Throw Wide the Gates

He isn't awake, when the door creaks open, but he isn't asleep either — half in a dream, he savors the warmth of something soft thrown over his shoulders and listens. The sound of footsteps ought to make him jump, but he is too leaden even to startle, his face stuck to the lacquer of the table and weighing him firmly down.

"And how is business today, Mistress Theva?" A sweet voice, familiar, soft and pale, drifts through Pfeil's half-sleeping ears.

"Oh, frenetic. Look, I have a new customer." A pause. "Bit of an odd'un, if you ask me — shyer than anything, if you can believe it."

The snow-soft voice laughs. "Yes, I think I can. Here — the barley seeds you wanted. They should produce a better harvest than the last."

"What, just like that? Oh, Alphinaud, you really are a dear."

Pfeil opens his eyes and sits up quickly as he can. Alphinaud smiles at him from the counter, slim-limbed and slight as ever, with the apples of his cheeks pushing his eyes into pleasant little crescents. "Getting in your forty winks, then, are you?"


Still clumsy from sleep, Pfeil rushes to Alphinaud and bowls him over in a tight hug. He hits his bad knee hard against the floor, and he doesn't even care when it hurts; he squeezes Alphinaud in his arms until he is liable to pop and presses their faces together and laughs, or cries, or both, until his giddy energy runs out and his throat is sore and his face is streaked with salt tears; Alphinaud squeezes back, and scratches at Pfeil's ears, and laughs twice as loud.

"You might take care not to knock me over next time!"

"I thought — I was so worried about you! I'm so glad you're all right!"

"No worse for wear, I assure you," says Alphinaud, drawing away to look Pfeil in the eye. "You're easier to convince than Alisaie, at any rate. I don't think I've ever had such a scolding!"

"I can only imagine."

"I should have figured you for one of Alphinaud's friends," says Theva. "And here I put you to my errands, all weary-boned!"

Pfeil pulls himself to his feet, shifting his weight to his good leg, and pulls Alphinaud up when he's steady. "Think nothing of it. It's what I'm here for — I like to help."

"Speaking of which," Alphinaud cuts in, "I'm of a mind to take our friend Pfeil here to Gatetown, and I'd prefer he blend in while we're there. Have you any clothing he might borrow?"

Theva rubs her chin. "I'll have a look upstairs and see what I can do."

"My thanks."

She gives the counter one quick wipe down with a cloth, then unlocks a door just to the side and bustles up old, creaky stairs — Pfeil can hear her clear as day, and he sees in the quick flash of the door that the stairway is narrow and dark. He turns to clean up after himself, to right the stool he'd knocked over in his haste and to brush the dust from the threadbare shawl the color of red clay she'd kindly thrown over his back while he slept. The tea she left for him is long cold; he drinks it anyway, and listens to Alphinaud speak.

"I expect the Exarch has you well apprised of events," says Alphinaud, "so I will endeavor not to waste your time with repetition. Tell me instead what news you have of home, if you would."

"It's hard to sum up," says Pfeil, "and I've forgotten parts. We met with Gaius, and he kept you safe when the Exarch took you. He said the Empire has a chemical weapon —"

"Black Rose! Gaius was telling you the truth. When we were on the trail of the Ascians, we saw evidence that the gas was being manufactured once more."

Pfeil grimaces, and feels his stomach turn a little. "Well, then, we'd better be pretty fucking quick here, before the Empire makes use of it in force."

"Just so, for I fear it seems Urianger's vision of the future has every chance of coming true. By his description, the catalyst for the Calamity was a formless and deadly weapon employed by the Garlean Empire — certainly Black Rose fits the bill, wouldn't you say?"

Pfeil nods. "They were already putting it to the test on the field, if Maxima is right. They were going to take Ala Mhigo again, I think. There was a peace talk at Ghimlyt, but it went to shit — Emperor Varis was saying these crazy things that didn't make any sense about Rejoinings and a pure world, or something. I think the Ascians must've driven him mad." He stares into his empty teacup. "There was fighting after that, but we drove the Empire back. They've paused to lick their wounds, but I don't know for how long."

"Grim tidings, indeed."

"No kidding."

Alphinaud leans back on the counter and taps his chin. He looks strange, for a moment; a little older than Pfeil remembers, a little more tired, and humbler, clothed as he is in a thick knit poncho of dull navy yarn and simple trousers instead of the usual livery. His breath, too, is weary when it comes, a deep and heaving sigh. "Together with the Exarch, we've developed a theory as to how we believe the Rejoining will be set in motion. I am sure Urianger himself will cover the subject in more detail, when you meet him next, but I can tell you the process requires that both worlds — the Source and the First — be facing an existential threat. Thus, the salvation of one requires the salvation of the other…"

Theva comes bustling down the stairs again, and Pfeil and Alphinaud hear her long before they see her. She opens the door with an intense glow of warm satisfaction, apparently having found something for Pfeil to wear. "These ought to suit you well enough," she says, handing him a dark little cloth bundle and a pair of battered old boots.

"Thank you," says Pfeil. "I'll be sure not to ruin these —"

"Nonsense, dear, they're old rags." She pats his shoulder. "Go and change in the hall. I'll keep a good eye on that armor of yours — and the sword, too."

"You're very kind," says Pfeil, and heads into the hall as instructed.

It's narrow and dark, and there is hardly much room at the foot of the stairs, but he has more than enough light to change by and space in which to stretch his elbows. He's careful with the pauldron and rerebrace, less so with the leathers and greaves. It all slips off without much trouble, in an easy and quiet cloth-whisper and a bit of muted rattling. Cambion he stands carefully against the wall; she's too large to lie on the floor in this cramped space.

The clothing Theva lent him is comfortable and practical: a baggy grey-brown shirt and deep brown vest with a plain sash, dingy and baggy beige trousers with leather knee guards and a button closure for his tail to peek through, even a pair of worn halfgloves in the same dark color as the vest. The aesthetics are not important, and hardly anything special, but he can't help admiring them anyway — they please quite a bit, especially the low cut of the shirt and vest, where his necklace can show. He worries the small blue pendant between his fingers for a moment before putting on his belt again, reattaching his pack and knife, and leaving the hall to join Alphinaud.

"Oh, good! I was a bit worried they'd be too long in the limb for you, but it looks like I was wrong," says Theva.

"It all fits very well. Thank you again."

"It's no trouble at all, dear."

Alphinaud plants his hands firmly at his hips. "Well, then! What say you, old friend — hungry for another adventure?"

Pfeil can't hold back a little chuckle. "If you say so."

"Careful, you two! Stay out of trouble, now."

"Naturally, Mistress Theva! We shall return before you know it."

Alphinaud takes him out into the path that runs through Stilltide, and the two begin their trek southwest, to Eulmore. The road, from what Pfeil can see of it, bends in a fairly lazy arc across the blighted earth, its first leg nestled in the barest sort of valley between the bases of two gently sloping hills. Not far from the village, there awaits the pair a bridge over a shallow and sluggish river, just as bottle-green as the miserable sea. Light glimmers against its back as on the scales of a thrashing fish, fleeting and silver.

The Light is not warm, as the sun's light is; it does not reach to stroke Pfeil's hair with a tender heat, nor to liven the world with the scent of a baking midday. All is flat and stale, save for the salt smell that drifts in lifeless little spurts from the coast. Pfeil keeps his hands in his pockets as they walk, and tries to appreciate something of the stagnant air.

It is at least quite nice, he thinks, to be with Alphinaud again, even when they are both silent. Alphinaud seems in similarly high spirits, with a smile playing at his lips and an unmistakable jauntiness in his step. Pfeil's limp is back in play today — his own fault for being so careless with his knee — but Alphinaud notices quickly and slows to accommodate his injured gait, ever the little gentleman. In his heart of hearts, Pfeil is somewhat relieved Alphinaud has not grown just yet. Better he not do it too quickly, after all.

"Kholusia seems peaceful, does it not? Almost familiar?" Alphinaud looks to Pfeil expectantly. "I had a similar impression of the Crystarium — even in this distant world, people are much the same."

"Something like that."

Alphinaud sighs. "To think that whenever a calamity struck the Source, a reflection such as this one, with all its culture and history, was being erased from existence..."

It's tragic, but Pfeil isn't sure what to say — few words, if any, do the thought justice, and to ponder it overlong is to risk too much heartache when there is work to be done. Luckily, Alphinaud seems not to expect much from him.

They finally reach the bridge, a gentle arc of worn white stone much wider than it seemed from his vantage point in Stilltide. Alphinaud pauses to stretch, and apparently to take a quick look about for his bearings, though they have only been walking perhaps twenty minutes and in essentially a straight line. When he is finished, he pulls ahead; Pfeil follows slowly, with his bad leg already sore at the knee and ankle. Alphinaud reaches the dirt path on the other side, and Pfeil is prepared to join him.

Then he hears the snap of a twig just behind him.

His heart leaps from his chest, and he turns so wildly to face the perpetrator that he almost makes himself dizzy. There is no one there, which does nothing to stop the incessant hammering in his chest — certainly someone must have done it; certainly someone is still here, following them, and they have slipped off somehow or hidden themselves with a glamour. He casts his gaze to and fro with desperate urgency, but is rewarded with nothing and yet more nothing, only grimy yellow scenery. Regardless, his hand gravitates to the hunting knife at his belt.

"Is everything all right, Pfeil?"

"Someone's following us."

He hears Alphinaud turn around to take a look himself. "I don't see anyone," he says, with a healthy air of skepticism. "I hate to ask, but are you entirely sure it isn't one of your, ah —"

"Paranoid fits?"

"Well, I wouldn't put it like that…"

Pfeil sighs. "I heard a twig snap," he says. "Someone had to have stepped on it."

"There are a great many animals in Kholusia," says Alphinaud. Pfeil gives up the ghost, but he does not take his hand from the butt of his knife.

The walk to Gatetown takes them about two and a half hours, give or take. Pfeil is quite worn out by the end of it, to his chagrin; his knee aches, and his ankle aches, and pain shoots even into his thigh. He feels just miserable enough that he is tempted to take more of the Exarch's little willow bark tablets, but he would rather not waste them on the bad leg when a potential migraine is worse by far. At least Alphinaud keeps his pace even and steady while they walk, and distracts him with chatter about nothing — the not-weather, the people, the scenery — and gradually eases away the brunt of his paranoia. When they arrive at Gatetown, Pfeil only looks for a moment over his shoulder, and his hand finally falls from the knife at his belt.

Gatetown is the perfect picture of misery. Its dwelling places are hardly even shacks — pitiful assemblages of rotting driftwood and mouldering tarp haphazardly strewn into shelters, a thousand unreadable jumbles of plank and cloth and gods only know what else. These wretched hump-spined shapes blot the horizon in a gloomy and detestable procession toward Eulmore's gates, huddled closer and closer together as they draw nearer the city, as if reaching, clawing, falling over one another in greedy and desolate desperation. The very air stinks of this desperation — mildew, rot, decay, dead fish, filthy people, the unbearably strong salt spray of the sea that laps at Eulmore's base and festers beneath the cliff upon which Gatetown crowds. Beyond this agonized scene, the city of tawdry wealth stands proud as ever, untouched and unspoiled; glimpsing snippets of music tumble through the lifeless air, tuneless, and there is plenty upon plenty, and the gates stand between this plenty and Gatetown in an impenetrable monument to Eulmoran apathy.

"The gate ahead is known as the Open Arms," says Alphinaud.

Pfeil cannot help but laugh.

"Ah, thought I recognized you," comes a gravel-hewn voice. "Brought a new friend, eh?"

The Hume man to whom the voice belongs approaches them from the shadow of a shack half collapsed upon itself. His skin and clothes are plastered with a layer of soot and grime — Pfeil cannot imagine fresh water with which to wash is easy to come by here, after all — and it clings to the threads of his russet beard and long hair. He's an older man, perhaps in his fifties, and friendly-seeming enough, with dark brown eyes that glitter in invitation.

"Hello," says Pfeil. "You're a friend of Alphinaud's?"

"Somethin' like," replies the stranger. He gives Pfeil a thorough inspection, looking him up and down and up again, before bursting into salt-rough laughter. "I'll bet you've got a trick or two up your sleeve — maybe even three! Care to show me?"

"He's not here to compete," snaps Alphinaud. "Leave him be."

"What! I was only making conversation!"

Such a protest is all for naught — Alphinaud only regards the man stonily, silent and impassive, until he shuffles off again, leaving Pfeil quite confused.

"Wasn't he just trying to be friendly?"

"Well —"

The trumpeting of a horn calls their attention from one another. Two Hume women, seeming to Pfeil identical, walk down the dirt path to stand before the people of Gatetown. Both are garbed in a decidedly revealing take on jesters' typical costume — short ruffled skirts, tight corsets, fishnet stockings, little windows in their fluffy-sleeved silk shirts for a flash of décolletage. One is clad in sapphire, the other ruby; otherwise it is rather difficult to distinguish them. The sapphire jongleur holds up the horn with an air of triumph; the ruby pulls a small painted cart laden with canvas sacks.

"Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please!" calls the sapphire jongleur, and attention she gets in droves — the people crowd about her and her sanguine mirror the way their ramshackle houses crowd upon the Open Arms. The stranger from before rushes to get in closer, and Pfeil and Alphinaud follow, Pfeil still bringing up the rear with his limp.

"Greetings to our hopeful petitioners, one and all! Eulmore extends its warmest regards!" The ruby jongleur affects a dramatic bow; the sapphire follows suit just as the ruby rises.

"Let it be known that a lady of distinction wishes to dine on fish divine!" cries the sapphire.

"We seek a master culinarian who can guarantee seafood perfection!" cries the ruby.

"Dazzle the matron with your delicious dishes, and life in the city will be yours to enjoy," cries the sapphire, and then both exclaim together: "Even on days when fish is not on the menu!"

Pfeil is not amused, to say the least, by these base theatrics, but the crowd is certainly moved — whispers of anticipation move through them like a wave, bent heads turning to and fro.

"Who among you will answer the call?" Sapphire.

"Name yourself or another, we mind not at all!" Ruby.

Again, a wave of low chatter moves through the crowd. It seems for quite a while that no one is willing to sally forth, until finally a young Galdjent woman pushes through the crowd, surging confidently forward. The jongleurs pick over her carefully, with a mercenary air — they run their fingers through her hair, they lift her arms and turn them about, they bend her down to turn her face back and forth by the cheek. What such inspection has to do with her culinary skills, Pfeil cannot hope to guess; he supposes those who are taken to Eulmore to please the nobility can hardly be ugly by their standards, sick though the thought is. He wonders if he would need to shed a few pounds to slip through the gates himself.

"Ohoho! What a catch! We'll not be throwing this one back!" The ruby jongleur releases the young Galdjent lady and claps her hands together.

"It's positively vile," mutters Alphinaud. "They're picked over like market produce…"

"Having seen your all-too-obvious charms, we welcome you with open arms!" With a flourish, the ruby jongleur curtsies, and takes the young woman's hand. "Come, join us in the city of splendor, and live out your life in an ecstasy of endeavor!"

" Ecstasy of endeavor? They don't have to subject us to shit verse on top of it," Pfeil scoffs.

Apparently not only Alphinaud is listening — someone behind him in the crowd lets out a low, bitter chuckle, and a strange jolt of dread rushes down Pfeil's vertebrae. But he hasn't the time to investigate, for the show picks up once more.

"Ah, just look at those expectant faces! What could you possibly be waiting for?" With a flourish, the sapphire jongleur pulls open one of the canvas sacks. "Well, well, what have we here!? An extra share of meol to celebrate our newest resident!"

Gatetown's residents close in. It quickly becomes impossible to see the bright gem-colored jongleurs through the flock of hopefuls, cloaked as they are in drab sparrow-browns and pigeon-greys. Pfeil tries to get a little closer without disturbing; the russet-haired stranger from before ends up nudging him forward, and before he knows it the ruby jongleur is pressing a fat round loaf of something-or-other — meol, he supposes — into his palms. Her eyes meet his, and when she smiles at him she squints too much, like she's holding a secret in her mouth.

Pfeil trots back to Alphinaud with the meol as the crowd disperses. He doesn't particularly want to eat it, although he's gathered it's food; he hardly trusts the look he'd seen on the ruby jongleur's face, and he remembers the unpleasantness in Coerthas a few years back too keenly to take any risks here. Instead he only presses at it with his thumb. It depresses softly — it's a dumpling, perhaps, with a sort of floury texture to its surface, and dense as a brick. Pfeil expects that if he cut it in half with his knife, the innards would be flat and featureless, without any filling. He brings it to his nose and gives it a little test, mostly out of idle curiosity — the scent is faintly sweet and tender, sugary, although strangely enough it conjures to mind veal or perhaps lamb.

"I see you've gotten your hands on some meol," says Alphinaud.

"I'm not going to eat it," Pfeil answers, more reflexively than anything else, and hands it to him instead.

Alphinaud gives it a squeeze. "I'd expect not."

"What is it?"

"Perhaps a sort of pastry, were I to guess. Eulmore routinely doles it out to the people of Gatetown, and apparently it's a staple for her citizens as well." Alphinaud hefts the meol in his hand. "Many here rely on it to survive in these times of scarcity."

"Whatever it is, it gives me a bad feeling," says Pfeil. "Only free cheese is in a mousetrap, or so they say."

"Well-put," says Alphinaud. "Now you understand why my attempts to enter the city have thus far come to naught. The dubious privilege of residency must be won via a contest with ever-changing rules — and meanwhile, dependent on Eulmore for their sustenance, the people of Gatetown can scarcely conceive of a life beyond scrounging in its shadow."

"I don't blame them. Must be hard to make a living, in times like these."

"But not impossible, by any means. I am not so naive as to think there is some miraculous solution to all this, but I have tried to propose ways they could improve their lot, even tried to direct their energies toward our shared struggle with the sin eaters — my words invariably fall on deaf ears."

Pfeil crosses his arms. "Alphinaud, I don't mean to insult you, but look around. At least Eulmore's right there — of course they don't want to listen to you."

"Then what do you propose?"

"I say we get the full picture first. You've got a plan to get us into Eulmore up your sleeve, don't you?"

Alphinaud smiles. "Something of the sort."

previous - next

morningstar index