A Sense of Commitment
In the corridor outside of Margrace's closet, the Balfonheim Liaison and a Rozarrian Third Officer waited.
Assuming a mirrored position against the opposite wall, Balthier settled himself, Fran a moment later. If I had ever had doubts of Balthier's military origin, they were disposed of then: he draped in obvious patronage to the gods of queues that formed outside the studies of commanding officers.
Even Fran eyed him askance, amused.
The Balfonheim Liaison thought along somewhat of the same lines. 'Making yourself comfortable?' Despite the blunt stare taking in Balthier and Fran, he directed his scorn at me. 'Don't be. Himself wants you lot to go right on in.'
'Keeping you waiting, while us priority cases get ushered through?' Balthier straightened with slow grace, and could not have been more irritating if he tried.
The Liaison sneered, eyes dark. 'There's six good townsfolk in with the medics now, courtesy of you lot. Fractured skulls, severe injuries, and here you are, sauntering about as though you had nothing to do with it.'
'How many bad ones, if but six good?'
Speaking atop each other, the skypirates swapped a smirk. Balthier cracked his knuckles.
'Not mentioning minor fractures and broken bones,' added the Third Officer. 'The full tally's not in yet, but it's been a right riot, all thanks to you.'
'Most welcome,' Balthier murmured, smug.
The murderous mood radiating from the Balfonheim Liaison thickened.
The Third Officer apportioned his regard between the Liaison, the skypirates, and myself. He leaned forward and said, as though a co-conspirator, 'Though we did get one mad Bangaa bugger good—Ba'gamnan. At last. Has been a bit of a militant force for a while, a real stirrer. Nothing like a riot for an excuse to sweep the streets.'
'I hope Margrace hangs the lot of you,' the Balfonheim Liaison snapped.
With a sympathetic smile at my fellow Third Officer, I opened the door to Margrace's office and ushered in Balthier and Fran.
I hoped this would mark the last time I'd have to see them.
'You encountered some trouble.'
This deduction made after a prolonged silence, during which Margrace absorbed the state of our impromptu trio.
Balthier was filthy, Fran was bloody, and I suspected the back of my quilted overshirt trailed rags from where a claw had opened the stitching.
'Not at all,' I said, brisk. 'The dockyard, supplies and personnel confirmed they're capable of meeting the required deadline.'
Balthier looked at me. Fran actually laughed.
'I referenced the riot,' Margrace said, a heartbeat behind. 'Reports corroborate your involvement as the instigating factor—'
'Yet an agent of mine unwary enough to instigate a riot might be so blind as to miss its happening.'
'I did not—'
My indignation amused Balthier. He stepped forward and bowed, flamboyant. 'T'was but a local dance. A Balfonheim tradition, certainly not a riot. Though I understand how an outsider might make the assumption.'
The implicit reprimand jarred me. First aghast, defensive, and rapidly angry, I was not willing to let anyone fight my battles. Particularly not someone wearing Balthier's smirk.
'I am to bear the responsibility of this as well, Margrace? Am I? Then you should release me from our bonds whatever the consequence, for I never suggested myself capable of preventing a riot. This has been spoiling for explosion since your lot arrived.'
I dusted my shirt and coat, from which a cloud of riot-dust issued, flaking and bloody. Lips narrowed, I waited for the follow-through.
Yet Margrace nodded, satisfied. He resumed his observation of the skypirates.
Balthier crossed his arms, Fran with her hands on her hips. She stood a good few steps behind the other, their heads inclined in opposing directions. The pose set Balthier as the obvious focus, with his affectation, drawing the eye. I imagined them in a tavern, or another skypirate's den: Balthier would do the talking, holding attention, while Fran assessed others, herself ignored as anything but the muscle. Such was the drama of the pose, I half-expected lancing sunlight to fall from the upper recesses of a vaulted ceiling, framing them in light. As this was a converted storage closet, the best they got was a curve of Margrace's lips.
Balthier lifted his chin. 'So you're in charge?'
'Certainly not,' Margrace said. 'I am but a humble emissary of the Rozarrian Empire, sent to do my utmost to end our war.'
'Your war,' Balthier muttered. 'There's an admiral around here I can talk to, then. A Marshal?'
'The High Marshal El-Ahala heads the Rozarrian land-based installation,' Fran said, quietly. 'If I recall correctly, a spry lad, with a preference for heavy armour and bullish weaponry.'
Balthier never took his eyes from Margrace. 'Fran knows her men by their weapons. Or her weapons by her men, eh?'
I swallowed my surprise. The High Marshal, a spry lad? How long ago had Fran known him, or of him?
'Your lady's information is correct,' Margrace said, politic.
'Fran's her own lady,' Balthier interrupted. 'She is my navigator, though.'
'Of course. You will not be speaking with the Marshal.'
'Well, Margrace, I want recompense for the damages to my ship. I'm sure your little bird has already twittered into your ear—'
'She is her own little bird,' Margrace corrected mildly, 'not mine. We are temporarily in occupation of the same raft, shall we say?'
'You can say whatever you like. In preservation of my own rather battered raft, I'd rather we settle this without the Holy Mount, or a court of law. Shall I present a fee, or would you prefer to garner your own quotes?'
Margrace frowned. 'Personal damages during wartime are hardly a matter for compensation—'
'Your war,' Balthier stressed, 'not mine. I'm a free trader, a neutral trader. Rest assured, if the Archadians had brought down my ship, I'd be up before the next nearest Judge Magister to press a similar suit.'
'Your warning shot, Margrace, went right through my engine room—and my Second Engineer. That's a hostile action on a declared neutral.'
'There was sufficient doubt as to your neutrality to justify such an attack.'
'Shall we let the Holy Mount decide?'
Margrace pushed his glasses to his crown. 'It would be a performance to remember, witnessing a man with your history attempting to present himself as uninvolved in this particular war. You, and by proximity, your lovely navigator, are rather incontrovertibly committed.'
Balthier stilled, then twitched his lips, a stiff parody of a smile.
Balthier's confidence did not falter, not yet—but his slit-eyed curiosity overwhelmed it. 'How do you figure our involvement, then? The Maenad doesn't even bear artillery, only our personal weaponry, in itself scaled for hunts, not wars. Even when boarded, we didn't fire a single shot in our own defense.'
'You have more in common with the Archadians out there than your blood.'
Balthier's expression went blank.
'Should I say Ffamran?' Margrace asked, polite.
Fran's lips moved in the shape of the name.
'Sorry,' Balthier said, a second too late. 'What?'
'A privilege to be surrounded by a plague of runaways.' Margrace inclined his head, as though Balthier's response had been a gracious introduction. 'The most notorious being our Ffamran Mid Bunansa, who served as Midshipman and solo Fighter Pilot within the Archadian 12th Fleet, who was in process of elevation to the elite ranks of the Imperial Judges.'
I blinked back my shock. The Judges were the elite of the Archadian army, raised from rank and file to serve the Imperial family. In foreign territories, the Judges commanded, acting as guardians of both law and order. So the saying went: judge, jury and executioner.
'I was never a Judge, Margrace, nor am I a soldier. I left the Magistracy behind.'
'You were conscripted four years ago on a standard eight year tour, yet there stands no formal demobilisation script against young Ffamran's name,' Margrace said. 'Your allegiance lies with Archadia.'
'Conscription means little enough,' Balthier said. 'You cite right-to-kill under claims I flew an Archadian flag—the monks take one look at the Maenad and the Holy Mount throws out the argument.'
Margrace spread his hands, conciliatory. 'Yet what would they do when I present evidence the son of Doctor Cidolphus Demen Bunansa, father of the modern airship, of Archadia's Draklor Laboratories, has worn a longstanding pose as a skypirate?'
'Which enabled him to complete acts of espionage during a time of war, against both Balfonheim and Bhujerba?'
Balthier sucked in his breath. Fran turned to him, just her head, eerie in her otherwise stillness.
'Incidentally,' Margrace added, 'what would Balfonheim do to such a spy, if I let word leak?'
Fortunately, Margrace made no play at false sympathy, no tone to his voice but monotonous efficiency. Balthier's eyes went black with anger.
I did not have to imagine the sensation of one's past closing in. The eradication of viable escape. The inability to even acknowledge there was any escape, blinded by the belief we deserved to be crushed for what we had been.
'Balthier?' Fran said, quiet. 'Is this true?'
Without obvious motion, the space between them disappeared, his shoulder against hers. For solidarity, perhaps, but I remained aware of how ready they were, always, for fight or flight.
'The leading man strikes many a pose,' Fran muttered.
'I'm not,' Balthier said, spiteful, 'a bloody spy.'
'Of course,' Margrace said, 'even sons of Cidolphus can run away. The Rozarrian Empire would be pleased to bury your past in exchange for services attending our mutual cause.'
The anger turned to an angrier realisation. 'You can go walk off a long pier if you think you can entrap me. A mutual cause! I've no mutual cause with Rozarria. You want exactly what they,' a finger stabbed at Margrace's picture window, to the sky where Archadia waited, 'want, Bhujerba's nethicite. If I could, I'd dump the bloody lot of it into the sea and damned be to both Empires.'
Balthier slammed open the door and sought liberty, except Margrace anticipated even this reaction. Gathered soldiers bared their blades, barring the exit.
Balthier glared at Margrace, more daggers there than the corridor currently contained.
'Certainly Rozarria would be pleased to hear the fee for your services, and for the charter of your airship,' Margrace said, soothing. 'An independent skypirate could hardly be expected to perform without a contract for services rendered.'
Balthier threw himself into the net of blades, batting them down without concern for his forearms. The soldiers must have been instructed not to harm the skypirates: blades lowering, impotent, as Balthier shoved past. Before Balthier's insults could drive the soldiers past their reserve, Fran pressed her palm against the small of Balthier's back and said one word.
With one last lethal stare, Balthier let his partner guide him away. Fran frowned down at him as they went, contemplative.
Margrace closed the door. We were alone, in that narrow, unbearably stuffy room.
'You see, my little bird, a contradictory being this skypirate. Unpredictable.'
'I don't know, Margrace. That performance went as I would have predicted.'
'Then your predictions scarce touch on the surface of his motivation. Contrary to appearances, it seems our runaway does indeed fight for a moral reason. Profit is secondary.'
I paused. 'A temporary aberration on his part.'
'It seems to be a moral that his navigator likewise supports.'
'She was rather quiet, sir.'
'Then you did not see her eyes when Balthier mentioned the nethicite. Profit would have been a lever. A powerful lever, with their own survival as the fulcrum. But small need for sticks when Balthier has given us the carrot with which to lead him.'
'You think so?'
'What do you think?'
'Sticks and carrots aside, you'll have a hard time convincing Balthier to commit open suicide. Even if it is for some common cause.'
'Suicide, that one?' Margrace shook his head. 'He is too well accustomed to surviving to break the habit now.'
Free Distribution of Goods Makes An Unhappy Skypirate Pair
Be it the impromptu blackmail, or the sweetener of the formal charter, the Maenad would make at least one flight under Margrace's command. I predicted that readily enough.
Yet, once beyond Balfonheim's paling, Balthier and Fran could run. If they did, Margrace would shatter any hope they had of returning to Balfonheim, but what did reputation matter to the free?
Delivering my report on the dockyard's progress, I bore tea and dry biscuit to Margrace's office. The report came out of necessity, the tea and biscuit begrudged, as Margrace had done little enough to suppress the rumour of my involvement in the riot.
Sullen, I put the question of the Maenad's possible truancy to Margrace.
'You should stop them, of course,' Margrace answered.
I nearly choked on my biscuit. 'Me?
'How could I let the ship fly without a Rozarrian aboard?' He looked at me, his amazement feigned amazement. 'Did I not make it clear the Maenad was your personal mission?'
There would be no grey-haired release of my service to Rozarria. Margrace sent me to my death.
'To bring that pair to salvation?' I asked, snide. 'As unlikely as stop a town-wide riot.'
'The skypirates are well equipped to engender their own salvation. You are insurance.'
Shortly after Margrace's cruel revelation, Balthier and Fran arrived, much repaired from the last time I'd seen them. I poured weak tea and passed around biscuits. Seated, they assumed a casual studied pose that made my instincts itch, as it suggested that Balthier would prefer to riffle through Margrace's desk while Fran diligently stripped paintings from frames and rolled up the canvases.
'Isn't this lovely?' Balthier said, smiling. 'Tea and biscuits, and here I was, thinking we were here for a briefing.'
So Balthier had found a reason to resign himself to his role. He hid his distaste for it by taking a large mouthful of tea. For some reason, he came up from the cup with a wide grin. 'Fran! Did you taste it?'
'I did,' said she. 'Talbot's Fourteenth Best Brew.'
'One of our crates,' Balthier explained, with satisfaction. 'I do hope you got an exorbitant price for it, Margrace. Seeing as we might be charging interest.'
I glared at my own cup. I was supposed to die proud serving aboard this man's airship?
Margrace set his cup down. 'The tea is being distributed through the Supply Office with complete impartiality to the townsfolk.'
Balthier and Fran, almost in unison, flinched. 'Free!'
In the interval since I had last seen them, Balthier had firmly secured his mask. The anger, the startling attack on nethicite seemed set behind him. While Dr. Cidolphus Bunansa's son might know the word, and bear the substance itself a grudge, I could not imagine why.
This Balthier was a profiteer, a skypirate. He had no ulterior motives. This Balthier would like as not prefer to confiscate Bhujerba's nethicite for himself, sit on a cache, a dragon gloating 'pon its gems, and drive up the market price before selling.
'To business, then?' Margrace asked.
'If you don't take the bloody fun out of it.' Balthier scowled at his tea. 'Salaries, first.'
Margrace eased back in his chair.
'Salaries, Margrace. If we're under indefinite contract to the Rozarrian military, I'd expect a salary for myself and my crew. Alternately, a lump sum payment can be negotiated if you define a time limit.'
'A lump sum might be preferable.'
'I assume exclusive use of the Maenad is essential?'
Margrace nodded gravely.
'Then there's also the charter fee atop the lump sum.'
'A reasonable rate?' Margrace asked.
'Daily,' Fran said, deft, and reduced even Margrace to an almost splutter.
'The Maenad,' Fran inserted, 'is a sturdy and powerful ship, crewed by experienced blockade runners. And is, alas, an expensive ship. Skystone has become scarce within the blockade, and the Maenad's maintenance—'
'Maintenance,' I exclaimed, 'on a bloody antique—'
'A classic,' Balthier corrected, grinning at his tea. '684 OV. A rather good year, in my humble opinion.'
'Some background to the venture,' Margrace interrupted, 'before we commence full negotiations?'
I folded my arms and stared at the cornice, where a spiderweb hung empty.
'The situation in Balfonheim concerns us. Our state of entrapment requires a certain level of commitment on Archadia's part. Archadia does seem content, after our unwarranted earlier engagement, to wait for starvation to bring Balfonheim to fold.'
'You want us to run supplies? We would without your coercion.'
Margrace winced at coercion. 'Rozarria would rather ensure Archadia keeps the blockade manned, for as long as possible. Are you aware that Archadia has moved in force against Nabudis?'
Balthier gave a low whistle. 'Blockading half the skies and warring against the other. The Emperor's spreading his fleet rather thin.'
'Rozarria cannot, as you know, move against Archadia in corresponding force.'
'Scared of being crushed?'
'It is not expedient for Rozarria to antagonise Archadia. Though it is not a matter,' Margrace added sharply, 'of measuring numbers against numbers.'
Fran flicked an ear, a slight tilt of her chin, but it was enough to draw Balthier's eye.
'Draklor,' Fran said, as if to Balthier alone. 'The Laboratory promises uncertain mortality to the contenders, and an afterlife to match the present horrors.'
'Oh yes,' Balthier made an expression of distaste. 'Weapons research, bah. Draklor's endless bag of tricks. Small wonder Rozarria's men would rather settle for a common soldier's fate. I would.'
'And did,' Fran murmured.
Magrace continued. 'Draklor's attentions had always been divided between airship design, sundry weapons and magickal endeavours. Since Cidolphus's appointment as head researcher, particular attention has been paid to magicite research, with great strides made in manufacting magicite, and improved methods of drawing energy from the stones.'
Balthier gave not a flicker of emotion. I wondered if he had been aware of his father's elevation to the role.
'You are aware of the variety of magicite termed nethicite.'
'Intimately,' Balthier said, without inflexion. 'Unlike the other magicites, it absorbs Mist. Generating massive amounts of energy for use in Archadia's weaponry. I doubt Archadia would waste what small quantity of nethicite they possess on Balfonheim.'
Margrace shook his head. 'Two years ago, Draklor commenced a program of manufacting nethicite. There have always been limits on naturally mined nethicite's destructive capacity, imposed by its rarity, and native limitations.'
Balthier arched an eyebrow. 'So if Draklor is manufacting its own nethicite—'
'Then there are no limits to its destructive capacity,' I said, stiffly.
'But there are,' Fran said. 'The limits of Hume inventiveness.'
A small silence extended.
'We lost our contact in Draklor two years ago,' Margrace said. 'A strict security system had been put in place to ensure Draklor's knowledge did not leave its doors. What limits of Hume inventiveness have been imposed on manufacted nethicite, we do not know. Manufacted skystone itself bears a great, unstable explosive power already - if nethicite, a related cousin in process and in origin, bears a similar unstable power, imagine the destruction Archadia could wreak.'
'You want us to break into Draklor and steal the Empire's secrets?'
I startled. Was I the only one hearing Balthier's eagerness?
'I would not entrust such an action to skypirates,' Margrace said, calmly enough. 'I would rather the Maenad play a diversionary role. It is in our interests to ensure Archadia's fleet is divided, full force away from the kingdom of Nabudis. The Maenad will have an essential role—'
Fran leaned forward, with an intensity that demanded our attention. 'You wish to force Archadia to demonstrate their manufacted nethicite. Before the stone's brought to bear against Rozarria.'
Her conclusion surprised me. Margrace outlined his plan to me prior to this briefing, but couched in terms of offsetting Archadia's greater numbers with numerous battlefields to maintain.
But of course, the end result would draw Archadia into using its most potent artillery, to end the battle sooner.
Fran was so focused on Margrace, she did not notice Balthier's abortive hand out, as though he would touch her to calm.
'That will not necessarily be the end result.' Margrace adjusted his glasses. Despite the smile, he looked disturbed.
'Relying a bit much on Archadian moral restraint, aren't we?' Balthier waved a dismissive hand. 'In any case, the affair strikes me as rather unfeasible. The Maenad is a cargo ship. What can we do against the Archadians?'
'Bluff. Is that so far from your usual scope?'
'Bluff—as what, an Archadian supply ship? That's begging to be boarded. The first Archadian crew that caught us would seize the ship or shoot us out of the sky.'
'But you would not be a supply ship,' Margrace said. 'You would be a battleship.'
Balthier and Fran exchanged a glance. 'Too slow,' Fran said, eventually. 'The Maenad, as the colloquial would say, cannot curve on the far edge of a coin.'
'Concealed guns,' Balthier murmured. 'To a Cruiser Class standard, I assume? But without the armour. Pretend to be a treasure chest, turn out to be a trap. The ultimate bluff.'
'So you consider there is a chance?' Margrace pressed.
'A chance?' Balthier scoffed. 'And they say I've delusions of grandeur.'
'Every chance is a worthy one.'
'The Archadian ships will have guns too. Bigger and better.'
'If you bluff as well as you claimed, then they will have no reason to use them until too late.'
'You'll not be against the main flotilla,' I said, quietly. 'You'll be on the outskirts of the blockade, targeting likeminded cargo ships and isolated patrols. You'll seem but another potential supply ship, even as typecast as the Maenad is—Archadia has pulled in its allies' airships to meet the supply need, and the Maenad's make and model is yet in use in Archadia's northern regions. And every now and then, a Carrier will draw in close with preparation to board, in anticipation of your supplies—'
Balthier furrowed his brow, quizzical. 'What's to stop the rest of them coming in after us after our first success?'
'Maintain your cover,' Margrace said. 'Strike before you're reported. The destroyed ships will of course show traces of the weaponry associated with a Cruiser—a Rozarrian Carrier. Archadia will be looking for that, not—'
'A clapped-out, ancient cargo ship.' Balthier shook his head, then laughed. The sound was unexpected. For all the mobility of his smiles and features, he did not often laugh. 'What's more likely, Margrace, that the Empire might suspect a clapped out trader of destroying their airships, or that there's some Rozarrian airship out there with the mystical ability to turn itself invisible?'
I moved forward on my chair. 'You might be surprised. Draklor's airship department worked on pioneering sight as well as screen invisibility. Your role might begat the rumour that Rozarria has achieved what Archades' pre-eminent research facility has not.'
Balthier turned to me. 'What's your involvement in this gimmick, Feathers?'
I was loathe to share with him, the recent past yet a raw wound, bleeding pride. Yet a small part considered Balthier's own unwilling exposure, and I felt again that surge of uncanny kinship. I hesitated.
My salvation came from an unlikely source.
'She will be with us,' Fran said. 'Imperial Rozarria's anchoring presence.'
Margrace nodded, once and solemn.
'We will need to hire a gunnery crew,' Fran said. 'We are not trained for artillery.'
How quickly her intent unease from earlier had subordinated to Balthier's growing interest. Perhaps he, too, felt that odd gratitude to those who could give us purpose.
Margrace gestured in my direction. 'Your newest crewmate has sufficient training, she will be in direct charge of the rest of the hired crew.'
'Hence the damages inspection, no doubt. Familiarising yourself with the limitations of your new nest, Feathers?' Balthier eyed me askance, then whipped back to Margrace. 'Repairs for said damages—and any further damages received on course —will be in addition to the daily rate and the salary.'
'What makes you think Rozarria's military has the money to feather your nest?'
'Hardly the military,' Balthier drawled. 'On account of our special services to the Rozarrian Empire's youngest son,' a discreet nod in Margrace's direction, 'I expect our recompense will rise from the Margraces' personal coffers.'
'Especially,' Fran murmured, 'as our permanent silence for a military action unsanctioned by the Rozarrian Empire will have to be bought in addition to our bodies.'
'Funds,' Margrace said, 'might be available for such a thing.' A pause, and then Margrace tipped his glasses at Fran. This time his smile came free. 'Had we met in different circumstances, I would have been pleased to extend an offer of further employment. I would offer regardless—'
Unsubtle, Balthier went rigid as a sword.
'The skies you offer your birds, your Highness,' Fran said, 'are not so free as those I fly.'
Balthier snapped his jaw shut on his offensive volley. He began again, crisp. 'In addition. I anticipate quite a loss on our usual run. We'll need to be recouping those. Capital depreciation, wear and tear, will also be a cost for your consideration.'
'Especially when an Archadian Atomos guts the rings off your enterprise and sends you to the ocean floor?'
Balthier gave me a wry glance. 'The exact figure can be negotiated later—'
'The exact daily figure,' Fran reminded us.
Her familiar intercession eased Balthier into his usual slouch. 'With a six month guarantee of funds, methinks. Regardless of whether or not those six months are played out in the air.'
'Two months,' Margrace said, at last terse in the face of such avarice.
Two months of deceptive action was six weeks in excess of my estimate of the Maenad's survival.
Fran sighed, and Balthier agreed with her. 'That point, I assume, is non-negotiable? Have a heart, man—we're barely going to break even.'
'Which might be alleviated,' Fran said, 'if the Maenad continued her usual preservative actions on those Archadian airships otherwise destined for the ocean floor.'
Margrace turned from one to the other, quizzical.
I felt the need to translate. 'They want you to sanction piracy. Looting.'
'All those plump Archadian ships,' Balthier said, mournful.
'The goods, otherwise useful, lost, drowned,' Fran said.
'Why would my word be necessary to assure you your profits?'
'We are operational only under your auspices, Margrace,' and Balthier bowed, grandiose, in my direction. 'Wouldn't want your little woodpecker over there taking our eyes out every time we did as our nature demanded and rescued Archadian providence from a fateful demise. Now would we?'
I bared my teeth at the shameless bastard.
'As long as our contract is upheld,' Margrace said, 'the Maenad's actions will not be my concern.'
'Margrace,' I acknowledged, severe.
Balthier grinned, and offered me the last biscuit with a flourish.
Continue to Chapter 4 →
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