Morning Glory

The passage to the Crystarium proper is at the end of a long, straight bridge, steel-stone spine wreathed by a thousand cold-metal arches that cast skeletal shadows on Pfeil and the Exarch. It takes some time to traverse, and this traversal is done largely in silence; there is, after all, little to say, and the Crystarium will likely speak for itself. When Pfeil finally steps foot within city limits, he is proven right — he cannot help but crane his neck the moment they arrive, and he is stunned into stillness.

The Crystarium and everything in it is massive. His eyes first fix on the aether-blue glass of an enormous domed greenhouse that seems to serve as the city's beating heart, glittering with a surprising gaiety under the canopy of Light. Shooting out from the circular walkway that surrounds its exterior are two great arteries — bridges of metal and stone, supported by pillars, that tower above him. Behind the greenhouse stand the sun-bleached walls of an equally mind-boggling construction, a great white sternum; yet more glass domes are above. Pfeil realizes it is a city built in tiers, too great to imagine the lay of.

It must hardly even be dawn, with how recently he has left the peddler, but the city's occupants bustle on undeterred, pushing the lifeblood of their labor and in and out from the aether-blue heart in perfect form — bustling along the walkways above, crossing to and fro on the ground before him, working in what little he can glimpse of the garden just past the rightmost bridge. Every steel and glass and brick organ in this system is well-kept and vivacious — unlike its surrounds, it is a city in rude and boisterous health. Above all this industry looms the Crystal Tower, although looming, he thinks, is not quite the description; the Crystal Tower seems more benevolent mind here than baleful eye, protector of the sprawling organism into which it sits embedded.

Pfeil's breath has little choice but to hang in his throat at this spectacle — it has been stolen entirely. The Crystal Exarch seems content, at least for a spell, to let Pfeil admire the fruits of his handiwork; Pfeil is almost startled when he begins to speak.

"And here we are." The Exarch pauses to sigh in satisfaction and pride. "Welcome, my friend, to the Crystarium."

Pfeil cannot figure out what to say, and hopes a nod is enough.

The Exarch gives him a smile in reply, faint though it may be. "But you are hardly in the mood for pageantry," he says, chastened by Pfeil knows not what. "A full and frank discussion in the privacy of my study is what you're after, I suspect."

"I don't really understand," says Pfeil. "That wasn't pageantry."

Pfeil did not know the Exarch was holding in his breath, but he lets it out all at once. "I… I hope you are not too cross, in any case. If I may impose upon your patience once again, I would first ask that you gain a firmer grasp of the situation here — to apprise yourself of such will grant you greater insight when the time for full disclosure comes." He looks toward the greenhouse at the center of the city, then back to Pfeil. "To that end, I would like you to visit a few of the Crystarium's civic leaders, and glean something of this world and its predicament."

Once again left without any words of import, Pfeil nods. The Exarch's face turns abruptly away toward the greenhouse once more. He shifts a half-step, straightens his robes with clumsy and schoolboy-gawky hands that work to no real end, gives a tentative flex of his shoulders, and finally clears his throat. Pfeil thinks the Exarch must not like that he is so silent; it would hardly be the first time his reticence in conversation has been taken for pointed bitterness.

"I mean that I will be giving you a tour of the Crystarium," the Exarch clarifies. "It would be remiss of me indeed to leave you to your own devices — quite the show of poor behavior as your host."

"Oh." Pfeil tries cracking something like a grin. "That's good. I would have gotten lost."

"So I gathered."

He flicks an ear in irritation. "What's that supposed to mean?!"

The Exarch's only acknowledgment is the tight, private ghost of a smile. He turns to lead Pfeil away, and Pfeil begins to follow, but sharp, quick little footsteps from behind give both men pause.

"Mr. Exarch! Mr. Crystal Exarch!" The words tumble from the mouth of a little Miqo'te girl with lamb-white pigtails, clad in a powder-blue coat. She does not seem to register Pfeil's presence at all — she barrels toward the Exarch without a care and clings to his robes with stubby little hands.

The Exarch pats her head, rather notably avoiding the use of his crystalline arm. "I'm sorry, Riqi-Tio, but I'm quite busy with my friend at the moment."

Pfeil bristles a little at the presumption, but bites his tongue. Riqi-Tio turns her head to look up at Pfeil with wide, dewy eyes, still with her fists tangled in the Exarch's robes. He thinks he is sure of what will happen next — when she gets a good look at him, she will certainly recoil in innocent fear from his weary face and dark clothes and heavy, battered greatsword; this is the way it has been for years now, and he has learnt not to expect otherwise, lest he be torn asunder by mealy-hearted disappointment.

But little Riqi-Tio does not look at him with any fear in those wide eyes, so like deep veins of undersea cobalt. Her hands leave the Exarch's raiment in a slow trance, and it is with a certain reverence that she steps toward him — not away to hide behind the Exarch, familiar and trusted, but toward — to ask, "Are you a prince?"

Pfeil cannot possibly imagine from whence she may have plucked the ridiculous notion. He kneels to answer her, and speaks in a soft and quiet voice. "I'm not a prince," he says, as frankly as he can manage — it is not her fault she does not know any better, and children must be taken seriously if they are to learn.

"Are you sure?"

He really can't help but laugh here, although it's laughter of the good-natured sort — her insistence is sweet and endearing and simple. "I'm sure."

The Exarch clears his throat. "Really, Riqi-Tio, I'm very sorry, but now is hardly the time."

"It can wait," Pfeil says, stealing a glance at the Exarch. "This is important to her. We won't be long."

When he turns back to Riqi-Tio, she wears a chastened face and picks at her sleeve. "It's my flowers…"

"Your flowers? I can probably help. I used to live on a farm."

She takes his hand up in hers (how large it feels between such tiny palms!) and tugs him with an uncoordinated calfishness, all overworked limbs, to the gardens by the gate. She directs him still further then, past patches of fat pumpkins and rows of lush grapes, toward a humble little trellis far from the other plants. Here, a morning glory's lush vines overtake the structure; its leaves are healthy and robust and strongly green; the plant is clearly well-loved and dearly tended. Riqi-Tio stands underneath the trellis and extends her hummingbird wingspan as wide as it will go, looking much like its sole flower in her powder blue.

"I read in a book that these flowers come out in the morning, but every morning I check and they don't come out!" She balls her hands into frustrated fists and lets them slam down at her sides. "I've tried everything! I don't know why the flowers won't come out!"

To his great vexation, Pfeil knows instantly the crux of the problem. "It's not your fault, Riqi-Tio," he begins, trying to sound as comforting and warm as he can. "Morning glories know to bloom because the sun comes out after it's been dark."

Her eyes fill with big, bright tears before he can say anything else. "But that's not fair! It hasn't been dark in forever! I did everything right!"

"It's alright," he says, and hates hearing those words come from her mouth — we did everything right, everything that was asked of us, and still, still it came to this — "it's not your fault. It's alright."

"The flowers will never come out, and I tried so hard…"

Again he takes to one knee, and carefully he takes one of her little hands in his, in the hopes it will stop her from crying any longer. "Whether or not the flowers come out, isn't it pretty?"

She swipes at her tears and nods, reluctant and slow.

"I'm sure the morning glory is happy you've been taking care of it for so long. And even if the flowers can't come out, it could grow all these pretty leaves because of you."

Riqi-Tio gives him a little sniffle. "You really think they're that pretty? It's all just leaves…"

Pfeil nods. "If you want to, we can water it together. Do you think that will make you feel better?"

She doesn't answer him, merely shuffles off to find them a pair of watering pails. Pfeil takes this time to stand and examine the higher places on the trellis where Riqi-Tio cannot reach; as he suspects, dry ropy vines hide among the cheery leaves, yellowed and cracked. He takes his hunting knife from his hip and sets to pruning them away, careful not to tug too hard at the tender living green. Though he is fair absorbed in this work, he hears the Exarch's soft footsteps approach, the low hiss of sandals on grass.

"I got the pails," he hears next, and Riqi-Tio bounds toward him with two plain metal watering pails, sloshing water to and fro without a care in the world. She is smiling — Pfeil hopes this means he has done something right, for once — and she hands him his water-heavy pail before giving the Exarch a hearty wave. He joins her in her greeting with a simple nod.

"You take that side of the trellis," Pfeil instructs, pointing with the hunting knife, "and I'll take this one."

"What's the knife for?"

He realizes gesturing with the knife is not his cleverest idea in front of little Riqi-Tio, and he returns it to the scabbard at his hip. "There were some little dried-up pieces here that needed pruned," he tells her. "Someone taller can help you with those when you find them."

Pfeil only tips the watering pail with his hands, but Riqi-Tio bends over as if she were a fairy casting a spell — it is likely, he thinks, that she is, in her own game of pretend. His work is quick and methodical; he has time to wait and watch as she flits about and pours water in little bursts around the base of the trellis and over the morning glory's lower leaves. Finally, when Riqi-Tio is finished, she beams at him, cheeks glowing pink with pride and exertion.

"Thank you for helping me!"

"You did most of the work," says Pfeil, feeling a little sheepish. "But I'll help anytime I can, if you need anything else."

The Exarch takes a place at Pfeil's side, uninvited, and speaks before Riqi-Tio can respond. "For the moment, however, I'm afraid I'll need to steal away your prince." He says it with a gentle edge of humor; Pfeil can hear another demure smile creeping into his voice, furtive, like a badly-kept secret. Certainly Pfeil would complain if not for the consideration of Riqi-Tio's spirits, and in this context he must admit it is rather kind of the Exarch, seeming to Pfeil now a more sporting sort than he had before.

Riqi-Tio takes back Pfeil's empty watering can, and both of them suddenly seem too large for her where they sit hooked on her arms. "I hope you don't leave so soon," she says, "like Thancred."

Pfeil's head snaps to the Exarch, who holds his hands up in protest. "All in good time, my friend!"

"Right," Pfeil replies, schooling himself into patience despite the hot hammering of his heart in his chest and the threat that it will spill from his throat.

So Thancred is here, or was here — Thancred who he saw go limp and empty in their meeting with the Alliance, Thancred who has made him sick with worry. He has been separated from Thancred before, has believed Thancred dead before, and gone on just the same. He is not so lost a son as to fall apart without paternal guidance, and Thancred is hardly a reliable provider of it to begin with. Pfeil is fine. He can wait. He will be fine, and he will wait — not that telling himself so will do any good.

Riqi-Tio has hurried off to put away her pails when Pfeil comes to his senses, as if she had become rather suddenly aware of intruding upon dull, sober adult business. He breathes deeply — the garden air is sweet, at least — and rubs his hands together to chase the sweat from his palms.

"Right, then," says Pfeil. "Give me your tour."

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