Portraits of Empire: Islude and Olan [FFXII]
"Are you awake?"
"Yes." Though Islude's breathing is regular and his body turned toward the wall, giving him adequate cover had he chosen to pretend otherwise, he has never been able to lie to his twin.
A small pause, and then the sound of bare feet padding across the thick carpet heralds Olan's arrival, more clearly felt as weight depressing the side of his mattress and an arm wound 'round his waist. It is their eleventh summer, the last they have before they acquiesce to the practicality of separate chambers. "Are you thinking about what Senator Praetis said?"
"Yes." He does not wish to admit it, but the question has been asked, and demands an honest response.
Olan's sigh brushes warm against the nap of Islude's neck; Islude has shorn his locks close for summer, while Olan insists on maintaining their length, an unnecessary concession to distinction, since the two have grown to look less and less alike with each passing season. "His words are foolish. The rightful heir is you."
Islude sighs in kind. "Brother, though I am firstborn, it does not mean it is my right to seek unchallenged--"
"You think I would challenge you?" Olan's arm draws Islude closer to him, until they fit like spoons one against the other, atop the sheets of Islude's bed. They are silent a long moment, long enough to hear the measured cacophany of the night watch mark time past the door of their bedroom, quiet enough for Islude to hear a heartbeat that he cannot tell is his brother's or his own. When Olan speaks again, his voice is a mere whisper fraught with meaning: "I pledge myself to you."
Islude twists in his brother's grasp, turning so they face one another. "You have no cause to swear fealty to me," he remarks.
"Nonetheless, I do. I pledge to you my steel, and my soul, and my loyalty. Let me never seem to you a stumbling block, but a steadying hand." Olan takes Islude's hand between his own and presses them to his chest. "And when you are emperor, I would then yet stay by your side, if you would have me there."
A stirring rises in Islude's chest, and he feels the corners of his eyes begin to sting, so moved his is by his brother's gesture of devotion. "I swear it," he whispers, bringing up his other hand to complete the clasped quartet. "For all my life, I would have you nowhere else."
Vayne frowns and repositions an alabaster piece with chubby fingers, a knight stepping forth to block his king's destruction. But Olan inches forth a bishop, likely one Vayne has not seen. "Check."
"Olan," Islude chides, looking up from his heavy historical tome, "you're supposed to let the eight-year-old win."
"Nonsense." Olan counters Vayne's response with a pawn, taking out the meddlesome white knight. "The boy has reached the age where it would do him well to learn that the world does not play fair. And also, check."
From the other side of the board, Vayne screws up his mouth, leaning forward over crossed knees to contemplate the chess board set in front of them. He bears passing resemblance to his elder brothers, yet his mother had been no beauty (a criticism the twins had oft leveled behind her back, until such time as saying so became unfit, as speaking ill of the dead always is), and as such Vayne's features are an unfortunate juxtaposition of their shared father's leonine features and his late mother's perpetually sour expression. Islude wears his hair long these days, and Vayne follows the elder twin's example, though the rich locks of the elder are a tangled mess on the younger, drawn back in a hastily knotted bow for lack of any other recourse.
Olan feels pity for his little brother, and wants to like him, but at times it seems as though the child goes out of his way to make himself off-putting. "Checkmate," Olan winks, reaching out and snatching Vayne's king up in nimble fingers. "Good game, though. You played well."
Vayne stares balefully at the board, letting the ratio of his remaining white men to Olan's remaining black ones stand as testimony to his elder brother's lie. From behind them, Islude snaps his boook shut. "Excellent. Am I to be next, then?"
"By all means." Olan nodds to the board, setting the pieces back in their respective starting places.
With a small grunt, Vayne places hands upon tiny knees in preparation to rise from the floor -- stopping only as Islude does not position himself assume Vayne's spot (to be vacated in defeat), but instead moves to replace the prior game's victor at the helm of the black army. "Well," he grins up at Vayne, settling the last few pawns in place, "would you like to go first?"
It warms Olan's heart deeply to see the smile on his twin's face echoed, however faintly, on his younger brother's.
Olan sighs, defeated. He snaps shut the small box in his hands, obscuring its contents from view. He tries to tell himself that he hadn't expected her to say yes anyway, that it had been just something he'd felt the need to try, but deep within he knows that these are but false comforts, told to quiet his aching heart. "Have I aught left with which to convince you?" The optimism in his voice has subsided to a bare flicker.
She caresses his cheek, and he shuts his eyes, committing to memory the comforts of her touch for the bitter knowledge that this brief contact will likely be the last. "Nay," she sighs, and as she shakes her head in gentle destruction of all his hoping, strands of her black hair fall into her eyes. "I cannot express in words the pleasure I have taken in your company this year past. But if here is where we have come to stand, we must needs part, for our paths will henceforth only continue to diverge."
"You are a stubborn mule," he tells her, but the tone is affectionate, a tease, and the smile she gives him as she comprehends the true meaning behind his gibe warms his soul. Tender fingers knot around the box, holding it as tightly as his strength allows, bearing down on it with a force equivalent to that which he exerts by not fighting her decision. Olan can see the lines that have begun to crease the soft skin at the corners of her eyes. She is more than a decade his senior, and the strain of years and military service have writ their toll on her countenance; yet the effect does not repulse, but indeed serves to heighten her beauty, distinguishing her from the fair-faced maids of the royal courts by virtue of her hard-won features. "I shall never love another woman so much as I love you."
"And never I a man so much as I love the Law." She reaches down to take his hands in hers, pressing the box between them. "You see in me the promise of an empress, yet my mind's own reflection draws me to a different rôle. I thank you for this gift, and beg you save it for another lovelier than I."
Ever deferential, Olan nods. "I will, My Lady, though hear me true when I say the men of Archades will be in mourning the day you choose to take any rôle whose trappings would serve to hide your beauty from the world."
She scoffs and withdraws her hands, crossing her arms at her chest. "You will give me cause to swear never to involve myself again with politicians. Flattery is all the coin you spend."
"Only in equal value to the truth." He bows fully, a royal gesture fitting the company of empress and Judge Magister alike, and turns to be the first to take his leave.
The lash sings its cutting-song against his back, and he, days since robbed of stoicism, cries aloud at the blow. "Your last chance," says the inquisitor's harsh voice, though he is pained near past the point of hearing it now. "Tell us of your brother's treason and the Senate may yet be merciful."
He lifts his chin to meet her gaze, blue eyes steady and defiant though rimmed with agonised tears. "I confess," he repeats, for the ninth time or the ninetieth. "I am the one culpable; my brother is innocent."
Another bite of the scourge, and he falls forward, kept from collapsing against the floor only by virtue of the manacles that hold his arms aloft. "We have evidence sufficient to damn you both." The inquisitor's words come from behind him, that he cannot turn and look, and though try he might, he cannot place her voice. Had the job seemed so odious that his father found it necessary to contract help from outside Archades? Would none else take the job of torturing the heirs of House Solidor until one cut loose the other to save his own skin?
Though it pains him, he takes a deep, measured breath into his lungs and lets it out carefully. He tries not to think of his brother, likely caught in a cell much like his own. Not for a moment does he pause to wonder whether his twin has opted cooperation over self-annihilation; such is unthinkable -- as unthinkable, in fact, as the idea that their father might yet be their eleventh-hour salvation. "The treason and punishment alike are by rights mine."
The inquisitor bends down, taking his face in her hand; he can feel the edges of her nails driving into the flesh at his jaw. "Your ruse will come to folly. If the Law does not find one of you guilty, it will by necessity burn both of you. You cannot save his life now. You can only save your own."
"Then I pray only we burn together."
She spits on the ground and lets him go, stalking out of the cell, and it is from the sound of her defeated, retreating footsteps that he, after days alone in the torture-bearer's house, at last draws cause to smile.
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