With all the grain of Babylon

To cultivate, to make us strong

And hidden here behind the walls

Our shoulders wide and timber long

'til the war came

'til the war came.

"When the War Came", Verse 1

I

It had been two and a half years since King Raminas had disbanded Dalmasca's Knightly Order to be as they would as civilians; and two years since his untimely death and the passing of the crown to his daughter—young, widowed Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca—ostensibly, but more literally to her forced second husband, a lesser noble of Archadia who was friendly with the Solidor family. Now, there were no militia in the providential Dalmascan towns; no grand army stationed with Nabradia's troops in Nalbina; and no Knights to guard the Princess from the puppeting Archadia forced upon her as a mere figurehead.

Basch fon Ronsenberg was in Nalbina once more, this time with purpose. Normally he went to the once grand fortress-city to remind himself that he was a failure to his creed as a Knight (which usually ended with him in a tavern, drinking away his sorrows, until he was retrieved by a fellow of his); but tonight, he was there to meet with Vossler York Azelas, to collect him after his tenure in the dungeon. This was Vossler's third time in the Nalbina Dungeon—an actual cause had sent him this time, rather than just his insignia of a Dalmascan Knight; he's taken stern offense to an Imperial making eyes at his young daughter, and had attacked the man (so a stupid cause, but a cause nonetheless)—and Basch had been the one to receive notice that his six month detention was over.

He kept his eyes down, knowing there were still people living in Archadia-occupied Nalbina who would know his face as one of the Knights that had not bound together once more to defend King Raminas; or perhaps simply as one of the Captains that had failed to save the paling from falling and save the Lord Rasler from his demise, and strode purposefully to the doors of the fortress which housed both Aerodrome and Dungeon.

Guards loitered with raucous, accented laughter there, sharing a wineskin between them and clearly ignoring Basch's attention. He did not altogether mind, being as he'd much rather be favoring a tavern where people knew him now by name and cared not for what he'd done or was doing with his life; where noone knew him as an outsider, just as another body disheartened by the war, instead of collecting his wayward companion from the Dungeons he felt he should have been sentenced to. For a while, it was simply this, him standing there with head bowed and them ignoring him, until he cleared his throat with all the authority an former Captain could summon toward the men that had stripped him of that title. One of the guards turned toward him, arching a brow, as the other two continued their laughter more softly.

"What is it, peasant?" Basch tried not to bristle. He was no peasant; no doubt, had Archadia not expanded, his name would prove to have him well above these men in Caste. But he shoved his righteous anger and indignation aside, and sneered only slightly as he lifted his chin defiantly.

Still, there were no words besides, "I am here to collect Captain Azelas from the Dungeon," and the Imperials chuckled to each other at his expense. He didn't let himself react to it, and promised himself a hearty drink when he and Vossler returned to Rabanastre, to commemorate his ability to control his fists and words. That one guard shook his head slightly, shrugged, and nudged Basch toward the other two with his sword.

"No weapons allowed in the prison, lest yer a guard. And, as ye ain't—." Basch ignored him, and roughly unslung his claymore, handing it over to one guard. Then went the knives he kept on his hip, for cases where the claymore would do him little good. He made no mention of or movement to the daggers tucked into his boots, and the guards reacted as he expected them to. They stowed his things to the side, patted him down once, and nodded to their comrade. He nudged Basch again, as the left-hand guard opened the doors, and then stepped quickly beyond them.

A few steps in, and the door shut behind them with a hard clap. The guard snapped an easy, "Keep up. And don' think 'bout runnin' off now." Basch only tucked his thumb into his belt, and ducked his head again. He could have gone himself; he knew where the Dungeon was, by duty, honor, and foolishness, but he made no notion that he did, and stayed silent behind the Archadian.

Deep in his gut, he felt the roil of hatred he felt every time he was sober and this near an Imperial. Long-seated loathing that stretched back nearly as far as he could remember and that was linked to pain and suffering in people he had once loved; and a newer, more red-hot fervor that came from a thousand small things that had added up to the state they were in now.

The Dungeon was three floors below the foyer they'd come into. First they were in an animated lift that made Basch feel strangely claustrophobic, then down two sets of stairs to the lowest level of the fortress. There were sharp cries of hungry prisoners, and of anger, and from cell to cell from one faction to another; heckling and sharp threats and a thousand things that clouded Basch's mind for a moment until everything fell away to quiet between his ears. They stopped just within the entrance to the Dungeon, and Basch looked around very slowly, remembering things he'd rather not remember from years and months now spent.

Vossler was brought to them, vaguely sedate, the guards behind him by a pace and a half on either shoulder. Basch didn't move to greet him, and was silent as his guard escorted them back up two flights of stairs, onto the lift, and out into the foyer. He gave Basch a short look, as if to ask if he had other business in the fortress; then, he turned to Vossler, and said, "I hope you don't mind; I've something to pick up," before telling the guard, "We won't be using the Aerodrome." So the guard escorted them out of the fortress, where Basch collected his knives and claymore.

In the street, Basch turned, and gave Vossler a very quick look over. There was a new scar on his face, lacing from his cheekbone down to his jawline. Basch's hand rose as if to touch it, then fell to his side once more with a dark chuckle. "Your Carmella won't even recognize you, the next time you come out of Nalbina. What happened to you?"

"'Tis nothing, Basch," Vossler sighed, shrugging. "I was doing nothing more than you would have, in my place; I won my argument." They were silent then, wandering through the northern sprawl of the Nalbina marketplace. After a while, Vossler softly ask, "Something for your boy, then?"

Basch was pointedly silent for a moment, before cutting a sharp look at Vossler and grumbling, "He isn't my boy, Vossler."

"Of course. 'Tis uncouth of me to call him such ... though he is quite your junior, Basch."

"He's my compatriot, Vossler," Basch corrected, as though Vossler hadn't spoken, "And I'd prefer we not speak of these things in the street."

They were silent again. Vossler walked cleanly abreast of Basch, and Basch tried devilishly hard not to turn at the first tavern they passed to get that well-promised drink, tried to remind himself that this was the man he'd known longest—first in Valendia, after the fall of Landis; then in Dalmasca, as Knights and brothers—and who knew him better than, some days, he knew himself.

The trinket he'd commissioned, the time before this that he was in Nalbina, was nothing more special than simple pounded metal to hang from a belt, an intricate design of Nabradian mythology which Basch had researched sparsely after Reks had told him his mother was from Nabradia. The artisan Basch had found had been only too pleased to create a trinket of his faith, and smiled now as he handed it over to Basch in soft linen wrappings.

He told Basch that it wouldn't keep its shape too long, but perhaps in Rabanastre he could find a silversmith to have it permanently fixed in shape. Basch assured this was already far more than he would normally think to spend (and thus silver was out of the question), and thanked the artisan profusely for his work.

Vossler did not ask to see the trinket until they were into the bazaar of the front causeway of Nalbina. Basch handed it over gently, and Vossler took care with the linen, brushing it aside to inspect the craftsmanship. He handed it back and said, "Your boy will like it."

"Vossler—."

"He might as well be. How much younger is he than you? Eighteen? Nineteen years?" Basch shook his head, and found laughter bubbling over his lips slowly. Vossler jostled him gently, as though they truly were brothers, wry chuckles leaving him as well. He was thinner than he had been six months earlier, and the scar on his face altered his lean face; Basch did not want to believe that this was the same man he had trusted with absolute faith two-and-more years earlier, because Vossler no longer looked the part of a High Captain of Knights.

The teleport crystal gave off a soft hum. There was a queue to it, but it wasn't long. They loitered until the last had gone, talking in soft voices, before taking their own teleport back to the Southgate of Rabanastre. Vossler stumbled, as he always did, as they arrived, wiping his brow and softly grumbling to Basch, "If you were not so destitute, we could have ridden in luxury."

"And Carmella would have had to wait another fortnight for her father." Vossler shook his head, shrugging slightly.

"I doubt she will remember me, anyway."

"She does." Basch clapped Vossler on the shoulder gently, and gave a soft reassuring smile, quietly saying, "'Tis you who may not recognize her. She has grown while you've been away."

"They always do." He sighed softly, looking up at the gate—and, beyond that, over the walls, the very tops of the citadel in the center of town, barely visible for distance and angle. A grumble of thunder threatened from Giza to the south, and Basch broke from Vossler to start toward the freight entrance off the main gate; Vossler chuckled. "Off to your boy? You won't see me to my daughter, then?"

"I believe she's seen enough of me these last six months," Basch said with a shrug, backing away from his friend slowly. "Besides, I've a gift to deliver."

"Aye, you do. I will see you then."

"Stay out of trouble this time." Vossler laughed again, and strode to the Southgate, which was opening for the first of the afternoon transit shifts. Basch went to the freight door, and moved it with little help from a few people with business directly in Lowtown, and entered the soft coolness of the second town of Rabanastre.

When he'd first come to Rabanastre, after Rasler's death and the loss of Nalbina, he'd not thought he'd like Lowtown in the slightest. In those first few months, he'd stayed in hostels off the Muthru Bazaar, and Reks (as well as his younger brother, Vaan, and their sister-figure, Penelo) had come to see him, to wander through the streets. After his last attempt at profession had fallen through—which was common in Rabanastre these days—he'd come down to Lowtown to stay in the small apartment Reks and Vaan shared with Penelo, and another family below theirs. It was surprisingly comforting, he found, to be in Lowtown; it helped that he spent his time in good company, when he was between professions.

After the Knights were disbanded, they'd become something of jack-of-all-trades, most of them. There were a few that had returned to their tiny towns around Dalmasca, others that had returned to their countries of birth; but most were from Rabanastre or thereabouts, and had returned there, to ply what trade they had. Some returned to family practices—two or three men, Basch knew, had taken up work in the Healers Ward of the citadel—and others had turned to lazing about. But most of them, men like he and Vossler and Reks, offered their services for cheap hire: fixing things around the streets, setting up in the bazaar, taking hunts. In a city where there were now either merchants or bodies for hire, they made their way sporadically through the days.

The money that had gone to paying for the trinket had come from Hunts; the money for their rent, paid to Consul Vayne Solidor's tax-men, had come from gods only knew where, dug from Reks and Vaan's pockets. Basch had a mind that a good deal of that gil had come from Imperial purses, though.

He turned a corner of the Northern Sprawl, and caught sight of Reks' weaving through the crowd, helping an older woman carry home things she'd collected from one of the merchants stationed around Lowtown. Basch smiled to himself, and turned away from the sight. Even after months living with the brothers and their friend, he still often got lost in the swirling avenues of Lowtown; today, however, he found his way (and thanked a clear head for that).

The family in the lower apartment was sitting down to a noisy afternoon meal. Shrill children's voices were quelled for eating; older children hurried in from the street, speaking in quick voices. Theirs was a family who had lost husband and sons to the war; the wife of the family didn't condone Reks or Basch, knowing them both to be (at the least) survivors of the war, but could do nothing about it as long as they paid their rent. He climbed the stairs, leaving behind luncheon voices, and opened the door to the small two-bedroom apartment where Vaan and Penelo should have been finishing their own luncheon and starting off for their work as errand-runners for Migelo's Sundries.

They were not, in fact, eating or hurrying for the door, and Basch sighed softly, shutting the door with enough force to startle the two away from each other. Penelo hurried off into the room they shared, blushing cutely and adjusting what would, in a few minutes, be her left-sided braid.

"Do we need to move you onto the couch, Vaan?"

The little blond swore under his breath, and popped his head up over the edge of the small couch he and Penelo had been sharing, grumbling, "You're not my brother. And just because you're sleeping with him, it doesn't mean anything."

"'Tis good to see you as well, child." He removed his weapons, setting them on the table they ate at sporadically. Penelo reappeared from the bedroom, still blushing softly. She walked to Basch, and pecked a soft kiss to his cheek in greeting. "Don't you have elsewhere to be, child?"

"We're just heading out," Penelo perked, nodding with undue enthusiasm. "Should we check out the board in the Sandsea for you?"

"If we're going," Vaan grumbled, hauling himself out of the sinking couch cushions. He played with the clasp of his vest for a moment, and Basch had to look away or think of other things, or both, lest he find himself paying undue attention to the young blond. Penelo nodded to his words, but kept her expectant look on Basch until he shook his head.

"I will check tomorrow. Get on, then."

"See ya, Basch!" Then they were gone, leaving Basch to contemplate the table in silence and pull the linen-wrapped trinket out of his things to trace the pounded-metal contours through the thin fabric.

When the door opened, Basch thought for a moment it was one of the youngers coming back to retrieve something they'd forgotten, but he was pleased to see Reks' surprised face, and found himself smiling as the lean blond rocketed across the small sitting area to wrap his long arms around Basch's neck and embrace him tightly.

"I didn't think you'd be back for a few more days," Reks said into Basch's shoulder softly. Basch chuckled softly, his arms casually draped around the younger man's waist. They were like that for a moment, before Reks smiled, laughing shyly and pulling back. He darted a hank of pale blond hair out of his amber eyes, blushing softly, and asked, "Vossler is doing alright?"

"He injured himself during his tenure, but beyond that seems fine." Reks looked concerned, but Basch assured, "When he sees his daughter, he'll remember to be more careful. He's spent more time at war or in prison than he has with her." Reks didn't look sated from the reassurance; Basch stepped back, grabbing Reks' hand gently and picking up the linen-wrapped trinket with the other hand. "I got you something."

"Basch," Reks muttered, blush darkening softly, and took the gift. "You shouldn't have."

"I wanted to. Worry not." He kissed the young blond's brow gently, then encouraged him wordlessly to unwrap the linen.

As the wrapping fell away, Basch knew he'd done something (finally) right, for Reks' face brightened magically, and he looked up in a start, mouth open in joy and surprise. After a moment of silence, Reks launched himself at Basch again, laughing and thanking him.

Basch softly told him, "Tis only pounded metal, but it should hold until I have the gil to have it set in silver—."

"Don't worry about it, Basch," Reks told him, setting it down and wrapping his arms languidly around Basch's neck, "I love it. It's wonderful. Oh, you're wonderful," then kissed him gently on the mouth.

He pulled back to Basch slightly dumbfounded expression, and laughed softly, stepping quickly away. With soft eyes, he beckoned, "Come and show me how to put it on, then." Laughing lips spread in a knowing grin, and, while Basch blushed, he followed Reks to the room across from Vaan and Penelo's, and knew he had no place to argue with those two kissing on the couch.

He pushed all thoughts aside, and, for a short time, knew only the soft sounds of Lowtown (water and banter) and Reks.