Portraits of Empire: The Antlion in Winter [FFXII]
The physician lets the blood fall on the crystal, then holds it up to the afternoon light, watching as sunlight diffuses through and makes vaguely crimson-tinged patterns on the wall. "Well," he says after long moment of studying the refracted beams, "your condition remains unchanged from when last I examined you. It is chronic, yet not fatal. As you are otherwise a man of fair health, I daresay you could live even another ten years."
Gramis stands with his back to this process, gazing instead out at the city, its shadows elongating in the dying light, stretching their hands out upon the buildings. "Aye," he nods. "Such is what I fear."
Though he tries his best at stealth, nothing can silence a full suit of armour, and Zargabaath yet winces as his entry to the chambers obviously rouses the emperor from a mid-day slumber. "My lord." He bows by way of apology.
"Please, come in." Gramis gestures his visitor closer, to a seat prepared aside his bed for just such an occasion. He has been propped up against several lush pillows -- the better to see you, my dear, thinks Zargabaath, a comparison far more applicable in the emperor's prime than now. "And take off your helm, that I may see your face."
"My lord, it has not been much to see for many a year now," Zargabaath protests, though the expression its removal reveals is a smile. He places the unweildy thing atop a small stand (presumably a very squat hatrack, though as with many other pieces of furniture in the household, Zargabaath has opted to forego inquiring as to its intended purpose) and takes his seat next to Gramis. The emperor reaches for him, and Zargabaath clasps the man's wrinkled hands in his own gauntleted pair, choosing not to think on how the digits within metal look not so unlike those without. "How fare you this day?"
Gramis shrugs, a sleep-sweetened expression that curves even more at the corners of Zargabaath's lips. "I have seen neither hide nor hair of a senator for nearly three days now, and as such am in a considerable good humour." His assurances dissolve into a racking cough, however, that leaves him bent slightly double, and Zargabaath reaches for him, trying to cradle him even in the face of the impediments of armour. "...Perhaps it is time for my medicament."
"If my lord would so allow me." Zargabaath withdraws, eyeing the assorted phials at the bedside. He too knows what each is said to do, how to administer them and in what doses; age, the cruel instructor, long ago demanded such education. With hands gentle and dexterous though girded in metal, he loads a syringe with clear liquid intended to ease the pressure on the chest and restore good humours to the lungs. He, three years Gramis' junior, neither knows the extent to which he believes the nostrum's claim nor anticipates with any joy the day when it will course through his veins, on its way to slow the body's inevitable fail.
The bright silver tip presses its way beneath Gramis' skin, and Zargabaath depresses the plunger, emptying the contents into his lord's arm. Gramis sighs and clenches his fist, then releases it, taking air deep into his lungs and letting it out slow. "...You remain as you have ever been to me a loyal servant -- more importantly, a dear friend."
Zargabaath takes again Gramis' hand in his own, drawing it to his lips and pressing a kiss against the bittersweet folds of aged skin that line Gramis' knuckles, just above his signet ring. "My lord," he murmurs.
"His excellency will find the report has been prepared detailing all information the Ninth Bureau has deemed pertinent this cycle." Gabranth stands ramrod-straight in the centre of the emperor's chambers, dwarfed as always not merely by the weight of office, but by the scope and magnitude of the city beyond the glass. He no longer fears Gramis, as once he somewhat did, yet will not allow his guard down for a moment against the monster familiarity, the breeder of contempt.
Gramis nods, folding his hands atop his desk; he seems distracted, Gabranth notes, almost absent from the place. "And of Vayne?"
Steadying his shoulders, Gabranth sets his jaw. Not every time they speak does Gramis ask for news of his third son, though Gabranth remains ever ready to answer the emperor's inquiries. "News of no urgency, yet troubling nonetheless," he says, letting the diplomacy of phrasing couch the weight of meaning. "I have heard tell of the work of scientists unaffiliated with Draklor -- unaffiliated, indeed, with Archadia herself -- on the Incident at Nabudis."
The old man's gaze sharpens, and he inclines his head toward Gabranth. Though calamity there did benefit the empire in many aspects, the emperor himself has made inquiries of Gabranth's intelligence-gathering skills sufficient that Gabranth has come to believe Gramis, like nearly everyone else in Ivalice, had no idea what had truly transpired there. "Continue."
"Again, I have not seen them myself, yet these reports appear contradict Doctor Cid's official findings on the incident. Namely, several of them seem to indicate findings not entirely inconsistent with the uses of large amounts of nethicite."
"Nethicite?" Gramis' gaze falls sharp on Gabranth, yet Gabranth can tell the look's edge is not meant to cut him. "...Vayne, what have you wrought?"
"My lord?" With uneasy heart, Gabranth frowns.
Yet Gramis dismisses the line of conversation with a wave of his hand, settling back into his chair with the file left atop his desk. "Should these reports come into your possession, I would know of them straightaway. Until then, see to your duties as ever you have." A moment passes in silence as Gramis opens the folder, considering the first sheet of the report. "Should you require assistance in any matter, I am certain Judge Magister Drace is not so entangled with her duties she would not be able to free herself to attend to your aid, should you but ask."
Gabranth bows curtly, excusing himself before he begins to regret overmuch the house custom of going un-helmed.
His father's chambers have always seemed a bit forbidding, yet the smell of illness makes them infinitely more so, such that Larsa considers going over and throwing open a window himself -- save, of course, that the idea of threatening the emperor's life with fresh evening air would likely give no fewer than three royal physicians heart attacks. He sits properly on the uncomfortable sofa, teacup and saucer perched on his primly pressed-together knees. "My tutor has informed me I am progressing well," Larsa nods, "and that Joyeuse continues to be to me well-suited."
"It gladdens me to hear such," his father nods, lifting his own cup to his lips; Larsa tries desperately not to notice how it trembles so in the grip of palsied hands. "You have always excelled in your studies."
"Thank you, father." Larsa folds his hands around the edge of the saucer, letting his feet swing from the edge of the seat. The soles of his feet scrape the ground now, though just barely, and he wonders how long it has been since he has sat here, how long, indeed, since he and his father have spoken. Have they ever spoken, really? Or have they just exchanged pleasantries in the guise of conversation their whole lives?
A ridiculous pair of questions, Larsa thinks. Of course they have spoken, often at length, and Gramis has on multiple occasions proven to be a father both caring and wise. Yet here in the musty room, daylight filtered in only through heavy draperies, it is not closeness he remembers, but distance.
Larsa takes a biscuit from the silver tray between them. "Vayne has busied himself so of late with his impending move to Rabanastre. Given the attention he has granted the move, I believe he is looking forward to it."
He does not have to look up to see that his words have brought a cloud across his father's brow. Vayne is almost as difficult to talk about as he is to talk to for most people, Larsa knows, having learned at an early age that when it comes to his lord brother, most Archadians hold true to the adage that if one cannot say something nice, one ought not say anything at all. Even Gramis, though Larsa is certain he loves both his sons, has never spoken of him freely in Larsa's presence.
At long last, Gramis clears his throat. "...Does he talk to you?"
Now it is Larsa's turn to take on a shadow of worry. "No, Father," he answers softly. "He talks to Doctor Cid."
"And Cid talks to ghosts." Gramis' voice is a rough whisper, so faint Larsa cannot be entirely certain he is meant to hear the words. The air rattles in his lungs so heavily that Larsa's chest aches in sympathy. "Perhaps one day the ghosts will deign speak to us, that we might better know the workings of his heart."
Larsa stares into the thin brown liquid in his teacup, wishing then against all possibility that they would, that he might have returned to him the brother he fears has already slipped too far beyond his own painfully young ability to reach.
Vayne sits in near-darkness, hands folded in his lap, listening to his father's laboured breathing. It has become his habit of late, this night watch, on the nights he himself cannot sleep. He tells himself he stays in case Gramis' health fails him, or if he needs assistance in any way. Of late, however, the vigil has become little more than a gallery of his father's nightmares.
"Islude, is that you?"
"No, Father." Vayne reaches for Gramis' outstretched hand, folding it back atop the old man's chest. He can feel through the thin nightshirt the pounding of his father's pulse, a heavy drumbeat for such a wearied instrument. "Only Vayne."
Yet here in the dark, there is no convincing the old emperor otherwise, and he reaches again for Vayne's arm, his grip strengthened by the terrored edge of dreaming. "Have you come for me? Have you and your brother finally come?"
"No, Father," Vayne repeats. Never before has such delirious panic filtered into Gramis' waking, yet Vayne will play no part of deception. He strokes his father's hands, trying to ease them from his sleeve. They feel tender, skin like fine parchment, supple without a hint of brittleness; that quality belongs to the bones beneath it, no longer as sturdy as once they had been when Vayne could still remember being carried in his father's arms.
Thin light from a single lamp reflects in Gramis' wide eyes, and he leans in as close to Vayne as strength will allow. "Do you know why I could not let you live?"
The words catch Vayne cold, filling his stomach with shards of ice. His world becomes that day so many years ago, the one he cannot purge from his mind; everything is bright and clear, the weight of the sword in his hands, the smell of blood already copper-bright in the air (or does his mind now write it in prematurely after dwelling there all these years?), Islude's regal voice saying strike me first, I would not my brother suffer a fate I would not first meet, Olan's deep voice saying strike me second, I would not my brother see me die.
"Do you know?" Gramis asks again, dragging their faces closer. One hand reaches up and tangles in Vayne's long hair (long like Islude had once worn his), pulling down Vayne, who, despite his youth and strength, is too paralysed with terror to resist. "Not because you sought my life, my life or my throne. Those to you, my beloved sons, I would have given gladly. Nay, because when the time came for action, you hesitated." Gramis' lips pull back from his teeth, and his hand becomes a claw into Vayne's skin; he is a mermaid, Vayne thinks, come to surface in a sea of guilt only to drag Vayne helpless under. "You hesitated. And as such, to my heart, were lost."
"Father," Vayne says, and his voice is stone-calm despite the perspiration along his brow. "You were dreaming, but have awakened. You have still hours before the dawn, and you need your rest."
Whether because of Vayne's measured words or because the nightmare has finally succumed to starving-death at the hands of wakefulness, the fire in Gramis' eyes subsides, and the old emperor's body goes slack again. "Vayne," he murmurs, letting his arms drop. "I ... believe I was dreaming."
Vayne again folds his father's hands on his chest, propping the pillows around him once more. "You were, but no longer. Sleep again, Father. I will keep watch over you this night."
Gramis nods and shuts his eyes, breathing heavily. Vayne watches his chest rise and fall, counting each breath as they slow, then settle into a rhythm none could mistake for anything save sleep, until Vayne is left alone in the dark, with only his terrible thoughts and the sound of the apology his father will never be able to deliver for company.
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