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A perfect Archadian morning. The sun rises gloriously, spilling through the high-arched windows, warm and bright across the shining marble floors. The birds sing, ducking in and out of the ivy that climbs up the trellises along the outer balconies, and from certain viewpoints it is possible to see maids all over the upper quarters flinging sheets to air out in the morning breeze, half the houses seemingly at full sail. Tiny drops of dew cling to the flowers in boxes at each landing, and Vayne has been up before dawn.

It is the day they take Nalbina Fortress.

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He has been summoned to Archades rather than observe the battle, so his father may remind him that he is the leader of the Western Armada only when it suits the throne. Foolish, really, that the house arrest should come as any sort of surprise. Vayne has long cultivated an air of utter indifference just for days like this, that he may meet approval or censure or - some day, perhaps - the order for his execution with the lack of interest it deserves.

A petty slight to his pride and nothing more, whether he is there or not. At this point all involved want the same thing - ideally, to take Rasler Heios Nabradia hostage, and treat with King Raminas for the Shards and, most importantly, the Sun-Cryst. The Dalmascan king may very well be persuaded to give up its location at his daughter’s pleading, that she should not lose her husband, and it is then that life will get very, very interesting. A bloody race to reach the Sun-Cryst first, between all who have the knowledge and the means to try.

Of course the Emperor still believes he is in control, though the disaster at Nabudis has shaken his resolve, even while making clear the promise of the prize. Vayne will have a small window to work with, in the time between the new king’s capture and the missive to Raminas, and no doubt, though the battle has not yet begun, Ghis is already thinking of ways to kill him, while Vayne seeks to return the favor.

House Solidor brought the Judges to Archades, what had once been a personal guard expanding to far more, establishing a new, and more stable system of governance, law and order throughout the Empire, with the Judge Magisters arbitrating for all save the Emperor himself. What many think this means is that there is a near-impenetrable wall of living steel between any threat of insurrection and the House they are bound to serve.

What it actually means is that the Judge Magisters will prove loyal until the day they are not. It may have been his House’s greatest triumph, seizing control from the military to take the throne, practically rewriting the rules of state, yet a country will always need its protectors, its militia - and those men, call them generals or Judges or whatever else may suit the times, will forever chafe beneath the rule of another.

True loyalty is rare enough that it may as well not exist, far too easily counterfeited - it cannot be relied upon, and so Vayne has learned to look to self-interest instead. Know what a man values most, and you may predict how he will act through the course of his days. The Rozarrian spy, for example, who keeps herself within the ranks of the courtiers is happy to report back on details of the Judge Magisters to him in exchange for her life and the level of comfort and status she has grown accustomed to in Archades, passing those same secrets - of far less value once they leave the court - back to her masters in the south.

Or Drace, so defined by her honor that it is easy to make her his unwitting ally. Enemies are far more reliable than friends, nothing in her to be swayed or disappointed by his actions, or persuaded by others into losing her good opinion. Vayne cannot lose what never existed, and thus her unending disapproval is solid, easy to count on. Drace is fiercely devoted where it matters most, and so much the better that she always be uneasy, and train her protege much the same, Gabranth well on his way to surpassing her achievements. If she did not think Vayne such a danger, if the Emperor himself did not agree, how else would his brother even have her as what was practically his personal guard, and perhaps another soon to be raised to the position?

Let him be their enemy, and gladly, if it means two Judge Magisters will soon stand between Larsa and those who would threaten him.

Bergan respects power, never quite comfortable enough to lead, but all that means is that he can be convinced to try a coup by anyone with half a good idea, or even a bad one that would allow him to carve enough of a blood-soaked swath through those in his way. He is a simple man with simple tastes and violent appetites and what Judge Bergan values above all else is, naturally, Judge Bergan.

It will be Ghis who goes for his throat, unless Vayne should get absurdly lucky and the Judge Magister might somehow fall in battle, though the war thus far has not given him any hope for that kind of good fortune. Ghis is growing old, and such men look back upon their lives and oft see failure, no matter their successes. All that he has - respect, money, titles - it is not enough, all meaningless compared to what he thinks ought to be his.

In leveraging the power to survive within the court, Vayne had snatched away the glory the Judge Magister believed he was owed, the strength of infantry and its overwhelming might that could very well have ceded him an ascension. Instead of leading armies to grand victories, of taking the throne to great accolades, Ghis has watched as Vayne and Cid and Draklor rendered the ground troops subordinate to all that took place in the skies; Archades airships swiftly dominating in both conflict and commerce. Vayne’s successes laid waste to whatever momentum was left in the Judge’s impressive career, turning him into a respectable, triumphant figure of the past. Praised, honored and utterly irrelevant - and Ghis will never forgive him for it.

Vayne must be some sort of savant, truly - so many different kinds of people all united in their hatred of him. It would not take much now, for Ghis to sway Bergan’s so-called allegiance, and even Zargabaath might - well, it is the Sun-Cryst in the balance, is it not? Name the man who would not risk everything for the chance at such power.

One slip, one moment of weakness and as always, he will disappear between the claws and fangs of a hundred eager opportunists, and so Vayne keeps his calm and bides his time and it is simply another day. The messenger that meets him at the door of his chambers barely pauses, a slight bow and the first of what will be many such reports, keeping him informed. What is left of Nabradia’s ground and air defense, backed by Rabanastre’s support, are moving into position at Nalbina. It is not an unimpressive force, the fortress will not be easily taken - yet it is inevitable that it will be, as the rest of this war has been a steady march to a well-charted conclusion.

Unless Ondore has finally committed, and Rozarrian ships are moving even now, to keep the fleet occupied at Nalbina, while the rest will move to assist Bhujerba in seceding. Or Raminas is waiting until they have all gathered together, to unleash the power of the Dusk Shard, or the Dawn Shard, or both. Archades is proud of its military prowess, and has reason to be, but they are hardly as invincible as they would like to believe. It could all go wrong now, with no warning, and Vayne has been left with his hands tied, to do nothing but keep himself occupied and wait to see what the day will bring.

———————————————————-

Over time, the range of Vayne’s official duties has been greatly restricted. Far gone now, those instructive lessons of his youth, sitting in on the trials that Judge Magisters prevailed over, even watching his eldest brother on a few occasions as he petitioned the Senate, and from where he’d sat his brother’s broad shoulders had blocked out the sun, seeming as fixed and indomitable as the palace itself.

Forever the dividing line in his life, the before and the after - and in the after, the Emperor had seen fit to assign him less… visible duties. The double-edged sword of Solidor, as ever, to be obedient and successful and, at the last, a pariah as payment for services rendered. Vayne had been quickly relegated to civil matters, seemingly useless busywork, but fortunately what noble Archades considered of little value did not translate to a waste of his time. It had taken several years of turning dross into opportunity, gaining allies of those who knew best how the city worked, how to maneuver unnoticed through unseen channels before they’d realized the extent of his work. At the same time there had been Larsa to consider, his brother’s education the perfect excuse to return to places in the court Vayne knew he was not at all welcome.

He has come to measure success in many ways, and where there is no victory, it is still important to be as annoying as possible to one’s enemies. Draklor’s triumph has made them all terribly nervous, but it is an unequivocal success, and so there is little even the Emperor can do in public but retaliate by constricting his daily tasks to the most meaningless of chores, all the while pretending it is worthy honor. Vayne now presides over an audience of completely useless, bickering nobles, only the highest of the Hundred names, where dragging House business before a Judge is considered far too gauche, and anything as base as a civil court is entirely out of the question.

“… I informed my sister that I was quite allergic to the very trees she insisted on planting on the far corner of the north garden. Of course it gets a full wind in the afternoon.”

The man sniffs, nose in the air, and Vayne has learned well that his awareness of the world does not exist more than two inches past it. Two months of meetings like this, every few weeks the siblings appearing for another chance to air out their private grievances in the guise of settling their late father’s affairs. Excessively large hats are in fashion this week, it seems, and Vayne is amazed the woman doesn’t topple over as her head snaps around, barely holding back a snarl.

“We were told that the trees would be good for the soil, which was damaged by a long period of neglect where my brother ought to have-”

“You just want to sell the damned thing, you always have, and you don’t care that the petals go absolutely everywhere-”

“I am merely trying to explain how you let the house fall down around our beloved father’s ears long before you’d chased him to his grave!”

Always amusing, and occasionally rather relaxing to take a vacation in someone else’s reality. Vayne had ordered a full morning’s worth of hearings to keep his mind occupied, but all had been moving rather quickly, at least until now.

House Calsesa is one of the wealthiest of the old Houses, which explains both the vast amount of holdings in the current tug-of-war, as well as the wide gulf between the surviving heirs and anything resembling a sane world view. Behind the squabbling duo stands a veritable army of moogles, responsible for cataloguing each slight, real or imagined, and keeping track of every inch of their inheritance down to the last fork in the silver cabinet. Vayne hopes they’re doing their best to skim off all the gil they can manage when no one is looking, certain they more than deserve it.

Larsa has joined him this morning, ever curious, though from the sideways glances he keeps giving Vayne it seems he has come to regret this particular decision. The pair are in full fury now, and will continue to snipe at each other for what might be forever, though Vayne has never been able to make it more than a few minutes before cutting them off. Larsa raises an eyebrow, and Vayne makes a vague gesture, full approval to join the fray if he truly wishes to. Somehow his brother manages to clear his throat in a lull, cutting off the next volley before Vayne can give into the impulse to simply cast a Silence spell and be done with it.

“I was… under the impression that you had a particular issue to bring to our attention today. One that might help bring things to a successful conclusion.”

It is important for Larsa to understand the disposition of all those in Archades, including those who are… aggressively ridiculous. Enough of them in inexplicable positions of power – and they must all be managed carefully, lest their wealth and boundless self-confidence convince them they can do more than play-act at serious matters. Vayne highly doubts either of them could point to Nalbina on a map, unlikely they even realize there is even a war on.

The man blinks, slightly surprised at being addressed by the younger Solidor, but when Vayne makes no move to intervene, he quickly regains his stride.

“Yes, yes indeed. It is of the utmost importance, I assure you. My father had in his collection many volumes of rare histories, including some of spellcraft-”

“-which you left to molder in the basement.” The lady finishes, a snap of her fingers summoning a moogle forward, and Vayne leans down to take the scroll being offered, a full list of the library’s contents. “He couldn’t wait to get his hands on them, milord, but they were my father’s favorites and I will not allow-”

“As if you could name a single one. I’m surprised you didn’t use them as kindling already.”

Vayne ignores the new volley of insults, scrolling swiftly through the list. The moogle has started with the rarest tomes first – the servants often much more competent than their employers - and it is not at all a poor sampling. It seems the late lord was a collector of antiquities, at least two dozen titles in archaic Kildean that may prove quite interesting with a full translation. Certainly nothing that deserves the fate of being relegated to some shelf to stand as an unread and dusty background to lackluster business affairs. He passes the list to Larsa, at least to give his brother a moment’s distraction from the never-ending argument.

“I know what this is about, and it has nothing to do with books! You’re trying to punish me for being father’s favorite.” The woman’s voice rises, and Vayne wonders if the moogles ever consider earplugs, like those used in the labs for engine testing. “I’m not sorry that I am! If you’d shown half the dedication-”

“If our esteemed father hadn’t had the sense to buy you a husband-”

“You dare!”

The information wasn’t all that revelatory the first time they’d gone through it, let alone now. At times, the two of them will diverge into the bad business dealings on his part, the possibility of a slight scandal on hers and something to do with a dog. Vayne cannot forget the details of their lives quickly enough.

“The books belong with me!”

“I would rather see them burn!”

“We shall add them to the library at the Grand College.” Larsa says decisively, because taking a position of authority will often quite often substitute for actually having any. At least in this case, he is likely able to back up his words with action, although he still spares a quick glance at his brother, waiting for the nod of approval before continuing.

“It seems likely that such rare texts would be deserving of a room of their own. You would obviously each be free to examine them in private, at your leisure, and they will be well looked after. Your largesse and generosity will be greatly appreciated - and if it would please, we would like you to choose a fitting tribute in his honor.”

He smiles brightly. It really is an unfair advantage, very few who can say no to Larsa at his most charming and cheerful, and Vayne watches the two petitioners slowly nod, for a moment seeming almost reasonable.

“I believe that would be an excellent idea.” The woman nods decisively, as if it were her own inspiration. “Certainly, they would appreciate such a gift, and it would serve our father’s memory well.”

“I agree.” The man says, not to be outdone. “A space of his own, and a marble bust at the front, that all may see his noble profile.”

The woman sniffs. “A painting would be far better.”

“I don’t see how. Anything worth doing is worth doing in stone.”

“So cold and dull! Well, no wonder you like it!”

Luckily, the offer seems to have settled the current argument, at least enough for them to leave, though they continue to take jabs at one another all the way out of the room, trailed by their various attendants. Larsa stares after them, until the room is empty and still, and finally leans back with a poorly-stifled laugh, looking at Vayne as if waiting for an explanation, as if there’s anything to say.

“It seems like they would have to… stop. Being themselves. Eventually.” Larsa says quietly, though there is no one to hear. “I don’t think I could manage that sort of display for more than a handful of minutes before losing my place.”

“You have an excellent work ethic. I’m sure if you put your mind to it, you could soon be twice the fool of anyone in the court.”

Larsa considers an eloquent response, and sticks out his tongue instead.

At the far end of the room, the door creaks slightly, a pair of eyes peering around the edge at a childish attempt at subtlety. One of his brother’s friends, the second son of House Orlebar. Low Thirty, the lord a shipping magnate with nothing but business ambitions. If there is any hidden intention to that friendship it is only that Orlebar might be the first to hear rumor of any new developments in Draklor that will improve his bottom line. A safe alliance, all the more important because the boy is also Larsa’s teammate, no doubt with a polo mallet in his other hand, eager to start the game. He waves, disappearing quickly when he sees Vayne watching. His brother is half out of his chair already, hesitating at the last, and Vayne leaves him hanging for a moment, just to torture him.

“Do you need me to solve any more problems for you then, Lord Brother?”

“Ah, so you’ve finally discovered hubris. I’ll be sure to give Calsesa to you in the future, if you’re so confident.” A second glimpse of the boy in the hall, Larsa still poised above the chair and waiting, politeness warring with impatience, though for his brother politeness always wins. “Well I’m certainly not about to prattle on when you would much rather be running about on a bird.” Vayne flicks his hand dismissively. “Go on, then. Win the day.”

Larsa is out the door like an arrow to the mark, leaving him to shuffle through what’s left of the morning’s business, listening to the bright sound of young voices echoing faintly down the corridor.

——————————————-

A football match is underway at one of the stadiums below, Vayne can hear the roar of the crowds echoing dully off the buildings as he steps out onto the narrow street below the palace. The semi-finals - it’s Molberry, the Imperial Institute for the Applied Alchemical Sciences against Rienna’s Archadian Grand College of the Magical Arts - and whichever of the schools wins this will face off against the Judicial Akademy in the finals. Hardly the most refined of sports, purely for the city’s lower levels, but they have a box anyway, and perhaps he can encourage Gabranth to accompany them to the finals. It would be worthwhile, he has plenty of information but little first-hand measure of the man.

Cid will bet ten gil on the Akademy, and Vayne will most likely end up buying him lunch.

The buildings cast long shadows across most of the walk to Draklor, wide slabs of sunlight stretched here and there in the spaces between. Archades is all smooth glass and rose marble here, the administrative quarter’s State buildings all cut from the same quarry. Rather quiet at mid-morning, he is alone on a bridge that is rarely used even for those few who can access it, the same sort of unbreakable glass they put in airships, etched with ornate knotwork at its edges and providing a clear view several hundred feet straight down, to one of the small rivers that traces through the city center. It glitters up at him, a silver chain.

A sharp clack cuts through the still air, the reason he hadn’t bothered with the skycabs. Archades had never been particularly lush, even from its founding. Much of the city’s green space has been filled in after the fact, long balconies stretching out from the sides of buildings, planted with trees and flowers, rooftop gardens and private enclaves set in any space fit to hold them. The largest and most elaborate of these belong, of course, to the upper levels, and he has a good view from here, of the wide field where his brother is currently making a run at the goal, chocobo moving at full tilt as he holds the reins in one hand and leans out, all but parallel with the ground to gain the best power for his swing. Vayne stops at the railing, can only come up with a dozen ways Larsa might be hurt or killed in the handful of moments it takes him to cross the field with the ball and score a very tidy goal.

His brother is progressing well with the sword, as good with magicks as Vayne ever was. As good at anything as he ever was, and even more so in what he lacks, all smiles and easy laughter as he taps mallets with a teammate, wheeling his bird around. Vayne wonders on occasion, what he would have done had Larsa not turned out interested or capable of leading, though all that is mere conjecture now, his brother succeeding well in line with all expectations. It has been a long road, just to reach this point, and a singular victory that Larsa has never seen the struggle.

Increasingly difficult now that he is nearly grown, that his brother has already begun to attract the attention of the Senate and their greedy, grasping treachery. Vayne could have solved such a problem from the beginning, and kept him away from the world entirely - a more sensible man might have, surely there are many nobles who do so. Shielding his brother as one would raise a rare orchid in the ornamental gardens, perfect and innocent and left to be dashed to pieces with the first breath of a storm.

It will not do. Despite his reputation Vayne is neither omniscient or omnipotent, there will always be dangers he cannot anticipate, threats he will not be there to face no matter how he might wish it so. Larsa is well-situated for the moment, self-assured and clever, and Vayne will see him through this no different than what has come before, as brother and mentor and - most importantly - the bigger target. Fortunate, that he seems to bring out the very worst in people. Most of those who would go after his brother are far more interested in watching Vayne bleed first, up close. As it ought to be.

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

The guards at the front gate salute as he passes through into Draklor, most of the the artificers and scientists within well accustomed to his presence, no real surprise to see him, informal bows or even nods his standard greeting. Technically they’re all part of the military, but only a handful actually come from the Akademy, hardly any with the House rank to bother learning much in the way of etiquette.

Draklor has long been Vayne’s refuge, more comfortable here than the palace ever was, even before he’d made it his own. One of the more motley places in Archades, especially compared with the rest of the upper levels. Cid is blind to all except results, which means the tests go out and the results come back and so there are third daughters and fifth sons and even the odd bangaa in the mix. A fair number of Moogles, always, and occasionally even a few Bhujerbians, though both he and Cid vet each of them before they are placed, and very rarely allowed into the most secure areas. Vayne is the state here, and should he flaunt convention there is no one to argue otherwise.

Cid’s chief of staff is, believe it or not, Rozarrian, come to Archades as a girl. No love lost with her homeland, her parents well-off enough to be worth murdering in the streets by a rival family, while she and her sister had fled to the safety of distant cousins and a new life in the Empire. Quite young for such a staggering intellect, and with a quick enough temper when her loyalty is brought into question. Dedicated to science, to Archades, and if it is to revenge against the old rather than patriotism for the new that moves her, she is all the more trustworthy for it.

Vayne takes the lift up, no need to stray from the outer sections of the lab, the sections he shows off to guests and cranky Senators who want to complain about the destination of so much of the money they consider their own. It is open and airy, with banks of windows and an architecture that compliments its surroundings, quite pleasant - and beneath the facade is the most secure building in Archades, an absolute fortress in the center of the city.

He hasn’t even had to fight for it - in order to do so much dangerous work inside the city limits, it’s been practically demanded of him to fortify the interior rooms, and the same protections that keep any danger contained and secure also render it all but untouchable from the outside. It would take several rounds of concentrated fire from even the Alexander’s main guns to punch any sort of hole through the walls, and no one would even be able to try, not in the middle of Archades, with Draklor nestled so close to the rich and powerful. Issues of security and access have made it possible to keep any Judges as far away from its core operations as he can. As far as Vayne is aware, even his father hasn’t been able to bribe his way past the first few floors.

A safe base of operations for Cid, then, and a fair shelter for Larsa in the event of any number of worst-case scenarios. Vayne doesn’t bother worrying over the details, better to simply expect that things will one day go wrong, and keep as many useful solutions at the ready, than to try and plan for a single one, only to be foiled by unseen circumstance.

—————————————————

In addition to its other functions, Draklor also serves as an instructional facility. Closely linked with the Institute, the very best way to ensure the best pick of new talent. The larger of the auditoriums seats just over five hundred, and today every seat is full, with students stacked in twos and threes in the aisles, more standing along the back and leaning in through the doors, along with some faculty and even a few scientists from the labs. Looking down from the balcony, Vayne can see a few pom-poms waving here and there, moogles using size to their advantage, sneaking into the gaps no one else can fit.

“Lining up to see if I’m as crazy as all the rumors say.” Cid had said, trying to play it off with a laugh. “A man can build a thousand airships, but if he talks to just one voice in his head…”

It shames him, the gossip, the rumors, though Cid would never admit to giving a damn. Vayne’s done his best to convince the doctor that even if he were mad, it’s certainly an enviable sort of lunacy. Little doubt anyone in this room would be glad to endure the most vicious slander or public rejection, were it to gain them the sort of knowledge he has been privy to.

Unlikely that anyone in attendance today has come to sneer, regardless. Vayne can see nothing but open notes and bowed heads, dutifully taking notes off of the figures that already fill two boards behind him, equations he cannot tell the back or front of. If he wants any hope of understanding, he will have to ask Cid to explain later. Slowly.

“… forgive the momentary descent into poetry, but it ought be quite clear - obedience is a vastly inferior form of veneration. We are not isolated from the world around us, but we are not required to bow to those who seek to chain our potential, be it the demands of men or some grand ideology or even the gods. In flesh we are but weak and mortal, yet seizing the fire of intellect and the force of will, are we not the very hand that guides the weave of history?”

He knows this particular speech well enough, could match the gestures if he really wanted to. A quite familiar chapter and verse in the scripture of Dr. Cidolfus Bunasa, preaching to the converted. Cid is a consummate showman, invested in every word - it is nothing less the sum of life and legacy, delivered with the pride of a master craftsman.

Quite rare, these days, that Cid has the time or opportunity to give lectures, hence the overcrowded room and the silence save the hasty scratching of endless nibs on paper. Vayne cannot talk to Venat directly, and yet he thinks there is an understanding between them, that Cid has been let alone long enough to play academic for a day. It is a small reassurance; that Venat has learned some sense of the value of the good doctor, and how he ought be carefully treated.

“-considerable amount of time, there was no proper study of even the base reaction of a Glossiar ring. The form had been improved upon, the function brought to a high art, but the study was purely mechanical. How to improve its ability, altering the exterior structure, refining its core elements. The question of why it worked at all was considered of little importance. It has been only with the advent of the study of Nethicite that we may consider expanding upon the essential principles-”

Cid has his coat slung over the back of a chair, sleeves rolled up carelessly as he continues to chart out the theory and design of so many years hard labor. An impressive scar winds around his left forearm, all the way to the wrist. Not Nethicite-related, though he carries a few marks from that as well. House Bunansa has a history as extensive and dignified as any in Archades - all the more amusing for Cid, then, to have the titles of the gentry and the body of a lifelong shipwright: callused hands and thick knuckles, nicks and burns, though they agree he would have to choose an unfortunate tattoo to truly complete the look.

Vayne’s responsibility, to keep watch over the scholar, when no doubt Venat could have him charging into any number of dangers simply by suggesting it might yield an interesting result. Shipbuilding is a young man’s game, adventuring even more so, and Cid has absolutely no sense of self-preservation in the face of scholastic temptation, all hesitation lost with the hint of an undiscovered truth. Giruvegan had been proof enough of that, striking out alone to seek out lingering secrets in the damned ruin had all but killed him, leaving Vayne helpless to do anything but rant at the empty air; certain that Venat could hear him, and it would do well to remember that Cid was mortal and far from invulnerable or Vayne would find a way to strike at it, and to hell with the consequences.

The good doctor, for whom Vayne would threaten what he cannot even see. If there is a better definition of friendship than such willful stupidity, he does not know it. As much a mutual awareness of each others vulnerabilities as anything- he and Cid are so tangled in each other’s secrets that any betrayal would likely destroy them both. A rather cynical view, and not at all the truth - that Cid stands in a rare society of two, the only other person Vayne no longer measures purely in terms of his usefulness. It is dangerous, to have pieces on the board that he cannot sacrifice, but he cannot quite bring himself to regret it.

“-that the stone speaks, no differently than any hume with an incantation, though in this case conversing directly with Magicite, with the Mist as a common medium. This language, such as it is, remains mainly inaudible, other than the expected middle-C resonation in a fully functioning engine, as I’m sure you have all heard. Nethicite, in comparison, resonates in an easily distinguishable G-sharp. At this point, we are still only able to recognize what is happening as a matter of effect than by pinpointing the cause-”

At first, it had all been so simple. A matter of tactics no different than the rest of Vayne’s life, looking for the best opportunity for power and position, and there stood Doctor Cid and his research and his lab. Overlooked by most of Archades, unappreciated work being done by those without name or status - scholarship only had value if a Judge’s appointment lay at the other end, or some other courtly duty. Scientists had been of the same value as ship mechanics then, little better than day labor. It had been an inefficient, unorganized system - which meant there had been breathtaking potential in it, and Vayne could hardly take credit for what had, in the end, required so little effort on his part, simply bringing in the gil and the authority of his name.

Soon after, that Cid had lost his wife, and long before the Nethicite or Venat or any of it, it had been clear his future was Vayne’s to decide. Step in and save the doctor from the edge, drag him back into the world and keep him there - or lose him forever to the depths of his lab, still useful but no longer quite as he had been. It seemed a loss, even then, sacrificing but a single facet of such a man. Cid is easily the most brilliant person Vayne has ever met, Venat’s appearance only confirming the obvious. The doctor has been chosen, in this place at this time, because there is no one else who can do what he is capable of. A mind to match that of those who seem as gods.

Just look at him now, the keen, piercing gaze all but demanding answers from the world, always at his best with a problem before him that he can chase to ground, excitement occasionally outpacing even his eloquence, grandly gesturing to try to bridge the divide between the two.

“As to the problem of manufacted Nethicite, and how we may consider improving upon its rather limited ability to speak, this is an issue you will likely take up should you enter the field in any greater capacity. We shall be studying this purely in matters of theory at the moment - attempts until now to alter the crystal habit even at seed form have proven near-impossible, and as thus we have been forced to proceed with a energetic but relatively inarticulate final structure.”

In the event anyone wonders just how far Cid exists beyond the average man, here is where Vayne would set the mark. The Nethicite that has all but started a war across Ivalice, the object of desire for anyone who knows of its existence, and it is merely ‘limited,’ little more than an imperfect copy of what ought to be. Vayne does not consider himself to be particularly stupid, curious enough to fill in the gaps in his knowledge as he finds them, but he has no doubt any student in this room could go beyond him in the span of a few sentences. He is many things, but never more than a visitor here.

It is humbling. Vayne enjoys being humbled. A ward against complacency, when that is but a simple, inexcusable step from ending on the wrong side of an assassin’s blade, or in humiliation beneath the executioner’s sword, wondering how it all went wrong.

“As we now understand it, Magicite loses much of its vocabulary as it is processed into Nethicite, though such potential is not realized even within its original form. Nethicite has more power to speak, as it were, but lacks anything of interest to say. Hardly uncommon, as such things go.” A slight murmur of laughter, and Cid grins for a moment before turning back to the board. “The expression of this decay is shown as follows, as the axial system shifts completely between breakdown and reformation. In extreme cases it may collapse completely - in pre-production, this would be where you start to see dangerous fluctuations and unstable fracturing when magical power is introduced-”

A new set of baffling equations, though Vayne’s already been given the simplified version, with more truths than Cid can offer these students, the actual formulas still closely guarded. The reason the Doctor knows Manufacted Nethicite is not living up to its potential, as Venat has given him the vision of what it ought to be. A stone with power a hundred times, a thousand times greater than what they are able to create. A crystal structure with both power and the ability to express it in full, and the potential of such a thing would be unimaginable, if Cid had not already given him so many impossibilities, secrets of the world’s lost ages that Vayne can hold in his hand.

“… may be an issue with diffusion, although even attempts to alter the pathways of Magicite for improved function in airships have rarely produced dependable results, and this is a much trickier procedure. As you no doubt are all aware, we have had catastrophic failures along every stage of the process - if the generation mixture is off during the initial stages of growth, the crystal will reabsorb into its solution and then explode. If the proper balance is not maintained as it is refined, or the magicks fluctuate by the slightest amounts, it will explode. If there are any sudden shocks during the refining process - well, you get the idea.”

It’s not even necessary for it to go badly for there to be ‘issues’. The last slight glitch involving Nethicite and what Cid had deemed ‘sympathetic vibrations’ had shattered every window for nearly six blocks in all directions outside of Draklor. It had proved an excellent way to increase funding for further fortification of the lab’s inner walls, once the irate screaming had stopped.

“As far as we know, the last formula Rozarria managed to smuggle from us was mostly accurate. I understand you could still hear the explosion half a mile away. Nethicite is brittle, it is fickle, and it does not suffer fools gladly - if you should someday appear without your favorite arm, everyone will know why.”

Another ripple of soft laughter. Draklor has its share of scientists with families and children, normal men and women who work normal hours and have actual lives. Vayne is more familiar with those who work closer to the center of the lab, the handful of bright-eyed fanatics among the students in this room who will eventually take orders directly from Cid himself. The kind who prefer to sleep under their desks, who generally have to be ordered home and then spend all their off hours designing their own test ships anyway. After a life spent with men who would slit each others throats over the barest hint of a nebulous reward, there is something quite pleasant about seeing that same obsessiveness bent to the simple pleasure of knowledge, of look what I can do.

“I hope then, that I’ve given you a bit of an overview into our current work here, and the breathtaking potential we have only begun to tap into.” Cid pauses, hand at the edge of the chalkboard. “And for those of you who’ve been patiently waiting for me to get to the point of all this-”

He flips the board over with a theatrical flourish, revealing a ship Vayne has followed from the moments after his team had finished last year’s design, already suggesting ways it could be improved. Murmurs of approval throughout the crowd - it is not the end goal of any of Draklor’s research, but consistently building the fastest and most impressive looking ships for the single-engine racing circuit certainly gains them a respectable amount of attention. The ship is low, sleek and even as a sketch it looks capable of highly irresponsible speeds.

“As it is still a highly restricted material, the Chione does not employ Nethicite, however we’ve managed to use the knowledge gained in its study toward the development of the engines. It has a top speed of three-hundred-ten, with zero to sixty in two point three seconds. Full stop takes just under four.”

Racing is popular sport among the various manufacturers, a way to show off the best that they have to offer, and illegal runs are even more popular in Old Archades, where the racing isn’t remotely safe or sane, and utterly lawless. The stretches of crumbling infrastructure, old aqueducts and toppled columns are the loosest definition of ‘track’ there can be, but also the only space within the limits of Archades that can properly put a ship through its paces. Cid has made a point of not asking how many of his acolytes sneak down into the ruins with their own, home-built machines, or the Draklor prototypes of years past, stripped down to the bare bones.

Cid’s own son had run the underground courses like a champion, with whatever ship he could get his hands on. A shame he’d entered the Akademy instead of continuing on with the sciences, or they might have found a way to keep him.

Vayne does not flatter himself, that it all has gone as either he or Cid had hoped for, or perhaps even planned on, but despite considerable opposition they have managed to build a world here, and it has grown and thrived. All he has to do is look down into the eager crowd, and on the stage, Cid must see the same.

An uncertain future, but at least there is a steady place they may stand to meet it.

————————————————-

The state of the doctor’s inner sanctum suggests that a dozen people, all working on different projects, suddenly had the impulse to toss everything into the air and run out screaming. Never exactly tidy, the situation has deteriorated badly in the last few years, as Cid’s life has been upended by new discovery, with more and more more projects put on extended hold. Vayne maneuvers with long practice around the piles of paper, with random airship components sticking out here and there, or scattered haphazardly across the floor, a few discarded memstones completing the look.

An architectural marvel, really, in the tomes stacked up into precarious positions on the shelves, more scrolls and loose papers piled on any book that sticks out more than a quarter inch. All covered in varying levels of dust, depending on how long they’ve been pushed to the side. A handful of most of the documents in this room would be worth thousands, tens of thousands to Rozarria. If Cid ever took an interest in defecting, any of the ruling families would flock to bury him in titles and estates and gold-dipped virgins.

A massive sculpture takes up most of the narrow shelf on the back wall, a hundredth-scale replica of the Leviathan, one of Cid’s earliest successes. The ship’s outer plating is missing, revealing every deck, each supporting system and minute detail of its construction. A gift from the people of Archades, from the Emperor, for twenty-five years faithful service. In the drawers beneath, leather-bound folios in ivory parchment and onionskin contain the finalized blueprints for every ship Cid has ever designed, near-transparent pages with crinkling layers outlining each section of the ship’s systems.

Works of art, all, though at the moment Vayne’s attention is focused entirely on the half a pie resting at the corner of the desk, and he gives the crust an inquisitive tap, pleased to find it isn’t a fossil. Most likely breakfast, forgotten about as Cid was distracted by some problem or another. He pulls off his gloves, stuffs them into a jacket pocket, and makes a mockery of several years of etiquette lessons by tearing into it with his hands.

Draklor has its own cooks, both as a security measure and to keep the noble born less fussy about the barbarians in their midst. Given the range of origins of the staff, they’ve been able to attract more than a few interesting culinary options beyond the usual Archadian standard of boiling all the taste out of the food. The pie has nutmeg, cinnamon and just a hint of allspice, which is nothing special but still three spices more than Cid’s usual preference. He may be a genius, but the man’s appetites are woefully upper noble.

“Yes, you’re quite right, but even if we had the magicks to maintain that sort of core temperature, let alone anyone with the stamina to attempt such an extended burn - we’d melt the room and the equipment before the Nethicite could show any result. No… I don’t - yes I understand what you’re - well I am rather stupid, as you are well aware.”

Cid is pacing back and forth in a smaller, adjoining room with even more shelves and papers stacked high, cabinet doors open and threatening to upend their contents at any moment. It seems the doctor is in a good mood, despite the argument he is having, or perhaps because of it. It is not as difficult as one would think, having conversations with a man who often pauses to address the empty air, though not a skill Vayne ever thought he would need to learn. Cid nods briefly, acknowledging his arrival, even though his attention is still fixed on a point two feet higher and to his left.

“Well, at least in that sense, it might not be so impossible to - the shape of a blade is only convention, after all. Rather archaic, really.”

“Is this going to be a theory with five zeroes or six?” Vayne says dryly. “I’d almost think you held a grudge, the way you fill my days with empty coffers and angry Senators.”

Cid grimaces, even less patience for the bureaucrats than Vayne does.

“As if they know any other way to be. You secure my funding for the quarter, I’ll get you fifteen percent off the total engine cost for cruisers and dreadnoughts, with a twenty percent power increase across the board. We’ll see them complain about that.”

“And?” Vayne says - it’s the other work that actually matters, that everyone knows they’re doing but no one will speak of, but Cid’s back to nodding at the empty air.

“No, I don’t suppose so. Yes, that might work, but… no, that would take some doing. It certainly won’t be built in a day, and even if you may have all the time in the world… You are more than welcome to stay, if you like. I am sure… ah, yes, then. I will see what I can do.”

A pause, and Vayne wonders how he can tell when Cid is no longer looking at the phantom and is simply staring into the distance instead.

“I do wonder where Venat goes. How else does such a creature occupy its time?”

“Watching people in the bath, I imagine.” Vayne replies. “I do not have to be here, if there is work to be done between you.”

Cid shakes his head. “Always work to be done, but I am less the apt pupil than I ought to be, as of late.”

“Venat is… disappointed?”

“Oh, nothing so common.” Cid sighs, makes a frustrated gesture which means the actual explanation is about an hour long and would bore a normal man cross-eyed. “The world it knows, or knew - the techniques, the materials on hand… the distance between what Venat assumes I can do and what I am actually capable of is… optimistic at the best of times. Nethicite itself is one thing, but this treaty blade - there are things that are like breathing to an Occurian that I have not the mark or measure of. We speak the same words, yet hardly the same language.”

Vayne licks a bit of congealed syrup off his thumb, tossing the empty pie tin back on the desk. “Keep it simple, if you will. I spent all morning in mediation.”

“Judges?”

“House Calsesa.”

“Good gods, those fools are still at it?” Cid moves carefully through the piles on his desk, shifting them from one side to the other, looking for something. “What is it now, the tapestries or the furniture? You ought burn the whole place down, let them squabble over the ashes.”

“I have no doubt they would. It seems to be mostly over, though in order to escape I was forced to resort to… drastic measures.”

Cid smiles knowingly. It is not the first time Vayne’s used Larsa’s precocious charms to avoid another ten hours of tedious debate. “Your brother is well, then?”

“Always. So what is this new problem of yours?”

“The same problem as ever. It’s all diamonds scratching diamonds. We have a difficult time doing anything with Nethicite as it is, and that’s when we can encourage it to crystallize properly. Attempting to modify at the seed form yields some results, but there’s only so far to shape it once it’s started growing. So dense, and damned unstable even when we can crack it - and manufacted’s nothing compared to the real thing. This blade, if it’s to go through the Sun-Cryst itself…”

Magicite is simple storage, a one-use battery, the Mist within it bouncing off the channels and paths inside, a temporary source of power. Nethicite, in comparison, does not lose all of its Mist, even fully drained, and the Mist that remains within its pathways refracts and bends and - changes, over time, or so Venat has said. Gives it a certain kind of life. Manufacted Nethicite is dumb, and the only paths they can create within it are rough and simple things. Still, it contains a network of channels twenty to fifty times that of Magicite, absorbs magicks like a sponge and can be extremely powerful if properly utilized.

Deifacted Nethicite, in comparison, is a network of endless fractal pathways with ages for the Mist inside to steep. Dense and unbreakable, nothing in any standard armory capable of scratching it, let alone destroying it. The Shards do not simply resonate - they can reach out , interact with their surroundings. From what Cid has learned it seems likely they are somewhat aware of their surroundings, and even then they are but fragments cleaved from an even more powerful whole.

The Sun-Cryst is alive, with even the spare details Venat has revealed of its construction there can be little doubt of that. Potentially as conscious as any other creature, with a will of its own and perhaps - Cid has speculated - even watching the world turn, observing all of history through the Mist. Eons spent in silent observation from wherever it has been hidden away.

Venat does not answer any of the important questions. How it came to be, if it has always been or if the Occuria had actually brought it to life, and just how destructive its power is, if unleashed. Only how to destroy it, only that it must be destroyed. It does run counter to Vayne’s usual impulse of keeping all avenues open, not discarding a potentially useful tool, but - especially after Nabudis - it seems there is some sense in Venat’s insistence.

Who knew what had happened, ages ago, why Raithwall had chosen to take only slivers of the Sun-Cryst’s might for his own? Just why it had been so long kept from the hands of humes. Maybe it has truly been watching them all this time.

Maybe it doesn’t like what it sees.

“Venat has not provided any further clues?”

“Clues? Answers, all but written out for me, yet we lack the barest of essentials. The technology for such equipment does not exist anywhere in Ivalice. I would need to spend ten, twenty years building the infrastructure first.”

Of course this is Cid, so he’s likely cobbled together at least half a solution out of spare glossair rings, bolts and bits of rope already.

“I would give you more time if I could, but I fear we are quickly approaching the end of our advantage.”

“It goes well with Nalbina then?” Cid shakes his head. “I am still amazed that king of theirs never thought to marry the girl off to you.”

Vayne shrugs. “He must have heard about my habit of devouring virgins whole. I suppose it’s for the best. A wedded life would leave far less time for the orgies.”

Cid makes a thoughtful sound. The benefits of courtly manners. If it were a real competition it could be a week before one of them might slip and crack a smile.

“You are certainly insatiable. I wonder how my old bones have lasted this long.”

“Oh, don’t put yourself down. You hardly creak worse than the bedsprings.”

He would be lost, to do this alone. Either he would be completely out of his mind or he would be no different than the rest of the damned fools in court, and given the option Vayne would much prefer to be a lunatic.

The doctor continues shuffling papers, voice musing and mild. “Who knows, perhaps Bergan will end up dueling me for your hand? He seems the jealous type.”

“And there is an image that will haunt me to my very grave. Thank you, Cid.” The doctor chuckles, acquiescing, and Vayne smiles, though it doesn’t last. He did ask about the war. “Nabradia is not without skill in battle, but there are few strategies open to them, once they are forced to stand and fight, and a bottleneck gives very little advantage with our ships in the skies. Yet again, it is your achievements that will give us the day.”

“The Emperor has said as much.”

It is not all that surprising, or perhaps only that it took him this long to make the attempt to turn Cid to his side. Desperate, frightened old man. Almost pitiable, how far he’s falling behind, and Vayne would enjoy it more if such failures weren’t likely to make the Emperor all the more likely to act without thinking.

“What did he offer you?”

“I may be a curse on the industry, but…”

“Doctor, you are the industry. What did he say?”

“Nothing of consequence. He just wished to see that I was productive - and still too far gone to be of any real use to him. You would think by now that I ought be insane enough to get out of all of my meetings…”

Each of them has used the other as an excuse for ducking out of all kinds of obligations, enough that Vayne has lost count, though he does not have Cid’s added option of simply ranting to the air as a way of avoiding unwanted conversations.

“He threatened Draklor, I’m sure?”

Cid has his glasses off, cleaning them on the edge of his shirt. “Oh, with all due apology. The Senate is trying to freeze spending, so he says. It is a matter of fiscal caution, a… ‘shared uncertainty, over how to best allocate resources in the current climate’.”

Even without a direct war, there is nothing for the laboratory to do but grow stronger, more essential in a dozen ways domestically, and that is not discounting the endless, simmering conflict with Rozarria, fear of the unknown driving the need for the protection they provide that much higher. If Vayne wanted to try for a coup, it might be done with very little trouble before the year was out. Gods willing, it will not come to that, not when a seamless transition would far better serve. The old man may have spent the better part of a decade at death’s door, playing it for all it is worth, but even he will have to pass from this age eventually, though it seems all too likely they will have to pry his unwilling corpse off the throne.

“Do not trouble yourself over the Senate. I’ll deal with the consequences.”

“You always do.” Vayne realizes after a moment, that Cid is actually angry on his behalf. Surprisingly touching, though he had given up on anything better than antipathy from the Emperor a very long time ago. “He was shocked at where things stand, of course. As if he could not imagine a part for himself in any of it. A tale of woe, that you were no longer the sweet boy he raised - and even though I am obviously deranged, would I support the effort to put your brother on the throne? Young and inexperienced as he is, not even of age, and let’s not discuss how in the hell he would ever manage to keep it.”

“It’s not personal. It never has been. What would you do, doctor, if you built a machine that you could not longer rely upon?”

A scowl, the same look Cid gives him whenever Vayne refers to his life as the tactical blunder that it truly is. No doubt the Emperor regrets it more with each day, and there is something magnificent in the idea that his father would have preferred for him to fail and die, years ago. Who knew for certain, perhaps he’d never intended for any of them to survive.

“After all that you’ve done in his name, he thinks he can just buy it out from under you. That all loyalties are as cheap and meaningless as his own.”

“Promise not to betray me for less than a dukedom.”

Cid snorts. “I’m already an Earl, for all the good it does me.”

Back to shuffling papers across the desk, though Cid is likely wishing he were working on something with more moving parts that he might occasionally bash with a wrench, now and then. No one should have to stand between him and the Emperor, to be anywhere in range, when Gramis’ paranoia finally gets the better of what’s left of his common sense.

“Will you hire someone to do it, or just poison my tea?”

The doctor ponders his options. “I thought I would build a robot. I’ve always wanted to build a robot.”

Vayne is sure a messenger will be waiting for him, as soon as he leaves the lab. He doubts the battle will be over quite this early, though this would be the first moment to learn that something has gone wrong. Even if nothing has, there are plans to be made.

“How fast could you take down the Leviathan’s engines, should it be required?”

“Sneak in? Two hours, if that, and they won’t have it moving for a week. Give me half a day, without anyone to tell me no, and I’ll cripple the Ifrit and the Shiva as well. The Alexander’s a bit trickier, not that it will matter, when Ghis can get a dozen private ships in the meantime.”

“He might have some trouble with anything too insubstantial. Rozarria’s been watching the sea. Discovered some old pieces of legend that the Sun-Cryst is out there somewhere. Anything from Archades moves, and they’ll be on it.”

Venat has severed all ties with its fellows, which unfortunately means losing the crucial detail of locating the Sun-Cryst on a map. Still, they know more than most, including the fact that knowing where it is and actually reaching the damned thing are two entirely different problems. Once it is located, Venat ought to be able to get them past any of the Occurian defenses - although perhaps not an Esper, should one of those be in place, but then Vayne might just as easily be able to feed the Rozarrians to it. Or Ghis. Or both.

“I can get you a ship. I can get you one of their ships, or at least a good mockup. By the time Rozarria realized it was you, you’d be there. Wherever that might be.”

“Destroying the Sun-Cryst we can’t reach, past gods we can’t see, with the treaty blade we don’t have.” It isn’t meant to accuse, Vayne just isn’t as familiar thinking it all out loud, measuring up what he needs to have happen against all the unknowns that stand in his way. “I’ll want Larsa here, when Raminas gives up its location. Lock him in, if you must. It will keep him safe enough, until this is resolved.”

The door opens with a soft hiss, slightly surprising, only a few with the proper clearance for this area. Vayne vaguely recognizes the man that steps in - barely of age, actually, possibly not even through the Institute before the lab had snapped him up. Very little is visible behind the boxes and books in his arms, but usually Vayne’s only seen pieces of him anyway, one hand gesturing from beneath or behind an engine, a foot dangling down from where he’s wedged himself into a half-finished craft. A rare sighting, the bright eyes that peer from around the stack, and it’s reflexes honed from months of working with unstable Nethicite that keeps him from dropping it all on the floor.

“Damn, sir. I didn’t realize you were in here, or you - I mean, your Grace. Or I wouldn’t have, obviously…”

He steps quickly over to the table, sliding the books back into his hands but leaving the crate behind, and steps back just as fast.

“I heard you wanted that up here, so I said I’d bring it along. Didn’t mean to burst in like that, of course.” A pause, and when he isn’t tossed from the room, he smiles. “I signed off on a second round of tests on the new batch of glossair rings, sir. The prelims were good but last time half of them still had stress fractures in a sixmonth and we’re not quite sure why. Lucky they’re all for the small ships, nothing too difficult to replace, but still…”

“Keep me updated.” Cid says, but his eyes haven’t left the crate. It isn’t much to look at, dirty wood slats and a few random tags at the top, written over in the wide, looping, mostly incoherent scrawl that seems to be a favorite of most of the academics he has seen. The man nods, and bows, and within moments they’re alone again.

Cid still hasn’t moved. Vayne sighs.

“You might as well tell me. As long as it’s not good news. I don’t do well with good news.”

The doctor doesn’t answer. He’s stopped moving, one hand in a loose fist on the desk. All of his personality comes from constant motion, a fluid language of strides and gestures. Cid does not now know how to keep still, and it is unnerving to see him so quiet.

“I wanted to have actual answers, before I troubled you further. It is hardly an auspicious time for baseless conjecture.”

“As if it ever is.” Vayne watches quietly, as Cid slides the crate apart, a series of interlocking pieces unfolding to reveal a rather nondescript rock sample, light and dark grays and browns all sandwiched together in wide and narrow bands.

“A geology student from the Grand College was studying some cliffs near the Cerobi Steppes. He mentioned some odd, random findings in passing to one of the interns, who thought I might be interested. I suppose I have a… reputation for curiosities.”

Vayne smiles slightly at the deliberate understatement, and reaches out, brushing his fingers across the rock. A bit of powder gray softness clings to his skin from a thinner band in the middle, almost like ash.

“Magically inert.” Cid says quietly. “The surrounding layers are no different than any other soil, but that layer there - there’s no Mist in it at all.”

Which is an impossibility, but the doctor already knows that, or he wouldn’t bother showing him this. Mist is like air, like water - it saturates everything in the world, and though they’ve managed to create clean rooms, temporarily free of its influence in Draklor, there is no banishing it in any permanent fashion, let alone…

“How?”

“I don’t know.”

“You have a theory.”

“I always have a theory.” Cid taps at the edge of a stone with a fingertip, thoughtfully. “The depth of this strata, it’s around… four thousand years old? Give or take a few centuries. I did send out for a few more samples, no absolute proof, but... it’s all the same. Everywhere that we can find it, it’s the same. Whatever did this, it could very well have affected all of Ivalice, at the least.”

“A power that could drain every drop of Mist out of the land?”

Thousands of years old? No logical explanation? What else could it be, but the Sun-Cryst? Here before them, then - the very evidence of its birth.

“Do you think there’s enough ambient Mist on the planet right now, to-?”

“No, not at all.”

The only other origin point for Mist, besides the planet, is from the creatures that live on it. It’s what allows them to use magicks - a part of everything, though there’s no way to… harvest it. At least, not that anyone still knows of. Which means that knowledge could very well have died, along with nearly everything else, to bring the stone to life.

All that Venat wants is to destroy the Sun-Cryst, for reasons it will not explain. The Occuria are all little better than phantoms, from what he can tell. Surprisingly impotent, despite their supposed immortality. Venat broke all vows just to speak with Cid, to reach out. It does not sound like much of a godhood to him.

One thing to ponder Armageddon. Quite another to rub the crumbling memory between his fingertips. Vayne can all too well imagine some glorious plan gone terribly wrong. A matter of pride and misplaced confidence, perhaps? Or maybe there was no choice at all. Which would be worse?

“The amount of Mist in the Sun-Cryst, if released all at once, if it is anything compared to this - it could be catastrophic. If it is out at sea, we would be luckier, but if it has been hidden inland… it might very well kill the Viera, sensitive as they are. I can’t say what it would do to aught else, to humes or to magicks or the airships…”

“You have asked Venat about all this?”

“I am not sure what to ask. If it is anything… the Sun-Cryst is not a popular topic on the best of days. I doubt I would get an answer.”

Cid’s hand has drifted just below his throat, an unconscious gesture Vayne doubts he even realizes he is making, when he is most troubled or deep in thought. Tracing his fingers over the edge of the wedding ring he wears on a chain, tucked safely away from harm. Far too precious to wear otherwise, when he might be elbow deep in half-manufacted Nethicite with barely a moment of warning.

“Venat is not comfortable, when you are around. I think it is… troubled, that we are friends.”

“Jealous?” An amusing thought, that. Vayne had always thought he was capable of irritating the gods, but had never expected to get such an opportunity.

“No. No, not of you - but more… the sense of it. Of not being alone.”

This is not anything he has spoken of before, and Vayne’s eyes narrow. “You can feel as it does?”

Cid waves a hand, as if in dismissal, but his expression is grim. “Barely. In passing, sometimes. It is…” He trails off. “Resignation, perhaps? Sorrow, without even death to limit it. As if… as if one had an eternity - only that and nothing more. Whatever happened, Vayne… the Occuria may have survived it, however it is that gods do so, but I do not believe they recovered. And for all I know, Venat is the sanest of those that remain.”

“Not just gods, then, but mad gods? You do always have the most glorious horrible ideas, doctor.”

“Usually they have the decency to scale down a bit.” Cid mutters. “Are we truly to succeed, where they failed? We are to be Venat’s attempt at absolution? I believe I need a word, for when the regret is there before the attempt is even made.”

“You knew better than to fly that antique of yours, before the wings fell off and it crashed into that mountain. What did you call it then?”

He meets the annoyed look with a smile. Cid knows full well when he is being baited, that he is not allowed to descend too far into grim deductions.

“It was a hill, not a mountain, and the theory was sound even if the struts were not. It was mostly repairable, anyway.” He sighs. “The world is not an airship, Vayne. If I were capable of humility, this would be the time for it.”

“We are not the hand that guides the weave of history, then?” Vayne would not trade what he has or what he is for fear, even if may be well justified. “If the gods do not favor us, we must make our own destiny, and that is it. Humility will do us little service against such opposition.”

“Yes, and with all Archades in the balance. I just wish…”

One hand under his glasses, rubbing wearily at his eyes. Vayne has grown accustomed to the sudden strike of inspiration, can see it in the way Cid goes suddenly still, and any talk of fate or ego vanishes instantly. As if by some silent cue, he is at once all stark, excited gestures, one hand out and snapping in time with his words. “Wait. Wait wait wait. No, that’s it. That’s it.”

Vayne steps quickly back, as Cid shoves books and papers away to clear a space, jotting down ideas at speed, and the sound of what he has come to think of as the doctor’s thoughts, the abacus clicking frantically away, counterpoint to his swift notation.

“Venat? I think I’ve come up with a solution. At least half of it, but I do need… Yes. Yes, that will do. Hardly a grand solution but it might serve for the preliminary… Venat? Are you - yes, there you are. I need you to look over what I’ve just - I think it may be a matter of isolating… or perhaps - no, do you think?”

It is not so much the doctor’s lunacy that annoys his enemies, as the blow to their egos to be so easily cast aside, the polite regard and deference instantly rendered as the fiction it is. Vayne doesn’t mind - this is what Cid is, at his best, and he would never seek to check it. Better as well, to have him lost in inventing, in pushing the edge of what he can do than worried about what he ought not try - their enemies will not hesitate. Be it gods or men, they will come at Archades by any means possible, and there is little place for restraint in such a battle.

“Please do not indulge him in anything that requires me to replace the ceiling again.” Vayne says to the empty air as he turns to leave, certain he has been heard.

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

The western hall is in need of a new portrait, the last now nearly two years out of date, as neither Vayne nor Larsa have been much interested in slowing down long enough to allow for one. The rest of the space is lined with old Solidors, and Vayne has made more than one impromptu lesson out of the walk, entertaining Larsa with tales of battles won and honors granted while checking off the names in his own mind, the grand game of just which conquering titans of old walked around in ladies’ undergarments. No paintings remain of his brothers, all of those destroyed when they were judged to be traitors. Every personal possession, every private document seized by the Judges or burned outright. A decent Firega can reduce a man’s entire life to nothing in minutes.

Vayne has a single memstone remaining from his eldest brother, discovered months after the fact, tossed in randomly among his own possessions. It is nothing much, the notes from some long distant meeting, reminders for a day’s activities that have less than no meaning now. He has nearly gotten rid of it half a dozen times, yet for some reason it remains, tucked in the back of a desk drawer, a compromise Vayne barely understands, though is only with himself.

He is not early, but Larsa still stumbles in late, trying to pretend as if he hasn’t just run the length of the northeast corridor. He is freshly scrubbed and attired, and Vayne can see a slight red patch along the knuckles on his right hand, the scrape doused carelessly to heal.

“Who won, then?”

The look his brother gives him, as if he needs to ask, and Vayne reaches out to ruffle his hair but Larsa ducks away, laughing. Judge Magister Drace appears at the door, taking up a position near the wall, between them and the door. Which means his brother has likely been sparring with either her or Gabranth this afternoon, and she has nothing else to do at the moment than indulge in silently disapproving of his existence, as usual.

“Seven to four. I took three goals.”

“Well done. You might be able to find a future in it, if you should tire of being a prince.”

Larsa sits down, while Vayne remains standing, just slightly behind and to the side of the chair. Open sky behind them, as high as they are, though they’ve sat for this once before, and he knows the artist has already sketched the backdrop from a lower room, the Archadian skyline stretching out instead, the Senate pavilion - of all things - in full view, though it does have a certain grandeur despite the interior, much like the rest of Archades. The woman leans around her canvas, and Vayne can see her frowning slightly, because Larsa is fidgeting, tugging at the high collar that… no, starched lace? Really?

“Gods save us, brother. Who dressed you in that and why didn’t you have the good sense to tell them no?”

Larsa scowls, two red spots high on his cheeks, though he is doing his best to pretend it is in insult rather than embarrassment. “It seemed a bit… excessive, but I… I did not wish to cause offense.”

“If you don’t put up a fight, they’ll be coddling you like this forever.” Even the servants reluctant to admit their precious charge is growing up. Vayne can sympathize, yet there is nothing to be done for it.

“Hold still.”

He carries the dagger with him always, an easy weapon to conceal, especially here in the palace where it is considered bad form to walk around openly armed, no matter how many have come to a bloody end within its walls. It is too far a distance to hear if Drace’s breath catches, the Judge Magister’s armored form revealing nothing, not the slightest shift of movement. Vayne still imagines she is standing a bit more rigid, her eyes fixed to the fraction of space between the point of the dagger and Larsa’s throat, as he delicately cuts the ridiculous trim off the collar. Of course his brother notices none of it, still a bit annoyed, all childish pride with no idea at all that there could be anything to fear. It is petty, to taunt her so, but Drace is the equal fool for ever rising to the bait.

“The Grand College took the match today. Are we going to the finals?”

“I should imagine so.” Vayne says, knife back in its sheath as he leans away. Larsa flashes him a grateful grin, returning quickly to a poised alertness, the sort of formal stiffness that has Vayne longing to shove him over, far preferring an informal slouch over the reminder of what must be, how fast the time is passing. It feels no span at all, some days, since he had held Larsa in the crook of his arm and promised him the whole of the world.

“I have two jockeys who’ve petitioned to ride Zephyr in the Tchita Twelve-Turn.” It is his brother’s fastest bird, a brilliant white-gold, little more than two years old, and already a champion several times over. “Lord Bailean wishes to stud him with the hens in his flock, and says I can have my choice of the eggs.”

“… and then you will finally have a chick of your own. Again. Remind me, how many birds before they stop being a flock and start petitioning for a seat in the court?”

Where he’s standing, he can see Larsa struggle not to turn and glare at him, though his voice conveys the proper annoyance well enough.

“I only have eight, and Lai is too old now to do much but sleep in the sun. I am hardly neglectful.”

“I would never presume it.”

A messenger at the door, a little later than he’d expected. The message brings less progress than he'd assumed, Rasler’s forces doing a fair job of holding their position even against Bergan’s heavy assault. A young king, unexpectedly tossed into the fray, but he has the sense to listen to his veteran advisors. A few of those, though, are from Landis, and ought to know that the Empire will not stop, will never stop. Perhaps Nabradia had no choice but to pin themselves down, but the fortress will be a tomb in short order no matter its defenses. However many men Rasler has on that paling, Vayne very much doubts it will be enough.

He glances up, to find that Larsa has turned, watching him closely.

“It’s nothing.”

“No, it’s not.” Larsa doesn’t look away, already the gaze, that cool, Solidor regard - and finally Vayne relents, handing the paper over.

“Your fault, lord brother.” He says, all airy smugness, solemnity evaporating with the smile he can’t quite hold back. “You are the one who taught me to pay attention.”

“Brat.”

It does not take long, though, for all amusement to fall away. It has been difficult, that he must always be the bearer of bad news for his little brother, that the world must continue to disappoint. Vayne is the one who taught Larsa about lying, about war and infidelity and theft in all its perfectly legal forms. That the citizens of his Empire can be cruel, or lazy, or fools, just like his enemies - who may only stand against him out of circumstance, rather than any ill intent. All of it necessary, all that the world would eventually bring to his door, though at least Vayne can be here now, to drag what is most ugly into the light, and show it plain.

“… this is wrong.” Larsa says softly, and Vayne is gratified that he keeps his voice low, this conversation not even for Drace to overhear. “I understand… I have studied, and been told that this is not a decision anyone takes lightly - but truly, there must be a better way.”

A blind spot, a flaw of familial trust, that Larsa will not ever find his father to be at fault, that his part in it must be only some grand mistake, a misunderstanding. Whatever Gramis might assume, Vayne would never force Larsa to choose between them. As far as he is aware, the Emperor has hewn to this unspoken truce as well, though out of honor or guilt or the fear Larsa would not choose him, there is no way of knowing.

Certainly, Gramis thinks Vayne has done it all to protect himself. Making Larsa a prince of the people, gentle and noble and unspoiled - and there is advantage in it, to be sure. Worth too much the way that he is, to ruin it all by turning him against Vayne now, and that is all the Emperor can see. As if there could be no other reason, that Vayne would fight to keep Larsa from being a murderer before he was even a man.

“It will be your turn soon enough, little brother, to help chart a new course for Archades. For now, you must pay attention. Observe who is troubled by such events, and more importantly, who is not. Which among the people welcome such conflicts, and see opportunity there - and how many do not even think of the war at all. If you are to desire peace, there are those whose self-interest, whose own goals - good or ill - demand they be your enemy. A thousand different reasons why a man might have to go to war, though he may wish for peace.”

“Come back a Judge, or do not come back at all.” Larsa murmurs, and Vayne wonders about the conversations he’s been having with his friends, those young men just starting to realize the sorts of choices they will soon have to make, the kinds of lives they might be led into living. It is not uncommon, among the higher Houses, to place some very specific demands on their first sons and daughters, with the expectation that a second will be waiting, should they fail to live up to the challenge.

Judge Magister Drace herself comes from such a family, one brother dead at childbirth and the other a sickly, weak thing that did not live long into his adolescence. The common assumption that her father had killed him, worked him to death in an attempt ensure his legacy as Judge Magister stayed in the family. With his death, all obligation had fallen then on the first daughter, on Drace, and she had traded her debut in society for endless drills with the sword, a merciless regimen under the unforgiving eye of her father. Not as amazing that Drace had succeeded him in the position as that she came out of it with any personality left to speak of.

The mood lightens considerably, as Vayne shifts the conversation to less worrisome topics, and eventually he is left to relate the specifics of Draklor’s new flying machine, and promising a visit and no, Larsa is not allowed to fly it. Ever. Not even if he promises to go at a crawl. The clock chimes, an hour-and-a-half later, and his brother rises from the chair, looking back with a half-worried, half-hopeful expression.

“I… there is a… party. A small gathering, and I have been invited. I ought prepare. The daughters of House Maignart have asked. Judge Drace needs not attend such a silly… but I thought, perhaps, that you might come?

Which means that Larsa’s tried very hard to avoid being invited at all - rather difficult to do with attendants who do little more than receive invitations on his behalf - and now he needs his brother to be his excuse for leaving early.

“I believe I have no prior engagements.”

Larsa smiles, thanks the artist and departs, with Drace a step or two behind. Vayne lingers for a moment, the painting much further along, a rather radiant quality to the light, and at the moment it is Larsa in full focus, with Vayne as a less-defined shadow in the background, like some spectre of ill conscience. A fair resemblance to the truth, some would say. The painter seems to notice where his attention falls, her smile carries an edge of apology.

“I thought it would be better to catch the young lord as best I could for now, and perhaps finish your portion alone, later. I know it can be difficult to ask those of his age to sit still for so long.”

“A wise courtesy. I thank you.”

Vayne is just about to make his goodbyes, when he notices a sketch from the corner of his eye, half-tucked under a palette. He tugs it free, hearing the woman inhale sharply, not quite panic, but no one has ever considered his extra attention a good thing. It is a fast sketch, of Vayne leaning down to speak to his brother, while Larsa has turned to look up at him, paying close attention. The particular expression of his, rendered perfectly, where he is weighing every word, though Vayne doesn’t remember saying anything worth that much effort. His own gaze is… well, the woman is talented, but he is certain has never looked quite that content in all of his life.

Vayne will still ask to keep it, and she will say yes.

——————————————————-

A few of the more enterprising mothers still set their daughters in his path, though Vayne’s been unattached for so long it is as much a token gesture as anything, and were he to actually take an interest in a House’s more promising first child, it would be interesting to see what the result might be.

Larsa, however, is dangerously close to being buried in girls, court opinion or simply maternal optimism that he is in higher regard with the Emperor than his older brother - so sweet, so handsome, so kind - and therefore the ultimate goal of any House with ambitions, which would be all of them. Vayne has seen this play out before, the machinations to gain his attention will be as careful and methodical as any military strategy, even if Larsa has yet to even look at a one of them with anything but polite regard. It seems possible that the final effect of all their work will simply end with Larsa fleeing in panic at the slightest sound of a rustling skirt.

House Maignart has a heavy presence within the court’s most frivolous social circles, not even the sort of gossip with much political value. It is headed by a tedious lady with two quite pretty and equally tedious daughters, and a lord who has opted out of tediousness by showing up drunk and falling asleep on a comfortable chair in the corner of the room. Ah, nobility.

On his arrival, all the expected overeager and rushed greetings. Compliments on how handsome and refined his little brother is and how good he looks dancing with whichever daughter Vayne is supposed to find more worthy of - perhaps, one day, a more private interlude? He is polite and says a number of meaningless things no one is listening to anyway, and then he is free to move to a secluded corner and be treated like furniture by the brightly-clad flock of attendees who are little more than half his age and make him feel three times as old. It must be what Cid feels like, with every new batch of graduates a little younger, marking yet another passing year.

“Quickly. Hide me.”

Vayne turns a little as Larsa ducks around him, his back mostly to the room, which will block his brother from view for approximately no time at all, but he is obligated to at least make the attempt.

“I must say, it is not unlike watching some very odd-colored hounds course a hare. You are all still in one piece, I hope?”

Larsa rolls his eyes, a disgruntled, long-suffering grin that only Vayne is privileged to see. He wonders if there is a girl among those out there on the floor that will be of any use in keeping his brother from burning out completely before he reaches twenty-five.

Vayne gestures to the far wall, away from the festivities. “Around the corner here, there is a window, and just outside that is a very convenient tree. I say we make our escape, and perhaps you can show me how you manage that one-handed turn at speed without tipping your bird or breaking your neck.”

He deserves the annoyed look, for daring to suggest Larsa rides like gravity is negotiable. “It’s not that difficult.”

“Then it shouldn’t take long for you to teach me.”

A slight smile. “I hear civilized people prefer to use the door.”

“Civilized people take two hours to say their goodbyes.”

As if on cue, a girlish cry cuts through the air, absurdly overdramatic. “Lord Larsa?! Where have you gone?!”

He cringes.

“Ten minutes.”

High, light laughter and the smell of expensive, imported roses and a pair of delicate hands wrap around his brother’s arm, tugging him back into the fray. Larsa’s expression shifts even as he turns, back to what is only polite and gracious and Vayne doesn’t have to worry about any romantic flights of fancy quite yet, at least not from anyone in this room. He returns to paying vague attention to this week’s popular if uninspired waltz, and the footsteps of the young dancers, some obviously more studious than truly interested, others making up for less attentive practice with great enthusiasm.

“You are very indulgent with him.”

“He has never given me reason to regret it.”

One of those rare occasions, where he speaks before he looks, though the voice is unfamiliar and it even takes Vayne a moment to place the face. Fair enough, dark eyes and long, dark hair, currently bound up in a long train of mourning black, and it’s easy enough to know her then.

“Good afternoon, milady.”

Thea Akaste Iachnel, of House Iachnel, all of whom are mourning the sudden death of their father, Senator and patriarch. A rare thing, the airship crash that had cost him his life, but even rarer that it didn’t seem to be intentional. Not even from within the family - Iachnel was surprisingly tight-knit for such an old House, holding no small amount of sway within the Senate practically from its inception, but rather quiet about it all, disappearing into the background simply by measure of sanity and solidarity.

“All Archades mourns with you in the passing of your father.”

A slight smile, accepting the courtesy. If her grief is false she is remarkably good at the charade, a pale fragility in her manner, that she looks calm and composed now only due to a conscious effort. It is convincing enough, that Vayne follows the empty politeness with a more personal truth.

“I must say, we did not tend to agree, but it never seemed to bother either of us.”

A real smile then, fond and remembering and not at all for him. “He liked you. You caused trouble, and made him work for what he wanted. It cleared away some obstacles, those people who preferred easy gains.”

A lie, but very well delivered. If she wishes to play at polite conversation, Vayne can serve as an obliging partner.

“I hope the Senate has given you a fair welcome, in light of the unexpected circumstance.”

“I am honored that I would be considered worthy of my father’s seat.” No real surprise that it passed down so easily. As much as the Senate adores beating their breasts over centuries of Solidor rule, there are very few Houses that ever cede power once they have attained it. “My eldest brother remains the head of our House, but he prefers to keep with his business in the North.”

Alras Kilvarin Iachnel could have easily ranked Judge Magister, if he hadn’t absconded for the wilds the moment he’d finished at the Akademy. A joke among most of upper Archades, that the Senator’s son had gone feral, spent his days fighting bears and biting the heads off fish and running with the same wolves that bared their fangs upon the Iachnel crest. He’d even raised a pack of his own half-wild children, all presumed to be bastards, certainly not a one of them possessing any actual sense of civility. A good deal of presumption, all resting on the fact that none of them had ever bothered to come to Archades, that it was the city that had rejected them and not, perhaps, the opposite.

House Iachnel’s northern lands encompassed a vast, rich country: mining and timber and considerable resources, and they were careful, protective stewards. Bergan had made an attempt to negotiate a new border only a few years ago, an incursion that could have been quite profitable for him, but it had not gone very well at all. He might have been as much beast as man, but Alras knew how to hold on to what was his.

“I would ask you to dance but I fear I don’t know the steps.” Vayne says, and Thea grimaces slightly, clearly choosing his corner to be out of the way as well, rather than try to draw him into the festivities.

“I don’t believe they do either.”

The girl currently dancing with Larsa has managed to put her feet down on anything /but/ the dance floor, though there is barely the flicker of strain in his brother’s smile. It might be necessary to find him a pair of steel-toed boots, like the ship hands wear, if this is to be his foreseeable future. A few shy stragglers hover at the edge of the dance floor, too nervous or held back by their attendants, along with those who prefer to gossip behind fluttering fans. A young man stands alone near the entrance, though the girls outnumber the boys and there is nothing particularly wrong with him, perhaps not quite old enough yet or perhaps simply not Larsa - there are surely girls here who will dance - or have been told to dance - with the Emperor’s son or none at all.

“My little brother.” Thea says, and again if her affection is at all feigned it is well done. “This is the first season he has been much out in the court. He was sickly as a child, and chafes now beneath the constant attention of his sisters. I do believe he considers Lord Larsa to be all that is enviable, especially his seat on a chocobo, and he is… a bit afraid of the beasts, though he would die of embarrassment to hear me say it.”

“My brother has every intention of taking a new egg to raise. I doubt it would be difficult for him to acquire another, though I warn you he is quite particular with their care. He will not think well of anyone who shirks their duties, even if they should become tiresome.”

Or disgusting. Vayne remembers vividly when a pretty hen, the blue-green of uncut gemstones, had suddenly fallen quite ill, and it had seemed she would be lost. Larsa had been determined to nurse her himself, even when he’d ended up wearing most of the medicine he’d tried to get down her throat. The bird had survived, though Larsa had required two baths to stop smelling of wet feathers and stable muck, and Vayne was fairly certain they’d just burned the clothes.

“It was the particular wish of our father, that my brother be taught to earn what he would desire. With any luck, it will keep him from the worst sorts of folly.” Thea’s eyes meet his, steady and sure. “We expect great things from him. It is something I believe we have in common.”

No such thing, as an idle conversation between a Senator’s daughter and an Emperor’s son, and to bring his brother anywhere near the matter means she is either innocent or incredibly stupid and Senators are never innocent, even the new ones. Vayne regards her for a long moment, and she allows it without comment or apparent concern, her tone light and conversational when she speaks again, though the words are not nearly so meaningless.

“In light of the sure victory over Nabradia, I am surprised Draklor would ask for such a pittance of an increase.”

Vayne turns away, keeping his gaze to the rest of the room. Larsa is dancing again with one of the Maignart girls, while their mother looks on with what would be called hope were it less openly predatory.

“I believe there are few of your fellow Senators that would consider it so.”

“Enough that it will pass, with my support.”

It is a rare Senator that would even stand in the same room with him, let alone with what actually sounds like a peace offering, a gesture of goodwill. It isn’t possible. None of them would ever break ranks to get close to him, not like this, not at all worth the risk. Vayne glances around, but he can see no one taking any particular notice. It is too silly, this children’s dance, far too frivolous an affair for any real business to take place.

Perhaps the reason she is here now.

“How long had you been training for a Senate seat, before this?”

It is meant as a caution - this is not how things are done, do not pretend you are unaware - yet she remains perfectly composed.

“It has not been long. I have a great deal to learn, I admit - but I have always been instructed, since my earliest days, of how best I might serve my family. House Iachnel has ever found it wise to bend as the world changes, my lord, rather than struggle against it in futility.” Thea is not watching him either, her gaze distant, voice calm and cool. “I will not lie, I would it were I had my father back, and we were not speaking now, yet I am here and there is the future to consider, for my House and for all Archades.”

House Iachnel is extremely tight-knit, and successful because of it, though not as much as might be possible, were they to reach for more. Sisters well married, cousins and nephews as bankers and mages, scholars and even a Judge here and there, if Vayne remembers right, and overlooked only as they had never made a run on the throne. Yet.

“In any future, there are always opportunities for those seeking glory.”

Thea smiles. “Glory casts a considerable light, your Grace. My father believed that humble labors bring their own rewards, even if they be unseen and unsung.”

Why bother risking a battle for a throne, when it is easier /not/ to have it - to profit in the background, to be invisible among the rise and fall of more ambitious men, and let another House stand as the target? Maintain neutrality, and grow ever richer with as small a risk as possible. It is completely mercenary, and matches to what he knows of Iachnel’s past - and is as yet the best suggestion she might not entirely be lying.

“I fear I can offer little you will find modest, lady. If the Senators have not made their opinion of me plain, you need but wait.”

Maybe the slightest hesitance in her expression, like a man at the game board, confident yet aware he sets out a piece that cannot be withdrawn.

“It is not the right of nervous old men, to seek immortality by chaining themselves to the young. If a man is drowning, and you cannot save him, you must free yourself, whatever the cost. It is no virtue, to be dragged down as well. I am not the only one who thinks it so.”

It is high treason, then, that they are trying to hang around his neck, the Senate using her to draw him in - but that is giving them considerable credit, more initiative than they have ever shown before. The alternative is no less believable, that she has just made the first overture toward a tentative alliance. At the very least suggesting there are those amenable to a changing of the guard. How interesting.

“Lord Brother, there you are! There was… I mean, we had something to… discuss?” A hasty bow to Lady Iachnel, the look in Larsa’s eyes more than a little urgent, and Vayne bows to her as well.

“Yes. If you will excuse us.”

“Good day,” she says politely, though it is clear she is confused, since they’re not going anywhere near the door. Perhaps it is best to let her see him play the fool to the hilt, before she makes up her mind about wishing to put any further faith in his abilities.

The Senate will have to be dealt with, Vayne has known it for some time. Only tolerating his father as long as they have because they can see the end in sight, and believe their patience will finally be rewarded. Undoubtedly advising Gramis against giving him the throne, and there is every chance he will heed them, and so Vayne’s life would be shortened to a matter of opportunity. Larsa would serve their needs admirably well, or at least they would assume so, and then he would voice an opinion they did not want to hear and then he would be dead.

The only nightmare Vayne has ever had. Of being chained away in some dungeon while the crowds gather and the executioner sharpens his sword - quick and clean, he knows well enough how it goes. Larsa would walk with his head held high, because Vayne never taught him to be proud but he is a Solidor and Solidors bow to no one. His brother would give them nothing, noble to the very end.

Vayne always wakes up then, with half the shout still on his lips, wrists aching from imagined chains and the vow that he will kill them all for this, he will see Archades burn and he will kill them all.

It would be far less dangerous, to only cut away what had to be sacrificed, while leaving the structure intact. A Senate more amenable to compromise, or at least not entirely hostile to their Emperor. If Iachnel were truly serious, if there were others who shared her view - a Senate privately allied with House Solidor would be the sort of security his ancestors could only dream of.

It also is the sort of temptation an ambitious senator might throw out in front of him, that Vayne would make a mistake and she could only profit from it. Lady Iachnel is at a disadvantage, a young woman in an old man’s game, and perhaps the offer is nothing more than the hope it might raise her standing among her fellows. Nothing to do in the near future but wait and see what happens next. He can afford to be patient, if she wishes only for the length of rope necessary to hang herself.

Vayne slides the window open, carefully reaching for the nearest branch, though it is quite solid and holds steady beneath his weight, easy to swing out to a proper foothold. Larsa makes an impatient sound behind him, but it isn’t long before they’re both dangling in the air like proper idiots. It’s been a few years since he’s bothered climbing out a window, and his boots are too fancy for the proper grip. Larsa is still up near the wall, perfectly secure with his knees on the branch and his arms yanking on the top of the pane.

“Problems, brother?”

“It won’t move!”

Inside, the music comes to a halt, the dance finishing to the sound of light applause. Vayne cannot see much from where he’s managed to climb, the tree not particularly high but the branches twisted at odd angles. A shame, it would be interesting to see what the senator thinks of this, but at the moment it’s a bit more worrying how loud the branches are creaking, as Larsa continues in his futile attempt at closing the window.

“Leave it, then. Better an imperfect escape than none at all.”

Sky pirate logic, if such a thing exists. The last time Balthier had been caught, from what the papers said, he had been hanging half out a window himself, though wearing nothing but a smile and his assurance it was all simply a misunderstanding.

Vayne can only imagine the subsequent escape had been quite... memorable.

His brother finally relents, scrambling quickly down - and this is all a good deal more fun than it ought to be. The sort of thing he never got to do much of at his brother’s age - and had he even noticed then, that there was no one to accompany him on these sorts of adventures? Had it ever seemed as obvious as it does now, how the Emperor had deliberately kept him isolated? Nowhere to go. No one to ask for guidance, if he’d even known what to ask.

Once, when he was very young, it seemed his father was capable of anything. An intricate planner, an architect of all fates. It is all but inevitable that Vayne will meet only what is left of the man he’d like to face, when things take their final turn. A shadow fueled by nothing but paranoia and far too much compounded guilt gone sour with time.

“Go! She’s coming! Faster!”

A good thing it isn’t so much a private garden as a bit of unremarkable green space, a simple terrace, so there’s no one around to see them, as Vayne reaches for a place to brace his weight just as Larsa steps on his hand and with a hiss and a truncated yelp and the snap of a few minor branches Vayne plummets to the ground without any hint of grace, landing flat on his back just in time for his brother to fall on top of him, elbow solid in his gut, and he’d grunt if he could manage the breath for it.

Larsa scrambles toward the base of the tree, hiding behind it, Vayne content to stay where he is, mostly covered by the overhang of a low shrub. He tries quietly to catch his breath, spitting out half a leaf, gloriously undignified. Larsa’s eyes are bright, a hand over his mouth to keep quiet, glancing from him and up and back again.

“Lord Larsa?”

The girl’s voice grows louder, likely standing at the window, though he can’t see her. Poor thing, nothing in her tutelage to handle the idea of well-born sons of Archades flinging themselves out of windows. Vayne really ought to be ashamed of himself.

“Lord Larsa? Where have you gone?”

His brother’s shoulders shake with silent laughter. As young as he is it is still supremely satisfying to act against what is reasonable, to break with expectations. Only more of those to come, less to smile about with each new obligation, and all too soon a day when Larsa won’t remember what it was when life seemed simple. A few moments later, they hear the sound of the window falling shut.

“I believe they call that a successful escape.” Vayne says, the silence now only marked by a bit of wind in the leaves. So quiet, it is hard to imagine they are all but in the center of the city. It will be dark soon, already the light is a golden wash along the side of the buildings. From the right angle, the palace will shine as brightly as the sun.

“I ought to apologize, later.” Larsa says, looking back up.

“I’ll accept it now.” Vayne replies, raising an affronted brow at the withering glare. “You did land on me. I believe I may have even ripped my coat.”

“Heaven forbid, lord brother. How shall you go on?”

Sarcasm, another side to his brother that only Vayne gets to see. Larsa is afraid to wield it in public, worried over court opinion, that he is setting a proper example, that it is unkind - but he is free to be whoever he wants here, with his older brother as his only audience. If it is only that Vayne’s sins, what he has done and what he is capable of are greater and more terrible than anything Larsa can dream - well, at least some good has come of it at last.

“We ought go in, before it gets too late.” Vayne says, but the ground is comfortable and he is in no hurry to move. His brother idly twists a dandelion free, crushes the tuft in his hand and opens his palm into the wind, watching the tiny seeds float free.

“Has the battle ended, then?”

He does not look at Vayne. An attempt at being casual that fools no one.

You had your chance. The chance to keep him innocent and useless and happy, and you chose this instead. Or perhaps it was ever Larsa’s destiny. No choice, there was never a real choice - and yet, should anything happen, should he suffer some terrible fate Vayne cannot see coming, it will not much matter if he did what he could, if he did his best for his little brother. It will not matter at all.

“No word yet, though I expect it shortly. Rest easy - this is not your fight, and none of the responsibility rests with you.” Keep his hands clean, for as long as he possibly can. “You must always do what you are able, but no one expects you to put all the world to rights. At least, not today.”

“Archades is not peaceful, even when she is at peace.” Larsa says quietly, not looking to him for answers or reassurance. “I will find another way. I must.”

Vayne does not believe in gods that bless the acts of men, and even if it were so, he does not merit their beneficence by any means. Yet still the bargain, practically a prayer, fierce as ever for what he knows he has no right to ask for and does not deserve.

Just let him do this. Let him make this one thing in the world right and good, and better than it was before, and he will ask for nothing else, and the world may do as it will with him.

——————————————————

The sun sets, and there is no message, and time passes and there is still nothing, and now Archades is a sea of hazy lights, the windows mostly reflecting the brightness of the room and Vayne is pretending to read while waiting for word of the battle, listening to a very talented and quite lovely woman play the violin. It is a piece he recognizes, though the exact name escapes him – she has played it before, knows it is one of his favorites - and he watches her body twist slightly through the long, drawn notes, hair falling past her shoulders, loose curls like the fanciest of formal script, dark against her pale skin.

Vayne is not so far gone, not as inhuman as some would believe, that he cannot appreciate her charms, or imagine enjoying her company. The offer from her father has come long since - she will not wed if he would like her for his mistress, though he pays her handsomely just to hear her play.

Who knows just how much more she receives from the Emperor, to speak of all that she might see or hear?

In the service of his father, all but from the moment he had summoned her to play for him, along with two of his footmen, likely his valet, the head groom, his fencing instructor, his tailor - it goes on. Larsa’s valet as well, though Vayne had made a decent case where the man’s true loyalties ought to stand, and given that he’d done so while holding him by the front of his coat from the balcony of the fifty-eighth floor of the palace, Vayne thought he’d been well understood.

The sonata ends, and the violinist lowers her instrument, flexing her bow hand, her smile all that is gracious and inviting, and even to think of kissing her is to imagine his father listening to the report of it, and the thought makes Vayne unimaginably weary. If he were to take a wife it would be much the same - if she did not belong to Gramis from the start he would surely find a way - and gods forbid there were any children, that he be forced to weigh the life of his own blood against his brother’s chance to rule. His child stands no chance, even as a hypothetical Vayne knows this, and the last thing in this world he ever wishes to be is a father. So much easier, that things remain as they are, the world complicated enough as it is. If Gramis wishes to strike at him, he will have to do it under his own power. Vayne is no longer obliged to provide the ammunition.

“I am sorry to keep you so long.” He says, before she can begin the next piece, ready to dismiss her, and seek out what word he can on his own. It will be another day in Nalbina, perhaps, if the paling has lasted this long. He gives them a week at the very most. Every hour, another opportunity for Raminas to make his stand.

“It is an honor as ever, my lord. If you would like-” Whatever she is going to say is lost, as his messenger finally appears. The violinist bows, and takes her leave quietly, the door closing behind her as Vayne opens what he quickly realizes is the final report, a letter that really ought to be far longer for all that it contains.

So very simple, isn’t it, in the end? No matter how great the battle, or how much is at stake, the end is always simple. Vayne himself will be a few lines on a page, someday. The whole of the Empire cut down to a passing mention, in some old book that no one ever reads.

He sits down, and goes over the report once more, as the world finally slows to an unfortunate crawl, the race over before it ever began.

“You got me my funding. You magnificent bastard.”

Cid is all barely-checked excitement, bursting into the room, quite obviously hasn’t stopped moving since Vayne left him. Neither of them keep anything like normal hours much of the time, so nearly all of Cid’s impromptu visits take place long after nightfall. Usually when he is in such a mood, all but bubbling over with some discovery he cannot keep to himself, though now it’s clear he’s come to Vayne for the full story of his unexpected success.

“I just got the word that it will go through. I don’t know how in the hell you managed it so fast. Do I even ask, or would I rather not know?” The clink of glasses, a bottle being shifted to his open hand. “I’ve been told this is extremely expensive champagne, from… some place I can’t pronounce. You’re not supposed to be able to get it across the border. Nothing like a man from Balfonheim who owes a favor.”

“Nalbina is ours,” Vayne says, tonelessly, “and Rasler of Nabradia has been killed in the battle.”

House Solidor has not deigned to enter combat since the time of Vayne’s great-grandfather. It is simply not done, would be considered a vote of no confidence against the vast Imperial forces for their leaders to actually set foot on the battlefield. A strange conceit, really. If Vayne were given leave to fight his father might be rewarded with his dearest wish, that he have only one heir for the throne.

Cid sets the bottle down. “What response from Dalmasca?”

“None.”

“Nothing. No word at all? “Raminas must know-”

“-that we’ve widowed his daughter? I imagine he must, by now.”

The doctor is pacing now, as he does, all thought of celebration forgotten. “… and he does nothing?”

“For now.” It is but a pause, not a stalemate and not even a regrouping - what will Dalmasca have to regroup with? Attacking the fortress had been meant to shatter their resolve, and it seems Archades has succeeded even beyond their expectations.

“… I suppose we didn’t manage to hold the body?”

“Of course not. Nabradia’s king will be buried in Dalmascan soil, and the princess will no doubt be married off to Rozarria as soon as her father can make the match with one of Margrace’s heirs. Unless he gives her away to the Marquis first.”

An interesting bit of trivia, how the bloodlines of so many noble houses are twisted together in unexpected places. Go far back enough on Ondore’s line, and it does indeed share a few branches with House Solidor. No one is particularly pleased about this.

The door slips open with barely a sound, another servant on the threshold, pausing until he is impatiently waved in. Cid is frozen with his back to the door, watching over his shoulder as Vayne retrieves more unpleasant news from a small silver tray. Both thinking the same thing, this is the notice that Raminas has finally remembered he has the means to end the war. This is the alliance between Dalmasca and Bhujerba and Rozarria and hell, at least Vayne can worry about any daggers in his back for the foreseeable future - they’ll need him now, that much is damned-

He stops, fingers brushing over the green wax seal that bears the twin serpent Solidor crest, edges dusted in gold - direct from the Emperor’s own hand. Vayne is sketching out a dozen plans to defend himself before he ever breaks the wax, eyes flicking over the contents, tossing it into the fire before his father’s man has even shut the door behind him. It says nothing, and everything. As always.

Cid is still watching. Vayne rubs the bridge of his nose, lets out a slow breath. He feels very tired, and yet a part of him is tense and ready, could leave tonight, right now, to finish things as soon as possible.

“We are to offer a treaty of peace with King Raminas, should he agree to surrender.”

“Surrender what? The Shards?”

As if any mention of them will ever be written down. “Fables, Cid. Legends. Archades does not go to war over fairy tales.”

“It is no treaty then.”

“We can ill afford one, by any terms. Raminas may be fixed in his determination not to strike, whatever his reasons may be, but Rozarria will petition him harder than ever now, and his daughter’s tears may well weaken his resolve over time. She was barely wed.” Vayne pauses. “Do you think they were in love?”

“Who is to say?”

It makes little difference - it is done, and it will continue much the same. Far more than one man killed in the battle today, more than one widow that will feel no comfort in sharing the same grief tonight. Families on both sides, preparing to make swift and careful preparations to soothe the souls of the dead, and it will all, as ever, go on.

“To bring the body of her husband as our wedding gift. Were I in her place, such an thing would never fade.” And that if it were only as insult. Only simple duty between Rasler and his bride, an ill-considered alliance without any real affection. If it had been otherwise?

Ask him what he would do, had it been Dalmasca’s victory, and Larsa’s body on some cold stone bier.

“The Emperor has made his wishes known. He believes it too great a risk to leave Raminas open to act, or his daughter free to be the link in a new alliance. He wishes to find a solution, as quickly as possible. End the line of the Dynast-King here, and the threat… and of course, it ought appear as if it was an act of insurrection, rather than Archadian involvement.”

“Dalmasca murder their own king? Why the sudden need for theatre?”

“Archades no longer holds faith in the Marquis of Bhujerba, that his self-interest is enough to ensure his loyalty. Rightly so, Rozarria would gladly offer him any number of favors, should he side with them openly. It is tasked to me, then, to deliver up such an… encouragement for his continued support.” No matter what happens, it will be easier than it ought to be. He has a talent. “I am again in the jesses, and will fly.”

If he should fail, if it should go wrong, Gramis would surely enjoy being able to deny all culpability. Claim Vayne had been acting entirely of his own accord, and watch the last great threat to his reign perish in a spectacular fall to earth. The very best kind of weapon, highly skilled and completely disposable.

Cid frowns, contemplating, though they have moved into subjects far more to Vayne’s particular set of skills.

“It seems unlike him, to trust you.”

“I am certain he will be watching. Surely it is not without risk, but I am far too useful for the purpose and he has little other choice. Who else can give him what he needs? Bergan?”

“Perhaps Raminas truly knows nothing. Even Venat may be mistaken.”

Vayne shakes his head. “Whatever it is that stays his hand, I do not believe the king to be a fool - he knows where the Sun-Cryst is, if anyone in this world still does.”

“Doubtful he will be persuaded that we wish to eradicate it, when I cannot convince myself of the fact.”

“He will be persuaded it will save his life, and the life of his daughter, to give it over, and beyond that - we shall see.”

No need to follow the Emperor’s plans, not if he can get that power in his hands - and Vayne can, and will. What then? Hold the Sun-Cryst long enough, at least to deal with his father, and make sure Rozarria knows to mind their manners?

A coronation gift for Larsa. A new age of peace. It does not seem such a terrible ambition.

Vayne pushes himself out of the chair, forcing back the surge of checked ambition, all that former urgency slipping into new plans, new strategies.

The doctor shakes his head in grim amusement.

“It seems a far sight saner to treat with him, than the alternative. Silence the Marquis /and/ commit regicide without detection? Of course you already have an answer, I am sure.”

Vayne takes the bottle, the cork popping hollow rather than festive, here in this quiet room, with very little left to celebrate.

“Did you know Judge Gabranth has a brother?”

Cid raises a brow, taking the proffered flute. “It signifies?”

“It might.”

Vayne pours himself a full glass, with every intention of finishing the bottle and likely finding another, whether Cid is game or no. All will continue on as it has, any hope of solid gains pushed forward a month, six months, and he must be patient but there is hardly a need for him to meet the start of it sober.

The flute is cold in his hand, tiny bubbles tracing upward paths through a hint of gold. He smiles, all too easy to think of a proper toast, and raises the glass.

“To better men.”