A wave slapped Sabin’s face. Briny
water swam down his throat. The lights of the Albrook sea front
flashed and vanished in the distance as he bobbed in the icy water.
The Lete River had been worse, he told himself. Though he had not been trying to resist the Lete’s current, and he hadn’t had a sword strapped to his back or muscles fatigued by illness.
He pulled air into his lungs and plunged once more under the water. It was easier to swim under the surface without the waves to disrupt his stroke, but the current disoriented him. He surfaced again to reconnoiter, knowing that he would have to move again quickly lest the chill penetrate him. The dock lights seemed no closer.
This is nothing, he told himself, but he doubted. The current was remorseless. It did not respect the name Sabin Figaro. It did not care about heroic deeds. It moved inexorably.
Words came to Sabin’s lips spontaneously, words that he had uttered before: “You think a minor thing like the end of the world was gonna do me in?” He smiled. “Huh!” he shouted. “Is that what you think?”
He began to kick and paddle, repeating his rebuke to the world as a mantra though he merely murmured it in order to save his breath. The harbor grew nearer, but the current and the waves showed no sign of weakening. A black silhouette obscured some of the sea front, a ship anchored further out from the dock. This became his objective. If only he could reach the ship he might be able to cling to the anchor and rest for a spell.
Sabin mustered all his strength, forgetting his mantra, and swam for the ship. It heaved dangerously in the water. He swam wide around it. Finally he saw the anchor line holding firm as the current tried to pull the ship out to sea. On the landward side of the ship Sabin let the current sweep him towards the anchor line. His hand snagged it, wrenching his shoulder. He let out a moan of pain, but held fast and put his other hand on the line.
He hung on, his legs now wrapped around the chain too, but still submerged in the water. His body grew numb. The dock was closer than ever, but it was too far. Sleep, he desired sleep. He pressed his cheek to the cold chain of the anchor line and closed his eyes, unable to go on.
Then he noticed the music. It seemed to come to him as if from a dream. Someone played a flute on the deck of the ship. Sabin knew the lyrics to the tune:
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...
“Help! Help!” Sabin tried to call out, but the words chattered unintelligibly out of his mouth. The flutist kept playing.
Sabin reached up with great effort. Hand over hand he pulled his body out of the water. His legs remained stiffly wrapped around the chain. Spray from the water slapping against the hull chilled him.
He began to sing. At first his teeth chattered so much that the words came out only as broken sounds, but eventually his voice warmed.
We must part now. My life goes on.
But my heart won’t give you up.
Ere I walk away, let me hear you say.
I meant as much to you...
He continued to sing the lyrics, using them for support the same way he used the chain. He did not notice that the flute playing had stopped. He could not see the dark silhouette lean out over the bow. When the rope hit him, his skin was too numb to feel it.
“Sabin! Sabin, the rope.”
He came to his senses then and felt the rope flopping against his side. His fingers were so stiff. They reluctantly released their grip on the chain and were equally stubborn wrapping themselves around the rope. His legs fell away from the chain. He hung from the rope by his arms, begging his saviors to pull him up. Did they know he could not climb?
Slowly the rope rose. It seemed an eternity before Sabin reached the deck and was pulled over the gun rail.
“Fetch blankets,” said a familiar voice that Sabin could not quite place. Where was Terra, he wondered.
“Damn, you are heavy.” Ah, there she was, Sabin thought, recognizing Terra’s voice.
“Isserserd,” he mumbled.
“What’s that?” Terra leaned closer.
“Is your sword.” Sabin huffed.
“Typical, he jests already. He shall be fine,” said the familiar voice that was not Terra’s.
Sabin pried his eyes open and looked upon the retainer of Doma. Cyan’s stern face broke into a wide grin.
“Sir Sabin! We hath caught a rather large lobster. Wouldst thou not agree?”
Boots thumped across the deck. Someone threw a pile of blankets onto him.
“Those will only do so much,” said Cyan. “Let us get thou to a hearth.”
The rain hath finally fallen. It drums upon the deck and the air itself feels relief.
Sir Sabin hath flopped on to our ship. He is a welcome addition to the crew, though I lament that he is now bound to our doomed destination. I should be more optimistic. We art less than one day gone from Albrook. We shall rendezvous with the fleet later today. We make for the Magic Isle. By all rights, we shall find no monsters there, just villagers spooked by desperate wolves, or blood-thirsty bears, should we find anything at all.
After all these years my soul is yet capable of worry. Terra is the object of my concern. I know not how to help her. Perhaps if I knew, then I might know how to help myself as well.
Cyan replaced the quill in its holder and placed his journal in the corner of his cabin, leaving the pages open to let the ink dry.
Cyan had a small cabin to himself, just enough space to stretch his hammock, or, with hammock stowed, eat alone at a bench. A peg protruded from the wall where he hung his sword. A wooden cubby accepted his armor. The space was private and functional. It remained as Cyan had found it, completely unadorned. His sword and armor bore the blazon of Doma, a kingdom wiped from the face of the earth. He kept these items because they remained functional. Cyan kept no physical mementos to remember his family by. He needed nothing to remind himself of who he was.
He wrote regularly, dutifully, in the journal, but he never turned back the pages to read what he had written. Once the last page had been filled, he would discard the book without a second thought.
Cyan took out a hooded cloak and threw it over himself. He blew out the candle, opened the door, and went out.
Rain fell heavily and the wind gusted in melancholy puffs. Lightning flashed far away so that the thunder rumbled like snoring.
Sabin stood on the poop deck, behind the helmsman, with arms locked against the railing. He stared out over the ship’s wake to where the dark water reclaimed its relative calm. Sabin too wore a cloak, but the hood had been thrown back. He looked soaked. Cyan joined him at the rail.
“Here we are again,” said Sabin, “borne on a ship with one destination as surely as the river, train, and paths on land have guided us in the past.”
“Thou hast neglected thine meditation,” Cyan observed, deflecting Sabin’s philosophical musings.
“What does it matter? I have no pupils. There are none in the world for me to train. When I close my eyes to meditate, I see Duncan… and Vargas.”
“Guilt. I know it well. Less familiar am I with the tenets of thine martial arts, but as I recall, they possess inherent value, pupils or no. Thou ought to resume thine practice.”
“For what?” Sabin asked. “I’m no good in a fight anymore. I’m not even sure how I got here. Thinking back I see decisions that lead me here, but were they really mine to make? It seems now that there has only ever been one path and I did not choose it. The trouble is I think whoever did choose it is making it up as they go along.”
“I have thought similarly,” Cyan replied not unpleasantly. “But such ruminations lead to no salvation, nor even any impact upon our decisions. Symptoms. That’s what thou have, symptoms of other concerns.”
He sensed Sabin’s surprise and the subsequent sound of intense thought: silence. Cyan stared out to sea, enjoying the water dripping off his nose and a lightness of being that came to him rarely, but less rarely after having written in his diary.
Sabin spoke: “I don’t know where I would steer my path had I any control. I suppose that’s my actual concern.”
“That I doubt, Sir Sabin. Rather, thou know where thou must go, but thou art not comfortable with the destination.”
“Don’t propose to know me better than I…”
“Ship! Ship dead ahead!” The shout came down from the crow’s nest.
“Ah,” said Cyan, “We have reached the fleet sooner than I expected.”
Then the watcher in the crow’s nest called down. “She’s flying the red and black.”
Sabin smiled. “Nothing like fighting some pirates to take my mind off troublesome philosophical concerns, eh?”
But Cyan was not amused. “These are not pirates,” he said. “That is the imperial flag.”
Cyan turned and made for the prow. Sabin jogged after him.
“I’m sorry. I’ve got some rain in my ears. I could have sworn you said ‘the imperial flag’.”
“That is correct.”
“How is that possible?”
But Cyan had begun shouting orders to his crew.
The ship with the red and black flag turned out to be a stout brig, slightly larger than Cyan’s schooner and newly made, though Sabin was no ship expert. The two vessels traveled in the same direction, with the wind. The brig tacked so that the schooner would come up more quickly behind her. Sabin soon made out the flag clearly: the image of black magitek armor on a red background. He shook his head in amazement. Curiosity pushed out the worries that had roosted in his mind only moments before.
As the schooner pulled alongside the brig Sabin got a good look at their crew. Except for their uniforms they certainly looked like pirates. They greedily eyed Cyan’s vessel, some of them with two eyes, many with only one. A full complement of fingers was also a rarity among them and though they carried identical sabers belted at the waist of their tan and gray uniforms, other implements including daggers, curved blades, even wrenches clung to belts or were strapped across ankles and forearms. These sundry weapons they stroked with their three, four, and five fingers, as if they preferred them over the sabers.
As the imperial crew made to throw grapples, the last of Cyan’s men hurried on to the top deck. Cyan had ordered them to arm themselves and look busy. When the first imperial sailors hopped aboard they couldn’t help but notice the fully armed crew distractedly repairing rope, polishing telescopes, and swabbing a deck already cleaned by the rain.
Cyan and Sabin stood side by side to greet the sailors. Terra sat on the poop deck with her legs hanging down, apparently pleased to have some entertainment. After a dozen imperial sailors had boarded, the captain of the brig emerged. He was a tall wiry fellow with a nasty scar running from his right ear to the corner of his mouth. His posture was hunched, ill fitting an officer, and a horror of tattoos reached up his neck behind the collar of his uniform as if malevolent shadows wished to drag his head down into his torso.
He made eye contact with neither Sabin nor Cyan and announced in a scratchy voice, “I hereby claim this vessel for the empress.”
Sabin, having received no explanation from Cyan, leapt forward and shouted, “Pray tell! Who is this empress and where is her empire?”
The captain looked on Sabin, as if for the first time. He cringed and seemed on the verge of recognizing Sabin from somewhere. “I speak of Empress Celes Chere, of course, empress of the western continents and rightful ruler of the world.”
Sabin gaped at the captain. Cyan murmured, “I shall explain later. Hold thine tongue. These thieves and liars would gladly cut it out.” Then to the captain, “Good sir, we are on a humanitarian mission to the Magic Isle. Surely the good empress would not interrupt our noble mission.”
The captain blinked, digesting Cyan’s language slowly. “This is the empress’s vessel,” he repeated. “You will all swear loyalty to the empress and then change course to follow my ship. The empress will decide whether or not you shall resume your hoomanuhtrareean mission.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” said Cyan.
The captain scowled at Cyan. The sailors on the brig lined up along the railing, eager for a fight. Cyan’s men began swabbing the deck closer to the grapples.
A small corner of the puzzle clicked together in Sabin’s head. With a wry smile he acquired an eyepiece from one of Cyan’s men. He peered through it, nodded, then broke the tense silence, “Captain, we may have gotten off on the wrong foot. How was your day?”
The captain said nothing. All eyes were on Sabin.
“Terra, how was your day.”
“Fine,” she said slowly, confused as anyone.
“Fine,” Sabin repeated, “not bad, you might say. Medium. So, so. So, so. Zo, zo?” Sabin raised his eyebrows at the Captain. “You see, I know you aren’t really imperial troops, no matter what Celes has told you. I know where you are from.”
“This is unwise!” Cyan protested.
“My friend here,” Sabin indicated Cyan, “also knows where you are from and he is incapable of lying, imagine the opposite of yourselves.”
On the deck of the brig, wrenches began smacking menacingly in open palms as even the least clever sailors realized they were being mocked.
“Cyan, tell us where these sailors are from.”
Cyan’s face reddened.
Sabin tried a new tack. “Time flies doesn’t it? I’d say it must be two in the afternoon. What do you think Terra?”
Terra, an amused smile pulling her cheeks now, played along. “Eleven in the morning.”
“No, no, closer to eleven at night,” said Sabin. “Cyan, what time do you think it is?”
“Tis no time for games, Sir Sabin.”
“What time is it?”
Cyan snapped, “Anyone can see by the sun that the time approaches six in the evening.”
Sabin clapped Cyan’s arm, “Very good! You all can observe that he is correct. Captain, I know you were shadowing the fleet that we seek to join, the fleet heading east. You probably didn’t even know we were behind you.” Sabin half-turned towards Cyan, “Now I know why you were anchored far out in the harbor when I found you. You were avoiding a run in with the imperials, but they had already dispatched a ship, this brig, after the rest of the mercenaries.” Turning back to the captain, “Whatever else you may be, captain, you are no fool and wisely decided to draw away from the larger fleet and harass our small boat. However, if you take this telescope.” Sabin tossed the eyepiece to the captain. “You will see a number of ships from that fleet doubling back to aid us. If you do us harm and attempt to flee, they will run you down. Isn’t that right, Cyan?”
“Tis true,” Cyan replied, his color returning to normal now that Sabin’s scheme had fully revealed itself.
The captain peered through the telescope, lowered it, and then motioned for his men to get back on the brig.
“We will remember your refusal,” the captain said, “The empress will hear of this.”
Sabin shouted as the grapples were cut, “Tell her that Sabin, Cyan, and Terra send their regards.”
With the threat vanishing into the west, the schooner raised full sail and quickly joined the rest of the fleet bound for the Magic Isle. Far from relieved, Sabin felt his temper rising. He took Cyan by the arm and wordlessly demanded an explanation. They went below deck. Terra followed.
“Tis nothing to be done at this late stage,” said Cyan determinedly.
“Nothing to be done about what? What is Celes up to? What has happened in the west? Why are a bunch of Zozo thieves posing as sailors and calling her empress?”
“Tis nothing; famine and hoarding of food. Neighbor turns on neighbor. The tale tis the same the world over. Amidst all the trouble, however, General Celes rediscovered her ambition.”
“And promoted herself to empress,” Terra pointed out.
Cyan shot her an irritated look.
Sabin ignored her. “But I thought Celes was in the north west, in Kohlingen, settling down with Locke.”
“Locke hath become a shadow that trudges in Celes’s footsteps. He wrongly believes that she is the answer to the hole in his heart, but Celes is not his Rachel, never was, and never shall be. Locke was deluded to think that Celes would ever settle down.”
“So what? She’s organizing the thieves?”
“She has progressed well beyond that. In Zozo there was unrest aplenty. She used it to gather an army. She stoked the flames and bent the people to her will. Her army hath already sacked Jidoor. Our fleet departed Maranda as her army approached, leaving behind only this vessel to retrieve thou.”
Sabin looked to the floor. “How could this happen without my knowing it? With Jidoor’s wealth…”
Cyan nodded. “She will seize Maranda with ease. I’m sure she has done so already.”
Terra spoke softly, so confident in her words that she did not need to give them volume, “Victory will make her greedy. She won’t stop with the western continents. She will build a fleet.”
Sabin’s eyes darted back and forth across the floor as if the contents of his mind were laid out across it to be searched. “That’s why the shipbuilders in Nikeah were so busy … Why didn’t I see this? I was so focused on my own troubles, I missed it completely.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Terra said, “I’ve been tearing the ruins apart in search of magic while all I hear about are magic monsters terrorizing practically the whole rest of the world!”
Sabin, lost in thought, ignored this. Then his mind reached its conclusion and he burst out, “Figaro! She will sail to Figaro next. We have to send warning to my brother.”
Cyan spread his hands, helpless. “We are halfway to the Magic Isle and we have no carrier pigeons.”
“We have to turn around! We will take your men, reinforce Figaro, and defend against Celes’s invasion! Cyan, you said I knew where I must go, but I was uncomfortable with the destination. I must go to Figaro. I accept that now.” Sabin looked at his companions for support. Lanterns in the hold threw a meager light on their passive faces.
Cyan lowered himself onto a barrel strapped to the bulkhead. “I was referring to a spiritual destination. What good will it do to return to Figaro?”
Sabin punched the ceiling. “What is wrong with you? Both of you. There used to be a light in your eyes. We used to fight tyranny!”
“Please!” Terra groaned. “Has your memory gone? Do you remember Banon? Do you know what he told me before I joined the Returners? He said, ‘Terra, you are our only hope.’ He went on and on about how it was my choice and no one could make it for me, but he also made it clear; if I didn’t help, the rebellion would fail and you all would be killed. I was a confused little girl. What choice did I have? I never chose to fight anything.”
Sabin turned to Cyan, but Cyan remained unmoved, his face emotionless. “Thou know my story. I fought to avenge my family. Their murderer is dead, but I have no peace, so peace is what I seek.”
“So you’re just going to go and die now, is that it?” Sabin directed his accusation at Cyan.
“I shall do what I can until an honorable death finds me. Though I do not trust Celes, she may bring much needed unity to the world. I do not wish to slay her innocent conscripts; much better to kill monsters in a far corner of the world.”
Sabin clenched his jaw. There it was. Celes would bring order, an iron fist perhaps, but maybe that’s what this world needed. She just might be the ruler that Edgar could never be. Yet the thought of Figaro as her puppet state… It was repulsive to consider.
Celes’s army would certainly conquer Edgar’s weakened kingdom with ease unless an external force intervened. For a moment all of Sabin’s anger focused on his brother. If only he was a proper king! If only Sabin had not abandoned him.
“Cowards!” Sabin shouted. He stomped away towards the ladder and ascended the top deck, his fists flexing. Night fell over him as he faced out to sea, facing the realization that the world he and his friends had saved from Kefka was not the World of Balance they had lost. That place could never be recovered.