Nothing Gained If Sought
He calls to her.
(Draws to him.)
Drawls out the word slow and agonizing.
(Heady is the susurration of a serpent.)
Mesmerized, petrified, she dreads what comes next. Thoughts gone errant, heart turned renegade, leaving her ousted, nearly, bitterly dethroned. Traitors, she wants to scream. Banish them all into the desert where the Sandsea will tear them flesh from bone.
"Princess," Balthier whispers, lightly touching her arm. "What will you do?"
Obediently, Basch sheathes his sword and quietly exhales in relief. Sometimes, he forgets that Ashe is still young.
Balthier hates the way that Rozzarian says her name, rolling and toying with the r and teasing the s into a hiss. He hates how Al-Cid impertinently kisses her hand, stands just a bit too close, all the while shooting him smug smiles.
(He hates how he doesn't have that same temerity. He hates that she is a princess and thus forever out of reach.)
"Will you visit Rozzaria when all this is over?"
Ashe shakes her head. "I don't know. Maybe, if I must, if it will help restore peace."
"Everything you do now is for peace. But what will you do once that is done?"
"It will never be over; it is a task that requires a lifetime."
At this, Balthier turns away. He can't bear the idea (the inevitability) that she will sacrifice her life for a dream. A mere chance, a shadow of a future—such is the curse of the Dynast King.
His revelation at Phon Coast comes with a sting though not a poisoned one. She is surprised that he trusted her enough to have admitted something so personal and grateful that he lets the conversation drop.
Scanning the far-swept blue waves, Ashe realizes that Balthier is an enigma. With the sun hitting his face, highlighting the delicate, blond fuzziness along his jawline, she notices how pretty he really is. Thin, lithe, and wiry like a blade of grass (and edged and rough like so).
"We should catch up with the others," he announces, breaking the trance. "I don't know about you but I'm starved. Let's see if there's a tavern somewhere. Don't be so glum, Princess. I'll get you nice and drunk before you enter the enemies' lair."
Ashe can't help but laugh. His cavalier cheer startles her even now. For all his sarcasm and blasé air, he can be so kind and selfless. So genuine that she has difficulty remembering he's a pirate from Archadia.
"Why do you call me that?"
"That. You and I both know I am only one in title. I am powerless, landless, nameless. Why do you mock me so?"
Balthier looks at her sadly. It pains him to see tears burning her cheeks, her eyes ablaze with anger and humiliation and loss. He grips her shoulders gently and brings her close. Tentatively, he hugs her (is careful to maintain a hairline distance).
Immediately, she starts sobbing into his chest, ruining his best linen shirt. Her tears are hot and effusive, and he almost regrets comforting her. He can't stand it when women cry, especially strong, willful ones like her.
"Shh, it'll be okay," he murmurs into her hair. "You were a born a princess and that's what you are—no matter what. And don't you forget that."
As he takes the ring from her for collateral, a large part of her wants to slap him and wrestle it away.
And a small part feels liberated, knowing he will guard it with his life.
Rarely do they take watch together. Usually, it's her and Vaan and him and Fran. But tonight, only they and Penelo are at camp, waiting for the others to return from trading. And it would be cruel to deprive a little girl of sleep—so he says.
"I'm seventeen," Penelo mutters but resigns to sleep.
And soon, she is snoring away. Soft, little puffs of air that mingle with the swollen sky in this arid, merciless land.
Ashe stifles a yawn and stretches out her sore muscles. From the periphery of her vision, she detects Balthier doing the same.
"What's on your mind, Princess?"
"Don't call me that, not tonight," she answers wearily. "For once, I want to pretend that I am someone else. Someone free and untroubled by the weight of empires and political games."
"Freedom, is that not the elusive treasure all people seek? The ability to live a life unrestrained, to charge wherever your heart takes fancy. It's only a myth. Believe me, I would know."
"You're wrong. Freedom is real, but you won't find it if you simply seek it out. You must fight for it, steal it."
He grins. "Now you're thinking like a true pirate."
The ring sits heavily in her hand, and she thinks about putting it back on though it would feel strange like reconnecting an appendage that has been severed. Nonetheless, she is glad to have it back (to know they are alive).
And one day, when he dares to return (coward) she will surprise him too. She'll prove that she's gained all she sought—stolen back as only a queen could.