Point Made at A

Only the sound of a throat's being cleared made Islude aware he had not been paying attention to the conversation at all.

"I think what my lord brother's esteeméd silence is trying to say," chimed in Olan, exhibiting his talent for compensating seamlessly for his twin's lapses, "is that embargos are asinine, and you yourself border on that state for suggesting them."

The banquet table fell silent, the senator who had initially asked the question looked entirely taken aback, and Islude found himself cursing the day he had let his focus wander long enough to allow Olan a word in edgewise. With a glare, Islude took a deep breath and began what he did best when it came to his brother -- damage control. "What my lord brother's hastily chosen speech is trying to say--"

"Is that embargos are asinine," a voice from the other side of the table interrupted, liquid with thick Rozarrian vowels. The young man (perhaps even a boy, judging by features, save that no boy's chest should exhibit such a forest of hair) lifted his hands to gesture with his words, and Islude's eyes followed their dusky skin, entranced by the way his long fingers moved, hoping even as he did that none among the assembled was possessed of enough discernment to connect Islude's earlier inattentiveness and the young man's hands. "And boorish, and crude, and ... ah, I could continue along down the alphabet, save that my point was made at a, and I do not like to waste my breath."

The silence, if such a thing were possible, grew even more pervasive, save the resonance of Olan's deep laugh. "Well-observed, son of Margrace! You see, sirs," he gestured to the agéd men, Archadian and Rozarrian alike, who lined the lengthy table, "we children have learned from your auspicious examples."

Islude brought his fingers to brace against the bridge of his nose, then straightened his spine, performing what he had come to recognise as his best impression of his father. "Our kingdoms have long been at odds." He folded his hands atop the table, hoping the gesture might give the diplomacy the appropriate gravitas. "Yet we are not barbarians, but civilised men. No need see I to punish our people unduly for enmity in which they do not share."

"Wise words, son of Solidor," agreed the young Rozarrian, fixing his gaze on Islude, a smile turning slyly the corner of his mouth. His fingers drummed on the table, exuding a lean grace that Islude felt quicken his pulse. "Perhaps there is yet hope for some peaceful congress between us."

The rest of the assembly took the conversation from them then, turning to topics less likely to incite violence, and Islude joined the discussions as expected of a future emperor (sparing first a sharp kick to his brother's shin). Yet throughout the meal his gaze kept returning to the dark eyes across the table, fixed ever on him with a hot, hungry look.


The sun had crept over the skyline and into her quarters ere she returned, bone-tired and sore, having barely possessed the strength to remove her armour before stumbling back through the corridors to her home. She had intended to return hours earlier, yet what had begun as a routine judicial proceeding had ended with unexpected bloodshed, and Drace found herself equally cross with both parties -- the instigator for causing such a fuss, and the victim for having had the poor graces not to die promptly. /P>

She kicked off her boots at the door, giving no notice to where they landed, and began to unfasten the close-fitting bindings at her wrists. The necessity of such vast accoutrements notwithstanding, Drace felt a twinge of regret regarding her career choice every time she needed to disrobe yet lacked sufficient energy. She was never one for haste, but occasionally longed for convenience. /P>

Dark were sitting-room and bedroom alike, lit only by dawn through heavy curtains, and as such Drace was nearly off with her corseting before she noticed that not only had her bed not retained the shape she had left it in that morning, but half of it had in her absence begun to snore softly. /P>

He was nearly a decade and a half her junior, though few upon seeing his face might name him so young, lined as oft his sober visage was. Yet here, soft-lit by pink light from beyond the bedroom window, he might have been a full score younger than she, his brown uncreased, his jaw unset, his hand lay slack across the pillow where her head by custom rested. None in Archades would have known him to see him like this, face charmed by the youth he seemed so determined to not let show -- none save she, of course, and she did not weigh that privilege lightly. /P>

How long he had been there -- had he, too, let himself in after late night, unwilling upon finding her absence to make the journey to his own quarters? Or had he been here since evening, anticipating her return, posting a vigil interrupted by unexpected sleep? She wondered idly if she might find upon her dining-table a meal set for two half-eaten; if so, and even if not, she would have to endeavour to reciprocate. After all, it was only fair. /P>

Stripped of her trappings, she pondered her nightshift, yet declaring it too much effort, slipped bare beneath the covers against Gabranth's frame. He did not wake to any appreciable degree, yet upon sensing her arrival draped a strong arm across her waist, settling her close to him as spoons in a drawer. Closing her eyes against the coming day, she let the warmth and heft of his body weight her into sweet-dreamed sleep, safe with in his arms as ever she felt.


Ghis shook his head, drumming his fingers against the side of his wine goblet. "I'faith, nepotism is an ugly vice."

"An amusing statement, considering the source." Zargabaath pondered the board in front of him, then plucked two polished stones from one of the cups, setting them in their places around the board. The two men had started playing Pallankuli years ago, during a season when everything Bhujerban was fashionable; the craze had subsided long since, yet their matches had continued. "I knew your mother, after all."

A warm spring breeze wafted across the veranda, blowing Ghis' heavy locks into his face, and he drew them away with a scowl as he pondered his rejoinder. "The difference being that I was possessed of a great deal of talent from a very young age, while if bloodline is any indicator, the boy will be a prodigy in only mischief and madness." Ghis' last stone landed in an empty cup, and Zargabaath scowled to see it and the pieces in his cup opposite land securely in Ghis' store. "But perhaps I should be asking your opinion. After all, surely in your unrelenting quest to bed every youth in Archades his fair thighs have graced your sheets?"

Zargabaath, well-accustomed by now to such abuse, merely sighed and made a bid to capture an even greater supply of Ghis' stones. "Come now. There's no need for such jealousy simply because you regret yours are no longer supple enough to warrant my notice."

"My dear Judge Zargabaath, when it comes to you and me, I thank the gods of impotence and age, respectively, they are not." With flourish, Ghis drained his goblet and played his next move.

"Appealing to your patron deities, are you?" A steward, seeing both Judges Magister at the end of their wine, rushed over with a bottle to fill their glasses again; he was a comely youth, just at the cusp of adulthood, and Zargabaath took great pleasure in knowing that as his eyes watched the young man's frame, Ghis watched him with an equal mixture of revulsion and amusement. "At least any such quest I might undertake would not necessitate actions such that brothels of Lower Archades would come to recognise me on sight."

"Ha!" Ghis snorted, a derisive sound. "At least there are brothels that might cater to my tastes."

"My dear Judge Ghis, I fear you are confused; they are more commonly known as stables." Zargabaath considered the board between them, stroking a thumb along the line of his jaw. "I win by four in two moves."

Ghis frowned, then rolled his eyes. "Then you are up by six. Reset the board; I feel fortune shall smile upon me this round, as I shall not be satisfied until I have beaten you this day."

Let it pass, thought Zargabaath, gathering the stones into his hand. Some things were simply too easy.

Knight Moves

Were Penelo inclined to panic every time her son disappeared, all her hair would have long gone white by now. However, this was Archades, where the normal dangers faced by a boy of such age tripled by the truth of his parentage, and she dipped her head in room by room, cursing herself for having let him from her sight.

She heard him before she saw him, his voice drifting calmly into the hall from behind a pair of heavy oaken doors. Pressing her way into the room as noiselessly as possible, she heard the end of his statement: "And mom asks if I did it, and I tell her I did?"

"That's honesty," laughed a much older voice Penelo recognised instantly. "And it's part of honour, to be sure."

Peeking her head in further, Penelo encountered a largely empty music-room, one wall all high windows letting the rain-distorted afternoon light fall across a grand piano. There, cross-legged in the middle of the carpeted floor, sat the owners of the voices -- the first her son, identifiable by his straw-light hair, his back to her; the second Judge Magister Drace, elbows resting on her knees, propping her chin up on her clasped hands. She wore not her judicier's mail, but light casual dress, her cane resting to her side (the weather, Penelo supposed). Between them sat a chess board, where (if the few impressions Penelo had picked up regarding the game were correct) Drace's black pieces looked poised and ready to mount a crushing assault on her son's white king.

"Honour," continued Drace, giving no heed to Penelo had she even noticed the younger woman's entry, "means you must always do what is right. If you have honour, you cannot stand injustice, nor injury unwarranted to another." She pondered her options, then pressed a pawn forward. "...In other words, you must never pick on anyone smaller than you, and if you see someone else doing the same, you must do all in your power to stop them."

The boy pushed an ill-played bishop forward too hastily. "Uncle Vaan says I should never pick on anyone bigger than me."

Drace laughed again, reaching over to pat his head kindly. "There is more wisdom in your Uncle Vaan than sometimes I give credit. Yes, smaller or bigger, you should not use your status to cause undue injury, regardless of personal gain. That is honour." A black knight snapped into the white bishop's place. "You see how I did that? Knights are tricky; it is far too easy to forget how they can move."

Penelo cleared her throat, and both players' heads snapped in her direction. "Who's winning?"

"She is," pouted the boy, eyes returning to the game, apparently inclined to study his options more carefully this time.

"I've had sixty years' more practice," Drace pointed out, gracing Penelo with a kind smile. Long had Larsa insisted Drace not worth Penelo's latent terror, but such gentleness from such an imposing woman would likely never stop surprising Penelo. "I trust in six you shall be besting me, and then where will I be?"

"Right here," he replied, as though the answer were entirely obvious, reaching out with one small hand and moving ever forward.

Courting Gifts

Rasler took a deep breath and set his shoulders. He had not been in Dalmasca long, yet all whom he had met had seemed congenial and warm, more than eager to welcome their princess' betrothed. All, that was, save one, and it was upon that man Rasler now had to prevail. From the set of the man's jaw whenever he approached, Rasler judged this to be no easy task.

"Captain Azelas?" He was greatly pleased that his voice had seen fit to leave his mouth, and not stage a cowardly retreat halfway. "May I inquire of you for a moment?"

"My lord." The dark-haired captain seemed to tower over Rasler, and the hilt of the sword upon his back towering yet over the knight, leading all in all to a very imposing performance; yet he followed where Rasler led him, two steps aside from the crowd gathered in the courtyard, enjoying the spring afternoon. In the middle of the courtyard sat the Lady Ashe, working at a particularly delicate needlepoint and enjoying the sun with her attendants.

Rasler took a deep breath, trying to think of how to phrase the question. "I ... forgive my presumption and imposition on your time, yet Captain Ronsenberg suggested -- when I asked him -- that I come make inquiries of you, as you have spent more time with the Lady Ashe than he, and thus would more likely be able to set my course straight on matters."

Captain Azelas' expression remained unmoved. "My lord," he repeated, sounding the way Rasler expected a very bored coeurl might sound before deciding to eat you and spare itself the annoyance of your presence.

"Ah, yes. Well." Rasler fidgeted with the cuff of his shirt. "I was thinking that it would be only appropriate to acquire for the Lady Ashe some token of my -- well, after all, though I came with gifts from Nabradia, they might have been perceived as coming from my father and status and -- and not from me, per se -- yet I know so little of her preferences, and you, a trusted member of her guard, surely you--" The justifications, he could feel, were going nowhere, and he did not wish to tempt Captain Azelas' patience further for such a simple request. "...Does the Lady Ashe have a favourite colour?"

Captain Azelas raised an eyebrow. "I--"

"And does she have a favourite flower?" But Rasler was on a roll now, and often it was so difficult to stop his mouth when it had started. "And does her favourite flower come in her favourite colour? And a favourite fabric? And does her favourite fabric come in her favourite colour? Perhaps with a pattern that looks like her favourite flower? And if so, where does one purchase such a thing?"

A great silence fell between the two men.

"Blue," grunted Captain Azelas after long moment, turning on his heel and returning conspicuously within earshot of the Lady Ashe. Rasler, for his own part, though grateful for the information, resolved in the future to take Captain Ronsenberg's aimless guesses over such treacherously won knowledge.


"Hey, Larsa! Think fast!"

Larsa turned his head in the direction of Vaan's voice barely in time to register the projectile heading for him, and to reach out his hand to stop its arc. He eyed it suspiciously -- a stick the length of his hand, around which were gathered several clear crystals. At first he suspected it to be something magickal, but he could sense no energy from it, and as such had no idea why Vaan had given it to him.

"It's candy," said Penelo, rising from her perch on a nearby rock. Her nose had reddened from the cold, and earlier Larsa had caught her exhaling into the air for the sheer novelty of watching her breath frost and cloud. He reminded himself that she had lived her entire life near Dalmasca's desert climate, and suspected that Bur-Omisace was for her an entirely new experience.

He frowned at the stick in his hand. "Beg your pardon?"

"Can-dy," Penelo repeated, drawing out each syllable. "You eat it! It's good!" She plopped herself down on Larsa's chosen boulder-seat, leaning her side against his. He was unaccustomed to being touched so casually; an emperor's son required distance from his entourage, a gulf set by propriety that few dared cross, and none save he reached across its expanse first. Yet here she and Vaan were, and he felt as though hands were set on him at all times, and it was wonderful. "No, don't -- here, hold the stick, and eat the crystals. But don't bite down -- it's bad for your teeth."

Larsa extended his tongue, touching with apprehension what appeared to be salt crystals -- and could not keep from his face the surprise when his tongue met not saline, but sugar. "Sweet!"

Penelo laughed, draping an arm around his shoulders. "Poor Larsa. You've never even had candy before, have you?"

"Not of this sort, no." As politely as he could manage, and as intimately as he dared, he leaned into the touch, resting his shoulder in the crook of her arm. Against the chill mountain air, her body felt warm. "Is it ... how is it made?"

"It's a bangaa thing. You take the stick, you dip it in some water that's got sugar mixed up in it, and you leave it alone for a while -- and when you come back, ta-dah! Crystal candy!" She produced another stick from a pouch, this one bright pink. "Sometimes you can put some food dye in the water, too. Doesn't change the taste, but makes it pretty." Sticking it in the corner of her mouth, she favoured him with a beautiful, warm smile. "Someday I'll take you around the bazaar in Rabanastre and show you all the neat stuff."

"...I'd like that. I would, very much." Despite the day's chill, Larsa felt heat rise in his cheeks, and resolved to drive it away by concentrating on the treat before him -- and not the girl warm beside him.

An Historical Footnote

Footnote 18:

At this juncture, I feel it necessary to elaborate on a certain player in the drama, whose true rôle only came to my attention when the war had ended.

Captain Vossler York Azelas of Dalmasca had the day before I was made aware that Basch fon Ronsenberg yet lived, come to me asking my aid in securing himself transport to the Dreadnought Leviathan under guise of Imperial helm, that he might in his way discern the means to assure Her Majesty's release. My forced proclamation at the hands of Vayne Solidor still hanging in the air, I admit my surprise at being trusted in such a fashion. Yet Captain Azelas was seen to me to be a man with whom I could deal fairly, and I so in his eyes as well, and so I assisted him in gaining passage.

When next I heard the name of Captain Azelas, it was spat with great revulsion by those in the Resistance who had come to hear the tale: After aiding Her Majesty's escape, Captain Azelas had, I was told, sought bargain with the Empire -- the relinquishment of the Dawn Shard, so recently plucked from Raithwall's Tomb, in exchange for Her Majesty's return to the throne of a liberated Dalmasca.

I cannot say for sure if the Empire would have kept such a bargain. Surely its goal in conquering Dalmasca had been first and foremost to obtain the Dawn Shard, and whatever other benefits might have opened by holding the territory surely had by that point become overshadowed by the expenditures necessary to suppress and counter the efforts of the Resistance. For the many things I had heard spoken while he yet lived and that have come to bear repeating after his death, I have come to understand Vayne Solidor first and foremost as a practical man, and believe that, presented with the options at hand, he might indeed have chosen the course of Her Majesty's peaceable reinstatement. Perhaps not; it is foolish to speculate on the past in cases such as this.

Judge Ghis' response to acquiring the Dawn Shard, as well as the subsequent destruction of the Dreadnought Leviathan, are far more thoroughly discussed in the latter half of Chapter 16. Yet what had become of Captain Azelas? My investigations led me to inquire such many years later of Basch fon Ronsenberg (at that time in service to House Solidor under his deceased brother's helm), who though reluctant to discuss the matter, concluded that Captain Azelas had acted not out of malice nor for personal gain, but of a deep and abiding love for his homeland of Dalmasca. Never once had he thought this would bring about any personal gain save his own exile and likely death -- yet to him even life and honour were not so important as the restoration of the regent to whom he had sworn fealty.

That we should all be worthy of such devotion.

~Memoirs of Mqs Halim Ondore IV Chapter 18: The Shards of Empire

Breaking Lessons

"I understand now why your fencing coach is so upset."

Larsa jumped so hard he quite nearly disarmed himself, holding fast his weapons by sheer power of will. "J-judge Drace?"

She leaned against one of the training salon's doors, out of uniform for once, sporting tight breeches under a loose blouse, top buttons undone to show her throat. "I am told that your aptitude with Joyeux has progressed outstandingly, the likes of which he's scarce seen -- yet your skill with companion dagger has not evidenced nearly the same improvement." With eyebrow raised, she nodded in the direction of his left hand.

He lifted the rather unorthodox weapon, and had the good graces to look sheepish. "Ah, yes, well ... I feel that perhaps the dagger be not so suited--"

"Is Judge Gabranth responsible for this?" From another's mouth, the question might have had teeth, yet she delivered it with bemusement. Even had she sounded upset, however, Larsa could no more have lied to her than drank the sea in a swallow.

"Aye," he confessed. "He suggested it, and--"

"Show me." Her arms lay crossed lightly about her body; she unfolded them and lifted from the floor a light training sword, used more for instructing forms than simulating actual combat. Holding it out at arm's length, blade pointed in Larsa's direction, she nodded him curtly on.

Larsa thrust forward first with his own sword, striking a blow intended to drive his opponent's steel within range. Then he brought forth Swordbreaker, slipping Drace's blade into the valleys of its frame, hearing tempered brass grate against light steel as it caught the shaft in its grip. Keeping his posture well in mind, focusing his strength on his left arm, he gave the companion weapon a mighty twist -- and nothing happened.

Somewhat defeated, Larsa sighed and withdrew. "Alas, my form leaves something to be desired."

"Nonsense." Drace shook her head, and Larsa knew this protestation was from her not idle flattery, intended to soothe his ego; indeed, he did not believe her capable of such. "Here, allow me." She rolled up her left sleeve, baring the muscle of her forearm, and took Swordbreaker in her own hand. "You've learned well, and your form is nearly flawless. Yet here -- place your hand upon mine arm."

He lay his fingers gently around her wrist bones, marking the way she moved as she repeated his previous gesture. "Oh," he said, feeling in her correct motion the flaw he had let slip into his previous attack.

"There you are." With a smile, Drace tossed Swordbreaker lightly into the air, caught it mid-rotation, and offered the hilt to Larsa again. "You may not yet have strength to weild it to full effect, but strength will come of its own; form will not." She paused, tapping the practice blade's dull edge against her boot thoughtfully. "And perhaps I can speak to your tutor about certain leniencies in your instruction?"

"Thank you, Judge Drace." Larsa favoured her with a small, grateful nod as she turned to go, leaving him to his practice.


His fingers slip between her legs to find soft fur bordering her lower lips, fine and white as the hair atop her head, and in its midst wetness, her woman's center; he finds himself thinking of the Viera village she has described, a pearl inside dark forest, secreted deep. He finds her own pearl now, pressing it with his thumb, and she moans, drawing her nails across the skin of his back as she straddles his lap. Taking this as a fine sign of encouragement, he slips two fingers into her, making her gasp and rock back and forth in his grip.

"Needs more," she whispers after a moment, steadying herself. Those nimble fingers reach for the fastenings of Balthier's breeches and free his member, stiff and waiting to meet her. "Needs you."

"I'm right here." Leaning against the Strahl's bulkhead, he brushes his free hand across her full breasts, teasing at her dusky nipples. "Amn't I, Fran?" He bends forward to kiss at her collarbone, then to the hollow at the base of her neck, feeling her pulse against sojourning lips.

She purrs, and he can feel that, too, a low vibration. Bending low, she kisses at his ear, and the kiss has more than a hint of teeth. "Viera are very mysterious to humes."

"Oh, very," he agrees, flicking his thumbnail across the bud of her nipple. "Yet you're not such a tough nut to crack, Fran."

That draws from her another moan, and she rides herself up and down his fingers twice more before withdrawing entirely. His hand slips from her, slick with her juices, drawing up her thigh to search out the soft skin of her belly -- and stops, encountering something entirely unexpected. His eyes widen, and he leans back as far as their shared posture will allow, looking upon her with wide eyes.

"Amn't I?" She echoes his earlier statement, no small hint of gentle mockery playing at her tone. Her hand reaches down to meet his, slim digits covering his slightly broader knuckles, encouraging his fingers to wrap around her prick, which juts prominently from ... from where it ought, he supposed, its being a prick. The pad of his thumb brushes its tip in identical manner that the selfsame finger had stroked her soft bud earlier, and elicits the same pleased moan. "Needs you," she repeats, though this time the words bear something of a different connotation.

What the hell, thinks Balthier, settling himself onto his knees. It isn't as though he hasn't always suspected something like this would be the case.


Fran's boot kicked him awake. "You were making strange hume noises."

Sleep-addled and blearly, Balthier ran his hands across his slightly horrified expression. "Can't a man get some privacy?"

"You were dreaming. What about?"

"Nothing." He made a hasty retreat to the nearest washroom.

Barbarians and the Art of Archery

Basch gave the princess a good once-over, then, satisfied with what he saw, stepped back and folded his arms. "Any time, your majesty."

Ashe narrowed her eyes, giving her full attention to the target before them. The bow shook slightly in her grasp with the effort of keeping the string drawn, and though she tried to will it still again, her strength was not up to the steadying task. She bore down with her teeth, catching her lip between them, letting the slight pain center her to the moment. Then she took air into her lungs, breathed it out again, and let the string go.

The arrow sank into the yellow ring, three out from the red middle -- a hit not as close as she might have liked, to be certain, but the first not to join the many already landed in bundles of dried straw tied behind the targets to catch errant shafts. She looked upon Basch with a great smile. "Was that acceptable?"

"You did splendedly," he reassured her, placing his strong hand across her tiny shoulder. She had grown significantly over the last year, and so the crown of her head nearly met level with the center of his chest, instead of the top of his hip, as it seemed to have for so much of her young life. "One day I wager you'll out-shoot me, even."

"That I sincerely doubt," answered Ashe, smoothing the gauze-like fabric of her skirts. "You are the best archer in the world, after all!"

If a shadow crossed Basch's face at this praise, it was gone before it had even had time to register, as though it had never been there at all. "Nay, your majesty, not I. My sister, ah, she was worthy of that honour. Once, after leaving on a seal hunt while yet greatly with child, she came home, new infant in one arm, the hunt's best kill in other, and trusted bow strapped to her back!"

Though she admittedly knew little about the vagaries of childbearing, being as she was the only girl in a family of men, the thought of a woman so newly having given birth not only taking on a hunt, but besting all other participants made her laugh. "It's not nice to fill my head with lies," she scolded him, though the reprimand came couched in a girl's giggle.

"I swear it true, your majesty!" Mischief turned up the corners of his mouth, spoiling his attempt at sustaining the joke. "We named the child Seal-Brother, and he could swim from a remarkably young age."

Ashe shook her head. "Now I know you are telling me falsehoods."

Basch shrugged, favouring her with a smile yet wistful. "Only by part. She was indeed an archer of great repute. As you will never be unless you resume your practicing!" He drew another arrow from the quiver at his back. "Again, and remember what I told you."

She nodded, and nocked the arrow.

Bastard (an epilogue to Rendezvous

The morning sun fell through the gap in the curtains, casting a beam directly (and maliciously, he supposed) across al-Cid's shapely nose. He grunted a soft curse and turned from its heat, much more inclined to the human warmth of his companion from the night previous.

What he found as he cast his arm across the bedding, however, was far too small and not nearly shapely enough to be Balthier -- unless the pirate had some way of transforming himself into a tassled pillow, which, al-Cid supposed, if anyone in his acquaintance would know how to, that man would be Balthier. Somewhat puzzled and still mead-headed from what seemed all too few hours' sleep, al-Cid lifted his head to the room. One of his aides stood by the door, statue-still. "I do not suppose he has simply gone out to the washroom, now, has he?"

By way of replying, the aide strode over to his bedside and knelt down, holding out an envelope in her trim hands. Casting away the sheet, he straightened, cross-legged, and urged loose the envelope's flap. Inside, a man's well-educated penmanship had scrawled down the following with no small flourish:

My thanks for the loan of the airship. Cheers. -B

al-Cid blinked at the note, reading it twice at first, then twice again to make certain he hadn't missed some nuance or innuendo inherent in the words. No, he finally concluded, this was neither metaphor nor allusion to some larger meaning; the pirate had, in fact, entirely true to pirate nature, absconded with one of Rozarria's fine vessels.

"Ha!" he exclaimed in a voice sudden and loud enough to startle anyone who was not one of his aides. He clutched the letter in his hand, a triumphant sort of gesture, taking care yet not to crumple the stationery. "What a--" He looked at her, frowning in thought. "What do you call it, when you are in Archades and it is so terrible for one of your parents to be unknown?"

Her expression faltered not an inch.

"Bastard! Yes, that is it. What a bastard!" al-Cid laughed heartily, slapping his hand down hard against the pillow he was by now fairly certain was not Balthier at all (contrary to previous assumptions) with delight. "Some wine! Bring me wine, then, that I may toast my bastard friend!"

His aide stood dutifully, long legs unfurling like sails, and al-Cid leaned back against the bedding, letting the sun's bright rays caress his bare chest, still chuckling to himself. It was shaping up to be a truly magnificent day.


Her first move that morning was to shove him foreceably onto the floor, which made a thud she would never admit was satisfying. "You have your own bed," she pointed out.

"That may indeed be true," came a voice from a foot below the bed's edge; from the muffled sound, she supposed his face had recently become intimate with the Strahl's floor panels. "But my bed does not have a beautiful and talented women in-- urk!"

He proved a warm, if rather unsturdy footrug. "We had this discussion." She levelled her eyes at his prostrate back, then realised the gesture would do her little good and so gave it up.

"It's not as though it's my fault I get confused," he protested. "I come back in the middle of the night, perhaps not at my most perceptive, to a darkened ship that has been until your recent arrival customarily empty -- am I really expected to remember that my quarters have been relegated elsewhere?"

"Yes." She drew herself to her feet, listening to the sick sound he made as she put her weight full on him, then stepped off, attending to attiring herself. It was an easy decision -- she had escaped with the clothes on her back, after all, and had not yet particularly been in the mood to go shopping. Hume fashions were all so ridiculous, and only the most conspicuous of urban locations, she was told, boasted viera boutiques. She had contemplated sending him in her stead, but trusted neither his taste nor his ability to behold her measurements without comment. "Are you still down there?"

Admiring the view, she expected him to say, part of his constant sexual banter that left her unthreatened due in no small part to its constancy, its near-automaticity; only when she turned to look, he was staring not at her, but at an empty, thoughtful space along the bulkhead. "Do you want breakfast? I could make breakfast. I'm awake now, I might as well make breakfast. ...I'm just trying to recall what we have."

"Tinned beans and old bacon." She ran a comb through the snarls of her hair. "You ought go to market."

"Ah, it's the old wife I'll play for the rest of my days with you, I can see that." He rolled over to lay on his back, resting his hands beneath his head. "Perhaps you'd come with me? I have a feeling the bangaa butchers might deal more fairly with me were they to catch a glimpse of those fearsome claws of yours." She did not respond, focusing rather on a unsightly tangle that had twined itself up during the night, wondering how long he could let silence stand, being impressed when he made it nearly a fully minute. "The Strahl's a fine ship, Fran, but you'll have to show your fugitive face outside her sometime."

"I know," she bit curtly, fitting her wrought-iron helm about her head.

Simple Gifts

Her twentieth-fifth year was not kind to Yveas -- first her lord father's death, in the darkest part of that wretched winter; then a campaign against Rozarrian interests in the northwest sea that had her regiment in rudimentary tents for nearly three months' time; then, upon her return, her acceptance to the law akademy, which excused her from none of her military duties, only added to them -- and as its close neared, she found herself more than happy to see it depart. With her parents dead and her brother busy with his clerical apprenticeship, however, she doubted anyone would make note of the date.

Thus, she did not expect to see, waiting for her in her modest captain's quarters, the sturdy figure of Judge Zargabaath, out of her uniform, lounging cross-legged on the room's only couch. "Your Honour," she stammered, too surprised for any more proper gesture of greeting.

"Yveas," the Judge smiled, drawing herself to her feet. Her hair was drawn away from her face in the same severe white bun she had worn ever since Yveas had known her, a hairstyle that had in fact given Yveas courage not to apply lotions or dyes when, at nineteen, her own hair had started to grey. "You'll forgive my letting myself in, but there simply was no other place to wait."

"No, of course." Yveas looked around her quarters, but they were barren and dry; her eyes could find nothing suitable for a host's duties. "A thousand pardons, Your Honour, but had I known you were coming--"

"You can sit, Yveas, it's all right. If I'd expected to be wined and dined, I'd've called well in advance -- or looked up my son, who inherited his late father's curious gift for impromptu hospitality." Judge Zargabaath patted the seat beside her. "Please."

Hanging her satchel from the rack beside the door, Yveas (mercifully attired in her akademic's robes, and not her more ungainly imperial armour) strode across the room and took a seat next to the older woman. "How is your son?"

Judge Zargabaath gave a gentle smile. "He doesn't see nearly enough of his mother, so dedicated as he is to hanging on every word from the young emperor's mouth. Which is, of course, as it ought to be, I only carried him in my womb for nine months and handed him off to wetnurses with minimal fanfare." Even by standards of Archadean nobility, Judge Zargabaath had always been a bit of an austere mother, enough that talk of it had penetrated even Yveas' disdain for idle gossip at an early age. "Ready to take his mother's place upon my retirement, which shan't be too far away. Always leave them wanting more, as a wise mummer once told me, and I daresay he'll bear with far more dignity the swordmaster's version of the family armour than I bear the mage's."

Yveas laughed at that, for she and Judge Zargabaath had comisserated on many an occasion about the ridiculousness of the noble families' armour designs. "You wear yours with all the dignity it deserves, Your Honour."

"You're far too kind. But talk of my son brings me to the reason for my visit -- for he, in fact, remembered where I had forgotten, that your birthday falls next week." Before Yveas could respond, Judge Zargabaath reached into the folds of her robe and produced a deepl blue box, nearly as tall as it was wide, but many times longer, placing it on Yveas' lap. "Now, before you open it, know that though what lies inside may appear to be a courting-gift, I mean nothing sordid it. Regard it simply as a gift from one woman who knows all too well the trials of the path we've chosen, to another just setting out on it."

Confused and intrigued alike, Yveas removed the lid from the box and uncovered a deep metal rod, of the same metal quality as Judge Zargabaath's own armour, yet smooth and highly polished. Its length was twice the span of her own hand, and its girth slightly wider than the circle of her thumb and forefinger. She stared at it a moment, then let out a surprised giggle as she surmised the gift's purpose, her cheeks colouring.

"I hope it fits," smirked Judge Zargabaath, looking entirely pleased with herself.

The Other Side of the Wall

The sound of the door's slamming from beyond the shared wall with his brother's bedroom wakes him, and he lifts his head, listening in the dark for the cause, expecting a furious Olan to burst in moments later, decrying the behaviour of some ill-mannered lord or lady.

But there is no intrusion, though presently Islude hears a woman's low laughter, and many things become clear. The twins have reached their sixteenth summer, and Olan has chosen to celebrate by romancing every young woman in Archades, a surprising number of whom have decided to let themselves succumb to his boorish charms. He has only recently begun bringing them home, however, and this is the first instance he has heard, rather than merely heard of.

The wall next to his bed resonates with a thud -- that would be Olan, like as not -- and Islude, beyond the point of returning to sleep, places his hand against the smooth plaster. Their rooms are mirrors of each other, their beds placed practically side-by-side, with only a dividing wall between them; when they were still boys, they would rap on the wall at one another after the lights went down, their last nightly reassurance of I'm here, you can sleep. Now Islude does not return the knocks, only catches them with his fingertips.

He has known for quite some time that his preferences and his brother's do not coincide, and he envies his brother's freedoms in that respect, for he knows that should he wish to engage in after-hours courtship of his own, he will have to be far more discreet. They are in this respect again as fraternal as might be, Islude the soul of caution, Olan who has never a day in his life felt the burden of discretion. The latter laughs now, from the other side of the wall, not caring who hears the sound, and Islude's fingers catch that too, drawing it into himself with one hand as he reaches for his prick almost absently with the other.

Islude is not attracted to his brother (he considered it once, for nearly a minute, before laughter overcame him and Olan had to ask what was funny, and Islude had to tell him, for they keep no secrets from one another, and then Olan had laughed twice as hard, and that had been all right), but still presses his forehead to where his hand had previously been, stroking himself and listening for the sounds from the other side. The sounds of coupling speed, gasps and moans growing louder and more frequent, and Islude turns his mouth into the pillow to muffle any sounds of his own breathing that might drown out the noise. He knows he could cross into his brother's room now and be welcomed with a grin, but he doesn't want to be there; he wants to be here, a wall away, closer in mind than in body. For two brothers so radically different, they have always each understood the other completely.

Olan's climax is a rough roar, and Islude's follows shortly afterward, a muffled sigh. Then there is shuffling, low voices presumably discussing whether she should stay or go, settling sounds indicating the answer is stay. Islude tucks in as well, tossing his soiled shortclothes to the floor to be delt with in the morning. The night is warm anyway, and the sheets feel good against his bare, flushed skin.

In the silence that follows, just before sleep takes him again, he hears a soft rap against the wall -- two strikes, one for each of them, I'm here. With a smile, he lifts his hand and returns the knock; that's all right, then, he sighs, closing his eyes.

The Judge Returns

She heard his snores even from outside the door of their conjugal quarters, and the sound gladdened her heart. Two weeks on the road had wearied her considerably -- Nabradia's countryside was lovely, and its people ready and willing to work for the restoration of their autonomous government, but the constant rains given her bad hip cause to ache, and when Judge Grisholm had offered to cover whatever final details might be necessary that she might make an early return to Archades, she had accepted his generous offer and departed before he could change his young and mercurial mind.

She had not expected to return in the middle of the night, but a storm had prevented more direct travel, and instead of arriving in time to share an evening meal with her husband as she might have hoped, the far cathedral bells were striking midnight ere she set foot in their home again. By the dim city light from the windows, she navigated her way through their apartment, peeling off her clothes as she went; the floor would hold them for the time being, and certainly get them no dirtier.

The door to their bedroom swung open, emitting the comforting sound of his breathing and permitting the bare light from the outer room, illuminating for a moment their bed, and him in it, on his back. She could have guessed as much even without looking; he always snored more heavily when stretched flat, instead of curled against her with his head pillowed on her chest, as they more frequently slept. He lay on the side of the bed closest to the door -- usually her side, and it charmed her to think he had taken to occupying her spot during her time away (for none wishes to lament a partner's absence, only to find the partner has gotten on just fine without).

Her mouth curved in a wicked smile, and she shut the door behind her, shrouding the room in darkness. Knowing him to be a heavy sleeper, she pulled back the light blanket from his body with little delicacy, reaching into his shortclothes quite directly for his manhood -- which, though attached to a sound-sleeping man, had itself few qualms itself about being awakened. She drew him to hardness in few strokes, smile twisting into a full grin as she heard his breathing begin to rasp with arousal. Though her hip had bothered her in Nabradia, the dry air of Archades had already set it to rights, and she felt only the dullest of aches there as she climbed atop him, holding his prick fast in her hand as she settled her knees astride his hips and pushed him, hard and ready, deep into her.

He gasped and bucked beneath her, reaching for her hips as she leaned forward and cupped his cheek -- and then they both stopped cold, deeply and mutually aware of something as-yet-indescribably wrong. Slowly, and with a dawning sense of deep horror, she trailed her fingers up the left side of his face, to the deep scar carved from brow to ear that marked the man beneath her as a victim of quite a case of mistaken identity.

"My lady," Basch breathed, his voice sleep-darkened, "I seem to have ... penetrated your defenses."

From the far side of the bed -- from his side -- Noah grunted and turned toward them, as hazy as his brother, but approaching clarity at an alarming rate. "...Drace?"

She did not move, unsure as she was of the etiquette involved in circumstances of inadvertantly committing adultery with one's spouse's twin. Long had she known Basch and Noah frequently opted to share a bed when Drace was away, as they had in their youth, but such thoughts had been far from her mind until scant moments previous. Exhaustion and arousal became entwined with embarrassment, however, and all at once, Drace found herself laughing softly, unable to stop herself. "You must admit, given the arrangement here, some confusion was inevitable."

Basch joined in her amusement, but with only a single, breathy chuckle, its voice stolen by uncertainty (and, ostensibly, the presence of his brother's wife atop his still-interested nether regions). "Your aim is frequently unparallelled, though I fear your true mark yet lies another three feet to your right."

"Ah." She reached for Noah's hand in the darkness, twining their fingers together, giving a soft tug in anticipation that he would pull in kind, drawing her from his brother's loins into his arms. What she felt, however, was not tension but slack as Noah drew himself forward, pulling himself upward until he knelt behind her, kissing at her shoulder, wrapping protective arms around her belly and breasts, brushing fingertips against her skin -- but at no point taking action to move her from where her body joined his brother's. After a long moment holding taut and still, Basch began to move slow, and Noah bent them both forward over him, her body pressed between them, letting them both in, keeping them at once apart and together.

Sparring Lessons

Yveas swung her staff around in her hand, getting used to its weight, padding the training salon floors in her bare feet, feeling her light linen pants move about her legs. She paced clockwise, outlining her half of the circle, letting Olan pace out his half, bearing down on him with her fiercest gaze, watching him grin at her as a man who ought be put in Bedlam. His right foot hesitated a second -- a mere second -- but her watchful eye caught it clear, and she sprang toward him before he could make his advance on her.

Though the advantage of strength was unquestionably Olan's, Drace had all her life been small, and a woman besides, and as such had learned to match strength with speed, brute force with quickness. Any blow of his would surely lay her out if it connected, but his task was to make one connect, and she was not going to make that at all easy. Their staves hit hard together, wood to wood, keeping up a rhythm whose exertion drained the smile from his face and caused sweat to pour forth from his brow. She kept her eyes fixed on his, willing her breathing to stay as even as she could. Part of this, after all, was making it look easy.

At last he took a great step backward, thrusting straight forward with the end of his pole; she sidestepped and brought her staff around, bringing it down square across his shoulderblades with a crack, sending him to the floor in a great heap. "Ye gods, 'Veas! Yield!"

She set her pole vertical as a mage's staff and poked him with one bare toe. "If you tell me this is the end of you, I shall be sorely disappointed."

"One of us will be sore, to be sure," Olan grunted, rolling onto his back with a hiss that changed rather quickly into a lecherous smile. "...Though I daresay the view from down here is lovely."

Drawing her free arm across her middle, and beneath her loose shirt, Yveas placed her foot firmly on his chest, feeling his pulse race through its sole. "If ever I face you on the field of battle, I shall remember simply to unfasten my breastplate, and your cause will be lost."

Olan shrugged, chuckling. "Perhaps, but even then I shall have triumph in defeat." With great force, he clamped his hands around her ankle, tossing her off-guard and to the ground, where he was atop her in an instant. "Or perhaps I'll simply lull you into standing close enough."

She wrapped her legs around his waist, reaching up to undo his half-ponytail, letting his dark hair fall like a curtain around his face. "What makes you think I didn't want you here in the first place?"

"Oh ho!" He laughed, leaning down to kiss her, releasing his grip on her wrists in order to cup her breasts--

And was in an instant flipped onto his back, where she held him to the ground with his previously dropped staff at his throat, her calves pinning his knees flat to the ground, wearing a truly triumphant smile. "Game, set, and match." She climbed off him, taking careful to leave her ankles out of easily grabbable range, and padded off toward the door without looking back, drawing her sweat-stuck hair away from her brow and neck, calling over her shoulder as she did, "Though if you can sweep the shards of your shattered dignity up and carry them to my room, I might yet devise some method of restoring you to wholeness."

She was greatly amused to hear, no sooner than the words had been spoken, the sound of a large man's scrambling to his feet behind her, and she took off at a run down the corridor, him close at her heels, laughing all the way.

A Young Man's (Belated) Education

Rasler feels all the colour drain from his cheeks, until he is certain his complexion matches his hair -- only to have it replaced momentarily by a rush of blood so great it leaves him light-headed. Basch laughs and claps him on the shoulder good-naturedly. "Obviously the ways of Landis and Nabradia find themselves again divergent; I myself was but a lad when instructed that wherever a man wishes to plant his rod, he must be willing first to lead with his mouth."

"B-Basch!" Rasler sputters, lifting a hand to his mouth and feeling in an instant a blushing girl. Such frank discussion of sexual matters has been almost entirely absent his whole life, and even the year and a half spent in the informal care of the Knights of Dalmasca has obviously left some deficiencies in his education. "I ... sincerely doubt the Lady Ashe would allow me to ... to...."

"Why, if she has done the one thing, surely she will allow you the other." Though few here care for strict adherence to regulations regarding premarital chastity, tradition yet demands certain inspections, and by this point certainly everyone in the palace, if not the entirety of Rabanastre, knows how the newlyweds have spent their wedding night -- something which has rendered Rasler incapable of meeting most eyes upon his emergence from the bridal chambers.

Basch, of course, is an exception, but Basch is a remarkably understanding individual, and has managed to gently scandalise Rasler so often during the length of their acquaintance that embarrassment is the order of the day around the knight, and as such Rasler no longer notices. He coughs, trying to wrap his mind around the task set before him. "....Is there any, ah, trick to it?"

The smile Basch gives him is so patient and affectionate that Rasler cannot understand why Basch has not simply cast him to the wolves by now, save the entertainment value of having an easily flustered prince always nearby. "If my lord is uncertain of the geography involved, perhaps he would do well before to ... take his lady in hand, as it were."

That brings Rasler up somewhat short, and he is trying to puzzle out what precisely that would entail when Basch clears his throat and wiggles the first two fingers of his right hand for an instant. "In hand, my lord."

It takes all the strength Rasler has to remain upright, and not seek the nearest flat surface not the floor. "...You must understand, Basch, I ... all this ... this physicality, I.... On our first night, I ... she and I, we ... she bled, and--" He takes a deep breath, letting the rest of his explanation come in one great rush, though even as he speaks he finds himself hard-pressed (oh, how he wishes another phrase had come to mind) to meet Basch's gaze. "It was distressing to me, in my heart, to feel pleasure and yet know I had somehow pained her."

Basch wraps one strong, comforting arm around Rasler's shoulder in a fraternal half-hug. "Then my lord shall of course have to make amends. ...Might I suggest kneeling before her?"

Rasler finds himself cursing with all his heart the general unavailability of fainting couches in Rabanastre, and instead resolves quietly to abscond with his wife as quickly as possible, in order that he might find opportunity to put some of these utterly undignified suggestions to the test.

Growth Beyond Limitations

Fran wasn't surprised when the Strahl's door creaked open just as the sky was beginning to show light, nor was she particularly disappointed in anyone or anything save herself for having stayed up half the night worrying about someone who could likely take care of himself. They weren't going anywhere today, then; perhaps she'd be able to rest for now, then take an afternoon trip alone through the Rabanastran streets while her partner recovered strength and sense alike.

She'd just closed her eyes with every intention of sleep when he came stumbling in, coming right over to her bed and lifting the covers, and without complaint or comment, she moved aside and let him in. The bed wasn't big enough for two, but at times like this he was capable of making himself so very small she could never have objected on such grounds. "Why do you do this to yourself?" she sighed, tucking his head under her chin.

He cuddled in close, his head fitting snug under her chin. He still wore his trousers and heavy shirt, a marked contrast to the high summer heat; he'd never said anything to the effect, but she wondered if he was easily chilled, more so than most humes. Her hand fell carelessly against the flat planes of his shoulderblades, and he hissed, drawing closer to her to escape the pressure. Neither did she wish to imagine the broken skin unseen there, nor did she offend him by working a curative magick he could have managed easily on his own, had he so wished.

There came a long pause, and she thought he might have fallen asleep, except that his breath hitched in a manner that was not restful, a sound that might from any other have indicated weeping. But Balthier the Sky Pirate did not weep, choosing instead, after several moments, to speak in a voice conspuciously absent of tears: "I have to."

"That's ridiculous." She lent her hand to the task of stroking his hair, which seemed mussed but otherwise unharmed.

"I have to," he repeated. "Got to find my limits now, before I'm known on sight -- and I can't very well do that alone, now, can I?" His arm draped around her bare waist, and she allowed it, since though she'd never admit it(least of all to him), his presence reminded her how much she missed the arms of her sisters. "And you're not volunteering," he teased.

She rolled her eyes. "I prefer to keep flogging associated with punishement, not reward."

"Yes, well, so do I." His voice was soft, a touch sheepish. "But see, now I know! Before, I might've been uncertain, and that'd be a terrible thing for Balthier the Sky Pirate to find out at an inopportune moment. Now I can be up-front about it. 'Spot of flogging?' 'No thanks, I'm good today!'" That made her laugh despite all her intentions not to, and she kissed the top of his head; he smelled of sweat and leather and sex -- and also, deeper, nearer the skin, youth and fear. But even those faded as he sighed into her touch, yawning. "I'm good," he echoed, voice heavy with sleep.

It wasn't easy, this process of becoming he'd chosen -- not growth, easy as trees' stretching their limbs, but forging, falling again and again of his own volition into the shaper's fire, refining himself at the immolations of his choosing. But fine-wrought steel was no less marvelous than a sturdy oak, nor a dashing sword any less mighty than a patient forest.


The mist in the Wood curled about their ankles as they walked along its paths, side by side, the slightly syncopated sound of his footfalls falling in and out of time with her long, even stride. An oddly peaceful silence surrounded them, and though Balthier had kept his hand at the ready all the while, no foes had risen to challenge them since their departing the village. He liked to think that even the Wood had some respect for those who'd nearly given their lives trying to save the world, but in his heart of hearts suspected it had far more to do with a favour called in by Jote in gratitude for her middle sister's life. No matter -- if it kept him from being the victim of attempted tentacle rape at every step, he found caring about the particulars difficult.

As the canopy began to thin, letting daylight filter through the trees, Balthier chanced the silence that had paced them nearly their whole way out: "It's good to see everything's going so well there."

"Aye," was the extent of her thin-lipped reply. The visit had not been Fran's idea, but Balthier had eventually convinced her that whether or not she was spiritually dead to them, her family had a right to see for themselves that she was not actually dead, despite much rumour and evidence to the contrary. He was no expert at interpreting the nuances of viera emotions in general, but was at least reasonably comfortable with those of one viera in particular, and from her at least had determined the visit to have been something of a success.

Now, however, his keenly honed viera-reading skills told him that his one viera in particular was quite cross with him, and that was a state he never liked to prolong. "And they all seemed rather happy to see you." Much of the visit had been conducted in the viera tongue, ostensibly to the intentional exclusion of the hume in their midst, and he'd taken no pains to reveal what fair proficiency he'd gained with the language during his years of partnering with Fran.

She nodded, but said nothing more. A low-hanging vine crept steadily downward before them, and she hacked it in two with her claws before it could see fit to get up to any real malice. They were nearly to the entrance now, and he'd gratefully sleep tonight in a bed that wasn't made of moss. "Particularly Mj--"

"If my sister looks at you like that again, it will be the last thing you see." Fran's voice always sound so casual when making death threats.

"Me?" Balthier feigned surprise reasonably well. "I daresay I have no control over the fall of her gaze, nor can I fathom why a wild heart such as yours cannot find sympathy to her being drawn to fascinations from beyond the green bord--"

"I think my meaning has been made clear." She strode over a small, stagnant pool, her back now to him.

Balthier sighed, and was about to protest that Mjrn's fawning glances and blushing questions toward him had been nothing of his doing -- that, in fact, answering her every inquiry sweetly and telling her extravagant tales of Ivalice while she reclained at his side had been mere courtesies, and nothing more -- when he felt a numbing slime wind 'round his ankle, and shouted so loudly that he very nearly did not hear Fran's wicked chuckle.

The Belle of the Ball

A quiet man at heart, Islude never cared for making a great fuss over their birthday; nonetheless, Olan had insisted on a gala fete every year, one which had become the social event of Archades, and as such Islude found himself again standing in the midst of neverending well-wishers, steadily wearying himself of their collective presence. After an hour, as a defence mechanism, he began to cloak himself in his younger twin's radience the way a candle might hide in the sun, letting Olan field all save the most perfunctory of responses, sipping his wine and watching the procession of well-dressed Archadians filter through the door.

He nearly dropped his glass when she walked through the door, and indeed, the room's din hushed momentarily as she swept in. Olan, of course, was too involved in whatever yarn he was spinning to take notice of something so unimportant as his lover's entrance, so Islude planted an elbow not-so-gently in his brother's rib. "What are you-- Yveas!"

She turned to hear her name called, then strode quickly their way, obviously relieved to sight friendly faces in the sea of politicians and idle aristocracy. She looked stunning, her dark hair already shot through with grey corded and drawn over her shoulder, her sturdy frame clad in a garment that appeared to be a single length of lavender cloth wound stratregically 'round her and pinned to gap just so, exposing her broad shoulders and slender hips; she appeared the pinnacle of poise and grace, and it was testament to the time Islude had spent in her close company that he knew the expression on her face to be false, a mask to cloak her discomfort. "Happy birthday," she smiled at Islude, pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth, "and to you," she turned to Olan, embracing him just as briefly, but with a great deal more intent weighing down the gesture.

"My lady," Olan swept up her hand and kissed her knuckles, "if I'd known you'd be such a vision, I would have insisted you stay home; I'll be getting angry missives from ladies for months to come, demanding to know I dared to invite this fine woman whose very presence makes them appear by contrast old hags or budding girls, depending on the direction to which they were already inclined."

Shaking her head, Yveas turned to Islude. "And how many celebratory casks of mead has he consumed already?"

"Half the cellar," smirked Islude, without much exaggeration, "though I daresay that though his judgement may be impaired, his estimation of you remains sound. You look lovely."

She tugged at the drape that crossed her slight breasts, a shift that ended up exposing even more of her hip -- presumably not her intended result, though Olan looked pleased. "I should just have shown up in full armour and saved you the letters, and don't think I didn't consider it." Even in her discomfort was beauty, for it spoke of her wish to be free from these trappings, to carry on with less formality somewhere far removed from here -- a sentiment with which Islude was entirely sympathetic. "Well, if I must endure an evening in such strange uniform, perhaps I ought find a gentleman willing to show me where the cellar's other half might be kept?"

"It would be an honour of which I'm scarcely worthy." With a bow first to her, then to his twin, Olan extended his arm to her, and they swept across the ballroom together, the emperor's son and the soldier, a daring couple if ever Archades had seen one.

It was easy, Islude thought, smiling as he watched them go, to see why Olan was so in love with her, her fierce spirit, her barely contained wildness. It was also easy for anyone -- save Olan himself -- to see that though he had eyes only for her, hers were fixed ever forward, her gaze eternally caught by some as-yet-unseen place on the far horizon, as distant as the stars.

Shooting Lessons

Under other circumstances, Penelo might have been flustered by the proximity of Balthier's body, his arms stretched out the length of her bare ones, his mouth scant inches away from her ear, his hips in such proximity that she could feel the heat from his body spanning the distance between them. However, she found the weight of the blunderbuss in her arms a sufficient point of distraction, and was grateful for its presence. "Be sure to hold it steady," he instructed, his voice a didactic purr. "Even for a young lady, it is ever important to mind one's aim."

Penelo sank her teeth gently into her lower lip and took a deep breath, nodding. She didn't bother pointing out that she'd been a crack shot with a crossbow since she was small, or that she'd been known to throw a rock and peg Vaan in the head from across a crowded room. This, she could tell, was a different game, and she wasn't going to spoil her chances at it by getting cocky.

"There." His hands trailed off her shoulders, fingers skimming her skin, then indicated a ripe fruit hanging low from a branch nearby. "Behold your target -- far steadier than a real fiend, to be sure, and higher in nutritional value than most, but an entirely servicible victim for a test run, I feel. Now, tell me what I told you."

Her eyes fixed straight ahead; she did not see him withdraw from her, but felt the slight absence that spoke of his retreat. "Keep my feet steady. Hold my arms strong. Don't take my eyes off the target. Keep my finger tight on the trigger. Don't pull until I'm ready." True to his instruction, she pressed her finger against the trigger, feeling it give just slightly beneath her fingertip, the promise of its giving all the way, provided enough pressure.

"That's a girl." Balthier's voice carried that ever-present smirk, his devil's grin that let you know he was trouble and made you not care all at once. Not for the first time, Penelo found herself glad he was on their side. "Whenever you're set."

Brow furrowed in concentration, jaw set, she lifted the gun to her level of sight, bracing the butt against her shoulder. A breeze ruffled the leaves, but the fruit hung heavy, steady, taunting her. And Penelo was never one to back down from a challenge. She conjured in her mind and imaginary line that trailed from the muzzle of the weapon to her desired target, took a deep breath, and drew back the trigger.

The explosion knocked her off her feet, and she fell back in the damp grass, ears ringing first from the sting of the blast, then from Balthier's laughter and applause. She cleared her head and looked at her target, but where the fruit had been only moments before hung a ruined branch sheltering a large mess of pulp and seed some feet below. Still laughing, Balthier surveyed the damage, then extended a hand to her. "Well-done! High marks for the fruitkiller! Shall we try it again, then?"

She grinned and took his hand, hopping to her feet. "You bet!"

The Autobiography of Balthier the Deathless

"What are you doing?" asked Fran, bending her long body over his like the willow over the river, the long branches of her hair falling aside his face and brushing his cheek.

"Composing my autobiography," answered Balthier, tipping his mechanical pen into the inkwell to fill the reservoir before returning to his composition: As a young man of eight, while my peers were oft engaged in more pedestrian pursuits--

Though her position hid her face from his view, he could hear the expression on her face transform into one of great skepticism. "You're twenty-eight."

"I live a dangerous and daring life, and might pass from this world at any moment, and thus must take great care to preserve a record of my existence so that -- should the unthinkable happen and I am ripped from this world in the prime and vigour of my youth, future generations will yet have true and accurate accounting of my deeds." He removed his glasses to wipe at a spot on the lens; as much as he detested them, he reckoned the temporary loss of dignity incurred by wearing them now far less than the loss of dignity to his posterity incurred if his great testament were to be error-riddled on account of his poor eyesight. "So, as you can see, it's rather important."

Long, dusty fingers pinched the edge of his current page and lifted it, careful not to smudge the ink, to reveal the page below. There was a brief pause, and then an audible snort. "At the age of three?" asked Fran, the smirk evident in her voice.

"I was a very precious young lad." He gently yet firmly removed the displaced page from her hands, settling it down again to continue: --I yet evidenced a curiosity unique to those of my still-tender years--

Her hair was silky against his skin. "What admittedly little information I possess about humes leads me to believe that at the age of three, a hume male would not possess the capacity to--"

"Yes, yes, and at the age of three you viera ladies probably kill and boil your first malboro, and harvest its tentacles to string a hammock, and turn its pelt into a tea cozy, and that's all very well and charming and civilised of you and your people, and never let it be said otherwise, but this is my autobiography, not yours, so--" He made a petulant little brushing gesture in her general direction. "Shoo."

With all possible grace, she pulled herself upright again, striding then to the other side of the small cabin and tapping a wrench against her bare thigh. "And when does your charming and intelligent viera partner make her appearance?"

Balthier checked his notes. "Page 428, I believe, if all goes as planned." --regarding the attention I was being given by several upper-class women of Archades-- "Though if you'd like, I could work you in a bit earlier. Foreshadowing, and all."

"Oh, no," said Fran, unscrewing one of the panels from the wall and exposing the glowing wiring beneath. "I wouldn't want to rush your true masterpiece."

"I'm glad you understand," smiled Balthier, tapping the end of the pen against his lower lip. "Do you think the tale of my exploits with Mme. de Mendosa and her three beautiful daughters should come before or after the story of how I built the first faster-than-sound airship?"

Fran stuck her head completely inside the duct space, giving her voice a hollow, metallic sound. "Whichever you think is best."


"Did you get to see the prince?" was the first thing he heard as he walked through the door; a blonde bundle of limbs jumped into his arms, and he caught her into an embrace, sweeping her a few inches from the ground. He was neither particularly tall nor particularly strong, but she was small and lithe, and did most of the lifting herself.

"I did," Reks nodded, kissing her hair before setting her back down on the ground. He pulled a chair away from the table and groaned as he sat in it. "He was very small and far away."

Penelo clucked her tongue in disappointment, then knelt before him and began to unbuckle the absurd leather straps that held his greaves to his calves. "If you go stand out in the sun in full regalia for six hours, I think it means you should get to see the prince."

"I'll be sure to let my commanding officers know you think so." Standing at attention for the mid-day procession had not seemed so bad at the time -- past the first hour, he hadn't been able to feel his feet, which had aided him somewhat -- but now that he sat, blood began to return to previously neglected portions of his body, and with it came a throbbing ache. "Where's Vaan?"

His left calf freed, Penelo went for the other leg. "He took Kytes to try and get a look. I think the last plan I heard was to masquerade as moogles and claim they were part of the royal chariot repair commission."

"Well, good luck with that one." Reks ran his fingers through his sweaty hair, then went to work unfastening his own gauntlets. "I hate this armour, you know. The leather gets sweaty, and then it stinks, and none of it fits right."

Penelo laughed and stood, reaching for his throat to begin the task of unfastening his breastplate. "Maybe they have a version in a lovely shade of lavender."

He shot her a sour look with no real malice behind it. "Don't you start with me."

"I won't, I won't," she smiled. Her fingers undid clasps and straps with an efficient grace; everything she did was so full of air and light that sometimes Reks felt compelled to drop everything and just take in the art of how she moved, how she looked.

With a groan, he lifted the breastplate off his shoulders, exposing his bare chest to the mercifully cool afternoon breeze. "It's just that... This isn't me. None of it is." He sighed and looked at her, and knew from her gaze she knew what he meant. Though they'd both endured their fair share of childhood teasing about how they should get married if they liked one another so much, the truth was that Reks did not want Penelo, he wanted to be her. And he loved Penelo most of all for understanding that.

Her nimble dancer's fingers drew his hair from his forehead. "I know," she said, "but it isn't for forever." She kissed him on the temple, then made a face. "Ugh. You do smell. You should go to the baths and soak for a while."

"Care to join me?" he winked, and they both laughed as she ruffled his bangs into his eyes, then skipped lightly away, the bells about her ankles singing as she went.


The entrance to the cavern was no wider than an inn's front door, allowing only the faintest crack of daylight to penetrate into the darkness, and the luminous mosses that coated the ruin walls were so dim that though Balthier could make out the path he was intended to travel, he could tell very few particulars of his surroundings. Thus, it was not for quite some time that he noticed the heavy Mist that weighted down the air surrounding them, and by then, he was already face-down against the cavern floor.

At first, he thought he might have tripped on some unsteady piece of stepstone, but he felt claws press into his shoulderblades, holding him in place by a greater force behind them, and knew there had been only one living creature behind him. "Fran?" he asked, his mind already running through the list of horrid things that might be ahead of him, thus necessitating her knocking him to the ground to save his life, which was really quite thoughtful of her.

Except he heard from her no reply, not even an angry hush indicating that he should shut his fool hume mouth, lest the hypothetical terrifying beast in front of them lend first ear then teeth to their situation. Her pressure against him, however, did not abate -- and he was sure it was she, for even after barely a year together he knew her weight and scent by heart. He felt the push of her legs against the backs of his knees, immobilizing him so completely that he could not even right himself to see what the trouble might be.

And then, he became aware of a warmth against his neck, short puffs of heated air that felt like feral breath, combined with a distinct sniffing sound, and Balthier's sole thought became, Galtea's bones, she's going to eat me -- a fate which he supposed he hadn't not brought upon himself, but still wished to avoid if at all possible.

He felt the chill tip of her nose press against the exposed flesh of his neck, and then her tongue travelled up the length of his throat toward his ear, drawing a wet trail that chilled quickly in the cold cavernous air. Though he could not see her face, he could feel her lips, and sensed that they had twisted into something approximating a grin -- and his body, that blasted traitorous sack of muscle and blood with which he had been saddled at his birth, rose eagerly to the occasion, making its presence known all the while sandwiched between his downed frame and the unyielding rock beneath him. At this point, he quite began to hope she'd eat him, if only to save him the discomfort.

Instead, she turned him in one brisk move upon his back, so swiftly that he had no time to prepare for the transition, and thus earned a knock against the back of his head for his troubles. With one strong hand she pinned both his wrists above his head; she straddled his waist, apparently thinking nothing of settling the feminine juncture between her legs right over the rise at the front of his trousers. From here, he could see her expression: clouded, utterly devoid of reason, feral in the extreme; her ears lay back flat against her head, not soft, but rigid, defensive. And there was not only one of her -- the luminous Mist swirled around them, prismatic, as though to ensure that even if Balthier missed the look in Fran's own eyes, he could view it reflected in the diaphanous mirrors that appeared and disappeared around her.

She arched forward again, contorting herself almost impossibly as she sniffed at his bared throat above the high collar of his shirt, and his brain scrambled for some explanation for her sudden turn of temperment. Certainly, this was in no ways precedented by her previous actions; in fact, she had gone out of her way to make her physical disinterest in him plain, and even though she rode astride him now as she might were they fornicating -- and they weren't, which was something his body had apparently failed to notice, both elements to his great chagrin -- he sensed little of her own desire in the arrangement. He searched his brain for possible causes, yet found no hint of information that might aid him.

Fran placed a single sharp claw at the collar of his shirt and began to rip it open, tearing well-tailored threads with the razor edge of her nails that just skimmed the flesh of Balthier's neck beneath. Everything she did was yet cautious, a predator's toying with its food, waiting for instinct to direct its strike. Perhaps it was the overwhelming force of her proximity, or perhaps it was residual head trauma, yet even maddened and possibly homicidal as she was, Balthier was struck by her beauty: the warmth of her skin, the rise of her full breasts over her armour, the pull of her mouth away from her little sharp teeth, the way her eyes reflected the variations in the Mist--

A connection sparked in his mind, the recollection of a single passage from the Song of Balthier that told of Balthier the Moogle's journey into the Caverns of the Underworld, where the Mist ran deep and thick as it had covered the world during the Time Before Time, and how he had met there a band of wild viera, driven mad by their years breathing the Mist, feverishly dancing and singing their delirious hymns to the old gods. Fran's gaze looked as the Song described those viera: haunted, feral, hungry.

She bent forward, pressing her breasts to his body, writhing atop him with a motion that drew all blood from his face to his loins and dropped the odds of his thinking his way out of his predicament all the lower. As if aware of just how helpless her actions rendered him, Fran tightened her thighs about his hips, which only served to make matters worse. Sniffing at his face, she drew her mouth dangerously close to his skin; she nipped at the edge of his jaw, and he very nearly manfully did not yelp. If she had become Mist-crazed, then, he had but one hope for his escape, or else she might indeed rend him to pieces where he lay and vanish deeper into the cavern to become a senseless wanderer herself. And, by the emperor's blood, if he did not deserve better than such a fate, surely she did.

He waited, patiently motionless, so docile that she might think him entirely defeated, until he felt her grip around his hands relax -- and then he sprang into action, wrenching a single hand free and grabbing a fistful of her hair. With all his might, he pulled their mouths close together, and into her parted lips he spoke the words of the Dispel charm, forcing the magic down her throat with his breath. She tensed at the intrusion, but by the time she had ascertained fully her situation, the magic had already begun to soothe her feverish brain, and by the time she might have determined a course of reaction, she was limp against his body, the full dead weight of her heavy frame sinking him to the floor like a sandbag.

For a long moment, he lay there, catching his breath, regaining his bearings, and quite near begging his nether regions to calm down before they inspired him to action he might deeply regret. Finally, with dignity only made possible by years of suffering at the hands of High Society, Balthier rolled Fran's prone body off his and stood, dragging her up and over his shoulders in a somewhat ungainly carry. "When we get out of here," he grunted, pulling his body up the first of the many steps toward the entrance, "either I'm to start lifting weights or you're to start wearing less gods-be-damned metal, is what I think. Is that all right with you, then?"

Taking her silence as sage consent to his perfectly sensible proposed course of action, he began the long and heavy journey upward, every step inching them closer toward daylight and fresh air.


As the plan had been hatched mere weeks previous, Vayne had assumed quite nearly to the moment of its enactment that some greater degree of cosmetic adjustments would become necessary. However, he'd managed to underestimate both the incredible degree of likeness to the twins' faces and the astonishing speed at which the Northerner's hair grew.

"I have done aught that you have asked me," said the barbarian wearing his brother's face. Small pips of blood dotted his face, most likely from when he'd stuffed the blade into the curiously unguarded side of the fair-haired Dalmascan soldier, who was presently being attended to with all due dilligence by the empire's own physicians. A more credible witness Vayne could hardly have asked for; after all, people were always inclined to believe bitter words when they came from a sweet countenance.

"That you have," agreed Vayne, watching behind as the limp form of Captain Basch von Ronsenberg was hauled away in shackles. Word of a swift, secret execution would follow shortly. He had for not a small moment considered testing the full force of Gabranth's devotion to his adopted empire, completing the pageantry by severing the kingslayer's head from his neck in full public view. What had stayed him was the thought of the great pain such an act would cause Larsa, yet he no less thought such a fitting fate. "Do you fear I might renege on our bargain?"

He saw Gabranth's eyes narrow, watched as the line of his mouth drew thin. He must have spent far too long behind a metal face, to become so careless with his own. "You spin falsehoods as a spider weaves a web," he said carefully, giving each accented word weighted consideration.

"And you, the clever fly, wish to know its span." Vayne shook his head at nothing in particular as four large men gathered up the corpses around them, the brave Dalmascan bodies heavy with the weight of the glory that comes with dying for one's monarch. "Your brother will live, clasped in irons, though whether or not he does so knowing he owes his every drawn breath to you? You may tell him; I'll not steal your thunder."

Gabranth's shoulders set as he drew himself to his full height, which still did not bring him to a height where Vayne did not look down upon him. "Am I dismissed?"

"Oh? Oh, yes. Go." Vayne waved at him with an absent shooing gesture, as one might send away a bothersome maid or child. However, as the Northerner reached the far door to the treaty-room, just past where the last king of Dalmasca lay propped upon the throne with friendly weapon yet fixed where it had taken his life, Vayne called out after him, "Will you cut your hair? Or leave it thus for commemoration?"

A hush fell over the room, as some dozen men whose lot it was to follow along behind greatness carrying the bucket held their breaths, willing themselves to keep about their tasks, lest they face retribution for faltering, yet tuned to the challenge. And why should they not be party to this? Vayne had taken the lives of his own brothers in front of the Senate's vulturous eyes; every fratricide needed an audience.

Gabranth hesitated for but a moment at the heavy door before pushing it wide. "What need have I for memory?" he spoke, then stepped bold into the corridor and let the great metal portal slam behind him.

Pirate of the Sky Aptitude Test

"Of course you'll have to pass an examination," said Balthier, eyes fixed ahead as he navigated through a sudden squall that had arisen on the waters past Balfonheim. The others had presumably busied themselves in the belly of the Strahl, but the two hume sky pirates had taken their perches in the cockpit, and Vaan, as was his wont, had decided he wished to be anywhere they were. "They can't just let anyone become a sky pirate, now, can they?"

Vaan's mouth curved distinctly downward. "A test?" He leaned forward over the back of the navigator's seat. "They make you take a test?"

"Aye," nodded Reddas gravely, studying some map of unrelated territory, which he had spread across his lap. "Unless you get your certificate, how will anyone know they are dealing with a true sky pirate?"

"Where's yours?" Vaan asked, turning his attention back to Balthier.

The ship swerved to starboard with perhaps a bit more force than necessary, and Vaan had to cling to the back of Balthier's chair to keep from toppling over. "I tend to bank on reputation alone as sufficient credentials. But if anyone wants to see it, Fran keeps it. You should ask her about it sometime."

"Mine is mounted on the wall of my office. Better for business." Reddas chewed at the end of an unlit pipe, which he was wise enough not to smoke in an enclosed space, and pored over the maps with an intensity that excused him from having to look up at the young Dalmascan, whose face, Balthier could see from out the corner of his eye, bore an expression of comic dismay.

"And they made you take a test for it?" From the tone of his voice, such seemed the greatest atrocity Vaan could conceive.

Balthier shook his head. "I? Oh, no, of course not." He waited a beat while Vaan's shoulders sagged with the promise of relief, then continued, "I was allowed to trasfer credits over from my having taken -- and passed, naturally -- the entrance examination to become a Judge."

"But-- I-- That's--" Vaan sputtered, sinking into a cross-legged posture on the floor between the captain's seats; it was a tight fit, but he was an exceptionally limber boy. "I don't even know what would be on the test!"

"Standard weights and measures. History of Ivalice, pre-Raithwall to the present. Aeronautical physics -- small craft only's required, though there's an additional subtest if you want to qualify in passenger-class airships. Cartography. Engineering. Sociology. Combustion. Standard magicite identification, nothing too complex; they won't ask the difference between Bhujerban and Rozarrian, for instance, though really it's something even your basic sky pirate ought to know."

"Don't forget the flight test," added Reddas, keeping his face suspiciously buried in his map.

That, at least, perked up Vaan's ears. "Well, hey, I could practice for that--"

"Has to be on a vehicle you've never manned before," Balthier interrupted. "That's part one of the standard ingenuity assessment."

His hopes and dreams crashed before him (albeit temporarily), Vaan fell into a thoughtful silence, slumping further down until the back of his head came to rest against Balthier's thigh, and though Balthier tried with every ounce of his resolve, he was unable to keep one of his hands from departing the controls and scritching at the sun-yellow head as though a favourite hound had come to rest beside him. Surely this whole matter would later earn him some great trouble with Penelo, whose memory for injury (among other things) far outlasted Vaan's, but some opportunities were simply too good for any sky pirate to ignore.

Sixty-Sixth Soulmate

Just before the great cathedral chimes struck midnight, she heard the soft tread of his sandles come up the stairs of the inn the Dalmascan resistance had so firmly insisted upon providing them. He swung the door open into their shared room and collapsed at the table, pillowing his head atop his arms. "You needn't even say 'I told you so'. I'll say it for you: you told me so. Yea, verily, you told me so, and had I listened to your wise counsel, I needn't've spent the entire evening experiencing firsthand the sensation a trapped fox feels when it begins to contemplate the necessity of gnawing off its own limb to escape."

Though she did not deem this overly dramatic monologue worth changing her facial expression over, she slid her drinking-glass across the table, and he took it eagerly, pouring the cool water down his throat. "Her sixty-fourth almost-soulmate, you became, then?"

"Sixty-sixth, actually; she's apparently kept herself busy since last we dropped by." Balthier raked his fingers through his hair, then set about his night-time ritual of removing his jewelery, setting first his brightly coloured magicite rings in a pile beside the small lantern by which she had spent the evening reading. "I mean, you can hardly imagine--"

"Can't I?" Fran picked up the smallest of the circles and set it easily around the first joint of her thumb. "She spoke for no less than half an hour on the nature of destiny, made detailed mention of no fewer than five of her previous almost-soulmates, drank six glasses of elder flower wine by herself, and wept into her kerchief for the remainder of the evening."

Balthier shook his head sadly as he unlatched his heavy steel earrings. "If I didn't know better, I'd believe you had been spying upon us for the evening, only I do know better, because if you'd been there, you'd've had the common decency to kill me." The flickering candlelight danced upon his youthful face, its fickle light playing at what might have been a smile at the corner of his mouth. "Tell me, what's the difference between you and she? Besides," he added, before she could reach across the table and throttle him, "the obvious disparity where she would blow over in a light breeze."

Fran spun the light, hard ring about her finger, feeling the heat from his skin lingering inside the magickal stone. "Herbalists such as she are sky-gazers light as leaves held on the breeze, the dreamers who see the world as it ought be, and not precisely as it is. You would not find a wood-warder so careless a companion. An evening with the viera from the clan hall, say, would not have developed thusly."

At that, Balthier raised an eyebrow. "You don't say. Well, then, perhaps a visit is in order, when we've a free moment. The one who's taken to participating in the sparring -- I daresay I'd like to get to know her better."

"As would I," shrugged Fran, not lifting her gaze from the play of the candlelight inside the ring's crystals.

A long, still moment settled on the room, broken at last by the song of heavy bells, their low tones heralding the new day's beginning from the midst of darkness. "...I am exhausted, and you are cruel, and I simply refuse to examine that statement more closely," he said resolutely, pulling off his vest and draping it over the back of the chair before collapsing face-down on the room's sole bed.

She watched him until he shortly fell asleep, then pulled his shoes from off his feet and pushed him toward the wall, that she might have some space of her own; he yielded ground as willingly as a full sack of millet, and as she settled down along her side, he draped a slumber-weighted arm across her waist. For a moment, she thought to protest and remove the offending limb forceably, but by the time she had made up her mind to do so, sleep had already slipped in and claimed her.

Moogle Drinking Contests

As recently as ten minutes previous, some few patrons had still been attending the other business, other conversations, other drink. Now, though, the entire tavern had fallen to a hush in a circle around the central table, where Balthier sat, affecting boredom as he held his breath along with everyone else.

To his right, Fran -- whose ears had already gone entirely limp, the way they did when she slept -- surveyed the glass in her hand carefully. It was small, and her long fingers wrapped about its base easily, concealing the rich amber of the madhu inside, perhaps hoping that against the heat of her hand some might be burned away. With a stiffening of her shoulders, she brought the glass to her lips and poured its contents slowly down her throat. The crowd remained fixed as though carved in stone until she returned the glass to the table, lip side-down, to join the fifty or so of its companions the evening had collected there; then a great cheer rose -- mostly hume and bangaa, judging by its timbre -- and she reclined against her chair, looking uncharacteristically smug.

That roar stopped abruptly as Nono, seated to Balthier's left, reached for his own glass. He had to brace a paw on either side for stability, more so as the night had drawn onward, but as he brought its rim to his lips, the liquid inside barely trembled. Bending forward, he stationed his tiny pink nose just inside the mouth of the glass, then threw his head back all at once, using the momentum to direct the madhu toward his waiting mouth. It was a feat that had grown less graceful as the evening wore on, but the crowd's appreciation was no less for it, and as he returned the empty glass to the table, the half of the onlookers who had remained taciturn through Fran's last salvo cheered.

With great deliberation, Fran plucked another glass from the steadily dwindling pile of fulls, clutching it delicately between her fingers, as though she were afraid it -- or she -- might break if she held it with too little care. She took some time getting it to her mouth, and during that pause the crowd grew restless, some doubting openly whether or not she had the strength for it. Yet Balthier's faith never faltered for a moment, not as he saw the hardened set of her jaw, and none of the gasps of surprise as she vanquished her drink came from him.

All eyes turned back to Nono, who had leaned forward on his chair at a precarious tilt. He squinted at her, fluffing his pompom in what Balthier (if perhaps no one else in the room) knew to be a clear sign of moogle aggression, and reached one steady dun hand toward his next glass. Halfway there, however, he paused, as a man might do when siezed upon by a sudden thought, and in that moment, Balthier knew the battle lost: Nono never completed the gesture, instead choosing to pitch headlong onto the table, scattering glasses empty and full alike.

The room was gripped by a frenzy, half cheering the praises of the viera who had just won them their wagers, half grumbling at the sad lot of a moogle who couldn't hold his madhu long enough. In the midst of this, Balthier swooped the latter up beneath his arm as one might carry a parcel, and draped the former's arm across his other shoulder, helping her to her feet. "I warned you about moogle drinking contests," he said, finding it as impossible now as ever to pass up a good I-told-you-so.

Fran fixed him with a menacing gaze, made less menacing for its being half-obscured by one floppy ear. "I won, didn't I?"

"That you did," Balthier conceded, choosing not to point out that she'd quite nearly been beaten by a creature a quarter her size soaking wet, and instead setting about hauling his besotted crew down the few town blocks to where he'd left the Strahl parked.

War Stories

She found him down at the tavern, a group of boys far too young for such a place clustered about his feet, hanging on his every word. "So there I stood, face to face with the Myrmidon King!" His dramatic tone of voice barely carried over the dull roar from all the other patrons, and the boys had to lean forward to hear, their faces plastered with excited grins. "My lovely partner was nowhere to be seen, and all I had on me was my trusty Ras Algethi -- and I was down to only six bullets."

"That wasn't you, Vaan. That was Balthier." Penelo sighed and took the chair closest to him, tucking her skirts about her ankles. "And it was three bullets, to hear him tell it. Well, most of the time, anyway." This was only the second time this month he'd gone missing only to reappear in some Rabanastran establishment, regaling the local boys with tales of grand adventure, but the month was still young.

"Are you telling the story or am I?" Vaan jabbed his cane in her direction before leaning forward again on his knees, bending closer to the rapt faces of the youths. He had a storyteller's natural gift for the fanciful, to be sure, and though he scarcely needed to embellish most of his tales, Penelo caught him doing just that as often as not. He could remember in detail both his past exploits and all the absurd yarns Balthier had spun, but couldn't recall what he'd had for breakfast that morning -- which Penelo might have found troubling if he'd ever been able to recall what he'd had for breakfast that morning. Vaan just shy of his eightieth birthday was little different from Vaan just shy of his eighteenth, and at least that was comforting.

Penelo sighed and patted him on the knee. "It was Balthier and Fran, and that happened years before we met them. Don't you remember?" She didn't mean to be a killjoy, really, but sometimes the need for a little common sense grew a bit overwhelming.

Vaan's expression fell slightly, and his eyes grew unfocused, as though seeing something years ago, invisible to them all but clear as day to him. For a moment it held him rapt, this shadow across his memory -- and then he brightened again, patting her hand with his own as he leaned back down toward the boys. "In my youth, you see, I was friends with a great sky pirate by the name of Balthier."

"Balthier?" The oldest of the boys, a mouse-haired rascal with a missing front tooth, looked quizzically at Vaan. "Who's he?"

Fast as lightning, and far faster than anyone his age had any right to move, he'd cracked the boy (gently, Penelo noted) across the head with his cane. "'Who's Balthier?' you ask! Only the greatest sky pirate who ever lived!" Vaan exclaimed proudly. "He once faced down the Myrmidon King with three bullets in his gun, in a sun-baked canyon just outside of Balfonheim...."

She certainly hadn't believed it the first time she'd heard it, and no amount of repetition had made it to her a more credible tale -- yet as Vaan vaulted into a tension-filled (and now third-person) account of the great battle, Penelo found herself lost in the story. Her own credulity surprised her, but she had little time to reflect on it before she, too, was transported by Vaan's tale to a dusty canyon, looking up at a man standing atop an outcropping with his gun at the ready, wanting at long last to believe it all true.

Shelter from the Storm

When he first heard the door to the balcony slam open, Islude blamed the wind; after all, the summer rainy season was upon them, and a great thunderstorm had rolled in on the evening, fierce enough to rattle the building nearly to its foundations. "I'll get it," offered Olan, standing from his place at the pallankuli table and turning toward the door to Islude's bedroom. "But you'd best have placed your move by the time I return."

Thus, Islude was lost in thought, staring at the polished stones arranged in cups before him, when he heard from over his shoulder the sound of his brother's return. "All right, I've made my play," he said, cupping his chin in his hand and resting his elbow on the table. The first summer rain was always a delightful break from the oppressive heat, but now three weeks into a near-constant deluge, Islude found his good spirits had nearly been drowned. "It's my game in five rounds, though, so you might as well concede."

"And give up without even trying?" came a thickly accented voice that belonged to no one bound to Islude by blood. "On my honour, I could not bear such a coward's disgrace."

Islude was at his feet in an instant, joy and disbelief waging war upon the battlefield of his face. Before him stood al-Cid, dripping profusely on the carpet; despite a heavy oilskin drape folded over one arm, his hair was plastered to his head with rain and his clothes soaked through. "How did you--"

al-Cid nodded to the direction from whence he'd come. "My skimmer, she is concealed well by the very decorative foliage on your balcony. As for your lord brother?" With a little grin, al-Cid shrugged. "He has suddenly remembered a previous engagement and excused himself through the far door to your chambers; nonetheless, he has promised me that you will serve as my host for the evening, and that you would be so kind as to extend to me every courtesy of hospitality on behalf of House Solidor."

"You're just lucky he didn't throw you back out into the storm," smiled Islude, restraining himself only with great effort from embracing the sodden man where he stood; his outfit of choice for the evening did not take well to water, and the last thing he wanted to explain to anyone in the imperial house was how the empire's eldest son's new silken robe had been ruined by water stains from the empire's greatest enemy's youngest son. "Perhaps my first courtesy might come in the form of a set of dry clothes?"

"First, I would have a place to disrobe. Then, come the morning, yes, something dry might be nice." With a wicked grin, al-Cid brushed his fingertips down the curve of Islude's face. "But not until then." Islude felt a girlish colour rise to his cheeks. His confidence and experience made him seem even older than Islude sometimes, when Islude often had to take pains to remember that al-Cid was not only barely older than Vayne, but barely older now than the Archadian age of consent. Though he doubted anyone would have seen fit to press charges against a member of the ruling house over such a technicality, al-Cid's most recent birthday had yet given Islude reason to be cheerful that at least their vaguely treasonous relationship no longer put Islude in additional peril of prosecution as a child molester.

"Archades does all it can to honour and accomodate its noble guests," smiled Islude, gesturing grandly toward his tiled bath, just off from his bedroom. As al-Cid sauntered wetly toward it, Islude was given pause to marvel at how astonishingly transparent summer rain rendered al-Cid's white pants. And after a quick pause to remove his too-easily ruined garments, Islude followed his visitor in.

A Unified Front

From the inception of the position, the Judges Magister had been chosen for the diversity of their humours and methods, and the five who stood watch over House Solidor at present were no exception to this, having amongst themselves few shared pleasures. Yet there was at least one unifying thread that ran throughout their ranks: a shared dislike for the Imperial Senate, both as an institution and as represented by its component parts.

"I am certain you feel this is so," came through the door the muffled voice of Judge Ghis, who by virtue of secondary seniority was afforded the privilege of letting the senators know exactly how unwelcome they were, "but His Majesty requires his rest--"

The remainder of his words were lost beneath the angered sounds of deeply entitled old men's voices, and Bergan raised a hand to his face as though he could pinch the bridge of his nose through his expanisve helm. "Would it be treasonous to propose the dissolution of the Senate? Hypothetically speaking, of course."

"Your hypothetical is incomplete, Judge Bergan," answered Judge Drace, who stood nearest the door, poised with her glove atop the handle of her light mace as though she expected the aged mass just beyond it to come barreling through at any moment. "Any student of the Law would refuse to answer such an exam question on the grounds that it had insufficiently addressed all parameters."

"Ever the scholar," laughed Bergan, whose tone for once sounded almost pleased. "On the grounds of endangering the health of the Emperor, then, by plaguing him with writs and legislation as though they were themselves a malady."

From beyond the door again, Ghis' raised voice cut briefly over all the shouting -- "...what business, then, but to ensure the health of..." -- before it was shouted down anew by the voices of men long-practiced at talking over one another.

Judge Gabranth, aware of the great weight his new role had imposed upon him, shifted inside his station's armour. "Will they relent?" he asked, inclining his head toward the door.

Drace made a faint gesture that, unencumbered, would have been more clearly a shrug. "They seek to exhaust Judge Ghis by their persistence. It would perhaps be kinder of us toward them to replace him with a slab of marble; after all, marble has been known, under the right circumstances, to yield."

That won another barking laugh from Bergan, which resounded and magnified inside his helm. "Such is why we command the Empire's forces, while they are trusted with nothing of greater weight than the occasional proudly chosen punctuation mark."

Gabranth renewed a stalwart posture, folding his arms across his chest with great dignity against a barrage of unseen opponents. "Then we wait, until the siren call of blank parchments aching to be filled calls them back, or until His Honour is become a more malleable element, whichever comes first."

Mere feet away, as though the conversations on either side of the door were naught but wind, Judge Zargabaath, unhelmed now, knelt beside the the couch on which Emperor Gramis lay. Between his heavy gauntlets he took one of his aged Emperor's hands, cradling it as though it were an injured bird. Doubtless some physician or alchemist had been summoned in the commotion, but in the pause between their need and their arrival there was only he, fixed ever-vigilant at his lord's side, counting the space of every laboured breath.


"If I knew no better," smirked Gramis, appearing in the doorway to the antechamber wearing all the trappings of age and status, but with something of the swagger of the man he had been some twenty years previous, "I might think you nervous, Nomis."

The soon-to-be Judge Magister Zargabaath -- within the hour, in fact, he would receive his helm and formally adopt the name and title that had belonged to his mother only two weeks previous -- gave his emperor a nod of greeting, but performed none of the obeisances that might otherwise have been required of him. Too long had they known one another for such gestures to hold any meaning when they were alone together. "As steadfast as stone, your excellency," he answered, pulling back the tail of his already greying hair with a ribbon in anticipation of stuffing it beneath his new helm.

Gramis laughed and entered the room, pulling the door shut behind him. "I can't tell you how pleased this makes me," he said softly, placing his hands on either side of Nomis' clean-shaven face; Nomis felt the chill of Gramis' rings against his flushed skin. The emperor had grown so thin in the months past the death of his second wife, so much so that though he had never cared for the wretched woman, Nomis had found himself mourning her loss if only for the years with which her departure had weighed down Gramis' entire being. "Long have you served me more faithfully than any other; your mother's passing was indeed tragic and sudden, and yet I feel grateful that it has given me cause to install you formally at my right hand."

Nomis lifted a single mailed hand to Gramis' shoulder, his heavy judicer's armour already feeling as familiar to him as skin. "May I never give you cause to doubt my loyalty."

"No, I think such has tested and been proven to me time and time again." Gramis leaned in to close the distance between them, inclining his head downward a fraction, for though Nomis was a man of no short stature, Gramis still held the height advantage. "As has your love." And the Emperor of Archades drew their lips together in a kiss.

There was naught of romance to the gesture, Nomis knew, this dry meeting of closed mouths, this chaste signal of favour from a ruler to his most trusted servant -- and yet, Gramis' fingertips tightened around the edge of Nomis' jaw, holding him fast with a strong and appreciative grip none might mistake for simple gratitude. Though it was not the embrace of mutual longing Nomis had in younger days dreamed about, they were no longer boys, neither of them; they had grown together into these roles, where fleeting desire made way for steadfast loyalty, and passion's fancies gave their ground to the fulness of honour.

They held there together for a long moment as Nomis burned everything of the embrace into his memory: the force of Gramis' touch, the warmth of his lips, the gentle brush of his beard, the rich salt smell of his skin. And then they were parted, and Gramis reached to draw a lock of hair from Nomis' face, smiling as he did so. "I shall see you again before the assembly, Judge Magister Zargabaath."

House Solidor's newest Judge Magister placed a closed fist to his chest and bent his head in a deep bow. "I live only ever to serve," he said, and as his lips formed the words, he felt the lingering sensation of Gramis' mouth against his melt away.

A Well-Kept Secret

Long had he hated the interference of others in his doings, whether for good or for ill intentions, and by thus he knew the circumstances must be extraordinary indeed; Judge Magister Drace had hardly left his side in the past two days, having charged herself in the absence of the Empire's younger son with the care of its eldest, and he had not yet found cause to protest her constant presence.

She stood by his desk in his chambers' study -- and if he had grown weary, how much more tired must she have felt, who had borne up everything he had, only under an added hundred pounds of metal? Yet she did not look as though weary, nor did her unhelmed face give away her few hours' rest caught fitfully the night previous; her expression was steel, as sharp as her weapons' edges, and he feared for anyone who would find himself on the wrong end of either. "I fear once word of this reaches Rozarrian ears," he said, lifting his head from a great sheet of the army's roll, with small marks left beside those whose honour was still unimpeachable (how few!), "our conflict within will dwindle in the face of conflict without."

"Then we must needs send message of patience to the more peaceful ears that listen from across the divide." Drace nodded thoughtfully as she spoke. "To al-Cid Margrace, who is friend of peace and Lord Larsa alike, and also to your lord brothers, though they will likely not thank Archadia's first contact with them after these many years to be--"

Only when her voice faltered did Vayne understand what expression had slipped unbidden upon his own face, and he willed his jaw to shut and his eyes to quit their widened stare; yet by the time he found control over his own surprise, it was far too late. "...You did not know," she said, her voice nearly a whisper. "By the gods, you did not know."

"...My lord brothers?" he asked, and he trusted himself to speak no more than this. Perhaps otherwise he might have taken the news with greater dignity, but he was exhausted now, sick with worry and dread for his family and for his country alike, and after the previous days' events, there could be no further merit in feigning impassiveness in the face of Judge Drace.

"Not executed, but banished, to Rozarria," she said with no small hesitancy, as though betraying a confidence -- which, he supposed finally, she was. "They are protected by House Margrace, the news of their execution spread amongst the Senate and other prominent members of Archades to protect them from further reprisal. Even I was meant to think them dead, and would surely have believed it true, had Lord Olan," he thought he heard a catch to her voice, "not sought me out in the moments before they were ferried from Archades in secret."

Pressed flat to the pages in front of him, Vayne's hands did not tremble. "And yet," he said, after long considerate pause, "never was I made aware."

He saw her jaw set as she considered her next words. "Begging your lord's pardon, but at the time--"

"At the time he could not trust me," interrupted Vayne, unable to meet her eyes. That he, a youth of only sixteen, had been kept from this knowledge lest his perceived fanaticism endanger his brothers' lives -- this he understood full well, and could not condemn. What stung more truly was instead the knowledge that he, now twice that age, had during the intervening years given no one any reason to think otherwise.

Come Home

"Should I enter along with you?" inquired Vayne, lingering two steps' distance behind them as they approached the gilt doors. Though his journey into manhood had been fraught with countless pitfalls, Vayne had become a man of no small self-possession; however, as he accompanied his brothers along their first passage through the royal hallways in decades, Islude was quietly amused to see how many of his boyish, insecure mannerisms came flooding back.

Islude shook his head, placing a steadying hand on his twin's arm even as he reached for the handle. "I see no reason to burden you with the weight of reunion," he smiled at his younger brother.

"Though keep an ear to the door," added Olan, who wore a smile broad enough to conceal the dread lurking just beneath its genial surface, "and if our distress becomes audible, perhaps you might intervene with a tea-tray and a clever anecdote."

Whether discomfort or vague relief passed over Vayne's face at the instruction to remain outside, Islude did not stay to examine; steeled by a breath of resolve, he pressed against the heavy door until it gave way, then stepped into the darkened room.

The air inside hung heavy -- befitting, Islude supposed, for a sickroom -- and all the healers and alchemists who moved about their silent rounds wore the same grey faces, orbiting the center of their universe, the great canopied bed with the crest of House Solidor carved into its headboard. Pure white sheets covered its vast expanse, the same pale hue as the man borne upon them, his gnarled hands nigh-indistinguishable from the silken thread beneath. The physicians eyed them suspiciously, standing just far enough away to affect being inconspicuous, phials and philtres at the ready, yet said nothing.

The twins separated as they approached, one to each side, with the bed's sole occupant becoming the median that divided their world. For a long moment, they stood there, silent, waiting, until at last the ailing regent opened his milky eyes. "In my youth, not even the hawk's highest wanderings escaped my sight," said Emperor Gramis, each word barely louder than a weighty breath, "yet now I can tell neither shade from substance, nor dream from waking. Tell me, who has come to attend me at this late hour?"

"An envoy from Rozarria, no more." Islude's fingers worried at the lacy edge of one of the bed's heavy comforters. "Come to bring condolences from House Margrace upon the occasion of His Majesty's being stricken with great malady."

"Bearing wishes for a most expedient recovery," remarked Olan, and as he spoke in a tone most optimistic, he looked not upon the emperor, but upon his brother across the sea of white from him; his bearing bespoke caution ruined eyes could not detect, and his countenance was grave. Surely no wound existed so old, so scarred-over that family could not rend it wide again. The pain of being cast into exile was second only to the agony of return.

Emperor Gramis nodded as he extended his hands, palsied with determination, to either side of his body. "Am I deserved of such honoured visitors? Then truly is my hour come soon." Without hesitancy, each son took his father's proffered hand, and together they fell into an old, familiar silence.


As a child, Larsa had found himself many mornings just like this outside Vayne's door, one hand clutching the paw of a willing member of his personal cabinet (usually the austere Senator Bun), the other on the great gilt knob he remembered first at eye level. Age had broken him somewhat of this habit, but his time in exile had made him unaccustomed to sleeping alone, and since his return he had anew begun to make his occasional way into Vayne's bedroom, just as he did this morning.

He pushed open the door silently on its great hinges, then shut it just as quietly behind him. The midsummer morning light glowed pink through the windows as he stole across the chamber, his eyes on the large curtained bed against the far wall, where the still figure of Vayne lay stretched beneath the light sheet, his long, dark hair spread across the white pillow. Never an early riser when necessity did not demand it, his brother often ignored the dawn as long as possible, and so Larsa had grown fond of slipping sleepily beneath the covers next to him, resting his head on Vayne's shoulder until they were both fully awake.

What startled him as he drew closer, though, was how much dark hair there was across the bed's many fine pillows, and how much of it coiled into tight curls foreign to Vayne's head, and he could not quite process the information soon enough to withdraw before Rosalind opened her eyes and sat up, running her fingers through her sleep-mussed locks. "Larsa," she smiled, as though greeting him at a public salon. "Good morning."

"Larsa?" mumbled the lump beneath the other half of the covers, and Vayne sat up beside his wife -- who, as far as Larsa had been given cause to know, had slept every night since their marriage (or, at least, every night prior to this one) in her own chambers -- and mimicked her gesture, raking his even wilder hair from his face. They both looked entirely proper and decent in their bed-clothes, but the hasty way Vayne drew his loose robe tight about his bare chest was nearly as telling as nakedness.

"I'm dreadfully sorry," said Larsa, struck halfway between scandal and hilarity, wishing for Senator Bun's steadying presence. "I didn't know you--"

"Nonsense." With a long ebony pin from the bedside table, Rosalind performed two twists of her hair and stuck the pin through the center of the knots, fixing it all to the top of her head. She pulled the covers back -- and Larsa had a moment's panic before realizing that her bright yellow pajamas not only involved a camisole and robe, but loose pants as well -- and patted the space on the bed between her and Vayne. "Come, join us, and I'll call out for breakfast."

Larsa looked at Vayne for guidance, and saw on Vayne's face a flicker of discomfort he'd never seen before -- and then he knew it for what it was, not discomfort so much as pure embarrassment, the cheek-pinkening emotion of being caught at something shameful for which one felt no shame at all. "Yes, Larsa," Vayne said, still not entirely able to meet his brother's eye or to erase the bashful smile from his face. "Do join us."

Had he been possessed of any lingering misgivings about his brother's choice of a wife, Larsa knew in that moment they all would have been erased; rare indeed was the woman who could make a grown man smile thus, but the woman who could bring such youthful glee to Vayne was nothing short of a saint. "Then I shall," agreed Larsa with a grin, climbing over the footboard of the bed to find his way between them, into the warmth of their shared embrace.

Sick of Shadows

He feigned surprise upon being led into the Judge Commander's room, when in truth he'd surmised their destination halfway through the route; he simply had taken great pains not to let himself believe the conclusion of his brain's arithmaticks: his recent arguments with anything in the vicinity possessed of a ears and a tongue plus his recent troubles with the law plus his father's increasingly more frequent mutterings to unseen conversation partners about making the boy do something useful with his life. Still, he felt the venemous look he afforded his father to be quite justified, even if his father's eyes were not on him to see it.

The Judge Commander folded her metal-sheathed hands upon the desk -- one atop the other, he noticed, not fingers interlaced, the gauntlets were too thick by half to allow a gesture that human -- and let a smile gather on her unhelmed face. "Of course, Dr. Bunansa," she said, as if in respose to a question whose contents had escaped Ffamran's hearing. "And may I say it will be an honour to have your son among our ranks."

"You may and you have, then," replied his father, fussing with some clockwork marvel that ran over and under his knuckles semi-independently, "so that's quite settled. I leave him in your capable hands." With no further comment, or even glance to his son, he turned and followed his steps out of the room.

A charge of anger surged through Ffamran's veins, and he stood sharply, upsetting the chair in his haste and not even bothering to right it as he dashed after his father. "Wait!" he cried, siezing his father by the sleeve and turning him about with all his might; he heard a tearing whisper as the sleeve was rent down the seam where his fingers had found purchase. "And these are the terms of my abandonment, that you cannot even say them to my face?"

The corner of his father's mouth twisted. "He's a stubborn boy, isn't he?" he said, addressing a space somewhere just beyond Ffamran's left shoulder, as though perhaps the Judge Commander had risen to join their spat; yet Ffamran did not even suffer the space a glance, knowing that even if he looked, he'd find naught save empty air. "Of course from her," he added, after a considerate pause, "I was never prone to such fits of intemperance. What kind of man do you think me?" Another pause, and then he laughed quietly. "Well, yes, I suppose you do."

"Stop this!" Ffamran let go of his father's shirt and took a sharp step portward, putting himself directly in the path of his father's address; he felt a chill come over him as he did so, but dismissed it as little more than a passing figment, one of the many spectres of Archades. "Say it to me! I'm sick of your shadows!"

"Shadows?" echoed his father, considering the word on his tongue for a moment before turning his face toward Ffamran -- and in that moment, Ffamran knew truly his father looked at him, perhaps for the first time in years, and he found himself deeply sorry he had drawn his father's attention back from the nether. His pale gaze was so sharply fixed that Ffamran could no longer side with those who spoke of his father's more curious habits as though they belonged to quaint, harmless madness; no madman had ever been possessed of such a keen and lucid eye. "Men such as ourselves should rejoice at the sighting of shadows, for they are the constant heralds of the coming light."

He put up no further resistance as his father walked away, following down a long corridor ill-lit on either side by crystal sconces, entertaining his unseen guest as the darkness pooled and dimmed around each of his retreating steps.

Taking a Wife

"It makes sense," sighed Vayne, leaning back against his vast bed's multitude of pillows and draping his arm wearily across his eyes. Larsa lay on the other side, tucked beneath a single sheet, having kicked all other bedcoverings onto Vayne's side. They'd stopped the habit of sharing sleeping quarters around the time Larsa turned eleven years of age, yet on the first night after Larsa's return, as well as on several nights since, Vayne had found his younger brother a late-hour visitor to his chambers.

"You mean, it makes sense to many people who are apt to hound you about it, and thus it makes sense to you because it would give them cause to stop hounding you." Larsa reconsidered the number of pillows beneath his head. "Were you anyone else, I'd cry that as a bit of foul reasoning, but in your case I'll accept it as a reasonable argument."

Vayne peeked out from beneath the curtain of his sleeve, fixing Larsa with a peevish gaze. "You've grown too canny in your exile, too canny by far, and I'd thank you to return to an age when you could not see through me as though I were glass."

Knowing the compliment for what it was, Larsa laughed and pulled away the long ribbon that held his hair back in a tail; it fell about his shoulders, straight and fine, far more diffident to Larsa's attempts to tame it than Vayne's ever was to his. "What I mean to say is that you are a man more disinclined than most to suffer the attentions of others in his personal life, and as such it seems reasonable that you would find a single wife's intrusions easier to manage than is the nagging of the well-meaning members of Archadian society who will not rest until they see you securely wed. And to that I have only piece to say: better you than I."

"Truly, your skills at diplomacy are unparalleled," Vayne said in a tone of great seriousness, though Larsa's assessment of the situation was entirely correct, down to his last point. Much ado had been made about Larsa's return to the capitol after the attempted coup, and the usually social Larsa had responded by maintaining something of a low profile; if the marriage-mongers were to give up Vayne for a lost cause, they would surely settle next on Larsa, which would create an even more spectacular cloud of activity than had the somewhat more subdued needling of Vayne. For starters, one could actually find women in Archades who would be willing to wed Larsa.

Larsa lay a hand on his brother's arm, drawing it away from his face. "If it will make you unhappy, you may tell me such, and I will convey to them a most diplomatic suggestion to go jump in a lake."

That image of Larsa -- hands on his hips, sternly telling off every social climber and busybody who had just the young lady for His Excellency's third son to meet -- made Vayne laugh, and he took Larsa's bare hand in his. "Would that there were anyone in the world -- anyone at all, save yourself -- whose sustained company I could abide for more than two minutes, much less the rest of my life." A ridiculous jape rose to Vayne's lips, and slipped out before good sense could stop it: "You don't have a sister, do you?"

They laughed at that, the two brothers together, yet there was an edge to their shared bemusement that spoke of a curious sentiment tucked just beneath good humour's surface, down where such a suggestion was no longer funny at all.

Brief Affair

Balmafula lay against the sheets, feeling his heart slow, waiting patiently until he rolled from atop her to lie at her side. "Who was I this time?" she asked, staring only at the ceiling. "Her Majesty or the young Beoulve?"

"Had you transformed into either during the course of the act, I would have been greatly surprised." Nonetheless, Delita pulled himself into a seated position, rummaging about the floor for his discarded clothes. His shortclothes he pulled on first, standing as he did, after which he began to look for his breeches.

She stretched out naked upon the bed, feeling no modesty in the presence of such as he. Besides, being lain bare such as she was now surely cast her in a deceptive light -- frail, defenseless, vulnerable, no man's assassin. "I suppose it doesn't matter," she shrugged. "After all, both are similarly leagues from your grasp."

He cast her a harsh glare over his shoulder, then tried to disguise the look by searching for his shoes, combing fingers through his dark hair to sweep it all from his face. Shirtless as he was in the dimly lit room, she had to admit that he was indeed an attractive man; that, at least, had become one of the unexpected benefits of this assignment. "Have I done something to offend you, that you should chatter nonsense in vain effort to gain my attention?"

"Weren't you and he childhood friends?" she asked, enjoying the way the muscles of his back rippled as his spine stiffened. "Olan said as much to me. Are these treasured nuggets of history the gems you confide in him in moments such as these?"

"I could ask the same of him to you," Delita spat back, drawing on worn leather boots.

Sighing, she sat up in bed and began to draw back her long hair into its customary style. "Would that it were any concern of yours."

Though she could not see clearly in the dim light, she assumed the snort that followed her statement was accompanied by his rolling his eyes. "We make haste for Zeltennia come dawn."

"And had he not escaped Bethla Garrison, what heroic measures would you have taken then?"

Delita wheeled on her, voice clipped and angry. "If you do not take care to mind your tongue, one day it will be stolen from your mouth." He grinned, though the expression paired with a flash of dark fury in his eyes. "And then where will your magicks be?"

Balmafula narrowed her eyes at him, but drew the sheet over her legs and said no more. Presently, Delita stormed away in a gust of robes and finery, leaving her alone in the room to ponder precisely how seriously he had meant such a threat -- and how long she ought wait before acknowledging that his treachery had passed the point of reason, and putting an end to it herself.

Not Enemies

Though bowed ostensibly in prayer, Delita cannot remember the last time he uttered some plea to the Almighty, nor can he draw forth easily the memory of a time when his belief came without question. Too much has fallen on him since then, too much knowledge, and it seems the Church is right in that respect, if no other -- knowledge is the enemy of faith. "Right now," he speaks beneath his breath, hoping that his words will merely sound the low mutters of a particularly sincere supplicant, "the Church's most formidable obstacle kneels beside me."

Ramza's eyes widen with his surprise at being identified as such, and he turns his gaze upon Delita. "But you too seek the stones." He looks yet the skeptic, and Delita supposes he can hardly blame him; after all, his explanation of the Church's coup planned to rise from the wreckage of Bethla Garrison bears the twin scents of conspiracy and madness, and it is all he can do to believe it himself.

The stone floor of the otherwise empty side chapel grows harder every moment his knees press against it, and in the end becomes just one more pressure Delita chooses not to endure. He presses himself to his feet, the sword at his hip giving a percussive reminder of its presence as it falls aplace against his armour. "I am not the Church's agent," he spits, mindful of volume but angered at the implication nonetheless.

Ramza rises quickly afterwards, his face always so innocent, so fraught with care that it breaks Delita's heart to look upon it. "What do you mean?"

"It means that should the need arise, I won't hesitate to kill you." The words come out harsher than he intended, and the stung look that tugs at Ramza's countenance pains him. Yet cruelty comes to Delita by now as naturally as breathing, and the stone with which he has replaced his heart feels no remorse. "However, I do not forsee the need's arising, so long as our desired outcomes remain the same. While our objectives remain unified, we are not enemies."

For all the reactions he might expect, what happens blindsides him so completely that he quite nearly reconsiders the whole mess -- Ramza reaches for him, at first Delita thinks to strike him, but then Ramza's mouth is on his, Ramza's tongue parting his lips, and the sound of their armour's meeting so abruptly resounds so loudly in the tiny stone alcove that Delita fears for their discovery. But his hands are on Ramza, grasping for purchase, trying to find some way in all the armour they've erected around themselves to hold on, and he has not known that he's wanted this all his life until right now.

But as so many things, it comes too little too late.

"Come with me," Ramza gasps as they pull apart, and even as he speaks the words Delita is already formulating his rejection, every word steeped in necessity and shaded by ambition, every no a princess' lost and pleading eyes.

The Girl in the Middle

Agrias rests her head against the ivory curve of Mel's shoulder, shutting her eyes and letting the cool air rush against her sweat-slicked skin. A sturdy arm winds its way 'round her waist, and she feels the tickle of beard against the nape of her neck; she laughs and squirms, which makes her bedmates laugh, the sound dispersing whatever fog of awkwardness might otherwise have settled over them.

Cid's hand splays against the flat of her belly, mindful to hover just above the place where her flesh meets Mel's. Whether the separation was previously agreed upon or is simply unspoken, she does not know, but the two of them have clearly come to bed not for one another, the thought of which makes Agrias feel giddy and flushed all over again. "Aren't you glad you suggested this?" Mel punctuates the tease with a kiss into Agrias' hair.

Agrias sputters, burying her face against Mel's skin. "I? I did nothing of the suggesting! This entirely was your idea." Cid's thumb brushes above her navel, and she shivers again. "I simply opined--"

"And I'm quite flattered." Cid's lips brush the bared curve of her neck, his deep voice resonating through her bones. Recognising her attraction to him had been something of an awkward process, as nearly a decade's silent pining for Princess Ovelia followed by Meliadoul's welcome embrace had well-convinced Agrias that her appetites simply did not run toward men. Yet Cid's dashing, charming nature had caught her somewhat unawares, causing her to remark -- somewhat casually and dangerously within Mel's earshot -- on what a handsome gentleman he seemed.

How that comment has landed her naked and sandwiched between two comerades (also naked), she has only the vaguest recollection, but it stands as testament to how Mel can be intensely convincing when she puts her mind to it. Agrias' hand curls around Mel's breast, and Mel sighs deeply, her lips turning into a wry smile. "...So, where do we suppose our Fearless Leader is at this moment?"

"Probably downstairs in the pub," Agrias quips, silently grateful for many reasons that Ramza and his pursestrings have again permitted them the luxury of spending a storm-drenched night in an inn instead of on the road, "doing his best not to think about what's going on upstairs."

"Indeed," remarks Cid, perhaps a little more suggestively than he might have intended, and as both women turn to him with eyebrows raised, he rolls his eyes. "Oh, what? He's hardly my type, and Balbanes would rise from the grave specifically for the purposes of tormenting me should such a liason ever happen."

"Well, ghosts or no, I'll give you no quarrel over him." Mel wraps her arms around Agrias' waist, pulling her atop and encircling her protectively with her bare limbs. "Just leave me the pretty girl." And she kisses Agrias hard, and Agrias is so in love with her she doesn't know how her heart can hold it all in, her hands in Mel's short-cropped hair, her lower lip ensnared by Mel's teeth. Then Cid's hands are at her hips, pulling her back in his direction so she falls laughing to the bed between them, blanketed by their kisses and nothing at all like a young woman staring down the end of the world.

Next to Godliness

She'd almost gotten the bloodstain out of her shirt when she heard a splash behind her. Agrias whipped around, her wet braid smacking her across her face for her troubles, only to see Meliadoul standing to her ankles in the river, bare as she, a distracting sight if ever there were one. "Bathing or laundering?"

"Bit of both," Agrias admitted, holding up her tattered white blouse. She'd poured bleaching agents on it, but no magic could restore the garment to its original white; the best she could hope for her efforts would be that eventually, the rust-red stain that had formed around the rend would blend in with its brethren. Though cold, the river had a gentle current, and came nearly to her waist. "I'd let them accumulate their filth, except some heretofore-undiscovered response conditioned within me perishes the thought that I should die in dirty clothes."

"Perish the thought indeed." Freed from her habit, Mel's hair dusted at the tops of her shoulders; she strode into the water, a pair of shears in her hand.

Agrias subjected the garment to another soaking, then gave it up for a lost cause. "Where have our menfolk gone?"

Mel jerked her head in the direction of the river's flow. "Life in an abbey has left me ignorant of many male habits, but I know enough never to stand downriver from one." She pulled herself into a seated position on a rock mostly hidden by the water, crossing her legs and offering the scissors. "I don't suppose I could impose upon you to fit your swordsman's skills to use as a barber?"

A low-hanging tree branch had taken up a new career as a clothesline, and Agrias stretched the shirt over it before taking the shears from Mel's hand. "I doubt I could aim much shorter."

"Then slash it all off and be done with it," Mel sighed, leaning back to wet her hair in the stream. Her breasts stood straight up as she did, two pert mountains, and when she sat up again, rivulets of water followed their contours down, along lines of iron muscle and silken flesh; Agrias was glad the chill of the water did much to offset the warmth the sight sent spreading through her. "I'd rather be shorn like a sheep than have it sweat-stuck to my head."

Agrias stepped forward, contemplating the task before her, finding herself hard-pressed to stare at the chestnut locks when the broad, pale expanse of Mel's back lay before her. "Very well, but when the finished product looks like a field of grain reaped by a blind man, I'll remind you that you were the one who commanded my services."

"My dear Agrias," answered Mel, and Agrias could hear in her voice the unseen smile, "there're none around I'd hope to impress with something so base as my hairstyle." She stretched her arms above her head, then brough them down, raking her hands more evenly through the dark, damp strands. "And my habit covers a multitude of sins."

Agrias was glad that Mel's back was turned to her, that she did not see the blush that spread across Agrias' cheeks as she took a lock between her fingers and began to cut.

Midnight Meeting

Admittedly, she hadn't taken great pains to get dressed -- but then again, it was the middle of the night, and the inn nearly empty, the torrential rains outside having kept all but the sturdiest (and stupidest) travellers far away from this remote waystation, halfway from everywhere on the road to Warjilis. Draped in an oversized tunic, which had been closest at hand, and a pair of undershorts, Agrias pushed open the door to the hall and began to step outside.

As fate might have had it, the door opposite hers opened simultaneously, revealing Mustadio, his hair released from its traditional confines, trousers barely fastened just below his suspiciously dampened belly. They froze, still half-in their rooms, his gaze making her aware of precisely how mussed her own locks were, and how the tunic's open throat revealed a great red mark above her collarbone. To deflect attention, she narrowed her eyes, letting him know she knew precisely from whose room he was emerging.

Truth be told, though she had indeed disapproved of their goings-on at first, both on a professional level and as a woman who (until recently) found the idea of male bodies in any sexual configuration somewhat ungainly, she'd been pleased to see the change it had wrought in Ramza. No great romance, theirs, but an amicable companionship which had been a balm to Ramza's always-troubled heart, with bouts of nakedness at which she could not entirely frown. No, the frowning by now was strictly because she had a reputation to keep. "Indiscretion seems to be your middle name," she quipped, a barb meant for all sting and no substance.

Mustadio opened his mouth for one of his famous replies, but before he could get off a shot, a hand appeared at his shoulder. "Stadi, close the door, it's--" Ramza appeared in the doorway, eclipsed by Mustadio and shadowed by the dark room, but no less obviously naked for it, painting Mustadio's face with a sheepish blush and giving Agrias licence to refine her smirk to convey the message I told you so .

Before either of the variously scandalised gentlemen could respond, Agrias felt her advantage evaporate instantaneously as a pair of well-muscled arms wrapped around her neck and a short-shorn brown head appeared over her shoulder. "Are we having a meeting?" asked Meliadioul, whose bare legs Agrias felt brush against hers.

"Mm, sounds like we could have picked a better time for it," rolled the voice like thunder from behind her, and Agrias struggled to hold any semblance of a superior attitude as Orlandu stepped into the beam of light from the doorway. She hoped briefly that he'd bothered to pull on breeches, at least, then gauged from the wide-eyed expressions from the other side of the hall that he hadn't.

Clearning her throat, Agrias straightened her spine and looked entirely purposeful. "Your collective concern is appreciated, but I daresay I shan't need an entire entourage to accompany me to the washroom, even unarmed as I am and at this late hour."

Mustadio snorted. "I think I win." He inclined his head toward the three people in her doorway, presumably as a contrast to the mere two in his.

Agrias glanced over her shoulders, a quick look to each handsome, naked person flanking her. "I think I win." And she strode purposefully down the hallway toward the facilities, secure in the knowledge that sometimes it didn't matter who had taken home the actual victory, so long as you acted like you had.

"...Don't know why I bother paying for five rooms," she heard Ramza mutter behind her as two doors shut again.


The nice thing about the rain, Delita thought, was that it made aristocrats far less likely to conduct a search party, or at least a search party in the right direction. What little effort might be being expended to find him was certainly being confined to the school grounds fortunate enough to be covered by roofs and awnings; rich people didn't engage in many pursuits that might dampen their hair or muddy their boots, particularly not on behalf of commoner children.

He lay in that very mud now, cheek pressed to its softness. The air had earlier carried the scent of early spring rain, the faint cloud of earth that rolled in on the breeze to herald the rain's approach, but the rain itself had driven that down, and now all he smelled was dirt and water and his own blood. The gash at the corner of his mouth stung as the rain washed down his face, carrying the salt of his skin into the wound with it, but it was at his side where he feared the true damage lay. His shirt hid the site of injury, a mark made by the strong heel of an expensive boot, but the rain had soaked his white shirt through enough to let him see the edges of darkened skin spreading beneath it. He'd thought to try a Cure spell for it, yet no magician he, he'd simply ended up exhausting himself greater than any pallative benefit.

He'd been outnumbered from the start, he knew, and this fact was the sticking-place to which he clung tightly, lest his defeat shame him more than it already had. Five boys, all in their last years, and therefore each at least five or six years older than he. No one could be expected to face such odds without counting himself lucky to escape with no more glory than his life.

No, surely a hero could meet such odds and more, and emerge the victor. Yet he was no more hero than magus, and this thought stung worse than a wound.

Tears burned at the corners of his eyes for the first time in years, and he clenched his fist until they subsided, feeling as he did the scabs and gashes on his knuckles open again. He'd made a fair showing, at least, and anyone who demanded evidence of the effectiveness of his temerity could be shown that not all the blood on his shirt was his own. Not that such would do him any good, for the word of five noble boys against a commoner whelp would be enough to get the latter flogged, if not expelled, if not executed.

Idly, it occured to him that execution was perhaps the best thing he could hope for right now. It'd be done in a moment, and then no more jibes, no more mockery, no more groups of boys with overinflated estimations of themselves deciding that wealth was the same as a licence to cruelty, no more fists and pricks and laughing mouths, no more seeing in every even fleeting glance the bite of you don't belong here, filth--

"What are you doing out here?"

The storm's roar had nearly muted all sound from Delita's ears, and as such the sound of his visitor's voice nearly made him jump. He gathered himself, then shook his head, trying to make it look like he was lying here on purpose. "Enjoying the weather."

He heard from behind him a little, awkward throat-clearing, a sound that was so perfectly Ramza it wrung a smile from his injured lips. "It's nearly supper."

"Not hungry," said Delita, who was vexed at how petulant the words came out sounding.

"Oh." Ramza's voice had recently taken a sharp spike downward in pitch and timbre, rendering every other word unfamiliar to Delita's ears. Given enough time, everything changed. "Well, you ought eat anyway."

"Not if I'm not hungry." Every word pained him with the way his chest fell as air slipped from his lungs. He wondered if it would be worth the argument to convince Ramza to leave him here and let him drown in the rain.

There was a long pause, and Delita had almost convinced himself that Ramza had done just that, unbidden, and that the storm had erased his retreating footfalls as cleanly as it had erased the sound of his approach, before Ramza spoke again. "I'll put my word with yours. They'll not be so foolhearty to paint you as the cause of this trouble if I'm standing close enough."

He'd meant it to be comforting, surely, a profession of devotion from one friend to another -- and yet Ramza's words galled Delita as surely as had the spittle landing in his face that had been the catalyst for the previous confrontation. Fear not, common man, for the generous noble has taken heed of your dire plight, and is willing to extend the benefits of the reputation that is his only by virtue of the luck of his birth! He'd learned to see the telltale signs on the face of every rich man who'd extended one hand to the poor while patting himself on the back with the other. Once he'd been grateful for the kindnesses of the Beoulves, yet over time each favour had settled on his shoulders like a weight, until he feared he might be crushed by the weight of benevolence.

Yet as he turned to say so, rolling onto his back only with greatest effort, his eyes beheld not the sneering face of charity, but Ramza -- soaked, filthy, shivering in the downpour. His flaxen hair stuck to his face with the weight of the rain, and his brown eyes were filled not with pity, but with genuine worry, and all the fire on Delita's tongue was extinguished. Ramza hunkered down, lifting Delita's shirt to expose the discoloured area, and his lower lip trembled for a moment before he bit it resolutely.

"It's hardly as bad as it looks," Delita managed through teeth not quite clenched, knowing full well it was.

Every Avenue Available

Agrias hoisted her sword high, holding her arm straight from her shoulder, parallel to the ground. "An honour, Sir Orlandu."

"The pleasure is mine, Sir Agrias." Orlandu grinned and lifted Excalibur to his forehead, bowing his head until his helm tapped its glowing blade. She lowered her weapon into a less formal and more practical stance, steadied her feet in the soft grass, and charged forward.

Only the greatest of fools would underestimate Cidolfus Orlandu as an opponent, and Agrias Oaks was no fool. She swung at him with great force, holding none of her strength in reserve, and he met her blow with deadly accuracy, their blades ringing; she was stunned back a few steps, and spun on her heel before taking aim at him again.

Agrias had of course heard recounted stories of his strength and skill, great legends of his prowess on the battle field, but she found as she came toward him again that no awestruck teller's tale could have prepared her for how fast he was. His sword was equal to hers in length, and surpassed it in breadth, yet he moved as though burdened by naught save air, as though his hands were empty and hers were tied. Then if she could not match his speed with her body, her mind would have to close the gap.

She caught him in a feint, then lunged, and he brushed aside her blow with his off-hand's gauntlet, though she could see the parry cost him his balance. Siezing the opportunity, she aimed her sword not for his breastplate, but for the hem of his cloak, drawing it to her in an arc. Her leather-gloved hand caught it fast, and she yanked at the fabric, drawing them together just long enough to register a look of surprise on his bearded face, before planting her left elbow in the center of his chest and shoving backward with all her might.

They hung together, suspended for a moment in the balance, before her force overtook his stance, and they crashed to the ground together, landing with her sword point at his throat.

"That's cheating," declared Orlandu, though the smile on his lips shone through any perceived disappointment.

Agrias held her position fast. "At the academy, a professor spoke of a great knight who said, and I believe I quote accurately, 'A knight must use every avenue available to him, lest excessive devotion to his sword alone cost him his life.' Have you, Sir Orlandu, any knowledge of said knight?"

"I believe we had some passing acquaintance," he smirked, his eyes sparkling. "Very well, then, I yield, Sir Agrias -- yet know both that it's a cruel thing to force an old man to stomach his own words, and that next time I will not be caught so easily."

"The burden of proof now rests upon you, Sir Orlandu." Agrias retracted her sword and stood, though even her customary decorum was unable to keep from her lips smug evidence of her pleasure with her victory.

The Minstrel Boy

The news came when Besrodio was in his converted workshop, stretched flat beneath a clothes-cleaning machine designed to remove even the most persistent of stains with the judicious application of hot steam; it did, of course, have its flaws, such as how any article of clothing subjected to its laundering returned at least two sizes smaller than it had been when it entered, but the fact that said test pieces returned two sizes smaller and spotless brought him great hope for this invention. "'Land of songs!' cried the warrior bard," he sang as he often did while working, tightening one of the hot-water conduits, careful to steady it with a cloth this time (and not his hand, for he'd learned that lesson the hard way), "'though all the world betrays thee--'"

A tumbling noise drew him from his concentration, and Besrodio struggled out from the shadow of the great machine to find a man standing at the entrance to the door, having just toppled over a large stack of books and papers concerning the recent excavation just north of Goug. He was well-dressed and young, though he bore himself well, and had the good grace to look ashamed of his clumsiness. "Would I be correct in assuming that you are Master Besrodio?" he asked.

Besrodio scratched at his jaw, aware only as he touched his skin that his hand was covered in thick black grease, so he did it again in the hopes that the first gesture might appear intentional. "No 'master' anyone here," he said to the man, "but I'm called Besrodio by most, and to my knowledge there's none other around here who shares my name, so we'll both presume you've found the man you're looking for, all right?"

The man reached into his coat folds and drew out a rolled parchment, bound with scarlet ribbon and an equally red swath of sealing-wax. "My instructions are to deliver this to you."

"Is that so?" Besrodio set his tools down on his workbench and dusted his hands on the skirt of his apron, already trying to keep them from shaking.

"I was instructed that in the event that Lord Ramza Beoulve," and there it was, the name that confirmed every fear Besrodio had stored up in his heart these past eight months without word, "met his end or vanished for greater than half a year's span, I was to deliver this into your hand and none other's. That time has come, and thus, here I am."

He found he could no longer look at the messenger, and so he stared at his machine, its workings all logic and order, every piece in its right place, no part so precious that it could not be replaced. "And his companions?" he asked after a long moment's pause.

The man shook his head. "Naught has been heard in that time from Lord Ramza or from any known to have accompanied him to Orbonne."

"I see." Perhaps it was shock, or quiet hysteria, or even the simple relief of finally having some small justification for the heretofore unfounded fear that had settled in his heart from the moment he'd seen his son's turned back step beyond the town gates, but Besrodio found himself remarkably calm as he crossed the room and climbed the short staircase to where his visitor stood. The man handed him the parchment and stepped back into the shadow of the door frame, while Besrodio pulled undone the ribbon and slid one grease-stained finger beneath the wax, loosing it until he could see at the top edge of the paper the cramped, mechanical letters of his son's handwriting.

Murder Mysteries

Dycedarg's concentration was first broken by the pounding cloud of little feet, followed by a coda of giggling and hushing, all of which seemed to originate from behind a tall bookcase. He raised an eyebrow but did not lift his gaze from his chosen text, working his way through a most dry accouting of economic disparities in Old Valendia, waiting to see what happened next.

His patience was rewarded momentarily as a tribunal barely four feet tall marched forth in grand formation. Leading the way was Delita, a lady's drape drawn over his shoulders like a cloak (and serving much the same purpose, as when he walked its long edge nearly tripped his feet); a knight followed who may have been Ramza, though the figure's identity was well-obscured by a heavy plumed helm; Alma skittered along behind them, a blank roll of parchment and inkless quill perched in her hands, ever the dilligent scribe; lastly trailed Tietra, her feet bare and hair brushed in her face, dancing with each step in a way that an observer might interpret as a ten-year-old's best impression of a ghost.

Clearing his throat, Delita brought the company to a halt in front of the couch where Dycedarg sat, nearly falling over as blind Ramza bounced into him. "Good day, sir," announced Delita, folding his arms across his chest. "We have a few questions to ask you."

Dycedarg looked them all up and down, and very manfully did not give in to the impulse toward laughter. "Is that so?" he asked, his face appropriately grave.

"We're trying to figure out who murdered Tietra," explained Ramza, pushing his oversized helm back from his face as much as the metal grate would allow; it lingered for a moment, then fell forward again, obscuring his eyes, and he staggered backward with the force of its closing.

"I was terribly poisoned," added Tietra, looking bright and cheerful and definitionally not dead as she smoothed the folds of her light summer dress. "Likely by a jealous lover."

Alma pointed an accusatory quill at Dycedarg. "Are you a jealous lover?"

It wasn't a question he was asked every day, to be sure. "I am not," answered Dycedarg, draping a ribbon between the pages to hold his place. "And on my honour as the eldest son of House Beoulve, I did not poison the young Lady Tietra."

The assembled investigators looked amongst themselves, each seeking the others' assessments of the situation -- save, of course, Ramza, whose obscured vision left him out of the deliberations. At long last, Delita gave a curt nod, and Dycedarg knew the tribunal had spared him from whichever of the dastardly fates children are capable of devising they might otherwise have chosen to visit upon his head. "Very well, then, sir, we have decided to believe you."

"But if you do hear something," Alma added, gesturing so forcefully with the quill that Dycedarg feared that should it slip her grasp, his life might again be imperiled, "you are to report it to us immediately, do you understand?"

"Of course, good inquisitors." Dycedarg afforded them a quick bow, and they filed out again, Delita having the foresight to reach back and take Ramza's hand, leading him specifically and the others more generally toward the estate proper, leaving a quietly bemused Dycedarg to his reading.

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