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A Sense of Commitment

Chapter 7. What Possibilities Serve

'What the hell do you call that?'

I looked down at the tray. 'Breakfast.'

'Optimistic of you.' Balthier regarded the rough bread, green-specked cheese and grey preserved sausage that I was offering. He rose, shying from contact with the substance when I moved the plate menacingly in his direction, then disappeared from cockpit into the kitchen.

Fran caught my eye and shrugged. Without other amusement, I followed Balthier in time to see Rikken beating rapid retreat from the stove, his hands raised as though warding off an attack.

'—came out from a blockaded town, they're starving there. What gourmet shite did you expect me to cobble?'

'Can't do much about the composite elements,' Balthier replied, patient. 'But even you can do something about the presentation.'

With performative aplomb, Balthier toasted the bread, fried the pre-boiled sausage with ancient fennel seeds scavenged from a drawer, and topped the lot with melted cheese. It certainly approximated palatable food, grease-slicked to ease the aged substance going down.

'Nearly tolerable,' I told Balthier around a mouthful, as we left Rikken ruing the re-dirtied dishes. 'Like you.'

Balthier looked smug. 'Convincing presentation is nine tenths of belief.'

'Bluff is nine tenths of winning a war?'

'Or running a blockade, at least.'

We entered the cockpit, Fran in process of binding her ears flat. Balthier bowed as he delivered his navigator her fry-up, grinning at her disdain.

The Maenad demanded our attention with a buzz: we entered Archadian airspace, chewing on Balthier's providence.

The Archadian blockade deployed in stratum. Cargo ships flew in a lower strata of sky, Carriers high and in a holding pattern. Fighter Class airships cycled through the mid-range, on set patrol routes before returning to their slower-flying Carriers. Fighters typically held a small or solo crew. The occasional Cruiser Class airships, also flying through the mid-range, offered us the greatest threat. With their armaments and impressive defensive capacity, Cruisers held a crew ranging from fifty to two hundred.

We dropped into the requisite flight path for an Archadian cargo ship. According to Margrace's appropriated patrol pattern, it would be forty minutes before the first patrolling Fighter Class broached our horizon.

Which she did, on schedule. Deviating not at all, her pilot paid us no attention.

Balthier watched the passing Valfarre, an odd eagerness in his gaze, daring. An image occurred to me, of him as a child, not so long ago as it were, on the brink of a precipice, looking to leap.

We were not so lucky with the second Fighter.

Watching the Fighter perform the third sweep over the Maenad, Balthier's daring evolved a smirk, a radiant supremacy of the kind I had only ever noted in Archadians. The nearer to engagement, the less neutral, the less logically-motivated-profiteer Balthier seemed.

'Shall we dance?' Balthier asked the Valfarre. The Fighter dipped and circled the Maenad's bulk, fleet, and he laughed.

Fran turned on him, quizzical.

Balthier's need to dare the gods would not compromise our slight chance of leaving this warzone with honour, and alive. I intruded my palm between their locked gazes.

'Or, you could abide by the stratagems agreed on previously.'

Balthier's smirk morphed to a pout.

Fran took advantage of his distraction to speak. 'A breach of contract, to initiate aggressions in a circumstance where we risk losing our cover.'

'No shooting at scouts who take us as face value,' he ceded, sighing.

The Valfarre performed a double-sweep again. The pilot in this Fighter Class, unlike the other, had a carefulness likely to get him out of this war alive: despite our apparent lack of weaponry and our apparent allegiance, he never approached on a tangent that would have made him vulnerable.

The first Valfarre had made clear that double-sweeping cargo ships was not procedure. Did this careful pilot suspect something was wrong, or was he another admirer of the classic airship form?

Fran thought along similar lines. 'The screens are deployed, correct?'

I lifted the comm. 'The screens are deployed, aren't they?'

Ba'gamnan confirmed with an irritated snarl. 'We're like sitting ducks, while the bloody Archade's getting his gander at us through the port window.'

At that, Balthier's expression changed, the glance he shared with Fran bored and resigned.

'Oh no. He'll do another sweep, Feathers. Tell the below-decks to smile and wave.'

'To do what?'

'We're in a blockade where the most interesting thing happening is the occasional rainstorm. We're on the Archadian's side, even if we are mere provincial allies. Add boredom and alliance together, and we should be glad to see him. Even the below-decks lizards.'

I stared at Balthier, mystified, while the elongated Valfarre silhouette returned.

'The pilot wants his tribute,' Balthier added.

'Gun deck, hold crew. Are you listening?'

'We can shoot him now?' Ba'gamnan asked, hopeful.

'No,' I said, 'but you do get to show your teeth. Give the pilot a smile and a wave on his next sweep.'

'Ye what?'

'Pretend he's bringing your wage, Ba'gamnan. Your smile is our salvation.'

'I bet ye say that to all yer jimmies,' Ba'gamnan retorted. 'Mob of philanderers, these cockpit snobs.'

The third sweep terminated with the Valfarre slowing to a show, awarding us in the cockpit a brief visual of a pilot, navigator, two main crew raising fists in the Archadian salute. Teeth bared in nothing remotely resembling a smile, Balthier saluted in return, while the open comm. to the hold deck let us hear Ba'gamnan's litany as the Valfarre continued its slow, rolling viewing along the hold window.

'If'n ye get any closer, bastards, I'd put my fist right through your hull and bugger the guns—'

These were the events to make fervent patriots of us all. I pressed my sleeve to my brow.

'That a customary behaviour, Balthier?'

Balthier snorted, disgusted. 'Amongst the children and certain types who think war is worth congratulations. Pass me your plates, will you? I'll take them to the kitchen before the remnants evolve. Fran, set course to the Vilshevnik purvama cluster. And you,' a long finger targeted me, 'not a word questioning why. You're to start trusting me someday. Start now.'

I held out my hands, appeasing.

The Vilshevnik purvama cluster was not, as I had wondered, a code between the skypirates for abandoning the war effort and taking off to a holiday retreat.

Known collectively as the Floating Lands, purvama littered the skies between Balfonheim and Bhujerba, performing a slow dance on unknown tides. The size of purvama ranged from rubble to the continent of Dorstonis, on which the skycity Bhujerba was built.

Speculation suggested the rock floated due to a high concentration of magicite, not least of which was the variety developed as skystone, mined from within Bhujerba itself.

Vilshevnik looked to be a decayed purvama, the rocky rubble that occurred when a larger purvama crumbled, worn by air and rain, but the Maenad's approach brought unexpected life to the rubble.

Serpents crawled, in such numbers I felt nauseated, dipping in and out of the grassy, feathered stone.

'Can I ask now?'

'No,' Balthier said, cheerful enough. 'You can help us with our kits, though.'

'Are you being purposefully obtuse?'

'Good things come to those who wait.'

'I'll take that as a yes, then. Are you purposefully being difficult?'

'It comes naturally to some.' With a quick grin, Balthier disappeared to the hold. After stabilising the ship, Fran followed without a word.

I waited for a good minute, teeth grinding, then leapt to follow.

By the time I arrived, Balthier had the hold hatch open and a ladder lowered, giving curt instruction to Ba'gamnan and Rikken, the pair equipped to accompany him. Balthier wore a sword and carried pouches full of incendiaries, but no gun, slinging down the rope ladder with ease.

Fran handed me a pouch of the same, and gestured me down the ladder. 'I'll come last.'

Thinking of those serpents, I grabbed a stave before I went. Balthier cleared a small space on the crawling island with his incendiaries, and now held a shuttered lantern high, the light defining the limits of his circle. Quick enough with his sword, the serpents got wise, and stayed relatively clear.

Ba'gamnan and Rikken were next, then Fran. By then, our ship-shadowed dusk seemed defined by glittering red eyes and reptilian smells.

Balthier began a march, purposeful. Fran's quick motion from rock to rock, almost an outskirt scout, showed she knew her footing in this strange non-place even better than he did.

'Alright, Balthier, what are we doing here—?'

Balthier cut me off with style due the leading man he claimed to be—he uncoiled, and severed the head from a serpent poised to strike at my distraction.

I clutched my stave close.

In the steppe surrounding Balfonheim, serpents were common and aggressive, as tall as men when they reared to attack, waiting in ambush in the grass. These serpents were nothing of the sort, grey, shiny and slick, with odd protuberances instead of eyes. The very look of them suggested wrongness, lethality, something warning me not to touch.

The scornful often said proximity to magicite mutated healthy life. I imagined these serpents, trapped for generations on an island laced with magicite, and shuddered.

Balthier kicked the grey-scaled body off the rock. 'As much as I adore infuriating you, Feathers, you really do need to keep your mind on your task. We're here for supper.'

Another fragment of the original purvama drifted close by, overhead, oppressing.

'On a maggot infested rock?'

'Balthier—!' Fran's shout turned his head, too slow.

Her knife was quicker, drawn from the boot and devouring distance, disappearing into the shadowed underside of the overhead rock. A coiled snake tumbled into the void.

Balthier blinked, eyebrows raised. Fran crossed the distance with a leap. Never quite touching him, she gave the impression of having shaken him for his inattention, the shape of the space between them crackling with her intensity.

Balthier shrugged his apology. 'Where better to keep foodstores than on a purvama that everyone thinks infested with parasites?'

We fought our way onwards. Surprisingly, the gaps in the island took me harder than the snakes did; I paled, sweating, watching as the others leaped from one shattered rock to the next, the fall of a thousand fathoms between them and honest ground.

Balthier's end destination proved to be a larger rock formation, drifting within an obscuring rubble cloud, fine as dust. The rock's core had been hollowed out on a gradual slope, and sealed with a barrier spell. Fran spoke the word to clear the air from the spell.

'Supper,' Fran announced, oblique.

With a flourish, Balthier kicked open one of the chests, revealing can after can of varied providence, glittering in the lantern's light.

The manufactured cave housed a pirate's treasure trove of lunches, locked into stacked chests. In the presence of surplus, my long-repressed hunger returned energetically. This would supply the Maenad for weeks. We could eat our fill and more.

From the shining morass, Balthier withdrew a bottle, uncorked it with his teeth, and drank a solid swig. Even from this distance, I could smell the rising sweet mahdu.

Rikken exhaled heavily, suddenly slump-shouldered with relief. Even Ba'gamnan cackled. 'Thought ye were mad, pirate.'

Balthier corked the bottle and tossed it to the Bangaa. 'Maybe. Doesn't mean I have to be stupid, does it?'

Ba'gamnan poured a substantial quantity of the addictive, mildly hallucinogenic brandy down his throat. 'I do so love a bout of the bracing herb.'

I nodded at the rest of the chests. 'What's in them?'

Fran shrugged, one shouldered. 'I'm not a shopkeeper.'

'It rather makes the suppers exciting,' Balthier added. 'Pick and mix.'

'So which ones do we bring back to the ship?'

Balthier blinked at me, then at Fran, mystified. 'All of them.'
It was full dark by the time we were done. We hovered in the fluorescent glow of the hold, with an excitement akin to celebration. Balthier leaned back and basked in the atmosphere, watching as the exultant Bangaa cohort uncovered food supplies suiting even their distinct palate.

On discovery of the constituents of a hearty curry, Rikken made the comment, registered only in the chuckles of listening Bangaa: 'Never say that mad bastards don't take care of their crew.'

With one offering, Balthier had taken them one step further away from mutiny, one step further into his debt, and made clear to me how readily the skypirate duo could renege on their bargain with Margrace.

They knew their skies. Who could guess their motivations?

Our first target was a Light Cruiser Class.

With weaker armour and lighter weaponry than a standard Cruiser, the Lights were still cause for concern, speedy as they were. Balthier and Fran laid out their plan, concocted over the kitchen bench. They did not intend to let the Archadians know we were there.

The Cruiser was due to pass overhead, on its standard patrol route. We moved before it arrived, into the dark side of a sky turning from day to night. When the Cruiser appeared, it would be a silhouette against the lighter side of the horizon.

With skill, Balthier manoeuvred the Maenad into another floating cluster of debris.

Then the Maenad went dark.

From the perspective of the approaching Cruiser, the Maenad was another unassuming blot on the horizon, another drifting lump of rock. Their screens would tell the same, that there was no intense concentration of Mist in use, only the residual glimmer of the substance making the purvamas float.

We waited, primed, as the Cruiser drifted closer. I admired it, if more out of habit than intent. The Archadians made beautiful airships, function and form related solely through the whimsy of the designer.

Over one hundred and fifty crew would man a ship that size. The question of survivors who could identify the Maenad would be moot, with the precautions to keep our appearance concealed.

The survivors of our strike would have as much chance as any who flew to war, drifting to the uncertain ocean below.

The tension was tangible. At Balthier's nod, I tapped through to the gun deck and the hold.

I felt a ridiculous pride when, strangely thoughtful, Ba'gamnan confirmed their readiness before my prompt. Gijuk above confirmed my reading on our unsuspecting target, yet ghosted on a steadily converging course. Our miscellaneous crew: deposited unexpectedly, intractable and with goals in a hundred myriad directions. What a miracle, to see them work now, efficient as only those with a unified target can be.

'Raise screens.'

The Maenad shuddered in obedience.

By the time the Cruiser was within range, I had envisaged the process of fire and destruction so well that I had stopped thinking of it as a ship, beautiful or not.

For the first time since we had left Balfonheim, our uncertain crew would be able to actually test fire.

Tomorrow, we would have slipped back into our role as a cargo ship. Around us, the Archadian forces would be flying blind, searching for the invisible Rozarrian battleship that had taken out one of their Cruisers.

—if our bluff held. If Fran could keep her poker face while we were boarded; if Balthier could keep his charming Archadian smile and talk the suspicious away from us.

If the Maenad's insufficient hull stayed sound against the recoil from the missile launcher.

Mellifluous, Balthier said, 'I think now's a good time, Feathers.'

I stifled my misgivings and raised the comm. 'Gun deck, open fire.'

The roar was immense.

I clutched at my chair's arm and tightly. We skated, as though on water instead of sky, so powerful was the recoil. The Maenad near twisted itself double. The Cruiser's shields had been in flight mode, not fight: too low to resist our missile ripping deep into her hull, lighting the sky.

But that light was all I saw. The Maenad keeled sharply to the side, rivets popping free of twisted seams with a rattling percussion. I could hear something fragmenting, shattering—the wall-mounted mirror in the bathroom, I later found out. The roar of a burst steam pipe added to the cacophony.

We didn't need the comm. to hear Gijuk's roar from above, or Ba'gamnan's answer from below, 'Yearrrgh!'

The follow-up missile left the Maenad, and ravaged our target on cue, the assault guns in the hold punching through the Cruiser's hull, glass, and destroying the glossair rings.

In the aftermath of the recoil, Fran's ears were almost flat against her skull. Her eyes were wide. Balthier wore that crooked, manic grin that made him look younger than he was. He patted the console, pleased.

'I told you she'd hold it together for us,' he said. 'What do those engineers know, anyway?'

Fran confirmed the dying Cruiser had issued no last minute identification of the Maenad.

'What's your estimate on their fall, Fran?' After his enthusiasm, Balthier's return to crisp businesslike tones made my skin crawl.

'Seventeen minutes.'

'Give or take a minute,' Balthier said, satisfied. How many dying ships had they seen, to be able to estimate how long a fall on a faltering ring could take? 'Will you go?'

Fran looked at him, unbuckling. The smile they shared was not especially pleasant. 'Will you wait?'

'For you, always.'

Balthier brought us around on the crippled ship. The assault guns shattered the outer ring, while the inner's wavering spin could do nothing more than slow the ship's descent, barely enough to allow the surviving crew to abandon ship.

This was the dangerous part of the operation. Prepared, I wore my Rozarrian uniform already, following when Fran collected me with a lift of her chin. We descended into the hold, looking up once when Balthier shouted, 'Call it fifteen minutes to be safe, Feathers. Don't let Fran stand me up!'

Fran wore the armband and sparing armour of a Rozarrian death-strike squadron, the only regiment native to Rozarria that permitted non-Hume combatants. The Bangaa contingent waited below, wearing similar gear, while Rikken dressed in pristine red to match my own. In brief sentences, taking no more than fifteen seconds, I reminded our boarding party of the lay of the dying Cruiser and their designations.

Rikken carried other uniforms. That was expected. The empty sacks hanging across the shoulders of the Bangaa sibs were not.

I adjusted my breastplate and disapproved vocally, even as Rikken and Fran wound the grapnels ready.

Ba'gamnan grinned. 'No shopping list of yer own, wee birdie? If'n Mist cores were no so unstable, we'd recoup the whole lot of this sorry affair with one ship. As it is, we'll make our wage with what we collect, just like yon mad skypirate promised.'

'Don't forget his percentage.'

'O'course. He's gonna get us out of this mess. Deserves a tot for that, and for the opportunity.' A glitter struck light in that beady eye. 'Ye've no mind to collect yer officer's wage?'

'I'm in for maps,' I snapped. 'Codes. Flight patterns.'

The Bangaa flared his nostrils, then lost interest as the grapnels fired.

Balthier kept the Maenad steady, hold aligned in descent with the dying ship. Crossing was a flirtation with exposure, swinging across the dark void. On landing, the stink of ozone and cordite and Mist, like an attack of sulphur to the nose, was painful.

Fran staggered on landing and gasped, hands cupped around her mouth and nose.

The Bangaa contingent scarce gave her a look before disappearing into the hulk of the ship. Returning sounds of conflict indicated the crew not entirely dead or departed. Shouting for either face-to-deck surrender as they raided, or the alternative of a mortal ending, Ba'gamnan and his sibs went to work, leaving firm memories in the frightened survivors of a Rozarrian death-or-die squad raiding from an invisible airship.

Only Rikken hesitated, eyes on Fran. 'You want—'

'Get away, I've got her back. You've a job to do, mercenary.'

He sprinted off in Ba'gamnan's wake.


She swayed, stance crossing. 'The Mist. The skystone is unstable. It—wants to expand—'

Expanding meant explosion. 'All the more reason to get in and out in ten minutes or less.'

With the unusual grace of the tall and fit, Fran led the way to command offices. I trailed, watching to the rear. We were interrupted twice, coming on to soldiers through a billow of Mist and around a sharp corner. The first time, Fran took the lone soldier down barehanded before I could draw my gun, with a painful, terrifying quiet. I left my gun out after that, readied, but the second time Fran killed the man before I could even lift to aim.

Apart from the two interruptions, HQ was too quiet. My skin crawled with misgiving.

Mist uncoiled from the damaged core, thicker as moments passed. In the manner of Mist, time and physicality warped. Shadows of ourselves ran ahead and beside us, the actions of these spectres half a second ahead of our own motions. I watched my own head turning to one side in advance of my own turn, nevertheless helpless to do anything but follow the motion through. An exercise in pained futility.

We thundered through the mapping room, the captain's quarters, the mate's laydown bay. Apart from scattered remains and sign of disruption, there were no maps, no logbooks, no people.

Until the Mist was suddenly full of them: shadows, memories, clustered in the corridor, then disappearing up a ladder. Fran stopped, breathing through her mouth, eyes wide.

'They've barricaded themselves in the cockpit and beyond.' She pointed up.

'In the cockpit loft? We can't get up there.' The ladder had been withdrawn, the lift disabled.

Fran's Mist-shadow crouched a moment before she did. She leapt higher than I could have and grabbed the ledge beneath the door. Perched, one leg stretched along that narrow ledge while the other coiled beneath herself, she lowered one arm. I holstered my gun and jumped as high as I could. From a single grip on my wrist, Fran drew me up beside her.

Her nails cut into my wrists, stinging. I presented the evidence with a frown. 'I've known other Viera. They tend to file back the talons, to be civilised.'

For the first time since we had swung across, Fran smiled. She fanned her fingers at me, well-shaped nails gleaming. 'Skypirates indulge both decadence and uncivility.'

On that narrow ledge, scarcely one foot wide, we flanked the portal, guns readied. Fran pulled out one of Balthier's handy blends and tapped a powder into the door's lock and about the seals. She detonated the dust with a word.

The cockpit bore the brunt of the Maenad's initial blast. We faced a jumble of shattered hatch boards, unseated ventilators, the charred bodies of the pilot, navigator, and two senior officers.

Apart from the corpses, the cockpit was empty.

'They have to be somewhere.'

Fran's nostrils flared. Eyes wide and through the Mist, she appeared for one moment like a child, too innocent for the things she'd seen. The next moment she was a furred, wild-maned hunter, using an animal's instincts against the Humes, uncanny and alien.

Framed by the trickle of steamy discharge from the shattered console, Fran pointed. 'There.'

She ran. I sprinted in the wake of her shout. The starboard corridor curved hard with the shape of the hull, giving us dangerous blind curves instead of corners. Fran had her stance set and gun aimed unwavering at the surviving Archadian officers.

There were five officers and one Judge, motionless against the starboard window. They were kitted fully with parachutes or float-stones, damaged and bleeding and smoke-stained as they were, the memstones holding maps and patrol patterns clutched to chest.

There was something odd about their resignation. Why was the glass still whole? Why had they not leaped while the chance remained to them?

The Judge spoke, his lip curling. 'An underhand tactic like that, of course it had to be Rozarrians.'

I shrugged. 'Just hand the memstone over, gents, and we'll leave you to jettison.'

'That's the best offer they've got, I suspect,' said the Judge. 'Well fought, lads. See you on the other side, and give my best to your mothers.'

A rush of wrongness paralysed me, just for a moment.

Ambush. The sound of footsteps rattling in approach, from behind us. A squad told to hide, to wait until we were pinned between the memstone treasure and our lack of escape. The bastard Judge had made the soldiers wait, tempting death in the airship's downing, just to lure us. To take as many of us down as he could.

Judge, jury and executioner. Let not the lives of incidentals stand in the way of Archadia's special forces.

Before I could move, the Judge slammed his plated arm through the starboard window. The glass shattered into pebbles. Desperately, the Archadian ordinary officers lunged for the escape, as I fired, blind into that motion. Only the Judge stayed to return fire, roaring, even as the bodies of his comrades and their precious memstones fell to the glass-covered deck.

Fran's hand closed on my neck, dragging me to reason. The corridor's hard bend saved us, and our hasty retreat. The ricochets fell silent, even as the approaching squad closed in behind us.

Peering around the curve, I saw the Judge had not moved, grinning. He lobbed something slow and careful directly at us, then took a calm step to that open window.

My shot caught the bastard him the throat. Only then did I see what he'd thrown our way.

The skystone core, mazed and throbbing.

The Mist boiled, and Fran went berserk.

It always astounded me, how quickly fights began, how quickly they ended.

Six years I had kept my cover intact in Draklor. Eight days I had crawled through the ducts of that place, escaping the search. Less than three minutes to disable the guards that protested my theft of my escape vehicle.

Ten minutes to find the memstone, execute a Judge, for a Viera to single-handedly destroy fifteen armoured soldiers barring our retreat to the Maenad. Two minutes to return to the Cruiser's hold, so close to Balthier's final countdown, and swing across the void again.

Seventeen minutes from start of boarding until the end.

Clutching the bastard memstone to my breastplate, I couldn't stop retching, the egg-stink of Mist yet thick in my throat. Leaning against the Maenad's sidestrut, Fran looked sallow beneath her colour, bruised raw on the cheek and jaw, where I'd struck her with my gun, trying to shock her to sanity. Ba'gamnan and his sibs had returned before us, sacks well-hung; Rikken was safe too, his burden deployed.

'—on, come on, are they back? Fran! I'm blind up here, I need to pull away— Fran!'

I could scarcely lift the comm., much less speak into it. Rikken tapped through and told Balthier he could shove off. The hatch yet open, we watched the distance increase as the Maenad peeled away from the Cruiser's last arc.

A ship full of boiling Mist hit water. The explosion lifted us away, the drowning fireball highlighting the night in shades of smoulder.

Minutes later, the Maenad returned to her lower strata, slow and steady as any innocuous supply ship, hatch closed and screens lowered.

Amidst the sound of loot being poured to the deck—silver, steel, weapons and fancy clothes, ammunition galore—I sank to my knees and watched, helpless, as Fran's fingers slipped from the strut.

She fell.

I thought I was still seeing, feeling things in Mist-sight, those half-seconds before circumstance: Balthier must have been half-way across the hold, to have caught her as he did.

'What happened?'

Pulling herself together, a display of pained independence if ever I had seen one, Fran pushed him away and came to her knees. Hair dragged across her eyes. What would she have made of the expression on Balthier's face right then, if she'd seen. He held out his hands for her a moment longer, dropping in the face of her disregard.

The pragmatic facade returned. 'Do you need healing?'

'Too much Mist aboard that ship,' Fran said, stiff. 'I would not have more running through me.'

'I've herbals—'

Fran met his eyes then, a smile flickering to life. 'I'm not smoking your spliff, Balthier, not for bruises.'

His mouth pinched, frustrated at the continual rejections. I marvelled at the dynamic. Who did he think he was, to feel such responsibility for Fran?

'I'm not letting you board the next one alone.'

'She wasn't alone,' I retorted, from where I had come to sprawl, sapped of adrenaline and graceless.

Balthier ignored me.

Fran shook her head, winced, and levered herself to standing. 'Who would be capable of holding the Maenad to the trajectory of a falling ship to let us board and disembark so readily, if not you?'

Fran rejected Balthier's offer of assistance, too, by affecting not to see it. As she walked across the hold, Balthier threw up his hands entirely.

'Thank you,' Fran said, close. I startled to realise she addressed me.

That, more than anything, had me lurch to my feet.

'I would have been lost.' Fran held out her hand.

I took it.

At the feel of those now-ragged nails across my knuckles, I swallowed the rising gorge. I tried not to scour her form for traces of the bloodsplatter, the gore, shed when the Mist had driven her beyond restraint and into the arms of unsuspecting soldiers. I could smell it, blood and Mist, Mist and blood. I imagined it soaked into the memstone with its precious schedules, into my hair, into Fran's skin. My blow to her face had been less altruistically intended than it seemed.

In a parody of graciousness, I inclined my head over our clasped hands, while Balthier looked between us. Despite his disbelief, evidently he had decided I fobbed off an enemy to spare Fran. 'Time for a celebratory drink?'

I caught a trace of pain in Fran's eyes, and a warning.

There was a reason that Viera, with their sensitivity to Mist, so rarely took roles on airships. But Balthier did not know it, that warning told me, and Fran did not plan to enlighten him.

I licked my lips. 'Who's holding our course steady?'

Comradely, Balthier shook me on the shoulder, mercurial moods faster than a sane one could follow. Then he flung himself towards the ladder, eager. 'Guess I'll have do it, if you insist on it. Pour for me and come up, will you?'

'Do I look like your slave, Archadian?'

He ducked below the shaft to deliver a final smile. 'My slaves smile more, Feathers.'

By then Ba'gamnan had taken Balthier's invitation to heart, and had drawn a bottle of looted wine from his pile, while Rikken rummaged amongst the crates for appropriate receptacles.

We crowded into the tiny cockpit, finding space on a deck where popped rivets skittered, and drank a toast to success.

If boarding, looting, fighting and deliverance could be over in less than seventeen minutes, how could a hangover last for six and a half weeks?

For six and a half weeks, we went on, rising adrenaline and lounging boredom. Nono and Raz spent the day after every attack welding popped rivets, until the reality of an airship shaking itself apart became normality.

Our success had been such that our endeavour would have to come to a tragic end, sooner or later. Pride cast before the gods, as it were—except as the weeks stretched on, sooner became much later.

Balthier had a knack with banter, with his Archadian slang and his northern dialect. Every contact with the enemy forces came verbally, until it seemed more than luck that we had ye to be boarded. At night, we exploited Fran's knowledge of the skies, the purvamas, of every opportunity for a stealth attack. I started to believe that Balthier could hide the Maenad in clouds of ego, if it came to that.

With each triumphant encounter, the self-perpetuated legend of our survival fed on itself, as fat as the Bangaa loot pile was large.

We killed a lot, yet only looted those ships whose communications frequencies were disabled in the strike. For the others, we fired until the ship went down. There were sufficient encounters of the former to stay abreast of the changing Archadian flight patterns. As our reputation grew, Archadian intelligence changed their encryption more than once. Our minds together, Balthier and I cracked every code within the hour of receipt.

It was a dirty way to commit war, had we been committing war.

Wars were patriotic. Not-for-profit—or at least, not for the profit of those who fought in it. The Maenad's crew let their hearts swell with whatever filled the gaps where loyalty and honour should have been. Belief in their captain's infallibility grew, as did the lootpile.

Yet the Archadians were increasingly wary. New ships entered the battlefield, in large numbers, and as a cargo ship, as a supply ship, it was bound to happen that an Archadian destroyer would one day ask us for supplies.

Continue to Chapter 8

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