The elegant man walked with confidence. His name: Former Judge Magistrate Draco, also known as President and High Councillor Lafayette Sabre Everard of Dalmasca. It was late in the evening in the Royal Palace of Rabanastre; the palace guards were few and far between, and most of the council members had retired for the night. All excerpt for two.
Lafayette strode into their designated meeting area. A timid young woman from a village in the Dalmascan Estersand dropped into a nervous curtsey. She had reason to be scared. Lafayette was an imposing figure. His black eyes bore holes into the weak and could quake the most confident of men. Most women would say they considered him beautiful; he had finely boned cheeks, blond hair and a lush Arcadian accent. Others would say that there was a more sinister aura about him that they did not trust.
"My lord, it is a pleasure to see you again."
"Councillor Maegan, the pleasure is all mine," Lafayette kissed her knuckles slowly. He sneered a sickly smile, pleased with the vivid shaking of her hand. "Have you considered my proposition?"
"I have," Maegan shuddered.
"And?" Lafayette looked down at her with sharp eyes. There was no doubt in his mind that she would accept. She had no other choice. This emaciated Dalmascan was the last piece to the puzzle; Lafayette's ultimate plan for power.
She inhaled deeply and placed strength into her words, "I'm not going to help you. I was elected as the Representative for the Estersand because I have a dream of freedom in Dalmasca. A better Dalmasca. I will not be bent by a totalitarian such as yourself!"
Lafayette perked up. This woman dares to defy me! Insolent wench. Impossible!
His lips peeled off his teeth into a blood-curdling sneer. Suddenly his face contorted. Elegant features twisted into the menacing leer of a demon; no woman could call him beautiful. Maegan was lifted from her seat and slammed into the wall. Hard. She quivered under his harsh gaze. Lafayette slipped a gun from the inner pockets of his robe and relished the look of pure fear that radiated from Councillor Maegan's eyes. The cool barrel of Antares was pressed to her temple.
"You dare disobey me? I have this pathetic country wrapped around my finger. An imprudent, laughable, whore such as yourself will be cut down if you dare intervene again," he pronounced slowly with a growl.
Maegan slumped to the floor without Lafayette's forceful grip to support her. She looked up in time to see him leave.
"You would do well to remember this meeting. Ashelia will be married. Be sure that this happens."
"Why are we here Vaan?" Penelo asked patiently
I would like to know that myself. Why am I here? I have everything I ever dreamed of yet, here I am, chasing what I cannot have. Vaan couldn't help but drift back to Rabanastre to gaze at this rare treasure. A Sky Pirate is always searching for riches after all.
"I thought we needed a break. Don't you want to watch the Independence parade?"
"Of course I do! But sounds too much like your getting lazy on your dream career Vaan." Penelo teased, "It hard to believe that it's been four years since we helped defeat the Empire... I wonder what everyone has been doing." What have I been doing these last few years? Running from feelings that I just can't seem to escape... Was it all worth it?
"I don't know..."
The parade had started. This was not like the previous parades held by Dalmasca's war stricken economy; this parade was grander than the Queen's own coronation. Moogles, Bangaas and Humes of all ages and sizes swept the street with in a lively fashion, dancing to vibrant music. Carriages clanked past sporting heroes of war while the bystanders held their breath in anticipation for the main event; their Queen. This was the first Independence Day of the country of Dalmasca. The one day in a year that the people of Dalmasca could celebrate their freedom while paying respect to those that had given their lives for this liberty.
There she stood; more radiant than sun-cryst. She wore a loose fitting corset with open and inflated pants under a half-skirt. A complicated head-piece sat over her shoulder-length champagne hair. The complete ensemble was in her usual tones of white, pink, blue and gold. It left very little to the imagination.
The greatest treasure in Dalmasca smiled to her people; a smile did not reach her eyes. Why so miserable Ashe? Is this not what you wanted? I suppose yielding your freedom for the sake of your people not been as favourable as you dreamed. I could show you freedom. I could show you all of Ivalice... But then again, how could you possibly ever love a street-rat such as myself? Vaan felt bitter and somewhat disappointed that Ashe had barely kept contact. Was it too much to write a letter every once in a while? Vaan had not seen her face-to-face in over two years.
Vaan examined calloused hands and pondered this. He wore that day a fine vest of blue velvet with patterns of white Galbana lilies. The superior quality of his dress shirt (and cuffs) could rival that of Balthier's. The only objects unchanged about his attire was his original pair of greaves now worn over the top of loose-fitting breeches and his turquoise amulet hooked onto his vest as a clasp. He no longer looked like a filthy urchin, but he is still a thief at heart.
Vaan was every bit the Sky Pirate he aspired to become as a youth. The action, the thrill, the satisfaction of a successful heist was what he always craved; yet he was contempt. He knew that there was something missing; something important. (Though he would never admit this to anyone else, a Sky Pirate does have a reputation you know!).
The carriage came to a halt at the podium. The President of Dalmasca and representative for the newly erected Parliament stepped out from within the carriage. He was certainly fit for the part with a white trench coat emblazed with the emblem of Dalmasca and neatly combed blond hair. Within his short span of time as President, Lafayette had managed to charm his way into the layers of influence, and the fine ladies' beds faster than a Cactoid could count. Lafayette Everard climbed the stage and began his speech. "People of Rabanastre, I welcome you to the celebration of the Independence of your nation. May Dalmasca's alliance with the Archadian Empire continue to thrive and benefit the lives of us all!"
Dalmascans everywhere screamed their loyalty to their nation. Vaan seemed to be the only one unimpressed by Lafayette's gilded words on freedom. Something didn't seem quite right to him. (Perhaps it was because his smooth Arcadian accent reminded him too much of Balthier charming the saucy wenches of Balfonheim.)
"Celebrate your freedom well, people of Dalmasca. You earned it. Dalmasca's freedom was only possible because of your sacrifice and determination. It was you that sent your eldest sons to war knowing there was a chance they would never return. It was you who endured the rule of the malicious Vayne with his sugar-coated words of freedom." He paused for effect. Every man, woman and child present inhaled deeply; "It was you who earned this first Independence Day in liberated Dalmasca!"
The crowd erupted with cheers. Lafayette looked very pleased with himself. "Today will begin a new era in the history of Dalmasca," Everard bellowed. The assembly swooned with his every word.
He held a grand scroll to his eyes and read, "By the power invested in the twelve members of the Parliament of Dalmasca, Queen Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca is hereby ordered to wed by her twenty and four birthday in three months."
Vaan gaped in horror. Penelo whimpered freely. Similarly, around him, the people of Rabanastre were stunned into silence that their own elected legislative body could be as cruel as force their Queen to marry against her will.
Lafayette continued to read, "...the consequences of Ashelia violating this decree will be her removal from the throne and that, I, Lafayette Sabre Everard will succeed her. Signed; the Representatives of Rabanastre, the Giza Plains, the Dalmascan Westersand and the Dalmascan Estersand of Dalmasca."
Mixed emotions were displayed in the crowd. Most were favourable of the idea of future heirs to the throne and the notion that a man that could run Dalmasca more efficiently than a woman. Vaan was not one of those people. He glanced to the float, where Ashe was still standing, to observe her opinion on the matter. Her eyes were immovably staring at the floor; poison dripped from her glare. She has no choice in the matter... How could they do this to her? They shouldn't have the right or the power! After everything she went through to gain her throne... and now they threaten to remove her for the sake of producing heirs! Where does Ashe get a say in this?
Vaan stood up and began to walk away.
"Vaan, where are you going?" Penelo asked.
"For a walk, Penelo. I'll be back at The Galbana by tonight," There was no emotion in his tone. Whether Penelo sensed his anger at Ashe's forced marriage or not, she didn't say anything.
Vaan couldn't stand being a spectator any longer. He felt the sudden need to comfort Ashe while she was so very unhappy. Had she always been this lonely and depressed through these last four years? He could not possibly scale the carriage to comfort with his person still intact. I suppose she would have eradicated the secret entrance to the palace long ago. I'll have to find another way in. Later...Tonight I will sneak into the palace and I will see her. On my word as a Sky Pirate, Vaan promised.
Several hours later
Arranged marriage? How preposterous!
It was late in the evening and Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca had already dismissed her maids for bed. She brushed he hair while she thought about the recent announcement. She had, of course, heard the news of her forced marriage before it was broadcasted to the people but was powerless to stop it.
I am a perfectly healthy and well protected young woman. The kingdom is not in such urgent need for heirs!
Ashe was rather regretting establishing a Parliament and bestowing power upon the Councillors in the first place. I have a sneaking suspicion that Lafayette is behind this. She allowed Lafayette to become President and High Councillor of her parliament because he was a unanimous favourite among the people. Up until then he had been very dedicated towards her kingdom.
Together, the Councillors had enough influence to threaten to revoke her throne. With support of the people they could succeed. Ashe knew that would not be the case. The people of Dalmasca loved their Queen and only wanted to see the throne secured for future generations, they were too cowardly to fight the councillors over something as trivial as marriage. (At least to them it was trivial). Her marriage would bring much happiness; even if it did bring only pain on for her.
The faint rustle of fabric cautioned Ashe of an unwelcome intruder. Thief or assassin, whoever they were they were about to regret intruding the Queen of Dalmasca! The trespasser slid over the balcony railing with the steel grace of a Coeurl and casually walked towards the closed curtain. Little did he expect to feel the bite of steel against his throat and the lithe body of his former princess pressed against his back.
"One word thief and this will be the last wretched place you pilfer from again! Why are you here? Who sent you?" she whispered with ferocity.
"Aarrgh... Ashe, it's me Vaan!" The intruder grunted.
Vaan! This man is Vaan!!! Impossible! Ashe thought incredulously. Her eyes widened and the dagger dropped to the floor with a clank. This is certainly not the Vaan I remember. However, as much Ashe hated to admit it; Vaan was now a man. He no longer possessed his clear baby face and awkward body shape; his shoulders were a great deal broader and defined by a slender waist.
Secretly, Ashe had missed him more than anyone could guess. Their adventure together was brightened by his presence; he always gave her a reason to keep moving forward and to never look back. She was very glad to see him.
"Why are you here? How did you elude my guards and climb onto my balcony?"
"It wasn't that hard. Dropped a few fire motes off at the corner to distract the guards and climbed the wall."
Ashe was about to comment on the impossibility of this before she remembered that he was a Sky Pirate and Balthier's student. Give a Sky Pirate a reason to visit a woman's private chambers and nothing will stop him, she inwardly laughed. Some things never change.
Ashe wrapped her arms around Vaan's neck and inhaled deeply the oddly masculine smell of the Dalmascan Estersand and fresh fruit. "It's so good to see you Vaan!"
Vaan faced her with eyes that sparked unreadable fire. At last she had a chance to study his face. His cheekbones were more prominent than she could remember, but he still had the same full lips and bright, blue eyes that spoke of youth. Platinum hair hung untamed to his chin and hid his ears. In general, his face had a more rugged appeal that Ashe couldn't help but admire; he didn't look at all like the aristocrats she was forced to associate with.
"Is this how you welcome every man that walks into your bedchambers? 'Cause I'm liking the deal so far," he laughed in disbelief.
Ashe lightly slapped his shoulder and scowled at him, "Hey that hurt! Yeah, I know... A fine Sky Pirate such as myself can't help but be welcomed graciously into a beautiful woman's bedchamber. I missed you too Ashe," Vaan said with a wink and a sly smirk.
Ashe froze. Was Vaan flirting with her? Vaan was supposed to be sweet and rather naive; not a blatant ladies man. No. That simply was not possible. Vaan noticed her discomfort in hearing this and quickly apologized, "Hey, sorry if I offended you. I guess I went a bit too far that time. But it been a while, hasn't? How have you been?"
He flopped onto her massive bed as if he was at a slumber-party with his oldest friends. Ashe sat with him on her bed. (Albeit, at a respectable distance.)
"Alright I guess..." Again she tried to smile, but failed.
"Ashe, I know how bad you must feel about the Councillors trying to marry you off. But you don't have to stand for it! Why don't you just revoke their power or something? I don't want to see you unhappy..." Vaan spoke with resolve.
"You were at the Independence Day parade," she accused.
"Yeah, I was. But it's pretty hard not to hear about it 'round Rabanastre. The whole city is buzzing with excitement."
"They should be. The people of Dalmasca have not seen such a celebration since my coronation," Ashe said, devoid of emotion.
"How do you feel about it?"
Ashe turned away. She knew how she felt about it. It was ridiculous! Outrageous! Most of all, uncalled for. Ashe was not a helpless princess who was practiced in being rescued by fearless knights. She was also not one to surrender to the expectations of others easily.
Ashe was familiar with her obligation to provide heirs for the throne, but forcing her to marry was not the answer. After Rasler, Ashe refused to acknowledge any feelings she might have for the male species. She was after all a widow, and wanted to stay that way for as long as possible. She sighed and touched third finger where Rasler's wedding ring once sat. I will only marry again for love.
Ashe also knew that, in all probability, the kingdom felt a necessity for a male monarch. She knew some would have their reservations about a female reigning, but to this extent? Was there not a single person in her kingdom that could trust her judgement as a leader? He believes in me, Ashe thought as she stole a glance at her young thief. He has always respected my position as Queen and has always believed that I would do what is right.
Ashe faced Vaan once again with furious eyes, "I'm disgusted by it. The whole idea is despicable. "
Vaan nodded for her to continue. The knowledge that someone truly cared warmed Ashe's heart.
"I feel like I have no say in the matter. Like I'm standing in a room filled with strangers, screaming for help and not a soul will listen."
Ashe felt a warm hand grip her own in support, "I'm listening."
"I know. I'm grateful for that. Really."
For the first time in months, Ashe smiled. It was nice to have someone to talk to be herself around. Not just the courteous monarch.
"How's Penelo lately?" Penelo and Ashe had been close during the last stages of their journey. The two had great respect for each other and almost thought of each other as sisters; but that was four years ago...
"Good. She and I have been taking down rich merchants that can spare the gil." Vaan lazed back.
"So you're finally living you dream of being a famous Sky Pirate. I heard there are a few bounty hunters after your head," her tone was layered with concern.
"Really? I haven't seen any yet," Vaan's tone bewildered Ashe. He seemed completely unconcerned about his safety. He's more reckless than I remember him too.
"Why don't I tell you about some of my Sky Pirating adventures?" Vaan grinned.