Chapter 1: Prelude
"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.
Chapter 2: Chapter 1
"It is with great sorrow that I announce that Bhujerba must join the agreement to leave the borders of Golmore untraveled. Until such time as the Mists recede or the Naldoan Sea calms, Mt. Bur-Omisace remains out of reach. We place our trust in Archadia to rescue what remains, and to save those who may yet be trapped within the horror."
- Marquis Halim Ondore IV, Year 704 Old Valendian
The sun beat down like a brand on Vossler's scalp, teasing sweat out of his pores and warning him of an impending burn. He lifted a hand in a futile attempt to generate shade.
"Come on, Amalia," he said under his breath. "Don't tell me you're stuck arguing with merchants again."
The gate to the Westersand was as congested as ever. Ships dipped and docked at the aerodrome, hurrying to various engagements. The bazaar hummed with life, overspilling merchants into the streets. Poised between Rozarria and Archadia, feeding both supply lines with the generosity of a brothel madam, the city of Rabanastre had only grown more prominent as the hub of the world, routing passengers between the unlikely alliance of nations.
Hunkered down in the shadow of the Westgate, Vossler nursed his drink. The ice that the tavernkeeper had shoveled into the storage trunk was supposed to last until they finished circling the desert, meeting with caravans who would pay a fine price for a small indulgence. Vossler had claimed a glassful's worth for himself, which had spent a short, yet valiant life battling Rabanastre's afternoon heat before melting. Now his fruit juice was diluted down to the point of barely sweetened water, which he sipped at dutifully as he kicked a heel against the low wall he had taken up as a seat.
Judging by the haze over the western horizon, a sandstorm was on its way again. He had no intentions of being caught in it so soon after the Bogen's engines had been cleaned out. If they missed the narrow window of clear skies, it might be as long as a week before it was safe enough to set out. The storage trunk would have to hold its integrity, or else he and Ashe would have paid premium gil for lukewarm water.
Condensation gathered on the outside of his glass. He rested a finger against the drops, letting them coat his skin, absorbing the coolness from the liquid inside. He took pains not to touch the paper in his other hand with his wet one; the grease-stained poster had been hard enough to persuade the innkeeper to allow him to take, and even then Vossler had had to resort to bribery. If he had pulled rank as one of Dalmasca's milita, he could have seized the poster without argument -- but those days were behind him. As another stray wanderer in the crowd, Vossler was not distinctive: his formal armor had been traded away long ago for patchwork, supplanted now by whatever materials he could cage from bartering with the armorsmiths. His hair was shaggy, in need of a trim, and his short beard painted a line along his jaw. Darkly-tanned, he was indistinguishable from the rest, another body adding to Rabanastre's cultural mix.
He lifted his head to see Ashe threading through the crowd towards him. Life on the move was agreeing with her, despite how often he protested against it. Her muscles were lean in the way of Dalmasca's people: desert-dry and ropey, standard for a people who had learned how to survive in the desert while exposing their skin to the sun. Over her shoulders, two canvas bags strained at their seams, stuffed with welcome supplies. In her hand was tucked an envelope, clutched beside a bread-and-meat wrap that brimmed over with green mint sauce.
Vossler frowned upon seeing the letter in her grasp. Even at a glance, he could identify Rasler's handwriting on the front. Ashe had seen almost every variety of communication from her former fiancee by now; the messages they shared were cryptic by necessity, diverted first by false names, and then a second time by riddles which disguised the meanings underneath. Instead of a marriage, Ashe and Rasler shared the gyrations of pen instead, knowing ink and paper as intimately as a lover might know the flesh of another.
As a wife might have known her husband, he thought grimly, trying not to frame it in bitterness. Aloud, he said, "My apologies -- I see we were overdue for visiting the post. Is it poetry that he sends you this time, or riddles once again?"
"A little of both." Attempting to flip the envelope open with one hand, Ashe cursed as the motion smeared mint sauce over the back. Vossler reached out and took the letter, which she relinquished so that she could wipe off her fingers.
He took advantage of the opportunity to unfold the paper and scan its contents. Only one sentence was written down, with no signature: Blood is to water as my love is to me.
Prodding mentally at the analogy, Vossler seized on the most vague of the four words in hopes of insight. "Does he mean love itself, or the one who is loved?"
Ashe did not answer his inquiry, choosing instead to strike out in another direction. "Henne."
Vossler straightened up, arrested by the word. Ever since the Imperial Army had occupied the expanse near the former Feywood, he had warned her endlessly about the proximity of Archadia to Dalmasca's borders. A mine was an easy foothold into another's territory. "What of it?"
"I want to go to Henne next."
A sour expression crossed Vossler's face before he could mask it. As Ashe set down the packs next to the wall, he moved over to give her room for a spot, the poster crinkling in his fist. "You have been listening to rumors again."
"Naught but what the wind guides to me." Claiming the letter back from him, Ashe tucked it away inside her vest. "It has been said that Imperials have, of late, been using the magicite mines to cache their valuables."
"Your rumormongers are like jackals, my lady," he accused. "I fear one day they will lead us to ruin -- either out of ignorance, or desire for their own profit."
"Such pessimism." Ashe drew up her legs as a caravan of Seeq trudged by, huffing and snorting as they carted trade goods into the city. Registration tags gleamed like diamonds on their ears. "No, I do not believe this rumor is intended to trap us. 'Twas shared among a slew of others being passed around -- so if we are the intended prey, the net is spread wide indeed. We cannot be the only ones who will have heard of it, either. We should act fast to race other thieves." Drumming her fingers impatiently on the wall, Ashe pursed her lips. "Criminals are being held in Henne, they said. Criminals who went against the new order, and those who stood in the way of Archadia all along. If rumor is true, we may find more than a few tidbits of interest waiting in that pit of lost souls."
A pair of Bangaa meat sellers swayed their cart past, spreading the aroma of spiced cockatrice. One of them called out an offer of savory pies to Vossler; he waved them aside with a scowl, all appetite banished by Ashe's suggestion. "And why should the workings of Archadian prisoners hold any interest for us, my lady? Last I heard, we were trying to avoid such involvements -- not embrace them."
"Imperials," was her justification. "I mistrust Imperials."
"As do we all, my lady, but that should hardly compel you now." He brandished the poster in her direction, a forlorn banner against her crusade. "Look at this Mark. A mutated wolf will give us no challenge, and five hundred gil is worth the easy work. Even as I read the particulars, a pair of Viera beside me were discussing the job already. They will surely beat us there if we do not move with haste."
"If there are treasures that the Imperials hoard, would it not be better to gift them to to the survivors of Golmore?" she suggested placidly, overriding his words as if she had not heard them. "Vossler, there may be relics of Bur-Omisace inside the mine. You and I both know that ever since the Imperials have claimed the mountain, the Light of Kilteas is preached only at their whim. It has been said that ancient texts penned from ages ago have been vanishing, replaced by replicas created by Archadia -- replicas which skew the doctrine in subtle ways. There are famous manuscripts which are no longer found among the supplies that the monks have recovered. What if it were true -- that the Imperials are harnessing the Light as their own tool? What religion might they craft?"
The dolorous sigh that Vossler gave was proof of his surrender. He hung his head, elbows propped upon his knees. "You will not be dissuaded, will you?" he asked wistfully.
She smiled, leaning forward smugly to pluck the bill from his hand, crumpling it up in a crackle of paper. "This will be finer sport," she promised him. "And better, I think, than allowing ourselves to grow dull."
By tradition, summer in Archadia was a grand affair. Released from the grip of winter, all manner of noble scions took it upon themselves to attend balls and sow scandals, while their families launched the plans they had brooded upon during the cold months, setting the sleepy wheels of machination back into motion. Spring raised the temperatures and stirred the political blood. Summer saw those quarrels burst upon the streets, with displays both eloquent and grand.
The palace lacked all such indulgences. Even after two years had passed since the destruction of the Feywood and the executions of the elder Solidor heirs, there was little in the way of merriment. Vayne was not a man inclined towards extravagance. He was studious, thoughtful, and prone to speaking often of courtly virtues. His brother Larsa had grown like a shadow beside him, too focused for playfulness: an intense young man, he was only thirteen and already absorbing every word that exited the Senate floor with such passion that he could quote an official's own arguments back at them.
So, as the weather warmed, the palace in Archadia remained somber, yet purposeful as well. It no longer housed the fiery passion that the elder brothers had evoked when they had first invested each room with military campaigns -- but neither had it been stripped bare. Though the brothers were gone, their legacies had been left behind. Battlefront maps remained strewn about, miniature theaters played out with metal figurines that marked out patrols of renegades who stood against the ascension of Humes, though they sported new labels of occupation rather than outbreak.
The Empire's ambitions had slowed since the deaths of its eldest. Now, instead of recommending aggressive control of the non-Hume territories, Emperor Gramis leveraged Archadia's influence through laws and trade. His decision had driven a wedge between him and the Senate that was growing each day, if the muttering of courtiers was any indication. The shift from warhawk to dove did not sit well with those who had enjoyed the financial bloom which came from the production of armaments. Partnership was less profitable than occupation -- and, as historians were quick to point out, alliance caused more problems in the long run than a tamed nation which provided taxes and knew its place.
It was hard for Gabranth to listen to the debates. His gorge rose each time Landis was brought up as an example of the benefits of annexation. Twenty-two years gone, and he still missed his homeland, missed the years before the war when his mother and brother had gathered crops and patched up their crumbling cottage, too poor to be involved in politics. His adopted country had been fair enough -- that much Gabranth had been sure to keep watch for -- and his own Landis heritage had not resulted in discrimination, but the past was an injury that would never heal clean.
In truth, he deserved its history to linger.
Outside the window, a cloud of birds dipped and swirled like a swarm of black flies over the rooftops of Archades. It was a pleasant city where citizens, by and large, knew nothing of the atrocities being committed in their names: atrocities which were in themselves a reaction and preliminary attack against a greater threat. Emperor Gramis's treaty with the Occurian forces was a secretive one, and Gabranth would have blamed the entire thing on a night of too much wine, save for Cidolfus's creation of artificial nethecite -- tutored directly by one of the Occurians themselves, or so he claimed. The hands of Man were chosen, Gramis had said wearily, as he had penned the orders for more troops to reinforce the Feyblight border. If we do not accept, it may pass over us to another. This is not a gift that the Occurians have brought to us. It is a threat.
And Man had risen to the challenge. Crafting nethecite to arm itself with, equipping airships that could cross a jagd, forging alliances between former enemies -- it had met the Occurian demands and more. Man had sallied forth and taken what it could to ensure a future for itself. Archadia claimed to protect the people of all the nations -- and that much, ironically, was true, though it did so with a heavily weighted preference. It had been hard to continue Draklor and the airships without moogle assistance, but Cidolfus had overcome even that setback, and now Archadia's wheels ground along with only minimal dependence on other races.
Ivalice's transformation to resentful peace had not lessened the work for the 9th Bureau -- only forced it to become more subtle. Two years had moved quickly to shape the world, but the smoldering ruins of the Feyblight could not be ignored. The paths through the jungle were poisoned with Mist, and the disturbance had set the currents in the nearby ocean to boil. The other races blamed the Viera for the structure that Archadia forced upon them as a means of monitoring strange powers. Unable to defend themselves against the greater force, they chose the obvious source to scapegoat, and so the tale of false history was swallowed even further down.
Shaking his head, Gabranth dismissed his own brooding, brought on from the long trip home. Freed from his duties for the evening, he headed for the strategy rooms, intending to register his troops' return. The primary staging chamber was a scholar's paradise, replete with guides and maps. Copies of the Fleets had been hammered out in silver figurines, complete with miniature carriers that could be pushed around the maps to signify where each Magister had been deployed. Senior commanders could often be found discussing orders over lunch while they toyed with their battalions. The map of Ivalice stretched out over a series of slotted tables, showing the lines of advance. Archadia was central, buttressed by Nalbina in the west and then Dalmasca in the southwest. Rozarria lurked to the west after that. Numerous outposts had been established along the lines of Archadia's borders, reinforced through trading pressures. As a result of the fines and detentions for any non-Hume caught without registration papers, it had become easier for the other races to wear their tags at all times. Those who might have been reluctant were further convinced by the rumors of mysterious disappearances that occurred even on non-Imperial ground.
As he stepped through the door, Drace lifted her head from the terrain she had been studying, braced against the central table with one arm. The motion caused her bangs to drift over her face; she shoved at them with the back of her hand, leaving an ink smudge on her brow. "Gabranth! You return late from the mines. Is everything well?"
He could not help but smile at the disheveled air that clung to her. Then reality sobered him. "There was trouble. It seems that my own particular prisoner had visitors interested in his misfortune. I was unable to recapture him. He may yet have perished in the mines."
Drace offered a jerky nod, knowing how the subject pained him, but also how he preferred not to discuss it. Instead, choosing tact, she gestured down at the map. "If the rest of your evening is free, then join me? We could do worse than to spend a few hours reviewing the swing units by Nabradia's border."
The suggestion was tempting. It was countermanded by the wad of reports in his hand. He lifted them gingerly, hearing the lips of the pages ruffle. "I am afraid there is too much that weighs upon my mind. There are fifteen more Viera registered in Nabradia this week. Fifteen, unless Nabradia is holding back on us. They come out of their warrens and join Hume society, though it comes at cost. The majority are female -- and the lack of pureblood continuity is severe. Some have taken Hume mates." He hesitated, nauseous at what was to come. The words felt filthy against his tongue; speaking them brought memory of the scorn he had overheard, another's prejudice roosting in his own mouth. "In Molberry District, there is already debate over the treatment of... mixed-parentage children. Some feel that such pairings should be banned."
"To stigmatize or to welcome -- each has its share of concerns." Sighing, Drace dropped her chin, picking up the drafting ruler once more and laying it parallel to Nabradia's northern contours. Gabranth did not take the indifference personally. Drace never held much prejudice against the races of Ivalice; to her, a Hume was as likely to break a law as a Bangaa, and all were equally prone to guilt. "I would assume the verdict to be both. On the surface, society will claim revulsion -- but underneath, you will find smugness that the remaining Viera will be assimilated by the most primitive of means." Another ruler passed through her hands, laid in intersection to the first. "The offspring, stigmatized, will find more ways to conceal their roots, rejecting their heritage in favor of survival. Either way, I suspect that one day, we will have only taller Humes with longer lifespans to ever imply that anything else walked this earth. I am surprised we have not had similar outcry yet to marriages with Bangaa, or Seeq. Or Nu Mou. The paranoia of the mob does not remain stable for long. Next, they will compare the unions to bedding a chocobo."
As sick as Drace's words made him feel, Gabranth had to acknowledge their truth with a nod. It was his turn to change the subject, and he did so by defaulting to the most common topic between them. "How is the Lord Larsa today?"
"He sought favor of the Senate once more." Her expression suddenly neutral, Drace studied the table. "Chairman Gregoroth may allow him to address the floor for a short time at the next meeting."
He watched her collect a pen, marking out draft lines for patrol routes. "I fear the execution of his brothers affected him deeply. Though -- I do not know if it was their deaths, or their writings which caused the most harm."
"Their diaries brought him comfort, Gabranth." She was angry; he could hear it in the scribbling of her pen, the way the nib scraped. "I would not have stripped him of that relief."
"And yet he seeks a logic in them, as children are wont to do." Frustration loosened Gabranth's tongue; he spoke with abandon, rambling simply to free the words from his chest. "To understand why his honorable father could have condemned his brothers to death. To understand why his honorable brothers could have been given traitors' fates. And to seek a prevention of that same end for his remaining brother, whom he values so highly! We do him no favors by allowing him to gather allies and discuss policy with the Senators, whether it is in an official capacity or not. He is too young, to involve himself in machinations. And you -- "
His carelessness had gone too far. He knew it even before he saw Drace slam down her pen, her head lifting like a coeurl when blood was in the air. The wisps of her hair trailed like riverweed around her skull. The look she aimed towards him was livid.
"I serve the Lord Larsa," she said tightly. "If it is his desire to see the course set, then my duty as a Judge Magister is to protect him, even through the hazards of his own decisions. I would not shame my life otherwise."
He crossed the room, reaching out to touch fingertips to the back of her hand in apology, but she twitched her skin out of reach.
"Drace," he said quietly, desperately. "Let this not come between us. You know I speak from equal concern, though it comes from different eyes."
His tone struck the mark. She relaxed, just a fraction, but it was enough for his gentleness to slide in past her bristles. Her breath came out in a huff. "First his mother gone. Then his two brothers, whom he idolized. His father, estranged. Only Lord Vayne remains to him now. Lord Larsa is determined to make something of the ruin we have fallen into, and if I abandon him as well, Gabranth, who is left?"
He pushed her bangs back, taking care with each delicate hair, studying the strands as if they were another map on which to wage a war. Her breath was warm; she turned her chin and rested her cheek against his wrist. Exhaustion hollowed out her cheeks. He stepped in, folding his arms around her, cradling her weight and wishing suddenly that he could lock the door to the chamber and leave them both utterly isolated from the rest of the world forever.
"We have both done enough for today," he murmured. "Let us retire early, and sleep."
Dull, Vossler thought as water splashed over his hands. He scrubbed hard at the side of his boot. Behind him, the staccato arguments of his newest companions echoed against the night. Dull would be acceptable right now. I could handle a few evenings' worth of dull.
He should have known that going to Henne would have been a poor decision. He should have known not to accede to Ashe's request. But Vossler was always vulnerable to the whims of his princess; he had sworn to serve Dalmasca, even if it meant parting from the ranks of the Honor Guard to watch over the kingdom's youngest. He had forsaken the rewards of knighthood to be Ashelia's guardian, no matter where the duty took him.
Unfortunately, that place had been the bottom of the Henne Mine.
In the years that Vossler had watched over the royal youngest, Ashe had grown admirably. The time since her departure from her family’s embrace had seen her change from a determined young woman into a full-grown wanderer, toughened from a life with far fewer luxuries. She had discarded the trappings of royalty, adopting a different name and signature. Though there were some in Dalmasca who recognized her even after two years of absence from the public eye, few were expecting the errant princess to be mixed in with crowds of merchants and refugees. Ashe had learned how to be careful; they both had, blending in with their own people so that they could travel without fanfare or prying eyes.
Vossler approved of her maturity, even as she became more and more fierce in her independence. But he often wondered when she would stop, when she might finally return home -- or indeed, if she ever would. Surviving as a sky pirate had only hardened her already-formidable willpower. He followed her, but Ashe followed her own mind. He could no more rein her in than he could change the sky and its army of clouds, which brought and withheld rain as it saw fit.
He had, at times, arranged to have Ba'Gamnan try to capture her in an unorthodox reminder of the hazards of her current lifestyle, as well as to bring her back to her father, which had earned the bangaa quite a grudge in the princess's books. As tempting as it was, Vossler knew not to force the issue past the occasional game of cat-and-mouse. Doing so would disrupt the trust between himself and Ashe, and force him to choose between the devotion expected by her father, and by her. As long as Ashe was safe, their current predicament was tolerable.
Still, life on the fringes was not entirely comfortable. Vossler did not like to be outside the confines of Dalmasca and the protection it might offer in an emergency. Ashe had taken to the guise of Amalia with relish for the freedom it offered, flying unplanned between cities at times simply to experience the luxury of being unbound from title and country both. But neither was she unwise; as a legitimate princess of Dalmasca, she understood her value, and normally knew not to take risks that might bring harm to her native lands.
Henne had been a poor move on their part, Vossler decided. He and Ashe had broken in, and broken out again with no treasure to show for it other than a pack of thieves, refugees, and a traitor. The Imperials had allowed monsters to nest in Henne's tunnels as a natural defense mechanism against intruders; coupled with heavy locks and tunnels in disrepair, and the beasts had served their purpose well as a deterrent. To that end, the ploy had succeeded: Ashe and Vossler had been thwarted in their explorations, and would have remained so had it not been for the visit of an Imperial party with a Judge Magister in tow.
All that had led them to sparring with two sets of thieves with equal interest in Imperial coffers, and finally the discovery of one mouldering prisoner kept behind warded doors. The final tally was far from profitable. There were no sacred relics, no priceless artifacts -- and now, Vossler knew far more about the status of Archadia's machinations than he believed was safe.
After they fled from Henne, they had gone to ground in Giza, hiking through the Ozmone Plain. The grounds were barely damp from the previous rains that had swept through, and the group had been lucky enough to find a narrow stream trickling sluggishly through the drying soil. The next week would see the waters gone, but Vossler had no intentions of sticking around long enough to see them vanish.
As he worked on cleaning his gear, he could hear the sound of footsteps scuffing his way; he craned his neck and glimpsed Ashe's profile coming closer through the gloom. A basket was under her arm, heaped with linens. Washing the laundry was an excuse, he guessed, for when she joined him at the river, she shoved her burden aside and did not lift the towels out to soak.
He did not greet her. Rinsing his boot, he set it carefully on a rock to dry beside its mate, and then reached for his bracers.
"You are angry," she remarked.
He firmed his mouth, but the fervor with which he was scrubbing gave him away. "We should be done with this once we return to civilization," he vowed. "Let Archadia's sins haunt their door without dragging us along with them."
Ashe clasped his shoulder with a delicate hand -- yet her fingers were strong with certainty, and he knew that she would not dispense with their passengers so quickly.
"Endure," was her only command. "I know you are capable."
They did not jettison their strangers at Rabanastre. Vossler's attempts to convince Ashe otherwise bore no fruit. He radiated quiet disapproval. She trekked sand all over the floor of the engine room. They landed in the docks with no disturbances; she handed him a supply chit, and he went obediently into the market to fill it.
Fate had acted to bring them not two, but three distinct groups from Henne. The first was composed of Ffamran and Fran, who had gone to smuggle out something called artificial nethicite through the supplies carted into the mines. Penelo and Vaan -- two youths with the stamp of Dalmasca in their fair hair and lean muscles -- had reached the crates first, with the intention of simply looting whatever appeared valuable. Noah had been the last to join the merry band of chaos, and though he was alone in his representation, the history he carried with him was enough to bring all of Archades down on their heads.
The worst part was that the intrigue had completely captured Ashe's interest. To judge from the way that she conversed with their passengers, it was already too late to convince her to abandon them at the nearest village and escape in the night. It might be that Vossler would have to see about getting in touch with Ba'Gamnan after all; though the bangaa's posturing was crude, and Vossler disliked working with bounty hunters, he knew he could trust Ba'Gamnan to capture, not to kill.
Predictably enough, this bizarre combination of elements had every worst possible outcome when it came to old grudges. Vossler had the story together in parts. Not only had Noah been responsible for the death of Vaan's brother, but also for Fran's two sisters -- and, if it was to be believed, the entire explosion that destroyed the Feywood. Yet his role had been unwitting; to hear Noah speak of it, the man had been as much a victim as the rest of them, played as a disguise by his twin brother. It was the kind of twist to be expected from a play on a theater stage, and Vossler would have dismissed it as such, had he had not seen evidence of this mysterious sibling firsthand.
And now, Noah sought amends. In fact, he sought amends so often that Vossler knew the man's arguments by heart now; he kept trying not to add his own mental commentary whenever he heard the discussions start up again. Unfortunately, their passengers had already decided to make use of the cramped cargo hold as a regular meeting space, and their voices frequently distracted him from the important task of making sure they didn’t all ignite into flames on the Bogen's next take-off.
"And you?" Ffamran's smugness echoed all the way across to the walkway where Vossler was checking the coolant pipes. "How do we know that this itself is not a ploy for you to ingratiate yourself to the Empire's lackeys? This passion of yours to aid Fran is all too ironic, considering your role in placing her here."
"As I said, it was my twin who performed those acts, with my name to bear the shame of it," Noah retorted. "He must taste my revenge upon him. Justice must be done! For that end, I would aid the lady Fran for as long as it takes -- for she, too, has much to make him answer for. Allow me to serve, and I will help kill him for you."
The viera -- Fran -- only drew her cloak more tightly about her shoulders, huddled on the stairs to the sleeping quarters. "Your brother is not the sole offender," she stated quietly. "Many more would have to die, to restore the balance in that manner."
"But it may prevent others from falling the same way that the viera did." Noah's voice wore on Vossler's concentration; he gave up trying to measure the pipes, and leaned against the wall, watching the refugees squabble. "My brother is certainly involved in conspiracies against the other races. Surely it is only a matter of time before another nation is made victim!"
"That much is a certainty," Ffamran interjected. The scholar was folding tiny airplanes out of parchment, lining them up beside him like a scouting fleet. "The Occurians no longer delight in fair Ivalice and her many children. They have chosen one which will obey them, and discard the rest." He laughed, suddenly, looking towards the corner of the ship, though no one was there to meet his gaze. "A demonstration of loyalty indeed! The more repulsive the task that is set, the more fervently a slave must work to impress. Archades does not disappoint."
Ashe came up the side ramp then, the straps of two waterskins entangled in her fingers, and Vossler was forced to tear himself away from the riddle of Ffamran's ramblings. She took one look at the group that had been assembled uneasily inside the belly of their ship, and sighed.
"At it again?" she murmured as she handed the water over.
"All afternoon," he answered, looping the leather straps so that he could comfortably carry the weight. "Though I suspect the viera has no real objection, and this is simply Ffamran's method of entertaining himself."
Try as he might to distance himself from their passengers, Vossler could not separate himself entirely. Noah was a particular thorn in his brain. Dedication was a sentiment which Vossler could respect -- indeed, that he could and did thrive upon. But to swear loyalty for revenge seemed bound for disaster. Noah was fascinating in his intensity, yet troubling as well. He grated on Vossler's nerves for reasons which refused to show themselves, and equally refused to be ignored.
Irritating fellow, Vossler finally decided. If he promises devotion only for his own purpose, then he is insincere, and that makes all his claims of service hollow. There. That is why he is bothersome. No more.
After Rabanastre, the Bogen took wing to the Westersand, beginning a madcap's series of errands. They fought through swarms of Urutan-Yensa on the Ogir-Yensa Sandsea, wrapping cloths over their faces to keep from choking on the dust. They followed the directions of Ffamran as the Archadian led them to the offense of looting Raithwall's Tomb; even then, Ashe only bid Vossler to observe the rogues that had invaded their lives, rather than intervene.
It was only after they finally left the Tomb that he and Ashe could not plead non-involvement any longer. It was Ashe's will that they remain silent about her identity, but Ffamran had that secret out faster than either of them anticipated. Like a broken vase, the calling of her true name was not a secret that could be forgotten -- and Ffamran was smarter than Vossler expected, having strung together clues from the barest of rumors and hints. The fact that Ffamran was not an Imperial meant little. A royal heir could be of value to anyone.
Now they all had various secrets out upon the table: the heir to the Green Word, the traitor-twin of Archadia, and the Princess of Dalmasca, who flew a pirate ship and crossed country borders with the ease of a spy.
Yet, the admission was a relief as well. Until it had crumbled, Vossler had not realized how dense the secret had grown with only Ashe and himself privy to it -- as if the deception were a section of greenhouse glass, trapping the sunlight inside so that the heat of it grew hotter and hotter the longer that he remained silent with her name. He had called her Amalia for years in public, Ashe in private, and Ashelia only in the sanctity of his thoughts. The name had become a taboo on his lips; speaking it would have reminded him of how isolated he was in knowing the truth.
But along with freedom came the escalation of their risks. There was trouble to be had once Ashe’s identity was known, and Vossler's as well. Ffamran did not allow the secret to sleep. He forced Ashe to confront her heritage, sliding in his questions between discussions of fuel costs and safe harbors. One of his favorite topics was the preparations of Archadia before the Feyblight; this one, he enjoyed bringing up during breakfast, which usually left Vossler with a sour stomach for the day.
"Did you suspect nothing, Ashelia?" The language was mocking as Ffamran passed the wheat rolls, but his tone of voice was bemused. "With all your royal connections, did you have no insight into the activities surrounding Archadia or her people before the Feywood was struck? Nothing from Lord Rasler, perhaps?"
Ashe set down her fork. "You should already know why information was scarce," she replied stiffly. "Two years ago, during a fete at Nabudis, a theft was committed upon the palace's guests. Many diplomats lost their possessions, Archadians included. Nabradia's attempts at reparations kept Lord Rasler occupied -- and so he lacked the time to trawl the gutters for unfounded rumors."
Ffamran beamed as he collected the butter dish. He turned the rounded knife to cut blunted wedges for his bread. "And right you were that the Archadians were involved. Though, not in the manner that they might have you believe. Amidst the outcry of stolen valuables, who would notice the dusty innards of Nabudis burgled -- and who might protest, thinking it the work of different thieves? Even if someone suspected, accusing the supposed victims requires a certain bravado -- and this, it appears, Nabradia lacked."
Fran, silent, passed the jam.
Ffamran transferred his aggressions to his plate, spearing a legume neatly with his fork. "And so, Nabradia's loss affects us in more ways than one. Namely, that fair nation now lacks its nethicite, and Archadia has free use of its spoils. What proof, thus, might Fran have to show that she is heir to the Word? Without the Wood in any condition to recognize its own, we find ourselves with the need to weaken our adversaries first, that she might bargain from a position of strength. Such is the true blood of rulers, after all -- the ichor that must run through their veins." Another vegetable went sacrificed to his appetite. "Even if Fran were not of documented descent, enough influence brought to bear against Archadia would force them to claim her as legitimate. Royal bloodlines exchange themselves so easily in this manner!" Chuckling, he waggled a green bean at Ashe. "You, too, might be so readily replaced by a face of the proper age and size, my dear."
Vossler found his hand tightening on the milk pitcher. "Watch your tongue, Archadian -- "
"What Fran needs is power, for without it, her blood holds no weight," Ffamran continued, overriding Vossler's threat. "So it's a fair stroke of luck to have encountered your ship. We require Raithwall's authority to serve substitute, and I feel far better about withdrawing it on loan whilst I have one of his descendants along for the trip. Take comfort, my lady. Through your heritage, you’ll be able to make up for what your fiance could not."
A sharp inhalation of breath was proof that Ffamran had hit the mark; Ashe's spine straightened as she spread jam over her roll with frighteningly precise flicks of the knife. But she did not react otherwise, choosing to switch topics instead. "Were you always a scientist, Ffamran?"
Undeterred by the shift, Ffamran reached for the pepper. "Intended to be a Judge, actually. The laboratories were of no interest for me. Of course... that all changed when I was sixteen."
"What happened then?"
"Why, history was given over to Man," he said simply, the corners of his mouth twitching like a fly's death spasm before finally curving up into a smile. "And Man intends to prove itself worthy of its gift, lest it be revoked. Not like the Garif, no. Man plans to be more than that, as the puppeteers demand."
Vossler, unable to sit still any longer and watch the man snipe freely, leaned forward on the bench. "Then why did you rebel? Would you not have everything to gain, if such claims are true?"
The scholar's smile tightened. "Archadian methodology leaves a poor taste in one's mouth. And I couldn't bear to let my father get the last word in, now could I? Ah, is it that time already? My apologies for being late." Wiping his lips with his napkin, Ffamran folded the cloth into a square and dropped it on his used silverware. He left without bidding Fran to follow, but she, too, excused herself with a soft murmur, and padded down the hallway behind him.
After their footfalls had died away, Noah leaned forward as well, tilting his shoulders towards Vossler with the cant of a conspirator. "I lack the patience to predict that man. Is it passion that drives him? Or insanity?"
"Passion directs all, Noah." Ashe kept her attention upon the table as she filled her glass with distilled juice, careful not to spill a single drop. "Even you."
The colors of Ozmone in evening were magnificent. Vossler never grew tired of seeing them. As often as the Bogen took him away from home, it seemed inevitable to circle back around to Rabanastre again, like fireflies endlessly orbiting a locus. The colors welcomed him back faithfully each time, never flagging in their strength.
Like it or not, they would have to visit Rabanastre again soon enough, regardless. Ffamran was mowing through the Bogen's supplies of sugar like a firestorm, using far too much sweetener for his tea until Vossler had put his foot down and demanded that he buy his own. The scholar had not calmed at all in his habits; if anything, his madness continued to spin like a dervish ascending, a desert storm that threatened to flay the skin of those around him through a thousand cutting grains of speech.
Yet, the desert city gave them another opportunity to part ways. Hungry for resolution, Vossler waited until Fran and Ffamran had exited the ship and disappeared into the streets before he tracked down Ashe again, finding her scowling half-heartedly at the diagnostic readings in the cockpit.
He wasted no time after a quick glance confirmed the Bogen was still hale enough to fly. "Do we go on further with them?" he asked, slinging himself into the copilot seat. "Their quarrel with Archadia is one we have spent both our lives avoiding. 'Twas for fear of inviting such attentions that caused your engagement to end," he added, knowing the lack of kindness in the reminder, but willing to use any weapon that came to hand.
Ashe was strangely quiet to his jab. "For now," she stated abruptly, calling up the same fuel report twice and flicking through it equally fast both times. "We shall remain their escort, and see which roads they seek next -- as well as who seeks them."
"Ashe," he began, but she shook her head, shutting down all the readings at once with a flat sweep of her palm.
"The fragments of Ffamran's ramblings disturb me, Vossler. If he speaks true, then we have discovered that Archadia's thirst for blood goes well beyond the possession of nations," she retorted sharply. "If they seek to erase all other races from Ivalice, they trespass into crimes which can never be allowed to pass. We must find their puppeteer's strings, and determine the truth of these matters. A true daughter of Dalmasca would never turn a blind eye to such horrors. Nor a true captain, either," she added, turning the heat of her gaze upon him, unrelenting in its judgement.
The rebuke hit its mark. Vossler winced, twisting his face away towards the windows for lack of a better escape. His reflection seemed a wan thing, sliding between glossy smears of desert light. His own eyes cast back his guilt.
"I wish for you to end your sky pirate ways," he uttered softly, watching the shape of his mouth speak the truth. "But only so that you might return home, and be safe."
"We are none of us safe, Vossler." In one fluid motion, Ashe stood, gathering her ammunition belt and slinging it over her shoulder. "Being fortunate enough to bear a Hume face will not protect us from the hungers of ambition forever. Once the serpent of conquest has eaten its fill, it turns upon its own tail to devour."
The Bogen moved on, through the Highwaste and the Estersand. They combed through rumor and resources, meeting with discreet contacts that supported the waning population of viera. For fare, Vossler and Ashe had been promised the nethicite stones once Ffamran had finished with them -- both deifacted and artificial -- but that price was hardly worthwhile compensation in Vossler's mind. The longer that he and Ashe risked being caught up in a war, the longer he not only failed in his duty to protect the princess, but also in protecting their entire nation.
Yet Ashe was right. For all his hesitations and reluctance -- she was right. Archadia's response to the destruction of the Feywood had been too calm, too prepared; if the viera truly had called up some manner of beast dangerous enough to twist their own Wood into a ruin of Mist, then Archadia's first act should have been to shore up its own defenses and bar viera entirely from its gates. Instead, it had been among the first to suggest guards for the displaced refugees, the first to volunteer soldiers to plunge into the blight and seek the remains of the Kiltian sect.
It had been the first to suggest registration tags.
Doubt gnawed at Vossler's resolve as they sailed over the deserts, plotting their course towards Bhujerba. Like a tapestry unraveling, turning elegant pictures into bare threads, so too did Archadia's stories of the last two years begin to fall apart. Instinct hissed at him to turn a blind eye, to abandon their passengers to the mercy of the sands, regardless of Ashe’s wishes. Regardless, too, of the entire fate of Ivalice.
But it would be cowardice to give in. Even Noah, so rampant in his outrage, at least had conviction. Vossler had only one passion, and its purpose should have been to care nothing for the fates of others -- so long as Ashe was spared.
On the border of the Salikawood and Phon, they all gathered together around the fire for warmth, though the evening was not overly chill. Ffamran sat closest to the flames, using the light to help guide him as he continued to scribble in a folio, shaking spare drops of ink into the sands. His unbuttoned cuffs hung around his wrists, a curious blend of distraction and laxity, as if he were a sybarite who had been caught in the moment of rising from his bed at noon, discipline still lax from the aftereffects of too much indulgence the night before. The multicolored rings on his fingers made him look rakish, but there was an intensity in his lean face that caused him to smirk more often than Vossler felt comfortable with, turned outwards for once rather than towards his hallucinations.
At the moment, that expression remained fixed on Ashe. "Does your family not ever wonder how you are, princess?" he questioned lightly.
Ashe's face betrayed nothing of her thoughts as she patiently fed the fire, splitting down the thin, knotted branches that Penelo and Vaan had scavenged. "My father often shares the pleasant lie that I am studying trade with my uncle, or sequestered in mourning for the lives lost at Mt. Bur-Omisace. Heartbroken by my failed betrothal, I joined the pilgrims recovering from the loss of the sanctuary. I seek neither political gain, nor alliance. Thus, I am worth little to those who would seek to manipulate me."
Ffamran's mouth tilted in a smirk. "Are you pleased to be known as a nun?"
Ashe lifted one of the longer branches, shedding sparks in a crimson blizzard. "That depends. Are you pleased to be known as an Archadian?"
Stifling his own displeasure at their quarreling -- more that Ashe seemed remote from any irritation, as if she had already accepted Ffamran as a necessary detriment -- Vossler pulled himself to his feet, shaking granules of sand off his leathers. He had been assigned second watch, but now seemed as good a time as any to relieve Noah early of the duty. To listen longer risked his own voice joining the argument, and he had little enough resistance left as it was.
Traces of the fireside conversation chased him as he walked; the air was cool and motionless, carrying Ffamran's words in an insidious whisper, as if Vossler, too, were hallucinating speech. Noah's watch was not nearly far enough away to escape it. The man's silhouette came into view just out of reach of the fire's glow: a black stone facing outwards into the waiting oceans and their endless abyss of waves.
"We follow a madman," Noah announced quietly as Vossler joined him; his expression was humorless, though his voice was merely weary.
"You more than I, I believe," Vossler replied, without any heat for once. "For Fran is his ally, and we are simply their carriage." He glanced towards his companion, curiosity overriding his usual distaste. "Has the lady accepted you fully, then?"
Noah cleared his throat. Freedom was doing well for him; his weight had filled out, muscles thickening with the help of regular meals and lack of regular beatings. "Yes. I was surprised to receive her acceptance. But earning her welcome is a valuable thing." Silence claimed his voice for a moment, and then Noah turned his face away to brush a hand across his boots, an arbitrary flick of his fingers to clear away invisible dust. "I... did not realize how precious such a gift could be until I lost chance at any other."
Vossler stretched a knee, mulling over the man’s admission. Though he still could find flaw in a thousand of Noah's decisions, he was temporarily willing to set them aside under the greater threat of Ffamran. His sense of proportion had been decimated by the scholar's willingness to fight against a pair of nations single-handedly, and ruined further still by Ashe's willingness to go along, for Noah seemed almost stable by comparison. "We both serve our masters with fervor, but for different reasons. You wish for salvation --"
"And you do not?"
Stung, Vossler opened his mouth to deliver an automatic denial; he was no criminal, no kingslayer, though he and Ashe had participated in their fair share of bloody sights in the past. Then he paused, caught by his own words. Salvation. The idea had a strange resonance. Does Ashe save me? And from what?
Purposelessness leapt instantly to mind.
Loathe to share such a truth -- even though he suspected Noah already knew -- Vossler left the question to spin in the air, unacknowledged. "You should rest," he suggested awkwardly in place of an answer. "It will be a ways yet through Phon, and from the coast, we must make haste to Bhujerba. I assume we need not caution you to seek obscurity whilst we are there?"
Noah's laugh was as dry as the Estersand. "I was hardly planning to shout my name in the streets."
Surprisingly, Vossler found the corner of his mouth twitching at the thought: amusement, not ire. His usual defense of indifference and vexation refused to stir, as if Noah had neatly carved the hamstrings of his mind to disable it. "Peace, then," he said, though Noah had offered no further argument. "I shall take the remainder of your watch. You are still recovering, after all."
In a moment of equal rarity, Noah considered the offer, rather than leap to a defensive retort. "Peace, then," he echoed back, stretching and unfolding himself to his full height. Vossler's gaze followed him as he stood; Noah's shape was a void cutting into the stars. "Peace for now, rather, for who knows what the city will bring."
Seclusion within the inner halls of the Imperial Palace did not necessarily mean gloom in Archades. Crystal and candle lights were everywhere, shedding a cozy warmth that lent a deceptive comfort to the chambers set aside for study and contemplation. Countless officials took their repast in their favorite cubbyholes, holding informal discussions and scribbling documents, spending more time as bureaucratic vagabonds than in their own offices. So many people entertained their days in the palace from one dawn to the next, that it was entirely possible to have an entire week or more pass before a soul could be exposed to the natural shine of day.
The Judges were no different. Though they had workrooms set aside for business and comfort -- both within the Palace and near the Senate Chambers -- they knew the advantages of controlling outposts. Archades was merely a battlefront with altered colors. The Judges regularly divided and collapsed their influence like infantry, picking rooms that gave them strategic value whenever possible: access to discreet stairwells, shortcuts to reference materials, and intersections that allowed them to easily collect any gossip flitting through the halls.
Of late, Ghis had been favoring one of the studies on the eastern side of the palace, near the libraries which stored cases older than the past half-century. Though neither the size nor the scope of the Judges' strategy rooms, it held a planning table large enough to support several maps, and so Ghis had taken to occupying the entire space with paperwork. As if by instinct -- for companionship, or merely strength in numbers -- the rest of the Judges had followed suit this time, funneling their presences down to a single staging ground from which to launch their daily business.
Gabranth's day had overbrimmed with frustration by the time he managed to retreat there; it felt as if he had done nothing save sit through meetings since the moment he rose. Each piece of his full plate had sat heavy on his bones, weighing him down for hours while he attended each assembly. His role had been more of a decoration than a man: a silent reminder of judicial power, perhaps, a mechanical statue that was animated by cycles of judgement and punishment. The officials had barely needed -- or asked for -- his input. His presence alone had been sufficient threat for any who might have dared step out of line. As decisions were made, they were always performed with furtive glances in his direction first.
Not a man, but a force. A living law. Archadia incarnate.
He pulled off his helmet gratefully as he finally reached Ghis's study, breathing in a deep draught of cooler air. Evening bells rang like distant applause as he stepped through the doorway and into the quiet peace of the chamber. A servant had already been by to set out chilled wine in a flagon, no less than an hour ago by the look of it. Sweat beaded thick on the metal jug, trickling lines between the rim and the base. He sniffed it gingerly, hoping it had not gone sour; the last time he sought to imbibe, he had ended up with a cramping stomach for days, damnably inconvenient when trying to wear full plate.
The vintage seemed hale enough, though he was no expert. The refreshment tray offered ornate drinking glasses which were mismatched to the rest of the plainer setting, their jewels shimmering beneath candle lights. No slender flutes were these, but ritual chalices once used for sacred ceremonies; Gabranth himself had recovered them from a Kiltia temple, where they had been cradled in boxes lined with velvet, each frill polished to gleaming. Now, they were artifacts for alcoholism, stripped of all significance and offered on a tray by a servant ignorant of their heritage, who sought merely to please the Judges by providing them with proof of what had been conquered. They had become trophies, now. Toys.
Gabranth regarded the tray moodily, before tipping the flagon and filling the nearest chalice up to the brim.
Normally, the defilement of someone else's relics would bother him. But this was far from the first of similar heresies, and he accepted his sin with a sigh, collecting the drink for the first resigned sip. He had struggled against drowsiness all throughout his last meeting, even knowing he should be alert, that people's lives were being debated -- but something in him felt exhausted of late, whether physically from staying up past midnight reading troop movements and reports, or mentally from never-ending investigations expected from the 9th Bureau.
Whichever the cause, he felt numb to it all.
Behind him, the door clicked open. He turned his head in time to see Bergan slip through it, the other man's helmet already off and tucked beneath one arm. Habit prodded Gabranth out of his ennui; he lifted his chalice in a half-hearted salute towards the other Magister. Dimly, he recalled the last errand the man had been assigned to. "How was the Feyblight?"
"As wasted as ever." Bergan set down his helmet on the nearest endtable, where it stared morosely at the room. "Soon, we will not even need to patrol the border -- the monsters shall do it for us, and for no lack of a stipend either. What think you of all this, Gabranth?"
“I am not certain these days what I am expected to think." The confession leaked from Gabranth before he could stop the words. He considered revoking it; then, exhausted, he let it go, turning away from the other Judge. "Shortly after I last spoke with him, my brother was removed from Henne. I did not know there were outside parties who even knew of his presence there, let alone held interest in his retrieval. The leverage we might have held over Rozarria is weakened now, and yet we have a different bond between us: we are far enough along this path of conquest to offer sizeable rewards for continuing to walk it together, blackmail or no."
"The Margrace will seek to unseat us, regardless."
"Which we expected." Gabranth exhaled, tasting the cloying residue of wine against the roof of his mouth. Several of the candles needed refreshing, causing shadows to grow in the corners of the room; by habit, he let his eyes rove over the humped shapes of the furniture, idly seeking out assassins. "Our spies are in place as deeply as theirs. Yet, old grudges are content to sleep for the moment, so long as we have a common enemy to unite us. And what shall we do once that common enemy is destroyed?" He allowed his thumb to stroke over one of the jewels in his cup, refilling it a moment later without any care for how much he was imbibing. "Perhaps this is why the Emperor still seeks the merits of controlling the other races, rather than full extermination as the Senate promotes. Removing them would remove their threat. After that, the only creatures we humes would have to make war upon would be each other. Can you not imagine it?" he continued bitterly, each word like a leaden bell threatening to crush his tongue. "How gladly the war trumpets will sing out then."
Bergan inclined his head in acknowledgement, and joined him by the sideboard. The man poured a cup for himself without hesitation, armored fingers locking like iron bands around the gold engravings. "I would ask your counsel on a matter which relates." Blunt for an Archadian, inelegant in his intent; Bergan handled his words like his weapons, seeing little use for evasion. "Drace has been -- " he began, and then hesitated.
"Drace has been emphatic," Gabranth defended. The tartness of the vintage tightened his throat. He took another swallow to ease the twinge. "Do not mistake her passion for a flaw."
Thankfully, Bergan understood the hint, mulling carefully over his next words. He took his glass and retreated a step in unspoken surrender, yielding the immediate territory around Gabranth with the deftness of a calvary circle. "All the same, she was not like this before. Passionate, true, but well-tempered among our ranks. Always had she been a voice of reason when it came to the heirs. Yet, once the brothers' -- once Larsa's desires did change, so too did her judgement become a mirror clouded by tragedy."
"Archadia did not ask as high a price of her back then." Shaking his head, Gabranth tried not to allow the other man's concerns to reawaken his own. Drace was under pressure, true -- but he would still trust her with his very life. "You must be misguided."
"A price!" This, at last, broke Bergan's pretense at restraint. He took a hasty gulp from his glass, wiping a stray drop from his lips with his knuckles. "Lord Larsa acts with a child's rashness! Lord Vayne has an elder's duty, but he and his brother grow ever apart. He refuses to see his remaining sibling with clear eyes, mistaking ambition for the naivety of youth." Bergan inhaled sharply to continue, but then released his breath in a hiss, darting a glance at the door; like Gabranth, he was no stranger to unwanted ears. His voice, when he spoke again, was bridled to a normal volume. "Lord Larsa seeks to reconcile the virtue of his sentenced brothers with the virtue of his father, and there is no means of doing so. I fear he will push his own rationales to breaking, with a heart that would prize both sides of his family equally. And to preserve his older brother as well, for fear of losing him! It should have been the duty of the elders to protect the youngest of their line, but Lord Vayne, too, is enraptured by ideals. He overprizes the bred nobility of Solidor tradition, and fails to see how their House is as flawed as any other hume --"
"Careful," Gabranth warned, cutting the other Judge short. This time, he did not spare Bergan a sharp look, catching the man's gaze and holding it. "Do not let your loyalty to Lord Vayne cause you to see threats even among your brethren. Or his."
Unable to retaliate against such an unveiled decree, Bergan bared his teeth at the wall instead, and then spun towards the nearest chair, dragging it to face Gabranth. He downed the rest of his wine in a single defiant gulp, and then refilled it from the flagon before throwing himself into his seat, frustration turning his motions jerky and mulish.
Gabranth did not flinch. The lampshades hung like inverted parasols above them both, grey pinned butterflies of gauze that fluttered gently with each stir of the air. They were like airships in miniature, waiting to strike; they were the armies which waited and watched for honorable orders to be given by their commanders. If such orders could possibly exist anymore, Gabranth had no idea -- but neither did Ghis, he knew. Being the newest Judge had forced Gabranth to pay keen attention to each of the others' personalities, memorizing quirks as a tactician might trace the terrain. In Bergan -- he had learned -- there was a soldier whose courage could turn to rabidity with a single nudge, but who had also been tempered by slow despair over the years, veering slowly and inevitably off course without a star to guide him.
Bergan had been more forthright once, before the loss of Zecht from their ranks. But the absence of Zecht seemed to have gutted the Judge of fervor, leaving him rudderless, questioning the purpose of his own work. In reducing Zecht from their ranks, so too had they lost the fire that had driven Bergan to excel.
Then, when the Emperor and the Senators had replaced conquest with debates, the man had been stripped of the rest.
Death, at least, had not made the severance permanent. Zecht had been sacrificed as a pawn, but one who still had value in living. It was near enough in most calculations, however: Zecht's mission had seen him sent away to play at another life, and now they could not predict when he would officially return.
With the way Archadian politics were behaving, that might be never.
"The tallies from Balfonheim have come in," Gabranth said abruptly, seeking to break the tension. "Six viera have been found with fake tags. They were slated to move west to Nabradia in search of employment opportunities. Zecht's agents will make certain they do not get there."
Bergan studied his cup, his mouth flat. When he finally spoke, the strained control in his voice turned the words tinny and flat. "Zecht is dedicated in his service."
"So he is," Gabranth agreed, placatingly. All the Judges had heard it before: Bergan's ravings that a man as talented as Zecht should not be regulated to catching strays like vermin, that maintaining a trap -- even one as complex as the entire city of Balfonheim could be done by any lesser Judge. "But eventually, he will fill his queue of pelts to the brim, and return home once more. Does that not please you, Bergan?"
He waited for the other man's mood to lift, turning towards the faint promise of hope like a flower begging for the sun. But the expected distraction did not work. Bergan continued to regard his reflection in the curve of his cup, his thoughts trapped like sullen prisoners denied the sky.
The next question from his lips was quiet, almost swallowed by the room. "What are we doing, Gabranth?"
Caught off guard by the shift, Gabranth blinked, leaning against the sideboard. "Here? In Archades? Between forays?"
Bergan brushed past his confusion without acknowledgement, refusing to be derailed. His voice remained barely above a whisper. "In the span of our lives, we have already seen the obliteration of two nations. A religion that has guided Ivalice for centuries upon centuries -- now shattered, cast to the winds to roam, whilst we replace its leaders with books rewritten by our own scholars. Already there are those among Archades who see the Feyblight as a worthy tradeoff for the viera's exile. And yet, the doing of it was not through battle. It is of politics now, a hand that smothers while claiming it provides succor." At last, he lifted his gaze, seeking out Gabranth from across the room. The overflowing disgust in his voice was worse than any bluster. "Is this the shape of how wars are to be fought, Gabranth? This -- this is not glory. This is conquest by decay, victory by rot. 'Twould be kinder to snatch viera babes from their swaddling clothes and crush their throats, to slaughter bangaa whelps in the street. All that would be kinder than this."
His gesture encompassed the walls, the room, himself -- and Gabranth, who felt an uncharacteristic snarl coming from himself in turn, as if Bergan had somehow switched both their souls with magick, and infected him with fury instead. Memories of Landis rose up like shades in his mind: families wailing over grave markers for bodies that would never come home, soldiers with empty eyes and missing arms. Bergan had always been Archadian; he had never suffered through deprivation. He had always been on the side that won.
"Are you truly making the claim that bloodshed is less bloody, Bergan?" Gabranth spat aloud, incredulous. "That 'tis less painful to see your own child stabbed before your eyes, to have their limbs crushed and hewn? Have you half a mind to heed your own voice?"
"To kill a person is to kill their body," Bergan parried icily. "These methods are wars of the mind. We are slaughtering these nations by forcing them to believe that they are not even worth their own lives to begin with. How civilized might we call ourselves, that we shed not a drop of blood whilst the beastmen bow their heads low. Oh, how might we applaud."
Gabranth swallowed hard.
"What are we doing?" Bergan repeated, passion rising in him again now that he sensed the advantage, but a cold one, like a wave of frost distilled into self-loathing. "The Emperor and Senate both stand opposed on the method, but the end result is identical. Is this what must occur for humes to be saved? For battlefields to become fought by the Senate, while we have already stripped our enemies of weapons to face us on the field? A viera on the road can aim arrow and magick at my throat, and die knowing they have at least tried to resist well! Yet, a viera in Archades can be beaten now simply for looking me in the eye. What victory is that to be proud of? How should I consider myself, to triumph over those whose bellies are already encrusted with dirt?"
Each counterpoint was like a fresh wall to twist the argument, slapped down with no heed for direction. Gabranth found himself breathing shallowly, as if his instincts sensed a poison coming from each utterance of Bergan's mouth. He wanted to tear the man's stubbornness down, to rip it out of his throat physically if need be. He wanted to cut the protest like a lung out of Bergan’s chest -- and out of his own as well, so that neither would be able to speak ever again, bereft of air and blood to do so.
"You and I know the full weight of this bargain," he warned, forcing himself to retain self-control. The wine buzzed angrily in his head. He found himself pouring more into his glass, uncertain at what point it had been drained low -- or how many times it totalled, by now. "If the Emperor had refused, the Occurians would have sought another nation, and then another, all 'til they found one willing to make that trade. Only one race may survive this cull, while all others shall fall. There are nations out there who care for nothing save their own peoples. The Urutan-Yensa alone would have sworn to serve with no hesitation. At least in Archadia's hands, we may seek to preserve the ones who are being sacrificed to these Occurian demands. In history, if nothing else. In legend."
"To dress their bones with honor in such a way is an insult I cannot even mimic," Bergan retorted softly, his lip curling in scorn. "To impress their minds with worthlessness in life, and then elevate them only when they are dead. Archadia gains naught but shame with this cheapest of tactics. Do not call this kindness, Gabranth. Name it for the degradation that it is."
There was no way to win. All of Landis's dead stretched out behind Gabranth’s shadow, waiting for him to restore their pride with his defense -- and yet, Bergan was no liar. Each of the Senate's claims felt rotten in Gabranth's mouth, serving no side but their own. The Emperor's trade agreements were as flimsy as gauze, laden with racial restrictions and tariffs. In the light of the study, Gabranth could see himself clearly through Bergan's eyes: a puppet parroting back what he had been told to believe, too ignorant to even know its own hollowness.
Bergan was correct. There was no dignity to be found here: not for the dead of Landis, and not for the living of Archadia's conquests, either.
"Look to your charge, Bergan, and seek nothing more," was Gabranth's only answer, empty and helpless. He finished his wine a final time, tossing the liquid down his throat without heed for how it threatened to choke him. It sat sour in his stomach after all, curdling his innards as he scooped up his helmet, and escaped.
Twin to Dalmasca, jewel of the sky even as its sibling ruled the desert, Bhujerba was a traveler's paradise. Unlike its kin, however, Bhujerba was more rarefied in its clientele. The floating city allowed entry only to those who could rise to meet it; as a result, the flow of airships was a constant hum. All types congregated on the docks, from the scruffiest cargo ships to menacing Imperial skiffs with their armored plating, dangerous even in their scouting vehicles. Compared to the motley, the Bogen fit right in, sliding into the queue and beginning a circuit of docking protocols with the jaded laxity of the constant traveler.
Vossler knew not to worry when an escort came to collect Ashe for a meeting with the Marquis, disguised as a routine screening of an independent pilot. He had expected that Ashe would disappear at some point, called upon by her uncle. He was far luckier: there were no relatives calling him to task. Instead, his was the duty to make certain the Bogen was refilled, to check on contacts and scrounge for new Marks.
Overall, he liked Bhujerba. There were enough small jobs of an honest nature to feed the Bogen, typically involving transportation; merchants needed to get goods into the country, and travelers needed to leave it. Ashe did not often stay long, citing the Marquis as reason -- an uncle who was an extension of her father when it came to shooing her home -- but Vossler relished his visits. Bhujerba was one of his favorite stops on the road, with civilization's comforts and the authority of the Marquis in the event of trouble; Vossler felt as secure on its streets as if he were at home in Dalmasca. More so, even, for he did not have to worry about keeping an eye out for guards who might recognize him, who might flick a glance knowingly at the woman by his side. In Bhujerba, he could relax and still know that Ashe was protected. It was, he suspected, why she also accepted visits to the sky-city, despite her complaints of Ondore's worrying.
It was a relatively safe place for them to flee to, as well. Like Dalmasca and Nalbradia, Bhujerba accepted the persecution of illegals within their borders, but did not regulate its own inhabitants. In the press and smell of Bhujerba's visitors, a viera would not be considered such strange company. Ondore's cabinet was mixed in its populace, and -- despite pressures from the Empire -- he had made no move to dismiss any of the non-hume ministers. Such defiance, though cloaked in the pragmatism of a merchant, was certain to earn Bhujerba increasing ire, but the Marquis -- it was said -- had paid the price in other trade with Archadia, and registration tags were as common in the sky-city as they were on the ground.
Archadia and Rozarria had pressured the smaller nations through the chokehold of trade resources, but each had found subtle ways to disobey. Of all the territories, only Balfonheim was a greater haven for non-humes; the port neither allowed Imperial authority, nor counted its own population. As a result, it had become a sanctuary for the worst elements, and a mugger's knife in an alley could kill a surely as an Imperial sword. Bhujerba was an Imperial's roost as much as a pirate's, but it was safer, so long as the Bogen's crew could manage to be discreet.
Fran elected to stay in their rooms at first, but then, restless, she excused herself for a walk, which Vossler could understand after the tensions on the ship. Noah had wedded himself to her service, but his relationship with Ffamran was not entirely sanguine. Ffamran himself stayed in the inn's lower levels, claiming a table and scribbling on his notes between refills of beer. Vaan and Penelo floated between him and the city, exploring as street kids were wont -- and if Penelo suddenly had an influx of gil with which to buy sweets to share with Vaan, sticky sweet almonds and honeyed fruits, then Vossler did his best to look away and not to judge.
Everyone needed to make ends meet, thanks to the Imperials. Soldiers could spare the coin for the urchins they had orphaned.
He bundled the empty water containers together for refilling, and made notes on what else they would have to replace. The day was already escaping, slipping away with each minute of distraction that nibbled at the clock. Empty packs were slung over his shoulder, to be filled with either supplies or receipts on orders that could be collected later. He was no stranger to city hazards; the bulk of the packs neatly blocked convenient access to his purses, and even Penelo would find him a challenge to lift from.
As he headed towards the dock exit, he brushed through the sounds of a voice echoing down the hallway, rambling loud enough that it bounced like a marble against the metal. Its rounded tones betrayed speech training as a child, modulation and meter: Ffamran, speaking to the air again, making jests with empty replies.
"Are you not glad that it was me that you chose, instead of my father?"
No answer came that Vossler could hear, but Ffamran laughed promptly after a beat: the low, broken chuckles of a man who was not naturally inclined to reveal his mirth in a prolonged fashion, save when it was calculated. Vossler still could not puzzle out the nature of this particular game. A man such as Ffamran -- who had all the earmarks of one who desired control over himself, over the impressions that he gave, who would desire being perceived in specific ways -- would never give his dignity up so easily, so as to appear mad to any passerby.
A disease was the kindest answer, and the only one that made sense.
Shaking his head in disgust, Vossler climbed out of the ship, making certain to lock down the engines and storerooms. He did not trust the passengers entirely, though lately it was simply due to their carelessness for ship life, and not malice; he had no desire to come back from a lunch and find the Bogen burgled because someone had forgot to shut the door.
As he navigated the streets, he considered the budget. The final bill would be high, but not intolerable; Vossler strolled through Bhujerba's congestion as he balanced the estimates. They would have to cut back on rations in a few months if they continued this reckless pace, but Vossler was wise with his funds -- that, if it came to it, he could always entreat Dalmasca's coffers. To do so would require him explaining Ashe's wild errand, however. Fuel and rations that should have supplied him and Ashe for weeks were vanishing at a terrifying pace, going to take care of seven mouths instead of two.
Their passengers were not parasites entirely. Penelo and Vaan earned their keep, happily so, as if the journey itself was all they desired and the experiences that would come from the knowing of it. With their help, the crew of the Bogen had managed to net larger Marks together than Vossler and Ashe would have alone; Noah had also joined in on the bounties, fetching wolf pelts and other trophies for chemists to make use of. Otherwise, Noah had no other skills to offer, even though he had been finally -- grudgingly -- accepted into Fran's rebellion. His value was measured in other ways: a living testament against Rozarria, though Vossler doubted the man saw himself as such.
A regular hunting pack they had turned into, like hungry jackals banding together to take down larger prey. They had enough to call themselves a Company at this rate, and from there plan out the rest of their careers as professional Mark-seekers -- assuming they all stayed together and jettisoned their personal quests. Still, the results were enough to keep them all on hot food instead of parceling out cold rations, and Vossler could not protest the results.
Ffamran and Fran, however, made their primary contributions through other means. At occasional stops, Vossler often caught sight of one or the both of them speaking quietly to figures that would slip away quickly, viera heads nestled together in whispers so that the silhouette of their ears made strange shapes in the doorways. Afterwards, Ffamran would always have a purse to offer Vossler whenever he came knocking for fare. The scholar took no jobs; the source of his income was unmistakable.
What value might Ashe's life be if held for ransom? Vossler found himself thinking darkly whenever he saw the conspiracies being played out in the corners. Are we already in over our heads?
Yet, for all his fears, the danger seemed low. Fran made no open offers of war, and Ffamran seemed content enough to skitter about the continent committing thefts from mines and outposts. The Bogen felt full; it felt cramped, but Vossler was starting to accept the noise as well, as if this was part of the ship’s natural state, to be overflowing with life.
It was while he was searching for fresh armaments that he ran into Noah; the man ducked through the curtains into the same weapons shop just as Vossler was examining the edge of a longsword. Ashe preferred her guns, but he knew she held a soft spot for a buckler and gladius together -- legacy of training with her brothers -- and he always sought to keep an eye out for a matched set whenever possible.
Noah said nothing as he slouched into the store, clearly ill at ease: ill at ease, and gravitating towards Vossler, like a man uncomfortable with his own skin but trying not to look as though it itched. The clothing they had found for him was common enough for Dalmasca, with layers that allowed for proper airflow. Still, Vossler had to stifle a laugh at Noah's clear self-consciousness; the transition to wandering delinquent was awkward enough for him, but compared to Noah, Vossler looked like a master in his natural environment.
He said nothing for a time, browsing through the stripped blades on the rack while Noah crossed and uncrossed his arms, and tried to lean nonchalantly on one of the rack's corners without knocking it over.
Finally, Vossler took pity on him. "Does your weapon chafe your grip?"
Noah hesitated, narrowing his eyes before he tried an answer. "You do mean my axe for combat, correct?"
"Would you wish me to ask after another?"
Noah flushed under Vossler's level gaze. "I apologize. I expect -- with the nature of our current company, I expect word games in every breath. A weapon could represent... anything."
"An understandable concern." Not wanting to bond with Noah on the subject of Ffamran and Ashe's quarrels, and still preferring to keep the man at arm's length, Vossler switched over to examining the spears. "If the axe is not your preferred weapon, we have the opportunity to change. I admit, your ability to hold the line is useful, but if you dislike the shield -- "
"No." Noah stopped him as he was reaching for a polearm. "It is not disdain of the forefront. I -- my brother and I, we trained with swords when we were younger. I would like to refresh those skills." He reached out and picked up the nearest blade, sighting calmly down its length. "I would like to be familiar again with a sword, for when I kill him with one."
The weapon that Noah finally selected was a curving sword that fit the criteria of a machete gone wrong, a falchion on one side of its heritage. Vossler's was a plain longsword, a little more heavy at the tip than he would have normally liked, but adequate. He carried up both to the counter, setting them out to be tallied and haggled over.
"Will you gentlemen be wanting a chance to test your wares?" the bangaa grunted as he read the smithy markings with a practiced, calloused finger. "Cheap rates, and better to discover any adjustments now, rather than with a hungry beast before you. Hah! If you'd prefer, we can put in an order with the smithy and have it delivered to your lodgings in a matter of days -- hours, eheheh, if you'd like."
Tempted by the opportunity, Vossler hesitated. "One hour," he agreed at last, digging for the additional gil. "And double the fee if we're left in peace for the whole duration. No onlookers."
They retreated to the enclosed sparring ground behind the weapon shop, the sounds of the marketplace filtered through canopy and curtain, there to swing and sweat in practice. Noah stripped off his shirt, which Vossler disapproved of; even with padding sleeves, the swords still hurt, and a stray thrust could be just as deadly at the wrong angle.
They broke off shortly before the hour was up, panting as they sprawled in the shade. Vossler's throat was parched; he felt as if he'd swallowed every grain of dust that their boots had kicked up, coating their boots and shins. But the merchant had upheld his promises of privacy to the letter, for not even a flagon of water had been brought in, which would have been a blessing, and likely an additional charge.
"You are no novice," Noah observed. Sweat rolled down his chest, tracing sleek muscles that were slowly coming back to life after his imprisonment. "I admit -- I should not have underestimated you."
"Pirating is not my only skill." Vossler rolled his left foot gingerly; during the last pass, he had twisted his ankle. He flexed it experimentally, and winced at the twinge that ran up the tendons. More painkillers to add to the supply list, clearly.
Noah watched his struggle with sympathy, similarly stretching out his own arms, one by one, opening and closing his fists. "That much is clear. What made you choose this life?"
A warning flare of pain shot along Vossler’s knee as he continued to test his physical injuries with mounting disappointment. "What else? Service to -- to Ashe," he said, catching himself, stumbling over the truth that he no longer had to hide from Noah, yet still conceal from the world. He did not know why he skipped over Ashe's moniker, save that he had wanted to use her true name in public for so long; now that he had, however, it felt as if it was yet too soon to remove the facade, and allow others into their private world. "Service as honor both invites and demands."
"And is it satisfying?"
Irritated by the intimacy of the question, Vossler kicked at a clump of dirt. His ankle burned in protest. "Should I not ask you the same? You swore to Fran."
Noah wicked sweat off his neck with the flats of his palms. "I did. And: it is. For vengeance as much as honor, I fear. But there is a clear goal in mind, and fixed destination. Once it is over, the Lady Fran may no longer have need of me. For you -- you will do this until your own lady tires of it, and hope that day arrives before she dies from accident or peril."
Vossler felt his eyes narrow. "We may go yet again on the field, if you desire," he warned. "There remains sufficient time for me to beat respect into your brow."
The haste with which Noah held up his hands in surrender showed that he had not thought about how insulting he might sound. "I did not mean to offend. I... seek counsel, for how you have managed to endure it. Some nights, I find myself unable to banish the memory of my brother, unable to escape both rage and shame. I fear it will consume me -- and yet, should I not be consumed? As atonement for what has happened to the Viera, which paints them as villains in history, monsters whose only hope is to be swiftly forgotten by the burying sands of time? So if I pry, it is out of the desire for your assistance. In this course... you are wiser than I."
The words did little to placate Vossler's pricked nerves; he measured them and found them flimsy. Still, he knew better than to allow a grudge to fester. "My wisdom is little," he conceded, setting aside the argument as he might a breastplate that had chafed him to the point of bleeding. "If you would learn from me, then learn from things I should not have done."
They exited the practice field, grime still cooling on them both. Vossler had only a few requests for changes to his sword's grip, which had bit into the webbing of his hand over time. Noah's requests were equally sparse and practical. Haggling struck a balance between time and cost; the adjustments would be complete by the next day, or so the merchant claimed, staking his shop's reputation on the service.
They took their ease in returning along the streets as evening drew itself over Bhujerba, the stones gently radiating back the heat of the day. Vossler picked up a draught of chilled tea from a stall, shaking out enough gil from his pouch for two bulbs; he sipped at his own slowly despite his thirst, relishing the orange and spices beneath the harsh brew.
Noah took a swig of his and grimaced. "I am not used to these foods," he admitted thickly. "And I suspect that the foliage here does not agree with me. I have woken up with red eyes and sneezing every morning."
"We will move on shortly," Vossler reassured him, his eyes on a pack of Imperials at the far end of the street. It heartened him to see Archadian soldiers having to mingle the streets beside other races, forced to endure the thinly-disguised glares aimed towards them. If scorn were enough to repay Archadia for forcing others to be listed like so much cattle, then Vossler would have joined in as well.
As it was, he spared the Imperials little notice, until the crowd shifted, and he spied a distinctive face.
"There," he hissed, pressing a hand against Noah's chest to halt him. "Down the road, to the left. Tell me if I am bespelled, or is that not Vayne Solidor himself?"
Noah froze. "Aye," he said grimly after a moment, shifting his weight back, as if instinct was already bidding him to flee. "And unless the Magisters have begun the practice of exchanging armor like chambermaids with their aprons, that would be the Judge Magister Zargabaath beside him."
Wincing at their foul luck -- a Magister would surely recognize Noah's face, and who knew if there was another one skulking about -- Vossler retreated into the shadow of a merchant's stall, giving plenty of room for Noah to follow. "Why would Vayne himself attend this place?"
"Doubtless to spread more of his nation's cruelties." Noah sidestepped even further into the vicinity of a stack of silks. "We will have to alert the crew to this. Bhujerba is more dangerous than I would like."
Hunger chose that moment to strike. Vossler's stomach let out a treacherously loud gurgle; he covered it with his palm, wincing with chagrin as he shuffled back under cover. Noah shot him a disdainful look, but pressed his fingers against his own belly, betraying the same urge.
When Vossler finally dared to peer out from the stall, the Imperials had already moved on. Marking their direction as one to avoid -- and making note of the side streets that would intersect it -- he hunted through the merchants for one particular dish: steamed onions that were grown only in the sky islands, battered and fried in curls that tasted of peppery spices, pinned together by a long toothpick. They were an adventure to eat without spilling them all to the dirt, but were well worth the risk of a stained jerkin and greasy fingers. As a meal, it would suffice to feed them while en route back to the Bogen; only fools would linger for any fare requiring a knife and fork.
Noticing how Vossler was steering them towards the food stalls, Noah reached out and held him back by his shoulder. "I have funds from the last Mark," he said, embarrassment turning his voice back into a grumble, his chin lowered. "You have fed and watered me enough in the past. Allow me to reciprocate this once."
Vossler, learning how to recognize signs of the man's shame through the bluster, gave way with more grace this time. He allowed a nod, but then narrowed his eyes as he rewound the man's words. "Surely you have more coin to your name than that. Does guarding the Lady Fran not give you a purse? From Ffamran, at the least?"
"I helped put her in her current state," was the curt reply. "I would not be so crude as to profit from it."
Vossler snorted. "They are poor keepers of you, then." He skipped over the next stall, continuing to search down the line. "Someone must ensure that you are nourished. You have already demonstrated a marked disinterest."
"Are you volunteering to keep my care, then?"
Noah's intonation was light, dangerously so; Vossler had heard the same tone in trade negotiations more than once right before blades were drawn. He halted immediately -- but Noah only continued to walk on, as if he had never flung down the question at all.
As he caught up, Vossler finally caught sight of his goal, hastily purchasing two waxed paper cones that were filled to the brim with fried onions. The wrappers sported translucent patches from the grease. "Will this errand take much longer?" he asked, handing one of the cones to Noah as a peace offering. "The Bogen has made no vows of loyalty to Ffamran's mad quest. We attend from promises of payment, not charity. Yet, the longer Ffamran makes such wild claims, the more I wonder if he will ever deliver. First, Ffamran said that he needed the artificial to counter the Imperial magicite. Now, he needs deifacted to counter the artificial. What next -- an entire army, wrought from crystal? And is this not simply a repetition of the past, to have the Viera gather power once more?"
Noah accepted the food gingerly, setting down his bags on a nearby crate so that he could press coin into Vossler's hand. "The difference is that the Viera never gathered power in the first place. They simply did not involve themselves enough with the outside world to deny rumor of it. Thinking themselves safe so long as they kept to their own affairs, they instead became tools for another's ambitions. Their own isolation worked against them."
The scent of fresh food made Vossler's mouth wet with hunger. It was said that the essence of the sky islands were imbued into the vegetables via the soil; whatever the real cause, the onions of Bhujerba always tasted as if they had been grown in a pot of sugar, being potent in flavor without stinging one's eyes in irritation. He counted down the points as he unwrapped the onion cluster, trying to resist the urge to stuff it all down at once. "One deifacted stone was owned by Raithwall. One, by Nabradia, and claimed already by the Empire, if Ffamran is to be believed. The last lies in Ashe's heritage somewhere, but to commit that -- is that why Fran stays, I wonder?" He twiddled the toothpick that speared his onions together, hearing his words grow brittle with scorn. "Is it in hopes that Ashe will surrender her inheritance willingly, break into her own family's vaults and loot them too? Was a sacred tomb of her ancestor not enough?"
"Insult the Lady Fran at your cost," Noah sneered, the effect spoiled somewhat by a fleck of batter on his chin. "If she wished to profit from endangering Amalia, she already could have a dozen times by now."
Vossler sipped from his tea, refusing to be intimidated. "So why does she not?"
Rather than take umbrage again, Noah picked at his meal. "I... do not know," he confessed. "To refrain might leave her own people empty of influence. And yet the lady Fran seems -- attached to your captain. I know they have, of late, spent more time together. I know -- " He broke off then, suddenly, hesitating, the rest of his claim lost in his throat.
"What?" Vossler demanded, his appetite suddenly dimmed. When Noah scowled, he prodded again. "Explain yourself."
But Noah balked, only shaking his head. When he finally spoke again, it was in a mumble. "Affection can drive one to do strange things at times, to take actions that would otherwise be of little sense."
The answer was surprising. It refused to shed any light on the nature of Noah's reluctance. It might have been a dig at Vossler's dedication to Ashe; it might have been anything, save that Noah's tone of voice made it seem more a doom than a jest.
"Amalia is very easy to become devoted to," he concluded, and scooped a fresh clump of onions into his mouth.
Balfonheim was on the list for their next destination: another free port, though the shorter they were there, the better. Having Vayne present in Bhujerba meant that the lens of the Imperial eye would surely be fixed on the sky-city -- and if Vayne traveled to Balfonheim next, it would follow along accordingly, like a roving spotlight so bright it burned. If the Bogen was unlucky, they would be at risk a second time, and without the protection of Ashe's uncle.
Vossler mentally crafted his errand list as he counted down the days to their departure, estimating what he could shave off to get them faster into the air. He would have to visit the smithy and see if the swords had been finished as promised. Noah had already left, saying something about going ahead; if Vossler planned his route strategically, he could hit the weapon shop first and conscript Noah into carrying their supplies for the rest of the trip.
He waited for the kaphii to finish brewing, humming to himself as he sorted his tasks neatly into orderly categories. Ashe arrived just as he picked up the pitcher, aiming it towards his cup. Her hair was disheveled, strands scattered as if she had tossed and turned all night.
"Your lips are chapped," he remarked with surprise.
Her eyes flicked up towards him, and then away, guiltily. He blinked at her, wondering why she looked like a child whose hand had been caught pilfering sweets.
"If you're short on ointment, there's some in the top drawer of the infirmary," he suggested. "Go ahead and use as much as you want, we can purchase some more while we’re here -- "
"I have bedded the lady Fran," she blurted.
Vossler set the pot of kaphii down so sharply, it clipped the edge of the table and fell.
He didn't mean to -- his hand lowered like a gate whose chain had snapped, and the heaviness of the pot tugged on his fingers like an anvil. He could feel it pull out of his grasp and crash to the floor. It hit the ground with a clatter, liquid spraying out as the metal pot rolled on its side, eventually rocking to a halt with its spout jutting into the air.
A streak of kaphii dripped down the cabinet. "What?"
Ashe's face had gone pale at his reaction. "I am sorry," she insisted, the words jerky, as if she herself did not understand them. "I am sorry, Vossler. I am sorry."
Vossler barely saw the city around him as he left the ship docks. Penelo would have scolded him if she was there; his vest was loosely laced, and pouches jingling on his hip in plain sight. His blood churned in his veins. He did not know why Ashe's choice had hurt him so, to grip his chest like a coeurl's paw and pain him into trembling. Ashe had been true to Rasler, and he had known that, had known not to betray it, and now it felt as if he and she had been running together for a very long time, only for him to look up and find her far out of reach. She had moved on. Everything in his life had been established; he had learned how to adjust to those spaces, to the boundaries of his limited world, but Ashe had torn it all down in a moment.
It was not a matter of simple lust. It was not the need for physical release. Ashe had mentioned the potential of bedding him before, largely for convenience -- and he had recoiled, as his honor had commanded. To relent would have given everything in him over to her, in body as well as soul. The breach in conduct would have undone him completely.
I am not jealous. The Lady Ashe was sworn to Lord Rasler, and I -- I knew that. I upheld that. I always knew her to be bound, to not be free. I always knew --
He could not follow that thought in full to its conclusion. He forced himself towards his errands instead, item by item, tasks with no emotions involved as he dutifully arranged for supplies and payments in order.
Noah had indeed arrived at the weapon shop before him, lingering under the store's canopy to escape the waxing sun. He blinked, taken aback at Vossler's approach. "The look on your face could melt steel," he observed, eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Such tension is not like you."
Noah regarded him with uncommon solemnity. He seemed to be weighing something in his mind; then he nodded sharply, mouth set in a firm line. "There are practice blades about," he suggested, pushing open the door to the shop before Vossler could break it down. "Shall I be your avenue of release?"
Vossler grunted assent.
The merchant was glad enough to earn a fee for the second day, waving them back towards the practice yard. There was fresh hay down on the sparring floor, and it crunched under Vossler's boots. Only half his attention was on the fight; each hit that landed felt like a relief, a pummeling that distracted him from the twisting of his thoughts. Noah was an opponent that he could lash out at without guilt, solid and tangible, and able to be bested.
His own battle-fervor made his motions clumsy, however; Noah dodged too many blows, leading Vossler into wasting energy like a berserker. All too soon, Vossler's sword was spun out of his hand, his footing knocked out from underneath him in a twist that any novice could have blocked. He let himself fall without struggling to prevent it, strangely glad to be disarmed, as if being barred from action might spare him from the worry of what to do next.
But Noah did not step back. Unaccountably, he pressed further, dropping his own blade and going to one knee. One palm pushed hard against Vossler's chest as Vossler rolled onto his back; the other moved down to rub roughly at the junction of Vossler's legs, heavy and insistent.
The pressure was as hot and startling as a brand. Vossler's nerves hummed as he arched against Noah's touch, thrusting hard in an instinct that wiped away every frustration of the day and replaced it with mindless pleasure, hungry and uncaring for anything save the immediate moment. Noah's lips were on his, his tongue in Vossler's mouth. Vossler groaned as he wrestled his arm around, managing to get a hand against Noah's back, pulling him closer in a graceless yank; their hips rubbed together and he bucked hard against Noah's weight, revelling in being unleashed, unguarded -- in not having to be whittled down and made tame, in having an outlet with no vows of restraint.
Then Vossler's wits returned; shocked, he let out a yell, and pushed Noah away, scrabbling to sit upright.
They rolled apart, Vossler rubbing hard at his mouth. "Is it because you cannot have Fran?" he accused, spitting out the first insult he could think of. "Is that why you have tried such acts on me?"
Hay stuck to Noah's leathers as he twisted upright, sprawled by the blow. "What did you think I was offering from the start?" Bitterness dripped from his tongue. He propped himself on one hand so that he could point accusingly at Vossler with the other. "Why else did you seek my company? Is it such a great offense," he continued, "to engage in the same relief of tensions as soldiers on the battlefield offer one another? We, who are denied anything but service to those we are sworn to?"
Caught under the lens of brute practicality -- it was hardly an uncommon practice for fighters, and Vossler himself had had several rounds, back when he had been a soldier -- Vossler found himself foundering for an excuse. "I do not -- I do not require such things," he claimed, his denial weak and shaking even as he tried to force it into life.
"So you say, but your actions sang a different verse." Noah's voice was cold. "Your flesh gave you away. You responded."
Vossler cursed. He shoved himself back up to his feet and out of the practice yard, slapping payment on the counter for the Bangaa and not waiting for change. His arousal was an aching weight in his breeches. He could barely think through raw desire. The knowledge that Noah was behind him in the yard, that all Vossler would have to do would be to turn around and finish their spar in a far more carnal way, that Noah was waiting in invitation --
He stalked directly back to the Bogen, ignoring the rest of his task list for the day. Vaan was in the dock, sorting through a tray of baubles; he started to raise his hand in greeting, but Vossler only snarled, an incoherent bark, and slammed his way through each door to his quarters.
When he finally got back to his bunk, his fingers stumbled over the lock. It took him three tries to send the bolt home. He wasted no time in yanking at the lacings of his breeches hard enough to snap one, and then he shoved his pants down, back braced against the door. The thick metal pressed against his muscles, and he found his spine arching despite himself, hips braced, his free palm flattening against the door -- fingers splayed as if to grasp a muscled thigh between them, legs spread as if to steady his weight against another's thrust.
But there was no one else in his quarters with him. The only sounds were the raspy pants of his own breaths as Vossler worked himself roughly, trying not to pretend his fingers were another's hand, another's mouth, forcing himself into faceless satisfaction until he spilled over in hot pulses onto his fingers -- and found he was still aching all over, aching and helpless with need.