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Meanwhile, in the Imperial Palace...

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The sharp sting of regret oft accompanies Varis zos Galvus to bed, to breakfast, and at all waking hours when he cares to take notice. Even when he doesn’t, it lurks within his mind just waiting to be triggered and pierce his weeping heart anew. This week’s topic of contention seems to be Zenos – everyone’s talking about him, and a few brave souls have even tried to take it up with Varis, to ask how he feels as if they actually care. He’s smarter than that. He knows when people feel compassion, and they never, ever do.

Not for him.

So he brushes off every questioning tongue and pitiful gaze with a stone-faced glare, the likes of which make a marble statue resemble jellyfish innards. He won’t hear of it – his son is dead, his dearly beloved son who he’s long since lost any affection for. At least, that’s the way it seems.

He sits hunched in his private chambers, loose black nightgown draping from his broad, burdened shoulders. Zenos was only a boy when he lost the man’s consideration, too strange to even bother with past the age of seven. Varis tried so hard to give him a good life, a joyous and wonderful childhood full of friends and food and fights and—

He clutches at his chest and twists, bidding the ache in his heart to cease as the silken fabric crumples between his fingers. There’s no use crying over a lost cause. Zenos took as much interest in Varis’s parenting as a three year old might observe a book full of Garlean legislation. The man still remembers how his son would stare at nothing, even when directly spoken to. How he just wouldn’t react to any stimuli outside of his daily sword training. And even then he outclassed his instructors by the age of fourteen, and wanted nothing more than to kill them for not proving enough of a challenge. He learned quickly enough that none would fight hard enough unless pressed within an inch of their life, and that just wasn’t allowed. Varis couldn’t send his son to death’s door because everything else bored him. He cared for him as best he could until Zenos decided that safety wasn’t fun and conquering things for Garlemald was. And still he wanted for a challenge, going up against entire legions of enemies – hell, whole cities at the age of twenty-four and still never suffered more than a bit of fatigue.

Inhuman, unfeeling and ridiculously talented. That was Zenos to his father, who now sobs unbidden into clawed fingers clutching at his face. He doesn’t know why he cries – he should be stronger, but it hurts. It hurts far too much, and he doesn’t have words, he doesn’t even have conscious thought. All he has is pain, and living with it grows harder by the day.

 

It worsens every time he sees Solus. The smirking, conniving bastard who just won’t die makes a point out of tormenting him, first with the truth about Garlemald and then for how horribly he failed his son.

When was the last time you held him? Told him you loved him? Showed anything other than contempt for your own flesh and blood? Oh, touchy, old habits die hard?”

Gunshots in the palace become commonplace in the days following Zenos’s death. And when he returns, it is silent.

Varis can’t stand it. His boy is a corpse, and he has to remind himself that it’s not him when Elidibus rests a hand on his shoulder and speaks in the softest tones.

“Don’t touch me.” Varis snarls, batting away Zenos’s hand when he thinks no-one else can see. But there are many eyes in the Palace, and rumors abound that the Emperor harbors some sort of hatred for his son being defeated in the first place – no matter the trauma he’s suffered. The concerned stop asking after him and instead focus on Zenos, dearly in need of aid if the way he holds himself is any indication. It’s different, almost imperceptibly so. He doesn’t speak to anyone but his father, nor does he make eye contact or partake in any sort of recreational activities. There’s no training, no eating, not even sleeping judging by how often he wanders the Palace in the dead of night, dressed from head to toe in full armor. The servants have long since learned to keep from screaming bloody murder at the ominous clinks of Zenos’s coming.

He skulks in darkness tonight, as he does every other, and presses an ear to his father’s door. Varis is muttering quietly to himself about something, and while Zenos cares little, he does wonder for the Emperor’s ailing mental health. He’s spoken to Solus about it, who merely laughs at the notion of Varis being anything other than a tightly strung puppet. How utterly hilarious he finds it, that the Emperor of Garlemald should have his values ripped out from under him and torn into confetti ready to herald the arrival of Lord Zodiark.

“Let him be.” Solus had said, sitting on the throne with legs splayed and grin crinkling the corners of his sharp golden eyes. “He serves his purpose, as do you.”

Zenos knows it’s not his place to meddle in the grand scheme of things. He is an orchestrator, an ambassador, and a servant when it really comes down to it. This, he has long since made peace with. But it doesn’t feel right to hear the ramblings of a man clinging to the barest threads of sanity and not do something about it. If Varis falls into madness, so too will Garlemald – and Solus isn’t one to suffer a fly in his carefully broiled chaos soup. Things need to go according to plan, even if the results of said plan are hellfire and damnation for the citizens of Eorzea. He knocks.

Something clatters to the floor and the sound of fabric shuffling around can be heard. Varis calls out in a voice hoarse and weary.

“WHAT?”

Zenos draws breath. “May I?”

“No.” Zenos is the last person Varis wants to see – why won’t these accursed Ascians ever leave him in peace? He is an important man with much wallowing to do, many an abyss to drown in. He’s been through three bottles of wine in the past hour and can’t be bothered going to the bathroom, going to sleep, doing anything other than just sitting here.

The door clicks, and Zenos enters in silence. Varis turns to look at him reaching for his pistol and the poor man looks so wretched that Zenos cannot bear to look at him overlong. He raises one hand -  a gesture of peace – and dips his head.

“Be at ease. I do not come with ill tidings or Solus's demands.”

“What, then – have you come to mock me?” Varis tries to stand, rise to his full height and deliver that imperious glare of his that turns foreign diplomats to puddles of goop – but Zenos is having none of it and crosses the room in a few short strides. He seats himself beside Varis and looks at the wall, well aware of the pistol trembling beside his shoulder. If Varis fires at this distance, it’ll ricochet and kill him instantly. Zenos can’t let that happen.

They sit in silence for a few seconds, seconds that stretch to a minute before Varis finds his words. And when he does, Zenos interrupts him.

“You are not well.”

Varis splutters, nearly dropping the gun into his red-robed lap. Of course he isn’t – what’s this creature trying to get at, draw out of him with his feigned concern? “If you are trying to-”

“You grieve.” Zenos turns his head, silken hair spilling over one shoulder as his dead gaze peers into Varis’s stricken face. He can almost see the war between ascian and my son flickering behind those weary golden eyes, and it tugs at him in a way that doesn’t sit well with his immortal soul. ‘Stop this.’ he tells himself, ‘Focus on the mission. Keep him sane. Somehow.’

Varis almost prefers the act – the haughtiness, the straightforward statements and none of this… this… what is it, if not an attempt to manipulate him? Zenos can’t possibly be trying to relate to him, or comfort him – the creature wearing his skin shouldn’t be capable of that if it’s anything like Solus. Why is he even calling him Zenos, it’s not his son, it’s something else, something dark and twisted and here…

He can’t even think straight. It’s the wine, he knows – that’s what it’s for, to deliver him from his brilliant, tortured mind and allow him to rest. Rest he does not; he can’t do anything more than stare spellbound into the bright blue eyes of his baby boy. Zenos’s hand comes to rest on his thigh, and Varis looks down at it.

“I will not pretend to understand how you hurt.” Zenos’s voice is as soft as can be, the ragged rasp of his rent throat little more than a rumbling in his chest. “But you cannot let this consume you. I know it is hard, to be treated as you are. Like a pawn.” Varis draws breath to interrupt him but Zenos gives him a light squeeze and the words die on his tongue. “But you are needed, by all the realm. You cannot see the end of it, what we work for – but you are instrumental in the process of a single, unified world.”

Varis doesn’t want this, whatever it is, and turns away with his pistol angled down, defeated. As if sensing his withdrawal, Zenos shifts his hand and nudges Varis’s shoulder. Perhaps if he tries to connect to him on a more personal level…?

“Father.” He touches Varis’s wrist, brushes gentle fingers along the back of his hand, guiding him to set the gun down. Varis releases it for the fact that he’s shaking too much to maintain his hold, and curls in on himself. He does not know that he is crying until Zenos wipes a tear from his cheek with a fingertip and pats him on the back. “You need to rest. Will you speak with me on the morrow?”

Don’t go.’ Varis purses his lips, far too exhausted to even try and form a coherent response. Instead he just nods, and passes out moment after Zenos has left him to his misery. Zenos – an ascian, he has to remember that. An ascian, a demon, no matter how kind it behaves.

But Varis doesn’t have anyone else.

Chapter Text

It isn’t often that Varis has a moment to himself. Sure, there are peaceful evenings when there’s no work to be done, no messengers or reports or other riffraff clamoring for his attention. But even when sitting on his throne, wine in hand and mind far away from the issues plaguing the realm, he has to act.

Playing the part of Emperor while an Ascian pulls the strings is starting to wear him down. Every one of Solus’s little jabs chips away at his sanity, unraveling the threads of his radiant veneer bit by bit. His face is almost permanently tense these days from resting in a stoic scowl (and such a thing does exist, if only by his spiteful elegance), every fiber of his being taut as his mental defenses pile higher and higher. The Emperor’s self control has long since been the stuff of legend, only now beginning to take its toll. Myriad aches manifest in parts of him he’s not wounded in decades, while the golden lustre of his hair seems to fade day by day. It’s a mere whisper of platinum now, three fulms of it framing his pallid face. He stares dead-eyed at nothing, the guards by either side of his throne unmoving as they have been for the past hour. It’s always like this – when he has nothing else to do, he’ll sit here and brood. Often, and evidently, to the detriment of his health.

His servants have not the place nor right to interrupt his self-imposed stupor, and almost all of his Legatii are out and about, minding their own damn business. Just the way he likes it, lonely though it may be within the palace, knowing his favourite will never, ever return.

He thinks of Regula and his heart hurts. He drinks, and drinks until it no longer does.