Disclaimer: These characters in no way belong to me; that privilege lies solely with Square-Enix. Additionally, I'm not making any money off this story; I do this stuff for fun.
Chapter 1, Part I.
The railway continued all the way to South Figaro, through some of the most spectacular mountain scenery ever to catch hold of the wandering attentions of men. Or so Locke Cole claimed.
The cold wooden floor of their cargo car thrummed and swayed gently beneath her as Terra pressed her face against the place where oil-stained planks met the splintering, sliding door, but all she could see was a sliver of green beyond the worn iron of the tracks, speeding past so quickly it made her eyes sore. Huffing in irritation, she pressed her face closer, the wood rough against her cheek. If she could just see a little farther...
"You don't want to be looking out there right now anyhow, Terr." Locke reclined casually against the back wall, blade in hand, a seemingly ever-present hint of mischief playing along his features as he whittled doggedly away at a stick. His breath clouded slightly in the chilled air. "We're scuttling along a dropoff so steep you're like to get swallowed up just by acknowledging its presence. Up this high, the mountains have their own old souls, they say. Wind and Gravity, those two old thieves, will toss you into the not-so-loving caress of Thin Air before you can so much as shake their hands."
Abruptly the small, black dagger disappeared somewhere into the folds of his clothes. He arched his back into a languid stretch and winked. "Don't worry, though. Those fat dignitaries up front will hit the ground first. You and I would have loads of time to enjoy the view and listen to the songs the wind sings us before that ground came up to meet us, too."
Terra frowned at that and sat up, securing her blanket more tightly around her shoulders. "According to the laws of gravity, multiple objects of differing mass that are released at the same time will likewise reach the ground at the same time, barring significant differences in air resistance. Which is negligible, in this instance." Seeing his face grow blank, she hastily amended, "You technically weren't wrong about the ground coming up to meet us, though, since the earth experiences a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to –"
"Okay!" He folded his arms and flashed her a mock glower. "They're just stories. Tales my grandma used to tell me. She knew all the old legends." He smiled. "I probably shouldn't be talking about falling off cliffs at these heights, anyway. Bad luck and all."
Terra looked down at her intertwined fingers. "And wind can't shake hands," she finished in a mutter.
She was becoming all too accustomed to the way people looked at her when she said certain things – like it had been unexpected, or strange, or downright disturbing. Locke had become adept at curbing his own reactions as their days together stretched on; or perhaps he was simply good at taking the new and unexpected in stride. She didn't believe anything daunted the man; he approached most things with an enthusiasm that – to her – was baffling.
Besides, it wasn't like she had even talked to enough people to build a comparable data set. Terra's world had been reduced to the size of a marble. Her personal history encompassed this train and the stark, snowy city of Narshe, built between towering mountain peaks on its foundation of rock and iron and coal. Her personal knowledge included her own name, that of this strange, roguish man she had fallen in with, and Arvis – the first face she had known in this new existence, like some ironic rendition of a newborn being brought into the world. But unlike a newborn, she knew things. She knew what a peach tasted like, and how to operate machinery, and histories of the old wars between Vector and Doma, and the humid, heavy air of an impending downpour. She knew calculus and the smell of a campfire and how physics made the world run. Locke had rambled on about retrograde amnesia and selective memory loss as he theorized on her condition, but she knew that psychology had never interested her so she let the mind in question wander as he flapped his arms excitedly and talked to himself.
She also knew how to gather and excite molecules in order to form a crackling ball of fire in the palm of her hand, though some deep, hidden survival instinct whispered that this particular knowledge was better kept to herself.
She knew she did not know people. They were like Imperial Heavy Armors with all the circuits rewired and some of the cables cut and the drivers' controls installed backward, and yet somehow they still functioned. Their logic circuits were overdriven with emotional feedback, continuously spitting out invalid conclusions and analytical fallacies. It baffled her and made her head hurt.
One of said problematic individuals in question was currently hunched over a ratty old map he had unfolded on a crate and staked in one corner with his dagger. He chewed on a green apple as his free hand absently tugged on a loose end of the frayed and faded bandana that customarily capped his head, giving him the faint appearance of an Albrookian pirate. Judging by the stretched and distorted fabric in that spot, Terra concluded this was a frequent subconscious habit of his.
Feeling her gaze, Locke glanced up and motioned her over with a smile.
"We're about a day and a half out of Narshe," he said. "That puts us right about here." His finger thumped at a spot several hundred miles south of the frozen mountain city. "A day and a night more will put us in South Figaro, all the way down here."
"Are we going to South Figaro?" She may as well have asked if they were going to the moon, for all that city in its current state meant to her.
"Nope. The train will be making a mandatory stop at a waystation sometime this evening. That's where you and I go our own way." Rummaging about in one of the packs, he pulled out a large yellow apple. "Here, I saved the best one for you."
Terra looked at it. "Locke, since breakfast this morning, approximately one hour ago, you've tried to feed me our entire journey's worth of edible supplies."
Locke looked slightly abashed. "No I haven't. Look –" Digging stubbornly through the depths of the pack, he finally emerged with something that could have possibly been called a biscuit in another life and waved it in the air triumphantly. "See?"
She stared, unimpressed.
He drooped and returned the lump of petrified flour to the pack. "You're just too bleedin' skinny," he protested. "Didn't they feed you anything in that golden Imperial city of theirs? I know chow hall food isn't the most inspiring fare, but couldn't they have at least provided you with a good bowl of chicken soup before sending you off traipsing around in the snow?
'Wait, don't answer that," he backpedaled, seeing her forehead crease in consternation as she opened her mouth to reply. "I'm just rambling, and you're hardly likely to remember what you ate while wearing a slave crown." His expression twisted in revulsion on the words, and his eyes glinted with a sudden potent, deep-seated anger. Terra got the niggling feeling that this conversation no longer had anything to do with food and hunched deeper into her flannel blanket, eyeing him warily.
"Actually," she replied, "I was merely going to inform you that you sound like a worrying old grandmother."
Locke gaped, anger vanished. "I do not!"
"I'm afraid you're mistaken."
"If what you mean by that is 'do too,' I repeat: Do not."
Terra stared at him. It was becoming an increasingly familiar action. The man was worse than a miswired Heavy Armor; he was a Spitfire whose propellers had been attached with duct tape.
Resolved to change the subject to something less aggravating, she drew deep from the well of her less-affected memories for a topic of polite conversation. Irritatingly, the bucket returned largely empty. Perhaps she had never possessed conversational skills to begin with.
"Arvis informed me you work as a thief," she tried with polite interest.
Based on the man's immediate reaction, it was evident that her sketchy bank of social niceties had failed her. However, the deep shades of purple and red that colored his face were fascinating enough to make it worth the miscalculation.
"Thief?" He leaped to his feet, face stormy with outrage. "The man calls me a thief. Well. I see how it is. I don't know what kind of falsehoods that backstabbing git filled your head with before I got there, Terr, but don't you be believing everything you hear. Especially not from senile old men like him. When I see him again, I'm going to rip his sodding lungs out," he finished darkly.
As he flopped down next to her on the floor of the swaying car, the sudden bad temper seemed to evaporate all at once. He studied her, face serious. "I was a thief, you know, once upon a time. But I gave that life up long ago."
Terra wondered if she would ever not be confused again. "But...I saw you take a potion from the scholars in that classroom in Narshe. It was hidden in a chest in the back room and you picked the lock."
His face went carefully blank. "That was borrowing."
"They had loads of healing cocktails stashed away back there; one less isn't going to hurt them any."
"Well!" he exclaimed brightly. "We've still got a full day ahead of us. What shall we do to pass the time? Another round of I Spy?"
"Last time you spied a crate and a spider. I guessed each in two questions."
"Right, right." He shrugged. "At least all these boxes keep us insulated some. It gets cold up in these mountains, even with spring just around the corner." Locke looked at her apologetically. "Sorry we couldn't travel in something nicer, Terr. If we weren't in hiding I'd have you in first class dining on tiny Figarian delicacies, not freezing back here in a dusty old cargo car."
She tilted her head quizzically. The man was very...protective. "Using logical deduction from your account of the series of events that have led to this point, I conclude that luxury hasn't often been a prominent part of my lifestyle. Therefore, your sentiments aren't necessary."
Locke considered her, one eyebrow raised. A small smile began tugging at the corner of his mouth. "...You know, you're really something, Terra."
A sudden blast of the train's whistle saved her from thinking of a reply. The sound had become as common and even soothing as the constant clacking of the rails below, of the low chugging of the train itself. This time, however, it extended itself into a brief burst of blasts that Terra's trained mind instantly identified as a deliberate pattern, though to the unmindful it mostly likely would have blended into itself, unnoticed.
Locke's body went rigid at the sound, like a gray lobo to his pack's distant call of warning. Abruptly he was on his feet and shouldering the rucks, every shred of his devil-may-care demeanor vanished. "Time to go, Terr."
Even as he spoke the train began to slow ever so slightly, pressure brakes releasing in a forceful hiss and cars groaning at the change in forces. Terra stood too, letting the blanket fall to the floor. "Locke, what's going on?"
Locke glanced back from where he was already busy at the end of the car, shoving crates away from the back wall. "Bring that," he commanded, nodding his head toward the fallen blanket. "We don't want to leave any easy evidence for them."
"Them?" She was surprised at the strain and vulnerability she heard in her own voice, and the twinge of panic blooming deep in her stomach. Again, they're after you again, always running... Though the kaleidoscopic spectrum of human emotions often felt as inscrutable to her as a rainbow to a color blinded man, she knew fear. Fear lurked in every corner of this tiny world of hers – from the Narshite officers' shouts as she stumbled blindly over icy rocks, to the black maw of that cave, to falling and falling among showers of debris into suffocating darkness, to hiding, always hiding, and finally, to the realization that her mind was lost to her. And over it all a voice, lurking in firelit nightmares, a voice she knew but didn't, pervasive and intangible and terrifying and...and laughing.
Suddenly Locke was there, his face close to hers, his gloved hands gently gripping her narrow shoulders. "Hey," he soothed, eyes searching hers. "You still with me?"
Terra drew a shuddering breath. "Yes..." she faltered. What was wrong with her? Locke's hands warmed her shoulders even through the thick material of her winter jacket. She took a moment to absorb his realness, drawing on his strength to patch her faltering psyche back together. "Yes." This time a declaration. "Please Locke, tell me what's going on."
His eyes searched her face again, briefly, then he released her with a quick squeeze and returned to whatever he had been doing in the back of the car. Terra saw now that he was worrying at the rusty latches of what appeared to be a trap door, set low in the wall.
"The whistle was a message," he explained. "A warning. Just as you can hardly walk the Figarian markets anymore without brushing shoulders with an undercover Imperial Intel op, we Returners have got a few friends stashed around as well. The owner of Figaro Railways is quietly sympathetic to our cause, and hires people who can keep their mouths shut. We mostly leave each other alone, but he does his part by looking the other way when we feel the need to hitch a covert ride, and by warning us when there's trouble of the brown uniform variety. My guess is we're dealing with an Imperial blockade up ahead."
Anxiety clutched at her heart once more. She hated the way it felt, how invasive these human sentiments were."Shouldn't we hurry, then?"
He now had his shoulder against one of the sliding bolts, shoving hard as he wiggled the warped bar free inch by inch, old flakes of rust falling loose to dust his knees orange-red. "We've still got time," he grunted, and though she saw he worked with urgency, it was well controlled. "We still have to reach the end of Deadman's Noose before they can even board. Meanwhile, the arseholes are sitting there feeling pretty smug, assuming that no one could possibly be crazy enough to jump out of a moving train into these canyons. So they're in no hurry. Though if I can't get this friggin' door open soon we may as well climb in one of these crates and wrap it up all pretty with a friendly gift tag addressed 'To Gestahl With Love,' " he muttered, kicking hard at the door. "Would it have killed old Francis to come back here and lube up these bolts now and then?"
Terra's attention, however, had lurched to a halt at the part about the Imperials and smug assumptions. " 'The Imperials don't think anybody will be crazy enough to jump,' " she repeated slowly. "Locke. Are you implying that we are crazy enough?"
With a final heave, he wrenched the second bar free. The squat door swung outward, admitting a view of the next car in line and a sudden blast of noise as the din of metal on metal amplified to a veritable cacophony. A sharp, piney-smelling cold gusted inside, flattening the loose ends of his hair around his jaw as he turned back to regard her with false hurt. "Aw, c'mon Terra!" he yelled, barely audible over the clamor. "Don't you trust me? I've got a plan, of course!" With that, he flattened to his belly and disappeared head first through the trap door (which, she deduced with some displeasure, had clearly been constructed with moogles in mind).
There was nothing for it but to follow. Mindful of splinters, Terra carefully flattened herself to the floor and poked her head through the door.
Locke had already thrown himself across the swaying car connectors with the agility of an acrobat and the heed of a suicidal maniac, and was busily working at what appeared to be an identical trap door on the next car in line. Terra, however, hardly noticed. Her attention was pulled forcibly to the stark, towering mountains off to the right, jagged and razor sharp like a motley set of daggers. Snow clothed the arsenal of peaks but did nothing to soften their severity. Beyond that, though...beyond that, the sun was rising from an icy bed of distant snowstorms; it ignited everything in orange and magenta and molten gold. Terra felt her heart seize once again, but this time it was not in fear. The morning light played across the cracks and crevasses and mountain folds in astounding ways, highlighting details in a study of contrasts. Rivers and lakes that were otherwise hidden in shadowed, snowy valleys caught hold of stray sunbeams and flung them back into the sky, turning their own rippled surfaces into glowing mirrors of the mountains. And beyond that...where her eyes were familiar with little besides city and houses, chimneys and industrial yards and suburbs stretching off to stalk the horizon...beyond that the world was nothing but whites and greens and blues, rocks and forest and snow and cloud, layer upon layer until even those colors faded to become one with the sky.
Terra had never seen anything so beautiful. Even the part of her brain that was hiding her life from her agreed.
The snow-specked eddies created by the speeding train had ripped her ponytail out of its holder long ago, whipping her hair about her face in a wild sea green tangle. But she didn't care. Inhaling deeply, she closed her eyes and let it wash over her – the smells of earth and pine, crisp mountain air tinged with the distant warming of spring, the wind roaring in her ears and caressing her face and cleansing her fear.
So this was what it was like to fly. Somehow it felt more natural than her earthbound state ever had. Terra smiled – a full, unrestrained smile – and for the briefest moment, in this unlikely circumstance, she discovered joy.
Mind yanked back into the confines of her body and the dire situation at hand, her grasp on the moment fled. But it left behind a peace and calm that gave her courage. Opening her eyes, she peered across the rattling gap to see Locke eyeing her quizzically. Catching her gaze, he motioned her to toss the two survival packs across – no easy feat when one is crunched halfway through a door the size of a moogle cub onboard a speeding, bouncing train, as Terra immediately discovered. Only Locke's quick reflexes and aforementioned clear disregard for life saved their supplies from exploding all over the mountainside. Safely stashing them inside the next car, he clambered back down toward the connector to escort her across.
Terra shook her head at him. "I can do it myself!" she yelled. Wind whipping her red skirt tight around her legs, she crossed with the grace and confidence of a dancer. She smiled, her mind singing to the tune of the wind in her ears. Tiny specks of snow and ice, kicked up by the eddies of the passing train, floated about her in glittering swirls and stuck to her eyelashes as she pushed past Locke and scaled the other side. Glancing back at him in triumph, she dropped to her belly and shimmied into the new car.
Immediately a musty, earthy, animal smell assaulted her sinuses. The car was dark with the exception of a few slats near the ceiling, which allowed a handful of narrow sunbeams to slip through. In the dust-filtered light, she could make out an unremarkable collection of yet more wooden crates, stacked neatly against one wall. On the opposite side, animal pens crowded together in a cramped but orderly row. In one of those pens stood a large yellow chocobo rooster. It was staring at her. And it looked displeased.
Locke's head popped through the door, bandana askew and silvery hair falling into his eyes. Pulling himself through and climbing to his feet, he brushed the dirt off his pants and gave Terra a brief, bemused look, then turned to eye the burly rooster. It assessed him with a deliberate, beady-eyed gaze in turn. Terra believed she may have witnessed that same expression on an overweight Jidooran man eyeing a medium-rare steak once.
"Well, I thought for sure there would be more than one in here. You can usually count on our noble friends up front to pack along at least a couple of their prize chocobos. Helps their image, ya know? How else would they make their grand entrances? You can't do that in the muddy boots of an honest working man, no sir. Would be downright scandalous." He began to pull a saddle and halter from a hook on the wall. "Well, can't be helped. Luckily this guy looks fit enough to take us both."
Terra watched him untangle the leather straps. She pulled the zipper of her quilted winter jacket closer to her chin and hugged her body against the chill. "You don't like nobility very much, do you."
"Au contraire, ma chere!" He turned to her with a grin. "One of my best friends is a king. That's how I know what lowdown, good-for-nothing pretty pansy boy arses they are." He winked. "You'll love him!"
She blinked. "We're actually going to see this...king?"
"Soon's we got off this blasted train." Brandishing the saddle, he swung open the stall gate and strode toward the rooster. "While I get this guy set up why don't you see if you can find us any extra supplies in those crates over – owww you bloody bird that HURT!"
Trilling a long, satisfied wark of triumph, the chocobo pranced once around its pen and then, for good measure, swiped its long talons at Locke's hastily retreating form. It cocked its head at them, menace in its eyes and a bit of blood on its beak.
Locke clutched an injured hand to his chest. "The thing bit me!"
He turned a mournful gaze on her, eyes entreating.
"Well what do you want me to do about it?"
"Aren't women supposedly good with animals?"
She scoffed. "Aren't you supposedly good with animals?"
"Well, not this one, apparently. C'mon, Terra. Can't you try...just, talking to it or something?"
"It's a giant chicken. You want me to talk to a giant chicken."
"They're actually extremely intelligent, ya know. Alright then, I'll try talking to it. Hey, chicky chicky," he began in a singsong voice. "Can you do us all a favor and give us a ride down the mountain? I promise you'll have more fun than if you stay with that stodgy old cologne-soaked master of yours. He probably digs his knees too hard into your poor tender sides, doesn't he. I bet he has bad breath, too. You know I've got the right of it. Yeah, that's right...nice and easy...good bird..."
The bird growled, deep in its throat. Judging the futility of his efforts to be logarithmically skyrocketing, Terra turned to scan the nearest stack of crates. Conveniently, a crowbar lay discarded in a pile of scrap, possibly left behind by a Narshite loader. Whatever the reason, it served Terra's purpose. Marching over, she hefted it in one hand and, in a smooth series of motions, soon had the top ripped off the nearest case. Inside was a neatly-placed rope of sausage links, wrapped in paper and carefully coiled to make maximum use of space. She considered. Did chocobos eat sausage? She turned to observe the monster bird, whose beak was currently bared wide in a taunting hiss. Between the bill, claws, and temperament, she judged that it probably took down full-grown cattle in its spare time.
Tossing the wrappers aside, she ripped off a few links and strode back to the strutting rooster and a treasure hunter who was beginning to show significant signs of stress. At the tortured sound of dislodged nails, Locke had turned to glance in her direction, and had been immediately rewarded with a hard peck to the shoulder. His gentle coaxing had now disintegrated into grinding threats. "Look, you mangy ball of fluff. You have approximately two minutes to let me tie this saddle to your back. If you don't, I'm going to pull out those ugly tail feathers and use them to stuff a frilly pink pillow for your master's spoiled daughter. Then I'm going to toss your wings in my grandma's famous herbed breading and fry them up for a barbecue, which I'll serve up to all the little orphans of Figaro. And you know what I'll do next? I'll turn your head into a puppet and use it for the after dinner show. Don't think I won't, you lousy bird, because there's a whole pack of ravening Imperials at the end of this line and I am not ending up in another one of their detention camps, you hear me? Now, what's it gonna be?"
The chocobo warked derisively and made a rude gesture.
Terra silently agreed that the threats rang rather empty, considering the circumstances. Stepping to the gate, she thrust the sausage links in the rooster's face. "Here, bird. Food."
As one, Locke and the chocobo turned to stare at her in perplexity. At least they seemed to finally agree on something. "Uh, Terr..." the treasure hunter began, hesitantly. "Chocobos actually need greens...herbivores and all that." His forehead creased. "Did you just rip that crate open with a crowbar?"
"Well, you could have fooled me," she snapped, ignoring the last statement. "It seems to me that he likes the taste of human flesh." The train was slowing significantly now. Terra guessed they were finally emerging from the Noose Locke had mentioned, in which case their time was growing alarmingly short. Locke obviously felt the same bite of urgency, as his cheerful affectations had all but disappeared. Cursing, he tossed the saddle into a corner and jogged over to their packs, where his rummaging took on a distinctly frantic edge. "Okay, chocobo ride is out. Time for plan B," he ground, lips tight.
Terra turned to stare at the irksome bird, considering. It stared back.
She glanced over her shoulder at the frenzied treasure hunter. His head was all but buried in the pack, a ring of discarded survival equipment lying around him like corpses after one of Kefka's raids.
Where had that thought come from? Kefka? Do I know that name? It tasted of unease. Frowning, she grasped at the tickling of a memory, but it was gone before her mind had even fully conceived of its existence.
Shaking off the odd feeling, she turned back to the bird and looked it straight in its beady black eyes. Almost pleasantly, she extended a hand, palm up. Summoning the necessary carbon and oxygen atoms, extracting them from the world around her and combining them into their appropriate configurations, was as natural to her as passing air through her lungs, and as quick as thought a sphere of fire rushed to life in her hand. Well-contained, it burned in ghostly silence, but the heat it radiated was intense enough to sear the inside of her nose as she breathed and scorch the softer down around the chocobo's beak. Eyes wide, it scrambled to the back of its pen.
"Look, bird," she murmured lowly, leaning over the rail to make sure it heard. "You are going to take us out of here. Otherwise...all those things he said?" She nodded her head toward Locke, still busy with the supplies. "I'll do for real." As unceremoniously as it had begun, the flame blinked back out of existence, leaving no evidence of its brief life but the faintest scent of burnt dust.
The giant bird cautiously poked its head forward, eying her warily. It sniffed her hand, where impossible elements had danced moments before. It looked at her, cocking its head to one side. And it seemed to come to a decision. With a warbled, almost cordial wark, it nuzzled its head briefly against her cheek and settled gracefully to the ground. Terra smiled at the unexpected brush of soft feathers against her face. "You are a smart one," she murmured, scratching it gently beneath the beak, and clambered aboard.
Locke had finally emerged from the packs with a loop of slim nylon cord and what appeared to be a handful of sharpened metal grappling hooks. His voice was tight when he spoke. "Okay, here's what we need to do, Terra. First we're going to anchor you to the railing back there, and you're gonna get ready to climb...ohh..."
His sentence trailed off into quiet obliteration and his jaw dropped slightly. It was the first time she had ever seen him at a loss for words.
Terra smiled from her lofty height aboard the now-compliant rooster's broad back. She had to resist the urge to swing her legs like a child. "I reasoned with him."
Locke shook his head in wonderment. "Oookay," he managed. "Right then."
A loud whistle from up front seemed to jolt him back into action. Working quickly, he shouldered both the packs and tethered them loosely to his body with the nylon cord. There was no more time to load them properly, or even to mount the saddle. Bounding to the end of the car, Locke yanked open the door – a real one this time, thankfully, and not the fun-sized contraptions of earlier. In that moment, she realized to her dismay that she had no idea how to make the bird move forward. But Locke was back in a heartbeat, hoisting himself onto its back with impressive ease (she noticed it still stubbornly refused to kneel for him).
And in the next instant his chest was pressed against her back; his warm arms were circling her to grip the feathers at the chocobo's neck, so close that she could smell all the scents that were uniquely him, clinging to his jacket and hair and skin. Terra stiffened at the onslaught of human contact, nearly panicking. Feeling her go rigid, he eased his grip as much as he could without losing it entirely and sliding off the back. Immediately she felt ashamed, and her face burned. What was wrong with her? Why couldn't she be normal?
He made a motion with his knees and the chocobo darted forward, all smooth grace. They stepped out onto an open-aired veranda, steps descending partially down one side, and Terra realized with mild surprise that they were standing at the end of the last car. She hadn't noticed earlier, when all she could focus on was the onslaught of mountain imagery as viewed from between two boxcars. But now the scenery opened up before them completely, in all the glory of the morning.
She leaned forward to peer up the train. Some distance ahead, the engine was just beginning to creep out over an incredibly tall, incredibly long trestle spanning two cliff faces. The open air below it gaped for a hundred feet or more – distance was difficult to measure with low-lying clouds from the valleys creeping up to obscure it – but the drop was no doubt alarming. Terra wondered if the bridge itself stood as yet another monument to the Figarians' ingenuity in engineering.
Their most immediate concern, however, lay just beyond the opposite side. Where an entire battalion of Imperial browns waited, expectant. She could see the commanders in their nightblack body armor, prowling along the track next to the sharply-formed ranks, like hungry cats. The more terrifying were those who stood stock still, waiting, but with the easy stance of those with no need to question their own power, of the truly dangerous. A massive tank sat blocking the track, giving the engine just enough distance to come to a halt on solid ground but leaving the passenger cars stranded in open air. Finally, she could just catch the barest glimpse of a Heavy Armor tucked back among the trees. The goddesses only knew how many more they had stowed away in that wood.
Terra shrank back. "Are...are all those for me?" She still had very little idea why they were chasing her, or even who "they" truly were. A niggling feeling told her that this was something that should hold the most significance for her – what consisted of this dreaded, shadowy Empire that awoke such tones of hatred in both Locke and Arvis; what it was all about. But when she reached for the memories, there was nothing but a cold, dark void to greet her. A void that occasionally echoed with insane laughter and bizarre flashes of color.
But she wasn't stupid. Obviously she was special to them in some way. Perhaps she carried some monstrous secret of theirs; perhaps it was her "talent." Possibly both. For that matter, she still wasn't even clear on Locke or Arvis' motives – what they had to gain by helping her. If helping her was, in fact, what they were doing. But they didn't seem to know about her talent. And Arvis had removed that cold thing from her head that had made her drown inside – that had robbed her of everything she ever held important and dear. Had robbed her of even the knowledge of those things. Locke had risked his life to carry her out of those mines. Locke smiled at her, placed himself next to her in a way that made her feel safe, if confused. All the Imperials were doing was terrifying her by holding their train at cannonpoint.
Locke hadn't answered her question. He was studying their ranks with hard eyes, tucking every detail away deep into his memory – numbers, models, and the amount of travel equipment they had on hand, no doubt. "They're gonna cripple themselves with their own trap," he murmured. "Hold on tight, Terra."
Startled, she reflexively tightened her already white-knuckled grip on the chocobo's feathers. "We're going now?" The train had been slowing, it was true, but they were still trucking along fast enough that jumping didn't seem like it would contribute to a particularly long or healthy life. But Locke was already spurring their mount forward. With a screech, the chocobo darted off the veranda and carried them straight over the edge of a cliff.
Terra clutched the feathers desperately, just below her insane partner's gloved hands, and bit down hard on the terrified scream trying to escape her throat. But suddenly the bird's wings were flapping, and its feet clawed furiously, and she realized what they were hurtling down wasn't so much a cliff as a very steep slope. Though chocobos couldn't fly, their mount was making good use of his wings for balance and ballast while his claws dug deep into the ground for additional control. Locke pressed against her back suddenly, urging her into a crouch, and she knew why a second later as pine branches sang through the air where their heads had only just been. One of those in the face at speeds like this would likely take out eyes or teeth. Snow disturbed by their breakneck progress billowed about them in a huge, icy cloud, completely obscuring her vision as they continued to careen down the mountain.
Blinded and soaked, Terra remained in her huddled ball against the base of the bird's neck, bouncing and jostling painfully, until it finally began to slow. Sitting up tentatively, she peered around. The ground had leveled for the moment, though it appeared to continue in a more gentle descent farther ahead in the forest. The trees here seemed taller, the underbrush thinner. Most of their obstructions consisted of old fallen trees and branches, creating cagelike barriers which their chocobo navigated deftly. Best of all, though, was the notable lack of snow – it dusted the clearings, but otherwise left this portion of the wood untouched.
Terra turned to look behind them. Their mad descent down the slope had left a trail visible to probably half the continent.
She realized then that Locke was laughing wildly in what sounded suspiciously like exhilaration. The man was truly insane. She shot a withering look over her shoulder, teeth chattering as the ice melted on her skin and dripped down her back. He immediately sobered, though unrepentant glee still pulled at the corners of his mouth. "Aww, c'mon, Terr. Not twenty minutes ago you were train-hopping like an old bandit. You had the most beautiful, unconquerable expression on your face. I actually felt sorry for any future Imperials who might cross your path."
It seemed like a compliment, but she glared anyway. "Are they following us?"
She felt his shoulders shrug against her back. "They will, eventually; there's no way they can miss that trail we made. But we'll lose them over the next few days. I know all the best smuggling tracks in the country better than anyone – with the exception of that old barmy git Siegfried." She heard the scowl in his voice. Sensing that he was about to launch into one of his rambling diatribes, Terra hastily steered them back to the subject at hand. "But what if they're chasing us right now?"
"And there's the beauty of a carefully-laid Imperial plan...and my favorite moment of all time, when it blows up in their monochromatic faces," he declared, not even trying to disguise his smirk. "They purposefully parked the train on that bridge, so that they'd have full control of the passengers. All they had to do was send a couple a' troops hopping across the rooftops to get at the back; then they could search from both ends without worrying about anybody sneaking off into the underbrush through a side door. Most of all, it kept the passengers afraid. Fear is Gestahl's most beloved weapon." He snickered, but there was little humor to it. "So sad for them, we didn't wait around to fall into their trap. And even if they had seen us running off, the train's blocking the way of their heavies. And by the way, they didn't, because I waited till we passed behind Plato's Pinnacle to bail."
"Oh." She hadn't noticed.
They were quiet for a while, listening to the muted thumping of the chocobo's massive feet across the dead needle-strewn forest floor. It occurred to her that they really ought to give it a name. After all, it had just saved their lives. And she was actually starting to kind of like the thing.
Locke shifted behind her. "One thing I don't understand," he murmured, voice troubled, "is how they got so deep into Figarian territory. We should have known. If not us, then Edgar's spies, at least."
Terra shrugged. "I made it all the way to Narshe in a Heavy. According to you."
"Yes – worrisome, but also different. There were three of you, working on your own. We've never known the Empire to pull such a risky stunt before. We weren't expecting it at all. Now suddenly there's a whole battalion up here – at least – and we didn't even catch a glimmering of it? I know my intel people, and they're no one to be trifled with. Hells, I'm one of them myself." His left hand worried at one of the cornsilk feathers in agitation.
"Maybe I was commanding them," she stated matter-of-factly. "Before they put the cold thing on my head. Maybe I'm a tactical genius."
She felt him shift uncomfortably and turned to gaze at him from the corner of her eye. "Maybe by helping me you've brought a dragon snake into a mouse den. They look just like the harmless habo snake, but have hidden glands in their jaws that allow them to shoot poison over ten feet. Maybe I'm the dragon snake. Have you ever thought of that, Locke?"
She was obviously discomfiting the man terribly. "Look, Terra, you're not one of them. Whatever you've done in the past, it was under the influence of detestable men. I've seen the real you and she's not a killer; I promise you that, Terr."
Her brows drew together. Who had said anything about killing, specifically? That is to say, she had implied it with her snake analogy, and commanding scores of military troops often led to it, unsurprisingly, and it was possible some Narshite police had died at her hand. Arvis had carefully skirted around that topic. But there had been something else in the man's tone...as if he was referencing something specific...
She narrowed her eyes. "You know something about me." It only made sense, if what she was piecing together about him and the Returners was true.
"I really don't, Terra. They kept you well hidden from us." She couldn't see his face; couldn't tell if he was hiding something from her in turn. Not that she would have reliably been able to tell, anyway, she thought sourly; the part of her brain labeled Relationships and Emotional Interactions seemed remarkably inept. Locke continued. "Let's just focus on getting safely to the castle for now, eh? I think once you talk to Edgar some of your questions will be answered."
The name finally caught her attention. "Edgar...King Edgar, of...Figaro?" Her mind was rapidly piecing together bits of their previous conversations with what fragments of general knowledge she had left to her on the subject. Of the latter, there wasn't much; of course everyone knew that Figaro was allied to the Empire, and had been for many decades. The Empire relied on the technological products it generated, and Figaro relied on the Empire's business. It was whispered that the relationship had begun to strain, however, not too long before King Edwin died – abruptly – and Gestahl began gathering truly unprecedented political power. As for where that relationship stood at the present, she didn't know. Politics had never been her forte – that had been the realm of someone else...
Wait. Who? She grabbed at the thought, desperately, but it dissolved like smoke in the wind.
Locke was talking, answering her earlier unspoken question. "Figaro and the Empire are allies, so don't worry about Ed...you won't have to be afraid of him hurting you like those Narshite police did. You might want to borrow a nun's habit, though, and lock your bedroom door at night." He smiled brightly.
Thrown off-kilter by the last statement, she momentarily faltered, but quickly regained her train of thought. With Locke, one had to sift through his topics and choose the best one to pursue. "I don't understand. I thought we were running away from the Empire because they're trying to hurt me. And you hate them."
He seemed to choose his next words carefully. "It's possible to be in the Empire but not of it. Like you. I can't explain now, but it'll become clear in time." His hands moved from their light grip on the chocobo's neck to rest gently on both of hers. She was struck again by his closeness, his warmth...but this time it didn't feel quite so strange or uncomfortable. Maybe she was getting used to this whole personal relations business after all. "Trust me, Terra. I won't let anything hurt you. I swear it by my life, okay?"
On the other hand, maybe not. She didn't know how to react to the dead seriousness in his voice, the startling intimacy of his promises. For lack of a better reaction she mutely nodded, then stared down at her hands.
Their chocobo made good time, even as encumbered as it was. Terra began calling him Albert, which the bird seemed to take pride in until Locke heard and started snickering uncontrollably, in which instance Albert turned mid-stride to deliver a solid peck to his leg. They rode all day, stopping only occasionally to stretch and dine on field rations from the packs. Spring was too new to produce much in the way of forest foraging, but Terra found herself ripping open and consuming jerky and tasteless protein bars with the practiced ease of a veteran. She idly wondered how often she'd relied on these things in the past.
Slowly the light changed and the sun-dappled forest floor became blotted with long shadows. The stark rocks and hardy trees had eased into soft firs and lush meadows dotted with wildflowers as they neared the lower elevations. The snow lessened, manifesting itself mostly in shade-encased canyons now or old wind caches, where weeks of winter fury had collected it into enormous drifts, slowly melting. The air was sweet with promised warmth, and Terra felt her anxiety over being followed begin to drift away with the breeze. Even Albert seemed to be enjoying himself, snapping at butterflies and occasionally flapping his wings violently in a sort of impromptu dance of deep satisfaction. Terra guessed this was as free as he had ever been.
A tiny part of her being told her it was as free as she had ever been, too.
At nightfall they made camp in a small depression near the end of a ridge, hidden away both by the slightly higher ground that encircled it, and a little copse of trees that kept them sheltered from the cold nighttime winds. Albert, tethered nearby, seemed content enough, munching on the long greens that swayed gently in the adjoining meadow. Locke set up two tiny tents, side by side, using only a couple of stakes to pin down the corners, with nylon cord knotted between a pair of trees to form ridges for the roofs. Without skipping a beat, he pulled out a small, cleverly-designed folding shovel and dug a small pit for their fire – to keep unwanted eyes from catching sight of the flames, he explained, adding that the gusting wind would dissipate any smoke that escaped the tree canopy. It was very obvious that he had done this kind of thing many times before. Terra couldn't help but wonder just exactly what his role in the Returners involved.
That night they dined on rehydrated stew and herbal tea in order to keep their core temperatures up. Locke apologized profusely for the meager fare, vowing that he'd find them something better once they had created a more comfortable gap between them and any possible pursuers. Terra didn't mind. The stew warmed her belly and the deep glow of the flames soothed her. She listened intently to the sound of wind rushing through pines, relishing in the way a gust would catch the stragglers on the edges, setting them off in whispers, in turn rousing the thicker clumps toward the middle, until the entire wood was a swell of pine conversation – but none of them ever speaking over that low whisper. Nothing about this setting of cheery fire and comfortable companionship and soothing nighttime wood noises felt familiar to her. But somehow it was more like home than anything else she could imagine.
She had just settled down to brush some of the grit out of her hair and arrange her sleeping bag when Locke emerged from the darkness nearby. There hadn't been so much as a snapping stick to herald his coming; the man moved like black silk.
"C'mere, Terr. I've got something to show you." Eyes bright, he held out his hand.
Gamely, she took it, and they started west through the blackened wood. She was quite certain her ankle would be broken in about six places right now if he hadn't been there to guide her. Soon enough they emerged from the little copse, though. Terra halted at the sight of the silvery moonlight playing off the field of tall meadow grasses. That peculiar feeling of contentedness and safety welled up inside her once again.
"You like that moon, eh?" He halted next to her, not letting go of her hand. The man carried such an easy familiarity about him, his mannerisms and gestures and casual touches all working together to put a person immediately at ease. If she had tried to pull half the stunts he did, people would ask her if she was feeling well, or hurry off to barricade their children behind locked doors.
Unsurprisingly, Locke was still talking. "They call that the Mother's Moon, ya know. They say the three Goddesses had another sister, a younger one. But one day she fell in love with a mortal man. That's always their downfall, ya know, these creatures of higher realms and their fascination with us puny mortals." He turned to wink at her, moonlight glinting off his eyes. "But I guess this man was a particularly studly fellow, all strong and heroic and a sappy romantic ta boot. Well, they fell for each other good and hard, and of course ran off to get married against the strict orders of her sisters.
'As you can imagine, they weren't too happy with this. I mean, c'mon, don't you just hate it when little sisters won't listen?" His face was full of mock disgust. "Anyhow, to wrap up what really just boils down to a long and depressing story, she was pregnant with their first child when her sisters found her. Branding the child an abomination, they killed the man and banished their sister and her unborn child to the heavens, where they became part of the moon. Now she shows up there once a month, just before it turns full, her baby forever unborn, mourning for eternity." His voice trailed off theatrically.
Terra stared at him, bewildered. "Locke, that's just a waxing gibbous. It indicates the portion we see lit by the sun relative to where the moon sits in its orbit around us. Besides, gibbous derives from the word humpbacked. Which I don't think has a lot to do with pregnancy."
He gazed at her, face devoid of expression. Abruptly he resumed pulling her through the meadow. "Anyhow. That's not even what I brought you out here to see." They brushed through the grass for several minutes in silence.
"You've gotta admit those goddesses weren't the nicest of gals, though," he suddenly piped.
"I mean, going around killing people and banishing their sister to the moon. And then they ended up getting in some ridiculous spat anyway that ended up decimating half the world, according to Gram. Well!" he exclaimed, before she could comment. "Here we are! Wanted to show you what we'll be crossing tomorrow." Unexpectedly, they had reached the end of the ridge and she now found herself looking down into an open, darkened valley. Unsure of what she was supposed to be seeing, her eyes flit around for something to focus on. Then he drew her closer, one warm hand against the small of her back, and pointed to a spot just below where the earth met the sky. It was quite far away, but sprang out from among its surroundings under the moonlight – a flat, silver plane, swallowing the horizon like the sea.
But it wasn't the sea. "Figaro Desert," Locke explained. "Don't ask me why Ed's noble ancestors decided to set up shop in that old wasteland, but the desert does have a certain beauty to it, once you learn how to see it."
Even though she knew the glow was only the result of its high albedo, Terra had to admit the desert sands shining in the moonlight were breathtaking. She could see why Locke had wanted to show it to her. "We'll be crossing that whole thing tomorrow?"
He laughed, though not condescendingly. "I wish. Nah, it'll take us the whole day just to get there, and then a couple more to reach the castle itself. Castle Figarians are some of the politest and most hospitable people you'll ever meet – they've gotta be, because all their guests are so disgruntled and surly by the time they finally get there."
"Why don't they relocate somewhere closer? So that people don't have to travel so far?"
The smallest twitch crossed his face at her mention of "relocate," but it was gone so quickly she thought she may have imagined it after all. "Because at the same time, it's a distinct political advantage," he explained. "Throws your opponents off balance. Puts them at your mercy. The railway actually forks off toward the west near here, passing about thirty miles or so south of the kingdom. So most people aren't going to do what we'll be doing."
He plopped down suddenly in the tall grass, cross-legged. "But there's still that thirty mile interim across the dunes that the nobles hate. Ed sends out a nice motorized carriage for the people he wants to impress, for the ones he wants on his side. For the superfluous sycophants and self-serving, the spies that he can't use to his advantage, and sometimes even the dangerous, it's the old state car for them, the one with the questionable air conditioner and weak suspension. But never enough that it seems deliberate. It's all about the game, the message you wanna send, the tone you wanna set for your meeting."
Terra settled herself carefully onto the ground next to him, pulling her jacket tighter against the increasing nighttime chill. Tiny questions that had been pawing at her all day finally coalesced into one. "How does someone like you come to know a king? And so much about politics?" It was high time she began digging into the motives of this man she so blindly followed.
"Hey!" He looked affronted. "What do you mean, 'someone like me'? You're saying I'm not handsome or charming enough to get in with the nobleman's playboy club?"
She looked pointedly at his scuffed leather boots, then considered the threadbare trousers, patched jacket, and the bright trinkets haphazardly placed about his person. Her eyes moved to his windblown hair, temporarily free of its bandana, the two days' growth of stubble dirtying his face, and a thin pale scar that began under one ear and ran for several inches down his jaw. "No," she declared.
He clutched at his heart dramatically, face filled with anguish. "Ow," he moaned. "Owwww. Why, Terra, whyyy?" Just as suddenly, he was all smiles again. "It's a long story. Ya really wanna hear it?"
The man made her feel like she suffered from chronic whiplash. But she nodded.
So Locke told her all about how he had been born in Narshe but barely remembered anything about it because when he was only four, his father decided to haul their family to the other side of the world so that he could join the military in Vector. "My da was an idealist," Locke explained. "Revolutionary, really, for a Narshite. They hate change up there. If Gramps was a coal miner, well you'd bloody well better be one too, unless you were clever enough to upgrade to a mechanic or electrician. Anyway, one day on his way to the mines old Da saw a recruiting poster for the Imperial Air Force tacked to some shopfront. Decided right then and there that he was going to join the military and become a pilot.
' 'Course, that's easier said than done. Turns out you gotta have a fancy education for a pilot slot, along with perfect eyesight. The old man had neither, so he decided he'd settle on a ground maintenance position instead. At least that way he'd still get to work around the things. Well, once they've got you the recruiters don't much care anymore about the dreams of a poor, naïve coal miner. Set him up as an infantryman on the front lines, straight away. He was killed on his first field mission. Shot by a malcontent when his unit was sent to stamp out the First Marandan Rebellion."
A strange, almost bitter smile ghosted his lips. Terra wasn't sure which part had upset him. His father's death? The Empire sending him out to die? Or...was it the manner in which the Empire dealt with rebellion, the disproportionate brutality it unleashed on civilians? The fact that his father was killed in behalf of a raid that never should have occurred?
These considerations crept unexpectedly from the shadows to the forefront of her mind. She realized Locke's story was unearthing other thoughts, minor remembrances of her own, personal knowledge of the Empire lying dormant beneath a blanket of metaphorical ash. These had been present even after the amnesia, but she had been subconsciously ignoring them in light of more pressing matters. They were vague things – awareness of the requirements for piloting positions, comprehension of military rank structure and general protocol, cognizance of certain in-house controversies. But no memories of people, or her own role in it all. Her hold on even this haphazard collection of information was tenuous – the knowledge drifted and scattered like fireflies in the black of night.
Locke was continuing. "Well, Ma was newly pregnant when we heard the news. Just about ruined her. Vector didn't have much to offer a poverty-stricken widow and her small child. Still doesn't. She died in childbirth in our little hovel in the slums, with only the old woman from the candle shop to help her. My little brother never even took a breath. As for me, I ran." His eyes were distant and strange, as if he hadn't spoken on the subject in many years and was only now recalling the terror he must have felt, a small child witnessing ghastly pain and death. "I was only six. But here's a thing about Vector – it's got a whole layer of civilization to it you would never even dream existed from your comfortable office job in the Empire or your swanky shop on Front Street. The underworlders, the gutter rats, they called them – street gangs made up of pickpockets and thieves and any unsavory profession you could dream of – and mostly kids.
'It was those buggers that found me wandering through the alleys, lost and crying, that night. They were only a couple of years older than me, but they took me in, found me a place to sleep, gave me a profession. Most of all, they gave me a new family. I lost a mother and brother but gained a dozen more that night." Now he flopped down on his back entirely and gazed up at the stars, a fond smile of remembrance hovering on his lips.
"And that's where you learned to be a thief?" she guessed.
The smoldering glare he brought to bear on her seemed more reflexive than anything, as a moment later he recalled his admission from the train and relaxed. "Sure was," he professed. "Learned thieving and sneaking and pillaging and any number of horribly immoral acts!" The declaration didn't seem to bother him in the least – in fact, it obviously made him quite cheerful. "But like I said," he hastily amended, "I don't do that anymore."
Terra leaned back carefully on her elbows, peering up into the star-spangled blackness alongside him. She wondered what shapes he saw in the scattered pinpricks of light. Connecting the stars seemed to be a fairly consistent – if not bafflingly useless – thing that people did. "So you grew up there, in Vector?"
Locke grinned. "Well, that's where Gram comes in. She was Ma's mother, and didn't much approve of my da dragging us halfway around the world for a dream. When she heard what happened, she went charging across two continents and an ocean to hunt me down. Gram was a spitfire like you've never laid eyes on." His own eyes glittered with barely-repressed mirth, and...something else. Stronger than affection. Was that what they called love? "Took a while for her to dredge me up, and just about every connection she had. But find me she did! I was ten years old by then and as wild as a Veldt cat. I still don't know how she did it, but somehow she managed to drag me back to her little house in Kohlingen, clean me up, and start me on a proper education.
'Anyway, you're probably wondering where Edgar comes into play in all of this," he said, pulling up several strands of grass and twisting them together in the beginnings of a weave.
In fact, she had been wondering. Locke tended toward the wordy side of things. He continued. "Well, back in her younger days, Gram was one of King Edwin's most honored ambassadors, and a good friend, too. Edwin was Edgar and Sabin's father, by the way. If it had been like back in old times, before Figaro started electing most of its officials, she would have been royalty. Which would have made me royalty too. I'm basically like a long-lost prince," he crowed, grinning at her ridiculously.
"A hedge knight at best," she said, impassively. He frowned. She ignored him. "Who's Sabin?"
He blinked. "Oh...yeah. Got a little ahead of myself there. Sabin's Ed's twin brother, but he's not around anymore. We're pretty sure he's still alive, but...Anyway, they don't talk about him much, so if you could do me a huge favor and keep mum for me, I'd appreciate it greatly."
"Of course," she agreed, though it all seemed very strange to her. If this Sabin wasn't dead, where was he? Why would he keep away from his twin? Did she have a brother or sister somewhere out there, looking for her? Or did her family hear about some of the things she'd done – she must have done – and quit speaking of her, as well? For some reason, the thought made her stomach clench painfully. Reflexively, she drew her knees up to her chest.
"Hey," Locke said, propping himself up and placing a hand on her shoulder in concern. "Are you cold?"
"No," she tried to assert, even though she really was. Locke shed his ragged jacket and draped it over her anyway, of course, leaving himself nothing but a thin, short-sleeved shirt to block the cold mountain air. Terra wondered, frankly, how he had ever managed to survive this long. She supposed he adopted every stray cat and homeless orphan he found in the gutter, as well.
They sat in silence for a moment as the wind stirred the tall grasses around them, listening to hundreds of crickets croon their refrain across the moonlit meadows. Then Locke returned to the grass weave and resumed his story. "Like I was saying. Gram was still great friends with the Figaros, and stuck around quite a bit as Edwin's personal councilor, even though she was officially retired. After she got me back, she saw it as a great opportunity to get me civilized. And to introduce Edgar and Sabin to a taste of the outside world too, I guess. Edwin was always big about that – about mixing with his citizens. It's what the Queen did, before she died. Anyway! The three of us became as tight as a pack of lobos. We spent months at a time together. We were like brothers." He smiled, once again lost in a pleasant land of memories. It was a luxury Terra was beginning to envy.
"What about the rest of the time? In Kohlingen?"
Unexpectedly, his smile faded. He shrugged and tried to sound dismissive. "They readily claimed Gram as one of their own, even though she spent most of her time traipsing around the country – an activity most Kohlingese heartily disapprove of." He smiled wryly. "It didn't hurt that she was so distinguished and respectable, either.
'Me? Well." He fidgeted. "It's not like I had no friends there. Our neighbor's daughter, she became my best friend right off. And a few years later...well."
Terra frowned. Locke's perpetual carefree cheer had given way to uncertainty, even vulnerability. "Anyhow, I only got to spend a couple of years with Gram, but it felt like my whole life. She taught me so much. She died, you know. When I was seventeen. Peacefully, of old age." He seemed to abruptly recognize how fragmented his story had become, and snapped his mouth shut.
Terra peered at him, head tilted, trying hard to decode his sudden state of disquiet. No inspiration was immediately forthcoming. In fact, she wasn't quite sure why she even bothered; people and their erratic emotional states were just as big a puzzle to her right now as they had been when she woke up. Maybe as they'd always been. But his stories filled an empty void in her own heart – for this short time, his loving grandmother had become her own, his friends hers. So she persisted. "Is that when you joined the Returners?"
"Nope. A year or two before that, Edwin suddenly bit it. Got 'sick,' even though he was in prime physical condition and there was no discernible cause." Locke's face had clouded even more, and this time a certain deeply ingrained fury accompanied it. "The kingdom was in a bad state for a while, and to make matters worse, Sabin disappeared right around that time. Gram stuck around to help Edgar and his councilors the best she could in his premature transition to king.
'In the meantime, I had gotten a job with a wandering tradesman. Our work took us all over the continent, but it was back in Narshe where I first met Arvis. How's this for a full circle: turns out he'd known my folks, all those ages ago. Well, he hired me on to start carrying messages for him. They were little things, at first, but eventually he came to trust me with bigger stuff, and eventually his secrets. And that's how I was slowly inducted into the Returners." He finished his story with a grand flourish of his arms.
"So...that's the reason you actually joined? Out of chance? Because it just happened that way?" Somehow that didn't seem to match the person she had come to know.
"No," he admitted. "That wasn't the reason." But he didn't continue; just stared off into the west, as though he were trying to see beyond the miles.
When he spoke again, several minutes later, his voice was unexpectedly earnest, eyes intent on hers. "Terra, if you ever decide to join the Returners, let it be for your own reasons, okay? Don't let them pressure you into it."
She started. If she joined the Returners? The thought had never so much as crossed her mind; but then again, she hadn't thought much about her future at all lately. Based on everything Locke and Arvis had told her and the things she had figured out on her own, she was technically still a citizen of the Empire. Where had this come from? And what was his purpose in bringing it up? Was it because somebody had pressured him in the past, and he wanted to caution her away from repeating his mistake, in case she was ever presented the option? She didn't think so; somehow the warning had felt more immediate. In that case, what exactly did Locke know? Was he expecting something to happen? Her thoughts began to swirl; irritably, she created a mental trap door, shoved them all inside, and slammed it closed.
Hesitantly, she tried one more question. Something completely disconnected from the subject of her future. "After you started working for Arvis...did you move back to Narshe?" It occurred to her how very strange it would be to return to one's childhood home, so many years later and so very changed.
He smiled at her. "Oh, no. When I wasn't delivering messages, I was dividing my time between Figaro and Kohlingen. For a few years, anyway. A lot of my work took me near Figaro anyhow."
Before she could wonder about his reasons behind returning – even after his grandmother's death – to Kohlingen, obviously an unwelcoming place for him, he turned to her abruptly. He had hooked the ends of his grass weave together, turning it into a crown. Positioning it on her head, he leaned back to eye her critically. "You look pretty as a spring rain," he declared. "And it's almost the same shade as your hair."
Terra reached up a tentative hand to touch the twisted grass strands, trying to ignore the gritty, tangled mass her hair had become and hoping the moonlight washed out the flustered confusion on her face. The man had an irritating talent for unhinging her. "We should get back to camp."
"Right you are," he agreed, springing to his feet and offering her a hand up. Exhaustion was settling in quickly for them both. She didn't think Locke had even slept more than an hour or two since she had met him, only a few short days before. She, on the other hand, had spent a large part of their time together either sleeping or unconscious. "Will we be safe here tonight?"
"Count on it," he assured her. "There aren't too many wild animals around these parts; we're too close to civilization. I'll keep watch for a while, and then Albert'll tap in for me. He could claw the eyes out of a woolly mammoth if need be."
And Terra did feel safe. All her questions, all her doubts – none of these seemed to matter as much as she gazed, later that night, at the darkened silhouette of her roguish companion reclining next to his pit fire, gazing fathomlessly into the dying flames, and the enormous yellow bird huddled nearby, head buried in its wing.
Just before crawling into her sleeping bag, Terra removed Locke's grass crown and looked at it. It was a frivolous thing, and would quickly shrivel up and die.
Nevertheless, she tucked it safely into her pack.