These are my words as I'm being hauled on an eight-foot plank by four men on each side, heavy plated armor cluttering their rigid movements. My arms and legs are cuffed to the plank with some sort of magic steel that I can't break.
I crane my neck and see my brother, upside down in my field of vision. His broken jaw is healing well, the swelling is barely detectable to most people. Except me. I've learned to recognize the jaws I've broken, even after the swelling goes down.
He's managed to smile with some poise. I can tell it's a fake though. He's not happy, not one bit, but he wants me to know he's won. Which is a laugh riot, because I'm the guy cuffed to the plank getting hauled to the slab in the center of the courtyard in Figaro Castle. It's a little obvious who won.
I look him in the eye and I know he's going to go through with it. I know this because I know I'm not going to beg for my life. I'm not going to concede, even though I've scarcely been more beaten down than this. Come to think of it, this is it. My run is over.
But you don't win, Edgar. Not really. Not if I don't break. You can cut my heart out with your mechanical saw, but you don't win unless I say so. That's the way it's always worked, ever since we were kids. Ever since you cheated me. You always sorta cheated me, come to think of it.
But in this moment, we aren't brothers. We're just two bodies. Mine is shackled to a board, yours is perched with a view to my execution. I am ready to fight. I have never submitted in combat. Duncan once broke every bone in my hand a piece at a time and I didn't submit. This is my game, Edgar. This is how I play.
I am slipping back into what I know. What I've grown away from these past months. What I believed I could escape. What she made me believe I could escape.
And in the end, it's about her. It's always about the girl. Women are complications.
She's perched next to him with an eerie glow on her skin and a blank look on her face. She wears that ring on her finger like she wore the slave crown on her head. She won't look at me. She won't look at her mistakes.
I hate you, Terra Branford. You really ruined everything.
Six Months Ago...
"Move your head, Diago!" I hollered from the corner of the mat. I'm sat with my legs folded, relaxed against the tatami walls of my dojo. Diago took two awkward steps forward, faked a jab, and got pasted in the face by a stiff right from Marcus. I mean, Marcus really whacked him. Diago's chin tucked into his neck from the force and he sat down hard, blood squirting from his nose onto the mat. The mat is red for a reason.
Marcus stood awkwardly by, watching with a look more like curiosity than concern as I steadied Diago so he could sit back. Marcus wanted to know if that hit got to Diago or not. If it rattled him. When you get hit, it's a dice game, really. Sometimes you get creamed and you can keep on chugging through the fight. Other times, someone finds just the right spot and just the right time to clip you. It doesn't even have to be hard. You feel it in your soul.
Diago was feeling it. I saw it in his eyes he didn't want to fight anymore. He didn't even want to finish practice today. He looked like a cur dog. A body capable of wrecking shop but a broken spirit. That's what Duncan called it.
I call it "fight mojo". Mainly because I don't think spirit has much to do with it. Spirit is for magic. Duncan liked to make everything mystical and magical about martial arts. The truth is, you train hard, and you get tougher and stronger. You break yourself down until you're just that body fighting that other body and there's not much else.
That's the fight mojo. The drive that makes you able to reach that state where you break everything down. Diago sulked over to his rucksack with his street clothes in it and started changing out of his gi. Marcus looked at me and shrugged, wanting approval.
"Nice right. Work on setting it up better. When he learns to move his head, you wont just be able to blast him right down the pipe." I lectured. Marcus nodded his head, his scraggly blonde hair stuck to his face with sweat.
"Thank you, sir. I will do that, sir." Marcus mumbled after taking the rubber mouth protector out. He bowed very deeply, his shoulderblades poking through his painfully thin back as he bent. I nodded in return. He went out back onto the slate patio and poured a pail of cold water down his head and chest. The water sizzled a little in the hot June sun.
I stopped Diago as he made a break for the sliding door that led to the foyer and the entrance. He was attempting to slip out without looking anyone in the face.
"Diago." I said as neutrally as I could. "I want you to go home, wash up, rest the night, and I want to see you back here tomorrow. Get here half an hour early because we're going to work extra hard on your head movement, okay?" He looked at the floor, motionless. I sighed.
"Diago, if you're not bleeding, submitting, or getting hit during practice, you're not learning anything. Does that sound familiar?"
"Yes sir." His accent was thick but clear.
"Good. Rest up. You're gonna need it." I smiled at him with encouragement, putting up my fists and bobbing my head side to side. He gave a half nod, his dark bronze face still pointed at the floor. He slid the paper door open and left for home.
He was Vargas' boy. Same handsome bold sorta ethnic look. Same powerful, lean build. Less than one tenth the fight mojo. Vargas was a tough son of a bitch, certainly one of the toughest. He'd tired of his son's shyness very early and refused to train him. He was flippant about Diago training under me, pretending not to give much of a damn what his son did or didn't do.
It was certainly awkward, but I took the kid on as my student. He was one of those guys that was a beast during the workouts and on the heavy bags and practice dummies, but the minute the real fists started flying around, he was like a turtle. He just popped into his shell. I figured he was scared to take a hit, but Vargas knocked him around pretty good in his youth, so it wasn't like the kid was fragile. He had everything he needed to be an unstoppable fighter, except the drive. The fight mojo.
I'd be damned if I couldn't teach it to him. It's in all of us. It's just sometimes hidden. Hidden really damn well. I'd teach him to find it if it killed him. I figure it'd be the best thing anyone ever did for the poor kid. Which is why I put him against boys I knew were set to kick his ass, time and time again.
I wiped the mantle free of dust, and straightened out the picture of Duncan above it. The room smelled of soapy residue on the mats, all my boys had scrubbed them down after practice and walked around the outside of the room carefully as they filed out of the dojo. I was just straightening stuff up that wasn't really out of place, I just needed to mess with it to feel like I was maintaining things.
"Well, I'm out of here, okay Sabe?" Leila called from the doorway. I turned around, a little surprised, I was thinking about Duncan and Vargas and being a kid. She was leaning against the doorway with her knapsack over her shoulder. Her short brown hair was tossled after a day's work. Her clothes were loose and a little threadbare, hanging around her figure. I smirked. She really dressed up for me.
If I'm not going to get married, I at least needed a maid to keep things in order, so my big brother said. He sent her to me free of charge. I was expecting a nymphy little blonde in a short black dress with white frills that called me "Master Figaro" or whatever, coming from Edgar. I knew the whole idea was to have someone in my house day to day keeping tabs on what little brother was doing with his life.
Leila wasn't really your typical royal maid. Or "household consultant" as she referred to herself. Her face was young but firm. She had big warm brown eyes, but she always pursed her lips in a guarded way. She didn't dress to impress, but I could see a strong, athletic figure as she busied around my house, never falling for the "I dropped something, could you bend over and pick it up?" trick.
"A thousand squats every day and you cant pick up a book?" she laughed. "I didn't even know you could read." Ouch, honey. I might look like a meathead but I went to a royal school when I was a kid, and yes, I like to read. Intense emotional drama, mainly. Conflicts that don't necessarily involve climactic, choreographed battles or duels. Most of these authors had never even been in a schoolyard scuffle, let alone an epic duel. It was all fake.
"Dinner's on the table in the kitchen."
"What's for dinner?" I smiled.
"Lean steak with broccoli and half a potato." She rolled her eyes.
"Yeah, I put it on the side. Seriously, Sabe, that's such a dull meal. You need let me show you some real food one of these days."
"Flavor is fat, honey. I'm a respected athlete, I have an image to uphold" I motioned to the ridiculous gold statue of me that my buddy Locke had "anonymously" sent me to put out front. I couldn't bear to have that be the first thing people saw when they looked at the place, so I hid best I could amongst the throwing dummies hanging on the wall.
The sculpture is of me climbing up the side of the multi-tiered statue with my fist drawn back, ready to punch someone's lights out. I assume it's presumably Kefka, as I haven't climbed up a living statue to fight anyone else in my life. However, a statue of Kefka wouldn't be a great conversation starter in my place of business.
In the sculpture, I'm ridiculously muscular. I mean, the artist must have not known that much about anatomy, because I have rippling bulges on every surface of my skin. It's ridiculous. I know I'm a powerfully built guy, but I'm still pretty lean. Muscle can protect you and strengthen you, but it can really slow you down, too.
"Whatever, then. Enjoy your mustard potato…I'll see you for breakfast."
"Hey" I called after her. She turned on one foot, maybe confused, maybe annoyed. "You forgot to kiss me goodnight."
She rolled her eyes and hurriedly walked over and pecked me on the cheek, wincing at my stubble. I pinched her hip with my one hand, through her loose slacks. She jumped a little and slapped my hand with a huff.
"Goodnight, Sabin." She said, very flat, and she left. I smiled a little. She was tough. I sorta liked it.
I wandered from the foyer into the private area of my home, across the bear rugs. The fire was running hot, the lid on my dinner tray on the table was steaming. Leila worked fast, she didn't mess around, that girl.
I sat back in my favorite chair with my dinner tray on my lap. I don't know why she put my dinner on the kitchen table when she knew I'd wind up eating in the den. Better yet, I wondered how much of a wuss I was for mentally complaining about it. Sabin, the big badass hero whines about how his maid cooks him dinner.
Maybe I fussed because I was lonely and needed some drama in my life. It's silly how your mind does things like that, creates problems when there are none to speak of. I usually got my fix from a good book or whatnot. It kept me from needing a serious relationship in my life.
The other end I satisfied through sheer exploitation of my fame. I mean, I never was a flirtatious person. My brother was more than enough for the two of us. But I mean, after a pretty celibate life of living in a dojo though my younger adult years, I started to get antsy. I wont lie. I'm still human. Girls pay attention to you when they hear that you were that guy who climbed the tower of Kefka and stopped him from using the Espers' power to destroy the world. They make up excuses to talk to you and ask you how strong you are. So yeah, I've awkwardly brought a few of them back here to spend the night, maybe a few nights. Never lasts longer than that, though. It's for the best.
I finished my dinner, mopping up the last bit of mustard with the skin of my baked potato. It was such a basic meal but it contained everything a fighter needed to stay strong and healthy. I'd eaten it nearly every day since I started training, except the times I went to my brother's and he'd gotten me drunk on red wine and insisted I try some horrible liver pate and chocolate mousse. If that was the high life, I really could care less.
I put my tray on the table next to my easy chair and licked my hands clean of the mustard and salt. No one was around, who cared. I stretched my ankles forward and back, looking at my bookshelf. I glanced down at the table I put my tray on. It was covered in sealed envelopes and parchments. My fan mail. Leila had set it out for me.
Most of it probably was fan mail. Fathers praising me, asking me to train their sons, mother's asking me to marry their daughters. Then of course, entrepreneurs asking me to start a franchise and recruit other instructors. It's true my membership had blown out of proportion after the whole saving the world thing happened. Everyone wanted to come learn the secret technique that killed Kefka. For the first time ever, people were turned away at the doors of this dojo. I wasn't going to entrust other instructors, and I physically couldn't fit more than thirty or so inside the training hall.
I didn't open most of it, until I came upon this blue envelope with a curious seal. It had the industrial, stark emblem of a circled "N" for Narshe. I raised an eyebrow. Everyone in Narshe was either a miner or a blacksmith, I didn't get students from snow country, which was a shame because blue collar workers like that tend to be pretty strong folk. I opened it up out of curiosity.
Sir Sabine Rene Figaro –
I hate to write to you in a time of need, though the miles between us have made casual conversation impractical, and unfortunately I find myself reaching out to others only to ask favors.
Your help is needed in the city of Narshe. I cannot divulge anything further than to say that it is urgent and it concerns yourself and your brother. Should this letter be intercepted, I cannot risk anything more than that.
Please come to my house in the north part of town, my assistants will recognize you and grant you entrance. I will explain everything.
Greatly appreciated –
Arvis of Narshe
P.S. – Ms. Branford sends her regards.
I put the letter down in my lap. No one had heard from Terra in the year and a half since we won the fight in the tower. She'd never responded to Edgar's formal invitations to his frequent masquerade balls, mainly because he had no idea where to send them, and thus dispatched scouts from time to time to snoop for information. I suspected all along that Terra Branford had tugged at my big brother's heart in a way that other human girls hadn't. Mainly because Terra wasn't entirely human. She was literally above his attempts to flirt with her, to win her attention.
I mean, Terra was a knockout once you got past the glowing skin and green hair. But whatever. To me, a body is a body, just like in a fight. There were lots of other fine young things for Edgar to play with, but it's always the one you can't have that drives you crazy, they say.
I figured Edgar would be thrilled to have a location on her once and for all, and a formal invitation to boot. I wondered what she could be up to with the old man. Was he still with the Returners? Was she having some kinda identity crisis, revisiting the man who saved her from slavery? Did the Returners even exist anymore? What were they fighting against anyway? Empire? What empire?
I kicked my feet back and sighed the air out of my lungs, the letter still in my lap as I settled deeper into the chair. Whatever was up, I would get my coat and set for Narshe in the morning.