Portraits of Empire: Drace [FFXII]

Though base vanity would never have been allowed to thwart her ambition, she has always known that this day would come were she to rise to the rank of Judge Magister. The rest of her armour already assembled, she stands in the richly carpeted room, staring at the helm before of her.

It stares back at her, and she thinks it patently ridiculous.

"Come now," speaks Judge Zargabaath from behind her, "it isn't that bad."

She cocks her head slightly, in hopes that the changed angle will cast the helm in some new favourable light. It does not. "Far be it from me to speak ill of the dead ... yet as I behold this, I cannot help but believe my honoured ancestors and Judges Drace before me bereft of all sense, fashion or otherwise."

Zargabaath laughs, placing a gloved hand on her shoulder, and she finds herself grateful for the older Judge's presence. "This armour has commanded respect many generations before you, and you shall wear it proudly, I have no doubt."

She sighs, lifting the helm from its pedestal and considering its weight in her hands. Though this suit in particular has been cast to fit her own frame, the design behind it has belonged to her family for centuries, with each member of her house serving among the Judges Magister taking name and helm alike. Even as a young girl, she had stared at the portraits in the halls, weighing the calling to service she felt against what she perceived as the absurdity of the traditional uniform. Even now, dressed as she is, prepared to step before the emperor and his court to take the oath of her office, it all yet seems the vestiges of an unattainable dream, too impossible to have manifested into reality.

"Your father would have been proud of you today." Zargabaath's voice is soft, and though she cannot see his face, she can hear the thread of emotion behind his words.

"Thank you." With great breath, she places the helm onto her head and stares into the mirror before her. Though no stranger to masks, she yet needs a moment to get her bearings behind the heavy steel. As her eyes adjust, her own reflection comes into view -- a figure no longer the woman who stood there before, but a Judge Magister, defender of the Empire and embodiment of justice. Such a transformation almost makes the silly helmet worth it. Almost.

"It could be worse." In the mirror, Zargabaath folds his arms, hovering behind her. "You could be from the line of House Bergan."

She laughs, and is a bit startled to hear the extent to which her voice echoes inside the accoutrements of her new rôle. "And chance carelessly slicing off a finger every time I dressed myself? Indeed. As always, I defer to your wisdom, Judge Magister Zargabaath."

"Age does have its benefits," he nods, turning toward the door and gesturing her ahead of him. "And now, I believe, Judge Magister Drace, that the court awaits."

It is the first time she has heard her new name spoken to her, and yet it already feels comfortable, an old friend she simply has not met yet. She favours him with a slight bow, feeling through her bones the way her new body moulds and moves around her old skin, and Judge Magister Drace takes her first step forward.


Drace is standing by as Gabranth exits Larsa's chambers, shutting the heavy door quietly behind him. "You're very good with the child."

Gabranth jerks his head in her direction, her presence having startled himi for being unexpected. When he sees that it is she and she alone, he relaxes slightly, inclining a bow to her in deference as is only appropriate; he wears the mantle of an obedient Judge, and wears it well.. "Lord Larsa is merely a good-natured lad."

"Indeed," she concedes, "yet I have seen how he looks upon you with a particular adoration."

"Thus he looks upon all in his service." Though the hallway is empty, servants and guards alike having retired to quieter posts for the evening, Gabranth's voice remains low, though whether for fear of waking Larsa or of being overhead, she cannot say. He carries his helm in his arm, she wearing hers not at all this evening, and thus they look upon each other with faces undisguised, a condition rare enough to be notable.

While such statements seem only appropriate in humility for one of Gabranth's status, Drace can hear beneath his words a vein of honest inferiority, and it cause piques her curiosity. "You think too lightly of yourself, Gabranth."

"Begging your pardon, Your Honour, but he is a very personable child." Gabranth meets her eyes, though the expression on his face bespeaks the great difficulty he has in doing so. She has seen him watching her before, though she does not know the precise nature of his fascination, and would not be so gauche as to impose upon the difference in their stations by inquiring.

"As you say. Yet were he offered all the playmates and distractions in the land, I still believe he should choose you as his companion."

A moment passes as Gabranth considers her words. "...Nay, I think not. But you are very kind."

By all rights, she should let the conversation end here, taking her leave of him and letting him go about his business. Yet even as she considers this course of action, she finds herself loathe to give Gabranth reason to stop talking now he has begun. She knows who he is, and from whence he comes -- it is part of her business to know, of course, and not some idle curiosity -- yet this seems all anyone knows about him; as such Drace finds herself wishing to learn more about the handsome northern barbarian come to service in the Imperial House. And as desire is often wont to do, this inquisitiveness presses her to question him beyond what she customarily might have judged appropriate. "Lord Larsa says you tell him tales. Are you then mummer and guardian alike?"

"Of course not."

His gaze darkens, and she can see she has ignited a flash of panic behind his eyes. Drace holds up her hands. "I mean no offence. You are a man most unique, Gabranth."

"...Am I not supposed to tell him tales?" Gabranth's voice carries as much of a challenge as she supposes his sense of propriety allows him to pose her.

"Quite the contrary, I applaud all attempts to further his education -- so long as the tales are worth hearing," she adds, trying to make her inquiry seem light, though the sidelong glance he gives her tells her that she has not entirely succeeded. Sometimes his gaze upon her is starved, the face of a hungry child with nose pressed against a baker's window; other times, such as now, he wears a hunted expression, a wild animal pacing its cage, the hunger still present but wielding an entirely different blade. "Are they -- permit me to ask -- tales from your home?"

Gabranth takes a deep breath. "Forgive me, Your Honour," he says, his voice deep and formal, "but I am on duty soon. By your leave."

Drace favours him with a slight bow. "Of course, Judge Gabranth. I should not wish to delay you."

Gabranth returns the bow, and as he raises his head again, she can see his lips pressed together into a small, grim line; the expression cannot erase all the youth from his face, yet in its own way suffices to make him seem far older than his years. He replaces his helm as he departs, receding through the long corridor and vanishing down the staircase at the end. Drace feels sorrowed as he leaves, fearful that her rash words have pushed him beyond his level of comfort so far as to cast a permanent barrier between them. She had not intended that her line of questioning should stop Gabranth from speaking more words at a stretch than she -- or perhaps anyone in Archades -- has ever heard him say.


"Where is Gabranth's homeland?"

Drace looks up from the writing-desk at the eight-year-old, who stares at her, eyes wide. She has been composing a letter to her brother, though the boy's presence and the door slightly ajar behind him tell her that it has apparently been a task so engrossing that she did not even hear his arrival. "A country called Landis," she tells him, without formalities or preamble; after all, he has entered unannounced to her private study at night, which by her estimation negates most of the requirements necessitated otherwise by their respective positions.

Larsa thinks about this briefly, then crosses the room's small breadth, taking the chair opposite hers. He sits very properly, though his feet do not yet touch the floor. "Is it far?"

"In distance or in time?" She sees confusion write itself across his face, and understands more fully the reason beneath his questioning. "In distance, nay; the land lies a half-day's travel north from here. But even were you to make the journey, you would not discover it. Landis was conquered by the Empire three years before your birth; there is naught left."

"Oh." The look of distress that passes Larsa's young face gives Drace to feel her candor might have been yet too candid for one so tender. He folds his gloved hands in his lap. "Are her people angry?" he asks with crushingly honest curiosity.

Drace exhales and places her pen aside the letter, folding clapsing her bare hands together in a gesture to mirror the boy's. "Her people are no longer," she says; she has been honest with him thus far, and reasons that to pretty the truth now would be to do great disrespect to them both. "They have quit the ruins of Landis to warmer climes, or they have died, by hands of Empire or their own."

They sit together in silence as Larsa mulls this over. Drace watches his face change, observing youth as it wrestles with problems weighty far beyond its years. She can see from the worry lines that cross his young brow that the knowledge of this pains him, and though she would not make light of his sorrow, its very presence gives her quiet hope. The conscience that had seen it fit to bypass House Solidor's elder sons has come to blossom in its youngest, and she prayed its presence be enough to save him his brothers' tragic fates.

Larsa lifts his gaze to meet hers again after a long moment, his voice meek. "Yet Gabranth remains."

"Aye," Drace nods, weighing herself for perhaps the first time the full importance behind the truth of the boy's statement. "Gabranth remains."


She brushes her hand across his forehead, drawing away beads of sweat with her fingers, which are always cold, no matter how she tries to warm them. He looks so good like this, naked and spent, that she can't help smiling. She strokes his cheek as their heartbeats relent, returning to rest. "...So, how was Rabanastre?" he asks finally, his eyes still shut.

"Sweltering." The Archadian air cools her skin, and she reaches for the bed's top sheet, drawing it over their twined bodies. "No visitor to that place would ever again question why Dalmascans dress as briefly as they do."

"I shall take your advice under consideration and plan to take my next leave somewhere else entirely." His arm wraps around her side and brushes her hip, fingertips lining out a deep furrow in her skin made by a sword many years previous. Her lovers over the course of her life have been few in number, owing to many factors -- yet even now as she has reached half a century's age, he is yet the one who divines the most pleasure from her body itself, the one most most intent on its careful cartography, mapping out the lines on her skin, the curves of muscle, the ridges of bone. He is rarely gentle as he beds her, nor does she wish him to be, but afterwards, as he holds her, his touch is tender beyond measure.

Frowning, she draws her hair away from the nape of her neck, then drapes an arm across his chest, letting her fingers curl just beneath his chin, the backs of her knuckles feeling the sandpaper-growth of late-afternoon stubble along his jaw. "A wise decision." She kisses his shoulder, tasting the salt of his skin. "Everything is prepared as will be necessary for Vayne's transfer to the city."

"And not a moment too soon." He brushes his lips along the crown of her head. "I cannot say I will be grieved to see his empty chair."

"Nor I," she concurs. She does not find herself compelled to rehash the reasons for their mutual distaste; many times have they shared their opinions on House Solidor's elder living son, such that the topic of Vayne has by mutual unspoken agreement become conversation unbecoming the bedroom.

He is quiet a long while, staring at the ceiling, fingers charting courses across the scars along her skin. His taciturn nature does not disquiet her, however, and she closes her eyes, allowing him his time. Finally, with a heavy sigh, he shifts their bodies until they are curled facing one another, knees bent and foreheads bowed to one another -- twins of a fashion, she thinks, though she could not precisely be pressed to say why. "I missed you." His voice is a low whisper, his words barely carrying the distance between his lips and her ear.

She smiles and reaches for his hand, twining their fingers together. "Did you, now?" she asks with a wry smile. Grasping his hand tightly, she turns on her back, drawing him close until his body is atop hers, mighty and beautiful. "Show me."

"My lady," he murmurs, brushing fingers up the soft inside of her thigh and leaning in to kiss her mouth.

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