He kept the shed feather from her chocobo longer than he would have admitted to anyone. GabranthxDrace.
Gabranth looked up from the reports piled on his desk to see Drace standing in the doorway, the sunlight glinting bright off her armour.
"Ride?" he repeated.
A faint smile touched the corner of her mouth. "I know you Landissers are barbarians," she said, "but I presume even your homeland has chocobos?"
He hadn't been on a chocobo since before Landis fell. The paperwork assigned to a Magister was generally not suitable for handling out-of-doors. "We have chocobos far superior to your lazy, decadent Archadian birds," he said idly, making a note to have a Judge investigate the gatherings at Charlotte's Magickery. Several of the troublemakers who agitated for Gramis to step down were involved, and at least one Senator had been seen there.
"Our decadent Archadian birds are not so ill-favoured as you would like to think," Drace replied. "Come with me, and test their mettle."
Gabranth paused with his quill poised above the note-sheet. Drace seemed to be in a rare playful mood, and it would not do to waste it.
"Very well," he said, and tucked the quill into the stand. "I suppose the Empire can spare two Magisters for an afternoon."
Drace waited while he donned gauntlets and helm, and they made their way to the chocobo stables. The stablemaster had two fine birds already saddled and waiting when they arrived. Drace went to the larger of the two, which warked softly at her and nudged its head against her shoulder.
"Were you so sure of my cooperation, Magister?" Gabranth asked, holding out his hand to the other, fingers flat. The bird investigated him patiently and closed its beak gently on his gauntlets twice before bobbing its head at him and permitting him to smooth its feathers down.
"If you were not willing, I daresay I might have found another companion," Drace replied.
Gabranth mounted the bird and took a moment to get used to the feel of the Archadian saddle. In Landis, they used saddles with longer stirrups for stability in the snow, but the Archadian saddle seemed built for speed.
Drace chirruped to her chocobo and it began to move toward the Solidor hunting preserve behind the palace. Gabranth followed, irritated because each step left him lurching in the saddle like he'd never ridden before. He reached down to lengthen the stirrups a bit once they were out of view of the chocobo barn. It was far easier to keep his balance like this without his knees halfway to his chin.
"How do you possibly fight in saddles like these?" he asked as his chocobo drew even with hers.
Drace laughed, a rare sound that made him smile. "These aren't cavalry birds, Gabranth."
"Pray, do not tell me that their only purpose is display," Gabranth said.
"Of course not. They are for riding, are they not?" Drace guided her chocobo between two massive oak trees and waited until he drew even. "A race?" she suggested.
"Whence, and what prize to the winner?" Gabranth settled himself a bit more securely in the saddle.
"The lightning-struck maple, there." Drace pointed down the path, and Gabranth squinted. He could just see the tree, and gauged it at perhaps a quarter-mile. "The victor shall decide the prize upon winning."
He ought not take a challenge without knowing the forfeit, but it had been so long since he rode on a sprinting Chocobo in the fresh autumn air that he decided to take it anyway.
"Very well," he said. "On my mark. One, two, three!" He nudged his bird with his heels as she did the same, and crouched low over its neck as it sprinted down the path. The trees whipped by on either side, branches scraping off his armour. He ignored them, instead dividing his attention between the path in front of him and Drace, who was keeping perfect pace with him. He nudged his chocobo again for more speed, and the bird responded immediately. Drace's bird drew even with him, then ahead, and the tree was so very close. He shook the reins and his chocobo stretched its neck out in one last sprint.
They passed the tree together.
Drace reined in her chocobo, patting its neck and making much of it. Gabranth did the same. "I did not see a clear winner," he said to her.
"Nor I. We shall have to call it even for the time being, and challenge again later." Drace sighed. "I do miss riding."
"It seems that Magisters have little time for leisurely pursuits," Gabranth said, "or so I think from my own limited experience."
"Your experience has been somewhat unique. Judge Beoulve was unwell toward the end of his tenure, and many things fell into disarray. Zargabaath speaks well of your efforts to put the Ninth back in proper order." Drace loosened the reins, letting her chocobo wander where it would.
"I serve Archades as best I might," Gabranth replied.
"Do not serve her too well," Drace muttered. Gabranth heeded the unspoken warning: did he appear to be too competent, he might well find himself on Vayne's list of "dangerous men in Archades," which boded ill for his continued health and longevity.
They spent the afternoon riding in the preserve, mostly in silence. They turned back as the sun began to sink behind the palace, and left the birds in the care of the stablemaster.
"You've a feather," Gabranth said, and plucked it from where it had lodged itself at the top of her left greave.
"It's a hazard of riding a chocobo while in full plate," Drace replied with a shrug. "I must bathe; I'm to meet with Zargabaath about the security in Nalbina when we go to sign the accords with Dalmasca."
"Farewell." Gabranth went to his own office, and set the feather on the side of his desk while he resumed his paperwork.
Later in the evening, there was a knock at his door. One of the very junior Judges entered at his invitation. "You are to go to the Emperor immediately, sir," he said.
Gabranth tucked the feather away in a small drawer of his desk and went to the throne room. The guards admitted him promptly. Emperor Gramis sat on his throne at the far end, flanked by Zargabaath on one side and Drace on the other. Gabranth approached the Emperor and knelt.
"Judge Gabranth," Emperor Gramis said, "you are to accompany Us when We go to sign the accords with Dalmasca. Judge Magister Zargabaath will coordinate the details."
"Yes, sir." Gabranth bowed.
"That is all. You are all dismissed."
Gabranth followed Zargabaath and Drace out of the throne room and over to Zargabaath's office in silence. Drace saluted and left them at the door.
"Come in," Zargabaath said.
He stood at attention while Zargabaath removed his helm and gauntlets, resting them on the stand kept in the office for that purpose. "What will my role in Nalbina be, sir?" he asked.
Zargabaath seated himself behind the desk and pulled papers into a neat stack in front of him. "Your role will be to impersonate your brother and assassinate the King of Dalmasca." He looked up. "Will this prove difficult for you?"
Gabranth thought of his brother, fighting beside him in the last battle before Landis fell. He thought of how angry Basch had been when he had announced his intention to join the empire that had invaded their country. He thought of Drace, and the identity he had made for himself here in Archades.
Zargabaath was waiting for an answer. Gabranth saluted him. "No, sir."
"Good." Zargabaath held out a sheaf of papers. "These notes were collected by our spies in Dalmasca on your brother's recent doings and elements of disguise that shall be necessary to our plan."
"Yes, sir." Gabranth took them, and returned to his office. Instead of studying them right away, he pulled open his desk drawer, and took out the feather from Drace's chocobo. He ran it through his fingers idly, feeling the downy softness against his skin.
Folded neatly in the desk drawer were seventeen letters, one for each year since he had left Landis. 15 Sagittarius, 687 O.V. 23 Sagittarius, 688 O.V. 20 Sagittarius, 689 O.V. He had written a letter to Basch at the end of each year, but never had he sent any of them. He pulled them out and set them on the desk in front of him. It had been seventeen years since he had last seen his brother.
At length, he stood up with them in hand, and carried them to the brazier burning by the window. He fed the letters in one by one, and stood watching as they curled and shriveled into blackened bits.
Landis, and his brother, were his past now. Archades was his future.
He began to study the information on Nalbina fortress. Every now and again, when he found a note on Basch's mannerisms that reminded him of happier times in Landis, he ran the feather through his fingers again. Basch was his past. Archades, and Drace, were his future.
He kept the shed feather from her chocobo longer than he would ever have admitted to anyone; long after her death, even though it had long since lost its luster.