Celes stood beside Edgar at the edge of the treeline, surveying the chalky canyon walls that dropped a thousand feet into the forest below.
"Looks steep," Edgar remarked, rather needlessly. "Think we can get down?"
Celes studied the canyon, assessing. It was mid-morning of their second day separated from the group. Now less than a day's walk from Kohlingen, they had been somewhat nonplussed to discover that their path ended abruptly at the top of a gorge. Far below, the forest floor continued westward, eventually thinning into meadows and fields, but here it was as if some deity had chopped a wedge out of the side of the mountain with an immense sword.
On the other hand, it wasn't a sheer cliff – merely a very, very steep slope. She could work with that. What was more, the soft, chalky walls would provide decent traction. Her eyes roved toward the base of the ravine; it appeared the grade eased slightly over the last few hundred feet. Even better. She had no doubt there was a more practical route out there somewhere, but they couldn't afford to waste time searching for it. The others may already be waiting, and, to be completely honest, she truly didn't relish the thought of spending another night huddled among the rocks without a blanket.
"We can definitely work with this," she murmured aloud. Edgar perked up, looking hopeful. "But first we eat. We'll need all the energy we can get for what we're about to do."
Edgar's expression immediately clouded with suspicion. "First of all, eat what? Secondly, you're planning something unpleasant, aren't you."
She simply looked at him, turned, and headed for the river. With a sigh, the king followed. Cyan, standing slightly apart and cutting a brooding figure in the shadows of the trees, joined them. The day prior, the three had arrived at some mutual, wordless agreement that when it came to surviving in the wild, she would lead. She suspected Cyan found her a poor replacement for Sabin or even Locke, as close as their group came to legitimate woodsmen; Celes had only her military survival training and a scattering of covert operations to fall back on. Still, so far it had been enough. And to her surprise, Cyan had accepted her leadership without complaint. The man hadn't had much to say since their confrontation the day before. When their eyes met, his mostly still simmered with anger. But not always. Occasionally she would catch him studying her, his face troubled, sometimes even thoughtful. She wondered if Edgar had spoken with him, or if reason had finally caught up to the stubborn man.
Approaching the river, Celes kicked off her boots and socks. Then she waded into the rocky shallows until the cold water swirled around her knees. There she stopped, studying the sparkling surface carefully but standing motionless, relishing the chill. As spring warmed into summer and they descended from mountain peaks to foothills, the heat of the day had become almost oppressive.
A glint of light caught her eye, flashing in the shadows of a gray-green river rock. Flicking her fingers, she launched an ice missile straight into the river. Several shadows darted away from her makeshift javelin to vanish into deeper waters. Unperturbed, she settled back into stillness and waited.
From the bank, Edgar chuckled. He had already made himself comfortable in a grassy spot in the shade and was back to meddling with his crossbow. "Being a desert man, I admittedly know nothing about fishing. But I'm going to guess what you're doing is considered cheating."
"Why?" she asked, launching another projectile. This time it impaled a modest-sized fish and pinned it firmly to the river's floor. "It involves as much skill as spearing. This is cheating." Casually, she flicked her wrist and froze several cubic feet worth of river, trapping an assortment of aquatic life within.
"Point taken, my lady," Edgar nodded as she retrieved her spear and began nudging the ice block toward shore with a foot. Standing, the king laid down his crossbow and helped her maneuver it onto the bank. As it began to melt beneath the sun, she plopped down into the grass and yanked her rapidly disintegrating projectile from the fish's body while Edgar returned to his work. She gave the slippery creature a cursory examination. Definitely freshwater trout; she only knew because Cid had taken her fishing once as a child, and that was what they had caught. It was a rare, happy memory, and one that she treasured. With a soft hum of satisfaction, she raised it to her mouth and bit off its head.
Beneath the tree, Edgar dropped his screwdriver. After a mute moment of staring, he slowly reached into the grass to retrieve it. "I'll admit that was rather unexpected. So, we're eating them raw today, are we?"
She spit the head into the water and immediately set to work pulling out the fish's innards. "Yep. No time for a fire." Task complete, she bit into the body, chewing slowly.
"I see." He twirled a loose screw between his thumb and forefinger, watching her as he might a chocobo who had suddenly begun to quote from King Doma the Thirty-Fifth's A Comprehensive History of the War of the Magi. In the excessively polite tone he reserved primarily for important diplomats and offended lovers, he said, "Very clever. Very...unique." Then, "No. No, I can't lie. That's disgusting, Celes. Highly disgusting."
She savored another bite. "What's the matter, Edgar? Never heard of sushi?"
"Of course I've heard of sushi. My dear, what you are so repugnantly devouring is sashimi."
She shrugged and bit off another mouthful. "Well, there's one in there for you if you want it," she said, gesturing toward the nearly melted ice block. "Otherwise, I saw a couple of snails up the riverbed a ways. Personally, I'd choose fresh trout any day; snails stick in your throat and leave a trail of slime all the way down. To each his own, though."
Edgar stared at her, expressionless. Then he leaned over and prodded the dead trout on the bank. "Ignoring for the moment the fact that you actually know that...won't this type of thing give a person parasites?"
"The parasites are in the guts. That's why you rip them out."
"Lovely." Edgar sat back and stared at the fish with the same expression he had worn while facing down a mountain lobo two weeks earlier.
The slender cattails down the bank rustled, and both of them turned as Cyan emerged. In his calloused hands he held an assortment of roots. "I do believe these to be edible, should the wisdom of young Gau be trusted. As for myself, I would entrust him with my life, therefore – ah, sashimi!"
The Doman's eyes lit up as he saw Celes finishing off the last of her trout. Walking over, he leaned down, picked Edgar's fish from the puddle, pulled out a knife, and lopped off its head. After cleaning out the insides much in the same way Celes herself had, he bit into the meat and sighed in contentment.
Celes, rinsing her hands in the current, glanced over at Edgar and smirked.
"Thoroughly mad, the lot of you," the king muttered. Suddenly he smiled. "Well I, for one, plan on enjoying a delicious and fully cooked meal today." Tightening a screw on his crossbow, he flipped a switch. Then he aimed the weapon toward the remaining contents of the puddle, which consisted primarily of a few small, floundering freshwater crabs. Ignoring Cyan and Celes' alarmed looks, he pulled the trigger. A meager flame grew from the barrel. It flickered uncertainly for a moment, then pathetically died.
"Damnation," he sighed, releasing the trigger. "Ah, well. Slow-cooked crab is far superior anyhow."
Cyan frowned and regarded the weapon as if it were not only sentient but vengeful. "Thou hast...caused thy crossbow to emit fire?"
"No stranger than that horrid noise machine he's got installed," Celes muttered. Cyan glanced her way briefly but avoided her eyes. Sighing softly, she sat on the bank and shook gravel from a boot. Pulling it on along with its mate, she stood and waded through the brush until she reached the base of a large, twisted tree. There she stopped, squinting up into its branches.
"Yes, ideally it would emit fire," Edgar was explaining, "a good deal of fire, but I can't seem to get it exactly right. I think there's something wrong with the retention spring here and the manner in which I've got the camshaft striking off the flint..." Oblivious to the samurai's increasingly panicked expression, he continued. "I think I'm simply going to have to invest in some new spindles once we reach Kohlingen; maybe install them on the top plate here and...Celes, what, pray tell, are you doing to that poor tree?"
Grunting, Celes yanked another long, twisted vine from where it had tangled itself in the upper branches, praying she wouldn't upset anything living and nasty in the process. "Preparing for our descent."
"Oh." In the tone of the weary resigned, he continued, "And I suppose these vines will be featured in that process."
She looked at him and quirked her lips in a small smile. "Ever been rappelling?"
Two hours past lunchtime found a trio of what appeared to be ragged but surprisingly well-armed refugees clinging to a chalky cliff face, tethered with vines, teetering roughly five hundred feet between safety and oblivion.
Celes gazed levelly at the soft, yellowed stone, unable to tell if her eyes had stopped focusing or if she had simply been staring at the face of this canyon for so long that her senses had gone haywire. Relaxing her mind, she concentrated on little things: balance. Keeping her brake arm steady. The rhythm of the vine as it slid through her hands in concert with her steps. These things were important; one distraction, and a person could find herself sliding straight off the end of her rope. Or vine, as it was.
Fortunately, a steep grade was still worlds easier to maneuver than a sheer cliff face. This was particularly advantageous, as both her companions were novices of the greenest sort. Happily, they had tackled the most difficult portion early – the very top, where genuine rappelling had been required for a time. After that, the slope gentled somewhat, though not nearly enough to safely let go. Every thirty feet or so she brought them to a halt on a ledge; or, if there was no ledge to be found, kicked or carved one out from the soft stone (whispering cringing apologies to her runic blade all the while). Here they landed, one at a time, and rested briefly. Then, with a skillful tug, she would pull the vine free from its anchor high above (by way of the self-loosing rope: the most useful knot she had ever learned). Next, Edgar would aim his crossbow at the wall and lodge a flurry of bolts several inches deep into the chalk. This had been his idea, and a very good one. Celes would secure her knot to the bolts and they would repeat the entire process. Ad nauseum. To the point where she began to daydream about jumping simply to break the cycle.
The vine slid smoothly through her hands; it was slick and earthy-smelling with their combined sweat. Ignoring that unpleasantness, she allowed her mind to glaze over, concentrating on the rhythm of her stride. Minutes later, she felt the welcome touch of flat ground beneath her feet. Sighing in relief, she released the vine and turned.
To her pleasant surprise, what she had discovered wasn't so much a ledge as a sudden wide leveling of the mountainside – extending outward at least six feet before plunging downward again. Smiling blissfully, she fell back against the rock and slid gracelessly to a sitting position, not caring that her clothes and hair were probably filled with enough chalk to supply Kohlingen's schoolhouse for the next year.
Cyan arrived several minutes later, and Edgar shortly thereafter. Both apparently shared her feelings relating to the ledge, as their mutterings and grumblings halted for a short period to be replaced with a distinctly relieved silence.
Eventually, Edgar stirred. "I'm not convinced this was actually faster than floundering blindly through the woods."
In fact, she had developed similar thoughts a good ninety feet ago. But she merely looked at him and smiled sweetly. "Climbing builds character."
Edgar looked blankly back, then returned his eyes to the view spread out before them. "A king may never commit murder, or he forfeits his right to the throne...A king may never commit murder..." he recited softly to himself.
Between them, Cyan leaned forward to peer over the edge. "The way ahead does not appear as steep. Might we simply climb unaided from here?"
She shrugged. "You might, but if you slip you'll hit bottom and discover that you left most of yourself smeared on the mountainside."
"Such a cheerful individual you are," Edgar growled. "At this point I might take my chances with mountain jelly over one more minute hanging from this cold, slimy, twisted, putrid, repulsive–"
Whether or not Edgar would have managed to continue his assault of nature's premiere climbing aid remained unknown; at that moment, a thunderous detonation sounded from below, somewhere in the near distance. It originated deep enough in the trees that the forest absorbed much of the shock, but even so a fine dusting of chalk detached itself from the cliff and settled lightly in their hair.
As the last echoes faded away, the three turned to stare at each other.
"That sounded like..." Edgar began.
"A Magitek unit," Celes finished. Magitek possessed a very distinct sound, whether it was doling out destruction or facing it. A sort of lilting, high-pitched whine preceded every discharge, and that included the detonation of the unit itself. The Returners had learned the noise very well up in the cliffs of Narshe.
"Thinkest thou that our companions tarry nearby?" Cyan asked.
Slowly, Edgar nodded. "Yes...Sabin or Locke, I'm guessing, if that was our missing Heavy we just heard. Probably Locke. He blows these things up for a living. At least, that's how he generally likes to translate 'Locke, why don't you go slow the Empire down' when, for example, an entire base of Returners suddenly finds themselves in need of a diversion."
Cyan stood, determined. "Then, let us go meet him. I, too, will brave death rather than hang one moment longer from a stinking, wretched–"
"Wait," Celes cut in. "Just wait. What if I could get us down even faster than walking? What if we were to, uh..." She coughed. "...sled the rest of the way down?"
Quickly, before the two men could stare at her any more blankly, she shaped a long, flat sheet of ice on the ledge in front of them.
Edgar cleared his throat. "Ah...no offense, Celes, since your ideas really are very good, most of the time, but I feel as if this will contribute to mountain smearage more expeditiously than walking..."
"Obviously it's not complete," she cut in, impatiently. "Think of a boat: flat bottom, sturdy sides, solid and heavy. I could build the ice up around us to make sure we don't fall out. It will be a straight shot to the bottom. If I made something like that, would you trust it?"
The men exchanged glances. Surprisingly, it was Cyan who agreed first. "Why not?" he replied, shrugging.
"Says the man who leapt down Baron Falls because he couldn't be bothered to go around," Edgar muttered. "Yes, fine. When do we start?"
Within minutes, Celes had the three of them securely, if not necessarily comfortably, encased in a sleek but solid ice toboggan. It enclosed them to the waist, keeping them wedged firmly in place, but allowed enough space for escape should the need arise. She panted slightly with the effort – details were always difficult – but knew that at this point, it was the safest ride they were going to manage. And to be honest, she too was very much over vine climbing. She expected to be scraping plant matter from beneath her fingernails for at least the next week.
Without ceremony, Celes reached down to either side of the toboggan, set her hands on the ledge, and pushed them off.
"Uh, wait," Edgar began, voice rising in anxiety, "give us a moment to–"
The remainder of his request was swallowed up as the sled tipped forward and shot down the slope. Celes, seated in front, was unprepared for the wind's violence as it forced its way into her lungs, overdosing her with oxygen and sending her mind into a brief reflexive panic. She quickly tilted her head down and found herself able to breathe again. But now her eyes watered uncontrollably; her ponytail came loose and snapped out behind her like a banner. Air roared past her ears. Somehow she found it within herself to hope that Edgar, seated in the middle, wasn't choking to death on her hair; she preferred to avoid unnecessary regicide if at all possible. The trees blurred past like green strokes from a paintbrush and she suddenly, painfully realized there was no escaping this ride even if she wanted to; she was absolutely, utterly powerless to slow their flight in any way, shape, or form. Even as that understanding sprang into being, she became aware of a steady noise behind her and realized that Edgar and Cyan were yelling at the top of their lungs – in terror, no doubt. Gripping the sides until her fingers melted indents into the surface, Celes hunched down and gritted her teeth.
After a tense eternity, the trees rematerialized as the toboggan slowed, taking on the properties of a bar of soap bumping down a washboard as they now hit every knob, rut, and protrusion rather than simply flying straight over the top. Eventually the slope leveled out entirely, and with a crunch of gravel and a rattle that nearly shook her brain from her head, they slid to a ponderous halt.
A strange series of noises from behind broke the momentary quiet. Craning her neck, Celes turned to check on the state of her companions.
Edgar, King of Figaro, and Cyan Garamonde, retainer to Doma, were draped inelegantly over the edge of the toboggan, windblown and dishevelled. They laughed – laughed! – so hard that the sled jounced forward several inches.
Pursing her lips, Celes waited, her gaze boring into them. Somehow this renewed the hilarity. Edgar howled in the most unkingly display she had ever witnessed; Cyan was bent double, heaving with laughter (she hadn't realized it was a skill he possessed).
Obviously they had gone insane. Pointedly deciding to ignore her lunatic travel partners, she extracted herself from her quickly melting seat and rolled awkwardly to the ground. As she stood and futilely attempted to brush away the damp chalk that was now caked into her her clothes, Edgar finally regained his breath.
"I'm...sorry..." he gasped. "It's just...I think that's the most fun I've...ever had. Do you realize we just tobogganed down five hundred feet of cliff? Whatever will the Chancellor say?"
"I daresay he might encourage us to attempt the feat again. Shall we?" Cyan suggested, raising an eyebrow at the king.
Celes shook her head in amazement. Men. "You two do what you want. I'm going to find the others."
"Fine," Edgar sighed. Sliding from his seat, he stood and carefully dusted off his roguish, Gerad-style traveling cloak. Leaning over, he offered a hand to Cyan. "I suppose it will have to wait for another day."
Leaving their homemade sled to melt in the sun, the three returned to the coolness of the wood, heading westward. Despite the fact that her companions continued to chortle and nudge one another like a pair of schoolboys, locating the destroyed Magitek unit proved relatively easy. A plume of acrid-smelling smoke rose from a hole in the trees, easily visible at less than a mile away. As they approached, each of them slowed and the men quieted, instinctively alert for traps. By Edgar's estimation, all of the commandos except the Heavy and Locke's rogue attacker had been accounted for; however, in no way did that preclude the possibility of others lurking about. Kefka was an erratic, sadistic man with the motivation and means to institute any twisted little game that occurred to him. And she simply couldn't shake the feeling that this one definitely belonged to him.
Just ahead the forest thinned into a sunny meadow that brimmed with wildflowers. Clashing with the pristine scene was the sight of a large, charred and twisted hunk of metal, flames still licking hungrily at its hull. Pieces of blackened equipment lay scattered about the clearing – some even hanging from the trees – as if a giant had wandered along and smashed the Heavy with its fist in a sudden fit of rage. The smell of burning electrical equipment was strong, stinging their noses.
They crept up close, nearly to the edge of the trees, but hovered silently in the shadows. Pressing herself up against an old, towering pine, Celes inspected the clearing and the forest beyond. She was particularly watchful for the telltale signs of a classic Imperial ambush. But there was nothing – not that she could see, anyhow. She frowned slightly. Everything seemed as ordinary as it could possibly be when in the presence of the smoking ruins of one of the Empire's deadliest weapons. Could it honestly have been so easy? Were they really safe now?
As if in response to her thoughts, Edgar suddenly spoke. "Locke was here, all right. Clever bastard. And it looks like this was the last of these fellows."
His conversational tone seemed to blare as it broke their careful silence. Cringing, she turned on him, but came up short as she saw him examining something on a nearby tree. Leaning forward, Celes peered over his shoulder. A portion of the trunk had been carefully cleared of bark; a series of crude notches were carved into the surface beneath. Arranged into groups and embellished with an occasional dot or wedge, the markings almost seemed to form a simple language – though not one familiar to her.
"The others are alive, too," Edgar continued, bursting into a sudden broad smile. His eyes darted rapidly across the inscription. "Sabin and Gau. We just missed them. They were all here and will wait for us in Kohlingen."
"How do you know?" Celes asked.
Edgar glanced at her, raising an eyebrow as if she already knew the answer. "Returner code," he said simply, pointing to the tree.
Truthfully, she had known; or at least, she wasn't so naïve that she couldn't immediately work out the carving's purpose for herself. But she had hoped he would volunteer the missing details. She waited expectantly for the king to explain how the decryption worked, but instead he turned and started back into the forest. "Kohlingen ho!" he sang, a distinctive bounce appearing in his step. "Looks like it's turning out to be a good day. What do you think, Cyan, will we make it by dinner?"
Celes followed quietly behind. Returner code...Locke hadn't mentioned anything about it to her, despite the fact that she was technically a member now. Perhaps it had simply slipped his mind.
You think so, do you?
The question had crept nastily into her awareness and now floated there, like oil on water. Impatiently, she swept it away. The important thing now was that Locke was safe – he, and the others. She had been foolish to think so little of his skills to believe that one man could take him out.
Setting her jaw stubbornly, she hurried forward to join the others. Edgar was right. It was turning out to be a good day.
They did indeed reach Kohlingen by dinner. It was small – smaller than she expected, in fact, though it did boast a pleasant, spacious inn. After they left the clearing with the destroyed Heavy the trees had thinned rapidly into scrub and lichen-coated rock, the land flattening into green, windswept steppes. Tall, angled fences paced the main road – to keep the snow from burying it in the winter, Edgar explained. They had passed several small farms, decorated with brightly-painted barns and outbuildings; though how these families eked out livings in such rocky terrain she couldn't fathom.
Inside the town proper, she could tell it once might have been considered charming. Cozy, triangular cottages lined the cobbled lanes, complete with large flat shingles, brightly-painted shutters, and climbing ivy. But if one looked closely, they would see that the paint was chipping, the shingles rotting. Gardens that may have once showcased purple and white wisteria, flowering plum, and fragrant lilacs now lay fallow. Hidden behind the forward guard of villas, she had caught the occasional glimpse of ruin – residences partially collapsed, charred timbers protruding haphazardly from the rubble. Homes that were abandoned, their windows dark and empty. Old burn marks in the street. An air of bleakness that settled over everything. This was a town that was dying, suffering slowly as it went. It had been wounded by the Empire and had never recovered.
No wonder Locke doesn't talk about it much.
Celes sat in one of the inn's comfortable upper bedrooms, on her knees with her elbows propped up against the windowsill. Below, she could hear the muffled clatter of the dinner dishes as they were cleared away, accompanied by a sudden burst of loud revelry. She, Edgar, and Cyan had reunited with the others less than two hours ago; hugs and laughter had been exchanged all around. Locke had held onto her hand a tad longer than was necessary, though when he spoke to her now there was a slight air of awkwardness that hadn't been present before. They had traded stories of their respective adventures over dinner, Sabin laughing so hard at the thought of his regal brother careening down a cliff face in a block of ice that he dribbled soup through his nose.
Locke, for his part, was more subdued than usual, though that was only to be expected. He sat quietly beside her at the table, listening and smiling as the others related their tales but offering little himself. The moment the servers began portioning out dessert – large wedges of freshly-baked rhubarb pie – he had excused himself, murmuring something about making a supply run before the general store closed. Edgar's gaze had tracked him the entire way out, expression remaining carefully placid but his bright blue eyes radiating concern. Celes herself had exited shortly thereafter, brusquely informing the others that she would be upstairs taking a bath.
Now she gazed down at the street, her hair hanging damp and heavy down her back, watching the townsfolk drift past on their various evening errands. They were all so quaint – the men garbed in sturdy pants and vests with loose shirtsleeves rolled up to their elbows, the ladies clad in long, bright dresses. She smiled as a pair of middle-aged women ambled past, dressed in similar linen frocks covered in wide, white aprons. These two denied the town's misery in their every action; chattering animatedly to one another, they looked for all the world as if they had never even heard the word "empire." Instantly she loved them for it, and wished she knew their names.
Eventually, though, her knees grew sore and she drew the pale, flower-embroidered curtains closed. She supposed she should attempt to find some clothes; her skimpy towel wasn't likely to fly for long in these parts. Standing carefully, she grimaced as her back popped and her bruises throbbed. Now that they were safely reintegrated into civilization, her body was making it known – vehemently – how very much it had hated that little tumble down the scree slope two days before.
A knock sounded on the door. Expecting one of the men, she snatched up her dirty coat and pulled it tightly around her body. However, the face that peered cautiously in was a stranger to her.
Wait...not entirely a stranger. Celes now recalled seeing this girl darting in and out of the kitchen, fetching firewood and wiping down tables. The innkeeper's daughter – though not really a girl, she supposed. In fact, this girl – woman – was probably her own age. Celes marveled at that. Cute, dimpled, her wide green eyes projecting an innate sense of wonder and innocence, with a readily-available smile, this woman had probably never left her hometown. The two of them may as well be separated by decades.
Then she remembered. Maybe she's never left her town, but five years ago she watched it burn, saw her friends slaughtered. Not so carefree and innocent as you think.
Celes smiled and motioned her inside. Immediately the woman's face dimpled in response, and she slipped into the room.
"I brought you some clothes," she said. Her voice was soft, shy, and she spoke with the same faint drawl as her innkeeper parents. "I noticed your old ones were kinda torn up. I can try to mend them for you, if you'd like."
"Thank you," Celes replied, surprised and touched. "Don't worry about the mending part, though. I think those rags are unsalvageable. I'll just go into town tomorrow and buy some new ones."
" 'Kay," the woman replied, and smiled. Then she handed Celes a pale green, neatly-folded bundle. "See if it fits."
Celes stepped behind the painted screen in the corner and pulled the dress over her head. Tugging the side zipper closed, she turned to the mirror and examined herself critically. The gown was slightly loose in the hips and stomach, while the capped sleeves were tight around her shoulders. Fortunately, loosening the silk ribbons that held them snug proved a quick fix for this. Sometimes she cursed her military training, as the hard exercise combined with years of sword practice under Leo's tutelage seemed to constantly conspire to de-feminize her body. Still, she had to admit that the overall effect was pretty. Not really her thing, but pretty.
She stepped out from behind the screen and the innkeeper's daughter lit up. Celes noticed for the first time that their dresses nearly matched, differing only in color, though this should hardly have surprised her. "Oh! How wonderful! That shade of green really suits you."
"Thank you," Celes replied, resisting the urge to pull uncomfortably at the bodice. "You've been very kind."
The woman nodded once, smiling, but continued to hover like an anxious nursemaid. Celes raised an eyebrow questioningly.
"Can I do your hair?" the woman blurted in what appeared to be a sudden burst of courage. At Celes' slightly incredulous look, she quickly amended, "It's not like that! Not like...a slumber party or somethin'. I just want to help you fit in better, is all. You may not have seen it yet, but people around these parts are kinda particular about strangers. Specially these last few years. Foreigners never wander much past Main, just cause we all make them feel so uncomfortable if they do. But I can fix you up so you look like somebody's cousin, visitin' from the next village. No one'll give you a third look, and you can walk around as you please."
"Uh..." Celes regarded this woman with new respect. Definitely not the naïve, starry-eyed girl she had initially judged her to be. "Yes. Please do. And thank you."
Clapping her hands in delight, the woman dove for a brush. Celes pulled up the room's only chair and sat down, then proceeded to subject herself to her enthusiastic ministrations. After only a few minutes of tugging and weaving, the woman bounced to her feet with a satisfied smile. "Done! Now you fit in perfectly." Without another word, she darted out of the room, glancing back only to flash Celes one last dimpled grin.
I should have asked her name, Celes thought. Honestly, woman, this is why you never make any friends. Turning once again to the mirror, she reached up to gingerly touch her hair. It hung down mostly in soft waves, but the innkeeper's daughter had gathered several strands from the sides and woven them into small, intricate braids that crowned her head. Just as all the others their age wore it here. She had been right. Celes could be a cousin from the next village.
She sat for a bit, staring absently into the mirror. Finally she roused herself. Well, you've got your mask. Might as well make use of it.
Pulling on her boots, Celes padded down the stairs. Sabin, Cyan, and Gau now sat around a small table in the corner of the common room, frowning at fistfuls of cards. Or...Cyan and Sabin were frowning. Gau appeared to be happily gnawing on the ace of spades. Beside the boy, the samurai sat quietly, his focus primarily on the game; he had largely given up on blending local vernacular into his natural speech, opting instead to remain silent in the smaller towns so as not to draw attention to his telling dialect. Sabin, on the other hand, held no such qualms. At her passing, the brawny monk glanced up and hailed her with a cheerful wave and a booming greeting.
"Ho, Celes. Wow, nice dress. Out for some air?"
She returned his smile and nodded. "Just a quick walk."
"All right. Be careful out there; these townsfolk tend not to be the friendliest sort. Though I guess you'll fit right in with that outfit. Hey, if you see my brother wandering around, try to nudge him back in this direction, will you?" Sabin glanced around and lowered his voice. "I'm not sure if he should be out there putting his face on display, Gerad or no."
"He didn't go up to his room?" she asked in surprise.
"Nope. Said he had to take care of something. I'm not worried about him getting lost or anything; we came here sometimes when we were younger. That's why he shouldn't really be out, though – somebody might recognize him."
"All right," she agreed. "I'll keep an eye out." Pulling open the heavy oak door with its accompanying musical chimes, she slipped outside.
The cobbled streets had emptied somewhat since her observations from the upstairs window; most people seemed to have returned home to their families and possibly a late evening meal. Despite the onset of the night hour, the sun sat relatively far above the horizon; in these northern latitudes, at this time of year, it only set for a few hours at a time. Locke had often regaled her with vivid descriptions of the northern lights, his voice taking on an almost reverent tone – and tinged with a melancholy that she didn't understand. She had tried to watch for the colorful displays in Narshe, but most evenings had succumbed to exhaustion well before the sun even set.
Celes glanced around. The neatly-laid cobbles of Main Street rambled out in two directions. Picking one at random, she began to walk. The slowly lowering sun cast a rather pretty, ruby-colored glow on the town, temporarily masking its decaying reality. As promised, she kept an eye out for Edgar as she went, but there was no sign of the incognito king. As she approached the general store, a pair of men in wide-brimmed hats stepped out and began walking up the street toward her. They were the first people she had seen since leaving the inn, and she couldn't help but tense, waiting for the glower that proclaimed her foreign and therefore unwelcome. But the men merely glanced over, looked again – their eyes glinting in brief admiration – and then walked on by.
Now I know what the innkeeper's daughter meant about the third glance, she thought, and again felt a wash of gratitude toward the smiling woman whose name she hadn't even thought to ask.
She continued her course for another ten minutes, watching as the bright facade of Main Street slowly faded into sagging homes and shops. And then, suddenly, outright destruction. Celes paused at the sight of an entire block of burned-out buildings, knowing with grim certainty that this must have been where Noros struck first. For many of these structures, nothing remained but heaps of old timber and ash, having lost even their burnt-out shells to gravity as the years slowly passed. But one old home in particular caught her eye. Sprawling and elegant, it had obviously belonged to someone fairly well-to-do. Aside from what appeared to be a gaping mortar hole punched through one side, most of its walls were still intact in a ghostly mimicry of the beauty it had once possessed. Unlike the other residences, there was even some evidence that someone had tried to repair it.
Why did you give up? she asked the anonymous mender. Why did you all give up?
Feeling suddenly melancholy, she turned down a wide alley that angled away from this graveyard full of sorrow and old ghosts, hoping to find some sort of night market or fair – anything that lived. But it took her only to the edge of town, where it ended abruptly in a small, weedy lot flanked by what looked to be a thick stand of trees. A narrow, winding path cut into the center of the copse, but quickly disappeared from sight.
Sighing, she turned back, reminding herself that she was in dire need of a full night's rest. But murmuring voices from behind stopped her. Peeking back around the corner, she watched as two figures, emerging from the narrow lane, exited the grove. One was tall and broad-shouldered, his bearing distinctly elegant; the other was shorter, lithe, his movements conveying a certain easy agility. Both were very familiar...
Edgar and Locke, she realized, blinking in surprise, as the men came into full view. Abruptly they stopped and faced each other. Their conversation grew louder, more heated.
She should go.
Remember the last time this happened? You regretted it. And that's because eavesdropping is a vulgar habit.
Still, she couldn't seem to move, but stood pressed up against the wall, immobile in the shadows.
"Five years. It's been five years, Locke, and you couldn't be bothered to tell me?" Edgar was angrier than she had ever seen him.
Locke was facing away from her, his shoulders slumped and head down. She couldn't hear his reply.
"Yes, yes, you didn't know how," Edgar replied acerbically. "We're best friends, brothers – we were bloody raised together for half our formative years! We've been through hell and high water together! And yet somehow you can't figure out how to tell me that she's not gone and buried after all, like everybody thought. That depending on who you ask, she's not even dead."
Another murmured answer, even quieter this time.
In response, Edgar clutched at his own hair in frustration. Again, Celes was taken aback – she had never seen the man so impassioned. "Locke! I'm not angry at you for what you did. Hell, who can say if I wouldn't have done the same thing in your shoes! It's what you didn't do. Why couldn't you have told me? I cared about her too, you know...she was going to become family by extension. If I had known, I might have been able to find a way to help!"
A soft reply, but now with a distinct bite.
Edgar evidently heard it too. He turned away for a moment, fists clenching and unclenching. Then he slowly turned back around, obviously fighting to stay calm. "Locke. Please try to think about this from my perspective. Here I've been, trying to help you lay a painful past to rest for the last five years. I constantly wondered why you never got better, why you simply stopped talking about her altogether. It didn't make any sense, but you dodged the subject when I tried to broach it. Now I discover the reason is because that past is still very much alive. It haunts your every move to the detriment of yourself and others. Dammit, Locke, why couldn't you have just confided in me?"
"Because I didn't. Know. How!" Locke suddenly repeated, but now he was shouting, his clenched fists trembling. "I didn't know how to admit that I was too cowardly to put her to rest, but an utter failure at finding a way to bring her back! I didn't know how to think of her without collapsing into debilitating guilt. And yet I can never pass through this part of the world without returning to this godsforsaken town just to look at her and remind myself of what a bloody failure I am!" He paused, but only long enough to gulp in a quick, agitated breath. "I didn't know how to explain to you that I've forgotten how she was in life – that all she's become to me is an empty body, a habit attached to old, faded memories. And that this terrifies me. That I'm scared of how even those memories are dying, but don't know how to let go or get them back. I didn't know how –" Abruptly he cut off, falling into wretched silence.
Neither man spoke for a long moment. Finally Edgar sighed, his eyes tired and expression troubled. He reached out a hand. "Locke –"
But Locke whirled and stalked away, his shoulders stiff and every muscle standing rigid. As he neared, she was shocked to see tears in his eyes.
You should really go.
Slipping back into the alley, she turned and strode briskly over the cobbles, eventually breaking into a run. She was terrified that one of the men would match her route and catch sight of her hurrying away. As soon as she could, she veered down the first crossroad she encountered, heedless of where it took her. Here she finally slowed, continuing on at a quick walk, and reached down to straighten her tangled skirt. But as she rounded a bend, still less than two blocks clear of the grove, she crashed hard into a man walking rapidly the other way.
Momentarily stunned, Celes caught her balance on the nearest wall. Quickly she blinked the spots from her eyes and turned to mutter an apology. But then she saw his face – that messy, silvery hair, the narrow nose, the stormy gray eyes – though at the moment, their reddened rims were reflecting off his irises in such a way to make them appear almost purple.
"Uh...Locke." Trying not to shuffle her feet, she looked up at him and offered a wan smile.
Locke turned slightly away and made a brief, awkward-looking motion, one she instantly recognized as a typical emergency eye wipe. Turning back to her, he attempted to smile brightly. "What are you..."
His voice faded as he caught sight of her long green dress. Immediately his face drained of color. A small but perceptible shudder racked his body.
"Locke?" she repeated, alarmed now.
"Um...sorry Celes. Sorry. You look lovely – that color suits you. I'll see you back at the inn, yeah?"
Without waiting for a response, he turned and hurried away.
She stood staring after him.
And suddenly, made a decision. Turning slowly on her heel, she stood and faced the way she had just come. Starting forward, Celes headed back toward the little grove of trees at the edge of town.
You know how eavesdropping was a bad idea? Well, this one is even worse.
Blatantly ignoring the voice of good sense – it was the theme of the day, after all, so why break the pattern? – Celes continued on. Several moments later, she arrived at the edge of the lot. Edgar was gone – good. Brushing through the dry, crackling weeds, she soon reached the mouth of the little lane. She allowed it to lead her deeper into the grove, winding about sinuously and a bit pointlessly, in her opinion. It was very dark beneath the trees where the setting sun didn't penetrate, but it wasn't long before the lane pulled up at a small cottage. Unlike those in town, it was well-kept, the garden lush and carefully pruned, with a thin stream of smoke shuffling its way from the chimney. Without hesitation, she stepped forward and rapped solidly on the door.
An aged, crackling voice responded, muffled by the heavy oak. "A moment, please!" A period of scraping and crashing followed; eventually, however, the door creaked open to reveal an old, white-bearded man. A pair of thick spectacles sat perched on the end of his nose, and his snowy hair was combed carefully to one side – though a small patch toward the back protruded from his head like the quills on a hedgehog, probably unbeknownst to him.
"Did you forget someth– ah." He straightened slightly, his friendly stance converting to something along the lines of polite standoffishness. "Excuse me. I thought you were those two young men, back for another visit."
"Locke and Gerad," she offered.
Immediately the old man brightened, and the door opened wide. "Ah, so you're a friend, then! Come in, come in. Though Gerad isn't his name at all, lass – that one is Edgar, King of Figaro – a good boy, doing well by his kingdom, I must say. But then you already knew that." He squinted one furrowed, watery eye at her in what he probably believed to be a wink. "You're here to see Rachel, then?"
"Yes," she heard herself reply. "Rachel."
"Well good. Good, good. She doesn't get nearly enough visitors these days. Now if you'll just come with me..." Muttering and mumbling to himself, the old man shuffled his way through the living room. Plush, antique furniture clustered together in the center of the space like a flock of elderly peacocks, but it was the shelves that caught her eye. Row upon row of them, there were – lining every spare inch of wall, some backed two deep. On these sat countless volumes of books – history, biology, fiction, mathematics, ethics. A good half of the room was devoted to medicine alone; a smattering of framed, yellowing certificates hung crookedly from the wall, proclaiming the man's status as a doctor of some bygone age. Winding through the clutter in his wake, Celes did her best to avoid bumping or breaking anything until they finally reached a carpeted staircase leading to a lower floor.
"Yes, yes," the man was saying. "Rachel, a sad story, she is. Sad story indeed. Wish I could do more for her, but I'm afraid her condition is well beyond even my abilities."
"And what condition is that?"
"Why, death, of course," he replied, glancing back at her in surprise. "Well – suspended animation, shall I say; I understand now why you asked. Few of us remember the art – that of slowing the natural functions of the body nearly to a halt. Playing with time, I like to think of it, though that ability proves rather useless when the subject can progress neither forward nor back. As you probably already know, I placed her in this state the instant after death – 'twas a potent combination of herbs, believe you me, but don't you be trying to steal my formula now, young miss, it's top secret! Where was I? Ah, yes. The moment after death, as it were. So, though the heart stops, the body itself doesn't die for several more minutes. It's like the winding down of a complicated machine. And who can say about the soul? That's where young Rachel is, frozen in the moment after her heart stopped. I often like to consider the ethical and spiritual implications of such a thing. Is she dead? Is she not? Is her spirit trapped, tethered to her useless body, or does it roam free? Who knows? Certainly not myself. Again, a sad, sad case she is. But then, you already knew that; forgive an old man his ramblings, won't you?"
They had reached the bottom of the stairwell as he fumbled at a near glacial pace for a key. Finally locating it, he shakily inserted it into the lock and shoved the door open.
Whatever Celes expected to find in the basement of a mildly crazy old man who was confirmed to be living with a dead woman, it wasn't this. Bright, cheerful lamps lit every corner of the room, driving away the shadows, and a small fire crackled agreeably in a corner hearth. Pleasant oil paintings had been hung from the walls – scenes of sailboats and white-capped waves, pristine mountains, colorful desert marketplaces. Polished furniture was arranged tastefully about the room, and a large, intricately-painted screen in the Doman style decorated one corner. Crowding the perimeter of the room were scores of flowers – potted blooms of every imaginable variety and color, filling the space with a unique and pleasant perfume. And to one side, on a low bed, almost as if she were sleeping, lay an attractive young woman.
Slowly Celes approached her, her eyes never leaving Rachel's face as she knelt beside her in the plush carpet. The covers of a thick, colorful afghan – like somebody's beloved grandmother might have crocheted – covered her to the neck. Her face was the classic ivory of porcelain, and spilling over the pillow was hair so black it was nearly purple. Celes noted briefly that the woman's dark locks were done up in the local style: long, loose waves with tiny braids woven in. Just like her own.
Urged on by a morbid curiosity she couldn't quite explain, Celes pulled back the blanket. The first thing she noticed was the dress. It was nearly identical to her own – pale green, with capped sleeves and silky ribbons. The only difference lay in a few small embellishments.
The second thing she noticed was the odd way the dress fell – as if over twisted or contorted limbs.
Carefully, Celes pulled the covers back up to Rachel's chin and stood. On the other side of the room, the old man had busied himself rearranging a few knickknacks on a shelf as he continued his unbroken monologue. "Yes, it was quite tragic when the old Donovan mansion went up in flames – that was Rachel's family, as you know. Of course, they put the fire out quickly, but the damage was already done – and alas, there is quite a lot of damage when some young buck tosses a grenade through your living room window, I daresay. Ah, Locke, that poor boy – to lose a lover not once, but twice."
At this, she glanced up, but he hardly seemed to notice. "Yes, poor Rachel lost her memory in an accident some time before the attack – an accident Locke blames himself for, the dear, thick-headed boy. Afterward, she wanted absolutely nothing to do with him – until a year later, that is, just before she died – but by then it was too late, of course. Young Locke was quite distraught – they had been engaged to be married, as you're already aware of, I'm sure. He hung about for a while, refusing to leave this room, trying ever so hard to make up for his failure to save her. He even attempted to pay someone to fix her parents' house – but they kicked that man to the curb, they did. Eventually they moved away altogether – haven't seen them around these parts in years. But that is neither here nor there. In the end, Locke finally left to travel the world in search of some magical cure for death, though I imagine he hasn't had much luck with that. But, my dear, you must stop me when I ramble this way. None of this is news to you, I'm sure."
As he paused for air, Celes nodded politely and then briskly started for the door. "Sir, I regret that I must be going now. Thank you for your time."
"Oh...oh my. You young people are always in such a hurry. Well, all right dear, have a pleasant walk home."
Without bothering to reply, Celes mounted the steps, wound through the living room, and quietly left.
So. It hadn't been the town that he'd loved. It hadn't been friends that he'd lost. It had been a woman. Rachel. Edgar's words from two nights earlier returned to her with sharp, painful clarity. You haven't gotten over her at all yet, have you...
She had been foolish. So foolish to believe.
A/N: A bit of drama to close off Celes' arc, there...and thus ends chapter 3. As my readers have probably noticed, I'm somewhat slow about updating between chapters. That's because I write one all at once, post it in sections, and then use the interim to catch up on life stuff. Which is part of the reason why I wrote this fic the way I did - so that each character's section could technically be a standalone story and I could avoid leaving off with horrible cliffhangers for months at a time.
So, until next chapter. Many thanks to my reviewers for all your encouragement...you guys are kind of amazing.
P.S. if anyone could let me in on the trick to creating page breaks around here, that would be awesome.