“Basch. Wake up. Captain, wake up.“
The voice is gentle, the hand against his shoulder equally so - not shaking him, only a steady pressure. It keeps Basch from doing anything so foolish as throwing a punch as he startles awake, the moment of alarm quickly passing, his dreams fading to brittle shadows that are easier to push away.
He had been… it had been Nalbina, as it so often was - but King Raminas had been there in his place, sitting on the floor of Basch’s crow’s cage with the door open, bare feet dangling over the edge. It was more disturbing than it should have been, the sight of those knobby, pale ankles and bony toes. Strange and wrong and far too intimate, an unwanted reminder of his king’s humanity.
Basch had needed much stronger truths, there in the dark. He needed to be a creature of honor to survive, full of grand and noble ideas with no cracks for the darkness to dwell in, nowhere for the stench or the pain or the dry whisper of helpless weeping.
His face is wet, here in the waking world. Basch wipes roughly at his eyes, and Balthier pretends not to notice.
Raminas had been telling him a story, something important, but even in the dream it had been too complicated for Basch to follow. The king had been drinking tea, and the contrast between the delicate cup and the heavy iron bars had been enough to distract Basch completely from the words he spoke. Now, all that remains is only a lingering sense of unease, the familiar weight of regret.
“I apologize. I did not mean to fall asleep.”
“It’s the altitude.” Balthier says. “It will likely be worse at the summit of Bur-Omisace. One of the holy burdens of this grand pilgrimage.”
By his tone, it’s clear to see what regard Balthier has for burdens, holy or otherwise.
The plain is hardly much to speak of, a starting waypoint for those seeking the knowledge of the sages - or safe harbor, refugees from Nabradia, from Dalmasca turned into unwilling nomads, a steady stream of them hoping for shelter away from where the two great empires seem most likely to shatter the world in their mighty charge to glory. The horizon stretches unwavering around them, windswept and humbled by the towering banks of clouds above - perhaps a storm in the evening, or on the morrow. An airship could make the journey to the holy land in a fraction of the time, but there is sparse traffic in the skies between here and Bur-Omisace, little profit to be found ferrying ascetics and refugees. Even a ship as nimble as the Strahl was likely to attract unwanted attention no matter the flags it flew, and should they reach the foothills the Jagd would drive them back anyway, send them walking along much the same path.
“Where is Ashe?”
It still feels strange to speak her name so plainly, but Basch can see the wisdom in discarding titles, better to be too familiar than risk a slip in the wrong company, or overheard by a too-curious passerby.
“Fran is with her. The Garif settlement anchors this end of the pilgrimage - they are of the oldest tribes in Ivalice, and know truths that have been long forgotten to time. It seemed possible they might have more information on some of the legends we are chasing.”
The Dawn Shard, safe now in Vossler’s keeping. It will be interesting to see the shape that Ondore’s demands might take, when he realizes that Ashe will not be so easily swayed, more than just an agreeable pawn to his plans. Basch wonders if he knows yet of their success in the tomb, that they have no intention of returning to Bhujerba - at least not until Ashe might return to him in a position of strength, able to negotiate on her own behalf.
“If we do not present her with a better plan, Her Highness will kill herself charging the Archadian battlements, and then where will we be?” Vossler had said, sitting in the parlor of that abandoned sky-palace. Basch tried to focus on his words, to stay trained on the conversation and not the strange feel of clean fabric against his skin, the coolness of so much fresh air. “I had feared what would happen, when Solidor proved himself a monster - and now I fear as much that he is otherwise.”
“He and his assassins murdered our king. Your king.” Basch found himself holding back a sudden surge of anger, the words full of too much bitterness too long steeped. He would not let Ashelia see this, did not want to let anyone see him so unsettled, but Vossler had been there, would know regardless. “For trying to stop it, I was consigned to hell.”
“And I grieved for you, for all that was lost. I wished for nothing more than vengeance, for you and our king and all those who were lost to Archadian treachery. Yet here we are, two years past - and whatever should be, the world has moved on.” Vossler said. “Dalmasca is in no better shape to strike back than it was even before Rasler fell. A Dynast-King’s stone may prove enough to sway negotiations, but it will not win a war, and even if we could drive back Archadia, Rozarria would sweep in at the first advantage.”
He couldn’t truly be angry with Vossler. The man was as weary as any of them, with two years’ effort in planning a strike against Archadia ending in in a single night, in unequivocal disaster.
“Do you think me a faithless monster, Basch, to seek a way through this that does not end with more Dalmascan blood on our sands? I would kill the ‘Lord Consul’ in a heartbeat for what he did to you, let alone to our king - but could you endure it, surrendering your worthy revenge, enduring that injustice if it meant the survival and security of our people? If it gave us back our country? If you could do this, perhaps Her Highness could be swayed.”
“I will not stand against my Queen.” Basch said, because she is as such, even if all the proper words have not been spoken, the ceremonies come to pass. He had lost Landis once, lost everything that had made it home, only to find welcome among Dalmasca’s people, and Nabradia’s as well, to see the deep roots of tradition and honor and even begin to graft his own among them - just in time to see noble Archades swoop in to rip it all up again. An unforgivable act, and though the depth of Ashelia’s fury troubles him, as he knows it troubles Vossler, Basch cannot pretend he does not understand it, or that she has no right to it.
“Did King Raminas ever mention the Sun-Cryst?”
Basch nearly jumps, Balthier’s question following the bend of his own thoughts, and the conversation that feels far more distant than it had been - Vossler had asked him much the same, though Basch was not half the confidant he wished he was. The further this continues, the more he knows that Raminas had shared next to nothing of his true thoughts - and it seemed that his daughter intended to walk the same path.
“Never as anything but myth and legend. I knew only those few spare details of Raithwall’s Tomb - secrets to be kept hidden. I fear there is little more I can offer.”
Our Queen is greatly troubled. Vossler’s final words of farewell and warning as they’d parted. A vast understatement, because the unspoken truth bordered far closer to treason - there is something wrong with Ashe. Whatever had happened in that tomb, it only widened an already unnavigable expanse between them. Unfair of him, to expect the bright and gentle girl he knew to have survived such difficult years unscathed, but Ashe is a stranger to him in all ways. Basch does not know how to reach her, to speak with her, what guidance is best to offer or if she might heed him at all.
No one spoke as plain, but Basch knows her purpose here - she goes to the Garif to learn what she can of the Shard, how to use such a weapon and how it might lead them to even greater power. and there are so many questions Basch should have asked of his liege, things Raminas should have told him instead of whispers and half-truths, relying on secrecy and ignorance to save them all.
“When you knew her, before, did she ever…” Balthier stops, as if not certain he should continue. “Ashe saw something down there, though it was cloaked from all other eyes. As if she had seen a ghost.”
“The blood of the Dynast-King lies within her. His mysteries would be hers as well.”
Or - the words unspoken, as they had been with Vossler - perhaps this has driven her mad, or will do so before anyone might alter the course. Ashe has pushed herself with all she has to live up to those who came before her, the ideals of her father and her husband, and the failure of the strike on the palace, against Vayne Solidor had been a heavy blow.
Vossler had not been wholly complimentary in his regard of their Resistance allies - some honorable men, true stewards of their homeland, but others with their own ambitions who found the Princess to be at her most useful only as a symbol - pure and innocent and angry, and they had encouraged her righteous fury. He hopes that this journey will allow her a chance to breathe, to think, that the Gran Kiltias will provide shelter, and guidance, some clear view of the path ahead.
“So,” Balthier breaks the heavy silence, “when do you imagine we might expect a visit from Judge Magister Gabranth?”
“I didn’t…” Basch begins. Stops himself. No place to start is the right place. He has spoken of it with the pirate before - it makes no more sense now than then, no matter how often he turns it over in his mind. “After I quit Landis, our mother passed, and a fire raged through our estate soon after. I could find no word of Noah, no sign that he had survived. I never thought, I don’t even know how…”
“There have been rumors, that Vayne agreed to assist in securing Gabranth’s continued position, in exchange for…”
“Revenge against a brother most despised.” Basch will never forget it, the icy impenetrability of his brother’s gaze, a loathing and fury and something wounded behind it that he had never seen before - the very twin of his own soul turned cold and strange and unknown. Noah had only wanted to hurt him, had betrayed the king of a foreign land and swore his shield to a viper and murdered an innocent young man so that Basch might be consigned to dishonor and darkness - and he still doesn’t understand why.
“You aren’t wrong to be wary - he will be searching at the first opportunity. We must be cautious.” Basch says, finally. “My brother does not yield once he has chosen a path, he will not be easily dissuaded." No doubt the Lord Consul has found it quite useful.
“Will you be able to fight him, should it come to that?” Balthier says, in a way that leaves no doubt it will come to that.
“I will do what it takes to protect Lady Ashe above all else.”
It does not stop Basch from a short, silent prayer - that he might yet know the true source of Noah’s boundless hatred, understand what it was he had done or failed to do, before one or the both of them are beyond asking.
“I have heard rumors of Judge Magisters making their presence known near Giruvegan, on behalf of Vayne Solidor or the emperor, or mayhap on errands of their own design.” Balthier says. “The powers in play here are the stuff of legends - kingmakers and godmakers. It would be easier to list those people with the means and ability who won’t be chasing us, should they catch the scent.”
“Did Fran not mention a private shortcut through the woods? A pirate’s path?”
It had caused some quiet disagreement between the two of them, though Basch is not sure he would have ever noticed, save for the close quarters of the airship. Balthier is a creature of deliberate theatre and gesture, hiding the cards of true value close to his chest. Now, he frowns.
“It is no common way for humes - she speaks of skirting the Golmore, the place of her people. It is forbidden for any who have left there to ever return, on penalty of… I am not certain, and Fran will not say. I will do what I can to navigate a smooth journey, to keep us hidden - but you should be aware, I will not put anyone’s safety before her well-being. Not yours, or your lady’s, or even my own.”
“I would not ask it of you, or of her.” Basch says, and risks a moment of curiosity. “I did not have the honor of familiarity with the few viera in Rabanastre, though I don’t remember any of them with a particular interest in treasure.”
Balthier smiles. “Indeed, it seems that in her travels, Fran has developed a taste for the finer things. One can hardly blame her.”
It had hardly been Vossler’s first choice, placing any trust in a pair of sky pirates who were just as likely to be in Ondore’s employ, or out for their own benefit - but once they had freed Basch from his crow’s cage, once they had taken to the skies what other choice was there in reaching the tomb before Archadia did, and what real choice is there now?
It would be worrying, how much calculation there always is behind Balthier’s gaze, but if he had wished to betray them there had been countless opportunities to leave them all in Raithwall’s Tomb, wandering the dark forever, or to snatch the Dawn Shard and return it to the Marquis, Bhujerba no doubt able to offer an award to satisfy even the most covetous pirate’s appetites. Yet here he is, still escorting a princess who has not brought him fortune and two young Dalmascans he pretends to barely tolerate. Or perhaps Balthier is only being patient - why settle on a Shard, when the Sun-Cryst may yet prove itself within his grasp?
Basch thinks of the viera - how her people are more sensitive to the Mist than any other, how a war of Magicite and Nethicite might bring dire consequences to her lands, even hidden as they are, should Rozarria and Archadia choose to war in earnest. Balthier surely has his own secrets and agendas, but that does not mean they are truly at odds, that his ultimate goals do not lie along the same path as his own.
Better the pirate he knows, at least, and it is not as if this can be done alone.
All is quiet, and they do not seem to be drawing any undue attention, but Basch is still relieved when Fran finally returns with Ashe a few paces behind, subdued and thoughtful as she has been since the Tomb. He envies the look that passes between the pirates, wonders if there is any hope of learning whatever Fran had observed, whatever might have passed between Her Highness and the wise elders of the Garif.
Only a few moments later, Vaan and Penelo appear, with well-laden packs - warmer clothing and supplies for the journey ahead. Balthier peers through what Penelo had acquired, and smiles when she hands him a pouch not entirely spent - a merchant’s daughter, with skills that have already served them well, and will surely do so on the path ahead. The both of them are in a good mood - despite the weight of their task, this is still an adventure.
Vaan has proven himself a quick study - a strong young man, with a decent grasp of the blade and well worth the training. Basch wonders if his brother sparred with him, before he’d gone off to Nalbina to die. He owes Vaan a debt, owes the both of them for all the suffering he was unable to prevent to his adopted homeland, and Basch will repay at least this small portion, should Faram grant him favor.
“A caravan is preparing to embark.” Balthier says. “Several groups, unaffiliated - it would be prudent to journey among them for at least the first leg of our voyage. We could make decent time before sundown.”
“You think it safe enough?”
“Everyone has their eyes to their own business.” Balthier nods. “It will be fine, as long as we keep a low profile.”
“… Penelo? Is that you?” The voice is soft and cultured, even in surprise, as the slim figure steps closer. “I did not quite believe… but it seems that I am even more fortunate than I had hoped for.”
The hood of a cloak is drawn back, and once again before them stands Larsa Solidor.
“If you are intending to depart, I hoped that I might join you on your journey to Bur-Omiasce.”
Balthier lets out a deep sigh, looks up to the heavens, and begins to softly curse the gods in order.