Y’shtola could see the glow of her aether, even before she opened the door out onto the balcony. The Warrior of Light ever burned like a beacon, and though her flame was somewhat subdued at the moment, it was no less powerful.
Vieryne turned her head only slightly to acknowledge the Miqo’te’s arrival, her gaze tilted upwards towards the sky.
“’Tis a beautiful night.” The unnatural, shifting color of the heavens above Mor Dhona gave no lie to her words, but the Warrior just huffed in response.
“You did not seek me out to chat about the weather.”
“Perhaps because it is not the weather here that has your attention.” She watched carefully as the aether moved in reaction to her words. “Indeed, I would wager your mind wanders in climes a good deal colder.”
A bright flare was quickly reined in, the resulting light even more restrained than before. Vieryne was silent.
“It seems like an age, does it not? In spite of having been there but a few weeks ago. From what I hear, Ishgard is well on her way to meet her new future. As are we.”
“What is your purpose here, Y’shtola?” The woman’s tone was slightly annoyed, and more than a bit wary.
She shrugged. “You seemed troubled, my friend. And given the…unresolved business there, it seems logical that is where your thoughts would wander.”
Vieryne sighed heavily. “Our business is finished there. Nidhogg’s shade laid to rest…peace forged, resistance notwithstanding. A new government established. They have no further need of the Scions at this time.”
“Did I speak aught of the Scions?” Her tone was mild, but the sharp reaction told her the words hit home.
“…that was also resolved.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “By ‘resolved’, do you mean the manner in which you were as distant as circumstances would permit from a certain individual for the remainder of your time there after the Steps of Faith? And why you have been nothing short of an absolute terror to anyone who happens to cross your path since? That would not seem like much of a resolution to me.”
Vieryne was silent for a long time. When she finally spoke again, her aether danced and flickered, like a flame desperately trying to hold out against strong winds.
“Resolved enough. What would it have accomplished? Should I have confessed, asked him to wait there, pining for me as I go off to face gods knows what? Never knowing when I shall return, if I return? Assuming he even harbors any inkling of the desire to do so, which despite Thancred’s teasing, I highly doubt.”
Y’shtola shook her head, bemused. “Will you ever learn to stop shouldering burdens that are not yours to carry?” She put a gentle hand on her shoulder, leaning in to touch her forehead to her friend’s. “That choice is not yours to make. It belongs to him, as it does to all of us that care for you. To attempt to deny us that is no mercy.”
The aether faltered once more, then rekindled, bright and steady, and after another long silence Vieryne laughed softly.
“I fear you may have to keep reminding me, Shtola.” She lifted her face to look up at the sky again. “But I also fear it may have come too late. As you said, it has been some weeks…I can hardly just stroll through the gates and turn everything upside down on a whim.”
“Ah, but that brings me to your earlier question, to why I sought you out. It would seem Tataru has received a missive from Ishgard; there is to be a celebration of a certain lord speaker’s nameday. The host has requested the honor of the Scions’ attendance, and yet it seems most of us will be otherwise engaged…” She needed no aether sight to know that she was now speaking to naught but air, as the quick footsteps followed by the telltale creak of the heavy door reported on Vieryne’s departure. She allowed herself a sly grin that persisted as she retired inside the Rising Stones, enjoying a cup of tea at a quiet table.
“Well, you certainly look pleased with yourself.” Thancred plopped unceremoniously down into the chair next to her.
“Indeed I am.” Her back was to most of the room, but her ears twitched as she heard one of the doors down the hall open and then close again, and her smile widened. “Wait for it…”
“Care to enlighten…seven hells.”
She chuckled smugly at the whispered curse from the man as she heard the quick sound of footsteps pass by, the Warrior’s aether shining brighter than ever, and took a long sip of her tea.
“You can thank me later.”
Unfortunately, in the time it took her to arrive, some of Vieryne’s previous trepidation had returned, and now, surveying the hall full of unfamiliar Ishgardian nobility and common folk alike, she had to wonder what in the seven hells she was doing. Her reception from the host had been warm enough; she barely recognized the man, though most everyone seemed to know the ‘Savior of Ishgard’.
She smiled graciously at another passing greeting as she wove through the crowd, her eyes desperately searching for the telltale flash of blue and gold. Not for the first time, her lack of a vantage point amidst the taller Elezen and Hyur irked her.
“Ah, there you are, old girl!”
The voice brought a slight smile to her lips. She turned, and the younger Fortemps son beamed at her.
“Lord Emmanellein.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “I do recall we discussed you not calling me that.”
“Yes, well.” He flushed a bit, laughing. She was quite sure that some of the color in his face could be attributed to the freely flowing wine the servants were distributing. “Just terribly happy to see you again! You vanished so suddenly, and with not much of a farewell at that.” He offered her his arm. “Come, you must see Father! He shall be delighted to know that you were able to attend.”
She accepted his escort, chuckling. “It is good to see that some things in Ishgard remain unchanged in the face of progress, I suppose.”
He guided her through the room, chattering happily at her about gossip that she wasn’t really able to follow, until they encountered Edmont, conversing with his eldest son and an older Elezen woman Vieryne had never encountered. He smiled at their approach, and the woman gave a polite nod, murmuring gratitude towards her before taking her leave.
“Lady Everhana. Welcome back.”
She started to bow, but to her surprise Edmont stepped forward and embraced her fondly, chuckling at her raised eyebrow.
“Is it not a father’s prerogative to greet his children thus, be they of blood or of the heart?”
“Full glad am I to receive such a welcome, good sir.” She could not help but smile, her reservations melting away in the presence of such warmth, returning his embrace.
Emmanellein leaned over to whisper to her, though it was loud enough to be anything but. “Father’s feeling somewhat sentimental about family tonight, I’m afraid…I do believe he is hoping to find poor Artoirel a match in one of these ladies that Ser Aymeric leaves disappointed.”
She raised an eyebrow again, hoping her expression did not reflect the sudden chill that washed over her. Artoirel covered his face with his hand, while Edmont simply shook his head in resigned bemusement. Emmanellein continued, seeming not to notice any of their reactions.
“I hear tell the House of Lords is pushing for a quick engagement…marriage to bring stability to the new order and all that, you know.”
“How…intriguing.” Her voice was surprisingly steady. “The Lord Commander has a chosen lady in mind, then.”
Emmanellein giggled. He was most certainly well on his way past being drunk. “Oh, not at all, that is why there are so many hopefuls here tonight. But if you ask me, there will be plenty for ‘riel to have his pick from. Ser Aymeric would not so much as notice a beautiful woman if you threw one at him. In fact, I heard just the other day-”
He was cut off with a squeak as Edmont grabbed the tip of his ear. “That is quite enough of your idle gossip.” He smiled apologetically at Vieryne. “Pray excuse me while I see to making my youngest…more fit for polite company.”
She stifled a laugh as the former Count dragged off a protesting Emmanellein. “As much of a handful as ever, I see.”
Artoirel smiled ruefully. “Aye, though he has improved on several fronts, not the least of which being his martial skill. You have been an inspiration to him, even in your absence. We just received word that the lord commander is entrusting him with our brother’s previous post at Camp Dragonhead. I pray he will rise to the occasion.”
“I am certain that he will.” She glanced over her shoulder and tried to keep her voice as noncommittal as possible. “Speaking of which…where would one find the lord commander in all of this?”
He shot her a knowing look; subterfuge had never been her strong point. “I am afraid I cannot say for certain, my lady. Though my brother’s description of events was rather…colorful, I do not believe he erred in his assessment of the intentions of many in attendance this eve. I would hazard a guess that Ser Aymeric is entertaining such interested parties as we speak.” He eyed her appraisingly for a moment, before looking past her. “If one wished to catch his attention, I may have an idea.”
Vieryne followed his glance towards the center of the hall, where she could see glimpses of spinning skirts and quickly moving feet. Artoirel smiled conspiratorially at her and offered his hand.
The first time, Aymeric thought he was hearing things, and dismissed it as wishful thinking. He was mid-sentence, greeting yet another noble of a smaller house with a daughter (or perhaps it was a niece; he was losing track at this point) they were eagerly nudging towards him, when it drifted through the music and hum of conversation again; warm laughter that sent a familiar thrill through his blood.
He paused, and the Elezen man frowned slightly.
“Is aught amiss, Lord Speaker?”
“No...forgive me. I…” There it was again. His eyes drifted in the direction of the sound; his feet were compelled to follow. “Pray excuse me.”
It was a poor exit, but that hardly mattered at the moment. He ignored several other attempts to catch his attention as he deftly maneuvered through those assembled until he found himself with the rest who lingered to watch at the edges of the dance.
It was a lively, partnered affair, one that had the participants spinning away from each other frequently, circling in small groups before twirling away in the arms of their chosen partner once more. It made for an impressive display, but he was mesmerized by just one part of it.
She spun away from her partner, and though it afforded him but a moment’s clear view, it was enough to take his breath away. Her white hair was swept up in an elegant arrangement, rather than her usual practical braid. The neck of her dress was low and broad, exposing the top of her shoulders and dipping below her collarbone to show just enough skin to scandalize the gowns of Ishgard with their high, tight collars. It was rimmed in pale golden fur, a stark contrast to her dusky grey complexion and dark, shining scales, while the fabric itself was a brilliant crimson, a color she favored often. It brought out her fiery eyes, the burning orange-gold limbal rings fading into dark, smoldering red.
The dress hugged the curve of her waist, then flared away to the sides and back, the long skirt trimmed in the same golden fur. In the front it ended in a much shorter ruffle, showing off the black pants that hugged her thighs, and more enticingly the tall black boots that ended well above her knee. Careful embellishments in red and gold added elegance to the whole ensemble, though not nearly as much as the woman that wore it.
It occurred to him that he’d never seen her in anything but full, heavy robes in her time in the city, which was understandable given the biting cold. And probably a small mercy for his self-control.
She laughed again as she was caught in her partner’s arms, and Aymeric could not help but have a moment of unkind thought for Artoirel de Fortemps, watching him smile down at her before he swept her up, easily lifting her smaller form off the ground. They spun around, and Aymeric lost sight of them amidst the rest of the dancers.
How long had it been? Not more than a moon, surely, but to the dull ache in his heart it may well have been an age.
The music came to its conclusion, and the dancers exchanged bows, starting to filter from the floor. He spied them again, Artoirel leaning close to speak quietly, her head tilted slightly up towards him, her lips curling into that self-satisfied smile he had missed so.
Not for the first time, he cursed his hesitance to speak with her privately as soon as she’d returned from Azys Lla. He had feared adding to her already troubled soul, still heavy with the loss of Ysayle and Estinien’s ensnarement by Nidhogg. When the dragon lay defeated, and the dragoon rescued, she’d been conspicuously distant, only appearing when explicitly summoned, and never alone. He’d told himself they were both simply occupied with the frenzy of events surrounding Ishgard’s readmittance to the Alliance, and the affairs of reformation, but the truth was evident in the declined dinner invitation once everything had settled.
Her sudden reappearance set the spark of his hope aflame again, despite the somewhat troubling closeness to Artoirel. He was not sure what to make of it all, but he would not allow her to slip away again without an answer, for good or ill.
“It seems our quarry has risen to the challenge.”
Vieryne glanced up at Artoirel, and she could see the gleam of golden armor against blue and black out of the corner of her eye. “Ever the master strategist,” she smiled. “And an exceptional partner…who seems to have garnered some well-deserved attention.” She raised an eyebrow at several nearby ladies who were throwing them furtive glances and whispering. He flushed slightly, though he did not look displeased.
“It would be dishonest to claim I did not anticipate the opportunity to make an impression of mine own. Though to be able to do so in service to my lovely sister-in-arms is reward enough in itself.” He cocked his head to the side as music drifted over the crowd once more. “Ah…he would issue a counter to our display, it seems.”
An interested murmur ran through the crowd as eager participants flocked back towards the floor. A quick glance found Aymeric among them, confidently taking his place as he returned from a quiet conference with the musicians in the corner of the room.
“You are unfamiliar with the danse guerre, my lady?” Artoirel offered his hand again, though as they hadn’t left the floor to begin with, they had but to shift slightly to join the arrangement that was forming. “An old tradition of Ishgard, one I think you will find to your liking. A competition of sorts, a test of one’s skill and awareness. Simply put, do not find yourself unpartnered when the music shifts…though I think that unlikely.”
She could feel the intensity of Aymeric’s gaze even from this distance, and warmth blossomed under her skin in response. Artoirel chuckled and brushed a kiss to the back of her hand just before the dancers began to move.
“Good hunting, sister.”
Vieryne could definitely see where such a dance would be considered a test of skill; the tempo started out mild but was quickly shifting towards a livelier pace with each change. Not only did one have to adjust quickly to the changing tune, but also keep an awareness of all the other dancers in the mix, as well as judging the capabilities of potential partners in preparation for the next shift. It was not unlike the ever-changing chaos of the battlefield, and she strongly suspected the origins of this particular tradition to be mired in the same martial history that touched all parts of Ishgard.
It was an exhilarating experience nonetheless, and one for which she was well-suited. Her first few partners were chosen at random, but she could feel his eyes still upon her as more and more dancers retired from the floor, and it sent a slight thrill through her to know she was the one being hunted now.
She saw a hand reaching for hers as the notes heralded another change, but before their fingers touched, a strong grip wrapped around her other hand, spinning her into a tight embrace. Looking up through her lashes, her breath caught in her throat for a moment, and she was glad of his confident movement that kept her feet from faltering.
“Lord Speaker.” She could not help herself; her mouth curved into a teasing smirk as she adjusted her hands on his arms. “You keep up quite well for a man wearing his full armor.”
The hand on her back slid subtly over tell-tale ridges of the boning in her dress. “High praise from a woman wearing a corset.”
“You disapprove? Poor Tataru will be devastated, she was most confident in selecting it especially for the occasion.”
“On the contrary.” He spun her out to arms-length before pulling her back, their bodies meeting with a closeness that was probably just over the line for propriety. “You are even more radiant than I remember, and that is no small feat.”
The dance demanded their separation, but she was unsurprised when he claimed her hand again and again as the number of dancers swiftly dwindled; it was clear he intended her to have no other partner until it was over. The easy way they moved together despite the marked difference in their statures reminded her of their sparring sessions, and she realized with a sudden ache just how sorely she had missed his company. Hells, she even used to fall asleep on the broad windowsill inside his office some days, when she’d nowhere else to be, soothed by the comfortable silence that was broken only by the soft scratching of his quill. A myriad of things she wanted to say raced through her mind, but every time they came together, she found herself unwilling to break the silence with mere words.
She was keenly aware that all too soon that they were the only dancers remaining, and the music afforded them but a few moments to savor it before it came to a crescendo of conclusion. He continued to hold her close even after it faded, his eyes fixed on hers, and for a moment she wondered if he intended to stay like that indefinitely. He reluctantly remembered himself, and stepped back to bow, his lips brushing over the back of her hand.
“We should speak.”
It was not a suggestion, almost more of a command, and she quirked a brow at him, her natural defiance breaking through her desire to agree immediately.
“You would appear to have other obligations to attend to first, lord speaker.” She could see them hovering nearby, all manner of well-wishers and nobles with agendas. His lips twitched slightly, and she could tell he bit back a less-than-polite comment regarding such ‘obligations’. She chuckled softly.
“I fear I could not countenance any interruptions…do try and clear your schedule swiftly, my lord. I will wait…for a time.” She took a step back and curtsied, grinning to herself as those waiting stepped forward all at once and afforded her the opportunity to lose herself in the crowd.
She watched from the fringes as he patiently dealt with the inevitable politics of the event, pleased to see how his eyes frequently scanned the room, searching for her. She’d let him see her on occasion, and then throw him a quick wink or a knowing smirk before slipping away again, finding another part of the crowd to blend with. Part of her was still screaming internally at herself, how she could play such games when she wanted nothing more than to drag him to the side and kiss him senseless, everyone else in the room be damned. But there was something to be said for anticipation.
And if she was quite honest with herself, the chance to watch his reactions to her teasing was a temptation she could not ignore. Honestly, if she leaned any harder into her flirtations with the man, she’d probably fall flat on her metaphorical face, but he made it so irresistibly entertaining. None of her other companions reacted as he did; Alphinaud just blushed and flustered, Tataru would deflect and encourage someone else to join in, Urianger blithely ignored it, and while Y’shtola and Thancred played along, it would almost certainly devolve into a competition of blunt obscenities that had them all breathless with laughter.
Aymeric, though…he would rise to the occasion beautifully; perhaps it was his experience with the politics of Ishgard that had him matching her wit in a manner that felt much like their dance, circling and meeting, then spinning away again. Unfortunately, that same experience had made it almost impossible for her to gauge exactly how he had felt about their interactions, about her. She’d managed to unbalance him on a few rare occasions; a moment of speechlessness here, a hesitation there, but always he recovered himself with that same composure, that legendary restraint. And they always seemed to wind up right back where they started at the end. She stifled a sigh.
A brief exploration of the room discovered the entrance to an empty balcony, shrouded by half-drawn curtains. It was cold, as expected, though with her body still singing from the contact of the dance, she hardly felt it. At least it wasn’t snowing, for once.
The railing was designed for those a bit taller than she was, but she managed to lift herself up to sit on it, her tail lashed languidly over the edge as she twisted around to look out over the city. It was so unlike Ul’dah; all cold greys and whites and sharply pointed spires, in harsh contrast to the desert city’s warm sand tones and gentle curves. Yet there was something endearing about the way the monotone chill gave way to inviting warmth once inside the heavy doors of these halls; it reminded her of being embraced by an old friend.
Would it be so awful, to have somewhere to call home again?
The Scions were family, but after all that had happened, Ul’dah and even the Rising Stones felt temporary to her now. Just another room she would one day stop returning to. And while Ishgard held its own ghosts for her…there were still places that felt safe.
Or there had been. She shook her head. Getting ahead of yourself, girl. Haven’t even worked up the nerve to stop playing around and just talk to him…
A warm hand covered hers where it rested on the railing.
She snatched her hand away, grabbing a fistful of her assailant’s shirt as she whipped around to face forward, bringing her other hand up with a spell half-formed around her fingertips, and then froze.
His ice blue eyes sparkled with amusement as the aether dissipated, scattered by her surprise. When the hells had he learned to be so quiet? Or was she simply that distracted, to let her guard down so completely? She noted somewhat self-consciously that she was still gripping the front of his shirt and had leaned forward just slightly in anticipation of her spellcasting. With her perch on the railing bringing her a touch above his height for once, their faces were only ilms apart.
I should let go now. Her fingers had no apparent interest in obeying her.
“Has no one ever cautioned you against surprising a mage, lord commander?”
“Perhaps, but lest we forget, my curiosity makes a habit of putting such rumors to the test.”
Neither of them moved or spoke again for several long, tense moments. She scarcely dared to breathe, her heart hammering wildly against the confines of her chest. Finally, his lips curled into a small, wry smile.
“The window in my office has been strangely empty of late.”
She exhaled a breathy laugh. “I would imagine so.”
“You declined my invitation to dinner.” It was a question as much as a statement.
He searched her expression carefully, the intensity of his gaze enough to bring sudden heat to the skin and scales on her face.
Answers swirled in her mind, crowding her tongue, and she found herself unable to voice any of them. Her free hand moved as if of its own accord, fingertips brushing lightly along his jawline, up over his cheek. His head turned slightly, leaning into the caress, eyes almost closing; the sweetness of the reaction made her heart ache.
To the seven hells with it all.
She retained enough presence of mind to pause as she leaned in closer, lips just barely separate from his. Their warm breath mingled as she waited, giving him a chance to pull away if he chose, desperately praying that he would not. When he remained still, she allowed herself a moment of relief, pressing forward to claim his mouth.
Despite the tentative beginning, the kiss quickly grew quite heated as he responded enthusiastically, wrapping his arms around her waist, his lips parting to allow her entry. Their tongues sparred briefly, moving to explore each other, and though she felt a moment of concern that the tips of her horns were pressing against his face, he seemed to pay it no heed. She slipped her hand around to the back of his neck, sliding it up though the softness of his hair, delighting in the feel of it between her fingers and the way he moaned quietly into her mouth.
After waiting, wanting for so long, it was difficult to pull away, but the pressing need for air compelled them to part eventually. He rested his forehead against hers, their shared heavy breaths mingling once again.
She could not help but smile at his breathless curse, moving her hand from his hair to lightly trace along the edges of his ear, watching him shiver in response.
“That is not how you say my name, lord commander.”
“I beg your forgiveness.” He turned his head slightly and whispered against her lips. “Vieryne.”
It was her turn to shiver slightly at the reverence in his voice, and he was more than happy to take the opportunity to draw her in to another searing kiss. He was getting bolder, hands leaving her waist to explore the curve of her hips, running over her thighs, and she melted into the combined feeling of his mouth and fingers. Nothing else mattered except the two of them, here in this moment, together.
But not alone, as she was abruptly reminded by the sound of raised laughter from somewhere inside. She reluctantly pulled back, moving her hands to still his. Aymeric seemed oblivious, bending his head to use his lips and tongue on her neck, and she fought back a gasp as he found the sensitive spot in the center of her throat where the scales parted.
“I have dreamt of this,” he murmured against her. “So many nights.”
The thought sent an electric thrill through her. “Full glad would I be to hear of that in great detail.” She narrowed her eyes at the entrance back into the hall as there was another swell in the volume of the celebration. “Somewhere else.”
He sighed, the warmth of his breath spreading across her scales, and it was hard to resist the urge to encourage him to continue. She felt the cold all the more keenly as he straightened, glancing over his shoulder with a grimace.
“We will be hard pressed to make any timely progress towards an exit, I fear.” Turning his eyes back to her, he ran his fingers first along the curve of one of her horns, then dropped them to her jawline, brushing over her bottom lip. “I am not of a mind to share your company with any others this eve.”
“Nor I yours,” she agreed. “And I have not the patience to wait out their departure.”
“I fear it would not avail us if we did…it is unlikely my path here went entirely unmarked. ‘Tis only a matter of time before we find ourselves under siege.”
“Then we must find an alternative avenue of retreat.” She glanced over her shoulder, gauging the distance to the gardens below them, then back at him, raising an eyebrow and smiling.
He followed her gaze, then shook his head with a bemused huff. “You cannot be serious, my lady.”
“Oh, come now, ‘new Azure Dragoon’.” She pushed herself up, balancing easily on the railing. “Surely you are not afraid of a little jump.” Bending at the waist, she cupped his face in her hands, giving him a teasing kiss before launching herself into a backflip out into the air. It was a terrifying, exhilarating moment of spinning darkness before she landed in a crouch on the cold ground below. The satisfying sound of his heavier landing nearby followed a few moments later, though his aim was less precise than hers, his armor catching on several large shrubs.
“You have been spending too much time with Estinien, Warrior of Light.” He was trying to look stern, and she could not help but laugh as he brushed stray foliage from his armor. “Encouraging me to sneak out through gardens…I daresay you are attempting to become a bad influence on me.”
“You hardly needed much encouraging, lord commander.” She leaned up on her toes to pluck a leaf from his hair. “If you are concerned for your virtue, perhaps I should take my leave? Twelve forfend I provoke you into something…” She let the tip of the leaf trail down the side of his face before giving it a final twirl in her fingers and letting it fall. “Reckless.”
He made a sound very much like a growl deep in his throat, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close, but she pressed her fingertips to his lips to stop them from meeting hers, grinning wickedly.
“Ah, I believe we were still in the process of escaping, ser?” Some part of her was aware she was being an unbelievable tease, but his responses, now that their mutual desire was out in the open, had gone from entertaining to downright intoxicating. It was a power she could not easily bring herself to relinquish.
Aymeric gave another small, impatient grumble, but released his hold, stepping back to offer his arm. He opened his mouth to speak, but voices from above had them both frozen for a moment.
“Do not fret, my dear, I know I saw the lord commander step through here but a few moments ago…”
He grabbed her hand, tugging her along the garden path, and she stifled a breathless laugh as they raced towards the street.