Being a twice-successful fratricide has led to certain benefits, even beyond the simple matter of his own survival. At first, the Emperor hadn't wished to be reminded of all that had occurred, so Vayne returned only to be tossed back into the distant countryside. Fostered off to a succession of noble families in this or that secluded corner of the Empire, save for those moments where Gramis had been paranoid enough to haul him back to the palace - an ornamental dog on a too-tight leash. At the time, Vayne had not known what to think. Hadn't he done exactly as he'd been required to do? What had he missed and where was the mistake?

It was funny to think he'd ever been so naive, not to realize that success could easily be as grave an error as failure. Fortunately, there had been some good to come from the Emperor's unseemly pangs of conscience. The families he'd been tossed to had little idea what of what to do with him, and the rumors of why he'd been sent away had arrived well before he'd touched down, so Vayne had mostly been left alone. Apart from the fear of being held responsible should he come to harm, no one actually cared what he did, and there was little they could do in any case but urge him to be cautious.

So he went out, wherever he might be, to see what the world had to tell him. Vayne walked through towns and villages, talking to farmers and smiths. He'd even helped out a baker for a week, before the duchess he'd been attached to caught word of it and had him hurried home. Vayne has always been curious, and it seemed to amuse the men and women he'd met more often than not, a noble-born boy asking so many questions, wanting to know how a stone wall went together, or what made one potion more potent than the next.

All his thoughts back then had been troubling ones - anything different was a relief, and the less familiar the better. Years have passed since he was that boy, and yet how little has truly changed.

Vayne has to be out here. Rabanastre is his city now, and this is exactly the gauntlet he threw down in that pretty little speech, that he wasn't going to be some useless Archadian imbecile content to rule from a distance, unknown and unseen until it was time to make yet another fancy, meaningless pronouncement. A few hours on the streets where he can be seen and known won't change the world, but at least it is not what anyone expects him to do, and Vayne will not be afraid - they do not deserve it.

The city is yet quiet, nearly silent in the dawn, the barely-risen sun casting soft colors against the walls. It makes the whole world seem fragile, as if everything's been painted on the side of an eggshell. The air is thick with the promise of a hot, unforgiving day, but for the moment things are not uncomfortable. No airships are back in the skies, only a few Archadian troop carriers hanging at the borders. If they haven't reopened the aerodrome by the end of the day, he'll have to make it his first executive order. Vayne should probably make it a point to visit, actually, once he's through with whatever it is he thinks he's doing.

The next matter of importance, of course, is how the Occuria will get to their new avatar, if they haven't already made their move. Cid had never had a clear answer from Venat on just how he'd been chosen, or how the others of its kind saw fit to bide their time. Raithwall had mentioned something, a warning linked to the Shard sleeping in his tomb. It must have been how Raminas knew what he did, and surely there must be something keeping the Occuria at bay all this time or Archadia would long have been banished from memory.

Balthier will reach the princess, and Basch fon Rosenberg will be ready to confirm anything she doesn't already know as fact - his betrayal and her father's murder by Vayne's own command, and from there - from there the Shard, and what Raithwall intended as warning will seem to Ashelia as perfect opportunity. Vayne saw the look in her eyes, facing him at the palace - the princess wants nothing more than to kill him herself, but before that she will see him hurt as she has hurt, and damn the consequences.

Might there be some way, then, to separate his fate from that of his country? If he can somehow convince Ashelia to take her revenge on him alone, to see him dead in whatever gruesome way will satisfy and return to her throne without ever having to gain the Sun-Cryst's power?

It would be an honor to die for the sake of Archadia - empty, foolish words but damned if Vayne doesn't believe them, further down than anyone even thinks he can go. A good death, as such things went, one that the princess could grant him without even knowing she did so - but even then, there is still the matter of Larsa, and the Senate. He cannot save his country from annihilation only to know the Empire is still doomed to rot from within, that his brother would stand to receive such a poisoned inheritance.

… and what could stop Ashelia of Dalmasca from siding with Rozarria, even after his death? One Shard is all she needs, and then it is only to marry one of the Queen's many sons, heed his counsel and watch Archades burn.

Vayne takes a deep breath, smelling incense and charcoal and roasting meat. The light above him is colored now through bits of pretty cloth suspended on the overhangs, stretched from side-to-side across the street or on awnings over the windows high above. He passes open windows and doors at street level with the sounds of the morning meals being prepared in the rooms beyond, children being scolded out of bed and plans being made. It reminds him a bit of Nilbasse, through there are no further stages of the city to rise above it, and the sky looks strange and empty without their towering heights.

Of course he knows great spans of Rabanastre's storied history, the people and events that led to the great unfurling of the rest of the Empire, but even the most impressive texts cannot replace the feel of the uneven stones beneath his feet. How it feels to reach out and run his hand along old tile and even older brickwork that has seen the passing of countless generations. The local builders say that most of the heavy maintenance happens beyond the walls of the city. Rabanastre itself is built on solid bedrock, just slightly higher than the arid plains around it, but the main roads are built on land not nearly so sturdy, all of it subjected to periods of heat, mudslide and drought that gleefully grind up even the most dedicated efforts to forge a path.

And the giant tortoises. One mustn't forget those.

Airship travel has done its part to put less traffic on those roads, but they are still the only way into the city for many of the outlying merchants, and this city lives by her trade.

A city which has existed nearly from the beginning of recorded time, under one rule or another. There is a natural resolve to the set of its stones, a wear that speaks of trials patiently endured and the passing of ages. Vayne stops just inside a low archway, an alcove that might hold a shop or two in an hour's time, or perhaps just a place where people gather for casual conversation. At the moment there are only intricately tiled floors, in a completely different pattern than the surrounding pillars, which are different still from the walls, a nearly bewildering mix of color and tessellation. Rabanastre is a patchwork in the way of a many-layered stone, each age adding a new detail to an endless chronicle.

I witnessed the birth of your empire, and your rise to glory, the city says, if he cares to listen, and I will remain long after all trace of you and yours is gone.

Footprints do not linger long in the sand, whether they be made by kings, commoners or conquerors.

"Do you like it? I find myself here quite often. It is very pleasant to walk before the sun is too high."

Vayne turns at the soft voice, the viera watching him with that odd look of casual diffidence they all seem to posses, as if nothing he could ever do would be of much more than a polite interest.

"Indeed, I do," he smiles, "and indeed, it is. Good morning."

"Good morning. My name is Ktjn."

"Vayne Solidor, at your service," he says, bowing slightly. The viera studies him, and he thinks it is certainly more in curiosity than suspicion.

"You are the new Lord Consul. The ruler of this city."

"I might say steward, but yes."

The viera shakes her head slightly, hair like strands of pure-spun starlight framing her face. A beauty so delicate and graceful it seems to ignore gravity, a trait all her people seem to share. A shame Vayne had been barely half-conscious in his short time in Eryut, without a chance to see things properly, though he was certain they had all preferred him that way.

As if she can hear his thoughts, as if she knows how he'd hoped to avoid getting too close to her kind, Vayne sees Ktjn's nose twitch and her eyes narrow slightly.

"You are likely smelling the labs on me," he lies. "I spend much of my time in Archades with men of science, who experiment with magicite and Mist in all its forms and combinations. We work as safely as we can, though it is the sort of work that demands some consequence." Cid's most accomplished acolytes can no longer count on even being healed as quickly as other men, though so far none of them have developed the total immunity to magic Vayne seems to have acquired. "If it disturbs you, I will take my leave."

"No. I am not troubled, it is just… strange. I am not so familiar with the ways of humes. It seems a great risk to take. What is the reward?"

It amuses him to consider the obvious answer - a slow and painful death - but it seems he has explained himself well enough to deflect any further concerns.

"I suppose it stands much the same as the reward for a viera who leaves her Wood. Have you found that worth the risk?"

Ktjn gestures to the path ahead, and Vayne is happy to step in alongside her. The city continues to wake up all around them, and Vayne gets more than a few stares from men and women leaving their homes, though when he nods a greeting they are usually quick to reciprocate. He isn't wearing his dress uniform, though his clothing is still cut for his station and should any overlook that, he has no doubt his accent is more than enough to catch their attention. The ones who weren't there to see him arrive will tell the ones who were, and if there's to be an angry mob prying out bits of the city to stone him down - well, sooner than later. If it's going to be that bad there's little use in waiting around.

"I do not yet know what my reward is, if that is what I ought call it," Ktjn says. "When I came this city, your Empire had just arrived, and things were… not as it seemed they ought be. I believed then I might have made a mistake, though my sister told me that humes are often as not in such chaos, and I should not pay it too much mind."

"Sister?"

From what little he knows, the viera use the word in two separate ways, concerning a common kinship for all of them but also more profound bonds, as those between hume siblings. The true viera language is a marvel of complex subtlety and nuance - rarely studied, and even those fortunate enough to find a viera who will allow them to ask questions admit their careful attempts still barely scratch the surface. It must be difficult for them to use the cruder, common language of Ivalice, as if moving from precise poetry to random words scrawled across back-alley walls.

"My sister Krjn works for the Centurio clan hall here in the city. I believe she was at the fete."

Vayne remembers her, the viera who looked fully capable of taking on both sides of the fight alone, had she found any interest in it. In light of that revelation, Ktjn's unarmored state and frank manner seem dangerously innocent, as if this is not only the first city she has seen at war but the first city she has seen at all.

"Yes. I spoke briefly with her partner Montblanc, just before the night grew… complicated."

"They tried to kidnap you," Ktjn says with the candor of someone with no reason to take any side in the fight, because it does not really matter. Rabanastre and Archadia are both well beneath her, to be observed and studied but not regarded as equal, or even sensible. Humes do as they will, no further explanation is necessary. A rather wonderful thing, to be put in one's place by someone who does not even know they are doing so.

"Kidnapping? And here I thought I merited an assassination attempt at least," Vayne says dryly, though Ktjn seems as impervious to sarcasm as she is all other hume behavior.

"No. I have listened to many speak on the streets since then, and they say the Resistance meant to capture you. You would be the way for them to negotiate terms with Archadia." The viera frowns slightly. "Is it wise for you to be out like this, if they were looking to trap you?"

"I doubt it," Vayne says, doing his best not to laugh as she tries to make sense of that, before deciding it must be just one more example of the inexplicability of humes. Really, the longer he's out here the less it seems he has anything to worry about. The Resistance has been thoroughly routed, and anyone left has to be more worried about reclaiming their princess than planning another attack. He has passed nearly as many Archadian soldiers on the streets as shopkeepers setting up for the day, both equally surprised to see him.

In Archades, the shops stratify right along with the rest of the city, the produce merchants keeping separate from the fishmongers who stay entire levels away from the sculptors and the artificers, both of whom are at a fair distance from the mages. The only things that bleed outside their invisible lines are the booksellers and the shipwrights, simply too many of either to keep them within any bounds.

Rabanastre, on the other hand, seems to have no bounds at all, and soon Vayne is surrounded on all sides by both the ordinary and the truly bizarre, a table loaded with candied fruit and nuts set next to one spilling over with coeurl pelts and carefully woven carpets. On his left, he has his choice of stones, rough marbles and granites in large slabs along with carefully polished statues in all sizes and colors, from milky quartzes to vibrant turquoise. On his right, what seems to be every bit of every animal that could ever be taken apart, shells and skins and a whole strand of transparent scales all strung together and clinking lightly in the wind.

Whole dried lizards, nearly as long as his arm, dangle across the awning at eye level. The shopkeeper sees him pondering the possibilities.

"Medical or delicacy?"

"Both, Lord Consul, depending on your need," The man says, and smiles when Vayne does. A little hesitant, a little nervous, but so far all anyone is doing is watching him as they work, as curious about him as he is about them. He thinks he catches a few frowns, some quick gestures from the corner of his eye. A bit of black market dealing being carefully shuffled out of his sight, perhaps, with warnings being passed on to others in the city about his unexpected visit. If an import from Rozarria had a three-hundred percent tariff hike coming in after the occupation, Vayne would probably take his chances with smuggling it in too.

The main source of that particular problem seems to stem from Lowtown - the source of many problems, he has been told, but also the home of many of those displaced since Archadia's arrival into the city, including a significant number of orphans.

Sending out armored troops after children, now there's the way to make them think him less of a monster.

Tucked in between a weapons booth and a clothing stall is a long stand of spices, and Vayne spends some time politely frightening the woman selling her wares, though he makes up for it by buying six different sorts of pepper, a vial of saffron and a packet of juniper berries, along with a small bag of a resinous, fragrant wood that's supposedly good for smoking meat over. It seems to be a popular item everywhere in the city. He wonders if they'd used it at the fete, tempted to ask Ktjn if she knows where to find Migelo's shop, although paying the bangaa a surprise visit now would just be cruel.

The path through the bazaar loops back on itself, more crowded with every step though the people do grant him a bit of space. Rabanastre's people are as diverse as the goods they sell, a fair mix of moogles and humes, with more bangaa and seeq than he's seen in quite some time. Ktjn steps onto a side street, and Vayne follows and everything is quiet, calm and still. He has been here for over an hour now and is yet remarkably unmurdered.

"On my journey to Rabanastre, there were many people who liked to watch me. My sister says humes believe us to be very beautiful," Ktjn says, with a complete lack of self-consciousness. "They watch you too - but they are afraid. Why?"

"I would call it wariness, perhaps. I am yet unknown. If some new beast came to your Wood and made itself at home, would you not be cautious until you knew it meant you no harm?"

"Of course, but you are not a beast. You are only a hume, as they are."

Again Vayne finds himself fighting a smile, for how easily he is put in his place.

"True, but they do not watch you for your own sake either. The greater world has so few viera in it - you are a mystery. A representative for all your people, for how they act and what they believe in, whether you intend it or no. I do not stand alone - I am here on behalf of all the Empire, and so Dalmasca looks for its future in all that I do and say. It is not so vast a difference as that between your world and ours, but it is enough."

Ktjn is quiet, contemplating his words as they reach the end of the street, which opens into another main road bursting with shops and another crowd of people surprised to see him, though the day is busy enough now that they have other business to keep them occupied, that the stares are infrequent and any whispers intermingle with a shifting current of gossip. The cathedral looms up over the rooftops, and though there are shadows cast they do very little against the heat, which is finally out in full force, baking down on everything.

"Archadia is great and powerful, and so it has conquered this country, and you rule where once there was a king." Ktjn says quietly as they step into an alcove. "Dalmasca fought to keep this from happening, but your Empire was stronger, and now you will do what you wish with this land and these people. It is no longer its own land, only a part of yours - I do not know the word for this."

"I would say protectorate, were it mine to name."

Ktjn tips her head slightly. "You are very careful with your words."

"I only hope I may choose the deeds to match them."

Vayne will be expected to make this whole venture pay for itself, of course, but he hasn't made a sport of shaking down budgets to think he can't manage it this again. Unsurprisingly, it will all come down to the airships. The more he can shift that trade to Rabanastre - even a quarter of the builds would be enough for Dalmasca to hold its own within the Empire. As a country it is neither large nor with any particular financial demands. So far, if Vayne were to give its people any advice it would be to offer itself up as an exotic desert oasis and take rich Archadian tourists for every gil they had.

"What does it mean, then, if this is to be a… protectorate?"

It means a truth he cannot speak, of the strategic, simple value of Dalmasca - of the Imperial need to occupy simply so that Rozarria could not take it first. It means that for all their bravery and sacrifice King Rasler and all his men and armies had died for that and little more. Even if they had successfully repelled Archadia, Rozarria would have swept in before they could recover. An inevitable defeat, crushed between tyrants, all for the sake of a few inches on a map. Hardly the sort of truth to inspire a poet, let alone comfort a grieving widow, or impress a curious viera.

Ashelia will be merciless, and there is some justice in it, he cannot argue that. Gods, but the price-

"It means I am here to serve, rather than to be served. Rabanastre belongs to its people, it is only my duty to listen to them and do my best to help where and when I can. As you say - we are great and we are powerful, but strength means very little if Archadia is not wise enough to rule as it ought. Dalmasca's fate these past few years has been neither fair nor kind, but I am determined that she shall not suffer so again."

Ktjn looks at him, a sort of calculating stare that could mean anything. Vayne wonders what had called her from her home, a place of peace and bounty so absolute that all of this is foreign to her, wars and merchants and humes. He wonders, not at all for the first time, what it might mean that her Wood - whatever it is and whatever it knows - had chosen to gift him a bit more life.

She turns away from the shops, up a side street where the noise quickly dwindles to nothing, the alleys in between the buildings narrow enough in places that he might almost touch both walls with his arms extended. He wonders if she might know the way to Lowtown, if she would be amenable to taking him there or if Krjn would strangle him with his own waistcoat for suggesting such a thing. The way the upper levels speak of Old Archades, one would think it was nothing but endless slaughter, a bit of stolen coin passed from hand to hand as each thief was killed by the next. The truth is not half so exciting or bloody, and there is no reason to believe it is any different here.

Vayne glances behind him - he can still see the cathedral, a good marker through these maze-like streets - and when he's turned back Ktjn is standing in an open doorway, looking back to make sure he's following before she steps inside.

One breath and Vayne knows exactly where he is, the hot smell of metal and oil with the cool tingle of magicite beneath. The stones in the walls are dark with scorch marks, wood beams covered so thick with years of accumulated grime there's no sign left of the grain. Every inch of space is well-worn and full of what has been useful and may be again, machinery stacked on top of itself, arranged in various bundles of chaos vaguely according to size. Draklor's facilities may be larger and better equipped but otherwise it's much the same, from the pile of dog-eared texts propped up against a random chunk of metal to the numerous gouges in the floors and tables, the sort of damage that seems to accrue even in Draklor's newest workrooms overnight.

It's an artificer's shop, not where Vayne belongs but a world he's borrowed, comfortable and familiar. Behind a tall stack of boards, he can hear the sound of a hammer strike, the soft hiss of metal in water.

"Taneli?" Ktjn calls. "Are you busy?"

The work stops. "Never too busy to talk to you, Ktjn. You're here early. If Krjn's still looking for those crystals she wants, I ought to have word any day now."

The man sounds young, and happy, though it's difficult to imagine anyone who wouldn't welcome a viera's visit.

"You had said that you were having trouble with a water pump, that the Archadians were not allowing you to make repairs."

Taneli lets out a half-laugh, and he can hear tools being set down, and footsteps coming closer

"Ktjn, no one as beautiful as you needs to be half as interested in my problems. It's like I told your sister, the bastards said two weeks three months ago, and there's nothing to be done. If we sneak in to do the work, they'll just undo it all and call it sabotage - that's what happened in the north quarter last time. So unless you've found a way to get that Lord Consul of theirs-"

Vayne has some idea what to expect when Taneli turns the corner. Sturdy boots with thick soles, a work apron perhaps. Maybe a shirt with the sleeves rolled up, or just a sleeveless undershirt, or perhaps no shirt at all. Warm enough for it, as long as he's not working with anything that's likely to spark. He's expecting scars, burn marks, the signs of a life spent bending metal and magicite to one's will and being bent by it in turn.

It's unexpected to see that the man's missing his right arm entirely, the elbow tapering off to empty space, though Vayne doubts it's anywhere near the surprise of having a Lord Consul at the door.

He really is kind of a bastard.

"Good morning.