The throne room was dark and quiet, the last of the august personages finally gone, and Ashe took advantage of her solitude to let out the breath that she'd been holding for three straight days. The battle of the Bahamut, their escape on the Strahl, flying into Rabanastre where her people assaulted her with their joy and relief, followed by dozens of appearances beside Archadia in the personage of Larsa to convince every nation that the war had truly ended and that peace negotiations really would commence: all of these factors had combined with too much rich food and too little sleep to leave Ashe exhausted to the bone. She sank down on the steps, rested her back against the heavy stone of her throne, and sighed. All she had lost, and all she had gained, whirled together in her head as she closed her eyes and counted the faces that swirled in the darkness: her father, her brothers, Rasler, Vossler. Reddas and Basch. And--
The soft words, accompanied by clank of armor that was already becoming the voice's familiar accompaniment, interrupted Ashe's reverie. She opened her eyes but did not sit up, heedless of her undignified position. There were five people in the world she trusted to see her in this state; this man was first among them. She looked up from the floor and into the eyes of Basch. He had cut his hair, and the effect was jarring. But for the scar across his forehead, she could have been looking at the face of a dead man.
"You're leaving, then?"
Basch nodded; further explanation was unnecessary. They had already agreed, in consultation with Larsa, that it would be safest, for now, to pretend that the man who had announced the ceasefire was Gabranth in truth, and that Basch must remain dead, rumors aside. Ashe had an entire nation ready to stand with her, but Larsa faced an unstable political situation at home. He would need all the support he could muster, and Basch was willing to serve. Besides, there was no one else for the job. "The Senate has been called to reconvene tomorrow morning, and Larsa will need time to prepare. Zargabaath is waiting in the Aerodrome with the Alexander."
"Very well." Ashe held out her hand, and Basch took it, helping her rise. She inhaled sharply through her nose and the growing weight on her chest. "Thank you, Basch. I owe you my kingdom, and my life. If only I had a fair way to repay you." Something more fitting than consigning you to the den of our enemies, alone, with no exit in sight.
"I could have done no less," he replied. He bowed over her hand, tightening his black-gloved fingers on hers.
"I will miss you," Ashe said softly. "You, and your counsel."
Basch's eyes softened. "I will send word as I can. Once matters are settled in Archades, I am sure that Larsa and I will return for the many negotiations to come. In the meantime, trust the Marquis -- he has your best interests at heart, even though his methods are not always yours. He is waiting for you, in the king's office."
Ashe snorted. "Ondore is my uncle, and my father's friend, and there is truth to what you say, but I've little doubt whether he values Dalmasca's freedom more than his own." She shook her head with a sigh. "But you are right; he is the closest thing Dalmasca has to a steadfast ally, and I must treat with him as such."
"Good luck." Basch dropped Ashe's hand, then retrieved his helm from where it had been tucked under his other arm.
"And to you. My best to Larsa."
Basch settled his helm into place before bowing yet again and turned to go, dark cloak billowing as he strode away. Ashe watched for as long as she could bear; before the door had closed behind him, she turned away and made for the side exit.
As Basch had indicated, Ondore awaited her, seated on the sofa across from her father's heavy oaken desk. He had a glass in his hand, and he swirled a finger of amber liquid without really looking at it, ice clinking. Ashe walked to the wingtip chair where her father had sat so many times before and, after a moment's hesitation, lowered herself into it.
How to approach him: with the formality befitting a queen, or the affection she had once felt for him? It took her a long moment to decide. "Uncle?"
Ondore started, then smiled, setting down the glass as he stood to greet her. "Ashe." She rose and suffered herself to be kissed on the cheek. "My apologies, if coming here without requesting an audience was poor form. But we have had no opportunity to truly speak since your return home, and I wished some time alone with you."
"And I with you." Ashe sank back down in her chair. "Tell me of the Resistance. What is their current status?"
Ondore sat as well, leaning forward, hands resting on his knees. "Ordered to stand down, in the main. The sons of Dalmasca that came to join us have returned or are on their way. However, I have taken the liberty of ordering the Garland to patrol Dalmasca's skies while you restore your own airship fleet. If I have overstepped my bounds, I can recall her to Bhujerba."
Ashe shook her head. "No, your help is welcome, as it always has been." She paused; how much to say? "It is not unknown to me that you have been in a delicate position, vis-à-vis the Empire, these past two years. I do question your willingness to involve Rozarria, however."
"It was not a decision made lightly." Ondore picked up his glass and took a sip of his brandy. "But without the nethicite, I felt our options were limited. As you must know, if you spoke with Reddas."
"Yes." Ashe twisted her hands in her lap, then forced herself to move them to the arms of the chair. "Given Vayne's aggression, I understand if you felt the need to make a show of force yourself. But having Rozarria involved complicates matters -- thanks to your invitation, they will now expect to be a part of our negotiations with Archadia, and Dalmasca is once again forced into the middle of their struggles."
"A fair analysis." Ondore finished his drink, then set the glass back on the table, where it landed with an audible clink. "Though 'twould be a great deal for them to ask, given that they did not present for the actual battle."
"I wondered at that, myself." Yet again, Ashe found herself wondering how much to reveal. Trust the Marquis, Basch had said; another, conflicting, voice whispered in her ear, warning her to trust no one but herself. But the owners of both voices had left her, one called away by divided loyalties, and the other...
No. She could not, must not, think about him just yet. He lived. Contemplating any other alternative would sap energy that she did not have to spare.
Ashe took a deep breath. Her own counsel was the best she could keep right now, and she would do so. "Uncle. The alliance between our nations may as well be dissolved if we do not trust one another. Do you agree?"
Ondore nodded, his face serious. "Indeed."
"And so I must know: are you free to treat with me as leader of a sovereign nation? Does Archadia still have its hooks in Bhujerba and the mines? Or perhaps promises made to Rozarria limit your actions?"
"I swear to you." Ondore lifted a hand to cover his heart. "I have pledged nothing to either Empire that I have not already delivered. I am once again a seller of magicite on the open market, nothing more. On your father's soul and my own honor, I swear to keep whatever you tell me in strictest confidence, as long as Bhujerba's safety and neutrality is not thereby jeopardized."
"Thank you." Ashe reached out a hand, and Ondore took it. "Very well. In return, I share one card that I held hidden from you: I have, of late, become acquainted with a certain Rozarrian noble, a younger son of the ruling house. We met in Bur-Omasace, and again in Balfonheim, and we agreed that Rozarria must not become involved in the war. As I boarded the Strahl for the Bahamut, he went the other direction, charged with keeping his people from entering battle. Given their lack of an appearance, I can only assume that he succeeded."
Ondore raised an eyebrow. "And has this man a name?"
Ashe nodded. "Al-Cid Margrace."
"Ahh." Ondore let go of Ashe's hand and leaned back in his seat. "The young spymaster. He may have the most impressive network of informants in all Ivalice. A useful ally, though perhaps not the most respectable one."
Ashe smiled. "Perhaps not. But he was a friend to me when I needed one, and I have hopes that he will remain so."
"A relationship to cultivate." Ondore nodded in agreement, then stood. "Well, my dear. Shall we have a drink to our renewed alliance? And perhaps we will send for the Rozarrians soon, to determine where they stand."
"Agreed." Ashe took the glass that Ondore handed her and touched it to his refilled one with a clink. "To alliances, past and future."
The Eden was a fine ship, Al-Cid reflected as he walked down the corridor. Only the best for Tiesto Margrace, crown prince of Rozarria. It was, he thought, somewhat surprising that the War Pavilion was willing to risk the heir in such a petty war, and he wondered if Tiesto had fallen from favor again. Or perhaps the generals had weighed the risk of Ondore's failure as too great to keep Tiesto sidelined? Al-Cid realized that he had little sense of how temperatures were running in the Rozarrian court. "I have been away from Rosalis overlong," he muttered to himself. The distant flock was well tended, but he was past due to check in with the birds at home.
Two more turns, and he was at the door to his eldest brother's stateroom. Once there, he paused; given his own role in the events of the past few days, would Tiesto be happy to see him? Al-Cid had long wondered whether Tiesto was impatient with fifty years of a static border to the north. He glanced back over his shoulder at Martina, his ever-present companion. "Do you suppose--"
"We've been over this." Martina shook her head. "At least half a dozen times now. Staying out of the battle was best for everyone. The War Pavilion agrees, the Board of Governors agrees, and perhaps most importantly, your Lord Father agrees. Tiesto may agree or he may not, but he will not treat you ill."
Al-Cid sighed. "You are right, of course. My thanks for the reminder." He pulled his glasses off his nose, then handed them to Martina, who slid them her shirt pocket. "Let us get this over with." He punched the code that would unlock the door, stepping through as soon as it opened.
"Yes, yes, I understand." Tiesto, who sat at a desk on the far side of the room, waved impatiently, as though the person on the other side of the call might see the gesture and provide more proper deference. "But the emperor has not yet recalled the fleet. Given the instability of the situation, I find it more prudent to stay in place without such an order. Unless and until you hear otherwise, you hold position! Goodbye!" He slammed his transmitter down on the desk and scowled at it. "Idiots." Then he looked up, swiveling his chair toward the door. "Ah, Al-Cid. Welcome aboard." He stood and crossed the room, hand out.
Al-Cid took the proffered hand and shook it, noting as always how it dwarfed his own. Tiesto was half a foot taller than Al-Cid and outweighed him by several stone; though Al-Cid did not consider himself a small man, in Tiesto's presence, it was hard not to think in such terms. "Thank you, Tiesto. You look well."
Tiesto dropped Al-Cid's hand with a snort. "I'd do better if I weren't surrounded by weak-hearted morons. Look at them." He waved his hand at the large window behind his console at the dozen small ships hovering in the near distance. "All lined up and ready to run for the safety of home, just because a temporary truce has been signed. What if some of the rebels missed the order to stand down? Or some Archadian dog decides to get revenge for his precious Vayne's death? Assuming that madman is truly dead -- reports of what happened are too confused for me to trust any of them."
"As to the truth of Vayne's death, I cannot say." Al-Cid followed Tiesto toward the desk and took the chair across from the window. "But if he is, indeed, dead, then Larsa rules Archadia, and peace is within our grasp."
"Hmmph!" Tiesto lowered himself into his seat. "You really believe that a child can take control over the military and re-assemble his Senate in such short order?"
"If any child can do it -- if any man could do it -- young Lord Larsa is the one." Al-Cid leaned forward in the chair. "Have you met Larsa?" Tiesto shook his head. "He is extraordinary. I have met few people of any age with his diplomatic instincts. If his temperament and Vayne's military acumen had been combined in one man, we would not be having this conversation; Archadia would be ruling over us all. Never underestimate him."
"I suppose I shall have ample opportunity to know him better." Tiesto shifted in his seat; desk chairs always seemed too small for his wide frame. He was always happiest in the field, and once again Al-Cid wondered how he would feel about being ensconced in Ambervale and Rosalis, rarely leaving except for the occasional affair of state. "So." The chair swiveled again, and Tiesto turned to stare straight at Al-Cid. "I understand we have you to thank for missing the action over Rabanastre. I made a promise to Ondore, you know; I can only hope that he does not see our decision not to act as cowardly, or reneging on our agreement."
And here came the difficult part. Al-Cid spread his hands in a gesture of acknowledgement and apology. "I cannot speak for Ondore, but I can speak for the woman on whose behalf he acted: Princess Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca. I halted the advance of the Rozarrian fleet at her express request."
Tiesto raised his eyebrows. "You are acquainted with the princess?"
"I am." Al-Cid sat up and looked Tiesto straight in the eye. "Her mettle has been tested, and found true. She does not thirst for revenge on Archadia; all she desired was a return of Dalmascan sovereignty, and she has gained it. I trust her to square matters with Ondore."
"Hmm." Tiesto leaned back in the chair, eyebrows knitted in thought. "Do you think she would welcome a closer alliance with Rozarria?"
Al-Cid shrugged. "Who can say? And who can say how far Archadia is willing to go in its concessions? A mutual defense treaty might be too much, or it might be acceptable. All depends on Larsa, and his advisors." Privately, he wondered how much control Gabranth might attempt to exert over the situation. He trusted Larsa; he was not certain that he trusted Gabranth. But perhaps he would be tempered by the re-emergence of his brother? If Basch had even survived the battle. But about those matters, it was too soon to even speculate, much less to voice his concerns to Tiesto.
"I'll have to discuss it with Father. And the Board," Tiesto added, almost as an afterthought. "I thank you for your assistance. You may go."
"Thank you, brother." Al-Cid rose from his seat, took his glasses from Martina, and made his way out of the room. Once the door had closed behind him, he slung his arm around Martina's shoulders and kissed her temple. "That went well enough, I suppose."
"Well enough," Martina agreed. "Does this conclude our business here?"
Al-Cid nodded. "We make for home. Ambervale, at last." He squeezed Martina against his side, then let her go, his steps down the corridor and toward the launching bay more brisk this time. It would be good to see the sacred valley again.
"My lord? We will be arriving in a few minutes."
Al-Cid stirred himself from the chair into which he had flung himself after boarding his personal ship, the Fenrir, drink in hand, and looked up at his valet. Javier had been with him for many years and was, after Martina, the most trusted and valuable member of his personal staff. "Already?" The flight from the border to Ambervale was a good five hours; by his reckoning, only three had elapsed.
"Yes sir." Javier nodded. "We just received an urgent message from His Majesty the Emperor, diverting us to Rosalis. He would speak with you, in person, before you return to the palace."
"He would?" Al-Cid raised his eyebrows. "Did His Majesty give a reason?" It was a rare thing for Roderigio Margrace to take any interest in his younger sons. In Al-Cid's experience, a summons to his presence was not a good sign.
Javier shrugged. "The emperor does not explain his thinking to mere servants, sir."
Al-Cid sighed. "I suppose not." He lifted his legs off the arm of the chair and flipped them to the front of the seat, then stood up, stretching. "Ah well, I'm long overdue to visit my contacts in the capital. Best to take advantage of the situation. Once we land, arrange the usual meetings, starting with one this evening."
"Very well, my lord." Javier consulted the small bound book that he carried in his hand. "Whom would you like first?"
"Anissa, I think." Al-Cid smiled as the memory of the rotund young woman passed through his mind: her long brown caught in a braid, her full breasts pressing into his hands. "If she's not too caught up in preparing the state banquet I expect His Majesty has ordered for tonight. In that case, call for Alessandra, or Corzon. If Anissa is free, then book Alessandra and Corzon for tomorrow. Together, if you can manage it." Al-Cid was a firm believer in the concept of mixing business with pleasure, and trysts with his birds were most definitely both.
Javier nodded, then snapped the book shut. "Understood. If there's nothing else, I'll advise the staff to prepare for landing."
On Al-Cid's nod of confirmation, Javier was gone; confident that his man would have all in readiness, Al-Cid turned to his wardrobe and pulled it open, considering what outfit would best suit a meeting with the emperor.
Half an hour later, he emerged from his ship: pressed, washed, fed, and ready to do battle with his father. Not physical battle, of course; Roderigio Margrace had other people to do that for him. No, the battle to come would be a duel of words. Al-Cid had always sparred with his father in the struggle to prove himself relevant to Rozarria, worthy of his title, and a candidate for Roderigio's respect, if not for his throne. Al-Cid did not, in his heart of hearts, long to rule Rozarria, or any other nation for that matter. But he could not deny that it would be nice to have been considered.
Not that he would be. For all that Tiesto fell in and out of favor, the Board of Governors had accepted Roderigio's eldest as crown prince over twenty years ago. The matter was long settled, and Al-Cid was relieved to be spared the drama of a succession battle.
Stepping on the tile floor of the Aerodrome, Al-Cid took a deep breath of the warm afternoon air. Next to him, Martina took his arm. "Glad to be home?" she asked.
Al-Cid shrugged. "Ask me again when we're back in Ambervale," he responded. "By then, I will have this audience over with."
Martina chuckled and squeezed his elbow. "The sooner we get there, the sooner it's done."
"I thank you for the reminder." Al-Cid covered Martina's fingers with his own, then led her down the hallway and to the ceremonial guard that waited for him in the Aerodrome lobby. Their leader, a man Al-Cid knew by sight but not by name, made a quick bow.
"Welcome home, my prince," he said in a deep, scratchy voice. "I have been ordered to escort you to His Majesty's chambers."
Al-Cid gestured toward the door. "Lead the way."
The guard bowed again, then started off, his men gathering in front and falling in behind the group.
Through the breezeways and courtyards they walked, Al-Cid a step behind his escort. The royal residence at Rosalis was not as splendid as the palaces of Ambervale, but Al-Cid had to admit that they still carried a stately beauty. The buildings were covered with a pastel stucco, laid lovingly by hand; the terra cotta tile roofs over long arcades, floors set with bright geometric patterns.
Finally they reached the entrance to the emperor's receiving chambers, an unassuming door across the broad hallway from the huge golden doors that marked the portal to the throne room. The lead guard turned to Al-Cid with another sharp bow.
"Sire," he said, then gathered up his troops and left. Al-Cid dropped his hand on the doorknob; he paused before turning back to look at Martina.
"I'll wait in the Royal Courtyard," she said.
Al-Cid dropped his eyes a hair. "Martina--"
She shook her head and smiled, squeezing his elbow before she slid her fingers free. "It's all right. We both know he disapproves of our arrangement."
He exhaled sharply. "For Roderigio Margrace, of all people, to disapprove of a man keeping mistresses--"
"That is not the issue, and you know it." Martina pulled the sunglasses from his face, then brushed the hair from his eyes. "Better to keep the subject from ever coming up."
He sighed, then nodded. "You are right, my dear, as ever. But no need to wait in the courtyard like a common petitioner. Make haste to the apartments and help Javier prepare for our stay."
Martina curtseyed, then left. Al-Cid watched her go for as long as propriety would allow before opening the door and stepping through into the foyer.
He had been in this audience chamber before; Roderigio preferred it for any meeting held in relative private, as opposed to either disciplinary actions or large-scale state business. Al-Cid decided to see the choice of venue as a positive sign. The foyer was simply furnished with naught but two white sofas and a straight-backed chair. After hesitating a moment, Al-Cid selected the smaller sofa and sat down to wait. Perhaps ten minutes passed before the door on the other side of the antechamber opened to reveal a well-appointed servant.
"My prince," he said, bowing. "Welcome home. His Majesty will see you now."
"Thank you." Al-Cid rose and walked across the room, passing through the second door as the servant held it open. On the other side was a large study, books and scrolls on the walls, a heavy desk, and Emperor Roderigio Margrace, supreme ruler of the Rozarrian Empire.
His father had been seated behind his desk, but he rose as Al-Cid entered the room. He was a large man, taller than even Tiesto and almost as broad, although he was tending to fat rather than muscle in his later years. His softening chin was covered by a coarse beard of black shot through with white; his hair had turned long ago, but it was still full and wavy, much like Al-Cid's own. Roderigio's sharp blue eyes peered over his large nose. He held out his hand in greeting, and Al-Cid took it with a firm grip.
"So, you have come." He scowled. "Left the strumpet behind, did you? Finally tire of her?"
Al-Cid dropped his father's hand as though it had caught fire. And so it begins. "Martina remains very much in my service, sir. And in yours as well, if you would but see that."
"I am not the one she is servicing, but never mind." Al-Cid seethed at the insult -- it was not even true, any more, at least not very often -- but chose to let it go. Roderigio sat back down without offering Al-Cid a chair. "Thank you for responding so promptly to my summons."
"Considering that you sent it when we were but miles from the city, I wasn't left much choice." Al-Cid crossed his arms. "I had been hoping for a respite in Ambervale."
"A respite?" Roderigio raised a bushy gray eyebrow. "From what, wenching your way across Ivalice?"
Al-Cid drew himself up to his full height, spine stiffening. "I will have you know, sir, that the information I collected on that trip was vital to--"
Roderigio waved off Al-Cid's words with an impatient twitch. "Yes, yes, I am aware. I do appreciate everything you did to stave off our involvement in this wretched war. Had you not interfered, we would likely have been drawn into open battle with Archadia, an outcome we could ill afford right now. I might not always approve of your methods, but you do come back with valuable information. And for that, you have my thanks."
Al-Cid bowed his head slightly in acknowledgement of perhaps the only true compliment his father had ever bestowed upon him. "Thank you."
Roderigio nodded. "But one inconvenient fact remains: we have exchanged hostilities with the Archadians over Nabradia, and Nabradia is now part of Dalmasca, and so we must be invited to any negotiations that follow."
"Is that why you authorized Tiesto's alliance with Ondore?" Al-Cid raised an eyebrow. "To obtain seats at the treaty table?"
"There are worse reasons." Roderigio glared straight at Al-Cid as though daring him to disagree, and under the force of his eyes, Al-Cid took a step backwards. "Regardless, now we have them, and I need you to fill one."
"Me?" Al-Cid tried to disguise his shock, but from the blood he could feel draining from his face, he had a feeling he had failed.
"You." Roderigio nodded. "Of the men I can spare, you are one of the better diplomats, and you have a unique quality: your relationship with the Lady Ashe. You know her, and she knows you, and most importantly she has reason to trust you. You have already treated with her twice, and came off favorably by all reports. She seems to regard you as an ally. Your presence in the negotiations will help her look more favorably on Rozarria. You will go, and you will leave tomorrow."
Al-Cid frowned. "Tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow," Roderigio repeated. "Azlan is head of the delegation, and he has been in readiness for some time. All he awaited was your presence."
"Well then." Al-Cid crossed his right foot over his left and made a brief bow. "One would not care to keep his royal brother waiting."
Roderigio smirked. "I know you bear little love for Azlan. But you cannot deny that he is well suited for the job, and to send any less a personage than my second son would suggest that I do not take the proceedings seriously."
Al-Cid raised an eyebrow. "You could send Tiesto."
"Hah!" The smirk mellowed into a look of genuine amusement. "I see you have lost none of your taste for sarcasm." Roderigio leaned forward in his seat. "So. You will go, and you will help negotiate a favorable treaty, and you will return with information I can use. Your... network. Does it yet extend into Rabanastre?"
"It does," Al-Cid confirmed with a nod, thinking of Lin, the petite blonde bartender at the Sandsea. "Although I have fewer placed there than I would like."
"Ah." Roderigio stroked his beard. "Then this trip presents you with an opportunity as well, yes? And if you were to acquire friends in high places, well. This would be looked upon favorably as well."
Al-Cid bit back a smirk of his own. Had his father just insinuated that he ought to attempt to seduce the Lady Ashe? It was not, of course, as though he had not thought of approaching her. But the indication that a dalliance with the queen-in-waiting would be seen as a welcome development from the throne was a fascinating one. He considered his father, who had taken so many lovers himself, and wondered if they were so different after all.
But he said nothing, instead bowing again, more politely this time. "Sir, I hear and obey."
"Good." Roderigio snapped his fingers, and a servant appeared through the side door. "Inform Prince Azlan that Prince Al-Cid will be in the Aerodrome and ready to depart at dawn. Al-Cid, you may go."
"My lord." Making one last leg, Al-Cid turned and left the room, already tallying up the hours to see how many appointments he could arrange before it was time to leave.
Several thousand miles away, Ashe was embroiled in her own plans, anticipating them with even less pleasure. It was to be her first grand state dinner, her reintroduction to society; it was, she knew, well past time for them see her at the head of her father's table, but in truth she would have preferred a meal of crushed glass to the rich food preferred by the Dalmascan royal court. Not to mention these complicated dresses.
"You've gained weight here." Lucie, her head chambermaid pulled harder on the laces of Ashe's corset. Ashe could not mistake the chiding in her oldest servant's tone. "And lost it in other places. We'll have to alter everything."
Ashe sighed. "I apologize that the loss of my girlish figure has proved inconvenient to you. Perhaps I should go back to attire better for battle, or crawling through the Waterway."
Lucie clucked her tongue. "Now, mistress. I'll not hear such talk. You're as lovely as ever, but your musculature has changed; of course the clothes fit differently. I'll set the seamstresses to it right away. Or perhaps we'll make all new. But you'll be a queen soon. I shan't see my charge in ill-fitting finery."
Tilting her chin down, Ashe took as deep a breath as the stays would allow, emptying her mind as she contemplated the dark gray stone tiles of the floor. Then she lifted her head again. "I apologize. I've been out of society too long."
"That you have." Lucie tied off the laces, then patted Ashe on the shoulder. "But we'll make a proper lady of you again."
"You did it once before." Ashe turned to face Lucie, putting up her arms and letting the blue skirts fall over her head and shoulders. "With, as I recall, a more recalcitrant subject."
Lucie chuckled as she settled the folds of fabric into place. "You speak of a young girl who would rather play at swords and ride chocobos with her older brothers than sit quietly in court? I remember her well. Picking the burrs and feathers out of her hair, mending the tears in her dresses. She made a fine hero, but she will make an even finer queen." She stood, looked Ashe over, and nodded, her smile warm but also wistful. "As presentable as I can make it, given what I have to work with. We'll meet with the seamstress and the tailor tomorrow."
Ashe wished she dared take Lucie into an embrace, cling to her like the mother she could only barely remember. She contented herself with a return smile and a dip of her head. "Thank you."
"Thank you, my lady." Lucie dipped into a quick curtsey; when she looked up, her eyes flashed with remembrance. "Oh, jewelry! I think there are silver earbobs that will go well with that dress on the vanity. And your rings... whyever have you only one?"
Ashe clenched her right hand into a fist and hid it behind her back. "Lost on my journeys," she said.
"Oh my dear." Lucie's face fell with sympathy. "Lord Rasler's ring, gone? You must have been devastated."
Annoyed, more like, and now... Ashe banished the thought; she could hardly tell Lucie the whole story. Instead, she merely shrugged. "There is nothing to be done for it." She twisted her own ring around on her finger. "At least I still have the ring he gave me."
Lucie smiled, sadder now. "That you do. Well, let me get you the earrings, and then you'll be ready to make your second debut. Follow me, my lady."
Ashe submitted to having the earrings placed in her ears, and a silver chain looped about her neck; thus armored, she exited her suite, leaving Lucie and safety behind. She walked down the long hallways, nodding to the guards as she went. Ondore waited at the entrance to the throne room, dressed in an old-fashioned suit in the classic Bhujerban style. As she approached, he held out his hand; she took it, and he graced her with a courtly kiss. "You look splendid."
She curtsied. "Thank you, Uncle. Shall we?"
Ondore opened the door for her, and she walked through first, into a room lit with blazing torches, throngs of people standing along the walls, all turning to face her as she entered and an abrupt silence fell. She dipped her head to them as they all bowed or curtsied. A smattering of claps followed, eventually building into a wave of applause, and Ashe deepened her bow accordingly. It was a good entrance, she decided as she rose: decisive, but not overly pompous. She would need to win these people over, after all: those who had supported the resistance, those who had supported Vayne, and those who had played to the middle. But she would shore up her allies first, and to that end, she scanned the room for a face she dreaded seeing, a meeting she wished to get out of the way: Duke Shison Azelas. She found him almost immediately, an older man with iron gray hair and sad eyes. He had the same strong chin as his son, she noted, though his shoulders were narrower, and stooped. She tried to remember if he had always looked so frail, and her heart sank as she realized that this change had been wrought by the past two years. She crossed the room to him, and at her approach, he turned.
"My Lord Duke." Ashe brought her hands to her breast and bowed to him, and the old man returned the gesture. "It is well to see you."
"And you." Duke Azelas looked away, then back. "Your Majesty. Is it true? Vossler--"
Ashe bowed her head. "Yes, Your Grace. I fear that it is. But if it is any comfort, your son gave his life for the cause of Dalmasca. He sacrificed himself that I might escape the Shiva when it was destroyed by the nethicite." It was, she told herself, not quite a lie, but meeting his eyes came easier as she continued into a simpler truth. "I owe Vossler my life, many times over, but I also owe him my kingdom. It is no overstatement when I say that without Vossler, the resistance would have been stillborn. Without his efforts or his leadership, we would not be free." She held out her hand and took the duke's fingers in her own. "Vossler York Azelas will be honored as a hero for generations to come. This, I swear to you."
Duke Azelas pursed his lips together, and his cheek trembled. "I thank you, Your Majesty." He gripped her upper arm with a spindly hand and squeezed; Ashe did not flinch despite the sudden pressure. "It is well to know that my son's life was not lost in vain." He looked up at a figure approaching through the crowd. Ashe followed his gaze, and swallowed at the appearance of another man with even more familiar features. "It is true, Randal, and as we feared: Vossler is lost to the war."
Randal Azelas, Shison's eldest son and heir, stopped, then shook his head. "I was expecting news of this sort, but the likelihood of Vossler's death does not make knowledge of its certainty any less of a blow." He turned to Ashe with a bow. "If you would, my lady, tell me of my brother's death someday? But not tonight; tonight is a time for celebration."
"Indeed." Ashe casually worked herself free of the elder noble's grip and returned Randal's greeting. "It is well to see you again." She had forgotten how much the York brothers resembled one another, despite nearly a decade's difference in age. It was almost like seeing Vossler again, and it unsettled her. How often was she going to have to look into the faces of ghosts?
"And you, Your Majesty." Randal lifted his hand into the air and snapped his fingers; within seconds, an aide had appeared at his arm, a tray of drinks in his hand. Randal took two and handed one to his father, the other to Ashe. After taking a third for himself, he raised the glass. "A toast to you, and to your restoration."
Ashe drank, and wondered how many more of these meetings she was going to have to face tonight.
Al-Cid was not a morning person under the best of circumstances, but especially not after a long night of meetings, trysts, and as brief an appearance at dinner as he could politely manage. Had his time been his own, he would be safely abed now, watching as the soft pink of the morning sun began to peek through the clefts in the mountains, drifting into sleep with a bird under each arm. Instead, he had snatched a brief nap between dinner and his appointment with Anissa, then another hour afterwards, and now he was here, fighting to keep his eyes open in the Aerodrome, waiting for the guard to take him and Martina to Azlan's ship, the Asura. Javier would stay behind, gathering reports from the Rozarrian network as best he could, then ready the Ambervale residence for what Al-Cid hoped would be a swift return.
"Ah, there you are." Azlan's smooth voice came from behind them, and Al-Cid turned, bowing briefly to his brother. "I was afraid you might be late." He did not attempt to hide his distaste for what he saw as Al-Cid's lack of discipline. "Come." Without waiting for a response, he swept past Al-Cid and through the gate to his airship. Al-Cid looked over his shoulder at Martina and let his exasperation show. Then he composed his face and followed his brother onto the Asura.
Half the city guard seemed to have turned out for the occasion, and Al-Cid walked past the two rows of men, nodding to them as he went by and stepped onto the gangway of Rozarria's diplomatic flagship. As he entered, a servant met him and bowed. "Welcome aboard, sire," he said. "Prince Azlan is waiting for you in the salon, where breakfast will be served. Do you care for a drink?"
"Coffee, if you please. Black, two sugars. And an orange juice for my aide." Al-Cid shrugged his coat off his shoulders; Martina caught it and handed it to the servant, who accepted it with another bow.
"Very good. They will be delivered shortly. Enjoy your flight."
Al-Cid nodded, then went in the direction the servant had indicated. He had traveled aboard the Asura before, but it seemed that someone had given it a thorough redesign since his last flight. More richly appointed than the Eden, which was at heart a fighting ship, it featured fine woodwork and chrome trim that had been polished to gleaming. Al-Cid noted the mahogany columns, buffed highly enough to serve as a mirror. "I see Azlan still has expensive tastes," he muttered to himself as his reflection caught his eye; the early morning wind had blown his hair into disarray, and he grimaced. It took some effort to resist using his fingers to comb it back into to place.
"Let me." Martina nudged him into an alcove, then pulled a comb from her pocket. She whisked it through his bangs, getting out the tangles with a few strokes. After checking him from several angles, she replaced the comb with a nod, then held her hand out for his glasses. He gave them to her and, after checking that they were unobserved, he thanked her with a swift kiss. Only a few steps more, and they were in the salon. Azlan was already there, seated at the table with another woman; as Al-Cid entered the room, she turned and rose with a smile.
He approached her, hands held out, and when he reached her, he kissed her on both cheeks. "Ana. I was not informed that you would be joining us."
"How could I not?" Ana Margrace Alcenar, third child and oldest daughter of Roderigio, and the best negotiator in all of Rozarria, pulled him by the hand toward the table. "When Father announced his plans to send a delegation, I was the first to volunteer."
"Not, however, the first to be asked." Azlan looked up from his coffee as Ana and Al-Cid sat down, and his smile was tight. He bore little more love for Ana than he did for Al-Cid, but their roles as lead diplomats for Rozarria often brought them together. Ana had worked some minor miracles for the Empire, once even negotiating a treaty with the Urutan-Yensa. Al-Cid privately thought that Ana would make a better monarch than either of her elder brothers, but the chances of her gaining the throne were far more remote than even his own. A pity.
A cup pressed into his hand distracted Al-Cid from his musings, and he turned to smile into the eyes of the pretty blond serving girl who had delivered it. "Thank you, my dear." He bowed his head without taking his eyes from her face, and spots of pink rose to her cheeks at his attentions; she backed away, shyly smiling back. Al-Cid lifted his mug to her, then blew on his coffee to cool it before taking a sip. As she left, he turned back to the table, noting both Ana's smile of amusement and Azlan's scowl.
"Still flirting with the servants, I see." Azlan set down his own cup and shook his head. "A poor habit in a prince."
Al-Cid shrugged. "I have not heard you complain about the information my 'poor habits' have brought you over the years."
"It is unbecoming regardless." Azlan sniffed. "And long past time we married you off to someone respectable and put a stop to this nonsense."
Ana laughed, a bit sourly. "In the same way that marriage stopped Father from dallying with the maids? And Rozarrian noblewomen, and wives of foreign dignitaries?" She shook her head. "You may be a faithful husband, Azlan, but you are a rarity among the men of House Margrace." She caught Al-Cid's eye. "No disrespect meant, of course."
Al-Cid responded with a smooth nod. "None taken, dear sister." A lifetime of hearing whispers about his own dubious legitimacy had inured him, somewhat. Ana, at least, did not hold it against him, although he sometimes wondered if she held it against Roderigio. "But enough rehashing the past. Tell me about our objectives."
"Did Father brief you?" Azlan snapped his fingers, and the serving girl reappeared, three breakfast plates and a basket of rolls balanced in her hands.
"No. He said you would fill me in."
"Ah." Azlan glanced at Ana, then back to Al-Cid. "Well. You have been gone for some time, so I will assume that you know nothing and start from scratch. Mind, you probably know more about the situation on the ground in Dalmasca and Archadia than Ana or I; if you have newer or better information, then share it right away." Al-Cid nodded; like Roderigio, Azlan might not approve of Al-Cid's sources, but he never doubted their veracity. "All right, the beginning. Ondore approached us about six months ago--"
"Before that," Ana interrupted. "I want Cid's perspective on the attack on Nabradia."
"Surely he knows of the connection already?" Azlan protested.
"I'm sure he does." Ana glanced at Al-Cid sidelong. "But given our interests in Nabradia, it bears on our current situation; best not to leave it out."
Al-Cid set down his coffee and took a warm roll from the basket. "If you are referring to Father's claim that we had a right to be involved in the war because Vayne's true target was Rozarrian partisans within Nabudis, I am familiar with the theory. Alas, I had only one bird nesting in Nabradia, and I have not heard from her since the land was devastated; I can but assume her to be lost." His throat tightened as he thought on Lieza, the sweetly shy girl who worked at a garden café in the park that surrounded the city -- he had only met with her twice, but she'd known how to charm secrets from men and women alike, and he'd had great hopes for her as a recruiter within the city. "I fear, therefore, that I can neither confirm nor deny its truth, at least from the Nabradian perspective."
"Unfortunate." Azlan shook his head. "Regardless, some months after the attack on Nabudis, a small pack of refugees appeared on the doorstep of the War Pavilion, claming sanctuary based on a treaty signed by a member of the Nabradian gentry, only a few months before the attack. Do you care to guess whose name was on the treaty?"
"Not Father's; otherwise we'd be meeting in rather different circumstances." Al-Cid looked up, meeting first Ana's eyes, then Azlan's. "Tiesto, then."
Azlan pointed his fork at Al-Cid. "Very good. Yes, Tiesto. It appears that he had been making overtures to the king over the previous several years; when those failed, he worked his way down the royal court, ingratiating himself with a number of sympathizers. He signed a mutual defense pact with them -- without, of course, receiving the blessing of either Father or the Board of Governors -- and then left, vague promises of future favors in his wake. Accordingly, 'twas troops under Tiesto's command who came to the defense of Nabradia two years ago, and who engaged the Archadean army in this latest skirmish."
"Troublesome." Al-Cid folded his hands on the table. "And furthermore, it troubles me that knowledge of this group spread outside of Rozarria more easily than within it. I have heard only rumors of their existence, and knew nothing of them at all before the initial attack, only after. If I was not aware of these sympathizers, nor you, nor Father or the Board, how could Vayne have known about them?"
Azlan nodded. "You come to the heart of the matter with an excellent question, one to which I believe you are best placed to discover the answer. Between the efforts of your network, and your... relationship with Her Majesty, Queen Ashe, I hope you will know the truth of this before we leave Dalmasca. This is my charge to you, Al-Cid: to learn what, if anything, Vayne knew of this treaty before he destroyed Nabudis."
Al-Cid bowed his head. "I accept your charge, my brother." He leaned back in his chair, picking up the coffee mug once again. "Curious that our Lord Father honored the treaty. Nor would I have expected the Board to go along with such a thing."
"Between us, brother, there were those who would have preferred not to." Ana leaned toward him, eyebrows raised. "Elements of the Board grow increasingly uncomfortable with evidence of expansionist ambitions on Tiesto's part."
"But not the entire Board," Al-Cid replied with a frown. "I heard rumblings only last night that, public speechmaking to the contrary, not all of the Board was happy to see such a swift conclusion to the war. As for Tiesto, he says all the right things about his desire for peace between the Empires. But when I saw him on the Eden, his frustration was palpable."
"That frustration is apparent off the field as well." Ana nodded at him, then Azlan. "He seems restive in Board meetings, and Father becomes impatient with him. I suspect Father and his allies on the Board hoped that Tiesto would have set aside his ambitions by now, but they seem only to grow as he opportunities for them to be fulfilled slip away. And so the worry remains: would Tiesto see us return to open war with Archadia? And if so, how to stop him?"
"There is one sure way." Azlan crossed his arms. "Keep him off the throne."
"Hah!" Al-Cid shook his head. "After Tiesto has been accepted by the Board not once, but twice? And when he has support from half the Board as well as the War Pavilion? Who would we advance in his place? You?"
Azlan looked at Al-Cid, saying nothing, a hint of a smile on his lips; Ana looked down at her plate. After a moment of silence, Al-Cid found a bark of shocked laughter passing his lips. "You aren't serious."
"Look me straight in the eye and tell me you wouldn't want it." Azlan leaned forward in his seat, his dark eyes unflinching.
Al-Cid stared straight back. "I don't want it." Azlan raised an eyebrow; Al-Cid stood up and dropped his coffee cup onto the table. "I prefer to exercise power behind the throne. And in the interest of keeping that position secure, I would fain not be associated with talk of what amounts to a coup. Come back to me when you have something more concrete, a real candidate, preferably with Father's hand backing him." He turned and, with a snap of his fingers, Martina was at his side, pressing his sunglasses into his hand. "Come with me to the deck, my dear. I find I'm in need of some air." And he left without a glance backwards.
Ashe took an early morning breakfast to her father's study, then began the work of receiving dignitaries. The night before, she had referred the requests of everyone with sufficient standing to her father's old secretary -- retrieved from retirement almost immediately upon her return -- to set up an appointment. The calendar book sat open on her desk, and it was already full. To her utter lack of surprise, the first name on the list was Randal Azelas, and when the knock came at the door, she called him in.
"Your Majesty." Azelas bowed deeply at the waist. "Thank you for seeing me so quickly."
"I could hardly do less for one of House Dalmasca's greatest allies," Ashe replied, gesturing to the seat across from her. He sat, and she folded her hands on the desk. "But -- and pardon my forwardness -- why are you here rather than His Grace?"
"As you no doubt noted last night, my father is elderly, growing more frail by the year." Azelas shook his head. "The occupation took its toll on him, as did the death of his dear friend King Raminas. And I fear that the ill tidings you brought last night, while needful for him to hear, have laid him quite low. So he has returned to our seat, to recuperate and to grieve. Already, he had all but retired from his seat on the council, and the leadership of House Azelas -- I have been taking care of daily business for some time now. He has indicated to me that he will make this arrangement formal sometime in the next few weeks."
"I am both glad and sorry to hear it," said Ashe. "Sorry to hear of your father's decline, but relieved that you are ready to step in his place." She cast him a sharp look. "I pray that I can presume upon our fathers' friendship to count you as an ally, and to tell me the truth of these past two years. Who remained steadfast in their support of House Dalmasca, who made the Archadian invaders welcome, whose loyalty is true."
Azelas bowed in his seat. "My lady, I am honored to provide you with whatever intelligence and support you require. Shall I start with the most steadfast, and work downwards?"
For nearly an hour, Azelas spoke and Ashe listened, stopping him only briefly to ask a question or two, taking notes all the while. It was instructive, and also sobering, to hear names she had known all her life listed among the people who had wholeheartedly embraced Vayne and his retinue, or conversely had spoken with open admiration of Basch and his supposed murder of the "weak" king, that fighting to the death would have been better than surrender.
"Not to mention the Rozarrian sympathizers," Azelas added, as his list drew to a close. "Not so many of those among our people, to be sure, and most of the Nabradian nobles who supported that lot either died in the attack on Nabudis, or fled to Rozarria. But a few remain here; most not open in their support, but you should be aware of their presence. And then there are a handful of Nabradians who long for true independence. Lord Rasafan Mallabus Refa is first among their number; chief among the Rozarrian supporters in Rabanastre is Marcus Thierry, the late general's son."
"I know Thierry." Ashe raised an eyebrow in surprise. "He was a great friend of Rasler's, and the general often consulted with us on matters of mutual defense. But I would not have expected the general to support the Rozarrian faction."
Azelas shook his head. "Your instincts are true. On this matter, father and son parted ways."
"Ah." Ashe sat back in her chair. "Well. You needn't worry about Thierry. I expect to garner his full support."
"Good." Azelas folded his hands in his lap. "But you will have to win them both over if you have any hope to claiming the throne of their nation."
"And the throne of my own nation?" Ashe frowned. "You know as well as anyone that my father never publicly proclaimed me heir. There was no time betwixt Rasler's death and his own. Will there be any to challenge me?"
"Not openly. " Azelas drummed his fingers against the desk. "But behind closed doors... well. You know as well as anyone that the prospect of a woman as sole monarch, even of impeccable pedigree, will engender resistance." He looked across the desk at her, a gleam in his eyes. "How long do you intend to remain sole?"
"For as long as possible," Ashe replied calmly. "And I know what rests on the tip of your tongue regarding heirs, but there are ways around that particular problem. But say no more on this, Randal. When I marry, if I marry, is not the most urgent question before us, and I would appreciate it if the subject could stay dropped until after I am crowned. It is a distraction that I will not suffer." Azelas nodded. "As for the other, I will put forth the following offer, and if you would help see it spread, I would appreciate your aid. If anyone objects to my ascending to the throne of Dalmasca, have them put forth their candidate. We will examine their bloodline; if it proves true, then, and only then, will I discuss stepping aside." She raised an eyebrow. "Of course, you know as well as I that no such candidate will be found."
"Of course." Azelas rose with a bow. "It is a good plan, Your Majesty, and I will support you in it, as I do in all things."
"Many thanks." Ashe paused. "The Rozarrian delegation arrives tonight. Normally, as the head of the council, your father would receive them with me, but I would be honored if you would join me in his place."
"Nothing would please me more." He bowed again. "Tonight, then." He left the room, and the door had barely closed behind him before the next visitor had arrived to replace him.
And so the rest of the morning passed into the afternoon, one appointment after another, as Ashe met with the lords and ladies of noble houses, commanders of varying levels in the army and the fleet, resistance leaders who had acquitted themselves well, powerful merchants and traders, even a few clan representatives. Ashe heard what they had to say, compared their words with Azelas's notes and her own recollections, made her own judgments. A pattern quickly emerged: protestations of joy at her safety and return to rule (with varying levels of sincerity), wishes for her continuing health and leadership, words of advice regarding whom to trust and whom to avoid (some contradictory), and last but certainly not least, questions regarding when they might expect another royal wedding. To this final query Ashe always provided the same firm reply: "I have not yet begun to consider; I wish to consolidate my rule first." Outwardly, the answer was accepted, but Ashe wondered how many of them were already beginning to plot how to advance their own candidates. Despite his easy willingness to drop the subject, even Azelas almost certainly had someone in mind -- one of his sons, perhaps; they were unmarried, and close to her in age.
Only one visitor deviated greatly from this pattern, and he was the last: the Bangaa merchant Migelo. When Ashe called him in, he rushed into the room, hands outstretched, and with a smile Ashe stood up and took them.
"Your Majesty! Oh, it is well to see you. And I want to thank you, majesty, for taking such good care of Vaan and Penelo -- they're in my service, you know, and I couldn't be prouder of them. They're like my own children, they are, and I'm just so glad to have them returned to me safe and sound."
"Who would have thought that two street urchins would provide the key to regaining Dalmasca's freedom?" Ashe replied. "And yet I would never have succeeded without their aid. Please, remind them that they are welcome in the palace anytime." She had half expected to see them at last night's dinner, although she understood if they preferred to skip the more staid state events.
"Of course, Your Majesty." Migelo bowed as deeply as a Bangaa could manage. "And I do hope that you will consider me to provision your parties and dinners, even though to my shame I provided the same service when the Archadians occupied your palace."
"I appreciate your honesty, and of course; submit your bids as before." Ashe stepped back. "How do your wards? Have they yet adjusted to the everyday?"
"Fine, fine," Migelo said heartily. "Penelo minds the shop and Vaan runs errands, although he spends almost every free minute working on that ship of his. I tell you, you could have knocked me down with a chocobo feather when he flew into the Aerodrome, easy as you please, and announced that he was taking care of the ship your ladyship used on her adventures!"
Ashe forced out a smile, even though the suddenness of the reminder hit her with the force of a blow. Of course, the Strahl would be in Vaan's care. He had taken custody of it, after. And his it would remain, unless...
She shook her head to clear the thoughts away. "I can imagine the joy he must take in it," she said straining to keep her tone polite and calm. "He does love flying."
"Oh, you should hear him go on." Migelo shook his head with a chuckle. "Thank you again for seeing me, Your Majesty. You won't regret it!"
Ashe murmured some pleasantry as the merchant left, and she went to the window, opening it for a breath of air. For the first time since leaving the Strahl for the palace, she felt constricted by stone walls, by the lack of open sky above and wide earth below. Pushing the window outward, she let the breeze in, felt it ruffle her hair, took deep breaths to smell the heat of the desert. It was a mercy that this window did not look out onto the wreck of the Bahamut; she thought the sight of that ship, at this moment, just might undo her.
The lilting voice of Halim Ondore floated into the room, and she wanted nothing more than to turn to him and throw herself in his arms, like she was a little girl again, mourning the death of her mother, her brothers, her favorite chocobo who had broken his leg. But the time for such things was past, and she took a deep breath, closed the window, and turned to face him. "Uncle."
"Pardon the interruption." Ondore bowed to her. "But I wished to see how your meetings progress."
"Well," Ashe said, pouring herself a glass of water before lowering herself into the easy chair. "Enlightening."
"Perhaps this will enlighten you further." Ondore held out a sealed envelope, the wax button marking it as a missive from House Solidor. "A runner came from Archades just a few moments ago, and I thought you would wish to see the news he carried."
Ashe took the note, cracked the seal and read.
Ondore settled onto the couch; she could feel his eyes trying to decipher the message by the expression on her face. "Good news?" he finally asked.
"Indeed." Ashe looked up from the note, written in Basch's firm hand, with a smile. "The Senate has voted its confidence in Larsa -- he will serve as emperor in his own stead, no regent."
"Ah!" Ondore's face broke into a smile as well. "Fine news, indeed."
"We shall congratulate him in person tomorrow." Ashe folded the letter as she set it on the end table. "And the Rozarrians arrive tonight. Have you any word on who will represent Roderigio Margrace?"
"His second son, Azlan," Ondore said. "A fine negotiator; he would have made a good leader, as well, but it was not meant to be. So he has settled for serving his father and the crown prince."
"Thank you for this, Uncle." Ashe stood. "I hope you will be attendant on the negotiations as well."
"At table, and at dinner tonight." Ondore rose, and laid a hand on her shoulder. "I will see you there."
The hours of endless ocean had given way to Nabradia's shores, and Al-Cid stirred in his lounge chair. He had installed himself in the solarium at the front of the ship to brood over Azlan's words; Martina had first attempted to soothe him, but eventually she had left him to his drink and his ill temper. Now he set the empty glass on the floor and stood to walk over to the huge window at the front of the cabin. Soon they would be over the ruins of Nabudis, and as many times as he had already seen the sobering sight, he found that he could never look away. They were coming into view now, the spires of twisted metal and stone peeking out from the clouds of choking Mist. He touched the glass with a fingertip and gave his thanks that Ambervale would never suffer this same fate.
"By the gods," a voice whispered softly beside him; Al-Cid turned his head to see Ana standing next to him, her hands gripped behind her back. "That is Nabudis?"
"It is," Al-Cid replied, his voice grim.
Ana approached the window, reaching forward with her palm and pressing it against the glass. "Gods above." She shuddered, and Al-Cid stepped closer, draping an arm around her shoulder. Leaning into him, her shaking stopped, but she did not look away. "The devastation is worse than even the most wildly exaggerated stories."
Al-Cid gestured with his other hand. "This is what Vayne and Tiesto have brought to us with their ambitions: death, destruction, a land ruined beyond repair, an imbalance in the Mist that may never be rectified." He shook his head. "And for what? The rights to fly ships over a scrap of land? Pfah!"
They stood in silence for as long as it took the ship to pass over the horrors of the ruined city and the parklands that had once surrounded it; once the scenery gave way to the less unsettling ground of the Salikawood, Ana shook herself free of Al-Cid's embrace and turned away from the window. "This is why we travel to Rabanastre: to help ensure that no such tragedy ever happens again." Al-Cid followed her to the bar, where she took a seat and gestured toward the stool next to her.
"The Lady Ashe and her companions have lessened the chances greatly," Al-Cid replied, "by destroying the Sun-Cryst, the world's only source of deifacted nethicite."
"True," Ana replied with a frown. "Although we do not know what other horrors might lie in those laboratories to the north. Manufacted nethicite? Natural shards, horded for research? Some other weapon of unimaginable power?" She sighed. "I would be happier if I trusted Archadia to lay those cards on the table."
"Larsa will, as long as his Senators and that hound of his don't change his mind." Al-Cid took the glass that the bartender handed to him with a nod, then sipped of the wine. "It will be good to see Larsa again. I have wondered how he fares: so young, to have seen the deaths of father and brothers, to have the yoke of an empire laid across his shoulders."
"You have said he is strong; now comes the true test of his mettle." Ana drew her wrap around her shoulders. "I do look forward to meeting him, and to seeing Rabanastre for the first time. How is it that I have never managed to come to Dalmasca before this?"
"Because that husband of yours would wrap you in cotton, did Father not see you as such a valuable asset." Al-Cid slumped back against his seat. "When was the last time you left Rosalis for anywhere other than Ambervale?"
Ana didn't answer; instead, she swiveled to face Al-Cid. "We never finished our discussion, this morning." She looked up at him, eyes clear of guile. "I regret Azlan's directness; it is a matter he and I have discussed, with very little resolution, and it derailed us from the true purpose of the conversation: planning our strategy for negotiations with Dalmasca and Archadia."
"Mm." Al-Cid set the wineglass on the bar, rolling his fingers over the stem. "I know my personal directive: to learn what Vayne might have known about Tiesto's involvement with Nabradia. What of our official goals?"
"We have two overriding purposes: first, to restore the truce broken by the recent actions, and secondarily to ensure that Archadia draws back into its borders and promises not to threaten Dalmasca. If stronger trade and mutual defense agreements result, that is to the good, so long as Dalmasca does not become too cozy with its former enemy. And, of course, we should be alert to any indications that Her Majesty might be willing to enter into a permanent alliance with House Margrace."
"A reasonable set of goals. Perhaps a bit too reasonable." Al-Cid tapped the wooden surface of the bar with his right hand. "What of Nabradia?"
Ana smiled. "We see what they say, and what you learn. We do not yet even know who rules Nabradia -- Ashe seems the logical choice, as the closest thing they have remaining to a member of the royal family, unless some distant relation presents himself." She tipped her head thoughtfully. "Alma was of Nabradian heritage, was she not?"
Al-Cid snorted. "Of a minor house, only, and some generations back. But no more of this talk, Ana. You know better than anyone that I've no interest in any throne."
"Ah, Cid." Ana reached her hand to his face. "Don't you know that no one who longs to rule is fit to do so? Give me a reluctant king, every time; he will be a better man and a better leader." She patted his cheek. "But I understand. Well, as long as Nabradia does not fall into Archadian hands, whether by direct rule or by stronger ties with Dalmasca."
"Indeed." Al-Cid finished his wine, then held out his hand to Ana. "Perhaps another solution will yet present itself."
"We can only hope, my brother." Ana took his hand and squeezed his fingers. "There are a few hours yet before we arrive; tell me more of the Lady Ashe, so I can be prepared to meet her."
Ashe had thought to meet the delegation in the Aerodrome, but Randal Azelas had talked her out of it. "You are the ruler of this city and of this land," he had counseled. "Make them come to you. To do otherwise would be a sign of weakness." So instead she was here, in the throne room, surrounded by her nobles and counselors. The trumpets blew as she set foot on the dais, striding up the stairs, not showing the hesitation she felt as she sat on the throne and settled back into the rich green cushions. She would not wear the crown until her coronation, but the seat she would claim. The chair on her left, the one last sat by her mother, she left open in memory of Rasler; on her right was Azelas, representing his father the duke, as she had requested. He bowed to her, almost deeply enough to touch his forehead to the armrest of the chair, and the rest of the court followed suit; Ashe inclined her head to him in return.
Azelas took his seat, and Ashe faced forward, sitting straight up in her throne, hands placed lightly on its armrests, as the trumpeter sounded his horn again. "Your Majesty, I present to you Prince Azlan Margrace of Rozarria!" The door at the end of the room swung open, and into the room came a dozen nobles and aides, lead by a slender man of about forty. His black hair was cropped close to his head, topped by a simple golden circlet. Next to him was a woman almost as tall as he, with broader shoulders but the same dark hair cut almost as short. And then behind them both Ashe spied a familiar figure, a sight nearly as welcome as it was surprising: Al-Cid Margrace, looking straight at her, meeting her eye with a half smile as he glided down the aisle. It was all she could do not to smile or nod in return; instead, she lifted her shoulders and held out her hand to the leader of the delegation as he approached her throne, hand outstretched.
"Welcome to Dalmasca," she said.
"Your Majesty." Prince Azlan took her hand and bent to swiftly kiss it. "My Lord Father regrets that he is unable to come to these negotiations himself and begs you to accept his children as a poor substitute." Ashe dipped her chin in acknowledgement, and Azlan rose. "May I present to you my sister, Princess Ana Margrace Alcenar?" The tall woman curtsied to Ashe, holding her pale green skirts wide, then stepped back and out of the way as Azlan continued. "And I understand you are already acquainted with my brother, Al-Cid."
Al-Cid strode out from behind his siblings and took Ashe's hand lightly in his fingers. He seemed small in comparison to them, which made the grace of his movements all the more noticeable. "Your Majesty, it is an unalloyed pleasure to see you again."
"Agreed." Ashe met his warm eyes with a genuine smile. His presence in the delegation was most unexpected, and though she found the inclusion of a friendly face pleasing on a personal level, the implications would bear puzzling through. But later; for now, it was time for her to play gracious host. She pulled her hand away from Al-Cid's and returned her attention to Azlan, standing with a flourish. "Prince Azlan, Princess Ana, assorted guests. On behalf of myself and all Dalmasca, I bid you welcome to our palace. Please, won't you accompany me to the banquet hall for a dinner prepared in your honor?"
"I gladly accept." Azlan bowed again, then stepped aside to allow room for Ashe to walk down the steps and past the nobility, Azelas a step behind her and Al-Cid's eyes on her back.
The Archadians arrived the next morning, and Ashe awaited them in the throne room as well, the same advisors behind and beside her; today, the captain of her guard, Abeldart Roland, took a place by her side, wearing the Dalmascan light armor that covered his head and shoulders, a spear in his hand. The Rozarrian delegation gathered to her right, near the foot of the dais. The new arrivals formed a phalanx with Basch at its head, covered top-to-toe in the armor of a Judge Magister: Gabranth's armor. Peering around his bulk, Ashe could see Larsa, a confident step behind, and then a small army of advisors, retainers, and soldiers at his back.
Reaching the steps to the platform, Basch halted, then stepped aside; the rest of the party followed his lead, forming a receiving line of sorts down the aisle. Larsa alone continued on, mounting the dais and stopping at Ashe's feet, crossing his arms and bowing his head. "Your Majesty," he said. "It is well to see you again."
"And you," Ashe replied. "I am gladdened to hear of your acclimation as Emperor."
Larsa raised his chin to meet her eyes, smiling politely. "I was pleased to have the Senate come to an easy accord on this matter. We encountered some early resistance by those Senators still suspicious of Vayne's influence; the support of Judge Magister Zargabaath was invaluable in convincing them otherwise."
Ashe scanned the crowd for Zargabaath's distinctive helm, but did not see it. "Where is His Honor today?"
"Zargabaath remained in Archades. There is, as you might imagine, much to do to rebuild the military -- four Judges Magister to appoint, ships to commission, and so forth. Judge Magister Gabranth will represent the interests of the military in our negotiations."
"I understand." Ashe searched Larsa's fate for any acknowledgement of the secret they shared regarding the true identity of the man behind the mask of Gabranth, but he betrayed nothing: eyes wide open, clear of any emotion. She wished she had been so skilled at hiding truths at that age. At any age. Letting the moment pass, she held out her hand to him, and he took it with a bow. "You are welcome in Dalmasca, Emperor Larsa. The run of the palace is yours. May I present Captain Roland?" She let go his hand and indicated the captain on her right. "He is in charge of security here; anything you require, you need only to ask it of him."
Roland nodded to Larsa. "Speak to me personally, or leave a message with any of the guards," he added.
"Many thanks." Larsa inclined his head. "I am sure we will have a productive visit. If I may introduce the remainder of my party?" He led Ashe down the steps, then took his place at the head of the line. "You know Judge Magister Gabranth, of course."
Ashe nodded, and Basch nodded in return. "Your Majesty," he said, the response muffled behind the mask, a hollow echo of the voice she knew so well.
"Welcome to Dalmasca," she replied, tone cool. Not trusting herself to linger, she moved on to the next person, and then the next, the men and women of Archades blurring into a mass of Senators and delegates and aides and--
Ashe nearly choked on her polite greeting as she looked up into the next face in the receiving line: cool blue eyes, close-cropped light brown hair, a sardonic expression. But also a dusting of beard, and a squared jaw-line, putting her more in mind of the man who had to be his father.
"Your Majesty." He bowed. "Edgar Bunansa, of Archades and Draklor Laboratory, at your service. My elder brother Sevrin sends his greetings and his regrets; he was invited to join the delegation, but regrettably was tied up putting the affairs of our house in order."
Ashe inclined her head, taking a moment to compose her response. Her first impulse, to offer condolences on his loss, seemed somehow obscene given the circumstances, and the edge she noted in his voice. "Welcome to Rabanastre," she said. "So you are affiliated with Draklor."
"I am." His nod was sober. "But to my late father's mad schemes, I can assure you I was not a party." His mouth set into a line. "I am here as a show of good faith from the Empire, that we will not keep such deadly secrets in Draklor ever again." Ashe could hear a touch of resentment in his tone, and she wondered who the most likely target was. Larsa, Dr. Cid, herself? She said nothing more, however, only nodded to him again and made to move on.
And then, Bunansa's hand shot out, as though to grab at her arm; he stopped himself only just in time, and she turned to him.
His mouth worked, his throat bobbed, and he spoke his next words through a mouthful of knives. "The pirate. Does he live?"
Ashe bit the inside of her cheek, lightly, so that no one could see. She stepped closer and lowered her voice. "I know not. We sent rescue parties into the Bahamut, as did Zargabaath; a few survivors were found. Not many. But... he was not there. Among the living, or the dead."
"Nor the Viera?" Ashe shook her head, and Bunansa's shoulders slumped. "I see."
Without thinking, Ashe let her hand brush the hem of his sleeve, richly embroidered with gold thread. "The Bahamut is a large ship, and the crash left it without internal power; each deck must be searched on foot. Do not give up hope -- more survivors may yet be found. Or perhaps they escaped on their own." She knew as she spoke the words that they were as much for herself as for Bunansa, a reassurance that she had made silently many times before but had not yet spoken aloud.
Bunansa took a deep breath, squaring his shoulders again. "It is of no consequence. Ffamran made his choices; if they have left him for dead, then so be it." He bowed to her, his eyes cold once again. "Thank you, Your Majesty."
Farther back in the line, Al-Cid had come to his feet to join the small knot of Rozarrians that had organized themselves into a rough line, pressing in after the representatives of Dalmasca. He stood between Azlan and Ana, shuffling forward as the mass of people moved, each person exchanging pleasantries with the one before them. As they waited, he leaned back to Ana. "Such a large delegation," he murmured, in Rozarrian to keep from being overheard. "To ensure that all internal interests are fairly represented, or to keep those interests properly obfuscated?"
"Watchers of the boy-king, more like," was Ana's soft reply. "He is a new monarch; his people know not which way he will go. Every faction in Archadia will want their own eyes on him, both to analyze and to influence his actions."
And then the time for discussion and speculation ended, as Azlan reached Larsa and bowed his head. "Emperor Larsa, I presume? I am Azlan Margrace, second son of His Royal Majesty Emperor Roderigio, fifth of that name. It is a great honor to meet you."
"I thank you for coming," Larsa replied. "I presume you are representing the interests of the Empire at these negotiations?"
"Indeed." Azlan raised his head. "Myself, and my sister Princess Ana, and my half-brother Al-Cid, whom I believe is known to you?"
"Yes." Larsa broke into a genuine smile, which Al-Cid could not help but return as he stepped forward. "I am so pleased to see you, and to learn that you fare well despite your misadventure at Bur-Omisace."
Al-Cid took Larsa's outstretched hands and clasped them. "A minor setback, nothing more. I am glad to see you well also, and may I offer condolences on your recent losses."
Larsa's smile slipped, but only briefly as he shook his head. "Though I appreciate the sentiment, there is no need. You had no reason to love Lord Vayne, and every reason to want him dead. Though I was grieved at its necessity, the fact remains that it was, indeed, necessary, to secure the future of Ivalice."
Al-Cid risked stepping closer to clap Larsa on the shoulder. "Still, the fall of a brother is no easy thing to face. Be well, my friend."
He looked up again, and the smile was genuine now, if sad. "My thanks, Al-Cid. I look forward to speaking with you more on the morrow."
The line moved on, and Al-Cid found himself face to face -- or face-to-mask, perhaps -- with Judge Magister Gabranth. "Your Honor," he said with a nod. "Al-Cid Margrace, at your service."
"A pleasure." Gabranth nodded. "We will speak more in council, I am certain."
"Until then." Al-Cid stepped down to the next person in line. "Al-Cid Margrace, younger son of Roderigio, at your service." And so it continued, until the last hand had been shaken, the last pleasantry exchanged, leaving the real work to begin.