Ashe ran her hands along the banister of her staircase as she descended. Dressed in her most elegant of attire, a pale green gown her uncle had custom designed for her, she gave a small smile to her subjects and the other notable members of society gathered at the base of the stairs. Reaching the bottom step, Al-Cid stepped forward to offer his arm right as Larsa moved to do the same. Laughing slightly, the Rozarrian Prince stepped back to allow the young Emperor the chance to escort the Queen to her birthday feast.
Twenty-five… had the years truly flown so quickly? She could still clearly remember her widow’s veil weighing down upon her head as if to crush her, the world seeming to collapse upon itself. She could remember Vossler waking her in the dead of the night and telling her they had to flee, lest she share the same fate as her father. She could remember her lust for revenge eating away at her rationality, until all she saw before her eyes was her own hatred for the Empire.
Vividly, a single touch to her arm stood out, holding her back from her own irrationality. Words spoken, not to her like she would normally be addressed as a princess but as one who needed to learn from their own foolishness. A joke that she had not found amusing then but would long to hear again now if given the chance played out in her thoughts often. Another joke, one that left her flushed though she had smirked in response with a grin, acting if she had not caught the second sexual meaning of the words. Her wedding band being bartered away to help her revenge driven desire. A conversation that made her reflect upon her own actions, as the other spoke of their past. A plea, her own, ringing out with no reply and a cackle of static after only a few words had left the mouth of the one she wished to return to her…
It did her no good to dwell on that though, not now, so near yet far after the events. The ring that hung around her neck on a thin chain seemed to weigh heavier as these thoughts swam around.
“You are troubled?” Larsa asked her quietly for her side, pulling her from these thoughts.
“It is nothing,” She replied, the thoughts pushing to the side of her mind. “Just a bit tired from the dress fitting yesterday. Such are the troubles of a queen.” She forced a laugh, knowing quite well the boy, or should she now say man, would know she was lying.
Ashe saw his studying glance from the side of his eye, though he spoke no more. However, he did let one idle comment slip out of his mouth as they reached the head table at the feast.
“Archadia has not been plagued with pirates as of late, I do hope you will watch the skies for signs of trouble seeing as ours are clear.”
At this point, she really should not be surprised he knew what troubled her.
“I have seen no ships besides merchant ones but the one belonging to Vaan and Penelo. Speaking of which, have you spoken with her as of late?”
She knew how to play into his thoughts too.
However, before the Emperor could respond to her question, Al-Cid joined them.
“Ah, Lady Ashe, you grow more stunning each year!” He bent to kiss her hand. “Such a pity an Emperor’s arm outweighs that of a prince… I would have loved to have escorted you here.”
Ashe gave a polite smile. “You are here only seconds after I. Surely there was nothing much to have been said in seconds.”
“I believe you are mistaken, Ashe.” Al-Cid raised his brow with a grin. “Many things can be said in seconds. Some of the greatest words spoken take mere seconds to mutter. Is it not said that words spoken by paramours in hushed stolen breaths are priceless?”
“Then I suppose it is lucky was are not paramours, lest we have missed out on those precious seconds.”
Her eyes were probably narrowed slightly, she could not tell as all her effort was going to keep the polite smile on her face. It would do no go to scowl at him… With the dramatics of many of the Rozarrians, her scowl could be seen as a declaration of war.
Not only that, but to imply they were paramours, that she held affection for him,was enough to push her into thought buried once again.
The stolen kiss shared between her and her betrothed when they were young. His quiet whispers of how much she meant to him. His hand gently caressing her face when they were not being watched… The soft, comforting sound of his voice at night as they lie entwined… Rasler was her love, once.
The asides he took with only her, the gentle support he gave, his quiet reassuring that what she was doing was right, and his obvious disapproval when she was off. His hand in hers, so brief and so few. His eyes watching her, speaking something she at the time could not understand… He was her something once.
He had slipped into her thoughts three times now, fully dwelt upon twice. The last time they spoke, sunsets had been a topic. And time.
Time was not a fair thing for a queen to have to make her hopes wait upon. She did not have the luxury of time as some did. The pressure increased year after year for her to find a husband and produce an heir. If one was not found soon… well, Al-Cid would make for a conversational partner at least, unless her advisers chose Larsa, in which she would have at least a good and dear friend.
Al-Cid’s laughter ending pulled her from her thoughts. “Ah, you still are playing the ice queen, no? So frigid still… how much longer can a widow wear the veil of the dead when she no longer wears his ring on her hand?”
Ashe was about to reply when Larsa tactfully and bluntly changed the conversation.
“Al-Cid, how are your cousins? I hear your brother changed the line of succession again? Such a pity the list before you grows longer…”
The Rozarrian’s reaction was masked well. “Such a pity you and my brother get along so well, I had thought us the better friends.”
As the two bickered in coded words on each side of her, Ashe drowned them out with her thoughts.
He was a rare sight in the skies these days, in fact, she had not truly seen him since they parted nearly five years past. His ship, yes on rare occasion, but him…
Time had been their last conversation. Her thoughts brought her back to here. Time… was five years not long enough? Al-Cid thought the widow’s veil rested upon her head, but it was the ring he returned that hung around her neck that weighed more heavily. Time had not eased their parting, but grew a stirring of worry and… something in her heart. Had she not seen his ship, she would have feared the worst had happened in their time apart.
“Such a pity that the stunning rose you so cared for is unreachable… If only you had not left her so unsatisfied perhaps she would have stayed.”
Ashe only caught the last bit of Al-Cid’s words and more than likely would not have caught any except for the fact that she could feel the anger boiling off of Larsa.
“I do not care for the way you attached such innuendo to a woman as wonderful as she is. You make it seem as if the nature of our relationship was anything beyond that of dear friends, and I do not like you implying such.” Larsa was near snapping, and she did not wish for him to accidently let out an outburst. He was normally much better than she at hiding his true emotions, but when Penelo was involved…
“I am merely repeating what I have heard, little lord… Such a pity it didn’t extend any farther then, isn’t it? I’m sure you would have enjoyed-“
“If you two would quiet down,” Ashe spoke, “I would greatly appreciate it. Food is about to be served, and Ondore is about to speak. Al-Cid, if I hear you imply such things about Penelo again, I shall have you removed from the feast, and I will write to your brother to explain my reasoning and tell all those who came with you how much of an absolute ass you have been.”
Her face had remained neutral, so that anyone watching her would not be able to tell she had just told Al-Cid off. Larsa was still bristling, but he seemed relieved she had stopped the Rozarrian from speaking any longer.
The man chuckled nervously. “Ah, I shall refrain for that, my bloom. I am sorry for offending you.”
“It is not to me you should be apologizing.” She ended the conversation with him as such, turning her attention to the words her maternal uncle was about to give.
“I am most thankful to celebrate another birthday with my dearest niece. Was it only six years ago I feared I would never see you again? So do the days pass… But that is not of importance today. What is important is that my niece has aged another year into a thriving reign she brought about, a peaceful alliance established that had not been around since well before my time. She has brought about the greatest economic flourish since the time of the Dynast King himself, and has ruled fairly and justly. May my niece live long, and her reign continue on strong!” Halim Ondore raised his glass to toast, but did not sit down, confusing many as they had assumed that the end of his speech.
Ashe raised her brow and her uncle just gave her a small smile in return. He was up to something…
When the noise from the toast died down, Ashe’s attention was solely on her Uncle.
“I know many of you are wondering why I have decided to take up more time with my words. However, it is simply to welcome a recent member of my court and to introduce him to my niece, if I may be so bold.”
A suitor. Of course he would bring her a suitor and bring it up in front of everyone. She loved her uncle dearly, but he was as bad as her own council when it came to her finding a match.
“It would be an honor.” Her words masked well, hiding her surprise and sight anger at her uncle’s ‘gift’.
Halim grinned. “Then may I present Lord Balthier, my royal adviser and personal pilot.”
Ashe knew her eyes grew wide and her mask slipped, mouth opening in shock. Al-Cid’s shock was just as noticeable, his hands clenching his glass in what Ashe could only imagine anger and shock, and Larsa simply seemed assumed.
“Marquise Ondore,” Balthier bowed to the man as he entered the room, then a smirk slide onto his face as he turned to Ashe. “Your majesty.”
He looked unchanged, as well-groomed as always. Ashe noticed the olive green outfit he wore was quite different from his usual vest and tight leather pants, though it still suited him well. Ashe now wondered if her uncle had purposefully designed this pale green gown to compliment his, something she was unsure if she was comfortable with given the fact that she she held a bit of questioning as to why it had to be five years apart. His earring sets remained in place though his colored bracelets and rings were replaced with ones of silver and gold. Yet all in all, she was pleased to see he still looked like himself and not some plump court puppet.
“Lord Balthier,” Ashe dipped her head, emotions masked but not much better than before.
He approached the table at which she was seated and bent down to kiss her hand. His lips lingered slightly. “Forgive my boldness, but I it feels as if I have known you for a long time.”
“Likewise,” Ashe replied. “It seems we may have met before? Perhaps towards the beginning of my reign, like five years ago?”
Larsa held back a bit of laughter, his eyes merry as he noted the slight harshness in Ashe’s voice.
“Ah, I do recall that as well.” Balthier too had noticed the harshness, and tried to direct the topic. “Had we not spoken of sunsets?”
“That was not all we spoke of.” Ashe said, the harness still there, motioning for him to take a place at her table. Causing a stir amongst those gathered, he sat directly next to Larsa, two seats away from Ashe. “Uncle,” Ashe turned her attentions towards Ondore, “I must thank you for reintroducing us.”
“It was no trouble, Ashelia.” The older man dipped his head and sat, signaling that it was time for food to be brought out.
As the dishes were placed in front of them, Ashe and Balthier locked eyes, neither speaking. It seemed her surprise and anger was met with a smirk and perhaps… was that regret in his eyes? All of the feelings and thoughts that had filled her earlier, the memories that played out in her mind, rushed back into her mind. She was angry about how long it took for him to get back to her, and yet those somethings stirred inside her. She knew now how she truly felt, and it both cause her joy and nervousness. Five years could change a person, and to see Balthier in court was certainly a change. Ashe could not bring herself to speak, and it seemed as if Balthier was waiting for her to speak first. However, Larsa gracefully started up conversation.
“Balthier, it has been too long. I see I cannot ask how fares your hunt for treasure… so instead, how fares Fran?”
Balthier snapped his gaze off Ashe to turn to the young man sitting next to her. “It has, Lamont.” A small smirk appeared on his face as he referenced the first time the two had met. “Fran is well last I heard. I am surprised you didn’t know she was traveling with Penelo and Vaan?”
“Yes, I too am surprised by that, Little Lord.” Al-Cid spoke up at the wrong moment, though perhaps this time the drink in his hand influenced his words slightly.
Larsa’s faced darkened. “Al-Cid, I believe Ashe mentioned something about insinuating anything about Penelo when she told you off?”
“What did he insinuate previously that would cause our dear queen to go off on him?” Balthier’s eyes narrowed, shooting a glare at the Rozarrian. Ashe knew she would need to step in, as Balthier had always been protective of Penelo as if she were his own sister.
“He had implied that the nature of Larsa and Penelo’s relationship was…less than innocent.” Ashe spoke quietly, her anger at his implications still not gone. “He also earlier implied myself and he to be paramours.” She added this only to see Balthier’s reaction, which she noted Larsa realized.
The newly titled lord’s body tensed. “Oh, he did?”
“Merely the previous glass of wine talking, oh great lord Balthier… And how did you acquire such a title, if I may ask?” Al-Cid brought his drink to his lips, eyebrow quirked and not missing the way Balthier reacted to his previous words to Ashe.
“I was sought out by the Marquis after the last favor I paid Ivalice alongside Larsa and Ashe. We had a discussion, and after that he assigned me to run a few favors for him.” Balthier’s face was impassive. “I grew in his favor, and here I am. Now, if I may, I would like a private word with her Majesty, if I may be so bold?”
Al-Cid nearly choked on the sip of wine he had just taken, and Larsa bit back laughter at that.
“You may.” Ashe was curious about all that had been said and decided now would be a good time to keep her… something and Al-Cid apart.
Standing up and nodding to her guards, Ashe spoke to those gathered to let them know she would return shortly after she and Lord Balthier refreshed themselves with some of the cool night air. She then waited as Balthier stood and extended his arm to her, hearing the mutterings of gossip beginning already. Walking out of the hall and towards the garden, Ashe’s posture relaxed once they were out of the line of sight of the nobles.
“What a surprise to see you,” Ashe gave him a small smile. “Five years… It has been so long.”
Balthier grinned slightly. “I would never make a lady wait five years… It has only been four years, ten months and a week to the day.”
“Why am I not surprised to learn you have been keeping track?”
“You know me too well, princess.” His smirk was in place as it usually was when the old nickname slipped out.
The gardens were not lit except for the light of the stars and moon. Ashe broke away from his arm, sitting herself on one of the benches near her rose bushes. Balthier stood, unsure if he was welcome to join her or not.
“Was that enough time for you?” Ashe asked quietly, her tone not giving anything away to how she felt.
“What would you have had me do? You even said that there might not have been enough… I thought that meant your fate was sealed to another. Only your uncle’s words gave me comfort in the fact you were not signed off into something,” His face grew serious, some of that regret she thought she had seen earlier creeping back into his eyes. “I do apologize for not letting you know what was happening or letting you know how I fared, but…”
“But?” Ashe prompted, her voice soft yet flat.
“Your uncle and I spoke at a length the day he requested I join him, and one of the topics that came up was you. Your uncle had fears of you deciding to accept Al-Cid’s proposals, wary that the man’s only intentions were to parade you around like some sort of prize he had won, and I admitted to him that I held little regard for the man. He then asked me how I would feel of throwing my own name into the pool of suitors and joining his court to increase my eligibility…” The man trailed off, hands playing with the cuff of his shirt.
“And how did you reply to his question? I take it you said yes, but what did you say that would make my uncle grow so fond of you that he would keep you being a member of his court a secret from me until now?”
Ashe motioned for him to sit as well, her thoughts a jumbled mess she was trying to sort out. He, the man she had deep feelings for, was now in front of her, admitting that there was something there, something that her uncle had even seen to allow him to offer himself as a suitor to her. He the man her heart had told her she loved all this time, though had just allowed her to admit it to herself earlier.
Balthier took a deep breath and turned to make sure his eyes were locked with Ashe’s. “I told him that I thought very highly of you, that I cared deeply for you. I said that in all of my travels I had never met someone with such spirit as yours, as noble and real. I told him I loved you and I hoped you felt that same way, but that if you did I was not worthy of your returned affections, being only a criminal. I told him of our talk of time, and he said he would help me become a suitable match in a short time, and that he would publicly approve the match. He also said he too could see you thought of someone else now, no longer was it Rasler’s ghost that haunted you and he said he thought it me…”
Ashe had never seen Balthier this nervous. He was always so cool, so charming, and here he was, seeming as if he were a stuttering boy in love for the first time… in some ways he was. He had opened his heart in ways she had not thought he ever would, having only earlier tried to push him from her mind due to her thinking this way.
“I thought you worthy even as a pirate, Balthier. Love is a funny thing, isn’t it?” Ashe gently entwined their hands. “You took the only thing tying me to my late husband, and in turn I tied myself to you. I did love you, though I was foolish as I did not realize you returned my affections until I thought it too late, and I do still love you. Yet, five years can change a person, and while I love you deeply, you will have to properly court me and we will have to get to know one another all over again. Is this okay?”
Balthier’s eyes seemed to light at her words. She was glad to know he loved her, that her suspicion was confirmed.
“It’s more than I hoped for,” Balthier raised their entwined hands and kissed hers. “Now, I think I have stolen you away from your party long enough.” He stood and helped her to her feet.
Ashe smiled softly. “I didn’t need the help of any pirate to steal away from my party.”
“That you did not. You’re much too strong for that.” Very slowly, he lent to brush his lips against hers. “Happy birthday, princess.”