State of Figaro
and all is…” The hoarse voice broke off into a fit of coughing. A
traveler lifted his attention from the empty streets of South Figaro,
but the town crier retreated from the balcony without completing his
report. The traveler shook his head and moved on towards his
destination, the town inn.
He easily found the building, a large two-story structure built into the side of a hill that sloped down towards the docks. It had once housed the inn, a café, and downstairs, a shop for charms and mystical relics. An X had been painted over the “Charms and Relics” sign. Beneath it hung a sign simply advertising “Jewelry”. Beneath that a third sign stated: “going out of business”.
The traveler entered the café. A dim light emanated from deeper within the building. It illuminated a maze of tables with chairs stacked upside down atop them. The traveler was a large man, but he threaded between the furniture carefully. He came to the desk of the inn and rang the bell.
“Just a moment.” The source of the voice wound its way through passageways from the rear of the building and materialized at the front. The voice belonged to a thin, old innkeeper with a tuft of white hair standing up on his scalp and half-moon reading glasses perched on the tip of his nose. Upon seeing the guest he patted his hair self-consciously, but it floated back up on a bit of static charge.
“Oh.” exclaimed the innkeeper. He looked up at the imposing figure standing before him and said nothing more.
The guest wore plain loose-fitting cotton clothes and traveling boots. He carried a small satchel and a leather-bound cylinder on the belt at his waist. Time and experience had weathered his boyish looks. His face had grown handsome and mature with age. He kept his blonde hair cropped except for three rat tails woven with cobalt beads. His tan skin bulged with muscle. “I’d like to rent a room,” he said with a disarming smile.
No one moved.
The traveler took the initiative. He dropped his satchel, tugged open the ties, then pulled out a bag of gold pieces, emptying half on to the counter.
“Planning on staying a long time?” asked the innkeeper, looking up from the pile of coins.
“Not more than a week.”
“But, you’ve overpaid.”
“No, no. I can’t take your money,” insisted the innkeeper.
The big man plucked two coins from the pile then shoved the remainder across the counter.
“I’m not paying any less. I know you need the business.”
The innkeeper nodded absently. Leaving the pieces where they lay, he took a key from the wall and handed it over. “Room one. First door on your right.”
The man picked up his satchel, headed down the hall, then turned. “Don’t you need my name?”
“No. There won’t be any other guests.”
The traveler nodded and headed to his room.
He slept for only a few hours, but rose before dawn feeling rested. He pulled on a blue sleeveless tunic and slipped into simple cotton trousers tied at the waist with a bit of rope. Barefoot, he left the inn quietly. He walked over uneven cobblestones to the modest town square.
He began a series of stretches, but soon proceeded to more difficult exercises: one-handed pushups, handstands, one foot calf-raises off of a bench. The sun had only just begun to paint the tops of the western-most buildings in town. The man advanced to two-finger pushups, handstand-ups, one-legged squats while holding the bench above his head.
The sun crested the rooftops and now flashed across his skin as he began his routines: step, step, block, jab, high kick, step, block, jab.
Shutters banged open. Some villagers gawked at the stranger over simple breakfasts of oatmeal, but most hurried straight to their chores. The villagers made their way to a building on the north end of the town square. They entered empty-handed in the door marked with the worn sword emblem and exited with hoes or shovels from the door with the cracked shield emblem.
The stranger greeted people with a strong clear voice as they passed, but he received no more than the occasional nod in response.
Two boys came charging into the square shouting and chasing each other, oblivious to the martial artist. The boy being chased looked back at his pursuer as he headed straight for the bench. The man saw the impending collision and interrupted his exercises to lift the boy up and over at the last minute.
“Careful there,” said the man.
Silence. The boys stared up, unabashedly gaping at biceps as big as their heads, the chase forgotten.
“What’s the game, boys?”
One of the boys found his tongue, though his wits remained at large, “You must be really strong!”
The man chuckled. “I’m just a big oaf. Would you like to learn to be strong?”
“Yes, yes!” They both shouted.
“Alright, I’ll show you. What’s your name?”
“My name’s Tig,” the freckled boy with ruddy-brown hair said with glee.
“I’m Adrik,” the slightly taller, blonde boy volunteered, stepping in front of Tig.
“Alright,” said the man, “Adrik, you can help in the first exercise.”
He explained the task, then Tig held his arm out and mustered all his strength to resist Adrik, but Adrik bent his arm easily.
Then the man told Tig to hold his arm straight out again and imagine that his arm was the crossbeam in the town hall, all of ten paces long, and imagine further that an endless herd of chocobos rushed in and around the beam of his arm. When Tig did so, Adrik could not bend Tig’s arm, though Adrik doubled his efforts.
“I did it!” Tig exclaimed. “I got stronger just thinking about it.”
“Let me try,” begged Adrik.
The boys reversed. When Adrik succeeded against Tig, he shouted, “It’s magic!”
The background sounds of motion and murmuring voices ceased immediately. A woman gasped. And, at that inopportune moment, Adrik’s father strode into the square. “What did you say, boy?” he demanded.
“Uh,” the boy mouthed.
The father wheeled on the stranger. “Who are you?” he demanded, “What have you been teaching these children?”
Delighted to explain, the stranger answered, “I’ve been teaching them a classic exercise in mind over matter. It’s an ancient martial arts lesson. There is nothing magical about it. I assure you. Shall I demonstrate?”
“You get away from my child, you filthy Magus. You had better leave town before I call the guards.”
The martial artist banished his jovial expression. He stared at the father evenly.
“South Figaro has no guards. I meant no harm. I only hoped to find pupils here to train in the martial arts, with the blessings of their families, of course.”
The man addressed the boys, “Adrik, get to your chores. Tig, go home.” The boys dallied. “Hup!” the father barked. They fled. The father closed on the stranger.
“You’re right. We have no guards. What need have we of guards? What need of martial arts? The Empire is gone. The monsters have died. We won’t be far behind them unless the crops grow.” He stepped closer, unintimidated by the stranger’s size, “Can your martial arts make the crops grow?”
“Leaving so soon?” asked the innkeeper, sounding genuinely disappointed.
“I’m afraid so. It’s clear that I won’t find what I’m looking for here. Don’t worry. You can keep the room fee.”
“I don’t want your money.” Then the innkeeper whispered, though there was no one else in the whole building to hear, “It is an honor to serve you, my liege.”
Sabin Figaro furrowed his brow. “It’s my brother who is king. What have I done to earn your loyalty?”
“You are royalty!” The innkeeper said fiercely. “The Figaros have been wise and just.”
“Have been?” Sabin pressed.
The innkeeper looked away, his face reddening. “I didn’t mean …”
Didn’t mean to suggest that my brother is a lecher and a machine-maker who spares no time for the weighty decisions of his kingdom?
But Sabin kept this thought to himself and took a deep breath to cool his blood.
“I only meant… I think there is an heir who is disciplined, one who cares for his people.”
“My brother cares.” Sabin growled.
The innkeeper drew back. “A thousand pardons, my liege. I misspoke. I’m a fool.”
“No, no.” Sabin calmed himself. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be curt, but you misunderstand my brother.” Sabin cleared his throat. “Thank you for your hospitality, but I must be on my way.”
“I beg your pardon. Please, my liege. We need you.”
“Nonsense, what use am I?”
“We are digging irrigation canals. Streams from the mountain could be brought down to the desert. You are so strong, I only thought... Oh, I beg you, pardon me. It is labor unworthy of an heir to the throne. My mind is addled. Forgive me. Forgive me.”
“No forgiveness is needed. Your thoughts are wise, but I can’t stay.”
“Why?” whispered the innkeeper, his head bowed, eyes on the floor.
“It is vital that I pass on my training to a new generation.”
“Of course. I am wrong. My liege knows best.”
Sabin went down to the harbor and found a single ship bound for Nikeah. The captain demanded a steep fare, which Sabin paid since no other ships made the crossing.
The ship had no passenger cabins so Sabin was given a hammock to set up in the largely-empty hold. Coal dust clung tenaciously to the bulkheads, but the black fuel itself remained conspicuously absent. At one time, the ship’s hull would have bulged with coal bound for Nikeah. There, at the bustling port city, coal would have been traded for exotic goods from all three continents. Under steam power or with favorable weather the vessel could have returned to South Figaro within a fortnight to repeat its route. Thus Figaro had become a prosperous and happy kingdom. The people had been happy enough to tolerate a charismatic if reluctant and distracted young king.
But that was a world ago. Now none but ghosts and cave creatures claimed Narshe, the coal mining city, as home. Now the ship raised canvas to sky where once it would have trailed its smoke. Ironically, the journey to Nikeah took only a day and a half, the cataclysm having placed Nikeah on a separate continent, yet much closer to South Figaro. It was a small blessing. Nikeah had little to trade and virtually no desire for South Figaro’s meager wares. And meager they were. Sabin shared the space in the hold with nothing but a handful of pelts, a few clockwork mechanisms, and the echoes of the innkeeper’s words.
Figaro had long since disappeared beneath the horizon like Edgar’s tunneling castle, but its grip on Sabin’s emotions tightened. Sleep eluded Sabin during his first night on the ship. He rolled out of the unpleasantly swaying hammock and assumed the lotus position on the tilting deck. Even as he tried to think of a soothing mantra…
My liege knows best.
He could sooner meditate the pelts out of existence than expunge the words from his mind. “It’s this awful rocking and the taste of coal in the air,” he muttered. “How can anyone expect to focus under these conditions?”
He uncoiled and climbed to the upper deck. The night watch paid him no heed as they moved about their duties. Sabin looked out at the stars over the ocean. Surely the stars remembered the old world of balance, he thought. If only time could be turned back like the winding of a clock.
Sabin thought of the clockwork mechanisms in the hold, the functions of which he could not identify, but the origin of which he had no doubts. They were his brother Edgar’s handiwork.
Less than a fortnight ago he had argued with Edgar. Sabin had told him to put aside his machines and focus on the needs of the kingdom. He had been pestering his brother and Edgar had finally snapped.
“If you’re so full of advice why don’t you take the throne? You know Father’s wishes. It’s as much your right as mine.”
“You chose to be king. We agreed, ‘to each his own path.’”
Edgar had waved his hand dismissively.
“It was a trick coin, baby brother. Heads we choose our own path, tails we divide the kingdom. Both sides were heads. I didn’t really want the crown, but I took responsibility because you couldn’t handle Father’s murder. You had to go play at karate in the mountains and nurse your grudge against the Empire.”
“Such a burden it must have been for you! Sitting on the throne, a feast every night, engineering a ridiculous tunneling castle!” Sabin had retorted. “All while I trained. You know nothing of sacrifice.”
Edgar had merely laughed while Sabin fumed. “Do you feel better now that you’ve gotten that off your chest, baby brother?”
“I’ve had enough of this.”
“Where are you going? Running away again? How very mature.”
Sabin shook his head, but the memory did not budge. Edgar was wrong. Seeking pupils to train was not running away, it was the natural thing to do, the only thing Sabin was good for.
“It is vital that I pass on my training to a new generation.” Sabin repeated to himself.