In the aftermath
They speak of her, she knows, as a grieving widow still. Politically motivated marriages did not, usually, inspire a Queen to remain Kingless for as long as she had gone without one. It was not that there had not been courtiers, or that the counsel had not pressured her for one to replace the empty throne beside her hand, as was expected of them. But, even now, after all the things she had seen, all the places she had been, and the hardships she had dealt with, she had not met a man she could see take the place that Rasler had left behind.
She had not met a hume who could share in her dreams of Dalmasca, the way Rasler had done so perfectly.
She remembered the visit to the rebuilt fortress that was Nalbina. It was hard not to recall how she had fought back the shiver as she looked out from the Aerodrome for the first time and realized that Rasler's fate, and her own, had been sefaled here. Her king, even if for but moments in time, was taken from her here. For of all the things in her life, he had been the first true thing that had been hers, sharing those precious days of meetings in the palace gardens, debating over history books in the libraries of his and her own kingdoms, masquerading as commoners to truly see the people - their people - that they were charged with taking care of...
It seemed almost like a pleasant dream instead of a memory.
It had not been so lonely to think about ruling then. The dreams, all the things he had inspired in her, were not gone with his passing, but the blaze of her hatred made embers of those dreams. The dream of a world she and he could have, would have, built together, if the Empire had not come and ripped it from her hands, was changed now. It was tinged with sadness, of could-haves, instead of the pure, untouched hopes of her youth. The dreams of Nalbina's prince as her consort, bringing peace and joy to her people, securing treaties and prospering in defense against their enemies, continuing and, if possible, surpassing the peace and greatness that the first Raithwell had brought to their lands...
"For what good is our forefather's dreams, Ashe, if we cannot build upon what they created beyond their imaginings?" Rasler had asked her, one sunny day, when his hair blazed a golden halo around his head. And she had loved him then more than she had thought was possible to love someone. It was in that moment, when she knew that he was more than just a King or consort, but an equal, in every way.
His words then, lit a fire within her. Years later, they would be her own to make into reality. Their shared dreams were now hers, alone as she had never imagined it possible in those moments when he had shone as if he could never dim or disappear completely.
Ah, what a dream they shared, only to make the realization of it that much harsher and emptier now that there was no more Rasler to aid and lean on in making it real. She had fought for vengeance and her birthright for so long, she had forgotten that peace had its own uncertainties and hardships. Now that the light they created could glow, she began to feel that empty throne at her right hand more than she had felt the empty space by her side in the sewers. She felt the empty coolness of their bed, a bed they so briefly shared, when she had forgotten such things when it was the hard ground or the wet grass she had slept on. Yet, in the quiet without war, or in moments when stray eyes would fall to the throne he would have occupied beside that of her forefathers - for she was Raithwell's heir and his throne was hers - it made her ache to remember the presence gone. Rasler had given her a powerful gift of hope for what Dalmasca could one day be, a dream that tutors, brothers, and her own, beloved King-father, could not inspire into life within her.
Yet his gifts reminded her everyday how he was not there anymore.
The parchments of their historians' words had only been words and ideals to her, but Rasler brought theircity to life into her mind and into her heart. Now, it was not their city anymore. It was hers. And she wondered if her father ever felt this great burden of loneliness as King. The decisions of a country, her kingdom, resting on her thoughts. Her duties to produce an heir and rule justly and well, choosing a King that Rasler never had a chance to be. Her friends, those she could rely on, were too far now to consult and, not always, in the know of the political machinations involved. Even now, she could feel them drifting away, into the skies she hoped never to be marred by war again.
At least, not here, and not now.
The endless meetings, the rebuilding of her home, the changes in the laws that needed to be made now that Dalmasca was free again... It was endless work, requiring her attention till late into the night and early mornings. The trades with merchants, the oppositions of those who now feared foreign powers and foreign people, they all needed to be dealt with. Many things seemed to need her attention now. Advisors she was only beginning to build a trust with, leaders of the kingdoms that long thought her dead or were only now emerging with the Empire's retreat, and the constant need to refill and retake the gaps her and her father had left in their passing, those years ago.
It made the welcoming quiet of the evenings that much more desired, and yet, lonely for its emptiness.
She had talked with dignitaries and officials, argued with bankers and architects, passed judgment on criminals and the ignorant, and yet, at the end of the day, there were no equals to discuss the day with or figure out the most difficult of treaties that bothered her in her waking hours. There was not even a friend in sight. She thought it ironic that of all the friends she had made in the time of the Resistence, most of them were sky-pirates or roamers or dead. She had been so consumed with survival that she had not thought about building a court, or even a handful of trust-worthy people to keep by her side. Perhaps, she had never really considered that she would live through it all, at least, not in the beginning.
She had also not thought of how her exile would give birth to a longing for the open skies and a freedom she had never known before Rasler's death. Sometimes, she wished she never knew that freedom to miss it or thought that the death of the man she loved could bring about its beginnings. But she did love the sky now, blue and wide and opened. It reminded her of those harsh days, much later, after the grief and the shock and the hiding in sewers and shadows had gone. The journey to redemption, she had thought to call it later.
It reminded her of those short, surprisingly sweet days on the Phon Coast, sand beneath her feet as she watched the camp fire burn, and the black skies marked by the white, doted moon. It reminded her of the Strahl, over opened waters, and the sudden longing that came upon her to run her fingers through that brilliant sea. It reminded her of the cold, bite of Mount Bur-Omisace, watching the clouds shroud the tips of the great, jagged, snow-capped tops and the mists that came over the sides of the peaks, like a large, invisible wave.
She had never thought magick could be so tangible as a smell, the must and green of Feywood. How the snarl of a cerberus, deep in the forest, could be heard on the wooden walkways as those invisible predators prowled the deep. The ancient eyes of a race cut off from the hands of humes, how they must have looked to those eyes of the viera. The long, white eared women, beautiful and statuesque, untouchable and untouched by time, it seemed. And yet, so sad.
She would remember the heat of that burning power in the ancient city of Giruvegan, and how it was so different from the eerie quiet of the Pharos of Ridorana, despite both being filled with such powers unseen and unknown since the first Raithwell cut the stones from the Sun Crest.
She had thought she knew what power was and what it did to humes, to viera, to the creatures of sand and sea. She had read it in her books, discussed it with her tutors, watched the nobles of Dalmasca and her father, her uncle, her brothers, her suitors and foreign ambassadors, and thought she understood it well in the hearts of men. Yet, even she could not have known that there was pain and hatred beyond her own until her eyes saw it. She had felt it in the shamed eyes of those who betrayed her and the cold, calculating eyes of those who wished to see her stopped and gone. Even she could not have understood the greedy desperation, and grasping desires for power that Vayne had finally showed to her that day, when the sky became like fire, and her home was so close to being destroyed.
How small my world was, Ashe realized as she looked over the city and the people below. How little she had known of the very people whose livelihoods and happiness depended on her and the knowledge she needed to lead them and judge them fairly. How little she had even understood the Empire, who she had always thought of as no more than an enemy and a means to revenge the wrongs done to her and hers. And in the end, how little she had even understood herself. When, for so long, the ripping pain that had come too quickly, on the heels of her happiest days, had left her unwilling to examine the feelings that festered in her heart. The losses was suffered not only by Dalmasca, or the Queen who had ruled it too briefly for anyone to remember; but to her, the woman Ashe, who had loved not only a King, but the man that Rasler had been.
She too had tasted that hunger for power, for what it could do for her and fulfill in her steed. It was how Occuria had ruled over them for so long. She had been a slave to that pain and the great, seemingly unending sadness within her. The grief, it had tied her to them, those self-crowned gods, as tightly as the blood running through her veins had tied her to the history of Raithwell and her people.
But those days were gone, or as gone as old scars could be gone. It was no longer raw or chaffed at her in unexpected ways. There was only regret now, but her father had told her that life would not be life if there were no regrets. Now, she only struggled to believe in that, and the words her forefathers had passed down, from one generation to the next.
Somedays, when the sky is especially clear and blue, and she is given enough repreive to see it before the meetings took over every minute of her time and her thoughts, she longed for the freedom from the power she now wielded - even without the stones. She longed, even if only briefly, the ability to run, as Balthier had run from the duties he had not wanted or enjoyed. She longed for a companion she could trust as Balthier trusted Fran, or Vaan, who had Penelo - from the few letters she had received from the girl still, it seemed all is well with them. Sometimes she missed Basch's steady voice, reminding her she was not alone, or wished for Larsa - young as he was in years, but who was not much different than herself - and the boy's steady and knowing gaze that saw more clearly than even she could see, of the future they were struggling to build on the ruins of the war that nearly overtook them all.
Instead, here in this palace that she had always thought of as home, it was no longer the same home she remembered. The walls, they held the memories of the dead and not the living, and she had not yet found life enough to fill it with anything else but the fragile facade of bustle that came with palace life. It echoed still, filled with ghosts, ghosts she knew more intimately than the living.
The scent of distant rain drifted from the plains, rushing past Ashe as she stood on her balcony, looking out to the sparkling city lights below. She held her arms in her hands, leaning out, as if she could fly off again if she tried. This was the beginning of all that she had fought and dreamt and bit her lips to not cry out for. This was what many had died to achieve, and many more had suffered losses greater than her own. She wished to be strong for them, but sometimes, it was so hard to be strong alone.
This was a distant dream coming true, yet it still felt not quite real to her.
Tonight, for a little while, Ashe finally let go of that tightly held breath and allowed herself to think of the past with Rasler's ring in her hands once more. It was not him she thought of though, but of sky-pirates and pretend-judges, of ancient lands shrouded in mist and echoing caverns. She thought of the choices she had made after the tragedies that befell her house, and could not regret even one of them in the presence of the friends she made, even if they had only stood beside her so briefly she ached for that time to return...
In the dark, she closed her eyes to the sparkling lights from the ruined Bahamut, and wished softly, secretly, to smile one day as she had when she had been a Queen with a dream that was warm like sunlight, instead of cool, like moonlight.