A crash from halfway across the room caused his table to shake. Clyde gripped the base of his beer bottle to keep it from rattling and he scowled. Without turning around, he knew who it was; for the past two weeks, a scraggly-haired young man – who couldn’t be more than a few years older than himself – showed up at the bar, got too drunk and inevitably started a fight. To Clyde’s annoyance, the new guy was there regardless of the day of the week – a fact that briefly had him reflecting upon his own drinking habits.
Nevertheless, Clyde had reached his limit for tolerating this interruption to his normal routine. He pushed his seat back to stand, but his timing was unfortunate, for this evening’s victim – a much bigger man than either of them – was just stepping backwards and at that moment stumbled over the stool. The new guy laughed as Clyde dodged the man’s fall, and an exchange of glares later, Clyde found himself the third contender in a brawl.
Of course the larger man did not consider him an ally, and so Clyde had no choice but to join the young bandit in taking him down. The fight didn’t last long before the bartender had assembled a few friends to kick all three of the delinquents out.
“And you!” he rasped, pointing at the instigator, the unknown young man. “You’d better not show your face around here again! I’m sick and tired of your bullshit!” One of the bouncers cracked his knuckles menacingly before following the owner back inside.
The larger man, defeated, had slumped off to lick his wounds. Clyde was left to face the rogue and his victorious laughter – so infuriating – on his own.
“Nothing makes up for a lousy beer like a good fight, ah? Gets the blood flowing!”
Clyde stared him dead in the eye. “It wasn’t the other guy who I’d intended to put out,” he said flatly.
The young man’s smirk lessened, but the tone of his voice was wholehearted when he said, “You can sock me one if you’d prefer.”
Without half a second’s hesitation Clyde punched him squarely in the mouth.
* * *
The high-noon sun blazed down on the backs of thirty men, hunched over, hammers in hand as they pieced together wood and iron to form a section of railroad track. The work was brutal in the heat, and all were quick to drop their tools when the break whistle sounded. Clyde Arrowny, freelance laborer just shy of twenty years, gratefully retreated to the shade of a nearby tree as he wiped the sweat from his brow. There, he was greeted by an unfortunately familiar face, now sporting a large, blue-yellow bruise on the left side of his chin.
“How much they payin’ you?” the young man asked, his speech just slightly impeded by his swollen jaw. Even more ridiculous was the way he looked as he tried to grin through the wound.
“You lookin’ for a job?”
“I’m looking for a partner.”
Clyde stopped and studied the disheveled youth before him. He looked absolutely terrible – unkempt, patchy clothes, scabs and bruises on his knuckles – someone who made no business with mirrors and had certainly no interest in business.
“So what do you pay?”
A slight chuckle. “Oh I don’t deal in paychecks. Earnings depend on the… assignment – but tell me, have you ever even been on a train?”
“That’s how it goes, isn’t it. You bust your ass for hardly more than chocobo feed, laying railroad tracks so the wealthy can travel in luxury. Yet you’ll never be able to enjoy the fruits of your own hard work because you couldn’t afford it on your wages. ‘Something wrong with that, don’t you think?”
Clyde glanced off to the side. “Well no shit; you think I’d be here if I had a better opportunity?”
“That’s precisely what I’m offering to help you with. I need a partner, and you seem like a worthy candidate. Quit this gig today and we can be on our way to making real money. And I’m talking…” he leaned in closer, “I’m talking millions of gil, if we play our cards right.”
“I’m blown away by the legitimacy of this offer,” said Clyde dryly. “Let me guess – you’re recruiting at bars for an underground boxing ring and running a betting scam.”
At this, the youth let out a hearty laugh. “No, but that’s a good back-up plan and equally shady. To whom can I credit this idea?”
“You can call me Baram,” the bandit responded with a clap on his new (yet perhaps unwilling) friend’s back. “And it’d be foolish to discuss this deal any further out in the open like this, so if the mystery I’ve presented so far has grabbed your interest, meet me at the Westling Tavern in the Southern Ward at sundown.” He paused momentarily and then added, “I haven’t gotten kicked out of that one yet.”
* * *
Train robbery. That was Baram’s great moneymaking scheme.
“You’re an idiot,” had been Clyde’s immediate response, though he didn’t refuse the drink bought for him.
“Now don’t give up on me yet…” Baram’s (already tipsy) enthusiasm was hardly dampened. The head of his beer sloshed onto the table as he gestured a little too eagerly, mug in hand. He then launched into a passionate monologue – tirades against the economic class system, conspiracy theories about the ever-expanding Gestahlian Empire (they’re on the verge of something wickedly powerful now that they’re consorting with those brainless aristocrats of Jidoor), personal anecdotes of his extensive travels – drifts, really – chasing beasts on the Veldt (have you ever seen a Nautiloid on land? It’s the strangest thing!), sparring with the off-duty knights of Doma (now there’s a noble kingdom!), quietly observing the timid Thamasian anchorites (real pretty girls there, but don’t expect them to talk much) – his words flowed like beer from the tap, as though he’d been waiting ages for an ear to listen.
“There’s so much to see out there! I grew up in a dirty, dying village on the Alb– sorry, the Southern Imperial Continent I guess is the ‘proper’ name for it now – and it took the Empire razing our small farm and my parents dying of a wasting disease for me to get the hell out of there finally… And don’t get me wrong; in many ways, I’m glad I’m unattached – I’ve witnessed amazing things around the world over the past several years – but you know? I’ve never not been poor, all my life. And I’ve come to realize that I’ll never make any real money by honest means either. Oh, I can work hard! I’ve been working since I could stand on my own two feet. But with the way things are – and the way they’re headed, with the Gestahlian Empire ever gaining power – it just ain’t gonna do me any good. You neither – or any of you laborers. ‘Practically slaves. If chocobos had fingers, you’d be out of your job in a second.”
Baram’s speech waned and he rested his forehead on the wooden table, either in defeat or drunkenness. Having consumed more than a few drinks himself, Clyde leaned back in his chair and let his eyes defocus on the flickering light of the overhead candelabras. He had been cautious of the strange rogue at first – he’d seemed nothing but an anarchistic youth, enthusiastic but ill-informed. But as he listened to his tales, Clyde’s defenses softened, and he found himself not only interested in, but also relating to what the young man had to say.
It was an odd feeling he couldn’t deny. He had been something of a drifter himself for the past few years though he hadn’t yet strayed far from the region they were in now, and he could hardly remember the last time anyone had called Clyde Arrowny a friend – much less the other way around. He was cynical by nature, angry by default and off-putting to most who crossed his path. The fact that Baram had pursued something of a friendly relation with him was unusual to say the least. But somewhere between his description of the icy, crystalline Baren Falls and the rumors of a forest that served as a gateway for the dead, Clyde realized Baram represented something he longed for but had yet to accomplish himself.
For a moment he watched Baram, who remained motionless, head still rested on the table.
“You need some water?” Clyde finally muttered, playing with the handle of his own empty mug.
Baram suddenly sat up, his eyes somewhat clouded over, and then he laughed as his consciousness returned. “You kidding me? Another round of ales!”
Clyde couldn’t help but grin slightly.
“And tell me about yourself now, dammit; I’m sick of talking.”
When their glasses were refilled, they toasted to themselves.
* * *
By the end of the night, they hadn’t even remembered to discuss the heist scheme. The tavern closed its doors and each sauntered off in his own direction, making no further plans to meet again but knowing they’d run into each other soon enough. The day following, Clyde’s mind reran the images Baram’s stories had painted – what he could remember from them through the haze of alcohol, at least – of hot desert sands to the west and snow-capped mountains to the north. His muscles flexed and drove railroad spikes into the ground by rote as his thoughts wandered to giant cargo ships docking in the great Nikeah seaport, merchants clambering for the best spots along the street to set up their wares before dawn.
It made him at once inspired and angry; with each strike of his hammer his blood boiled hotter. And when he collected his weekly wage at the end of the day – insultingly meager – he could hardly contain his rage and frustration.
Everything Baram said was true. This life was unfair, and it was never going to improve by honest means. It wasn’t worth wasting, hunched over day after day, back aching, skin burning, what was left of his pride dueling with the manager’s verbal abuse to work ever harder for almost no return.
He didn’t even care about making millions. At this point, he just wanted to escape. He was used to living on practically nothing, but why do nothing as well? There was no reason to spend every day staring at the ground below him when there was so much to see just beyond the horizon.
“I love this world,” Baram had said after a long bout of silence at the bar, the night before. “It’s the people I hate.”
“All of them?” Clyde asked, emptying his glass.
“As a whole, yes. I don’t hold myself higher than anyone either, but I’m also not gonna stand to let others walk all over me. What gives anyone the idea that they’re superior? We’re all animals. We’re all worthless.”
Clyde looked around for a barmaid, but the tavern was so crowded he had no hope of getting service anytime soon.
“I don’t think you really believe that.”
Baram grinned. “It’s easier to think of it that way though.”
“You’re only angry because you have nothing where others have it all. You’re a thief – by definition you believe you deserve certain things more than those who rightfully own them. You don’t have to elevate it to something philosophical.”
“All right, all right!” conceded Baram. “But I meant it, what I said from the start – the world itself is a beautiful place, really. There’s a lot of shit clouding the view, but you just gotta see what’s out there, Clyde.”
And do whatever it takes to get there.
Now, back in his apartment, Clyde rolled his small inventory of belongings into a rucksack and tucked every gil to his name into the lining of his coat. Without so much as a backward glance, he left the austere room behind and stepped out into the crisp summer night. He followed flickering street lamps through the city slums, around textile factories and seedy relic shops till he found himself in the Southern Ward for the second night in a row, where outside the Westling Tavern a scraggly young man sat in the dirt, head buried in his knees. Clyde stopped and watched him carefully for a minute.
Baram finally raised his head and squinted at the taller man. “I got kicked out,” he said with a lazy smirk.
Clyde pulled him to his feet and backhanded his chest. “Sober up; we’re going for a walk.”
“Hey, were you gonna ask if I had to get my stuff first?”
Clyde waited silently as Baram paused to pat the dust off of himself somewhat haughtily.
“Ha ha, I’m kidding – I don’t own anything at all! Let’s get the hell out of here.”
And they walked away from the warmth of the tavern, away from the sounds of singing and shouting, of the scent of fried food and the bustle of civilization. They hadn’t yet planned where they would go, but as they reached the city limits a train whistled far off in the distance like a beacon.
For now, they simply headed to where the moonlight cast the longest shadows.