A Sense of Commitment
Most of the Maenad's alterations were behind me; my days resumed a usual monotony. Seething against the constraint, I arrived at my place of boarding one fine afternoon to find myself without a room.
Balfonheimers now saw me in Rozarrian company, reinforcing their traditional distrust—even more so, for I had been one of them for a time, and now, I acted in closer consult with the Rozarrian intruders than the dubiously elected Balfonheim Liaison. My landlord thwarted potential complaint by depositing my belongings in the lobby for me, with a hands-on-hips statement that due to the increasing numbers of war refugees and decreasing amounts of food, the boardinghouse could no longer provide me with a bed.
'What refugees?' I challenged, though I collected my bundled belongings. 'We're under a blockade.'
Carrybag tied to one suitcase, toting the other and a bulging holdall slung across my middle, I cast aside my neutrality with curses. I stalked towards Threesheets, where the sympathetic Personnel Officer would find a bed for one of Margrace's unwillingly martyred agents. Yet along the way, I passed a house-turned-barracks, where a knowing snigger from a soldier reminded me I would not find the refuge I needed.
My Balfonheim neutrality discarded, Rozarria's no more attractive, I was left no alliance but Balthier's own.
Nono saw me first, working as he was on a mechanism near the head of the gangway. Greasy paws left matted prints through his fur. 'You're early, kupo, we're not ready to leave yet.'
'I'm coming aboard now,' I said, lofty. 'Time to settle in and familiarise myself with the layout of the ship.'
He gave me an indignant look and positioned himself to obstruct my entry.
I clenched my teeth, but even a small ship's insolence was more welcome than a barracks hazing. 'Get out of my way, greasehead.'
'Does Balthier know you're coming aboard?'
'Why don't you go and tell him?' When Nono showed no sign of moving, I shoved a case at him. 'While you're on the way, you can show me where the Second Officer's cabin is.'
Nono's protest began with a statement of how insolent, temporarily appointed gunnery officers did not deserve such a well-situated cabin, to which I responded that Imperial agents most certainly did—far more than Moogles deserved a position as chief engineer when they barely stood waist high to the smallest piston.
It escalated from there.
Our fight spoiled when Fran emerged from the ship's fluorescent silences, shining leather and poised heels. Nono lapsed into a smug little silence, arms crossed.
'She wants Sairo's cabin! Balthier'll flip, kupo!'
A glance passed between the two before Nono nodded, scowled at me, and returned to his repair of the damaged door seal.
I heaved my shoulders. Did everyone on the ship speak through glances and telepathy?
'Follow along. I'll show you to your berth.' Fran smiled over her shoulder at me, slight and knowing. No doubt she remembered her escort duties on my first painful tour of the Maenad.
'Again.' Briefly, I thought of telling her—asking her to help with my bags, but her wry smile convinced me to withhold.
'Sairo was your other engineer?' I ducked under a low-hanging pipe, which swung from a single screwed thread.
'Strange that a second engineer would have a cabin, instead of the commons.'
'He and Balthier were—comfortable together, close.'
I swallowed that pause whole. The cabin I had so blithely demanded adjoined the captain's, which no doubt Balthier had claimed. Sairo and Balthier had been the only two Humes aboard the Maenad.
'A slight to your long service, being deprived of the second-best cabin simply for Balthier's—convenience?'
Fran gave me a speaking look. 'I claim the commons, as the Maenad keeps no excess crew. The size suits my preference for quiet mornings and shadowed space, while the closeness did suit Balthier and Sairo well.'
I reconsidered the ship's schematic, puzzling at the hierarchy this represented. The Maenad should have been crewed by seven, at a minimum, including an ordinary crew of four bunked down in the commons sleeping room. If Fran held that space alone, that would make it the largest private cabin on the airship—but would also require our incoming gun crew to make do with blankets in the hold.
'I assume Nono's sleeping arrangements are more conventional. Or has he converted the hold into a Moogle-sized den?'
Fran stopped, abrupt. I did not expect her sympathy when she turned.
'You must understand, if you would find some comfort in your assignment. Balfonheim clothes you, but the core of you beats to a Rozarrian pulse. From the cheapest peasant to the richest Imperial son, Rozarrians live according to a hierarchy invoked on them at birth.' A tight smile, as Fran touched long-nailed fingers to her d�colletage. 'A reason why the Viera of Eryut Village are able to converse with Rozarrians, and not with Archadia. But this is the Maenad, and we do not abide by rank and file here. Where we sleep, and with whom, has never been signatory of our position, nor of the value of our voice in where or how this ship flies.'
I thought, again, of what motley gun crew would be shuttled to this ship at swordpoint, the necessity of powerful hierarchy to command obedience, to weld a disparate crew into a single war-machine. I winced. Balthier hadn't the presence for command, no matter his air of dangerous irrationality. He wore the languid stance of a moody, temperamental, if entertainingly competent loner.
Forget Archadia: Balthier would scarce be able to survive his own crew. Mutiny seemed likely.
'So the Maenad flies by consensus rule, for the mutually weak?'
Fran resumed the lead. Her voice echoed down from the ladder's shaft as I stared up at her swaying tail.
'The word is partnership. We fly with quantifiable shares. In times of attack, Balthier holds captaincy. At other times, he is simply the greater shareholder.'
Corporate pirates, if not corporate piracy. 'How so Archadian of our runaway.'
Fran made a disapproving sound, holding out a hand to help me from the ladder to the second deck. 'We have our jobs assigned, aboard, our tasks. Roles are assumed and discarded with the ease of a player on a stage. No need for ought but our competence to define us.'
'We are good at what we do.' Fran's grip turned to a handclasp, a shout of affection for a race that touched rarely. 'Ration your pleasures while aboard. We will be sailing through a long sky.'
Her unlikely confidence almost convinced me.
Fran ushered me into what had once been Sairo's cabin. I discovered everything about it in a moment, as cramped and nasty as any officer's cabin. The mattress looked frighteningly used.
Fran met my dismay with a flashed grin, revealing two aligned dimples.
'I think I need a drink,' I announced. 'Would you like one, too?'
'One or two,' Fran said, with grave humour.
'If we can find a place serving. The shortages pinch, these days.'
A hesitation, and then she nodded. 'I know a likely place.'
A brief, businesslike handclasp, and Fran left me to unpack with the adjunct that we would meet at the far end of the quay.
Fran led us to the Moogle district, optimistically named for three back-lane crossovers with low doors. Fran breathed deeply, as if hunting a scent, and took me to a nondescript door flanked by two bottle-thick glass windows, through which I saw a gathering of Moogles.
Fran knocked, and exchanged a few polite words with the Moogle who responded. She earned us a begrudging entry through which we had to stoop.
Inside, I breathed the raw, homebred moonshine, blinking tears away.
Because of the height of the ceiling, I knelt while Fran crouched. Considering the Moogle's suspicion of us and the price he asked, I demanded a taste before we negotiated the conditions of barter. The exasperated Moogle disappeared beneath his bar to fetch us a bottle.
The room's occupants otherwise ignored us.
'Your engineers completed preliminary assessments yesterday,' Fran mentioned. 'They were appreciative of Nono's existing changes.'
'I was impressed. It's an astounding display of skill on a total antique. How did he even learn—'
'I taught him. The first ship on which I gave service was a prototype version. For you?'
I had to think. Strange to think of my training aboard airships, my knowledge of their design as pure pretence, a cover.
'My first was a Fighter Class, an Archadian Air Cutter, though I served most of my tour on a Carrier Class as ordinary crew.'
'Matching exiles, we who meet in this maze.' Fran lidded her eyes, lazy.
The Moogle reappeared with the bottle and glasses. Pleased with the distraction, I tasted, then negotiated the transfer of ammunition in exchange for the bottle. The Moogles had the right of it, to barter in a town under blockade. Our coin was worthless.
Cross-legged, we tucked our knees beneath a low table and drank in a companionable calm, punctuated by the delicate forays into a shipboard understanding. Until we were drunk, and I, perhaps unwary.
Eventually, Fran asked me why I traded ammunition instead of any of the other providence the Moogle would have accepted.
'Ammunition's easy. Margrace will replace it for us.' I waved my hand, generous. 'It's a benefit to Balfonheimers anyway. If Archadia breaks through, the Moogles will put it to good use in defence of the town.'
'You're certain of such alliance? You make mock of Nono's stature and scorn the lizard skin of Bangaa. Tis an Archadian prejudice, as well as a Rozarrian one, and you have had the benefit of both cultures. What if Moogles bear similar despite for your furless excess?'
I frowned, ready to retort, then decided to listen.
'In whatever nation they stand, Moogles keep their alliances with one as primary. Hume nations run in parallel,' with a fingertip, Fran described a delicate wet line across the dusty floor between us, two, three, four. 'Dalmasca, Archadia, Rozarria, Nabradia, independent Bhujerba, isolate Balfonheim, the Holy Mount Bur-Omisace. The lines of nationhood form the warp of the world. Yet through these nations run the weft of our races, our associations.' Fran wet her fingertip again, and the parallel lines became a crosshatch. 'The fabric cannot exist without race or nation, yet even one as free as your history claims expects loyalty to lie with nation, not race.'
Not an abstract thinker, I hunted for factual examples against which to test Fran's words. Moogle bonds, whatever their nationhood, was a thing essential to the functioning world of today. Moogles upheld mail communications between the nations even in times of war. With their cultural liking for mechanics, Moogles transferred engineering and scientific knowledge fluidly, ensuring even something as secret as nethicite would not remain a secret for long.
'So a Balfonheimer Moogle would never fire those bullets at an Archadian one. Lucky for us Archadia won't let Moogles into their forces, then.'
'Fortune, is it? Archadia would weave our threads in their loom, and without Moogle threads present. What occurs, when they decide Bangaa threads are of no use in this fabric's weave? Viera? Or Rozarria?'
Staring at the warp and weft Fran had described, I followed my own thoughts, as the metaphoric fabric unravelled.
'Empire,' Fran said. 'The strangest of constructions.'
Moogles crossed national boundaries; to an extent, as did the other races. Yet Archadia could and had decided nethicite was worth total silence. I witnessed the purging of Draklor of foreign, alien influence under Dr Cid's directive. My Hume nature, my colouration, my ability to dissemble as Archadian protected me for long enough to escape. The Moogle engineers involved in the project had not my luxury.
Not that I had spared their fates a thought, when I fled Draklor.
In the low den, drinking Moogle moonshine, surrounded by fur and paws and dry conversation, I could not imagine a world solidly Archadian. The odd chill at Fran's words made me suddenly, fiercely involved with Balfonheim. Imagine, everyone here had so resoundingly thrown aside nationality, race, the damned warp and weft of Fran's indicative tapestry, for a self-interest that nevertheless admitted and allowed for the selfishness of others.
'Damn the Empire,' I said, suddenly, without any need to define which Empire.
To my surprise, every Moogle in the place raised a similar rousing cheer, and toasted one another.
Fran inclined her glass against mine. 'To freedom without democracy.'
'I'm sorry,' I said. 'That you've been caught up in this. Margrace's ploys—whatever he wants—'
Fran shrugged. 'I like the flying, the fight. Margrace gives us an opportunity to do so to effect. I am as involved as I wish to be.'
She looked amused. 'On his desires, I do not speculate. You have the more interesting tale. Why do you fly where Margrace sends you?'
'Habit.' Unfairly succinct, with how willing Fran had been to speak of herself.
For compensation, I thought. For his blackmail. For the promise of a freedom being sanctioned by an authority I had never fully abandoned.
For the ability to redeem myself for my failure.
'Bad habit,' I added.
'Such loyalty, for an agent not born to Rozarria.'
'Without loyalty, a spy is little more than an overskilled gossip.'
Fran had a way of looking through people. 'How did you come to return to Balfonheim?'
'Have you heard the tale of the talking cockatrice?'
Fran shook her head, solemn.
'A young would-be hunter arrives fresh in Balfonheim, and on the hunt-board in the Whitecap, he sees a sign: Talking Cockatrice for Sale. He approaches the owner, who takes him directly to the cockatrice's pen. "You talk?" the young hunter asks. "Yer," the cockatrice replies.'
'Quite a shock, I imagine,' Fran murmured.
'Indeed. After the young hunter recovers, he asks, "What's your story?" The bird looks up and says, "Well, I discovered my voice talk when I was just a chick, after a man had made me his pet. I wanted to help him out, help his country out, so I went to the Emperor—they had me flying from country to country, sitting in rooms with spies and world leaders, because no one suspected a bird would eavesdrop."'
'A savvy government.'
'If not a savvy bird, unfortunately. As the cockatrice continues, "I was their most valuable spy for eight years, but the constant travel tired me out. I requested a long-term position, thinking I'd work at the aerodrome, as undercover security. I'd wander around, ignored just like I'd been before, and listen in to suspicious characters, uncover smuggling rings. I thought I'd retire with a batch of medals.'"
'"So," the young hunter says, "What happened?"
'"Well," says the cockatrice, "I was given an undercover job for starters, and it did involve airships—I was sent in to spy long-term on the Empire's greatest enemy, keeping a track of characters well above suspicion. I uncovered some incredible dealings, but then, who'd believe it, I was discovered!"'
I paused. For a long, horrible moment, I felt the compression close in.
Draklor's doors locked and bolted, the labs windowless, constricted, even the air brought in through secured services. The days of my escape, the endless weeks, crawling through a maze of airducts. The flight from Archades after, followed, gunned down, my purloined airship dying around me with a metallic scream.
'"So I got out quickly, tendered my resignation, and that's how you find me here."'
Blessedly, Fran ignored of the irritating quaver in my voice. 'What does the young hunter say to the bird's incredible story?'
The parable would continue to serve its purpose. 'Rightly enough, the young hunter is amazed. He asks the owner how much he wants for the cockatrice. "Ten gil," the owner says, disenchanted.'
'The bird is worth so little?'
'Almost exactly what the young hunter says. "'Ten gil! But the bird is amazing, have you heard him talk! Why sell him so cheap?"' I swallowed the dregs in my glass. 'The owner says, "Because he's a liar. He never did any of that shit."'
When I poured again, I discovered our bottle empty.
Over the next few minutes, we discovered how unwise it was to remain seated while drinking, as the drunkenness only rose when we did. After cracking my skull, Fran struggling for evenness of expression, we succeeded in spilling through the door and into the street. For a moment, I stayed on my hands and knees, before Fran reminded me of the freedom to stand.
For some time, I thought the coruscating wonder of the sky a side effect of the moonshine. While I remained captivated, Fran noticed there were others in the streets, pointing at the selfsame sky with an air of panic.
Fran grabbed my arm, vice-like.
We stared as Balfonheim's protective paling shimmered, flickered, and then shattered into brilliant white shards.
Balfonheim no longer had a shield. For all that had gone before, our plans and Margrace's scheming, Archadia would take Balfonheim now, today.
Sobered, we ran for the Maenad.
The end nearly came via a classic suicide strike.
The sacrificial Valfarre from weeks before had been a scout, sighting and communicating the exact location of Balfonheim's paling generator. A diversionary skirmish this afternoon kept the Rozarrian defence occupied, so they were unaware of the sly action to their rear, where a stealth squad fired concentrated missile sweeps at the paling.
Brought to failure, the paling suffered a localised weakening, enough for one airship to power through. This airship knew exactly where it was going, descending in a violently fast trajectory, ending with its contact with the paling's generator.
Skystone on charged magicite—the explosion was vast. The Archadian follow-through attack came with such a small proportion of their numbers it would have been an insult, had I not known Balfonheim had no numbers for defence. The gun tower was sadly inadequate, while the Rozarrian Carriers, powerful and well-shielded, were situated too far away to rally.
Fran and I fought through the tangled crowd.
Balfonheim had no true civilians, nor unity, yet I expected everyone and their children's dogs to meet a ground attack, wielding anything with a sharp end. But an airship assault was lethal, skyborne, horrendous. Fran and I forced against the great fleeing tide from the quay, where Archadia made their approach.
When I saw the Maenad, I swore.
Descending the gangway calmly, Balthier wore a fresh white shirt, high-collared, leather trews almost faultless with shine, earrings dangling, with his only concession to the abrupt invasion being that he walked barefoot, as though interrupted while dressing for the role.
During a violent air raid, our resident madman decided this the right time to withdraw the Maenad's large, unstable skystone, and take it for a pleasant stroll.
The radiant green glow would be seen from the sky, a clear target. I, on the other hand, saw uplit strain in Balthier's shoulders, the grim clench of jaw, and the smallness of his steps.
'What are you doing?' I cried. 'If something hits that core—'
Across the distance, Balthier rolled his shoulders at me. 'Come on, Feathers! Our coffins await whatever we do; why care how we go?'
'We're not going to die, I promise. You've heard what they say about the leading man.'
'That he's six short of a half-dozen?'
Fran moved forward, her hands held out. 'Help with your load?'
'If you will,' Balthier said, 'kindest thanks.'
Fran took the bottom end of the core and Balthier the top. Careful to avoid fast motion, they shared the weight to the horizontal. A strange procession, we inched along the ocean's curve, towards the northeast end, where the paling's generator was—or rather, had been. Smoke thundered into the sky from the remains, a thick diagonal column.
'—yet the likelihood of salvage is low,' Fran was saying.
'Seemingly not, Nono's already working,' Balthier replied. 'He had a couple of cousins over for a visit when the Archadians hit.'
'Isn't it, though. The gods might be smiling on us.' Balthier winked at me, over his shoulder.
Fran widened her eyes. 'Wish it on us not. The gods have an unpleasant sense of humour.'
Bemused by the unerring confidence, flinching at the sweeps of Valfarre and Remora that continued to ignore us, I followed.
'Hello, everyone! We're here. What a fine day for a get-together.'
'Apart from the invasion?' I asked.
'Purely atmosphere,' Balthier belittled the torn skies. 'Storms and firefights are nothing more than an apt backdrop for personal deliverance.'
Nono delivered a high-pitched 'About bloody time!' The gathered crowd otherwise ignored the skypirate's greeting.
The crowd was a disparate crew. Rozarrians and Balfonheimers stood ready, guns and an array of offensive and defensive spells targeted on sky and street. The bustle came from the workers, heaving and hauling the crumpled Valfarre Fighter with levers, float-spells and sheer muscle, unearthing what remained of the paling generator.
Ignoring the obvious destruction, the Archadian sweeps no longer targeted the area. We had an ample view, watching as Balfonheim was shot around us.
Six Moogles worked beside the generator's recovered scrap. Balfonheim's usual blacksmith, a Bangaa old enough to have gnarled, smoothed mangled parts in an impromptu forge, while a wide-eyed Hume cast Mist into the flames to keep the heat constant.
The generator's magicite would have exploded on impact, also the Valfarre's skystone. Nevertheless, the recovery of the magicite's twisted casing elicited a rousing cheer from the Moogles. Nono stripped the buffers from the socket, and hastened them to what I recognised as a jury-rigged paling generator.
With little else to do while the team worked, Balthier and Fran propped the Maenad's skystone core on one end. At ease, they used it for a leaning post, watching the motions with bright-eyed interest.
I took a deep breath. 'You're leaning on an explosive.'
'I know. My old man manufacted them, remember?' Balthier rapped his knuckles down the side of the core, which precipitated a high-pitched bell tone.
In my periphery, the crowd flinched, as a single organism.
'Calm down,' Balthier said, scornful. 'I know this lump like a sweetheart. She needs it rough, a tap would scarce get her off.'
'Manufacted skystone,' Fran offered, 'of this vintage and mass, would need at least a bullet's strike to explode.'
I shuddered. 'Standing this close to one during an invasion, I suppose I should feel better?'
'Wouldn't dare suggest how you should feel, Feathers,' Balthier said, breezily.
Fran nodded. 'An individual in command of one's own emotions is in command of the world.'
'Someone owes me a full body massage after this,' I ground out, 'because every muscle in my body is a knot in expectation of the e—'
''Ware heads—' a Moogle shrilled, followed by a loud clattering bang from the metal tangle behind me.
I narrowly avoided disgracing myself.
'Sorry,' Nono called. 'But I think we've got the connections set up.'
'You'd want to know, Nono,' Balthier said, 'because if they're not equalised, you know this darkling,' he rapped the core again, 'goes off.'
'I never would have known without your input,' Nono said, dark eyes gormless and wide. 'Not with my decades of experience, kupo.'
Balthier nodded at me. 'Mustn't rustle our little birdie's feathers.'
Meanwhile, the attack continued.
I lent my arm to the salvage effort. Repairs and manufacture were punctuated by flinches and mild panic every time an Archadian ship screamed by. Black smoke streaked the sky. Crackling flame and the echo of conflict drowned out the sound of the ocean.
After eons, we were ready to engage.
The magicite typically used within a paling generator was not skystone, but the Maenad's ancient stone, a cruder structure than contemporary skystone, would serve.
Skystone depended on a closed circuit for its application, each end touching a buffer simultaneously. Contemporary engines came with a loading mechanism ensuring perfect synchronicity, preventing feedback and the resultant skystone explosion.
Nono had a spirit level and an impromptu winch.
A winch which would made our ancestors proud, admittedly. Likely the same ancestors who had built the Maenad.
I wept sweat as the skystone core swung up, over the tangled display of mechanical ingenuity, and down by increments. The last few inches were intolerable. As the core clicked into place, I sat down, my strings cut. I was not alone in my abrupt relief.
The paling, a flickering, obvious shade of copper green, snapped into being.
Balfonheim began the clean-up.
The gun tower, as well as contingents of Rozarrian soldiers, chased the trapped Archadian Valfarres and Remoras to destructive ends. Through this, we sat by the paling generator, detached by celebration. As Balfonheim's immediate skies were rendered safe, the party escalated to spill out to the quayside, to the Whitecap, in a confetti of ash, embers, burning ozone and gunpowder. Moogle moonshine cheered our progress.
Considering my social efforts from earlier, the adrenaline and the latest liquid supplements did odd things to my chemistry. In the Whitecap's forecourt, I rediscovered the cheerful soldier from the dockyard, and learned his hands were as warm as his eyes. Affairs were continuing as expected, until I discovered Al-Cid Margrace took up position nearby, seemingly to stare me down.
Sadly, I thought, for all that his glasses made his opinion as opaque as his eyes.
When the Imperial mirage did not disappear, I startled, detach the soldier from my d�colletage, and staggered in Margrace's direction with some thought to defining the apparition's reality. Even Margrace had never worn his shirt unlaced past the navel, no matter the clime's humidity.
Yet Margrace was no illusion. The Balfonheim Liaison stood by his side, beneath a tattered awning on the quay. The Liaison gestured violently towards the glowing, tickling, clicking, unstable and yet functional paling generator.
A hand held me back from approach. 'The Balfonheim Liaison is displeased we've unofficially messed with their property.'
It was Balthier, breathing into my ear.
'That's a bit much,' I said, delirious. 'The Archadians mussed it first.'
'Considering Balfonheim bears no true property.' Fran was at my other side, arms folded.
I inhaled the alcohol off their words. They had been willing participants in the celebration. For some reason, the realisation dulled the edge of Balthier's usual arrogance. Even these skypirates were mortal, fallible enough to celebrate successes, a happy outcome not as expected as the skypirates made it seem.
'He thinks he's going to keep the town, after this.' Balthier affected disgust, delivered with a nod at the Liaison. 'After the Rozarrians and the Archadians leave, that Balfonheim's going to keep him on as mayor. Or a bloody pirate king!'
Margrace was listening to the Liaison with an air of tolerance.
'It might suit some,' I said, hesitant, 'if Balfonheim united enough to declare themselves a neutral city-state with the Holy Mount.'
'It would suit Margrace,' Balthier hiccuped. 'Rozarria. The sky city Bhujerba. But it would hardly please great Archadia. Anyway, Balfonheim's unlikely to unite under a landlord brat.
'Margrace taps the wrong barrel,' Fran added.
'Property is hardly power,' Balthier agreed. 'There's a saying, Feathers, that when a skypirate starts counting his loot, he's nothing more than a thief.'
Fran inclined her head at the unlikely duo. 'What would you think, if Margrace succeeds with another?'
'Installing his own pirate king? Never happen. But it'll be fun watching while he tries.'
Margrace discovered he could silence the Liaison by regarding him intently, as if listening to every word in full preparation of repeating the speaker's conversation back at them. The Liaison stuttered to a silence, as though the scrutiny made him aware of the nonsense he was talking.
Thus freed, Margrace came to us, and regarded us in turn.
'You've put my property to inappropriate use, Balthier.'
The skypirate twisted his lips. 'I rather think the skystone was our property to begin with. You looted it, then gave it back.'
'The Maenad has been chartered, salaries negotiated and co-signed. Yet without a skystone core, how shall my airship fly?'
I winced, bracing myself.
Balthier looked once at Fran. 'Without a port to defend,' he drawled, 'then I should hardly be keeping my side of the bargain even if I could fly. Should we have left Balfonheim to fall?'
'An extreme action to take—'
'The Maenad was the only ship in port with a skystone old enough to work.' Insultingly direct, he looked Margrace down, eyes dragging to his groin, where the open shirt framed Margrace's flies. 'One circumstance where size does matter.'
Fran's expression assumed, in her drunken state, an incredibly elegant smirk.
'Nevertheless,' Margrace said, 'you've clipped your own wings. Hardly a motive driven by profit. Have we misjudged you?'
'I've clipped your wings,' Balthier reminded him. 'Not mine.'
A longer silence, which Balthier felt no need to fill. The skypirate was well able to resist Margrace's subtle methods of manipulation.
'I will see what we can do about requisitioning a new skystone,' Margrace said, at last. 'Meanwhile, Balthier, do try to avoid engineering further precipitous acts of heroism.'
'Heroism!' Balthier was astonished. 'Dear Margrace, do I look like a hero?'
'Of the vagabond archetype, perhaps.'
'I am a skypirate. A leading man, perhaps, but not in any way a hero. Heroes die, and I don't.' Balthier paused, considering. 'You might want to tell the Liaison to expect an invoice for my engineer's labour, and the capital cost of the skystone.'
'Do I seem a messenger?' But Margrace was smiling.
Lazy eyes roamed across Margrace's presentation again. 'You do seem to be something else.'
One eyebrow rising, Margrace turned away, evidently to hunt out the Liaison. Freed from Margrace's scrutiny, he had chosen to scold three drunk Moogles, propped against a low wall near the paling generator. As none of the Moogles present had been involved in the salvage job, the three regarded his tirade with dumbfounded expressions.
Margrace made Balthier a small bow. 'It shall be an inestimable pleasure to hand-deliver your invoice.'
'Glad to oblige,' Balthier grinned.
Margrace stepped before me before I could escape the unavoidable inquisition. He studied my ash-covered state of swaying disgrace.
'As for you,' he said, disapproving. 'Was it so necessary to risk yourself so? Am I so hard a taskmaster that death is an acceptable escape?'
Once, the air of ownership, of wounded paternalism, had charmed me. A master craftsman who clutched so at his tools would not easily abandon them to the myriad fates that could befall a spy.
A great whoosh of disbelief, near hysteria, swept over me. 'Yes, it did seem rather necessary at the time, saving Balfonheim.'
With his left hand, Margrace made what the mudra of despair.
The affectation irritated me. Only the Rozarrian ruling class bothered to manipulate the mudra; I had learned a language obsolete but for between Margrace and his little birds. Still I did not understand him, if ever I had.
I turned my face away.
Margrace withdrew. When he spoke again it came soft. 'Ask my permission first, if you ever again feel the need to explode yourself in the company of strangers.'
'I'll explode myself when and where I want,' I told the cobbles, 'in whoever's company I choose.'
With a sharp exhalation, Margrace turned on his heel and left. I stared after him, unblinking, until the streetlamps blurred to stars.
Balthier patted my shoulder. 'We'll get some use out of you yet, Feathers. Welcome aboard.'
Al-Cid Margrace Makes A Mudra
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