A Knight Sells His Sword
Basch was physically unable to let a fire die. It didn't matter if it was his turn on watch or not, or how sound asleep he was. The moment the embers began to sink down into cold ash he was instantly awake, every nerve in his body singing warning.
It did not much matter now, at the edge of the Sandsea. Not like the times when the lights in the Barheim Passage below Nalbina would flicker and die, all too often and sometimes for days at a time. Foul things squished and clicked up the stairs to his hanging cage, then, to scrabble their fleshless fingers at the bars, to stare at him with sunken eyes and moan their hunger for his still-living body.
More than once, Basch thought it might be better mercy to press close enough to the bars for them to tear out his obstinate heart, and have done with it.
Now when the light dimmed suddenly beyond his closed eyelids, Basch's hand went to his blade and it was half-drawn before he was even awake. But in the still blackness of not yet morning only Vossler passed near him, cracking a branch of dry, wind-twisted wood in his hands. The failing fire sprang up anew, and bathed Basch's face and hands in warmth.
Basch let out his breath in one long, slow sigh, and his hand moved away from the hilt of his sword.
"I do not pretend to know the scope of Nalbina's horrors," Vossler said quietly, though he had given no indication of knowing Basch was awake. "But the Basch I knew was not so quick to startle."
"Our wars have changed us both," Basch answered, in little more than a whisper. "The Vossler I knew was not so slow to trust, nor so ready to keep secrets."
"...Perhaps. I fear he is both those things now." Vossler sat down beside Basch as though his armor weighed twice again what it should, and the brightness of the new flames did not quite reach his face. For a long time he did not speak again, and the fire snapped hungrily at the new wood. "I knew when the Empire presented you as Raminas' murderer that something had gone terribly wrong," Vossler said, at last. "I could not believe their words, yet I had no choice but to believe the testimony of that wounded boy."
"And I was in no fit state to answer you at the time," Basch said, and ran his fingertips lightly over his brow, tracing the dark scar of a heavy blow. "What you did, you felt you had to do."
Vossler twisted the hilt of his greatsword in his hands, as though it was the neck of Vayne Solidor. "I should have trusted my friend, and not the Empire," he growled. "It was obvious to me that Reks had been addled, and not by any knife in his gut. He was never sound after, and was useless for anything but to point his finger at you. If Dalmasca had still been whole, there could have been a trial, and you could have testified--"
"And instead I was carted to Nalbina, and Ondore was quick to announce my execution. While I hung for the empire's pleasure, to be squeezed now and then about the Dusk Shard, and the resistance, and any plans the princess might have made to ensure her escape." Basch gave up on any semblance of sleep, sitting up and brushing sand out of the wrinkled surface of his blanket. "It was a clever ruse long in the making. Not only to mask the Empire's deeds, but to discredit any resistance that might follow. They would be daubed in the same brush as Basch the Kingslayer: traitors too proud to submit to defeat, fighting until the last gasp and utter desolation."
Vossler stared into the darkness beyond their fire, where Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca lay sleeping in the dirt beside a thief, a street dancer, and a pair of sky pirates. "I fear Her Highness is in some ways cast of the mold into which you were wrongly pressed," he sighed. "Not that she would raise hand to an ally, much less her father, but she will fight for Dalmasca until there is no longer a Dalmasca to fight over."
Even in the firelight, Basch's gaze was sharp enough to score paned glass. "And you would not, Vossler? I thought we had sworn as much together."
"The boy I was swore so," Vossler's mouth tightened in a grim smile. "But I thought we already established how much we are not the men we were."
"I cannot endure the darkness, and I've no love of cages." Basch shrugged. "But save for that, and the smear upon my name, I would not call myself so changed. At least, my oath for Dalmasca still holds true. Does not yours?"
Vossler's hands, open on his knees, closed into fists with a soft clink of articulated gauntlets. "My oath to Dalmasca," he murmured, "remains as true as it ever was. I would endure any pain, any shame, any dishonor, to again see her whole, and Ashelia queen of her."
A cautious smile crept over Basch's face. "Then we are not so different from the men we were two years ago."
Vossler smiled back, but something in his eyes was as dark and restless as the tunnels of Barheim. "Aboard the Leviathan, Larsa Solidor told me of his surprise when he met you in Bhujerba: Basch fon Ronsenburg back from the dead, and wearing the same face as Judge Magister Gabranth. I confess, until that moment, I still half-believed the lies that condemned you. Forgive me."
"As I said, it was a clever ruse." Basch prodded a fallen branch back into the fire. "At times I half-believed it myself."
"Still," Vossler persisted, "I would ask your pardon. And hope that you know that had I known sooner the truth, you would have been free of Nalbina before another hour had passed."
"You have my pardon, if you will give me mine, for the delay in my return." Basch caught Vossler's wrist in his hand, as he had done in victory after any number of battles. "Now, at least, we may fight together. Once Her Highness has secured the Dawn Shard--"
"We have first to cross two sandseas," Vossler broke in, sliding his fingers from Basch's grasp. "And I would as soon not keep my eyes so fixed on the horizon, only to stumble over the stone at my feet."
"And are there so many stones in your path, Vossler?" Basch's voice was low, but somehow as insurmountable as the cold, strained distance that still lay between them. "Tell me of them, so that I too may be wary of stumbling."
"You have never stumbled," Vossler said, suddenly harsh. "You have been thrown down, you have been trampled in the mud, but never have you stumbled."
"And for that, you shun me now?" Basch sat back, and saw that the faint shapes of scaffolding were appearing out of the darkness, as dawn crept towards them, inexorable. "Would it have been easier for you, Vossler, if I simply had been what I was accused of being? A kingslayer, and a dead one?"
Vossler's head came up sharply, and for a moment, in the firelight, pain was written clear as daylight across his face. "How can you think such a thing of me? It gave me no pleasure to think poorly of you, nor to find you alive and be unable to rejoice in it."
"And now, knowing the truth, you still take no pleasure in it, and do not rejoice in it."
"It is not that--!"
"Then pray tell me what it is."
On the other side of the campfire Penelo rolled over and muttered, and Ashe's face was drawn with some sleeping grief. The craggy rocks caught their raised voices and jostled them back and forth, mockingly.
"We are not boys at war," Vossler said, more softly. "The paths we have taken, or been forced upon... they do not encourage camaraderie and marching songs now, nor pleasant sport in the blankets after. Two years I have fought a war in silence. I have seen my men gutted and thrown to molder in the Garamscythe waterway, I have seen their heads spiked before the city gates. It is not clean fighting for honor and country. It is knifework in the dark, Basch, and I am weary of it. Only one thing will give me joy now, and that is a whole Dalmasca. Once we have achieved that end, ask me again to greet you as my brother, and I will do so, and gladly."
"I never thought to see the day you had your fill of fighting," Basch said, but he too had lowered his voice, and noted the lines of care that had settled, prematurely, onto Vossler's face. "While I am finally glad for a clean, clear battle, and a sword in my hand."
"Then you may find one day you are lifting your blade in my place," Vossler murmured. "For I am sick of the stench of blood, and of the hottest hearts for Dalmasca being hewn apart and piled up in fetid heaps."
"Then let me fight for a while," Basch said, and this time Vossler did not shake off the hand on his shoulder. "Sleep, Vossler. It's past time for my watch."
For a moment Basch thought Vossler would say more, a breath half-taken almost becoming words, but in the end he closed his mouth again, and lay down at last in the sandy warmth of Basch's blanket. Basch tended the fire, listening to him sleeping, and waited for dawn.