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10 September 2013 @ 02:31 pm
Port after Stormy Seas [III] [Balthier/Ashe]  
Title: Port after Stormy Seas [III]
Pairing: Balthier/Ashe
Fandom: Final Fantasy XII
Genre: Drama, Romance, is Political Intrigue a genre?
Rating: PG-13
Summary: They are two ships passing by in the night: fated to meet, destined to part. In this game of chess, politics and empires are not the only stakes in place.

Chapter 2

*****
III.


If he were a bit faster—a bit bolder—he could escape. He could scale up these walls (pitiful, squalid excuses for defense) and ricochet gutter to window to marble. Then, down a long, spacious hallway rests his award.


If only he were a bit faster—


"Vaan."

Gravelly and strident, Basch's voice fishes him out of the reverie like the breath of a canon tickling a waterfowl. Unceremoniously, Vaan run straight into Basch's stomach. As a further demonstration of his humiliation, a pair of strong hands cinches his waist and levels him upright.

"Vaan," and so commences the rebuke, "If you're thinking of stealing from his majesty, I must caution you to reconsider. The dungeons of Archadia are especially hostile."

"I wasn't thinking of robbing Lar-his majesty. I just wanted to explore the palace. There are too many people during the day. Makes it hard to appreciate the architecture."

"The architecture," Basch repeats, unfazed.

"Yeah. Anyway, what're you doing here, Basch?"

"His majesty sent me to retrieve something from the treasury, a gift for Queen Ashelia. Come, I shall escort you back."

So he's not the only one hoping to entice Ashe.

Amused, Vaan follows suit (there's always another night to steal).

--

Al-Cid receives the death of his eldest brother with aplomb (had expected it).

The (former) Archduke of Rosaria suffered a penchant for gambling, and it was befitting—righteous—that he perished in the throes of a miscalculated affray.

Father is indubitably mourning and Mother, well, that is difficult to gauge. This is the fourth child she's lost; she's probably immune to sorrow by now. (His second sister had been her favorite.)

Sequestered in Rabanastre, he is exempt from the hysterics of family and dynastic antics. There certainly are benefits to being the fifth son and furthest away from the throne. Sometimes, he thinks his bloodline is cursed, how rampant and barbarously his siblings seem to die. And wonders when his time will be.

Destined to doom, disposable and ephemeral. Flicked through like the pages of a banal book.

"Convey my condolences to the Emperor and Empress."

Issuing a bow, the messenger vanishes behind the hidden door, leaving Al-Cid to reassess his predicament. Realistically, he supposes he should double his efforts to woo her majesty. Ideally, he'd like to prolong the fun, goading and galling until she is stripped of her exalted aegis.

But he also likes to win.

He will arrange an audience with the queen this afternoon. Unbuttoning the pearl buttons of his shirt, he evaluates the merits of gold-tipped shoes and emerald feathers.

--

Al-Cid Margrace does not know that he knows of the Archduke's death. Larsa Solidor does not know that he knows what Basch fon Ronsenburg has been plotting. Balthier (Ffamran, he notes with disgust) does not know that he knows what the pirate desires and will never attain.

Woven between the billowing canopies and screened pavilions of the Dalmascan palace, his omniscience buries deep and germinates, supplanting spies and instigating agitation. He sprinkles a little here and some more there and soon, his seeds will flourish and disperse and so the cycle goes.

Ashe would not approve of his methods, but it's in her interest that he acts. And act he must before the hour is dire and they're forced to recede.

Penning a note to the queen, the Marquis Ondore remonstrates with her her to postpone the meeting with Al-Cid until tomorrow evening.

By then, the Archadian fleet will have docked (ushering in another doll for his altarpiece).

--

His knuckles have turned a bluish white, so tight and fierce and unforgiving does he hold onto the railing.

It's been two years since he's returned to the closest place he has for a homeland. And he feels like a traitor, a deplorable ingrate hell-bent on greed and self-interest. Wrapped underneath a dozen blankets, Larsa sleeps soundly in his lush suite.

But Basch is a soldier and soldiers never rest. Not when there's a war brewing on the horizon and he marching toward the inferno.

Scanning the dim sky, he estimates the time. In less than an hour, they will sweep into Dalmascan clouds.

And there she will be—his princess

Now queen.

Below in the belly of the ship, the engines roar and hiss, lurching them forward. He counters his stance against the howling iciness.

--

Ashe scratches at the itchy ruffles of her collar, accidentally drawing blood. Insects are a perpetual problem in Rabanastre, and the provisional coolness from the rains is a double-edged sword, serving alternatively as a breeding paradise for the pests. The heavy silks and ornate embroidering of her clothes worsen her discomfort.

When she is more secure in power and persuasion, she will abolish all sartorial nonsense (beginning with ribbed lacing).

Contorting her arms behind her, she struggles to fasten the gown. Her fingers work fast, but there seems to be no cessation of fabric pools and button streams. Just a few more and then the ribbons…

"Are you sure you don't require any assistance?"

She bites back a scream. Reclining upon the velvet cushions, Balthier looks more at ease on her settee than she does. As if poised for a portrait with one leg swung casually over the other, his booted foot tapping against the gilt wood.

"Must you always appear at the most inconvenient moments?"

"I like to think of it as seizing the opportunity. You offer an exquisite view. Not many are privy to royalty half-garbed."

Frowning, Ashe reverts her attention to the bodice and tries in vain to finish dressing. These last three buttons will be her undoing. Resigned, she discards her pride and concedes to his help. But she will not welcome it (will not fall prey to his wiles).

Instantly, he is by her side, nimble hands tickling down her back. He is in no hurry to complete the task (all too delighted in torturing her).

Taking a step back, Balthier inspects his accomplishment. "Perhaps you should've gone with the green one instead."

Ashe scowls. "If I wanted your fashion advice, I would've asked for it. What is it that you want? I'm late for a meeting."

"You are a coward to agree and a fool if you go."

"I haven't agreed to anything other than opening a negotiation. That's what monarchs do, Balthier. We talk."

He raises a brow. "All talks lead somewhere. You're fueled by stupid desperation—an imaginary one, at that."

"Everything I do is for the best of my country. No nation can survive without alliances. Would you have Dalmasca ravaged by internal strife, our efforts wasted, your life nearly forfeited for nothing?"

"You're sacrificing too much."

"Every decision has sacrifices. I can only mitigate their consequences."

"Then I can only accompany you into the abyss."

Solemn and portentous, he drops to his knee.

Aghast, she inches to the left (prays that he isn't attempting what she fears he'll do). Gods, Balthier, don't be an idiot.

Smirking, he severs a loose thread from the hem of her skirt and blows it away. Briefly, it dances in midair, spiraling with the rays of sun, before landing on the ground—inert, dead.

--

Normally, Fran restricts her movements to Lowtown whenever they are in Rabanastre. She is too tall, too exotic, and distinction attracts unnecessary hazards. Typically, Balthier handles purchasing supplies and cajoling out information while she embarks on nightly reconnaissance for their next objective. She is quieter, stealthier, and more adept in combat.

But today, she is alone. And she'll have to do his work as well. And take his share of the loot as compensation.

Grumbling a curse, she dusts a wayward spray of ash off her shins. Although the economy is improving, the damages from the war still permeate the city. Squinting, she deduces that this must be the place. Nothing could diminish the briny odor of sweat from Archadian Judges and Chocobo musk.

She steps inside, stooping under the low-hung door, and bypasses the drunken mess sprawled over a spindly bench. Curious, she questions how the thin legs can support his weight. On cue, a groan answers and the man rolls onto the dirtied floor.

The tavern is dark and smoky with a bar at the far end and broken chairs and tables distributed in no precise order. Wrinkling her nose, she surveys the room. Rundown and seedy but she's seen worse (like that place in Balfonheim when she extracted a reluctant Balthier from an unfolding brawl).

Selecting a seat in the corner, barricaded on both sides by soldiers, Fran settles in. This could take a while. However, judging from the slurred state of their speech, at least she's guaranteed something interesting.


How now our—


Start: go.

--

As per usual, Ondore escorts her to dinner, his cane making soft thumps on the carpeted stairs. And as per usual (she eyes him warily) he is silently solicitous, gracious and stony.

But lying just underneath his calm surface, she senses something is wrong (his expression is a shade too pale and his grip fractionally tighter). Rigid he stands, sullen and tense. His pupils meander from ceiling trimming to polished statues to clinking crystal glasses. Fidgety and flustered like the rapid adjustment of binoculars for an invisible enemy.

"What's the matter, Uncle?"

"Oh, nothing, my dear. Simply lost lost my train of thought. Shall we?"

He pats her hand, his rough, weathered skin devoid of its familiar warmth. Her heart palpitates erratically, the beats sinking and rising with each step downward. She counts three between each footfall: three frenzied, whirring, jarring mutilated cries.

"Uncle, are you sure that—"

Ondore cuts her off with a stiff, barely perceptible shake of his head. Immediately, she heeds his warning and sews on a smile.

"Ah, your grace, I hope you are enjoying the party?"

Al-Cid responds amicably, "Yes, thank you. Very entertaining, very enlightening. I'm sorry to hear of your assistant's accident, my lord. Who would've anticipated slippery slopes?"

"Indeed who."

Al-Cid does not break his smile. Maintaining his glance on the marquis, he bows low before Ashe and grazes her chaffed knuckles with his lips. He lingers a second too long (daring Ondore to retaliate).