Vossler's breath rasps in his chest, hot and hard with hate, but he inhales through his mouth, for quiet. He can taste his own breath; it is bitter and he ignores it, listening for footfalls. He knows the posts and patrols, and he avoids them when possible — who knows how many the traitor Basch has suborned; he will take no chances in this.
He reaches her room, slips inside through one of the secret ways, known to none but her knights and captains — his mouth is dry, teeth grinding hot together at the thought.
"Your Majesty," he hisses, and she stirs — at least that, at least she is alive. "Your Majesty, you must come quick!" He would touch her, rouse her, hurry her out of here, but his hands hesitate in the faltering moonlight: it is the contrast, his hands dark and used against the white of her skin.
It does not matter in the end— she stirs and he draws his hands away unsullied as she awakes, eyes wide and white. "Vossler! What is— I am not—" And then her eyes widen yet more; her mouth presses into a small, thin line. He watches a world of meanings shatter upon her.
She knows the power of her title, that falls new and bitter from his lips. An unripe fruit, too soon and sour.
Her eyes glint in the dark, with wet or wrath; he cannot tell. "My father is dead. Tell me what is happening."
She sits there, in her simple rumpled nightclothes.
When did he begin to see royalty as human?
"Treachery," Vossler spits. If she is no more than a Queen, then let her not be less. "Treachery, Your Majesty, of the highest— the lowest order." Breathe, breathe, through the mouth. "Basch fon Ronsenburg." He hisses the full name, one moment to savour the sour satisfaction of rage before it must be set aside. "Fon Ronsenburg and Archades, they collude against Dalmasca. Majesty, we must run."
"No. We must fight." Her chin is set high and stubborn, and Vossler despairs: a child Queen, a woman alone and unwed on a throne no longer hers.
"Majesty, you must hide! The guard is compromised, you cannot be safe here!"
"Archades would buy itself much trouble, to murder the royal family entire. They would lose their cherished smooth transition." Her face darkens, and the edge of a hiss in her words, too, her own poison.
"Majesty. I will not gamble your life on the reasoning of traitors."
She jerks her chin up, eyes hard— and a little lost; the shadows veil her between harsh stripes of moonlight, and Vossler sees an echo of a black-clad woman at her husband's funeral, face soft and young even as her eyes grow cold.
But as his heart ticks away the seconds — it feels like one long indrawn breath since Nalbina, waiting to exhale — she lowers that sharp proud jut of chin again, slowly, in a nod, and follows. She takes nothing from her chambers; Vossler breathes relief.
They steal into her outer rooms, her study, Vossler aiming to leave by a different path. And there, she grabs for her rapier and main gauche, exquisite make and lain with care; Vossler is diverted, impatient at the delay.
"No. Those are too distinctive."
Her eyes dart up, a stifled spark of rebellion. Her hands linger for a moment on the fine steel, the inlaid hilt: a beautiful rapier, ladylike, befit a sovereign heir.
She lays them aside.
"The armoury, then." A better choice, where they might find arms and armour of reliable and unremarkable make.
They linger too long there: she flounders over choosing anew. Vossler finally presses a bastard sword upon her, for flexibility, and picks out a simple shield.
"I do not know the use of these." Her eyes are wide again, and she looks a child to him, belligerent with shame, juggling the unfamiliar equipment.
"I shall teach you," he hisses, "when there is time."
He selects a sparse array for himself, and then into the captain's quarters for coin, documents, anything else that might be of use. He had ridden hard — ridden his bird down and dead, its throat cut for mercy a league shy of the western gate, opposite the expected direction — to reach Rabanstre before the news. He had bought some scant hours, no more— but also the innattention of the guard, the captain's quarters empty, the corridors sparsely manned. A short and precious span, on which to rest a monarch's life; his hands are clumsy in that haste.
When he emerges she is hefting the sword, or trying to. It looks inelegant in her hand, heavy and awkward; the shield sits clumsy and cumbersome on her arm.
"Come!" he whispers. She freezes, like a hare in sudden torchlight. Then sheathes the sword, swinging the baldric into place. He has to show her where to hang the shield.
And they run, down into the Waterway, away from the Palace and all its broken secrets.
"Thought us faithless, did he?" Balthier murmurs, looking up at the sky.
Ashe looks, too. She understands— now; though she had not, for a long time. The sky is boundless, and free, and cruel, for its oath is no less harsh than the one Ashe demands be sworn to her.
One such oath can already break a man, she has learned; and so she asks no others of him. It was not her search parties that found him and Fran, but the sky's light, questing for them through the ruins. She has grown intimate beyond telling with the demands of Balthier's oath, and she understands now the long look Fran gave her, once, at an edge between earth and sea and sky, freedom stretching around them in all directions. Then, as ever, eyes on sky and horizon, Ashe had chosen as she would ever choose.
"He did," she agrees, her voice hard. "He was wrong."
"Again," he says.
Her sweat rolls down her face. She wipes it off her brow, away from her eyes. It leaves a streak of dirt on her fair skin, and Vossler wants to look away— away from this woman barely out of the swell of pubescence; away from the awkwardness of her swordwork, that irks him as no green recruit's ever did; away from this Queen who sweats with exertion even in the clammy damp of the Waterway. He himself is barely winded.
He knows he is merciless. He does not care.
It matters not that she has only trained in rapier, nor that she is young, nor that she is a woman. It matters only that they must survive. She must survive. Perhaps his heart should break at this necessity; or perhaps it has been ground into the dust already— Ronsenburg—
Her limbs tremble. She takes one unsteady breath, another. Then she slides her feet further apart, the lower stance he had been urging, and readies for another round.
Her grip, he notes, is still wrong.
"We need men," she says.
They huddle in the Garamsythe Waterway. She looks chilled, rubbing her arms against the wet musty breath of the damp stone, but her eyes are far away. It would, he supposes, be on her mind — safety, company. The life of a princess was not often so solitary.
They were true, her words. He cannot help but admit it. If only the Prince had survived, that brought the allegiance and army of a nation at his back. He remembered the fierce pride of serving under Rasler, the hot clean burn that the best commanders kindle in their troops. He had always shone in battle like a beacon, Rasler had— too brightly, perhaps. It is the brightest light that is wont to die the quicker for it.
But no Rasler rides to rescue his bride; it falls to Vossler, and he is alone.
The need for secrecy tears at him, and the ache of betrayal grows no fainter. But if they are to restore the Dalmascan throne...
He nods, in the end. "I must recruit."
No men of his own company remain — slaughtered or suborned at Nalbina, if he must hazard a guess — and he is wary of sounding out others from the ranks with only Ashe at his back, and she new to the sword.
He aches for soldiers, solid disciplined men.
But for Rasler's death... But for Basch's treason—
So he searches the streets for men — men who have lost brothers, children to the Empire. But not those who lost fathers — too young, too headstrong. No orphans. Orphans are a burden. He needs men with passion — a dangerous passion, but one that will bind them to him, to the cause.
He orders Ashe to remain in the Waterway, and her eyes spark.
"I want to see them. I want them to see me."
"Impossible. Neither is safe."
"But if these men are to aid in restoring my throne—"
"No." He cuts her off, cuts his hand through the air, cuts his voice across her speech. "After they prove trustworthy, then perhaps you may be seen. Stay here."
She watches him go, sword clasped loosely in her hand.
"It is difficult sometimes," Fran says, "to feel oneself alone."
Fran had been watching Balthier: in the aftermath of Ridorana the Strahl is quiet, Balthier and Basch faced with their own betrayals as Ashe contemplates those done her. But Fran turns at her question, to answer. Fran's gaze is disconcertingly immediate — Ashe has never learned to meet her eyes unperturbed, but she has learned to bear it. And Ashe remembers Fran in the Wood, and Mjrn yearning towards the boundless possibilities she dreamed to be beyond its borders.
And Fran's Wood had been beautiful and full of light, where Ashe and Vossler and the men had skulked about the stone trunks of the Waterways and huddled under the dank rain of its liquid refuse.
But Fran has no more to say, and Ashe is not inclined to think difficulty an excuse.
"We must leave the Waterway. For a time at least." She looks around as she speaks, scowling.
She is sweating, resting after another bout of the sword. She has improved, but her style becomes stale.
Vossler pauses in his own drills, and watches her. She is filthy; it discomfits him to see a woman of her station so. Not the sun-sweat of the desert, this, and he is glad that he has not let her see the men, nor they her: her hair matted, her clothes damp and sticky, her face streaked in grey, broad strokes across her forehead where she is forever wiping away sweat during practice.
It has been a long time since they have seen the sky, and her sun-sprawled kingdom beneath it.
"Let us plan on it," he accedes. "We need more food, and cannot spare the gil for the bazaar. The men grow restless."
She nods, and he stifles a spark of irritation at her inattention — or had she thought these things already?
No matter. She rises, and readies herself.
"Again," she says.
He knows something is wrong before he fully registers the change in the noise, and he is on his feet and moving already.
The dull thwack of practice blades, regular and hard-edged comfort to his ears, has changed: something more desperate in it now, and too many — not two blades but three, perhaps four.
He comes upon the scene: the latest batch of recruits, training— or they should be, but instead Ashe is among them, surrounded by them. Her swings, a little wild with the first hints of panic, are still too long and graceful, too like the smooth lunge of the rapier; though she improves daily with the sword she cannot not shake the body-habits of long training, and against these men pulled off the streets she has no hope.
The men— she must have triumphed against one of their number, against his blunt untrained strength, and who was this woman to shame them so? An edge of dangerous sexuality hangs in the air as they prepare to mob her; her face is white and set but she has not yet cried out, perhaps unable still to comprehend that something like this could happen to her, to one of her station.
Vossler has a moment to ache for military discipline — oh to shout an order at parade-ground volume and have it obeyed without thought— and why did they not leave the Waterway more, or sooner, to dispel this dangerous restlessness?
He shoulders through the small crowd instead, thuggishly, shoving indiscriminately and shouting, and Sleeping the insistently belligerent ones.
When he reaches Ashe, he grabs her by the arm and tows her away, ignoring her hissed protests and commentary.
"Men," he addressed them, low and dangerous. "I will return shortly."
Once he has Ashe out of sight she shakes loose his hold and turns on him.
"That was a damn fool thing to do." He cuts her off, and her nostrils flare, her eyes wide-white still, anger crusted with fear.
"You tell me yourself I must practice more!"
"With me. Not with them."
"They are my men!"
"No, they are my men."
He shuts his mouth with a snap, swallowing the taste of that.
Her eyes widen, mouth tightening.
That came out not as he intended it. Try again, to make the girl see. "These are not military men. They have not the discipline, the training. They swear their oaths against the Empire, to the cause, to you in the abstract, to me directly. They have no idea who you are, and neither should they."
Her eyes narrow. "I will not be unknown to my men."
"You cannot be otherwise!" He struggles to keep his voice to a low hiss, and attempts to shepherd her yet farther away.
Her jaw works, eyes flicking back and forth between his. Some secret ruminations behind those sparking eyes; he prays they are not as foolish as her latest idea.
"If the men cannot know me as myself, they must still— They must know me in some capacity. As a leader. As a constant." She steps forward, closing her eyes slowly before snapping them open again. "I cannot reappear out of nowhere to claim my throne. I must be someone to these men, that when I rise to reclaim my birthright they might see that I have been here, fighting at their side."
She lifts her chin, the old challenge. Vossler's eyes bore into hers, then flick away.
Her grip on her sword, though white-knuckled, is correct, he notes.
"... Fine," he accedes. There is logic to it. "But you will practice from now on with me or the senior men. Do not approach the green recruits."
She looks as if she will say more; opens her mouth, even. But instead she jerks a nod, and sheathes her sword.
She chooses for her use-name "Amalia".
Vossler chafes at it, watching this person called Amalia emerge as a leader of the Resistance.
There's a light that was there in Ashe's eyes, long months ago. Vossler had seen it in her face when he was but a trainee himself, snatching glances at the princess in stolen unscheduled minutes. He had seen it last at her wedding.
Something similar and yet nothing like it glows in Amalia's eyes. It is sharp and strong and matches the line of her chin as it ticks up, the controlled grace of her limbs as she wields her sword now.
It makes him uneasy; perhaps he thinks it dangerous.
It makes him the more aware of Rasler's absence; and it makes him the more aware of her sex, her station, the way she speaks: commanding and convoluted, the cadences of nobility in her very breath. The contrast grates on his ears, against the rough-hewn speech of the street-recruits. And he cannot forget the danger in the air from before, with the men— would that she was sexless as her sword. But she refuses to be anything less than Queen, in manner or aught else.
He tries to set aside his longing for Rasler's flaring spark, for the clean discipline of the soldier, and settles for what he might kindle on his own.
He tells himself: she was born into this oath, and she swears it anew with every beat of her blood.
"The army will be disbanded," she says. She sits broodingly on the damp stone.
"Likely," he agrees, unthinking.
She looks at him; her eyes are strangely piercing. "We must have soldiers, discipline. Vossler, we must save my men."
"The army is compromised." It comes out with bite; he forces his hands to relax, clenched into fists around whetstone and sword. "There is no knowing how many were in league with the traitor."
"But there must be some loyal men left," she insists, stubborn. "And for them— Archades will allow no native-born army in its vassal state; nor will they afford a trained force the chance to remuster at its back. We cannot leave my men at the Empire's mercy."
His laugh surprises him; it comes out harsh. He had not intended it to come out at all. The Empire's mercy, indeed.
She watches him, unmoved, and continues. "Let the soldiers be watched by those whose steel and allegiance you have already tested. Or is it their loyalty you question?"
"They are loyal enough." Something of his laugh scratches at his throat still; it makes his voice come clipped and bitter. "The Empire has ensured that they have reason enough to be."
"I will not be served only out of vengeance!" she snaps. Her mouth thins; she does not apologize. Vossler looks away, grating against the outburst, her lack of control. But Ashe continues, no less fierce, and he is drawn to watch her speak again. "We do not fight only against the Empire, we fight for Dalmasca, for the Dalmascan throne— my throne! Let the people the Empire has wronged swell our ranks, but the core must be mine, they must fight for me."
Vossler swallows a hiss of anger. That he has allowed her so much head—
But she turns to him, speaking first, before he can summon a retort, and her words are as a slap to his face: "Vossler, we must have discipline. You cannot control the men on your own. We have men; we must have soldiers."
He would turn away; he does not.
The distant sounds of the men echo up the dank halls; he scratches an ear, as if it will mute the noise, fix the uneven step of their marching, the broken rhythm of their sparring.
"They are my men," Ashe repeats, quiet and no less vehement. "They are all my men, Vossler, all people of Dalmasca, who once swore allegiance to the line of King Raithwall. I must trust in them as I trust in you." She waits, eyes hard, and Vossler finds himself giving a short, sharp jerk of a nod, something fierce and tight crowding his chest. She accepts the gesture as if it is her due, then turns away, to look towards the source of the poorly-coordinated noise. "Vossler, I must have more men like you, and I must trust that you can find them."
He closes his eyes at that; he cannot help it. What she asks is hard, harder than she knows, and against her naïveté he must weigh his experience, his instincts. It is a bone-deep discipline, obedience to a ruler, a master, a leader; it is hard to turn aside and harder to meet.
And it is that discipline they need.
He grates at the hypocrisy of it: that he fails her, and yet she asks for more like him.
But... he has ached for soldiers.
"I will look," is all he tells her.
"A man of high ideals." Larsa muses. "Perhaps he held them up too high— I wonder, did he think to meet them himself? Perhaps his fault was in his virtues, not his vices." Larsa's eyes meet hers with that uncanny understanding. "Guard against the virtues of your men, Majesty."
It could sound bitter, perhaps, from one older, or wiser, or one not born to rule. But Larsa smiles at her, sadness and jest together— Larsa has more sympathy for Vayne than she ever will, and doubly such for Gabranth— but perhaps it is a shared thing among rulers, to know the bitter burden of faithful loyalty as deeply as its sweetness.
She cannot smile in return, but she nods, once, to show she understands.
He sees her hands shaking the first time she kills a feral chocobo. He remembers her pet, cossetted and beribbonned: a fitting companion for a girl. It had been a gift from Ondore, he knew, her uncle that has so recently announced the suicide of Princess Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca. What few others knew was that it had been gifted her unbroken, a sign of respect. She had trained it herself.
And her hands shake, in that first kill.
A small thing, really: after she has cut its neck clean she shows no other signs. She wipes her sword, casts a look around to assess the damage done her companions— a small and restless clutch of men, still squinting in the sun. They dare these hunts now; now that some soldiers may stay behind to maintain order while others hunt.
It is different, he knows. Nothing like the controlled sporting hunts befitting her sex and station.
But this is not yet the heat of battle, and he has yet to see her kill a man.
He wonders sometimes, when their supplies peter out and they are running, painfully breathless, feeling like every terrible thing in the world is panting on their heels— he wonders, then, why she does not take "Amalia" and run.
She is eighteen, a widow, a woman ruling alone, bloodless and nameless without the proof of her descent that sleeps in some forgotten vault of the Palace.
He has taken on names, too, many of them, shifting identities, discarding the old, used, known ones. But Ashe is almost always Amalia. She says she must be identifiable, must always be the same person to those who need to know her. It is dangerous, he tells her. She shakes her head stubbornly, insists that the people, the Resistance, need something constant and true.
He wonders how much of it is her clinging to a single, constant thing, something no one can take from her.
Were it he...
He had lived by the sea, once. Fisher-folk and traders, in his blood; and the sun playing on the water, the clean heat of the coast.
He thinks this as he slows, dropping from his place at the van to find Ashe at the rear again, eyes darting behind, whence the dark echoes of pursuit, and before, at the men, hissing commands and high-brow imprecations as if she is not the one farthest behind.
Vossler makes to grab for her arm, to drag her along if need be, but she only casts him one quick look and says, "Keep them alive."
And then she vanishes into the company, making her way forward, and Vossler is too busy swearing and urging the men on to think overlong over how quickly she overtook them all.
She returns from a hunt, blood dried in places where claws or teeth had scored her. No wounds remain; she is a competent mage, if still slow with her unfamiliar shield.
It has been months since their flight from the Palace. She might carry the escutcheon with more ease, but she still relies too much on the offence of her sword.
He frowns, pausing in his drilling of the men. Those who accompanied her disperse to their duties, apportioning the spoils of the hunt. She strides to him, eyes troubled.
"We must lessen our hunts," she says. "The people of Rabanastre have been forced to subsistence. Those from Lowtown hunt the Sands often. We cannot take their prey and means of sustenance so often."
"And where will our own meals come from; the money for our supplies?"
Her eyes glint, dangerous and hard. "We raid an Imperial supply route. Enrich ourselves at their expense. Somewhere far from the city, that my people do not take the blame."
He considers the idea; considers her, her stance and the crust of some creature's life upon her brow.
She grows reckless.
But it is a good plan.
"I must go," she hisses.
"You must stay," he roars.
Her chin firms, her had tight around the hilt of her sword. "How else am I to acquire experience in true combat? How else will the men know to trust me when blood and steel are drawn?"
Vossler blinks, for a second— some day she could make a good orator.
But he is not swayed.
Let women ply their silver tongues. He will lead her with logic, and in this he knows he is right: a ruler should have more sense. Rasler would not have allowed his wife this license.
"You must be kept safe," he says, calmer now, sure. "It is on you that the success of the Resistance hinges. You cannot be risked."
"I can risk myself when I feel the gamble worth the price!"
"And are you worth one raid on an Imperial supply line? Is that your price?"
Her eyes narrow, hot and sharp. "Secure the line, erect a camp, prepare a better ambush for the next raid. And that one I will attend."
She turns to leave, and Vossler cannot tell if he tastes defeat or sour satisfaction.
Ashe wipes the sweat off her brow, and cleans her blade upon the body at her feet.
Vossler watches her, out of the corner of his eye.
And so he sees it: she closes her eyes for a small moment, hand creeping up to clench before her breast for the space of a breath.
And then her eyes are open once more, and she is directing the disposition of the corpses, ordering the distribution of the supplies, and hurrying the men away from the dangerous remains of the ambush.
But he saw it still, the moment after she killed her first man.
"It can be hard to watch someone change," Penelo says. "You think you know someone, right? And then suddenly they're someplace you can't go."
They both look at the sunset, and not at each other.
"I let it happen with Reks, you know? He was my friend, and then suddenly he was a soldier. I wasn't getting left behind again, no way. Not by Vaan." And now Penelo does look at her, smiling and a little sly; Ashe can see it out of the corner of her eye. "He's changed a lot, you know."
Ashe hums a short reply; Penelo laughs, and leaves off her teasing. The girl has changed too, Ashe thinks; she would not have dared the jest when they first met. Bound soon for their first adventure: the world lies open before her, and it is strange how the distance between them shrinks and grows at once because of it.
But Penelo sobers, and turns to watch the sun again; the sky. "Still, when you know someone... it can be hard, even if you like where it's going. Because it means you're changing, too." She is silent, a moment. "It can be hard," she says in the end; and, quietly, "I don't know."
Ashe could say she doesn't either.
And it shouldn't matter, not to Ashe. Ashe has left Vossler behind; Ashe has as little use for such refuse as Penelo has for ills of the past. Penelo looks forward; so does Ashe.
But perhaps to Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca, who must ware betrayal and know its signs...
Ashelia needs to understand.
"Damn them!" she shouts; it rings hollowly against the damp thick walls of the Waterway, as if the stone swallows her cry. From the tone of her voice he almost expects her to throw down her sword upon the hard stone in a fit of female temper, and readies sharp words at the ill care of steel. But she only clenches her fists and trembles, silent after her outburst.
Her breaths are sharp in the slow silent drip of their surrounds.
He himself is too— shaken, angry, frustrated. He cannot speak; he makes a wordless noise to indicate his attention as he begins to clean his sword.
"How many did we lose?"
His lips tighten, but he knows the tally, knows it in his gut, in his heart, as a commander should. "Two score and six."
Her eyes slide closed; she breathes through her nose.
Vossler's tongue is thick, heavy with admonishments unsaid — we should not have tried it; you should not have come where we had to protect you; a leader cannot afford to lose track of the losses, and if you cannot then—
But she speaks first; sheathes her sword and speaks.
"I will tend to the wounded."
She turns on her heel and hurries to see to the remainder of the men, and Vossler cleans his blade in utter silence but for the angry hiss of stone on steel.
It has been a year, Vossler realizes.
They still skulk about the Waterways with their men, and the Empire still rules Rabanastre.
And the people forget.
They forget the rule of Raminas, and times before Imperial patrols strolled the streets, cocksure in their dominion.
Except those in Lowtown, those shunted out of the sun, to live where no habitation had ever been intended, below the streets of the city such that the rich tread upon their dwellings.
He looks around at the men milling about the mundane tasks of maintenance, here in the dank and dark.
Ashe is among them, commanding some task of distribution. It discomfits him, a harsh graze of irritation, seeing her again so obviously among them, her imperious manner, any pretence of discretion long forgotten. And it discomfits him to see her as she is now: leaner, long gone the soft curves that befit a woman; and for all that her bearing is so obviously that of a noble, she yet wades in among the common soldiers, a small feminine figure against their coarse bulk. The hard blaze in her eyes has yet to dim— if anything it flares brighter now. And yet no victories are born in that fire. The Empire thinks them gnats at best — and yet that is their protection: Amalia, the lie that cripples and saves them. The men know only Amalia, and despair; the Empire knows only Amalia and is comforted.
Well, Vossler thinks. How nice that they might provide the Empire with some measure of comfort.
He looks up from the maps and charts, brought by one of the soldiers.
Her voice is even. "We must consider contacting the Marquis."
Vossler stares at her. "He announced your suicide."
She shakes her head. "We read him wrongly. Uncle Ondore would not capitulate to the Empire so."
Vosslers dampens his sneer before speaking. "The Marquis of Bhujerba is well known for rolling over like a dog."
She shakes her head again. "He keeps Bhujerba neutral, in name at least. I know him. He would not betray us. He must have reason. I know him."
Vossler's brows twitch down, hard. "And I knew Basch. As did you."
Ashe scowls at him.
Vossler looks away. She is scared, a woman alone and without— Raminas, Rasler, Ondore. It is understandable, this urge to reach for protection, for those of like station if not like sex, but it could damn them all. He cannot indulge her fantasies, and while she might seek men to trust, he must seek out those to distrust.
And he does not trust Ondore, not another hand outstretched in aid that hides poison in the glove, puppeteered by the vast reach of the Empire.
Once was enough for Vossler, and he cannot afford Ashe time to learn.
He looks at her: unkempt, weary from raids and magicking away the hurts such raids entail. Grown angry. Grown rash.
"No," he says, and does not bother to explain further.
"What a jerk," Vaan declares. He is strolling by the balustrade, fingers twined behind his head. "Me and Penelo, we never stopped fighting."
Ashe watches him, assessing this deserter— he can be counted a Dalmascan no longer, not one of her subjects, any more than Balthier is. And yet he breaks no oaths, and can grin at her with the private joke of stealing purses from Archadian soldiers and thinking this a great act of rebellion.
Ashe smiles, too, but it is small and fades quickly.
It is people such as Vaan and Penelo in whom Vossler lost faith — the ones who had never given up.
And her. He had lost faith in her.
"We must try for the Shard," she declares. She should be subdued — the men are, after their losses. But she stares ever onwards, to some future she imagines to be within her grasp. "The people of Dalmasca forget us. Forget me. Princess Ashelia has been dead too long. Dalmasca yet endures, but the line of Raithwall wanes in their hearts."
"And how would you have us try this?" he hisses, low so the men will not hear. "The Empire's hold over Rabanastre grows stronger; soon a new consul will arrive and their conquest will be complete."
Her eyes blaze. "It is because of the consul that we must strike. We cannot let him cement his hold over Rabanastre! His arrival will provide the distraction; let us use it!"
Vossler attempts the calm to consider this — the people do forget them, or lose hope, growing faithless by inches as the Resistance makes no great gains against the insurmountable might of the Empire. They resist no longer, and submit like slaves to the Empire's yoke.
But he cannot seem to quiet the hard beat of his blood, dim the slow fury firing across his skin, building like a cancer for days, weeks, months. The people do lose faith — because they concentrate their actions outside the city and raid for petty supplies while the people live reduced but endurable lives under the Empire. And the men grow restless when their efforts produce no improvement for their families, displaced into Lowtown.
But he swallows these things, and grinds his teeth at the taste.
Because what else is there? After the consul arrives, they will have no opportunity to enter the Palace. And Ashe needs the proof of her bloodline. Perhaps the coming of the consul would stir enough discontent for them to use, wielding the Shard and proclaiming Ashe's return.
"The people need me," she insists. "The men grow restless."
As do you, princess. Vossler does not say it.
For all their careful planning, for all Vossler's screening and questioning of recruits— Vayne knew. He knew when they tried for the Shard.
Ashe had pushed for it, Ashe had needed it, proof of her birthright— and what now of Amalia, leader among the Resistance, whose works were never proof enough?
Where had the breech happened, the trust broken? Had it been with the common men Ashe had asked for? The soldiers she insisted they save? Had she attempted Ondore, ignoring Vossler's prohibition, as she had ignored his advice, what wisdom he had scraped together out of his military years, his age, the bitter harvest of experience?
It is Ashe who has grown faithless. She does not believe in the strength of Dalmasca, in her peoples' ability to remember themselves even in the face of Imperial absorption. Ashe who has lost sight of the good of the people — where the Empire provided, she demanded, took, raided.
And what is his duty to, in the end? Ashe? The Crown? Dalmasca?
Her people, who suffer sanctions for the acts of the Resistance.
Her people, who see fewer goods at market when Imperial supply lines are interrupted, while the Imperial soldiers and bureaucrats have their feasts and rations as before.
Her people, who walk about under the sun while the Resistance skulks in the gutters and gullies, to the gain of none.
He closes his eyes.
Vayne had known. Had always known. Perhaps it did not matter where the breach had been. Perhaps it was time for the walls to crumble anyway.
Basch's eyes are distant, and at first he says nothing.
When he speaks, after long seconds pass, his voice is quiet, and dry— a memory, maybe, of darkness and irons.
"I know what it is to be thought a traitor."
He turns to look: far to the west, where a flower bloomed in the sky, a traitor's pyre.
"And I know the taste of failure. It is bitter, Majesty. More than a man can stand, sometimes."
Ashe does not watch the horizon; she knows what lies there, and no ghosts hover there for her. She watches Basch's face.
"You bore the burden." He does not turn, but his eyes close, and she goes on. "You broke no oaths to me."
"Did I not?" he mutters, quietly, almost too low for her to hear. "I made oaths to myself, too, Ashe, and only I can judge them lost or whole."
He turns then, finally, and looks her in the eye. "What faith is lost first, Majesty? Our own, in ourselves. Do not let Vossler trouble you. You will rule well."
The vault of the sky is vast behind him, but she looks only into his eyes: the eyes of her most faithful traitor, as he dons the great helm and leaves her again, to see to his master.