Disclaimer: Setzer, Daryl, and other related characters are property of Square. The other peeps ( i.e. Benny, J.J., etc.) are mine, but there's no legal backing behind this claim.


Wine, Women, and Song

A fic by



Gambling is not a sin

Provided, of course, that you always win.


The Gabbianis had always been a well-respected familyin Jidoor. The very first Gabbiani who had come to the cosmopolitan city had been a humble merchant with an eye for color and a nose for money. He had pooled his money with a few other small traders to invest in the silk busines s, a wise choice because all Jidoorians doted on the material: they even dressed their pets up in little silk vests and shirts. A poodle shivering in the winter cold, garbed in the finest and flimsiest of brightly colored hues,was a common sight. Such frivolities were foolish; the first Gabbiani knew this, but he didn't mind in the least. If these people were so mad for thestuff, then he didn't care how it was used. Through the years, he broke free from his fellow merchants and finally got a monopoly on the silk market through sometimes unscrupulous but always clever methods.

The Gabbianis have always loved to make money off ofpeople's excesses--except one, and he started out about the same as the worst of them.

Now, about one hundred years after the first Gabbianihad arrived, the family, though always respected, was not as well-off as itonce was. The first Gabbiani had liked to gamble away some of his hard-earned money, but he was shrewd enough never to go overboard, which could not besaid of his descendants. Gambling ran through the family, men and women alike, and they had slowly brought down the family business bit by bit, year after year, as the money was taken away by the dealing of cards and rather wild lifestyles. One Gabbiani once boasted that he and his family could take baths not of water, but of the most exotic perfumes, and they did. Theywere the nicest-smelling people in town, even if they were the stickiest.

But the opulence took its toll, and when the family business was handed over to one Ponzo Gabbiani, it was not nearly as grand asit once was. The monopoly had been broken, and other silk merchants had grown more successful and richer. The family home was no longer located in the rich northern district, but--insult of insults!--in the very middle of town,right next to the auction house. But the Gabbiani name was still well-thought of and somewhat feared, and Ponzo, kindly and intelligent, was not as much of a pleasure monger as the others before him, though he still enjoyed fine wine, admiring beautiful women, and playing cards.

Ponzo married one of those beautiful ladies, a vivacious red-haired girl named Dulcina. Unlike most aristocratic girls, she had agreat deal of common sense and financial acumen combined with a lack of arrogance, and would not sit idly by and watch her husband's business go downthe tubes. From the very start, she helped Ponzo with his book-keeping and maintenance of the store, even going so far as to haggle with customers herself. Ponzo didn't much care for the help of a woman, but he didn't complain--he was actually getting a little more money than before, which he promptly gambled away.

Dulcina took her husband's little vices in stride, because she loved him and didn't care what people said or how much they earned. But when she became pregnant, that all changed.

When the doctor had confirmed her suspicions, Dulcinamarched right into the store just as Ponzo was closing up and she hauled him into a half-empty storage room.

'Ponzo, brace yourself,' the lady announced. 'I went to the doctor today, and there is a reason why I've been throwing up every morning the past month other than indigestion. We've got a baby on the way.'

Ponzo tried to read her face, but it was perfectly blank and blunt, and it gave him no clue as how to react. He had always thought that when a woman found out she was pregnant, she'd be ecstatic; Dulcinaproved him wrong. Still, he took a blind shot.

'Sweetheart!' he cried, joy bursting over his face as he advanced to embrace her. 'What good news! It's wonderful!'

Dulcina dodged his arms and gave him a small shove. He gawked at her as she crossed her arms, planted her feet wide apart, and looked stolidly at him.

'Listen, Ponzo. I've never minded you burning a little midnight oil--the gods know you can't help it, being a Gabbiani. But now it's going to be different. We're going to have a beautiful bouncy baby in a few months, a sweet little boy--'

'How do you know it's going to be a boy?'Ponzo asked a bit archly; he didn't like where this conversation was going.

'I just know. Women's intuition. But his sex doesn't matter, Ponzo. He's going to be our child, our lovely child. And,to cut straight to the chase: I want him to have a roof over his head, enough to eat, an honest family--a future, Ponzo.'

'Won't he get it? We're not poor, Dulcy." The merchant was exasperated with his wife's outlandish behavior--were all pregnant women this touchy?--and he scratched at his thick, long hair, which was, strangely enough, gray. It had been like that ever since he had been in his early twenties. But, thankfully, it was not showing any signs of thinning or falling out, for he was only thirty-two, after all, and it actually made him look quite dashing.

'Oh, I know that!' Dulcina retorted promptly. 'But who knows what the future holds? A merchant takes lots of risksin his business, and he can go bust at any time. A merchant who gambles is ten thousand times worse. I don't mind the risk. But now we've got this," --she jiggled her belly-- 'we've got to be more careful. I want this child to have a safe, sweet childhood, the one that every child deserves. And you're not going to louse it up, my dear Ponzo. One bad card hand, one missed roulette call, and we can lose the farm. So, hear this: Give upgambling.'

'Wha-at?' Ponzo looked like he had been slapped across the face with a dead fish; he staggered back a few paces. 'You surely must be joking.'

'I mean it,' she growled through clenched teeth. 'I love you, Ponzo, but I love this baby, too. If you'reany kind of a father, you'll do what's going to be best for your child.Give him a future.'

'But, Sweetheart! No playing cards, no roulette,not even bingo! I'll die!'

'Nonsense! You can still do all of those things,just don't bet on them.'

'But that's what makes it fun!'

'Ponzo, shut up and take it like a man. Fine. Gamble away all your money, see what I care. But I swear, the moment your back is turned, I'm going to smack you in the back of the head with a piece of stove-wood and then I'll leave you and go back to Papa. He'll take care of the baby, at least.'

The wretched man smoothed back his hair, which he hadtorn in his grief, and lowered his hands, which were clenching and relaxingin agitation. He saw the determined look on his wife's face, and then he knew he was beaten. A good gambler always folds before he loses even more than he already has; a slow smile spread across his face, and then he nodded.

'All right, Dulcy. Have it your way; you know what's best,' he conceded miserably, thinking as he said these words: I am so utterly whipped. My Gabbiani ancestors are laughing at me. I thinkI'll go insane.

'That's my Ponzo,' Dulcina laughed, her expression softening as she wrapped her arms around her husband's neck and gave him the nicest kiss he'd ever had.

Ponzo's chances at retaining his sanity improved greatly.


And so the Gabbianis ran their shop as before. But Ponzo didn't gamble any more, just as he'd promised, with a little help from his wife: whenever he felt most tempted, she locked all the doors to the house and collected all the keys, which she hung at a belt around her waist.She watched her husband like a hawk and never showed any pity towards his struggles.

The money started to slowly accumulate, despite the natural downturns of the trade cycle, but the family was still nothing compared with the other silk bigwigs. It didn't matter to either of them. Their child would do all right, and that was what counted.

Dulcina grew as round as a hippo with a glandular problem, but she was still as vivacious and lovely as ever; Ponzo seemed truly excited about the upcoming birth as well. Everything was going fine.

Then, it happened: one fine day, the husband and wifewere sitting under a tree and having a picnic, soaking up rays of sunshine while basking under a blue February sky. The two were playing a silly game, trying to tickle each other, when Dulcina snapped:

'Ouch! Ponzo! You kneed me in the stomach! That's too rough.'

'I did not,' came the indignant reply as hesat up and crossed his arms.

Indeed, Dulcina realized her error, because that samepain came again, and his knees were good inches away from her.

'Oh, gods,' she swore, her eyes big. 'He's coming!'

'He's...coming? The baby?'

'Yes, you moron!!' Dulcina roared as she threw a grapefruit at his head. 'Don't just sit there gawking! Go get the doctor!'

'You mean...you can't walk...?' Fear madethe normally intelligent Ponzo a dimwit.

'Ponzo!! Does it look like I can walk?! Just get your deadweight carcass off the ground and get me help!"

Ponzo didn't need another word to be said; he jumped up and ran faster than he ever had in his life towards the doctor's,which, fortunately, was very close by.

Soon, Ponzo and the local doctor came rushing up to ascreaming, thrashing woman who was kicking bread and tarts all over the place.

The medic was an old hand at this kind of thing, and the delivery was as safe and swift as could be possible. After about six hours, he had pulled out a healthy, live, screaming baby boy. He wiped the blood and gunk from the newborn's eyes.

'See? I told you, Ponzo! A boy! Give him to me," panted the disheveled Mrs. Gabbiani, her eyes a bit drowsy from some painkilling herbs she had been given, lifting her head from her husband's lap and stretching out her arms.

As the baby changed hands, its eyes opened just a mere crack, a slit so tiny that it could barely be discerned. As it was being transferred and in mid-air, it did not gaze upon any human face.

The first thing it saw was the sky.


The little baby was named Setzer, and his first few years were spent like any child's: his parents played with him, he was happy, and he didn't have a care in the world. He had no distinction of the finer things in life: chewing on a wooden block was just as exciting as playing with a silk--naturally--scarf.

Things started to change, though, when Setzer first started to attend school--not some ordinary public place, but one of Jidoor's finest private institutions. Naturally, the school was made up almost entirely of the upper class children, kids with fine leather coats, glittering jewelry, and the fanciest bagged lunches cooked by gourmet chefs.

When he saw his classmates, Setzer lost all contentment with his lifestyle. He was still very young, only about six, but he was aprecocious child and knew of the fine name he was born into: why should thenouveau riche have such fine things while he, a Gabbiani, had to settle for middle-class? That old family love of the finer things sprang out with a vengeance. Little Setzer wanted everything his classmates had, the fineperfumes, the chic clothes, the fluffy little lap-dogs, everything.

And it didn't help much that the other childrenwere, as can be expected, quite cold towards Setzer, whom they saw as an intruder and a slob. Although the young Gabbiani was immaculate in his dress and hygiene, the children avoided him as if he had lice. He didn't dress asfinely, he didn't eat as richly, he didn't speak with refinement as they did, and for that, he didn't even deserve the time of day. Setzer underwent that vicious, bratty kind of torture that only little children can mete out, and it made him angry and confused.

One day after school, little Setzer, tired of being ignored or insulted, marched in through the door, slammed his books on the floor and stomped into the living room, where his parents were reclining.

'Mama, how come we don't have an imp robot?"

The question was met with astounded glances between husband and wife, but it didn't totally surprise them. Little kids often spout out nonsense, mostly just to hear themselves talk. Setzer didn't seem to be kidding, though.

'Hmm? What's that, Angel-Face?' Dulcina said slowly, breaking the awkward silence, deliberately using their pet name for their son; it always embarrassed him, and children usually aren't contrary when they're absolutely mortified.

Setzer's face--indeed angelic, with its smooth, strangely creamy skin, the slender cheekbones, deep hazel eyes, and beautiful platinum hair--wrinkled up in disgust, but he pressed on: 'Almost all ofthe kids at my school have these imp robots. They get them from the auctionhouse. They're ugly, but they're robots, and they can talk! They make them fight in a ring during recess until the teacher makes =91em stop. Why don't we have one, Mama?'

'Angel-Face,' Dulcina said soothingly, "we don't need an imp robot. They can't do anything except talk and bugyou and mess up the house. They bump into things all the time.'

'But all of the kids have them, Mama! Whynot us? Caiyrn Kathay's got five of them,' Setzer cried, rolling hiseyes.

'The Kathays have got more money than we do, sweetie. They've got too much money, if you ask me.'

'But Mama, we're Gabbianis, aren't we? We're supposed to be rich,' Setzer said, his face growing very serious.

'That was a very long time ago,' Dulcina sighed; her eyes flickered over to her husband and gave him a knowing glance, almost like giving a nudge in the elbow. Ponzo took the opportunity gladly.

'Delectable, would you mind leaving for a moment? I'll handle this,' he whispered to her.

'Don't you go egging him on, Ponzo. If you don't nip him in the bud, he's going to grow up to be a grade-A pansy, just like those other kids.'

'Trust me.' Ponzo gave his wife his most charming grin, one that under other circumstances would have melted her into putty in his hands, but she still remained on guard. However, her resolve hadbeen weakened somewhat, and she nodded reluctantly.

'I'm going into the kitchen and bake some cookies for you, Angel,' she cooed sweetly, running her hand through her boy's thick platinum locks as she passed him by. Setzer stared after her, feeling that something was up, but he didn't know what.

'Son, come here,' Ponzo beckoned, patting the place next to him on his overstuffed chair; Setzer ran over and snuggled his in father's lap.

'Now, Son, how much do these fancy little imps cost, anyways?'

'A million GP.'

What?! A MILLION GP?! That's outrageous! Who could afford it? If I had a million GP, I'd put it in a bank and...ARRGH! Curse Dulcina! She has brainwashed me! 'Hmmph! A silly waste of money!' Ponzo snorted, curling his lips up in a sneer.

'Why, Papa?'

'Son, let me tell you something. A Gabbiani doesnot waste his hard-earned money on such trifles. We're better than that."

'We...are?' Setzer's eyes shifted from surly and disappointed into shiny hazel beacons of hope.

'Yes, we are. We could buy some of these fancy little robots, but like your mother said, what's the point? They'd only break down, and you'd have lost a million GP. But we Gabbianis are smarter than that.'

'But if we're so smart, how come we're not rich?'

Ponzo was nearly on his feet, he was so excited; instead, he simply pumped his knees, making Setzer vibrate up and down: 'Only for a little while, my boy! We were rich once, and, by Stray, the Lucky Cat of Mark-Ups, we'll be rich again! Someday, someday, we will have a nicehouse in the north with a golden chocobo stable and we'll eat off jeweledplates. And then, I swear, we'll show those little idiots!'

'And their daddies?' Setzer asked mischievously, getting so excited now that he was bouncing on his own accord.

This time, Ponzo did leap to his feet, sendinghis little son sprawling off onto the soft plush carpet, roaring, his eyes glittering: 'Especially their daddies, those sons-of-bitches! And when you're older you'll be ten times as wealthy, and then we'll rub their faces in it! Wouldn't that be great?!'

A forbidding shadow appeared in the doorway, looming ominously over the now sober Gabbiani males. Dulcina held a large spatula inone slightly trembling hand, casting down her eyes so her son could not seethe anger fermenting in them. Ponzo paled.

'Setzer,' her voice was sweet and coaxing, "there's some extra batter on the bowl. Wouldn't you like to lick it off?'

The boy felt something was amiss, but he didn't care; there was raw cookie dough to be eaten, salmonella be damned! He flew outand ran into the kitchen, oblivious to a loud smack that sounded in the living room as Dulcina proceeded to assault her husband with the spatula.

'What was that hogwash you were feeding the boy?!' she demanded, accenting each word with a belt on Ponzo's head. Shereally was furious.

Ponzo, however, couldn't help but feel a sense of triumph. He had irrevocably instilled his son with the true Gabbiani spirit, and if passing on the family heritage meant being beaten by a utensil, he was more than glad to make that sacrifice.


Indeed, little Setzer took his father's words to heart, and school was not so horrible; he could take the snubs and jibes philosophically, knowing that some day, he would be richer and more powerful thanany of his fellow students. He would get the last laugh in the end.

As a result, the boy became insufferable, especially to his teachers. He acted like he was just as good, if not better, than anybody at the school--there's nothing more annoying than a child who puts on airs without anything to back them up with. He talked back, he complained often. There wasno doubt that Setzer, even if he wasn't a bright child, would always get passed on to the next grade; no teacher wanted him for another year.

'Thank you so very much, Ponzo,' Dulcina snapped to her husband one evening after hearing of her son's behavior. 'What a fine little dandy our Angel-Face's become! Do you hear that? That's the voice of the couch, inviting you to sleep on it tonight.'

Dulcina then tried to erase all of the =91brainwashing' her husband had inflicted on their son, but to no avail. Tears, talks, and spankings did no good, for Setzer was a truly stubborn child with a one-track mind. Eventually, she had to give him up for lost and painfully joined in with the universal consensus: Setzer Gabbiani needed something to curb down that ego ofhis a couple thousand notches.

That something came along in the middle of the school year, right inwinter. The silk shop suddenly went bust. To be perfectly fair, this was not Ponzo's fault, for he was a good businessman, but rather simply bad luck. There were too many silk fishes in the pond, and the demand plummeted through the floor, as did prices. Ponzo, knowing he was doomed, sold the remainder of his stock to a larger, more prosperous business at laughable prices. For one dreadful moment, it looked like the family would have to leave Jidoor, for the poor had no place in that town.

Luckily, Dulcina's father saved them. He didn't want his daughter to be miserable and leave the town she loved, and so he gave them a monthly allowance to live on. In addition, Dulcina became a working woman, a secretary for a rich glob of fat, Owzer. Her reputation never recovered after that and she lost some of her friends, but, despite the hurt and shame, Dulcinatrained herself not to care.

The same could not be said for Ponzo, however. Discouraged, defeated, and convinced he was a shame to his prestigious family name, the man slunkback and became a heavy drinker. While his wife worked--another insult--he stayed at home in the gray of the unlit living room, lying on the couch, a bottle in his hand, his eyes peering at things unseen. He was not the viciouskind of drunkard, the one who is a terror to his family, but the sad, soulful, despairing type. Dulcina knew this, and, try as she might to harden her heart against him, simply couldn't bear to leave him alone in the dark--she never even once considered filing for divorce.

As for Setzer, he didn't understand what happened exactly, but he did know that yet another blow had been dealt to the family status, and thathe could no longer take comfort in thinking about the future, now dull indeed. He was deathly embarrassed by his father, and could barely hold his headup at school, where the children continued to mock him: 'My daddy makes more money than your daddy!' Setzer had no retort to this jibe; somehow, 'Oh yeah? Well, my daddy can drink more than your daddy without passing out' didn't have quite the desired effect.

The men of the house drooped under a deep funk, with only Dulcina togive them any comfort, and then they were embarrassed when they went to her. But nothing lasts forever, and Setzer soon found a little spark of hope, quite by accident.


It happened late one night, near the winter's end. For some reason or another, young Setzer simply found it impossible to go tosleep. He then decided to sneak quietly down to the kitchen, where a quick midnight snack might cure what ailed him.

He was astonished to see a faint light flickering in the kitchen. He peeked around the corner of a wall and saw his father, bathed in the feeble light of a candle, head cradled in arms. Ponzo no longer slept in bed with his wife--not from any marital spat, but because he felt thathe no longer had the right to even touch her hand.

'Papa?' Setzer whispered, coming slowly forward. Ponzo's head jerked up, and he squinted at his son with bloodshot eyes. A sedated little smile crept over the middle-aged man's lined face.

'Hey there,' Ponzo mumbled a bit thickly. "What're you doing up so late?'

'I can't sleep.'

The father nodded his muddled understanding and pulled out a chair, taking care for it not to squeak over the floorboards. 'Come and sit up with me, then, if you feel like it.'

At first, Setzer felt like refusing, for he was stillembarrassed of his father and didn't enjoy being associated with him. Butthe look of abject loneliness and depression in the man's eyes touched the boy's heart, and he felt a desire to cheer his poor father up.

Setzer did not sit at the proffered chair, but snuggled up in Ponzo's lap, wrapping his arms around his father's neck. Ponzo put a heavy hot hand on the platinum locks which shimmered in the candlelight.

The boy felt something hard underneath his father'swaistcoat. 'Papa, what's that?'

Ponzo started, and he reached in and brought out a battered pack of playing cards. The man regarded them curiously, not recognizing them at first, but then a small laugh escaped his lips: 'Ha! These...these...My lucky deck! Well, how about that.'

'Are they old?' Setzer inquired, awed by the dog-eared, yellowing things; he had never seen anything so worn.

'I've had them since I was twenty. They brought me luck. I swear, my boy, I never lost any money when they let me play from this deck. Made me quit, though. Thought they were fixed.'

An awkward silence followed, with Ponzo lost in memory and his son not knowing how to respond. Eventually, Setzer broke the silence.

'Will you teach me to play?'

Ponzo glanced down at the boy in surprise, but a sly smile crossed his face. He knew Dulcina would definitely not approve of thisat all, but she couldn't have her way all the time. It was time to give his son the only gift he could offer: the family heritage and vice.

Still, Ponzo tread cautiously at first: he only taught the boy the innocuous, childish games like Rummy, War, and Crazy Eights. But once he got started, he found it impossible to stop. Sitting there, his son in his lap, his big hands grasping Setzer's small ones, he showed how to play such games as Five Card Stud and Blackjack, along with helpful tips on how to improve the odds of winning. The man's eyes grew sharp and clear; he looked more alive than he had in years.

Setzer's eyes sparkled in the light with this new understanding and pride for his father, who now seemed like the wisest man onthe planet, whispering arcane secrets that were only to be known between them. His father was no longer foolish, for he now had planted the seeds of a plan in his son's childish mind. Setzer realized that this knowledge had the potential to rid him from the dullness and dissatisfaction that plagued him.


Armed with his lessons of card-playing, Setzer went straight to work. He challenged his rich schoolmates to card games, demandingbets.

The other kids, gleeful because they knew that the teachers disapproved of gambling (though many played a round of Poker or two in the faculty lounge on the sly), accepted the games with gusto. Setzer proceeded to win game after game.

Setzer won because of two factors: one, Setzer, even at such a tender age, was wonderfully terrific with numbers and could count cards and money with ease; second, he challenged only classmates of his own grade level, and some of the other six-year-olds could barely count to ten. The children didn't have a prayer.

Even though they were rich, the kids at the school didn't carry much money with them, so the stakes were usually not monetary. Setzer didn't mind this at all. Fancy lunches, toys, and even clothes wereput up as bets. The lad soon accumulated a great hoard of expensive, shiny things, but he had the good sense to not show off too much, lest an adult get wind of what was going on.

Once, Setzer managed to win nearly a whole suit of brand-new clothes of the classiest, most recent fashion from a classmate in anafter-school game; he even won the boy's pants. However, when the loser came home almost starkers, his parents raised a terrible row: Gambling in theschools! Ponzo thought this was hilarious and nearly fell out of his chair laughing, but Dulcina, who wanted to cling to some modicum of dignity, pulled Setzer from the private school and enrolled him with the middle-class children in a public facility (after giving her husband the tongue lashing of his life, of course). The jig was up, and Setzer had to abandon his schemes; his new peers had nothing he wanted.

So the little plan in Setzer's mind had to be put away for the time being, but he was not discouraged. Soon, the little boy thought, he'd be an adult, and then he could start from where he left off. His father had told him that a good gambler had to be patient, and he was determined to prove himself a good gambler.

In the meantime, he practiced his game with his father--when Dulcinawas away, of course--and with himself when he played Solitaire. And on the weekends, Setzer went up into the shopping district and watched the fine people being fitted for beautiful clothes, his thin-bridged nose pressed up against the glass.


The transition from the posh private school to a lowly public one should have been difficult for Setzer, but, miraculously, it wasn't. In fact, Setzer actually started to like going off every morning to get an education, despite the lower standards, the underpaid teachers, and the second-rate equipment.

For now Setzer was accepted--more than accepted. The lack of pretension and snobbery was a change for the better, and the kids were friendly for once. Although he would have liked the place to have a little more class, Setzer cheerfully took the bad with the good. Besides, the casual air of the school lent the fallen-from-grace child a bit of its atmosphere: Setzer became less haughty and surly very quickly, though he never once lost his resolve to become rich again.

Growing up in these new, affable surroundings, Setzerrose to be one of the most admired, most popular boys in the school, and, by the tender age of fifteen, his reputation preceded him in all the local, humble haunts.

Why was this? First of all, Setzer still dressed impeccably, and his fashion sense blew the socks off all of his classmates. Second, the boy was rather handsome, in a delicate, seraphic way, and, whether it be fair or not, attractiveness attracts admiration. Third, Setzer was exceedingly intelligent and witty, and he had a biting yet refined, somewhat sarcastic sense of humor, though he still enjoyed a good cheap laugh--he was only a boy. And Setzer was friendly and easy-going, if a tad bit full of himself (he wasn't completely humble); he never judged anybody on first appearances.

These traits earned him many friends and admirers, along with a few enemies, but over the years, Setzer became great friends withfour other boys. The little group became notorious throughout the school, never failing to keep the gossipy girls full of delicious scandals.

Lorenzo Rivera was a red-haired youth of average proportions, the son of a blacksmith; he was the most talkative of the group, though not the most eloquent--he was too fiery and blunt. In fact, he could have been a more caustic, male version of Dulcina, and the other boys never hesitated to make fun of him for it. And what was worse, Lorenzo deeply admired Mrs. Gabbiani, if he didn't have an outright crush on her (he blushed and stammered in her presence). Setzer and the rest thought this too rich. 'You'd better watch out, Lorenzo. My dad's got a dirk and shovel stowed away under the couch and a secret patch out on the plains. I doubt anybody's gonna miss you.' Setzer used this line every time the groupcame to his house, and eventually Lorenzo became so embarrassed that he refused to set foot inside the Gabbiani home--the boys had to stay out on the front porch if they wanted to come calling.

Vardaman (he had no last name that Setzer could recall), affectionately dubbed Mandy, was the poorest of the group and the smallest, but quite possibly the most entertaining. His parents had used to be wandering performers in a carnival; they were famous in town as professional contortionists, actors, and puppeteers, and Mandy seemed to be picking up the family business. The boy, who was so dexterous and lithe that he seemed to be made out of rubber, could do the most amazing things with his limbs, squeeze through about any opening. And the voices he could do! Once Mandy got a good hearing of what a person sounded like, male or female, he could imitate him or her perfectly. He despised the rich and loved tormenting them,much to the delight of others.

Benoit Gaetan--Benny--the foreigner, a boy who had come to Jidoor from Maranda, rivaled Setzer in bravado, but his sense of humorwas much more puerile. A tall, burly youth, he played sports of all kinds and excelled at them. He loved boasting about his exploits, but it was not that haughty kind of boasting; it was a whimsical facade, full of humor. His nature was essentially childish; even when he reached adulthood, he acted like a big kid and remained unchanged until he died. He was, in a sense, the heavy artillery of the gang, because he was strongest and the best fist-fighter. But the thing Benoit was most famous for was his way with the girls, which will be addressed shortly.

Last and usually least: Joel Jarrgas, J.J. He was theodd man out in the group, unpopular, shy and quiet, and didn't talk abouthimself much. The other boys were fine young men and handsome; J.J. was not. He wasn't hideously ugly, but the circumstances of his birth were unhealthy, and the boy had a thin body, rather sallow complexion, a disproportionately large head and hands, deep-set, placid brown eyes and a heavy-browed, bullish face. Furthermore, J.J. could not read (he suffered from mild dyslexia) nor speak very well. His voice was deep and dull, maddeningly slow, and it took him a long time to finish sentences. This unfortunate trait made people--even his own parents, but they also loved him dearly and never hurt him--believe he was stupid, which was exactly opposite of the truth. J.J. had asa head on his shoulders as good as anybody else's, but his way of thinking was stunted, a child's logic with a teenager's knowledge. Young Setzerhad realized what many adults did not, and invited the boy to be a part of the little clique, where he would not be mocked, but protected. J.J., thrilled with the prospect, had accepted gleefully. The other boys had been a bit skeptical at first, but J.J. didn't bother them, and so they learned to like him. Besides, J.J. was useful at gathering information: he was inconspicuous, and, being a supposed simpleton, people never were cautious around him.

Setzer guided these four throughout countless misadventures; the boys became famous for their pranks, the town entertainment. They were the darlings of the middle-class and the banes of the wealthy.

Indeed, the rich youngsters of Jidoor were always thevictims of the little troupe's attentions, without exception. For Setzer,even after all these years, still had a rancor in his heart towards the young people who had mistreated him as a child, and there was always that senseof jealousy and longing that filled him when he saw the fop-spawn prancing down the street, sniffing down their noses at everybody who was not on theirlevel.

It was almost purely selfish: if he couldn'tenjoy living in the lap of luxury, then Setzer wouldn't let any of those haughty snobs enjoy their riches, either. But Setzer also intensely disliked the way that the upper class treated his friends--sometimes the affluent were truly mean-spirited and just plain cruel. A fledgling dandy once crushed a pet dog of Benoit's underneath his carriage and didn't even apologize. In fact, the boy had actually yelled at Benoit for ruining the copper-plated hubcaps while the dying mutt howled feebly in its tearful master's arms.

Keeping such instances as this in his mind, Setzer made up his mind: when he became fabulously rich, he would only look down hisnose at the snobs less wealthy than he, not the middle-class. But he wouldn't coddle the lower caste, either. The old friends he had he would clasp to his bosom and give aid to them when needed, but no more than that. Philanthropy, Setzer thought, made people soft and lazy and even more pompous thanever, rich bloated people giving out doles to people who would only squander the money anyway. Besides, when had he ever felt the kindness of a stranger's money?

Setzer and his friends proceeded to wage a campaign against their well-heeled enemies; however, they weren't indiscriminant. Those children who had not tormented Setzer too badly in his old school daysor those who had mended their ways and became kinder were spared the wrath of the dreaded quintet. Many of the rich were of either of these two types, and the foe was actually a very select group. Which was just fine where the gang was concerned, because it meant a small, solid, definite battleground for them to work on.

From the very start of hostilities, the boys trouncedtheir adversaries due to wonderful teamwork. Setzer usually was the one whocame up with the actual schemes, with some help from the others; J.J. was sent out and gathered the needed information; then Setzer, Mandy, and Lorenzowould put the plan into action, while Benoit provided protection and back-up in case of emergencies.

They never physically harmed the snobs they targeted;humiliation and more subtle forms of torment were employed. For instance, one day they would =91borrow' some of the wealthy kids' chocobos and takethem clear to the other side of the city; the next they would foster strifebetween one unfortunate victim and his or her girl/boyfriend--many couples were broken up by the sarcastic, biting words of Lorenzo and Setzer's smooth, cajoling ones. Benoit specialized in stealing a young lady's attentions from her beaux. J.J. mainly stayed out of the action, but he always had great fun, his low guffaws a victory trumpet after a successful prank.

But it was Mandy who was probably the most feared of the five--the small boy did the most damage and was the hardest to pin any wrongdoing on. One of his favorite things to pull was to pass by the door of the auction house and quietly poke his head in, careful not to disturb anything; when a person he particularly disliked opened his mouth to make a bid, Mandy would then shout out in a perfect imitation of the person's voice, "A MILLION GP!!!', quickly running away before he was caught, giggling madly all the while.

It was the high point of Setzer's young life; he never had so much fun. School was somewhat stimulating, the days were full of wonderful tricks, the evenings usually spent in the company of his good friends, and what was best of all, his parents never interfered.

Ponzo and Dulcina were definitely not thrilled with their son's behavior, but some of his antics amused them, and he never did any true harm--it wasn't like he was a hooligan or anything, terrorizing everybody and shooting things. Furthermore, they were both indulgent and practical parents. They wanted their boy to have fun--he was a good student and had waited out the bad times, and they felt they owed him something. They trusted that he wouldn't go overboard. Whenever an irate parent pounded on the front door or had the nerve to march in on her when at work, Dulcina's response to the inevitable angry complaint about Setzer and her bad parenting was always the same.

'My dear Mr./Mrs. So-And-So,' Dulcina wouldreply stiffly, her brownish-red eyebrows knitting together and her chin jutting out pugilistically, 'I am truly sorry that Setzer did (insert crime here), but what do you expect me to do about it? You have a child yourselfand know how stubborn they are. I could talk to my boy about his behavior and give him a whipping or two, but what good would it do? If he's made up his mind to do something, he does it. And, if you don't mind my saying so,I don't care what happened to your brat. If (s)he's anything like you, then (s)he probably deserved it. Good day, and don't forget to soak your head in the water-barrel outside. Things deflate when put into cold water, orso I hear.'

And when she got home from work, Dulcina would take her husband aside and say to him, 'Ponzo, I got another complaint today."
'Oh gods, what'd the boy do today?' Ponzo would moan, rubbing his eyes.

He always laughed when she told him, and said, 'By Bahamut, the boy's a true Gabbiani! Only we can think up things so clever as that!'

'You're both impossible,' Dulcina would snap. 'Setzer won't listen to me, and you encourage him. The boy's going to go too far one of these days.'

'Listen, Sweetheart, stop beating yourself up about it. You break your back for this family, but you can't do everything. Setzer's young and just wants to have a good time. If he does get into trouble, he'll have to learn responsibility on his own. You can only do so much.'

'I guess,' she'd sigh, 'but I reallywish he'd stop it. I can't stand much more of this...all that whining and bitching from those stupid, stupid people! Why can't Setzer get interested in girls or something?'

'Don't worry. Those particular genes will be asserting themselves very soon,' Ponzo would assure with a rakish wink. "Just you wait!'


The days went on, and Setzer's school ended for summer break. To celebrate their first evening of freedom, Setzer and his entourage went to one of their favorite haunts, a tavern christened The Scarlet Hart. It was a nice place, rather rustic, it wasn't as smoky as someother bars, it was charming, and the food was better than most. The boys were crowded around a small table, sharing a basket of breadsticks.

'Ha ha ha!!' Benny exulted, raising a tankard of strong, meady ale up into the air, nearly sloshing the foam onto Mandy's face, 'Here's to us for surviving another year!'

'I'll drink to that,' Setzer smiled, raising up his glass of deep red wine, the finest the humble tavern had to offer. Mandy and Lorenzo roared their approval, thrusting out their drinks, whileJ.J., who didn't drink wine because it made him too =91excited,' had tomake do with pounding the table.

Benny licked the foam off his upper lip and addressedhis leader: 'So, Swanky,'--Benoit's nickname for Setzer, a good-natured dig at the latter's fashionable dress-- 'We're young, handsome, and free. Free! What do you have coming up this summer?'

'I don't know for sure,' Setzer mused. Hepulled out a deck of cards from his coat pocket, opened them, and deftly flicked a card between his fingers contemplatively. 'My parents don't like vacations, so we won't be going anywhere. They might try to make me get a job, but I won't do it.'

'Same here,' Benoit concurred, nodding. "Hell's gonna freeze over before I ever get my hands dirty. Damned if myfolks'll take away my childhood. Me, I'm gonna play hard, drink hard...and love hard.' He smacked his lips with anticipation at the last sentiment, making a growling noise in his throat.

'Bah!' Lorenzo spat into his mug, his fieryred eyebrows arched and askew. 'I don't see why you even bother withthem. Young girls can't romance worth jack. Their perfume's always so heavy that you gag, their make-up's thick enough to stick a GP in, and the ones that aren't dumb are ugly. You're wasting your time, Benny. Gettinga job is better than screwing your brains out all day--which is what you'd do. Playing and drinking, my ass! You'll be so tied down, you won't have time for us, you traitor.'

'Oh ho HO!' Mandy chirped, his black eyes laughing as he punched Lorenzo in the arm. ' =91Enzo's in a badmood tonight. What's got your panties in such an uproar? No more school! That should make even you happy.'

'I am happy. It's just that I don't want to hear another cursed word about...Benny's... =91plans.''

'Oh, I get it,' Benoit hooded his eyes knowingly, 'you're just being snotty because you prefer Setzer's mama!!'

Everybody at the table had a fit of laughter, except for Lorenzo, of course, who simply sat there, his deep blue eyes frigid but a tight, acrimonious smile on his sharp-edged face.

'Well,' Lorenzo finally said after the others had stopped laughing, 'Setzer's mother is a much better prize thanyours, Benny.' He pointed out the tavern's window at a small,mangy mongrel that was limping along the street.

'OH,' Mandy roared, slapping the table, "BURN, BURN, BURN!! That's gotta hoit, Benny!'

Benoit sputtered impotently, obviously striving to come back with a witty and devastating zinger, but Setzer cut in.

'Come on, =91Enzo. Be nice. We all want to stay friends, here.' Setzer gave a complacent look as he stared down at the cards in his slender, long fingers.

'Wanna play a game?' Mandy inquired, gesturing to his friend's deck; Setzer shook his head.

'Heck, no. You guys know me too well. I'd get stiffed.'

Even though all of this was said in jest, every boy at the table knew it to be true. Setzer, albeit a skilled and suave player, had one fatal quirk: whenever he had a winning hand, the right corner of his mouth would inevitably twitch ever so slightly. This was not a problem when he played with strangers, but his close friends or the experienced cardsharps always caught the reaction and folded before a big win. Setzer had spent countless nights in front of his mirror, trying to get his traitorous face tobehave and be perfectly still, but with no results. His poker face was flawed, and there seemed to be nothing he could do about it.

As a result, Setzer never challenged his friends at cards; those games not requiring poise and stoicism were considered babyish. No self-respecting fifteen-year-old wastes his time playing War.

'Oh, gods forbid that one of us actually win a game against you, Gabby,' Lorenzo laughed, rolling his eyes. Setzer skillfully maneuvered a card in between his index finger and thumb and, with an adroit flick of the wrist, sent the projectile flying right into the other boy's face.

'Ow! Gabby, you jerk! Put my bloody eye out, whydon't you!' Lorenzo snapped, chunking the card back, but his aim wasall wrong. The card went five inches before pathetically fluttering back and landing in his lap.

'Will you look at that?' Setzer demanded ofJ.J.. 'No poise! No grace! All wrong, wrong! Isn't that sad, J.J.?"

'Very sadsome,' the large-headed boy drawled dumbly, an easy grin on his florid features. J.J. had a sometimes odd way of speaking. As a child, he had often liked to make up his own words and garble up phrases, and he still did so on occasion as a point of pride.

'Aw, look at that,' Mandy crooned, edging closer to J.J.. 'Lorenzo, look what you've done. J.J.'s lookin' tocry! Isn't that right?'

Before J.J. could reply, Mandy had shot up his hand and gently grasped the boy's jaw and started to move it while he said in a perfect imitation of J.J.'s deep, muddled voice, 'Yes, I'm gonna cry out my eyes, I'm so sadeous. Boo hoo! Boo hoo! Lorenzo's the most grunicious person in the world. Makin' dummies like me cry. For shame!'

'Lay off, Mandy. Unless you want a card in the face yourself,' Setzer remarked easily, brandishing a ten of hearts. Mandy thrust up his hands and scooted away, rolling his eyes in feigned terror.

'Oh, no! Save me! You'll gouge out my eyes! I'll go blind! We all know how much damage a piece of cardboard can cause!"

'Yeah,' Lorenzo barked, laughing appreciatively at the dramatist, 'looks like the cards aren't intimidating enough, Gabby. Why don't you try throwing a sheet of paper or a cotton ball?"

'Shut up,' Setzer said flatly, putting the cards away in the recess of his coat pocket. Mandy giggled and returned to the table, resuming the business of downing his drink.

After a few moments of drinking in silence, Benny'sbody suddenly twitched and his eyes went wide; he shivered slightly, raising his eyebrows and licking his lips as he announced:

'Get ready. There's a buncha honey coming our way!'

Lo and behold! Mere seconds later, a small squadron of girls, all of them from Setzer's school, made their way into the vicinity.

'Looks like we're not the only ones partying tonight,' Benny continued, appraising them all with an experienced eye from tip to toe--especially from the neck down. 'It's our big chance, guys! And there's more than enough to go around.'

'Go get =91em, Lust Machine,' Lorenzo said dryly. 'Switch seats with me, Mandy.'

The exchange was made, and Lorenzo was now sitting beside J.J. The redheaded boy drew the latter into a conversation, and both ofthem moved their chairs away from the table.

' =91Enzo, you're gonna miss out!' Mandy sang out, spot-checking himself in the table's lacquered surface.

'Years from now, I'll look back on this and rue the day I didn't get laid,' came the response. Setzer laughed; Lorenzo hated flirting and didn't care much for most girls, thinking that bothwere vapid, worthless, and just plain stupid.

Setzer smiled to himself, made sure that his long hair was straight and pulled back into a perfect ponytail, and then made himself ready.

For the dashing young man had his own method of dealing with the female persuasion: whenever a pretty young thing came his way, he would half-close his eyes, cross his arms on the table, and mold his face so that it wore a bored, somewhat surly, yet suggestive expression. He spokelittle and did not openly flirt; the affable Setzer now became a mysterious, discontented, laconic, aloof swain, and this drove girls wild. His body language cried out for something to break his boredom, and many girls would have loved to give the handsome, fashionable Setzer Gabbiani the time of his life. He seemed untamable--and what girl doesn't want to get a maverick and make him into her lapdog?

'Hello, ladies!' Benny called out merrily to the gaggle, raising his glass. 'Jenna! Dolly! Beatrix, you sexy thang! Care to sit with us?'

The girls giggled coyly, exchanging looks; most, if not all, of them knew Benny and enjoyed his company immensely. He was good-looking, with a good, muscular physique, a strong jaw, happy brown eyes in a boyish face and nice brown hair, kept short despite that it was the fashion for men to wear their hair long. He was indulgent and liberal with compliments, which were like popcorn to the girls' egos. And he had interesting friends except for Lorenzo, who was funny but had a mean streak.

'Only if you'll buy us something to drink, youbig stud, ' one of the girls called out in return, her eyes shining.

'Done, and done. Barkeep! Some refreshments for my fine little friends, here!' Benny shouted, snapping his fingers; thegirls gave their orders and then flocked around the boys' table.

'Hello, Benny!' several girls chorused, some leaning against him, some pressed close, one of them even got into his lap. Benoit laughed lustily, tickled one or two, pinched a few more, and started whispering into their ears, eliciting giggles, blushes, and cries of "You're sick!' accompanied by playful slaps.

Some of the other girls chose Mandy for their attentions. Mandy was one of those boys who was simply adorable: he was small and slender, his skin was the color of hazelnuts (very exotic), his thin, street-orphan face was dominated by two very large almond-shaped eyes, and his thick black hair was silky and hung in loose curls. The girls doted on him. Theyloved his humor, his tricks, and they thought he was just toooo cute. In mere moments, Mandy had them all cooing and laughing while he cuddled up like a puppy in one lucky maid's lap.

The remainder of the girls gather around Setzer, who was enjoying this turn of events very much. They asked him innocent, idle questions and prattled on and on; he would smile ever so slightly and nod, andon the rare occasions when he spoke he did so in a low, husky voice.

Ever since he had hit puberty, Setzer had loved girls. He loved looking at them. The curves, the lovely painted faces, the way they walked, their luminous hair, their scent, their dresses, the bodices, their long legs and busty chests--was there anything ever so beautiful, so poetic, as a young lady?

As he breathed in their perfumes and let his eyes andlips roam where they pleased, Setzer's attention was momentarily distracted by a cry from Benny's little entourage. He must have said something rather crude, because the girls squirmed and said, in perfect synchronization: "Ewww! You're so immature!'

Setzer had to restrain himself from laughing scornfully. He loved admiring girls, that was beyond question, and he had kissedquite a few of them, but his delectation was soured by the girls themselves.

The boy did not respect many girls his age; if it wasn't for his accursed hormones, he probably would have had the same attitude as Lorenzo. He disliked the way that girls imposed complete monogamy on the boys they dated while they themselves could have several beaux at once. Hehated the way they always wanted concessions: the man had to pay for everything. But the thing that he disliked the most was their conversation: girls could be witty, but they rarely were, and they talked about the most boring things. Who was dating who, clothes--sometimes interesting, granted--emotions, love, always love! And they were vicious towards the girls they didn't like. Forget the macho, violent treatment boys inflicted on one another, thesneaky, treacherous, malicious torments of vengeful teenage girls were a thousand times worse. If he had had his way, Setzer would have made all women,with several exceptions, utterly dumb. They were works of art, and like works of art, they should be silent.

To tell the whole sordid truth, the only woman well-known to him that Setzer respected and, yes, admired--though he'd never admit it--was his mother. He didn't blame Lorenzo at all; the boy had great taste, and knew integrity when he saw it.

'You think he's immature?' Lorenzo snapped, turning from J.J. to Benny's group. 'It's funny. How can you call him immature when you're all giggling like ninnies? You like it, and youknow it! You're just as bad. No, worse! At least Benny's honest--I overhear some of your snotty conversations in the halls, you backstabbing broads, and they're just as stupid as anything he's ever said. Immature!'Lorenzo spat on the floor. Setzer wanted to laugh and give a high-five, butvetoed the notion--he didn't want to lose his lovelies. Their winning ways had hooked him, no matter what came out of their mouths.

'Oh, shut up,' one of the girls, looking rather tipsy, retorted. 'We're just having some fun while you sit there, talking with that idiot. Don't you snap at us!'

'Come on, Lorenzo. Don't make waves, okay?" Benny pleaded, casting an imploring look in Setzer's direction.

'Zip it,' Setzer commanded, leveling his finger like he was going to stab Lorenzo with it.

'Kiss it,' Lorenzo growled back, slapping his keister; the boys and a few girls had a laugh at that.

'Now, now,' J.J. spoke up in his drawl, "no need for that. Let's all be friendlious, eh? Summer's here in all its glumptious glory. Isn't that enough?'

'Your little pal's got something, there,'a girl laughed, raising up her glass. 'A toast! To summer!'

'To summer!' came the collective cry.

'To wine!' Setzer crowed.

'To beer!'

'To looove!' Benny shouted, leering at the girls clustered around him.

'To Benny's raging manhood!' Mandy snickered.

'To swim trunks,' J.J. said softly, clapping his hands.

'Yuck. That's an image we all could have livedwithout, J.J.,' a girl giggled, sticking out her tongue; J.J. cast down his eyes and rubbed his hands self-consciously.

'And what about you, Lorenzo? There's gotta besomething you like about summer,' Benny prompted; all eyes turned to the red-haired youth. Lorenzo scowled, turned around in his seat and regardedthe table with a flat expression.

'To alcohol poisoning--may you all get it,'he said in a monotone, chunking his empty tankard at Benny's head.

Everybody, a bit light-headed from the beer and wine,erupted into laughter and continued their revelry, growing louder and more rowdy as the night went on. Mandy once even dangled from a chandelier by onearm, monkey-boy that he was.

'Damn kids,' the barkeep muttered to himself as he watched his property being abused--he knew what to expect this summer: chicanery, riot, arson, and vandalism! These kids were the worst bunch that Jidoor had to offer in years. He could only guess at what crazy stunts they'd do in the upcoming days.

Setzer and his little band did not disappoint. Over the hot, wild, primey summer months, they pulled the most tricks they ever had, and they had wonderful fun without ever getting into deep trouble (mostlybecause they could outrun most of the guards). But their greatest triumph, their best prank, was the first and last time they attended the Jidoorian Opera House.


Mandy's parents, being members of the Professional Actor's Guild of Jidoor, were given free season passes every year to any theatrical performance in the city, including the stunning productions at theOpera House. His little sisters and Mandy himself were also included in thedeal. So, one particularly sweltering, sticky day when the little group wassuffering from terrible ennui, Mandy proposed that they go see the last performance of a prestigious and popular opera, The Romance of the Dragon and the Star, before it went on tour. Nobody would have to pay a thing: Mandy had his own pass, his parents had gladly donated their tickets, and he had gotten his sisters' passes by promising to give them his suppertime dessert for a month.

Having nothing better to do and bored out of their skulls, Setzer and the others agreed. None of them had ever been to the Opera House--admission was outrageously expensive--and they all, Setzer especially, wanted to see if the place was as opulent as it was cracked up to be. Theyput on their best clothes, rented some chocobos, and off they went.

The Jidoorian Opera House was very lovely. It was constructed entirely of granite and marble in the shape of a great cathedral, complete with flying buttresses and rose windows of beautiful stained glass. The carpeting inside was either velvet or mink. The stairs and floor were gilded, and mirrors covered the walls. Setzer immediately liked the place.

Although the seats were free, that didn't mean theywere good. When the boys presented their tickets, an usher took one look atthe group before him and led them up to some balcony seats, where the middle-class patrons were relegated (the rich were seated on the ground floor), and sat them on the first row. The usher left without giving them the specialopera glasses, so while their view of the stage was unhindered, everything was small.

'Well,' Mandy whistled, rolling up his program and looking through it as he would a telescope, 'it looks a little better this way, I suppose.'

'What a gyp,' Benny mumbled, Lorenzo seconding; even J.J. looked disappointed.

'Come on, you uncultured swines,' Setzer baited, trying to cover up his own sinking feelings. 'Don't you know anything? The visuals don't matter--it's the music that makes these thingsgreat. As long as you know who's singing what, it doesn't matter how far away they are.'

'Whatever you say, Gabby,' Lorenzo shrugged, fidgeting with the scratchy starched collar of his coat. 'What's this thing about, anyway?'

Mandy flipped through his program and said: 'Here we are. =91Thrill! As you watch this timeless story of love, hatred, and betrayal palpitate on the stage! Cheer! For the heroic Draco as he strives to win the hand of his fair love, Maria! Boo! The fiendish, wicked Prince Ralse, who stands in the way of the two lovers! Swoon! When you see the beauteous Maria sing her timeless piece of passion, 'Aria Di Mezzo Carattere'! Cry bravo! To the stirring music, the smoldering, classic plot, andthe golden voices of the finest singers Jidoor has to offer! Munch! As you chow down on the tasty snacks from the finest concession stand--''

'That's not in there, Mandy...you made that up!' Lorenzo accused.

'Excuuuse me, Mr. Anal. Let's see...Nope. That's where it ends, unless you'd like me to read off the names of the actors. '

' No thanks. Well,' Lorenzo said, puffing out his breath, 'that certainly left nothing to the imagination.'

'Too many exclamation points,' Benny nodded.

'Shut up,' Setzer said good-naturedly, trying but failing to remain aloof and disgusted, 'and behave properly. This isn't some dumb play, you know. Respect, gentlemen!'

'Okay, okay. We'll be good--if the opera is," Benny grinned.

The great crystal chandelier that hung down from the marble ceiling turned dull and the footlights of the stage flared; all movement and chatter ceased. The overture began.

Things went started off well. As Setzer had foretold,the music really was something beautiful, and even Lorenzo seemed to be enjoying himself.

A strange quirk about opera: the music may be astounding, the scenes and costumes gorgeous, but the plot and libretto is almost always ridiculously stupid. Men with powerful lungs and voices sing beautifulten-minute arias merely to observe the fact that the sun has risen. The filler dialogue is horrendous(SOPRANO: 'Say you love me! Say you love me!" BASS: 'I love you!' SOPRANO: 'Truly?' BASS: 'No!'). Most of the people attending had been born and raised on opera and learned to overlook and even love its failings, but Setzer and his friends were fifteen-year-olds at their first performance. They wanted to be entertained, not enlightened.

A roly-poly man with a thin, finely clipped mustache and dressed in a fine suit stepped into the center of the stage. This was the main opera director, the Impresario himself, playing a cameo role. He began to speak, a lone harp accompanying his words:

The West and East were waging war...

Draco, the West's great hero, thinks of his love, Maria.

Is she safe? Is she waiting?

The Impresario then waddled off. Setzer felt a tap on his shoulder; he turned his head and faced Lorenzo, who was leaning over across Benny's lap.

'What kind of an introduction was that?" Lorenzo demanded in a whisper. 'It didn't tell you squat! There's a war on, and all this guy can think of is this Maria lady?'

J.J. furrowed his brow and pouted his lips, looking every inch the idiot, and he whispered gruffly in his dull voice, 'OperaBAD!' Benny and Mandy shook with pent up snickers.

'Will you shut up and behave? This is the Opera House, for the gods' sake!' Setzer hissed back; with glum, petulant faces, the others complied.

The red velvet curtain then rose up majestically, revealing the set of a rocky outcropping with billowy clouds in the background.The music changed to a heroic thrumming as Draco walked grandly onto the stage. He was a huge man with an abnormally large chin, relatively small eyes that looked to be outlined with charcoal, and ridiculously skinny ankles which the dazzling silver armor did not conceal. But the most grabbing thing: the man was fat. Setzer had grown up thinking that most opera singers were big, but Draco was the topper.

'WHOA! Look at that big honker down there!' Benny gasped--out loud. People hissed from behind them, telling the boy to shut up. Setzer didn't know whether to strangle the idiot or laugh;he settled on shooting him a nasty look, which was promptly ignored.

'Man, if this is the best the West can do...the East is going to win so fast,' Lorenzo whispered conspiratorially to Mandy, who giggled.

'Maybe he sits on his enemies and squamps them flatter than fritters,' J.J. suggested.

Setzer surreptitiously brought his leg around Benny's and gave Lorenzo a kick.

As Draco reached the center of the stage, three men on chocobos came dashing on from off-stage; one of them seemingly creamed Draco, making the man fall to the floor.

'Huh?!' J.J. gaped, back into idiot mode, scratching at his head.

'It's the East's Chocobo Death Squad!' Mandy announced, almost shouting but catching himself.

'If you want to kill a man, run him over with a chocobo,' Lorenzo concurred.

'Will you guys--?!' Setzer hissed, shaking with laughter but trying desperately to remain outraged at this blatant disregard of etiquette.

'Stop resisting. Join in. You know you wanna. Stop being such a prick and have fun! You can't mean to say that you're actually enjoying this?' Benny asked slyly.

Setzer raised his hands and let them fall limply to his sides in resignation. If they were going to act so badly, he'd might aswell join in on the fun.

Draco then began to sing:

Oh, Maria,

Oh, Maria,

Please, hear my voice!

How I long to be with you!

'Um, Draco, sorry to intrude on your little lovesong, but she can't hear you,' Setzer mumbled, rolling his eyes.

'Whew!' Mandy fanned at his face with his program, pretending to gag. 'That last note was way to low for any humanbeing to make by singing...I think he burped it. Lay off the garlic, Drac."

'Our hero, Sir Lardo: a big stinky love-smitten doof with weak ankles,' Lorenzo muttered, putting his head between his legs.

'HATE opera!' J.J. grunted, just a little too loudly. Hisses and threats of calling an usher followed from the increasingly irritable people sharing the box.

'You punks show some respect!' a man sitting directly behind them whispered angrily.

'Bite me!' Benny snapped back, making even Setzer snicker; however, the boys, not wishing to make any trouble, settled down.

After that lovely aria, Draco then sang for what seemed an eternity about his plans to attack the armies of the East, and severalother actors playing Draco's lieutenants joined in. A rousing chorus began.

Then after the battle-plans were made, the scene changed from the outcropping to the interior of a castle. A trio of handmaidens--all of them too chubby for Setzer's taste--warbled about their mistress, the beauteous Maria, and of her love for Draco, and about the danger of the Eastern army, which was drawing ever closer to the castle. Throughout these two scenes, despite many temptations, none of the boys said a word.

The bombshell broke when the scene changed yet again,this time to the outside of Maria's fancy castle. The Impresario informedfrom off stage that the forces of the West fell ('Of course. Lardo wasleading them,' muttered Lorenzo) and Maria's castle had been taken by the East's Prince Ralse, who had forced her into agreeing to marrying him. But her love for Draco was still steadfast, they were assured.

This song, Setzer realized by looking at his program,was the famous 'Aria Di Mezzo Carattere,' and was supposed to be beautiful. And it really was quite gorgeous, but none of the boys cared. When the song was introduced by the sounds of a harp, J.J. dropped his jaw in delighted awe and drooled: 'Durr...Are we in heaven?'

Maria glided gracefully onto the stage, and Setzer's eyebrows shot up; she was really was quite lovely, a slender wand of a brunette woman garbed in a gorgeous dress of ivory white silk.

'I declare this opera suddenly great!' Setzer laughed, leaning forward to get a better look.

'She is one hot mama,' Benny concurred dreamily.

Maria began to sing:

Oh my hero, so far away now,

Will I ever see your smile?

Love goes away,

Like night into day,

It's just a fading dream...

I'm the darkness,

You're the stars,

Our love is brighter than the sun.

'Gods!' Lorenzo snorted. 'Going into simile and metaphor overkill, sister?'

'Head...hurts...' J.J. whimpered; Mandy patted him on the back in sympathy.

For eternity, for me

There can be

Only you, my chosen one...

Must I forget you?

Our solemn promise?

Will autumn take the place of spring?

'Guys,' Lorenzo murmured weakly, slumping onto his knees, keeling against the balcony, 'if she sings one more metaphor...kill me. Just kill me.'

'I just don't get it,' Mandy whispered. 'Why's she pining for the big fat dumb guy? I mean, his huge chin would engulf her face anytime they'd kiss...she'd smother!'

'Ah, but you see,' Benny grinned, 'menlike Draco are in large demand.'

'Benny,' Setzer growled, 'if I hear another pun, I'm throwing you over.' Setzer truly hated puns; they werethe lowest form of humor in his mind, and sickened him to no end.

Maria continued:

What shall I do?

I'm lost without you

(Lorenzo: 'Woman, help thyself!')

Speak to me once more!

'If you're so desperate for him,' Setzer murmured, 'why don't you just get some bedsheets, tie them together, and use them to grapple down the walls?'

'Too obvious,' Lorenzo chuckled.

'And too complicated,' Mandy added.

'I don't care,' Benny sighed, leaning over the balcony. 'The dumber they are, the better, I say.'

Maria then walked up some stairs to the roof of the castle; for a few moments she stood there, mooning about with a lovelorn expression on her fine features, when Draco, resplendent in his armor, suddenly appeared.

'What the--?!' the five whispered in unison, drawing some very nasty looks from the row behind them.

'Gentlemen, I think it's obvious: if Lardo canget in, then the army of the East must be even more pathetic than the West's,' Lorenzo said, throwing up his hands.

'How did they take Maria's castle, anyway? With slingshots?' Setzer demanded; everyone guffawed silently at that.

Maria rushed over to Draco, and the two lovers started a slow, romantic dance. After a while, Draco then laughed gently (prompting Mandy to say, in Draco's voice: 'Ha! You've got two left feet, baby!') before disappearing into thin air, leaving a bouquet of roses in his stead.

'Whoa...that was fantasmigous,' J.J. marveled, 'Draco turned into a bunch of flowers!'

Maria scooped up the bouquet and pressed it to her bosom; she made her graceful way up to the highest point on the roof and started to sing again:

We must part now,

My life goes on,

But my heart

Won't give you up.

Here she tossed the flowers high into the air. "Jump after them!' Lorenzo hissed, prompting the rest of them to chant quietly, 'Jump! Jump! Jump!'

She continued:

Ere I walk away,

Let me hear you say

I meant as much to you...

So gently, you touched my heart,

I will be forever yours.

Come what may,

I won't age a day

('Um, sorry sweetie, but I've got a newsflash: you will.' scoffed Lorenzo.)

I'll wait for you always...

Maria stared off into the starry backdrop for a few seconds before her Chancellor came onto the scene, informing her that Prince Ralse wished to dance with her and that she needed to start adopting thespirit of the East.

The scene shifted to the interior of Maria's castle, where an elegant dance party was going underway. The heroine was dancing with a skinny, pale singer with extremely elaborate ruffles on his shirt and sleeves.

'That is not the villain,' Benny gaped. 'I will not accept that limp noodle as our villain! J.J. could beat up this man. '

'He dresses even goofier than you do, Setzer," Mandy twittered; Setzer brushed at his ruffles of shirt self-consciously, glaring at the small youth, and responded:

'Maybe that's because he's the only one who's got good taste.'

'Looks like Maria doesn't have much to choose from,' Lorenzo remarked. 'It's either Lardo or Frilly-Boy, here.It sucks to be her.'

The dancing below was interrupted by an Eastern guardrushing in and announcing that the remaining forces of the West were attacking the castle. And sure enough, two Western warriors rushed in, screaming "Attack!' at the top of their lungs.

'See? See?' Setzer pointed. 'Three kids and a dog can take this castle!'

Just then, a bellow of 'WAIT!' came from off-stage; Draco suddenly appeared from the shadows on a chocobo and proceeded to run over Ralse.

'What is with these people?' Benny demanded. 'Can't anybody ride a chocobo properly? I've never seen such horrible driving!'

'Not if you count that one time J.J. rode down Main Street blindfolded and no reins,' Mandy amended.

'Only because I was double-dared,' J.J. pouted, raising up his hands defensively.

'Okay, this is a little ridiculous,'Lorenzo sighed. 'Lardo there manages to ride a chocobo right through the front gate, taking only two armed men with him, manages to overpower the guards outside, tromp down through the halls without anybody noticing him until two seconds before he busts in, and then he creams Ralse--like nobody saw that coming--and...'

'Stop it before you hurt yourself, old bean," Benny coaxed, laying a hand Lorenzo's head.

Draco, who had dismounted, started to sing:


The lady responded with:

Draco...I've waited so long,

I knew you'd come...

'Took you long enough, ya big tub of lard!" Mandy sang out softly, mimicking her voice; the other boys shook with trying to contain their laughter.

Meanwhile, Prince Ralse belted out:

Maria will finally have

To become my queen!

'How can she become a queen if he's only aprince? I'm confused,' Benny frowned.

'Just give up trying to figure it out,' Setzer sighed, patting his friend on the shoulder.

Draco sang:

For the rest of my life,

I'll keep you near...

To which Ralse responded:

It's a duel!

The two men then engaged in a blatantly unrealistic but finely choreographed fight; they pussy-footed around each other and swungfluttering, weak blows.

'By all that's good and true!' Lorenzo spat. 'Just sit on him, Lardo!'

The stirring action went on for another minute beforeRalse, in a completely innovative move that no-one saw coming, threw a smoke bomb down on the ground, shrouding the stage in mist. When the air cleared, both Maria and Ralse were gone. 'Mariaaaaa!' Draco shouted in anguish as the curtain dropped.

When the lights came on for intermission, the people in the box stood up, grumbling irritably amongst themselves whilst they shuffled out. The boys dropped to their knees under the seats to make sure no snooping usher saw them and started to confer amongst each other.

'This,' Lorenzo said, 'is the stupidest thing I've ever seen in my life.'

'You love it,' Benny goaded, grinning widely.

'Listen,' Setzer hushed them, 'I suggest we move to another box. Those people looked pretty angry; I'll bet they'll get an usher here to kick us out. I think that place two boxes down doesn't have that many people. Let's go there. But keep it quiet.'

The boys sneaked their way into the desired seats without running into trouble.

'Hey, guys,' Mandy giggled, tilting back inhis seat, 'I've got a great idea. Wait till the opera starts again."

After a few minutes, everybody had shuffled back intotheir seats and curtain rose for the second act, wherein Ralse was draggingMaria onto the roof of the castle. The skinny tenor then burst into a vehement song about the terrible revenge he was going to have on Draco, taking his sweet time about it, too. It was then that Mandy made his first move, and thus began the group's most (in)famous prank.

For Mandy no mere mimic, but an excellent ventriloquist; he could, without cracking his lips a millimeter, twist his voice so that it appeared to come from any corner of a room. And now he put his talents to work.

As Prince Ralse sang, a voice, seemingly from one of the center aisles on the ground floor, shouted, 'Sum up!!'

The actor on stage paled ever so slightly, but continued his dread aria without breaking a note. Two ushers came up the aisle androughly interrogated a hapless fop who seemed to have been the perpetrator,since he was sitting in approximately the same seat where the voice came from; the slighted patron protested his innocence with rather ungentlemanly words.

Meanwhile, the five boys were nearly dying with trying to hold in their mirth. After he got his breath back, Mandy struck again, this time making his voice appear to stem from the left section.

'Mari-aaa, baby, yours is truly a butt that justwon't quit!'

The ushers made a mad dash over to the seeming sourceof the cat-call, but before they could ask a single question, another voiceyelled from the other side of the theater: 'Push him over the edge! The man's a limp noodle--even you could do it, Maria!'

Setzer felt a great rush of adrenaline and pleasure sing through his veins--this was too much fun. He leaned over and whispered suggestions to Mandy, as did the other boys, and the small ventriloquist had himself a field day.

The actors on stage began to sweat like pigs, but they gamely carried on. The ushers were driven from aisle to aisle in search ofthat damned heckler; Mandy even led them up to the boxes and back down again, giving them workout of a lifetime.

Ralse finished his piece and, with a relieved expression, exited the stage, leaving the wretched Maria all alone. The actress, quite shakily, commenced to sing dolefully about the terrible state of affairsand questioning whether or not to commit suicide. It was a beautiful, passionate song of frenzy and despair.

A wicked smile crossed over Mandy's face; he reached into his coat and pulled out a small silver flask, and, winking, whispered, 'Get a load of this.'

As Mandy chugged at contents of the flask, a revelation so hideously funny and yet so improbable formed in Setzer's brain. His eyes widened and his jaw fell.

'He's not gonna--?' Benny gasped, staringat the mimic.

'Physically impossible. Not even you could do it, Mandy!' Lorenzo affirmed. Mandy only bothered to cock one eyebrow knowingly as he put away the now-empty container; his cheeks were bulging slightly as he lay in wait.

Maria's song was at the apex of its emotion; her body was trembling with the effort and pathos as her notes rose higher and higher on the scale. Then, when she started to hit the very top note, her mouth opening for breath...


The trumpets sounded as Mandy was almost literally lifted out of his chair, but he had done the seemingly impossible: he had thrown his belch so that it appeared to be coming from the actress' mouth.

There was a moment of dead silence. Then Maria, whimpering quietly, slowly wilted to the ground in a dead faint. Another thump was heard from backstage (it was, unbeknownst to the audience, the Impresario,who had been thrown into a fine panic since the heckling started, but this was simply too much for him).

The wealthy people on the ground floor were petrifiedin their horror, but the attendees in the boxes erupted into resounding peals of laughter, including a certain quintet of fifteen-year-olds, who were on the verge of collapsing out of their seats. Mandy was showered with chokedpraises and weak slaps on the back.

Long after the other audience members ceased laughing, Setzer and his compatriots continued to gasp and gurgle. Finally, when he had regained his composure, Setzer looked up straight into the fuming, sweaty face of an usher.

'YOU!!' the man yelled. 'Get out!!"

He yanked Setzer and Benny out of their seats by the backs of their coat collars, while another usher did the same to Mandy and Lorenzo. J.J. quietly rose and obediently waited.

The boys were marched posthaste out of the box. As they left, the middle-class patrons, sufficiently impressed by Mandy's talents, began to applaud and stand up in their seats, a rousing standing ovation. Mandy grinned from ear to ear and blew kisses out to the crowd; Setzer andthe others walked out with their heads high and steps light. This had undoubtedly been their best trick to date.

When he became an adult, Setzer appreciated and admired opera and attended them regularly, but his very first opera always remained his favorite.


When the exiles had been unceremoniously tossed out the Opera House doors, they all erupted into fresh paroxysms of laughter thatleft them all sprawled out on the ground like hysteric butterflies.

'Man, oh man,' Mandy panted, doubling over and gasping for breath over his wet, choking laughs, 'our finest hour! That was great, just great. You know, guys, I think I've found out what I want to do when I get a real job.'

'And that would be...?' Setzer prompted, wiping his laughter-ruddied face.

'I'm gonna go around and attend bad plays--andthen I'll make fun of =91em while I watch. I'd make a stinker funny. People'd come from all over to hear me diss the play. Me, Vardaman the Magnificent! '

'I'd pay for it,' Benny grinned.

'Nonsense!' Lorenzo barked, slapping his hand on the ground. 'Don't be stupid. What kind of person would watch someone make fun of something when he could do it himself? Nobody'd pay forit! Well, except for Benny--but this is a boy who once paid to see a flea circus, so I wouldn't put much stock in his opinion.'

'Hey!' Benny shouted, 'The man said the fleas were really hard to see, and that if the lighting wasn't just right--'

'By Starlet's garters! There are no fleas, you moron! That's the point!' Lorenzo retorted.

'Will you two shut up about the fleas?' Setzer demanded as he rose, deciding to tactfully cut off the truly philosophical conversation. 'And Mandy, good luck in that little lifelong dream ofyours. But look. The opera's almost over, and when the rich people come out, we'll be bringing home our asses in buckets if they catch us. Let's all go home.'

'Good idea. Bye, guys. Have fun running away from the lynch mob.' Lorenzo rose up, brushed himself off, and sauntered off towards his rented chocobo.

'I'm gonna go get a drink and mess around a bit,' Benny drawled, rolling up leisurely, the others following his example. 'Join me, Mandy? You deserve a drink. Girls for all.'

'I'm game. With my brains and your beauty, what chicky could resist us? Le's go.'

After the two had left, Setzer turned and addressed J.J., who was still sitting on the ground, idly sketching squiggles in the dirt with a stick: 'You did good today, J.J. You're a funny guy.'


'We'd better get going. You want to ride back with me?'

J.J. nodded and clumsily hobbled over to his choc andmounted, Setzer doing the same. They headed towards the north, but they hadnot gone more than a mile before some children of about eight years or so dashed out, disregarding, in front of the riders.

As he wheeled his mount to a halt, Setzer noticed that the children were being trailed by a large, shaggy dog, looking rather excited and growling low in its throat, performing strange little pouncing motions at intervals. Closer inspection indicated that one of the children had something tied to a short length of rope which he was dragging behind him--and that something was squawking and beating feathers. It was a small pigeon.

J.J.'s mouth dropped open slightly and a small, almost inaudible whimper escaped his lips: 'Setzeerr...can't you make=91em stop? I can't watch.'

'Hey!!' Setzer shouted, riding forward and swiftly overtaking the imps. 'Don't you kids know anything? That birdcarries diseases...bad ones. Why, I once knew a guy who handled a pigeon once, and the next day he dropped dead. And that's not the worst. Pigeon diseases can make your eyeballs explode. They can make you go crazy, start flapping your arms, and eat bread crumbs off the dirty streets--Pigeonitis! You're all doomed!'

'Eeeeeeeee!' the children shrieked; the boy towing the bird dropped the rope and ran off along with his friends,which allowed the dog to pounce and start gnawing away. Setzer dismounted.

'Stupid dog! Get!' Setzer gave the mutt a good kick in the ribs, tugging on the rope and yanking the bird out of its jaws. Rover whined and scurried away after its masters, its tail in between its legs.

J.J. rode up and went over to Setzer; both boys stared at the bird. It was a plump, round thing sporting iridescent green stripeson its wings and a head covered with feathers of the same hue. The remainder of its body gray with some of its feathers tipped with white and black. Its tail and dorsal guidance feathers were ragged and wet with slobber; one wing thrashed feebly at the earth while the other one stayed immobile. It squawked feebly, its ruby-red eyes half-closed. Blood trickled out from several puncture wounds from the dog's teeth, and one leg was chewed up badly.

'Poor little thing, its wing's broken,' J.J. whispered, reaching out, but his hand was slapped away by Setzer.

'Don't! That thing's swimming with disease."

'But Setzer, look at it,' J.J. cried.

Indeed, as he looked upon it, Setzer couldn't help but feel his heart wrench with pity. He was not an animal lover by any means--he was allergic to cats and hated dogs--but he loved birds, always had since his early childhood. There was just something about them that appealed tohim. These creatures were not consigned to the surly bounds of earth, as most animals were; they were perfectly liberated by their ability to fly, go where they wished, see things that no animal could, not even most other winged things. Insects and bats and the majority of flying monsters never could fly so high as an eagle. They were not obligated to do anything and could roam at will, free from care. They were the freest creatures Setzer knew of. How he craved that license! And nothing was more tragic to him than to be laidlow from such a height, to have freedom stripped away. The pigeon was filthy and pestiferous, true, but it did not deserve such malicious treatment--noliving thing did, in Setzer's opinion, and he could not bear to see this poor creature in such a condition.

'Oh, all right, all right,' he conceded. "I'll get it.'

Setzer doffed his coat, pulling out a pair of gloves from its pocket as he did so. He put on the gloves and gently placed the wounded bird on the coat, wrapping it up in its folds. He then lifted the pigeon, to weak to make any further resistance, and brought it up to eye-level.

'Okay, bird, listen up,' Setzer declared with a glare. 'I'm doing you a reeeall big favor. If you mess upmy best coat, I swear, I'm going to kick your bony feathered butt all theway to Zozo. I'm already going to have to dip this thing in disinfectant just because it touched you--don't make it worse! Do you understand? Good."

As he made his way back to his mount, the youth heardthe soft sound of laughter from behind; he whirled around and frowned at the grinning J.J.

'What's so funny?'

'You. Talking to a bird,' J.J. answered innocently.

'Ah, cram it,' Setzer muttered, hoisting himself up into his saddle, taking the reins in one hand while cradling the pigeon in the crook of his free arm, 'Just for that, you get to play nurse.'

'No,' J.J. shook his head sadly as he mounted. 'I wish I could, but my mother hates pigeons. She'd throw it out."

'Do you think mine's in love with them?' Setzer demanded, but he amended when he saw J.J.'s face, 'Okay, okay!I'll keep it until it gets well. But let's stop by Doc Lee's place first. He'll patch up this little guy better than we could. He's just as good with animals as he is with humans.'

'You know, J.J.,' Setzer spoke up again as they continued their ride back, 'birds are the best of animals, the very best. They're beautiful creatures, and useful to boot. Just look how well-made they are!' He patted his choc on the shoulder, loving the rhythmof its moving muscle under his hand, and jerked his head towards the pigeon. Setzer also loved birds from a scientific point of view as well as aesthetic, and he loved watching and talking about them--he even had a special hilloutside of the town that was perfect for bird-watching. He used to take hisfriends there, but they did not share his enthusiasm, and they laughed at his inevitable ramblings and conjectures, never listening. Except for J.J.--J.J always listened and always seemed interested, even though the speech was almost always the same.

'I mean, they're works of art,' Setzer plunged forward, 'They're beautifully adapted for flight. Take this little guy. His bones are hollow and light, they don't weigh him down, and they're arranged so intricately. He's got great and powerful chest musclesbecause they're the ones that actually allow him to beat his wings with enough force to take off the ground. And his feathers! They're all arrangedthat each one has a different function. Some keep him warm, some are used for balance, others for flying. And as for this choc,'--he gave the big bird another pat-- 'his wings are too small and useless to get him to fly, but he's got lots of muscle and strong legs. They're great runners, and don't need to fly. Except for the black chocobos. Those can fly, but not very well. Their bone structure is lighter, you see, and their wings are much more well-developed. This guy doesn't even have primaries, but the black ones do. And the blackies are usually smaller, with shorter legs, and their much more aerodynamic--very sleek and thin. We're too heavy to ride=91em. And the big ones are so wild that nobody can touch =91em. I heard that once, way back, people could ride the black chocs, but not anymore; they're too rare and wild. Gods, I wish that wasn't so! I'd give anythingto fly, just once. Everything's just so free and unspoiled up there; a guy can do just what he wants. The land is boring. You can't do anything fun. But up there, I'd be having a hell of a good time. Do you think that humans'll ever be able to fly, J.J.?'

J.J. sighed and regarded Setzer patiently. The sky was another one of his obsessions, and the other boys gave it the same amount of respect as they did Setzer's bird fixation. How many times had Setzer dragged the group up onto the hill on a clear night just to look at a bunch of stars? More than they cared to remember. But J.J., as always, took it in stride and said nothing; he even actually enjoyed those times. Setzer gave him a lot more stimulation than most people.

'Well, if they ever do fly, then you'll be thefirst person up there, I'll bet,' the large-headed boy answered in his lazy fashion, casting his eyes up to the sky.

'Hide and watch, J.J, hide and watch,' Setzer laughed. 'Hey, I've got a proposition. Since I'm being such a nice guy, taking care of this stupid bird, after I get sneak him into the house--dad's always drunk on the couch and mom won't be home-- give him somefood, see that he's cozy, can I stay the night at your house? My parents will go nuts when they heard what we did today.'

'Sure. My folks don't mind. They know I never actually pull the pranks, I just watch.'

'You certainly helped us this time,' Setzerreminded.

'Ah, but I didn't ruin it. That was Mandy, allthe way. We'd love to have you.'

'I'm in your debt. You're a good pal, J.J."

'Seems I can't be anything else.'

Setzer snorted and urged on his chocobo, speeding towards Jidoor before their feathered friend lost too much blood and died. There's nothing in the world so vile as a dead pigeon, and Setzer didn't want to ruin his coat.


For a few weeks, Setzer wisely stayed very low-key inhis doings. As had been expected, word of the opera stunt had spread aroundthe city, and the upper echelons were quite upset about the desecration of the arts-- it took a whole week for the uproar to die down and dwindle away.

Of course, Dulcina and Ponzo found out about their son's part in the whole affair. Secretly, Setzer suspected later on in life,they were both extremely amused by the news, but neither showed it on the surface. Instead, Setzer was called upon the carpet and given a fine lecture on the respect of aesthetics, accented many times by the fact that he deserved a beating. And beat him they did. Ponzo hauled his son off by the ear tothe front yard, Dulcina marching in tow. When they got there, Dulcina reached up into a tree, pulled down a thin, supple twig, commanded him to bend over, and let him have it. The beating was not so much painful as it was embarrassing for Setzer; he was being whipped, which hadn't happened to him in years, in broad daylight for everyone to see--people actually stopped in the street to point and laugh.

Thus chastised and mortified, Setzer did not meet with his fellows for a while. No doubt they had all gone through similar punishment. But when they did finally congregate about three weeks later, near thesummer vacation's close, the boys began to discuss the usual matter: revenge.

During that summer, an affluent man named Ruadh (few people ever knew whether this was the first or last name; Setzer himself never found out) had moved to Jidoor from Vector, the capital city of a smallempire on the Southern Continent. In actuality, Ruadh had a double-citizenship: he still belonged to the Empire, but had been drawn to Setzer's hometown by the lure of its refinement and elegance. It was like a summer retreat; Ruadh had tired of Vector and wanted a change of surroundings. So he came with a small bodyguard of Imperial soldiers and settled right in.

Setzer never knew how Ruadh treated those of his own ilk. The man could have been downright decent sometimes, for all he could figure. But the boy immediately hated Ruadh the from the very moment he even heard of his existence, let alone seen him.

It started like this: Dulcina's employer Owzer was celebrated for his fine art collection which was almost like a small museum of the best paintings from all over the world. Sometimes he would sell the pieces that no longer interested him. Ruadh came to the connoisseur's mansion one day as a prospective buyer, where he was met by the secretary (Dulcina), who politely told him to wait a few moments before Owzer granted an audience.

As he waited, Ruadh began to make passes at the middle-aged but still quite pleasing to look at secretary. When Dulcina rebuffed him curtly, he started snapping the most vile insults at her, calling her, amongst other things, a gray old puffed-up, priggish has-been of a harlot. Dulcina never spoke of the incident to her family, but Setzer found it out several days later when he met one of Owzer's stewards on the street and became engaged in idle conversation. The man blurted out the entire story, and Setzer immediately summoned an emergency meeting at The Scarlet Hart, where he informed the other boys of the crime.

'Hey, I think I know this jerk,' Benny mused after Setzer had finished speaking, 'Ruadh, his name was? Hmmm...I remember! A few days ago, me and Mandy were walking down the street, minding our own business, when this prick--he was going the other way-- with two bodyguards in funky-ass armor comes right at us. They didn't even move off to the side! They just barreled over us. Made me lose my balance, and I accidentally shoved Mandy right into the gutter.'

'It took my mom a whole afternoon to scrape the mud off,' Mandy appended.

Lorenzo brought his fist crashing down onto the tabletop and nearly yelled, 'That tears it! When that motherfucker insults alady--he's gone too far! We've gotta strike back. Reprisals, gentlemen!'

'You've insulted lots of gals, Lorenzo...you certainly aren't doing it for chivalry, let me tell ya,' Benny grinned, giving the outraged youth a nudge. Lorenzo raised his hand for punch, but Setzer restrained him.

'Lay off, Ben-wah,' Setzer admonished. ' =91Enzo's right. He can't get away with it, and he isn't going to. But we're not going to egg his house--that's letting him off too easy. We need to stick to him where it hurts. What would hurt him themost?'

The boys sipped silently at their drinks (J.J. had tea) for a few long moments as they brain-stormed, when J.J. finally spoke up quietly.

'I think I've seen this Ruadh's carriage before. It is loaded with wells and bistles, and it has shineous gold hubcaps covered with jewels. He was boasting about them as I was passing by, saying how great and expensive they were. He was very proudsome of them.'

Setzer's deep hazel eyes lit up with the fires of vindication and a smile formed on his lips. 'Well, then Ruadh's going to be quite surprised when he finds one day that his oh-so-precious hubcaps have just vanished into thin air. What say you, gentlemen?'

'Let's throw them into the river,' Benny suggested.

'Pawn =91em,' spoke Mandy.

'Piss in them,' Lorenzo said, spitting viciously at the ground.

Setzer laughed heartily at this advice before lookingpointedly at J.J. and ordering, 'You know what to do. Tomorrow you'll ask around, find out where he lives. Then find out the soonest time when he'll be gone from the house--without taking the carriage, of course.'

Lorenzo gave a harsh, mirthless laugh as he cracked his knuckles, and his voice sounded like a message of doom.

'Let's teach him not to screw with us.'


Two days passed. J.J located Ruadh's house and had gleaned a riding schedule from a boy who worked in the rich man's chocobo stables. Ruadh actually had two carriages, the golden hubcapped one for riding in the city, and another less elaborate one, for excursions in the countryside. Ruadh also, without fail, took his family on joyrides across the surrounding plains once every week.

On the third day, which, J.J. reported, was the allotted day for the trip, Setzer led his comrades into the northern district; every one of them concealed assorted tools underneath their clothes.

The chocobo stables/garage was located behind Ruadh's lavish, gargantuan mansion, and they were enclosed behind an iron-barred gate. The boys positioned themselves on top of a neighboring wall where their view of the back gates was unobstructed but at such a distance that they wouldn't be noticed when the carriage rolled out.

After about an hour of waiting, the doors of the garage burst open, and the coach rumbled past. The youths scrambled down the wall and halted in front of the gate.

Mandy, with a little difficulty and a lot of pushing, squeezed through the bars, and, using a hairpin, unlocked the latch. Setzer and the other three moved in, taking care not to jiggle or jar the rather creaky gates, and soon they reached the garage. Setzer pressed his ear up against the wooden door, listening for any indication of human movement, but all he discerned was the faint warking of chocs. He nodded, and Mandy used his magical hairpin to unlock the door.

Cautiously cracking the entrance open, Setzer peeped in and the apparent lack of humanity was confirmed. All he could see were chocobos in their stables, and, at the very back of the building, was the coveted carriage.

The quintet silently surrounded the cart, taking the precaution not to disturb any chocobos on their way. They brought out their tools: screwdrivers, jacks, wrenches, even a hammer or two--you never knew when you needed one--and proceeded to dismantle the wheels, Setzer, Mandy, Benny, and Lorenzo working individually with J.J. as the watchman

Mandy's size turned against him now. The boy was not very strong, and he had a devil of a time getting the recalcitrant lynch-pins out of his wheel. J.J. abandoned his post to give assistance, intendingto return as soon as the pins were out. Everyone was totally engrossed in their work.

'What the hell are you doing?!!!'

Setzer shouted and jerked his head up, cracking his head on the wheel well of the carriage; he staggered up into a standing position and, through the bright lights flashing before his eyes, he faced the owner of the voice: Ruadh.

The other carriage had broken an axle a small ways outside of town, and the man had taken one of the chocobos back to retrieve a replacement, only to find five hooligans dismantling his prized coach.

Now Ruadh stood before them, a small, thin whip, usedmainly on chocobos, grasped in one of his hands. He was tall but stocky, and the great, hard-packed muscles of his sloping shoulders and big forearms rippled underneath the cloth of his jacket. It was a cruel, bearish body, andhis face was sloping and stern and extremely angry.

The other boys got up and huddled around Setzer, staring with some defiance at the owner of the stable, a little frightened, but mostly feeling horrendously sheepish. They hadn't been caught at a prank in years, and they were embarrassed and annoyed at themselves for allowing themselves to slip up.

'What in the name of all the gods were you doing?!' Ruadh demanded again, fixing his small, beady eyes on Setzer, stomping a heavy booted foot on the ground.

'Well, Sir, we--' Mandy stammered, but whatever his response was going to be, he didn't get the opportunity to finishit.

'Shut up, you little ape! I wasn't talking to you!' the man shouted, uncoiling his whip; Mandy jumped back a few feet, almost as if he was anticipating the sting of the wicked metal bit at the end of the leather.

'Don't call him that,' Lorenzo shouted back, raising up his fists a little. The whip hissed as it struck, but the red-headed boy somehow managed to duck, and the bit passed over him, striking Benny in the shoulder instead, cutting through both coat and shirt, giving the skin an ugly scratch. Benny yelped and clasped his good arm over the smallwound, looking with rabbit eyes at the now-terrifying man before him.

'Mind your tongue, boy,' Ruadh snapped in aloud voice. 'Where I come from, if a boy talks back to his elders, hisis whipped. You people need to acquire some manners. Gods, you kids have got nerve! Trying to steal my property out from under my own nose. You little thieves need to be sent to a reformatory.'

Anger and fear churned violently in Setzer's chest as he stepped forward and said in a voice that sounded much braver than he was feeling, 'Stop it! I'm the one who put them up to this. I'm yourman. Leave my friends alone.'

Ruadh coiled his whip as he regarded the seraphic boywith an amused grunt. 'Ahh, I know you. You're that little lad Setzer, aren't you? They say that you fancy yourself quite the gambler.'

'I don't fancy I am such...I know,' came the rather heated response; Setzer tilted back his head and slitted his eyestruculently, but the only thing he received for his bravado was another laugh.

'Same here. You've got spirit, I'll admit that. But it won't help you much in prison, my boy. I'm going to press charges of attempted theft and breaking and entering on all five of you, and trust me: I will win.'

Setzer felt sick to his stomach; the other four boys paled and bit at their lips fearfully. Visions of the bleak brown walls of the reformatory school and the stone ones of the town prison flashed before their eyes. Knowing this man, he'd almost definitely seek to put them behind the latter.

'I don't want to go to jail,' Mandy whispered almost inaudibly; a small tear trickled down the side of his nose.

'Listen,' Setzer managed to speak calmly over the lump forming in his throat, 'it looks like we both fancy ourselves the gamblers. Correct?'

'Lad, I've been playing cards longer than you've been alive,' came the laughed reply.

'That so? Well, then, I'm sure you'll love this. My friends and I will replace your hubcaps and shine up your carriage for you. We'll even clean out the choc stables if you want. But here's the deal: how about we play for these hubcaps of yours? Since we both want them, I think that a good poker match would be a very enjoyable way to settle our differences. If I win, I get your hubcaps. If you win, you can turn me in. But leave my friends out of this. I'm the one who put them up to this. They just followed my orders.'

Ruadh struggled to resist this offer, but he was a true gambler at heart. He could no more turn down a card game with such stakesthan stop himself from breathing. Setzer amused him greatly. This little urchin obviously hadn't a clue about what he was getting himself into.

'All right,' the ursine man relented, 'we'll have our game tomorrow morning , ten o' clock, at the Peacock Plume. You know where that is?'

'Of course,' Setzer responded, a little insulted but greatly relieved.

'Very well, then. I'd put those hubcaps back if I were you, my boys--your ringleader isn't carrying them off today, and bloody likely won't tomorrow. You've got your own tools, I see. That'sconvenient. Now get cracking.'


That evening Setzer was nearly bursting with the rushes of adrenaline that coursed through his young body. It was extremely hard for him to stand still in one place for more than a nanosecond, but the boy had to act as if nothing was the matter. Even during an especially long (to him), torturous dinner, he managed to put up a calm facade throughout the entire wretched business. It simply would not do to let his parents on to whathad happened earlier in the day. Setzer didn't wish to get into deep water before the tide came in, and why upset his parents when there was a good chance that he would come out of it all unscathed? In fact, the youth's greatest fear was that some rumor or a slip-up on his own part would come to Ponzo and Dulcina's attention before the game. He was sure they would go into hysterics and do something idiotic. Parents could be such wing-nutssometimes.

Night fell, and Setzer holed himself up in his room, graciously released from the scrutiny of his parents, and bounced around on one foot like a crippled rabbit on amphetamines. He garbled to himself, flipped through books without looking at the pages, bounced on his bed. He had so much energy, he needed to burn some of it off or else he would never get to sleep.

Setzer may have been a shrewd, rational boy and mature for his age, but his youthfulness gave him a sense of security that could have been considered nothing else but rash. No thought of the chance that hemight lose the bet ever crossed his mind--it was almost as if he was dead certain that some higher power was protecting him, making him invincible. Besides, the boy had conditioned himself not to ever worry excessively about what might happen in the future, only what will. A good gambler does not waste his energy fretting away possibilities. Arrange and plan what you can to the best of your abilities and let the gods handle the rest, his father always counseled.

After a little more pacing and hopping around, thinking wild and grand thoughts, Setzer at last gave in to fatigue and promptly crashed down for the night, no worries or doubts troubling his youthful slumber.


The next morning, Setzer awoke at the crack of dawn, rising up before either of his parents was awake. He snuck downstairs, and silently had breakfast, taking great pains not to disturb his father on the couch.

While he ate, the boy propped a hand under his cheek and idly gazed out the kitchen window, which allowed him a fine view of the back porch. So when his four henchmen came unannounced up to the door, Setzer immediately knew of their presence, which allowed him the chance to quickly and quietly slip outside before they knocked and roused the house.

'Good morning,' he addressed them collectively in a muted voice. 'A little early for you guys to be up, isn't it?'

'No earlier than it is for you, it seems,' Lorenzo smirked; he was then given a good prod in the back by Benny, who stepped forward, looking uncommonly apprehensive.

'Listen, Swanky,' said the lusty Marandian,'we didn't all come up here just to say good morning--'

'I gathered,' Setzer remarked.

'Cram it and listen. We've been doing some spying, and--'

'You mean J.J. did some spying,' Mandy piped up. He tottered back and forth on the toes of his sandals but stilllooking a bit subdued, merely a faint copy of himself.

'Will you just shut up? This is serious! J.J., you try. I can't get a word in edgewise. But don't take a million years," Benoit snapped as he gave Mandy a shove that nearly sent the dark-skinned boy off the back porch. J.J. shuffled forward.

'Setzer, I did some research on this Ruadh,' the school idiot reported, his face a mask of concentration as he forced his words to come out much faster than the wont yet still remain intelligible, 'and this is what I found out. We all know he's from Vector. But doyou know his job there is?'

'He runs an illegal counterfeit underwear ring from his basement,' Setzer quipped, crossing his arms and leaning against one of the supports of the porch. Everybody frowned at him.

'Stop it. Please listen, Setzer,' J.J. pleaded, slightly peeved. 'Don't get smart. Anyways, I did a background check, and I found out this: Ruadh is an Inquisitor for one of Vector's largest prisons. He's one of the best they have. They say he could get a confession out of a rock. He's so well-thought of in the prison, they give hima large salary and that escort of bodyguards. They're Imperial soldiers, those toughs, but that really doesn't mean anything because the army also supplies the guards for the prisons. He's got no political connections, thank the gods. I think they just selected six guards at random and told them to follow him everywhere. '

'So? What does that have to do with anything?"

Lorenzo stepped forward, flapping his arms wildly. " =91What does that have to do with anything,' he asks! Are your wits addled, Gabby? Don't you get it? This man is a torturer. He's so used to grilling hard-skinned criminals of the worst kind that he's lengthened what probably was an already long cruel streak. He'll show you no mercy!'

'I still don't understand how that applies to me,' Setzer sighed. Lorenzo looked like he was going to have a stroke; J.J. rolled his eyes and also sighed.

'I guess I should have added this,' said the slightly deformed boy. 'I've got it on the best authority that Ruadh's got nerves of steel. He's usually in control. But if something really ticks him off--and that takes quite a bit to do, but no matter--then he just goes berserk. He's also very proud.'

'Will you people stop beating around the bush? Get to the point!'

'Fine, you big jerk, here's your point,' Mandy gave Setzer a shove. 'If a guy like Ruadh loses a card game to a kid, you, and you slip through his fingers, he is going to be pissed. More than pissed, I'll bet, if he has a few drinks during the game. He'd look like a fool before everybody--d'you think he could take it with grace? He might hurt you, Setzer. We're scared for you.'

It took a few moments for Setzer to digest all the information he'd been fed, and when he did, he was indignant.

'Are you suggesting that I duck this match? I don't do that. '

'We didn't expect you to,' Benny rebounded. 'But you've gotta be careful, Swanky. We're not saying you'll lose, but if you do win, then don't rub his face in it. Hell, I wouldn't even smile, if I were you. Compliment him, buy him drinks, kiss his ass! None of us want to see you hurt. Or in jail, for that matter. I don'tsee how you can stand it. You've got balls of rock, let me tell ya.'

'And a brain to match,' Lorenzo interjected. Setzer smiled at that and gave them a nod of gratitude.

'Thanks for coming over, guys. Now I know what to expect. That helps me a lot. You're a good army of darkness.'

'One turn deserves another,' Mandy grinned,the others following suit.

'We'll be there you when you arrive,' Lorenzo said, backing off the porch's steps. 'Good luck, Gabby.'

'Remember to be careful,' J.J. whispered, shaking Setzer's arm. The other two murmured the same sentiment as they withdrew. Their leader cracked a smile and waved at them until the quartet was gone from sight.

Setzer turned on his heel and made to open the door, but as he placed a hand on the knob, he ground to a complete stop.

Now, for some reason, he felt his confidence waning away, and he began to doubt his gambling prowess. Ruadh was no lightweight, formidable in his trade. Setzer now realized that he was at a great disadvantage, with less experience, less influence, and cursed with a bad poker face.A sense of panic rose up in his chest, and Setzer began to breathe heavily.Luck!--He needed luck, and in spades.

The now-doomed boy dropped to his knees on the woodenplanks and fumbled around in his pockets, presently bringing out a small charm cut from a single snowflake onyx in the shape of a cat in red enameled boots. This was Stray, the lucky cat of good fortune, of merchants, of politicians, of gamblers, and basically liars of every kind.

Setzer was by no means religious, not by a long stretch, and he did not know whether the gods (sometimes called Espers) truly existed or not--the universe could have been ruled by a giant chocobo, for all he knew or cared about theology. However, he was a bit superstitious; most gamblers are. Stray may not have existed, but if he did, then what harm would it do to ask for a little help now and then? Praying always seemed to have helped in the past.

'Stray,' the boy closed his eyes, clasped the charm between his hands, and raised his face as he spoke.

It was then that his mind drew a complete blank. He could not remember a single word of the official chant that doctrine prescribed. His mind raced furiously for a space, but to no avail. Setzer licked hislips and started over.

'Stray...Sweetheart...Buddy...Pal...It's me, Setzer. Listen, um...I'm kind of in big trouble right now, as you can see. Stray, I'm just a poor snot-faced kid that's gotten in over his head, but I really need your help. You see, if I don't win this card game, I'm gonna go to jail, but if this guy loses, all he gives up is a set of crummy hubcaps which I don't want anyway. If you have any sense of fair play, Stray, then give me luck. I don't ask for an easy win. A guy needs to conquer on his own merits and skill. But the odds are a little uneven, don't you think? Show some compassion. If you won't give me luck, then at least, just this one match, don't let that damn twitch ruin me. I've tried and tried to get rid of it, but it won't go away...Please do something about it. In return, I'll make you my patron. I'll devote myself to you. If I can swing it, I'll build casinos and banks and foster trade all in your name. This I swear. So please, Stray, even though you're feline, stand up for an underdog.'

A strange sensation of calmness and serenity washed over him. Setzer looked down at the charm grasped in his sweaty hands. Was itjust his imagination, or did a sparkle wink up at him from those glassy eyes?

It was the flimsiest sign of favor ever, but to Setzer it was if a mountain had been moved. Desperation drove him to clutch at any paltry thing available that kept him from despair.

Setzer sprang up to his feet and silently opened up the door, fully confident now he'd be home in time for lunch.


When the clock showed 9:30, Setzer slipped on his coat and called out, 'Papa, I'm going out with the guys. I'll be back at noon, maybe a little later.'

'Try not to get into too much trouble today, Son,' came the sleepy reply from behind couch. 'I'll have lunch ready when you get home.'

'No worries.'

The youth stepped out the front door and sauntered leisurely down various streets towards his destination. He smiled at a few people, waved, and made it look as if he had no cares in the world; the less attention drawn, the better.

The Peacock Plume was one of the most respectable establishments in Jidoor. It was a handsome building with a large, crystal-transparent front window sporting the place's name in elegant gold lettering. It was a light and airy haunt, filled with sun, and the smoke and smell of liquor were hardly noticed. The walls were painted a gorgeous deep shimmeringblue, the tables elegant and slender, the beer served in cobalt-glass goblets. The patrons weren't really that different from the others of their kind, sitting at the bar snockered or dining on fine but unhealthy foods, but they wore nice clothes and tried to vomit in the bathrooms and not on the floor.

When Setzer arrived to this fine place, he was met inthe entryway by his four friends. After greetings were exchanged, Lorenzo huddled them together and spoke in low tones:

'Things look grim, Gabby. He's in there, and he's got four of his stooges with him. All six of them were here, but two of them left and went into a nearby store. I guess he thought that all six ofthem would cause a little too much commotion--he's usually seen with justfour, anyway.'

'Great. Just great.' Setzer sucked in his breath sharply and pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes shut.

'Well, there's nothing we can do about it," Lorenzo said. 'But we'll stick by you. No fair-weather friends arewe.'

Setzer managed a smile and entered the tavern proper,his entourage in tow. Ruadh, sitting at a large table located before the sunny window, his four guards standing behind him, saw the group come in and raised a glass of water in their direction.

'You're early, my boys. Sit down, sit down."

'Good day, sir,' Setzer greeted in a pleasant voice as he pulled out a chair, eyeing the Imperial soldiers.

'Don't mind them.' Ruadh waved a hand dismissively. 'I have no intention of sicing them on you. It's just thata man can't be too careful. Even fine places like this have their share of brawls. I merely want a good game with no disruptions. Would you like something to eat or drink?'

'No thanks.'

'Then let's begin.'

Ruadh produced a pack of cards, and one of the soldiers brought out a container of Poker chips.

'Is there any particular game you would care to play?' the man inquired, shuffling the cards idly.

'Five Card Draw, if you don't mind,' Setzer replied lightly. Five Card Draw was his favorite version of Poker, and the game he was best at. He only hoped that he didn't betray any eagerness in his voice.

'Sticking to the classics, I see. All right. We'll keep the Jokers--I always like having wild cards in my deck. Makes itmore fun. '

Ruadh slapped the cards in the middle of the table and pushed a stack of chips towards Setzer before proceeding to deal.

At first the game seemed to be a stalemate, both players earning and giving up chips at roughly equal rates, but soon Setzer began to fumble. The strain, pressure, and apprehension of the Imperial soldiers(despite Ruadh's reassurances) were finally getting to him. He threw downcards rashly, exchanging them when it would have been wiser to hold on to what he had, he bluffed to disastrous ends, and he seemed utterly opposed to folding.

Setzer grew angry and frustrated; the worse he played, the more flustered he got. The faintest trace of sweat bespangled his brow, and a feeling of panic and doom crept over him, smothering him. He felt like he was drowning.

'Let's take a break,' Ruadh suggested after about an hour's worth of playing; Setzer felt resentful and insulted. He was going down fast and the man knew it, but he dared not refuse. In fact,he was a little grateful for a chance to gather his bearings in spite of the condescension that came along with it.

Setzer leaned back in his chair, tugged at the collarof his coat and undid the top buttons so that the cloth hung limply on his shoulders, and quietly asked a passing waitress for a drink. Ruadh engaged in idle conversation with his guards and with a few spectators; the game had received a rather large audience, and a ring of people now gathered around the table.

As for the four boys, they were, understandably, growing quite upset. Watching their esteemed leader undergo through such stress and panic made them feel guilty and worried sick.

The waitress carrying Setzer's drink, the usual glass of wine, passed right next to J.J., who put a detaining hand on her shoulder. He and the other three knew that drinking wine would only muddle Setzer's concentration further, and that it was foolish to let him have alcoholwhen he needed all his facilities about him.

J.J. stared up at the buxom lady with beseeching eyesand whispered in his sweetest voice, flicking a thumb in Ruadh's direction, 'Ma'am, I would thank you if you'd give the drink to that man over there. Say that it's compliments of all us four, and that we're very sorry that we broke into his stables.'

'But who's gonna pay? That boy placed the order, and if he isn't going to get it--' the waitress snapped irritably.

Benny came forward, placed a few GP on her tray with his patented woman-melting smile and murmured, 'Just do it, toots.' The waitress smiled, and as she walked away, Benoit gave her a pinch on the rump.

The waitress placed the drink in front of Ruadh and repeated what J.J had told her. Ruadh smiled and raised the wine appreciatively, toasting the boys before downing the thick red liquid in just one gulp.

Setzer turned his head and gave his friends the glaring of a lifetime, but to no use. They all sent him a look which said that every time he would order something to drink, they'd see to it that he'd never get a drop. Sighing and feeling utterly miserable, Setzer turned back to his card game.

Once a man who is playing a drawn-out card game has alittle to drink, it is usually hard for him to stop. Only a few minutes after quaffing the complimentary glass of wine, Ruadh ordered another. And another. This was to be his undoing.

For Ruadh, though still a formidable opponent, stopped playing as well; his sense of strategy was fuddled by the wine. Setzer found himself getting back some of the chips that he had lost, which boosted his confidence greatly, and he got a second wind.

After countless antes, raises, shuffling, and other tedious rituals of the game, the two players found themselves almost even, Ruadh holding only a few more chips than Setzer. It had been nearly two hours,and they both were getting fatigued--Ruadh because of his wine, Setzer because of the immense pressure.

'I tire of this,' Ruadh snapped. 'Listen, boy. How about a sudden-death match? The next hand, winner gets all. It'll resolve this much more quickly. What do you say?'

'Okay,' Setzer nodded. His heart was pounding hard and his vision blurred; he shook his head weakly and waited for the shuffle and the deal.

There is little etiquette between Poker players. The cardinal rule is this: Don't cheat. As long as person does not actually cheat at his game, he may act just as he likes. A man can bluff and lie and torture his opponents as much as he sees fit.

But now as Setzer gazed down at his hand, two Sevens,a Queen of Diamonds, a Ten of Hearts and a Two of Clubs, some deep gamblinginstinct in his bones compelled him to make use of the secret pockets stitched within the lining of his coat. Normally the boy did not choose to cheat,but now with his freedom at stake, he decided to abandon all morals. What would it hurt to just add a little something in his favor? He was a desperateman.

One of the many well-concealed pockets was located just below the cuff of his left sleeve. Setzer, who always held his cards nearhis chest so people couldn't look over his shoulder, quickly shuffled hishand as if he was deciding what to discard. He gave the most diminutive flick of the wrist while sliding one of the cards down as he flipped through the hand. His Two of Clubs magically became a Joker. No-one noticed the exchange, not even Ruadh, who was eyeing his own hand intently.

Setzer put down the Ten and the Queen and was given two cards in return; he picked them up, revealing a Three of Diamonds and another Seven. With his Joker, he had a four of a kind, a very good hand. The corner of his mouth tingled like crazy. O Stray, help me now!

Unfortunately, Ruadh caught the small, almost imperceptible tic, and was immediately put on his guard. But he also knew that he had drunk a bit of wine, and maybe that he was seeing things; he couldn't trust his eyes. Thus he disregarded his premonitions and called for a showdown, slapping down his cards: a full house.

Despite all warnings, Setzer couldn't resist the temptation to grin slyly in triumph as he showed his higher hand. Ruadh pursedhis mouth and opened and snapped it shut like a halibut out of water while he gawked at the table-top. Setzer continued to smile.

The man's face grew a hideous dark red, as if all the vessels in his face were about to rupture. Setzer's smile vanished likeice under the heat of his opponent's rage.

'You,' Ruadh spat, the juices from his mouth flying out and speckling Setzer's face, 'you...cheat! Cheat!!!"

Setzer felt his mouth go dry and tried to speak, but couldn't. No-one in the tavern even dared to breathe. Everybody stood stock-still, as if frozen.

'I'll show you to cheat with me, pretty boy!" Ruadh snarled, jumping up so suddenly and swiftly that the ponderous oak table was upset, cards and chip sent flying everywhere.

It was all so fast, yet so slow. Setzer saw the man's hands grasping for him, and for a moment he thought that he could dodge whatever was coming up. Yet, somehow, Ruadh slammed his fists into the boy's chest and grabbed Setzer's shirtfront in a death grip before anybodycould move. Setzer looked down into Ruadh's eyes and drunken, irrational violence in the glassy irises stared right back.

What happened next was a sheer nightmare. Setzer was thin and gangly; Ruadh was strong and powerful. The older man turned a little to one side, and then heaved Setzer with an extraordinary strength grantedthrough the power of pure rage straight towards the tavern's plate-glass window.

He had been thrown with such force, Setzer didn't have the time to raise his hands in front of his face--which was actually a blessing, for his acceleration was great and his angle was bad. If he had putout his hands, they would have been so pierced and shredded, the glass hitting bone, slicing through nerves, that not even the best medics could probably have saved some of his fingers from being amputated, if not his entire hands.

His coat, loose about his shoulders, flopped over andcovered his face, so he was spared the first horrible moment as he hit the double-layered panes, face first.

The world about him exploded in a horrible cataclysm of bright light and a screeching, horrible sound as the glass shards ate away at his coat. He must have blacked out for a few seconds, because the next thing he knew, he was on his back, right in middle of the street in front ofthe tavern.

For a few moments, Setzer could hear nothing, feel nothing except a swaying sensation in his face. The only things he could see were bright bursts of rainbow colors, dancing and fading in and out of his vision.

The rainbows faded away, and the scene slowly came into focus: he saw people crowding around him, heard the shrieks of women and shouts of men. But the thing that consumed his vision was the sight of the huge glass window all broken out, the crimson-tipped, jagged pieces of it strewn all around him, reflecting prisms in the sun.

Bemused and still feeling nothing, Setzer simply could not understand why the sun had suddenly blacked out, the light replaced bya film of crimson. He slowly raised a hand and wiped his eyes. When he could see again, he found that his hand was covered in sticky red blood.

The pulse pounded painfully in Setzer's ears, and he gasped for breath. This time another film covered his eyes, but it was black, swallowing him up as he faded from consciousness.


In the bar, the patrons remained frozen in their positions, most of them not even comprehending what had just happened. There seemed to be no connection between the windowless hole in the wall and the supine boy laying out in the streets in a small pool of blood, his nose swingingby the cartilage.

The tavern's eerie silence was broken by clamor from people passing by and a grunt from Ruadh. He made his way outside simply by stepping through the gap of his own making, clumsily avoiding the barbs ofglass, and forced back the small crowd of pedestrians which had formed. Theshouts died down to murmurs and whispers.

Ruadh looked down at Setzer and his face fell a little; the drinks were starting to wear off, and some realization of what he didbegan to dawn on him. Well, at least he'd taught the insolent cheat a lesson he'd never forget.

'That'll fix you, boy!' the Imperial barked, frowning down at the inert form below his feet, towering over thegrievously wounded youth like a colossus.

Nobody in the crowds moved, not even the other Imperials. Imperial soldiers were trained to kill, but even they thought twice before assaulting unarmed civilians in unoccupied territory. They knew the incident could spell legal trouble and foment ill-feeling towards any doings of the Empire. Ruadh had acted rashly. They did not want to have any part in this.

Setzer's friends stared at their fallen leader. They wanted to help him, had to help him, but fear of Ruadh and his guards made them mute and immobile. Mandy began to sniffle a little and his slender body shook. Benoit licked his lips nervously, trying to decide what to do. Lorenzo's face had gone totally livid, his dark blue eyes flashing in smoldering rage; he thought of thousands of ways for the man who had harmed his friend to die, but knew he had not the courage nor the means to act them out.

J.J. walked forward rigidly and gazed upon Setzer'sface, now almost indiscernible under a sheet of crimson, the blood oozing out from a myriad of wounds. Here was Setzer, the first boy to have ever treated him with any kindness, one who didn't make fun of his speech impediments, the one who shared his sympathy for a wounded bird. Setzer was his leader and protector, and this monster had struck him down out of jealousy.

Those placid, deep brown eyes shifted and turned wildas J.J., who would never have harmed a fly, a boy who had never entertaineda single violent thought in his entire life, began to stalk forward throughthe crowd in the street, clumsy yet silent on his shaking legs. Nobody called out to warn Ruadh. Too much had happened in too little time, and they simply gaped.

Ruadh was still perusing over his handiwork, so he never did see the boy with the oversized head reach down and grab a fallen tree limb from the ground. Balancing the cudgel in a big, soft hand, J.J. creptbehind the Inquisitor, graceless as a wounded Rhinox and just as deadly.

The club was lifted with agonizing slowness, but whenJ.J brought it down right on the base of Ruadh's skull, it was with deadly swiftness. There was a horrible crack, and Ruadh went down like a rag doll.

J.J. didn't stop. He lifted the limb and struck at the hated man's head again and again, beating bone into mere fragments.

A woman screamed, which brought everybody out of their shock-induced trances. People poured out of the bar and joined the others in the street. The Imperial soldiers rushed off into the store, and soon they returned with the rest of their number.

'What happened here?' the head of the guards bellowed over the murmuring voices, looking with wide eyes at Ruadh's mangled corpse.

J.J. leaned on his dripping limb and pointed an indexfinger towards the grisly scene. 'I killed your man, there,' he drawled, calm as ever.

'What?! What the hell are you doing?' Lorenzo spat, having sneaked through the crowd and now hovering near J.J.'s shoulder.

'Setzer's hurt bad,' J.J. responded slowly in a low whisper, 'and if we don't clear these guys out soon, then he'll die. I'll handle this. You get Setzer help.'

'What was that, boy?' the captain barked, advancing forbiddingly. 'Are you saying you did this?'

'Yessir. I did.'

There were some mumbles of agreement from the crowd. One of the Imperial soldiers marched forward and jabbed an accusing finger at J.J. 'They're right! That's the dumb son-of-a-bitch that killed Ruadh! Smashed in his skull, right before everybody's eyes!'

'You're coming with us, boy. You've killed acitizen of the Empire,' the head guard said in a nasty voice, producing a short length of chain from his pouch, 'Vector's gonna be your home for a while, I can promise you that.'

J.J. nodded easily and held out his hands; the chain soon bound them together. Lorenzo, seething with anger, came forward, but the other boy shook his big head slowly, turned away from the soldiers so he could face his friend ,and whispered, 'Don't make any trouble. I told you, I'll handle it.'

'Damn it, J.J.! Sometimes I think you really are a dumbass! What're you letting them take you away for?!!' Lorenzo hissed harshly.

'Like you said, I'm a dumbass. I got no future. No future for a stupid person like me--nobody'll take me. But Setzer'sgot good things waiting for him. He's smart, he'll be missed. Not me."

'But they can just as easily take Setzer, too! And then you'll have done jack-crap!'

'No.' J.J. shook his head, a knowing look forming in his eyes. 'They won't take Setzer. Everybody saw what happened. Too many witnesses for the Imperials to lie about it. But if they take a dummy like me--who'll care?'

'All right, boy, you've had your little =91moment',' the leader of Ruadh's train snapped, slamming J.J. against awall, administering a crack on the boy's head while barking to his troops: 'It's time to go.'

J.J.'s eyes beckoned for Lorenzo to come closer, and he did; the two were almost nose to nose.

The boy whispered, 'Tell Ma and Pa that I won't be coming home. And tell Setzer not to forget about the bird! He hardly feeds it on time.'

'You're crazy,' Lorenzo replied through gnashing teeth.

'Aren't we all?'

Lorenzo backed away as the Imperials shoved J.J. roughly into what looked like a metal stagecoach with bars over the windows--thecity paddy wagon, appropriated from the surprised local police force.

'In with him, boys, and watch out! He killed a man! He's dangerous!' the leader called out as he practically hurled J.J into the wagon. Before the doors closed, J.J. gave a wave with his shackled hands.

Lorenzo whirled on his heel and glared at the other two boys, who had only now just come forward.

'Some help you were,' the red-haired boy snarled. 'I'm real proud of ya. Let's see if you can't put your worthless asses to some use and get Setzer to the doctor before he croaks.'

The three awkwardly gathered Setzer up and hauled himoff towards Doctor Lee's. The throng murmured a little longer amongst itself before slowly dispersing, everybody crawling back into their homes.

A little while later, the owner of the bar came out with a large broom and swept up all the jagged, blood-spattered pieces of glass into a pile near the trash can, the shattered edges winking balefully in the setting sun.


The world was a palpitating, black abyss of chaos, where the only true constant was the sharp, piercing pain that enveloped Setzer. He was floating through the air, sailing at a fantastic speed, his heart in his mouth. He could not see anything, and he did not know where he was going; the darkness never altered.

Suddenly, he seemed to hit a wall, crashing through the inky depths as if entering into a mirror. The blackness now became transparent shards of glass, painted red at the tips. He found himself lying the street again, staring up at a painfully bright blue sky and a distant, unfeeling sun.

There was another jolt, and Setzer's eyes opened upa crack. The first rays of sunlight seeped in and scorched his vision, making him screw up his eyes. Then a tremendous wave of pain crashed over him, apain so excruciatingly sharp and throbbing that Setzer opened his mouth to scream, which brought another wave of torment upon him.

He felt that the horrible sensation would smother him--it was like someone was bashing him in the face with a red-hot sledgehammer. The boy could not breathe through his nose, and for some reason he could not see clearly through his left eye; it was impossible to open his eyelid all the way. There were patches of white around the borders of his eyes, preventing him from seeing anything in his peripheral vision.

Momentarily devoid of sight and feeling as if he wasdying, Setzer was understandably quite disoriented. He had no idea where hewas; his fingers could feel nothing.

A low moan escaped his lips, a raspy, weak sound. Something touched the top of his head, prompting the youth to painfully attemptto open his eyes again.

He was greeted by the sight of his father leaning over him, peering down at him. Ponzo's face was mere inches from his son's,filling Setzer's vision. On the father's breath Setzer smelled the strangely comforting smell of whiskey.

'Hey there, my boy,' Ponzo whispered, a smile both weary and joyful crossing his haggard face. 'Are you hurting?"

'Yeeesss,' Setzer croaked the obvious feebly before he began to shake with a succession of dry heaves so violent that his upper body was pitched off the bed up against his knees. Ponzo caught hisson and gently propped the retching boy against his shoulder; after the nausea had passed, he carefully brought Setzer down back on the mattress.

After he had ascertained the worst was over, Ponzo went over to the dresser and brought over a glass of water and a small packet.The contents of the packet, a fine white powder, were poured into the glassand stirred before being offered.

Setzer grabbed at the drink and nearly dropped it; his hands were bandaged, making them clumsy. His father took the glass and putit up to the boy's lips, gently tilting it back so that the liquid didn't gush down all at once and make him choke.

The refreshing, heavenly coolness of the water in hisparched throat did wonders for Setzer: his mind became clear and sharp. He recognized his room, now--he was in his bed. wearing nothing but a bathrobe.But he still couldn't remember why he was here or why his hands were in bandages, why his vision was hindered, or why his face was in such horrendousagony.

'There. It'll take a few moments for the medicine to kick in, but you will be feeling much better,' Ponzo said as he put away the glass on the nightstand. 'You were quite a mess when we picked you up from Doctor Lee's place, my boy. Your clothes were absolutely soaked with blood.'

'Why can't I see?' Setzer rasped, causinganother wave of pain. Gods, it hurt to simply talk.

'Your face's covered in bandages. You werelike that when we picked you up. All I can see is your mouth, eyes, and theveeery bottom of your nose,' his father explicated, the barest hint ofsmile forming at the corners of his pinched mouth. Setzer wanted to ask howthis had all happened to him, but Ponzo abruptly stood up and went over to the door.

'You've been conked out for three whole days. Your mother's nearly made herself sick. If she wasn't hovering over you as if every breath was your last, she was storming and weeping hell for leather all over the house. If we had a cat, I'm sure she'd have kicked it. She's finally gone to bed, though. I made her. But now you're awake, I'm sure she'll want to see you,' said the father to the son. He then cupped a hand around his mouth and called out in restrained but loud tones: 'Dulciiinaaa! Sweetness? He's awake now!'

The sounds of rapidly approaching footsteps thunderedthickly in Setzer's throbbing head. He lifted his eyes up just in time tosee his mother barge in through the door, knocking Ponzo to one side as if he were a bowling pin as she did so. She rushed over to her boy and swept him up in a febrile embrace, taking care not to jar him around too badly, but still making him wince a little.

'My boy,' he heard his mother whisper huskily as he propped his chin against her shoulder. 'You sweet, stupid, foolish, crazy, lovely, dear boy! How do you get into these things?!" Dulcina then broke away and held him up at arms length, and she stared atSetzer with a sad, defeated face.

For a moment, Setzer studied his mother's face; he had not been granted the opportunity to truly look at her closely.

Some women, when they grow older, get gray streaks intheir otherwise colorful hair; Dulcina had gone the opposite direction, herhair rusted totally gray save for bright strands of the original color thatsprinkled her temples, the back of her head, and the nape of her neck. Her face, still retaining the shadows of sweetness and comeliness, was dusted over with a layer of light make-up which hadn't been washed off for days, blurring her features to a slight degree. Her eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot, and the cadent tears had fretted channels in the make-up on her tight, hard cheeks. There was no liveliness in Dulcina now, and Setzer could not fathom how this person could have once been one of the toasts of the city.

'I don't know what to say to you, Setzer Gabbiani,' Dulcina spoke, her voice wounded. 'I should shout, I should whip you until the bones show. But I can't even get mad at you. You could have very well been killed.'

'Mmm?' Setzer shrugged his shoulders feebly, and, as his mother got the hint and let him lie down, he murmured, 'Idon't remember much about what happened. I don't know...I don't know."

Dulcina shared a glance with her husband, who sighed and counseled, 'We might as well remind him, Dulcy, and be gentle aboutit. He'd remember on his own eventually, and it wouldn't be a pretty sight.'

'Your friends came here,' Dulcina returned to her son, her voice steady but her chin was quivering, 'and told us that you had been hurt, and that you were at Doctor Lee's. When we got there and waited, they told everything. You had challenged a man to a card game over something silly--I forget exactly--and...'

'Hubcaps,' Ponzo added helpfully; Dulcina glared at him before resuming.

'They didn't know exactly how it came about, but the man got angry at you and threw you through a window.'

That terrible memory finally surfaced up in Setzer's mind, but now, awake and in the daylight, in the company of his parents, it didn't seem quite as terrible. The boy clutched at his mother and shuddered, feeling a bit ill; however, he soon recovered. He felt a tremulous sensation in his gut and his breathing was a little labored, but Setzer was far from hysteria.

'Oh,' he slurred, lying back down and staring up at the ceiling, 'now I remember.'

'Setzer, how could you do something so stupid?" Dulcina asked in an angerless whisper, 'Why did you do it?'

'Because my friends and I would have gone to jail if I didn't,'

'Oh, Setzer!' his mother cried, looking near the verge of tears. 'Have you no wits at all? Do you really think me and your father as utter incompetent nitwits? We would have worked somethingout--the other parents, too! We know how to deal with people like that man....Ruadh, I believe it was. Your father and I have encountered worse in our business: con-artists, thieves, ruthless cabals! We wouldn't have stood for it. Oh, my boy, it was the worst path you could have chosen!'

'Dulcy,' Ponzo coaxed, coming up from behind and rubbing her shoulders, 'It's all right. Setzer has been throughenough. The boy doesn't need to have his face rubbed in it.'

'I know,' his wife answered, rubbing a handover her features (further smearing her make-up). 'I'm sorry, my boy. Some mother I am.'

'It's all right, Mama,' Setzer squeezed her hand; he was filled with a desire to comfort her further, to make her laugh, to make her angry, anything to stop her looking so miserable, buthe had no energy.

'Well,' Dulcina sighed, forcing a small smile onto her face, 'I suppose there's no use in all this. Besides, Doctor Lee told me that your facial bandages need to be redressed every so often, or they start to smell. Ponzo, go downstairs and get me those rolls of gauze and linen strips and a basin of water from the den, please.'

She reached out and propped Setzer up into a half-sitting position, repositioning his pillow against his back. Then, delicately, she very gently grabbed ahold of a loose end of a bandage and, carefully butwith surprising quickness, peeled off the layers of his dressings.

Dulcina was so intent on making sure she removed the bandages without hurting her boy, she never looked at him until the coverings of his face were nothing but long strips in her hand. When she finally looked at Setzer's face, Dulcina let the crusty bandages fall to the floor. One hand flew to her face with a loud smack upon impact. She didn't say a single word.

This reaction definitely did not put Setzer at ease. Was he disfigured for life? Had the doctor botched up? He was terrified of finding out, but the horror of ignorance was too strong, and he impulsively flickered his eyes to the mirror above his dresser, almost exactly opposite of him.

His face, bone-white and swollen, was criss-crossed with ugly, throbbingly red slashes, puffed up and tender keloid tissue, some covered in yellowish dried-up puss. Most of the wounds were thin, short slivers, but there were also great, thick gashes which had obviously been stitched together. His chin seemed to have taken the brunt of the attack, sportingthree of those deep wounds, but a long crimson line meandered its way from his hairline to a few centimeters right above the center of his eyes. Another gash had located itself right on his left eye, almost swelling it shut; yet another wound marred the space underneath his right cheekbone. And the nose! Distended and looking like a bloated squash, two thin white cracks outlined its sides, as if it had been glued on with sealant. He was a walking jigsaw puzzle.

Setzer stared at his flawed countenance, tangled hair, and bandaged hands in the mirror dumbly while Dulcina staggered to her feet and called weakly out the door, 'Ponzo, while you're down there, goand get me one of those hot water bottles. Fill it up with ice-water, please.'

It was simply too much. Setzer lowered his eyes and groaned, 'Oh, Mama,' before bawling like a two-year-old. Tears leaked out--especially painful for his left eye--and trickled down his nose, which irritated his cuts, which made him only cry harder, which meant more pain to add to his torture, and...

Dulcina began to weep and rushed over, clinging to her boy, kissing the top of his matted head and moaning, 'My Angel-Face, my Angel-Face' over and over again, nearly ripping the seams of her corset with her heaving breaths.

When Ponzo kicked open the door, balancing a basin ofwater in one hand and a squishy water bottle the other, the dressings in his pockets and some in between his teeth, he walked in upon two complete emotional wrecks. Fortunately, Ponzo, well-experienced in the frustrations of big business, grew calmer when everybody else around him grew more hysterical.Except in the instance of going bust, crises made him think clearer and actwith prudence.

Ponzo looked at his sobbing family and quickly summedup what needed to be done. He set down the baggage and grasped his wife gently but firmly by the shoulders and made her rise as Setzer flopped limply back against his pillow, still crying.

'Hush, Dulcina, Sweetheart, hush...' Ponzo murmured gently, rubbing his hands up and down her back, but the clamor continued.

'By all the gods, HUSH!!' Ponzo bellowed, slamming his foot on the ground. Setzer and Dulcina gawked at him--they had never heard him raise his voice in years.

'Don't cry,' the former merchant resumed in his comforting, quiet tone. 'It's not so bad. Look.'

He leaned over Setzer and traced over some of the thin cuts, taking care not to touch them. 'Look at these. They're not deep at all. Why, in a few days, they'll be gone without a trace, and you'll forget all about them. And your nose looks like a fright now--it was barely dangling on by a thread when they found you--but Doctor Lee is a wizard. The man simply glued it back into place using some fancy medical procedure. He said that no permanent harm was done, and will be just like normal in time. Your hands were a little nicked up, but nothing serious. It'll be fine."

'But...but what about these?' Setzer demanded, nearly screaming, as he pointed to the wound on his forehead.

'I'm afraid that those can't be helped. You're scarred for life, my boy. Now, now, don't start bawling again. It's not the end of the world. Besides, I'm sure that those scars will heal over nicely. The stitches are going to dissolve on their own, and the swelling and redness will die down. They won't look so bad. In fact, the girls might think they become you!' Ponzo gave a quiet laugh, winking; Setzer wanted to hit him.

'Don't laugh, Papa!'

'I'm not, my boy,' Ponzo assured, his face growing very solemn. 'You had a narrow scrape. By some miracle, your coat protected any glass from severing your nose completely or lodging in your brain.' He jerked his head over towards the closet's doorknob. Hanging limply from it was Setzer's coat, its back totally slashed to frayed ribbons; the boy swallowed thickly, feeling sick again.

Ponzo noted his son's discomfort and decided to change the subject. 'Dulcy, I brought the things you wanted.'

Dulcina gave water bottle to Setzer, who promptly slapped it to his face. The coolness of the icy water inside felt lovely against his throbbing skin and he wanted to keep his head buried in the paradise forever. But he soon needed to go up for air, and he removed the floppy thing, grateful for the temporary relief from the swelling.

Then his mother, having washed her hands in the basin, gently wiped face and began to clean it. The medicine now began to kick in, and her ministrations did not feel nearly as painful to Setzer as they would have. He groaned a few times, but that was all.

After carefully washing his wounds, Setzer felt his mother comb at his disarrayed hair, so gentle with the snags that he smiled softly in delight--the wonderful sensation of the relaxing pull at his scalp was quite nice, and her hands were so cool as they ran through his platinum locks. As he smiled, he found he had no sense of feeling in the upper right part of his face. At that moment he knew deep down that his little twitch was gone forever, the nerve sliced through. He closed his eyes.

When she had finished combing, Dulcina snatched up the bandages and began to dress Setzer's face. It was then that Ponzo spoke up quietly:

'Dulcina, Setzer, I need to talk with you. I wish it was at a better time, but we can't wait.'

Setzer opened his eyes (the right one, anyway), and Dulcina, while continuing to wrap the bandages, nodded for her husband to continue.

'I have been thinking these past few days,'Ponzo began to pace around the room, hands clasped behind his back, biting his bottom lip. 'This Ruadh fellow--he was killed, Setzer.'

'But I didn't--' Setzer murmured lamely, feeling only a muted feeling of shock through his pain and fatigue.

'I know it wasn't you, Setzer. Everybody knows. But the fact is that a man was killed, and you were greatly involved in the whole mess. And Ruadh may have been the one at fault, but he was also a member of a respected and feared family here. I called several very reliable sources over to our house yesterday, good friends of mine, and I asked them about the situation. And do you know what they said? They all said that you, my boy, are in big legal trouble. Ruadh's family knows you didn't kill the man, but they also know that you started it all. They want you in jail, Setzer. The minute you walk out the front door, you are going to be slapped in the face with an arrest warrant.'

'But...it was only a prank...A prank! He insulted Mama,' the boy moaned.

'Do you think they care? Oh, no, I know this kind of people. They'll see you roast, no matter what. But even if you did manage to avoid going to jail--you did fix his carriage and sort of compensate for everything--they wouldn't just let you off like that. They'dhound you. Everywhere you'd go, they would say, =91Look, there's SetzerGabbiani, the court-dodger, the accomplice to a murder!' The lies they would cook up! The stories! My boy, you wouldn't get a decent job in this city.'

'They wouldn't dare!' Dulcina interrupted, jumping off the bed. 'They wouldn't! I'll kill them! I'll--!"

Dulcina then proceeded to storm around the room, yelling out some very unladylike words while her husband looked on with a mixture of shock and amusement. Setzer himself, as he watched her, found his mind wandering off to something very bizarre. He could see his mother descending upon Ruadh's family, swiping at them all with various pieces of kitchenware. The Frying Pan Avenger! Bringing pain and justice to all who dared hurt her family--

'What are you laughing at?' his mother broke his vision, looking down at him.

'Oh, nothing,' Setzer couldn't help but giggle.

'Dulcina, please calm down. Sit,' Ponzo beseeched, leading her over to the chair, 'and please listen. Setzer, as Iwas saying: Ruadh's family will simply not leave you alone. They'd always have you looking back, always regretting what you did. By the gods, I will not have it! No Gabbiani will ever give up his future on such a trivial thing such as hubcaps! That is why, my boy, you must leave Jidoor.'

'Leave?' the son and mother echoed simultaneously, sucking in their breaths.

'Yes. Leave. And I know just the place to go: Vector.'

'Vector?!! Husband, are you insane? Ruadh was from Vector! It's the most illogical choice!'

'Exactly. It is the least likely place they'lllook. Why would you go to the hometown of the man you fell out with? Perfectly nonsensical, and that family is very sensible. Not only that, butalthough the Empire is rather small now, its is growing...the Emperor is a very shrewd man. Business will be booming there. It won't be hard for our boy to get a job. The future is Vector. Also, I have a plan that will throw Ruadh's ilk further off the trail.'

Ponzo left the room; Setzer and his mother looked at each other helplessly. They simply had no strength to object further--they were too emotionally drained.

The father soon came back, holding a great atlas in his hands. He flipped it open to the picture of the world map, marked over with several pens which had traced silk trading routes, the port cities circled.

'Listen, here's my plan. Now, the easiest route would to just buy you a chocobo, put you on a ship leaving the port east of here and send you off to Albrook, where you'd use the choc to speed yourway to Vector. But I want you to drag your trip out. The more time that passes, the more the excitement and emotions will die down. You will disappear for some time, and people forget what they don't see. Vengeance very rarely lasts so long, and if it does, it usually grows so cold that they don't do anything about it. So this is the trip I suggest. We will get you a chocobo. Then you'll ride up to Kohlingen. There is a mountain range in between Kohlingen and Figaro Castle, but a train cuts through the thinnest part--it's how Figaro and Kohlingen trade. Once you reach Figaro, go to South Figaro. There you'll catch a boat to Nikeah. From Nikeah you'll sail to Albrook, and from thence to Vector. I am sure you will do well there--youare a clever, resourceful lad, and you'll have no lack of opportunities for a job. And even if Ruadh's family finds out where you are, you'll be so entrenched and so indispensable to your employers that they won't get to you. I feel it in my bones. '

'What about here? People're gonna be suspicious when I just run off without a trace,' Setzer demanded. A wide smile broke over Ponzo's tired face.

'Ah, don't be so quick to sell your old man short,' said he, arching an eyebrow. 'I have thought of that as well. As soon as you can walk without fainting, we'll send you off on the chocobo in the dead of night. People have been wanting to see you, but I've been turning them away--as I will continue to do so after you've gone. But just in case, I'll get one of the old store mannequins from the attic, swath its face in bandages, and put it in your bed, just in case some sneak tries to peek in through your window. After about a week, your mother and I willresume our business and say that you have recovered, but we have sent you to a reformatory school for delinquents--'

'That's not very dignified, Papa,' Setzerhuffed, a faint trace of insult appearing his apathetic face. Ponzo laughedand patted the boy's knee.

'You'll have many chances to regain your pride, my boy. Anyway, we will say you've been sent away as a punishment, and during the night to avoid public spectacle.'

'And what about Ruadh's family?' Dulcina pressed.

'I am pretty sure that they'll be satisfied with our =91discipline.' However, just in case, I will go to them and humblybeg their forgiveness and apologize for Setzer's behavior.'

'I'll go with you,' Dulcina said, laying a hand on her husband's arm. 'Sometimes, dear Ponzo, I think that the wine has utterly destroyed your brain. But it's times like these that I know that my manhasn't lost it all yet. I still have some jewelry that you and Papa have given me over the years. I haven't pawned them all. They're really quitenice. I have a beautiful ruby rose brooch that I'm sure they'll love."

'Mama! You're not just going to give them your jewelry,' Setzer exhaled sharply.

'Angel-Face,' she crooned softly, running a hand over his bandages, 'your safety is all that matters to us. We don't mind.' A resigned sigh blew out of her lips. 'I was too lax with you, I'm afraid. I spoiled you. If I had nipped your silly pranks in the bud, this would never had happened. It's bad mothering, just bad. And I'm sorry for that.'

'If you'd stopped me, I'd have resented it,' the son responded.

'I'd rather have you safe and resentful of me than this, darling,' Dulcina said miserably, massaging her temples.

Ponzo looked tenderly at his wife. 'Sweetheart, don't think like that. Now is not the time to look back on past mistakes. It won't helpanybody. Plan for the future and think of nothing else. My boy, you just focus on getting well and on the journey. Don't worry about us. I haven't worked out all the details yet, but your mother and I will hold our own hereand keep the dogs away. Leave everything to us.'

After a few moments of silence, Dulcina spoke up: 'You haven't had anything to eat for three days, darling. Would you like me to bring something up?'

'I don't know if I'll be able to hold it down,' Setzercroaked with a rueful half- smile.

'Once your father was sick with a stomach-flu,' the mothermused aloud, 'and I made him a milk-based soup that settled very agreeably with him. It's very gentle and great for stomach-aches. I'm sure that you can keep it down. Come on, Ponzo, help me make it. Rest, my boy.'

Dulcina gathered up the things on the dresser, the parents exited the room, and Setzer was left to his own devices. He turned his eyes up and blankly stared at the small cracks on the ceiling.

Would he be sad to leave? The youth pondered that question. What didJidoor have to offer him, anyway? Taverns and entertainment--but he could get that at any other town. An education? His school was no better nor worse than the norm, and learning could be had anywhere. Girls? Also everywhere.

The more he thought on it, the more Setzer realized that he really didn't mind leaving Jidoor. Truth be told, the only things he would miss were his little group and his parents. There was no future for him here, no opportunity to be successful; out there, with his intelligence and ambition, he actually had pretty good odds of making a name for himself. His father wasright. The future was Vector, where trade and business were welcome and young men in demand for hiring.

If I have any sort of Gabbiani blood in me, Setzer thought, I'll thrive. A warm feeling of satisfaction brushed away pain, guilt, and confusion as his old spirit reasserted itself somewhat, even if for only a moment.

He placed his hands over his stomach, linking his fingers together, and thought of the far-off lands he would see, the adventures he'd have--but he never let his eyes wander towards the mirror.


Evening fell and, exhausted as he was, Setzer couldn't bring himself to fall asleep.

It never failed. Every single time he felt his mind drifting off into oblivious slumber, the same vision always emerged: he foundhimself sailing towards that window, the dreaded glass rising up before himlike a nightmarish curtain, ready to slice his face into ribbons. And everysingle time when it seemed he was about to crash through it, he would jerk back into consciousness. No matter how hard Setzer tried to keep the horrible scene from re-enacting itself, it always came.

Tears began to sting his wounded eye; he thrashed theheavy blankets off his sweltering, sweaty body and stumbled out of bed. Each step taken made pinpoints of light explode painfully in his skull, and he leaned heavily against his desk.

He managed to collect his scattered thoughts after a few moments. As soon as the room stopped spinning, Setzer glanced down at the desktop, which at the present had a golden cage set in its center.

In the gilded-wire cage, which had once been used fora now-dead pet sparrow of Dulcina's, was the pigeon Setzer and J.J. had saved several days before. Doctor Lee had set its wing and patched up all thecuts marvelously, and the bird was practically well again; their bones knitquickly. During its stay, the pigeon had actually been very quiet: no flapping, no obnoxious cooing, no excessive mess. Now it looked up at the boy with wide red eyes and cocked its head, appearing a bit disgruntled, as it hadn't had any new food for three days, and its supply was running dangerously low.

'Hey, little fella,' Setzer mumbled with a groggy half-smile, 'You look hungry.'

As he poured out some seed along with a bit of grit, Setzer continued to babble: 'You're looking lots better. I'm gonna set you free tomorrow. No need to thank me.'

He watched the pigeon peck at its food for a few moments before a thought dawned on him: Why the hell am I watching a bird eat?

Setzer didn't know how the thought sprung into his mind, or why it disgusted him so. All he knew was that a sickening welt had formed in his chest, he was burning up, and that he had to do something or go mad.

The desk was situated right beneath his bedroom window; Setzer struggled clumsily with the latch before raising up the sash and punching open the outdoor shutters.

It was still summertime, but the nightly drafts felt cool and inviting. The boy yanked off his bandages, not caring whether he hurt himself or not, and leaned out the window, exposing his excruciating faceto the air.

Setzer's window was located above and a little to the side of the house's back porch, affording him a spectacular view of the dirt-paved alleyway meandering its way behind the line of homes on his street. There were no back yards; only the rich could afford that luxury. The rays from the brightly luminescent moon gilded the rooftops and the garbage pans with silver, creeping in and lighting all but the darkest corners. Setzer stared up and gazed at the orb overhead in the almost starless sky, tryingto think on how he could calm his jangled nerves and earn some respite fromthe constant pain.

Something whistled past his ear, and he heard a s small crack as something collided with one of the shutters. The boy glanced down.

An amorphous shape emerged from the shadows, but as it came closer and finally halted right in front of a patch of gardenias in the small back garden, it was clear who it was. Standing in view, sifting a small pile of pebbles from his hand, was Lorenzo.



Lorenzo stared up at Setzer's face. The whites of his eyes grew a bit larger in the moonlight, but otherwise he didn't seem in the least surprised or disconcerted. 'You look like crap,' the fiery-haired youth observed in a flash of insight, not shouting but not usinghis normal vocal volume either. "I feel like crap,' Setzer called down. He noticed a leather satchel slung around Lorenzo's shoulder. "What's with that? You going somewhere?' 'Yeah. I just wanted to stop by before Ileft and see how things were doing. You looked like death chewed over when we got you in Doc Lee's office.''Thank you, Mr. Empathy,' Setzer said flatly, but he smiled all the same. 'I'm all right. Mama and Papa all right. How're the other guys?' Lorenzo cast down his eyes, and his declined face became shrouded in shadow. Setzer felt a thin sense of alarm course through his body like an electric current as he waited for a response. He was about to shout at his friend to hurry up and cut to the chase when Lorenzo began to speak. 'Mandy and Benny are fine. Mandy's probably at home now.Benny's whoring around, I'll bet. I really don't know where he is. J.J.--' Lorenzo's eyes became strangely turbulent as he once more bent his head; when he looked up again after a few more seconds, his face was cold and hard. 'J.J isn't here anymore. They took him away.'An icy, numb feeling tingled sickeningly in Setzer's chest; for a moment, he was sure he would faint. His bandaged hands gripped at the sill as he struggled to keep himself on his feet. 'What do you mean? Who's =91they'? Don't talk in riddles, Lorenzo. Not now.' 'Fine. I'll tell you straight, even thought J.J. told me not to. When you were hurt, J.J-- It was like he went crazy. He got a branch and... he killed Ruadh. Crushed his head in like an egg. Splattered it everywhere, I swear--" Lorenzo spat out the words as if they were foul-tasting in his mouth, each word coming in rapid, harsh succession, broken only by the spaces when he tripped over his tongue. Setzer could not bear it; the words riddled him with pain. 'Stop,' moaned the scarred boy, gulping the nocturnal air, the coolness scorching his trachea. 'Hell, no! You're going to listen to this,' Lorenzo barked severely. 'He killed Ruadh, and then his Imperial bodyguards took him away, just carted him away."'Where did they take him?' Setzer queried weakly. It seemed to him that he was traipsing from one new nightmare to the next. When would it end? 'To Vector, no doubt.' 'Gods!' Setzer hissed abruptly; his breast becamefilled with inexplicable anger. 'What was that idiot doing? He always was such a shy guy. How could he do it? Damn him! He had to screw it all up--he didn't have to go to jail at all!' Lorenzo's mouth formed soundless syllables, while his fists clenched. The lunar light reflected in the burning blue eyes, covering the irises with silver disks, an argentine aureole blazed around the red-orange locks, and to Setzer's wild mind, he seemed like the very incarnation of a vengeful spirit from the bowels of Hell. Such an anger radiated from those silver-inlaid eyes, Setzer jerked his head back in terror. 'Man,' Lorenzo's voice quivered along with his wiry body, 'you are an arrogant son of a bitch! He did it for you! You were hurt, and J.J. thought you were dying! I felt like killing the man myself, but J.J. was the only one who had the balls to do it! You've got no room to talk! Who do you think started the whole damn thing?''Wha-aat?!' Setzer sucked in the word. 'So everything's my fault, then?'"Whose idea was it to break into Ruadh's stables and steal his hubcaps?Who cheated at the game? Don't start--I know you cheated. If it wasn't for you, none of this would have happened!' 'Lorenzo, I had nothing to do with it!' Setzer snarled, desperately trying to keep his voice in check. 'J.J. killed the man on his own. Dammit, I was unconscious! Why're you blaming me for something I had no control over? J.J. broke the law. I'm sorry for him, I really am,but if he killed a man, then he has to face the consequences.' 'You...you bastard. You coward,' Lorenzo growled, his words dripping. 'You're just like everyone else, running away when you know you've done wrong. It makes me want to puke. J.J. went to jail for you, but you wouldn't have done so much for him! None of us would have done it for him! Because he was dumb and ugly and childish, the town just let the Empire haul him off. I bet everybody was glad to be rid of him!' "Shut up, Lorenzo. I feel terrible about J.J., but he did break the law. But I'm sure he'll be all right. If everything happened as you said, then it was in my defense...can they jail him for coming to a friend's defense? Sure, it might be a while, but he'll be back. They won't have any legal grounds to keep him. In a month, it'll be--' 'Oh, the gods blast your bones to dust!' Lorenzo shouted, froth forming at the corners of his mouth as he flailed his arms and pounded his feet on the dusty ground. 'You're as blind as the rest! Listen, moron: J.J. Isn't. Coming. Back. I know how the Empire treats those who kills its own. It has no misgivings about hanging a fifteen-year-old kid. They won't give him any quarter. His lackings'll make them hate him, not pity him! They'll let him rot in a hole in the ground, stall his trial as long as possible, and when they do they'll give him a second-rate lawyer, convict him, and throw him back. And then...they'll do things tohim. Don't you know what they'll do to him? You're so deluded. And now you're running away. That is what you're going to do, isn't it? Skip town before the survivors skewer your ass. How can you live with yourself?' 'How can you?' Setzer demanded heatedly; he wanted to strangle nuisance so badly, his hands itched. Lorenzo had a nasty habit of making outrageous speculations about what other people were planning, and, even more annoying, he usually guessed right. 'You're running away, too.' Lorenzo once again mouthed the empty air. He looked like he wanted to throw something, and his hands clutched at the air.'I hate it here. I hate Jidoor. I hate everything about it. The prigs, the awful bars, the excesses, the loose girls, everything. The people just float along like puffy clouds without a care in the world, never thinking about anything but themselves. Gods, we don't even have any poor people here! We just kicked them out like mangy curs. Why? Because we're a city of arrogant, pigheaded, bigoted, callous--' Lorenzo's voice crescendoed greatly. 'Dammit, keep it down! You'll rouse the whole town!" Setzer cried in anger and terror. 'Good! I don't care! Let them hear everything! Fuck this city, fuck everybody in it! Fuck you, Gabbiani!' Lorenzo roared atthe top of his lungs. In the adjoining houses, lights appeared at the back windows; Setzer cursed under his breath and hastily retreated, ducking down below his window, his knees pressed up near his face. 'If there're any gods up in the heavens,' Lorenzo's voice wafted up inexorably, 'then may they all take vengeance on you, you damned coward! May Ramuh strike you down with lightning and hurl you to the infernal depths!" Lorenzo then proceeded to call down a litany of all the curses of the gods, from Alexander the Vindicator to Zoneseek the Stalker of the Boneyards. It was an amazing recitation, liberally sprinkled withvile language, but the novelty soon wore off for Setzer. The boy felt an eerie calm settle on his heart, and he knew how to deal with this pest. When Lorenzo had finally stopped shouting, Setzer peeked out and waited until the lights in the houses died down momentarily. He then leaned out the window again and said flatly: 'Are you quite done?'What happened next simply astounded. A small gasping sound forced its way out of Lorenzo's mouth, and then the boy lamely collapsed to his knees. Lorenzo, acerbic as he was, always needed some sort of fuel for his angry outbursts to keep his fighting spirit up; now that Setzer had stopped taking the bait, the redhead simply exhausted his own resources. 'Hey...you all right?' Setzer inquired,leaning a little bit more out the window. 'I don't get it, Gabby. I just don't understand,' came the non sequitur reply. Lorenzo looked up again, his eyes still glaring but moist, his face strangely gaunt; he began to absently trace nonsensical figures in the dirt with a fingerand continued, almost as if talking to himself. 'Everywhere I look, I feel like I want to die. Comes from thinkingabout J.J., I guess--No matter how much I try, I can't stop thinking about him. You remember, about a year ago, when J.J. invited us all to his farm for his birthday party? Well, none of the rest of you were there, but I tooka chocobo and rode around the fields for a little while, just for the heck of it. After a while, I stumbled into where the oxen were grazing, and I sawthese two field hands among the herd. I stopped and watched =91em. They were roping something, twirling those lassos over their heads. It was neat. Then they broke off from the other oxen, and they had a small calf-- really small, a runt, scrawniest thing I ever saw. It was being dragged off by a tie around its neck, and its front legs were bound together, and it was trying todig its back ones into the ground. The hands hauled it over and tied its neck harness around a tree trunk. And then one of them took out a huge-ass hatchet and started to walk towards it. Butchered it right then and there--too small and sick to live, I guess. I saw the look in that baby ox's eyes as itwatched the hatchet coming closer and closer, and it was the saddest thing I ever saw. And you know what? When J.J. was taken away, I saw his face through the bars of that carriage. He had that exact same look in his eyes.' 'You're crazy,Lorenzo,' Setzer breathed; his friend's actions and mood swings simply defied all logic. In all the years he had known the blacksmith's boy, he had never seen him act so erratically. He's gone mad as the moon, he thought to himself, He always was odd. But now all this crap's turned his wits, the poor guy. 'When did you become an authority on deciding whether people're crazy or not, Gabby?' Lorenzo laughed mirthlessly, wiping at his uncommonly wet face. 'But maybe you're right. Maybe I am off the loop. But ever since that day, I've been thinking. And I feel like the lowest scum on the planet.' 'Why's that?' "Because we treated him so mean.' "Oh, come on,' Setzer spoke up after a brief silence. 'We weren't that bad. He always seemed to have fun with us. He was our pal.' 'Could've been a little nicer, though. He's thebest person I know, and everybody in this damned city treated him like...like he was a dog, or something. Why? Just because he was half-illiterate and a little deformed. It doesn't make sense. People like J.J., people who can't buy a loaf of bread, they're so poor...why can't people ever treatthem kindly? They need more help than other people, not less. They need to be taken care of. They can't help being what they are, or else they're so down and out, they can't make it on their own.'Setzer felt sharp uneasiness crawl up and down his spine; he had never really thought about civic obligations or politics oranything outside of his little sphere of school, home, girls, friends, and pranks before. His parents discussed such things at the dinner table sometimes, but he never really listened. He raked his mind over for an answer to this, searching for his genuine feelings on the matter. 'Lorenzo,' Setzer said slowly after a few seconds of deliberation, 'I agree that things could be a little better. But, no matter how hard we may try, there's always going to be poor and deformed people out there. It simply isn't possible. It isn't fair; not everyone can live and sit pretty in a nice house. And it's not so horrible for them, I think. They're used to their conditions. There's gotta be some happiness, something that keeps them going, or else they'd all be killing themselves in droves by now. Who knows what it's like?' 'I know,' Lorenzo said in a spiritless monotone. "But everybody could try a little harder to help. Those bigwigs in power, the city governments--they've taken too little care of this, too little. It's bad. That's why I can't stay here any longer. I'm leaving this gods-forsaken place, and I'm not returning." 'What'll you do?' Setzer inquired gently, glad for a chance to change thesubject. 'Stuff. Probably wander around a bit. I guess I'll put myself in the bum's shoes, see if that suits me. But then--''You don't have a clue, do you?' 'I wouldn't say that," Lorenzo raised his chin indignantly. 'But I don't have a real plan, either." The boy then shuffled his feet, biting his lip. "I left some flowers on the front doorstep. They're for your mother. I wanted to do something nice for her before I left.' 'A-HA!' Setzer pointed a finger down at the very unamused youth below. 'I knew it! 'Enzo, until now I always gave you the benefit of a doubt when it came to Mama, but this...oh, man! It's a good thing you're leaving--Papa would kill you. It's really funny, in an unseemly kind of way.' "She is a very great lady,' Lorenzo smiled through gritted teeth, "And deserves a better son than the one she's got.''Gods, Lorenzo, I was only joking.' 'Indeed.' The two engaged in a prolonged gaze, the silver-blue and smoky hazel locking together at a five yard distance, but Setzer quickly capitulated; he didn't want to drag this out any longer. "Will I ever see you again, 'Enzo? You're a pain in the ass, but I'm going to miss you.''Perhaps, perhaps,' Lorenzo responded, his voice sounding absent. 'Who can tell?' 'You know, if you ever need help, I'll always be glad to give it to you." 'One sometimes wonders why one bothers. Your future isn't exactly clear itself, and Vector isn't a place known for its charity. You'll either be too rich or too poor to be of any help to anyone. I wouldn't be you for the world. Go ahead and screw the Empire, milk all the money you can from it. But take care, buddy, or else the Empire'll milk you.' Setzer grimaced; Lorenzo noted the look and mended his speech a little, shaking his head. "But, dammit, I can't ever stay mad at you. I'm sorry if I was an ass. You're a good friend, Gabby. Gods keep you. Say good-bye to your mother for me--if you say a single word, I'm going to throw a rock at you. Until next time, my friend.' Lorenzo jauntily saluted the boy at the second-story window and walked off into the alley shadows. Soon, the only indication of his presence was the crunching of pebbles under his boots. Setzer remained at the window, listening as the footsteps grew fainter and fainter. Suddenly, a familiar voice rang out, a bit soft but very clear. 'Sleep tight, ya morons!!!' The voice echoed lightlythrough the desolate, wind-swept alleys, and once again several lights appeared in the windows of the nearest houses; Setzer hastily pinched out the candle's flame and retreated a few paces. From hisposition in the center of the his bedroom, the boy continued to route his line of vision towards and out the window, straining and squinting in the blackness. His jaw set as he approached the window once more. Milk me, my ass, he thought to himself, I won't let that happen. I'll show you, 'Enzo; I'll show everybody. And one day, I'm going to have the last word for once. You'll blow a gasket then, I warrant. Despite these mental assertions, Setzer didn't feel any better. He slammed a bandaged hand down on the top of his desk with a dull thud, unheeding of the pain through his anger and frustration. He scowled down at the golden cage underneath his nose, and the round eyes of the pigeon peeped right back up at him. Setzer reached out, and, after fumbling with the tricky latch for a few moments, opened the door, gingerly taking the bird from the bars. 'If anybody tonight has to leave here because he really wants to," the youth grumbled, "it might as well be you.' Setzergently unwound the gauze from the pigeon's wing and set the bird down on the window sill. It tentatively stretched and flapped a few times before, with a quiet little coo, launched itself out into the nighttime air. Setzer watched the bird disappear over the rooftops. Even after it had long gone from sight, he still stared off into the inky night sky,trying to determine his future in stars that were too dim to see. It was at that moment that the scarred boy realized that the instant he crossed the city borders, he would be leaving all comfort and control behind him. Out there in the great wide expanse of the world, far away from kin and friend, where men froze to death in summer, where children were strangled by their parents, where people killed each other overshoes, no-one would succor him, a fifteen-year-old boy without any protectors. His Gabbiani name would mean nothing to anybody. He was as insignificantand tiny to everybody as he was to the sky, and that knowledge jellied bones and made blood run thick with cold. He didn't have a chance So many things could go awry, he knew, so many fickle factors determined his fate. Suppose his true destination was found out before he arrived in Vector? What if his ship crashed, his choc took sick? And if he got to Vector, what lay in store for him there? Languishing away in a prison cell seemed a hundred times more preferable than going out into the middle of a hungry, vicious world where almost everything could and probably would go wrong. He did not want to leave Jidoor. Hisknees buckled under, and the entire lower half of his body slumped to the ground, but he paid no attention. Setzer instinctively draped his arms on thesill and still riveted his eyes on the outside. He had no strength to do anything else. The door gradually creaked open from behind. Had hebothered to turn around, Setzer would have barely discerned his mother's silhouette in the doorway. She took a few steps into the room. 'Setzer, honey, is everything all right? What's going on? I heard shouting-- good heavens! Why aren't you wearing your bandages?!' Dulcina cried out softly, hurrying over to her son at the window and placing her hands on his shoulders. 'Mama,' Setzer said miserably, 'Lorenzo's gone.' "Oh, sweetie. I'm sorry for that. I suppose that he was the person shouting curses at the tops of his lungs a few moments ago?' Dulcina's voice was low and feather gentle as she stroked her son's hair. 'Yeah. We fought. It was bad. You heard most of it." Setzer finally turned to see his mother's face. 'Mama, I think....I think that I got J.J. arrested.' He clutched at thesleeves of her robe, gibbered out the entire story of the terrible afternoon, filling in the blank spaces from what Lorenzo had told him, forgetting that Dulcina knew the entire sordid affair, and probably in much greater detail than he did. But she still heard out her son's frantic account; while she did so, she very carefully helped him up from the sill over to his bed andtucked him in, laying next to him on top of the covers. After he had finished his rambling, disjointed story, Setzer grabbed at one of his mother's hands, blurting, 'Mama, all of my friends're vanishing right before my eyes. What's going to happen to J.J.? Did I get him put in jail?" Dulcina sighed. 'My lovely boy, I just don'tknow. I don't know anything about the Empire's judicial system. But you listen to me. Personally, I don't think you did anything wrong except do something very foolish. In my mind, J.J. acted on his own. He chose to kill Ruadh on his own, though I can't see how such a sweet boy like him could have done it. But that's only what I think. If you think that you senthim to jail, then I can't change your mind. It's something you have to work out on your own. But--' she gently tapped a finger on the covers, "You mustn't worry about it now. You need all your wits about you, son, and you must rest. Don't torture yourself. It's like your father said. It's no use looking back on the past, thinking about what might have happened.'Setzer nodded his understanding; he snuggled closer to his mother's coolness and peered up at her shadowed face. 'Mama, I'mfrightened. There's just so many things that can go wrong.' 'Perhaps you're finally growing up," Dulcina sighed. 'Setzer, at times like these, the only sensible thing to do is focus on one day as it comes. And right now, no-one can get you. I'm right here. Now I'm going to put those bandages back on.' 'No, don't,' whispered the youth. 'Please. Don'tmake me wear them, not tonight.' 'You want to catch your death of infection?!' 'Oh, I will not. Don't close the windows, either. I'm too hot, and everything's so uncomfortable. I can't sleep.' 'Fine,' Dulcina acquiesced reluctantly. 'But don't make a habit out of this. For Starlet's sake, at least let me give you some more medicine.' She gave him a dose of thepowder along with a glass of tepid water. She made to leave, but Setzer, overcome with a sense of terror, begged her to stay. Dulcina complied and got back next to him on the bed. To Setzer, his mother felt cool and soft. He transferred his head from his pillow to Dulcina's shoulder, cautiously burying his face next to her neck, moving very slowly as not to hurt his face. The faint scent of faded roses wafted up to his nostrils from his mother's skin and hair. One of her hands had slipped around to his back and was now moving in wide, soothing circles. From his perchon Dulcina's shoulder, Setzer could hear the low, hushed tones of a wordless lullaby he hadn't heard in years. He was as secure and sheltered as a baby, and he loved it. He snaked his arms around her neck and gave her a peck on the cheek, mumbling through his sedatedthoughts, 'You're a good Mama. I'm really sorry for everything. You're so good to me.' Dulcina broke off her humming long enough to smile down wickedly at him. 'Just rememberall we've done, my boy, because soon your father and I will be old coots,wearing our shoes backwards and drooling at the dinner table, and we expectyou to take care of us when you're wealthy and rich. Oho, you'll be paying us back in spades. We'll get even with you yet. It's one of the perks of being a parent.' Setzer dignified that remark with a smile of his own and said, 'Great. Just great. No wonder Lorenzo likes you so much--you're both evil.' He suddenly realized what he just said and looked up at her. 'I might as well come clean. Lorenzo's got a weird crush on you.' He thought that she'd be shocked or angry, but instead, Dulcina just laughed.'I know,' she said.'You knew?'"I've known for a long time,' Dulcina grinned. 'It was pretty obvious.''And didn't you think that was gross?!''I was flattered. It's hard to earn admiration from a boy like Lorenzo. I thought it was cute, myself.' Her face grew demure and she lowered her eyelids. 'Of course, I prefer your father."'Anybody's better than Lorenzo,' Setzer snorted. He settled his head back down on the soft part of her shoulder and murmured, 'But Mama, I'd really like to do something for you before I go. Is there anything you want?' 'I want to be younger.' 'No,sorry, Mama. Not acceptable. It's your job to be older. But anything else, and I'll do it.' 'We'll worry about that when the time comes. Now hush and try to get some sleep. You need the rest--it's going to be a long day tomorrow.'
Setzer gave his mother another kiss on the cheek before putting his head back down; she began to hum the lullaby once more. The coolness and the humming and the scent all became jumbled up in Setzer's senses, all his consciousness swirled away, and soon he drifted off into dreamless slumber.


Next morning, the Gabbiani household was bustling with activity. After re-bandaging her son's face and giving him a hearty breakfast, Dulcina chained herself to the kitchen, cooking all sorts of imperishable things like cornbread and jerked beef for the upcoming journey. Setzer busied himself with the task of learning how to walk for ten minutes without feeling like he was going to faint. Ponzo assisted his son, hovering next to him in case of an emergency, sometimes acting as a human crutch when Setzer became too tired. As they walked, the two discussed on what Setzer should say to people while traveling, and what to do if people recognized him.

The good food and the four days of rest had nourished Setzer sufficiently enough that he soon could walk around on his own, without his father's help, though his head and face still ached. Next, he changed out of his robe, quickly took a warm sponge bath, and slipped into a clean pair of clothes. After that, it was time to go through his drawers and pick out the garments he would need for his journey. He chose carefully, selecting things that weren't fancy, and laid the pieces on his bed. He'd pack them later.

Ponzo, during this time, went to a grocery and brought back the raw materials that his son would need: cooking implements, flour, cornmeal, salt, certain spices, a new bedroll, two large canteens, a small canvas tent forrainy weather, a compact pistol and some knives for warding off bandits, and other such things.

After everything was gathered, it was packed along with his pain medication and extra gauze in two large leather saddlebags, except for the tentand bedroll, which could be bundled up. The only item lacking was a mount.

Ponzo discreetly sent for a good friend and sent the man off to the city chocobo stables with some money to buy a bird. 'But don't make it too fancy,' he had admonished. 'As long as it's not dying or homicidal, I'll take it. Get the cheapest one.'

The man returned late that evening, just as the sun started to set. The family assembled out on the back porch, confident that no-one would see them in the darkening back alley, to look at the chocobo.

It was a very ordinary, average bird, a plain dull-yellow. It lookedhealthy and strong, which was good, but definitely was not something you'd enter in a show.

Ponzo's friend returned the leftover money, saying, 'It was apretty cheap bird. Thought it'd be a little more expensive, but the ownersaid that it had a little bad habit that lowered the price.'

'What's that? It'd better not be anything lethal, I hope," Ponzo demanded.

The friend grinned and beckoned with a finger for Ponzo to lean closer; he whispered something in the Gabbiani patriarch's ear, which made both men laugh.

When the friend had gone off, Dulcina turned to her husband.

'What was so funny? I swear, Ponzo, if you got a defective chocobo--'

'No, not at all!' Ponzo raised his hands, grinning. He gathered his family around him in a tight circle, looking back at the tethered choc with laughing eyes. 'It turns out that this bird here goes crazy whenever he hears a certain word. It drives him nuts. He actually knows what it means!'

'What is the word? Spell it out,' Setzer urged from his mask of gauze.

'G-R-E-E-N-S,' Ponzo whispered through his teeth. Behind them, the choc went absolutely wild.

'Waaaark! WAAARK!' it squawked, flapping its wings wildly,its tail feathers perfectly vertical, bobbing its head up and down and scratching. Ponzo hurried over, clamped a hand over its beak while he reached down for some grass growing near the porch steps, and stuffed the plants down the choc's throat.

'Palidor save us!' Setzer laughed, delighted. 'Did you see that? That's amazing! I've got a spelling chocobo! I've never seen anything like it.'

'It's a first for me,' Dulcina remarked.

'Fantastic! Such a learned and smart chocobo needs to have a special name, don't you think? Son, what do you suggest?' Ponzo inquired, patting the yellow-feathered head. 'Yeees, you're a smaaaart chocobo, aren't you? The smartest damn chocobo in the whole woooorld, yeeesss!"

'Oh, Papa, I can't think of anything. My head hurts too much."

'How about Chocy?' Ponzo suggested in an innocent voice.

'What?!' Dulcina rounded on him; it looked like shewas about to clobber him. 'Here we have a brilliant bird, and the bestname you can come up with is Chocy?! Gods, Ponzo! You can do better than that, and you're not even drunk!'

Ponzo couldn't speak; he was too busy grinning impishly at his wife. The father and the son shared a sly glance between them.

'I think it's a great name,' Setzer spoke up, 'and a nice twist of irony. It's deep, Mama, very deep. Chocy it is.'

Dulcina looked from her husband to her son, utterly exasperated. "I swear, you two will be the death of me.'

'You know you love it.' Ponzo pinched her fondly on the cheek as he passed by her to go into the house. Huffing out her breath, she followed behind, dragging Setzer along with her.

Setzer soon emerged back onto the porch, hefting his saddlebags; Ponzo was carrying the roll of bedding. Dulcina helped them secure the baggage with elastic straps.

Dulcina made a huge fuss, checking over the knots, making sure that all the necessaries were packed. After everything had passed her scrutiny, Setzer hoisted himself up in the saddle.

'How is it up there, my boy?' Ponzo called up, laying a hand on the choc's flank.

'A bit dizzy, but I'll be fine.' The world was tilting alittle before Setzer's eyes and his gut trembled, but it was nothing serious.

'Still, don't ride at full gallop. Use easy, smooth strides."

'Yes, Papa.'

Dulcina stepped forward. 'Remember, my boy: Ride at night, the moss always grows on the north side of trees, keep close to the rivers, sleep if you get too dizzy, shoot anybody who comes within a foot of you, wear clean underwear, and don't be a spendthrift when you first start out.'

'Mama, please.' Setzer rolled his eyes, when a nasty thought hit him. 'But how can I be a spendthrift when I have no money? I don't have a single GP! IF I need to buy supplies, how can I--?'

'You don't think I forgot, did you?' Ponzo asked, winking. 'I've got something for you, my boy.'

From behind his coat, the eldest Gabbiani produced a black bolt of cloth with a flourish.

At first glance, Setzer thought it was just a traveler's cloak, but it was actually a knee-length coat of deep coal leather. A long row of pearly buttons ran up its front, and the button holes, the collar, the cuffs, and the hem were all lined with rich, dull gold braid. It was relatively simple by Jidoorian standards, but very elegant nonetheless.

'This coat has been in our family for generations. I don't think you can wear it much on the road, it's too fancy, but it'll keep youwarm if the nights get too cold. You'd make better use of it than I would.'

He handed up the gift to Setzer, who accepted it reverently. The smooth leather smelled of tavern smoke.

'There's a little pocket in the very back, just near the hem.Look in there,' Ponzo suggested, his eyes twinkling.

It took Setzer several minutes to locate the pocket; the sky was getting dark, and the slit was extremely well concealed. He reached in, felt something, and pulled out a small pouch, which, when opened, held some gold coins and many small glittering gemstones. The secret family stash! The boy's jaw nearly hit the ground.

'Don't sell them all at once. That sends their price through the basement. Besides, people will become suspicious,' Ponzo advised. Setzer nodded and put the pouch back. He looked down at his parents, and he felt such a pang of sadness, he felt ready to cry.

'Good-bye, Angel. We will send you letters--not often, we don't want to get you in trouble, but we will send them. And one day, when all of this is forgotten, we'll visit you. Stay in touch.' Dulcina said, eyes sparkling with tears. She reached up and threw her arms around her boy. She kissed him on the bandage over his cheek; Setzer couldn't help butflinch in anticipation of pain, though none came.

When Dulcina had disengaged herself, Ponzo came forward and slapped his son on the thigh. His face was weary and solemn.

'The gods keep you, my boy. You'll make it out all right, I can see. But let me give you a few fatherly words of advice. Trust no-one. Do you understand? No-one.'

'Papa,' Setzer gaped, hardly believing his own ears, 'what are you saying? Don't you trust Mama? Should I not even trust you?'

' Not even us. I trust your mother, my boy, because we are in asecure position. We're a middle-class couple, with no ambition. We love you, Son, but I can't guarantee anything. You know we would never intentionally harm you or give you away, but who knows what the future holds? You have a great chance of succeeding, but nothing is guaranteed. Trust is not something you can afford in your position. Gain new friends, bosses, girlfriends, like them, even love them. But never trust them, because no-one is worthy of it. Perhaps when you are firmly anchored and happy, you can take the liberty. But for now, don't ever take full stock in what anybody says. Always hold back from totally giving yourself up to them. Always prepare yourself for betrayal and ulterior motives. It'll save your heart and life, in the end. Do you understand? Answer, my boy!'

'Yes, Papa.'

Ponzo nodded his satisfaction and embraced his son. Setzer squeezed back and struggled not to burst into tears.

'You will do fine. There's nothing you can't do. The Gabbiani blood will triumph!'

'Good-bye, Papa. Good-bye, Mama. If you ever see Mandy or Benny, tell them I'm okay, and I'll miss them.' Happy memories of his friends came unbidden into his mind; he even became lonesome for Lorenzo. Setzer forced the thoughts away.

Ponzo winked and gave the choc a slap on the rump, making it run. Setzer let the reins go slack as he guided the mount silently through the sleepy streets.

Setzer turned around a little in his saddle and waved at the receding forms of his parents. He wanted to call out to them, but was afraid to, lest he give himself away by his voice. The two fading figures waved back, andwere soon lost from sight.


That night, Dulcina and Ponzo had a cold dinner in silence. In the midst of all the confusion and preparations, eating had totally evaded their minds. They did not speak because there was nothing to say ordiscuss. They were lost in their own thoughts.

When the dishes had been cleared away, Dulcina yawnedand cast a weary eye upon her husband and gave a small sigh.

'It's late, honey,' she stated the obvious, stifling another yawn. 'Look, why don't you come to bed with me tonight? I haven't had your company for almost ten years. Stop beating yourself up--you know I love you.'

Ponzo shook his head and said, 'I know, but I'll just stay on the couch. It wouldn't help. Gods, how I miss him, and he's only been gone a few hours.' With that, the man collapsed upon the couch, wrapping himself up in a blanket. Dulcina stared mutely at him, herbottom lip trembling a little, but she slowly made her arthritic way up thestairs, cursing her aging bones.

But it had hardly been a hour hence when Ponzo, desperately trying to sink into the oblivion of slumber, heard the patter of footsteps. He opened his eyes a crack and saw his wife hovering above him in hernightgown, cupping a candle in her hands. Her tired eyes glistened with tears. Ponzo dumbly wondered how often could a woman cry in such a short periodof time, because his wife might have broken the record. But, then again, most mothers didn't have to endure what she had and was still going through.

'I can't stand it,' she cried, her voice strangely collected but husky. 'It's too lonely. I can't be a mother anymore, but I'm going to be the best gods-blessed wife you ever saw. If you're going to be such a schmuck, Ponzo, then I'll just have tocome to you, won't I? Damn you and your maudlin self-pity!'

Before he knew exactly what was going on, Dulcina hadpractically jumped upon her husband, wrapping her arms around his neck and kissing him with frantic urgency. Ponzo was totally caught off guard, but when he found his breath again, he was quite pleased. Laughing hoarsely, he unbound Dulcina's bun and tugged at her hair playfully, nibbling gently at her ear, causing her to giggle like a schoolgirl.

'I've still got it,' Ponzo beamed happily, extremely gratified that he could evoke such a response from his wife after all these years. They were too old for true passion now, but they could always play nonetheless.

'Yes, I thought you hadn't,' Dulcina twittered, giving him a brief, teasing smooch; she snuggled deeper into his embrace, pressing her hands against his shirt as she looked down at him.

'You know,' she said, 'you're not going to sleep here anymore. You either come to bed properly like every good husband should, or I'll divorce your bum.'

'Hmmm,' Ponzo tapped his finger against herlips contemplatively. 'Which one? Which one?'

Dulcina laughed and ran a hand through his hair. "Seriously, Ponzo, I mean it. You're a worthy man...stop doing this to yourself. Don't make me more lonely than I am. I don't want to die alone, without my boy or my husband.'

Ponzo nodded his assent and wrapped his arms around her waist; Dulcina rested her face in the crook of his neck. She whispered into his ear: 'Ponzo, you're a sot, a laggard, a beggar, a cheat, and aliar, just like everybody else was in your wretched family. But you know what? You're the only Gabbiani that ever had a heart.'

'And you, my pretty wife,' Ponzo laughed ashe wrapped the blanket around both of them and rolled over so that he looked down at her, leaning on his angled arm, 'are the only Gabbiani wife that wasn't a snob or a whore.'

Dulcina said nothing, choosing to kiss him again instead.

Throughout the night they held each other close, their faces pressed side by side, each one being careful not to send the other tumbling off the narrow couch. They stared off into the inky distance, both thinking about their wayward boy and wishing him the best, wherever he was.


'No, no, NO! You stupid, stupid bird! Don't dothat! Hey! Listen to me, dammit!'

Setzer kicked his heels deeply into his chocobo's flanks, but except for a peeved and recalcitrant 'Wark!', Chocy paid no heed. The bird lowered his head back down into a clump of bushes and started rooting around with gusto; he had found a clump of tasty greens growing beneath the shrubbery, and finding and eating them was of the most catastrophic importance.

Chocy was a well-meaning bird, but he had an uncanny habit of simply stopping right in mid-trot and start grubbing for snacks. This hadn't bothered Setzer initially, but, after a week, the boy was reallygetting annoyed with the bird's Epicurean zeal. Unfortunately, Chocy proved to be adamant on his foraging binges, sometimes turning downright hostileif Setzer tried to impose his will with anything more than a jab in the ribs. Just as you didn't stand between a mother bear and her cub, you didn't stand between Chocy and his greens--not unless you wanted your eyes peckedout. All Setzer could do was wait it out and curse. And he did.

'Someday, you dumb bird, I'm going to pluck you bald and use your worse than useless feathers to stuff a mattress! Do you hear me? A mattress! And then I'm going to sell you to a slaughterhouse, and you'll be chopped up and made into sausage! You and your damn greens. My entire life is at stake, and all you can think about are greens. You're the bane of my life!'

He spent several more minutes in this strain, but he presently quieted down; his throat began to feel unpleasantly scratchy and slick. Setzer heaved a sigh and gloomily brooded.

For the past week he had been riding north over the plains, and the scenery hadn't changed. All around him was vast verdant grass undulating in the high breezes, dotted here and there with clumps of stringy, dirty yellow weeds under the endless expanse of a deep blue sky. Everything was static and stationary, and Setzer felt sometimes as if he would go insane with the tedium of it all.

Setzer had a bit of a solitary streak in him, but he needed people and friends with him if he wanted to feel happy and truly at ease. The first few days of his junket weren't terribly trying for him, butthe situation was now rapidly deteriorating. His present state had become such that he had even started talking to Chocy on a regular basis.

Chocy had turned out to be pretty satisfactory company. The chocobo might have been stubborn, but he was very intelligent for hisspecies, and sometimes seemed to understand what Setzer was saying to him, usually responding to his master's tone of voice with squawks, warks, and coos as necessitated. But at the present, Chocy was simply irritating.

A particularly strong gust bowled over the tall grasses, whipping Setzer's hair every which way and prickling at the skin on his face. Three days into his exile, the boy had removed the bandages off his face permanently; the scars were past the danger of infection, and he hated wearing the scratchy, stifling gauze so much that he couldn't stand them any longer. With the exception of a few dizzy spells, his physical health hadnot been of much grief to him, and he was a little comforted by his speedy recovery.

As the winds breathed around the rider and steed, Chocy abruptly jerked up his yellow head from the bushes, craning his long neckup and standing perfectly stationary, the muscles underneath his feathers tensed. Most birds do not have very acute senses of smell, but chocobos are blessed with relatively developed olfactory nerves in their nostrils, which are proportionately larger than most birds'. Chocobos are especially adept at smelling out members of their own species, and Chocy was no exception.


In a space of only about five seconds, Setzer found himself going from zero to what felt like a hundred. For one dreadful moment,the jolt nearly looked to send him flying out of the saddle. He clutched atthe reins for dear life and yelled out a wordless exclamation, deciding through his shock and terror that Chocy's untimely demise would soon be at hand.

Chocy sprinted forth at top speed for a few minutes, and then smoothly decelerated into an easy trot. Setzer wiped his wind-stungeyes and looked about. I swear to Palidor, if that idiot got us off the trail--

In front of him, tethered to a stake in the ground, was another chocobo, a darker, richer color than Chocy and much more stout and bulky. It hoisted a great leather saddle on its sturdy back along witha crupper and peytral, both considerably rusty.

Chocy warbled softly and ambled over to the hulking bird, his neck stretched out curiously and the feathers on his tail perfectlyperpendicular and fanned. The other choc responded in kind, and soon the two were nudging each one another amiably.

Setzer, dismounting and making sure to do it in such a way as to give Chocy a bit of discomfort, wanted to throw the biggest temper tantrum the world had ever seen. His chocobo had probably deviated hopelessly off the trail just so he could make friends, and the youth was not at all pleased.

A dull patch of silver-gray flashed in the sun right underneath Setzer's nose. It was at that moment Setzer discovered a metal-clad figure reclining on a ratty roll on the ground, only a foot away from the feet of the stranger choc.

The man was garbed from head to foot in tarnished, unadorned plate body armor. The different pieces were pounded thin and slender, designed for mobility and lightness; two wicked spikes jutted out of the boxy shoulder plates; the helmet had no plumes and the visor, fitted with four slits for breathing, was snapped shut. The chest, emblazoned with a familiar-looking but currently unidentifiable crest, was moving up and down slowlyin perfect, even rhythm, and faint snores drifted up from the visor slits.

Setzer wracked his brain for a few seconds, trying todetermine what exactly the sleeping form below him was, when it hit him: a Samurai Knight of Doma. The armor style was too specialized and peculiar forany normal knight, and he remembered the kingdom's coat of arms. He had heard of these Samurai and read about them in books, but this was his first real-life encounter with one.

The knight slumbered so peacefully below, Setzer feltthat it was a shame to wake the man. However, the boy decided to do exactlythat. He was so uncertain of himself, he didn't even know whether he was actually lost or not, and Setzer needed assurance; not only that, but he desired to talk to a human being instead of a mutinous chocobo.

'Sir?' Setzer ventured, reaching down and taking up a twig and banging it lightly on the knight's helmet, 'um...sir?'

'HAI!!' the Samurai's muffled voice bellowed; the armored man jumped up to his feet with surprising speed, grasping his katana pommel. 'Darkness and devils! Have at thee, dastards!' The knight whipped his head around, slowly lowering his weapon. 'Ah, ye craven cowards, fleest thou so fast? =91Tis no matter to me--I shall meet out my speedy punishment that thou will think a dervish was on thee. Cyrus, yewill be avenged at last!'

A great clatter of clanks and creaks groaned as the man feel to his knees, propping himself against his katana. 'Ah, Cyrus, Cyrus, my dearly deceased friend! Thy bones are rotten, but I still rememberthee; I will do anything to put thy soul to rest. Ye'll haunt me day and night till this end. Oh, Cyrus!' he wailed, pressing the sword to his breastplate.

Setzer had watched these proceedings incredulously; when the soliloquy was ended, the boy burst out laughing. He couldn't resist--the man's speech was so convoluted and ridiculous, it was exactly like w atching a character from a bad opera.

'Eh?' shouted the knight, leaping up again,and he seized Setzer by the hair. 'Who art thou? In the name of Doma, stand and unfold thyself!'

'P-please, Sir,' Setzer stammered, nearly fainting with shock, 'I'm just a boy. I don't mean you any harm." He felt himself released; the boy stepped back, rubbing his sore head, while the Samurai sheathed his katana.

'A thousand pardons, lad--ye art a lad, what? My eyes are not of the best.' The knight, a bit of the formality of his speech vanished, lifted up his visor, unveiling squinting eyes lined with crow's feet. He inclined his head firmly. 'Yes, a lad ye be.'

'It's all right, sir. I didn't mean to wake you up, but I'm lost from the path to Kohlingen, and I was wondering if you could give me directions.'

'Gods grant mercy on your shiny pate, I've no aim as to where I am, myself. I am as poor a vagrant as ye.' His voice sounded quite abashed.

'I'm sorry. What's your name? How did you come here in the first place? Doma's a far way off, ' Setzer asked.

Of all the things to say, that was probably the worst. The Doma knight's eyes grew hazed and cloudy as they had been when he had been rambling, and a great sigh escaped from the helmet.

'I am Sir Bruce Benedick, retainer to the liege of Doma. Once I was the captain of the King's guard, the most regarded andhomaged man of all the Samurai lands. Never could I tread without the maidsclamoring in their joy nor the villains quaking in their pasty footfalls. Many favors and benisons did the King grant upon me. But I was too hasty in my haps and joys! Five years to this, my beloved and departed comrade and friend, Cyrus Ommersume, was slain in the most vilest treachery. He had been assigned to the post of guarding the carriage of a train shipment on one of our kingdom's railways, and a rascally band of whoreson fiends did siege andplunder the train. My partner, my comrade, was slain by them, and I have vowed to revenge myself and his honor. I have been tramping all over plain, mountain, and swamp, questing for the rogues. That is what chivalrous custom dictates, is it not? Am I not obligated to avenge my friend?' Bruce peered at Setzer hopefully.

The boy merely shrugged his shoulders. 'I reallywouldn't know. People don't think about those kinds of things in my hometown.'

Sir Benedick nodded his disappointed understanding and his head sagged; but then he snapped up without warning, and he gave Setzer a hard look.

'Gods burn me black, boy, how came ye to wandering all by thy lonesome self? Playing truant, what?' he demanded, reaching forth, and pulled hard on Setzer's ear.

Setzer knew his scripted response by heart, but he did not use it. He wanted to have fun with this one.

'Sir, I have no parents. My mother and father were the richest, most noble family in all Jidoor. My mother was a beautiful lady, my father a splendid businessman, who was also a great warrior. Why, hehad such a genteel spirit, I wouldn't put it past him if he had some Doman ancestry in him.'

Benedick released the boy's ear and stepped back, his visor clapping shut in the process. He opened it up with a creak. 'Well? Say on, I say!'

'Just shortly after I was born,' Setzer continued, 'a terrible thing happened. One night I was asleep in my crib, and my mother, still weak from the birth, was rocking me, and my father watched the scene with pride--'

'Hai, a right good father!'

'Yes. Anyway, it was such a peaceful scene, but alas! it didn't last. My father, great gentleman though he was, had made several enemies over the years, one of them a powerful noble, the evil and corrupt Ruadh of the Black. This Ruadh decided at the tranquil moment to exactrevenge for some petty slight, and sent his hired mercenaries under the shroud of darkness to our house. They broke in, and caught my parents, trapped and unarmed. My father made a brave stand, breaking off one of the legs of achair and using it as a cudgel. He killed three men, but they soon overwhelmed him and ran him through. My mother, overcome with despair and grief, snatched one of the blackguard's daggers and stabbed herself through the heart. But they weren't content to leave it at that. Their leader drew his weapon and descended upon me, carving up my face--these scars which you see, sir. =91Let anyone try to claim he's a noble's son now!' he cried, and the man took me out and abandoned me in an alley.

'Thank the gods, I was saved by a kindly middle-aged merchant and his wife, and they brought me up in their home. It was only recently that they told me of my true heritage. They also told me that hanging around Jidoor was no life for one such as I, and that I must go out andseek my fortune. And here I am.'

In this jaded generation, people today would think=91Bah! This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. I'd never fall forit.' If you actually met Setzer in the flesh, however, a different opinion would be formed. Setzer was a wonderful rhetorician. His voice never betrayed anything but sincerity, wrapping around you like a noose and pulling youdeep and close into his words, and his face was smooth yet emotional, the eyes radiating and open. And, of course, consider his audience.

'Ye poor lost lamb!' Sir Benedick cried, and his eyes brimmed with tears; the visor slammed shut again. A muted curse came from the slits, then the voice spoke up: 'I am sorry to hear such atale from one so young. A young man's life should be filled with happiness and warm sunshine. Forgive me for calling forth such unsavory memories from the dregs of thy mind. To think I had a righteous mind to thrash ye for playing hooky! '

'Don't feel so bad about it, sir. You didn'tknow,' Setzer said demurely. It was then that he noticed that the Samurai's armor hung a bit loosely off his body; he remembered that the skin around Sir Bruce's eyes had seemed a little tight.

'You look a little sick, Sir Benedick. Are you okay?'

'Ah,' Sir Bruce scratched at his helmet, "it is no disease, good lad. Well--curse it all--my mount, the slug, is not well-suited for celerity. The poor brute cannot run at top speed for anylong amount of time without near keeling over; as for my own particular, I am no huntsman.'

'When was the last time you ate?'

''Tis not that bad. I am more often than not able to eat at least one meal a day, and some of the wild and feral fruits on these expansive plains are quite tasty.'

'When was the last time you had any real food? Have you had any meat at all since you got here?'

'I bagged a Red Wolf not four days ago.'

Setzer's throat contracted in disgust, and he managed to spit out, 'Red Wolf! Gods, man, you might as well eat pond scum. That's just plain nasty. I've got the dry heaves! Give me your helmet. Ican't be too careful.'

'Ye come up with the most unsavory tricks,'Sir Bruce sniffed, folding his arms across the broad expanse of his plated chest. Setzer grinned and went over to Chocy, who was still engaged in the all-consuming business of meeting the other bird's acquaintance; he extracted a skillet and the ingredients to make cornbread from the saddlebags.

'If you'll start up a fire, I'll make you something. It's not much, but it's a million times better than the offal you've been eating.'

Sir Benedick got down on his knees next to the site of the previous night's campfire, and after some wheezing, a little deadwood, and a lot of smoke, he had a blaze flickering.

Over the fire with one hand Setzer held his skillet while the free one threw in corn meal, some water, and a little salt, mixing them up with a spoon when all had been put in. The hearty, crispy smell of frying corn wafted up into the air, and Sir Benedick sat down on the other side of the fire. He had removed his helmet, revealing a surprisingly older man, somewhere in his sixties, Setzer guessed. His sparse hair was white, and he had a splendidly bushy salt and pepper mustache below a long nose. Sir Bruce inhaled appreciatively, and a heavy snorting sound rattled the whiskers .

'Hmm!' the knight snuffed, 'that aromais positively tantalizing, aye?'

'If it suits you. I find it rather plain, myself. Then again, I've been eating it for the past week,' Setzer responded briskly. He patted the meal into something that resembled a square using his spoon and dumped the bread onto one of his travel tins. He passed it overto Sir Bruce, who snatched up the whole thing, crammed it into his mouth, tangling crumbs into his mustache, and wolfed it down in two bites. He gave abelch of satisfaction.

''Twas the most delicious thing I have ever eaten.' Sir Benedick sighed and wiped the back of his hand along his mouth, the crumbs in his whiskers scattering down. 'Many thanks to ye, mostadmirable and merciful lad!'

A pang of pity coursed through the boy, and he felt very sorry for the man. Just then, he got an idea which would, he thought, satisfy both parties. He glanced obliquely at the Samurai.

'Sir Benedick, would you kindly listen to what Ihave to say to you?'

'A very poor payment for such hospitality, dear boy--what would you speak?'

'I've been thinking about our situation. You're lost, and I'm not a warrior. I haven't met any monsters or thieves yet, but I don't think I would win if I got into a tussle with one of them. You're a highly trained Samurai, I assume, and know how to deal with trouble, yet you can't even feed yourself properly. We're in the same boat, it seems, and the two of us together would last longer than if we went out separate ways. This is what I propose: If I look after you, see that you're well taken care of, would you work for me? On the road it'd be mainly a protection thing, but when we get back to civilization, I'm sure I could still need your services.'

'What is this I am hearing?!' Sir Benedick roared, his mustache bristling, and rose to his full height. 'Of all the audacity! Can ye see how this becomes the house? I, Sir Bruce Benedick, once the brooch of all Doma's military, reduced to the part of a sniveling mercenary and man-servant to a milksop! Do ye not respect my years, do ye notrespect my place? That I should lay all before ye just for the sake of foodand roof!'

'There are worse things, sir.'

'What about my friend? Would you he never be avenged? Heartless boy!'

'Oh, be quiet,' Setzer scowled. 'All you've been doing is tramping around for these past five years on this stupid quest for some stupid breach of your little Doman code and nearly starving yourself to death. You've gotten no closer to finding the killers, and you know you never will. And besides, what good would it do? Your friend is dead and gone, and all his troubles are over. He doesn't have any honor to be restored any longer. Be realistic. If we band together, I will payyou good wages, and see to your every comfort. It's not slavery. You could leave at any time. I could provide better for you than yourself. But I've got to be realistic, too. I can't take a charity case at the moment. "

'Never! Order the sea not to break, or the wind not to blow. Ye'll persuade me no easier,' Sir Bruce turned his back to the youth.

'Very well.' Setzer nonchalantly reached out for his cooking materials and made another batch of dough. One of Sir Benedick's mustaches twitched at the smell.

Mixing the meal over the fire, Setzer continued, "But you know, I really could be very helpful to you. I'm well-equipped. My first destination is Kohlingen. There I'm going to buy some more supplies. I hear that Kohlingen makes some of the best stews in the world, hearty and rich, so creamy that it feels like a trickle of paradise skimming down your throat, warming you up--'

A small sound came from the knight, and he clapped his hands over his ears. 'Thy efforts will avail you naught!'

Setzer spoke up louder, discreetly fanning the steamof the cooking over across the flames: 'And while I'm there, I'm also going to buy some juicy meat and potatoes, fresh pe-e-eachy fruits, crisp vegetables, and such de-lectable breads that they'd make this stuff taste like sawdust. I wouldn't starve, sir!

'And it'd be a shame that such a noble man as you would be stuck out here, slowly getting thinner and thinner till he eatshis own dear chocobo out of desperation. A shame. But,' he raised his eyebrows and sighed in defeat, retrieving a small bottle of syrup from a saddlebag, 'if the wind sits in that corner, then I won't bother you."

He put the bread on the empty plate, drizzled it in syrup and set it before the two chocobos. 'Here, boys, I've got a treat for you.'

The big birds warily nosed the food and, since it wasnot greens, disregarded it. Setzer leaned against Chocy's flank and soaked in the sun, picking at his fingernails. Behind him, he heard the gnashing of teeth and grunts and a high-pitched groaning. The grass rustled slowly, and there was a soft sound of creaking joints, followed by a silence. Finally, chewing noises. Setzer grinned and turned around.

Sir Benedick was on his knees, scooping up the last sticky traces of the bread with his fingers. He scoured the plate clean as a whistle, slowly raised his upper body upright, bent one knee behind him, andreached for his katana. 'Heartless, wicked boy.'

He planted the blade deep in the ground and gripped its pommel with one hand; he traced a line down the center of his face with the index finger of the other.

'My lord, I, Sir Bruce Benedick of the Doma Samurai, do pledge fealty to thee. I pray you, accept my humble services and eternal allegiance. I shall answer to none but thee.' His voice and eyes were mournful and tired. Setzer felt badly about it, and a little embarrassed.

'Come on,' Setzer spoke up, trying to regain his cheer, and helped the older man to his feet. 'Don't look so gloomy. Buck up! It's not the end of the world. You did the wise thing, Sir Benedick. And it's not forever, you know. '

'Pray, do not call me by my former title,' Sir Bruce mumbled. 'My knightly days are over. One cannot be a knight and a servant at the same time, Master Setzer.'

'Now see here, Benedick,' Setzer said sternly, 'you stop that moping right now. Don't be so dramatic. If you don't want to be called =91Sir', that's your wish, but I don't see thepoint in denying it. Listen.' He threw an arm around the armored shoulders. 'We're not that far off from Kohlingen. You know what we're going to do when we get there? I'm going to buy us some nice bacon for frying in the mornings.'

'Bacon?' Benedick raised his head.

'Yes, lots of bacon.'


'All you can stuff into yourself, my man.'

'Ye are a consummate procurer,' came the arch reply.

Setzer only laughed, and the two collected up the scattered objects on the ground, preparing to mount and search for the proper trail.


On the plains, evening in the late summer is the mostglorious time of day: the air is crisp yet heavy enough that it wraps a body up in a temperate blanket. Stars and lightning bugs twinkle in the dusk and crickets chirp, instilling a feeling of harmony and clarity into anyone who is a witness.

Setzer left his tent flap unbuttoned in order to truly dip himself into the evening's serenity, and the sounds and sights lulled him into a deep napping. That strange falling sensation people experience just before they drop into actual slumber came over him, and his thoughts became distorted and surreal.

And then, a great, deep ruckus of rumbles sounded out, practically next to Setzer's ear. Setzer propped himself on one elbow, looking around in bewilderment.

The noise came just next to the side of his tent; Setzer scowled and bared his teeth in aggravation. 'Curse him,' he whispered to himself, 'curse him.'

Why old men seemed to be expert snorers, the boy could never understand. His grandfather, on the rare visits to the house when Setzer was still a child, had been able to rouse the house at the ungodly hours of the morning; Benny's great uncle had nearly been just as bad; Sir Benedick was the worst of the lot.

The snoring continued on steadily and showed no signsof letting up. The old knight's soft palate was more pliable than a pieceof putty. Setzer cursed under his breath and shoved his head under his pillow, but the sounds reached his ears as if nothing was there at all. Setzer felt that he would go mad, and was sorry that he ever met Bruce in the first place. A great warrior indeed! Setzer didn't claim to be an authority on heroes and warriors, but he was certain that first-rate snoring was not part of the job description.

Dammit, he sounds just like a rutting Rhinotaur, he thought furiously, balling up the edges of his pallet in his hands, He's worthless! Worthless!

Setzer thought for a moment about going out and stuffing something, perhaps a pillow, into Benedick's mouth. Thinking aboutthe many ways to shut the old man up lifted his spirits a little and was sufficient enough to restrain the boy from displaying the ultimate irreverenceto his elders, so he lay quietly, happily daydreaming.

Under the honks and snorts, Setzer suddenly detected a new sound--a heavy shuffling, laced with soft grunts. It seemed to be coming from opposite Sir Benedick; Setzer cautiously rolled over and turned his face towards the sounds. He was fairly certain that it was an animal searching for food, but he lay tensed, and flickered his eyes over to the small dirk lying on top of his immaculately folded clothes.

The snuffling stopped, and then a noise uncannily similar to the snoring took its place. Without warning, the noises approached the tent flap. Setzer lifted himself up halfway and became very still.

In an instant, the most hideous thing Setzer ever laid eyes on thrust itself through the flap: a rough, polished horn on the end of a sniffing, scaly snout gleamed in the scanty light along with a row of jagged, dripping fangs. Two red, glassy eyes in a dark leathery face fixed onthe boy.

Setzer screamed, jumped from his pallet, and, snatching up the dirk, tore a hole through the side of the tent. He charged throughit, nearly tripping over Benedick, and knocked over the whole tent, leavingin his wake a monster-sized canvas blob which looked very confused.

The trail from Jidoor to Kohlingen coursed along several small rivers and brooks so that travelers could, if they made good time,find new water almost every day. Setzer and Benedick had set up camp only afew feet away from one of these rivers. On the banks grew gnarled, wind-scoured trees, and Setzer ran straightway to the tallest one, calling as he didso, 'Benedick! Benedick! Help me!'

He scrambled up the tree, and, as young men in Jidoor usually did not sleep with much clothing on (Setzer was only in his skivvies), the bark scraped and tore his skin, but he did not feel anything. From behind him, he could hear a voice shouting, 'What, ho! Arsonists, thieves, murderers, varlets, rogues, character assassins! Come forth and reveal thyselves, thou naughty wretches, and meet thy unmaking!'

By now Setzer had situated himself on a limb, and looked back at the camp. He saw Benedick, in a nightshirt and helmet, waving his sword; but the thing that drew his attention was that the broken tent was making its way towards his tree in spirited bounds, still making its snore-like grunts.

'Gods preserve me! Master Setzer! Thy tent is bewitched!' Benedick shouted, and his sword fell limply to his side.

'Benedick, you twit! Don't just stand there--I'm being attacked!' Setzer shouted back. The monster had somehow gotten out from underneath the canvas, and was now right underneath the youth. It was a Rhinotaur, a female because her hide was not as knobby as a male's and the horn wasn't very large, and she peered up at Setzer with a moonstruck expression. She began to circle the tree and rub her head against the bark; her snorting shifted into a low purr.

Benedick looked at the scene and began to laugh so hard that his knees buckled and his visor clamped shut. 'Oh, young Master,' he giggled, 'there is a strange sort of bird in yonder tree--hehath no feathers save for the ones =91round his loins, yet the ladies adorehim! A strange, wonderful bird!'

'Benedick! This is serious! Get over herethis instant! What the hell is that thing doing?!'

'I expect, good Master, that the lady is attracted to ye. Perhaps, in thy sleep, ye made a noise that was most becoming to her ear. '

'You can't be serious! I--to hell with it! Just get over here and kill the dumb beast! That's an order!' Setzer shouted.

'Come, come,' Benedick said, walking over at last. 'I do not see why I should kill a lady simply because she lovesye. Love's not a crime, dear Master.'

'She'll attack me!'

'It will be only a gentle attack. A few love-nibbles perhaps, but--'

'Just get rid of her!'

The Samurai clicked his tongue lightly and gave a deep bow. He went up to the Rhinotaur and firmly grasped the creature by its horn. The sinews and muscles in his arm flexed, and he jerked it away from thetree. He gave it a sharp thwack on the snout with the flat of his blade. "Be off with ye, ye hussy!'

Wrinkling up her smarting nose, the Rhinotaur lowed mournfully and cast the tree heartbroken looks as she ambled sadly off.

'What a rake my master is!' Bruce sighed inadmiration, and he pivoted smartly on his heel. 'I do feel sorry the lasses who burn for ye.'

Setzer made the tricky way down the tree and dropped to the ground. His face was flushed a bright red, and he flung Benedick's ratty blanket around his shoulders with an angry motion. 'Shut up. It's all your fault. Sew up that rip in the tent and set it back up. You think you could do that?'

'Yes, Master.'

Setzer lay on Benedick's roll and faced away from the Samurai, rolling up in a tight ball. Even though he did his best not to hear anything, the sound of low laughter drifted into his ears.

'Great gods, what a lover!'


Northward the two journeyed, across the immutable heart of the grassland, and they reached the village of Kohlingen in good enough time.

Setzer paid for lodgings at an inn and sent out Benedick to purchase new supply rations, promising a fine dinner on completion ofthe errand. Benedick returned with everything in record speed, and Setzer fulfilled his part of the bargain by treating the old man to a feast at one of Kohlingen's finest restaurants.

Now Setzer was faced with a dilemma. As he and his new servant had traveled the plains, the boy had realized that the plan to take the train across the mountains posed a delicate problem. He was certain that going by train would not be very good for Benedick's mental health, anddid not trust Benedick to act with a great deal of decorum. It wasn't unlikely that the Samurai would start screaming about train-robbers and dead best friends and chase people down with his katana. Something needed to be done; Setzer did not want to make his position more precarious than it already was.

He thought and thought about the situation, and soon hit upon a solution. He remembered the abundant amount of bandages in his saddlebags--he had not thrown them away--and saw how he could use them.

Eager to be done with the servant trouble, Setzer didnot stay long in Kohlingen. The very day after arriving, he had the chocs saddled and guided them at a easterly course.

It was a half-day's ride to reach the train station, which required that the two take their lunch on the road. Benedick stuffedhimself and immediately fell into a deep slumber, replete and happy as a clam. The Samurai's master reclined back against a rock and bided his time.

An hour passed, and Setzer stood up on his stiff legs. He reached for the bandages, and then shook Benedick by the shoulder gently.

'Benedick, wake up. It's time for us to get moving.'

The old man, quite groggy from his meal and nap, groaned and sat up; he looked around himself with unclear eyes and mumbled something.

'Listen, Benedick, I'm going to put these bandages around your head and hands, all right? I'll leave you enough space around your nose so you can breathe, so don't be scared of suffocating. Here, give me one of your hands--'

'Why?' Benedick drawled; he frowned, but obediently let Setzer take up his hands and swath them.

'Do you have squires in Doma, Benedick?' Setzer asked very patiently.


'Did you have one?'

'But of course!' Benedick waved his bandaged hand; he was too tired to do anything more elaborate.

'And did you ever let your squire pester you with questions? Did he ever once call your decisions up on the carpet? No? He did what he was told without a word, didn't he? Well.' The boy folded his arms and cocked his head.

'Very good, Master.'

'All right, now stay still and don't talk while I finish this up. Damn, you've got a big head. I hope I can cover it all,' Setzer meticulously wound up his servant's head, his tongue sticking out of one of the corners of his mouth. With a snip of scissors and a sticking of a pin, he finished up.

'Just barely!' the boy said, looking at hishandiwork. He had bound the man's face completely save for his nostrils. "That was close. But you look great. Perfect.'

'Master Setzer,' Benedick's muffled voiceentreated from behind the gauze, 'I cannot see a single thing! Pray tell, how the deuce am I going to be able to ride?'

'Don't worry about it. I'll guide your bird until we get to our destination.'

'And where is that?'

'Benedick, you're a very nice man and a good servant and I am glad that I met you, but you ask too many questions. Why do you want to know? Let yourself be surprised for once. Come on, let's get ready. I'll help you get into the saddle.'

It was quite a trick to get the blinded man mounted--on one occasion Benedick got into the saddle backwards and on another nearlybloodied Setzer's nose with a flailing heel--but they somehow managed to do it. Setzer gathered up their mealtime remains, saddled Chocy, and graspedBenedick's bird by the leather reins running along its cheek, leading thesightless all the long way to the train station.

Setzer felt the muscles in his arm go rigid and numb,then they began to scream at him for release; tears trickled their way out unbidden. Often he was tempted to stop or let go of Benedick's chocobo, but he knew that every second they traveled meant that they were that much closer to the train station, and Setzer did not want to tarry any longer. Closer, closer, and closer--he repeated the word in his brain, focusing all his energies upon it, and he clung on.

At long last he heard the faint whisper of a train whistle; in front of him, before the hazy purple backdrop of rocky, zigzaggingmountains, stretched the clean white buildings of the station and the greatstitching length of track which circled around and disappeared into the distance, seeming to go on forever; the shining sleek train perched proudly next to the boarding dock. Setzer grinned triumphantly and led his servant towards the buildings, comforted that his poor arm would soon be soaking in a basin of warm water.

They came very close when the train sounded out its shrill whistle again. Setzer felt his ears ringing like mad and dreaded the worst.

'Hark! That is the very sound of Hell itself! Oh, Master Setzer, to what abominable place have ye brought me?' Benedickwhimpered. He started to shake in his saddle.

'What are you talking about, Benedick? You're hearing things.'

'Nay, I say! Ye surely must have heard that dreadful racket, good Master; it nearly shook the earth to its bowels! Do ye seek to torment me?!'

'Dear sir, I assure you, I have not heard a single sound that has been remotely out of the ordinary. I think that you're not getting enough air to your brain--I suppose the bandages don't let you breathe normally. You're just a bit light-headed, that's all. I'll remove those things soon enough.'



Setzer helped Benedick dismount and the two came up to the ticket-booth window, where a cashier was waiting for them.

'Two tickets for the next train across the mountains, please,' Setzer said in a voice that was to be heard by the cashier but not by his servant; the cashier looked at Benedick and tapped the side of his nose, his lip curling up to reveal dirty and broken teeth.

'Eh! Now that's the queerest sight I ever saw.What's your game, laddie?'

'Sir, I don't understand what you mean. I don't see what sort of =91game' I'd be playing. Don't you take my request seriously?'

'It's hard to when you've got a piece like that tagging along with ya.' The cashier pointed at Benedick.

'I assure you, sir, it's nothing to worry about. It's--well, I can't put this very elegantly, but I'll try. Sir, my servant here is a most unfortunate victim of circumstance. He has been afflicted with a sort of disease which requires him to wear the bandages you see."


'Oh, yes, sir, but don't let that put you off!It's eaten off his nose and half the skin on his face and fingers, but the doctor said for sure that it's not contagious--'

The cashier made a strange sound in his throat. 'See here! I'm not going to let that thing on the train!'

'Why not? I told you, I have it on the best authority that he's of no danger. He won't make any trouble. See?' Setzer clasped one of Benedick's hands and gave it a pat. 'Perfectly safe. Do be kind. His hometown's South Figaro, and he wants to live there in his final days before things get really ugly. You wouldn't want to rob him of that last request, would you?' He pulled out the required gold pieces and a little extra.

'All right, all right,' the man hissed, eyeing the gold as if it was poison, 'just get him away from here.' He picked up the coins with an ill-concealed shudder, threw them into the strongbox, and shoved two tickets towards the boy.

'Much obliged, sir. You don't know how much myservant is indebted to you,' Setzer said, bowing. He guided Benedick and their chocobos to the nearest porter, who stowed the bags and corralled the birds into a special car reserved for the animals. They climbed a few steps and had their tickets checked, and then sat down on one of the plush velvet seats, Benedick receiving the window side.

'Master Setzer, where in confuscation arewe? I really must know, ' the mummified man demanded, bouncing up and down tentatively on the springy cushions. Setzer sighed and sank luxuriouslyinto the velvet.

'We're in a place where we can just sit back and relax. Stop being so nervous. Enjoy it! These seats are nice, aren't they?'

''Tis almost sinful,' Benedick observed. "Ye know, Master, if ye are playing me false--'


Such was the conviction and force of this declarationthat Benedick fell silent at once and started to quietly amuse himself by running his hands over the velvet. He could feel the texture of the stuff, and the sensation of gauze over plush was a nice one.

Another whistle sounded, and the train began to pull away from the boarding dock. The floor clacked underneath Setzer's feet, and car began to jolt a little.

'Oh, gods, gods!' Benedick whimpered, and his chest began to heave desperately. ''Tis...Ye...Let me off! Let me off! Cyrus! Cyrus!'

Setzer looked at the man huddled up next to the window; annoyance and pity roiled in his chest, but pity eventually won out. He reached over and wrapped his arm around Benedick's shoulders and coached the Doman in taking somewhat even, long sips of breath. Benedick moaned the name of Cyrus again and again, his shoulders shuddering, and put his head between his legs. Setzer kept his hand on the man's broad back and sighed once more. He glanced out the window. The mountains seemed to be rushing up at them now, seeming so much closer though the train had not been going full speed for more than twenty minutes, their purple shifted to deep craggy brown.They were going steadily upwards, and he felt a giddy tingling in the pit of his stomach. The land began to roll out, bathed in the sparkling ruddinessof the sun which was very near the horizon now; Setzer looked upon it, found it beautiful, and the ride did not look to be as long as he first thought.


In the span of a single night, the train wended its way over steep grades and through narrow chasms, crossing over to mountains to where the kingdom of Figaro held sway.

The remainder of the journey passed without incident.Setzer and Benedick traversed the whole length of the parched desert, the sand ingraining itself deep into their noses, their clothes, and underneath their eyelids; Setzer felt that there was no amount of water in the whole world that could ever wash him clean. Firmly packed dunes rose in soft hills from horizon to horizon, some of them were dull gold, some bright yellow, and sometimes the sand glittered a ruddy orange hue. Scorpions and basking lizards scuttled out from the chocobos' path, and they were the only animals that Setzer ever saw in the almost a week he spent in those desiccated borders. The two passed by Figaro Castle, its twisting, elaborate spires rippling as if they were submerged in water, when going through the very heart of the dryness, and Setzer idly wandered how anyone could live in such a withered place and not go mad.

They came to South Figaro, on the edge of wild forestland, and saw the towering leafy giants which were the source of the town's ship lumber; in the distance, Setzer could make out humped hills and the openings of mine shafts. In town, they saw tidy, neat rows of houses and the shops which sold all sorts of wondrous Eastern novelties: fine steel from Doma, rare gems from Narshe, and crazy gadgets straight from Figaro Castleitself--what their purpose was, Setzer could not say. He liked the town, though, and was sorry to leave it.

From South Figaro, Setzer and Benedick were able to charter a proper passenger ship rather than pull off as cargo one of the cramped, dirty trading boats. It was here that Setzer boarded a seafaring vesselfor the very first time in his life.

Setzer found that he did not care much for the sea onthis, his first voyage. On the first evening he strolled leisurely on the deck subsequent to the business of seeing that his luggage was safely stowed away, walked up to the railing, and curiously bent his head over the side ofthe deck.

The scent of salts and kelp hung in a heavy mist overthe water's surface; he saw little crusty, scummy-looking specks driftingon the lapping waves, mixed with bits of aquatic plants, driftwood, and other objects. Beneath the thin veneer, straggly seaweed strands grew in clusters, almost like they were a crop of some bizarre type. Except for a few fish, the water was so murky and cluttered with weed that Setzer could see anything else. There was something sinister and unclean about the whole thing, hedecided; the water stank in his nostrils, and simply looking at the slimy things lurking underneath made him shudder, and he felt an unpleasant tingling in his arms and legs. For a moment, he thought that he had somehow managedto get one of the tendrils of seaweed wrapped around his leg. He withdrew afew paces, pulled his father's coat a little closer around him, and thought about more pleasant things. He and the sea did not agree; he desperately wished to be back on land.

The boat sailed onwards. The bottle-grin haze of the tree-lined shores shimmered faintly in the distance, and then disappeared completely. Each day, looking over the flat expanse of cobalt indelible, reflecting back the gorgeous sky in mockery, Setzer often thought to himself thatthis leg of the trip was as bad as the desert, if not worse. Yet he could not tolerate being confined into his cabin at all hours, and he spent most ofhis hours lounging about on deck, his eyes closed as he soaked up sunshine and let the soft hiss of the spray hitting the boat's sides coax him into relaxation.

Benedick was usually nearby. The old man was wont to be found sitting precariously up against the railing of the boat, dangling an old warped pole that a sailor had lent him over the edge, baited with a stale crust of biscuit or some other bit of food nobody wanted. Setzer initially feared that Benedick would topple right over if the waves became rough, but the Doman straddled the posts between his knees in a vice-like grip and let his body ride along with the rhythms of the sea. Nothing short of a tidalwave could have knocked the man off.

Setzer once asked Benedick why he fished, because theboy thought that it was a horribly boring business, and that the reward of a slimy, flopping, gasping fish was poor payment for hours of doing nothing.In response, Bruce shrugged his shoulders, curled one side of his mustache thoughtfully, and said: 'We Domans are taught this art from our boyhoodthat we may learn the virtue of forbearance, Master Setzer--'tis one of the qualities we most admire in a man. Not only forbearance it teaches, but how to focus our concentration, to calm our minds. I find when I cudgel my wits about only this one thing, then no other earthy cares or worries come to blight and sting me. =91Tis rest, only yet I never close these eyes. The thing I see before me swallows me, I swear to ye, and time means naught. And this place is so full of wonderments, the mind near cracks with the weight of it all! Marvelous! Never have I had such a stretcher for the old bean. '

'Ah.' Setzer yawned and rolled over on his chair.

'Would ye care to join my company? =91Tis a lovely view.'

'It's gross and nasty. I don't like it, and I sure as hell don't want to look at it close up. Nasty.' A bitter taste tinged his tongue.

'Very well. Your loss,'

As the boat neared Nikeah, a sudden gale blew them eastward off the course into an a crescent-shaped inlet near Doma, but the ship was never in danger of capsizing. The only thing that came out of it was that Setzer was able to catch a glimpse of Doma castle from afar, and then itwas not a very good view. It mostly looked like a blur of gray.

Benedick appeared beside the boy as he squinted at the building; the hands gripping the rails were shaking a bit. Setzer saw the old cheeks were wet. Not really knowing what to say, he ventured to speak, but Benedick stood rigid and never turned his head from the shore, even long after the sun had set.

The boat pulled away from the inlet and regained its route; it passed countless coral reefs, bays, and beaches that all seemed the same. It pulled into the port of Nikeah, and Setzer stayed there for threedays. He passed through the town's thriving marketplace, even larger thanthe one in Jidoor, and it seemed like anything the world produced ended up for sale here. People shouted, hawked, bellowed insults, shoved, and haggledin a dull roar, the crowds so thick around the crates and booths that one could not get a good view of the merchandise until he was right up next to the wares, and then he was caught. There was also a cafe of great local repute, where prostitutes doubled as waitresses. It was actually a very elegant place, and the food was good, so Setzer decided to see it first-hand. Nothing scandalous came out of it, but Setzer had to admit, he received the most solicitous, eager to please service he ever had, even if Benedick nearly died of shame when one of their waitresses kissed him on top of the head.

But Nikeah was soon a speck, too, and Setzer never saw land till his ship anchored in Albrook. This town was the Empire's placeof trade, but the selection of goods wasn't as good as Nikeah's, or even South Figaro's. It was a very bland town in Setzer's opinion, and he did not stay long. By now he was tired of being dragged from pillar to post, had seen enough of ports and harbors to last his lifetime, and wanted to endhis vagrancy and establish himself. Also, Albrook, being so well-situated to the sea, was one of the main housing places for Imperial troops that were ordered to travel abroad. Setzer ran into soldiers at the inn and the restaurants, but they took no notice of him and talked to each other and to resident civilians whom they knew. He didn't feel very comfortable in spite of this.

The last leg of Ponzo's selected route, Setzer elected to take a ferry up a wide river that ran from Albrook to very near Vector. It was speedier than taking their chocobos, even though the suffering birds desperately warked for exercise. The youth felt a bit guilty about it, and resolved to take Chocy out for rides every day once in the Empire's capital.

Two days were required for the ferry to chugs its wayupstream. Setzer found river travel a much more amiable mode of conveyance and spent his waking hours at the ferry's prow, pushing his hands against the rails as if he could make the boat move that much faster by his efforts.

On the second day, Setzer saw a dark blot up ahead. He asked one of the ferry's sailors if they were approaching Vector and received an affirmative answer. Setzer laughed and whooped and ran to find Benedick, who was at the stern. The old man was looking off into space with a sad look. Setzer saw the desolate expression and wanted to divert his melancholy.

'Hello, there,' Setzer called, stepping forth, swinging his arms. 'We're almost there.'

'Most welcome news, good Master, and smiling to my heart.'

'I'll just be glad to finally get on and land and stay there. It's been fun, but you get tired of it all after so long," Setzer said, positioning himself next to Benedick and folding his armson the rails. He bent down his head and began to think of something engaging to say. The water below was a thick brown opaque; a faint scent of ammoniawafted up. From the very start the river had been of the muddy variety, butit had gradually turned darker and cloudier as they moved; it was only now that Setzer was cognizant of the change and the smell.

'Huh! That's odd. What's churning up the mud?'

'That's no mud, Master Setzer.'

The youth jerked up his head and eyed his companion. "Do I dare ask what it really is?'

'I do suppose ye can sort it out for yourself," Benedick said curtly; his mustache bristled.

On the opposite bank, Setzer saw two people, a boy and a man fishing, both of them waded waist-high into the water. When the stern was level with the couple, Benedick, having seen that no-one but his master was in hearing distance, cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, 'Twits! Woodcocks! Woolly-wits! Asses!'

Setzer burst out laughing, and he laughed harder whenhe saw the expressions on the two fishermen. He finally regained his composure.

'What was that all about, Benedick?' he asked jovially. Benedick rested his chin on his folded arms sullenly and grumbled, 'Because they truly are the most hoodwinked idiots I have yet seen,Master Setzer. How can ye expect to find any sort of fish in this cesspool?No sense of sense at all! I swear by my sword, the world gets steadily uglier every day. Even I can tell ye that much.'

He fell silent and did not budge, his time-leathered face turned back in accordance with the stern. Setzer chuckled quietly and knocked the old man on the head playfully; he walked back to the front of the boat. He could see the capital much more clearly now. He saw the brown river threading its way through the willow-lined banks towards the black silhouette of the Imperial Palace, lights twinkling around its base like votive candles. They were very close.

A surge out excitement ran through him, and Setzer clasped his hands together and began to pray to Stray. He did not know where his luck seemed to come from, but he felt like some entity was watching over him--he could find no other explanation to how he could have survived being thrown through a plate-glass window, managed to leave Jidoor without detection, and obtain a servant in such a brief period of time. Stray had charmed him!

To end his prayer, Setzer took out his Stray charm and kissed it; he remembered his earlier vow, and doubled his resolve. Quid pro quo policy was only fair in his eyes.

Thus it was with a light heart and a bit of religiouszeal that Setzer approached the iron gates of Vector steadily closer, and, for one brief moment, he felt that the whole city would be his. Then he thought of J.J hidden away in there, and of his family and old friends. He wondered where they all were, what they were all doing, and smiled affectionatelyto himself. The memories were not sad to him now, only pleasant and distant.

The boat pulled up to a small pier, and the passengers with their chocs and bags disembarked. Vector awaited.



In the days before the true revitalization of magic, before the Emperor ordered admittance of all immigrants to be discontinued, entering and settling in Vector was not very difficult. Gaining residence was easily attainable if one could simply read and write. Background checks were nil, if one didn't barge in wearing combat boots and toting rifles. Ponzo had chosen wisely.

A massive wall of steel, the top bordered with barbedwire and patrolled by a small squadron of guards, encircled the city proper. A normal visitor or prospective citizen entered the city via one of two double-doored gates, one on the north side and the other on the south; there were many other smaller entrances, but they were restricted to all but merchants and military personnel. Setzer and Benedick, with Chocy, Benedick's war-bird, and their luggage, walked up to the north gate. Setzer motioned for Benedick to fall back a few paces and rode Chocy to a security checkpoint off to one side of the gate; all immigrants had to register here and apply forcitizenship. Three guards manned the checkpoint: two sat inside a square booth, one stood at attention, holding a clipboard under one arm. Setzer approached the guard and stated his business.

'Name?' the soldier asked; he held a pen over his clipboard, and jotted down every word answer.

'Setzer Gabbiani.'



'Place of birth?'


'And who's that fellow with you?'

'He's my manservant, Bruce Benedick. He's practically family. I've known him for as long as I can remember.'

The soldier turned to his comrades in the booth and whispered something, pushing the clipboard through the window slot. The two perused the information and brought out a pair of thin cardboard slips, sending them through the slot.

'These are your temporary residence cards,'said the first solider, handing them to Setzer. 'In a few weeks, you'll have to report to the Chamber of Admissions and receive proper proofsof citizenship and files. These will last you for a month--plenty of time to get situated.'

'Much obliged,' Setzer smiled. The gates swung open, and the two were waved through.

Few people were in the streets. Banners of vermilion marked with a single black swoop hung from the windows and eaves of brazen buildings, glinting softly in the starlight. Street lamps burned at each corner, and the breeze sifted dirt and dried papers into dunes around the posts.Far away, the whistles and bells of the factories of Vector signaled the night shift's beginning.

Vector was the most industrialized city in the world;only the kingdom of Figaro could be considered any sort of competition. Manufacturing of factory machines, of textiles, of plastics, of guns and steel,and only the gods knew what else thrived, and the goods were sent out in bulk to all nations, from Jidoor to Mobliz. Trains and steamboats entered and left in unceasing droves, and the clash of wheels and metal grated in the background at all times. The noise was especially loud at night, for many shipments were sent out in the late hours to escape the crowds.

In all the hustle and bustle, unknown to Setzer and his fellow immigrants, rumors seethed among the clever people of the capital that not only machines were being made in the factories. There was a certainplace only a few blocks down from the Palace, the MagiTek Research Facility, where strange and dark things took place, things so mysterious and unnatural that clever people dismissed them as fancy and the average citizens either did not know or understand.

But still the clever people talked softly amongst themselves. In the MagiTek Facility, they whispered, a young soldier of great potential had been taken down into the very heart of the machines and experiments and had disappeared in a great flash of fire, never to been seen by histroops again. They also whispered of a small child, born of two gorgeous parents selected for their beauty, who had gone into the Facility and emerged with her skin bleached snow-white and tiny ice crystals lattacing in her fine hair. But these were only rumors, and later, when Setzer got wind of them,he never believed.


Lodging did not prove difficult to find. Setzer founda respectable inn and paid for board and food for two. Now established, he set about the task of finding a suitable home, which he did quite easily.

The apartments he selected suffered from a slight case of wood-rot and the ventilation was poor, but they were clean enough, affordable, and could house two quite comfortably.

Benedick, on the day of their moving in, took one look at the place, its walls papered in a paisley pattern and small cracks marring the ceiling, and said: 'How revolting!'

'Thank you very much, Mr. Benedick,' Setzergrunted as he set down his bags. 'It'll look better once we get somenew paint and furniture in here. Please be a good manservant and keep your opinions to yourself. I'm tired, and I want to sleep.'

Bedding was unrolled and the two lay down in the darkness. Setzer tried to rest, but the nighttime traffic seeped through the thin walls of the apartment, and the rays of lamps from the other buildings cutin through the window, casting a chunk of light plumb across his face. Benedick started snoring, and Setzer left all hope behind.

He sat up in his bedding and glared at the window; hefelt angry at everything. He so wanted to sleep, but the more time he spentawake, the more he realized how much had to be done. He needed to find a steady job; he needed to buy furniture; he needed to seal the cracks in the ceiling; he needed to claim his residency, and a thousand other little things.Gods, when would it end?

Seizing a pen, he rummaged around in his bags for a sheet of paper; he had bought a ream in Kohlingen. Setzer put the paper on top of a book, and began to write a letter.

Dear Mama and Papa:

I'm writing to tell you that I've arrived safely,and that I've settled down quite nicely in my dorm. I share it with a boywho's very nice, but he snores so loudly and drives me crazy. Is it normal if I have violent fantasies about his death?

Chocy is fine, and he sends you his love. I hope you are all well; how are Mandy and Benny? Please tell them that I am all right.

The place here is not bad, and I have no real complaints, but sometimes the work just accumulates, growing and growing on me tillI can't get any sleep. At times, I just don't know what to do. Could you kindly give me some advice? Gods help me, I miss you.

One last thing: Could you send me a little more GP? I'm not in any dire straits yet, but my own meager funds barely cover the costs of books and meals.

Please write soon.

Your son,


He folded the paper and placed it beside his mattress; he would have Benedick deliver it to the post office tomorrow. It would give the old man something to do while his master went out job-hunting.


A few buildings down from the inn was a tavern, whichSetzer learned was the favorite haunt of a number of Imperial soldiers, most of them young fellows. Setzer thought it wise to make their acquaintance; perhaps they could clue him in on what jobs were available.

Speedily Setzer introduced himself to the most amiable-looking soldiers. He bought them drinks and tobacco and made jokes with them; the boy soon became quite popular with his new clique. The soldiers, to show their favor, taught him how to throw knives with deadly accuracy, and Setzer found he was good at the sport. It gave him something to do when he wasn't worrying about money or shopping for furniture.

Finally he decided to ask about the prospect of work.That day, he hailed one of his new friends over to the bar, ordering drinksfor two. The soldier got to his third glass of mead when Setzer said, 'Could you help me out? I have a friend who just got fired, and he's been down on his luck ever since. He used to work in a iron foundry, but now he can't get a job anywhere. Do you know of something? I'd like to help him out.'

'Hmmm...' the soldier mused aloud as he licked the mustache of foam from his lip, 'let me think.' His eyes lit up and he lowered his voice; Setzer could hardly hear him over the noise. "Now, this is very privileged information I'm going to give you. I wouldn't tell this to just anybody, but you're a pal and know how to throwa good spread. No less than you deserve. But you have to promise me that you won't tell another soul except this friend of yours. And remember: you never heard it from me.'

'I'll be damned before I betray a drinking friend's trust,' Setzer said solemnly. The soldier caught the youth in aheadlock and drew him close.

'The man your pal needs is named Mr. Mulciber."


'That's right. Weird little cuss, ugly as sin,but the man's a wizard, a genius with metal and machines. I've been to his workshop only once in my entire life, but gods! the things he can do! Myfather's a friend of one of his workers, and I think he liked me well enough, because he gave me this.'

He reached at his belt and drew a knife, the blade hissing from its sheath. He held it under the counter for Setzer to admire.

It was one of the finest pieces of craftsmanship Setzer had ever seen. The blade, wickedly serrated and poniard-sharp, glittered almost as if by its own illumination, inscribed with sweeping, lapis-inlaid runes. The hilt was gilded and scalloped around the edges; a garnet-eyed bronze dragon coiled around the pommel, grasping a crystal orb in its jaws.

'He made that all by himself?' Setzer whispered.

'Isn't it gorgeous? Yeah, he made it from his own supplies, hammered out the blade and pommel, carved them, put them together. He can do just about anything with metal.'

'Damn. He must be rich by now, if he can make things like that.'

The soldier shrugged and sheathed the dagger. 'You'd think that, wouldn't you? Crazy as it seems, the man's a nobody. All of his clients are small local factories that need his services like--like once or twice a year.'

'You're putting me on.' Setzer said flatly. 'How could things like that not attract attention? If everybody was blind, perhaps. I'm sure the Emperor himself would want to have such a manworking for him personally.'

'That's the trouble. Mulciber doesn't care about money or prestige. He's a stubborn old cuss. But that actually makes it better for your friend. The man needs all the help he can get, poor wretch. Tell him to go see the man, if you want. I wouldn't work him myself, but a job's a job. Here's how to get to his place.'

The soldier took up one of the bar napkins and a grease pencil, scribbled down a crude map and some directions. Setzer took the napkin and put it in his breast pocket.

'Thank you kindly. Here, let me purchase anotherdrink for you,' Setzer decreed. He slid some coins across the bar to the keeper, who stuffed them in the register and scooted off another tankard.

The two clinked their glasses together and quaffed. The soldier began to ramble on about other matters, but Setzer only listened with half an ear. His mind was turning and twisting over the new informationhe had heard.

Setzer realized that he really didn't have many other alternatives. He needed a job, any sort of job, to merely keep his body and soul together, and there was always Benedick. The little cache of gems was almost gone; he had calculated that he had enough to pay the rent and other expenses for only another month more.

Furthermore, the soldier had aroused Setzer's curiosity. The youth knew a liar when he heard one, and was certain that his drinking partner hadn't fibbed. The job and this Mulciber sounded intriguing. Surely looking deeper into the matter would not harm anything.

Mulling over these thoughts, Setzer felt a sense of carefreeness that he hadn't felt since his childhood. He chuckled merrily to himself as he drank his ale, and resolved to visit Mr. Mulciber the very next day.


Dawn filtered in through the blinds, and Setzer hauled himself out of bed. He changed into clothes suitable for an interview, donning his Stray charm and his father's coat for extra luck.

Benedick slept on the apartment's (used) sofa, and the old Doman was snoring away a storm as usual when his master entered the living room. Setzer woke the man and told him not to wait up.

'I'll probably be gone all day, if all goes well. You won't have much to do here, so if you want to look around, go ahead.' Setzer said. 'I'll get breakfast on the way.'

With that, he went out to a street corner, bought some fruit from a vendor and hailed a carriage; he didn't feel like saddling Chocy. He got out a few minutes' drive later in front of a large building that looked like a garage with a store's facade soldered on to the front. Across the facade the were the words MULCIBER'S SMITHY.

A CLOSED sign lay in one of the windows, but Setzer heard a faint ringing from inside. He circled around and found a large garagedoor--which was flung wide open. The boy slowly stepped forward for a closer look.

The inside of the building was one of the strangest places Setzer ever laid his eyes on. From the garage entrance to the plywood wall that separated the back from the store proper, the place looked like some kind of storage barn, with a high ceiling and no walls.

Scattered like toys abandoned by some freakish giant child over the huge expanse were huge work stations and various machines forevery smithy's need. Half-finished jewelry and weapons lay on cold anvils; huge furnaces stood inactive and silent; wooden benches laden with strange, delicate tools formed roughly rectangles. Propped up against the back wallwere monoliths, half-shaped and bizarre machines for factories.

A dais of sorts lay at the very center of the workstations, and Setzer was astounded to see that the furnace on the dais was blazing away, shooting geysers of sparks and steam into the air. The smell of melting metal filled the air with their heady, coppery scent, much like the smell of coins except much stronger. Clanging noises from somewhere behind thefurnace reverberated off the walls, bouncing on and on until infinity.

'Excuse me? Sir? Is anyone here?' Setzer shouted, cupping his hands to his mouth. The clanking cut itself off, and a shadowy form moved around to the edge of the dais.

The world's ugliest man glared down at the boy. He was a dwarfish person with a pot belly, though he never ate much, and arms like a gorilla's. His right leg was twisted and set with a brace; he had slumped, broad shoulders and poor posture. A huge milky-red blotch swam in oneeye; the other bulged from its socket. Fine black dust settled in the creases of the cheeks and eyes, the lines of the rubbery mouth, and inside the cauliflower ears.

'What'cha want?' the dwarf barked in a rusty nail of a voice; Setzer, entranced by the man's sheer hideousness, struggled for words.

'Is Mr. Mulciber in?' the youth managed to inquire.

'I'm Mulciber.'

From what the soldier had told him, Setzer had gathered that the famed Mr. Mulciber wasn't the most genteel man to walk the earth, but he felt that this was one of the sickest tricks Stray had pulled on him to date. The man ought to have been cleaning latrines for the army.

He forced himself to remain composed; Mulciber had put his arms akimbo and snorted impatiently.

'Sir, my name is Setzer Gabbiani. I'm seeking employment, and I decided to try here.'

'I don't need no more help,' Mulciber said. ''Sides, I don't think you'd be up to the work here. And stop callin' me sir.'

Setzer licked his lips, finding much to his distaste that they tasted slightly of charcoal. This Mulciber was going to be a toughnut to crack, he knew; and he also knew that he had no idea about how to proceed. In Jidoor, his youthful vigor, handsome looks, and charm had never failed to attract people's attention and liking, but Vector was turning out to be filled with philistines.

While his mind whirred away, gasping for a suitable response, Setzer's hazel eyes shifted in all directions, taking another view of the workshop.

On the second glance, he discovered that the place was egregiously under-productive. His father had taught him all the signs and tricks of successful business, and he saw very little of a good trade here. The equipment on the racks and anvils looked old and worn, and there simply seemed to be no order; things were made almost at random, with no limit or schedule, as evidenced by the great numbers of half-finished items--hardly anything looked completed. Setzer was not surprised. He suspected that men of Mulciber's ilk did not have much financial acumen.

'Well, sir, maybe I could do something else. Do you keep books? I'm very good with numbers, and I don't mind paperwork."

'An egghead!' Mulciber snorted. 'I've already got an egghead on my team, and I sure's hell don't need any more. Worthless little weakling, he is. And I sure don't want any of your snotty clothes and pretty airs and =91sirs' all the time. I ain't asir. So get yourself out, pretty-boy, before your face looks worse than it already is!'

Setzer, his heart beating hard and his stomach hurting, went over to one of the workbenches and picked up one of the few near-completed items, a gorgeous brazen shield polished to sun-bright sheen, embossed with highly detailed pictures of gryphons, pegasi, chimeras, and giants waving spiked clubs.

'What's this, Mulciber?'

'A shield.'

The boy resisted the urge to roll his eyes. 'It's a fine piece of art. It must have taken long to make. Did you work on it yourself?'

'That I did.' A smile twisted Mulciber's face, and abscessed teeth clamped together proudly. 'Ain't nobody in the whole damn world who can make a shield like that. Just need to fix on the straps, and it's up for the sellin'.'

'Amazing. And do you run this whole place by yourself?'
'I do everything =91cept run the shop.'

'Even the books?'

'Even the books.' The mismatched eyes narrowed dangerously. 'Don't think you'll get a job pushin' pencils for me, whelp. I don't let nobody look at my books.'

'Listen. Do you enjoy doing the accounts for your business?'

'Hell, no. Take me forever to do.'

'I come from a merchant family. I know how to doaccounting. If you let me do a job here--any job--I can save you time. Thatmeans that you'll have more time to make things. You'll be able to workon what you love. You can make twenty shields. You can spend time onyour art rather than annoying paperwork.'

A shadow passed over Mulciber's face, and he stopped glowering. 'I don't know. It's temptin', but I don't think you'd like it here. What's a pretty boy like you want with people like me and my workers, anyway? Why're you so rarin' to work for me?'

'A person's got to work. I need money. I've no parents.'

'Mmm. Aw'right, tell me: If I've got sixty swords, sell =91em all at fifty GP, and each sword costs me thirty-five to make, how much do I earn?'

'Nine hundred GP,' Setzer answered straightway.

Mulciber did not reward the answer with any kind of nod or smile, but looked up at the time clock on the wall and jumped down from the dais, limping past Setzer without a thought. He went through the back entrance and stopped a few feet out into the alley. Setzer silently followed, hoping that his request had not been denied.

The sound of rumbling and squeaking could be heard in the distance, approaching steadily, crescendoing into a beautiful racket. Setzer strained his eyes, but saw nothing. The sounds were very close.

A rickety old wagon, the wheels ungreased and lookingready to fly off at any moment, thundered into view and came to screeching halt. Two saggy-backed, sorry-looking chocobos, one white with black spots and the other missing half its feathers, pulled the wagon; on the rough, splintered sides the words COMPANY CAR were scrawled jauntily in white paint.

Approximately twenty men crowded together in the wagon, all of them laughing raucously and some spitting off the sides. A white poodle, complete with the snowball haircut and its ears tied with faded pink ribbons, jumped out and yipped shrilly. The men scrambled out, still laughing, and collectively moved towards the workshop, one of them hitching the chocs to an iron pole. The laughter ceased abruptly when the men saw Setzer with their boss.

Dead silence reigned for a few moments. Setzer felt atrickle of sweat down the back of his neck, but he met the sea of gazes without flinching.

Finally, one of the men, a hirsute fellow with a nosethat looked like it had been smashed with a hammer, disengaged himself fromthe crowd and stormed towards Mulciber.

'Mulciber! What the hell!' the man shouted.'Who's the pansy?'

'He's our newest addition. He's going to work the books and...well, I'll find him other stuff to do. What of it?'Mulciber retorted. A few in the crowd began to grumble.

'Godsdammit! How'd you let him talk you into it? I know those rich folk--they sweet-talk you and screw you as nat'rally as breathin'. Why's he even here? The yuppies have their places to work,we've got ours.' The man scrutinized Setzer with a scowl. 'He's a stick, too. He won't last. Just get rid of him.'

Setzer opened his mouth to defend himself and to mollify those offended, but Mulciber spoke first.

'Shove it, you, and get back there ' he growled, pointing to the other workers. Once his orders had been obeyed, the blacksmith spoke to the crowd, 'Some of you men don't seem too keen to have the whelp workin' with us. I don't blame you. But I gave my word, boys, and I won't break it unless the majority of you simply won't have it. Well?'

Yet another bout of silence ensued, and Setzer's courage was failing. The group of men before him were almost to a man stocky, dour-faced, broad-shouldered, hard men with callused hands and horny, blackened fingernails, and the boy wouldn't have lasted very long in a rumble with one of them, let alone the entire group. He feared for his life.

Another man stepped forward, but this one was scrawnyand one of the very few whose clothes had any semblance of being clean. Hiseyes, jaundiced and fatigued, looked out in a perpetual squint behind wire-rimmed spectacles, and when he spoke his voice wheezed.

'I'm just as surprised as anyone is,' he said, 'but he doesn't look like a dummy. And I can see that he's been through a few scrapes himself. He's been worked before, as bad as any of us. He must have some good reason to be here. I don't think he'll giveany trouble. Let's at least give him a few days and see how he does. It wouldn't hurt, would it, boss?'

Setzer could have kissed the man if he didn't look like he had some kind of head cold. Mulciber's ugly face turned almost thoughtful and he plucked at his ratty beard.

'You eggheads sure do stay together, don't you?' the hairy man shouted, forcing his way back up to the steps. 'Of course he'd stick up for the punk!'

'Enough out of you!' Mulciber raised his fists. 'Who's the boss here, me or you? And I have to agree with the shrimp. What'd it hurt to have the kid along for a few days? Anybody really object?'

His questions were met with a negative murmur. The dog suddenly began to yip again, making the men laugh and shout, 'Hell! Even Penelope doesn't mind! She's got you beat, Coroban!'

'It's settled, then. Come on, you sons of bitches! It's past workin' time,' Mulciber roared, swinging around to go inside.

'I won't work if he's with us!' cried Coroban. 'You men are shit-witted! Before you know it, he'll take overthis place and put his gutless rich friends in charge!'

One of the men turned around and called back, 'You just go ahead and quit, Coroban. Who cares? See if anybody'll take you!"

Coroban snarled and, after a moment's deliberation,stomped along with the rest. Setzer remained rooted in place; he felt he could hardly walk.

Someone touched his coat sleeve. Setzer glanced up and saw the thin man who had spoken up for him.

'You'd better stay away form Coroban if you can help it,' wheezed the spectacled man. 'He's got the nastiest temper in all Vector. He makes the boss seem like an angel of mercy. I can't baby-sit you, but you can stick with me. It's safest. Let's go.'

The two walked side by side into the workshop. Along the way Setzer remembered his manners.

'Thanks for helping me,' the youth said.

'No need. I was in your place once. He didn't want me, none of them wanted me, but I convinced them. Sure was hard, though. I can't believe I got the job even today.'

'My name's Setzer Gabbiani.'

'Livius Savaunt. I'm the electrical engineer," came the response. Livius lifted up a small toolbox and rattled it while extending his free hand for a shake.

'You'd better let me take that coat. It's not fit for work, and it'll only get sooty,' Livius said. Setzer removed the article and gave it to his helper, who found a box and carefully put the coat in storage.

Around them the men lit up the furnaces and took up their tools. Mr. Mulciber came towards Setzer, a stack of huge binders and some pens and inkwells hefted in his arms.

'Here. And do them right, boy, or else.'

'Thank you. I won't disappoint you.'

'Yeah. I guess Savaunt's going to show you theropes, so you won't be needin' me. You can use that old table over there. Now get crackin',' Mulciber indicated a table and chair propped upalong with the machines and hobbled away.

Setzer pulled the furniture from the corner and plopped the binders and writing utensils on top of the dirty tabletop. He seated himself and cracked his fingers. The little poodle Penelope trotted over and, after sniffing his leg thoughtfully, laid herself at the boy's feet. Setzer smiled and reached down to scratch her ears.

'Why do you guys take a dog to work?' Setzer asked Livius; the engineer's workstation was only a few feet away, and they could talk to each other easily.

'She's our company mascot, of course.' Livius smiled and laughed. 'We all wanted a mascot a few years back, and at first we wanted a Doberman or a pit bull, or some type of monster like that. But when we all were discussing it, one of the men said: =91Hell, why not get one of them fluffy poodles with the puffy haircuts? One of us here has gotta have some class.' And there it is.'

Livius gave Setzer a final encouraging smile and turned back to his machines, leaving the boy to his books.

The workers had been relatively quiet. They had busied themselves finding their tools, getting out their unfinished projects, andthrowing their coats and vests into a heap next to the door that led into the shop. They whispered among each other, spat on their hands and rubbed them together, and some exchanged tobacco.

From his high post, Mulciber's voice rang out: "Go!' The relative tranquillity was shattered.

At the word, the men stopped everything and scurried to their workbenches; the whole place burst alive with flame, smoke, and noise. Fires belched from furnaces. Hammers and tongs beat their hollow, dull sounds on top of great anvils. Metal bubbled and effluvia of steam burst out into the air. Two men ran the company lapidary, and the diamond dust-covereddisks shrieked. Sparks from furnace and anvil leapt onto the floor and danced for the slightest second before extinguishing. The smell of molten metalswafted up from cauldrons and crucibles. Ingots of gold, silver, and gray smoldered. Men shouted out instructions to each other and coughed. Bright flashes of light sparked up nearby as Livius tinkered with the wiring of the machines. Soot wafted down, filling eyes, hair, and mouth just like the sand ofFigaro Desert had done. This was the place the Mulciber lorded over from his dais, instructing and surveying every little thing.

Setzer blinked and shook his head. He gathered his wits and opened up the first binder, only to have his concentration broken yetagain. The books were a complete travesty. Most of the figures looked as ifthey were scrawled down as an afterthought, filling up margins and never staying within the ledger lines. He could not tell where one month's expenses and profits began and the other ended.

Burning fire and metal scorched his nose; the soot choked him; the steam and smoke stung his watering eyes; the incessant clanging and banging resounded dully in the throbbing of his temples. He could not understand the numbers before him. Setzer pressed his fists up against his ears and shut his eyes, baring his teeth in frustration.

He felt another touch on his sleeve, and the boy looked up into Livius's bespectacled face once more. In his hands the man helda pair of heavy-duty earphones and welder's goggles.

'Here,' Livius said. 'It's a damnable racket, isn't it? You'll get used to it.' He clapped the headphones over Setzer's ears, and the din did lessen quite a bit, though the sounds still came through quite clearly. The goggles, though a bit smudged, keptthe soot and smoke out of his eyes. Setzer thanked Livius and faced the ledgers again with a lighter heart.

Scrawled numbers and misadded prices streamed down the pages, row after row after row without end. Setzer frowned and screwed allof his efforts into correcting the accounts into making some sort of sense.His neck began to ache, and he suddenly felt tired. He desperately longed to be home with Benedick, in Jidoor, even out roaming the prairies and deserts, anywhere but here.

Still, he consoled himself, he had to consider himself fortunate. From the looks on the workers' faces when they first saw him,he had been almost certain that they were going to torment him mercilessly,perhaps even do him violence. Yet not one of them had even thrown a glance in his direction.

The noise and heat continued without mercy. A strangenew undercurrent unfurled itself into the layers of sound, a deep crying sound. Setzer listened more closely. It was the men singing. They had no senseof pitch or rhythm, and every note seemed smashed together, but the sound was rich and solid.

It's a long, long way before you

Ain't no-one gonna help you walk it

No man and no god

But walk it you gotta, and walk it =91lone, =91lone,=91lone

=91Till you lay down that hammer

And give Vector your clean white bones, bones, bones

Slowly, very slowly, Setzer hacked through the pages, muttering the numbers to himself; chew marks quickly covered the end ofhis pen, and his fingers bean to hurt.

A whistle screeched over the voices and noise. The men immediately set down their tools and walked from their stations, clustering around into small circles of five or six. Some of them brought out their lunch pails and began to eat small loaves of bread with cheese and meat, their sooty hands streaking the food; others brought out tobacco and began to smoke or chew. Setzer sighed and removed his rather silly-looking accouterments.

One large group of men, about seven or eight, Livius among them, encircled a bucket in one of the corners; they began to unhitch their pants. Setzer looked away, disgust curling his lips. They're all a bunch of animals, he thought to himself. They didn't even have the decency to go outside instead of spraying in front of everyone like dogs. Wasthere nothing normal in this horrible place?

One of the group at the bucket saw Setzer's repugnance and laughed: 'Aw, ain't that cute? The little lad's embarrassed!' Many heads swiveled in the boy's direction like a bunch of sunflowers.

'What's the matter? Ain't you never seen a guy piss before?'

'Maybe people like him don't piss,' someone mused. 'Maybe that's why they're always squirming and sticking up their noses--gotta find some release or they'll explode!'

A great peal of laughter erupted from the throats or nearly twenty men, which was quite loud, coming from such large, rough fellows. Setzer felt his ears burning; he clenched his jaw. He did not like beingthe butt of these people's jokes, and he felt angry and ashamed.

The laughter died down, and as it did Setzer heard Coroban's voice.

'You lily-livered fuck! You're gonna get us all fired one of these days!'

Setzer whipped his head around to find Coroban shaking Livius by the neck. Livius did not look very surprised, but he shrank awayand tried to wriggle free, clutching at the hands grasping his neck.

'Mulciber won't let that happen, and you know it. Please let me go so I can eat my lunch and work,' Livius whispered.

Coroban loosed one of his hands and punched Livius hard in the stomach. Livius groaned and coughed, spit trickling down from his bottom lip. His knees went slack, and only the hands holding by his neck kept him from collapsing.

'He'll kill him!' Setzer whispered. He started to rise.

'Don't you trouble yourself none,' one ofthe men said, moving quickly over and pulling him down. 'He's used to it. =91Sides, the boss wouldn't stand for it much longer. Look!'

Descending from his dais, Mulciber silently came up from behind Coroban and grabbed at the sooty-black hair near the nape of the man's neck. Sinews of forearm and neck strained.

'You let the egghead go this instant," Mulciber growled. He twisted his wrist around to yank harder at the tender skin. Coroban set Livius down, who fell to his hands and knees, his thin body racked with coughing.

'Of all my workers,' Mulciber continued, "I hate you the most. Always flauntin' my orders. How many times have Itold you to leave him alone?'

'Tchah! You always baby the shrimp. He's screwed us all over, and you still take his side. If I was in charge, I'd have both of these egg-suckers out of here. All they know is stuff any idiot can read out of a book,' Coroban said.

Near the arguing men a large crucible filled with a molten coppery liquid seethed over a short furnace which whistled with blue-white flames in its belly. Mulciber tripped up Coroban's heels and spun the man around like a discus, shoving his captive's face a few inches above the bubbling metal. Coroban writhed, and the skin on his nose and cheekbonesbegan to peel and blister.

'There's only one electrical engineer here," Mulciber hissed, eyes flashing murder, 'and I got lots of people like you. You ain't nothin' special. I could get rid of you, and this place wouldn't suffer a bit. Cross me again, and I'll have you out. Out! AndI won't care if you're breathin' or not.' He jerked up Coroban's head and shoved him away. 'Ah, off on you!'

Coroban gnashed his teeth and moaned an elegy of softcurses, but he backed down. His hands hovered over his burnt skin. The men,who had watched in great amusement, rang with laughter and cat-calls.

'Way to lay down the law, boss!' someone hooted.

'Boss isn't afraid of hell!'

'Stop your blubbering,' Mulciber said to Coroban. He turned away and called, 'Ratchet! Where the hell is he? Ratchet!'

From one of the benches a man rose up and stepped forward with long, no-nonsense strides. Setzer caught a good glance of the man as he passed. He only had seven fingers, both pinkies and the fourth finger on his left hand completely gone--they simply weren't there. His face, long and lean and ashy-gray, was accented by sharp lines around his mouth.

'What?' the seven-fingered Ratchet asked ina monotone voice.

'You know what. Fix that blubbering simp up. Faster you go, the faster he'll shut up and give us some peace!' Mulciber whirled around and stormed out a side entrance, slamming the door.

Ratchet, his stolid expression never changing, guidedCoroban to a work bench and grabbed a leather bag from the workers' pile,pulling out unguents, cotton swabs, and bandages. Coroban shouted and wailed when the first hint of salve touched his scorched face, but Ratchet only told him to shut up.

Meanwhile, Livius had slowly stood himself up and walked back unsteadily towards his machines. Setzer ran up to him and helped him over to a seat.

'Are you all right? Do you need a doctor?'

'No, I'm fine.' Livius's wan face triedto smile and he straightened out his spectacles.

'Fine! That man's got to be put away. Why do you tolerate it? Why hasn't he been sacked by now? None of you would be sadto see him go, from the looks of it.'

'Mr. Mulciber won't ever fire Coroban,' Livius coughed forlornly.

'Why not?' Setzer demanded, nonplused. It simply boggled the mind. Setzer could not fathom why Mulciber of all people would give any dispensations to Coroban.

Livius looked gravely at the young man. He spoke in alow voice. 'Well, it's only natural you wouldn't know, since you only just met the man. See, the gods know how long ago, when Mr. Mulciber wasyoung, he got engaged to a lady. Oh, stop laughing. It's true, you know."

'I'm sorry,' Setzer said, his mouth screwing up in an effort, 'but I would have bet anything that Mulciber wouldbe the least likely man on earth to get a girl.'

'Well, he got her. Not for long, though. She couldn't bear being tied down to such an ugly man, I suppose, and she ran off. He took it very hard, so I've heard. But this young lady had another sister, and the sister's son was Coroban. That's why Mulciber won't ever fire Coroban. I think Mulciber feels some responsibility for the brute. But--' Livius's face grew dark. 'It's not going to last forever. The fight like cat and dog. Coroban's going to go too far one of these days, you mark me, and Mulciber will kill him.'

'I wouldn't wait around long enough to see that happen,' Setzer said. 'You know, Livius, I think you'd be better off if you quit.'

'I couldn't do that. I love my work,' Livius answered. 'Mulciber pays well, and I've got four at home to feed."

'I see...' Setzer felt extremely awkward--what did one to say to that? He thought it better to let the subject alone. "Who's that Ratchet fellow over there?'

'He's the company doctor, and a good one. Whenever there's an accident, he always knows what to do. Used to be a surgeonin the Imperial Army, I'm told. He never talks about it.'

'What happened to his fingers?' Setzer whispered.

'Oh, I don't know for sure. Some accident, I suppose. I never asked him.'

A worker standing nearby turned around on his bench; he grinned widely and crossed his legs. 'That's crap. This is what I've heard--and I take stock in the source. Ratchet there got stationed insome godsforsaken outpost in the mountains, back when the Empire was havingtrouble with the people up there. Guerrilla fighters and the such. Well, the guerrillas attacked the outpost. They used little pipe-bombs that had shrapnel pieces in =91em. Some of the shrapnel caught ol' Ratch right in the noggin, and after that he went kinda crazy. Had screaming fits and tried to run away, but they caught him.'

'I doubt that. The army shoots deserters,' Livius coughed.

'I know that,' the man said, a bit nettled.'I live here too, you know. They didn't shoot him because he was a good surgeon. Men like him are hard to come by. Only a moron would've shot him. But they didn't let him off free. That's when he lost his first finger. Chop!' He whacked the side of his hand against his bench. 'Ofcourse, that only made him crazier. Two more fingers. Chop, chop! After thethird, they say he lay down in his bed for three days, staring up at the ceiling, not speaking or moving or eating. He was a godsdamn log. On the thirdday, he got up and went to work as if nothin' had happened. That's whenhe started talking so screwed-like, and stopped smilin'. He served out his term and came here after he was discharged. And we're all the richer forhavin' him.' He raised his voice. 'Ain't that right, Ratch?"

Ratchet shrugged his shoulders and continued to tend to Coroban's burns.

'Hey, Ratchet! Count to ten!' someone shouted.

'It was not funny the first three hundred times you people have said that,' the company doctor's monotone said. 'The next time one of you gets hurt, I won't help you. You can all go to hell for all I care.'

The whistle blew again, and the lunch break was over.Everybody returned to their work. Setzer happily returned to his book-keeping--it was good to take his mind off the horrid stories of chopped fingers and jilted love.

He hadn't been working long, though, when he felt atingling sensation in between his legs, gradually growing more painful. He desperately needed to go to the bathroom, but he swore that he would die before he went to that wretched bucket.

The pain grew worse, and he couldn't take his mind off on how good it'd feel to let go. He needed relief, to hell with the gods! He quietly slipped from the table; Livius caught the movement and whispered, 'Don't.'

The boy breezed by, staring straight ahead as he wentto the bucket; the color of his cheeks ebbed as he undid his belt. The smell was vile, for the bucket was not emptied until full to the brim. Setzer felt himself gagging as he speedily did his shameful business. He felt like a brute.

Pulling up his pants and buckling his belt, Setzer began to turn around to stalk back to his desk when something heavy hit the back of his head, spending him wheeling off balance and smacking hard against the floor. He lay sprawled for several seconds, not knowing what had just happened. He finally lifted up his head a little just in time to catch sight of Coroban storming away, fists balled up and red at the knuckles.

Nausea formed in Setzer's belly, and his already aching head felt as if it was splitting in two. The ceiling above whirled, making him feel like he was floating. He then let his head fall back onto the oily ground in a dead faint.


'He's starting to come out of it,' a distant voice spoke; it did not change pitch or tone. Setzer groaned in darknesswith an effort and grimaced in pain--if he hadn't known any better, he would have sworn that he had been bonking his head against an anvil all day.

Hands patted at his cheeks, very gentle but strong enough to wake Setzer out of his dazed stupor and open his eyes. He looked up into a gray, blasé face. He recognized the man, but could not for thelife of him recall a name.

Setzer became aware of a strange sense of emptiness; something was awry about the hands that still rested on his face. Darting his eyes around, he found he could only count seven fingers on his resuscitator. Setzer yelled out and slapped at the freakish things viciously. The gray man didn't seem to mind, though.

'Well, he seems to be quite chipper, Livius." The steady monotone flanged down a few steps. 'Boy, you'd best learn not to be alone when you go to take a piss.'

'Thank you, Ratchet,' a voice wheezed. Livius's face appeared beside Ratchet's, and the two men helped Setzer up. Livius handed Ratchet a tin of tobacco and some paper.

'Nng--Where'm I?' Setzer groaned.

'The sick room.' Livius answered. 'Coroban knocked you for a loop, didn't he? You got stunned and have been in here for twenty minutes.' He gave the boy an enthusiastic ruffling up and down of the lower arms. 'Do you think you could come back to work? It's still lunchtime, but it'll be over soon. Mulciber won't care if you slipped up the first day, just as long as you get back to work on time.

'But you've missed lunch, I'm afraid,' Livius continued. 'If I hadn't eaten all my lunch, I would have shared with you.'

'It's all right. But thanks anyway. And you too,' Setzer mustered a smile for Livius and nodded to Ratchet, who had gone off into the corner, rolled the tobacco up in the thin pieces of paper, and began to smoke.

'No need,' Ratchet grunted. 'It's myjob. But be careful next time. Sometimes this place reminds me of my wretched old station. It's better here, though. I can't abide those army pricks.' He puffed the cigarette for all it was worth, his teeth clamping down on it.

'Ratchet,' Livius said loudly to Setzer, "isn't as patriotic as most people should be.'

'Mpph!' the medic/engineer blew a ring of smoke out of nostrils and threw down the unfinished cigarette; he quickly rolled another one. His jaw relaxed, and he puffed some more, gracefully balancing the smoke between his dirty fingers. 'You house one little punk fora single night, and you never hear the end of it.' Ratchet nodded at Livius knowingly, but he spoke to Setzer.

'Not two days ago, I found a young lad in my tool shed. A real sorry sight, too, all bedraggled and skinny enough I could see his ribs. I took him into my house and let him sleep there for the night. Would have let him stay as long as he wanted, but he left before I woke up."

'I don't see anything wrong with that,' Setzer said.

'While he stayed with me, I talked a little withthe boy. It turned out that he had been stealing equipment from Imperial garrisons and pawning them. He didn' look in the least bit sorry about it. And this upsets our patriotic Livius.'

'What was his name?' Setzer asked.

'He never said, and I never asked. He did say hecame from Jidoor, though.'

'Please, tell me, what did he look like?' Setzer demanded. His heart pounded rapidly, and he could hardly breathe. He didn't dare hope, but maybe, just maybe--

'Red hair, blue eyes. Looked about as old as you. Why do you ask? Do you know the miscreant?' Ratchet answered, rollinganother cigarette.

Setzer didn't speak. Lorenzo! In Vector! He wondered whether to go out looking for his childhood friend, but he found it was impossible to figure out where to start. Lorenzo could have been anywhere in the city by now; perhaps he had even left and moved on. And it certainly wouldn't have been good for his reputation to be associated with someone who had fallen afoul of the law. Setzer felt ashamed, but he could find no way toreach or help Lorenzo, even if he did have the resources to do so.

But it was comforting to know that his friend was outand about somewhere, in difficult straits but alive. It seemed a harsh life, but Lorenzo would find a way to survive, Setzer knew. He didn't know what to think of the whole matter. He decided that brooding over it wouldn't help anyone, so the boy turned his attention to the here and now.

'You are so difficult at times, Ratchet. I can understand stealing just to get by. But this boy seems to have been deliberately selecting Imperial garrisons; that's stealing from the government. Youknowingly housed a traitor!' Livius was saying.

'And what would you have done, my dear friend?"

'I--I suppose I would have helped him,' Livius admitted. 'But I wouldn't have let him stay once I heard he was an opponent of the government.'

'No calling of the guards? How generous.'

'The boy would have landed himself in jail soon enough without my help. You are so cynical, Ratchet. You don't evenlove your country.'

'The Empire can rule as long as it pleases,' Ratchet answered, his face with that strange expression of his--not reallypain, definitely not pleasure, not really much of anything, except maybe bored. 'Or else some holy revolutionaries can take it over. It makes no difference to me. Either way, things will be no better or worse. Life will always be filled with hard work, as it always has--to hell with promises. People can do what they may.'

'You're so treasonous sometimes, Ratchet,' Livius sighed. Ratchet seemingly ignored the comment and spoke again to Setzer.

'Livius is a phenomenon. He's so old-fashioned, he thinks that if he goes through life making nice with people that he'll actually get something in return. Hmm! When will you learn that virtue isn't its own reward, dear Livius? People don't want kindness. Live as I do, undeceived.'

'Oh, I love you too. You cynics are a boring lot, 'Livius huffed; he got up and walked to the to the door before leaving, he turned to Setzer and said, 'There's still a few more minutes for you to rest. I'll be seeing you.'

Ratchet threw down his cigarette and rolled another. "Ah, Livius,' he said, leaning against the door frame, 'he's a good man. Generous, gentle, meek, and respectful to everybody, bless hisbleeding heart. Was there ever a man so stupid? I would like him, if I could. Of course, everyone he helps always forgets, but you must admire his persistence. I wish that at least once he'd find something worthy of his overflow.'

The boy gaped at the medic, and to Setzer, the stories about the shrapnel seemed very likely--the man certainly acted like it. Hesuddenly wanted to leave and get back to work; he did not like being alone with the man. There was just something obscene about his seven fingers and his ashy face.

'It's very near time to go,' the monotonevoice said. One more cigarette was rolled. 'If I had some pain medicine, I'd give you some. But since I don't, you'll just have to tough it out.'


After the final whistle screeched, Setzer wasted no time in loitering. He bade Livius a quick good-night and thanks, and quickly went out of the garage to a street corner, where he waited for a public carriage. He shivered in the bitter late autumn winds; he was cold, hungry, his head twinged. He wanted to sink down by the corner, go to sleep, and never wake up, but he could not do that--he had to keep a stiff upper lip.

To pass the time, Setzer watched the men load up in their =91company car'. It was simply amazing to see that they could all fitin and not break something. Penelope yipped and sprang into a man's lap, making the passengers laugh.

Coroban was the last man to come out of the workshop,and as he lifted his leg to step into the cart, the drive clucked to the chocobos, and the conveyance rattled off, leaving Coroban alone to shout filthy curses into the wind which carried the sound of mocking laughter. Setzer repressed a smile, but Coroban shot him a look of sheer malevolence nonetheless. Thankfully, a carriage pulled up at that moment, and Setzer scrambled inside.

When he finally got to the apartment, Setzer collapsed in a chair. At his master's entry, Benedick hurried from the next room.

'Greetings--Oh, what sight is this? Are ye well?"

'I have a bitch of a headache.'

The old man dipped a rag in the water pitcher and placed the compress on Setzer's forehead. Benedick then put a kettle and somesoup on the stove, declaring, 'A smattering of tea and stew will clearus of this deed. Ye did not stop by the bar again, did ye, Master?'

While the tea steeped, Setzer, wrapping a blanket tightly around himself, related all the day's events.

'I like it not, Master,' Benedick said gently. 'Ye should eschew the company of such men; no good will come to ye if ye stay on.'

The warm blanket, the chance for rest, and the prospect of food and drink calmed Setzer's jarred nerves; he felt a vague sense of clarity, and he answered the manservant:
'It's really not so bad, now that I think about it. I've made a friend in there, and he can help me stay out of any more trouble. I need a little time to adjust, that's all. I've got a job, at any rate.'

'I fear for ye, Master; such labors might be thedeath of ye. I don't desire that.'

Setzer smiled and patted Benedick on the cheek saucily. 'Well, let me think about it. How about that food? Is it ready?'

Benedick yelped and sprang up over to the stew, whichwas boiling and looked to spill over the edges, and he quickly snatched up both the pot and tea kettle, holding them for a few minutes over the burners. Setzer chuckled, which prompted his manservant to shoot him an annoyed look.

'Here, ye cheeky boy,' Benedick sniffed, pouring out the tea and stew, set on a tray, and placing the vittles on Setzer's lap. Setzer gave him a hearty thanks and spooned up the stew ravenously, not even bothering to chew the pieces of meat in the broth.

'A carrier pigeon arrived at the window today carrying a message and a pouch for ye, Master,' Benedick reported as Setzer ate. The boy nodded for the letter to be brought and opened it, still slurping his meal all the while. He recognized the handwriting as his mother's.

Dearest Setzer:

Your father and I were glad to receive your letter. I thank the gods that you arrived safely.

I hope that life in the reformatory has not been too rough on you. Do they feed you properly? If not, than I swear, I'm going take action; what it is, I don't know yet, but rest assured that it won'tbe pleasant. There's nothing more savage and final as a mother's revenge.

As for your snoring roommate, I prescribe placing cotton balls soaked in vinegar in his mouth. Your father used to have the same snoring disease, but after I gave him the treatment only once, he's never made a peep in his sleep since.

Your friends Mandy and Benny are well, and so are we.Ruadh's family has returned to Vector, but before they left your father and I along with the Gaetans and Mandy's parents paid them a visit. They received us rather coldly, but with courtesy, and they say that they bear no grudge. They say, however, that they do not wish to ever see you again until you have served all of your years in the reformatory. They were angry that they didn't have the satisfaction to see you leave, but I gave them some ofmy jewels, which pleased them.

I wish that we could be with you, dear boy; it must be terribly trying for you, and quite lonely. But your father and I can only offer you this: You are a capable, intelligent boy, and a Gabbiani. We trustthat you can handle everything, even if they do seem overwhelming sometimes. The gods have seen you this far; they will not abandon you. Remember, we are your parents, and we love you. Keep your chin up, ride out the rough, andalways act as befits a gentleman.

Our thoughts are with you always.


Mama and Papa

On the back of the letter was a postscript, this in his father's less elegant character:

P.S. Just because you are a Gabbiani, do not put yourself above learning from other people less well-bred than you. Listen with an unbiased ear, reserve your judgment, and remember everything. Be always onyour guard and think. Gamble often if you must, but do it wisely. And for the gods' sake, always use good taste; live richly, but not gaudily.That's what brought down our family, you know.

Gods prosper you.

Brining the letter up to his lips, Setzer grinned andkissed it; he thought he could detect the faintest hint of his mother's perfume on the paper, and the smell of whiskey. He tapped his feet joyously and hugged the letter to his chest, his spirits lifting greatly.
'It's a letter from my parents,' he told Benedick happily. "They send me their love, and that I didn't have to feed you if you keep on snoring.'

'You know,' he continued, 'I've madeup my mind. I'm going to go back to work tomorrow. Can't go throughout life without getting my hands dirty. Perhaps I was better off than most; that doesn't mean I'm not made of stern stuff. They'll see I won't be pushed around.'

'I still do not think it prudent; but if ye persist, then I cannot stop ye,' Benedick said somberly. Setzer smiled at the man's distress and patted the old cheek again.

The boy folded up the letter carefully, planning to store it away later, and reclined back in his chair, the warmth of the meal soaking into his bones; he looked on the prospect of another day in Mulciber's shop calmly and without fear. The work would get better. Lorenzo was alive and able to take care of himself. His parents and friends were safe anddoing well. He had a roof, food, and his very own servant; things could notbe all that bad.

I've been working as hard as I ever had in my entire life, he thought to himself, snuggling deep into the chair, but I'll make it. I may be deluding myself--I don't think so. But if I am, what does it matter? Daydreaming can't kill me.



Setzer returned to work the next day, the day after that, and the day following that. It was very difficult, and he often considered leaving, but he never gave in. Letters came from his parents, and whenever he read them (he never threw one away; he kept them in a special box), he felt that he could tackle anything.

At the smithy, Setzer grew accustomed to the sounds and smells of the place, and learned to ignore them. His co-workers graduallygave their grudging acceptance; although they still made jibes at his expense from time to time, they gave him no trouble. Nevertheless, Setzer always had a knife and revolver on him at all times.

Some of the more couth workers were on quite friendlyterms with Setzer, and Livius was always kind and helpful; Setzer counted the electrical engineer a s a good friend. The only man who continued to dislike the young man was Coroban, but Setzer tread carefully, and there were nomore clobberings.

Gradually, over the years, Setzer began to do more than balance the books. He never was an expert, but he learned the very basicsof metallurgy from the workers, and he was soon able to weld. From Livius, he received a smattering of information about electrical wiring, though the boy never really understood it, and how to fix an engine. In his free time, Setzer continued his own studies, reading far into the night to learn math, science, and reading literature; Benedick turned out to be a fine history teacher, as many Domans have a healthy respect for the past, and the old man gave his master lessons in knife-fighting.

But it was Setzer's financial and business instincts that truly were put to use. Often at lunchtime, he would quickly belt downhis meal and simply look at the place around him. There was so much potential for the business, if Mulciber would only stop to think about how to manage it properly. The men were making fine machines, weapons, and jewelry, but they always made too much because the dwarf did not advertise well at all. Hardly anybody knew about Mulciber's shop, and the man barely made profits for himself. Setzer could not stomach such glaring errors.

Convincing Mulciber to change his ways was a chore. The first time Setzer dared approach with a few suggestions, the dwarf had roared out that he should mind his business and had flung a pair of tongs at him. Setzer found help in Livius and, strangely enough, Ratchet. Mulciber took more kindly to the two men. Setzer therefore used these two as go-betweens; Livius was glad to help, and Ratchet was not adverse to dropping a few hints here and there. Mulciber listened to these two; later on, when he caught on to where all the new ideas and extra revenue was coming from, he finally acknowledged the boy.

Setzer grew more and more vital to Mulciber. The man didn't know much about economics, and as his business improved, he needed to rely on his scar-faced employee more and more heavily. Setzer's duties increased, as did his standing. The shop soon had double its workforce to keep up with production and orders.

Setzer also changed physically during this time. His face, just slightly lopsided on the right, lost the childlike look about it;his scars dulled and shrank and became less inflamed. His shoulders broadened, and the years of having only just enough food to keep him from being hungry made him slim and sinewy. He had a dainty, slender waist and a wiry figure which carried a surprising amount of strength. He had become a young man.

He continued to live with Benedick in the apartment, a life that neither pleased nor displeased Setzer. They got new furniture and could afford a few luxuries, but it did not satisfy him. He forced himselfto be patient and bide his time. He worked hard and long, thinking of better days which would come from his efforts.

Finally, when Setzer was twenty-one years old, Mulciber asked the young man to stay in the workshop after hours. After all the workers had departed, Setzer and his dwarfish boss sat down at a workbench.

'I have to admit,' Mulciber said, pouring them both glasses of strong ale, 'I have had the luck since I took you on board. You've done me and my boys good service.'

'Thanks, boss.'

'But I didn't call you up here to thank you. I'll tell you straight, boy: I don't care much for bein' a boss. Paperwork makes me want to puke. All I care about is this.' He slapped an anvil. 'Hell, you know what? I've decided to let you take over this place--but I've got some terms.'

'What would those be?' Setzer asked, feeling a bit faint.

'As the boss, you'd tell all the men what to make and what not to make. That's all well and good. But I want a little team of men for my own. I want to continue my work, and I get to choose what to do. Just five or ten men, that's all I ask. The rest is yours.'

'Done!' Setzer cried.

'Aw, wait a sec. One more thing. You promise me that you won't fire Coroban unless I say you can.'

That was a disappointment. How did Mulciber know thatfiring Coroban was on the top of his list?

'All right, but I'm not happy about it,' Setzer relented. 'I don't see why you'd care.'

'He's my kin.' Mulciber said simply. "If he's anyone's concern, he's mine. Nobody else's.'

'All right.'

'Shake on it, then. I hate signin' papers."

The two shook hands. Setzer remained calm and poised,but on the inside he was singing with jubilation; he wanted to jump, turn cartwheels, and scream like a loon for joy.

'My first act,' he said to Mulciber, 'is to make you my head foreman, my second-in-command, if you will. You will have control over all the men; only my orders take the place of yours. And you'll get that task force by tomorrow.'


Setzer used his new powers to their fullest extent. Almost immediately he gave the entire structure an overhaul: he divided the workers up into separate divisions, one for munitions, one for machines, another for jewelry, and Mulciber's little team. He hired a small group of advertisers, accountants, and lawyers, and he reconstructed the building (alongwith proper bathrooms--he didn't forget that!). Setzer also appointed Livius as the head engineer and made Ratchet Assistant Head Foreman, which was the third highest source of authority in Setzer's business, below only Mulciber and himself.

His most significant deal, the one that truly changedhis future, was to offer his services to the Empire. The Empire had by thistime slowly conquered the whole southern continent save for the very west, reducing the main city in the north, Tzen, to a puppet state through gradualwearing away of its military and ingenious political maneuvering by the Emperor. But Tzen occasionally chaffed, and many men and arms were needed to put down the annoying revolts. Also, the Empire had constantly been attemptingto make Maranda capitulate, and a great military force was being prepared around the time Setzer took over the business. Thus when Setzer offered the prospect of a source of arms and factory machinery, the government sprang at the chance.

A charter was drawn up, stating that Setzer's business had the right to do with its jewelry and ornamental weapons as it saw fit, but that the Empire had first priority in the orders of machines and arms. The government was so eager for the aid, the conditions of the charter favored Setzer greatly.

Life became much more pleasant very quickly. The Empire ordered in such great quantities that Setzer needed to triple his work force yet again and build new factories to keep up with demand. Profits skyrocketed, and Setzer became wealthy.

He moved out of his apartment and built a fine house at the very north of Vector, in a pleasant, undeveloped green stretch of hilly land dotted with wildflowers and maple trees. The house was two stories high, had acres of well-manicured grounds, and he filled it with elegant chairs, glass tables, crystal goblets, and beautiful and rich curios and soft carpets, though he avoided being ostentatious. He only needed five new servants: two maids, a gardener, a cook, and a chauffeur. Benedick remained as Setzer's personal servant.

Setzer was a most conscientious director. He always knew what went on in his business, scrutinized his accounts personally, and busied himself every day with all the countless little tedious aspects of business. But now he was not quite so busy as he had been, and found himself making up for the dear time he had lost.

Rich, young, and good-looking, Setzer whiled away theevenings and nights in the company of some of the most respectable names inVector. He soon established a reputation as a devilishly charming, refined young blade; no decent party could start without him. He attended dances, balls, and receptions; once he even attended a gathering in which the great Emperor himself was present, though Setzer only caught the barest glimpse of the ruler's flowing robes throughout the entire night. But it did not grieve him. For members of Ruadh's family attended the Emperor's banquet,too, he learned later, and they actually knew that he had been there, too. But they hadn't accosted him. They had actually gone out of their way to avoid him! If Ruadh's clan had retained their rancor and lust for vengeance, they didn't dare do anything: Setzer was now richer and more influentialthan they--the Empire cherished its factory owners almost as much as their soldiers. Moreover, Ruadh's past had certainly not been without its own blemishes, and, as they say, beggars don't make fun of beggars. Setzer knew perfect freedom, and it was sweet.

The young man hosted many parties at his own expense,and they were known as the wildest events Vector had ever seen, for his money certainly did not all go to the upkeep of his home and business. He builttwo large casinos, and in these he held his revels, inviting great businessmen and government officials and their wives . He played cards and roulette with the men and dined on the daintiest foods and danced long into the nightwith the women, all in Stray's name.

Women. He had gone too without them, it felt like. How many lonely, cold nights in his old apartment had he spent in his bed, waking up from hot dreams drenched in his own sweat and pumping? More than he cared to remember. And now he was surrounded by the pick of Vector, dressed in their gauzy silks and heavy velvets, sparkling and whirling, women who adored him. He kept his eyes and voice low in their presence, brooding as he did when he had flirted with the girls in Jidoor, and they loved it just as much. He danced and kissed with many, courted five or six for brief periods oftime, slept with one or two, and none of them lost their passion for him. Once he and a young woman jumped into a fountain at a garden party, laughingand kissing underneath the streams of water; he was certainly not a dull lover.

One whirl of gaiety and splendor came after another, catching the young man up in their heat and ecstasy, that he sometimes couldgo for days without troubling himself with anything except his work. Thoughts of Lorenzo sleeping in barns and sheds every night, of J.J. in his cheerless prison, of Mandy and Benny, even of his parents never once came to him during these times. And when he sat down and remembered, he made resolutions;he would visit his parents and old friends, he would use his wealth to lookfor Lorenzo, and use his influence to find out where J.J. was. And after hemade these resolutions, he always thought to himself, I shall do it first thing tomorrow when I get home from work. Then the whirl would catch him up, again and again.

One matter did turn his attentions from pleasure. When Setzer reached his twenty-fourth year that he came up with the concept of the airship.

Flying had been a relatively new concept, one that only Vector possessed the means and money to flesh out, but the Empire had already massed together a fleet of aerial machines, the IAF (Imperial Air Force.) The machines could not fly at very high altitudes nor could more than twopeople fit in them at once. They took up so much fuel that it wasn't worth sending them any farther than Albrook, but the technology existed and was being improved on constantly. One day, while he was out on a pleasure barge with some of his friends, Setzer, leaning on the ship's balustrade, saw one of the flying machines coasting very close to the sun-streaked water. The three glasses of wine he had drunk may have had a hand in the whole affair, but as Setzer watched the IAF jerry and felt the boat rocking beneath his feet, an idea came to him: Why not make a flying ship, an airship?

An airship, Setzer deduced, couldn't be more unwieldy and impractical than one of those noisy things. Why not go to Livius and see if it could be done?

Setzer, when he sobered up a little, later disregarded the idea as a drunken fancy. But no matter how hard he tried to put it from his mind, the idea kept on nagging him; Setzer knew that such tenacious thoughts should not be taken lightly.

So the next day, he called Livius, Ratchet, and Mulciber into his office and told them his idea.

'Do you think it could work, Livius? Is there a chance it might be possible?' Setzer asked.

'I--suppose--it--could,' the engineer replied hesitantly. The changes to the old workshop had done Livius much good; he did not cough nearly as often nor as hard, though he always looked sallow and tired. His spectacles gleamed as he put his chin in his hand. "But it'd need more than just simple propellers to make it lift, and the wood would have to be strong but light, and--'

'Why don't you just hang it by a balloon? Hydrogen's got lots a' lift, though it'd blow up in your face any chance it got,' Mulciber snorted.

'Yes, yes...yes!' Livius shouted; his tiredeyes burned with energy. 'That's the way! Why wouldn't a balloon--I mean, if we suspended the =91ship' part of the contraption by a canvass of some type filled with a gas lighter than air--oh, yes!'

'Do you think you could make a model or some type, Livius?' Setzer asked, leaning forward on his desk.

'Why, I suppose I could, if Ratchet could help me. He's better at hammering out materials and whittling wood than I am. Ratchet?'

'I don't have any objections,' came the answer.

'Great!' Setzer grinned broadly, tapping his fingers rapidly in joy. 'Work on it right away. Take all the materials you need. And Mulciber, help them out if they need it.'

'If and only if,' the dwarf grunted. Liviusgave a whoop and dragged Ratchet out the door. Setzer leaned back in his chair and spun around in circles. Gods, he had great workers!


Two weeks later, Livius rushed into Setzer's office. He held an object the size of a large dog in his arms, draped in a bedsheet.

'It's finished,' the engineer panted. Livius looked haggard, half-starved, and deliriously happy.

'Don't keep me waiting, man,' Setzer cried. 'Let's see it!'

Livius placed the object on the coffee table and whipped off the bedsheet.

It really was a strange and wonderful contraption. Ithad the body of a ship, though slimmed and lengthened a little, and severalcables connected the ship to some canvass which had been inflated into an ellipsoid. The ship had four engines, two large and two small, placed so thatthe large engines were set evenly between the prow and stern of the ship; the smaller engines were placed near the balloon to provide some extra speed for the back.

'It's beautiful,' Setzer breathed.

'Thank you,' Livius beamed. 'Ratchet and I worked day and night to make this. And it works, too! Watch!'

The engineer snatched a small remote control from hisvest pocket and pressed a button. The little engines whirred to life, humming softly. Livius pressed his thumb forward on a toggle-switch, and the airship zoomed off the coffee table, hovering in the air.

'I can make it go up and down. It can take sharpbanks real easily as well,' Livius boasted. He toggled the switch, andthe two large engines turned downwards at an angle, causing the ship to go upwards. He then guided the model in a series of dives and turns; Setzer looked on in unspeakable delight.

'Gods, Livius, you are a fucking genius!' Setzer shouted. He ran from his desk and hugged Livius with all his might.

'Send in Ratchet, Livius. I want to talk to you two. And Mulciber--get him, too.' Setzer said, finally releasing the engineer. The order was carried out swiftly, and soon the young man addressed all three:

'Well done. I can't say anything else. You have done all I asked, and more.

'But now that I see it's feasible, I'm determined to make this think a reality. I have always wanted to fly since I was a little boy. Not in one of those wretched IAF planes, but in something thatI could stand on, walk on, and truly experience the sensation of flight. And, by the gods, I'm going to do it. It'll cost money, but to hell with that! I have enough.

'But this is what I want you all to do. Ratchet,Mulciber, Livius, I want to keep this thing a secret as long as possible. No-one is going to steal this, dammit, and I don't want the government sticking in its nose until I can show them something. This thing has so much potential. It could carry huge amounts of goods in short periods of time--much faster than a train or ship. You are not to say a word about this, all right? Promise by all the gods you will!'

Mulciber and Livius mumbled their oaths. Ratchet saidstiffly, 'I have no love for the Empire. Why would I give them the jump on anybody?' These responses satisfied Setzer, and he continued in a hurried voice.

'Good. I am going to build a hangar of sorts onto this building. We'll start construction in there. I'll form a special department to work on the project. Livius, I appoint you as head engineer. Ratchet, you'll supervise the whole thing. I also want you and Mulciber to go out among the men and pick the most trustworthy to work on the airship. You know them better than I do.'

'It won't be hard to find normal workers. Those that are inexperienced but loyal can be trained quite easily' Livius said, his brow furrowing in worry. 'But getting engineers--that's another story. We don't have very many of them here, and I don't trust themall.'

'It's that damn Professor Cid and his hoity-toity MagiTek crap,' Mulciber said. 'Yellow coat-sportin' pussy's been taking all the good engineers.'

'I see,' Setzer groaned; his heart sank, but then he had an idea. 'Start on it anyway, Livius, and get what help you can. I'll get you some more help. Leave it to me.'

'And how do you expect to pull that off?' Ratchet asked.

'Easy,' Setzer grinned. 'Take out an ad.'


Setzer was as good as his word: He deluged Vector'stechnical institutes with all sorts of media offering good wages and benefits for promising young engineers. A wave of starving young students flocked to the factories. Some were sent away, some were accepted, an presently Setzer had gathered enough trustworthy assistants for Livius. The young man would have liked to have had a few more, but Livius could get by.

Construction on the airship began in the new hangar, behind doors that were locked from the inside and guarded on the out. Setzerhimself helped in production. He could not assist in the building of the engines--there were simply too many things to learn about in too short a time--but he could work on the body, nailing boards and welding. Everyone who was selected for the special team of shipwrights (mostly imported from Albrook), engineers, and, various other workers were conditioned to never tell a soul about the special project; only Livius, Ratchet, and Setzer had access to the entire set of blueprints.

Clandestine as the project was, Setzer knew that rumors and stories about the airship would inevitably slip out. And people did talk, though, strangely, no-one in the upper echelons of society nor anyone from the government seemed informed. The stories were whispered among the lower classes in the cafes, in alleyways, and in the secrecy of the home; some of the rumors so fanciful and ridiculous that Setzer could not help but laugh at them. As long as people kept it to themselves, he supposed he could live with gossip.

Only one person outside of the privileged workers ever saw the airship before it was completed, but it turned out that this did not harm the secrecy, for the person was someone who wanted to fly as much asSetzer did, and had great loyalty for the project. He name was Daryl.


One morning, Setzer arrived early to work on some minor repairs on the airship's balustrade. One of the joints had cracked; thankfully, only a little light welding was needed.

The airship's body had been calculated for the greatest efficiency and aerodynamics, so Livius had given the green light for the skeleton and part of the top deck to be constructed The workers could do little else before Livius and his engineers drew up final, solid blueprints for the inner workings and engines, so they had to make do with building thebalustrade and filling in the very top parts of the sides.

Grabbing an acetylene torch, goggles, and gloves, Setzer made his way in through the empty hangar. He had closed the great doors behind him, but he was lax about locking the things. It was quite early, with only Mulciber and a few others working in their stations, and the men knewthat the hangar was for only selected personnel. There was no danger.

Setzer was nearly finished with the joint when he detected a movement through the doorway in his peripheral vision. He turned offhis torch, removed his goggles, and swung his legs over the edge of the scaffold's platform. He thought it was one of the airship team.

Well, Lawks, it wasn't.

A young woman stood almost directly beneath the scaffolding, smiling up widely at him. Her face, a soft and round shape, looked neither old nor young; but a soft aureole of youthful vigor radiated from thestrong, pleasant, almost nondescript features.

He was too taken aback to even get angry at this horrid breach of security. Connoisseur he was, he couldn't help but look over her every charm and asset. And she had quite a few, notwithstanding her lackluster face. Thick ringlets of strawberry blond hair hung luxuriously past her ears and down her shoulders to the middle of her back, golden highlights glinting faintly. She was neither fat nor thin, but she had a wonderful shape. Her waist was round and plump like a young tree, well-proportioned with her curvy hips.

The lover of airships and women could easily take in and digest almost every aspect of his intruding guest's physique, because she wore a rather unladylike ensemble: a skin-tight bodice of a black material with a deeply curving neckline (setting off an ample bust), black knee-length pumps, bulky leather gloves, and a red jacket that reached to her calves, dotted with innumerable pockets. She smacked a wrench against the palm ofher hand as she grinned up at him. She had one of the deepest, widest set of dimples he had ever seen.

'Hullo!' the young lady called up, waving her wrench. Her voice was a rich contra-alto, but very easy to hear. 'Are you Setzer Gabbiani? The men said that I'd find him in here.'

'This--this place is off-limits! Please remove yourself at once. How did they let you in here, anyway?!' Setzer cried shakily. Everything he held dear was in jeopardy! He nearly felt sick with fear.

'Oh, they told me it was restricted,' the woman said, looking not in the least chagrined, 'but I went up and triedthe door anyway. It was unlocked.' Her face grew serious, and she added, 'But don't worry. I won't tell a soul about what I've seen. I don't want anybody beating you to the punch, either. I swear by all the gods--may I burn for eternity if I lie! But I trust that, you, then, are Mr. Gabbiani?'

'Your servant, madam. How may I be of service?" Setzer bellowed down the question politely.

His new arrival's cheeks colored a little; her gringrew abashedly crooked, but showed no signs of nervousness.

'Aah--hmm. Let me be blunt. I'm looking for work, and I hear that you need engineers. And I just happen to be an engineer,so here I am.' She licked her lips, frowning in concentration. 'Iwas wondering, Mr. Gabbiani...would it be too much to ask if I could be interviewed sometime today?'

Normally Setzer told applicants of her kind (of course, they normally didn't court jail by trespassing) to come up with a resume and schedule a proper hearing before politely but firmly sending them off,but he decided to make an exception. He never knew why. Perhaps the noveltyof having a woman, and such a strangely-dressed one, simply barging into his restricted workshop and asking for a job threw him off guard. Perhaps his fondness for the gentle sex weakened his resolve. Or perhaps his Gabbiani intuition told him that here stood a capable, honest addition to the workforce, and that she may have loved the airship as much as he did. In any case, his answer was a foregone conclusion.

'All right, I'll be down . Just wait a few seconds,' he called over his shoulder as he turned to lower his platform. He started--there was only an empty spot where the woman had one moment before stood.

The scaffolding began to vibrate, shaking him. Setzergrabbed one of the rails and stared over the edge.

Climbing up the scaffolding, effortlessly scrambling from one level to the next, was his visitor, whom the young man believed to be out of her gourd. She scaled the height in less than two minutes and ended up next to him.

'Good gods! Are you crazy, woman? You could havekilled us both! You trespass and attempt murder in the first twenty minutesI've seen you!' Setzer choked.

'Please. There wasn't a bit of danger,' the lady scoffed. 'I've been climbing up trees ever since I was four. Besides, it was quicker this way, wasn't it?'

Setzer wiped a hand across his face, which grew calm and more pleasant. 'I suppose it was. Shall we get on with the interview? I don't see why we should delay it because you tried to off me. What's your name?'

'Daryl, sir. Daryl Spielen.'

'What's your work experience?'

'I have loved to tinker with machines ever sinceI can remember, sir. When I was fourteen, I started taking jobs, working onall sorts of things in so many factories that I can't remember them all." She counted on her fingers. 'I've worked on trains, on milling machines, threshers, combines, and, well, I can't think of the rest. But I've had many years of experience.'

'So have all of my other engineers.'

'Ah, but how long have they actually worked?' Daryl challenged. 'They've spent half their careers studying in institutes. I've studied, too, but I've been in the actual businessmuch longer than most of them, I warrant.'

It was simply incredible. A businessman like himself,and he found himself believing every word this madwoman said. Her shining eyes and broad smile and callused, strong hands, just seemed so sincere to him. He asked her a few more questions, and they finished in record time. It was the strangest job interview.

'All right. I think I could take you,' Setzer said. 'But I want to know one thing: Why did you risk being hauled to court with trespassing and espionage charges just to apply for a job? The proper way would have been much more agreeable, not to mention legal.'

'It's because, sir--' Daryl cast down hereyes, looking over the deck with its glowing, silky smooth planks, 'I want to fly. I don't doubt you know that there's been some talk about this machine. When I heard about it, I knew that I wanted to come here. I had to see if for myself. And now that I have--I've fallen in love with it, sir. It's my only chance. You know that the IAF won't take women. Besides,I like this ship more than those stupid little planes.'

'A woman after my own heart,' Setzer smiledwidely. He couldn't help but find her lack of business tact and her passion endearing. Moreover, he knew she had him trapped; it would not do to let someone who had seen as much as she did to go without ensuring her dedication to his business.

But he decided to give her a little bit of trial timewith the normal workers, just to further verify her claims, to allow her toget a feel of the place, and to show the men that he did not play favorites.

The men! The thought was very nasty. Setzer did now know how well the workers would respond to having a woman in their midst. In spite of all his advertising, not one woman engineer (the other positions were quite out of the question) had applied for a job.

Yet he had practically given Daryl his word that she would be hired; his genteel instincts did not tolerate ruining a lady's dreams. And perhaps her sex would not be much of an issue after all.

'Okay, you're in. I'll give out the orders to add you to the payroll today. However, there will be some forms for you tofill out. Would you mind staying after work? It's almost starting time, and I'd like you not to be late the first day.'

'Not at all.' Daryl said. She bowed her head to him. 'Thank you so much.'

'Well, I couldn't very well have you gallivanting out there without a job. We need all the help we can get. However, for about a month I'm going to put you in with the normal engineers in the machinery department. You'll need a little experience with this place before Ican put you on this team. Besides, it wouldn't be fair for me just to putyou on the special track just like that.'

Daryl's face fell a little, and her eyes looked painfully disappointed. But she shrugged and forced a little smile. 'I understand.'

'Let's get you started, then. Don't look so sad--you'll be working here before you know it,' Setzer put an arm around her shoulders and shook her encouragingly. 'Remember: never tell anyone what you saw.'

'You know I wouldn't.'

Setzer nodded his approval and lowered the platform. He unlocked the doors and guided her to the machinery department, which was bustling with men fraternizing before the first bell.

'Listen up, everyone!' Setzer called. All talk ceased, and the workers looked at their boss and the woman who accompanied him.

'This,' he continued, clapping Daryl on theshoulder, 'is your new co-worker, Ms. Daryl Spielen. She's the newest addition to the engineering team.'

Daryl lifted her chin and met the silent stares with a level gaze and a friendly smile; she lifted her hand a gave an awkward little wave. Setzer did not know what to make of it, he prayed that Daryl wouldbe let alone.

'Go ahead to that station over there,' he whispered in her ear, 'and those men will fill you in on what they're working on. If there's trouble, ask for me, Mr. Mulciber, or Ratchet. And see that ugly black-bearded fellow? His name's Coroban--avoid him. Good luck.'

She winked reassuringly at him and joined up with thegroup of engineers he had indicated. The bell rang, and the men slowly wentabout their business. Setzer felt anxious about leaving her, but nobody seemed ready to assault her. He hated to do it, but he had other matters to attend to.

Setzer found it extremely difficult to focus his mindon his work. He was always tense, fearing that any moment he'd hear a scream and the sounds of a riot, but his fears never came true. He peered out into the machinery factory every ten minutes it seemed, but nothing happened except the usual work. The men were unsettlingly quiet, however; they usually talked and sang at their labors, but now they were dead silent.

At lunchtime, Mulciber, Livius, Coroban, Ratchet, andsome other workers appeared in Setzer's office. Mulciber spoke first.

'You sold my business to the government,' the dwarf said heavily, 'you took away the grit and sweat that made my men make beautiful things, and you got rid of all my old rules. I never said a word, =91cause I knew that I'd given up my place, and you could do as you damn well pleased. But this is the straw that breaks my back, Gabbiani! Letting a woman in! Who in the hell do you think you are?'

The men shouted their support, and they all began talking at once.

'Ain't no place for a man to make himself honest work anymore!'

'We won't be able to feed our families!'

'This is men's work!'

Setzer raised his hands and shouted them down: 'Hold it, hold it, HOLD IT! What are you so worried about? Do you think that just because one woman comes in that they'll swarm upon this business and take all of your jobs? Honestly? Stop yelling like maniacs and think. Why should you be afraid of one woman?'

'We ain't afraid!'

'Then why are you making such a big deal out of it?!' Setzer demanded, rubbing his forehead. He looked at Livius. 'Come on, Livius. Do you honestly object to her being here?'

'Actually, sir, I do,' the engineer said flatly; Setzer had never seen the man looking so nervous and disgruntled. "I don't think that our jobs are in danger, but it's just not...right to me. This is no kind of life for a woman.'

'I see. I guess it was too much to ask. And you,Ratchet?'

'It makes no difference to me,' Ratchet said coldly. He rolled a cigarette and turned his back. Setzer scowled--gods, the man could be so annoying!

'We'll strike if she keeps on,' Coroban growled.

'All of this over one woman?'

None of them answered, but everyone except Ratchet returned the cold glare Setzer gave.

Over in the corner, the poodle Penelope unexpectedly rose from her bed-pillow and leaped into Setzer's lap, yipping at him happily and licking his face. The dog had become a celebrity of sorts in the factory and was still the unofficial mascot. The men loved her. She had taken up permanent residency in the original factory and Setzer saw to it that she lived like a queen, up until the day she succumbed to luxury, fat and happy,only a few months later. But now she nuzzled the young man lovingly and growled at the workers.

Rough men of the forge are a strange breed: hard as iron, mean as hell, yet as superstitious as old Gypsy ladies. When Mulciber saw Penelope's actions, he took it as a sign that she approved of Setzer's crazy act. His ugly face twisted.

'Godsdammit,' he swore, going over and taking up the poodle in the crook of his arm, 'it's against everythin' we hold dear. But if Penelope says it's all right, then I suppose it won't harm none.'

'You're stupid and crazy,' Coroban spat. "What makes you think that a mangy cur like that knows what's good for our jobs and what ain't?'

'Shut up,' Mulciber snarled. He backhanded his nephew viciously and glared, his bloody eye pulsing. 'Dogs ain't like humans. There ain't no guile in =91em; they're honest, trusty beasts, and Penelope's special. Wouldn't have been our mascot if she wasn't. She's our luck. But we won't be lucky no more if we don't go with her advice. I ain't gainsayin' her.'

'Whatever happens,' one of the men said, "I won't betray Penelope.'

The others voiced their loyalty and heaped abuse on Coroban, calling him some of the nastiest names that they could think of. Setzer vowed to himself that Penelope would be getting a piece of filet mignon for her supper that night.

'Listen,' Setzer said, covering up his glee, 'I know that you'll do it, even though you don't like it. But howabout we compromise? If you let Daryl be, I promise to hire no more women. Also, I will give every man in this factory a bonus of fifty GP each. Is that satisfactory?'

The men said that it was very satisfactory. Setzer ushered the crowd out of his office, saying, 'Fine, then. It's settled.Now stop whining and leave me alone! Any more complaints can be directed to my middle finger.'

He slammed the door. The men needed to know that he was dead set in his decision, and the only way to do that was to be rude to them.

The men (except for Coroban and Ratchet) stared at the door in utter stupefaction.

'Shi-i-it,' one of the men said finally. "He's got us beat.' A knowing look came into his eyes, and he grumbled, 'Bet she's slept with him.'

Everyone else nodded. What a rake their boss was!


Setzer had worried that Daryl would turn out to be one of those humorless militant-feminist types( a craze that had caught on in some parts of Vector due to the emergence of a girl trained as a great MagiTek Knight into the Imperial court) and start proselytizing about gender equality and the godsawful truth that all men were chauvinist scum, and that sheif she heard one wolf-whistle, she'd litigate the man's ass so hard he'd look like a hunchback.

Luckily, Daryl drew very little attention to herself.She never frowned when her co-workers gossiped and hooted about the women they knew, was usually cheerful and never balked when given difficult, physically taxing assignments. Daryl could also, from what Setzer heard, be as coarse-tongued as the best of them. The men had not been thrilled to have a woman on board, but Setzer knew they were trying their best not to hassle her.

Daryl was not vocal about the gods-given rights of all women, but where her own individual freedom was concerned, she was much more blunt--Setzer and all of the other men learned that soon enough. For one day, as he worked on his airship, Setzer heard yells and the great clatter of tools being dropped all at the same time coming from the machine department. He ran out to see what caused the trouble; Livius and Ratchet followed.

The workers had formed a ring around one of the work-stations, and Setzer saw Daryl and Coroban were the main attractions. Daryl was screaming at Coroban, waving a wrench in his face.

'You son of a bitch!' she yelled. 'Don't you tell me what I can and can't do!'

'Listen, lady--' Coroban raised his hands.

'Don't you speak to me like that!' she squawked.

'All right!' Setzer strode through the ring, leaving Livius and Ratchet to calm down the spectators. 'What is going on here?'

'This fellow, here, sir,' Daryl answered, indicating Coroban with the wrench, 'won't mind his own business. I was working on one of the machines, and I had to hoist an engine up a few feetand lower it into the right place. Well, he came over to me and said, =91You'd better get someone else to do it--you ain't strong enough.''

'Well, she ain't,' Coroban said. 'Doyou really think that she could lift a fifty-pound engine? I was just pointin' it out, and then she gets all catty on me.'

' You miserable--! How do you know?!' Darylshouted. 'I'm usually a peaceable, agreeable girl, sir,' Daryl said to Setzer; she cocked her head sweetly and smiled. 'I really hate making a fuss--' She suddenly whipped around, teeth bared and eyes flashing. '--unless some no-good-for-nothing, flatulent, snaggle-mouthed yahoo with no balls at all gets my dander up!'

Daryl struck out with the wrench, aiming for his facebut in her excitement missing the mark, glancing a blow off his collarbone instead. Coroban bellowed and struck her back; his fist cracked against her nose, snapping her head back and tumbling her down. Blood spurted and spattered the floor.

'That is enough!' Setzer shouted. "Get back to work, all of you! Except you, Ratchet.' He nodded to Mulciber, who had come running the second he heard his nephew had started yet another fight. The dwarf repeated the order, and herded everyone to their stations, knocking a few unlucky fellows on their heads in the process.

Setzer went over to Daryl, who had pulled herself up into a sitting position, and he said, 'Ratchet will stop the bleeding. But I suggest that you take the rest of the day off, Daryl.'

The young lady nodded, but she quite suddenly leaped up to her feet and bolted out the door before Ratchet touched her. Setzer felt very sorry for her; he would make time this evening to speak with her.

But he pushed the plan back for the time being, and he turned to Coroban.

'I won't fire you, Coroban,' Setzer said sternly, 'because Daryl's reaction was a bit uncalled for. But--'

'Hell it was! The woman's crazy. Get rid of her! I had a feeling she wouldn't pull her worth.'

'I am not going to fire her either, so you'd better live with it. Get to work, for the gods' sake. But if you hurt any one of the workers here again, I promise that I'll have you carted off to prison, and I won't let you come back when you get out,' Setzer spat. He felt angry and terrible. He didn't know if he could stand one more insult without hurting the man. Coroban saw the look in Setzer's eyes, scowled, and retreated.

Sighing, Setzer went back to the hangar, wishing thatthe men would just let some things be.


The final bell rang. Setzer customarily stayed about two hours after to finish his paperwork, but he felt strangely out of sorts and wanted to go home early.

There was a hill near his house that Setzer particularly liked; the hill was the tallest on all his land, and one side had such asteep inclination that it could almost have passed for a cliff. Setzer loved standing at the very edge of this hill; if the sky was blue and the wind just right, it almost felt like flying. It was a spot where he went when he was sad, worries, or just wanted to be alone.

He came to his hill, taking in the breeze and the softness of the grass; a sense of clarity and peace came over him. So relaxed was he, he wasn't particularly surprised to see what greeted him when he reached the top.

Sunk down in the grass, her eyes closed and her hair spreading all out, curling into the green dotted with tiny purple blossoms, lay Daryl, her face cleaned of the blood. She must have been dozing, but when Setzer came closer she stirred and sat upright.

'Hello,' Setzer said. 'This is a nice place, isn't it? One of the reasons why I bought this land was because of this spot right here.'

Daryl jolted and put a hand to her chest. 'You did that on purpose!'

'No, I didn't. But I wonder, how did you get here? I've got a fence all around the area.'

'It's your land?'

'Yes. Come on, I'm not mad. Tell me how you got here,' Setzer grinned.

'I just climbed over.'

'It figures!' Setzer laughed. 'But it does wonders, doesn't it? I don't blame you for coming here.'

'It's lovely. You can see all around you from up here,' Daryl murmured. She fell silent, and Setzer found that he couldn't think of anything to say to her. Daryl's feet began to fidget.

'Am I fired?' she asked. He started for a second, but he answered her calmly.

'Of course not. You've worked hard for me, andI won't sack you over a little spat like that.'

Daryl's face remained turned to the ground; she spoke quietly: 'Don't patronize me. I can't stand it.'

'Madame, I intend nothing of the sort.' Setzer frowned. 'I am simply doing what I think is fair. Nobody's firinganybody, and I'm certainly doing you no special favor.'

A small line creased the middle of her forehead, but Daryl said nothing. Her muscles were tensed, and she braced one of her legs against the ground.

'But,' Setzer emended, 'I must admit, I don't mind being generous. I consider you a friend, and friendship needsa little help now and then.' He sat down beside her and reached out his hands. 'Here, let me look at that.'

He lifted her chin and examined her nose. It was swollen and crust lined her nostrils, but the angle and bridge seemed unharmed. Not very becoming, but to comment on that was not courteous nor wise.

'Nothing broken,' he told her. 'Does it hurt?'

'That's a stupid question,' Daryl smiled back, her eyes shining with the old mirth. 'It's like asking a one-armed lumberjack if he needs a hand.'

'It's only decency,' Setzer laughed, releasing her face; he looked obliquely at her. ' But I know how it is. I nearly lost my nose once.'

'You didn't,' Daryl said.

'Yes, I did.'

He told her the story of Ruadh, omitting some of the more gruesome and shady details, and she listened with wide eyes, both of them lying down in the grass side by side.

'Terrato bless me,' Daryl said, 'that's something. Where are those pals of yours? Where did this thing happen?'

'In Jidoor. That's where I'm originally from. My friends--I haven't heard from them.'

'Jidoor! Is it as grand as they say it is?'Daryl peered down at him, leaning up on her elbows.

'Yes, it is.' Setzer smiled, closing his eyes.

'I always wanted to go there when I was a kid."

'Not dressed like that,' he said, "You'd be exiled on the spot.'

'Ah, a city of ninnies!' Daryl nodded her head firmly. 'Forget it.'

'What about you?' Setzer drawled, plucking one of the purple blossoms and sniffing it, only to find it had no perfume. He plucked off the petals and sprinkled them in her hair. 'Is Vector your hometown?'

'Born and bred here. I've never been further than Albrook.'

She had a mother who still lived in the city, Daryl to ld him, though they lived apart after she had completed her engineering classes. She used to have an older brother who worked for the IAF, but years ago a jagged piece of metal had fallen off the decrepit remains of a disused plane and struck him on the head as he passed underneath.

'He used to let me visit him in the hangar when he wasn't on duty,' Daryl said, 'and he always said that he'd take me up in one of the two-passenger models. Never happened, though. Now that I think about it--I think--I think that I was more sad because I'd never get up there than because he was dead. I feel awful about it. But...' she inhaled deeply and stood up, walking over to the hill's edge.She stretched out her arms, and the wind billowed her hair and coat.

'But when I find places like this, then nothing matters. The sky seems so big, bigger than the gods--'

'And you just go up and up,' Setzer said, he clenched his fists to slow down the tingling in his hands and temples. He got up and joined her. 'You know, I do believe that you have proved yourself worthy of a promotion. Tomorrow, you will report to the hangar.'

'I'd love that.' She hesitated. 'But...I don't think I should. I'm in it bad enough with the men already. Oh, they don't bother me, but--'

'Daryl, I wonder how many opportunities you'velet slip through your fingers. You finally are offered the place you came here for, and yet you drop the ball. You've worked hard for me, and I say you're entitled to something. I know you want it.'

The brown eyes twinkled, and she bent back her neck, looking up at him. ' I trust that you'll remember I hadnothing to do with it.'

'Of course you didn't. I'll make you anotherdeal. This hill, here, you like it, don't you?'

'I love it.'

'Well, how about we share it in joint custody? It's yours as much as mine now. Come any time you like.'

'Why do you insist on being so nice to me?'Daryl demanded. She put her hands on her hips and cocked her head, something she always did when she was baffled. 'What are you on, and what do you want from me?'

'I'm always this nice. I can't help it if I'm the product of good breeding. It's a curse, I know, but I am what I am.'

'Gee, you're such a prince.' Daryl took his hand in both of hers and squeezed it; her callused fingers felt surprisingly soft.

'Does that mean you accept?'

'Yeah, because you'd bug me to death until I agreed just to shut you up.' She turned around and jogged down the slope, pulling him behind her. 'Let's go into the city,' she told him, craning her neck to look back, 'and get something to eat. I'm starving.'


They came to a little bakery in the small back-allies. They each bought a slice of honey-cake and ate out in the shop's front portico. Daryl found a huge almond in her cake, and she never looked so proud.

'Sometimes the baker puts a handful of almonds into the batter,' she said as she held up the nut for him to see, 'and he never tells you.' Frankly, Setzer did not understand all the fuss, but it was good to see her in lively spirits again.

'I had better be going home soon,' Setzer said, both of them having eaten, and he stretched. 'My manservant has conniption fits if I stay out too long. He treats me like a kid sometimes."

'I think it's cute,' Daryl grinned. 'Hell, you know so many interesting people, my life seems so dull. I wish I could meet them all.'

'Who knows? You just might. Here.' Setzer helped her out of her chair and gave her his arm with a bow. 'If it please you, Madame, I'd like to escort you home.'

'No one's ever done that for me before,' Daryl remarked in a neutral voice.

'It's because you've never met a true gentleman before,' he responded grandly. She tentatively slipped her hand onto his forearm.

Giving him directions along the way, Daryl walked along with her escort through winding rabbit's warren of streets. A line of apartments came into view, and she told him to walk slower.

'This is it.' She clutched his arm tighter and gave him a sly wink. 'Look, I want to freak out my neighbors. I want them to see you go up with me to the door. What good is it to have a rich guy like you with me if nobody sees us? It'll give somebody a heart attackfor sure.'

'I'm all for that notion,' Setzer consented. The old feeling of mischief crept up his spine, and for a moment he thought he was back in Jidoor.

'Look, look, it's my landlady,' Daryl whispered. She tugged on his coat sleeve and pointed towards an opening door, out of which stepped a stout lady wearing a babushka. 'This'll be great. All right, let's go. And make it classy.'

'From the looks of it, I say that she deserves the full treatment.'

She pointed out her door and he led her up onto the rotting porch with long, elegant strides. They stopped at the door and he caught up her hands.

'Thank you, good sir,' Daryl said, looking up into his eyes and gazing as if she adored him.

'Make no mention of it. Good night, fair lady. Shall we meet again tomorrow? At the Palace, as usual? ' he murmured, drawing her close.

'And tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.'

Setzer raised her hands up to his lips and kissed them twice, once for each; he bowed to her and walked backwards off the steps, never turning face away from her. They blew each other kisses before Daryl unlocked the door and disappeared.

As he walked past, he saw the landlady still looking out from her front porch. He smiled blithely and saluted her, but she couldn't even nod back.


Some of the men looked disappointed the next day whenDaryl reported back to work; Setzer strongly suspected that they had thought she would never come back. Livius and the airship crew took the unannounced transfer into their department in stride, thankfully, and made no complaints. Daryl's joviality and eagerness for work warmed her to them, and they liked her, even without taking into account the fact that she was not adverse to bashing their heads in with a tire iron if they harassed her.

She worked well in her new atmosphere. Often Daryl could be found in or around the slowly but surely growing airship, cheerily laboring in the midst of the countless gears, cogs, and engine parts, or else running at breakneck speed across the scaffolding, her rich laughter and jokes attending wherever she went; Setzer sometimes never saw her at all when she worked, save for a fleeting glint of her ruddy-gold hair, the turn of herstrong, tanned neck, or a wide smile.

As much as the other men liked her, Daryl did not spend much of her leisure time with them. Ratchet and Livius, with their quiet ways, preferred to stay to themselves, and the rest usually went into the main workroom to socialize; Daryl did not like going there. She started to while away her breaks with Setzer, which suited them both very well. They talked about the airship, about the workers, Vector, and about the world. He taught her to play cards and cheat without getting caught; she tried to show himhow to take an engine apart and assemble it again, but to no avail. They fought over wines and fashion: he preferred the finest quality, whereas she liked the most exotic and least-used. Neither convinced each other, but it wasall in good fun, and Setzer loved it.

Daryl was good company. Her laughter, sheer vivaciousness, and boundless energy enthralled him; he never knew what to expect fromher. One moment she was doing this, the next doing that, and it was a challenge to keep up with her. But keep up he did. He found himself asking permission to see her home every day after the last bell. He learned that her favorite dessert was fruitcake, because nobody else liked it, and that she preferred daises because nobody liked those, either. Once a week they had dinner together (Daryl demanded they split the check); sometimes they went out on chocobo rides, which almost always turned into races--Daryl loved turning anything into a competition, and constantly sought to one-up him.

'Bah!' he said to her finally, 'Try and top this, you deranged woman: Have you ever been to a party? Not one of those drunken orgies you find in bars, mind you, but a real one?'

'No, I haven't,' Daryl managed. Her lowerjaw started to protrude in that adorably contentious expression of hers. "But what's it matter? Parties are for dandyprats and tights-wearing hedonists. Rich people's parties aren't any different from other folks',except they don't get quite as drunk and they wear poofy clothes. I spendmy time on better things, thank you.'

'That's my Daryl--all love and sarcasm.' Setzer winked at her and chucked her chin; he patted her strong hand. 'You've been woefully deprived. Would you like to come with me to one? Thisweekend there's going to be a grand outing at Aledard Gokun's house. Isthere any way I could persuade you to come along and see what you've beenmissing?'

'I refuse to be caught in the association of anyone named Aledard, thank you. It sounds like a drink. =91Come for happy hourand get aledards for one half price!''

'Your reservations about the name notwithstanding, he has great taste and never disappoints,' Setzer pressed. 'Come on, Daryl.'

'There's a first time for everything, I suppose. When I'm old and my grandkids are gathered =91round the fire and they ask me whether I've been to a fancy party or not, I won't have to say, =91Well-- the best I did was go to bars and throw up all over myself.' I'll go to your wretched party.'


The weekend came, and Setzer had the privilege of leading in a pretty, round-faced lady wearing her best cream-colored slacks anda long, bright red shirt cinched tightly, giving the illusion of a skirt. It had been a trial to convince her to even go that far; Daryl thought dresses and makeup as supremely evil things that needed to be destroyed. Her hair was done up in a soft, sweeping coiffure, tightly curled ringlets spilling over her nearly bare, freckled shoulders.

Women crowded around from all sides, greeting Setzer and appraising the new arrival; Daryl smiled quite demurely and curtsied. Females can be the most hateful shrews ever to walk the earth when they sense a rival, but Daryl kept her profile low and genial, and she was readily accepted. She was drawn away from Setzer's arm over into a small group of the silk and satin clad ladies.

'Hey, Gabbiani, where did you meet that little lady?' a man asked Setzer. The young man shrugged his shoulders and swept up a crystal martini-glass, rotating the delicate stem between his fingers. 'Her name's Daryl. She's a good friend of mine.'

'You seem to have lots of those lately, Mr. Gabbiani. Pray tell, where did you make her acquaintance?'

'She works in my factory.'

'Gods, man, you brought one of your own workers? Have things gotten so desperate for you?'

Setzer glanced over his shoulder at Daryl's group. She was in the middle of an anecdote, the other women ringed around her, their faces shining and gay. Their chittering laughter tinkled over the crowds.Daryl herself shimmered with her joy of life; her face was gleaming and rosy, the dimples her cheeks deep and wide, and her eyes danced with mirth.

'Once,' he faintly heard her saying, 'when my brother and I were in school, we were attending English class, and our teacher, a guy roughly six and a half feet tall and four hundred pounds--widest man I ever saw--was lecturing on a story. He was trying to drive homea point about how much the ladies in the book loved this one character. He said, =91Now, girls, I want you all to think about how sad you'd all be ifthe members of your favorite musical troupe were all married--' and mybrother just blurts out of the blue, =91To each other!!''

Everybody in the ring laughed, and Setzer felt a surge of pride well up in him. Daryl was a marvelous storyteller. Her face exuded richness and emotion, she did wonderful voices, and her gestures flowed naturally and with passion. She would have been a great actress, if only she was thinner.

Setzer watched her all throughout the evening, watched her laugh and sparkle. In the heat and light of the chandeliers and lamps,he felt a twist in stomach growing by the minute, and the blood in his veins began to tremble and thrum. Of all the women he had known, none had ever made him feel so. He had always felt great affection towards Daryl, and much of the strange euphoria he was experiencing stemmed from the old amiable love, but there was a new, biting edge. He decided that he must have this one, this pretty, shimmering gem of a girl who was full of stories, whims, and who wheeled and sang with life to its very top. She made him happy.

The party went along at its pace; Setzer whiled away the time with talk and wine, and he constantly looked up at the mantle clock. He'd never been eager to leave one of these gatherings before.

At twelve o' clock, the party proper came to its end. Many people lingered for about another hour at the parties, but Setzer did not wish to this time. He nodded to Daryl, who excused herself and bade her audience good-night. He helped her with her coat, and they stepped out into the night air.

'Whew!' Daryl sighed, 'Thanks for getting me out. I was getting tired.'

'Did you have a good time?'

'Perhaps. It wasn't as bad as I thought it'dbe.'

'See? What'd I tell you? Now aren't you gladI dragged you along?'

'You people sure know how to have a good time, that's for sure,' Daryl said, a yawn making her voice go down several notches. 'It was fun, I guess. I liked talking to the ladies, though they seemed a bit unimaginative for my tastes. I'm glad it's over, though."

'Do you think,' Setzer ventured, feeling a bit shy, 'that you'd be up to another party anytime in the near future?'

'Mmmaybe...but only if you're with me. =91Cause next time, I won't make so much of myself. I liked the attention, but I've had enough to last me a lifetime. However, I would like it if you'dbe there.'


'That's my name. What is it, dear sir?'

Setzer put his hands behind his back and looked down at his toes like a schoolboy reciting before the class. 'I was wondering, Daryl, if you would do something for me.'

'Go on...'

'Would you like to live with me?'

She suddenly seemed quite abashed; he couldn't readher eyes. 'You mean move in with you.'


'Well, first of all: Why? I'm certainly not the prettiest girl you've met, I'm sure, and I've got nothing except my apartment. What would you get out of it?'

'Your exquisite and glorious presence. It's all I want. I'm getting tired of living with just Benedick and the servants to keep me company.'

'Setzer, I am very fond of you--heck, I'll go out and say it. I love you very much, and I think you're quite attractive.But I wouldn't feel right living off your good graces. I don't think you're playing me for a sap, but a girl needs to stand up for herself. I've known many friend who lived with rich boyfriends, and they were thrown outwhen the man had gotten through with them. No self-respecting lady does that to herself.'

'Do you know me so little? First of all, I wouldnever treat a woman so callously as that. Second, I have no intention of casting you off, ever. You're too good to pass up. Out of everyone in this wretched city, I love you the best.' He leaned in very close to her.

'People will talk,' she whispered.

'When did that ever bother you? Let them talk."

She folded her arms and puffed out her breath. 'You're really serious about this, aren't you?'

'Oh, yes.'

'Then by all means, let's not waste another minute.' Daryl reached up, threw her arms around his neck, and kissed himquickly, leaving a very pleasant warmth on his lips. She disengaged and looped his arm through hers, towing him away. 'If we're going to live insin,' she said, 'might as well do it as quickly as possible and make the most of it. Let's go back to my apartment and get my things. It'll only take a few minutes.'

Setzer whistled up the carriage and ordered the driveto wait while Daryl gathered her belongings, which only took her roughly ten minutes. She emerged with a tool box, a small trunk of clothing, and a fewlittle knick-knacks of personal significance.

'Just a sec. I've got to inform of my departure,' she said to Setzer. He nodded and watched her swagger up to the landlady's front door and rap her knuckles on the wood. The lady poked her curler-bedecked head out and frowned. Daryl took a sheet of paper from her coat, slammed it down at the landlady's feet and gave the one-finger salute. She then ran over to the carriage and leaped in next to Setzer, pressing close; he could feel the wriggling of her body. He rested his chin upon the crown of her head and closed his eyes.

This, he thought to himself, this is what it means to be alive.


The carriage dropped Setzer and Daryl off at the threshold of his house. They carried in her articles and set them down in the entry hall. Setzer drew her close and wrapped his arms around her back.

'Home sweet home! It's half yours now, so you can go wherever you want. Just as long as you don't burn it down.'

'Darn. My plot to seduce you and infiltrate yourhome so I can burn it down has been foiled!'

In response, Setzer sighed and pinched her cheek. A little floating flame approached them from behind; Benedick entered slowly inslippers and a floppy nightcap, holding a candle.

'The gods as my life, wastrel, now ye choose to rouse the house--'

Benedick regarded Daryl with surprise; his mustache twitched, and his cordy throat worked up and down.

'Daryl, this is Bruce Benedick, my manservant who I have talked to you about. Benedick, meet Daryl.'

'Hail to thee, Ladybird,' the old man greeted and bowed stiffly. Daryl gave a sort of cooing sound, looked very pleased, and rushed up to pump Benedick's arm almost off his shoulder.

' =91Ladybird?' Nobody's ever given me a nickname before. I like that,' she laughed. 'It's a pleasure to meet you. Setzer's told me a bit about you, but it's an honor to see you inperson.'

The word Ladybird, though often used as an expressionof affection (it's the name of a small and very cute red and black bug), also has less flattering connotations: in the proper context, the word can be understood to mean =91a prostitute.' Daryl, since obscure words weren't her forte, obviously thought that the word referred to some kind of robin or cardinal.

'Daryl,' Setzer said, 'would you like to pick out your room and settle in? You can choose whatever one you want." It was a quandary. If they were going to be living together, it would only make sense that they'd sleep in the same bed; yet he was determined not to force himself upon her. He wished he had thought about that.

'Good night,' she said slowly, stooping to hoist her trunk; after she had gone, Setzer jerked Benedick by the pajama collar and shoved the Doman into a corner.

'Look here, old man, don't you ever call her that again. Gods, not five minutes here, and you insult her. I won't have it!'

'I call her after her deserts, good Master,' Benedick responded, 'and, believe you me, there are many other appellations to choose from. =91Tis shameful, Master. Long have I endured the never-ceasing list of ladies ye have brought to this house. In the morn and liquid dew of youth, =91tis understandable and forgivable. But to bring a lady into the house to live with ye! I cannot well think of anything more shameful. For a woman to give up her honor all for a few days of honeying and makinglove--'

'You don't even know the woman. And it's not for just a few days, Benedick, I promise you that. Gods, stop being such a snob,' Setzer hissed.

Benedick looked quite taken aback, and he looked as if he had been beaten. 'Master, such a condition is sinful in the eyes of--'

'If you say one word about the gods and how theyhate fornicators, I'm going to scream. You listen, old man. Daryl is the most wonderful person I know. If she tells you to do something, you do it. You're to obey her in every respect, even if she tells you to jump out of awindow.' He removed his hands and waved them in front of Benedick's face. 'I hate to tell you this, my dear man, but....' he began hopping around from one foot to another, 'you live in a happy magical landof make-believe with elves and bunnies that sing to the stars in their little feetie pajamas, and all decent people live in holy wedlock just because some old priest told them they could.'

'No more of this, Master; such antics make ye look the fool,' Benedick said. His mustache was bristling like a hedgehog.

'Happy to amuse you. Go to bed, Benedick. Don't sulk.'

Setzer groped his way up the dark staircase--he should have taken Benedick's candle and taught the old prude a lesson--and entered his room. He turned on the gas lamps and sat down in a chair.

His thoughts turned to Daryl. He hoped that she had found the house to her liking and was getting well-situated. Gods, she was a splendid woman! He was deliriously happy that she had agreed to be with him,the dear. If only--

The door quietly opened and closed from behind, and Daryl slipped in, looking rather shy and demure.

'Hello,' she greeted. 'You look a bit out of sorts. What's wrong?'

'I'm fine. I was just thinking.'

'Yes, thinking is a painful, lonely business," Daryl sighed. She circled around behind him and gently stroked her fingers through his hair; it was a very gentle and relaxing sensation tugging at his scalp. He loved it.

'You know, I've been thinking as well,' Daryl continued in that exquisite smoky contralto, 'and I've realized something. This state of different bedrooms just won't cut it for me.'

'I didn't want to put any pressure on you. Butthis is a very nice change, if I may say so.'

'Pressure! Bah!' She bent down and rubbed her cheek against his; her skin felt warm and pliant. 'But I appreciate it. You know why I think all my friends who lived with their men got screwed?'


'Because there're so many floozies like me, and so few gentlemen.'

Setzer turned his neck and kissed her long and hard; one hand slipped up and ran through her hair. Every different woman had her own special way of kissing, and Daryl's thrilled him with its sheer energy. Libertine as he was, he couldn't help but be impressed.

They broke apart to catch their breaths; Setzer reached over, caught her in a tight bear-hug, and flopped onto the bed. For a long while they lay there, curled up against one another, talking and joking.

'So,' he asked her after a little while, "how do you like the house?'

'Oh, I think I'll like it here.' Daryl giggled. 'I just love that manservant of yours. Ladybird--he likesme! He's such a dear.'

He wondered whether to tell her the other meaning of her new nickname, but he did not have the heart. Benedick continued to call Daryl =91Ladybird' long afterwards, but it soon changed from a jeer to a true pet name given out of affection. But at that moment in time, he decided to let the matter slide.

Setzer then began to take off his boots, but Daryl detained him with a shake of her head. She rose and beckoned for him to sit up; he did so, and she pulled off the boots, setting them gently down beside the bed. That done, Daryl quite suddenly undid his belt buckle and removed his pants in one deft motion. Laughing, she ran over to the window and opened it.

'Bye-bye, pants! Fly, fly!' she sang, hurling the clothing out into the branches of a nearby tree. Setzer felt hideously violated, but could not help laughing.

'Of all the audacity,' he huffed, inhaling deeply. 'How am I going to explain that to my fundamentalist gardener in the morning?'

'Tell him that the gods put them there as a joke.'

The young man rose from the bed. 'You sweet mad-woman, one good turn deserves another.'

'You'll have to catch me first, buster!'

With a shout, Setzer sprang after her, pursuing her around his coffee table, over chairs, and across the bed. He finally managed to catch her from behind and encircle her waist with both arms. Daryl giggled as he shucked off her shoes while she unbuttoned his shirt.

They quickly slipped underneath the bedcovers, as standing around au naturale made them chilly. He entangled his legs withhers, each one snuggling against the other for warmth, sharing quick hot little kisses. Setzer then rolled over, holding her head against his chest as she lay on top of him, warm and plump.

'You know, when I was a little girl, I used to daydream that I'd meet a prince or duke or something like that,' she said softly, 'but now--I like this much better.'

Setzer glowed; he ran his hands down her back and over her hips, murmuring: 'Let's make a bargain. If you stay with me andpromise never to leave, I'll pay to help you build your own airship afterthe first one's done. And then, dearest, we'll rule the skies, you and I, and no-one else. Deal?'

'Gods,' she whispered; her face filled withjoyful radiance. 'Gods, you are the sweetest man in the world.'

Daryl bent down her head and kissed each of his scars; Setzer suddenly felt like crying, and he didn't know why.


The trouble with loving a woman such as Daryl, Setzerdiscovered, was that it was almost impossible for him to show his affections by giving her gifts. Most of the women he had been interested in had been lavished with silk dresses, dainty chocolates, and the most exquisite jewels(some wrought by Mulciber himself). Daryl had no appreciation for any of these things except the chocolates, and the notion of stuffing the woman with sweets till the end of all time was not one Setzer desired. He really didn't care how large Daryl got, but chocolates day in and out lost novelty and meaning; Setzer was a better romancer than that.

Setzer did not know why he was so eager to give Daryla gift, some sort of gift that she'd truly love, but he became utterly distressed. Kisses and embraces and the time they spent together, wonderful asthey were, were common. He wanted to give her something really special. It was not fair for her, his dearest companion, to have nothing while his past interests had gotten so much.

But what, he often thought to himself, whatcould I possibly give to her? He had no idea.

Daryl herself was not much help in the matter.Whenever he asked what she most desired, she would only laugh, pinch his cheek, and say that the two best gifts she had were the airship and his love, and not necessarily in that order.

All very well and good, in her mind. The constructionon the airship was going according to schedule and the estimated completiontime was in the range of four or five months, just in time for his twenty-fourth birthday. But Setzer did not want to wait that long for her to receivesomething stupendous.

The gift needed to be practical, yet able to elicit astronger response than, say, a new washing machine could. Nothing else was fit for his Daryl--the hitch was, what was this great present, and where in the wretched world could he find it?

In addition to his despairing quest, other troubles plagued him, most of them minor setback in the business and little financial worries. However, there was one major concern: Livius.

Livius's health had appeared to be on the rebound, but he recently begun to relapse: the annoying, dreadful cough had resurfaced with a vengeance, and now blood came up with the sputum. Livius's eyes sunk deep behind his spectacles; he was able to work for roughly an hour before he needed to take a break; and sometimes he experienced headaches so horrible that he screamed in pain and Ratchet had to be called in to administer painkillers.

Yet Livius managed to report to work regularly, avoiding exceeding his quota of sick days, and was on the brink of drawing up viable plans for the airship's main engines, the hardest problem facing the engineers. He was so dedicated and seemed to derive such joy from the work that Setzer overlooked company policy and allowed the man to stay on until he left of his own will. Setzer thought it poor compensation for his good friend, but Livius would not accept anything more.

Finally Mulciber came into Setzer's office during lunch one day and, after exchanging greetings and a few jokes, stated his business: 'The egghead has got to go, boss.'

'Come on, Mulciber, you know he's having one of his weak spells. He's not as chipper as he once was, but--'

'Little squeak always was weak. I ain't denyin' that. But I talk with him in between breaks now and then, and I know when a fella's at the end of his rope. How long are you gonna let him go on,coughin' and drivin' us mad? He's a sorry sight. It'd be best for all if you got rid of him.'

'Are you sure that the end is near?'

' =91Course I'm sure! I've known the man longer than you. Why, the first day he came into my shop lookin' for a job, Itook one look at him and I knew right then he wouldn't last. To tell you the truth, I'm kinda surprised he made it this long. But now it's all up.'

'And that doesn't bother you?' Setzer asked angrily. 'After he's worked for you for so long and hard!"

'He ain't the first worker I've lost. I treated him fair and babied him here and there, the squeak. But now it's all up,' Mulciber said quietly. He paused for a moment and continued, 'Little bugger sure loved his work, though. Have to say that for him. Let me tell you, boss, I wouldn't be in your shoes right now, not for a mint of money. Gonna take away all a man's ever had and all he ever was. But what're you gonna do, eh?'

'I'll tell you what I'm going to do,' Setzer answered coldly. 'I'm keeping Livius until I deem that he is too sick to work. My decision--no one else's. Capeesh?'

'You're the boss.'

So Livius was kept on the force for a little longer, and it was enough time for him to perfect the design of the main engines. That was both good and bad for Setzer.

The good thing was that the most difficult and intricate element of the airship was now over; everything else would seem like smooth sailing from thence on. The bad thing was that Setzer could hardly face up to the task of firing Livius. It had seemed like a horrible chore to do before, but now it seemed sinful: he had callously waited for Livius to do all the dirty work and was going to cast him out since the business hadno more use for him.

No successful businessman ever got ahead by being totally straight and fair with the workers, customers, or anybody; Setzer was no different. To his credit, he had never intended to fire Livius immediatelyafter the completion of the engine's design, to flick the engineer away like a scab and snatch the rewards. Often Setzer contemplated using a pocket veto on Mulciber's demands and =91forget' to call on Livius until the man had died happy at his workbench.

Then the complaints came from the airship team--not many but very vocal and strongly worded. Livius's coughing grated on the nerves of the workers and broke their concentration, he dragged himself aroundand slowed down the action, and he rarely conferred with the other engineers, instead keeping to himself, hunched and wheezing. Always wheezing!

Right on the bulletin board in the workers' lounge,someone who managed to keep anonymous posted up this message: 'How does Mr. Gabbiani expect us to work at our best when our director isn't strong enough to support us?' Setzer finally had to admit that Livius had togo. He could not stomach a mutiny.

So Setzer dispatched a summons for Livius to report to the president's office at once. The hell of it was, the young businessman knew that his engineer did not expect in the least to be sacked. He had heard the gossip spreading in the break rooms: Livius knew that the men were becoming more and more displeased with him, but that he expected Setzer to cover for him. Livius ever did believe very strongly in the sanctity of friendship.

Most unwelcome information, that! Setzer had wanted to forget it soon after leaning of it. Unfortunately, he did know, and wretchedness squirmed and wriggled in his brain while he waited for Livius to lurch in. Livius had been his right arm for years, a very long time in his youthful reckoning, and now he was about to shear it right off, withered and crippled though it was--

'You called for me?' Livius wheezed from the door, what remained of his voice cheery.

Setzer could not smile. He gestured for Livius to enter and close the door, and, without any pleasantries, for small-talk would only bait his doomed engineer; he hooked his hands together and tilted his neck a few degrees to the left, gazing at the corner of his desk.

'Do you know what the airship team is saying about you, Livius? They tell me, and others, too, that you cannot support the workers a you once were able to.'

'I've been doing poorly as of late,' Livius smirked ruefully.

'Yes, and that is a matter of concern to me. Livius, I have decided to let you go.'

Livius stopped his coughing for one flickering moment. His fragile body swayed and his shoulders went rigid.

'Hasn't my work been satisfactory?'

Setzer leaned across his desk, took in his hands Livius's face, and forced himself, to look into the spectacles. They could have been basilisk's eyes, they hurt so.

'Livius, your time is done. You are too sick. I won't have anybody in my business work himself to death.'

'Of all the times I helped you, talked with you when nobody else would, gave my all for you--and you fire me!' Livius cried; his eyes glared and his labored breathing came faster and faster. Red froth fleck his pinched lips.

'Livius, calm down and listen. You are my friend, and I am grateful for everything you've done for me. I would never let you go unless I had irreproachable reason. Don't you realize you aredying, Livius?'

'But I can still work!'

'Please, Livius, don't make this any harder than it already is. Be sensible, man. I should have put you in a hospice months ago, but I broke company and legal rules because I know how much this place means to you. We can't pretend any longer. You are too sick to work, andthat's that. I am sorry.'

Livius bent down on his knees before the desk and whispered, 'Please, sir, please. Don't let me go. I couldn't bear it."

'Gods, Livius,' Setzer cried. 'Don't. Get up.'

'Who will take my place?'

'Daryl.' The word slipped out mechanically,and Setzer knew what had heretofore been merely a small undercurrent of desire inside him: Daryl had been intended for the position all along, the verymoment Livius had been marked down for then pink slip. It was his gift to her. Did not she, who had thrown her back and soul into the airship's completion, deserve to direct, plan, and fly it? Nothing else would do. Perfect! Something good could come out of this.

'Why am I not surprised?' Livius sighed.

'She's worked just as hard on the airship as you have. Don't think that casting aspersions will do you any good.'

Setzer immediately regretted his words; he went around his desk and threw an arm around Livius's shaking shoulders. 'I'mvery sorry. But I'm not going to throw you out in the cold. There's a hospice I know where you can go, a gorgeous place where you can relax for once. I'll pay--'

'Forgive me if I decline the generous offer, Mr.Gabbiani,' Livius said. 'Since I am neither wealthy nor in your bed, I expect no special treatment.'

'All I want to do--!'

'I know, sir. I am sorry if I offended you. I'll be going now,' Livius spoke quietly, bowing his head, and slipped out the door, closing it silently behind him.

Reaching inside one of the desk's drawers, Setzer pulled out a flagon of whiskey and poured himself a glass. The drink sat in his stomach like a cold bulb. He went over to his office window and looked out through the blinds.

He saw Livius talking with Ratchet not ten feet away;they must have bumped into each other. Ratchet looked to be listening to whatever Livius was saying, no doubt about the dismissal, nodding his head every so often and taking long drags upon his cigarette all the while.

Ratchet leaned forward when the talking had stopped, laid a hand on Livius's shoulder, and whispered something. He straightenedback up, shaking his head at something, and then turned away, inadvertentlypuffing a mouthful of smoke in Livius's face.

'Son of a bitch,' Setzer swore. He waited until Livius departed and yanked open his office door and spoke in a rather harsh voice: 'Ratchet, please get Daryl. I want to talk to you both in my office as soon as possible.'

Ratchet carried out his orders, and soon enough Setzer had the two before him.

'Daryl,' he said to her, 'I have welcome news for you. You're the new head engineer. The airship is yours, all yours, to tinker on and finish. Isn't it good news? Do you like it? Please tell me!'

She inhaled a sharp breath, and her eyes grew wide and round in her incredulous face. 'Why, Setzer, I don't know what to say,' she said slowly, looking discomfited and a bit frightened. 'Imean, I would love to become head engineer, it was my dream when I first came, but...I thought that Livius held that job.'

'I fired him,' Setzer answered miserably. He felt ill, and the cold bulb of liquor seemed brackish and toxic, the fumescurdling his innards and drying them up. 'He was so sick, you know it,Daryl. You both know it. But I will give him severance pay, and check him into a hospice, if his family wants it. None of them will lack.'

'Setzer!' she gasped. Her face grew white; Ratchet blew a smoke ring up towards the ceiling.

'What?' He nearly began to shout. 'What? Do you think I did him wrong? I told you both that he'd be compensated.More than compensated! I'll move the whole family into a godsdamned mansion if they so wish.'

'Ah, yes, the dream of every poor person is to get a good house out of a sick father,' Ratchet intoned, regarding his cigarette almost wryly.

Daryl gaped at Ratchet, at Setzer, and at the room atlarge. Setzer desperately wished for her to say or do something. Finally, she took up his hands and looked into his face.

'I would be honored to be the head engineer. ButI can't do it to Livius. I know he's sick, but that just entitles him even more to what makes him happy. He's been so nice to all of us. I will not accept the job until Livius goes, either by choice or when the sickness takes him.'

'What should I do? Call him back and beg him to take back the job? Would he do it, Daryl? I don't know what to do. I want everyone to come out of this content. I've given him such a scare--'

'Please, Setzer, call him back. It's not fair," Daryl cried, looking near to burst into tears. 'Do it quickly!"

'Yes, I'll hurry,' Setzer answered; the cold bulb in his stomach did not feel so heavy. He turned to Ratchet. 'You were talking to him a few minutes ago. Did he tell you where he was going?'

'Oh, he didn't say he was going anywhere,' Ratchet said. 'He told me that he'd been fired, of course, but nothing other than that.'

'You spoke to him; I saw you. What did you say, Ratchet? Now!'

Flicking the ashes from his smoke, Ratchet answered with a slight twitch of his upper lip: 'I said to him, =91Isn't that apretty state of affairs, old boy? You won't go to a hospice, I'll wager, and you certainly can't work here any longer. You might as well go and shoot yourself, for all anybody cares.''

'What! Ratchet, why did you say that? How could you have said that? He's your friend, dammit!'

'It doesn't matter to me what he does with himself. But if I was Livius, I'd have gone to the Armory by now.' The Armory was a name the workers had given to the rooms where finished weapons were stored before shipping.

Daryl gave a loud wail, and Setzer cuffed Ratchet'sear, shoving the man against the wall and said, 'Shut up!' He gave Ratchet a slap for good measure and took Daryl's hands in his.

'We still have some time,' he whispered to her, 'I'll go ahead to the Armory and see if he's there. You go andtell Mulciber what's happened. He'll help you search.'

'All right, all right,' Daryl gasped, 'but we must hurry!'

Setzer reached to stroke her cheek and whirled aroundand burst out the door. He ran down through the halls and workshops that lead to the Armory, calling out 'Livius, Livius!' at intervals. The workers he passed looked at him as if he'd gone mad, but Setzer didn't even know that they existed: all he was aware of was the beating of his heartand the sick icy weight in his stomach.

He reached the Armory and yanked on the door, but when he looked in, he saw nothing. 'Oh, gods,' he whispered, wheeling around and backtracking in a mad, frantic sprint. Tears threatened to spill out of his eyes. He couldn't remember where he was going or what he wanted to do. Sometimes he forgot who he was looking for. He stumbled overeverything in his path as he went, pirouetting like an elephant in a ballerina costume, and crashed into walls.

He flailed his way out the back entrance of the building, circled around, and reached the front walk. A crowd had gathered aroundthere, all of them congregating around one certain spot that seemed to be of most catastrophic importance, just like watching a cock fight.

Daryl stood on the front steps of the building's main entrance; her hands were cupped around her mouth and nose, and she was weeping hysterically. Setzer ran up to her and asked, 'What is it? Livius?'

'Yes!' He could hardly understand her through her sobs. 'Everybody I talked to said that he had gone to the Armory, but that they had seen him leave a few minutes after. Nobody knew where hewas, so I ran out here to see if anybody out on the street had seen him, and then I saw--I saw--' She began to cry harder, nearly bending double; she probably would have collapsed if Setzer hadn't caught her.

'He'd taken a gun and shot himself in the head,' she bawled, 'and there was blood everywhere, and he looked so pitiful. Oh, he was always so nice to me!'

They threw their arms around each other, and Setzer felt her nails digging into his back as he buried his face into the thick mane of her hair that always smelled like oil, breathing the scent like it was the only thing that kept him alive.

'I didn't know he'd take it so hard,' he whispered to her. 'I didn't know it meant so much to him.'

Daryl collected herself, stopped crying, and slowly drew back, wiping her eyes. 'I want to go home,' she whispered.

'Yes, I think that's what everyone here needs.I'll give the employees leave to go home and take the rest of the day offwithout a pay deduction. You can take the carriage back to the house. I'll catch a ride later. I need to stay here and see to things. But before you go, Daryl, please send Mulciber out here. Tell him to bring out some of his men.'

He kissed her over the eyes and watched her depart. Daryl looked very pale and shaken, but recovered enough that she didn't need an escort hovering over her. He knew she would do as he asked.

Many and many people were streaming in from the streets and nearby buildings, inquiring about what had happened and who was hurt or dead, and the lines grew thick. When Mulciber and his choicest helpers, all of them agitated and nervous, came to Setzer, he met them almost gladly.

'Have you heard what has happened?' he asked. They all nodded.

Setzer pointed out to the crowds. 'Get rid of them,' he ordered softly. 'Get them out. Don't be too rough, but if they give you crap, give them a bloody nose or two.'

'It's a damn shame.' Mulciber shook his head and bared his ugly teeth at the unwelcome intruders. 'Come on, boys.'

A handful of men breaking up an assembly of hundreds seems a very difficult task, if not nigh impossible, but Mulciber made shortwork of it. He and his entourage pushed and bellowed threats at the people as they drove the flocks on their speedy way, at times pulling off their thick leather belts and thrashing the backsides of the more stubborn spectatorswith the buckled ends. The sight was actually quite enthralling, if you were into that sort of thing. Setzer watched it with a mean sort of satisfaction.

Lying in the emptiness left by the crowd's departure was Livius. A thick shadow of blood, smeared and scattered by the feet of the people, unfurled itself from behind his head, and the shattered remains of his glasses had fallen off his nose into the crimson. The upper half of his body lady straight on the ground, but somehow his spine had twisted, and his legs were one their sides. One leg had twitched and was curled up tight,almost up to his chest, and, in the dripping, gape-mouthed face his eyes were squinted shut, not by his eyelids, but almost as if his whole face had shifted up the skull.

Setzer had seen sparrows that had crashed against windows or doors and died; Livius, without his glasses, looked almost birdlike.

But now was not the time to think on such maudlin things. Setzer beckoned to a worker whom he knew and trusted and gave these instructions:

'Please announce that all work is suspended for the remainder of the day, but there will be no cut in pay. Take some helperswith you so that they don't stampede. I want it orderly.'

'Yes, sir. But what'll I tell them?'

'Tell them that someone has committed suicide onthe premises, and that I don't want them tangled up in boring legal procedures. If they ask for names, tell the truth, but try not to give any nasty details.'

The worker said that he would do his orders at once; Setzer warmed up to the somber but not sentimental man. This was a good worker! He could not help but open up to him a little, for anybody else would either be too indifferent or too full of tears to listen.

'I suppose,' Setzer said feebly with a helpless glance at his companion, 'that I must go to his house and break the news to the family.'

'Oh, you don't need to mind about that,' the worker answered. 'Ratchet's already set out.'


The worker looked flummoxed. 'Oh, yes. You probably didn't know because we haven't had someone croak since you became boss. We've always used Ratchet when this sort of thing happened, =91cause he never seems to mind.'

'I've heard enough. Off with you, my man. Take the help you want, just get everybody out of here.'

The man looked happy to go away--indeed, Setzer's workers were of the type that like their bosses to be solidly set in their acts and words in tough times, never equivocal or contradictory. Anything elseupset them.

Inside of him, the queasy cold bulb had risen out of his stomach and into his throat; a bitter taste rose in the young man's mouth, and he felt diseased to the heart. Setzer put his hands on his knees and leaned over, spitting onto the ground.

As he straightened out, he noticed the workers were filing out from the doors, streaming out in all directions. Some went over towhere Livius lay, but Mulciber and the others quickly formed a protective ring around the corpse to prevent it from being jostled any further. A curse word or two and a glare was all that was required to send the curious off.

One man did break through the guards. After only about ten minutes everyone had set off towards their homes, and Mulciber had dismissed his assistants; Coroban suddenly came up, brushed past his uncle, andstood over Livius's body, looking down on it.

'The sap,' said Coroban. He was a distance away, but Setzer heard it as clearly as if he had been standing right next to the speaker.

Setzer knew Livius's marrow was cold and heart limp, but to hear a dead man being called a sap threw him into a rage, as if something very fragile and beloved had been thrown onto the floor and smashed. Insulting a dead man became a capital crime in his book at the moment, and he wanted Coroban dead. Setzer reached for the pistol in his pocket...or perhaps the razor-sharp glass darts made in the shape of cards that he had requested Mulciber make about a year ago. Setzer could throw the sharp cards withdeadly accuracy, and he started calculating how hard and at what angle to throw them as to sever the jugular vein.

Mulciber had heard Coroban's remark, too. Poor people in Vector had a healthy respect for their dead. Life was brutish and ugly, and death as the only way for a man to escape, which gave the deceased a morbid sort of dignity. And to slander that dignity was intolerable.

The dwarf limped over and stood right before his nephew, one arm raised up, the hand clenched into a horny fist.

This is it, Setzer thought. He's finally gone too far. He's a dead man.

Coroban obviously thought that as well, for his dilated pupils looked nothing but frightened, yet he did not make a move against Mulciber.

'Don't hurt my nose, Uncle, it's busted enough already without you.'

Mulciber looked long and hard at him, and then dropped his hand and heaved a sigh. 'I don't have anything to say to you, boy. Get yourself away from here and never come back. I don't want to see you again.'

Coroban went, inched away and disappeared down an alley.

Setzer never understood why Mulciber didn't kill Coroban that day. Perhaps the old love for his estranged wife stopped him. Perhaps Mulciber thought that such a wretch was not worth the effort. Or perhaps he was just tired of fighting.

Many times, when he had been with Livius or Daryl, Setzer had made fun of his former boss, mocking his limp and his ugly face. Yet as he watched Mulciber stoop down and carry off the body, handling it so gently in his metal-pounding arms, Setzer felt proud of his worker.

It would be very nice to say that the two men became great friends, brought together by death and two acts of kindness, and they learned and grew from each other, rich and poor mingling. Very fitting and good.

Nothing of the sort came ever about. Still, Setzer stopped making fun of Mulciber after that.


'My dear, we've got to stop moping around likethis,' Setzer later told Daryl, leaning in close to her ear while theyreclined together on the grassy slope of their hill. Ever since Livius's death, the two of them had hardly kept their minds on their work. Progress on the airship had slowed down to an unacceptable rate, and, as much as he would have liked to sit around and feel sad, Setzer knew that a great boost inmorale was needed. 'We must work hard again.'

'I know, Setzer,' said she, 'but I can't help feeling awful. Why should I be happy and work after all that's happened?'

'You talk as if we killed him.'

'Sometimes it feels like that.'

'Good gods, woman,' Setzer swore, 'menget sacked all the time, and they don't shoot themselves. I didn't point the gun to his head, nor did you. He was deranged from his sickness. That's what the inquest said.'

'I still don't feel right about it.'

That was understandable; a few times, in the deepest and darkest hours of the night, Setzer had found himself waking up from a deep slumber, and, staring into the darkness, the image of Livius, his leg curled and eyes squeezed shut, would coalesce in the abyss, and then the pool of blood would turn into jagged shard of glass--terrible, terrible images in the night, not so horrible in the day. All the bad memories in his brain hadbeen brought forth by the wretched affair, for he had not dreamed of shattered windows for a very long time. It terrified him and wrenched his heart. But he couldn't let her know that! He had to be strong, like a good gamblerand entrepreneur.

'I understand,' he soothed, running a hand through her hair. She smiled weakly.

'Most of the time, though, I feel sorry for his family,' Daryl told him. 'Have they come to you yet?'

'Yes. Don't worry. Whenever they are pressed and need aid, I'll be there for them. They won't lack, I promise. I've already sent them new clothes and gold at their asking.'

'That's good.'

'Liar. You think that I shouldn't have offeredmy help, then?'

'Whenever my family had to live off charity, I hated it!' Daryl answered vehemently. 'I'm sure that the Savauntsfeel the same way. It's a horrid feeling. I can't describe it. Listen, when you get approached by some high and mighty people throwing theirsecond-hand clothes at you, and when you have to go to the charitiesand beg for your food, see how you like it. Nobody understands it who hasn't been there. I know what they're going through.'

Setzer rolled up into a sitting position and glared down at the grass. 'No matter what I do, I can't seem to help anybodywhen I want to,' he grumbled. 'When I try to give something, nobody takes it. I haven't made them beg. You know I wouldn't treat Livius's family like that.'

Daryl sat up and put her arms around his neck, givinghim a squeeze. 'Of course. Just treat them fairly and don't sneer atthem, and I'll say you're doing the best you can.'

'See?' he asked her, smiling and resting his finger on the tip of her nose. 'We're feeling better already. Now, Daryl, won't you please take the head engineer job? Can't work without one. I need an answer.'

'I would take it,' Daryl said slowly, 'but it seems like I'm doing him wrong.'

What an oddly sentimental woman she was at times! "Daryl, stop dwelling on it. How on earth can you harm a dead man? Life's done its worst to him. We've got to carry on, or else we'll be dead before we know it, too. Take the job and you can honor him by doing it well."

'All right, I'll do it.'


Construction on the airship returned to its original pace. All of the truly difficult problems had already been worked out and tricky parts designed, so that very little was left to do. In a matter of weeks, all was completed.

The airship was christened the Blackjack. Daryl had wanted to name the ship the Savaunt after Livius, but Setzer vetoed that. Not only did he think that it would have embarrassed Livius, everan unassuming man, had he been alive, Setzer doubted he could made himself look at the airship and not hate it.

No drastic changes had been made to the body or internal workings of the ship part of the Blackjack, except that Setzer had decided to build a whole new floor above the cargo hold. This new area wasfilled with ballast and weights, for he intended to use the new section as a sort of living quarters, complete with roulette and blackjack tables. Transporting goods was very well, but he wanted to have fun, too.

Unfortunately, the new floor made the ship much heavier, and the canvas gas bag needed to be made bigger to give more lift power.The final bag was so big that, fully inflated, the airship could not fly out of the hangar doors. This irked Setzer to no end because he knew that, in spite of their protestations to the otherwise, Daryl and the other workers were laughing at his lack of foresight when he wasn't looking.

He quickly devised a way to free the Blackjack, however. The canvas could be easily deflated and spread over and across the deck; it was the body that was the main concern. In the end, having arguedand haggled with various transportation-service companies, Setzer managed to procure a small army of movers to load the airship onto a special carrier that was normally used to deliver military machinery in bulk; from thence the ship would be taken to the nearest location that was suitable for taking off. The whole affair cost him more than 30,000 gold pieces, and Setzer neverfailed to look back on the proceedings without feeling like an idiot.

But the Blackjack did eventually get tugged and grunted out of its hangar prison, and, following several thrown-out backs and hernias, loaded onto the special transport, an engine-propelled machine with a humongously wide and long trailer bed that just about took up the whole street. Everything had to be done in the dead of the cold night, or else the Blackjack never would have gotten through the daytime traffic.

Setzer directed the cargo to the hilly outer fringes of the Vector suburbs, choosing a wide, flat stretch between two softly rising humps of earth. He gave the order for the gas bag to be inflated, and theBlackjack soon revealed itself in all its zeppelin-like glory to thespangles of dawn that crept up on the eastern winter horizon.

A small audience had gathered near the airship, most of them workers from the airship crew, but a few other people from the factories had come to watch, Mulciber and Ratchet included.

Setzer smiled and waved to the spectators. 'Well, men, this is it!' he cried. 'I'm either going to go smoothly or blow up in flames, but either way you'll have fun watching!'

For a moment, he scanned the crowd, and he saw Daryl's face, flushed and alert and bursting with vivaciousness. They exchanged winks and she blew him a kiss before he turned around and ascended a ramp that folded out from the airship's underbelly.

The shiny boards of the deck glistered in the pale light of dawn, sleek and without a splinter; at the middle loomed the main controls, a steering wheel built in the same manner as a sailing ship's, an ignition and speed controls, and a small panel to monitor the engine functionand gas levels. There were also two groves cut into the floor right before the wheel and, around the base of all the steering equipment, a leather harness that fastened around the waist. The Blackjack had the ability to attain great speeds, and any fool who just stood about on deck while zoomingat full speed would have gone tumbling off to earth in seconds and broken his body on the rocks.

Setzer grasped the knobs of the wheel, shaping his hands to the wood, and settled his feet into the grooves. Yet...he felt as if he did not know her. He had worked long and hard days and nights on her, cursed her, loved her, and he and Daryl had spent countless hours in an IAF simulator, getting used to the feeling of flight, but he felt an awkward feeling of strangeness. No, it was all out of joint.

Surely he did not fear to die! He was sure he was notgoing to die. Everything had been checked and tested twice over, and he knew what to do. Even if he did fail and die, what did that matter, really? It would be a glorious way to go.

He sighed and attempted to gain his bearings. Anotherdeep breath--one, two--and he let his gambler's heart and blood pound through him, heating his temples and palms with the love of dreadful risk to come and illuminate the darkness of his ignorance.

And then he remembered: the docking plank! He had left it up.

Drawing in the plank was not an arduous task by any means, but it left Setzer very cross with himself, more out of his genteel compunction than anything else. He went down and immediately corrected the problem. As he made sure the door was securely locked, a noise sounded out amongst the bags and chests of ballast in the ship's main hold. What in Stray's name! He glanced about, listening very carefully.

Ah! His ears, honed to detect the smallest cough of an opposing poker player, picked up another small sound, coming from a closeton the other side of the hold. Setzer clambered and hopped towards the closet and tugged on the door.

'Good gods!'

Black, red, and gold all came hurtling down at him; Setzer gave another yell and only in the nick of time scrambled out of the assailant's trajectory. When the hurly-burly was done, he stared down atthe floor, upon which a depressingly familiar red coat and black boots werespread-eagled.

Daryl reached up and pushed back her coat collar, previously draped over her face, and she looked up at him.

'Hi!' she said.

'I knew it!' Setzer yelled, and stamped hisfoot down. He should have expected this. He really couldn't bring himselfto be angry at her, only at his carelessness and woeful ignorance, but he yelled nonetheless. 'Daryl, be so kind as to remove yourself from the ship immediately.'

'Never! I helped work on this thing too, youknow.' She reached out and clutched onto a bag and a chest. 'I'm staying. Try and make me get off. I dare you.'

'Daryl--' he huffed slowly, grabbingat her coat and struggling to pull her up, 'this is--oof!--too dangerous--arg! You could die.'

'I don't care about that,' she cried.

'But I do. If something happens, Daryl, someone must take over. Besides, how do you expect me to steer the Blackjack at my best with you on board, worrying me? I won't have my mind on my driving, and I'll make mistakes.'

'Setzer, I know the dangers just as much as you do. I may be a woman, but I've got the blood and stomach of the toughest man alive. I'm not afraid, nor could I ever build a new airship without you. It's double or nothing here, and just try to change my mind.'

'All right, stay then! What's the good?" Setzer wheeled about and marched up on deck, Daryl righting herself and trotting behind.

Setzer tended to the very final checkups; looking up from the gauges, he saw his most cheeky head engineer had swung both her legs over the balustrade, her expectant face turned to the sky.

'Daryl, come over here and stand behind me,' he called. 'I'd feel better and not have to worry as much if I knewyou weren't actively trying to kill yourself.'

She complied this time, and stationed herself at his back, wrapping her arms around his middle. He was still annoyed with her anda shade ashamed--why could he never be firm in these situations?--but having her nearby was also fortifying.

'Kiss me for luck, devil-woman,' he whispered. They kissed quickly, and he diverted his attention to the wheel before him, strapping himself in and donning a pair of goggles to shield his eyes from the wind and the occasional insect. He glanced at the gauges once more, and, reaching out his hand, brushed the ignition switch with his fingers.

The deck thrummed and shivered beneath their feet anda deep rumble erupted from the bowels of the Blackjack, gears and pipes whistling below. The engines above hummed and started to emit exhaust from the turbines. All was well so far. Setzer pulled on the accelerator, and,with a soft lurch, the airship rose up a few feet and hovered in place. Setzer did not feel any elation; until they were safely up in the air, he couldnot bring himself to experience any sense of triumph.

Yanking down harder on the accelerator, Setzer brought the airship forward, skimming over the ground faster and faster, the watchers growing smaller and smaller. He gave the wheel a swivel and turned a dial, and again the deck shuddered. Daryl's grip tightened around his ribs; he could hardly breathe, and for the most dreadful of moments he had though they were lost.

But no! The engines didn't explode, nor did the ship fall right to piece beneath him--they were rising up and up at a fantasticrate, the sky swallowing them up and filling Setzer's vision till it was all he could see.

'Daryl?' he said softly; he did not know what else to speak. 'Daryl?'

There was no pressure around his middle where her hands once were, only a deep bruised sensation from where the harness was cutting into his skin.

'Daryl!' She had gone. Setzer nearly let go of thewheel; but a rich, boisterous laugh sounded out from the stern.

He must have accelerated too abruptly and caused her to lose her balance, for Daryl was clinging to the balustrade in a ridiculous position, oneleg very close to dangling over the edge, the muscles in her forearms bulging, and her back hunched forward. Yet for all that, she was laughing and laughing.

'Higher,' she shrieked in a freak of ecstasy, 'higher!'

The laughter and joy of her voice filled his beating heart and made him drunk. All the commercial and scientific uses of the invention disappeared; the only thing he wanted now was to do anything, anything at all to keepher screaming and laughing with delight. So higher and faster they climbed,and only when he felt the air grow thin around them did he bring the airship to a halt. Daryl finally scrambled back up onto the deck, whirling around,her hair and clothes blown about and disheveled.

'Oh, gods, gods!' she repeated over and over, stretching out her arms and looking wildly about; she then rushed over to him from behind and embraced him, lifting him up above the deck. Setzer nearly got sick and his heart pounded close to bursting.

'We've done it, you and I,' he whispered, turning towards her; if he hadn't been utterly paralyzed by the beauty and liberty of the air and the vessel of joy he held in his arms, he might have very well taken her right there and then on the deck, with naught but air and sun around them. But he could not move.

'Come on,' she urged, 'let's not stop now. She needs more of a workout.'

So he took the Blackjack down, putting her through sharp curves and dives at such a speed that the sky and land blurred and fused together; he could not tell which was which, nor where he was, as if that mattered.

The remainder of the first flight went on in the same strain: sometimes Setzer was at the wheel, sometimes Daryl, and they screeched and wheeledall about for hours. It would be too tedious to tell what aerial maneuvers they performed, for, unless you actually experience flight yourself, one dive and turn is like another.

Eventually Setzer broke out of the spell of his divine drunkenness to say: 'We shouldn't overwork her, at least not on the first day. I'm going to bring her down.'

As can be expected, the hullabaloo that greeted them when they disembarked was something astounding. Setzer received more pounds on the back andhandshakes than he would have liked, and the shouts and praises showered upon him made his ears ring. Everything was wonderful and pride surged throughhis veins, but it soon became very boring, and Setzer simply wanted to be alone with Daryl. He politely pushed his way through the people, holding on to Daryl's hand and dragging her along, nearly losing her grip once or twice through the tumult. He finally emerged to approach Ratchet, who stood apart from all the others and seemed to be the only one who had any self-possession at all. Setzer had never found cynicism so agreeable before.

'I would congratulate you,' Ratchet said, indicating the ruckus with a jerk of his head, 'but it seems you've had your fill."

'My back is going to be sore tomorrow, that's for certain," Setzer grinned ruefully.

'One sheep does not do any harm, but when you run into a whole flock, they can trample and smother you to death. They seem to be having fun, though.'

'Yes, yes,' Setzer said hurriedly, 'but I need for you to do something for me. Nobody else will listen to me.'

'What do you wish?'

'Deflate the Blackjack and get the loading crew to get it back on the machine and tack it back to the hangar. Lock everything up when it's put back, and assign some guards to watch the place. Tell all the workers that they have the rest of the day off and send them home. I'm bloody likely not to be at the office today!'

'Leave it to me.'

'Good man. Now if you'll--'

'Wait just a moment,' Ratchet's voice cut in smooth and cool as a steel knife; Setzer and Daryl halted, and the former gave a grunt for the seven-fingered man to continue. 'You cannot expect to go gallivanting all the way up there without being noticed, do you, sir? From what I've heard tell, half the city thought that Alexander was coming to bring down the Day of Doom on them.'

Setzer couldn't help but chuckle at the image of people getting down on their knees and praying to Alexander for absolution; he wondered how many elderly people had grabbed at their chests and pounded on their arms at the sight. Ratchet dignified his chief's jocularity with a raised eyebrow.

'What has happened?' Setzer managed to ask, still shaking.

'Nothing serious. You won't get arrested, even though you so richly deserve if for spooking so many people. However, a courier from the Imperial Palace did approach me and asked me to give you this.' Ratchet reached into a pocket and pulled out a creamy-gold piece of vellum rolled upinto a dainty scroll and tied with crimson satin.

'Is it what I think it is?' Setzer sighed, taking the scroll and breaking the seal.

'No doubt.'

'What? What are you talking about?' Daryl interjected in an annoyed voice; Setzer raised a hand to calm her down and unrolled the scroll, scanning it quickly.

'I am to report to the Emperor for a private audience tomorrow morning,' he announced. 'Damn it! The old buzzard's ruined everything.' He had wanted to celebrate for a day or two in perfect freedom,but now everything was sullied with the dread of having to report to His Imperial Majesty. Yes, he did dread the audience, for Emperor Gestahl had a reputation for being a formidable man, but he was more disappointed than anything.

'You are lucky that no loyal person heard that, or else, sure as I'm missing three fingers, your head would be on a pike by next evening," Ratchet said, waggling a finger. Daryl glared up at these words and tugged on Setzer's sleeve.

'Shut your hole, Ratchet, and do what he says. Come on, Setzer."

They made a mad dash for the company carriage, hurdling over and slithering commando-style under the innocent well-wishers that unknowingly plagued them, and once safety was reached Setzer ordered the driver to make a course for the Gabbiani estate.

The chauffeur whipped the chocobos up into full speed, but the trip seemed overlong to Setzer--he often wanted to tell the man to go faster onlyto remember that the poor beasts were being driven as fast as health allowed. The gates of his land rose up in the distance and soon they had entered the grounds. He gave the order to stop and jumped out, stopping only to help Daryl, and broke into a run, clutching her hand.

Setzer and Daryl ran and did not stop until they reached the hill, their hill, whereupon they collapsed into a heap at the summit, both of them hot, sweaty, and out of breath. Following a bit of turning and shifting, he had untangled their arms and legs, and pressed up close against her, his face next to her ear. He encircled one arm around her waist and stroked her hair, almost absently, with his free hand.

Neither spoke for a very long time; there was nothing to say. As thetwo of them lay there together, very still, their faces turned towards the sudden drop-off, looking over the crag and into the robin's egg-blue of the winter sky, feeling the heat and internal rhythms of flesh and the effervescent fragrance of dead grass filling their nostrils, they felt strange, very strange, almost as if they didn't know the ground they walked on. True, they were not the first ones to fly, but they felt they had done something greater: they had touched with their very fingertips the edges of another world, unbound and so radically different that--that--

What it was neither of them could understand; they could only feel it in the pounding of their veins and the shamelessness of thoughts that boiled underneath. They were utterly lost in it; a person could have come by andsmashed them both over the head with a sledgehammer and they wouldn't have felt a thing.

Such feelings are too rich and wild for any man or woman to experience for long without going mad, and so the sensations slowly wore of, bit by bit. Setzer blinked--how long he they been staying here? Not so long, it felt, only about ten minutes, but when he looked at his pocket watch, he found that they had been here for nearly five hours. He suddenly was aware of a thousands aches and cramps in his body, and he was terribly hungry; but he washappy.

'Daryl,' he said softly in her ear, pinching her shoulder gently, 'are you hungry?'

'Yes,' came the slow answer, 'I'm famished. Gods, how long has it been?'

'Nearly five hours.'

She sat up like a rocket, almost clobbering his nose: 'You can't be serious! So long? We haven't done a thing. Come on, come on, let's go to the house and have a feast. I daresay we deserve it.'

Daryl jerked him up to his feet, they staggered over the fields to the house, and proceeded to kick the cook out of the kitchen to go on one thegreatest pantry-raids of their lives. This unprecedented behavior brought all of the staff into a roar. Setzer explained everything, which only made them even more excited, and invited them to join in the celebration.

Food and fine wines were passed liberally around--even Benedick, whodid not believe in excess, stuffed himself and could hardly get out of his chair. It was great fun.

From the kitchen the revelers made their way into the recreation room. In the middle of this room was a fine grand piano, full-sized and decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay. Setzer, who couldn't play a tune to save his life, sat down on the bench and started pounding away at the keys, practically smashing them. He didn't need to play well, only loud. Daryl then joined him, and they made twice as much racket. While they played, one of the maids went back to the kitchen and made some highballs; Setzer and Daryl bothtook two each, though they usually did not fancy highballs, and still pounded on and on the keys.

A slow malaise formed in Setzer's sight and his body cried for sleep, though his heart and spirit bounded with energy. It had grown late, and he bade everyone good-night, knowing that he had no intention of going to sleep. He linked arms with Daryl and they went upstairs into their room, locking the door firmly behind them.

What they did all was muddled in his mind, and he really couldn't describe anything afterwards, but he did know that it was like someone had put a stick of dynamite in his bed. Almost all the sheets and all of the pillows were thrown about the room, covering furniture or drooping limplyon the floor. One little pillow even got wedged up in the small crystal light fixture, though how in the world it got up there was anyone's guess. Needless to say, he emerged from the aftermath utterly exhausted.

Setzer did remember one thing. They were both resting and drifting off to sleep; Daryl was laying on top of him, her head propped up on his chest, when she suddenly mumbled: 'Can I ask you something?'

'What's that?'

'Well,' she hummed; one of her fingers traced a warm pattern across the skin of his chest. 'I was wondering if--if it wouldn't be possible--'

'You wouldn't be this coy if you weren't up to any good," Setzer smiled. 'Ask me anything.'

'Setzer, I want to be a mother,' Daryl said. 'I've gotten everything I wanted out of life except children. I'm not saying that it has to be any time soon, but maybe, in the future, before I'm in my grave, there'd be a little boy or girl in the house?'

The heady euphoria of the day quickly grew thin and washed out, as if it had been diluted with water. Daryl had never pressed him about marriageor pledging everlasting obedience, and he loved and respected her all the more for it--not that he ever doubted his honorable intentions towards her. He had always planned that once the edge of his youth had dulled a bit and hehad sated his lust for life, he and Daryl would finally be joined in propermarriage and live out their days as peaceful, loving, and content as the summer's day was long. Yet he had never figured the prospect of children into the equation, and that did not sit well with him. Daryl loved children; heloathed them.

'Maybe, maybe,' he said. 'If you really want the truth though, Daryl, I'm not too keen about children. I mean, sure, we might get lucky and the kids would get all their impeccable traits from you, my superior half, but I don't know if it's a good idea to unleash my wretched genes upon this hapless world. I was a true hellion when I was a kid. I couldn't saddle such a creature like that on you.'

'Come on. Children are sweet.'

'Children are effusive, cruel little twits that can't do anything for themselves, or even think for themselves for that matter.'

'Setzer, they're only kids. It wouldn't be any fun if they were like miniature adults. When you hold them, they feel so soft, and the sweet, sticky way they hug and kiss you--'

'The reek of their diapers--' Setzer crooned, which prompted Daryl to hit him on the head and pull her knee up dangerously close to his sensitive area.

'Really, though, I mean it. Do you think it's possible?'

'I like a well-balanced world,' Setzer teased, 'but when I get older and want to punish mankind's wicked ways by sending out a hellspawn to plague them, I'll let you know the minute I decide.'

Daryl drew back and performed a strangle little spin off of him, hogging his covers and rolling all of the scanty bedding around her body in a richly-decorated cocoon. Beneath the sheets, Setzer felt something shaking.

'Oh, come on,' he cried, 'there's no reason to cry about it.'

'I'm not.'

He was certain she had been crying, but she said she hadn't. It was all like a drunken dream.


'You think that the Emperor wants to talk with you about the airship?' Daryl asked the following morning. She lay on the bed, not feeling chipper at all, as she watched Setzer, who wasn't feeling at his best either, hunt for his clothing.

'Indubitably,' Setzer grunted, working his way into his pants.

'What about?'

'Since I'm not psychic, I really don't know.But I'm pretty certain that it will have something to do with financial matters and the leasing and contracting of more airships-- namely economics, your favorite subject,' he teased. Disappointingly, Daryl did not gracehis levity with a laugh, or even a smile. She sat up and squinted her eyes;Setzer had the fell premonition that the chocobo feathers were just about to hit the fan.

'Stop being a wiseacre, buster. Do you mean to tell me that the Emperor is going to buy off the Blackjack and the business?'

'I expect so,' Setzer said mildly. 'I mean, we are under government contract. Still, I don't think that we'll be inundated with soldiers in the workshops. He'll probably want toextend the charter and commission more airships, as well as assigning missions for the Blackjack. You know, mass delivery to far-off military posts, that sort of thing.' The whole atmosphere in the bedroom felt out of joint. It wasn't that he and Daryl hadn't had their share of arguments and tiffs, but most of them had been in good nature and quickly resolved with a kiss and embrace. Unfortunately, Setzer didn't think it wise to kissDaryl at the moment.

'Like hell he will!' Daryl cried direfully. She inhaled deeply three or four times, squeezed her eyes shut, and bit her bottom lip.

'Setzer,' she tried again in a softer tone,'I know I'm not as good with numbers and PR and whatnot as you are, and I've always let you alone on those matters because you knew best. And you've done a wonderful job; you got the goods. But this is different. TheBlackjack is not some sewing machine you can hawk off in the market.It's beyond any price. We made it, put our sweat, blood into out--we put our souls into building the thing, Setzer! It brought us together. I can't remember how many delightful hours it gave to us, just you and me. When I worked one the Blackjack with you, those were the happiest times of my life. It's ours. We love it. You don't sell the things you love, dear.'

He couldn't believe it. And from Daryl, who of all people should have known--!

'Damn.' He looked at her and moved his hands around in his pockets and repeated, 'Damn. Daryl, I do love the airship, and I love you. But this has got to--Let me explain. I didn't build the airship as a lark. Why would I waste so much of my time and money on a lark? Thrills aren't free. They've got to be useful for something, too. Whydo you think I spent so much money on the thing?'

'I thought it was because a man wanted to fly."

'Daryl, please understand. We will fly, you and I, I promise. I don't break my promises. But it's been a mediocreyear for us, and all the money I spent on the Blackjack certainly didn't improve matters.'

'What? The Empire's been purchasing equipment from you like there was no tomorrow!'

'Do you know how I got them to do it?' Setzer demanded impatiently. 'It's complicated, but in a nutshell, I had to lower the prices substantially to get them buy as much as they did. It's a simple demand curve once you get down to it: the lower the price level, the greater quantity demanded. And they still didn't buy as much asI'd have liked. This is the lowest profit year ever since Mulciber handedover the reins. We need all the help we can get, and I sense that the Blackjack and future airships will get us back on track.'

'So that's it,' Daryl sneered. 'Don't be selfish.'

'Who wants the Blackjack all to her little self,hmm? Who wants to be the queen of the sky?'

Daryl crossed her arms and whirled around to stare atthe wall.

'Please, Daryl, don't do that. Come on.'

She did not turn or speak; Setzer hated it when she did this.

'Daryl, will you kindly stop that? You're acting like a child!'

That finally elicited a response from her, though it certainly did nothing to improve the situation. 'I'm three years older than you are!'

'Don't be argumentative,' he warned.

'Don't be self-centered.'

'Don't be so hissy.'

His head engineer turned her face over her shoulder and gave him this ultimatum: 'Setzer, I'm going to go get a ladder so you can jump up my ass!'

Her words were comical, but her tone was not--it smacked of doom, and Setzer did not take it lightly.

'What do you expect me to do? Go to the Emperor and say, =91Hell no, old boy! My lady Daryl won't have it.'?'

'And why not? That old buzzard doesn't scare me. I'd bash him in his one hundred and four year-old face if I thought I needed to.'

'Ha! I'd like to see you so bold when he puts us both on the rack. And he's not that old.'

Daryl's shoulders twitched and he saw her raise up her arms and curl her fingers as if choking some unseen enemy; she gave out a cry that sounded like 'Graaaaaaagh!'

As far as he was concerned, Setzer decided that the discussion was at its close. He threw on his coat, left the room, and sent Benedick off to tell the chauffeur to ready the carriage, but he was not at all happy about it.


The Emperor reserved five hours each day for hearing audiences in the throne room, judging disputes between his courtiers, listening to his advisors give their public speeches on the states of the economy,military and whatnot, and holding discussions with the courtiers. He held private audiences in his chambers, and people were only allowed to see him ifthey were summoned personally. It was to one of these =91privy councils' that Setzer journeyed to the Imperial Palace.

A small garrison of guards in front of the Emperor's bedchamber met the young man and one of the Imperial pages who acted as anescort for guests. They frisked him, interrogated him, and required positive proof of his identity before they allowed him access to the royal chambers.

The young page went before Setzer and announced his arrival to Vector's highest power; the boy then bowed smartly to Setzer andslipped away. He walked into the room all alone.

Gestahl sat straight-backed in a large chair of iron lined with vermilion velvet cushions. His long hair and plaited beard were deep dull gray though he was only in his late forties; long robes of red and black hung off his skinny frame, soft and frail from lack of exercise and too much rich food, like doll dressed up in clothes two sizes too large. Thin and wan as the man was, a doughty resilience clung to those sinews, the onlything that seemed to keep his body together. A tall black cap perched on his head, small links of jade beads hanging from the squared top.

Two men stood at attention on each side of the Emperor's chair. One was tall with a strong, broad-chested, garbed in a green officer's coat; the rest of his clothing was standard issue. His blonde hairwas cut close save for one long section in the very middle, which he had combed over to one side. It vaguely reminded Setzer of a mohawk that had fallen over.

The other man was shorter than the first, but much more noticeable. He looked like a deranged clown gone wrong. His clothes were a riot of color and designs, mostly red, green, and yellow; a huge striped collar encircled his slender, pale neck. His blonde hair was pulled back sharply from his face, which wore several layers of makeup and sported intricatered patterns on the cheeks and temples. His red lips curled up in a smile at Setzer's entrance.

Setzer knew of these two: Leo Christophe and Kefka Palazzo, Gestahl's top generals and his kitchen cabinet. Their presence was unexpected and not particularly welcome. Setzer felt off-balance and a bit flustered; he couldn't take many more unexpected confrontations.

Emperor Gestahl finally spoke: 'Mr. Setzer Gabbiani, in the flesh. I thank you for being able to respond so promptly to my summons on such short notice.'

'It was no inconvenience, Your Excellency,'Setzer mumbled demurely, bowing low. As he straightened up, he caught sightof something willowy and white all the way over in the far corner of the chamber.

At first glance, Setzer thought it was a marble caryatid, but some stray golden strands of hair wafted gently in the air currents, and the icy gray eyes moved. No statue but a girl, her skin death pale, stood at attention in the corner. She was quite lovely even at her tender age--she had to be in her teens--and Setzer smiled at her.

'That is Mistress Chere,' the Emperor explained. 'She is in training to be my newest general, and I brought her here to see how affairs of state are conducted. All of my generals must know how everything works in the palace. It keeps them on their toes. She is here only to observe, though.' The middle-aged man snapped his fingers, a surprisingly loud, sharp sound that nearly made Setzer jump. The two generals flanking the throne stepped forward.

'Meet my generals, Leo and Kefka.'

General Leo bowed and shook hands; Kefka regarded Setzer with smeary blue eyes and uttered a bizarre whooping giggle.

'Mr. Gabbiani,' continued the Emperor, "to begin, let me congratulate you on your wondrous achievement.'

'Thank you,' Setzer murmured.

'Yes, yes, it was very good,' Kefka said, grinning and looking to burst into a jig at a second's notice. 'It must've taken a long time to build.'

'Yes, very long,' Setzer answered. He decided that he rather endure listening to Ratchet's nonsensical philosophy than this general's clownishness.

'And why is it, Mr. Gabbiani, that you kept the development of such a potentially useful invention secret from me?' asked Emperor Gestahl.

'It was kept under cover, Your Excellency, because I did not want anybody stealing the plans before I was finished.'

'So you could be first, Mr. Gabbiani? I understand. Now forgive me, but let me be blunt. I think this...=91airship' of yours will be of great service of the Empire, and I wish to purchase all rightsof construction on behalf of my government. We will have to negotiate this further, but I would like an initial estimate.'

'Oh, as long as I make something of a profit, I am flexible,' Setzer answered coolly, even though a muted sense of anger bridled in him. One day after success, and now the Empire wished to buy all! It was a great blow to his pride and satisfaction; and there was Daryl. He thought of legions of airships blotting out the skies, and Daryl's tears. All of these things spinning in his head made him bold, and so he added: "But I have a few conditions.'

'You dare make conditions to me?'

'I mean no disrespect, Your Excellency,' Setzer said, bowing his head, 'but, as a businessman, I cannot go about making airships just like that. I am perfectly willing to beat my body into ruins for you on delivery missions, but I require some conditions for a fair exchange.'

The corner of the Emperor's mouth curled up. 'Hmm! And what are these provisos?'

'There're only two, my Liege. First, I want the government to grant me the right to the production of all airships from henceforth.'

'A monopoly, Mr., Gabbiani?'

'Not a monopoly! Suppose that the other great nations and cities got ahold of the technology through industrial spies? You certainly wouldn't profit from that. This way, I can monitor my workers andprevent foul play.'

'And the second?'

'That I will only make one more new airship."

'Now that is a problem,' Gestahl frowned. "My Empire would benefit greatly with more than two airships in the whole world.'

'I assure you, Majesty, that more will not be necessary. This is further insurance against spies. Furthermore, the two shipscan carry supplies in great enough quantities to your towns and ports that no-one will be in need. I can't imagine how many airships would be grounded because they weren't being used. I promise you, my Lord, the Empire willnot need more than two.'

'Consider it done--yet do not be surprised if I have a few conditions of my own later on, Mr. Gabbiani. For now, though, letthe minor details be worked out between my officers and your lawyers. A date will be set for the meeting. You are dismissed, Mr. Gabbiani.'

Setzer kissed the Emperor's bejeweled right hand and bowed his way backwards out the doors. How happy Daryl would be when he told her what he had accomplished! He fairly ran through the palace corridors.He could not wait to see her.

In the Imperial bedchamber, Emperor Gestahl stroked the ashy length of his beard thoughtfully, his unblinking stare almost penetrating through the gold and stone to keep Setzer in his sight.

'Appealing young man,' the Emperor said, "and a pleasing outcome for both parties. What do you make of these wheelings and dealings, my generals? Leo?'

'In my opinion, my Liege, I think the Empire will benefit greatly from this arrangement. It will be indispensable as an efficient way of transferring supplies in bulk to our troops. I found Mr. Gabbiani a bit flighty and extravagant, but I also think his loyalties are true. It's a wise deal, Sir.'

'I wouldn't know about his true loyalties," Kefka said, standing on one foot, lifting the other and contemplating thesole of his boot. 'Only one new airship! He's screwing us over. He's holding back.'

'I was well aware of that, Kefka,' said theEmperor. 'But that was only the initial agreement. Let him have his two airships for a little while; then we shall renegotiate.'

'Why do we have to wait so long?' Kefka demanded. 'You're the Emperor--make him cough up sooner than later.'

'Patience!' Leo hushed. 'If both sidesare going to get the most out of this, we must take it slow.'

'Ah, did you hear that? Leo's become a master of business all of the sudden! You never know when to reach out and take, even when the prize is standing smack right before your face!'

'Enough, Kefka!' Gestahl clipped. Kefka'sred mouth gave a mighty sneer, but he shut up.

Gestahl lifted his pale hand towards the motionless girl in the corner. 'Come, Celes, my pretty.' She obeyed; he placedhis palm on the top of her golden head. 'Remember well what you have seen go on today. It will serve you well later, when you become a true general. You and Leo are both dismissed. Kefka, a few words with you.'

The two men waited for the moment they were alone, and Kefka leaned in next to Gestahl's right ear.

'What do you make of it?' the Emperor asked. 'Businessmen of his kind only want money. I have plenty of that. I amwilling to accommodate his wretched demands, and he knows it. It can't befinancial. Why does he falter, do you think?'

'You don't know?' Kefka whispered into the old ear, rolling his smeary eyes and clicking his teeth.

'I have my suspicions, naturally. But did you not look into his background as I ordered last night? I told you to produce his file.'

'I did that, all right, and I looked through it,too. I put it on your desk this morning.'

'I haven't had time to look at it, Kefka,' snapped the old man. 'Now enough of your insolence! Tell me.'

'As you said, most wise and keen Liege, money isnot an issue. The problem with Gabbiani is that, unlike most men of his type, he actually has something of generosity in him.'


'I guess that wouldn't be a problem either, except for one thing: he has a lady friend, a common little lass who's livedwith him for some time. You might think he was in love with her. She doesn't care about money, the rumors say, and probably won't be too happy about this contract.'

'Oho,' the Emperor chuckled wryly, 'that is strange. Does this woman pose any threat?'

'Not now, she doesn't,' Kefka grinned, two smiles seeming to spread across his face. 'But as time goes on, it's likely that he'll start relying on her more and more as they grow closer. He won't listen to us, us, us!'

'A danger,' the old man muttered, tapping his fingers together. 'This technology must be the Empire's alone. Fornow, though, only keep an eye on them, Kefka. Watch them carefully, but don't make a move unless I deem it necessary. General Leo would not approve of punishing her just because she is Mr. Gabbiani's lover.'

'Leo doesn't approve of anything.'

'No, he doesn't,' Gestahl gave another chuckle, eyeing Kefka knowingly, 'and that's why I have him out in the field half the time. My best warrior, but no political sense at all--unlike you. Go now, Kefka. I trust you will do your best.'

'Anything for my Liege!' Kefka crowed. He gave a flourish of one arm, made a signal to the air, and vanished in a swirlof robe and powder, leaving the Emperor alone to ponder.

'Indeed,' he grumbled to himself, 'as the Emperor, I must keep my word to the man. The Empire cannot afford to further jeopardize his alliance and loyalty. However, I must do something about that minx who helps him too much.'


Winter with its soft drifts of clear-glinting snow and bitter blasts merged into blossomy spring, full of laughter and nectar; next came lazy sweltering summer days and yearly festivals; then autumn siftedits yellow and golden-brown leaves over the land, where they quickly grew sear and parched within a few days of lying on the street; finally back to winter again. Twice the course ran itself, Setzer finding himself twenty-six years of age.

For these two years Setzer lived as he found best: heate well, worked hard, and filled his idle time with sweetness. He took hisfriends into the Blackjack's inner decks, where they indulged in delectable meals, whiling away the hours with laughing sport in poker, bridge, roulette, or any other game that they fancied.

Daryl sat ever at his side. It felt so natural, so right for her to be there that Setzer, after a few tentative starts, found to his delight that he could talk, tease, and admire the women who came to the parties without fear of a jealous hissy fit. His taste for the feminine persuasion had not faded over the years. He especially favored long-haired, leggy blondes. He liked to watch them, especially with impunity.

For he knew she would never leave his side. At the end of each long workday and party, it would be Daryl whom he sunk down with on the couch in front of a fire, massaging her legs which she curled up in his lap, nobody else. There they talked about many things, teased Benedick andeach other, and laughed long before retiring to bed for another night.

Everything was great fun, no pressing cares in the world, but, very freakish to tell, during this time Setzer's platinum-blondehair turned prematurely silver.

He had gotten up one day, and, going in front of a mirror to brush his hair, saw the change. It had shifted color so gradually that he had not even noticed. He let out a wail, which brought Daryl running in from the bedroom.

'I've gone completely gray!' he groaned, running his fingers through his hair in disbelief.

'Why, you're right,' Daryl said, examining a strand. 'I hadn't noticed.'

'My Papa went gray early on, too,' Setzer muttered darkly. 'Curse his infernal genes!'

She slipped her arms around his waste and whispered close: 'Don't worry about it. I think it makes you look sexy. It's not gray per se...it's a silvery color. It's gorgeous. In fact, I say it suits you better than your old color.'


'Yes. Dye it back and I'll shave you bald."

The new hue did suit his rather pale complexion rather well, so he took nature's course in stride. At her suggestion, hestopped binding his long hair with velvet ribbons into a neat ponytail, nowletting the long silver strands flow free over his shoulders. And Setzer soon made a joke that Daryl had put him through so many scares since the firstday she shimmied up the scaffolding that he had gone gray with the stress and fright of dealing with her. She always hit him when he said this, though she never denied anything.

For Daryl had been busy, too. Shortly following Setzer's meeting with the Emperor, a contract had been drawn up concerning the use and production of airships; one section stipulated that the Blackjack had to be used to transport so many goods to Imperial bases throughout the world whenever called upon. Since no-one else knew how to fly, the job fell to Setzer and Daryl. She accompanied him on the long trips over seas andmountains, dividing steering shifts in half with him and helping the crew unload goods. And, to put it lightly, her driving was downright scary at times: dips, corkscrews, sudden U-turns, moves so outrageous that they didn't have names. Setzer soon learned to not give her the night shifts; the crew wouldn't have gotten any sleep otherwise.

Still, the pair performed their duties with such efficiency and speed that they had enough time to make Daryl her very own airship, as promised, after a year. She named it the Falcon.

The Falcon was not as large or elaborate as the Blackjack--it had only one small spare room--but it was more slender and aerodynamic. Daryl had built the ship for speed, not comfort. Setzer felt that some of her designs were not very sensible. It was light, true, but not very strong, and Daryl had souped up the engines by rather dubious means. Even she admitted to a bit of recklessness.

'This new airship may be a bit unstable,' she said.

'What!' answered he. 'You can't be serious! Daryl Spielen, talking of danger? The doom of the world is nigh! Let's get you out of here before the gods come.'


'All right, all right. I am a little worried about the Falcon, Daryl. I'd feel better if you gave it normal engines at least. What are you trying to prove, anyway? '

'They do guzzle up gas, and I've had trouble with maintaining them. They just seem to wear out easily. The people who sell me cogs and wiring have a real racket going. To answer your question: none of your beeswax. I just want to push the envelope.'

'You're a madwoman.'

'Don't I know it. But, oh, Setzer, it just goes so fast! Isn't it wonderful?'

Riding the Falcon was wonderful, he had to admit; they had gone faster through the sky in that thing than they had in the Blackjack. It handled smoothly, too--it could do tons of tricks. Verywonderful, indeed. Especially in the evenings. At that time they flew up onthe Falcon as high as they were able and, hovering at the apex of the journey, they would stand at the balustrade, arms around each other's waists, and silently watch the cool rose and gold seep into violet, stars blinking on one after another. He felt lighter than air and luckier than the gods at sunset.

'But,' she appended, 'if something does happen to me, the Falcon is yours. It wouldn't be in any better hands.'

'Ha!' He began to laugh. 'I'll win it from you when I whip your pretty little bum in a race!'

Racing their airships had become one of their favorite pastimes. Danger and death lurked all about their whipping turns and demented dives, but it only added to the excitement. Just as a race-car driver knows he goes into great peril every time he straps in yet cannot tear himselfaway from coming back for more, so Setzer and Daryl could not have stopped their games. Setzer noted proudly that no matter how much Daryl bragged about her precious craft, their winning streaks were about half and half. The Falcon was fast, true, but Setzer was the more skillful and crafty pilot. He never ceased to remind her of that.

'Big talk, buster!' she snapped; she wiggled the cute little bum in question with a great deal more skill than was goodfor a decent woman and ran out of the room, leaving him to chase after.

During this time, too, Daryl began pressing her loverto take a vacation from Vector and the business life and bring her to Jidoor for a week or two. She wanted to meet his old friends and his parents, she explained, and the break would do them both good.

Setzer balked whenever she suggested the vacation. When he was not seeing to his duties as a businessman or making deliveries, racing and making the most of his social life took all of his time. He could not see how he could do as she asked without falling egregiously behind schedule. He really did want to see his parents and friends, but going back seemed much more trouble than it was worth. He had been writing to his family once more and was keeping better in touch with them; that was good enough for him. Last and least, Setzer did not think his parents, especially his mother,would approve of him bringing a woman with whom he lived but was not married to into the house.

'We'll do it soon,' he always told her, "but not at the moment, my delectable sweet.' Daryl never had much time to complain, for she was as busy as he, and was also having a gay time of it all.

Then the soldiers came.

For two years Setzer had enjoyed relative freedom from the eyes of the Emperor. True, there were rumors about companies running on government charters finding their halls and vaults patrolled by Imperial soldiers. Factories churned out less domestic products and more armor, swords, shields--the soldiers saw to that. Setzer heard and was a bit alarmed and concerned, but nothing prepared him for what came.

He and Daryl rode to the workplace, getting out of the carriage at the front walk as was routine. Setzer looked up to see two menin Imperial fatigues, wicked pikes held ramrod straight at their sides.

Daryl made to open her mouth, but he shook his head. "Stay calm. I'll see what the trouble is. We mustn't make any fuss."

'Good morning, gentlemen,' he greeted the soldiers, walking up the steps hand in hand with Daryl. 'I expect your commander is within?'

An affirmative nod was the response; Setzer smiled, bade them good day, and entered the building. It seemed that two guards had been posted at every doorway, not to mention there was a group of three or four in almost every room.

Setzer swallowed hard. The Emperor had shown no displeasure in his work, but a person doesn't just send a whole battalion into one specific place just for the heck of it or as a mistake. What had broughtthis on? What needed to be done?

'Oh, my dear gods!' Daryl cried; herchest was heaving and her eyes flashed with hot drops. 'They've turned the place into a fracking garrison! GET OUT OF HERE, YOU WEASELLY EGG-SUCKING--'

He clamped his hand over her mouth and sent her off to the hangar, praying she wouldn't do anything rash in his absence. Setzerwent to his office, where he met the captain of the guards.

The fellow looked the surly type, but after a few helpings of good brandy and a smoke or two, he was quite amiable.

'So,' Setzer said, 'what brings you fellows here?'

'Emperor's orders.'

Setzer smiled, forcing himself to recall his father's advice that people, no matter how stupid they are, do not appreciate being reminded of the fact to their faces. 'I hear, my good man, that your comrades guard other businesses as well.'

'That they do,' the captain nodded.


'Don't you know?'

Suspicions had formed on the sight of the Imperials, but Setzer truly did not know why they had come. He had made so many deliveries that his grip on current affairs was quite sub-par. Setzer told the captain so.

'Have you ever heard of the Returners, sir?'

'No. Enlighten me.'

'A Returner,' the captain growled, 'isa man that blows up women and little children just because he doesn't like the Emperor. A Returner's the sneakiest SOB alive with the yellowest belly. They hide out in the sewers and garbage heaps and barns and kill things and make people mad without daring to show their faces in a fair fight.'

'So they're an opposition group,' Setzer said blandly. The captain nodded his head viciously.

'They hate the Empire! They come mostly from Maranda and Tzen and the other villages thereabouts, but they've spread northward. There's even some home-grown ones from right here. How do you like that, sir? Blowing up their own people!'

'Is blowing up things all they do, Captain?'

'Yeah, seems like it. They aren't brave or skilled enough to go against us in a fair fight, so they plant their little bombs all over the Empire. They've been up to something right here in Vector,targeting factories and trading posts. They even gone and bombed an Imperial barracks. I had friends that died in that attack. It's gotten so bad that the Emperor's ordered us out to protect the big industries.'

Setzer was certain that the man was not lying. So he gathered all the newspapers, financial magazines, and oral information available into his office (having sent the captain to the cafeteria on the promise of a feast of roast beef) and saw the information for himself.

What he found enraged him. Several rather negligible factories and storage buildings had been demolished along with the barracks,but not one large market participant had been touched. The bombs were crudeand homemade, and the only reason there had been any successful targets at all was because security had been ill-trained and scanty.

His ears went red. Setzer had ample, competent security officers, and he knew that he possessed the resources to crank up measures at any notice. He burned to throw the whole wretched lot of soldiers out with the wash water. For a moment, he considered ordering Mulciber and his workers to force the Imperials out but that was utter suicide. The only thing to do was stick it out.

All in all, the unwelcome new additions to the labor force behaved themselves and production met its usual daily quota, even if everyone was quieter than usual. Setzer took little consolation in that. Hourupon dreary hour crept by, hot and ponderous on his lungs, and in his mind he directed violence to the poor, innocent guards who were only doing their jobs. Once he even wept.

When the final bell rang, Setzer collected his paperwork and Daryl and loaded them into his carriage, directing the driver to make a course for the Imperial Palace. He told her of what he had found out andhis intentions. Daryl looked up at him with grateful eyes.

'Thank you,' she whispered.

'I don't know if I can get rid of them,' he told her with a pat on her arm and a kiss on the cheek, 'but I'm sure I can reduce their number, if anything.'

'Do you think he'll give you an audience on such short notice?'

'Of course. Remember, my dear madam, that I am the one of the only two people in the whole wide world who owns an airship. Iam a great contributor to Vector's economical well-being. I have clout. The secretaries and guards know me. I may have to burn some gold, but I will be heard.'

They arrived at the palace courtyard; Setzer helped Daryl out and slipped his arm around her back, saying, 'Let's go, youand I. I'm already thinking I oughtn't have brought you along, to be perfectly candid. I know you don't like politics. But this appertains to us both. But let me do the talking.'

'Certainly. You're better at that sort thing."

They went along through the halls to a room just outside the audience chamber. Here people who did not have official appointmentsfor hearings vied for a vacant spot in the Emperor's schedule. The head secretary, who knew Setzer, looked up and listened to the young man's request.

'I'll tell him as soon as the person in there is heard out, Mr. Gabbiani.'

Praise be to all the gods that he was rich! Setzer barely settled himself down in his chair before the secretary rose, disappeared, and returned again.

'He will see you now. In his private chambers."

Setzer nodded for Daryl to follow, and they ran the usual gamut of guards and inspections. They entered the room, prompting Gestahl to stand from his seat at their arrival. He did not look in the least surprised to see them.

'I trust that this is of the most catastrophic importance, Mr. Gabbiani, for you to have interrupted my court.'

'Your Excellency, I intend no intrusion on your time, but this matter is important to me. Why have you dispatched so many soldiers to my factories? It has caused distress among my workers. Majesty, you know that I myself am capable of upgrading safety procedures easily. I do not see why you should go through so much trouble for me. You only had to give the word.'

'Mr. Gabbiani, you claim to be the best of businessmen, and yet you do not know what goes on around you,' the Emperor said. 'Or, more to the point, you simply aren't paying any attention. I tell you now that the Empire requires stricter supervision of its industries. Sending out my soldiers ensures that I know what is going on a moment's notice. It is imperative that I am aware of everything. There is much unrest on the borders, resistance is great. General Leo's been slogging it outfor months in the deserts trying to stave off guerrillas, and even still they managed to infiltrate into Vector itself. Remember I decreed that all businesses were to be closely monitored to improve production and to prevent becoming targets for attacks. Even yours, Mr. Gabbiani! There is alwayssome mob of idiots out there that think they can accomplish the downfall ofa government by blowing things sky high.'

'Your Excellency, my workers--'

'I have received no complaints from anyone else,Mr. Gabbiani. Perhaps you've had too free a rein for too long. We shall renegotiate our charter very soon, I fear. And for the moment, I will not dismiss one soldier from his assignment at your factories. Dis--'

'That's a pack of lies! We're not just the common middle-class people that're ignorant of the things going on,' Daryl blurted out. 'We know what's up, and it's not nearly as dangerous as you say.' Setzer looked at her in horror; he attempted to raise his arm to silence her, but his limbs were limp.

'Don't try me, impudent girl!' Gestahl's breath warned through clenched teeth as he pointed at her. 'For yearsI have showered favor upon you both, but if you give me insolence one more time, I'll hurl you both down to dust!'

Setzer grabbed Daryl by the shoulders and swiftly swept her out of the chambers, ignoring her struggles. She made to grab at the sills of each door they passed through, but he shoved her along steadily andnone too gently.

He was frightened, terribly frightened, for the expression on the Emperor's face had been wrath incarnate. Setzer could only thank Stray that they hadn't been both incarcerated on the spot. But he was mostly angry. They had accomplished nothing and had angered the Emperor on top of that all because of her waggling tongue, gods damn it!

Directing Daryl into one of the byways surrounding the palace gates, he started to shout at her. 'Woman, don't you realizewhat you've done? You've just gone and insulted the fucking Emperor! Now we'll never be rid of them.'

Daryl lowered her head and said softly: 'I am sosorry, Setzer.'

Setzer wanted to tell her to apologize to the Emperor, not to him, but he discarded that impulse. Men are constantly apologizing to their lovers, usually once a day if they're well-behaved, but when a woman admits wrong to her man, it is a special occurrence indeed.

He pulled her close and ran his fingers through her hair. 'No tears, now. I wouldn't have been able to convince him, anyway.'

'You're right, though. We'll never berid of them,' Daryl sniffled into his coat front.

'It can't last forever. Come, let's go home."

'I'm worried, Setzer. He broke his word. What if he decides to make more airships? He might get a spy in the factories to steal the plans, or else force us to give them up.'

'I know what to do. We'll go to the vaults andtake out the more important plans, the blueprints for the engines and such.We'll burn the lot.'


The next morning, Daryl refused to get out of bed. "I am not going back there,' she declared from her fortress of pillows and blankets. 'I can't.'

If this behavior seems irrationally stubborn, bear inmind that Daryl's life had been one of almost unbridled freedom, with very few authority figures. She could only take so much supervision. Her breaking point was thin, and when she felt oppressed, she disobeyed almost out of sheer hysteria.

Setzer knew her well enough to have discovered this long ago. Of course she could just stay home while he traipsed off to the grindstone, but he was not enthusiastic about returning to the office/garrisoneither. Going without Daryl seemed a terribly lonely prospect, and the longdays and nights of paperwork and deliveries had taken a toll on his physical strength.

Surely, he mused, it would not harm anything to take a short vacation. Ratchet can take care of things for such a shortperiod of time. I've earned a rest.

Yes--why not? Ratchet was not liked around the business, but he was respected and trusted; he lacked ambition. It was Ratchetwho ran the overall pace of things while Setzer was away on deliveries--a short break would not be a strain on him.

'Well, if that's how you feel about it, we candelay if for a little while. I say a nice three-day break will do us wonders. It will help you get adjusted.'

Brown eyes peeped out warily from the covers. 'You better not be lying.'

'Oh, dearest, I am hurt!' He clutched at his chest. 'Where is the trust?'

'I think I lost a tad of it when someone spilled a whole glass of wine on my best shirt and said that Benedick did it.'

'You can't prove anything. But, seriously, I mean it. We'll take the airships and have ourselves a grand holiday. Just the sky, the ships, and thou. It's a good idea, eh?'

'Hot damn!' She leapt out of the bed and ransacked the room for her clothes and spare changes for the trip. 'Don't just stand there grinning at me! Get packed!'

Setzer chuckled and bent down to gather up the scattered sheets and pillows from the floor. 'It's like a snow day,' he told her, 'except I am the one who decides who gets the time off and when it happens! Wow. Gods, I have become a god.'

'You'll be the God of Missing Teeth if you don't hurry up. Get dressed.'


Sound travels remarkably clear and strong through theupper air, making communication very easy. Setzer and Daryl stayed in touchwithout any radio--all they had to do was be able to shout over the engines.

'This is great!' Daryl hollered. 'I was made for this stuff. I'm the queen! THE QUEEN, I TELL YOU! Setzer, answer me: WHO'S THE QUEEN?!'

'You are, snookums!' he yelled back. They were on their third day of vacation and heading back towards Vector, engines running at top speed.

The hiatus had done wonders for them both; the momentthey had left the ground, Setzer felt happy and light, all his troubles below seeming far away and petty. He soon forgot about them in favor of focusing on teasing Daryl while they raced.

No particular destination has been set. They had gonewherever they wanted to go, only stopping to refuel. At night, one of them went onto the other's airship and they brought out soft feather-stuffed pallets and warm blankets up on the top deck. They slept under the stars, the cool nocturnal breezes fanning their faces while they wrapped their arms about each other, keeping deliciously warm.

On the second night, Setzer had whispered to Daryl, "It's been a lovely little break, but tomorrow we've got to go back home.'

'I don't want to.'

'Neither do I. But Daryl, we can't just go flying off whenever something we don't like happens. It's no way to live. You know I can't abandon the workers. If I'm gone too long, I'll never catch up.'

She had then rolled over on her side, facing away from him. 'I know. I just don't think I can stand it.'

He reached out and gently twirled a strand of her hair around his finger, responding, 'Of course you can. You're a tough lady. We'll stick it out together.'

'I guess I shouldn't complain.' She turned back to him with a gamely smile, and her eyes crinkled up with her old mischief. 'I swear, tomorrow is going to be epic.'

Daryl had been as good as her word. All day she had been doing all sorts of crazy stunts and whirling dives while going steadily higher. It was all Setzer could do just to keep up with her, let alone pass her.

'Ohhhhh,' he sang out, 'there's nothing like flying, nooo, there's nothing like flying, and that's good enough for meeee!' He had performed hundreds of missions in two years, but each time the same ecstasy sang through his body. He would never grow tired of it, not with a million flights.

From the Blackjack's deck, he saw a small black and red shape (Daryl) turn slightly away from the Falcon's steering wheel.

'Come on!' she yelled. 'Stop lagging back there! Or maybe you like chewing on my wake! WUSS!'

'Listen to you!' Setzer laughed back. 'I've never seen you go so fast. You'd better watch out, Ms. Let's-Crash-Into-the-Palace-and-Kill-the Emperor Spielen! I've got some tricks of my own.'

'I mean it! This time is for real, Setzer. I'mgoing to break every record. I'll be known as the woman who flew the closest to the stars! No, not woman--person!'

'We're almost at Vector, Daryl,' he admonished.

'Come on, please? Go back if you want, but I'mnot done yet. You haven't seen nothing.'

'Okay, okay. Do what you wish. Just meet me backat our hill at sunset.'

The red and black blur that was Daryl raised its arm and fluttered something at him--probably her hand. 'No worries!'

Setzer banked off towards the right and momentarily began to circle the hill; he found a suitable place and landed.

He walked up to the very beak of the prow and sat gracefully on it, dangling his legs over the sides, shifting his bones to retain his balance even in the gustiest wind. The young man had no intention of reporting to work that day, and he didn't much feel like going back home.

Pulling out the glass and metal card-darts from his coat, Setzer amused himself by spreading the cards out into suits, stacking them, watching the sun glint off their veneer, playing solitaire.

The air was very still. Every bird cry and the noisesfrom the city wafted up to his ears clear and true. He ignored them and continued playing.

Quite without warning, his hands jerked involuntarily. His right index finger slid down the razor edge of a card, slitting the skin and drawing a thin line of blood. Setzer cried softly out in surprise andwrapped a handkerchief around the slice.

A strange sound sounded in his ears, a sound he had not been aware of it until he had hurt himself. Sometimes, when he was alone,as all people do, he heard someone's voice--his mother's, his father's, or one he didn't recognize--speak in his ear, yet with nobody around but himself. This was the same type of sound. It was silvery yet strident, with a hint of a dull roar.

What had been that queer sensation in his head? Setzer did not know. He wished Daryl was with him.

I can wait, he thought to himself, staring offat the horizon. Any moment, she'll come zooming up and boast about what she did. I only wish she'd hurry up.

The skyline tinged with gold and rose, then duskylavender. Crickets chirped and owls hooted. Setzer could barely see his hands in front of his face. Daryl had not come.

Light burst in front of his eyes, nearly toppling him; a hand grasped his shoulder and steadied him. Setzer looked at the intruder.

'Master, why do ye tarry here long following th' sun?' Benedick, holding a lantern aloft in one hand, peered down at him. 'I'd expected ye to be near half-dead from the night's flaw.Come out from the cold.'

Setzer became aware of a deep aching in his joints--every time he moved something groaned. So stiff was he that he needed Benedick to help him to his feet.

'Has Daryl come home yet?' Setzer asked.

Benedick started. 'No, Master. I did think Ladybird to be with ye these past three days.'

'We came back today, but she wanted to fly a little longer. She didn't come back?'

The old man gave Setzer a hearty slap on the back, eliciting a wince. 'Do not cudgel the brain with gloom, Master. I do expect that Ladybird flew overlong and could not finish the trip back here =91fore nightfall. Expect her in the morning. Now to bed with ye.'


One year. Three hundred and sixty five days; eight thousand seven hundred and sixty hours; five hundred twenty five thousand and six hundred minutes; thirty one million and five hundred thirty six thousandseconds.

Ratchet informed Setzer on the first day after the vacation that Daryl had not reported in at the hangar. She had not come home.

How he pulled off a calm, professional facade was a mystery even to himself. At work Setzer acted somewhat like he always had, but at his house, he dropped everything. On the first day he paced around his room, mumbling to himself, very annoyed. On the second he became worried. Onthe third he grew angry, shouting out threats of 'No more flying for you, wench!' and other such rot to the empty air. The servants found himquite intolerable.

Then the fear set in. It hung around Setzer at all times, present in the vague disquiet in his chest, the pangs of great loneliness. It was especially acute at night, when he drifted off to sleep and therewas no warmth next to him. In his hazy thoughts before dreams he felt certain that he would never see her again.

Yet through the long, dusty days and empty nights, hedid not accept defeat, even as the months dragged by, holding out longer than any rational man could. How he could do this was a simple matter of vocation. Gamblers are easily the most hopeful breed of people in the world. Theysquander their money and precious time for living in the smoke-filled casinos on the expectation that one day, someday, they will call the rightnumber or pick the right card or get the right slot machine combination andbecome rich. Day after day they live with this hope. Setzer easily transferred his gambler's patience to focusing on Daryl's return.

He did other things as well. Every night before bed he got down on his knees and prayed like a schoolboy, promising to go straight, promising to donate money to charities in the gods' names if they wouldonly return his Daryl to him. He meant every word, too. Every day when he came home, hesitating at the front door, he would close his eyes and imaginethat once the door was open, Daryl would come out to greet him, throw her arms around his neck and kiss him. He didn't know how he would respond--it was a matter of either embracing her or choking her. He would determine thatlater. But only Benedick greeted him at the door.

Of course, he searched for her. He reported Daryl'smissing status to the police, hired a small army of detectives, hounds, andforensic scientists to hunt for any trace of her. He offered rewards for any information on her whereabouts. He searched himself, too, via the Blackjack, but due to all the constraints his business put on him, he could do very little personal investigation.

One year. For one whole year he searched and prayed and hoped; he could do nothing else.

It all ended with three words. Ratchet appeared at the door one day, poking his head through; the two men locked gazes.

'We,' Ratchet announced, 'have found her.'


On the extreme northeastern edge of the world was a large island in the shape of a triangle. No-one inhabited it, for the ghosts of strange, terrible beasts haunted the rugged land and any attempts to colonize the place had ended in secret midnight slaughter, only the tatters of tents and shards of bone and cloth left behind to tell the tale. As aforementioned, the land was not very good, so there seemed little point it men risking their lives for such an unworthy plot.

In this island, aptly but unimaginatively dubbed Triangle Island, was a small swath of desert land cutting through the very center. It was here that Setzer, guided by Ratchet, directed the Blackjack.

The young man stood tall and restrained at the wheel, his face set in an expression he usually wore for poker matches. The news weighed heavy upon his heart, slowly crumpling it, but he felt oddly hollow and calm.

'Is she alive?' he had asked Ratchet.

'Sir, what a question! She's as dead as dead can be. Even if the crash didn't kill her, one can hardly expect to her survive for a year under ten feet of sand.'

And there it was. Ratchet did not lie, yet Setzer didn't quite believe him. Only when he had seen the body with his own eyes would he concede himself beaten.

Flying low, Setzer saw boats beached on the shores and a small cluster of tents dotting the stretch of desert, at the edge of a large pit. He circled around once before settling for a landing.

'I must warn you,' Ratchet said as he led Setzer, Benedick trailing close behind, to one of the larger tents, 'sheis not a pretty sight.'

He lifted up the flap and ushered them in. The tent had nothing in it except a long table, upon which lay a form shrouded in a heavy cloth. Setzer stepped forward and lifted up one corner of the shroud.

Aromas of dust and sand sifted up into his nose, blinding him momentarily. When he finally opened his eyes, he looked down.

The sand had well preserved Daryl's face and neck as best it could. The skin of her face had turned into parchment, desiccated of all pliant moisture. Her hair had turned brittle and hard as straw; bloodmottled patches here and there, soot streaked the forehead. It was a dull sight.

'What's wrong? Is the face strange to you?" Ratchet asked.

Setzer stumbled, his shaking knees falling to the earth, hands clutching at the sides of the table. In his peripheral vision, he saw Ratchet advance. Strong fingers pinched his nose; in a matter of momentshe gasped for air.

Ratchet forced a draught from a small blue bottle down Setzer's throat, grunting something to someone--Benedick--about a pain-killing medicine distilled from the crushed seeds of certain poppies. Setzer did not understand most of it, for his eyes began to swim. A numb sensation spread throughout his chest, as if Ratchet had taken a hypodermic needle andinjected Novocain straight into his heart.

What's going on? I feel frozen. No, it's like I'm made of stone. This, one thought echoed faintly, is how Ratchetfeels.

Suddenly, all seemed clear and harmonious, utterly peaceful; Setzer had never experienced the like. His thoughts were scrambled, but what came out of his mouth was lucid and calm.

'Take the body back to Vector and have it prepared for burial. She shall have a great tomb to rest in, a splendid tomb. NearKohlingen.'

'Why Kohlingen, Master?' Benedick whispered, looking fearfully between Ratchet and Setzer.

'Who cares? The country around there is beautiful. There's plenty of room there to build a tomb. Also, I don't want onlyburial chambers. I want one huge storage room, big enough for an airship."

'These words are naught but wild and whirling, Master! Ye plan to inhume an airship with poor Ladybird?'

'Yes. Ratchet, I want you to restore the Falcon for me. Do it anyway you please just as long as it looks like it oncedid. I can't do it myself. I can't bear to look at it.'

'How droll!' Ratchet almost sighed. 'You would have thought she was a queen of the old deserts. They were buried with all of their worldly belongings for the afterlife too.'

'Oh, shut up. Gods...I feel so tired,' Setzer slurred.

'The Divine Mixture does have that effect on first-time users. You'll get used to it after about a week. Take it twice daily until I say otherwise,' Ratchet said.

'All right, all right. Do whatever you want. But...What's the use?' Setzer stumbled again. Benedick barely caught himbefore he hit the floor.

Somnolent urges laced every limb of Setzer's body; he closed his eyes and felt his body being lifted up, rubbery legs dangling over. Bristly hairs (Benedick's whiskers) tickled his face, but he was tootired to sneeze.

Benedick had lifted him up like a rag doll and was carrying Setzer to the Blackjack. Passing under the flap, Setzer cracked open an eye and murmured softly: 'Gone.'


Building a tomb requires a deal of investment in labor, time, and capital, and the preparations are incredibly boring. If he had known how dull the whole set up was, Setzer probably would have never thought of undertaking the project, even if he actually didn't have to do much of anything.

After seeing the body and Falcon's wreckage brought back to Vector, Setzer went up into his room and lay in his favoritearmchair. The Divine Mixture was strong--it made him very tired that sometimes he could not think. He did not report to the garrison/factory; Benedick,hovering around at all times now, brought the paperwork and reports to the room. When he wasn't working, he slept. He did not want to bothered with tombs. It was only by his inevitable dumb luck that anything was built at all.

A letter had come from the Emperor, expressing condolences for the loss and offering to pay for the tomb's construction. Men and machines were sent to the land around Kohlingen to survey a good location and swiftly began to dig. As for statues, decor, and other design matters, Benedick took charge of those. The Doman took his decisions to Setzer for approval, but the young man had nothing outstanding to say.

'What think you on this cloth for wall hangings,Master?'


'Do these flowers take your fancy, Master?'


The only time Setzer took any initiative was on the matter of the door's inscription. Benedick came into the room bearing a small golden plaque and held it up to his master's face.

'Here is the plaque for the tomb's door, Master. What think you on it?

Setzer's eyes nearly popped out of his as he read:


Thou will come no more, alas, alas

No more shall thy presence grace us

With the sweet love, life, and spirit

That warmed the hearts of many

Thou will come no more, alas, alas!

'BENEDICK!!!' Setzer shouted, leaping out of his chair, scattering papers everywhere. 'Did you write that?'

'By my troth, I did not,' Benedick gibberedbeseechingly, raising his hands in supplication.

'I'm very glad of that, because if you had, I would have fired you. May whoever wrote that be dragged out into the street and shot!'

'I take it ye do not fancy it.'

'Hell, no. Such things are grounds for libel, Benedick. Here.' He grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled down the wordsGO AWAY. 'Use that.'

'Are ye certain, Master, that this is any more of an improvement?' Benedick queried, eyeing the new inscription warily.

'Dead certain! It's what she would have wanted. She'd have gotten a kick out of it.'

'Very well.'

'Wait. I suppose we can still use that old inscription. We'll put it somewhere deep inside on a wall or something, where nobody can see.'

'Yes, Master.'

While all these preparations went on, Ratchet worked with a small crew of assistants on restoring the Falcon. The project proved quite formidable: both main engines were damaged beyond all repair and had to be completely reconstructed. It was lucky for them that Setzer had not burned the sketches of the engine plans; Ratchet could fill in the holesfrom memory.

Everything took a month and a half to complete. During this time, Daryl's body was sent to the embalmer's, where she was treated with chemicals and herbs to prevent any further deterioration. Little else could be done except to clean the wounds and anoint the skin to make it less parched. When all was ready, she was taken from Vector to a small hamletoff to the southwest of Kohlingen that was near the site of the tomb. It was there that the funeral was scheduled to take place.


Tradition dictated that, before the proper funeral ceremonies, the dead body was to be laid out in a special building for friends and family to take one last look before burial. It was more of a social gathering than anything else, a time for people to congregate and express sorrow amongst themselves before the priest took over. Almost everyone there was a friend of Setzer's, for none of Daryl's kind had the funds to make the trip over to Kohlingen, and Setzer was in no condition to ferry people over on the Blackjack. He did pay for her mother's passage, as well as Benedick's, and for a few employees, including Mulciber, who had desired to express their sympathy. They had grown fond of Daryl.

Tears were abundant at the scene, women constantly wiping their eyes and men blowing into handkerchiefs. Setzer, dry-eyed, sat alone in the corner as everyone waited for the body, currently being touched up a bit, to be brought out of the back rooms. He had taken his daily dose two hours before, and the drowsy apathy was still on him. He was aware of where he was, but he did not care, nor did he want to be there. He wished himself back into his room.

'Poor man, poor man,' one of the women mourners whispered to her husband, 'he won't cry. And it looks like he hasn't slept at all since the accident.'

Setzer heard her words, but they meant nothing to him. He sat by the corner, waiting, and his heart was hard and dry.

'He must do something, or something will give," whispered another. 'He might go crazy.'

Mulciber and a riveter, the only people from the factory who had come to the pre-funeral ceremonies, went up to Setzer and spoke softly to him.

'Boy,' Mulciber growled, not without kindness, 'it's hard, I know. But life goes on. Stop being so damn dramatic. I know what you're goin' through. My wife left me all alone with a worthless nephew, but I didn't starve myself or stop sleepin' like a zombie. Gods, it hurt. But believe me, if an old son of a bitch like me canget over it, you can, too. Do somethin'.'

Setzer looked up at Mulciber with dry eyes and said not a word.

'That was good sense there,' the riveter said. 'It's not helping anyone to act like this. Do you think she cares? Her worries are over. You gotta go on with your business. Myself, I lost gods know how many friends and family members in the service of the army, butit didn't stop me. Two brothers, an uncle, and ten friends, gone and buried forever in foreign soil. Life's a bitch, but it's all we have. Stop wasting it.'

Setzer still did not say anything. The people began to whisper even more between themselves; everyone fidgeted and cast anxious glances.

A shadow fell in the door. Benedick awkwardly made his way in and mumbled apologies to all as he passed through them quite gracelessly. The old Doman conferred with Mulciber and the other man a pace; he then quietly patted Setzer's shoulder.

'Dear Master, I pray you, come with me speedily.I wish to show ye something.'

Setzer let Benedick take him by the hand and guide him through a series of doors, going deeper and deeper, following the signs, until they came to the room where Daryl's corpse was held. Benedick, much to the protest of the embalmers, forced his way in, his old body showing someof his former Samurai vigor.

On a table, shrouded in a white cloth with only her head poking out, lay Daryl. Setzer felt his heart churn for a single beat.

Benedick gently sat Setzer down at the end of the table. The old man lifted Daryl's head and set it in Setzer's lap, glaring balefully at the embalmers, some of whom had stepped forward.

'Keep thy distance, or I'll trounce thee!' He turned to Setzer and said: 'Look upon her that thou didst love, Master, and embrace her as if she lived.'

Setzer bent his head and looked at the closed, blinded eyes, the poor hair and dumb, cold mouth. He felt a pain in his chest, andhe gave a loud cry; tears sprang from his eyes and he thrust the head off his knees. He ran out of the room and did not stop until he reached the opening to the tomb.

There he sank down into a ball next to the door and wept for that bright girl who had flown too high.


Setzer remember little, if any, of the funeral. Benedick led a small search-and-rescue group to the tomb's entrance to find hismaster huddled up against the door, who was gently led back to the town, a good mouthful of the Divine Mixture administered. The ceremonies continued: borne by four hearty male mourners on a litter, Daryl's shrouded body entered the stone walls, the attendees and clergy going after. In the very heartof the edifice all stopped to observe as the four bearers laid Daryl into amarble sarcophagus draped with roses and scarlet silk. The priest began hiseulogy; it probably was just as well that Setzer was held in thrall by picking at the loose threads on his coat, for the speech talked of the fleeting vanity of life, and how people had to watch out for moral degeneration, or else the world would come tumbling down into godless chaos. Not once did the priest speak of how Daryl had gone without new clothes for five years so that her brother could attend a vocational school, nor did he mention about herjubilant lust for life that vitalized every cell in her body with love. Next flowers and trinkets, her toolbox, stuffed toys, and letters were strewn on the sarcophagus; finally the procession exited the tomb and the priest gave the final blessing before the door was sealed forever.

The priest addressed Setzer in a kind voice: 'Mr. Gabbiani, do you have any closing remarks?'

Setzer blinked stupidly. Benedick had given him a little too much of the Divine Mixture, and he was not experiencing lucidity, only drowsiness. He came forward anyway, for some deep internal compunction told him that it was the proper thing to do.

'Friends and relatives,' he spoke in a strong voice with a weak undercurrent (none of his family was attending), 'I thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming. Some of you knew Daryl, but most of you don't know about her background. Her father was a well-known hobo; her mother is the first woman ever to mix mosquito larvae with calamine lotion, thus both causing and curing skin rashes at the same time.

'Daryl wasn't the most beautiful woman in the world, but she didn't care about that. She had a great spirit, even greater than her waist. She blew every skinny woman I ever knew out of the water. Daryl had a lust for life--she didn't waste what little time she had, which is more I can say for most of you here. Plus, she was dynamite in the sack. Mrs. Spielen, if that's your real name, I can honestly say that I've known quite a few ladies in my day, but your daughter was the absolute best.

'What else can I say? I'm not a fancy or eloquent man, no matter how hard I fancy myself otherwise. It's all over. Some couples who absolutely hate each other's guts but're too lazy to get a divorce stay married for fifty, sixty years, and I only got three and half-ish. How is that fair? Think about it, won't you?'

The audience was literally stunned--what sort of grief had the power to produce such boorish rudeness? The women glanced at the grumbling men in scandalization; Daryl's mother began to sob; and Setzer slowly performed something of a wobbly saunter away to the village tavern. He was thirsty and wanted a drink.


Home at Vector once more, Setzer returned to his roomand regular routine, the only deviation which was he started to take a tad more of the Divine Mixture than prescribed; the periods of calm and well-being had grown shorter and more medicine was needed to buy the same length of time.

Presently Benedick and a maid went upstairs to deliver their master his breakfast, as had become customary. They found him sitting in his chair, and he glanced up at them.

'Where is Daryl? She hasn't overslept, has she?' he asked. Benedick and the maid exchanged uneasy glances.

'Ladybird is dead, Master.'

'Dead! Really. Oh, I remember now. Her engines died on her. I warned her. =91Use normal engines,' I told her. She didn'tlisten, did she?'

'Such was not her forte, Master,' Benedick whispered.

'Lovely woman, but never listened. Why, the first day I met her she nearly killed me by climbing up the scaffolding around the Blackjack. Scared the hell out of me, but as she was doing it I thought she would have made an expert rock climber or pole-dancer. Ha, ha, ha!"

Setzer laid his head down in his hash browns, soon beginning to snore. Benedick quietly excused himself, directed the maid to assist the head of the household to bed, and rode Chocy into Vector to the mainfactory. He hunted down Ratchet and demanded that Setzer should take no more of the Divine Mixture.

'It has oozed up into his brain,' the old Doman said. 'In the short time he is even awake, no sense can I make of his words. He cannot work. No more, I say!' He reached down to his scabbard, grabbing his katana by the hilt.

'Calm down, old man,' Ratchet sighed. 'Waving a sword at me won't help anything. The Divine Mixture clouds up the mind, dulls pain and prevents people from going hysteric. We used it oftenwhen I was a surgeon. It does have the effect of making people sleepy and spout jargon; that's natural.'

''Tis an unnatural way to come to grips with grief. I ask ye again to take him off.'

'If that's the way you feel about it, go righton ahead. I'm not his keeper. I don't mind taking charge of the business affairs, but I wouldn't mind if he came back. Hard work lies all about."

Benedick did the ungraceful thing, as expected. The old man's battle plan basically consisted of locking Setzer up in his bedroom without the blue bottle and waiting until he started thinking coherentlyagain. It was an extremely unpleasant affair for all concerned, but Setzer felt he had gone to Hell. He could not sleep, his skin prickled with goosebumps, and memories, horrible memories flooded his mind, the glass shards eating away at his face, Daryl's expression as the Falcon crashed down,her parched, cankered face--terrible thing! He screamed and beat at the door until his hands grew raw. He tried to jump out a window, but Benedick trussed his legs and hands up with rope. Defeated, Setzer went to his bed and wept like a baby. Then he grew silent and lay perfectly still for three whole days, not moving or speaking; Benedick had to spoon-feed him. On the third day, Setzer rose from his bed, took a bath, changed clothes, and went down tobreakfast, emaciated, pale, and eyes dull hazel but his mind was his own, glory be.

Even liberated, Setzer found himself confined to his bed and armchair for at least another week, for both Ratchet and Benedick adamantly refused to let him return to work in his current physical state. He was fed hearty beef broths, potatoes, leafy greens, only allowed one walk under heavy supervision around the gardens each day. In his spare time he read and talked with Benedick. Setzer was glad to have the old man around, for the sturdy presence was fortifying, and it turned out that Benedick had a surprising amount of stories stored in his white head.. He told of Doma Castle, of its battlements that had holes over the entryways to pour boiling oil on enemy soldiers, of the thin slits in the walls through which arrows could be shot, of its elite Samurai and their mannerisms.

'You wish to go back,' Setzer said.

'Sometime, yes.'

'Well, I don't see what's keeping you from packing off. I certainly can't stop you. I've treated you shabbily, neverlet you on vacation, and yet here you are.'

'I do admit only the honor of my word kept me with ye in the first,' Benedick conceded, 'and ye are a right nuisance at times. Yet Doma has men enough and needs not me, unlike someone I do know.' He reached out and filliped Setzer's nose. 'I am a foolishold man, but I know where my loyalties lie.'

Setzer's pale face smiled mirthlessly. 'Seems to me you could have spared yourself the trouble.'

'Ye sell thyself short, I am afeared. I shall stay here, dear Master, as a man of my word. Yet mark ye one day when Benedickwill no longer be here to keep ye company. Do not keep alone, dear boy."

Setzer smiled and drooped off into a light slumber. He awoke not long afterwards to faint scufflings at the door. Benedick entered, declaring, 'A visitor wishes to come into thy presence, Master. He is a stranger to me, but he claims old friendship. What is thy wish?'

'Let him in. Alone, please.'

Bowing low, Benedick disappeared, talked to someone in out in the hall, and a new form limped into the room: a tall, shaggy-haired, rather heavy-boned man, his forehead sloping and thick like an ape's. Placid brown eyes gazed twinkling down at Setzer from under the beetling brow.

'Hullo, Setzer! What's this? Why aren't you going mad with joy?' the man said, smiling genially. He did have a familiar look about him, but Setzer could not recognize him.

'I'm sorry, I don't recall...'

'Oh, forgive me. I forgot you've been having arough time of it. And it has been twelve years. Here, how about this,' His voice was quite deep, but every word had been articulated, smooth; he now made it drawl thickly. 'Ain't this a glumptious state of affairs, Gabby?'


Such embraces.

J.J. gave a whoop of joy and enfolded Setzer, who hadclambered out of bed, in a great bear hug, nearly crushing the convalescent's poor ribs. Setzer didn't mind the pain or the dirt that J.J.'s muddy boots had tracked onto the clean carpet; he squeezed in return and gave the wide face a kiss on each cheek. They pounded shoulders and jumped up and down, rattling the chandeliers above and below.

'Sit, sit!' Setzer cried, gesturing to the chairs around the coffee table. 'Damn, J.J., it's great to see you."

'Likewise, likewise,' J.J. laughed, waving a hand. He walked over to the proffered seat, and there was a considerable limp in his gait as, Setzer noted, his right foot was swaddled in bandages from the toes up to past the ankle.

'What happened to you?'

'That? A souvenir from my jail days, I hate to say. It's lucky I got out without anything worse, so I quickly learned to deal with it.'

'How did they do it?' Setzer asked soberly.

'Do you know of the Boot? It's an instrument that looks vaguely like a vice. They put your foot in it and turn a screw--I'm not familiar with how it works really, but each time they turn the screw a bone snaps. Certainly felt that way.'

'Dear gods,' Setzer said in a soft voice; merely thinking about what shapeless mass lay under those bands of cloth horrified him. 'The police did that to you? It's monstrous!'

J.J. shrugged and responded brightly, 'I told you, I got off easy. Probably because I was so young and a first-time offender.'

'What--what was it like?'

'The prison or the torture?'

'Both. I mean, if you don't mind talking aboutit. No, wait, not the torture. Nix that.' It was better to leave certain matters alone.

Wrinkling his nose up and stretching out in his chairluxuriously, J.J. answered, 'It was a long time ago, and, to tell the truth, it was boring. Maddeningly so. I was interrogated once, and they did this to me, but other than that I was left alone. All I did was lie around. Sometimes I got a book to read. There's not much to say.' He glanced around the bedroom, taking in the velvet drapes, fine oil paintings, the elegant furniture. 'I heard that you've been doing all right for yourself. Nobody was kidding.'

'Yeah, I'm a lucky SOB.'

'Strange that a lucky SOB like yourself stays upin his room alone for as long as you have,' J.J. intimated. His eyes stared unblinking at his host's scarred, pallid face, piercing as if to probe into soul and thought.

'I--A terrible accident happened not too long ago. Her name was Daryl, a dear friend of mine. She died.'

'Yes, I know.'

Well, he thought irascibly to himself, why did you bring up the damned subject in the first place? Out loud: 'How is everyone?'

'Fine. I haven't been to Jidoor in quite a long time, but I've been keeping in touch. Mandy and Benny both found jobs atthe Opera House.'

Setzer burst out laughing. 'Mandy and Benny! I thought they were banned from there forever! How did they get the jobs? I suppose belch-throwing midgets are in big demand these days?'

'I'm thinking that Mandy's parents used a bit of their theatrical influence,' J.J. chortled. 'Mandy has a surprisingly good voice. And he's so cute, you know, the ladies eat him up. Benny's dying of jealousy.'

'And Lorenzo?'

J.J.'s face flinched. 'Lorenzo is dead.'

'Oh, no--'

'I'm sorry. I thought you might heave heard."

Raising his hand to brush away a stray lock drooping in his face, Setzer shook his head. He had not seen Lorenzo in twelve years,so his feelings were more muted than he thought decent, but he could remember the flash of the blue eyes under the flaming hair, the way Lorenzo blushed when Dulcina smiled at him, the piques of temper. 'I've been in my room for quite some time. I don't know what's been going on. Mandy and Benny didn't write to me. Do they know?'

'Yes. '

A great sigh escaped Setzer's lips. 'It's insane, J.J. I had a friend named Livius; he killed himself. Then Daryl died. And now you say Lorenzo's gone, too.'

'The underworld's just going to the L's, isn't it?' laughed the other man softly, Setzer echoing.

'Hell, J.J., I think you actually got some wit from your experiences!'

'Something had to come out of them. I'm just happy I'm not a psychopath.'

But Setzer's mind and tongue had returned to the former subject. 'I always thought that Lorenzo would do something stupid and get himself killed,' Setzer said. 'What did he do? Did he go on some stupid hunger-strike and starve himself to death? It's always a dreadful shame when principles override common sense.'

'Don't talk about him that way! You don't know anything about it, so just shut the hell up, Setzer.' The soft browneyes shimmered with fire; Setzer's spirit quelled.

'Well, it seems like you know. Tell me what happened. How did he screw up?'

'I would have told you anyway without your morbid insistence. I was in a jail, right here in Vector, for three years, all alone with a crippled foot in the dark except for the rats.'--J.J. brushed back his hair; his ears were scalloped and gnawed at the edges, and one lobe missing-- ' They were going to let me rot there. Lorenzo came into my cell, Setzer. He'd been snooping around, trying to find out where I was,and when he did he begged and bribed and threatened the guards until they let him in. He hugged me when he saw me and gave me some food. I cried, I wasso glad to see him. Then he said to me, =91I'm getting you out. I've been living out on the streets for nearly three years, hiding in barns and outhouses and stealing, and I didn't do all of that just to see you die here.They won't let you out, you know.' It was then I saw he had a huge knife, a hunting knife, and a gun in his pockets. I didn't want to go, but he made me stand and follow him out. We came to the first set of guards; he cuttheir throats clean as a whistle, without a sound. All went well until we got out into the courtyard. This was one of those old decaying prisons, not modern at all, thank the gods for that! reserved for juveniles, so there weren't that many guards inside the place, not enough room. But outsidethey were everywhere up on the watchtowers. We got to the front gate and heshot off the lock. Then we were found out. Gunshots were all over, and guards were rushing at us. Lorenzo pushed me through the gate. =91Go on!' he shouted at me, =91go on, you moron!' Next he whispered, =91Get out of here. Go to the Sabil mountains, and if you see anyone, tell them Lorenzo sentyou.' I dodged through the hedges--a bullet nicked my shoulder--and I ran, even with my bad foot.'

'They killed him, didn't they?' Setzer murmured.

'Yes. I looked back and one of the guards was running him through, gaffed him like a fish. I wanted to retrieve him, help him, but I knew I couldn't. So I kept on.'

'I bet they destroyed the body. Bastards.'

Heavy brow furrowing, J.J continued: 'It's strange, but they didn't. It was downright decent of them. They buried him out at the back of the courtyard, in a proper coffin. To tell you the truth, Ithink that General Leo had something to do with it. He was stationed for a short time not too far away from the prison. Later I went back with some friends and we dug out the coffin and took it to Jidoor. It's there now. It's lucky they didn't do a background check on him, or else they'd left his carcass for the kites in a blink of an eye.'

'Why's that?' Setzer leaned forward, hands clenched on his knees, gazing at J.J, who squirmed and stared back with artificial and wild equanimity.

'Have you ever heard of the Returners?'


'Lorenzo helped found them, young as he was, along with the current leader, Bannon.'

'And you,' Setzer surmised, pointing a finger, 'are one of them. Trust Lorenzo to do something like that. You people kill children.'

'Yes, I am a Returner,' J.J. said, voice dire. 'They took me in, they were kind to me, Lorenzo's people. And we've got right on our side, dammit--'

'Right? What gives you the right to be right? The Empire's no worse than any government I know of. You kill children. You're a bunch of deluded, lily-livered cowards.'

'Is that what you think we do?' J.J. roared, nearly upsetting his chair. 'We do not attack civilians! Typical Imperial propaganda. Our struggle lies with the government alone. We have to fight in the hills, valleys, from behind rocks, but we do fight. It'sa vicious little war.'

'You don't seem to mind much,' Setzer noted.

J.J.'s cheeks flushed, and his large hands, hands that could easily smash a skull like a cantaloupe, choked the air. 'I can't think about it. What I and my comrades go through--we set our eyes on greater goals. We want the downfall of the Empire.'

'J.J., why in hell would you want that?"

'Don't you have any idea of what's going on?" J.J. demanded. Setzer shook his head. 'No, you wouldn't. You always had a penchant for overlooking things that displease you. The Empire isn't square, Setzer, it's foul and rotten. The strange thing is, you're one of the most successful men in Vector, and you don't know that.'

'I hate politics. They're boring. My concern is business. I'm not that important; it's an idiot who equates wealth with importance,' Setzer snapped archly.

'Ah--' J.J. hunched his shoulders, 'but I've been in the monster's bowels, Setzer, and I know what's been going on. I'm at the core, so to speak, and it's full of worms. The Empirewants land and money and all the things power thinks it's entitled to. Ifnobody stops it soon, it will strangle the whole world in its coils.'

Setzer opened his mouth to say what he really thoughtof the whole outrageous crock, but J.J. held up a finger. 'Already theEmpire has conquered the whole southern continent. They've been at it foryears, now it's all theirs. Maranda, the last stronghold, burns, torched into submission by General Chere--and with machines and weapons made from your factories, I believe.'

Rage bridled within him; Setzer wanted to throttle the man before him, and it was only with all of his patience and will that he refrained from doing so. 'What is that to me?'

'Does it not matter to you,' J.J. suddenly looked very sad, 'that many of Benny's family lived in Maranda?'


'Yes, you idiot. Ben-ny. Benoit Gaetan. Remember now?'

Setzer did remember, the nasty shock singeing his former rage into a crisp. 'I thought that his parents lived in Jidoor."

'They do. His immediate family is fine. But don't you remember his uncles, aunts, cousins? They lived there. Some of them died along with the royal family. Because they resisted tyranny, Setzer."

Over the years, Setzer had garnered a healthy distaste for preachiness, or what he deemed preachiness; it annoyed him to no end, whether it was political propaganda or a religious missionary. The last sentence of J.J.'s reply struck a very sour chord. 'They deserved it, allof them, and you, too! When people play such dangerous games they must takethe consequences.'

J.J. couldn't even speak--he had that stunned, stupid, glassy expression of a cow as it was being slaughtered, and Setzer seized the further opportunity.

'Why did you even come here, anyway? Certainly not to tell me these things, surely.'

'I didn't plan it to be like this,' J.J. said in a wounded whisper. 'I've forgotten that you've changed. If you must know: I wanted to ask for your help. For the Returners.'

Setzer threw back his head and howled with shrill, strained laughter. 'I? I, a Returner! Ha! I don't care about either of you, Empire or Returners. Both of you can just destroy each other forall I care.' He conjured in his mind a vision of ragged, dirty men meeting in rickety abandoned warehouses, and at the front of them all Lorenzo, a book of liberal manifestos raised high, bellowed and fulminated and waved his hands, cursing the Empire and ennobling the folk that scrabbled the street-cobbles and mucked the stalls, lighting hope for something better...

'How can you be so self-centered?' J.J. hissed. 'Even as we speak, Doma--ah, you're right, you don't care. I will tell you this, Setzer, and then I'll leave you to your bed and precious airships and plutocrat buddies: your lover--friend, ha!--Daryl did not dieby accident.'

'You lie.' Setzer retorted instantly, his lips growing into a thin line.

'No. Your precious Empire killed her off, Setzer, just as sure as they killed off Maranda and Lorenzo.'

Pain shot down into Setzer's heart, past the boundaries he had set around it, making it bleed inside of him. J.J. was earnest, but Setzer knew that earnestness is not the same as truth. He felt compelledto delve deeper into the matter. 'But why Daryl? I want to know why. She never hurt them.'

'In madness there is no why.'


'Daryl did not take well to your contracts with the government, did she not?'

'No. But she had no problems with the Empire, she just wanted--'

'Whatever the motives, she was opposed to the whole thing, correct? She had much influence over you. That influence should have been the Empire's, and the first one to notice that was General Kefka Palazzo. From the very moment the Emperor heard her name, she was marked down for death.'

'She once mouthed off to the Emperor when he sent soldiers to my factories,' Setzer remarked weakly; J.J. nodded assertively.

'That only sped up her death. How did they do it? It's clever, very clever. None of the Empire's upper echelons had to do a thing. Kefka is the main instrument.

'When the Empire is very displeased with someone, Setzer, Kefka sends out informers and spies out into the streets. =91Find out anyone who knows of So-And-So,' he tells them, =91and if they've gotenough information, get me dirt on them.' And there is always something, whether it's incest with a sibling or larceny or something silly that nobody wants anyone else to know. Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, as they say.

'Well, the spies tell Kefka the names of the people he wants, and one by one he summons them before him, perhaps after he has them cool their heels in jail first. He then tells them of the shameful thing they've done, and he says the punishment will be tremendous. He bullies and torments them. By the end, they're willing to do anything, anything to escape. And lo and behold, there is something they can do! That something is bringing about the death of the person who is a threat. They always agree. Then Kefka leans over and spits his poison in their ears, gives them suggestions on how to off the condemned people. Your Daryl's name came up. I don't know who, but I'm almost positive it was one of your workers, because her airship's engines were tampered with.'

Setzer panted, sweat beading his brow; he craved his little blue bottle, but he didn't have it. His weary, sorrow-pressed brainthrobbed. 'I don't believe you.'

'Dammit, Setzer! Why would I cook up something like that? With the Returners I learned how to speak properly and well, true, but I'm still a horrible liar.'

'I don't believe you!' Setzer repeated. "I know! You want me to buy into it, to hate the Empire, just so I can join you and your stupid little resistance group. Yes. Well, you'll never have me! The whole lot of you can rot in Hell. I thought you were my friend, but now here you are, preaching to me, using Daryl's name to further your own ends--' He hurled himself at J.J., flying over the table; he hit atthe big shoulders and head, trying to scratch at the eyes. J.J. managed to grasp Setzer's wrists. Then Setzer, finding he couldn't punch anymore, stopped trying and began to sob.

'Listen,' J.J. said, 'I am your friend. I love you dearly. I would never do such a thing. Think, Setzer! Daryl andLorenzo are dead. Help others avoid the same fate. You are intelligent and good hearted. Men must be free, or their lives are cheap as livestock. Do the right thing.'

Setzer glared up and trembled. 'I am a gambler," he said, 'every true Gabbiani is a gambler. J.J., I know I'm not the best man in the world, but I've tried to be generous with people, tried to give them a fair deal. I was wrong. My father was loving and good, and he's a failure. I was generous with Livius, and he killed himself. I gave Daryl all the love I had, gave her everything, and she died. A good gambler is essentially selfish. I denied that for years. By doing so, I fell into great error. I am going to redeem that error. Now there is no-one else. I'm going to do everything to please me. Me! All I do now is for my better good, and all else will give way. A person cannot be a gentleman and a gambler at the same time, and I am no gentleman. Obligation makes people slaves. I won't be that. Now get out, or I'll call Benedick.'

'You are sick, Setzer, deathly sick,' J.J. said slowly as he backed away.

'You're just upset because I won't join in on your little crusade.'

'No. I'm not like Lorenzo, getting furious andthen falling flat when there's nothing to be angry about. I'll leave now. I want to tell you a story before I go. Once there was a young man who had the potential to be a great hero because he had killed a great beast that was ravaging his homelands. As he contemplated his future, two women came upto him. =91Choose my path,' said one woman, who was dolled up in silks and paints, 'and you'll have everything you desire. You won't need tolift a hand. Money, food, women, fame, all will be yours at the touch of your fingers.' The other woman, clad only in a simple robe, said, =91Choose me. My life for you is harsh and filled with care and pain, but it will be glorious, your end meaningful. That woman there knows nothing that is good; she suffers for nothing, and nothing is sweet. You will have done nothing to earn the love and esteem of man. Follow me to get these things. Your name will never be forgotten, and it will be spoken with gratitude and love. Chooseme.' That's the difference between you and me, Setzer. You choose the first woman. I choose the second.'

'Self-serving declarations under the disguise ofpiety!' Setzer cried. 'I'll say one thing for me, at least I'm honest about how I gain my goals. What other people will think of me afterI die is irrelevant. Get out. '

'True,' said J.J., 'a man's honor comes from how he values himself at his death. When I am gone, as I may be anyday now, I will go with the knowledge that I followed my conscience in all things, whereas you, on the way you're going, will finish as a decrepit wreck of a man, fat and wealthy and people smiling to your face and slandering you once your turn away--'

'Get out!' Setzer roared, shoving J.J. out the door. 'Go proselytize to the people in Hell!'

J.J. spread out his hands, blocking the entrance withhis big body, and gave Setzer a soft look from his brown eyes. 'I didn't tell you all what Lorenzo said to me before he died. He said, =91If you ever see that son of a bitch Setzer, tell him he's a good man, and that I was a jerk for never telling him that.' Of course, that was a long time ago. Good-bye, Setzer.'

The sound of halting, irregular footsteps receded. Setzer thrashed his body around, threw open the curtains to a sun-window, and sat back down again, turning his chair to face the streams of sunlight. He leaned back and gazed out the glass for a very long time.

A rich man, he thought to himself, any man, he supposed, felt that he was entitled to a few certain things in life. Happiness, scores of friends, obedience, comfort, dreams, honor, love. But now these things had swayed and curved away from his outstretched fingers, just as he was about to seize the prize. Had he looked to have these good things all those years ago?

He looked at the crack of sunlight creeping across the floor. He was twenty-seven years, an age once he felt to be quite old, past prime. His best years were over. Even now he felt his youth fading all around him with every passing hour, minute, second; it was dying, dying,dying, and he had not yet lived. Daryl was gone, and he had no pictures--she couldn't smile naturally in them and never posed for one--, no Falcon, not even children by her to remember her...

Something moved underneath him. Setzer looked down tosee his legs shift and stand and propel him towards his dresser. He hauled over a small trunk and began to throw clothing into it.

'Benedick' he shouted, 'Benedick!'

Speedily the old man entered the room, puffing out his whiskers, a bit red in the face. 'Go to your room and pack your bags," Setzer ordered. 'Give notice to the staff that I am going to be gone for quite a long time. I'll have their pay dispensed as usual.'

'Master, what sort of frenzy is this!' Benedick exclaimed. 'Ye have lost thy senses!'

'No. I've never understood anything so clearlyin my entire life. I can't bear to stay here. Pack your bags. We're going to board the Blackjack. Take the usual crew--the man in charge of storage, the man who runs the casino store, everyone. Even Ratchet.'


'Yes, Ratchet.'

'In such a state ye'll crash!'

'I told you, I'm totally in control of myself.I can fly.'

'But what of the business? Countless workers depend on ye. Will they be abandoned? With Ratchet gone--Ye have duties--'

'Screw them!' Setzer snarled savagely, shutting close the trunk. 'Ratchet doesn't run the business. Fine. Stay here if you want then. But I'm blowing this place.'

'Where shall we go?' Benedick's voice wastimorous and small.

'Jidoor. We're going home.'


Jidoor was still the same spit-shined jewelry town. Its population and boundaries had grown, more shops and cafes lined the streets, and Owzer, so said a petite, black-haired woman whom Setzer recognized on the sidewalk as one of Mandy's sisters after winking at her, had grown so fat that he couldn't even move out of his favorite beanbag chair withoutthe assistance of several strong men. Other than that, still the same spit-shined jewelry town.

Celebrity is an alien thing when it follows you into your birthplace, the place where you spent your childhood chasing cats up trees and wallowing in the mud in diapers. Setzer had the impression he was wearing a suit three sizes too large. People he didn't even know and did know, old classmates and teachers, stopped as he walked past, goggle-eyed, and he heard the whispers of 'That's Setzer Gabbiani! He owns the airship, and is one of the richest men in the world.' He pretended not to hear them. But he let them look; they weren't hurting him. If they wanted to ogle, let them do it to their heart's content until their eyes fell out of their heads. He liked attention and adulation, but in his hometown, it seemed strange. He expected to get used to it.

His parents still lived in the two-story home next tothe Auction House. His mother had retired and they both subsisted comfortably on pensions, keeping to themselves much of the time. Setzer and Benedick stepped up onto the front porch.

''Tis a pity that the son of a noble lord should have fallen to this,' Benedick sighed. Setzer arched an eyebrow knowingly, raising his hand to knock.

A face, his mother's face, older but still stubbornly clinging to its old beauty, appeared at the open door. She saw the scars on his face, leaped back a few inches, her hands shaking, and she ventured: "Setzer?'

'Hullo, Mama!'

She burst out weeping and threw her arms around him; she squeezed hard, kissing him on the cheek over and over. 'My dear boy,' she murmured, oblivious to Benedick's presence, 'how handsomeyou've become. I mean, you were always handsome, but--what I mean to say--Oh, thank all the gods in heaven you're home!'

Dulcina smiled radiantly up at him, wiping the tears from her face, and pulled Setzer along by his waistcoat. 'Come in, comein!' Benedick barely made it through the door before she slammed it shut.

'Ponzo, Ponzo, he's home, Setzer's home," she proclaimed. A whoop sounded from the living room and Ponzo jogged to meet them, more sallow than Setzer recalled, but spirited enough. He reachedout, taking his son's face in to kiss once on each side. 'Welcome home, son! Why didn't you write more often, eh? Too busy for old geezers like ourselves?' Ponzo laughed, shaking Setzer's hand. 'Wait, not here. To the couch!'

Setzer was hauled off into the living room and firmlyensconced on the said couch, his mother and father flanking him, each one holding a hand. Poor neglected Benedick took a seat as well, but they didn't mark him.

What ensued next was a veritable barrage of questions, most of them silly products of parental concern. Was he eating enough? Did he clean his teeth? Did he keep his home in order? They also were not satisfied until he had given a very detailed account of his dealings in Vector; when he told about a rash, unwise decision, his father muttered, 'Yes, yes, that was a mistake, and when he recounted a clever method of marketing Ponzo cried, 'A chip off the old block! Genius, capital!' Dulcina was overjoyed, squirming like a schoolgirl, but his father seemed even more ecstatic. Setzer asked why he was so happy. That was a mistake. Ponzogrinned impishly and answered, 'I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but...I'm not the only man in the house who has gray hair anymore!'

'Papaaaaaa...' Setzer groaned. Dulcina reached over and gave her husband a small slap on the cheek. 'Don't mind him,' she consoled. 'I think it makes you look dashing. No wonder you're so handsome. The men I love most have gray hair.'

'We are irresistible to the opposite sex, you and I,' Ponzo guffawed, rubbing at the red blotch on his face; he winked at Setzer. 'Don't tell me that you haven't any special woman in your life. Not with those dashing scars, chic clothes, and great hair. Come on,out with it.'

'She's dead, Papa.' His voice broke in mid-sentence and he buried his head in his hands. He shook with the effort of suppressing his sobs. Benedick rose quickly from his chair, but Dulcina and Ponzo still didn't acknowledge his existence; they were both leaning over their son, whispering to each other over his head.

'Oh, Setzer, we are sorry,' Dulcina said softly. She stroked the silvery hair from his eyes and ran her hand down his back. 'I didn't mean to upset you, son. I didn't know. I was only making a joke,' Ponzo apologized.

'It happened a while ago,' Setzer assured them as he mopped his brow with his handkerchief. He inhaled deeply. 'I loved her. She was the bravest thing. We raced our airships a lot, and she had an accident. I went to pieces, and I came here.'

'We see. You know you're welcome to stay with us as long as you like,' Dulcina told him.

'I'll probably leave after a few days. I thinkI might buy myself a house on the north edge of town, and Papa and Mama, you'll come and live with me. I'm rich as a troll. I've got my salaries all stowed away safely where nobody but I can get them, and I'm rolling inbonds and stocks ready to be cashed, and I'll always get revenues from mycasinos--I can stay here forever and not move a finger.' Setzer iterated.

Ponzo frowned thoughtfully. He reached out and placeda cool hand on the son's cheek. 'Don't think of those things right now. You must only think of resting and catching up with us. You've beenthrough lots of stress. Making important decisions when you're stressed is bad business, you know.'

The subject of money reminded Setzer of the parcels in his satchel. He bent down and grasped the cloth bag sitting between his feet, placing it on his knees, opened it, and rummaged around in it.

'I stopped by some stores on my way here,' he said, 'and I got gifts. For Mama,' He pulled out a bolt of darkgreen cloth sprigged with bright red strawberries. 'I don't know your measurements, so I had to make do with getting you the raw material. You can take it to the tailor's and have him make a dress. And Papa, in your last letter you said you needed a new cloak--' A thick, warm red woolen cloak come out of the satchel, clasped with a gold pin, along with a hat, an Aquila's feather perched proudly in the brim. Both parents were very impressed and pleased.

While they admired their presents, Ponzo and Dulcina finally realized that an aged gentleman sat rigidly in the corner. Dulcina reached for the nearest lamp, and it only with a quick explanation of who Benedick was that Setzer saved the Doman from a certain clobbering. They apologized sincerely to Benedick. Dulcina, embarrassed for not noticing him, scuttled off to the kitchen to make amends by baking a cake. The afternoon sun grew ruddy gold and low in the sky, so she started on supper for four as well.

Huge buttery, fluffy biscuits of golden brown, drenched in gravy, were served, followed by fresh bread and apples and cheese, after which came a thick leek soup with dumplings and mutton, all liberally chased down with wine, and all topped off with the cake. Dulcina and Ponzo joked and gossiped, talked a bit of harmless politics, and advised their son on bettering himself, his household, and his personal hygiene. It was very goodto hear these things, so Setzer took them in jocund stride. Benedick was given the royal third-degree as well, and he answered with such politeness that the parents warmed instantly to him.

Setzer smiled much the evening, but he rarely laughed. Melancholy things dwelled in his heart, yet he was disposed to be warmly content. He wanted to come to a place where he could be unhappy; unfortunately one cannot be unhappy with a loving family one has not seen in years. He needed peace to be unhappy, but peace was in Jidoor, nowhere else--a fine muddle.

Night settled into the windows, and the world outsidebegan to droop and drowse. Setzer gave a mighty yawn. Sounds were thin and sibilant in his ears. He excused himself for the night and crept up the stairs to his old room. 'I kept it clean for you,' his mother said earlier, 'a little thing I did to keep myself occupied while you were away.' He undressed, curled up under the sheets, and lay down his head against the pillow, scented with lilac.

The door opened softly, his mother entering in her nightshift. He stayed still and watched her pull a chair up to the bed from the slits of his eyes. She was arranging her shawl when he coughed loudly.

'You wouldn't mind if I--sat here and watched you, would you?' she asked. 'I'll be quiet.'

'Go ahead, Mama. And if you feel like talking, do so. I'll try to stay awake.'

'It has been so long since I last saw you sleeping in here,' Dulcina explained. 'Now that I see you, I feel young again.' She was quiet for a while, and then her voice spoke again. "Why did you never bring her to meet us? We would have been delighted to have her.'

'I don't think you would have approved of her,Mama. She didn't wear dresses.'

'Scandalous, to be sure. I did not raise my child to love bad women, and you always had excellent taste. It must have been horrible, my dear, to send you back to us. You are welcome to stay as long asneeded, but it won't suit your dignity to live with your poor silly parents forever. You don't have to decide now, but consider a course of action.What will you do?'

'I'm going to live, Mama.'

'The motto of every Gabbiani, I fear,' his mother sighed.

'I won't see twenty-five again, Mama, time is running out for me,' Setzer said. 'I am truly going to live, on myown terms, beholden to nobody. It's the way for a gambler.'

'Speaking as one of the wretched, here's my advice: you listened too much to your father.'

'I wouldn't have bought into it if I didn't feel the same.'

'He is very proud of you.'

'Papa would be proud of me no matter what I did.I could have spent my time learning how to play the kazoo with my nose, andhe'd pat me on the head and say, =91Capital tone and precision, my dear boy, couldn't have done better myself'.' Setzer grinned saucily. "I'll follow the old ways just for his sake.'

'If that's so, then you'll be leaving soon enough. You said at supper that you wanted to visit your old friends. Will you set out tomorrow?'

He reached out, groping for her hand in the dark, andpatted her hand. 'I'll take you for a ride on the airship before I go.'

'Your father and I believe firmly that human beings, meant to stay on the ground, should not attempt blasphemy.'

'Far be it from me to lead you into sin, Mama. Ican stay for a little while longer, perhaps.'

She gave a small sound and leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead.


The chandeliers were sparkling and new, the carpet refurbished, and the paintings hung on the walls different; aside from these changes, the Opera House, like Jidoor, was the same as Setzer had remembered it.

'Excuse me,' he asked the man at the front desk, 'where is Mandy's dressing room?'

'Who, sir?'

'His full name is Vardaman, doesn't have a last one. He's short, dark skin, black curly hair.'

The man's eyes registered recognition. He pointed up a flight of marble stairs to the far side of the atrium. 'Up there, last room on the left. He should be in there, sir, he's through with rehearsal for the evening. '

Dressing rooms at the Opera House were designed so that the women's quarters were on the right, men's on the left. Chorus members had one large room to themselves; main and supporting actors earned theblessing of their very own rooms or having to share with only one other person. At the end of the dressing room hall were two doors, separated by a fairly wide berth, winking their shiny veneers. Setzer directed himself towardsthe left.

Covering up the nameplate on the door was a piece of parchment, on which were scrawled the words in a bold hand:



'Gods, Mandy, you wacky SOB,' Setzer chuckled softly; it was very comforting to know that some things never changed an inch. He rapped his knuckles on the door

'NO, Impresario!' thundered a silky voice, 'I'm through with rehearsing! You better not have gone back onyour word!'

'I am not the Impresario, Rodolfo the Singing Wonder Midget,' Setzer answered, lowering his voice; he did not expect Mandy to recognize him, but it didn't hurt to guard the surprise.

'Thank heaven for small mercies. Sorry about that. Come in, come in,' the voice cried.

Setzer found himself in an expansive room in the shape of an L; a person just entering came into the middle of the horizontal section. Clothes and costumes littered the floor so that most of the carpet washidden from sight; trunks and closets, their doors flung open to reveal more costumes, dotted the walls along with pictures of women, landscapes, and dark-skinned people--Mandy's family. Small tables laden with half-eaten meals and goblets were pushed against a small bed at one end of the horizontal section; at the other end was a large mahogany table with countless drawers and a huge silver mirror surrounded with gas lamps. The flickering light glinted off a mass of gently waving jet hair. Mandy seemed preoccupied with a drawer that refused to shut.

'Mandy versus a table drawer: the eternal struggle,' Setzer sighed appreciatively.

Mandy turned his head to answer and saw who was in his room.

'SETZER!!' he shouted, the word immediately proceeded by a wordless cry of delight. He launched himself from thechair at Setzer, who had not anticipated the reaction and nearly toppled over with the impact. Mandy had grown over the years, but he was still very small, barely reaching three-quarters up Setzer's chest, and he had slammed his childhood friend full in the stomach.

'Man this is unbelievable! This is great, this is great,' Mandy spoke rapidly, melding his words together as he wrung his hands in delight. 'I was getting to think you totally forgot about us, but here you are, and isn't it great? Benny said that you'd come around--Oh, sweet mother of Siren! Benny! He'll want to see you.' He released Setzer, who nearly toppled over again, and rushed over to one of the doors on the vertical section of the room.

'BENNY!' Mandy shouted, 'Setzer's back! Put that sandbag down and march over here posthaste!'

The floor began to vibrate like mad under the approach of tramping, soaring feet. Benny burst in, half leaping and half running. Barrel-chested and strong as ever he was, yet some of his good looks had fled him, and Setzer could detect the traces of fat around his waist, delicately called =91love-handles' by Mandy on the pain of having his head smashed through a wall.

'Swanky, Swanky,' Benny chortled, grapplingSetzer in a headlock. 'Just when I thought you couldn't get even more preppy, here you come in a silk shirt and the fanciest-ass coat I ever saw.'

'You're looking good, too,' Setzer grinned, disengaging himself before he was asphyxiated. The three of them sat downat a small table stocked with bottles of wine and beer; Benny cleared room for their elbows and hands by sweeping the drinks off onto the floor.

'Don't hold out on me,' Setzer urged, regarding the room and its occupants, 'how do you miscreants fare? I'm not asking how you got here, of all places, because I know it's a sordid story.'

'We do well,' Mandy said, 'and it is agood life. Did you know that after our little prank, the moment the season was over, nearly all of the big-name actors quit?'

'You're kidding.'

'No! It would have made you so proud. Since his talent was deserting him right and left, the Impresario practically begged people to come and work for the Opera. And here we are. He couldn't have refused us.'

'I hear you're an actor, pretty high up in thepecking order from the looks of this.' Setzer swept his hand out, taking in the L-shaped dressing room.

'That I am. We're set in characters, you know;we have a prima donna who always gets the main lady role, a guy who gets the hero role. I am the comic villain. I don't do threatening stuff, I make people laugh. We have an evil-type villain, too. I share this dressing room with him. He's gone home already.'

Benny's face was almost bursting with pent-up glee,and he couldn't restrain himself any longer. 'We're going to do performances of the Dragon and the Star pretty soon, we're rehearsingnow, and guess what? You're looking at the newest Prince Ralse!'

'You?' Setzer choked out. 'Our Mandy, Prince Limp Noodle? How dreadful! Are you willing to stoop so low? Is this what you want?'

'YES!!!' shouted Mandy, eyes and arms opened wide.

'This is too rich. You're so short, how can people even see you?'

'There are certain tricks of the trade,' came the response, replete with wounded dignity. 'And I had the costume altered. No poofy shirts for me, thank you very much.' Mandy went over to a closet and held up a pair of shoes with three-inch thick soles. 'Platform shoes, my man, every short person's godsend. And I always stand at a position on the stage where I'm a little above the other actors. My costumes are streamlined. And those are only a few things. In the theater, anything is possible.'

'I can see that now. And you, Benny? What are you?'

'I'm the stage manager's assistant. I do lots of things, but my main job lies with the curtains and lowering the backgrounds. Handling the sandbags keeps my strength up.'

'He likes dropping them on people he doesn't like,' Mandy interjected with a giggle. 'You should see whathe's written on their bottoms.'

'What would that be?' Setzer queried. He and Benny shared a moment of conspiratorial glee.

'Death From Above,' Benny answered, spreading his hands out like the words were written on a marquee. The trio had a hearty laugh at that.

'But enough about us. How have the years treatedyou? Pretty well, it seems. Well, maybe not that well. You look kindof peckish to me. My sister told me you were back in Jidoor. Come here for a visit?'

'I'm taking a vacation,' Setzer said tersely. 'A man needs to get away now and then, and Vector is a madhouse." He paused. Should he tell? He loved Mandy and Benny, but they had become more inclined to mirth than matter over the years. 'Also, a good friend of mine had a terrible accident.'

'Yes,' Benny nodded with unexpected sympathy, 'we know.'

'Benny--' Mandy whined in between his teeth.

'How would you know?' Setzer demanded in a slow and terrible voice; consternation welled inside his stomach.

'J.J. told us.'

'Shut up, shut up, shut up...'

Setzer cast a shrewd and weary eye on them. 'Have the Returners expanded as far west as this?'

Mandy puffed out a hopeless, angry breath, glowering at the table; Setzer reckoned that Benny received a swift kick in the leg.

'No,' the thespian said, 'as long as trade routes aren't blocked, Jidoor doesn't care about the Empire or resistance, like Narshe. We're a minority here.'

'And J.J. talked you into it?'

'He did not,' Benny muttered. 'He asked us to join several times before we agreed, and we didn't do it for him. We did it out of respect for Lorenzo, gods keep him. We really didn't put much heart into it until...not so long ago.'

'Very sentimental and kind of you, I'm sure," Setzer said.

'Sentimentality has nothing to do with it,'Benny shouted. 'That Imperial slut burned Maranda!' He put his head down into his arms and began to shake.

Mandy's face was very somber. 'The Empire didn't do much kindness to Maranda,' he said, whispering so Benny could not hear. 'General Chere came and lay siege to it, and it was the strawthat broke the town's back. She gathered up the resistance leaders and royal family and lined a third of them up against the wall of a very big barn,very wide. Soldiers put iron rings in the barn, one at each side of every person's head. And then she had a huge length of rope brought. The rope waspassed through the rings, and at her word she made the soldiers yank on it--hard. The whole lot of them were strung up like herring, their feet jerkingand eyes bulging. Three times she made herring. After that she burned the town.'

'My uncles! my cousins!' Benny sobbed, "they're all dead! If I only had five minutes alone with that heartless bitch, just five minutes--'

'She'd gut you faster than you could blink," Mandy cut in sharply. 'I've seen her in action. You wouldn't think she had it in her, she's so gorgeous, but all the better to trick people. So you can see, Setzer, we're quite bitter here. I would have thought you'd see it our way. You and that Daryl lady--'

'It was an accident,' Setzer said.

'Well, don't let me try to change your mind," Mandy snapped.

'I tell you, it was an accident.'
'I heard you the first time.'

'Oh, shut the hell up, the both of you.,' Benny interrupted. He blew his nose loudly and scowled.

'Come on, fellows,' Mandy entreated, 'we're friends. The Returners and Empire have no place within these walls. You won't inform on us, Setzer?'

'I wouldn't do that.'

'See? That's better. Listen, I've got a stupendous idea. Nothing political at all--you know, anything socially relevant--will pass between any of our lips on pain of death. Just because we're the noble, righteous defenders of liberty and love and you're a godless Imperial, Setzer, that doesn't mean we have to fight about it. The world's screwed enough. Pax, everyone?'

'I find it depressing you equate living in Vector with being an Imperial, and I hope you get the gout because of your monstrous prejudice,' Setzer said sourly, but he raised a glass. 'To forbidden friendships.'

'To J.J.' Mandy smiled. 'I hate to break the mood, but you were kinda hard on him. He told us about his visit withyou.'

'I shouldn't have said some things. I'll apologize to him--if I ever see him again.'

'Oh, you will,' Mandy chirped. 'Come on, Benny, make a toast!'

'To Lorenzo,' Benny offered, downing a bottle of a dubious-looking golden brown liquid.

'That chirked you right up,' Mandy said kindly to Benny. 'Better?'

'Much,' Benny announced with an easy, lopped smile. He glanced up at the wall clock. 'Well, I've gotta leave andwork on filling those sandbags, or I'll get sacked. You gonna stay for rehearsal, Setzer? For old time's sake?'

'I don't see why not,' Setzer acquiesced.

'Come,' Mandy urged, scooting from the table and beckoning, 'and we'll watch it together.'

'Do you know,' the young actor asked as he escorted the gambler up flights of gold-veined marble steps, 'that we have a new actress who plays Maria? Her name's Maria, too. Maria plays Maria.'

'You don't say,' Setzer commented, raising his eyebrows in pique. 'Is she as good-looking as the last one?'

'Even better. She's tall, pale, blonde, and very beautiful. In fact, she reminds me quite a lot of the infamous General Chere.' He added with relish: 'Benny loves to torment her. I think because he knows he can't get at the real thing, he has to make with do with abusing the doppleganger. Maybe he'll give us a good show.'

The prospect of a poor, helpless young lady, trying so hard to do keep her head high while on the stage yet being jeered at without mercy seemed a shameful thing to Setzer, and he told Mandy so, who answered, 'Don't feel sorry for her. She needs to be cut down to size now and then. Oh, hark!' He jumped up and suddenly went very still, cupping a hand to his ear. The soft notes of a harp drifted to their ears. 'What luck! They're doing the Aria de Mezzo! Let's hurry!'

They took their seats in a balcony box just as Maria made her entrance. She was very lovely, as Mandy had said; of all the long, leggy blondes Setzer had seen, she was the longest and leggiest. Her bright hair shimmered in the glare of the stage lights, her chest gleamed milky white, accented by a diamond necklace, her waist was small and slender, her feet graceful under the dress. And when she began to sing, voice soft and mellow as a lark's, Setzer stared in thrall. She was Starlet and Siren come to earth.

'Hey, Maria!' The rafters above the stage themselves spoke in a voice of their own. 'Bombs away, baby!'

One of the famous sandbags came plummeting down onto the set, nearly catching Maria on the back of her neck, and breaking her song. Even from his high seat, Setzer saw her comely eyes blaze.

'Impresario!' she thundered. 'You promised me he wouldn't be working the backgrounds while I was on stage!'

'Benoit, get down from there and leave the womanalone!' the Impresario warned, also glaring up at the ceiling. He tookMaria's hand and knelt before her. 'Oh, dear lady, I'm sorry, but he has a mind of his own, and when he wants to do a mischief, he does it."

She jerked her hand away, daintily hitched up her skirt, and moved off. 'Indeed! Well, let him and his contrary mind go somewhere else! I am taking a break, and I shan't come back until you can control him!'

'I would think,' Mandy said to Setzer, "that the mark of truly great actress would be the ability to hold up better under such circumstances. I mean, here she has this wonderful opportunityto bring happiness and laughter to the world, and she falls right to pieces!'

'I know Daryl would have milked it for all it was worth, Setzer sighed, spreading his fingers up in his lap. 'Perhaps the song means something to her.'

'Metaphor overkill has meaning and significance?"

'Don't you appreciate the grandness of love, Mandy?'

'I wouldn't know,' Mandy snapped. 'I'm married.'

Setzer found this statement surprisingly hilarious--perhaps it was the tone in which it was uttered--and he laughed long and hard.

For the rest of the evening, the two men shouted mockery from the box down at the actors, even when Maria reluctantly returned, heckled the orchestra, and applauded when Benny pulled up the castle backdropand the actors found themselves in the middle of a war-torn mine field ("KABLAMMO!' said Mandy). But no-one told them to shut up, for Mandy was an important actor and Setzer was a rich gentleman, and getting yelled atwas half the fun.


'If I didn't know you better, Setzer, I'd say you've gotten sluggish over the years,' Mandy said.

'Why's that?' Setzer inquired, shuffling the stack of cards and sending them flying out before his two opponents.

'You've been in Jidoor for nearly a month, andall we've done is go to the more reputable gambling halls. It gets a tad tedious going there day after day after day. Have you so little to occupy your time that you find goggling at pieces of cardboard entertaining?"

'I wouldn't say I've gotten sluggish. I'm doing the same things I did in Vector, except the work. I have offered you two a chance to board the Blackjack and fly with me, you know, but youalways refuse.'

'Listen, if I have to play through one more cardcame or throw one more pair of dice, I swear I'm going to go ma-a-a-a-d," Mandy cried, clutching at his hair and jerking his chin at an oblique angle. 'Benny, you back me on this.'

'Swanky, these wrists were made for pulling ropes and hauling props,' Benny said, displaying his assets. 'I'm getting out of shape, and then I won't be able to move stuff anymore, and then I'll lose my job, and then I'll hunt you down and when you're least expecting it I'll mow you over with a chocobo.'

'Like Draco?' Setzer asked.

'Exactly, and the connection alone will brand you as a pathetic loser for all eternity.'

'Setzer,' Mandy said, 'live a little! I miss the old days, our pranks.'

'A prank!' Setzer reclined in his chair andlaughed lustily. 'A prank, is it? So that's what you want. My prankish days are over, thank you very much; I need to at least have the facade ofrespectability. Am I the only one here who's grown up at all?'

'I suppose so,' Benny grumbled, 'and alot of good it's done you.'

Gathering up the cards and shuffling them into his pocket, Setzer leaned his elbow on the table, coming to terms with the mutiny on his hands. 'And what, pray tell, sort of chicanery do you suggest weembark on, Mandy, eh?'

Mandy placed his chin in his hand and started pacing around the dressing room, eyebrows knitting together. 'Just a minute, don't rush me. I'm thinking of something.'

'Well, whenever you do come up with mischief, please do tell us,' Setzer remarked airily. Benny sniggered.

'Shut up, both of you. Hmmmm--Setzer, what do you think of Maria?'

'Which Maria? I've known lots of Marias. Do you mean Maria Engles, who was really good at chemistry in school? Or perhaps Maria Heis, who was famous for being able to bend her legs over her shoulders? Maybe--'

'You know bloody well which Maria. My co-worker,Benny's arch-nemesis.'

'What are you implying, my dear man?' Setzer demanded; if either of them knew, then he would sink beneath the earth in abject embarrassment, which was infinitely preferable to being mocked for the rest of his wretched life.

'Ah, don't be coy,' Mandy said. 'I've seen the way you regard her. I know about the flowers, and the chocolates, and the notes--'

'You never miss a single of her performances. Every night she's been on, I've seen you in the boxes,' Benny added.

Setzer had dealt with being the butt of the most scurrilous gossips and vicious articles with tolerance, sometimes even cheerfulness, at people's delightful boorishness, yet the baiting of his friends caused a heat to rise up his neck into his cheeks. 'She's merely an infatuation of mine.'

'Strange infatuation,' Mandy purred, sensing his friend's discomfort and preparing for the pounce. For in all truth, Setzer indeed had an interest in the opera singer Maria. She was gorgeous, had a lovely voice, her conversation was witty, and she treated him with great warmth and courtesy since the moment he presented her a bouquet of flowersafter one fine concert. They enjoyed each other's company, stole a kiss or two over moonlit dinners, and liked watching and being watched. He did notthink it a blow to Daryl's memory--as if he'd ever forget her, the darling!

'Yes, yes,' Mandy continued, circling roundthe table, his dark eyes never turning from the scarred face, 'I think...AHA! I've just come up with the most fantasgomorious idea!'

'Spill it,' Benny commanded eagerly; Setzerconsidered running out the door, but he was enthralled by whatever sick scheme was being hatched. He could not get away.

'It involves our two young lovebirds,' Mandy said, not without little relish. 'Setzer, you'll write a letter to Maria saying that you want to marry her, and that you'll come and snatch her away at the climax of her performance--'


'You heard me. You're going to kidnap Maria! Right off the stage!'

'Have you gone totally mad? I'm not going to marry her,' Setzer shouted.

'Did I say you would? I wouldn't thrust such ayoke on you, my dear friend. You'll take her up to that fancy airship of yours and hold her up there for a day. Then you'll return her, right as rain.'

'Is there any particular reason why you chose this particular plan, Mandy?' Setzer asked dangerously; Benny and the addressed smiled impudence at him.

'Oh, I just want to let you have an adventure, that's all. Also, I don't like Maria. And the Impresario's going to bust his liver over this, and he hasn't been giving me pay equal to that of my fellow troupers when he specifically said he would. Revenge!'

'Revenge!' echoed Benny, thrusting his fistinto the air.

'Why are you opposed, Setzer?' Mandy triumphed.

'Because I don't think Maria would take kindlyto being abducted, that's why,' Setzer answered stiffly.

'You are so ignorant of the feminine sex,' Benny scoffed. 'They love this kind of thing. It's make them feel pretty and important and loved. Why do you think that pirates always have chicks hanging around them?'

'True!' said the actor to his friends. "It's a great plan. Maria gets her ego built up, Setzer has a grand adventure, both of them get some, the Impresario learns to appreciate his workers(me), and Benny and I laugh so hard that we collapse in puddles of our own drool. Winners all around!'

Seeing as he couldn't resist such logic, Setzer agreed to the plan, much to the ecstasy of the rest in the room. Mandy sat downagain and scrounged for a piece of paper and pencil.

'All right,' he said, 'in two nights we're going to have a great gala performance of our favorite, the Dragon and Star, before we move on to another production. We'll let the audience hear the Mezzo Aria, gods know they deserve it, but when Draco and Ralse are fighting, just as Draco is about to disarm Ralse before the smoke bomb is thrown, you'll swoop down and seize your lady love.'

'What about you?' Setzer asked.

'Oh, I'll be watching the fun. I wouldn't miss this for the world. I'll feign a fever. Thank heaven for understudies! Useful, talented, and you can flush =91em down the john when you're through with =91em. But anyway, Benny and I'll be here to help you get down ontothe stage. There are some trapdoors above the back of the stage, overlooking the rafters. We'll have a rope you can swing down through on. Benny has practically free reign backstage so it should be no trouble to get you there. And after you've swept her off her feet, there's a back entrance whichwe'll show you that you can exit out of. Your fancy airship will be therefor the getaway.

'And,' Mandy finished, 'to give everything more spice, you can write a letter to Maria about your intentions. You know, shake things up a bit. It'll be romantic.'

'And the Impresario will just die,' Benny chimed in.

'We're all incorrigible,' Setzer laughed.'What'll I write to her?'

'Oh, that's your forte, not ours,' Mandy said, ignoring Benny's eagerly helpful face. 'But that's all you need to do. We'll start on getting and measuring rope right now while you think of something. Leave the rest to us.'

Benny jigged towards the door, darting a wicked expression. 'Let's squeeze a blush out of that strumpet's metal mug."


The three of them threw themselves into their audacious undertaking with great gusto; Setzer, after everyone else but his fellow conspirators had left the Opera House, practiced sliding down the rope onto the stage until his palms were all red and throbbing. Benny and Mandy workedon figuring the fastest escape route and tested the trapdoors for bad or squeaky hinges. All were undetected to a man.

Meanwhile, the whole opera company was thrown into anuproar. Setzer had completed his letter and placed it in Maria's dressingroom, along with a spray of violets as a romantic touch, which read simply:

Dear Maria,

Your beauty surpasses even the stars with its radiance, and your voice would bring Siren to shame. Of all females, you are the queen of them all, the paragon of all charming virtues. Yet you suffer theunwanted attentions of uxorious, measly-minded men day after day, letting them praise you even as they mar you with their strenuous company. This, my dear, I cannot allow.

I, a gambler with no devotion to any man, want you as my wife. I cannot bear to be away from your company any longer. I am coming for you.

The Wandering Gambler

While Mandy and Benny basked in the glorious tumult and watched the Impresario screech and run around in circles, feeling very satisfied with themselves, Setzer made himself scarce. He stayed at his parents' home and helped his mother in the garden and chewed the fat with his father. He burned to tell Ponzo about the scheme, for the father was bound to appreciate it, but he took no risks of having Benedick or his mother findingout. They would have certainly given him hell about it; disruption of the arts was frowned upon in Jidoor.


Maria, always a stunning creature, looked absolutely ravishing on the final night of the Dragon's performance. Her hair gleamed bright gold, broken only in the middle by a part of purest ivory; her shoulders rippled gracefully under her sleeves; she wore the same costume dress, but even then it seemed molded to her shape, baring a good line of cleavage. Looking down at her through a trapdoor, she seemed a perfect, ethereal angel.

He turned from the opening and stole his way down to Mandy's dressing room, where his two accomplices awaited him. Mandy's roommate, a notorious hypochondriac, was nowhere to be seen, obviously dreading that some fatal disease infected the dressing room.

'How's the outlook?' Benny asked blithely.

'Smooth as the Emperor caught in an oil slick," Setzer replied. 'She's nearly finished with her solo.'

'She sounds kind of strained to me,' Benny said. 'You think she's got a cold?'

'If she does, Setzer better watch his conduct. To action, fellows!' Mandy cried, and they gathered around the designated trapdoor, squatting on their haunches. A waltz proceeded on below.

'The dance sequence's about over,' Mandy said. 'Let's take a peek to make sure everything's clear.' He submerged his head into the opening, and he peered down for a disconcertingly long time. He finally lifted up his face, his expression that of carefullycultivated calmness.

'There,' he announced, blasé, 'is an octopus in the rafters.'

'Mandy,' said Setzer, 'I think I'm going deaf. I thought you said there was an octopus in the rafters.'

'Look for yourself,' Mandy countered, extending a palm towards the trapdoor. Setzer leaned over and did as bidden.

Yes. It was insane, monstrous, downright ludicrous, but there, perched on a rafter, indeed was an octopus, a huge purple mollusk sporting an asinine grin jagged with rows of yellowing teeth; beside it stood a great iron weight, which was presently positioned precariously over Maria's head.

'Benny, I think it's trying to top you,' Mandy said from far away; Setzer sank backwards and pressed a hand against his forehead.

'No, no, no,' he murmured. Everything was ruined, Maria was in great peril, and, frankly, one does not witness a gargantuan octopus plotting murder from a theater rafter every day.

Benny took his turn in peeping down through the trapdoor. 'Three men are also in the rafters,' he narrated slowly, "and I think they're approaching the octopus. Yes, they are! Now they're getting into a tussle--oh, gods! They've all fallen--'


'Marvelous! Now there's an octopus on the stage,' Setzer murmured over the cries and jangled music. It wastruly a dark day for those of the acting and kidnapping profession everywhere.

'And it looks like they've flattened Draco andRalse!' Benny informed; Mandy cheered. 'Now the Impresario's coming on the stage--he's likely to keel over any minute, he's green in the face--and he's shouting something. One of the men is getting up. Yep, now we've got some guy in leather pants and a bandanna addressing the audience. Boy, his acting stinks. Now the octopus is saying something...the other men have gotten up...and now they're fighting! Holy shit, a frickin' octopus is fighting three frickin' men right smack in the middle of the frickin' opera!'

'Let me see,' Mandy demanded, shoving Benny's head up and away. After a few seconds of observation, the dark-haired lad straightened up and beckoned to Setzer. 'Come on, watch! You have got to see this.'

'I don't want to,' Setzer groaned.Titters began to convulse his companions, and then they were lying on theirbacks, grins etched on their faces, unmoving save for the shaking of their chests, saliva trickling from their mouths down their cheeks. Paralyzed withlaughter.

Benny recovered the quickest, and he surveyed the action below. 'It's not that bad, Setzer,' said he. 'In fact, I think we can still go through with it. The octopus is getting its butt, ifit has one, but I speak figuratively, whipped. It won't be long =91till it's over, and then you can swoop before anything else happens.'

'Are you sure?' Setzer asked.

'Sure I'm sure. Ah, ah, the octopus is runningaway! Now's your chance, Setzer, seize the day!'

Setzer's legs were rooted to where he sat, unmoving, and he needed Mandy to push the rope into his hands and give him a swift push on the back to snap him into motion.

'Bravissima!' Setzer shouted, grappling therope between his hands. 'What a performance!' He slid down with one smooth swing of his hips, and he landed next to Maria, the lights a single glare in his eyes.

'Setzer!' the Impresario bellowed. 'Damn you!'

A youthful rush of giddy impertinence swelled in the gambler's heart, and, smiling, he laughed, 'I'm a man of my word, music man!' He took Maria, who was crying 'That's HIM?!' by her slender wrist and gave a hard yank, twirling her about in the light and heat; she staggered to her knees and he wrapped an arm about her waist, disappearing with his prize into the back corridors towards the door. The crowd gave a gasp, the hissing of the sea shore.

High above, Mandy and Benny simultaneously looked down at the stage, wrecked, sets demolished, people fainting all over, the two main actors battered and unconscious, then at each other, perfectly mute. Finally, the former found his voice.

'They'll never show this opera again, not in amillion years!'

As time proved, this affirmation turned out to be wrong. The Romance of the Dragon and the Star retained its popularity for many years. So popular, in fact, that it became tradition for the audienceto throw stuffed octopuses--sold at the front desk--onto the stage. It was a beautiful spectacle and nobody ever missed it.


'Pardon me, madam,' Setzer said, leading his damsel into a small parlor with a glass pane in the floor (so passengers could admire the land below during flight), 'but I have a few things to tend to. I'll be right back.' He winked at her. She didn't smile back. Locking the door, he ran for the upper deck, only stopping to laughat Benedick, who tried to stop him, roaring, 'What sort of deviltry isthis?!'; he steered the Blackjack up to a secure distance and let her hover softly in mid-air as he returned to the parlor.

Human physiology was not Setzer's strong suit, but he was fairly certain that people did not produce asexually, splitting apartlike amoebas, yet when he opened the parlor door, he found that Maria had somehow split herself again and again to have three strange men in the room with her. Two of the men were blonde, the other sporting light brown hair held in check with a blue bandanna. The tallest and largest one, a hulking fellow, wore simple clothes under which powerful muscles rippled as he moved. The smallest, the bandanna-wearing man, looked even shabbier. The middle one wore his hair carefully pulled back with blue silk ribbons, and an equally blue cape draped over his broad shoulders. Maria herself had suddenly changedfrom her gown to close-fitting black and yellow armor, leather laces running down the sides of her legs and arms.

'Well,' Setzer said to the lady, 'you definitely aren't Maria.'

'Setzer Gabbiani,' she responded, voice cool, 'we need your help. We need to take the airship to Vector.'

'Vector! I'll never go back there. And besides, lady, you aren't Maria, so I don't want you on board,' Setzer eyed the glass pane, and detected that the screws bolting it down had been taken off and then haphazardly replaced. A famous man couldn't play a good joke without people spoiling everything and begging alms nowadays, it seemed. He reached for the doorknob.

'Wait a minute!' the feminine voice cut across the room with such authority that Setzer was taken aback. 'We heardthat this Blackjack was the finest vessel in all the world--'

'And that you are the world's most notorious gambler,' finished the brunette man.

'I am the King of Figaro,' said the middle gentleman. 'Cooperate with us, and you will be well rewarded.'

'Really, Your Highness?' Setzer addressed the king, whom he now knew as Edgar Figaro. 'I think your bargaining position is highly dubious.'

'Mine might be, but my brother's isn't.' Edgar indicated the third man. 'Sabin here's a master of martial arts, and, if need be, he can handle any servants or bodyguards you throw our way. We must get to Vector.'

One immaculately manicured finger curled towards the pseudo-Maria. 'Come here,' Setzer said. She strode forward, and hebegan to circle around her deliberately. His eyes ran over her fine skin, complete without blemishes of any kind: no moles, no patches of dry skin, no superfluous hair. General Celes Chere, in the flesh.

'Will you help us?' she asked, growing rigid under his scrutiny. He shook back some stray locks of hair from his face and said, 'Don't second guess me, General Chere. I might or I might not. I am a bit ambivalent about carting a woman who burned an entire town right off to Vector just like that. I have a Marandan friend who would love to meet you.'

She looked away. The slender man stepped closer to her. 'You'd better make up your mind fast,' he said, 'Doma's already fallen to the Empire. More cities will fall unless we act soon."

'Doma, fallen?' Setzer repeated.

'Kefka poisoned everyone,' Sabin said gravely. 'I was there.'

Breathing became arduous. Doma--all dead! Setzer tried to think on it, of all the dead people, but no vision or feeling came.

A great cry suddenly came from above, a wild wail that sent every silver hair on end.

Edgar said something, and all started at the clamor. Setzer broke through the door into a run. Only one person, he knew, would have the sheer unfeeling nerve to tell such news. 'Ratchet,' Setzer spat to himself, 'I'll have you, I swear to the gods I'll have you!"

He rushed into the main casino of the airship. Benedick was clawing at his temples, doubled over and keening: 'My country! My castle! My liege! My friends!'

'Filthy bastard, you told!' Setzer shouted.Ratchet faced him, gray face glazed with his insufferable apathy.

'I think that when one's country is destroyed,one must be aware of the fact, don't you think, sir? This way is actuallykinder in the long run.'

'I'll thank you to stay out of my affairs! Look at him! Don't you have any sense of pity?'

'With the shrapnel in my head?'

Setzer saw his hand seem to move of its own will; it reached forward and struck Ratchet hard across the face, the impact ringing like a gunshot. He hoped it rattled the cursed shrapnel and give Ratchet agony for days. 'Get out! Stay away from him!'

Ratchet smartly exited, an almost wry look in his eyes. Setzer bent down on his knees and put his arms around Benedick, swaying along with the old man, who was no longer shouting but whispering to himself. When the peak of the anguish had subsided, Setzer lifted Benedick into hisarms, and the poor body was light and limp in his arms. He carried the servant to the nearest bedroom, laying him beneath the sheets, whispering gentleand soft words as he tucked the linen underneath the beard.

Benedick moaned softly, tears splashing his wrinkled cheeks, and slowly his chest began to heave up and down more gently, fallinginto a fitful sleep characteristic of the aged. Setzer touched one claw-like hand and covered it with his own and left it there for a very long time.

'Shouldn't we let Ratchet see to him?' one of the flight crew, unexpectedly appearing behind his shoulder, inquired. Setzer shook his head savagely.

'I'd rather give him poison. Keep Ratchet away. I'll take care of him now.'

'Yes, sir.'

He rose from the bedside, directing, 'I'm going to deal with our guests. Watch here for a little bit.'

In the casino deck, off to the side, was a solar window, a delightful place to sit in winter and soak up the warm sunshine. A small dicing table basked in the sunlight, the area empty otherwise. Setzer stood in front of this window and stared through the panes, watching the thin clouds cascade and curl by like the smoke from a snuffed candle wick. He heard the rustle of clothing as the four stowaways joined him.

'Why won't you help after what's happened?" Celes's voice spoke to him.

'The Empire has made me a rich man. All I am, I owe to it. I have businesses there.'

'Stop thinking about yourself,' she admonished. 'Countless towns and cities have been smashed by the Empire, and here you talk about business! As if you need more money!'

'Can't you see that the Empire's totally rotten?' said the bandanna-sporting man. 'It's reviving magic, and it won't stop until it's in control of every country in the world.'

'The Empire and my kingdom used to be allies until they captured one of my main towns and tried to burn my castle,' King Edgar put in tersely, the muscles in his jaw tightening.

'You think you can fly up in your little airshipand be safe,' said Sabin gently, his amiable face serenely sad. 'You won't be able to keep it up forever. The Empire'll end up owning you.'

'I'm sorry, losing my head is too high a priceto pay for your gratitude,' Setzer forced a laugh from his lips. 'Especially when I'm dealing with a person of General Celes's character.She might burn my airship. I don't believe in magic anyway.'

Chill settled in his bones. He felt an icy glare piercing into his back. 'I've got a story to tell you,' Celes said. "Once there was a woman who was raised to serve the government alone. They took her when she was a baby and artificially infused her with magic." The sound of glass cracking came to Setzer's ears; he turned and saw afine dusting of ice shards cover the elegant tips of Celes's fingers, a blue aura spreading into the air. 'They taught her to fight and kill people without feeling a thing. They told her that she needed to destroy anything that wasn't of the Empire. Then they made her burn down an entire city and kill its royal family. She pretended not to care; she was following orders. But then she learned that Kefka was going to poison the people of Doma instead of carrying on the siege there. She realized she had been in the service of filthy cowards all of her life, and she wouldn't fight any longer. She go thrown in jail, common traitor she was, and beaten. She wanted to die. On the day before her execution, she was saved by the Returners, even though she burned their towns and killed their warriors. She can never bring back what she killed, but she's at least trying to follow a better course, and her neck's in more danger than yours.' She clenched her hand and the ice shards dissolved into droplets.

Setzer looked out the window again. He remembered Livius, how he used to smile so encouragingly; he remembered Lorenzo, scrounging for food in the streets, eyes burning with rage and love; he thought of Benedick in his bed; and he remembered Daryl, the flash of her hair, her smile, how she would tease and laugh and comfort him. It was worth risking his head for them.

However, he was still very sore about having his funruined. A wily smile spread on his face. He was not going to make it easy for them.

'You know,' he said at length, 'you're even more stunning than Maria.' He came very close to her and extended an arm. 'Don't touch me!' Celes cried. Setzer found the reaction to be incredibly uncharacteristic of her sex, but he had the notion thathe was dealing with an extraordinary woman. Nevertheless, he knew she wouldnot harm him. His hands brushed hers and opened her fingers, revealing palms devoid of any fortune-teller lines. He looked at them for a pace before releasing her hands.

'Enough of this!' he said. 'If you, Celes, agree to marry me, I'll take you to Vector. If not, you're up a creek.'

'WHAT?' shouted the brown-haired man, growing considerably red in the face. 'Are you stupid?'

One silver eyebrow curved upwards. Aha! Setzermused. 'Why all the fuss, my good--what the devil is your name, anyway?'

'Locke,' came the reply. Now that wasn't a name you got from any sane parent if Setzer ever heard one.

Celes bowed her head in contemplation. 'We haven't any choice,' she resigned.

'Ha,' Setzer crowed, 'it's settled, then.' He actually had no intention of making any engagement of the sort, but it was simply so much fun to watch them all squirm. He wagered Locke was going to have a stroke any second.

'But I have certain conditions.' Celes broke in and raised her hand, letting it hover over Locke's forearm. 'We'll settle this with a coin toss. Tails, you win, and I'll go with you.Heads, I win, and you'll do as I say. What do you think?'

What a woman! 'Oho, I accept!'

'Listen to you!' Locke whispered to her. "You can't become his wife, Celes!'

'And why not?' Setzer posed. 'What do you care? Jealousy doesn't become you.'

'She just can't, that's why!'

Rifling through her uniform, Celes frowned. 'I haven't got a coin on me. Edgar, do you have something we can use?'

The king obliged her with a glinting gold coin; she took it and placed it on the side of her index finger, thumb underneath. "Ready? Here it goes,' she called, and flipped it into the air in a graceful arc. The coin spun and twirled in the air throughout its jump and landed on the ground. The profile of Sabin winked in the light..

'I win,' Celes, smiling a little, said. "Now honor your part of the bargain.'

Bending over, Setzer took the coin in between his right thumb and observed it--on the opposite side was the metal stamp of King Edgar's portrait.

'How unusual,' he pondered aloud. 'A coin with two heads. Well, well, well.'

'I'd say you got hustled, Mr. Gambler. Never get into a naval battle with Nikeah, and never gamble with a woman when her freedom is on the line.'

Setzer began to laugh, at himself, at her, at everyone in the airship, at the wonderfully ridiculous world in general. 'I can't believe this! How low can us Imperials stoop? I love it! All right, I'll take you to Vector. Nothing to lose but my life.' He tossed the coin at her feet and swept her a bow; he admired her something awful.

'My life, honeybunch, is in your pile. Ante up!"


'Do you appreciate how much work went into this airship?' Edgar marveled; he stooped underneath the low sill of the stairwell entrance, his pennant of blonde hair flapping in the wind. Setzer faced the monarch.

'I think I can,' he said. 'I commissioned it. I didn't design it, but I directed it all, even helped build it. But it's good to find someone who cares. Why do you ask, Majesty?'

'I'm a bit of a tinkerer myself,' Edgar grinned. 'I've got some tools here of my own designing. I'm proud ofthese babies,' He jiggled a leather pack he gripped at his side, and metallic rattling shuffled within. 'All a man needs is his power tools in his workbench and several beautiful ladies in his bed, that's my motto."

'You'll just have to stumble through life onlyhalf a man, then,' Setzer said.

King Edgar, as far as first impressions went, was themost likable of the four foundlings, being of a calm, friendly disposition,and he took himself lightly even though he strutted and boasted at every chance, in adoring the sound of his own voice. Setzer liked him, and had figured the man out for a Casanova quickly, even before Edgar had even mentioned the subject of women, which had not been long in coming. Setzer told Edgar so.

'You remind me of a good friend of mine,' he said over the whistling breezes, 'he likes to make the same jokes. He also fancies himself a rake, though I daresay he's more successful. You two need to meet; perhaps he can teach you a thing or two.'

'Likewise,' grinned Edgar. 'I doubt he knows how to make a castle submerge.'

'How go the others?'

'We've just finished the last-minute plans. They'll be coming up any minute.'

'Swell.' As noted previously, Setzer got onwell with Edgar. He admired the sheer bravada and presence of mind that Celes possessed, but she hardly spoke one word to him that had any personal warmth in it. He had come up with several pet names for her-- ranging from "honeybunch' to 'my little popsickle'--in a vain attempt to get her to smile or laugh, but she gave him no such satisfaction. Sabin was tolerable. A strong, powerful warrior, the younger Figaro was not as dumb asstereotype precedented, but he was so unthinkingly genial and good-natured it made Setzer's teeth hurt to listen to him. And Locke? A decent fellow, but Setzer liked him the least. He had seemed a fine companion at first, butthen they soon got off on the wrong foot, for Locke reacted very passionately to certain trivial things, throwing him from relaxed to insane in an instant.

Unfortunately, Setzer did not care to treat Locke'sconvictions seriously, as it was extremely amusing to watch such outraged indignation. The one thing that he most loved to do was tease Locke on the matter of semantics. Locke had introduced himself as a =91treasure-hunter', which Setzer (correctly) deduced to mean 'thief.'

'Ah, a thief, then?' Setzer had inquired. He really hadn't meant any offense, nor did he anticipate a negative reaction. Why would anybody deny their lifelong profession?

'No, a treasure hunter,' Locke had said stiffly. His cheeks had flushed.

Many will consider the following remark to be extremely childish on Setzer's part, but, on reflection, is there any modern politician that acts any differently?--they insult each other time on time again, only under a different term: diplomacy. Please, do not think Setzeras shallow, think of his response as an overflow of his bubbly wit.

'As you say,' Setzer had sighed, patient.

'I'm no--'

'All that's good and true, spare me! I know you. You're the thievingest thief I ever saw, you thief, and I know my thieves.'

Locke uttered a cry and aimed a swipe at his gracioushost; Setzer backed away in time and began to run for his room, hotly pursued, and shouting 'Thief, thief, thief!' again and again. Setzer came to his destination and slammed the door shut in Locke's face, turning the key in the hole in a swift movement. Unluckily, he forgot who he was dealing with. The door handle began to rattle and almost immediately gave a small click. Locke threw down his hairpin before the two men disappeared into a mass of tangled, grappling arms and legs. Expletives were exchanged liberally.

'All right,' a voice had said above them, "you've had your fun.' Sabin reached down, grabbed them both by their respective collars, and conked their heads together. 'For shame!" he chastised gleefully.

'You'd better mind your manners,' Setzer chided his opponent as he gingerly wiped a small trickle of blood from his nose, 'or else I'll turn this ship around and send you back to whatever slum you came from!'

'That's enough from you,' Sabin smiled generously and pounded Setzer on the shoulder. Setzer had the feeling he couldhave smashed Sabin over the head with a hammer and still have only eliciteda merry laugh. He had merely shrugged and started out to wash his face. As he did so, he caught a glance of Locke and Celes in the mirror. They were inthe hallway just outside the room. Celes was kneeling before the thief and tending to the various bruises on his person. Her face was soft, almost as if she was shy.

Even as Setzer fondly recollected this incident, the object of his thoughts, as is wont in such situations, appeared on the deck,accompanied by Celes.

'Everything settled?' Setzer inquired.

'Yes,' Locke answered. He took in the balustrade, the balloon, the engines. 'This thing can actually fly! Can it crash?'

'Seeing as things in the air do have the tendency to fall, I'd say it's possible. It's all a matter of chance. I've been lucky so far.'

'We'd better land a good distance away from Vector,' Locke said. 'This thing'll stick out like a sore thumb."

'Point taken. I'll land near Albrook,' Setzer decided aloud. 'You can rent or steal a chocobo and take it from there. I'll be on board in case of an emergency. Breaking into the MagiTek factory isn't a small order. Besides, my servant's ill.'

'I'm sure he'll recover,' Sabin declared. 'There was one survivor of Doma who joined the Returners. He's in Zozo now, but once we do our duty, we'll bring him on board to meet your man. They look about the same age. I'll bet they know each other. '


'Hello, Benedick.' Setzer entered the darkened room without disturbing a thing and glided over the floor to lean down very close. Benedick's breathing was even, shallow, and only by the twitching of his eyes did he acknowledge his master.

'You haven't touched your food,' Setzer said. 'A pathetic bid for sympathy. Ha! Just kidding, of course. Come on, up, up. Big baby.' He propped up the pillows against the headboard and slid Benedick to a semi-upright position and dished out a broth and noodlespoonful. He found that Benedick was devoid of the will to open his mouth,so it was necessary to gently pinch the old man's jaw and pull it down before administering victuals.

'I am sorry about Doma,' he said as he proceeded to dole out the meal. 'It's an abomination, an atrocity beyond all measure. I don't blame you for going under like this. But you know what I think? After all's said and done, people'll return to the region again. The castle'll be rebuilt stronger than ever and the kingdom will be peopled, better and mightier.'

Benedick gave the slightest turn of neck from side toside. 'There are no Samurai besides me.'

'One of the men traveling with us says that there is another that still lives.'

'No others,' Benedick whispered.

Setzer placed the empty bowl on the nightstand and held the old hand, squeezing it. He decided to try a different tack to divert the time; he told how their acquaintances had disembarked for Albrook and Vector beyond, about their plans for infiltrating the MagiTek Research Facility for--for something, only the gods knew what, something foolish, undoubtedly.

'I'll help them as much as they want me to, but we'll be rid of them soon enough,' he said. 'And then it'll be just you and me, and we'll live and die fat and happy!' In the shadows he struggled to make out the hands of a clock on the wall. 'I'm going to have to take the ship from Albrook to Vector soon and find a way toget in. Their business'll be finished, if they didn't screw up, and I must be there to save their bacon. I must be off.'

'Don't leave.'

He took a handful of whisker and gave it a tweak, saying gently, 'Don't worry. I'll be back before you know it. Eat something, man!'

Prior to departure, Setzer issued orders for all hands to stay on the Blackjack until he returned, and that Ratchet was toavoid Benedick's presence. Journeying from Albrook to Vector lasted but alittle while, and Setzer, on a chocobo, skirted the city, which was calm and untroubled as far as he could see. No ruckus raised so far.

Something compelled him to visit his house. He wantedto see what had befallen it--pure curiosity, nothing more. It would be goodto see the portico, the stables, the marble pillars, feel the carved door posts between his hands, inhale the sweet smell of the grass and trees, imaginary though they turned out to be. For upon his advent, he could not discernthings as real and tangible. In the moonlight sheaths, illumination fell upon a burnt and slashed stump arbor, plowed up soil, and a huge pile of tinder dotting all the acres, dead and long stopped smoldering. At least now he knew where stood with his government. He could only pray that his servants were allowed to leave before the flames.

He clenched his fists and forced himself to think of it all as his contribution to the ante. What did he care for living in Vector, anyway? The Blackjack was home enough.

Klaxons erupted from many places in the outline of the capital, and searchlights hunted through the clouds, blaring in outrage ata great act of thievery. Setzer admired the commotion as he mounted his choc and followed the path of a small metal track. It was utilized as a transport to the MagiTek Facility, he knew, and if Celes kept her head, she would have used it as a means of escape.

Locke, Edgar, and Sabin met their gambler on the track, all out of breath, sweating, disheveled to no end, and gashes bleeding. Locke seemed especially pained.

'Here you are! I was starting to think you'd gone and roused the whole place to no purpose,' he said. 'I trust you got what you came for?' Out of the recesses of his azure cape Edgar brought out a bulging pouch, shaking it; a glassy rattling, like jiggling marbles, clicked.

'Good, good. Where's Celes?'

Locke turned his head away.

'Ah, that can wait for when we get to the airship. Let's get out of here. Hop on, all of you. This choc's a strong one." Edgar and Sabin mounted without hesitation, but Locke apparently had no strength in his legs to move. 'Come on,' Setzer shouted, "you ass, we'll discuss it later. Do as you're told!'

The thief scrambled onto the bird, the exertion making it squawk, and Setzer clicked the reins, charging and charging, the noise and light dangling in peripheral vision, shouts of men coming and going.The leather strips bit into Setzer's hands.

They found the Blackjack by nearly crashing into it. The smooth wooden flank appeared to leap out of the earth herself like a bogey-man. Setzer dug his heels into the fluffy sides and the choc came to a screeching halt, its beak halting right next to the planks. Its cargo jumped off; Edgar slapped the bird on the rump, sending it back to its owners, and joined the others in running up the boarding bridge. Setzer shouted commands and took a grip on the wheel.

'Hurry, hurry,' Locke panted. 'We shouldn't overstay our visit.'

'You raised all hell, that's for sure,' Setzer grunted, punching the accelerator.


'I'm worried about Terra,' Locke said once the Blackjack had cleared the ground a safe distance. They were no around a roulette table discussing their situation. 'Let's head back to Zozo.'

'Terra?' Setzer cried. 'What's this?Don't tell me you've got another woman hidden in the case, you rake!"

'Go to hell!' Locke hissed, a deep expression of savagery erupting onto his face, now seeming dirty and haggard, looking like madman. He stalked up the steps to the upper deck; the others were left to contemplate the disappearance.

'What's gone and crawled down his pants?'Setzer demanded of the two Figaro twins.

'Don't mock him,' Edgar said, uncharacteristically grave. 'Leave him alone. He's hurting. Celes--'

'Oh, yeah, what happened to her? She's all right, I hope?'

'We honestly don't know. We infiltrated the MagiTek facility, and were almost about reason with Cid, the head engineer, when he mentioned rumors of Celes =91defecting' to actually be no more than a cover-up, that she was actually spying on the Returners. Then Kefka caughtup with us and told her to give up the charade...I really can't remember what happened after that. We were attacked. When I came to, Celes and Kefka were gone. Locke took it extremely hard--a little too hard, if you ask me."

'He had put his faith in Celes,' Sabin said, 'we all did.'

Setzer tapped his fingers together. 'What do youthink of all this? If Celes is a traitor, then it's over.'

'I may be wrong,' Edgar bit his lip, 'but I can't see why she'd do it. I've got nothing to go on but my kingly intuition. Still, I'm going to give her the benefit of a doubt. We'llsee.'

'In the meantime,' Sabin put forth, 'Ithink you'd better apologize to Locke. Talk to him, eh?' He was of aplacid nature, Sabin was, and liked his surroundings to be as harmonious asthe mountain crags and valleys where he had perfected his art. 'He could use a kind word.'

Setzer was not very keen on the idea--just a little teasing did not warrant a full-scale apology in his estimation, but it would be less cumbersome to fake remorse than receive a punch in the face. 'As you command, Prince Chunkbody.' Sabin laughed heartily; jibes were wasted on the man, they rolled off him as a bull shakes off flies. It was annoying beyond all else. Setzer ascended the stairs to the deck before he suffocated from the good-nature in the room.

Locke was facing towards the stern, sitting cross-legged on the deck; he did not turn at Setzer's arrival.

'Hey,' the ship's captain greeted, 'what're you doing up here all alone, eh?'

'Don't talk to me.'

'Nobody could accuse you of being devious,'Setzer remarked. 'No pretense in you, my man. I thought thieves were supposed to be guileful. What's upset you so? Is it Celes? Edgar told me the news.' He placed a hand on one of Locke's slender shoulders, and the shoulder jerked back at the touch. Setzer scowled and turned to step up tothe wheel. 'I'll tell you something. For as little a time as I've known her, I cannot fathom that Celes would be such a woman to let herself be imprisoned and beaten only to go back on the people who gave her kindness."

'The Empire can count on her loyalty,' Locke said softly.

'Well, you'd know better, I guess.' He paused, seeking a tactful subject matter. 'Who is Terra?'

'She's the crux of our whole aim. The Empire uses MagiTek technology, and the only way we can even hope to counter them iswith magic of our own. She's a born magic-user, not artificially made like the MagiTek Knights. She and I've been traveling together all the way from Narshe to Figaro and beyond.'

'And she's in Zozo, mmm?'

'Yes. Not long ago, we were guarding an Esper inNarshe from Kefka's troops--the Empire's been harrying Narshe ever since they found it in their mines--and she...reacted with the Esper. She was enveloped in a ball of fire, or at least it seemed like that to me, went ballistic, and ended up in Zozo. We went to the MagiTek Facility to find something that would help her. She's terrified. I can't bear to think of her like that--'

'You can't bear to see any woman like that," Setzer said dryly. 'You'd better watch how you treat the women, dear Locke, or you'll get a harem of ladies dying for your wonderful protection.'

'I was not there to help someone once. I lost her. I won't simply stand by and watch it happen ever again. It kills me to see a woman suffer and not help her.'

Setzer could see there was no sense in locking horns with such a passionate sentiment; romantics were insufferable at times. Yet... 'My love died, too,' he said quietly. Locke's head raised up a little. 'It's a terrible feeling, isn't it? Like you're being eaten alive from the inside out. But I've a novel revelation for you. Time isn't your friend. Time doesn't like you. In fact, Time hates you. Your life slips by before you know it, and what have you done? Sat around like a bum in sackcloth! You look in the mirror and you've got hair sprouting outyour ears and nose but none on your head, you drool in your lap, you have to sit down to take a piss, and you haven't lived. A space of terrible grief haunts the rest of your worthless life. No woman wishes that on her lover.The dead are dead, and here you are, not having done a damn thing except conjure your poor girl into the faces of other women. If I didn't feel so sorry for you, I'd slap you.'

'Well...she's not exactly dead,' Locke admitted in a small voice following a long pause.

He couldn't believe it. 'Please explain.'

'A herbalist in my town placed her into suspended animation. It saved her life. I couldn't let her just die when I could have done something, anything!'

'Brilliant! Truly, an eternity in a coma is infinitely preferable to death!'

Locke glared up, eyes lined red, at his gadfly, no doubt wishing he could swat Setzer. 'Shut up. You don't know anything about it. There is an artifact that can restore life--'

'The Phoenix. I do know this, my friend: you're screwed, just screwed. This resurrection business'll be thornier than you think! ' Setzer gave up all hope of resolving anything in the exasperated glance towards the heavens. Yet he did understand the foolish hope in Locke's breast, and felt sorry for him. 'I am sure you'll find it," he said kindly. Then, having spoken to seriously, to goad his companion: 'Since you'll have your love back, Celes won't have anybody to watch over her, and then, ho, ho, ho, I'll make my move!'

'Over my dead body you will!'

'You're a strange little man,' Setzer said, smiling. 'Perhaps Celes did betray you. Then it'll be a simple matter to break away,' he reverted back to the initial topic. 'But, dear Locke, suppose she didn't? Do you know what your lack of faith'd getyou? The Runic Blade halfway up your rear, that's what! Take this advice from a gambler: risk the first choice of coming true. It wouldn't hurt as much.'

'Asshole,' Locke muttered.

'Obviously. I've got more advice for you: shutup, quit sulking, and enjoy life! For once, let Luck bat you around where it may. Now go to the others. Once I get this baby at full speed, you wouldn't stay on for very long. Ah, yes, tra la la, I walk on air and con-template the sun....I love life, tra la la.'

Setzer craned his neck over his shoulder, observing Locke rise to his feet and walk to the stairwell; the thief lifted his head for a second, and they shared a mutual smile.


Zozo was a city that lived under a perpetual drizzle and rain, only getting roughly three sunny days a year, and it was a dirty, windy place filled by the offal and vermin of the most damned races that ever scrabbed at Mother Earth's bitter teat: beggars, buggers, blighters, burglars, arsonists, thieves, perjurers, conventional assassins, character assassins, fanatics, kleptomaniacs, salesmen, pimps, whores, drunks, junkies, drunk junkies, rapists, rap artists, telemarketers, jaywalkers; in short, exactly the sort of people that constituted political conventions and public schools. It was unbearably distasteful to any person of gentle upbringing--recall that the town started out as a refuge for ragged beggars that had been thrown out by the snobbery of Jidoor. Setzer held his scented handkerchief under his nose for the entire trek down the wet, oil-rainbowed sidewalks.

Dangerous the city was, the four men encountered verylittle trouble. Edgar held a gargantuan chainsaw at his side for all to see, complete with huge gas tank and wicked serrated teeth, and Sabin was formidable enough on his own. Any attempt at a confrontation was aborted in record time at the warning growl of a tug on an ignition string or a crack of knuckles.

Edgar guided the way to a dilapidated inn, one of thetallest buildings in the slums. The surly patrons inside cowered and shrunkaway at their approach ('We've been this way before,' Sabin explained), and Setzer hurried over the ratty, undoubtedly lice-ridden carpets up many warped flights of creaking wooden stairs.

On the top floor, a floor rife in mystery, a strange and wonderful creature made itself known to the astonished Gabbiani.

The creature lay in a bed. Her skin radiated living fire, pulsing and shimmering in an aureole about her whole body; long tendrils of the flame spread across the pillow and sheets, yet did not scorch them.And, despite the mercurial nature of the essence she radiated, the creaturehad definite shape and form. Her face, pained and frightened, was human, complete with eyes, nose, and ears. He could see an arm draped over the side of the bed, five-fingered like the rest. A lady enrobed in fire that did not burn.

Setzer regarded the creature in awe. 'What,' he whispered in reverence, 'is that?'

'It's Terra,' Locke said. He lifted a hand towards a dark, swarthy man clad in steel-blue armor and a bizarre boy hardly in his =91teens, hair wild and unshorn, his wiry frame draped in all manner of monster hides. 'These are Cyan Garamonde and Gau, fellow Returners. They've been watching over her while we were away.' Locke moved next to the bed, and everyone else clustered around.

'Terra, Terra,' the thief said softly, "please, wake up. Help's here.'

Edgar's pouch quite unexpectedly gave off a faint glow. Alarmed, Edgar threw off the cover and pulled out a large, luminous, smooth stone. It gave another pulse of light, and Terra's fiery body shimmered in return.
'The hell!' Setzer cried; he stood rooted, petrified by wonderment and fear. His heart beat painfully.

Sabin laughed: 'Calm down, nothing to be afraid of. It won't hurt you. It's Magicite.'

'Ah,' Setzer responded, not certain as to whether Sabin was hallucinating or merely speaking gibberish; he was definitely not familiar with the word.

In his relentless good-natured way, Sabin said, 'Magicites are the remains of...deceased Espers. They've got great power in them. It's the only way a person can really get all of the Esper's power, using Magicite.'


'Yes, Espers,' Sabin nodded. 'They used to be gods. That one that's acting so strange is Maduin.' He took up Edgar's pack and pointed to each Magicite as he named it. 'Here'sSiren...that one's Shoat....Phantom....Stray...'

'May I see that one? Stray, I mean.' He could hardly force the words past the dryness in his mouth. Sabin nodded and took out a stone, holding it out in his meaty palm.

Greenish white vapors roiled and twisted, their breaths frosting their mirror-crystal confines as they drifted from one side to the other, and in the very heart of the stone pulsed a blood red yolk. Setzerstared, his eyes focused on the center of the Magicite's essence: thereina cat, curled up tight in pain, took hazy shape. One yellow pupil cracked open, and a piteous mew emanated from the yolk, it seemed, integrating with the soft hum of power the Magicite trilled. Was it to this being he had prayed so fervently to all the years; was it to this he had offered his thoughts,his plans?

It was very hard to give the appearance of analyticalwonderment, for inside himself Setzer was laughing as he had never laughed before. So this was the Cat of Luck! He supposed he should have felt cheated, yet he had cheated others before, and it was only just to be done by as done. Poor little Puss-in-Boots!

Did Setzer bemoan that Luck had gone from the world? No. Understand that for a gambler and adventurer, luck is a force of nature,begun when the universe begun, just like gravity and physics, yet there is no God of Gravity and Physics. Luck owed no subscription to anything, it simply was. It would always be there, even if the world came to ruin and the gods doomed. It was real, for all eternity.

He extended his arm for Stray and touched a finger onthe smooth glass.

Upon contact, a wild undulation of energy leapt from the surface through his hand up his arm and into his brain. His eyes turned inward, and he saw himself suspended in the air, nothing above or below or to the side. A burning sensation looped around his neck and tightened, strangling him; he felt his eyes goggle and tongue protrude. His body swam in and out of focus.

Turning his eyes to his feet, he saw lines and gibberish-shapes wriggle out of the empty void like worms. In detached bemusement he observed the strange little things contort and twist into various shapes that meant nothing. But the longer he suffered, hanging in a noose he couldn't see, Setzer deciphered the shapes below. They meant something now. He gave a cry and stretched his hands towards it, this new arcane knowledge, grasping the signs in his fingers. The raw power of magic, that potent force beyond any rational understanding, pulsed through his body, and in his agony he understood.

All of this happened in a second, and all within, so that when Setzer became conscious of the world about him, nobody commented on the experience he had undergone; Setzer himself did not remember the pain and wonderment. His hazel eyes glinted strangely in certain angles of light,but, he realized, so did the others'. He did not like it. It was too strange. Afterwards, Setzer did learn spells and cast magic, but he did not do it often. Not only did he have little power, he thought it gave him too unfair an advantage.

The room's attention focused on the apparition lying in the bed. Locke had laid the Maduin stone upon her breast, and the twainwere pulsing together. The wild, pained face flinched into a mask. 'Father?' she asked, slowly.

Terra lapsed into silence for a long time; finally, Maduin ceased to give out its illumination, and she opened her eyes--bright emerald green in the fiery face.

'I remember now,' she said. 'I was raised in the Esper world. My father told me...he shared his memories with me. My mother was human. She got lost and found her way into the Esper's world. When I was two, the Empire came...Oh, I don't want to remember that!" Terra shook her head violently from side to side. Locke held one of her hands, Edgar the other, and everyone watched into stupefaction as the aura around her receded, her skin grew pale and her hair shorter and the same hue as her eyes. A willowy young human woman lay on the bed. In her thin, lovely face, Setzer saw an immeasurable sadness. He felt sorrow for all the variouspains and torments she must have undergone, and was kindly disposed towardsher.

'This,' she breathed, fumbling Maduin in her small hands, 'is my father? I understand. I think I'll be all rightfrom now on. I know where I got my power now, and I think I'll be able tocontrol it.' She smiled up at the men gathered around her. 'I'msorry I gave you all such a fright.'

'No trouble at all, my dear,' Edgar said kindly. His eyes flirted outrageously. 'Do you think that I'd stand still to let such a lovely young thing like you suffer? I'd rather Sabin pummel me into a pulp. No deed is too much for you, sweetness!'

Locke frowned at Edgar and said, 'Try to keep itin your pants, Edgar. Don't you realize how serious this is? If Espers and Magicite can do such things...then Celes's power came from the death of an Esper. The Empire'll destroy them all for their powers if something isn't done.'

'We can't let them get away with it!' Sabin growled. 'We've gotta move, and soon!'

'All right,' Edgar said to his brother, "where do you suggest we start, little bro?'

'I don't know,' Sabin cried, 'but we have to do something.'

'How are things in Narshe?' Terra inquired,strategically interrupting the fraternal spat.

'Perhaps we should go there and check things out,' Locke assented. Setzer, who had watched these proceedings in silence, quite forgotten, cleared his throat.

'The airship's ready,' he said. 'I can take you anytime.'

The dark-haired man, youth, and Terra started at the intrusion; the boy gave a guttural howl.

'Oh, I'm sorry,' Edgar spoke hastily, calming ruffled feathers. 'Terra, Cyan, Gau, this is Setzer Gabbiani. He owns the world's only airship; we met him in Jidoor. He helped us break into the MagiTek Facility. We can count him as an ally. Setzer, meet Terra, Cyan, and Gau.'

Setzer inclined his head politely towards his new acquaintances. Cyan, the dark-haired man, came forward and shook hands, Terra smiled shyly, and Gau bounded forth and yelped right in Setzer's face.

'Please excuse him,' Sabin apologized, pulling the boy off the unimpressed gambler. 'He's a bit wild. He's spent his whole live running with the animals on the Veldt. Manners aren't his strong suit.'

'Obviously.' Setzer perfunctorily brushed off the front of his shirt and coat. 'I'll take you all to Narshe, butif I find any scratches, bite marks, or anything worse on my airship, I'll rescind my offer.'

'Let's go, then,' Terra urged. She climbed off the bed and walked on steady feet towards the door, her companions following. Setzer fell into step beside the man called Cyan and proceeded to strike up a conversation.


On the Blackjack, Setzer deemed it a worthwhile cause to instruct his passengers on the piloting of the airship, for he was tired of having to chauffeur all the time. The Blackjack was fairlyeasy to control, so it was not hard or dangerous for others to take the wheel.

After the lesson, Setzer drew Cyan aside and led the Doman down to Benedick's bedroom; Cyan had been elated that another of hiscountrymen still lived.

'He's in here,' the gambler nodded at theopened door. 'Let me wake him up first.' Lighting a candle, he entered the room and gently nudged the blankets. 'Benedick, someone wantsto see you.'

Benedick, only half-awake, lifted his head from the pillow and saw the visitor at the doorway. His milky eyes cleared in recognition.

'Sir Cyan Garamonde?'

Cyan rushed forth and knelt before the bed, plating his katana in the floor in obeisance. 'Captain Bruce Benedick, Sir.'

'The fall of Doma--' Benedick whimpered.

'Did ye hear? Did ye know?'

To be present in this conversation was almost sacrilegious, mean, and Setzer quietly went away, the door closed firm. Warm voicesmuffled through the wood. They weren't mean for his ears. Moreover, the airship was buffeting around precariously.

'Locke, damn you, don't turn so hard!'Setzer shouted, as if the thief, who had been foolishly given the task of flying the first shift, could hear. Now was a good time to be preoccupiedwith yelling at people, so he tramped off.

What was spoken between Cyan and Benedick Setzer never sought to find out. But one matter was certain: Sir Garamonde must have either said or done something to pierce through the old man's despairing body and given him some shred of hope and comfort, for when Setzer returned to the bedside, Benedick's cheeks were wet, but his eyes were bright. What a wonderful thing it was to no longer be alone in your stance in the world. Benedick would come out all right in the end.

New hope aside, the old Doman was in no shape to continue on whatever adventures lay ahead. Thus while Terra and three others went to the Elder's house in Narshe for a conference on an alliance between the Returners and the city, Setzer had Benedick carried on a litter to an inn. He gave the inn-keeper a bag of gold to pay for as many nights of lodging that the recuperation necessitated, and he told his servant that if the Returners failed and he never returned, Benedick should go to Jidoor and live with his parents. 'They'll love to have you,' Setzer said.

'O, Master, don't talk in such a way!'

'Just a precaution, that's all. I have no intention of dying anytime soon,' Setzer reassured. 'With beefheads like Sabin to back me up, how can I lose?'

'Promise me one thing, Master.'


'Do not let thy irreverent wit fall upon Sir Garamonde; he is a noble man and is unworthy of any mockery. He deserves the utmost respect.'

'Respect? What's that?'


'All right, all right,' Setzer conceded, "no less than Sir Cyan deserves. How do you know him, anyway?'

'A' was a pupil of mine before I sought out questing. I trained him, I did, and he is a greater man than I.'

Setzer again vowed to treat Cyan with honor and respect subsequent to bidding good-bye and leaving Narshe, and he kept his promise. There were no ugly or silly incidents between them, which was good for appearances, but honor, reverence, and shared exploits alone bring no true warmth between people. They were comrades and well-wishers, but never became real friends. Their dispositions were too different. But Setzer didn't join to make friends.


What happened next concerned Terra and the others more than it did Setzer. In the council with the Narshe Elder, Bannon, the Returner leader whom Setzer had never seen, suggested that the Returners go the land of the Sealed Gate, the entrance to the Esper world, and seek to recruit the Espers for an attack on Vector itself. Setzer thought it a desperate shot, but he saw no better option. The gambler agreed to fly the group, now bearing the addition of one Moogle named Mog, a slam-dancing ball of fuzz that Setzer disliked straight off because he was sickeningly cute, to the east.The mountains where the Sealed Gate lay were blocked by an Imperial camp, but that was not Setzer's concern. Let the warriors smash their way in.

They needn't have worried about a battle, anyway: the garrison was deserted. Terra and Locke, Cyan, and Sabin walked in full view with impunity. They delved deep into the mountain caves, some boiling with lava, and, after many battles with common monsters and the gaining of manywondrous treasures and money, they came to the Sealed Gate itself. Terra morphed into her fiery avatar; she begged for the aid of the Espers that yet lived. Unfortunately, the group was surprised by a legion of Imperials headedby General Kefka himself. The Empire had gotten wind of the Returners' plans somehow--what can't be hidden from those in power when any partof the sovereignty is threatened?--and sent the soldiers to find the exact location of the Gate. The three men headed off Kefka and stalled him while Terra continued her plea for aid. The Gate did open, but the Espers did not flock to the Returner cause. Instead, with a terrible shriek of blind, throbbing fury, they exploded from their home into the world, stripping the caves and scattering the Imperials; the Returners barely escaped being blown away.

Of course, Setzer was in ignorance of these events. He was engaged in yelling at Gau and Mog, who ran amuck in the lower decks. Edgar watched, but only for the sake of pointing and laughing.

'You two! Get off the chandelier! Don't you know that's real crystal! That cost me a fortune!' Setzer shook his white-knuckled fist. A pair of green irises and a pair of blue blinked down at him from the crystal diamants. Neither Mog nor Gau knew why so much ruckus had roared over a few measly dropped sparkly things; both of them knew not the notion of money and prices, nor did they really care. Setzer had a hunch that Gau, a rather ingenuous child, was only destroying property from a love of fun, but Mog, unbound by fiscal responsibility as he was, took joy out ofthe agitation he was causing. The Moogle plucked off another crystal and threw it to the floor.

'You don't have to be just sitting there, you know,' Setzer said acerbically to the recumbent Edgar, who only smiled in one lazy eye.

'What for? They're only having a little fun."

Setzer spoke to the chandelier-monkeys again, wondering why he had ever wished to have had children with Daryl. They were nothingbut hell-beings. 'Listen here, you bloody little savages, I don't have to put up with this foolishness! If you aren't smart enough to respect other people's property, I'll box you both up and send you back to whatever gods-forsaken hellhole you crawled out of, and you can both starve or get eaten or die some other horrible death, but back I'll haul you, and--"

Edgar was hardly able to contain himself. 'Come on, Setzer, you're exaggerating the importance of the whole thing. You've done similar things in your youth, I'll bet.'

'I never destroyed anything,' came the heated answer, 'all I ever did was make a few people faint. It's not the same.'

'If you say so. But it is only a few pieces of crystals from a chandelier. Easily replaced.'

'Only a few pieces of crystal! That, Your Majesty, is a piece of work that hung in the stateroom of King Eggbert the Horrible himself. It has history!' Oh, if any mercy or justice lay in the universe anywhere, he did wish either Cyan or Sabin was here--they were the onlyones who could impose any sort of discipline over Gau.

Now that was a thought. Setzer tried again: "Gau, Mog, if you don't get off of there, I am going to tell Sabin and Cyan what you've been doing, and then you'll catch it!'

'You mean Mr. Thou?' Gau asked, somewhat afraid now.

'Yes, Mr. Thou.' Who the hell is Mr. Thou? 'And he'll be very angry when he hears about this.'

Gau whimpered mournfully and he leapt from the crystal and he landed on one of the roulette tables, in the wheel. He spun around slowly.

'Whee! This fun!' he chirped and began to spin himself faster and faster. Mog fluttered down and pushed the wheel, making Gau go even faster. Setzer, near apoplectic, shouted in vain. Edgar bit his thumb hard and shook so violently he fell off his couch.

Shudders rocked the Blackjack, Gau and Mog were hurled off the wheel, and Edgar lost his joviality. The airship's captain ordered all hands to stay below deck; he and Edgar raced up the stairs in time to see bright orbs splitting the air with sheer power. The shapes seemed to come from the heart of the mountains.

'Where are they going?' Setzer cried, then answered his own question. 'Looks like they're heading towards Vector.'

'They sound pissed,' Edgar said grimly. Setzer listened close; the Espers were howling. 'You stay here. I'll go down and meet the others. Prepare to lift off at a moment's notice.'

Edgar ran off to the Imperial base and soon returned with Terra and her entourage, and each of them had plastered on their faces a look that they had done something irretrievably foolish, such as raised the dead or blown up their own headquarters.

'All right, what did you do?' Setzer addressed the arrivals once the Blackjack was in flight. He was given a rough account of the Sealed Gate's events.

'I see,' he took a slow intake of breath through his nose and cupped his face in his hands. 'Wonderful. Amazing. Brilliant. Now what?'

Terra, the most wretched of the group, fumbled her hands in distraction. She listlessly rose from the table and went up the stairs like one in a dream. Locke followed her. Forthwith, the airship was wracked by another energy burst. Setzer turned over his chair while rising and rushed to where Terra and Locke lay splayed on the floor, the thief on top, shielding the girl.

'What is going on!'

'Setzer, get down!' Locke scrambled to his feet and knocked the gambler to safety; another wave of magic buffeted the air. Sick to his stomach, the distressed Gabbiani looked hopelessly around.

'Espers?' he asked. They could not be seen,only felt, yet they were very close...

'They were mad--' Terra stammered.

'They seemed angry,' Locke returned; the answer was not sarcastic; he was too shaken to make light.

Terra ran to the balustrade and leaned over it, tearsnot entirely of pain beading her eyes. 'No! Please--don't go!'

'Never mind that,' Setzer snapped, pulling her away from the rails. 'Where is all this turbulence coming from? I think your little family's trying to kill us, woman!'

'Ummm, Setzer--' Edgar, unnoticed in the chaos, had gone up to the steering wheel and was desperately gripping it. "I've lost control!'

'Damnation,' the addressed swore. He shovedEdgar out of the way and fought the uncooperative controls himself. He dared not turn off the engine though he smelled smoke, for without any lift the Blackjack and its occupants would be at the cruel mercy of gravity. Better to let her swing around crazily and coast to a stop. Lower and lower it went, coughed, sputtered. Nothing could be helped.

In one last struggle, Setzer tilted her away from theocean to the nearby land, the isthmus of Maranda. The ground crunched; he was pitched forth hard against the wheel, bruising his chest. Once the stars cleared from his vision, the scene unfolded: Edgar, Terra, and Locke, had survived too, though some were in ungraceful positions. Setzer readjusted his coat and went into the engine room. Smoke obscured everything.

'Wonderful,' he said again.


'And why do you expect the Empire to grant you anything?' Setzer yanked at a pair of fizzling wires. A few feet away Ratchet tossed out brunt and melted cogs.

'You haven't heard the news, Setzer. All reports from Maranda say Vector is almost leveled to the ground,' Locke protested. 'They have no choice. It's worth to at least look.'

'Fine. Go and trudge off to Vector, bake your brains in the sun. You won't get your way. But you'll just have to see that for yourselves.' He glared and wiped a streak a grease on his cheek. "By the way, if, as you so optimistically imply, the end of the war is nigh, I expect Bannon full reparations for the pains I've given.'

'As of now, the Returners are piss poor.'

'Figaro, then!'

'Aren't we Mr. Sunshine today. You've never been this grumpy.'

'You'd be grumpy if your own best and dearest lay in shambles at your feet and had been ravaged by two demons in children's and Moogle's clothes and the people who got you into this pit go traipse along to Vector without any promise of help!' His back ached, his fingers were swollen, and he would have murdered for a bath--his teeth felt grimed over. 'I swear to the fallen gods, I'd kill you if I wasn't so tired.'

Locke had a very uncomplimentary noise to say to that, and he left Ratchet and the grumpy captain to their labors. The silence lasted for many hours and was quite pleasant, but it didn't last. Edgar camein and announced that an Imperial carriage had driven up to the airship andoffered the remaining Returners a ride to Vector. The Empire had come to terms, it wished to do its former enemies a service. Setzer was too weary to care much, and he rode out the trip in a stunned half-daze. He ate what was offered him without remembering what it tasted like. He answered his comradesin monosyllables. He only desired to be back at his poor engine; political intrigue did not intrigue him.

Locke, Cyan, Terra, and Edgar, who had dined with theEmperor in a sumptuous banquet/summit, met the travelers in the empty dining room. Setzer hung back and did not listen very well. The Emperor had desired and end to the war was the report, and had suggested an alliance between Returners and Empire to catch and make peace. To achieve this end, the Empire required the services of the only being who could even venture to reason with the mad beasts, namely Terra. In the wake of recent events, Setzer did not have much heart in the proposition.

'If Terra goes to Albrook, I go,' Locke said. She thanked him prettily. 'The rest of you stay here. I smell a rat here. It all seems too straightforward.'

'Hard to trust the Emperor just like that. I've heard such overtures before,' Edgar said, nodding.

'We shall stay here and investigate the events afoot,' Cyan said.

'That's the wisest course,' Locke grinnedfeebly. 'Leave no stone unturned!'

'Cliché overkill today,' Setzer broke in, with an effort. 'You may stay here. I wouldn't trust the Emperor either, but my airship's sick, and she can't be repaired by Ratchet alone. I'll get a cab. The rest of you may do what you may.'

'Still grumpy,' Locke jibed; it was most unfair to take free punches when the victim was so exhausted.

'Shut up.'

With that brilliant retort, Setzer was as good as hisword. He slept on the ride back and rejoined Ratchet. They were interruptedtwice. The first time was when Cid barged his way inside and began poking at things in childlike wonderment. Cid had heard great tales of the Blackjack and was using the current peace to indulge his scientific curiosity.

Cid was almost like Celes's grandfather: he was an older man with a thin mustache and wore a yellow lab (not rain) coat. His genius was unparalleled, but, from the accounts that had reached Setzer, he was as naive as a butterfly and just as nosy.

'This,' the scientist cried in wondrous glee, taking in all the machinery and noise and smoke, 'is astounding! Ingenious! And it can make this unwieldy craft airborne. Please, Mr. Gabbiani, let me help you in your repairs! If you tell me what to do, I can do it."

He may have been the closest equivalent to family thegoddess-like Celes had, but the little man annoyed Setzer. And he might be spying on me. I don't think he's capable of deceit, but the Emperor has his ways. Gods, I hate him. 'What! I don't want or need your help, sir.'

'But I can really be of service. And I know hundreds of ways I can improve the efficiency of the engine--'

'Remove your butt before I plant my foot up it, sir. That's the last warning you have.'


'Indeed, that's what I mean. Get. Out.' He hurled a wrench at the head engineer's head--now that got him out posthaste.

The second interruption came soon after and was more welcome. Terra entered quietly and gazed at the laboring men.

'I just wanted to say good-bye before Locke and I left for Albrook. General Leo's going to meet us there,' she explained. Setzer managed to wink at her.

'That's kind of you.'

'You take great care of this airship,' she said. 'It must be very dear to you.'

'Dearer than my own life, she is.' He patted the engine's metal sides, loving the coolness against his fingertips. "I had an old friend who liked to work in here all the time. We were a team. You wouldn't believe how many hours we spent together on this ship. Poor Daryl.'

'She's gone?'

'Long gone.'

Terra flinched at the moment of silence that followed; she hung her head, hiding her pale face. 'I'm sorry for that.'

'Don't worry about it.'

'Well, good-bye. Locke's waiting for me.'


Setzer heard her footsteps recede, and he faced the hundred little and not-so-little tasks that needed to be done. It would be a long job.


If there was any furniture in the room, it eluded Setzer's memory; but it was not relevant. He found himself in a gray space ofsorts, no doors, no windows, simply grayness all around. A Magicite stone was in the room's center, either on a table or hanging in mid-air. Light glared in a reflection off one end, accruing so rapidly that Setzer's visionfilled with the glare. Soon as it came, the light disappeared, and stumbling towards him was a large black cat the size of a large dog, red boots donned on its hind legs, its fur matted and skin torn in sundry places, as if a group of vicious children had kicked it about like a ball for sheer torment. It did not walk on its hind legs, as Stray was reputed to do, but on all fours; either its back limbs had been broken, or else it didn't have the heart to continue its mockery of humans. Using its last ounce of dignity, Stray lay forth, his paws out before him ramrod straight, and silently regarded Setzer.

'I wish I had some bandages so I could fix you up,' the mortal spoke his thoughts aloud. A roll of gauze, clipping scissors, and adhesive tape appeared in his hands, brought out of the air by hisdesires alone. Yet he did not experience any surprise. It actually seemed an expected occurrence. Setzer bent down and administered what aid he could, covering the wounds, wiping the ooze away from the yellow eyes using his handkerchief, and brushing out the tangles in Stray's fur.

'Thank you,' the Lucky Cat said in a very human voice. Setzer sat in mid air, floating above the floor, and Stray leaptup into his lap. The human winced, for his burden was not light, and Stray made it a point to circle three times in his lap before settling down, filling up the space, somehow managing not to fall off.

'I thought the gods couldn't ever be defeated," Setzer said, scratching Stray behind a battered ear.

'So did I, once,' the cat sighed in a mew. "A thousand years ago, during the War of the Magi, I was a simple cat. But I happened to get in the way of the Goddesses when they were waging one of their battles, and they turned me into an Esper. They gave me powers to turn the fortunes of mankind, and I used them to toy with the humans because it amused me. I took, I gave away, and it was fun. But I'm not Luck itself--I'm subject to all its tricks. The Goddesses couldn't do that. I neverthought that my own luck would run out, but it did, it did. Now look at me."

'The Goddesses?'

'Yes. They are the force of all magic. They created us Espers. Cruel passel of bitches.'

'Why did this happen?' Setzer asked almost absently. A ticklish sensation ran up his nose--remember he was allergic to cats--and he threw back his head and sneezed, most of the spray falling uponStray. 'Sorry.' He took out his handkerchief and wiped the Lucky Cat as best as he was able; the offended creature looked very bland.

'It was simply time for us to go, I suppose." Stray shrugged its thin shoulder-blades. 'Time rules us all. Gods come, gods go in the passing of Time, when humans stop believing in one set ofgods and start turning to another. It's the nature of the universe. I do not know what's exactly going to happen to me or my fellow Espers--I can't see into the future. I do know what way the world turns, though, and Ican tell that magic is making its last stand in this final revival. The Goddesses' days are numbered, and when they're gone, then we Espers...Men will not offer prayers to us, and we'll be forgotten as a quaint mythology,just as every divinity has and will be.' It craned up its head. 'Which is why I've come to you. You are the few faithful I have left. You've been kind to me, and I shall help you.'

'Help me.'

'Yes, help you. When you, Setzer Gabbiani, dedicated so many casinos in my honor, I felt like I was a normal cat again, I was so happy. Now I'll do you a kindness in return.'

'What is it?'

'The Emperor seeks to betray you. As we speak, he has freed Kefka from prison and sent him with an armed guard to Thamasa. If all goes smoothly, the town will be destroyed, your friends along with it."

'And those in Vector?' Setzer asked, hardlytrusting his voice to not waver.

'Imprisoned and executed. But,' here Stray's yellow eyes almost became sly, 'weak as I am, I do have some influence. I've come to warn you; now I've done that, I'll do more. Go to Vector--'

'But my airship's grounded!'

'Then go on foot, idiot,' the cat said in that singular haughtiness and disdain for human thought that felines have, twitching its tail like mad almost gaily. 'What need you fear, with me toguide you? You'll make it in time. And, if my hunch is correct, your men will finish the Blackjack just in time to rescue you from there.'

'What about Edgar and Sabin and--'

'I'll materialize myself for a time in the form of the young serving-girl waiting on your companions,' came the reply. 'I'll act like I've become smitten by the King, and I'll =91accidentally' blurt out the plan.'

'A girl actually succumbing to Edgar's charms?That's so outrageous, they'll know something's up,' Setzer laughed in spite of his reverence.

'Impudent!' yowled Stray, nipping at Setzer's hand and removing himself from the lap; it narrowed its eyes imperiously and rolled on its back, front paws flopping as if they were rubber. 'Don't you know I hold the key to your fate, mortal? First you void your nostrils on me, then you doubt me? We cats don't stand for such insults. Noyou must do penance.' It stretched its long, battered body out in anticipation. 'Rub my tummy!'

Cats, Setzer thought to himself, make the strangestdemands on their servants. He obeyed his fallen deity's command and ran his hands along the soft underbelly fur; Stray closed its eyes and purred in delight.

When its whim was sufficiently satisfied, the godly feline returned to an upright position. 'Remember, go to Vector, and tell your men to work on the airship while you're away. I'll use my last ounce of direct power to help you.' The proud eyes turned beseeching and sad. 'And please, Setzer Gabbiani, remember me, and keep me in your thoughts. If one person thinks on me, it will all have been worth it.'

'Of course I will.'

Stray licked Setzer's hand once. 'Thank you," it said simply; Setzer tapped it on the nose, was given another lick, and the Esper limped back towards its Magicite abode.

The gray room misted itself away; Setzer bolted up inhis bed, pupils dilated, arms clad in a coat of sweat. Every detail of his vision remained clear in his memory; it was no mere fancy he had dreamed! Hepaused. What if it was false? Should he act so rashly upon a simple vision?

Hung on the back of a chair was his father's coat--something shimmered in one of the pockets. Setzer roused himself and investigated: the Stray Magicite had gotten into his pocket; but it hadn't been there when he had gone to bed.

Panic nearly overwhelmed him. Perhaps the dream was misleading, but he knew he could not afford to take such a risk. Indubitably,his friends--even Gau, plague take him!--were in the gravest danger. He felt it in the marrow of his bones. It was would do more harm than good to simply stay put and not take action.

He ran throughout the Blackjack and awoke his crew. Red-eyed, rubbing at their faces, they swarmed around their deranged leader, who issued these orders: 'Get dressed and start to work on the engine at once. Ratchet, direct them, and don't tell me you don't care. We're all in danger. Work on the engine as fast as you can. I need to go now. I'll be at Vector. Listen. Once you finish and get her running, fly theBlackjack low over the trails to Vector and around the city itself. Let down the hook when you see us.'

Questions assailed him. What if this? What if that? How--? Where--?

'Will you people shut up and take some damned initiative for once!' Setzer bellowed, peremptorily cutting off the doubts of his crew. 'Do what I say, or else we'll be dead. Now!'

Setzer left the airship then, but he soon realized ashe skirted the forests near Maranda that he hadn't a clue as to what to do. The distance between Maranda and Vector was formidable, and he was certain he could not reach Edgar and the rest in time by going on foot.

The Magicite in his pocket warmed, the heat creeping through the cloth and splashing his skin. Trees in the near distance rustled. He halted. Two bright eyes glittered, and the distinct smell of chocobo hit him. 'Wark!'

'Chocy?' Setzer called, taking one step forward. 'Would you like some greens, boy?'

'Warrrk!' That having been said, the choc burst out of his cove of leaves and cantered over. His feathers were mussed, some singed, and he was thin as to be emaciated, but it was Chocy. Setzer threw his arms around the fluffy neck and buried his head into the grimy feathers.

'Have you been out here a long time, boy?' he murmured. 'Look at you. You've been having a rough time, haven'tyou?' He pulled away, still patting Chocy's shoulders, and spoke very seriously. He understood the poor thing had braved fire, predators, starvation, but the task at hand was too urgent. 'Can you make the trip to Vector for Daddy? Can you make it?'

Chocy gave an affirmative wark and nudged Setzer's shirtfront; he picked berries off a nearby bush and offered them up, Chocy nibbling daintily in gratitude and hunger. He mounted and stroked the back ofthe bird's neck. 'Let's go.'

He rode Chocy at a pace that was steady yet not too taxing on the bird's weakened constitution--not only had Chocy been roughing it, he was old; his condition was far from optimal. Vector was reached in good enough time.

Guards were posted all around the city gates, ostensibly in defense against another Esper attack, as if their guns and armor could help them! Luckily, Setzer remembered countless little byways and tricks through the city's system of rails and tracks. To these secret trails he guided Chocy, safely infiltrating the city. Only the commonest sort of vermin hampered his path, and those were swiftly disposed of.

Death quiet was the city. The civilians had boarded up their houses shivering in the wake of destruction. Only reconstruction crews and the occasional soldier patrolled the streets. All was in Stray's hands now. The best Setzer could do was head towards in the general direction of the Imperial Palace.

A cluster of huddled forms could be discerned hurrying down a byway, and Setzer noticed that one of the outlines appeared to be fluttering in the air. Chocy was turned around and broke into a trot, cuttingoff the retreating crowd, blocking their paths.

'Well, well, well,' Setzer said to a frantic Edgar and his equally disconcerted train, 'it looks like you fellows need a hand. Can't I leave you people for any amount of time without having you get into trouble?'

Edgar looked on the mounted man before him as if he was gazing on a saint. 'The Emperor's lied to us,' he said furtively. 'He's using this opportunity to destroy all the Returners in oneswoop. He seeking the Statues behind the Sealed Gate. We only just found out about it, thanks to my ingenious ways with women, and we left the palace unnoticed. But it won't be long until they find us missing. We need to get to Thamasa--'

'I know. Now's no time for talking. Get on, all of you, and let's get out of here.'

'All of us? On that thing?' Sabin inquired,incredulous, pointing at Chocy.

'Well, not all of you. Mog can flutter alongsideus.'

'And Gau can run as fast as any chocobo,' Sabin said. 'He's been running with the beasts for thirteen years."

'Gau!' came the proud assertion.

The three who couldn't flutter or run like the windclambered on, a tight, sardine-like fit and extremely uncomfortable for allconcerned; Chocy groaned under the weight.

'It'll be all right,' Setzer whispered tohis suffering mount, rubbing its beak, 'you can do it.' He hated to bring such pain on his boyhood pet, but it couldn't be helped. They wound through the streets towards the path which Setzer had taken in entering, and the prospect for leaving undetected was high. But see what happened!

The Returners' absence had been noticed before expectation, and Imperial soldiers combed the city in droves. One of these patrols caught sight of the fugitives. Cries of 'There they are! After them! Don't let them escape!' resounded all around. Mog squeaked in despair. Setzer leaned down once more and icy hands stroked Chocy's flanks.

'Please, please, go faster,' he whispered. Chocy rolled his eyes and increased his pace faster and faster, using the last remnants of youth and second wind. It did not feel like much, but the effort was enough to pull away into the security of the transportation network.Setzer continued to force the choc into a gallop, for until he and his charges were safely aboard the Blackjack, he did not dare take the slightest chance in capture by slowing.

Once they had cleared Vector, Setzer became aware of a layer of foam underneath Chocy's feathers, drenching cloth, and a gasping wheeze sounded out with every heave of the yellow plumed chest. Setzer wastired, but not so tired that he the wobbling scenery came from a mere figment of imagination. 'O Stray,' he offered up, 'help me now."

Unlike like nearly all prayers, the Stray Magicite granted this one immediately: on the horizon, a glorious bulbous ship parted the curtains of the clouds, sweeping down low. The Blackjack! Gau threw back his head and howled in delight, the others echoing his cries in theirown cheers. Hands flew up in the air and waved like the spasms of an epileptic fit. The hook lowered.

'Everybody on, and hold tight!' Setzer advised. He had dismounted by this time, as had the others, and turned; he decided the best way to get Chocy on board was to let Sabin and his mighty muscles take care of the load, but one look and his relief died.

Chocy had fallen to shaking knees. His head bent limply over, and bloody froth dripped from his open beak.

'Chocy, Chocy, I'm so sorry,' Setzer groaned repeatedly and rushed forth. He laid the golden head on his lap and kissed the ridge between bill and face over and over. Tears fell down over his scars. Chocy gazed up at his master with wide and frightened eyes; he did notknow why or how, but he knew that his wind had been broken, his heart had been put through too much, and that his master was in distress. When Setzer was distressed, so was Chocy, and the bird knew that the human's emotions stemmed from some fault in his own birdish body. Chocy took one of Setzer'shands in his beak and gave a fortifying nibble. Then the lights in his eyeswent dark, his chest stopped moving so rapidly, and then stopped.

'Hurry up, hurry up!' voiced called down from the Blackjack. Setzer wiped away his tears, placed Chocy's head on the ground, and grasped the hook. It was a terrible thing to leave the body where it lay he could hardly forgive himself. The scavengers would come and pick off the flesh from the bones, the bones would be shrouded in the dust and eaten by worms until the whiteness and earth become one and the same, and then grass and weeds and flowers would take root in the dust. A poor fate...but there was comfort in it.

Firm boards supported his feet, the wheel was in his hands, and thoughts went away from the dead to the living. The living of greatest concern were in Thamasa, and it was in that city's direction that the Blackjack took wing.


Thamasa had a reputation of being a simple, small town filled with simple, small, folk even more backwards than the Domans; but to a certain pair of hazel eyes, the hamlet had seen better days. Smoke and embers crackled from ruined foundations, a depressingly common scenario nowadays.

'We come tardy,' Cyan cried, staunch face melancholy almost to despair.

'It looks like most of the town's intact. The Empire usually levels the places it conquers. That's a good sign,' Sabin pointed out, resolute in his optimism.

Following the landing, they entered Thamasa and came to the city green, wind-swept and burnt. Here Locke and Terra, accompanied by Celes and two natives, one old man and one a young girl, waited to greet them. Setzer's poor spirits raised high in joy, but the death of his cherished chocobo rankled in him, so his words were not encouraging.

'We've been had,' he snarled, scars livid. 'The Emperor's a liar, damn his withered black heart, if he has one! It looks like you've found that out. What happened here?'

Locke surmised for the newcomers the recent events inThamasa. They had found the Esper leader, Yuma, and had taken him to meet with General Leo, and they had been on the verge of a peace, but Kefka had surprised the town, killed the Espers, and burned it for sport. More damage and havoc would have been wrought, but a second wave of Espers had come to avenge their fallen comrades. The soldiers burning the town had been destroyed as Kefka made short work of the Espers, turning them into Magicite and apparently hastening off to join the Emperor at the Sealed Gate.

'But how did you guys escape? You were right in the heart of Vector!' Locke asked.

''Twas Edgar's...chivalrous ways with the ladies,' Cyan explained; he could be quite wry at times. 'Thanks to his nobility, we left before any catastrophe occurred.'

'All right, Edgar!' Locke's weary face grew mirthful, and he gave a laugh.

'I got to know the angeliforous gal that waited on us,' Edgar said, pulling out a silk scarf from his regal belt and fluttering it for all to admire. 'And when she brought us tea, she blurted out the whole crooked plan!' He winked and laughed lustily. Setzer did not comment. An illusion now and then was good for a man.

'Finally hit pay dirt, eh?' Sabin posed. Itwas meant as a rhetorical question, but Edgar answered it nonetheless.

'Shut your filthy mouth, you! There're ladies present. I was a perfect gentleman, courteous and suggestive. You'll neverget a wife if you keep being so forward, Sabin. Say, Locke, where's General Leo? He was here, wasn't he?'

Terra hid her face in her hands, and Celes drew her white cloak tight about her shoulders; she had never appeared so sad.

'Leo's gone. Kefka killed him.' Locke said bitterly.

To Setzer, the Imperial General Leo Christophe had been a mere abstraction in flesh, talked about in his circles but rarely seen;Leo had not frequented Vectorian social gatherings. He had been known as a virtuous, stoic leader destined for greatness, that was all. No gossip or scandals about him. Yet, in the few times Setzer had seen Leo, he recalled a kind, warm face, the only face that had any mercy in it. And in Leo's death, any hope of coming to terms with the mad Emperor and his equally mad clowndied too. Thus, unknown as the two men were to each other, Setzer felt a pain and wholly agreed with Cyan's response.

'Sir Leo, gone! What a waste...He was the best of all the Imperials.'

In the midst of the void caused by the terrible news,Locke, the most recovered, reasonably suggested returning to the airship and rethinking a new strategy.

The old man cleared his throat and spoke, voice raspyas sandpaper but firm: 'May I accompany you?'

'Who're you, sir?' Edgar spoke for all the new arrivals.

'His name is Strago Magus, one of Thamasa's citizens.' Terra shed light on the matter. 'He's descended from the Mage Warriors of yore. I think he can be a big help. He knows the ways of all sorts of monsters, and he knows more than anyone here about the history of magic.

'The what?' Edgar deadpanned, no scholar he.

'Just a five gold-piece word for a worthless status. I can use a smattering of magic, that's all. Nothing like your lady friend here,' Strago, whose wit was better than his ridiculous haircut and sense of fashion (a mohawk and pea green and orange robes on an old man? Setzer thought), indicated Terra using his gnarled old staff. 'I have seen the power of the Espers. Now the Empire has it, and you all can expect the Emperor to flex his newfound muscle very soon.'

'Me too! Let me at =91em!' the girl, a small young thing with curled mousy hair springing under a red beret, pumped an arm into the air.

'Relm, my granddaughter,' Strago put in hastily. 'And you're staying right at home, young lady. It's no place for you. After what you've done, nearly frying yourself to a crisp, I ought to lock you in the basement!'

'Yeah, right, kid!' Sabin guffawed. 'The day little girls fight empires is the day Edgar truly scores with a woman.'

Relm uttered something that can only be best reproduced as an 'Ack!' and she began to flail her arms frantically at themartial artist. 'What? Who's this puffed up aerobics instructor anyway?'

'Got quite a lip, don't you, kid?'

The little girls squinted her eyes hard and pouted out her bottom lip. 'Here,' she said, pulling out a sketch pad, "stand like that. Let me paint your portrait. I need a picture of a pompousmeathead.'

Terra and Locke shouted out 'Don't', and Strago grunted, 'All right, all right! If you insist! Now put that awaybefore you hurt someone.' Setzer thought the whole affair ridiculous and did not deign to give any grace with a word.

'Much better.' Relm closed her eyes in satisfaction and gave a firm nod. She then ran over to a large Doberman dog, itslegs and chest wrapped in bandages, and embraced it as if it were a bunny. "Did you hear that, Interceptor? We're going!'

If there was anything in the world Setzer hated, it was dogs, and this one was a perfect monster, muscular and sharp-jawed and slobbery. He had to speak out on the issue.

'No,' Setzer barked. 'I won'ttake that thing on board.'

'I want him to come with us,' Relm scowled,narrowing her eyes, squeezing the monster defensively. Setzer's cheeks heated--the cheek of the chit!--and he decided to debate on her own ten-year-old level, for her to better understand the situation.

'He doesn't go!'

'Yes, he does!'





'Oh, Setzer, let her take the damned dog!' Locke groaned. The gambler whirled on the thief.

'Like hell! I already have to subject my precious airship to the infernal machinations of Gau and Mog and now this brat! I've reached my tether.' He spoke to Relm now, smiling very sweetly. "Relm, do you know what physics is?'

She frowned confusion and annoyance and shook her head.

'Well, physics is how things move on the earth and in its atmosphere. Here, I'll give you an example.' He jabbed a finger up at the sky. 'Doggie goes up in airship. Good? Empire attacks airship and maybe, just maybe, doggie goes flying off the deck. One of the things about physics is that as something falls, it falls faster and faster the longer the drop.' He pointed his finger down and lowered his arm. 'So doggie goes faster and faster, and when he hits the ground, he'll be going at a huge speed. And you think, dear girl, that animals thudlike rocks. Oh, no, no, NO. They don't. When doggie hits, he'll explodelike a melon. The bones and intestines, it's like they're spring-loaded. So he hits and pops' here he snapped his fingers, 'and the guts go flying everywhere. Doggie won't be cute anymore. Is that what you want?Doggie all over the island?'

Relm's eyes, which had grown progressively throughout the lesson, blinked once in horror; then she burst into tears and threw herself on the dog, crying that she didn't want to see him exploded, and that he'd stay in Thamasa. Strago patted her head.

'Setzer, stop traumatizing the children. We havemore important things to worry about' Terra chastised. Setzer did not feel in the least ashamed.

'Let's get going,' Locke said.

'Yes, let's,' Setzer echoed. He guided them to the airship; it took a bit of persuasion to get Relm on board. An impromptu meeting was held on the top deck as Setzer launched the ship into the air. 'We've got to hurry,' he said from the wheel. 'The Emperor's looking for some statues or something.'

'You can't be serious!' Strago cried. Setzer half expected him to have a coronary right then and there.

'What do you know about it?' Edgar asked.

A shriek cut through the air, high and shrill; Terra collapsed to her knees on the deck, clutching her temples.

'Terra! What's the matter?' Setzer shouted.

'The island,' she whimpered, the veins in her forehead throbbing, 'the whole planet is groaning in pain...Agh, my head!' She fainted dead away. Edgar began to mop at her glistening faceand placed his cloak underneath her head.

Below the lands erupted into protest, tectonic platesgnashing and grinding into a tremendous crack, then shifting into a wrenching tear of earthy bone and tendon. The Blackjack tilted in the concussions' recoils, and Setzer fought to keep her steady. 'Keep hold! Don't try to go below decks!'

A shadow fell across the frightened faces, the shaking ended, and Setzer dared avert his attention from his steering. His hand dropped limply. The image of the Emperor, enthroned upon a stone seat, eclipsed the sun, ascending steadily, and gazed down upon the world with stone eyes. An entire continent levitated, its root-tangled bottom crags created in the Emperor's image.

'O blessed gods save us,' Cyan murmured. Someone began to cry hysterically: 'He's mad! He's mad! Mad! Mad!"

'Shut up, all of you!' Edgar, the only of them who kept his head, ran like a devil between the stultified persons gawking at the sky and cracked a few heads together. 'Setzer, help me!'

Gathering up the last remnants of his nerve, Setzer valiantly opened his mouth; perhaps if he could get them talking, everyone would calm down. Unfortunately, he hadn't the foggiest idea of what to say. He let the words come of their own accord.

'Strago, what the hell just happened?'

'The Statues have been found,' groaned the aged man. Relm shivered in his embrace. 'Only they could have made the whole island of the Sealed Gate--' He gestured towards the shadow, a mere toss of the hand. 'The beginning of all magic, they are...'

'I felt them!' Terra cried, recovered from her faint. 'I was unconscious, but I could feel their power and see their shapes. It was horrible.'

'This is very grave,' said the old man. "If the Statues are moved out of their alignment....the very face of the world will be changed. The forces of magic would run rampant, altering everything in their path. It would be a nightmare.'

'We have no choice,' Edgar gnawed his lowerlip. 'We must go up there. The Emperor won't knowingly move the Statues, I think, but I'm worried about Kefka. He doesn't care for adulation.'

'Right! I suppose you want me to fly you up there and drop a bomb on their heads,' Setzer cut in. 'It's too crazy. Tantamount to suicide.'

'You'd rather live all your days in the Emperor's shadow?' Celes snapped; it was the first time she had spoken since Thamasa--Setzer expected Leo's death had struck her keenly.

'This is madness. I can't take much more of this...unnatural insanity,' Setzer moaned and shook his head. His body cried out for sleep, and his brain throbbed in pain, begging to be released. Celes clapped her cool hands around his face.

'You'll take it, as we're all taking it," she said. 'There's no time for hysterics. Fly the Blackjackup to the island.'

Oh, he would have kissed her if she wouldn't have run him through with the Runic Blade! 'Ah, Celes, sweetness, you're worth a million! Get below decks, everyone.'

'I prefer to stay here,' Celes said. Locke came up next to her, his agreement tacit.

There was no use in further haggling, so Setzer revved the engines and accelerated the airship. After a long space, he heard Sabin's voice.

'I think we're being followed.'

'Nonsense! This is the fastest vessel in the world. Besides, nothing can fly this high.'

'Of course you're right. Those aren't following us. They're just really big birds...with propellers...and making funnysounds...and they're coming straight towards us...'

'Damn. The IAF,' Edgar spat. For his own part, Setzer cursed himself halfway into an embolism, a string of invective that, regrettably, was too vile to mention here. The Blackjack climbed higher, and the air sliced into Setzer's lungs, but the jerries would not be shaken. One of the planes slammed into the airship's hull, sparks flying. Setzer pulled out his pack of darts and threw a handful at the offender, striking its fuel chassis. It burst into flames, but more took its place.

'All right, you sons of bitches!' the captain shouted, near tears. 'I can't lose them. We'll have to fight."

Edgar hauled out a crossbow large enough for anti-aircraft purposes and let the bolts fly, riddling the nearest attackers like porcupines. A jerry dove at them, strafed the smooth wood. 'You pig-bastard!' Setzer shouted, accenting the remark with a barrage of darts that missed their target completely. Lightning, ice, and fire exploded all around, and the heated air stifled. Rank on rank of IAF fighters swooped and attacked--there seemed to be no end to them.

Cyan launched into a pirouette, treading the air as he spun his silver katana, the Tempest, in a delicate series of arcs; the Doma Samurai had their own magic in battle. He gave a war-cry that throbbed of hate and rage and shame. 'In the name of the Liege of Doma, I slay thee!' The blade flashed, shearing metal, and several fighters dropped likeflies from sight. On the end of that attack, Sabin crouched, the muscles inhis arm rippling; he clapped his hands together and bellowed several inane words, thrusting his fist towards the gadflies at the end of his recitation.One, two, three, six clones of fire formed in a ring and danced outwards; any plane caught in their wake burned. The acrid scent of melted metaland flash curdled Setzer's nostrils.

Dancing fire-clones were particularly unnerving for the IAF. The fighters withdrew, circling but no longer attacking. The defenders gladly seized the breather.

'Something weird's coming this way,' Relmpiped up suddenly.

Indeed, something strange did come up swiftly--at first glance, it looked like a pink puffy cloud sporting a snazzy purple chapeau, but as the thing came closer, it was clear that it was two insteadof one. The purple creature sprang onto the airship's prow--a giant octopus.

'What in the hell is that!' Setzer could barely speak, not because he was afraid, but because he was so angry.

'That,' Celes responded, 'is Ultros. He tried to drop a five-ton weight on my head once.'

'Hi, Uncle Ulty!' Relm called out.

Locke nodded to Sabin and Edgar. 'Guys?'

'Yeah?' Sabin drawled; twin Edgar stretcheduntil his blue and black armor creaked.

'Tear his tentacles off.'

Edgar nodded in return and pulled out his chainsaw, Sabin cracked his iron-bound knuckles, and the twins began their attack. Ultros began to rant about something, flailing his tentacles. Setzer decided that, right now, he was as mad as the Emperor, and he dropped his chin onto hischest, so very tired of the absurdity of it all.

His repose did not last long. Relm's scream split the air, and he jerked his head up in time to see a large severed tentacle come flying down and landing right near the wheel. Relm continued to shriek, skipping around in disgust at the briny, rubbery thing; Setzer, his jangled nerves totally stripped by the raining calamari, snatched her beret off her curls and hurled it down the stairwell. The little girl gave a wail and ran after her precious.

Over at the battle on the prow, Ultros, the tentaclessevered by Edgar's chainsaw regenerated, whistled shrilly. The pink puffycloud jumped into the fray, and Cyan and Celes and Locke ran to intercept it. It opened its mouth and breathed a stream of fire, charring the deck. Setzer shouted in protest, but Celes cast a sheet of ice over the flames beforeany major damage was done.

Punches were thrown, blood flowed, magic crackled, and metal flashed in a jumble. Setzer breathed in the hot air and tried to swallow down his parched throat and hurled his darts at every chance. Nothing else stood out in his memory. Then finally Sabin aimed a kick that hit home right in Ultros's mouth, and the teeth went crunching, Ultros squealed likea schoolgirl and flipped right over, nearly hurling himself off the edge ofthe prow. The pink puffy cloud gave a bellow of distress under the barrage of Cyan's katana and puffed out its chest, swelling up to nearly twice itssize, and then gave a tremendous sneeze. G-forces hit everybody on deck, forces so high that Setzer lay at the wheel, stunned and world blackened. It was some time before he came back into consciousness again. In the distance he thought he heard a voice.

'Stupid octopus!' Gau. Little scamp, in spite of his intolerable ignorance and egregious table manners, spoke the mutual feelings of all in a great deal more eloquence than Setzer himselfcould have done. Smooth, warm discs alighted on the gambler's face, a sensation so gentle that he didn't realize at first his eyelids had opened.

'Awake at last,' Terra said. 'Do you think you're up to eating something?'

'That'd be good. Thank you,' Setzer said. He pinched his face and stood up only to sink down again. The dipping sun cast feeble, drowsy red points of light from underneath the Emperor's craggy face, so that one half of the Blackjack was cast into shadow and the other into crimson, melding into each other like spilt paint yet somehow the edges licked and turned so that Setzer couldn't tear his eyes away; these strange new settings were so lethargic that moving felt an impossible and thankless chore, no use in it at all...

'Where,' Setzer inquired of Terra, returnedand offering him a bowl of thin soup, 'is Locke? I don't see him. And I'm missing some others, too.'

'That...thing, Chupon I think Ultros called it, blew Locke, Edgar, and Cyan overboard when he, er, sneezed. No, no, don't worry, they're not dead. It was a very fortunate thing, actually. It managed to scatter most of the IAF, and the few that were left ran off. Edgar and the others had enough sense to cast a floating spell before they hit. In fact, they're on the Floating Continent right now, seeking Kefka and the Emperor. You were out cold, so we took the Blackjack down.'

'Worried?' he said. It was a stupid question, because of course he knew she was worried, distracted almost to sickness;if he had been blind, he would have known by the frantic timbre under her voice, her forced breathing, and a hundred other signs. Yet if she vented shemight get some release.

'To death,' Terra replied. 'I want to join them so badly, help them...but I can't shake the feeling that I'd slow them down. I don't trust myself. But I'm running around, giving everyone food and talking--I'm too busy to go into hysterics.'

Her plight and exhausted face moved him. 'Take abreak,' he told her, 'and get some sleep. I'll take care of everything here.' She gave him a look of gratitude and nodded mutely. She curled on the boards, propped her hands under her cheek. Setzer hunted for aspare cloak, stole one of Strago's when the old man wasn't looking, andtucked it about her. She was so delicate that it was a miracle to him she had come so far.

Just as Setzer prepared to gun the accelerator, Relm popped up at his elbow--he swore, the girl had an insidious cleverness in her. She always knew exactly when to intrude in the times he most wanted to bealone. Impending tyranny, raging octopuses, dogfights; could nothing subdueher?

'What're you doing?'

'I'm going to take the Blackjack over right....there.' He pointed to a large split in the land, the ruddy sky showing through. 'If the guys down there need a hand, they can easily get back on for aid.'

'That's good,' she said. 'You know,if I had my druthers, I'd take my best paintbrush and add a nice little mustache and goggly glasses to the Emperor. Let's see if anybody takes him seriously then.' To illustrate this point, she whipped out a large paintbrush and brandished it like a pike as if to bonk the Emperor on thenose.

Setzer, despite all moral compunctions and nature, had to smile at this. He told her to shoo to her granddaddy. He stood alone. The pocket-watch pressed against his waist ticked.

In the crumpling dusk a flash of white gleamed, and he watched Celes go up to the prow, her delicate profile, chin tilted up, shaded and outlined in the faded red. He called to her softly, as not to disturb the ones sleeping.

'What are you thinking, General Chere?'

Celes started and began a retreat, but more words followed: 'If you want me to take you up there, you know I wouldn't refuse you. But I want to know why. You realize you'd only be in the way.'

'I have never been in anyone's way if I didn't want to be, and I won't start now,' she said, not facing him. "I was only thinking. For some foolish reason, I was thinking that somehow, if I went up there and tried to dissuade the Emperor from his madness orkilled him if he wouldn't listen, then perhaps I might--I might be able to crawl towards making amends. Isn't that foolish?' Her lip curled. "I might as well go around and bake cookies for the whole wide world andmoan for its forgiveness. Ha!'

'I'll take you up there.'

'You have no reason. I don't need your pity."

But pity her Setzer did. It must have been a horriblething, he thought, to hate yourself so completely; one of the reasons he admired her so was that she had fought for so long and hadn't committed suicide yet. Perhaps she didn't know how to kill herself, but it was admirablethe same. 'I said I'll take you. Everybody deserves another crack atlife if he wants it. It's only fair.'

Gratitude fit ill on her face, but Celes could not help herself. 'Thank you.'

Setzer winked and gently guided the Blackjack through the air, moving so smoothly that the boards underfoot hardly shivered. Sparse starts peeped feebly through the chasm above; he halted the airship. The space was small and the Blackjack was large, and any sane person wouldn't have tried what Setzer was going to do. But such a maneuver was the ultimate test of his mettle, and the gambler's heart wanted to see if it could be done without crashing.

Setzer hadn't counted on how dark the air was, but the Blackjack had already started to go up, up, so very careful and slow that only the wind tussled his hair. Overhead he saw a dark sky framed by darker rocks. Then the rocks became the sky and sky the rocks, and he was unable to tell which was which. And steadily they came closer. I can't do it, he realized in his weakness. I'll crash--

There! At the prow! By the sputtering lights of the lamps on deck, a ripple of white appeared; it was Celes's cloak. His vision was drawn to the white, and looked past it towards the black sea-shell curve of the rocks. He judged the distance easily in his experience. When hedeemed it necessary, the Blackjack decelerated, Setzer following thewhite cloak against the rocks. He stopped within five feet of the rocks. Celes lifted a hand in farewell, and he raised his in turn. Bending her long legs, she made a gazelle jump, whispering an incantation as she did so, and floated out of sight onto the ledge. Setzer brought his airship down. Weariness suddenly overtook him. His ravaged nerves needed relief. So, arms folded about the elbows, the silver head drooped onto the shirt ruffles.

Light that had the power to pierce even the eyes of ablind man, like the burst of an A-bomb, brought Setzer's eyes open. Criesof dismay and surprise came from all about. The flight crew emerged from the hold. Setzer felt the airship moving, but he didn't recall grabbing the wheel much less steering. But they were pulling away. A piece of the continent fell next to one of his boots, followed by another. Then another. Thousands of tiny pieces hailed down, forcing all on deck to cover their heads withtheir arms or any spare articles of clothing. One large stone clonked Mog smack on the head. A huge boulder loomed; Setzer could see it clearly becausethe sky had begun to shoot streaks of fire and sparks, and visibility was as good as if it were day. Setzer groaned, a few shrieked, but the Blackjack flew true and only the stern ornament was crushed.

'The Statues!' Strago yelled, 'they've been moved!'

'Cram it, old man!' Sabin ordered. 'Setzer, we can't leave the others behind! Go up level with the edges and look for them!'

As Setzer pulled upwards, Gau, who had sharp eyes, leapt up and howled, pointing at a group of peach dots at on end of the fracturing land mass. Setzer immediately swerved. The Blackjack hovered a little ways under the edge, and the absent members jumped off to safety. Celes, Locke, Cyan, and Edgar were accompanied by a man draped all in black thatSetzer did not recognize. But questions were for later.

'Hold on!' he bellowed, wrestling the wheel. 'I'm going to gun her. Don't fall off! Ratchet, prepare to treat for wounds!'

He hadn't a chance to touch the accelerator. A great woven ring of raw magic thundered out from the focal center of the continent, where the Statues stood out of joint, rolling lazily at a fantastic rate. Screams rang out, and Setzer thought he could hear the Espers in their Magicite screaming too. The whole thing seemed so very slow. The ring broadsided the Blackjack. Setzer turned his head and the back end was simply gone. Two white hands clung at the edge. He dove for them and grasped them. Terra's eyes gazed up. In them Setzer saw pure terror. He felt his cheeks grow wet, though with sweat, tears, or blood he didn't know, they all were one and the same in his mouth.

Unable to bear looking at such naked, animal fear, Setzer swiveled his neck to the side. Ratchet was also clinging to the splintered ends, gray arms straining. Dull gray gaze met hazel. Ratchet smiled for the first time and gave a last, cynical laugh as he lost his grip and fell. Very little surprised Ratchet.

With one half missing, the airship could not have been expected to stay airborne for long. Terra's grip slipped. Setzer clawed to keep her up, but there was nothing solid underneath him anymore. Air whistled in his ears, and he plummeted down, down, towards the earth.


Swish, swish, swish. Warm, salty water mixed with earth and chemicals filled his nose and mouth. The powerful smells drew Setzer's mind out of its stupor. He attempted to swallow, but his throat was choked and raw, for granules of sea's seasoning had lodged themselves in the tiny hollows of his trachea, rubbing against the lining and bursting the delicate walls. Setzer, eyes still closed, got on his hands and feet and vomited; the smell around was enough to act as a remarkable emetic.

Feeling a mite better, he sat up cross-legged in the sand. By some miracle he had managed to retain all his clothing in the fall--fall from what, he wondered--but the cloth and leather chaffed against skin, already rough and abused by water and wind and sun. Every inch of him ached. Especially his face. Once he thought his old scars had ripped open at theseams. The pain was so bad, the sky looked to be tinted pale yellow, melting into bright crimson and orange at the edges. With another glance and a shake of a water-addled head, Setzer looked again, but the sky did not change. Jaundiced as a old man's wrinkled cheek. An even more sickly eye, now at its apex, flung waning rays on the silent beach, undisturbed even by a gull's cry. Bones littered at his feet, thousands of little fish bones. He took one up and cracked it between his hands in contemplation.

Memories returned to Setzer by degrees, starting at the unfortunate moment he discovered the four stowaways in the Blackjack's parlor, ending in the shattered airship and whistling air. The Statues had been moved, he remembered, and Strago had said dire consequences wouldcome of it. Had some malignant force of magic gone and turned the whole skyits color? Surely it could not be so!

Setzer began to walk, limping in pain as his movements irritated his damaged skin, briefly called out his friends' names, but he soon gave up. Not a soul breathed near, and who would hear his beckoning?

Where was he? He did not know where he was. He could have been dead. No companions. No Blackjack! No Chocy!

Come, Gabbiani, he coached himself (he found that he grew more relaxed if he addressed himself when thinking), look around. You certainly can't stay here. It's best to start walking.

Yes, that's what he'd do. Some village or hamlet must be near. Just go walking away from the shore, something had to comeup. And the sooner, the more the good; he craved a drink to wash away the coating on his tongue. He wrung out his coat, brushed off his shoes, and forced his legs on a march.


The low-lying coast abruptly shifted into grassy plains, sand in one place, a line of brown grass in the other. Setzer walked over the plain, buckled here and there with a few hills; as mentioned, the grass was husky and brown and drooped under a thick layer of dust, which also fell underneath the blades like the most fine and sparse of snows; the sun in the cloudless sky blew pale blue shadows across the land in whispers, and the vagrant knew that this area had not received rain for a very long time. Gnarled old twisted stumps rose out of the earth occasionally, limbs too bent under the dust. And bones, bones everywhere: delicate bird skeletons, bones of the smaller prairie predators, growing into the stouter ossified remains of livestock and chocobos. No flowers bloomed, and no birds sang.

Utter silence is a terribly oppressive thing when onedoesn't want or need it; walking under the sun and through the grass, Setzer's thin shoulders began to slump from an unseen weight. It would have been so much easier, if only there had been something else, like a storm or hurricane or earthquake! For these things are full of nature's screaming fury and you can scream back at them, like certain fiery, insane old men were purported to do. But here all was quiet, nothing to rage at and nothing to hear challenges or curses from, a creeping whisper of a world.

Setzer began an attempt to sing, though his voice wasnot good. 'I am,' he hummed aloud, 'I am climbing--yes, I amclimbing the mountain top, yes, and soon I'll come to the end, and I can give the gods my glory--Yes!' He didn't keep it up for long. There's a limit to how long a person can lie to himself. As he continued to make his legs walk, Setzer realized that he could sing, dance, shout, strip off his clothes and run naked; none of his actions would be of any consequence of themselves. There was just himself. He turned his head. In the distance he could make out black remains...of villages, were they? Once he began to notice, he saw many such sights. Small pits dug for foundations, an old stone well or two, and whole lot of cinders. He walked right through the skeleton of one village at one point.

What unlucky people had their lives smashed here? Howmany dreams and hopes and quarrels and lies and truths rose from these ashes? How easy it was! Setzer looked behind the human elements of these things,past love and survival and the strive for creation, and he saw--

A white bird suddenly made its presence known in the sky, low enough that Setzer made out the spreading primaries. The man gave aglad cry. Gambler's superstition told that this must be a good omen. He ran, following right on the trail, never distracting his gaze. At intervals he clapped his hands and cooed to it.

The bird sank by degrees lower. Its wings did not beat as often.

'Please, little bird, don't get sick on me now,' Setzer cried. But the bird did not heed his entreaties and kept on its descent. Eventually it disappeared altogether. Setzer's foot snagged itself upon a tangle of grass, spilling him head over heels down the gentle declivity of a hill.

He got up to his knees, under much protest from his ragged skin. The bird had fallen to the ground, stretched its wings out over the earth, head twisted slightly and breathing slow. Setzer picked the unresisting animal up and stroked its feathers.

The bird did not give any response to his ministrations. It was set gently down again. Setzer, unencumbered, saw where he was.

One hill was at the gambler's back, the other in front; in between these slopes reposed yet another hamlet's skeleton--but itwas not deserted. People were here.

Stacked upon each other in piles that reached Setzer's breast, hundreds of pairs of eyes coated with dust stared at him. Manyof them had no light. Some of the eyes, however, moved ever so discreetly at the new arrival, their chests hardly moving, eyes dried and corners crusted. Setzer had difficulty in perceiving who was alive; the sleeping and dead are but pictures, as the adage goes. Dust covered every inch of their skin, and several were wedged in between those not living, but no-one minded the heat or the smell. Old men, young men, women clutching babies to their bosoms, girls, boys, men of every conceivable age and shape and color. Off a ways lay rows and rows of livestock, chocobos and cows mostly, in very much the same condition, but all of their dead eyes were sightless.

What had happened? Why were all these poor souls here? Surely there were too many of them to have come from just one village--hadthis been a spot chosen by lot so that the spiritless folk who could no longer continue could be left alone by their relatives and friends, indifferentand in despair but not yet immobile? It was a wall of flesh.

Setzer put a hand up to his lips and stood rooted in place. Not one sound was uttered. Mercifully, the face of a pretty young woman drew his line of sight, a face that betrayed some awareness in it yet. She had her arms around a man next to her, whether it was husband, father, brother, who knows. Sometimes she lifted her hand to brush away a half-hearted fly. Her eyes flickered once as the intruder approached.

'Why are you here?' he asked softly, embarrassed to talk in a normal voice. 'What happened? Don't you have a place to go? A village, a town? What is all this? Please, tell me!'

She opened her lips, cracked out a note; she tried again after spitting out a bit of debris. 'Our homes are gone. All the villages were destroyed when the magic came.'

'And your families? Did they do this?'

'Nowhere to put us. But it don't matter to us.What matters now? Here's just as good a place as anywhere else, and the important people--' she shifted towards the man in her grasp-- 'arewith us.'

'Things cannot, mustn't be so bad...'

The face hardened. 'Hush. I've answered. I won't speak no more. Keep your mouth shut and take your place. There's a nice patch for you.' A skinny finger indicated a space near the furtheststack.

'Never! I won't give up so easily.' Setzer cried.

'Never!' the girl repeated. She could have been mocking him, if she had the grain of energy mockery needs. 'Never and never and never...'

That horrible voice sent her auditor's hair on end and skin crawling. He did a shameful thing: he blindly struck the poor girl right on the face. She didn't seem to mind; at least she stopped talking.

He looked over the wall. The older men and women reminded him of his mother and father, the younger of his friends and companions. Had this been their end as well? His poor old parents--! His friends! Jidoor must be the same way.

Setzer was so ashamed and nauseated by the whole affair he sprinted over the hills, away from the horror.


No rain, dearth, and despair had toppled Kohlingen, little Kohlingen of all places; the inhabitants there were neither sophisticated nor prosperous, but plenty smart. Of the towns in the area, only Kohlingen had the sense to build an expansive network of granaries and hoard the plentiful years' overflows for any long crisis. The people were well-fed and in no immediate danger; they had so much grain that even a few pubs and breweries kept on their business. To this town Setzer wandered in, not particularly glad but grateful for the allowance of rest.

Door opened on creaky hinges, Setzer entered a bar, filled by sunburnt, hard-faced men and women who spoke little, smiled and laughed none, and did not bother to move their hunched shoulders at the new acquaintance. A grimy-aproned barkeep wiped a glass.

Setzer moved to the counter, took a chair, and said, "One, if you please.'

The barkeep wiped his glass further. 'Ten gold."

He rifled through his various bleached pockets, but he had lost his money-pouch in the fall, and he had no way of reaching his financial reserves, if they still existed. 'Mmm. I--don't seem to have any with me. How about of glass of water?'

'Gotta pay to drink here. Cash. I don't take paper, and I can't give credit.'

'Listen here, you piss-faced rube, don't you know who I am!' Setzer grabbed the barkeep's collar; that insufferablehayseed shoved his aggressor backwards and spoke very coolly: 'Yeah, Iknow you. You're that Gabbiani fellow. A real stuck-up prick, I heard youwere. But look at you. If you can't pay, then get out.'

Poor Setzer was confounded, stultified beyond description. He moved back and hid his grubby, rough hands in his pockets. His throat constricted, phlegm welling up. 'Please. I'm so thirsty. All I want is a drink of water.'

'Get the coin, then.'

'For pity's sake, man!'

'Only one way I'm gonna pity you, mister.'

Setzer heaved a sigh, tilted his scars to the ceiling, but not one patron came forth to offer the smallest comfort. Liviuses theyweren't. He peeled his father's coat from his shoulders and held it out. 'Will you take this?'

Eyes squinted, the barkeep leaned forth. He scowled at the old worn leather, the faded gold braid trims bleached and ragged from the salt and sun. 'That?'

'This is real gold thread, real leather! I've had it for years, it belonged to my father, and it's not something you cansay =91That?' at. And I can't even buy a damned glass of water with it? You go to hell!'

At such an outburst of feeling the barkeep altered his stance a bit. The coat was enough to buy a drink or two of beer, but didn't he have a little more on him to make his visit more worthwhile? Setzerrummaged through the coat's pockets and produced a pack of his darts, twoknives, and the rusted chain of his broken stopwatch. Put together, the hoard bought a whole afternoon and evening of happy hour, unlimited drinks. Setzer found it satisfactory.

Now, Setzer had made it a point of lifestyle to quaffa glass of wine or two daily; however, he was not a heavy drinker. At the first glass of beer (it tasted awful), his throat burned. He had another, andit didn't hurt as much this time. Then another, followed by another. By evening he was thoroughly pissed. He staggered out the bar doors, whereupon he promptly proceeded to raise all hell, running around, laughing at the top of his lungs. Mornings came and went. Setzer always found himself in interesting places at daybreak--in one occasion, he woke up in a tree with his pants dangling from the lower limb. It ended up the same: scrounge around for anything that could be pawned or bartered at morning, get firmly ensconced at the bar by noon, spend the afternoon, nibble a bit of bread or two between rounds, whoop head off at night; repeat process for a week.

On the seventh night, something very strange happened. Setzer had exhausted himself early in the night and lay on the wooden sidewalk. A small light hovered among the stars.

'Kwah, what have we here, eh?' an old man mused, cupping a hand around his candle. 'Did another one go overthe wall? Feh. Why can't you stay put like a good near-dead person, like the girl? She never gives me this much trouble. Kwah, ha, ha, well, you'vejust got more of an itchy foot, I suppose. Up we go! Time to get home!'

Docilely, the soused man suffered his hand to be taken and his body pulled away off the pavement. Would he never be free from these queer personages that hounded his life? It was just an idle thought, a passing fancy, but it was more on the mark than Setzer knew. For his captor, whom the townspeople called 'Patriarch,' had a reputation as a quack and loon, albeit a harmless one, more of a town amusement. Children liked to put about tales that Patriarch kept spirits alive under his house, had seen him pick magical herbs in the light of the full moon, and practiced the black arts. In reality the old man was nothing more than an expert herbalist,one of the greatest living if not a bit deranged--he constantly forgot how many people he was =91treating', never knew if he had one or two or a thousand. Only one of his patients stayed put. The rest had escaped, and Patriarch was very glad to have found one before it got away.

In spite of his leader's strangeness, Setzer did not attempt to break free. At best, he would have a warm place to stay the night, maybe a hot meal; if it came to the worst, he could always break free, half-drunk as he was. Patriarch was not particularly strong.

'Here we are! Home sweet home! Kwah!' The old man opened the door and ushered Setzer into a house that smelled of cinnamon and thyme and rosemary. The smell made his head cloud, there was so muchof it, like a lady wearing too much cheap perfume.

'Bedtime! To bed, to bed,' cried Patriarch.He tugged his prize down a flight of rickety stairs into a large basement that smelled even more strongly than the rest of the house. Herbs, flowers, and weeds in pots tiled the floor. A small path through the little meadow ledto a low table.

A dark-haired young woman, creamy olive skin sprinkled with petals and pollen, was propped on the table. Her chest moved in almost imperceptible sighs. Setzer thought she wasn't breathing at all. Large eyes closed in a mask, lips spread horribly in a death-pale face, she looked dead. Setzer knew who this was, Edgar had described her to him in a time long gone: Locke's lady love, Rachel. To Setzer, that pale, artificial face was terrifying and sick. Good heavens, he thought, Locke's a necrophile. The vision burned itself into his mind. Dead, dead, dead.

Setzer wrenched away and ran up the stairs to freedom. Patriarch did not give chase. A =91kwah!' of exasperation followed him, nothing more.

On the street Setzer whirled around. Death and madness would not be erased out of his mind; was he forever doomed to see that face, those dusty eyes, hear the cackling? He began to sprint again.

The bar was closed for the night--a fact that Setzer forgot. He pounded at the door, not knowing why he wouldn't be admitted. "Gods, gods, let me in! Let me in!' he shouted repeatedly; the wooddid not budge!

Finally, the maddened besieger knocked out the glass panes in the door. He slashed his arms and watched the rivulets of blood stream down his skin in the moonlight, blood dribbling in small jagged furrows.One grisly arm snaked through the broken panes; the door unlocked. He entered and sat at one of the tables.

When a very angry and bewildered barkeep came in fromthe back rooms, he was unarmed. One bonus of this brave new world was that crime fell to nil because nobody had the spirit to kill or steal. This act or breaking and entering was unprecedented audacity.

'Damn your eyes, you stupid sot, get out!'

A sense of great clarity steeled Setzer's heart. Hetook the barkeep's throat between his hands and summoned up the faintest traces of a fire spell, heating up his palms. 'Let me stay here. I won't bother you, but if you don't let me stay here, I'll do something very terrible. This is a fine establishment, isn't it? It'd be a shame tolose it. I know quite a bit of magic, dear sir, and it'd be so very easy to cast a fire spell and burn this place. You've insulted and humiliated me, and by deuce I've had enough!'

'Please, don't do that. Just...leave, mister. This's the only thing I own, and my family's all dead. I couldn't bearto have it burned! Leave me in peace,' gibbered the man, in tears.

'Not so sarcastic now, are you? I'm going to stay right here, at this table. You won't even notice me after a while."

'Anything--anything you say, mister, just don't destroy my bar,' came the sobbed reply. Setzer released the barkeep, who slunk back into his living quarters, and quietly sat in the darkness. The calmness and cool imperialism deserted the gambler at that moment, and he laid down his head in his arms and shuddered.


Thence on, the bar became Setzer's abode, and he measured his days in tankards at his permanent seat. For near a year he sat athis table in a half-stupor. The barkeep never attempted to get rid of this unwelcome guest because he was afraid of the gambler. He really didn't have much to fear: Setzer was too wrapped up in a world of his own to make goodhis desperate threat.

Except for being rendered near-oblivious, the year inthe bar had no immediate consequence; but drink combined with meager food intake ravages the body. Setzer never did fully recover as he should have from his binges, always had a bit of weakness in him afterwards, and was fated to suffer from liver problems as he grew older. He would not have cared had the future been revealed to him, though, for in each glass he made a resolution. The world lay on its deathbed, his joys had perished in the ash, what cause had he for grunting under the oppression of his existence? But he hadn't the resolve to die. He could not lift a hand to stave off death or hasten it. Therefore, the decision was to let Luck take life into its own hands: should he die, he died, and should it be willed for him to live, then he lived. How simple it all was!

Often in more lucid moments Setzer thought about leaving. Kohlingen was not distant from Daryl's tomb. There was a secret knownto him how to break the seal and go into the belly, where--but no. Such a thing was monstrous to even contemplate; he would not do it to her. It was a sin. And what was the good? Why fly to be struck down once more? Fate and Time had undone him, and all was futile.

Time crawled on, and it seemed he would stay there forever. Yet he did get out. However, it was not Luck or any deity's grace that snatched Setzer Gabbiani out of the bar. Human beings did.

One morning, slightly over a year since the terrible day, the stripped gambler was partaking of his first meal, beer and bread soaked in beer. The door slammed. A small break of quiet.


An angelic face descended before him. Two twin visages took their places beside the angel, all blonde and more than a little gladto see him. Celes Chere and the Figaro brothers.

'Ah!' Setzer breathed. 'So you are alive! Oh--how droll.' Then he fainted.

The scenery had shifted upon coming to: he was lying in a bed in a room, and the three were sitting next to him. For the first time, Celes obliged her comrade with a genuine smile of joy. 'I wish the circumstances were a bit more cheerful, but it is good to see you. We've missed you.'

Edgar and Sabin echoed the sentiments. Edgar asked how he felt. 'Like hell, but I'm still here,' Setzer answered.

'When you get your strength back,' Celes said, 'you can help us. We're after Kefka, and--'

'And now you need Setzer Gabbiani to save you," he finished. 'Well, you've come this far for nothing, I'm afraid. I'll be of no help to you. I'm only a petty gambler.' Sinking back down into his pillow, he covered his face to the bottom of his nose. "Besides, I've lost my wings. Just leave me be.'

'It's because you're not well. Even if you're not in your right mind, I...I can hardly believe what you'resaying.' Celes spoke very slowly. 'When we last parted, you were fighting with every ounce of strength in you! You were absolutely fearless."

'And you weren't given to delusions, General Chere. Look at what's right in front of your face! Perhaps you might be able to defeat Kefka. But how can that bring the old world back? It's gone and dead. Why lose your life over such a wretched dead hunk of rock? It's too chaotic. I can't do it. There's no purpose, never was, and never will be.'

Celes's hand flashed as slapped him hard, force so great in the blow that Setzer was knocked against the headboard. She did notcry, but her eyes lined red.

'You coward,'--slap-- 'you stinking coward.'--slap-- 'I've never heard anything so wicked in my entirelife.' --slap-- 'You spoiled little bastard, you think everything's gone to hell just because your stupid airship's been broken.'--slap-- 'Here you are, moaning for the moon and drunk off your ass..."--slap-- 'I can't stand it, I just can't!'

'For pity's sake, Celes, don't hurt him," Edgar cried, finally managing to restrain the assault. Setzer's face throbbed, and he stiffened, dumbfounded.

'My family and friends are dead; the towns are in ruins,' he murmured.

'No! Jidoor stands, I know it does. I'm alive.Edgar and Sabin are alive. You're alive. Why wouldn't the others be alive? We saw Terra herself in Mobliz.'

'So some of the Returners are alive. That's all?'

Celes removed her pack and kicked it across the floor; platinum and gold coins, jewels, weapons, and other essential equipment scattered about. 'We have money! Weapons! Magicite! What we don't have we can buy.'

'But the odds...there is so much. No chance, andLuck has deserted me.'

She leaned in very close, her breath cool against hisflushed, bruised face. 'You'd better stop thinking like a common gambler, Setzer, and more like a Returner. You think there's no chance. I say there is, and I've been thrown into despair as deeply as you have.Agree to fight, then think of the odds. Only the most vile of cowards mourns for things lost when nothing has been done yet!'

Setzer met the three pairs of eyes and it was as if alifeline to the light had been thrown into his hands, strong and sustaining. Such passion, such anger...no hopeless ragtag band, this. And she had saidhis family and dear ones still lived. Not once had Celes ever lied; she wasabove common deceit. She was too beautiful to be able to lie so egregiously--and they had the funds and equipment, but not the mode of transportation. Was it possible?

'You really--need my help?'

'As never before. And I daresay that we've grown exceedingly fond of you, Mr. Gabbiani. It would be a pleasure if you would accompany us.'

Oh, what a wonderful thing to be truly wanted! Looking back on his previous words and actions over the past year up to a few seconds ago, Setzer grew absolutely mortified and cringed. How foolish he had acted, how like a child!

'You're right, as always,' he cried, spirits rising to catch and nurse the glimmer of hope sparked within him. 'I'll throw in my hand. It's worth a try; we have to give it a shot, stupidly long as it is. But that's what makes it fun.'

'I knew you'd come around,' Sabin declared brightly. Celes smiled and gently kissed Setzer on his damp forehead.

'First things first,' Edgar said. 'Howdo you we get to the others? Figaro Castle can submerge, but our mobility is limited.'

'That's easy enough,' Setzer came back. "We'll go and get ourselves another one. Another airship, that is! I've got it stored near here. A trifle, child's play.'

'Excellent!' Celes cried. 'If you'retoo weak to come, only tell us where we can find this new airship, Setzer. We'll come back when you've recovered.'

'I'll be fine, dearest lady. One night is all I ask. I'll be sufficiently rested then.'

Edgar clapped a hand on Setzer's shoulder. 'It's settled, then! We can discuss strategy further once the airship is firmly in our grasp. One thing at a time. Now, for pity's sake, go take a bath, dress in new clothes, eat a good meal! We'll help you with the last twothings, but I don't want to see you in the buff.'

Setzer deemed this good advice and, laughing after a year had passed, he rose to do all those things. Celes turned to the brothers.

'Actually, what I said before was a bit of a fib,' she admitted. 'But I had to get him up somehow.'

'Of course. You don't even know his parents' names.' Edgar accused her, shaking his head in wonderment. "I didn't know you had it in you. I'm impressed. It's always a shock to me when a pretty woman lies.'

'You didn't grow up in Gestahl's court. Theylied to me so often, something had to rub off eventually. It almost makes me grateful,' she said.


The following morning, Setzer rose along with the others. His legs were weak and breath short, but he was in good enough physicalcondition to walk and had regained a good portion of his former spirits. A hot shower, new clothes, and sleep do wonders for a man.

Prior to departure, Setzer wished to patch up all hislose ends. While his companions waited on the front porch, he entered the bar one last time, carrying a small pouch of platinum. He threw down the payment in front of the barkeep's face, snatched back his father's coat thathung behind the counter, flipped the lovely faded leather around his body, and said exactly what he thought of his former master's lineage and mother's respectability and sexual activities. Then he swept out of the establishment and did not ever look back.

'I trust you handled everything gracefully?' Edgar asked.

'I was the height of propriety.'

'You're sure, now,' Sabin said, trying toremain unaffected, 'that you can do this, Setzer? It's going to be draining from now on and'll go downhill from here. You can always chose to rest here a while longer.'

'Bah! What's the point in waiting? I can't be of any use here. Be quiet and let's shove off.' He paused and addedto tease them: 'Before I change my mind. Vagrancy is quite below me."

They shouldered their packs and walked towards the city boundaries. Did Setzer doubt and regret? Certainly. Was he frightened? Ofcourse. But sometimes a man had to be more arrogant than usual and make hisown luck.


Daryl's tomb had a new location near the coast southwest of Kohlingen, not a long walk from the town. Grass had usurped the marble gravestone, giving it the appearance of an ancient burial mound rather than the elegant sepulcher it once was. No drastic alterations had been made to it besides--Kefka seemed more interested in destroying that which belonged to the living who stubbornly clung to any joy in the world than trifle with the dead.

Setzer parted the twisting parasite vines and grass at the tomb's front, searching in secret corners with his fingers until he found the large silver marker. GO AWAY's tarnished letters winked up at him; his fingers used the epitaph to serve as a starting point to feel for thehidden lever that would open the door.

'This woman, Daryl, she was your friend?' Celes inquired. She and the Figaro twins waited as their guide combed throughthe grass for whatever he was searching for.

'Yeah, she was a piece of work. Nothing ever scared her. And, if I'm not mistaken--' The fingers on his right hand bumped against something cool and hard; they encircled around it, found a goodhold, and flicked it down. A grinding ensued, and the clicking of locks came from the inside. 'There!' He leaned forth and pressed his lips on the sleek plate

'I had never expected to come back here for thispurpose, but I was a little crazy when this thing was being designed. My manservant, Benedick, gods rest him, said that if I ever wanted to see her, just I alone, then he'd find a way for me to get past the locks.' He smiled, kissed the epitaph again, and looked sharply at his comrades. 'I don't know the extent of damage caused on...that day, so there could be monsters, anything down here. Tread carefully.'

Upon their entrance and subsequent exploration of thetomb, it was found that the elaborate grids of rooms and corridors had comeout relatively unscathed. However, in the Statue's chaotic frenzy, terrible powers had rended the very working of the world haywire: people had foundthemselves transported from one place to another, islands had risen out of the sea depths, savage monsters had been released from long imprisonments. The tomb had not escaped this mode of damage. Monsters slithered about, having long ago wrecked the ornaments and furnishings and ruined the stone's pure colors. The party ran into the beasts quite often, quickly dispatching them.

Setzer could not remember the tomb's exact layout, so he led his group through countless musty rooms, doubling back many times,fighting the denizens ceaselessly. Eventually they hacked their way into a large room that had deep scarlet and purple drapes hanging from the ceiling;the air was not as choked with moss and dust as the other rooms. A small flight of steps pointed the path towards a marble coffin decked in roses and velvet spreads. Setzer's heart, already unsettled and nervous, beat painfully.

'Is that it?' Celes's whisper echoed loudthrough the burial chamber. Setzer nodded.

'Yes. Come on, let's go. There's an entranceto the holding bay behind one of the back drapes. Can't remember which one exactly, but that shouldn't take too long to figure out. When we find it, I'm going to switch on a lever near the coffin. It'll open it for us."

This prognosis was proved to be true; after a few trials and errors, Edgar gave a triumphant shout. Setzer hastened over and ascertained the find; as he looked back, holding the velvet in one hand, he heard a rumbling in the distance. A blue light flickered around the coffin, and a creature of shadow hovered over the marble lid. It reached down its hands,slid the cover away, and dipped its head, skeleton's mouth slavering.

Setzer cried out in a frenzied, almost religious rage: 'Leave her be, you damned beast!'

Blazing eyes sunk within deep sockets leapt from the coffin and fell upon the four fleshy things; it gave a shriek and whistled up a ragged cart drawn by two bloodless, spectral animals. It snatched a massive mace from the cart, brandishing it high.

'The Dullahan,' Celes cried, grasping her Runic Blade. 'Oh, Setzer, why couldn't you have left it alone?'

'I'll have the demon gnaw my own bones first before I'll stand to see it get hers,' Setzer spoke low, and he unsheathed his knife. 'Besides, that thing's supposed to attack with magic mostly--a sitting duck for you, my dear.'

The Dullahan whipped its team and rumbled towards them, and Setzer had time for no more words. Their adversary's first offensive was indeed a magic-oriented one: it summoned up an arc of blue flames, circular and shining as pearls, and cast the spell down, only to have the orbs sucked up into the effulgent nullification runes inscribed on Celes's blade. The demon bellowed in fury. Sabin leapt gracefully over the team and landed a mighty blow on the bony jaw; Edgar fired a volley into its chest, whichonly seemed to anger it further. The Dullahan lashed its mace out, aimed for Sabin's head but caught him in the chest and, sent him hurtling backwards. Setzer ran to give the younger Figaro aid, and as he did so he stabbed the Dullahan under the ribs while passing. It whipped around to retaliate. Edgar seized this as an opportunity to reload his crossbow and fire another round.

Monsters and demons are incredibly stupid as a rule, and the Dullahan was no exception; it was accustomed to preying on dumb beats or scavenging on dead things in the places it haunted, not to attacking a group of four veteran fighters, one an Imperial General. It started to driveits cart after Edgar, its body bent forth like a jouster, and tried to run him under the spiked wheels. Celes darted out and cast a spell, hitting its chest and sending a few rib bones flying. This action goaded the demon into chasing after her instead. Setzer and the revived Sabin caught onto the strategy. When Celes looked to be slowing down, they broke out, thrashed the Dullahan in a flurry of strokes, then ran, chased in circles around the room.

Occasionally someone would get whipped by the mace orraked by the Dullahan's bony claw; a good bit of healing magic cleared that up. But somewhere within its empty skull the demon realized that it coulddo the same thing, so it too began to heal itself between attacks. Celes's Runic Blade could not handle absorbing so many spells, and she actually started to absorb her own comrade's magic, much to their displeasure. Setzerthrew himself, sweating, disheveled, and frustrated into the fray; he inflicted damage, but he usually got a blow in return and the Dullahan only cureditself.

'Oh, to hell with this!' Sabin snarled, heavy chest panting, the metal claws clasped around his white knuckles dripping. He threw down the gear and cracked his hands together. 'Brother, Celes, get him over my way! I'm gonna crack me some bones!'

Celes and Edgar led their pursuer around in circles for a while to get the team a bit winded; they started to swing the circle out in larger and larger loops until finally the demon passed right by Sabin, who had hidden in the shadows. The beefy Figaro leapt out from his niche towards the skull's head. He thrust out his elbow and caught the demon right at its mandible. The head popped off its trunk like a grape, hit the floor at Celes's feet. She made a sound in her throat and stomped on the bones. Setzer joined her; they began to dance on the skull together, crunching it between their feet. It was quite fun, in a sort of sick way.

'That was some nice smashing, Sabin,' Edgarcomplimented, aglow in his fraternal pride, and Sabin chuckled softly, waving off the praise. They went over to Setzer and helped him to replace the coffin lid. Setzer kept his eyes on the ceiling--he didn't want to look inside.

After hitting the switch on the marble coffin's pillar, Setzer lifted the velvet drape and stepped onto a winding flight of stone stairs. At the end of the flight a door surrounded by torches beckoned.

'This,' he murmured to his companions, "brings back a lot of memories.' He obliged tacit questions by retelling an abridged account of how he had met Daryl, what she had been like, her aerial adventures, and her end. He did it all without tears; yet at the touch of the stone, the closing distance to the Falcon's hold, apang of longing swelled in his heart. He missed her still.

'Man, you're almost as screwed up as Locke is," Edgar said at the end of the story, not without sympathy.

Not dignifying that with a response, Setzer swung thehold's door. Inside, oiled sides gleaming, lay the beautiful expanse of the Falcon. How lovely it was!

'So that's the Falcon,' Celes saidsoftly.

'What a beauty!' Edgar cried. He stroked the wooden planks in an engineer's admiration.

'Please refrain from hitting on my airship,' Setzer clipped, 'it's beneath a man of your station.' Sabin laughed at this; Edgar's ears turned red. The gambler smiled but grew somberquickly. 'I put in storage--I couldn't bear to look at her. But now she might just save us.'

'Hush, all of you!' Celes hissed without any warning; she drew her blade, eyes darting about, ears pricked, her whole body trembling in concentration. 'I heard something in one of the corners. It may be nothing, but I don't want to take that chance.'

'I don't think there're any monsters down here. None of them would be so clever as to find the secret passage,' Setzer whispered. Then he shouted: 'Hellooo! Who's there? Show yourself!"

An ungainly shadow appeared along the far wall; it moved jerkily and looked hunched. 'My good Master?'

'Benedick! It's you, isn't it? What in blazes are you doing down here, crazy coot?' Setzer shouted in jubilation; he rushed forth and enfolded Benedick in an embrace. The old man's form felt thin underneath his moldy, ragged clothes.

'Oh, Master, ye would not believe the tribulations I have undergone! I had restored my health by rest in Narshe and was gadding about the town, awaiting thy return as per thy orders, when there was a great flash of devilish necromancy; I did faint in the blast, Master, and when I regained my senses, I found myself to be in this wretched place! I could no for the life of me find an exit, and beasts were all around, I've been staying with the ship, not daring to come out, feasting on the sickly animals or their remains like a common scavenging crow--'

Benedick rambled on and on in this manner for a long time, shaking so violently that Setzer kept his arms wrapped around the old Doman's body tight.

'But what a fortunate, blissful sight ye are to my poor eyes, Master!' Benedick concluded. 'Do ye seek to leave this place?'

'Yes. We're going to take the Falcon out, and we're taking you with us. Once we're clear, I'll drop you off at the nearest town.'

'Never! I shan't leave ye, not for the wide world! Last time I was left alone, I found myself in unspoken terrors. I'll do better to throw my lot with ye.'

He did not wish to tax the old man in argument. 'Well. I guess I'll have to let you stay, won't I? But you'll not be aslug, my dear Benedick. It'll be laid to you to watch out over the storage hold, retrieve swords and arms, and help us don our armor.'

'I should fain do that.'

'Splendid! Now let's get you some new clothes--Edgar's got a spare, I think--and feed you.'

Benedick received the clothes, food cooked over a magic-cast fire, and there was enough water in the canteens to allow the old man to give himself a sponge bath, he needed one. While that went on, the fourcomrades held an impromptu meeting where they reached the unanimous verdictthat they were all too fatigued to fly the airship out at the moment. A good sleep was required.

Setzer unrolled his pallet on the Falcon's deck, laying his cheek against the warm, tremulous wood; the others had elected to take slumber in the lower decks. Such an arrangement suited the newly-winged captain just fine. He wanted to be left alone. Here lay the ground that she had walked so often on (the deck was recycled from the battered original); why, every warp, faintest tracing of a footstep, the smell of the woodwas imprinted with her essence. And in the tomb's darkness, it was very easy to pretend that he was floating under the night sky in an unchanged world, her cheek, her breath warm on his scars...

'I am sorry,' he whispered. He stroked his hand along the ground. 'I am sorry.' To take the Falcon away from here seemed the ultimate blow to her honor and memory; but he had to do it. He could only pray that whatever spirit, essence, or any other metaphysical aspect of herself understood and forgave his transgression. In the darkness, he conjured up images of the good times; so wrapped up was he that it hardly occurred to him that he loved her passionately still. Other were alive, he loved them dearly, but it was no crime to be alone in the place he and Daryl shared and think of her.

Footsteps vibrated beneath his cheek. Setzer leaned up on one arm in time to observe Celes come out onto the deck carrying her bedding.

'Hello,' she said. 'Do you mind if I slept out here?'

'Not at all. Knock yourself out.'

'I don't like having you do this,' Celes said as she unfurled her bedroll. 'Does it bring back many memories?"

'Yes. But they don't hurt. I'll be fine."

'Thank you for doing so much for us.'

'You're quite welcome,' he responded verygallantly; he turned on his side and faced her, a quizzical frown on his brow. 'I don't see much sense in it, though. If Kefka is as powerful and mad as you say, then what, pray you tell me, keeps him from blasting us all to pieces the moment I get her out of here? I can't stand a second wreck, Celes.'

'Kefka has grown terribly powerful.' Celes granted that point. 'But his insanity's grown too; or, say, his confidence has grown in his insanity. He knows of our plans, no doubt, but he won't do much to get in our way directly. He won't blast us.'

'He's toying with us.'

'True, and he'll bitterly regret it later, letme tell you. I think he actually wants us to come to him. He wants his mettle to be tested.'

'And once we're gone, he can just destroy all he likes. We're the only shred of restraint ol' Keffy has.'

Celes's face masked itself into a single mask of determination, and she said, 'I don't plan on being gone.'

Silence reigned for a pace; Setzer could not see his companion, but he palpably sensed her tight body shifting towards him. A clearing of the throat preceded her next few tentative words.

'What was she like? I don't mean to intrude ofanything--'

'No, no, I don't mind. She was a piece of work, Daryl was. Kind, pretty, witty--you know, basically flawless.'

'Do you think about her often? Does she take up all your thoughts?'

'I do think about her, but not all the time. Howon earth do you think I've gotten to admire you so dreadfully if I spent every waking hour mooning on over her? And, by the same token, why do you think I've been spending my time lavishing gifts and company on the most exquisite--though not as lovely as you--Maria?'

'In love with three women,' Celes said rather bluntly.

'Why not? It's possible. It's different all around. I think I'm making a mistake in telling you of my most cleverly secreted feelings, but it's not like the others. You intrigue me and bring out all my reverence, dear Chere, but I know better than to throw my attentions, which you so coldly scorn, on you. It's bad for both of us.' He regarded her slyly. 'Now I've totally ruined my estimation in your eyes, you must tell me something. Why do you grill me so much on these matters?'

She did not answer; Setzer realized a bit of coaxing would be needed to drag anything out of her. 'By the blue bandanna tiedon your sword's hilt, I'd say you're curious.'

'Ah, I hate you!' Celes hissed vehemently, and he could feel her eyes glittering into him. The freak of passion ended as soon as it begun, and she rolled on her side, very calm. 'It's my own fault, I guess.'

'I didn't mean to upset you,' he said contritely.

'I've known something like pleasure before," she murmured, voice muffled in her blankets. 'When I had completed a good day's training, when I was with Granddad, and when I'm in your and the other's company, I feel--pleasant. But if Locke's around me, it's different. When I first felt it, I thought I was going to die. Now he's gone off looking--'


'No! I won't stoop to that. But I've seen her. She is very beautiful.'

'Pretty, yes. Indeed, what is the sublimity of you and your wonderfully fragile soul next to our dark-haired poppet and her dead eyes? I'll tell you straight, if Locke misses his opportunity,then he's even more of an idiot that I gave him credit for. I swear, here's the wheel, and here's Locke: =91Duu-uuh, what d'Ah do with this?' ' Setzer goggled his eyes, drawled his words, and thrashed hishands in the air; Celes choked, but she quickly grew stern.

'I really wish you wouldn't tease Locke like that, Setzer.'

He was indignant: 'Please. Edgar teases Locke; Sabin teases him, Relm teases him. Cole was made for teasing. What else is hegood for?'

'I know it's all in good fun, but you seem to take a little more relish in it.'

'I kid him because I love him,' Setzer responded stoutly.

'So you say,' she grumbled. 'Seriously, Locke's been good to me. I would have died on more than one occasion if it wasn't for him. I keep this bandanna...well, I won't bring that up. It's embarrassing.'

The gambler jerked up against his arm, looking hard in her direction; there was an undercurrent of sheer urgency and frantic, childish fear that alarmed him. 'What did you do?'

'I tried to kill myself,' she said mildly, as if she were ashamed of herself. 'I was all alone on an island, Granddad was dead, everything dead...it was a moment of weakness. I leapt from the cliffs on the edge of the island.'

'Ah, Celes.'

They did not speak to each other for a good while; Setzer was too distressed at this revelation to speak, and Celes was too mortified. The indomitable General Chere, attempting suicide! The poor child, what terrors and torments had she known?

At length Celes broached the subject: 'I'm alive, though. I survived. I found this bandanna, and it made me feel hope. So you see, Setzer, why I don't like it when you rib him so mercilessly? Promise me you'll let him be.'

He readily assented to that proviso--anything to makeher feel more at ease; then he spoke gently. 'I shall be honest with you. No man ever forgets his first love. However, it is possible to accept the hard facts and find true happiness again in another. Why do you think there're second wives and husbands in the world? For fun? I'd start courting you in earnest, my dear, if I weren't already madly in love with someone else.'

The very air around her seemed to be tinged red. "Flatterer,' came the cold, affected response. He couldn't resist the urge to go on; it was lovely to get a new reaction out of her after so long.

'Well, it's true. Can't I show my terrible respect for you, Ms. Chere, when I think you're the prettiest living thing on this planet, (which you are)?'

'I thought you were in love with someone else."

'That I am. But I've got enough appreciation for aesthetics to go around. I mean it: I'm quite fond of you.'

'I would feel the same if you didn't annoy me so much. I don't see why you don't admire and comfort someone else. Terra--she has her own problems, and she's as pretty as I am. Her soul's more wounded than mine.'

'Terra's a dear, wonderful girl; and she also has Locke, Edgar, and just about everyone else to sympathize with. You've been quite neglected. You need someone to squeeze a blush of you occasionally. It's a great ego booster.'

'I don't want it.'

'You need it.'

'How generous. Now you'll rub my face in all that I've said to you, I suppose.'


'Well, that's decent of you. Don't forget your promise, please--'

'I won't. I swear to you again that never, under any circumstances, will I publicly make fun of Locke's attire, semantic conventions, or any other flaw in that touchy little soul of his, bless him!' he cried, placing his hand over his heart.

'You'll break it. Still, it's a nice thought.'

Then she blurted out, 'Do you think I'll see him if I die before we find him?'


'I mean that, if something happens and I don'tget to see him--will I be able to when I've passed?'

Such a strange question! He thought of evading it,, but he was compelled to speak the truth: 'I honestly don't know.'

'I should've expected that. But Setzer, to think that I wouldn't see him or Granddad or anyone else again!'

'Don't think on it. Just don't die, Celes, and you'll see him.'

'You know,' she said unexpectedly, 'I'm glad I talked to you.'

'Even if we didn't resolve anything," he agreed. 'We're not cut out for great philosophy, dear Celes. We're too shallow. But we're not any less worthy for that.'

'Indeed not.' She flipped onto her stomach,gave a mighty yawn, and stretched out like a long white cat. Setzer buried his head into his bedding, too.

'Now you must promise me something,'he called out.


'Promise me that someday you'll perform your Maria shtick for me, for old time's sake.'

'Don't I have any shred of good reputation left?' she demanded.

'None whatsoever. Why, when you got out in frontof that audience dressed in that lovely dress, cute little faux pearl earrings, all covered in the most ad-orable ribbons, your own magnificencesnatched it all away.'

'I'm smothering in the praise. Good night."

'Good night, Celes. Don't worry. We'll find your man, leather pants and all.'

'Go to sleep, Setzer.'

'One last thing. If I can't make fun of Locke,I feel it's my duty to set him straight. He needs a new wardrobe. Leatherand bandannas are passé, the mark of a lice-ridden ruffian...'


He pressed his face into his pillow, shaking in a wave of snickers; after his mirth had subsided, he flailed his arm about, reaching from his bedding, and clasped her cool hand in his. She gave a return squeeze.

Soon her breathing grew even, slow, silent. The gambler lay alone, eyes open, pondering many things, most of them concerning Daryl. She sweetly tormented his dreams, and he could not sleep for reverie. This was the final night that he'd pine for her voice, caresses, eyes, mirth,for the moment the Falcon soared into the air there was no turning back. He might never see her again after he was dead--he didn't know. It seemed damnably cruel, yet he could not think of anything logical to believe otherwise. The best he could do was pray that she would not hate him forever for this, not realizing in self-pity and doubt that she would gladly done the same thing in his position.


With the Falcon launched, the main matter of importance for the Returners (though the Empire had long crumpled, the tattered survivors of the resistance preserved their title) was to locate their other remaining comrades and recruit them for the assault on Kefka's stronghold near Albrook, which could only be penetrated by an aerial attack. Spirits among the four were high, but Celes had told Edgar and Setzer of an encounter with Terra in Mobliz and her reluctance, no, inability to press on fighting, and they did have their doubts on whether similar scenarios would greetthem or not.

Fears proved ungrounded. The first Returner found wasCyan, hermited up in the crags of Mt. Zozo; Gau was on the Veldt and immediately gave Setzer merry hell; the mysterious, angst-ridden ninja Shadow theyrescued in a cave on the Veldt, then from the Coliseum; Relm was in Jidoor,Mog in Narshe (now overrun by fearful wolves and mastodons). Strago had been a more difficult case; the crazy old man had actually been so mindless in his despair at the loss of his granddaughter that he willingly joined up in a bizarre cult dedicated to Kefka. All this cult ever did was moon and swoonover how great their killer was, a real bunch of loonies, so maybe perhaps Strago found his own niche after all. But Relm came to the loft tower of thefanatics, saw her grandfather, and began to swear a blue streak at him. Strago snapped back to his right mind in an instant. Also, during the quests, two new additions came to the Returners ranks, Umaro, a sasquatch friend of Mog's--the puffy little thing made the oddest acquaintances--and, even morestrange, an unsexed figure named Gogo who, or rather, which, had lived in the belly of a Zone Eater for a number of years. It shrouded itself in swirling robes, red and yellow mostly, and countless veils draped its head; a strip tease in winter was nothing to it. For his part, Setzer was wary of Umaro because the big lug had a tendency to smash things, and stayed away from Gogo because it was simply too strange--whenever someone tried to converse withit, it only repeated back what had been said.

Terra was suffering from wounds and maternal bonds. Kefka had demolished the provincial town Mobliz in a great beam of fire, the Light of Judgment. Only orphaned children, who had been protected by their parents, survived the devastation, and Terra had acted as their guardian and mother for a year. She had refused to accompany Sabin and Celes before, but on a subsequent visit, a great demon named Phunbaba harried Mobliz. The Returners fought their best, but unfortunately the demon felled two into unconsciousness with his poisonous breath. Terra, frightened out of her wits for her wards and not a little put off, changed into her fiery Esper shell and, asmore rustic witnesses put it, 'whupped its scaly green hide.' Confidence in her powers restored, she boarded the Falcon triumphantly; Edgar and Setzer had the same idea of giving her a kiss on each cheek upon her advent.

Locke turned out the hardest case to recruit. The story of the Phoenix Cave is a well-known one: the Returners split themselves up into two groups, searched long through the caves, fighting epic battles that every good scholar has studied extensively, and finally caught their thief. Locke declared, sad-faced, that he would only accompany the Returners as far as Kohlingen. Setzer thought him a perfect fool.

Little consequence came out of this stout declaration. Locke, following a harrowing emotional episode in Kohlingen that only Celes witnessed and the others were too mindful of Locke's feelings to inquireabout, boarded the airship. He was smothered in embraces.

'So, was it worth it?' Setzer asked when the two found themselves alone on the deck.

'She died,' he murmured, wiping his cheeks.

'I suspected as much. The dead're best left lying. I could have told you that.'

'But I'm glad I did it.'

Setzer smiled gently and put his hand on Locke's shoulder, shaking it firmly. 'I'm glad you're here. I hate to admit it, but I missed teasing you.'

'Missed being teased,' Locke conceded, smiling back.

'Now you're here, you realize, you're staying with us. There's no escape.'


'Good, good. I think you'd better hustle off to the lower decks, Locke--Celes and Terra are alone down there with Edgar, and I fear for their virtue.'

Once the Returners were bandaged together, the main object was to build experience and strength, buy supplies, and search for helpful treasures and Magicite to prepare for the attack on Kefka. There were several adventures meanwhile, but Setzer had little or nothing to do in thosematters. He hardly left the airship. He was paranoid of another crash and swore that he would not let the Falcon go down without him on board; he also used the time to recover from last year's weakness and ailments, sitting in his room, resting.

Setzer would not visit his parents or friends in Jidoor. 'Why would I torment them? Only one swift visit, and I'll be off again; I may not come back. It'd break their hearts to see me after so long only to have to rip myself from them. My parents are getting old and have seen more troubles than they deserve--it would kill them. No, I won't see them,' it was his wont to say. He knew that they would not want him to leave home again, they would cry and clasp his knees and wail; he didn't trust his strained will to tear himself away, yet he couldn't well stay in Jidoor, not in this wretched world. Better to keep his distance. However, itineluctably came to pass that he saw Mandy, Benny, and Maria at the Opera House. Luckily, this encounter happened at the same time as the infamous "Dirt Dragon' incident--Setzer's two boyhood friends had their handsfull. They did exchange a wave, and Setzer blew a kiss to Maria after the dragon's defeat, but no more.

Unable to resist the nostalgic cravings in his heart that the Opera House crisis instilled, our gambler did venture into Jidoor once. He managed to restrict his wanderings to only shops and the Auction House. In the latter, Setzer slipped in unnoticed. How many times had Mandy ruined an auction here? Too many to tell. Perhaps he would shout out a bid in memory of youth--

'And here we have it, folks, the last item up for bids today,' the auctioneer's voice blared, 'a full one twelve-hundredth of an airship! Bring it up, ladies!'

Two buxom girls in red negligees rolled out a prow ornamented by a gold-leafed bird flock, diamonds, clubs, hearts, and spades emblazoned on their breasts. Setzer's throat dried, his eyes bulged: HIS SHIP!

Yes, it was the Blackjack's prow,no two ways on that. Setzer took a moment to clear his stupefaction, and once the yammering voices became coherent they were talking of selling the dear thing. His dear Blackjack, chopped up and hawked like beef on the market by two girls in nighties! It was not to be borne.

Bidding had already commenced; he had not a gold piece in his pocket, which panicked him initially, but he quelled his horror underneath businessman's coolness. He reckoned that the fools here would hideously underprice it. In that case, the matter to be done was to sprint to the Falcon, raid the storehouse (amply filled), grab a few treasures, and press so many precious items on the winner that there would be no refusal.

Setzer moved towards the door, and as he did so, he distinctly heard a child's strident voice screech in a whisper: 'Daddy, Daaaaddy, I want that! Buy it! It's so cool!'

The father, a man near his thirties that Setzer recognized as the most insufferable buffoon that had ever defiled a Jidoorian garden party with his presence even from their school days, leaned over. 'No, you don't want it! You'd only break it.'

Big eyes quivering, the boy would not be deterred. "I want to build my own airship, Papa!'

'You've had enough for today.'

'Noo-o-o, I don't! All I got was two smelly chocobos, three stupid imp robots that keep on running into the wall, and six floaty medallions! I want that! Now! Now, now, now, now, now, now!'

If Setzer had ever considered infanticide in his entire life, never had he come so close to fleshing it out. His head throbbed. His darling, his own, given to this child-beast?

'One million GP!' the father cried, raisinghis hand. The audience jumped in their chairs to a man and gaped at the latest bidder.

'Soooold!' The gavel pounded the podium, and that was that.

'Yaaay! Thank you, Daddy, thank you!' yipped the boy, skipping so adorably it made one ill to see it.

'Oh, ho, ho,' said the indulgent father, "how could I refuse those cute little eyes? Only the best treats for you,my boy! But--do Daddy a favor, and don't tell Mama!'

Setzer went out the door, alone because everyone was too impressed to move; on the threshold, making sure nobody was around and the door locked, he clutched at his head and groaned a high-pitched sound, stamping his feet.

In the midst of his frustrated rage, an idea wended its way into his head, taking devilish form. He wiped his eyes, the barest hint of a smirk creasing his mouth. He knew that the father would not give up the airship for any amount of money. There was more, ridiculously more than one million gold pieces in jewels and other lovely things on the Falcon, but he had seen the blind servitude tempered with annoyance in the man's eyes, the spark in the boy's. They would not give back the prize forone hundred times its worth.

'He'll pay for it. Oh, he'll never get one moment's peace after I've done with him!' Setzer grumbled. He stepped off the Auction House grounds, journeyed to the nearest store to buy some writing supplies. He sat in a cafe to jot the following memorandum to the good father's wife:

Dear Madame:

Your husband has just spent one million gold pieces on a silly little trinket for your son; this doesn't include other items bought, such as an army of imp robots ready to tear your lovely home to pieces and a passel of some of the sorriest-looking chocobos in the province. I suggest you put wire around the garden and paper your house.

By the way, concerning your husband, should you wish to talk the situation over: he's gone to the Peacock Plume to get stinking drunk, and you'll find him in the sack with one of the barmaids.

Most sincere regards for your happiness


Mandy, Setzer thought, would not take it too hard to find that he had released such scandalous information; he'd probably be very proud of it and claim the letter to be his creation alone. In such times,the dear fellow needed a good lie. Setzer enclosed the letter in an envelope. He traveled to a fine northern-district residence and knocked on the door, covering his face by turning up his collar prior to being answered by a servant. He handed the letter, saying that it was very urgent and needed to begiven to the mistress of the house at once. He stood on the porch, listenedfor the shriek, heard it, nodded in vindication, and moved away in time to see a tall, strong woman burst from the house. Knowing that he had begun oneof the greatest, most vicious marital spats in human history that reached its height when the husband was stuffed into a butter churn, Setzer took his leave, never to return while Kefka yet lived.


Over a short period, when the Returners had bought the best equipment, found helpful items in their countless excursions into thewilderness, and resolved personal weights or at least gained the strength to bear the blows, our heroes unanimously came to the same decision: their skills were at their greatest, delay was futile. The hour to gather under Kefka's battlements drew nigh. They held conferences in the Falcon, fretted, shouted, argued, planned, planned again. Urgency made their minds workswiftly; a viable plan of attack was established, accepted, but none of them were happy. They tried to be cheerful (except Shadow, who was never cheerful), but not many pulled the act off. Indescribable pressure crushed them, aterrible fearful agony of failure that scratched their eyes even as they slept. And if that wasn't enough, Terra was much feared for. Kefka had utilized the Statues' awesome power to gain his godhead--the stone Goddesses had to be destroyed. Yet in their destruction, the Espers would inevitably disappear from the world, taking their magic forces with them; Celes, infused artificially, would survive such a calamity, but Terra had Esper blood in her, magic constituted her very being. What the absence of magic would do to her, no-one knew, but they had the premonition it wasn't for any good. Yet no other way was open to them; Terra understood that. She did not object to the plan, for if to guard everything precious to her necessitated her death, she was fully prepared to make that sacrifice, terrifying as it was.

Setzer looked at his comrades and did not fathom how they could succeed in such a current state when high spirits, courage, morale, were the things to win the day. Depression and fear had to go! He quicklyconjured up his own plan, enlisting Edgar and Sabin's assistance, and thethree proceeded to swoop upon the finest groceries available, scrub the Falcon till it shone, set up fine oak tables in long rows in the hold, and decorate the walls with rich, colorful tapestries. A lavish banquet was announced on the evening before the date set for the attack, and everyone wasinvited to partake in the pleasure, Shadow and Benedick included.

The women dressed up in gorgeous dresses tailored by the best designers in Jidoor, ribbons shimmering in their hair, falling gently to their bare shoulders, and the men were no less formally attired; Sabinand Cyan even stuffed Gau into a Gabbiani-selected suit and combed his wildhair, not really making it any straighter but at least shinier.

Sitting at the tables, the Returners filled the room with pleasant chatter, jokes, and soft laughter. Mention of the morrow was strictly forbidden, and nobody wanted to think about it anyway, so no dullness or prophets of doom marred the last sip of life. Setzer leaned back in hischair and regarded his handiwork. Sumptuous delicacies spread out on the wood, the light glittered in eyes and hair; Locke leaned to whisper into Celes's ear, Terra blushed at some comment of Edgar's, Relm was poking her paintbrush in Gau's starched side at the same time as Cyan was trying to teach the boy proper etiquette, Umaro bellowed happily at a little jig Mog performed, Sabin was seeing how many sweetcakes he could stuff in his cheeks atonce, and Strago and Benedick swapped reminisces. Shadow and Gogo stayed unspeaking, not touching any food, save for when the former fed his monster-canine underneath the table. Setzer smiled at all this; he raised his glass toone of the innumerable toasts proposed that night. Fear escaped him: he hadgrown fond of, no, loved them all--he even loved the dumb Shadow and Gogo that night. He and the Returners had fought and planned together too often not to have any bond form. And with his dear servant along as well, what need he fear? If he was destined to die the next day, he couldn't have desired a more wonderful friends to accompany him into the world beyond. He felt warm, cocooned in the strange power they shared.

They ate well and toasted well, a little too well: the formal spirit degenerated into license. Locke gave both Celes and Terra a kiss on the cheek, Setzer one-upped him by kissing Relm as well as the otherwomen, and Edgar, not to be outdone in his field of expertise, kissed just about all present except for Gogo, who had no visible skin, Shadow, who would have killed the king if he had tried anything, and Umaro, as kissing out of his species was a little much even for Edgar. Laughter and room grew loud and warm. Relm ran into Setzer's bedroom and emerged sporting a pair of undergarments on her head; 'Look at me! I'm Locke!' she cried. (Itshould be noted here that yes, Locke did wear scarves on his head, but onlywhen it was cold or he wanted to conceal something. Though a famous pictureof Locke wearing suspiciously skivvyish moon-and-star scarves, painted by Relm that night, has come down to us, Locke always made it a point towear a bandanna in public. It did nothing to dispel his reputation, unfortunately, as a man with a briefs fetish.) The evening reached its culmination when Edgar, more than slightly tipsy, gazing at his reflection in a mirror, began to sing.

'Maaaad about the boy,' Edgar crooned, stroking his chin, eyes flirtatious, 'da DE da da DUM de, maaaad about the boy--'

This was too much for Setzer; he had to go up on deck. He needed to clear his head, and there was a nagging twinge below his right ribcage. Some night air seemed delicious.

He balanced his crystal wine glass in his hand as he leaned against the airship's railing, the stars swirling around in the thick murkiness. The celestial bodies had never shone so brightly, he thought; perhaps they would never shine for him again.

Cool winds caressed his face. Images, smells, sensations long past swept by in the breeze. Setzer remained reposed in his original position after everyone else had retired to bed.

Finally he shifted his body and gave a tremendous stretch. Then he took one last glance at the sky, parted his lips, and tipped his wine over into the night air as a libation for his parents, his friends, Maria, Daryl herself, and to Luck. He threw the glass overboard and went to his room; his body was tired, and the day waited for none.


Kefka's tower seemed one complete edifice from a distance, like it did to the people of Albrook, but, upon coming closer the Returners saw that it was not made of solidly composed walls. The tower stood on jagged, gargantuan bricks of metal, wood, every building material known to man; Vector's ruins were seen--that's what had become of it--the splinters of poor shacks, and magic was the mortar. The pieces flashed in the sun, swaying crazily in strong wind bellows, but were in no danger of scattering. Three peaks jutted out high into the air. It was these on peaks that the Returners, split into groups accordingly, would first land, forging their way to the belly in diverging paths, ultimately meeting up in the end. Or least the strategy went.

'Well, here we are,' Celes addressed everyone, hand on her hilt and an expression of wan confidence on her face. 'This is the last time I'll ask. Is there anyone here who feels that we arenot fully prepared for what's to come up ahead? Besides you, Edgar. Put your hand down and stop smiling like that.'

'We've got the best equipment and best skills;you've never led such an army,' Setzer, posted at the wheel, informed her. 'The worst we can do now get killed.'

'Screw your courage and you'll not get killed," she returned. 'Since nobody has any objections, fly her down, Setzer.'

Celes and Locke were to head one group, Cyan and Sabin the other; the third lot fell to Edgar and Setzer's guidance. Benedick was to stay on board lest an emergency arise and the groups needed to be carried to safety. The first two companies slid to the tower by use of a loadinghook. Setzer gave the wheel over to Benedick at this point in the operation, winked at his fellow party members Edgar, Mog, and Terra; he grabbed the rope. As they descended on the hook, Setzer heard in the midst of the howlingwinds and brazen creaking Benedick's voice.

'Come back safely, Master!'

He lifted his head in response, but the wind carried his words of assurance away into the desolate limbo where all unspoken wordsgo. He felt the swaying firmness of the tower beneath his feet, releasing the hook.

Their progress was slow initially. The ground pitchedand groaned like a ship gone mad, tossing its hapless intruders about like chaff, blowing their hair into their eyes, stinging them blind, deafening their ears with its rusty keening, a vacuum of sheer chaos that sucked all sense into its maw. But they had known an airship piloted by people ranging from ten to seventy-one, and they somehow got firmness in their legs. Mog fluttered, a fuzzy white beacon in the darkness; Setzer and Edgar each placed himself next to Terra, sandwiching her--the excruciating unbalance of the mystical auras in this place pierced her brain, and she appeared hardly able to think straight.

'It'll be better once we get inside the tower itself, out of this wind,' Setzer spoke kindly to her. Edgar corroborated the sentiment and linked her arm in his for better support.

They struggled past the walls rising about, flinchingaway from the ragged serrations as best they could, but they received countless rakes on their shoulders and upper arms; in such moments the forms of hair, teeth, and a hand or two reaching out the glass and metal could be discerned. Kefka had not discriminated whether any people, dead or alive, had remained in the usurped towns he constructed his abode with. Arms protruded inone certain narrow path, beseechingly catching their clothes as the group passed by like poor beggars crying for alms.

At last, at long last an iron door loomed in their vision. Setzer quickened his pace alongside everyone else to enter in a place that was one soothing consistency, no nasty surprises. Edgar closed the doors. They halted to catch their haggard breaths.

'How are we holding up?' Edgar inquired to them collectively. He cast a concerned glance at Terra. 'Is it still bothering you?'

'Not as badly here. This place is full of the voices of unheard souls--but I can hear them. It makes Vector seem likea pleasant memory.' She caught Edgar's mouth opening. 'No, I'll not go back. Of all the times for you to be chivalrous, Edgar!'

Groping past the doors, halls, walls, descending deeper, they came across whipped monstrosities of beasts, dark fanatic wizards, and fearsome scaled dragons; puzzles tripped them up. The three groups had to work in unison when such problems came up. In order to proceed at one point two five-ton weights had to be pushed onto levers before the third group could join them. Godhead had obviously not dulled Kefka's sense of humor.

Just as it seemed they had reached their destination,another pitfall halted the Returners' sally: the three Goddess Statues blocked their paths, and the Goddess whose powers were that of trickery and temptation awaited Setzer and his fellows.

The Goddess took the form of a lovely, scantily-clad young lady, a gleaming gold apple held aloft in her tender hand. Edgar's tongue nearly hit the ground.

'Stop ogling, you idiot, she wants to kill you," Setzer had to remind the amorous king many times, usually having to shout over the clamor of battle. Edgar did fight the Statue, even though he was charmed many times and needed Terra to slap him out of his servitude.

Their opponent was reputedly formidable, but Setzer did not think the Goddess was so: she succumbed quickly to Terra's lightening spells and Edgar's chainsaw when he mustered up the courage to hit her.The powers of a supreme temptress are wasted on a member of the same sex, aman who has given his love to many people and has very little left over, and a Moogle. The flailing limbs of the Goddess stiffened at her horrible shriek, a stone carapace crusting over body, and then she crumbled into dust that was carried off in the winds.

Terra inhaled deeply and held perfectly motionless, not even her eyes shimmering. Setzer gaped at her in horrified anticipation, straining for the deadly outcome of the Statue's destruction, but no fire consumed her, she didn't wilt to the floor, no cry of pain, no nothing. Her lip trembled as she let out her breath.

'Oh, thank heaven,' Edgar said weakly. "Perhaps you aren't in danger--'

'I'm afraid it's not like that,' she answered timidly. 'It's too strange that I didn't feel a thing; I should have felt something. Why...' She clamped her hand to her mouth. 'I think Kefka's drained the Statues of their powers.'

'Damn it!' Setzer snarled. 'You'd think once we'd gotten rid of that bitch things'd be a tad easier.'

'Well, all we can do is forge on ahead,' she said. 'We have to be close.'

Edgar slipped an arm around her thin shoulders. 'Are you sure you're up to it, my dear?'

Terra nodded mutely in response and swung open the doors that Statue had blocked: inside lay an empty room, only one large switchin the center. They entered warily.

'Should we step on it?' Setzer proposed; helooked around, blasé.

'I don't know,' Terra muttered, frowning at the switch.

'Here.' Edgar picked up Mog and placed the puffball right on the device in one fast movement, jerking away let any uglyexplosion or trap catch the Moogle. For the second time, nothing happened.

'Jump up and down. See if it'll work then," Edgar prompted. Mog didn't take kindly to the suggestion; he began to quiver, fur puffing up dangerously.

'NO! Sure, let's go and fry the Moogle! He'sexpendable! You step on it for a change!' Mog zoomed up on his wings and gave Edgar a hard shove in the small of his back, sending the kingstumbling onto the switch with no response of any kind to greet him.

'I may be way out in left field,' Figaro mused, 'but I do believe this is the way to Kefka. I bet there're two other switches, and two other people need to stand on them to get us whereverwe're going.'

'What'll we do?' Terra spoke. Edgar shrugged.

'Wait for as long as it takes, I imagine. The others aren't dumb; they'll figure it out soon.'

Setzer fell into a sitting position, back supported against the wall, and Mog snuggled himself in Terra's lap. Edgar stood on the switch, arms akimbo.

They waited an eternity until Edgar finally pounded on the wall, shouting, rescinding his former confidence. 'What's the holdup! Is it really THAT hard? You're morons! Morons, all of you!"

As the outburst subsided in ricochets, a large tendril of light came down and unfurled over the room's inhabitants. Edgar's pronouncement of 'Finally!' and his movement into the aura gave theothers courage to do the same. Setzer felt himself being lifted up, none togently, and whisked away. Brightness consumed vision and their legs worked as if they were walking on solid ground. A speck manifested in the blinding light. They headed toward it.

Suddenly the corporal world materialized, and Setzer found himself and his group on a great plateau ringed by jagged peaks; the two other companies were here, too. In tacit understanding the Returners moved forth, spreading their ranks out on a smooth ledge up ahead. They could gono further--the largest peak of all impeded further excursion. Terra moved forth to the head.

'Welcome, friends!' a disembodied voice whooped, and a shadowy apparition of Kefka coalesced before the Returners, a pyramid of blue energy crackling around his garish-robed body. His face was the same, marked with intricate red designs, but the in the centers of his black pupils whirled flames. 'I knew you'd make it here sooner or later.Oh, I tried to treat you gently, kill you as quickly and decently as I could, but you people just had to be Johnny and Jane Livealots!'

Terra stepped forward, and she actually answered him back--why, Setzer realized, she, whom Kefka had wronged the most of the Returners, was no longer afraid of him!

'You knew we could overcome everything you threwour way,' she said coldly. 'Do you really think your little bingeof destruction can last for long?'

'Oh, yes, forever and ever and ever!' he boomed at them. 'I have tapped into the ultimate source of power! Observeand tremble!' He made a slashing motion with one billowing arm. Some unseen power levitated Locke and Cyan and tossed them around like eggs under a beater, smashing into each other for a good five minutes before Kefka allowed them to drift, stunned, into the back ranks.

'People will rebuild the things you take from them,' Terra said calmly.

Kefka scowled, shrugged his shoulders. 'Why, I'll destroy those things, too. You people are so stupid. Why build when what's made's only going to be destroyed? I never understood why you cling to life--it'll kill you all in the end. From the moment you started sucking the air you've been dying, and you resist me? All things are destroyed, destruction is the aim of all nature and mine, too, even before my own fleshly body was created. I did not see it at first, but now everything unfoldsbefore me! When the first forest was cut down, I was there! When the first man cheated and broke his promise, I was there! I was there when Celes burned her first town, I was there when the first Slave Crown was manufactured! Iwas everywhere, I am, and I always shall be! What are your petty lives, really?'

Terra cast a float spell and drew to one side; to hisbig words she gave this pinprick: 'It's not the net worth of a human's life that matters. We live from day to day. The tears, concerns, pursuit of love--it's enough to experience those joys that come in each day."

'Foolish!' Kefka roared, thrashing her about in a blast of tremendous energy; Setzer cried out involuntarily, but she did not fall, only lay suspended in the air on her side. 'Where is this=91joy' you speak of? You do not understand my power! I have built my abode on the infinite masses of broken dreams, my walls are constructed from your broken cities, the wind is the screams of all I have killed, my whim is death! I crush the world underneath my feet, and you speak of joy!'

The mad voice grew faster and faster, bouncing off the walls over and over, the words blurring into shrieking gibberish that pierced Setzer's ear drums like gadflies; he clapped his hands over his ears, but the voice didn't stop.

'Yes, there is joy!' Terra's voice sounded very small in the cacophony, yet it was heard. Kefka stopped his rambling.'I know what love is.'

'And I have learned to celebrate the life and the living,' Locke, standing beside Celes, shouted. Other such assertions, now famous, came forth, and Setzer felt obliged to throw in his own pronouncement of his dear Daryl's airship and her everlasting love. At his words, Kefka eyed the gambler with a look that said, Yes, I remember her. I killed her, and I'll be only too glad to kill you, too.

'This is sickening,' he shouted, crossing his arms in the familiar gesture of petulance. 'You people sound like chapters from a damn self-help booklet! Prepare yourselves, because for my next miracle, I'm going to make you all disappear!' In an ecstatic frenzy he raised his hands, they begged him to halt, the tower shook, a streak of fire slicing the air to the earth, drawing a perfect cut of destruction inits path. Kefka was so angered that he didn't hit a single town, only scorched wilderness.

He didn't stop there. The spiked peaks started to groan and thrust upwards; one came right under Kefka's boots and held him aloft as he screeched on and on about destruction and the supremacy of non-existence. The Returners answered calmly that they would not allow him to harmanother living thing. Kefka unleashed the Light of Judgment crazily again and kept on shouting as he glided down back to his original position, in front of the smooth ledge.

'Oh, shut up,' Celes snapped, interrupting the mad, shrieking bellows of what seemed like a thousand voices from Kefka's chest. 'Stop your threatening. All along you've been spatteringme and my comrades with your damned hatred.' Her sword trembled in hergrasp. 'Well, you murderer, you torturer, now you're ready to blow, let's see what you can really do!'

They charged.


Of course the Returners won the day--was there any doubt? In the great battle, which no decently educated child does not know, though Kefka split himself into a trinity of monstrous avatars, then regroupedinto one terrible angel of death after those forms failed, the Returners struck him down. With his last dying breath Kefka muttered a magical curse word, the mystical equivalent of =91fuck' times a thousand (which cannot be reproduced here because epileptic fits would result), and the victors were rendered immobile. They regained their senses back on their ledge, but with Kefka defeated, the tides of magic dried up entirely. The pieces of Magicite began to crumble into nothing. Worse than that, the force holding it togethergone, the tower began to break apart. Terra, morphed into her Esper form, in great pain and weakening by the minute, called to her comrades. She led them to safety, destroying or repulsing the ruins hurtling on their heads; Setzer had confidence enough in her power to try to make light of the situationby flipping a coin to determine which corridors to go down; it annoyed everyone, to say the least. And despite their competent guide, two Returners were lost along the way, Gogo and Shadow. The ninja voluntarily stayed in the tower. They called out to him, cursed him to hurry on, but he only sent on the dog to follow them. Gogo was accidentally left behind, but more doubt liesin his disappearance. As Edgar, an optimist at heart, said later: 'Gogo's a like the air, swooping off at any moment, coming back the next. Things like it are hard to kill--if it hasn't been seen, then it doesn't want to be seen.' The fates of Gogo and Shadow are great mysteries, and Setzer never found out what happened to them.

Losses aside, the Returners plunged on, and, at Setzer's shouting, Benedick let down the hook, pulling the groups on board. Setzer ran to the wheel and gunned it. Terra flew next to the stern and he followed her trajectory, dodging the boulders. As long as he kept his eyes riveted on her, he knew they would not be harmed.

The further they cleared the crashing tower, the weaker Terra's flames shone, and she staggered in the air--the Magicites were dissolving like flies. A warm glow pulsed in Setzer's pocket. He remember the Stray Magicite, which he had taken along for good luck, and snatched itsspider-webbed body when he was confident enough to steer using only one hand. He glanced wildly and mournfully at it.

'Throw me,' the lucky stone hummed, 'throw me far into the air.'

'Why?' he whispered.

'I want to see the land one last time. Throw me."

He kissed the Magicite, murmured, 'Safe journey," to it, and cast it out in a long arc, wherein it shattered at the endof its journey. The other Magicites followed. Soon none of them were left. Yet Terra continued to fly. Celes called out the her, but the half-Esper wastoo weak to respond. She fell.

Setzer wheeled the Falcon into an almost vertical dive. He did not think of failure. There was no failure, not when they had come so far! The dive was not long, only a few seconds, but for one moment Terra's body disappeared into the clouds, and it was scary as hell. Setzer eyed her form, swooped under it, and then jerked the airship into normal position. Everyone flattened against the deck.

When he had come back into consciousness, Setzer heard Celes's voice calling out to someone. He staggered onto his knees to seethe pale young lady dragging an equally pale, limp green-haired body away from a precarious nest at the prow. Green eyes opened and focused. Terra shakily rose to her feet, greeted by cries of joy. Smiling, she turned to the captain and thanked him most gratefully and humbly.

'Didn't I say it before?' Setzer replied,jovial. 'This's the world's fastest airship!'

The men and women on board were happy, relieved, faint, satisfied, but not euphoric; too much had changed, too much had been lostfor them to break into riotous celebration. Yet the air smelled not so stagnant, the sun wasn't as blotted nor the sky as garish. Setzer slowed the Falcon down so that they could see the pale yellow grass gradually lead into small patches of faint green that encroached at the edges, the flocksof birds that played around the airship, cawing merrily, the general awakening of the world from a prolonged, dusty sleep. Rain clouds had formed over the region of Kohlingen, drizzling rain to the parched land. Such changes were occurring at all the world's major cities as Setzer flew over them to show his companions, and it was good.

'Do you know what?' Edgar finally spoke, elation on every crease of his face. 'Methinks this calls for a grand celebration, a tremendous, gargantuan celebration! What we've done--I can'teven begin to fathom it! But we have to do something for it. I propose we all return to Figaro castle, and there I shall give the orders for a days-long feast--' The indisposed Returners clustered around the king, hearkening to his suggestions and adding some of their own. Setzer did not comment and continued to focus on steering.

'What do you think, Setzer?' Edgar asked, realizing their pilot had been overlooked.

'I'll take you to Figaro, and you can do whatever you wish.'

'You mean you won't come?'

He laughed. 'Oh, no, I wouldn't miss it for the world. But the fact of the matter is, Majesty, I have other engagements elsewhere. My parents and childhood friends await me in Jidoor. I haven't seen them in a very long time, whereas I've been with you people every single day for months. What's a few days? But keep the celebrations longand I'll come back for the end, I promise you, and I'll take people back to wherever they want to go. You guys go right ahead and plan. As for me, I'm going to kick this baby into high gear! You'll get a better view."

Everyone retreated below decks, not wanting to go through another jolt in the open, and Setzer was left along on the deck. He gave a jubilant whoop, his heart soared, he directed the Falcon upwards.Then he rocketed past the clouds and birds and all mortal limits to touch the sun itself.


Of what befell Setzer afterwards there is little to tell, and going into great detail wouldn't make much for a good story. Needless to say, he flew the Falcon around the world for a few days aftertaking each Returner to his or her respective destination, a rest which he felt he deserved. Sufficiently recovered, he returned a hero to Jidoor. He went on to purchase a spacious, comfortable house, sharing it with his parents and Benedick, those delightful people, who lived in contentment and peace until their peaceful, calm deaths years later. Setzer's childhood friends were great frequenters of the house as well, Setzer now reconciled with J.J., and the infamous quintet minus one gave the city much to talk about. Bennycaught an venereal disease, not fatal but awkwardly placed; Mandy raised anarmy of black haired, dark skinned hellions; and Setzer carried on a lifelong affair with the beauteous Maria, treating her, it should be noted, with great love and honor, which is more than can be said for her husband and cronies who deserted her when her hair went gray and voice cracked.

But blood did out. Setzer, a true Gabbiani, did not settle down, merely resting on his laurels. He embarked on a number of successful business ventures. Using his share of the great wealth the Returners had amassed, he purchased the Opera House and the Coliseum. The Opera he ran as it always had, but he altered the latter considerably, changing it from a place of death to a grand casino, the largest and most luxurious in the world (it had gold faucet handles in the bathrooms). Most of the steady fightersbecame waiters, Chupon was placed in the children's playroom as a beanbagchair, and Ultros became a blackjack dealer. Unfortunately the octopus caused trouble, insulting the customers, dealing from the bottom of the deck andso on, and ultimately Setzer cut his losses and ordered a calamari gala. The patrons were rid of a nuisance and had seafood for dinner, though not a very good one--the octopus was too rubbery, they said. And in the meantime, when he was not attending to these things, Setzer volunteered time in shippingessential supplies to various towns around the globe as part of reconstruction programs headed by the kingdom of Figaro, and had many adventures all the while, but none of them were as exciting as the battles with the Empire and Kefka had been.

The Returners had scattered, each going his, her, or their own way, living their own lives, yet they stayed in touch. A traditionformed that every year the twelve would go to Figaro to celebrate the day of Kefka's defeat, and Setzer made sure to visit everyone more than that. In due course, Returner children popped out of the woodwork as the result of various marriages; the rather dubious of honor of godfather fell primarily to Setzer or Sabin's lot. 'Always a godfather, never a god,' Setzer was fond of sighing.

So Setzer became Godpapa Gabbiani, a good one, too. He never married or had children; he was content to be a simple godfather andspoil the children mercilessly. Many parents suspected he lavished his attentions on their new families so he could turn the children against them and give holy hell, but the children loved him. He dandled the babies on his knees, dangling a string of jewels for them to grab, showered toys on the smallchildren, taught the older ones to cheat at cards and gave them sage datingadvice, and he took them all on wild rides on the Falcon. He especially watched over Celes's children--they were his darlings.

Life was not dull for him, but as a man grows older the fire in his heart cools, his bones creak, danger doesn't hold the old excitement, quieter pleasures take over. The most fiery of men goes through the change and Setzer fell victim to it over time. His bright eyes became thecolor of flint, lines ran alongside his scars, his hair grew thin. But it seemed natural, so very natural, that he did not wail his condition. Why, growing old wasn't that bad! He never had thought of it.

One youthful pleasure remained: the Falcon. Whether on a delivery, adventure, or a pleasure-ride, the tingling surge of energy never failed to exalt him. He was most comfortable here, unbound, soaring, twirling, just as it had been in the old days How lovely it was, how sublime!

Then, one day, as the middle-aged gambler (for he still saw himself as such) flew his Falcon on a routine trip for fun, inthe thin air he thought he heard a humming noise that was not his engines. He glanced around, and his heart stopped.

Another airship was coming up fast a bit off to the side. A flock of golden birds winked at him on the black prow, and a young man, fresh-faced and blonde, stood at the helm. Setzer knew the lad from the Auction House. He had gone away from Jidoor to study abroad as an engineer, but it seemed that studying hadn't been the only thing done.

The young man opened his mouth to speak a greeting, but decided better of it at the sight of Setzer's hard glare. His own impetuous blue eyes narrowed at the challenge. They drew up perfectly side-by-side. Setzer, his chest bursting in anger and indignation, nodded curtly, and they went at full speed.

They whipped through clouds, performed insane turns, swooped in air like a pair of chasing eagles. The Falcon came ahead at time, the rival at the other, sometimes they were so close none were winning, but eventually Daryl's engines came out. The Falcon drew away towards a mountain range, and Setzer indicated it as the finishing point.

On closer inspection, Setzer realized, heart sick, that perhaps he had not chosen very wisely: the mountains were especially craggy and close together, some precipices jutting out so that they nearly touched. In his reluctance, the other airship had come up even. Setzer tossed hishead wildly, his eyes focused on the prize, an arched space between two crags. He judged the width--could she fit through? It came ever closer and closer, and he did not know.

He tilted the Falcon up, swooping over the arch to higher ground.

The other airship eased through the crags, and Setzercould see the young man saluting him. His legs quivered, sweat ran down histemples, but his shattered ego took the ordeal philosophically. He was a gambler, and every true gambler runs into someone who bests him eventually--this had been inevitable. There was nothing to do now but go back home. The captain turned around and went back to Jidoor, where Maria awaited him.

Maria was reclining on a sofa in the solar room, brushing her lips with a rose selected out of a dozen her lover had give her. The door opened and she lifted her head to comment on his tardiness when she saw the slumped shoulders and the look in his eyes.

'Darling, darling, what's the matter?' she cried, about to rise from her seat. Setzer came forward and collapsed nextto her, nestling his head on her breast, telling her what had happened.

'Oh, I'm so sorry, Setzer,' Maria soothed, stroking the top of his head. 'How terrible it must have been for you! But it doesn't make any difference to me, no, because I love you very much!' Her lover kissed her throat, snuggling closer--indeed, as long as his Maria loved him, what did the accomplishments of some whelp matter to him?

'It was bound to happen someday,' he said. "There's not much reason to keep on risking my head over and over."

'You've done so much already.'

'Yes, I have. Not much left. A man has got to know when to quit. I don't have it in me anymore.'

'It would be wonderful to have you at home more often. I love being with you,' she said.

'And a man has got to set his priorities straight. I've had my fill of excitement to last a hundred lifetimes, but there is no limit to my enjoyment in your most delicious company.'

'So you'll stay now?'

'I'll stay.'

No more flights came: Setzer took the Falcon back to Daryl's tomb and sealed it up again, vowing never to fly her again.He had made many promises in his life--this one he kept.

Months passed, adding up to nearly twenty years, airships began to fill the sky as the young genius mass-produced them; if he hadever regretted sealing up the Falcon, this state of events brought all doubt to rest. Yet for Setzer time brought great happiness and satisfaction in them. He lost the whole lot of hair on the top of his head, just one ring of baldness at his crown's summit, but his eyes and teeth were good, and he aged well and gracefully. He continued to dote on his godchildren, played a hand of poker with his friends regularly, and oversaw his enterprises as he had always done. Sunny days in Maria's presence, reading books, strolling through the public gardens of Jidoor more than satisfied his heart in bliss. The mere thought of settling down had disgusted him in youth, but he saw now that the world did go on. He did not waste his time yearning for ages long dead; he regarded the world with a wiser, less rash eye that remainedas shrewd as it ever was. Life was different, but no less pleasant, as sweet, and Setzer did not object to the change. But Time, the years he had denied his gambler's heart and neglected himself, caught up with Setzer Gabbiani in the end.

There was a special bench, one among a row in front around a gazebo, in the public gardens that Setzer particularly enjoyed, as it sat under a large willow tree's hanging boughs, a cool refuge in summer and a bastion against the winds, yet the leaves had large enough spaces between them to let great patches of sky and sun shine through on his face. He loved to rest her after his constitutionals on fine days, closing his eyes inthe appearance of napping while actually listening in to the conversations that passed by. The talk amused him and, since he was sixty-three and had little else to occupy his thoughts, was a good source of gossip to report to Maria.

On one of these beautiful afternoons Setzer walked tothe rows of benches in front of the gazebo. A band was playing a merry tune, humming in his ears as he took his usual place, leaned back, and crossed his fingers on his chest.

Soon he heard the sound of rapid footsteps and young voices intermingled; the sounds came closer and stopped at the row behind his. Setzer quickly deduced that the voices' owners were both males, young, mid =91teens. He poised himself to listen--if these kids were anything like he was at their age, it was bound to be interesting.

'--and then we'll take the bucket, place it onthe rafter above the stage, and just as he comes on stage, ready to give the speech, I'll give you the signal--' whispered the first boy.

'I don't know,' the second said.


'No, I'm not, but why do we have to talk aboutit here? Let's go somewhere else.'

'Whatever for? Just because that old fag in front of us might tell? D'ah! He's conked out. Hell, he could be dead. Who wants him, anyway? I hear he comes here lots of times, and nobody cares.'

'It's his face that's so funny,' giggled the second, 'all scarred up--he looks like a wrinkled zebra. And his coat! Look at that old thing.'

'See? He's asleep. I'll bet he's deaf, too. Watch this.'

Setzer forced his body not to move a single inch at the touch on his ear of the first boy's warm breath.

'HEY, YOU! Yeah, I'm talking to you! Old geezer! Why don't you hop back into your pajamas and go to the retirement home where you belong!' the voice shouted. Setzer's face did not betray his ringing ears. What else was said shall not be repeated, it was too vile.

'See?' came the triumphant query.

'Well, I don't want to get caught by somebody else. Let's move on.'

'Okay, okay. Here, let me get rid of this real quick.'

Something wet and sticky was lodged on Setzer's bald spot; it smelled of peppermint. The boys moved away out of hearing range. Setzer opened his eyes and reached up, gingerly plucking the thing on top ofhis head, which turned out to be a wad of gum. He threw it into a nearby trash can. He stood up and stretched, wiping the west spot away with his handkerchief. Then he walked.

Passing his house, the city limits, the grasslands, Setzer walked and walked. It was not a chore for him to reach a line of steep, sharp cliffs, for Jidoor had moved closer to the ocean when the world's surface altered. He ascended the highest cliff.

As he stared down at the waves crashing against the rocks below, the aged Gabbiani thought and thought. He had done some rather callous things in his life, he knew, but he could not remember deliberately disrespecting harmless old men. He should have punished them, snatched the hand as it came from behind and smiled slowly in their faces--

Airships flew above, casting their reflections in thesea's mirror. Setzer watched them pass, and his heart ached. No-one remembered.

He looked to the water again and started, hands flying open.

In the water, a creature seemingly native and indued unto that element peered up at him, her black coat spread wide underneath the foam, rising and swooshing in the currents; her strawberry blonde curls fell down and wreathed around her shoulders alongside brown and red seaweed. She smiled lovingly. For his part, Setzer blinked, rubbed his eyes, slapped his head, but the figure did not vanish.

'I'm going mad,' he murmured.

'Setzer, my love, come talk to me,' called the maiden cheerfully and warmly. The addressed leaned over, crouched down over the cliff's edge as far as he dared.

'I've finally broke down,' he said to her, 'you're dead. But I'm so glad to see you, I don't care.' He regarded her, smiling. 'Now I know when they talk about the mermaids wreathed in seaweed red and brown.' He then told her all that had happened over the years to the last few hours. 'The sky's full of airships, Daryl, and they don't remember all the things I've done. It wouldn'tbother me so much, but--'

She shushed him very gently, her voice melding into the ocean's murmurs and carried up on the wind. 'Dearest, dearest, don't despair. Someday all of the airships will all be gone, and you and I will be the rulers of the sky again.'

'Ah, I've missed you.'

'Come to me,' she urged, raising her dripping hands from the water and gesturing. 'You big chicken! If you don'tcome down soon, I'll go up there myself and drag you in! That'd be no fun. Come on.'

'Woman, you know I hate swimming!' Setzer cried, grinning broadly. He rose and pulled a gold coin from his pocket. "But I'll give you a chance. If it's tails, I stay dry. If it's heads, then I'll do what you tell me, missy.' He flipped the coin, sendingit into a perfect vertical spin. Edgar's portrait looked back at the gambler, who laughed.

'You win! I'm coming down.'

Setzer quickly sat down so he could tug off his boots, he didn't need them. Struggling, he looked off into the distance in the direction of Jidoor, and he thought of all the pranks, the lies, crimes, charities, jokes, and sacrifices he had done; he thought of his peacefully deadparents and friends, those not so peacefully deceased, and the people living. It had been good, was good, but Time had clasped him in its jaws. There was only one way of escape.

'Farewell!' he cried to the air. He broke into a run and leapt off the cliff, spiraling in a corkscrew. The sky was seaand the sea was sky, all turning about. His hands hits the water, cutting through it, and he dove deep, deep under, the sun shimmering above in the ripples. He reached out for Daryl, wrapped her arms around her waist--she was warm. She ran her fingers through his hair and across his face, making him feel truly young in spite of himself. His chest began to burn, but she pressedher lips to his, breathing life into him. They treaded in the water for a long time until, smiling into his face, Daryl took Setzer by the hand, and after that his mind ceased to function at all.

Setzer Gabbiani is dead, long dead. Did he ascend to Paradise in a newly young body? Did he get reincarnated into a bug? Or did his spirit pass into a state beyond mind, soul, and matter? That is a matter of personal theology. However, if this author's opinion is worth anything,then Setzer, wherever or whatever he is, is happy. But to think in this wayis foolish. Setzer Gabbini's concern was with Life, in the drinking of his wine, his delight in women, and the thrill of song, not death.

So, casting a bleached coat on the shore, the crashing waves and the sea's spurting foam laughed, laughed in an elegy for a manwho had been one of the very few who had dared spit in the face of Time andtruly lived, struggling to find that perfect balance between gamblerand gentlemen.



It's time for some pretentious-ass final notes! HUZZAH!! This is really just for a few specific people's eyes only, they'rethe only ones that it'll mean anything to, must I just had to make my gratitude public. I'm such a jerk.

I want to first thank the almighty company of Square for making a game so wonderful and good it made me want waste so many hours of my life writing this damned thing. They must be doing something right. :P

I must acknowledge Best Brains company, the wonderful people who gave us Mystery Science Theater 3000. If it wasn't for this show, Chapter 2 would have been radically different, not to mention not nearly as fun to write. Also, since I am unable to come up with anything witty onmy own, I have to give credit to the people, books, and other media that inspired me: Any episode ever of the Simpsons, William Goldman and his book, The Princess Bride, one of the finest examples of comedy/fantasy; Robert Graves, who wrote the 'Claudius' series of historical novels, and one of my favorite authors, Shakespeare, and countless other writers I can't think of right now. Finally, I must give credit to Blademaster Lee and his friend Second Impact, who on their now-dead website came up withthe idea, which I totally endorse, that Locke's wearing a pair of pantieson his head in his game portrait.

I also would like to thank the following people:

Wallwalker--for writing great fics, for her critiquesof my writings, for being a die-hard Setzer fan, and for posting some of myfics on FF3.com.

Kiele Highwind (aka Jack of Spades aka Kitt; The Woman of a Thousand Names)--for her kindness, countless FFIV ROM screen caps, and her wacky sense of humor.

Every person who has read this story. After making you slog through this baby and taking up so much of your time, I think I should show my gratitude.


I dedicate this fic to two people. To Maggie Rennie, She of Locke and Celes Fanaticism, the Den Mother of the Fanfic Set, and a great writer. If it wasn't for her suggestion that I take a crack at a Setzer story, WWS would never have been written. Thank you, Maggie, for your support, critiques, and friendship.

And to Negative Creep, the Tonberry Queen; not only am I in her debt for her encouragement and excellent wit, she's got blue hair. That'd make anybody okay in my book. You've been wonderful, NC dearie. Now go and finish 'Pinions.'

Thank you all once again, and good day!

--Catherine Urban (Themis56)

'It's all over, it's all finished--READ A BOOK!!'--Handy, The Tick, 'The Tick Vs. The Terror."

'Remember to believe in magic...or I'll kill you!' Crow T. Robot, in the MST of 'Merlin's Workshop of Magical Wonders' (or something like that).