Margaret Rennie

I see now that I will have to tell her everything.

We've had another one, our third in the six months we've been together. Three, and always about the same thing: my overprotectiveness. We get along very well in every way, my wife and I, and even our arguments, the three that we've had, have been pretty tame, as arguments go. Nothing that couldn't be taken back with a kiss. But she gets more worked up each time, and I can see that I have to do something. If I don't, pretty soon, resentments are going to start to build and things won't be so simple anymore.

All I said was, I don't think it's safe being alone out there after dark. All I said was, I wish you'd let me come to meet you, to walk you back home, when you have to be anywhere until after sunset. Boy, that did it, let me tell you. That little crease appeared between her eyebrows, the little crease that always tells me a fight is coming on. I have faced some terrifying things in my young life, but I get a knot in my stomach whenever I see that crease. She pointed her finger at me and shook her pretty blonde head, and said you know how much I love you, Locke, but you are going to be the end of me someday!

Suggesting to Celes that she needs anyone to protect her, even though it's sometimes true, gets the same sort of reaction that you'd get from me if you suggested that I'd ever been a thief, even though it has sometimes been true. So I once again apologized, because I know how it irritates her whenever I suggest that she can't take care of herself -- my girl has a lot of pride. And she once again reminded me that, not so very long ago, she had been a soldier, a magitek knight, in fact, and a leader of armies. I could point out moments in our brief history together when she'd been happy enough to have my protection, but I love her, and I wouldn't want to rub her nose in any of that.

So, I see now that in order to keep the peace, I will have to tell her the whole story. Everything. All the things I've never shared with another soul. Where I came from, my real name, how I came to be orphaned, how I got my mother killed. Why I sprang Celes from that prison room where I found her, and the identity of that "someone important to me," that she reminded me of on that day. And, mostly, why I drive her crazy worrying about her if she's out of my sight for five minutes.

She thinks it's about Rachel, the way I lost her. Rachel isn't the half of it.

Celes knows why we're here, sitting together in our parlor, and why I'm such a nervous wreck. I've told her that I'm going to finally tell her my tale, the story of who and what I was before the Returners. It isn't a nice story, and she knows that this will be tough for me, that I've never spoken of these things to anyone, that I can barely bring myself to even think about them. But I can't seem to help hovering, as she calls it, and I can't let that get between us. What I can do, though, is to let her see into my heart, to give her a glimpse of the events that helped form who I am, so that she can understand, and I hope, not judge me too harshly.

I sit back on our sofa, my feet up, and Celes sits alongside me, quiet, seemingly patient, waiting for me to begin. I know her well; I can see the tension in her posture, and it betrays her anxiousness to see a side of her husband that he has kept shut away in the dark of his past. She is eager to know me. It makes me feel at once loved, and scared to death. I absently watch particles of dust as they swirl in the afternoon sunlight streaming through our window, and my mind starts to drift back, to a place and time it has tried in vain to forget. I draw a deep breath, and sigh. And finally, I do begin.

"I guess the place to start is at the beginning.

Some thirty years ago, a man named Drew Manning moved his wife and two children from Kohlingen to Narshe, to take a job in the mines there. After a few years, his older child, Drew Jr., grew up, and not wanting to go into the mines himself, moved back to Kohlingen. Not long after, the old man died of lung disease, and within the year, his wife followed him, of some unknown malady that people said was a broken heart.

His daughter Emilie Rose, then nineteen, met and married a miner named Lance Arthur Cole. A little more than a year after, their only child arrived, a boy they named Lance Manning Cole. Me. The name Locke came later, an arrest or two later. But I'll get to that.

I remember very little about my father, but the memories I do have of him are vivid. I can recall every detail of his face, the deep lines around his eyes when he smiled, the set of his square jaw, the whiteness of his teeth, the way he looked a little bit older and more stooped each time he came home from the mines.

He would come in the back way after work, black with soot. He would have to take off his outer garments at the door or the coal dust would get into everything. He'd bathe right off, then my mother would set a steaming bowl of soup or stew on the table and he would sit hunched over it, a hunk of bread in his hand, and eat in silence. Mom would sit next to him and not say a word, just touch his shoulder or smooth his hair or something, to let him know she was there. I guess he was just too exhausted to talk.

I don't remember his voice, not one bit, yet I can recall sitting on his lap, the times when he showed me how to carve. I loved watching my dad's hands as they worked the wood, cutting and sanding and polishing. They were strong and worn, with big ropey veins that covered the back of them, and fingernails that were permanently blackened. There was something dusty, something of the mines, always about him no matter how much he scrubbed. I can't recall one word he ever said to me, not some word of wisdom, nor any impatient growl when I got out of line, nothing. But I remember that his touch was gentle when he patted me on the head, and I loved him, I really did. And so did Mom, I think. Anyway, we were both pretty lost after the mine shaft where Dad was working one afternoon collapsed, suffocating him before they could dig him out.

I was eight. That afternoon is still clear in my mind. My mother came to the school to get me. She was uncharacteristically pale and expressionless as she motioned me out of my classroom, so I could tell that something bad had happened. She held my hand tightly as we walked out of the school building and down the sidewalk, then she stopped and knelt, clasping me to her and beginning to sob, saying, you'll never go into those mines, I'll die before I see you ever go into those mines! When she finally told me Dad was dead, I cried like a sissy and Mom couldn't comfort me. I went on for hours, then, my tears just seemed to dry up, and I don't remember having shed another one since.

The years after my father's death were hard for us. We had no money. Mom had to take in laundry, and I had to find whatever odd jobs I could get at my age before and after school. We struggled plenty. My uncle in Kohlingen offered to help but Mom said no, because she knew that he couldn't afford it, with a family of his own to support.

My mother was a woman of uncommon beauty, did I mention that? She was. It wasn't just that she was my mother and I thought her beautiful. She turned heads wherever she went. Men referred to her as an "eyeful" when they thought she couldn't hear. They blushed and made fools of themselves around her, and all the store clerks tripped over one another in their rush to wait on her.

She was tall, nearly as tall as Dad. She was slim and long-legged, and she had bright blonde hair that hung all the way to her waist."

I pause a moment to glance over at Celes. My description of my mother is not lost on her; she is giving me a penetrating look. I reach out and lightly touch the tip of her nose, and am rewarded with a ready smile. I take a long draw of the ale that Celes has poured for me, lean my head back against the sofa, and resume my story.

"About a year after my father died, when people figured that the lovely young widow had mourned long enough, the line at the door quickly began to form. The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker, literally. Also, the owner of the armory, a chocobo rancher, a banker, a blacksmith, several miners and, sometime later, an Imperial officer.

My mother didn't encourage any of her suitors. She didn't feel ready that soon, but they kept coming anyway, that is, until the Imperial officer came on the scene. Shortly after my mother caught his eye, her other suitors just stopped coming around. Mom thought it was very mysterious, but she was sweet and good and thought the rest of the world was too. At my tender age, I was already something of a cynic. I could never prove anything, but it was clear to me even then that the officer had threatened anyone who showed any interest in my mother.

Anyway, however it came about, it got to be just him and Mom. He was there every evening, without fail. He had supper with us every night. He couldn't do enough for us; he was always bringing stuff over to the house, food, furniture, a coat for Mom, a toy for me. He did repairs on the house, and if jobs were too much for him, he hired repairmen. He tried to give Mom money more than once, but she would never take it. It was going too far, she told him.

I was unhappy with Mom for taking anything at all from him. I resented his constant presence in our lives, and what I saw as his attempts to take my father's place, to take over his home and his family. I told her that we didn't need him, that I could take care of her, even though that wasn't realistic.

When he brought things for me, I would never accept them. I hated him, and I let it show. My behavior toward him became more and more belligerent. It wasn't long before we were open enemies. I stopped being polite to him and he stopped trying to win me over. My poor mother was at her wits' end, stuck between us as she was, doing her best to keep the peace.

One day, during a rare moment when the officer wasn't around, Mom sat me down.

'Son,' she said to me, taking both my hands, 'I love you more than my life, and I want my boy to be happy. But any decision about my future has to be mine, you understand? Someday, I'm going to remarry. I loved your father, but I'm lonely, and I have my whole life ahead of me. And we're poor, Lance. We need someone to take care of us. And I have to be the one to make that choice, child, not you. All too soon, you'll be a man and off on your own, and I will still be here, living with the choice I made. I hope that he'll be someone you like, someone you approve of, but I can't promise you that, sweetheart, and you know that you can't have your father back. Do you understand?' She smiled at me and stroked my cheek. 'You're not a baby anymore, Lance,' she said. 'I know that you can understand.'

I didn't understand, though. Or maybe, I thought I understood too well. I angrily shouted that if she married the officer, I would run away, and she'd never see me again. I broke away from her and ran outside, and I kept running until I couldn't hear her calling after me anymore.

I don't know how long I stayed out, but when I got back home, night had already fallen. The officer was there, of course, like always. The front door was open, the light from the parlor spilling out onto the porch. He and Mom were standing at the mantel, talking loudly. He was gesturing all over the place, and there was something in his stance, and in his tone, that told me they were arguing. I stood on the porch alongside the door, out of sight, watching and listening.

'I do care for you, Darian,' I heard her say, 'and I do realize everything you've done for us. It's just that I...I don't love you the way you want me to. I have tried. You've been so very good to us, and I wish I could feel about you the way you deserve. But I just don't and there doesn't seem to be anything I can do about it!' She covered her face with her hands and shook her head.

'It's the kid, isn't it, Emilie,' he hollered. 'That brat of yours. Since when do you let an eleven-year-old run your life? Well, he won't run mine, by the stars! Where is he? I'm going to deal with the little gnome right now!'

What followed was the greatest mistake of my life, Celes. I ran in the door, both hands balled up into fists and held high in front of me, ready to take him on. I can imagine the look on my face; I was never so full of pure, primal fury. I uttered a growl and rushed at him, pummeling him with all my might, which at the time wasn't very mighty. He laughed at me and put his hand on my forehead, holding me away from him as I continued to swing at air. Then, everything seemed to move in slow motion. His humor quickly turned to rage, and he raised his fist to strike me. Mom screamed no and threw herself in front of me, just in time to take the blow that Darian had meant for me.

It caught her squarely on her cheek, and knocked her off her feet. Down she went, splayed out on the floor and holding her face. The officer and I both stopped cold, looking down in horror at my mother lying on the floor, her eyes squeezed shut, tears streaming down her face, a dark purple bruise beginning to form around her left eye. Celes, something inside me snapped. Everything went black; I don't even remember doing what I did, although I must have, because the officer lay dead and my mother was still on the floor.

I must have picked up the poker from alongside the fireplace, because it was in my hand when I again became conscious of my surroundings. I was breathing heavily and slumped against a chair, the poker gripped tightly in my right hand and dripping blood. And Darian, the Imperial officer, the man I hated, lay askew on our parlor floor, his eyes open and unfocused, a deep gash in his head oozing blood. He wasn't moving. I became aware that my mother had risen to her knees, still holding her poor face, her mouth wide open, staring down at Darian, who was lying in a slowly expanding pool of blood.

'Oh, son,' she gasped, barely above a whisper. 'Oh, my baby! What have you done! What have you done!'

The front door had been standing open the whole time, you'll remember, and the noise of the last moments had carried out into the street. I could hear approaching voices; neighbors were coming to see what had happened, if we were all right.

Mom reached out for my arm. If I'd realized what she was doing, I'd never have let her do it, I swear. But I was stunned, and I wasn't paying attention. She gently worked the poker out of my hand and carefully wrapped her fingers around the handle.

'Lance,' she whispered to me, 'Lance, go to your room, and stay there until I come and get you, do you hear me, child? Go! Go quickly!'

I did as she told me, and I stayed in my room, listening to the changing voices in the parlor. Mrs. Clemmons and Mr. Denny and Mr. Fahr, our neighbors. Then, strangers' voices, the constables. It seems impossible to me now, given my overheated state of mind at the time, but I must have fallen asleep, because one minute there were all these voices talking at once, then the next, it was quiet, and Mrs. Clemmons was bending over my bed, her hand on my shoulder.

'Come along, Lance,' she said. 'You're coming to spend the night with us, dear. Get your pajamas like a good boy, and your toothbrush too, that's the way.'

'Where's my mother,' I wanted to know. Mrs. Clemmons just put her arm around me and hurried me out our back door.

The next morning I came downstairs to the Clemmons' kitchen, dressed, with my knapsack in my hand, ready to go home. Mr. Clemmons glanced down at the knapsack and looked away.

'Lance,' he said, 'you'll be here awhile, son. A couple of days, at least. You'd better go put your things upstairs, and come back down for breakfast.'

'Why,' I asked, 'why can't I go home? Where's my mother?' The Clemmons' just looked at one another and I started to get hysterical. 'Where is my mother!' I demanded.

'Lance,' Mrs. Clemmons said, trying to soothe me, 'she'll be back soon, dear. They have taken her for questioning, that's all. When they see the way of it, they'll let her come home, I'm sure they will. The poor girl had no choice. They'll see that when they take a look at that terrible bruise on her face! And six people heard him shouting at her!'

I was beginning to get it, now. The constables thought she had done it, had killed the officer after he had hit her. They knew nothing about me; my mother had seen to that. She had handed over the poker she had pried from my fingers, and had told them that she had hit the officer in self-defense after he had struck her. Now, she was in their custody, being "questioned." I could envision her, sitting in a prison cell, being grilled, being shouted at, maybe worse. My mother hated being shouted at.

I went nuts. I insisted that the Clemmons' take me to my mother. I was fully prepared to tell the constables the truth, that I had killed the officer, and that I wasn't sorry. They had to let Mom come home. They had to let her go. I shouted that, if they wouldn't take me to the constabulary, then I would go alone. I was so busy shouting that Mr. Clemmons had to shake me a little to get me to listen to him.

'She isn't at the constabulary, Lance,' he shouted back at me. 'The Narshe authorities have already ruled this an act of self-defense. They are not pressing charges. They have closed their investigation.'

'Then where is she,' I asked breathlessly, choking back tears. 'Where is my mother?'

Mr. Clemmons hung his head.

'We're not sure, son. Imperial authorities took her into custody, because the victim was one of their officers. She is being questioned by the Empire, and since they don't have an outpost here in Narshe, we aren't sure where they've taken her. Maybe Nikeah; we're making inquiries. We just have to wait for word, Lance. I'm sorry, son.'"

"Locke? Locke, honey?"

I shake off the weight of the past for a moment, and become aware that Celes has pressed herself against me, an arm around my shoulders, her hand brushing my hair off my forehead. She asks me in a tender voice if I'm all right. She tells me that I don't have to go on with this, if it's too much. But I do have to go on with this, precisely because it's too much. Now that I've started, I realize that this is a lot like surgery, painful and bloody, but necessary to cut out something buried deep, something that makes you sick, that holds you back from having a happy life. So I tell Celes I'm okay and pat her hand, and I go on with it.

"I guess you know me well enough by now to know that I'm not very good at waiting around when I'm anxious about something. And I couldn't stand the thought that my mother was in the hands of the Empire. We had all heard tales about them, about people disappearing, imprisonments, torture, everything terrible. They didn't have anything but a couple of outposts as far north as we were yet, but their influence was felt, and everyone feared them.

That day, I went to the constabulary by myself, although I knew that Mom wasn't there. I wanted to know where the Imperial authorities would have taken her, and I wasn't willing to wait for Mr. Clemmons. The officer who came out to talk to me was kind, although not helpful. He told me that the Imperial soldiers who had taken my mother into custody had not said where Mom would be brought for questioning. However, they did say that they would be boarding their ship in South Figaro. The officer put his hand on my shoulder, and said he was sorry, he did not know where they would have been bound.

I went back to the Clemmons' and kept to myself until nightfall. They thought I was depressed and wanted to be left alone, but it was really that I didn't want them to see my face, to read my eyes.

I waited until after midnight, then I snuck to the Clemmons' bedroom. I stood in the doorway, watching their sleeping forms in the darkness. Mrs. Clemmons' regular breathing and Mr. Clemmons' heavy snoring satisfied me that they were both sound asleep. I tiptoed to the chair where Mr. Clemmons' trousers were draped and felt for the back pocket. I quietly pulled out his money purse and grabbed half the coins I found in it. I didn't want to clean him out entirely; I felt awful enough about what I was doing. But I was desperate to get to South Figaro and I had no money of my own, nor any time to raise it properly. I knew that Mr. Clemmons would not have taken me to South Figaro, and would certainly never have let me go alone. He was content to wait for word of my mother's whereabouts. I was not. I made a promise to myself that, someday, when I could, I would pay him back. But for the time being, he would just have to understand.

I crept down to the kitchen, where my knapsack waited alongside the table. I gathered up a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese and a couple of pieces of fruit, tied it all up in a towel, and tucked the bundle under my arm. I paused at the door, then went back into the kitchen. I fumbled around in a drawer, selected a medium-sized knife, and stuck it in my belt. And thus armed, I went out into the world.

I traveled on foot through Narshe, and south into the Suthernarshe valley. I've spent a lot of my life outdoors, but I'll tell you, I can't remember ever being so cold as I was that night and the next day. I thought I would die. My ears burned; I couldn't feel my fingers and toes, and I don't know how I managed to walk all the miles that I did.

As I got farther into the valley, the weather became progressively warmer, and warmer still as I neared the desert. By the time the horizon flattened and I knew that the desert was just ahead of me, I was exhausted. Here I was, this skinny little kid, and I had walked from Narshe all the way almost to the edge of the Figaro desert! I hadn't had very much sleep. I was determined on my journey, but I was also somewhat scared. I had never been on my own and didn't know what awaited me out there. I felt vulnerable when I slept, so I did my best to stay awake.

When I got to the lip of the desert, I could hardly stand up. It was late evening. There were some men, prospectors, setting up camp not far from where I was. They did not see me. I curled up in some high grass and waited for nightfall. It was becoming that time of day when I did my best work.

I fell into a fitful sleep for a time, filled with dreams of my mother calling for me. I was startled awake by the sound of something skittering past me. For a minute, I lay there, confused. I had forgotten where I was. It was the dead of night, and it was so black out there, I could hardly see anything. I'd never seen so many stars. It took me a little awhile to get my bearings.

Once I could clearly make out the shapes around me, I sat up and looked over at the prospectors' campsite. Their fire was low, and there was no sign of movement. I soundlessly rose to my feet and crept to the tree where their chocobos were tied. One of the animals made a little sound at my approach and I dropped to the ground. Nothing moved. I began creeping forward again, my arm outstretched, holding a piece of the fruit I had taken from the Clemmons' kitchen. The chocobo nosed my hand as I came up to her, and nibbled at the fruit. She let me pet her, and made no further sound as I untied her, and quietly walked her away from her companions.

When we were well clear of the campsite, I climbed up and hung on for dear life. She'd been unsaddled and I'd never ridden bareback before. But I couldn't cross the desert on foot; I'd have died for sure. I pointed her in the direction I thought was probably south and kicked. Off she went, at breakneck speed.

It was dawn when I saw Figaro Castle come into view. King Roderick was alive back then, and it was still his show. I don't know whether Figaro Castle has continued this tradition, but in King Roderick's day, travelers and beggars could go to the back gate of the castle and get fresh water and a free meal. I qualified as both traveler and beggar, and I intended to take full advantage.

I rode up to the gate. There weren't many people at that early hour. A plump serving girl stood stirring an immense kettle of steaming soup, near a table piled high with bread. My mouth watering, I climbed down from my chocobo. The second I let go of her, she bolted, back north where we had come from. I stood there, dumbfounded, watching her as she disappeared over a ridge of sand. I still had a long journey ahead of me; I was in the middle of the desert, and my transportation was gone. I didn't know what I would do. I sat down in the sand and held my head in my hands.

I suddenly became aware of chocobo feet alongside me. My girl was back! I looked up hopefully, but no, it was not my chocobo. It was one of the king's guards, smiling down at me from his saddle, and shaking his head.

'You know, kid,' he said, 'you have to hang onto them. You can't let 'em go until they've got you to where you wanna be!' I looked at the ground dejectedly. The guard was sympathetic.

'What's a kid like you doing out here by yourself, anyway,' he asked me in a kind voice. 'Where you headed to?' I thought he might arrange to have me sent back to Narshe if I told him the truth, so I made up a sick uncle in South Figaro I was going to stay with. He nodded.

"What's your name, son,' he asked.

'Drew," I lied. My childish imagination had the whole world searching for me. I feared that a hundred guards would pounce on me if I uttered my real name -- here he is, men, the desperado from Narshe, we got him at last! It's amazing what a guilty conscience will do to your common sense.

'Well, tell you what, Drew,' the guard said, not batting an eye. 'You go get something in your stomach, and then come and see me. My name's Augustin. I'll give you a chocobo and directions over the mountains that'll get you to South Figaro in no time.' My face must have had God-Bless-You-Mister written all over it, because he just looked down at me and laughed.

It took me until evening to get to South Figaro over the mountain pass that the guard had directed me to. I was again exhausted, but I couldn't think about sleep until I checked the shipping schedules.

I went out onto the docks and approached a gray-haired man holding a sheaf of papers in his hand, a big watch on a chain hanging off his belt. I asked him if he could tell me what ships had departed in the days after my mother had been taken by the Imperial authorities. He checked those dates and told me that several ships had gone off from South Figaro, to Thamasa, and Jidoor, and Nikeah. Remembering Mr. Clemmons' reference to Nikeah, I asked the man whether Imperial authorities would have any reason to be bound for Thamasa or Jidoor. He looked at me oddly, and replied that, if it was Imperial personnel I was seeking, then Nikeah would be the place to look. I asked him when the next ship would be bound that way, and he told me that the next departure would be shortly after daybreak the next morning. I thanked him, and went to try to find a place to sleep.

The innkeeper shooed me away when I went in to try to get a room. I guess I couldn't blame him; I was an eleven-year-old kid who could barely see over his counter, and after several hard days on the road, I was as scruffy as they come.

I couldn't find a proper place to eat or sleep, and I thought then that it was just as well, since I hadn't much money anyway. I found a fruit and vegetable stand, and when the proprietor wasn't looking, I grabbed as much fruit as I could carry and ran like the dickens. I ducked into an alley and hunkered down in the shadows. I gobbled the fruit, and then, as all my weary traveling caught up with me, I fell hard asleep.

I slept too well. When I woke, my knapsack and money were gone. I was devastated. All my efforts had come to nothing, because now I could no longer afford the passage to Nikeah. I arose, deeply upset and uncertain of my plans, and began to roam the streets, again looking for food.

I went into a bakery and snatched an early morning loaf of still-warm bread. I jammed it into my coat and took off, with one of the bakers hot on my heels and hollering thief. He was a roly-poly guy and was soon huffing and puffing, and I easily outran him. Then I saw a milkman delivering bottles to a house, and after he'd walked away, I grabbed one.

Sitting in yet another alley eating my bread and drinking my milk, I thought about how I could get to Nikeah. I was thinking about where I could get money, earned or otherwise, when it struck me that I didn't need money at all. After all, I'd seen them loading the ships. There were a hundred people coming and going in different directions all the time. There were barrels and crates piled high all over the docks, being carried aboard the big, seafaring vessels. How much trouble could it be for a skinny kid like me to sneak aboard the Nikeah-bound ship, and hide for the duration of the voyage?

When you're a kid, you think up the damnedest things, and you think you can get away with anything.

I looked up at the sky. The horizon's azure blue color told me it was almost sunrise. I figured that they were probably loading my ship right then. I brushed crumbs off my face and stood, ready to go stow away aboard the ship headed for the place where I would find my mother.

When I reached the dock, I carefully looked around to be certain no one was watching. I approached a collection of barrels bunched together, each labeled 'Fresh Drinking Water, Nikeah.' I was able to tip one of them just enough to empty maybe half the water out of it. I climbed inside and lowered the barrel's lid down over my head. I had to crouch down some, and I was nearly up to my neck in water. I waited.

I heard footsteps approach, then felt the barrel I was in being lifted. It was dropped with a teeth-rattling thud, and I could hear more bumps and thuds around me. We were being loaded. I was never so uncomfortable, but I was on my way!

After a few minutes, my barrel was lifted again, this time, up high in the air, and I felt myself being moved forward for a ways. Then, a dropping sensation that seemed to last an hour. Finally, with another thud, I was on the ground again. The other crates and barrels around me were making deep, echoing sounds as they were set down. We were in the belly of the ship.

It seemed like forever before I felt our vessel moving, slowly at first, then with increasing speed. I had expected the motion of the ship to feel as if we were on a flat surface, and moving forward, but found instead that I couldn't tell what direction we were moving in. It seemed like we were going in circles, and moving up and down at the same time. I started to get dizzy, and before long, my stomach felt like it was going to come right up out of my throat. I knew I was going to throw up, but more, I absolutely could not breathe. I started to choke, and threw my arm up over my head, pushing the barrel's lid away so I could stand. I clambered out of the barrel, upsetting it, and stood bent over, my hands on my knees, gasping for breath.

As my breathing slowed and I began to feel a bit better, I looked up and around. It was dark, and I could see lines of bright light way up high over my head. I was in the ship's hold. That was good; there were lots of places to hide, and plenty of food and water. I wouldn't have to spend the whole voyage practically drowning in that barrel.

I managed pretty well, too, for a few hours, but it became clear to me that my grand scheme wasn't going to work when I did eat something, and promptly threw it right back up. Vomiting did not make me feel any better; I got sicker and sicker, as the ship continued its weaving and rocking. Worse, that horrible choking sensation returned. I began gasping for breath again, and became desperate to get into the open air.

My eyes were, by now, well-accustomed to the darkness of the cargo hold, and I could clearly see a steep staircase to the ship's main deck. I climbed it to the top, clinging tightly to the railing. My head was spinning. I carefully lifted the panel above me a few inches and peeked around. I saw no feet, nor did I hear anyone close by. I was so sick at this point, the devil himself couldn't have kept me in that hold anyway. I climbed out with as much caution as I could muster, and as soon as I began breathing fresh air, I again started to feel a little better.

I needed a new place to hide. I couldn't go back down into the hold. As I looked around, I quickly realized that my nausea was returning, and with a vengeance. I rushed to the ship's railing, leaned over it, and got as sick as I ever remember being.

I fell to my knees, weak and out of breath, my head hanging down and my spirits at low ebb. I knelt there wondering how I got to be on such bad terms with God, when I heard someone clear his throat. Dread filled my heart, and I slowly looked up, into the face of a large, bearded sailor, scowling down at me.

They threw me into the brig, intending to turn me over to the constables immediately upon our arrival in Nikeah. They put a big pot into the cell with me. That was a good thing, because I continued to vomit, on and off, all during the rest of the voyage.

When at long last we made our destination, the captain was as good as his word, and he had me held at the docks until the Nikeah authorities came to collect me. Because I was so young, they did not lock me up, but instead took me straight to the magistrate.

I was shown into a big, ornate room, and was led up to a tall bench, behind which sat a stern-faced man heavily cloaked in black, his silver hair carefully combed over a large bald spot. He peered down at me for a time, not saying anything. He scared me silly, let me tell you. Finally, he asked me if I understood what a serious crime it was to stow away, if I realized that the captain could have had me thrown overboard, if he had wanted to, and what I thought I was doing, pulling such a stunt.

Although he was chewing me out, there was something in his voice that told me he was as kind a person as I'd met up until then, and I decided to come clean with him. I hung my head and told him my name, and my whole story. He was pretty quiet for a time, then he stepped down from his high bench and came around to stand next to me. He said he would help me with the Imperial authorities, to inquire after my mother.

'In the meantime, young man,' he said, 'let's get you a bath, some clean clothes and something good to eat, would you like that?' I was feeling much better, now that I was on level ground, and I enthusiastically nodded my head.

He took me home with him, and turned me over to his wife, who was tall and elegant. She was older, but in a way, she reminded me of my mother and I liked her right away. She sent their serving girl out to get me some new clothes and boots, then led me to a large tub of steaming water. She handed me a big bar of soap, told me to scrub up good and not to forget my ears, and then left me to soak awhile. It was the best I'd felt since leaving home.

Clean again and my stomach full, I went with the magistrate to the Imperial outpost. He introduced me to the officer in charge, and told him what I'd come about. The officer said he would check their records for me, and left us in a waiting area. When he came back, he shook his head.

'Sorry, sir,' he said to the magistrate. 'The logs show nothing about anyone named Emilie Cole being brought here.'

'He's lying,' I shouted. 'Can't you tell? Can't you see his face? He's lying! Where's my mother, you Imperial scum!! Where is she!!' I struggled against the magistrate's restraining arms. 'They have her! I know it! I know it!' I broke loose and dodged around the officer, running beyond him into the hallways of the outpost building.

I ran aimlessly, desperately, looking for a place where they could be holding my mother. I ran down some steps and found myself in a small, dark cell block. This was it! I knew it in my bones! She was here! I darted past two guards who were overseeing the prisoners.

'Ho, there, you little rat!' one of them yelled. 'Where do you think you're going?' The two men came after me, and I was only able to see into half the cells before one of the guards snatched me up by my collar.

'My mother's down here,' I hollered. 'You're holding her! I want to see her!' I was kicking and thrashing, and the guard grabbed my arms behind my back. It hurt like hell.

'Let him go, Marus,' the second guard said. 'He's only a kid; just let him go! What harm can he do?'

My one and only comfort in any of this today, Celes, is that I grew up to do them a great deal of harm!

The officer and the magistrate caught up with me then, and came forward into the cell block. The guard let me go, and the officer directed him to let me see into all the cells. I looked. I looked again. Unless they were holding her somewhere else in the building, my mother was not there. With my heart pounding, I asked the officer where else they could have taken her. He said that the Empire would have brought her there first, if they had custody of her. He was sure that her missing record was an error, and he promised to check further for us, and let us know when he could.

I stayed with the magistrate and his wife for three long weeks, waiting to hear from the officer at the Imperial outpost. I was treated well, but all I could think about was finding my mother, and what she must have been going through, and I couldn't bear the wait.

When finally the magistrate came to me to tell me that we had word from the officer, he looked grave. There was no sign of her. The officer at the outpost had sent messages to Vector, and Albrook, and Maranda, and Tzen, inquiring into the whereabouts of Emilie Manning Cole. He checked everywhere that a prisoner of the Empire could possibly be taken. There was no record of her. It was as if she had disappeared off the face of the earth.

I looked up at the magistrate, my savior, praying that he would have an answer. He looked away and closed his eyes.

'But, they have her,' I said, numb. 'They took her. How can they not know where she is? Can't you inquire yourself? You're a judge, they'll listen to you!' He sadly shook his head.

'They had no information for one of their own officers, Lance. Do you think I would be able to learn anything that he couldn't?' I stuck my chin out.

'I'm going after her! I got this far; I can get to Vector somehow! I'm going to find her!' The magistrate gripped my shoulder, sorrow written in his eyes.

'What are you going to do, boy? Stow away on another ship? Search every building on the southern continent? I'm sorry, Lance! I'm sorrier than I can say! But your mother is gone, son! She is gone! And you must learn to adjust to that reality!' The magistrate wiped a tear from his face.

I hung my head. I could not cry. In a blind rage, I had accidentally killed that scum Darian when he hurt my mother, and she had shielded me from the consequences of my crime just as she had shielded me from Darian's fist. And for that, she had disappeared without a trace into the jaws of the Empire, and I couldn't save her. I couldn't make it right. My heart ached at the realization that I would likely never see my mother again. Something broke inside me, then, that has never really healed.

The magistrate gave me food and a little money, and put me on a ship back to South Figaro, with the intention that I return to Narshe from there. But there was nothing for me in Narshe anymore, with both my parents gone. I couldn't expect our neighbors to be responsible for me. There was really only one place left for me in the world, and that was Kohlingen, where my mother's brother lived.

The trouble was, I hadn't enough money to get that far. Probably I should have tried to find some kind of work, to earn the fare. After all, what was the hurry? But I didn't. Honestly, I think I was getting used to just stealing what I needed.

I chose the South Figaro item shop because it was a good, out-of-the-way place, well off the beaten track. I watched the place for several hours and I noted that the proprietor took regular breaks, every hour, ten minutes at a time. Exactly. Once I knew his pattern, I waited for early evening, dinner hour, when there were no customers around.

When I saw him disappear through a doorway at the back of his shop, I quietly entered and ducked behind the counter. I had ten minutes to get into his lock box. I leaned my ear down next to the lock, and began picking at it with a long nail I had found on the ship. I had just heard a faint click, when I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder.

'Ho, there, little lock picker!' It was the proprietor. He was grinning down at me. 'Well, now,' he bellowed, grasping my arm. 'Lookit this! They're startin' younger and younger! What in blazes is this world comin' to?' I tried to worm away but his grip was too strong. 'You'll be comin' along with me, young lock picker! You have a date with the constables!'

I wasn't as lucky with this magistrate as I had been with the last one. This one called me a little thief who needed a lesson. I'd supposed that was true. He ordered me locked up for two days, to put respect for the law into me, he said.

The jailer declined to put me in with the hardened criminals, because of my age. I had a cell to myself, but it was directly opposite a cell full of miscreants, who hooted and hollered and taunted me constantly. They, and the guards too, called me 'lock picker,' and soon, they had shortened it to just 'Locke.'

That became my criminal name. I started to like it, actually, because I saw Locke as such a different person from that helpless little boy Lance, who could not save his mother. Locke was fearless; he wouldn't have allowed his mother's arrest. He'd have been a stand up guy, and would have made sure the authorities knew who'd wielded that poker. Locke was smart, and tough; he would have found his mother if she'd been taken, and would have made her captors pay dearly, too. Locke was a man, not a boy. He was the man I wanted to become.

They let me out of the jail cell after my two day sentence, but I had no more respect for the law then, than I'd had when they threw me in there. And I still needed money to get to Kohlingen.

This time, I picked a lock box at a flower stand, in the open air, where there were lots of places to run, and to hide.

This time, I got the lock to spring much faster.

This time, I didn't get caught.

When I appeared on my uncle's doorstep in Kohlingen, dirty, hungry and cold, he was relieved and thrilled to see me. He took me in, cleaned me up, fed me, and showed me to what would be my own room.

Uncle Drew and his wife had three children of their own, but I could not detect any difference whatever in the way he treated me, from the way he treated his own kids. Aunt Lily was a different story. She was withdrawn around me and seemed to watch every morsel I put into my mouth. I'd asked Uncle Drew about it once, but he just waved his hand and said it was her way, that I shouldn't pay any attention to it. I didn't think it was just her way. I could see that she was warm and generous with her own children, but I said no more about it.

My cousins were quite a bit younger than I was, so we didn't spend much time together, but I had enrolled in school and had made some friends of my own. Life in Kohlingen had smoothed to a pleasant routine, and I was beginning to recover from the shock of losing my mother. I had lived a normal and happy life there with my uncle's family for two years, when a pain he had felt in his side became severe, and he was forced to finally see a physician.

His illness was serious, and it progressed rapidly. It was only a matter of a few months later that I lost my beloved uncle too. I now believed that it was a curse for anyone to be loved by me. Disaster had befallen everyone I ever cared about. I felt that it was my destiny to be alone, and I was afraid to love.

Just when you think things can't get worse, your world breaks entirely apart.

Immediately after the funeral, my aunt called me into a room and closed the door. She explained that my uncle had left almost no money, just enough, she told me, to pay off the family's debts. She could not afford to keep their house, and was moving back with their children to her family in Doma. She had found a place for me, she said, where I would be taken care of. She wished she could take me along, but her family would not hear of strangers. Strangers! I was her husband's blood! But I could see that there was no arguing, and, resigned, I waited to see what fate would throw at me next.

It was in this way that, at the age of thirteen, I came to be alone in the world."

Celes rises to go to the kitchen; she refills my glass with fresh, cold ale. Taking her place beside me again, she caresses my arm as I gratefully drink down half the ale. I pause a moment to look around me, at the comforts of my home, at my beautiful wife who loves me, and I remind myself that I've come out the other side of these events a lucky man. I think about the considerable disarray that the Empire is presently in, and feel a deep satisfaction for my role in its undoing. I couldn't have played such a role had these events of my past, so painful to me, never taken place, for they made me who I am. I feel stronger, and I continue my story.

"The place Aunt Lily had found for me, the place where I would be "taken care of," as she had said, turned out to be the Kohlingen County School for Boys. Wayward boys. Destitute boys. Orphaned boys. All of which, by then, I was.

It was located several miles outside of the town of Kohlingen, and it was a rough place. Although it called itself a school, the adults who ran it weren't teachers, but guards, and there weren't nearly enough of them to keep up with the multitude of restless, ill-behaved youngsters within its walls. As a result, the "school" was run by its inmates.

To be more precise, it was run by just a few of its inmates, a group of kids that terrorized everyone else, and pretty much did as they pleased. They took what they wanted, when they wanted: your money, your food, the shirt off your back. Anyone who did not fall into line got beaten silly.

The top dog was a big, beefy fellow named Bags. Constantly at his side were his henchmen, a tall, freckled kid named Figgy, and a bony, brainy-looking type, named Ashe.

Like every other kid in the institution, I gave over what little money I had, as well as a couple of lunches, and even a shirt or two, in the interest of avoiding Bags' fist. I figured out early on that it was smart to just stay out of their way, and I had managed mostly to steer clear of Bags and his boys for quite some time, by keeping to myself and watching out for them as much as I could. But, inevitably, the day came when I found myself again face to face with the dreaded three.

I was leaving the dining hall, my head down, when I became aware that someone, actually several someones, had come up alongside me and were matching my steps. I stopped, and my new companions moved in front of me. I looked up.

'Give us yer boots,' Figgy said menacingly.

'Or what?' I rashly replied. Until that moment, I hadn't realized how tired I was of being bullied by those jerks. Still, that was sheer insanity on my part, but it was too late to reclaim the words. Bags stepped closer, and fixed small, pale eyes on me.

'Give us yer boots, runt, and we won't tear off yer arm and beat you with the bloody end!' I studied Bags' face for a moment. It was rather pig-like, with a broad, upturned nose, full lips curled into a snarl and a sagging double chin. I almost laughed. He didn't look very tough to me, but then, I didn't need the trouble, and I fully intended to comply with his request. I was going to give Bags my boots, I really was. I opened my mouth to say, yes sir, right away sir.

'Well, you'd have to catch me first, wouldn't you, fat boy?' I couldn't believe my stupidity. Bags' face turned deep red. Figgy's jaw dropped open, and Ashe was looking nervously at Bags, as if he expected him to explode, or something. I stepped back. Bags' mouth was working. Figgy cocked his head to one side and narrowed his eyes.

'If you don't hand over yer boots, Ashe here's gonna string yer legs up around yer ears.'

I looked at Ashe, and then I did laugh. Ashe was no bigger than me. If this was the muscleman of the group, then I was safe.

'Well, Figgy,' I replied, 'your man Ashe...'

I never finished the sentence. I don't even remember what I was going to say, maybe something like, your man Ashe here doesn't look very scary to me, I don't know. Because just then, Ashe slammed his fist into my stomach so hard it knocked the wind out of me. I doubled over, struggling to get a breath, and Ashe brought his knee up under my chin. My head snapped back and my ears popped. I couldn't focus my eyes. I heard myself groan as if from a distance and I fell backwards. Ashe knelt on my chest. I was grasping at consciousness.

'You can take my boots,' I heard myself say, incredibly, 'but I'm going to come after them. And if you take anything else from me ever again, I'm going to keep coming back after what's mine until you wish you'd never laid eyes on me.' Then, I closed my eyes and awaited death.

There was a long moment of silence. Bags stepped forward and slapped Ashe on the upper arm. Ashe stood up and moved away. Bags leaned over me, his hands on his knees, and looked intently at my swelling jaw. He smiled, and held out his hand.

'M'name's Bags, as in moneybags.' He laughed, snorting, at his great cleverness. I took his hand and he pulled me up from the floor. I flinched, waiting for his big, hammy fist to finish me off. But it never came.

'These here's m'friends, Figgy and Ashe. Oh, yeah, you already met Ashe.' He snorted again, slapping my shoulder. 'Ya got guts, runt. What's yer name?' I arranged my damaged face into as threatening a pose as I could muster.

'Locke,' I answered. 'As in lock picker.' This elicited from Bags the biggest snorting laugh yet.

'Lock picker, that's a good one! I like ya, Locke. We all like ya, don't we, boys?' Ashe and Figgy nodded their heads and mumbled in unison.

'No hard feelin's,' said Ashe, putting out his hand. I shook it. The dreaded three stood around me nodding, and I suddenly realized that I was in. I had a new family.

Now that I was a part of Bags' crew, all the other kids at the institution began to show me new respect. Of course I knew that it was really fear of Bags they were reacting to, but I didn't care. It was a heady feeling to have a sense of control for the first time in my life. I wasn't proud of the fact that the other kids greeted me with fear. But it was such a relief to not have to be the one to be afraid anymore. The irony was that, of the four of us in Bags' gang, I alone refused to take anything from the other kids in the school. I was happy just to have them make way for me in the halls. They had nothing to fear from me.

I trace the beginning of my real criminal career to the day that Bags became curious about where I did get my money. He knew I wasn't getting it by shaking down the other kids. Bags looked stupid, but he was the brains of the outfit, just as Ashe looked brainy but took pleasure in cruelty. Bags began watching me, because he rightly assumed that I was holding out on him. And when one night I slipped out of my room in the wee hours, Bags was waiting in the shadows of the hallway to follow me.

I soundlessly made my way down to the main floor office. It was there, I knew, that they kept the petty cash in a lock box under the front counter. I knew too that the institution's big safe was located in a room behind that office. Someday, I thought, I was going find a way to get into that safe. That night, I was there to get my usual few coins from the lock box.

I knew that I could get away with swiping a few gold pieces here and there from the lock box, because I had seen more than one guard take money from it. When the account appeared short, one guard always assumed that another had helped himself to a coin or two, and thought nothing about it. I had supported myself this way almost from the first week I had arrived at the place.

I had unlocked the outer door effortlessly, having had quite a lot of practice, and I was kneeling behind the counter, my ear to the lock of the cash box, when Bags' shoe came into view. I was startled, but made no sound at all as I looked up at him, and coolly pressed my finger to my lips. Bags nodded once, and turned his hand in a circular motion, urging me to hurry. The lock opened with a soft snick, and I slid my hand under the lid, removing three of the coins that lay within. Bags gripped my arm. He wanted some too, naturally. I took an additional coin and relocked the box. I gave Bags two and I pocketed two. He huffed in displeasure, but I shook my head firmly. If too much money was found missing from the box, my scam would be over for good. We exited the office together and snuck back upstairs to our rooms.

Bags said nothing to Figgy or Ashe about the lock box, but made sure to get his cut whenever I made another foray down to the main floor office. This went on for months and months. Then, one day, I let it slip about the big safe in the room behind the office. Bags' face lit up.

'Don't you get what this means,' Bags said to me excitedly. 'Don't you see, Locke? This is our ticket outta here! You and me and Figgy and Ashe! We could get outta here and take off somewhere, maybe Narshe, or Nikeah, or even Zozo! We could do whatever we want!' I shook my head.

'Can't,' I said simply. 'I've never opened a combination lock like that before. I wouldn't know how.' Bags laughed.

'I seen you, lock picker. I seen how you do it.' Bags tapped his ear. 'It's all in listenin', same as you do with the smaller locks.' He shook his head. 'Ya know, Locke, you're too humble. You're smoother than ya think. I swear you could cut a guy's throat with one hand and pick him clean with the other.' Bags snorted. 'You could take that safe, Locke, I know you could.'

I considered Bags' words. If it was true that the big combination locks made distinctive sounds when they fell into place, then I probably could do it. My ears are sensitive; I can hear a spider weaving her web in the next room.

I thought about the prospect of remaining an inmate of the Kohlingen County School for Boys until I was eighteen. I had just turned fifteen. I didn't relish the idea of another three years in that facility, but I didn't relish the idea of being on the streets, either. I had had just enough of a taste of that during my ill-fated search for my mother, and I knew how hard it could be. But this time, if I did this, it would be different. I wouldn't be a young child out on my own as I had been at that time. I had grown up a lot since I was eleven. By my fifteenth birthday, my voice had changed and I was shaving. I was nearly as tall as I am today, and I had filled out quite a bit. I was much stronger. I no longer had to be a victim of the circumstances in which I found myself. This time, I would have friends with me, and I'd have some money. I could take care of myself. Knocking over that safe was sounding better and better to me. Bags read my face and laughed.

'We're gonna do it,' he snorted. 'Yeah!' I shook my head again and his face fell.

'We're gonna do it, yeah,' I repeated, 'but we're going to do it my way. No rushing. I have to feel my way into this situation.' Bags looked confused.

'How're you gonna do that? Practice?' He snorted again.

'Exactly,' I replied, further confusing him. 'I want to go down to that office a couple of times and see if I can spring that lock, so that I'm comfortable with it on the night we bug out of here.' Bags clapped his hands and did a little dance.

'We're buggin' outta here! We're buggin' outta here!'

It turned out to be a good thing that I'd decided on a run-through. I had a devil of a time with that lock. It was three o'clock in the morning, and I was crouched in front of the big safe's combination lock, my head bent, my ear glued to the mechanism. I was nervous and sweating so bad I looked like I'd been in a rainstorm. I couldn't keep my hair off my face. Bags was breathing down my neck, and I'd irritably looked around at him to tell him to back off. He stood there twisting a bandana, flipping it over and over until he had turned it into a long, narrow piece of cloth.

'Here,' he whispered to me. 'Tie this around yer head. It'll keep that mop o' yers outta yer eyes.'

I did as he suggested. It did the trick. It kept the sweat out of my eyes and my hair off my forehead. I could concentrate. Suddenly, I had no trouble hearing the nuances of the turning mechanism. Left, click-click-click, snick. Right, click-click-click, snick. It took me under sixty seconds to open the door to the safe.

Its shelves were piled with bags of money. Bags, standing behind me and looking over my shoulder, could hardly contain himself. It was all I could do to keep him from grabbing all he could carry right then. I closed the safe door, and nodded to him. Soon, my nod was saying to him. We'll be out of here soon.

'Soon' turned out to be three months later. When I went down to the office the next week for one more practice run at the lock, I found the safe nearly empty. It scared me at first; I thought that they might have emptied it because they had figured someone had been in there.

To find out if they suspected anything, I began to hang around the main office when the guards were in there, hoping that I'd overhear some useful information. All I got was more evidence of them helping themselves to the petty cash fund. But shortly after, quite by accident, I got the information I was looking for, in spades.

I happened to be passing Mr. Daigle's private office. Mr. Daigle was the big cheese of the institution, the Dean. Dean, hah! Warden was more like it. Anyway, Daigle's door was ajar, and he had some skinny guy with a scrubby little mustache in there with him, named Harwood. They were having a very interesting chat, about a scam they were running, selling our supplies we got from Kohlingen County for top dollar, replacing the supplies with inferior ones, and pocketing the difference for themselves. The lowlifes. That explained the lousy food we had to eat in that joint. And it also explained the presence of all that dough in that big safe behind the main office. Apparently, they had just emptied it, split the money fifty-fifty, and deposited it into their respective bank accounts. The cash from their little scam built up over three months' time, so much that they had to bank it. In another three months, their little stockpile would be at an all-time high again.

Perfect. In three months, I would clean out every gold piece in that safe, and not look back. The lowlifes.

We planned to leave by way of the institution's clinic, which had a door out to the garden. The heavily-treed garden path extended all the way to the main road, well away from the building. It was our best chance not to be seen leaving. The clinic was locked at night, so it was easier to have someone already there to let us in. Although, by then, I was beginning to believe that I could break into Heaven itself.

The night we left, Figgy pretended to be sick and got himself put to bed in the clinic. I was well-practiced on the safe, having been in it four times. The most recent had been just the night before. I verified that it was full, and Ashe hung out near the office all day to be certain that Daigle and his pal never went near it.

When it came time to go, Ashe waited in the hallway, watching to make sure the coast was clear. Bags went with me to the safe. I didn't need any help, but Bags didn't trust me not to take off with the goods alone. That was wise of him. No matter what you may have heard, there is no such thing as honor among thieves.

With the heavy moneybags tied up in sheets and slung over our shoulders, Bags, Ashe and I made our way to the clinic. Figgy was at the door when we arrived. Unfortunately, there had been one other patient in the clinic with Figgy, and the poor dope woke up and asked Figgy what he was doing standing at the door. That kid was gagged with a pillowcase and locked in the dispensary closet when we made our escape.

Everything went off without a hitch.

I realized that we could not cart those money bags very far on foot, and anyway the mountains made it hard to get anywhere from Kohlingen over land, even using chocobos. Besides, we did not have the luxury of time. Daigle and his skinny friend Harwood would be coming looking for their money. There was only one thing we could do. We had to get to the coast off Kohlingen and hop a ship. My stomach nearly turned over just thinking about it. But there wasn't a choice.

I had a private cabin on the ship, and the four of us had already split the money and taken our shares. So I didn't have to see anyone during the voyage. The boys thought I was being stuck-up, avoiding their company and not answering their knocks on my cabin door. If they only knew.

We had decided on Nikeah. I couldn't go to Narshe; too many people knew me there, although I doubt they'd have recognized me then. I was practically a man.

Zozo was out of the question. I had heard plenty about that place, who hadn't? Bad criminal element. Bad women. Bad weather. Zozo was known far and wide as the most dangerous place in the world, except maybe for the southern continent, where the Empire held reign. When I voiced my objections to Zozo, Ashe reminded me that we were criminals too, and anyway, what was so wrong about bad women? He had a point, and I suggested that Zozo might be fun to visit sometime, but did we really want to live there?

So, Nikeah it was. My only concern about that town, which I did not express, was that I could not let myself get arrested. I did not want to be brought before the town's magistrate, who had once been so kind to me. I couldn't let him see how badly I had turned out.

It ended up not mattering anyway. Shortly after our arrival in Nikeah, I made a discreet inquiry, and found that the magistrate had died two years before. It figured. I had cared for the old man, and I thought that that was probably what killed him.

We beat around Nikeah for over a year. There was a bar near the docks that paid no attention to anyone's age, and we spent a lot of our time drinking, gambling in small games, and planning minor heists. We didn't want to spend all our money, so we spent other people's money when we could. Just the same, we watched our cash reserves slowly dwindle despite our best efforts. Figgy pointed out, quite rightly, that what we really needed was a big score. We had no idea how to achieve that, but one day, when Ashe met an old friend in the bar, the big score we had sought fell into our laps.

Ashe was originally from Zozo. That explained his indignant reaction to my negative comments about the place. As far as I was concerned, that explained a lot of other things about Ashe, too.

Ashe's friend was a young man he'd known as a kid in Zozo, and who still lived there. This surprised me, because the fellow looked fairly respectable, more respectable that we did, at any rate. There was a reason for that; it turned out that this guy was a bank teller. I couldn't hide my shock.

'A bank,' I sputtered. 'In Zozo??' The Zozo fellow laughed.

'Well, it's actually full of Jidoor money. The swells down there like to keep some of their dough hidden away from the tax man.'

I glanced over at Bags. His eyes were glowing.

'So, what's yer name, banker,' Bags asked Ashe's friend. The poor, unsuspecting dope smiled.

'Cash,' the banker replied. We all howled. Cash blushed.

'Yeah, I know. Bane of my existence.'

'Well, Cash, m'name's Bags. These'r m'friends. You know Ashe. He don't look like much, but don't make him mad. This here's Figgy. And this here's Locke. He's our, uh, chief of security!' Bags let out an explosive snort at his own stupid joke. Bags was his own best audience.

'So, Cash, you lookin' forward to yer week off?' Bags was referring to the fact that Figaro had just got itself a new king. Roderick had died, and the coronation of his heir, Prince Edgar, was two weeks away. The entire realm would be shut down and partying for a full week. The only businesses that would remain open would be the bars and cafes, and the street vendors. We four had planned to make some real money during that week, with all the businesses shut down and all the business owners drunk out of their skulls. But now, Ashe's friend had replied yes, he couldn't wait for his week off, and in saying so, had unwittingly shown us a new possibility.

What could be more out of control during coronation week than Zozo? An unattended bank full of Jidoor money was a boon beyond our wildest dreams. And I had no doubt at all that I could get into their vault. I had not yet seen a lock that I couldn't open, and in the last year, I had seen them all.

We saw Cash to his ship, and headed back to the bar to lay out our plans.

We sailed to Jidoor but spent no time there, instead heading directly to the chocobo stable. We stuck out like red flags in Jidoor. Even the southern, middle-class section of the city was quite fancy in comparison to Nikeah's wharf, where we were used to hanging out. And if we had so much as thought about walking around in the northern, upper-class part of town, we would have had the constables on our tails in ten seconds flat.

We rented five chocobos, one for each of us and one extra for all our stuff, what little we carried, all under the name of Drew Manning. And we set out for Zozo.

You know what a horrible place Zozo is, and it's a rather nasty shock the first time you set eyes on it. Only Ashe didn't flinch when we rode in. Even Bags, tough as nails as he was, looked nervously around him. And it was raining, as usual. Pouring. Just as miserable as you ever remember it.

We checked in at the biggest inn in town, but I don't think any of us slept very soundly. I know I didn't. I realize that it takes one to know one, but the place was full of thieves. And thugs. We were beginning to think that we would be lucky to wake up and find our stuff missing. In Zozo, you're lucky to wake up at all.

We stayed out of the bars. Boy, those were some nasty places, let me tell you. There wasn't a night that went by that a fight didn't break out. Once, we saw a guy come flying through a plate glass window, followed by a chair. Right out into the street. I couldn't begin to imagine what the place was going to be like during coronation week!

By the time we had the bank cased and our plan laid out, it was still two days away from the official opening of coronation week, and we had some time to kill. I made the grave error of asking Ashe if his folks still lived in Zozo. He looked at me strangely, and said he wasn't sure about his father, but he could show us the house where he had been raised. He was pretty sure his mother still lived there.

I found this sad indeed. I had had my tragedies, that was for sure, but I had been loved by both my parents. It is the great irony of my life that, had my mother not loved me so deeply as she did, she would likely still be alive and well and living in Narshe.

My first impression upon nearing the house where Ashe had been raised, was that it was big, and much grander than I had expected. It was hard to believe that Ashe could have come from such opulence and have turned into the lowlife that I knew him to be. It hadn't struck me as odd that such a luxurious house would be located in Zozo.

We were coming up the front walk, when a buxom young woman with flowing red hair and too much makeup leaned out of the first floor window nearest to us.

'What a nice smile you have, pretty boy,' she said. I looked around to see who she could have been talking to. Figgy and Bags were laughing. I looked up at the woman. She was staring right at me, and grinning.

'Yes, you, pretty boy. Wherever did you get those beautiful white teeth? Why don't you come on inside, so I can get a closer look?' I lowered my head and blushed mightily. My face felt like it was going to melt off. I was sixteen and naive in the ways of women, and hadn't realized until that very moment what sort of 'house' this was. Poor Ashe. I had thought that growing up in a place like Zozo explained a lot about him. I hadn't known the half of it.

But Ashe didn't seem upset or embarrassed at all. He cheerily waved to the redheaded woman and called out hello Lilah and led us through the big front door, affixed with a door-knocker that I needn't describe to you. What a place.

Ashe's mother indeed still lived there, still actively plying her trade. She kindly took the rest of the evening off to visit with her son. She was a cold, unpleasant woman. Upon meeting her, I understood how Ashe could have wound up in a place like the Kohlingen County School for Boys. She never asked him about the school, or what he was doing in Zozo. I don't think she cared one way or the other.

She led us into a garish, heavily mirrored parlor of red and gold, where a formally-dressed piano player sat beneath a huge crystal chandelier and tapped out surprisingly tuneful melodies. A maid in an abbreviated skirt set down glasses of whiskey in front of us, and several young ladies clad in brightly colored silks and satins sat down in our midst. Redheaded Lilah settled down next to me on the sofa and hooked her arm in mine. She leaned over and whispered in my ear.

'You know, pretty boy, you're a very attractive young man, with that nice smile of yours. Why don't you come upstairs and visit with Lilah awhile?'

I was sweating bullets. I could have used my bandana then, let me tell you. I couldn't speak. I couldn't concentrate on what anyone else was saying. I'm sure I was as red as the sofa I was sitting on. I looked to Figgy and Bags for help, but they were quite otherwise engaged and couldn't have cared less about my plight. I didn't know what I was going to do. I sat there in a panic, trying to organize my thoughts. Finally, I did what any red-blooded man of the world would do in such a situation. I fled.

I don't remember whether or not I said goodnight, or if I said anything at all. I just hit the sidewalk and made for the inn. I may have run the whole way; I wouldn't be surprised. The innkeeper looked startled to see me rush into his lobby so suddenly. I took the stairs two at a time to my second floor room. As I approached my door, key in hand, I saw that it was opened slightly.

I crept to the door and peered into the room. The innkeeper's assistant was rifling through my things. I quietly drew my dirk, then kicked my door wide open. The man's eyes bugged out, and he tried to run around me and out into the hallway. I grabbed him by his collar and pressed my dagger to his throat.

"If anything's missing,' I hissed, 'I'm going to come and find you, and your greasy friend behind the counter downstairs too. If anything's missing for the rest of my stay here, I'm going to blame you. If I were you, I'd make this room your top security priority.' He nodded at me, his eyes wide with fear. I let him go, and he ran down the hallway and into the stairwell.

I was in town to rob a bank, and I had just threatened a man for trying to steal from me. I clearly saw the conflict in my increasingly confused moral code, and I wasn't even ashamed. I sheathed my dirk and slammed my door."

Celes is still close beside me, and I realize that I have been holding her hand for some time. Our palms are sweating. I look down at the wedding ring on her finger, its stone glimmering blue in the fading light of our parlor. I remember when I picked up this sapphire. It was in the ancient castle, where we battled the blue dragon. I had used the point of my dagger to pry it out of its setting on the cover of the queen's diary, moments before we bugged out of the place. The idea of taking the whole diary didn't appeal to me, given its depressing contents. I had no such reservations about helping myself to the gems on its cover, however. I only had time to grab one, and I remember thinking, why am I wasting my time on this modestly sized sapphire, when there are much larger rubies and emeralds to be had? At the time, I had only shrugged and pocketed the stone. But this sapphire is exactly the color of Celes' eyes, and I believe that, on some level, I knew even then that I would someday set it into her wedding ring.

"When you're riding high, nothing will topple you faster than arrogance, and it was arrogance that did us in on the fateful night that the boys and I attempted to take down the only bank in the town of Zozo.

It was the second night of coronation week. The streets were mobbed as you'd expect, but only the main thoroughfares, where the cheap hotels and gin joints lined the sidewalks. It was incredibly noisy at the center of town, with loud music spilling out from the bars, and crowds of people yelling constantly. It seemed as though everybody except us was drunk to the gills. This suited us just fine. With everyone out carousing, and the noise levels so high, we were free to conduct our business at our leisure.

The back streets were unusually quiet. All the businesses on those streets were closed, and all the good citizens who lived there were out at the town's center, up to their necks in ale. The bank building was situated on one of those back streets, plain and unobtrusive, as if it didn't want to attract too much attention to itself.

We didn't attempt to break in by the main door. Any casual passerby would have spotted us right away. We used a window in the back, hidden by the shadows of the alleyway behind it. It was set pretty high up the wall of the building, and I had climbed a tree and jumped from a branch to reach the sill of the window.

This was something else I discovered I was good at. I can't sail to save my soul, but I can climb anything. I can keep my balance on a wire if I have to, and heights don't bother me a lick.

As soon as I had the window jimmied open, I tied a rope to its handle and let it drop to the ground, so the others could use it to shinny up the side of the building. The longest part of this whole operation was waiting for fat old Bags to haul his carcass up to and through that window.

Once inside, we began to move quickly. I went straight to the vault room, with Bags right behind me, of course, carrying several big burlap sacks slung over his shoulder. Ashe went to the front of the bank to keep a lookout, and Figgy remained near the back window where we had entered.

There were two big combination locks on the door of this vault, and I had to work them one at a time. I had the first one set to open, and I was straining to listen for the characteristic clicking sounds of the second one when I heard the noise. It was a very faint thud. Bags hadn't heard it at all, I could tell. He was still focused on my hand, working the combination dial. But I had heard it, and I couldn't identify it. It was out of place. My scalp prickled. I stood up, and wordlessly pointed to the room in the back where our window stood open. Bags' eyes widened and he turned to go have a look. I tiptoed after him.

As we made the turn into the room, I immediately saw what had caused the thud I had heard. Figgy lay face down on the floor, a knife protruding from his upper back. Three constables looked up at Bags. I stood behind my friend, eclipsed by his bulk. I quickly realized that the constables hadn't seen me. I backed through the door into the vault room again and desperately tried to think about what my next move would be. I could hear more lawmen coming in through the front. I looked up. The rafters! I leapt onto a table, jumped up and grasped the beam above me, kicking my legs high and pulling myself up, disappearing into the shadows between the rafters and the ceiling.

I crouched on a beam, looking down, trying to hear what was going on. There was a shuffling toward the front of the bank, the sound of a struggle, then a grunt, and the sound of running feet. Obviously quite a few constables had descended on the place, and Ashe was not the type to surrender quietly. I wouldn't have taken a bet on the state of his health right then.

It was quiet for a long time. My legs began to ache. Finally, I heard cautious footsteps nearing the vault room. It was dark, but from where I was I could make out a constable moving directly below me. I held my breath. He moved slowly, holding a sword out in front of him, almost dancing as he turned and turned again, terrified that I was going to come up behind him. When he had satisfied himself that I was not in the room, he stopped moving and lowered his sword, standing still and quiet, listening to the building, waiting for me to make a noise and betray my hiding place. I could hear the sound of my own sweat as it trickled down my forehead into the bandana that I wore. After an eternity, the constable walked carefully out into the bank's main room.

'He's gone,' I heard him report to the others. 'I don't know how, but he's gone.'

'Gave ya's the slip, did he?' Snorts of laughter. Bags.

'What's your friend's name, Chubby?' Silence. Good boy, Bags, I thought. Don't tell 'em anything! Then, a loud grunt of pain. Bags, again.

'The officer here asked you, what's your friend's name! Where did he go?' More silence. 'If we have to take you down to the constabulary to get this information from you, you'll regret it. The property you tried to take belongs to some very important people in Jidoor. Did you really think they would allow their money to go unguarded? We are prepared to do whatever we have to in order to apprehend the last member of your gang. You're both going to jail for a very long time.'

Both?? That could only mean that Ashe was dead too, along with Figgy. These guys weren't fooling around! Don't tell them anything, Bags, I thought. As soon as they get what they want from you, they'll kill you. They'll kill us both. They get a pretty penny for protecting this bank. They can't afford to have the swells in Jidoor find out we broke in here. They might decide to move their money somewhere safer.

Sounds of slapping reached my ears, then another heavy grunt. They were working him over pretty good.

'What's his name? Last chance, Chubby. His name, or we kill you now. We're going to find him anyway, with or without your help.' Another grunt.

'Drew Manning,' I heard Bags answer breathlessly. 'His name is Drew Manning!' Oh, Bags!

Bags never knew my name, really, he only knew me as Locke. But when we had rented those chocobos in Jidoor, I had used the name Drew Manning for just this kind of eventuality, and Bags assumed that it was my real name. And now, the constables were going to be looking for a man who didn't exist.

My grandfather and my uncle were spinning in their graves that day, I know, being wanted men in the upstanding, law-abiding town of Zozo.

I waited a long time up in those rafters before I felt it was safe to move, and even then, I was as quiet as I could be as I crept along on my hands and knees, looking for a trap door entry to the attic. I finally found one, and I pushed on the door above me cautiously, inch by inch, afraid that a creak from an unoiled hinge would give me away.

At long last, I was in the attic. It was extremely dark up there, and I nearly choked on the dust. I skinned my shin painfully, running into a piece of furniture obscured by the shadows. But there were two windows, one at either end of the long attic, and their rectangular shapes stood out in the blackness. I carefully picked my way toward the nearest one, and looked out. It faced the rear of the building, situated opposite the very top of the tree I had climbed to get inside.

I slowly rolled up the window. It stuck once. I struggled with it, and it soundlessly rolled up the rest of the way. I looked out and around. I saw nothing move. I threw a leg over the sill, praying that the thin branches at the top of the tree would hold my weight.

I jumped from the windowsill into the tree, grasping at the branches. The top of the tree swayed, making a soft, rustling sound in the night air. I just hoped that, whomever was nearby would think it was the wind. I waited.

When I heard nothing more, I began to descend. The branches thickened as I moved downward and I began to feel safer. Toward the bottom of the tree branches, while I was still hidden in their leaves, I sat and again waited. The constables were out there, I knew they were, but I could hear only silence.

After some time had passed, I quietly drew a gold piece out of my pocket. I threw it with as much strength as I could manage, and it hit the pavement in the alleyway that ran behind the bank building. Sure enough, I heard feet shuffling, then running toward the sound in the alley.

I wasted no time. I dropped from the tree and ran, crouched, in the direction of where the unseen feet had been standing before I'd heard them running. I made it to the street, then across it and beyond. No one was behind me. I reached the center of town and blended in with the revelers.

I needed to beat it out of Zozo fast, I knew. But the constables did not have the name of Locke, or Lance. And as soon as I cut my hair and cleaned up, they wouldn't have my description, either. Once I got out of town, I would be okay.

I got a room in one of Zozo's flea bag inns, under the name of Arthur Rose. I quickly washed up, shaved, and cut my hair. It wasn't straight, but it was passable, and I was unrecognizable, which was all that mattered anyway. I shucked the leather jacket that I wore, and tucked in my white T-shirt. Then, I left the building through one of its back doors.

I made Zozo's city limits in minutes. There were constables there, checking out everyone leaving. The immense crowds didn't make their job easy. One of them quickly looked me up and down, and waved me through. I was a free man.

I never found out whether they killed Bags, or shipped him off to jail. I never saw him again.

I planned to hide out in the foothills around Zozo for a short while, then make my way south to Jidoor, where I would hop a ship to Kohlingen. I would figure out the future direction of my life there, in familiar surroundings.

It was during that time in the foothills that I had the strangest thing occur. Except for witnessing the existence of magic in the world, this is the strangest thing that has ever happened to me. Do you believe in ghosts, Celes?

I got lost, but that isn't it, not the thing I wanted to tell you about. But getting lost is what led up to it. I had meant to find a nice, hospitable ridge, not too far up, not visible from the ground, out of the wind, where I could lay low for a day or so. I had been climbing awhile, hours, when I realized I had gotten myself turned around somehow and was lost. I tried to backtrack, but that only made things worse. On top of everything else, I was beginning to feel a little feverish. I was getting sick! Just what I needed. Too much excitement, I guess. Anyway, I quickly tired, and I needed to sleep. I found a patch of high grass and curled up. And then, I had the dream.

In my dream, I was lying there, on my grassy bed, with my eyes opened and looking up. This tall, beautiful woman was standing there looking down at me. Her face was bathed in light and I couldn't really see her features, but I had the impression that she was smiling. A light breeze carried her long, white dress out behind her, and strands of her hair danced around her face like long, golden ribbons. I was transfixed.

'Am I dead,' I managed to croak. 'Are you an angel?' Her laughter was like tiny bells.

'No, my baby, you aren't dead.' She knelt alongside me. It was my mother, or some heavenly version of her. I reached out to touch her, to see if she was real. She took my hand. Her fingers were warm and solid.

' can you be here,' I asked her, befuddled. 'I must be dreaming. You can't be real.' She gently lifted my head and put a canteen to my lips.

'Drink, Lance.' I sipped water from the canteen. I was shivering. She took off her cloak and laid it over me. It was diaphanous, yet it was deliciously warm.

'Is it you, Mom? Is it really you?' She cradled my head on her lap, stroking my cheek and brushing my hair back.

'You've lost your way, son,' she said quietly. I nodded.

'I've been up in these hills for a day, and I can't figure out where I am,' I replied. 'Can you help me?' She looked at me with a sad expression.

'You have to find your own way back, Lance. You have a good heart and a strong mind. There is important work ahead of you. You must find your way back to the proper path.' I was confused by her words. Didn't she know the way down from here, either?

'Where did you come from,' I asked her. She continued to cradle my head, slightly rocking, humming some lullaby that had an elusive familiarity about it.

'I must go now, child,' she said. 'Remember, Lance, if you follow your heart, it will never lead you wrong.' I was filled with grief at the thought of her leaving me once more.

'Will I see you again,' I asked, a tone of pleading in my voice. She smiled down at me.

'Not for a long, long time, but, yes, we will be together again someday.' I reached my arm up to try to embrace her. She pointed out over me, and bade me to look. I lifted my head and turned. A star like phenomenon glittered over the entry to one of several paths leading down from the hill we were on.

'That is the way down, Lance. When you wake in the morning, follow that path to safety.' I nodded.

'Will you stay with me until I go to sleep again?' I turned my head back to her, but she was gone.

I woke in the morning warm and refreshed, my fever broken. I remembered my dream in detail, and it made my heart ache because my mother had seemed so real in it. I rolled to my knees to get up, and the toe of my boot kicked a rock. I reached down to remove it before I could trip over it, and my fingers closed over a canteen, the canteen my mother had put to my lips the night before!

I looked over at the various pathways down off the hill. I could easily pick out the one that had the star on it in my dream. With the solid reality of the canteen in my hand, I had no choice but to trust my dream-mother's choice of escape route, and I followed the path she had shown me. It led me directly to level ground, and it turned out that I was already halfway to Jidoor when I came down out of the foothills.

Maybe God thought I had had enough for one week, because my voyage to Kohlingen was the smoothest I've had until now, and although I wasn't at my best, I wasn't as violently sick as I had always been at sea. I had some time to think, and I found myself haunted by my mother's words to me, 'you've lost your way, son,' and 'you have to find your own way back, Lance.' At the time, I had thought she had been talking about getting out of those foothills, but then, she had shown me the way out. So, she had to have been talking about another kind of path, another way of being lost.

Since the Kohlingen County School for Boys, hadn't I been lost? During my time as a member of Bags' crew, hadn't I been on the wrong path? Wherever my mother was, she had been watching me. She knew what I had become. I cringed at the thought of it, but she had been her old, loving self with me in the hills. She did know, all right, and she wanted me to change, but she loved me just the same.

I ached with remorse for my wasted years since the Kohlingen County School for Boys, for my thievery, and for my lack of direction. I was determined not to let my mother down, not to let myself down. I would go to Kohlingen, where I had been happy with my uncle's family, where maybe I still had a friend or two from those days. I would find a job, and try to settle into a normal life. I was going to become a different person. A better person."

The tension is back in Celes' posture, and I think I understand why. It isn't curiosity this time, but anxiety, for she knows that we're coming to the hard part, the hard part for her, anyway. This is the time in my life when I met Rachel.

In spite of the nature of Celes' own upbringing as a soldier, and being surrounded by hundreds of male troops, I am the only man she has ever been in love with. There was no one before me, and it's hard for her that I loved someone else before she came into my life.

I love Celes far too much ever to lie to her, and I will tell her this whole story too, the truth about how I felt about Rachel then, and what she once meant to me. That, like everything else I am telling her today, helped form the person that I am, and I want her to know. Besides, I never loved Rachel more than I love Celes, in fact, I believe it's the other way around. I have told her this more than once, and I will tell her again and again in the years to come, because it's a tender spot with her, and she needs to be reassured every once in a while. I don't mind. After all, it's a form of protecting her, isn't it?

"In Kohlingen, I found that one kid I had gone to school with was still living in town, Maynard Lawrence. He was taller, but he was pretty much the same, scrawny kid I had known, back when I was scrawny too. He was still kind of an outsider, but he was a good sort, and I was no longer looking for fast company.

I had found myself a job behind the counter of a relic shop that once used to exist in Kohlingen, back before the old man who owned it retired. I managed to keep my hands off the lock box, although old habits die hard, and I confess that I could feel my fingers itch more than once. But I was determined. It was the straight life for me, all the way.

Any temptation to slip back into my old, evil ways evaporated entirely one afternoon when Maynard stopped in with his cousin, Rachel Lawrence. She was pretty enough, I suppose, with her big brown eyes and dark curls. But what struck me about Rachel was her sweetness. She had this aura about her of absolute innocence, and innocence was something I was trying to find again within myself, to get back in touch with. This nice, uncomplicated girl embodied all the things I was struggling to regain in my own soul, and I saw her as almost a savior. Being with her made me feel that I once again had goodness within myself. I began to spend all my available time with her.

We did simple things together, pursued simple entertainments, like plays, and concerts in the town square, and puppet shows. We walked a great deal and talked about everything. Everything, that is, except my past. I knew that Rachel was curious about me, about my childhood, about the years after my uncle's death, but she must have sensed that I didn't want to talk about it, and she never asked any questions. She trusted me, and I guess she thought that someday, when I was ready, I would tell her all about myself. I never did.

Rachel was everything that I thought I needed back then, and I tried hard to be the man that I knew she needed, mature, dependable, predictable. But try as I might, and as determined as I was to live an upstanding life, I could feel boredom begin to creep into my consciousness. I loved Rachel, but the truth is that I didn't love the life I was leading.

Since that time, I've been on the trail for eight years, with the Returners for seven of those eight. And then, of course, there was the war. All I want now is a place to call my own, and the family that I've missed all these years. But back then, I was only seventeen, and I just wasn't ready to settle down that soon. I kept hoping that I would get used to it. I knew in my heart that I would never go back to the criminal life, but I was not a happy man. My direction was unclear, but I knew that I could not go on much longer the way I was. I was sure that fate had something more in store for me, and I was right.

Fate came strolling into the shop one morning, wearing a weather-beaten leather coat, and boots worn down by miles of hard road, and carrying a bulging sack slung over his shoulder. He threw the sack down on the counter with a loud clatter and extended a well-worn hand.

'Victor Prescott, treasure hunter, at your service,' he boomed in a jolly voice. 'Who might you be, boy?' I shook the treasure hunter's hand. He had quite a grip, and I winced.

'Uh, Locke Cole, sir, at your service.' Prescott laughed, his ample belly shuddering, his chubby cheeks flushed pink. He studied me a moment, eyes twinkling. I suspected the man was a bit crazy, but I took to him right away.

'Well, where's your boss this morning, young Locke Cole,' he asked me, his grin displaying an even row of white teeth.

"Um, I'm not sure, sir, I think out buying supplies. Would you like me to try to find him for you?' One of his bushy brows pulled down over his eye, and the other arched up high, as he considered my offer.

'Naw,' he finally answered. 'Just tell him Press is in town. I'm at the inn. Got some rarities for him this time, tell him, some real rarities indeed! I'll be back this afternoon.' He nodded sharply and rapped his knuckles on the counter. At the door, he stopped and turned around.

'Let me ask you, young Locke. Would you be interested in a side job, earn yourself some extra money?' I could always use extra money. I had a girlfriend, and the lock box was off limits. I nodded.

'What kind of side job,' I asked him. He walked back up to the counter and leaned on an elbow.

'I'm going to be working these mountains around here for awhile. On the other side, over Narshe way, they're rich in coal.' He leaned toward me and his voice dropped to a whisper. 'I hear tell that over this way, there are veins of diamonds. I aim to hit the mother lode.' He winked at me. 'I ain't as young as I used to be, nor as slim, neither!' He chuckled, patting the round belly hanging over his belt. 'I could use a strong young man like yourself to assist me. You'd be doing some climbing onto narrow ledges that I can't fit on anymore, and some squeezing through cavern passageways, and even some lifting and carting. You'd be paid well, might learn some of the trade if you've a mind, and it could be exciting, if we hit it big. What do you say?'

I hesitated, pretending to think about it for a moment. It was all I could do to keep from jumping up on the counter and shouting yes! Yes! YES!

'Yes,' I replied simply. He nodded sharply again.

'Good! We'll be starting this weekend, early. Meet me at the inn at daybreak. And dress for a lot of walking and climbing!' I smiled. I'd be bringing my bandana out of retirement, but this time, in the interest of a legitimate pursuit.

In the months that followed, I trailed after Press into the mountains, down into caves hidden behind waterfalls, up onto perilously narrow ledges, and through thick stands of trees. I learned the trade quickly, finding that it required many of the same skills I had used to ill purpose as a thief.

We found no diamonds, but it turned out that Press was never really after diamonds in the first place. He had come to the mountains near Kohlingen in search of a fabled ruby-studded mask, said to have belonged to an ancient race of warriors, and reputed to cause a fiery death to anyone daring to steal it from its rightful place on the altar of their warrior-god.

During our lengthy search for the mask, we found many lesser treasures, such as rare artifacts, and precious stones. Once, in a cavern, we found a vein rich in malachite, a dramatic, bright green stone lined with black. We made a small fortune on that haul alone, and it made me see the possibilities of that way of life.

I worked hard for Press, and he was more than fair with me. I was making money by the fistful, and after a few months, it made little sense for me to remain working at the relic shop. I could make much better use of my time treasure hunting. One day, I finally gave notice to my boss.

Rachel was very unhappy with me. She saw the treasure hunting life as restless and undependable, but she was mostly unhappy with my increasingly long absences. I was still in love with her, but I was deliriously in love with my new life. I didn't see right away that Rachel and I were heading for an impasse. I didn't want to see it.

One evening, Rachel and I were at the cafe with Press, sipping warm cider while he regaled us with some of his past adventures. I was fascinated, hanging on every word, but Rachel was strangely quiet throughout. Midway into the evening, she said she wasn't feeling well and excused herself to leave. I stood to walk her home, but she said she'd be fine and insisted I stay. As we watched her walk out the cafe door, Press sighed and shook his head.

'I have an idea that you and your lady friend have the fish-and-bird problem, Locke.'

'What,' I asked, distracted by Rachel's odd behavior and confused by Press' remark.

'The fish-and-bird problem, son. There's an old Doman saying. A fish and a bird may fall in love and marry, but where would they live?' I looked at Press and blinked. I nearly asked him what he meant, but I knew. Rachel and I not only wanted different things, but living her way made me miserable, and living my way made her so.

Even then, I wasn't ready to give Rachel up. I really loved her and couldn't imagine my life without her, despite the fact that I had been spending more and more of my time away from her. I believe now that I was more in love with the idea of Rachel, than I was with the woman herself. But I just didn't see that, and I was determined to find a way to keep her in my life.

I told myself that she simply didn't understand how exciting treasure hunting was, that if she could only see some of the wonders Press and I had seen, she'd come around. It was in this spirit that I insisted she come with me one morning to the crystal cave.

The cavern that Press and I referred to as the crystal cave is a wondrous place, with all the walls and the ceiling completely covered in quartz crystal points. It's actually a separate cave room located behind a normal cave entrance. You cross a swinging bridge to the inside room, and light a torch. The result is a blazing brilliance, brighter than the sun. It's like being inside a diamond. It is simply indescribable.

I thought that once Rachel saw the crystal cave, she could begin to understand my inability to give this life up, even for her, and she'd try to adjust, the way I had tried to adjust to the life that suited her. So I insisted that she come, even though she didn't want to, and I coaxed her onto that swinging bridge, even though she was afraid of it. She had come only because she loved me and because she too sensed our imminent separation. She loved me, so when, in my exuberance, I yelled for her to come on, she did.

She did, just for me.

And when the bridge collapsed under her, the guilt that I harbored from my mother's disappearance, and my uncle's death, and even the death of that magistrate in Nikeah, was brought to bear on that moment. And I knew that I could not go on, never move forward, until that terrible wrong was made right.

When the physicians told her family and me that she was in a coma that they couldn't break, and that she would shortly die, I sunk into despair. I thought that if I cost Rachel her life through my own rash action, as I had cost my mother hers, I would die myself.

Press was sympathetic. He tried to persuade me that Rachel's fall had been a terrible accident, and only that, but it did him no good. He could not get through to me. Then, he tried to help in a practical way. He told me the legend of the phoenix artifact.

I clung to the possibility of finding it as a drowning man clings to his overturned boat. I consulted with the town herbalist to see if he had a way to hold the grim reaper at bay, and keep Rachel alive until I could find the mystical relic that would restore her. It cost a great deal of money, but I had saved a goodly sum since I had begun my work with Press, and I paid the herbalist.

Rachel's father allowed her move to the herbalist's house, because he also wanted to keep his daughter alive for as long as possible, but as you already know, he blamed me entirely for his child's misfortune. I couldn't leave town fast enough to suit him.

Press invited me to come with him to Narshe, where he planned to continue his search for the ruby mask in the same mountain range, but from the other side. I traveled that far with him, but I had only one thing on my mind, and that was to put my hands on the phoenix artifact. I planned to go from Narshe, to South Figaro, and board a ship bound for the southern continent, where the relic that I sought was said to be. And it was in Narshe that fate stepped in once again to alter my life path, in a way that I could not have predicted.

Press and I had shaken hands and said good-bye, and I had thanked him for everything. He had gone out into the mountains, and I sat alone in a bar, drinking and contemplating my trip in the morning to South Figaro. I was putting a fresh draught of ale to my lips when a young boy of about ten came up and tugged at my elbow. I nearly spilled my drink, and I impatiently looked down at him, and saw that he held up a folded piece of paper.

'You're Lance Cole, right, sir?' I did spill my drink a little, then. No one had called me Lance in years. Where had he gotten the name from? I nodded, gave him a coin, and took the paper from him. As he ran away out the door, I unfolded the message.

'Lance, urgent that I speak with you. Understand that you're leaving tomorrow. Can you come tonight? You remember the place, the building north of town? Would appreciate it very much if you could give me an hour of your time. Looking forward to seeing you. Arvis'

Arvis? What in the world, I wondered, would Arvis want with me? How did he even remember me? And how did he know I was in town? I downed my ale, dropped some coins on the bar, and left.

Walking through Narshe was achingly nostalgic for me, bringing a flood of memories of my childhood, my mother and even my father. So much had happened since those simpler days, so much...

I arrived at Arvis' house, and had my hand raised to knock when his door opened. He looked exactly as I remembered him, only much shorter. He looked up at me, beaming.

'A handsome young man you have turned into, Lance Cole, a handsome young man indeed. I believe you look a bit like Emilie, but of course without that glorious hair of hers. How proud she would be to see you now!'

Would she? Would she really?

Arvis stepped back and waved me in, gesturing to a place at his table, where he had a light supper laid out. I hadn't eaten, and I gratefully sat down.

We made small talk as we ate, and he filled me in on all the changes that had taken place in Narshe since last I had lived there. His tone then became serious, as the talk turned to politics.

'The Empire's influence is becoming stronger,' he told me, 'and even as far north as we are, no one feels safe. It is felt that Figaro could not stand against them.'

'I don't pay very much attention to this stuff,' I replied. 'But it's my impression that King Edgar isn't trying to take any sort of stand. He seems pretty friendly with them.' Arvis flushed.

'You must be wondering why I wanted to see you, Lance,' he said. 'You know, son, I was very sorry when you lost your mother the way you did, and I've been keeping up with you some through a friend of mine in Kohlingen, ever since your uncle died and your aunt put you in that place for wayward boys. I was very worried about you, when I got the news that you and several other of your, shall we say, classmates, disappeared with the contents of the school's safe! They looked for you, you know. Very hard. You might have gone to prison over that, Lance. Then, I lost track of you, until you reappeared once again in Kohlingen. It seemed as though you had mended your ways, and then I heard that you had taken up with a treasure hunter. Of course, I wasn't sure whether you were hunting treasure in other people's safes...' At that point, I interrupted him.

'Is this a lecture,' I asked angrily. 'Is that what this is? Because if it is, you can take your...' Arvis put his hand on my shoulder.

'Lance, Lance. I'm not judging you, boy! You've had to go through a lot just to survive, I know that. In fact, it's your survival instincts that we're impressed with, that we think we can use!' I scowled at him. I was still angry, but my curiosity got the best of my irritation with the old man.

'We,' I asked. 'Who's we?' Arvis smiled and leaned back in his chair.

'We are the Returners.' He watched me, a glint in his eye. When I leaned forward, interested, he laid it all out for me. Who the Returners were, what they were, and how they operated. But what, I wondered aloud, did they want with me?

'That's easy,' Arvis grinned. 'We want you to steal.' I stood.

'Sorry Arvis,' I said. 'I don't do that anymore. I'll never do that again. Sorry you wasted your time. I'll just be going now.' I turned toward the door.

'Lance, wait! Hear me out. We don't want you to steal property. We want you to steal information. Just information! Think about it, Lance. This is a chance to use your considerable skills for a good cause, and to strike a blow against the Empire at the same time. Don't you owe them one for the disappearance of your mother?' I turned back.

'We need to get a couple of things straight, Arvis, if we're going to work together. First, my name is Locke. Locke Cole. Lance Cole died the day the Empire came and took his mother, and he couldn't do anything to save her. And second, I am not a thief. That episode in my life is over. I am a treasure hunter. Anyone who calls me a thief is going to have hell to pay, and I don't care who they are. Got it?' Arvis slowly nodded.

'Got it, Mr. Locke Cole, treasure hunter, loud and clear. Now, please come and sit down. We have a lot to talk about.'

Arvis told me then about the incursion of the Imperial influences in the north, and Figaro's desire to resist them in secret. I was to meet Banon immediately, and then King Edgar of Figaro, with the purpose of becoming his contact with the Returners. I would be spending a lot of time on the southern continent in the interest of stealing information, as Arvis had called it, spying in fact, which fit in perfectly with my plan to search for the phoenix artifact.

The rest, you know. I have no more secrets from you. Except, perhaps, for the answer to the question you asked me several times during the war. The question I never really answered. Feeling as I did about the Empire, and Imperial soldiers, why did I spring you from that prison room I found you in?

I know, Celes, that you always thought it had to do with Rachel. But, the real reason should be plain enough to you now.

I was looking for a way out of South Figaro, when I found you. I hid in the rafters just over that prison room, and I when I looked down, I saw this beautiful, statuesque girl, with bright blond hair that hung to her waist, being beaten, and screamed at, and grilled. And all I could see was my mother suffering the fate that I always believed she had suffered at the hands of the Empire. I couldn't have passed you by, Celes, any more than I could have cut off my own arm. It was as though fate was giving me a second chance to save my mother. And, in the time that I have come to know you, the person that you really are, I have come to feel that a certain balance has been struck.

I lost my mother to the Empire, and the Empire lost you to me."

"Promise me something," she says to me.

"Anything," I murmur.

"If we ever have a son, promise me that we will name him Lance. I know you think that he was a weak little boy, Locke. But I think that Lance Manning Cole was just about the most courageous young man I have ever heard of. I would be so proud to name our son to honor him."

She kisses me then, and I feel her whole heart coming out to me through that kiss, and I am moved, inexpressibly.

I am awakened in the night by sounds of pain, and as my head clears, I realize that Celes is having her nightmare again, no doubt brought on by our discussion this evening. I know this dream; she has it from time to time. She is back in that prison room, being beaten by imperial guards who once were part of her own troops.

I gently shake her out of her sleep, and still full of the dream, she sits up and seeks the safety of my arms. I gather her in, and I whisper to her that that there is nothing here that can harm her. Tomorrow, she will wake, the dream gone, and she will once again be my strong and independent Celes. But right now, in this moment, I can hold her in my arms and keep her safe from her demons, and in doing so, I am saved from my own.

I hold her against me, rocking slightly, and slowly, gradually, sleep overtakes her again, and her head lays heavy against my shoulder. I ease her back down onto the bed and, overcome by her fragrance, I lay my head on her pillow, my face buried in the hollow of her neck. I drape my arm over her, protectively, and we lay there like the orphans that we are, huddled together against the storm, safe for the moment, and secure in the certainty of our love.

The End