Chapter 8: Silence in Figaro, Part Two

If I was being frank with myself, I was more than a little scared. More than that, however, I was puzzled. No matter how I tried to twist and turn it in my head, I couldn't really see any way that the bombing of the Sentinel aid station was actually intended to assassinate Terra and I. While it was a little narcissistic (not to mention paranoid) to assume that we would be the subjects of any given attack, after recent events I had to admit that it wasn't entirely impossible. In this case, however, it just didn't fit.

A triggered charge was definitely out, as far as I was concerned. Okay, fine, there had been a woman who had been wearing a similar dress to my sister, but I was pretty certain that Imperial Intelligence weren't about to mistake a Figaran girl for a Mage Knight who had the complexion of something that had been living down a mine for the past two decades, even if they did share the same godsawful fashion sense. If one discounted mistaken identity for the premature explosion, there was nothing left; there was no way to my mind that Imperial Intelligence would employ someone incompetent enough to blow the place without at least confirming that we were inside.

Maybe it was a timed charge? If it was directed at us, then maybe they were intending on just making a statement or denying us medical supplies. If it wasn't, then maybe the Empire wanted to just terrorise the local population and we'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time. On the other hand, maybe it was nothing to do with Imperial Intelligence. I knew that there were plenty of groups that had a bone to pick with the Empire, and I was sure that it was also the case up here. As much as Locke claimed to the contrary, it only took one Imperial sympathiser with a basic knowledge of chemistry and enough of an axe to grind to make a makeshift bomb; maybe they'd decided to start waging their own private war against the Kingdom...

No. As much as I wanted to believe that it wasn'tImperial Intelligence, there was still the case of Terra's magic man and his alleyway of hidden steel. The fact she could sense him meant Magitechnology, which meant the Empire, and considering how rare that stuff was it was a fair bet that the man holding it wasn't part of the rank and file. Could it have been a trap? Imperial Intelligence certainly knew a lot about us, and they'd be able to make a reasonable guess at how we'd react to an attack like that. It would certainly make an effective lure. Maybe...maybe their plan was to blow the aid station and then make a strike when we arrived. The fact that we'd been there so early may have thrown off their timing, and I knew enough about Imperial Intelligence to know that they'd only attack if they were completely sure of success. Still, even that was-

"Penny for your thoughts?" Terra broke into my reverie, "Are you thinking about the bomb?"

"Mmm."

"You know, you did everything you could for that girl," she said, apparently misinterpreting my silence, "You really did."

"What? Oh, no, I wasn't thinking about her," I shook my head, "I...well, I don't think that bomb was meant for us, actually."

"Really?" this statement was given due consideration, then, "What were they aiming at, then, if not us?"

"I have some ideas," I said shortly, "I want to talk to Locke, though. He's got connections, apparently, so maybe he'll be able to find out more about what's going on."

Terra's eyebrows jumped slightly at the word 'connections', but she apparently decided to leave it be. We walked in silence down one of South Figaro's many broad, cobbled roads, alert for any signs that might signal a visit from our good friends from the Empire. It wasn't like we would be particularly difficult to find, either; judging from the puzzled gazes of passersby, I was sure that the number of green-haired individuals covered in dust and smelling of smoke in South Figaro was fairly limited.

"Let's get these provisions and go find a change of clothes," Terra, apparently, agreed with my assessment, "I feel like a bloody chimney sweep."

"Seconded," I said, and glared at a particularly inquisitive Figaran, "We're attracting far too much attention."

"On the bright side, that strange man isn't following us," my sister smiled tightly, "Maybe he got bored and wandered off."

"Imperial Intelligence doesn't rush into things, Tee. I'm sure they'll be back, but only once they've got a plan that they're really sure will work."

"How annoying," she commented, "I suppose it was too much to hope for them to be stupid or reckless."

"People who're stupid or reckless don't last long in that particular agency."

"Yeah, you've said," Terra said, before adding, "So which were you?"

"Pardon?"

"Were you stupid or reckless?" maybe it was the light, but there was a distinctly mischievous glint in her eye, "I mean, you said you didn't last long, and-"

"Yes, yes," I rolled my eyes, "Well, if you must know, I was both."

"Oh, my. Spectacular, was it?"

"You...could say that."

There was a pause, then, "Well, are you going to tell me about it, or am I going to have to guess?"

"Give it your best shot."

"Hmm..." Terra thought about this for a moment, before adding, "Was money involved?"

"No."

"Drugs, then? Women? Some kind of femme fatale, maybe."

"No."

"Aliens?"

"Not the extraterrestrial kind."

"So a Figaran citizen?"

"There're more countries than just Figaro and 'The Empire', you know."

"Jidooran?"

"No."

"Domanian? Kohlinglese?"

"You know, when I suggested that you guess I wasn't actually being serious."

"Why don't you just tell me, then?" she pressed, "I can do this all day, you know."

"I know you can," I sighed.

"My file says I'm a very patient person."

"It's not wrong."

There was another pause, and then, "Tzenian?"

"No..."

I think we'll leave that particular event for now, if only because there is seriously limited entertainment value in listening to someone attempting to brute force the truth by naming every nationality on the planet. The smarter ones amongst you have probably worked out at least some of the circumstances surrounding my impressive departure from the intelligence services. The rest of you? Sit tight, we'll be coming to that story in short order.

Locke's much-vaunted general store was a small, dusty shop so unremarkable that we walked by it several times before finally seeing it for what it was. Inside, it was dark and cool, and smelt strongly of old books and rusting metal. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I got the feeling that this store sold just about everything under the sun; the walls were stacked from floor to ceiling with goods ranging from foodstuffs to climbing gear and from horrible, chintzy ornamentation to firearms, including an impressive, if ancient, brass-barrelled blunderbuss that hung prominently above the till.

"Crikey," I said quietly, "This place feels like a crypt. Did Locke give you a list, Tee?"

"Yes," Terra whispered back.

"...well?"

"...well, I memorised it and disposed of it," she replied, and tapped the side of her nose in a secretive fashion.

"'Disposed' of it," I said flatly.

"I ate it."

"You mean..." I paused, and tried to make sense of what she was saying, "You mean that you ate our shopping list so that in the event that we were caught our captors wouldn't know what we were going to buy?"

"Better to be safe than sorry!" she protested, "You never know what clever people can do with that sort of information!"

"Oh, Callista," I sighed, "Anyway, let's get what we came for and get out. This place is giving me the -bloody hellfire!"

A pile of rags near the till shifted slightly and unfolded, revealing itself in the process to be an ancient Figaran woman. Her face and hands had been badly weathered by sun and time, but her eyes were bright and her gaze, when she turned it on me, seemed to penetrate me to the core.

"I'll not tolerate language like that in my shop, young man!" she said coolly. Her voice was just as thin and reedy as I expected it to be, but her Vectoran was flawless.

"S-Sorry," I stuttered, trying to get my fibrillating heart back under control, "You startled me."

"Pah!" she snorted. A wrinkled hand reached behind an ear and retrieved a rather sorry-looking dog-end. There was the flare of a match, and then she leaned back in a cloud of blue-white smoke, "You youngsters need to stop living on your nerves! Learn to relax a little!"

"Well, he could certainly stand to do that," Terra agreed, throwing an amused look my way. The old lady's gaze flickered momentarily over to my sister before returning to me.

"You mentioned someone called Locke," she said, in between drags, "Would that be a Locke Cole?"

"Yeah," I said, "He recommended that we try this store."

"Hah!" she laughed shortly, "So that silly goose is still alive, then?"

"He was an hour ago."

"Still searching the world over for a way to revive that fiancée of his, no doubt?"

"What was that?" Terra said, giving the shopkeeper a sharp look, "I didn't know about that!"

"I did," I said, a little surprised despite myself, "Well, he mentioned she was dead. I didn't think he was trying to bring her back to life, though. That's..."

"...the ravings of a foolish old crone. Never mind me," the self-confessed old crone said, slightly too quickly, "If you see him, remind him that he owes me money."

"That doesn't surprise me at all," I said, making a mental note to catch up with Locke later, "He sent us here with a list."

"Oh, never mind that," the cigarette traced a noncommittal line of smoke through the air, but her gaze was now fixed intently on Terra, "I think I know what he wants. How many of you are there?"

"Excuse me?"

"It was a simple question, boy!"

"Four," I said shortly, a little irritated by the 'boy'.

"Hmm," she nodded at my sister, "That's a lovely hair colour you have there, my dear. Truly unique."

"Um...thank you," Terra said, touching her pony-tail a little self-consciously, "Most people just seem to stare."

My blood, meanwhile, had frozen in my veins. I just knew what the damn crone was going to ask next. She clearly knew who we were, but...what did that mean? Was she-

"Whatever did you use to dye it?"

"I...um...I think its natural," my sister said, and for a moment I considered giving her a swift kick on the ankle, "It's...I-"

"It's okay, dearie," the shopkeeper said, and laughed a nasty little laugh, "Any more and you'll give your poor brother an aneurysm!"

"What?" Terra said, and seemed to see my pained expression for the first time, "Oh, I-I'm sorry, Firma, I- oh, damn it!"

"You know who we are, don't you," I said irritably, "What's with the mind games?"

"If you hadn't noticed, I'm an old lady and I don't get out as much as I used to," she said frankly, "I have to take my fun where I can get it."

"So I see."

"It's funny, though," she continued, staring straight at my sister, "I could've sworn I've seen you somewhere before..."

"Well, she was on Imperial national television two weeks ago-"

"Don't be foolish!" the shopkeeper flared up suddenly, "This was a long time ago! Must've been...ooh, two decades or so!"

"You're mistaken, then," Terra said, "I'm only eighteen."

"Hah! You think my memory's going because I'm old? I never forget a face!" she laughed again, but this time it degenerated into an awful tearing cough that seemed to go on for some time.

"Hold on," I said, and took her hand. Her skin felt cold and leathery under my fingertips, and I could sense her damaged lungs labouring against the ravages of time and, from the feel of it, a twenty-a-day habit. Still, I did what I could, "There. That should help."

"Don't be silly! There's nothing wrong with me!" her voice was as sharp as ever, but her expression had softened slightly, "'Sides, I've lived a good life and I regret none of it! Three husbands, six children, an' eighteen grandchildren! Do any of those bastards come and visit me? Do they hell!"

"Language!" It was petty, but it was cathartic.

"I'm eighty-seven! I'll say whatever I damn well please!" she snapped, "So, you're the children the world's tearing itself apart over, eh? Scrawny little buggers, aren't you! You should eat more!"

"And wrap up warm, perhaps?"

"I'll thank you to leave that sarcasm outside, boy," her shrewd gaze passed over both of us once again, "So; Cole's planning on spiriting you away to that secret Returner hideout, eh?"

"You know about that?" Terra sounded surprised.

"Of course I know about it!" the old lady snapped, and Terra took a step backward, "Why else do you think I would be foolish enough to extend credit to someone like Cole?"

"You...have a point," I conceded, "I'm kind of forced to ask why, though."

"'cause when you get to my time of life, you start to wander what kind of world you're going to leave for the young'uns," she said, almost wistfully, "Do I want to leave a world ruled by that crazy Emperor and his cronies? Of course not!"

"I...think I see," I said slowly, "Do you have the supplies we need?"

"Don't rush me! I'm going!" she said. Slowly, and with a great creaking and popping of joints, she hoisted herself out of her chair and headed into the back of the shop, leaving a trail of cigarette smoke and a litany of curses in her wake.

"What an... interesting person," Terra said, eventually, "It was nice of you to help her, though."

"Hmm?"

"With her lungs," she added, "I felt you do something to them."

"Oh? That wasn't much I could do," I sighed, "She's too old and smokes too many rollups for me to-"

"Don't be modest, Firma. You did what you could," Terra ran a finger along the top of one of the many piles of stacked goods, and looked critically at the pile of dust that resulted, "It would probably help if someone spring-cleaned this place, though. Maybe I'll mention it to Locke."

"Mmm. Maybe he knows someone who knows someone who can do something."

"I would imagine he knows several 'someones'," she said, with a little smile, "Its Locke."

"True," I squinted up at the enormous gun above the till, "I wonder if that still-"

"What do you think she meant about seeing my face before?" Terra said, suddenly, "I mean it was twenty years ago, so that's impossible, right?"

"Well, I-"

"Do you think I go time-travelling at some point?" she said, her eyes bright, "Maybe I can go back and pop Kefka one before he gets too powerful!"

I raised an eyebrow, "Did Edgar's library have a pulp fiction section I didn't know about? Besides, if you had, we wouldn't be standing here."

"Maybe that's because I haven't gone back to pop him one yet."

"Or maybe it's because you look like our mum," I said, a little more sharply than I intended. To be fair, Terra's current fad of taking everything to a ludicrous extreme was beginning to wear a little on my nerves, "I mean, I've never seen a picture of her, but the time frame would probably fit. I'll bet that it's a newspaper article like 'Two Die in Suspicious Fire', too."

"I bet she didn't have green hair, though!"

"Well, the picture probably wasn't in colour."

"Huh!" said Terra, and added sulkily, "Well, if I go time-travelling to the past, you can bet I'm not bringing you back anything nice!"

"Yeah, because what I really need is another 'World's Greatest Brother' mug," I sighed, "I was this close to completing my pyramid."

"Jerk."

Thankfully the shopkeeper chose that moment to return, dragging in her wake four large backpacks that were, I assumed, filled with the kinds of odds and sods a man like Locke would buy if he were planning some expedition into the wilderness.

"Don't worry about the money, girl," she said, as Terra went to pull out her purse, "I'll just go ahead and add it to Cole's bill."

"Are you sure?"

"'Course I am!" she snapped, "It's a small drop in the ocean compared to what that bugger owes me. 'sides, whatever your brother did to my lungs seems to have done the trick. Hasn't been this easy to breathe in years!"

"It won't last, I'm afraid," I apologised, "I suppose it'd probably be pointless to ask you to cut back a bit on your smoking, too."

The old woman smiled widely, revealing a set of yellowed, nicotine-stained teeth, "What do you think, dearie? Still, I think I'll take a walk while I still can; maybe I'll go and see if any of my grandchildren remember me."

"That sounds like an excellent idea," Terra said, hefting three of the backpacks without any visible effort, "C'mon, Firma, let's get out of her hair so she can enjoy the sunshine."

I went to grab the final pack, and after a few moments struggling finally managed to get it settled across my shoulders, "Holy Callista! What's in these things?"

"Everything a growing boy like you needs," the shopkeeper leered, "Now, go on, scat!"

The sun was hanging low in the sky as we hauled our ill-gotten gains back to the rendezvous point, bathing everything in a strong reddish glow and creating long, dark shadows that, to me, seemed all too easy to conceal oneself in. With the temperature going down there were a few more people venturing out onto the streets, although they all seemed to be keeping their heads down and hurrying quickly to their destinations. I couldn't really blame them; the smoke pouring out of the Sentinel aid station was drifting across the city, an undeniable sign that something serious was on the horizon.

With such an atmosphere, it was definitely a relief when we rounded the corner and saw the ornate frontage of the Figaran Royal Hotel. Situated at the end of a long, broad street, the enormous building loomed over its neighbours and was covered in so much lighting and gilt that I was immediately put in mind of the most heinous Vectoran eyesores. In front of the hotel itself was a small garden containing a carefully sculpted fountain that bubbled and burbled merrily in the otherwise unpleasant silence.

"That's...wow," Terra said, apparently lost for words, "Do you think they have a shower?"

"I think they probably have several," I said, shifting the heavy backpack around a bit, "And a spa. Celes said that the posh hotels she's stayed in had spas."

"Do you think we'll have a chance to use it?"

"Um, I don't think we'll be staying here tonight."

"Oh," she said, her expression suddenly downcast, "That's a pity."

"Locke's probably got some dingy safe house somewhere safe from prying eyes, but don't worry; I'm sure he has a shower there!"

"I think he'll be lucky to have a copper tub and a fireplace," Terra retorted, with what I felt was an unfair degree of cynicism; "I may just take my chances with the ocean."

"Suit yourself," I said, and started up the street, "We'd better go find them, anyway. What's the betting that they're in the bar?"

As it turned out, they were in the bar, although it did take us a good fifteen minutes to persuade the doorman that we weren't crazy arsonists or anarchists or ravers or any of the many other members of society who he seemed to assume wouldn't want to be seen within the lofty halls of the Figaran Royal. Finally, he agreed to let us in, provided that we were escorted everywhere within the premises by a rather burly porter who, I assumed, would only be too happy to kick us out the back door should the opportunity arise.

"Have I ever considered bleaching my hair?" Terra said sourly, as the bellhop ushered us past some rather astonished well-to-do folks, "I think blonde would probably suit me."

"You did, and it did...for about a day," I sniggered quietly, "Then you just looked like someone who had gone swimming and forgotten to wash her hair. Sorry."

"Damn," she said, and then suddenly she pointed and waved, "Hey, there they are! Locke! E...Gerad!"

Both men were seated at a table facing away from us, but turned quickly at the sound of Terra's voice. Locke's expression, I noted, was one of mild relief, while Edgar's brightened somewhat at our approach.

"Ah, Fiona," he said, taking my sister's hand and kissing it, "It's been far too long. And Terry! How are you? What news do you have?"

"Excuse me?" I said brightly, "Am I missing something here, Fiona?"

"Well...I...um..." Terra went bright red and leaned in close, "You know how I said that I'd come up with new names for us?"

"No."

"It was a little before that bomb went off."

"Ah," I thought about this for a moment, "And you came up with 'Terry' and 'Fiona', did you?"

"They're good, solid, Vectoran names!" Terra protested, "That's what Locke told me, anyway..."

Her voice trailed off as the penny dropped. Locke, I noticed, seemed to have taken an acute interest in his drink.

"That wasn't funny, Locke," she said, icily.

"Oh, I don't know," he mumbled, clamping a hand over his mouth.

"I suppose that this whole 'Gerad' business was your idea as well," she went on, and now the thief's shoulders were shaking with badly suppressed mirth, "What was next? False moustaches?"

"Oh, calm down, Tee," I said soothingly, and then totally ruined it by adding, "If it helps, you do look like a Fiona."

"You two had better sleep with one eye open tonight," she said threateningly, "I'm getting a drink."

"Can you-"

"No."

With that she stalked off towards the bar, leaving an air of wounded pride in her wake.

"Was that worth it, Locke?" said Edgar, "Needling the world's most powerful Mage Knight isn't perhaps the best idea you've thought up recently."

"Entirely worth it," the thief snickered, "Even if it were just for yer 'Ooh, Fiii-ona! It's been faaar too long!' Who taught you how to act?"

"You're a very irritating little man. Do you know that?" Edgar growled, and then looked at me, "What in the world happened to you and Terra? You both look like you've been dragged through a hedge backwards."

"Probably for the best she didn't hear that," Locke muttered, "This wouldn't have anythin' to do with all these bombings, would it?"

"There was more than one?" I said, sitting down heavily, "Yeah, we were near the Sentinel aid station when someone blew it sky high."

"Someone's been doin' that right across the coast," said Locke, "Heard it on the radio; aid stations in South Figaro, Laurium, Naxos, and Koroni have all been hit. You were lucky you weren't hurt."

"Some people weren't that lucky," I replied sadly. Well, at least that ruled out the possibility of it being a hit on Terra and myself, "Think it's Imperial Intelligence?"

"Prob'ly," Locke said, "Still, at least you've gotten the goods from Macaria, so that's that job done."

"Was that her name? I never actually got it. She did say that you owed her money, though."

"Ah, we go way back," he said easily, "She's loaded, anyways."

Terra returned, carrying a pair of drinks, "Here," she said, passing one to me, "Now don't say that I don't do anything for you, okay?"

"Thanks, Fiona," I chuckled, and ducked out of the way as she took a swipe at my head, "Hey!"

"You're going to milk this for all its worth, aren't you," she said irritably, "Fine, go ahead. Get it out of your system."

"Why, thank you," I snorted, and sniffed suspiciously at the clear liquid, "Is this alcoholic?"

"Extremely."

"Fantastic," I said, and caught Edgar's disapproving expression, "What? I had a woman die in my arms today, Edgar. I need a drink."

"Leave him be, Edgar," Locke agreed, "'sides, one drink ain't gonna hurt either of 'em."

"Thank you," I said, and sipped the strange drink. It was sweet and fiery and, surprisingly, not entirely unpleasant, "So, how did your day go?"

"Better than yours, from the sounds of it," Edgar said, his gaze still lingering on my drink, "We got everything set up at the safe house, so we'll be able to leave first thing tomorrow morning."

"Not tonight? I...well, Terra here sensed someone tooling around with magical equipment. We think-"

Locke gave Terra a sharp look, "Was it the same as what you sensed in Katastari?"

"I...don't know," she said helplessly, "Maybe."

"He was watching the bomb site," I added, "Watching us, I think. I'm pretty sure he had a bunch of goons with him too."

The king and the thief exchanged a glance, "We thought that Imperial Intelligence would be here, Edgar," Locke said slowly, "Between this an' the bombings..."

Edgar rubbed his chin, "Still, we need a rest. You two definitely need a rest."

"I'm fine!" Terra protested.

"I'm not," I said, "Sorry, but I need a snooze and something that isn't bloody toast."

"You seem to do nothing but snooze."

"Yeah? Well..." I searched my brain for a suitable rejoinder, but nothing was forthcoming, "...shut up, Fiona."

"He's right, Terra," Locke said, cutting in quickly before the bickering started, "Look, if you're still full'a'beans then I'll need some help down at the safe house, but Edgar has access to a private suite here an' I'd reckon we'd all feel better with a meal, a shower, and a change of clothes."

"I could do with...those things," Terra admitted, and downed the rest of her drink, "Shall we go, then?"

Edgar's private suite was on the fourth floor of the hotel and, it had to be said, was luxurious almost to the point of obscenity. Each room was carpeted from wall to wall with shag-pile thick enough to hide my boots, and the furniture was made from the most pointlessly expensive materials known to man. Everywhere I looked, golden edging and inlaid jewels glinted back at me, and where it didn't the wooden surfaces evoked a certain sense of subdued style that, to my rather limited sense of interior design, could only be achieved by something that was very, very pricey indeed.

"My...gods," I said, and quickly kicked off my footwear. The feeling of the carpeting running through my toes was almost therapeutic, and I barely heard Locke as he walked on in and threw himself down on a long, soft sofa, "And to think, I spent eighteen years of my life living in a series of rooms smaller than your toilet."

"What can I say?" Edgar spread his hands, "It's good to be the king."

"Yeah, and I wish you'd stop saying that," I wriggled my toes through the shag-pile once again, "Actually, no, this makes it all okay..."

"Careful with that sofa, Locke," said the king, warningly, "It's Venattien leather!"

"I know what it is, pal," Locke snorted, and showed his boots for emphasis, "That's why I'm not putting my shoes on it, see?"

"My word, even I've heard of that," I commented, "It was transported all the way here from Albrook?"

"It's an...investment," Edgar said modestly, "My father used it if he was attending meetings or ceremonies in South Figaro, and he always believed in, well...having the best."

"So..." I pointed, "That desk?"

"Thamasian mahogany."

"Crikey. That picture?"

"Original Creso," Edgar squinted, "I think it's called 'The Bowl of Figs', but I'm not sure."

"This carpet?"

"Marandese wool."

"...the bed?"

"Hand-carved from Mobliz," he said, eventually, "I believe the pillows are stuffed with phoenix down."

"You're joking."

"Not a word."

"Bugger me - where's Terra, incidentally?"

Right on cue, there was a shriek from the general direction of the bathroom, followed by a cry of 'Cold! Cold!'.

"I believe she's just discovered the drench shower," said Locke, with a nasty little grin, "I've been in bathrooms like that before. Four shower options, three of which that can maim you."

'Cold! Hot! Too hot!'

"Well, it's always nice to have someone go before you," I said philosophically, settling down and lying back on a spare settee, "So, what do we do about dinner?"

"I'll have them send something up," Edgar said, "Just lie back and relax, Firma."

All in all, it was a rather pleasant couple of hours. An expensive, if rather small, dinner was delivered and subsequently devoured, and after a quick shower I stretched out on the enormous bed and slowly, blissfully, sank into its warm embrace. The next thing I knew, I was being shaken awake by Locke.

"Firma? Firma? You awake?"

"Wsafgl?" I said, and tried again, "Wha'?"

"Terra 'n I're setting off for the safe house, okay? You an' Edgar'll are to follow us in an hour, okay? He knows the way."

"Whga-why not go together?" I said, now fully awake, "Oh, right, you don't want to blow the location of the safe house, right?"

"I knew you were clever," said Locke, with just a hint of irony, "Look, you an' Edgar need to be careful. If that man in the alleyway was Imperial Intelligence, then it's likely they'll have tracked us here. I've already told Edgar how to get out of here without being seen, but for the next hour or so I want you to be seen. Go 'n stand in front of some windows or summat. Make a bit 'o noise. Hopefully, that'll keep their interest long enough to stave off a raid until after yer gone."

"And if it doesn't?"

"Then yer'll have to think on yer feet a little," Locke said, and dropped his voice slightly, "Look, Firma, I'm trustin' you to look after His Majesty, an' that's not something I'd do if I thought you couldn't do it."

"You're expecting me to go toe to toe with Intelligence agents? Really?"

"You've done it before, pal."

"Yes, but you were always there!"

"Then I hope you were payin' really close attention," he said, "Look, somewhere in that head is a smart, talented kid who is more than a match for any goons who might kick in that door. I know that 'cause I've seen him, so why don't you go an' have a chat an' see if you can't bang something together in case it all goes pear-shaped, aye?"

"But-"

"Oh, and Firma? I've got a present for you. Since yer seem to have misplaced yer last weapon..." Locke placed a small, matte-black pistol, a holster, and a couple of magazines on the bedside table.

"Another sidearm?" I said, and gave him a nasty look, "Really, you shouldn't have."

"I know you don't like 'em much-"

"Then why do you keep giving them to me?"

"Because I know the sorta people who're out to get us!" Locke flared suddenly, "These aren't the kind of people who you can scare off with a bit of posturing and a light show! If you don't stop them dead, they'll just keep on coming back with better equipment and more elaborate plans until they've got you bang to rights and you can bet your bloody life that they're not going to be as sportin' as you want to be!"

There was a long silence, and then he sighed, "Look, pal, I'm not tellin' you to go out tonight and kill anyone. I'd...just feel better if I know that you've got some means of defending yourself; y'know, besides your magic."

I looked at the pistol, and then back at him, "Okay; fine. I'll take it."

"Thanks," said Locke, and he looked just a smidgeon happier, "Remember; one hour and then follow us, aye?"

"Yes, yes."

"Good," the thief went to leave, but turned back just as he reached the door, "Oh, an' watch out for Edgar. He spent almost an hour in a fishing supply store an' wouldn't tell me what it was he was up to. I reckon he's got some new idea for that bloody crossbow of his, so just...be careful, okay?"

"I understand!"

"Right," he paused again, "Yeah, well, see you shortly, I guess."

When Locke had left, I crawled over to the gun and gave it a quick once-over with my eyes. This gun was definitely not the gun of a Sentinel, which was designed to be seen rather than used. This gun was so black that it almost hurt to look at, and it was small enough to be hidden almost anywhere about my person for that one, unexpected shot. In fact, a small cynical part of me said, it was exactly the sort of weapon that you'd give to someone who everyone knew would be too spineless to carry a sidearm, much less use it.

"Oh, Callista," I sighed, and fell backwards across the bed. As much as I hated to admit it, Locke was right; Imperial Intelligence didn't hire people for their sportsmanship or, for that matter, a finely tuned sense of mercy. As much as I wanted to, I just couldn't see any long-term future in either shooting to disable or zapping them into submission; they'd just come back with better body armour or a nice big Faraday cage and, eventually, they'd get lucky.

Intellectually? I knew all of this, just as I knew that the best way of dealing with any intruding assassins would be to give them a terminal case of lead-based sinusitis, followed by some witty one-liner as I stood over their slowly cooling corpses. Something about decongestants, maybe.

Even as I thought that, though, I could feel the nausea rising in my stomach, accompanied by the memory of that poor Narshe guardian bleeding out in the snow. I had had nightmares about that for days; probably'd still be having them if that shadowy Elli hadn't intruded on my dreams. While she was certainly no picnic, I was absolutely sure I didn't want to start dreaming about him again...

In the end I took it, if only because I didn't want to have Locke yell at me for leaving it in the suite. My moral dilemma about actually killing people had managed to successfully trundle in circles for a good forty minutes without any resolution in sight, so for now I decided to stick it on the back burner and hope that anyone who got in my way would just shoot themselves if I asked nicely enough.

Edgar was in the main room, working intently away at a desk in the far corner. Based on the tools strewn about the place, as well as the constant stream of mutterings and curses, I had to agree with Locke's suspicions that Edgar was further modifying his automatic crossbow-cum-PIAT. There was a twang, another curse, and a piece of metal shot across the room and hit a vase, which shattered spectacularly.

"Oh, blow!" said Edgar, sucking at his finger, "Oh, hello Firma. Did you have a good snooze?"

"Not bad," I lied, "What in the world are you doing out here?"

"I'm just experimenting with a new non-lethal capture gun," he said, and hoisted his crossbow up and onto his shoulder. The front end of the weapon had been substantially modified, and now consisted of a large, claw-like appendage across which a large, nylon net was stretched almost to breaking point, "I'm...having some trouble with the forces involved, though."

"So I see," I said, looking warily at the broken vase, "Non-lethal, you say?"

"I did say I was experimenting," said Edgar, and then, "Out with it, man."

"I...beg your pardon?"

"You look like you want to ask me something," he pressed, "Well, what is it?"

"I don't suppose you have an archive of newspapers kicking around somewhere, do you? And an archivist?"

Edgar looked at me sharply, "You know, I think I heard Terra asking Locke something about that earlier. What are you two looking for?"

"That old lady who gave us our equipment said that she'd seen Terra somewhere about twenty years ago. She seemed pretty certain..."

"You mean the 'I never forget a face' kind of certain?" Edgar smiled slightly, "Matron says that all the time, but she's got a memory like a sieve. I shouldn't think too much about it, my friend."

"I don't think she actually saw Terra, y'know," I said quickly, "That's ludicrous. What I actually think is she may have seen our mum."

"I suppose that's a possibility," Edgar rubbed his chin, "Unless, of course, Terra goes time-travelling at some point. You know, maybe to stop Kefka before-"

"Yes, I know!" I snapped, "Sorry. Look, I'm know it's a long shot, but if she remembered it then it may have been something significant, and maybe it was covered in a newspaper. It's not urgent, but if you have someone with the time, then..."

"I'll see what I can do, Firma," said Edgar, "What do you want them to look for?"

"Any likeness of Terra around twenty years ago, really," I said, "I don't know that they'll find anything, but..."

"Okay," he said, "Anything else?"

"Yeah," I took a deep breath, "I think it's about time to go."

"Isn't it a little early?" Edgar put the automatic crossbow-cum-PIAT-cum-netgun back on the desk and checked his watch, "Locke specified an hour."

"Forty minutes, an hour," I shook my head, "What's twenty minutes? Besides, he told me to look out for you, so I'm saying we're quitting this place before Imperial Intelligence turns up and kills us."

An eyebrow went up, "That's unusually assertive of you."

"I can be assertive!" I objected, "I just...look, grab your stuff, would you? We need to get movi-"

At that point, all the lights went out. With a hum, the emergency lighting flickered to life, bathing the room in a nightmarish red glow.

"-ng!" I finished, a little pedantically, "Oh, balls."

"Your old friends, I assume," Edgar remarked, quickly gathering his tools into a small roll-up kit, "A little earlier than Locke expected, I must say."

"Indeed," I decided, charitably, not to comment on my complete and utter vindication, "Locke said you know a way out of here. What is it?"

"Well, he suggested that we go up to the roof. We should be able to transition from building to building until we reach a suitable distance from the hotel, at which point we can descend to ground level and make our way to the safe house on foot."

"Great," I made a mental note to suitably thank Locke at a later date, "How high is this building, exactly?"

"Eight stories, I believe."

"Great."

The outside corridor was, unfortunately, also lit with the same horrible red lights that seemed to colour everything without actually illuminating it. Deep, dark shadows were everywhere, except at the far end where bright, pearl-white moonlight spilled in through the enormous bay window.

"Is there anyone there?" breathed Edgar. I shook my head silently in response, but slowly removed my gun from its holster and cocked it as quietly as I could. The small pistol suddenly felt totally inadequate against whatever waited for us in the dark, but it would have to do for now.

"The service stairs are at the end of the corridor on the left," he continued, "It's a metal door; you can't miss it."

I nodded once and started down the corridor, scurrying silently between the oases of darkness. Behind me, the clinks and jangles of Edgar, his cloak, and his damnable automatic-thingamajig echoed painfully in my ears. Imperial Intelligence must know which floor we were on; surely, they'd be up here like a bloody shot once they'd cut the power...

But no, we reached the end of the corridor without incident, and I loitered uneasily in a handy shadow while Edgar tested the door and inspected the lock.

"Sorry," he whispered, "It looks like we'll require a key. We could force it-"

"No way!" I hissed, "That'll bring the entire building down on us!"

"Could you cut it?"

"I...could," I admitted, "I'd rather not, though; it'll create a lot of light..."

"Then what do we do?"

"Well, where are the normal stairs? Down the...what? What's wrong?"

Edgar's face had gone absolutely rigid, "There's...there's a man! End of the corridor!"

As quickly as I dared, I gingerly turned my head to look. He was right; at the end of the corridor there was a figure of a man outlined in the moonlight. For a moment I hoped that it was just another person out on a night-time stroll, but then they turned and I saw the silhouette of a compact submachine gun.

"Assassin," I mouthed. Edgar nodded, his face pale. Another man joined the first, and they started surreptitiously down the corridor towards the room we had just vacated. When they found it empty, I knew that their next port of call would undoubtedly be this end of the corridor. If we were going to escape quietly, we only had a small window of opportunity.

"Right," I muttered, "We'll wait for them to go inside, and then I'll cut the lock. I'll weld it shut from the other side once we know its clear; that should give us a bit of a head-start."

I watched, with my heart in my mouth, as the two assassins reached the royal suite and gently tried the door handle. If one of them decided to stay outside...

The door opened with a slight click and the two assassins slipped inside. Quickly, I shouldered Edgar to one side and ignited a thin, golden blade on the tip of a finger before drawing it sharply down the inside of the doorjamb. The metal hissed and spat a shower of sparks, lighting up the corridor with speckles of golden light. From somewhere within the door there came a 'twang!' and the heavy door swung inwards. Quickly, Edgar and I scuttled inside and gently closed it behind us.

"Phew," I muttered. Standing up, I ran my hands over the edges of the door. Under my glowing fingertips, metal hissed and spat as it was distorted and trapped it against the door-frame. While it wouldn't stand up to a decent salvo, it might buy us a few precious minutes in which to make good our escape, "Up?"

Edgar nodded, but indicated that I should have a look over the stairwell. Somewhere, a toe-curlingly long way down, a series of flashlights were making their way up the service stairs, accompanied by the heavy tread of boots on concrete.

"Heavies," I said, flexing my arms for emphasis, "We'd better move."

As quickly as we could, we moved upwards towards the roof. From somewhere down below, there was a rattle as someone tried to open the service door, followed by a series of thuds that were, from the sound of it, becoming progressively more frustrated by the minute. In the darkness, Edgar winked at me a grinned wolfishly, but said nothing.

The stairs came to an abrupt end four floors up, with a metal service door almost identical to the one I had vandalised so far below.

"Good," Edgar said, breathing a slight sigh of relief, "The stairs to the roof will be on this floor. Do you want to cut the door again?"

I nodded, and quickly got to work. Once again, there was a hiss of metal and a sudden shower of sparks that, despite my best efforts, began coursing down the stairwell, spitting and glowing like some kind of signal flare.

"That's torn it," Edgar muttered. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the cones of flashlights flickering upwards, trying to discern the source of the glowing rain. Moments later, there was a shout and then the dreaded noise of feet pounding on stairs, "We were doing so well, too."

"Shut up!" I hissed and wrenched the door open, snapping the weakened lock with a shriek of protesting metal. Once through, I quickly turned and sealed the door as I had before, although I had little hope of it actually holding them back for long, "Right! Where now?"

"Other end of the corridor," said Edgar, "That's what Locke said, anyway."

"Well, we'd better-"

The uncomfortable 'cla-click' of a cocked gun behind us froze the blood in my veins, and we both turned slowly to stare down the barrel of a submachine gun, glinting nastily in the moonlight. There was, presumably, a man somewhere on the other side of that gun, but at this exact moment in time he seemed like a rather secondary detail.

"Hands up," he said, in a thick Vectoran accent, "If you move, I'll shoot."

He certainly wasn't bluffing; both his even tone and calm, steady grip on his gun indicated that he was a professional, although to be honest I hadn't expected anything else. Still, the man on the train had presumably been a professional...with a shrug; I concentrated all my power into my shields and took a long step sideways to cover Edgar.

In the relative confines of the corridor, the mad chatter of the submachine gun was deafening, matched only by the scream of heated metal as the bullets slammed into my defences, leaving a series of golden ripples in their wake. The twisted metal glowed and glittered as it span inside my kinetic barriers before finally hitting the floor with a rather sandy-sounding rattle.

The assassin wasted no time in going for his knife, but Edgar was there first, and was already sighting down the barrel of his net gun as the man lunged forwards. There was a 'thung!' and the undeployed net struck the man full in the chest with enough force to hurl him through the bay window directly behind him.

I listened, somewhat disbelievingly, to the rapidly receding scream. There was a bone-chilling crunch, and then silence.

"You're a menace to society," I said acidly, turning to Edgar, "You realise that, don't you?"

"I-I-I," Edgar stammered, and staggered over to look out the window, "Well...I did say I was having some trouble with the forces..."

"You also said 'non-lethal'."

"Well...the net wasn't the cause of death!" Edgar protested, "It was...oh, heavens..."

"Look, if it helps, he was planning on killing us," I said. There was a thud from the service door, and I was brought back to reality with a jolt, "But now isn't the time to be discussing this! Let's get out of here!"

I dragged the stunned king down the corridor as the thumps and thuds from the service shaft became more intense. A moment later there was a burst of gunfire, and the door fell off its hinges and crashed to the floor. Imperial assassins wearing full combat gear poured through the opening, and suddenly we found ourselves in the sights of a half-dozen assault rifles.

"Freeze!" a voice boomed.

"Oh, bugger," I muttered, "Edgar...!"

"Its right here!" said the king, and indicated a simple wooden door that, irritatingly enough, had the Figaran for 'roof access' written on it as plain as day. Quickly, he wrenched the door open and, as bullets began to chew up the floor just behind us, we started up the stairs to blessed freedom.

The cool, refreshing Figaran night was a welcome relief from the confining, red-lit hell of the Royal hotel. There was a gentle breeze coming in from the ocean, and the moonlight was casting the white buildings in a soft, pearlescent glow. For a moment Edgar and I stopped to catch our breath.

"Bloody...bloody hell," I said, checking myself to make sure nothing had breached my shields, "That was too damn close."

"Indeed," a voice chuckled, and a moment later my brain realised that it was not, in fact, Edgar, "Hello, Sparky."

There was a 'bang!', and then my world exploded into pain and tumbling, crackling golden shards. Edgar caught me as I fell, and propped me up against the outside of the staircase as the world spun nauseatingly around me.

"Wh-what in the..." I began, and then threw up violently. It felt, somehow, like someone had managed to hit me in the brain. With a mallet.

"Do you remember me?" the voice rang muzzily in my head, and I gingerly lifted my gaze to see two identical men walk slowly towards me. Strangely, they had identical bandages on the same hand, "Don't move, your Majesty," the man added, "Or I fear I will have to do something we shall both regret."

"You...you," I tried to focus, and finally the two images swam together, "You're...the man from the train! But I thought I..."

"Broke my hand? Indeed," the man held up his bandaged hand for emphasis, "You don't think a minor injury like this would stop me from discharging my duties, do you? You're mine now, Sparky!"

"There's about...about six guys down there who may beg to differ," I slurred, trying rather ham-fistedly to play to his pride. Somehow, however, it worked, and the assassin walked over to the door and closed it, locking it with a single, chilling click.

"They won't be bothering us," he said, smiling nastily, "I can't let anyone else take the credit for bringing you in, now can I?"

"What's your name?" said Edgar, clearly playing for time.

"What do you care, your Majesty?" the man replied bluntly, "Still, I suppose that Sparky here may have heard of me. My mates back at HQ call me 'Jumbo', because-"

"-because you're...you're the smallest guy they know?" I said, wearily.

"You have heard of me, then?"

"No, but I know what passes for humour amongst your kind," I spat.

"Careful now, Sparky, or I'll have to shoot you again," Jumbo held up a revolver with a strange purple grip, "Thaumium rounds. Apparently they cost over twenty thousand gil a shot, but I'll be able to report back that they're well worth it. 'broke through your shields like bad china, and incapacitated you to boot!"

"Thaumium, eh?" said Edgar, and hissed to me, "That's what Terra wrote all over that book of mine!"

"Imagine what you could have if it weren't for all those budget cuts," I snorted. It seemed to me that the debilitating effect of those new rounds was fairly short-lived, but my magic was now totally on the fritz and I had no idea how long it would be until my reserves rebuilt themselves.

"So...what do you plan on doing with us?" asked Edgar, "Now that you have us totally at your mercy, of course."

"Well, I was expecting his twin sister to be here," Jumbo, apparently, could not resist an opportunity to monologue his little cotton socks off, "After I saw them earlier-"

"So that was you?" I exclaimed, "Terra thought she saw someone a little suspect. Let me guess; it was you behind the bombing in South Figaro?"

"Never mind that, Sparky," Jumbo waved a hand, "General Palazzo wants you dead or alive, Sparky, and from the way he was frothing when he gave that order I'm fairly sure he doesn't mind which. Still, I also hear that Agent Gagnon is absolutely dying to catch up with you, too. You remember him? He's the one whose eye you took."

"You what?" said Edgar, looking at me

"It's a long story," I said wearily, "They used to call him 'Monster'. When you consider the kind of stupid nicknames that they've come up with for everyone else...well, he's a total psychopath."

"He's got you in his sights, Firmament. Has done for years, but he was too scared of your Major Anceleti to take action," Jumbo laughed shortly, "Now you're out here on your own, well, he's-"

"-free to come and lose his other eye, if he wants," I said coolly, "Maybe he'll prefer being blind; I know how he used to love to touch his subjects. The nickname'd probably be better than his current one, too."

"I'm sure you can suggest to him a list of new ones, when you finally meet. Of course, you may not be in much of a state to talk."

"I don't think he'll be in much of a state to listen, but that's not really the point," I said, slowly hauling myself up the wall as if my strength were completely drained, "The point is that we're not going with you."

"I beg your pardon?" Jumbo, for a moment, looked rather confused, "You are aware that I'll shoot you if-"

"No you won't," I shook my head, "If you wanted us dead, actually dead, you would've opened the door and let your assault team in."

"Maybe I just want you alive," he countered, and the thaumium gun tracked over to Edgar, who flinched, "A dead king is still a political coup."
"Well, that answers my earlier question," Edgar muttered.

"But now the gun's no longer pointed at me," I said nastily, "Who knows what kind of horrible things I can cook up in that half-second between you shooting him and me?"

"You can't scare me like that, Sparky," Jumbo sneered, "I know all about you. You were too weak to survive in Imperial Intelligence so you went and joined the airy-fairy Sentinels! You couldn't hurt a fly!"

"Probably not," I admitted, "Then again, maybe I could hurt an Imperial assassin who's threatening one of my friends. You saw me on the train, Jumbo; you know what I can do when the mood takes me."

The air crackled between us, and for a moment I genuinely had no idea what he was going to do. Then, suddenly, Edgar was holding a gun - my gun, I realised belatedly, and was staring down the sights at the assassin.

"What is it they say? Oh, yes, 'Don't mo-'"

A shot rang out, and Edgar staggered. Almost disdainfully Jumbo slapped the gun out of the king's hand, before dumping him to the floor with a vicious leg-sweep. Already, I could see the blood starting to spread across Edgar's abdomen, and felt the rage start to build buoyed up by a mixture of pain and fear.

"Now, maybe you'll-"

I leapt. In mid-air I heard another distinctive 'bang' and pain tore down my leg, but sheer momentum carried me into the operative and bore us both to the floor. Before he could recover, I grabbed his head and slammed it into the hard Figaran stone, before reaching for the purple gun and wrenching it free of his grasp. He countered with a hard blow to my nose, and as I reeled he took his leg under my torso and flipped us over.

It was a well-matched fight; his thaumium round may have knocked my magical abilities for six, but that which remained, and my comparative youth, served as balance to his far superior technique. We rolled backwards and forwards across the top of the Royal, using whatever appendages and surfaces we could lay our hands on. A knife appeared at one point, but traded hands with a flash of steel and was gone as quickly as it had arrived.

Grimly, I hung on, not wanting to give him a chance to get any distance or, worse, recover that damn thaumium gun. Blows continued to rain down on my head, my body, anywhere he could land them, and the cuts and bruises began to run together into a single, agonising wound. Seizing an opportunity, I bit deep into his hand and was rewarded with a hiss of pain before his other hand came around and drove my head into the floor.

"Should've stayed with Intelligence," Jumbo panted, as he drove his thumbs into the base of my throat, "Maybe we could've taught you how to fight."

My retort, such as it was, came out as a rattling choke. Imitating what I had seen earlier, I brought my leg across and tried to flip us over. There was a moment while we both strived for supremacy, and then I sent him sprawling across the rooftop. I staggered quickly to my feet, retching and choking, and felt a thousand injuries cry out for my immediate attention.

"Don't...you...move," Jumbo said. The assassin was holding my gun, albeit a little unsteadily, and his face was a mess of cuts and bruises, "Not an inch."

In that moment, I thought more quickly than I had in quite some time. He was too far away to reach before he shot me, and my shields were too weak to stop the bullet from hitting my vitals. I didn't have the magical reserves necessary to crush his hand, or his skull, or draw the air out of his lungs or any of the many horrible ideas my imagination suddenly threw up. I had just about enough strength for one small spark. Now, how in the world could I play that to my advantage?

Well, he had been accommodating in picking up my pistol...

"Don't move!" he snapped again, "I will shoot you, Sparky."

Other people may have wasted their time with a pithy one-liner, but I knew my audience. Instead, I dove to one side as the gun barked in my direction, and as he brought the gun around to reacquire his target I focused my energies inside the magazine, where ten small, but effective charges were just waiting to be put to use.

The gun exploded spectacularly, showering us with molten metal and unexploded gunpowder. Jumbo screamed and dropped the twisted hunk of metal, clutching as his ruined hand with the bandaged one. Not wanting to give him a chance to recover, I hauled him up bodily and slammed him against the stairway as hard as I could.

"You've had two shots, and you've blown both of them," I said, breathing heavily, "No more...no more..."

With a crack of lightning, I called my razor-thin golden blade into existence once again. This wasn't a blade for cutting locks or warping doors, however. This was very much a killing-people golden blade, and from the sudden look of sheer terror on his face I could tell he knew it.

"Look, Sparky..." he said, frantically, "You're a nice guy! You like gardening and sleeping in! You're not a killer! Y'know, in Imperial Intelligence you're famed for that! 'Sides, you're a Sentinel! What about the oaths you took? What would Callista think if she saw you here right now?"

For just an instant, I was back in Narshe. I could feel the blood on my shoulder and taste the snow, and there was the Narshe guardian, bearing down on Terra and myself with the knife in his hand and murder in his eyes. I didn't want to kill him; I really didn't want to kill him, but as much as I had begged and prayed over the past week of nightmares nobody had answered, and there was the gun, my gun...

"I'm sorry," I said, "I really am."

There was a scream, and a harsh crackle of electricity. Suddenly, I was back in South Figaro with a dead, smoking Imperial assassin at my feet. I felt numb and exhausted, but at the same time somehow satisfied. The Empire's best, eh? They'll have to do better than that if-

Edgar's rending cough got my immediate attention, and I quickly scrambled over the rooftop to his side.

"Edgar? You still conscious?" I asked quickly.

"Why..." Edgar groaned, "Why did you apologise to him?"

"Doesn't matter," I replied shortly, "Where did he get you?"

"I...I can't breathe," he said, between quick, shallow breaths, "I think I'm done for..."

"So, I guess I'm going to have to tell Terra about your heroic sacrifice, then," I said, running my fingers over the affected area. Lung shot, eh? What to do, what to do... "A pity, really, since I was going to give you all the credit for dealing with Jumbo..."

There was a pause, and then, "You're just saying that."

"Oh, heavens no!" I snorted, and began to telekinetically extract the bullet from its final resting place. Maybe I could stabilise him for now, and treat him properly once we were away? "I mean, the way I remember it is that you bravely dove in front of me to take the bullet for me, and then despite having only one functional leg you beat him in hand to hand combat whilst balancing on the very edge of the building," I looked around, "I think there was a lion, too."

"What happened to it?"

"My memory's a little hazy, what with my hiding in the corner sobbing and all, but I distinctly remember you executed a perfect elbow-drop on it from the top of that air-conditioning unit over there," I nodded at the large metal structure, "You were truly inspiring."

"You know, maybe you're right," Edgar smiled weakly, "Maybe I'm not beyond saving!"

"Of course not," I said flatly, "Stop being melodramatic."

"He is, though," Edgar looked over at the still-smoking corpse of Jumbo, "My word. I feel like I missed something."

"Not really," I replied, "He did most of the fighting. Um..."

"What?"

"That was bloody silly, what you did. You had to know he was going to shoot you. So...why?"

"Well, I had to give you an opening."

"But he could've shot you dead!"

"It was a risk, yes."

"And you didn't know I was going to do anything! I could've frozen up!"

"But you didn't."

"But I- you know what? Forget it," I said, and helped him gently to his feet, "Look, it's not fixed yet, so don't over-exert yourself. Let me know the minute you have trouble breathing."

"Thank you," Edgar said, simply, "Are you okay? With...killing Jumbo, I mean."

I gave the corpse one last look, and turned away, "I did my duty. I just have to hope that Callista accepts my reasoning."

"I'm sure she will. Meanwhile, I want to take a look at that. Can you get it for me?" Edgar indicated the discarded thaumium gun, "A shield breaking pistol? How very, very interesting..."