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just a man failing to reappear

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In their eighteenth year, those who are to wear Dalmasca's crown, the blood heirs to the Dynast-King's legacy, are taken in secret, in silence by the ruler they will one day replace, to the tomb of King Raithwall himself. Escorted along its passages, deep down into what is as much palace as crypt, built to honor the legacy of the greatest lord of perfect peace that Ivalice has ever known.

At the heart of this sacred place lies the Dawn Shard. The ancient relic granted to Dalmasca's heirs, to the Dynast-King's lineage. A weapon of immeasurable power, proof of the right to rule, proof of Raithwall's wisdom and mercy.

In their eighteenth year, each future king or queen takes up the Dawn Shard.

And learns the truth.

——————————————————-

It is so quiet. Were it any other night, Raminas would already be asleep. Or relaxing at his desk, finishing up some minor piece of business, reading from one or another of his favorite books. He has always been an old man, even in his youth a quiet kind of prince, prone to few fits of passion. A bit dull, perhaps, but if he had not been charismatic then at least he had been careful, and attentive, and his people had seemed pleased with his service.

In the end, it had simply not been enough.

A kindness, that few scribes of history ever see fit to imagine the fears of a king. However he will be remembered, as martyr or traitor or villain - perhaps ineffectual to the last - at least there will be none to mark the fact that he has never been all that brave. Raminas is frightened, and unsure, and even at this late hour, even as king and father he is still simply a man trembling in the pull of destiny.

Nabudis is gone. He knows how, though the why… an intended strike, or an accident? The plague hit Dalmasca hard, harder than Nabradia, and took so many of those brave soldiers who may have been able to defend her. If it had not… who knows? Perhaps it would have been Rabanastre with its people rendered less than dust.

If the Empire is truly so far gone, for such a pre-emptive, brutal attack, does any hope remain? Or is it his country's destiny to meet its end between two titans, splintered to pieces as they lock swords and battle to the finish?

Raminas runs his hands slowly along the smooth, sculpted stone of the windowsill, a beautiful swirl of rich, plum shades, the air perfumed with jasmine and desert olive from the gardens outside. He can remember standing here as a child, as a young man, with all the days of his life ahead of him. So many years, so much love and joy and pain. Struggle and uncertainty, even though his reign had been a quiet one, as such things went - he was a good king, wasn't he? It was peace, for as long as possible he had worked for peace.

Gods, but he will miss his life.

He moves around his room like a man in a dream, touching the back of a chair, a cabinet, picking up a small paperweight - a droplet of glass, blue flowers frozen inside - as if he had never truly seen it before. Raminas breathes, and every breath brings him closer to what seems now some predetermined end, each one a countdown and that is a frightening thought indeed. Near the far window, he undoes a latch on a brass cage with the barest whisper of a sound, letting the small, white birds inside fly out the window, into the gardens. Free.

He will surrender. He will give Archades everything, open the gates, kneel and lay tribute at their feet. No airship barrages, to blast through the walls that still echo with the sound of his daughter's young footsteps, no great armies to tear down the trees where he used to sit and listen to his mother sing. It will stand unharmed, the fountain where he kissed his wife for the first time. Did she love him? He thought they might have come close, over time, never quite a true and perfect romance, but maybe...

Does she know what he must do? Is she waiting for him, even now?

A small brazier warms the corner of the room, and one by one, he slowly burns the missives from Rozarria. Each one more fervent than the last, since the destruction of Nabudis. All but demanding his assistance, that he give up the Dusk Shard, that he retrieve the Dawn Shard - that this battle can be fought and won if only he would /act/. Yes, it is a limited weapon - one strike, two at the most, yet placed at the heart of the Empire it would be a crippling blow, and Rozarria would be quick to take their advantage. War would never reach Dalmasca's borders - Nabradia could be reclaimed, restored.

Heaven help him, that he's considered it. Long nights spent, knowing where such a thing must lead, and still, even now…

After Rasler's death, they challenged his heartlessness rather than his cowardice. How dare he stand by and let Nabradia's heir fall so gallantly in battle - his daughter's husband, long betrothed - and do nothing? Does he intend to let the Archadians simply walk in and take everything? Does he have no pride?

Raminas burns those letters too, watching the paper blacken, bits of ash rising in the heat haze. Ashelia will never forgive him, he is well aware, for not saving her husband or her land or her people. She will never forgive him and she will never understand just why he has betrayed them all.

It is all that matters, that she never understand.

He had wanted it to be his grandchild, Ashelia and Rasler's heir to take the journey down into the tomb. A grandson, perhaps, strong and brave and prepared for such a burden. A selfish, foolish notion, to spare his daughter - Ashe, his precious child, his world - and now with her husband dead there is no choice. Wrapped in mourning robes, wandering the halls at late hours in silent misery, lost to comfort or consolation with the enemy at their gates. If she were to know the truth now…

It has been their sin to bear for centuries, the nightmares of his father, and his father's father. If this is to be the end of Dalmasca, of the land of the Dynast-King, then by the gods let that grief die as well. He has kept it from her, against his vows Raminas has sworn himself to secrecy - he will /never/ let this be his daughter's sin to bear. Let them kill him a thousand times and let every citizen of Dalmasca spit on his mangled bones, they will not have her.

He burns the single letter from Ondore, a simple missive of condolence on the surface, for the loss of a son-in-law, but coded with urgency, pleading with him to side with Rozarria, to see reason, to take up arms. It must be Archadian blood or the blood of his own people shed, even if he surrenders there is no reason to believe in mercy from the Empire - and still, he chooses to side with the enemy? Ondore is too clever to call him traitor to his own throne, yet the implication is there. The suggestion that Bhujerba is willing to commit to rebellion if Raminas provides his support, and if it is not enough, if even the Dawn Shard and the Dusk Shard cannot halt the Empire's thirst for conquest -

Raminas shudders. Oh, such shadows in the hearts of men, and Ondore has been friend and ally as long as any he has known. He cannot even spirit the Dusk Shard to safety, there is no one he can trust.

Perhaps it is right, though, that it remain within the palace. A spiteful, ugly part of him hopes very much that the Empire will find it, and more - that the great houses of Arcahdes would get their dearest wish for power and choke on it. Let them be so greedy, to find the Sun-Cryst itself - let them discover it and let it crush them beneath its weight for the next age. See if they can so easily bear the burden.

//You are troubled, oh great king. Why do you sigh so? Why do you mourn?//

The last of the letters crumbles to gray and black powder in the bottom of the brazier, and Raminas pokes absently at the ashes, stirring a few small, red-gold embers. He does not look up. He does not need to.

"I had thought you would come earlier."

Smooth and confident voices in the darkness, ever watching. Touch the Dawn Shard and learn, and the ageless undying will speak of what is past, and what ought be, and obligation and birthright and power, always power. It is to the young the Occuria present their strongest arguments - after ten years of ignoring them, they barely bothered him at all. It is only now, as Rozarria roars and Archadia presses its advantage, that they have come again to petition him yet again.

//Dynast-Lord, why have you not called for us? We are here to help you. We are your servants, treaty-bound.//

Of course they could help him. Raminas might even fool himself into believing it is necessary, that he has no choice. Doubtful, that they would render up the treaty blade at this late hour - and even if it were his grasp, he could not trust himself. He cannot stand alone with the Sun-Cryst, and all that he knows, and all that might be, and still be sure that he could destroy it.

//Take what is rightly yours. You will stand in glory, evermore. Your people will praise your name, and Dalmasca shall rule justly over all, once again. As it ought be.//

Raminas hears the light, childish giggle from the hall - and he ought know better than to look. The Occuria are pressing their advantage, he is a frightened old man, and no one in Dalmasca will praise him for his choice. He will go to his death as a traitor to his people, and even they will not know the whole of it.

So now he is given this gift, a vision of the world where he has chosen victory. A child, his granddaughter - another, his grandson, and yet another. A long procession of heirs in the false daylight of this beautiful dream, parading down the hall, the youngest unable to keep straight and solemn, admonished by their elder siblings - he can see himself in them, see all the great kings of Dalmasca.

His daughter steps into view, Ashelia reborn, resplendent in fine silks, in jewels and gold - she is a Queen, of a nation that stands at the head of the world. No one to oppose her, none who do not bow to her, and free to have chosen a new consort, to find love again. Smiling brightly - Raminas has not seen her smile since Nalbina fell.

He could be here. It could be this world, now. All that he wants, all that is fair and just and right. The Empire is greedy and base, and why not punish them for their hubris? He has been a good ruler, a good man. Such victory is no less than he deserves.

As if there are not men in Archades, who love their daughters too. As if he does not know the cost of paradise.

"You know I will not seek the Sun-Cryst, yet it end the line of Dalmasca. The vows I made were never to you."

The future vanishes like a snuffed flame, and the world is dark around him, and the shadows have eyes.

//You will reject us, and prove yourself a false king? When we offer the only path to your salvation?//

"At a price no one has the right to pay. It was wrong, e'er to use the Sun-Cryst's might. It was unforgivable, and if this is how we must be free of it - of you, at last…"

//You will lose all that you have ever known. Dalmasca will fall, and perish, and be forgotten.//

"Surely, you of all have seen great empires rise, diminish and disappear. The fate of all, even those that may conquer us today. It is not folly, to believe anything will last forever?"

Raminas knows what he is saying, and knows as they do, that if Ashelia never touches the Shard, then any memory of their existence will likely vanish forever into oblivion, old tales rendered more myth than history. The Occuria may be as gods - undying, eternal - yet they will be consigned only to watch, helpless and unremembered as the future leaves them behind.

//Your daughter will be torn to pieces by Archadian wolves. Imagine how they will ravage her. Imagine how she will scream.//

It is a very low blow, intended only to hurt, and gods how it does. Raminas cannot move from the pain of such a thought, jaw locked and forcing himself to breathe. No. /No/. He will get her out. He will make her safe.

"You will never have my daughter. It ends with me. All of this will end with me."

//Your delusions do you little justice, oh wise king.// Disdain in that unearthly voice, divine judgement that finds him wholly lacking. //As you say, the world is an ever-changing place. If Lady Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca should one day seek our guidance, to put right what her father had not the courage to see through, we shall be certain to give her our… full attention.//

Less than a whisper, a shudder in the air, and he is alone again, with only the echo of his footsteps against the stones for solace.

——————————————————

"My king."

He does not feel so much calm as numb, which is good enough and will appear as bravery, for as long as this will take. Raminas goes with an honor guard, to sign the official surrender at the fortress at Nalbina, where his son-in-law died, along with countless brave Nabradians, Dalmascans, and any hope for their sovereignty. Still, there are many among his advisors who are willing to rally, though Rozarria commits to nothing. Of course, it is only in their favor to wait, to attack Archades after it has depleted its stores by reducing Rabanastre to rubble.

Let another land live on in legend, as the symbol of grand defiance. Let proud Bhujerba fly targets from its flagpoles, and demand death before dishonor. Raminas cannot do it. He will not.

"Highness, I beg you to reconsider."

Vossler is wise and battle-tested, a loyal knight to Dalmasca and its king. It is what makes him nervous here in the darkness, sitting astride a chocobo with Ashelia fast asleep, bundled tightly in his arms. The desert night has grown cold, the beast's breath steaming in the air. Vossler knows what Raminas has said he will do, but he has a soldier's instincts, and what he sees of the field makes him rightly uneasy.

"Sire, Nalbina is unfriendly ground and the Empire has all advantage. If you must sign such a treaty, at least let that be on our terms. I know it is not my place, but I must advise against this. If you would but let me come with you-"

"You have a far greater duty this night, than watching me sign our country away."

Ashelia keeps to her rooms these days, barely eats - his gentle daughter has grown cold and brittle, a flower frozen solid in a sudden frost. Vossler himself does not realize he is the only one who knows she is being spirited away, that she will sleep the whole of the long journey, and wake far from here, safe and protected with the knight's closest friends. Vossler has been told it is only until the treaty is signed, until Raminas has returned - yet a part of him must suspect there is more.

A small set of steps has been built near the wall, to help with reaching the saddle, and Raminas takes them up, so that he may look down now at his daughter's face, as he has done so often in the past. As a girl, she had fallen suddenly, dangerously ill, and he remembers long hours at her bedside, watching her toss and turn, helpless to act. As pale and drawn now as she was then, so weary even in sleep. Raminas would have spared her any suffering, would have done anything to take her pain as his own and yet again, he has failed utterly to do so. He dares not even send a note with her, some letter to explain on awakening - the less she knows, the better. It has broken her, this war, and he knows not what she will do with her life from this point on, only that it will be as far from the Empire and their machinations as he can make it so.

Tomorrow morning, they will announce her suicide. A fire spell, a death of protest and great outrage and, most importantly, one that leaves no body behind.

"My liege-"

"Enough, Vossler. Enough. All will be well, if you will fulfill your duties to your king and country, and to my daughter. My faith is with you."

The knight swallows, fighting against his own fealty. "Is there anything… that you wish me to tell Her Highness?"

Raminas does not want to leave her. He wished for none of this. It is killing him, his soul torn in two, to do what he must. He wants to be more certain than he is. He does not want to be the one to choose this path. He is afraid.

"Tell her it is no betrayal, to her husband or her father, to smile. To live. Tell her that I love her, and that no matter the distance, I will always be with her. That I will see her soon - it is not so far to Nalbina."

The knight shuts his eyes, almost a wince. He knows.

"My faith is with you, Vossler. All will be well."

"My king."

A nod of his head, the closest he can manage to a salute with the precious burden in his arms, and then Vossler is away, disappearing into the night and taking Raminas' heart with him.

There is very little left to do.

———————————————————

Raminas has done his best, to endanger as few as possible in his final act as Dalmasca's king. He takes but a skeleton crew, those among his knights who would never allow him to leave them behind.

It is somewhat painful then, to arrive at the Fortress and find more than the Imperial guard sent to meet them. It is not quite an army, the collection of Nabradians and Dalmascans assembled near the fortress, a loose sort of border guard, and most importantly, all looking for a fight. Ostensibly here in support and defense of his kingdom, but the eyes that gaze upon Raminas are full of judgment, disappointment, perhaps even hatred. Already aware of what he is here to do, and so he does not bother trying to speak to them, certain it can only do as much harm as good.

Raminas lifts a hand at the entrance, stepping away from the last of his allies.

"I shall continue on in the company of our hosts. Wait for me in the airship."

Basch, loyal to the end, moves to follow. "Highness, I would recommend-"

"That is an order, captain."

The closest Raminas has come to sounding like a king in months, he thinks. The man salutes, everything else he wants to say kept quietly behind his eyes. The Archadians keep themselves secreted behind full suits of armor, faceless and distant. If he was not past the time for plans and hopes and fears, it would be rather intimidating. All of that, though, is over and done with, and he can instead look about him in quiet contemplation, Nalbina still carrying the smell of battle even with bodies gone and the blood washed away. The damage is extensive, walls half-crumbled and wreckage strewn to mark the epicenter of the cannon fire, scorch marks of spells cast all across the stones. Raminas wonders where Rassler fell, finds himself looking, as if there would be any way to discover it.

He is led for too long a distance to a well-secluded room, and the soldier bows, and the door is shut behind him. At least they have abandoned all pretense here, no need to keep up appearances. The hall is long and dark and mostly empty. A chair, a table, and the treaty.

Raminas sits down, slowly, heavily. The easiest part of all of this, to sign away his kingdom with a single stroke of the pen, his seal in the wax. So silent here, far enough inside the fortress that anything might be happening outside. He can guess, and hopes there will be as little bloodshed as possible, though it seems unlikely to be so.

He does not even hear the man enter, from some hidden door behind him. Simply there, a few feet away, as if he had always been.

"So, this is Archadia's executioner." He looks quite young in the dim light, holds himself tall and proud. Raminas knows him, though this is the first time he has seen one of his enemy face-to-face. Vayne Solidor, the emperor's eldest child and heir. "I suppose it is an honor. I did not expect you would tend to such a matter yourself."

Nothing arrogant, no coiled violence or smirking malice in his expression. Raminas has heard tales of House Solidor, of ruthlessness, of cruelty and horror and vice. It is said that the man before him murdered his two brothers, to put himself in line for the throne. It does not seem a match to his mood - so quiet, with a thoughtful, distant gaze.

"I find it easier to sleep at night, when I do not delegate my sins to other men." Vayne reaches for the treaty, glancing up at him and then back down at the paper in his hand. Surprised, perhaps, though Raminas cannot imagine what use there would be in fighting now. "You have signed it."

"It is why we are here, is it not?"

"So they say." Vayne tucks it into an inner pocket of his coat. "Where is the Lady Ashelia?"

The lights at the far side of the room blur, and waver slightly. A shame there is no window here. Raminas had looked long into the night sky, one last glimpse before stepping into the fortress, though it had been too brightly lit for stars.

"Dead. My daughter was slain by her own hand, as I made to journey here."

"Doubtful."

Raminas glares back.

"It is not enough, the despair of a husband killed in battle, and her kingdom fallen? The shame of a father too old and too cowardly to fight?"

A slight smile, then. It is very nearly gentle. "If there is shame in choosing concession over suicide, the gods judge us all too harshly." He has old, old eyes, this Imperial prince. He has not come to gloat. This is barely a victory. "Tell me where the Sun-Cryst is, your highness, and I swear on my life that you and your daughter will not be harmed. You may return home, to tend to your people much as you did before. You know as well as I do, the Empire has little interest in ruling Dalmasca."

Yes, of course. What else is there? Raminas is not himself, not even his title - he is simply the mouthpiece for greater secrets. The greatest secret in all Ivalice.

"… and what would you do, were you to find it? Present it to your father? Keep it for your own? What is it that you so desire, that you do not already posses?"

"I will destroy it."

"Now it is my turn to doubt." And he knows, Raminas knows that they all - Rozarria, Bhujerba and Archadia alike - believe he keeps it from them purely out of fear or spite. They have no idea how much larger this is, than one war, than one country, or any moment in time - not even this great conflict, with Dalmasca itself in the balance. A weapon forged is as good as a weapon used, and it must never, /never/ be used, and they do not understand and he cannot make them understand. Raminas swallows hard, feels the chill rising in his throat. He is out of time. "You cannot imagine what you ask of me. What it is that you seek."

"Why did you not wield its power? You could have prevented this."

Raminas smiles sadly, shakes his head. Of all those he owes answers to, Archades is the least of these.

It is almost regret, in Solidor's eyes. Do the sons of Emperors feel such things? "If you do not relinquish the stone, you will not leave this room alive."

Raminas leans forward, and sets the small, empty phial on the corner of the table.

"No. I will not."

Some small satisfaction, in seeing the moment of surprise on Vayne's face - yes, he has failed in all else, but he is yet brave enough for this. A slow-acting but capable poison, beyond the aid of any spell or remedy, taken before he'd ever come to this room. Raminas will not have his country held hostage, for what he cannot surrender. This is the final price, his vow as Raithwall's heir, as the world begins to dim, as each breath comes with greater effort.

"Be gentle to my people, Imperial, if there is any grace in you. See Rabinastre with… with your own eyes, and judge her kindly. I pray you.. be merciful."

Vayne has crossed the distance between them, down on one knee, hands on the arms of his chair. His voice is urgent - he knows he is already too late.

"Where is the Sun-Cryst? /Where/?!"

Raminas shakes his head, surprised at himself, wonders if it is nobility or foolishness. Here at the end of things, and he cannot pass on that sin, not even to this, his well-deserving enemy. "Do not pursue it. It is no power, only folly and… heartbreak past enduring. Let it die, son of Archades. Leave it sleeping. Let it fade."

Ashelia, daughter, be brave. Ancestors, great kings, forgive him. He tried.

He tried.

——————————————————————

Ideally, Vayne would have ended this with the Sun-Cryst in his possession, and a living king and any number of possible options, his father and his father's plans be damned. If not that, then at least the king in hand, to lean on the daughter and force her to give up the stone - she is not dead, without the body in front of him Vayne will never believe it - and yet he had prepared this contingency, hadn't he? Planned it all the way through, for just such an outcome, neither stone nor king nor heir in his grasp, only a feigned conspiracy that will absolve the Empire of any blame, and a way to rein in both Ondore and the late princess, should she decide to resurrect herself.

Foolish, to think Raminas could imagine he wanted the Sun-Cryst for any other reason than its power, when Vayne himself does not know if he can destroy it. Who is to say? If it secured peace for Raithwall's long reign, it seems insanity to relinquish it, even if it means challenging the Occuria and their hold - and yet the man before him was Raithwall's own heir, their chosen vessel - and he preferred to be corpse than Dynast-King.

By the gods, /why/? It is not a question Vayne is comfortable leaving unanswered, yet at the moment, there is no further use in asking.

He sighs, and reaches out. Gently passes a hand over the old man's eyes, closing them for the final time. The sum of such a life, to end it here alone among his enemies, having signed away both home and sovereignty. What hope is there for anyone, when this is what the world bequeaths its kings?

"I have taken much from you, and now I must go one step further." Vayne says softly, loosing the dagger from its sheath. "Forgive me this final desecration."

He plunges the knife into the body, the necessary evidence, just as the door behind him swings open, clanging hard off the wall. It is a furious fight that spills into the room, by now the forces of Dalmasca that had gathered in front of the fortress well-roused by rumors of treachery, contradictory rumors that Raminas has signed the treaty, that he has refused, that agents for rebellion seek to kill him, that the Archadians surely will - and this confusion is clear on the face of the Dalmascan soldier that turns to see the fallen king, just before a familiar blade cuts him down from behind.

Gabranth fights like a demon, always. His swords cannot fly fast enough, he cannot bring them down with enough force no matter who the enemy may be. He is a man searching - like so many - for a home, for a reason to keep fighting, a cause to serve. Vayne knows of the fall of Landis, the invalid mother, the brother who abandoned them. Gabranth yearns for a patriot's fanaticism, that he can give himself over to it, that it might yet replace what has been lost, the family that anchored him, the truths that crumbled even as he clung to them. Serving the Empire isn't enough, though he is trying, loyal to House Solidor only because of what he would have to face in himself, to break that trust now. Quite clearly, he does not wish for war or conquest, it is not what drives him. He wants to defend, to protect. He needs to be needed.

Impossible to find a better guardian for his brother, then, even if Vayne could cast one straight from the forge. Gabranth believes he is ruthless, perhaps at some level even thinks he is a traitor, for joining with the Empire. Somehow not as pure as his brother, and thus left behind on purpose, unfit for those greater ideals even as he despises them. It is easy to take pride in surviving, and yet loathe it at the same time. Hate is a complicated machine, Vayne knows that full well - just as he knows that Larsa is sublimely uncomplicated, that Gabranth could do naught else but protect him. It is doubtful the Judge lasted a full five minutes against his brother's charms, that perfect combination of nobility and kindness and all the vulnerability it entails.

Vayne needs him as Judge Magister, as autonomous as possible and secure at his brother's side. Drace will hesitate, should the Senate move, her nature to seek the moderate path, balking at bloodshed. Gabranth will have no such qualms, Vayne is sure of it. He is guaranteed the position now, payment for services rendered, as long as he does not fail in this rather delicate task.

The last of the soldiers falls, easily dispatched. Gabranth pulls his helm off, lets it drop to the ground, and looks past Vayne for a moment, to where the king's body is slumped in the chair. No doubt the Judge believes he did the deed, and it may as well be true. Enough blood on his hands, one king more is neither here nor there.

"Basch is here. On his way right to us. The fool."

The last words spat out. Gabranth is angrier than he looks, stripping out of his armor, the uniform of the Dalmascan guard underneath. An absurd contingency plan, the stuff of poor, second-rate theatre. It never should have come to this.

"Any second thoughts?"

Hard eyes meet his own. It is amusing, both that Gabranth thinks he is hiding his distaste for Vayne, or that he believes it matters. "I am no traitor."

Ah, unintentional irony. What other reason to bother getting up in the morning? A shame it seems to go right over Gabranth's head. He is lost in the past, perhaps looking forward to this reunion, perhaps dreading it. Hate is complicated, especially when it involves family.

"I shall await my cue then, Basch fon Rosenberg."

As much time as he spends in the shadows, Vayne is not much comfortable there. It gets tedious, and complicated, and he stands ever in danger of losing sight of the goal, or why it even matters. He has seen so much, so many lives that seem to thrive or crumble on fortune's whims. Great plans, pondered at length by the most prudent of men, that fail within moments of their execution. The rise and fall of Senators, desperate acts by noble souls, good men turned to the blackest of sinners in pursuit of what seem to be, in the end, no more than the most fragile and transient of illusions.

So many will die tonight, so much time and effort and deception over a piece of land Archades may not even deign to keep.

The old king's body, slumped in the chair as Vayne passes by, abandoned by a spirit that might linger still, troubled by choices made in life and fearful for the future of his people. He is right to be, this is not over, and even Vayne cannot be certain of the final outcome.

Perhaps this is it, though. All there is after all the struggles of a lifetime, the simple inevitably of ending as a body on the floor or - if he is truly cunning and cutthroat to the last - to be the one to die in the chair.

A shout, a struggle just past the door, Gabranth's trap snapping shut on a wholly unsuspecting brother. He does not listen too closely, the few words between them are surely personal business, before what is either the sound of Gabranth's fist or his knee driven hard in his brother's gut, a second blow sending him to the floor.

Vayne reaches out, takes the small vial from the corner of the table, slips it into a pocket. Of little consequence now, but it is impossible to be overcautious. He pauses again, looks at Raminas' body in profile, listening to Gabranth's captured brother struggle, breath hissing against the stones.

In spite of all he knows, or perhaps because of it, Vayne would like very much to believe in a better fate. Not forever and always a world of futile grasping, of restless, hopeless ghosts. Beyond this world, that there might be a place where no soul is left uneasy.

At the end of all things, that the spirits of men may gather, and laugh together, at how much it all seemed to matter at the time.