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you're a cinder, love

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Roe stands on Cracked Shell Beach in Kholusia, neck craned toward the sky. She’s here to find Alphinaud per the Exarch’s instructions, although she has a gut feeling things won’t go as smoothly as intended—they never do. Also she’s been here for five minutes and she’s already got a pebble in her boot, which doesn’t feel like a great omen.

In her hand she holds a single sprig of thyme, flowering with tiny purple blooms. Her guide just flew off with the amaro that brought her here in tow, but before he left he told her that a fisherman on Cracked Shell Beach would tell her where to go if she presented him with thyme to mark her as an ally of the Crystarium—hence, the sprig. Admittedly Roe is somewhat confused as to why this brief exchange of information required quite so much secrecy, especially considering the instructions she received were essentially sit your ass down in the tavern up the road and wait, but at her asking the fisherman simply muttered a few words about “prying eyes” and cast a derisive glance at the hulking, garish city on the southern horizon. And rather than entertain further questions, the fisher simply assured her that he would send Alphinaud along to meet her and shut his door in her face with a loud thunk, leaving her standing alone.

And for some reason, instead of heading off down the beach, Roe found herself pausing after stepping off the fisherman's doorstep to watch the pool of light hanging above. Something about it draws the eye in a mesmerizing way she can’t quite articulate, although she has to squint into the glare to keep her head from aching.

Colors ripple and tumble into one another as she watches—warm, vibrant yellow to golden amber to blinding white and back again, with little splashes of red and lilac and suggestions of green and pale blue mingling among the rays that reach down to graze at the earth below like hesitant fingers. Its movement is unceasing despite the strangely humid air that hangs lifeless and still as the grave, and something about it reminds her of the lurid shine of a spill of oil beneath the hot sun. At the horizon the sky dulls and fades to a dark, sickly greenish-brown, as though a storm looms—but of course, nothing comes. The whole place feels eerie, dead on its feet.

With a sigh, Roe tears her eyes away from the heavens and begins trudging her way down the beach. Little petals of light dance through the air around her like embers, caught on a breeze that she cannot feel and faintly stinging like the touch of hot ash when they brush against her skin. The fisherman didn’t take the thyme from her, so she stuffs it into her pocket to hang onto. Why not? It smells nice.

Although her destination—apparently, a small fishing village called Stilltide—is just a quick jaunt up the road, something compels her to wander a bit further down the coast first before crossing back northeast to the settlement. Never a bad idea to get the lay of the land when you’re in a new place, she always says, and she needs to stretch her legs a little after the amaro flight.

…Okay, and maybe she’s a little on edge. Kholusia is eerily quiet, more so than she expected.

As she crunches her way down the coast, the sky reflects blindingly off the white pebbles at her feet. Despite how near Roe is to the water she can’t hear any sea birds, no matter how intently she listens—she supposes that’s probably not too unusual in these parts thanks to the lingering effects of the Flood on the local wildlife, but it still feels deeply strange—and, now removed from the hustle and bustle of the Crystarium, she can clearly hear something new as well, a sound she can’t put a name to but what must be an effect of the light: a low, haunting tone that reverberates quietly through her entire body, interspersed with high, almost bell-like notes that twinkle through the stagnant air like the sound of a distant windchime caught in a rainstorm.

Of course it’s just a sound, she knows, but it still seems to hum with an evil intent that twists at her stomach. And she can’t help but wonder what it must be like to live among this sound for one’s entire life: to have one’s every waking moment scored by it, to feel it at your back and through your bones and in your blood for decades. Do the locals even hear it anymore? It seems impossible that they wouldn’t—but, she supposes, they’ve certainly had plenty of time to get used to it, which is a thought that makes her feel both somewhat sad and vaguely ill.

Soon she reaches the mouth of a small river cutting its way through the earth and stops, taking a moment to watch the water as it rolls to meet the glassy green sea. Its murmur is not quite loud enough to muffle the light’s hum. The ocean at her left and the grasses to her right are utterly still and silent, as though they dare not speak into the gloom, and as she absently fingers at the thyme in her pocket, she somewhat stupidly finds herself thinking that she understands how they feel.

Deciding against wandering too far away from where she’s supposed to be going (mostly because Alphinaud would delight in the opportunity to tease her if she somehow got lost), Roe hangs a right and begins to head north. As she follows the river’s shore the beach soon gives way to grassland, gnarled weeds scrabbling at her boots as she picks her way across sun-bleached boulders and past the naked husks of trees toward a worn stone bridge in the distance. It occurs to her as she walks that Kholusia is something akin to the sprawling, windswept La Noscean plains she’s used to back home, but this version is sinister: La Noscea’s twin, a haunted, wrong shadow. The thought is… unsettling.

It takes a few minutes more before Roe reaches the bridge, which is much larger than it looked from afar and constructed out of huge blocks of weathered, crumbling stone, splashed with a sickly green lichen. Standing next to it makes her feel quite small. Stilltide’s aetheryte and shanty roofs peek at her from over the hill to the east, only another few minutes’ walk away.

But as she stands there, the hairs at the nape of her neck suddenly prickle as though she’s being watched. Something compels her to turn westward.

A massive natural rock formation looms in the distance, its two gigantic stone columns meeting above the winding dirt road to form a natural arch that cuts a huge shadow out of the sky and drapes it across the earth below. It looks as though it’s been here for eons, carved out of the island by the rushing waters of an ancient ocean that has long since receded. And there doesn’t appear to be anything amiss—she can’t see any movement, so it’s probably just some wandering beast lurking in the grass—but if there’s one thing Roe has learned over the years, it’s that her instincts are rarely wrong.

So Roe sets off at a light jog to the west, across the bridge. Stilltide can wait for a moment more; Alphinaud surely isn’t there yet, and the arch isn’t far, anyway. Worst case, she’ll have to take out a sin eater or something that mistakes her for its next meal, and maybe proactively save a few Kholusians from a grisly fate in the process. It’ll be a good warmup after that long amaro flight.

Once she makes her way down the road, she squints as she steps into the shade, eyes a bit dazzled by the sudden dim. And then she blinks, because what she found is decidedly not a wandering beast.

Tucked in among the boulders and scraggly brush growing beneath the arch is what appears to be a lopsided merchant’s wagon, left abandoned in the road. Its wood is splintered and sunbleached, with the distinct look of something that has seen many years in the great outdoors, and it’s on the small side, probably meant to be pulled by a single person rather than via chocobo, judging by the two long wooden shafts jutting out from its front which are connected by a handlebar, like a ladder with a single rung. At the moment, however, one of its large wooden wheels is wedged awkwardly in a pothole. And she’s no carpenter, but it’s pretty clear from its broken front axle that it won’t be rolling under its own power anytime soon. A flake or two of paint comes off on her fingertip when she curiously drags a finger along its side, and she immediately feels a little bad—the planks are decorated with delicate little flowers painted in a garland tracing the grain of the wood, and it must have taken someone many hours to finish.

Suddenly curious, she sidles to the wagon’s front to take a peek through its small, slightly ajar door. Packed in from floor to ceiling are crates of stoppered glass bottles filled with brightly colored liquids, burlap sacks overflowing with bundles of dried herbs and flowers meticulously sorted and tied with twine, and at least a dozen thick, well-loved books—maybe two dozen? A lot, regardless—piled haphazardly along its walls. At its back she sees a hunk of twisted black metal that looks like a small furnace, clearly designed to be portable but still quite weighty, she’s sure. Its wooden floor, worn shiny and smooth from years of use, seems to groan a bit under the load. It must be much heavier than it appears from the outside; perhaps that’s why the axle broke.

Something about it being here strikes her as strange, though, she thinks, as she continues to squint at the contents of the wagon. It’s clearly quite old, but its cargo is not; it seems actively used, certainly not like something that’s been here for long. So where, then, is its owner?

Her question does not go unanswered for long.

“Hello?”

Roe bites back a surprised curse and jolts to attention so fast she thinks she might have pulled a back muscle.

A Viis woman is peering inquisitively down at her from over the wagon’s roof. She didn't speak loudly, but gods, Kholusia is so silent and still, her voice may as well have been as loud as a cannon blast.

“Oh— uh, hi,” Roe says, feeling quite foolish. “Sorry. I didn’t see you back there.”

The woman laughs a little as she gracefully sidesteps what Roe now assumes must be her wagon and into the light. And maybe the endless light is still dazzling her brain, but Roe immediately notices her eyes: catlike and bright against the deep, cool brown of her skin, in a mischievous shade of violet that reminds her of wildflowers. “It’s quite alright,” she says in a low, warm voice with a lilting accent that Roe can’t quite place, “I was rather hidden away back there. You can’t be too cautious when traveling through this area, I find… even if that means skulking about in the brush. Which, ah, I don’t make a habit of, I can assure you,” she comments, casting a somewhat sheepish glance back at the shadows she’s just stepped out of.

Now that Roe can see her properly, judging by her simple tunic and the toolbelt slung around her waist, it looks like perhaps she’s a botanist by trade: and a traveling merchant, if her wagon is any indication. She notices with a jolt that she’s quite tall, only an inch or so shorter than Roe herself—taller, even, if you count her ears, which are very fluffy. Her long, emerald green hair is tied back in a practical ponytail. When she meets Roe’s gaze again, her ears twitch curiously, and she tilts her head. Roe swallows unconsciously—it feels somewhat like she’s being studied for clues.

“I haven’t seen you before,” the woman says after a moment, with a small, becoming smile. “Did you just arrive in Kholusia, by any chance?”

Embarrassingly, it takes Roe a second for her to remember that her tongue still works.

“Uh, yeah, actually,” she says. “I just landed a few minutes ago.”

“I see!” the woman answers brightly, beaming as though she’s just solved a puzzle. “I thought so. We tend not to get many new faces around here, so I had my suspicions. Although…” Her voice trails off—she now looks slightly embarrassed, and her hand lands on the wagon’s roof to absently worry at a peeling chip of paint, working it between the pads of her long and slender fingers as one might a piece of gil. “I’m so sorry to ask a favor of you since we’ve just met,” she continues, “but do you think you could help me, if you have a spare moment? Only if you’re on the way to Stilltide, of course.” A somewhat awkward, lopsided smile tugs at the corner of her mouth. “My wagon’s given up the ghost, I’m afraid, and I can’t move it back up the hill by myself. So I’m slightly stranded.”

Although—somewhat pathetically, perhaps—Roe’s instincts tell her to say yes immediately, she hesitates. A little part of her wonders if this might be some kind of trap; the fisherman earlier seemed very insistent that many people in Kholusia were not to be trusted. And obviously she would never hear the end of it if she let herself get ambushed immediately after setting foot on dry land by the first beautiful woman she saw: ah yes, she can practically hear Alisaie teasing already, that’s our Warrior of Light, falling for the oldest trick in the book as soon as it flashes her a wink and a smile. The scarcest hint of a bosom and she’s done for.

This woman is quite clearly unarmed, though, unless you count her botanist’s tools or the silver spectacles hanging from a delicate chain around her neck. And although every move she makes is measured and graceful, her anxiety is plain. Her eyes scan Roe’s face, awaiting her response.

Well, she doesn’t seem dangerous. And Roe’s certainly not the type to refuse an earnest plea for help under normal circumstances—especially not if the asker is as pretty as this one.

So she nods gives her a smile. “Sure.”

The woman’s face lights up with relief. “Oh, wonderful. Thank you so much—between the two of us it won’t take long, and I can make it worth your while, I promise. I have a bit of coin. Or I can offer you my assistance in some other way, if you like.”

“Uh, it’s okay, that’s not necessary,” Roe hastens to say, valiantly (and somewhat unsuccessfully) attempting to elbow back the mammalian part of her brain that’s highly intrigued by that choice of words. “I’m just happy to be of help. And I’m headed to Stilltide too, so it’s not out of my way or anything.”

“Perfect!” the woman says, and then she pauses, looking somewhat self-conscious. “Oh. I’m sorry, I clearly left my manners back up the hill,” she continues as she extends a hand. “My name is Thyme.”

Well. Roe may not be the sharpest tool in the shed (by her own admission), but even this is not lost on her. “Thyme,” she says. “Like the plant?”

“Yes.” Thyme raises an eyebrow. “Is that strange?”

“Oh, uh, no— just a coincidence.” Roe realizes with an embarrassed jolt that she waited a bit too long to take Thyme’s hand and awkwardly thrusts her arm forward. “I’m Roe. Nice to meet you.”

A curious smile blooms on Thyme’s face as she takes Roe’s hand in hers. “Likewise. So what’s the coincidence?”

Roe immediately feels moronic, but in spite of herself her mouth is still moving. “It’s kinda stupid,” she says, but Thyme looks at her expectantly, an eyebrow quirked in curiosity. “Roe is a nickname. I don’t use it much, but my given name is Rosemary. Uh, also like the plant.” She flushes. “Sorry. I’m rambling.”

Roe’s never thought of herself as the easily-flustered type, but this encounter is quickly making her revise that theory. In her defense, among the girls she finds in the taverns and smoky pool halls back home, she’s usually the one doing the flustering. But Thyme, with her fluffy ears and her sparkling eyes and her low, musical voice and that little curl to her lips that says she must know exactly what she’s doing as she keeps Roe’s hand in hers for just a moment too long, just long enough for Roe to notice how delicate and soft her hands are… gods. Is this what she does to everyone else? Roe feels like she owes some people an apology.

Thyme simply giggles— “that is a coincidence,” she says— and then she lets go. Roe’s hand suddenly feels uncomfortably cold from the lack of her.

Roe clears her throat in a not-at-all-awkward manner and stuffs her hands in her pockets as she turns to study the wagon. “Well, uh, I suppose we should get moving, then,” she says. “This thing won’t unstick itself, right?”

Thyme huffs out a quiet laugh next to her as she joins her. “Sadly, no. I watched it for a while, but it appears that’s not in its repertoire.”

Surveying the wagon, Roe purses her lips thoughtfully. Since the front wheels are being more of a hindrance than a help at the moment, the simplest way to move it would probably be to place herself between the handlebar and the wagon and brace the shafts against her shoulders, lifting the broken front axle off the ground entirely. Then she should be able to just wheel it back up the hill, using only its back wheels as though it were a very large wheelbarrow. Assuming she can lift it, of course—but, honestly, that's not typically a problem for her. Suddenly feeling very eager to have found what might be an excellent opportunity to show off her greatest asset, Roe suppresses a grin as she says “Lemme try something real quick,” and ducks beneath the handlebars.

Securing the shafts against her shoulders as one would hold the straps of a hefty rucksack, elbows out, she then slowly straightens her legs with a grunt—as she stands, she grips the bars tightly to keep them from sliding backward off her shoulders… and lo and behold, the wagon’s front wheel lifts from the pothole and the broken front axle swings free with a groaning creak.

Her height comes in handy here; she’s tall enough that once she’s fully upright again, the wagon’s front wheels dangle about a foot off the ground. She takes a second to make sure her footing and grip are secure, and then takes an experimental step forward: the bars dig into the curve of her shoulders a bit uncomfortably, but the wagon follows. It’s bulky for sure, but not as bad as she expected.

“Got it,” she says, looking up with a self-satisfied grin. Said grin only grows in size when she notes how Thyme’s brows have shot up into her hairline.

“My goodness,” Thyme says. “I suppose you won’t need my help after all.”

Roe laughs. “Yeah, it’s not so bad. I have to do a lot of moving huge stuff, though, so I’m kinda used to it.”

“Still.” Thyme’s eyes trace down the curves of Roe’s body, lingering perhaps a bit longer than strictly necessary. “It’s very impressive,” she says. That little smile of hers is back.

“Uh, thanks.”

There’s a heartbeat’s worth of pregnant silence, during which Roe’s stomach decides to show off by doing a flip.

Then Thyme tilts her head eastward with a wry smile. “Well. After you, then, Rosemary.”

After Roe takes a moment to make sure she’s got a good grip, they set off back toward the bridge—at first very slowly, as Roe tries to keep as little of Thyme’s cargo from shifting about as possible. The wagon creaks a bit in protest of the awkward angle at which she hoists it down the road, but the back wheels seem to hold just fine under the increased weight. Stilltide’s aetheryte is still visible from here; they’re not exactly moving quickly, but it shouldn’t take them too long to get there.

Once Roe settles to a slightly faster pace, Thyme falls in at her side. She walks cautiously but with her head held high, brow slightly furrowed as her eyes flick attentively back and forth across the horizon. Her footfalls are nearly silent as she softly pads her way through the dirt. Watching her in profile, Roe finds her eyes idly tracking the movement of her ponytail and the periodic twitch of her ears, and she almost expects her to rustle with the quiet shaking of leaves as she moves, her stride slow and graceful with the gentle, hypnotizing sway of a willow tree. 

With a concerted amount of effort, Roe yanks her mind back to the task at hand. The singing of the endless light is back, insistently buzzing in her brain like a fly caught in a window screen, and it’s possible that the noise is making her slightly stupid.

“So,” she says, eager to both break the silence and get the ominous thrum out of her head, “judging by those books I saw, I’m assuming this is your mobile library?”

Thyme giggles, light and twinkling, and Roe’s quietly pleased to see the tension leave her face, if only for a moment. “Not as such, no. Just a traveling apothecary.” She pauses thoughtfully. “Perhaps I should travel with fewer books, though.”

“Maybe. I mean, I won’t tell you how to do your job.” One of the bars is cutting into Roe’s shoulder a bit, so she shifts it with a small shrug and a grunt. “This thing is heavy, though. You’re pretty strong.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say so,” Thyme says with a laugh. “It’s easier to move than you might think. Of course, when the wheels fall off… well, the wheels fall off, so to speak.” She shoots a mildly disgruntled look down at the front axle and wrinkles her cute, upturned nose.

Roe snorts. “Right, of course.”

“Luckily, though, I found you. Or you found me, I suppose. Thank you again for that.”

“Of course. I’m happy to help.”

“And I’m happy to be helped.” Thyme’s eyes twinkle merrily. “Although, if you’ll indulge my curiosity—where exactly are you from? You said you were new to Kholusia earlier, and you don’t seem local.”

“Ah. Yeah, I suppose I did.” Roe falters for a second—she remembers that she’s supposed to be here under some amount of secrecy, and it wouldn’t exactly be a smart move to go off blabbing about the whole Actually-I-Traveled-Here-From-Another-Dimension Thing to the first friendly face she met outside the Crystarium’s walls. But then again, she’s not exactly sure how she would even start to try explaining that… so she starts, instead, by deflecting. “Not much gets past you,” she says.

Thyme smiles at her playfully. “In all fairness, around these parts, you stick out like a sore thumb. As I said, we don’t get many travelers in general, but certainly not ones who are as… well-equipped as you.”

“I… see.” Roe recalls how Thyme watched her as she lifted the cart earlier, and is fairly certain she is not totally imagining the innuendo in her statement. “Well, uh, you’re right about that, I suppose. I’m from very far away.”

“Really?” Thyme’s eyes go wide. “How ‘very far’ are we talking, here? Outside Norvrandt? Beyond the Empty?”

“Uh, yes, sort of,” Roe says—of course, has no idea what “the Empty” is, although she supposes she could attempt to guess based on context.

For a moment, Thyme doesn’t respond. Then she speaks slowly, with the cadence of someone working through a particularly tough riddle. “The Empty is supposed to be nigh-uninhabitable already, from what I’ve read, but to come from beyond it… I didn’t think it was possible. No one does.”

“Well, in fairness, I don’t think it is possible for most people,” Roe says, and immediately feels highly self-conscious. “Uh, not that I think I’m better than most people, or anything,” she hastens to add. “I’m just an… unusual circumstance, I think.”

“I see. I don’t suppose you’d be willing to tell me more about it?” Thyme asks. Her eyes are positively gleaming with excitement, and Roe feels somewhat crushed to have to turn her down.

“I, ah, I’m afraid I can’t,” she says, and Thyme’s face falls, just a little. “I’m kinda sworn to secrecy. For now. It’s… complicated.”

“Oh.” Thyme sounds a bit crestfallen, but she smiles anyway. “Ah well, I would have gone away kicking myself if I didn’t at least give it a try.”

“Understandable. Sorry to disappoint.”

“Oh no, there’s no need to apologize. I do love a good puzzle. And this is a lovely one.” She looks Roe in the eyes: another warm, inquisitive flash of violet. “Thank you for indulging me. You are very interesting, Rosemary.”

“Uh, thanks. Likewise,” Roe says, as eloquently as she can muster, which is not very. Thyme giggles a little, and Roe’s absolutely certain her cheeks have gone pink again.

There’s a brief lull in conversation as they draw closer to the bridge. The silence isn’t awkward; Thyme seems like she’s comfortable in it. But that serious look is back on her face before long.

“Thank you again for helping me,” she says quietly. Her gaze is locked on the road. “I know I’ve said that several times already, but… truthfully, I was starting to wonder if anyone would find me down there. There aren’t many people traveling that road these days.”

“Sin eaters?”

She nods. “Activity in Kholusia has been picking up lately. They still see far more in Amh Araeng and Lakeland, apparently, but…” Her lips harden into a grim line. “It’s expected that many people who leave the settlements never make it to their destination.”

“I see.” The wagon makes a particularly grumpy creak as Roe guides it through a rocky patch of road. “But you usually travel to sell your wares anyway?”

“I do. There are lots of people in Kholusia who need what an apothecary can provide, and many of them aren’t able to travel or pay. So I try to go where I can to help.” Thyme smiles, but the sparkle in her eyes is gone—her gaze is steely, and faintly sad. And there’s a grim note to her voice now, too, and a look on her face that Roe’s started to recognize among many of the people she’s met in Norvrandt so far: it’s a quiet kind of determination in the face of ruin, a sort of resolute tranquility.

A sudden pang shoots through Roe’s chest. Thyme’s unspoken implication is clear: and if I’m to die doing it, then so be it.

“Well, I’m glad I found you,” Roe finally manages after a moment, although it feels like not nearly enough.

“I’m glad too,” Thyme replies. Their eyes meet, and Thyme smiles: a real one this time, one that feels like pure sunshine. Roe can’t help but smile back.

But then—downright horrible timing, of course—Roe happens to spot a blur of movement over Thyme’s shoulder. A large, lurching shape, scuttling across a boulder.

Blindingly white.

Her stomach drops. “Ah, hells,” she mutters.

Thyme looks puzzled for a split second before a small look of horror dawns on her face, and she whirls around.

It’s a sin eater alright—not a huge one, but any sin eater is more than big enough. Its body is strangely humanoid, but at the same time far too lanky and bony, and it scuttles through the grass with the unsteady staccato cadence of a cockroach on six segmented limbs that bend and twist at far too many joints. Slender feathered wings that twitch as it moves sprout from its back, and its face is smooth and round with a pointed chin and long, elezen-like ears—an uncanny echo of the poor soul it used to be, no doubt. Its too-long neck swivels toward them at a sickeningly awkward angle. Roe hears Thyme suck in a small gasp through her teeth. The sin eater’s mouth falls open slowly and its brow slackens, almost as though it’s pleasantly surprised.

They stand there, frozen, silent.

Then it screams. An ear-splittingly loud screech like rusty nails on glass stabs through the air and into Roe’s skull, sending her insides twisting in nausea.

Poor Thyme flinches powerfully and takes a stumbling step backward, bumping into Roe’s elbow. “Oh,” she gasps, suddenly sounding very shaky.

And, well, it’s not like Roe wasn’t planning on killing the damned thing, but now she feels quite justified—nay, obligated—to pave the road with its face.

“I’ll take care of this,” she says, schooling her voice to be as level and calm as she can. Thyme turns back to look at her, and she smiles as reassuringly as she can manage. “Don’t move from this spot, okay?”

As Thyme watches Roe carefully lower the wagon back to the ground and shimmy her way beneath the bars, her brow furrows with confusion. “Aren’t you… unarmed?” she asks, haltingly, as Roe straightens up.

Roe grins broadly. This is one of her favorite questions. “Nope,” she says, popping the “p” between her lips.

Thyme blinks and her mouth falls open, probably to ask another question, but Roe simply takes her by the shoulder and gives it what she hopes is a comforting squeeze. Then she steps away, locking the sin eater in her sights. “Stay right there,” she calls back as she walks away. “I’ll just be a minute.”

And then she’s off, feeling her muscles faithfully coil and kick like pistons into the earth as she sprints at full tilt off the road and into the grass.

At her approach the sin eater howls with fury and hunger and rears up on its hind legs, wings flared and thrashing as its other limbs eerily twitch and flick like a beetle that’s been overturned. It’s huge, maybe twice her height, and its face tracks her movement, its elongated neck arched and undulating like a cobra preparing to strike. She dashes inward, making for its chest. It thrusts its neck down at her like a pecking bird and just barely misses her, its face slamming against the rocky ground. Though she doubts it feels pain from the impact, it shudders as though it is stunned, and that’s all the opportunity she needs.

With a grunt of effort she thrusts a powerful, heart-stopping punch upward into its bony chest cavity, roughly where its heart would be if it still had one. Something rough and scaly, exoskeleton-like, crunches against her fist. Another hit and its chest gives way to something distressingly wet and viscous that oozes out onto her hand. It screams and flails in pain with a wild swing at her face, but she throws a sweeping kick into its ribs that connects with a sickening crack and sends it crashing sideways, slumping into the dirt. One more good stomp to its head and it splits around her boot, something like an overripe piece of fruit.

Her mouth goes watery with nausea. But the sin eater merely twitches a little before falling still.

Roe huffs out a breath and swipes a hand through her hair. That one was definitely more style than substance; it couldn’t have lasted longer than ten seconds. Perhaps it was newly hatched. She stands and watches for a moment as its body dissolves into motes of blinding white light, losing its form as would a sandcastle in water. They drift up and away, mingling with the golden petals of endless light that flutter across the grasslands as though following a slow, aimless current.

She then casts a quick look around—no more sin eaters here, as far as she can tell—and turns on her heel to return to the wagon at a light jog. “Coast is clear, I think,” she says. “If there was any other wildlife in the area that might be likely to mess with us, I expect they heard that thing screeching and ran for the hills.”

She ducks to retake her position behind the wagon’s handlebar but stops, squatting in an inelegant half-crouch, when she notices Thyme’s feet have not moved. “Uh,” she says awkwardly, and straightens back up. “You okay?”

Thyme’s eyes are wide as saucers. “By the gods," she breathes, sounding somewhat starstruck. “What did you say you do again?”

“I… don’t think I did. But there’s not much to say.” Roe awkwardly scratches at the back of her neck. “I’m just a traveler.”

Just a traveler.”

“An… experienced traveler?”

Thyme folds her arms with a sly, extremely becoming smile, and Roe swallows hard. “If that’s only ‘experienced’,” Thyme says, “I’d love to see what an expert looks like.”

Roe yanks her eyes away from Thyme’s face and ducks back under the wagon struts, eager to hide her traitorously flushed cheeks, if only briefly. “Well, y’know,” she starts, feeling very awkward, “it’s always good to leave room for improvement, right?”

Thyme’s gaze remains locked on her as Roe hoists the struts back onto her shoulders and the front axle back into the air. “Oh, certainly,” she says, and levels her with a knowing smirk. “Although I can’t imagine there’s much left to improve on, in your case.”

And godsdamn it all, Roe is fairly certain that if she were blushing any harder, the heat wave emanating from her face would be visible from back on the Source.

Fortunately, it turns out that Roe was right about the sin eaters, and the rest of their journey toward Stilltide is more or less uneventful—charming, flattering, beautiful women notwithstanding. Roe hoists the wagon up the hill with only a minimal amount of huffing and puffing, and it’s not long before they make it through the gates and into town, where she does her best to lower the wagon safely to the ground without letting it crash back down into the dirt.

Once the wagon is safely back on all four wheels she ducks out from beneath the bars, eager to work the stiffness from her shoulders and back. Her muscles feel warm and relaxed after her impromptu workout. “Well, you’re all set,” she says after a moment, as she folds an outstretched arm across her chest and stretches it in the crook of her opposite elbow. Then she does the other. “I hope that your cargo didn’t get too, uh, jostled.”

Thyme, who is busy peeking inside her wagon and examining her stock, makes a satisfied noise. “No harm done—everything seems to be in its rightful place.”

“Great.” Roe grins as she swipes at a bead of sweat sliding down her temple. “I would have felt terrible if I ruined your stuff.”

Fingers interlaced, she raises her arms and tips her face back toward the sky, closing her eyes and huffing out a satisfied sigh as her back gives a small pop; and, not to get too full of herself or anything, but she is fairly certain she spots Thyme's eyes briefly flick down to the strip of exposed skin just above her waistband when she opens her eyes again. She lowers her arms with a grin.

Although if Thyme is embarrassed at being caught she makes no acknowledgement of it. “Oh, I’m sure you wouldn’t have done any lasting damage,” she says, smiling, and then she tilts her head with a slight pout. “But are you still certain you won’t accept any payment for helping me? I can pay you, you know.” 

“I’m sure,” Roe assures her with a shake of her head, “but I do appreciate the thought. Really.”

“Ah, well, I had to try.” She adds a beleaguered tone to her voice, but her smile is fond. “I’ve got to go find someone to help me get this repaired,” she says, gesturing at her wagon. “But thank you, again. Truly. And if you find me again while you’re in Kholusia, please stop by to say hello.”

“Of course,” Roe starts, but then Thyme steps in very close to her, clasping Roe’s hand in hers, and she very quickly forgets what she was going to say.

“It was wonderful to meet you, Rosemary,” she says, a warm, genuine smile on her face that utterly fills Roe’s stomach with butterflies. Up this close the violet of her eyes is intoxicating—and Roe thinks she can smell something fragrant and sweet. “Perhaps if we are lucky enough to meet again, we can sit and talk without any deadly monsters interrupting us.”

“That would be great,” Roe says, feeling somewhat dizzy and stupid with how close Thyme’s face is to hers.

Thyme steps away and gives her a cute little wave of farewell, and Roe feels her heart sink a little as she watches her head off down the street. What are the odds that they’re going to see each other again, really? Especially in such a dangerous place as Norvrandt. 

But as she somewhat glumly watches Thyme walk away, Roe has an idea: and it's thoroughly dumb and needlessly romantic, so of course, she feels like she has to do it.

“Hey!” she blurts, stepping forward. “Thyme—hang on a second.”

As Thyme turns back, a confused look on her face, Roe plunges her hand into her pocket. It should still be there…

“It might be a little crumpled. But I, uh, found this not long after I got here.” Roe feels quite foolish, but too late to turn back now: she holds out her hand to offer her the sprig of thyme from before. 

Thyme—the woman, not the herb—takes the sprig from Roe’s hand. She puts those silver spectacles of hers on her nose and examines it closely.

Then her face lights up with realization. She looks back up at Roe and smiles. “Well, isn’t this poetic.”

Roe grins, immensely relieved. “I thought you might like it.”

Thyme laughs. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.” She tucks the sprig into her hair. The blooms match her eyes. “What do you think?”

“Perfect.” The word trips from Roe’s tongue easily; it’s true, after all, so why not?

Thyme smiles, waves, steps away—and then she disappears around the corner. Gone all at once, but Roe thinks she left the scent of flowers lingering in the air behind her.

Roe turns, somewhat reluctantly, to enter the tavern. Maybe the endless light is making her stupid.

She tries to yank her mind back to the business at hand, the reason she’s here in the first place: finding Alphinaud, on orders from the Exarch. Saving Norvrandt, and her home too, eventually. One step at a time, of course.

But as she scales the tavern’s creaky wooden stairs and goes to push her way through its weathered swinging doors, she notices that for the first time since she set foot in Kholusia, a gentle breeze toys with her hair.