No Tragedy Today
part 22 of Threshold
They are in Archades on the worst day of the feast-day riots, all four of them: Balthier and Fran, Cam and Gyro. Balthier realizes gambler's luck and parental warning instinct have failed both he and Fran that day, or perhaps no such thing has ever really existed, neither luck nor parental instinct, and he was a fool to rely on either.
In that moment, when crowd becomes mob, it reminds Balthier of war. He has been both soldier and victim, found no nobility in either role, finds nothing but anger that he is, here and now, again where he does not want to be. The feel and taste of sweat on the air is as thick as the heat, the terror.
Cam cries suddenly, if silently, without knowing why, and turns her face to Balthier's thigh. Her fingers are white, tight around his belt. Gyro's ears are flat. She tucks her spectacles into her center pocket, prudent girl, and only hesitantly reaches for his hand. Balthier can see over most of the crowd, see the direction of the trend, and he sees that Fran sees the way of things too. He nods; she agrees; they use height and need both to shoulder towards the nearest alley. Her eyes are wide and wild. Balthier sucks stinking air in through his teeth.
Balthier is not afraid until a body presses against his right hand, the one that Gyro holds. He does not stop moving, but he has to slow for long enough to lift Gyro onto one hip, and Cam up onto the other. They are nearly too big to be held; they hold him tighter than he can hold them. If he were younger, this would be easier.
He is not terrified until three fat men are suddenly bullish between his shoulder and Fran's - three people that become seven as he blinks, twenty when he hesitates, forty, then more than he can count, but there is only ever one Fran. He can see her ears. A lifetime of distance is between them.
The moment of crystallization is as sharp as the whipcrack of the weather breaking, when mob becomes riot.
Balthier has heard it said in the aftermath of both war and riot that individuality is lost - the crowd is no longer a collection of responsible individuals, but rather a single heaving mind, mindless for that unity. He thinks that is a lie at best, an excuse at the worst. The atrocities committed in both war and riot are those of personality, true personality, selfish and self-sustaining only, dark or desperate as they come, but always committed with the belief that both riot and war need no masks of proper conduct. The Akademy sought to teach her soldiers, in most part, better than that: the mask must always stay in place, with a literal mask worn to assist that meaning. That teaching had not been the worst of the Akademy's hypocrisy. When the first wave of true force nearly wrenches Cam from his left arm, Balthier decides he hates everyone else alive. He would kill every one of these bastards, if the need to survive were not greater than that irrational need for vengeance.
Then he cannot see Fran's ears.
He does not think he cries out, does not hear himself over this groaning multiplicitious mob-beast, ten thousand stinging aimless jellyfish through which he swims, fifteen thousand swarming, malicious bees through which he runs, but Gyro hears him. She realizes, clever girl, too clever where Cam is calm, and she shrieks with him this time: 'Fran!' but who is listening? Only Cam, who adds her voice to the third call, 'Fran!' but even the gods are deaf, and his children are being hit by this uncaring, selfish tide, twenty thousand biting ants, thirty thousand snatching cobras, his children's bared thighs and the backs and arms so vulnerable, both of them wearing their silly oversized moogle-made overalls, six pockets apiece and only his stolen jewelry that they tuck away within: he should have dressed them in armour, in layered plate steel; he shouldn't have let them step outside of the Strahl! He cannot protect them both with only two hands. Their howls are of pain now, and Gyro's thighs are suddenly loose against his ribs, and slipping. Balthier, he thinks he has lost his feet, his sanity, even his spine, but he will not lose her. Gyro is bleeding all over one arm, and Cam holds her sister's hands to keep her grip strong. Balthier's shoulders hurt, his back, worse. Somewhere, they have started throwing stones. He hears glass breaking, shattering, sees showers of white start their spiral through the sky. Oh, Archades, and all her cursed levels; even the riots rise to challenge the skies. Balthier shouts for the girls to look down. Glass pebbles in their hair, his; a stone graces his brow with blood. He would be blind, but Cam wipes the blood, then Gyro. Their breath is warm and real through his shirtsleeves.
One step, two, then a sudden run where he cannot turn aside; submit, then, this is it, forward. Long moments when he cannot touch the ground at all. He watches a shorter woman go under, shrieking. A halt. He manages five steps to one side. Softness under his feet, a child; the next, a man; the next, a hand closes around his ankle and he will not look down. More glass from above, a deadly rain this time, the window not glazed for safety. Balthier sees those chance-formed knives kill a man three steps to his side. The press is tight. The dead body stays upright through the next move foward.
They are all in the plaza next, along with the guns, and the bombs, of course. Showers of dust and speckle turn gold and glittering in the sunlight. Something sharp peppers Balthier's cheek, and Cam wails his name. Balthier remembers, sudden and sour, how much fun Ffamran used to have with his little incendiary mixes, remembers the riots that graced Ffamran's last days on Ivalician earth. Balthier wonders if anyone hates their city as much as Archadians do.
Balthier carries on his person, as a default, one gun at the small of his back, a handful of shot, seven handbombs, one dagger, and certain knowledge of his impotence.
When Balthier reaches a wall, it surprises him. He expects the stone to be as hard and demanding and progressive as the wall of flesh against his back, but this is a wall which can be relied upon not to move. Dependable. Not so good as an escape route, an ugly death if Balthier cannot hold a guard against the pressure, but he will hold. Shoulders slam against his, Cam leaking spots of blood and dry tears into his neck - and Balthier is in a corner now, as suddenly as he was against a wall. Cornered. Balthier bares his teeth at the riot; he is no rat. He relinquishes the twins to those two planes of architecture (he can trust, he must) and Balthier sets himself for their safety at the third. Balls a fist, draws the gun. There's already a dead body at his feet, not one of his making. A shrieking face, bloodied mask, presses up against him to try and drag him back to the tidal insanity; Balthier uses the gun's butt for force, thrusts that body back against others, wins himself the room for a wretched, lonely breath.
Cam has her fingers around his waistband, Gyro her arms around his thigh. Suddenly, with a grief that wants to wail, Balthier remembers he lost Fran. He shoves the gun's length against the next form that comes too close, enraged.
A familiar shouted curse, his own name appended, gives Balthier back the ability to see through the wild grief and rage. 'Vossler?'
The vagrant sellsword has his life's love naked and ready, that brutal length being used as Balthier uses his gun, for leverage. Vossler is even darker than the last time Balthier saw him. Balthier thinks, wildly, he cannot recall when Vossler went grey; maybe, Balthier snarls at himself, when you got slow enough to get caught in a riot. But there is it: look at him, Vossler all solid iron these days, bluestone and rust-bound blackness, as trustworthy as architecture. The riot does not dare their corner now. Balthier is retching for want of breath, was not aware he had even fought so hard for this small sanctuary, but his lungs, his throat, they hurt. He shakes dust from his hair, brushes stone shards from his shirt. He aches all the more for his relief. Vossler's back is broad and he does not relinquish even an inch; the mob cannot dare him further than this. Balthier tallies the blood, slashes, the smudged bruises across wire-and-wrought-iron biceps: he will owe Vossler twice, thrice over for each hurt the man takes on his behalf now, money or madhu or whatever Vossler wants, even if Vossler asks for gratitude. The girls are shrieking, Balthier realizes, with delight. All he wants to do is join them.
'I lost Fran,' Balthier shouts.
Vossler grins wild and wolfish, right in the riot's face; grin becomes a snarl as he whips Daydream's hilt against another's crown. 'She hasn't lost you! Look to the sky pirate!'
Balthier mishears, then suddenly re-hears (look to the sky, pirate!). One of the wide terraces overhanging this people's plaza has been colonized by low-level Judges. They pepper the crowd below with pockets of slow and blind (not sleep and stop, as it had been in Ffamran's wild heyday, which led to accidental martyrs, unrepentant comrades, mourning mothers). Basch stands among those policemen, helm under his arm and unnaturally expressionless at this distance; and Fran, too, oh Fran, still clinging with tense arms to that balustrade over which she must have climbed - Balthier traces back, sees, yes, the first layer of rough stone, the later lattice, the ornate filigree, oh clever, clever Fran, to think first of the safety of the sky. Balthier cannot spare an arm to wave, but he feels the spark when he looks up at her, and she sees him, recognizes him, though who wouldn't with Vossler's whirling preventative standing as guard? Such sharp relief comes that Balthier nearly cries out, and relief's backlash returned from Fran - he can almost feel her own exhalation through his own lips, that which wants to be a cry, too. Balthier is grinning.
'The four of you do seem to stand out in a crowd,' Vossler shouts, all the explanation possible.
'Can't quite think of why.' Balthier feels giddy; now, now he could lose his feet and it would be alright. 'Could it possibly be the ears?'
'No Archadian wears as many piercings as you.' One sideways grin, flashed agreeably quick, and Vossler clears enough space that he can use his blade as it is meant to be used, full length swinging and lethal. 'We can see you sparkle from streets away.'
Balthier watches as the riot becomes mob, as the mob becomes crowd, as even the crowd filters out and down and sluggish. There is still a press of people but unthreateningly dense. Vossler lowers his sword, but does not sheathe it. There are bodies, many unrecognizable, amongst the debris that remains. Balthier does not try to turn Cam or Gyro from those twists of flesh. Though the twins do not stare, neither do they look away. Vossler touches his fingertips to Gyro's gold-dust curls, gentle and ghosting, does the same to Cam's chin to see her red-wet eyes, and withdraws two curatives from his belt pouch. On the upper terrace, it seems Fran cannot concern herself with the stairs that Basch must, as she starts to climb back down the way she came.
It will all be well, Balthier thinks as he moves to meet her, first walking, then running across that bloodied field, running. He can see the ending of this now, and it is not a tragic one.
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