The stew looked unappetising at best, and a recipe for an immediate trip to the bathroom at worst. Never mind that it had been delicious the night before, or that he had made it, Marché eyed the bowl of reheated leftovers with the bleary-eyed suspicion of a man who was suffering. Somewhere between the merriment of the previous evening and waking up that morning, his stomach had taken on the characteristics of a washing machine, his skull had become the drilling site for a particularly persistent jackhammer and his tongue had grown fur.
Following the example of the equally miserable blonde opposite, he mechanically shovelled in a few spoonfuls before pushing it away with a groan and burying his head in his hands. Next to him, the presence of a long snout plastered against the tabletop spoke louder than any words the mute suffering of the bangaa present.
'Well, it would appear that it is a particularly fine morning outside.' Krjn's tone was cheerful, somewhat gloating and definitely unwelcome considering how he was feeling. Marché could only surmise that the viera was getting a perverse sense of pleasure out of seeing their suffering, as the liquor she had consumed the previous evening appeared to have had no effect whatsoever. 'So, just how fares these three members of our illustrious company on this day?'
Marché viewed her through one half-opened eye as the smell of freshly brewed coffee filled the room, causing his stomach to lurch one more time. Cerran, by this point, had seemingly decided that Monid had the right idea and had rested her head on the table, abandoning all appearance of wakefulness. Trying valiantly to settle his stomach, Marché reached for a piece of dry bread, swallowing with some difficulty as he shot Krjn an evil look. 'Cerran, do you still have that piece of fire magicite kicking around?'
'It's in my pack, why?'
'Because there's some place I need to stick it.'
Cerran snorted with laughter despite her condition as Krjn rolled her eyes, pouring out three cups of a searingly strong black coffee that she deposited in front of them. Apparently roused back into action by the injection of humour, she raised her head, reclaimed her bowl and began eating her breakfast again. A slug of coffee later and Marché joined her, strangely feeling a little more whole again with each spoonful and swig he took. Monid remained half-comatose, his snout firmly planted on the table.
'Anyone seen Montblanc and Ma'kenroh yet?' Marché, like Cerran and Monid had awoken late that morning, and their only movement so far had been to stumble downstairs to the table, where Cerran had reluctantly shoved the remainder of the pot of stew back onto the heat to provide them with breakfast.
'Ma'kenroh has much the same tolerance for such beverages as I, and so left early in response to a request from the mages guild.' Marché presumed that the three of them had still been asleep at that point and simply nodded. 'Montblanc, however, I believe you will be lucky to see before noon; he has no tolerance for alcohol.'
'That's about right,' Monid's voice was croaky and hoarse as he finally raised his head, tossing back the coffee in a single motion before doing the same with his breakfast. 'Haven't met a moogle yet that can handle their drink, and that one's the worst.'
'Indeed, I put him to his bed long before the rest of you ceased carousing.'
'Well, it's been a while since we had something to carouse about,' Monid's growl was almost back to normal as he poured himself another coffee, tossing it back in much the same manner as the first. 'Speaking of which, I'd best get signed on with that caravan if I want to bring my pay home.'
With that, he shook himself, placed his cup back onto the table and shambled towards the door, picking up his polearm and recoiling only slightly as brilliant sunshine filled the room. Marché's recoil was more than slight as what felt like spears of light drilled into his head and he swiftly turned away, following Monid's example of requiring more coffee before he could legitimately face the day.
'Well, I'm going to hit the sack for another hour,' Cerran yawned, before rinsing her cup and bowl off in the sink and stumbling off upstairs, Krjn watching her with an amused gaze before she retired to a chair by the fireplace and began the painstaking process of polishing and restringing her bow. Marché watched her for a few moments before clearing his own breakfast things and heading off to the basement in search of a wash and a shave. He planned to at least check out the marketplace and the weaponsmith's stall before heading out to the Nubswood with the others.
Fifteen minutes later, with a change of clothes and feeling refreshed and slightly peeled from his encounter with a razor blade, Marché sauntered through town in the direction of the marketplace, finally somewhat recovered from the morning's hangover. His gladius, of course, was belted to his waist as normal, but unlike the last time he had taken a stroll in that direction he had taken the time to don the leather breastplate and padded undershirt that were his last line of defence against hostility. After the incident involving the Judgemaster's personal henchmen the previous day, he wasn't taking any chances any more, even within the relative safety of the fortress city.
Marché glanced up at the high towers of the fortress as he walked, his eyes taking in the banner that flew proudly at the highest point, signifying the presence of the Judgemaster on his inspection tour of the city. Inwardly seething as he recalled how the two bangaa in the marketplace had treated the young trader, Marché could only hope that he wouldn't have cause to cross the man at any point in the future. A part of him, however, that part that had half drawn his weapon on the bangaa before Montblanc had been able to stop him, that part that had stood up to the bullies tormenting Mewt, that part that had charged off to find professor Auggie because it was the right thing to do, that part was just itching for a reason to try.
Either way, Marché knew that he would have to be on his guard in this unforgiving world, as one misstep could land him in serious trouble. Nodding to a passing member of the city watch, he tried to put such thoughts out of his head as he entered the marketplace and made his way over to the weaponsmith's stall. Despite his intimidating demeanour, the quietly-spoken man proved to be easygoing enough, and Marché chatted with the stallholder for some time, enjoying sharing the older man's knowledge of his craft.
True to his recollections, the weapon he'd tried the previous day was an object of beauty, its lethal edges catching and reflecting the morning light as Marché took a few practice swings. Nevertheless, Marché couldn't help but feel a certain attachment to his gladius, particularly after it had served him so well. Perhaps it was due to the fact that Doned invariably received the lion's share of any new purchases for the two brothers, but Marché had always treasured the few small things that were his and his alone. Mind made up, he placed the sabre back onto the rack and instead chose an elegantly crafted, but sturdy looking dagger to complement his existing armaments.
Soon enough, traffic in the marketplace began to slowly increase, and Marché bid farewell to the man, making his way back through the streets in the direction of the clan hall. At the weaponsmith's suggestion his new dagger was hidden away in the top of one of his boots, nicely concealed by his clothing. While its presence would take some getting used to, having a backup weapon would be useful if he was ever disarmed. If nothing else, it would give Monid a shock the next time he pulled such a trick in their sparring sessions.
It was about halfway back that a pair of local watchmen positioned at an intersection effectively brought him to a halt. Beyond them, lined up in crisp ranks and clad in the same silver and blue capes as the pair of thugs from the marketplace, detachments of menacing-looking bangaa trudged their way down a wide thoroughfare in the direction of the aerodrome. Looking towards the head of the column, Marché got a glimpse of a tall, broad-shouldered man with an almost leonine mane of chestnut hair, clad in a heavy suit of burnished armour that reflected the sun's rays as he marched.
Just for a brief moment, Marché experienced a flash of recognition, but quickly shook it off as the massed ranks pressed on, blocking his view. The very thought was impossible, and Marché pushed the notion to one side, turning his attention back to the marching bangaa, eyeing their arrogant posturing with some distaste as he waited for the column to pass. Seconds turned to minutes as the display of military might tramped onwards and distaste turned to boredom, Marché allowing his mind to wander as the interminable delay continued.
The next thing that Marché knew, as his mind caught up with events, was that he was resting on his back, the loud cry next to his ear having shocked him out of his trance and onto the floor. A large orange and yellow beak, along with a pair of intelligent, beady eyes filled his vision, and Marché was suddenly glad he was alone. Any one of his fellow clan-mates, Cerran especially, wouldn't have let him live it down if they found out about his predicament.
'Kupo!' The shrill exclamation was higher than he was used to, and his view of the inquisitive face of the chocobo was suddenly replaced by the hovering form of a young moogle clad in a pastel pink summer dress, whose body was apparently slim and light enough to allow its wings to enable some form of flight, even if they had to beat like a hummingbird's to facilitate it. 'Bad Boko, are you hurt kupo?'
'Just a bruised ego,' Marché groaned as he hauled himself to his feet, eyeing up both the chocobo and its apparent owner, who was currently hovering at around chest height, her body held almost horizontally as it dangled from her fluttering wings. The two looked back at him with curiosity and concern respectively, and while Marché wasn't too familiar with the finer points of chocobo-craft, the markings were distinctive enough that he did recognise this one. It was the same smelly beast that had accompanied them all the way from Cyril. 'You wouldn't happen to know Montblanc, by any chance would you?'
'He's my brother, kupo, how did you know?'
'I recognised your feathered friend here,' Marché gestured towards the chocobo, who seemed to take that as an invitation as it butted its beak up against his hand. He grudgingly obliged the bird, scratching it under its chin if only to stop the inquisitive beak from prodding anywhere else. 'He carried our supplies for us on the road last week.'
'So, you're his new friend, kupo!' The young moogle's expression brightened as she made the connection, tugging on the chocobo's reins slightly to dissuade it from pestering Marché any further. 'I'm Gurdy, and you've already met Boko here.'
For his part, Marché was glad that the large animal was so tractable, as there would be no way that the moogle would be able to prevent it from doing anything it put its mind to if it really wanted. A brief smirk graced his face as he imagined the chocobo hightailing it down the street, towing its tiny owner behind it and trailing a despairing cry of kupooooo in its wake.
'My brother spoke highly of you, kupo,' Gurdy squeaked, causing Marché to duck his head and blush slightly at the small creature's praise. 'I wasn't expecting him to bring Boko back yet, but Montblanc said that you helped take days off the mission.'
'I didn't do that much,' Marché ran his hands through his flyaway hair, idly rubbing his head as he tried to puzzle out just how he had saved them any time. Perhaps the only explanation was his presence serving to curtail Montblanc's tendency to wander off for a spot of unplanned sightseeing, but even then he couldn't see how it could have made all that big a difference. 'Do you let the clan borrow your chocobo a lot?'
'I rent Boko out to anyone who needs to transport things or get somewhere quickly, kupo,' Gurdy shrugged, fluttering her wings until she stood firmly on the chocobo's back, apparently tired of hovering on the spot. 'I'd like to do more, but Boko's the only chocobo I have.'
'You want to expand?'
'I want a ranch, kupo, with lots of different chocobos to raise and hire out to people that need them.' A faraway look played across her features as she contemplated the issue, and Marché couldn't help but read the note of longing in her tone. 'Until I've saved enough gil though, I can't expand my stable any more, and breeding females are expensive.'
There wasn't really much that Marché could say to that, although he could understand the sentiment. While he might not have cared for the large, stinking animals outside of when they appeared on a breakfast menu, he could certainly understand the desire to do well in life and chase a dream. Indeed, what was getting home from Ivalice if not a faraway dream that he didn't yet know how to make real.
Marché relaxed as the delay pressed on, the two of them chatting about inconsequential matters until the road re-opened, the local watch keeping things bottled up until well after the Judgemaster's forces had passed on their way to the aerodrome. Eventually though, traffic was allowed to resume and he bid farewell to the young moogle before allowing his steps to take him back to the familiar squat grey building that served as the clan hall. Not seeing any signs of life from the outside, he pushed open the door to reveal a scene that he was almost coming to expect.
Marché rolled his eyes as he entered the gloomy common room, taking in the competitors in what appeared to be a rather entertaining and vocal argument, replete with arm-waving, finger-pointing and the tousled form of a clearly suffering moogle caught in the middle.
'As I have said on many an occasion friend bangaa, you are the only member of said race in the clan,' Ma'kenroh brandished his staff as he made his response, somehow managing to look both stern and imposing despite his stature. 'Why, therefore, would we even contemplate naming this clan after a bangaa festival, which I might add is little more than an excuse for drinking, fighting, carousing and mating.'
'And what's wrong with that?'
Marché couldn't help but snort with laughter as he surveyed the argument, the two seeming evenly matched in their delivery. Monid's passion and histrionics were effectively met by Ma'kenroh's cool logic and firm rebukes, while the nu mou's counter offers of names so learnéd and scholarly as to baffle Marché's mind were easily shot down with catcalls of derision from the bangaa. The two were clearly enjoying themselves immensely.
'Just how long has this been going on?' Marché sidled over to a rather amused paladin, who was leaning against one of the armchairs enjoying the spectacle of the event.
'You have no idea,' Cerran grinned at him, her eyes sparkling with mirth. 'The rest of us couldn't care less what the clan is called, but these two have been going at it hammer and tongs over a name since we got together; it drives Montblanc mad, especially when he's hung-over.'
Marché smirked as he looked at the smallest member of the gathering, sitting at the table with his head in his hands, who was clearly still experiencing the fallout from the night before and who seemed to wilt with each fresh salvo of argument from the two. Marché idly wondered if they'd subconsciously scheduled their latest encounter to coincide with his waking.
'Stop it, stop it, stop it!'
All eyes turned to Montblanc as the argument ceased abruptly, Monid cut off in mid rant by the sudden outburst while Ma'kenroh blinked several times in surprise, seemingly taking note of the moogle's presence for the first time.
'Has this ever happened before?' Marché queried Cerran in a low, conspiratorial tone as the paladin raised one eyebrow at the development.
'Not that I can remember,' Cerran smirked back at him, seemingly eager to see what would happen next. 'He's always just let them get on with it before.'
'Please make them stop, kupo,' Montblanc's tone was plaintive as he turned his attention to Marché. 'I know, in recognition of your joining the clan, we'll let you think of a name for it!'
'Why not, kupo?' The sudden idea had seemingly caught Montblanc's imagination, despite the cries of protest from both bangaa and nu mou that threatened to drown him out. 'You can call it anything you like, so make it a kupo name, something like Clan Nutsy!'
'He's finally lost it,' Cerran speculated as the others eyed the young moogle with open-mouthed disbelief. 'Either they dropped him on his head when he was a young leveret, or all that drink last night did for his brain; Clan Nutsy?'
'Well, I thought it was a good idea, kupo.'
Marché was suddenly aware of four pairs of eyes being trained in his direction, along with a growing sense of expectation. All it would have needed was for Krjn to have been present and he'd have had the entire set for intimidation purposes. Of course, the fact that Cerran was struggling not to dissolve into fits of laughter at his predicament wasn't helping.
'Er, well okay,' Marché slowly started, before settling himself down on the arm of the sofa to think, idly adjusting his gladius into a more comfortable position as he did so. He was well aware that whatever he said next would undoubtedly stay with him for a long time, in a good or a bad way. 'Sorry Montblanc, but I don't think I'll be using Clan Nutsy.'
'Thank all the gods for that,' Cerran muttered to herself, earning a somewhat hurt look from the moogle. 'In fact, let's not have Montblanc name anything again, ever.'
Marché grinned at her, even as she turned her attention back to him in anticipation of his official naming of the clan. Casting about, he tried to think of any name that would sound heroic or impressive, but rejected each one in turn as too cheesy or obvious. One thought, however, did stay with him, inspired perhaps by the gladius at his waist as he remembered his last history lesson with Mr Leslaie.
'There was this army in my world once that took over almost an entire continent, and they didn't do it because of numbers, but because of how well trained they were, and how well they worked together and out-thought the enemy.' Marché looked to the ceiling as he attempted to recall the lessons, Ritz's voice coming strongly to the fore as she provided answers in her usual confident manner. 'The best of them were called Centurions and led them into battle, so centurion, centuria, how about Clan Centurio?'
'Wow, that's actually pretty good,' there was a moment of silence before Cerran at least voiced her agreement, the expression on her face suggesting that she was secretly impressed with his suggestion in the face of extreme pressure. 'If nothing else, it'll help keep the peace around here.'
'Well, I think it's a kupo name,' Montblanc swiftly agreed before either Monid or Ma'kenroh could make any comment. 'From this day forth, we shall be known as Clan Centurio!'
Marché cast a critical eye towards the remaining two members present, both of whom had a rather deflated appearance as the central pillar of their argument was effectively removed. Monid opened his mouth as if to say something, but closed it again after a few moments and in the end it was his counterpart who took the opportunity. 'A well thought out and argued suggestion, if from a somewhat unexpected quarter; I find no difficulty in acquiescing to this.'
With approval gained from the sage, all eyes turned to the bangaa present. Cerran raised one questioning eyebrow as she did so, the look of mirth still present on her face. Slowly, the silence became oppressive as Monid's eyes darted from face to face, before he threw up his arms and harrumphed in defeat.
'Bah, but what are we going to argue about now?'
A round of sniggers and outright laughter filled the room as the tension was broken, and Marché breathed a sigh of relief as business returned to normal. It was only then that he realised that both Cerran and Montblanc were already armed and armoured, with their backpacks stacked in a heap by the door along with his own.
'I'm sure you two will think of something before too long,' Cerran concluded, before slinging her pack over her shoulder and throwing Montblanc's smaller bag over to him. 'Krjn's waiting for us though, so it's about time you got here slowcoach; what kept you?'
'Judgemaster,' Marché offered in the way of explanation before hefting his own pack onto his back and buckling on his shield.
'Git.' Cerran's response was just as succinct.
Bidding farewell to Monid and Ma'kenroh, who wished them luck before resuming preparations for their own work, the three left the security of the clan hall once more, packs shouldered in anticipation of the trek ahead. Traffic on the streets increased as they neared the city gate, with new arrivals offloading caravans full of farm produce, fish and trade goods, while outbound wagons of slate and minerals made ready for long journeys, each guarded by hard-faced swarthy men and bangaa.
Looking upwards, Marché wasn't surprised to see the addition of a vast aerial warship, bristling with gun ports and escort craft and bearing the Judgemaster's colours. It hung, ominously over the fortified city, its gleaming form looking more like a spaceship from a sci-fi movie than something from the realms of mediaeval fantasy. Slowly, the whine of its energy rings increased as they span faster and faster, growing in brightness and intensity as they did so. Surrounded by its escorts, it smoothly altered course, gaining altitude as it headed westwards over the mountains towards the palace city of Bervenia, the heart of the Rozarrian empire.
'So, Ma'kenroh not joining us then?'
'Nah, he rarely does,' Cerran glanced back over her shoulder towards him, unable to resist smirking at the still semi-comatose Montblanc, who was navigating his way down the street on auto-pilot. 'It takes something pretty special for him to get his nose out of a book, so he mostly spends time tutoring at the mages guild.'
'Think we'll be enough with just the four of us?'
'Most of these bandits are just thugs that rely on intimidation instead of skill, so we shouldn't have too much trouble,' Cerran shrugged, not seeming in the slightest bit worried at the prospect of impending combat, and a mischievous smile crossed her face as she continued. 'Chances are they'll run a mile when they see my sword and armour; hey, there's Krjn'
Marché followed her gaze, and sure enough, the lithe form of Krjn was leaning against the outer wall of the city next to the main gate, the viera seemingly indifferent to the suspicious glares of the bangaa guards that patrolled the area. Seeing their approach, she slowly made her way over to the trio, shooting an amused glance at Montblanc as she did so.
'I was beginning to think that you had perhaps returned to your beds,' Krjn smiled, before handing out parcels of supplies for each of them. 'I take it the regular animated discussion between the tribes of bangaa and nu mou has subsided without incident for the moment,'
'Yeah, we're Clan Centurio now.'
Krjn merely shook her head in exasperation at her friend's antics as the paladin breezed past her out of the main gate of Sprohm, grinning as she did so. Marché followed, breathing in the fresh mountain air with a sense of anticipation as he left the relative security of the city on his way to yet another adventure. Back at home, he'd be sat in some boring class learning about science or the rules of grammar, but here he could do just about anything he wanted. The faces of his mother and brother intruded his thoughts for a moment, but were quickly banished as he turned his attention back to Krjn and Cerran, the latter of whom was explaining about the clan's sudden naming. There was no point worrying about things he couldn't change, at least for the moment.
The trail stretched out in front of them as the four began their journey, the smallest member of the group perking up a bit as the day went on. Far down the trail the silver ribbon of the Ulei river, that they had crossed several days previous on their way from Cyril, could be seen in the valley below where it carved a wide swath through the fertile farmland it supported. Tantalising though the sight of it was, sparkling in the distance, Marché knew that even downhill and without a laden chocobo to slow them down it would be nightfall by the time they reached it, and a further few days travel downriver along its banks to reach the Nubswood, which formed part of the vast swathes of lush woodlands that separated them from the flood plains and marshes near the city of Cadoan, where the Ulei eventually flowed out into the sea.
Fortunately, the weather was kind to them as they made their way down the trail passing caravans and the occasional lone traveller, with a light headwind to provide a refreshing breeze as the sun climbed higher into the sky. Despite Marché's initial fears about Montblanc's ability to keep pace with his three larger companions, the young moogle managed quite easily, his hare-like legs propelling him forward with surprising speed. Marché couldn't help but smirk as he imagined him holding a pocket watch and exclaiming 'I'm late, I'm late.'
Behind them the city of Sprohm disappeared, obscured by the rugged terrain that made for a natural barrier to assault and the miles were quickly eaten up by the easy banter that passed between the four friends. Perhaps he was simply becoming adjusted to the rigours of such a life, but Marché's feet barely protested as his boots resumed what was now becoming a familiar tread, although the constant weight of the heavy shield on his arm was starting to drag him down.
Nevertheless, by the time the sun was sinking below the horizon the rocky boulders and towering cliffs had long given way to the lush agricultural land of the Ulei basin. Fields of ripe crops stood in close proximity to pens full of domesticated cockatrice and what looked to be wild boar, the locals taking full advantage of the fertile ground provided by the mighty watercourse to extract the maximum rewards from their lands. Most of the food was destined for the city high above, and the local populace appeared relatively prosperous from the constant trade caravans that left groaning with meat and grain.
They stayed the night in a simple farming community that was much as Marché imagined communities would have been before the advent of modern technology and industry. The locals, rugged and weather-beaten, though initially suspicious of the group of armed strangers in their midst, warmed up to them as the evening went on, particularly as coin was presented and Cerran's status as a paladin of Kiltia was revealed. Her willingness to dispense her healing magics for anyone in need quickly led to a long queue for her services, the young woman not seeking out her bed until late in the night as she dealt with every possible ailment from the lingering contusions from a bar brawl to a small child's fever with equal cheer.
Not that her late night work had any detrimental effect on her demeanour the following morning as she resumed their journey in even higher spirits than before, her healing sessions seemingly rejuvenating her as much as they had her patients, and the group were waved on their way to smiles and offers to return at any time, the grateful locals loading them down with fruit, cold meat and freshly prepared lunches to last them through the day. It was difficult, given his friend's youthful and mischievous mannerisms to reconcile the image he had of Cerran with that of some priestly figure, but Marché was quickly coming to understand just how much respect her chosen profession accorded her. It also made her decision to leave her comfortable position at the temple to join Montblanc's band of idealists all the more intriguing to Marché.
Reaching the banks of the Ulei, they turned South-East, travelling downriver as they followed the directions on the crude map provided by Monid, backed up by the more accurate document that Marché had forgotten to return to Telrys after his last job was complete. Marché hoped the young scribe wouldn't get into trouble for losing his professor's map like that, but he was now loath to part with what was proving to be such a useful resource. Every other map and set of directions he had seen or received since coming to Ivalice were mere badly drawn approximations in comparison, and so Marché was taking care to keep his new map in as pristine condition as he could.
All along the course of the river, fishermen stood waist deep in the slowly swirling current, casting their nets while small boats dotted her surface, casting lines and nets to relieve the river of its bounty. Further out still, almost half a mile away in the centre of the huge channel, larger barges and merchant boats carried their heavy loads of stone and logs up or downstream to their destinations.
It was, Marché mused, a far nicer start to a journey than their scorching exit from Cyril, and he allowed his mind to wander as he took in the natural beauty of the farmland. It would be several days before the pastures and fields of crops would begin to give way to verdant woodlands of picturesque glades, gnarled oaks and fragrant moss, echoing with birdsong and the chattering of small animals that peered at them from their camouflaged perches amidst the branches. A sense of anticipation began to build in Marché as they came within a few miles of the reported location of the raider camp, Krjn constantly ranging ahead through treetop and underbrush like a ghost searching for her prey. It was a prey she found in the early morning of their sixth day out of Sprohm as the mists wreathed through the trees and undergrowth of the Nubswood, giving everything a washed out and surreal look.
'They are ahead.'
'How many?' Cerran was all business, slowly unhooking her great sword from its usual resting place on the back of her armour, taking care minimise the amount of noise she made as her face took on a grim expression.
'Nine, and two others beside.'
'Indeed,' Krjn's bow was held ready, an arrow already set into the string and half drawn in preparation. 'The bandits accost two travellers in a clearing ahead, one hume female and one viera, and I fear their threats and intimidation will shortly escalate to more.'
'Doesn't sound like a fair fight to me,' Marché's grip tightened on his gladius, pushing his emotions to the back of his mind as he prepared for the inevitable, slowly drawing his blade and seeking out each of his companions by eye. 'Why don't we see if we can make it a little more sporting?'
Receiving grim nods of confirmation, he ditched his pack in the undergrowth and started forward through the woodland mists as quickly as he dared without causing too much noise, using all the cover he could muster until he reached the final tree line before the clearing Krjn had mentioned, where the press of the trees gave way to a bubbling stream on its way to join up with the mighty Ulei. Seeing no ongoing warfare, he paused, crouching down to observe the situation closer as two shadowy figures faced off against a group of aggressors on the other side.
'Haven't you anything better to do than waylay innocent travellers you bunch of two-bit swindlers?'
That voice. Marché's breath hitched in his throat as the clear, strong tones carried easily through the morning air. A myriad of images and memories flooded through his mind, all of them associated with a single face. He was moving before the bandit even had a chance to reply, sword and shield held ready for action.
'Don't you ever give up,' a hulking, shadowy figure loomed out of the mist at the head of his comrades, a massive bow gripped in both hands and his features obscured by the gloomy half-light of dawn as he growled the question. 'You're outnumbered and alone, so hand over your trinkets and maybe I'll let you go without taking everything else I want from you.'
The lecherous intent in the bandit's tone was clear as Marché approached to back the two up, who had yet to notice him as they focused on the threat in front of them. The thug was clearly used to getting his own way and Marché wouldn't trust him as far as he could throw him. There would only be one outcome to this confrontation, it was just a question of who would attack first. Oddly enough, the thought of raising his weapon against the man in front of him didn't raise any feelings of guilt or apprehension any more. Perhaps it was simply due to what was at stake.
'We wouldn't be much of an advertisement for our clan if we did that now, would we?'
The owner of the voice stood resolute, facing down the assembled group without even a tremor in her voice to indicate any nervousness. She stood tall, easily matching Marché's height, natural deep red hair cascading down her back, while her light, figure-hugging silken garments offset by intricately stitched long boots and leather armguards somehow transmitted a sense of both femininity and strength, subtly emphasising her figure. This duality continued in her choice of weapon, an elegant and deadly rapier held competently in her grasp. It was her viera companion, however, who first noticed his presence.
'Someone comes, Ritz.'
The girl whirled round at the sound of his voice, eyes locking with Marché's own as he felt a weight lift from his shoulders. To hope that his friends could have followed him to Ivalice was one thing, but to see it in reality was another. Out of the corner of his vision, he could see his fellow clan members edging into position in expectation of the upcoming fight, Krjn and Montblanc trying to find optimum firing positions while the solid, dependable form of Cerran held her massive sword ready, moving into position to back up his reckless advance. None of that mattered though since Ritz was standing in front of him, and surely if she had found her way here then the others were also waiting to be found, somewhere out there in Ivalice.
'You know of this boy, Ritz?'
'He's a friend,' Ritz smiled, holding his gaze as Marché returned the gesture, simply enjoying the moment. 'He's a friend from the other world.'
'Oy, I'm talking to you here!'
The two swung their attention back to the stocky man on the other side of the stream, who was seemingly getting annoyed by the lack of attention he was receiving. Marché raised an eyebrow at Ritz as she smirked in his direction. The odds, previously stacked well in the bandits' favour, had seemingly changed.
'Not friends of yours, I take it?'
'Nah, just a bunch of bandits living round here,' Ritz grinned at him, clearly enjoying the banter between them. 'We could have taken them, really.'
'And make me miss out on the bounty?' Marché took a step forward, not so subtly edging Ritz out as he put himself to the fore. 'I'll introduce the rest of the guys later.'
Ignoring the harrumph of annoyance from Ritz, Marché leapt from boulder to boulder over the stream, shield advanced and wary of the huge bow in the large thug's grasp. Seeing where the situation was going, the man growled in his direction before taking a few steps backwards, waving his comrades forward into the fight while he drew the bow to its maximum, letting loose an arrow that Marché instinctively ducked. It sailed harmlessly into the woods, impacting a nearby tree with a firm thud. 'Coward' Marché thought, before further thoughts of the ringleader were made impossible as battle was joined.
Marché caught the wild swing of a sword on his shield with a resounding clang before stepping forwards, propelling his off-balance opponent onto his back with a hefty shove, the man's sword clattering out of his hand as he hit the deck. His combat persona taking full control, Marché didn't give him the chance to rise, slamming the toe of his boot into the man's nose with bone shattering force as he vainly tried to struggle into a sitting position. He slumped backwards and out of the fight as quickly as he had entered it.
Beside him, Ritz flew into combat with her own opponent, a wiry, unshaven individual with a thoroughly disreputable appearance. She almost effortlessly parried a low thrust from a long, serrated dagger, a quick twist of her wrist sending it flying through the air out of his grip. Stepping back slightly, she did not give him time to reach for his backup, raising her free hand as a grim look of concentration overtook her features. Her palm glowed a sooty red for the briefest of moments before, with a loud crack, a deep crimson mass of flames blasted through the air, taking him off his feet and lighting up his clothes like a match. With a screech of terror the man scrambled away, clawing at his clothing as he made for the water of the stream.
'Everyone uses magic but me,' Marché grumbled to himself before taking stock of the situation. Five of the enemy were already down, one curled into a foetal position, groaning pitifully with one of Krjn's long arrows protruding from his stomach while another lay still, passed out from the pain as his shield lay cleaved in two and his arm hung at an unnatural angle. The rest of the bandits, Marché noted, were giving Cerran a wide berth having gained a certain amount of respect for her blade and abilities.
Behind him, Marché couldn't help but smile at the scene involving Montblanc, one particularly unfortunate bandit futilely beating his fists against the waist deep water of the stream that had turned into solid ice around him, the young moogle's paw glowing an Arctic blue to match as he finished the job by icing up Ritz's human torch as well. Both Krjn and Ritz's companion loosed a further two arrows in the direction of the remaining thugs, but were defeated by hastily raised shields. The time for ranged combat, it appeared, had passed. Marché glanced towards Ritz, a quick nod confirming that she was ready as the two advanced on the remaining enemies, Marché sensing Cerran's presence behind him as they did so. He wasn't surprised when the bandits' leader made his move also.
A spiteful buzz rent the air as an arrow sped towards its target, but Marché was already moving. Pulling Ritz in close to himself, his shield covered her body as the long arrow impacted with a ringing clang.
'Thanks,' A breath of relief and a quick nod and they were moving once more, Marché keeping a wary eye on the archer, who was glaring at them across the open ground.
'Any time,' Marché smiled, simply relieved that she was safe. 'I sure didn't expect to find you here, Ritz.'
'Likewise,' The enemy was close now, and Marché couldn't spare the time to glance over to her as she spoke. 'I'd never have expected you to be in a clan of all things, fighting like this.'
'Really, why not?'
'It's just you were so… timid, in the other world.'
Marché didn't reply to that. In fact, he wasn't sure that there was a way to reply to that. After all, it was mostly true. He had always taken a back seat except when it had been absolutely necessary, such as the altercation between Mewt and the three bullies
'You've changed here too, haven't you?' Ritz's follow up comment was almost pensive as the two stepped forward into combat once more, giving Marché no time to even think of a response. 'I know I have.'
Marché lashed out with his sword, only to be hurriedly blocked by his opponent's shield, who instantly returned the favour. Beyond him, Marché could see the leader circling slowly, waiting for the perfect moment to fire into the melee, while behind him he knew the two viera and possibly Montblanc if he'd found his own way across the stream, would be looking to do the same for them. A stroke of luck was all it took for Marché to end it, a trip on the uneven ground providing just enough of an opening to lunge under his opponent's shield, the gladius piercing through leather armour and sliding deep into the man's side. Not a fatal wound, but Marché's gorge rose nonetheless, the sensation travelling up the blade and the look of shock on his enemy's face sickening enough. Wrenching the blade free, he slammed the hilt into the man's jaw before leaping over him towards the leader, one swift strike separating the bow into two halves before the bloody tip of Marché's sword pressed under the bandit's chin.
'Don't make me do it.'
The surrender of their leader signalled the end of any further resistance, the remaining two fighters throwing down their weapons in defeat before Cerran immediately set about giving what basic healing she could to the downed men, enough to make sure that none of the wounded succumbed to their injuries anyway.
'Are you okay, Ritz?'
'It's strange for you to be worried about me Marché,' Ritz appraised him with a warm smile, wiping her rapier clean and placing it back in its sheath, before straightening out her long red hair behind her. 'Thanks though, we couldn't have done it without you.'
With the battle over, the inevitable clean-up began, Montblanc retrieving their packs from back in the woods while the rest of them concentrated on either providing what medical assistance they could or herding the disarmed, demoralised and in two cases freezing bandits into a miserable huddle of humanity. Satisfied that their captives were in no shape to cause any further mischief, Krjn vanished into the woodland, her skills as a tracker ensuring that there were no further surprises waiting nearby. Marché and Ritz, however, took the opportunity to wander away from the group, seeking a measure of privacy while Cerran stood watch over the prisoners.
'This is Shara, my fellow clan member,' Marché nodded towards the viera at Ritz's introduction of her companion, introducing himself in kind. Though she seemed aloof, Marché was glad that Ritz had also found someone to watch over her during her early days in Ivalice. 'Like I said before, he's a friend from the other world.'
'Speaking of worlds, do you know what this place is?'
'I'd have thought you of all people would have figured that one out,' Ritz smirked at him, even as his eyes took in her appearance. 'This is Mewt's book and everything in it, but it's all become real.'
'What do you mean, it's become real?'
'Well, at first I thought I'd really fallen into the book, but now I know that can't be the case.' Ritz turned away slightly, running her hand down the bark of a nearby tree trunk while she gazed off into space, her mind seemingly far away. 'There are too many things that are the same in our world and too many coincidences, so I think this is St. Ivalice and all our world around it, it's just been changed to what it is now.'
'But that's crazy, Ritz,' Marché couldn't help but throw up his hands in disbelief, his exasperation bleeding through into his voice. 'How could that have even happened?'
'I'm trying not to think about it.'
'There just doesn't seem to be much point,' Ritz turned back to face him, a new resolve clear in her expression. 'It's not like it changes anything.'
Marché couldn't help but question Ritz's statement. There was a hell of a lot that could be done, and the two of them could perhaps begin the search for a way to return to the world they knew, or at the very least work to find more answers. Ritz's expression remained unreadable though as she either wouldn't or couldn't answer him, and in the end it was her companion who did so for her.
'You see, Ritz does not want to go back.'
Marché looked to the girl before him for a long moment, a slow sense of disbelief filling him up from within. He opened his mouth to question it, but no sound came forth and he closed it once more, swallowing heavily as he tried to take stock of exactly what the viera had said.
'It's like Shara says, why go back?' When she finally spoke, Ritz's voice was still the same strong, clear tone he was used to, but there was something of an undercurrent, a slight shift that Marché couldn't quite tell the reason for, and which quite frankly didn't seem too important at that moment. 'I mean, I like this world, and what I can do here; don't you Marché?'
It was something that Marché had contemplated, with all that he had experienced so far in Ivalice, from the sights and sounds to magic being real and being able to act as an adult, not burdened by rules or chores or school, taking jobs and standing on his own two feet. Nevertheless, the images of his family and friends from home had always called to him, convincing him to return.
'Look, Marché, If you want to go ahead and try to turn everything back to normal just… go ahead,' Marché couldn't help but focus on the long pause in her reply, along with the disappointment he could see in her eyes and hear in her voice, but couldn't focus enough to compose a reply. 'Just don't expect me to help you do it.'
Marché could only stand and watch as she stepped back, not quite able to look him in the eye any more. From across the clearing he could hear Cerran call out to him, but he ignored her as he kept his attention on the girl he considered to be a good friend, despite the short length of time he'd known her. The feeling of relief and happiness he'd experienced at seeing her present in Ivalice had been tangible, but now that feeling had been ripped away.
'Let's go, Shara.'
Ritz turned on her heel, as if to walk out of the clearing, but paused before turning back, briefly meeting his gaze and swiftly covering the few paces between them, wrapping her arms around him and burying her face into his neck as she squeezed him tightly. Marché simply held her, looking down at a mass of red hair as he felt the warmth of her body through the thin silk of her clothing. After a few moments, she pulled away with a sniff, holding him at arms length.
'I'm sorry, Marché, but I'm sure we'll meet again.' She paused for a moment, her eyes taking in his face as if committing it to memory before letting him go and stepping back again. 'I… am glad we met, really.'
With a last smile in his direction, she turned and walked back to the tree line with her head held high. Marché didn't try to stop her, having known her long enough to know that any attempt would be futile. She had already made her decision, even if he couldn't understand why. Ritz had a family back home and, of all of them, the most going for her back in St. Ivalice and the most reason to return. Still, Marché supposed it was her choice, and was glad that she still considered him a friend. She paused slightly as she reached the edge of the clearing, glancing back towards him.
'I'll see you around, Ritz?'
'Bye for now, Marché'
With that, Ritz and Shara slipped away into the trees, disappearing into the dense woodland together and leaving Marché standing alone in the clearing. He watched the place they had vanished for a few moments before another shout from across the clearing brought him out of his reverie. However things would work out with Ritz, he still had a job to finish, and the work would probably help him take his mind off things, at least for a little while. Shaking his head, he made his way across the clearing to where Cerran and Montblanc stood guard over the prisoners.
'So, where'd your friend disappear to, loverboy?' Cerran joked as he approached, shooting him a mischievous grin and waggling her eyebrows suggestively. 'Getting pretty cozy there, I noticed.'
Marché didn't give her the satisfaction of a blush, though his eyes glanced back to that section of trees once more. Sooner or later, he knew that he'd see Ritz again some time, and maybe then he'd persuade her to open up about what was bothering her. Until then, he'd proceed as he had been, satisfied with the knowledge that she was well. He felt the corners of his mouth turn up into a faint smile as he turned to answer Cerran's question.
'Oh, she had to go.'