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a presumption that our eyes once watered

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Lift up any book on the prior ages of the Empire, and turn to any page. Or perhaps not so much those books candidly endorsed by the Senate, detailing which members of House Solidor were lunatics, drunkards, murderers or sodomites - or on very special occasions, all four at once. Vayne often wonders how history will find him, eulogized in some dusty tome ages from now. Dull, no doubt, all the urgency and the passion and the uncertainty recast in the light of retrospect. All events connected, everything tidied up and - win or lose - invariably all for the best. The story of the rise and expansion of the Archadian Empire is a tale of the progress of civilization. Any blood spilled is regrettable but necessary - the way it always is with the unfamiliar dead, those long past with strange customs in strange times, no resemblance at all to friends, neighbors, lovers.

Each generation lives in the timeless now, one it believes will never be history.

The empire has given some small greatness to the world - the advances in airship technology alone have made all kinds of advances possible across the whole of Ivalice, transporting goods and medicines, literacy and culture - even Rozarrian airships run on Archadian principles. Bujerba owes most of its prosperity, certainly a good deal of its infrastructure to Archades, no matter how much it may complain at present.

Nothing is ever simple, clear or easy until it is over, and then it becomes simply an inevitablity, a thousand viewpoints collapsing into a single, clean truth.

Whatever footnote history chooses to inscribe for him, certainly the announcement that the princess of Dalmasca would wed Nabradia's prince will be remembered as nothing less than tactical suicide from every possible angle. Perhaps marrying one of the ruling princes of Rozarria was out of Dalmasca's reach, but surely there were others, even marriage to a lesser duke would have ensured the country's grudging support, a defense of their borders. An offer had not even been made to Archades, to Vayne - gods, but they were brave. Brave and stubborn and incredibly foolish.

All the alliance had done, as Cid had put it so succinctly, was to expand the playing field to regulation size.

Truly, they have no idea of the storm that is coming. Two little kingdoms with no awareness of how the Empire could grow so hungry for war. Too much pride in the Archadian forces, in their machines and their armies and their might and it had been too long. The Empire was finally feeling its age, no longer expanding as it once had and starting to notice the strain - so it was time to crush whatever presented even the hint of a challenge, to rattle sabers against Rozarria's gates. Folly in the shape of glory and Imperial honor, and all Dalmasca's determined courage would be crushed back to the sand it had been born from.

Or perhaps he is being a bit too harsh on their motives. Rozarria has not exactly been indifferent to the possibility of claiming Nabradia and Dalmasca for their own. It may all be just a matter of who gets there first.

"-a simple issue of compensation, but I can understand your view. I will think about this, thank you."

Vayne glances up from the page, as Larsa comes into the room, tossing a fencer's foil on the couch. No real surprise that he's engaged his teacher in a bit of political discussion - the man gives Vayne a sheepish smile and a slight bow, making his goodbyes - as Larsa talks with everyone, tutors and footmen and the chocobo grooms, and has little issue with them speaking their mind. Whatever today's issue, it has left his little brother rather thoughtful, not at all an unusual occurrence, and Vayne quietly watches Larsa staring into space, elbows on his knees, fingers peaked. At thirteen years old, he has more gravitas than the whole of the Senate together, and even as a younger child he was happy to simply sit and contemplate, observing the world with quiet attention.

It is restful, just to watch him think, such a small thing to be grateful for. Seeing the world through his brother's eyes tends to still the worst of Vayne's fears, makes them quiet for a time. If they do engage the field at Nalbina, and Rozarria responds in kind…

If Raminas presents the Dawn Shard as a gift to the newlyweds… though even that, Vayne suspects, would not be enough to stop his father. Cid seemed puzzled, how little the Emperor had touched upon the Shards in their last interview, seemingly indifferent to their possible discovery when they were capable of so much destruction. Of course, the Emperor was far too smart to show his hand, but it was easy enough for Vayne to imagine. What use, three little trinkets, compared to the promise of the Sun-Cryst? Unlimited, unbound power - and who cared, if it took one of Raithwall's blood to possess it, as the old tales swore it to be? The stories had said Nethicite belonged to the gods alone, and look how that had turned out.

Why bother wondering how the world would remember you, if you never intended to die?

It seems Larsa is not the only one prone to fits of silent reflection, Vayne drawing out of his thoughts to find his brother looking back, eyes glinting with a bit of amusement at catching him so off guard.

"How large is the annual budget of Archades?"

Larsa smiles slightly. It is a common enough greeting, either a question of economics or history - possibly the sciences, if Cid is around to nod approvingly.

"One point nine three trillion gil."

"How much do we spend on defense?"

"Five hundred seventy billion gil."

No use mentioning how much of that goes directly to Draklor. It has become his favorite game, on those days when the Senate forgets to hate him as much as they ought, to go sniping for thousands of gil to pass to the labs, excising it from whichever senator's pet projects he happens to remember at the time. It is like kicking an anthill, even when Vayne doesn't get a single coin, the outraged chaos is entertaining enough to watch.

"Civil engineering?"

"Seven point six billion."

Larsa can do this for hours, comparing lean years with flush, contrasting spending cycles, following the financial patterns that make up so many great conflicts. It does not sit well with him, to reduce the whole of history to the flow of coin, but at least he has learned to check, when a man speaks of grand obligations and moral demands, if at least one hand happens to be reaching for the coffers.

"The Rozarrian national budget?"

"One point eight two trillion gil."

"Style of government?"

"Officially, a monarchy. Unofficially, a collection of mercantile dynasties, currently strongest through the Margrace line."

The Houses of Archadia might enjoy a sordid and long-burning war of quiet hostility, but from what Vayne has seen and heard, the Rozarrian merchant-kings prefer to keep their fangs perpetually sharp on each other's throats, fighting like a pack of crazed worgen beasts.

"If you were to do the most damage with an opening strike, where would you place the vanguard of your fleet?"

"I wouldn't." Larsa says, giving him a tolerant smile at least five years too old for him. It is possible to argue him to the point of admitting that sometimes, war is justified, but it can take past a good quarter of an hour of determined cross-examination, the sort of arguing Vayne usually saves for when the Senators discover some new, unpalatable incursion on their time or - gods forbid - their coin. "You cannot fill a glass once it has been broken."

One of those sage sayings full of empty wisdom that usually reduces Vayne to his best non-expression, but this is Larsa, and he is - as always - fully in earnest.

"What were you speaking of with your instructor?"

Larsa sighs. "A civic issue. The trains wish to expand their lines. Yet it will require some construction in the eastern merchant quarter for some time, and the new depot will permanently disrupt the lives of some of those who currently reside there."

"A case of eminent domain. Surely, they will be compensated."

"You may put a price on bricks and mortar - some of those families have lived three generations there or more. It is their home. It belongs to them."

"Yet…" Vayne leads, because Larsa wouldn't fret if it were so simple as the beleaguered seeking assistance. He'd be petitioning Vayne, and Vayne would be petitioning the Senate, though likely a simple bribe would be far more efficient.

"If the train extends its line, it would be able to reach into a section of the city that has been requesting service for some time. There are few other options, for comparable inroads. It would help those unable to afford sky cabs, and there is a bridge, just before the proposed work, in need of some repair - yet they do not wish to allow the money for it, if the extension does not go through."

And thus his little brother gets his first taste of the joys of bureaucracy. When Vayne feels too optimistic, he relies on the cure of a few hours spent trying to decode the byzantine rules that allow for new commerce and growth within the merchant guilds. All the laws exist, as far as he can tell, entirely to protect the well-established and ensure that any new growth will be as slow, painful and corrupt as possible, but these are powerful men with Senators in their pockets, and he has yet to broach the issue without feeling as if he'd accomplish more by beating his head against the nearest wall.

Larsa frowns. "I am not smart enough at present, to find the answer. There ought be a way, to help all who need it properly. I simply do not know how to discover it."

The boy surprises Vayne at practically every turn. Name the last man to apologize for his failings with frustration at his own stupidity. Name a single one, Vayne can wait.

He considers his answer carefully, as he always does - nothing with Larsa is trivial, that is everything /else/ he must endure in a day. Yet how best to explore this idea, this supposed 'perfect' decision, compared to the simply wise decision, or even the truly foolish one, and all the shades of gray -

The sudden inspiration is, of course, utterly insane, but Vayne's been toying with the idea for some time, one he must commit to while there is still a chance of success. It is rather unheard-of lunacy, but he has come to trust those ideas above the rest. It will do no good for anyone, to pretend at the luxury of conventional choices. Vayne shuffles through his own mental calendar, his day and the rest of his brother's - no binding engagements. No meetings or promised attendances.

"I may know where you might find an answer. Or at least, a better view of the questions."

Larsa is instantly interested, as his lord brother has always made it a habit of helping him find the answers he seeks, bringing him in to whatever meeting or discussion might help him make up his mind. Ignoring those who believe he is too young or naive to benefit from such close proximity - Vayne knows very well, how dearly they long to use Larsa for their own ends. A beautiful young princeling, ready to dance to the Senate's tune. Is is not worth any risk, truly, to ensure his brother remains uncorrupted?

So he agrees without question, follows Vayne to the small room, tucked away at the edge of the palace. It is only when Vayne tosses him the rather threadbare change of clothes and draws his own hair up beneath a stained bandanna that he starts to have an idea of the extent of the plan.

"We… we cannot do this."

"Why not?" Vayne's heart is beating just a little fast - anticipation - and he can't help but smile. So many things he ought to have been, other than what he is. "It is a beautiful day, I doubt it will rain."

Larsa looks down at the ragged vest, back at him, and Vayne has the feeling he's protesting far more because he feels he ought to, than any real sense of outrage. "Rain is.. that's hardly the - it is… it is simply /not done/."

"Exactly why we ought do it. It is early still, we have no waiting business. I have already sent out half a dozen missives, telling everyone that we have gone somewhere other than where we said we'd be. I suspect we are only going to get the one chance at this - today is a good a day as ever."

Larsa looks at him, closely, his voice low and scandalized - and intrigued. "You have done this before."

"It has been a while."

"Why?"

Ask him a question he knows the answer to, let alone one he could answer with any honesty in front of his little brother. Had it begun as boredom or sheer defiance? Refusing to do as he was bid, in whatever small way he might manage. Wanting to see any world, other than the one that had been set before him?

Over time, it has come to be like many other things in Vayne's life, simply the struggle against the unknown, against assumption and convention and fear. Fear was useless, it limited all options down to the easily known. It made men stupid and then it destroyed them, all for the risk of a little information. Vayne would far rather bleed out in some back alley than live in ignorance, forced to endure lie after lie when the truth might prove so easily within reach.

"Before I say any more, you must know this is very dangerous. Promise me now, swear that you will never, ever do this on your own."

"You did. You just /said/ you did!"

"And I'm a fool. Obviously. But my little brother has been born with more sense than the gods gave to fools. So…" Vayne crosses his arms, waiting. Very rarely does he bother to actually wield his power as elder brother, and so after a moment of glaring at him, just so they're both aware of his blatant and ridiculous hypocrisy, Larsa nods.

"I promise." From anyone else, not worth believing. From Larsa, it might as well be writ in blood.

"Right then." Vayne says, attending to the details of his disguise as Larsa swiftly changes into his own. "I will be a merchant who is not particularly skilled at his trade, and you are my apprentice."

"What do we sell?"

Vayne frowns slightly. "This is not supposed to be fun."

Larsa grins back at him, sliding his hand into the tattered remains of a glove. "And yet it is, isn't it?"

———————————————-

Not particularly difficult to sneak out of the palace, because no one would ever dare bother with such foolishness, let alone see the value in it. The most difficult part is getting out of the very top tiers, though Vayne has a fair grasp of where the various ladders and low walls are, the support systems in place for those who keep Archades running without ever being seen. Once they're down far enough, without guards stationed at every waypoint, it's a bit easier to move around, though Larsa never stops staring, obviously amazed they haven't been caught yet.

As a son of House Solidor, he is familiar, of course, with Archades and all its functions, the tiered system of its daily life, locations of markets and residential districts and universities, though it is a far different thing to read about it in books and study maps as it is to move through the crowded streets of the lower sections, listening to the bustle and the roar of skycabs overhead.

"A bit better than just flying over, I think."

"It's… wonderful."

"Quite. You may, I believe, petition for the chance to visit here more often. It will not be quite the same with a guard, but still tolerable."

Gods, but how he loves the anonymity. Just for a moment, he is not forced to be Vayne Solidor, not a man with obligations and some supposed purpose and a thousand little judgments trailing in his wake, a history he must carry along with him, everywhere. He is no one, just one man of many going about his daily business in the mid-streets, with the movements of the upper circles as mysterious and meaningless as those of the heavens.

"It is a peculiar paradox we exist in, what we are. You will lead, and attempt to do what is right - but you will not be noticed here, by these people, until something goes wrong. If you work to the very best of your ability, the reward is that they do not think about you at all."

Larsa nods. "But that… is all right, isn't it? It is the way it ought be, that they may focus on their own concerns. Or does that mean the people should know more, so that they understand how things work, and are not so ready to jump at shadows?"

Vayne watches a small group of young women at a small stand across the street, comparing the weave of a selection of brightly colored scarves with serious attention. It seems a silly, frivolous thing, because he is not that girl, and his life and future do not depend upon the chance that a pretty ornament might improve the odds of her gaining a rich husband, and perhaps a better life. What does she care for politics, or war? What should she care?

"Tell the people too little, and they are forced to come to their own conclusions. Tell them too much, and they will still not understand every nuance, every implication of a decision, even as they attempt to force your opinion. At times, your principles will be unpopular, due to fear or prejudice - at other times, they may truly be wrong." Vayne glances over, Larsa looking at him with his usual, over-serious expression. "You keep looking at me, as if I have the answers."

He is not his brother's tutor. Larsa has enough of those, to tell him whatever simple truth of the world he might desire. It is not usually meant in malice; simply what is done, especially by those whose livelihoods depend on their recognition as experts. Easier to pick an ideology, a view of what ought be, and conform the world to it, regardless of how well it ultimately works.

"So you expect that I will find them here?"

"Oh gods, not by half." Vayne says, and keeps moving. It takes about two more levels down, before Larsa realizes their final destination.

———————————————————————-

"Did you just bribe the guard?"

"Indeed." Vayne has to laugh, just a little, his brother wide-eyed, not quite sure whether to be shocked or indignant. "You don't believe so few outposts could truly keep a secure border with all that lies below? Or that there isn't work above, that those who live there feel is beneath them? It is a rather elegant solution, really. The upper tiers keep their illusion of security, the lower tiers are allowed their mobility and the guards earn some extra coin."

Vayne spends the rest of their descent explaining the concept of gray markets, apparently not something Larsa's teachers had ever deemed suitable for his esteemed ears. A damned shame Balthier wouldn't come within a hundred miles of Archades, he would surely be able to give the boy a proper education.

"… so everyone's lying, and everyone benefits?" He sounds a bit distressed. Disgruntled. Thank the gods, the boy still is not much of a Solidor.

"In one light, it might seem distressing - but people need to eat, to take care of those they love, and if the laws will not allow it - well, far be for a woman to choose her starving child over a code set in place by men she will never meet, for virtues that fill no one's belly. Nobility is a rich man's conceit, not that most of them do well at it, either."

He can practically hear his brother thinking it over. Weighing what he knows and what he thinks is right against what has been learned. Innocence must be forged properly into one's ideals, pragmatism as the hammer and the anvil, if anything useful is to be made of the result.

"If it is the people that need to bend," Larsa says, slowly but with some confidence, "if they cannot bend to a law that does not serve - then the law ought be altered."

"… and the best way to find out what the people need most, is to discover which laws they cannot help but break."

The noise of Old Archades comes first, followed closely by the smell. Just as Vayne remembers it.

"Keep close to me, then." He says, though it's hardly necessary, Larsa's hand clinging tightly to his own. Well aware he is a stranger here, with little power in this vast and decrepit, crumbling world. "No assumptions. No judgments, not yet. I just want you to watch."

A few more steps, the turn of a corner and they are amidst a sea of the unfortunate, the unlucky, even the damned. It is a market district, yet brighter and louder than anything even in the lower levels of the city, and far more temporary, most of the 'shops' little more than pieces of scrap wood covered in trinkets, supplies, anything that can be gathered and certainly more than can only be stolen.

Old Archades is a patchwork place, the aged built upon the ancient built on what is crumbling away. All around are Humes, Seeq and Bangaa at work and play, chatting with each other at tiny, makeshift bars or simply slouched in the shade, waiting to see what the day might bring. Two moogles on a small platform, each dyed in multicolored stripes, seem to be practicing some sort of acrobatic routine, one doing a handstand, balancing on the paw of the other. A little further down the street, a man and a woman are shouting, so many slurs so fast Vayne can't figure out if they're breaking up or arguing over money or about to kill each other. No one else on the street is much interested, walking around and between them without paying any heed, and after a while the woman disappears into what must be her house, slamming the door behind her, as the man takes off down an alley still cursing to himself.

"How many live in Archades proper?"

"Just below five million." Larsa says distractedly, can't begin pick a point to keep his attention fixed, eyes darting everywhere, as overwhelmed as Vayne was the first time he'd come here, plunged anonymous into the chaos. Except it wasn't chaos, still isn't - that is simply the view from above. The very reason they are down here at all.

"No census here, but the estimates are somewhere around three hundred-fifty. It could be as high as five, or eight."

"Eight-hundred-thousand? Living here?" Awe in his voice. For all his kindness, Vayne knows Larsa's never truly thought of them. Or only in the way the rest of the highest-tiers of Archades do, as some unknown mass of bodies lurking in the darkness beneath the city - faceless, anonymous. Strange and best to be avoided, as if even thinking on them too often might conjure up some hidden danger.

"The way that you choose to see them, here, it will say more about how you will live your life than any other decision." Perhaps untrue, were Larsa intended to be anything other than Emperor, that his choices and his viewpoints would determine the lives and livelihood of some one-hundred-twenty million people, stretched across the whole of his Empire, whose lives and needs and opinions might run entirely counter to his own.

A tiny girl runs up to them, hands full of small, blue flowers, her smile bright and desperate. Vayne gives her two gil in exchange for two small bunches, and the girl curtsies once to each of them, darting away, instantly lost in the crowd. Larsa stares after her.

"She was just a child. So small."

"If you put the flowers in your lapel, it will help with the smell."

"Surely we could do something about that."

"The child or the sewers?"

"Both."

Vayne nods.

"Fair enough. This is your task. Today, you may help one person. Just one. I wish for you to put your coin where you believe it will do the most good."

Larsa stares at him for a moment, almost instantly turns back to the crowd, looking for the little girl.

"Give her a fortune, and how will you keep it from being taken from her, the moment your back is turned?"

Larsa bites his lip, nodding slightly, and allows Vayne to lead him further into the fray.

If there is a single great myth of Old Archades amongst the city folk, it is that no one survives here for long, that it is some unknowable cesspool that devours the unwitting whole, and going there is to practically insure one's own destruction. Certainly, there are many ways to end up on the wrong side of a blade, but Vayne has discovered there is a great deal of villainy that has no interest in dealing with outsiders. Though there is no doubt a considerable amount of crime in the streets, there are just as many simply living their lives with little in the way of resources, doing what they can to get by, hoping for a better tomorrow. He sees the surprise on Larsa's face at how much order there is here, passing from one street to another, crowded lanes hung high with laundry stretched between the buildings, and children playing happily along the dusty street. Flowers bloom in window boxes, serious women in sober dresses exchanging the day's news, watching them pass with suspicious eyes.

"I do not think they would want my help, should I even offer it." Larsa said, as soon as they had turned the corner. "It is not… I thought it chaos at first, but it isn't, is it? It is only… people. Little different than the city - perhaps even the court."

He says it as if it sounds audacious, even blasphemous, though Vayne came to much the same conclusion years ago.

Very little actually happens, as they continue through the streets, though the weight of misery here is readily apparent in every tumble-down building, in those who sit helplessly at curbs or at corners, staring into space. A man in a very shabby uniform, missing a leg - an Archadian soldier, and Vayne wonders how many more will come to join him, and how soon. It may be a clear victory over Nabradia, but it will not come without some cost. Larsa's hand rises then, and half a dozen times more, to make his choice, but never quite touches his brother's sleeve. A woman calls to Vayne, from a building painted sloppy bright, red that has faded to orange in the sun. Nearly falling out of both the window and her low-cut blouse, with an offer that leaves Larsa bright red and spluttering.

"Breathe, brother." Vayne murmurs, moving them along. "It would be quite a pain to have to carry you out of here."

"Did you hear what she-" Poor, sheltered Larsa. Vayne's not sure he's even started thinking of girls in any way but how etiquette demands he treat them. Nothing but the most proper behavior, though there is little doubt he would treat whores any differently than duchesses. "How can… I mean, I'd heard of - but she was laughing!"

"I imagine she has little other way to make a living, and has decided to enjoy it as best she can."

Larsa is indignant, and still more than a bit pink. "It ought be outlawed, I would think, for their sake."

Not exactly the conversation he expected to have, but it is as good as any. "Would that truly stop it, or simply remove her from public view, that we might feel good for no longer having to think about what she must do? Send all of them even further into the shadows, where more harm might be done? Strip from her even the thinnest veneer of her humanity?"

It isn't what Larsa wants to hear, but he is also sensible enough to put reason in front of his own ego. No small miracle, that.

"… it still isn't right."

"So, how to resolve it? Shall I make her your beneficiary?"

"No." Larsa says, shaking his head. "Coin alone… won't solve this. Any of this."

Vayne waits, but his brother is not yet interested in sharing his thoughts, and they continue on in a small bubble of silence, past more stalls and more brothels and more buildings boarded up, others that likely should be, with people at every window, sitting and laying on balconies that look as if they might fall over at any moment. A fight, loud voices from inside another bar, and an old man is thrown out, half-stumbling, landing hard in the dirt. Slowly, he sits up, tears rolling down his sunken cheeks - a broken jaw, if Vayne had to guess, and Larsa's hand fists against his sleeve.

"Brother, /please/."

He made the restriction on coin, not on aid, though he should have known better. It is dangerous, to show off what they really are, with the magic to tell exactly where they come from. Very little spellwork done here, no one with the coin to buy even the simplest incantations, and hard penalties even then - no one wants a slum full of pissed-off magic users. It is risky, and hardly necessary - but Larsa is looking at him with pleading eyes and the streets are mostly quiet.

"Be quick about it. Nothing flashy."

Instantly his brother is at the man's side, Vayne strolling up to stand guard a few paces away. He smells as if he's been used to clean out a brewery, bloodshot eyes and gray stubble and probably not as old as circumstances have reduced him to. Larsa's tone is still is quiet, respectful. A small hand against his cheek, the softest glow of green as the spell shimmers against his skin, seeping through to knit the bone, and Vayne pulls his brother up as the drunkard staggers to his feet. Staring at them for a moment before smiling, an expression that turns his face into nothing but soft, craggy lines as he gives Larsa's cheek a gentle pat.

"You're a good boy. A good boy."

Vayne can guess what's coming next, though Larsa's expression is absolutely dumbfounded as the man turns, and goes right back into the bar. He steers his brother away, before the shouting can no doubt begin anew.

—————————————————

They are crossing the street, in front of a cart serving up bowls of noodles and what smells like extremely questionable meat. It does not seem a coincidence, the few customers seem to be eating mostly vegetables. Halfway down the next block, before Larsa finally turns on him.

"Why did he /do/ that?"

"Why did you help him? It is one and the same. Plus or minus a few gallons of cheap refreshment."

"You /knew/. You knew what he would do." Staring at Vayne as if he is some sort of oracle, a wise mystic from the distant mountains.

Vayne shrugs. "It is not so impossible, to observe the measure of a man, and through that, we may predict his future action. We are all of us many different people, all at once. A man may love his family, but long for glory even more than their affection. A coward might be loyal, and surprise himself with unexpected courage when his loved ones are threatened. In each of us is a singular drive, for good or ill. It may be what is most apparent, or it may lie hidden, waiting for tragedy or opportunity to bring it to the surface."

Larsa looks at him, now curious and challenging. No one else dares look at him like that, not ever. "What is yours?"

"Dinner."

An irritated glare, pure younger sibling now. "You're making fun of me."

"That depends on what is for dinner. I will say, I do not feel quite brave enough to dine down here. Have you made your choice yet, who is most worthy?"

"Far too many, I fear. The further we walk, the more…" Larsa pauses, and sighs heavily. "If this was supposed to help, I have failed to heed the lesson. I do not know what to do."

"How much of Archades' gold did the Senate claim as their own, to give in support to those guilds that support them in return?"

Larsa is not much in the mood to oblige him, yet trusts that Vayne will make this worth his while. "Sixty-eight billion, all total. Spread out across twenty prominent guilds."

"… and how much do you think they will choose to give, to people they have never met, who live in squalor?"

Instantly fierce. A Solidor's temper in his brother, even if it is not provoked in the usual ways. "We cannot choose where we are born."

"Yes, and it is extremely convenient to forget that. It is natural to want to make things simple, to pretend that the world is always and ever in our control. It is frightening for those up there, to imagine themselves one day down here, their /children/ down here, and they do not even know the little that you or I do, that it is not as good as a death sentence."

Larsa is frustrated, trying so hard to solve what most people are content to ignore, honestly and truly concerned for the future of those he hadn't known of hours ago. "So there's no purpose to it, if they will never venture here. We have the means yet lack the momentum."

"If you wish to help those in need, you must make it attractive to those who don't care."

"How can they not /care/?"

"You're asking the wrong question, and you know it." He keeps his tone light, his brother kicking himself enough already, for not being able to save all the world. "You're a Solidor - focus on what /is/, rather than what ought be."

Larsa makes a fist, biting slightly on a knuckle, weighing his options. Vayne is a politician, has been for all of his life, a mediator and a deal-maker and a consummate liar, when it is necessary. Larsa is something else - a builder, a social architect. He sees possibilities, the promise of better futures where few others can.

"If helping them directly will not do the most good - this is where they live, now. Yet there is no pride in it, because they feel there is no reason to-" He rocks back on his heels, just slightly. "They are people, no different than any other, which means there is talent here that goes unrecognized and unrewarded. If we could… convince the guilds. Start small, find the very best, apprentice them - all for free, if they agreed to help with the infrastructure here as well." He doesn't realize he's already turned this into a speech, gesturing to emphasize the important points. "We can convince them to invest in their own neighborhoods - and they could teach others what they learn. We could educate. In time, it might even be a way to earn their papers, for themselves and for their families. They would no longer feel like strangers in their own land."

Half the Senate will happily shoot down any idea Vayne brings to the table, out of spite against him or his father or some great-great-grand-Solidor who once slept with someone's sister's brother's cousin. It is a testament to his skills, that Vayne manages to secure most of what is important, though there is always the matter of choosing what to sacrifice. Larsa, on the other hand - Larsa is beloved, of the people and the Emperor and perhaps it is his youth or his optimism, that even the Senators see some small, pale shadow of who they once might have been, if there had ever been a single ideal to split between them.

Misplaced pride is irrelevant - his brother knows that already. It blinds, it limits options while offering no reward. The results are what matter, and let them coddle him if they must, give him what he wants as mere indulgence. Heavens know they will not think so little of him when all of Old Archades knows to whom it owes their gratitude. It will work, this small, rough plan, though Vayne can see his brother even now, turning it over in his mind, polishing it down. Easy enough and cheap enough, that the Senate will grant it to him like a gift, hoping to curry Gramis' favor, or simply as an amusement. The Senate has no idea what Larsa is capable of, though Vayne has never doubted him.

Some of what he's thinking must show on his face, and his brother smiles, well satisfied. They continue walking quietly, though Larsa's thoughts are now loud enough that Vayne thinks he could hear them, if only he listened close enough.

He has been paying attention to every person they've passed, shifting them into a simple distinction of harmless passerby or possible trouble. So far, no sign of anyone even giving them more than a single glance, which Vayne credits less with their attire than the insanity of it - for what purpose would a Emperor's sons ever come down here? Still, he does make a grave misstep at the corner, glancing at the man lounging there and seeing no sign of weapons, nothing in his stance where he slouches to suggest at danger. He waits to speak, until Vayne is right next to him. Close enough, the words are soft but clear.

"I'll give you a hundred gil for an hour with the boy."

He does not think about going for the dagger, it is simply there in his hand, pressed against the man's side, barely any space between them with the step Vayne didn't even realize he'd taken. He had not brought his sword with him, the expensive weapon immediately calling attention to his station. The smaller blade is much easier to conceal, and very, very easy to kill with. Vayne has made a point of learning the sort of combat not usually taught to refined young men. The kind that only ends with a body, by the most expedient means possible.

"Easy there. Easy." The man takes two quick steps back, raising his hands high. "I didn't mean nothing by it. Don't want any trouble."

Vayne says nothing, only stares until the man has moved down the street, around the corner and gone. Keeping a measure of him, just in case, just in case. Not quite able to let go of the thought that he ought to make sure…

"What's wrong? Did he say something to you?"

He has come down here to teach his brother a bit more of the world, and yet the world sees fit to remind him of his purpose. Larsa can be who he is, because Vayne is who he must be.

"Just a mistake. He thought I was someone else."

—————————————————

Time continues to pass, with little in the way of incident. Larsa is in much brighter spirits, occasionally throwing out some question about a facet of his strategy, which guild might be the most interested, who he ought speak to first. He studies the city with a new eye, obviously cataloguing the good he might do, the ugliness around them drained of most of its power to hurt, just another challenge he can rise to meet.

Vayne wonders if those adventurous nobles from the city who come down here for a thrill are disappointed with what they find. Maybe not, unlikely they take any pains to hide what they are or the type of coin they carry. A rather sad end, but just as easy, he supposes, to borrow the most ruthless man here. Wrap him in velvet and drape him in gold, and see how long he would last in the court. The deaths may be quieter at the top of Archades, with slightly more forewarning, but Vayne doubts that truly makes much difference to the corpses.

"Oh."

If he had known where the street they were on would end, Vayne would have taken a different way. Any other way. Yet it has been a few years, in this place where things can change twice in the span of a night, and he does not know it as he used to. It does no good to keep Larsa from the world, to pretend that ignorance is innocence, and yet there are some things Vayne would protect him from, that can do ought else but cause pain.

Larsa has loved chocobos all his short life, learned to race them right along with walking. He has six birds of his own, all purebred beauties - would easily have a dozen more but he doesn't want to neglect any of them for the others. It is a passion, treated with the same attention to detail as the rest of his life. He has learned how to care fully for the birds, followed two in his stable from egg to full-grown racing champion. Vayne is not entirely sure who would win, Larsa with his birds or Cid with his airships, if they were allowed to speak their fill. Likely, it would not end until they'd both talked themselves hoarse, and were too weary to keep gesturing.

Chocobos name the humans they are most familiar with, bringing them into their flock. Vayne's own mount is a gentle black, who greets him with a soft trill and two short clicking sounds, twisting her head to nip playfully at his hair. It is little compared to the fanfare Larsa receives when he visits his own in pasture, a chorus of excited warks and clicks that make up his name, the birds crowding around him, all but trampling each other to gain his attention. Everyone wants Larsa's approval, the birds are simply the most honest about it.

So it is cruel, and nothing else, to turn the corner and find themselves at auction. A most terrible sale, nothing like the proud shows in the upper markets - this is where those chocobos felled by illness or cruelty or the simple passing of too much time have come to die. A few of them are dead already, piled like cordwood in a corner stall, ready to be plucked for pillows or hats, beaks and claws removed and the meat ground into animal feed. Larsa is pale, gaze unreadable, flinching at a bird's scream from some further, dark corner. The air is even fouler here, the smell of death and pain in every breath.

"We should-" Vayne starts, but his brother lifts a hand to stop him. Walks slowly, very carefully amidst the mostly empty hall - all the birds who will leave this place have been purchased already, all that is left are those without hope. Most of the chocobos keep their heads nearly to the floor, too weak or sick to move. It is the inevitable conclusion for the business of raising and riding them. It happens here and elsewhere in Archades, and all throughout the Empire, a sad truth, and Vayne takes no pleasure in seeing it. Larsa, however… this has surely cut his brother to the quick.

A soft sound from one of the stalls, a weak chirp, and his brother turns, lets out a shaking breath. Steps forward to kneel in the muck and filth, reaching out one hand for a chocobo that looks more dead than alive, pressing its head into his hand. Larsa is good with animals, can calm frightened beasts that would snap another man's hand off at the wrist, and Vayne thinks that if the creature were to die right now, it might be in the most peace it had known in its short life.

"Oh, you poor thing. You poor, poor dear." Larsa croons, stroking its feathers, running fingers over the striations in the beak that speak of poor nutrition, and somehow - impossibly - he coaxes it to its feet, looking it over with a expert's eye. Encouraging it to lift a leg, running one gentle finger over the black-tipped claws, more than a few of them cracked and broken.

"It's gone lame, they've pushed it much too hard." Larsa shakes his head, getting angry now, the chocobo resting its head against his shoulder. "Look at the lines of her, and the tail feathers. If they weren't snapped in half, they'd be twice as long, easy. This is a Sunset Gold. It's a runner, a show bird, not meant for pulling carts."

Vayne only sees a filthy bird, exhausted and mite-ridden, with sad, hollow eyes, but if his brother says it is a treasure, then that is what it is. Perhaps once the pet of some high-ranking criminal, tossed away in a moment of bad fortune.

"I'm surprised you got her up off the ground. I could charge you an extra two gil for that." Here, right on time, is the reality of the situation, the painful truth - the man leaning against a nearby pillar is not a monster, even though this cruel business is his trade. He's tall, and lanky, and has a friendly enough smile. "Just a joke, I'm not about to haggle over this mess. You, uh… interested in this one? A shame, not at all in good shape, a wreck by the time they dumped her here. I doubt you'll be able to get it anywhere alive - I could cut her throat for you for a gil, drop the price by three. Or keep it at, say, thirty, and I'll clean her down to the skin. Washing the feathers, if you want, that'll cost you… ten gil extra? Nah, seven. I doubt most of them are worth the effort."

"No!" Larsa says sharply, a protective hand against the feathered neck, but Vayne can see him already doing the swift, cold calculations. He wants very badly to save the bird, but Vayne has given him only the one chance, and a chocobo is not the life of a hume or anyone else, not by any measure. Selfish to use his chance here, yet the bird suffers and if he does nothing…

Vayne counts out the gil, twice the asking price, coins clinking in his hand. "I want you to get her some food, and clean water. Move her to a better stall. I'll send someone by for her, tomorrow at the latest. He'll bring you a fair bonus, if you can keep her alive until then."

"We have finer birds, sir. In far better shape for your coin. I can show you a dozen-"

"I've a bit of a fondness for lost causes. Will this be sufficient?" He passes over the money, knowing it will be, and the man nods, hardly about to argue with the eccentric when it's gil in hand. He gets a bridle on the bird with gentle enough hands, and leads it slowly out of purgatory, back into the land of the living.

Larsa's eyes are shining, full of hero worship and adoration - it has been a while, since Vayne has seen that look, and what he's done does go against the entire point of the exercise, but with Larsa staring at him so, he can't quite bring himself to care.

"But, I didn't…"

Vayne smirks. "I said you had one chance to make good with your coin. I never said anything about myself."

A fierce and grateful hug. The nobles of Archades are not known for grand displays of emotion, even the children learning early the value of reserve and restraint. Thankfully, Larsa is possessed of an occasionally impulsive spirit that no one yet has been able to bring themselves to check. As if Vayne could, even if he ought to know better. He needs to be his brother's hero, though, while there is still time to do it. Vayne knows exactly what he is doing, in constructing an Emperor of the highest moral character. One who questions and reflects and questions again, and who will not accept certain ideas of necessary sacrifice, will not be able to /see/ them as necessary.

He is creating a brother who will, one day, no longer love him.

Important then, to enjoy what he is given, save this moment against what is yet to be.

———————————————————-

Almost a full day, then, of surviving Old Archades unscathed. The sun is starting to go down, and Larsa has perhaps lost track of his original obligation, in between the particulars of his new plan and trying to come up with a name for the chocobo Vayne can only hope will last long enough to be collected, though even after that it may prove too sickly to nurse back to health. Larsa is good with disappointment, however, can bear up to nearly any failing as long as he is given the chance to try.

At first, the sharp crack sounds like a tree splitting down its center, impossible in a place with no trees to speak of, and then Vayne hears shouting, a plume of dust kicking up into the early evening sky, and he is fairly sure of what has happened. Larsa is already moving down the street toward the commotion, and Vayne doubts he will be able to change his mind in time to go elsewhere, easier just to keep at his heels.

Magic is difficult to come by, but that only makes it all the more desirable, a heavy black market trade in all sorts of spellcraft at what are sad prices, only slightly less than what can be obtained by legal means. However, legal means require papers, and without them the only option are spells of dubious translation, half-finished or misspelled or even written up from scratch. At best, a waste of money, and at worst, this - a misfired spell of no small power that has torn through a two-story building already in precarious shape. The crowd keeps their distance from the wreckage, a few people dragging those who can move out of harm's way. A sobbing man is curled over the shape of a woman far gone, by the amount of blood on the ground. Larsa goes to her anyway, eyes darkening as he confirms the worst - looks up, at the sound of more creaking and groaning, and a high-pitched scream from one of the upper windows.

"No!" Vayne snaps, because he already knows what's going to happen, sees the determination in Larsa's eyes, and he lunges as his brother runs forward, snatching the air just behind his collar. The darkness inside the house swallows his brother whole, just as Vayne makes it to the doorway - an ominous creak, the spill of more dust and debris as the wood shudders beneath his hand. Larsa is smaller, light on his feet - to go in would ensure disaster, but Vayne cannot take a single step back, ignores the shouts urging him to get away.

He can barely hear anything, past the sound of his heartbeat in his ears, the world collapsed to a single point of focus and when he hears the building moan again he is casting, fighting to keep the words from rushing together into a useless muddle. The Slow spell buys what can only be moments, magic pulling hard against inexorable gravity, but he can't think past keeping it going, and not stammering over the words. Can't do anything but stare into the dark, and even when he sees movement, even when Larsa comes barreling past him with the tiny, filthy child clinging to him, Vayne can't manage a full thought in response. Just staggers back, and it is not instantaneous, the house does not collapse completely, but a shudder goes up his spine anyway as the roof finally caves in, with a snap of breaking tiles and stone, and the walls of the first floor start to give way.

Larsa is on a knee, and for a painful moment Vayne thinks he is injured, but it is simply a struggle to untangle the girl from her death grip on his shirt. A woman appears, helping to pull her away, thanking Larsa profusely through her tears, but Vayne's already got a hand on his brother's shoulder because more than a few people likely saw the spell he cast, and it would be better if they were moving /now/-

"You! Help me, here!"

A voice cuts through the commotion, authoritative and female, and Vayne is surprised to see some of the wounded being carried off in an fairly orderly fashion. The woman is tall, with dark hair and an oddly imperious grace, striding over to grab his hand, half-dragging him toward the next stretcher.

"Get moving. Quickly." She hisses, and Vayne realizes she's giving them an out, grabs for one end of the makeshift pallet as his brother takes the other, and within moments they are hurrying down a dark alley, following a line of stretchers out of sight of the rest of the crowd.

The building they reach is low and wide and as pieced together as any other in Old Archades, but well lit and surprisingly clean, as they make their way inside to where the other injured have been set down in neat rows. The woman comes last through the door, and by the time Vayne realizes she's quietly dismissing the rest of her staff, they are alone and she is closing up the windows, one by one. Larsa has already gone to the worst of the wounded, the green glow of magic visible even though Vayne is turned away, watching their unexpected rescuer closely. If she hadn't noticed anything before…

"You're very brave or very stupid to be waving around-"

The woman stops. Looks at him very closely, and swears quite vibrantly under her breath.

"What in hell are /you/ - you know what, no. Please don't tell me. I'm better off not knowing." She glances back, to where Larsa has moved on to the next patient, shakes her head again. Keeps a tangible distance from Vayne, as if he's holding something poisonous and ready to strike. "What do you want? You can't possibly… I don't have anything… there's nothing here. Nothing at all."

"We were only passing by. I was… attempting to give my brother a wider view of the world, when we saw the building collapse, and he felt the need to play hero." Larsa looks up at that, and Vayne doesn't bother hiding his displeasure, easier to feel anger than the aftershocks of real fear. Now he knows some of what Cid must have gone through, when his son felt the need to turn innocent airbikes into smoldering, high-speed shrapnel.

"You… you are leaving, then?" A hesitance in her tone, she's shifting her hands nervously, obviously concerned for her patients but not about to take her eyes off him. Vayne realizes what's struck him about her, the way she carries herself, the slight tilt of her chin. Maybe a half-dozen years older than he is, and Vayne searches for a name, a scandal.

"You are noble born. House Laeld? They had a daughter-"

He sees her flinch, and despite her reservations, she moves closer to him. Larsa is curious, but respects her privacy, continuing on with his work. It is quiet enough, those he has not already healed are content to watch him, perhaps some of the first real spellcraft they have seen in their lives.

"Yes. I was of that House, long ago. I shamed my family, and they… sent me away."

Even if he didn't know the story, Vayne could guess.

"Did the child survive?"

She squeezes her eyes shut, a moment of pain, and shakes her head. "It doesn't matter. I cannot go back."

"So you stay here, and heal." House Laeld is not much known in this age, despite how quick they were to cast one of their own out in disgrace. A drunken aunt, a middling politician of a great-uncle, and an heir who plays far too loosely, and poorly, at the gambling halls. "You are a credit to them, whether they acknowledge it or not. It is surely their loss."

Vayne has forgotten himself, that he is not anonymous here, that when he speaks to her it is not only in his own name, but as the Emperor's son, and though he cannot restore her title it is fully in his ability - with a few simple words - to restore her honor. Little surprise then, that she breaks down into fierce tears, waving away the cloth Larsa offers, and her smile, when it finally comes, is radiant.

The final few patients are sent on their way - Selista Laeld knows enough, Cure and Sleep and Esuana, to be of great value to the people, her people, when those she believed to love her had proved faithless. It is not possible to stay long, but Larsa speaks a little, of his ideas for improving life in Old Archades and how she might help him - and a new inspiration, possibly subsidizing some magics, white magics at least, for use in the low district. It does not take very long, for her to adore him as much as anyone ever does, curtseying low to both of them as one of her allies appears at the door, to ensure they get safely to the edge of the city.

Vayne has turned to go, when a hand tugs gently at his sleeve.

"The money." Larsa says. "You said I could help one person, to help all. Give it to her."

————————————————————————-

It is late, by the time they sneak past the night guard - harder to bribe than those in the daytime, and it's just easier to scale the walls and pull Larsa up behind him, making their way back into the sections of the low city that still seem like palaces, compared to where they've been. Vayne tosses the scarf away, no longer caring if they're caught. Larsa is only just starting to blink a little wearily, all the events of the day finally catching up with him.

He is not nearly so tired, still shaking off the memory of the building, of losing sight of Larsa for what felt like an eternity, a gap in the universe. If he had misjudged, if he had hesitated or the spell had slipped or things had happened in any other fashion - it hardly bore considering, but that did not mean he could stop thinking about it.

Surely, by now there must be guards out searching. It does not encourage Vayne to hurry, and after a while they are standing at one of the balconies, overlooking the greater spread of Old Archades. It appears as if sky and earth have traded places, the lights of Archades blotting out the stars, spilling down constellations onto the world far below.

"It looks beautiful, from up here," Larsa says, and then, "you are angry at me, for what I chose to do."

He has to swallow, to keep his voice calm.

"You greatly underestimate your value to the Empire. What could we have done, had you been killed?"

"Me? But I am not the heir of the House." Larsa is looking at him, closely, but Vayne has a lifetime's worth of experience in giving nothing away, and he keeps his eyes to the horizon.

"We could go."

"Go?"

Walk away. Right now. Keep walking. Steal an airship. Find a boat. Cut his hair, dye it blonde. Take up fishing. Live as one of those distant strangers, to whom the movements of the Empire were as meaningless as clouds drifting past the horizon. Cid would forgive him, he would understand.

Larsa is quiet, for a long moment. "It's going to be war, isn't it."

Vayne hasn't officially been informed yet, just what their plans are, not that it could tell him any more than he already knows.

"We will drive them to their great fortress, and hit it with all our power. Dalmasca won't have it in them to continue the fight."

Rasler is a proud new king, but he will surely treat with them after such a defeat. Endure the humiliation of an occupation, rather than risk losing his new wife to Archadian fury.

"A cruelty for a kindness, then."

Vayne shakes his head. "That is giving it far too much justice."

"If you spoke with Father…"

Oh, that he could be the man Larsa believes him to be. "It is well beyond that, now. Too many stand to gain too much, to let this opportunity go by. If we do not move, and Rozarria does, we leave ourselves in a dangerous position. It is not the best of all possible worlds, there are surely few who would see it as such, but… everyone compromises."

"Even you?"

"Even me."

He can feel it, when Larsa steps up beside him. Allows himself one more moment of the impossible dream, of taking his brother away from this life, from what it might very well do to him, despite all of Vayne's intentions; the endless grind of Archadian politics, the hell of lesser evils.

"All that you have shown me today… I am privileged, beyond what I have any right to. I have been gifted with great opportunity - and even if it cannot be fixed in a single day, or even in a lifetime - it is my obligation to do what I can, to help who I can, even when there is no perfect answer. I am a Solidor, my life is lived in service to the people. You wanted me to see the whole of what that meant, to understand it, at least in some small part. I am very much in your debt, brother."

"We are family. All that I have is yours." So nice, to bury so much truth beneath a formal flourish, that Larsa thinks nothing of it. "However, if you do happen to have a extra chop, it will spare us a few more hours of climbing hedges."

—————————————————-

"Hell no. You can just keep on walking, the both of you."

His brother does not have a chop, but they're close enough to the palace that Vayne assumes simply being himself will be enough to commandeer a simple ride. The driver recognizes him well enough as a noble, though it does not seem to be a mark in his favor.

"How many times you think I've had to do this? Some young rich boys go down to the slums for a thrill, get themselves tossed to the gutter, and expect me to pity them?! The minute I get you to your door, I know what'll happen - it gets closed in my face, and I'm out the cost of a ride!" A second look at Larsa, a disgusted shake of his head. "… and you, look at you, far too young to start such terrible habits." Back to Vayne, before Larsa can properly protest. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, getting him into this."

"Indeed I am." Vayne says, trying for contriteness, though he's had better luck convincing a room full of officials of his remorse than one annoyed driver.

"Oi, Jonti, what you got there?"

A second cab draws up next to the first, the driver quickly stepping out. Fresh gossip was by far the best.

"Just a couple of lords who think my time is theirs for the asking, and for free - and don't think I'm afraid of your brothers or fathers or whatever you think you can throw at me. Someone's got to tell you young men when enough is enough."

The second driver looks at Vayne, down to Larsa, back to Vayne - and goes white.

"Jonti."

Barely a whisper, not nearly enough to break through the continuing tirade, a simple matter of respect and does he know how much it costs to keep a cab in the air and what a missing chop can do to him back at the office. Of course not, nobles never work a day in their life, and his friend's eyes are going wider and wider, frozen in horror with one hand twitching rather frantically at his side. Vayne is fighting the smile when the man finally leaps for his friend, mid-admonishment, with what is practically a choke hold, whispering frantically in his ear. Vayne sees the driver stop, annoyance and indignant rage draining from him as if a cork had been pulled, and before he can say anything, both of them are on a knee, bowing low, eyes to the ground.

"I am sorry, my liege. Please… please forgive me. I didn't… by the /gods/, I swear I did not recognize-"

"It's all right. Please, don't worry yourself unduly. We are hardly in proper attire, and did not intend to cause such discord. I was certainly asking for no small favor."

The man stands straight up, practically at attention and so quickly Vayne thinks he might just fall over. Certainly pale enough for it. His friend keeps his eyes on the ground, though he seems to be trying to do his best to peek, to see the fate of his comrade, if not his own.

"It would be an honor, sir. Of course it would. I'll be happy to take you and the young master anywhere you would like to go."

"We are very much obliged to you."

As the skycab descends toward the walkway leading to the palace, it is clear someone has announced their arrival. Judge Drace is waiting, along with a complement of guards, though she turns to dismiss them as Vayne and Larsa clear past the doors. If the driver would wait, Vayne would find someone to get him a chop, though it is clear the man believes his own execution is but moments away, and obviously wants nothing more than for Vayne to forget he was ever born. He has his foot on the pedal the instant he is bid goodnight, out of sight even before they have made it to the top of the very short set of stairs.

Larsa is hesitant. "We're going to get in trouble."
  
Vayne snorts. "/I'm/ going to get in trouble. You are an innocent bystander, hijacked by my evil and irresponsible ways. Plausible deniability is your best option."

"Plausible what?"

Before he can speak, the Judge has crossed the distance between them. A good thing, he's shaken his brother's moral outlook enough for one day.

"Lord Larsa. Lord Vayne. We have been looking for you. I…"

Drace is convention-bound, entirely unimaginative and full past the brim with courtly manners, but it does not take her more than a few moments to notice what they're wearing, and come to the crux of the conversation.

"You went into town without a guard?!" Vayne can feel her glaring at him from behind the helm. She wants very much, no doubt, to punch him in the face, has likely been wanting to do it for years. Vayne wonders if she dreams about it at night.

"Old Archades, actually."

He wishes he could see her face. The stunned, horrified silence is a truly beautiful thing.

"Oh come now, Drace, don't be cross." Vayne says, neither his expression or his tone making more than a fleeting acquaintance with apology. "You can hardly have an proper adventure if you bring nanny along."

Larsa throws him a small, disapproving look, reaching out to give the Judge's armored hand a reassuring pat. "My greatest apologies, Judge Drace. I did not mean to worry you. I shall endeavor not do so in the future."

"Not at all, my lord. The fault is mine, I should not have been so inattentive."

Quite fervently wants to punch him in the face. With the gauntlets on. It cannot possibly improve her mood, as he is bestowed with one of Larsa's brightest smiles, all boyish delight and mischief. It has been a grand adventure, and at the moment he is simply Vayne's little brother, and loves him best of anyone. He may respect his father with all due graces, may look with kindness on the whole of the court; Drace may be his closest guardian, perhaps the nearest he knows to a mother, but at the end of the day she is still only a soldier and Vayne is family, and no one will ever take that from him.

It is rather pathetic, how much he needs to know it.

"I ought go and order one of the stables prepared, I suppose" He says, eyes twinkling at the secret surprise of what will almost certainly be the most… interesting chocobo ever to wear royal colors, and bids goodnight to Drace. They both watch him go, pretending they are not. The simple street clothes really are no disguise at all - he is a prince, whether in jewels and silks or tattered rags and the dust of the slums.

"The Emperor would like a word." Drace says, almost certainly speaking through clenched teeth.

"Oh, yes. I imagine he does."

—————————————————-

Vayne does not often come to the Emperor's private chambers. The decorations, all thick drapes, leaded glass and heavy, golden ornaments seem to add far too much to the gravity in the room, dragging everything down, expecting him to bend. It is not a comfortable place, intended to intimidate - even here, where so few are ever allowed.

"Father, I…"

The slap stings, and the backhand that follows neatly splits his lip, one of the Emperor's rings striking true. It seems the old lion has some fire in him still. Vayne stops short, somewhat grateful for the sudden recall to reality. Spending time with Larsa often leaves him more optimistic than is wise. He knows this, though. It is where he belongs.

Gramis paces back and forth, glaring at him now and again, shaking his head. Furious, or at least ready to take up the part. Maybe, years ago, Vayne would have bothered with the role of the penitent, but it doesn't fit anymore, pulling too tight in too many places.

"Look at you. Just /look/! I was told what you had done. Hours ago, it was suggested - but I said no. No, I could not believe that even you could be this foolish."

He truly is a marvel. Any playhouse would be glad to have him. The lead role in a great tragedy, the wise old king undone by his spiteful curse of a son.

"You are a selfish, stupid child." The hand rises, cuts through the air, a sharp gesture, obviously fighting the temptation to strike him again. "What would have happened, had he been killed down there?"

"Larsa longs to know of the world. He needs to see the people he will one day rule."

"He can see them perfectly well from the damn balcony! I warn you, Vayne-"

He turns his back on his father, on the Emperor of all Archadia. Once, he would have never dreamed, would not have dared, and it still is not the wisest move, to provoke him in the midst of his anger, but Vayne is so tired of pretending to give a damn, simply because he knows what is the cunning move, what is the proper way to treachery. Weary of pretending the man is wise simply because he is old, of swearing fealty to a father simply because of blood ties, that there is the slightest chance of… anything, anymore.

"What will it be then, your Grace? Beheading? Or hang me whole from the ramparts for the birds?"

The great Emperor so angry, because the hands those rings decorate are old and gnarled, because he can see from here the fall of the curtain and the end of the act, the audience ready to applaud, and in this late hour Gramis has decided to rewrite the script, hurriedly rushing off a new draft as fast as he can manage it. He is fearful of the end, perhaps for its own sake, or for the judgment that may follow.

"Do not test me, boy. You know very well-"

"Yes. I believe I do."

If one does not like the ending, then change the villain. So foolish, that he'd ever imagined it might be any other way. Father and son regard each other for a long, silent moment. At least Vayne does. He has long since given up trying to see the world through the old man's eyes.

"It does not have to be like this, Vayne. I never wanted…"

"Oh, was I misinformed? Explain it to me, please."

This is the way it is now. Reconciliation, the sudden shift to pleading for peace and understanding even though Vayne can still taste the blood in his mouth. He has been everything his father has ever wanted, given all that has been asked of him, and if it were only his life at stake, who is to say he would not give him this as well? Yet it is not, and they both know it.

"Do you truly feel justified in what you do, let alone in how you choose to act?" Gramis shakes his head, as if such a thought is impossible. "You do not see it, Vayne. The Senators fear you, the Judges-"

"The Senate has never had a use for a Solidor, save as a target."

"You provoke them! You revel in it! Encouraging their ill opinion, spending all your time with that deranged lunatic, secreted away-"

"Cidolfus Bunansa is going to win your precious war for you, my lord. Anything we have to wield against Rozarria, not to mention what we can do for our own people, all of it now comes from Draklor. Should they not be rewarded for their loyal service? You may not choose to observe it, but I do believe they sweat well for their coin, even so 'secreted away.'"

"… and now this!" His father charges on without pause, though perhaps he did take note, a scornful flash in his eye as Vayne dared to mention loyalty. "Pointlessly endangering the life of your own brother! Judge Drace has made her displeasure known, and though I did not wish to see it-"

Here it is, then. Larsa is all goodness and kindness and mercy, yet even he is only capable of absolving one of them in the end. Vayne should have seen it sooner, the clock ticking down long before his father's vague disinterest shifted into a curious appraisal, and finally the keen desire to take Larsa's growing popularity as his own final victory, casting off the fallen son in praise of his newfound, unspoiled child.

Vayne can still hear his brother's dying words, ever clear down through the years - at a time, all of them were the favorite son. Shaped into whatever purpose was most useful at the time, discarded when they became an unwanted reminder of an unwelcome past.

"-will not have you come to treat him as you have dared to treat me."

Quite a few members of the court exist in their own small, self-constructed worlds. Manufactured intrigues, wholly imaginary views of their own destinies and the forces at work against them. Vayne wishes he had the knack for it. Surely there are things he would rather justify, pass off as random, as necessities of fate. It seems to do no good to feel the whole of it like this, does not make things easier. His father stands but feet away and yet Vayne will never reach him.

"You make a great mistake, considering yourself untouchable, Vayne." Back to being the loathsome upstart, he can see it in the old man's eyes. Vayne wonders if it keeps the Emperor up at night, staring fretfully into the shadows while searching for ways to rid Ivalice of yet another treacherous heir. He might have done it already, but now he has the equal obsession of keeping his hands clean, as if the gods might not look too closely on the way to paradise if only he is properly clever now. "Your brother's popularity grows by the day, despite your efforts to ruin him. The people will cast their votes where they will, and should I choose to put my favor elsewhere…"

It is a technicality, the vote, two-hundred years of Solidor rule and everyone knows this. His father is play-acting at strength and Vayne is responding in kind, the only language shared between them and it is so very wearying, to give his all for a battle he does not even intend to win.

"What is it that you cannot bear to see, father? That Larsa loves me more, or that he loves me at all?"

Trained for this, his whole life, so that he sees only weaknesses, vulnerabilities and how best to exploit them, and his father cannot hide what he is, what he regrets or what he fears. The flawed man beneath the trappings of an Emperor, grasping for any glimpse of salvation. Perhaps in the end, that is all there needs be. Vayne is too old, and they know each other too well.

"Get out."

He bows. Decorum was invented just for moments such as these.

"I am as ever, your obdient son."

The anger burns in his father's eyes, all the more brightly for his age, his infirmity. "You are a viper, Vayne, and you will never take the throne."

Strangers on an empty stage, and perhaps there is not even an audience in the darkness, no one waiting for the performance to end. The thought seems almost too cruel to bear.

"And you are a sad, old fool."

It is the last time Vayne will speak with his father in private. Save one.