Fandom: Final Fantasy XII
Author(s): co-written between moontear and tsukinofaerii
Summary: Penelo and Larsa had been friends for nearly four years when one fateful morning, Penelo found herself on the other end of a situation she never imagined for herself. Desperate and frightened, she fled Archades, and her friendship with the emperor grew strained. Now, a year later, Ashe summons her to the Rabanastren Palace. She has news for Penelo. News and orders.
Disclaimer: We do not own Square Enix's Final Fantasy XII, nor are we making any money off this fanfiction.
Trust and Temptation
A Tender Lie
"For he's a jolly good fellow—" Penelo cracked into a laugh as her voice went off-key, courtesy of all the alcohol she'd consumed. It was Larsa's sixteenth birthday, and while technically the age of legal drinking in this country was eighteen, he'd been complaining of how bored he was with every year's festivities. Practically a party every night a week before his birthday, and then the entire fiasco of his birthday itself.
Stuffy robes, mountains of presents from people he didn't even know, having to pretend that he liked every single person who sniveled up to him…
To be honest, Penelo thought he sounded like a whiny teenager, but she understood. She would have loved to have mountains of presents every year on her birthday, sure. But she got the difference between gifts from your loved ones and useless trinkets from total strangers who knew nothing about you.
She slumped back into their sofa on the balcony of the pub they'd occupied. Larsa was tall enough now, at least, that no one really questioned his age, despite the massive whitehead on his chin at the moment, so they'd been cruising around this part of the city with his alias Lamont. There was an imperial out front on the lookout to discourage any reckless behavior in the interior of the pub—the emperor's birthday festivities alone giving everyone the desperate desire to let loose—but there were a few undercover inside, as well. Larsa always had to have protection.
Poor Larsa, she thought drunkenly. All awkward limbs, a bad case of acne that kept popping up…
It was a shame his voice didn't crack anymore, that had been the absolute cutest.
She looked over at him now, thinking about how much fun he'd had tonight. Although… "Larsa!" She nudged his knee, as he was currently sprawled out on the sofa, moaning and clutching his head. "Sit up, we're not done! Weren't you going to drink me under the table?" Out here on the balcony, the racket from inside was considerably quieter.
He opened his eyes to peer up at her blearily. The balcony really didn't have much light, and that was most of the reason he'd chosen it as a retreat. As she watched him, a smile touched the corner of his mouth, and he reached up to tug one of her pigtails.
"I may have realized the futility in such efforts. I never suspected a slip of a girl like you could hold as much beer as you have. By all rights, you should be floating in your boots."
Penelo had to grin at that, pleased with his false assumptions. "I told you…" Dissolving into giggles, she closed her eyes, letting him play with her hair. It had gotten ridiculously long lately. She knew she should see about cutting it. But she liked the length…
Humming, she shifted over, leaning over him, planting one hand near his ribs and the other beside his head. Her hair fell over her shoulders, framing his face in a veil. "But you can't sleep! It's not even eleven! There are many more hours of the night to enjoy, my friend."
She tried to hold a straight face at that, but she wound up giggling again, half falling on top of him because she couldn't laugh and keep herself upright at the same time in her current state of mind. Oh, the joys of drinking. It wasn't something she indulged in on a regular basis, though she was not a stranger to celebratory alcohol.
His arm came around her waist and yanked her down the rest of the way. "I am not sleeping. I am simply recovering. Soon enough, I will be back on my feet and ready to make a second go of it." He belied these words by tucking her under his chin and determinedly relaxing on the sofa.
Penelo let out a soft breath, not moving. Warmth filled her, as warm as the breeze around them and the brilliant clear stars above. She realized she couldn't remember the last time they had simply embraced like this. When he was still shorter than her, perhaps…?
"I don't believe you." She finds a thread on the shoulder of his shirt to play with, her lashes lowering as the exhaustion she'd been fighting back reared its ugly head. Larsa was very comfortable… very, very comfortable…
No! It was far too soon for the night to be over!
"You have every intention of sleeping right now," she mumbled. Her eyes drooped even further as she felt the rise and fall of his chest, the steady beat of his heart beneath her ear. She'd never realized how incredibly warm he was, portable even like fire magicite. "…Larsa…" She was going to add on more to that, but her lips wouldn't move enough for any sound to come out.
He nestled his cheek atop her head and sighed. "I would far rather stay awake…."
She mumbled his name sleepily again, fighting to keep her eyelids open, but they just kept drooping. She lifted her head, pushing up enough to see his face, thinking maybe that that would help, if she was moving "Come on, we have to get up…" A breeze tickled her cheeks, and she lifted a hand to one of Larsa's, touching it and stroking his cheekbone.
Penelo could remember when he was so much younger… twelve and scrawny and eager to protect her… His face changed every time she saw him. He was growing up so quickly.
He grumbled something indecipherable and managed to pry his eyes open enough to see her. "…comfortable…" His arms tightened, stealing her breath. His look now seemed almost baleful, challenging her to pull out of his embrace. Those green eyes were peering at from beneath his long, sooty lashes, and his hands rested on the small of her back, spread over her hips.
Penelo swallowed so hard it hurt her throat. "Larsa… Come on…" She pushed lightly on his shoulders, trying to fight the atmosphere; gods, it was difficult. Why was she so drunk, why was he so drunk, why was it so comfortable and quiet out here…? "Your birthday's almost over…"
Drowsiness and comfort prevailing, Penelo slumped a little, figuring she could rest her eyes for just a moment. Why move, when this felt so nice? She bumped her nose into his cheek and inhaled lightly, thinking anew of how warm he was. "Sleeping isn't any fun…"
Suddenly, he groaned and wiggled beneath her, clearly making a token effort at rising. "If we must."
Knowing she should be all for this, since she was only a moment ago, Penelo, too, tried to rise. The only problem was, the world started spinning. More liquor was not the best idea. Not if she didn't want to make her hangover even worse in the late morning. So she slumped back against him, blocking all his attempts at rising.
"Never mind," she grumbled, and she nuzzled into his neck, because it was extra warm there and he smelled nice. After that, there was nothing to do but make herself comfortable on his sprawled form, melting into all the nooks and crannies of his body, pressing close for that warmth.
Somewhere inside the pub, hooting and hollering rose, cheers, and someone yelled for another round.
"Sounds like they're having fun in there…"
"Let them." The emperor's arms retightened around her, and he sank back into the couch.
The sofa was an old thing, but it didn't smell bad, only a little like alcohol and the evening air. Tiny lights were strewn over the balcony's railing, and there were a few potted plants. It was considered the finest location in the pub, and Penelo would have been worried about such open air for Larsa, but she knew an imperial prowled the rooftop.
Penelo was close to dozing off entirely, safe and comfortable, when she snuggled even closer to him. She kissed the nearest patch of skin, like she used to do his forehead, except this time it was his throat.
Oh, well, she thought. It will do.
Her hand rubbed up and down along his side, like she used to soothe it through his hair years ago. Yet nothing about this was striking her as innocent. Maybe it was the alcohol, because strangely, she wasn't really bothered at the moment by that prospect.
Larsa murmured under his breath again. Like the first time, she didn't quite catch it. "Mmmm?" Her attention was waning as sleep closed on her faster and faster. "Larsa…" Everything made so much sense in that moment, crystal clarity that she'd been struggling with for months. This nagging sensation, this feeling she couldn't place. It left her out of sorts, unknowing of what to do with him, with them, with her.
But nothing meant more to her in that moment.
"I love you…" she murmured on the cusp of sleep, and then she was gone.
One year later…
"A summons to see Ashe?" Vaan put his hands on his hips and tilted his head with an arched eyebrow. "What's that all about? And is it me, or has she gotten a bit needier lately…?"
Penelo snorted as she put her earrings in. "Needy is hardly a word I would apply to the queen, and…" She shimmied out of her pantaloons, causing Vaan to look away as she reached for the dress laid out on her bed. "…I need you to get out of here so I can change."
Her partner was already halfway to the door. "She sent you a fancy dress with the summons?"
"Ashe is my friend, you know that, Vaan." Courtesy of some weird advice Ashe had been given approximately two years ago, Penelo found herself more often than not invited to the Rabanastre Palace for tea with the queen.
Ashe had never struck her as a type of person who needed friends, and until her advisor had stepped in, she hadn't ever really entertained the idea. Then Penelo had been called in one fateful afternoon, told in no uncertain terms that she was needed for Ashe to appear warmer to her people, and more or less arm-wrestled into their current friendship.
Honestly, Penelo hadn't minded. Their friendship hadn't been conventional when they were traveling together, sure, but what they had now was surprisingly, touchingly, something close to normal. Penelo would appear for her teatime with Ashe once every handful of months, the two would discuss things other than politics, and both would leave with smiles, Ashe's considerably more thawed than it had been at the beginning.
Hiding out with the Resistance for two years hadn't been particularly warming for Ashe's personality, which was probably what her advisor, an older man named Tyk, was trying to fix now. At first, Penelo had been a little nervous, but that was in the past. She actually looked forward to her tea with Ashe nowadays. She got to dress up nice, eat in the fancy palace, hear Ashe's secrets that she was one hundred percent sure the woman never shared with another soul… Why, the last time she'd dined with Ashe, she'd even gotten to see the older girl blush over the thought of their blond hunk of a captain residing across the country.
Vaan stuck his head back in when Penelo called that she was decent. "You two are actually friends now, though? Like… really friends? I thought Ashe was using you to make it seem like she had friends?" He ducked at the pillow Penelo lobbed at his head.
"Maybe it was like that in the beginning—" Penelo could remember that first standoffish moment with the queen all too well, in which both of them realized they had nothing to say to each other now that the war was pretty much over "—but not anymore. We realized we shared things in common."
"Like, what…? Do the two of you compare the hilts of your swords, which one of you has the biggest pair of magicite balls…?"
Vaan ducked. The second pillow soared over his head and thunked into the hallway to join its brethren.
"No, Vaan! We talk about… girly things."
The man gave her a blank look. "Ashe? Girly?"
"You know, underneath the royal title, she is still a girl. A young woman. She has hopes, dreams, thoughts, feelings. She's not just some mannequin of power on display for the country to feel at ease." Penelo sat in front of her vanity and carefully began to pile her hair on top of her head.
"Still, it's kinda funny…" Vaan leaned against the doorway, his hands tucked into his pockets. They hadn't been home at their apartment for more than a week before the summons had arrived just that morning. "You're pretty acquainted with power figures, aren't you? Not that I'm sure Larsa counts anymore, seeing as you haven't seen him in, like, a year…"
Hearing his name, Penelo winced at her reflection. A whole year later and she still hadn't recovered from That Night. "We've both been busy, Vaan," she explained, making a show of selecting which comb to use in her hair. "It's not like Larsa needs a friend for appearances the way Ashe did."
That was true enough. Archadians preferred their rulers on the stern side anyway, but even for that Larsa was well-liked. He hosted the usual balls and things, directed tax money to repair streets in Old Archades, and was on not-terrible terms with the rulers of other countries. As far as Solidors went, he might as well have been a saint. People loved him.
The finger of her free hand ran over the ribbon that she always kept on her, a wide band of red silk, thick with black and gold embroidery. Usually it was on one of her pigtails, but for the visit to Ashe she'd wrapped it around her neck like a choker. After That Night she'd woken up with it around her wrist and had kept it for stupid, sentimental reasons. It was nothing special, probably just a piece of ribbon from one of Larsa's birthday presents that she'd purloined, but she hadn't been able to bring herself to get rid of it.
"He wasn't too busy for you last year," Vaan grumbled, scowling down at his feet in the mirror. "We ought to go to Archades and—"
"No." Keeping one hand atop her head to hold her hair in place, Penelo twisted on the padded bench to glare at him. "We ought to do nothing. He's an emperor, Vaan, we don't have any right to monopolize his time."
Vaan's jaw set stubbornly. "He's our friend."
"He was our friend," she corrected, as gently as she could. "Let it go."
Angry blue eyes held hers. For a second, Penelo feared she would have to tell Vaan the whole story, explain how Larsa wasn't the one being avoidant. But then Vaan would never stop teasing her. Or worse, he'd want them to make up. She couldn't do that, couldn't smile and talk and pretend that it didn't ache.
Eventually, Vaan folded, shoulders hunching in and eyes sliding to the side. "Fine. Just—don't get too attached to the palace, okay? I can't afford one with my job."
That was enough to make her smile, which had probably been what Vaan intended. "I promise." Turning back to her hair, she picked the silver and turquoise comb shaped like a galbana lily, tucking it in to hold her curls in place. "You know me. Palaces are nice to visit, but I'd hate having to live in one."
"Good." Coming up behind her, Vaan bent over to kiss her cheek. "I'll leave you to get prettied up. Go show those nobles what a Rabanstran girl is made of. After you're done we'll meet up with Migelo for real food"
Laughing, Penelo poked him in the ribs, making him dance back toward the floor. "Deal."
As was normal for their visits, Ashe sent a carriage to pick Penelo up. It was one of the less ornate carriages, which meant that it was only a little gilded and the chocobos that pulled it weren't in the full regalia of the royal stables. Pale turquoise velvet covered plush upholstery, and ice magicite lamps combined kept the whole thing cool, even at the height of the dry season. Rabanastre would probably never have the aircab services that Archades did, but it hardly needed it. With wide streets and the circular layout, it never took very long to get where she needed to go, even in a carriage, so Penelo enjoyed the luxury while she could.
Comfortable as the carriage was for travel, it still had its downsides. People lingered on the side of the streets, trying to peer through the gauzy curtains to see who was inside. Penelo slunk down as well as her skirts would let her. No matter how many nice dresses and jewels she put on, it would never stop being embarrassing to be picked out of a crowd. At her heart, she still felt like the girl who used to help out in Migelo's shop for food and a few gil.
It was an utter relief when the shadow of the palace walls came into view. Straightening up against the bench seat, Penelo smoothed down some imaginary wrinkles. They rolled to a stop at the palace steps, and only a second later a footman had the door open and was helping her out. As soon as she left the carriage, the sun came down on her head like a hammer, but that wasn't what caught her attention.
Just like so many places in Rabanstre, the palace was a prime example of Galtean architecture at its finest. As she always did, Penelo paused to look up at the soaring walls, admiring how the sun played over the pale stonework and friezes. Against the summer blue of the sky, it might have been made of clouds. Delicate curves and domes formed the bulk of the main structure, too light to exist outside a dream and yet too proud to be anything but real.
It took her breath away.
"My Lady Penelo." A thin, blue-veined hand touched her elbow, pulling Penelo's attention back to ground level. Light green eyes, faded with age, twinkled at her. "What a joy it is to see you again. You look lovely, my dear."
"Advisor Meryl," Penelo smiled, laying her hand over the older woman's. "It's good to see you, too. You look like you're doing well."
That was an understatement. Even at nearly sixty, Meryl looked fit and ready to take on someone half her age. Thick white hair had been pulled back into a set of clips and then set into ringlets that tumbled over her shoulder. She'd left her flowing purple robe open to the breeze, revealing her embroidered trousers and jewel-bedecked top. The few wrinkles she had only added to her beauty; Penelo could only hope she aged so well.
"Well enough, with all these young bucks running about today," Meryl smiled, hooking Penelo's arm over hers. "Soon gone, and thank the Gods."
"Lucky you." Penelo kept step with Meryl, but her eyes darted around, noticing some extra soldiers. There was no sign of the personal guards that would have meant Ashe was on her way, or even in the same wing. "Is the Queen busy? She usually meets me."
One of Ashe's most trusted advisors, Meryl was one of the few that had both survived the Archadian occupation and resisted switching sides. Meryl was loyal, honest and absolutely unreadable. She just smiled wider and tightened her hold on Penelo's arm as they passed under the arched entryway. Immediately the cooling spells embedded in the palace walls took hold, cooling skin that had already started to collect sweat from just a few minutes in the sun.
"The Queen has been unfortunately delayed in meeting you," Meryl explained, without a single hint in her voice that anything was out of the ordinary. "She asked that I show you through the palace and make you comfortable as you wait."
As if Penelo hadn't walked through the Palace enough to know her way around without a guide. And Meryl was an important advisor—not someone who was sent to play escort. Something is up. "Delayed?" she asked, for something to say. "Those young bucks you mentioned?"
"As a matter of fact, yes." Using Penelo's arm like a lead, Meryl tugged her around and up a winding staircase. The steps were covered with thick blue carpet, cushioning their footsteps so well that not even a whisper of sound escaped. "There's rumors of trouble in the wind, that's no secret, and Dalmasca has always found its strength in its friendships."
"Ashe is courting?" The news was so surprising that Penelo missed the next step and almost made a fool of herself by flailing for balance. If it hadn't been for Meryl's firm grip, she would have. "She didn't tell me that she's courting!"
"Not courting," Meryl corrected, glancing over at Penelo from the corner of her eye. "A queen doesn't court, she has to choose a political alliance. But if she seems open to persuasion, well..." The corner of Meryl's mouth tugged up in a mean little smile. "Men are generous when they think you have something they want."
All Penelo could do was shake her head, still shocked. "I... see." She didn't. Of course Ashe would have to marry eventually, probably as part of some sort of political alliance. She'd put it off until Rabanastre was stable, but she wouldn't be able to do it for long. That much she'd confessed to Penelo over their many teas together.
But she couldn't imagine Ashe playing coquette. Not Ashe. Trying to picture it sent Penelo's mind into freefall. She wasn't the sort to bat her eyelashes and flirt, not even for a cause. Penelo wasn't even sure Ashe knew she had feminine wiles.
"And here we are," Meryl announced, pushing open a door to a spacious room, decorated with soft-looking furniture and a decorative waterfall.
It was lovely, but what mattered to her was that it wasn't Ashe's sitting room, which was where they usually had their tea. Penelo stepped inside, looking around for a hint of a clue. Wide windows stood open to the breeze, and a set of double doors had been left open to show off an array of exotic flowers growing on the balcony. There was no sign of the usual tea service, or even a plate of snacks to tide her over while she waited.
"This is—" Penelo turned just in time to have the door slammed in her face. A key scraped in the lock with the loud deliberation of someone making sure it was heard. Knowing it was foolish, she still rushed to the door and tried the handle. It didn't turn at all.
As a last effort, she pounded her fist on the door. "Meryl! This is not making me comfortable!"
She heard a latch open and whirled to discover a servant making her way out of a side door, pushing aside a tapestry. Sneaky, Penelo thought, wondering why it was necessary. She held her breath as the servant came to her, silently gesturing that she follow.
What the heck?
Penelo gave a last glance back at her prison bars, then followed the young woman. Stepping through the secret side door let her into a room that was practically a mirror of the first. This time, though, there was a table with a tea set laid out, and an ornate table cloth covering its surface. It billowed in the breeze coming off the balcony.
There were no doors in this room except the one she'd just come from.
What made her breath catch was not only the sight of Ashe, sitting with a tea cup in her hand and fresh steam coming off its top, but…
Her heart began pounding.
"Larsa," she managed to gasp out. It felt like someone had grabbed her throat and was trying to squeeze it to a pulp. The ribbon she'd tied around her neck was not helping that sensation, and she tugged at it a little to loosen it.
Good gods above, her palms were sweating, and the small of her back was damp. She could feel every thud of her heart in her ears. This was… not good… at all…
"Hello, Penelo," he greeted her smoothly, though she could not help but notice there was no warmth in those green eyes of his. He, too, was holding a tea cup, looking for all the world like he belonged in the palace and not halfway across the world. He'd even dressed for the desert climes, his tunic made of a light fabric that was belted at his waist with a scarlet cloth.
"Your face has cleared up," was all she could manage, and then it took effort not to kick herself. Your face has cleared up? Really, Penelo? She hadn't seen the man in a year—not since That Night—and the first thing she says—
There was a choking noise, and Penelo's eyes flew to Ashe in time to see the queen covering her mouth and politely apologizing.
Something's going on. Avoiding Larsa entirely, Penelo came over to the table, and the servant moved to pull her seat for her. Thanking her out of habit, even though she wasn't really supposed to talk to the staff, Penelo smoothed her hands over her skirts again. Her fingers, she noticed distantly, were shaking.
"I can't help but feel like something sinister's going on," Penelo blurted, her nerves getting the better of her for a second time.
"Do not be ridiculous, Penelo, you are among friends." Eyeing her curiously, Ashe set her cup down and lifted a plate of pastries. "Lord Larsa was kind enough to bring some of his Rozarrian chocolates Al-Cid sent him. But first, try a scone."
Penelo took one more out of numbness than anything else. She tried eyeballing Ashe to see what the other woman was thinking, but the queen's face was expertly wiped clean. That did not sit well with Penelo, as Ashe knew the sordid details of That Night.
She hadn't wanted to talk about it, not initially. She'd squirmed when Ashe had brought up the emperor, and, of course, Ashe had fastened onto that like a hound with a bone. She'd expertly pried the truth out of Penelo, and then Penelo had wanted to die a thousand deaths, but Ashe had promised never to bring it up again.
Yet here Larsa was! In this very same room! And for some reason, Ashe had felt that Penelo's presence was necessary!
It was taking all of Penelo's willpower not to bolt through the door she'd just come from.
"Al-Cid does have good chocolates," she squeaked. She could feel Larsa's eyes boring into the side of her head, and her hand sloshed her tea a little as she lifted the cup. Cursing herself inwardly, she took a tentative sip, her eyes roaming around the room since Ashe wasn't giving her anything and she had to avoid Larsa's gaze at all costs.
Ashe lowered the next plate, one with the chocolates, once it became obvious Penelo wasn't treating herself. It was the height of rudeness not to accept one, but Penelo's mind was far from etiquette. It kept wandering back to that morning a year ago, when that horrible hangover had been pounding at her temples, and she'd…
No, she couldn't relive it, she couldn't, especially not now. She'd buried That Night in a box, deep under the ground, with mounds of earth on top of it. Flowers had grown over it. It was best left undisturbed.
"Um…" She didn't know what to say, didn't know what to do. Ashe really wasn't helping her with this, either.
Penelo's throat was dry enough that it was like she'd swallowed a mouthful of Estersand, and the tea wasn't helping her. Its spices were cloying her nose, making her think of Lowtown and her old apartment, which only added to the dryness. She just couldn't believe Ashe had betrayed her like this; Ashe, whom she thought had become a real friend… Instead, she was throwing her to the dire wolves.
The queen shook her hair back over her shoulders, the length much longer now than it had been some five years previous. It brushed her biceps, gently framed her face on cooler days. "Penelo—"
Penelo felt her spine straighten like a startled child about to be scolded, a habit she wasn't sure she'd ever break away from. Not around Ashe. It was bred into her, the respect for royalty.
"As you might have guessed, today's… meeting is of great import." Ashe leaned back in her seat, her posture, as usual, perfectly perfect, her hands folded demurely in her lap. Demure. Ashe. The two did not mix, like oil and water.
Penelo wanted to hide under the table.
"I have some wonderful news."
As Penelo watched Larsa stiffen and lean ever so slightly away from her, as though to brace himself, she fiddled idly with her ribbon. She rubbed her thumb over it as her nerves played ever higher.
"Er—news?" Though said politely, inside she wanted to throttle Ashe. If the older woman didn't get out her 'news' soon—well… puking all over the beautiful china would hardly be appropriate. But that was where her swimming stomach was going to take her in about two seconds.
Against Penelo's willpower, she slid her eyes over to Larsa, taking him in for the briefest of moments. He looked… good… No acne, a previous sign of his adolescence. His shoulders had filled out, his face had lost some of its baby fat. His nose was a little more prominent, but that was the Solidor curse and couldn't be helped.
Quickly, her face flushing, she looked at Ashe again. It was a good move. The next thing she heard was nearly enough to make her lose her head.
"Penelo…" Ashe reached across the table, taking Penelo's hand. The smaller of the two looked down at their linked fingers, then back at the queen. The woman had never touched her like this, ever, not in all their years of knowing each other. "I have decided, in light of your previous actions, to make you my sister."
There was a slight edge to Ashe's smile now, one Penelo didn't immediately understand, but she pushed that aside in favor of digesting the news that was just delivered. She may as well have smacked Penelo upside the head, for all the good it was doing.
"Yes." Ashe's fingers tightened ever so slightly around Penelo's in warning. "You are now my adopted sister, a member of the Dalmascan royal line."
Penelo sputtered. "Bwuh—"
The queen's eyes flicked to Larsa. "Your Grace, if you will explain the rest?"
To Penelo's surprise, the look Larsa shot Ashe was full of daggers. "Ashelia and I are in talks to sign a mutual defense treaty. Rozarria has been sounding the borders, and Dalmasca cannot stand without an ally."
He picked up a napkin, unfolding it. Penelo couldn't help but notice that he wasn't quite meeting her eyes.
"Because a mutual defense treaty with such a smaller nation is, at best, risky for Archades, there have been complications." He licked his lips. "While Ashe and I are personal friends, and I have no doubt that Dalmasca would rise to Archades' aid, treaty or no, the Senate is not so sanguine."
He finally looked up, his expression calm, a pure poker face. Penelo had always envied his ability to do that. "It was decided—Ashe and I decided—that the only way to conclude the treaty would be if a member of the Dalmascan royal family were to come stay in Archadia."
It was all Penelo heard.
The next few moments were a blur.
All she remembered later were the looks of surprise on Ashe and Larsa's faces as she upended the table, sending precious china and platters of pastries and chocolates colliding into the marble floor. From there, she bolted for the nearest exit, but the servant was there, and in a blind rush, she went for the backup exit.
All she could see was freedom—it didn't translate to anything else.
She couldn't go back to Archades, she couldn't go back to Archades, she couldn't go back to Archades—
It was an endless mantra in her head, bouncing off the inside of her skull, until she thought she was going to go insane. She had one leg over the balcony—
Arms clamped about her waist, tight as they had not since the morning she left. Before she could go any further, they were dragging her back from certain doom.
"Penelo, contain yourself!" Larsa yelled. It was the hint of desperation in his voice that jarred into her thoughts, and she came back to herself enough to realize what she was doing.
Breathing raggedly through her nose, she stared down at the palace courtyard far, far below. She started to tremble in his arms, feeling weak suddenly, and so, so weary. She didn't understand… why her? Why would Ashe do this to her? Was this a punishment for something she wasn't aware of?
Tears were streaming down her cheeks, and she let them drip off, staring numbly at the patrolling guards. They looked like toy dolls from this distance.
Keeping a solid grip on her, Larsa pulled her back off the balcony and inside. Since the area around the table was now thick with broken glass, he took her to one of the sofas and pushed her onto it.
"Stay there." He took in one, deep breath. "This is necessary for the good of Dalmasca, Penelo. You do understand that to resist is treason?"
Penelo paled, staring up at him, shaken to her core. "Why me?" She rose unsteadily to her feet, ignoring his demand that she stay put. "Wasn't what you did enough?"
To wake up next to him—
To wake up next to him, bare-skinned, her limbs entangled with his—all the while, knowing nothing could ever be between them—
Feelings she'd tried to bury, that she hadn't wanted to acknowledge existed, rushing to the fore as she stared down at his sleeping face… He'd been courting that princess from Rozarria, for gods' sakes!
Yet he'd somehow—her memory was unclear on this point, due to the liquor she'd consumed—swindled into her sleeping with him despite this—when he had no intention of ever—
Penelo's throat was so, so tight, and the ribbon was suffocating where it rested. "Why are you trying to torture me, Larsa?! I don't understand! I thought we were best friends!" The words were wrenched from her throat, her shouts echoing through the room. It was unseemly to yell at an emperor—definitely punishable—but she didn't care. She couldn't care, not when her emotions were so raw.
Now, suddenly, there was trouble brewing with Rozarria? What happened to that flimsy princess? None of this was making any sense!
"What I did?" Larsa's expression turned colder, and he took a step away from her. "We were friends… once. Believe me when I say that if my hand had not been forced, I would have left you to keep running. But it has been, and there is no choice. You may refuse, if you like, but betrayal has consequences, Penelo."
Penelo gaped at him, rising to her feet on unsteady legs.
"Treason is not something to be tread on lightly, and the fate of a nation is hardly a gil to gamble with. But by all means—run away. You are quite accomplished at that."
Penelo slapped him.
She'd never considered herself a particularly violent person. Yes, she'd had her share of blood on her hands in the war, in pirating with Vaan. But it had only ever been to protect herself. Yet now, here she stood, willingly raising her hand against an emperor.
He was right. They were no longer friends. They hadn't communicated with one another in nearly a year, not since the events of that fateful morning.
Her throat was tight, her palm stinging.
Ashe stepped in quickly, before the situation could evolve. "Penelo! Apologize at once!" She sent an agitated glance in Larsa's direction, silently trying to reign in Penelo's emotions.
But Penelo wasn't having it. She knew she ought to—the repercussions of her stroke against such an important political figure alone… "What happened to Princess Lidia?" She balled her hands into fist. Her face went splotchy from her anger, which she knew wasn't an attractive sight, but she was far from caring in that moment. "Did she catch wind that you were whoring around with a Dalmascan commoner? Was the offense so great that they want war or something?!"
Ashe covered her face in her hands and turned away.
The emperor's jar clenched. In what was no doubt a deliberate move, he turned his back on her. "Ashe, you know what the accord requires. The Imperial Airship leaves in three hours. If she is not aboard, I will keep to our secondary arrangement, as we discussed." Giving a bow to the queen in the room, he didn't even deign to look at Penelo as he headed for the secret entrance, which the servant had now vacated.
Penelo was going after Larsa when Ashe seized her arm, nails digging into it like talons.
"Penelo." Ice rang through her use of Penelo's name.
Penelo wrenched free—if she was going to disobey one royal figure, why not the other? She stormed after her former friend. She hadn't spent nearly a year agonizing over her departure for him to walk out on her now.
If Penelo wasn't so angry, that bellowed name alone would have been enough to stop her, but all she could see was red. She got her hand around Larsa's elbow once they were in the other room. He was a lot taller than he used to be, she realized.
"You never told me why you're doing this, Larsa! Why do you hate me?! Why are you trying to ruin my life?!"
He finally looked at her, anger snapping in his eyes. "Why should I not? You ruined mine." Take her hand, he forcibly pried her off him. "Go speak to your sister and make your choices."
Stunned, Penelo could do no more than stare up at him. Then fury gathered in her chest, pulling all the emotional range she had into one singing line of energy. "You—" She could barely speak, she was so incensed. How could he do this to her? How could he claim that she ruined his life? "I gave myself to you, and this is how you—"
"Penelo!" Ashe was there again, her hand back around Penelo's arm and dragging her away from the emperor. Penelo was pissed enough that she let it happen, knowing she'd only wind up hitting him again. "You are now a princess. Speak your words carefully."
Penelo could have spit venom. "I want to speak to Larsa alone."
"Out of the question."
Penelo whirled on her. "I want to speak to Larsa alone, Ashe!"
Thunder flashed in Ashe's eyes in warning. "Absolutely not."
"There will be time to talk in private on the airship," Larsa intoned. "If, in fact, you are there." With a last nod to Ashe, he took the leave he'd been trying to make for the past five minutes. Though Penelo was tempted to continue making a spectacle of herself, she stayed put.
"I hate you," she choked to Ashe in an undertone.
The queen sighed, her grip relaxing. "You won't forever, Penelo."
Now that Penelo found hard to believe.