A Taste of the Spoils
Basch had managed splendidly until dessert.
The previous challenges had given him very little trouble, and he took to Larsa's instruction without difficulty. The fang-shell mollusks were the same kind served in Dalmasca, though in Archades they were eaten steamed in white wine, with butter, squeeze of lemon: so. Basch thought them tasty, but not as delicious as the ones he had scooped out of the silt and eaten raw, without even the Rabanastre niceties of sweet onion and herbed oil. His hands had been shaking from the sudden lack of shackles, and the clothes he wore had a faint corpse-reek even after standing an hour waist-deep in the Nebra, but he knew nothing he ate in his life would again have that sweetness of fresh air and river water.
Larsa listened, nodded, considered, and then both of them pretended to forget that the man in Gabranth's plate had ever eaten shellfish any other way than off a gilt-edged plate in Archades.
Behemoth steak, beaten thin, wrapped around shoots of leafy greens and thin slices of pungent cheeses, rare. Knife in left hand, fork in right. Never switch hands between cutting and eating. Wine glass, cupped thus. Forefinger out. To your health, Lord Larsa; Judge Magister. Glass down. Spring vegetables, bitter gysahl tempered with succulent fruit dressing. Peach liqueur cordial, with cream; almond masks the occasional dose of poison. Drink only if you trust your host. Never trust your host. Wipe plate with bread: clockwise. Lay down utensils, crossed. Dessert.
It was Basch's undoing.
"You cannot be serious," he said, once the servant brought in the dishes and crept quietly away. Previously, the culinary showcase of Archadian high society had been demure and tidy, sauces drizzled into traditional glyphs of good luck, greens twisted into an emblem of double serpents. But now Basch eyed his inherited charge over an avalanche of whipped cream, with a few apologetic berries peeking out of foothills of dense cake at the bottom, and in doing so he had several very large doubts about his ability to take on his brother's role unnoticed.
Larsa selected one of the slender dessert spoons with the air of a man preparing for a duel. It was clear they were exected to share; there was only one platter and no side dishes. "Judge Gabranth has rather a notorious sweet tooth," Larsa said, and prodded the whipped cream with his chosen implement. "And in Archades, I'm afraid generosity shows up most often at the end of the meal, when people have the least room to eat what is offered. Great waste is a sign of great wealth, you see." He took a delicate bite out of the heap, made a tidy, economical gesture with his napkin to mouth, and went back for another. "It's quite good, though."
Basch examined the long fluted spoon, more flourish than bowl. It was tiny and evasive in fingers better used to sword hilts, and attacking the confection with it, Basch felt like he was trying to battle a ravening tallow with a darning needle. "I hope one is usually given several hours to finish," he grumbled, and scooped up a minute particle of dessert, "as I assume it is impolite to make use of a spade to clear the thing away."
"Oh yes," Larsa said, spinning his spoon with the ease of one long used to such weapons, "dessert takes hours. One is expected to chat about the weather and finer breeds of chocobos and to make a few unsubtle sexual advances on the servants. The idea is to be howling drunk by the time it is all over with, but you haven't been sitting around drinking, of course. That would be immoral and scandalous. You've merely been having dessert. Perfectly civilized."
Basch scanned the table again. The wine and cordials had been cleared away, replaced by an ornate silver pot and a small, translucent china cup. "It is difficult to get properly intoxicated when there's no wine."
Larsa had excavated a rich vein of berries, and was mining it happily. "I was speaking in general, of course. Judge Magisters do not get inebriated in public, and certainly not at formal dinners. It might be noted as well that Gabranth hardly ever touches wine. You say it dulls the senses."
"Do I." Basch's mouth twisted wryly, and he reached for the teapot. But what came out was not tea, but a thick black-brown substance with a heady aroma, and for a moment Basch was frozen, awash in memories of a fractured childhood. "...This is coffee."
"Landis style, ground with cinnamon. His Honor Gabranth takes one dip of honey added to the cup after it is poured." Larsa pursed his lips. "I expect you should not leave the spoon in the cup overlong, the silver might dissolve."
"He drank this?"
"He does," Larsa said, with the faintest stress on the present tense. "By the flagon, I might add."
Basch lifted the cup, studied the darkness of the liquid through the painted sides of the vessel, and sniffed the contents cautiously. "I've never been an enthusiast of coffee in any form."
"On the contrary, you cannot begin your day without it."
Basch swirled the gritty mixture, shrugged, drained the contents, and spent the next five minutes in a violent coughing fit, eyes streaming. Larsa was obliged to stop sculpting gardens in his large tract of whipped cream and come round the table to pound Basch on the back.
"By the flagon?" Basch said, when he had regained the power of speech.
Larsa, to his credit, was trying very hard not to laugh. It was only by his years of training in a political family that he succeeded. "I'm afraid so."
"Merciful gods." Basch wiped his face on his knuckles. "Worse than I recall. I'd rather drink an entire vat of Rozarrian Prudens."
Larsa shook his head in mock-horror. "Anything but that plonk! Really, the coffee's not so bad, is it?"
"I went to Dalmasca for a reason, you know," Basch said, dutifully refilling his cup. "And one of them was that they don't serve coffee by the slice, there. Trust Noah to pick the least appetizing segment of our heritage to cling to, and then saddle me with it. I imagine nothing would please him more."
The second cup was not better than the first, but at least Basch managed to get it down without much more than an involuntary shudder.
"There! You'll be knocking them back in no time at all." Larsa, assured that Basch was not going to choke to death on his new identity, went back to his seat. Basch spasmed his way though a third cup and turned back to the dessert with new affection, hoping to scrub the sandy bitterness out of the back of his throat.
"I know it must be difficult for you," Larsa said quietly, stirring a small section of the parfait until the cream deflated, trickling in rivulets down the bedrock of cake. "Even looking as much alike as you do, the task is enormous. Lady Ashe has already cleared your name in Dalmasca. Perhaps you would be happier there as yourself, rather than here, as your brother. It would surely be simpler."
"Doing that would require explaining exactly who is buried under my name," Basch said, "And would impugn the honor of Her Highness after she was so kind to give me mine back posthumously. Coming back to life once is more than enough for any man. And besides," Basch glanced down at the helmet on the seat next to him, gleaming in mute memory like a cenotaph. "I have vows to keep."
"Vows," sighed the young emperor, and for a moment there was silence, until their spoons clattered together in the platter of dessert and the quiet of Larsa's garden was broken with a burst of muted laughter.
"The truth of the matter is," Larsa said, putting down his spoon with a faint, regretful smile, "the only people who would have known Judge Gabranth so well are either dead, or gone from Archadia. Even I did not know him in such detail. So long as your voice and face and stance are his, there is little else that would give you away, even to me."
"Truly?" Basch too, had laid aside his spoon. Plenty of the dessert remained, hollowed out at either side and doomed to collapse. "Then who was it that gave you such insight into the private life and habits of Judge Gabranth?"
Larsa nudged his spoon to the left, fiddled with his napkin, sighed, shrugged, and said at last, "Balthier."
Something settled on Basch's chest with all the cool weight of blued steel plate. "Balthier." Silence again in the garden, save for birdsong and the distant hum of glossair rings in passing hovercraft. "Not a message from the grave, I take it?"
"Hardly, it was from Balfonheim." Larsa glanced up at Basch, and just as quickly away. "I expect all former judges go there to retire! He ordered me not to reveal that he and Fran were alive. Some nonsense about upstaging his entrance. But somehow he must have gotten word of things and sorted out our ruse. He dashed off quite a list of Gabranth's qualities and habits and said that if you did not display them when next you two meet, he would have no choice but to take you under tutelage himself."
"And he has such an intimate knowledge of my brother?"
"Yes," Larsa said, both his voice and his discretion strained to the breaking point. "I think intimate was rather the term he used as well."
"Ah." Basch said. There was, it appeared, little else for him to say. That Balthier had been a Judge, he knew. That Balthier had any association with Gabranth prior to his abandoning of the name Ffamran Mid Bunansa and his Judge's plate, Basch had not been certain. Though it had occurred to him to wonder about Balthier's acceptance of an outlandish tale of twin brothers, and now he knew why it had been so readily swallowed.
"Though it was my idea to acclimate you to day-to-day life in Archades, I confess I did not know about the coffee." Larsa twisted his napkin around his finger and polished one edge of the glass table with it. His ears had gone exactly the same crimson hue as the berries in the melting whipped cream. "And I didn't know about the..." He coughed. "There was quite an extraordinary list of Gabranth's qualities in... well. I don't think it's anything you'd be required to know. I certainly didn't want to."
Basch caught his grin in his hand, to spare Larsa further agony and further blushing. He couldn't find it in himself to be surprised. Simply because he and Noah had not agreed in matters of beverages and allegiances didn't mean they didn't share tastes in companionship. Particularly quick-fingered, eager, young companionship with a fine set of shoulders. Basch could tell Larsa that, and perhaps he would someday, when the young emperor was capable of discussing adult passions without imitating a rogue tomato in the process. Larsa was scandalized enough for one day.
"I'm sure Balthier only wanted to make a point," Basch said, and found he was eating more of the dessert. It was rather good, after all, and a far sight better than the vile sludge in the coffeepot. Damn Noah.
"And what would that be?" Larsa huffed, just a little. "That you should be expected to play your brother's role in the bedchamber as well as in the Halls of Justice?"
"That Balthier could easily expose me as an impostor whenever it pleases him. I expect once he's starched his shirts to his exacting standards and stolen his ship back from Vaan, we can both expect to do whatever favors he asks and pay him well for the privilege."
Larsa was aghast. "But... but that's blackmail!"
"That's a sky pirate for you. But not to worry. We know more than a few of his secrets as well."
The remaining wall of whipped cream folded in on itself, disgorging syrup all over the plate. "Bastard," Larsa muttered, attending to his spoon again.
"Though I would be curious to see that list," Basch mentioned, as though not curious at all.
Larsa attempted to subdue a berry and missed; it scooted across the platter like a tiny red boat in a pink sandsea. "I burnt it," Larsa said. "It was simply too dangerous to leave lying around."
"Pity," Basch said. "I wanted to see if Balthier was bluffing. It's entirely possible."
"I don't think he was bluffing," Larsa said, as though it was all one word, and struggled to capture his evasive berry. "It was very ...detailed."
"I was only hoping he might have been lying about the coffee." Basch sighed, poured himself one more cup, eyed it, but did not drink it. "Although, it might be for the best if Judge Gabranth does not continue to hold to habits left over from his lost homeland." Larsa glanced up, catching the glint in Basch's eye, and returning it.
"Perhaps so," Larsa said. "Especially as he swears his fealty to the Empire is absolute. Small gestures are watched closely, after all." He nodded to the dinner table, and the remains of their lesson. "It could be interpreted as a longing to restore Landis, perhaps even to overthrow the Empire entirely."
"Then Judge Gabranth should refrain from rebellious beverages." Basch tipped the coffee cup over with his forefinger, and the contents spread like ink across the silver platter, writing obscure words in the thin lines of engraving. "However, I must admit my knowledge of Archadian wines is rather thin. How are the whites?"
"Extraordinary," Larsa said, and rang for the servants to clear away the coffee, and to bring Judge Gabranth a bottle from the vineyards of House Solidor.
They were known to go quite well with dessert.
One part Absolut Apeach
One part amaretto (or two drops almond extract-- other almond flavored additives are not advised)
Two parts light cream
Shake with ice, strain into glass.
Top with sprinkle of cinnamon (sweet, high grade ceylon, if you're worth your sandalwood chops).
Garnish with fresh peach slices, if desired.
Make sure you trust your host.