Portraits of Empire [FFXII]
He follows close behind, Islude's small shadow, trying to be unobstrusive as his eldest brother strides into the senate chambers. Olan brings up the rear, the youngest Solidor flanked by his closest elders, lest anyone be so gauche as to challenge his presence at the meeting. The doors swing heavily on their hinges, and twelve hooded faces raise in unison to gaze upon the newest arrivals.
"Don't let them intimidate you," Islude had told him, kneeling down and straightening his twelve-year-old brother's jacket with careful hands, his expression gentle and even as he made ready Vayne for his first senate session. "You may not believe this, but they're actually more scared of you than you are of them." Islude, with his long, silky hair swept back from his face, drawn into a regally knotted ribbon at the nape of his neck -- the eldest Solidor, the gentlest Solidor, destined (or doomed) by order of birth and disposition alike to walk the halls surrounded by whispers heralding preemptively his succession of their father as emperor.
Vayne had nodded, because Vayne believes every word from Islude's mouth. Olan is a liar and a tease, with great practice at both arts, but though Islude may poke gentle fun as brothers are wont do, he does not lie to Vayne. Yet even his earlier reassurances sound weak in the face of two dozen eyes staring him down from inside their senatorial caves, every face coloured with some shade of contempt at the boy who has been allowed to come amongst their lofty ranks, making it clear from the outset that while his presence may be tolerated, his input is most emphatically not welcome.
Islude makes a formal bow to the assembly, and a chorus of nods echoes his gesture. His shoulders hold steady and strong inside his soft blue coat, spine straight, face relaxed and easy, staring right back at the old men and their eyes as though they are only shadows themselves, to be pitied instead of feared. "Honoured senators, Your Excellency, the sons of House Solidor greet you this fine day."
"My sons," smiles Gramis, rising to his feet, and the senate follows with the dutiful air intended to let the boys know that this is not for them, but for their father. Islude's warm, unforced smile remains fixed, unmoved by any threat of insult; from behind him, Vayne can hear Olan crack what he is certain is a vicious grin, but Islude chooses to give the slight no dignity by granting it a response, and so Vayne follows his eldest brother's example. "You are welcome here."
The lie is a blatant one, but, like all lies for politeness' sake, evaporates uncommented into the air. Islude nods greeting to his father and takes his chair as the rest of the room does so in kind -- save Senator Vaerrolk, who remains standing and clears his throat, launching shortly into a lengthy and example-laden argument for invading the northern nation of Landis, a country (Vayne soon learns, after several repetitions and variations on the same theme) rich in resources and strategically advantageous to the Rozarrians, should they make a bid for it.
Yet Vayne watches not the honoured (if somewhat excitable) senator, but Islude, observing his expressions, marking each gesture, gazing in fascination at the way the entire senate hangs on the few words he utters throughout the proceedings. He has always known Islude to be a superior diplomat, but before this has never seen the art in action. Every movement here is fraught with meaning, an entire language heard only with the eyes that Vayne can only understand, but does not yet know to speak.
Perhaps, Vayne thinks, he will start by growing out his own hair.
The sword tumbles from his exhausted arm; he can feel each throb that his heart pumps through his veins, and his lungs ache with a hot, raw heaviness. The weapons master stands across the training hall from him, grin wrought across the man's horrible, weasel-like face, and Vayne hates him all the more for that horrible grin, which has budged not an inch in these past few hours, as the great variety of weapons has moved its way, one at a time, from one side of the room to the other. Blade, pole, and bow alike began the morning arrayed in formation to his left; now the temple bell strikes the noon hour, and the once-orderly arsenal lies apieces to his right, cast aside as each has proclaimed him an unfit master.
"At me!" bellows the man, whose name has disappeared into the haze of Vayne's hatred toward him. He gestures with meaty fingers toward the dropped blade, and Vayne's musches ache to think of lifting it again. At ten, he resents tremendously his lord father's insistence that the time has come for the youngest son of House Solidor to explore what it means to be a warrior -- something Vayne suspects is merely a ruse to rouse him from his dark, solitary study and prompt him toward more physical activity, which causes him to hate it all the more. "At me!" he repeats.
Vayne stoops, feeling every wound earned during the morning's activities as he wraps his fingers around the sword's hilt. He frowns, and feels in the expression the gash struck to him by an advancing pole's blow open again, sending a fresh trickle of blood town the side of his face. "At me!" the man bellows for a third time, his voice a horrible bell ringing from the room's rafters, and Vayne, like a bow drawn too tight too support such a weight, snaps.
He charges across the room with a feral yell, fists flying, moving impossibly fast, so much so that he has the pleasure of seeing true shock written on the weapons master's face in the brief seconds before his fist connects with the man's nose. Vayne feels something give, hears a horrible breaking sound, but it does not make him stop; to the contrary, it makes him draw back to strike anew, still howling his wild cat-scream, as they fall backward. The man crashes to the ground as a tree felled, and Vayne is atop him, lithe and furious, fury pushing him past all pain and exhaustion, hitting again and again and again.
It feels like a lifetime, but not even a full second passes before a hand has clamped, vise-like, around Vayne's wrist -- around both of them, in fact, and Vayne finds himself laid flat on his back, his small body held to the floor by a man literally four times his bulk, no less furious for his immobility. When he looks up, though, he sees not rage mirrored on the man's face (which now streams blood over the lower half, giving him a liquid crimson goatee), but the selfsame grin that had so enraged him in the first place. It looks different now, though, framed by damage Vayne knows he has wrought. Finally, after hours of abuse, he has scored a hit.
"Excellent!" laughs the weapons master, the first kind word he has said to the boy since the moment of their meeting. "Small wonder no blade sat right in your tender hands! They are in and of themselves vicious enough to serve as weapons in their own right."
And Vayne, clenching his right first and feeling the bruises already forming in the valleys between his knuckles, at last finds cause in all this torture to smile.
The only part of the sentence he hears is the word 'guilty,' for beyond that the courtroom's uproar drowns out the proclamations of the Judge Magister, his thick, booming voice unable to penetrate the cacophany of surprise and disbelief from the assembled masses. Though whispers and rumours of their betrayal have resounded through the halls many months now, Vayne finds himself dumbstruck at the final declaration of his brothers' traitorous intentions.
Vayne raises his eyes to his father, whose countenance is grave. The burden of empire has stooped his shoulders, and already mere vestiges of deep brown remain in his hair and beard. The emperor raises a hand to silence the crowd, and a hush falls as hundreds of ears bend to hear the wronged father's proclamations. Will he pardon them if they repent of their sins? Will he condemn them to exile beyond the borders of the Empire? Or will he demand from them the full extent of treason's price?
"The weight of my grief cannot be marked in words," the head of House Solidor rasps, his voice dry with sorrow. "My heart is rent beyond repair, and I stand before you a man broken.
"Yet I also stand before you your emperor. I am law, and were I to circumvent this judgement to satisfy my heart's longings, I would no longer be worthy to bear the responsibility with which I have been entrusted. When I assumed the role of office, I swore to put justice above all -- including my own blood."
Vayne can feel his stomach turn, and can see clearly now the path his father will choose. He is not close to his brothers -- they are older than he, of a different mother, and they have always kept counsel of themselves, right until the end -- yet he does not wish to see them perish for crimes he even now dares not imagine they might have committed. So absorbed is he in the implications of what he is certain is his father's upcoming proclamation that he nearly misses the old man's turning to face him.
"House Solidor is loyal to the Empire beyond measure." Though his amplified voice carries throughout the chamber, the old man's words are for Vayne now. "That none may gainsay this absolute devotion, House Solidor will not only accept the decision of the Magistrate, but will shoulder the burden of the sentence."
It is only the knowledge that the eyes of the Empire are fixed firmly on him at this moment that keeps him upright as his father unsheathes his regal sword, placing the flat of its blade across his palms and extending it towards Vayne. Try though he might, he cannot bear to meet his father's gaze as he accepts weapon and duty alike, one hand clasped firmly about the hilt, the other gripping the blade itself with a strength which will mark him the length of his life.
A full two days' worth of physicians and politicians pass before the boy is allowed in -- though with his older brothers' blood so recently on his hands, none dare call him a boy any longer. He wears his hair long these days, long enough to fall in his eyes when difficult subjects are broached, long enough to keep expressions off his sixteen-year-old face that do not befit the man he has of late by necessity become.
The nursemaids all give Vayne a wide berth as he enters, tracking his passage with uneasy eyes. And why should they not? After all, their job is to nurture life, and he has seen fit to take it, so naturally they are at cross purposes. Perhaps they fear he is here to harm the newborn, he thinks. Perhaps they know something he doesn't.
The mother is not here, having been removed expediently to an estate in the country where she will presumably live out her days in relative peace, her silence safeguarded by a handsome stipend. She has been replaced by a cortege of wet nurses, anxious-looking women whose nursing dresses make no attempt to conceal ample breasts, none of whom will be called upon to mother him beyond their bodies' collective service. He will have no mother, then, as Vayne had none, though the child will know that somewhere she lives, while Vayne knows only that his own birth meant death to she who had born him.
All the room is still as Vayne approaches the infant, who rests in his crib, seeming to sleep; his head is turned from Vayne, and he faces away from his assemblage of attendants, his body swaddled lightly in white linen wrappings. Yet as Vayne comes near, the child turns and looks at him with eyes wide and luminous. Not asleep, then, but waiting. Awaiting his only brother.
"Here am I," Vayne promises softly, drawing the tiny life into his arms, cradling the child Larsa to his chest.
The playroom is silent as Vayne enters, and as such it takes him a moment to notice the four-year-old sitting on the ground, his back to the door, surrounded by legions of stuffed animals. As Vayne approaches, he sees that they are seated by type (and, in some cases where uniqueness dictates a lack of company, by colour and size), with Larsa in the middle of the listening carefully. "What is the agenda today?" he asks, kneeling behind his younger brother.
"The chocobo contingent is in negotiation with the bears," Larsa says without looking up, and indeed, a feathered purple chocobo and a stately-looking grey bear (one of Vayne's, once) sit facing one another, glass eyes and fabric faces fixed in deep concentration. "For control of the plains."
"The plains?" Vayne raises an eyebrow.
Larsa nods. "It's where the greens grow."
"I see," nods Vayne, his voice bespeaking not even a hint of amusement. "And what bring the chocobos to the table?"
"The rivers." Larsa reaches out and plucks a member of the assembly -- his favourite, a floppy white rabbit known as Senator Bun -- to place in his lap. "It's where the fish are."
Vayne reaches out and strokes Larsa's soft black hair with a gentle hand, marvelling at how fine it is, wondering if it will coarsen with age as his own has. "I'm certain this can be brought to some sort of peaceable agreement."
Larsa nods. "Peace is the only acceptable solution," he notes very seriously.
Though he cannot see her face, Vayne is certain that Drace's expression is pure murder.
"Remove your helm," he orders.
She, in no position to refuse, does so, lifting it from her shoulders and holding it at her side with her off-hand. Her wispy hair, light brown going grey, sticks to her temple and her neck; the day's heat is already oppressive enough to Vayne in his court dress, and he dares not imagine how uncomfortable the Judges Magister, watching this scene unfold before them from the shadows of the room, must be in their full armour. Whatever expression her face might have been before, it is gone now, replaced with a blankness and only the slightest tightness at her lips to suggest a set jaw.
He strikes her hard, the back of his hand connecting audibly with the bones in her jaw. He might as well have struck a statue, for all she moves, for all his hand aches, yet he sees the redness spreading across her pale skin from point of impact and knows the blow -- intended to shame far more than to pain her -- has landed as intended. Even so, her lack of reaction infuriates him, and he draws his hand back again, this time intending to bring down the heel of his palm against her defiant face.
His strike never makes it that far. He feels his momentum disappear as heavily gloved fingers close around his wrist, hard enough to bruise. "I fear the master's punishment far more than befits the crime," Drace says, her voice slow and even. She holds his gaze for a moment, then releases his hand.
"Quite right she is, Vayne," pipes up the emperor from behind him. "Your point is made."
It is Vayne's turn to wear a look of great hatred, which he does openly only so far as he is certain none but she can see. Before he withdraws to return to his father's side, however, he leans toward her and warns, "Never again speak of my brothers to me."
He does not remember having gone to bed with a great weight against his chest, and as such, is somewhat surprised to wake up with one. It squirms as he stirs, burrowing deeper under the covers, and Vayne is hardly surprised to find, upon lifting the edge of the covers and peering beneath, that the weight wears his brother's black hair.
Vayne shakes his head, though no weight could be great enough to keep the corners of his mouth from lifting. "Larsa," he sighs, his voice rough and drowsy. "When did you arrive?"
The lump beneath the covers responds not with words, but by burrowing deeper, away from the dawn light and dawn cold alike that his unearthing has let in. The winter has been a particularly bitter one thus far, with no sign of a break in the unrelenting cold, and as such every morning since the season's first snowfall has been a kind of frozen torture within the house's stone walls. Vayne sighs and regards the fireplace against the far wall, which yet holds faint glowing coals but has surrendered its flame during the night; for not the first time in his life, he regrets having perilously little magickal aptitude, for the ability to set fire to objects with a mere word has always seemed a terribly useful skill.
Larsa yawns and draws the covers back over his head, climbing practically atop Vayne in his attempts to seek heat; Vayne lets out a certainly undignified as he feels a small, bony knee bury itself deep into his belly, and readjusts before his internal organs can suffer any unnecessary damage. Two floppy white ears peek out from under the covers, and Vayne sees that Senator Bun too has made the nighttime trip to warmer climates. He vaguely supposes he ought be sterner, tell Larsa that they both have their own places to be, and as such should not intrude upon the other; surely five is a good age to stop such nonsense as bedding in with one's family members, even if those family members seem the best defense against unusually cruel temperatures.
Yet any compelling reason he tries to conjure to the practice's contrary sounds ridiculous to his own ears, and would surely make even less sense to the internal logic of a particularly affectionate child. Even the strongest argument he can muster -- that Larsa might one day find himself the third, and not the second, in Vayne's chambers -- is at its core nonsense; there has never been a second in Vayne's bed save Larsa himself, and Vayne cannot imaigne such an arrangement might arise anywhere in the foreseeable future. Being nigh-universally disdainful of all human contact has its occasional advantages, among them its allowance for consistency.
How Larsa ever managed to crack his solitary heart, Vayne cannot say. Yet here, barricaded against the morning chill by mounds of heavy covers, the heat of a small boy, and an ever-vigilant stuffed rabbit, Vayne can hardly find cause for complaint.
Perhaps once the spring comes and the world begins to thaw, then will be appropriate for a discussion about how Larsa really ought do his best to remain the whole night in his own bed. But not until then.
That night, Larsa refuses to eat the veal brought out before him. "It was a baby."
The emperor looks at him across the long table, white eyebrows lifting in surprise. "I see," he says softly, tapping his fork thoughtfully against the table. "Surely, Larsa, you understand that the order of nature determines our superiority--"
"I no longer eat meat." Larsa folds his arms with all the righteous indignation a seven-year-old can muster and pushes back from the table. "Please pass the greens."
Vayne nudges the platter of vegetables within Larsa's easy reach. "This wouldn't have anything to do with the fox hunt today, would it?"
"I do not wish to discuss it," Larsa declares. He heaps his plate high with beans.
Vayne casts a curious glance at Gabranth, standing ramrod-straight at the doorway, who somehow manages to affect a look of abject innocence even behind a heavy metal mask. No, Vayne is fairly certain that Gabranth's often curious influence has had nothing to do with this one; after all, Vayne's seen the man eat.
The emperor still watches Larsa, his own food yet untouched on his plate. "As you will," he nods, sighing the sigh of a parent willing to acquiesce to a child's whim with the hope that the phase that has brought it on will depart as quickly as it arrived -- even though both older Solidor men know that Larsa is not one for fickle attractions, and that no amount of persuading or ignoring will ever be able to dissuade him from something once he has set his mind to it.
Vayne tries the veal and finds it especially tender tonight, if a bit on the rare side.
"Leave us," Vayne tells the guard, taking the flail from his hands. To the guard's credit (or perhaps to the credit of Vayne's station, sometimes it can be hard to tell), the man disappears without question or comment, shutting the door behind him. Before him is Gabranth's bared back, broad and muscular; the judge stands slightly bent, his arms stretched before him to grab the bracing bar, and does not turn his head to investigate.
Vayne steps forward, testing the weight of the flogger -- worn and knotted leather, intended to sting yet not to damage, a punishment tool worthy of a house that wishes to keep its disobedient servants in line but keep them nonetheless. "I cannot impress upon you enough how my brother's safety is paramount to me," he says, voice even as he brings the lash down hard against Gabranth's flesh. It makes a heavy, satisfying crack, and the muscles in Gabranth's back twitch.
"I understand that he is yet only nine years of age, and as such is prone to thoughtless, errant behaviour," Vayne continues, meting out another blow. "Yet you are given charge of him," another strike falls, "and as such I have found your vigilance wanting." A fourth blow sings against Gabranth's skin, and Vayne can hear the judge grunt softly under the punishment.
Two more strikes, then Vayne circles in front of Gabranth and lifts his face, forcing the judge to look him in the eye. "If ever again Larsa slips the watchful eye of his cortege and finds himself in the company of such disreputable rabble as he did this day, be assured that my wrath will seem merciful compared to that of my Lord Father."
Gabranth's teeth are clenched, from pain and from shame, yet he grits back at Vayne, "Save Lord Vayne, there is none more devoted to Larsa and his safety than I."
Vayne stares at Gabranth, his eyes dark, then brings a blow from the front down across Gabranth's neck and shoulders. Even Gabranth's stoic nature cannot withstand this stike, and he cries out, stumbling forward as his knees give way momentarily. "See that I never have cause to doubt that it is so," Vayne hisses, tossing the instrument into the corner and striding out of the courtyard.
"And you expect that I shall acquiesce to self-slaughter simply because you decide it the best course of action?" The emperor eyes Vayne warily, replacing his golden goblet aside his plate and walking to the window, his full court dress trailing behind a frame magestic even in decline.
Vayne finds he cannot look his father in the eye. "No, Excellency," he says softly. "I expect you shall do it because I have poisoned your drink."
Not even the barest hint of surprise creases the elder Solidor man's face, and Vayne will never be able to know if this is years of practiced control to ward against ever appearing unprepared, or if the father has known the son's intentions from the moment Vayne had entered the room bearing the steward's tray and yet chosen of his own free will to drink. "As such your clever mind has guided me to an impasse," the emperor sighs, gazing out at the view of Archades. "Of course, the easiest choices are always made when one has no choice at all."
"A choice remains to you, Lord Father." Vayne bows his head. "The poison has not yet begun its fullest work. You have time left in you to alert the guards, to tell them that I am guilty of patricide and regicide alike. I would neither resist nor deny the charge."
There is silence a long moment in the chamber. In it, Vayne wonders how long the old man truly has left, if he is even now beginning to feel the venom creep through his veins. Ill as he has been, the emperor has still measured his life in terms of months, perhaps even years; a change it must be for him, then, to find himself staring into the future and seeing the remaining span stretching only minutes. Finally, the old man speaks, his voice a heavy rasp: "Would that I thought it your plan to place my crown on your own head, I would summon them in an instant."
Vayne's stomach clenches as the enormity of the situation comes to bear -- his father will not resist him, and will not resist his efforts to frame the senate. "It is not my place to rule." The air in the room is so quiet, so still, that Vayne imagines he can hear his father's laboured heart. "The task is long since set to me to do what cannot yet must be done."
The emperor places a withered yet steady hand against the heavy glass. "Yet you demand of me something you will not ask of yourself."
"This crisis would not end were I gone," begins Vayne's explanation, given so clearly and evenly that no hitch of breath or knotting of throat could ever be detected.
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