Nabudis had fallen and with it the last of Nabradia. Noah felt the pangs in his heart even as he was blinded by after images and the shockwaves left him half deafened. Once again my presence was not enough to save… He spurred his chocobo into a gallop as his clearing vision showed that Lord Rasler was again no longer with him. Rasler appeared to have forgotten his bodyguards and was throwing himself into the worst of the fray. Noah had been wounded several times in following him, including one to the knee that left his leg stiff and his boot filled with blood. Basch, even now more cautious, was several yards away. Noah looked back for him and saw that Basch was looking past him, horror in his eyes, his chocobo already launching itself over a downed soldier. Noah followed his gaze, saw the arrow and dug his heels in hard. He threw himself off the chocabo as it landed and had only time to see Rasler's startled face before his shoulder went numb, then burned.
He came around to find himself slumped forward over Rasler's chocabo, Rasler's arm around his waist holding him up. The sounds of battle were distant now and, opening his eyes, he saw they were off the battlefield.
'He wakes,' said Rasler. 'Noah, do you hear me?'
'Thank the gods,' said Basch.
Noah braced himself with his uninjured arm against the chocabo's neck. 'I can hear you. What happened, are you hurt?'
'Nay,' said Rasler. 'You took the arrow meant for me. I should have heeded Basch's council and left sooner, it was already to late to save my home.'
'No. You did what you must, and I would do no less,' said Noah.
'Be that as it may there is no shame in letting one of your own knights defend you,' said Basch. 'Come, the airships are close.'
Noah's leg was tended there as well as his shoulder, Basch turning pale when taking his boot off spilled blood across the floor. Basch was not uninjured himself, although nothing deeper than a flesh wound. They were both quiet afterwards, witnessing the death of a country left them scared for Dalmasca, and Noah at least was thinking of Landis. He had fought for Landis, his homeland, although without Basch by his side. Swallowing his pride in the wake of defeat and going to Rabanastre in search of his brother was the hardest thing he had ever done, except, perhaps, forgiving Basch for leaving. Much as he knew it was irrational part of him still felt that if Basch had been there the Empire would never have taken Landis. With Dalmasca under threat he would have a chance to find out how wrong he was. No, he must not give up. Ashe and Rasler should not feel the pain of losing their home.
Noah was not strong enough to be present during the arrival of Dalmasca's royalty in Nabudis, but Ashe called him to her rooms later in order to thank him. With only Basch present she didn't do it formally, either.
'Ah, Lady Ashe?' he said, blushing as he suddenly found his arms full of her. It wasn't as if this was new, he had lifted her onto her first chocabo, but she was older now. And she never embarrassed Basch this way.
'Thank you,' she said, pulling back. She had a sparkle in her eye that said she'd been teasing him, but her face turned solemn now. 'You saved Rasler's life, and for that I can never repay you.'
'I did my duty, nothing more,' he said. 'And there is nothing I would ask except to see you happy.'
'You have it,' she said.
After a moments silence, Basch spoke. 'Lady Ashe. How do things stand with the Empire? Are we to sign the treaty?'
'A treaty?' Noah's words burst from him. 'With those that take the homelands of others, Lord Rasler's now as well as -'
Ashe silenced him with a raised hand. 'Yes, a treaty. This is my father's will, that we keep our sovereignty at least although it costs us our rights.'
Noah bent his head and said, 'I will not speak ill of his Majesty. My apologies.'
'The King's path is wisely chosen,' said Basch.
'Do you think so?' asked Ashe. Her tone told him that she thought as little of the treaty as he did.
'Yes. Peace is always a wise choice when war tears away so much.'
Ashe bowed her head. 'The cost of peace falls upon my country's pride.'
'Pride will not keep your people alive,' said Basch.
'But it will make their lives worth living!' said Noah. How could Basch not see what this submission would do to their Lady Ashe, as well as a country that would be a Kingdom in name only. How could the people take pride in their royalty when they were mere puppets at the hands of the empire?
'Either way my father's decision is final. The treaty will be signed one week and three days hence. Basch, you will lead the guards during this?'
Basch bowed. 'Yes, Lady Ashe.'
'Thank you. And thank you again as well, Noah. For now I must take my leave of you,' said Ashe. She smiled brilliantly at both of them, the slanting afternoon light catching the ends of her hair.
They said their farewells and left. Noah was ashamed to find how much he needed to lean on Basch on the walk back to his rooms. Reaching the door was a relief, and he was planning to collapse onto his bed until he saw who was sitting on it.
'Vossler! Glad to see that the battle ended with you still in one piece,' he said holding out his hand. Vossler took it, clasping it tightly.
'Too bad I can't say the same for you,' he said. 'You should take more care or we'll lose our best knight. Don't you agree, Basch?'
'Aye,' said Basch, smiling proudly. 'And I too am glad to see you well.'
Vossler moved over to make space for Noah on the bed, while Basch pulled over a chair. For a while the conversation turned to the battle. Who had been injured and who they had lost. Noah hated to hear a good man was dead, but Basch felt personally responsible for all of them and it wasn't long before he was refusing to meet their eyes. Noah looked at Vossler, he never knew what to say when Basch was in this mood.
'They were good men and they died honourably,' said Vossler awkwardly. 'We'll have a memorial for them when the treaty's signed.'
'Yes,' said Basch. 'I want your squad on duty for that. I'll be with you as well.'
'I also,' said Noah.
Basch frowned. 'You can barely stand, you are hardly fit for duty.'
'Do we really expect an attack?' asked Noah. 'I thought the guard would be ceremonial.'
'Since when were you so eager to be ornamental?' said Vossler. 'You know that this is serious, and Basch is right. You've done more than enough already, give the rest of us a chance for some heroics.'
'I'm not angling to be a hero, but with his Majesty in danger you would have me stand by?' Noah clenched his fists by his side and sat up straighter. Basch leant forward too, while Vossler pulled away slightly unsure if this was the knights' business or a family quarrel.
'Would you have men cover for you instead of aiding his Majesty? You can do no good at present,' said Basch.
'If I am too weak to stand alone then they can let me fall. But I would protect Dalmasca's king with my last strength, and all I wish is that you let me!'
'As the knight placed in charge at the ceremony I would be remiss to place you back on duty so soon. And as your brother I will not let you die so easily.'
Noah forced his teeth together, hard. He would not rage while Basch remained calm and reasonable, ever the older brother. Why did less than an hour's difference in age matter so much? Basch's hand closed gently over his good shoulder.
'Noah, I swear I will protect his Majesty with all I have. Will you not trust me with that?' asked Basch.
Noah met his eyes and sighed. 'I trust you, brother.'
'Thank you,' said Basch.
'I'll tell you all about it later,' said Vossler cheerfully, glad to see the quarrel averted.
'Protect the King. I don't care how he looks while signing the treaty,' snapped Noah.
'Aye, yes,' said Vossler, looking like he might laugh. 'Anything you say.'
Noah growled and slumped back against the wall.
Noah had stayed true to his word and not asked again to join the guard when the treaty was signed. It galled him, though, to know that raw recruits would be fighting when he was judged unfit. He was healing already and certainly had more experience than them. Vossler tried to talk him out of his bad mood, while Basch seemed content to let him stew. To be fair, much as Noah didn't wish to be, Basch had a lot to see to. And now it was time to see if he had seen to it well.
Noah spent the morning watching out of the window. There seemed a few too many Archadian airships hovering over Nalbina, but he supposed they were there to see the treaty signed. The day moved on, the Archadian dignitaries were escorted in, and Noah became bored with watching. By nightfall he was wandering around the room picking things up and putting them down at random, too bored to sit still and too restless to settle. The sound of gunfire brought him back to the window. One of the little Archadian ships was firing at a group of knights, even at this distance Noah thought he could make out Basch. Those traitorous scum had broken the truce. Noah picked up his sword, it wasn't his sword arm that was injured so he could still fight. And if Basch thought he could stay out of this he must have lost his mind. He pushed open the door and started running to reach the King before the Archadians did.
Running tired him out too quickly and before long he had to stop, he leant on a pillar and cursed his body for giving out on him. When the first Archadians reached him he raised his sword, but there were three of them and it was all he could do to block. One swept his sword in leaving a trail of blood down Noah's arm. One of the others laughed. Noah gathered himself, allowing a shallow cut to a leg while he did, then lunged. His sword took the laughing Archadian through the throat. One of the others came in towards the flank this had left open, Noah flung himself backwards already knowing it was too late. To his surprise and relief the Archadian fell dead at his feet. Vossler stood behind him with a few men.
'You shouldn't be here,' said Vossler.
'I saw them shooting. Where's my brother?' asked Noah.
Vossler caught him under the arm pulling him upright. 'We got separated. He should be at the throne room. Can you run?'
'Yes,' said Noah, praying to the gods it wasn't a lie.
They ran. Noah stumbling and forcing himself on with every step, while Vossler in heavy armour set the pace with ease. Noah knew Vossler had only brought him because leaving him behind would have meant leaving him to die. Vossler and his men dispatched those Archadians they met, and soon every corridor reeked of blood and offal. The floor outside the throne room was littered with corpses, and when Vossler pushed the door open Noah braced himself for what he might see.
The King was dead. Rassler stood behind his body, face drawn. Basch was holding a young soldier with his arms twisted behind his back. There were bodies on the floor but nobody was fighting now. Noah walked over to Basch. He recognised the young soldier, his name was Raas and he'd been in the Dalmascan army for nearly a year.
'Was he a traitor?' asked Noah.
'Yes.' Basch sounded more sad than angry.
Noah hit Raas hard across the mouth, leaving Raas spitting blood. Noah thought of Ashe's face when she heard of this and went to hit him again.
'Enough,' said Basch. Noah stopped and looked him in the face.
'After what he had done he deserves more than I could do to him,' snarled Noah.
'But hitting him changes nothing. You should leave, there is already enough here for me to deal with.' Basch's tone was cold. Noah could see disappointment in Basch's eyes, reminding him that he was here against orders and his own word. He looked away, knowing there was no excuse he could make.
'I feel he deserves all he gets,' said another voice. Noah turned and saw a dark man in the doorway, Vayne Solidor the Emperor's son. 'After all we were willing to leave you your sovreignty.'
'You can send airships against us and still say that?' demanded Vossler.
'The treaty is void,' said Rassler. He closed King Raminas' eyes before walking around the table to confront Vayne. 'And our hospitality is revoked. You should leave now, or we will deal with you as invaders.'
'And we shall deal with you as a country that does not wish for peace.' There was an undertone to Vayne's voice, almost sarcastic, as though he was making a joke none of them were clever enough to understand.
'In that you are correct,' said Rassler.
Vayne smiled. 'Then I shall leave before I wear out my welcome. I see the time for diplomacy is past.'
Vayne swept out of the room, the remaining Archadians following him like twigs caught in his wake. Noah's vision blurred and he caught at the table for support. Vossler stepped to his side catching him around the waist.
'Vossler. Would you help Noah back to his room? There is no more to be done here,' said Basch. He bowed his head. 'Lord Rassler and I must speak with the Lady Ashe.'
Once back at Noah's room Vossler bandaged the re-opened wound on Noah's shoulder and left. Noah didn't blame him, Vossler would be needed, but he felt keenly the frustration of not knowing what was happening. He wanted to leave, question the other knights about whether the declaration of war was official yet and what the battle plans were. But Basch had sent him here and he had already caused trouble for everyone by leaving here against orders. So he stayed and waited to be remembered. It was past midnight when Basch came to see him.
'You should not have been so reckless,' said Basch.
'I know. And I am ready to accept any punishment that you deem fitting,' said Noah.
Basch shook his head. 'There's too little time for such things. Archadia was waiting for this excuse and have prepared their armies in advance. We scramble to catch up.'
Noah hesitated, then asked, 'Tell me. Had I not been there would Vossler have been in time to save the King?'
'Nay. You were foolish, but as things stand you did no harm. His Majesty's death is not on your head.'
Noah let out a breath he had not known he was holding. Thank the gods he need not bear this guilt. 'The soldier, Raas?' he asked.
Noah didn't aske whether that had been by formal execution or some knight's fury. It didn't matter. The traitor had done his job and now they must deal with things as they were.
'She is with Lord Rassler,' answered Basch. 'They grieve together for both their families, tomorrow they will put it aside and talk of war. For now we all have space for sorrow.'
He sat down on the bed next to Noah and they sat there lost in seperate thoughts, barely aware of one another's presence. Tomorrow their lives would change once again.