part 12 of Threshold
Not exactly a joke, but this is how it went:
The Dynast King's line brought blonde into Dalmasca. The Dynast King's line was so prolific that all of Dalmasca's blood beat blonde: Raithwall's conquest had evidently been of harem as well as hillside! Thus did blonde become Dalmasca, the colour of sunbleached sand.
Azelas, or so a desert-crazy history lecturer had taught one young Archadian, was a name sourced in the original desert tribes, ancestors who had been Dalmascan before even Raithwall's ascendancy, since even before Dalmasca was called what it was. The joke (rumour, reputation, myth) circled amongst Imperials who had fallen foul of Vossler's command or of Nightmare's shadow: Captain Azelas' bloodline had been so long in Dalmasca that his kind burned black with the sun that bleached everyone else so blonde.
Vossler was an original, at least to the Archadian's eyes. The desert's swarthy archetype.
During the first few weeks of their travels together, it surprised Balthier to discover that he was the only one that really knew the joke, its origins, or that even cared to notice. His history teacher's Dalmascan obsession had a lot to answer for; Balthier could have explained the architectural mythology behind Raithwall's subterranean tomb without even seeing it, most likely better than Ashelia. Not that Balthier would admit that, of course. The only thing worse than knowledge was useless knowledge.
Well, Basch knew the joke, and had in fact been the first that mentioned something regarding Vossler's dark nature, which triggered Balthier's memory. But that was no surprise; Basch was as much a foreigner under this sun as Balthier was. Basch paid attention to the outliers. Fran uniformly ignored Vossler with the same desperation that he ignored her, and that a puzzle in itself, hence Balthier felt disinclined to raise the topic of the burnished chests of archetypal desert princes in her presence.
But the children, including Ashelia, should have done more than just blink when Balthier tried for a topic of conversation unrelated to treasure, Imperial occupation, or the potential of pilot lessons. All three of them were uniformly sandy from crown to heel, yet to them, Vossler's colouration was as unremarkable as the scenery.
Balthier imagined the times, their travails, had made them too incurious to care.
The morning was a usual morning for this deep in the desert. The sun was barely up, a white-gold smear on the horizon, and the night's chill dispelled on the instant. Distant heat-shimmer made the horizon indistinct in a way that had Balthier distrust his own eyes. Ever the first to rise, he had no need to wake the others: within moments, the heat itself would do that for him with all the subtlety of a greatsword.
When Vossler stepped out of his tent, he wore, unexpectedly, kohl thick-smudged around his eyes. Balthier looked, blinked, and moved on. Vossler had met Balthier's eyes with no unusual challenge. Balthier shook his head: he remembered his history books again - though this time, no, not exactly history books. He remembered tales of old heroic romances, dark-eyed desert princes illustrated on the cover, muscled chests and heaving trusty greatswords. Languishing, doe-eyed princesses with bared midriffs. Clear-eyed companions with as much personality as the sword. The inevitable conclusion towards which an unresourced and unremorseful Ffamran could not help but hasten.
Balthier was a little older, a little wiser, a lot better read. He doubted Dalmascans made of themselves an exoticism fit only for desire, even of their outliers.
Yet Balthier's eyes returned to Vossler, unbidden. Sweat and oil made dark curls look like hammered iron. Within the first day of their march, the sun had stained Vossler's skin a beaten shade of bronze that reminded Balthier of Fran's, and they were weeks deep now. Sweating already, although not at all as profusely as Balthier could not help but do, Vossler looked forged of molten metal.
In the stories of Ffamran's midnight hours, the dark-eyed princes always wore their kohl thick. It deflected the glare, or possibly it deflected the flies, Balthier couldn't rely on his memory. Whatever the reason, on Vossler, that liquid dark line looked right.
Out of all of them, it was Vaan that laughed when he noticed, followed by a catcall entirely too brazen.
Balthier let his packing fall and stepped in before things could get nasty. Vossler was not a man to take being called a girl by a boy who'd never known either.
'Shame. Imperials have scarce moved into your country two years, and already you adopt Imperial insult to direct at your own?'
Vaan continued to laugh at Vossler, who, yet unaware, wore unwitting the idea of inversion the Imperials had brought with them.
'I think it's pretty funny. I think you think it's pretty funny too, and you just don't want to get flogged. He's wearing makeup.'
'It's tradition in desert lands. I thought you were proud of being Dalmascan, enough to steal her treasures to keep them out of Imperial hands. Tradition is another kind of treasure.'
'Tradition, sure,' Vaan angled his chin high enough for challenge, and snorted, 'but that's makeup—'
'Kohl's a fine old desert tradition, it keeps the flies away.'
'Glare,' Basch murmured, in passing, in the process of packing. 'Military tactic.'
'Glare,' Balthier said. 'Kohl being intrinsic to a time when one couldn't accessorise like a Rozzarian with tinted perspex as protective—'
'So if it's all that good, how come all of us aren't doing it?' Vaan's smirk curdled, slowly, that underlying irritation coming to the boy's fore. He crossed his arms. 'Look, Balthier, I don't need you telling me what a Dalmascan does. The only place you can tell me what to do is if I'm on your ship and at your helm. Tell me how to fly, sky pirate, I don't give a damn what you think a Dalmascan is. You don't even have a nation that you're proud of.'
Taken aback by a nationalist vehemence he had always suspected was there, like the potential of a sewer rat to inflict deathly gangrene with the barest scratch, Balthier turned away without another word.
'You could really pick your battles better,' Basch said, again in passing, and this time with a grin. 'I'd likely suggest your distressed maiden is miscast, oh grandiloquent leading man, if I were the kind to offer unwelcome advice.'
At least Basch found it all amusing, Balthier thought, but then, after Nalbina, likely everything was a joke.
Basch must have mentioned something to Vossler, later in the day, because without expectation Vossler suddenly started glaring. Not at Vaan, but at Balthier.
Balthier and Vossler were infrequently in proximity, so it stayed only a glare, cast over Vossler's shoulder, across the blade of his sword as he whirled with full battle force. Every now and then, the glare renewed itself while Vossler was in deep conversation with Basch, or in attendance on Ashelia.
Vossler had made it clear he disapproved of piratical assistance in any sense of the term, and so even in the skirmishes that wore at everyone's patience, Balthier stayed well away and by Fran's side, at the rear, where he strung one of her bows for his own use. (The intense heat swelled some metal mechanism of his favoured gun to the point that it jammed on every second shot, and he was not feeling himself.)
Nevertheless, wyverns and unwary pirates could attest to the force of Vossler's telekinesis, whatever the distance. Balthier felt that force all day.
'Do you want him?' Fran asked, entirely unexpectedly.
'You look at him without rest. Even battle will not draw your gaze, and my fletch does not shoot so awry as you claim. Small wonder he returns your stares.'
It was too hot for conversation, the sun sucking wetness out of a mouth unwarily open. Balthier harrumphed, then stared at the horizon's shimmer until his eyes watered.
In the evening, Vossler waited until Balthier was as alone as their conditions could allow, and approached. Balthier was on the floor, legs crossed somewhat awkwardly at the ankle, and he gestured for Vossler to join him.
Vossler could not but clench with the annoyance at the authority the gesture implied. As though the pirate were a king holding court!
Balthier propped his elbow on his knee, his chin on his hand, nonchalant, as if full aware of the attitude.
Vossler ground his teeth momentarily, contemplating a refusal even though he had been the one to approach, then he knelt opposite. The sand was chill, like cold metal, no substance in it to hold the heat of the day. Vossler pushed knees wide and settled his weight back on his heels.
'I have no need for a pirate to defend my rights, nor to instruct a street rat and a tomb thief on my behaviours, as though I were that pirate's relic dug up from a greater king's grave.'
Balthier handwaved. 'I meant no honest harm, the brat's braying irritated me, nothing more.'
He might have appeased Vossler with that, as Vossler well understood irritation as a motivating factor, but Balthier's tongue had never respected boundaries.
'I'm a little too used to speaking the inexplicable for Fran.'
Vossler's knuckles cracked despite himself. He eased his fists. He had intended to use this breach of protocol to re-clarify with Balthier exactly what position he and Fran would uphold on this escapade, and that whatever treasure Ashelia had promised that a royal promissory was worth more than the substance; that Balthier's sword-arm might be welcomed by Ashelia but that Vossler trusted no one—
All good intentions undone by the pirate's tongue.
'Now I'm not only an invert, I'm inexplicably so?'
'Well, shit,' Balthier said, and blinked.
Vossler leaned forward until he could near see the colour of the pirate's eyes, even in this moon-silvered light. 'In Balfonheim,' Vossler touched his finger to the edge of Balthier's eye, where the youthful skin was beginning to seam with sun, 'I hear there's a cohort of boys who wear their colours on their eyes.'
Balthier had sucked in his breath when Vossler touched him, but had not flinched. He said, levelly enough, 'For a different reason, but yes, the custom itself is similar.'
'Tell me the reason.'
'I think you already know.'
'Tell me the reason, pirate, exercise your articulate tongue. I want to hear you say it.'
A deep breath then. 'Why, clearly to enhance their most attractive feature, being their eyes; for the purpose of selling their aspects—'
'Whores,' Vossler said. 'Boy-whores to other men. I know what you think of me, pirate, where you have come from and what cross-grained intent had been bred into your skull. You should know that I don't care what you think of me. '
For an odd moment, Balthier looked torn. Then suddenly reconciled, sinking into his arrogance with ease.
'This conversation, Ser Azelas, suggests otherwise.'
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