AU. The Lady Ashe's second wedding is not as she might have hoped. Major spoilers for Balthier's backstory; mild consent issues.
The wedding is held in Rabanastre, and people line the streets for the procession. Probably, Ashe thinks bitterly, because they want to see if it's true that she's alive after all.
"Try to smile," Marquis Ondore murmurs, beside her. "Your people love you, and it's for them that you do this."
"I am trying, uncle," Ashe replies. She can't help thinking of the last time she did this, of the lightness in her heart when she thought of entering the cathedral to meet Rasler there and trade vows. This farce, and the Judge Magister at the end of it, can only make her angry in comparison.
Still, she manages to keep her expression mostly calm, mostly optimistic, until they reach the cathedral. Not until the procession moves into the cool shadow of ancient stone does she let the anticipation drop from her face. She takes Marquis Ondore's arm, and lets him lead her up the stairs, past the assembled nobles in the pews and the honor guard of Imperial soldier, to the altar where her future husband waits.
He has removed his helm for the ceremony; it's the first time she's ever seen him without it. She reaches the top of the stairs, and barely contains her surprise. She'd been told that Judge Ffamran was the youngest Judge Magister that Archadia had ever seen, but she still hadn't expected this -- he's scarcely more than a boy, certainly no more than five years older than she and probably less than that. In his eyes she sees not triumph, but wariness and determination.
It changes nothing. Ashe trembles with the effort of holding down her rage when Marquis Ondore pronounces his blessing on the match in her father's stead, and the vows she repeats feel flat and dead in her mouth. Judge Ffamran seems to be doing little better; his voice is clear and confident, but his expression has no warmth to it.
His armor clinks when he steps forward at the ceremony's end. Ashe flinches without meaning to, but his gauntleted hands are careful, almost gentle, as they close on her arms. He leans down to kiss her, and she thinks, he's taller than Rasler. She can't bring herself to kiss back. People applaud anyway.
"Make it look good," he whispers against her mouth, "and the performance won't have to last long."
"Don't you dare pretend we're in this together," Ashe hisses. But she takes his arm when he steps back, the steel of his gauntlet cold against her skin.
"Neither one of us," Ffamran mutters through his smile, "wants to be on Lord Vayne's bad side right now. He's getting the hang of executions."
"Poor timing on his part," Ashe replies as they start down the stairway toward the grand cathedral doors, "since he just declared me alive again."
"Exactly," Ffamran says. Ahead of them, the cathedral acolytes pull back the doors; the sun outside is so bright it's nearly blinding. "Do let's not give him the headache of reversing his position again."
His wry tone almost startles a laugh out of her before she remembers herself, and then they're stepping out into the sunlight and the cheers of her people are noise enough that she can be excused for not making a reply. It takes, all told, probably no more than twenty minutes to parade from the cathedral to the royal palace, and Ashe can't help but think of the bitter irony of the situation, that she finally returns home, after two years in exile, on the arm of an Archadian Judge Magister -- and that it is he, not she, who will be recognized tomorrow as Dalmasca's new protector.
The feast at the palace is so grand it would make her sick, had not the presence of Lord Vayne at the high table already done so. Ashe picks at her food, trying not to make her discomfort plain, and feels quietly, horribly grateful that her uncle is willing to do most of the work of sustaining the conversation with the Archadians. There are other Judge Magisters in attendance, and Ffamran seems subdued beside them; several of his plates are cleared away with food remaining on them as well. Ashe prays that the kitchen servants will do something charitable with all the excess. The people of Rabanastre have suffered as much as she has in these last two years.
The final course is an Archadian dish, tiny white cakes served in a bath of spiced honey and wine. Ffamran removes one of his gauntlets when they arrive, and pushes his chair back. "Would you rise, please, princess?"
"Why?" Ashe asks, looking from him to the rest of the banquet hall, the faces turned their way. All the Imperials are watching.
"Custom," he says. "Part of the show. If you would?"
Warily, Ashe rises. Ffamran picks up one of the tiny cakes with his fingers, and lifts it to her mouth. She thinks for one bitter, furious second of turning away, refusing the offer, spitting in disgust -- but she'd have so little to gain by that, and when she defies them she wants more to come of it than this. So she opens her mouth, and lets her new husband feed her.
"Now," he suggests quietly, as though it wouldn't occur to her, "you feed one to me."
The honey is shockingly sweet on her tongue, even with the wine. The cake falls apart in her mouth, dense and grainy as though it's been made with crude meal. Ashe pulls back her sleeve and picks up a second cake, raising it to Ffamran's lips. He takes it from her carefully, lips parted -- and just for a second, his tongue swipes warm and wet across the pad of her fingertip. Ashe startles, her cheeks going hot, but he draws back as though nothing has happened at all. The Imperials cheer.
Lord Vayne makes a speech after that, toasting the union of the Dalmascan royal line with one of the great houses of Archadia, and following that are musicians and acrobats. Ffamran shifts in his chair beside her, and Ashe takes small comfort in the fact that he, in full armor, must be at least physically more uncomfortable than she.
By the time the celebration is over, the sun has gone down outside, and the palace is lit by lanterns as Ffamran's personal guard escort the two of them up to the suite that's been prepared. It isn't her old one, which Ashe thinks she feels distantly grateful for. To have to spend the night with this man in the room where she played as a child -- or the one she shared with Rasler -- would be too cruel.
The door closes behind them, but there's no sound of retreating footsteps on the other side. "Am I to be kept under guard, then?" Ashe asks, perhaps a little more sharply than she means to.
"Please," Ffamran says. "Not only you. Didn't you hear that charming little charade? We're some of the most valuable resources the Empire possesses, apparently. Wouldn't do to let either of us out of sight."
This time Ashe does spit. "And what reason do you have to want to escape?"
Ffamran's smile is humorless. "I wonder." He turns away from her to begin unbuckling his armor, releasing each piece separately and setting them aside.
A nightdress has been left out for her, draped across the bed. Ashe picks it up, glances back at Ffamran for a moment, and then steps behind a painted screen to change. Her wedding gown is stiff and heavy, and she's grateful to get out of it, even if it felt like at least marginally more protection than the nightdress.
Of course, Ffamran seems largely uninterested in her, now that nobody is watching. When she steps out from behind the screen, he's arranging his armor on a stand, so that all its parts come together even without him inside it. Stripped of the heavy steel armor, he looks less imposing than she'd have expected, less muscular, less broad-shouldered. The difference is more marked with Ffamran than it ever was with Rasler.
She wishes she could stop thinking of Rasler. She wishes she hadn't wished such a thing.
She turns away when Ffamran finishes with his armor and begins to strip off the plain linen shirt he wears underneath. The bed, at least, is large enough, plenty of room to separate them and more than enough pillows. Ashe piles most of them in the center of the bed, between where she lies and where Ffamran will. The blankets are warm against the night's chill. The bed is the softest she's lain in for years. She turns her back on Ffamran, staring out the window at the stars beyond.
A minute later she feels the mattress dip under his weight. "Your skill at fortification could use some work," he says, "though I suppose it's a fair effort considering the limited resources available."
She won't even give him the satisfaction of an answer, she decides -- and then she feels the motion of air as he tosses the pillows aside, and then the warmth of his arm around her waist, pulling her close. "What are you doing?" she demands, trying to pull away.
"It's my wedding night," he says. "I'm spending it with my bride."
"You can't be serious," Ashe protests. she pulls, twists, and he moves with her, pressing too close to let her get enough leverage to really fight him. "This marriage is a sham."
"This marriage is /political/, princess, but that doesn't make it any less real." His body feels hot, lean and hard, pressed against hers. It's been two years since she was this close to anyone outside of battle. "I would not hurt you." His hands are wrapped tight around her wrists; his breath is warm against her throat. "But I would not be spurned, either."
"And what I want matters to you not at all." His lips brush her collarbone, and Ashe shudders.
"We will neither of us get everything we want from this arrangement," Ffamran says. "It wasn't made for our benefit. But if you will ally with me, we can, perhaps, each get some of it."
She opens her mouth to argue, to ask what he purposes to offer her -- some pitiful fragment of her birthright back, perhaps? -- and he kisses her. There is no violence, no aggression in it, just the press of his lips to hers, drawing away the breath she would use to protest.
He continues after the kiss as though he had never paused. "Pretend, for a moment, that I had nearly as little choice in this as you. I didn't ask for this. Vayne selected me because I owe him for promoting me unproven, and because it gives him another way to get to my father. It has nothing to do with my ability to govern Dalmasca. He probably hopes I'll need him pulling my strings to be capable." Ffamran's voice is low and fierce, the words tumbling over each other in his haste. "Let's spite him, princess. Let's make our own alliance, you and I."
"You can't expect me to," Ashe says, and then doesn't know how to continue; of course he can expect nearly anything. His word is law in Rabanastre now. Her fate, and her people's, are in his hands. There's nothing that would even require him to ask, rather than simply taking what he wants from her.
"I can't expect you to forget how we got here, no," he agrees, to her surprise. "But if you want to see your city prosper, then it's in your best interests to cooperate with me, isn't it?"
"Or kill you," Ashe says, because his arrogance is galling.
Ffamran laughs softly. "Or that, yes," he says. "But you've no dagger in your nightdress, and in any case I'd suggest you wait on that until the ceremonies tomorrow are over and the fleet's left for Archades. The insurgents -- excuse me, the resistance -- would have an easier time taking the city without the entire fleet and all the Judge Magisters assembled here against them, wouldn't they?"
Ashe turns her head. Rational or no, she thinks she might hit him. "You've an answer for everything, haven't you?"
"How I wish," he murmurs, and he sounds honestly melancholy, for a moment. But then he shifts, leaning in close again, and presses more kisses to the hollow of her throat. "At the very least, if you're going to assassinate me tomorrow, you should be trying to lull me into a false sense of security tonight."
"Spare me the lesson in treachery," she says. It could be worse, she reminds herself. At least Ffamran is young and handsome, unlike Judge Ghis, and more interested in persuasion than force, unlike Judge Bergan. She's suffered through worse deprivations than this in the last two years.
Ffamran reaches up to cup her face in one hand, and again the gentleness seems strange, coupled with the roughness of his callused hands. This time, when he kisses her, it's more demanding, his tongue pressing between her lips. She should bite him, she thinks, and if he would just be /cruel/, she would. But Ffamran refuses to give her the satisfaction, moving against her with a deliberate, careful attention, and the noise he makes into her mouth the first time she moves sounds like real pleasure.
Ashe shudders when he slides the strap of her nightdress down off her shoulder, when his hand cups her breast and his thumb grazes her nipple through the silk. "What are you, ah, waiting for," she demands, breathless and resenting it painfully. "Shouldn't you be gloating over your spoils?"
He props himself up on one elbow and looks at her. "Is that what you want?"
"No," she says.
"Then if it's all the same to you, your majesty, I've had enough for today of doing things that neither of us enjoys."
He just can't make anything straightforward, can't make it easy on her -- Ashe finds herself caught, unable to choose between feeling grateful for that kindness, and angry at the selfishness underneath it. While she's still frozen, unable to find an appropriate retort, he lowers his head, smoothing her nightdress out of the way with careful fingers, and presses his mouth to her nipple.
Damn him for his clever mouth, for the wet heat and suction, for the teasing flicker of his tongue. Damn him for the noise she makes when he catches her other nipple between his fingers and twists. Damn him for the way her back arches. Damn him for the fact that it's been two years, and her body is grateful for the attention even when her pride is not.
"You know," Ffamran murmurs, reaching down to pull her nightdress up past her hips, "I've been cursed in plenty of situations, but I think this might be the first time I've ever been cursed quite this forcefully in bed."
"Don't let it go to your head," Ashe says, and she thinks she sees Ffamran smile for a second before he moves, pressing a knee between her thighs and shifting his weight so he's on top of her. /No/, she almost says, but he's too selfish for that; he won't stop, and she's not about to give him the satisfaction, no matter how much she wishes he weren't about to --
He moves again, sliding down the bed, pressing her thighs apart with his hands and kneeling between them, leaning down -- and he moans when he first tastes her, and she shudders at the way that feels. He's good at this, the bastard, his tongue agile, his strokes focused. Ashe curls her fingers tight in the sheets and holds on, trying to stay quiet -- not only does she not want to give Ffamran the satisfaction, but she has no desire to fuel rumors among the guards posted outside.
Of course, he won't make that any easier, either, moaning in response to every muffled noise she makes, his hands stroking the insides of her thighs. Ashe trembles, as her breath comes short, as Ffamran lets her go with one hand and reaches down between his legs.
"Gods," she whispers, before she can stop herself, "oh gods, oh --" and when she looks down she can see his shoulder flexing -- and she knows what that means, what he's doing, and -- gods, his mouth so good, focused just where she wants it -- and despite herself she makes noise as she comes, a high, needy sound forced out through clenched teeth as she trembles for the intensity of sensation.
She's still gasping for breath, her limbs weak and her skin sheened with sweat, when Ffamran lifts his head, pushes her legs up and out, and rocks forward in one long, smooth motion that ends with her pinned as he pushes his way in.
Ashe cries out at the abruptness of it -- she may be no virgin, but she's had years to grow unaccustomed to this, and with no warning, like this --
"Yes," Ffamran breathes, his voice ragged in her ear, "ah, gods, princess." He slides his hands under her back, holding her close as he thrusts.
"Bastard," Ashe manages. This, too, feels better than it should, the hard muscular heat of his body between her legs, the pressure and fullness of having him inside her. She wraps her legs around his waist and her hands around his shoulders, digging her nails into his back.
Ffamran hisses, pushing deeper. "Ah, that's good," he says hoarsely. "More." Ashe rakes her nails down his skin, and the way he moves now, fast and remorseless, is far more what she expected from him -- it's almost a relief, the brutality, the aggression, the way -- the way she can feel the flex of muscle under his skin -- the way he shudders when she bites down on his throat, the harsh exertion sounds he makes as he takes her --
The way he's moving faster, off-tempo and graceless, like he's close to finishing, too. "Wait," Ashe says, breathless, reaching down to push at his hips, "don't --"
But he doesn't listen to her, doesn't stop until he's tensing and shuddering, still deep inside her. Ashe feels her stomach lurch.
"Let me up," she says once he's gone still.
Ffamran raises his head, and looks down at her. "Something wrong?"
"Let me up," Ashe repeats. "Please."
The noise he makes sounds a bit like irritation, but he moves, sliding free and releasing her. Ashe gets up and walks on unsteady legs into the washroom. Her nightdress is rumpled, and hangs half off her shoulders. She feels shaky, weak from using muscles she hasn't exercised in years. His fluids and hers are smeared down the insides of her thighs.
She cleans up as best she can. The water from the basin is cool, and soothing against tender skin. She wishes she didn't feel so weak.
There's no place to go, though, save back out to the bedroom, and spending the night in here seems like an unappealing option, not least for the opportunity it would afford him to gloat. So after a few minutes, when she's straightened her nightdress and she can move with a bit more grace, she walks back out to the bedroom again.
Ffamran watches her, lying on his back, his hands behind his head. "That bad, was it?" he asks.
Ashe smiles tightly, drawing back the blankets on the other side of the bed. "Please don't do that again," she says. "I've no desire to bear your child."
"I'm hurt," he says. He doesn't make any moves toward her as she climbs into bed. "You don't think we'd have an adorable child?" Ashe just stares at him, for a moment too angry to even know what to say. "You're right, of course," he says, his tone more somber. "It's not in either of our best interests right now. A malleable child heir makes a far better puppet for Vayne's purposes than either an untried judge or a wayward princess. We'd likely be in for a tragic airship accident at the first opportunity."
"Are you -- you are serious," Ashe says.
"Deadly," Ffamran says. "Although --" He glances over at her, his lip curling in an obnoxious little smile. "In Archades, in certain less-than-reputable pharmacists', one can buy philtres to prevent that particular problem. If I could get my hands on such a thing, do you suppose...?"
Ashe turns her back on him ostentatiously. "Don't get your hopes up."
Ffamran laughs. She hears him move, and then feels his lips pressed to the nape of her neck, his hand settling for a moment against her waist. "Good night, princess," he says, and lets her go.
If she doesn't kill him at the first good opportunity, Ashe thinks, it'll be a miracle.