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A bucket of crabs rests at his feet, with a few irritated, slow clanking noises coming from inside.  The sea breeze is fresh and wild, teasing at his hair and clothes.  Vayne loves the ocean, has loved it since the very first time he saw it.  The false promise of eternity, of unseen wonders and some vast, uncharted shore.  It must have been true, a long time ago, before airships could travel without obstacle.

He has seen much of the world already, and still so young, but all of it through the lens of the Empire, of his position and responsibility.  Instantly, he can see the potential utility of a place, its value in coin and loyalty, and where it stands on the great chessboard that is Ivalice, pawn or rook against Rozarria. 

The whole world has been built and set and named long before he ever arrived, to step into it like a player with lines written and cues at the ready.  It is rare that he can enjoy a place for himself, as himself - and that means less and less by the year - and there is something very pleasant about Balfonheim.

It is the weather, the sea and sun and wind, and the people as well.  Exotic and strange – and that just the humes - and each of them unique, a country unto themselves.  Everyone seems to come from far away, all traveling under a name that is not their own.  None of the strictures, the rules or social orders that leave Archades looking petrified in comparison - and yet some of them here long to travel there, imagine it as their perfect world.  Everyone in Balfonheim has a desperate goal - longing for freedom, for status, for money or adventure or love.  Needing more than they have no matter how much they have.  He's been pickpocketed twice since arriving.

In the bucket, the crabs continue wholeheartedly with the goal of insuring their shared doom, quickly reaching up to pull back the ones who manage to get anywhere near freedom.

Did his brother feel safe here?  Did he think the Emperor wasn't aware of his movements?  That even if his reach were impeded by dark alleys and blind corners, that there would be no pre-emptive strike?  Or perhaps Vayne gives him too much credit - his elder brother is a man of action, far more than thought.  Indifferent to strategy, disinterested in subterfuge.  That he had not simply entered the throne room with a sword and crossbow is no small surprise.

Perhaps it is their eldest brother who has chosen this path.  Vayne wonders what their plan is to deal with each other.

He wonders if they ever even considered inviting him into their confidence.  What it was they saw, to convince them otherwise.

The sun is setting, and stretched out on a dock in front of him a group of youths, maybe students - no, not here.  More likely journeymen, apprentices to the local trades, or dock workers, or guildsmen - but they are singing to each other, a simple sort of call-and-response, raising glasses and voices high as the sky goes rose and gold.  It seems to be a tradition here, to salute the setting sun, and for a moment, with the burning orange line on the horizon, Vayne allows himself a moment to imagine a future here.  He could make a good merchant, perhaps, or even join up with a ship, though he'd likely have to start low and work his way to any decent position.

"Your Grace."  The man appears at his elbow silently, as the city turns to shades of blue and black, yellow spheres of light along the main streets, a more motley mix of illumination along side streets, disappearing into the shadows.  Here to watch Vayne as much as assist him, his father is far too canny for less, would never let him slip from the leash.  "It has begun.  If you are ready…"

Vayne nudges the bucket with a toe, knocking one of the crabs back onto its comrades.  No one has returned in all this time to collect it.  He wonders if they will be able to get out by morning, or exhaust themselves to uselessness first.

"I think he looks a bit like my father, don't you?  The large, dour one."

"Sir?"

Few people in the world he can have a conversation with in anything but straight lines, and the royal guard doubly so.  It could be worse, of course.  His father could have sent a Judge. 

"Milord, are you ready?"

It is necessary - and in this case, Vayne cannot even bring himself to call it an evil.  Archadia in the hands of his middle brother would be undone before his reign had lasted a year.  Surely, the man would accept nothing less than total war with Rozarria, would not stop until they had been crushed, no matter if nothing remained of his own empire by the end of it.  He could not be allowed even the chance to rule, and this move, this secret attempt to build his own army had sealed his fate.

Vayne steps back, extends an arm toward the street.  "Lead the way."

The slums beneath Archades had been the best of training grounds, a pair of cheap clothes and a roll in the dirt and Vayne had found his way to many places he was sure his instructors and certainly his guards had rather he never knew of.  A light step and a patient ear had taught him more than a thousand social treatises, a coin in the right hand, or just a sympathetic grunt and he'd heard stories, advice, news of the street and the world, even the rumors of value, teaching him of human nature if not of the world.  On one occasion, a fight had broken out in front of him, between one man who'd blamed House Solidor for all the ills of Ivalice, and another who had praised them, for victories and gains Vayne knew his father had neither intended nor recognized.

A world as worthy as any other, and perhaps more true to itself, most of the violence refreshingly out in the open.   The back alleys, the gaming rooms and whorehouses, and though it suited his brother's coarse nature far more than Vayne's own, his brother did not respect it, or learn a thing from where he walked, counting on his temper and skill with the blade to chart his path.  Which meant Vayne knew where and how to spread the rumor that the Emperor's son had hidden himself in Balfonheim, raising an army against the Emperor himself, with a substantial amount of the Emperor's gil as cash in hand.

Easy for the taking, enough to be worth the risk.

The building is quiet, by the time he arrives, though Vayne passed by a few wide-eyed shadows in the alleys, this level of excitement more than even these back alleys are used to seeing.  He stops at the entrance, holds up a hand.

"Sir?"

"If I don't return, the Emperor may wish to renegotiate terms with his remaining son."

The aftermath of a bloodbath, stepping past the body half-sprawled in the doorway, the lingering haze of magic stinging at Vayne's eyes.  More bodies are sprawled all around the room, blood smeared across the wreckage of tables and chairs, a few sconces remaining on the wall and tables to settle a dim, sick pallor over the rest.  His brother had not gone down without a fight.

"… y-you?"

No, his brother had not yet gone down.  Bleeding from a deep wound in the gut, dark red seeping around his fingers, but on his feet and very much alive.  Just enough brightness in the room, to see the anger warring with disbelief in his eyes.  Until this moment, Vayne has been the bookish little brother, and if he was smart it was only enough to know to stay out of the way.

"Which one of them was your healer?"  It's unseemly for Archadian nobles to handle their own magic, and Vayne's people are nothing if not unfortunate slaves to fashion.

The expression is more a snarl than a sneer, a feral thing.  "You little shit.  /You/ did this?!" 

"You are under arrest for high treason against his Excellency, the Emperor Gramis Gana Solidor."  The formalities, no matter how pointless, might as well be followed, lest the whole of civilization unravel in their wake.

His brother barks out a laugh, spitting a gob of blood across the dirty floor, wiping his mouth with the hand that is now red and dripping.  "And you, boy, the loyal dog?  I was his favorite once, you know.  Foolish old man, he plays us against each other, now that we might remove him of the burden of his crown.  And his head.  You'll be a threat, after this, and he'll kill you too."

He thinks he's being clever, thinks he's keeping Vayne's attention on his words and not the knife he's pulled from some bloodstained fold of his coat.  Vayne smiles with a snideness he's not really feeling.  He knows for certain, that if he'd shown the barest sign of being a threat before now, that blade would have had his throat before the man had ever left Archades.

"You forget yourself, brother.  After this, I will be the sole heir to the throne.  Unless he intends to live forever, our father can't get rid of me."

It is a matter of luck, of choosing the right way to move and his brother's injury hindering his throw just slightly, or the knife would have found his eye rather than hissing past him and into a post near the far wall.  His brother bellows like a Archaeosaur, charges with both arms extended, more than happy to condemn himself if it means he can die with his hands around his little brother's throat.

He is slow.  He is wounded.  In his rage, he forgets all sense of logic or reason or that Vayne's sword is two inches longer than the reach of his arms, or that he's already removed what protection he did have, to have any hope of dressing his wounds.  A small distance, but the blade has pierced his chest by the time his fingertips brush against Vayne's collarbone, and the momentum is more than great enough to send him fully onto the blade.  Vayne thrown back a step with the impact, smelling sweat and blood and what was probably the drink his brother had been enjoying, before the night came to its sudden end.  He is eye to eye with his brother - they look nothing alike, really, his brother taking after some distant, amber-haired uncle who was either poisoned or pushed out of an airship.  Vayne can never quite remember which.

A good deal of blood pours past his lips, and whatever his brother says, whether a curse or a prayer or simply Vayne's name, is lost as his disbelieving gaze goes glassy, and they go inelegantly down to the floor together, Vayne on one knee and twisting the body away from him, pulling his sword free.  He is breathing hard, panting, far more than the situation requires - and looks up to see his father's man standing in the doorway.

It is one form of evidence, though not enough.  Never really enough, the rules and requirements of kinship in House Solidor a insubstantial and ever-changing obligation.  Vayne reaches in his pocket, draws out a small handkerchief, and kneels down.  The floor isn't even, his brother's blood flowing away toward a low spot, pooling along the seams of the boards, and Vayne wraps the cloth around the signet ring on his brother's hand, the seal of House Solidor.

As true a proof of his loyalty as he can carry with him back to Archades.  Let the rats have what remains.

—————————————————————-

"Sir.  Lord Vayne, the Kjata is in view."

He has not slept since leaving Balfonheim, and with dawn approaching they have nearly reached Bujerba.  Vayne's eldest brother - his only brother - is not one for running, or games.

If he had asked.  If he had but asked, Vayne Solidor might be gone forever and some clerk, some ship's pilot in his place.  It never served them, to have much in the way of family ties, but he remembers his brother's voice, strong and deep and distant, towering over him from some great height.  A sense of some kind of safety, dim and distant enough for nostalgia. 

Out of the corner of his eye, the shadow of his father's man.  No doubt more of them are within the crew, judging his movements, any hesitation.  No test yet that Vayne has not passed, from his father or his tutors or the world, not that they seem to want much but obedience, to act and keep acting, as if such relentlessness is its own excuse.

"Good morning, brother.  You're up early."

Archades, so proud of its civility, the layers of etiquette and social demand.  A strength, a weapon, a crutch, a veneer beneath a surface so cracked that only the falsehood remains, to hold the shape.

He probably should have tried a bit harder to sleep on the way here.

"Good morning.  I hope that the day has found you well."

"Better than some."  The transmission takes the warmth out of his brother's voice, or perhaps Vayne is remembering what he wishes, and it was never really there.  Instead, there is only distance, the space between their ships and who knows how much more.  Years.  He might as well be a stranger.  "I've heard news from Balfonheim.  It seems our brother may have run across some poor company."

"Oh?  Nothing he can't handle, I'm sure."

The ring is in his pocket, Vayne can feel it pressing, heavy against his thigh.  It remains to be seen, if the body will ever be discovered. Perhaps sunk into the sea at this very moment, and Vayne can imagine it, the gentle sway of his brother's body in the darkness, far beneath the waves, and the play of light across the surface of the sea.   

"I suppose you are right."

His brother knows, what has happened and what this is now.  Beneath a deep and focused calm, Vayne's nerves are singing, waiting for the shout, the first attack.  The crew knows no more than they must, but Vayne will win this, no question, it is simply a matter of how many moves it takes.  Unfortunate, if he retreats to Bujerba.  Although, if he has allies there, they seem content at the moment to see how things will resolve before committing themselves to action.

Vayne swallows, his throat feels tight but his voice is steady as ever.  "Our father would like to have a word with you."

Here is where it happens.  The fight, and his finger imperceptibly shifts to the controls, ready with shields and weapons.  He is an adequate pilot, enough to likely survive this.  Until his brother's Bujerbian allies blast him out of the sky.

"All right, then. Let us depart."

Vayne closes his eyes, letting out a slow, silent breath.  He would have much preferred the firefight.

"-Sir!  We have a problem!"  The panicked voice is tinny and small, coming across from the Kjata, from the technician Vayne knows has just run onto the bridge, interrupting his brother's order to lay in a course for home.  It is difficult to make out the words, through a burst of sudden static, but Vayne knows what he will say.  A sudden spike of energy in the engines - a crew of thirty at least, aboard that ship, most of them as yet unaware of his brother's intended coup - and they're trying to get it under control, but they won't.  It is a fatal flaw, they will realize that soon enough.

A careful bit of sabotage, before he'd ever left for Balfonheim.  Insurance against tribunals, or investigations of treason.  No meddling by the idiotic, self-righteous Senate in House business.  It has been the law even among the most homicidal of his relations, for centuries - keep it in the family.  Vayne does not dig his fingers into the armrest, allows only the barest hint of worry in his voice, only that of the concerned sibling.

"Is everything all right?  Do you need our assistance?"

Barely a memory, of trees and sunlight and a large hand holding his, singing some old Archadian song in that booming voice.  His brother may have been a fine ruler of Archadia.  Who was to tell?

"Lord Vayne, the Kjata's readings… it may not be safe…"

"Hold your position."

A laugh comes across the ether, and in the background Vayne can hear shouting, what sounds like metal giving way, alarms ringing.  Surprising that he can hear the laugh, but he does, as if asking him who his bit of theatre is for.  It suits no one.

The Kjata turns to face them, even as he can see the flickers of light, dangerous and growing near the rear engine.  A tall figure stands near the forward window, long dark hair – just a little bit wavy, like his, like their mother's.

"It seems that you are the rightful heir of House Solidor.  Heaven help you, little brother."

A salute, a flick of his fingers more implied than seen, and then the Kjata is rising, growing brighter as it lifts into the sky, and Vayne doesn't turn away.  Keeps looking, as the crew around him braces for the blast, shifting to avoid hitting the shockwave at broadside, and he doesn't know what he's feeling, all his clever words only useful for other people.

Doesn't know, as they're flying away, as he returns to Archades as the Emperor's sole remaining son, why his brother didn't just steer his ship straight ahead, take them both out. At least that as some sort of victory, a final snub against their father.  Why he has been left behind, to blink away the afterimage of the Kjata's firey wreckage falling past the clouds, and return home victorious.

————————————

Vayne steps into the nursery, everything quiet, the wind pushing a bit at the curtains at the far side of the room.  A nurse sits next to the cradle, and her eyes widen when she sees him, one hand rising toward her mouth as if to stifle a scream, though her voice is barely a whisper.

"No.  No, please."

The child's mother, Vayne's stepmother, had been terrified of him all her life, even more so when she learned she was pregnant with the Emperor's child.  Vayne has heard all the rumors, her poor health due to mysterious interference, even a near miscarriage, though he remembers no such thing - and her death, in childbirth, somehow a chosen fate, a martyr for the life of her son.

Larsa Ferrinas Solidor, an unexpected heir to the throne, should any misfortune reach Vayne as it had found his brothers.

"Please, milord.  He is no threat to you."  He watches the woman's eyes dart around the room, as if she might very well attack him, if she might only find a weapon.  Snatch the baby up and run, if he were not such a threat, such a monster to keep her locked in place and trembling.  It doesn't matter that she has at least a dozen years on him, and an inch or two in height.  He has become far more than he is, and everyone seems to know what he will do and think before he does.

"Leave us."

"Oh… oh no, you can't...  please, your grace.  Please, show mercy."  The woman seems ready to fall to her knees, to prostrate herself at his feet, but her courage fails her as Vayne takes another step forward, and she retreats, all but running from the room.  He waits until he can no longer hear her footsteps, and takes the final step toward the cradle, looking down on his brother for the first time.

A shock of dark hair, hands clenched tightly in slumber, and then as if he senses he is being watched, small, blue-gray eyes slowly open, looking up at him with such a serious, sober expression that Vayne can't help but smile. 

"Truly, you are my brother."

Until this moment, he was not quite sure what his course of action would be, or if there would be one at all - but now there is no question.  It is terrible, how certain he is. 

Vayne is not at all at ease with infants, has never actually held one before, but he is familiar with the concept of being cautious, and his brother doesn't seem to mind being handled like a particularly volatile piece of magic.  Content to continue staring up at him, legs kicking out now and then but mostly still and quiet.  So warm, so fragile - it is like holding pure potential, he has wielded spells far less breathtaking than this.  Vayne keeps his brother close to his chest, where he won't be jostled, where he will feel safe.

He moves to the door, to the balcony outside.  A good thing the nurse ran, this would certainly stop her heart.  As if it would take so grand or mad a gesture as flinging the boy to his death.  As if he could not do it today or tomorrow, next week, in a year.  Larsa's life is in Vayne's hands, literally now, and from this moment on it always will be so.

"If only you knew what you've gotten yourself into."  A tiny hand reaches out, grabs hold of a strand of his hair.
 
"Do you see it?"  Vayne gestures gently with his free hand, toward the open sky, the airships floating past, at enough of a distance to be as silent as clouds.  "All of this is Archadia, and mine, and yours. Everything the sun touches upon, and far more.  Our home and empire.  It is vast, and grand, and powerful.  We move, and the world moves with us." 

Difficult to speak, to meet the eyes that gaze up at him without comprehension - and then Larsa, his little brother, smiles at him for the first time, and it's so much worse. 

Until now, Vayne has lived a life entirely without fear.  No way that he could see to save this world, this empire, barely a way to slow its decay.  It hadn't mattered, enough to watch fools' follies with vague interest, to enjoy a clever move of his own now and then and wait to be swept from the board.

And with this, in this very moment, it is no longer a game.

"You are going to be the best of us, Larsa Solidor."  Two hundred years of useless men, and now this boy.  What other reason is Vayne as smart as he is, as cunning, if not to raise an Emperor that might make something worthy of their House, of Archades and the world?  Wise and kind and just - untainted, with no blood on his hands?  Surely, if Vayne is worth anything, he can see to that.

"I will be there, little brother, I will help you to become the ruler this empire needs, and when that day arrives, when you are ready, I swear to you that I will make it yours."