Be bold, be bold, and every where Be bold,
That much she muz'd, yet could not construe it
By any ridling skill, or commune wit.
At last she spyde at that same roomes upper end,
Another yron dore, on which was writ,
Be not too bold.
— The Faerie Queene [Book III, Canto 11]
"You should not be here."
He steps closer (she backs away).
He can almost touch her (she cringes instinctively).
"I can have you arrested for treason."
He is tempted to test her words (she cannot stop him).
"Is this how you greet long-lost friends, Princess?"
"We are not friends," not anymore. "You are an Archadian expatriate, sky pirate, and fugitive of my political allies. Why are you here?"
"Would you believe it if I said I missed you? Or that I am no longer those things, which you decry like petty epithets?"
"I shall not ask you again, Balthier. Why are you here?"
He gives her a small smile. Full of rue and amazement and incomprehension, it quivers on the fine edge of his mouth. Even with her voice flanked by steel and ice, scraping him with her immeasurable calm (damn her indomitable regalness)—he can't help but admire her strength. And envy how good she is at veiling distress.
"I'm here to offer my services," he declares grandly. "But the hour is late and there's much to say. So why don't we resume this conversation in the morning? Good night, Your Majesty."
Incredulous, she watches him disappear, slipping into the long, deep shadows cast by her furniture (slithers into his secret den). He is gone before she can register what actually occurred (never mind sounding the guards). Acrid and pungent, the questions sizzle out in her mouth. She swallows hard.
It's been nearly two years since they last met, since she stupidly thought he had perished in an unholy sea of fire. And though she long discovered his deceit, she has forgiven him for not telling her sooner. And in a pithy, two-line letter, no less. But he's back and just as mad and dashing (absurd and vexing) as ever.
He's worse than she remembered.
Unleashing a sharp sigh, Ashe retreats wearily to her bed.
Once, when she was young, she saw a man die from blood poisoning. The muscles in his face had contorted, twisting the skin taut and immobile like if he were wearing a pale glass mask. And when she accidentally brushed against his arm, he felt hot. Burning. Tingling. Consumed by a hell seven degrees beyond any she could fathom.
As the seamstress deftly sews in the back of her dress, all Ashe can think of is that dying man. She wonders what are the chances of contracting sepsis from a rusted needle (three to none, given her luck). One puncture into the spine: that's it. She can feel the tip ghosting over her hipbone, gingerly kissing the arc, jolting her with strange stings. If she would press in just a bit more—
The stool suddenly jerks and gasping, Ashe grasps wildly into the air. Desperately, she tries to prevent an unceremonious tumble to the ground. Her knee collides into the cool marble, and miles of brocade thrash like a white-smoked gust. Wincing, she rights herself and doggedly ignores the gloved hand around her waist.
She dismisses the seamstress on the pretense of needing a rest (a respite from choking on silver threads and white gold). In the mid-morning light, outlined by the brilliant desert sun, Balthier seems displaced without his hair tousled and shot by wind. She has missed him though she will never admit.
"I don't know why you insist on torturing yourself with silken prisons. And gods know why I am here joining you in this agony."
Ashe whirls around, renewed by indignation. "You said that we would speak in the morning. Well then, speak. What the hell were you thinking sneaking into my room last night?"
"I wanted to see how you're doing."
"You couldn't have waited until the morning or at least announced yourself? My guards could've killed you."
Balthier circles around her, scrutinizing the lacework. Light and gossamer like a spider web woven from crystals. He fights against the impulse to touch it—her. Screaming, the allure licks his palm, but he must remember that the sharpest blades are invisible.
"I wanted to see you, Ashe, not the Queen of Dalmasca. And that is a feat only possible when you are sleeping. I've been observing you since I arrived in Rabanastre a week ago. Constantly, you are surrounded. How does it feel, being suffocated?"
"I don't know what you mean," she answers coldly. "I don't have time for games, Balthier. Either you tell me what you want or I'll have you tossed from the tower."
Laughing, he stops pacing and turns to inspect her instead. She has grown. She's become even more determined (if that was possible) and self-assured. She's no longer that throneless girl, sniveling into his shoulder and staining his immaculately starched lapels. For someone not born to rule, she certainly commands great respect.
She's also learned to conceal her vulnerabilities, every last, beautiful shred of them.
And steadily (damn the thing) streams of pride trickle into him. And a drop of remorse for what he badly wants otherwise. Swathed in clouds of pearls and silk, she looks so strong and heartbreaking and worlds away.
It's best that he doesn't forget (not a second time).
"I'm here to give my counsel. My intentions are noble despite your suspicions. I promise not to rob you this time," he adds as an afterthought.
Reluctantly, a smile spreads across her lips. He can still charm the scales off a snake, a princess from despair, and a queen into abandoning her clandestine vows.
"I know of the tension between Dalmasca and Rozzaria," he continues.
She stiffens. "It's good to know that my problems have reached the ears of insouciant sky pirates."
"I'm not here as a thief, I told you. I'm here as part of a diplomatic party on behalf of Archadia, who shares your worries.
"Larsa sent you to babysit me?"
"No, Basch did."
"I can handle the situation. I shall not have my sovereignty wrenched from me again."
"I have no doubt you'll do fine, fantastic even. But your seat is precarious, your economy is still recovering, and most importantly, you have yet to cement your hold over the people."
"My people know I would die for them."
Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Balthier leaps to his feet and walks toward her. She sits ramrod straight in her chair, imperious and bristling. Her anger fuels him too. He wants to violently shake her arms, seize her awake.
"No one questions your love for your country, but neither is this an issue that can be resolved with martyrdom. It's unlikely that Rozzaria will accept a second rejection so magnanimously."
"Rozzaria can exert all the pressure she wants. But I will protect Dalmasca at any cost."
"Then what magnificent occasion will witness you in this dress? A wedding or a funeral?"
After the council meeting, a pair of guards escorts him to his rooms in the far east wing of the palace. Where, undoubtedly, he'll have few opportunities for illicit, midnight visits (clever little princes).
Spacious yet sparsely furnished, the room seems like it's been uninhabited for years—probably has, come to think. Heaving a ritualistic sigh to mark his discontent, Balthier tosses himself onto the bed. The plush mattress dips low as his body weight jars the loosely curled feathers, sending minute traces of dust hurling skyward.
Your maids have been slacking.
—Thus he will say.
My maids have more important things to do, like spying on foreign pirates.
—Such she will respond.
The cathedral bells chime in the distance. Fastidiously, he counts each sonorous clank, noting the slightly different pitches and variations in resonance. Some are shrill and true while others sink and echo, shaking him in the marrow.
Hollow and inexorable, they make a symphony dissonant.
He wonders if Ashe is aware that they are embroiled in this game, this nebulous, truffled tier-cake of lies and deceits. Shrouded and protected by a pleasant guise, making it hard to differentiate player from pawn.