Since I’ve decided to start working on this project again as a way of getting my word count up, I’m going to keep posting bits of this for a while. Enjoy!
Reminder: If you’re looking for the previously posted parts of the story, go to the “Categories” drop-down banner on the left banner of the site and choose “Final Fantasy: Returning Hope”.
*Spites via http://www.videogamesprites.net
“Almost…there…” Locke panted. “Just over…this next dune…I’m sure of it this time…”
Terra raised an eyebrow. Although she wasn’t nearly as exhausted and uncomfortable as Locke seemed to be, she reached up to swipe a bead of sweat from her forehead.
The climate had changed dramatically throughout their journey. On the second day they’d reached a moderate zone at the bottom of the mountains. Once here the temperature began to rise exponentially as they headed south. On the third day Terra had to shed Locke’s jacket as they traveled alongside a babbling river. On the fourth, they left the forest behind for warm, wide-open plains. By the morning of the fifth they’d passed into the desert, the scorching sun beating down on them mercilessly. It was here, somewhere, that Locke claimed they would come to Figaro Castle, but Terra was beginning to doubt his sanity. All she could see in any direction was endless golden sand.
Terra hadn’t asked any questions since that first night, making it a very long and awkward journey. Locke had attempted to prompt her a few times, but mostly they had walked in silence, stopping only to sleep and eat dried meats and fruits from Locke’s pack. It had been very uncomfortable for Locke, but necessary in Terra’s eyes. She was as yet unsure what she should and shouldn’t say around the young man. Did he know of her affiliation with the Empire or didn’t he? If he did, was he still helping her out of the goodness of his heart, or was she really a hostage? And if he didn’t, what would he do if she told him? Would he continue to help her, or would he leave her for dead here in this awful wasteland?
Her heart and instincts told her she could trust him, but good old fashioned fear kept her from risking it.
“Oh thank the bloody maker!” Locke sighed from the top of the dune. “We finally made it!”
Part of her (the part that was hot and tired) suspected that he had contracted sun stroke and was gazing lovingly down at another particularly large dune. She was therefore genuinely surprised when, upon reaching the apex of the mound of sand herself, she found what could only be described as a fortress, plunked right in the middle of the desert.
It was both beautiful and extremely impressive, its thick black stone contrasting against the endless golden sand. The outer wall structure ran all the way around in a perfect square, with a tall, circular tower rising up from each corner. Up through the center of the structure rose a fifth square tower where one could stand and overlook the entire fortress and the sands beyond. From a pole on this central tower flew three flags, though at this distance Terra couldn’t distinguish the designs.
Locke was halfway down the dune by the time Terra stopped staring. She followed him at a quicker trot than usual, sand sneaking into the crevices in her boots. She was as eager as he was to get in out of the unforgiving sun.
“Hey!” Locke was calling to the guards when Terra caught up to him. “Open the gate, will you? We’re dying out here!”
The guards were squinting in the sun and holding their crossbows at the read as they walked closer, but Terra saw that one of them was grinning. “Ah, it’s you!” he chuckled. “Get lost in the desert again?”
“I don’t get lost,” Locke snarled, but there was a good-natured tone in his voice. “Just let us the hell in already!”
All three guards laughed out loud now, but they signaled to a fourth who was on the inner side of the large, cross-hatched steel gate. It creaked open slowly and the guards ushered Locke and Terra in, snickering the whole time. The gate clanged back down behind them once they were safely inside.
They were in a great courtyard lined with potted plants and bustling with people. Terra tried to look around – her eye caught a man with a cart selling fresh bread to a crowd of laughing women and children – but Locke continued to stride purposefully forward. She had to jog alongside him to keep up.
“What’s the rush?” she asked. As she trotted along she turned with interest to watch a man with a chest plate teaching some young boys how to properly swing a sword.
“The king will be wanting to see us immediately,” Locke explained.
Clamping her mouth shut, Terra once more wondered if she wasn’t truly a hostage in all this. With a stab of panic she wondered if the king would have guards waiting to toss her in the dungeon and Locke was leading her straight to them. For a moment she hesitated, but she barely missed half a step before she continued along. The castle gate was shut; it wasn’t as though she could make a run for it now.
Locke led her into the main building of the castle, down hallways covered in beautiful carpets, up staircases lined with flowers and burning lanterns sprinkled with sweet-smelling incense. They passed through many doorways guarded by men in full, shining armor who carried large spears or swords. Some, like the guards at the gate, clutched crossbows to their chests. Terra’s eyes darted in every direction, but there was simply too much to be seen. She realized after the eighth or ninth passageway that she couldn’t remember how to get back to where they’d started.
By the time they came to a pair of large, ebony doors that could only be the entrance to the throne room, Terra’s heart had begun to beat irregularly. What was going to happen in there? She had little idea, and the thought of not knowing made her clench her fists until her fingernails bit deep into her palms.
Locke strode confidently past the guards – who didn’t give a second glance – and pushed the huge doors open just wide enough for the two of them to walk through.
The first thing Terra noticed was that the large room had an exceptionally high ceiling, but soon her eyes were drawn to the lavish decorations, the carpets and wall-hangings of crimson and gold. At the far end of the room stood two gorgeous thrones, the arms and backs of which were carved in intricate designs, with the seats covered in plush red velvet. The thrones, however, were both empty, as was the rest of the room, save for one tall man standing over a table littered with scrolls and maps. Terra relaxed a little at the absence of any guards.
The man at the table looked up at their arrival and Terra found herself surprised to see that he was rather young. She’d been expecting a man of age and wisdom, but this man couldn’t be more than thirty – not that much older than Locke or herself.
“Locke!” he cried, smiling. “You’ve returned!”
Terra stood resolutely on the spot as the two young men strode to meet at the center of the room. The greeted each other like the best of friends, shaking hands and patting each other on the shoulder. This man did not fit at all with Terra’s idea of what a king should be. He was tall and lean, with bright blue eyes and long golden hair that was pulled into a braid and hung halfway down his back. His navy and silver clothing, complete with a cape that billowed down to his ankles, were certainly regal enough, but they were wrinkled and dirty in several places. Though it was barely noticeable – he’d clearly attempted to clean himself up after whatever he’d been into – Terra’s eyes were sharp and she got the distinct impression that he’d been working with some sort of mechanical grease…not a very likely sort of thing for a king to be up to.
The king looked over at her suddenly, the smile on his face gone and replaced by a look of interest. Terra started to straighten her posture subconsciously, though she’d already been standing at rapt attention.
“You mean this young woman?” he asked aloud. Terra realized she must have missed part of the conversation during her assessment of his appearance.
The king walked toward her, a very inquisitive look on his face, and stopped with a few feet between them. Terra met his eyes, but his gaze quickly shifted. As she watched in confusion, the young king studied her body from head to toe before turning swiftly back toward Locke.
Terra’s face grew hot and the words came tumbling out all at once. “Hey! Just who the hell do you think you are?”
From the center of the room Locke burst into raucous laughter. The king speedily turned back to face her, his cape rustling around his shoulders, embarrassment clear on his near-flawless face.
“Oh! My apologies!” he gushed. “How absolutely rude of me to turn my back to a lady!” He swept in majestically, and before Terra knew what had happened, he’d scooped one of her hands in both of his and gently kissed the back of it. “I am Edgar, king of Figaro.” He paused and flashed a dazzling smile, which made Terra blink in surprise and puzzlement.
With a snicker, Locke sauntered up next to them and leaned in with a grin. “Surprised someone like me knows a king?” he asked. Then, without so much as a warning, he winked and said, “See you a bit later!” and dashed out of the room, closing the doors behind him.
Terra stared after him, her mouth hanging slightly open, feeling betrayed and abandoned.
“So!” Edgar said, still holding Terra’s hand. “You’re an Imperial soldier!”
Terra’s head whipped back to face the king and her heart sped up. So Locke had known!
“No worries, no worries!” Edgar laughed at the look on her face. “Figaro and the Empire are allies! Besides, it’s not in my blood to harm a lady.” He flashed that dazzling smile again. “Please relax while you are here in my castle.”
Allies? Terra thought. But what about the Returners?
Delicately, she pulled her hand from Edgar’s grasp and gave him an appraising look. “Be honest,” she insisted. “Why are you helping me?” Images flashed through her head; memories that had been slowly returning to her of the invasion of Narshe, of her uncanny reflexes and eagle-eye aim. “Is it…is it because of my abilities?”
Edgar turned from her for a moment, pondering the question. “I’ll give you three reasons,” he announced after a mere moment. Glancing back at her out of the corner of his eye, he held up one finger. “First of all, your beauty has captivated me.” He turned fully to face her and continued before she could respond. “Second, I’m dying to know if I’m your type…” He flashed his grin again and, although he was handsome and confident, Terra found herself cringing internally. “I guess your…abilities…would be a distant third.” He waved this last off as though it was information of no consequence.
Terra was completely bewildered.
“Wh-…what’s with you?”
The change in his facial expression was infinitesimal, but Terra registered the flash of disappointment before Edgar managed to gather himself.
“Well then, if you will excuse me, m’lady,” he said with an unusually steady grin. “I have some important issues to attend to. Please feel free to wander about the castle at your leisure.” He bowed politely before turning to stride, missing a step halfway, back toward the cluttered table. As he walked away he muttered under his breath. The words were likely meant for his ears only, but Terra’s were exceptionally keen and she picked them out of the air easily: “Guess my technique’s getting a bit rusty…”
Terra stared at the king’s back for a moment, hesitated twice, and finally she quietly slipped out through the huge doors. A poorly-stifled snicker met her and she turned to find Locke lounging against the wall. He was attempting, and failing, to control his hysterics.
“Turned him down flat, didn’t you?” he chuckled. “I thought you might. I was hoping on it actually. Little lecher needs a good bit of rejection every now and then.” He was laughing out loud by the end.
Terra contemplated his words, wondering if she should find the situation as humorous as he did, or if perhaps she should be angry. Maybe there was some other emotion that would be suitable for this strange situation?
“Well…” she murmured, thinking about the king’s odd wording, “I suppose…I suppose any normal girl would have found him dashing.”
But I’m hardly normal… she added to herself.
Locke snorted once before pushing off the wall and walking over to Terra with his hands in his pockets, a smile on his face. “Ah, don’t worry about it!” he insisted, misinterpreting her meaning. “He’s an insufferable cretin and something like this every now and then would do him good!”
Terra nodded, though she didn’t understand at all.
“Come on then!” Locke trilled on, patting Terra on the shoulder. “Let’s go pay the handmaidens a visit and get you some more suitable clothes.”