Gabranth becomes Penelo and Vaan's problem. (post-game)
Penelo stands at the bottom of the gully. She bends to gather a cactus fruit bruised with ripeness, spared from the hungry mouths of migrating birds. She climbs the dry bank and looks to the west. Nothing moves on the plains in the afternoon heat. Even the wolves are gone.
The air is laden with moisture, heavy, waiting to burst the sky's membrane and spill to the ground. The hair on her arms prickles and she wonders if this is how Fran feels when the Mist is strong. She will not believe that Fran and Balthier are gone. They'll return, she says to sky. They'll return. Neither will let the other die.
She holds the fruit up, blocking the plate of the sun, and imagines that its flesh absorbs the light.
Her feet crunch dry grass as she runs toward the village in the northern Giza Plains. The nomads have begun to pack their encampment. Yesterday, six left for the sandstone spires that mark a maze at the base of the mountains to the east. Soon, all of the nomads will snake through passages mapped only in their stories. They will walk through labyrinth of stone, waiting for the Giza's renewal. She too will need to leave once the flooding begins but the nomads hide something for her, something she will need to move.
As she runs toward the tent, she passes children she once played with. Without pausing, she ducks beneath the flap and enters an oasis of silken animals who walk across geometric woolen plains. A man lies atop a carpet edged with a meandering maze. His eyes struggle to open but he turns his head in the direction of the sounds she makes. He murmurs through parched lips.
For seventeen days Penelo cared for Noah while his body remained motionless, his breath shallow, pulse slow. Noah came to her too weak to withstand the effects of white magick. She did what she could. She knew soldiers rarely die from blood loss on the battlefield. Instead, infection slays them while they lie in their beds.
For days Noah strayed from the fractured house of his body. He wandered somewhere north where fires still burned inside collapsed hulls of airships, fallen from the sky. Penelo was not surprised when his lungs filled with mucus speckled with rust.
She poured oil scented with peppermint and rubbed his chest, pale skinned, veined with old scars. Her own thoughts drifted back to the fifteenth of each month when she and other girls sang devotions while they washed marble idols in the halls of Healer's Guild. She had seen his body before.
She thought he had the torso of Holy Scion Pashtarot, the Knight-Star who precedes the morning sun. She whispered words from long ago, caressed the tight curves of his pectorals, ran her fingers through the valley of his sternum, ending at the hollow at the base of his neck.
In those hazy afternoon prayers, she forgave him his transgressions and washed away sins from his past. She wanted to heal his wounds with all that was missing from her body. She wanted to find a place of peace, that land from which he was expelled, and return him. She thought of how to take him there.
Each night, she hid his naked flesh beneath the skin of a wolf. She laid beside him in case he stirred and waited for morning to come.
Dark clouds mass on the western horizon, sparking and rumbling as they move forward, a fleet greater than all of Archadia's ships. The coming storm is like Mist, he thinks. He spreads his arms to the air and spins with his face to the sky.
“So, now you think yourself of viera blood, able to detect Mist by scent? Able to weigh it with the palms of your hands? What did those creatures teach you, Gabranth? You are a fool. And a naked fool at that.”
He straightens and hides his smile behind the play of legal formalism. “Madam, Your Honor, I must object. It is clear to the eye that I am not naked.”
“I put my trust in cotton, not metal, when the sky holds electric charge. Come!” He grabs Drace's gloved hand and runs toward the windmill.
The sound of her hurried breath excites him as they run. He pulls her through a doorway at the windmill's base, knowing they have as much time as the storm's rage allows them. When the storm leaves, Bergan's fleet will come.
“And you will just leave your armor stacked out there on a rock?”
“It allows others to find us when the transport arrives.”
They shelter beneath the wooden structure in each other's arms. The grasslands become a stage for lightenings' dance, performed against the leaden sky. Each strike shakes the ground and rattles the windmill's walls. He inhales what the sky gives away and fills his lungs until his limbs tremble. He wants to run out into the rain and chaos, shouting at the sky all that he knows to be true. He would be a fool to say any of it.
The magister's ornate plates cut across his chest as he presses Drace against the wall. He feels her armor against his body as if he is wearing it. Before she can protest, he sucks on the skin of her exposed neck. Her moans vibrate inside his throat, voicing his words for him.
He dreams this day over and over again, even later when he lies with his head in the magister's lap, his face pressed against her arm, her nectar heavy in its sweetness, lingering on his tongue.
Penelo fetches a cup of water sweetened with the sugar of desert fruit. She holds the cup to Noah's parched lips. After he manages to drink, she wipes his chin and dabs sweat from his brow. She cradles his head and thinks that he hovers at the edge of a dream.
His lips move as if to speak. She leans forward, close enough to inhale his words. They share the same whisper.
“I went to the Pharos to die.”
“But you didn't die.”
“No. Something wondrous happened to me.”
“The Baknamy found me.”
“But there are no Baknamy in Ridorana.”
“The Mist called them. They came, their little bodies, their masked faces, and they found me. They bundled the items they could scavenge and they took me away when they left.”
“But why did they take you? Baknamy steal people's gear and leave them to die.”
“I knew something that interests them. I made a bargain and they took me away.”
His eyes never focus and now his eyelid close, his head turns, his nose nuzzles against her arm. She doesn't wish to break his spell. Her fingers trail behind his ear. For once, Noah's breath is relaxed. She thinks to trace a line across his bottom lip but she does not dare. He breathes for her; she holds her breath until he speaks again, his words fall against her arm.
“How much longer do we stay here?”
“Until it is safe to return with you to the city.”
“Rabanastre? When there, who will I be to you?”
“A fallen knight.”
“I have fallen. That is true.”
His voice is soft, he speaks from far away. She kisses his cheek as if he were a child, yet the beard that has grown in while he slept tickles her lips. He sinks back into his sea of dreams.
It is an hour past sunrise and she is pleased when Noah opens his eyes. She stoops beside him. He doesn't attempt to sit upright. She cups the back of his head, tips a phial to his lips, and he drinks while he looks into her eyes. His gaze is strong. She is certain he will live.
He whispers a question.
“Giza,” she replies.
She thinks he does not remember asking the same question yesterday. She touches the soft beard on his chin and watches him frown. His fingers rub his unshaven face.
His eyes follow her face, her body, as she rocks back on her heels and stands. For the first time he tracks her movement through the tent. The intensity of his stare closes the distance between them. In this, she is pleased.
She reaches for her pocket knife, the cactus fruit, and slices off a sticky piece. She holds the sweet flesh to his lips, watches him eat, and wonders if he remembers who she is.
Outside, she hears shrill shouts of children as they round up the cockatrice. The rest of the nomads will head for the mountains, either tomorrow or the day after. She will need to leave soon. She thinks she will ask Jinn to find Vaan so he can help her move Noah. They must take him someplace where retreating soldiers and angry people will not find him and ask who he is.
Eighteen days? He touches his cheek again and believes that the girl speaks the truth. Tomorrow, he will ask her to help him shave.
There is nothing in the tent that he recognizes. All he remembers is the sweat and chill of fever, the mist of dreams, the sound of children's voices, and the comings and goings of the girl. He knows now that he recognized her by scent. Astringent medicinal oils. Bitter potions. The sweetness of desert fruit.
“Was anything of mine brought here?” he asks.
She leans against a wooden post and twirls her hair around her fingers. Her expression suggests that she has been waiting for this question.
“A book,” she says.
“Just a book. A book of plays. Ten Fantasies.”
“Where is it?”
She reaches under a prayer rug rolled up in the corner. He recognizes the worn leather cover and wonders how she knew to save it. When he reaches, she slides the book under his hand.
“Good.” It is in that moment his memories return. He taps the book's cover, an absentminded habit of touching that which he possesses.
“Your brother has everything else of yours. I helped Basch before he left with Larsa. You know, Larsa once told me that you liked theatre so, when I saw this, I thought you would want to keep it for yourself.”
“Did you read it?”
She picks at dirt under her fingernails, left toe en pointe in a carpet depicting a maze. He knows of what she saw while serving in the insurgency. He collected intelligence and, some of it, he saw with his own eyes.
“I've seen all those plays staged in Rabanastre but I'm sure you've seen fancier productions in Archades.”
He can lie as well. "I have. In Archades and once in Rabanastre. So, what should I call you?” He already knows her name.
“Are we staying with nomadic traders?”
“The rains have begun. They must be readying to leave.”
“And what of us? Where will we go?”
To his surprise, the girl hides a blushing smile behind her hand. She does not look him. Instead, she fixes one of her long braids and shrugs.
“I know of the Giza,” he says. “We cannot stay here once the plain floods.”
“We're waiting for someone who can take you someplace safe. The village elder knows. They promised not to leave until you are well enough to move. And now you're getting better. It will be alright.”
When he does not respond, she busies herself. He watches her count the thin, glass phials in her chemists' bag. Next, she inventories lengths of bandages and common medicinal oils. Beneath the wolf skin blanket, he runs his hand over his fractured chest and down his sunken abdomen to unresponsive legs.
Rain drums overhead, falling in rhythmic sheets as the wind huffs through the trees.
The girl comes and goes as he lies on his back, drifting in and out of sleep. In the evening, he awakes when she returns.
He whispers, perhaps to her, perhaps to the coming darkness, “Strong winds carry Mist across the jagd. It shapes the weather and drives animals to a mad frenzy. When left unchecked, the jagd grows.”
He turns his head against a thin pillow and looks at the girl. Her body appears as shadow, it is almost dark.
“I once measured the Mist and mapped the movement of the jagd's chaos.”
“I thought you served as a judge. ”
“Keepers of law must know of disorder's origin.”
It is dawn and he is awake. The rain raises the earth's rich fragrance, he inhales Galtea's loam. Somewhere a pair of ichtlon breathe through wetness as they swim. Mist is drawn into the marrow.
Giza's soil has soaked through and the gullies have begun to fill with water. Noah moves his fingers through the fur that covers him.
The girl sleeps next him, curled on her side, back pressed against his arm. The damp chill of the early morning air bites inside his nostrils and is raw against his face. He hitches the fur blankets higher, hiding them both under a pocket of warmth. He suspects that for all of these days the girl stayed beside him, a dedicated nurse, a dutiful squire. He decides not to wake her.
He believes that girl served as his brother's squire in the Dalmascan insurgency. Larsa had said that Penelo attended Basch, that she healed his injuries and provided cover with bow and arrow whenever he drew his sword. The girl is a friend of Larsa's and like a sister to Vaan. Noah knows these things, noted in reports, but he doesn't know why the girl has decided to take care of him. Motivated by pity, perhaps, or by request. This bothers him.
The girl's breath draws deeper, her sleep is free of concern. She stretches, twists, and for a moment her breath hangs in her throat, but she does not wake after her body shifts. She exhales against his biceps. Her fingers curl over his forearm. Softly, she snores.
He is annoyed by her sounds of sleep, by the touch of her hand. Old anger burns in the cavity of his chest, a beast tamed by measured lengths of breath. It seems to him that he now owes her something because she kept him alive. Worse, he may be expected to provide for her now that the war has ended. There is nothing he can give. His breath is a lit match, sulphur burns inside his throat.
With the hand that is free of the girl, he feels for a broken rib and pushes down with two fingers until he gasps in pain. He slides his hand down, over his skin, across his abdomen, and reaches for the inside of his thigh. His index finger and thumb pinch as his nails dig into flesh. He feels nothing even though he knows that he should. He cups his hand around foreign genitals, dead to his touch.
His arm is still his. He lets it fall to his side.
The wind rattles the tent, the herd startles in the tapestries on the walls. Outside, cockatrice screech. It is the season of the rains.
He wants to push the girl away and send her off with nomads or back to the city. He wants to remain here and let the hooves and clawed feet of migrating beasts trample his body into mud.
The rains are here, soaking the fire of anger that would rage across the grasslands, consuming dried bush, burning it all to ash. The rains are stronger. Tears burn scars down the sides of his face.