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Told from Rasler's post-humous point of view; unrelated to the other works in this series except by theme. Content includes a miscarriage caused by violence.

When Kingdom Come

Another day comes at you out of the east, rolling over you like an army. You assemble your priorities: you open your eyes, and rise.

Would it anger you, to see me watch you so? What business is it of yours, you might demand from me; why must you watch? But I don't think I could anger you when even the pirate does not. There is no room for deception in death. You lie in the pirate's bed, and I see the distance between you and he is precisely the same absence that lay between you and I.

Where are you, Ashe, if not at his side?

You step out of his bed and begin, again.

'Where are you, Ashe?' The pirate reaches for your absence, hard and hungry with the morning. You're into the mess hall already, and eating; this is your only hunger now. He showers with his eyes closed. You shower with your eyes open.

The pirate lifts us into the sky and with every touch he makes love to his ship with his fingers. You do not pilot.

I want to ask you: why do you love this pirate? His body proved such a fragile vehicle for fate. But I know you do not love him. I think I love him more than you do. He reminds me of me; our steel shells are equally worthless, punctured too easily, a vulnerability left for every soft spot we think so profoundly covered. You never wear steel, Ashe. I have never been able to see where your vulnerabilities lie.

A flock of birds spiral suddenly high over the steppe, whirling and singing, and surround you. They are caught in a mating frenzy, blinded by the life that has their blood rise. You do not see them. The pirate does, and blinks, but only eases the ship's angle. You flinch when that mass of avian lust disrupts the ship; you gasp, and cry out. The ship shakes. The pirate reaches to steady you with his touch. The birds are calling, cries suddenly stifled by the engines and the whine of compensatory strain. The collision of small bodies against the hull is clear; thumps and scrabbling, an attempt by each bird once a part of a whole suddenly severed, fighting for life. A blizzard of feathers and gore cascades where you can't see it. You imagine, though, with your face turning white, the feathered bodies sucked into the engines and dismembered, shattered and sliced. You have been to war. You imagine well.

The odor from the engines comes through the cockpit, wickedly pleasant, like an old burned friend. Winged ghosts still whisper to you from that unholy incinerator. Why do you hear them, and never I?

'Worried?' The pirate only now sees the depth of your alarm, the pallor. 'Bird strikes are common, Ashe, especially in this season. You should get accustomed to them, if you stay on with me for any length of time.'

The pirate questions without questions, always; but you are not one for subtleties. Where he reached out to comfort you, you do not return the favour. 'You could have gone around, up, down—'

The pirate does not know whether to think your comment one of sentiment or ignorance. He speaks slowly when he answers. 'The risk of losing control with such sudden motion is greater than the risk of a collision. This way the Strahl just needs a wash,' he considers, 'maybe some dented panels repaired. As long as nothing gets caught in a wing gear, birdstrike is nothing to fear.'

'So many dead—'

'Birds always angle down,' the pirate says. 'I angled the Strahl up before we hit. Less damage was caused than you think.' He does not know how to comfort you. He regards his hand; his touch has always seemed insufficient. He smiles instead. Only I see your shudder. 'If we set our path to where we, wingless creatures, were not meant to pass, it's inevitable that that casualties should occur. Better they than us, eh?'

The words are clear in your head. Who are you, to so judge? You do not speak. Your silence is thick.

'Hmph. At least it wasn't a zu.' The pirate turns back to his ship and makes love to her with his hands again. His ego is supported by the shaped curves of his chair.

'Zu don't fly this high, Balthier. Any a sky pirate worth her salt should know that.'

He smiles at the horizon. He is suddenly happy.

'Rasler,' you say.

I think you say it. When you sleep I cannot see you so sharply; you speak through syrup. You are dreaming now, and weeping. It sounds like my name. You keep calling it, your body rising, your loins a hollow core of heat in the darkness. 'Rasler, Rasler; Rasler, why? What are you doing?'

But I am here, I'm always here. You reach but in the dark you only find your pirate. He wakes to your weeping, your knees wide.

You are awake now, crystalline, breakable. 'Vossler.' You call as though he can answer. Your throat is full of the name, your mind of the man. My heart would break but I have no heart; of course you would not call for me. 'Vossler, why did you—Vossler!'

'Ashe.' The pirate is still blurry with sleep. 'Ah, Ashe, please stop weeping, or I'll have to keep you company. Grief is a lonely land to live in.'

You put his hand between your thighs. He rolls into your openness. You close your legs around him, heels tucked into the bend of his knees; you close your eyes. I do not remember my grief being carried in my loins, only my hope; what drives you against the pirate's length, if not your guilt, if not your grief? When the pirate orgasms his mind is full of a name not yours. The lids of his eyes hold back tears that burn. He thinks you are too short for him; he misses the feel of fur, a woman that does not cling to him so. Your mind is full of nothing. Your womb aches with the aftermath of the pirate's thrusting. You think of that instead of him. It does not last long as a consumptive thought. The despair fills you up, alkaline and white.

'I knew it was a mistake,' you say. 'Everybody said it would never work; Vossler said, and then Vossler did what he did. Why did I ever think to try?'

'But it's the same when love comes to an end,' the pirate says. 'Or when a marriage fails. People say they knew it was a mistake, that everybody said it would never work. They think only of the failure, and never of that you had to try to fail, of everything that you did and experienced and gained in the trying. There's no shame in trying, Ashe.'

'For you, maybe, but for you there is shame in nothing.' Despair turns to spite, viscous. 'I was not born to this.'

'And you think Fran was born of the Wood to die for you, in a ship of made of metal, a thousand miles up in the air, not even the embrace of the earth to welcome her home?' The pirate's rage is coiled in his belly, the knots of his fists. How does he speak so calmly when he wants to strike you? 'We all make our choices, Ashe. We either live, or live to regret them. I prefer to simply live. Regrets are rather time-consuming.'

The pirate's words run a chain of constraint about his anger, binding it smaller until it turns to reason. You lie there and feel his semen cool within you, under you. Your own constraints are very different to his.

You wrap your slender arms about yourself, and do not sleep.

You always walk behind the pirate when he leads you through Balfonheim. Your distaste for the place shows in your uneasy stride. Your uneasy stride is what has the eyes of hungry men turn to you, to note your legs, your slender arms, the soft flesh of your belly. Their eyes are what engenders your distaste for this place. Where this circled chain of hater and hated begins and ends is unknown. All I know is that you do not wish to break it. You hold the pirate's hand. He thinks he loves you.

The pirate buys you a drink, a meal; you drink but do not eat. He eats and drinks in equal measure, with gusto. You cannot cook, and when he flies he has not the time. He hungers for hot food more than your flesh now. His teeth strike on the fork, and the skin of your spine crawls at the sound. Once his hunger is sated the other hunger subsides with it. He thinks you look beautiful.

'Did you hear,' you ask him, 'about what happened to Golmore?'

'They came through Henne,' His stomach is suddenly too tight, fullness now feeling like pain. I remember that feeling. Sensation is so dependent on perception, I wonder how I could ever have trusted the feelings of my own body. We are only ever betrayed by ourselves. 'The Viera weren't expecting such a strike, from such an angle. What Draklor did to them—'

'They are unstoppable,' you say. 'Viera are berserker killers at the best of times. What did the Empire did, ah, well. Drunk on Mist, and the Empire holds all the stones now.'

'I don't know about Mist,' the pirate says, 'but I do know how to get drunk.' He shakes his head. 'Fran was lucky to leave when she did.'

'Fran didn't leave,' you say. It is not spite that motivates you, but I cannot determine what does. Your own stomach eats itself, hollow and ignored. 'She died.'

The pirate shrugs. 'What happens to Golmore is not my business any longer. Do you want to make it yours?'

'What happens to Golmore is not my business.'

The pirate gets drunk.

He vomits where you cannot see him, in an alley. Recovering, he is propositioned by young men in white shirts who want his belt pouch, who care nothing for his spilled supper. He is empty enough now to be hungry, but he walks away and keeps his belt pouch full, the pouch between his legs fuller. He comes back to the halls and kisses you deeply. You taste his supper then, and back away. All the pirate's edges blur when he is so surrendered to spirits. He sings with the Balfonheimers, and loves them, and they love him. A much younger man stands in the same space as he, the same man as he is but with eyes less knowing and far more beautiful for that ignorance. Eyes that ignorant would flee before admitting the necessity to look on horror. The pirate was a good man, once. Is he my mirror, or my replacement? Did I ever mean so much to you to need replacing? You cast away a nation for the pirate's sake, where I cast away my life for my nation's sake. Did you see the truth of what goes on behind his bland display of confidence? Or did you only ever see his confidence?

The pirate mounts you in the room he keeps above a technicks shop. He thrusts until all the stars spin themselves out of the sky, bending you, twisting you, his weight pushing you into the too-soft mattress until you feel like his sweat, his heat and the mattress have swallowed you whole. He is too drunk to feel the slick that eases his path, too drunk to feel anything but the most forceful of strokes, and so he strokes, hard. Your stomach growls. You orgasm twice for the fact of his force. Your fingertips press deep into the softness of his thighs. His carelessness sates you were his care never does. You do not move at all. He pinches your nipple, and says your name. The only word you say for all his efforts is 'no', once, when he asks if you will ride him on top.

When he finishes he pauses, eyes on yours. He is seeking a sign where no sign will be given. He has known you before, but before that he had no Hume affections for a long time. He does not know what to look for any more. You have never known what signs to give.

Anarchic, the wind rattles the glass of that attic room. The day after the same wind has become a storm, and rattles the plateglass of all the airships in that hangar where the pirate does his dealing. The wind probes chromium frames and stirs the hair of all the Humes gathered. Midway through the meeting a Bangaa clan enters the room, Imperials accompanying them. The pirate cries: 'betrayed, my Balfonheim brothers!'

The word strikes you to the core. You draw your daggers; you no longer fight with a sword. The pirate draws his gun. Who exposed you, you do not know. The welter of emotion in the room pushes me away, the blood shed, the souls freed. You are bleeding. You taste bile. The pirate is bleeding. He tastes frustration, which tastes similar to bile. He still smells of alcohol. You smell of sex. You are surrounded. He fights for you. You fight for you. From this high, I cannot see much; he is a tiny Hume with a rifle. He fires in defense of something barely understood. He has always done this for you. Perhaps that is why you stay with him when he runs; he holds your hand, and you hold his. His leg is longer. He tugs you along. You love him so very much then I can see it radiate from you, a nexus in the storm. Behind you, the pirate shakes one of his alchemical bombs and hurls it, hard and accurately. The hangar explodes. He is over you when it does. You are curled beneath him, head between your knees, and he arches and howls with pain. It looks like lovemaking. He protects you. His back is littered with shrapnel, his shirt torn. You are sobbing. Hopeless as tears, his blood falls in response to those explosive sobs.

The next morning comes. The next morning will always come. In the marketplace there are hundreds of Imperials. You are exposed, but not as Ashelia, not as Dalmasca's rightful ruler. You are exposed instead as a part of a swindle of gargantuan proportions. The pirate is furious. All his sunset dividends have been declared; now unsellable. All his sunrise bonuses promised: he cannot make good. The Empire owns Balfonheim now.

You interrupt his anger. 'But what business of mine is it who takes the taxes in the end, so long as they do not take my freedom— our freedom?'

'What business of theirs is Balfonheim,' he replies, and loves you, 'but that they want to take everyone's freedoms?'

The pirate steals his own ship back from Imperial possession. He laughs when he does it. He thinks he has his freedom back. You wonder if it is as simple as having a ship. You hope it is. He sheds his blood for you. This is a precious thing.

Later that evening, you tend his shrapnel-savaged back with your tongue.

Balfonheim falls. Bhujerba does not. The pair of you go to Bhujerba. Bhujerba falls. Mount Bur-Omisace does not. The pair of you go to Bur-Omisace. The pirate transports refugees this time. His ship smells like mortality. Bur-Omisace falls. The pair of you go to Nabradia, quite alone. You left behind all your clothes in your haste. The pirate never takes his off the ship. 'Nabudis fell years ago,' you say; the pirate responds with grim delight, 'oh I know, love, but they abandoned that wreck; we should find time to recoup there, get some much needed maintenance done before the Imperials decide to come marching in again. The wing gears are sticking miserably.'

You do not want to leave. You do not like this life without roots; you were born rooted, your land your only expected love. You sink your roots into the pirate instead. He does not note their tangle. You were close to tears when you left Bhujerba. You liked it there. You were smiling when you left Bur-Omisace. You didn't like it there. It was very cold.

Others have had the same thought as your pirate. You arrive in Nabudis to find a gathering of inHumes there to meet you. The Viera are still sane and untouched by Imperial fingers. The Moogles leap to assist with repairs on the ship; there are no other ships here. The Bangaa are sullen, but keep an efficient guard at the deadlands' perimeter. The Seeq trade with abandon. Only Imperial gil is exchanged.

There are even Nu-Mou here, moving amongst all the dead and the few living. Those mystics greet you with smiles. After a moment of conversation with you, their smiles fall and they retreat, hasty, with backwards glances over their shoulders as though you had turned from a woman into a horror of two legs and two arms. You do not know what thought crosses their mind, what words the dead have whispered to them. I am glad I cannot tell you. They thought that somewhere in this land their savior slept. Then they met you, and knew. Sleep is not surrender.

There are a few Humes here. You find that other one whose name you call in the night — not the name that sounds like mine, but the other name; of that knight who could not protect me, or protect you, or protect himself. The pirate is filled with bitter joy to find that old knight here. They share drinks, and are polite to you. After six drinks they are shirtless, to compare their scars. The knight's whip-grid is old and calm now, ghosted by pain. The pirate's shrapnel-scores are dark and centered in bruises mottled like spilled ink. 'This needed healing.' The old knight is dismayed. 'It's too late now, you're going to scar. Gods, Balthier, what happened?'

'Half a hundred Imperials taken down with a single scatterbomb. It was the force that got through their cursed armor; sent the spend scattering flying far enough to catch us.' The pirate dons his shirt again. He laughs. He is not amused. 'My wings failed me there, heh. Though it's not like I'm spoiling anyone's view; better my back than Ashe's, hmm?'

The knight regards him with hungry eyes; inside the knight is as empty as a euphemism, hollow as his armor. Such a knowing hopelessness is a terrible thing to behold. 'Draklor's alchemical mix?'

'Of course. What else was I born for, Basch, than to turn the leavings of better men to my own ends?'

The pirate's words are spoke to spite his own shadow, not aimed at you. You hurt nevertheless. You wrap your arms about yourself. The knight and pirate regard you. They both love you. The pirate loves you for being his, like he loves his ship. The knight loves you like he loves his dreams, the love for a thing that is perfect and imagined, somewhere and somewhen, and never touched. The knight is fortunate he has not the eyes of a Nu-Mou.

The knight speaks first. 'If Ashe wills it, can you stay, Balthier, and make more?'

'You intend to hold? Here, in the middle of a swamp?'

'Where else is left?'

You rise to wander. This used to be my homeland. I look at it through your eyes and can ignore the hundreds of dead, hands reaching up to me from the waters, clutching, waving, so many strands of broken reed. I do not know this place any more. I do not feel any grief for what it has become. You discover more Humes amongst the masses of inHumes races, gathering berries at the swamp's edge. You move to join them. Your name stops you: 'Lady Ashe! Lady Ashelia!'

It is a girl who sets down her basket and runs for you, long braids bouncing. She stops where she would have embraced you. She wants to embrace you. She kneels instead, scarred knees in the bloody mud. 'Don't,' you say. 'Penelo. Please don't kneel.'

You have gone blank. The girl rises, hesitates, and does embraces you now. You can feel the swell of her breasts against yours, the thick strength of her arms. 'Princess,' she says, choked. 'It's so good to see you. You've come to fight.'

'I fled here,' you say, to the sky. 'I have no fight left. We've been running, Balthier and I both. There is no fighting left.'

'But Dalmasca waits for Her rightful Queen—!'

'Dalmasca has what She wants.' You are angry, cold instead of hot. 'I can give Her nothing more. My birthright, surrendered; Vossler wed that slip of a maid they put in my place, and he is king now. The future of Dalmasca will not be stolen, he fought for his unnamed servant Queen before he even knew her; he claimed Dalmasca's future when he wed her. Let him reap what he sows.' You breathe, steadily. The smoulder of my swamp is heavy in your lungs. 'But there are happier things of which to speak. Balthier is here; with Basch. And where is Vaan? We have not all been together, since —'

The girl's eyes are wide, disbelieving, and angry. 'Vossler hung him.' She says it in a flat voice; her breast heaves to make up for that levelness. 'I should say, his Majesty Lord and Sovereign of the Sands Vossler York Azelas hung him for sedition, but really he hung him for the fact that Vaan knew your face, and wouldn't shut up about it. Rope proves better than a gag, or so I hear. I managed to get away with Basch's help before I found myself a grave. You—'

'Balthier is here.' You say it like the words are salvation, or perhaps just a salve. 'Balthier is here. Balthier is here.'

'Well, let's go see him then.' The girl walks back to my shambled city. You stumble on the treacherous ground; she is more familiar with such a terrain. She catches your arm and guides you. You do not talk. You brush the slick mud from your legs before you enter the house the knight calls his own. It is noisy. The room is full of soldiers, inHume ones. The knight and the pirate are very drunk now. The war maps are off the table; the pirate stands on it instead. He sings like a bird does, for no better reason than to sing. The knight tries to converse with him, unaware of the song. There is food and drink. You do not eat. You drink. The girl drinks with you, but eats heartily also. She is very solid, and strong. You sit by her side for the fact of familiarity. Her shoulder is a comfort when your head tilts, her arm around you. Her breast is a better comfort. Your head is pillowed there. You smile, dazed and dreaming. I think your mother should have given you sisters. Moogles take up fiddles and flutes. The pirate stops singing and surrenders his table to them. Through the crowd he weaves, finds you, smiles and kisses you on the lips, and kisses the girl on the back of her hand. His lips leave wet prints. The girl's anger is in her throat, but she swallows it all. The pirate disappears.

'Penelo,' you say, for no reason, 'I'm sorry.'

Your hand is in hers. Her fingers are very calloused. You do not know her now, but the young man with the broken neck tells me about her. She fights as the knight's squire, in armour once made for the young man who died on the rope he carries. It did not fit him well, he tells me, and the fit on her is even worse. He is morose, and wants to comfort her, but she does not see him: she has sores on her shoulders from the weight. She fights every day. He is proud. She is very good. She is not good enough. She does not know why she fights. I know her, and that feeling, well. The old knight will watch her die one day soon. He watched me die, once, and kissed my eyes closed.

'What I mean is,' the pirate's voice weaves through the crowd like he would have, staggering, drunk, meandering. 'What I mean is, I mean, Basch, what I mean is: I knew! I knew! When even the honest Balfonheim flakes started falling all over those with Imperial connections, when even the gil-girls turned away everything but gold from Imperial mines, when even Balfonheim opened Her gates like the worst of those whores opens her legs, to every fucking Imperial prick on his own pair of legs — I knew! An army of Imperial pricks, oh I do so like the sound of that, Imperial pricks advancing on Her despite Her raised eyebrows! —yet, Balfonheim was always a whore of a city, Basch. Survival of the sluttiest; you were a soldier before a knight, you know how it works. Bhujerba was a lady. What the Imperial pricks did to Bhujerba was nothing more than rape —'

'Forget the future of Dalmasca.' The girls' fingers are soothing through your hair, though they are rough enough to snarl. 'What about the future of Ivalice?'

'What I mean is,' the pirate says, 'wherever life is still gay, exciting, vital — out at Phon, perchance, you and I have both enjoyed ourselves there; and Rozzaria, oh the glories of dusky skin; but I can tell what everyone's thinking by the way they drink every glass bone dry and lick up the remains, still thirsting, how hold their fingers as they smoke, sucking like a convicted man on his last blood-bought fag; how are they going survive? What happened to Landis proved that there's no way to make ashes a way of life! But where do I fly when the aerodromes are overflowing with forlorn soldiers looking for something to stick, with their swords or their pricks; every tide and wind rises or blows Imperial; the whole of Ivalice is stamped Property of the Empire: Trespass At Your Own Peril.'

'Ivalice is lost,' you say, humming the words into the girl's chest. Your lips find her skin. She is tanned to roughness, and smells like sweat, like effort. Does she comfort you because she is not like you? She loves you so much; your words wound her worse than a sword. She loves you, not like the knight, not like the pirate; she loves you for what you could be. 'But people continue. People always continue. Nations rise and fall, and it means nothing who sits in the highest chair. Find your own comfort first, Penelo.'

The girl considers. Her rage is white hot, and lives in her loins. 'All the Viera are dead, Ashe. All of them, not just Fran, she whom you knew, and who died for you. The Empire turned all the viera into automaton soldiers, all will lost to the Mist. They march on Rozzaria now. Ivalice has lost her way. And what do you do, Ashe? Follow a sky pirate? Balthier has never known his way! Balthier merely runs.'

'What I mean is,' the pirate says, intent, intense, 'Basch, where is the way out, Basch? Who do I ask for the way out? There is none! Do I ask those Imperial consul dogs who live in their specially-built palaces, their swimming pools sited but two steps away from the beach, their astrologers and psychiatrists in tow? I will not ask! I am a pirate; I love my Lady Liberty, and love does not ask! Love should know what I need, and I need, I need to fly.'

'I made a choice,' you say. The words come with great difficulty. 'Ghis set his blade to Balthier's neck. I thought — I wanted. Balthier smiles so beautifully, Penelo, he smiles so infrequently but when he does he — I wanted him — I want him —'

'You sold Ivalice for a smile?' The girl's rage is less, then, a warm contradiction. 'Oh, Ashe, Ashe, you're Hume after all, so you have a heart. No one would hate you if a Queen took a sky pirate to her bed.'

'I mean,' you start, but the girl continues: 'Ivalice needs you, Ashe. If you need Balthier, well, Ivalice needs you! You haven't seen what Vossler's done to Dalmasca, have you?'

'I made a choice,' you say again. 'My blood and birth gave me no choice. Ghis gave me a choice. Vossler gave me a choice. I made a choice. Right or wrong, I made it. I cannot trust a single man, but I will not distrust myself. I made the choice. I made my choice. And now I have found a place where I am mortal again, not that higher thing they would have had me be. I can make mistakes; mortals can make mistakes. Queen cannot. I have chosen to step out of myth. Out of history I move to instead be
part of the ordeal that is life. I have chosen.'

'You sold Ivalice for a smile,' the girl says.

Her horror is sharp, and tastes like bile.

'What I mean is...' The pirate's head slumps. The knight catches him when he falls. His drink falls on the floor, unheeded underfoot. 'What I mean is...what I mean.'

You turn away when the pirate starts to weep. He wept once, when the Viera died on Imperial swords. You turned away from him then too. Tears make him ugly, and he knows that. His face is hidden in the knight's shoulder. I have no recollection of whether or not you wept for my death, Ashe. Did you?

When you leave Nabudis, it is in the dead of the night, a note of apology left for the knight with a recipe for destruction writ upon it. Nothing is left for the girl. You don't ask the pirate why he runs or where you are going. You remember how hope felt when the girl held you in her arms. For a moment, you had an image in your mind of picking berries with her, to be placed in a basket on soft green leaves. You and the pirate would have eaten them together, and dreamed of summer.

I remember what it felt like to lie inside you. I knew women before I knew you; you knew not a man. It was different with you. You held me so tightly it seemed our passion could move the world. Does the pirate feel that when he lies inside you? Was it you that made me feel so, or did I deceive myself, and see in your acquiescence only what I wanted to see?

The girl with the braids and the hanged ghost had her loins full of anger, and would roll with the few sane Viera in the mud of my homeland, claws rending her back to let her fury bleed out. The pirate's lust is stirred by only by his guilt, now. He feels it kick every time he looks at you, and takes you so often you ache inside like a red hot knot of iron, tightening. The old knight only stirred for his exhaustion, lying alone in bed, too tired to sleep, but not to spend. Hope used to stir me, and admiration for you. You were everything a man could have hoped for. You would have been a Queen.

Queens do not kneel, but I watch you kneel before the pirate. You give him suck, long and hard, and he cannot find his release. He holds your head and moves you, violently, and is full of despair. You let him move you. You like his hands holding your head, covering your ears. His eyes are on the curve of the hull overhead. He strokes his steel every morning, did you know, Ashe? He caresses it as he no longer caresses you. That steel protects him from the intolerant rain, sustains him against the seepage of years you have both spent on your running. He still feels himself the same man. You choke, and so he spends himself across your cheek and jaw and eye.

I have watched as each evening he crosses the line until he is so far that all boundaries are gone. He beds you like a boy, and he wallows in your disgust. His fingers leave too many bruises on you. He was a good man, once. He still is a good man, somewhere. He would have done none of this to you without your approbation. Had you asked, he would have held his ground at the old knight's side, and fought, and died. Had you let him, he would have killed his own father to set you on your throne, and knelt before you then, and smiled, and left you to be Queen.

He does not smile. He sleeps. He snores now. And for this you made your choice, you, who could have been my Queen?

The dead do not feel anger, but I can feel what you feel, and what the pirate feels. I am bound with the chains of your despair, and I want to make them rattle against the hull. You sleep too, eventually. You curl around the pirate. That does not make me sad. I am only sad when I look at your thoughts, lying kitten-curled inside of his. You are so still inside, my Lady Ashe. One day stillness will come down on us all from where it is suspended, so far above all of our heads, and Ivalice will cease to spin.

The pirate stirs to find you in his arms. You kiss his chest and breathe him, the scent from the place over his breastbone where the hair is thickest, and soft. Your cheeks are wet. He asks his question tiredly. It is the only question on his mind these days, spinning in endless circles as you fly in like circles, spiraling, ceaseless, and forever running. The pirate never gets an answer from you, but he asks regardless. 'What do you want, Ashe?'

I could tell him. You want his sweat to taste sweet. You want his semen to taste like cinnamon. You want him to sing again, for no reason at all, and to smile at you; he used to, all the time. You want him to be worth your life. He is worth your life, and you are worth his, but not together. Never together.

You want his sweat to taste sweet, and his semen; you want him to be of the substance of the gods. That is all. It is not much. You will never know him like that, because you will never love him if you despise yourself so. Love fades out of us so fast after we die, like the stars burning themselves out with the past extravagances. Why does this love fade so fast out of you, and he, when neither of you are dead?

Anyone could have told you what you had with him would never last. Not for love, no, but we are all mortal.

The pirate's enterprise is not often barren. You quicken with his seed, and only am there to greet that stir of life with a finger's touch. Your child touches me back, unformed and hopeful, and so very hungry.

The day you begin to show the pirate cries, weeps, and demands to know why you held your secrets for so long. What should you tell him, that you yourself did not care to keep a count, and did not know until your belts no longer clasped, your mornings filled with endless rounds of sallow bile? You stare at him and marvel. In this strange and beautiful land of the unknown, he has already made you feel like a betrayer.

He flees, at the last, and flies you — you three, and I as well — to the far end of Rozzaria. The pirate's dividends and distant friends provide him with accommodation. It is humid here, uncomfortable. I am faint. Time passes all in a blur. I am far from my grave. You grow and cannot move. The lovely thing inside you stirs and begins to eat you. You do not eat enough to feed its flesh. Your bones become brittle, and your skin like paper. The life inside you fights to cling to its home, and survive. It grows strong for that fight.

You become the dream of two women living in a tangled house. One sits within, naked and sweating, and howls into her sheets as the pirate soothes her with sweets and specialities, his own panic kept under the mask of his confidence; the other sits without, cool drink in her hand and large loose gown masking her growth, laughing as the pirate clambers over his ship and fixes her flaws to perfection. You do not know which image you despise more. You do not laugh; you do not howl. The pirate sits on the veranda, drinks to soften his belly and stares at his ship. He thinks about the cost of repairing her stiff wings and does nothing. Your frame grows meagre, and does not sate his guilt any longer. He follows dusky Rozzarian flesh to lavender-colored bedrooms, and finds himself release therein. They lave his scarred back with lashes before and after. I do not hate him for it. I wish my own penance could be so easily found.

The pirate's once-friends come on occasion. You do not greet them, but hide instead. You hear him laughing when he drinks with them on the veranda. 'Family affections, please! Don't torment me. Family afflictions, more like. What does fatherhood feel like, you ask? Bah, may as well ask me to define the weather — but then again,' he is thoughtful, and speaks as though he is far distant, 'where would a pirate be without the weather on his side?'

You love him a little bit then, remembering him. You smile at him that evening. Unexpectedly, he smiles back. He is still very beautiful. The day after he sets out his tools and starts to work on his ship. An unexpected guest comes that day. You are large enough to hurt when the pirate calls you to come, quickly, quickly. The terrace before the house is set with guards, armored like Imperials but skin colored like Dalmascans. The Rozzarian patrol is very small next to so much grey steel.

The King has arrived.

'Vossler,' you say; the pirate says: 'All hail King Vossler! You do look well, you fucking bastard. You got fat fucking your queen, huh?'

'You will be silent in the presence of your betters, pirate.'

The pirate will not be silent; he grins, and rises; oh, how he lives for this. 'Certainly, Vossler; let me know when Basch gets here, eh? —and will you note, my love, the refined Archadian make of our sovereign's jewelry? All due consideration must have been given for the forging of such chains. Nevertheless,' the pirate thumbs his nose, 'couldn't sell it for a half gil these days. The market's flooded with such forgeries.'

The King is discomforted. 'Lady Ashe. I am here for one reason.'

'The child is mine.' You and the pirate speak in unison. You share a smile with him; something sparks in his eyes. 'The child is ours,' the pirate says, firmly, 'and will be born free even if I have to arm-wrestle you for the matter of that liberty.' You nod. The son within you hears your voices, and loves you both.

'Think,' the King says, 'the both of you, think what this means.' His voice is half plea and half command. He does not know what makes the substance of a King. His servants step forth to set him a chair in the ship's shadow, but they sneer behind his shoulders. 'You will birth a figurehead for those traitors that still think there's a fight worth fighting, in Nabradia; and what sort of freedom is that for a child, war before he even begins, born of Archadian blood and Dalmascan, and both strains born of Valendian tradition — oh yes, pirate, I've met your father—'

'Glorious,' the pirate interrupts, 'I hope he was entertaining, he was quite a bore when I left, walls being poor at conversation at the best of times. But having had the benefit of knowing my own father so well I can despise him, I can only hope you understand how I wish my child to also have such a privilege, to choose to likewise hate or honour me.'

'I do not want to kill a baby not even born,' the King says. 'I do not want to kill anyone. I wanted to save everyone! For Dalmasca! I did it for Dalmasca! Please, will you come back, my lady? Your child will be my heir.'

Your heart lurches, and aches. The pirate looks at you but once. 'No.'

'Come back.' The King is begging now. 'Ashe — Lady Ashe — there can be position for you, your rightful position, I never wanted this throne, never, never; the Solidor forced me to it and I would do anything for Dalmasca, anything! The throne is yours, please, if you come back. Balthier; you will be fully pardoned, for everything; your father is so high in Vayne's councils, I can ensure you have your full Magisterial rank returned, and if it is your wish that the child be acknowledged as yours — yes! Yes, it will be! Please, just, come back.'

The King carries in his loins — nothing. Nothing. No anger, no hope, no fury or despair. He is hollow. He is hungry for your child, as though it could fill him. He cannot get his own child, his own purpose.

You are a blaze of pride, Ashe. This is the woman I married. So freely now you bow to your birthright, to become the sun's brighter bride. I know you will bear a king, that boy that reaches for me so full of delight, your duty and the pirate's sense of justice beating with each pulse of that tiny flickering heart. You will bear a king, and you know it, the pirate knows it, all potential filling you in this moment until your mouth is full of slaver. You spit full in the King's face, and the pirate laughs, gleeful, vengeful, and you shout: 'I have made my choice, Vossler, years ago. Never under Archadian chains, you slinking cur; I will not come back for the promise of prettier Archadian chains. Take your treacherous hide from my presence.' And he bows, that King, carrying all his emptiness like burden, and stutters when he says, 'My Queen.'

It is in an alley, one you have passed through so many times you no longer notice the rise and fall of the cobbles, the scent of urine as you pass steel-barred doors. This is the route you take to buy fresh fruits, twice a week. When they come at you, the pirate drops your basket of berries and apples and all sorts of nameless sweet things. They beat the pirate with steel rods until he falls. He fought so hard for you, his bullets spent and his gun turned to breaking until all the walls are full of other people's blood. He still fights for you, grounded. They break his legs and arms to still him. They turn him to face the cobbles and open his skull lengthwise to show you his substance. No king, is he. His mind is but grey matter, and all over the cobbles. He is all over the cobbles.

You would have birthed a king. That corpse is but the size of Balthier's hand, lax-fingered. Both father and son are equally bloody, rebirthed like this. Worm-husbanded, Balthier says. He tries to touch your hair with his free hand, and cannot reach you. His son reaches from his other arm to toy with the drop of his earring. The umbilical is about Balthier's neck. Why can I not weep, Rasler? I have wed her to worms, all my flesh laid waste, and I cannot weep. Get up off your knees, Rasler, kneeling's never done a man any good. Talk to me, man, please talk!

I do not reply. Tears are for the living, and words for the dead are so difficult. Balthier tries to touch your hair again. He will never stop trying.

You take yourself from that bloody alley to the distant sound of the street. The Imperials are here, everywhere. Rozzaria has fallen. A dusky-skinned girl takes pity on you and sheds one layer of veils to mask you from them. You are hustled into her house and tended by the womenfolk. They spent their potion on you. All their menfolk are already dead.

You have seen Balthier do this so many a time. From under Imperial eyes, you steal his ship and fly. You do not flinch when you strike a stray bird; your course is steady. Blood is meaningless, but you do not know where you are going.

Balthier's clothes are everywhere. You put your face into his shirts, his trousers, the crotch of his pants. You weep for a very long time. He tries to kiss you and put the baby to your breast. The umbilical tests your navel, your loins, your mouth, but it cannot fix. I have to hold Balthier back to make him stop kissing you. My armor does not feel his fists. The baby's umbilical snakes through the hole in the guard at my throat, and touches me, and fastens there.

Another day comes at you out of the east, rolling over you like an army. You assemble your priorities: you open your eyes, and rise.

Where you stand you see yourself in the shining steel of the hull. You are thin with restraint, the lips of new wounds puckered and closed.

You peel your own self-image from your reflection. You always have: you are what people want you to be. Your legs do not hold. You sit on the deck, your thoughts kitten-curled and aimless in the absence of another.

You are starving. You feast on your life. You are still starving.

I can't remember the name, Balthier says. My ship, gods, my ship, for so many years, my ship, and I can't remember its name.

The umbilical about his neck is as thick as his arm. I do not look at the connection that swells at my throat. Focus is difficult now. The baby feasts, and from us, he will find his fullness. Balthier does not speak of it, but holds his son close I could not hope for better.

You are at the helm. Balthier pretends to weep, but it leaves him with more grief than less. There is no release for the dead. You fly the ship. This is your life, your choice. I see the shape of it. This is your life, and you are naked, suspended between earth and sky. You must have choices, I think. Everyone has a choice. Run, Balthier says. The umbilical is choking him, and my chest is being split. It should not hurt. It does. Oh, Ashe, Balthier says; and I say, Ashe, not this.

'But where would I run?' you ask. 'I made one choice, a kingdom for a smile. Once upon a myth, I made that choice. All choices are as nothing in the stream of time. I move back into history now, to be a part of that true ordeal whose darkness is only now reaching me: choices, Balthier, choices; we all have them, and make them, and regret them. All rivers, all roads are as clotted with the dead as these firmaments through which I fly. I shall not run.'

What is that taste, Balthier asks me. His lip curls. Rasler, what is that taste? Talk to me, man, get up off your knees, I love her! I loved who she could have been; and that was not this!

I must reply: you taste her intention.

It's so bitter. We have to stop her.

But there is nothing we can do. Balthier tries to put food to your lips. You laugh at him and try to stroke his hair. You do not eat.

When you land in Rabanastre the city does not seem the city I remember. I cannot pinpoint why. Balthier remembers it better. Where are the Moogles, he asks. His voice the song of a bird, so distant. Where are the Viera? Where are the Bangaa, and Seeq?

Only Humes walk the streets, Humes and ghosts. Which one are you, Ashe?

Your eyes are cold, and Balthier tries to stroke your hair to life again. You hold him with chains made of your so-slender arms and say, 'I'm so sorry. Oh gods, Balthier, I'm so sorry.' What about Rasler, he asks, but you still do not see me.

Is your life opening again, Ashe, or closing finally? I cannot say, and Balthier does not know. He is afraid as his son devours him, but he has no true cause for fear. When we were alive, we either know things or we fear them; the only true fear is in not knowing. Your life shines like a jewel, but you do not want jewels and never have. I had in mind a prayer to say for you, but the baby is eating all my words. I think he will eat the world. He was weaned on vengeance, this bright tall thing.

Now you are naked, suspended between the earth and the sky, on your back in the false King's bed. The false King moves over you, his arms about you, his weight there so the mattress can swallow you. You are naked in that bed, still, but now there is no sky, only the earth. No, Balthier whispers. Balthier is nearly nothing. His son stands nearly as tall as he, but that creature's smile is bloody. No.

When you call the false King's name, it sounds like mine. My knees are hurting after all these years. I rise from my prostration. After the King fills you with his emptiness, you lie with your thoughts all kitten-curled in his. Both of you are empty, and think in circles about nothing, and chase each other in those circles.

How slowly hope dies. I have knelt beside this hope for so long to whisper in its ear. It never heeded me. I will not kneel again.

We are too late. Balthier kisses my eyes closed, a warrior's goodbye, yet we go together. We are always too late. You have decided. The choices are always made for us.

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