A Long Cold Winter Chapter 6
Considering that it was nine o'clock in the evening, the door was pushed open with a surprising amount of enthusiasm. The owner of Nikeah's chocobo stable blinked and quickly sat up, more than happy to receive anyone who was in a big enough hurry to do business this late at night. It was a pity that his best birds were all taken right now...
"Good day to you, sir!" a voice announced.
"And good day to-wha?"
Lance beamed. "Just returning our three birds, my friend. They were most satisfactory, thank-you very much."
The man closed his mouth with some effort. "But I thought... I mean, I heard that you..."
"Is something wrong?" Lance asked curiously.
The man looked a little sheepish as he glanced at the three individuals. "Well, it's just that King Figaro's brother had you three nailed for criminals, what with that boat sinking and you leaving that morning..."
Lance chuckled good naturedly. "An understandable conclusion. But no, we encountered the man along our journey and we ironed things out quickly enough."
"I'm happy to hear that. Did you find that treasure you were looking for?"
He shrugged. "Not quite what I was looking for, actually. But things were certainly interesting enough for my liking."
"Well, good to see that you're okay. A pleasure doing business with you."
"And I with you. Until we meet again."
Twenty minutes later, the three were in a room at the inn, seated around a table. Aside from a stack of various papers and a pitcher of water, the table was bare.
"You lie well, Saroth."
Lance put on an suitably innocent face in reply to Celes' accusation. "Me? I don't recall having lied to the man. I simply omitted a few facts, that's all. History is rife with the sin of omission, I think you'll find."
"And with lies."
"Yes, but my conscience occasionally balks at lying."
"As though you even have one."
"I've simply learned to ignore it at times. Objectivity may be a myth, but a man unburdened by a conscience can approach it."
Celes scowled. "I'm not in the mood for more of your idiotic word games, Saroth."
Lance shrugged. "At any rate, this is as good a place as any to discuss future plans. My dear, if you wouldn't mind some more interpretation duties?"
"'Your dear' is going to cut your throat if you keep calling her that."
Lance chuckled. "I merely like to keep things informal, you understand."
"Would a watery grave in the harbor be _informal_ enough for you?"
"Celes, then. Interpretation duties?"
"As per our deal. Although I can't imagine what else you would hope to find now that you were beaten to the goal."
Lance idly studied the bare far wall. "It was an Imperial base that had a code name of A-1. I don't think I have to tell you that this clearly implies more than one of these bases. Furthermore, I required a very small amount of my document collection to get into the base. I believe that I may have misjudged the extent of this business. Some translating on your part should inform me quickly enough."
Celes shrugged and took several pieces of paper from the stack of documents. After several moments of reading, she took several more. Another brief session of reading ensued before she looked up at him. "You have these very well organized."
Lance beamed. "Why thank-you. I have no idea what the groups would be, but I was able to group them together based on other characteristics."
Celes replaced several documents back on the main pile, piling the rest together in front of her. "These five form a complete document pertaining to an 'A-2'."
Lance smiled thinly. "Excellent. If you would care to read these to me, word-for-word?"
"I suggest we briefly delay that," Celes replied. "The location is in Thamasa. Almost directly under the village. We will have to get a ship to take us there. If you're smart, you'll go book a passage immediately. It will take several days to reach as it is."
Lance nodded, standing up and heading out the door. "Excellent idea. We can decode the documents on the way over. My dear."
Celes's burning gaze was lost on him as he made a quick exit from the room.
"Fool," she muttered.
"I think not."
Celes turned to acknowledge Shadow. "I was beginning to wonder if you had been struck dumb."
"I do not talk unless necessary. Saroth is not as foolish as he seems."
"I know that," she retorted. "He was an Imperial prisoner at one point. Guilty of a variety of crimes that even _you_ could never match. He should have been sentenced to death ten times over. But some idiot politician gave him a public trial, wanting to make an example of him. He acted as his own lawyer and defended himself so well that he actually survived."
"And you still call him a fool?"
"I call him a fool because he takes nothing seriously. He should have been killed before. He is fortunate that the two of us were the better of ten soldiers."
"And what of Thamasa?"
Celes shrugged. "What of it? That's where the base designated A-2 is located."
"You know more than you say."
"I wish I did. But no, this was something that even I was not privy to. That in itself, I find strange." Her face briefly took on a puzzled expression. "I was never restricted from the information, as I never had a reason to even suspect its existence in the first place. I find that very strange."
"How would a base be located near Thamasa? The city has been present for hundreds of years. They would know."
"You underestimate what MagiTek machinery would be capable of doing. Especially around a village that was in such denial of magic as they were. I do not expect the entrance to be near the village. Only the main infrastructure. Such a location would have been ideal for watching the city as well. Which would be a logical thing to do, considering that they once possessed magical powers that could have been a threat to the Empire."
"What of now? The geography of the area has been changed greatly."
"So has the geography around A-1. Yet the base was still attainable. We may simply have to wait a few days while the other parties dig a hole to it. Then we can kill them and take the second key for ourselves."
Shadow gaze narrowed. "How do you know that we are after keys?"
Celes pointed to a location halfway down the first page of indecipherable writing. "That is what the document calls it here. It would stand to logic that the first base also had a key in its vault."
"What are the chances of the other groups knowing the location?"
"Quite good, I estimate," Celes replied with a frown. "Considering that they were able to obtain the location of the first base. I suggest you come prepared to fight. I don't really expect the village to be capable of repelling many soldiers on its own. After the villagers are slaughtered, we'll have our work cut out for us."
Standing, she donned her cape. "I'm going for a walk."
Shadow watched her impassively as she left the room without a sound. Behind his mask, his eyes narrowed.
"Have a nice night!"
The waitress smiled as the patron left the café.
"Be good to move, won't it Lilly?"
The waitress turned to the barkeep, smoothing her clothing. "It's been really slow here lately," she agreed. "Business should be better in Jidoor."
"I'm counting on it. Just the same, I think a few people are gonna miss ya."
"I'll miss them too," she agreed quietly. "But a lady's got to make a living. Weather's too cold up here for that. The folks in Jidoor got more money to spare."
An arm abruptly encircled her waist, another lightly covering her eyes. "Don't worry yourself too much, Lilly," a voice soothed. "I'll follow you wherever you go."
As quickly as she had tensed up, she relaxed again and smiled. "_Lance_, didn't anybody ever teach you 'hands off the pretty waitress'?"
"Not since the last time I saw the pretty waitress," he replied, deftly spinning her around to face him. "And I see that the pretty waitress is still living up to her name. How old are you now, Lilly? Twenty? Twenty-one?"
Lilly briefly afforded him a glance that would have melted lead. "I only wish I was still that young. You're the worst flirt in the world, Lance."
He smiled unabashedly as he sat down at the bar. "I am, aren't I? So tell me, Lilly. What's a good line to get a woman's interest? Serve me up the usual, my friend."
"You're asking me for advice?"
Lance leaned back on the bar patiently. "I am."
"Depends on the woman, Lance. Who on earth could possibly get _your_ interest?"
Lance brushed the comment off. "Oh, not _that_ way. I'm simply trying to keep her from chopping my head off."
A brief moment of silence ensued. "I can never tell if you're exaggerating or not."
"I don't think I am," Lance admitted sheepishly.
"Who is she?"
"Celes Chere. She used to be known as General Celes."
With a loud crash, the bartender dropped a glass on the floor.
"Something I said?" Lance inquired curiously. Both the bartender and Lilly's face had gone pale.
Lilly bent down to look him in the face. "Lance... are you kidding me?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Get away from her right away!" the bartender advised, kneeling to sweep up the broken glass. "She's a complete pyscho!"
"Well, I'll admit she's not the most charming conversationist, but that seems a little extreme, don't you think?"
Lilly shook her head. "Uh uh, Lance. Listen to me. She came by a few months ago. People are _still_ talking about her."
"Well, your reactions are backing that up," he agreed.
"Dammit Lance, I'm serious!" she snapped. "I know you're a glutton for trouble. But you're right over your head with her!"
"We're just business partners."
"You're _still_ over your head!" the bartender retorted.
"What happened a few months ago?"
"She came in for a bite to eat with a guy. You heard of Locke Cole? The treasure hunter-slash-thief?"
Lance raised an eyebrow. "I have. Do tell."
The bartender grunted. "Yeah, well those two were apparently an item at one point. No problem there. But they came in to eat here one night. No problem there either. Had money with them, so I didn't even have to make up a tab for 'em. Trouble started when a pack of idiots got drunk out of their gourd. One of 'em just emptied his guts all over her meal while trying to flirt with her. Locke tries to knock him out. Too bad he ain't too much of a sword fighter. He got knocked out for his trouble. So he's out cold and there's six guys all looking for some fun with his lady."
Lance accepted his drink. "Continue, please."
Lilly continued the story. "It was just freaky. Celes just stood up, calm as can be and told all six men that the first person to take a step forward was going to die. It was freaky. I mean, these guys all had swords in their hands. And there wasn't a single one under six feet tall, I swear it. Some of 'em were even ex-Imperial soldiers. And Celes don't look like much. She didn't even have her sword out."
She sucked in a breath. "Next thing I know, all six are bum-rushing her at the same time."
"You don't say?"
Lilly shuddered, continuing the story. "I've never seen anybody move so fast in my life, Lance. One moment, she's just got this strange smile on her face. The next, two guys are already missing their heads, and the other four still haven't figured out that she's jumped _over_ them. One more moment, and the other four are missing their heads too. Another moment later, the heads finally hit the floor."
The bartender finished the story for her. "After that, she just wipes her sword off on one of the dead guy's shirts. Then she slings that Locke fellow over her shoulder like he's just a little kid and walks out of the bar."
"Very efficient," Lance agreed, sipping his drink calmly.
Lilly pushed away his drink, grabbing his collar. "Lance, you idiot! Aren't you even listening to me?"
"Every word," he assured her. "So tell me, what's a good line to get on the good side of a woman like her?"
She sighed, releasing him. "You're not listening to a word I'm saying."
"I don't see what's wrong with that. I mean, they attacked her first, correct? Do you expect her not to try and defend herself?"
"I expect that," the bartender interjected. "Maybe I can even see her winning somehow. But I expect it to take a little longer than FIVE friggin' seconds!"
"You shouldn't be surprised," Lance reprimanded. "She was an Imperial general. Do you think she got the position by accident? History will tell you that Imperial generals all tend to have two things in common. They know how to fight, and once they start a fight, they commit themselves fully. And those soldiers must have been pretty drunk to not recognize someone who used to be their commanding officer."
He smirked at them both. "In lieu of that, what is it that you find so surprising?"
Both the bartender and Lilly simply sighed. "I can't believe you're still alive, Lance."
"History favors the one who keeps in mind the mistakes of the past," Lance informed her. "I couldn't ask for a more perfect partner really. She can take of herself, and knows what I need her to know. And doesn't care about my reasons. By the way, how long until you move to Jidoor?"
Lilly sighed in defeat, allowing the change of subject. "In less than week, actually."
"I wish you the best. I'll visit you whenever possible. I've grown accustomed to this place, really."
She managed a smile. "If you survive until then."
He shrugged, finishing his drink. "I haven't gotten killed yet."
"Don't worry. I may yet do it myself."
Both the bartender and Lilly turned white as they glanced at the new arrival.
Lance beamed. "Celes! Join us for a drink?"
The other two both silently mouthed some prayers to various deities.
Celes glared down at Lance. "You're welcome to get drunk out of what little mind you have, Saroth. I happen to prefer using all of mine."
"Not a problem. Serve her up something up non-alcoholic!"
"Don't bother," she growled. "I just came in to let you know that King Figaro is expected to arrive tomorrow afternoon from South Figaro."
Lance frowned. "A pity we won't be able to meet him. I understand you two are good friends. But the boat for Thamasa leaves tomorrow morning. Don't stay up too late."
"I'll read your documents on the boat. Good night."
The three watched her leave the bar, silent as a ghost.
Lilly collared him again. "Lance, have you got a death wish? My entire life just flashed before my eyes!"
Lance looked innocently back at her. "Why? You two weren't attacking her. Why would she attack you?"
She released him. "Forget it. Just don't come back and haunt me when she cuts your throat, understand?"
Lance mock-saluted. "Your concern touches me, Lilly. No haunting, understood. Maybe I'll see if I can't dig up a necklace to match that ring I gave you."
She glanced at her hand, where an ancient looking ring was comfortably reflecting the candlelight. "If I didn't know you better Lance, I'd swear that was a come-on."
"You know me better than that. Any woman crazy enough to follow me around deserves my fate," Lance declared.
"And deserves to listen to your endless prattle about history. So what does history say about trying to get a lady?"
Lance acted as though hurt. "History says that historians are seldom appreciated by the ladies in their own time."
He stood up, pushing a few coins upon the table. "I fear I must be going. The lady is correct. We leave early tomorrow, and I must keep what few wits I have about me."
Lilly shook her head. "You got more wits about you than anyone else I've ever seen, Lance. Just make sure you _use_ them with _her_ around, got it?"
Lance chuckled, bowing briefly at the doorway. "History shows that it's good luck to have a lady cheering you on. With this lady's confidence behind me, how can I possibly go wrong?"
The two watched him stroll off into the night in silence.
The bartender finally spoke. "Oh, I think he'll find a way."
By the time Lance arrived back at the inn, there was no sign of Celes. Shadow was staring out the window into the night, almost exactly as he had been an hour ago.
"Has the lady decided to call it a night?" he inquired.
If such a thing was even possible, Shadow seemed to be almost startled at his presence. His mind was on other things, perhaps. "She has gone to sleep now... She informs me that she will decode the documents while traveling to Thamasa."
"That sounds good to me," Lance agreed. "We'll be leaving early tomorrow, so you may wish to get some sleep yourself. I believe I shall now."
He received only a grunt of acknowledgment from the ninja, who then turned back to looking aimlessly out the window. Shrugging, Lance exiting from the room, whistling a quiet tune to himself.
From the corner of his eye, Shadow watched him leave. Only after the door shut did he remove a small bottle from his pouch.
Locke looked up from the desk, allowing his vision to refocus before replying. Although the odds of the speaker being anyone other than Setzer were extremely slim. About the same as the odds of someone boarding the airship while in mid-air, traveling ten times that speed of the fastest chocobo alive...
"So-so. Not as good as I would like," he admitted. "This code is disgustingly hard. Whoever invented it must have been downright paranoid."
Setzer looked at the massive field of paperwork with no small amount of amazement. In the midst of it all, an innocent looking document lay, a slightly worn appearance belaying it's considerable age. "I'll say. It is possible to make such a code?"
"It's completely legit," Locke confirmed. "Heck, She could read this stuff the way you read a book."
"You've got to be kidding me."
"Even faster, actually. I guess I should feel lucky I learned what I did. But I still can't decipher most of it. I only know the basics of it."
"I wonder if we could hire her to decode them... you can just stay out of sight until we've got the interpretation. Then we can go..."
"Forget it, Setzer. I think she's made it pretty clear what she thinks of me. And she'll never believe you if you say that you're doing the treasure hunting. And you'll probably manage to chase her off when you start asking her to do her Maria performance."
A fond smile graced Setzer's face. "Not until she's decoded the papers. But after that..."
"Give it up, Setzer. This is telling us enough. The rest, I can figure out easily enough on my own. I'm not the world's greatest treasure hunter for nothing, you know."
"Certainly not the most modest."
"Name someone else who even comes close to matching what I've dug up."
"How about a fellow named Lance Saroth?"
"Never heard of him."
"He's a historian. We both grew up in Jidoor together, actually. You always go on about how obsessed I am over gambling. Picture someone even _more_ obsessed over history."
"Normally yes. Except he makes it his business to go looking for new history. The school of higher learning in Jidoor all but worships him. He hasn't dredged up quite so much treasure as you, but as far as knowledge goes, he's got you beaten hands down.
"We used to argue all the time. He was convinced that you could predict _anything_ in life simply by looking at history. Whereas I believe that life was the essence of unpredictability. Stupid, but we found plenty to argue about. Eventually, I dragged him into a casino and sat him down at a card table. I told him to let his history help him out."
"He almost broke the casino before they kicked him and his fortune out the door. He got lucky for once in his life."
Locke had to laugh at Setzer's miffed expression. "How did he explain it?"
"Oh, he rambled on about how historically, people do better at casinos when they don't care about the outcome as much. But that's absolute garbage. The only reason he did so well was because of his photographic memory. And because he got _lucky_. Nothing more."
Locke just laughed again. "I'll have to meet him someday. After we find this treasure, of course. I think we're on the right track. I've been able to decode the word Thamasa' three times so far. Looks like your coin was right."
Setzer beamed. "Lady Luck is still with us. What more could we ask for?"
"Give me a day or so, I'll probably have an exact location for us."
With a flourish, Locke wrote down a letter y' on a piece of paper. He then proceeded to gather up the field of used paper into a pile and deposit it to the side of the desk.
"What are you doing?" Setzer asked incredulously. "Isn't that all your figuring?
"That was just for the letter I just figured out," Locke explained. "Now I'm working on the next letter."
"Well, I guess that would explain why I've been so short on paper since you started on that. And here I thought you were just burning the paper for heat."
"I still can't believe this airship doesn't have any heating on it."
"Didn't need it until recently," Setzer muttered. "And I've always dressed warmly to begin with. The weather lately is just plain unlucky."
"Better to have unlucky weather then to have unlucky treasure hunting."
Setzer acknowledged the point. "You have a point there. Perhaps it's just Lady Luck's way of making sure we don't get too comfortable."
"How ya holding up?"
"I am quite alright. Another day and I shall be fit for combat again. T'is not the most comfortable of states, I must admit."
With something of a sense of relief, the two riders atop their chocobo's rode into the city of Nikeah. The pen for the birds was on the outskirts of town, and they immediately headed for it.
"Do you think we'll be able to catch them?" Sabin asked.
Cyan shook his head. "Methinks that they will be moving quickly. And they doth have an entire day's advantage over us."
"Yeah, I guess you're right. We'd better get asking around here. Those three should be easy enough to recognize. If they went anywhere else, somebody woulda seen 'em."
They were greeted with a smile upon entering the Chocobo stable.
"Good to see you're alright!" the owner greeted. "Did you find those criminals?"
Sabin scowled. "Yeah, we found 'em. But they got away. Here's the birds back."
The man raised an eyebrow. "I only lent ya out one, m'lord."
Sabin smiled thinly. "Well, this other one..."
"The former owner no longer has need of it," Cyan informed him. "Thou mayst do with it as thou wishes."
"What he said," Sabin agreed. "We're still tracking those criminals. Did you see them come through here? A guy with red hair? A blonde? A ninja?"
The owner looked a little worried as he tethered up the two birds. "Are you serious?"
Something about the tone of voice worried Sabin. "Yeah, I'm serious. You seen them?"
"Well, yes, I have. They returned yesterday, gave back the birds, polite as can be. The man said that you'd met, and ironed things out..."
"A half-truth if I ever did see one," Cyan growled. "Doth thou know where they went afterwards?"
"Well, there was a bit of gossip surrounding them, because the lady with the blond hair was apparently once General Celes, and a few months ago, she left a bloody mess in the cafe that they're still scrubbing at. But they didn't take any chocobos anywhere else."
"We'd better get looking," Sabin decided.
"King Edgar is also in town," the owner supplied. "Just arrived a few hours ago by boat. They finally got the harbor cleared."
Sabin smiled grimly. One thing to be encouraged about. Edgar would surely know what to do next about this mess. "Good! We got a few things to talk about with him!"
Sabin grinned as he and Cyan entered the room where Edgar was presently staying. "Good to see you, big brother. Heard the news?"
Edgar got up from his chair, setting aside a book. Standing in front of Sabin, both the differences and similarities were plain to be seen. Sabin had several significant inches, both in height and bulk, but Edgar was by no means a weakling himself. Their faces and hairstyles served as an instant reminder of their common parentage. "A lot of it. But I wouldn't mind knowing how much of it is true. And Cyan! Good to see you too."
Cyan bowed his head briefly. "Thou'rt looking well, Edgar. Thy brother did rescue me from certain death before. I am indebted to him."
This prompted a raised eyebrow from Edgar. "You were in a fight?"
Sabin made a sour face. "Lots of stuff's been going on, big brother. Some of it, you're not gonna believe at all!"
"Well, why don't you tell me over a drink? The café in town has the cutest waitress..."
"Your drinks, gentlemen."
All three accepted their drinks.
Edgar sipped his drink lightly. "Truly beautiful in taste, my lady," he pronounced, flashing a dazzling smile towards her. "Almost as beautiful as yourself, perhaps."
The waitress flushed slightly in response.
"Aw, just ignore the ol' flirt, Lilly," Sabin informed her. "He says that to every lady in Figaro."
Edgar turned red as she left the table, giggling to herself. "Hey! Since when were _you_ on first-name terms with her?"
"Since I came here last," Sabin replied smugly. "She told me to call her Lilly."
Edgar shook his head. "And you call _me_ a flirt?"
"Thou'rt both foolish," Cyan admonished with a sigh. "But young as well, I suppose."
"He's the immature one," Sabin declared self-righteously. "I think a little training in the wilderness would do him some good!"
"And perhaps a little time on the throne would do you some good?" Edgar shot back.
"T'is little wonder the two of you are as yet unwed," Cyan muttered.
Both sobered up slightly, affording him a glare.
"So what happened to you two?" Edgar inquired.
"North of Mobliz," Cyan began, "an Imperial base rests. Methinks it has been unknown for quite some time now. But as of late, it has been unearthed. Now-"
Cyan's explanation came to an abrupt halt as his vision focused on the doorway, where the waitress was greeting another arrival.
"Something strong," the newcomer growled. "REALLY strong."
"What's wrong?" Edgar inquired.
For an answer, Cyan's right hand gripped one of his swords. "Methinks I see the source of our troubles."
Sabin grabbed Cyan's arm. "Easy there. Who is he?"
"Nicholas Xerxes," Cyan replied, shrugging off the hold.
"Are you serious? The same guy who stuck ten soldiers on you back there?"
"The very same."
Sabin leapt forwards, interposing himself between Cyan and his target. "Let me handle this, buddy, okay? We could use a little information right now."
By the time Nicholas finally recognized who was approaching him, it was too late to escape Sabin's grasp.
"Nice to see you too, pal," Sabin growled. "I think we've got some _talking_ to do. I don't like people who sic soldiers on my friends."
"Who do you think you are?" Nicholas growled, hand approaching his sword.
Sabin caught the hand. "Sabin Figaro. Someone who's going to pound your head through the floor if you give me a good excuse. Want to make something of it?"
"Edgar, king of Figaro," Edgar introduced. "Why don't we all sit down and discuss this like _civilized_ people?"
Sabin forcefully escorted his captive over to a table. "That wasn't a question, buddy. Have a seat."
Nicholas seemed to finally relax as he sat down. He looked less than dignified at the moment, with a rather dirty clothing and a noticeable bruise on his forehead.
"As you wish, m'lord. But I will stress that I've done nothing illegal. I'll forgive this less than civilized treatment, as I'm sure you'll come to see the truth."
The statement was directed entirely towards Edgar, who returned the expressionless face. Nicholas seemed rather agitated at the moment, but he also had the appearance of someone experienced in the ways of diplomacy. "I'm glad to see you're reasonable. Nicholas Xerxes, is it?"
A nod. "Nicholas. An honor to meet you, my king. I am the leader of the Iroq Shin, although nowadays we go by the name Sidewinder."
"Call me Edgar." He raised an eyebrow. "The anti-Imperial resistance group?"
"Only by way of our goals. Our core goal was to facilitate the equal division and distribution of magic. Back when it existed, that is. The Empire was against it, and hence against us as well."
Edgar took in that information. He was familiar with the group. Although rather pacifistic, they _had_ been against the Empire before. "Well then... I would appreciate if all four of us could consider each other once-comrades-in-arms, since we once fought for similar causes."
Cyan frowned. "I wouldst remind you that it was Kefka who did slay the Emperor in the end. Shall we consider him a 'comrade-in-arms' as well?"
Nicholas chuckled at that. "He's right, Edgar. Perhaps if we simply agreed to be civil for the sake of peace?"
"Whatever works," Edgar agreed. "Now, since I was the only person who _wasn't_ involved in our little dispute, I will hear each story in turn _without_ interruptions from anyone else. Any objections?"
There were none.
Edgar smiled faintly. Even away from the castle, it seemed that he was still playing the part of mediator. "I'm glad to hear that. I would appreciate hearing every detail you can recall. Nicholas, you may go first."
An hour later, Sabin finally finished his version of the tale.
Edgar leaned back in his chair, assimilating the stories he'd been told.
The three individuals waited patiently, occasionally giving glances that promised death to each other.
"I see," Edgar finally said. "I must admit, I don't believe anyone was completely in the right here, except possibly my brother. Cyan, your attack could be considered unprovoked."
The knight narrowed his eyes. "Unprovoked? I think not-"
Edgar cut him off. "You walked into the area with swords drawn. The only reason I can't actually consider you a murderer is because you gave your opponents what I consider a reasonable way out, and they chose to accept _and_ one-up your challenge."
The king swiveled his head to fix Nicholas in his spot. "Nicholas, your actions are in direct disregard to the law of the area. More specifically, _my_ law."
Nicholas coughed. "With all due respect, I don't believe your influence extends as far as Mobliz, m'lord."
Edgar smirked. "With all due respect, _you're wrong_. Mobliz is a Figaro republic, under semi-independent rule. I have all the documents, signed by the head of the village, Terra Branford, to back this up. And Figaro law states that any exploratory missions must be approved by the king. And you can consider yourself fortunate that I only recently learned about the armed force you had with you. Otherwise I'd have ordered you killed or captured myself."
Nicholas frowned. "And your brother is innocent?"
"Sabin was in pursuit of criminals. He did not enter the fight until he saw Cyan being beaten down. He attempted to scare off the fighters, who didn't listen. He acted only in self-defense, and the defense of Cyan."
Edgar sipped his drink slowly. "Do any of you gentlemen care to refute or argue with what I've just said?"
There was no reply.
Edgar nodded in approval. "I didn't think so. Now, before we take this any further, perhaps you would be good enough to enlighten me about the sudden interest in that area? As the land's king, I'm naturally interested."
"No idea," Sabin admitted.
"T'is knowledge of higher powers that resides there," Cyan opinioned. "I fought in protection of it."
"You fought in ignorance of it," Nicholas replied stonily.
"Higher power?" Edgar interjected. "Explain."
"Specific details are... scarce," Nicholas informed him slowly. "But there are a number of sources that point to the existence of an old Imperial project that was abandoned. It focused around a possible source of energy. An equivalent of magic, you might say, but the nature of the power was still unknown. With the discovery of magic, the project was abandoned and put to rest."
Cyan's nod confirmed the explanation. "I intend to put such nonsense to rest. The land hath suffered enough under the burden of magic. I see no need for replacement."
"The world will always have some form of power present in it," Nicholas objected. "Magic, technology, this mysterious power... there will always be something. If we are smart, we will seek it out so that it can be released in a controlled manner. The destruction in the past was a result of certain people hoarding magic and restricting it use to only military purposes. The longer we delay, the greater the chances that someone else will use it for destructive purposes."
"Frail humanity needs no such upsetting now, in the wake of the madman Kefka!" Cyan shot back. "Perchance within some generations, it will be ready. But the situation of this world tis already perilous at best. Thou'rt toying with fire, and will certainly be burned if you are not stopped."
"Quiet down!" Edgar snapped. "I'm not here to listen to you two bicker! And the first one of you that tries to draw a sword is going to become a criminal, am I clear?!"
"I decline to spill blood of those who do not attack me first," Cyan maintained.
"I'd be a hypocrite to fight now, when my entire purpose is to avoid fighting in the end," Nicholas agreed.
"Whatever. Keep things that way. Do you have any thoughts to add about this, Sabin?"
Sabin blinked. He hadn't expected that question. Why was Edgar asking his opinion? He was just a brother, not a king or lord. But he did have a question for Nicholas. "If you're so peaceful, how come you had so many soldiers out there?"
"They were not soldiers in the sense you're probably thinking. We had uncovered the entrance with the first group. They were to help comb the base. They drew their swords only after we found dead bodies in the area."
"I'll take you at your word," Edgar decided. "Now, before I make any pronouncements, does anyone here question my authority on this issue? This town is a dependency of mine, as is Mobliz."
Three heads all signified agreement.
Edgar nodded in satisfaction. "Good. In that case, I'm hereby taking control of this business. If what you all say is true, I have reservations about letting an organization like Sidewinder be the first to have access to this power. Turning it over to Figaro will facilitate your goal of spreading the information around as rapidly as possible. And it will let me destroy it if I think it's too dangerous. I'll be overseeing it personally, and you two will both be present with me for it all. As my advisors, if you will."
Both Nicholas and Cyan's expressions hinted at some objections.
Cyan was the first to speak. "Thou'rt playing with fire yourself, Edgar."
"But I'll be playing with fire that I can see, Cyan. And this way, I can pour water on it if I have to."
Nicholas spoke up next. "What if I don't like those arrangements, m'lord? I recognize your authority in your own lands. But I must now travel to other lands. You have no power there."
"I don't deny that." Edgar narrowed his eyes. "But your criminal status remains no matter where you go. And if you don't cooperate, I'm going to recognize that status, and commission Cyan to deal with you. And then I'm going to let a certain young lady in Mobliz - who happens to be absolutely paranoid where the safety of her young charges are concerned - decide your punishment. Assuming Cyan lets you live that long. You don't really have much choice, the way I see it."
Nicholas frowned, looking deep in thought. "It would seem that way. Very well."
Edgar nodded in approval, standing up. "Excellent. I'm hereby ordering a truce between all four people at this table. Failure to honor that truce will result in... consequences. Now, on to business."
Nicholas also stood. "We will be going to the continent of Thamasa next."
"We'll take my ship there. It's faster than a ferry. We'll leave today."
Sabin coughed, getting Edgar's attention. "Yes?"
"What about those other three? Celes and Shadow? And the other guy?"
Edgar made a face. "I'm still a little curious about that. Any of you care to offer your perspectives?"
"The general must be stopped," Cyan stated firmly.
"I can see Shadow doing stuff like that, but Celes?" Sabin looked a little worried. "I'd swear that's someone else in disguise as her."
"Lance Saroth... is after the same thing we are," Nicholas replied stonily. "He's the personification of inconvenience itself!"
"You've met before, haven't you?" Sabin guessed, unable to keep a little sarcasm from his voice..
The sarcasm was deflected by an equal amount of bitterness from Nicholas. "He was once a member of Sidewinder. Until it no longer suited him."
"What kind of a person is he?"
Nicholas made a face. "A strange one. He's obsessed with history above all. Or more accurately, the learning of it. And he takes that desire to learn to completely new extremes. But he's got more resources than even I know of. He's a very seasoned explorer, however. It's beyond me what he cares about this business."
"How dangerous is he?"
A rueful chuckle. "Based on what happened to my men, I'd say the two people he's traveling with are far more dangerous. He's not much of a fighter. But he's not stupid. I imagine he hired that ninja to serve as a bodyguard. And I daresay he's got a significant information advantage over us."
Nicholas smirked. "Virtually all the information about this business is encrypted. Have you ever heard of Imperial Zero-class encryption?"
Edgar nodded. "I know about it. The unbreakable code?"
Nicholas nodded in confirmation. "It was only taught to Imperial generals and those above them. If that lady was really_ the_ General Celes, she's the last person alive who knows the code. Someone like Saroth will undoubtedly possess a great deal of encrypted information about this business. Some of which he stole from me, I might add. But if he has her working for him..."
"Celes can decode it for him."
Nicholas nodded. "The other possibility is that she knows everything about this business already. It's not impossible, although I sincerely hope that's not the case. But either way, he's got access to information that no one else does. My information is far from perfect, although it should be adequate in the end."
"He's got a day's head start on us too," Sabin muttered.
"We'll leave for Thamasa in three hours," Edgar decided. "This power' business is going to have to take priority. And it's my guess that we might just run into them in the process. But until we leave, if we can find any information on what they did while in here..."
Nicholas nodded. "I see your point. Saroth may have left behind a few indications of his plans. He's extremely un-paranoid, to the point where he rarely even tries to cover his tracks. It's beyond me why he's still alive now."
"We'll meet at the harbor in three hours," Edgar decided. "Nicholas, don't give Cyan an excuse to chase you. Cyan, I don't want you starting anything."
Edgar's warning still prominent, the four individuals split up to scour the city. Whether anyone truly agreed with the imposed cease fire, it seemed that it would be honored for the time being. Sabin followed a step behind Edgar, his face looking a little uncertain.
After several minutes of walking, Edgar slowed his step to let Sabin catch up with him. "What's on your mind, brother?"
Sabin swallowed, not sure where to begin. "That...was really good."
Edgar raised an eyebrow. "What was good?"
"I dunno. Just... the way you handled those two. You didn't take an crap from them, and you've actually go them working with you. I don't think those two had a chance."
Edgar sighed. "I only wish things were that smooth, Sabin. I'm running on luck right now. By the way, the part about Mobliz being a semi-independent republic is completely bogus. But remind to work on it after this business is done with."
Sabin stared incredulously. "You mean... that was a _lie_ you fed Nicholas?"
A shrug. "Think of it as a future prediction. It keeps the man in line and out of more trouble."
"I never coulda managed things like you did."
"You don't think so?"
"I _know_ so. I mean, you were flawless with those two. You were in complete control. Heck, I never realized you were lying about Mobliz, and I'm your brother! I never could have pulled off something like that."
Sabin shrugged. "I dunno. I'm no king, I guess."
"You're a king's brother, aren't you?"
"That doesn't mean anything. You're a king. I'm just a martial artist."
"What's wrong with that?"
"Figaro doesn't need martial artists. If it didn't have you, it'd be sunk. Probably literally, too."
Edgar shook his head. "Do you think so? Maybe I think that I'm just a king. And you're a _martial artist_. All I do is order people around to suit my whims. Whereas you actually do things yourself."
"It's that simple."
"Probably not. So what's bugging you? You're too young to have a mid-life crisis. So what's the matter? You sound like you've got an inferiority complex or something."
Sabin sighed, changing direction towards a group of people. "It's nothin', bro. Let's ask the locals a few questions. I want to know why Shadow and Celes are acting so weird right now."
Edgar made a face, heading towards some other people. "Oh, I think the list is a little longer than that."
Three hours of questioning and searching left the four men only slightly wiser, and a great deal more irritated at circumstances in general.
Cyan was presently mirroring everyone else's frown. "Methinks our friend Saroth has covered his tracks quite well."
Nicholas shook his head. "No, the problem is that he didn't cover his tracks at all. He's being completely true to form. Saroth could kill every single woman and child in a town in full public view, then show up at the bar and enjoy a drink with the men."
"Actually, he _did_ show up at the bar and enjoy a drink," Sabin interjected sourly. "He seems to know the waitress and the bartender really well. He didn't say what he was doing, but he didn't avoid any questions either. They seem to think he's either a genius or a complete lunatic."
"An annoying mixture of both," Nicholas opinioned. "Trying to identify him through suspicious behavior is an absolute dead-end. If he didn't do anything out of the ordinary, we'll simply have to pursue him as originally planned."
Edgar looked a little bemused. "You make it sound like Lance is probably oversleeping as we speak."
Nicholas' face took on a pained expression. "He's stupid enough to. And lucky enough to get away with it. At any rate, we know that he stayed last night at the inn, and purchased three tickets for the ferry to Thamasa, to leave this morning."
Edgar pointed towards his ship. "Then we'll pursue immediately."
It seemed mere moments after falling asleep, but Lance awoke to a harsh impact against something more solid than himself.
"Wake up, you idiot!" a voice ordered.
He shook his head as he fell to the floor. After several attempts, he got to his feet, his vision finally coming into focus. Before him... Celes. "Morning m'dear," he greeted.
She collared him, shoving him roughly against the wall. "Shut up, Saroth. You've been betrayed."
_That_ managed to get his attention somewhat. "Lovely. By who?"
"Shadow. We've both been sleeping for over a day now. Our boat left yesterday."
"Lovely," Lance repeated, rubbing his eyes. "I can believe that. How exactly did I manage that?"
Celes scowled. She was fully dressed, complete with her sword at her side. An empty bottle was in her hand. "He drugged our rooms after we fell asleep last night. We'd both be sleeping for another day, I'd guess. Unfortunately for him, I'm a lot more resistant to chemicals than the average person."
Lance was finally collected his senses together. "Yes, lucky. So... where is our friend now?"
"He's nowhere to be found in the village. I've already looked. But we've missed our passage to Thamasa. I have a hunch he left on that boat."
Lance sighed. "This complicates matters greatly. In addition to the lost time, there is also the matter of _why_ he betrayed us. If he is in allegiance to Sidewinder, they will have a significant head start on us."
Celes laughed mirthlessly. "That, Saroth, is where you're wrong. I gave you two the wrong location before."
Lance's eyes shot open. "Excuse me!?"
"They'll have the right island. But the location is completely wrong. You may hope that Shadow tells as many people as possible."
"Yes, yes..." he eyed her curiously. "I am not complaining, but exactly what prompted you to do that? To give the wrong information?"
She frowned. "I've worked with Shadow before. I don't know what, but there is something between him and Thamasa. His behavior was very erratic the last time he was there. I was the one who hired him, and he accepted so readily that I wonder if he wouldn't have done it for free. And he showed a surprising amount of concern for the locals during a crisis.
"At any rate, last night, I convinced him that the village might be in danger, and let him make the next move."
Lance nodded. "So be it. Perhaps it is just as well he is not present. Although I will miss a good bodyguard like him. At any rate, I shall book us another passage. We would do well to avoid detection, I think. If King Edgar is in the village..."
Celes smirked. "He's gone to Thamasa as well. Along with a number of other individuals. Sabin, Cyan and that Nicholas character."
"All of them? Together?"
"It would seem like it. Fools."
"Foolish indeed. But that means we do not wish to encounter them."
"That won't be a problem. Go book a passage immediately."
"Your optimism is good to have," Lance agreed, throwing on his cloak.
At the boat dock, their arrival was greeted with no small amount of disbelief.
"Two tickets for Thamasa," Lance requested cheerfully.
The ticket master was dumbly staring at them. "B-but... you already..."
"We missed the ferry, I'm afraid to say," he sighed regretfully. "I don't expect that you'd be willing to refund the tickets, but could we please have two more?"
"But... you're criminals!" he blurted out.
Celes took a step forwards, meeting his eyes with her own. "Completely untrue, actually. That's simply what certain people would have you believe."
The ticket master was beginning to tremble, yet unable to break his eye contact with her.
"But if we really are," she continued calmly. "you'd be wise to do your part in helping us head towards the law, wouldn't you?"
The man finally stumbled backwards, making some retching sounds as he clutched his stomach.
Lance briefly alternated glances between Celes and the ticketmaster, clearly a little confused. Celes hadn't even touched the man. "Is their room on the ferry?" he inquired finally.
A soldier was now headed towards them, sword drawn. He free hand clamped around Lance's arm.
Celes spun to meet his gaze. "Sheathe your sword and release him," she calmly ordered.
"You two are criminals and will be treated as such," he shot back. "I have orders-"
His voice trailed off as Celes took a step towards him, locking her gaze with him. "Your orders are mistaken, soldier. Saroth and I have nothing in defiance of Figaro law, whatever you were told. We are presently headed in the same direction as your king and his brother, who are much more qualified than you are to judge the situation."
Just as the ticket master before, the soldier's face took on a sickly color, his hands clasped over his stomach in agony.
"Saroth and I have broken no laws," Celes repeated, her voice deceptively quiet. "But we will certainly defend ourselves if you give us a reason to. And things would go very badly for you if that happened."
"May we please have two tickets?" Lance asked, placing some money down before the still-ill ticket master.
Wordlessly, two tickets were pushed towards him.
"Thank-you very much. Celes, shall we be off now? Time waits for no one, least of all a petty historian like myself."
Wordlessly, she left the still retching ticket master and soldier, heading onto the ship.
Lance watched her go, then looked back at the two men apologetically. "Sorry, boys. But really, you had it coming to you. I mean, a drawn sword? You could stand to learn some diplomacy. Just be glad you didn't try to _use_ your sword. That could have gotten messy."
"Saroth!" Celes snapped. "As much as I'd love to leave you behind..."
You know, it just occurred to me that nobody in FF6 has red hair. And except for Locke (and Strago), all the heros have long hair, tied back. This might be a subliminal reason for me making Lance a guy with shorter, red hair. For even more evidence of how they cheaped out on graphics, go to the party selection screen. Then rapidly circle between the various male characters. Ha ha! Umaro and Edgar have the same base template as Sabin, Cyan and Shadow! And Celes and Terra share a nearly identical template as well!
Sorry, just had to get that out of my system. It's been festering for a few years now. I suppose I should be grateful that Strago and Relm were given different templates. And that the artists' gave Setzer and GoGo bulky clothing to disguise their templates.
Anyway, it looks like there's going to be another meeting of the forces. The scope of the story is getting bigger, with more people finding themselves involved. Next chapter is going to be a fairly non-violent one. Then again, so is a powder keg...
A comment untold
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A silent critique
Ain't worth a shit
So before that thought of yours is gone,
Send to firstname.lastname@example.org
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