Echoes of Delusion
The evening found them at their usual table at the Shiokaze Hostelry. Though he and his traveling companion had by now become a familiar sight in Kugane, few there had any inkling just how odd a pair they made─a dragonslayer, albeit retired, and a dragonet.
"It's well you had me to get us out of our predicament," Orn Khai observed in that insufferably smug tone of his─and not for the first time. But this, Estinien decided, was one time too many. Face darkening, he snatched a piece of sun-dried squid, known to the locals as surume, from the plate between them, making the diminutive dragon blink.
"A predicament of your making. Your false lead that caused us needless toil." Tearing off some chewy squid with his teeth, he let out an irritated sigh. Gods, how did it come to this? But the answer he knew all too well.
It had begun amidst smoke and ash at the Ghimlyt Dark, when he had plucked the Warrior of Light from the jaws of death. Having borne his stricken comrade to the Ishgardian encampment, he had promptly taken his leave, reasoning that his skill with a lance would be of more use on the battlefield than in the infirmary. And so he had turned his steps back towards the fighting, minded to lend the Alliance his strength...only to learn that it was no longer needed. For Zenos had withdrawn from the front lines, leaving the imperial forces defanged and in disarray.
Thus had Estinien found himself aimlessly wandering the snow-swept fields of Coerthas, which is where he had heard a familiar draconic voice calling out to him─Orn Khai. In the past, he had aided the dragonet in his quest to find his sire's long-lost consort; a journey to the Far East which had, it would seem, given the creature a taste for adventure. And now he wanted Estinien to accompany him on another.
"I've no interest in playing nursemaid," Estinien had replied in a tone that brooked no discussion.
But Orn Khai was not to be discouraged. Having inquired as to the Elezen's age, he retorted with a smirk, "I've lived tenfold your years. It would seem I am the one who must play nursemaid."
In such manner did their conversation unfold, and a pain begin to manifest in Estinien's temples, first niggling then raging, until─driven to the limits of his patience─he had declared with a snarl, "I had forsworn the slaying of dragons, but for you mayhap I shall make an exception!"
This said, he had drawn his lance and made as if to thrust it at his interlocutor─who duly cheered.
"Yes, that's the spirit!" Orn Khai gleefully exclaimed before proceeding to apprise Estinien of his plans. He had previously heard tell, he explained, of an intriguing legend─that of Seiryu, a dragon worshipped in the Far East as a benevolent guardian, but feared in certain corners as a man-eating fiend.
"I wish to ascertain the truth of the tales. If this dragon devours man-flesh as some believe, it falls to us to end its reign of terror!"
So it was that the Azure Dragoon had set forth once more to the Far East, a none-too-willing traveling companion to an all-too-willful dragonet. And through painstaking effort, trudging hither and yon gathering information, they had learned the truth of the legend...to their mutual disappointment. For the dragon known as Seiryu was no dragon at all─at least, not of the kind they knew─but something more akin to a serpent. And to compound their chagrin, their quest having dragged on far longer than intended, they had found themselves at the limits of their funds. For some days they were forced to endure empty bellies, but their luck had turned when Orn Khai came to the attention of the proprietor of Kugane’s most famous hostelry. Like many a Hingan, the woman believed dragons to be bringers of good fortune, and she had offered them board and lodging in exchange for attracting customers.
And here we are. A spectacle for drunkards.
"How ungrateful!" Orn Khai said with mock indignance. "I find myself less and less inclined to sear your squid!"
As little as Estinien cared for the dragon's pertness, at that moment he cared less for the dry rice wine without a savory accompaniment. "Fine. I'm grateful," he managed, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. "Now sear me another one, will you?"
Seemingly placated, Orn Khai breathed fire upon the surume, which released a mouthwatering aroma as it crackled and charred. Estinien allowed it a moment to cool before helping himself to another bite of this strangely addictive snack. Even as he savored the flavor and texture, footsteps rang out from the direction of the tavern's entrance.
"Welcome to the Shiokaze Hostelry!" Orn Khai cheerily called out to the newly arrived patrons.
With a brief shake of his head, Estinien drew breath to offer his own half-hearted greeting, only for the words to die on his lips when he turned around and saw the two Lalafellin maidens standing upon the threshold.
"There you are!" shrilled the one in the pink kimono. Though she had adopted the local attire, there was no mistaking Tataru Taru, the Scions' indomitable receptionist. And beside her, even less mistakable in her distinctive robe, was Krile Baldesion, staring wide-eyed at him. Whatever it was that the Archon saw, it clearly amused her, for she was suddenly racked by paroxysms of poorly stifled laughter.
"Forgive me," she said tearily, struggling for breath. "I had heard that the Azure Dragoon had hung up his lance. But I did not expect that he would take up the serving tray in its stead."
To that assessment, Estinien could offer no retort. And as much as her amusement irked him, above all he was troubled by the creeping sense that he was about to be drawn into yet another bothersome affair.
He turned to Orn Khai. "'Tis time we went our separate ways, little one. But so long as you remain here, you shan't want for comfort. Fare you well."
Sparing the visitors no further glance, Estinien picked up his travel sack with the tip of his lance, swung it over his shoulder...and leapt. He shot up to the hostelry's upper level, landing gracefully amidst startled revelers, who broke out in rapturous applause at what they assumed must be a performance. Disregarding the ovation, he dashed through the door and out into the night.
He knew at once where to bend his steps─Kugane Ohashi. For across this bridge, there lay the rest of Shishu, entry to which was forbidden to all ijin save a privileged few. Surely, it would be the last place they would think to look for him. But he had scarcely settled into his spot against the bridge balustrade to let the haze of the wine clear from his head when, from among the passing traffic, the Lalafells appeared again.
"You do know they won't let you pass without one of these?" Tataru waved a parchment in front of him, bearing Far Eastern script and a crimson seal. An entry permit... Why am I not surprised? But what was surprising was how quickly they had managed to track him down. At that moment, a boat plying the channel below chanced to draw near. He did not stop to think, and sprung onto its mast.
A few moments and several leaps later, Estinien was taking in the city from the roof of Kugane Castle, a self-satisfied grin upon his face. Let them try and find me here... Absent-mindedly, he withdrew what was left of his surume from the pocket where he had secreted it, raised it to his mouth, and...stared. On a nearby walkway, two Lalafells were emerging, led by a Sekiseigumi blade bearing a lantern. What sorcery is this?
In that instant, it occurred to Estinien that they may well have a good reason to seek him out. The thought quickly faded, however. Perhaps it was the wine─a potent variety sourced from the main island─or perhaps it was simply his nature, but the more they pursued him, the more determined he became to elude them. Just need to steer clear until morning. Thus resolved, he stepped off the rooftop and dropped down, down, down to the ground.
After what seemed an eternity, the night sky began to take on the gray of dawn. A little longer, and the Kuroboro Maru would leave port and bear Estinien away, beyond the reach of Scion troubles. But even as he allowed himself to hope, the selfsame cheery voice that had haunted him all night rang out.
"Anyone would think you were trying to avoid us!"
You cannot be serious... Groaning inwardly, he turned to face his unrelenting pursuers, his mind racing as he considered his options. It was then that the Baldesion woman fell to one knee, cradling her head.
"A-Are you all right!?" Tataru crouched down beside her companion in a state of alarm. The Archon had plainly overexerted herself during their night-long game of cat and mouse. Unable to stop himself from feeling a measure of culpability, he was about to proffer a hand when Krile's shoulders began to shake with laughter, as poorly stifled as before.
"Oh, Estinien... Never would I have imagined..." She made an effort to look at him, but the sight of his face seemed only to add to her amusement, sending her into further paroxysms.
"What's this, now? Did you see something from his past?" Tataru asked, her voice dripping with curiosity. Though it was already well on the way to being a warm day, Estinien felt a chill to rival a Coerthan night. He knew that, like the Warrior of Light and Ysayle, Krile was blessed with the Echo, and could peer into the past through another's eyes. He could not begin to guess which mortifying episode in his life she had just witnessed. There were simply too many.
Finally composing herself, Krile stood upright and regarded Estinien with a look of pity. "Be at ease. I am not so heartless as to reveal what I saw. Not here and now, at any rate."
Damn you to the bottom of the seventh hell.
"But enough about that," she continued sweetly. “We were hoping to speak with you─if you have a moment?"
Estinien's shoulders rose and fell as he sighed in resignation. The chase was over.
Later that morning, Estinien stood upon the deck of a merchant vessel bound for Radz-at-Han, on his way to the Empire. He had been charged with finding─and if possible destroying─an alchemical weapon by the name of Black Rose. Left unchecked, the Garleans would inevitably bring the deadly gas to bear against their enemies, Ishgard among them. The method of his recruitment apart, he could not well stand idly by while his comrades were thus threatened, nor could he deny that he was well suited to the task.
As he gazed out at the Ruby Sea, he rested a hand upon the reassuring weight hanging at his waist─a leather pouch heavy with coin. The spoils of some lucrative venture pertaining to Far Eastern legends, according to Tataru.
Yet another bothersome journey. But at least I shan't want for funds.
Reaching into his travel sack, he pulled out a piece of freshly seared surume, a parting gift from Orn Khai. He took a bite, making sure to chew it slowly. There was no telling when he would see any more.
At around the same time, Tataru and Krile were sitting at the Shiokaze Hostelry, taking refreshments with their new friend Orn Khai.
"So, tell us, Krile..." Tataru began, her cheeks flushed from the rice wine, "what scandalous event from Estinien's past did you see?"
Like the morning sun peering out over the horizon, a coy smile slowly broke on Krile's lips. "I’m sorry? Whatever gave you the impression I saw such a thing?"
Their boisterous laughter could be heard as far away as the water’s edge. But thankfully not beyond.