A Still Tide

The journey to Kholusia in the end is not that eventful, although it is a long flight. Szem Djenmai lets Pfeil take Hemlock's reins, and guides his hands as they fly, that Pfeil might learn something of how to ride her. When at last they land, Pfeil is told it is nightfall, although how Szem Djenmai can tell is certainly anyone's guess. He is told, too, that it is likely he will needs must return by boat, because Szem Djenmai cannot stay for days on end. Pfeil wishes him a good return journey, and then is alone on the Kholusian shore to take in the vista, such as it is.

Everything is drowned in a hazy color, a painting coated in varnish cracked and yellowed with age. Jaundiced is twice the word here as it was when he arrived — even the grass, browned and dry with lack of sun, feels jaundiced, and all the rock is yellow, and the sand is yellow, and the sky and clouds — all of it the same sickly corpseflesh color, miserable and dingy, lifeless, stale. There is no wind, and the tide is listless and lazy, the halfhearted lapping of a dark bottle-green sea against an indifferent shore. The air reeks of dead salt.

Above it all stands Eulmore, from what Pfeil can gather. He sees it in the distance, a massive structure towering from the sea, too many green-gold spires and white stone towers packed onto an island foundation so small as to be nigh comical. Pfeil is reminded of Limsa Lominsa, the way it crowds into itself, warped and misshapen like a sick tooth, and looms over the flat and lifeless sea. So crowded is it with gaudy ornamentation, tyrian purple banners and ruby murals and glittering azure inlays, that it makes him sick to fix his eyes on; he is hardly an architect, but it is without any doubt in his mind the ugliest city he has ever seen.

Now that he is alone, he is free to peruse the Exarch's note, he realizes. He casts about for it in his satchel, somewhat blindly, and when he pulls it out it is a touch sad and crumpled. The thought of the Exarch's carefully-written instructions being so sullied by his carelessness makes his heart hurt, somehow; he bites his lip and tries to stave off the feeling as he reads.


Before your journey begins, it is best you read this; regrettably, in our haste to reunite you with Alphinaud, I neglected to inform you of a few quite salient points.

First: While we conduct trade with Eulmore, rarely as we do, relations between our cities have soured considerably. I ask that you conceal any ties you have to myself or to the Crystarium; do not mention us. Should anyone ask, you are a native of Holminster Switch, and you have left your family farm to seek fortune in Eulmore. Your own knowledge of agriculture should serve well enough to maintain such a cover story.

Second: Szem Djenmai will have dropped you east of Stilltide; you will be near the beach, in view of Eulmore. Head south along the coast — you shall find there Eybor, a friend of the Crystarium. Present him with the enclosed sprigs of thyme; he will know what they mean, and tell you what you need to know. Once again, it is imperative you keep the contents of this letter secret, lest Eybor be endangered.

Yours, and with my thanks, the Crystal Exarch

Pfeil digs for the thyme in the bottom of the envelope; it is a little crushed, and his fingers and the whole note smell of it, but Eybor will know what it means. He fixes his eye on the oily tide and heads south along the sand for a spell. Before he looks he knows Ardbert is following, and when Pfeil casts his gaze over his shoulder for a moment there he is, pale and flimsy as a nightgown. They do not speak; Pfeil nods, and tries a smile, and Ardbert nods back with his mouth drawn into a tight, sour line.

Finally Pfeil comes to the fisherman's shack. It's a humble place, with salt-crusted wooden boards for walls and nets hung out to dry near the door. Eybor, standing with his arms crossed and staring at the dark mirror of the placid sea, is a hoary Ronso, broad and stolid and old. He meets Pfeil with a wary eye, and otherwise does not move to greet him — not that Pfeil blames him, dressed as he is in the promise of violence.

"Hello," says Pfeil. "Are you Eybor?"

"Aye," replies Eybor, still wary; he tests the word cautiously on his tongue, like a hot pepper. "What you after, then? Fish? Crab? Think I've got an eel in a barrel somewhere, if you've a taste for 'em..."

Pfeil shakes his head. "I've brought you something," he says, and offers Eybor the crushed sprigs of thyme.

Almost instantly, the suspicion melts from Eybor's face; he takes the thyme with a quiet smile, and his ears stand a touch more attentive than they did before. "Ooh, I do love a bit of thyme. Chuck some in the pan, and it's like a bloody festival of flavor."

Pfeil smiles back, his own ears a little perkier to match Eybor's. "I'm sorry it's so crushed. I came a long way."

"Never you mind that, lad," says Eybor. "Thyme is thyme, it's all the same to me. Now what is it I can do for you? Can't say as there's been any major upsets to report these past few weeks."

"Nothing like that. I'm just looking for Alphinaud. He's a good friend of mine."

"Alphinaud!" Eybor laughs. "Our young champion of the downtrodden, eh? I know him, aye."

"Then do you know where I can meet him?"

Eybor rubs his chin with a grizzled paw. "I can hazard a guess as to where he is now, get a message to him. But you'll need somewhere quiet to meet, away from pryin' eyes..."

Pfeil thinks, too. He does not know the lay of this place like Eybor, of course, so his thoughts are of little utility — up there, behind that rock? Out where Szem Djenmai left him, north along the coast? In the end, his thoughts drift too far. "What did you mean, champion of the downtrodden? What's he been doing lately?"

"Haven't seen him for an age, then, I take it." Eybor crosses his arms again and looks toward the jutting eyesore of Eulmore in the distance. "For all them wealthy folk living in Eulmore, there's twice as many of them as live outside the city, just tryin' to stay alive. Odder to think he wouldn't stand out, dedicated as he is to helpin' folks in need around here, in or out of Gatetown."


"You been livin' under a rock, boy?"

"I'm from Holminster Switch."

Eybor laughs again. "Same bloody thing."

Pfeil has never so much as heard of Holminster Switch until now, but he feels more than a bit indignant on its behalf anyway.

"Alphinaud'll fill you in, I reckon," says Eybor. "Make for Stilltide — that's the fishin' village just up the path there. You're lookin' for a run-down excuse for a tavern the locals call the Leaky Keel. Wait there, and I'll see that Alphinaud joins you." Helpfully, he corrals Pfeil by the shoulder with a hulking paw and points up a shallow slope toward a few huddling shacks at the apex of the 'hill,' could one call it such a thing.

"Thank you," says Pfeil, and begins the trek.

"Wait," Eybor calls. "Keep a gentle manner, like, won't you? Wouldn't want to startle anyone, looking like you're on the warpath."

"That's just my face," says Pfeil.

"I meant the bloody greatsword, boy. That boat oar won't earn you any friends, 'less you prove you're not meanin' to use it."

"Only on sin eaters."

Eybor smiles. "That's what I like to hear. Go on, now — I won't keep you."

Pfeil makes for the slope again, and takes to the path with no real hurry. He waits until he's out of earshot to turn his gaze to Ardbert again, thinking perhaps he means to speak, but Ardbert is gone — still watching, for Pfeil can feel it, but gone to his eyes at least.

The way to Stilltide is not long. All told, it is a pleasant stroll — or pleasant as Kholusia can get, at least — of a quarter bell or less. He walks up a mild slope on a path of hard-packed dirt, wending through dry brush. There is a pastoral sort of comfort in it and the steadiness of the not-weather, even if the landscape is tinged dusty yellow as if viewed through filthy glass. When Pfeil at last makes the final leg of the trip, Stilltide greets him with an air of resignation. Its buildings are little finer than Eybor's shack, though it is far enough from the coast that the tide has not kissed them with rough, sharp salt deposits; there are very few houses here, perhaps five or ten at the most, with the solid dirt road running resolutely through its center, and no paths carved out to any doorsteps. They would scarcely be necessary anyway, he thinks, with all the village's modest spread visible at once to the eye.

The Leaky Keel is not hard to find. Its signage is worn practically to illegibility, but enough of the wind-cracked paint remains for one to get the gist. Pfeil pushes the door open with a touch of hesitation, feeling strangely like an intruder, and makes his way into the refreshing shade.

Inside the Leaky Keel is cramped and dingy, but hardly in a disagreeable way. There is, again, a comforting familiarity in the humble place; he is reminded of time spent in Gridanian homes, with the dark wood of the walls and the sturdy round tables. At the back wall (although the place is so small it's hardly a back wall) stands a counter, behind which burns a stove with a cookpot steaming away. Beside is a battered shelf of dusty liquor bottles, and supervising it all is a burgundy-haired Elven woman who fixes him with a somewhat skeptical eye.

He nods and tries for a smile before settling onto a stool near the door. He's not sure how long it will be before Eybor's message reaches Alphinaud, nor how long before Alphinaud will be able to make his way to the Leaky Keel. There is little to do but wait.

And wait, as the case may be, and wait, and wait. Pfeil fights to keep his eyes open, weary from the long flight, and rests his cheek on his fist, and when he thinks he is at risk of drifting off, the proprietress clears her throat more than a bit markedly.

"This your first time in a tavern? It's customary to buy a drink if you mean to loiter."

"Sorry." He tries to shake the sleep off with a flick of his ears, although he's not too successful. "Umm…do you have tea?"

"Tea," she repeats, more than a bit incredulous.

"And maybe something to eat. Bread, even. I've traveled a long way."

"I'll say," she says. "What'll you be paying with, then?"

He has a bit of gil still with him, although not much. He thinks a meal in a tavern like this might run him fifty or a hundred gil at most in a like establishment back home, so a split down the middle is what he presents to the proprietress, in three timeworn twenty-five gil coins. "Is this enough?"

She chews her bottom lip. "Well, now...those are exotic. Where did you come by coins like that?"

Pfeil shrugs, mostly to buy enough time to come up with a lie. "I found them tilling our field back home, ages ago. I think they must be pretty old."

"Quite the find," she says. "I'm sorry, dear — I don't doubt they have value, but I don't have a touchstone to test their purity, and I'm not about to go begging for one from the neighbors. Haven't you got anything else?"

"Not really," he admits.

"Hmm…" For a good while, the proprietress taps her chin. Then, with a smile — "Ah, here's an idea! There's a common to the north where we grow our vegetables, but lately the pests have been eating more of them than we have. What do you say to a bit of extermination work?"

Alphinaud will wait for certain if he arrives while Pfeil is running errands. He would certainly hate to refuse her, and he's quite hungry anyway. "Sounds good."

"Thought so," says the proprietress with a smile. "With a blade like that, I don't doubt you'll make short work of them. Once you're done, visit the caretaker and give him an earful from me for sleeping on the job. He'll be in the old silo next to the fence — snoring, like as not."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Ha! Now that I'd like to hear more often," she laughs. "Come back quick, and you can laze about for as long as you like."

He leaves with a little wave, and the Light makes him squint when it hits his eyes again. His head throbs, and he remembers quite suddenly the willow bark tablets the Exarch gave him. Fumbling for them in his bag, he sets down the path, and manages finally to pop a couple into his mouth as he walks. A little wash of liquor from his flask helps them go down, although Pfeil wonders at whether he should be drinking even a little with the medicine.

All in all, the common is only a ten minute walk from Stilltide at most. It rests behind a tall wooden fence, with an even taller white stone silo to the far side. Here grow grapes on trellises cobbled together from little more than sticks, and beside them pale squashes, wrinkled cabbages, cucumbers, even a handful of potted tomatoes; further on there is a sizable patch of golden wheat and another close beside of barley. The pests are readily apparent as he walks through the rows, and no trouble to manage — rats, mostly. Though he hates killing the poor things, it's quick, for a mercy, to hold their tails beneath the glinting toe of his greave and part their heads swiftly and painlessly from their shoulders with Cambion. When it's done he sighs, and he pities them, sad and innocent things.

Next he bangs his fist on the wooden door of the silo, and hurls a bit of verbal abuse, as requested. "You lazy ass, I've had to come do your work for you! The barkeep at the Leaky Keel will have your hide if I don't get it first!"

Predictably, perhaps, he's met with silence. He bangs again. "Don't think you can sit and ignore me! I know you're in there!"

When he is met with silence for the second time, he begins to doubt that the caretaker is, in fact, in there; all he hears when he presses his ear to the door is soft scratching and squeaking. Finally he kicks it open, and has naught to show for it but a cloud of thick dust that crawls into his mouth and makes him cough. Wherever the caretaker is, he has not been here in a long time; all Pfeil can see inside is a film of dust and a few vegetable scraps and rat droppings. Privately, he's a little glad he's been shouting cruelties at no one.

The walk back is easy and quiet, and the view is better; Pfeil can see all of Stilltide laid out before him from this height, and beyond it the dark glassy stretch of the sea, reflecting clouds like old, stained wisps of cotton. Motes of Light dance before him and sparkle across the scene, cold embers carried on the barest breath of wind. He tries not to look at Eulmore; it sours what little sordid beauty he can wring from the landscape to savor.

When Pfeil returns to the Leaky Keel, the proprietress flashes him a shockingly winsome smile. "Welcome back, dear. What did that good-for-nothing caretaker have to say for himself?"

"Not much," says Pfeil. "Looks like he scarpered."

"Scarpered! Hmph. Must have left to join the rest of the hopefuls."


" Gatetown. Outside Eulmore?" She frowns, and Pfeil doesn't know what precisely she's looking for and failing to find. "You don't have a clue what I'm talking about, do you."

He shakes his head. "Sorry."

"And there I was thinking you were another dreamer," she says, with a bit of a laugh, as though chastising herself. "Take a seat wherever you like, dear, you've more than earned it. I'll even throw in a bowl of stew for you, on the house."

"You don't have to," says Pfeil, and finds his seat.

"Oh, nonsense — it's my pleasure, really."

"Thank you. I don't want to be trouble, that's all."

"What a funny thing you are," she says, readying a kettle. "Coming in armed and armored like a knight from a fairy story, and saying you don't want any trouble, modest as a church mouse!"

"Well, I don't," he says. "Except with sin eaters, I guess."

"Ah, there it is." She smirks and watches him from the corner of her eyes, ladling chunks of meat and vegetable into a wooden bowl as she speaks. "Well, you take care. Far as anyone outside the city is concerned, it's as noble a goal as any, killing off eaters, but to the Eulmorans…"

"Why would it bother them if I fought sin eaters?"

"You really are come from far off, aren't you?" She places the bowl of stew before him with a thick slice of soft bread. "You watch your back, that's all I care to say. You're a nice enough lad; I'd hate to say I didn't warn you."

Pfeil nods, and turns his attention to the bread and stew at the insistence of his aching stomach — the proprietress is kind, and feeding patrons is her livelihood, so he is not anxious about eating. It's simple fare, consisting of pan-fried rabbit and popoto and a few hearty chunks of onion and squash. He can smell garlic and pepper, with the notable gin-touched aroma of juniper at the head of the mix, and the bite of white wine. It's almost too hot, but it's too delicious not to risk burning his mouth; the juniper blends nicely with the wine and garlic and onion, and the rabbit is lightly gamey and gorgeously tender.

He eats quickly, and when he's finished the kettle begins to whistle; the proprietress brings him a cup of tea still steeping in an aged porcelain cup as he sops up the remaining wine and vegetable broth with his bread. Pfeil thanks her, and she smiles, and the moment he puts his head down to wait for the tea to finish steeping his eyes slam closed like a pair of shutters in a storm. With his stomach full of hot stew, and safe as he is in the comfortable shade and quiet of the Leaky Keel, he has no choice but to fall heavily asleep.

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