A Sense of Commitment
'Did you see what they're doing to our hull, Nono?' Balthier's voice came resonant with gloom.
I stopped, twelve rungs from the engine deck, and decided I would wait this one out. After all, I had heard it before; yesterday, Balthier lauded what they were doing to our hull.
'Drop down screens,' the pirate answered himself. 'Flick of a button, and our cheerful little cargo ship becomes a gap-toothed leering killer.'
'I have been watching,' Nono said, exasperated. 'I've been down here all week. Did you see what they're doing to our gun deck, kupo?'
'They're disguising a missile launcher,' Balthier said, morose.
'Exactly! So why don't you teeter-totter up there and share your excitement around a bit?'
Nono had never been good with Hume subtleties, Fran had told me before.
'Excited,' Balthier said, outrage shaking his mood. 'Excited—!'
'Kupo—oh, are we on a different tack today? Ah, it's horrible! They're turning us into killers, bad Rozarrians! Nasty Rozarrians!'
I judged the timing safe to drop to the deck.
Nono looked up at me and away. Shaking his head, he found a task taking him to the far side of the hold. Perched unmoving on his crate, Balthier regarded the fitters, welders, and the ordinance crew transforming the Maenad from a classic model into a one-of-a-kind battleship beast.
Whatever ethical riddle had the skypirate swinging between boyish enthusiasm and this frequent gloom, I had more concern for the airship's ballast. Woe to think what would happen if any of the aggressors fired at—or even near us.
Balthier sank his chin into cupped hands. ''Lo, Feathers. Are we making progress, then, by your slanted definition of the term?'
In one discussion with Fran, between drinks five and six of a ten-drink parade, we speculated Balthier's angst a combination of pre-operation stress, the tension of waiting, and irritation at being forced again to a field of war he chose to leave behind.
'Not that his attitude matters,' I had hastened to assure Fran, 'but can we rely on him to make the right decisions, like this? He's not going to break and run again, is he?'
'If he runs,' Fran said, 'it would not be because of the breaking.'
'If he tends to irrationality—well, I don't want to pull rank on him.'
'A simple solution, then.' Fran poured the next round. 'Don't.'
Fran would back him, whatever he did.
Despite Fran's faith, Balthier did not spare her his unease. When he approached her, she adopted a patient, quizzical expression making it clear she had no answer to give.
I affected the same expression now, in answering Balthier's question. 'We're meeting our milestones.' A spontaneous maliciousness to add, 'In fact, have you seen what they're installed on the gun deck?'
That night proved sticky, humid, the new holes in the Maenad's hull a benefit for the breeze. Our meal we took on the dock, after, the dishes abandoned in the Maenad's kitchen sink.
Fran cornered Balthier there and demanded his true irritation.
I was on the ladder again, screened from their view by the shaft. Unused to others aboard their ship, neither was aware of how their conversations traveled. I would do my utmost to ensure they never had cause to realise.
'There's four assault guns in the hold.' Balthier drummed his fingers on the bench. 'Four.'
'Floor mounted,' Fran noted.
'Specialised business, those. Close range use, a brutal kick to them. Not like the missile launcher. You know what assault guns are for.'
'I had wondered, you know,' a trick of the echoes, but Balthier's voice shook, 'how Margrace thought we were to keep our supply ship secret. The first survivors would communicate our ship's make and model directly to the Archadian fleet.'
'There are ways to avoid being seen, especially when conducting an ambush.'
'Something always goes wrong.'
Fran tried humour. 'Typically we would exploit that.'
'Errors aren't always in my favour. Something goes wrong. The survivors eject. They sight us, recognise us, and then&madsh;'
'Close range fire, 'pon the survivors. We've done worse, between us.'
'Goes against the grain for me,, Master of Weapons.' Balthier mocked Fran hard and sharp with that old title; champion of gladiatorial matches, the dirty deaths of the arena. 'Even the worst of skypirates hoist their flag before firing.'
'You've warred before.'
'And I didn't bloody like it!'
'Nor did I,' Fran said, her tone level. 'Who would call survival a pleasant game? No way over that river but to swim, no way out from the maze but to venture further in.'
'Spare me the mysticism, please. Gods, every code of conduct goes to hang if we fire on survivors. The intent of war is—ah, who am I to talk on intent. But no sane man goes to war to kill individuals.'
'I rather thought war was fought to win.'
'What victory, if it comes from the shadows?'
Fran did not answer.
'This, love, this, is why spies should not be involved in wars. Theatrical, deceptive, sneaky bloody Margraces. Even if my life was dishonest, my death could be pure.'
I said a silent curse. Our tireless leading man, the eminent survivor, was more than shaken to be talking of his own death.
'Do we have a choice?' Fran asked. 'You've made yours.'
'That,' Balthier said, 'is precisely what grieves me now. I'll do what the script demands, and hate it.'
'Good,' Fran said.
'Good,' Fran repeated, firmly this time. 'Small point searching for reasons to make murder easier. Atrocities should never seem easy.'
The silence fell, punctuated by a boiling kettle. I would have thought them gone if not for the lack of footsteps.
I resumed my climb to the kitchen. Balthier sat on the counter, teacup in his hands, while Fran leaned against the sink, gazing through the porthole, unseeing.
I erupted into the silence, sadly limited in my potential for engineering a subject change. 'They're installing the launcher on the gun deck tomorrow.'
The steam from Balthier's tea scattered as he snorted. 'What does your Margrace think we're going to do with launcher, I ask you. Barely enough to scathe a Carrier, too slow to take on a Fighter. We might as well be crewing an Atomos.'
'Muzzle loaded,' Fran said, with a sorrowful shake of her head. 'In this day and age.'
'A sheer disgrace of obsolete technology,' Balthier said. 'And we're supposed to be a battleship.'
Balthier Masters The Art Of The Lean
Knowing how close the Maenad's confines would soon become, we usually took our meals anywhere but. That evening, we patronised the Whitecap, when the unexpected sound of cheering overcame the ocean's wave.
Balthier raised his head. 'Someone's happy tonight.'
'Many someones. A placard-bearing rally, demanding the expulsion of certain young Archadian ingrates?'
'A rousing celebration, more like, in acknowledgement of my sheer self-sacrificing brilliance.' Balthier smirked at his yellow bread, even as a sardine slithered off and landed just shy of his lap.
'How odd.' Fran's fingernails clicked on her pitcher of ice-cold water—between one night and the next, the beer had been "withdrawn from sale". 'Considering our presence here and the cheer elsewhere.'
'Perhaps they celebrate your absence?' Nono blinked at Balthier, gormless.
'Almost sounded like a joke, Nono.' Balthier chased his sardine along his leg. 'Do keep trying.'
Balthier, Fran, even Nono remained focused on their sparing meals, an attitude suggesting they had been shorted too often to disrespect even this dry fare. We spiced our degustation with further speculation:
'Someone discovered a can of prunes.'
'Archadia's withdrawn, recanted their ways, and become a nation of devout monks.'
'Margrace finally discovered what those buttons on his shirt are for.'
Even Nono toasted there, Fran grinning into her pitcher.
Catlike, Balthier ate his last escaping sardine in small, neat bites. 'Right, let's go find out. Three fingers of mahdu for the closest.'
Along the quay, Balthier stopped a passing girl with a flashy smile and an 'Excuse me, love—'. In moments we had our answer.
A skypirate's airship had run the Archadian blockade in spectacular fashion, wheeling between the Rozarrian Carriers, and crashed within a quick jaunt's distance of Balfonheim's paling. The Rozarrian airships placed quickly, turning off the worst of the Archadian pursuit, while a ground team raced out to salvage.
The skypirate had survived, if damaged, demanding to speak to Margrace immediately, and they were closeted even now.
While Balthier bid the girl a fair farewell, Nono turned to eye me, suspicious. 'Sounds like another Rozarrian plant.'
'I wasn't a plant,' I said. 'I came to Balfonheim of my own accord.'
'Of course you did,' Nono snorted.
Balthier joined our group again, dusting off his palms as though from manual labour. 'Too much to hope the war resolved itself.'
'Or Margrace buttoned his shirt?'
Nono scuffed the cobbles. 'I want those three fingers. Maybe salvage means fresh tins of fruit, kupo?'
'Tins aren't fresh.'
'You know what I mean,' Nono said, wistfully. 'Fish and bread is getting a bit stale.'
'Not to mention the gruel,' Fran added.
'And the crab's depressingly tired,' Balthier added. 'A choice between paintstripper or moonshine is not what I'd call an adequate wine line.'
I crossed my arms, exasperated. 'And you lot haven't even been behind the blockade all this time.'
'Maybe Margrace can use his own pawn now,' Fran said. 'Our involvement in his ploy is surely unnecessary, now he has one of his own?'
Balthier's lips thinned, his expression unreadable.
As events resolved themselves, we discovered the other airship not so lucky as the Maenad. Shot to pieces, the crash landing had done what Archadia had not. Neither ship nor pilot would fly again.
Except Nono proved right: salvage did indeed mean food, which had brought on the cheers.
The skypirate-cum-spy delivered one last critical item: an updated Archadian flight pattern, showing the paths and patrols of everything from Dreadnaughts to Fighters.
As navigator, Fran focused on memorisation. For our daytime bluff to succeed, we had to fly in the ranges Archadia dictated for its cargo ships. For our subversive actions to succeed, we had to know we would not come into the visual range of a second patrolling airship while we were destroying the first.
The rest of us galvanized at the thought of action, at last. Five days at the most, finalising our departure from Balfonheim, before time made the flight pattern obsolete.
Margrace delivered the final necessary item close to midnight, in person.
It came hidden in a coffin, ominously so, with six blank-faced soldiers handling the weight.
Balthier regarded the coffin's approach, his eyebrows climbing. 'The cloak-and-dagger must come to you diplomats naturally.'
'On the contrary, it is a hard lesson to learn.' Margrace gave his delivery a certain gravity. 'Bluntly speaking, Balthier, I would advise you to leave as soon as possible. Within three days at the most.'
I protested, 'There's little time to practice manoeuvres—at least an extra day, Margrace, the flight patterns will hold true for that much longer.'
'Improvise,' Margrace said. 'If you wait, you may not be able to get out. My comrade brought word. Archadia has destroyed the portion of our fleets who moved to the kingdom of Nabudis' aid. As of two days ago, Nabudis was under full assault. We have not had word since.'
'Well, well, well.' Balthier spoke, seemingly, for the sake of filling silence.
'A second reason for a hasty departure,' Margrace gestured at the coffin. 'Within lies a skystone suited for the Maenad's make, at full capacity.'
'I never would have guessed,' Balthier said.
'Balfonheim is not pleased to surrender such a powerful source of Mist to unknown purpose, not when this could be turned to weaponry, or defence. Therefore I claimed the skystone before others could. The revelation of loss will come quickly enough.'
The silence, of gulls and a lapping ocean, was almost mournful.
'If Nabudis has fallen, then why are we flying still?'
'We do not know if Nabudis has fallen. There are many reason for silence, not least of which is our lack of contacts, within this blockade. But most importantly,' tiredly, Margrace took his glasses off, 'You are under charter.'
'I don't know,' Balthier said, slowly, 'what side you're playing, Margrace.'
'Your speculation offends.'
'I do try.'
'All you need to know, skypirate: you are on my side.'
The skystone's coffin was brought aboard, in solemn company.
Hangovers, even from moonshine, afflicted Balthier and Fran with an unconscionable energy. Shortly before noon, I staggered into the hold to find Balthier with his sleeves rolled up, elbow-deep in among the Rozarrian engineers completing the fitout.
'Not bad,' I heard an engineer say, clearly impressed.
I followed the engineer's gaze, discovering Fran out of her leathers, hair piled atop her head as high as her ears. She wore a filched Rozarrian flight suit, form-fitted as they were, zippered to the neck to spare her from the sparks of her welding.
I interrupted him with a glare. 'Eyes to yourself, grunt.'
The engineer looked bemused. 'What? It's always nice to find an above-decks crew who knows the practical side.'
'I'll bet it is.'
Truth be, Balthier and Fran's willingness to involve themselves in Nono's belowdecks world inspired the Rozarrian artificers. Respect was hard-won aboard ship.
Would that I could have believed respect for skill might apply to our gun crew 'volunteers', who were due at any moment.
Personnel delivered their volunteers before I'd the chance to splash away the night's crust: a ruckus rose from the quayside.
I hovered at the head of the gangway, watching in shock. Balthier and Fran passed behind me, their tasks finished. Balthier paused briefly, patting my shoulder thoughtfully before he left. 'All fun and games, they look.'
There were four full-sized Bangaa, one short one, a sole one-eyed Hume, and not a Rozarrian among them but for the soldiers leading them by the chain.
Shackled, they looked like what they were: prison dregs, and brawlers.
My hung-over heart sank further.
Their only uniform was their belligerence. Stinking of booze, cursing and cuffing at each other as they stumbled along, one Bangaa stopped dead and stared up at the Maenad, aghast.
'Me brother, ye didn't just draft us to that!'
A verbal melee broke out. Three of the Bangaa blamed the fourth for signing them out of their cosy cells, with days of leisure ahead of them. By the snarling, the fourth was hardly taking the insults. Meanwhile, the Hume and the smallest Bangaa, barely Moogle-height, inched as far away from the brawlers as their shackles would allow.
With bored familiarity and the butts of their pikes, the Rozarrian soldiers separated the brawling foursome. 'Shut up and stay shut up!'
'Or what?' a female Bangaa bawled out. 'Or ye'll find a fate worse than crew on a deathship? Told us it were a battleship, ye did!'
The dominant Bangaa, by his brands and markings, stepped in again and demanded silence with shout.
Then I recognised the dominant Bangaa—the brutal bastard from the mob brawl days ago, the first to strike, and so enraptured of his delirious bloodlust he'd chased us up the street. He and his kind had been so disorderly, even a riot couldn't mask them, and soldiers had put them into lockup.
Margrace expected me to keep this lot in line? On Balthier's ship, without any foreesable backup from a superior officer? I dreaded the thought of attempting to run this lot by the skypirates' standard of vote or discussion.
Despite his menacing air, the dominant Bangaa failed to silence his cohort, subduing them only. A taunt from the female provoked him: he threw his constraining Rozarrian from the quayside into the sand below, and whirled on the rest. A clawed fist shoved the female into the other protesting Bangaa, dragging everyone along the chain, involved or not, to the cobbles.
The dominant resisted the fall by digging in his claws. 'Ye lot, ye bleeding crabbit mob, git back into line! Was brawling what got ye here, and here ye'll stay. Be scant a month on the ship, or twelve in the locker, and either way I'll be on yer minging backs! You want me on your backs for a month, or for twelve?'
The gangway trudge took place in sullen obedience.
On arrival, the dominant Bangaa grinned at me, his sensitive nostrils flaring in instant recognition. 'Hoi, cleverpants. How's it going, then?' He squinted, tongue flicking between teeth.
The one-eyed Hume cleared his throat, leaning out of the morass. 'Report for duty, mate.' The Hume met my disbelieving gaze and nodded, solemn. 'That's Ba'gamnan, ma'am.'
'Reporting for duty,' Ba'gamnan dutifully intoned.
'Welcome aboard.' I spared the sarcasm for later. 'You've met most of us, haven't you?'
'If but in passing.' Ba'gamnan seemed pleased with himself. 'Know the backs of yer mob, I do. Cowardly buggers, led by a philandering waste of sky.'
The thought occurred: I would be voluntarily putting Ba'gamnan and his mob behind the most powerful guns Margrace could provide. A distant hope that I could convince them to aim the guns in the right direction.
'Live to fight another day, as they say.'
Ba'gamnan laughed, loud and long. 'Ach, we like it, me and me brothers and sister. If'n we're crewing this pile of junk, leastways a yellow captain's like to get us out alive!'
The Bangaa siblings continued to amuse themselves at the expense of Balthier's reputation. The overly-familiar slurring match did not allay my suspicions of possible mutiny.
Gijuk and Bwagi were Ba'gamnan's brothers, Rinok his sister. Their relative experience surprised me: they rattled off an impressive compliment of artillery service. On Archadian airships, startlingly enough, even if the only service Archadians allowed by those not Hume took place in the skyless hold. They had left Archadia, Ba'gamnan explained, to answer the lure of well-paid hunts and head-hunting duty only found in Balfonheim.
'How about you two, then? I suppose you're ex-12th Fleet generals.'
The Hume was Rikken. 'No ma'am. Most recently I've served in the Bhujerban irregulars as a caravan guard, and a term or two of monster-duty and refugee escort for the monks on the Holy Mount. I'm a career mercenary, if you will. I hunt when I have to, but mostly prefer to the fight.'
'Know much about a gunnery crew's duties?'
'Not really, but a fair bit about fighting.' A rueful grin. 'Got thrown in the brig couple of days before this lot for beating up an old friend.'
'A good friend?'
'The best,' Rikken agreed. The small Bangaa at his side snorted in disbelief, which made Rikken laugh. 'Not like I used a knife!'
Raz, the last, smallest Bangaa was the real surprise. 'Demolitions,' he said, abrupt. 'Had a long service in Bhujerba's mines, before this business between Bhujerba and the Archadians got out of hand. Was to be off working on the Henne Mine motherlode before the Archadians were hounded off. It's not been good since then, bit skint around. Hungry, like. I was put away for possession of incendiaries.'
Perhaps Personnel hadn't been as nasty to me as first thought. 'You can handle the munitions aboard? Be responsible for upholding their storage?'
'Storage! Come now, girl, what do ye want me to do, in truth?' Raz was blunt enough, eyes glinting with a warning hint. 'I can add shrapnel to yer standard missiles, a nip or two of secret ingredients to double the firepower. Hollowpoint yer assault gun's bullets so they'd flip a Bangaa so big,' he gestured at Ba'gamnan, 'on his arse even if ye nick his wee finger. Any grotty tricks; get me a jar of pepper and I'll make you some spice.'
I stared at Raz, and rubbed sleep from my eyes.
Rikken cleared his throat. 'You want us to muster in the hold, ma'am? So we can meet the captain and crew?'
I surrendered expectation of law and order. 'The hold's at the bottom of the ladder. It's where you'll be living from now on in, find a berth where you will. I'll go get the others.'
The Rozarrian soldiers, bloody and sore, unlocked the Maenad's new crew from their ankle chains, as I went in search of the skypirates. Fran's den in the commons was empty, though her dark leathers were there, discarded on the bunk. Her impressive array of weaponry gleamed thick with oil, the scent following me as I swung onto the ladder and called up the shaft.
'Balthier! Fran!' Thinking Fran's hearing someone sharper than Balthier's demonstrated selectiveness, 'Fran!'
The pair appeared in parts, Fran from the cockpit, still in her borrowed flight suit, opened to the navel without need for protection against sparks. A second later, hair dark and wet from his shower, Balthier appeared in the immaculate altogether.
I gaped, stunned enough I barely noticed the lather on half his face. Fran raised an eyebrow at my expression, then followed my gaze.
'You have something on your chin.'
Balthier split the froth with a grin. Fran dabbed at his chin with an inadequately delicate motion.
'What's wrong, Feathers?'
'Gun crew,' I managed. 'Mustered below. Introductions.'
'Can't they wait?'
'They can,' I said, resounding. 'Do dress, please.'
'Ah, why bother? Let's get this over with.' One hand hooked around his doorframe, Balthier stretched into his tiny cabin and grabbed a towel. With a well-mannered bow, he gestured Fran ahead of him. He scrubbed off the shaving lather, half his cheek stubbled, before wrapping the inadequate towel to spare his audience.
Fortunately, I had long since surrendered the vague hope Balthier would morph into an authoritarian captain of a type to command a rabble's respect.
We discovered the gun crew in various states of loiter. Eyeing the newcomers with suspicion, Nono leaned from the engine deck and shouted an insult if any dared use the recently installed assault guns as their props.
'Balthier's the pilot,' I indicated Balthier, who bowed, shallow considering his brief skirt. 'Fran's the navigator. Nono up there, he's the engineer.'
Balthier eyed the crew, then draped himself in matching disarray on a portion of the ship's anatomy. Fran found the ladder more to her satisfaction, propped between the verticals.
'I'm supposed to inspect you, but there's not much to inspect.' Balthier shook his head. 'Shallow as a half-dug hole.'
The gun crew thought about the unlikely poses of both pilot and navigator with disbelief. Rikken's eyes fixed on Fran, his grin swelling.
Balthier's lids narrowed at the unwitting Hume. 'You find Viera amusing?'
Rikken startled. 'No.'
'Pity. I rather like a sense of humour in my crew, and Fran's got a delivery to die for. In situations like these,' Balthier rubbed his hands together, 'you would want to be able to laugh. Just look at yourselves.'
Ba'gamnan and his sibs communed, shoulders angling with aggression, obviously deciding Balthier's words came as an insult. 'And what, precisely, dae ye find sae amusing about us?'
'Lizards!' Balthier announced. 'Bangaa, in a gun crew, when Bangaa can barely see? Margrace gives me a one-eyed Hume; dare I mention the lack of depth perception? In a gun crew? Like as not you'll shoot me in the back than target an Archadian dreadnaught. By accident.'
Ba'gamnan snarled. 'See a lot ay yer back, willnae we?'
'Calling me a coward, Ba'gamnan? After all our favourable associations?'
'A yellow striped, white feathered coward.'
Balthier slapped his palm with his fist. 'You'd be right!'
Ba'gamnan looked bewildered.
'Ye gods, make a loud noise near me and I'm up and running. Who knows why Margrace thinks I can take this ancient old piece of shit into a warzone and stealthbomb Archadia's best. You lot can't fire straight, the navigator's more interested in oiling her leathers, and as for our resident little birdie, she doesn't even want to be here. Hilarious. No. No. Ridiculous, that's what it is. What odds do any of you give us for survival?'
While he spoke, Balthier paced, a study in melodrama. The crew watched, fascinated the naked madman and his camp little overacting. When so prompted they muttered comments, from disbelief that Balthier admitted the 'truth' of the situation, and agreement at the farcical nature of the endeavour.
'This whole affair is absurd,' Balthier went on, emphatic. 'Once skyborne, we're dependent on her—' he waved at Fran, who had one arm thrust elbow-deep inside her flight suit, scratching audibly at a sweaty under-breast— '...and the Archadian flight patterns she's memorised. Can't carry the maps, Margrace says, oh, no, just in case we get boarded.'
Fran lowered her gaze, loose hair a veil scarce hiding the smile. Balthier scowled in compensation. His face was alive with emotion. Adrenaline?
'I don't suppose any of you can navigate, can you?' With an about-turn, Balthier exuded hopefulness, but the Bangaa and the Hume shook their heads in unison. 'Of course not, you're as useless as we are for this. I suppose none of you can pilot.'
Bwagi raised a hand, then glared at the tentativeness and punched it high.
'Oh, right, fantastic,' Balthier enthused. 'I suppose you can pilot with a ring speed below seven hundred revs, can you?'
'No one can do that.'
'I can,' Balthier was instantly glum. 'Only I can't do it forever, can I. More long, sleepless nights piloting this hulk of worthless crap on total power-down, just to creep past the Archadians. If we're lucky, we'll get to loot a couple before we get nabbed or crash—'
'We can loot?' This from Rinok, her interest moderating the growl.
'Of course. We're skypirates, aren't we? We'll stay low, avoid encounters, loot where we can, and meanwhile we take the Maenad along the quickest route away from this mess.'
'This looting,' Gijuk continued, 'it's equal shares, right?'
'Equal according to role and injury,' Fran inserted, quick and quiet.
The conversation unfurled from there. I watched, astounded.
Engagingly repetitive, Balthier asserted the airship's worthlessness on the open market, or even as a private vehicle: its cumbersome handling, the pain he endured trying to find parts for repairs. He repeated the essential skills of himself, myself, Fran and Nono, how vital our knowledge for enduring the Archadian onslaught. In the minds of these possible mutineers, he showed the Maenad as a worthless steal, and that a knife in any of our backs would backfire on the stabber.
Balthier showed the carrot then: the gun crew would profit from any successful encounter, and could rest assured the above-decks crew were doing all they could to get out of the warzone safely.
'S'better odds than staying in Balfonheim,' I heard Ba'gamnan growl, the others nodding along. 'Me brothers and sister, did I not steer ye right, towards the scent of money?'
While not precisely a loyal and efficient crew, it was one less likely to kill us than they had been twenty minutes prior.
That performance, I realized, was no small cog in Balthier's engine of survival.
The ammunition arrived at dusk, when the Whitecap's early closing time had driven away casual quayside wanderers. I paced our dock, supervising the loading.
'Want a hand with the haul, Feathers?'
'I'm surprised you're willing to dirty your hands.'
Balthier spread those and shrugged, grinning. 'I'm willing to dirty several things.'
'No,' I said, then felt the odd urge to add, 'but thank you. Let the Bangaa do it. I remember how you handled the mist core, you have little respect for handling explosives.'
From beneath his shirt, Balthier pulled an intricately engraved classic gun, a Rigel, of all things. He spun it through his hands, aimed and mimed a fire. 'What do you call that, then?'
'Flashy. Not respectful. How many hours of your day did you waste learning how to do that?'
'Hours on watch duty,' Balthier corrected. He arranged himself against the doorframe, surveying where soldiers were stacking our crates four high. 'I rather thought it time well-spent. How are your lot settling in?'
'After the tantrum you threw about how worthless we are? They're well enough. Bickering over bedspace.'
'If it goes badly, Feathers, we'll be seeing action tomorrow night. In two nights, if it goes well and we can get into position. Are you confident?'
The topic of confidence drew my mind well away from Archadian attack. 'You didn't mean what you said to them before, did you, Balthier?'
'About your worthlessness?'
'That you would route out of this mess.'
He paused. 'Define "mess".'
'The quickest route out of the war, so to speak, is to do what Margrace has asked. The quickest route away from Margrace's suggestive little blackmail? Ah, well, that would be to make the blackmail void. Which requires me to do what he asked.'
'Odd,' I said. 'You can't lie.'
'Not can't, love. I don't like lying. It's another chance of being caught out.'
I smiled. 'Yes, I can see how you'd think so. Ffamran.'
Balthier's lips drew tight. 'So how are they, Feathers?'
'They're ok. I'll know better by tomorrow.'
The hold's screens were raised, awarding us a full view of the loading. Ba'gamnan glared at us, and threw his burden into the hold with a force that cracked the packing. Shells plinked to the deck.
Balthier arched an eyebrow. 'That's ok, is it? Or is it respect for the handling of explosives?'
'That's not ok. But it is better than it could be.'
When Rikken and Bwagi took up an argument over the crate Bwagi unloaded into Rikken's previously claimed sleeping area, I left the crew to it. I retreated from dock to quayside, breathing salt air.
I hadn't expected Balthier to follow, nor Fran to materialise from the shadows and join him.
'You look like you know where you're going,' Balthier said.
'In hunt of food,' I replied, wry. 'Would you care to join me?'
Balthier and Fran shrugged at each other. 'Probably worth trying out one of the mess halls at this stage.'
'Sardines and yellow bread,' Fran said, sadly.
—except our forward progress was interrupted at the base of the dock, where the Rozarrian cohort appeared, carrying one last large, indiscreet packing case. Unlike the ammunition crates, this one was unmarked.
I thought of the coffin.
Balthier picked up the pace, querying the soldier about contents.
'Don't know what it is.' The soldier took advantage of the pause to wipe sweat from his face. 'It's marked "not to be opened without prior authority". For you to load, but I think you're to wait for Margrace—'
Fran stepped forward, and in a single motion, broke off the lock.
'Terrible thing,' Balthier said smoothly, 'these rust attacks, crumbling hinges, locks, swords. I hear it's the salt air, so unforgiving.' With both hands, Balthier lifted the lid.
The case was full of Rozarrian uniforms.
When the crates were loaded, the Maenad's crew, above and belowdecks, had settled in on the shore for an early supper and one last Balfonheim sunset.
Six soldiers came down the dock with a jingle of mail and armour, drawing our attention. I looked up, glum. One last meal uninterrupted was too much to ask.
The lieutenant ignored Balthier even as the skypirate stood, only to brighten when he saw me. 'Want the good news?'
'Margrace truly did button his shirt?'
'You've all been invited for a last supper.' He studied our bread and cheese, the latter revealed from one of Fran's secret stashes. 'Of better range than that.'
While we had been otherwise occupied, the main marketplace had been converted into a celebration. Lanterns strung on rope crisscrossed the street, tables arranged on the cobbles with ample room for circulation on both sides. Soldiers staffed cauldrons and barbeques, with a surprising range of foods available. Similar to Fran's cheese stash, I suspected—kept in reserve for the last hoorah.
Of a sudden, I was depressed.
Circulating, one might have thought this a happy gathering, if it wasn't for the expressions of the faces of those who knew what facts there were. The High Marshal stood on his table at one point, delivering a half-heart speech in pompous declaration of nothing at all. The Balfonheim Liaison, yet angling for his imagined mayoral future among Balfonheim's rubble, gave the speech following, inciting displeased mutters. Al-Cid Margrace sat, a gravity to his expression that made my heart fall.
Balthier noticed too, and elbowed Fran to draw her attention. 'Go easy on the bottle. Not a good time to get drunk, tonight.'
She looked at Margrace, then the mug in her hand. 'The company hardly compensates the sacrifice.'
For once, Balthier did not play. 'That's not the expression of a tolerant man. We're leaving first thing, if not picking up our marching orders right now.'
'At least the food is good?' I offered.
We negotiated our way towards Margrace.
Last hoorah or not, the crowd displayed a certain bloody-minded pride. If Balfonheim emerged out of this siege, it would be unscathed in spirit and honour, with the firm resolve to become master of its own destiny.
Margrace seemed unaware of the undercurrent of strength, the autonomous collective. When we arrived at his table, he gave an impression of remote anticipation—almost anxiety. He looked at Balthier and Fran for a long time, wordless.
'Gods, you could make a stone weep. What is it, did your father die? Or did your bird come last?'
Emotion flared. Disbelief, shock, as if only now did Margrace realise what he took on, with a weapon hardly tempered for the task.
'You'll be all right,' Margrace stated, as if to assure himself.
'We're survivors,' Balthier replied.
Fran looked at Balthier. 'We have questions.'
'Please,' Margrace gestured at the bench opposite. 'Sit, eat, ask.'
Balthier did not. 'Our contract. And our cash advance.'
'Straight to practicalities?'
'I don't break my word,' Balthier said. 'I expect the same courtesy in return.'
'I wonder what your father would say to that. And the 12th Fleet.'
By now, the antagonism between the two men seemed lazy with familiarity.
Balthier shrugged. 'Fealty, yes, I'll break that. But not business arrangements. That is what this is, Margrace. This has never been our fight.'
'Your money and the contracts have been filed with the banks on the Holy Mount. My aide will provide you with the receipts. Anything else restricting your departure this evening?'
Balthier nodded, satisfied his earlier speculation proved true. 'The packing case. The do-not-open crate. It was handled rather clumsily and the lid popped open.'
Margrace was resigned to the fact. 'The contents will help you in reinforcing the myth of an invisible Rozarrian battleship.'
'Here I'd thought you wanted us to hold a costume party.'
Irritation surfaced then. 'Be aware of the gravity of what you attempt, and succeed.'
'Succeed in what? Pushing off the end for Nabudis, for Bhujerba, by another few weeks?' Balthier shrugged. 'Each battle comes as it comes, Margrace. I intend only to survive. Defining success in these foul times, I'll leave up to your kind.'
The irritation faded.
Margrace stood, and held out his hand. He regarded the skypirate with a vague regret, as if in recognition of something long-lost. Balthier stared back at him, mirroring, I realized, shocked, the same expression.
Balthier took Margrace's hand. Where I expected him to shake it, the skypirate again did the unexpected. Balthier bowed, bringing Margrace's knuckles to his lips.
'May you never sit on your father's throne, your Highness,' Balthier said.
'Faram,' Margrace said, fervently.
Then, as though they understood each other, nothing more was said.
Balthier turned to Fran, brisk. 'Time to martial the troops. Fran, take our little bird and collect the crew from this mess. I'll start the Maenad's checks while waiting.'
At midnight, we powered the Maenad to the slowest spin necessary for lift, and climbed, quiet to screen and sky. No one witnessed us go, the celebration having drawn the usual quayside lurkers.
In the streets below, the party was winding to an end, distant and delirious, as if the music and lantern waving trumpeted our departure.
Continue to Chapter 6 →
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