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in private atonement for an unremembered past

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The sky over the Dalmascan desert is the blue of dreams. Vayne stretches his arms out against the back of the transport, leans back and looks up and feels that he could easily fall into it. Not a soul in Rabanastre to wish him well, yet the land does not care. How ungrateful it is to its people, to unfurl such beauty before him on this day.

He chose the route across the desert, demanded it - slow and plain and far less dramatic than descending like some sort of conquering god aboard the Ifrit. It is no less calculated, to come in at their level, an open-decked ship with little in the way of cover. Everything he does is analyzed for hidden meaning, every gesture, every glance, so he might as well work it to his own advantage when he can. The escort standing at the prow is nervous, though whether it is Vayne's presence or the potential for unexpected trouble, who can say.

Unlikely that the people here will be as interested in purely reactive decisions as the rest of the world has been thus far. Archadian politics is much like a chocobo that refuses to hatch out of its shell, nothing more valuable than maintaining a facade of neutrality in a conflict, until it's clear who the winner will be. Few choices are actually made based on the information at hand, or taking initiative - it is far more about speed and anticipation, knowing one's opponent - and luck, more blind luck than anyone will ever admit to.

Which means Vayne can often be telling the absolute truth at the same time that he is lying, and that the Empire is simultaneously working to secure lasting peace in Dalmasca, while at the same time positioning for strategic advantage, giving Rozarria a detailed view of just what they can expect should things collapse into war.

The world at present rests upon a knife's edge. One breath, a single movement this way or that, may determine the entire future of Ivalice.

So Vayne is sent, after heated and near-endless debate, to stand as Lord Consul of Rabanastre - quite possibly just to see what will happen next. Given the time it usually takes for the Senate and the Emperor to bat an issue back and forth, using it for whatever political spite or gain might come before tossing what remains aside to molder, two years is practically overnight.

The Senate protested, because they protest everything he does, as sure he is ever working against them as his father is, and that even placing him between themselves and the enemy might not lessen the danger. It is perhaps Vayne's greatest asset - he is entirely unpredictable, or at least they think it so. The thought that he might even defect, might forge a secret alliance with Rozarria - of all things - and raise an army against the Emperor is not at all out of the realm of possibility. Nothing is impossible. Vayne's goals remain entirely undefined in their eyes, only that he has power that he is not visibly wielding, and that means he is capable of anything.

"Well, if nothing else, this consul business will certainly improve Rozarria's odds of sending pieces of you back to your father."

The good doctor, who knew far more about where Vayne chose to extend his influence than most, had to be tracked down in his private lab before he'd left. Diffident disinterest was a laughably poor mask for Cid's anxiety, scowling and fretting over him while pretending to do anything but.

"One a week." He finally said, holding up a syringe, practically glowing gold in the light. "Two if you must, but let me know afterward. You should have enough for at least three months. I will ship more once you have settled."

"Cid."

"If anything happens, if it isn't working as well as-"

"Cid."

"Tell me right away, and I'll be there."

"I never remember you fussing so much before you got old."

Cid glared, finally throwing him a gesture that most did not see fit to grace the Imperial family with - at least where they could see it - and as pleasant a farewell as Vayne could ask for.

The small vials are his most precious and secret possession now. The tick of a metronome, each granting yet one more small portion of what is left of his life. Cid had taken what remained of the Viera's unexpected gift and is processing it slowly, studying it as he goes - and thinning it out as far as can be managed without losing its potency.

In the lack of any new developments, there will be enough for slightly less than sixty vials. Which means Vayne will be dead not long after his first anniversary as consul. Assuming, of course, that he lasts that long.

He might very well die today. Who is to say? Hopefully, they'll be polite enough to let him make it at least halfway through the speech, after all the time he spent composing it.

Vayne rolls his right wrist, flexing his hand, rubbing a thumb against each of his fingertips, just to make sure the feeling is still there, working the muscles against the constant threat of stiffness. The desert sun feels very good - it is somewhat difficult to keep warm these days, the fragments of the Midlight Shard an ever-present chill, chips of ice burning ever away beneath his skin. It is little more than an annoyance, Cid's research providing the means to live at equilibrium, at least for now.

The doctor believes this was entirely of his doing and design, and therefore must believe that he can fix it. Vayne keeps his doubts quiet, the feeling of being ever so slightly off balance, the cold bite that reaches, now and then, all the way down to his bones. He is not so certain he even has a year, but he will lie and it is done for kindness' sake. Cid is doing all that he can, Vayne will not shatter his friend's hopes until there is no choice.

It is not worth much dwelling on, either way - he has time, that is the important thing, the time to do what he must. Secure a place for Larsa that cannot be overthrown. Find the Sun-Cryst and destroy it - the Occuria will try again, he is sure of that, and even if that weapon should stay hidden, there are two more Shards that must be dealt with. Must be found, and though the Dawn Shard rests safely in King Raithwall's tomb by all best estimations, the Dusk Shard's location is far less clear. It had been a foolish conceit, to ever believe they would be able to count on Venat's continued assistance.

"Sir, we are approaching the gates of Rabanastre."

Ah yes, and for the moment he must convince an entire city's worth of angry, frightened people - his unwilling subjects - not to start throwing rocks at him. He has maybe ten seconds, once he begins talking, to provide them with an alternate suggestion.

—————————————————

"… What I ask, I ask plain. My hopes now rest with you."

Vayne's got them.

Or at least, they have no idea what to make of him, which is more than good enough for now. The applause is an amusing surprise - mildly gratifying, if unnecessary. He hardly expects them to abide by it for long. Dalmasca is like a wounded animal backed into a corner, if he but raises his hand it will surely run mad, preferring utter annihilation to any further uncertainty. It is a difficult thing to live life beneath the sword's edge, ever wondering when it might fall. Yet Vayne has provided another option - expecting the tyrant, they have been given the servant, and though it will take no time at all for half of them to decide he is a liar, it is clear they are no longer unified by their fear of a faceless, despotic Consul.

He has proven himself but a man. Stepped into the crowd, to meet them at their own level. An amusing contradiction, taking control by showing his vulnerability. The gesture is a small one, but it is always the unexpected concessions that carry the most weight. Easy to fight force in kind, but far more difficult to slap away the open hand.

Vayne can't help but enjoy the puzzle of it, the simple intellectual challenge of moving those who do not wish to be moved, easing their fears, securing their trust. More troublesome, perhaps, than a simple show of force, more complicated than wielding fear like a cudgel, and yet, nearly always worth the extra investment of thought and time. The proof of his theories, of what he thinks he knows of the world will be writ across this new holding of the Empire. Rabanastre is his trial by fire, in more ways than one.

Of course, those who would call him liar are not entirely wrong. As is all too often the case, the truth is not interested in being Vayne's ally. No one in Dalmasca would be comforted with the knowledge that their lives were overturned, their loved ones sent to die in battle, all because they were in the way. That the taking of Dalmasca is simply a repositioning for the battle that may still come to their gates, that this is Rozarria's decision as much as it is the Empire's. In the greater scheme of things it is crystal-rich Bhujerba that can be the only other active player in this game.

Still, Rabanastre is truly a beautiful city, and he says as much to the solider who asks. Amazing, that the men here have kept to full plate armor for as long as they have without mounting a protest. Or perhaps they're too hot to bother. A rather brilliant notion there, the heavy suits and helms rendering them inhuman and absurdly menacing while increasing the chance of heatstroke tenfold. If Vayne knew nothing else about the Judge in charge of the city guard, it would be enough.

He is introduced to the organizer of the night's fete, officially welcoming him to the city, an exceedingly nervous bangaa who's very obviously not been looking forward to meeting him all day. Migelo stumbles awkwardly through his introduction, refreshingly bad at formality. As eldest son and prospective heir to the Empire, Vayne has no less than sixteen separate titles and there are those in Archades who can and have rattled them off without hesitation, in declining levels of importance depending on whether it is a civil or military ceremony.

All the better, that this is not Archades.

The offer of simply addressing him by name is quickly rebuffed, though Vayne assumed as much. A certain distance between the people and their leaders is more comfortable for everyone, though the exact dimensions of that space will no doubt be up for near-constant debate. He still offers up the promise of sharing a drink together, though Vayne is certain he will want to far more than he will actually be able to indulge. The world obliges his suspicions, and he catches a movement as he turns away, a figure in the crowd from the corner of his eye. He can't even say what it is, the speed or economy of movement, a certain stiff tension - either the Resistance, Bhujerbian spy or Rozarrian agitator. No doubt all will be in attendance tonight.

As much as the Senate did not want to allow him to take the position, Vayne is sure they are now depending on him to be conveniently murdered as soon as possible. A shame if it should happen at the fete, his poor host seems worn out from just having to say hello.

————————————————

It is much cooler inside the palace, stone walls open up on little fountains here and there, hidden grottos set in unexpected places that keep the air fresh and clean. An open layout, there are many windows overlooking gardens - he did not expect it to be so green, an abundance of plants well-tended. An old gardener gives him as close as possible to the evil eye without putting himself in danger of being called on it. Vayne was hardly exaggerating his expectations, anything further than their grudging tolerance of him entirely unnecessary. If it had ever been his pleasure to be praised by sycophants, he might as well have stayed at home.

If there is any pressing necessity, it is in securing this place enough that Larsa might soon be able to visit. Vayne had hoped his little brother might prove slightly easier to corral than he was at that age, but fate stands ever in need of her amusements, and it is simply not to be. Larsa has at least been obedient enough to take a proper guard with him on any public outing, but the boy is past fifteen now and will not be kept away from anything as exciting as Rabanastre for long.

The heirs to an empire of conquerors, and yet the both of them are most pleased just to see anyplace that is new. It is fortunate that, apart from possessing it so that Rozarria does not, the Empire has little interest in claiming Dalmasca herself. There will be no great alterations made, nothing planned to bring this place in line with more Archadian standards of culture or decorum.

It is rare that Vayne does not feel a weight at his heels, one ghost or another, and no surprise that Raminas' memory would be here with him now, all this beauty through the imagined, wistful reminiscence of one no longer here to enjoy it. The king's words echo in the quiet corners of every room - judge her kindly - and it is very beautiful and he was right to love it dearly. Vayne hopes his appreciation will provide enough satisfaction for Raminas' troubled spirit, he doubts there will be much left of him to exact revenge on in the next world, once the rest of his sins have been accounted for.

The palace is not his home, and even if it were there would be little point to giving a speech full of concession and understanding only to turn around and repurpose the rooms to Archadian design. It is an easy way to avoid conflict, and so Vayne touches nothing. Only one modest room, conveniently placed, has been stripped and decorated to recognize the origin of his authority, and that only a few banners with the Solidor crest, a large desk where he expects to spend far too much of his time. It is there that he meets the architects of the past two years, the civil and military authorities for a transition no one expected to last as long as it had.

"Judge Telkiris. Captain Rhedan. It is good to finally meet you both."

An old joke of sorts, Archades so martial that even the civil servants are soldiers. Unsurprisingly, it all comes down to matters of lineage - Judges tend to come from the Hundred Houses, a combination of skill and family caste naturally leading to an exalted position. Becoming a Judge Magister almost certainly requires being in the Hundred, if not the highest Thirty Names, although there have been a few cases - Gabranth comes to mind - where specific qualifications managed to edge out heredity.

So while both men are from a military background, they might as well exist in different worlds, and it takes no more than a glance to be sure they are well aware of it - tense, the anger a palpable thing. Unlikely they would be in the same room together, were it to mark anything less than his arrival. It has likely been a very interesting two years.

"Lord Consul, it is truly an honor to welcome you to Rabanastre."

Telkiris speaks first, and he is all calculated smiles and arrogant self-confidence and Vayne tries not to give all weight to the initial moment, but there is little to make him hold out hope. Rhedan does not smile, only bows, hand over heart. Younger than the Judge by a few years, younger even than Vayne himself, but with an air of studied, serious contemplation and it seems that - in his first impression - he has found his new Lord Consul badly wanting.

Vayne likes him already.

"It is an honor, Your Eminence. I must say, when we had heard… that is, we were hardly expecting…"

Expecting to be rewarded for two years faithful, unappreciated service by having an Imperial heir dropped in the middle of a fragile peace? No, he imagines not.

"The Emperor can be quite… capricious. Even I was not sure that I might find myself here, yet my wise father believes I may stand to learn a great deal from this land and its people."

A soft, derisive snort from Telkiris, and Rhedan bristles openly, anger flashing in his dark eyes, gaze fixed purposefully on the floor. Vayne keeps his own expression blank, neither condoning nor condemning, all the better to let things play out as they will.

"I fear you will find little here but sand and stubborn fools who believe it is worth fighting over." Telkiris says dismissively. "I have heard this place once stood at the center of civilization, yet I can hardly imagine how."

"It seems peaceable enough. I hear you still have some difficulties with the resistance."

"Insurgence, milord. A scruffy band of deluded cut-throats and thieves hiding themselves behind false allegiances. I assure you, they have been well and thoroughly dealt with."

"Lord Consul," Rhedan steps in, his angry gaze fixed anywhere but on Vayne. "Before your arrival, a good number of men were rounded up off the streets and sent to Nalbina in the guise of being rebels. Far too many for a proper interrogation to have taken place. I believe most of them to be wholly innocent and-"

Telkiris takes a dangerous step forward, close to looming over the captain. So far, Vayne has said nothing, and it is not a surprise the Judge has translated this in his favor. "You would risk the life of His Excellency for the lives of a few meaningless-"

"The people of Rabanastre are Imperial citizens and ought be treated as such!" It is said too loud, with a quaver of rage, directed at more than the Judge though he is the one Rhedan is glaring at. No doubt they've skipped ahead to the middle of their usual fight. If Vayne were to step back and tell them to duel it out, he believes they would be happy to oblige him. At least Telkiris has been kind enough to be so unthinkingly forward, so he can be confident he is not missing much by cutting things short.

"You have done excellent work here as a Judge of Archades, in reestablishing order and peace. I cannot imagine it was easy."

The man preens. Rhedan has gone pale, looking back down to the floor, doing an admirable job of hiding an impressive anger. It is likely he has been serving in the Judge's shadow since the moment he arrived. Rhedan is a relatively low House, little in the way of power or prestige. Connected enough to attain this position, yet Vayne is fairly certain it was not bestowed as any particular compliment.

"It is an honor to serve, Lord Consul. It has been no great difficulty, I assure you. The people of Dalmasca seem full of fire, but it is easy enough to bring them to heel."

Easy enough to pretend it, at least. Vayne nods. "I imagine you would like to make final preparations for the security of tonight's celebration, and I would like to have a few words in private with the captain."

Telkiris sneers knowingly, and thankfully the promise of his civil counterpart's impending humiliation, disgrace and destruction is enough to speed his departure. Vayne waits until the door is closed, and moves to sit behind his desk - his desk, shipped direct from Archades, with his chair and his papers and the special compartment in the bottom drawer where he keeps a flask of what one of the technicians at Draklor brews for himself and a few close allies. Clear spirits distilled through the repurposed cooling system of an airship and flavored with - Cid claims - the tears of students who fail their combined organic chemistry cohort. It has all the gentle charm of a punch to the face.

Vayne leans back slightly, folds his hands on the desk, and looks up.

"I hope you might advise me on an alternate, to fill his post once he is gone." He never gets tired of going against expectations, the way Rhedan's eyes rip up from the floor so fast Vayne's surprised the carpet doesn't come with them. "It needs not be a Judge, though the rank-and-file seem to heed them more often."

It takes the man another moment to realize this is actually happening, that he likely ought respond. "… what?"

"Judge Telkiris is second nephew to the brother-in-law of Judge Magister Zargabaath's wife."

One has to be an Archadian, to truly appreciate how many levels of obligation there are in that statement, and just who would raise the loudest protests, and which Houses could be counted on to rally the Senators among them and then it would be months of argument and they would surely summon him back to Archades and Vayne does not have the time or the inclination to bother with the wounded egos of useless men.

"It is impossible, that he would ever be allowed to leave here in disgrace. Yet if we do as he suggests, and put our boot on the throat of Rabanastre, we will have this same conversation tomorrow, and next month, and next year - how to defeat the rebellion we have already defeated. I find that to be unacceptable."

The man's not at all an idiot for staring. Vayne's just bludgeoned him over the head with the realization that the Lord Consul is on his side, and it will take a moment for his worldview to make the proper adjustments.

"Would you like to sit down?"

Vayne's placed himself in the chair so that the captain can look down on him, though he is likely too rattled to realize it yet. Once again sacrificing a little authority, in the hope of gaining some trust. Being feared is mostly worthless, simply the best way to be the last one to know when things go wrong.

"… no. No, I… that is, thank you, your Grace."

"Call me Vayne, if you like. We are to be working together now, there seems little reason for titles."

He can practically hear the click, as Rhedan's thoughts snap back into place, finally rejoining him fully in the present. Watching him with barely-concealed wariness, that Vayne has proven himself more dangerous than simply another obstacle to be worked around. "I do not think… I mean… you ought call me Loren then, Lord Consul."

Close enough for now, to at least be bureaucrat rather than prince. Captain Loren does finally sit, though awkwardly, obviously trying not to stare.

"You're really going to remove Judge Telkiris?"

"I'm going to promote Judge Telkiris. Back to Archades, where he may enjoy his favored degree of civilization, and no doubt continue in his life's work of being passed around to where he can do as little damage as possible."

Which will happen as soon as the Resistance the Judge has handily 'defeated' make their first appearance and try to take Vayne's head off. It can't possibly be long in coming.

Loren frowns. "Of course, he must return a hero."

Far likelier that Telkiris will be happy to scuttle quietly away, but there's no reason to spoil that surprise. A man as sympathetic to Dalmasca as Loren seems to be… well, it seems unlikely that he has turned traitor to Archades, but that would certainly make things very interesting indeed.

"I am sure you would agree, we have far more important business than the destiny of a single Judge. I doubt I have the time now for a full report, but I'd like to hear at least a few thoughts on Rabanastre. How have you found it, these past two years?"

He is slow to start, and self-editing every word he speaks, Vayne can all but see him do it, but the longer he keeps quiet the more comfortable Loren is in filling the silence. One of those lessons he's tried to pass on to his brother: when in doubt, listen. Pay attention, and know when to step back and keep out of the way. Amazingly, for a good deal of the time this is all people want from their leaders.

Loren's views speak to what he's already read in the reports, Rabanastre is in fairly decent shape, all things considering. No recurrences of the plague that swept through a few years ago, though Archades could bring some advancements to medical technology that would not go unwanted. Literacy is surprisingly solid through all but the lowest classes, though there's not quite the same emphasis on a standard structure or demand for higher, specialized education. Most of the captain's criticism is, not surprisingly, on Telkiris' habits and techniques, an unsurprisingly aggressive approach that Loren believes undoes most of the work he tries to do in gaining public support. It is not surprising for a Judge to view this as a matter of simple conquest, forgetting that this is meant to be a permanent change. Dalmasca as an Archadian outpost loyal to the Empire, and whoever will stay here in the capital must not always be looking toward home.

Other than that, it is little different than any other city, although on a far smaller scale than anything in Archades. Infrastructure in need of upkeep and repair, roads and bridges that need building, and, as always, more civil projects than there is money to complete them. Vayne will find out the particular measure of work-to-graft later, and just what this city considers an acceptable level of corruption, how he might strive to curtail that as well.

The captain reaches the end of what he is able or willing to say, and though he tries to maintain a facade of polite indifference, it is obvious he wants a few answers of his own.

"It is only fair that I give you what I can in return. Ask what you like."

Loren wrings his hands, a nervous tic, his voice more hesitant than before. Unnecessary worry, when Vayne's fairly sure where this conversation is headed.

"Can you tell me… I mean, what exactly is going on here, sir? We were aware they'd send someone eventually, but… well, no one ever thought it would be you."

It had gotten to the point where Vayne was ready to just sneak in, had they not made him Consul. Ghis has already been here at least twice, no doubt looking for the Dusk Shard, though it seems he has yet to uncover it. It is possible, of course, that Raminas secreted it away long ago, which is at least a better fate than seeing it in the hands of a Judge.

"What do you know about Nethicite, captain?"

The man blinks, and shrugs slightly. "I've heard it's some new form of skystone, modified to work with the ships' engines. Stops the effects of the Jagd. It's said they're reconverting much of the fleet to incorporate it. Other than that… just legends and fairy stories. Tales of the Dynast-King and all, quite popular in the city."

What Vayne's life has come to be these days, two-thirds economics and one-third epic poetry. Who knows where the Occuria are, if they are even now forming new plans of attack, or if they will simply wait Vayne out before moving on with whatever strange business they call their own. Heaven knows they have the time to be patient.

"Nearly all of the high-grade Magicite used in Archadian airships comes from the Lhusu mines in Bhujerba. Generally speaking, it requires a ratio of one point-two-six kilo raw ore to a corresponding kilo of usable material. At least a third of what's left unused can be compressed and reprocessed. Manufacturing Nethicite requires a three-point-five to one ratio, and can only be created using pure-ore Magicite, with no compressed remainder - it all burns away in the refining process. Simply put, every kilo of Manufacted Nethicite we require makes near-triple the profit for Bhujerba."

Loren frowns. "But they are our ally."

"Bhujerba is its own ally. Until now there has been a profitable alliance between us, but Marquis Ondore's coffers are newly flush and he sees further opportunity for… expansion. We cannot engage them directly in any sort of martial action without endangering the Magicite, he knows it as well as we do. So Ondore is taking advantage of his position, to encourage Rozarria's advance. He wishes to have them be the wedge, to free himself from any obligation to the Empire, and thus renegotiate his terms."

Getting Rozarria in the Nethicite business would simply be icing on the cake. An arms race that would never end, and would leave Bhujerba as the wealthiest and most powerful nation-state in all Ivalice.

The captain shakes his head. "He would not do this, not with Dalmasca in the middle. The Marquis was close friends with King Raminas."

Ondore was also funding Rozarrian spies, before Archades ever moved toward Nabradia. 'Close friends' is one of those wonderfully flexible terms without any certain values, or requirements. It is unkind to speak ill of the dead, but Vayne has to wonder about the kind of man who would consider Ondore fully trustworthy - or perhaps Raminas simply had no choice. The Marquis' power, his influence - the king may have felt there was some security there, and learned too late that Ondore never took a hit he could leave for another.

"Fueling a cold war between Rozarria and Archades is entirely in his interests. We could redraw the borders a dozen times over the next decade, pushing back and forth, and all our effort goes straight into his coffers. The more independent Bhujerba is, the more direct business he can have with Rozarria, and the higher price he can ask for his Magicite. I was sent here, so Ondore would see just how serious Archades is about holding Dalmasca. Also, I have had the benefit of working quite closely with the Draklor Laboratories in Archades, and Doctor Cid."

"The airship expert?" If the word 'insane' is hidden within that question, Loren has buried it with all due politeness. Good man.

"Sections of the Estersand may prove useful for long-term airship storage. Possibly even new construction - there's a ship he's been thinking of, a supply and repair depot we'd permanently float nearby. The Bahamut - an air platform. It will work as a way of lessening some of our dependence on docking at Bhujerba, and to remind Rozarria of where the line has been drawn. Cid is hoping we might power it with the Mist released from the disaster at Nabudis. If that area could be rendered more hospitable, we may one day reclaim it."

Loren's mouth compresses into a very thin line.

"You are preparing for war."

"I am preparing for a long and tedious stalemate, with loud threats and very little action. I am preparing to find ways to make Dalmasca truly valuable to the Empire. Do understand, if Rozarria moves and we counter, if Bhujerba pushes and it is to be true conflict between us, we will have it with Rabanastre as our vanguard or we will have the war on top of them."

Times like this, where Vayne doesn't care if he frightens the hell out of people, because Loren is quite pale which means the man believes him, and he won't have to repeat himself. He lets the words hang for a moment, but it is not all doom and destruction.

"I am not fond of failure, captain. It does not much agree with me. I would consider it quite a grand defeat indeed, even with the war won, to be Lord Consul of what was once a beautiful city."

Vayne will defend Dalmasca, as he vowed to its people, and if not for purely noble and altruistic reasons than because he already likes it here, only a few hours after arriving. Because his success will irritate the Marquis to no end, and because neither his father nor the Senate actually thinks he can do it. What weight the whole of Rabanastre's scorn, when measured up against hearing great Archades grumble?

"You have some men and women of Dalmasca among your staff, captain. I want the names of your most loyal of these, so that they and their families can be granted full Archadian citizenship, including passage across the whole of the Empire."

Loren was speaking more poetic hope than legal fact, when he'd claimed all Dalmascans as free Imperial citizens, yet Vayne will gladly start it here. Let the people benefit a bit, and see if they might see opportunity rather than endless oppression in their future. It may take a bit more time, to see the first of Rabanastre's own Judges, yet he trusts he will live long enough to see that day as well.

"Sir, yes sir. Of course."

A knock at the door. Vayne stands and Loren follows, the expression on his face far different than when he had entered. He may consider his Lord Consul slightly unhinged - and really, who doesn't - but at least Vayne is no longer quite the disappointment he had seemed at the start. He wrings his hands again, glancing down at the floor and back up, still not able to hold his gaze.

"Sir, that is… tonight, I would introduce my wife to you, may it please your grace."

"It would be my honor."

---------------------

Dalmasca doesn't do aspics.

Vayne is never leaving.

The amount of food on display is considerable, even if he is familiar with less than half the dishes on the table. It isn't so much a formal dinner as an assembly, which unfortunately means he can't actually eat any of it, as he's been shaking hands consistently for nearly an hour, with little sign that there will be any ready pause. Archadian Guilds do not shake hands, preferring to send representatives who make deals and then send other representatives who claim the deals were never made, making new offers at twice the price. It is surely more like Balfonheim here, where it's all about handshakes and shared, steady looks between those in charge, and any man stupid enough to think themselves above it, no matter how powerful they might be, will find themselves quickly shut out of any worthwhile trade.

It is also a good deal like Balfonheim, with how little some of those in attendance are wearing. The Dalmascan dancing girls are especially distracting, a few of them in little more than the passing mention of dresses, to the interest of much of the rest of the room. Obviously there was some uncertainty of what might please or cause offense, and so though one of the various ice sculptures - kept from melting by ice Magicite at the base, which is also cooling the food on the table, a few men and women standing close to catch the chill - bears a slight resemblance to the Solidor crest, it would be easy enough to deny the likeness should he disapprove.

No aspics. Did he mention that? Not a single one. It's been six months since the fancy took hold yet again in the capital and every noble with two coins to rub together seems obsessed with suspending anything everything they can in towers of absurdly-colored inedibility. Vayne would congratulate Migelo if it likely wouldn't send him into screaming fits. If anything, the bangaa's more nervous than he had been at their first meeting, hovering at the edges of the party and practically flinching from even his simple nod of recognition. It's what Vayne does to people, the way it's been for many, many years now, too dangerous for what he is and the near-absolute power that he can wield over them for any play at a casual acquaintance. It is kindness only to turn his attention elsewhere, and easy enough to do so, certainly enough demands on his time tonight.

He meets several of the city's civil leaders, each offering varying degrees of politeness from nervously friendly to simply uncomfortable to ice cold. These final few are mostly waved away, apologized for by their more solicitous companions. Eventually, he starts to shake hands with men whose titles aren't quite specific enough to define their services, and this is when he stops being Vayne Solidor, not even really Archadian anymore, simply a pile of gil in a nice coat, jingling loudly enough for all to hear.

What he's dealing with are not the truly powerful - anyone with the money to leave would have been prudent enough to do so before they'd taken Nabradia. These are their frontmen, the rich Dalmascans gone to Bhujerba or Rozarria who are testing the waters now, come to see what business can be done after two years of heavily-sanctioned uncertainty. If there is true purpose in investing once more in Rabanastre or if it is simply a buffer zone, fated as ground zero for the war to come.

It's the ship dealers, the parts traders, anyone connected to the trade who are by far the most ready to accept him. Archades is the forerunner of nearly all new airship technology - everyone uses it, everyone wants it - and if Vayne's a representative from Empire that has caused them so much grief, he is also the one who can open the markets back up, and get trade flowing properly again, if not better than before. The thought of being able to pick up Archadian parts and equipment on demand, of how far the supply lines go throughout the Empire, for import and export, is obviously more of a draw to these people than which flag they paint on the back of a ship when it's finished.

He needs to bring Cid up, along with some of his little disciples and whatever lunatic side-project the lab has been tinkering on. Always an obsession with more, better, faster. Currently, from what he's heard, they've gotten hooked on the idea of an airship that can break the sound barrier - some new way of using Nethicite to boost the engine capacity - and Vayne's seen the test ship, sleek and narrow and covered with some sort of synthetic skin that is insanely expensive to produce but greatly improves the aerodynamics. Even it's still only two-thirds as fast as they believe they can make it, it looks impressive, and much of the time that is enough to consider it a success. If it is not yet useful, at least it might cause a stir here, at the least show up Rozarria, and that has always been a worthy enterprise.

"Lord Consul? Your Grace?"

A lull in the crowd, and Captain Loren appears, drawing someone through the assembly to his side - and all at once Vayne understands exactly where his nervousness comes from, the source of his anger with the Judge and why it all seemed so oddly personal.

"Milord, if I may, I would introduce you to Risa. My wife, and a lady of Rabanastre."

Sympathetic to Dalmasca, indeed. Between the infant in her arms and the fullness of her belly beneath what must be the most formal of Dalmascan style, it seems Loren has taken it upon himself to be quite… invested in establishing friendly relations.

Vayne hides any amusement, certain it would be taken the wrong way, and accepts the careful curtsy she gives him with a slight bow of his own. The woman wears a complicated sort of multi-layered dress, each fabric with a wildly different color and pattern, and yet the overall look is quite elegant. Long, blonde hair carefully braided up - most in the city seem to be fair-haired and tan - and she gives him the same wary smile he has seen so often this night: studying him, as if she might determine his true motives. Little different than those back in Archades, but the urgency here is far more apparent, and understandable. All of Rabanastre is desperately searching for reassurance that he is indeed telling the truth, that there will be real peace - or if he is lying, just how bad it is going to get. A soft, youthful burble breaks the silence.

"… and who might this be?"

To the continuing disbelief and irritation of many in the court, Vayne is actually quite good with children - they like him, against every common belief of their being good judges of character. The infant has already started reaching for him, no doubt entranced by the various metal ornaments on his dress uniform, and with what might be the slightest hesitation, Risa hands him over.

"My son, Lord Consul. Sayel Elas Rhedan."

Fair-haired like his mother, but with Archadian eyes, steel-blue, and what looks like an Imperial nose to match. By marrying her, Loren has all but detonated any chances of ever going home again, and if she does not know this he most certainly does. The child might be his lawful heir, but it is highly doubtful he would ever be recognized in Archades' court. As if that is any sort of real loss, and the fools who consider themselves in charge of such things don't spend all their time pettily changing the rules to spite each other, each one of them certain that they are the purest, most valued House in the Empire.

He smiles, as the bright-eyed child immediately tugs on his epaulets - he's never figured out what else the damned things are good for - and Vayne knows everyone is watching, that even Lady Rhedan is a bit baffled by his interest. All of this, the child and the wife, a tangible reminder of his responsibility, and he can't help but feel it. What faith this is from them, that things will work out somehow. How brave, to choose to love, to start a family in such times. Vayne is making a promise to her, to them both - no less than two decades' steady peace, to raise their children in.

What are the odds, there is any hope of it? What dare he call himself if he fails? It is far too satisfying, to be arrogant and proud and above all successful in it, a thorn in the side of the Senate, to think of failure now.

"May he be the first of many proud sons of Dalmasca, and of the Empire." He says, handing the child carefully back to the Lady Rhedan. Yet again, a movement in the crowd from the corner of his eye, and as he continues through the room Vayne works to keep a careful distance between himself and the captain's family, just in case.

————————————

The fete continues on, perhaps a little rowdier as more of the famous - perhaps soon to be infamous - Dalmascan mulled wine is poured. Vayne shakes more hands, meets more businessmen, and their representatives. He's offered his pick of nubile Dalmascan women at least five times, and his pick of nubile Dalmascan men twice. The less it seems that he wants Rabanastre simply as the tactical high ground, the more important it is for them to find out what he does want, and how they might curry his favor. The realm of business is shamelessly amoral, even more so than the court. Business doesn't care who holds a throne or how they might have come by it, it cares only for coin.

Vayne finds himself drawn, somewhat unexpectedly, into a discussion of chocobo breeding, and which licenses he might see fit to approve once he is in office. He questions the viability of one potential breed - all Larsa's doing that he even is aware of the issue - an aside on how certain pairings leave the birds enormously fast but prone to devastating leg fractures - and the man looks at him in surprise.

"You take an interest then, sir?"

"My brother is quite fond of racing. I would speak with you later, about a better look at your birds. I have heard that Dalmasca has its own rarer breeds, and I may wish to send him a gift."

"Of course, your Grace. I thank you."

Vayne turns away, listening once more to the crowd, the murmur of voices - hears a soft aside in what might be that particular clipped tone that signifies Bhujerba. Glances up, though he doubts he'll see anything. Many from the floating islands have strange, pale eyes - it has to do with the magicite, living so close from birth to such concentrated amounts. Of course, they won't be here for anything too dangerous, merely acting as informants or reconnaissance, intending only to watch, and perhaps that is all he has noticed tonight.

If it is more - well, it would not be so far past his father to set something up, easy enough to blame it on the Resistance. If not that - gods, but they could not be so foolish, truly. Sheer insanity, to kill him here, and on the first day of his arrival? It would transform him from continuing nuisance to patriotic martyr overnight, and give Archadia all the justification they required, to bomb half of Dalmasca to glass. Or perhaps he would be a hostage? The poor bastards, to think he is worth more alive than dead. One would assume the Marquis would have been a bit more explicit when it came to Archadian politics - Ondore ought not to be that stupid, to know where things currently stand in the court.

He slowly retreats toward a corner of the hall, a little more sparsely occupied, where he can stand and observe with a bit more clarity and breathing space. The orange pom-pom bobbing at just below elbow height proves he's not the first with this idea. The moogle is nibbling on one of the small tarts from the nearest low table - Vayne's glad to see someone thought to provide for such things - though a good number of the creatures he's seen travel with folding platforms just for these kinds of occasions, lifting themselves at least a little closer to a hume's height.

"Good evening, sir." Vayne says, when the moogle has finished eating. "I don't believe we've been introduced. I hope you are enjoying the fete."

Moogles really don't care how they are seen by others, as far as he can tell. Vayne's always had the feeling that as much as humes consider the furry creatures cute and helpful, a useful resource, the moogles think of them much the same way. Tall and loud and a bit dim - perhaps the blood can't get all the way to their brains - but handy enough in certain situations, easy enough to work around the rest of the time. It isn't quite arrogance, and their naturally cheerful, optimistic dispositions - at least all those he's met - could certainly cover for far worse.

The moogle looks up, and blinks, not particularly bothered - Vayne has yet to meet one who's ever actually been intimidated by him. Cid's moogles have long since grown accustomed to him as just another piece of lab equipment, if he dares show up during production hours.

"Kupo! You're the new Lord Consul."

"Indeed. You are… with the skyship guilds?" Not much to them at the moment, though Imperial involvement will soon change that. Transform Rabanastre into a hub for transport and military strength that will hopefully give Rozarria second thoughts about pressing forward.

The moogle makes a dismissive sound, ears folding back slightly. "My name is Montblanc. I am the humble leader of Clan Centurio."

"Ah. I see."

The moogle can tell from his tone that something's off, Vayne sees his eyes narrow. "Do you have clans such as ours in Archades?"

"We have our share." Staggeringly corrupt, more often than not, operating as little better than gangs of mercenaries. Cheaper than other solutions to a myriad of daily woes, though prone to cause as many problems as they solve, and given the often loose connections between the clans and their… associates, it can be devilishly difficult to prosecute or even locate the offenders. "I fear we find our own to be a bit… inclined to lawlessness."

A louder snort, this one definitely annoyed. "Clan Centurio keeps excellent records, kupo-po! We never closed, not once in these last two years. We have every hunt on file, complete or not - your soldiers have come to look at our records themselves. No tricks, no back-door deals - we keep track of our own."

The moogle makes a gesture toward a pair of Viera watching the dancers, and Vayne guesses it's the one in armor that gets sent out to deal with anyone caught doing what they ought not. He's tried to keep his distance from those of the women that he's seen so far in the city, can't afford a single rumor about the Lord Consul's health or well-being.

Two men are speaking to each other, near where the Viera stand. It seems incidental, as if he one simply tripped, walking by, and was making his apologies. One of them a soldier, one not, and so of course, neither of them are soldiers. At least not Archadian. So, it begins in earnest.

"Krjn won't look kindly on those who tarnish our reputation, and she lets them know it."

It's a little bit difficult to take Moogles seriously when they're trying to be intimidating, though Vayne has had some experience seeing what happens to those who try to boss around the shorter, furrier members of the Draklor labs, usually involving catastrophic engine failure at opportune moments. Or their version of a practical joke - a crew of moogles with simple tools can take down a small craft like a pack of piranhas, reducing it to the struts in the time it takes a hapless Judge, say, to take a tour through the lab and return to where his transport used to be. Vayne would feel worse about taking Montblanc lightly, if he didn't know the moogle was likely quite happy to use it to his advantage, when it served. Never cuter and less assuming, than when they were ducking blame or cleaning up at card games. The perfect faces for bluffing - Cid swore they never actually blinked.

"You are the only clan in Rabanastre, than?"

"First, only and best, kupo!" The moogle's eyes are bright with pride. "You said there are many clans in Archades? More than one?"

"Quite a few, yes." More than Vayne can count, and half of those illegal but profitable enough to be known, to pay the right bribes to continue in their business. The matter of Old Archades complicates things immeasurably.

Two more figures on the other side of the room, a man and a woman, just slightly too cautious with their movements. Not Bhujerbian or Rozarrian, he's almost sure of it. Slowly but surely, there's a perimeter forming around the room, just enough to be seen. Vayne's guessing they don't know about the extra soldiers laying in wait outside - he's only paranoid because he's rarely wrong - and even without them, he doubts they have the numbers to pull off the direct assault they actually seem to be attempting.

"Kupo! Too big. It's better here. I know everyone. Desert traders. Builders. Everyone."

He's not lying. It isn't Archades, where trying to find the man in charge of repairing walls in one of the middle sectors takes five letters to three guilds and interminable visits from 'consultants' who seem to get paid by how much time they can waste. Gods help them all when a bridge goes out.

Vayne's already met with the bridge builder here, and his brother, who handles construction on the western half of the city, and his sister and his cousin, in charge of things in the sands directly surrounding Rabanastre. Already a long discussion of what needs to be repaired and where and the cost. It took three minutes to find the man who handled flood precautions, two more to find the Guild head for the stonemasons and if he hadn't had to get ready for the fete Vayne could have had the next six months worth of building projects lined up in little less than two hours.

It was a mistake, for the Senate and his father ever to send him here. It will be deeply rewarding, to see them realize just how badly they've erred.

Vayne steps away from the wall, as he finally chooses his target - a hunt of his very own, though he doubts there will be much in the way of reward.

"It has been a pleasure, Montblanc. I hope we may see more of each other in the future."

"Come on by, kupo! I'll give you a discount!"

------------------------

The tall man with the dark hair is in an Imperial coat, two seasons out of style, not quite long enough at the sleeves. He'd probably chosen it at random, in an attempt to blend in, unaware just how far it sets him apart. How can Vayne be so sure it signifies? No reason, no logic. Just a suspicion, the little push of intuition that's seen him through all the other close calls that make up his life, and if he lets this happen now, if he lets them control it - no. Oh no, that will not do. If they're going to hesitate in striking at him, the least he can do is present them with a better opportunity.

Deep down, Vayne knows it is far less than pragmatism that ever sent him on his adventures through dark alleys, forever chasing danger. Not at all a matter of logic or calculation or gain. It is simply spite and pride, a childish rebellion - to take any regard for his own life and fling it back in his father's face, to show how little he cares. Let the old man die afraid, clinging to his crown and his power, and let him do it alone.

Ah yes. Get your throat slit by rabid nationalists. That will show him.

It is Cid's voice, in the back of his mind, the scolding parent he never expected to have, that he is both idiot and lunatic and he cannot die here, that his sword arm has not been tested against any real opponent since the insanity at Nabudis and wasn't that close enough for him?

No, apparently not. His blood is singing with the promise of what is likely to come, heart pounding and it makes his entire side throb, pricks of cold where the Midlight Shard is slowly draining him dry.

It makes some sense, that if he surprises them, if he can keep their attention on him then the rest of the room has a better chance of escaping unscathed. Vayne wonders how many rebels there are - perhaps some of the guards at the corners of the room, or the servants. Not a single one among them is fast enough to anticipate him, though, as he steps forward and drops a friendly hand tight onto the shoulder of a man who goes instantly rigid and still.

"Ah, I thought it was you. It has been far too long!"

Difficult not to laugh at the look of shock on the man's face, round-eyed and pale, and Vayne draws him into a cheerful, rough embrace, the better to get a fast look over his shoulder, glancing around the room. At least three of the 'guard' are shifting nervously - and one of them glances at a person Vayne can't immediately pick out, among the servants near the long table - and then he draws back, clapping the man on the shoulder again.

"How are you, then? Your family is well?"

"I… yes, Lord Consul. Quite well. It has… been some time, I am surprised that you remember me. Congratulations on your… arrival."

Bless him for trying to play along. Unlikely he has been much trained in the art of assassination, surely not on how to act should his target suddenly decide to be his best friend. Vayne fights not to look into the crowd again, not to give too much away - surely they must be all in a panic now, wondering what they ought do, if they have truly been found out. The hesitation speaks volumes of their experience in this sort of thing - it's rather touching, really, such an earnest, fumbling affair, this attempt on his life just as charming and unsophisticated as the rest of the night has been.

Vayne half-drags the man away from the crowd, still chatting politely, to where he thought the 'guard' might have glanced - toward the leader of this little insurrection. He resists the urge to force the man into any excessive improvisation, though the temptation to ask after pets or great-aunts or tragic love affairs is quite strong, just to see how far he's willing to go to keep up his cover.

This is his enemy, as it stands - the royal insurgence, those men still loyal to King Raminas and the Princess, who is, by all accounts, remarkably inspirational for being two years in her grave. Of course she's not here tonight, much too valuable for them to risk on this. Almost surely in Dalmasca, though - certainly alive, and he might very well catch a close ally or two tonight, men she would prefer to negotiate for rather than abandon to their fate.

Still, it is time to shut the trap, and Vayne cannot help himself. Every man who fancies himself a leader, nothing more than an actor in constant search of an audience.

"So, you must tell me, now… how did the Lady Ashelia enjoy the speech?"

He speaks into a lull, and his voice carries quite far. A few confused looks, from the nearest edge of the crowd - but the silence lingers with heavy portent, a breath, two - and his long-lost 'friend' is staring at him in what is quickly becoming fear. A moment later, and Vayne shoves him back, hard, so that the blade that is aimed to end the Lord Consul where he stands is thrust instead into empty air.

A glimpse of short, light brown hair beneath the costume of a servant's cap, a plain shirt and trousers, and from a distance it would simply be a youth, a young boy - but no boy would carry such a fine weapon, or look at him with eyes so full of hate, and Vayne knows her even before the foolish cry comes from elsewhere in the room - "Milady, no!"

I do not think the lady cares to listen…

Ashelia, Crown Princess and sole heir to the Dalmascan throne brings the sword around fast for a second try at cutting him in half, but Vayne's swiftly drawn his own blade to block and the room snaps to instant chaos as if a switch has been thrown. The false guards and servants are quickly drawing weapons of their own, clashing with the Archadian guard as others shout or scream or run for cover. It is clear the princess sees none of it, not even that she has put herself at a disadvantage, the line of guards sweeping past where she now fights him, and Vayne throws a hand out as two of his own move to intervene.

"Keep your distance!" He barks. The last thing he needs is to have an overzealous idiot run a sword through her, and there's no need to let her tear into anyone else by accident. If this is a duel she believes she is owed, it would be dishonorable not to oblige her.

The war cry does her credit, lunging once more to put the sword through his heart. It is not a demand for the freedom of the glorious people of Dalmasaca. It is not a protest against the invasive and repressive polices of the Empire. It is simple rage and pain and fury, nothing more, and she strikes at him with all that she has, every deflected lunge, every blow that clashes off his blade meant only to kill.

Vayne can imagine her alone, these last two years, pouring all her grief and anger into this fight. Training and studying without pause, getting stronger over the long days and nights she ought to have spent with her husband, or with the first of their children in some other world, some halcyon not-to-be. All of it, all that effort for this moment - why does she think killing him will change anything? - and yet, still little more than a child herself, with her virtuous anger and her shining sword. What does she imagine this will accomplish, even if she should win?

He has trained with the blade from the age of eight, kept up with it all this time in the deluded hope that it might actually solve any of his problems. The Lady Ashelia doesn't realize or doesn't care that he is allowing her to drive him further back across the floor, out of the reach of her allies even as they shout that she must withdraw, they must regroup. Her men are competent enough but already starting to flag, and Vayne has nothing if not more soldiers and this is not her world, even if she wishes it to be. She was not born for strategy and sacrifice and cold calculations - and her husband, Vayne thinks, was very cruel to leave her to face this alone. Unkind and unfair, that she is expected to stand against the Empire and mend what has been torn asunder, as if such a task makes any sense at all outside of fairy tales.

It is simple enough, to wait until her strength wavers, until she lunges one final time too many. Much too slow, painfully easy to drive the princess back with a series of fast strikes, her competent defense falling apart as he brings several more years of practice and strength to bear behind his blade. Vayne sees her eyes widen in surprise, sees the frustration there but by that point he's already landed the final blow, sharply slapping the sword out of her hand. It skitters away, and she is left panting and statue still, the point of his sword hovering over the hollow of her throat. Distantly, someone shouts in panic, probably trying to reach her side, already aware it's too late. It is exactly equal, the fear in Ashelia's eyes and the challenge, almost daring him to finish it. Afraid and hating him and so fiercely wanting to die for honor.

It ends up mattering little what either of them want, as Ghis chooses that exact moment to fire a full round from the Ifrit's main cannons directly down into the courtyard just outside the palace, shattering every window in the room and scattering guards and guests and insurgents in a dozen directions at once.

Vayne falls right as Ashelia drops left, which would mean little except that he lands with full force on his injured arm and the whole world goes gray with the pain of it. He's learned to compensate for the constant, aching cold, the sensitivity in his shoulder, but now the Midlight Shard is like a taloned fist scissoring into his skin. Simple luck only, that he manages to fall with his sword flat beneath him instead of being skewered. He grits his teeth, forcing the world back into clarity, pushing himself up even before his vision fully clears. It's not fast enough, one of the rebels half-dragging the princess to her feet, and they are all but out of the room before Vayne has regained his feet.

He dispatches the man attempting to hold guard on the door with a deft swipe of his sword, hears a shout from his own guard trying to reach his side, but the princess will know these halls better than he does and Vayne may have already lost them, and that makes up his mind for him: he gives chase. It's clear now, at least, that she doesn't know where the Dusk Shard is, or surely she would have already made him eat it. Strange, that she hadn't yet made the journey to Raithwall's tomb, unless the Dawn Shard wasn't there either - and he wonders again about her father, if Raminas really had confided nothing in the Dynast-King's final heir.

The palace is in chaos, he passes wounded guards and the bodies of rebels, hearing clashing swords and shouting down the side halls, with wide-eyed servants cowering in corners or peeking out from barely-opened doors. It seems they are being hit by the Resistance on all sides, and Vayne can see flickers of orange rising up from one of the courtyards - it had better not be the gardens on fire. What in hell is Ghis thinking, firing down from above, hardly the sort of attack that will distinguish between friend and foe.

He's thinking of the promotion he'll get, if they should dig your body out of the rubble.

Promotion nothing, more likely how he would look on the throne.

Vayne had the survey done of the palace before they'd arrived, looking for secret entrances and hidden passages, though it's quite clear now they hadn't found them all. Still no sign of the princess, though Vayne turns the corner to find a few of his soldiers at the end of a frantic fight. Two rebels already down and one fleeing, and then they are all toppled once again by an earth-shattering roar. This time the cannon fire manages to collapse half the outer wall, stone, metal and glass sent flying. One of the soldiers is tossed back against the stones, arm pressed against his gut with a muffled scream, a piece of steel like a crossbow bolt easily puncturing through his armor, pinning him to the inner wall. An ally is up almost instantly, hand already glowing green as he reaches down to pull it free and heal. The third soldier staggers to his feet alongside Vayne, the both of them watching the remaining rebel drag himself out of the rubble and stumble back into a run.

Vayne grabs the soldier at the collar of his breastplate, resisting the urge to shake him hard. "Find a radio and tell Judge Ghis to stop helping!"

He is moving before the man has a chance to reply, scrambling over the wreckage, and rounds the corner just in time to see the rebel disappear into an alcove, down yet another damned hidden stair. No doubt he is meant to meet up with the princess below, along with what remains of the insurgence, and all Vayne needs do is follow at a distance and with this many hidden doors why did they not just wait until the middle of the night and kill him in his sleep?

It is unforgivably stupid to charge in blindly, to think the man doesn't realize he's being followed, that maybe he even realizes it's the Lord Consul behind him. Momentum carries him down the first two stairs before Vayne realizes the rebel is at the bottom looking up at him, one hand already raised. Maybe half a heartbeat to think that Cid was right about flinging himself so foolishly into certain peril, and then the rebel has cast the spell - a Flare, and there's that a horrible instant Vayne knows quite well enough, the way it seems to contract the very air right in front of his eyes, blazing like a newborn star, and this is going to be deeply unpleasant-

Vayne hasn't been able to cast properly since Nabudis. Not exactly a surprise, though he'd kept trying a bit more than he knew was sensible, even the slightest attempt at drawing up any energy leaving him sweating and shaking, his arm screaming - rather a lot like it is now, more power than he can possibly absorb scorching through his veins, ice-cold lightning. It's surely going to tear him apart, but the Nethicite in his system isn't really interested in his limitations, absorbing the Flare in an instant, so much power surging through him so fast Vayne only rocks slightly back on his heels as it fades, his body not quite able to process the damage as quickly as it has been done.

The rebel stares at him in what quickly turns to blank terror, his easy victory snatched by an utter impossibility - Vayne Solidor's gone and made himself immune to magic.

"I bet you can't tell me why that didn't work." Vayne smirks, and he's infinitely lucky that it's enough to make the man panic and run, that he is alone in the enclave and there's no one else to see as the backlash finally hits him in full, and he slides down the wall, onto his knees, leaning back against the top step, looking up to a sky he can't see as he feels his heart stop.

Well, then.

A long, quiet moment, just Vayne on the dim stairs with the silence in his chest and some thought about the measurement of eternity, gone before he's finished thinking it - and he chokes on his next breath, feels his heart shudder its way back into something like a steady beat as he breathes in and out and in.

"So," He murmurs, just to prove he is still alive, "… that is how it is."

It will be better if Cid doesn't find out about this.

------------------------

"What we ought to do, you see, is make a deal. The princess gives herself up, or we toss one of her precious citizens off an airship every hour or so. I tell you, we'd have her before midday, one way or another."

"Or I could offer them my head now and save you even more time." Vayne snaps, coming around the corner, and Telkiris is instantly at attention, already a bit of contrition in his voice. Not nearly enough, but he will learn.

"Lord Consul, you are unharmed? We sent men to look for you, but-"

"I found another passage below, but I was only chasing shadows. Have we managed to secure the palace?"

It's clear they have. Vayne can see a makeshift infirmary in what was once the left side of the ballroom. Bits and pieces of the now shattered sculptures have been employed for bumps and bruises, flickers of green magic being used to attend to the more severe injuries.

"Yes, milord. We have captured a few of the rebels - they are being transported to the Ifrit under Judge Ghis' orders. He has suggested we assemble some men to go into the city and-"

"No."

"But milord-" Vayne is still moving, and his disagreement startles the Judge enough that Telkiris has to step quickly to catch up with him. "We must act decisively, so that these insurgents-"

"The rebellion has been fully routed, and there are men combing the waterways even now to track down its leaders. Sending more troops into the streets will only cause further panic and endanger both our soldiers and innocent civilians."

"Lord Consul, if we do not act, we may not be able to maintain control of the city."

Vayne pauses, glancing back.

"Interesting, Judge Telkiris. I was under the impression we already had absolute control of Rabanastre. It seems these people have more fire in them than you thought."
The princess, certainly. The look in her eyes - if she should take control of even a single Shard, let alone the Sun-Cryst itself…

"Well, my lord. That is…"

Vayne turns away from the Judge, only to pause, staring into a small room offset from the main hall. It is crowded, obviously every Dalmascan the guard could get their hands on within. Not rebels, at least not all of them, but certainly everyone who is suspiciously blonde. He sees no sign of the bangaa, fortunately - but there is the Lady Rhedan, an arm against her chest and another splayed over the curve of her stomach, staring blankly into a middle distance. At least someone had the decency to find her a chair. Several dozen pair of eyes look up at him, all at once, frightened and confused, and it isn't exactly anger Vayne feels - this is not all that unexpected, really - so perhaps it is the lingering ache in his chest and arm that has frayed his temper so.

"Release them. It is late, let them return to their homes."

Amazing, how well a faceless suit of armor can radiate utter disbelief.

"Your Excellency, certainly we ought to question-"

"Release them immediately," Vayne turns to face the Judge, raising his voice to carry across the hall, "and let your soldiers know that if I hear of any acts of transgression, or attempts at retribution following this night, those responsible will be tried by the citizens of Rabanastre, and I will not hesitate to mete out their chosen punishment. If any man is foolish enough to risk the city's peace on some misguided attempt at revenge, I am heartless enough to wash my hands of him."

A grossly unpopular decision that will not at all endear him to the soldiers, but Vayne is not about to let anyone, not even the Dynast-King's heir, redraw the terms of this engagement now and force him into a fight. Gods, if the girl even realizes the weight of her decisions, if this is not simply her desire to return to some simpler time that had ever only been the calm before the storm.

He can understand where she's coming from, and Ashelia surely has every right to both anger and vengeance. It won't stop him from crushing her, if it comes to it.

"Sir, I don't think…"

Vayne looks at him, long used to staring down far more dangerous people, and all that plate armor might as well be made of paper, any title he has worth even less than that. The problem with being polite - at times you have to repeat yourself. Still, it seems that Telkiris has started to realize the extent of the trouble he is in.

"Y-yes sir, of course. Right away."

Vayne ignores the orders shouted to the guards, and the Dalmascans who warily begin to file out of the room, giving him a wide berth as he steps inside. Lady Rhedan has not moved, even with the crowd stirring around her, and there is a murmur of surprise that rustles through them, as he takes a knee, so that he might catch her downcast gaze. It is calculated humility, to gain the sympathy of these citizens of Rabanastre, who are trying to pretend they're not watching. It is honest chivalry, to be concerned for a woman with child, who is tense and frightened and, for a moment, looks right through him.

"My lady, are you well?"

Recognition sparks panic, one hand over her mouth badly stifling a gasp, and Vayne has her hand in his as she quickly rises, the other on her shoulder to steady her. He does not know where the captain is, and feels a momentary cold twist, that she is indeed completely alone.

"Are you all right? Where is your son?"

"Lord Consul, I…" One hand against her chest, nervous fingers dancing over her heart. "He went away with the nursemaid, before all of this… I-I had meant to join them, but…"

Afraid of him. So very afraid.

"It would be better, I think, to send you home with a private guard tonight. I believe you will be quite safe, but there is nothing wrong with taking precautions - you have seen your husband?"

She goes pale. "Lord Consul, I… please, my lord, do not look upon him - upon the people of this city, that we… I… we would never, this is not…"

She trails off helplessly, and he wonders what she'd planned to say. It is good, being able to give her a reassuring smile. At least one thing this night he can put to rights. "Please, do not make yourself uneasy, lady. I did not come here expecting harmony in a single day. It will take a good deal of time to build any real trust here, and my pride will surely survive a whipping with the olive branch."

It is not much of a joke, but he can feel her relax, realizing he is not about to bring this all down on her simply because he can. He can only imagine what horrible fates she'd thought up for herself, for her husband and Rabanastre. It is not as if Vayne doesn't know exactly what he is capable of, but to wield such ruthlessness like a moody, spoiled child, to be thoughtlessly cruel to those who have no recourse, who cannot fight back - well, there is room in even great Archades for only one Judge Magister Bergan, and his position has thankfully been filled.

If he can go through his life without ever rating that comparison, Vayne believes he will die contented.

"My husband… he went down below with the guard, searching for more rebels."

Rebels. His word or hers? It is of little consequence, though if there are more women like her in Rabanastre, the princess may have a more difficult time than she thought convincing them to abandon what has been rebuilt, rejecting their new homes and families for some vague grasp at restoring sovereignty. Is Ashelia working with Rozarria, perhaps? What marvelous lies do they have her believing?

If she finds either Shard, Archades will be burying thousands in its streets, that is all but certain. Thousands? Remember Nabudis. Millions. Millions of his people dead, if Rozarria helps her to aim the blow.

"I will let him know I have seen you safely home, my lady, and restore him to you as soon as I am able."

He offers an arm, and she is leaning against him with more than mere politeness as they move to the door, shaken and weary. The rest of the Dalmascans have made the best of his offer, and they are mostly alone. It is easy, then, to hear the familiar, heavy tread, the clank and shift of iron plates long before Gabranth turns the corner.

Judge Magisters always sound different, though there is not that much more weight to their armor. A shift in gravity along with the title, perhaps, until it is as if, on a whim, they might crack the very world beneath their step. Lady Rhedan's grip tightens on his arm, leaning into him, away from Gabranth, though she still manages a smile, a polite curtsey as he passes her over to a waiting guard. One of his own men, not Telkiris', and Vayne does not have to say a word to know she will be well taken care of.

"I… thank you, Lord Consul. I am very grateful to you… more than I have words for."

He waits until she is gone, and they are alone, and moves back into the now-empty room with Gabranth a step behind. The other difference between Magisters and the rest, that when he wants to be the man is alarmingly quiet, nearly all trace of the strength and power he wields turned to silence.

Vayne had seen Gabranth once, near the start of his service, caught in a training session suddenly gone wrong; and he'd watched as they'd had to pry the Judge out of his own smoldering armor. Long hooks set into the warped edge of the mangled chest plate, and the surgeon finally had to put his foot against Gabranth's side and strain for all he was worth. After a few tortured moments, the plate had given way with a horrible, wet sound, the screech of twisting metal and a few shocked gasps from onlookers. Nothing from Gabranth, though. He hadn't moved, enduring both injury and aftermath without so much as a groan. The man is a titan. If it ever came to blows between them, Vayne has few illusions for his own survival, thinks he might be able to keep himself alive for at least a few minutes, but even that only if he sees it coming.

Always a risk, to trust, and those he allows anywhere near Larsa - well, Drace's approval had been the real measure of Gabranth, though Vayne knew she would never believe he set anything by her opinion. Still, if Ghis made any gesture toward him, could ever manage to convince Gabranth to shift allegiances, even for a moment…

"You know she may very well be one of them."

He sounds the very Word of God with the helmet on. Judge Magisters are loathe to remove them, even in private conversations. Considering where they are, Vayne is not entirely sure how Gabranth manages his meals, or sleeps.

"A rebel? Yes, and the unborn child as well, no doubt." He says dryly. "I suppose she will relate any particulars of the spectacular failure that they might have overlooked. Or how I have had merchant Guilds in Archades make better attempts on my life."

No real reason he has to be so confrontational - fair enough, obnoxious - with the man. Some of it is likely inherited with his position as Drace's semi-official protege - or that Gabranth is quite obviously the leash on him here. Watching him, practically from the moment he became Judge Magister, and no doubt faithfully reporting on his every word and action to the Emperor. Vayne wonders if his father's truly so far gone, that he actually thinks he's being subtle.

"You ought be more careful, Lord Vayne. You are not among friends."

Is it possible, to overdose on irony? Maybe he's simply developed an immunity.

"Do pay my respects to your brother when you see him."

A feint of what was ever only minor value there, and if the princess has truly returned to the fight, this first visit may be the last time they will meet, the former captain at the end of his limited usefulness. It seems only fair to allow Gabranth to decide his brother's fate, though Vayne can imagine what the resolution will likely be. Two years shackled deep underground and it still is not enough, any mention of him an easy way to kill a conversation dead.

"I would greatly appreciate it, Gabranth, if you found the Lady Ashelia before Ghis does."

Vayne does not know what her true value might yet be, but nothing good can come of her leaving Rabanastre. The Judges answer only to his father, and anything can happen on an airship between here and Archades that even an Emperor cannot control.

----------------------------

At nineteen, Loren had fallen in love. It had not seemed such a scandalous thing then, the girl from a House not much different than his own, and his position as third son not so unthinkable for such an alliance - but her father had ambitions for her future that were far more than anything he might provide. He'd been blind and foolish and what should have been their elopement night saw Loren beaten twice for his insolence, first by her brother and then by his own. He had shamed his House, the girl had quickly married another, and for all his own heartbreak it seemed she found contentment in her new life, and had soon come to consider him a childish fancy, easily forgotten.

If only he had been able to do the same. Instead, Loren had lunged at the first, most distant offer he could find, and one his father was quite happy to release him to, to keep him from further damaging the family's reputation. He journeyed to Rabanastre, the furthest place in the Empire from Archades, to take up a thankless job with only an illusion of any real power where no one else wanted to go. He only hoped the news might yet reach his beloved, that he had died tragically, murdered by the enemies of Archadia while trying to forget her. Or he would simply turn bachelor, and live out the remainder of his days wise and bitter, knowing better than to believe in love.

It lasted three months, if that. Then he'd met Risa, and the first time he had smiled and the second was a joke he couldn't remember and she had smiled, and the third was an absurdly passionate kiss, as much her desire as his own, though he hardly dared to believe it. Each of them had quickly agreed it was a terrible idea and this was no time for such things, and she had feared for what his family would do, and he had not wanted her to be shunned for associating with an Archadian. They'd worried, worried, worried all through more meetings and more kisses and secret nighttime trysts. Endless promises from both of them that it must end, that it would have to stop, vows no sooner made than broken, and he'd wanted to marry her then, all that time, even before she'd come to him with the first news of their son.

Loren had sent the proper missives home, announcing his new wife, and then his child, unsurprised when there was no reply to either. He wouldn't have left anyway, nothing in Archades to go back for. Even before he'd given his heart to Risa, it had belonged to the desert, to Dalmasca. A good, slow season then, nearly two years of his life that had been sweet to him, even as they meant such hardship for so many in Rabanastre. Loren had quietly counted his blessings, a little ashamed to do so when the city suffered, and he'd tried to help where he was able. A few had turned their backs on Risa for being his wife, but Loren had found he could be stubborn when it counted, and he'd done what he could to prove his worth to to the rest of them - his people, whatever they might think of him. Did his best to minimize the damage when there was no argument he could make that the Judges - the real power in Rabanastre as it had been at home - cared to listen to.

All that is surely over with, even his minor victories crumbling before his eyes. All his plans, his reassurances to the Lord Consul - to Vayne Solidor, of all the people in the world to have come here - that Rabanastre was peaceful, ready to move past what had been, that they would rise to his challenge and embrace a new, prosperous future -

He can be executed for this, quite easily, as an embarrassment to the Lord Consul and to the Emperor himself. If a scapegoat is required, there are few better options and he is, politically speaking, of zero importance. It wasn't as if Telkiris hadn't questioned his loyalties often enough - and with tonight, there too goes any thought of ever getting rid of the bastard. The Judge likely has a hundred men out on the streets even now, meeting the new dawn by breaking down doors and cracking skulls as they see fit, pure retaliation. The Lord Consul will come down on all of them hard for this, House Solidor hardly known for its acts of mercy.

Loren slumps against the wall just outside of the ballroom, his fate, the fate of the city he has come to call home, seeming more and more bleak by the moment. It would be kinder, surely, if the sun never rose. The wounded have been tended to, the dead removed - a few soldiers, some civilians and rebels. He doesn't like to think it fortunate, that no one with a title had been harmed, no one from Archades, but there it is. No one lost that could make things worse, not that they aren't plenty bad enough.

The Princess Ashelia, alive? … and now of all times. Was it too much to ask that she wait even a week? Had the Lord Consul's speech truly been that successful, to scare them into action before anyone might have second thoughts? As if any of it mattered now. He'd believed it all to be a feint at first, the speech no more than a token gesture of goodwill, easily tossed aside. Yet there had been that strange business in his office - call me Vayne, if you like - as if he'd ever be that foolish. As if he hadn't been worried, just to introduce the Lord Consul to his wife. If Vayne Solidor had taken a liking to her…

No one here in Rabanastre, no Dalmascan understands just what Vayne Solidor is and what it means, how watching the Lord Consul even deign to join the party seemed an impossibility. Walking around, shaking hands, as if he were anything like the rest of them, as if those in his position didn't prefer to keep their distance, admitting few to speak in their presence and entirely on their terms. It's about more than just fealty, some sense of obligation or patriotism - Vayne is heir to the Imperial throne and House Solidor sits at the head of the Thirty Names, all Houses that Loren can name easily, though he has never actually spoken with a member of a single one until today. It is their will that charts the course of the Empire, and all who live within it. Vayne is the first son of the most powerful of them all, which means he can do anything he wants, whenever he wants, to whomever he wants, and there will be no reprisal. No one would ever dare. If Loren were to disappear, right now, Risa would be silenced and his family would claim they'd never had a third son. It is as simple as that.

He is tired enough, lost in his own bleak, vaguely terrified thoughts, that when the wine bottle appears in front of his downcast gaze he reaches for it immediately, taking a long drink and thank the gods he finishes before realizing just who has passed it over. He snaps to attention so hard it makes him wobble on his feet, nearly cracking himself in the face with the bottle as he tries to salute. It's a miracle he isn't unconscious or soaked with wine by the end of it.

"Your Eminence… Lord Consul… I was just… I…"

Vayne Solidor leans against the wall, looking as fresh and composed as he had at the start of the evening, what seems like ages ago. As if he hasn't been up all night like the rest of them, as if there isn't anything on its way but more of the same, danger and trouble. He has a plate in one hand, full of little square pastries from what must have been the one remaining table that hadn't been torn apart by soldiers or covered in broken glass. It is the second time in so many hours that Loren's been reduced to stunned silence, just watching him eat.

"Would you like one? Some sort of… spinach inside, I think. They're quite good."

"Yes, my wife makes them sometimes. They taste better warm." He says blankly, as his body refuses to stay at attention a moment longer, leaving him slumped and unsteady, shaking off an adrenaline surge he didn't know he still had in him. What might be the slightest flicker of a smile, in the Lord Consul's eyes.

"I imagine they do."

It takes another few dumbfounded seconds to realize Vayne is gesturing for the wine, and at least he's got enough sense to wipe the top off with the cleanest part of his shirt, though the man seems not to care.

"Did you have any luck below?"

"N-no, sir. I fear there was… very little progress. The attempt on the palace was completely unsuccessful, but the ones who retreated - they know those catacombs far better than we do. Of course, if you should wish it, I would be happy to-" His bones protest even the thought of another trip down those stairs, into that maze of dark passages and unknown dangers, but better to have aching limbs than no limbs at all. Vayne cuts him off with a shake of his head.

"No, that won't be necessary. Let Judge Telkiris have the full weight of this, it will make him feel important. I have sent Judge Magister Gabranth down as well, he should have news soon enough."

Two? Two Judge Magisters here in the city? Was it too late to just curl up and hide and hope to be forgotten?

"I took the liberty of having my guard escort your wife home. Forgive my imposition, but it seemed the most prudent measure."

It wasn't as if he'd forgotten about her. Of course Risa had been his priority, when the party had erupted into sudden, violent chaos. His first thought, that at least their son was already home, safe and out of danger. Loren had brought her swiftly to an inner room, no windows, where several other ladies had taken refuge, and made her promise not to open the door. He'd seen her afterward at a distance, when the rebels had scattered and the Ifrit had stopped blasting holes in the palace, but there had been no time to do more than reassure himself she was still all right - still alive - before he'd been needed below. It hits him only now, how she could have been… how the insurgents, or the airship cannons, and she the pregnant wife of an Archadian. The Lord Consul sending a guard to his home, because they would have considered her a traitor

His knees go weak, and Loren takes a few deep breaths, pressing a hand quite hard against the wall. If the Lord Consul notices, he pretends not to.

"If you would feel safer, you may move your family into the palace. I'm sure there are a few rooms Ghis didn't get a chance to destroy. You will need to move your offices here, regardless. I have the feeling I'll need you within arm's reach in the months ahead."

"I… yes, of course. I mean, the office, yes, not… thank you, Lord Consul, for your concern." Who knows, it might only take a few months before he'll actually get a full sentence out in front of the man, with all its pieces in the right order.

"It is nothing. I ought to have had you see her home well before things took such a turn."

Vayne seems so composed, absolutely unshaken, just as he had been at the fete and even when fighting the princess - how could it be her, how? He had been in control of that duel the entire time, just as he was now. 'Took a turn' indeed, as if an assassination attempt could be a simple inconvenience, even entertaining and - and Loren realizes what has just been said, what it means.

"You... knew?"

The Lord Consul, wholly at ease. Of course, of course he knew.

"It is not the first time I have been welcomed with drawn swords, captain. I doubt it will be the last."

A good thing Loren is too tired to even begin to ask the questions that suddenly log jam inside his mind. Did he even know that the princess was alive? Was that truly her? Does he know what's going to happen now? How did he know about the attack, and why risk his life if he did?

"You should go home, captain, and look to your wife. We shall meet later. I see little reason to do anything of consequence at present."

Certainly time to go home, before he makes any more of a fool of himself. Loren tries to shake off the worst of his muddled weariness.

"Lord Consul, I know that this has been… not, perhaps, the most ideal of welcomes, but I still - I believe that these people…"

"My people." Vayne says simply, looking at him. "Our people."

Well, what else is there to say?

"Yes, sir."

A call for the Lord Consul somewhere in the distance. Vayne makes quick work of the remaining appetizers, sets the plate on an obliging pile of what had once been part of the ceiling.

"Please tell the bangaa, Migelo, that I apologize for all the fuss, and when you return, you may bring the list of those you believe we should be retrieving from Nalbina. It will be an easier problem to solve if we can manage it soon, before all this chaos sorts itself out."

He's staring again. Loren has the feeling it will be a habit.

"Forgive me for saying so, milord, but… you are not… you are not what I thought you would be."

A strange little smile, the Lord Consul's gaze turned momentarily down and inward, and Loren instantly regrets being so forward, wishes he could take it back, but Vayne Solidor does nothing more, says nothing, only turns and walks away.

----------------------

Rabanastre is very quiet. No one on the streets, even though it is nearly dawn and the merchants ought to be setting up, putting out the morning's wares. No one wants to be the first, to find out how the wind is blowing. Loren ought to go visit with those he knows, to let them know that all is - if not well - than not heralding immediate signs of the apocalypse, but he is so weary that anyone with ill intent would have him in moments, and he needs to see Risa, to hold her in his arms.

The Lord Consul's guards are at the front gate, giving only a slight nod as he steps through into his inner courtyard. If he were a more paranoid man he might wonder if Vayne was taking this, the earliest opportunity, to get a hold on him, to have him loyal and at the ready - but at the moment he'd much rather be seen as a useful pawn than be dead. He isn't two steps in the door before Risa is rushing forward, her arms around him, and he can do no more than stand where he is, press his face to her hair and breathe in the sweetness of her. Still wearing her dress from the party, and something about the careless wrinkles in the fabric, the sense of joy, discarded yet lingering, very nearly undoes him. It had been too close, much too close.

"I was so worried! I thought - but you're all right. You're all right?"

He had wondered if she might already be asleep. How foolish of him. Loren knows he ought to say something, but his voice flutters wearily in his chest, refusing to oblige him. Risa's dark eyes take him in, looking for injuries - she raises his hands in her own, brushes her lips against bruised knuckles.

"You're hurt."

"I'm fine. It's nothing. I'm fine." He'll be feeling it tomorrow - today, whenever - but at the moment there's only her. He slides a hand against her cheek, kisses her, leaning his forehead against hers for a moment, remembering how to breathe. "Are you-"

"I am well." A hand over his, where he's rested it against her stomach. "We're all well, now that you are home."

Loren can barely manage to move forward, hardly paying attention as Risa pulls him to the bedroom, their clothes quickly left in crumpled piles, abandoned on the floor as she tugs the heavy curtains over what's likely to be a glorious morning. He wonders if the Lord Consul has found anything, or if he too has made an end to his day. Does he even sleep? Nothing else about him is normal, why should that be any different? So weary, that Loren thinks he might fall asleep on his feet, and yet when he drops into bed, an arm around his wife and her own hand clinging tightly in return, his thoughts swirl and crash together and oblivion will not come.

"What did you think of him?" Risa says quietly into the silence, because what else is there to think about, really? He chuckles slightly, tired enough that it comes out too honest, far more grim than he'd intended.

"I have no idea. When I'd heard the news, that they were actually sending… I feared the worst." A nightmare. If half the rumors of him were true… "Now? I don't know. I just… I don't know."

Except that he's frightened to even think about facing Vayne Solidor again, and this is after the man chose not to burn half of Rabanastre down or execute him on the spot. He will have to go back, it is his duty, even if he doubts it will become any easier with repetition.

"He is… strange, isn't he?" Risa says. "Distant. I thought him cold, that his manner, his politeness was merely formality." A slight squeeze of his arm, her voice slightly teasing - how strong she is, how amazing that this woman is his wife. "I know how you Archadians are, with all your fancy words. Yet, after all that happened… he did not have to be so… so gentle. He was kind to me. It seems impossible to even say it, I did not expect that."

Of course, Vayne could be lying about absolutely everything. The crest of House Solidor, twin serpents for a reason, and Loren could just as easily wake up to find all his worst fears at his doorstep.

"Was it really her? The princess?"

"I don't know." He'd rather not talk about that, somehow even more painful, more frightening than anything the Lord Consul can do. That Ashelia of Dalmasca might come and demand fealty of her people, that his wife will be forced to choose between them - or worse, that it would take her no time at all to do so. As if she can feel the bend of his thoughts - or perhaps with how closely he's pressed himself to her, her hand slides down to his, twining their fingers together, a silent promise.

He must protect his family, though it may leave him at odds with the whole world.

Loren shuts his eyes, but for a long time after there is little peace, on what has surely been the longest day of his life. He listens to his wife's breathing, trying his best to relax. Risa is a Dalmascan noble, her late father leaving her with enough to get by, though she is by no means rich or highly titled. House Rhedan is of no great consequence, yet he still knows more than she does, that even if Vayne Solidor is true and just and honestly means them no harm, he is also but one short step away from the Archadian throne. Loren knows enough of politics, that there will be considerations, there will be acts of necessity beyond any one man's fate, beyond even Rabanastre itself. Sacrifices are always made, even by the best of men with the kindest of intentions.

"… we will have it with Rabanastre as our vanguard or we will have the war on top of them." It was not a threat, merely the reality, that there is nothing yet in Dalmasca to make either side give pause or consideration. It is the true weight that he feels, of the conflict that looms before them, a princess risen from the grave and a day that is nothing at all like the way it began, and in the end Vayne will do what he must, and there are like to be no easy answers.

Loren lies in bed, as frozen as a child fearing untold monsters in the shadows. The sharp pang of nostalgia - for a world of fears that could be named and vanquished and forgotten - follows him down into his dreams.

 

Author's Notes
======================
1. I upped Larsa's age by a bit, for the oncoming Penelo/Larsa bits because yes.

2. I changed The Death Star Bahamut's design to something a bit more logical and functional because AU. Besides, the Bahamut in game is both ugly and barely functional.