Sep 19, 2021 5:00 AM
The night is always darkest...
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    "Are you sure this is wise, my Lord?"

"- hm?" Aymeric blinks, and though his eyes had not been shut, they might as well have, so deeply lost in thought was he, watching the scenery pass by outside his carriage.

    "This banquet," clarifies Lucia, his right-hand woman. "Are you sure it is wise to go? The Dravanian Horde may be planning a revenge strike any time now, and..." She looks uncertain about how to phrase whatever her other misgivings are.

"You don't trust the Alliance," he guesses.

    "I... don't," she admits, a small relieved smile playing at her lips. At least she didn't have to say it.

"Why not?" he asks, leaning forward on his seat.

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    Had it been anyone else asking this question, she would have thought them offended. Lord Aymeric, though, does not play such games. Not with her. He is wearing that expression he does, that earnest smile that makes you think you can confide your deepest secrets to him and he will listen fairly and never judge you for it, that honest expression that makes you want to believe in him. "They... have not been the stoutest allies to Ishgard," she says, trying to pick her words carefully despite it all. She knows he'll understand. "In many matters, though it was clear as day during the attack." A flash of anger crosses her face, and she squeezes her hands into fists on top of her thighs despite herself. "That they dared send as few soldiers as they did and call it a helping force..."

The Lord Commander of the Temple Knights keeps his calm, placid smile, though. "How many soldiers did you count from the Maelstrom?"

    She blinks, and thinks back on that day. The Maelstrom would be Limsa Lominsa's Grand Company. "Six pirates," she says, the anger rising as she recalls that.

Aymeric laughs and says, "I don't think the members of the Maelstrom technically count as pirates... but few would dispute the description anyway. Such is the Lominsan way."

    "...my Lord, with all due respect, it feels like you are toying with me."

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"No." And he's suddenly serious - still honest, still earnest, and he wants her to believe him. She knows he would never lie to her. "Lucia, should something ever happen to me -"

    "Halone forbid -!"

"I would want you to take my place," he continues. She is about to say something but he lifts a hand to stall her objections. "There is none in the world I trust more than you."

    "...my Lord," she says, and she looks down at her knees as a flush creeps up her neck. He had never said so, not in so many words. "I, I am flattered, but the people of Ishgard would never take an outsider like me..."

"Would they not?" And there's that earnest, straightforward tone, again. "Times have been changing. They said the same about me, didn't they?" And they had. She knew that, though she had not been in Ishgard in his youth and as he rose in the ranks despite the rumours. In Ishgard, rumours could be as deadly as swords, and there were so many following this lowborn youth. Outsiders might think that, if Lord Aymeric really was the Archbishop's bastard son, that would have helped him rather than hindered him. Outsiders don't understand Ishgard, like she once also failed to. It was despite the rumours and not because of them that he rose, it was because of his prowess in battle and his skill with a quill. No one could deny his competence, he excelled at everything he tried, and so he rose and rose and kept rising, and even the staunchest, most conservative defenders of Ishgardian tradition could hardly deny that he earned every single accolade and promotion ten times over with his work.

    "It's different," she insists, anyway, because it is. "I am still an outsider - I am not even elezen, let alone Ishgardian -"

"And you have proven yourself as much as I have, if not more. So yes, I would have you stand in my place should the need ever arise, but for that I need you to see the same things I do, and understand why I make these decisions. Even if you come to disagree with them, I would have you disagree in full knowledge of the facts."

    "...yes, my Lord." The flush still colours her cheeks but she's smiling, once again despite herself. She notices her fists have relaxed, and wonders if Lord Aymeric planned that, too, in this conversation. He must have.

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"As I was saying," Aymeric then continues, "the Lominsan envoys numbered six, you are correct. And the Ul'dahns..."

    "Five," she sighs. Five men sporting the banner of the Immortal Flames, the desert nation's Grand Company.

"How about the Gridanians?"

    "Seven. My Lord, I -"

"Seven?" he interrupts. "Those may have been the ones wearing the Order of the Twin Adder's colours, but do you remember how many people were there?"

    That gives her definite pause. "My Lord?" she asks, uncertainly.

"There were thirty-three," he answers his own question. "Not all of them were of the Twin Adder, but all of them were Gridanian all the same." He smiles. "The Elder Seedseer could not be seen officially sending a force larger than Limsa Lominsa or Ul'dah did, but what she could do was make it publicly known to her people that Ishgard was in need of aid, and let those who would voluntarily take up arms do so."

    Lucia understands, then. "Seedseer Kan-E-Senna... secretly sent forces our way?"

"Just so," agrees Aymeric. "In spite of us not being an official part of the Alliance, we have ever been close to our Gridanian siblings. Be it because they're closest to us, out of the other Eorzean countries, or be it racial pride, for they have the highest concentration of elezen outside of Ishgard, we have kept good relations. And that is in spite of Ishgardian's shameful actions five years ago."

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This is also the first time Lucia sees Lord Aymeric speak so openly about this. Five years earlier, when the Garlean Empire launched its final assault on Eorzea, Ishgard officially withdrew from the Eorzean Alliance and refused to help. They had to hold their borders against the Dravanians, was always the excuse. They already had their own war to deal with, and could not spare forces to aid in a different, distant war that had thus far not touched them. Lucia had intimate knowledge that this was a misconception planted by the Garleans themselves; it was a clever plan, to never attack Ishgard and thus convince them they're safe, so that they would not offer the other Eorzean city-states their aid. Divide and conquer, in a way.

"If we have few friends amongst our sister nations," Aymeric continues, "it is our own doing. When the Garleans launched the assault that brought low the moon, we stayed safely within our walls and ignored their pleas for help. The eternal winter that now freezes Ishgard was directly caused by the fall of Dalamud. Could we have prevented that, had we joined the fight? Had we pushed the Garleans back? Could we have sabotaged their experiments and avoided the Seventh Umbral Calamity? We will never know, because we were too cowardly to do so. And now we reap the consequences." Despite the passion of his words, he still sounds calm. "United we stand, divided we fall. This I believe.

"And so my answer to your original question, my dear, is yes. I do think this is wise. The celebratory banquet is being held in our honour, and there I will announce my plans to have Ishgard rejoin the Eorzean Alliance. If we have few friends there, it is our own doing," he repeats, "and so it also falls to us to regain their friendship. This is the work we must do."

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The atmosphere of Ul'dah could perhaps be more different from Ishgard if it tried, but it'd have to be trying quite hard. The desert heat is as stark a difference to Ishgard's cold as the opulent decadence of its ruling city is to Ishgard's war-torn militant efficiency. Its people are little better. Aymeric's party is showered with effusive praise and congratulations that fails to ring true in the slightest, and it's quite impressive how many lalafell manage to overcome their diminutive stature to nonetheless look down on their tall visitors. Goodness, this must all be very overwhelming, does Ishgard even know what a party is, do they need help? This is a place where compatriots celebrate the fruits of their mutual labor and have fun! They're afraid the only thing that might be even a little bit familiar is this lovingly crafted confectionery in the the shape of a beheaded dragon, isn't that charming?

(The dragon head made out of sweets and pudding is wildly inaccurate to the eye of Ishgardian dragonslayers, but it nonetheless is very evocative and well put together, mechanically.)

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But aid from this siege of false flattery and condescension doesn't take particularly long to arrive, in the form of the Elder Seedseer and her entourage. The padjal is taller than the lalafell, but she is nonetheless dwarfed by each and every Ishgardian that she's coming to the social rescue of.

"Lord Commander," she says smoothly, gracing him with a genuine smile. "I and Gridania are delighted to have our Ishgardian siblings represented. Is there anything I can do to help you acclimatize, so far from home?"

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Lucia has not... quite... managed to unglue her eyes from the dragon head. If she's not muttering "What in Halone's name...?" under her breath, it is because she does not want to besmirch Ishgard by being openly disrespectful of their hosts'... thoughtful... homage. But she is not quite good enough at this to be able to stop staring.

Aymeric looks unbothered, however, and turns a wide smile to Kan-E-Senna. "Elder," he says, bowing a quarter of the way to a full bow, as is appropriate when greeting one of similar station. "It has been far too long. Our hosts have been most gracious and we want for no comfort, but thank you for your kind offer."

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The Elder Seedseer matches his bow, looking pleased. She was not expecting Ishgard's representative to handle things so smoothly, but she's quite happy to have her expectations upturned.

"They are uniquely talented at hosting, and their taste for celebration is unmatched," she agrees. "I have a particular fondness for their take on the sautéed porcini, I am not ashamed to admit that my people have been outdone at our own native delicacy."

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He laughs and says, "Well, admitting that takes some courage! The dish must be a veritable delight, we must try it. But speaking of your people, how fare they? The Warrior of Light and his Scions recently fetched a powerful airship from our lands to fight the Lady of the Vortex, I take it she has not troubled you anymore since then?"

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"Relations with the Ixal have ever been strained," understatement, "but the summoning of their goddess as a primal is ultimately a symptom of a root cause borne by fear and mistrust. She herself has not troubled us since her vanquishing by the Scions, but I worry that without mending the undercurrent of bitterness, we are but granted a temporary reprieve."

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Aymeric nods somberly. "Your words are wise, Elder, and your advice is taken as intended. Ishgard has not done a great job over the past few years at maintaining good relations with the outside world, be it with our sister nations at the Eorzean Alliance or the beast tribes that live amongst us, but it is my hope that we will be able to mend these bridges and forge a new future together." Then he smiles and waves at the banquet. "I do believe master Alphinaud was right to suggest this party. An event to celebrate our victory at the Steps of Faith... I hate to be so painfully true to stereotypes, but your people are right when they say Ishgard is not in the habit of doing anything like it."

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"Gridania wasn't either, but lavish parties do turn out to have their charms." Like the food. She enjoys the food. She is totally eyeing some of the nearby snack tables that are currently just for looking at, but soon will be for eating.

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"But they're also good for more nonchalant exchange of information between powers. For example, I'm free to press you for clarification on Ishgard's situation in regards to 'heretics' and their apparent summoning of a primal without it being taken as too grave."

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He likes her.

"Tell me, then, Elder, before I launch a speech, how much you do know of the history and of the political situation Ishgard finds itself in?"

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"Not as much as I'd like. I understand that your city state is spiritually led by your Archbishop, that more material matters tend to fall under the jurisdiction of your four High Houses, and that tradition and duty does much to cover the gap, but I'm afraid such concepts are... muddled somewhat in the specifics, and where heretics fit into this. I would appreciate a perspective from the inside, instead of clumsy attempts to paint Ishgardian portraits with Gridanian paints."

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"Very well.

"You are correct in the broad strokes. A thousand years ago the dragons, led by one of their Firstbrood, the one called Nidhogg, terrorised our people. The four High Houses are descended from the original four knights who stopped him by stealing one of his eyes. It is not a secret, but not widely known either, that dragons store most of their aether and lifeforce inside their eyes, so taking one of Nidhogg's effectively halved his power, and was the blow that turned this conflict from a massacre into a proper war, that gave Ishgardians a fighting chance. We and the Dravanians have been embroiled in said war ever since."

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She nods.

"And Nidhogg's eye has been passed down through the generations to its most talented dragonslayers, its holder given the title 'Azure Dragoon.' But it is unclear to me if they are beholden to the Archbishop, the church itself, all of Ishgard, or something else entirely. Your country's latest choice of Azure Dragoon seems to treat it more... loosely than many historical examples."

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Aymeric lets out something that can definitely only be called a long-suffering sigh. This is not the first time people have expressed similar thoughts about Jacque.

"The truth is... somewhat more complex than that. While the Azure Dragoon does tend to be amongst the most skilled of their peers, skill enough does not suffice. The previous Azure Dragoon is still alive and active; it is the eye itself that chooses who is fit to yield it."

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"It chooses," she repeats, frowning. "I would have thought that if it had the aether and mind to choose, it would attempt to sabotage you, but it sounds a great deal more complex than that."

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"Rather, yes," he says, smiling. "I cannot say I understand the process. It does not seem anyone else does, either; Jacqueline herself - our current Azure Dragoon - says that most of what she gets from the eye is insight into Nidhogg's mind and emotions. But historically we have never had an Azure Dragoon who failed to show utmost loyalty to Ishgard, and she is no exception. Whatever method or reasoning the eye has, it has unfailingly picked people who have performed great deeds in service of our country and the Holy See."

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Kan-E-Senna... frowns more. "Hm. I see."

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"As for the social role and official powers... The Azure Dragoon operates somewhat outside the standard military ranks of Ishgard. They can often know in advance when a strike is coming, or where to find Dravanian forces. But they are also often sent on missions of greater import, or higher secrecy. Jacqueline officially outranks everyone in our armed forces except for, well," he smiles again, "me."

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“Then I am glad it has shown such good judgment in its decisions, however little I understand its methodology and reasoning.”

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"As am I," he agrees earnestly. "Now... I believe you also had questions about the theology of it all?"

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“Yes, if you wouldn’t mind. Though Ishgard shares its faith in the twelve with the rest of the alliance, you seem to take it a rather bit more… seriously than your fellows. I am especially curious of—"

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