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A Sense of Commitment

Chapter 2. From A Distance Far

'Petty and arrogant,' I announced, 'imperious, ornery, dubiously motivated and otherwise unstable.'

'Such an explicit rejection of his qualities—'

'I say he says no, and you should consider yourself fortunate he does.'

Over his steam tea, a weak colour suggesting a decided dearth of leaves, Margrace raised one critical eyebrow.

'Ah, well,' I said, stirring against the pain of bruising and sand-rash, both garnered in my fall from the Maenad's cockpit, 'you did ask what I thought.' Gathering my bruised pride, I added, 'The bloody overprotective Viera of his threw me off the ship. From the cockpit, mind. That's a four meter drop.'

Despite the eyebrow, Margrace did not look concerned.

'There's a crowd of witnesses at the docks, if you need confirmation.' I shook shredded rubbish from my hair. Balfonheimers took such delight in another's humiliations.

'Four meters,' Margrace mused. 'Not three and a half? Or five?'

'My lord,' I said, in speaking tones. 'Balthier's not the kind to play along.'

Margrace offered the armchair beside him. 'Your full assessment, then, if you can set aside your prideful fall?'

Disgruntled, I settled in. Despite the humid fug, the tiny room had two benefits, privacy, and the picture window through which we faced the horizon.

'Would an appeal to his ideology meet with success?'

I blinked.

'He is a skypirate,' Margrace said, patient. 'The very idea of Balfonheim, not solely opportunity to profit, has always been the centre of fierce independence. Shall we slant this endeavour as ensuring his future freedoms, and Balfonheim's, through confrontation of the current Archadian difficulty?'

It was hard to answer. To keep myself from laughing, too. Such an idealistic, near artistic view of what Balfonheim represented—if my years away had softened the hardship of my childhood, these two years back had reminded me what the rest of the world was like to forget of the pirate port. Balfonheim was a magnet for mercenaries, black marketers, the underworld's clan hunters, and otherwise political refugees, asylum seekers and criminals running from national persecution. Survival was the first motivation of Balfonheim's masses, only the godtouched among us, malicious or otherwise driven to rise above the rest.

'If you want to appeal to his ideology, look for a more personal approach. A skypirate's loyalty is to himself, his ship, not to Balfonheim's continuance.'

Margrace sipped his tea. 'There must be something here he wants to preserve?'

'Do you know how many races live in Balfonheim? Bangaa don't eat the same as Humes, Moogles won't live apart from each other, Viera don't even think in the same syntax—then there are the Humes. Throw an Archadian up against a Dalmascan, neither of whom can agree to disagree on the relevance, much less the existence, of the righteous divinity as lauded by the Holy Mount— What do you expect to sway the man, a plea for non-existent solidarity?'

'To an extent,' Margrace replied, calm.

'Balfonheim's neutrality is a convenience for the skypirates, a tax-free zone. An evolution of accidental circumstance, not a deliberate national bloody charter.'

'Diverse peoples occupying a defined region,' Margrace mused. 'Evolving a shared cultural ambiance, distinct from any other town or locale. The distinctions born from deep attachments to—or a need to contradict—cultural beliefs and practices. How do you think any nation formed? By circumstance, my little bird. Not by committee.'

I paused, thinking. 'You're talking about offering full independence for Balfonheim. Legalised neutrality.'

'With the political protection the Holy Mount will offer.'

'The Holy Mount's moral righteousness has done Bhujerba little good,' I snapped. 'Nor the midland nations. Archadia abides by their own code of conduct these days.'

'Nevertheless,' Margrace examined his teacup. 'Autonomy is a bargaining chip. Rozarria would be pleased to support Balfonheim's bid to become a city-state.'

Which led me to ponder what possible second, third, fourth layer of purpose Margrace had for the pirate port.

When the blockade descended, I recognised Archadian interest in Balfonheim was no more than guarding an unfortunately positioned back door. The true target was the skycity Bhujerba, Balfonheim's closest neighbour. The skycity controlled the largest known magicite mine in the world. Archadia had been content with Bhujerba's political neutrality, until recently, when Bhujerba closed off the magicite mine and refused to sell its last stockpile to Archadia.

A threatening blockade could cow the skycity Bhujerba into compliance, while avoiding the antagonism of another war. Archadia already battled on another front, and was making further moves towards Nabudis, in Nabradia, the last nation to call on Rozarria's aid.

Bhujerba was an inconvenience, too politically well connected to attack outright.

And of Balfonheim? Sister city to the independent Bhujerban city-state, it was the only port close enough to Bhujerba to offer the skycity's citizens an escape route.

Not to mention Balfonheim's existence within Archadia's borders had always irritated higher Archadian officials. Come an all-out Imperial conflict between Rozarria and Archadia, Balfonheim was in a prime position to threaten Archadian supply lines.

There lay Margrace's interest in ensuring the port was under a stable—and bribable—leadership.

'Ignoring the impossibility of ever getting Balfonheim to unite behind a single figurehead, Balthier's not like to die for an ambiguous future. He already has an Empire, aboard his own ship.'

I suspected Margrace was letting me dig myself a hole.

'His crew? His partnership with Fran holds firm, in all rumour: encourage her to encourage him?'

I was doubtful. 'Pirates throw over all land-based laws. I assume the Viera finds a certain freedom from her race and Eryut's strictures in the sky, considering how devoted she seems to Balthier. Bodyguard-cum-navigator. He hardly seems like to listen to her—'

I stopped, hearing my own words. Devoted felt too tame a description for the fierceness I had witnessed, when Balthier's eyes went berserker-black.

'The third?'

'The Moogle? He was engineer on the Maenad before the airship's current masters liberated her from the last. Engineers who know a dated ship would be rare, the skypirates like as not bribed him to remain.' I hesitated, then offered, 'As a crew, they're not inclined to offer favours, Margrace. They are rather angry about the loss of their Second Engineer.'

'Wherever did they put him?'

'He was shot. When Rozarria took the airship.'

Somewhere amid that hazy torturous briefing on the Maenad's extensive injuries, Fran pushed me into the ship's temporary morgue. Nono rattled off the deceased engineer's bullet wounds, bruises and blood loss with as much dull-voiced scorn as during his description of the chipped paint in the ship's corridors, taken off, so he said, by the slaven-dick sized artillery the Rozarrian boarding party carried instead of normally sized battle guns.

'Did you tell this skypirate and his obscurely motivated crew of the role in mind for them?'

'Certainly not.'

'No?' Long fingers formed a steeple over the tea, in a mudra of infinite patience.

I hardly knew what role Margrace intended, but for what flesh I imagined on his skeletal outline. 'For security's sake, Margrace. As I said, Balthier's not stable; imagine if he sold the story to the Archadians. If I've read his accent correctly—one of his many accents—he's likely ex-Archadian, possibly military, considering how well he flies.'

That revelation did not surprise Margrace. 'If he did sell this story to his ex-compatriots, my little bird, how do you think the Archadians would respond?'

I closed my eyes. 'Laugh themselves sick.'

'You, too, think my master plan absurd.'


'Yet without a tried and true method, why should not the most unlikely plan succeed?' Margrace's eyes focused out the window. His breath came long and low, timed, I realized, with the distant susurrus of the ocean against the shore. The corners of his lips tightened, resisting a smirk.

'Why ever not,' I muttered.

The mudra of infinite patience relaxed. Margrace sipped his tea again, and this time, made a face. If I remembered correctly, he preferred a darker brew, and sugared thick as syrup. 'Deprived honey, we are yet possessed of sticks. Such as the suggestion to our Archadian skypirate that cooperation will remove suspicion from him, of being an Archadian spy.'

Feeling my bruises, a certain vindictiveness made me grin. Then I remembered the black eyes, and the wildness that promised any threat to Balthier's survival would be met with violence.

'Fran would kill the messenger. Then Balthier would apologise profusely sometime later, from an aerodrome half a world distant.'

The smirk burgeoned then, wide and unrestrained. It exasperated me. The more I tried to dissuade, the more pleased with himself Margrace seemed.

'You believe this sky pirate crew would be able to sufficiently repair their airship ship for flight, without our aid in a circumstance of extreme shortage, and be able to gain enough skystone to effect a secure getaway?'

I paused. 'They would.'

'Then we must move quickly, mustn't we?'

'To detain him? I warn you, the mad bastard cited the law at me—illegal detention in a time of war. If you jail him, and if anything akin to the Holy Mount's neutral court remains after Archadia's done, he'll—'

'You may leave Balthier to me,' Margrace interrupted. 'With no concerns at all to your involvement: you have done well. Your assessment correlates with my own.'

It had always been unlikely that a ship's inspection was the extent of what Margrace wanted of me.

Yet the effective 'good girl' Margrace had just delivered stuck in my throat. Patronising, yes, but his pleasure and his pride brought back too many memories of my time with him. In this bargain I had struck for my life and free retirement, I should have defined a time limit for my renewed obedience to Rozarria.

Aghast, I had visions of myself, grey-haired and bent, while an even more aged Margrace granted me my full absolution.

He spoke again. I recalled my attention.

'To the dockyard, my Lord?'

'Detail the needed repairs,' Margrace continued. 'A team is assigned to your management, along with further instruction specific to the success of this mission.'

I turned to the door, yet dazed.

'Before you go. If the Archadian origin holds true, Balthier should have a family name. You have it, I assume?'

I did, garnered while querying the streets for information on said skypirate's reputation. Balthier walked through the world declaiming himself the leading man in his own exotic tale, discretion no better part of his valour.

'Bunansa. Balthier Mid Bunansa, or Balflear Mied Bunanza. Depends on the dialect.'

Margrace stilled, then grinned, boyish. 'How perfect.'

The Rozarrian Naval Architect engaged in a loud debate with three Balfonheimer voices of unknown origin.

I discovered this while several streets away from the dockyard's rusty haze. Insult ricocheted through the narrow streets.

Idle observers gathered at the dockyard, interested, arrayed along the fence to watch. A soldier—who, from the ribbon on his pike, should have kept guard at the dockyard's gate—hastened to examine my credentials.

I pointed to the verbal affray. 'What's this?'

'Three draughtsmen,' said the soldier, in explanation. 'One architect.'

The soldier had a kind face, with a sparkle to his eye that did not die on discovering me one of Margrace's vultures. Warmth from a fellow Hume had been scanty these last few days.

I met his gaze with a fire of my own. 'Odds on?'

The solider hemmed and hawed, melodramatic. 'I'd say two-to-one the draughtsmen come out on top. In my humble opinion.'

'The numbers weight things more than that, surely. Three to one?'

'The force of Rozarria behind the one balances things,' the soldier pointed out, laconic. Then he grinned. 'What with the attack this morning, this has been the most interesting week I've had since being stuck here.'

Well I could sympathise with the adrenal ache of a soldier kept too long waiting.

At which it struck me, that for all my irritation towards Margrace, the curdled fear and expectation of my own death, perhaps some of what I felt towards him was gratitude. Once again, he had plucked me from obscurity and set me to purpose.

If only I knew what that purpose was.

With a nod to the soldier, I moved forward to even the odds, force of Rozarria notwithstanding.

One draughtsmen retreated from the affray to sharpen his pencil. He caught my gaze, recognized my authoritative step, and called to the architect and the other two draughtsmen. 'Oi, you lot! The man's bird is here!'

The argument fell silent. The Naval Architect smoothed his ruffled epaulettes and adjusted his high collar, while the draughtsmen busied themselves sweeping sketches beneath the official blueprints. No one seemed glad to see me, as if anticipating my presence would end their disagreement one way or another.

The Naval Architect explained the problem as I approached—

'—by rights, she shouldn't be able to fly even without the added weight of these variations.'

I paused, waiting for the 'so there' that his tone intimated.

'Kupo, yon bloody cubs!' said a grey-furred draughtsman, the sole Moogle, his glower undiminished by his height. 'Can't understand anything built before 680 OV, can you?'

The Naval Architect threw down his ink and crossed his arms. 'I can understand Mist to mass conversions, and that ship hasn't got it right.'

'It's the juice,' said a younger draughtsman to me. 'If you want this to fly with these modifications, you'll have to get the engineers in. Increase the Mist flow and it'll fly, all right.'

'Handle like a Dreadnaught,' muttered the third. 'Won't turn on a gil piece, for certain. It'll be the world's most inefficient ship to fly.'

'As long as it flies, why argue?' Intending to appease, I found myself receiving four angry glares.

'It's a matter of pride,' said the Naval Architect, while three draughstmen nodded in unison. 'Can't let something by without making the most of possible efficiencies.'

A graphite-black paw stabbed at the Maenad's blueprints. 'Do you need all this?'

For the first time, I regarded the evidence of Margrace's unlikely plan, crammed into every viable inch of the Maenad's innards.

I was taken aback.

The Maenad was a mercantile airship. While every airship had some providence towards its own self-defence, the marked differences in a mercantile hull would make this display of weaponry unfeasible.

Forget the weight: what about the recoil?

'Margrace was adamant about this?'

The Moogle draughtsman stared down the smirks of the others. 'Adamant is the word, is it? Adamant. Yes, I suppose you could say he was adamant.'

I cringed, picturing the enthusiastic, affected sweep of Margrace under full sail.

To distract myself from the thought, I dove into the discussion of further practicalities with the dockyard.

When Margrace dismissed me to the dockyard, I assumed the rest of his instructions had reached their destinations, one of which was the joint office of the Balfonheim Liaison and the Rozarrian Chief Supply Clark. Between them, they took charge of Balfonheim's reluctantly pooled resource.

The pair picked their way through the dockyard now. Set expressions suggested they hunted me down, as Margrace's appointed contact, with dire confrontation in mind.

The Balfonheim Liaison I recognised—a tall, fussy retired skypirate, ambitious, who had a finger in many Balfonheim pies through ownership of the port's real estate. At his side, the tidy Chief Supply Clark wore the first complete, immaculate Rozarrian uniform I had seen in days. She eyed me with equal distaste. Rozarria's military did not appreciate Rozarria's agents.

Hands on hips, I glared.

Wariness creased the Chief Supply Clark's brow, but she stronger than anticipated. 'I've received the requisition, little bird, and you can tell your boss it won't be done!'

The High Marshal had appointed the Balfonheim Liaison as a temporary mayor, an action intended to appease the town by ensuring they had a voice in the military councils. Ironic, then, the man said nothing now, though his emphatic nods the wake of the Chief Supply Clark's explosion suggested the ill will between Balfonheim and her unwanted protectors had been put aside, allying against the common enemy.

To my surprise, the Naval Architect came to my defence. 'Margrace was adamant, you know. And you know the Margraces.'

The Chief Supply Clerk snorted. 'But there isn't enough to do it.'

I eased my stance. 'Enough what?'

She met me with clear and unrepentant eyes. 'Enough anything. Fitting out the armory requirements alone will all but strip the town's defenses.'

'If Margrace's plan succeeds—'

'I can damned well guess what our adamant younger Margrace plans. All or nothing for these Margraces, with scarce a thought for their suffering pawns.'

Did I not know that intimately? 'The requisition came in the form of a direct command. Where's your allegiance lie?'

'If this town falls, then I'll be here, love, defending the streets right beside the locals. Where an absence of artillery will be felt. Where will you be, halfway back to Rozarria in Margrace's personal airship?'

'In case you haven't noticed,' I gestured at myself, 'I'm rather local myself.'

We three fell silent, aware of the sudden scrutiny of the Balfonheimers amongst us. The draughtsmen were expressionless.

This was their town, not ours. Despite my association with this place, I could not speak for how they felt. Would they despise the chance that Margrace took with their fates?

'How long?'

The Chief Supply Clerk said, subdued, 'A week, I can have it together.'

The Naval Architect stared at his blueprints. 'Ten days after receipt, we can have this flight-ready. If you give me a speedy engineer.'

'There's more,' I remembered. 'Notable damage to the ship, which, if you pass me the ink, I'll mark down on your plans. Supply'll have to meet requirements for the repairs as well.'

With a pointed look, the elderly draughtsman made me use an overlay of trace and a pencil, displeased with the thought of a rank amateur messing up their best intentions towards granting the Maenad an armoury that would not have been out of place on a Dreadnaught.

If they had known where I had spent my last undercover operation, they might have even trusted me with the ink.

Following that conclusive discussion, I went to hunt a crew. The density made the streets into corridors between buildings, the horizon obscured.

The Chief Personnel Officer kept his HQ in Threesheets, Balfonheim's second tavern—while the tavern continued its limited operation around him. It would save time when it came to breaking up drunken fights, I supposed, and took myself to the booth with a view the young officer had claimed.

He grinned before I even finished my instructions.

'Volunteers? For one of Margrace's missions? From the army?'

'It's not that unlikely a request. How soon can you meet it?'

He glanced out of the window. 'Just checking,' he explained. 'That the sun still sets west. Are you serious?'

After this morning, all I needed was a sense of humour. A shame I couldn't find one. 'Even Balfonheim's village militia would do. There must be some red-blooded contenders left.'

The thin-faced Personnel Officer scratched under his arm. 'Red-blooded, blue-blooded, green-blooded, furred and scaled contenders. Rebe and Garif and Moogle and bloody Viera, too. But none of them would volunteer to go out,' he nodded at the window, 'in that.'

'It's been a while. Months under siege, now. Some of us or them must be chafing for action.'

'Nothing chafes that much. We know how most of Margrace's schemes resolve themselves—'

Except they didn't know. Margrace's successful plays unfolded in pure silence, the repercussions visible with no knowledge of the levers broken, the cogs ground in the process. Only the failures would ever be so spectacularly known.

'I do know. I've been involved in a few.'

He regarded me with astonishment. 'You don't look like one of his typical little birds. More a hawk, even if you did forget half your feathers.'

'I'm in disguise.'

'It's a good one. Will he be sending you out on this one, too?'

The shock rendered me silent. Until that moment, I had not thought of it.

I had little faith in this mission's outcome. Margrace offered to retire me without prejudice in exchange for my involvement now, but lurking behind that offer had been my betrayal in leaving him, my post and Rozarria. Was this Margrace's way of satisfying his Rozarrian ethic, by sending me out to a sanctioned death on my last duty?

The Chief Personnel Officer took my silence to mean the worst. 'You have my sympathies,' he said, with every sign of sincerity. 'Margrace rides the circumstantial on this one, compromising our odds along the way.'

I shook away the growing sense of foreboding. My knowledge of airships focused on design's cutting edge, my time crewing aboard an airship long in the past. What possible use could I have on board a relic like the Maenad? 'Margrace asked for the numbers, and this set of skills, not for Rozarria's finest men. Send me a crew that meets quantity, and you can send them in at the point of a sword.'

'I'll do what I can.' He cracked his knuckles with habitual machismo. The sympathetic expression remained.

The narrow streets felt colder than I remembered, shadowed. I craved the sun, the broad free sweep of the horizon.

Without clear intention, my steps took me towards the quayside. Distracted, I merged with a crowd—which seemed to be flowing in a particular direction, almost as a mob.

Unlikely that half of Balfonheim had been instantly possessed of my craving for the horizon. I had no doubt to where the inexorable crush intended.

Twenty minutes later, I stood with Balthier and Fran, dagger in my left hand and gun in my right, as we beat our way through a confused mob.

Towards the docks, the crowd whose tide I joined thickened, impassable. Rozarrian soldiers scattered through the Balfonheimers, more than I had seen on the streets in a while. I found a rough wall and a sturdy downpipe, and levered myself upwards to claim a view.

At once, I suspected Margrace. Following through with his promise to handle Balthier himself, Margrace had inexplicably thought it wiser to bring the stubborn pirate pair to him.

In front of the Balfonheim audience, an armed contingent of Rozarrian soldiers had wrestled the pair from their ship. Now they tried to escort the skypirates through the maddening Balfonheim crowd.

Maybe Margrace had lost his touch. Even the lowest infantryman could have told him what would result, sending a display of force against that particular pair.

Nasty to their own, Balfonheimers were dark on outsiders, and already willing to turn against unwanted Imperial guests. Balthier did not help matters, arms folded across his chest, refusing to budge from the dock. At his shoulder, Fran promised lethal force, keeping the ring of soldiers back through force of presence.

As I watched, the soldier confronting Balthier gestured, aggressive. Balthier shook his head, insolent. The skypirate opened his mouth to declaim. I winced in advance.

The words 'seized', 'my cargo' and 'these people's food' drifted across the crowd, in the wake of which, the mutters turned dark.

The crush pressed in.

Eyes narrowed, Balthier nodded and smiled, and repeated, 'That's right, these Imperial bastards took your food!'

From the set of her shoulders, if not the look she exchanged with Balthier, Fran resigned herself to the unavoidable.

The Rozarrian soldiers could detect the mood shift. They responded by shoving against the crowd shoving at them.

Any moment, the thickest one would set his pike or draw his gun.

One of them drew his gun.

Before I could think through the ramifications, I threw myself atop the mass of the crowd, clawing and kneeing at shoulders, heads, crowns. Foolhardy war efforts involving the Maenad could hardly happen without the crew of the Maenad. If the crowd turned and the skypirates died, Margrace would have an easy out from his bargain with me.

I imagined I would get there in time, wave my fresh credentials in the soldiers' faces, reassert their calm, and convince Balthier and Fran to lose the ornery nature and ease their own progression through the crowd.

Instead, a large contingent unhappy Balfonheimers witnessed one of their own launch her wrathful self at the Rozarrian soldiers.

It was all the incitement needed.

The Balfonheimer nearest to the gun-wielding soldier was a scale-skinned Bangaa, hung with bangles and brands noting each battle he'd won. The Bangaa roared his delight, muscled the gun out of the soldier's hands, and took the Rozarrian to the ground.

Panting, with one last kick to the hand holding me, I gained the small circle of clear space next to Balthier and Fran. The soldiers had their attention focused out, their circle barely holding against the shoves. I gained my feet, turned my back to Balthier and shouted past the soldiers—to the Balfonheimers.

'It's not worth it!'

Nameless faces roared slurs against Imperial endeavour, lambasting the sheer nastiness of nicking Balfonheim's fresh food supply from Balfonheim's precious own.

I filled my lungs. 'These two bastard skypirates have been profiteering from you for months! They're not doing anything for you! Are you so desperate to pay a week's wage for a minor luxury? They've been profiteering! Fucking profiteering! From you!'

There came a strange anxious calm, akin to a bomb hanging fire.

On my words, a fair proportion of the crowd decided to ignore the Rozarrians as nothing more than an obstruction between them and the two not-so-hapless skypirates.

I consoled myself with the belief that riot was inevitable.

Balthier patted my heaving shoulder, solicitous. 'Smart. Can see Margrace employs you for more than your brains.'

Fran nudged against my other shoulder and offered me a gun and a blade, drawn from the hip holster and an ankle sheath. Light-fingered, Balthier helped himself to the assault gun hung from the nearest Rozarrian soldier, then delved the pouch on his own hip for ammunition.

'Ready, Fran?'

She coiled, and smiled at him, beatific.

'And you, Feathers?'

'When you are.'

Our resolution came in good time. The protective circle broke.

Fists pummelling like an airship's pistons. Roaring Bangaa curses mangled by the teeth and accent. A harassed Balfonheimer crashing into me, past me, falling. Rozarrian cries, uniforms in various states of bloodied disarray.

Somewhere, someone set something on fire, the air thick, clouded with smoke.

Several things helped us survive. The Balfonheimers were uncertain as to who they should decimate. Balthier and Fran were Balfonheim, from Balthier's lace-heavy white shirt, to Fran's elaborate leathers—yet those who latched on to the cry of profiteering fought to ease personal grievance with the skypirates. More than once, we three staggered into a pocket where we should have gone down, if not for the fact some Balfonheimers defended us while others attacked.

Then the Rozarrians in the crowd decided to get even against the Balfonheimers, after these long, laborious weeks of insults and slurs.

The brawl took on a life of its own.

We won free of the mob, pushing into the less populated streets past the quayside. Here, with space to move, Balfonheimers warred against Balfonheimers, seeking to even old scores while the Rozarrians were too occupied to keep order. The real fight happened here.

For the first time, I witnessed the appalling display of cockery and arrogance of Balthier and Fran in full fight. Feint and foul, they fought dirty—but they left more unconscious in their wake than the dead. Despite their dubious motivations, it was comforting to know them without malice.

Gasping and sweating, the three of us won our way free, at last ducking into an alleyway to avoid a cohort pelting down the street. Cornered there, we discovered we had been followed—by the same roaring Bangaa who precipitated the brawl.

He had friends, strange as it seemed: four other Bangaa.

Balthier screwed up his face. 'Gods, not him.'

Fran nudged her knee against Balthier's. 'You must owe him money.'

'Of course I do,' Balthier said, indignant. 'If I ever gave everyone what I owed them, we wouldn't be nearly as rich as we are.'

When I had been a child in Balfonheim, skypirates had been borderline heroic figures, even within Balfonheim's uncertain moral definition. There was even a saying: when skypirates began to count their booty, they had become mere skyborne thieves.

I took the opportunity to remind Balthier of exactly that.

He looked scornful. 'Successful skypiracy is nothing more than a series of favourable business transactions. Deep breath now!'

Balthier obeyed his own advice before lobbing a sealed vial at the mouth of the alleyway. Foul-smelling smoke boiled out, almost solid, tangling about the wretched Bangaa cohort.

I bent double, retching and gasping. Unlike Fran, I had yet to resign myself to Balthier's expectation that everyone listened to him, in no position to protest as he smashed the glass out of a narrow window with the butt of his purloined gun. He and Fran hauled me through a stranger's empty house. Eyes watering, I caught brief glimpses of a threadbare lifestyle, thin rugs and one lonely chair, before we gained the second storey. I manoeuvred myself through the second window, and leaped with them, first to the neighbour's lower eaves, then onwards, to a second rooftop.

After which, we stopped for the air the alleyway had not provided. Balthier ripped off his smoke-stained sleeve to mop a cut curving along Fran's brow.

Her expression stayed placid, porcelain, whatever the pain of the touch. Childishly intent, the tip of Balthier's tongue caught between his teeth.

'Field stitch?' Balthier offered.

Fran touched the thin wound where it rose into her hairline, then shook her head, ginger. She flicked a finger in my direction. 'Her Lord Margrace will provide better conditions for it.'

'So now you're coming along quietly? Why even bother resisting—'

They grinned at each other. 'I hardly think quietly,' Balthier said, reproachful. 'It does an Imperial son good to know not everyone leaps to obey.'

A significant part of me yet longed to brawl, caught in the riot. 'Oh, you think I enjoy leaping to obey? He's my lord and master, he pulled me off the streets and trained me—he owns my life.'

'And what a reason to risk one's own life.'

'While profit is a good reason, pirate?'

'The only reason, Feathers.'

'One might consider,' Fran added, 'the many varied definitions of profit.'

The ease with which the pair fought free, escaped the ground level mob and gained the rooftops spoke of too many quick getaways. Even the way they balanced on pitched shingle bore the ease of practice.

'We should hasten.' Fran looked down, into the nearest alleyway, her ears at attention. 'It will not take them long to work a way to follow.'

'Margrace is in the manse, I presume?'

Balthier waved one braceletted wrist towards Balfonheim's sole dockside mansion. Built decades ago by a skypirate who touted himself as the pirates' future king, the wishful thinker lasted fifteen days in power, though the manse lived on in legend. Anyone who tried to inhabit the place seemed bound for certain death and failure.

'Not likely. He's in with the rest of the operations crew, opposite the Whitecap.'

'Deference in the face of local traditions, I take it?' Balthier offered me the pad of sleeve with which he had tended Fran's wound. With an almost proprietary pride, he said, 'You've bloodsplatter on your cheeks, Feathers. You're a deadly little thing to wield in a war, aren't you?'

Only after he and his partner had moved ahead did I dab at the gore, discreetly.

Continue to Chapter 3

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