The upper halls of the palace in Rabanastre are empty in the summer. The heat drives the councillors and the noble men and women to the lower courtyards, with their pools of ever-bubbling water, or into the chilled stone interior. Ashe is left to wander the halls freely. She is a child of the desert. She can stand the heat, if she stays in the shade.
As the day wanes and cools, she moves to her dressing room, to prepare for the evening's festivities. Another gala, another night of hearing empty promises reinforced. She was born to be a queen, trained all her life in the art of politics, but sometimes she wonders if she is ill-suited to the demands of her duties. She has traded her sword for a crown and her shield for diplomacy. These battles are fought with words, not with weapons.
For the evening, she chooses a pale blue skirt and a matching top that stops just above her stomach, adorned with tiny blue jewels across her chest. The cool night air of the desert blows through the courtyard as she enters, swirling Ashe's skirts around her feet. Light from the lanterns along the walls and across the ceiling dances across the gems on her chest. She misses the tight-fitting clothing she wore when she was a rebel on the run, but she doesn't miss the uncertainty and heartache that came with it.
She misses, too, the companionship of someone who remembers Dalmasca before the occupation, far more than she misses her clothing or her sword. Her family is dead. Her husband barely knew her before he perished. Her knights are gone – betrayal, death, and duty have taken them from her. She is alone in this new world. Not for the first time, she understands that sometimes what is hard won is not what is most wanted. Her dreams still take her to the skies, but the man who haunts them is surely gone forever. The world, after all, is not populated by actors playing their parts in a vast production. Or so she tells herself, because hope was the most fickle thing she harbored after the occupation – and the most resilient.
"My Queen," says her adviser, bowing before her as she stops at the foot of the stairs. She gives a curt nod in response and makes her way into the gathering crowd to mingle. The night wears on. a never-ending stream of greetings and overly polite words. Ashe finds herself caught in a conversation with a Rozarrian ambassador, longing for escape. Often her allies try her patience far more than her enemies.
"-But I assure you, my people have no intention of-"
"That is all good, my lady, but you must consider my lord's point of view," argues the ambassador, with a flourish of his hand and half a bow.
Ashe bites her tongue when the reply that comes to mind is overly sharp. She has learned to restrain her pride, for the sake of her people. As she struggles to find a diplomatic reply, a man stops before her. He wears an ornate mask that resembles one of the great wyrms Ashe remembers fighting, what seems like a lifetime ago, on a desolate plain far from her home. He takes her hand and kisses it; this is an empty, meaningless gesture, she has long since learned. She offers the man a restrained smile and a nod of her head, her attention wandering to one of the more distinguished guests behind him. At least he has her gratefulness for drawing her away from the Rozarrian.
“Princess,” he says, with a vaguely mocking bow. Ashe is already turning away before she hears him; she whirls around just in time to lose him in the crowd.
“Your Majesty?” questions one of her advisers, lingering close at hand.
“Nothing. It's nothing.” Her husband is dead. She is a queen now; she cannot dream about sky pirates sweeping her off on an adventure. She takes her skirts in her hand and moves away, before she has a chance to change her mind and try to find him among the guests.
There are days when Basch forgets that he wears another man's name and another man's armor. Days when he wears his armor as if it has become his skin, when his helmet becomes his face. Sometimes Larsa takes it upon himself to remind him that he was once a knight of Dalmasca, that even before that he had a name and a family and a homeland. But those moments grow increasingly more rare as summer becomes winter and then summer again. Penelo's letter to Larsa only strengthens his resolve. Peace must be maintained at all costs. Dead men need no respite from their duty.
The council meetings often stretch out long into the night. Basch is used to the cold nights; he grew up in a cold, hard place, where growing crops meant coaxing life from the ground and not plucking it from the trees before it became overripe and fell off. In the deserts, too, the nights were cool. It's never the temperature that leaves him feeling chilled in Archades.
This evening is no different from any other. The summer day cools as the sun wanes, but the council stays in session long past the hour when the lights of the shops and homes of the imperial city begin to dim. It is nearly halfway to morning when they are finally allowed to disperse. Larsa, seemingly unaffected by the late hour despite his young age, follows Basch into one of the courtyards.
Basch comes to a stop and stands stiffly at attention near the center of the open area. "My Lord?"
"You seem ill at ease. Is something on your mind?" Larsa asks, walking in a slow circle around the courtyard, his eyes on the stars.
"I'm fine," Basch replies shortly, if not unkindly, after considering for awhile.
Larsa comes closer and reaches up to touch his shoulder with his gloved hand, concern writ plainly on his face. “Basch-”
“Is a dead man,” Basch says evenly, interrupting. It's true in name and in spirit, if not in fact. Noah lies dead, buried in the ground in a grave unmarked save for a scattered handful of crystal shards – as is the custom of their homeland. Basch died in a prison, a traitor to his king, never again to see the light of day. Gabranth lives on.
"Is ever in the service of his queen," Larsa says gently. "One day we shall have enduring peace, and you will go home. I promise you, Basch."
Basch falls silent and casts his gaze upwards to the stars. He does remember how to hope. It is, after all, what brought him here.
Penelo dances across the cobblestones, her feet barely touching the ground. The desert heat emanates from the ground, shimmering in the air between the buildings. Sometimes she wishes she could escape to the slopes of the southern mountains for the summer. Not the summits – she was born and raised in the heat of the desert. But the summer sun in the narrow streets can be too much even for her and Vaan.
Vaan's new airship is in dire need of repairs. They can't fly for more than an hour before the strain on the engine is too much. Even so, it's already more than either of them could have hoped to dream of before their adventure.
She comes to an abrupt stop nearly too late when Vaan suddenly appears in her path, rushing too fast around the corner of one of the magick shops.
"Guess what!" he says, triumphant, and she can only guess. It's impossible to tell with Vaan.
"Did you get the ship fixed?"
"Not yet, but I got us new equipment!"
Penelo wants to scold him, knows she should scold him, but he's always too happy lately. "Vaan, I- oh!"
No one is there to see Vaan pull her into the shadows behind the shop and kiss her.
The sunrise over the desert is one of the most breathtaking sights in Ivalice – even for someone as distinguished a traveler as Balthier. The Strahl waits, moored to a stunted desert tree, its glossair rings humming with energy, at the edge of the oasis where Balthier and Fran have stopped to rest and refill their water supply.
“The queen in her castle. The knight atoning for his sins. The young, reckless lovers. What would you call us?” Fran has a pensive look on her face.
“The richest sky pirates in all of Ivalice," Balthier says easily, as they begin to make their preparations to leave.
Fran merely raises her eyebrows.
“As soon as we find the Cache,” Balthier adds, laughing. They board the Strahl together.
Fran gives her head a small shake, as if she has discovered some secret Balthier has yet to unlock. “You yearn for freedom, not for fame.”
“Says the note you left the boy,” Fran replies matter-of-factly, while she neatly unhooks the anchor and draws the cable up into the airship. “Have you grown fond?”
“I''m afraid I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about.” Balthier flicks the power to the engine on and checks the controls.
Fran joins him in the cockpit. "You want to see them again.”
Balthier ponders this while he takes the Strahl up. “Time to let someone else be the leading man for awhile, hm?”
“Not the leading woman?” Fran asks, with a pointed twitch of her ears.
“That, too,” he concedes, with a chuckle. The sky stretches out before them, the clouds below. There is no story here, no actors and no scene to set, no wars to win, no princesses and no knights. Balthier pushes down hard on the accelerator.