Conflict and Accord
Rozarria at midsummer was intoxicating with the scent of a thousand flowers, a bright swirl of flamboyant garments, feathered fans, and colored lights along the canals.
It was also sweltering.
Basch was used to heat, but he was not yet used to heat combined with the sticky confines of an Archadian Judge's plate. Dalmascan armor was made for the sweat and burning sun of that country, leaving some skin bare but providing desperately-needed ventilation. Archadian armorers, on the other hand, believed that bare skin was vulnerable skin, and hinged whole suits of blued steel and leather, certain that their knights and judges were like impenetrable fortresses. A logical choice, in Archades, where the least flicker of an eyelash toppled regimes and where the highest mountains wore snow year-round.
Not so anywhere else. Certainly not in Rozarria.
Basch stripped out of his plate, and then his leather under-armor, and then his linens, and spent five minutes just standing in the middle of his room at the Margraces' guest pavilion in the Ambervale, savoring the motion of sweet air. The gauzy curtains over the windows moved in only the faintest of breezes, but to Basch it felt like pure bliss. At the least, Rozarrians understood their torrid climate, and dealt with it by sleeping in the middle of the day, conducting business late into the night, chilling their wines with frosty magicks, and building very, very large baths. Lots of them.
The guest pavilion, with its acres of apartments, had twenty-seven. Al-Cid had boasted of them on their arrival, and mentioned to Larsa which ones would be best for a private tryst. To which Larsa had nodded politely, the same way he had when told of the number of years it took to build the vast central dome of the Temple of the Gods, or how many slaves were supposedly entombed alive into the foundations of the great fortress. Though Basch thought it unlikely the thirteen-year-old emperor would be coercing any of Al-Cid's legion of sisters into a dalliance anywhere, much less in the baths. No matter the proper height of the pool ledges or the highly inspiring murals or Al-Cid's not-so-subtle endorsements. Basch thought it only Larsa's cold Solidor blood that kept him from going crimson at the very suggestion.
The bath accorded to the Archadian Emperor's party was empty with the onset of early evening, lacking--much to Basch's relief--any princesses in need of seduction. Larsa was still occupied in council with the highest-ranking Margraces, and Zargabaath was taking Judge Gabranth's sweaty post at the Emperor's chair. Basch closed his eyes and plunged into sweet, cool water, realizing that the other Judge's offer to take the seemingly less-desirable evening watch was not done out of any kindness. Basch could not be certain, owing to all that fine Archadian plate, but he thought Zargabaath had chuckled at him as they passed in the hallway outside the council chambers.
Even so, Basch was the one now up to the neck in a pool scented with lime slices, and Zargabaath was steaming quietly as Larsa wrangled through interminable miles of international protocol. Not that Basch had been discharged without orders. He had his duty, and though he could have gladly spent the night sprawled under one of the fountains, he clambered from the bath and went in search of fresh clothing.
The Ambervale of the Clan Margrace was a broad swath of lush river valley, and the palace complex was a city in its own right. Several miles square, it was crossed via chocobo and hover-palanquins, contained six canals and an artificial lake, and boasted its own shops, cafes, and theatres. It was a place to be rich and well-known in, it was a place to breed scandal and intrigue, it was a place to see and be seen and to whisper about it afterwards. It was not the sort of place Basch was inspired to linger. He was a common soldier, and he knew it, no matter the names he stole or borrowed for himself. Had he worked his own will he would have been glad to have a glass of wine and watch the lights from the balcony of his room, and perhaps find some pleasant reading in the cavernous, neglected guest library. But Larsa's orders were not to be argued with. Basch settled uneasily into the finery in his wardrobe, and wondered if the skintight nature of Rozarrian trousers was the reason men of that country were always so eager to take them off.
He caught his reflection in one of the many mirrors, scowled at Noah fon Ronsenburg scowling back at him, buckled on his sword, and left for the southwest wing of the guest pavilion.
Where the Dalmascans were quartered.
Queen Ashelia B'Nargin Dalmasca did not really have any need to work negotiations with Rozarria. The two empires trying to forge a lasting peace were Rozarria and Archades, and Dalmasca's main contribution was that it sat in the middle. By rights, it should have been the neutral setting for such business, but Rozarria had offered hospitality as a show of goodwill, and Larsa, being the canny young man he was, had graciously accepted--provided that Dalmasca, too, was present. Though Ashe was attendant on the formal morning meetings, there was little call for her to be present when the evening ones dragged on after teatime, and it soon became evident that Ashe was given the freedom of the evenings so that she could enjoy the sights and pleasures of the capital. Which meant, in Rozarrian terms, being proposed to. Often. Last word Basch had, she had refused at least nineteen offers of marriage from various members of the Margrace dynasty, including one prince who was all of nine years old and another who was quite of age, but had turned out to be a princess.
(Basch couldn't really blame them for the mistake. Rozarrian women, in his experience, often produced better beards than Dalmascan men. Much to the gratitude and financial security of the Margraces' royal waxers.)
And they had not yet been there a full two days.
This night, Ashe was supposed to be free of the attentions of bride-seeking princes, as Larsa had promised her a casual evening, perhaps with the theatre and something nice to eat and a quiet stroll along the canals. Basch, as Gabranth, had been expected to go along in plate as escort. But at the last moment Larsa had decided it was really not possible to leave negotiations just yet, especially not in the middle of a very sticky clause about chocobo importation tariffs, and would Judge Gabranth be so kind as to escort Her Highness in the Emperor's place, and offer his most profound apologies?
Judge Gabranth would be so kind. Of course, Your Excellency. But Judge Gabranth would have been more comfortable doing so in his armor, heat be damned. Instead the only mask he was allowed was his own face, and he tried to steel that as best he could before rapping sharply, twice, on door of the Dalmascan queen's apartments.
Ashe was already talking before she had the door open, "Larsa, I'm so sorry I'm late, I've just gotten rid of Al-Cid's third cousin. Old enough to be my father twice over and--oh!" Ashe looked up, and the wrap she had been trying to put round her shoulders slid to the carpet with a muted jangle of beads.
"Your Highness," Basch said, and bowed, glad at least that he had lines to offer. "Lord Larsa offers his apologies; he is deeply entrenched in negotiations and sent me in his stead. He hopes you will not mind."
Ashe was staring at him, her hand making vague motions until it encountered the doorframe, where it clung with something like gratitude. "I--no. Of course I don't mind! Are you--wait, come inside, at least, I will only be a moment."
Basch stepped into the room and Ashe made a good show of acting as though there was nothing odd about the situation, but her eyes kept stealing little glances at him, at the line of his scar, or his close-cropped hair. "I saw you during the conferences, of course. But in all that plate one hardly has any idea you're in there at all. How long has it been? A year and then some?"
"Fourteen months," Basch said, and tried not to contribute to the queen's discomfiture. Had he arrived as he left, as Basch fon Ronsenburg and her unobtrusive shadow, it would be one thing. But the face she saw now was the same one he had seen in the mirror of his room: the face of a former enemy and her father's murderer. They were no longer insurgents fighting for a common cause, shoulder to shoulder with blood spilled in harmony. She was a queen of Dalmasca, and he an Archadian Judge Magister, borrowing his brother's place. They could not greet each other as they might have wished, with smiles and clasped hands, and names spoken freely.
"It's all gone by so quickly," Ashe said, and reached behind her to put on a jeweled slipper. Basch found his attention drawn by the tendon of her ankle, and some silver trinket she wore around it, and he took a sudden and devout interest in a flight of river birds sailing past the queen's window. "Are you well? How do you find the Archadian Empire?"
It must be the nature of nobility, Basch thought, to accept such patently superficial words as genuine conversation. Ashe did not give a damn what he thought of Archades, or if he had trouble with the accents, or the food, or the customs. She didn't want to hear him talk about the climate or the wines. What she wanted to hear was that she had been missed. What she wanted to ask was if Basch had heard from the others. What they wanted to be was what they had been: friends. But even though Basch was not in Gabranth's plate, it loomed between them all the same, impassable.
You look sad, Basch thought. I remind you of what you have been through. I remind you of the friends we have not seen. You say the time has passed quickly, but your eyes are lying. Every hour has weighed heavy on your hands. You are queen and you are alone. Your father is gone, your brothers and your husband are gone, your friends are gone, your loyal soldiers are dead or pretend to be. Neither Vossler nor I can serve you now. Who then stands at your shoulder in dark hours, Queen of Dalmasca? Only ghosts, unseen and silent.
But all Basch said was, "It's a fine country, but not Dalmasca."
She looked somehow relieved that he had not said the things he was thinking, and Basch wondered if he had been around nobility long enough now that he could be as false in words as they were. Or maybe it was spending so long in the Archadian Empire. She seemed so grateful for the pretense of polite distance. He remembered her white hot fury, her raised voice and the sweep of her blade in battle, and found he longed for the Ashe she had been, and the late, lamented Basch fon Ronsenburg. Those two could talk in plain words, bind one another's wounds, or sleep side by side in the dirt. They would not stand staring at each other like strangers in the bazaar.
"I'm glad to hear that we still retain at least some of your affection," Ashe said, and her smile hovered as improbably on her face as Bhujerba's floating mountains did in the sky.
"More than a small part of it," Basch said, and Ashe slowly pulled her veil in her hands, while outside the lamplighters plied their small coracles along the canals, lighting little fires against the onset of night. "Shall we go, then?"
"Is it safe for you?" Ashe asked quietly, and for a moment she was wholly there, the princess Basch had known, and sworn to. "Without your helm, you might be recognized..."
"Would you take me for any other than Judge Gabranth if you did not know?" Basch asked, and tilted his hips and jaw a little bit at the mirror of her eyes, resting his hand on the hilt of his sword, just so. Archadian arrogance, studied carefully, practiced and as measured as a step in a dance.
Ashe shook her head, smiling. "No. In truth you are terrifying in your sameness. You gave me quite a turn at the door. I had not seen you since you took up his appearance."
"I confess I feel it does not suit me," Basch admitted, his accent slipping back to Dalmascan once again. "But if you will endure Judge Gabranth for an evening, then perhaps I can endure him for a lifetime."
Ashe slipped her arm into the crook of his offered elbow, and once sure of their roles, the actors swept out of the wings and onto the stage of the Ambervale.
In the din of other people, Basch found it far easier to simply be, and Ashe's hand was no longer so cold on his arm, nor her knuckles white with unspoken strain. They took a palanquin from the guest quarters and as the tiny hover hummed off into the streets, Judge Gabranth's plate spiraled away behind them. Larsa had advised a play, and suitable dining rooms; but one glance at the overdressed and over-perfumed crowd was enough, and their palanquin zipped right by the theatre without slowing. Basch thought Ashe might have laughed at him as he steered away, but the sound was lost in the wind. When he looked up at her, she was only smiling.
They left the hover at a canal dock and took a gondola down the lily-clogged water, to see the elaborate gardens spilling over the canal walls, and to hear snatches of music from the score of parties happening all at once. A cool breeze jostled the lanterns and ruffled the leaves; Ashe lost her scarf over the side and did not seem sorry to see it go.
"Oh, this is a thousand times better than those infernal rooms," she said, falling back onto tapestry cushions and trailing fingers in the oily-smooth water. "I would rather spend the rest of my visit floating on the canals, so any suitor would have to be a sure swimmer to trouble me."
"You are the most desirable bride in two empires," Basch admitted, and pulled a little harder on the oars, even though the boat was propelled by small, silent magicks and needed little assistance.
"One would think a widow would be less of a prize," Ashe sighed. "I expect Larsa had the very best intentions, to ensure that Dalmasca was not overlooked in the negotiations, but the Margraces see me as only a rung to climb and a crown to win."
"And yet you must wed eventually," Basch said, trying to think as a nobleman, and an Archadian, would. "Dalmasca's royal veins have been bled dry." She was scowling at the lanterns above her, and Basch hastened to add, "That was indelicate. Forgive me."
"You need not apologize. I am reminded often enough how advisable it would be for me to wed, and soon. It is not so for kings, they may get heirs a day from their death-beds, but royal women are meant to be quickened with babes the instant they first bleed." She rubbed her fingers on the bridge of her nose, as though to ward off a headache, or tears. "Had Rasler and I only been granted a tiny bit more time..." She let out her breath in a rush, looked around for her scarf, remembered she had lost it, and then twisted her hands in her lap. "Once, I even thought--" Ashe broke off. "No, it is of no consequence, now."
Basch tucked up the oars, letting the little boat glide serenely under arches of delicate bridges and flowering vines. "You may speak freely to me, Your Highness," he said. "I am still sworn to your service. Any burden you wish to lay aside on me, even if it is only words, I would be glad to take it. And--" He hesitated, not sure if he should admit it, trying to gauge her mood. "--I am sick to death of the protocol of Empires."
She took one of his hands in hers, grateful, and spoke to his knuckles rather than his face. "In the days of the resistance," she said softly, "I often thought I should make use of the time and have a child. Even a bastard would be an heir, should aught befall me. Had I known how long the days would be between then and my throne, I would have done so. But I would not complicate our goals with such things. I could not wield a sword in one hand and nurse a babe in the other."
"Who would--" Basch began, but she looked up at him, and Basch did not need to finish the question. "Vossler."
"He went so far as to offer to have us wed in secret," Ashe said. "With the clear understanding that once my throne was returned, he would be cast aside for a more suitable match, and the union annulled. He would not have dreamt of tarnishing my honor, not even in such a desperate hour as that."
"I did not know," Basch murmured, "that he loved you. It is no surprise, though, thinking of it now."
"Loved me?" Ashe gave a sad little laugh. "Loved Dalmasca, rather. A tumble and a child would have been no more to him than a carefully planned battle. He thought only of the best means to return me to the throne, and if not me, then my progeny. What was that line, from the play you so deftly avoided this evening? A good soldier to a lady?"
"I know nothing of Rozarrian drama," Basch said, but he fumbled around for what he was feeling, beyond the grief of Vossler's name, and found it was gratitude. That Ashe would confide in him, that Vossler had not loved her, that she had refused his offer.
"But there is no war now," Ashe said, "and with Dalmasca secure, no reason I should not settle to the business of a dynasty. But the Margrace princes are contemptible, Archadian nobles worse, and neither I nor Dalmasca would suffer me wed to Larsa, who sadly is not young enough to be refused by merit of his age alone."
"Larsa would not consider such a thing, so damaging to Dalmasca's sovereignty," Basch said, certain at least of that. "He has said as much to me, that he would like to see you wed to an Archadian, but not to he himself."
"No," Ashe sighed. "It is the Margraces for me, or nothing. Al-Cid is not... entirely unlikable, at the least. Unless there is a stray prince of Valendia to be had, but they are busy with their own wars."
"A pity," Basch said, though in truth he didn't think it very much of a pity at all, "that Judge Ffamran Mid Bunansa has discarded his name and title."
"Damn Balthier," Ashe exploded, with emphatic heat. "He is in the business of stealing rings, not giving them, and he is too proud to let even his friends know he lives, making us wait and mourn him for a year--"
Basch struggled to school his expression, and did not succeed in time.
"You knew!" Ashe said, blinking at him. "You knew Balthier and Fran survived!"
"I am Judge Magister of the 9th Bureau," Basch said, in apology. "It is my charge to gather and filter information."
"You would have done well to filter it to me," Ashe snapped, and took her hands from his.
The boat drifted on, content, while Basch felt steel plates materialize again between them. A burst of raucous laughter came from one of the gardens they passed, and another gondola slipped past them, the couple in it thoroughly and noisily occupied. Ashe and Basch both studied the ivy-covered canal wall until it had passed, and the moans of the couple had dissipated into the heavy night air.
"I'm sorry," Ashe said, quietly, so soft that the ripples of the boat threatened to obscure her words. "I am foolish and bitter at being abandoned, though it is no more than I expected would happen. Sky pirates cannot consort with queens, and you no longer bend your knee to my demands, you serve Larsa now."
"There was no place for me in Dalmasca," Basch answered. "Basch fon Ronsenburg is dead, and with honor, thanks to Your Highness. Larsa could not go bare-breasted back to Archadia after the war, with only Zargabaath at his back. Zargabaath is not a young man, and Larsa had not yet assembled a trustworthy senate. I fear even with all his cunning, there would have been knives for his belly within the year."
"I know all this," Ashe said, and fiddled with the ring that had been returned to her. "But I cannot help wishing for a slightly different outcome."
"You have your throne and your kingdom restored and prosperous," Basch said. "What else is it that you would desire?"
Basch knew there must be something more, for Ashe to be so discontent. But he did not realize exactly what that something was until she looked at him, and her face told him everything. She said his name, and his breath became snared somewhere in his chest, and his protests with it, as though Nalbina's chains still bound him. And perhaps they did; he could not move as Ashe's hand was curious and wondering in the short hair at the nape of his neck. The boat tilted with her motion and his arms were full of the soft warmth and welcome of her. She smelled like bitter oranges and cedar, and tasted like Dalmasca against his mouth.
The boat fetched up in the lee of an overhanging paupu vine, scattering soft petals across the water and enfolding the gondola and its occupants in a fragrant curtain. Basch spared a moment of actual appreciation for Rozarria, and all its vices, but then Ashe called him by name again and he was a man lost. He gave little other thought to Rozarria then, or to any kingdom, and swore only one fealty late realized and long unspoken into the hollow of Ashe's throat.
They did not delude themselves with promises. Not even when thunderclouds rolled up on the horizon, and they stumbled rain-drenched back into the queen's apartments. Not in the golden tangle of candlelight, when his voice broke over her name and she gave his back to him a thousand times. Morning would come, and he would stand impassive and armored again at Larsa's side, while she took her chair across the table, beneath the banner of Dalmasca's arms. In a week, a Judge Magister would depart for Archades, and a Queen for Rabanastre. But in the deepest hush of night there was no plate and no crown between them, and they took what they could without apology. Like insurgents, like sky pirates.
It was well after dawn by the time Basch returned to the Archadian rooms. He expected Larsa to be still sleeping, after his late evening of negotiations, but the young emperor was awake and busy over his letters, Zargabaath and cup of tea both close at hand.
"There you are, Gabranth," Larsa said, without looking up. "I trust you and Lady Ashe had a pleasant evening?"
Basch stood rooted to the spot, and Larsa lifted a knowing smile over the edge of his parchment. It should not have come as a surprise to Basch that he had been neatly and swiftly manipulated. The Archadian Empire had ever been a keen hand at twisting the life of Basch fon Ronsenburg to suit it. But in this latest maneuver there was no malice, and Larsa's eyes were bright with the pleasure of a feint well-played.
"I did, thank you." Basch said, and his carefully-constructed Archadian accent was strained to breaking. "I daresay she did, as well."
"Good," Larsa said. "After all, we cannot let the Rozarrians best us, now can we? I should never hear the end of it from Al-Cid. Now, if you would don your plate, and accompany me. Chocobo tariffs are settled, but this tax on magicite refineries is completely unacceptable. I expect we'll be at it until at least lunch."
Basch managed something in acknowledgement, and bowed out of the room. He wondered if he would ever be cold-blooded enough for Archadian politics, and decided that if not, he could learn to live with that fact.
Back in Larsa's study, the young emperor snapped his fingers and held out his hand expectantly. Zargabaath, with a resigned sigh, dug around in his belt for six sandalwood chops and dropped them into Larsa's waiting palm.