"None of us could have predicted the horrors that were brought upon Ivalice that day, no. In an instant, the face of the continent was changed. The forest became as nightmare. Mt. Bur-Omisace trapped behind the mists, with the Inner Naldoan Sea set to tempest. The monks of Kilteas, slaughtered. It was then that Rozarria and Archadia both saw the need to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again: to guard against unbridled recklessness, that one race might destroy us all."
- A History of Ivalice as Recorded by Al-Cid Margrace of Rozarria, Vol. XXII
Gold was not how Gabranth called it, later. Such a word was reserved for objects that were pure, precious, and full of value -- not applied to bloodshed. Yet molten gold was how the audience spoke of the arena sands, gossiping to one another as they waited for the ceremony to commence. The sun shone as bright as an inferno. It heated the vast arena like a cauldron, and carved harsh shadows out of sloping corners.
Gold was how the poets and historians immortalized it on the page, but as Gabranth stood in the shelter of the Emperor’s viewing box, all he could see was the dark wave of the crowd, like an onyx band ringing a pit of lava. Lesser Judges moved in silver beads among the rows. Their armor shone like lanterns floating atop the sea. Far below, the manacles of the two prisoners gleamed in accompaniment. The arena stands were packed; all business in the city had effectively halted that day, as merchant and customer alike jostled for the view.
Everyone wanted to know how a Solidor died.
Heat broiled Gabranth like a slab of beef inside his armor. In all his years of service, he had never grown comfortable with the temperature difference between leather and full plate. When dressed in the latter, it seemed like he was perpetually starved for air, smothering on the staleness of his own exhalations. His younger self would have laughed at him. Back then, he had been lucky to wear scale upon his back, hewn from crude leather scraps that had been hardened and stitched together because he could not afford a metal carapace. In those days, he had craved the protection of full plate. He had wanted to be wrapped in metal.
When he was younger, though, many things had been different.
Archadia was nothing like Landis.
The arena was too painful to look upon directly, reflecting the sun at an angle that pierced the slits of his helm. The sands seared colors into Gabranth's eyes whenever he was careless enough to glance down. He had to settle with quick peeks, like a voyeur too shy to regard the object of his desire directly, squinting for his own self-protection.
On either side in the viewing box, the other Judge Magisters waited with him. The sun blessed them as well, reflecting heat from each to each, until the air shimmered like the stones of a firepit. Sweat glued Gabranth to the cotton and leather of his armor's padding. In order to dislodge them from their equipment, he thought grimly, the maidservants would have to soak all the Judges in hot water like a set of honeyed spoons. He could already hear it in his imagination: Drace in the baths, growling at him as she hoarded the soap.
Out on the sands, the drone of the councilmen finally began to wind to a close. It was a speech that was made from formality only, for the verdict had already been passed. There would be no reprieve. No Judge Magister had been chosen to enact the sentence; none would be elevated, or shamed, depending on how one looked at it. None of them would be forced to take up the sword for this particular duty.
When it came to the heirs of House Solidor, there was only one type of hand that was appropriate to dispense justice -- appointed out of blood right.
Bergan seemed equally displeased by the proceedings, for he muttered and coughed, clenching his hands on his swordbelts. Locked in silence beside him stood Ghis, who had persisted in demanding explanations from the Senate until they had barred him from the chamber; stymied, he had lapsed into bitter introversion, and no longer broached the subject. Drace was watching Larsa. Zargabaath was -- as ever -- placid, immobile, his gauntlets folded loosely over his stomach. If Gabranth had not seen the man walk to his position in the line, he would have thought the Judge to have arranged an empty suit of armor to wait in his stead.
Pageboys moved surreptitiously among them, arranging and rearranging the canopies to try and mask them from the glare. The reflected light from the arena roared up from the sands, igniting the view of both earth and sky. Emperor Gramis sat deepest in shadow; the folds of his robe made him look like a mountain. The courtiers fluttered their fans, wicking their fingers along their high collars and moaning in affected sopranos. It had been an uncharacteristically hot summer. Some said the heat was an omen, one that always heralded an irrevocable loss. Gabranth did not agree. The year that Landis had succumbed to Archadia had been a cold one, merciless in season and in heart.
Of all the attendees in the Emperor’s box, only Larsa braved the railing. Ignoring the sun beating down from above, the boy hugged the banister, rising on his toes to try and see down into the pit. Drace hovered nearby, torn between staying obediently with the other Magisters and sheltering her charge; the Emperor did not speak up to indicate which direction she should choose. Like a dog set improperly on point, her helmet twitched back and forth.
Guilt must have spurred her nerves -- guilt, over a luxury and duty only she possessed. Unlike the rest of them, her ward was safe. Of the four Solidor heirs they had been charged to watch over, hers was the only one spared from the arena floor.
Out on the sands, the Senator finished his droning litany. He rolled up the heavy vellum with a few flicks of his wrists, looping the black cord around the papers without bothering to tie it shut. As he turned away from the two condemned men, a cheer rose from the crowd, drowning out whatever protests the prisoners might have made in their own defense.
"How hungry the people are, for the spill of noble blood," Bergan observed. His helm turned his voice to tin. "For the deaths of these same men who were their champions not three weeks past."
Ghis had one hand on his fan. He did not use it to stir the air; rather, he left the instrument hooked on his belt, dangling in place while his fingers traced the spines. "Such is the Solidor way, to pit brother against brother."
Uncomfortable by the acuity of the man's words, Gabranth shifted his weight. "The Feyblight was a tragedy," he said, breaking his own silence. "Though the Viera were the cause, we cannot allow Archadia's own to provoke a second ruin. The brothers have taken their campaigns too far. It is up to us to keep our forces in check."
Like a snake, Bergan turned before Gabranth could finish closing his mouth. "Do not parrot the public's foolishness back at me, Gabranth," he snarled, jabbing his finger forward with the precision of a lance. "We know full well of the destruction engendered by the eldest two -- treason now, the Senate claims, but how convenient that they only lever these charges once the damage has already been done. How quick the Senators were to praise the elders' ambitions when they thought to test the nethicite stone upon the field. Almost as quick as they were to agree upon their execution!"
"What say you both?" Drace hissed. She cast a glance towards Larsa, who stood transfixed by the arena. "Accusations are ill fitted at an hour such as this. Have some care!"
"The results hindered the interests of Archadia," Zargabaath inserted quietly. "That alone is treachery enough."
Thankfully, the quarrel was saved from growing uglier by the blare of trumpets from below. As the echoes fell silent, the crowd did as well. Through the hush came the muted crunch of bootsteps on grit; a slim figure approached the two shackled men, moving with the solemn gravity of a man who knew better than to rush. Unlike the Senators, Vayne chose to forego the hood that might have shielded him from the proceedings, as insubstantial as such a protection might be. The dark wave of his Solidor hair swallowed the sun. His tunic was long, belted around his waist and slit at the sides to allow freedom of movement. He wore black for honor, so as not to show the blood.
He said nothing as he accepted the naked sword that had been spread between two cushions like a quicksilver bridge. As an execution blade, it had been crafted well for its task: it was a weapon that was balanced for the downswing, and required the use of both hands as Vayne took it. Even then, it dipped its point towards the ground before he managed to steady the weight.
Still silent, Vayne looked to the Emperor's box -- towards where Gabranth and the other Judge Magisters flanked the Emperor and his youngest son. The Emperor sat impassively. But Larsa stood at the rail, the trembling of his hands like a palsied spasm, transfixed by the sight of the ceremony.
Swayed by her charge's grief, Drace finally broke rank at last. She stepped forward, her gauntlets cupping protectively over Larsa's shoulders. She turned her plea towards the Emperor. "It is not seemly, that a boy of his years must witness this. I beg you -- send him back before this goes further!"
"I will stand and watch," Larsa insisted around her. "As a son of House Solidor, I will stand. Brothers!" The loss of composure was sudden, the outburst frantic. He flung himself forward, grasping at the railing; he was brave enough not to cry in pain as he smacked himself against Drace's metal arm. "Father!" His throat was tight with grief. "Can you not see? They did it for you!"
The Emperor did not flinch. His voice was a weary rumble. "Too far did they take matters, my son. The responsibility bestowed upon us was to master the wildness of Ivalice. Not to eradicate it."
"They served out of love!" Larsa's outrage widened his eyes, paled his face; his boy's voice pierced the silence, causing a few of the officials nearby to turn, unable to pretend ignorance to the commotion. "Is that of so little value to you?"
"Silence yourself, Larsa. It is out of love that I must allow this judgement to pass. Ivalice will not accept a tyrant." Touching two fingers to his brow, the Emperor almost masked his own grimace. "Not if we wish to maintain our newborn alliance with Rozarria. I cannot jeopardize this. Vayne must bear the weight for his brothers now. When you are older, my son, you will understand."
Below them on the sands, Vayne had resumed his part in the ceremony. The arena was designed to carry sound from the floor to the furthest seats; Gabranth had no difficulty hearing the words. "You stand accused of excess aggressions against the races of Ivalice, and of breaking the trust placed in you to uphold Archadia's benevolence. How do you plead?"
The eldest Solidor lifted his head, his cheeks heavy with the untrimmed growth of his beard, already shaggy from imprisonment. "What I did, I did out of a heart's devotion, brother. I will not repent."
"Then you must pay the cost." Vayne spoke the verdict with an unwavering voice -- but then he closed his eyes for a long moment before opening them again, turning his head away as he circled around to stand behind his two siblings. "Let Archadia have her due."
He lifted his arm. Larsa cried out.
The sword came down.