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"We're going to train you on the quarterstaff first. If mother catches me giving you anything with the hint of an edge, she'll have both our hides."

"More like a quarter-quarterstaff. It's bigger than she - ow!"

Her younger brother - two years younger than the oldest, and five older than her - yelps, jumping backward as Penelo catches him in the shin. It's been a whole lifetime of proving she can keep up with them, and she's not about to stop now. Behind her, probably sitting under the tree that used to shade the corner of their small courtyard, she hears Reks laugh, though it's hard to remember just when he and Vaan moved in for good. It wasn't rare to have them visit, though Vaan's parents are only a dim memory for her, cheerful voices talking with Penelo's parents in their front room, playing cards as she drifted off to sleep upstairs.

All the good memories blur together - her eldest brother in uniform, and then the both of them, tall and proud, with her mother sniffling, wiping at tears she refused to shed when it was time to wave goodbye. Learning to dance, lessons from the old, stern woman at the end of the road who would keep time with her cane, pounding a beat against the floor. Just as quick to rap a girl with it, if they dared not to pay attention, stronger and faster than she looked. It was rare that she would give praise - the dances were Dalmasca's heritage, they ought to be learned perfectly - but it was also rare that Penelo went home rubbing at any bruises.

The day her father sat her down beside him, and went about explaining the books he was keeping, and what it meant. A line of neat pen strokes that could mark out the business of the whole world and everything in it, if she cared to learn how. All that hard work, providing for the house where Penelo had her own room and could get up each morning, unlatch the back window and watch the sun rise over the eastern edge of the city. The reason she'd been able to travel, even the little bit that she had, following him on a few of his trips, once even as far as Balfonheim, a journey that was the highlight of her young life.

She remembers reading the letters her brothers sent, describing life on the borders of Dalmasca, or Nalbina, when they'd visited the capital just before the royal wedding. It had been grand, the princess as lovely as anything Penelo had ever seen, and there had been a great feast in every house, and it seems the whole city had been happy that day.

The world seemed so vast, then. Or perhaps that came later, in the looking back, before Penelo had known it could be any other way.

The quarterstaff had been early on, before her younger brother had left, and she'd started to take over his share of the work. Once she'd begun making regular trips to the desert, having a blade was useful for all kinds of things. Penelo quickly grew to know as much of the sands as she did of the city, rarely had to defend herself even though her brothers had taught her most of what they'd learned, and she'd paid attention, and practiced.

Her mother had sighed and fretted over her little girl, growing up as anything but, and her father had laughed. Always laughing, cheerful in his lessons. How important it was to know how to do as much as she could, to never ignore the chance to learn a new skill. It was necessary to succeed, and then to help one's neighbors do the same. Sharing good fortune was the whole point of having it in the first place, and they hadn't hesitated to welcome Vaan and Reks in, after their parents hadn't made it through the plague. They'd had plenty, her parents worked hard and business was good.

A few more years, with the right deals made, and her father might own half-share in an airship of his own. He'd need someone - sensible, hard-working, his favorite daughter, perhaps - to go out into the world on his behalf, and from there, hardly anywhere she could not go.

Penelo had missed her brothers, both stationed at different corners of the country, far from Rabanastre, and it was wonderful to have new ones. Vaan was always ready for any adventure, if he hadn't already gone and found one without her, and she - well yes, she'd had her first crush on Reks and her first heartbreak when he'd started courting a girl a few houses down from where they lived, but no one had ever found out and she hadn't been forced to die of embarrassment.

And then everything had gone wrong.

And then everything got worse.

So bad, so fast that for that first full year of the occupation, Penelo had jumped at every shadow, and been afraid to close her eyes each night, for what the world might look like when she opened them.

But now, when it's dark and late, when it's too quiet and she can't sleep, Penelo shuts her eyes and thinks back, and then she's fourteen again, and she doesn't know her life is perfect.

There, her future has no horizon.

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

"Keste, you're off the beat, and you move your hips like they belong to someone else! Yes, you do. Well, if you can't then just watch Penelo, she's never wrong!"

A bad place to be, in the middle of the argument, so Penelo pretends she's not paying attention and just keeps dancing. Easy enough to do, the steps aren't all that complicated, one of their routines that resembles an old Dalmascan standard, with a bit more in the hips and hands, just to attract attention. Keste's brother had to work late so there's no one to give them a proper drumbeat, just the silver chime of bells around their ankles, and Nia slips in beside her as Penelo pivots and turns, hands out, curling her fingers to her wrist as she turns and dips and rolls into the movement, feeling it burn slightly in the backs of her calves, rolling her weight on the balls of her feet.

Nia is two years older than Penelo - much taller, far more beautiful - but they move through the end of the dance in perfect tandem. Penelo grimaces, hears Keste's feet slide off-step against the sandy floor, and Nia's annoyed exhale. It's a matter of circumstance, not really friendship for any of them, but Penelo needs a place to go, to get away, to dance, and this is what she has. Another of her father's lessons, all part of being a merchant - to work with what she has rather than complain over what she'd like. Nia isn't a bad person, just no-nonsense and impatient, and Keste might be better if she wasn't so worried about making mistakes.

Penelo doesn't worry, not when she's dancing.

It's hot, not enough of a cross-breeze to stir up any dust on the windowsill, but the stone beneath her feet is still cool, and the street outside is quiet enough at the moment. Three gil from each of them, to practice above the brewer's store, the air musty and stale and even this only temporary, until his next shipment comes in to fill the space. The courtyard in the west quarter had been better, but that had been five gil, and they'd been chased away eventually by the order of Kiltian priests and their shrine next door. It makes Penelo laugh to think about it, a little proud to imagine that she - in all her skinny, flat-chested glory - had been enough to distract them from their piety. A little hypocritical for them to scold - she knows the stories, that the gods themselves did dance, though the priestesses who honored them with the same are little more than myths now, cast out and hunted down as seducers, impure and sacrilegious.

Penelo thinks it may have been worth it, even to risk such an end.

Keste has an older brother, two sisters and an aunt, and they live in a tiny house just outside Lowtown. Nia's aunt is a dressmaker, and she lives over the shop, a cramped attic that she hates that none of them have seen. Penelo had never known them as more than distant acquaintances, before the occupation, and sometimes she wonders how they changed, from before. If Keste was always so quiet, if Nia had been quite so angry, if the silences between them would have been as taut as they are now, always crackling like the aftermath of magicks poorly cast.

"Oh, that's so pretty. Where'd you get it?"

Nia has a hand up near her throat, and her expression says she wishes Keste hadn't noticed, but now Penelo's looking too, and she sighs, pulling the pendant away from where she'd tucked it in her shirt, letting it dangle a bit by the chain. A tiny metal cage, glimmering green and blue, and Penelo guesses what it is even before she gives it a twist, a half-dozen tiny butterflies spilling out, rising in the air. Small pieces of rough-carved, scrap skystone, blue and green veins glinting through the darker rock, floating at the end of tiny chains. It is very pretty. It's also not from Rabanastre, and certainly nothing any of them can afford.

"It was a gift."

The silence is awkward, and stretches out. Nia had a boyfriend - fiancé - before the war, and no one has to ask what happened or where he died, but then this is Rabanastre, with a new piece of gossip for every grain of sand, and no one ever asks much about Nia.

Unlikely that it can all be true, her pretty face and haughty attitude inspire the worst sorts of rumors, dalliances with more soldiers than can possibly be even in all of Rabanastre. Penelo's been given warnings, from the old women who don't understand that they're not even friends, that Nia doesn't care what anyone thinks, and Penelo doesn't need to be protected, whatever the truth might be.

It's a rule, anyway. You don't ever ask how other people get along, how they do what they have to do to keep living.

The city bell rings, announcing the hour, cutting through the tension in the room.

"I have to go, my aunt needs me for chores. I'll see you later." Keste says, and waves to Penelo at the door, and then it's just the two of them. She takes an extra moment to stretch out. It's not always the easiest thing, to snatch some time for herself, and she wants to savor every moment.

"Hey, Penelo?"

She flinches, just slightly, when Nia looks at her, and of course the other girl has caught her off-balance, pulling the bells off so she can get her boots back on. It hasn't come up in a while, at least a week or two, but there is a bigger reason they're here, more than just for fun. Nia knows a man who knows a woman on one of the commercial skyships, the long-distance flights, and they're always looking for new entertainment.

The chance to dance her way across Ivalice. A lot of people on those transport ships, from all over, and if Penelo can't find more work as a dancer, there's always the chance of joining up with a trader, or a shipping crew. She knows business, she'd be useful, and if nothing else it's at least a chance. Something different, something new.

"Yes?"

Penelo hasn't told Migelo yet. Or Vaan. It seems like the sort of secret that might curl up and blow away, if she speaks it out loud, if she tries to make it into a real plan. She's not certain if she can leave them anyway, even if she's going to ask Vaan to come along. Keste's brother can't go, and with a few lessons Vaan could work the drums well enough, though Nia isn't all that convinced, and frankly, neither is Penelo. It takes some doing, to convince him to be part of any plan that's not his own.

She can't just leave him behind, though. Penelo needs Vaan to stay close, if only to keep an eye on him - he's been worrying her more lately, taking too many reckless chances, and she doesn't want to have to go it alone. It's already been too much, and too hard.

"I was thinking, maybe…"

Bracing herself for the fight now, the accusation she's heard before, that she's not taking this seriously, when Penelo has as much reason to do this as anyone. It's almost too serious to try to make it real, and watch it fail - and Penelo can almost hear her father scolding her - thinking that way just leaves her defeated before she's even begun.

It says a good deal about the sort of man he was, that his optimism didn't save him in the end, and yet it still makes her feel strong, just to think of it.

Penelo looks up, when it's clear the other girl isn't going to finish her thought.

"What is it?"

Nia isn't looking at her, but for the first time in what seems like all day, she isn't frowning either. Distracted, lost in thought - not all that strange, when it seems like the world never stops changing long enough for anyone to truly catch up.

"Nevermind. It's nothing."

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

"Hey there, Penny. Just look at you. All grown up, and so very lovely."

Rabanastre is sprawling, but easy to navigate. Safe enough for the cautious, and even as a child Penelo had enjoyed long, rambling walks, feeling mostly invisible amidst the crowds. It hasn't been like that for a long time, that she's been able to let her mind wander. All too aware of where each and every one of the Archadian soldiers are stationed, and where there have been rumors - back alleys, abandoned buildings, shortcuts that girls especially have to avoid. Migelo always reminds her to stay visible, to keep away from the soldiers whenever she can, and Vaan just scowls.

It helps that her father knew everyone, and so Penelo does too, although even that isn't always the comfort it ought to be, that where she goes and what she does is always under someone's eye, that they can mention where she was yesterday and the sweet pears she bought and how Migelo might want to know about a deal on finding more. Her whole life is everyone else's business, and that's when they can remember she's not just a way to get news to the bangaa.

"You look good when you sweat. Might want to earn some coin for it, for once."

Vaan is ready to stand up against the Empire at a moment's notice, first in line to badmouth every Archadian in Dalmasca - and happy to do it face-to-face - but Penelo is the one who has to deal with the fact that not all her fellow Rabanastrians are nice. Not all ready to extend a helping hand, or interested in standing strong and allied against the enemy.

It doesn't seem like it should be much of a problem to stay unnoticed, Penelo knows she's always been more sturdy than pretty, and nothing approaching beautiful. Still, there have been plenty of times she's been made an offer while bartering for food and fresh water, and not just the Archadians who've suggested they can take good care of her, if she'd only let them.

The other reason she preferred dancing in the courtyard. The warehouse bumps up against what isn't quite a brothel, preferring to peddle their wares as a tavern that's well known for their dancers. The exotic girls of Rabanastre, ready to show off all they've got for the conquering army and their coin.

"Can't give me a smile, Penny? If you want, I'll even pay to see it."

It makes her skin crawl, to hear the nickname from him. What her mother used to call her, rebraiding her hair and scolding her softly, after Penelo had tagged along after her brothers into their adventures. The boys all called her Pen, which sounded less girly. Easier to shout as well, when they wanted to warn her they were about to do something stupid, and needed her to play lookout or pitch in.

Penelo knows this boy, only a few years older than she is. The sort of shiftless layabout who'd always made her mother shake her head, not able to get himself to the battlefield or even secure a decent day's work - and now he's perched at the door of the tavern, and always seems to know when she's passing by. His clothes are nicer than hers and he eats better, and he knows that she knows it.

"You get tired of slaving away for that bangaa, I'll be here. Always happy to do you a favor."

Penelo's fingernails bite into her palms, her fists are clenched so tight, and it takes everything she has not to turn around and show him just how little she wants or needs his help.

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

"Penelo, is that dye ready for me yet? It's the blue. Migelo said he'd split the case."

The way most people greet her, flagging her down from across the street as she makes her way home and barking out requests, too busy to bother with more than business. Penelo can't remember the woman's name, or anything about a dye order, and it's unlikely Migelo would break the case down without good reason, a popular color and expensive enough to get full price for the whole.

"Sorry, I don't have any the books with me. I can ask Migelo about it tonight, and he'll let me know for tomorrow."

The woman makes a sour face, less at Penelo than the circumstance, and turns back to her loom. Just in time for the man from the stall next to her to gesture her over.

It always takes twice as long as it ought to, getting back to Migelo's shop, though she's learned to budget for it. Penelo knows what's coming, and he swiftly loads her up like a pack chocobo with what feels like three-quarters of his stall, though he smiles brightly and asks about the shop and tops it off with three oranges for her trouble.

The chatter in the marketplace has been cut with nervous tension for weeks now, the rumor that Archades is close to choosing a permanent Lord Consul to replace the interim government that's lasted far longer than anyone expected. As far as Penelo knows, it's all still just rumors, a combination of hope and dread and horror stories of Judge Magisters, men like the worst of the most frightening Judges but bigger and stronger and unimaginably cruel.

Archades sends Judge Magisters when it wants things to disappear forever.

No surprise, then, when she walks into Migelo's shop to find him with a trader in pensive conversation, though it's still only speculation, not even a list of possibilities.

"It won't be a Judge Magister, not unless they have one of them they really want to punish. You think someone like that wants to end up here? I've shipped into Archadia, even there they scare the hell out of people. The bastards are only meant for special occasions, like with Nalbina." Bitterness in his words. Maybe for someone fallen in battle. Maybe for the treaty that lost them their country and yet still cost them their king. "No way one of them would come down here to spend their time weighing spices and chasing turtles." The grizzled trader gives her a smile, rubbing at the patch over his left eye. "Hello there, darling. I see he's got you fooled into doing all his work again."

"Oh, I would never." Migelo scolds him, and Penelo makes sure to give him a big smile, that she agrees. Nothing wrong with hard work, although she is glad to put the bag down and stretch, quickly peeling one of the oranges. She offers a wedge to the trader and Migelo first, secretly glad when they decline.

"So, is there any news at all?" Penelo asks, a part of her going tense and still as the trader laughs sharply and Migelo's ears dip and his back hunches, a gesture that means yes there is news, and no, she doesn't want to hear it.

"The benefit of being too good at his job." The trader says, when Migelo doesn't answer. "Poor bastard's been picked to organize the fete. Welcome our new Lord Consul, whoever the hell he might be."

"Watch your tongue." Migelo mutters, and the trader apologizes to Penelo with a tip of his glass before draining the rest of the contents.

"I should be on my way. The fools I have packing cargo for me, it's like to all be upside down and backwards. A pleasure as always, Migelo. Let me know in a few months, if you want in on the next round of drop-offs. If you're still alive, that is."

Penelo has never been much for dark humor, and the last few years have brought few reasons to improve that view. The man leaves, and Migelo begins to sort through what she's brought, still a droop in his shoulders as Penelo searches for anything to say that might cheer him up. It had been half on her mind to talk to him about the plan, about Nia and the ships, but there's no chance of that now. Penelo owes him so much, even if he'd never let her treat it like an obligation, and she won't put anything on more on him than she has to.

"Well, at least you know you can save on the spices."

Archadian food is remarkably flavorless, from what she's tasted, and she and Vaan have had a considerable amount of fun as servers at a few of Migelo's banquets, watching the ridiculous faces they make over the simplest Dalmascan dishes.

Migelo laughs, more a huff and a slight shake of his shoulders, but it's heartening nonetheless.

"We haven't been to the palace yet. Vaan will be excited."

More likely, Vaan will try to make off with the candlesticks, as a noble gesture toward Dalmascan rebellion. He can't understand why she worries, that it doesn't mean she doesn't love her country, that she doesn't want to fight back too. He can be exactly like her brothers were, sometimes, which meant the good and the stubborn and the downright irritating. Vaan doesn't want to recognize that it's so much more than his own life at stake, that he has responsibilities even if they're inconvenient, even if he never asked for them. All she needs is for Kytes or Filo to decide it's a good idea to steal from soldiers, ready to follow Vaan's lead anywhere, which will end the only place it can, with all of them…

Penelo doesn't let herself think about where it might end. Or that Vaan is the same age Reks was - the last age Reks was.

"I could dance this time, otherwise."

It's rare that Migelo lets her join in with an actual troupe, too worried about what might happen, if some Archadian noble should take a fancy, though Penelo can't imagine it. Imperial women have their own sort of elegance; careful, complicated and very expensive - no curveless peasant girl with a few bells on is going to compete with that.

"You're not going anywhere near the palace." Migelo says, his voice so sharp that Penelo nearly drops the rest of the orange, though his expression softens as he looks at her. "I want you to be safe. I made a promise, I swore to your parents… and if anything were to happen…" He shifts from one foot to the other, fretfully.

"You think something's going to happen?"

It's been months now, since the Resistance has last made their presence known in any real way. The rumors vary - they were destroyed by the Archadians in some secret raid, there was some internal conflict that left them in tatters, or they've gone to Rozarria, to try and rally support for the cause there. No one knows much about who exactly is left to lead them, though some say Princess Ashelia herself stands among their ranks, that she'd faked her death to dodge the treacherous Empire and even now stands ready to reclaim the throne.

It could be just another rumor, no truth in it, and Penelo can't help feeling glad that, whatever their plans and whoever is in charge, the Resistance keeps well to themselves. Vaan will often tell tales of their brave fight against Archades to the younger boys. If he could find them, he might very well join them.

Migelo sighs, and shakes his head. Unlikely he knows any more than she does, but that doesn't mean he won't do what he can to keep her safe.

"I know it's getting late, but I have a delivery that needs to go out to the Plains, and they'll be wanting it today if I can get it there."

"Where's Vaan?"

Penelo already knows the answer, and rolls her eyes when Migelo shrugs sheepishly. When his heart is in it, Vaan can't be dissuaded from a goal, but it's much easier to sell him on the virtue of risky adventures than the less exciting tasks that keep them all surviving for another day.

"I'll do it. It'll be good to get out for a while."

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

"You there! Trader girl!"

It isn't just the merchants who know who she works for, enough of the soldiers do too, Migelo in business with Archadia just the same as anyone else. He has a good name in town, trustworthy and careful to hew to Imperial laws, and if Penelo has noticed certain things here and there - supplies in the storeroom that never seem to get sold so much as disappear, or compartments in the ships she's helped load up that seem an odd size, and in an odd, tucked-away location - well, she does not dwell on them.

Whatever Vaan might think, there are quiet ways to rebel, to do what they can to support those who are fighting without putting themselves in unnecessary danger.

The soldier who's flagged her down is mail delivery, astride his chocobo with several rough-woven sacks tied behind the saddle. "You going near the west gate?"

Penelo nods, and he passes a bundle down to her. Trustworthy enough for a tedious task, and it's been a long time now, that they've even had much interest in checking what she carries. Going through the gates can still be a chore, no way to be certain they'll let her by without trouble, and even with Migelo's permits the rules are always changing, sometimes the soldiers bored enough to be spiteful. Penelo has an allowance from the bangaa, for the days when nothing will make a proper argument except coin. Usually she can do good without it, some combination of being polite or friendly or making up some excuse, some emergency - it's not easy to cry on demand, but she can come close - and there's always the option to just try another gate, and have the trip take twice as long.

It's been easier, as of late. The guards don't change out as often as they once did, stationed at the gate for a full six-month so far, without being moved. Comfortable enough to even remove their helms, if their captains aren't around, which means Penelo can recognize many of the day shifts, and know if she is walking into trouble. Still Archadians, neither safe nor trustworthy, but there are still some that are safer than others.

"Ah, what loveliness - a sweet breeze on a dry day."

"Good afternoon, Sir Valde."

It's not required to give them a title, but Penelo finds it amuses them, and there is benefit to be had in seeming small and polite and harmless. Miguleo has sent her this way often enough, that there is real affection in the guard's greeting. He is old enough to be her father - is a father, three times over, two daughters and a son who live with their mother in the north. A place as cold and clear as Rabanastre shimmers with heat haze. Valde speaks of it often, as if to ward against the Dalmascan sun - deep forests of pine, clear lakes nestled between high mountain passes. If there is anything to compare them, he has said, it is the way the drifting snows in winter could almost be the deserts, washed pale under the moonlight. Valde is a good enough storyteller that Penelo's lungs almost ache to imagine it, as if she's been breathing in the thin, frigid air.

A beautiful place, his homeland, but little work to be had, so he had left his family for a soldier's life and a soldier's pay. Penelo thinks he sees his daughters, when he looks at her, and that is why he is kind. She has never quite known what to think of that, or how to feel.

"Our desert flower, blooming brightly while the rest of us wilt away."

"Flower? More like a desert mouse."

Penelo doesn't know the second soldier's name, but even though his tone is bitter, so far he's proved no more dangerous than Valde is. Always with a book in hand when not on duty, and she has seen him look up from it only a handful of times. The rules for serving Archadia are far more complicated than anything Penelo understood of Dalmasca's own forces - she does not understand it completely, even with all she has seen and heard. He is seemingly of high rank, and well-schooled, but all that had not kept him from being sent here from Bhujerba, a post he'd far preferred. He is always grumpy, then, and Penelo cannot help but marvel at the idea of having her country taken by, in some small part, a man who would rather not be here at all. He seems to wish for nothing from her or Rabanastre but to put his back to all of them.

"Little bird, I think." A playful tug at her shoulder, the decorations there that stick out like wings. The first time the soldier had touched her, Penelo's heart jumped into her throat, but that had been months ago, before she'd seen Helewys with her helm off, and realized it truly was a woman underneath all that armor. Luckily, all Penelo's shock had only made her laugh. Female soldiers were still rare in Archadia, but it was not impossible, and - Helewys had winked at her - far better than a convent, or the marriage bed. "Off to the plains again, are you?"

"Migelo had a late delivery. I've brought the post with me."

Penelo sets the pack down carefully, undoing the netting, and hears Helewys curse under her breath, turns to find her staring at the delivery, specifically a long case tucked into the bottom, the lock carved into what seems to be a formal seal.

"Take it, Hele. You've been waiting long enough."

Valde tosses it to her, and she catches it one-handed, staring grimly, as if she's holding a desert viper. The older solider rifles quickly through, pulling out a parcel of his own. Opening it carefully, only to burst into sudden, loud laughter. It is enough even to make the sour soldier look up from his book, staring blankly as the man lifts a pair of beautiful, carefully stitched mittens out of the small box.

"My daughter's been practicing." He says, the laughter still heavy in his voice, glancing up wryly at the burning sun. At least Penelo's clothes breathe, her arms and legs bare, and even then the desert can be daunting - she has yet to see an Archadian not sweating puddles in their armor.

Helewys hasn't moved, still staring at the case she's holding. Penelo ought to go, knows it, but there are days Archadia seems composed only of ill omens - this could be yet another, and she cannot turn away.

"It's not to do with Dalmasca. Only me."

"What is it?" Penelo asks, before she can think the better of it.

"Acceptance letter from the Akademy. If she got in." The grumpy solider says, not looking up from his book. "It doesn't matter as much as you think it does."

"You would know." Helewys snaps back, and there's a glare between them that has Penelo ready to step away. The woman sighs, and undoes the clasp, pulls out the parchment within, also sealed - everything in Archades is so complicated, always hidden layers, always locks and secrets - and Penelo's watching again, too curious for her own good, and again Helewys has noticed.

"Once every few years, they allow soldiers like us the right to compete, for those places in the Akademy the higher Houses don't snatch up. That I might one day be a Judge. It's still nothing for certain, even if you pass the trials and have all your marks in order… but Judge Magister Drace was my witness, and she-

"She?" One thing, to imagine women beneath some of the faceless suits of armor, perhaps even as Judges, and far another to imagine one among those whispered of, as the worst of fates that Rabanastre might face. The image in Penelo's mind is impossible, a childish, nightmare creature, but try as she might, she cannot make it seem more real.

Helewys is still staring at her scroll, her voice soft and low. "It's nothing but a fair chance, when there are those who still think we 'girls' aren't even fit to try. I'm a soldier first, as is she - Drace is no more woman than the man she inherited the position from, and he was less father than forge."

Penelo nods, though the words paint a murky picture, and those she does understand - but the thought of her own father, ever forcing her into a fight? Demanding that she be a soldier? He had never done so, not even to her brothers, it had always been their choice. Perhaps Vaan is right, and Archadia is full of monsters.

"You going to open it, then, or just stare at it all day?" Valde calls, and it seems to make up her mind, one gloved hand slicing roughly through the wax seal, unrolling it before she can think the better of it. Penelo watches her eyes dart across the page, searching for what her destiny will be. Remembers how proud her brothers had been to get their colors, and she'd understood then, believed it true, the necessity of sacrificing for the country.

After all that has happened, Penelo cannot be sure of anything the way she was before.

Helewys pauses for a moment, the decision hanging in the air, and then she smiles, small and proud, and shuts her eyes, clutching the scroll to her heart. Valde whistles, and Penelo feels the world fall into a strange, odd focus around her, likely the last person that should be standing here in this moment. Barely even an idea of what it means to be a Judge, save that they are far more dangerous than the soldiers if they decide not to like her, and it's twice as important to stay out of their way.

Here she is, though, and the woman is an Archadian and a soldier and - leaving. Vaan likes to think that every solider carries a grudge against Rabanastre, that they are all intent on grinding the city to dust, picking it clean of each inch of beauty, anything that shines. Penelo wishes she could still believe it, that things could be that simple - yet here is a woman, not so many years older than she is, and Rabanastre is but a place, a moment, just as like to be forgotten.

"I am… happy for you."

A knowing smile, as if Helewys can tell all that Penelo is thinking, the good and the bad and everything that doesn't make sense. She has never been unkind. Penelo hopes that will not change.

"You don't have to be, but I thank you, little bird."

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"Penny. Penelo, love, I know you're awake."

The airships watch Nabudis vanish from a hundred miles away. Any closer, and they can only join the casualties, caught up in the flash and the roar, engines shattered as they fall from the sky. Penelo can't imagine it, no one can imagine it even though it is all anyone can speak of. How it happened, who caused it - all those people gone, and there are not the candles in all the world to light their lost way home again.

Rabanastre secures its gates, and the priests hold vigils with their doors open wide as the crowds fill inside, spilling out onto the street, and everyone fears the worst without ever speaking the fear aloud. Waiting for it to happen again. It does not come, is not such an end for those at Nalbina, though that day still crashes down on them, and when it does there is nothing at all to be grateful for.

The body of her younger brother returns. The body of her older brother does not. Penelo cries herself sick, cannot bear to be in the room when they wash and wrap him for burial, and her mother sings as she covers up what seem like such small wounds, nothing that could take him away from them so easily. Keening an old, old lament that echoes throughout the house and leaves Penelo trembling, the sound of it all but pushing her out of the house.

She climbs to the roof, where her brothers used to sit, where friends would call to each other all across the city. It is bare now, and empty, as far as she can see. The only lights in the streets are the swaying lanterns of the priests, moving from house to house, laying to rest so many of the brave soldiers of Dalmasca. It seems there is not a single house they do not stop at.

Mourning flags fly from all the ramparts of the palace. The king of Nabradia - Princess Ashelia's new husband - is dead, Nalbina has fallen and the Empire is coming.

"Penelo, please. I need you to look at me. It's important."

Reks leans silently against the door frame, burnished in the light that filters up from downstairs, where her parents are speaking with each other, with the neighbors, with Migelo. More than talk but less than argument, everything urgent, their voices low and hard, cracked at the edges like rough stone walls. Penelo knows now, what it is to see her mother cry, and to see her father afraid, and everything around her feels intangible, shadows and fire and air. She isn't a child anymore, but she feels more like one than ever before.

He leaves. Reks leaves them for what's left of the Dalmascan militia, regrouping for an uncertain defense, even as Penelo sees others packing up, shutting up shops and homes and abandoning Rabanastre for distant relatives on foreign shores. The discussion happens quietly, when they think she is asleep, whether it might not be better to follow, but her father's business has gone bone dry and if they go there will be nothing, wherever they land. Leave with nothing and arrive with nothing and Reks is going away.

Penelo sits very still, legs tucked up against her chest and her arms tight around them, listening to Vaan fight with him in the other room, his voice too high and cracking with an anger that isn't really anger. Begging to go along, and Penelo is not one for being so still but it's all she can think to do now, as if she could keep the whole world together, or perhaps persuade time itself to pass them by, if she can only keep from moving.

She's going to lose her other brothers now. It will be the shrouds again, bathing sallow, bloodless flesh and the priests with their prayers and her weeping mother and that's if anything of them even returns. Penelo swallows back a sour burn in her throat, and tries to breathe shallowly, so that even her chest does not rise or fall.

Reks goes. Vaan stays, but for those first few nights he is awake late into the night and Penelo thinks the morning will find his bed empty, perhaps a note, perhaps not even that. Rumors blow through the streets like storm winds: the princess has gone mad with grief, that Rozarria is on the march, and will reach them before the Empire does. A secret weapon sleeps within the city, like the Shard that took Nabudis, and the king will use it against Archades - no, he will deliver it to Rozarria in exchange for protection. They are searching for it still, there is no such thing, only myth - and every day grinds along and Raminas makes no proclamation and Vaan waits in the streets for letters from the front.

Penelo dances, even now. The old woman is gone, following her family west, and even at the end she does not cry, does not smile, simply takes Penelo by the shoulders and kisses each cheek, nodding as if satisfied. Penelo thinks she understands, that the woman has given what she can. A history that has survived much, that she will carry through this, and on to the next age. It is grace and it is beauty, in the circle of her arms as Penelo bends and turns, toes out, twists and bends back, held against gravity until her whole body trembles. It is joy, and there is peace in it, and on the days it does not ease her mind at least Penelo is too tired after to worry or fret or do anything but sleep.

"Everything's going to be fine, Penny. I'm going to make sure of it."

The money grows so tight there's hardly any at all, not that a coin can buy its weight in bread most days and Penelo's tongue is practically pickled, cheap salted meat and whatever sauce has enough of a flavor to bury the rest of the taste. She did not think they were so wealthy before, but each day it seems there is some new luxury to leave behind. Penelo's mother is always quiet, always distant, further and further away each day though she rarely leaves the front room. Her father is rarely home, returning unexpectedly in the late nights with what he can, food or plans or promises.

He'll still give her a smile, exhausted but real, and Penelo will sit at his feet by the fire and let him stroke her hair and she'll think of anything to say, any moment of the day that she can make shine. Making sure her voice is warm and bright, but not enough that it might break. A spell as strong as any real magick, and sometimes it's even enough to call her mother back from wherever she has gone, and they sit and talk quietly and it's almost, almost right.

Penelo isn't in the room, for the last conversation, but standing in the light at the doorway, listening in, and if Vaan were awake she thinks she'd look like Reks did. She wonders what he thought and felt because it's too hard to feel for herself, listening to her father and Migelo speak and if she did not know better she would swear they are enemies.

"It's too dangerous." The bangaa says, "You have no idea what's out there, let alone if you can trust them. If this were to go wrong-"

"I didn't work my whole life to leave my childr- my child with nothing. Raminas signs this treaty and we'll need capital, fast, or the Archadians will come in and there'll be nothing left. You know how easily they can do it - we have to move, now, if we want to have any hope of riding this out."

"At least one of you should-"

"I'm going with him." Penelo's mother, with a cold, bitter voice she's never heard before. "He can't do it alone. It's far from ideal, but what of this has been?"

Penelo draws away as the conversation tips over from argument into planning and she is cold and growing colder, her teeth practically chattering even as she wraps herself in blankets and curls up tight. Much later, she feels the dip at the edge of the bed, her father sitting down, a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"Penny. Penelo, love, I know you're awake."

If she doesn't turn around, nothing can happen. If she just stays here forever, looking at the slightly dappled surface of the far wall, and doesn't move or breathe, nothing will change.

"I need to talk to you, Pen. It's important."

She can't look.

"Where are you going? What are you going to do?"

"The details… it doesn't matter. All you need to know is, it's going to put everything to rights. I swear it. We're going to be gone for a few days, your mother and I, just like any other trip, and that's all. I'll bring you back something nice. Maybe some new ribbons for your hair?"

Trying too hard, the cheer in his tone like a fraying rope, she can hear it.

"No. Don't go." She whispers, hot tears falling on her knuckles, hands in fists near her mouth and she doesn't want to cry, doesn't want to make it worse for him but the words come anyway. "Please don't go. I don't care, I don't care if we don't have anything. I just need you, I need you both. Everything else… I don't want it. I don't care. Just don't go."

"Oh Penny, it's all right. Don't cry. Don't cry." His voice is strong again, her father is strong again, confident and sure as he draws her up, letting her cry on his shoulder. It makes her feel safe, and Penelo hates herself for it even as she holds on. Knows that he is consoling her only because their minds are already made up.

Later, much later she will ask what happened, what her father had intended, what the plan was, but Migelo refuses to tell her anything. As if she won't be able to imagine it just because the details aren't clear, as if ten-thousand terrible fates don't fight for her attention, each time she closes her eyes.

"It's going to be all right, Pen. I promise. Just a few days, then and everything will be all right."

Migelo must have been given the other version of that speech. What to do, when it turned out that nothing was going to be all right.

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

Imperials think all Dalmascans are lazy, and those in the city think the desert dwellers are shiftless, and Penelo's done business with all of them, enough to know that everyone has their reasons for making their own schedules. No Archadian is going to get decent service from any Dalmascan who isn't trying to lick their boots, and the nomads can be far more effective traders if they keep up an air of mystery and general disinterest, forcing outsiders to trade at their pace.

"Our father should be here any moment. I don't know what's keeping him."

It still makes her want to set something on fire, barely sipping at some rather bitter tea as a boy about her age does the same. Awkwardly making small talk, the both of them held hostage by an older sister long convinced that Penelo would make a good addition to the family, or at least a profitable one.

It already took longer to reach the Plains than it ever should have, a bridge knocked out by some passing beast, forcing Penelo into a long, unexpected detour. Any other day, it would have been a welcome respite, the desert quiet and unchanging, with slow clouds casting drifting shadows and no one needing her attention or her time. Now, though, she swears she can actually watch the sun being drawn toward the horizon as the woman nudges her brother to ask Penelo how things are in the city. Nudges him again to ask how the bangaa's business is going, if she's heard any new gossip. If Archadia has made their choice for Lord Consul, the most frequent question even here, outside the city, where it seems unlikely to ever matter.

"Nothing new, I'm afraid…" Penelo sets down her cup, lifting the bag again. "I really just need someone to sign for this. I'm expected back before dark."

Overhead, an airship is on slow course for the aerodrome. Penelo squints briefly, one hand over her eyes, but it's too far away to even tell what port it hailed from.

The woman smiles. "I'll go see if I can find him. You two stay here."

As soon as she is out of sight, the boy springs up.

"Come on. He's this way."

The opposite direction from where his sister walked, little surprise there. Penelo follows behind, the boy not giving her a second glance, completely indifferent. If he's anything like Vaan, he's interested in little more than causing trouble, maybe racing his father's bird in secret at night for small wagers. If she figures at all into his thoughts, it's as a convenient pleasure, no different than a drink or a particularly satisfying meal. Life on the Plains is simple and quiet, their lives all but untouched by even the greatest of Empires, but Penelo is not much interested in being valued the same as a chocobo with a knack for pecking out treasure, of no further interest than her skills in trade.

It does not take long to find the man who was, of course, unaware of her arrival, and with nothing to carry she makes good time on the return trip, but Penelo can still see the lamps in the city flicking on as dusk approaches. She hurries as quickly as she can while keeping an eye out for anything that might be watching her from the deepening shadows. Nothing much to worry her - until she returns to the west gate and finds it firmly closed, with no guards in sight. A helpless glance to the sky, the thin yellow line of the sun nearly set - but she knows she should have had time, at least another hour, surely-

Penelo lets loose with a string of curses that could make a moogle's wings fall off, taking a few steps back to glare at the wall, not that it improves the situation or her mood. A howl behind her, in the night, but she's still more annoyed than worried. Nothing's likely to attack her here, not so close to the city. At the worst, Penelo knows she can simply kick the sand until dawn, cold and hungry, and then deal with the morning guard - not nearly as well known to her - and they might decide to detain her, whether out of suspicion or pure spite. Getting in now will be a heavy bribe to whomever might hear her call - if they decide to do anything but laugh.

The only other choice, then, is to find her own way over. It's more stupid than dangerous, the gates closed as a matter of protocol, Archadia doing it because they can, not because they care much anymore, anyone who is a danger to the city already inside of it. Worth the risk, especially once Migelo starts to worry. If Penelo doesn't get home tonight, he'll have her stuck in town, or worse, behind a desk for the rest of the month, and that makes up her mind for her.

It takes a little while to find a decent route, though the wall is not in the best of repair and it seems Archadia has other concerns at present. Penelo wedges her fingers into the cracks and crevices, careful to make sure her weight will hold. It certainly wins no marks for grace or style, but she's spent enough time hauling cargo to be strong, and keeps quiet enough, and after a few false starts and slight backtracks, she reaches the top. Nothing to see but a few unremarkable buildings, and a fair view of a dim-lit, silent street, no sign of any soldiers at all. As long as she keeps her distance from the Archadian post, everything should be fine.

Penelo smirks to herself, imagining for a moment that she is some spy, some member of the Resistance off to fight for justice. Unlikely that they would bother with such a slow and clumsy infiltration, her fingers scraped and aching - and gods help her if she'd tried to do it in armor. Further consideration flees as she hears voices, the clank of heavy plate, and Penelo presses low to the wall, moving carefully away from the night watch, further into town.

The perfect plan, no begging with soldiers, no money spent, and no one the wiser. She chooses an empty patch of ground, climbing down until it's easier just to drop, and even that is quiet, the loudest sound of all when she dusts off her hands. Penelo stands in a quiet little courtyard, a few trees and some low scrub, and even if she is found here, surely there's no way to say where she came from, that she'd snuck in at all. She moves quietly through the archway out onto the street, and turns the corner - and never sees the danger she's in until it is far too late.

Never even hears the soldier, or the spell he casts. A hint of brightness from the corner of her eye, with just enough time to turn - and then searing pain where the fireball glances against her arm, and she is thrown off her feet, the breath knocked out of her as she hits the ground hard.

"Well, what do we have here, sneaking around in the dark?"

Flat on her back and still blinking away stars, Penelo can barely register the snarl, let alone try to think of a response. Before her head clears, she's roughly yanked off the ground by her burned arm, agony flaring through the lingering confusion as she lets out a shocked yelp.

"Damned brats running wild across the whole damn city. Scurrying little… nothing but plague-ridden vermin." He's talking at her, not to her - she knows what it sounds like, to be less than a person in an Archadian's eyes, though it's hard to hear him at all around the thudding of her heart. "… have ways of dealing with rats."

"I'm not…" Penelo tries to speak, hissing as she's yanked forward again. Migelo's trusted her with a healing spell - rare, with magick rationed as it is - but it's hard to cast while hurt without considerable concentration and Penelo can barely even keep her feet, the man much taller than her and all but lifting her off the ground as he drags her down the street. "Please… I can explain… please…"

"You there!" The man bellows, and a soldier steps into sight.

"Yes, Judge Hasard."

The word connects, dread creeping up on her before Penelo even realizes what she's heard, that this could be much, much worse than a fine or even a flogging. All because she was tired and hungry, a mere moment's inattention - and she had to go and think she was so damned clever, didn't she?

The Judge shakes her hard, all but pulling her off the ground again, and she lets out another cry of pain, fighting to stay on her feet as he suddenly shoves her forward. Only the soldier's reflexes keep Penelo from crashing into the chest plate face-first.

"I want this on a transport to Nalbina, immediately!"

"Yes, sir."

"No. NO!" The scream doesn't even sound like hers, but the Judge is already walking away, and Penelo is being once again dragged along, a nightmare that can't be happening, not this fast, a fate as sudden and certain as being pitched off a cliff.

"Please, I didn't - please listen!" Penelo shouts, digging her heels into the ground, raw, blank panic reducing the world to her own pounding heart and the gauntlet digging into her arm.

"It's all right, little bird. Just keep walking."

Nothing gentle in the tone, the helm rendering any voice empty of all emotion, but even in a panic the words catch her up, and Penelo finds that she can walk again, or at least stumble. It isn't until they're alone, well away from the wall that the solider finally stops. Penelo stumbles forward against the iron grip, feels a fresh lick of pain from her scorched arm, so sharp she can barely even gasp, fighting to keep her teeth from chattering.

"If I let go, can you stand?"

The words make only a vague half-sense, but Penelo nods, glancing away even though her legs feel wobbly, ready to betray her, and there's no way she could run fast enough to escape.

"P-please, don't send me away. I didn't, I didn't… If you find Migelo, I can take you to him - and he'll tell you… I'm working for him. I had a job to do and I d-didn't know the gate was closing early-"

"If I'd known, I would have told you before you'd left." Helm off, and Penelo's feels a stupid sort of surprise that it's Helewys - little bird, who else calls her little bird? "We all thought you'd gone back through the east gate. You traders don't seem to need much help from us, to get where you need to."

"I wasn't… I wasn't thinking…" Aware she ought to apologize, with her heart still ready to burst and even if she knows this woman that doesn't mean anything. She has orders and Penelo has nothing to bargain with and-

"Easy, now. I'd rather not have to carry you home."

A shake of her uninjured shoulder, and Penelo realizes she's swaying a little, takes a step back until she's leaning against the wall. The Archadian solider moves to her throbbing arm, and holds a hand up, Penelo sighing as the soothing, green magic trickles down into her skin.

"Better?"

"… thank you." Her heart isn't pounding quite so hard, but Penelo still isn't quite certain she's safe. "You… you said I could go home?"

The woman snorts. "I'll take you there myself. I'm not going to be the one to tell that bangaa I shipped you off, just so Hasard can pretend he's not completely buggered - pardon the phrase."

"Is… is something wrong?"

"Only for anyone unlucky enough to get in his way. He's been at it for hours now, snapping at all our heels. He's not even supposed to be on this side of the city." Helewys shakes her head, smiling slightly. "It's said they caught his son in bed with the wife of one of his instructors – the first son, and he doesn't have a spare. He'll be tossed from the Akademy for sure, and that's if the cuckold doesn't decide to put a sword through him first. So now he's got to make all our lives miserable, to keep his mind off his own."

Still quiet, the only real sound the slight shift of the soldier's armor. Penelo can feel the fine hairs still up on her arms, not at all from the colder night air, trying to banish the feel of that steel hand around her arm, jerking her along like a child's toy. How easily her life had been at the mercy of an angry stranger, how quickly he'd been ready to send her to hell.

"Is your arm all right?" Helewys is watching her, and Penelo nods, dropping her hands. The woman frowns, though it isn't at her, gaze distant. "I don't know why they shifted schedules on the gate. You need to get in like that again, knock at the door until someone answers. Make yourself known. Get Valde to speak for you, or have them call Migelo if they won't listen to reason."

"I know. I'm sorry."

"It isn't your place to apologize." Helewys says, her voice still hard but not frightening, not dangerous. "Hasard is a Judge, he ought know better."

"Are you going to get in trouble?"

A soft laugh, slightly bitter. "The last thing you stand for as a Judge is yourself. If I'm going to try and be one, I ought to act like it now." A soft sigh. "You have no reason to think well of any of us, I know that, but… it means something, what we do, what we are. Or it damned well ought to."

A glance at her, and for the first time Penelo thinks she's not the only one feeling uncertain, or uncomfortable, even if it's easier to do so behind a suit of armor.

The silence they fall into is mostly companionable, moving quietly through the night. Hopefully, they'll make it to Migelo's without being seen by too many people, or Penelo knows she'll be getting questions for the next week, what she did to get in trouble with the guard, and Migelo will fret and scuff his tail in the dust and Penelo will have to think up some version of the truth to tell him that isn't actually true.

Dark enough, that they almost walk right by the couple in the dim alleyway, just a thin sliver of moonlight glancing off a paldron, and Penelo's heart is in her throat for a moment, but there's no sign of a struggle. The girl's hand is loose against the soldier's arm, the toes of her foot sliding against the back of his calf. If she wanted to get much closer, she'd have to be inside his armor. Helewys makes a small, annoyed sound in the back of her throat, and then a louder, deliberate cough, her voice dry and maybe a little amused.

"So many soldiers are fond of Dalmascan stars."

The pair draw apart instantly, and the soldier steps out of the shadows first, eyes to the ground but a smirk on his face.

"Nothing quite compares."

He has the girl's hand in his, drawing her forward, but she is looking away, and Penelo has an instant's worth of recognition before Nia turns to look at her, eyes widening. The Archadians glance between them - she couldn't help the small gasp, still in shock with a hand over her mouth as Nia looks back, her gaze fixed just over Penelo's shoulder, expressionless.

Helewys breaks the silence. "You're with the seventh. Aren't you supposed to be patrolling in the north?"

"You didn't hear? We've been relieved, they're shipping us out. The Lord Consul's coming in with his own men for the palace guard."

"It's been announced?"

The soldier's laugh sends a little shiver down the back of Penelo's spine, half amusement and half worse, that she doesn't want to hear the answer.

"Why do you think they shifted the curfew? It seems our great commander-prince has come to play in the dirt awhile."

"… Vayne Solidor? Here?"

"The very same."

The name means nothing to her, but Helewys' expression locks in place, as impassive as Nia, who still won't look at her and all Penelo can seem to focus on is her hand in the soldier's, not letting go. He's handsome, tall and tan, with light brown hair and eyes a slightly darker hue - he doesn't look all that Archadian but Penelo knows she's fixed that mark on only a certain group of people, the ones who come from in and around the central city, and there are far more than that in the Empire.

"You're sure?"

"We got the order this afternoon. He's not wasting any time about it either - ships up in a sennight."

"Just like that? Gods above." A cold fist in Penelo's gut is clenching tighter at the grimness on her face, and it is a long moment before Helewys even seems to remember she's standing there, making a quick gesture to the other soldier.

"You get that girl home. It's past curfew."

He laughs again. Nia looks away, as if she's barely interested, and Penelo can see the slight, red stain, a love mark on the curve of her throat, beside the chain of the necklace. At least now, she can guess where the gift came from.

"Of course. Right away, ma'am." A nod to Penelo, a sly little smirk she doesn't return, and once again they are walking in silence, though she feels stiff and odd, the weight of the pronouncement an unstable burden to bear, and this only knowing his name.

"Who is he?" She finally gets out, better than a whisper but still quiet. "How bad? How bad is it?"

The woman shakes her head, and Penelo thinks that maybe she's not supposed to know, that there's nothing the soldier can tell her but right now she doesn't care, and it's hard not to stop where she is and demand answers.

"You don't have to be so scared." Helewys says gently, and Penelo realizes she's got her arms crossed over her chest, hugging tightly.

"Who is he?"

The woman bites her lip a little, perhaps weighing what she should say, or how to best explain it. "Vayne Solidor is the eldest son of his House, and likely heir to the Imperial throne."

The giggle comes out on its own, tight and a little frantic, surprising her, and possibly startling Helewys as well.

"Oh no, that's nothing to worry about at all."

Penelo's still trying to get over seeing Nia there in the dark, though it shouldn't be so shocking - she'd been warned as much about the girl, a dozen times by now. This news on top of that, not just some Archadian noble, but one in direct line to be their Emperor? Nothing good can come of Rabanastre being deemed so important, Penelo is sure of that, and they wouldn't send such a man if there wasn't a good reason, if they weren't planning for a future she has little way to prepare for.

"He's not…" Helewys pauses, not much comfort that she's being so careful with her words. "You hear things, but that's… you never stop hearing things about the highest Houses. Some of it's true, some of it's not, but that's all House business… do you understand?"

Penelo shakes her head, just slightly. Archadia has so many levels of politeness and rank, all rules and unspoken expectations - even before the war, merchants who did business inside Archadian borders had to train, learn to navigate the complicated requirements of selling to anyone of rank, especially within the capital city.

"House business is House business. All those great lords, they rob and cheat and cut each other to pieces, but it's games for the rich. It isn't meant to come down on our heads - mine or yours. I hear Vayne Solidor plays merry hell with the lot of them, but it's their rules, and it all stays where it ought. The things they hate him for… well, to send him here…" Helewys stops, and for a moment Penelo thinks she'll say nothing more, that it's a surprise to be told even this. "He's clever more than cruel, from what I've heard. Knows how to manage things. Whatever they're on about, it may very well be for the best here in Rabanastre." Her eyes narrow. "Tell that friend of yours to keep his head down, though, and stay well occupied. They'll be looking for anyone causing trouble before his arrival, and they won't argue much over who gets shipped out, or why."

The edge of her sleeve is burned just slightly from the Judge's spell. Penelo doesn't need any more of a reminder.

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

"Hey there, Penelo."

Nia's voice is soft, stepping out of the shadows as they reach the end of the street, Migelo's shop only a few doors further down. Helewys glances between them, and nods a farewell. It isn't until she's well gone that Penelo even thinks of thanking her, as the thought of what might have happened makes her shiver.

It's strange to see anything but confidence or boredom on Nia's face - and Penelo realizes she's got something to hold over the other girl now. Realizes just as quickly that Nia really doesn't know her at all, to think she would ever use it. Whatever her expression, it doesn't translate well in the darkness, and Penelo watches the girl's eyes go hard and sharp.

"Well, it's all true, you know. Everything. What they say about me."

"I don't know what…"

"Sure you do." The thin smile makes her look ten years older, twenty. "What should I do, though? Be the obedient little girl? Stay here and weep over the dead and gossip at the fountains until I'm old and ugly and I hate anyone luckier than I am? I'd rather be a whore." Young again, as the smile grows sharp and proud. "Not that I'm going to make it that easy."

A hand in her pocket, a small shift of her hands, but Penelo doesn't figure it out until the slim gold band glints back at her from the dark.

"You… you married him?"

Nia nods, straightening up, once more arrogant and untouchable - and Penelo thinks, just then, that it's all an act. Stupid, really, that she would think it was any other way. Nia is no more confident or certain than any of them, but the pretending is all she has. Refusing to bend, to acknowledge all the nasty whispers, and it's not that Penelo doesn't feel a little bit envious. What it would be, to just snap back at yet another piece of helpful advice from someone she barely knows, who doesn't know her at all. Knowing she's expected to find her place in a world that has shrunk so small, it sometimes feels like it would crush her to even try.

"He's not even one of them - he's from Bhujerba. It's different there, everyone knows that. When they ship out, he gets sent back home and I'm… I'm going with him."

"But…"

"I wanted to tell you, earlier, about all of it, and then… you can't say anything, Penelo. If my aunt knew, she'd lock me in the damn cellar before she'd ever let me go off with an Archadian."

So much loathing in the word, but it isn't for the soldiers, it isn't with the enemy who took their city and killed so many and deserve to be hated. It's for Nia's aunt, and maybe for all of Rabanastre, as if the city were a cage - and Penelo stops herself before she can let that thought go further.

"It was all a lie, wasn't it? Getting out of here together? Did you even ask anyone about finding us a ship?" It's not what she meant to say, Penelo's not sure what she meant to say, except it's the closest she's ever come to catching the girl off guard. Nia's expression falters, just for a moment, some of the defensiveness gone.

"I asked around. I did." A sigh. "It wasn't going to work, Penelo. I think you knew it all along. You weren't ever going to leave, and Keste already chickened out, weeks ago." The pity in Nia's smile makes Penelo's stomach turn. "She didn't know how to tell you, she said you danced too well to lose your dream."

It hits as hard as an unexpected blow, leaves her breathless, but Penelo needs to speak, because it's stupid, it's such a stupid-

"I'm not losing anything. It's not… I'll just find another way. What if this is a mistake? If he's not who you think he is? You're leaving everything for this. What if it's not… you don't know-"

"I have to get out of here, Penelo. Whatever was home here, for me, it's been gone for a long time - and say this Consul of theirs... who knows? What changes, whether he comes or not? What would happen to us, you and me, if the Empire left tomorrow? I'd still be here with nothing, and you'd still be here…"

"I'm not alone. We get by."

It sounds better, when she doesn't have to say it out loud. When Nia isn't looking at her as if they both know better.

"Maybe you should try dancing for the soldiers. You're good enough, and I hear they pay well."

Penelo hears herself choke on a breath, hands into fists and her chin up, braced as if to take a blow or land one, she's not sure. So casually, the words said so matter-of-fact, as if it wouldn't be selling so much more, even if they never touched her, and never. Never never never. What else does she have left, that belongs to her? What is there, that she hasn't had to compromise, that hasn't simply been taken?

"I knew you were prouder than you let on." Nia smirks, though it feels as if she's letting Penelo in on the joke this time, when she never has before. An older sister, if not quite kind. "You're always so nice. I never figured out how to do that. But don't think it means they respect you for it, that you're allowed to live the way you want. You just haven't said no to the right question yet. No to the husband they pick out for you. No to the life they tell you is all you're allowed to have - and they won't understand when you're not grateful. Trust me."

Nia studies her ring for a moment more, before sliding it back off her finger, tucking it safely out of sight.

"You can either be good, Penelo, or you can be happy. Don't let them make the choice for you."

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

With her parents gone, the world slips into a stupid sort of nightmare logic - of running and running and never the chance of escape, always the monster behind every door.

King Raminas goes to save Dalmasca, and in the end nothing is saved.

Rabanastre does not go quietly. Few believe the Empire's story, Captain Ronsenberg turned traitor, and so much hanging on the word of one young soldier who could have easily been bribed or threatened or tortured into compliance, nearly dead when they'd found him. A few admit the possibility of the captain's guilt - hell, a few support him for it, there are many who felt only bitter betrayal at Raminas' agreement to sign their country away. The overwhelming sentiment is that whatever the real story might be, nothing the Empire touches can be trusted, they are liars and bastards and thieves to a man.

The city fights back. Fires and ambushes and sabotage, Dalmascans launching sneak attacks and Imperial soldiers responding in kind, and there is no way to know when or where to be safe, an explosion killing two dozen people in a market Penelo had visited only hours before. She doesn't even realize Vaan has gone out until he comes back bleeding, and she bandages him up as best she can, mostly certain he's not going to die, as the city erupts into open warfare.

Pitched battles on every street, the sound of guns and steel and screaming, the clamor of armored boots echoing against the stones. The whole house trembles from some too-close barrage of magick or artillery, and Penelo wonders if there are airships in the sky, if the Empire will simply rain down fire on them all, but she doesn't dare to look out the windows, to let anyone know she is still inside.

The fighting lasts for days, and ends only when Archadia parades a long line of rebels through the streets, announcing the capture of the leaders, those who would fight so blindly against peace and order. Penelo recognizes some of them, a few merchants, one or two craftsmen her father knew, but there are other, foreign faces in the crowd. Rozarrians, among the ringleaders - and uncertainty begins to weave its way through the city's united front.

The Judge that speaks to them from the center of town makes it clear - they believe Rozarria is behind the worst of it. Hiding behind Dalmasca to provoke the Empire, and expecting the innocent citizens of Rabanastre to bear the burden of their wrath. It might very well be true, Rozarria and their eternal feud with Archades familiar enough in the city - but there is still the matter of King Raminas, of certain treachery even so, and what is there to be done?

Archadia's verdict is clear, the rebels executed at noon. Beheaded, all of them, how the Empire chooses to deal with those who would challenge their rule. It is as close as they come to negotiation, declaring that the rebellion dies with the last of them, excused as Rozarrian interference - but should the people of Rabanastre continue to rise up, the Empire will consider them all enemies of the state.

It does not take long after that, a few uncoordinated, unsuccessful attacks, a few more public executions, Archadia's retaliation as swift and merciless as they had promised - and the rebellion fades from everyday conversation, any hint of Rozarrian support met with swift contempt. Dalmasca is no more ready to be the tool of one Empire than the host of another.

Vaan goes to see Reks once, just the once. He doesn't talk about it afterward, curls up on his bed with his gaze to the wall, and Penelo doesn't understand it, what happened, only that it is no different than all else the Empire has done to them. Blink twice, and everyone she knows is gone forever.

Migelo pays for the burial, and walks back with her afterward, slowly, stubbed claws making a ruin of the papers in his hands. He is gentle and shy, with no children of his own, and is having a difficult time finding the words, to tell her what she already knows. Penelo's parents died with nothing but debts, and now that it is certain the city will not be reduced to rubble, there is one last thing for her to lose.

"Penelo, we need to… ah, I mean…"

"I know. Do we have anywhere to go?"

"Oh of course, of course you do. I've been fixing it up a bit, even. Everything's moved out and cleaned up. It's just waiting for you."

An old storeroom, in what they're calling Lowtown now, but as long as they're very careful about what they say, it's still possible to pretend things aren't what they are. The house where Penelo was born and raised, where her brothers were born and raised, and now it's to belong to someone else, maybe even some Archadian. The tightness in her chest is unbearable, choking her. Migelo makes a nervous noise - she must look closer to tears than she feels.

"You don't want to be here when they come, Penelo. It won't do any good. If you want, we can set you up today."

"Today." Not so much a question as testing the thought, like stepping on a bridge to see if it will hold her weight, and Penelo is not sure if she is disappointed when it does.

"Vaan has his things ready. We can meet you at the shop, if you'd like."

Trying to pretend she has a choice, and his kindness almost makes her smile. Migelo was her parents' friend too, even before Penelo was born - this cannot be any easier for him, and when she can breathe again she will thank him for everything he's done.

Penelo hadn't remembered Vaan packing. Migelo must have warned him ahead of time, must have been putting off telling her for as long as possible. The bangaa hesitates at her front door, drumming his fingers nervously along the frame.

"Take a little time, then. All that you need… for goodbyes."

It ought to be more jarring than it is, really, moving through the house. Tracing her fingers over the grooves of their kitchen table, smooth as river stones from three generations' steady use, a part of her mother's dowry. Standing here for what's going to be the last time, but Penelo's played through the memories so often by now that they've already worn thin, and silent as it is, it hardly feels like home.

Little left of value, most everything sold or pawned or traded even before her parents had gone. Penelo tries to think of the practical things that remain, candles and bandages, her father's tools, her mother's spices. Nothing more than she can carry, and there isn't all that much time, but Penelo cannot seem to move faster than a slow drift, her hands sliding over every surface she passes, as if to take some part of them with her, and seeing so little she might as well be blind.

The fourth time she wanders into her parents room - and how strange it had been to go in that first time, like disturbing some sacred shrine - Penelo thinks that maybe she is not as calm, certainly not as focused as she would like to be.

One bag for everything, her clothes, her sturdiest shoes, her work gloves. The bag is as valuable as the contents, all thin strips of woven leather, an import from Rozarria. Her father's old pack, from the days before he'd married, and it has seen every inch of Dalmasca, and far beyond. Penelo carefully wraps her mother's perfume up in her best skirt, the material of such a fine weave she hardly ever wore it. Surprising to find it, and even more so the box tucked away beneath, the inlaid pearl combs from her wedding day. Always intended for her, to be passed down when Penelo found a trader of her own - perhaps one who wished to go into rugs, her father had said, and laughed when she'd thrown a boot at him.

Penelo says a silent prayer, that they will forgive her, for thinking of the coin such beauty might bring, and another, that she will never need to part with them.

It's important not to cry on the ledger, or let her hands press too hard against the pages, smudging the careful lines of her father's script. It is only random business, nothing of consequence, but she feels as if she can almost hear him, telling her of all his successes, of those yet to come. Penelo had searched, long ago, for secret diaries, for the letters she was sure had been hidden away - but whatever had happened, her father had been certain they would return.

It is difficult, here where no one will ever know, not to hate him a little for that.

A mistake, to leave what is most fragile and valuable for last, though Penelo doesn't realize how slick her palms are until the sphere slips right through her fingers. A jolt goes through her body as it cracks hard against the floor, rolling away from her under the bed. A snow globe, a marvelously beautiful, silly gift for a girl who'd never known anything but the sands.

Penelo had spent ages shaking it up, watching the sparkling storm swirl around the small village, the tiny chocobo with its blanket, resting in the stable. Making up whole worlds as intently as she curses now, arm stretched out and hissing in stupid panic. Knowing the boards will be soaked where it's broken, that she'll end up with nothing but a palm full of glass but Penelo can't stop the frantic search. Can't breathe, can't stop crying, even as her hand closes around the smooth, cool glass, and she draws her arm back and sits up, running her fingertips over its surface. Searching for the crack she knows must be there as she swallows a sob, more tears reducing the tiny town and the roiling chaos into a sparkling blur.

Ask her where the idea came from, and Penelo couldn't say. It must have always been there, simply jolted free at the thought of losing what was really so small a thing, just a silly memento, of having one more memory turn irrevocable.

It still seems like a perfectly reasonable idea, or at least what she is going to do, regardless. Penelo carefully packs the glass sphere with its little world, picks up her quarterstaff, and moves from room to room, laying waste to everything that remains. All that she can do, as the last of her family, that no Archadian will touch a single pot or glass, and she even does a fair job getting most of the doors off their hinges, smashing the tiles in the kitchen, upending the table, kicking the legs free.

At the last, she shatters each of the windows, glass cracking beneath her boots as she picks up her bag, wipes her eyes dry, and walks down the stairs and to the door.

Penelo leaves it open behind her, and doesn't look back.

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

A sharp wail greets her, before she's made it more than a few steps into Lowtown, the little girl threatening to trip over each uneven stone as she flings herself at Penelo's legs, howling through her tears. Utterly unintelligible, though the greenish, sticky blob where blonde hair ought to be tells Penelo all that she needs to know. The nuts that fall from the scrub brush aren't good for much else but mischief, and it only takes a quarter-hour to gather enough sap to wreak a considerable amount of havoc. Less time if, like her brothers, one could count on an accomplice for help.

"It's all right, it's going to be fine." Penelo says soothingly. "Do you know who did this?"

The girl shakes her head, fat tears still falling down her cheeks. Penelo never volunteered to play big sister, but that never stopped anyone from showing up at their door. She and Vaan are two of the older orphans in Lowtown – funny to think that anyone would look up to them, would look to them for comfort, let alone guidance, but there it is. Always at least a few faces at the door, looking for a meal, wanting to tell her a story. Even a few times she's been able to put them to work on some small task, and they'd held the few gil she passed out after like priceless treasure.

Her father's legacy, to help the people she can, that what she's got to spare can be passed around, that there are always those worse off than she is, without any chance to fend for themselves. Penelo can help, and if she's tired and sore and not interested in scolding or making things right - well that just doesn't matter, does it?

"It's okay." Penelo says gently, before she can start crying again. "Poor girl, and I bet you've been waiting for me all this time."

Penelo thinks through her business for the evening, pushing everything back as she herds the little girl toward the door. Someone's burned their stew again, the smell carrying heavy along the corridor, and it's a relief to get the door open - and then Penelo realizes the smell is coming from their place.

"It's still good. I promise. Well, mostly." Vaan says around a mouthful of food, Kytes nowhere in sight but Filo carving a slice off the slightly stale bread she'd managed to add in as part of her last trade. "We were going to wait for you, but then it got late - what's with her?"

"Sapnuts." Penelo glares at the younger boy. "I don't suppose you know anything about it?"

Filo is the picture of perfect innocence, but who lives down here who hasn't mastered that look? Penelo sighs, no use trying to find a culprit tonight, not that it will change anything. She lifts the girl onto a low chair, to get a better view of the problem. "Migelo was looking for you, Vaan. Where did you go?"

"Out." He says, shrugging, and Penelo fights the urge to glare at him. "Where were you?"

Very tempting to respond in kind. Certainly too weary to bother with the whole story, when Vaan needs no new reasons to be angry.

"He needed me to run an errand. It took a little longer than I thought."

The news of the new Lord Consul hadn't reached the bangaa yet, and Penelo hadn't had the heart to tell him. Better that he get at least one more good night's sleep. She gingerly combs her fingers through the girl's hair, the feel of it no better than the smell, sticky and slimy and sickly-sweet, and it doesn't take long to see there's no salvaging this.

"It looks like we'll have to cut it out."

Did she have such impressive lungs at that age, or is just the close quarters making the outraged howl ring off the stones? Vaan scoops his plate up and walks out, with Filo running after, hands over his ears, and Penelo waits until the girl has run out of energy for her tantrum. It doesn't take long, as late as it is, until she's rubbing at her eyes, sniffling softly as Penelo digs out a pair of scissors.

"It's all right, it will be better soon." She says, well aware there won't be more than a quarter-inch left when she's done trimming, if that. Aware of how much she sounds like her mother, a voice of confidence, when Penelo knows so little and is in control of even less. "You know, my brothers did this to me when I was your age."

"Yeah?"

"Mm-hm. By the time my mother had finished, I had no hair left to cut - but everyone said it grew back twice as pretty as before."

And her brothers had been sent off to muck out cockatrice pens, the dangers of a mother with friends outside the city.

It's nice to have a task to focus on, disgusting as it is, and the girl asks her more questions and Penelo pays only half-attention to her answers - all the little ones like to know about Rabanastre before the war. The story of Princess Ashelia's wedding grows grander with each retelling, she more beautiful and he more handsome, and Nabudis a fallen paradise.

Penelo glances around for a distraction as she reaches the end of her task, with all of the girl's hair in a pile and next to nothing on her head. Pure luck, to spy a hat she'd picked up from some trade, second or third-hand, and it's far too big for the girl but it makes her happy, and there's a lack of mirrors in Lowtown either way.

A call comes from down the hall, just as Penelo has finished, and the girl giggles and scampers out. The littlest children are left mostly to their own devices during the day, watched over at night by a few of the church's more patient disciples.

Penelo wipes off the scissors and her hands as best she can, and sighs, leaning back, stretching out her spine. Lifting one leg up slowly, bent at the knee and then pointed straight out, and then up as far as she can go, for the sheer pleasure of being able to do so, bringing her arms up and turning into a graceful spiral, and some day, some day she'll be able to dance until she's exhausted, instead of the other way around.

A war between hunger and weariness, with curiosity helping hunger along, if only to see the wreck that two disinterested boys could make of dinner. Penelo spears her meal straight from the lukewarm pot, the sauce mostly flavorless save for where the spices clump together in searing blasts. Little meat to be had, of course, and even half-burned, the potatoes are no more than partly cooked, crunchy at the centers. Penelo keeps eating, determined not to waste what's left, but she's grateful there's still an orange waiting for her afterward, and one for the morning.

Migelo's gifted them with a considerable amount of room for Lowtown, though the larger space is kitchen and common room both, as well as overflow storage when the bangaa runs out of options. The other, smaller room lies at the end of a long hall, so narrow she has to turn sideways to make the journey - through two doors she can lock behind her, to a small space for all that they own, with a ladder to an L-shaped upper alcove.

"Vaan?"

Curtains hung up for a little privacy there, though they aren't so much rooms as large shelves in the walls, little space for more than a small bed. A mutter from Vaan behind his, more than half-asleep, which means Penelo can strip down and hang her clothes up to air, pausing for a moment to examine the singed spot. Considering how to mend it as she does her best at a scrub down, a pail of water from the kitchen and the tiniest sliver of soap from a bar she's managed to make last for nearly four months.

It is what counts for luxury now, perhaps even snobbery, to care so much for how she looks - and did Nia truly think she had no pride? What, because Penelo hadn't found some Archadian to marry?

No, Bhujerban. As if it makes that great a difference.

Penelo takes a breath, scrubbing hard, bitterness mixing with all the worries that have been lurking in the corners of her mind, just waiting for her to try to catch her breath.

If all the gates get new soldiers, when the Lord Consul arrives, that means learning all over again who she can trust, and who might have her locked away forever on a whim. If this Vayne Solidor is at all like the Judges – gods, there are so many ways it could go wrong. Penelo has heard too many conversations, those who see Lowtown as a slum, a garbage pile, a den of thieves - that they ought to be 'dealt' with. What if he agrees? What if this is how he proves his worth, to those who expect him to do great things?

A clatter from the other side of the wall barely breaks her train of thought, the sound of scuffling footsteps, a shout, what is likely a fight. Vaan doesn't even stir. Amazing, what they can get used to – and if she could go back, tell herself what was coming, Penelo knows the girl she was would have never believed she could live through it. Is that what Nia saw - or thinks she saw? Penelo has survived, so she'll accept anything as her due?

It would be so much easier to think the worst of her, that Nia had been judged as harshly as she was because she deserved it. Frightening to imagine otherwise, that the girl never threw her reputation away, because it never really belonged to her in the first place. If she might be right, all that scorn and censure just waiting for Penelo to disagree, to want more from life than simply to endure it.

Penelo unbraids her hair, running her fingers through to catch the worst of the dust before wetting it down, humming a little to herself, quietly. It will be a pain, finding another place to dance - and the thought comes, and the jealousy hurts, that the next that Nia dances it will be a place well fit for the purpose, with a proper dress in a polished hall. If she regrets her decision, her new husband, she can do so from a hot bath, can feel homesick as she picks over a warm meal. Bhujerba is of the clouds, the only way to get there is by airship. Nia will be touching the sky, while Penelo sleeps down under the ground, and there's the thought, not worth thinking, that until something grows, there's little difference between being planted and being buried.