Balthier waits in the Sandsea amongst the crowds of aspiring hunters and accomplished thieves, his hand wrapped around a mug of too-warm mead and his eyes scanning the room in search of his contact. The grand city of Rabanastre, Dalmascan capital, buzzes tonight with promise of Queen Ashelia’s coronation celebration, and if his contact would get her act together, he might even be able to procure an invitation to the palace tonight.
Penelo walks—practically waltzes—into the Sandsea, as comfortable a patron as any of the battle-scarred bangaa who yell at the proprietor to keep the ale coming. Balthier fixes his eyes on the tiny cream-colored card she carries nonchalantly and pretends that no dignity gets lost in his bid to enter the palace as a practically legitimate partygoer. She takes a seat across for him, and waves someone over to fetch her something to drink, looking even more a part of this scene than Balthier feels right now. “So, that’s my ticket in?”
“You aren't trying to rob the palace again, I hope," Penelo says, sliding the embossed invitation across the table. Were she an even less subtle purveyor of invitations, Balthier might take her at her word, but the sly smile that spreads across her face as her small fingers lift themselves off the card with a final push makes it clear that she doesn’t believe for a second that his interest in tonight’s fete lies with the resale value of a few royal trinkets in Balfonhiem Port.
Balthier rubbed his hand over the embossed gold flowers on the corner. "My business lies elsewhere."
“I wish you the best of luck in tonight’s endeavors.” Penelo’s annoying sunny smile never goes away and Balthier reconsiders if getting the invitation through Vaan might have been the less excruciating option, or if he should have stuck with his original plan of scaling the rose bushes after the party to gain his entrance.
“I rather suspect that charm will win the night,” Balthier pronounces with more confidence than he feels. If he were perfectly frank with himself, he would admit that the queen’s whims would be the deciding factor in how this night ends. Were the candidate for leading lady any other, Balthier could coast on his nonchalance—if not one lady, then another, and if none, then at least company spent with the brightest desert blooms.
Yet, for one to matter most—to be the true leading lady—raises the stakes too far to play lightly, and, Balthier thinks with wry amusement, some might consider his aspirations to be quite absurd—she’s not just royalty, but a queen in her own right. And yet, what else to do with the heart’s whims but obey them?
He bids his farewell to Penelo, and leaves to don attire more appropriate for a noble suitor.
"Demen, Baron of Bunansa," Balthier says with a flourish as he presents his hard-won invitation to the Moogle at the door. In all technicality, Balthier supposes he could claim nobility had he been in good standing with the Archadian Empire at the time of his father's passing, and if he had not, in fact, been demonstrably present and accountable for said event.
The Moogle waves him through. "Lord Demen of Bunansa." The announcement gets ego-crushingly little attention from the party-goers, some of whom would count as actual nobility. The Queen's head, however, snaps around, and the look she gives him could wither the courage of weaker men. It almost withers him, until Balthier gives himself a mental slap.
The killing glare isn’t the point. Queen Ashelia B’nargin Dalmasca quite literally owns this territory. With a single nod of her head, Balthier could be kicked out, given stony accommodation in a prison cell, or, were Ashe’s mood foul enough, perhaps find his head unfavorably separated from the rest of his body. In those terms, a killing glare and an mere upward tilt of a nose become as much of an invitation as a locked vault.
Furthermore, Balthier thinks as he dips and dodges through the crowd to get close enough to nudge her into noticing him, the queen knows him to be a sky-pirate and rogue to the very core. A prickly princess—queen—holds more leading lady appeal than one who is more immediately compliant to her leading man’s wit and charm. Or at least, Balthier tells himself that, while wiping his sweaty palms on his handkerchief. He scowls. No, not sweaty, merely slightly damp from an unseasonable rain earlier.
In less formal, more sensible gatherings, the request to dance would consist of a mere tap of the desired partner’s shoulder and perhaps a statement of courtesy if the establishment were particularly high-class. However, at the Queen of Dalmasca’s Coronation Ceremony, Balthier imagined the protocol would be quite a bit more formalized. Damned if he knew what that would be.
“Have you room on your dance card, Majesty?” Balthier offers his hand.
Ashe scoffs, at him perhaps or at the notion of needing a dance card. She could easily snub him and not a single guest tonight would blame her—they might, Balthier realizes with creeping and unfamiliar horror, consider him unworthy of even talking to the queen, and leading man or no, he could hardly contradict them. No, perhaps knowing what they can only imagine, Balthier might accuse the nobles watching their exchange of understatement. Until she answers, he waits in soft terror that she may in fact, turn him down.
At last though, she reaches for his proffered hand. “We have a score to settle.” It is she who practically drags him into the middle of the room. Technically he leads, but the queen makes a stiff and resistant dancing partner. She virtually stomps her way through the steps, and though she takes mercy on his toes that is cold comfort when the hard clap of her shoes against the tiled floor tell him that she is on the verge of changing her mind at any moment.
“An odd time for you to show up,” the queen says as a prelude to polite conversation and flirting.
Balthier feels the sudden and imprudent need to correct her. “Rather the opposite, Highness. I dare say your coronation is the talk of Ivalice, and this must be the event of the century. Is there a single guest here who is not at least distantly related to one of the ruling families?”
“Though I’d choose to forget it at my leisure, some would still consider me a nobleman’s son.”
“And yet, you use your family name and a borrowed invitation to gain entrance?”
“I’d not have missed this for all the treasures in the House Solidor vault.”
“And had you failed to deceive the footmoogle?”
Balthier tries to be casual in his reply as he guides her around another dancing pair. “Then I’d have likely found myself on your chamber’s balcony picking briars out of my hair and garments. ‘Tis a relief that I merely had to impersonate nobility.”
Ashe’s eyes widen just long enough for Balthier to catch her surprise before her countenance smooths away any trace of surprise. “And what if I decide to remove you from the party after this song concludes?” They pull apart and bow before coming back together as a pair again.
The possibility still makes Balthier wince, even if he would never deign to express such discomfort. “Then I might still find myself combing my hair through your rosebushes."
“I haven’t yet decided to not kick you out,” Ashe says, though her warning is softened by the fact that she lets him lead more easily through the steps, and her glare is now merely as venomous as a basilisk's.
"Then I shall have to work even more diligently to charm you, Majesty."
Ashe’s eyes soften into a look of challenge. "Try me."
"It would be an honor." Balthier gives her a final bow before the music ends and they leave the dance floor.
Though the queen ultimately decides to take mercy on him, she refuses to pay him any mind until after the dance ends, and lovestruck though Balthier might be, his reputation as a leading man forbids him from hanging onto the hem of her gown for the rest of the evening. And so he attempts to mingle across the room, from the ladies nearly as green as the Archadian debutantes he used to dance with in the dark days before he discovered piracy, to the established dowagers and gentlemen who consider this night to be naught but one more in a line of coronations.
While he sweeps ladies both young and old across the floor, his thoughts and glances never stray far from where Queen Ashelia entertains, with the smoothest and most painted-on royal smile, the congratulations of seemingly every guest excluding himself. Yet occasionally, Balthier catches the queen looking over the shoulders of yet another gaggle of potential suitors to where Balthier half-heartedly dances, and she practically snarls at him.
Truly, that countenance heartens him more than the lifeless smile she bestows everyone else.
Another song ends, and another forgettable female extra falls away. The crowd has thinned slightly, and Balthier strides towards her. "Another dance, Highness."
She takes his hand with little resistance this time.
"I'm only dancing with you because I needed a break from everyone's attention. Towards the door, please."
"It is your night, Majesty. Is this better?" Balthier steers them towards the outer edge of the dance floor. Outside the open balcony doors, fireworks punctuate the cheers from the less formal city celebration. A breeze flows in.
"My night to entertain every concern someone could bring forth to a newly crowned queen. I swear you must be the only unattached male in this room who hasn't mentioned the possibility of a marriage match."
They each take two steps back, and when they come together again, Balthier dares to put his hand just above her waist. Through the thin silk he can feel the warmth of her skin. "I would make an awful palace bird, and an even worse ruler." He pauses then adds, "Not that I am foolish enough to believe that you would give the reins of Dalmasca to any man you married."
A wry upward quirk of her mouth marks the first smile she's given to him tonight. "I believe you've just proven yourself more intelligent than 90% of our guests tonight."
"Nor," Balthier says in a soft voice, "am I foolish enough to imagine that you would abandon all this for a life of piracy and ill-gotten gains." Truly he isn't; even if on occasion in some gods-forsaken ruins, he believes it a pity that she couldn't just live as Amalia full time and explore Ivalice with him.
The quirk softens in to a smile—one that Balthier imagines goes beyond merely polite—and their hands come together. "Not everyone can shirk their duties so skillfully as you."
"It's hard work, Majesty," Balthier admits."Perhaps you should try it sometime."
"Hmmph." Her nose goes into the air. "I would never."
"More's the pity, Majesty," Balthier says as the closing strains of an all-too-brief song fade into silence. He brings her hand to his lips and brushes a kiss over them. "I would quite enjoy being your tutor in such matters."
Ashe withdraws her hand. "You may be just as foolish as the rest of them."
More so, he silently agrees, as he watches her rejoin the crowd of nobles hungry for her attention. After all, he wants nothing more than her, while the others who surround her at least pursue the more sensible benefits of courting a queen. Yet, he notices, when her eyes meet his again, her expression grows wistful. He could teach her much about shirking, of that Balthier is sure.
“A third dance would indicate that I favor you,” Ashe says, nose completely up in the air, when he loses patience with his fellow guests and requests that she dance once more. They both know the rule well enough. Two dances are fine, and no one tonight would think twice about the queen looking to further engage with eligible suitors, which—Balthier recognizes somewhat belatedly—to the untrained eye he does at least appear to be one. A third, however, would signify that the queen has made up her mind.
Balthier waits, and when she continues to neither accept nor refuse his request, ventures to ask, “And do you?”
The position of their bodies hides the sudden touch of her arm on his waistcoat sleeve. "I think you would need more than charm to make a case for why I should publicly demonstrate such a preference towards you."
"Does that mean you have an undemonstrated preference towards me?" Balthier tries to keep his inquiry light, his tone skating on the edge of nonchalance and apathy, even as his innards jump and twist with hope and trepidation.
She lets go of his sleeve. "It means that were you to state your case in a less public setting, I would take it into consideration."
Balthier reminds himself that jumping around like a lad after his first kiss violates both the etiquette that rules this room and his own personal leading man code of conduct, and thus channels his feelings into an understated grin. "Then I shall see you on your chamber's balcony after tonight's celebration ends."
"Would half the briar's thorns be in your hair?"
"If you insisted upon it."
Ashe smiles too—really smiles. "As much as I appreciate your devotion, those roses cost a fortune."
"I understand, majesty. Enjoy your coronation." He kisses her perfect hand once more. "And I look forward to meeting again in more intimate circumstances."
The celebration finally ends well after midnight, and Balthier could hardly be more nervous were he actually proposing to someone whom he could marry. The fireworks have slowed now, though occasionally a pink or gold burst erupts from an otherwise inky-dark sky. Down in the city the majority of the crowd has retreated indoors, leaving Balthier disconnected from everything.
"You're here." Ashe interrupts his silence. She still wears her dress, though she no longer bears her crown, and Balthier notices when she walks forward, she appears to be barefoot.
"And not a single thorn in my hair or attire, Majesty. You seem surprised."
"I—" Ashe pauses. "I suppose I am, actually. I usually assume anything you say is part of your leading man pretention, and nothing more."
Balthier winces. "I can't contradict the pretention, but for you, I mean every word of what I say." He brushes her hand. "May I?" She nods and Balthier takes her hand.
He kisses her knuckle before pulling her in close. "Were I to plan a heist of this palace, I'd take you and leave the salable treasures behind. And were you to find royal marriage unsuitable, I would be first in line to offer my services as your companion and consort." Those words, while perfectly true, seem inadequate to describe the weight of the emotions he bears tonight.
"I haven't decided yet," Ashe says, pulling away from his grasp and going over to the balcony, "whether I want to go through another royal marriage or not. It's odd, even having the choice."
When Balthier walks up behind her, she brushes her hand against his. He takes it. "If I recall, the last one did not go as well as it could."
Ashe glares up at him, and he almost reminds her that deploying so many surly looks in force depletes their effectiveness, especially if, of all the guests in attendance, he's the one sharing a private moment with her. "Not exactly," she concurs, "and now is different. I'm a queen in my own right, not one by marriage. A poorly-made match would be less beneficial than none at all." She turns to him. "Give me time to consider, and when we next meet, I may allow you to make your case to become my consort."
"As you wish, Majesty," Balthier brushes a stray lock of her hair behind her ear. He gazes down at her, memorizing every detail of her face before he leaves Rabanastre in the morning.
"You may give yourself a head start by kissing me now." Ashe's smile sends the warmth running right through him, and Balthier supposes he can't help but comply. Her lips are soft and moist beneath his, and Balthier closes his eyes and hopes he's not ruining this moment too spectacularly, even as he lets everything rush over him.
"How was that?" he asks when he pulls away.
Ashe presses her lips together and considers. "At the next large celebration, I expect to see you in attendance. You may attempt to further convince me to take you on as my leading man then."
"I wouldn't miss it for all the riches in Ivalice. Sleep well, Majesty." With that, Balthier climbs over the balcony railing and slides down the rope he used to ascend in the first place, his mind and heart already considering how to choreograph their next encounter.