A Long Cold Winter Chapter 2
"We wish you a safe journey home tomorrow, Lord Figaro. Give your esteemed brother our regards when you arrive."
Sabin nodded curtly, not trusting himself to say something that wouldn't make himself look foolish in front of the noblemen. Really, if Edgar hadn't begged Sabin to take the job, he never would have gone as head diplomat' on this assignment. But Edgar had felt very strongly that his presence was needed back at Figaro Castle.
So here he was, playing word games over a shipment of wool. But it was needed, Edgar had stressed, to prepare for the coming winter.
"Have a good trip back yourselves," he finally said.
The comment seemed to be deemed appropriate by the opposing side, as they nodded curtly in return, taking the their leave of the room.
Only when the door finally closed did Sabin let himself relax. "Well... that went just great."
One of the two men behind Sabin coughed. "Do you wish to call it a night, my lord?"
Sabin opened his mouth to agree, but stopped himself. "Hey, did either of you two notice anything funny about the guy in the brown clothing? Blond hair?"
They gave each other confused looks before looking at him and shaking their heads in tandem. "Nothing. Why do you ask?"
"He didn't say anything the whole time. And he had a knife under his clothing."
"Surely you do not find that unusual? Even we have ornamental knives under our clothing. One must be able to defend oneself these days."
"Phil," Sabin ordered. "Show me your knife."
The advisor blinked, but began to dig the knife out of his clothing.
Sabin stopped him fifteen seconds later. "Forget it. That's my point. You'd be dead ten times before you ever got that knife out and ready. That guy had his knife placed perfectly. If he knew how to, he could have that knife out faster than you could blink."
"Perhaps he is a skilled fighter in his own stead. If you were not such a talented fighter, you would have a bodyguard yourself, would you not?"
Sabin grudgingly conceded the point. "Maybe you're right. It just doesn't seem right. Everything about him... forget it. Get some rest. We're leaving at the crack of dawn, understand? You guys want me for anything, I'll be at the cafe."
They bowed briefly before leaving the room, shutting the door behind them with an audible click. Sabin frowned. The brown-clothed man had been the last to leave the room. And he hadn't made _any_ noise shutting the door.
He shook his head and got to his feet. He was getting paranoid. Just because he didn't have a single diplomatic bone in his entire body, that didn't give him any excuse to get edgy like this. His trainer, Master Duncan would have rightfully laughed in his face over this business.
Glancing briefly in the mirror, Sabin made a face at his appearance. After much badgering, Edgar had finally forced Sabin to have a good suit made. Lovely dark red cloth. Sleeves. Cuffs. A _collar_. And he was wearing it now, despite his revulsion. Duncan would have laughed at that too.
With a sigh, Sabin left the room, his mind going over various items. Perhaps he wasn't quite as much of an intellectual as his brother was. But he wasn't a woman-crazy romantic, which was to say, he wasn't a complete idiot either. And his mind was telling him that things were less than ideal now. Edgar had been tight-lipped about select political issues to everybody, even his own brother. Even intense questioning, coupled with a mild guilt trip or two, hadn't revealed anything. The nervousness was merely on account of trying to figure out how to survive the coming winter. Nothing more, his older brother had claimed.
Whatever. Sabin knew nervousness. And he knew fear. Both through personal experience. Training in martial arts all his life had taught him to differentiate between the two. Edgar was nervous, yes. But he was also afraid of something. Very badly. A few secret negotiations had occurred over the past month that Edgar hadn't even admitted to until Sabin had caught him sneaking out one time. Even then, Edgar had refused to say what they were for.
Sabin didn't think Edgar was doing anything wrong. Certainly not against Figaro. But he had a hunch that the _other_ half of the negotiations might be. Was Edgar trying to head off something? Sabin honestly had no idea what was going on, and he didn't like that. He could take not understanding something, but there wasn't even anything to understand...
The door to café was absent-mindedly pushed open.
"Good evening to you," the barkeep greeted. If he recognized who Sabin was, he gave no indication of it. "Can I get you anything?"
"Anything light," Sabin replied quietly. The martial artist in him had once refused to even touch alcohol, but he had lightened up somewhat. Nevertheless, Duncan had always strongly impressed upon him the crime of destroying one's mental edge. Danger could appear at any time, and it never paid to play the part of a drunken fool when it came.
A drink was pushed in front of him, which he sipped lightly, pronouncing it worthy. "It seems quiet around here these days," Sabin commented.
"It had been," the barkeep agreed. "Nobody does much traveling these days. Can't say I blame em. The weather is something horrible if I do say so myself. People are smart enough to buy a cloak instead of an extra drink. The ones that do come are bummed out or just had a spat with their ball n'chains. Me and my waitress Lilly have heard em all, let me tell you."
"Lucky thing I'm not married, I guess," Sabin agreed. "I heard you guys got a new Chocobo farmer in the village."
"A few weeks ago. Looks like he'll be a sight better'n the old one. The old one spent more on women than he did on Cho' feed. The new one's married and knows his stuff. Good rates on them too."
Even before the waitress came up to him, Sabin was aware of her approach. She was graceful in step, quiet even, but his ten years of training were more than equal to it.
"What's up, Lilly?" the barkeep inquired.
"Excuse me, sir," she greeted Sabin.
Sabin turned, an inquiring look on his face.
"A friend of yours over there?" She pointed to a corner of the bar.
Sabin casually turned to look. The same man he'd been wondering about before, complete with brown cloak. The man glanced once at a seat opposite him meaningfully.
"Yeah, a friend of mine," Sabin agreed, picking up his drink and slowly making his way over to the corner. Even as he sat down, he took in the stranger in one careful glance.
The brown cloak had long been committed to memory. As had the dirty blond hair. It was cut short, much like his own, and spiked slightly backwards. It had been allowed to grown a little longer out the back, though not quite long enough to be tied. The stranger's face was seemingly chiseled in stone, clean-shaven with little evidence of any tanning. His mouth was neither smiling nor frowning, seemingly frozen in a permanent state of neutrality. Both his hands were resting casually on the table, clasped together loosely enough to see that there was nothing in them. His arms were an extension of a extremely wiry, yet muscular frame. If an age was of issue, Sabin might have guessed him to be in his middle thirties.
His eyes held Sabin's gaze an instant longer. Not depthless. Not deep. Not shallow. Hard and flat. Had the angle been right, Sabin thought he might have been able to see right out the café window. If eyes were a mirror to one's soul, this man's wasn't open for inspection.
"Fancy meeting you here," Sabin began by way of greeting.
The stranger took a sip from a glass of water. "I think you're more out of place here than I am, Sabin Figaro. To think this humble bar is being graced by royalty."
"You've got me and my brother mixed up," Sabin replied. "I'm just a martial artist."
"I can tell that much. A good one, I hear."
This stranger seemed to have the upper hand where knowledge was concerned, Sabin decided. "What about you? You seem to know how to hide a knife properly."
"I am a fighter also," the stranger agreed. "A fist is the fastest weapon to equip, but if one cannot use their fists like you can, they must strive to make up for it with their own weapon. If they wish to fight, that is. Some prefer to run, of course."
Sabin nodded, guessing that the man was merely playing with words. "Do you work for that merchant captain?"
"I was hired as a bodyguard for the trip here. He will be leaving without me."
He nodded again. "So what's your name, anyway?"
"Where are you headed?"
"I have word that there may be business for me down in Maranda."
A long trip, Sabin knew. Inquiring about the nature of the business would probably be rude. "So where do you hail from?"
"I have traveled the world so long that I consider all places to be my home now." The man's mouth twitched upwards slightly. "The darker, the more inviting, of course."
"You sound like a ninja or a thief."
"Whichever pays more."
An honest man in word, at any rate. "So..." he trailed off pointedly. Had Clyde actually wanted to talk to him about something?
"I know more about you than you might think," Clyde replied. "I was curious to meet a man who chose freedom over a castle."
"You've met him," Sabin agreed. "I don't consider myself worse off for it."
"You are wise. But some things are worth more than freedom."
Clyde abruptly stood. It was a smooth motion, as fluid as water itself. "Don't ask me, Figaro. Perhaps you should ask your brother."
"Wha-" Sabin actually found himself at a loss for words by the sudden shift in the conversation.
Clyde gracefully slid towards the door, shutting it behind him quiet enough to have been a ghost.
Sabin stared at the door for a moment before shaking his head. Strange...
"Not quite your friend?"
He stood up to his full height, looking slightly down at the considerably more petite waitress. "No, miss, but I guess we have an understanding."
"You can call me Lilly if you want. Friendly customers like you are always nice to have around."
In spite of his wandering thoughts, Sabin was able to smile at the waitress. With thick brown hair down to her shoulders, a cutely-framed face and a shapely enough form to contour the conservative waitress' uniform, she was no doubt a popular enough attraction at this location. Edgar would have already tried to put the moves on her (and failed miserably).
"Lilly then," he agreed, placing enough coinage on the counter to pay for the drink, plus a generous tip. "Have you ever seen that man around here before?"
She shook her head, looking towards the barkeep curiously. He also shook his head regretfully. "I can't say that I have. And I've a memory for faces like you wouldn't believe."
"Oh well. Thanks anyway. I'd better get some sleep."
The streets were quiet as Sabin leisurely strolled down the road, back towards the inn. He took some care to stay on the lighted half of the street. Not that he couldn't take care of himself if a thief tried to pick something from him, but it didn't pay to invite trouble in the first place.
His mind was only slightly more at ease after the chance meeting with the stranger. At least, possibly chance. He hadn't been wrong about his initial analysis about the stranger. Clyde. No last name given, which could have been deliberate or incidental. Was the man afraid of being identified? Sabin couldn't remember having ever met anyone named Clyde. But Edgar might. And Clyde had all but admitted to being on the shady side of the law. That was probably it.
Did that make him a danger?
Sabin wasn't sure. Clyde hadn't claimed to have any business at the moment. If that was true, it would be unlikely for him to do anything without being paid for it. Some people wouldn't even say hello unless they were paid for it. Clyde seemed to be approaching that stage himself.
He shook his head to clear it. He was probably just being paranoid about it all. Clyde had probably just sought him out afterwards for some brief amusement between jobs. Lacking in taste, yes. Malicious, doubtful.
A shriek of pain rent the air, originating from some unknown alley, then the silence enveloped the city again. Sabin shivered slightly in the chill night air. It was getting cold.
The man sat at a desk, quietly poring over some documents. Several candles on the right edge of the table provided adequate light to read by. The man's thick mop of hair was shown to be a deep red hue in the flickering candlelight, a shade darker than the worn cloak he wore about him. The mild frown on his face was wreathed in a sharp-edged beard and mustache, while his bushy eyebrows angled sharply inwards in frustration. Whatever was present in the documentation was a source of aggravation for him.
"Enjoying yourself?" a low voice asked out of the silence.
The man choked, but recovering quickly. "Must you do that? _Most_ people use a technique known as KNOCKING!!!"
In the candlelight, a man clothed head to toe in black stood scant inches away from the chair that seated the red-headed man. "Too easy."
"Whatever. What was the scream I heard a few minutes ago? You didn't kill anyone, did you? I don't need people suspicious while I'm in town."
"If I had done the killing, you would not have heard anything. A thief attempted to rob your contact. She merely broke his arm and slashed him in the leg."
"How very kind of her," the man agreed sarcastically. "So she is on her way?"
"She is on her way. The group from Figaro leaves tomorrow for home. They will not be a problem."
"Says you. You don't know everything that's going on!"
"I do not see them as a threat. If you want them dealt with, it will cost more."
"Forget it. I'm paying you enough as it is! You're certain about her? Is she going to know what I need to know?"
"She will know. But I do not think anyone else still alive will."
"Wonderful. Will she realize this?"
A knock sounded at the door.
"Come in," the red haired man invited cheerfully, briefly losing sight of the black-clothed man. A quick scan across the room, showed that he had shifted himself towards the darkest corner of the room.
The door eased open, a young woman entering slowly. Despite the lack of light, some detail could be made out about her. A lithe form wrapped in a dirty white cloak and a forest green undercloak. Despite smudges of dirt, her face was smooth, beautiful even. Her blond hair was long enough to reach past her arms. At her side, a lightly curved sword with a jeweled hilt was hung.
"A pleasure to see you," the man greeted cheerfully. "I don't believe we've met. I'm-"
"Saroth," she interrupted quietly. "Lance Saroth."
He raised an eyebrow. "At least, I _thought_ we hadn't met."
"You were released from Imperial imprisonment at the end of your sentence three years ago. You were charged with assassination, assault, arson, inciting riots, kidnapping, theft, and perjury. Upon release, a MagiTek tracking device was implanted into your left temple."
Lance chuckled. "With magic nonexistent now, that device is now worthless, I might note. I wear the scar with some pride. Not many people got away with that much against the Empire and lived. But I believe you forgot the charge of Disrespect to Imperial officials', namely Emperor Gestahl and General Kefka."
"I consider what you called them quite accurate, actually," she replied.
He laughed loudly. "I had no idea you Imperial types had a sense of humor!"
"I'm not Imperial anymore."
"Are you sure?" Lance took a step closer, looking eye to eye with her. Even as he met her gaze, he fought the urge to step back again under the intensity of her stare. Her eyes were blue, but there was something wrong with the color. It was much richer than any human's ever should be. Even now, he felt like he was being pulled apart, strand by strand, for examination. A man could drown in those eyes, yet feel not the slightest inkling of pleasure in the process.
It was only with supreme effort that he tore his eyes from hers, making an admirable effort to turn the motion into a casual stroll through the room. He would not do _that_ again any time soon, he decided with a slight shudder.
"Quite certain. I have things to do, Saroth," she stated bluntly. "Get to the point. If you even have one."
He smiled disarmingly at her. At a distance, she was much more pleasing to look at. "Of course, of course. As I was about to say before, I'm delighted to meet you, ex-general Celes Chere."
"The pleasure is all yours."
Lance chuckled again. "Regardless, I'm flattered you remember me so well. I was hoping you remembered something else from your Imperial days."
"I remember most of those days quite well."
"I'm counting on that," he agreed, pointing to the document on the table. "I'm sure you'll recognize the format of those papers."
Celes quietly strode over to the desk, picking up the papers gently. "Imperial information records. Zero-class encoding."
A genuine smile appeared on Lance's face. Things were looking up. "You know what they are. I need the information on them, as well as other similar documents. I think you know what my problem is."
Celes nodded. "Zero-Class encoding is a type of encryption used on certain documents by the old Empire. The decryption key to it was never written down on paper and it was taught only to those with the rank of General or higher."
"Which would include Emperor Gestahl, his Generals, and one Professor Cid."
"All dead." She eyed him, a faintly mocking smile on her face. "Except me."
Lance flinched slightly. He had hoped for some ignorance on her part, but realistically, he knew he shouldn't have bothered. You didn't get to be an Imperial General without possessing a brain, after all. "Then I think you understand the situation, Miss Chere. So tell me, can you decipher this?"
Celes nodded. "The memorization process for the code is... quite rigorous. I probably couldn't forget it if I wanted to."
"Excellent. Shall we talk business, then?"
"I'm tired," she replied. "I just arrived from Tzen."
"I'm quite sorry," he apologized, not without some genuine awe. "I hadn't realized. If you would rather get some sleep first..."
"Yes, I would," she informed him.
"I have a first-class suite reserved for you if you wish. Second room on your right. You will not be disturbed."
"It will do," she agreed, turning to leave.
Lance coughed politely. "Miss Chere... or may I call you Celes?"
"I really don't care either way, Saroth" she replied, disdaining to turn to face him again.
"Celes, then. Just so you're aware... should you choose to work with me, we must be on our way early tomorrow. Time is rather short at this moment."
"Then you are welcome to make preparations to depart tonight. If you're after what those documents entail, you'll be heading south from here."
"I believe I shall, thank-you. I wish you pleasant dreams."
He received no reply as she strode from the room, closing the door behind her
After several moments, Lance smiled weakly. "Well, if that's not the very visage of a _femme fatale_, I'm not sure what is."
The black-clothed man slid forwards into the candlelight again. "She was an Imperial general at one time."
"I'm well aware of that. Still, you're telling me that she... _that_ vision of beauty snapped a thief's arm just a few moments ago?"
"I understand that she has an extremely small tolerance for thieves in general."
"I see. So... what do you think of her? Is she going to agree to help out?"
"I think so too. Very good. So I might as well make preparations to leave tomorrow." He scratched his head thoughtfully. "Mind you, I already knew we were headed south. It's the exact location that's in question."
"Prepare for the worst."
"I may as well. As for you... I believe that now would be a good time to do as we discussed before. I don't want anyone following us from Figaro. Would you be so kind as to _discreetly_ keep anyone from docking at the port for at least a few days?"
"Everything I do is discreet."
Lance nodded idly. "That _is_ why they call you Shadow, isn't it?"
When he failed to get an answer, he turned to see why. No one was there. He chuckled to himself. Another man might have been irritated with such partners. Not him. No, he wasn't fool enough to think that talent came free of baggage. The shady or bizarre events in a person's past were exactly what made them so capable in the first place. If one of his partners was a faceless ninja and the other was a cold-blooded femme fatale, so be it. He would work with them and let their talents work for him in return. In the end, they would all get what they wanted.
Sabin awoke early the next morning, before the sun had even fully risen. Doing a few stretches to loosen up his muscles, he briefly allowed himself to relish the non- restrictive feel of _not_ wearing his good clothes. It was a good feeling.
How long had it been since he'd been on a good training trip? He couldn't even remember, which told him that it had been too long. Maybe he was overdue to pay a visit to Duncan. Catch up on times. Get his ear chewed off about how out of shape he was getting. Maybe learn a new technique or two.
His ears told him that the inn was still quiet. The advisors who had come with him were no doubt still sleeping soundly. He briefly considered waking them up, but eventually decided against it. As much as he enjoyed overhearing them complain back home about the early risings, they tended to be more helpful with more sleep. Edgar must be a bad influence on them, Sabin decided disgustedly. He would have to see to getting his brother into better habits.
Casually doffing his good clothing, he decided that he had plenty of time for a morning stroll through the city. Maybe he'd pick up a souvenir or something, assuming any shops were open this early in the morning.
The mildly chill air soon cleared the cobwebs from Sabin's mind. Unlike the occasional passer-byer, wrapped in thick clothing, the coldness wasn't nearly as alien to him. It helped remind him of his younger training days. The endless weeks spent in the wilderness, training relentlessly to the point of complete exhaustion. It had been grueling most of the time, painful even.
But for him, it had been a cheap price for the freedom that came with it. The isolation from all things royal and political had been paradise for him at first. Even after the initial euphoria had worn off, the sense of satisfaction and pride had remained. Through his own means, he had escaped the machinations of his family and had made himself into his own person.
So what had possessed him to return to the very life he'd once tried to escape? Was he in need of some responsibility? Did feel some obligation to help his brother out somehow? Or had he simply grown bored of the freedom? He could still remember Clyde's words - some things were worth more than freedom. Was he after something worth more than the freedom he'd had?
Well, he'd have the whole trip back home to contemplate that issue and figure out what it might be, he decided wearily. No sense in losing sleep over it.
A few minutes later, the sounds of shouting could be heard coming from the dock area. Having established that no shops were open this early, Sabin broke into a light jog towards the noise, wanting to know what the commotion was about. This kind of commotion wasn't entirely uncommon in the morning, he knew. A fisherman might be coming in with a good catch, a rarity these days and this season. Understandable, Sabin decided. But that didn't mean they had to wake up the entire city on account of it.
Only after he rounded the corner did the harbour come into clear sight. Stopping dead in his track, Sabin began to get a sinking feeling in his stomach. A appropriate choice of words really, because something else was also sinking. His boat. In the harbour entrance.
Sabin broke into a fast sprint, disdaining the use of the steps leading down to the harbor in favor of taking the twenty foot drop directly. Taking in the already large crowds of people around the dock, Sabin spotted a particularly large crowd near the man who he knew to be the dockmaster. Some explanations were in order, he figured. Now.
"Oh great," he heard someone whisper. "So much for breaking it to him gently..."
"What's goin' on?" Sabin demanded loudly.
The dockmaster sighed. "Exactly what it looks like, sir. In the period of last night, someone managed to move the boat out the bay entrance and punch a hole in it."
It was a moment before Sabin could speak. "Why?"
"We have no idea. The two watchmen on duty were drugged out when we found them this morning. We're readying a boat to go out there to investigate."
Sabin cracked his knuckles, already feeling the adrenalin surging through his system. The circumstances were less than ideal, but he was much more himself during exciting times. "Right. So how long till it sinks?"
"I don't know when it started to sink, sir."
"Can we save the boat?"
"I won't know until we check out the leak. At best, it will be several days before we can bail it out."
"Okay. Then we need to get the cargo off it. Figaro Castle needs that wool. Can you get some ships offloading it?"
"At once, sir."
"Mind if I tag along to check the boat out? I'm a top-notch grappler and diver."
"By all means," the dockmaster agreed, gesturing towards a large lifeboat being loaded with equipment. "The boat is leaving in a few moments."
"Oh, one thing," the dockmaster added, beckoning for Sabin to get closer.
Sabin did so, lowering his voice. "Yeah?"
"Does Figaro have any ships coming this way?"
Sabin thought for a moment. Nothing that Edgar had mentioned. "Uh... not that I know of. How come?"
"Your ship was the biggest one in the harbour. If I didn't know better, I'd say our culprit was trying to block the harbour. I don't think we'll be able to get anything bigger than a lifeboat in or out of the bay right now. Nothing big enough to go to any other port. Maybe I'm just imaging things, but..."
"Nothing that _I_ know off," he repeated worriedly.
A shout indicated that the boat was about to leave.
"Work on saving the cargo," Sabin ordered, heading over to the boat. It seemed that this trip wasn't going to be a quiet one after all.
"I beg your pardon, my Lord?"
"You heard me," Sabin ordered, still toweling his face off after returning to port. "Our ship isn't going anywhere for at least a few days. If we're lucky. At least we saved the cargo. Get them to stash it somewhere safe and guard it."
One of the advisors nodded. "Of course, my Lord. But-"
"I don't know who did this, but the dockmaster says that no ships are unaccounted for, so it's a good bet that if they're going to escape, they'll leave by land. Three Chocobo's were loaned out last night and they're gone now. I'm going after them. And when I find them, there's going to be some explanations..."
"My brother's the king. I'm just his brother. But I'm also a martial artist who's lived most of his life in the wilderness. I know lots about tracking, and they'll never be able to cover their tracks if they're using Chocobo's. I'll find em."
"It could be quite dangerous..." The advisor trailed off as he realized who he was talking to. "What shall we tell... your brother?"
"Tell him that I'm pursuing the criminals and to enjoy the wool. He knows I can take care of myself. I'll bet he knew something like this would happen and planned for me to be here. I think you can manage getting the wool back home, right?"
"Of course, sir. As you say, we will manage."
Sabin stood up to his full height, smiling grimly. Maybe Edgar had seen this coming, he mused. If so, he didn't plan on disappointing his brother in that regard. It was time to ditch the good clothes.
Something occurred to him them. "Hey, while I'm gone, I want you to check up on somebody here. His name is Clyde. I'll give you a description. If he's still here, fine, leave him be. But if he's missing, I want you to mention him to my brother when you get back. See if he recognizes the name."
"I'm afraid that he took the best Chocobo's I've got, my lord."
Sabin cursed silently. There was very little doubt. "What did they look like?"
"I didn't actually see three people, but for distance traveling, only an idiot would try to ride two people on one bird. And chocobo's aren't reliable enough to carry equipment without a person steering them. This guy was good enough to spot my best and third-best birds by himself. I think he knows a little about the birds."
"Three people probably, then," Sabin agreed. "What did the guy look like?"
"Red hair and red cloak. Rough sort, I suppose. Looked northern by birth, if you follow me."
"Facial hair? Weapons?"
"Uh... beard and mustache. I didn't _see_ any weapons."
Nothing major then, Sabin decided. "I'll take the best bird you've got."
"Already got her set to go," the man agreed. "Somehow, I figured this might happen. She's not as good as what was taken, but she'll still run a regular bird into the ground. Just make sure you let her eat properly twice a day."
Sabin placed a handful of gold coins on the table.
The man's eyes widened. "That's... a lot of gold, sir."
"I know. I'm sorry, but if I can't bring the bird back, that should pay for a replacement."
The man sighed. "You're a good man, my lord. It sounds like I may not be getting the other three birds back either at this rate."
"I'll take the money for em out of their hide if I have to," Sabin promised. "They're already on my bad side."
"Appreciate it, sir. You can leave as soon as you're ready."
Yes, the name is Clyde. If doesn't really matter whether or not you recognize the name from the game - Intrasonic
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