Sighing contentedly in the breeze and squinting from Dalmasca's bright sun over her city, Ashe's eyes flicked towards the Bahamut, now rooted in the distant sands and covered with vines and vegetation. It was ever a reminder of what had almost happened to her country, and what she – and others – had sacrificed to keep the people of Rabanastre safe.
Smiling, she looked down at the ring in her hand, along with Balthier's letter.
Give this to our Queen for me, would you?
She doubted she would ever wear her wedding ring again, at least not as a married woman, but she would keep it close for the rest of her life. She decided that she would probably wear it as a necklace. Balthier was right to take it from her. She had been dwelling far too much on the past…far too much on revenge. It was poison.
The Humes ever skew hist'ry's weave. With haste they move through too-short lives. Driven to err by base desires, t'ward waste and wasting on they run. Undying, we Occuria light the path for wayward sons of man. Oft did we pass judgment on them so that Ivalice might endure. Eternal, we are hist'ry's stewards, to set the course and keep it true. The chosen is our hand, our fist, to let like some and crush the rest. Princess, you have been chosen. Take revenge against those who stole your kingdom. Fulfill your role as savior.
The Occuria were wrong. Vayne and Cid were the enemies, not the Empire. Millions of lives were saved because she and Larsa worked together. Now, they were pursuing peace with all of Ivalice.
She glanced down at the ring in her palm, smiling warmly when she thought of Rasler. No longer did she dwell on revenge, but thought of her happiness before the war, and the happiness he sought to give her.
. . .
Ashe toyed with her new wedding ring. She was still getting used to it, but she felt strangely comfortable with its presence. Ever since she had first met Rasler Heios Nabradia, she was but a young girl, and even then she knew he would be kind to her. She was never apprehensive about their marriage…in fact, she almost looked forward to it and what it would bring to both of their countries. He was only a year older than she, not quite seasoned enough in battle like Basch or wise enough to rule like their fathers, but it made her own experience all the better. They would encounter their difficulties together. They would learn and grow together. They would both learn to love each other in time, and she smiled to herself as she thought about what the future had in store for them. Though she would never outwardly express her feelings otherwise, she secretly looked forward to when she would finally know what it would be like to be within a man's embrace. Petty, romantic thoughts of a little girl and not of a royal heir to the throne, and Ashe knew better…but sometimes she would allow her thoughts to wander.
Yet the tension between Rozarria and Archadia had been festering for years. Nabradia was pressured by its eastern neighbor to join forces, as did Landis years ago, but the King of Nabradia refused, along with the alliance and support of the independent countries of Bhujerba and Dalmasca. Instead, both Kings had agreed long ago to join their children in matrimony in hopes of bringing the central lands together to withstand the ever mounting pressures of both Archadia and Rozarria. Besides, the King of Dalmasca was growing older and he wanted to see his only daughter well provided for and taken care of. Even though Ashe knew he was only looking out for her welfare and that of Dalmasca, she still couldn't help but feel her slight sense of independence dwindling. She welcomed her marriage to Rasler with open arms, yet knew that things would change as she would not be so free to do as many things on a whim. She now had a duty to her future king.
He liked to stand upon the balcony and look over the peaceful city of Rabanastre. No doubt he was thinking the same things as she. As she stepped through the open door and savored the warm breeze, Rasler glanced behind him. He acknowledged her with a small smile and turned back towards the city.
"A marriage of convenience," he murmured. "A symbol of the alliance between Nabradia and Dalmasca. This is how they see our match."
Ashe walked up to the balcony edge. So, his thoughts still lingered on what was expected of him. They were both still young, but an enormous burden was placed upon Rasler. She couldn't help but smile at his innocence. "They do, do they?"
Rasler shook his head. "These roles we play…I must admit, I find it wearying."
Ashe stepped closer to him and put a hand upon his. He turned to meet her gaze, and she cocked her head and shrugged shyly.
"I will play mine."
Rasler smiled at her warmly. "I would have no other."
. . .
Ashe sighed and put the ring back in its pouch and her thoughts traveled to Basch, wondering how he was getting along in Archades. She knew that he would do his duty, and flawlessly, feeling slightly jealous that Larsa should have him. After all that Basch had done for her, she was prepared to raise his status to General, and lead a new Order of Knights, always by her side as her Chief Counsel, but he had unexpectedly wished to join Larsa in Archades. She understood all too well the importance of his presence there; he was continuing his brother's legacy and fulfilling his dying wish, and she respected Basch for making such a sacrifice. The Empire had been under much turmoil since the death of Emperor Gramis, the elimination of most of the Senate, and the sudden passing of Vayne Solidor (a freak airship accident as he was being transported from Archades to Rabanastre, it seemed); it was imperative that Larsa's transition was a smooth one. Cid and Vayne had definitely made a mess of things.
Ashe sighed, glad for Larsa but saddened. No man could do the job better; Basch would make a good Judge and an even better bodyguard, but she did not like the idea of him in that dreadful Archadian armor.
Besides, there was nobody else to talk to here in the palace. Nobody who truly knew her, anyway.
She smiled as she thought back on how she used to treat Basch before she truly knew him. Even then, he was a loyal subject. He was loyal to her father…to her…even to Rasler.
. . .
"You knew? This whole time? You knew everything?" she hissed at the three of them, completely aghast at what had just unfolded in front of her.
Rasler looked sheepish. "I apologize, my Lady. I admit that my intention was to keep you uninformed of our plan – not to drive you away, but to protect you."
"It was Basch's idea," Vossler grinned. "You can thank him for this mess, Your Highness. Although, Prince Rasler fanned the flames, I daresay."
"When His Highness offered to help, I was a bit surprised," Basch admitted with a smile. "But once he knew of our plan he sought to see it through," he chuckled. "There was naught I could do after that."
"If only you had let me under those sheets," Rasler lamented with a smile.
"Nay, Basch wanted to play the hero, of course," Vossler teased, sheathing his sword.
"Had you allowed me to play the King's savior, you would have found yourself stuck in the sewers with the Princess," Rasler laughed and put his hand on Basch's shoulder. "However, in hindsight, I daresay I got the better end of the bargain."
Basch glanced up at the Princess and smiled. "Indeed."
The three men chuckled and bantered as if old friends trading stories, and Ashe stood in front of them all, mouth open in utter disbelief, absolutely livid. She was so furious at the scene she couldn't speak, and she didn't even notice when knights of the Order handcuffed and dragged the defeated, and now one-armed, Argas out of the room, leaving behind a trail of dark blood.
"How dare you. All of you!" she snapped at them.
The trio stopped laughing and looked at her. Vossler and Basch immediately sobered and bowed their heads to her, knowing their place, but Rasler smiled at her and stepped forward.
"My Lady…please, don't be angry - "
"You knew," she accused again. "Why did you not tell me before? Why did you not warn me?"
"We wished to keep you safe," Rasler replied softly. "Truly, we meant not to deceive you."
She glared at Rasler, but she could not find fault with her future husband, especially since she knew he was telling her the truth. The rogue who planted this seed, however…it was because of him that Rasler was enticed to participate in this folly and endanger himself before their royal wedding…
"You," she rounded on Basch, "this was all your idea? How long did you wait for Argas to reveal herself as the villain? Did you know who she was, what she was capable of, as she was observing my every move? She was my attendant. This woman planned to murder my father and she was with me every day…" Ashe looked away and huffed, as if she were still trying to believe it herself. "Oh, the very thought of it makes me sick!" She fumed at him. "Did you not believe that my very life was in danger of my every waking moment when I was with this treacherous woman? Would you serve me up as bait?"
Basch's eyes grew dark. "Of course not, Your Highness. Your safety was ever first and foremost in my mind. I would never allow danger to befall you, and never have I turned a blind eye to Argas's actions. My men were placed strategically about the palace, my Lady, so that she was carefully under surveillance, night and day. If there was but a mere hint that you would be placed in harm's way, Argas would have been dealt with immediately."
"'Tis true, Your Highness," Vossler agreed. "Argas's intentions were never to harm you – to that end, the Neo-Rozzarian Faction achieves nothing – but their goal was to assassinate His Grace."
"Then why wait until now, in my father's bedchamber?" Ashe gave Basch a mocking glare. "You wanted her arm as a keepsake?"
"We needed her to freely discuss her plans and admit her intentions," Rasler explained. "She revealed all that and more. The Faction has been dismantled."
Ashe narrowed her eyes at Basch, scrutinizing him. "This was your plan?"
Basch bowed his head. "It was, my Lady. Not without the help of Prince Rasler, of course."
Ashe looked around in disgust at the blood splatters on the floor and the stains in the fine silk sheets. "Well done, sir."
Rasler nudged Basch and gave him a grin of encouragement, despite Ashe's obvious displeasure.
Ashe crossed her arms. "I do not think my father would appreciate - " She stopped herself and glanced at Vossler. "Where is my father?"
"Safe, Your Highness," Vossler answered with a nod, "in a completely separate part of the castle, as a matter of fact."
Before Ashe could chide them further, Vossler turned and barked orders to the soldiers to fetch the chambermaids and clean up the King's quarters. Basch started to give the other knights instructions on where to keep the Faction members, where to place their weapons, and who else to notify.
Rasler stepped forward and put a hand on Ashe's shoulder. "Would you forgive me, Ashelia?"
She let out a resigned sigh and looked down. "There's nothing to forgive. You must think me an utter fool…to have been so clueless…but…"
"No," he tipped her chin up with his fingers and smiled softly. "You're a strong woman, Ashe. You're kind and you're honest…I'm glad it's you I'll be marrying…"
She glanced up at him, surprised. "You…you'll consent?"
"Of course I'll consent," he took her hand in his. "That is…if you'll have me?"
She gave him a shy smile and nodded.
He kissed her knuckles and stepped forward to embrace her. As she wrapped her arms around his neck and looked over his shoulder, she caught a glimpse of Basch as he was walking away with Vossler.
"I do not trust him," she admitted quietly.
Rasler chuckled in her ear. "Captain Ronsenburg? Whyever not?"
"He's not even Dalmsascan born, Rasler - "
"Neither am I," he argued softly, "but like Basch I still seek the love of the Dalmascan people. Would you deny me that as well?"
She shook her head. "No, of course not. I only meant that we don't know what he truly intends - "
"He is a brave man," Rasler replied, "a good soldier, and would do anything to protect you and your father. Do not forget that he is a man of Landis, a nation that fell to the Empire. Nabradia faces that same fate. We may not be kinsmen, but we share a unique bond, he and I. And I will never forget his actions today. He put himself under Argas's sword when he pretended to be your father, but he knew what he was doing."
Ashe nodded meekly and hugged Rasler tighter. "Yes…of course. Forgive me…I was being silly…"
But I…I trusted Argas, a stranger welcomed into our home years ago, and look what madness it wrought.
Out the door and down the hall, Basch and Vossler were walking away, ordering the troops to clean up the mess and send for the maids. As he was giving a soldier instructions, he glanced up and looked at Ashe.
She immediately looked away and rested her head on Rasler's shoulder.
…No, I shall never trust Basch fon Ronsenburg.
. . .
Ashe sighed sadly as she reminisced. Her happiness with Rasler was genuine, yet short-lived. She had remembered their sleepless nights. She and Rasler had never consummated their marriage simply because they wanted more time to grow closer, but then the war had changed everything. The King of Dalmasca had given the order to secure Nalbina Fortress immediately after the news of Nabudis and they only had a few days to prepare. Rasler never slept during that time; instead, he would spend his nights discussing war tactics and going over the strategies again with his captains. In their bedchamber, he would stand out on the balcony and look out over the city of Rabanastre. Ashe could never say anything to console him on the loss of his father. He had never talked about it to her, either. It was as if they already knew what lay ahead. The looming shadow of Archadia had darkened everything. She realized that Basch was probably all Rasler really had in those times.
. . .
Her chest was tight and she took a deep breath. War was upon them. Come nightfall, she might never see her husband again. She thought of the brave Captain Azelas…and…Basch…
Her lip quivered and she forced the thoughts out of her mind. Dalmasca was strong, and her knights even stronger. They would prevail. Justice would be done.
She walked in the gardens, alone, while Rasler was with his Generals and Captains discussing battle strategy. Her father had tried to console her with kind words, but she could not hear them when all she saw were the men clad in armor and carrying swords, battle axes, and strongbows. Transports were assembling in the great courtyard at the heart of the city and chocobos were being saddled, shielded, and corralled. She had hoped she would never see this in her lifetime, and yet here it was. The dread rose like bile in her throat. She had to be alone for awhile.
She passed by a galbana lily and touched it with her fingers absentmindedly. If only she could don armor herself and fight alongside her Prince! She knew how to wield a sword, she knew how to fight – Vossler had trained her well. Why, then, was she confined to the palace walls? Because she was a woman? There were many Viera and female captains going into battle, why couldn't she? Rasler was fighting, and he was the last remaining heir of the Kingdom of Nabradia. Ashe would fight by his side as the heir of Dalmasca, and all of Ivalice would know that they would not stand for the Empire's tyranny.
Voices drifted into her thoughts and she turned her head towards the castle. There was shouting further away, but she couldn't quite make out the words. Lifting her skirts, she slowly walked out of the garden towards the walkway. The closer she drew to one of the courtyards, the more she could hear of the conversation.
"All that pride, majesty, and beauty – GONE! This is not something one does in war!"
Ashe immediately knew the shouting voice belonged to Rasler. They were just around the corner.
"IT'S AN ATROCITY!" he bellowed.
A second voice – Basch's – deep and gentle – tried to console her Prince.
"All I can think of in the evenings is how I wish to somehow take revenge against Vayne Solidor," Rasler cried. "That, even if it meant throwing away this life, I DON'T CARE, as long as it meant justice!"
Before she could stop herself, Ashe had slowly turned the corner, already knowing she'd overheard too much. She swallowed and turned a shade of pink – out of shame for eavesdropping, or perhaps it was because of Rasler's words – looking at them both meekly. Rasler had his fist against the wall and hung his head, his brow furrowed in anger, and he did not notice her. Basch immediately looked up and locked eyes with her.
The was a slight pause.
"Even so," Basch replied to Rasler but his eyes were still on Ashe, "you and I both still have much to protect."
Ashe felt her cheeks flush, but she could not look away from Basch's gaze, slightly surprised that he would make such a bold gesture. Before she could conjure up a response, or at least have the decency to act nonchalant, Rasler lifted his head and sucked in a surprised gasp when he saw Ashe standing there. Basch immediately turned and started to walk away.
"Please think about what you would leave behind," he murmured to Rasler over his shoulder.
. . .
Ashe turned and walked back towards her quarters, taking a deep breath. Coming up here was the only time she could really have to herself, when she could truly think of her friends and everything they'd been through…what they fought for…
She would never admit it, but she grew anxious speaking to her Uncle Halim or her trusted council about relations with other countries, as Archadia would inevitably be the object of much of their discussions. She adored and respected Larsa Solidor and she knew that their future would be a prosperous one – not only for Dalmasca, but also for the rest of Ivalice. Talks about the Empire and the prospects of House Solidor, however, always brought her thoughts to the young Emperor's Judge Magister and protector, ever at his side.
Her feelings were absolutely baseless, she knew, and she couldn't understand where they were coming from in the first place. She was a Queen now; she had a duty to her people. Even if Basch had remained in Rabanastre, her responsibilities would keep her from even having a decent conversation with him, if she would even see him at all. She tried to laugh. Even when they were together every waking moment of every day out in the field, when they were struggling through their mission to stop Cid and Vayne, they barely spoke to each other unless it was about mere battle strategy.
But Basch always was a man of few words. His actions were much, much louder. And not a day had gone by when he wouldn't put himself in harm's way to protect her.
Ashe smoothed her dress and swallowed the bitter loneliness back down before opening the double doors towards the long corridor, heading past the upper level courtyard and leading down to the main hall. She was immediately flanked by her handmaidens and two Knights of the Order – even seeing them brought an unfamiliar tightness to her chest, which she ignored – and she wordlessly walked through the castle to meet with her advisors for more political matters, forcing herself to forget her emotions for the day and putting her mask back on; a daily routine that was slowly – ever so slowly – starting to erode her resolve.
Author's Note: A few of these flashback sequences are from the XII manga - if you're not familiar with it, you're not missing out on much, but basically there was a Neo-Rozarrian faction that tried to kill the King and was foiled by the Order. It's available online if you google it. Kinda goes back before the wedding.