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A Sense of Commitment

Chapter 8. Your Money Or Your Morals

The harbinger of our downfall came in the form of a rakish silhouette, flying where a destroyer should not have been.

Fran kept her eyes on the display, which moderated the deadly menace of the incoming airship into a blip. Balthier and I stared at the lethal visual instead. The distance between the airship and the Maenad decreased rapidly, doing little to ease my tension, or the stiff set of Balthier's shoulders.

'I think they've been looking for us,' Balthier said.

'Very well done, captain. Shall I lay the guns?'

Fran tapped Balthier's console. 'We have no time. They're signaling. Open comms.'

The beauty of the day made a travesty of the Cruiser's killing intent.

If the Cruiser knew the subject of their frustrated searching was in their sights, they gave no sign, these communications simply as expected for a destroyer requiring cargo. Glibly, Balthier extended his glamour through the first round of dialogue, but there would be small chance of a long-term deception if they boarded.

I had last seen this make of Cruiser Class in development two years prior as a set of well marked-up blueprints, deep in Draklor's laboratory. Swift, multi gunned and well armoured, the destroyer had likely been drafted fresh out of manufacture, specifically to seek and destroy the phantom Rozarrian battleship plaguing Archadian air.

However, freshly drafted and innovative design notwithstanding, the Cruiser's pilot and navigator were not savvy as to the ways of war. The airship approached from an angle that rendered its gun deck impotent, unable to strike back if we should strike first. Yet the shields on a ship like this would well compensate for the incompetance, resisting our first strike, and we would not be able to release a barrage rapidly enough to induce failure. An enemy contact signal would be transmitted to the Archadian fleet, along with a description of exactly what and who we were.

We did not make threaten. The airship continued on a trajectory so painfully vulnerable.

It tempted us, and I wondered: surely no pilot was so thick. It had to be deliberately. The Cruiser's captain might not have known who we were, but he might well suspect.

As instructed, the Maenad held steady, immobile. On board, we leapt into action, even as the Cruiser latched onto our hull with a shuddering, grating deployment of grapnels.

From his personal stores, Balthier had provided Rikken and myself with enough parts of an Archadian uniform that we could pass at first glance. I descended the ladder to the hold, dressing as I went. Already clad, Rikken stood at the hold hatch, cracking his neck from side to side in readiness.

Nono retreated to the engine deck and hid. Archadians were willing to tolerate Bangaa grunt aboard a cargo ship, but Moogle skill and expertise was another matter entirely.

I assumed position at Rikken's side.

The skypirates' strategy depended the exploitation of one moment of uncertainty. Expecting to cross into a cargo ship, the Archadian boarding party would sight a superficially Archadian-allied crew. From a distance, the Maenad's hold, full of crated ammunition and supplies, looked like a typical cargo hold, despite the bedding stowed here and there. They would be sufficiently lulled into board us without their weapons at the ready.

Once on board the Maenad, the conversions to the Maenad's hull would be noticeable, the screens evident for what they were, not to mention the assault guns: Ba'gamnan paced between the four, checking their readiness before bending his back with the other Bangaa, camouflaging the guns with sacking and crates.

I reached for the comm. mounted next to the hatch, and tapped through to Gijuk on the missile launcher up above.

'One round loaded,' he confirmed. 'At this range, I can drop screens and fire whenever yer ready.'

The hold's strip window gave us prime view of the approaching Cruiser. Accustomed to Fighters sweeping us, in instance of polite tribute, Ba'gamnan, Bwagi and Rinok waved hello at our unwanted guests as the Cruiser's own windows passed ours.

I stopped Ba'gamnan in his tasks, his warm scale rasping against my gauntlet. 'This is it, Bangaa. One thing goes wrong, that bastard will be off like a vorpal bunny, and we'll not have a chance to make it right.'

Ba'gamnan proceeded to his gun. 'It's always it, birdie. Must bide like it's always yer last day. That's the way to survive, even yon mad ponce of a captain knows that.'

As if in response, Balthier swung down the ladder. The sound of his landing startled me into looking. And gawping.

The Maenad's make and model of ship came from the far northern region of Archadia. Ruing the lack of our foresight in not acquiring full Archadian uniforms from our many victims, Balthier had compromised: as captain and pilot, he dressed himself in the trailing excess of expensive, bright-coloured fabric native to the northern region of Archadia. He wore perfume, too, thick enough to make Ba'gamnan, Rinok and Bwagi snuffle and curse.

'What do you think, Feathers? I've been saving the provincial seraglio look for a special occasion.'

Hand sweeping to his brow, he posed.

Heart racing as though battle was already upon us, I swallowed my disbelief. Unfortunately, Fran ghosted down in Balthier's wake, and her matching costume pushed me beyond swallowing. With no easy way to conceal a Viera up close—they were too tall, too custom-shaped—Fran had dressed with Viera attributes presented obviously, gods, like the member of a northerner's seraglio.

In the darkness behind my eyes, I saw corpses. Archadian corpses, dressed in Rozarrian get-up to further our myth. Balthier and Fran's corpses amongst the lot, beribboned in blood as bright as their current wear. Mutilated bodies, my own, dressed as Archadians. Through it all, I heard the clinking, scuttling sound of Bangaa claws counting a loose and clinking pile of loot.

'You're as bad as Margrace! This is a game to you!'

Balthier was taken aback.

'Bloody hells, Balthier, we're about to engage a destroyer that could take the guts out of us before we've even started to turn to an alignment suited to fire. And you prance around in costume—don't you even care?'

He did not respond initially, until Fran stepped up to his shoulder, chiffon ghosting against chiffon.

'Care that we might die?'

I gritted my teeth. That we might die because of Balthier's fancies? 'Yes.'

'Yet we might die anywhere,' Fran said. 'For less.'

Balthier shook his head. 'That's not it, is it, Feathers? You've never trusted that I've got this far on skill. You think it's luck. Trust me, I know what I'm doing.'

'You're the only one who does,' I retorted. 'Or even why.'

'You'd prefer it if I laid down an allegiance; it's all right killing the masses as long as I'm doing it for the masses? You think we're any more likely to survive out here if we were fighting with an Empire's worth of justification behind our guns?'

My hands clawed into fists, shaking. 'There's worse things.'

'Yeah,' Balthier said, with a curl of his lip. 'I know. Worse things, like bloody politics, like defending the wrong kind of freedom. I've done that once before already, and I have no desire to do it again. Empires fight wars to protect what they've got or to claim more than they have. What do I have but this ship, and my freedom? The kind of freedom that lets me walk past a hunt board without caring if my name is up there as a mark instead of a claimant. I fight this battle to keep that freedom intact, knowing I've done right by me. I don't care about the incidental profit I pull in, about whatever promises Margrace has made me and will break, when it suits him. I fight for my pride. And I will do it in style.'

In Archadia, there had been an old saying, one fragment of a long history that militarised Archadia preferred to ignore: an average citizen would bridle if you called his ancestors dishonest, but would brag if he discovered that they were skypirates.

Briefly, I felt a glimmer of that emotion. Imagine being free enough to choose without contemplating shame as a consequence. Choosing honestly, without fear of reproach or failure. Without fear.

What had made me stay this path that Margrace set me upon, the threat of execution—or my own shame, of having failed Margrace before where I could have had no hope of success.

I sucked in air that felt too stale for what I wanted to say, crackling with gunpowder and a whiff of Mist.

'Let's get our show on,' Balthier said brightly, widespread arms taking in the closed hatch. 'The leading man requires his audience.'

Matching our open hatch, the Archadians opened their own. The boarding crew was ready and waiting, crisp Archadian armour shining in the sunlight.

Amongst the crew waiting to board were three helmeted heads—Judges. Too good for manual labour, the Judges did nothing as the crew engaged with the Maenad, grapnels and a spanning gangway at the ready.

Beside me, Balthier stopped waving. 'Their cockpit crew know what they're doing, with the positioning. They're not giving us a single vulnerable target.'

'We're not going to hold up to a close inspection, you do realise that?'

'I could dash upstairs and bring us around. Is that going to give us enough to give Gijuk his target?'

Fran shook her head. 'If the ship sees us pick up forward acceleration, their first response would be to fall back and strike first. And we do not have the speed to come around as far as we need in order to strike.'

'One step forwards, two steps back,' Balthier said, musing. 'If we can't go forwards, we can go back.'

Fran gave him a long, considering look.

The other ship's crew extended the gangway across, clattering as the hooks locked on to our deck. A Judge called across, one with his helm flared like a peacock. 'Captain! What is the name of your airship?'

Balthier bowed, florid, and cupped his hands to his mouth. 'You call us de Maenad, y'honour. What can we do yer for? Mind, we're on de return route. Might not find everything yer looking for 'ere.'

The Judge nodded, and muttered something to an aide at his side. He leaned forward to shout again. 'We have a requisition list. Your assistance in meeting our requirements would be much appreciated.'

'Feathers, how many points do you need us brought around to bring the missile launcher to bear?'

'Ten degrees,' I said, pained. 'But for the love of—if they see us moving, Balthier—listen to Fran—'

'Do it,' Fran said, smiling.

They could create such a world between them, a cocoon wrought of their continued hurts and incomparable continuance.

Moving without a slow, sashaying motion, Fran sauntered to Raz, who hung at the rail of the engine deck, watching. She cut an interesting figure, veil-like clouds of colour drawing the eye of the boarding party. Her lips barely moved as she delivered her instruction, 'for Nono', I heard, Raz's muzzle twitching in acknowledgment before he ventured into the engine's depths.

Taking advantage of the double distraction of gangway extension and Fran's swaying motion, Balthier was already at the central ladder. He paused to dangle one-armed, and hissed at me, 'Get ready to hang on to something. Morals, women, patriotism, whatever your preference.'

As the Judges in their plate mail thundered across the gangway, Balthier disappeared neatly.

The foremost Judge moved his helm from side to side, as if searching for the vision of northern captain. The search kept him from focusing on the odd shapes of floor-mounted guns, covered in sacking, and the modifications to our hull.

The other Judge eyed the hull more closely. Despite the visor obscuring his face, I could recognise puzzlement even in his shoulders. Rikken saw it too; he hissed through his teeth and nudged me with his elbow.

I saluted, brisk. 'Captain's just darted up above to change. I've been acting quartermaster, anything you need help with, y'honour—'

The foremost Judge held out a scrip of paper. 'Fill this, will you? And quickly.'

'Of course, y'honour, do you have a—'

The Judge studying our hull modification grabbed the arm of his associate. 'Hold on a minute, what's this?'

An unexpected vibration rose through the deck.

Almost in unison, the six Judges lifted their heads, like alarmed animals before the storm.

Fran had already arranged herself against the hull. Rikken closed his hand around my forearm and pulled me to the deck, just before the Maenad ran into a brick wall.

At least, that's what it felt like.

I stared out through the hatch in astonishment as we swung away from the Archadian Cruiser—in the opposite direction.

I realized what Balthier had done: Nono had swiftly adjusted the engine's rings to allow full power in reverse, for all I would have said the action impossible in a ship this old. In the cockpit, engaging hard, Balthier pulled us backwards rather than forwards, in a tight semi-circle.

Ten degrees forward to bring our missile launcher to bear—or two degrees in reverse.

The Judges staggered and cascaded, while the Bangaa cohort, having busied themselves with the appearance of work, leapt for the guns and hastily unwrapped them, keeping their balance by the merits of clawed feet shrieking against the metal deck.
The Maenad screamed, too, Mist boiling down into the hold from the engine deck. Balthier appeared at the ladder, hanging backwards, ready to leap.

The view through the open hold hatch burned a blinding white—our missile had struck their shield. We could only our ploy would hold: retaliation against the Maenad would wait until their precious Judges were no longer aboard our ship.

I blinked glare from my eyes. Fran engaged battle already, blade swinging at the peacock-headed Judge while the others shouted, staggering to their feet. Peacock put in a good fight. Ba'gamnan leapt away from his gun, roaring with glee for the opportunity to brawl, and threw himself on the back of an unwary Judge. I drew my own short sword, gasped for air and balance, and joined the affray.

Shockingly, we were hit. We had such assurance they would hold fire, with their Judges aboard us.

'Fran, the Cruiser's opened fire—'

'It's only recoil! From their shields!' Balthier staggered as he ran along the heaving deck, fast where he lost his grace. 'Gijuk's going wild up there—'

Rinok and Bwagi added the assault guns to the battle. The shields flared white, on the verge of failure, but we lacked the final piece of explosive power to induce collaps. Time was against us, every second adding to the opportunity that the Archadians would blow our cover.

From here, across the reeling distance from open hatch to hatch, I could see their shield generator.

A sudden, inexplicable rage caught me, seeing the target within such easy proximity.

At some point in the turbulence, the gangway had fallen. I ran forward, target locked. Across a gap of body lengths, I leaped.

The nightmares from that daring dive would come later.

An airship's shield, even a city's paling, were never meant to stop bodies with such a low velocity as a leaping human. I tumbled across the horrendous blue void and came upright as quickly as I could, having rolled myself straight into hell—but even in hell, I did not do alone.

At my first confrontation, my Archadian opponent slumped before I had even reached him, his throat cut by a wicked, curving blade.

'Come on,' Rikken shouted, grinning at the adrenaline, 'let's get the bastard!'

We ran together, fought a crew of mechanics suddenly turned to defence. When we reached our target Rikken stood guard as I bent. I thrust my arm into the tangled wires and green-glowing circuits of the shield's motherboard and pulled them free.

As I ripped, I heard the reverberation of men in armour tramping closer. The true soldiers, coming to the airship's defence. Rikken swore, I swore, and we ran again through the chaos, my wrist trailing wire and circuitry, the deck sparking with shot and recoil around us.

Fran hung out of the Maenad's hatch, eyes wide as she called to us, arm extended as though she cross the distance.

I gestured upwards as I ran, shouting, 'Gijuk! Fire!' Rikken added the same, in his deeper, louder voice. Fran turned to the Maenad's innards and took up the cry.

The Maenad recoiled as Gijuk fired his fourth attempt. The recoil alone was terrifying, the Maenad jolted that much further away from us.

Then the missile hit the airship, as we leaped from the hold.

This time, no shield impeded the strike.

I remember bodies, bodies we had made, hanging in the air as Rikken and I jumped, and the Archadian ship fell away. Drums of supplies, circuitry, spent bullets and corpses lifted off the deck, suspended by inertia in a terrifyingly endless moment. I remembered, too, the great void of sky yawning beneath us, the eternally hungry blue, and the twinge of normality at the feeling that I would lose a shoe to the sucking depth.

A shoe, or everything.

On the Maenad, Fran sank to her knees, reaching for us, lips moving soundlessly. We weren't going to make it.

Then suddenly, our fall was arrested.

Fran had not been reaching. Throwing. Two magicite stones, spellstones, evidently purloined from Balthier's bottomless supply of alchemy, lobbed across the void, pecking first Rikken then myself.

The float spell blossomed around us with the familiar sulphurous stink. A moment of stillness eased into a drift.

The assault guns firing around us, I watched as another missile launched from above, the Maenad recoiling further dangerous lengths away.

Behind us, the Cruiser took a critical hit.

More dust, more rivets pinging off our ship; a strange, rippling tension in the air behind me. Beside me, Rikken's eye went wide, and then I knew what was about to happen.

Deprived even of the promise of a fatal fall, we curled around each other and hung on tight.

In a back-searing burst, the Archadian Cruiser exploded.

Shock waves shoved at us and our bubble of Mist. We whirled through that uncontrollable terror, back and forth, catching eye-watering glimpses as a mushroom cloud engulfed the Cruiser, then another, and another. The very air sucked out of our lungs to feed the blaze, we were gasping and dry, an ocean receding before the tidal wave.

Which, when it came, proved to be a wall of solid heat that threw us forward—into the hold towards which we had been so desperately aiming.

The Cruiser died in a chain reaction. Gijuk's final missile strike must have arrowed into the hold, into the engine deck just beyond, hitting something critical. The skystone core, perhaps, or stores of missiles and other like incendiaries.

Miraculously aboard the Maenad, I stood up, uncertain. I wiped my face and discovered myself bleeding, from my ears and nose and a crease across my ribcage. Groaning, Rikken made no move to regain his feet.

Even the Bangaa dropped the assault guns, staring as the Cruiser's destruction continued.

In moments, Balthier was there, watching the Cruiser fall away from us, the wind in his hair. Whatever he wanted to say, I knew instinctively that I did not want to hear it. He would claim a triumph even out of total destruction. If his grin appeared more rictus than charm, no one said anything, though Fran looked at him the once, then to the side and away.

His voice came distanced by the whine in my ears. 'I told you, Feathers, I know what I'm doing.'

He patted the Maenad's hull, a touch which resonated strangely in this pained silence.

This sickened me: the questioning of the only surviving Judge.

He bore a mortal wound. It took no torment to draw information out of him, only Balthier, crouched by the dying soldier's side, withholding the potion that would ease him out of this life to the next. The Judge did not know the logbooks, or flight patterns, or any of the information necessary to further our campaign, but what he knew was terrifying enough.

Archadia had destroyed Nabudis.

Nabudis, once the capital of the kingdom of Nabradia, gracing the centre of a gigantic lake. It had not been taken, nor conquered: destroyed. Just as we had destroyed the Cruiser, with no hope for salvation or recovery.

The Judge spoke of nethicite as the weapon.

'Manufacted nethicite,' Balthier spat. 'Dr Cid's latest deadly addition to the Archadian arsenal—'

But the Judge shook his head, fitfully. 'Not—not manu— The Magister who deployed ... he called it deifacted— What force unleashed, the buildings turned to cinder and ash in a single fell stroke. People— The people were gone, as though to vapour, Nabradia vanquished without a single Archadian fallen. Blessed— The blessed stone—'

Even in the hold's poor light, I saw Balthier pale, his eyes ablaze for his stark emotion.

'Deifacted nethicite is stone by hands of the gods,' Fran said, quiet. 'If manufacted nethicite is by hands of man, with a destructive capacity limited by minds of men—'

'Then who knows what destruction a god might imagine.' Balthier gripped the Judge by the collar of his breastplate, and shook him. The man cried out. 'Where moves Archadia hence?'

One front decimated, Archadia moved now on Nalbina, the last bastion before entry into the midlands kingdom of Dalmasca. But the ripples of this deifacted nethicite spread far.

In the wake of Nabradia's defeat, Bhujerba's neutral stance was no longer so stable. The Bhujerban Marquis looked set to cede to Archadia's demands soon enough—that, or witness the sky-city Bhujerba fall from the skies.

'—and well comes his capitulation. What purpose in holding back their pitiful earthborne nethicite when Archadia wields godtouched stone?' The Judge whispered it, gleeful, fevered eyes glittering. 'Archadia's forges a new history, where all nations will bear our name as stamp.'

Balthier rocked back on his heels, and held out the potion. Before the Judge could steel himself enough to reach for it, Balthier threw the flask through the still-open hatch. He rose, expressionless, and walked away.

The Judge died two hours later, drowning in blood.

With a practicality born of practice, Rikken stripped the Judges' corpses and dressed them in Rozarrian uniforms. With a gunshot at point-blank range, he mutilated the faces beyond recognition. I knew he had been performing exactly this aspect of our subterfuge on each ship we boarded, yet this was the first time I stood to witness.

It sickened me further to watch as Ba'gamnan and Rinok sifted through the Judges' armour and weapons, claiming what they would.

We consigned the bodies to the blue, where they would fall in the shattered wake of the destroyer, their corpses adding to our myth. Leaning against the hull, yet in the shadows of the hold, Balthier gave a lazy representation of the Archadian salute, a vague and foppish respect offered to those who had once been his own.

Whether it was our speedy attack or uncertain circumstance, the dying Cruiser never transmitted an enemy sighted signal. We were passed by the next Fighter on patrol, neither stopped nor confronted.

Our subterfuge continued.

'I know I'm good,' Balthier said, 'but even Archadians they can't be this stupid.'

'Are you being modest?' Fran asked, amused.

The skypirates were in the kitchen, in that time of least activity, a gusty dawn chasing away the last of the night's clouds. From the scent of spice and fume, they were drinking mulled wine, too caught up in their physical proximity to be aware of the approach of another.

I ducked to one side, flat against the corridor wall, and listened.

'There's so many of them,' Balthier said, quietly. 'I wish we could have got that last one's logbooks, we're flying blind now, especially if half the armada's coming back from Nabudis. This has gone on too long, and they should have caught us out by now.'

Fran shrugged. 'Each time marks improvement. We know the territory. And we know the enemy.'

'Yes,' Balthier said, in an odd tone. 'We are getting good at this kind of destruction, aren't we?'

A silence reigned, during which I could imagine Fran's slow turn of head, meeting Balthier's eyes, before she would lower her gaze.

'Here we are,' Balthier said, mocking. 'The best backstabbing butchers in the business. At least, we were, until my father decided to destroy an entire city in a single move.'

'Balthier.' Fraught.

'That's not even my name!' The anger had been there for a while, but was voiced sharp enough to make me startle.

'Because you gave it to yourself? By any other name, you are the same.'

Another silence. 'My father—'

Fran slapped the bench, a palm flat on the metallic surface. 'No pasts, Balthier. No histories. We fly forwards, not in circles.'

'If I want a future, I don't know how much longer I can live by that.'

'I,' Fran said, coolly. 'You ever think of the singular foremost. What of us, our future?'

'I don't know. I can't hold you. You want to be—free.'

'You want to ease your pride by amending the mistakes of another man's life.'

'Not his mistakes,' Balthier said. 'Not my father's mistakes. I want to ease my pride by amending my own mistakes.'

'When you make your first,' Fran said, 'I'll be sure to let you know.'

Balthier exhaled hard, his breath uneven. 'I might have to hold you to that promise.'

'Willingly, my friend.'

In the aftermath of Nabudis' destruction, we should have reconsidered our continued involvement. Yet, but for his discussion with Fran, Balthier seemed inclined to ignore the change in circumstance.

I could not help dwelling on Fran's words to Margrace, delivered those centuries ago in Balfonheim. Had our involvement here contributed in any way to Archadia's decision to use this deadly deifacted nethicite?

I hoped Margrace wrung his lesson from the ruins.

The patrolling Fighters turned serious, no longer seeking their fly-by smiles and cheerful waves. Their patrols increased in density and speed, a desperate hunt for the invisible Rozarrian destroyer—a deadly airship of a size to destroy a primed Cruiser.

If I had expected Ba'gamnan and his sibs to bring up Balthier's unofficial promise—to leave the battlefield by the quickest route possible—they did not. Our piratical horde was tawdry and large, and continued to bloom as Balthier took on further ships, as though our success with the Cruiser came by plan and not chance. The Bangaa crew was well-satisfied with his successes, and saw no need to tug at the chain of command.

Balthier's stage-bred confidence developed an otherworldly air. He wore an unshakeable conviction in his own ability to survive, thick as a velvet cloak, and as obvious. His mantle engulf the Maenad whole, until even Rikken and myself developed a habit of risktaking as we boarded our prey. As long as Balthier stood unscathed, his crew would survive the worst of wars.

I did not want to believe in Balthier's invulnerability. Even at the worst of it, I dreamed nightmarish and woke filled with misgiving. When Balthier's fa´┐Żade cracked, our end would not come quietly upon us, but rather with an almighty boom.

I was right.

On the horizon, only the odd vagrant moonslip defined the monolithic airship, catching the round of the hull. The sky was dark, and full of isolate rainclouds, sweeping over us on moment only to leave us clear and dry the next.

'What is that?' Rikken asked, dazed.

We three manned the cockpit while Balthier slept a shift, myself as temporary navigator, Fran in the pilot's chair, Rikken to relay commands. I split myself between staring at the size of the thing on Fran's display, and trying to determine what it might be via the night-fogged visual.

Fran sent Rikken to wake Balthier. She left the pilot's seat and gestured me to evacuate hers.

It was no battleship, nor supply ship, not out here. None of the logbooks we held suggested anything should be here—but here it was, large and hulking, and moving on a slow, deadly nocturnal drift.

'It's Archadian.' Balthier rubbed sleep from his eyes even as he took the controls. 'Small chance they'd let something that size into their battlefield otherwise. But apart from that, I have no idea what else it could be. Huge.'

'A freighter?'

Fran hesitated, then turned to me. 'The Sky Fortress, aloft before its time?'

We looked at her. I knew what the Sky Fortress was: Archadia's city-in-the-sky, another monstrous part of the arsenal in development when I had left Draklor Laboratory. Balthier's gaze had a likewise knowing gleam.

'No,' Balthier answered for me. 'It's not. There's not enough magicite in the world with enough power to get that giant Archadian folly launched.'

'Not even deifacted nethicite?'

Balthier sucked in air through his teeth, then frowned at the monolith's visual. 'Whatever this thing is, it's too small to be the Fortress.'

We could have let the monolith drift on by without disturbing its path.

An airship so large would not be brought down so easily as a Fighter, as a Cruiser. There would be ample time even in night's stygian murk for some desperately struggling member of the monolith's vast crew to identify us and our appearance, and to relay that information to the Archadian fleet. Every Archadian ship would home in on this area, ready to destroy the sneaking Rozarrians who had got one on over them for so long.

We should have let it pass.

Yet coulds and shoulds did not take into account Balthier's lazily confident mood, nor our own belief in his invulnerability. We were at need to engage, too; the purvamas were scarcer in this region, the ability to lurk and strike in the dark growing fewer. The Bangaa cohort was restless, and our stolen logbooks in need of supplement.

I spoke no protest to Balthier's instruction to fire.

Even then, whatever my foreboding, I thought the airship's size its sole oddity. Promising a beneficial outcome, the monolith flew without a shield.

The first round from the missile launcher took out the weapons deck atop the monolith's apex. The second round penetrated the cockpit, and the third penetrated deep into the engine deck. Our screens raised, the assault guns targeted the monolith's many rings, shattering them one by one.

The monolith's slow motion became a drift, coincidentally on course for the Maenad. Deft, Balthier lifted us through our disguising purvama rubble and clouds. We were still hidden, still lethal. I tapped through new bearings to the guns below.

Strangely distanced by size and the thickening rain, the monolith's hull lit in speckles of fire. The yellow and orange glow showed its outlines, stark.

No return fire came.

The monolith's drift brought it to a collision course which, if it had impacted, would have consumed the whole purvama cloud in which we hid. Balthier, hesitant to expose the Maenad to visual identification, was forced to move us beyond our rocky shelter and into the open sky.

If the monolith was going to fire on us, it would be it now, with the Maenad silhouetted against the backlit storm clouds.

'Ye lot down there, copy.'

I grabbed the comm. 'Gijuk!'

'Listen, I'm taking on a lot of rain—'

Balthier took the comm. ' Gijuk, can you see the ship from the hold?'

'Yer, through the storm.'

'Right. There's a shadow along the hull's curve—if you hold out your hand at arm's length and use it as a sight, about a hand's width below the centre ring. Target that, and let's end this quickly.'

'What is it?' I asked.

'Air intake,' Balthier said, without emphasis. 'Mixing with the Mist to assist distribution. A strike there will go to the engine's heart. They're not usually so exposed, but in this case, let's take advantage of it.'

There was something chilling about his monotone.

Fran picked up quicker than I did. 'You know this ship?'

'I know what it is,' Balthier said. 'I've seen it before, but tried to forget.' He sounded sick. 'It's a prison transport.'

'Sound and ready,' the Bangaa confirmed, from above.

I strained against the blackness. A prison transport: of that size, in this location, I could only guess who she transported. A cargo of Balfonheimers, collected from a town which could have been lost and captured weeks ago, and us unknowing. Or the survivors of Nabudis, being shipped away from that wasted city as prisoners of war.

The size of the transport let me know one thing: it would be holding civilians, non-combatants. There were not enough warriors in this field to fill the ship.

Before I could countermand Balthier's order to fire the fatal shot, I stopped. A prison transport full of civilians, yet it would also be manned by Archadian prison guards.

And here we were, exposed against backlit clouds, the classic make and model of the Maenad instantly identifiable, several shots already fired to prove us the deadly battleship we were.

Exposed, plain as an actor under the spotlight.

Small wonder Balthier sounded sick. The game was up.

'Ceasefire,' I said, thickly.

On the comm., Balthier's hand shook. He clenched his fingers tight. 'Gijuk, target remains active. You see the dark spot on the hull, below the second ring—'

Violently, Fran slapped the comm. from Balthier's hand.

They stared at each other, Balthier motionless, while Fran's chest heaved once and caught.

Gijuk's harsh growl came up from the deck, hollow. 'Balthier? If ye mean the intake dock, then the target's aligned.'

Balthier's jaw rippled.

'Don't make this mistake,' Fran said.

I added, 'Leave it, Balthier. They're abandoning the ship, those first two strikes must have got them good enough. You can see the survival pods detaching, maybe there's no point following through—'

'We'll target the pods after the ship is brought down,' Balthier said.

'You can't,' Fran said.

This, after everything, was the crux.

'I can,' he said.

'Not like this,' I snapped. 'They're defenceless. They always were, Balthier.'

His smile came forced, thick and syrupy. 'We knew this was going to happen. Every survivor is a witness, and we've exposed ourselves. It's in our contract with Margrace to keep ourselves concealed—'

'Fuck your contract,' I shouted, 'those are people out there, not witnesses. It's over, Balthier, let's get out of here—'

'We could clear this area before dawn,' Fran said. 'Go to ground on Par-Dorstonia; Nono will go for us to the Holy Mount to collect our payment from Margrace. We have met—exceeded—the Rozarrian's expectation.'

'We've done enough,' I said, harsh. 'Spare the daft actions for the so-called heroes in this charade. Leading men know when to exit stage left; it's the heroes that hang on until they die.'

Balthier's eyes widened.

'I have this much blood on my hands already, Feathers. All this death has to mean something, has to make a difference. Enough, you say? We'll never be able to do enough. I can't cut and run, not again.'

The escape pods were fragile, reminiscent of the old rubber rafts days when fleets required oceans. Looking out into that rain and moonlashed night, I fancied I could see faces peering up at us, eyes white and wild.

'You truly intend to fire?' I asked. 'You'll rip them apart—'

'I've been killing people since the day Margrace sent me out here. What's the difference now?'

'I don't know,' I said, 'except for the fact that they have no chance of survival if you target them. Everyone deserves that chance. How many have given you the chance?'

Impatient or distracted, Gijuk took the argument out of our hands.

The prison transport was constructed for low-strata flying, and as such the hatch was not constructed as an airlock. The missile went in deep. In seconds, the burning ship echoed the sky's thunder, hollow and tortured; overstressed bulkheads, lurching rings, the whole trajectory of the article shuddering, slowly, then suddenly speeding.

With a roar of distressed air, the transport fell.

The monolith met the ocean, hissing in agony, the plume visible even from this height and in the rain. Void swallowed the airship's orange and gold flickers, slow and inexorable, until minutes later there was nothing but black and smoke, and a sky full of survivors' pods.

Balthier leaned forward. 'Strike coordinates, if either of you will please.'

'I will not please,' Fran said. 'You're not a murderer.'

'Who are you to judge?'

'I've been here before,' Fran said. 'I've killed for no more than my satisfaction. As though those standing in opposition were the ones standing between myself and my freedom: I have cut them down, thinking their absence will bring me closer to what I seek. But it does not; with each grave, the distance to the goal is greater, if not the path confounded. I judge, Balthier, because I am a murderer. I say you are not.'

Flatly, Balthier said, 'Feathers, take the navigator's chair and relay coordinates to the gun deck.'

'Do it yourself,' I said.

He shrugged and raised the comm. 'Rikken. You can read a navigational display?'

'Yeah, but slowly—'

'Stop it,' I shouted. 'You'll get Rikken to do it? Who are you going to get to pull the trigger?'

'Come up, Rikken. Bring Ba'gamnan with you.'

How was I to know what Balthier was capable of doing?

He brought the Maenad to the cloud of jettisoned pods, and brought it to hold. Leaving Rikken busy at noting the coordinates of even those pods we could not see, be it through storm or night's distance, Balthier then climbed slow and careful to the upper deck. He kicked Gijuk off the guns and ripped him gut to gullet, a verbal lashing, for firing without command.

Balthier ushered Ba'gamnan into the missile launcher's chair. The Bangaa sat and scowled at the weather, even as Balthier switched on the spotlight and turned the beam through the lashing rain. Fran and I, paired in strange horror, followed Balthier through his efforts, watching as the light targeted the closest survivors' pod.

Muffled cries rose from the drift of the tiny airship.

'Fire at will,' Balthier said.

Following the spotlight's arc, I saw it, just as Fran did. And Ba'gamnan.

The Bangaa's nostrils flared wide and he snorted wetly, a disrespectful action, as though tasting something that disgusted him.

'They've not a fighting chance,' Ba'gamnan snapped. 'I'll take down a warship and risk myself against the best, I'll hunt down a beastie my size or larger, but I'll not harm the likes of those, just crawled free of their eggshells. They've not a fighting chance, ye piece of scum pirate!'

With the same lethality of motion I'd last seen in a street fight, Balthier shoved the Bangaa out of the way and took the gun's seat. He aligned the muzzle with the spotlight.

Only then did Balthier see what the rest of us had seen.

Despite the dazed look on his face, his finger hovered at the trigger.

Fran wiped rain from her eyes. 'Balthier, I would that you would let that gun go.'

'Or what,' he asked, 'you'll stop me?'

It sounded almost like a plea.

Fran inclined her head.

He considered it for too long, long enough even Ba'gamnan snarled at him for being a pride-bound fool. Balthier eased the gun, the pivot spinning it out of alignment, and switched off the spotlight.

In the renewed darkness, I yet saw afterimages: they had been pressed against the pod's port hatch, pleading and desperate in the sudden light, unknowing if enemies came or saviors. The countless faces of the women and children, brown-skinned and dust-blonde as so many Nabradians were, spared from a second death.

'Let's go home,' Balthier said.

'And where's that?' I asked, disinclined to sneer.

'Wherever Fran says it is,' said Balthier, and staggered into the Maenad's depths.

Continue to Chapter 9

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