Rows of houses all bearing down on me
I can feel their blue hands touching me
All these things into position
All these things we'll one day swallow whole
And fade out again and fade out

-Radiohead, "Street Spirit (Fade Out)"

-----

If she'd known how quickly it would all change – how easily everything she knew for certain could be ripped away and mangled. If she'd known that the burden of rule was no burden, but a blessing – known how easily favor can be withdrawn. If Ashe had known those things that morning, it wouldn't have made much difference in the long run. But perhaps she would have spent a few more moments on her balcony, taking a good long look at the bustling capital below.

She could have let her eyes drift from the aerodrome and the ruins in the west to the bustling shops and crowds of the east. She could have gazed upon her city and wished for it to be frozen in time, unchanging. Could have longed for the Dalmascan sun to warm her skin a while longer where she stood at the highest point in the city.

She could have enjoyed the way a gentle breeze swept north from the plains of Giza and brought with it the sound of trade and bartering, the sound of her people in a Rabanastre finally restored to glory. Ashe could have closed her eyes and imagined the shouts of "Long live the Queen" and "Bless Your Majesty," knowing that the words would not reach her ears for much longer.

But again, Ashe didn't know to take the extra time that morning. It was a morning like any other, hot and dry and full of meetings. She's known turmoil in her short twenty-one years of being alive, but Ashe believed that morning that it was all in the past. Her problems now involve legislation, diplomacy and the occasional well-intentioned suitor. She was the beloved savior of her people – how could they possibly turn against her?

Of course, as she stands on the balcony and smiles at her capital that morning, Ashe has no idea what is to come. Rabanastre is abuzz and free. She is free. But far to the south, those with patience have already set things in motion. The people of Ivalice have been unshackled no more than two years from their oversight.

But for those with patience – those who are truly undying – forgiveness is implausible, especially for such a transgression as Ashelia made. Though her transgression has brought about the bounty, the wealth, and the joy in the streets of Rabanastre, these things can be taken away. Those with patience do not forget the ache as the cryst was shattered far to the east – their counsel was ignored, their chosen one turned her back on them.

And so Ashe stands on her balcony that morning, her heart near overflowing with pride. The pride a mother feels for her child, for the people of Dalmasca who are her children. But the stirrings in the south will soon turn child against mother.

If only she'd taken a moment more to cherish it – and to realize how quickly it can all be taken away.

-----

The audience chamber is stifling, but from sunrise to sunset on market days, Ashe is available for petitioners who seek out her advice, permission, blessing or opinion. She is still young and doesn't mind the long hours on these days – hearing about the disputes and squabbles of the common people, the ones she will always fight for and defend more than any other, are far preferable to the petty bickering of aristocrats and ministers and diplomats. The old man seeking funds to research the Galtean architecture in the southern end of the city has been speaking for nearly an hour, and although her courtiers are bored and their fans hold their interest more keenly, Ashe is riveted.

This man is hers – a citizen of a Dalmasca that she alone governs, albeit with the oversight and advice of her council. It is her duty and privilege to hear this man's request. Does he not deserve the same respect as a diplomat from Rozarria? As a trader from Archades? As the minutes drag on, her interest in the topic of his research wanes, but her interest in the man himself remains constant. Ashe has never known love like this before – the love of country that can only be witnessed through the words and actions of its people. She remembers how hard she fought to regain that love, to free her country from the shackles of Empire. This love sustains her – she will defend and protect these people until she is old and grey. It is writ upon her heart and mind – the greatest duty, the greatest love.

She is distracted and the man has finished, his head bowed patiently awaiting her response. Ashe calls for water, not for herself but for the old man who has gone on for an hour about cornices and pediments. His eyes are grateful, and it warms her heart. She nods, granting the man's request. Dalmasca's treasury is not large, but Ashe longs to increase the knowledge of her people. She wants her court to be as enlightened as that of Raithwall long before her – bustling with scholars. She has seen in her travels that knowledge can corrupt, and so she can look on Archades as exemplar – of what can be and at the same time what should not be. Her Dalmasca must not be the desert hamlet nestled between two behemoths but a partner and an equal. And so her chamberlain notes down the allocation of gil for the man's research, and he is dismissed.

The rest of the afternoon carries on as it always does, and Ashe revels in the feeling that she is doing something good. She remembers the market day petitioning in her father's time, but as Archadia stirred, these days were withdrawn as her father spent days in his war room rather than his audience chamber. Her older ministers, the ones she has retained from her father's staff, have oft praised her for continuing the tradition.

Although Dalmasca has begun anew in these two years, memories of what worked in the past have assured Ashe a solid hold on her throne despite her rather lackadaisical stance on marriage and producing an heir. Her mother had borne four children by her twenty-first year, but then again, her mother was only a consort. Ashe believes that right now her people stand as the inheritors of the Dalmasca she is helping to build. She is too enamored with rule to concern herself with a family of her own.

She wouldn't know how to make time for a husband and children when her people are her greatest joy and care. And then there are the long hours spent in financial discussion, in military oversight, and other considerations she must oversee. How her father handled it she will never know. It is a tricky balance as is. Her maids often ask her when she will settle down with a family, but the truth is that she doesn't want to share. She has the love of her people, and that sustains her. Her uncle Halim has counseled her to be more cautious – that opinions can sway, that one bad harvest will negate any good feeling overnight. But Rabanastre prospers and grows with the love she has shown it and the love she receives in return.

The sun sets, but she sees the last few people that have queued up all day to seek her out. Her limbs ache and exhaustion leaves her weary from a day seated in full regalia, but she feels like she has accomplished much. Tomorrow, a Rozarrian delegation arrives to discuss agriculture and the building of more aqueducts – a birthday gift from Al-Cid Margrace. That will be considerably less enjoyable than meeting with her own people – especially considering that Al-Cid thinks to buy her hand with a few feats of engineering. She takes her meal alone in her chambers, dismissing the maids for the night so she can read through some drafted laws in peace.

The candles burn low as she sits in her bed, curled bits of parchment scattered across her duvet as she bites down on a pencil deep in thought. The lead scratches out a word here and there, and she scrawls in something else. The laws of Dalmasca are too archaically worded – she wants them to be simpler so that all her citizens can read and understand them.

"Do you know another way to say 'testaments of the deceased'?" she inquires aloud, knowing that he has been lurking in the shadows near the open balcony doors for some minutes now.

"Perhaps 'wills of the deceased' or 'dead' maybe?" he replies, lazily settling himself down in a cushioned seat near the window. She smiles and fills in his suggestion. Ashe sets aside the stacks of parchment and looks up to see Balthier waving politely from his chair.

"It is good to see you," she says quietly, surprised that he has taken time from his busy schedule of plundering and pirating to visit. Since her ring was returned a year ago, Balthier has stopped in to visit whenever his travels have led him to Rabanastre – that is to say no more than four times. But with the life he leads, she is grateful to see him at all. Dalmasca's current prosperity is due in large part to what he and Fran did aboard the Bahamut.

Ashe doesn't precisely know what to make of Balthier. For months, they traveled side by side, and she found herself seeking his advice more readily than the others, even Basch. She wasn't foolish enough to develop more than a friendly bond with him back then – their lives were too disparate in those days and are even further apart now. But when he visits, he brings something that she cannot experience for herself – tales of life outside of Dalmasca.

She tends to stop his stories when it comes to actual pillaging of tombs and treasure hordes, but the pirate's innate gift for spinning tales entrances her. Though she adores her country and never wishes to be parted with it for long, hearing about bar room scrapes, lush green forests, and sunsets on beaches untouched by Hume civilization fill her with joy. Balthier brings her small tokens from these places, knowing that she cannot travel as he can. She is grateful for these tiny favors.

In return, she has granted him safe haven within her borders if he seeks it. It is the most she can do to repay him for his assistance two years past and for his continued friendship now. He only visits her in secret lest someone think he is a suitor or a lover – and he is neither. Sometimes when Ashe dreams, she finds Balthier in them, but she makes sure to erase them from her thoughts as quickly as possible. Dalmasca is her love, and Balthier's is the sky. He's never gone beyond playful banter and his usual flirtations with her, and she enjoys sparring with him.

When he visits, they debate politics, literature and even food and wine. Though his visits are few, he is the closest thing she has to an actual friend. Though he remains a criminal, she respects him, and she receives the same courtesy. He rises from the chair and wanders over to the bed, settling himself down at the foot and helps himself to a stack of papers.

"Is there ever a moment of rest for you?" he asks with an incredulous look in his eyes.

She shrugs and continues scanning some documentation about setting up bazaar stalls. "I could ask the same of you. Always wandering port to port for the next great adventure."

He accepts the pencil she offers and begins to cross out a few words himself. "You romanticize piracy, Madame."

Ashe chuckles at that and watches his keen eyes dart back and forth across the parchment. "Says the man with new tales of his exploits reaching Dalmasca almost weekly." She taps the pencil against her knee. "What's this I hear about a race in the desert?"

Balthier grins, the pencil scratching the parchment as he makes his own suggestions. "No comment."

They settle into a comfortable silence, only the sound of the pencils editing legislation audible. If she'd been anyone else, she imagines that she would have fallen for Balthier. Though he fashions himself the gentleman pirate, Ashe knows that he is one of the most honorable and loyal men she has ever met. In a different life, perhaps she would have taken to the skies alongside him and his partner – but she must live the life she has been accorded. Instead, Ashe hangs on his every word like scripture, grateful that their paths have crossed at all. She would be lesser without him – he gives her perspective and pragmatism. Something more than a romantic dalliance would have ever brought the two of them.

"How is Fran?" she asks some time later, having exhausted her mental thesaurus for alternate ways to rewrite a passage about inflation and currency. The Viera has only visited her once since she and Balthier miraculously returned, and Ashe finds herself missing her. The woman's silent strength and loyalty meant a lot on her journey, and the Queen often teases her partner about hogging Fran to himself.

Balthier sets down the parchment and stretches, his wrists cracking from his efforts to help her. "At the aerodrome. Seems to think it would be rude for two to breach the security of your palace. Disrespectful, she says." He shakes his head ruefully. "Truth be told, she's near as paranoid as I am about that ship. Won't let it out of her sight now that we have it back."

Ashe smiles at the thought of the cool and stoic Fran guarding the Strahl like a snarling watchdog. "Has it been a year already?"

The sky pirate stretches out his legs, his dirty boots now making their presence known on her sheets and duvet. "It has, but that's no excuse to let my girl rest in the hangar by her lonesome. She might miss me." Ashe has always been amused by Balthier's great affection for his airship, but she supposes it is not so very different from her own views of Dalmasca and its citizens.

Ashe sighs and taps her pencil on the tip of his boot. "Balthier." He is just leaning forward to pull off the offending shoes when the pain strikes her. It feels like it comes from behind her eyes, blurring her vision and leading her to bring her hands to her temples with a whimper.

Balthier is off the bed and standing closer to where she is, his cool hand pressed to her forehead in concern. "Are you alright?" he inquires quietly, and she nods.

As soon as it arrived, the sharp pain subsides, leaving only a rhythmic throbbing. She registers Balthier's hand moving from her forehead to her shoulder. "Why are you…"

"Just lie back, will you?" he chides her, and she obeys. Ashe knows she is a horrible patient, and Balthier tends to lack a bedside manner. She remembers how stingy he was with potions on their journey and how loath she often was to admit she was in need of one. He picks the papers up and shoves them haphazardly onto her bedside table and pulls her blankets over her.

"Balthier, it is a headache. I do not require a nursemaid."

He snorts in reply and helps her adjust the pillows behind the head. "It's more than a mere headache. Did you hear yourself?"

She looks at him strangely. "Hear myself?" All she knows is how acute the pain was, nearly blinding her with its intensity, and then bringing her hands to her face.

Balthier's usually controlled countenance is now marred with worry. Ashe can barely recognize this expression, not having seen it since the seconds before he departed the Strahl for the Bahamut. He leans in close enough for her to feel his warm breath on her face, and he examines her eyes shrewdly. "I'm no medic, but a pain in the head that's loud enough to cause screaming sounds like a serious affliction."

She smiles. "Screaming?"

"You let out this bloody wail, Princess," he tells her, and her smile fades. She did no such thing…a whimper perhaps, but a scream? The pain was sharp, but not enough to cause such an outburst. "Shall I fetch a doctor?" he asks, moving away from her and crossing his arms.

Ashe doesn't know what to think, only feeling the throbbing in her head and an increasing confusion. "No, they can't know you are here," she mumbles, realizing how scandalous it all sounds. She waves her hand around dismissively. "Perhaps I just need some rest. I rose with the sun this morning."

He is still concerned, but the upward quirk at one side of his mouth reassures her that he will obey her wishes. "Very well. Sorry our time was short. As soon as I return to the aerodrome, Fran and I depart for…well, I suppose you'd rather not know." She grins at that. Balthier's eyes sparkle then, and he reaches inside his vest for a tiny vial.

He places it in her palm, and she feels her cheeks flush at the feel of his fingers brushing her skin for a few seconds. Rarely can anyone come so close to the Queen of Dalmasca. Though she is mother to all, she must remain distant at all times. Ashe cherishes any contact these days, no matter how small. She scrutinizes the vial, seeing the clear liquid splashing about. "Water, Balthier?" she inquires, his strange gift providing a welcome distraction from the ache in her head.

"Not just any water," he replies with a wagging finger. "That's melted snow from Paramina. Couldn't exactly bring it in its usual state."

She is touched by his small gesture, tightening her hold on the vial. "Thank you. It means a great deal that you would do this for me."

He moves away from the bed and back towards the shadows and the balcony. "It's no trouble," he says. "Don't work yourself so hard." In seconds, he is gone from her sight, and the headache is all that remains.

She examines the vial again sadly, rolling it back and forth across her palm. Her head continues to be bothersome, and she moves the vial to her bedside table and lies back against her pillows. Hopefully she can sleep this off and be refreshed for the Rozarrian session in the morning.

-----

When she awakens, she feels disoriented, out of sorts. Glancing down, she realizes that she has been sleeping in one of her gowns. Strange, she thinks. She was wearing a nightgown when she rested the night before. Her fingers move to the bedside table for the vial of Paramina water, and her confusion increases. The vial is gone, as are the mounds of parchment she was looking through.

Rising from the bed, Ashe staggers around her chamber – her head aches fiercely as it had the night before, but she has duties to undertake. She tugs on the chain for her maids and moves to her wardrobe to change into a new gown. The gown she is dressed in now is formal – how had she changed into it? Had she been sleepwalking?

One of the younger maids enters her chambers shortly thereafter. "Good morning, Erith. I trust this morning finds you well?" Ashe asks, poking her head out from her closet.

The maid, usually bubbly and chatty in mornings, is rather subdued. She bows, and Ashe is concerned to see the girl's chin tremble when she rises once more. Ashe approaches the girl and touches her shoulder gently. "Erith, is something wrong?" The maid cannot meet her eyes, instead shaking her head vigorously. Ashe doesn't have time for this, and she sighs. "Can you run a bath for me, please?"

The girl backs away and hurries off for the bathroom. Ashe moves out to wait on her balcony while Erith runs the water in the tub. Yesterday, Rabanastre was sunny, and today the skies are cloudy. The normally bustling courtyards below are silent, and the pain in her head returns. It is like being struck again and again, and the agony brings her to her knees. There are dark spots in front of her eyes, far worse than what she felt before.

Erith is by her side. "My lady, you are unwell."

She rises and shakes the girl off. "I am fine. Is the bath prepared?" The girl nods, and Ashe dismisses her. She'll dress herself this morning since Erith is just as out of it as Ashe feels. After her bath, she feels a bit better, and she walks through near silent halls to her council room. Hopefully she isn't too late for the Rozarrian delegation.

Opening the chamber door, she makes ready to offer apologies for any delay when she finds the room devoid of Rozarrians and instead full to bursting with her ministers and to her continued surprise, her generals and other higher ups in her military.

She moves across the room swiftly and takes her seat at the head of the table. "What is the meaning of this? Where are Lord Margrace's representatives?"

The men and women exchange concerned glances and even dare to whisper amongst themselves in her presence. She thumps the table with her fist a few times for their attention, not used to such behavior. Of course, her ministers often like to cause a bit of trouble. The members of her military remain rigid in place, but even their eyes bespeak of something amiss. "I'll not ask again – where are Lord Margrace's representatives?"

The councilors look to see who will be the first to relay whatever ill news must be delivered to her. Her defense minister speaks first, his voice grave and Ashe can almost detect fear in the usually composed man's words. "My lady must be mistaken…we received them yesterday." The other ministers look upon her then with hesitation.

Ashe smiles. It is not her birthday – is this all some elaborate joke at her expense? "Come now, where are the Rozarrians? Was their arrival delayed?"

There are more whispers, and they seem to be increasing in volume. Her finance minister regards her cautiously. "If Your Majesty is unwell, we can postpone until…"

"I am not unwell, sir. You will kindly explain the absence of Lord Margrace's party or quit my sight," she responds. She will not tolerate petty squabbling when there is business to be done. Why are they looking at her with confusion and fear in their eyes?

The defense minister raises a hand to quiet the feverish whispers. "Majesty, you sent them away."

She calls for a glass of water. Her headache continues, a dulled pounding now, but she blinks a few times since there are still a few spots in front of her vision. "That is impossible, Andante. I made no such order."

"But you did, my lady. Yesterday morning…"

Ashe pounds the table once more, the water splashing from the glass and over some of the papers that have been set before her. "Yesterday was market day. I met with my subjects, had a luncheon with a representative of the spice traders' guild, and then spent the rest of the day with my subjects."

There is silence then, a silence that carries on far too long, and she can feel her heartbeat racing. She can recall the face of everyone she met with the day before – she remembers the old man and his humble request for research funding. She recalls editing the laws, and the vial of what was once snow being placed in her palm.

"Majesty, market day was two days ago."

Ashe grips the arms of her seat. That is impossible, but their eyes do not lie. She recalls the confusion when she awoke in a gown she did not remember putting on – the absence of her papers and the vial from Balthier. "Perhaps…" she says slowly, measuring her words carefully. "Perhaps you could refresh my memory, my lords? A summary of…yesterday's events?"

There is more silence, but her chamberlain has always been honest and patient with her. He had served her father for years. The man's eyes now are saddened and almost pitying. "Majesty, when the Rozarrians arrived, you dismissed them in minutes. And then…forgive me, but you behaved out of character."

"Out of character, sir?" she inquires shakily. Has she lost a day? How is this possible? Had someone drugged her? Is there an assassin or poisoner in her midst?

The chamberlain looks around the table at the other concerned faces and frowns at her. "You declared war against Rozarria."