Walkabout Chapter 5
There had never been a chocobo stable in Thamasa, although once or twice the good citizens had tried to petition for one when there was nothing more interesting to petition for. Many theories had been put forward to explain this strange absence - some said it was because there wasnt anywhere on the island you couldnt get to on foot just as fast as a mounted rider, while others surmised that perhaps the magic aura of the townsfolk would leave any nearby livestock nervous and high-strung, unfit for handling.
Relm knew the real reason why, though: chocobos shat like crazy. No-one wanted the job of mucking out a chocobo stable and even if they had there wouldnt have been anywhere to put all the massive piles of shit when they were finished and done. She had learned this through grim experience over the past month and a half, having pulled the short straw when the time came to pick out the rota of chores she and Sally would be sharing.
She stopped heaving guano into a wheelbarrow in the corner long enough to give Bill, who was peering over the side of the spare stall at her curiously, an upraised and venomous middle finger.
Fuck you, bird, she gasped, leaning on the handle of her pitchfork for support. Next time you want to take a shit Im going to stick a cork up your butt and let it stay in there instead. Where the hell do you get it all from?
Bill just blinked at her solemnly in the lantern-light. Relm blew a raspberry at him and went back to her shovelling, thankful at least that the stable was warm and snug. There was a snowstorm raging outside, great gusts of stinging flakes sweeping down in thick veils to obscure visibility and freeze extremities, but here inside the barn with Interceptor and Bill it was surprisingly mild. Shed even worked up a bit of a sweat, a new experience in Relms world, where any strenuous activity had always been quickly taken out of her hands by the overprotective and slightly fawning Strago. Ladies, he had said, were delicate flowers, made by the Goddesses to be spoiled and looked after. No granddaughter of his was going to engage in manual labour, not if he could help it. Stay inside the house and paint, Relm, while Grandad goes and kills this monster for the nice men.
Pfft. Not a damned chance. She had loved her grandfather dearly, but if old age hadnt gotten to him first she probably wouldve.
Sally seemed to be a lot more understanding and a lot more blasé about such matters, perhaps because she had been a headstrong girl herself once (or so she said). Relm had gotten quite attached to the widow over her two months there and would be sad to see the last of her when spring came and the journey resumed, although she was still restless and eager to push onwards before much more time passed. Gaus words had somehow been encouraging; surely Edgar would know where Shadow had gone, being, as he was, a big gay gossip-whore. If it was interesting and happened within 45,000 miles of Edgar Figaros domain you could be pretty sure he had heard about it, discussed it, analyzed it, and possibly written a book of poetry on the matter with which to woo the ladies. He would know where Clyde Arrowny was, or Relm would eat her beret. Well, that or Sallys fedora, which was about three sizes too big for her and which she was also wearing just then as she worked.
Interceptor lay nearby on a clean pile of straw, watching the girl with some curiosity. Eventually she finished and came to sit down beside him, stroking the dogs thick winter coat with a grimy hand. The wind howled outside and the walls of the little stable shook slightly under its force, but indoors all was still, the only sound Bill rattling his feed bucket impatiently. Relm plopped back into the hay and closed her eyes, enjoying the smell of the fresh straw and the momentary peace of the barn. Back at the house there would be fried fish and good talk with Sally and a huge copper washtub filled to the brim with steaming hot water, but for now the best thing in the world was lying still. She ran her hands through the straw idly, tracing individual grass stems and the groove of the floorboards and the contours of big heavy metal rings with her fingertips.
Wait, big heavy metal rings?
An experimental tug confirmed what she had originally felt there was a big steel ring set into the floor. Sweeping the hay away revealed that the ring was in fact a handle, designed to pull open a small trapdoor beneath the floorboards of the barn.
Relm knew everyone had secrets, and Relm knew better than to pry. However, Relm also had a burning curiosity about things that led her to scour the house thoroughly every year in the four weeks leading up to her birthday. She had also been known to accidentally hold letters not addressed to her over steaming tea kettles for long periods of time quite by accident, of course. It was just the sort of thing that happened to her.
It seemed to be happening again; before Relm could stop her hands from acting the damned things had collaborated against her and pulled open the trapdoor. She found herself peering down into a tiny alcove, just big and deep enough to accommodate the hinged wooden box nested neatly inside it. How very curious. Once again Relms hands took the incentive and pulled the box up out of its hole, ignoring completely her brains cries of no no no you stupid shithead its hidden for a REASON what the hell are you doing?!
Apparently her hands and legs had some sort of joint conspiracy thing going on as well, because within seconds she was crouching inside one of the empty stalls fiddling carefully with the boxs latch. Relm had been very well-educated by Locke on the proper way to spring a bolt much to Stragos chagrin - and this rusty little hasp was no challenge to her; after a few jerks and liberal use of a spare hairpin the box easily opened, squeaking in protest as she pushed back the lid on its hinges to reveal
Newspaper clippings, yellowing and crumbly around the edges. Lots and lots of them.
Somehow this seemed like a let-down, and Relm didnt even know what she had been expecting. Perhaps a severed head, or some dried-up candy, or a dragons egg, or maybe even more chocobo shit. Anything wouldve been more interesting than a boxful of dusty old newspapers. She picked one up gently and held it to the lamplight, trying to make out the faded words and pictures as best she could in the dimness of the stall.
The headline was easy enough to read: it said BANK ROBBERS STRIKE IN MOBLIZ AGAIN!!!!!! and contained so many exclamation marks they very nearly ran off the edge of the page. Below it was the article itself, a breathless and sensationally-written account of how two armed bandits had held up the biggest bank in Mobliz and run off with a great deal of cash. There was an interesting catch to this story, though, one that raised it above the average tabloid fare one of them had been a woman, tall of stature and slender of build. Neat, but Relm still didnt see why the clipping was important enough to warrant being locked away in a hidden box underneath the freakin stables.
She rifled through several more of the papers. All of them seemed to be about the same pair of thieves robbing banks and stagecoaches all over the eastern continent; the most widely-printed story had the two ransacking the Doma Railway, after which they were never heard from again, disappearing into the ether like creatures of legend. Some speculated that one or both had been wounded during the train robbery, while others surmised perhaps they had just finally gotten enough money to be satisfied. Nearly all of the sources had agreed on one thing, though: any woman who would behave in such a manner was a disgrace to her gender and deserved to be hung as soon as the authorities could manage it. A man turning outlaw was one thing, but a woman
I recall telling you to clean the stables, but for the life of me I cant recollect when it was I gave the order to go dig up my past like a dog tunnelling after an armadillo.
Relm froze. Sally was leaning in over the stalls windowsill, both elbows propped casually against the splintery wood frame. Her chin rested between her fists and there was an amused expression on her face - Relm had been so engrossed in the newspapers shed never even heard the older woman coming.
Lets you and me go back to the house and have a nice long chat, hmm? I dont know about you, but spillin my guts in a place that smells like bird shit just doesnt feel right, you know?
Sally didnt have a lot of luxury items most all of them had been left behind in Jidoor when she and Bill left, probably sold off at auction when everybody realized theyd scarpered but the one or two she did still own were guarded jealously from all comers, the last precious vestiges of a long-vanished life. The feather bed was one, and her cane rocking chair with the cushion in the bottom another.
Bill had said there was no damned way they could haul that thing all to the way to the ferry in South Figaro, and that wasnt even taking into account the Veldt journey they would have to make afterwards. The monsters would get it, and them, and then who would be left to sit in the blasted thing, hed asked her? But Sally had been just as stubborn back then as she was now; after a lot of arguing and some wonderfully foul language on her part the rocking chair had been tied securely inside the wagon. Bill had never ceased grumbling about that rocker until the day he died, but Sally just suspected that was because he had to sit in hideback chairs and his rear hurt him all the time.
She was only forty-four and had heard some say only old women sat in such devices, but that was bunkum, plain and simple. Anybody who couldnt appreciate a good rocking chair on the front porch in the evenings deserved to get piles, thats what Sally thought. The rocker was Sally MacDonalds throne, and from it she held court on such riveting subjects as whether to have fish or peas for supper that night, or if the chimney needed sweeping.
At the moment it was dragged up next to the fire, runners creaking slightly as Sally made it list back and forth with her heels. She kicked it back into motion every time it slowed; the habit had become so ingrained over the years it was like blinking, or riding a chocobo. Just something she did, an involuntary reaction.
The little wooden box Relm had discovered sat nestled in Sallys lap, its contents spilling out over her lap and thighs. She sorted through the clippings for a long time with a fond smile on her lips before finally adjusting her glasses and looking back up at Relm, who was seated nervously on the hearth with Interceptor at her feet.
Yep, that was me. I was cute back then too, honey, let me tell you what. Bill could circle my waist with his hands, and you couldnt find many train robbers with 22-inch waists even back then. She sighed, carefully shuffling the papers back into their box. We were poor, and when youre poor you dont give a rats arse about kings laws. It moved me into a big house in Jidoor with lots of pretty things and lots to eat, and when I was a young thing like you thats all I wanted out of life. Nowadays all I care about is the eatin part, if you want the Goddesses honest truth.
Relm had been very quiet since coming in from the barn, either ashamed of her nosiness or half-frozen from the snowstorm or possibly both. Now she raised her eyes and timidly for once tried to speak, curiosity overcoming hesitation.
But why didnt you just stay there, if you had so much money?
Why did you leave your nice comfortable home, not countin the fact that youre looking for somebody? Sally retorted. She wasnt about to get into the painful reasons shed left Jidoor, not with this sprig of a girl. Relm had become like a daughter to her over the cold winter months, that was true, but some things were just too tender to dig up for anybodys sake. The row of little headstones was etched almost photographically in her memory; there was no need to make the images even clearer by discussing the matter. I got sick of people, so we left. The birds and the bees and all the other critters keep me company here, and when I need supplies I just hook up Bill and go to Mobliz on the ferry. Settlers keep creeping north and I wont even have to go that far, damn their inquisitive hides. Annoyance flashed over her face and was gone in an instant, replaced by her usual calm expression.
Your turn now, dearie. What exactly is so powerfully important about Clyde Arrowny, exactly? I know the name youdve had to been deaf, dumb and blind not to have heard of the rascal after his robbery - although Ive never met him and wouldnt know him from Adam if he jumped on my bed. After my time, ysee.
The look she gave Relm was kindly, but behind the reading glasses her eyes were keen as knives. They harpooned the girl with understanding and authority in equal parts; in the face of them there was nothing Relm could do but answer. It all came gushing out before she had time to think: her childhood in Thamasa, the pretty mother who had died not long after giving birth, her strict but loving grandfather, and the adventures three years previous that had shaken the roots of the world everything of importance was laid at Sally's booted feet.
By the time Relm finished her story the fire had burned down to glowing embers and Interceptor was fast asleep, paws twitching slightly as he battled dream enemies of indeterminate size and number. Sally had listened with unwavering interest throughout the entire tale, interrupting only to interject with an occasional, Well Ill be damned, or I knew some Gabbianis in my time. Good family, silk merchants. Her eyebrows shot up rather precipitously when Relm got to Stragos letter but she said nothing, the pressed line of her lips hidden behind steepled fingers. When the end of the tale was reached Sally sat for a long time without saying anything at all, staring into the red coals of the fireplace like a scryer with a particularly puzzling set of entrails to decipher.
Child, tell me something, she finally said, sounding much more thoughtful than usual. What exactly do your expect to happen if and when you find this daddy of yours?
Relm blinked, surprised. This wasnt one of the questions she had expected.
I I never really thought about it, to be honest, she admitted. I just want to find him. Maybe he can tell me about my mom. I want to know what she was like, what hes like, you know? Her brow creased. And I wanna know why he left me like that. Is there something wrong with me that he knew about? Why the hell didnt he want me, Sally? He never even tried to come and see me, the asshole...
There was a hurt tone in Relms voice that wounded Sallys matronly heart to the quick. Without giving it a second thought she rose from her seat and gathered Relm in her tanned arms, rocking the astonished girl as she would a very young child.
Shush now. It aint your fault, honey. Aint nobodys fault. If anythings wrong with anybody, its the father and not the daughter, I can sure as hell tell you that. She stroked Relms cornsilk curls gently. Sometimes weird things go on in peoples heads and theres just no accounting for it. And robbers and rascals is some of the strangest people youre ever likely to meet, take it from me. Sometimes its not safe to hang around one place for long and youve gotta move on to protect your family. I wouldnt judge the man until I got the whole story from his side, anyways.
She rose to her feet, giving Relm one last final squeeze on the shoulder. I want you to think long and hard about why youre doing this, Relm. Think bout why exactly you want to find Mister Arrowny, and about what you expect from him once you do meet up, ken?
Thats my gal.
Relm sat on the hearth by herself for some time afterwards, already deep in thought on the matter.
The rest of the winter passed uneventfully, one grey day bleeding into another without incident. Relms time was taken up with chores and lessons; Sally had become intensely determined to teach her young protégé how to cook, and quite surprisingly Relm took to the task like a blue chocobo to water. She was a competent chef and a whiz when it came to handling Bill (who fell in love with her, much to Sallys amusement), but sewing and fishing tested her notoriously short patience, and the only way Sally could lure the girl into getting these things done was with the promise of a story once she finished.
Relm became addicted to Sallys tales of her past life as a bandit. Sally was a master storyteller with a colourful vocabulary, and every scenario played out like a scene from a Jidoor opera when she told it. Not one of those boring, stuffy operas either - like one of the good ones, with murders and duels and narrow escapes galore. Sometimes Sally would get so caught up in her own telling she would come clear out of her seat, clawing at the air and pantomiming bayonet strokes with a coat-rack. Relm watched all this with a rapt expression and shining eyes, taking each and every word in like a thirsty young sponge. Strago had never told her stories quite like these, but then he had been a decent, law-abiding citizen throughout most of his long life. Sallys histories were filled with danger and good-natured lawlessness, and quite understandably this appealed to Relms sense of mischief more than many a moralistic tale from her grandfather had.
Im kinda glad you found that box, Sally said once, after relating a particularly lurid anecdote involving dynamite, lost treasure, and an Albrook brothel. Cant tell these stories to anybody else except Bill, and hes heard them all before. If youd been around back then we couldve had ourselves a time!
If only, Relm often thought to herself sadly. The world before her birth sounded like it had been a much more exciting and vibrant place, filled with colourful characters and adventure. Relm had certainly experienced her share of both during the Returner War perhaps a little more than she would have liked, in a few cases - but those days had come and gone before she was even old enough to appreciate them. Now that Relm was in her teens everything had become dull and colourless, blandified. Magic was gone, the last wild places were all but disappearing, and very soon she would be expected to settle down and behave as a young woman. Screw that. Young women (at least the ones Relm had known in Thamasa) were expected to dress demurely and mind their manners at all times, never raising their voices or causing a scene. Relm lived for causing a scene. She liked flashy clothes and practical jokes and big greasy meals of eggs and pancakes; her lifestyle and that of a young lady were incompatible to the nth degree.
She had resigned herself to the inevitability of young ladyship long ago, but that was before Sally. The only female role models Relm had had access to previously were Terra and Celes, and while Relm loved and admired both of them as sister-aunts, she didnt exactly want to be like them. Terra was sweet but quiet and Celes was the closest thing to a warrior queen Relm had ever met - not really her style on either front. Sally, on the other hand, swore and wore hats and got her hands dirty, in addition to being an ex-train robber. She was her own person, and Relm admired her greatly.
Sometimes she wondered what Shadow was doing now. He had been a robber before her birth and a ninja afterwards; what kind of adventure was he hunting down out there? Occasionally she had dreams about bringing him back to meet Sally once they were reunited, and how the two would fall in love and get married. The four of them would become famous across the land, getting into scrape after wild scrape. Books would be written about the bandit family, and ballads sung in their honour. Relm would paint her memoirs, garnering praise and respect for the vividness and subject matter, and when she got enough money she would kick all the new people out of Thamasa and make it a sanctuary for adventurers. It would be awesome.
All of this was rather presumptuous of her, she knew, but they were only dreams, and dreams certainly couldnt hurt anything. In the meantime she helped Sally with the chores, had long conversations with Interceptor about her hopes for the future, and waited as patiently as she could for the arrival of spring.
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