The morning of Ashe's coronation dawned bright and clear, and with an uninvited guest in her parlor. Or-- he had, she supposed, been invited to attend the ceremony. Not to break into her private chambers. She stopped dead in the doorway to her bedroom and wrapped her robe more closely about her shoulders. "I did not expect you."
"And rightly so, as I never sent word that I would attend." Balthier unfolded himself from the chair in which he sat, legs tossed casually over one arm, his elbow resting on the other. "Affairs of state are not my preferred environment."
Ashe inclined her head in understanding. "And yet, here you are."
"Only to pay my respects," he said, getting to his feet. "I could not allow such an important day to pass unremarked."
"I'm glad," she replied. "I have been pleased to see you alive and well, after the Bahamut."
He quirked his eyebrow. "You had any doubts? I told you myself: the leading man never dies."
Ashe sighed and shook her head. "And yet no one starts reading a tale, then waits easily when the end takes nigh upon a year to present itself."
Balthier chuckled. "Apologies, princess. I won't keep you in such suspense again."
"Best not," Ashe said. She took a step closer to him, then paused. He was here, in her chambers, a welcome sight despite the intrusion, but an inconvenient one as well. "You will not stay for the ceremony?"
"Alas, few other guests would be made comfortable by my presence tonight, and I would not have you begin your formal reign in such a circumstance. That said, should you ever require an event to become uncomfortable..." He cocked his head to the side, and his smile spread wider. "Perhaps my formal attendance could be arranged."
Ashe laughed. "A fine offer. You understand I am unlikely to take you up on it."
"Of course." Balthier made a formal bow, then met her gaze, eyes twinkling. "And yet it is made, freely and with heartfelt intent. If you need me, call." They stood within arm's reach, now; Ashe extended her hand, and he linked their fingertips, then placed a courtly kiss on the back. "Until then, your highness."
And then he pulled away, backing through the doorway onto the balcony as Ashe turned away, stroking the back of her hand with the opposite thumb, preserving his touch, not watching him go.
"Your majesty, a word?"
The council meeting was breaking up, lords and generals and advisors slowly filing out of the chamber. Ashe looked up from the pile of treaties at the head of the table to see Lord Renton Azelas -- Vossler's older brother, who had recently inherited the seat after the death of his elderly father -- standing before her, a pile of papers in his arms. "Go ahead," she replied.
Azelas inclined his head. "I do not wish to incite another argument about marriage and the succession. Not after our most recent debate on the topic. I am well aware of your feelings on the subject, and I would not jeopardize our hard-fought truce."
Ashe forcibly restrained herself from sighing and rolling her eyes. Of all her counsellors, Lord Azelas was the most persistent on this topic. The fact that he had a twenty-year old son, as yet unbetrothed, had no bearing on his interest, she was certain. "And yet you persist on bringing it up, well before the date we chose to reopen negotiations."
"I am simply here to discuss a point of political etiquette. Your majesty, you simply must stop coming to official social events without an escort." Azelas shook his head with a sad cluck of his tongue. "People have been talking, you see, the gossip less flattering with every passing month. No longer do they content themselves with the explanation that you simply do not wish to marry. It is becoming quite the scandal, and you are setting yourself up for a fall." He set the sheaf of papers in front of her, then fanned them out as though they were a grotesque deck of cards. "These are four marriage contracts that your council have deemed worthy. At the least, you could meet with the men, bring them to affairs as your official companions in turn. You could at least appear to consider their offers."
"Sir, you must understand, I cannot. It would raise false hopes and cause unnecessary provocation." Ashe closed her eyes as she leaned back in her chair. "I grow weary of this conversation."
"With all respect, your majesty, the only way to stop having this conversation is to marry." Lord Azelas crossed his arms. "Contrary to your current beliefs, it is not a decision that can be put off forever. The production of heirs..."
"Enough!" Ashe threw up her arms, then slammed them on the table. "Need I progress from hints to direct orders? The subject, for now, is closed." She lifted a hand and pointed out the door. "Now go."
Lord Azelas bowed his head and backed away, but the look in his eyes told Ashe all she needed to know: he wasn't giving up, nor would the rest of her council. The conversation was tabled, not closed, regardless of any moratorium or condition she might try to apply. The subject would be regularly reopened until she was badgered into marrying. Heaving a sigh, she picked up the top betrothal contract from the pile and began flipping idly through it. None of these contracts as written would do, of course; she was the most eligible bride in all Ivalice and could dictate almost any terms she wished. Almost any terms, but for the one she most desired: not to marry at all.
The door opened again to admit Penelo; Ashe sighed again and set the contract down. "How much of that did you hear?"
"Enough to know that I ought to get you out of here for the day," Penelo replied, smiling. "I'm sorry they're still bothering you about this."
"Today, tomorrow, and the rest of my life." Ashe shoved the papers away, indulging her poor temper in front of a friend. "Were I a man... ah, well, they would still be pressuring me to wed, I suppose, for the purpose of heirs if naught else. But I doubt they would be quite so anxious about it, hovering over me at every moment."
"Well, you don't have to decide today, right?" Penelo came close enough to lay a hand on her arm. "There's no real deadline."
Ashe leaned back in her seat again. "No one has spoken it in so many words, but the first anniversary of my coronation comes swiftly. There's no time to be betrothed by then, but to have chosen a potential favorite? Certainly. And if that man were to appear on my arm at the ball, it would be a fair declaration, settling the question at least for a time."
"Well, if it's just time you need, then I have an idea."
Ashe looked at her friend. "Do tell."
Penelo's grin widened. "Bring Balthier."
An unexpected laugh escaped Ashe's lips. "Wouldn't that be a sight. To see the expressions on the lords' faces..." She shook her head. "But it is quite impossible."
"Is it?" Penelo took the seat nearest Ashe on the side of the table. "He told you he would. And it might shut them up for awhile. Out of horror if nothing else." Ashe laughed again, louder this time, then stopped herself with a hand over her mouth. Penelo's eyes twinkled as she continued. "And you know he'd be brilliant company. C'mon, Ashe. You can't really tell me you'd rather be seen with--" She paused, glancing at the top betrothal contract on the pile. "The second son of the third house of the fifth line of Archades? Is that even a thing?"
"Sadly, yes." Ashe wrinkled her nose. "And perhaps more sadly, the son in question is just past his fifteenth summer." Penelo raised her eyebrows, and Ashe shrugged. "Technically old enough to marry, I suppose, especially by the time arrangements could be made. Not, however, my first choice. For a veritable host of reasons."
"So, who is your first choice?" Penelo lifted the corner of the top contract to examine the one beneath, but Ashe stilled her, laying a hand on top of hers. "Aww, I can't even peek?"
"My first choice is none of them," Ashe said firmly. "I know you mean well, Penelo, but the wrong word to the wrong person could provoke incident. I trust you not to spread gossip a'purpose, but by accident?"
"Yeah, I suppose that's fair." Penelo withdrew her hand, and Ashe gathered up the contracts into a pile. "Well, if anything particularly juicy does come along, make sure I'm the first to know?"
"I will," Ashe promised. "And I will considered asking Balthier to serve as escort." It was a strange picture, Balthier properly at court, rather than a surprise visitor in her parlor. Nearly a year had passed since that meeting, but she thought of it often. As though summoned, the memory returned: the brush of his lips across her fingers, the little thrill that tingled down her arm. The vision of him at her side was not unwelcome, merely difficult to settle in her mind. "Now, shall we get down to business of the messages I need you to carry?
After Penelo left on her errand, Ashe attempted to put both her visit and her mad suggestion aside, but this task proved impossible. From the moment she had first pictured Balthier at her side during a ball, or a dinner, or one of those interminable receptions that seemed to happen at least once a month, the image had been both unsettling and tantalizing in equal measure. To walk about a crowded room with him at her elbow, his fingertips grazing her arm as he stood beside and behind; to take a turn about the dance floor with his hand on her waist and his pale eyes smirking into hers; to introduce him as her consort to the most formal of the lords and see them attempt to hide their shock and fail... The appeal was undeniable.
But so were the difficulties, not least among them Ashe's own reaction to the thought. She could not deny that these thoughts made her heart beat faster, awakening her old fantasies to run wild. To indulge them further than imagination was irresponsible -- not to mention the remoteness of any likelihood that he might reciprocate. Ashe had thought, once, that she felt a moment of connection between them, two years ago on the Phon Coast, but it had not reoccured. Surely a man like Balthier would have pursued her, had he any interest.
And yet, he had offered his services as inappropriate escort. And so it was that Ashe called Penelo back to the palace not a week later, and bid her deliver a message to the Strahl.
Two days passed before he appeared on her balcony, in the afternoon when she returned to her chambers between meetings and dinner. She joined him outside, locking the door behind her, and then stood before him, arms crossed. "You could have made a formal appointment."
"And what would be the fun in that?" Balthier swept into his usual sardonic bow. "Particularly given the contents of your recent missive."
"You received it, then."
"But of course." Balthier produced the small square of parchment from an inside vest pocket. "I must confess, this summons is unexpected. Not a year past, in nearly this very spot, you told me that you would be unable to accept such an offer."
"Circumstances have changed," she replied. "I had hoped for more breathing space before the pressure to marry rose to its current levels. Alas, that hope bore no fruit. So I thought, perhaps having someone on my arm at the coronation anniversary would quiet the wagging tongues."
"Or at least give them something juicier to wag about." Balthier smirked. "Well, I promised my aid, and so I shall give it. Do you wish me to come in disguise, as Ffamran, or in my own glorious person?"
Ashe waved a hand in the air. "Oh, as your true pirate self, most definitely. Any other guise would give the impression that you are an actual candidate for the permanent position. And you wouldn't want that, would you?"
She had expected a quick affirmative response, but instead he fell silent, face inscrutable. The silence stretched between them-- until he broke it with a laugh, eyes crinkling in amusement, and she let out a breath. "Perish the thought. Well. Good, then. It will be more fun this way, anyhow." He bowed again. "Two weeks hence, then, I shall be here, courtly manners on display. Or not; as you prefer."
Ashe chuckled. "I shall consider both options."
"Whatever you decide, Your Majesty, will be yours for the night." And with that, he was off the edge of the balcony and into the setting sun.
The remaining two weeks passed in an interminable whirlwind of event planning, boring meetings, and boring event planning meetings. At nearly every opportunity, someone had queried Ashe about her plans for an escort; her standard response was a mysterious smile and a change of subject. When the day finally came, Ashe dressed in the fine new gown she had commissioned for the occasion -- a silvery blue confection that left her midriff and upper arms bare, legs and lower arms encased in swirls of silk -- and simple jewelry, only plain pearl ear-bobs and the two wedding rings on her right hand. Her maid had just finished brushing her hair into place, and as the girl left the room, a soft sound by the windows caused her to look over her shoulder.
"I suppose I should have expected naught else," she muttered.
Balthier finished climbing in through the window and straightened his vest before bowing. "You did tell me to come as myself," he replied.
"And so you have." Ashe looked him up and down, noted that he was dressed in the familiar gold brocade and white ruffles, though his trousers were of a more formal cut than usual, and his black boots had been shined to a brilliant gleam. In his ears, diamond studs glittered in place of his usual metallic twists, and his hair seemed freshly shorn. "At least you cut a dandy figure as yourself, even at the worst of times. And tonight you present the best version thereof." He looked, in fact, much as she had pictured when she had considered him as an escort, and the merging of fantasy with reality brought a small smile to her lips.
He flashed a grin. "Indeed, your majesty. And I brought you a surprise. Turn around and close your eyes."
She raised an eyebrow. "Dare I?"
"If you want your surprise." He cocked his own eyebrow in return.
With a sigh, she faced back forward, and obeyed; he came up behind her and leaned in, his arms brushing her sides as he rested something about her neck. His breath tickled the back of her ear as fingers brushed her nape, and she shivered.
Then he leaned away. "Take a look."
Ashe opened her eyes to see that he had fastened a necklace around her neck, a fine silver filigree worked with tiny pearls, their hue matching her dress almost exactly. The metal sat feather-light against her chest; she brought a hand up to her throat, then smiled. "It's lovely." She glanced back at him. "But why?"
He shrugged. "A good consort brings a gift, yes? And what kind of pirate would I be without bounty to share? It seemed the polite thing to do."
"Thank you," she murmured. Had any man ever given her jewelry before? Her father, on a birthday or two; Rasler's wedding ring; she could think of no other. It seemed both perfect and inappropriate -- perhaps the right combination, for a gift from Balthier.
"Well. Ready to make your grand entrance?"
Ashe rose from her chair. "When am I ever not?" He offered his arm, and she took it as they exited the suite, her hand settling into the warm crook of his elbow, the fabric of his shirt stiff beneath her fingers. Together, they strolled down the hallways, a comfortable silence resting between them. As they approached the grand ballroom, she paused, then glanced up at him. "And you are ready, then?"
"To shock the worthy of Ivalice back to the Age of Gods?" He chuckled. "Perhaps you should be asking if they are ready."
She smiled back. "I know the answer to that one. 'Tis why I invited you." She tightened her grip on his arm just a hair. "Through those doors."
The halls had been nearly empty, but for a few servants; Ashe had timed her entrance to be last in the room by some minutes, allowing her subjects and visitors alike an opportunity to settle in before her arrival forced their attention. Approaching the closed door, she could hear the sounds of music and chatter; the herald stood next to them, guest list in hand. He saw her and bowed, and she responded with a nod. "Is it time?"
"Your majesty," he replied without rising. "Yes, the other honored guests have all arrived. Shall I call for the fanfare?"
"Please," she responded; he completed the bow, then pulled on a small rope. Ashe lightly pulled Balthier into place next to her, and the two of them squared up in front of the door. After a moment, the music quieted and the door swung open, their movement accompanied by a blast of the trumpet: five rising notes to announce the queen's arrival. Every head turned and every voice fell silent as the herald stepped past them and to the side, leaving no eye blocked to the sight of Ashe and Balthier, framed by the open doorway.
The herald held the scroll out in front of them, even though the whole room knew it was for show. "Her Royal Majesty, Queen Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca, first of her name, Queen of Dalmasca and Nabradia; and her escort." Balthier didn't move, but Ashe felt his wave of amusement -- she had long considered how best to identify him to the crowd before deciding that the best option was no identification at all.
After giving their entrance a moment to sink in, Ashe pulled away from Balthier and descended the stairs alone; he followed two steps behind her. She took the opportunity to look around the room, ostensibly sharing her greetings with the assembled crowd but in reality taking its temperature, and taking satisfaction in every dropped jaw and stern glare. She caught Penelo's gleaming eye and favored her with a secret smile. Next to her, Vaan beamed in amusement -- no surprise, she supposed, that Penelo had brought him in on the jest. Ashe approached the high table, where some of the higher ranking councillors awaited her, along with Halim Ondore, who normally served as her escort at formal events like this, and tonight would be seated at her left hand. She felt a stab of regret at not giving him, at least, some advance warning, but he still bowed graciously as they approached. "Your Majesty, it is well to see you. And you, Balthier. It has been some time."
"So it has," Balthier replied, then took the empty chair to the right of Ashe.
She stood behind her own seat and faced the crowd again, holding out her arms in welcome. "Ladies and gentlemen, honored guests. Thank you for coming to this, the anniversary of the first year of my reign. Please, be seated."
Speeches were given, and food was served. Ashe kept conversation at her table light, asking her guests to recount their own personal stories of the past year. Her eyes dared them to raise the question of her companion for the evening; none rose to the bait. Once the music swelled again to signal the first dance, the first strains of a waltz filling the air, Ashe glanced at Balthier, who nodded. She got to her feet and favored her tablemates with a smile. "I do hope you will all join me in this first dance," she said, then held her hand out to Balthier, who took it as he stood. She allowed him to lead her out to the center of the floor; as soon as they were in their place, the conductor took the music to its full tempo, and the two of them swung out into their first steps together.
It was much as Ashe had imagined, when she first considered what having Balthier as a dance partner might be like: one hand resting in the curve of her waist, the other curled around her fingers, his green eyes on hers, a light smirk gracing his lips. He was an excellent dancer, taking his steps lightly and in perfect time, and he drew her in, just a little too close, but not so close to be beyond the bounds of good taste. They fit perfectly together -- too perfectly. And if Ashe's heart beat faster than the exertion of dancing strictly allowed, if their hands fit together as though crafted by a sculptor, if the light in his eyes warmed her cheeks with its intensity, still she could push down this feeling of rightness as they twirled around the dance floor together. A night like this might never come again; best not to get too used to the idea.
The strains of the first song ended and in the pause before the second, Balthier let go her hands and stepped back with a bow. "Your majesty, I thank you for the honor of the first dance, but it seems another has claimed the second."
Ashe glanced up to see Ondore standing behind him, and she met her uncle's eyes with a nod. "Of course," she said, and Balthier stepped aside as Ondore took his place. "Hello, Uncle."
"Queen Ashelia," he responded with a smile, enfolding her hand in his before leading her into the dance. "Thank you for seating me at your table."
"I could do no less for you, in recognition for the support and friendship you have shown to Dalmasca, my father, and myself," Ashe replied.
"In the spirit of friendship, then," he glanced over Ashe's shoulder, in the direction that Balthier had vanished, "I do have to wonder at your choice of escort."
Ashe chuckled. "A bit of a jest, naught more," she said. "My advisors press more heavily on the issue of marriage than I prefer. When I was told in no uncertain terms that I must not attend this event alone, I found the only worse alternative."
"Ah." Ondore nodded. "As long as you know what you're doing."
"Trust me, Uncle."
He smiled. "I always do."
Ashe danced the rest of the night away, taking turns around the dance floor with leaders and advisors and courtiers in turn. Balthier found his way back to her three times, always staying for one dance and no more; between sets, she occasionally glimpsed him with other dance partners, but mostly he seemed to absent himself. Toward the end of the evening, she found herself partnered with Al-Cid Margrace, resplendent in a dark green shirt and a silver choker bedecked with matching emeralds. "Your majesty," he said with a bow; Ashe took his hands with a smile.
"Thank you for coming," she replied. "It has been some time, my lord. Since my coronation day?"
"Alas, I believe so." He raised her hand to his lips, brushing them across her knuckles, then pulled her into the dance. "My business often brings me through Rabanastre, but rarely with time to linger."
They fell into the practiced steps of the song, a fast-paced polka that whirled them around the floor, sweeping past other couples; by the end, Ashe was out of breath, swept up into the music and the company. Al-Cid said little, but he kept his eyes on her the entire time, warm and friendly, and yet he never missed a beat of the dance. It was as though they had practiced the steps together, but Ashe was certain she had not done this dance with him before. Had they even danced at her coronation? Everything from the moment the crown touched her head blurred together in her memory now. But even so, Ashe thought she would remember, had she experienced another dance like this.
As the music slowed tempo into a waltz, Ashe prepared herself let go, but Al-Cid left his fingers curled around hers. "May I beg one more song, my lady?" His eyes twinkled at hers. "I suspect the evening will soon draw to a close, and I find I am loathe to say goodnight just yet."
Ashe smiled. "You may."
His own smile grew broader, and he drew her in close, hand moving from her waist to the small of her back. The dance was slower now, but no less smooth, no less practiced. "You are an excellent dancer," she said.
He ducked his head in a show of false modesty. "A necessary skill, Your Majesty, for a prince or a spymaster, and I am both. You would be surprised at the tidbits men and women let fall on a dance floor."
"Perhaps not so surprised as all that," Ashe replied. "So, what have you learned tonight?"
"A few things. Nothing so interesting as the queen bringing a sky pirate to the ball as her escort." He arched an eyebrow, and Ashe forced herself not to blush. "Speculation runs rampant, as you might imagine. Is the queen flaunting a secret lover, or testing the waters for a disreputable partner, or simply signaling her lack of interest in marriage? It could be any of these, or all, or some plot so arcane that none have yet guessed it."
Ashe shook her head. "And which interpretation do you favor, sir?"
Al-Cid chuckled. "I had hoped, perhaps, to receive an answer from the source. But if that is not to be, I respect your silence."
"Thank you." They danced quietly for a few more moments, and then Ashe cleared her throat, and leaned close to his ear. "We are not lovers," she murmured. "I merely hoped to discourage other potential suitors, and shock my council into dropping the subject for a time."
Al-Cid pulled back just enough to meet her eyes and grin. "You are as devious as you are beautiful," he said. "I shall put about the theory, as you like. But I pray your intent is not to put off all suitors forever."
Something in his face made Ashe stop dead, pausing in the dance for just a second, then narrow her eyes. "Odd that you mention it. Countless potential betrothal contracts have passed through my hands, including a number from Rozarria. And yet, I have not seen one bearing the name of House Margrace."
He shrugged. "My lord father bides his time, my lady. Soon enough, I expect a proposition will make its way to your council, one you may find favorable. But if you prefer not to wait, you know how to reach me."
"So she does." Ashe pulled free of Al-Cid's arms and turned toward the voice, the familiar sardonic growl from just over her left shoulder. Balthier, of course, shoulders stiff, arms crossed. "The bandleader has announced last dance; I thought to request it as my prerogative. But if you have other plans..."
"Not at all," Ashe replied.
Al-Cid nodded to Balthier with a toothy smile. "Nor would I presume." He flashed his gaze back to Ashe and placed another kiss on the back of her hand, still joined to his. "Do think on it, Your Majesty. I await your word." Then he dropped her hand and stepped away, as Ashe turned to face Balthier more directly.
"I wondered where you had got to," she said.
He shrugged. "Around. A little dancing, a little idle talk. 'Tis good to see Vaan and Penelo adjusting to this new world."
"I do enjoy watching them grow," Ashe agreed. "Penelo, in particular, plays her part well here. And Vaan..." she chuckled. "He tries, at least."
Balthier smiled, his first real smile since they had stepped into the ballroom together. "Indeed." He took her hand, and a warm tingle ran up her arm and down her neck as he pulled her near, his ruffled cuffs brushing against her bare waist.
They resumed the dance, and the rest of the song passed without words, she and he gliding through the steps together, in a harmony as easy as the one she had shared with Al-Cid. Less exuberant, she thought, but more practiced. As though the hours they had spent together in on the battlefield taught them how to work together in a less violent milieu -- if, perhaps, no less combative. The song drew to a close, and Ashe subtly led them into the middle of the dance floor, landing her foot on the tile at the center of the room as the final note faded away. Letting go of Balthier's hand, she curtsied to him as he bowed to her. "Thank you, Balthier," she said, softly so as not to carry about the sound of applause. "I must make my farewells, but there's no need for you to stay, if you cannot."
He froze in place, an eternity passing before Ashe could take her next breath, then nodded. "No more awkward conversations tonight, Your Majesty." He took her hand and bowed over it, with just the barest tightening of his grip. "Thank you for a lovely evening." He pulled his hand free and backed away; before she could thank him in return, he had melted into the crowd, gone as though he had never been there, leaving only the feel of his fingers on her own.
Ashe woke late the next morning and took a leisurely day to herself, trying not to dwell on Balthier's disappearance the night before. He had fulfilled his purpose for the evening; the next council meeting would tell whether her longer-term goals had been met.
Two days later, she walked into that meeting, an abrupt silence falling as she passed through the door, and she allowed herself a small, satisfied smile. "Good afternoon, gentlemen," she said. "My thanks to the organizers for a successful anniversary celebration."
Swift looks passed around the table, and she took her place at its head. She rested her hands atop the table and leaned forward. "Anything to say? No sharp words to share on my personal life?" The quiet was absolute, and her smile widened. "Good. Now we may return to the proper business of governing a kingdom." With a look, she dared them to respond; none did. "Shall we?"
"Your majesty?" Ashe's secretary poked his head into her office; she waved him inside, and he set a small sheaf of papers on her desk. "The communication you asked me to keep watch for has arrived. A betrothal contract from House Margrace."
She leaned forward and placed her hand on the stack. "And none of the council has seen it?"
He bowed to her. "No, my queen. As you requested, I intercepted it before it could make its way into their offices."
Ashe smiled. "Many thanks. Please, say nothing of this; I prefer to consider this option unpressured."
"Oh, they'd be on that one like jackals for sure." He chuckled. "Also, please remember that you are lunching with Lady Penelo today."
"Ah yes. Fortuitous timing." Ashe picked up the contract and leaned back in her chair. "I'll meet her in the west garden."
"Your majesty." the secretary bowed again, then left; Ashe turned to the first page, and began to read.
"So tell me, how's that whole marriage thing going?" Penelo planted her elbows on the table and propped her chin on her hands. "From the gossip I've heard, it sounds like your plan to invite Balthier to the ball worked."
"Your plan," Ashe corrected her with a smile; Penelo grinned. "After a fashion. None have raised the issue of marriage since the event, at least not to my face. And the rumors are approximately what I'd hoped they might be: 'twas either a signal that I have no intent to marry, or that Balthier and I are carrying on a torrid, no-longer-so-secret affair, or perhaps both."
Penelo leaned her head to the side. "And I guess you had some help with that, if I read you right during that dance with Al-Cid Margrace."
Ashe nodded. "It never hurts to plant a few words in a spymaster's ear." She paused; to tell Penelo her other news, or no? She had planned to mention it -- a sympathetic ear would be of use, and she trusted Penelo like almost no other. But telling anyone posed a risk.
Then again, Penelo knew enough of her other secrets; what harm in sharing one more? "He placed some words in my ear, as well, and today they have borne fruit."
She pulled out the contract and set it on the table between them, and Penelo's eyes went wide. "No!"
"Yes." Ashe nudged the contract in Penelo's direction, and she leaned over to take a closer look. "A proposal from House Margrace, signed in the hand of the emperor himself. The terms are entirely inadequate, of course, but at least they are not insulting. Unlike most of the others we have seen, this proposal would make a reasonable starting point for negotiations. It presents me with a number of options for prospective husband, and Al-Cid is named as one."
"Wow." Penelo stared at the contract for a moment more, then looked back up at Ashe. "So, are you actually considering it?"
"Oddly enough, I am." Ashe pulled the contract back and set it on the other side of her plate. "Posturing aside, I recognize that I shall not remain unwed forever. If nothing else, I must have heirs, for Dalmasca and Nabradia both. The line of the Dynast-King cannot end with me."
Penelo dropped her arms and sat back in her chair. "Plus, you like him." Ashe raised an eyebrow, and Penelo chuckled. "You can deny it if you want, but I saw you dancing together, and you seemed to be having fun." She paused. "Almost as much fun as you had dancing with Balthier." Her smile turned more serious. "Speaking of. I can't imagine he'll be happy about this."
Ashe shrugged. "I don't see why he should express any opinion."
"No?" Penelo's eyebrows went up. "But he's always been jealous of Al-Cid, and especially of Al-Cid's eyes for you. All the way back to the day you met on Bur-Omisace. Don't you remember?" Ashe shook her head, and Penelo let out a small, incredulous laugh. "It was so obvious! Especially when we met again in Balfonheim. When Al-Cid kissed your hand, he literally rolled his eyes."
"Hm." Ashe shifted to the back of her chair and tried to recall the interaction, but her images of that time were clouded with so many other memories. "Perhaps. I'm afraid I didn't notice, with other things taking my attention. Regardless, he has not shown any inclination in that direction since." But even as she spoke the words, she remembered the end of the ball -- Balthier cutting in on Al-Cid to claim the final dance, that smidge of irritation in his voice.
But even if Penelo was right, Balthier had long since forfeited his right to have any opinion on the matter, after two years of near-absence. Even if they had danced together as naturally as breathing. Even if he had given her a lovely pearl necklace, her hand creeping up around her neck at the memory of his gentle touch while he put it on her. With a quick shake of her head, she cleared the images from her mind, then fixed a forbidding gaze on Penelo's face. "And even if so, he will not find out until a decision is made."
"Oh, sure, I won't say anything." Penelo's smile turned more knowing. "But I can't promise that means he won't find out. Gossip travels pretty fast among the sky pirates."
"We will endeavor to keep that from happening this time." Ashe pushed the contract further away from her. "Shall we discuss other matters?"
"Sure." But the look in Penelo's eyes said the subject was only tabled, not closed, and Ashe allowed herself an inward sigh. She had always known the break from betrothal talk to be temporary. Still, the respite had been welcome, for the time it had it lasted.
In the end, a full two weeks passed between the time that Ashe received the contract from House Margrace and the night she heard the light rapping at her balcony window. With a groan, she set aside her reading and stood in the door, blocking his entry. "I ought to fire the guards," she said. "Security has become shockingly lax."
"No need for worry on that account," Balthier replied with a smirk. "This is the third time this week I've tried to get in. You are well protected from casual intruders."
"So I only need concern myself with the determined ones? Yes, that is a great relief." Ashe sighed, then stepped aside to let him in; she shut the glass door behind him and drew the curtain back closed over it. "What is the nature of your errand, then, that you made such dogged attempts to see me?"
"Rumors, your majesty." Balthier turned in a slow circle to face her. "Rumors that I need to confirm or deny directly." He glanced at the sheaf of bound papers on the table. "Rumors about the content of that document, I suspect."
"This document?" Ashe raised an eyebrow, then leaned over and picked up the papers, which she tossed casually in his direction. "Unless you've changed career direction substantially, I doubt you have much interest in the latest trade negotiations between Nabradia and Bhujerba."
He looked at the cover page, and his ears turned pink. "Oh."
Ashe sighed again, crossing her arms. "Out with it, Balthier. It's late, and I find I've little patience for your hints and obfuscations."
First he was silent; then he let out a sigh of his own as he dropped the papers on the table. "Rumors that you will soon be betrothed."
"I suspected as much. But I wanted to hear you say it." Ashe shook her head against a sudden surge of anger. "It sounds like the guards are not the only people I might need to fire."
Balthier looked up quickly. "Do not blame Penelo, if it is she of whom you speak. These rumors come from the other side -- the noble houses of Rozarria."
Ashe frowned. "What were you-- no, never mind, best if I don't know the details of your travels. Very well. Yes, I have received a serious proposal from House Margrace, and I am considering it."
"As I suspected." He nodded. "All right then. I have what I came for."
He moved to step past her again, as if to leave and end the conversation; almost without willing it, Ashe reached out, brushing her hand over his arm in a bid to stop him. "Balthier..." He looked at her, eyes blank, and she swallowed. "I never did properly thank you, for what you did on the night of the ball. Not only for the scandal, but for your companionship. It was-- most pleasant. You danced as though you were born to it."
"I was," he replied, face still stony. "But we do not always take best to the dance we were born to do."
"No," she agreed. "I was born to be a youngest daughter: ornamental, well-mannered, prepared to marry to my family's best advantage. But the universe found a different role for me."
"And I rejected my intended role in favor of one that suits me better." He bowed, mockingly. "Perhaps I can hold my own on in the ballroom, but I prefer the dance of blades."
"In truth, so do I." Ashe lowered her eyes. "Yet I pray that I will not need to act the part of warrior queen again, for the sake of Dalmasca if not myself."
He turned away. "And is everything you do for Dalmasca?"
"You know it must be," she said.
"Including my presence at the ball? Surely Dalmasca would be better served by your swift marriage, the stability of an heir or two. Despite your earlier protestations, you even seem to have the fellow picked out." He faced her again, and his eyes were still hard, but now they glittered with questions. "Tell me, princess. Why was I really your escort?"
Ashe opened her mouth, then closed it at the sight of his green eyes burning into hers, the heat of his arm beneath her hand -- somehow her light touch had turned into an iron grip, and she held onto him as though he were the only solid thing in a tumultuous sea. The waves crashed over her, and she gave herself to them, laying her other hand on his shoulder and coming up on her toes to kiss him full on the mouth. Swift, sure, then pulling away before he had a chance to respond. "Does this answer your question?"
Without speaking, he wrapped his arms around her waist and gave her a kiss of his own, his warm, firm lips lingering on hers. She abandoned the last pretense and kissed him back, pressing closer into his arms.
After a moment, she wrenched herself away. "Follow me." And she took his hand to lead him into her bedchamber, closing the door firmly behind.
It was almost noon before Ashe awoke, drifting gradually out of a deep sleep. She stretched, turning over and reaching out to find that the spot next to her was empty, but still warm. With some reluctance to greet the day, to break the spell that had been woven the night before, she opened her eyes, then sat up, blinking.
"Good morning, your majesty." Balthier perched in the window seat, the late morning sunlight lighting up his hair and the soft white of his shirt -- he had put it back on, but it hung unbuttoned, revealing the soft down and firm musculature of his chest. Ashe leaned back against the pillows to take him in. She had seen Balthier in various states of undress before, of course, bathing or dressing wounds in the field. But this luxurious look felt entirely different, and she noted a smile spreading across his face. "Or perhaps I should say good afternoon?"
"Not quite yet," she said, then tipped her head, patting the empty expanse next to her. "So come back to bed."
"In a moment." Balthier turned to face her more fully. "I have enjoyed our time together, but I wonder what to expect now. What is in your mind for tomorrow, or the next day?"
"At the moment, nothing," Ashe said, smiling. "I have been a bit preoccupied, you see."
Balthier chuckled. "As have I. But you know we cannot allow our preoccupations to take charge forever."
Ashe sighed. "I know." She swung her legs off the side of the bed and stood, not bothering to pull on a robe or chemise. "But surely we can put it off another few hours." Stepping across the room to him, she placed her hands beneath his open shirt to rest on his bare hips, letting her thighs brush his calves. "My schedule is easy enough to clear."
He leaned back, tipped up his chin, looking into her eyes. "Is it, then."
"My secretary is very capable." She moved in closer, and as her head bobbed she captured his mouth with hers, turning her body aside to settle on his lap, his hands sliding up the skin of her back and pulling her tight against him, the kiss deepening until they were wrapped up together. Without breaking away, he swept her up and stood in one motion, carrying her back to the bed and laying her down, pushing her into the smooth sheets and taking her breath away.
Some hours later, a late lunch having been delivered to her chambers, Ashe found herself seated at the small table, Balthier across from her. The time for talk had come, she knew, but hunger had taken priority and they ate in near-silence. Once she finished eating, she cleared her throat and looked up; he set down his glass of wine and rested his hands on the table.
"Regardless of what happens now, whatever I say, whatever we decide, I'm glad you came."
"As am I," he murmured. "I would not trade last night for anything, nor the night we spent at the ball."
Ashe smiled, a wave of shyness coming over her. "I am heartened to hear it. If only it were so easy to determine what must come next."
Balthier leaned back in his seat. "That must be left to you, your majesty."
"Must it?" Ashe tipped her head to the side. "It takes two to make a relationship, no matter what one may wish."
"I must confess that I am not quite sure what I wish." Balthier lowered his eyes, then raised them. "I only know that I do not want to be parted from you for so long again."
A hard knot formed in Ashe's throat, and she had to swallow it down before she could reply. "Nor I," she murmured. "Nor do I." She stood and placed her hands on his shoulders, and he tipped his head back to look up into her eyes. "And though as queen I must consider the good of Dalmasca, so must I consider my own needs as well. Perhaps, with this in mind, a compromise can be reached."
His eyes fluttered closed as she leaned down to kiss him, long and hard and sweet, with a promise of many more to come.
The wedding day of Ashelia B'Nargin Dalmasca and Al-Cid Margrace dawned chilly and overcast. It could not, Ashe thought, have been more different from the morning of her first marriage, with parades and floats under a clear blue sky; the weather had been sunny and beautiful, but with the clouds of war massing on a distant horizon, the celebration had taken on a desperate air, a feeling of denial of hard times yet to come. Despite today's drizzle, Ashe found she preferred the sense of true hope that filled the streets of Rabanastre -- hope for lasting peace, as she married the scion of one Imperial house and maintained a fast friendship with the other.
And then the third man in her life, representative of no one besides himself, stepped out from the shadows and laid a hand on her waist. "Ready for the next dance, princess?"
Ashe turned her head back and over her shoulder, smiling up at Balthier. A pearl pendent hung about her neck, glowing in the soft cloudy light. "The next dance, and all the others to follow. May all our partnerships be this willing." He leaned down to kiss her as she smiled.