Taking Flight

In his dream, Pfeil castigates the Exarch again — he lays into the poor man with insult after insult, and the Exarch only stands and tolerates it with a faintly chastised smile until he begins to break apart, in pasty blue bits and in fleshy peels. Something shifts when Pfeil sees the spots of blood; they are no longer in the Ocular, and Pfeil is stricken with the sense that they must escape from danger. Garlean troops will move on them, and the Exarch, wounded, is a liability. Pfeil slings the crystalline arm over his shoulder and holds a hand to the Exarch's chest to staunch the bleeding, but the arm crumbles into mealy nothing, and he hears the chaos of the battlefield draw closer, hears someone shout —

When Pfeil opens his eyes he is drenched in sweat, and his head still throbs, as it did the day before. He slides out of bed in aimless slug-motion, heavy and underbaked, and shuffles through last night's discarded clothing for his flask. His fingers are clumsy with the twisting cap, and his hands shake, but the liquor burns like always, the familiar warmth prickling like a cactus bloom in his chest. He doesn't drink much, although he wants more — just a mouthful. It is enough to take the edge off the nightmare, which is all he needs. He notices the toy chocobo has fallen to the floor with his night-thrashing, and tucks it back under the covers with a little pat.

It does not take long for Pfeil to ready himself. The bathroom is small, furnished with a sink and bathtub both filled by water crystal powered faucet; the water is cold, but with his skin flushed and alcohol-warm this is no problem. The Exarch has left him a sweet-smelling soap, something rosy. He lathers it and purges the nightmare sweat from his skin and hair with a harried sort of thoughtlessness, eager to be clothed again; his crescent moon earring jingles brightly as he washes.

Dressing himself proves motivating. The smallclothes the Exarch left him are not his favorite sort — they're the tight shorts most men wear, black, and though Pfeil appreciates the gesture he knows the legs will only roll up his fat thighs, shaped as he is. To complain would be unfair, and it is of no real import; he steps in and folds the legs up where they will gravitate anyway, so that at least they will sit evenly. The socks are a good material; Pfeil likes that they are tight and stop just above his calf, because they will not slide down in his greaves this way.

Next he slips on the leathers and armor the Exarch has left him, and these he's very fond of: a high-collared black leather chestpiece, matching kilt and leather trousers, plain greaves, a brassy pauldron and rerebrace for one arm (well and good enough, Pfeil thinks, because he always leads with his left shoulder anyway). The fit is perfectly snug, and the gloves he'd worn before fit in easily. His greatsword is next; he is glad the Exarch did not try to replace Cambion, gritty and bandaged and strange as she is, because he could never be induced to part with her. Her heft, too, is familiar, and he feels better with her strapped to his back.

He packs light — journal, flask, hunting knife, coinpurse, a second pair of socks and smalls, all tucked safely into a small leather pack and secured to the belt around his kilt. There is really nothing else for him to take, save the soft chocobo, and much as he'd like its company he hardly wants to run the risk of ruining it in his travels. With everything taken care of, he heads for the Ocular.

Of course, it is the same way he left it when he arrives. The Exarch seems to have been waiting patiently for him, and smiles when they lock eyes, apparently pleased to see Pfeil up and about. "Ah, how did you find your new quarters? I trust you were able to rest?"

"I slept just fine," says Pfeil. "They're very nice. Thank you."

"Is everything to your liking? I see your armor fits well enough — I endeavored to choose something that would appeal to your aesthetics as well as your practical needs, although if I've erred at all —"

"It's all nice." Pfeil sighs. "I'm sorry about yesterday, again. I didn't…you didn't deserve that outburst, and I was sullen all day, and…"

"All is forgiven," the Exarch repeats. "You were quite understandably weary, and overwhelmed, and with a headache to contend with on top of it all. I trust your head is feeling better this morning?"

It is not, at least not by much, but Pfeil nods. "I'm feeling better. I'm ready to go."

"Good to hear," replies the Exarch. "I shall endeavor to explain as much as I can."

From a fold in the chest of his robes, the Exarch produces a parchment map. He unrolls it with slow and steady hands, and bids Pfeil come look with a jerk of his head. The map is beautifully illustrated, much like Moren's picture book; the script ought to be unintelligible, he realizes, but somehow it is clear. The continents and islands are familiar, and Pfeil gleans quickly that the most general lay of the land, at least, is the same as at home. His shoulder meets the Exarch's as he examines the map, and for a moment he is reminded of his nightmare. This time the Exarch is well, he tells himself, and to drive the point home he presses in just a touch further, to feel the life running under the Exarch's skin.

The Exarch clears his throat. "The Scions are, as you no doubt suspected, rather scattered to the four winds as it stands. Were it an option, I would advise you meet with Thancred first; I understand you are quite eager to see him."

"That's right. I don't know if he's mentioned it, but I'm his son," Pfeil says, thinking it quite plausible an omission.

"Of course he has. Why should he not?"

Pfeil purses his lips a little. "Well, he's off the table, then. Off doing…secretive whatever, I assume."

"He has taken up with a new companion, and is presently engaged as a wandering hunter of sin eaters."

"Ugh. So he's still playing womanizer, then?"

The Exarch grimaces. "Not…precisely. Here — your best bet is with Alphinaud, at present," he redirects, and points to an island near the western edge of the map. "He's taken up in Kholusia, to forge alliances with the people of Eulmore and its surrounds."

"What about everyone else?"

"Alisaie is here," says the Exarch, tapping a desert to the south, "in Amh Araeng, and its arid wastes. They lie upon the very edge of the inhabitable world, where the Flood of Light was halted. Those who dwell there live in constant fear of attack by the sin eaters."

"Wouldn't it be better to start there, if the people are in so much danger?"

The Exarch smiles at him again, although the placid and patient quality of the expression has begun to fray. "I would prefer you start your journey in Kholusia, that you might not exert yourself past your limits."

Pfeil thinks it is certainly not as serious an undertaking as the Exarch makes it sound, and a little labor with Cambion hardly frightens him. But the Exarch seems exhausted at his sense of urgency, and he is not one to argue after the day preceding. "I'll look for Alphinaud, then."

"Thank you," says the Exarch, and his relief is robust enough to touch. "Before I send you on your way, I must warn you, however briefly, of a fact I failed to mention yesterday evening."

"Is something wrong?"

The Exarch shakes his head. "Merely, well — I should hardly wish to give you a fright. Though your fellow Scions were spirited away, in your view, quite recently, time flows…differently, shall we say, in the First — in the space of a single hour in your home world, an entire year might pass in the First, and the reverse could also be true. The pace fluctuates without rhyme or reason, and it cannot be predicted."

"So they've been here how long?"

"Alphinaud and Alisaie, our most, ah, recent arrivals, have lived in the First for almost a year. Y'shtola and Urianger have dwelled here for three winters all told, while Thancred's count stands at five."

Pfeil chews the inside of his cheek in thought. "I suppose the twins will be taller now," he says.

"We have not spoken in some time — it's quite possible they've grown."

The image of Alphinaud or Alisaie towering over him is hard to conjure, too distant and comical. Being only a year younger than him, they have been a touch overdue the growth spurt most Elezen undergo at twenty-some summers; Pfeil has mostly been relieved at their rendering him far from the smallest Scion, but it is a state of affairs that can scarcely last forever. Even — perhaps especially — if they have grown, it will be good to see them again.

"Kholusia is an island," says Pfeil. "Is it a long voyage?"

"Two or three days by boat, perhaps, not taking into account the journey to the coast — a week or so's travel, all in all, I would expect." The Exarch taps his chin. "Luckily, you will be able to travel by air, and should arrive by nightfall or early morning."

"You have airships, then?"

"Better yet, amaro," says the Exarch, with a conspiratorial lilt. "I think you will like them."


"Come with me."

The Exarch leads him back out into the Crystarium proper. Pfeil sucks a breath in through his teeth when the Light hits his eyes again.

"Feeling all right?" The Exarch looks back at Pfeil, but does not stop walking.

"Fine," says Pfeil. The last migraine has not even abated in the entire; he is not happy to have a second all but certain under this damned insistent refulgence, although he will put up with it if he must.

The Exarch nods, although it is a hesitant gesture. "If aught is amiss, we can stop at Spagyrics —"

"Everything is fine," says Pfeil, "don't worry."

"Very well." They continue their walk through the Crystarium, though Pfeil notices the Exarch slows his pace rather markedly. "For transparency's sake, we are on our way to the Temenos Rookery."

"A rookery!" Instantly his spirits lift. "What birds do you keep? Pigeons, for certain, it'd be stupid not to. Chickens? Definitely chickens. I suppose they're not the ones we've got back home. Do they have good temperaments, generally? Do you keep a lot of breeds? I like the Sorrel Rosecombs' looks. They're pretty, but they're not very friendly — we had one at Bentbranch, and she didn't like me much. Our Buff Moraby was really sweet, though. Am I going on too much?"

"Not at all," says the Exarch. "I can't say I'm too involved with the birds, personally."

"You should say hello to them sometime. They're really interesting to watch, if you know what to look for — did you know that sometimes, hens will start growing in saddle feathers and big combs, and turn into cocks? It never happened to any of our birds when I was at Bentbranch, but I remember reading about it. And sometimes they'll behave like cocks, too, even if they don't grow in saddle feathers or anything."

"That sounds familiar," says the Exarch.

"Mhm. Chocobos have a similar sort of tendency, too, but it's less pronounced than in chickens, because there aren't as many differences between hens and cocks."

It seems the Exarch is holding back a little smile when he replies. "I…see."

Pfeil rolls his eyes, although he can't help but smile back. "Oh, grow up."

"I wasn't laughing at your choice of language, I assure you," the Exarch says. "I'm merely relieved to see you in better spirits today, if I might speak plain."

"Birds will do that," says Pfeil. "I actually didn't feel very well this morning, all told, but I'm glad to see the rookery. And I'm glad you're so patient."

"I suspected as much, after yesterday. Really, it's no trouble to take a detour — in fact, if you'd like, I'll show you to the rookery and speak to Chessamile for you while you're there. No doubt she'll have something for your headaches you can take on the road to Kholusia. Migraine is a common complaint here, as you might imagine."

Of course Pfeil would rather get a move on, but the Exarch seems so eager to help, and so gladdened by Pfeil's relative frankness, that he has a hard time refusing. "Only if it's not any trouble," he acquiesces. "Thank you very much."

"It is not a problem in the slightest," says the Exarch. "Thank you for being honest."

They pass the rest of the journey in an easy and companionable silence. Sickly and strange though the Light is, it gives enough of a midday cast to the Crystarium that the ghost of Pfeil's nightmare is finally chased away. The Exarch's city and its beating heart seem already to Pfeil a safe and comforting haven, even as sin eaters threaten to tear it down; it is hard to feel anything but at ease with the Exarch as tour guide and regnant protector both.

Finally the pair arrives at the rookery. The grounds are large, Pfeil notes, with plenty of sand-colored brick shelters for the birds to huddle under in incumbent weather (not that the First has any such thing — perhaps for shade, then). There are chocobos here — Pfeil notes the presence of a few towering birds much like Belah'dian destriers, although they are quite different here, the beaks more square and the natural posture notably bent, and with the cocks sporting oilslick sickles and long, manelike hackles he's never seen on a chocobo back home. No Belah'dian jennets, nor anything similar, of course, but Dwarves are a people that do not often venture from the mountains.

"What are those?" He points to one of the destriers, a cock, and hopes the Exarch will know.

"Chocobos," comes a deep, gravelly reply. Pfeil turns to find the source of the voice — an Amalj'aa, though certainly this is not the correct name here. He has not often seen these people without the signature armor they wear on the Source; he is somewhat surprised at the stark whitish-grey of the fur covering the rookery-keeper's shoulders.

Pfeil resists the urge to laugh at the obviousness of the statement. "What sort of chocobos are they, I mean? I grew up in a stable, but I've never seen that sort of draft."

"One of the Exarch's friends, are you? I gather you hail from further afield. These are Ronkan coursers; it's traditionally the Ronso who ride them. After the Flood, with many other breeds lost, they've become prized by other peoples, namely the Galdjent and even a few Zun." He exhales heavily through his nostrils, the Amalj'aa, with no small degree of bitterness. "No Zun worth the name would take a Ronkan courser over an amaro, if you ask me."

"This is Szem Djenmai, our Master of Beasts here at the rookery," says the Exarch. "Szem Djenmai, this is Pfeil, a good friend of mine."

"It's nice to meet you," says Pfeil. "You'll probably be seeing a lot of me. I love birds."

Szem Djenmai takes Pfeil's hand in both claws and gives it a firm, if curt, shake. "You're welcome to have the run of the rookery so long as you work."

"Pfeil here will need an amaro, that he might travel to Kholusia," says the Exarch. "If you would be so kind as to take care of him, I'd be much obliged. I have an errand to see to at Spagyrics, but I shall meet you both at the launch when you're ready."

The Exarch hurries off before Szem Djenmai can protest, which Pfeil imagines he would very much like to do. They stand together in silence for a moment, and Pfeil flexes his fingers a touch, still feeling a bit smashed from the firm handshake.

"I will pick you out a friendly whelp," he says, finally, "and we'll ride together."

He bustles off, leaving Pfeil to watch the Ronkan coursers scratch and peck with their standard fellows. They're pretty, he thinks, if unusual; the cocks' iridescent black tailfeathers are fascinating and charming, and one of the coursers has a habit of twitching his whenever he scratches at the dirt in the hopes of finding a treat. He hardly notices the time pass until he hears Szem Djenmai return with the promised amaro.

It is like no bird he has ever seen before — huge and bulky and soot-grey, nearly black, with deep, wet brown eyes, wide and molten like chocolate, which lend its face a sad and sweet character. Its beak seems more muzzle than beak, really, and the jut of its chin is decidedly caprine; Pfeil can imagine the sidelong motion of its chewing hay without any trouble. Most peculiar of all is the layout of its body. He thinks, at first, that the number of wings is the usual, but it shuffles its feathers about, and he sees it has not two, but four. Like the Ronkan courser, its posture is more hunched than that of a chocobo, and the long, fleshy-thick tail seems to balance it well.

"Give her neck a scratch, so she has a chance to learn your scent," Szem Djenmai commands.

Pfeil does not need to be asked twice. He approaches her slowly, cooing half-nonsense in a soft, high voice — "hello, baby, hi, baby" — and lets her examine him for a moment before he makes contact. Her neck and back, he realizes, are covered in fur rather than feathers; she is angel-soft, and seems to appreciate the scratch, resting her head on his shoulder and thumping her tail in the dust. "Good girl," says Pfeil, and presses his cheek to her leathery face.

Szem Djenmai lets them fraternize a little while, and then he calls the amaro to his side with a clap. She huffs a little, shakes off her neck, and moves toward her master with exceeding obedience — she's a well-trained bird, he thinks, and mild, without anything of his own little Milkroot's independent attitude. Thinking of his own bird makes him homesick already, but it brings to mind an important question, too. "What's her name?"

"Hemlock," says Szem Djenmai.

"Hemlock," Pfeil repeats. "She's a good girl."

"Certainly fond of you, it seems," says Szem Djenmai. "Should the journey to Kholusia go well, I may allow you free use of her yet."

"I'll be sure to come see her often and lend a hand if you do."

"Good man." Szem Djenmai gives his shoulder a pat. "Let's be off to the launch, then. I'm sure the Exarch has finished those errands by now."

Pfeil nods, and, impossibly, his day gets even better — Szem Djenmai hands him Hemlock's lead, and as they make their way to the launch, she follows and watches him with sweetly trusting eyes.

The launch is a simple enough place, little more than a platform from which the amaro might leap and take flight. The Exarch is in wait for him near a sort of checkpoint, wringing a phial of willow bark tablets and an envelope in his hands. The Light insinuates itself rather markedly into his eyes here, and the Exarch is little more than a dark void in comparison. He approaches Pfeil with a half-timid sort of gait, all eager and nervous energy. When he is near, he draws Pfeil in and presses the phial and envelope into his hands with a squeeze of urgency.

"Do not read this note until you arrive in Kholusia," he demands, voice low and breathy in the shell of Pfeil's ear. "It is of the utmost importance its contents remain confidential."

"I won't. I promise."

"Thank you." Just as suddenly as he'd drawn close, the Exarch draws away. "Safe travels, then! Szem Djenmai will see to that, I am sure. Give my warmest regards to Alphinaud when you find him."

Szem Djenmai nods, and Pfeil stashes away the note and phial of medicine in his bag. He doesn't particularly want to say goodbye, he realizes.

"I'll see you later," Pfeil says instead.

previous - next

morningstar index