It’s been a quiet journey so far. We haven’t had much to say to each other since we escaped South Figaro — or rather, I haven’t felt much like speaking, and he always looks as though he’s on the verge of saying something but is too afraid to let it out. Perhaps my one-word answers to his earlier questions have numbed his tongue. That suits me just fine.
Locke seems to be full of nervous energy. He fidgets with his jewelry — and there’s a lot of it to fidget with — and the hem of his shirt with noticeable frequency. When we stop to rest, he picks at a scab on his elbow until it bleeds. He can’t ignore it even after we continue on our way. But when his eyes suddenly meet mine for a split-second, he drops his arms to his sides like a guilty child. He balls his hands into fists, as though it’s the only thing he can do to keep them still.
He’s obviously waiting for me to strike up the next conversation. It’s finally reached a point where even I find the silence to be awkward.
“Do you often travel alone?” I ask, feeling like I already know the answer.
“Yeah,” he says, and his right hand shoots up to the back of his neck. He tugs at the bleach-blonde hairs sticking out from under his bandana. “I never stay in one place for very long. And I don’t have a… partner, so…”
I make a small sound of confirmation through closed lips. Silence falls back around us for another minute or two. This is not the sort of conversation I know how to sustain.
“Where are you from? Originally.” It almost pains me to voice these words. I don’t actually care to know the answer. I hate smalltalk.
“Kohlingen. It’s up north and west of here.” He is visibly hesitating. “I haven’t been back in a long time.”
“Ah.” I recall that we’d sent a campaign to Kohlingen a few years ago. I was still a Lieutenant at the time.
I bristle as I realize I should no longer think of the Empire as ‘we’. It’s them now, isn’t it.
“I’ve never been there,” I say, at once assuring him that I wasn’t involved in that mission, and annoyed at myself for feeling the need to do so. “I’ve heard it’s… hot.” I press my lips tight. I’m not sure why I even tried; I should’ve kept quiet.
Curiously, he chuckles. “That’s about all I’d have to say about it, myself.” He quickly glances off to the side. “You originally from Vector, or…?”
He nods absently. “Well, the road feels more like home than anywhere else, now. It has its perks — at least I don’t have to pay rent!”
* * *
She sort of blinks. I tug at the bottom of my shirt, pat the wallet in my back pocket. (It’s still there, just like every time.) She just doesn’t get my sense of humor I guess. I’m not entirely convinced she has a sense of humor at all.
I’m trying to remember that she clearly has a lot on her mind. But some of these attempts at conversation have been making me want to crawl out of my own skin. I’d felt something in the heat of the moment back in the South Figaro prison — some sense of inspiration or attraction; I couldn’t quite define it. I was confident and quick on my feet. I’ve been stumbling ever since.
On top of everything else, there’s the matter of her notoriety. I knew her name before we traded introductions. I’d been hearing rumors about the ruthless young General for a couple years now — about her mannerisms, her fighting style, even some… improper things; tales likely embellished or invented by frustrated men who’d been on active duty too long. None of these things ever meant much to me before, but now I have to pretend I haven’t heard them. It’s an odd sort of imbalance that I don’t want to color our interactions.
I don’t doubt that I did the right thing by bringing her along — even without knowing whether or not she’ll want anything to do with the Returners, in the end. But uncertainty about the future is weighing on me heavily now. I’m worried we were spotted on our way out of South Figaro; that the Imperials catch up to us before we reach Narshe. I’m worried about how Arvis and the others will react when I show up with one of Gestahl’s former Generals in tow. I’m worried at the fact that I’m usually quite good at reading people, and I’m getting absolutely nothing from Celes. She has mastered the art of locking others out — if that is, in fact, to be considered an art. I’m sure it’s a necessity for a high-ranking military official.
I steal another glance at her. She is the very definition of stoicism: back straight, eyes forward, brow and lips completely without a hint of emotion. There most certainly is a lot on her mind, yes — but I can’t even begin to guess what she might be thinking about.
It startles me when she speaks. “You’re getting tired, aren’t you.” It’s not a question. “Your pace is slowing. We should set up camp before it gets dark.”
My pack only contains supplies for one, and there was no way to stock up before we left the city. Celes herself had insisted we not stop at any smaller towns or villages either — not until we’re well outside of the Empire’s reach. And so we empty the contents of my bag and make do with what there is. She refuses outright my offer to lend her the sleeping bag, even when we trade watch. “I’m used to harsher conditions. And I don’t get cold easily,” she says. All I can manage to give her is my jacket, and she rolls it up and uses it as a pillow.
I sit back against a tree, the sleeping bag unzipped and draped over my shoulders. My eyes burn in protest of a grossly truncated sleep, and I pray to every god I can think of that I don’t nod off now that I’m on duty. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to watch my back so closely on the road. I’m sure Celes will have no trouble being up and alert in exactly four hours. I probably won’t even have to wake her.
I have to stay awake, I have to stay awake… The sleeping bag is warm and I’m getting too comfortable. If I fall asleep while on watch, I’d have either embarrassment or certain death to look forward to. I rise and stretch, and the night air makes the hairs on my arms stand up. A bit of a chill should keep me at attention; this isn’t about comfort. I can’t fail her… too.
Celes appears already to be sound asleep, on her side, one arm tucked under the makeshift pillow. Her arms are bare — she’d left the jacket of her uniform in the prison cell, though it was probably for the best. All her stripes and pins wouldn’t win us any favors the farther north we go.
I’m not entirely sure how it’s possible for someone her size to not feel cold in a tank top at midnight, and I rub my own arms as a slight breeze picks up. Well I’m awake now, that’s for sure.
“I’m used to harsher conditions,” she’d said. That may be so, but it doesn’t mean she has to refuse a little extra comfort when it’s available, right? Feeling precisely like I’m in a bad storybook, I gently slide the sleeping bag over her like a blanket. Someone might as well use it. I just hope she isn’t mad at me when she wakes up. I really don’t know what to expect.
I’m not at all surprised to find myself under the sleeping bag when I awaken. I should’ve just accepted it from the start to avoid this chivalry nonsense. He watches quietly as I roll it tight and stuff it back in the bag.
“Fits better the way you did it,” he says, and I shrug. My head is buzzing this morning. Bruises have begun to bloom all over my arms, and I can feel tender spots along my ribs and jaw as well. My hair is knotted — I’d combed out what I could with my fingers last night but it’s still a mess. My trousers are torn at the knees. I’m sure I look pitiful, which is exactly the last sentiment I ever want expressed towards me.
I’ll at least give Locke credit for having politely ignored my haggard appearance thus far.
“Have you been through the Cave of Figaro before?” he asks. I shake my head. Awkward silences be damned; if I don’t have to speak for the next twenty-four hours, I’ll be happy.
“It’s just a few more miles ahead. We’ll pass through it to get to the northern Figaro territory, and then we should finally be able to stop at a town for some proper food and rest.”
That sounds… good. Sure. I can’t seem to think straight, even though I’m normally most alert in the early morning. The beating I took in the prison cell must’ve really rattled my head. Ericsson had certainly seemed like he was enjoying himself; he’d probably dreamed of using me as a punching bag ever since I began to outrank him. What a treat for jealous, pea-brained Ericsson that he got to oversee my arrest. I’d have told him his form was still as sloppy as ever if I hadn’t been busy spitting up blood. The fact that he’d waited until I was chained up to start throwing punches was telling.
The pain above my left eye begins to pulsate, and the thoughts are pushed out of my mind. A stiff drink would be nice right about now, but we’re not allowed to drink on duty. Oh, that doesn’t apply to me anymore, does it? (And it’s not we, damn it.) I can drown myself in liquor as much as I want now! Ah, but… that’s the story of every dishonorably discharged soldier, isn’t it. I should make a point to not end up a statistic.
Damn, this headache is the worst part of it — I can deal with the limp, the soreness, the fat lip — but the fact that I’m having trouble concentrating today is driving me mad. My brain doesn’t want to slow down — we’ve got to plan ahead, what’s our strategy? — but it keeps getting tripped up on a mix of meandering thoughts and cloudy nothingness. I guess for that reason, I’m glad to be following Locke. He seems to know the way. He’s a good navigator. That’s someone worth keeping around…
I suddenly realize that I’ve been sleepwalking, or something like it. We’re in the Cave of Figaro (if I think hard, I do remember entering, now), standing before a wellspring. Locke is filling his canteen. He makes a gesture towards me.
“You look really out of it. Splash some water on your face; it’s nice.”
As soon as I dip my hands into the pool I want to dive all the way in. The water is freezing cold, but it feels amazing. I notice I’ve been sweating; the air in this cave is so stagnant I can barely breathe. I kneel closer to the edge and plunge my arms in to the elbows, then throw handful after handful of water onto my face, drinking it in, not caring that I’m drenching my clothes and hair, or how crazy I must look. Anything to cool my feverishly hot skin and wash this fog from my mind.
I let out a sigh as I lean back away from the spring, a puddle forming around my legs. Locke waits patiently off to the side for me to finish, and I feel that the silence no longer feels quite so awkward.
* * *
I wish there was something, anything, I could do to help her, but I know by now that the best thing I can do is give her space. Maybe I’m not totally incapable of reading her after all. Then again, I also know all too well what it’s like to hit rock bottom… though without quite so many cuts and bruises to show for it. I’m sorry I can’t even offer her some painkillers or poultices; it’s bad luck that I was so understocked by the time I got to South Figaro. She hasn’t made a single complaint this entire journey but she must be in enormous pain.
A low rumble interrupts my thoughts. Celes even perks up at the sound and rises to her feet. I close my bag and reach for my weapons as a tremble of nervous excitement rushes through me. Have the Imperials finally caught up to us? We might be better off running —
Except for the fact that the noise is coming from the path ahead. I hear a hiss and realize the first real word out of Celes’ mouth today is a curse; if the situation weren’t so dire I might have laughed out loud.
Celes grabs her sword, her one remaining possession in the world. The lethargy that has consumed her all morning seems to suddenly vanish at the promise of battle. I only hope she’s not too injured to actually fight, because there’s no way I can fend off more than a soldier or two on my own.
“How many do you think there are?” I ask in a low voice.
“The bigger problem is that it sounds like they have some sort of machine with them; could be Magitek armor… no!” Her eyes widen. I wait for her to continue, but before she can speak, one of the walls ahead of us begins to crumble and a massive tank rolls into view.
Celes is shaking her head. “No discretion… This is one of the Empire’s latest projects; completed sooner than I’d have guessed. Lucky Figaro… this tunnel armor is supposed to cut a new path through the mountains to make the invasion easier.”
I notice that a small red light on the thing begins to blink. That can only mean trouble.
Sure enough, it sends a fray of small missiles in our direction. We both dive out of the way as the ground we had just been standing on explodes into a million bits of rubble.
“That damn thing is gonna make the existing caves collapse!” I say, coughing up dust.
“I didn’t say it was a brilliant plan!”
Celes unsheathes her sword, and I’m just beginning to wonder how she expects to take on an armored tank with a single blade when she does something odd: Grasping the hilt with both hands, she raises the sword high, pointed straight at the ceiling. A wave of visible energy snakes from her hands up to the tip of the blade, and then… that’s it. She lowers the sword, and nothing else happens. Was she just stretching? We really don’t have the time —
“Where’s that Thunder Rod we picked up?” she demands, and I feel like I’m finally getting a glimpse of General Chere. With one eye fixed firmly on the tunnel armor, I root through my bag and pull out what looks to me like a gaudy toy wand. I notice the red light has begun blinking again.
“It’s gonna —!”
“Don’t move!” she yells, and I freeze as a burst of flame shoots forth from the tunnel armor. Celes swings her sword round and it’s as though the fire is drawn to it like a magnet. The flames swirl around her and I cry out involuntarily, dumbly putting out one arm but fearing to actually touch her. But it’s all over so quickly — the fire dies down and she’s no worse for wear. I open my mouth to question what it was I just saw, but she’s still in battle mode, and barks her next orders over me.
“Can you throw?”
“Well enough, I gue—”
“Throw that rod as hard as you can at the armor. Now, while it’s still recharging!”
Completely dumbfounded, I wind back and send the wand spinning toward the massive machine. I hear a faint shattering sound, and then Celes throws me to the ground as the cave fills with explosions of lightning. In a matter of seconds, it’s all over. When I look up, the tunnel armor is in several smoldering pieces.
“Let’s get out of here quick in case it’s still got some fuel left. Those scraps could be a ticking time bomb.” She pulls me to my feet and we throw caution to the wind as we leap over the remains of the tunnel armor. I retake the lead as we continue to run until we’re back out under the open sky.
I double over to catch my breath. “What… the hell…” I sputter, “was all that?”
“Elemental rods are extremely volatile. I don’t believe they should be sold in common weapon shops.”
“No, the… thing with the sword.” I swing my bag around and grope for the canteen. I take a few generous gulps and pass it over to Celes. The burning in my lungs starts to subside.
“Ah. It’s an art called Runic. I absorbed the spell.” She takes a sip.
“That was magic fire?”
“Mm. Sounds like you have a lot to learn about magic and Magitek, if you wish to take on the Empire.”
* * *
He is very curious now, the battle seeming to have re-loosened his tongue. He asks for more details about the tunnel armor and projects like it — these war machines were not my specialty, though, and I have little to offer. Nevertheless, he absorbs every word like an inquisitive child.
“But at the root of it, there are some like you who don’t need… machines or devices to use magic — that’s the basis of Magitek as I understand it, right?”
I nod. The adrenaline from the fight is wearing off, and I’m beginning to tire again of conversation.
“We — the Returners — have done as much research as we can on the subject, but, well — you guys kept that info pretty well locked down.” He grins nervously. There go his hands again, fidgeting. He twirls a dagger between his fingers. “Everything we ‘know’ is still pretty theoretical. If you’re… willing to share with us your experiences, it’ll help us out tremendously.”
My throat tightens. This is what I’d resolved to do, isn’t it? I didn’t get myself beaten and thrown in prison for mere words; it was threat of action — and if I don’t follow through with that…
I just can’t understand why it’s so difficult. The seed of doubt was planted in my mind over a year ago by this point. I’d begun to see too many hypocrisies; turning a blind eye was no longer possible. It’s easy to fight someone who wields a sword back at you, but then the missions became more and more proactive, as they’d said.
Glory to the Empire! Glory to Gestahl!
It was our duty as those of superior power to protect the weak. But the weak are naturally timid and indecisive; they require a show of our strength to be convinced. And it is natural that some will die for the greater good — it simply means the distribution of resources can more efficiently benefit the survivors. As the mother dragon eats the runt of her litter to increase the flow of her milk, so shall we consume the surrounding territories all for the greater good! Take up your swords, bring the torches! Show Maranda that she will be ours, and she will rejoice!
But as the smell of burning flesh filled the air, the power of Gestahl’s rousing speech quickly began to fade. And the memory of screaming children kept me awake for nights to come. And I finally began to wonder if perhaps everything I’d been raised to believe was a terrible lie.
I swallow the wave of nausea bubbling in my throat. I should be ready for this; I’ve been planning this moment for months now. And yet — in some strange, twisted way, I choke at the thought of truly betraying the Empire, of revealing all their secrets. Despite their cruelties, casualties, corruption — deep down, it still feels a little bit like we.
And that terrifies me.
* * *
In a matter of minutes, she’s practically turned green. We’d finally been having a decent conversation — I was really starting to feel optimistic about this journey! But then all of a sudden it was as though something inside of her snapped, and she dropped back into an utterly chilling silence. She’s fallen a pace or two behind, but we continue on our way north.
By the grace of the gods, I see a familiar landmark and I know we’re only a few miles away from a small town. It should be safe to stop there and rent a room; I know the inn proprietor personally, so we won’t have to worry about anyone getting too nosy. I turn to tell Celes the good news, and am quite shocked by her appearance. Her forehead and shoulders glisten with sweat, and her eyes have become hollow. She no longer boasts that air of gritty stoicism, but instead looks haunted. I stop in my tracks.
“Celes, are you feeling okay?” I swiftly retrieve my canteen and offer it to her. I’m at least somewhat relieved when she takes it and drinks deeply, and I don’t care that she leaves little for me.
“We’re getting close to a safe place to rest. We’ll get proper food and supplies and you can sleep in a bed. Just another hour’s walk at this point; do you think you can make it?”
She lets out a heavy sigh, but nods.
“Let me know if you need to stop.”
I stay by her side as we continue on. At this pace, it’ll take more than an hour, but it’d be worse to push her too hard. Something is very, very wrong, and Celes remains as elusive as ever. She would probably go until she collapsed before asking for help. I could probably carry her the rest of the way at this point, but I don’t even dare to ask. I’ll just keep an eye on her and hope for the best.
Thankfully, she seems to perk up once the town is in sight. It’s a quaint little place on the eastern edge of the Figaro desert where most of the residents are older, their children and grandchildren having nearly all left to seek excitement either in the castle fortress or the bigger cities further south. The houses are all single-story adobe buildings, built and furnished generations ago. But it’s comfortable and quiet, and best of all… too small and worthless for the Empire to want anything to do with anytime soon.
Being outsiders, we of course turn heads as we approach the outskirts of the town, but here and there I’m recognized from my previous travels, and I throw a friendly wave to an elderly gentleman sitting under the faded awning of his front porch. Normally I’d stop to chat, but I steer us quickly toward the only inn in town, eager to get Celes off her feet and out of the desert sun. Dalia, the proprietress, is tending the garden as we approach.
“Locke Cole, it’s good to see you,” she says, and we exchange kisses on the cheeks. She moves even slower now than she did the last time I passed through here.
“My friend and I were hoping for some soft beds for the night. We’ve traveled quite a ways.”
Dalia bobs her grey head up and down. “A bit worse for wear, I see. Yes, of course, take your boots off if you don’t mind. One bed or two?”
“Two, please,” I say, and Dalia shuffles ahead of us to prepare our room. I glance at Celes. She leans against the wall and wipes the sweat from her brow.
“You feel feverish?”
She slowly shakes her head. “I’m just… it’s hot. I don’t know,” she murmurs.
Dalia returns a short time later and hands me two towels. “There you go, dear. I’ll be heating up the bath water at sundown as usual, but feel free to start it yourself if you want it sooner. Esperanza across the street is roasting leaf rabbit tonight if you’d like to catch her dinner. I’ve got to finish up outside now.”
“How’s Alejandro?” I ask, inquiring of her husband.
“In the ground, my dear. We can visit the grave tomorrow if you’d like.”
I watch as the old woman heads back out to her garden, and when I turn around I find that Celes has already gone into the bedroom. She immediately crawls into one of the beds.
“I’ll get food and bring it back here in a bit,” I say. She makes a small sound in response as she rolls onto her side, facing away from me.
I suddenly feel sad, and I’m not exactly sure why.
* * *
I sleep in fits. I try to resist the food he brings back but the smell is too tempting, and my stomach’s grumblings too painful. I roll out of bed and wordlessly accept a bowl of some sort of grain mixed with spiced meat and onions. The flavors are very strange to me; I can’t decide if I like it or not. I don’t really care.
My brain has finally, mercifully, gone numb. I lift the food to my mouth, chew and swallow while barely noticing. My eyes relax their focus and I stare vacantly toward the floor. I don’t fully register the nature of the sounds coming through the window from the garden. Eventually, my appetite is sated though food remains in the bowl. I forget that it’s in my lap until Locke offers to take it away.
“Can I get you some medicine? Painkiller?” he asks softly.
I close my eyes. You can bring me some strong poison and a bottle of gin. I don’t know where these thoughts are coming from. I’m just so… so tired.
“Celes, I… I want to give you your space, but I’m worried. I want to help. Please talk to me.”
What can I say? I’m conflicted about being branded a traitor? I’ve lost my conviction? I’m… homesick, heartbroken, lost. I’m sure these confessions would all go over just swimmingly. It’d be a shame to draw weapons in the middle of this nice little inn. We’re probably the only customers the old woman’s had in weeks.
I open my mouth, unsure of what exactly will come out, when my chest suddenly contracts. Whatever words were lingering in the back of my throat come out in a whimper, and I bury my face in my hands. I don’t think I’m actually crying, but it’s as close to it as I could possibly get at this point. I find it difficult to catch my breath.
The mattress dips as Locke sits beside me, but he doesn’t touch me at all. I nearly expected to feel a hand upon my back, or — I don’t know. Something doting. But he just waits.
A sharp pain bursts behind my eyes as I at last lift my head. I blink until my vision clears.
“I don’t know,” is all I can say. “I don’t… understand what I’m feeling.” I turn to look at him. For once, he isn’t fidgeting, and that realization somehow gives me a small window of clarity.
“Do you know how old I am?”
My question seems to take him by surprise. “Ah… Twenty… mid-twenties?” he says.
“Eighteen. I commanded an army of thousands. Most of the men and women below me were older than me. The enlisting age is fifteen. I’ve been training since I was eight.”
He lets out a long, slow breath.
“But I look older than I am, don’t I. I’ve already got bags under my eyes. I’ve broken four bones. I’ve got more scars than I can count.” I hold out my arms and turn them over. Beneath the bruises twists a roadmap of white and red scars, the largest of which cuts across my wrist from when it fractured badly three years ago. Cid claimed that if it weren’t for my Magitek infusion, I wouldn’t have been able to wield a sword properly anymore. The magic in my veins, he said, had helped it heal better. The ugly scar would make it seem otherwise.
“All I’ve ever done with my life is train, and spar, and fight. It’s all I know. It’s the only option that was ever presented to me. I consented to the Magitek infusion, but I was so young at the time, I…” My voice hitches. “Of course I said yes; all I ever heard was, this is a good thing, who wouldn’t want it? I was indoctrinated. I look back on it now and — everything I ever knew and believed was carefully spoon-fed to me. I was a perfect puppet; they didn’t even need a - a slave crown for me.”
I grasp at the worn fabric of my trousers. “I feel twice my age. Everything aches — so much hurts I’ve grown numb to it. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to not be in pain. I guess that makes me good in battle, huh. I can keep going, keep pushing myself further.” I ball my fists so tightly the knuckles turn white.
“What do you do when your life as you know it collapses in an instant? How do you deal with it?”
* * *
I can’t compare my experience to hers. Losing Rachel was… traumatic, certainly, but this is on a whole other level. The stories of the young General never addressed the weight of her position; what it meant she must have gone through when she was even younger. She was simply another force to be reckoned with; a force wielding deadly Magitek at that. It’s easy to dehumanize someone like her. Who has empathy for a living weapon?
But here she is — unguarded, black and blue, her world breaking down before her like a priest losing his religion. Her voice is unsteady, pitch rising higher than she’s normally talked the past couple days, and her face flushes. At last she drops her head and lets the tears fall. I offer her a handkerchief, which she accepts but simply wrings between her hands.
“I feel so sick,” she hisses between her teeth.
I slide my hands behind me on the mattress and lean back, looking up at the low ceiling. The least I can do is not stare at her in this vulnerable state.
“Well… you’re no longer obliged to the Empire, so you don’t have to keep fighting if you don’t want to. You’re in charge of your own life now. The Returners have aided defectors before; we can help you settle in a neutral territory like Narshe — or we have contacts in most parts of the world. Figaro is great; we’re going to meet up with the king soon. It’s… there’s a really good support system, honestly.” I feel rather like an ass. I’m generally not so bad at consoling people, but everything I could possibly say right now sounds absolutely inadequate.
And she’s shaking her head as though to confirm it. “I could never be a civilian. I don’t think it’s possible. Not since I’ve been groomed from such a young age. Not since my infusion. I was literally bred to fight.” She presses the handkerchief to her eyes.
“So fight on your own grounds, then. No one can order you around anymore.”
She looks up and turns her reddened eyes on me. “You, Returner, undid my chains and rescued me from prison. Now we head toward rebel headquarters in Narshe. Surely you expect me to fight among your ranks now, no?”
I straighten my back and turn my palms up to her. “Do you think I’m holding you hostage? Rescuing you was — unplanned, something I decided to do in the heat of the moment. I did it because I wanted to; I wasn’t even thinking of the Returners at the time! You were in a bad place and I wanted to get you out of it. That stands true to this moment.”
“You said I reminded you of someone. That makes me think you expect something of me.”
“I…” I shut my mouth. My tensed shoulders drop.
That stings, but she was right in saying it. I shouldn’t have brought Rachel into this. Celes is not her.
“I spoke without thinking back there. Or — I should just own up to it. My initial motivations were a bit selfish, it’s true. But trust me when I say I haven’t brought you all this way just to coerce you into joining the Returners. Or anything else, for that matter. You could leave right now and I wouldn’t try to stop you. I’d just hope… it wasn’t because you mistrusted me.”
She closes her eyes, head lolling to one side. “Don’t take offense to this, but I’m going to have a hard time fully trusting anyone for a long, long time.”
I nod solemnly. “Yeah… I understand.”
My heart aches in disappointment, even as I’m fully aware of how stupid it is. I’ve known this woman for barely two days, and my time with her has already been a wild storm of mixed emotions. I have other… people and things to be focusing on, anyway. But damn if she isn’t fascinating. I would hold true to my word if she decided to leave, but I’m already praying she stays. She’s finally starting to open up and I’m gripped in suspense to learn more.
“The lady said bath’s ready at sundown, right?” Celes stands. I hear a couple joints crack.
“There’s a room in the back, around the corner,” I say, pointing. “Take your time; I’m going to get some rest.”
She picks up one of the towels and heads for the door, but stops, briefly, not turning back around.
“Thank you for helping me out of South Figaro,” she says quietly. “I’d have been executed this morning for treason otherwise.”
* * *
The water is, expectedly, much too hot, but I lower myself in eagerly all the same. The sting of my skin is almost refreshing; the flash of searing pain against my wounds cathartic. I was supposed to die at sunrise today; my bloodied, bloated corpse stuffed into a furnace by noon. My bones would’ve been thrown to the dogs; my ashes dumped in the sewer.
My Empire… my life. So elegant.
For the first time since my escape, I’m finally angry. Not depressed, not hurt, not numb, but furious. I’m angry at Gestahl, twisted father-figure; angry at Kefka, the whispering worm; angry at Leo and Cid, the complacent; angry at myself, dead of my own accord. I shouldn’t have needed to be rescued. I shouldn’t have lost my nerve on what I’d been planning for months. I should’ve marched out of South Figaro with Imperial blood on my hands. Instead I crawled out covered in my own.
If I was bred to fight, I’ll keep fighting. But this time, the smallest dragon will be the one to kill and eat her mother.
* * *
We speak little the rest of the evening, but she seems… healthier. Her movements are more resolute, her posture back to being military-straight. When I return from the bath, I find her cleaning her boots. I kind of laugh to myself when I think that the last time my boots were cleaned was the last time I accidentally left them out in the rain.
“Hey, do you…”
She looks up from her work, and it feels like her gaze pierces right through me. I try to continue without further stumbling.
“...want to pick up some new clothes tomorrow? I know there’s not much in this town, but you could at least get your trousers patched up. There are a few other places to try along the way, but Narshe is pretty cold this time of year, so…”
Her eyes flit back down to her boots — shiny black leather with rounded steel toes. I can tell by the laces they’re well broken in, but they're still in excellent condition. She’s probably cleaned them every night since they were issued to her, and conditioned and polished them regularly. You can always spot a soldier by the condition of his boots, Gran once told me. And the quickest way to start a war is to kick dirt upon them.
She seems deep in thought for a moment, and then she slowly puts the boots on the ground. They’re clean as far as I can tell, but I know she hasn’t finished her ritual.
“I’d like to do that,” she says, her expression softening ever so slightly, “before we leave here.”
A sense of calm greets me the next morning. My head is clear for the first time in days. I get up and swiftly make my bed, having the sheets tucked in perfectly in a matter of seconds. Some military habits aren’t bad to keep, I suppose. I’m not a civilian, and shouldn’t pretend to be. I’ll just be fighting for a different army now. It’s my own choice.
Locke is still asleep on the other side of the room. I watch the rise and fall of his chest beneath the blanket for a minute before quietly leaving him alone. At the door, I pick up my boots and inspect them, but then walk outside without putting them on. The old innkeeper greets me as I step out onto the sidewalk, barefoot.
“Is there an outfitter in town?” I ask, shielding my eyes from the bright morning sun. She nods deeply, and directs me to the house three blocks away with the green-striped awning. Boots under my arm, I head into town.
Along the way, I pass a shoemaker, and I run my dirty feet over a rough boot brush by the door before entering.
“Welcome, welcome,” says an elderly man, bent over a warped work bench. “What can I do for you, young miss? Repairs?”
“I’d like to sell or trade this pair for another, if you’ll take them.”
He takes the boots and turns them over in his hands, massaging the leather, scrutinizing every detail of the soles. “A very fine pair,” he says. “In excellent condition.”
“Military issue. They’ll last for years to come with proper care.”
“Oh, indeed. Beautiful, sturdy craftsmanship. They’ll find a good home.”
“Good,” I say, tearing my eyes away from them for the last time. “I’d like to replace them with something that looks completely different.”
He chuckles through closed lips. “That I can do, not a problem…” He measures the soles, then beckons me follow him over to a wall of shelves displaying all shapes and sizes of beautiful shoes. Several pairs are plucked down and tried on. The most comfortable happens to be a striking pair of white leather boots with gold detailing at the toes and heels.
“Magnificent,” he says, “They were made for you, it seems.”
The shape and weight are different from what I’m used to, but they feel good to walk in. I hand over a few gil to cover the difference from the trade, and head straight for the green-striped awning down the street. There, I’m greeted in similar warm fashion, by a similarly-weathered old seamstress.
“How can I help you today?” she says, rising from her seat. All the bolts of fabric in the room makes the air curiously quiet, but it feels somewhat comforting, like being wrapped in a blanket.
“I need a new outfit. Something with clean lines, flexible, and which looks nothing like a uniform.”
She breaks into a wide smile, accentuated by the deep lines on her face. “Something to match those fine boots you’re wearing? I see you’ve stopped by Pascual’s. Such a lovely pair; I’m glad they’ve finally found their place.”
She sets to work taking my measurements, then rummaging through a store of nearly-completed garments just waiting to be fitted. She mumbles to herself constantly — too stiff, too bulky, now we’re getting somewhere, where’s that one fabric… — and has me try on at least ten different outfits as she pinches and pins excess fabric behind me to see how it looks in the mirror.
“I see you eyeing this one more closely than the rest,” she says, looking over my shoulder.
I’ve never worn so much yellow before. It’s rather flamboyant. I’d grimaced when she first held it up to me, but I find I’m intrigued by my own reflection. It’s certainly about as far from the serious green-and-brown uniforms of the Imperial military as one could get short of throwing me in a dress.
I like it.
“I’ll take this, please.”
I can get something new in another town later if my sense of pride or shame catches up to me. But in a way, this is almost a brilliant disguise — if we happen upon any Imperial soldiers along the rest of the way, they would likely be expecting to find me dressed in something more severe. This anti-camouflage, so to speak, could throw my former colleagues off-guard. I can’t help but smirk.
The seamstress strips the garments off of me and makes quick work of running them through her dusty machine. In but a few minutes, I’m dressed again and she helps lace me up. Parts of this outfit are so impractical; why am I getting so excited about it?
I’m generous with my purse despite the old woman’s protests. She insists on at least giving me something extra for my overpayment, and so I leave the shop with a silky beaded scarf in my hands. I tie it around my waist so I don’t have to carry it. I suppose it could conceal some smaller weapons; it’s not a bad addition.
I look nothing like I used to, and… I’m happy. It’s a new beginning; a rebirth. As silly as it seems, the simple act of changing my appearance has helped solidify it in my mind: I’m in control of my own life now. Every aspect of it.
* * *
I’m repacking my bag just as she walks into the room. I’d had a moment of panic when I’d first awakened; she’d seemingly left without a trace early this morning, and I’d wondered if she had indeed decided to leave. But then I’d found her sword still leaning against the wall, and it struck me that, despite what she’d said last night, she must have at least a certain level of trust in me to leave such a precious item behind.
I turn at the sound of her footsteps, and she’s… Celes looks like a completely different person. Elegantly dressed in gold and indigo and white, she looks nothing like a former military General dragged through the trenches of war (or abuse, as it were), yet she is still undeniably a leader — tall and muscular, shoulders straight and proud, chin slightly raised. She radiates the confidence I’d gotten a glimpse of back in the Cave of Figaro. The transformation is so stunning, I catch myself agape.
“Good morning,” I manage to say without choking too badly.
“‘Morning.” She picks up her sword and clips the scabbard belt around her waist. After a minute of adjustments, she says, “I know my appearance has changed; you don’t have to pretend not to have noticed.”
I laugh nervously, feeling that my face has grown warm. “You look nice. Sorry.” I keep my eyes focused on the packing. I should really be acting more professional right now. “I restocked the supplies I usually carry, but didn’t know if you wanted your own pack; there are some shops down the street —” She’s giving me that piercing look again; severe and almost overly-attentive. It once more throws me off my train of thought. “Um… if you need anything else...”
I absently scratch at the nape of my neck. She doesn’t need me to suggest every little thing, and clearly she’s already familiar with the shops in town. Here I go, stumbling again…
“Locke,” she says, and I drop my hand back down to my side. “You’ve been very patient with me. I appreciate it.”
I smile and shrug. Oh, let’s just go back to not talking to each other; it’s probably for the best.
“I’m ready to pledge my sword to the Returners.”
Out of everything — everything that’s happened in the past couple days, this is the one surprise that finally blindsides me. Never in my life would I have expected to fight beside one of the Empire’s (former) highest-ranking officials toward a common goal. This could truly be the turning point in our efforts; everything we’ve worked at for years could finally start to become… less of a pipe dream, our goals actually within reach!
I feel the elation shape my expression and I — gods, I could hug her right now. Instead I settle for gripping the straps of my bag excitedly. “That’s wonderful, Celes! Everyone will be thrilled to have you —” I ignore the tiny pang of doubt that immediately follows this declaration. “I’m thrilled you’re joining us.”
And when she smiles, I feel my heart bubble over. Such an unexpected source of happiness, this moment.
I hope she feels it too.