|Through the Sands to You
Author: sapereaude13 PM
Balthier serves as Ashe's personal librarian, and it turns out the Princess is an avid reader. And just why is Balthier squinting so much? BalthierAshe.Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance/Drama - Words: 9,100 - Reviews: 18 - Favs: 38 - Follows: 2 - Published: 08-15-07 - Status: Complete - id: 3726159
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
"At least we thought to bring entertainment," the sky pirate remarked, and the Princess sighed. The children scampered off to get their first glimpse of the Ogir-Yensa sandsea, Basch trailing behind them. Fran hoisted one of their packs effortlessly and continued after the others. Ashe frowned as she hefted the large pack onto her back. Basch had wanted to carry it, but she was still rather uneasy around the man and her stubborn pride had cost her this time. The pack weighed more than she had guessed, and it would be a long way to Raithwall's tomb.
"Balthier, are you coming?" she called back to the man who had recently agreed to steal her. He was fumbling around inside the pack at his feet, a determined look crossing his features.
"Hold on just a moment, Princess. I have something for you."
She shook her head. "Don't be ridiculous. This pack is full to bursting. I cannot carry anything else."
The sky pirate laughed and unearthed a small book. He closed the pack and lifted it onto his back with a bit more effort than Fran had needed, but he didn't appear too bothered by the weight. He held the book out to her with a grin. "For you."
She examined the book warily. The book had a soft leather cover with dog-eared pages. She could already detect a musty but not unpleasant smell. She accepted the item and let her fingers trace over the gold embossed lettering on the cover. It was entitled Through the Sands to You, but the author's name had faded some time ago. "And when will I have occasion to read this?"
The sky pirate marched ahead, leaving her standing alone with the book. "Just take it. I'm sure we'll have some down time. I think you'll like it."
Ashe tapped the old leather against her palm and walked after him. "So what is it about? If it's a filthy pirate tale, I'll not read a word of it." The abandoned Rozarrian drilling stations loomed ahead as they entered the sandsea, and she could see Vaan dipping his hand in the flowing, fine sand that was like water.
"It's not filthy. Nothing a married woman couldn't handle," he replied pointedly, and she stared daggers at his back as he continued ahead. "I just thought you could use a distraction. I won't even add it to your tab."
She gripped the book angrily, wanting to throw it at his greedy head. There would be no time for her to read! If she was smart, she would chuck it into the sandsea and let him fish it back out himself. But she tried to remember the last time she had actually sat down and read a book. The palace had a fine library, but was that really the last occasion she'd had to enjoy a story? She sighed in realization. It had been nearly two years, and they would be camping often enough. Perhaps it wouldn't hurt to at least give it a try. Ashe set the pack down and added the book to its contents. She shouldered it again and hurried to catch up with the others.
They had made camp for the night in a protected spot between the Ogir-Yensa and Nam-Yensa. The campfire light would have to be adequate enough, she mused as she fumbled through the pack for the book. Her fingers closed around the soft, cool leather, and she sat beside the fire near Vossler, who had joined their journey to the tomb.
"Your Majesty, where did you get that?" Captain Azelas inquired curiously, his head gesturing to the book in her hand as he sat and cleaned his sword.
She smirked and opened to the first page. "From the pirate."
Vossler sighed. "In exchange for?"
Ashe shook her head. "It's a gift apparently…" Vossler opened his mouth to make a retort, but she was too quick for him and held up her hand. "Before you say anything, he has been true to his word thus far. He promised that it wasn't some tawdry thing." She looked up from the page to see Balthier and Fran speaking quietly across from them. He smiled when he saw his book in her hand, and she nodded back in acknowledgement.
"Happy reading then. I will gladly run him through if he has given you something inappropriate," Vossler remarked, and she returned her eyes to the page with a grin.
Al-Fehr Salan had known nothing but the sands and desert heat for as long as he could remember. His dreams were of cool rain splashing on his golden skin, of the Kerwon snows freezing his limbs, of the refreshing mountain stream that flowed through his home town far to the west. Life in the Ogir-Yensa was in a word – unpleasant. The sun burnt his flesh, and the smell of the oil the team drilled for was constantly intermingled with his sweat.
As the fourth son of a large family, there had been nothing for him back home, so here he was in the middle of nowhere on this gods-awful drilling expedition. The pay was good, and it helped feed his family in Rozarria. But the work was dangerous and repetitive. And more than anything, it was lonely. None of the men really spoke to each other. Spending all that time around the noisy machinery and barked orders left the men rather quiet, and Al-Fehr wondered when he had last had a real conversation with someone. They usually drilled at night, and he spent his days under the baking sun. Sleep came intermittently; the only sights available to him were miles and miles of flowing sand and the sharp red glow from the drilling station towers.
Al-Fehr grumbled and tugged on his rough gloves. Foreman Hayed was the very worst part of this business. He was a fat man with a ruddy face and an appetite that kept the workers in perpetual hunger. He poked his head out from his tent, the sun nearly blinding him. Hayed stood with his arms crossed and a dangerous look on his face.
"Salan, your spear. The sand people are causing trouble on tower nine. You better take care of it." Al-Fehr nodded and retrieved his weapon. Usually the drilling went fine, but occasionally the Urutan-Yensa liked to stir things up. He trudged along the hot metal platform, seeing a group of Urutan brandishing crossbows ahead. No doubt a Dalmascan party had supplied them. He made quick work of the first few sand people, the company-loaned spear becoming more and more familiar in his hands as the drilling expedition went on.
One of the little people got his arm with its bow, and he muttered a curse. Al-Fehr dispatched the last few and began to chant a curative spell to heal his arm. He could feel the magick coursing through his body, but there was a sudden heat coming around the tower. Damn.
It was a large glowing ball of energy, an entite. He could already feel its crackling magicks. It meant trouble. Al-Fehr hurried as quickly as he could across the platform, but he was stopped in his tracks by the entite's harsh attack. The pure power of its spell jolted his body, burning through him painfully. He heard the clattering of little feet behind him and his troubles increased. Another spell from the entite raced through him, and the Urutan ganged up on him. His vision was blurring, and he could no longer maintain his steady grip on the spear.
Al-Fehr felt the hot rail burning into his back and then came another flash of the entite's magick. The rail seemed to disappear, and he realized he was falling. Those damned sand people had shoved him over. He barely felt the nearly liquid sand as his body crashed into the sandsea below.
"A bit terrifying, isn't it?"
She jumped at Balthier's voice, the book falling from her hand. Ashe glared at him. "Don't do that."
The sky pirate lifted the book from the ground and sat beside her. He handed the book back and smiled. "I know I wouldn't want to fall into the sandsea. How do you like it?"
She dusted bits of sand from the pages and frowned. "I just started. But I'm guessing you wanted me to read this because it takes place here? In the sandsea?"
The sky pirate shook his head. "Oh, that's the last you'll see of the sandsea for a while. It's a fun story, Ashe."
Vossler cleared his throat behind them at Balthier's casual use of her name, and Ashe suddenly remembered where she was. And she remembered who she was conversing with as well. "I'm sure it is, Balthier. And I'd like to continue so I can give it back sooner rather than later."
"Don't be ridiculous. It's a gift for you!" He stood and smiled down at her, and she found herself staring.
She fumbled around in the book to find her page, tearing her eyes away from the sky pirate. "Good night then."
"Good night, Princess."
The store was right where Penelo said it would be. It was tucked away at the end of one of the Muthru Bazaar's many twisting passageways, and a small bell signaled her entrance to the shopkeeper, who only looked up with a small nod. She needed to clear her head. So much had happened that week. She had seen Rasler in the tomb. They had retrieved the Dawn Shard, only to be captured. And then Vossler had…
She let her eyes flick across the shelves absentmindedly. They'd gotten the shard back, but then that pirate had…
Her hand felt lighter without her husband's wedding band, and she was barely glancing at the books now. They would be departing for the land of the Garif in the morning, and she needed a bit of time alone. She also needed a new copy of Through the Sands to You. The copy from Balthier had been confiscated by the Archadians, to her dismay. The book had become a great escape from their fighting, and she still had so much more to get through.
Al-Fehr had fallen through the Ogir-Yensa and landed in another world. Ashe found that a bit fantastic to believe, but she let it slide since the story had grown far more interesting as she had continued. The Rozarrian oil driller was now in a land called Llanditia. Balthier had mentioned that the author was from Landis, and he wrote the book to cope with the country's lost independence. Llanditia was a world in great chaos, and Al-Fehr had nearly been killed by marauding soldiers. The stars were falling from the sky, hitting the land with great force. Llanditia would probably be destroyed in a few months.
But instead of banding together in the panic, the different nations of Llanditia were at war. Al-Fehr had been fortunate enough to land in the domains of the Warrior Queen Orande. When Ashe had left off, Orande had just seen Al-Fehr for the first time, inviting him to join her army for one last strike against the villainous Prince Taar-shevot. Would Al-Fehr join? Would he instead ask Orande if there was a way back to his world? He had no desire to die in Llanditia, be it from a war or a falling star.
She needed to know what was to come. To her dismay, she saw Balthier's back in front of the correct section, and she sighed. She'd come all this way to get away from him. "Is there another copy of that book you gave me?"
Balthier visibly jolted at her approach, his hand flying to his face rather hurriedly. He turned around and kept one hand behind his back. What was he doing? "Ah, Princess," he replied quickly. "Fancy finding you here."
She scowled at him. "What's behind your back? Are you stealing something?" she whispered harshly.
He shook his head and brought his hand up, empty. "Stealing? From a bookseller? There's nothing rare here anyhow."
Ashe frowned and glanced at the shelves behind him. "They took your book…the Archadians. I'm sorry. I was coming to buy you a replacement."
"Ah, I was here to do the same thing. You're where he first meets Orande, yes?"
He turned back to the shelves, and she moved forward to stand beside him. "Yes. I find it a bit much that she'd offer him a place in her army the first day they meet. She does not even know if he's a skilled fighter." Her eyes flitted over the numerous colorful spines on the shelves, her book nowhere in sight.
Balthier smiled. "Orande can probably sense his abilities. Llanditians are mind-readers to some extent."
"Don't spoil it for me! I didn't know that!"
He chuckled softly, and she watched him scan the shelves. His eyes were moving slowly, and he squinted. "Sorry, sorry. It's been a while since I read it. I didn't remember that that comes later." The sky pirate shuffled back a bit and squinted some more.
"Are you alright?" she asked softly, seeing his eyes struggle to focus.
"Of course," he responded. "Just a bit dark in here. Spines are barely legible." Ashe thought the light was perfectly sufficient, but she said nothing. "Here it is," he announced a few moments later, pulling a hardbound copy of the book from the shelf.
He handed it to her, and she flipped through it. "Pages are in good shape," she muttered aloud. Ashe glanced at the back, and her eyes widened. "It's 5300 gil!" She moved to set it back on the shelf. She could finish it another time perhaps.
The sky pirate snatched the book from her hand. "Don't worry about it." He marched off to the counter.
"Balthier! We need that gil for…"
But he had already set it on the counter and was digging through a small pouch for his money. She stood behind him nervously as he paid. He could easily take her wedding band, but he'd pay for something frivolous like a book with no qualms? The sky pirate handed her the volume when his transaction was completed, a calm smile on his face. "I took it out of my own stash. No need to use the group's hard-earned gil for this trifle."
She held the book in her arms and followed him out of the store. "I'll pay for it."
He waved his hand. "Nonsense. You seem to like it. I'm just serving as your personal librarian, Princess." They wandered the Rabanastran streets to their inn, and she was already forgetting how upset with Balthier she was.
As soon as they were back, she hurried up to her room and sat on the bed, opening the book to the next chapter. It was so easy to get carried away into Llanditia that when Penelo came in to go to bed several hours later, she barely noticed.
"Is it good?" the girl asked, flouncing onto the other bed in the room.
"Mmm?" the Princess answered.
Penelo smiled and gestured to the book. "It must be good. You're like a zombie when you read that thing. Who knew that Balthier would know about books?"
Ashe stuck in her makeshift bookmark, a corner of an outdated map, and set the book aside. "Well, he probably steals a lot of books. I'm sure it's fairly profitable."
The girl yawned and moved over to her pack. "I'm sorry, I'm kind of tired. Mind if I turn in for the night?"
The Princess nodded. "Of course. I'll go read downstairs."
"You're not going to stop? Do you know how late it is?" Penelo replied incredulously.
Ashe glanced out the window. It had still been light out when she had started. "I guess I just got into the story. But I'll just finish this chapter," she said and moved to the door, book in tow.
"Is it a romantic story?"
The Princess looked down and grinned. "A bit, yes. He falls into another world and falls in love with a warrior queen." It had turned out to be far more romantic than Ashe had originally thought. Queen Orande had never married, but since it was the end of the world, she seemed to be falling for the ordinary Al-Fehr pretty quickly. She had just been getting to a really good part when Penelo had come in.
Penelo's eyes widened. "Oh wow, that sounds great. You'll have to let me read it when you finish!"
"Of course. Good night, Penelo." She moved into the hallway and down the stairs. There were a few cozy chairs, and she sat in one across from a sleeping Balthier, the room's only other occupant. There was a book on the table in between the chairs, a small pair of reading glasses resting on top of it.
Ashe moved the glasses aside and glanced at the cover. Naught but Your Sweet Embrace. Had Balthier been reading this? And were those his glasses? He stirred then, stretching his arms. She quickly placed the spectacles back on top the book, but he had already caught her.
"Don't even think for a second that I was reading that rubbish, Princess."
She sat back in the chair and held her book in her lap. "Who was reading that?"
He opened his eyes and looked across to her. "The innkeeper. It's about King Raithwall falling in love with a Viera. Absolute rubbish. Fran was a bit amused though, especially when the innkeeper showed her one of the love scenes."
Ashe smiled. "It can't be that bad, surely?"
Balthier rolled his eyes at her. "The book you've got is high art in comparison." He noticed her bookmark. "Well well, someone's been busy this evening."
She blushed unconsciously. "It's much better than I had expected." Opening to where she left off, she let her eyes drift down to the page and could not help the small quirk of her lips as she continued to read.
The Queen's tent was the largest in their encampment, and Al-Fehr felt intimidated to be her only guest that evening. Surely Orande's ministers would frown upon his presence there? The day had been hard fought, and a falling array of stars to the south had halted the assault. The battle would rage again the next day.
"Al-Fehr, you're here." The Queen's honeyed words met his ears, and he stepped forward. She was in a crimson dressing gown, her soft porcelain skin glowing radiantly in the candlelight. It was a far cry from the bloodied armor-clad woman he'd fought beside earlier that day. She was gentler, warmer. Her raven hair was not in its usual knot, but it instead cascaded in long curls over her shoulders and down her back. He had never seen her hair undone like this, and her beauty struck him like an arrow to the chest.
She approached him and looked expectantly into his eyes. "It is so good to see you. I was told that you were harmed today. I am happy that is not so."
He felt his mouth go dry at the sight of her, and he could only nod. The scent of her filled his nostrils, a sweeter smell than any he'd ever known. Not even the flowers of his home smelled as intoxicating. She seemed to be waiting for him…did she want him to
"Read to me."
"Wh-what?" He had startled her yet again, and she wanted to throttle him for interrupting her.
He grinned at her. "Sorry. I was just wondering if you'd read it out loud. You're already mumbling along with it, so you may as well just read it to me."
She felt her stomach sink. She had been reading it out loud? And he'd heard it? Her embarrassment flooded her, and she moved to retrieve her bookmark. He leaned forward and spoke again in a reassuring tone. "Just to the end of the chapter. It sounds like you're at the night before the battle at Peregrine Field."
Balthier seemed to know the book inside and out. But did he really want her to read this part? Ashe could tell where it was heading, and the thought of reading something like that out loud made her blush furiously. But he had his eyes closed again. Maybe he just needed her voice to put him to sleep and he wouldn't pay attention to what she was saying?
Balthier leaned back in the chair, and she cleared her throat. Her eyes met the page, and she began to read aloud.
She seemed to be waiting for him…did she want him to stay with her? Surely it would be improper. Orande was Queen and could have any man she chose. He was the fourth son of El-Badr Salan, a lowly airship mechanic. What did he have to offer someone as beautiful as Queen Orande?
"They would all see me treated as some glass doll, Al-Fehr. It is not how I wish to be. I would know a man as I know the battlefield. You will show me."
Her words were not as an order to her troops, but as one utterly innocent in the ways of love. Had no one ever been with the Queen before? Al-Fehr was no expert in these things, but he'd known a few women in the years before the expedition. But none of those were royalty. None of them were so beautiful, and none of them waited before him so expectantly.
He reached a tentative hand forward to rest on her shoulder, touching the woman he'd grown to adore these past few months for the very first time. She shook her head. "Not as a glass doll," she reminded him. He pulled her more roughly to him, the more logical part of his body giving way to the physical desire he held for her. Her title was not important. Now she was simply Orande.
Al-Fehr brushed his lips against hers slowly, her war-callused, roughened hands reaching up to thread through his long, dark hair. Her closeness was all he needed as he let his hands untie the crimson robe and let his tongue dart into her mouth. She moaned and clung to him as her robe dropped to the floor. She was breathtaking. The scars of years in battle traced across her skin, but they made her far more beautiful to him.
His lips drifted down to her neck, then her shoulders. He moved a shaky hand down to cup her
She looked up anxiously, her breath coming a bit quickly. Balthier seemed to be sound asleep across from her. There wasn't a chance she would finish this part out loud. Ashe listened to the sky pirate's gentle snoring and was able to return her eyes to the page. She felt increasingly uncomfortable knowing that Balthier was just across from her as she was reading this sort of thing. Shaking her head, she replaced the bookmark and closed the book with an audible thump that woke him.
"Hmm? Sorry. Did you already finish the chapter?"
She wanted to sigh in relief, but she was having a hard enough time concentrating as it was. It was so warm in this room! "Yes," she said in a complaining tone, trying to throw him off. "You missed all of the parts that you are probably concerned about. Good night, Balthier." She rose from the seat and hurried off, clutching the book against herself.
A horrible snowstorm on the Rift postponed their departure for the Stilshrine of Miriam. Though she was outwardly irritated, a small part of the Princess was secretly happy that she would be able to continue reading her book. She'd not had a real opportunity to sit and read much since they'd been in Eruyt Village, and she was anxious to continue.
Al-Fehr and Orande's love affair had been discovered by a spy for Prince Taar-shevot, and Al-Fehr had been abducted from the battlefield. However, the spy had told the Queen that her lover was actually dead. The Rozarrian was being tortured for information by the evil Prince, and Ashe desperately wanted Orande to discover he was still alive. It gave the Princess a great deal of satisfaction that the woman would probably be the one to save the man in this story. As she had continued reading the book, another strange thing had been happening.
Every time she'd been reading lately, Balthier had sat with her, asking for her to read the book to him. She always managed to stop for the night whenever a love scene was coming up, but the sky pirate never said anything when she started at a later part in the book the next day. They spent several nights talking about the detailed descriptions of the battles, the characters, and the extensive world of Llanditia that practically jumped from the pages of the book. Though their journey was difficult, she found herself looking forward to the night's discussion with the sky pirate.
She sat in a quiet room inside the Gran Kiltias' grand shrine, the book in her lap. The next chapter was entitled "Orande Learns," and Ashe was eager to start reading, but it didn't seem right to do so without Balthier around. She had given little thought to it until very recently, but she was beginning to care for him, and it worried her. At least talking about the book kept her from simply staring at him, but each night she was growing accustomed to him drifting off to sleep to the sound of her voice. She would look up, replace the bookmark and simply watch him for a few moments before departing for bed herself. The Princess wondered if she should just read alone before she grew too attached to the sky pirate.
Ashe would not get that opportunity tonight. "Ah, Princess. There you are. 'Orande Learns' tonight, is it?" He bounded in to the room enthusiastically and reclined on a small couch across from where she sat. "It will be nice to hear this one after all that messy torture."
She smiled. "You only hear the first few sentences before my voice knocks you unconscious."
He grinned in return. "What can I say? When you aren't yelling or grumbling, your voice is actually quite soothing."
"I'm not sure how I should take that," she responded huffily, opening the book in her lap. He laughed, and an idea came to her then. "You know what? Why don't you read this to me? I do not see why I must do all the work." She found her thoughts drifting to the idea of Balthier reading one of the more sensual scenes in his lilting voice, and she could feel her heart already beginning to race.
"No," he replied, "maybe some other time."
His response left her rather cold, and she looked down at the pages. "Maybe tonight I could just read by myself." She heard him get up from the couch a moment later.
"Some other time," he repeatedly quietly as he walked past, and she was already missing his presence when he departed.
His broken ribs ached as he lay on the cold stone floor. They could read minds couldn't they? Surely they could find out Orande's battle plans that way, yet they had spent a week breaking varying parts of his body to get him to talk. But no matter what pain they forced upon him, the greatest agony came from knowing they had told her he was dead. If only he could escape, could rejoin her, could make love to her once more.
For so long he'd wanted nothing more than to find a way back to his own world, but now here he was in a world that was dying, and he wished to die there with his love rather than return to that drilling station. It all seemed so long ago that he was in the sandsea, longing for something exciting to happen in his pathetic life.
Ashe kept reading, but it was almost distracting not having Balthier in the room with her. She was ecstatic as Orande learned of Al-Fehr's survival and cheered the warrior queen's determination to march all the way to Taar-shevot's palace to find her love. But knowing their reunion would come soon, she really wanted to save that for another time when she was in a better state of mind. She closed the book sadly, her eyes glancing at the empty couch across from her.
Reddas' manse had a surprisingly beautiful library within, and she was happy to curl up in a fluffy chair in one corner. They would depart for Giruvegan the following morning, only pausing for the night in the port town of Balfonheim. Ashe's mind was full of several things at once. Dr. Cid's words and the knowledge that the man was in actuality Balthier's father as they fought him. The long journey ahead to the ancient city in the Jagd Difohr and whatever treasures lay in wait for the party. And then she could not help selfishly thinking of Balthier.
Aside from their conversation alone in the Phon Coast, he had only chatted briefly here and there with her. He usually just checked on her progress and shared a few thoughts, but he never came by her when she was reading. She could almost swear that she'd caught him watching her read on some nights when they were camped, but she was probably imagining it.
She opened the book and sighed, realizing that there were only a few more chapters left. Although Al-Fehr and Queen Orande had been reunited, she had been hiding a secret from him. Orande knew of a passage back to Al-Fehr's world, and she was taking him there to send him back so that he would not die when Llanditia was destroyed. It twisted the Princess' heart to think of the lovers separating…she had to find out what happened next. At the very least, it would get her mind away from thoughts of the sky pirate.
Their chocobos ate their greens eagerly as they took their rest beside the stream. To think that there was some place in Llanditia not decimated by the warring nations came as a great surprise. The waters were nearly black, but Orande had assured him that it was safe to drink. He let his fingers drift down to the cool water. The twin suns were setting, and Al-Fehr could already feel the temperature dropping. His ribs ached as he stood once more, but he would bear any pain now that he had her by his side again.
She was behind him then, probably sensing that he had been thinking of her. Her gray eyes met his, but her face seemed troubled. He let his hand move to stroke the soft flesh of her arm, and she inhaled sharply at his touch. "My love, what perturbs you in this beautiful place? Have I done something wrong?"
Orande shook her head, but there were now tears brimming in her eyes. "You would do anything I asked of you, Al-Fehr?"
There was no hesitation. He grasped her hands in his, giving a gentle squeeze. "Anything, love. Simply name it, and I will see it done."
A single tear escaped to trail down her unblemished cheek. "At the very center of this river, there is a spot where the current is swiftest. It has been foretold that the one who can claim the emerald that lies at the bottom of the waters there will have life eternal. I would have you fetch this jewel."
He smiled. "And this request makes tears fall?" Al-Fehr responded, wiping away the wetness from Orande's face. "Are you a bad swimmer, my lady? Allow me to retrieve this for you. Perhaps we could share this eternal life it promises." He began to strip his heavy cloak from his shoulders and moved to wade into the water.
Orande clutched his hand then, flinging herself into his arms. "No matter what, Al-Fehr. You must do this for me. You must dive until you find the emerald."
He let his hands run through her raven hair, chuckling at her insistence. "I will be back before you know it." He pressed a soft kiss against her forehead, wondering why his love was trembling so. Was she growing cold so easily? The woman who had defeated terrible armies? The sooner he found this emerald, the better.
The sound of the library door opening startled the Princess, and she wiped away a few tears hastily. She cursed herself for letting something as simple as a book get to her. She could see the sky pirate doing his best to close the door quietly behind him, and she watched him softly pad across the floor to gaze at the bookshelves. He couldn't possibly see her tucked away in the corner, and Ashe wondered if she should call him over. But she could not find words as Balthier opened a small case and pulled out a small pair of glasses…the same pair she had seen that night before they had traveled to Jahara. He did wear glasses!
She watched him scrutinize the lenses then, holding them up at the light. Unsatisfied with their current state, he took out a handkerchief and cleaned whatever had accumulated on the thin, crescent lenses. He moved closer to the shelves, and she could see him squint again like he had that day in the bookshop. Realization struck the Princess. He'd hidden them behind his back when she had met him that day, probably sneaking them up his sleeve at her approach. She couldn't help staring as he perused the well-stocked shelves, resting one of the tips of the earpieces by his mouth. He seemed to nibble on it unconsciously as his eyes squinted. She felt her heartbeat racing as he brought the tip of the frames back and forth across his lips.
Ashe couldn't drag her eyes away from him. She stared as he walked back and forth, seemingly oblivious to her presence. He finally settled on some book, pulling the frames from his mouth to their correct place, the lenses resting gently at the end of his nose. There was no denying that the sky pirate was a handsome man, but something about the glasses gave him a more scholarly air. The frames were edged in a tortoise-shell brown coloring, perfectly matched to his eyes. She watched him glance through the volume he'd selected, his eyes now focused as they looked down his nose into the pages. Why had he lied about the glasses before? Was he embarrassed that she found him reading that silly book about King Raithwall and a Viera? Or was it the glasses themselves?
"You have found it?"
Ashe was startled to hear Fran's calm voice pierce the air, and Balthier smiled widely. She had not even heard the Viera's entrance. The sky pirate looked over the top of the spectacles and nodded to his partner. "First edition! Original illustrations and everything." The Princess noticed that Balthier did not seem uncomfortable about his glasses in his partner's presence, and she couldn't help frowning.
The Viera stood by his side and paged through the book. "The one from Rabanastre is not good enough?"
Balthier snatched the book back from his partner and pointed animatedly at the first few pages. "The one from Rabanastre was from a second-hand shop. Reddas doesn't realize what he's just given up." She watched him smile contentedly at the book's contents. "You just need to get me her book. Can't wait to see her face."
Ashe felt a blush creeping into her cheeks. Was Balthier talking about her book? She had little time to ponder what was happening as the sky pirate closed the book and handed it back to his partner. He took his glasses off and returned them to their case. "She's probably off talking to Basch. I'm guessing it's on the top of her belongings. Better a woman to pull off this sort of trick."
Fran had the slightest grin on her usually impervious face, her ruby eyes twinkling in the light of the library. "Hume courtship confounds me."
Ashe's heart leapt into her throat, her eyes widening at Fran's implication. She saw Balthier roll his eyes, but his ears were growing a bit pink. "You don't know what you're talking about, Fran," he replied jovially as he departed the room.
As soon as he was gone, Fran turned and looked straight at her, and she gasped. The Viera cocked her head slightly. "Balthier wishes for you to have this," she explained, holding the book out.
The Princess rose from her spot in the corner, learning how keen Viera senses were. She clutched the Rabanastre copy in her arms and approached slowly. "Isn't that part of Reddas' collection?"
Fran smirked. "Balthier sold some loot to have enough gil to buy this from Reddas." She was still holding the book out, and Ashe accepted it, handing her other copy to the Viera. "I did not see you. He wanted this to be a surprise." The Princess could feel her face growing hot as she glanced down at her new first edition of Through the Sands to You. Fran gave her an amused nod and walked away, leaving her alone.
The cover was intricately designed with the lettering hand-stitched into the leather material. Opening the book, there were beautiful full-color illustrations at the beginning of each chapter. Al-Fehr had the same golden skin as Al-Cid Margrace, but a less flirtatious demeanor. Queen Orande was as lovely as described, and she flipped through the chapters, admiring the detailed pictures. She suddenly realized that Fran was going to give Balthier the other copy, and he would probably be coming back to give the Rabanastre copy to Reddas. Ashe hurried from the room, excited to continue reading. Seeing Balthier's secret glasses combined with his possible intentions in purchasing the first edition left her nearly giddy as she scurried off to her room for the night.
"How's that first edition?"
Ashe looked up from the sofa and smiled. "Wonderful." The sky pirate was not sneaking about Reddas' library this time, and he sat down next to her and leaned an exhausted head against the back of the cushion.
"If we don't crash into the Naldoan Sea in a dark smoky haze, I think that new bloody skystone may actually get us all the way to Ridorana tomorrow," he muttered.
She nodded slowly. "I'm hoping to finish tonight. Who knows what we'll encounter out there? I do not wish to take it with me." Ashe let her hand stroke the book cover. "I'd hate to lose something so beautiful." Although Orande had forced Al-Fehr into the river that returned him to his own world, he'd willingly dived into the sandsea once more. But Llanditia was in near ruins, as if time had passed. He was just about to enter Orande's kingdom, and he would not rest until he was reunited with her. Ashe had been near tears when Balthier entered, and she hoped that he wouldn't notice her watery eyes.
Balthier chuckled and seemed to lean a bit closer to her, unless her mind was playing tricks. She snuck a peek at his face from the corner of her eye and bit her lip. For weeks now since the last time they'd been in Reddas' manse, she'd wanted to ask about his glasses, but she didn't have the courage. She could face monsters in battle, but she could not ask the man beside her a simple enough question. He tapped the book with his finger, just inches from where her hand rested on top the cover. "He went back for her. He was completely free to live his life, but he went back."
She felt her stomach twist at his words, although he was merely stating the plot of the damned book. "You won't make fun of me?" she began slowly, raising her eyes to meet his.
He winked. "I would never make fun of you, Princess."
Her palm grew sweaty on the cover, and she moved it to her side, wiping it hastily on the sofa cushion. He seemed to quirk an eyebrow at her strange behavior but said nothing. "The part where…where Al-Fehr decides to dive back into the sandsea. It made me cry."
"Oh, is that all?" he replied jovially, moving an arm to give her a gentle shove. "It's an emotional decision! Live to a ripe old age alone, or die in your prime. It's a tough call. But you never know how it'll all end…"
Her eyes widened. "Don't spoil it!" she squealed.
Balthier sighed loudly and took the book from her lap, opening it to where her bookmark lay. "You only have twenty pages left. What do you think is going to happen to them?"
She tugged the book, but he wouldn't budge. "I'd like to find that out for myself, thank you!" She gave it another pull, and he pulled it closer to himself, his usual cocky grin plastered across his face. "Just let me finish the book, Balthier!" But he wouldn't let go of the blasted thing! She decided to change her tactics, moving to kneel on the couch cushion, her legs tucked beneath her. The Princess pulled again. "If you're so…keen on me reading…this perfect…first edition…then don't make me…rip it!"
He laughed eagerly at her struggle and joined in the tug of war, putting all his power into pulling the book towards him. "You'd never…tear it…you love it…far too much…Princess, if you could…just see the way you…look when you…read this thing…"
She felt her face go red yet again, but she could not give up. "What…way…is that exactly?" They were both laughing like a pair of children at that point, the tightly-bound book not beginning to show any signs of distress at their foolish tugging.
"Lost…absolutely lost in the…would you stop using…your fingernails, damn it…lost in the book…it's beautiful…"
Beautiful? His words staggered her, and he used her distraction to his advantage, giving the book a harsh enough tug to pull it from her grasp. But the force he used dragged her along with it, and she fell forward, landing across his lap, her hands smacking the couch cushion. Whatever embarrassment she'd felt just seconds earlier was now magnified tenfold, leaving even Balthier unable to speak. She pushed herself off of him and stared straight ahead, her breathing ragged and uneven. "Sorry."
"Sorry," he parroted back, a bit more amusement in his voice.
He set the book down in his lap, and she closed her eyes. She had to get out of this situation with her dignity intact…or at least bring him down with her. "So Balthier," she said casually, "when were you going to tell me?"
"Tell you what?" he replied evenly, opening the book to stare at the intricate illustrations. She could already see his eyes struggling to focus, and it took every bit of willpower not to simply laugh at him.
"About your glasses."
He paused for a moment but recovered quickly enough. "What glasses?"
"I saw you wearing them. Here, in Reddas' library before Giruvegan." Balthier turned to look at her in surprise. "And that day in the bookstore, that's what you were hiding behind your back."
"I don't see why it matters to you if I wear glasses on rare occasions," he muttered defensively, shutting the book and dumping it unceremoniously in her lap. "I think I'll let you finish up…"
"Wait just a minute! Why is it so embarrassing to need glasses?"
He stood up, waving her off. "Leading men should have perfect vision."
"You're usually a much better liar," she retorted, standing as well. He turned around and looked down at her.
"If you must know, it's an inherited farsighted condition." He opened one of the small pouches on his belt and retrieved the case, pulling the familiar spectacles out to show her. "Needless to say, the family resemblance is rather uncanny when I wear them. I'd rather avoid comparisons altogether."
He let her take the glasses in her hand, and she let her finger trace the edge of the lenses. He was more insecure about his father than he'd probably admit. "They're just glasses. And I don't really think they make you look like anyone but yourself." She smiled and put them on him, daring to give the tip of his nose a gentle tap. Ashe gathered her courage. "They make you look very…"
"Very what?" he replied scornfully.
"Handsome," she admitted honestly, seeing his eyes watching her over the top of the lenses where they rested at the base of his nose.
He grinned. "Oh, moreso than usual?" he inquired arrogantly.
She could feel her hands growing sweaty again, and she wondered if she'd be finishing her book any time soon with the way he was looking at her. Then she remembered the night they'd been stranded on Mount Bur-Omisace. "Will you read to me?" He moved to take the glasses from his face, but she stilled his hand with her own. "Please? It's your turn."
The sky pirate moved away from her and flopped back on the sofa. He opened the book to her place and patted the cushion beside him. "I guess I promised." She thought that the sound of her heart pounding would be audible throughout the manse, but she took a deep breath and sat beside him, probably closer than she needed to. He set one half of the book on his lap and the other on hers, moving an arm behind her on the sofa to be comfortable. His eyes drifted over the lenses once more. "You think this look is actually attractive? I look twice my age."
She nudged him with her elbow. "Just read, Balthier." His voice was intoxicating, and unlike the effect her voice seemed to have on him, there would be no way to fall asleep to the sound of his.
Where her palace once was, there was only rubble. He felt an ache in his gut the likes of which he'd never felt. It was as if someone was stabbing him repeatedly, twisting the knife deeper and deeper as he clambered over the stone remnants of the battlements. Was he too late?
"Orande!" he cried, his voice growing hoarse. "Orande, my love! You must be here!" A star streaked across the sky, a white light brightening the darkness and further illuminating the desolation around him. "Orande!" He sank to his knees, his flesh scraping against the pile of jagged stone. The pain barely registered in his mind, his cheeks stained with salty tears. He clutched the necklace she'd given him so many months ago, the cool mythril chain pressing against his flesh. Another star flashed and went out, and he heard a deep rumbling in the distance. It was finally beginning.
Let it come then, he thought. Let it come destroy me. I was not fast enough to find her…His mind sank into the deepest despair, and he laid his head upon the ground, kissing the chain again and again. "Orande…"
She could not prevent the tears that welled up in her eyes, and Ashe did not even notice that Balthier had stopped reading. He rubbed her shoulder. "Come now, Princess. All is not lost!"
The Princess sniffed and wiped her eyes. "I'm sorry, keep going. I can't help it." She was growing distracted by his hand rubbing her shoulder in comfort.
"I know this part by heart anyway," he muttered, and he continued without needing to glance more than a little bit down at the pages. How many times had he read this book?
A third star exploded across the universe, flashing and blinding his vision. He could feel the chain leaving indents in his flesh he was gripping it so hard. He thought he even heard her voice. "Al-Fehr, I am here. I heard you calling for me, and I am here."
His tears fell more rapidly. "The gods torture me with your voice, Orande."
"Is it torture to hear me speak?" he heard at his ear then.
Ashe shivered as Balthier whispered Orande's line in her own ear, his breath warm against her as he stretched out the syllables in the word torture. She closed her eyes and focused on the sound of the sky pirate's voice.
"Is it torture to feel my hands upon you?"
She inhaled sharply as he moved his hand from her arm to stroke her neck, giving her goosebumps. "Balthier," she breathed out softly in surprise.
He felt her hands upon the back of his neck, so real, so like they were when she had bid him farewell beside the stream. Her arms wrapped about his shoulders, and he could actually feel her. Her breath was pure heat against the skin of his face.
"Is it torture to feel my lips against your own?"
The book fell to the ground at their feet with a thud as he pulled her face closer, his lips pausing just in front of hers. She could feel him reach to pull off his glasses and then he was kissing her, and suddenly she didn't seem too interested in learning what happened to Al-Fehr and Orande. His lips trailed back to her ear, and he began to whisper. She immediately recognized the words. He was quoting passages from the book…parts of the book that she had never read to him, parts of the book she'd only read alone.
Orande seemed to enjoy the way he let his fingers trace figure eights on the soft flesh of her thigh.
She could barely catch her breath as he repeated parts of the passages that had made her blush at their campsites every night, his fingers deftly moving against her skin. He only paused occasionally to kiss her as he was seemingly impressed with his own ability to recall the author's words at will.
"You taste like the sweetest fruit, Orande. I could never get enough of you."
The realization that they were on the couch in Reddas' manse and could easily be discovered began buzzing in her head. She kissed him back eagerly but pulled away after. "Please, Balthier. I need to know how the book ends," she mumbled, feeling somehow out of her own body. The words of the book swirled through her head, but now they were all in Balthier's voice.
He leaned his forehead against hers. "Can't I just tell you how it ends?" he breathed out with a measure of bemused irritation.
She exhaled heavily as he ran his hands through her hair, pushing strands behind her ears. "That wouldn't be fair." She couldn't help moaning as he returned his lips to her neck. "I need to know what happens."
"All of the stars begin to fall," he whispered teasingly in her ear, his hand moving to stroke her side, letting his fingers drift downward as he uttered the word fall. "They fall to the ground around them."
Ashe tried to pull away from him, her fingers stretching out to the floor to desperately reach for the book. "Don't spoil it!"
His lips pressed against the side of her face, and he kept talking. "They only have minutes left, so they do what any sensible couple would do as the world is ending." He reached between them and began to undo his belt. "Do you know what that is?"
She smiled. "I think I can imagine. And I also think you gave me this particular book on purpose."
"Are you accusing me of something, Princess?" he whispered in her ear again, his fingers deftly pulling his belt free.
"Yes," she whispered back, her voice huskier than she'd ever known it to be. She quirked an eyebrow at him. "I'm accusing you of spoiling the ending. And there's a punishment for that."
"Oh, really? What is that?" he inquired as he let his fingers inch their way up to the hem of her skirt.
She shoved him away suddenly, and he fell back against the other side of the sofa in surprise. The Princess snatched the book and his discarded glasses from the floor and hurried off to the door of the library. "The punishment is that you have to finish reading it to me."
He stared at her. "I can't read without my glasses."
She grinned and clutched Through the Sands to You against herself. "You'll find the book…and your glasses in my room upstairs." Ashe opened the library door without looking back at him and headed for the stairs.
As the stars fell around them, Queen Orande Demarez and Al-Fehr Salan passed into the next world. They were joined as one flesh…and as one soul until Llanditia was no more.