The Art of Drowning
A Drace and Zargabaath short, pre-Nabradia.

When they are done with their first advance -- when the smoke has begun to ease on the air currents, changing grey mushroom clumps into a faint smog, and from there into nothing -- but before the sweat underneath their armor has cooled, Drace pulls off her helmet and tosses it on the nearest chair.

"I should not have trusted you," she says.

Zargabaath is too well-trained to betray the start that her voice gives him. He is too well-trained entirely, which is why he debates before answering, wetting his lips with his tongue. The air is still sour with the runoff of weaponry; Nabradia is an ominous blot outside the viewport window. Their timetable starts at 13:00.

He chooses his words with Archadian precision. "Why do you say such a thing, Drace?"

The Alexander gives a rumble as its pilots coax it to turn. Outside, the trees sway. The observation deck is not often used for its appointed task, and Zargabaath had to throw out half his officers when he came down that morning. Younger judges scrambled to retrieve their helms and offered hasty salutes as he cruised the watchrooms, looking for one that was empty enough to receive Drace's company.

It is nice, he thinks, that she has come to his ship for this discussion. He never knows where to stand in hers.

Drace looks like a god, framed at the window, framed by the light. The sun has not yet hit noon, but its rays are still heavier than in Archadia, ladling thick golden syrup across the forests. The Kiss of Paradise, he has heard the Nabradians call it, stuffing their chests with pride. He could believe them right now, if he had the luxury. Instead, he is here to destroy them.

Drace's ire seems immune to any of the beauty outside. "Your report claimed that the war had decimated the infrastructure of Nabradia sufficiently to leave their borderline defenses as but token gestures, Zargabaath." She seems ready to toss her head, but stops at the last minute, lifting her chin instead in a stifled sort of regal dignity. "Instead, we discover the most belligerent Nabradian factions alive and well -- and not at all pleased to see us, might I add."

His smile is weak, but sincere. "Perhaps we have arrived ahead of schedule."

"Lord Vayne assured us that our duties would primarily involve taming the survivors." She runs a hand along the back of her neck, fingers arched, raking her hair up in short tufts darkened from sweat. She'd cut her braids off in early summer, predictably; by the time the colder climes and seasons roll around, she will curse their lack. Autumn is always an inauspicious time to attack, by Zargabaath's standards. "To us would go the luxury of seeming as heroes without committing the effort. I've no intent to sound vain, Zargabaath," she adds, "but I would prefer it if my information were not compromised before the battle even began. Had I known, I would have ordered my Remora units to fly more defensively. They have taken unnecessary losses."

Zargabaath acknowledges the point with an inclination of his head; his own helmet is already discarded, set aside on one of the tables near the door. "Trust, Judge Drace," he counsels her, well-aware of how many times he has had to repeat those words in the past. "I suspect only Lord Vayne truly knows what plans we are meant to follow."

- - - - -

When he was younger and went by a different name, Zargabaath had been told a story by one of his professors. Salt water and fresh water had different densities, naturally, due to the composition of each, which made it easier to float ships in salt. The discussion had segued from there -- as always for classes where paying for your tuition was considered good enough pedigree to pass -- into similar principles for airships, and then into courtyard dancing.

His nurse had told him another story later, when he'd begged for extra servings at dinner. There's a place when gravity and the buoyancy of the water meet in a perfect balance for every living being. If you can somehow survive long enough while you are sinking, if you can remain patient and motionless while your body continues to descend into the cold waters, you will eventually reach that point and go no further. As long as you do not struggle, you will be able to hover forever between air and earth. Free-floating, she'd called it, and then whisked away the plates.

Zargabaath's professors had snorted when he'd relayed the tale the next day, citing something about displacement of water and volume and density -- but he'd remembered the story anyway, even when they went over the mathematical formulas to disprove it.

He never forgot the picture of it in his head, though. It lodged in his brain and caused him to dream of it for months, feeling cold pressure envelop him from head to toe. He dreamed of liquid filling up his nostrils and mouth. Of a body, arms extended, muscles slack, sinking endlessly through water.

- - - - -

"If the schedule remains in occurrence, we will be making Nalbina Fortress tomorrow." Drace's voice is a patient hum as she flips through the papers on the table, deftly sorting them with a touch. A courier had ferried them over by hand earlier from Zecht's ships, and various stamps and ribbons testify to the veracity. "From there, we're to commence the siege and wait for further instructions, based on the status of their defenses. It says," she adds, her voice sharpening to a stiletto's point, "that Judge Zecht is already in position." Dropping the page back to the table with a snort, Drace clenches her hand into a fist over the words. "I am surprised to find the man with such a taste for conquest."

Zargabaath stirs at that assumption. "He has remained apart ever since being ordered upon this campaign. Do not mistake his solitude for arrogance, when it might be private thought."

"Private enough that he will not tell the rest of us?" Drace's lips purse skeptically. "Not Judge Zecht. He's chattier than a harlot when there's wealth on the streets. Was he ordered to maintain such silence?"

"Lord Vayne asked him to come, Drace." Zargabaath's voice feels more tired than it should, and he briefly wonders why. "To us falls the course of obedience. Once our fleets are in position, Judge Zecht will relay the next stage. Judge Gabranth is in reserve, waiting should we encounter difficulty."

It might be a trick of his eyes, but he thinks she flinches when he says that last name.

He catches it with a patient mercilessness. "Are you eager to end this campaign, and return to the city?"

Drace stops; for a moment he thinks she will speak plainly, and then she firms her jaw. "I simply do not perceive the value in committing so many of our resources, unless the war is expected to run its course far longer than we have been led to believe. The union of Nabradia and Dalmasca should have been terminated before it even began. And to place only one of us at the prow? It reeks of expecting ambush."

"Come now." He squashes his disappointment at her dissemblance, her effortless turns of logic which do nothing to adequately explain her reluctance. "If Lord Vayne chooses to have Judge Zecht at the fore, and we at the rear, who are we to protest? No matter what rebellions Nabradia may foster within its belly, the three of us will certainly put them out."

"Four," she corrects him softly. "The four of us. You cannot forget Gabranth."

The reminder brings him up short. There was a reason he had skipped the last component of the fleet, but he had not expected Drace to catch it. "So I did." Explanation comes out of him with a sigh, warranted only from polite necessity. "He is not directly assigned with us, Judge Drace. Lord Vayne has him on observation further south."

"Closer to Nabradia than to Archadia," Drace retorts. "Close enough that he is more a part of the assault than guarding the defenses back home. I do not agree with it." She moves, restless, pacing across the line of the windows, crossing into his space without warning or regard. He can smell the oil on her armor. "Four of us here, with only Ghis and Bergan in Archades. Such a large effort, for a nation that is recovering from its own self-destruction."

"You jump at shadows, Drace." Reaching out as she passes, Zargabaath brushes Drace's cape where it rolls over her back, just above where her right shoulderblade would be if metal wasn't in the way. The sight lingers in his mind even as time moves on, and them with it: fingers, shoulders, bones. "We conquer Nabradia to end the wars."

"No," she retorts bitterly. "We conquer Nabradia to replace it with our own."

He has no answer to that, and watches the sunlight ripple over the delicate folds of her armor as she walks.

Eventually, she comes to a halt against the far side of the window, hovering near the intersection of wall and glass. He clears his throat while she fiddles with the drapery cords. "Will you be meeting with Gabranth when you return home, Judge Drace?"

At that, Drace goes as perfectly still as a corpse. "I mislike the tone of your voice."

This is as close to a direct confrontation as he will ever take with her, and it feels as if he has gone a step too far already despite his careful circumlocution of the subject. They have established rules of protocol, carved out of social etiquette by trial and error and error again. He does not treat her as a woman. She does not treat him as a law.

He tests the waters mentally, guessing at her mood. Finally, he finds an unwillingness inside him to push further, to fight, and surrenders with a simple, "You appear fond of his company."

"Oh, yes, and look at the basis I have for comparison." Drace does not seem to catch the root of his meaning; that, or she simply neglects it in favor of rolling her eyes. "Bergan and Ghis. At least Zecht knows how to jest kindly. Without him, I swear we would be little more than humorless mendicants. Gabranth is wretchedly uptight, but he is still young. There's time."

He does not point out that she has neglected to list him among potential options. It is fair that she forgot him, just as he did not speak of Gabranth. Drace is not as patient as he, and her omissions are customarily performed from sheer oversight rather than deliberate insult. That is simply the way that she is, and their friendship has comfortable boundaries that do not need to be broken, and Zargabaath knows this even as he crosses towards the chairs and picks up her helmet.

"You were elevated to Judge Magister years ago." His voice is unexpectedly rough. One of his fingers traces the bulb of the left earpiece. "Has it become so... tiresome since then?"

Drace does not move from the corner; she watches him touch her helmet, stroke a knuckle against the filigree. "You were in attendance when I gave my vows, Zargabaath, already long-invested in service to the Empire. If that causes weariness, should the answer not be apparent already?"

"Just so," he says, not fully aware what he is uttering, filling up the empty air with empty words. "Just so."

In full armor, a person sinks much faster than if they were stripped. This, Zargabaath knows through common sense, if not experience. Clothed in metal, a person's mass becomes so heavy that they inevitably drift all the way to the deepest ocean floor, if magicks are not hastily applied. Zargabaath has not swum in ages, but he knows -- he knows.

"You will go to Gabranth when you are done here," he states with uncustomary bluntness, and his lips feel numb, as if he is already drowning. "The only question is when."

Drace forgives him for the lapse -- or at least she does not storm away. "I may." Fingers twitch the tassel of the drapes, which shiver in velvet waves. "What business is it of anyone's, should I desire consultation with another Judge?"

The question is shamefully apt. Zargabaath has not had time to form a complete opinion about the latest member to their flock. Drace had held the junior position before Gabranth; he might have expected some sort of camaraderie between them from that mutual experience, but whenever Drace had spoken of the man, it had always been with a certain degree of contempt.

That disdain has not lessened, but now there is a warmth underneath it, an intimacy that has been forged without Zargabaath's awareness. It pulls her away from him into circles he does not frequent, conversations he is being excluded from that have a bearing on his life anyway.

Because: Drace is right. There is Ghis with his unspoken seniority and snide lack of it, and there is Bergan who always seems as if he's reaching for something just a little too far away, and there is Zecht -- who is not particularly bad company, but his taste for amusement is incomprehensible to Zargabaath.

And then there is Drace.

Their ranks are that small, and that complex. Gabranth has set them out of order. Instead of dwelling on the unchangeable, Zargabaath thinks instead about the stasis that comes from simply allowing things to happen, from going with the flow of life, from letting yourself sink until the water itself decides at which point you may come to a halt. It is a principle that has ruled his life. It is a habit that gives him dreams at night, about weightlessness despite his armor.

"Drace." He is careful with her name, careful enough that he fears he is shouting unwanted emotions through all the restraint. "Should you ever become tempted to leave the Magisters, I would ask that you notify me first."

The smile she delivers is wry, even as she covers it with gauntlet and steel, retrieving her helmet back from his arms. "I cannot quit. Judge Zecht has a wager with me, claiming he will best me at marks this year. So long as he remains, how could I ignore such a challenge?" A scrape of metal as she settles her helm back into place, and Drace is masked behind the face of her rank once more. "No, Zargabaath. Like you, I am in for the full of it. May it kill us both before we falter."

He remains on the observation deck even after Drace has left, even after the engines have begun to hum in their preliminary resonation cycles. The nearest clock shows 13:01. Outside -- hanging above the thick Nabradian treeline -- Drace's Remoras are scuttling through the air, orbiting their flagship like overeager bees as it cruises forward, cresting the first lines of enemy territory.

She will not wait for him to follow, he thinks suddenly. This is Drace. She will not wait.

The knowledge is surprisingly painful, hot as a knife that has found his chest despite all the protections of steel.

He moves at last towards the elevator lift. His legs feel as if they are treading through ocean water, burdened by his greaves. If he stands in place -- if he surrenders -- he can almost pretend that he's still fixed at that middle point in the ocean, perfectly balanced beyond the reach of gravity.

As the doors slide closed with an obedient beep, Zargabaath closes his eyes and reminds himself of drowning.