Tidus came awake with a pounding complaint in his head, a churning upset in his gut and a body that ached for lying so long on cold, hard stone. He groaned, bringing both hands up to his face, pressing his palms into his eyes sockets to drive away the pressure.
It wouldn’t go. For a few precarious moments, in the shadow and the discomfort, he didn’t know where he was or when or why. Disorientation held him firmly in its grip and refused to let go.
Why his head hurt so bad, and why he was lying in a cold, dark room, on a hard, stone floor was beyond him. The last thing he recalled was – – –
– – – A flash of memory went through his mind. Too many images that made an already aching head, reel even more. A blitzball arena – – thousands of screaming fans – – the flash of a sword held in his own hands – – the roar of a sea gone mad – – the gentle smile of a young woman – – the laughter of boys on the beach, pretending that beach was an arena – – the sand coming up so fast in his face that he couldn’t even get a hand out to stop himself from falling – – hands on his skin.
He blinked up into the shadowed ceiling in panic, scrambling to his knees and staring into the corners. Empty corners. No possessed maester’s, no crumbled bodies cut down by ghostly guardians. No anything, but featureless stone and a door with a thick grate from which a faint gray light came through, but that was it. The extent of his world.
With the indomitable resilience of youth, he fought off the pain and the stiffness and pushed himself to his feet. Stood there for a moment, legs splayed, trying to regain his equilibrium. It was sluggish in coming back. His head felt heavy, stuffed with sticky, turbid goo. Oh, right, they’d drugged him.
They? Who were they? The Yevonites? Had Yevon taken to abducting devotees now that the cat was out of the bag about the truth of their religion? Oh. No – – not that either. It was because of Jecht. Because his old man had come to taunt him on the beach. That was what had started this whole thing. Because that weasel Krival had seen it and told his master and that slimy, pale-faced creep had wanted to know how.
But, no, that wasn’t entirely right either.
There had been another entity who’d wanted to know. Another presence that had overlapped that of maester Charis. Dark presence. Frightening presence. It might have been Charis who’d put his hands on him – – but something or someone else had been directing it.
And Auron had come and fended it off of him. Had physically been there for a moment before he’d faded back into obscurity. Not just a ghost or a shade or a shadowed reflection. Had been solid enough to knock Charis against the wall – – to knock whatever had been in possession of Charis right out of him.
How the hell had that happened?
Thinking about it hurt his head. Better not to think and take a little action. He went to the door and tested its strength against his shoulder. It was every bit as solid as the stone walls. All he did was bruise his shoulder. He yelled out of the grate, but no one heeded his call. He ended up with his back to it, staring in frustration into the shadows. He was hungry and his bladder ached and where were Jecht and Auron now, that he was alone and bereft and at a loss.
He took a whiz in the far corner, bemoaning his luck; went back to the opposite corner to sink down against the wall to the floor. He didn’t know how much time had passed, but he was dearly afraid he’d missed his ship.
There was the soft patter of footsteps outside the door. The rattling of the lock. Tidus pushed himself up, braced for whatever menace might come through that door at him.
It was temple guards. Six of them. As if he had it in him to handle a single pair, as dull as the drugs had made him. Still, he struggled when they came for him. Caught a man in the jaw with his elbow and took another’s legs out from under him with a sweep of his foot. Almost had a third down before one of them took the hilt of his dagger to the side of Tidus’s head. After that, he was easier to handle. Easier for them to slam against the wall and secure his hands behind his back. They jerked him out of the cell, then, one nursing a limp, another bleeding from a torn lip and not gentle with him because of it. He got a fist in the side for good measure before they entered the light of day from a door leading up from the back of the temple. Maester Charis and Maester Krival were waiting outside. Tidus was somewhat surprised to see Charis in one piece. Perhaps Auron had not been as substantial as he’d thought. Generally when Auron hit something with that damned big sword of his, that something did not get back up again.
“Are you sure you don’t need a sending?” he said through the pain in his side.
Charis smiled. Krival glared indignantly at the utter lack of respect.
“Not today, thank you.” Charis said. “But you may, before too much time has passed. Those who defy the teachings all suffer the same fate in the end.”
“Do you even know what the teachings are?” Tidus sneered. “Ever see the underside of the temple at Bevelle? I have.”
Charis waved a hand. “No more of your blasphemies or I shall have you gagged for the duration of your trip.”
“The truth hurts, huh? Who’s running dog are you, anyway, to let that thing inside you?”
This time when Charis lifted his hand there was anger in his eyes. Another fist slammed into Tidus’s back. Another between his shoulder blades when he doubled over. It stole what breath he had and left him gasping. They jerked him up between them and hauled him out of the courtyard.
The streets were empty, in the wee hours of the morning. Only a few fishermen heading towards the docks and a pack of roaming dogs. His guards seemed to be heading towards the docks.
“Where are you taking me?” he demanded, once he’d regained his breath. “I haven’t done anything. You can’t just haul me off.”
They didn’t feel the need to reply. Once they had reached the harbor section of the village, there were more folk about. Men and women who lived off the sea rose by her schedule. Fishing boats were being outfitted and readied to go out. Merchant ships were loading the last of their cargo and preparing to leave dock. The ship Tidus had gained passage on, likely among them. He craned his neck to see over the heads of his guards, trying to count masts and see if that selfsame ship was still at dock. He couldn’t tell.
A crowd of young men jostled the group of guards around Tidus. He looked up briefly, off balance, to meet the eyes of the boy he’d won the bet with on the beach last night – – or the night before. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed. The boys passed by, under the glares of the temple guards. Tidus did not see where they disappeared to. All he saw was the broad ship at the end of a long pier, that the temple guards were dragging him towards. It flew a flag with the symbol of Yevon from its mail mast and it was considerably more impressive than the ship he had taken with maester Krival from Quisa. Once on that ship, he thought, they’d throw him in a cell below decks and keep him there until they reached whatever destination they had in mind for him. Until they brought him to the thing that had possessed maester Charis, for whatever reasons that thing had for wanting him.
Halfway down the dock, past wooden booths where fishermen could off load their catches, past benches where people could sit and fish off the dock, where seagulls loitered, lazily awaiting the return of the fishing boats – – there was a yell and a commotion. The temple guards half turned towards it, half hesitated in their progress as what looked to be a brawl erupted on the pier behind them. A fighting, yelling mass of bodies that moved rather too rapidly down the pier and impacted Tidus and his captors soundly. The temple guards cried out and yelled for order. The hand on Tidus’s arm loosened as the guard holding him shifted forward to break up the fight.
A body collided with Tidus. Arms wrapped about his waist and a weight shoved him backwards, into the guard behind him, knocking that man aside and over the edge of the pier.
He hit water, entangled with another body, his hands bound behind him, and sank. He tried to kick out, to launch himself back to the surface, but the arms about him refused to let go. They dragged him down and he was helpless to fight it. It was too murky, here by the pier with the big boats stirring up the sludge, to see who had him. But he felt the prick of a blade against his skin and went deathly still as the arms tightened once in warning about him. When he’d stopped his struggling, the pressure let up. The hand with the knife felt behind him, caught at his bound hands and the blade slipped between his wrists. Sawed at the rope and pierced skin in the process. But little matter, for his hands were free. Reflexively he started for the surface, but the other person touched his shoulder, trying to draw him to the right, instead of up. Not a bad plan, he thought, since the guards were probably topside, looking for him.
So he swam, only vaguely aware of the body before him. His lungs burned. They passed under the massive hull of a ship and then, out of necessity they had to kick towards the surface. They came up, not far from the ship they’d just passed under, gasping for precious air. Tidus blinked water from his eyes and stared at the grinning face of the boy from the beach.
“I figure you owe me, now.” The boy said. “I figure I can get that introduction to Bickerson, now.”
Tidus grinned back, shaking water laden hair out of his eyes. “Fair’s fair. You make it to Luca, I’ll make sure I mention your name to him. Maybe get you a visit to their locker room.”
The boy nodded. “Good. You tell ’em, my name’s Twik. Twik from Theron Island.”
They swam to the around to the next pier and pulled themselves up out of the water. The Yevon ship prevented Tidus from seeing what the temple guards were up to on its other side. Just as well, for it prevented them from seeing him scurry onto the dock like a water-logged rat.
“Listen, I’ve got a ship I need to catch before it leaves – – -”
“Right.” Twik said. “If they come down the docks after you – – we’ll see if we can’t give them a bit of a rough time.”
“Then I’ll owe you twice as much. Thanks.”
Tidus ran down the docks, praying that the Sea Hag was still there. It looked as if luck, for a change, was with him. There she sat, rocking gently with the tides, her crew scurrying about her deck and in the process of casting off ropes.
“Wait. Wait.” He cried, sprinting down the pier.
The familiar, grizzled face of the captain appeared at the rail. “Sorry lad, the gangplanks all up.”
Tidus wasn’t about to let that little detail bother him. He launched himself from the edge of the pier, caught the edge of the rail and pulled himself up and over. The old captain blinked at him. Looked him up and down, took in his drenched state and shook his head.
“Had to take a mornin’ swim a’fore you come, did you, lad?”
“Something like that.” Tidus grinned.
“Well, it looks to be a hot day, so you’ll dry out soon enough swabbing decks.”
It was better, he thought, than whiling away the time imprisoned in a temple barge brig.
It was a day later that that selfsame brig caught up with him. The lookout in the crow’s nest saw the sail to the east and the old captain got out his spyglass and studied the horizon.
“Is it Al Bhed?” the crew whispered, nervous over the rumors of Al Bhed pirates. Tidus stood on the deck with the rest of them, not so nervous of Al Bhed as the rest, perhaps, but scanning the distance, nonetheless.
“No.” The captain said with a gusty sigh of relief. “She flies the symbol of Yevon. Its a temple ship.”
Tidus felt his gut clench, even as the crew relaxed. How had they tracked him? Had someone seen him board this ship? Or were they chasing down every ship that had left port on the day of his escape? With nothing but sea around him, there was no escape if the captain of the Sea Hag chose to turn him over. Maybe if he talked to the old man – – ? Maybe honesty would win him points?
“Captain – – sir?” Tidus stopped just below the stern deck where Captain Mifflin stood watch. The old man turned and squinted down at him.
“Umm – – about that Yevon ship following us – – I think it might be more than coincidence.”
The captain opened both eyes to look at him, chewing busily on the strong tobacco that he favored. “Its a common route, boy. This current runs straight through to the middle islands.”
“Well – – maybe. But – – but the maester at Theron – – well, he wanted me on that temple ship at dock – – and he was pretty adamant about it. I’d sort of – – well, sort of just escaped the temple guards when I boarded the Sea Hag. So they might be after me.” He winced when he said it, biting his lip, not quite knowing what the old captain might do. Harboring an enemy of Yevon might not be at the top of the old man’s list of things to do.
Captain Mifflin turned his back on him and walked to the stern railing, leaning heavily on the wood and staring at the not so small speck that was the temple ship.
“What’d a boy like you do, to think that Yevon’d send a ship after you? You don’t look Al Bhed to me.”
“I’m not.” Tidus climbed up onto the stern deck. Telling the captain that the maester had an interest in him because he talked to shades of the dead – – well, he just didn’t think that would go over well. “If I could explain it so that you didn’t think I was insane – – I would. But, I promise you, I didn’t do anything to piss them off. I’m not a criminal.”
“What are you, then?”
Tidus laughed, not quite knowing the answer to that one himself. “Asking for your help.”
The assassin struck in the midst of the unveiling of the Crusader’s Memorial at the cliffs overlooking the ocean at the high end of Mushroom Rock road.
It was a great stone monument that served as both lighthouse and memorial to all the men that had died trying to fend off Sin over two years past. There were Al Bhed names there too, and those inclusions had incurred bitter Yevonite opposition. No matter that Sin might not have been ultimately destroyed had it not been for the Al Bhed and their machina assistance. No matter that all those reasons Yevon insisted Sin had punished humanity for were nothing more than a millennia’s worth of superstition.
But Yevon, of course, was fighting for a foothold in a world that was increasingly drawing away from the holy teachings. Yevon was trying desperately to recover from a blow that shook the very foundations of its power structure.
Yevon needed to change. Yuna was firm on that account, but she was also firm in the belief that without the basic moralities that Yevon taught, this new eternal calm they had made might very well flounder. People needed Yevon. They just didn’t need its prejudices.
So she had stood firm in the inclusion of the Al Bhed names. And she had convinced the wavering Crusader hierarchy – – all of who had once been and for the most part still were – – devout Yevonites – – to honor all of the men who’d died trying to protect Spira from Sin – – not just those that followed Yevon.
Crusaders and Al Bhed alike crowded the cliffs, an uneasy mixture at any time – – perhaps more so now as men and women stared up at the graven names of the dead. There were tears shed and remembrances shared. Yuna had her own memories of that fateful day. Of carnage she’d watched from the high cliffs, helpless to stop. Most of the bodies they’d never even found. Perhaps ten percent of that gallant force of combined Crusader and Al Bhed fighters had survived that day.
Little wonder that emotions were high. Little wonder that someone might have snapped under the pressure of grief – – under the condemnations of the devout Yevonites that protested this mixed gathering and this great stone tribute to the fallen – – to all the fallen.
The man came out of the crowd as the ceremonial speeches were finished and the honored speakers were stepping down from the podium to join the celebration. Old High councilman Lorthrinum had his hand under her elbow, assisting her down the three shallow steps to the ground. A gentleman despite his years and despite the fact that his own steps were shaky and he walked with heavy reliance upon a cane.
Her foot had touched the ground and she’d turned to smile her thanks at Lorthrinum when someone in the crowd shrieked.
“A knife! He’s got a knife!”
Yuna had blinked, head coming up in a moment of concern, thinking at the very first that some fight had broken out between Al Bhed and Crusader. But the flash of movement was too close and between one startled breath and the next she felt a sharp searing pain across her forearm.
Had she raised it to fend the blade off? She couldn’t quite recall later. All she could really remember was Kimahri’s deafening roar and herself knocked back by the Ronso’s leap from his place at the edge of the platform to the narrow space between herself and her mad eyed attacker. She remembered the collective gasp from the crowd. The sound of metal striking metal as the assassin sought madly to fight his way past an enraged Ronso to reach her – – and then the sickening sound of Kimahri’s lance ripping into a man’s insides.
There were hands pulling her back. Old Lorthrinum trying to shield her with his frail body, then sturdier folk taking hold of her and hustling her towards the defensible interior of the lighthouse monument.
“Is Kimahri all right?” she asked, because she hadn’t been able to see and she’d heard the sound of fighting.
“She’s bleeding. Get a healer.” Someone she didn’t know was yelling and she tried to twist her arm out of that unfamiliar grip to see.
Her skin was slippery with blood. There was a rather nasty gash running from her elbow to the bony part of her wrist. She thought she saw a glint of white bone. Oh – –
She came back to herself within the confines of someone’s arms, while a white robed temple healer – – she thought she knew the woman’s name, but at the moment could not for the life of her, recall it – – bandaged her arm, chanting healing mantra’s as she worked.
“Yuna – – are you awake?” It was Gianni within who’s embrace she lay. He’d been in the crowd somewhere – – maybe with Lulu, who stood on the outskirts of Yuna’s vision now, a frowning, worried presence. She didn’t see Kimahri.
“Is Kimahri okay?” Yuna asked and was shocked at how wavery her voice sounded. Did it sound as weak to them as it did in her own ears?
“He’s outside. Hunting.” Lulu said, arms crossed under the daring cleavage of her fine velvet vest. It was black of course. Lulu always wore black in varying degrees. She was mostly devoid of leather today, in a strikingly simple silk gown that gently pooled out from the snug fitting vest. Between the midnight hues of her hair and the clothing, her skin seemed as white as a fresh field of snow. Her gaze was as cold.
“If he’d have been doing his job – -” Gianni said, angry. “He’d have stopped this before she was injured.”
Lulu tightened her mouth, her dark eyes flickering to the other figures in the chamber. A few guards – – Yuna’s own. Old Lorthrinum, who was as white as Lulu and sitting across the room with a young woman handing him a glass of wine.
“As could I.” Lulu finally said. “If I’d been expecting it. We were remiss.”
“No – -” Yuna said. “It was not your fault or Kimahri’s.”
“Tell that to Kimahri.” Lulu said.
Yuna blinked, stricken. She wished the ronso were here to tell. She wished she knew he were unhurt – – but she supposed such a fear was senseless. Kimahri of all her guardians, was the most durable.
“Who was he?” She asked.
“We don’t know.” Lulu said.
“Kimahri killed him before we could ask.” Gianni said, sounding frustrated. Sounding scared. Gianni was no warrior. Gianni had never used a weapon in his life and had never, Yuna thought, seen a ronso lance pierce the flesh of a victim.
“Did – – did someone Send him? The man who tried to – – kill me.” she asked, small voiced.
“No.” Lulu said. “If he lingers – – we’ll have the chance to ask him a few questions after all.”
Yuna shuddered. “No. Its not right. He should be sent.”
Lulu shrugged, not willing to argue. At least not here in front of witnesses. Lulu was upset and guilty – – though no one who didn’t know her well might have guessed from her expressionless facade. If Lulu blamed herself – – then Kimahri must have been racked with guilt. Kimahri took his role as guardian very seriously. But who would have suspected, really – – that she’d need such strident protection now that her pilgrimage was complete and wildly successful to boot. Who would have imagined that someone would hate her enough to want her dead – – –
Tidus was no good at lying. His emotions rested too plainly and to earnestly on his face. Being a relatively intelligent young man who knew his limitations and sometimes even respected them, he generally avoided untruths. But with that temple barge a black spot shadowing them on the horizon, he figured he needed to come up with something that the captain of the Sea Hag would understand and not through him overboard for.
“I don’t want to badmouth Yevon, really, I don’t,” the captain was staring at him in the privacy of the captain’s cabin and Tidus squirmed under the squinty eyes like a kid with his hand caught smack dab in the candy jar. “But, they’ve gotten really, really touchy about things since Sin was destroyed. Its like they wished it hadn’t been for good this time. That they’d rather have just had the Calm and then have Sin come back. Those maester’s back there – – the way they talked about Yun – – about High Summoner Yuna – -it was like she’d committed some crime. And well, that’s just not true and I told them as much and they didn’t like it.”
The old captain stared at him, spat a glob of tobacco into a brass spittoon on his scarred plant table and said. “Lot of people think like that and the temple don’t send frigates after them.”
“Do you?” Tidus asked, needing to know. It was important somehow, to know how the common man felt about the revelation of Yevon’s deception. God, if the true extent of the deception had ever really been revealed. Maybe it hadn’t. Maybe all most people knew was that Sin was gone and Yuna and her guardians had defied the most sacred teachings of Yevon to achieve it.
“Me? I’ve been on this earth for six decades. Seen Sin come and go close to that many times. I can’t say I much care how the lady got rid of it, long as its gone for good. Can’t say I much care for folk talking down about her just cause she didn’t go about it the way summoners have gone about it for the last thousand years. But I don’t shout it in the streets. I’m an honest man. I’m a good Yevonite and I want my soul to have a decent place on the other side.”
“Well, I’m not – – a good Yevonite that is. I’m not really from around here but – – but I’m honest too, and those maesters aren’t playing fair and they’re not following the teachings as well as they’d like all of you to. I know that for a fact.”
Ah, caught by the trap of his own passion. Tidus bit his lip, not sure if admitting he had been one of Yuna’s guardians was a good thing. Not sure if he wanted that bit of information floating about when he wasn’t certain of the way it would be received. Especially if that temple frigate caught up with them and muscled the captain into handing him over.
“I – – I knew her. Know her. I met her on Besaid. We were friends – – sort of – – and she’s more honest than any person I’ve ever met and there’s nothing she thinks of more than Spira’s good.”
“You met the Lady?” Two shaggy brows shot up, impressed.
“Yeah.” Tidus looked down, eyes misting a little, feeling the fool for it. “I was sorta – – sorta hoping I could track her down again – – maybe say hello.”
“Well, maybe you will. You said you were headed for Luca. She’ll be there for the tournament. She presided over it last year. One of her guardians, I hear tell, is a player.”
“Really?” Tidus felt a sudden adrenaline laced rush of hope. He’d thought he’d have to look all over. He’d thought finding her might be a daunting task – – God, he’d almost hoped it was – – so that he might have the time to figure out whether this was real or not. Whether he would only show up and then get yanked away again and hurt her yet once more.
“I don’t believe you, boy.”
Tidus froze, thoughts yanked away from Yuna and firmly jolted back to the old captain. He stared, wide eyed, expectant. Afraid that the old man was going to announce he’d turn this ship around and hand him over to the temple forces.
“Not about defending the lady being the only reason the temple wants you. They’re after something else. But, way I figure, its not my business, long as you do your job while you’re on my ship. First port we get to, though. You’re gone. I don’t need that frigate on my heels any longer than necessary.”
“I understand.” Tidus let out a relieved breath.
“I’ll see what I can do to find a captain willing to take you to Luca. Under the table, mind you. Don’t you go asking ’round the docks where just anybody can hear and report it to the temple. Understand?”
Tidus nodded earnestly. “Yes. Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me. Get out of here and go swab my decks, boy.”