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A Final Fantasy XII fanfiction. Creative rights to the characters, settings and structure belong to their original creators.

A Sense of Commitment

Chapter 1. As Little As A Look


When a Rozarrian dropped a piece of food, on picking it up they would kiss it, before discarding it as fouled.

It had been years since I had lived in Rozarria. Seemingly my mind recalled this custom now as an indirect reference to my fate, in shackles before the door to the Rozarrian HQ. So had I fallen, in one of many misfortunes befalling the nameless agents of the Rozarrian Empire. So had my lord Margrace chosen now to lift me from sweet anonymity. I should expect no more than a kiss before my end.

Having no alternative, I went in.

Windowless, yet lit over-bright, the Rozarrian force had converted the hall to an operations room, the space consumed by a large table spread with maps of Balfonheim, its skies and surrounds. A funereal quiet radiated from the officials by the table, Archadia's triumph a forgone conclusion.

At the end of the hall stood a partition, behind which, three of the Whitecap's scarred barroom tables served as a desk, the sole tribute to a commander's rank in this besieged port.

There, my sworn lord stood facing a secondary campaign map, pinned to the board. Margrace hummed as he studied the state of affairs, fingers interlocked and pressed to his lips. As far as I saw, he hemmed his cheer in direct contradiction to what the map communicated.

I glared at the back of Margrace's head, then turned my attention to the Rozarrian High Marshal, grey curls hung in oiled disorder, seated at the desk. Epaulettes drooped on shoulders sloping as the hills.

The High Marshal also ignored me, until I rattled my shackles. He came aware of my presence with obvious distaste.

'Ha! They found you, for what it's worth.'

Margrace turned, graceful. 'In Balfonheim everything has a price. To have a price, a thing must have some worth.' He addressed the soldiers at my flanks. 'Remove her restraints, if you will. Then you will be dismissed.' Modest, he held out his hand, palm up, to the High Marshal. 'If my orders meet with your approval, of course?'

The Empire's intelligence agents were subject to high military command, even in a field of war. But Al-Cid Margrace was a son of the Emperor, a forbidden nobility in this, his chosen role.

I grimaced. The dance between rightful command and Imperial right to command continued, much as it had in the years I served my lord Margrace. In his crisp blue satin shirt, unlaced to the navel, Margrace looked tanned, fit, young, impossibly healthy next to my memory's shades—and compared to the High Marshal's slump, Margrace's stance suggested himself in command.

Knowing Margrace, I forgave the High Marshal his clenched fists, the glare suggesting me to blame for irritating Imperial presence. The Marshal nodded his grudging agreement.

No more generous in their obedience, the soldiers released my hands from behind my back, ungentle. I worked aching shoulders, and hastened their departure with a sneer.

Margrace walked to place his hands on the High Marshal's shoulders, who startled upright at the touch and jerked away.

'My gratitude for your support to the department during this time of turmoil.'

The Marshal dusted his shoulders, eying Margrace suspiciously. 'Much support, causing much disturbance.'

Margrace made the mudra of acknowledgement and debt with his left hand. 'My little birds are well-instructed to fly home. Unfortunate it is when one wants guidance.'

The High Marshal glared at me again, and moved past the partition to merge with the war table officials.

Was he serious? Rising out of the dark of this day's morning, Archadia had broken their own blockade and attacked. Yet in a fit of resentment, Margrace demanded the Rozarrian military turn over half of the pirate port to find one fugitive agent?

The arrogance was like him, at that.

'What do you want?' I asked Margrace. 'You simply couldn't let me die free when Archadia takes this port?'

'Was it so bad, my little bird? That you had to run away from me, giving no word of your survival?'

Not what I had expected, now, nor from him. 'Yes.'

He made the mudra of appeasement. 'Your position was essential to our needs—'

'You weren't there. I had two choices, run or die.'

'I never believed you dead,' Margrace said, after a moment. 'I've been looking for you since.'

'Further wasting Imperial Rozarria's resource. Had you nothing better to do with your time?'

'Ah,' he grinned, shrugged, 'well. I searched between other tasks, in locales occasioning my other business. Such as here. Who imagined you would return to the town from where I had plucked you from obscurity? My agents are not so predictable as to return home.'

Margrace did not take the abandoned Marshal's chair, his eyes dark behind his glasses. I knew him well of old. Behind his words and grace simmered his old, possessive hunger.

'I am not yours to pluck any longer.'

'Your desertion merits death,' he said, blunt.

'My gratitude for the reminder.'

'Are you so pleased to die?'

'Freely, yes. In a battle, for certain. But for your Empire? Not at all.'

'Not your Empire any longer, I see.' He shook his head. 'You have changed, to think your death would do more than waste even the gravedigger's time. Only cowards choose to drown where the gallant brave the storm.'

A rising babble among the war room operatives interrupted my retort.

Of course, I listened.

The Fighter Class fleet associated with the Rozarrian Carrier Gulbahar had fallen. Of the Carrier Parvaneh, the Fighters flew in retreat, overwhelmed, for the sanctuary of the Carrier's hold.

'The Archadian storm.' Margrace pointed to the campaign board. 'Breaking on cue. I yet believe Archadia will not take Balfonheim.'

'Good for you.'

Margrave gave me a pained look. 'You think you have been called to account for your desertion. Yet, my little bird, your record does not state you deserted your last post. Rather a commendation is due for demonstration of initiative in stationing yourself in Balfonheim, before the Archadian intent to blockade this town. We have no other operative so well positioned. Your record also lauds your ability to independently finance your cover within this sunlit, salt-rimed free port.'

He lowered dark glasses, awarding me a glimpse of his Imperial blues. He looked me up, from heeled boots to where silk scarce tamed my curl, and over the limited cover of my Balfonheim leathers, pearls and lace between.

'So few of my birds have done so well with so little.'

No one had ever called Margrace subtle in his intentions towards women.

Yet with him, even the blatant became another mask. He sought to buy my involvement for some purpose of his own. I reminded myself, I did not want to return to service with Rozarria.

'If I disagree with your assessment of my actions?'

'Your insubordination would be but another mark beside your desertion.'

Buy, or threaten.

Margrace added, 'In such circumstance, it will be necessary to enforce the non-disclosure clause on fugitive agents.'

'Which equates again to a death sentence.'

'Do not think this free port will protect you.'

My anger, never well constrained these days, flared. 'Balfonheim won't turn me out, even if you do name me an Imperial fugitive.'

'Of course not. Criminals find refuge here, including those of morals that do not align with yours. Balfonheim brims even now with those criminal who would oblige Rozarria, simply for the posted reward. Do not expect favours repaid, friendships called in, protection offered in exchange for your contribution to the community, so-called as it is.'

I had no regret for throwing my lot in with pirates and thieves. Only a dull despite for Margrace using what I had come to value as weapon against me.

'Give me my commendation, then. You have my commitment.'

'Wholehearted?' He said it sharply.

I curled my lip. 'If you insist on enthusiasm, I'll fake it for you.' Indicating the operations room, alight with news of Rozarria's downed ships, I added, 'Not that my enthusiasm could affect chance where those better men could not.'

'You believe our defensive efforts in vain?'

Sullen, I offered, 'As long as the paling holds, and Archadia does not move in force, the two Carriers contribute much to the defence. But for how long—three months, perhaps?'

Margrace waved me to silence. 'Three months.'

'It means little enough here. Have you even looked at the streets? There's not the food, the weaponry, nor the willpower to run a defence if Archadia comes directly.'

'Were you aware of what occurred when our Rozarrian Carriers arrived?'

Weeks ago, now. When the Rozarrians arrived, old instinct led me to abandon my industry and hide. Yet Balfonheim under blockade did not offer many boltholes: I emerged due to hunger, always close in these days of the blockade, to discover Balfonheim reconstructed.

The Rozarrians brought grain and like essentials—luxuries, too. Pineapple. Chocolate. Coffee. Starvation had made thieves of us, but with the arrival of the Rozarrians, the looting eased. I discovered the streets almost ordered again, empty of scavengers, mobs, the hungry and weak returned to what nooks they called home.

Rozarria won their way through Balfonheim's paling with food. Initially welcoming the relief, Balfonheim turned suspicious of Imperial Rozarria's involvement when the Carriers disgorged their military compliment into the port. The soldiers and officials spread through Balfonheim, assuming effective Imperial control—temporary only, the High Marshal insisted, despite his slump obviously a fast enough talker to convince the various pirate cohorts and motley crews of Rozarria's sincerity.

Balfonheim's citizens believed in liberty, not order—individual freedom never sacrificed in the name of law. Nevertheless, the port was aware of the threat of Archadian annihilation. When of my capture, fights between Balfonheimers and the Rozarrian soldiers had not developed to more than scuffles.

Yet the tension stayed trigger-tight.

Margrace saw the knowledge in my face, even as I nodded. 'The Emperor intended the Carriers as a single aid convoy. A quick entrance and drop, followed by a swift departure. All else since then has been improvised.'

'Why are you still here?'

'The Emperor cannot spare further military force on what is a non-allied township.' He spread his hands, a helpless affectation. 'We cannot get out.'

The admission surprised me.

'The blockade was more—shall we say, total—than our intelligence led us to suspect. Near impossible to surpass, as the High Marshal realized too late, our Carriers too committed to withdraw.'

I laughed. Rozarria made such an effort to appear the benign influence, the Imperial salve to the other Imperial blight. Of all ironies, to be caught by overextension. 'So you're stuck here with the rest of us dock-rats.'

'You note the humour in the situation, my little bird. Today, you and I are on this flotsam raft, caught in a chilling Archadian storm. You call it home, I call it no alternative. Nevertheless, neither of us intend to drown. Therefore,' he said, pointedly, 'the need for your enthusiasm.'

'Oh, offer me a raft and I'll not be striking for shore on my own. For as long as your intentions towards survival are honourable.'

'Honourable, as always. If not necessarily opaque.'

Again, I experienced the distrust, lethal as the despair and betrayal, which had nearly claimed my life two years ago.

'You're asking me to trust you.'

'Will you?' he asked, quietly.

Yes. 'No!'

'Ah,' Margrace said, sadly. 'But will you talk with me? Work with me?'

'Yes.' How miserably engrained it was, to responded to his expectation. 'For as long as your intentions remain—'

'Honourable. Of course.'

Only then did Margrace sit in the High Marshal's well-padded chair. 'Facts, my little bird. The Archadian blockade extends between Balfonheim and the skycity of Bhujerba.'

'Yes.'

'It is a total blockade,' he added.

'So it seems.'

'Only with intense effort, and loss of life, were two Rozarrian Carriers and a full compliment of Fighter Class airships able to break through the blockade.'

'To find they could not risk getting back out again,' I felt the need to reiterate the instability of his position.

His lips quirked. 'Quite. So we agree, then, Balfonheim is isolated and set to starve?'

'Not even a sailboat could coast under the blockade.'

'So. Our first honourable if somewhat opaque conversation completed without incident. Now for the first true query, my little Balfonheim bird: tell me how, then, an unarmed airship—of a type so antiquated it near runs on coal—can make regular deliveries of luxuries beneath the notice of the same Archadian blockade that crushed the best drop-squad Rozarria could offer?'

I shrugged. 'Rhetorical question, I assume?'

'Not at all. You do know of the airship?'

I said, slowly, 'I didn't know.'

'How unfortunate. For the airship's pirates, not for you. They have led me to believe their reputation surmounts the sky, their infamy knowing no bounds. Perhaps it should not. They have affected both survival and marked profit around this,' he waved his hand through a graceful arc, 'slight inconvenience we shall call a war.'

I continued without enlightenment.

'Yet no recall? The name has a historic origin, near as aged as the airship itself. The Maenad, the skypirates call it—'

'Oh, no. Those lunatics.'

He arched a dark eyebrow at me.

'Balthier and Fran,' I elaborated.

My obvious distaste made Al-Cid Margrace smile, broad enough to bare his teeth.


For performing heroic actions in the name of profit—that long dishonoured honourable cause—the Maenad was docked in disgrace.

A port town long before the prevalence of airships, an extension of the original sea-ship docks served as Balfonheim's aerodrome. Stone and wood piers thrust out along the coastal curve, radial sun-spokes of an accidental rhythm, each one leading to the lowered gangways of airships at rest.

Her skystone confiscated to prevent precipitate departure, the Maenad had been tugged into place, and now wallowed at the dock furthermost from Balfonheim town itself, near to where the sewers spread slick effluence across the ocean's calm.

At the quayside end of the Maenad's dock, Balfonheimers gathered to jeer. The Maenad's dirt-dark hull would benefit from a short sharp shower, had Balfonheimers enough eggs to let them rot.

The hostility was not especially malicious, fuelled by boredom of another endless suspension of the hostilities above. The Maenad, once a subtle saviour depositing goods in bordering coves, had been outed in her role as blockade-runner. Enough humiliation for a skypirate to have been caught by foreign authorities, this time the Maenad offered no cargo. The absent providence contributed to the jeers of the crowd.

If Balfonheim had known what I knew about the Maenad, what would they have done?

Margrace had enlightened me before sending me out. A Rozarrian Fighter Class had intercepted the Maenad, which immediately began evasive manoeuvres. A warning missile had been fired, damaging the Maenad, even as engagement and capture advanced to plan.

On seeing the night sky lit by flare and fire, the upcoming Archadian patrol assumed their last sweep under attack. They moved a portion of their force against the Rozarrians, in retaliation.

Yet neither Rozarria nor Archadia wished to war with each other. Not yet, while the victor was uncertain. Margrace predicted the battle would remain a skirmish, a testing of each other's dedication to holding this independent pirate port. So had Archadia and Rozarria avoided full war for decades, other nations the rope in their game-of-tug.

Rozarrian soldiers loitered about the airship's dock, both among the jeering crowd and watching it. Protection for the Maenad, I suspected, should the crowd turn violent.

Dutifully blank-faced, the Rozarrian soldiers were displeased to be so assigned. They likely knew the Maenad's role in their skyborne comrades' defeat. Among the jeers tossed in the airship's general direction, the Balfonheimers generously spared wit and bile for the soldiers.

Perhaps the Rozarrians would be the ones to break, and throw the first bottle. While the Balfonheim residents, however cruel in their current mockery, would immediately rally to arms to defend one of their own against the Imperial interlopers.

Despite everything, it was a beautiful summer's day in Balfonheim, of brisk breeze and enjoyably crisp warmth.

With a short punch to the ribs of a stocky mariner blocking my way, I worked through the crowd to the stern line of soldiers. A lieutenant's steady gaze met mine, blank. To him, I was but another Balfonheimer, come to mock.

With an odd feeling of satisfaction, I withdrew my recently restored credentials, and filled the lieutenant's vision with Margrace's stamp of authority.

Blinking at me with clear disbelief, he let me pass.

I had not forgotten about the audience. Catcalls and cheers followed me down the long dock, provocative enough, even for Balfonheim, that I gave a few incredulous glances back at the crowd.

In this way, I came to the Maenad's gangway.

Small for her era, but huge compared with contemporary cargo ships, the Maenad was twenty years old, from a decade when airships followed in form and function their seagoing cousins. Considering the inefficiencies of early Mist systems, the Maenad would devour skystone at an impossible rate. A miracle that even skypirates ran her at profit.

To do so while evading the Archadian blockade? Here the impossibility wallowed.

I surveyed the damage. Loss of glazing, several areas of dented, scorched hull due reinforcement, a tidy hole thicker than my waist cut in perfect alignment through both sides of the hull. I climbed the gangway to the hatch.

My knock rang hollow and ignored.

Salted by the crowd's mockery, I made my way around to the engine deck, level with the dock itself, where a full panel had been removed from the hull to efficiently service the damaged reservoir. I jumped the gap and boarded, and, in the comparative darkness, paused to blink my eyes into focus.

What I saw of the Maenad's engines made me cringe.

I took up a fragment of scorched iron from the deck, and announced myself vigorously on the ductwork. 'Hoy! The ship!'

From the depths of the empty hold, a young man emerged, tall and lean. He climbed the ladder to the engine deck with an air that, while lazy, gave the impression of conserving his energy for better things, possibly of a more horizontal orientation.

He swung himself up into the sunlight streaming through the open hull. Then, hip propped against a ship's rib, he folded his arms at me and lowered his brows.

What clothing remained to him, leather trews of an Archadian military cut, a finely embroidered shirt hung open, and a transparent undervest, appeared several days worn and grimed with himself and with soot and scorch. His jaw clenched. From the sun-darkened face, clear eyes, slightly squinted, took my measure and found me wanting.

'Balthier. I want to talk to him.'

Lips pursed in disapproval. Then he glanced away, as if disinterested. 'How easily gratified you are. Now bugger off, whatever you are.'

The young man spoke the former in the tones of the Archadian upper class, the latter, in a street-rich drawl.

My day began with being run down, followed by a fight for my life, several hours in shackles, only to find myself again at the puppet end of Margrace's strings. The brat's affectation irritated me.

I offered Margrace's authority with a move more suited to a blade.

The young man rolled his eyes. 'Mine's bigger.'

'I'm here to decide if this relic is due to be retired. If you're worth your berth, you'll run to fetch your mister before I recycle this hulk for Rozarria.'

I regained the young man's eyes. Hunched shoulders developed a level of tension, his nostrils flared. I prepared to engage.

Yet he surprised me, as a thought occured. A twinkle grew in his eye, and those ugly lips turned themselves into a smile making him cheerfully, if treacherously, approachable.

'I know of the Margraces, and their little birds. So there's one in this mess too, is there? Odd uniform for an agent.' He let his gaze linger. 'Sundries run out of trousers, birdie?'

I narrowed my eyes, discomforted. Piratical ego and pure capitalism demanded a display of exoticism and confidence, for status. I had been born to Balfonheim streets before Margrace's sphere had claimed me. Years, then, had been lost training in Rozarria, serving in Rozarria, where exposure was the right of the male aristocracy. I chose my dress now in deliberate insistence I had never been gone.

'I've been undercover.'

'As what, a Balfonheim fortune-teller?' The grin became a smirk. 'A delightful boss you have, Feathers.'

'Better than being an airship's rudder slut. Now go mince off to wherever your mister's hiding himself. I want to speak to him.'

Boneless, the maddening brat settled himself against the hull and grinned.

As I made to broach the ship's interior, someone descended the central ladder. The shaft revealed an impressively figured Viera, tall enough even without the ears to need to bow past the threshold, inches taller even than the young man. Oiled black leather, supple and tight, presented notable assets in stark relief: the tense muscles of her abdomen, the powerful thighs, the sinewy-strong arms. Wide-set eyes took me in, her face serene, impassive.

After which scrutiny, she focused on the young man.

'The entire intake mechanism will need a replacement.'

'That's what Nono says, does he?' The young man made a face. 'He'll have to do better than that.'

The Viera twitched an ear at the ladder. 'So he comes. Argue with him.'

'Oh,' said the young man, fervent, 'I will.'

She settled herself on her haunches, elbows on knees with the idle grace of a fighter, in control of every muscle. She returned her study to me.

So, that was Fran.

Her reputation preceded her. Somewhat of a Balfonheim legend, with Viera longevity on her side, Fran circled Balfonheim's spheres of influence for decades, being most memorable for an unparalleled performance within a less-than-savoury fighting ring, where she earned the title Master of Weapons. But reputation did not suggest the physical presence, the sensation of nearness to a notable killer.

A Moogle joined the party, wiping greasy paws on a flight suit that might have once been green. From his lower position, he nevertheless succeeded in looking me down. Whiskers flaring, he said, sarcastic, 'Kupo 'pon the highest, Balthier, but where did you find her?'

My stomach sank. I turned to the smirking brat, who extended his oil-black hand for me to shake. I folded my arms.

Balthier rolled his eyes and withdrew the offering, flamboyant. 'You know who I am, of course. Apart from glaringly underdressed, you are?'

'Of more use alive than you are. Incapable of polite introduction, are you?'

'Or you'll tell Daddy Margrace on me?' He screwed his face up doubtfully. 'Polite. I imagine this is where I ask if I can take you upstairs and show you my cockpit?'

'Indeed,' I smiled. 'You may. Ask and take.'

He deflated slightly. 'Unfortunately, I'm rather not up to it now, Feathers. It might be something to do with my rough handling by several Rozarrian bruisers earlier this morning. A traumatic experience, it tends to presuppose a man to suspicion.'

'Unfortunately, Balthier, you don't have much of a choice. Balfonheim's under Rozarria's military patronage. You skypirates, including your airship, are under close arrest for smuggling contraband. Or haven't you noticed the guards at the dock?'

The three-part crew of the Maenad peered through the hole in the hull. A bright spark had incited the mob to shred rubbish instead of rotten eggs, and a pungent ticker tape parade rained on the Rozarrian soldiers.

'Is that what they're there for? Imagine that.' Balthier straightened.

'Not our usual admirers,' Fran noted.

'Of course not.' Balthier lifted his chin at me. 'Not after her lot took the lovely presents we brought for Balfonheim.'

Before Nono evicted another cultural exclamation, the paling shrieked, and glazed blindingly white.

Another attack.

Whiplash shocks of air rocked the ships at dock. The paling flared between white and clear—yet the time between strikes remained too far apart to induce failure. Shrapnel flicked through at intervals, a red-hot metal rain, which had the benefit of scattering the crowd back to the shelter of the streets.

Not that Balthier noticed, either the distant attack, the rocking of the Maenad, or the momentary verbal reprieve.

His eyes focused on something distant. Expressionless, his face lost what modicum of appeal it held. As the reprieve from assault extended, Balthier squinted out the hole as shrapnel sizzled into the ocean, puzzling at something.

Balthier rounded on me, eyes alight, his answer obviously found. He looked sufficiently vulpine to have me reach for my dagger's hilt.

Fran shifted her shoulders. No more warning than that, yet I was aware of her eyes on my hand.

'Since you're here, Feathers, you can parrot back this pearler to your master: Rozarria opened fire on a neutral airship, killed my second engineer, boarded without permission and subsequently confiscated goods belonging to a free trader. You have no authority over us. I don't think I want to let you on my airship.'

I bridled. 'A free trader? I'll believe that when I check the receipts for various border taxes you've paid on route.'

Balthier raised enquiring eyebrows at Fran.

Who reproached him, 'In the intensity of the boarding, we seem to have lost our paperwork.'

'Careless of us.'

The paling screeched in active defence. My hands over my ears, I stared at the madman and the Viera, who, but for Fran's twitching left ear, ignored the incoming blast to grin at each other.

Nono glanced out the hole, then up at the skypirates. He threw his arms up in despair, and with one last dire glance in my direction, stalked off into the engine's depths.

'My point,' Balthier said, as soon as the sound permitted, 'our interfering Empire Rozarria goes to great pains to endure by the rules of war. They have to, don't they? Considering how their involvement might be construed by Archadia, if best behaviour wasn't maintained. Your Emperor might be a bit pissed if I take our complaint to a tribunal at the Holy Mount.'

'You can't threaten the Empire with a lawsuit.'

Balthier spread his hands wide. 'What have I got to lose?'

I wanted him to let me do the job Margrace asked of me, simply so I escape Balthier and his overprotective partner. Balthier's reputation for ornery obfuscation for his own amusement had not been exaggerated.

'I've been sent to inspect the ship, nothing more. What harm's it to comply?'

'Compliance,' Balthier said, 'is for days when I feel less of a sack of tripe. After this particular morning, I'm not in the mood for sharing niceties with any Rozarrian. Particularly not one playing fancy dress.'

There came a hellishly familiar roar, the incoming tides of war.

Beyond our limited view, Archadia's current assault on the paling contrived a localized failure by bombardment, enough to let a single Fighter Class through, a Valfarre Fighter Mark I, swift and manoeuvrable. The airship spun into view as it passed the hole in the Maenad's hull, close enough the backdraft pulled at my hair.

Yet the Valfarre arched away from Balfonheim, low, across the sand. Ballistic rounds kicked up sheets of sand and chipped cobbles, Mist back-blasts brightening neat circles of sky, fireballs released.

The Valfarre went for the critical hit: the vulnerable paling generator. If Archadia brought the paling down, their full strike squad could approach, and the battle would be over in moments.

Crewed with Rozarrians, Balfonheim was not so defenceless as it had been. A jury-rigged gun tower spun to target the Valfarre, meeting fire with fire, sprays of bullets, target-disruption spells fouling the Valfarre's fireballs.

In the low wake of the airship, the ocean heaved.

I clung to the Maenad's hull, where the old style of hand-riveting provided many a nub for my fingernails to nick against. The Valfarre must have been downed by an unseen blow, because the Maenad's heaving suddenly redoubled, hull echoing with the slap of waves.

Fran rode the turbulence with ease, in a superbly balanced crouch, while within the engine Nono wrapped himself around a nearby pipe, using his handy wrench for added length where his arms would not span to reach each other. Balthier—

Knees loose, he rode the ruckus with an expression on his face that reminded me of murder. His eyes were black. Had been, I realized, since the moment he saw the Valfarre spin his field of view.

A thick trail of smoke inked the clear blue sky.

The Maenad yet rocked by aftershocks, Balthier flung himself at the opening in the hull.

Fran was quicker. Before he could lunge from deck to dock—and, by appearance, directly into the ocean on the other side—she caught him about the waist, her free hand catching on the header. In the circle of her arm, Balthier held himself rigid.

'Bastards!'

She put her mouth to his hair. 'When we have leisure.'

He panted. 'For what?'

'To rejoice in war? Is that what you want?'

'Cynic,' he said. 'Do you think he had time to scream?'

Balthier's eyes remained black and distant, his expression sheet-pale and twisted, as if transfixed by something that both horrified and enraged him with his powerlessness.

In that moment, I felt a vague kinship with the man.

'Hopefully,' Fran said, warily, 'not.'

As if a switch flicked, colour flooded back into Balthier's expression. He brushed Fran's arm from his waist. She let him. She gave me another unreadable glance, almost angry that I had witnessed their exchange.

Considering the snap of our earlier dialogue, the absence of passion in Balthier's voice chilled me. 'Fran, get Nono out and take her through. Give her the full report, right down to the malfunctioning lever on my chair. Get her off my ship as quickly as possible.'

Balthier took himself off into the dim hold. Fran turned, without checking I followed.

Making clear his displeasure at conducting a tour, Nono recited the airship's inventory of damages with a well-practiced monotony. Familiarise yourself with the airship, Margrace ordered, so I set myself to memorise the tiresome list. At the end of the tortuous tour, Fran decided to interpret 'as quickly as possible' literally, and threw me off the ship.

When I staggered to the quayside, I had lost whatever surge of sympathy I felt for the skypirates.

Continue to Chapter 2


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