Sing, muse, of the passion of the pistol
Sing, muse, of the warning by the whistle
A night so dark in the waning
A dawn obscured by a slate-sky raining
"The Perfect Crime #2", Verse 1
Ffamran Bunansa was, in a word, bored. It had been a year and a half since he'd been stationed as the Nalbina Consul after the incident concerning a certain viera criminal he'd released (after all, she hadn't been guilty, and it was stupid to lock up the innocent, even when they were an insult to the Empire), and he was in one of those sways where nothing seemed to happen to draw his attention long enough to hold it. Of course, there had been the interesting scuffle a week and a half earlier, concerning a former Dalmascan Knight and some miscellaneous prisoner in the Dungeon which had been harsh enough to have the guards calling him down from his offices to settle the dispute before it ended with death. While the Knight had not seemed in the least interested to listen to a Judge Magister, his attacker had quickly learned the error of his ways, scurrying off to busy himself with gambling or mourning his imprisonment. But now, with the Knight gone and the prisoners mostly quelled of rebellious thoughts after seeing him in the flesh—metal—he was back in that depression of boredom.
"Why so long in the face, Judge?"
The soft lilt had Ffamran looking up and grinning softly, leaning back in his chair and turning to face Fran. She was a sight, in metal and leather, spear strapped over her back and netted helm held in dubiously delicate hands. Her hips swayed when she walked, and she looked to be slightly favoring the left side, but he thought not much of it; she was a strong woman—strong enough to survive Nalbina twice and Archades once, and still live to run off to Balfonhiem and speak of it. He kissed his fingers, and grabbed on of her hands gently as he stood.
"You are very lucky I invite so many beautiful women up here, or someone might have noticed and thought badly of me."
"Your reputation is by no means endangered, Ffamran." Her claret eyes showed her humor, though her face was impassive. He looked up at her, laughed softly, and brushed a lock of snowy hair off her shoulder.
"I've told you before to call me—."
"'Tis seems a trifle foolish, Ffamran, to call you a fictional character."
"A leading man, my dear lady." He sighed, stepped away from her, and looked out his window solemnly, saying, "Which I highly doubt I will become elsewise, given present circumstances." She had nothing to say to that, did not even move as he commiserated his depression in silence, before turning to her with a refreshed smile. "So, what news have you of the outside world? I forget 'tis there, until you grace my threshold."
He was honestly surprised at the level of friendship they had achieved, given he had been the Judge in charge of her arrest and that they rarely saw each other. Even then, he could not say what it was that had made him believe in her innocence and set her free with his Strahl three years earlier. There was no logic to their continued relationship—she came and went as she pleased, sometimes with Zecht and other times alone (though he never knew which was which, for Zecht was no fool and tended to be weary of large crowds in Archadian-occupied areas), and spoke to him as though she'd known him since they'd both been children. Often, when stretches were long between her appearances, he wondered if she'd finally moved forward; often, when she appeared out of nowhere (in his office, his room, the bazaar), he wondered if she was convinced she was in his debt for her release from Archades. In the end, he tried not to think of it too hard.
Fran spoke first of things Ffamran knew, and they debated the merits and short-comings of each—new airship plans designed at Draklor; Vayne Solidor being named Consul of Dalmasca; the continued illness of the Emperor—and then of things new to him—the fate of a few men he knew in Balfonhiem, at the hands of Imperials during shipment of their 'wears'; an update on the location of something he'd asked her, the last time she'd shown up, to look for in Landis; and a peculiar tale from the mouth of a Rozzarian heir.
"Oh, Fran? I hadn't thought you the type to hang around with that sort—."
"Think you the only one to bring folk up for appearances, Balthier?" He found himself frowning, or perhaps pouting, petulantly, tapping his fingers on his desk as her eyes smiled at him. After a moment, though, he laughed softly, shaking his head softly to her words of, "Besides, he is not so different than you. You haven't place to complain."
"You aim to kill, my love," Ffamran kidded. He steppled his fingers, leaning his elbows on the desk and breaking the mirth with a serious expression. "This doesn't move things in a good fashion. Do you know if anyone else knows of the heirs' meetings?"
"That Judge of yours—Gabranth. He watches Larsa on words from Gramis."
"I wonder, m'lady, how you come by this knowledge of yours some days." He leaned back in his chair, sighing, turning to face the open sky. Watching it, he longed for it, an escape from the repetition of Nalbina and the dreary monotony of Judge life. "Besides Gabranth, do you know if anyone else—."
"The Rozzarian's entourage, surely. They go with him always. But they are tight lipped." She gave a soft noise of vague annoyance at that, but said only, "Some more tight lipped than other."
"I'd fain be in your shoes, Fran, rather than my own, with that knowledge." Once the words had slipped, he swore, and bounded to his feet to open the window and lean out. "By gods, I sound like the old man. Do you know what they're meeting about? The Dusk or Dawn Shards? Nethicite?" He didn't need to turn to see her shake her head, though she was silent in her movement. After a moment of contemplating the sky, he turned from the window and strode to her, touching her arms softly. The fabric of her shirt was soft and smooth under his fingers, and he smoothed it unconsciously. "Keep an eye on things for me, would you? Until I'm let out of my corner."
"Turn your eyes to Dalmasca, then," Fran advised, tapping her netted helm against her leg in what would have been nervous boredom on others. "Vayne, he plans something sinister. I know not what. And the puppet-Queen, she is a part of it."
"I'll have to make sure she isn't around for him to work his tricks on, won't I?" Fran rolled her eyes slightly, sighing softly. He smiled at her, lifting onto his toes a little. "A kiss, m'lady, before you're off again?"
"You are incorrigible."
"Where do you know these words from?" he laughed. She arched a snowy brow at him as he brushed a lock of hair away from her shoulder casually.
"Do you think me stupid, Ffamran?"
"Not in the slightest." She sighed again, bending a little to gently press their lips together.
The door opened with flustered words, tangled together all at once from three Imperial guards, who fell silent at the sight. Ffamran sighed exaggeratedly as Fran pulled casually away from their kiss and fixed her netted helm atop her head. They stared at her, eyes occasionally darting to him as he rubbed the bridge of his nose to ward off a headache of sheer annoyance, saying she would see herself out. As she strode to them, they parted like holy seas, watching her go, before the most senior of them began to gather his composure.
Ffamran encouraged it. "Yes. Captain Mies. What is it?"
The Captain saluted sharply, now that he'd been given purpose. "We've news from his Lord Emperor, sir." He fidgeted for a moment, before holding out a ticker-tape of transmission, which Ffamran took with all the cold indifference befitting a Judge as the Captain continued to speak. "The Lord Larsa will be arriving tomorrow, sir. He wishes—."
"I can read, Captain Mies." He nodded softly, proud that things, despite how they appeared, had fallen easily into his grasp. "You're dismissed. All of you."
"Sir!" They all saluted stiffly, and hurried out. As the last left and his door shut, Ffamran heaved a heavy sigh, and leaned back against his desk, rubbing his brow. As it was, there were three ways the pawns could move—his way; the Emperor's way; or in the way of the gods.
Hopefully, with Fran tailing the Margrace heir and Gabranth with Larsa, he would have only his only moves working out for him. hr The Palace Gardens were the one place Ashelia had left, really, after Rasler and her father died. They were refuge only in that her second husband, Kelic, was loathe to enter the herb-heavy garden, pleading that the cloying smells were too heavy for him to stand. She was only too happy to leave behind smothering courtiers and her abominable Archadian husband for that mint- and rosemary-heavy smell, sitting in the cool humidity of the garden.
Today, due to the unseasonable rains, she watched the gardens from the portico, flipping cards listlessly in a game of Gypsies. The stiff cards slid through her fingers easily, plodding onto the stone bench with soft clicks. Above her, the rain dropped in heavy curtains, half-concealing the garden beyond her. Everything had taken on a dreary steel-gray tint, suiting the mood that had haunted her since Rasler's untimely death—and, even heavier since her father's death—and it seemed the only colors came from the rose bushes closest to the portico, whose blossoms were dark red and closed to the rain; and the cards in her fingers, with such jovial paintings across the stiffly lacquered parchment.
She didn't react to the voice, except to pay more pointed attention to the cards at hand. She surveyed the spread before her, collected the cards, and shuffled them in her lap noisily. There were two people behind her—a hand maiden whose name she could never quite remember (Lucil ... Lucia ... something of that sort), and a man who was not her husband or one of the male nobles that frequented court from Archades or out of what remained of the Nabudis court.
"My Lady Ashelia, the Consul—."
"I'm busy now," she said sternly, dealing out the cards for another hand of Gypsies and frowning slightly. The Consul had been given rooms in the Palace, but she had only seen the elder Solidor son once or twice, at formal, full-court dinners. He was a regal man; handsome, and charismatic, with an easy smile and suspiciously gentle eyes for a man who had seen so much war (even Rasler's eyes had not been soft like that). For whatever reason, many of which Ashelia could not place, he unsettled her stomach—she had not had to feign the last time they'd dined in court, feeling ill.
"'Tis a trifle, Lucia. That will be all. Thank you for showing me to Her Ladyship." She could hear him bowing to her little hand maiden, and supposed the girl was blushing and trying not to giggle, no doubt swaying her hips as she strode off down the portico to reenter the citadel and return to her finery.
Vayne Solidor did not sit beside her, thankfully, but strode to the balustrade and stared out into the gardens quietly. Ashelia continued to deal her hand, scanning and moving cards quickly, waiting for the Consul's next move. There was only the sound of the rain for some time, until, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the Consul move, and come to stand over her shoulder.
"The nine of wands, Ladyship." She blinked at the spread, and moved as he'd directed, thanking him crisply. He chuckled, a silky and too suave noise, and settled above the spread on the bench. After a moment, she curled over the cards, almost protectively, and looked up at him through lashes and hair; he was intent on the spread, and tapped a different card. "Six of disks. Do you play Gypsies often, Ladyship?"
"Only when I can get away." It was meant to sound as though it didn't happen often, but the Consul chuckled softly.
"I'm surprised you aren't better at the game, Ladyship." She stiffened, and slapped down the deck, looking up at the Consul sharply. He held up his hand in placation. "I meant no offense, Lady Ashelia. Please; my apologizes."
She collected the cards, stood and approached the balustrade, tucking the cards into her sleeve nervously. He remained seated, watching her every move. Silently, she extended her hands out into the rain, relishing in the soft coolness that came with the fat droplets.
After a time, he came and stood beside her. Her stomach was tight, her head filled with rage and undue fear. His voice was quiet under the rain: "I came to tell you that I will be receiving guests on the morrow. Some people I would like you to meet, if 'twould please your Ladyship."
"My brother, and perhaps a Judge or two," he told her gently. She shrugged one shoulder elegantly, crossing one hand over the other. He brushed a gloved hand over her shoulder, and ignored the shudder that ran down her spine. "I think you will enjoy Larsa's company, Lady Ashelia. You are both very likeminded."
"Oh come, Princess," Vayne sighed, resting the small of his back against the balustrade and leaning just enough to catch her eye. He smiled disarmingly, and waved around the empty portico. "There is noone here, as might hear us. No courtiers to gossip, or husbands to upset. Tell me: what is troubling you so, Ladyship?"
She wanted to say, I want you out. I want Dalmasca back as my own, and I want you and your damn Archadians to go back to where you came from and stay there. What did we ever do to you? What did Nabradia do to Archades? Or Landis? Or any other land you've conquered? Instead, she said, "I wonder, about Kelic some days."
"What about him?"
"He strikes me a trifle ... curious," she demurred softly. The Consul gave a soft chuckle at her shyness. "At times, it seems he is not interested in ... my body—."
"Lord Llonguement was not chosen as your consort for his ... hn, marital abilities." He let that sink in with the quiet of the rain, and Ashelia found herself blinking out at the water-curtain, letting the words slowly fester.
"Oh," she murmured gently, when the words suddenly clicked in her mind and she felt her face color slightly. The Consul chuckled softly, and when she looked, he too had a vague color on the very top of his cheeks. "Oh."
"Also, he'd been of some ... insult in court, concerning my brother. My Emperor Father thought it wise that he be put in a position where—."
"Where he wouldn't get in too much trouble?" she bit sternly, pulling back from the balustrade and scowling softly at Vayne. He inclined his head, once more raising his hands in placation, and this time landing them gently on her shoulders; she threw them off quickly, snapping a frigid, "Do not think you can play me as one of your pawns, Vayne Solidor—."
"I would not think of it, Ladyship."
"—I will not be played for a fool! I will not remain a figurehead for you and your father and brother, for your grand plans!" She swallowed the rest of her words, uttered a deep-throated growl of distress and distaste, and strode quickly away from the Consul. Behind her, before she entered the citadel, she heard Vayne's soft laughter, and felt the vehement anger and frustration only boil over twice as hot.
Kelic found her, some time later, in her bedroom, sitting at her vanity and staring into her jewelry box silently. She clapped it shut as he peered over her shoulder, and turned quickly.
"Please leave," she told him, in short, cold words. Kelic blinked at her—too pretty eyes on a too pretty face, and she couldn't quite stop thinking about what Vayne had insinuated with his words (they had chosen him because he wouldn't, perhaps could not, incept a child and heir with her)—before touching her face gently. She brushed him off, and stood, pointing to the door. "Leave, Kelic. Now. I wish not to see you."
"You're distraught, Miss Ashelia."
"It is nothing," she assured, trying to lighten her voice and words. He clearly read through it, but said nothing of it, ducking his face behind his cinnamon hair and murmuring a gentle platitude as he retreated out of her bedroom.
As he left and she sat heavily at her vanity once more, to open her jewelry box and retrieve Rasler's ring, she could not say whether or not she was pleased with his placating nature and gentle bearing; there was, surely, a certain safety in knowing she'd been married to someone whom she had no marital obligations to. And Kelic was a sweet man to her.
Still, as she stared at Rasler's ring in her hand, she could not help ... hoping for more, perhaps. If she could not have her Kingdom, she would very much like to have something beyond a forced marriage to a man who would be more likely to touch one of their young pages than her. Even if it was not for love—it had been two and a half years since she had felt passion's flush on her, and she was not so saddened with the thought of marrying, not for love, if she were to receive a willing partner in bed.
Forgive me, Father. Rasler. She shook her head, and shut her eyes to tears as her fingers curled around Rasler's ring. Forgive me, and help me.