Crow Hills Monastery, in the north of Kholingen….

The religious complex of the Crow Hills was widely considered as an architectural marvel: almost everyone agreed on the point that this was a display to the capacities of Human architecture. There was however disagreements over their deep down function beyond this.

For the Church, for the Nobles, it was a sign of pure faith, of great devotion, of wealth.

For dissidents within Kholingen, it was a sign of oppression, of hypocrisy, of bigotry.

The complex was far from any settlement, except from the outposts of the irregular light oisellery squads protecting (in theory) the northern border of Kholingen. This remoteness was deliberate: draconian isolation was better to spend a life of prayer and privations. As well as, still in theory, isolation removed automatically the pious monks from earthly temptations and the corruption of cities. At least, this was how the Abbey presented the situation to his flock during his sermons.

This was a point of view. Another point of view, much more critical, was that the isolation, the harshness of the Crow Hills, was perfect for making a showcase of power. Only Nobles could have the resources to build such a complex in a so remote zone. Sure, the huge vaults and halls of the Crow Hills were a masterpiece of engineering. It was as sure that the resources involved into this feat could have been put elsewhere. The Church said often that money spent for God helped for the salvation of the donator, the origin of the money being a very secondary thing.

Numerous Nobles from the rather agitated past of Kholingen had transformed their wealth into reliquaries and religious articles used for His service. Or have given to monasteries some lands, villages even, as a source of revenues for the monks. Some critics had raised questions on the pertinence of using wealth gathered in such dubious ways for such high goals. Such critics had been at best ignored, at worst silenced, but there was an ever growing impression, in the population of Kholingen, that the Nobles were washing their bloodied hands in incense.

This connection between wealth and religion had also influence on the recruitment of the clergy, especially the regular one (those who lived separated from “the world”. The ones living in the world, meaning, in contact with normal population, were the secular clergy). With all the land that had been given to the monks, being at the head of a monastery was often very profitable. Especially when speaking of the Crow Hills, by far the wealthiest monastery. Most of the time, nominations for ecclesial duties were highly political, both for the regular and secular clergy.

Those issues were not exclusive to Kholingen; but it was only in this nation that the situation had evolved up to the current point, where almost none non-Noble had been ordained for any significant post for more than two centuries. The root cause of this was the stark refusal of the Nobles to accept that the world was changing, and that they were loosing, even in Kholingen, their privileged position. For example, on the economic point of view, the time where wealth was only in lands had ended; now, trade and industry were far more profitable. But, as those activities were labelled as “just good for commoners”, no Noble bothered to lose his dignity with that.

This was the official position. In reality, Nobles, with their frequent disdain for education, were usually quite inept in such affairs. And it was extremely humiliating, for a Noble, to admit that he was not the born-superior of a “peasant”-title gave to all commoners by Nobles, despite the fact Kholingen was living an rampant urbanization-or even worse, an Hasai. There were also issues concerning foreigners: a sizable fraction of the foreign relations of Kholingen were devoted to settle the numerous lawsuits made by Figareses, Nikeahians, or Imperial citizens for unpaid bills or goods: unfortunately for the Nobles, foreign citizens could hardly be intimidated by private goons, or similar means. This “commoner arrogance” in foreign nations had been seen by those in power in Kholingen as a sign that, to stop this “decadence” (the name they gave to what other nations named progress), measures had to be taken. Far from making concessions, the Nobles had hardened their positions: there were even attempting to instigate an reactionary movement.

The Nobles did not realize that they were mostly digging up their own graves, this way. They did not realize that by their attempts to crush all opposition, they were creating the opposition.

This reactionary movement was very clear in the Crow Hills-much sermons, those days, were about the “growing unrest of the rabble” and other expressions, much more political than religious. The assistance for those sermons always approved, but not because the Abbey was genuinely convincing-thanks to the monopoly of the Nobles on such things, all monks were related to the most powerful families of Kholingen. All such speeches, however, were made for a more and more diminishing audience: like many institutions, the Crow Hills had fallen in hard times when it was speaking about genuine vocations. The monastery, a century ago, was half-empty. Now, it barely held 10% of this already limited total. The remaining monks did not cared: it made more resources for them, and their families: less monks draining the same pool of wealth means more for each individual. And anyway, much of the actual work was done by the convers brothers-commoners. A Noble could not lower himself to do menial work. With their free time, the “real” monks could have occupations fitting to their rank. But maybe not very fitting of their religious condition….Despite the official doctrine of fraternity between monks, this little number of monks had some dark consequences. Struggles for power, for nominations to the various administrative posts, were quite intense. There were cabals and plots daily.

The Abbey had lost some of those petty struggles, recently. He had accordingly to regain some influence. And thankfully, he had currently a golden opportunity to do this.

Safe in his luxurious private study, close to the main chapel of the complex, the Abbey was looking at interest at a tarnished metal plate fragment, on which there was numerous glyphs and signs, from one of the language of before the War of Magic. He praised himself as a scholar, and artefacts from the past intrigued him. Especially artefacts that could be useful. Thus, he looked with clear interest some engraved scenes, that showed in a (quite crude) way the teachings of the Church, especially ones quite adequate for the current situation in Kholingen.

The Lord favouring a knight instead of a mere peasant….The Lord helping nobles to quell an uprising…The Lord giving his blessings to the Prince of Kholingen and his bloodline…

Finding those scenes in actual Scripture was at best very hard, but this point hardly mattered for the Abbey. After all, those lowly commoners could think what they want-they were obviously not favoured by Him. (What a misfortune, however, that the characters had such a peculiar expression on the scenes-one knight looked like a downright moron, and the Lord, well, almost smirked. Bah. All what was required was a little artistic correction to give them a more serene appearance) What was critical was that this metal plate showed in a crystal clear way that the Noblesse was right. Why bother about some eventual contradictions with earlier teachings?

The Abbey was hardly a believer in the sense he should have been, but he certainly believed that there was superior powers covering him. Like him, most monks here paid lip service to the official services, but addressed their actual prayers to the mystery veiled Triarchy. The three gods that gave real things to the ones honouring them. Power. Wealth. And the ultimate gift: Magic.

The Triarchy was certainly the truth behind Him. After all, He spoke of things like compassion, redemption, mercy. Good for cowardly commoners! Like if a superior power could actually favour Humans that were barely above animals. The Triarchy, on the other hand, was about things much more appealing, like domination for the ones that rightly deserved it by their birth.

Well, this was what he had perceived for some of the Triarchy teachings he had found. Those things were rather vague, he had to admit. He had sometimes the nagging impression that some sentences could have mean pretty much anything…But he no longer had this impression.

Because, this artefact was a clear sign that his interpretation was right. Since this was a clear artefact of the Triarchy. The mark of those entities was clearly visible: three stone statues

Not to mention that there was a double treat. The artefact…and the one that had brought it.

She was sitting on a mere stool, looking intently at the floor, as far as possible from the Abbey. This was how the Abbey proceeded when he accepted to receive mere commoners, to show them clearly their place. Which did not happened often. But the monk who acted as his secretary knew very well that this commoner would interest him deeply. Of course, only for the most pious reasons…This was why this smart fellow had made sure that no monk was in the vicinity of the study, and especially the room that was next to it: the private chambers of the Abbey.

The Abbey did not even realize that this was almost certainly for blackmail him later…

The girl, roughly sixteen, was dressed in typical Kholingenian commoner garb. She claimed to be from Novi-Sad, the main city in the north of Kholingen, and she had arrived at the gates of the complex around an hour ago, with a male companion. This was a guy that did not look to be very bright. The secretary got rid of him by sending him to the kitchens for getting a meal, something he had accepted very eagerly…leaving the other alone with the Abbey. She looked to be very nervous. Did she was aware what awaited her? The Abbey was sure of it. So, after all, this girl was almost provoking him! And anyway, she should have been honoured that him, a man of such standing, felt attracted by her. If she did not make a fuss about the situation, the Abbey would give her some pieces of gil after. If she did make a fuss, well, she was going to find out that the architects of the old days had made rooms that were remarkably sound-proof…

Busy with thoughts about what he would with the artefact and this quite pretty peasant girl (he actually thought that this was a proof that he respected, after all, the commoners. It was as frightening at it was sick), the Abbey never noticed that the green eyes of the girl were not exactly in phase with her face, which was blushing each time the Abbey looked at her. Those eyes expressed rather very cold calculation. The girl was a remarkable comedian, to say the least.

“So”, the Abbey finally said, “you dared to disturb to me, just for this little plaque?”

“Yes, your Eminence” said with an appropriate humility the girl. “Me and my friends…found…this object near the old Orsani keep, the one next to Novi-Sad. We thought that this could interest you. It’s such a telling discovery, like the ones the Church like….”

The tongue of the girl very briefly passed on her lips after she had said that. Did the Abbey have noticed the irony behind her phrase? Hard to know. He was a fool, but a that point? Even if he had perceived the sarcasm, he had probably thought that a stupid peasant girl could never have said such a thing, or dared to mock him, even covertly. In any case, the girl was making reference to the numerous finds made in the recent years. It was really strange: when the Church wanted to prove a point of doctrine or policy, a proof was always found within the next months…

In any case, the idea to add that this was coming from Orsani lands was a neat touch.

As the Abbey was born from the powerful Orsani family, this yet increased his interest about this discovery. Many were jealous of the success of the Orsanis. The commoners were of course negligible, but the other families were more serious threat. A real discovery, not a faked one, of such an artefact, could increase the standing of the family, by showing its antiquity…

Yes, this girl had really brought him something useful. Ignoring her requests about how much he would give them for the artefact, the Abbey left his sumptuous seat (almost an throne), and placed himself much closer to the girl, to admire her from a better viewpoint, one last time before…What a pity that he would not be able to keep her here for more than a few day.

As his hand touched the left shoulder of the girl, her face did not change. She bumbled something that the Abbey took as a token protest. What the Abbey did not notice was that her right hand had disappeared. She was searching for the dagger she had cautiously hidden under her shirt. This was against the plan, of course, but there was a limit to what she would accept.

Come on, she thought, hurry a little! I’m in a pretty bad position, here…

That said, their plan was working very well up to this point. The trick of selling maps of lost cities or mithril mines to gullible fools, who never wondered why someone was selling such a sure way for success at such a low price, was getting old real quick. But this idea looked to work pretty well: this “artefact” had certainly grabbed quite well the attention of the Abbey. He had spent a good half-hour trying to read the inscriptions next to the engravings. It was unlikely that he would have succeeded, even if his attention was completely focused. Which was not the case: he had spent much of the time trying to imagine her naked. (despite her very neutral expression, the girl had felt quite humiliated of this. It was really for him-of course, not the Abbey-that she was doing this) That said, if she managed to stave him for a couple of minutes, maybe there was still commercial hopes for their artefact. If she managed to sell it to this idiot, this would gave an interesting added benefit to the whole operation. The girl was thinking to this coldly, while the Abbey put his hand on her chin, making her lift her head. While she displayed her “surprised, afraid but honoured in a sense” look, her heartbeat remaining relatively even, the “peasant girl” put her mind on evaluating the best and noiseless method of killing this individual.

The abbey was interrupted-fortunately for himself-by the arrival of a novice, who opened the door and quickly pushed it back. It took a few seconds to the abbey to realize that the individual, roughly the same age than the girl, was probably not an actual novice. The fact that he had been running was an obvious hint of that. Like the fact that he had probably “worked” the lock.

The “novice” was also hastily removing his monk robes-he was in fact clothed, beneath those, as someone from the poorest quarters of Kholingen, complete with the bandana. The companion of the girl, who was supposed to be stuffing himself in the kitchen of the convers brothers !” He had completely dropped is “dumb country lad” look. Upon seeing him, the expression of the girl switched immediately to a very genuine display of contempt, mixed with joy. It was of course aimed at different persons. Joy for the newcomer. Contempt for the Abbey, to which she was no longer required to play comedy. The roles were switched. They were a threat, now

“Miyuki, I got it! But, err…there were some slight problems, with means that…”

What the pseudo-novice meant was obvious: there was screaming noises coming from the hallway. With the soundproof quality of the walls, this meant that there was quite a commotion nearby. The Abbey did not reacted-the events were happening too quickly for him…

The girl lifted from her stool, and armed herself with her dagger, pointing it loosely in the direction of the Abbey, who raised his hands up in an almost comical manner.

“NOT AGAIN? Locke, what happened this time?” she said, completely ignoring the Abbey.

“An countess from Lowian ! She was in the main chapel to make some devotions….”

“I hope you thought to “borrow” some of her jewellery, at the very least…”

“I would have tried, if she was not escorted by a squad of soldiers. They are dumb, dumb…even more than the ones of Kholingen. They only noticed me when it was too late….”

The Abbey finally snapped out of his inaction-he was attacked by highwaymen ! (grammatical considerations for the second one abstracted) He tried a gimmick that worked often with thieves and brigands, not to mention the military: he played on the religious feelings. Saying that God would punish them for their transgressions, like daring to impersonate monks, lying to him…

If the male intruder-Locke-merely shrugged, obviously not taking this threat very seriously (besides, what a better way to infiltrate an complex than to…hmm…secure…an appropriate disguise ? Not to mention that he was quite good in the art of passing for somebody else-while he was in the novice garb, he had managed to fool everyone that he met by his humble reverences, topped by some religious catchphrases..) the reaction of the girl-Miyuki-was much more surprising for the Abbey. She genuinely laughed. Did that idiot believed that she was stupid and naive enough to believe into such lies? She answered in a quite harsh manner.

.“So, I should be smitten, as I am a blasphemer, right? ‘Cause I dared to lie to you?”

“Not just an blasphemer! Heathen! Your profanation of this holy place will be punished!”

“I seriously wonder about who is the real liar between you and me, Abbey. And how can you say without laughing that I am a profanation to this place. Like all priests, you are a good actor..”

While saying this, as Locke was now here to keep in check the Abbey, Miyuki proceeded to “acquire”. everything that could be of value in the room and be carried easily by one person. Unfortunately, only a handful of items met both conditions. Most of them were religious trinkets.

This made the Abbey scream even more, especially when Miyuki picked up a most precious icon. The fact that this was a gift from one most influent bishop was not foreign to this reaction.

“Don’t dare touch THAT !” he said with what he thought would sound like righteous anger.

“Why not ?” said Locke in a joking manner, while he was too proceeding to an…well, hunt. “If you wish, we can make you a receipt. ‘Cause I fear, with all the claims you made in the recent years, that your superiors back in Kholingen are going to be a little sceptical…”

Indeed, the Abbey had organized, with the military, several fake attacks on supplies convoy in the region. Pretty minor stuff, done by all Kholingenian civil and religious servants. This could be topped with claims of expenses related to the costs of “defence forces”. According to the files that another member of their group had provided to Locke and Miyuki, the Abbey claimed to “pay, feed and clothe” nothing less than one hundred soldiers. While, in reality, not a single of those soldiers had been recruited: this was just for claiming more funds. It was very amusing to think to the troubles the Abbey was going to have to explain how two persons had escaped to such a mighty garrison. (Miyuki had actually made bets with the others members of the group on the question “How much they will increase our numbers in their explanations, to look less like idiots”. In her opinion, the Abbey would speak probably about a “brigand horde”….)

Angered by Locke’s remark, the Abbey screamed at Miyuki that she was “soiling” the relic.

“Oh, I’m terrorized. Of course, of course, your Eminence. I will no longer soil this holy thing.”

Smiling, Miyuki dropped the icon on the ground. Deliberately. The golden casing was damaged, but not the icon itself. Miyuki would have stepped on it or threw it on the fire, if this was not a genuine work of art. She was not a mindless destroyer, like those zealots that burned books because they contradicted their theology…While the Abbey looked, aghast, at Miyuki (after years and years of accusing anyone contradicting him to be an heathen, it was surprising to see someone showing such deliberate, cold, disdain for holy objects), the girl, enjoying deeply the situation, said something in a quite mocking voice. But she was not talking with the Abbey…

“I’m still waiting for the holy incineration. C’mon, I’m in a hurry. Show me your divine wrath!”

Locke saw this outburst with mixed feelings. Miyuki was doing this for the Abbey, to show him that she was not afraid of him. Great. But she was also very sincere-she actually thought in those lines. And, honestly, he was not much a fan of such declarations. First, Miyuki had sometimes hurt quite deeply people, in some cases quite close of her, by her conceptions that religion was something between a mental health problem and self-deception, even if most of the time, she kept this rather for herself. Second, on a more rational point of view, such declarations could be used easily against them. Third, well, despite the fact that Locke was certainly not a fan of the Church, not a deep down believer, and found that the clergy was rather corrupted, rotten even, he did not shared the views of Miyuki on those questions. He had no moral interrogations about, err, “searching” a monastery, but how to say, not much specific animosity. He was doing this in the same mind frame that when he “borrowed” treasures from a manor or “appropriated in a creative manner” goods from one warehouse of the Army. Meaning, he was doing it for economic or social reasons, not metaphysical goals. Miyuki, always the rational girl, acted most of the time like him…except that she saw anything that could undermine the Church as a plus.

For impressing the Abbey, this little showcase worked quite well. While babbling things that were outright amusing, he sank in his chair/throne, turning completely white. Which left some time to search the rest of the room. There was much more than religious trinkets, here…

Locke and Miyuki continued to explore the study, barely watching for their virtual prisoner. In appearance, at least. After taking some little items, their attention focused on books, letters, and similar items. This worried the Abbey. Peasants checking his personal files? This was very unlikely: fortunately (according to the Abbey), Kholingenian commoners had limited access to education: this could give them false ideas about their position in society. Yet those two were visibly very fluent with reading: the Abbey saw with dread that they were methodically keeping all letters and files that that concerned, on way or another, the various Nobles Houses…

“Hey, hey” said Locke after he had worked out the lock of a box. “Originals for ex votos

Ex votos were basically thanks made to a shrine, after a favour was granted. What was there was some correspondence about ex votos made by Kholingenian Nobles. And, evidently, what the Abbey was keeping in this locked box, was interesting requests and thanks. For him. The Abbey obviously did not cared much for the secret of the confession, neither the Nobles cared much about making adequate requests. The content of the box was not harmless things, like requests for relief of arthritis or rheumatisms, but pleas for the destruction of rivals, the ruin of opponents, and the like. Locke did not know what was much more frightening, between the obvious stupidity of the supposed elite of Kholingen (that had willingly gave to the Abbey such compromising requests, that he had as obviously kept for potential blackmail), or the alternative: that the Nobles thought that He could gave them what they want if they requested it via the Abbey.

And the Nobles, thought Locke, dare to pretend to live only for the honour of their bloodlines. They have a pretty creative and flexible definition to the term “honour”, to say the least….

Miyuki was also quite happy: she had put her hands on a score of letters that gave a very enlightening (and amusing) look on the relationships between the top leaders of the Church.

During this time, the Abbey, who was uncertain he faced mere “brigands” or spies, realized that he was not watched very closely. Acting with what he thought was great caution, he slowly moved until he was close to the wall, where a cordon was dangling. It’s only when he was about to pull it, thus ringing a bell to warn his secretary to come at once, that Locke said something.

“Oh, by the way, your Eminence” said in a conversation-tone Locke, “before coming here, I made a little modification to your personal alarm system. Concerning the cable…”

So, when the Abbey did pulled the cordon, thinking this was bluff, Miyuki and Locke smirked. Especially when the cordon collapsed on the arm of the Abbey. This part of the plan was based on a very simple premise: if the Abbey thought that he had an easy way to alert the others, he would probably stick on this way….and would not try to devise others ways.

What followed was a new torrent of almost funny to hear insults concerning the intruders, this time betraying panic. After a while, the Abbey regained enough self control to ask, with a weak voice, betraying fear¸ what those “incredulous heathens” (and so on) planned to do with his life?

Miyuki began to reply with a snappy comment on the virtues of martyrdom, but Locke interrupted her, whispering to her that if the Abbey grew desperate, this would be bad…

“Of course” said Locke “we will spare you, your Eminence…your life is precious to us. Because, if we kill you…who is going to tell to the monks that will search the monastery that you do not wish to be disturbed for the next couple of hours? (The Abbey protested, weakly) Do we really need to go into the whole business of making threats of torture, you replying with a defiant stance, me and Miyuki then discussing the morality of the action, the whole concept of good and evil, the question of the end justifying the methods, and so on, and then, finally, you breaking under our stark resolution ? ‘Cause it’s going to waste time for everyone, you know.”

Locke was good to present things in such a way that discussion was not really necessary. When, a couple of minutes later, some monks politely knocked at the door, the Abbey answered in a weak voice, while Miyuki and Locke pointed at him their daggers (respectively, a kitchen knife and letter opener, both unsharpened…) that everything was quite fine, and that, no, he did not had noticed anything suspicious. The Abbey probably hoped that his monks would find his voice and reply strange, and would enter. He was sorely disappointed by how the events turned. Without asking further comments, the monks on the other side of door left hurriedly…

“Your Eminence”, said with sarcasm Miyuki, “with what we liberated in your chapel, those monks are not very eager to meet your wrath. Likewise, you will be probably quite discreet about why and how you accepted the thieves on the monastery. (She picked up the metal plaque she had brought in, and threw it at the Abbey) You can keep it…this will be very amusing…”

After saying that, Miyuki and Locked proceeded to bound and gag their hostage, who thought that he was bound to be killed anytime now. Miyuki’s comments on the fact that he was soon going to have a golden occasion to check the veracity of what he preached were not helping.

After they had left the room, both Miyuki and Locke let out, almost at the same time, a “yes !” of victory. For one time, this plan was going rather smoothly. Both of them also thought that it was usually in the final part of their operations that things began to go wrong…

Like this time. The secretary of the Abbey was coming up in the hallway. Oh, oh.

Miyuki began to cry a little, again for the comedy act, while Locke acted like comforting her…

The secretary, obviously familiar with similar scenes, said to them to leave those “holy grounds” immediately, if they did not wished to have further trouble, without looking directly at them.

“You don’t know how well we will follow this advice” said in low voice Locke, as soon as the secretary had passed them. Locke and Miyuki quickened their pace. Locke had jammed the door, but it would not take long for the secretary to realize that something was wrong…

When they turned the corner, they started to outright run. They were hearing the secretary try to open the door, ask to the Abbey if he was here, if everything was all right…

The next step of the operation could have been labelled as the “speedy tactical retreat”.

It’s was also known as the “get the hell out of here, as fast as possible” phase. At least, they know about the soldiers of the countess: they would not be surprised by their presence. They were the only real threat to Locke and Miyuki: the monks were of course not prime fighters, and the convers brothers were not going to risk their lives for their masters, that considered them more or less as tools. Moreover, the private soldiers employed by Nobles were not renowned for risking their lives on duty. So, as long as their exact strength was not reckoned, everything would go-

They scrapped this thought quickly. Screams began once again to fill the hallways. They recognized the high pitched voice of the Abbey, who sounded quite furious of the humiliation…

Locke and Miyuki had carefully studied the plans of the monastery before the raid. They took the shortest path possible to reach the cloister-the inner courtyard. There were dozen of potential exits-the best to avoid to be cornered. And the cloister, who communicated with the gardens of the monastery, was very close of a certain point of the outer wall chose for their departure.

The fact that the monastery was more than half empty helped them tremendously. Unused rooms were frequent, and their foes lacked the manpower to search them efficiently. This let Locke and Miyuki perform a very basic operation: hidden behind the numerous archways of the cloister, they moved back from where they were coming, into a chapel that had had been already searched, to allow themselves to be bypassed by the search teams, thus giving them an hedge.

It’s allowed also for some discussion on the operation proper. Locke quickly showed to Miyuki the item he had snatched from the chapel, which confirmed to her the success of the whole thing.

Still, she had some issues about her role into this operation, and she voiced them…

“Next time, we raid a nun convent ! And you will play the bait ! This is the first and last time that I do this ! This sicko looked at my cleavage for one half-hour, you know?”

“At least, it’s prevented him to look too closely at our brand-new “age-old relic” And well, err…you know, yours…are really the perfect incarnation of the expression killing view.”

“You bastard”, replied a blushing Miyuki. (Actual blushing, not faked one. She was not always calculative, playing a role. She was much more relaxed, cheerful even, with Locke and her (rare) friends…She had not said that in an aggressive voice: she was even laughing. She knew that Locke was joking. And well, he was certainly the only guy that could make such comments to her without being slapped. And from him, it was certainly coming from a nice intention)

“I also wish to point out that you volunteered to do the bait. I would never ask that from you.”

“Yeah, that was my idea, I admit”, sighed Miyuki. “Admit, on your part, that this worked well…”

“Morally dubious, but this indeed worked (Locke’s conception of morality, like Miyuki, looked quite strange first. Locke did not have major qualms about his line of work. It did not prevented him to have a much more morally upright conduct than many people that preached morality) The only issue that I have concerns the fact that, sooner or later, she may heard about it.

“If you ever mention this to her…” replied Miyuki with more than a hint of threat…

“Don’t’ worry, my lips are forever shut. Not only because of that: if we ever mention this little operation to her, she is going to rip us apart alive and burn the remains, at the very least. Not to mention that she will cry about us, especially concerning our choice of targets…”

The our was typically Locke. Chivalric, in a sense. Miyuki had pushed for this choice of target, while Locke had issues about it, mostly because this could backfire for Miyuki: her…position…on religious questions was a source of endless sorrow and heated discussions. Locke, however, was not going to blame or let someone else take the blame for him.

The possibility of being shredded alive did not look to affect Miyuki a lot. The mention of potential tears, however, worried her. Especially because she knew that this would happen.

“I count on you and your creative capacities for story-telling for inventing something for her…”

“Of course, Miyuki…I will find something believable. Or rather, that she could believe..”

“…You did think, like me, that she know the truth, despite our efforts?” slowly asked Miyuki.

Locke nodded. Despite his efforts (he was very good at presenting things in a positive way, without resorting to outright lying…in a sense. For instance, the first time he and Miyuki had gave her something from their raids, he had settled up a complex story of legitimate work), he was not sure that she believed him now.…or that she had ever believed him. Him and Miyuki could con and scam almost anyone, except her. Ironically, the only person from which it really mattered to hide their…lifestyle, because it was a source of constant worry…

After all, “treasure hunting” is not exactly a profession a mother wanted her children to pick up, even if both Locke and Miyuki showed obvious skills and wits for it.

Well, before facing their mother back in Kholingen, there was still the issue of getting out of there alive. Locke almost preferred to face a squad of guards than to see his mother cry over him and Miyuki, out of genuine concern for their safety…as well as the fate of their souls.

Locke should have known better than make such wishes. When he left the chapel with Miyuki, the hallway leading back to the cloister was empty…The only thing was, one minute later, a group of soldiers from the Countess escort came, spot them, and raised one more time the alarm.

Locke and Miyuki bolted away, the guard in hot pursuit. They were burdened with their armour: this gave to the “hunters” a slight chance to succeed in their escape plan…

They were running for the outer wall…straight at the gate. That was currently wide open. An idea of the secretary, who had thought to this “plan”. Some soldiers and convers brothers were hidden in the gatehouse, ready to jump on those thieves, and take back what they had stolen….

Miyuki found that both amusing and irritating. Amusing that the “elite” thought of such plans…Irritating that they believed that “peasants” could be dumb enough for falling for it. They were meters from the gate when they changed their course-this was deliberate, to tease the soldiers. They were now heading for a point of the outer wall. Their pursuers were not overly worried. The wall was four meter high (not much military speaking, but then, this was monastery, not a fortress…) and if the thieves attempted to scale it, the guards would have all the time they wanted to fire on them. To add to this, Locke and Miyuki, who had been running for a good time, were exhausted-there foes were beginning to close on them. Their back up was ready and in position, fortunately. Their pursuers saw four bolts, coming from crossbows, impale themselves in the grass in front of them. The guards retreated quite hastily, to find some cover

Raising from the wall on the of which she had laid upon, the third and last member of their group, Marianne, a little younger than Locke and Miyuki, waved at her friends as they were coming. She was holding in her hands the brand-new Figarese weapon that had pumped out all the profit that had made in their last operation. This complex device was supposed to be a less-technological version of the Tek weaponry-or firearms-that had recently been developed by the Imperials. The device had promise, but right now, it was not terribly efficient. The “shotbow”, as it was labelled, was a crossbow firing multiple bolts at time, up to four. The problem was that it took a lot of time to ready the firing mechanism. So long that it was very hard to use the weapon twice in the same battle. But one shot was all that was required, if only for the psychological effect.

The trio had made modifications to this, to fire salvoes that were loosely grouped. All this for the sake of pretending to be a powerful, well equipped group (and not three people, barely armed, who had a single chocobo, an animal that was threatened periodically of ending up on an grill, despite the fact that with his most venerable age, its edibility was at best dubious) For this time, it apparently worked. Marianne, who had reached this part of the wall thanks to a tree, was also there to help Locke and Miyuki scale the wall, if possible before the hounds (or the local equivalent) were unleashed. She threw at them the ropes that were already fastened to the branch that had allowed her to reach this position. One minute later, the trio was running for the wooden hills that bordered the monastery. Some guards and convers from the gatehouse briefly gave them pursuit, before giving up: there was no way they could found target in such an area, especially considering that dusk would fall in two hours. There was a far better strategy to apply….

Those thieves were in the woods? Perfect. But they would have to leave those woods, sooner or later. And there was only one city they could go: Novi-Sad. All that was required was warning the garrison, and a neat trap would be ready for them in Novi-Sad And if they remained hidden, patrols of the irregular oisellery could be summoned, to comb the woods.

As he was giving orders to warn Novi-Sad, the Abbey realized, to his dread, that the trio of thieves that have stole the most precious relic of the monastery had really planned their operation…This was the work of Marianne, who had been tasked to disable, as quietly as possible, all the possible ways for the monks to alert Novi-Sad, short of walking (which would not be much a threat, as Locke, Miyuki and Marianne could probably walk faster than any monk in poor physical condition, unmotivated convers brother, or armour laden soldier)

“Mysteriously”, an couple of starved cats had been unleashed into the dovecote, with the obvious result of…disabling…much of the long range communication “gear” of the monastery. As for communicating the news directly, the chocobos of the monastery were currently spread over fifty square kilometres, half-mad in fear: someone had used on them the age old-trick of attaching to their talons a rope, with at the other end slow-burning fireworks. As the stable doors had been opened beforehand, the panicked birds, fearing fire, had made a mad dash for the hills. Recuperating them and calming them would take at the very least days.

The Abbey was however someone with connections. He had received, for his personal use, one of those wireless sets that the Imperials had began to manufacture and export at very high prices (without doubt, a device that had been destined as the army, and “borrowed” by the Abbey. Hey, it was not just Locke that made “treasures hunts”. The main difference was that Locke, for his part, did not do this with virtual impunity). This had been another concern for Locke, and another task for Marianne. When Locke, during a five minutes pause, asked her if she had succeeded, she answered indirectly. Marianne, playfully, moved back and forth, in front of his eyes, a bulb and a couple of transistors. The Abbey had been for a surprise when he tried to use his precious wireless set. Marianne was sure he used not too religious terms about technology.

There was one last option…The optical telegraph: this device, bought from Figarese engineers, was an outdated but efficient technology: two huge blades with several sections, fixed on a pole that could be put in several positions. The said positions had pre-planned meanings. For instance a (II) meant “nothing to report”, while an (LL) meant “need reinforcement”. There was also an alphabetical system, much slower. The idea was that several stations could relay the message up to government, to allow quick action. The problem was that no one had thought that this device had been invented in the sunny Figarese Kingdom, not in the rainy and snowy Kholingenian state. This meant that while optical transmission was easy to perform with the great visibility of Figaro, in Kholingen, the system often functioned very badly. For instance, today, the transmission would have been seriously hampered by mist, that was especially dense a couple of stations away. It was doubtful that the message could have reached Novi-Sad before the night. But, as there was a good three days of travel by foot, it was improbable that the communication would not have reached Novi-Sad before they had reached the city. Unfortunately, the Abbey did not knew that Miyuki, Locke and Marianne, before coming here, had paid a little visit to the last station before the monastery, and had made, in the middle of the night, “improvements” to the system. Now, at the first traction, the whole mechanism would jam. As serving in those stations was considered punishment, it was doubtful that the handful of soldiers stationed there would make s a show of initiative, and try to repair the whole device themselves, before the bi-monthly inspection. Especially because, thanks to the paranoid government of Kholingen, the operators often did not knew what the signs meant. Accordingly, there was no way the operators could figure out that one message was critical, and that another was just a boring report…

After an hour of walk in the woods, Locke and the others reached the hilltop where they had installed their camp. Everything was already packed for departure. By sheer curiosity, as they were leaving, Marianne looked back at the monastery, quite visible from here-the optical telegraph was moving frantically. And she knew how to translate the moves of the blades.

S..e..a..r…(Marianne stopped after a while, to give an full translation). Search for a large group of outlaws, heavily armed. Wow, this guy is taking it quite personal, this little operation ! He had placed up a rather obscene bounty on our heads. Opus citato. “Look especially for two siblings, guilty of most treacherous and heretic-blah, blah, blah”.

Locke made a mental note to thanks Marianne for this translation. Since this was obvious that this pleased Miyuki, who could not hide a little smile. Not because of the bounty, but because it was implied that the Abbey thought that Locke and her were brother/sister. Which was not the case, despite all Miyuki wishes on the matter. In fact, Miyuki was “only” the milk-sister of Locke,

Locke’s mother had took a job of wet-nurse shortly after the birth of her son. Breast feeding another child than her own was a job like another, after all, perfectly accepted socially in Kholingen and most nations, and this was also relatively well paid.

And God knows how money was in short supply for Locke’s mother, with the antics of her husband, who had a knack for finding “jobs” which ended up catastrophically.

At the time of Locke’s birth, his father was at the height of his association with a guy named Clyde Arrownny. Locke’s mother had nothing against this individual, except that he was obviously even worse than her husband when it was the time to choose “jobs”. Clyde and her husband had left Kholingen when she was in the sixth month of her pregnancy, telling her they would be back with gifts for the upcoming newborn. Locke’s mother had not been overly surprised when, two months later, she had received a desperate letter: Clyde and her husband were hiding in a God-forgotten state on the Southern Continent…Thalassa, or something like that….thanks to their latest deal, an job of smuggling Figarese luxury goods in the Empire.

This had managed to put on their backs the Imperial Custom Office, the Figarese Minister of Trade, and the smugglers themselves. As this “no risk” job (Locke’s mother had several time wondered, if “no risk” tasks ended up so badly, how could end “risky” contracts…. Although she loved her husband, she had admitted long ago that he had some failures. She was quite relieved that both Miyuki and Locke were much more gifted in wits than him) had ended, one more time in disaster, she had to raise funds to send to her husband, if only for paying his return ticket. For someone in her condition, job possibilities were limited. So, she had accepted eagerly the offer.

Miyuki’s real parents did not showed major interest into her. To be honest, with the rampant rate of child mortality in Kholingen, this was not a sign of being rude or insensible: as many children died before two years old. Accordingly, parents were not always very attached to newborns. On the first two years of Miyuki’s existence, they paid Locke’s mother without questions (she had to admit, afterward, that she had maybe spiked a little her expenses…), but they come to see Miyuki maybe one or two times. This was also pretty normal: in Kholingen, wet-nurses took care of children until they were five or six, long after the stop of breast-feeding. This was due in part to the fact that most “high-class” families had limited interests in the down to earth elements of child-raising. Anyway, this normal, but meagre interest had stopped suddenly when Miyuki was three. As well as the money flow. Leaving Locke’s mother with thee mouths to feed (not to mention clothes, the rent…) without much resources, and her husband still abroad.

The whole wet-nurse job was enough to keep her, Miyuki and Locke alive, without trouble. For helping her husband, this was another matter. Especially considering that, to not be such a charge for his wife, he always tried, with Clyde, to find his own ways of paying his trip back.

Locke’s mother had lost track of the downright stupid enterprises and scams the pair had tried abroad, from trying to pass up as Domasians lords down on their luck (result: ten cartels for duel to the death by outraged genuine Domasisan lords) to trying to sell supposed “magic relics” to one Imperial general, a Kefka guy, or something like that (luckily, the pair had never met Kefka with their clever-according to them-scheme for faking magic: barely mastered illusionists tricks. They had just paid an Imperial clerk an hefty bribe for bring them to the general. The clerk, not an idiot, had took the bribe, and never came back). They always ended up in more trouble than before. What despaired Locke’s mother was that Clyde Arrowny, according to some letters, was tempted to settle abroad, in Thamassa for some mysterious reason. Well, mysterious in the opinion of her husband, the reason. Since this was obvious for Locke’s mother.

Her husband, who had at least the quality of being very faithful, had reported her naively in one letter that a Thamassian girl was “very nice” with him. Locke’s mother had told herself that her husband had, to say thing in a quiet, relaxed manner, great appeal for ladies, she knew it very well. A trait that his son, as this would become obvious some years later, also had.

This positive attitude had not prevented her to write a letter describing in graphic terms the dire fate that would await Locke’s father and the unnamed Thamassian girl if he even dared to cheat his wife. Fortunately, she had scrapped this letter, and wrote one expressing her ideas in a more adequate way. In following letters, the situation had evolved to a point that Locke’s mother had saw with relief. The Thamassian girl, while still being interested in seeing her husband, was now more and more with Clyde…As Clyde had no family in Kholingen or elsewhere, it was very probable that he had least considered the possibility of settling in Thamassa, which had been utilised by the pair for years as a sort of base of operation, with this girl. The problem was that, without Clyde, her husband could end up in yet more trouble, she was sure of it.

Anyway, at that time, she was beginning to be sceptical about the excuses of her husband. In his last letter, he had claimed that the fishing ship he was working on to make a living (between “jobs”) had been attacked by a giant talking octopus-nothing less. Locke’s mother, who had some education (in Kholingen, this meant that she was able to read and write with difficulty, and had heard some things about classical literature. But this was better than her husband, who was forced to use public writers) had replied sarcastically to him to that she was eager, in his next letter, to heard about Cyclops and the like. All this made Locke’s mother pretty alone. Accordingly, she was free to do what she wanted about Miyuki, despite the comments of her husband, who had disagreed with her idea. She kept Miyuki, to raise her as her own daughter.

Locke’s mother had done this for various reasons: she did not know to whom she could entrust Miyuki, she actually loved the girl, who was adorable, Miyuki and Locke were going along quite well….and finally, she just could not abandon Miyuki like that, lack of money or not.

As a result, Miyuki had been basically raised with Locke, and they were as close as actual brother/sister (probably closer than many brothers and sisters). The funnier point was that unknowing people actually thought that Miyuki was Locke’s twin sister, to the point that they found out that the “Cole siblings” looked quite alike. This was certainly true on the point of view of behaviour and demeanour, but physically, to put things diplomatically, this was much harder to perceive. This explained the comment of the Abbey concerning the two “brigands”….

As Miyuki have never showed much interest over her biological parents (why she should be interested by those strangers? Locke’s mother, that she had always called her mother, considered her mother, had raised her, took care of her, educated her the best she could…This was a lot more important for Miyuki than some blood link), she had pretty minimal interest in knowing from who she was exactly born. If her “mother” (Miyuki hated herself when she used this term between quotes) had not told her, she would never inquired about this. Of course, Miyuki was not a “hidden princess” or something in those lines. Her parents were mere wealthy merchants, who had the misfortune of attracting the attention of a ruined noble, with powerful connections. Fake accusations, quick trial, even speedier execution, rightful confiscation…..

Locke’s mother had told this to Miyuki, as part of a genera explanation of her situation, when Miyuki was seven, thinking that this was better to tell the truth that let Miyuki realize it by her own later. This had of course hurt Miyuki a lot: she would have preferred to never know…

Since that time, Miyuki always felt a little…insecure…in her family. Genuinely, Locke’s mother loved her like she loved her “real son”. This was the core issue. Miyuki sometimes considered herself as the “false” sister of Locke. That had been basically adopted by sheer charity. By a woman that was at best in a wretched economical situation, and who remained into this condition. Locke’s father never returned from abroad, and to the end of his days, his wife tried to support him, which strained even more her tight budget. She was forced to take a succession of badly paid jobs, being highly vulnerable thanks to the fact that she had to raise two children.

Still, she had always managed to feed her family, without resorting to desperate solutions.

And she had endured all this for raise a child that was not even her own. A child that was actually born from the ones that were bleeding her white. Miyuki would always find this much more impressive that all the deeds that most Noble houses always boasted about….

This had played a huge part in the build-up of Miyuki’s conceptions on politics and society. Sure, this was neat, like Locke and Miyuki were trying to do since they were ten, to help their mother. It was as sure that taking…conventional…jobs was maybe not the best way to go. They were probably helping her a lot more with their current way of life. Still, all this was at best a drop in the ocean. What would really help was attempting to change things on a much larger scale…

Marianne, for widely different reasons shared those views. Locke too, but he was often quite worried about his sister and his friend, concerning those ideals. Both were obviously fully willing to go quite far for accomplish them, to a point that was sometimes frightening.

“So!” said eagerly Marianne, making Miyuki snap back to the present. “How this ended?”

“Your little plaque”, said Locke, “worked very well…It duped completely the Abbey.”

Indeed, the “artefact” had been made by the trio, with Marianne directing the production. The phrases in old characters? Marianne wished good luck to the Abbey to decrypt that, since she had lifted them from actual artefacts, and mixed letters and words, adding some invented signs for good measure. The engraved scenes? This was just a depiction of the most probable religious fantasies that a Noble would have (this also showed that nether Locke, Miyuki and Marianne had much future as an artist, despite their best effort to imitate known scenes. Not to mention the fact the rather hostile depiction of Nobles and religious figure was not an accident)

The idea of the Triarchy, the crowning touch, was again from Marianne. She was not more religious than Locke or Miyuki, but she was far more knowing on such matters. Marianne, being of Hasai birth, was required to know how to read, since the Hasai faith implied that Hasais could read their own religious texts. Accordingly, she was the closest thing their group had of a scholar

It was thanks to her that Locke and Miyuki had improved their own skills on such matter tremendously. The end result of this was that Miyuki and Locke had an education that had been not very formal, but quite comparable to the one that was given in the much more enlightened nations of Figaro and the Empire. This was another thing that angered Miyuki, as well as Locke. Their government was unique in the world: it promoted illiteracy. Thanks to the reaction of the Noblesse, who had cut all funds affected to mass education (previously, some schools for teaching to read and write existed, especially in urban zones) officially because of an politic of austerity, the already quite limited alphabetisation of Kholingen had dropped in the recent years, at a time where it was raising tremendously in the Empire and in Figaro. Kholingen was now almost as worse as Doma on this matter. The government thought that “dumb peasants” whose only education was religion were much more obedient than ones that could read, learn things by themselves, think by themselves, make out their own opinions, and not rely on official doctrine.

The Nobles believed this genuinely, to the point that they blamed all the dissent in Kholingen to “intellectuals”, “revolutionaries” “agents from foreign nations” and the worse thing (according to them), Hasais. They thought that the people, the normal folk, was an amorphous blob, that could be pressured to death without saying anything, because they knew their place in society. That the people could not have will, even less rights. That any movement advocating change was just the work of agitators, and could be accordingly very easily crushed….

Miyuki’s (as well as Marianne and Locke, even if the later had some issues with the means the two others sometimes considered) dearest wish was to be able, a day, to prove them wrong.

Anyway, the idea was, Marianne had read, somewhere about the legend of the statues, and the interest they raised in many parts of the world. She had just added them to fool more the Abbey.

For the metal piece itself, they had recuperated it on a scrap yard. This would not have stand long on any serious examination, but all that was required was a credible artefact for the Abbey….

“Gee, thank you”, replied an overjoyed Marianne (overjoyed that her plaque hard worked…or that Locke had praised her? Miyuki could not put her finger on the right answer…)

“I think this guy was even dumber than the usual ecclesiastics” said with scorn Miyuki.

Locke, to avoid an lengthy discussion on religious matters (not that Marianne was not more or less in phase with Miyuki on such questions, or that he found theirs positions on this unbearable. It was just that he a reflex to try to make her avoid such discussions, because they had turned badly more than one time, back in Kholingen), said to them that they would have the time they wanted for chit-chat later, but time was pressing now. Accordingly, they hastily started to move southward, for Novi-Sad, then Kholingen, not using the main road, but rather small paths in the hills and woods, their lone chocobo carrying most of their gear (tents, food, cooking instruments…) It was only when they were on the verge of exhaustion, several hours later, long after night had fallen, that they decided to stop for sleep a little.

And also, to finally look closer at what had cost them so much trouble and hardship.

It was only after they had settled up camp, lighted a small fire (carefully camouflaged), that Locke, each of his moves followed by the quite eager eyes of Miyuki and Marianne, dug up in hi backpack to show them the most precious relic of the monastery of the Crow Hills.

The only thing that had allowed the…retrieval…of such a precious item was careful planning, and use of circumstances. Among those circumstances, there was the ineptitude of the Abbey, his weaknesses, the fact that most of the units deployed in the North had been called back to the capitol thanks to the latest bread riots. And still, it had been quite close. The Countess had been there precisely to make prayers over this relic, which had been both a bless and a curse. A bless, because the relic was in the chapel, and not in the treasure vault. A curse, because this made the…borrowing…being noticed much more quickly. Instantly, even.

Like most relics, this one was displayed in a luxurious “box”, a reliquary. In fact, most of the time, relic and reliquary ended up designating the same thing, as they were intricate.

This relic was, first hand, not unlike the matrioshkas dolls that were widely spread in Kholingen. The relic was composed of an ensemble of shells: each one could be opened, to reveal the smaller shell inside. Those shells were egg shaped, and were astonishing works of art, in precious metals. For instance, the outer shell was in silver, with gold decorations, showing a crow flying alongside an mythical bird. And this was the first one. The others one were in amber, platinum, pure gold…The final “shell”, slightly large than an hen egg, was made of pure mithril…

The item was priceless. Which means that they would get a much lower price for it than it’s actual value. Maybe five percent. As dealing in such things was very dangerous, they never asked for more, or inquired much about who would be the final buyer of the relic. There was one thing sure: it was probably someone from the Empire. Only Imperials could have such funds.

Locke had the impression that they were not in it for the sheer artistic value of it…

The bird thematic was on each shell, and that was quite in phase with the egg design of reliquary.

Which was very appropriate, since this relic had a quite aerial thematic. It was the birds displayed on each shell. Not the crow, which was here for mark the fact this relic belonged to the Crow Hills. The other one The Church had presented this bird, with wings engulfed in flames, as a symbol of His spirit. The relic was supposed to be a sort to be a gift from God, supposedly able to heal major wounds. Miyuki had noted that this was mostly traditional religious stuff, except for a detail.

The relic actually worked. There had been real healings with it, in recent times.

Marianne, Locke and Miyuki had all agreed on the fact that there was a good chance that this was probably not for the official reason (miracles), since the ones that were healed were always the ones that had paid the most, to gain physical access to the relic. Which was not very telling about metaphysical intervention, but quite intriguing concerning the relic itself…

The relic was mostly known as the “Egg of the Divine Bird”, because of its shape.

Or just “Phoenix”.

Locke had seriously wondered is this could be one of those “magic stones” the Empire was searching for. That would have either brought in the coffers of Koba an impressive amount of money, or landed them into endless troubles. And the two hypotheses were not exclusive.

It was with quite a thrill that Locke opened the last shell. A little late, but with the time required to open each shell, that was not an operation that could be performed when in a hurry.

And he had quite a deception when he saw its content. Empty…Of course, this was not completely surprising. Keeping the actual relic elsewhere than its official resting place would have been a very basic security measure. Except that the relic was actually housed there, according to all the documents they had snatched, in the cautious preparation for their raid. The relic and the reliquary were not to be separated. Moreover, there were decoys: for instance, there was an obviously fake relic displayed in one chapel, and two more elaborated forgeries.

What this meant was that Locke had not been fooled…At least, not only him. The ones that had been fooled were much more likely to be the monks. Or even the Abbey.

It did not changed anything to the fact that there was a terrible deception. Still, the reliquary itself had a genuine worth. And, Locke thought, they were supposed to bring the reliquary to their contact, since officially, he just wanted the item…not especially the relic inside it.

His quick mind was already considering possibilities for exploiting this situation…

For the being, however, it was pretty important that they found out what had happened…

“I have an idea about this…” said thoughtfully Marianne. “I heard that the Army began to stockpile modern weapons-mostly for uses by the private soldiers of the Nobles. Guns, firearms, and even some walkers. Only the Empire can sell such weapons. With the way the finances are run, I suppose that the Imperials did not accept to send their gear for promises of future payment. They most have asked for something more concrete. Like, for instance, this relic. This would means that this is one of those magic stones. And that this is already in Imperial hands…”

“What the heck could be those stones”, said Miyuki, who hated metaphysical explanations of any kind. Magic was of course among this. “And why they are so badly wanted?”

“According to the Empire”, replied quietly Marianne, “those so-called stones can be used to unleash Magic. Pretty unclear. But, on the other hand, Magic is a vague concept. The ships of the Empire are propelled by something that would have appeared to us as magic ten years ago. Same thing for their aircraft and their walkers. Maybe this relic is something in those lines…”

“So, you are saying that the Imperials took the relic, by a way or the other?” said doubtfully Locke. “It’s not that I don’t not think that they are not capable of doing this. The only issue is: in this case…who paid such a whopping sum for getting this? We are getting the scraps of it, but I estimate that the total price is going to be in the six zeros…The Imperials can’t have pay two times for getting the same item (A pause). Unless we talk of Imperial factions

“Oh, great…” said with a yawn Marianne, trying to look unconcerned. “We will be caught in the cross-fire of Imperial inner policies…Not to mention that we will have to get paid!”

Their group, the Koba, who had already a certain reputation, had been contacted by a notorious “deal-broker” of Kholingen, to retrieve the relic, in exchange of a payment. It was obvious the deal broker was just an intermediary, for powerful employer. It was also obvious than when dealing with such figure, extra caution will be needed: Locke, Miyuki and Marianne were at best expendables into this deal…Especially if this involved the Imperials. With this relative, they would be lucky to end this with their lives. With payment, that was going to be harder.

What the heck. They had done even crazier stuff in the past. No pain, no gain…

“Don’t worry too much about financial questions”, said kindly Locke

“You think that I’m obsessed by money, right? Because I’m a Hasai girl?”

The only times were Locke ever get embarrassed was when he thought he had hurt a girl. Like this time. Marianne was a bit sensible on similar questions. This was the time to try to switch subjects, to avoid making Marianne fall too much into depression: what Locke had, by sheer accident, told her, were bringing back to her pretty bad memories of her childhood…

“Hey, I would be ill-placed to speak on the matter…A treasure hunter always have use of Gil. Honestly, a Gil piece is the fable universal key: there is nothing that resist to it !”

“Yeah”, replied Miyuki. “The only thing is that we have to invest much of our profits for gain info for the new ops…Those damn Nobles exploit even thieves. Shocking…”

Locke noticed that Miyuki was again falling into politic talks, even if this was humour (he could not determine if the fact she was making jokes about the situation was a good or bad thing…) Anyway, she had say something that really teased him. Locke disliked using direct terms for qualifying their work (like thieves) as well as too obvious euphemisms.

“We are not thieves…We are treasure hunters. It’s just that we hunt in, err, peculiar places…”

“Locke, you are still using this outdated term ? It’s make the Koba look like a bunch of preschoolers…It’s childish. “Revolutionary expropriation” is much more appropriate…”

Miyuki and Marianne had not exactly the same troubles than Locke with

“Seconded !” said Marianne with enthusiasm. “But I think that “redistribution of wealth” would be a neat euphemism too…Much more in phase with our little goals than “treasure hunt…”

“But, girls, it’s not that I’m not for your idea”, tried Locke, “but they are a little unrealist….”

“C’mon, Locke, don’t be a party breaker. Of course, we can’t do it right now! This will require years and years of planning. For instance, I think we have spared around 50 Gil for the Cause…”

“Yeah. With that, we can hope, at best, for a massive uprising of three persons! This just means that we will need to be patient before attempting to do the Revolution….”

This was what frightened Locked the most. That Miyuki and Marianne were very serious, despite the jokes. They were evaluating how much it could cost to buy weapons to arm an insurrection, where to pick the said weapons…They were deadly serious, when they were talking about the pros and cons of picking a staging area in the north or the south of Kholingen…

They chit-chated for some more minutes, on much more relaxed subjects before each of them began to feel very sleepy. Except Marianne, who was feeling very excited.

Come on, come on…say it. Say it. You have to say it, or nothing will ever happen…

Well, hmm….” said slowly Marianne. “It’s sure cold tonight, hey?” (she began to speak more quickly) “Locke, when Miyuki will be the one at guard…could I go sleep in your tent?”

Locke was quite ill-at-ease, shocked even, following this sentence. Marianne had said some innuendo in the recent months to this effect-but this was, by far, her most open declaration on the matter. Marianne often thought to quite complex plans, but she could also be desperately clumsy in her social skills at a more…personal…level. This was terribly straightforward. And why, of all times, she had chosen such a moment? Maybe she had just thought that this would be easier when they were on “operation”, with the thrill of danger, or something like that. Or maybe she just hoped that Locke would be more receptive, thanks to the success of her fake artefact….

A very painful silence followed. Locke did not know what to answer. He had never thought to Marianne this way. Sure she was quite, quite attractive…he had seen her, a couple times, in…err…delicate…positions, and this had been a pleasant view.

At this moment, Locke realized that the “incidents” in question had a high possibility of having been staged. By Marianne. For instance, it was hard to imagine that the ever cautious Marianne could have actually put her clothes on a slippery rock while she was bathing in a river, which had resulted into her calling Locke for help her into retrieving her clothing downstream. And that she only realized after a while that she was completely naked in front of him.

Quite embarrassing for both of them, no doubt, but this was a quite clear way for Marianne to show Locke that she was no longer the eleven years old girl he had met years ago.

That said, what was the best course for Locke? Or rather, what was the most decent one, especially concerning Marianne? Others could have jumped on such a tempting…occasion, but Locke genuinely worried about if Marianne knew what she was doing.

Miyuki could figure out what her bother was thinking. This was certainly admirable for his part, but Marianne obviously waited a reply. And she had the feeling that “could we just be friends ?”, which was a possibility, was going to hurt Marianne a lot. Miyuki acted to prevent this outcome. Or rather, to delay it until Locke had decided what course he was going to take…

“Don’t take it personal, Marianne”, replied with a grin Miyuki, but Mom ordered me to act as his chaperon. She like kids, but she feels that she is still a little too young to have grand-children…”

Both Locke and Marianne were very relieved of this. Locke and Miyuki almost genuinely saw Marianne snap out of her previous mood, in which she was seemingly dead serious about “sleeping” with Locke, to switch back to her joking, playful, usual attitude. (because she felt her approach had been an disaster…or because it had been mere innuendo ?)

“Hey, don’t blame a girl for just trying…And Miyuki, frankly, this is really mean. I would not have harmed him…far from it. Well, Locke, you just missed a very good offer…”

Her pink tongue appeared briefly between her lips-a very innocent, cute looking gesture, radically different from what she had discussed with Miyuki tonight. About her offer…was this a comedy act, or more serious? Marianne was always cracking jokes-who know if she was sincere?

With great dignity, a withdrawing Marianne, giggling, moved to the tent she would share with Miyuki. Locke’s sister followed…and with a startling speed, they closed the “door”…

Leaving Locke to do the first watch of the night, the most dreadful one. Darn !

“Ah, ah. Only the third time this month you pull that on me! I will exact a terrible revenge for this monstrous treachery! You will get ice cold coffee tomorrow morning …And you can say farewell to your scrambled eggs!” (Locke said this with his best “comic anger” voice)

Miyuki’s face appeared briefly outside the tent, clearly deeply amused by the vents.

“Locke, please, try to make real threats. You threatening to refuse your cooking duties, it’s not exactly intimidating. In fact, it’s much more like a reward than a punishment…

Slightly below Miyuki’s head, Marianne head made her appearance, also very cheerful..

“Think to how you could have spent the night with me…this will warm you up!”

Lock made a gesture to throw at them his backpack. Both heads disappeared quickly.

Alone, Locke sighed. They had probably contracts on their heads, they were up to the neck in this failed deal…and the two others members of his group were laughing all their hearths out about the rather childish prank they had pulled on him. Bah. It was not important.

No, it was important. Miyuki and Marianne did not have often occasion to be really happy. If this could make them think about something else than politics, this was perfect.

That said, Locke would have to figure out what he would answer if Marianne made him in the near future another offer of the same type. Being alone would certainly help for this. He began to search for small wood, for feed the fire for the remainder of his watch. The flames made him thing to the fiery bird on the reliquary…Phoenix. Was this such a bad thing, that the reliquary was empty ? If the relic had been there…could he have resisted to the temptation of trying it ?

Power over life, if the tales were right…This sure could be useful, for anyone…

Inside, meanwhile, Marianne and Miyuki had giggled for a while. Marianne was saying that she had found a pretty neat way to make Locke stand guard. Miyuki pretended to believe it, and she decided to not try to determine if there was, or not, a hint of tears in Marianne’s green eyes….

Kholingen proper, a few days later…

The Koba group was now at a table, in a quiet corner of the main room of a tavern.

This was also useful for allow them to think more to their strategy…Since there had been, how to say, a major “glitch” that have happened during their travel from Novi-Sad to Kholingen. A “glitch” that showcased that Koba was deep in trouble, right now…

Marianne was quietly reading to them the front page of a newspaper, more or less legal, but nevertheless much more read that the press of the government, that was lacking any credibility. There was a pile of similar “daily” next to her. They had all more or less the same headlines…

“The Crow Hills Monastery had been ravaged by fire. The Abbey is confirmed dead”

“Well, said Locke, there are two possibilities. It’s either a fire from natural causes, or from…not natural causes. By “natural” causes, I include of course explosives and the like. By not natural causes, I include a…actual action made by the Phoenix. Which I find quite unlikely…”

“Yeah”, replied Marianne, who was busy calculating dates. The fire had occurred shortly after they had left Novi-Sad. Which meant shortly after the government had been warned of the operation: from what she had gathered, the first emissaries of the monastery arrived mere hours after their departure from Novi-Sad. “Metaphysical considerations put apart, the fact that Phoenix was obviously did not there help to reach this conclusion. In fact, this look like they hope that people will blame the relic-whatever this thing could really be-on this…And on this point”, continued Marianne while picking up an “people” newspaper, there is an enlightening info up there…The leader of the Orsanis is currently in Vector ! Pretty telling, hey ?”

“Pretty telling, yes. It’s hard to follow all the deals and backstabs here-what matters is that the Orsanis are trying to hide the disappearance of the relic. We know that the relic was not there. And we also know that there is only one way to really secure the silence of someone. The only way to get out of this is to, how to say, “attack” first, take the initiative…”

“Oh, this sounds like you are going to tell us one of those plans you have from time to time!” said sarcastically Miyuki. “Which have the common point of being completely insane…”

“Ah, ah, very funny. They are insane, but they work. Usually. Anyway, my idea is simple. Did someone actually know what Phoenix is supposed to look like. I mean ?”

There was a minute of silence. Of course, no one did. And they saw where Locke was going…

“You are saying that we could just give the shells to our contact, like that, and hope to get away? To leave the place in one piece, alive, and remain in this condition afterward?”

Miyuki sounded to be quite doubtful about the possibility of meeting all those conditions.

“This will require clever planning, and bluff. But I think this is possible. What will save us is the fact that our contact will be the one blamed if something goes wrong. Not us…”

“Hey…just had an idea”, said Marianne, who looked to be uneasy. “To…make gil. And to do this while trying to do the goal you just stated, Locke…in a very simple way. Pretend that we have the item…we could attempt to sell…pieces…of the “relic”. We just have to use the rumours that already exist about this relic. We could even spread some rumours of our own, like…like telling we saw a golden fiery bird bursting from it, when we opened the final shell…”

If Marianne was uneasy, it was because, as she had said shortly after the raid-she hated to be associated with money. The problem was that Marianne’s mind was quite geared toward numbers-this was why she was the one that had been put in charge of the finances of the group. This was related to her ethnic background, like sickening racists said, bur rather to her familial background. Her role had led to the usual comments such as “ah, sure, Hasais are good in those matters”, that Marianne had accepted with clenched teeth.. To the Shéol with those bastards. It was a slight improvement over being called an “Hasai rat” or vermin. What really mattered for her what was her friends thought of her-not idiots believing this propaganda…

“Marianne…this is not a good idea, this is an awesome idea! I’m sure we will find easily a market for this! With the fire, this will add a lot to the credibility of the whole thing…”

Locke mostly thought that this was an after all inoffensive forgery, that would not hurt anyone: what the heck if Nobles paid some Gil for getting a trinket? If they were stupid enough to believe that a rock had magical power, it was their problem, not the one of the sellers…Miyuki, however, even if she found the idea quite good, was rather angered by some elements of it…

“What a joke. They would buy something stolen to guarantee their afterlife…It’s the sickest, cheapest form of bigotry I ever saw. And once again, money rules everything. According to the Church, you can negate a life of sins by paying. What kind of religion is that !”

Locke felt in phase with Miyuki, but he also feared to “launch” her sister in a political speech –which could be tricky, considering that they were in a tavern. They had spoken with low voices until now, but, when Miyuki was angered, she had a tendency to raise her tone…

“Miyuki…you know like me that our mother would…would be among the first to buy it…”

The issue raised by Locke was the core problem that she had with Miyuki…

Locke and Miyuki’s mother was quite pious. Not a zealot, a hothead, or anything. Just pious. Apparently, the priest of her birth parish was sincerely convinced that he could improve things for his flock. He had tried to put into place a minimal education system for the children (hence the little education Locke’s mother received), he had tried to organize social things like child crèche, communal kitchen, workers cooperative…He had obviously made a lasting impression on Locke’s mother, and made her very religious, for the rest of her days.

According to the (flowery) depictions of his mother, the priest was a true holy man. Locke, don’t knowing him, thought that this was quite possible, since there was priests that were caring about the material lives of their flocks. As well as priests who were on the payroll of the government for spreading propaganda. Miyuki had always been highly sceptical on the question, but some of her accusations, that she thankfully never voiced to her mother, such as the fact that this was not such a surprise that a priest organized activities to be with little girls (there had been a couple of scandals like this in the recent years) were probably completely false. Others insinuations, such as the fact that this priest was just trying a softer approach, had maybe some truth in it. For instance, sure, Locke’s mother learned to read…but all she was given to read was pious books, whom unsurprisingly taught resignation and acceptance of the things of this world…

Deep down, there was also the question of what a single man, well-intentioned or not, could do to change things in a system rotten to the core, without making fundamental change to the regime.

For Miyuki, Locke and Marianne, the answer to this question was easy: not much.

This was why the relations between her and her daughter were a bit strained at times. Miyuki, as she had said it, viewed religion as a cure people invented for social wrongs. So, she more or less saw her mother as someone who had been deceived all her life, who needed to see the truth. While her mother thought that her daughter needed to see the Light. Her mother still loved Miyuki deeply: it was because of her love that she was so worried about her. Still, the relation between the twos, mostly because of such questions, was quite strained at times. Which left Locke in the crossfire, attempting to patch up things the best he could.

“It’s just a lie”, continued Miyuki. The priests probably did not even believe into this c…Religion is just a drug for the people…an invention for the social control. A neat one, I have to admit. Be obedient, be submissive, and you will be rewarded in next life! “

“So, you are saying that our mother is a kind of junkie? You don’t think that, I know it…”

“Of course I don’t think that! No. I mean that people clings to it because they have nothing else to help them make their live more supportable…They are not “drugged”. They take it because it’s the only way for them to live. Without it, she would have failed into despair a long time ago…”

Miyuki was almost crying while saying this. Her mother had been exploited all her life, by a system run by the Church-and she could not accept it. She would die persuaded of it…

This little discussion raised the interest of Marianne. She did liked this “religion is a drug” metaphor-this was an relatively easy step for her, since she was not even a part of the religion Miyuki had been raised in-this also meant that she was less violent than her concerning religion.

“Well, to take in medical terms, the best would be to treat the problem rather than the symptoms…Which means” she said in a very neutral tone, “to treat the regime itself…”

Miyuki heard the word “treat”, and smiled. This was an euphemism on the class of “treasure hunter”. Since, with the socio-economical system of Kholingen, solutions were quite limited.

This was one thing to try to avenge yourself from society by being…well, thieves, that preyed on the rich. This was much better to try to change society, to improve things for everyone.

And there was two ways of doing it, that Miyuki considered as viable as each other.

Reform….trying to change things by peaceful means, by consensus, instead of outright violence. This was how things had worked out in Figaro, and to a lesser extent the Empire. Unlikely, alas.

Revolution….forcing change, by an insurrection, by the force of arms. Bloody, alas.

To do the Revolution, they needed to win the hearts and minds of the people. This was where was going, a way or the other, most of the money they earned with their operations. Miyuki and Marianne were not doing it primary for the political gain, but this played a part, and they were honest enough to recognize it. This idea was expressed perfectly into the tracts that Miyuki took great pain to wrote and diffuse, after a “redistribution” of wealth…(with the means of Koba, it was pretty small things, this redistribution. The best thing they had ever achieved was organize a tiny fund for providing legal defence to people for the slums-the Nobles were not fully wrong when they said that the traditional charity of the Church was all those “lazy” workers needed, since dissidents had trouble to do anything meaningful. But Miyuki, on this point fully followed by Locke, thought that workers needed dignity, not charity. They wanted to be able to have decent lives-not to be at the mercy of the variable generosity of Nobles)

When we help you to ease out your wretched lives, we are heroes for you. And for the tyrant and his so-called government, we are at worse annoying flies, who take scraps of their wealth…

When we ask you to think about WHY you live those lives in the first time, we are labelled as dangerous monsters. Because, in this situation, we are a threat for the tyrant…

According to you, what is the best way to end up this oppression?

Saying that those tracts did not have exactly the impact Miyuki had hoped was an understatement. It had never discouraged Miyuki. She would find a way to convince people that the Revolution was the only possible answer. She would convince them. At whatever price!

And, right now, they were about to have an golden opportunity to do “political work”. Both Locke and Miyuki realized that Marianne was trying desperately to look unconcerned, to not react… She struggled to keep a very neutral face, but that her hands were now crisped on her glass. She has holding it so tightly that cracks began to appear. The cause of her trouble was easy to locate; there was a newcomer in the tavern that was speaking loudly at the bar. Way too loudly: he was not actually speaking to the one he seemed to speak to: the guy who was on the stool next to him was nodding, of course, but he was so drunk that he would have nodded to any proposition, from “Want another drink, chap?” to “Want to enlist in the Imperial Army?”

Right now, the individual was busy to describe to his captive audience, and by extension to the rest of the tavern, about his experiences as a dock worker, stating that he had been moved, shocked, to realize that there was plots organized by “secret societies” to keep the grain supplies low, and by extension anger the people against “our beloved Prince”. The said secret societies looked to not be that secret, or very efficient, since the “insider” had been apparently able to infiltrate them quite easily, and unmask their nefarious leaders, that were quite close to the stereotypical depictions of “enemies of order and religion” What followed was quite crude accusations concerning those supposed leaders, Hence the reaction of Marianne. The speech of the guy was basically an open call to murder Hasais on the spot…

Locke dislike for racists was shared by his sister, and it was almost a match for her hatred of clerics and nobles. This dislike was of course even stronger when someone close of him was affected.. It did not take long to Locke to decide what to do. He could not stand to let his friends be threatened. Miyuki neither. Both of them rose from their chairs, and smiled at Marianne.

“Don’t worry, Marianne. This…will not speak like that for long” said Locke, quite serious.

Upon seeing the individual from closer, Locke and Miyuki managed to place quickly a lot of pieces from the puzzle. They knew him. They had seen him in a recent operation in the outskirts of Kholingen, concerning an Orsani household…The power of the Orsanis was rising those days. They were the actual power in Kholingen, in fact. Their power did not mean much concerning competence, that said. In Kholingen, dissent was on the rise, especially in the new urban working class. The countryside was in theory quieter, but peasants were asking, more and more, for the agrarian reform. And there was a consensus of hatred toward the Orsanis, which worried the head of the family. In addition to stepping up the repression, they had also used, with variable success, the age old tactic of finding scapegoats, and blame everything on them…

The said scapegoats had been relatively easy to find: the Hasais. They always been targeted by the government, but Count Orsani had markedly stepped up its measures against them.

There was riots because of high bread prices? This was not due to incompetence and grain speculation, but because of a nefarious Hasai plot. The governor of Lowian had been caught red-handed, using state funds for pay his gambling debts? The poor fellow (well, according to official circles. Locally, he had a wide array of nicknames: “Sponge” was one of the most known, because of the governor’s lone capacity: absorbing vast quantity of stuff. With a remarkable tolerance for bribes and alcohol) was not guilty! This was in fact due to Hasais, who wanted to destroy the trust of the Kholingenians in their institutions (as this had not been done decades, centuries even, ago). All the foreign policy of Kholingen was completely discredited, thanks to it’s incoherence, as well as numerous human rights issues raised by the Empire and Figaro? This was due to the actions of the Hasais communities within those lands. And so on.

This was in similar circumstances that Locke and Miyuki had meet for the first time Marianne…

At that time, they were trying, with variable success, one of their very first jobs…

In Kholingen, many “golden boys” from the Noblesse considered that visiting the slums was a kind of thrill. For them, it was not unlike visiting a zoo: it was amusing, to see how the commoners scrapped a living. Nobles were so sure of their superiority that often, they did not even thought that commoners could fight back. (Not to mention the fact that the private goons of their parents could exact a vengeance) They also enjoyed to terrorize the inhabitants (beatings, petty harassment), knowing very well that unless they did something really abominable, they would not even get the proverbial slap on the wrist. And, in all honestly, it was probable that this was this feeling on complete impunity that motivated much of their behaviour

The idea was, to visit the slums, it took guides, to show to the “most aristocratic Noble lords” what were the most wretched places, all this while being as humble and deferential as possible.

Well, Locke and Miyuki offered them an “all-included deal”: they said to the Nobles that they were going to show them all the aspects of the lives in the slums: Especially the most interesting ones. Obviously, “interesting” was a pretty vague term. What the golden boys planned was likely to be something in the lines of a brothel, or illegal substances. Especially when Locke said that they could lead their clients to an experience that they would not forgot….

As with all travel agencies, however, there was some catches in the deal. That said, Locke and Miyuki were not lying when they said they proposed an unforgettable experience. Indeed, their clients usually had a great first hand experience with the criminal life of Kholingen.

And this was actually interesting, exciting, amusing even. The only thing, not for the clients.

The seedy empty alley…the heavily built thugs closing on the golden boys….the beating, with hilarious attempts of resistance …and finally the looting of everything valuable….This truly made up for priceless memories, and would give to the Nobles a whole new perspective on their value, as well as a new position on the supposed stupidity and submission of commoners.

Of course, in addition to their rather ridiculous salaries paid by the golden boys, the “guides” received their percentage on the…collected resources. A rather sizable percentage, in fact.

Not only because they lured the Nobles, but because they were the ones that had conceived this.

The only issue was that tips were problematic to get. As well as good feedback on the clients

Who, on the other hand, were not exactly eager to say that they had been stupid enough to be crossed by twelve years old kids. The side issue was that they did triy to kill them afterward. Locke and Miyuki got their first bounties on their heads before they were thirteen.

If they had stopped, it was not because of this threat, but because their mother had realized what they were doing, and begged them to stop. Hence a quick change of profession. Similar events lo their various jobs in pyramidal schemes, smuggling, forgeries, blackmail, cons and scams, up to their current occupations. Locke and Miyuki had both the depressing opinion that if their mother had not complained on this, it was because she had more or less given up on them…)

Anyway, as they were still doing this kind of “guided tours”, they had once walked upon a group of Nobles visibly enjoying themselves in a manner that appeared quick sick to outsiders.

They had picked up a random Hasai girl in the Pale, in this case eleven years old, and began to insult her in every possible manner, hoping that she would react in an amusing manner.

Marianne was as calculative as Miyuki, but not as cold. She was not exactly impulsive, but, as Locke had politely pointed her some times, she sure had, an, how to say, fiery attitude sometimes. Like right now, she had always felt that she should not be ashamed of being a Hasai girl. She was even proud of her background: her people had survived to anything, over centuries, if not millenniums. Why she should felt like an inferior by birth? Why she would stand to live in fear, awaiting the next riot triggered by the Church? Why she would live in submission?

Those feelings were widespread among younger Hasais.. This was why both Miyuki and Marianne considered the Hasai community as a great pool of potential recruits for the Revolution.

The fact, real, that many Hasais were dissidents, allowed the government to pretend that, after all, all this “agitation” was just the work of Hasais. A little or two “spontaneous” riots organized by one of the Noble-backed “self defence group”, the worse of them being the Black Militia, was thought by the Nobles as a failsafe way of venting off the anger of the “rabble”.

Speaking of that, with his trademark dark garb, the “well informed” individual was probably a member of the Black Militia, and not one of its brightest or smartest members…

This organization was another sign of the decay of all institutions in Kholingen, and also a telltale indicator of how things actually worked in Kholingen. An recent huge but unarmed manifestation organized by workers for getting better conditions had been greeted with machine-gun fire, because of a supposed threat to public order, while much smaller manifestations of those self defence groups, the most nefarious of them being the Black Militia, armed to the teeth, were saw with benevolence by the police. Being subtle had never been a forte of the Kholingenian regime, but the supposed spontaneous Black Militia was really a farce. It was surprising, to say the least, that an movement, that was in theory coming from the people, was mostly used as strike-breakers, agents provocateurs for the organization of riots against supposed dissidents, or could actually address petitions to the Prince, requiring that he “stop to be so merciful against the hordes threatening his throne, and that he authorized his true servants to attack the rabble…” (sic) Not to mention the shameless use of religion against the opponents of the regime (the Black Militia was recruited partly among fanatics). This, with the methods of the Black Militia, had been enough that several key figure of the Church, with some Human decency left in them, had seriously considered withdrawing any clerical support to the organization.

Some Nobles, ecclesiastics or other members of the elite that merely wanted to keep things in the state they were, had began to open their eyes, and realized that Orsani, to fight off the growing dissent, had gone to the other end of the political spectrum, which was probably not a good thing on the long run…Indeed, the birth of the Black Militia had been, in many cases, the breaking point for many Kholingenians, Hasais or not. The Nobles were acting this way? Fine. They would see that this little game could be played at two. And especially that a real popular movement, not a bunch of drunken fools or fanatics paid by the Nobles, was hard to stop….

To return to Marianne’s own story, the girl, who had grew up in such a climate, was quite for “change”, in any form this could take. But she could not stand being humiliated. Still, she had managed to remain calm, and not react, for a long time, as the verbal insults of the Nobles became to be more and more violent. Exasperated by her reaction (or rather, lack of reaction), they began to pelt stones at her…No one raised to the defence of Marianne: this was not because, as propaganda said, Hasais were cowards, but because the people living in the Pale knew very well that everything they could do would just bring more trouble. This was not a courageous reaction, but a sadly common one, in Kholingen and in other nations.

After having been hit several times, and tracked down each time she tried to leave the area, one stone hit Marianne so badly in the arm she began to bleed. This was greeted with cheers of joy, as congratulation to one that had scored the hit, for his accuracy. This made Marianne snap. She had silently picked up the stone, and threw it back at the Noble, touching him in the face…

This act had completely stunned the Noble. For a minute. Then, he and his friends had proceeded to make Marianne pay for daring to touch a Noble, a very step price according to them.

As Hasais were widely labelled as “rats” or “vermin” by the propaganda, they had thought that this would be funny to drown Marianne like a rat. And as merely drowning someone was not that fun, they were doing slowly. After dragging her away, they had forced her to kneel on one of the banks of the Khol river, and where amusing themselves by shoving her head into water, waiting her to almost suffocate, then drag her by her hair…to shove her back after.

They probably did not planned to actually kill Marianne, but they were treating her in such a way (kicks, slaps) that her life was threatened. Not to mention the humiliation: they wanted her to crawl at their feet, begging them to excuse her action. Marianne could either refuse to humiliate herself and die…and either accept, and be dispirited for the rest of her life. No win situation.

As they were now outside of the Pale, possibility of intervention dwindled a lot. Sadly Hasais, were being hated almost as much as Nobles in certain places, thanks to the propaganda. It was unlikely that anyone would have lifted a little finger for her. When some people had voiced a comment on the matter, the Nobles had the perfect answers. That Marianne was just a Hasai girl, and that, accordingly, harming her or killing her was at worse a funny joke…

That is, until Locke, with Miyuki, had seen this so charming scene, and did intervene.

Locke had told to the Nobles, using all the “catch words” he had learned during his trade as a guide, that Marianne was the daughter of a rich merchant from the Hasai community of Figaro. He would certainly pay up for excusing his daughter action. The idea that Hasais were almost all wealthy merchants or bankers was so ingrained in many minds that the Nobles believed it almost instantly. Threatening a rich banker about the life of his daughter was going to be so fun ! Although, as Hasais loved money better than anything else, he would probably prefer to keep it rather than save his daughter. Bah. Teaching her a lesson would be neat, too….

They also believed Locke when he told them that, for ten Gil, he would lead them to the place where they could meet Marianne’s father. The Nobles, tremendously enjoying terrorizing helpless commoners, threatened Locke that if he did not led right away, he would be drowned also…Locke, playing appropriate terror, gulped and accepted to lead them, as Miyuki was discreetly helping Marianne back to her feet, and moving with to the rear of the group. The Nobles visibly never heard about the little “tourist” trick performed by Locke…

Ten minutes later, Locke and Miyuki were the ones laughing, as they were leading Marianne back to her real family, after giving to their “employees” their share of the operation. In fact, Marianne’s family was only in a slightly better position than Locke’s mother, which does not mean much: her parents were clerks for a shipping company. They were as overjoyed of seeing Marianne back as they were a little cold concerning Locke and Miyuki-a feeling that was a neat parallel with the reaction of Locke’s mother when her kids brought at home for the first time their new friend-Miyuki had developed an instant liking for this girl, that was not impressed by Nobles. And Locke, well, was really the chivalrous time (who loved to rescue princess, more or less. He did prefer to save smart princesses, the kind that could fight back and were not helpless). Marianne, over the next operations of the newly born Koba group, had proven to be far from helpless. Despite issues with both families (Marianne’s parent had major trouble believing Humans outside their community, and Locke’s mother had been, even if she tried to hide it the best she could, deeply influenced by the anti-Hasai rhetoric of the Church. And there was also the questions concerning the lifestyle of the trio), she was almost always with Locke and Miyuki.

In fact, Miyuki had…had trouble figuring out life without Marianne: she wanted things to stay this way. She did not want to see Marianne heartbroken because Locke rejected her. Despite her friendship with Miyuki, she would probably have to leave the group afterward, if only because of the tensions that would exist between Locke and her. On the other hand, she could not tell, honestly, that she would have endless joy if Locke and Marianne got involved…

Thanks to their raid against the Orsani manor in the outskirts of Novi-Sad, crude portraits of Locke and Miyuki (as well as Marianne) had been well distributed among the servants and clients of the Orsani. So, of course, when Miyuki passed in front of him, the individual, startled, rose, Conveniently, this made him ignore almost completely Locke, as he was sneaking next to him…

Thanks to a well placed feet, the individual collapsed. Locke had worked previously on his purse, which burst as he contacted the floor. Spilling a surprising amount of Gil for a “poor but loyal to the Prince peasant”. The crowd shut up immediately upon seeing this.

“Wow”, said in a matter of fact manner, with a hint of irony, Locke, breaking the sudden silence “He was right. His experiences truly moved him….to a better life style, no doubt.” (His remark was greeted by cheers. Snappy answers or wry comments are always popular…)

The agent was helped back to his feet by numerous hands, not showing outright concern for his safety. The mood of the crowd worsened when they saw the insignia of the Orsani House.

It was of course very counter-productive for a provocateur agent to have such thing on him, especially with the hate generated by the Orsanis: the said insignia had been put there by Miyuki. With his Black Militia garb, this was far enough for categorize him as a “guy sent by the Nobles”. The agent tried to explain the situation, but, as Locke had thought, he did not even have the time to say Koba before the first chair was broken on his head. After, well, it would have been hard for him to say anything. Locke and Miyuki returned to their table, as the agent was finally expulsed of the tavern in a very energetic manner….

“It’s great working with you two,” Marianne said very sincerely after a while…

Epilogue…A few hours later, somewhere in the slums of Kholingen…

“Finally, you arrive here!” said with scorn the deal-maker that had contacted Locke and his team for the operation. And it was very clear for Locke that this was going to be hard negotiations.

There were subtle hints of this. For instance, the ten armed grunts that were closely watching Locke and the two others. The current plan was a slight modification of the one proposed in the tavern: it was according to this plan than Locke handed, without much discussion, the reliquary to the deal broker, who looked first hand a little doubtful. Of course, he was going to check the content…As he was opening the last shell of the reliquary, Locke, Miyuki and Marianne all hold their breath. They knew he was very superstitious, but…

YES ! When he opened the last shell, an eerie reddish glow bathed his face. He closed the shell very hastily, fearing the power of this relic, and the wrath of his client…

After, well, this was not much of a surprise. Locke plans and operations were always very well designed-the only little detail was that he had trouble, how to say, to…conclude. Without weapons, for instance, it was not always obvious to convince the other side to respect his end of the deal. So, they were basically told to get out of the warehouse as fast as possible, instead of receiving their pay. It was obvious that the deal maker was hoping that they would be accused of the crime. He was not aware that he was going to be one that would end up tricked.

He did not know, for instance, that Koba was going to sell their “fragments” of Phoenix as soon as he would have left Kholingen-just to give the impression that he was the seller…

“Well, we will have at least the papers we had…borrowed…to pay up for a neat gift for mom…”

“Don’t look so down, Locke…Think about what will happen to this crook. This will be a sort of pay off”, said Marianne to try to cheer him up.

As they were walking back to their respective homes, they walked on the scene of a confrontation. A girl that looked furiously like the standard “gal lost in a dangerous zone” had attracted the attention of several denizens of the sector. They were deep into the process of looting her-in the best case. As Locke and the others began to have a sort of reputation in Kholingen (often in the lines of the helpful fools, but still…), the said denizens did not insisted when Locke “asked” that they stop. However, they did mention the name Koba. And the girl heard it. She instantly and understandably began to look at her rescuers in a quite different manner. If she had only heard of them form official channels…they were monsters for her “!

Locke was not overly surprised of her reaction. He was a criminal, after all, moral or political consideration set apart. And if criminals had, according to Marianne, a “rogue charm”, it was likely that the charm kicked in when the girl was already finding the “thieve” attractive…So, as he and the others were guiding the girl out of the slums, he tried to chat a little with her.

“C’mon, follow us. It’s a somewhat…lively…sector of the town. We will lead you out of there.”

The girl did accept to follow, mostly because she had not really other choices.

“I know, we don’t have good reputation…but do you know why we named ourselves like that?

This attempt of conversation was met by silence. The girl was not in a chatting mood…

Koba is as an old hero…The legend is not very well known today, except in the southern borderlands-the place where our mother is from. His deeds are legendary. He was from the time of the War of the Magi, apparently. He was a…well, a treasure hunter, that played a key role in the War. Defender of the Poor…Hero of the People….those kind of things, you see.

What Locke did not added was that Koba was also Miyuki absolute hero, since she was four. Not for politics, but because she loved the story. When they were kids, she begged her mother each night to tell her the tale-she must have heard it several hundred times (Locke did not hated the tale, liked it even, but after the first fifty times, it had maybe lost a little of its charm...Always the kind guy, he had never complained on the matter) Among her books concerning radical political theories (some of them work from Figarese and Imperial philosophers, others retrieved from various ruins and translated) Miyuki had a carefully hidden, but much treasured, children illustrated version of this tale-this was the gift her mother had made her, to help her to accept that she was not her actual daughter. As this interest was not exactly presentable for a future revolutionary leader, Miyuki often said that if the group was named Koba, it was because the name was a beacon that could rally people to the Cause. While, in reality the reverse was true: the Koba legend had inspired Miyuki…Anyway, that did not seem to impress the girl much.

“Could we know, at least, your name?” finally tried Locke.

“My name is Rachel”, she finally said, very reluctantly, after a while.

Epilogue….Vector, some days later…

The Kholingenian deal broker, right now, had many doubts about the pertinence of his involvement into this whole business. Soldiers of the Imperial Guard were watching him quite closely, as well as giving him a certain berth. No doubt because of the egg shaped thing he was carrying. Like it had been planned, a man, in a garb that would have been hilarious in other times, was waiting for him. Without saying a word, the deal broker gave in the relic…The Imperial opened hastily all the shells, not caring about damaging them. Like days ago, his face was briefly basked in a red light. But it did not look to impress him much.

He laughed. But his laugh did not exactly sounded to be a good sign for the deal broker…

“I think you made a slight mistake. This is a red electric bulb in a cheap glass egg, with a battery to supply it, and a switch triggered by the opening of the last shell. This crude device have an value of around two or three Gil. It’s not exactly the sum I have supplied you….”

To prove his point, the Imperial picked up the “magic stone”, and threw it at the Kholingenian.

The deal broker, turning white, did not forget to curse, a lot, Locke and the others for having crossed him. Before realizing that he was the one, in fact, that had crossed them….

“My general…my general” babbled the deal broker, “there is evidently some problems with my suppliers. This will dealt with swiftly. Please consider the reliquary as a gift…for your patience”

The Imperial man picked up the shells of the reliquary, looked at them for a minute. Then he tossed one over his shoulder, while trampling the others with his feet. He obviously did not care much about artistic value. He did cared, however, about losing his time and being fooled…

“I will show you, to avoid any further confusion, what is exactly Magic….”

The demonstration was indeed very telling, and very definitive. Unfortunately, it was unlikely that the deal broker could use a day his newfound knowledge on the exact nature of Magic.

A few minutes later, the Imperial came, literary barging, in another room of the Imperial palace, where an elderly man, deeply amused of the situation, was waiting for him…

“I heard that you…dealt…already with the man that provided you the item?”

An officer attached to the general had reported this. There was not much left of the deal-broker.

What followed was one of the trademark speeches of the general, showing clear madness.

The older man barely listened. Nothing of this actually mattered for him….

After all, this was so…stereotyped…to try to steal an artefact by using intermediaries (that said, the general had been initially prone to use even cruder methods, like sending the army directly. It had taken some persuasion to push him to use other means) Paying discreetly for the resource was much smarter. Especially considering that he did not planned to actually pay for Phoenix.

What a misfortune that the general had killed so harshly (and especially so quickly) the deal broker. This meant that all the connections with the ones that had stolen the reliquary were lost. To cut all loose ends, the best solution would have been to capture them, and pin on them the theft of the reliquary and Phoenix. This was no longer possible, especially considering that the “accidental” fire at the Crow Hills had destroyed most evidence for finding those ingenious thieves (as well as killing most witnesses of the operation) Bah, it was at worse an inconvenience. They did not know that he had bought from the Orsani household the magicyte a month ago. That he had allowed the general to mount this little operation, to cover his own acquisition of Phoenix…Finally, the assassination of the Orsani patriarch in Vector here had also be a neat test for his, how to say…special resources. As well as cutting one more track linking the operation to him. The paranoid Orsanis have already eliminated any one involved into the shipping overseas of Phoenix. Leaving him in secure possession of the Esper, and no living Human aware of this.

This Esper, for instance, could prove quite useful if Kefka turned hostile. The Imperial Engineers had probably finished, by now, the last resort vault where he planned to keep Phoenix…

All That Glitters Is Cold 3 Fanfic Competition

This Page © Copyright 1997, Brian Work. All rights reserved. Thanks to Sax for his help with the layout. Do not take anything from this page without my consent. If you wish to contact an author, artist, reviewer, or any other contributor to the site, their email address can be found on their index page. This site is link-free, meaning you don't need to ask me if you'd like to link to it. Best viewed in 1024x768.