Chedo was lively again. Scias could walk down the streets and find himself surrounded by children, laughing and screeching as they played their games (and maybe when some ran off crying it was because the others weren't playing fair or they were as babyish and quick to tears as he had been as a child). It had taken years for this kind of cheery noise to fill the once packed and rowdy streets.
Scias would never forget how the imperial capital had been all but razed to the ground by the wrath of Fou-Lu. It had been frightening and silent, with anxiety-inducing not-so-distant plumes of smoke rising from just behind the walls. Destruction was almost immediately apparent, but it was that silence that ate away at his usual calm more than any battered buildings or broken bodies that confronted him. A mercenary would be used to death. Situations of that sort, that screamed of the involvement of the supernatural, were different. ...He had never run into those sorts of things before he met Ryu. They seemed to have tapered off now. Maybe it was because he didn't see Ryu so much anymore. He was usually away on the eastern continent. Apparently (according to what Ursula told him- she was better at keeping in contact), he was still staying with Nina. It warmed his heart a little. Ursula was skeptical as always when they discussed it, but Scias thought the princess and the (former?) god were in it for the long run.
He liked Ursula. A lot. But it was difficult to say. Although he could say that for most things. It didn't matter as long as he could be some use to her and stay by her side. He smiled an awkward, toothy grin, not caring who noticed him. He was headed off to see her right now. That was enough to improve any day.
Whelks gurgled in their stalls and another, its reins in the hands of its owner, strained to move over to its companions. They had been favored by the military, but these days, more whelks had fallen into hands of merchants. There was plenty of haggling in Chedo's market district again. That was one of the ways the capital had been reborn as itself. The lack of an emperor, invisible but for the edicts he issued from the bowels of the castle, was the most notable way it had changed.
General Ursula was still the highest authority in the capital, though discussion raged about who was the proper person to rule the teetering empire. For all the zenny he stood to make in such a situation, Scias was of one mind with the ordinary citizens of the empire. He didn't want to see a civil war. ...But as far as he was concerned, the Fou Empire didn't need a new emperor either. Ursula was managing just fine.
...Then again, in his case, that might be personal pride speaking. He was pretty much a worthless nobody. For years he hadn't cared about much more than where his next paycheck (and then his next drink it would be paying for) was coming from. But meeting Ryu and the princess had altered his priorities.
Working with Ursula meant they were staying that way.
He wasn't exactly on any special timetable, so Scias assumed it would be all right to make a small detour through his favorite part of the market. There was a particularly high amount of second-hand weapons and armor in circulation these days, considering the high rates of both casualties and desertions the imperial army had faced in the days immediately following the God Emperor's return to Chedo. Most of it was the usual standard issue junk (and the majority of it wasn't in the best condition either), but sometimes a gem- some specially made sword or a helmet handed down for generations until there were no heirs left to inherit it- would wind up for sale. On his luckiest days, that wonderful find would even be discovered on the discount table because the seller couldn't recognize the quality of his or her find.
Nothing stood out to him today, but perhaps that was because his thoughts were too divided, drifting lazily here and there between his upcoming visit with Ursula, the sights and sounds of Chedo that surrounded him (not to mention some of the smells, both off-putting and tantalizing), and contemplations of the nameless, faceless, selfish man he had been and the nameless, faceless, compassionate man he had become (though Nina believed that side of him had always existed within him and his turnabout atop the Tower of Wind was only him finally choosing to acknowledge it). Good or bad or something inbetween, he wasn't one of those people who would be remembered by history. Some things never changed.
Not that that meant he minded. He would only blush and stutter if he were pushed into the spotlight. He was the type of man who was meant to simply support his friends from behind. All he desired was to do that well enough to please them. ...And, well, he would like to keep up his small personal pleasures of collecting swords and drinking and napping if he could, but he could always return to those things when the unsteady world around him was standing more securely on two feet.
He came around to the general's headquarters, housed in a half-crumbled wing of the former royal palace, at an ambling pace and was ushered into her presence by a pair of humorless guards. They were no kinder now that they recognized him than they had been when he was merely yet another hired hand coming to the general for the pay that was due him for his efforts toward putting the capital back together one board and nail at a time.
"Enter," Ursula commanded as they announced him.
"Hello," he forgot all about the guards and their unpleasant nature in her presence, giving, for just a moment, the clever lady the full force of his ridiculous grin.
"I see that you're well," she replied, turning immediately to her books and scales, weighing out his appropriate pay while several sub-commanders and stuffy money lender-sorts looked on.
"Thank you," the zenny was heavy in his hand. It was a good feeling. He hadn't even needed to dirty his blade for it. He didn't know much of the details of building, but there were plenty of skilled craftsman around all too happy to claim a larger share of the pay for their efforts in not just working, but teaching and supervising the others.
"What are you planning on doing with it?" she quizzed him gently, her strong, warrior hands skipping about the abacus and marking him, with a single stroke of the brush, as paid. Scias knew where he was headed already and was not shy to intimate such. Ursula listened, but there were other men who needed paying, who needed answers, who wanted to argue. "I suppose I'll be seeing you again soon," she told him and even if that only meant when he was paid again in the week to follow, he would accept that as enough. ...But still, he was a man who had seen, over a short stretch of months, many amazing things, and such sorts of men are bound to dream.
He shuffled out of her office with a mixture of thoughts, both glad and disappointed. His meeting with the general was too short. But she paid him well and praised his handiwork with her unsmiling mouth and perfectly chosen words and pretty, painted eyes. He longed to linger in her presence. But she might have implied she would join him.
It was a drinking sort of mood.
When he had said he would away to The Grilled Dragon he had made a good choice. The food was as good as the drink there- a rarity among the joints he tended towards. Whether the evening would stretch out long or short now, only time, the possibility of company, and the quality of the drink involved could tell.
Jaeya herself met him at the door to The Grilled Dragon. The sun had only just begun to dip over the hills to set in the west. Chedo stopped looking white and blue and red and yellow, repainted by the shadows to gray and green and orange and gold.
Scias' pockets were bulging, and yet here he was eating alone. Out of some lingering hope that Ursula, busy as she might be with her heavy stack of duties as the empire's ranking general (a burden he believed would snap a lesser woman or man like a twig in a blizzard), would yet grace him with her presence, he had ordered too much. She had asked where he would go with his spoils and he had taken the opportunity to make sure she knew. ...But what his big, secret heart, befuddled with fondness, had taken for intent to follow after was probably nothing more than kind conversation.
He gazed out through his long, drooping hair at the dishes that crowded his table, some half eaten and others untouched. Steamed dumplings, soybeans, mushroom rice, roasted pheasant, and sweetfish, salted and grilled on sticks, along with the sake he preferred, complimented by a pot of jasmine tea. His chopsticks sat across a plate smattered with rice grains and stacked with pointy, needle-thin fish bones. He had eaten a lot of fish on his journey with Princess Nina and Ryu. More than he had ever dined on in wet, nearly landlocked Ludia.
"We fought a huge skeleton fish that was born from a Hex once," he remembered Nina telling him while examining a similar set of bones left behind on her own plate. Ryu had sucked in his cheeks and widened his eyes until they bulged, a silly pantomime of the creature in question. Scias had liked both of them, but his feelings for the princess had developed first. If you didn't mind chattiness or naiveté, she was easy to like. ...And when most of the people you encountered on a day to day basis ignored or just didn't like you, what more could one ask for than a girl who would bind up your wounds at the end of a long battle and laugh with, but not at, you and like you even when you didn't see much worth liking yourself.
He could probably still down a little more. He picked a single soybean up between his chopsticks and, while studying it, found the eyes of urchins staring hard at him through the yellow glass window. How many of them would this feast feed? How long should he sulk and let his food grow cold in wait for a woman who would never come? He had been poor and hungry himself at those orphans' age. ...Even his beloved Ursula, in a time she could scarcely remember, had been scooped off the streets.
With the ferocity of one who, for all the zenny in his wallet now, had never stopped being poor, Scias hated wasting food. He nodded and waved the ragtag bunch of children inside.
In a fancier establishment, such an invitation would be frowned upon, if not outright grounds for him and all six of the children to be immediately thrown out, but in a greasy joint off the Avenue of the Emperor's Dogs, it didn't matter who you were or who you brought in as long as you were paying.
There weren't chairs enough at his too-large for one person table, but two of the smaller ones could share a seat and another, a tiny girl with dark-tipped vulpine ears, could perch on his lap. They dug in at his terse urging, muttering thank yous around mouthfuls and picking up even rice with their dirty fingers, eating as quickly as they could manage, as if they feared that in any moment of hesitation their banquet could be whisked away.
"You sh-shouldn't fear any," he told them, sipping his sake. "I'll st-st-stay 'til everyone's s-sated." He had nowhere in particular to get to. With a bottle to keep him warm, he saw no reason he couldn't stay in Jaeya's restaurant all night if only the place would remain open that long. Even while existing in a marginally less pitiful state than he had while living as a sellsword, he still didn't have anywhere worth going home to when dark fell. He rented a bed by the night, in a hall with a dozen other men. It didn't mean anything but a place to leave behind a heavy body as he slept. His dreams did not always improve upon his reality, but he had no alternative but to sleep sometime. Even a chance was worth it.
"Are you sad, big brother?" the grassrunner girl patted his soft hand with her oily fingers.
"Even when all of us are with you?" she licked her lips, capturing several loose drips of sweet sauce. "That's funny. I never pictured with money and food and people all 'round you that anyone could be lonely."
He had words this time, he thought, to explain what he was feeling, but knowing how inevitably he'd botch them made him more reluctant to speak up anyway. There was a huge smudge of charcoal and salt on the oldest boy's cheek. He sniffed at the bottle of sake and made a face that reminded Scias of Ryu and all his honest and open reactions. Ryu would have understood how he felt without any need for words to be exchanged. It was a good way of being. "Of-often I feel loneli-liest when I'm n-not alone."
The children had nearly cleared the table with their saucer eyes and gaping mouths and searching, sneaking, scooping little fingers. Were all children always this hungry? Scias had never paid much heed to children since he had been one. And hard times led to dying or growing up fast. It felt as if what childhood he'd had was very long ago. He'd had no sisters or brothers. He spent his money on drinks, not women. He'd never given a second of thought toward children. Were the six gathered around him orphans of the war or emperor's madness or did they merely have no parents sufficient to feed them?
"I'm still hungry, big brother," the girl said, tugging on his floppy sleeve, leaving fingerprint-sized stains of grease on the olive green fabric.
- Gods couldn't be called anymore, but might not a beautiful princess who'd been goddess on earth yet look down favorably upon him? ...Or were her eyes on the other side, once so altruistic, given now to gazing down only on Cray?
Jaeya came and Scias, who'd already ordered too much, ordered more.
The coals were already hot and the fish roasted fast.
The boys tore their bread and dipped it into a heavy sauce. The little girl fought with the stiff crust to eat likewise, but the strength of that surface was just beyond her strength and Scias was compelled to break it into bits for her and cut the newest fish to pieces. He would have left the roughhewn chunks on the plate for her to pick at with her hands, but she was still so eager, her pink lips darted for the fish still in his hand and plucked it from his fingers. It was like feeding a puppy.
"Would you like a little more?" he offered. He was sort of embarrassed.
"Uh-huh," the girl agreed.
The sun was down by the time they were finished with their feeding. It wasn't until this juncture that he learned the girl's name- Sia- as the second oldest boy turned out to be her brother. He handed her over to her brother's care and she put her head down on his shoulder, moving swiftly toward sleep. Scias smiled at the coincidence of their names when he heard it, but to mention it to the urchins would be nothing but self-indulgence.
In the kitchen, near to closing (they would stop serving hot food here several hours before the flow of liquor was cut off), something was burning, probably having fallen from a spit directly into the fire. The boys were thoughtful enough to thank him again before they disappeared out into the night. Sia was already snoring. He hoped they had eaten only enough to satisfy their hunger and not so much as to make themselves sick. It was easier to get sick that way when you weren't eating regularly. Kids never knew when enough was too much.
Which brought his mind back to that disciplined woman- Ursula. He couldn't picture her ever having that problem. She knew her limits; although she was human and, thus, must surely face temptation, he had never known her to give in to any kind of indulgence. When he glanced back toward the door, the children were already gone. His sake cup was empty, but the bottle was not. He poured himself another cup.
"If you encourage them like that, the next time they see you here, they're going to come back for more."
The very woman he'd been longing for. "W-would you like some?" he raised his cup in her direction, an impromptu toast to a visitor he'd no longer expected.
Bold as ever, though this was hardly a move he would have predicted, she took the white porcelain cup from his fingers and sucked down the sharp, sweet liquid. "Just a bit," she allowed, and took the chair beside him, "Sharing your cup will suffice."
Scias couldn't help himself now from smiling.
"What's that? What are you thinking about?"
"Y-you. ...And that- that ma-maybe I want to encourage them." What sense and logic would Ursula apply to that?
"It's very good and noble to want to assist those who don't have enough, but there are legitimate sources of aide they can go to. The one probably isn't going to be enough to cope with the need, but Chedo has an orphanage again. ...Or are you so eager to become a father?" Ursula pressed him. She was serious, but she was also teasing. She was just barely able to joke like this and it showed, but he appreciated the effort.
"No," he shook his head, "Just b-big brother."
Ursula drank another cup. "Well, I have enough managing and minding of everyone to do without being anyone's mother or big sister."
"I know." He had seen for himself- both via her works and operatives and through observing her personally. Scias would be hard to convince that anyone in all Chedo was working as hard as Ursula. ...The matter of who actually had the greatest, most proper claim to be ruling this country (and in what capacity) when the dust settled was going to be difficult though. There were probably some imperial cousins or bastards out there somewhere, but it would take a wise and noble individual for Ursula to support their claim.
"I don't want to be either of those things anyway," she added at length.
"You-y-you're more than enough as you are."
"One of these days you'll build the house that's going to be yours, won't you?" she asked. It was her way of insinuating that she hoped he would stay, wasn't it? That was what he wanted it to be, but how could he be sure?
"I staked out a plot," Scias admitted, gently taking the cup from between her fingers. They were drinking from the same vessel. It was the closest he had come to tasting her kiss. Even tired, at the end of this long day, she was beautiful. "I k-keep draining my f-funds be-before getting started," he confessed further. "Not enough desire..."
"That's no good, Scias," Ursula shook her head, "I don't want you suddenly getting the urge to run off and disappearing back west on me forever."
"Even with a- a - a h-house, I could st-still go."
"Maybe. ...But you'd have a reason to come back."
"E-even without the house, I have a reason to c-come back," Scias answered bluntly, "I have you."
The general didn't know what to say to that.
"I was ho-hoping it w-would be our house," Scias laid his dream out on the table.
"Build it then," Ursula said, "And it will be."