The afternoon sun shone down on Ashe as she made her way down the pathway toward the pavilion in the heart of the garden. Shading her eyes, she saw that Penelo was already there, along with a light lunch; the girl saw her coming and waved, and Ashe raised her hand to return the greeting. The time had come for Penelo's monthly visit to the palace, to report anything of interest she might have learned on her jaunts with Vaan. The sky pirates made an effective spy network; Ashe wondered why no previous Dalmascan rulers had thought of using them in that way. She could not be the only one to have ever forged such... personal relationships with some.
"Ashe!" Penelo jumped off the bench, ran to her with hands held out. Ashe submitted to a kiss on the cheek, then pulled out her chair. Her steward had already poured a glass of chilled white wine for her, and she closed her fingers around the stem.
"Thank you for coming," she said as Penelo sat back down. "I trust your run to the Purvama was profitable?"
"Very." Penelo took a finger sandwich from a fine silver tray. "And we stopped by Bur-Omisace like you asked, to get the latest on their plans for naming a new Gran Kilitas. Got some good information, too." She ate the sandwich in two bites, then cast a quizzical look at Ashe. "But wouldn't you have heard it all from Balthier by now? He was there a few days before us."
Ashe sipped her wine, and then shook her head. "He keeps to a less regular schedule than you and Vaan. I haven't seen him since before your last visit."
Penelo had reached for another sandwich; her hand froze over the tray, and she looked up, meeting Ashe's eyes with a look of surprise. "Really?"
Ashe set her wineglass back on the table and responded with a firm nod. "He comes as he will, and as the sky patrols allow."
"But you're Queen," Penelo pointed out. "You could order the sky patrols not to arrest him."
"And how do you suppose he might react, if he discovered I had taken such measures?" Ashe quirked an eyebrow at Penelo, who laughed. "But in truth, I do not mind."
"You don't?" Penelo bounced forward, resting her elbows on the edge of the table, food forgotten at the prospect of gossip. "Don't you miss him? Wouldn't you rather be able to get married?"
Ashe took another drink, using the moment to frame her answer. She had expected that Penelo would pursue this line of inquiry eventually. In truth, she was surprised it had taken her this long to raise the question. "I have more autonomy without an official consort, as well as fewer distractions. As for the other, Balthier gave up his title when he left Archades. So he is for all intents and purposes a commoner, and the Council would never recognize him as my husband."
"He could take his title back."
"He could." Clasping her hands together, Ashe tipped her head sideways and looked at Penelo. "But then he would be Balthier no longer. He would be Ffamran Bunansa, a man I've never known and don't care to. The Council might recognize him, but I would not. And so we reach the impasse." She shook her head with a soft laugh. "But it does not matter. Consider this, Penelo. If I did marry a man suitable to my station, how long do you think it would be before the Council members called him King? How long until emperors and generals would petition him, treat with him, defer to him? And where would that leave me? Here, chained to the palace, presiding over state dinners and embroidering a layette for the nursery. No." She laid her hands flat on the table, pressing them into the hard ridges of the tiled surface. "I am more than content with my current situation."
"If you say so." Ashe could see the doubt in Penelo's eyes, and understood -- Penelo was still young and free, head filled with the idea of romance, enjoying her jaunts around the world with Vaan, no care for appearances or matters of state. She envied her, a little. The silence stretched a moment longer before Penelo shook her head a little and sat up straight again. "Anyway, are you ready for my report now?"
"Yes, of course. Carry on." And they returned to matters of business, matters of the heart set aside.
Penelo left, and life carried on much as usual in her wake -- Council meetings, trade and other diplomatic missions, discussions of options for rebuilding Nabradia, the endless planning for the upcoming anniversary of her coronation -- but Ashe's thoughts kept returning to their exchange. It was not a surprise, upon reflection, that Penelo's innocent question should have held her attention: marriage had been on her mind of late, largely because marrying her off to a suitable nobleman or his son was all some of her councilors could talk about. It had been a topic of conversation since before her coronation, but as the first year of her reign drew to a close with no potential husband in sight, their concern had intensified. But she had been so set on rejecting a forced marriage that she had avoided thinking through all she might be rejecting along with it. So she worried at the idea, turned it over in her mind, for hours at a time.
Matters came to a head with a particularly trying Council meeting a week later: yet another hour of her councilors putting forward candidates for marriage, bemoaning the lack of heirs, and dropping pointed comments about inappropriate liaisons that she really ought to have given up by now. She had attempted to shut down the discussion with a series of icy glares and veiled threats, but her efforts came to naught. In the end, she had become too angry to continue, dismissing them all before storming off to bed. She slammed the door to her bedchamber, then exhaled with a hiss that reverberated through the room.
Closing her eyes, she pressed her head back against the hard wooden door, every agonizing moment of that meeting replaying in her mind. Selfish, that was the word they had used, over and over: selfish to put her own desires over the future of the kingdom and of the royal line. And Ashe had to acknowledge that they might even be right; perhaps she was selfish to think that she made a better leader for Dalmasca than any man ever could. But did it necessarily follow that she was also wrong? Ashe felt it with every bone in her body: she had been born to rule this land. Yes, they were wrong about marriage...
But perhaps they were not wrong about everything.
Ashe cursed beneath her breath. She strode across the room to the window and threw it open. A stiff breeze blew in from the desert, icy knives against her cheek. She stood there, hands gripping the smooth sill, and just breathed with the wind, letting the chill clear her head. When her fingers relaxed enough to let go, she undressed and got into bed, where she stared up at the ceiling, the councilors' words still rustling in the back of her brain. She shut her eyes again and, willing the voices into silence, drifted into an uneasy sleep.
Morning found her sitting at the small table near the still-open window, looking at a breakfast that she felt not much like eating, when a knock came on the door of her private chambers. She set down her tea and rose from her seat. "Enter," she called out, adjusting her robe to cover her throat.
The door opened to reveal her head chambermaid, Lucie, pushing a very large box. "Anniversary gift for you, your majesty," she wheezed. "From the head of the East Ivalice Shipping Company."
Ashe raised an eyebrow. "What is it?"
"Heavy, is all I can tell you, ma'am." Lucie stood up, wiped the sweat from her brow, held her hands to her lower back and stretched. "Shall I call a guard to help you?"
"No thank you, Lucie, I expect I can handle it on my own." Ashe hid a smile behind a stern nod. She could already sense her mood lifting. "Thank you for bringing it by. Please close the door behind you."
Lucie curtsied, then exited the room. Ashe approached the box with a sigh that straddled the line between exasperation and affection, then lightly kicked a corner of the package with her toe. "You can come out now," she said.
The lid on the box shuddered and then was shouldered aside by its occupant. He stood and stretched, twisting first to the left, then the right. "Ahh. Much better."
"This is a new one." Ashe peered up at him, then examined the box, which could not have been more than four foot square. "You actually spent the night... in that?"
"I've had worse." Balthier stepped out of his box, shaking the kinks from his legs. "Not so bad, really. A few blankets and a nice strong sleep spell, and you're all set."
She shook her head with a chuckle. "You do realize that your visits to the palace and their purpose may well be the worst-kept secret in Ivalice. If you ever decided to knock on the front door, my staff wouldn't even blink. Perhaps they'd even let you in."
Balthier raised his eyebrows. "And where's the fun in that?" He reached for her hand, and she let him take it. "The leading man must be allowed his grand entrance, your majesty."
"If you must." Ashe curled her fingers around his and squeezed lightly, smiling at his use of her title. She had tried to break him of the habit at first, but the more she asked him to stop, the more stubborn he became. Now she was fond of it -- something about the warmth in his voice made it feel like an endearment, rather than the words that separated her from the rest of the world. "But if you choose this particular method again, at least put some wheels on the crate. Lucie nearly destroyed her back getting you in here."
"Please convey my apologies." He bowed over her hand, displaying his rarely-seen courtly manners. "I'll have to bring her something nice, when next I visit."
Ashe tugged on his hand, pulled him in close, pressed up against his chest. "And what will you bring me?"
He responded not with words but with a kiss, lowering his mouth to hers and slipping his arm about her waist. "Will that do?" He lifted his head to glance at the table by the window. "Ah, but I've interrupted your breakfast. Should I let you get back to it?"
Ashe looked over her shoulder and took note of the cooling cup of tea, the pile of neatly cut fruit, the silver lid that covered her typical meal of toast and a boiled egg, likely still warm. Then she turned back to Balthier. "They'll prepare me a new one," she said. "First things first." She kissed him again, and let the robe fall to the floor.
An hour later, Ashe's second breakfast of the day had been delivered, and she and Balthier sat across from one another. More tea, a fresh plate of fruit, and hot scones this time, piled with jam and butter. "You were right," Balthier noted, looking over the spread. "A brand new meal, just at your word. It brings more than a few advantages, being queen."
Ashe made a soft noise of assent, then took a bite of scone. They ate in silence for some time, their shared company as easy as it ever had been, despite the questions that still pricked at her mind. Whenever Balthier was gone too long, she fell into the habit of thinking of him as a problem to be solved, fraught with ever-growing complexity. His reality always seemed far simpler. Still, it was time she faced facts: she could not put off this discussion much longer, and as they ate she considered what angle she might take. When the plate of scones was down to crumbs, she sat up straighter. "Have you the Strahl today?"
"Yes. Fran has some errand or another in the Westersand, so I parked at the Aerodrome." Balthier's elbow rested on the table, and he propped his cheek against his hand. "Trying to get rid of me already?"
"Not at all. Quite the opposite, really." She lifted an eyebrow at him. "Fancy a bit of hunting today? My schedule is light, nothing that cannot wait until tomorrow. And I feel the need to stretch my legs awhile."
Swift surprise flashed across Balthier's face before he composed himself once again; Ashe hid a smile of satisfaction that she could still catch him off guard. "If you wish it, your majesty. Where would you like to go? I hear tell of some juicy marks in Giza, and along the Phon Coast."
"The Coast," she said, without a moment of hesitation.
"All right." Balthier swung a leg out of the window and shot her a smile. "Meet me at the Aerodrome in twenty minutes, the usual berth."
"I'll see you there." Ashe shared his smile; as soon as he disappeared, she rang Lucie to clear her calendar for the day. House Azelas and their damned party planner were just going to have to wait.
A trek through the Waterway and a short flight later, the pair arrived at the Phon Coast, just as the sun crested in the noonday sky. They made short work of the first mark, an overgrown Silver Lobo; when they had dispatched it, Balthier produced a knife and nicked an ear to claim the reward, then led the way to a secluded grove in Hunter's Camp.
"So." Balthier held out his hand, and Ashe took it as they settled beneath one of the trees. "I trust you don't expect me to believe that you had me steal you away to the Coast for the pure joy of a day of mark hunting."
"Not in the slightest." Ashe leaned back against the trunk, tipping her head up to the dappled sunshine, letting its warmth play over her face. "We must speak of serious matters, and I wanted to do it away from the palace. Not in a place that is yours or mine, but in the only place that is ours." She looked through the trees at the blue ocean and white sands, remembering the time they had spoken here -- the first time she had looked at Balthier and truly seen him, not just a sky pirate trying to take advantage of her situation. "You have heard, I trust, the rumors that I am to marry one minor noble or another?"
Balthier waved his hand in the air as though he were swatting away gnats. "For months now. They grow tiresome. The most stubborn story these days is that you are to marry Larsa when he is of age."
Ashe smiled. "And how do these storytellers propose that we get around the war with Rozarria that would almost certainly result?"
"Different tellers spin different tales." Balthier shrugged. "Some say that Archadia is champing at the bit for such a war, only looking for an excuse to fire the first shot. Others suggest that you have already contracted to marry any resulting child to the next Rozarrian emperor, thus cementing a three-way alliance. That one makes so much sense that I'd be surprised if no one has officially proposed it."
"In reverse, actually." Ashe folded her legs beneath herself. "One of my councilors is enamored with his plan to marry me to one of the princes of House Margrace, then promise our first-born daughter to Larsa. When I suggested that, though Larsa is still young, he likely would not wish to wait another sixteen or seventeen years for a bride, he suggested that we keep him in concubines until the time comes, as a part of the dowry."
Balthier threw his head back and laughed. Ashe tightened her fingers on his and waited. When he had done, he turned to Ashe, still smiling. "Good to hear that someone is looking out for the young Emperor's interests. But I suspect that this is not what you brought me here to discuss either, at least not directly. So." He lowered his gaze at her, smile fading. "The Council stepping up the pressure to marry, are they?"
"Not precisely. Some of them, yes -- the older men, my father's friends, have been uneasy about my unmarried state from the start. But a strong minority understand my qualms and support my decision. So they are divided on the question of a royal wedding. But there is a related question on which they are not divided."
"Ah." Balthier let her hand slide free. "They require an heir."
"Yes." Ashe paused, let her acknowledgment and its implications sink in. "And, though I might disagree with their methods, and as weary as I grow of hearing about it, I must concur with their desire for the end result. Even were the Council to succeed in wrapping me up in cotton, I would not live forever. If I have no heir, who will rule Dalmasca when I am gone? Who will rule Nabradia? And what of the line of the Dynast King?" She shook her head. "I will not be responsible for its ending."
Balthier's brow furrowed. "Does that not force you into marriage then?"
"No." Ashe shook her head firmly. "My opinion on that subject is unchanged. I will not marry; you know my reasons. Fortunately, there is no need. No one would have any cause to question the royal lineage of my offspring, whether I am married to the father or not. The elder council members will not like it, but I intend to give them no choice in the matter. They cannot force me to marry, and they will not enjoy the results if they try." Balthier snorted in apparent amusement at the thought. "Still, the fact remains that I must have at least one heir, and ideally more. The continuation of two Houses is balanced on a knife-edge; it is my duty to create a more solid foundation for their future."
"I wish you would not speak so." Balthier leaned forward, stroked her cheek with a light finger-touch. "It discomfits me to hear you talk of yourself like a broodmare."
She lifted an eyebrow, met his eyes, allowed herself another brief smile. "It would not have to be so." She raised her hand to his arm and settled it in the crook of his elbow.
His hand had fallen to her shoulder; it slipped off suddenly, boneless; his eyebrows reached a sudden, alarming height. "Are you proposing what I think you're proposing?" Ashe said nothing as he sat back, out of her reach, but let her silence answer the question. "I... see." He leaned away, hands behind his back to prop himself up. "What was it you said, on the eve of your coronation? A house respectable enough to be suitable, but not so respectable as to seem a threat?"
"Something of the sort." Ashe sat forward but made no move to reach for him. "It is ideal, don't you see? None can doubt the fitness of your line, but neither would anyone seek to put the child of the third son of a minor house on the throne of Archadia. Especially not when that third son has turned sky pirate. Can you think of a better way of securing House Dalmasca without risking the objections of Houses Solidor and Margrace?"
"Politics," Balthier muttered, and then he cast Ashe a dark scowl. "So, is that why you keep me around? You've calculated your best odds for producing an heir without being chained to a husband?"
Ashe gasped, rose halfway to her feet. "You dare suggest that our liaison is politically motivated?"
Balthier lifted his shoulders in a shrug. "You just made a rather convincing case for it, your majesty."
The title was cold now, distant, a door of formality slammed in her face; she recoiled from him as she came fully upright, unable to look at him as she paced in a small circle. "Politically motivated," she muttered, just loud enough for him to hear. "If you knew half the grief I've taken from the Council..." She gave herself a hard shake, took a deep breath, and turned to look at him. "Yes, deciding who will father my children is a political decision. As it must be! How could it be otherwise?" Balthier looked to the ground, and she crossed to him, grasping his chin in her fingers and forcing him to meet her eyes. "Every choice I make is riddled with such considerations: what is good for Dalmasca, for her people, for the whole of Ivalice. Can I never have one thing--" She checked herself, took a deep breath, rephrased her thoughts. "I choose this for Dalmasca, yes, because I must. But I also choose for myself."
Before he could speak again, she knelt down and captured his mouth in a fierce kiss, her hands buried in his hair. She pushed his head back as one hand moved further down, felt the tendons taut in his exposed neck, then slid back upwards to cup his throat from collarbone to ear. Her tongue plunged into his mouth and his rose in answer, his breath a soft hiss as she lowered herself to straddle him, pinning him to the ground. His hands rose up her back, slipped under her shirt, hot on bare skin; she settled into his lap as the kiss deepened, softened into a simpler passion, no longer seeking to possess him but only to share this moment, feel his body pressed up against hers, taste his breath.
They sat so for a long time, trading kisses and caresses, exchanging touches rather than words, until Ashe looked up and noticed the golden quality to the light. "The hour grows late," she murmured, her lips resting against his temple.
"We should get you back," Balthier agreed. He sat back, studied her face, eyes solemn. "I apologize for my poor reaction earlier. Perhaps I should have been expecting this, but I was not, and I don't always take well to surprises." His hands tightened against her spine. "It is not a simple request. I became a sky pirate to get away from family and responsibility, after all."
"I know." Ashe brought her hands up to frame his face, traced the line of his brow with her thumbs. "If you need some time to consider, I understand. And if ultimately you decide you cannot, I understand that as well. I do not mean to pressure or influence you unduly. But I must also be honest. You are my first choice, but there are other third sons of respectable Archadian houses. And Rozarrian houses, for that matter. "
Balthier nodded, turned away. "To see you carrying and raising another man's child..." He shook his head, and his voice dropped to a near-whisper. "Could I bear it? I-- I cannot say."
Her finger stroked the underside of his chin and lifted it to meet her gaze once again, this time with tenderness. "It need change nothing between us," she said softly.
He responded with a slow headshake and a thoughtful chuckle. "Ah, your majesty. How could it not change everything?"
"You may have heard reports that I tend to be stubborn," she replied, then kissed him lightly on the mouth.
His laugh was more genuine this time. "We shall see." He wriggled out from beneath her, then gave her a hand to help her stand. "Come, we should return to Rabanastre before full dark."
The flight back to Dalmasca had been quiet, awkward. Ashe was glad when it was over. Balthier dropped her off at a little-used entrance to the Waterway, then disappeared to retrieve Fran and take his time to think. She returned to her rooms and gave herself one night to brood; upon rising the next morning, she asked Lucie to reschedule the anniversary planning meeting and resumed her regular schedule of meetings with a philosophical air. He would accept her proposal or not, and there was no way for her to influence his choice. Even had it been possible, she would not have done so -- she would have him willingly, or not at all. So she threw herself into her work and did her best not to think about it. And she succeeded, most of the time.
Weeks passed; a month, two. And then one night it came: a quick tap at her window as she sat by the fire, reports in hand. She set the papers atop the stack at her feet, then went to answer the knock.
There he was, looking as cocky as ever on his hovercycle; he motioned to the roof with his chin, then disappeared. She opened the window, then waited, the crackle of the fire a roar in her ears as she allowed herself all the emotions she had been refusing to feel for the past two months: relief that he had finally returned to her, impatience with him for taking so long, apprehension of what his answer might be. It seemed another age passed before he reappeared and slid inside the room, not waiting for her greeting before grasping her shoulders and setting his mouth on hers for a long, lingering kiss. Her hands lifted to his waist, settling in their accustomed places atop his hipbones.
Eventually he broke away, and she looked into his eyes. "So." She crossed her arms and stepped back. "Took your time, did you?"
He tipped his chin. "I owe you a decision, I know." He walked toward the fireplace, his hands gripped behind his back, and she followed him. "You gave me a great deal to think about, two months ago on the Phon Coast. About who I am now, and what I am, and what I've really been running from all these years."
Ashe stepped forward. "Balthier--"
"No, wait." He spun around and held up his hand in a halting motion. "Let me finish." Ashe drew a breath to protest, then checked herself. She had asked much of him; she owed him an opportunity to speak. She let out the air and nodded, and he continued. "First, a confession: my first thought at your suggestion was sheer panic at the thought of being tied to any responsibility as immense as a child. Then a frightening surge of jealousy at the idea of anyone else being the one to bear that responsibility with you. I whipped back and forth between those poles for a long time. I've never been so moody before in my life; I'm sure I drove Fran to distraction with it."
He reached for her hands and clasped them. "And then I started settling into the middle, contemplating what our child might be, what it would be like to raise your son or a daughter. Not that the panic attacks ended right away. Or the fits of jealous rage, for that matter. But the more I thought of it, the more I knew." His chest rose with a deep breath. "I'm not a politician, your majesty. Much less a leader of men, or of nations. I'm a pirate." He glanced away, then back, and met her eyes. "So never let it be said that I turned away from an adventure."
Ashe took another deep breath, light-headed with a relief she had not expected to feel. "So you will..."
He nodded, clinging to her fingers as if for dear life. "There are a great many details to iron out first. But yes. I will."
She raised his hand to her lips, brushed a kiss across his knuckles. "Good."
"I have conditions, of course." He let go of her left hand and held up his right index finger. "First, no state dinners. No balls, no ceremonies, and no exceptions -- I don't care what the occasion is."
Ashe could not hold back a wry smile. "Understood."
"Two." He raised another finger. "Little Raminas, or whatever you choose to name him, will know his father, and what his life is. Groom him for the throne all you wish--"
"Or her," Ashe interrupted.
"Or her," Balthier acknowledged with a nod. "Groom her for the throne all you wish, but once old enough, she will learn the joys of the skies. And when the time comes, she will make her own decision about the life she will lead. No child of mine will be forced onto any path, royalty or no."
"Yes." She nodded, forcing herself to ignore the catch in her throat. "With that I can agree." Leaning forward, she took his hands again. "Balthier. I don't want you to change who you are. I know this life isn't for you. I'd no more chain you here than I would try to keep a pet wyvern. You can keep your ways, and I can keep mine. As long as our paths continue on together, I am content." She stroked his palm with her thumb. "It is good for my heirs to have a choice. I am certain they will be stronger for it."
"I doubt your councilors will agree with you." Balthier let out a low chuckle. "I may have to make one exception to the no state events rule, if only to see the looks on their faces when you tell them of your decision."
She took in his smug expression and shook her head. "Careful, I may take you up on that offer." Then she stopped his laughter with a kiss, and then another, secure in the knowledge that her legacy was safe.