herself for going through with it.
She slumped against the stone wall of the pub and watched her friend snap up the bits of meat and stale cheese with a smile. He was a good companion; it was worth the trouble and the stink when she received such unerring loyalty in return. The fried pie Relm had saved for herself, and with barely any hesitation at all she broke it in half and took a bite, squeamishness overpowered by hunger. If it was good enough for Interceptor it was good enough for her well, most of the time, anyway. Chocobo turds werent exactly Relms idea of a good after-dinner chaser, as crazy about them as Interceptor seemed.
He finished the scraps and turned back towards Relm with a gratefully wagging tail, trying to lick her grimy face affectionately. Usually she just laughed and pushed him away when this happened, but this time she felt a sudden burst of appreciation for his friendship and threw her arms around the shaggy neck, giving him a big bear hug. Interceptor sat solemnly through this mauling, letting the girl squeeze him without protest. Anyone else that tried to manhandle him in such a fashion would soon be on their way to the nearest doctor with a slashed-open arm or worse, but this this was the girl.
Interceptor loved every minute of it.
When she got up the next morning Relm was in no mood to piss around. Sleeping rough in alleyways, she had decided, was something she was going to try and avoid entirely for the rest of her life, even if it meant robbing every train from Tzen to Albrook. Setzer had been right: there was something to be said for being incredibly stinking rich.
The ferrymans expression showed no recognization as Relm paid him the last of her gold, but immediately contorted into a paroxysm of fear and anger when he saw the monstrous shape standing placidly beside her. He wound up for a bellow.
We dont allo
Before the rest of the words could leave his tongue there was a small, surprisingly strong fist gripping the front of his collar, pulling his face down to a lower level. Relm glared balefully into his bloodshot eyes, ferocious blue versus blurry crimson.
I swear to Maduin, if the phrase we dont allow dogs comes outta your mouth I will set fire to your stubble, let my puppy chew on your butt, and toss you in the harbour. Okay? And then Ill paint a naked lady on your boat, just because.
She only came up to the ferrymans belt-buckle and was made up of knees and elbows and grime; a good strong wind wouldve blown her away. Still, there was something iron-strong in this slight little girl, something that scared the ferryman even more than her huge black dog. There was desperation written over every inch of her sallow-cheeked face, and it frightened him to an embarrassing extent.
G-gwan then, he finally muttered, unable to meet that icy look any longer. She released his shirt and stomped over the gangplank with her pet, tiny and furious.
No-one else bothered the two of them for the duration of their ferry ride.
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