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Sit In Judgement Of What Makes Us Human

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The few hours of airship travel seemed infinite to Drace. The distance between Archades and Nalbina was not that long, but the waiting… and the man standing still like a headstone a few meters away from her. She should have guessed before, that Vayne’s treachery would run deeper than she had expected. Yet, in her heart had remained a strand of hope. Gabranth would step up, he would speak, he would not defend her, she did not need defending. But he might have shown to Lord Vayne that he did not have the support he was counting on. She would not have been alone then. What a fool she had been, to think she could count on him! Vayne had him on a leash too, like all the others— no. Not all the others. Drace saw past Ghis’s mask of loyalty. Soon, she thought, he will be in my place. In the meantime, he was as much a hindrance to her plans as the others. Only Bergan and Gabranth were truly loyal to Vayne. Out of love, out of hatred, but faithful hounds nonetheless. The only one who she really could trust was Zargabaath. She did not resent his preference for inaction, for, as infuriating as it could be, it was not acceptance nor cowardice. He had been, after all, the one to beg Vayne to spare her life. For all the years they had worked side by side, she had never lost her respect in him. She knew that his loyalties had never lain in Vayne, truth be told she had been the only one he had trusted enough to talk about this since Zecht’s disappearance. Yet he could not act. The stakes for him were too high, and she understood. He had never been her enemy, and she had the feeling that as long as he remained by the emperor’s side, there was hope. Hope for a new future, and the just empire she wanted to fight for. Hope for Lord Larsa. She felt a lump in her throat at the mere mention of her young Lord. What had she done? If she survived the whole ordeal, how could she tell him? It would shatter his innocence, and the faith he has in his family.

Drace shook her head, the weight of the irons biding her wrists bringing her back to reality.

She was on the way to the imperial prison of the Nalbina fortress, dead to the world. The future would come later. She might never see him again.

Now she should focus on survival, and of course, escaping, if such a thing was possible. At first, when she had realised that she would not be executed - by her own comrades!- but sent off to rot away, she had felt angry. She was no common thief to be disposed of like garbage. Yet, even if the dungeon had the reputation to be escape-proof, she would try as long as she drew breath. Vayne could have killed her, she had been injured and defenseless, but he had chosen to spare her- why, was it a sudden feeling of empathy or on the contrary cruelty?-

It was a mistake to let her live. Now, from the shadows, she would do her best to protect her young Lord and the Empire. This time, truly, she would bring him down.

It had all happened so quickly. Her loss of control, her words, drawing her weapon, Bergan upon her in an instant. How could a man his size be so fast? His gauntlet crushing her head, sending her flying. The pain across her chest, her ribs on fire. Breathless. She should have been dead.

 

Gabranth did not speak to her during the trip. He looked lost in thought, she fancied it was remorse. He had been willing to kill her, after all. More than the blows, more than losing everything she had built, his behaviour hurt Drace. She had liked him. Ever since Landis. She had thought him different. She had thought he would wake up. She had underestimated men’s hunger for power, how easy it was to manipulate them into inhumanity. Deep inside her, she feared what would become of him.

 

She felt the heat of the desert even before the Airship landed in Nalbina. The ruthless Dalmasca Estersands. More soldiers than necessary formed a circle around her and Gabranth as they exited the ship. She walked behind him, and oh the humiliation! She could see the soldiers look at her, what were they thinking? That she was some common criminal, a pirate or worse? She steeled her eyes and held her head high. She was not some kind of Rabanastre low-town scum. Finally, they reached the sealed-off part of the old fortress. Guards lifted the heavy bars, and she was carelessly thrown in. It was done, she did not exist anymore.

Again, she would never learn, she spoke. Her tongue quicker than her caution.

“You will not be visiting him, Gabranth?” He took a sharp intake of breath. “Next time you fly by, come say hello to us.” She had stressed the last word, petty, yet she felt a hint of satisfaction when she heard his breathing quicken. Maybe all hope for Gabranth was not lost. Maybe the ashes of his heart could warm up again.

He did not answer, and the heavy barred door closed down behind him. Drace felt an unwelcome sadness rush over her as Gabranth left, walking back to the ship. Her feet began running on their own accord, running to him, the five steps between her and the door, and her dignity was lost for a second as she rattled the bars. The noise did not startle Gabranth, yet his helmet slightly turned in her direction when she said, her voice barely more than a whisper, “Take care of the Young Lord for me! Please...” and she imagined seeing him nod as the airship sas closed in on him. Larsa. When she thought about him her heart was filled with pain anew. He would know her dead, a Saint. He would grieve and heal through the perfect scenario Vayne had weaved, but what could she do? Even if she escaped, how could she reach him? Drace swallowed back tears. This would lead her nowhere.

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Sleeping was not an option. The sun was rising high in the sky, unforgiving. Drace had seen the glances thrown her way as she walked the burning sand floor of the prison. She had to stay focused if she wanted to survive. She had but the barest knowledge of the prison’s structure, and needed to find somewhere relatively safe. Her bandage needed tightening, and she was beginning to feel thirsty. After she wandered for a few minutes, she finally found a spot where she might rest. The stone wall was casting its shadow down on the sand, yet no prisoner sat there. The reason why was a Bangaa’s rotting corpse, lying beside the wall. Drace braced herself. The smell was horrendous, but she had lived through the grime of battle. She could do with that.

Drace took off her coarse linen tunic, and revealed the white bands around her ribs. The strength Bergan had used to throw her had luckily not been enough to break her ribs, but the bruises were painful. She began unwrapping the bandage, and almost at the end a small piece of paper fell to the floor. Where did it come from? She took the piece of paper, and managed to unfold it even with her wrists bound.

“Down. Search for Barheim Passage to E. Sand. Allies in B. Ask for the King.”

Drace smiled. She would recognise this handwriting anywhere. ‘ You might want to tighten your bandages again in the days to come.’ Skillful hands indeed, she had not felt a thing. He had taken many risks for her that day, and she owed him more than ever.

 

It was supposed to be humiliating, but she had the impression of floating above her body, and she was more the witness than the object of said humiliation. She was nothing anymore, stripped of rank and honour before her comrades, but her mind was blank. Drace’s control over herself was strong enough for her not to flinch as skillful hands unbuckled her armour. She could feel the burning gaze of Gabranth on her body, and Bergan’s too, sneering. Vayne’s satisfaction at her shame. Even if this was a better fate than having faceless soldiers degrade her in front of the whole Military before the execution, she had grown accustomed to the protective layer her armour provided. She felt small, vulnerable. Never once did Zargabaath’s eyes met her. He took off her black leather clothes, leaving her in her briefs, vulnerable for all to see, before bandaging the purple bruises marring her chest and back. Vayne seemed to be having fun, imagining that the Judge Magister would feel ashamed carrying this duty. But he was calm, all emotion and personal thoughts locked away behind a protective layer of metal. To keep control over herself, Drace focused on Zargabaath. Better him than Vayne. His hands were light, he knew what he was doing. She would be taken in an anonymous ship to Nalbina, taking off in the dead of the night. Her last hours in the capital spent in a dark cell. Sent off to hell. Zargabaath checked that the bandage was tight enough, she could feel his hands light on her chest, his fingers fidgeting with the cloth. He then took the long linen tunic he had brought, expertly passing it over Drace’s head. She was the perfect anonymous prisoner now.

“You might want to tighten your bandages again in the days to come,” said Zargabaath, almost apologetic, a hand on Drace’s shoulder.

“If she’s still alive, that is!” shouted Bergan.

Drace felt a shiver down her spine. The Nalbina dungeons were home to common law prisoners as much as to war and political prisoners. It was Gabranth who voiced the question she had been silently asking herself, his voice almost surprised. “Won’t she be kept in the Oubliette?”

Vayne smiled, a predatory grin to rival Bergan’s. “I agreed to spare her, but the Empire has no need for her anymore. And so, she does not need to take space up in the Oubliette.”

“Besides,” laughed Bergan, “It will be much more fun for her in the commons. Oh she’ll wish to have been executed, sure!” Drace felt Zargabaath’s hand tighten on her shoulder.

Drace felt naked, diminished, her life and career taken from her, yet she kept her head high as she was escorted out of the room. Upon becoming a Judge and later promoted to Magister, she had thought she would die on the battlefield, or protecting her liege. But that was how they died, behind closed doors and well alive.



“Down. Search for Barheim Passage to E. Sand. Allies in B. Ask for the King.” Drace looked around her. She had heard rumours about this Barheim Passage under Nalbina, but how was she supposed to find it? It had to be guarded. Yet, this trail was better than nothing. Better than staying here and die. There was a way out, and out there Larsa waited for her. It was her duty to survive the upcoming war. She would not let her young lord down.

Filled with a newfound courage, Drace drew a mental list. First, she had to take these irons off. Then proper clothes, even if that meant taking them off a corpse. Weapons, if she could find any. Lastly, Barheim.

She stood up, and managed to put her tunic back on. Cleared her throat, and began looking for a way to take the irons off. Surprisingly enough, she found a solution almost at once, in the person of a tall, brutish Seeq. She had first seen a shadow expand over her, soon joined by a pungent smell and the sound of breathing. She turned around at once, and faced the Seeq. He was holding a wooden club, and looked at her hungrily, up and down, his intentions clear. “Are you the welcome committee?” She managed to pull up a cocky grin. “I would gladly fight, but my hands are a bit tied at the moment.”

The Seeq did not answer, laughed at her face, swinging his mace. Drace jumped right in time to avoid a blow that would have hit her head, only to come in contact with a solid mass that turned out to be another Seeq. They were three now, stinking, grinning. Bergan was right, she thought as she readied her position. This would be fun indeed.

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The fight ended up being more difficult than Drace had anticipated. She was seized up by the arms and brought to some kind of arena by the Seeqs, and thrown face down into the sand. They not only wanted to have her, but also to beat and tenderize her first. She could have lectured them for hours on fairness, but it was not the place. Her bruised ribs were sending waves of pain through her, but she had been trained. I am a Judge Magister, she kept repeating to herself like a mantra, as she dodged the Seeq’s blows. I am the elite. The Seeqs’ strength, she realised, made up for their lack of technique, and it was a three against one. She had to be careful. Drace found out her irons to be quite efficient to block the blows from the crude wooden club. If she managed to break them that way… but the metal was sturdy, and it took several long minutes of dodging and blocking and hitting the Seeqs with the irons for the hinges to creak open. Drace jumped backwards, putting as much distance as possible between her and her enemies. She managed to take the weakened irons off, her wrists in a sorry state, bruised and bloody. But she was free now. Free of her movement, and she swallowed back the pain. The Seeqs seemed to realise that the balance had shifted in her favor, and they began fighting with a newfound fury. Drace could see it in their eyes, the anger at their plaything fighting back. Drace was no plaything, no prey, whatever Vayne and Bergan’s intentions. She was a proud warrior of the Empire. She would fight back, until the bitter end.
Still she was weakened, and they showed no sign of tiredness. As the fight went on, Drace began feeling her muscles tire, and the sun weighing down on her. A moment of carelessness, and in the blink of an eye one of the Seeq had caught her left arm, twisting the shoulder. She clenched her teeth against the pain, and managed to pull a punch right in his throat. The beast staggered backwards, wheezing. His head hit the wall of the arena, and he fell down. One down. She grinned despite the pain.
Drace looked at her remaining enemies. The one holding the wooden club was her primary target, and she jumped forward, aiming for the head. Drace’s injured arm and shoulder were becoming more and more painful as they were not secured, and she concluded the articulation might be dislocated. Still, she went on. She had to find a solution, soon. With an artful step to the side, she managed to dodge a blow aimed at her chest, and as the second Seeq got closer, the club hit him square in the face. The bones cracked and he fell. Drace took a sharp intake of breath, her grin larger. Good, good, that one would not get up again anytime soon. The last one was enraged now, and possessed by an unnatural speed, he grabbed the side of Drace’s tunic with his clawed hand, tearing it and sending her flying face first into the sand. She fell onto her bad side, and tried to get up. She could not. Stars dancing in front of her eyes, the sun burning her, pain through her ribs up to her arms and temple. The taste of blood in her mouth. From behind her, she heard a bestial laugh, and the Seeq lifted her off the ground. He slammed her again on the ground, laughing, and she felt her ribs crack. Blood on the sand. She felt the Seeq kneel down behind her, and turn her body around. The sun was blinding her, and her whole body was in pain. She tried to concentrate. She could use the pain. She felt it, if she could concentrate enough, if she could channel it—she felt the Seeq ripping off what remained of her clothes. “Damn!” Oh she’ll wish to have been executed... Concentrate! It cannot end there! Inside her chest, she felt a burning heat of mist. She clenched her eyes shut, she could not be beaten. The Seeq’s breath was down her face and neck, he fumbled with his loincloth, and she felt him take a hold of her legs, his claws piercing the skin of her thighs, pushing them apart. Behind her eyelids, the Seeq had Vayne’s face. Bergan’s. Anger burned with the mist, ravaging.
The arena shook, blinded by a white light. The ripples from the explosion shook the closest prisoners off their feet and rattled the walls. The Seeq’s body, burnt, dislocated, flew and crashed against a wall.
Silent minutes passed.
High on mist, Drace stood up on shaking legs. She gathered around her the tattered remains of her tunic. Quickenings were dangerous when not used properly, but she had not have the choice. Bergan and Vayne were fools if they thought she would not fight back. She was not a piece of meat to be thrown to hungry beasts. Drace picked up the abandoned wooden club, and limped out of the arena, victorious, her body sporting a few cuts and claw marks, purple bruises already taking shapel. Soon, the mist would wear off and she wanted to be somewhere relatively safe when that would happen. She finally collapsed in a dark corner, clutching the club to her chest.

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Drace did not manage to rest well. Her whole body was painful and bruised, she felt drained to the core. She saw the sun set below the dungeon, the night chilling her to the bone. And when the sun rose again, burning her skin, with the fever burning her from inside, she abandoned all hopes of falling asleep. She needed water. She needed to get out. The bandages around her ribs were dirty and bloody, yet she managed to untuck the note from the folds, relatively undamaged.

“Down. Search for Barheim Passage to E. Sand. Allies in B. Ask for the King.”

She held it tight in her fist. Down. Zargabaath had thought she would be kept in the Oubliette… Could it be that the « Down » meant below the Oubliette? It was the only clue Drace had. Tucking the note back inside her bandage, she used strips from her torn tunic to secure her left arm. There was not much left of the tunic, but she managed to tie it in a makeshift loincloth around her hips. If she wanted to survive the sun and the desert outside, she needed proper clothes. But to get to the desert, she needed to find the Oubliette. Bracing herself against the pain of her aching muscles, she began exploring. The prisoners were keeping their distances with her, the memory of the fight fresh in their mind. Drace was dangerous, and it was all well like that.

 

So she began to explore the fortress, empty corridors and dark corners. At one point, deeper inside the dungeon, she heard a familiar noise. The metallic sounds of Archadian armour. Walking guards. Enough to get in trouble, outnumbering any prisoner that would dare come close to the Oubliette. Drace knew that the rank and file of the Archadian army hated the Judge Magisters as much as they respected them. She was injured, and did not want to try her luck against them. She realised how lucky she had been not to attract them with her little show the day before. Leave it to the imperial soldiers to encourage mob justice in a prison.

 

Drace hid in the shadows then, and observed the soldiers from afar. They seemed to gravitate around a certain area of the fortress, and she had the feeling that the Oubliette could not be far. Drace turned back in search of a place to think and avoid the soldiers. She arrived upon the arena and turned back again. She half-heartedly tried to open a door on her right, which much to her surprise was unlocked. Quickly, she slipped inside and closed it. There, she might have some peace, enough to think and hatch a plan. The room was full of junk. Half-open chests, sacks, piles of cloth. It had to be a kind of confiscatory, thought Drace. After searching for a few minutes admits the mess of the room, Drace found clothes that fit her. Leather pants, made of thinner and cheaper material than what she was used to. Still, she could do with that. It was better than nothing. She also found a light linen tunic out of which she tore brand new bandages for her arm and chest. She felt better already, with clothes on.

Drace sat down on a dusty sack, and yawned. Her lids were heavy, but she tried to fight sleep off. She had to think of a plan. She had to stay awake.

She had to—

She slept. Without noticing it, she fell asleep curled on her side, and slept soundly.

When Drace woke up, her sore muscles ached less. Perhaps sleeping had been a good, if not safe idea after all. Drace left the room tiptoeing back outside. The chilly night air bit at her skin, but she welcomed the distraction. In a few hours, the sun of her third day in Nalbina would rise. She should have been out already, and so she went back exploring. Perhaps in the dead of night would the guards not notice her.

The guards were indeed fewer in number, and Drace slipped past them unnoticed. She tried to remember the corridors she was taking, drawing a mental map of the dungeon. After several minutes spent wandering in the dark corridors, Drace found herself in front of a guarded door. The door was intricate, embedded with runes, and she could only imagine the locking spell, a very powerful magic. That would be a problem.

Drace went back to her hiding spot. Once in the small room, the door closed, she let out a long sigh. She was no mage, even if she was -when compared to most people- able to cast basic offensive spells and a few advanced protection ones. The door was not barred by a simple spell. It was most likely specific magic, maybe even a unique spell. It had to be the doors to the Oubliette. Now, all she had to do was find a way to slip past the door. Hours passed, yet Drace found no solution. The pain from her injuries was slowly sipping out of her body, leaving her weary. She felt as if she needed to sleep for centuries before she would feel rested. Her heart pulsed with fear for her Young Lord. Her head was hit by waves of anger and frustration born of her powerlessness. Worst, the thirst she had managed to forget was coming back full force, accompanied by a gnawing hunger. Humes are few things, Drace thought, to be so easily weakened.

Yet Drace was a Magister, and a proud one. So her hunger and headache be damned, she thought. She turned her problem around and around until she found the solution. She almost shouted in victory. It was so simple! She could lure a guard in a dark corner, knock him out and take his armor! She would have no problem passing off as an imperial soldier. She smirked. Once in disguise, she would slip past the door at the first occasion. She might even get to steal food and potions! Drace was proud of herself. It had been years since she had felt this feeling of excitement coursing through her veins, since her first missions as a young Judge fresh out of the Akademy.

It was still early morning when Drace began to hunt down her prey, wooden club in hand. She settled on a lonely guard, leaning against the wall of a corridor, seemingly bored. Hidden behind a corner, she whistled sharply. He turned his head, surprised, but upon seeing nothing, did not move. She whistled again and this time, taking up his spear, he walked up to the source of the noise. She was of course faster than him, using the element of surprise to grab him and tackle him to the ground, knocking him out in the process. The armor made a significant noise when the guard fell down, but luckily for Drace nobody seemed to hear it. She was busy taking the armor off the guard and buckling it on herself when she noticed the commotion coming from the commons. Noises of a fight. She was lucky, yet there was also a downside. If the fight took important proportions, the guards would be on edge and her cover would not hold for long. She had to get that door open, now or never.

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The armor was not perfectly fitting, too small, pressing against her painful ribs, keeping her arm in a position that would not help it heal, chafing her already damaged wrists, but Drace had more pressing matters to attend. She would mourn her custom-tailored armour later. She hurried to the magically sealed door, trying to look as natural as possible.

Her disguise must have been perfect, as Drace was called by the guard standing at the door the moment she was in view.

“You! Is he coming now?”

Who the hell— “Soon.” A vague answer was better than nothing.

The guard grunted, and Drace had to fight a pesky fit of curiosity. Was someone important coming? How important? Could it be… no no it could not be. Slowly, as she stepped at the door, besides the other guard, her curiosity turned into dread.

Heavy footsteps.

Sweat began to pool down her neck, the heat of the helmet not helping. These footsteps, this metal, she would know them amidst one thousand. Her skin lost all color, and she hoped to the Father that her trembling was not noticeable.

She had not thought he would come back.

She had been joking.

He had another reason to be here.

There was no way he would recognise her.

Gabranth was flanked by several soldiers, and in front of him walked an Imperial Magus.

For a split second, surprised and scared as she was, Drace forgot her plan. Yet now was her chance. If she could slip in with them, she would be inches away from that Passage. With enough imagination she could have felt the cold subterranean air. She mentally slapped herself. Since when was she so easily distracted?

The imperial mage was now casting a long and complicated opening spell, and Drace observed Gabranth. He was unnerved, if his posture told her anything. Tired too, and uneasy. He does not want to be here… Drace wondered what had happened during her short absence. Why was Gabranth returning so soon? Drace wanted to ask him, to offer counsel. As much as she found Gabranth infuriating sometimes, she still liked him. Well, she used to like him. She remembered all too well the blade against her chest. Whatever they had had, was in the past. While her brain was trying its best to make her distracted from the current danger, Drace fell into step behind Gabranth’s escort. The guard beside her followed too. Maybe it was expected. Gabranth himself did not seem to notice them, too busy thinking and brooding. Drace could see it in his bearing. She remained at the rear of the escort, yet her ears picked up shuffling noises in the shadows behind her. She had to be careful, as careful as possible. She could not lose, not now that she was so close.

 

At last, they were in the Oubliette. First came the smell. The pungent, putrid smell. The smell of decaying corpses and agonizingly slow deaths. The smell of despair and fear itself. Drace glanced at the rusted cages, the shackles dangling inside. She felt her stomach twist with shame and disgust. This was the empire she had been fighting for. She had known about this, but how convenient it was to forget and look away! Finally, Drace laid eyes on the lonely prisoner hanging in a cage. He seemed to her the shadow of his former self, and she had barely caught a glimpse or two of the Captain in his full glory before the war. Yet he was alive, holding on after two years of torment. She felt a wave of pity for him. She had been against that particular plan. She had tried to convince Gabranth… but Vayne had been smarter and knew better than anybody else to twist brothers against each other. Maybe, mused Drace, it was then she had started to lose Gabranth.

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Slowly, deliberately, Gabranth took his helmet off, looked at last at his brother, and Drace could only imagine the hatred in his eyes, mirrored by his disdainful voice.

“You have grown very thin Basch.” Drace sighed. It was not by hurting his brother that Gabranth himself would feel better. She knew him too well, yet could not understand why he would put himself through this. “Less than a shadow, less than a man.” Basch did not answer, not even looking at his brother. The iron shackles around his shoulders and neck must have been extremely painful, thought Drace. Straining the muscles, preventing him from completely lifting his head. Gabranth went on speaking:

“Sentenced to death and yet you live. Why?” He is not the only one Gabranth… or is your memory that short? She could not say that it was a custom of the empire, to keep traitors alive in case they could come in handy for a complicated political scheme… but it was not uncommon either.

“To silence Ondore. How many times must I say it?!”

“Is that all?”

Basch finally lifted his head, his eyes meeting Gabranth’s, steely and cold. “Why not ask Vayne himself? Is he not one of your masters?” Drace saw Gabranth’s neck stiffen, and she bit her lip, remembering words uttered a few days ago… Do as your master commands, Gabranth. I care not. Oh, how harsh they could be! Gabranth growled, and she imagined that beyond the direct insult, he too, remembered.

“We’ve caught a leader of the Insurgence. She is being brought from Rabanastre. The woman Amalia.”

Basch seemed, for a split second, to react at the name, but he said nothing. Things happened so quickly, thought Drace! If that insurgent had been caught in Rabanastre, it must have been during’s Vayne’s introduction as Consul. Two days, if she remembered the schedule, two days after her disgrace. Yesterday evening, she thought, and so you were quick to come back.

Gabranth, growing impatient, asked, still keeping his voice controlled: “Who could that be?” The insurgence had grown bold for sure, if they attacked Vayne on such a day. Bold or stupid, she thought, to fall into his trap. Sometimes the two were the same. Basch did not answer, his head low again. It must have run in their blood, this undying faithfulness.

“Such a faithful hound to cling so to a fallen kingdom.”

“Better than throwing it away!” Basch did not even try to disguise the anger in his voice. Gabranth quickly put his helmet back on, a desperate way to protect himself from his emotions. No one to see his face, his pain.

“Throwing it away? Like you threw away our homeland?” He turned back.

Drace felt tears in her eyes, and she managed to convince herself it was because of the smell of the Oubliette and not because of the scene unfolding in front of her eyes. Gabranth you poor idiot… She wanted to comfort him, against all odds. He, who would have thrown her into such a cage upon his master’s orders. She was quite the fool too, then. The memory was still fresh in her mind, him, standing over her with her sword in hand, ready to thrust. Ready to kill. Fools.

Gabranth and his suite were heading back out of the Oubliette. Now was the moment to act. Drace lingered behind as they left, hiding in the shadows. If she was lucky, it would take them a few minutes to notice her disappearance. Gabranth himself would never notice, not when he was caught up like this in his internal turmoil. But the other soldiers… they had to be on edge.

Again, Drace felt a presence behind her. But it was too late now, and she stepped out of the shadows and towards the dark hole under the cages. The way out. A most-likely deadly jump. From his cage, Basch eyed her suspiciously.

“Who’s there?”

Drace was trying to think of a way to escape, so she did not answer at once. She saw a lever, and upon studying it, she concluded that it would be used to drop the cages into the Passage. If she managed to climb into one, then hit the lever with a spell—

Something hit her from behind. Not much strength, but a dull pain through her neck and skull, the echo of the vibration through the metal helmet deafening her.

But it was not enough to knock her out, and she turned back in an instant, hitting her invisible opponent with the blunt strength of her good arm.

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A boy hit the wall with the sheer force of her hit. He cried out in pain, Basch gasped from inside his cage. A boy. Drace almost felt bad for hitting him, but he had attacked her first. Her fighting instincts were engraved too deep into her being.

She cast quick glances around. Three people. A viera? Surprising. The third one… it could not be him. Him. Drace lowered her fighting stance. He had barely changed. What was he doing here, in this godforsaken dungeon? He was too good a sky pirate to be caught like a common thief. “Ffam—”

Distracted by the memories, Drace was not able to dodge the boy who charged at her again. He knocked her off her feet with the sheer force of his body, straddling her chest, and he managed to take her helmet off, half-choking her, bruising her neck and forehead. A punch came in contact with her jaw, then a second, her throat, a third, her jaw again. He was shouting insults at her -bastard, bloody imperial- hitting her face relentlessly. Blood in her mouth. Clumsy hits, no technique, but she was weakened and tired, and she did not manage to throw him off her.

“Now now Vaan, let’s be civilised for once.”

The boy -Vaan- protested, but weakened his grip on Drace and she managed to push him off her. She could not get up, her whole body heavy, feeling dizzy. Her mouth full of blood, her head pulsating with pain, she tried to speak. “Ffam— Ffamran…” Drace coughed, blood trickling down her lips.

Footsteps came closer to her, “Now, whoever you are,” his silhouette looking down on her with disdain. “It’s not because I intercede in your favor,” he crouched beside her to get a better look, “that you are allowed to call me—” He got back up in the blink of an eye, “You?! No, it can’t be, it’s impossible!” and regained his composure as quickly as he had lost it. He opened his mouth to speak again, but was cut off by his viera companion.

“We must hurry. We are making too much noise,” stated the Viera in her softly accented voice. Somewhere deep in her memory, Drace remembered a name, Fran. Pirate companions.

Ffamran opened his mouth as if to speak. Vaan had now jumped on Basch’s cage and was angrily shouting, about Dalmasca and dead people, rattling the bars. That boy sure was angry about his life. Basch himself was speaking too, urging Famran and his companions to free him. The shouts were echoing through Drace’s head, sending bolts of pain behind her eyes. Feeling herself close to fainting, Drace gathered what little energy she had left to grab Ffamran’s arm and say: “Gabranth. He will come back. The way out is down…” The words were almost whispered, the pain was too much. The hunger, the thirst. She felt herself slip out of consciousness, Ffamran’s face unreadable above hers.

Chapter Text

Drace regained consciousness when a searing pain shot through her already abused body. She bit her lip to prevent a moan. Dust in the air, the echo of shattering metal and stone. The taste of blood was overwhelming. She was alive, that much was certain. With great effort, she opened her eyes. Far above her was a hole, and she realised she had fallen down the Oubliette. But how? Her head was too painful to think. Down. Search for Barheim Passage. She closed her eyes again. She should be getting up, she should escape. Her eyes closed, she began to focus more on the sounds around her. Shuffling noises, moans of pain. She was not alone. So they took me down with them...

A shout then. Angry, and more noise to follow. Drace’s head pounded with the pain.

Using all her energy, she sat up and re-opened her eyes. Four silhouettes around her, and the boy -Vaan, her memory supplied- was straddling Basch’s body. Ffamran was chastising him. He had not changed much, mused Drace. As improbable as it was… he was still the same young man she had known. The same manners, the same voice. Whatever the mess he was now caught in, Drace was glad he was alive and well.

She heard the boy protest: “—but he’s a—” 

“A traitor. I know. Stay here and fight, if you want.” Ffamran turned towards Basch, saying: “If you can walk, let’s go.”

“You’re taking him with us?” shouted Vaan, incredulous and angry.

“We could use another sword arm,» answered Ffamran in lieu of explanations. He was not wrong, mused Drace. Who knew what creatures crawled in the abandoned Barheim Passage? Even thin and weakened, Basch remained a knight, and one should not underestimate his strength.

“And you have it.” Of course Basch would not let the occasion pass. A few hours ago, he had probably not dreamt of seeing the sunlight ever again. Drace did not know what to think about him. He was supposed to be her enemy. He had been her enemy. But maybe now, he could help her. Together, they had still a chance to save Gabranth.

From the corner of her eyes, she saw Vaan step away from Basch, brooding. Now, Ffamran was walking closer to her. Hands on his hips, he looked at her up and down. Drace imagined what a sorry sight she was giving him.

“Not that I am interested, but how did you end up in such a state, wearing a foot soldier's armor in the Nalbina Dungeons, your Honor? ” The stress on the last two words made her flinch internally. Ffamran had never forgiven the Empire.

Drace tried to think of an answer. It was painful to think. Something short. “Vayne.”

Famran looked at her with mocked surprise. “Vayne sent you here?”

Drace shook her head. “We had a disagreement. I am—” she coughed, spitting some blood. “I am supposed to be dead.” For a second, Ffamran looked genuinely shocked and sorry. Drace pointed to her armor. “Disguised as a guard to escape. I didn’t plan on running into you.”

Ffamran sighed, Drace could see the hesitation in his eyes. “I have no reason to trust you, you know. You could very well be sent to spy on the resistance. You were with Gabranth’s escort after all.”

Drace closed her eyes. “I know.” She coughed again. Her ribs were even more painful than before, they must have cracked during the fall. “Leave me here.”

“Listen, Drace. You are white as a corpse, and Vaan’s idiotic punches cannot have done that much damage. If we take kingslayers with us, we might as well trust supposedly disgraced Magisters for a little while.”

She smiled at the irony. Even such a simple gesture was painful. “I will not be of much use.”

Ffamran shrugged. “We are not leaving you here to die. If you can walk…”

Drace got up on shaking legs, fighting a fit of dizziness. “I will do my best.”

“But she’s an Imperial soldier! Imperials are all—” began to shout Vaan only to be silenced by Ffamran.

“I. Told. You. To. Spare. Us. Your. Quiddities.” He then turned towards Drace. “Oh by the way, the name’s Balthier now.”

Chapter Text

 

A new name. It made sense, for a new life. For Drace, he would always be Ffamran mied Bunansa, but she had better get acquainted with Balthier, if it was his wish.

Cautious, the group moved away from the cage and the rumble. Drace’s legs were not obeying her as well as she would have wished, but she walked on, following. After less than a minute, they met a vagabond bangaa who claimed to be a merchant, but her head was too painful to listen to his ramblings. Balthier still took a few minutes to exchange some gil for healing supplies and goods. In the meantime, Drace rested against a pillar. Even breathing was painful. They set to walk again, and was it her slowly losing eyesight or was the corridor becoming darker and darker?

“Hey!” shouted Vaan out of the blue. “Who turned out the lights?” He looked around, and pointed to a insectoid creature in the corner. “One of those?”

Balthier then settled on lecturing him on the danger of mimics and their craving for energy. Drace knew all of that already, basic training, basic enemies. “… and it gets worse in the dark, much worse.” Drace stopped listening again, her head pounding like a church bell. The fever had not decreased, and it was a miracle she was still standing. At one point, Balthier mentioned a sword. They would have to fight the mimics to get the energy back to the lights and the doors. Right, it made sense, even to her weakened self.

They fought, then. Or to be exact, Drace stayed behind and dodged the monsters, hitting only when necessary. Each swing of her arm with the injured shoulder sent stars flying in front of her vision. The pain made her fight slow and clumsy. Still, they were lucky, crossing corridor after section without too much trouble. The bombs in the Passage seemed peaceful enough and did not attack on sight. At one point, she heard a cry of pain behind her. It seemed that a stray flan had managed to take a hold of Vaan’s right ankle, probably twisting it. Proud, the boy refused to stop and limped on.

It was going well too well. They came across three battery mimics, but at the last moment, Vaan stepped on a concealed magick trap. He fell down with a cry. The temporary spell disorientated him, and one of the mimic lunged forward, latching itself to Vaan’s badly protected chest. The boy screamed, the heart-wrenching sound of the first really serious wound he had. Balthier managed to shoot the mimic without hurting Vaan more, but the fight was far from over. Neither Basch nor Drace had weapons, and the two remaining mimics, charged with energy, were attacking relentlessly. Fran loaded her bow and struck one down, while Drace tried to dodge the third, but failed, the pain and fever distracting her.

Too late, Drace felt the mimic’s electric bite where the collar of the armor left some part of her neck and shoulder exposed. She doubled over in pain, stars dancing in front of her eyes. The mimic attacked again, taking advantage of her weakness, and she cried out as another electric charge coursed through her body. She managed to swing her good arm with enough strength to throw it away from her. Balthier turned around, and expertly shot the mimic. Drace was breathless. She had to go on, but her whole body was screaming at her to stop.  To lie down and wait for something, anything to happen. Behind Balthier, she could see Vaan, limping, pale, clutching his bloody chest. The boy needed to rest, and if they had enough medical supplies, he needed a bandage, badly. It was Basch who voiced her concern first:

“They cannot go on anymore.” Balthier hummed in answer, and Basch went on:

“We have enough power for now. Two of us can go scouting and securing the passage while the third helps—”

“I’m not letting you touch me traitor!” shouted Vaan, putting more distance between him and Basch.

“Actually,” said Balthier, “He is right Vaan. How about you two,” he pointed at Basch and Fran, “go scouting while I take care of our cry-babies?”

“I am not a—” began Vaan, before a murderous glance shut him up. Basch and Fran nodded their consent in unison, and after Fran had given Balthier some medical supplies from her pack, they disappeared down the dark tunnels.

Chapter Text

When Basch and Fran were gone, Drace let herself fall down, her back against the wall. Her breathing was erratic, she felt drained of all energy. Now that she was sitting, she did not feel like getting up anytime soon, and hoped that no stray monster would attack them. Vaan sat down too, his movements uneasy. He glanced suspiciously at Drace, but she had closed her eyes and would not have cared anyway. Balthier looked down on the both of them. He rummaged through his pack and through Fran’s supplies, before taking a step closer to Drace. She opened an eye and said, her voice too weak for her own liking:

“Take care of him first. I can wait.”

Balthier shot an eyebrow up. “Your injuries seem worse than his.”

“I am used to pain.” Not him, was the unsaid subtext. He is just a kid…

Balthier sighed, muttering under his breath about the stupidity of selflessness. He turned to Vaan then, and despite his protests, began cleaning and bandaging the wounds on his chest and his twisted ankle. Drace drifted in and out of consciousness in the meantime, her thoughts coming back to Larsa. She felt a gnawing fear in the pit of her stomach, not knowing where he was, if he was safe, with whom… He was supposed to travel with Ghis… but what if Vayne…

After agonizingly long minutes, Balthier finished treating Vaan. The boy had a pristine bandage around his chest and his ankle was less swollen. Balthier gave him a potion

“There. It should replenish your energy.”

Vaan took it gratefully and drank the healing liquid in a few gulps. Drace watched him, her own throat parched by thirst, on fire. She could wait.

Balthier shuffled through his pack again, and went to her side. He was silent at first, assessing the severity of the few injuries he could see. There was no way to heal Drace properly without taking her armour away, and their eyes met, sharing the thought. Drace nodded. “Go ahead.”

Balthier studied the armour, and shrugged. “The quality dropped.” Drace could not help a chuckle, but her ribs sent a wave of pain through her and at the end it was more a pained whimper. Balthier had begun to unbuckle the feet, legs and hips parts of the armour, quickly and efficiently. In the span of three days, mused Drace, twice she had had her armour removed by someone else than her. She hoped it would not become a habit. She helped Balthier take off her thin leather trousers. Since the armor had been too small for her, the articulated parts had cut through the clothes she had put on and she bore bloody cut marks around the heels and below the knees. “These are just cuts, you don’t need to…” Quickly, without listening to her, Balthier applied salve over them. It tingled, but her head and chest were so painful that Drace did not really notice it. Balthier’s eyes swept up over her searching for other injuries. His eyes stopped on two red claw marks on Drace’s thighs, where the Seeq had grabbed her, and stifled a gasp. Drace looked down. She had not paid attention to any of the marks after that particular fight, but the intent behind the gesture which had left the claw marks was obvious. They left nothing to the imagination, and Balthier glanced up, his eyes meeting Drace’s, pained, seeking answers or approval. She knew her eyes were shining with the fever and clouded by pain, not a pretty sight to behold, but she had trouble conveying anything else. She would tell him the whole story later. Still, she weakly nodded and he applied slave there too in a few swift motions, the muscles of her thighs instinctively twitching under his touch.

“I will try to take the upper part of the armour as painlessly as I possibly can now.”

“Just make it quick,” answered Drace as she held her breath. Her eyes clenched shut, she felt Balthier unbuckle and separate the pauldrons from the chest plate. A few tears fell on her cheeks. Her whole rib cage protested against the movements, it was as if the armour was a second skin Balthier was tearing off her living corpse. Yet she was trained to endure pain, and not a sound escaped her clenched teeth and white lips. In one swift movement, Balthier also disposed of her tunic. She released the breath she had been holding, and opened her eyes again.

Her left shoulder was red and swollen, probably dislocated. No wonder she could not properly fight. She had done more harm than good putting the armour on. The skin of her wrists was raw and bloody, and Balthier healed and bandaged them first.

Only then did Drace notice Vaan’s eyes on her, studying her, suspicious yet awed at her bulk and at the galaxy of scars on her body. She wanted to tell him to look away, that it was thanks to him that her jaw, chin and half of her face was swollen and purplish in colour. She wanted to tell him that most injuries were superficial, and not that terrible. She felt shame wash over her, and lowered her head. She made quite a poor Magister, to fall for so little.

Without words, Balthier applied salve on yet another claw mark on Drace’s flank, where the Seeq had grabbed her tunic.

“I will put your shoulder back in place now.”

Drace did not answer, not that Balthier was waiting for it. He took a hold of her arm and shoulder and expertly twisted them back into place, the sound and the pain making Drace nauseous. Even Vaan looked away, cringing.

Balthier applied salve to the mimic bites, before starting to take off the bandages around her ribs, leaving the black cloth supporting her breasts intact. The bruises looked bad, an angry bluish purple. Balthier touched several spots on her chest and back, testing, and she winced in pain. They were definitely cracked. He sent a questioning look her way.

“Mostly Bergan. He has the strength of a Behemoth. Fighting Seeqs do not help either.” Balthier shook his head, and showed her, caught between two of his fingers, the folded note. Realising what it was, Drace gestured with her head for him to read. He did so first in silence, then out loud. “ Down. Search for Barheim Passage to E. Sand. Allies in B. Ask for the King.  So this explains that,” he mused, his voice rising barely above a whisper. He must have recognised the handwriting too, she thought. He locked eyes with her. “Do not think that I yet trust you. It seems strange that a Magister would fall from grace at the moment the rebellion stirs, and find herself in the same place as a pawn key to Dalmasca’s demise. It makes too many coincidences for my tastes.”

Drace nodded. The words pained her more deeply than her wounds, but she had to admit that Balthier’s reasoning made sense. He was smart, a scheming Archadian if she knew any. “I would think no less of you. And I ask not for trust.” He handed her the note back.

Balthier got up then, took a breath. “There’s not much to do for your bruises. Mostly cracked bones and internal bleeding. I would try a healing spell.”

Drace braced herself as the refreshing wave of the Cura hit her. She felt the pain subside instantly into a dull ache. She would still need time for her ribs to properly heal, but they were not a danger to her health anymore. She touched her face, feeling it less swollen thanks to the spell. Quickly, Balthier bandaged her ribs again with fresh linen.

“Thank you Balthier.”

“You will thank me later.” Balthier threw a potion at Drace, which she drank gratefully. She was so thirsty she did not care about the earthy, fermented taste of the potion.

She got up gingerly, testing her legs. She was happy to find them no longer shaking. She genuinely felt better, and put on her borrowed clothes. She looked at the discarded armour. She was better without it anyway. She trusted her fists well enough to not need a weapon now. With enough luck she might find one anyway.

Now that she was feeling better, she noticed that the light in the room had diminished, and was becoming even dimmer. She pointed it out to Balthier. Vaan looked at them in turn as they exchanged silent thoughts through their eyes. It was not normal, Fran and Basch must have run into trouble. Maybe, thought Drace, he does not trust me yet, but there are instincts, trainings that are never forgotten. Balthier tilted his head towards the tunnel and she slowly nodded. They suddenly took off running in the direction where Fran and Basch had disappeared. Vaan followed behind, a question lost on his lips.

Chapter Text

They ran. Drace knew that she had to be cautious, she had not yet recovered, but her muscles were answering her every command, and she no longer felt like a weak burden. Of course, her ribs were hurting her, and she was breathless from such a short run, but she could do with that.

They ran into a dark crossroads, and stopped. Vaan opened his mouth to speak but Balthier silenced him with a gesture of the hand. Behind them, the light was dying out. From further in the darkness, Drace heard noises. Balthier heard them too. Metallic sound and horrible screeches.

They followed the noises, no longer running. They could not afford to be seen or heard, if they wanted to surprise whatever was fighting down there. They managed to walk past a few unaware zombies. After a few minutes that seemed far too long, they arrived in a dark operational sector. Electricity coursed through the air, and two abnormally big battery mimics were holding Basch and Fran at bay. They did not seem injured, but something was amiss. Drace could see they had trouble dodging the mimics’ hits.

“A blinding trap,” she growled.

Vaan looked quizzically at her. Balthier whispered a “makes sense”, before arming his pistol. In the meantime, Drace concentrated her energy and, caution be damned, cast an Esuna towards Fran. The healing spell engulfed the Viera, and a shot rang, piercing the closest battery mimic. The advantage of surprise was gone now, but one of the monsters was badly injured. Drace began casting again as Fran readied her bow. Vaan joined the melee, and by the time the Esuna hit Basch, one of the two mimics was down. It took the four of them a few seconds to get rid of the last one.

“Thank you,” said Basch, breathless. “That trap took us by surprise.”

“We noticed the lights had changed and figured something had happened to the two of you,” answered Balthier. “Now that we are all on our feet again, how about we proceed onwards?”

Nobody answered but they all four started walking back to the main corridor. The light was back at its normal level, scaring the bats and other pesky monsters away.

They took the main corridor down, and were lucky to have enough electricity to lift a barred gate.

It looked like they had arrived at a junction in the Passage, a large portion of the corridor in the centre of which stood a blue crystal. She found the presence of the crystal soothing. It had familiarity, it was like a sliver of hope and civilisation in this dark place. Without waiting for her companions, she walked to it and touched the blue cold surface, letting the mist flow through her body, dulling the ache in her ribs to almost nothing, relaxing her whole body. Soon, she was joined by the others and they stood there, unmoving, letting the magic of the crystal restore their energy and fighting will.

“The Mist seethes,” commented Fran, who had taken a few steps away from the crystal and towards what had to be the way out.  

“It reeks,” added Balthier with all the flare of Archadian nobility. “Something’s close.”

So they would have to fight soon. Drace trusted a Viera’s instincts, even more so if said Viera was a sky pirate. Drace was ready, as ready as she could be in this place.

While they were packing and checking their stuff, the goods scavenged in the Passage, Basch approached a corpse lying a few feet away from them in the corridor. From the corner of her eye, Drace saw him take the light armor the corpse was wearing and his clothes and put them on. She smiled. They were not so different. Bash also took the dead man’s sword, and tried its weight with a few swings. His moves were precise, born of years of practice. Yes, even after two years in a cage, he was still a knight in all but rank.

Balthier too noticed him, and said, irony weighing down his words, “Nice moves here Captain.”

“You mean traitor,” Vaan snapped with venom in his voice.

Balthier crossed his arms, tired of the boy’s demeanor. “So they say. But I didn’t see him kill anyone.”

Vaan looked at Basch, then at Balthier, then at the floor. His voice was lower, sad, and Drace felt anger and remorse wash over her. “My brother did.” Casualty of war. Was she selfish to wish it to be only a number on a report? She was angry at herself, angry at Vayne. Humes be damned for their foolish power craving.

Basch gasped, surprised, and looked up, had his eyes set on Vaan, not yielding against the furious glare.

“Reks. He said he had a brother two years younger. I see. He meant you. Your brother. What became-”

Casualty.
“He’s dead,” spat Vaan, his voice too serious for a boy his age. Too much suffering.

“I'm sorry,” answered Basch, genuinely hurt. Drace could feel it, the love for his men, the two years long guilt. Vaan, on the other hand, was rage itself.

“It was you who killed him!”
Basch took a tentative step forward. He looked taller, closer to a knight. On his way to restore truth. As if words would be enough to convince a grieving soul. “I give you my word: that was not the way of it.”

Oh no indeed, thought Drace, It was not you… but such a successful operation that your image will never come clean.
Basch then started to talk, telling the story of how they had tried to save king and kingdom. Two years of bitterness and despair, spilling out. Two years of loneliness, the need for human contact. The need for somebody to believe him.

Drace did not listen closely to what he was saying. His side of the story must have been interesting, but she already knew the facts. And she remembered clearly the bitter fights she had had with Gabranth during the weeks before that fateful night. War weighing down on them, straining their relationship as Vayne controlled Gabranth like a puppet.

Still, Drace heard the raw pain in Basch’s voice as he recalled his liege’s death and his fall from grace. He had sat down at one point during his story, beaten by his own feelings. War was unfair with them all. Drace felt unwanted guilt gnaw at her insides. Balthier, towering over Basch, his pose mockingly thoughtful, voice forever calm and controlled, said:
“A twin brother? Fancy that. But still, the pieces fit. I’ll give you that much. And he did look like you.”

And you knew him, thought Drace, but you value keeping up masks… you would have been a fit choice for the Ninth.
Vaan was looking away, hiding his emotions from the group, his voice raw as he said: “I don’t believe you.”

Before Basch could apologise to Vaan, Drace interrupted him:

“Me, I do believe you.  I was there.” All eyes turned to her. “In the weeks before the king’s assassination. Gabranth had to grow his beard and hair to look like you. He hated it. He could not even look at his reflection in the mirror. Vayne had infused so much hatred into him—” Drace was aware that her voice was thick with emotion, but did not plan on hiding it. These moments had been difficult for her too, being the accomplice of a ploy she disapproved of. Watching Gabranth fade away into the shadow of Vayne.

Basch’s eyes were fixed on Drace, and his voice too was heavy. “You… you knew my brother. You are not a simple Imperial.”

Drace sighed. She wanted to snap at him, it was her grief as much as his, but it seemed to her that the man they had known and loved was a different one. Yes, and I was there when you had abandoned him , she wanted to answer, petty, her heart speaking. She wanted to lash out to him, an easy target, while Vayne was the only man responsible. Drace was not stupid enough to think life had been easier in Dalmasca for Bash as it has been in Archades for Gabranth. “Yes,” she answered. “We were more than comrades, we were... friends. Now... ” her voice trailed off, “...now I don’t recognise him anymore.”

Basch tentatively smiled at her, and Drace returned it. Oh, how deeply her hatred for Vayne ran! He would pay for his crimes, and she would be the one to carry out the judgement.

Balthier sighed, interrupting the moment. “So, since it seems to be the moment of truth and the falling of masks, could you please entertain us with your story, Your Honor. ” So they were back to titles. Balthier hated not to be the centre of attention, but worse, thought Drace, he hated when things came too close to his own past. She could understand his shame, and wanted to help him. Running away had never been the solution. She made a mental note to speak to him later.

Yet, Drace cleared her throat. “I’ll stick to recent events only.”

Chapter Text

“As you probably guessed from the title Batlhier used on me,” began Drace,  “I am a Magister. I was known as Judge Magister Drace.”

“So you are truly a Judge? » interrupted Vaan, repeating incredulously. He must have a hard time reconciling the image of Gabranth in full armour and of her battered carcass under a same name.

Drace nodded. “Formerly so. You met one in full gear and glory earlier, Gabranth. Basch’s twin brother.”

“Balthier told me about them.” He could barely keep the hatred out of his voice. “You are not Judges. You are killers.”

Smart boy, thought Drace. He was not wrong by all means, and even if by disgrace the majority of Archadian people thought Drace softer than her comrades, and even if she despised useless violence, they were trained to kill. She had killed in the past, without remorse. Upon an order, without looking back. For the Empire. Armed killers indeed. Amongst other things. Yet now was not the time to explain that to Vaan. He would realise sooner or later that their world was made of shifting grey, and much more complex than it seemed.

And so she told them the story of how she ended up in the dungeon, her memories threatening to overwhelm her.

***

It could have been a day like any other. Drace had woken up to court reports and a mountain of unfinished paperwork. Larsa had left for Bhujerba with Ghis in the early hours of morning. Drace was not especially happy about this. She had agreed to the journey, of course, it would be a good experience for her young Lord. But she was suspicious of the interest Vayne and Draklor seemed to have in the Lhusu Mines, and did not want Larsa to end up in trouble. He had already enough problems, between his brother’s hunger for power and the Senators trying to subdue him. Drace was constantly on edge. In every shadow could be hiding a potential threat. Even more so since the Ninth Bureau had found proof of the insurgence against the Empire stirring in both Rabanastre and Bhujerba. Drace really did not want to let go of her precious liege under such circumstances.

Drace got up from her seat. She really could not concentrate. She got out of her quarters, her identity and angry scowl well hidden behind her helmet. There, she met Gabranth. They remained silent for a few minutes, enjoying a cup of tea Gabranth had prepared in the debriefing room.

A knock on the door, suddenly. Gabranth injuncted the newcomer to enter. It was a palace guard, who sharply saluted them.

“Your Honors, His Excellency Lord Vayne summons you to his private quarters immediately!” Gabranth nodded, quickly putting his helmet back on. Drace took more time. Could it be that important? She hoped not. A feeling of dread crept through her, almost panic. Yes, it had to be important if it was an immediate summon. Could it be about Larsa? Had something happened? She pressed on, getting to Vayne’s quarters before Gabranth, taking her helmet off again to salute whoever was there in one quick gesture.

Once in the antechamber, the first sight that caught Drace’s attention was a corpse. A corpse wearing the servant’s uniforms, Vayne towering above him, and keeping their distance were Bergan and Zargabaath.

Finally, Gabranth entered the room, breathless. The doors closed in behind him.

Now, Vayne had his spectators. He looked at each Judge in turn, and began speaking, his voice perfectly controlled. “Imagine my surprise this morning, when I discovered this rat here, uninvited in my private quarters.” Vayne nudged the corpse with his foot. “This servant was tough, I must admit, but he spilled his reason for coming in due time. He had been sent by, would you believe it, some of our honoured Senators, to spy on me. He confessed that the Senate has links with various insurgence groups, before I put an end to his misery.” Vayne could have been performing a script learned by heart, each step calculated, each word weighted. He was too calm for Drace’s tastes. « The insurgents the Ninth discovered in Rabanastre would have thus been funded from the very centre of our Empire. Worse. That rat admitted that the Senate would this evening ask for a vote of no confidence against my promotion as Consul, thus leaving Rabanastre without a leader strong enough to counter the insurgence.»

He stopped speaking, waiting for his words to take effect.

Well, that the Senate was involved in schemes against the Imperial Family, nothing new under the sun. It was the primary cause of insomnia for Drace, fearing that one of these old Senators would realise Larsa was not the gullible kid he looked like and tried to strip him of power, or worse make him disappear.

Still, there, something was wrong.  Vayne had summoned them, and apart from the corpse of the servant, there was no clue. Drace did not like that. Vayne had been too calm. Clearing his throat, Vayne went on speaking.

“-- This vote must have come from Chairman Gregoroth himself probably. This,” he pointed to the corpse, “is his personal servant. Their treachery knows no end.”

“A treacherous lot indeed. Much of the Senate must be culpable,” added Bergan, gleeful.

“ We now need to conduct a thorough interrogation of all the Senators. Strip them of their authority in the meantime. I shall of course remain Consul in Rabanastre and at the same time oversee the purge—”

This was too much. Drace snapped, tired of the farce unfolding before her eyes.

“Spare me your lies! You cannot make me believe that it was not a scheme of yours!”

Vayne looked at her sharply, his mask slipping for a second. He regained control of himself at once.

“Drace! You speak too freely!” Zargabaath told her. He knew of her temper and her habit of not watching her tongue, but she did not listen to him. It was infuriating, to be, again, the only one fighting.

“Zargabaath, do not tell me you join in this mummer’s farce?” It was a hopeless attempt at shattering an immovable object. He cast his eyes down, and deep inside her she knew he agreed, she knew he wanted to say something, but some things were better left unsaid. He looked at her finally, a second, a silent apology, then turned his head, answering: “With Rozarria poised to invade at any moment and the insurgence stirring, we cannot risk to weaken the border. We need a strong leader.”

Drace huffed, furious. These men! For her, it was clear Vayne was guilty. It was too convenient, at the right moment… he had power in Dalmasca and a reason to order purges both there and in Archades. Too convenient indeed. Too much evidence for his father to refuse him.

Vayne took a few steps away from the servant’s corpse.

“Who knew who was next on their list?” He looked Drace in the eyes, the shadow of a cruel smirk on his lips. “Most likely my dear brother Larsa…”

Drace saw red. Larsa. HER Larsa. The next on Vayne’s list. No, never, he would not hurt Larsa. Never ever ever. “Surely you would not go so far!” she spat, her anger and hatred guiding her tongue. Vayne’s smirk grew an inch more visible. Drace’s blood was boiling, she was too angry to be aware of her surrounding anymore. She was too angry to realise he was playing with her. Before she knew it, her sword was in her hand. She stepped forward. She had to protect Larsa at all costs. “Vayne Solidor, as Judge Magister and upholder of the law, I hereby place you under arrest for conspiracy!”

She had fallen straight into the trap.

Vayne did not react. He did not care about her sword pointed at him, his smirk gleeful. Drace gasped as she felt someting cold at her shoulder. A farce indeed, a set up.

“You misunderstand. Vayne has the full support of the Ministry of Law for his actions. We all stand behind him. Do you see it now Drace? When you bared your sword at His Excellency, you bared your sword at the law.”

Oh Faram she hated him. She had hated him her whole life.

“You wear the mummer’s motley well, Bergan.”

She turned to face Bergan. He was grinning like a hungry predator. It was okay, if she had to fight him too she would. She would not mind. Anything for Lord Larsa. Their swords met, the metal clinking. Unexpectedly, Bergan lowered his sword and took her wrist, deflecting her sword. In a movement surprisingly quick for someone clad in such an armor, Bergan gripped Drace’s head, his gauntlet digging into her scalp. Without effort, he lifted her two hundred and sixty-odd pounds of flesh and metal, and threw her across the room as if she weighted nothing. She did not have the time to brace herself for the pain as her back collided with the floor. Her armor did little to soften the fall.

For a few seconds, her vision blacked out and her whole world was painful. Somewhere beyond, she heard Bergan laugh.

Why had she lost control? Drace hated herself. She was sanguine, that much she knew, but why did she have to lose all control? She had seen it, behind her eyelids, she had seen the past rewritten, Vayne’s lies, brother against brother. She had not been able to let such a threat go unpunished. And now she was powerless.

Vayne’s voice. Drace opened her eyes again. “I will go to Rabanastre as scheduled. Bergan, Zargabaath, you will conduct the interrogations on the Senators.”

“Sire,” answered Zargabaath, too eager to get himself out of this situation.

Vayne went on: “Ghis will take care of the espionnage and interrogation on the insurgence and of my protection in Rabanastre.”

“Your excellency.” Gabranth, who had been dutifully silent the whole time, finally spoke. “These are duties of the Ninth Bureau.”

Even if her thinking was hindered by the shock, Drace could not fathom why Gabranth would decide to speak now. And to say that? Sometimes he was a mystery to her.

Vayne turned around sharply, poisonous.

“Oh? Perhaps you misunderstood your duties then. I see no other explanation for why all of this affair slipped past you and your men unnoticed.”

What? Could it be a trap laid out for him too? Drace could definitely not believe Vayne.

“Your excellency—”

“A hound, they call you... Am I not a master enough for you, so that you would busy yourself to other tasks?” Vayne smiled, victorious as Gabranth bowed his head. “ou may fulfill your duties as Judge Magister before us all and show you are worthy of your Bureau.” He pointed to Drace. “She has been tried and found guilty of treason. It falls under your authority to dispose of traitors.” So it was the end. Drace felt that Gabranth would not dare disobey Vayne. It had been two years, but he was still very much caught in Vayne’s web. And indeed he picked up Drace’s sword from the ground, and kneeled above her. She knew she made a miserable sight, just able to lift her head, her eyes clouded by pain. What a pitiful way to die. And Larsa...

Gabranth refused to look her in the eyes, the tip of her sword hovering above the articulation of her chest armor. Gathering her strength, her voice betraying nothing of the turmoil of emotion she felt, Drace said:

“Do as your master commands, Gabranth. I care not.”

Gabranth did not answer, his eyes frozen steel. The tip of the sword was now resting against her chest. His hand trembling, yet he would do it.

“Your excellency, I beg you reconsider!”

He would have thrusted in, killing Drace, if Zargabaath’s voice had not distracted him, his grip on the sword faltering.

If she had had the strength, Drace would have laughed. What was the point to act now? What was he trying to achieve? Yet, Vayne seemed to appreciate the humiliating farce.

“Beg ahead, Your Honor. I am listening.”

It took less than a second for Zargabaath to improvise a defence. “As we already said. The Empire must be strong if we have to face a Rozarrian invasion. And an insurgence in Dalmasca, especially if it is rooted in the Senate here. The mere rumor of the execution and treason of a Magister might stir unrest in the rank and file. We need to maintain order at all costs. We can calmly announce her death, we just have to find a reason that would unite the troops, and yet…” he thought for a second, trying to find anything to save her. “Yet send her to the Nalbina dungeon instead! Nobody has ever escaped or survived.”

What the hell are you saying, Drace would have shouted if she had had the strength. It was a stupid idea. Worse, it was the worst idea she had heard him have in a few years. Why keep her alive as a prisoner? Yet Vayne seemed to appreciate the idea, as he chuckled and added,

“Well, I don’t see why this would prevent us from getting rid of her. We just have to weave a beautiful lie for the people.” He got closer to Zargabaath. “Unless you have another reason of course.”

For once, Zargabaath met his gaze. “Forgive me Excellency, but two years is too short a time span to see yet again another Magister dead.”

Zecht. That was a low blow. Vayne’s face was unreadable for a few seconds.

“You are lucky Zargabaath, you and your silver tongue. You truly know no honor nor shame. And to save her you condemn her to worse a fate.” Vayne walked over to Drace, pushing Gabranth aside. The cruelty in his voice had the sound of honey. “The whole empire will learn of your death. Your noble sacrifice, how you stepped between an insurgent and myself, how you could not deflect the blow.” He kneeled down, so close she could feel his breath on her face, his hand hovering above her neck. “How I held your dying body in my arms, your last words being of praise for House Solidor and the Empire.” Vayne quickly got up and turned his back on her. His voice was cold again, no trace of emotion. “Of course, my dear brother will be notified of the events in due time. I hope you said goodbye. »

Bergan sneered at the words, and Drace closed her eyes. What would he think of her now… a dead hero, a sacrifice on his brother’s already sacred shrine. She would have better been actually dead. Oh the shame. Why had she been so stupid?!

Gabranth stepped back, letting Drace’s sword fall to the floor.

“Zargabaath,” began Vayne. “You will be in charge of taking her armor away and making her into a commonplace prisoner. Make sure she can walk. Go gather the supplies, we will be waiting here. Gabranth will be the one bringing her to Nalbina.” Zargabaath curtly bowed his head and left the room.

For a minute, the room was silent, unmoving, save for a few whispers shared between Bergan and Vayne.

Drace only opened her eyes when she heard the familiar noise of Zargabaath’s steps again. He kneeled beside her, holding some bandages and a few other supplies. Her whole body protested as he helped her up, her ribs sending waves of pain through her body.

It was supposed to be humiliating, but she had the impression of floating above her body, now that the reality of her plight had struck her.

After she was stripped of her armor and given the basic healing, Vayne summoned two faceless soldiers who escorted her to an Atomos that would take flight during the night to bring her to Nalbina the fortress.

 

***

 

Basch had listened intently during her story-telling, a strange gleam in his eyes. Fran… Fran held no judgement in her eyes when Drace’s gaze met hers.

Balthier shrugged. “A fake kingslayer and a wannabe prince-consort-slayer in the same room. If I did not know better, I would say it is no coincidence. But I personally have no reason not to trust the two of you.” He locked eyes with Drace, and she knew what it meant, the pleading undertone he would never say out loud, please do not prove me wrong. Do not betray us.

I still don’t believe any of you! You lie!” shouted Vaan, unable to see the fragile truth on which he stood collapse.

“Believe what you want to. Whatever it takes to make you happy.” Balthier turned his back to Vaan then. “What’s done is done.”

Drace smiled, genuine. She would have time, she hoped, to speak in privacy with Balthier. It had been too long, since he had run away, and he had always stood out back then. She had liked him, a feeling not so different from the one she harbored for Lord Larsa. Yet time had passed, and he had grown from a teenager into a fine man. And from Vaan’s reactions, it did not seem that Balthier had disclosed his true identity to his young companion, so it was better to leave that past in the past for now.

Chapter Text

The calm that had settled over the Barheim Passage during Basch’s and Drace’s storytelling was now stirring. Fran’s ears twitched, and Drace remembered her warnings. Even if she knew that the Barheim Passage had been abandoned mostly because of the spreading of the use of airships, could it be that the presence of a monster had also led to the decline of the Passage?

As they set on walking again, Drace tried to remember if she had read anything about it… could it be guarded by an Esper? Old lore was Zargabaath’s field, not hers. Nothing came to her mind.

 

As they fell yet another mimic, Drace thought with a smile that for such a bunch of different personalities and experience, their group worked quite well. Vaan’s careless energy, Balthier and Fran’s ranged attacks… she and Basch had fallen into a protective position instinctively. It felt strange, to fight side by side with that man - if she closed her eyes, he could have been Gabranth. Drace balled her fists. Why was her mind coming back to him? She angrily punched a suriander, the poor monster falling dead with a screech. She had no time to waste on this kind of thoughts. And so, Drace focused on fighting. Bare-fisted, she attacked zombie after skeleton, joining Vaan in the melee rank. They were effective, and she caught more than once the boy’s eyes on her, watching her reduce dead bones to a pulp from afar. Slowly, she realised that she was gaining his respect, little by little with each monster that died. On the field, just like she liked it. Just like it had been all her life. Her thought became a certitude when they reached yet another blue crystal. As she rested the palm of her hand against the stone, he mimicked her, and with a cocky grin that might have rivaled Balthier’s in twenty years or so.

“So,” inquired Vaan. “What’s your name again?”

That was smooth, thought Drace, hiding a mocking smile. Still, she would not refuse a proposition of peace, even coming from a Dalmascan cutpurse.

“You may call me Drace. But I am supposed to be dead, so we should not use that name.”

Vaan seemed lost in thought for a second or two. Fran and Balthier joined them at the crystal, Basch standing aside.  

“How are we supposed to call you then? Your Honor or something?” Vaan said out of the blue.

Drace chuckled, more surprised than anything. Children… Balthier crooked an eyebrow in judgement, and Fran moved away from the crystal to join Basch.

No, it would not do. She smiled at Vaan nonetheless. “Please don’t, it was nothing but a title, and I am not sure I am to carry it anymore.”

“Yeah sure, since you’re not a Judge anymore.” Vaan looked happy to have reached this conclusion for a second, before he sobered up and said: “I still don’t like Imperials.” Drace smiled. Yes of course. That boy was not much, but she could see now why Balthier would let him tag along. They were not so different.

In the meantime, the crystal’s power was still coursing through her body, the bruises slowly fading from an angry purple to a bluish hue, the swelling reduced now to almost nothing. Basch walked towards them. “The way out is just ahead.”

“Let me guess,” said Balthier. “There’s someone there?”

“Fran seems to think so,” answered Basch.

“Then there is something.” Balthier’s voice rose, the natural leader. “Let’s gear up!” Drace nodded, still without weapons. There was nothing much she could do to prepare, except tighten the bandage against her ribs some more. A comforting gesture, and from the corner of her eye she saw the others getting ready too, loading weapons, stocking their pockets with potions. She closed her eyes, trying to concentrate. She was still feeling well enough -thanks to the crystal- to do some magick. Whatever lurked ahead had better be ready.

Chapter Text

Carefully, they pressed onwards.

All of them could feel the monster’s presence now, sickening slime noises and the smell of rotting… things. At the end of the dark corridor, the group stopped dead in their tracks.

It was a gigantic mimic, taking up most of the room’s space. Blocking the way out.

No wonder the Passage is infested, thought Drace. At the giant mimic’s feet were many eggs, perfectly disguised as ancient chests. A Mimic Queen. Mechanical mother of thousands of these disgusting fiends.

The group shared a silent look. They would have no choice but to fight if they wanted to leave.

Drace knew that without weapons, she would be of little use against the Mimic Queen. She then settled on supporting the fighters, casting healing spells on those that most needed it and boosting their speed. She also cast protection spells on Basch and Vaan, their closeness to the monster making them more vulnerable to its hits.

Soon, they realised that the Queen itself was not that much of a problem, its gigantic size hindering its movements. The small mimics she kept spawning were problematic though, attacking by groups of two or three, their electric bite painful. More than once, Drace found herself caught between two of these pests, and, vulnerable without armour and weapons, she had to cast a shock spell to get rid of the mimics. This put aside, they were doing well. None of them were too severely injured, and they were quick to drink a potion if no healing spell came.

It was obvious that the Mimic Queen was injured now; its movements were slowing, its attacks less precise. Drace expertly dodged a thundershock and from the corner of her vision she saw her four companions unleash powerful attacks at the same time. The Mimic Queen jerked backwards, electricity coursing through its legs, sparkling. It would not hold on for long. It fell, crashing against one of the walls. The sheer strength of its body shook the whole room, and the monster sank on the floor, dead.

The room did not stop shaking, rubble falling from the ceiling. The small mimics were running around in panic as larger blocks fell.

Her survival instincts took over Drace as she ran, never looking back. The tunnel behind them was collapsing on itself, but the way out was cleared.

They barely escaped alive, but all five of them were there. Kneeling in the sand, breathless, dirty and bloodied by the battle. A soft wind blew over them, and Drace breathed in. She was outside. She was free.

“To think Dalmascan air could taste so sweet.” She looked at Basch. They were free. It tasted sweet indeed, this freedom. The dungeon far behind them, and before their eyes the immense desert, the burning sand split in two by a glistening river, the Nebra.

“Where are we?” Vaan asked out loud.

Drace remembered Zargabaath’s note, Down. Search for Barheim Passage to E. Sand, but Balthier had already answered him before she could:

“The Estersand, by the look of it. Let’s back to Rabanastre before we shrivel up.” He then looked in Basch’s direction. “By your leave, Captain.”

“Yes.” Basch walked closer to them. Drace saw the iron resolve in his eyes. The knight in him. Gabranth’s brother. “The hour of my return is already overlate. The people may hate me, but that does not free me of my charge.”

Drace looked at Basch, and a small smile graced her lips. Fon Ronsenburgs had that in their blood. Undying loyalty. Now more than ever, Drace regretted what had happened two years ago. She wished Gabranth had talked to her of his brother without hatred and resentment. She could have helped, maybe… she would have helped them. She did not know if she still had a chance of mending their severed bonds, or if it even was her place to try.

For hours, Basch walked ahead of them. He seemed to know exactly where he was going. Drace found walking in the sand more difficult than she had anticipated. The sun was burning her, leaving her skin red and parched. She would have quite the headache later. Vaan, on the other hand, was in his element. He was jumping from rock to rock, avoiding the cactites and cokatrices expertly. Little desert rat. Fran and Balthier walked close to each other, and the pirate had his hand over his holster, always ready.

They were right to be ready, as they were attacked by a pack of hungry desert wolves. The wolves jumped at them from nearby rocks, but they were not dangerous, and a few arrows, shots and swings of the sword were enough to make even the bravest run away.

At last, the walls of Rabanastre came in view on the horizon. It held the promise of a bath, of food. Drace felt her feet speed up on their own accord.

Rabanastre, the Desert Bloom of Dalmasca.

How many times she heard Ghis praise the city’s simplicity, its colours and smells! Drace’s visits to Dalmasca before the war had always been short. On duty, she did not have time for tourism. Drace feared that this time also, she would not enjoy the city much.

The walls were closer now, standing high like a provocation to the desert. A beacon of Humes’ capacity to survive. She heard noises coming from the doors, conversations, chocobos, armoured steps.

They had arrived.

Chapter Text

As hurried as she was to rest in Rabanastre, when they stopped in front of the Eastgate Drace felt dread creep into her stomach. She feared being recognised, as unlikely as it might be. They were escaped prisoners. She was dead. Still, she swallowed the fear and walked on. The citizens of Rabanastre did not care about them as they walked by, busy trading goods or engrossed in their conversations. The Imperial Guards were busy being bored at the gate, that or they were slowly cooking in their armours.

Basch was the first to break the silence that had settled over the group. “I thank you.” 

Balthier brushed it off in his usual fashion. “I’d avoid crowds if I were you. In this town, you are still a traitor, you know.” He was right though, and Drace knew that she too, was a living ghost and would better avoids crowds and soldiers.

Basch looked at Balthier, an iron resolve in his eyes. “The résistance will surely find me soon.” He turned to Vaan, “Fates will we meet again. I would pay my respects to your brother.”

Vaan did not answer, and Balthier turned to him and said, a patronising tone in his voice:

“You’re a fugitive now too. Stay low for a while.”

Then, Fran and himself began walking towards the gate.

“What about the stone? » Vaan answered, stopping them dead in their tracks. Balthier did not turn around to answer, « Do as you like, that stone is ill-favoured.” Drace was curious now. What stone? Was that stone the reason why they ended up in Nalbina? The Balthier she knew was no petty thief, so it had to be important. An old relic maybe… Fran’s voice cut into Drace’s thoughts:

“We feel regret. We sought that stone and found ourselves only worry.”

“You offering it?” Balthier asked, and for someone who knew him like Drace did, there was unmistakable hope in his voice.

“It’s mine!” Vaan answered, as if he regretted his question.

“Then why do you ask?” Balthier sighed and walked on. “Our regards to your girl.”

“We stay in Rabanastre a while,” added Fran, looking at Drace deep in the eyes. Drace nodded. Understood. She would find them. As smooth as Balthier was, he was not difficult to spot, especially not with a Viera at his side. She needed to have a word with them anyway. Did they still have that stolen ship prototype?

As Fran and Balthier disappeared through the gate, Drace decided to follow their example. With a quick salute at Vaan, she walked towards the guarded doors, head held high and her step quick. The guards took no heed of her, and soon she was in the Southern Plaza. It was buzzing with activity, people chatting, children running around. Colours, colours everywhere, on the clothes, on the buildings. In the voices.

It was a pretty city, Ghis was right. Royal. Drace shook her head. She had no time for tourism. If her memory served her well, the streets with the most shops would be on the Eastern side of the city.

And so Drace made her way to the East End, hoping to find a shop where she could buy protections and clothes. A weapon shop would be welcomed too, but she did not have much gil with her.

She put her hands in her pockets, counting. Not much indeed, scraps she had found on her way out of the Barheim Passage and in the Estersand, shared with the whole party. It was probably enough to buy one mace and some piece of clothing that would be more practical than the Archadian under-armour she was wearing at the moment.

The first shop she stumbled upon was the weapon’s shop, Amal’s Weaponry. It was small, crowded, and all of a sudden Drace was overwhelmed with nostalgia. She missed Archades, she missed the Judge Magisters’ armoury. She missed her dual maces, custom made for her hands and her fighting style, a deadly combination of curves and blades.

Drace closed her eyes for a few seconds, breathing in through her nose, breathing out slowly. She needed to calm down, count her blessings and fight on.

Even dead, she had to protect Lord Larsa.  

Methodical, Drace then looked at the weapons the shop sold. Nothing wonderful, nothing up to her standards, but she settled on a balanced pole made of cypress wood far too expensive for its quality. The simple maces they were selling were just too crude, so it would have to do its work. The shopkeeper eyed her suspiciously, her disheveled and dirty appearance not matching with her Archadian accent and her bearing. But gil was gil, and Drace left the shop with the pole safely strapped to her back. She had used a little bit less than a third of her money, so she entered Panami’s Protectives knowing very well that she would not have enough to buy a full set of armour. The armour shop was much alike the weapon shop, small and lacking in prestige. Looking at the rows of cloth, leather and metal armor, Drace settled on buying first feet and leg protections, as she trusted her dodging and evading abilities to keep her chest safe. A helmet or hat would be nice too… or gauntlets.

After long minutes of browsing through the numerous items, Drace found a pair of leather boots to her taste. The tip and heel was reinforced with metal, and they were her size. The price was not overly expensive, and she had enough to buy a second hand leather breastplate. The leather was weathered, stained in some places, but it was better than nothing.

As soon as she left the shop, Drace took off the steel boots she had stolen to the Imperial Guard. Her feet were blistered by the too-small armoured boots, and she decided to walk barefoot for the moment. She smiled at herself. She looked almost like a proper hobo now! Well, if someone wanted to give her money, she would not say no.

Lost in her thoughts, Drace soon found herself wandering amidst the colourful shops of the Muthru Bazaar. The smell of spices and the sun were almost making her dizzy, and Drace bought a leather sack that she filled with dried fruits and bandages. She also bought Dalmascan linen pants dyed a deep red and a matching shirt - Dalmascans called it a shirt, but for Drace it was barely an elaborated bra covering also the shoulders. Not that she was modest, but that was not proper clothing.  

While eating some kind of desert fruit she bought, Drace made her way back to the East End. If she followed a tired sky pirate’s logic, the best place to ‘stay for a while’ would of course be the local inn, The Sandsea.

And as she had guessed, she saw two long fuzzy Viera ears as soon as she pushed open the door to the Sandsea.

Fran, who was of drinks-carrying duty, did not acknowledge Drace’s presence but her ears nonetheless twitched in her direction.

Drace headed for the counter and bought a tall glass of cold water with added citrus slices. A fresh drink was heavenly. Eyes half-closed, Drace was sipping her drink when a young barman slipped a folded note in her hand. “From the gentleman upstairs.”

Drace thanked him, and opened the note. It read: Do join us Your Honor. You stand out like a sore thumb in this crowd. Balthier.

Drace smiled, so smooth and always direct to the point, was he not? It took her a few seconds to spot Fran again and, drink in her hand, she climbed up the stairs to the upper part of the Sandsea to join them.

Chapter Text

Drace sat down beside Balthier and Fran, leaving her purchases at her feet. It felt nice to relax in the tavern, even if it was just for a few minutes. Balthier looked at Drace with expectation in his eyes, as if to tell her to talk. To spill what she had not deemed necessary to tell the street rat and the prisoner.

But Drace did not speak yet, sipping her drink. Finally, she took Zargabaath’s note and put it on the table. Time for business.

“I never thought he would do that,” said Balthier with a calm voice, pointing to the note.

“What, save me or betray Vayne?” Drace answered. In her memory, Balthier and Zargabaath had been on good terms. Fran shot a long look at Balthier. “Zargabaath always puts the Empire first, The institution before the individual, and you know it very well.” Drace could not keep the Magister’s authority out of her voice.

Balthier looked down. Drace went on, “I think he suffered more of Judge Zecht’s demise than he lets others know. He disapproves of Vayne, as most of us do.”

“Most of us?” asked Balthier, his tone carrying its usual cynicism. Drace did not know which part of her sentence he was referring to, so she did not answer. Balthier took the note, read it again.

Allies in B. Ask for the King. Where could that be?”

“Bhujerba maybe,” answered Drace. “From the Ninth’s investigations, it seems Marquis Ondore is helping the insurgence. That would make him an ally against Vayne.”

“But the Marquis is no king,” added Balthier. “And I highly doubt he would take it kindly to offer protection to a Judge, dead as she might be.”

“It could be Bur Omisace,” said Fran, “the Gran Kiltias protects the homeless and refugees, and offers guidance to lost souls.”

“Yet he is no king either, whatever his authority’s worth,” said Balthier, “and the monks are neutral in the Empire’s conflict.”

Drace sighed. “This leaves the Port at Balfonheim as a last resort.”

“That pirate scoundrel who runs the town is no king!” laughed Balthier. “And are they not under Archadian supervision?”

“They are supposed to be, but pirates have money, and Archades knows when to turn her gaze away from--”

“Balthier!” The door to the Sandsea had opened with a loud noise, cutting Drace. A tall blue  Bangaa barged in and Balthier finished his drink, not at all looking alarmed.

“The downside of celebrity…”

In a few quick steps, the Bangaa was at their table. Balthier, relaxed in his seat, looked at him with all the disdain of a true noble of Archades. Fran did not even glance at him.

« I have found you Balthier! » the Bangaa said, panting, his hands moving frantically. « It is all your fault! »

Balthier sighed, annoyed at the sudden disturbance. « Could you please explain yourself calmly? »

The Bangaa took a few seconds to catch his breath. « They took Penelo because of you! They kidnapped the poor child, they—»

« Excuse me? » answered Balthier. « I do not even know her. »

Something clicked inside Drace’s mind, an old habit, and before she thought about it, she spoke: « If it is an alleged kidnapping sir, then you should seek help from the Imperial authorities. You are on Imperial territory and the men here in Rabanastre are very competent. They can redirect you to the right Bureau but I do not recommend you to seek justice on your own as it could lead you to act in contrary with the law-oh.»

Drace stopped, self-conscious, feeling all eyes on her. Her voice had naturally raised to its Judge Magister quality, her back straight, her accent… She looked from the shocked patrons to Balthier’s judgmental glare and Fran amused one. Still, she had been successful in making the old Bangaa shut up, and the look in his eyes was everything but friendly.

« Nice show, » whispered Balthier to Drace. Then, his gaze turned to the Bangaa. « She is right you know. Yet, would you mind explaining the situation to me again? »

« They kidnapped Penelo, right outside my shop when she was working, and all they left was a note for you, for the infamous sky pirate Balthier! » The Bangaa pointed an accusing finger at Balthier.

« It must be a misunderstanding, » explained Balthier. « I do not know anyone named Penelo, and have never been involved in a kidnapping of any sort. »

The Bangaa huffed and took a piece of paper out of his pocket. The writing was ugly, messy, yet it spelled, unmistakable « to the Skypirate Balthier ». « See? It’s you! » insisted the Bangaa.

« As I said, » began Balthier,  «a misunderstanding—»

“Misunderstanding! » The Bangaa shouted, cutting Balthier. « What I am understanding, is they took Penelo because of you!”  

Chapter Text

“What? What about Penelo?” Vaan’s voice startled Drace. She had not noticed him enter the Sandsea. A few steps behind him, she also recognised Basch, who looked definitely cleaner than before, and who had proper clothes on.

The Bangaa turned to Vaan. Did those two know each other?

“Ah, Vaan!” Well, yes, it seemed they knew each other. “They’ve taken Penelo! And there was a note, a note for this Balthier!” He turned away from Vaan to address Balthier again. “Come to the Bhujerba Mines it said!”

Balthier remained silent, and Fran, thoughtful, said: “It’s Ba’Gamnan. He was in Nalbina.”

Drace shot a sharp look at Fran. Ba’Gamnan? He was a hired gun of the Ninth Bureau, one of Gabranth’s hounds… Drace did not understand. Was Gabranth searching for Balthier under orders of Doctor Cid? He was not supposed to take direct orders from Draklor, but from the Emperor. Was Ba’Gamnan overstepping his boundaries then? He could very well be using the money and means provided by the Ninth to headhunt Balthier for his own glory. Gabranth would not like that... Drace’s musings were cut short by the Bangaa’s voice. “—happen to that sweet child - why, I’ve her parents’ memory to consider! You’re going to go to her aid, and that’s that! It’s what you sky pirates do, isn’t it?”

“I don’t respond well to orders.” Drace smiled to herself. She knew that. Balthier had had quite the rebellious reputation in the Akademy even before taking off as a pirate. “You do know that the Imperial fleet is massing at Bhujerba?”

Then again, Drace reacted instinctively: “The 8th Fleet, with at its head the Dreadnought Leviathan led by Judge Magister Ghis. Archades is making quite a move to position such a formidable war fleet over neutral territory. Ending up on their bad side and flying unauthorised around the fleet is not a good idea.”

Balthier did not interrupt Drace. His eyes were on Vaan who was looking angrily at all of them.

“Fine, then I’ll go!” Vaan shouted. He addressed Balthier: “You at least have an airship, don’t you? Just get me there, and I’ll find Penelo myself.” That boy was brave, thought Drace. Whoever that Penelo was, she must have been somebody important to him. A sister maybe?

“I’ll join you. I have some business there as well.” Basch stepped from his position behind Vaan. He had remained silent during the whole exchange, assessing the situation, and jumped on the opportunity. Clever one. Balthier smirked.

“An audience with the Marquis by chance?” Basch smirked back, and Vaan, looking annoyed, took a big reddish crystal out of his pocket.

“Balthier, just take us… and this is yours!” Drace remembered him talking to Balthier about a stone earlier today. Could this be it? It looked like no magicite Drace had seen before. She should not have skipped Zargabaath’s lectures on Old History.

“The Gods are toying with us,” commented Fran. It had to be that special stone then. Drace made a mental note to herself to ask Balthier discreetly about it later. She was curious, and if it had led them to the Nalbina dungeons it could even be a treasure!

Balthier sighed, theatrical, and got up from his seat, his audience’s eyes on him. “Make yourselves ready, we leave soon.”

Fran stood up too, and put her hand on Drace’s shoulder, an invitation to follow them. Drace stood up and took her purchases, following the two pirates outside.

Bhujerba started with a ‘B’, so that had to be a start in the right direction.

Chapter Text

Drace followed the two pirates, walking at a fast pace through Rabanastre’s busy streets, Vaan and Basch behind them.  They walked in the Aerodrome, and into a private dock. All pirate that he was, bounty on his head and Ninth Bureau at his tail, he was no expert at staying anonymous. A private docking bay for a ship stolen years ago… The Stralh was the main attraction. It was more beautiful than Drace remembered. Balthier and his moogle engineer had tinkered it quite well, his father’s son without a doubt.

As Drace was admiring the ship, she blocked Vaan’s excited babbling. In his short Rabanastran life, he had probably never seen such an airship. To be fair, not many people had, and for a second, Drace pictured herself flying the prototype. Such a change from Archades Cruiser Class ships.

Once the whole group was inside the Strahl, Fran took Drace apart.

“You can use our washroom if you wish.” Drace nodded. “It is here,” Fran pointed to a small door at her side. “You will find everything you could need inside. It’s on us, don’t worry.”

“Thank you, I do need a good cleanup.”

Fran smiled, and Drace went in the washroom, a much bigger room than she had imagined. She did not remember that the original YPA-GB47 prototype had such a sophisticated thing aboard, but she would not complain.

There was a medium-sized bathtub, several closets, a bathroom sink above which was a mirror, two chairs and a small table. Everything was practical and clean. Drace opened the closets to find a washcloth and a towel. The closets were full of soaps, towels, and a great number and variety of healing supplies. Fran and Balthier were ready for any situation. Drace felt proud, and smiled at her reflection in the mirror. Balthier would have made a fine Magister, perhaps the best of them. Yet now she saw how cruel it would be to take the sky away from him. The reasons that had led him to escape Archades were what they were, and in the past. Drace hoped that Balthier was now old enough to realise that he needed to make peace with that past in order to be truly free.

Deep in her thoughts, Drace took off her clothes in a few quick, automatic movements. She did not know what to make of them, so she left them on the floor for the time being. She then took her new clothes from her bag and put them on a chair.

She settled on taking a quick, efficient shower. She did not want to take advantage of the pirates’ hospitality, after all, she needed their help for more than a bath. Drace took off her bandages and stepped into the bathtub, switching on the hot water. Quickly, she scrubbed away the days of prison grime, blood and sweat off her body. She washed her hair too, the feeling of the hot water running through her hair and onto her back, soothing. She could almost have fallen asleep. She was tired. Exhausted, and her injuries took most of her energy to heal. She switched the water off. She would sleep later, tonight. Whatever they would do in Bhujerba, it could not be so long. Drace did not know when their path would split. What would Fran and Balthier do? Would each go their way? She remembered that Basch was interested in contacting the Marquis. If there was even the slightest chance that Ondore was the ally from Zargabaath’s note, then maybe she had to follow the captain. She rubbed herself dry with the towel. Then again, she could help Vaan. On his own, the boy had little chance against Ba’Gamnan and his gang… She then dried her hair. Wait and see, that was the best idea. Go with the flow, follow the group, and seize the opportunity. Looking at the used bandages strewn on the floor, she decided that Balthier would not mind that much if she were to borrow some from his stock.

Drace fished some fresh bandages from the closet and wrapped the fabrics around her bruised ribs. Once she was satisfied, she tried her new clothes on. The pants were feeling nice, the fabric light and soft, yet the top was… Dalmascan to not say anything else. Drace managed to buckle the breast plate above it, and it looked already much better. She then quickly combed and tied her hair, and put the boots on. She was ready.

 

When she emerged into the main cockpit of the Strahl, fully clothed with her new attire, her hair pulled back in very short ponytail, all eyes were on her.

“You’re almost a Dalmascan now!” said Vaan, enthusiastic.

“As long as she does not talk,” finished Balthier, his tone too serious for Drace’s liking.

“Kidnapping is a serious offence,” answered Drace as a defence. “And since when does a sky pirate act as a vigilante?”

Balthier huffed, and changed subjects: “You should cover that Archadian face of yours Drace. If Judge Ghis is indeed in Bhujerba, I am not sure you want to be recognised.”

“You are right,” answered Drace, thoughtful. Suddenly, it dawned on her. All colour left her face. Larsa. He was on a scheduled trip to Bhujerba with one Judge Magister Ghis. Her heart was at once pierced by a thousand tiny needles. Her Larsa would be so close. So close to her. She could take him away. Protect him.

To him, she was dead. He could not recognise her, it was out of the question. It would be too difficult for the boy. It would raise too many questions… and as much as Drace hated Vayne, she would not severe the bond between the two brothers.

The look of dismay on her face must have been obvious, because Balthier put a hand on her shoulder. “Is everything okay?” His voice sounded almost guilty.

“Lord Larsa.” Drace’s voice sounded strangled. “He is supposed to be in Bhujerba.”

Balthier nodded. “You really have to cover up then. Let’s see what we have.” He shouted to Fran, “I leave you the commands!” before taking Drace by the arm into something that looked like the captain’s quarters of the Strahl.

“I am sorry to be so much trouble,” mumbled Drace, genuinely ashamed. Balthier brushed it off as he opened a large wooden chest that was filled to the brink with colorful fabric and leather pieces. “Let us see if I have anything,” he said, and Drace realised it was in fact clothes of all kind and all cultures of Ivalice in the chest.

It took about one minute for Balthier to find something to its taste. It looked like a leather helmet, of a black colour. From the looping and delicate ornaments, Drace recognised Viera craftsmanship.

“Try this on,” said Balthier. He handed her the helmet, and Drace gave it a closer look. It had holes on top for the Viera’s long ears, and seemed to be made to cover the upper part of the face as well as protect the jaw. If it fitted her, only the tip of her nose and her mouth would be visible. Drace found and untied the few buckles at the back of the helmet, and put it over her head. It was almost the right size, only slightly too big, and if she tucked her hair in it was perfect. Viera craftsmanship was truly something, thought Drace. The helmet weighted almost nothing on her, and her vision was not impaired by the leather in front of her eyes. How were the Viera able to achieve such technique she did not know, but she was grateful.

“It used to be Fran’s, a long time ago,” commented Balthier. “Does it fit?”

Drace nodded. “Almost perfectly, and much better than the regular rank and file Archadian gear.” It was unlikely that Larsa would recognise her like this, if she did not speak. It broke her heart, but it remained the best thing to do.

Balthier looked satisfied with the result. “Now, you look like nothing normal. But you should be anonymous enough for Bhujerba.” He clapped Drace on the shoulder, as they were walking back to the cockpit. “In the worst of cases they’ll think you some crazy pirate!”

Drace chuckled, half-hearted. Judges-turned-pirates. What an unlikely combination. She sat with the others and looked out of the Strahl’s window as Balthier went back in the pilot’s seat. The sky was blue and the Strahl was soaring high above the clouds. Clear in the sky, far away but becoming visible, the floating continent of Dorstonis.

Chapter Text

For the rest of the trip, Drace tried her best to sleep but her mind was plagued by thoughts of her young lord. Her heart was torn between the need to see him again, to be sure he was in a good shape and the rational thought that it was better to avoid him. Then there was the insurgence also. Would the Marquis proved himself too belligerent, Drace would not yet accept to help him, potential ally or not . Because of the recent events, Drace had had no time to think properly about the shifting politics of the Empire. This insurgence… it was an open door to a Rozzarian invasion, and never she would wish such a thing for her… for the Empire.

“Buckle up!” said Balthier, breaking her out of her thoughts, as the Strahl flew in a tight curve towards the aerodrome of Bhujerba.

Balthier perfectly parked the Stralh in a landing kiss. His moogle assistant came to him and they talked for a few minutes of docking fees and anonymity as the others checked their weapons and backpacks. Drace followed their example, securing her weapon to her back and adjusting her mask.

Finally, the group left the Strahl and went in the Aerodrome of  Bhujerba, looking as natural as they could. Everywhere were Imperial soldiers. They seemed to be very busy, running everywhere and searching for something. Before she even thought that someone might have noticed Basch’s or her disappearance from the dungeon of Nalbina, she thought about Larsa. Something had happened to him. He had been kidnapped, he had run away… Drace felt a stone settle in the pit of her stomach, making her nauseous. She should have been by her Lord’s side.

From the corner of her eye she noticed Balthier and Basch, the latter seeming particularly nervous. She followed them instinctively, praying to all the Gods of Ivalice that these guards were not looking for her Lord.

Their little group left the aerodrome, arriving over the long bridge of the Travica Bay. The Bhujerban wind was refreshing on Drace’s skin, and there was no trace here of the commotion that happened inside the aerodrome.

“The Lhusu Mines are just up ahead,” Drace did not listen to Balthier as he explained some specificities to Vaan, as she was observing the gigantic ‘winged’ Magicite presiding over Marquis Ondore’s estate, the stone’s colour soothing her. “… hear there’s not much left these days.”

“You’re on your way to the mines?” Drace gagged, turning around in an instant to face the voice who had just spoken. No no no no no no. Impossible! He was there, casually strolling from the border of the bridge to look Balthier in the eye. “Then please allow me to accompany you. I have an errand to attend to there.”

“What matter or errand?” Basch asked, wariness in his voice.

“What errand? I might ask the same of you.” Drace was burning, dying inside. The feeling of nausea was back, and she did not think she would be able to speak would he address her. Her Lord… He was so smart, she taught him well, she could see it. But talking to random strangers in a foreign city, she would have to lecture him on the matter, later, very thoroughly. Or never. She swallowed back tears. She wanted to reach out to him, straighten his jacket and escort him into the mines herself —after having given Ghis the beating of his life. That scoundrel! He was supposed to watch after Lord Larsa, not let him roam free with sky pirates and the dangers of the world and— Balthier’s voice put an end to her distressed thoughts:

“Right, come on then.”

What?

“What?” Vaan voiced her surprise. Why would Balthier accept such a thing? Yet, seeing how he was looking at her Lord, Drace began to wonder… could it be that he recognised him? It had been six years since Balthier left Archades, and the young prince had changed, his facial feature not those of a child anymore.

“Excellent.” He had changed yes, but he remained the same polite and smart prince, and Balthier was a good observer.

“Do me a favour and stay where I can keep my eye on you. Should be less trouble that way.”

“For us both,” agreed Larsa. Drace swore to herself that no harm would come to him as long as he was with them. No trouble. Larsa, in the meantime, was studying each of his new companions, and when his eyes swept over Drace, she stopped breathing. Was it possible he could recognise her through the helmet and clothes? She had done her best but her disguise was nowhere near perfect. At last, Larsa looked away. If he had recognised her, he had said nothing. Yes, she had taught him well. Discretion and tact above all else. If this status quo was all she could have, Drace was okay with it. She had Larsa in her line of sight, nothing else mattered. When she had sworn to protect him, she had willingly accepted to let her life, identity and honor at his feet. She would remain faceless, nameless, as long as she could protect him.

“So, what’s your name?” Vaan asked, straightforward as always.

“I, huh, I’m Lamont.” Drace flinched at the stutter in Larsa’s voice. He still needed training. Yet, when she saw Vaan’s smile, and his answer, “Don’t worry. I don’t know what’s in that mine Lamont, but you’re in good hands,” she knew that at least one of her companions had no clue about his identity. Vaan was nicer than she had first judged him to be. A bit brash, and naive, but unafraid of danger when his friends were concerned. And seemingly always ready to make new friends. “Right, Basch?”

Drace, surprised, gasped. Balthier and Basch sighed in unison. Larsa, on the other hand, said nothing. A corner of his mouth twitched up, his head lightly cocked as he was analysing Vaan’s words. But he never lost his composure. In the midst of her dismay, Drace felt so proud.

 

Their little group then walked up the streets of Bhujerba, Vaan looking everywhere at everything. Drace could not care less about the beauty of the narrow paved streets of the Skycity, nor about the typical little shops. Her eyes never left Larsa’s back. She was watching each of his steps, each bypasser that walked too close to him. It calmed her down a little bit, the routine of watching her Lord. She was so focused that she had the impression that the ascension of the streets had taken only a few minutes, and yet they were already there, in front of the Lhusu Mines.

Chapter Text

The group stopped in front of the entrance of the Mines, Vaan watching the architecture in awe. Balthier took a step forward, “The Lhusu Mines: one of the richest veins in Ivalice.” Basch turned his head around, his eyes worried. “Under Imperial guard no doubt.”

“Actually no.” Larsa stepped in between the two of them. He looked Basch straight in the eyes. “With but few exceptions, the Imperial Army is not permitted within Bhujerba. Well, shall we proceed?”

Basch and Balthier exchanged a half-amused, half-tired look. Larsa, without waiting for any of them, walked towards the entrance of the Mines. Drace followed at once, not letting too much distance between her and her Lord. From what she had heard from Ghis some times ago, the miners were having troubles with the monsters changing behaviour and becoming aggressive. Drace was no scientist, but she imagined that the constant extracting of magicites could result in an unrest of the mist. It was no secret that all animals reacted to mist and that it could cause behaviour changes at least. Well, she was armed and trained, and thanks to the crystals and potions her injuries barely hurt her anymore. The monsters could come.

 

The first meters of the Mines were empty. Devoid of miners, monsters, and even sound. Only the clicking of their shoes against the paving stones. Drace found the Mines had an eerie atmosphere to them. Their little group was walking slowly, remaining close to each other.

Noise, out of a sudden. Steps, and armours. Quickly, the six of them ran under the safe cover of darkness, behind pillars, below the main path of the mine. Better not to get seen. Instinctively, Drace draped an arm around Larsa’s shoulders. He did not react, and Drace was happy again for a second.

The noise was closer now, and from her hiding spot Drace saw six silhouettes walking towards the exit. Some she knew all too well.

“You will forgive me for asking, but you are diverting the purest of the magicites?”

Ghis. Instead of watching over Larsa like he should have, the scoundrel was taking a walk in the Mines with the Marquis, talking openly about state secrets.

“I can assure it reaches Lord Vayne most discreetly.” Drace felt an overwhelming desire telling her to step out of her hiding spot and give the both of them a good lecture. If only she had her maces with her…

Yet, Ghis and the Marquis were not alone, flanked by two imperial guards and two of the Marquis’s rev counselors, so a direct action would be stupid.

In the meantime, Drace listened to Ghis and Ondore’s conversation.

“You wear your saddle well,” said Ghis, his voice filled with disdain and a hint of amusement. The Marquis smiled, reaching up to the challenge.

“Be that as it may, I have no intention of being briddled, Your Honor.”

Ghis snickered, “Then you prefer the whip?” Drace sighed. “Stubbornness will see not only you broken, Excellency, but Bhujerba as well.” How long had they known each other? Twenty, thirty years? More maybe, before Drace was even in the army. These two were insufferable, even more so since they had reached the peak of their power. They left the mine with their suite, silent for once. The small adventurer’s group left the protection of the shadow. In the back, Drace heard Larsa give her companions a lecture on Marquis Ondore. Good boy… Balthier answered with an acidic comment which Larsa answered with equal wit. Leave it to two Arcadians to bicker… They were cut by Vaan, urging them to find Penelo.

“And Penelo is your--” began Larsa, only to be cut short by Vaan.

“She’s a friend. She was kidnapped and taken here.” Without leaving the others a chance to answer, Vaan took off running deeper into the Mines. If they did not want the boy running into some serious trouble, they had no choice but follow.

 

Soon, the group understood why there was no miner in sight. To say the Lhusu Mines were unkempt and that the monsters were aggressive was an understatement. At the first corner, a steeling lurched at them. Vaan swung his sword at it, but the steeling was quicker and dodged, flying in circles around his head, quick silent wings and unnerving screeching. “Down!” Balthier said, cocking his Altair and aiming. Vaan lowered his head just in time to dodge the shot. The steeling hit the ground with a dying screech.

“Thanks, do you thi--” started Vaan, his voice dying out when he noticed that Balthier and Fran were not listening to him, but focused on the darkness beyond. From there came a clicking, rattling sound.

“Dead defenders…” whispered Basch. Fran nodded.

From the darkness, they saw several skeletons emerge from the darkness. Drace unseathed her weapon, and stepped in front of Larsa. He might be incognito and her too, but there was no way any of these old, mist-infused bones would touch her boy.

The skeletons charged them then, uncoordinated but deadly.

Drace’s weapon was far from perfect, and some of the wider movements sent a light wave of pain in her left arm and shoulder. Yet she was driven by the duty to protect Larsa, and between her and Basch, the skeletons met an equally deadly front line. Larsa and Vaan were holding the middle ground, and Fran and Balthier stayed in the back row, shooting arrows and bullets at the skeletons who would not yield to the swords and polearm.

The skeletons were in the end not very sturdy, and their number was the real danger. Soon enough, each member of the group was bearing a few scratches, except Drace who had a dozen. Except Larsa who had none. All was well and they were progressing in the Mines the best they could. It was only when they had crossed a skeleton-guarded bridge, and that the way split into two almost identical shafts, that they realised they had no map.

“We must be in the first Transitway,” chipped in Larsa, finding his way between Basch and Drace. “I do not know where your friend Penelo is, but from what I read about the Lhusu Mines, the Transitway number two should be on our left and lead to the ninth site and the closed eleventh site.”

“So?” Vaan asked, looking impatient.

Larsa turned around, sharp. “It means we should go right, cross what I believe to be the Shunia Twinspan to the second and third site.”

“You really are well informed,” Basch added. “Let us follow your lead.”

Larsa looked satisfied, and they went on further inside the Mines.

Chapter Text

The Shunia Twinspan was a bridge similar to the one they had already crossed, but it had two separate parts, hence its name. Drace hoped that Penelo and whatever secret Larsa wanted to unearth were indeed ahead. She did not like these bridges. She was not afraid of heights, and would have found the view of the sky below quite beautiful had the circumstances been different. What was troubling Drace, more than the creeping fear of anything happening to Larsa, was the calm. She could see the silhouettes of a few skeletons on the other side of the bridge, but it was too calm in comparison with the tunnels. Drace looked at Fran, whose ears were twitching back and forth. Of course, the concerns of a Viera and a masked stranger were not worth much for Larsa and Vaan, who carelessly walked on the bridge. Balthier and Basch followed soon after, Fran and Drace last.

Balthier turned his head towards them, and said to Fran, “Something is wrong here, don’t you think?” Drace listened, always keeping an eye on Larsa.

Fran slowly nodded. “The mist is thick. It can be the magicite concentration, or spell residue, I don’t--”

Fran’s words were cut by an explosion. Vaan was flung backwards, crying out in pain. Larsa stood frozen on the spot, a sparkle of mist under his foot.

“Traps! Watch out!” shouted Drace as she jumped in front of Larsa, pushing him away and  taking the blunt force of the trap. She too was sent on the floor, choking, her lungs filled with painful gas. She got back up on her knees as quickly as she could, still coughing. Larsa was standing dumbfounded a few feet away.

“Traps, I see what unsettled the mist,” said Fran thoughtfully. Further behind, Basch and Balthier were helping Vaan up. From the little that Drace could see, he was not in a very bad shape. It was his second trap in a few days, if she recalled well. The boy was lucky not to be more injured, but he had better watch out. Drace, on the other hand, felt that she had taken some damage from the trap, yet she forced herself to stand back up on shaky legs, her throat on fire. She felt a hand on her elbow, a contact she knew well. She slowly turned around. Larsa was looking at her with a sweet, slightly worried smile.

“You helped me,” said Larsa. Drace nodded, not trusting her voice. He was looking into her eyeless mask, deep into her soul. “Thank you,” added Larsa. Drace managed a weak cough. The gas from the trap was still hurting her throat and lungs.

“Wait a second,” said Larsa as he fished something from his bag. He then handed a blue flask. Hi-Potion. He was always prepared. Grateful beyond words, Drace took the potion. Her fingers lightly brushed against his, and the urge to tighten her fingers around his hand was hard to fight. So many memories, holding his hands in Arcades when he barely could walk… later he would take her hands in his to lead a mock-waltz, or to lean in closer and whisper some secret into her ear, some worry.

Opening the flask of hi-potion, Drace renewed her vows. As long as she drew breath, no harm would come to him. She drank. The liquid soothed her throat, its warmth spreading inside her.

“Now, we tread carefully,” said Basch. “I can detect the traps using the Libra technique.”

They all walked in a line behind Basch then, following his instructions. He could have thought about that sooner, thought Drace, but in the meantime she was glad that Dalmasca trained their knights like that. She herself had learned Libra long ago, back at the Akademy, but had not used the technique in years, and had not thought about it. Crossing the bridge then proven to be no challenge at all, and the few skeletons at the end stood no chance. The party took a few seconds to rest, and Drace observed Larsa.

She was using every second she had to engrave his smile, his eyes in her mind. When would she see him again? Larsa, on the other hand, was oblivious to her. He looked excited but controlled, too serious for his age. Drace ran a hand through her hair. It would be so easy to take off her helmet. Fall down the mask, the lies.

It would be so easy. They set to walk again, skeletons falling under their hits. The tunnel was darker now, but also lighted by a pale blue glow. Embedded in the walls, in the ground, veins of raw magicite. It was a beautiful sight, the wonders of Ivalice. The mine was silent as they walked, awed. Larsa’s eyes were sparkling, looking everywhere.

“This is what I came here to see,” said Larsa softly as he crouched down near a glowing magicite vein. He took a glowing blue crystal out of his pocket.

“What’s that?” wondered Vaan, who had gotten closer to Larsa.

“It’s nethicite. Manufacted nethicite,” explained Larsa. Drace had never heard about this, but it smelled Draklor. She did not like to see Larsa fiddle with such things.Too dangerous; it reminded her too much of Zecht.

“Nethicite?” Vaan voiced the whole party’s interrogations.

“Unlike regular magicite, nethicite absorbs magickal energy. This is the fruit of research into the manufacture of nethicite. All at the hands of the Draklor laboratory.”

Balthier flinched at the mention of Draklor. No indeed, Drace did not like that. Who knew what secrets Larsa could unearth? And what about Vayne or Doctor Cid’s reactions?

Larsa stood back up and wandered a bit away from them, in awe. “So this is where they’re getting the magicite.”

“Errand all attended to then?” Balthier took a few slow steps towards him.

“Thank you.” Larsa did not even look at him. “I’ll repay you shortly.”

“No, you’ll repay us now. We have too much on our hands to go on holding yours.” Balthier was dangerously close to Larsa for Drace’s tastes. “So, where did you hear this fairy tale about ‘nethicite’? And where did you get that sample you carry?” Balthier’s attitude was rather hostile now, and Larsa took a few steps back, intimidated by the pirate’s change of mood. “What do you know about the Draklor laboratories?” It was at that exact moment that it dawned on her. Balthier had not recognised Larsa. An irrational fear took hold of Drace, and in the blink of an eye she blocked Balthier’s path with her weapon. “I’d stop there if I were you,” she growled in a low voice. Larsa gasped in surprise. Balthier looked genuinely shocked. He glanced at Larsa, then at her, then at Larsa. “Oh,” he whispered, “I see now.”

He took a step back, and Drace lowered her weapon. They would talk later.

“You kept us waiting, Balthier!” They all turned around at the voice. Four heavily armed Bangaas were blocking the way out. Drace recognised at once Ba’Gamnan and his gang. “You slipped away in Nalbina, we missed you!” He assembled the crude spinning circular saw that was his weapon of choice. “First the Judge and now this boy! The whole affair has a smell of money about it. I may have to wet my beak a little.”

“Keep your snout in the trough where it belongs,” replied Batlhier, his mask of sass and cool detachment back on. “This thinking ill befits you, Ba’Gamnan.”

In the back of her mind, Drace wondered what was the cause of the hatred and rivalry between these two.

Ba’Gamnan’s roaring laughter echoed around them. “Balthier! Too long have I gone unpaid! I’ll carve my bounty out of that boy!”

What had he just said? Drace’s heart missed a bit, the corners of her vision red. He had… Lord Larsa!

Vaan then asked him about Penelo, and Drace only listened to Ba’Gamnan’s answer with one ear. The girl was safe? Good. There were more important matters to attend.

Yet, Vaan had distracted Ba’Gamnan with his question, and Larsa seized the momentum, throwing his nethicite at the bounty hunter’s head. Larsa’s aim was perfect, and he took off running like a hare while Ba’Gamnan staggered backwards. The others followed without a second thought, taking advantage of the head start. On his way, Balthier pushed Ba’Gamnan to make him fall, and even if she followed him, running, Drace’s vision had not yet cleared. This dirty bounty hunter had dared to threaten her Lord. How Gabranth could keep employing scum like that was beyond her. She was definitely not in the mood to run away.

“… fight who we must, leave the rest!” urged Balthier, still running.

No, no. “No.” Drace stopped dead in her tracks. No one threatened Lord Larsa unpunished.

“Drace don’t be a fool,” shouted Balthier. “We are not strong enough!”

“Go ahead,” she readied her weapon. The steps of the Bangaas were closer, just around the corner. “I’ll join you outside.”

Whether it was common sense or his survival instincts that influenced Balthier’s decision, Drace did not know, and she cared even less. He ran away as Ba’Gamnan emerged from the corner.

Chapter Text

When they saw Drace, alone, blocking their path, the four Bangaas stopped running. Ba’Gamnan eyed Drace suspiciously, behind the protection of his circular saw.

“Make way she-Hume,” hissed one of the Bangaas, a dark-blue-skinned male. “We have no business with you.”

Drace snarled. “On the contrary, I have business with you.” She took a step towards them, pushing on her luck. “You threatened the wrong person today.”

Ba’Gamnan spat on the floor. “That pirate? He sends minions to die in his stead now?”

Drace’s anger knew no bounds. “Not him no… but you’ll die before knowing!” That Gabranth found these dark hands useful… but that they dared to attack Lord Larsa! She should have known… he had changed.

Her words, in the meantime, had an impact on Ba’Gamnan. He was hesitating to attack, his saw lowered.

A blue, female Bangaa shouted from behind him: “Let’s have her instead, brother!” 

“Yes!” Another yelled. “It’s been too long since we had fun! We’ll catch Balthier later!”

Ba’Gamnan growled in anger, yet he could not refuse his siblings. Drace was beyond angry too. Why did everybody want to ‘have fun’ with her lately? What was so special about her? They had never seen a woman or what? Oh well, she thought as they began to circle around her, they probably never met a lone Hume not afraid to fight them before. Nothing tasted better than novelty, and they would get a good taste of their own blood once she was finished with them.

Ba’Gamnan’s gang was, Drace noticed when the fight began, a well-tuned quartet. They were used to fight side by side, an oiled machine of death.

Drace dodged Ba’Gamnan’s circular saw, only to find the tip of the spear of the female poking her back. She dodged to the side. The Bangaas were in no rush, in comparison to the Seeqs Drace had fought a few days ago. Then, the Seeqs had wanted to have her at once, beat her up first for the fun of it before seizing their prize. Her current enemies on the other hand… they wanted fun. She was outnumbered, and their cruelty was refined enough to take advantage of that. They would play with her, making the fight last as long as possible, weakening her little by little, a cut here, and scratch there until she would become pliant and submissive, exsanguinated, defeated. Then at last they would kill her, or worse. To think Gabranth—

Drace should not have gotten lost in her thoughts, and she saw too late the curve of a dagger against her flank. She did not take too much damage thanks to her leather protection, the metal not even biting into her skin. She would have to be more careful from now on. Re-evaluating her strategy, Drace took a defensive stance. She deflected a blow from Ba’Gamnan with her pole, swiftly turning around to hit the third henchman in the back. She would have to be especially careful with this one as he wielded a Bowgun, never let him out of her sight.

The fight went on, slow. The bounty hunters were deliberately taking their time to rest and taking turns harassing Drace with light jabs and small cuts. She was getting tired, slower. As a result, she ended with a superficial but painful cut on the back of her right thigh. She staggered. An inch lower and they might have touched the tendon. A shot rang on her right, barely missing her. Drace took a tentative step backwards, only to find a dagger against her throat. She stopped moving, a statue, barely breathing. A flick of his wrist and she would die. A quick move and she would be free of his grasp.

The female laughed, “Nice catch Bwagi!” The one holding her snickered, and whispered into her ear, his voice like rotten honey, “So, what should I do with you?” His free hand found its way on her face, a gross caress on her cheek, going lower, lower down her shoulder and right arm, until it tightened around her wrist, twisting it. With a cry of pain, Drace released her weapon. The Bangaas’ cruel laugh resonated in her ears. Her wrist was not broken, but her pole was now on the ground.

The third sibling sheathed his gun and came closer to her. His clawed fingers gripped her helmet and unbuckled it.  It fell on the floor and Drace was face to face with the small, cruel eyes of the Bangaa. He hummed disdainfully, his reptilian tongue peeking out of his snout. “Look at that.” His hand tightened around Drace’s jaw. “That face ain’t worth shit on the market!” Laughter echoed through the tunnels. The Bangaa spat on Drace’s face. “Nah, not worth a gil!” That was enough. Taking advantage of the Bangaa’s self-confidence, Drace kicked him in the groin, using all the strength she could. She had taken all of her enemies by surprise, and the one facing her staggered backwards, screaming in pain. “Gijuk!” shouted the female Bangaa, the first to react. She locked eyes with Drace. “You’ll pay for that! Bwagi, hold her good!”

She picked the wooden pole up, and delivered a crushing blow to Drace’s stomach. She doubled over in pain, the dagger cutting the skin of her neck, drawing blood. A second blow came, a third that hit her chest, a fourth until the pole broke down.

“Don’t kill her yet Rinok, we just started!” shouted Ba’Gamnan, who was watching from behind his siblings, a satisfied gleam in his eyes. Rinok reluctantly lowered the weapon, growling. “Started what? She can’t even stand a fight!”

Drace was fighting back tears. More than the pain or the humiliation, she was ashamed at her defeat. She can’t even stand a fight. Had the years gotten the better of her? First Bergan, then the Seeqs and lastly them… All these years in Arcades, overseeing Larsa’s education, safe in the capital… All these years of wars fought from the cockpit of an airship, or at the head of a phalanx of soldiers. She was not that old, she was not that weak… She was still worthy of protecting Lord Larsa… was she? She could stand a fight? Drace closed her eyes, tears slipping between her lashes.

“Look,” Ba’Gamnan roared, “you’ve made her cry!” He pushed his sister away as he got closer to Drace, so close that she could feel his breath down her face. “You’ll cry for me pretty Hume… If we can’t get a profit out of you… I will cut you until you beg for death.”

Drace kicked her legs backwards in vain, trying to free herself from Bwagi’s grip, the dagger biting deeper into her neck. Ba’Gamnan laughed again, his saw a few inches from Drace’s body.

Drace wished she could concentrate enough to channel the mist inside her into a quickening. Yet she was not injured enough, or too distressed, an so she could not focus.

“She doesn’t need her legs! Let’s begin there!” The three others cheered. Ba’Gamnan lowered the saw. Drace had to do something, find a solution, anything, and now. “Or maybe your tongue? Unless you put it to good use and tell me where Balthier and that boy are.”

That boy. ‘I’ll carve my bounty out of that boy!’ She was still worthy of protecting Lord Larsa, wasn’t she? Time was frozen for an instant. Drace flung her head backwards without thinking, knocking Bwagi hard in the jaw. He lost his balance and released her. The next second, Drace had both hands on the handle of Ba’Gamnan’s saw.

“Oh yes I will cut you!” she yelled as she pushed the saw straight into Ba’Gamnan’s face, overpowering him. Blood gushed on her face, and the Bangaa screamed in pain, holding his bloody, disfigured snout. Drace yanked the weapon from his grasp and turned around to face his three siblings. She took a step forward, and they ran away into the deeper tunnels, screaming in fear, realising that the balance had shifted. Their leader down, they were nothing anymore.

Drace was alone with Ba’Gamnan now. He had fallen on the ground, moaning in pain. She kicked him in the head. “Never come around the boy again. And tell your master in Arcades of me! Tell him I am alive, and I protect our Young Lord!”

Ba’Gamnan answered nothing, staggering, losing too much blood.

Drace watched him flee. She was feeling both empty and sated, her rage dulled.

She was still worthy of protecting Lord Larsa.

Drace decided to keep the saw. It was a better weapon than the now-broken pole, and a nice trophy. She took a potion from her bag and drank it before picking up her helmet from the ground. She would dress her wounds later. It was time to go back outside now, and find the others.

Chapter Text

Drace had no problem finding her way back out of the Mines. Her memory was good, and they had cleaned it up quite well on their way in. A few pesky steelings… but nothing more. At last, she saw the afternoon’s light and the stairs that lead out of the entrance shaft of the Mines. She climbed them, wondering if the group had waited for her… and more importantly where they were.

“Balthier! Fran! Basch! She’s here!” Drace smiled at the sound of Vaan’s voice. They were waiting for her, and more than grateful, it made her happy.

Vaan ran to her, the three others following shortly behind.

“Oh woah!” Vaan pointed at the saw, excited, “Is that—”, only to stop dead in his tracks when he saw the blood. Drace’s face, neck and chest were almost entirely covered in drying blood.

She did not care about the blood, looking at each of her companions in turn. They were missing someone. “Where is he?”

“You’re bleeding!” Vaan shrieked.

“Not my blood,” shrugged Drace. “Now, where is Lord Larsa?”

The answer came from Fran. “He found his cortege back, and Penelo with it.” The viera smiled at Drace. “They are both at the Marquis’s Estate, and Judge Ghis with them.”

“I am relieved to hear that.”

Balthier sighed, hands on his hips. “And you did not think it would be a good idea to tell us it was the Princeling before!”

Drace felt genuinely sorry, her eyes meeting Balthier’s annoyed glare. “I thought you had recognised him… from the way you talked to him.”

“I had, in all honesty, a hunch,” Balthier admitted. “It should have been obvious when you jumped on that trap for him. Children grow up fast, don’t they?”

“He will be a fine young man, and a very good ruler…”

“I do not doubt it, Drace…” chimed in Balthier, all resentment gone from his voice.

“… but I wish I could protect him from this war,” Drace finished.  “He is still so young.”

“I know.” Balthier put a comforting hand on Drace’s shoulder. “But you cannot protect anybody if you’re dead.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, you reek of Bangaa, so let’s get you cleaned up. We can’t have you meet the Marquis looking like that.”

Meet the Marquis? Before Drace could satisfy her curiosity, Balthier and Fran had turned around, and were walking towards the fountain of the Lhusu Square. The water ran clear and cold there, and its sight reminded Drace of how thirsty and tired this fight had made her.

She sat down on the edge of the fountain, cupping her hands to drink. It felt heavenly.

“So,” Drace announced once her thirst was sated, “who begins?”

Balthier shot a glance at Vaan, who seemed equally excited to tell the story of what had happened to them, and to hear Drace’s. “Go ahead, Your Honor,” said Balthier.

“Stop calling me like this,” began Drace. She cleared her throat. “So, as you all know, I stayed behind in the Mines because that filthy bounty hunter had dared to threaten Lord Larsa…” She fished for a clean cloth in her bag, wetting it in the fountain and cleaning up her face of the blood. She kept most of the gory details out of her storytelling, cleaning with more care the gash at the back of her leg, and accepting Basch’s help for cleaning the cut at her neck. “… But can you believe it? They travel freely throughout Ivalice, kill, kidnap and pillage because the Ninth Bureau allows it!”

“Come on,” quipped Balthier, “do not tell me the corruption of the Empire is alien to you.”

Drace threw the bloodied cloth away, her voice angry. “Of course not! But they would have attacked Lord Larsa, or done worse to him! They are under Judge Gabranth’s direct authority, and the Young Lord is as much his charge as it is mine!” Drace’s tone went from furious to tired in less than a second. “I knew he changed, these last years… I had foolish hopes.”

Basch looked devastated. He was sitting beside Drace, and they locked eyes. They would have much to tell each other, in the near future.

Vaan was puzzled, and for once, Balthier looked like he genuinely regretted his words. Remorse and Balthier had never been close friends, and so the sky pirate leaned in closer to Drace, “It doesn’t look like you need stitches. Allow me to help with the bandage?”

Drace complied, and Balthier quickly bandaged her neck. He looked down at her leg, and Drace nodded with a sigh. Yes, there too. This past week or so had been a lesson in humility for her, but was not pride the downfall of most Judge Magisters? 

Feeling the tension in the air less thick, Vaan prodded the crude saw lying at Drace’s feet. “So you really kept it… that’s awesome!”

“Well, his sister broke my brand new weapon, so it is only fair game.”

“Bangaa weaponry, half-Viera half-Dalmascan gear and looking more and more like a old Rozarrian mummy,” remarked Balthier, having finished with her leg. “Even the Emperor Gramis himself would be fooled!”

Drace chuckled, soon joined by Vaan. It was quite the disguise indeed. “Speaking of fools,” she replied, “you have not told me yet how you managed to secure a meeting with the Marquis!”

“I tell her!” shouted Vaan, over-excited.

“Yes, you do,” replied Balthier. “But tune down your voice, we would not want the whole city to hear you again.”

Vaan brushed his comment off and sat down on the pavement. He cleared his throat theatratically and, his tone too serious for him, began his storytelling:

“When we ran out of the Mines, there was the Marquis and this Judge, and they had Penelo! I was not happy about that, but there was the kid too—”

“You mean Lord Larsa.”

“Yes yes, him. Fran told me that he would take good care of Penelo. I hope he does, because if not…” Vaan’s words died out under Drace’s icy glare. He glanced at the saw. “He seems a nice kid, so yeah!”

“How about we get straight to the point, Vaan? The clock’s ticking.”

“Right,” replied Vaan, nervously scratching the back of his neck. “So, we realised that we all needed to see the Marquis,” unbeknown to Vaan, Fran and Balthier shook their heads in unison. “I for Penelo, Basch to rescue Amalia… and there are the rumours that the Marquis is behind the Résistance so we needed to get their attention.” Vaan paused, a pitiful attempt at creating suspense. “So we used Basch! He is supposed to be dead, so I ran around spreading the rumour that he was alive.”

“Quite smart,” Drace admitted, and beside her Basch sighed. She imagined it must have been an interesting sight to behold, the Dalmascan teen running around and screaming political secrets for all to hear. It definitely would have been interesting in Arcades, much to the Senate’s horror.

“Smart, I would not say so, but effective it was,” Balthier pointed out. “The insurgence was quick to find us, and not very discreet in my opinion. When they realised that there was more to the clamour than just a boy, and that the Captain was indeed living, it was easy to arrange a meeting this very evening. You are free to join us of course,”

“Even if I really doubt Ondore is the ally I am looking for,” Drace finished.

She stood up, stretching her legs. Ba’Gamnan’s blood had nicely stained her chest plate, but there was no time to fix it. She then looked into her bag, maybe it would be a good idea to replenish her potion stock.

“How long do we have? I might have some shopping to do”

“Oh,” answered Balthier. “Several hours I’d say, it’s not even the mid-afternoon. Besides, we all need to get prepared. Say we meet at the Cloudborne, when the sun sets.”

The all agreed, and split their way.

During the hours that followed, Drace slowly walked the sloping streets of Bhujerba, listening to the chatter of street vendors and enjoying the air. She bought some first aid supplies and food rations. It would have been so different, had she been wearing her armour! Now she was just a stranger in a strange crowd, a Hume like any other. Had her mind and heart not been plagued by worries, she would have found it liberating.

Hours ticked by, and Drace found herself in the Magick shop, looking at the spells. After many minutes spent hesitating and a shopkeeper eyeing her suspiciously, the door finally opened and a newcomer went it, distracting the shopkeeper. Drace cast a side glance at the customer. It was Fran, and the viera noticed her at once. In a few long steps she was beside Drace.

“Looking for something?”

Drace was taken aback by the question. Fran was usually quite taciturn…

“I do not know. Curative spells are not my forte, but I wonder if knowing Raise could come in handy.”

Fran cocked her head to the side. “It might.” Drace smiled, used her remaining gil to buy the spell ‘Raise’. She would need training, learning the spell by heart was not enough, but it was a good start already. Fran followed her out of the shop, having not bought anything.

The sun was getting low, and they wordlessly decided to wait for the others at the Cloudborne. It seemed to Drace that Fran wanted to say something to her, but did not know where to begin.

“Are you sure Ondore is not the ally you are looking for?” The viera asked softly after some time.

Drace closed her eyes. She did not know. She was lost.

“No. Nothing is sure anymore. He is against Vayne, and so am I, but from what I know he does not bear the Empire in his heart, and I… I just don’t know. Everything seems alien to me. Knowledge, people, even myself. Never had I imagined that being cast away would damage me so much…”

She felt Fran’s hand on her shoulder. “I know that feeling.”

They remained in companionable silence then, Drace not knowing what to answer. They watched the passer-bys, yet Drace could feel Fran’s eyes on her.

In the minutes that followed, the last rays of the sun disappeared behind the high Bhujerban buildings, and their companions joined Fran and Drace, Balthier first, shortly followed by Basch. Vaan arrived last and Balthier put his hands on his hips in mock impatience, announcing:

“Time to pay Marquis Ondore a visit, let’s go!”

Chapter Text

The party walked up the Estate in silence, all five members lost in their thoughts. What would happen? How would the meeting go? Would Marquis Ondore really be helpful? Drace did not like being plagued by so many interrogations. Once again she wished for her armour, for that confidence boost. For her helmet, for the authority it provided.

Drace felt jumpy. Guests they might have been, but they were nonetheless escorted to Ondore by four Parivirs, and she had had enough of not being in a position of power.

Through the darkness of the night sky, Drace saw the shapes of imperial ships moving. The Eighth Fleet, most probably. She wondered if Ghis and Larsa were still in the Estate.

She would not have to wonder for much longer though, as the doors opened before them, the Parivirs escorting them in.

Drace was genuinely surprised that Ondore had not ordered their weapons to be taken away. It was not as if her saw or Fran’s bow were not obvious enough… maybe Ondore had given special orders. If anything else, Drace was now curious of the Marquis’s intentions. As they were walking through the long empty corridors and climbing the numerous flight of stairs, Drace thought about what she could say to Ondore. She would let Basch speak first, of course. If she had to split up from the party, it was only fair that she waited to make her decision. Watch them argue, and choose the right path to follow.

Drace was so caught up in her thoughts that she almost bumped into Basch’s back when they stopped in front of an immense door. The two guards at the doors knew they would come, as they asked nothing and opened the wooden panels, letting them in.

The Marquis’s office was of a size to match the door. The room was circled by large ornate windows which let the light of the night sky in. In the corners, blue and bronze columns to match the motifs of the walls. In the middle of the room, Ondore was sitting behind an immense triangular desk made out of precious wood, facing the gigantic statue of a gryffin which was holding what looked like a chest under his claw. “Good evening, I was awaiting you.” Ondore eyed Vaan, Balthier -who answered his greeting-  and Fran suspiciously, and Drace hoped to the Gods that the Marquis would not recognise her. It was highly unlikely, as they had not met since long ago, but she had not been very lucky these last few days. Finally, Ondore looked at Basch, seizing him up. Behind Ondore, silent, stood a Rev advisor.

“Sir Basch fon Ronsenburg,” he began. “It was not so very long ago that I announced you had been executed.”

“And that is the only reason I draw breath.” Basch’s tone was surprisingly harsh. Both him and Ondore probably did not like the position they were in. Walking on eggshells under Vayne’s scrutiny.

Ondore crossed his hand in front of him, thoughtful. “So you were the sword, he strung above my head. Vayne had left not a thing to chance.” It is only now you realise? Drace thought before she could stop herself. Snark would lead her nowhere, she had to calm down. Ondore locked eyes with Basch. “And?”

“A leader of the Resistance has fallen into Imperial hands. A woman by the name of Amalia. I would rescue her, but I need your help.”

That was insane, thought Drace. Yet in a way, it made sense that this was the reason Basch wanted to meet the Marquis. Since Gabranth had questioned him on that woman… it would have renewed his will to fight. A rescue mission would probably also paint him in a positive light for the insurgents who were likely still wary of  him. But it was madness!

“This résistance leader, this Amalia, she must be very important,” went on Ondore, doubtful. Drace was not paying much attention anyway. If that Amalia was kept prisoner, there was a small chance she was still on board the Leviathan, and not yet in Archades. Rescuing her would mean sneaking on board the Leviathan. Drace was not sure she was up to that. To risk confronting Ghis… with Lord Larsa there too… From the corner of her eye, she saw Basch put a hand above his heart, not answering Ondore.

“You understand, I have my position to consider,” finally answered Ondore. He stood up, leaving his desk. Vaan walked up to him.

“Would you let us see Larsa? He’s got my friend with him.”

Drace did not know if she found his lack of tact brave or infuriating. Ondore nonetheless spared him a look and a reply. “I am afraid you’re too late. Lord Larsa’s cortege has already rejoined the Imperial detachment. I am told they will depart upon the arrival of the fleet, this eventide.”

Vaan audibly sighed. Drace understood his frustration, but Penelo was in good hands. Ghis had no reason to do her any harm. She was neither a criminal not an insurgent, and was under Lord Larsa’s protection. Moreover, Ghis liked Dalmasca. He always had a fondness for the desert city, so he would most likely be nice to an innocent citizen.

In the meantime, Vaan was arguing with Balthier, urging them to act, without a plan, against the Eighth Imperial Fleet. That boy lacked some brains, thought Drace, though he had quite the heart. She heard Balthier try to calm him down. Neither Basch nor Ondore seemed bothered by this, since they resumed their conversation. Drace did not manage to catch up the first words exchanged, too focused that she was on Vaan. Yet, some words caught her attention.

“... Surely the exigencies of position are not lost on you.”

This did not forebode any good. Drace was not so eager to follow Basch anymore. And as Ondore spoke again, it became a certainty. “Why indeed, you should find the enemy’s chains an easy burden to bear.”

Basch would accept. Drace knew it. It was the only way to get on board the Leviathan. She had to... “This is insane!”

“Wait!”

Balthier and her had shouted in perfect unison, and Basch looked at them unapologetically. “Sorry, can’t be helped.” He drew his sword. Fuck .

With an eerie calm, Ondore ordered his advisor to summon the guard. Said advisor complied, and in the split second that came before they were overwhelmed by the Parivirs, Drace weighed the pros and cons of escaping by jumping out of a window.

Drace hated her life, hated being manhandled by low rank soldiers like that… and chains. She had had enough for a lifetime. Still too calm for a man who had supposedly been attacked, Ondore ordered his soldiers to take them to Ghis and they were, if the word could fit, escorted out of the office.

At least, from now on, thought Drace, it could only get worse.