This works rather disturbingly well when accompanied by Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Teehee! I'm a writer!
There is something appallingly wicked about murdering children, something undeniably cruel about putting a madman to death, and indeed something questionable about killing the same man twice. This is why the victims—nay, the traitors, for that is what they are—have been muzzled in black cloth. Their deaths will not be given names or faces, thus ensuring public tranquility while simultaneously eliminating the Empire's greatest threat. An execution of convenience, as it were.
The leftmost creature has a decidedly masculine build, possessed of naught but a tarnished old necklace and a multitude of scars beneath the rough cambric shirt. The two in the center are wasted and slight; girlish crying is heard by those witnesses standing nearest them. The last is viera, and out of her mind. Her supple skin is disfigured with fresh wounds, and she sways where she stands, singing softly. The smile is evident in her voice.
(There have been rumors of another—a sky pirate, so they say—but he escaped, as such scoundrels are known to do. It can't be said he is much missed. Curious, though, that Ba'Gamnan has not seen any Wanted billings for that damned Balthier of late.)
The cutting rope is a reminder of the power the people might have forgotten, of hope and freedom, corrupted with bitterness. The viera's broken, off-key melody, silken in its clarity, swells to a glaring flat note—
—and ends in an inescapable silence. The fall is of more than just the hanged men.
Far beyond the desert, Ashelia's guilt does not prevail on her to bear witness. Beside her, the star-shadow that is Rasler shakes its head, and completes the heart song of Fran.
Ashe's pen halts midsentence when someone closes the door softly, and she knows well who it is. She turns her back to him, but discreetly folds the letter over and continues.
Vayne reads over her shoulder, his shadow darkening the parchment. She stiffens at his closeness, feels the heat of him and burns. He makes a soft noise in the back of his throat.
"You may leave off with the theatrics, Princess. You fool no one with your act."
He reaches past her to unfold the hateful letter with a gloved hand, and she is sure she can feel the complacent smirk on his lips.
She is resolved to ignore the light pressure of fingertips on the back of her neck.
"Don't I?" she replies coldly.
"Indeed not. It is rather puerile of you to pretend otherwise." Vayne lifts the paper from her searching grasp and tears it in two.
"Write another. And spare Captain Azelas a few kind words, hm? Petulance ill becomes a woman of your standing."
When she sleeps, Ashe dreams of the gods. They torment her with a thousand faces that might have been, and may yet be, hers. Their sterile voices hook through her and tear at what would be flesh, and she cannot move for want of true feeling. She acknowledges their ghosting breath on what she takes to be her face, their hands in her shadow, their lips, knifelike, in her mind.
Ashelia, they hum, why have you failed us?
—But Ashe is breathless and voiceless and unmindful, so she cannot answer.
When she wakes, she screams (rather childishly, she thinks) for her father. It isn't until she almost sleeps again that she realizes the sheets are Archadian, and the bed is not hers.
Balthier, she notes, is long dead. Ffamran has taken his place.
When he first comes to call on her, a fortnight since they parted ways aboard the Shiva, Ashe does not recognize the man in his father's clothes and a walking stick she knows she has seen before. In fact, it is the stick that gives him away, for it was aboard the Strahl when the sky pirate so deviously "kidnapped" her. The memory brings stinging tears to her eyes.
"There now, Princess, do I really look that bad?"
It is an attempt at comfort, but the remark only worsens the weeping. Because yes, he does look that horrifically imperial when he never did before. Because he was meant to symbolize freedom, not some warped conformity, or a loss so totally profound it makes Ashe hurt.
Unexpectedly, she finds his arms around her; she cries into his chest. He whispers softly, self-conscious, something about gossip or jealousy, or both. Something of it gets through. They retire to her chambers.
If she had been restored her kingdom in exchange, Ashelia could not have guessed Ffamran's truths. She listens in crestfallen awe to his tales of escape, triumph, treachery, and woe, and as he details the pitfalls and the revelry, she sickens with grief for what she has managed to lose for him.
When he is finished, Ashes finds she has nothing to say in the way of condolence, and she hates herself for it. She has but one question:
"Was your freedom worth the trial?"
And his reply: "Tell me, Princess, what you would endure for Dalmasca."
He looks so stunningly sad, so beautiful there in the half-light that she aches to kiss him.
The answer is on her tongue, tantalizing-sweet (anything), but he knows it already, so she does not give it voice.
"So much for the leading man," she says instead.
He offers a wry smile, a bow. "Indeed. Your 'leading man' has found himself the prodigal son after all."
The princess is five years old again when she finds her knight in the drawing room. If not for the crest of the Solidors emblazoned on his chest, she might have imagined it were true. But she cannot recognize this man who comes to her in hope, who kneels at her feet and kisses her hand with the devotion of a dog.
If she is honest, she feels nothing for him—he is but a stranger. The ghost she knew visits her only in dreams.
Vayne comes to her late in the evening, when he knows she cannot sleep.
"How like you," he says, "to read a history of Galtea. Feeling nostalgic, are we?"
"Quite the contrary. I'm plotting your downfall, and it is only right that I learn from the best."
He laughs at her, ever-so-slightly condescending, like Basch would have done. Ashe feels the resentment flare up within her, and pointedly ignores him by turning back to her book.
Of course, this serves no other purpose than to underscore her loss for words. There is a mocking smile on his hunter's face when she looks at him. She snaps the book shut.
"Do you come here simply to demean me, or have you something to say?"
"No, in fact, I come bearing an invitation I hope you will see fit to accept."
She freezes, in frantic hope that he will continue, and he does.
"Larsa's saint's day falls upon this next se'nnight, and there is to be a ball in his honor. I do not favor the idea, but my brother wishes you to be present, and as he has done you no offense, it would be in your best interest to comply."
This last is spoken with his lips at her ear, his hand, tellingly, on her shoulder, and Ashe imagines this is how he seduces his women. The thought ensuing causes such violent panic that she is compelled to stand and ask him, in as civil a tone as she can manage, to leave.
"Sleep well, Ashelia," he murmurs, having ensured that she will not.
She closes the door on her myriad demons, and wonders at how anything makes sense any more.
They laugh at her. They laugh at her and they whisper, and the women flutter their lashes coyly, and the men leer at her when she glances over her shoulder. She has long since ceased to blush at their looks.
She has danced with so many who seek to dangle her failure before her, as though the act alone will bring her any lower. Not least among them is the good doctor Bunansa, who smiles and smiles, and though he speaks to her face, she gets the distinct impression that his words are not for her.
He tells her that his son is indisposed, else he would have taken his place, and she says she is grateful for his presence of mind. He asks after her health and Vossler's, and she stiffens, but tells him she is well, thank you, and knows not about the other. He asks how she received Ffamran the other day, and she presses her lips together and does not reply. He realizes how frightfully rude that was, considering the circumstances—Venat, forgive me, and for all that it is directed somewhere above her head, she can say naught but that she does.
As he takes his leave, Ashe spies Ffamran on the periphery of the floor, tired and genteel, his cane a crutch. He tries to wink, flinches instead, and that is when Ashe notices the purpled mottling of bruises down the length of his face (what in gods' name has he done?).
She cannot disguise her horror from Larsa, so after a while, she stops trying.
Gabranth is sprung upon Ashe unsolicited, two days after the ball. It is not so wholly intentional as she believes it to be—present company of Bunansa, Azelas, and the Solidors accounted for, it is simply a business deal, the charge of a knight to the safekeeping of his prince.
Nevertheless, when the imposing façade of the Magister's helm is lifted away, Ashe is set reeling at the mirror image that stands before her, contempt flickering in his eyes. He is stone-faced, unpitying, and he shrugs off her acquaintance as nothing more than a regrettable loss—she is, after all, very beautiful in a desert-dwelling sort of way, and he sees why his brother had been so naïve as to be drawn to her service.
Ashe makes it seem like a trifling matter, the way she curtsies politely and edges away, but Vossler knows well enough to see that his princess is steadily coming undone, and suffers but a momentary surge of remorse, before recalling Ghis' promise, and Larsa's, and the sincerity with which they had rung.
In the end, not much of seduction is required.
It is a chance encounter—a rounding of corners, really. A spark of surprise registers in his expression, immediately after he notices she is alone, and the hallway is empty. Only this before Vayne has Ashe against the wall, his lips fleeting but adamant on her own. Only this before she crumbles, finds herself clutching at his shoulders, pulling him closer, yearning for him as much as she had Ffamran, not so long ago. (Ffamran, whose recent failed jailbreak came with a newfound insanity; who one day was weak and limping, and the next was hale and healthy, talking to the air as if it were Fran standing there—for all Ashe knows, she is. He no longer acknowledges her existence. Like father like son, says Vossler, and Ashe can only agree.)
Vayne's voice is a contented purr against her throat: "I will destroy you." What he does not know is that he already has.
She kisses him once more, blindly, desperate, and wonders how much further she must fall before Hell will welcome her.