Chapter 3

The sounds of a busy Rabanastre were a faint and distant rumbling to Ashe as she watched from a balcony high on the castle; her castle. She hadn't gotten used to calling it that. She had lived here before, but, during that time, the castle was really her father's. But now, everything in this castle, the city before her, and the country beyond that, was hers.

The responsibilities that went along with her position, however, were not lost on her. One of them, especially, haunted her mind; partially because it was something that Ashe felt she was not ready for, but also because one of her advisors was constantly assuring that she would not forget it. It was her responsibility to have a child. As of right now, Ashe was the only proper remaining member of her bloodline, and Aldric, a rather portly man with thinning hair who was one of her father's surviving advisors, was determined to see it continued.

Aldric's quest to see Ashe continue her bloodline was a never-ending cycle of meetings with suitors, single noblemen from Dalmasca and even Arcadia and Rossaria whose heritage and bloodline would be "suitable" to intertwine with Ashe's own. Despite her retreat to the balcony to avoid the various stresses of her position, Aldric still inserted himself into her own time in order to discuss his latest prospect for her.

"If I could have a moment of your time, your highness?" Aldric asked as he approached Ashe on the balcony.

Ashe let out a barely audible sigh. Aldric was not asking so much as insisting. Not matter how Ashe answered his question he would butt in and discuss plans with the newest suitor anyway. "Yes, what is it?"

"There's a Rossarian nobleman, a friend of mine from a long time ago, actually, who has a son that I think-," Aldric was not allowed any further, interrupted by a booming, yet, to Ashe, comforting voice.

"Now, Aldric, the Queen has several other more urgent matters to be concerned with, I'm sure that looking for a husband can wait."

"But…" Aldric tried to argue with the newcomer.

"Aldric, the Queen is only twenty years old; she has plenty of time ahead of her. She does not need to worry about marriage just yet," the new arrival said. Aldric looked flustered and gave up.

The man who had just saved Ashe from the virtual torture was her Prime Minister, Hughes de Payens. Hughes was older man, just short of middle aged, but looked younger than he was. The man looked like he was once a warrior, tall with a fairly muscular build. He had dark hair and eyes, along with a squared jaw, somewhat pronounced cheekbones and just a hint of a scar under his left eye.

Hughes approached Ashe and leaned on the rail beside her. "Not exactly what you had expected is it?"

"Most of it is actually what I was expecting, I just," Ashe paused for a quick sigh. "I just didn't think it was going to be so urgent for me to get married again."

"It isn't," Hughes assured her. "I know every man that Aldric has been trying to get you to marry. It seems to me that this is for his own personal gain."

"His own gain?"

"If he gets the son of one of his friends to marry you, then he's got his friend by the short ones for the rest of his life."

Ashe gasped in disgust. "He's playing games with my future."

"No one ever said that politics was pretty," Hughes replied. "But as far as I'm concerned, it shouldn't get in the way of your happiness. Just find someone you're happy with, and take your time, wait until you're sure that you're ready."

Ashe looked down at her left hand as Hughes talked; gazing at the two rings she wore. Even as she thought about her late husband, there was comfort in Hughes' words. Wait until I know that I'm ready. Ashe's marriage to Rassler might have been on of convenience, but it was still something important to Ashe.

"Thank you, Hughes."

"You don't have to thank me, Ashelia, just keep in mind what I said." Hughes pushed off of the railing and put his hand on Ashe's shoulder. "If you'll excuse me, I have some business to attend to."

Ashe looked back at Hughes, nodding at him to allow him to leave. She stayed on the balcony longer, thinking about what Hughes had told her. It was a relief to know that she did not have to worry about marriage for the immediate future, something she could use to help her put up with Aldric.

Information about anything was available in Arcades, for the right price. And so Basch found himself in Old Arcades, looking for a man he had met only briefly a year ago. Basch had figured that his armor would be unsuitable for this situation, as he would stand out rather well against the broken and dejected background of Old Arcades, so he opted for his much more casual attire, which would help him blend in better.

Basch did, however, recognize a certain woman who he had become familiar with over the last couple of days. He had only ever seen Inés wearing a lab coat or a hospital gown, so her attire was somewhat of a surprise to him. Her top consisted of two pieces of elastic cloth, adorned with colorful floral patters, stretched across her chest and back which were joined at each of her sides by a series of strings, and another string also went up and around the back of her neck. Her pants, which fell to a few inches below her knees, were equally as colorful, and were made of a light, thin fabric which hung loosely from her body with the exception of the waist.

Most curious to Basch was the pair of rather drab black gloves with cutoff fingers, and matching feet and ankle wraps, combined with a lack of shoes.

"What are you doing here?" Basch asked rather abruptly.

"No 'nice to see you again,' or 'how are you doing'?" Inés responded.

"You can't be poor," Basch said, noting her job at the Laboratory, "So you must have a reason to be down here, what is it?"

"Ah, so you are always an 'all business' kind of guy, huh?" Inés smiled as she could see that she was already aggravating Basch. "In any case, handsome, I could ask you the same question." Inés paused for a moment, tapping her index finger on her lips. "But then again, I think I already know why you're down here. Looking for the guys who broke into the lab, right?"

Basch didn't answer, instead walking past Inés as he looked for the person he had originally come to meet. Inés jogged a few steps to catch up to him, then matched pace beside him. "Come on, you could use my help in this," she offered.

"How's that?"

"Well, I already know one of the guys that you're after. I know what he's like, I know how he thinks, and whenever he builds whatever was on those blueprints he stole I'm your best chance for figuring out how to deal with it.

"On top of that, you're a bit high profile to be doing the whole, inconspicuous detective thing, aren't you?"

"Excuse me?" Basch asked without turning his head to look at Inés.

"Take a look around, Judge von Rosenberg." Inés waved an arm out in front of both of them to encourage him. "I know you're trying to blend in without the huge suit of armor and all, but the reality of it is that most of the people down here know exactly who you are. And the ones that don't are probably still looking at you saying to themselves, 'Hey he looks a lot like that one Judge'."

Inés paused to let Basch consider what she had just said before adding. "Plus, subtlety isn't exactly your game."

This was enough to get Basch to turn his head toward Inés, though he made no verbal reply.

"I saw that hole on the outside wall of the Lab that you left, and I was also conscious enough to know that the window in the lobby is broken because you threw Everard through it," Inés explained.

"Interesting that you should comment on my abilities to be inconspicuous," Basch said, finally breaking his silence.

"Oh?" Inés was very interested in what Basch had to say.

"I'm inclined to think that, if it were not for my status as a Judge Magister, you would stand out in a crowd more then I, mainly due to your provocative manner of dress and…" Basch took a moment to search for the right word, "comeliness."

Inés looked somewhat flattered by Basch's comment. "Was that last part a compliment?"

"Take it as you will," Basch brushed off Inés question. "The fact is that your choice of clothing and your physical appearance make you stand out more than you think, and it is something that people would tend to remember."

Inés looked down at herself and shrugged. "Guess I can't argue with that."

"It's of no consequence anyway. You have a personal stake in this since these men killed your friends, and that makes you a liability. If I did allow you to help, I would have no guarantee that you would allow these men to live long enough to see the courtroom."

"One of those men should have been in jail. Something is wrong with the courts," Inés replied, somewhat angry.

"The courts weren't the problem. Everard was convicted and sent to jail, but there was an imposter in his place," Basch corrected Inés.

"Then where was the problem?"

"That's what I intend to find out."

As Basch finished his statement, they came across a man, casually leaning against the wall of a building. "Jules," Basch greeted him.

"Ah, Basch, or should I call you Judge Magister now?" Jules responded. "What brings you around these parts?"

Inés walked over to a stack of crates that Jules was standing next to and pushed herself up onto them, sitting down and crossing her legs. "We need to know a few things about the attack on the Lab the other day."

Basch looked over at Inés with as close to a glare as he could manage. We?

"The attack on the lab? Not sure that I know anything I can help you with there," Jules replied.

Basch removed a pouch from his belt and began fishing though it, producing several coins.

"Well, there might be something I can tell you, but it might not be to big a help," Jules continued.

Basch let out an irritated grunt and began to pull more coins from his pouch when Inés leaned over to Jules, placing her hands on the edge of the box which positioned her arms in just the right way to accentuate her chest. "Oh, come on Jules," she said barley above a whisper, "I'm sure that anything you know will help us out.

"I, uh…" It was very obvious to both Basch and Inés where Jules' focus was. "There was, uh…"

"Jules!" Basch tried to bring him back from his mental vacation. While Inés plan was working in so far in that it had gotten Jules to give them information without anymore money, it was backfiring in that Jules was so distracted by Inés breasts that he couldn't actually give them the information.

With a shake of his head, Jules was finally back. "I've heard that there were a few guys that were asking around for some pretty big stuff. Some sort of advanced equipment or something, I've never heard of any of it, but it seems like they know a lot about that stuff."

"A few?" Basch asked. "Do you have a number?"

"No," Jules answered.

"Does two sound about right?"

"No, no, no," Jules said. "It's gota be more then that. Anyway, most of these people have been making their 'requests' at the same tavern, from what I can gather; a pretty dank place on the west side of Old Arcades. I'd look there next if I were you."

"I doubt anyone there would want to talk to a Judge Magister," Inés said in a snarky tone. "Oh, you know what, I could probably go in there and get some information for you."

Basch didn't get a chance to be annoyed with her, as he suddenly felt a sharp pain in his right arm. Looking down, he noticed a dark sticking out of his arm. He quickly removed the dart and looked back to see a man in white clothes with only his eyes showing on top of a building. Once making eye contact, the ninja in white fled and Basch gave pursuit.

Inés hopped off of the crate she was sitting on and looked down at the needle which Basch had removed from his arm. She grabbed a stray piece of paper from the ground and used it to pick up the needle, which she held up to her nose to smell.

"Do you have a lighter?" She asked Jules reaching back in anticipation of a positive answer.

Jules silently produced his lighter and handed it to Inés, who struck it and held the flame under the needle. The small sliver of metal caught flame itself, which burned a bright cherry red. "It's one of his," Inés said as she examined the flame. She then threw the needle and paper to the ground and tossed the lighter over he shoulder and back to Jules as she took off after Basch.

"One of who's?" Jules frivolously called at Inés as she ran off.

Basch was able to climb up onto the roof of the building he had been shot from, and pursue the man who had hit him with the dart. As Basch followed him from rooftop to rooftop, however, he noticed something wrong: he was getting fatigued much faster than normal. He was already out of breath, but was too determined to give up on the pursuit. Basch still followed the man, but upon jumping to the next rooftop additional problems began to stack upon his current lack of stamina. His extremities began to ache, and he had become very aware of his now intense, rapid heartbeat, making it feel as though his chest was collapsing around it.

What was on that needle? Basch asked himself as he fell to one knee. His would-be assassin now noticed the distress that Basch was in, and ceased his flight, instead turning to the Judge Magister and drawing a knife. Basch fought to push himself up, but was now so lightheaded that it was a task for him to balance even just in his crouched position.

Basch eventually found himself struggling for him to keep his eyes open, but despite his best efforts, his eyelids forced their way down, and Basch fell to the floor, unconscious.

The assassin walked up to Basch, too impatient to let the poison from the dart do the job. He raised the knife over his head, ready to plunge it into Basch's back, but before he could swing, the knife was knocked from his hand.

Inés had been just in time, jumping from the pervious building and kicking the knife out of the assassin's hand while mid-air, just before it was guided into Basch. She was now crouched in between Basch and the assassin, looking over her shoulder at her opponent.

The assassin reacted quickly to this new threat, sweeping a leg out at Inés, but found his attack artfully dodged as Inés flipped backwards, over the assassin's leg, and landed perfectly on her hands. From her inverted position, Inés swung her own foot out at the head of the assassin, who managed to duck away from her, despite being somewhat baffled by this unorthodox style.

Inés used the same motion from her kick to return herself to her feet, while the assassin backed up and planned his attack. When Inés landed, she did anything but stay still, bouncing back and forth, swinging her arms out in front of herself as she did so, and, to the assassin, it almost appeared as though she was dancing.

It was obvious to Inés that the assassin was bewildered by her style, and he awaited her attack to figure out how he would deal with her. Inés obliged her opponent and closed the distance between them in two bounds, first stepping forward and to her left, and then crossing back to her right. When she reached the assassin, Inés leaned her torso back to the left as she brought her right hand across in an attempt to strike the assassin in the head. Her opponent ducked her attack and returned with a high punch of his own, but Inés leaned forward, artfully ducking the attack, and swung her body back to her right.

The assassin attacked again with a straight punch at Inés, but a quick cartwheel to her left saw that she dodged the attack. Inés crouched when she came out of the cartwheel, then used her arms to support herself as she swung both of her legs around at the assassin's, sweeping them out from under him.

When Inés' legs swung back behind her, she pushed up into a handstand and rolled forward so that she was straddling the assassin. As the assassin sat up, trying to stand, Inés pushed him back to the floor, pinning him with her left hand while lifting up her right. Small bolts of electricity began to arc across the glove on her right hand which she then brought down on her opponent's chest. The strike cracked the floor beneath the assassin, and, after a pained cough, the man passed out.

Inés stood up and looked over at Basch, who had long since lost consciousness. As she did, several sparks shot from her right glove, followed by light smoke. Inés shook her hand briefly and removed the glove, cursing as she did so.

A brief moment passed before a man walked out to the roof from an access door. "What the hell is going on up here?"

Inés looked at him and smiled. "Do you have a phone?"

A bright white light momentarily blinded Basch when he opened his eyes, but slowly faded to blurry colors and finally sharp images as he made out that he was lying in a hospital bed with Inés and the nurse watching him.

"You have to start taking better care of yourself," the nurse was already scolding him. "This is the second time you've been in here in three days."

Basch simply ignored her. "What happened?" His voice was unusually weak.

"You were poisoned by that guy that attacked you. It was one that Everard developed," Inés answered.

"So he was working with Everard," Basch said to no one in particular.

"It's a good guess," Inés said. "You're just lucky that I was able to find out what it was so you could get the antidote."

"Did someone catch the man?" Basch asked, paying no attention to Inés' second comment.

Inés made a somewhat confused face. "Yeah, I got him, but he died. It looked kind of like his brain exploded or something."

"Like the other one…" Basch said under his breath.

Inés looked at Basch for a moment. "Like what?"

"The man in prison, the one who was supposed to be Everard, he died the same way," Basch explained. "What is happening?"

"I don't know," Inés answered, though the question was not directed at her. "I think your best bet is check out that bar that Jules told you about."