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The Fine Art of Etiquette

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The coronation festivities were a resounding success, Ashe knew, Rabanastre showing off its rebuilt status to perfection as she took her rightful place as Dalmasca's queen. Courtiers and diplomats from throughout Ivalice had attended, Larsa and the Emperor of Rozarria seated at the same table with her own high council with no incident, and she had spent much of the night dancing -- with Larsa, with Ondore, with Al-Cid Margrace, with men of every nationality and social standing, even one brief turn around the floor with Vaan, who had at least not stepped on her feet.

All of the people she had expected were there, and none of the people she had hoped for but not expected -- invitations had been sent, of course, but no response, positive or negative, was received. It was only right and correct, she knew, that the queen would not receive notorious sky pirates in the palace, even friends of the crown who had saved the city from certain destruction. And yet she could not help but feel a surge of disappointment every time she glanced around the room without seeing them, standing quietly in a corner, Fran with her calm demeanor and Balthier--

But it would not do to think of Balthier. Instead, she smiled pleasantly up at the young man who currently squired her around the floor -- a judge, she thought, of good family, though she had already forgotten his name. As she had finished up her last dance -- her third pass with Al-Cid, an excellent dancer and fine conversation partner -- he had approached her with perfect formality, stepping close but not too close, introducing himself with a stiff bow that betrayed his nervousness. It was charming, in a way, and yet she found herself wishing that he might move with more ease. "So you are recently joined the judges?" she asked.

"Yes, your majesty," he replied. "My father is a retired Judge Magister, now seated in the Senate, and I am expected to follow in his footsteps." He ducked his head, flushing. "Er, not to suggest that it is anything but an honor to follow my father. Or-- er, you understand."

She favored him with a small smile, despite the sinking feeling in her stomach. Almost every conversation with the younger courtiers traveled a similar path -- an attempt to find common ground, followed by the realization that her position was such that any comparison would suggest that they were trivializing her difficulties. "I do take your meaning," she said. "How do you find the service so far?"

"Well, I-- I am-- that is--" The boy was cut off mid-stammer by a tap to the shoulder, and he turned to look at the interloper, a man of medium height dressed in green velvet and white ruffles, long dark hair pulled into a queue, tinted spectacles perched on his nose.

"Might I cut in?" the other man asked, somehow managing to peer down his long nose at the young judge, despite being at least a half a foot shorter. Ashe swallowed back a laugh of sudden recognition as her erstwhile dancing partner melted away, relief flooding his face as he realized that the uncomfortable interview was over. Meanwhile, the new man bowed, deeply enough that Ashe feared he might lose his wig. "Your majesty."

"Pirate," she replied, curtseying in return.

He froze mid-bow, then straightened, eyebrow raised, meeting her gaze with light blue eyes. "May I presume upon your time for length of a dance?" It was the correct etiquette for cutting in on the dance floor, and yet the tone carried a light insouciance that made her smile.

"Of course," she replied, taking his outstretched hand, lacing their fingers together. He took their joined hand and lifted it to his mouth, brushing lips across her thumb in a courtly kiss that nevertheless thrilled her head to toe. Then she stepped into his open arms, taking the first steps of the waltz as they joined together. They moved through the crowd as one, steps formal, spins controlled. He led and she followed, his steps as fine as any dancing master, until they reached the near-center of the room, where he pulled her close enough that his breath tickled her ear, the warm spice of his scent filling her senses.

"What gave me away?" he asked. "My voice?"

"No, you changed it suitably," Ashe replied. "'Twas your face, when you dismissed that poor boy so summarily. Between the expression and the spectacles, the resemblance to your father is quite striking."

"Hmph!" But she heard a smile buried within his indignant grunt. "I shall have to refine my reactions."

She chuckled. "So. You never responded to my invitations, and yet you are here. You both would have been welcome, you know, in your more usual persona, regardless of what the rules of court might say."

"My more usual persona would not be caught dead at a function like this, my Queen, as you well know. Surely you did not expect a formal reply." He turned to face her, eyes serious. "And yet, I found myself loathe to miss the occasion. To see you take your rightful place among the leaders of this world, to wish you well, to steal a dance." He tilted his head. "Thus, the subterfuge. I trust you will forgive me."

"For the subterfuge, naturally. The lack of a reply is a more complex matter." She lowered her eyes, then raised them again. "I would know whether and when to expect you. Or if to expect you at all, even if word comes through unorthodox channels. I find I grow weary of waiting and wondering."

"Ah." He spun her again, turning her face carefully away from the dais at the front of the room. "So-- you would extend another invite, even after my improper response?"

"As many as you wish," she said. "Starting tonight, in my chambers, if you like. As long as I can expect the courtesy of an answer."

"I believe I can respond in the affirmative." He pulled her near again, and she stepped as close as she dared. "What is the proper etiquette for a clandestine tryst with a queen?" he murmured, lips warm against her temple.

She leaned in, mouth nearly brushing the side of his neck, and he quivered beneath her touch. "Avoid the guards on the fourth floor," she whispered, almost against his warm skin. The song came to a close, the final notes ringing in her ear, and she stepped back, joining their hands between them. She looked up at him, through her lashes, to see his eyes bright, his lips parted. "And don't you dare be late."

He bowed over their joined hands, kissing each knuckle in turn. "Your majesty, I would never presume." And then he stepped back, hands slipping free, bowing all the while. Ashe watched him melt into the crowd, and then she returned to the dais, ready to make her farewells and her excuses. It wouldn't do to be late for her appointment, after all.